When Weaver Can Pitch Ahead

Gordon may have been looking for the four-seamer.

Batting with one out in the second inning, Alex Gordon would have seen young Cardinal right-hander Luke Weaver start three of the four batters who faced him in the first inning with that four-seam fastball.

Whether he was, in fact, expecting it, Alex jumped Luke’s first-pitch four-seamer and lofted it into the grass over the center field wall.  That tied the game at one, and spurred Kansas City on to their 5-1 decision over St Louis (box score) last night.

It was about the only time all night that Weaver fell into a somewhat discernable pattern.  For the game, he threw about the same number of changes, fastballs and cutters – and threw them confidently in all counts.  Of the 28 batters he faced, 10 of them saw first-pitch fastballs, 7 each saw change-ups and cutters as the first pitch.  The other four saw first-pitch curves – still a growing pitch for Luke.

In all, Weaver threw first-pitch strikes to 23 of the 28 he faced in a game where he pitched better than the record showed.  As Luke settles into his first full season in the rotation, the numbers suggest how important it is for him to pitch ahead in the count.

Luke finished his evening ahead in the count to 16 of the 28 batters he faced.  Those batters managed just 3 singles (.188) and struck out 6 times.  It is these batters – the ones backed up in the count – that are most susceptible to his excellent change.

In fact, in a game where Weaver struck out 8 in 7 innings, his best inning may well have been his third-inning – an inning where he threw only 6 pitches (no fastballs) and registered no strikeouts.  That inning began with Jon Jay taking a curve for a strike and then grounding out on that change.  It continued with Ryan Goins also taking a curve for a strike and then lining out on another curve.  The inning ended with another first-pitch curve to Mike Moustakas, who fouled it off before flying out on a change-up. Three very short, mostly uncomfortable at bats by the top of the line-up.

The problems for Luke come when he can’t get consistently get ahead of batters.  In 4 mostly good starts this month (and Luke holds a 3.13 ERA in 23 innings in May) batters are just 5 for 29 (.172 – all singles) when batting behind in the count.  When batting ahead in the count, they are hitting .353/.476/.647.

Luke’s reaching his potential as a top-of-the-rotation starter will hinge on his developing ability to consistently throw first-pitch strikes with his secondary pitches.

Greg Holland

The disintegration of Greg Holland continued last night.  Brought into the ninth-inning, trailing just 3-1, Greg faced four batters. He fell behind all four, and ended his night allowing 2 runs on 3 singles and a walk.  Holland has given multiple runs in 3 straight games. Eleven of the last 14 batters he has faced have reached, and he has walked at least one batter in 5 straight appearances.  Only 46 of his last 86 pitches have gone for strikes.  The 29 batters that Greg has been behind this season are slashing .538/.786/.846 against him.  Last night they were sitting on that once-dominant slider that has lost almost all of its bite.

The Cardinals remain convinced that Holland (whose season ERA is now back up to 8.76) will yet be a positive force in the Cardinal bullpen – even though this is precisely how he ended last season with Colorado.  Greg, of course, has flatly rejected the idea of working through his problems in the minors.  This is a hard thing for a decorated veteran to accept.  It is unfortunate, in that Holland needs to pitch, and Mike Matheny can no longer afford to bring him into important situations.

A footnote – through 19 games in May, the Cardinal rotation has a 2.53 ERA.  The bullpen – which has served up more home runs (10) in 67.2 innings than the starters have surrendered (7) in 110.1 innings – carries a 4.92 ERA this month.

Dexter Fowler

Things still not getting any better for Dexter Fowler.  Hitless in 4 at bats yesterday, he is down to .155 through 148 at bats this year.  In May, Dex is down to .130 (7 for 54) – although with 10 walks.

Matt Carpenter

In the Cardinal’s unusual 11-hit 0-RBI game (all 11 hits were singles, and the team was 0-6 with runners in scoring position), one of the casualties was Matt Carpenter’s very loud six-game hitting streak.  Struggling at-bat for at-bat with Fowler for most of the season, Carpenter has erupted recently.

In the six games prior to last night’s 0-4, Carpenter amassed 13 hits in 24 at bats (.542 average).  His streak included 3 three-hit games, and another two-hit game.  Eight of the 13 hits were for extra-bases (one of them a home run) leading to a .958 slugging percentage for the streak.

Going Forward

The recent buzz around town is the return of Alex Reyes (and to the rotation, no less).  This latest wave of young talent is a hint of the team that this will be in just a few years – if management can resist the urge to give all of them away.  It is already hard to find room in the Cardinal’s crowded rotation.  While Carlos Martinez is still out, it would seem that Reyes will take his spot (currently held by John Gant), but after Carlos comes back some very talented starter will either be back in Memphis or bolstering the sagging bullpen.

A similar thing is happening in the lineup, where Matheny is working hard to find enough at bats for all of his outfielders and Jedd Gyorko.

And there is more talent out there on the way.  If one of them can be a late-inning asset in the bullpen, this team could be very hard to head.

NoteBook

Last night’s crowd of 39,545 was a little disappointing by St Louis standards under any circumstance – much less with the cross-state Royals visiting.  It, nonetheless, pushed St Louis’ home attendance to 1,023,464 in 25 home dates – an average of 40,938.6.  This would put them on pace to draw 3,356,962 for the season.  If that happens, it will be their fifteenth straight three-million season and the twentieth in the last twenty-one years.  However, it will also be the lowest attendance figure since the 2012 team drew in 3,262,109.  Much of the early season was atypically cold, and may have held down attendance figures.  We will see what the heat of summer brings.

Of the 16 series they have played so far, the Cards have won the first game 8 times.  Even after last night’s loss, they are 18-5 in the games of those series.  They have won 5 of the first 7 series, splitting the other 2.

Early Concerns on the Road

After a fairly tepid start, the Cardinals burst back into contention with an 8-1 run (April 12-22).  At that point, they were, in fact, tied for the division lead.  This was, of course, encouraging – said encouragement tempered by the fact that 7 of the 8 wins had come at the expense of the struggling Cincinnati Reds.  With series against contending teams in New York and Pittsburgh coming up (the Mets series at home and the Pirates on the road), it was anticipated that this stretch would be a better measuring stick than the games against Cincinnati.

For those of us less sold on this team as contenders, the results mostly supported the hypothesis – with St Louis losing 4 of the 6 games.  The most telling of these games were the three losses in Pittsburgh.

In their 16-12 start, the brightest and most consistent aspect of the club has been the pitching staff.  After last night’s 3-2 win (box score), the Cards rank fourth in the NL with a 3.37 team ERA.  As the pitching was an area of primary concern (at least for me) entering the season, this would seem to be good news indeed.  Inside the numbers, though (and especially during the sweep in Pittsburgh) there seems to be cause for continued concern.

With early season temperatures in St Louis averaging less than 60 degrees (59.4 to be exact), this pitching staff has been prospering at home (remembering that under the best of conditions, Busch Stadium plays strongly in the pitcher’s favor).  After last night’s win, the Cards are 8-5 at home with a 2.74 team ERA.  Opponents are hitting .220 against the Cardinal pitching staff at home, with just 7 home runs in 125 innings.  Perhaps most stunning, only 2 of 21 inherited runners at home have come around to score (an amazing 9.5%).

The numbers on the road have been less encouraging.

The Pirate Sweep

During the three games in Pittsburgh (in temperatures that averaged a frosty 50.3 degrees) the Pirates took full advantage of the still-suspect Cardinal pitching staff.  They ended the 3-game series with 17 runs scored (15 earned for a 5.06 ERA) and a .286 batting average against Cardinal pitchers.

Most under the microscope was the piecemeal bullpen.  Their numbers in the sweep are most telling.  In 9.1 innings of work, the Pirates compiled 8 runs (6 of them earned – a 5.79 ERA) on 14 hits (a .333 batting average against).  There were also 8 walks (6 unintentional) in those innings and two batters hit by pitches (a .444 on base percentage).  Of the 13 runners the pen inherited, 6 scored (46.2%).

And, of course, both leads that they inherited were surrendered.

Continuing Trends

Of course, too much can be made of any one series.  Every pitching staff will endure at least one such series during the season.  In the Cardinals case, though, the Pittsburgh series continued a pronounced early season trend.

Now 8-7 on the road (4-7 not counting the games in Cincinnati), the team ERA is almost one and a quarter runs higher there (3.97).  While the innings count is close (125 innings at home and 131.1 innings on the road), the team has served up more than twice as many home runs on the road (15) than they have in the comfy confines of Busch (7).

And the pen?

Soberingly, it has been the arms most depended on.  It has been Matthew Bowman (6.1 innings, 5 runs on 9 hits), Tyler Lyons (4.2 innings, 4 runs on 7 hits), and Greg Holland – who has only managed 3 innings in 5 road appearances.  During those 3 eventful innings, Holland (brought in to be the ninth-inning answer) has faced 21 batters, giving 6 runs (5 earned) on 8 hits and 3 walks.

I highlight the word concern used in the previous paragraphs.  In baseball, it is always early until it isn’t.  All of these troubled pitchers have ample opportunity to reverse the narrative.  But as I wondered openly at the outset of the season whether this team could trust its bullpen, the early results have not allayed my fears.

Tommy Pham

While the Cardinals as a whole have hit only .207 as a team since Cincinnati left town, Tommy Pham headlines a very short list of Cardinals who haven’t missed the pliant Red pitching staff.  With last night’s home run, Pham is hitting .385 (10 for 26) with 5 of the hits for extra bases (3 doubles and 2 home runs) good for a .731 slugging percentage over the last 7 games.  This includes going 7 for 10 against the Mets.  Tommy begins the day leading the National League (narrowly) in batting average.  He is clearly following up strongly after his break-through 2017 season.

If this weren’t encouraging enough, last night’s home run was already his third at home this season.  Last season 17 of his 23 home runs were hit on the road, leading to a concern that Busch may be a bit too spacious for Tommy (as, indeed it seems to be for many hitters).  Last season, Pham hit .340/.431/.611 on the road – superstar numbers.  At home, he was a much more pedestrian .265/.388/.410.  So far this early season, Tommy’s batting splits slightly favor his home field (.333/.441/.611 vs .339/.448/.482).

Kolten Wong

Also heating up in the post-Cincinnati era is second-baseman Kolten Wong.  One of the Cards who started off the season ice cold, Kolten has had some hits start to fall in lately.  With yesterday’s 1-for-2, Wong is hitting .333 over the last 7 games (7 for 21).

Jose Martinez

On the other end of the ledger is 2017’s other break-out star – Jose Martinez.  After a torrid start to the season, Jose is only 5 for 26 (.192) in the wake of the Reds’ series.  In the early going, frosty Busch seems to have gotten the best of Jose.  Hitless in 4 at bats last night, Jose has now had 19 plate appearances at home over the last two series (Mets and White Sox).  He has contributed 2 singles, 1 double, 1 walk and one double play in those appearances (a slash line of .167/.211/.222).  In 13 home games so far in 2018, Jose is hitting .224 (11 for 49) with 1 home run and 7 runs batted in.

Matt Carpenter

Hitting into a bunch of bad luck so far this year (see this story), Matt Carpenter (who went 0 for 8 in the Pirate series) broke out a little last night with a double and a game-tying, ninth-inning home run.  Carpenter is still just 3 for 19 (.158) since Cincinnati left town, and just .170 still for the season.  Perhaps last night was the beginning of a turn-around.

Yadier Molina

To the list of players glad to be back home, you can add the name of Yadier Molina.  His 1-for-12 series in Pittsburgh dropped him to just .246 on the road this season (14 for 57) albeit with 5 home runs.  He had two hits last night – including the game winner, raising him to a .298 average at home this season.

Since the last Cincinnati series (last night notwithstanding) Molina has managed 4 singles and 5 strikeouts in his last 28 plate appearances – a .143/.143/.143 slash line.  His would be another welcome turnaround.

Still Waiting for Dexter

Dexter Fowler hit the big walk-off single that gave the Cards a series win against the Mets (box score).  He hasn’t had a hit since, following an 0-for-9, 4 strikeout Pittsburgh series with an 0-for-3 last night.  Unlike Carpenter, Wong and Molina, Dexter’s recent at bats don’t show much sign of a turnaround.  His season average sits still at .165.

While I’m sure some are anxious over the slow start, I will remind the ready reader that Dexter started slowly last year, too.  But at the end of the year, he was one of the few Cardinal hitters still getting big hits in important games.

UPDATE: While I was writing this, Dexter’s two-run home run in St Louis’ afternoon game against the White Sox proved decisive – so perhaps Fowler is beginning to find the range now, too.

Michael Wacha

A quiet hero last night was starting pitcher Michael Wacha.  After five solid innings, he left the game trailing 2-1, the victim of a two-run double off the bat of uber-prospect Yoan Moncada.  An inning shy of a quality start, Wacha is one of the critical pieces to the 2017 puzzle.  There were moments last season (and there have been a few already this season) when Michael looked like he was again becoming the pitching phenom he was in his rookie season.  He also faded notably down the stretch.

Over his last two starts, Wacha has allowed just 3 runs in 11 innings (2.45 ERA) with 11 strikeouts.  Both of these starts were at home.  Of his first 6 starts this season, he has made 4 at home, going 3-0 with a 2.38 ERA allowing no home runs.  He has lasted just 9.2 innings combined in his two road starts.  During these innings, he has allowed 8 runs (7 earned) on 10 hits – 2 of them home runs.

Wacha will be a pitcher to keep an eye on as the season progresses.

Luke Weaver

Their offseason actions indicated that management believes that Luke Weaver is ready to take his regular turn in the major league rotation.  Three starts into the season, this was looking like a good decision.  Luke was 2-0 with a 2.08 ERA.  He finished April 0-2 with a 9.00 ERA over his last three starts.  He has walked 9 batters and has given 14 runs on 17 hits over his last 14 innings.  Again, very, very early.  But it will be very damaging if the club is wrong about Luke.

Bud Norris

Bud Norris – an acquisition I was dubious of over the off-season – has been as steady as we could have hoped for.  Earning his first Cardinal win last night, Bud’s ERA is now down to 1.88.  As opposed to many of the Cardinal pitchers, Bud has actually been better on the road (1.17 ERA v 2.70 at home).

Dominic Leone

Another off-season bullpen acquisition – Dominic Leone – is starting to find his footing.  After serving up 3 home runs in his first 4.2 Cardinal innings, Leon has served up none (allowing just 1 run) over his last 8 innings.  He pitched the eighth last night, giving a hit but no runs.

Up Next

Even as I was composing this missive, the Cardinals won their afternoon game against the White Sox (by the same 3-2 score), meaning they will open their series against the Cubs with a little momentum.  Still, the White Sox are now 8-20 on the year. It would do a lot for my confidence if St Louis could do some of this winning against contending ball clubs.

DeJong Reverses RISP Trend in Cardinal Win

Fearless forcast – mark it down.  At some point this season, the Cardinals will lose a game to the Cincinnati Reds.  It hasn’t happened yet, but it will.

It almost happened Saturday afternoon.  Three Cardinal home runs accounted for all of their scoring in a 4-3 win (box score) – a game in which they were 0-or-6 with runners in scoring position (RISP).  This has been a continuing sore spot for an offense that has still mostly underachieved (in spite of the fact that they are still scoring 4.81 runs a game).  With the 0-for-6 on Saturday, the Cards fell to 6 for 32 (.188) is RISP opportunities over their four previous games.  It also dropped them to .230 (35 for 152) for the season in RBI opportunities.

For one afternoon on Sunday, though, the concerns were temporarily allayed as St Louis cruised past Cincinnati (for the seventh straight time this season) by a 9-2 score (box score). One of the game features was a 5-for-16 performance (.313) with runners in scoring position.  Whether this is the beginning of a turnaround is yet to be determined.

Noteworthy in the game – and in the early season struggles – is second-year shortstop Paul DeJong.  Entering the game just 2-for-19 (.105) with runners in scoring position, Paul had ducks on the pond every time he came to the plate Sunday afternoon.  Batting eighth in many of the recent games, manager Mike Matheny sought to change things up by batting DeJong fifth this day, and the game continually found him.

In the first inning – with the game still scoreless – DeJong came to the plate with the bases loaded and one out.  He bounced into the 5-4-3 double play to end the inning.

Now it’s the third inning.  The Cards have just pushed their lead to 2-0, when Paul came to the plate with runners at first and second and one out.  But instead of another rally-killing ground ball, DeJong slapped a single that positioned a runner (Yadier Molina) at third, where he would score on a fly-ball off the bat of Tyler O’Neill (his first major league RBI), giving the Cards a 3-0 lead.

When Dexter Fowler led off the fifth with a walk and a stolen base, DeJong had yet another RISP opportunity.  Nothing came of this as Paul grounded out.

In the meantime, the Cardinal offense had slowed, and the Reds began to chip away at the deficit.  So, when Paul came to the plate in the seventh inning – with runners at first and second and two out – the Cards were clinging to a 3-2 lead.  Just 3 for 22 at this point with runners in scoring position on the season, Paul DeJong finally came through.  He delivered a crushing three-run homer that took much of the pressure off, and sent the Cards on to their decisive victory.

While DeJong hasn’t (yet) been as consistent as he was in his rookie year, this was – nonetheless – his seventh home run of the young season.  Big hits in clutch situations from DeJong would go a long way toward healing what’s wrong with the St Louis offense.

If DeJong is turning the corner, the RISP results are still frustrating for Kolten Wong and Matt Carpenter.  Wong ended the third by striking out with runners at first and second.  He is now 2 for 11 (.182) in the early season with runners on base.  Carpenter had a fourth inning chance with two on and no one out, but he was retired on a fly ball.  Matt is just 2 for his first 15 (.133) in RISP situations.

Again, it’s early.

Two RISP Pitching Notes

On the subject of runners in scoring position, a couple of pitching numbers jumped out at me this morning.  Neither pitcher pitched on Sunday, but rookie Jordan Hicks and top starter Carlos Martinez have both found another gear when pitching in RISP situations.  Hicks has held batters to 0-for-16 in these opportunities so far this season.

As for Martinez, he served up a two-run single to New York’s Yoenis Cespedes in the second inning of his shaky opening start against the Mets.  That has been the only hit this season off of Carlos when he has had ducks on the pond.  Batters are now 1-for-24 (.042) against Martinez in these situations – including 0 for their last 21.

Speaking of Pitching

Miles Mikolas (Sunday’s starter) added another strong effort to the rotation’s early success.  Miles finished his day having pitched 7 innings, allowing 1 earned run on 5 hits.  Since the first two games of the season, the Cardinal rotation holds a 2.73 ERA, allowing just 8 home runs over their last 112 innings.

Recent Scoring Changes – For Those Scoring at Home

Dexter Fowler’s struggling start got a little better.  In the fifth inning of the April 12 game in Cincinnati, Fowler reached when his pop-fly to short fell in.  Originally scored an error, Dexter has now been awarded a hit on the effort.  It pushes his early season average up to .192.

Lefties Prospering Against Cards

The date was Thursday, April 12, and the Cardinals – 3-2 losers the previous evening against Milwaukee – were clinging to a 5-4 lead in the sixth inning in Cincinnati.  With Dexter Fowler coming to the plate, a runner on first, and one out, Cincinnati brought in the lefty Amir Garrett.  Fowler bounced his third pitch through the hole into left.

Twenty games into the season, that is the switch-hitting Fowler’s only hit in 18 at bats against a left-handed pitcher (.056).

Earlier in the season – on April 1 – Paul DeJong came to the plate in the second inning in New York to face Met lefty Steven Matz.  It would be the first time DeJong would face a left-handed pitcher this season.  It was a good battle, but on the seventh pitch of that at bat DeJong lofted a home run over the left-field wall.  He has not had a hit against a left-hander since (0 for his last 13).

Last year, Fowler hit an ok .252 against lefties (27 for 107), and then-rookie DeJong hit .288 against them (23 for 80) with 6 home runs and a .600 slugging percentage

So far, this year, Fowler and DeJong are among many Cardinal hitters who have gone missing when opponents trot left-handers out to the mound.

Last Thursday afternoon, as Chicago left-hander Jon Lester toyed with the Cardinals (he allowed just 1 un-earned run on 2 hits over 6 dominant innings, striking out 7), I reflected again on this franchise’s historical challenge in hitting left-handed pitching.  After going 0-4 against Garret and Wandy Rodriguez (two lefties out of the Cincinnati bullpen) on Saturday afternoon, the Cards are now hitting .199 (30 for 151) against lefthanders this season – and the malaise seems general.  A surprising turn of events for a team furnished with a wealth of impact right-handed bats.

Marcell Ozuna last had a hit against a left-hander back in the sixth inning of the April 10 game against Milwaukee.  He was 3 for 8 against them at that point, but has gone 0 for 9 against them since.  Matt Carpenter is a left-handed batter, but he plays every day.  He is 2 for 17 (.118) against lefties.

Yes, it is exceedingly early – far too early to be concerned about such things.  But – given our struggling history – this is always one of the early trends that I check.

While the malaise is general, it is not absolute.  Jose Martinez – another impact right-handed bat – began the season 0-for-5 against lefties, but has gone 3 for 5 against them since (all those hits coming in his last three at bats against Cincinnati’s Brandon Finnegan).  Harrison Bader got one of the few hits against Lester on Thursday, and another hit against Finnegan on Saturday – he is 3 for his first 9 against left-handers.  In the early going, Tommy Pham had been the most consistent hammer against left-handed pitching.  He is 7 for his first 14 against them with a home run and 5 walks (a .500/.632/.714 batting line).  He missed the Lester game, and has been day-to-day with a groin issue.  The Cardinals sorely miss his production.

Lefty Batters Bedevil the Team as Well

One thing that has distinguished this pitching staff through its early hot start has been its ability to control left-handed hitters – especially with right-handed pitching.  But, in spite of the fact that the Cards have won two of the last three, they have struggled recently against left-handed hitters.

Nowhere was this more evident than that Thursday afternoon in Chicago.  Through his first three starts, Luke Weaver had little trouble dispatching lefty hitters.  At the point when he took the mound that Thursday, left-handed hitters were only 6 for 28 (.214) against him – with only one of those hits going for extra-bases.  But the Cub lefties (Anthony Rizzo, Kyle Schwarber and Jason Heyward) peppered him to the tune of a combined 5 for 6 – all singles.

Similarly, Michael Wacha mostly had his way with left-handers through his first three starts.  They were only 5 for 30 (.167) with only one of those hits for extra-bases (a double).  He also fared poorly his last time out.  Over 6.2 very sharp innings, Michael allowed only 1 run on 6 hits – but 5 of those hits came off of left-handed bats.  Again, they were all singles and Wacha was able to minimize the damage.

A couple of relievers have also taken some damage against lefties.  When Matthew Bowman retired Schwarber on a ground ball to lead off the sixth-inning Thursday afternoon, it marked the eighth straight left-handed better that he’d set down.  But before he could get out of the inning, he surrendered a game-icing, two-run homer to Heyward, and followed that up by allowing a single to Lester.

Perhaps the most concerning is left-hander Tyler Lyons.  Counted on to be a late-inning contributor, Lyons allowed a potential victory for Carlos Martinez to slip away on Saturday when all four batters to face him in the seventh reached base – with two of them scoring.  Three of those batters were left-handed – Jesse Winker (who walked), Joey Votto (who also walked), and Scooter Gennett (who tied the game with a two-run single).  Lefties are now hitting .333 (7 for 21) against our main lefty in the bullpen.

As I look at these numbers, I keep repeating “it’s early, it’s early.”

Maintaining his dominance against everyone is Saturday’s starter Martinez.  Cincinnati’s lefties were 2 for 11 against him, and their righties just 1 for 7.  For the early season, left-handers are just 10 for 62 (.161) against Carlos, and right-handers just 9 for 47 (.191).  Martinez is having one of the most encouraging Aprils on the team.  Over 4 starts since his chippy opening day in New York, Carlos has surrendered 1 run in 27.1 innings – a 0.33 ERA.

Bullpen Takes on a Little Water

After being tagged for 15 runs during the season’s first two games, the Cardinal pitching staff had been one of baseball’s best.  Over their last 18 games, they hold a 2.97 ERA.  Even so, this team has been subjected to intermittent spottiness from its bullpen.  This was in evidence, of course, during the Thursday loss in Chicago (when Bowman served up the home run), but also in the two wins against Cincinnati.  Bud Norris saved his fifth on Friday, but not until he had allowed a ninth-inning run on a walk and two singles.  And then, on Saturday as mentioned, Lyons couldn’t hold a 3-run lead.

Over their last 9.1 innings heading into Sunday’s game against Cincinnati, the Cardinal bullpen had been tagged for 12 hits (a .324 batting average), 6 walks, 2 hit batsmen (a .444 on base percentage), and 6 runs (a 5.79 ERA).  The bullpen has done little to alleviate my concerns.

Although I do have to say this for them.  When Jordan Hicks escaped his first bases-loaded threat (in the seventh) it meant that only 3 of the last 33 runners inherited by the Cardinal bullpen have come home to score – a number we are going to have to start keeping an eye on.

Hicks, by-the-way, is still at 0.00 through his first 11.2 major league innings.  His command is still a concern, but this is one of the most promising young talents on the team.

Still Waiting on the Offense.

After a significant off-season overhaul, we are still waiting to see the newly potent offense.  After beating the Reds on Saturday on just 7 hits, the Cards are hitting .239 as a team.  They are scoring enough runs to win games – although the offense has become decidedly inventive to make that happen.

In the 8-5 loss to Chicago, they managed just 5 hits, but scored runs on a wild pitch, a bases-loaded walk, a bases-loaded hit-by-pitch and an RBI groundout that turned into two runs on a throwing error.

On Saturday, 3 of the 7 hits were home runs, accounting for all the runs – and just enough of them in their 4-3 win.  It all adds up to 13 runs over their last 3 games, in spite of a .221 team batting average.

Most caught under the wheels of the stalling offense is projected starting second baseman Kolten Wong.  Kolten’s break-out 2017 gave the entire organization hope that this talented player had finally turned the corner.  But Wong has struggled out of the gate.  With his 0-for4 on Saturday, Wong’s average sunk to .133.  I do not believe that there is any loss of confidence in Kolten by the organization.  April is too early to give up on anyone.  But his slump has cost him at bats – first to Greg Garcia and now to the returning Jedd Gyorko – a situation that will make it even harder for Kolten to find his rhythm. Gyorko has gone 2 for 4 with 3 walks since his return, and will prove difficult to keep out of the lineup.

At the top of the order, Fowler (.181) and Carpenter (.182) are also scuffling.  As these players are more established, they will continue to get their at bats. But the offense will not get healthy until these three players start to return to form.

Again, far too early to worry.

NoteBook

Paul DeJong’s second-inning home run on Saturday meant that St Louis has now scored first in 8 straight games – something they never achieved last year.  They have won 7 of them.

Yadier Molina – whose seventh-inning home run proved decisive – has now started 19 of the first 20 games of the season.  Quite a pace for a 15-year veteran.

Saturday’s attendance total of 42,382 pushed the home average to 40,000.1.  The first 8 home games have drawn just 320,001 fans.

Early Season Trends – 2018

With the recent announcement that this afternoon’s game in Chicago would be postponed due to “inclement weather,” the Cardinals and their fans will get an extra day to relish their 5-3 win (box score) over the Cubs last night –a victory that pushed their early season  winning streak to five in a row (four of them against the struggling Reds).  Now 10-7, the Cards find themselves just 1 game behind in the division.  Seventeen game into the 2017 season, the Cards were 7-10 and 2.5 back.  The year before – in Chicago’s runaway year – they hit the 17 game mark 9-8, but were already 3.5 games back.

After a staggering start, this team seems to have regained its footing, somewhat.  But, of course, there is still a lot of season to play out, and most of the real questions I have about this club can’t truly be answered until September.

Until then, let’s look at a few of the early trends of the 2018 season – through the first 17 games – remembering always that it is much too early to take any of them too seriously.

Weather

With a second cancellation in Chicago, the weather would qualify as one of the early stories of the season.  However, I must add that the Cardinals have been less affected than many other teams.  There have been multiple cancellations across all of baseball.  As far as the Cards are concerned, today is only their second cancellation of the season.  If they manage to play their scheduled make-up game tomorrow, they will have survived the early season weather debacle with just one game to make up later in the season.

But the effect of the cold has gone beyond postponed games.  Last night they played for the fourth time in 17 games in starting temperatures below 50 degrees.  It was also the second time already in the young season that they started a game with the temperature under 40 degrees.  By comparison, the Cards never played a game last year where the official starting temperature was under 50 degrees, although through the first 18 seasons of this century, they have averaged 3.4 sub-50 degree games a year (going 29-33 in those contests).

Games started in sub-40 degree weather are rarer.  Through the first 18 seasons of this century, the Cards had only started two games with the temperature below 40.  The first occurred on April 9, 2007 when they won in Pittsburgh 3-0 in 37 degree weather.  The other occurred almost 9 years later, also in Pittsburgh, this one a 4-1 loss on opening day (April 3, 2016) in 39-degree weather.  (That game was part of a season opening 3-game sweep at the hands of the Pirates that sort of set the tone for the 2016 season).

Last night’s game was already the second this season that the Cards have started with temperatures in the thirties, and – at 35 degrees – earns the distinction of being the coldest game that St Louis has played this century.  Back on April 7, they beat Arizona 5-3 in 37-degree weather. In fact, three of their four sub-50 degree games occurred during their opening home stand that averaged only 51.5 degrees.  So in that sense, the season-opening cold has been a little historic.

All of this, of course, is set against the backdrop of baseball’s decision to open the season earlier than usual (March 29).  Bad timing, to say the least.  This decision has come under some criticism in the wake of the sometimes inclement weather, but I predict (and I rarely make predictions this early in the season) that by the middle of summer when the players are getting those few extra days of rest (which was the reason for starting the season early) these cavils will be mostly forgotten.

History

Speaking of history, the season is less than a month old and already the Cardinals have been re-writing the history books.  On the good side was a 13-4 conquest of Cincinnati on April 12 that featured the second-hardest hit home run by a Cardinal in the Statcast era (113.7 mph off the bat of Jose Martinez – the hardest hit ball of his career); the longest home run (438 feet) off the bat of Yadier Molina in the Statcast era (which dates to 2015); and the longest home run – unqualified – of Paul DeJong’s young career (464 feet).

Nine days earlier, they had landed on the down-side of history.  On April 3 in Milwaukee, Dexter Fowler and Tommy Pham began the game with back-to-back homeruns.  For all of that, the Cardinals carried a snug 4-3 lead into the bottom of the ninth inning, at which point the game was given to newcomer Dominic Leone to close out.

It started well, with Eric Sogard flying out and Lorenzo Cain striking out.  One out away from victory, Leone stumbled, serving up homeruns to Christian Yelich and Ryan Braun.  And just like that, Milwaukee had pulled out a 5-4 victory.

In the process, they turned that into the only game in all of major league history to begin with consecutive home runs and end with consecutive home runs.

HR allowed in 8th and 9th innings

This historic loss highlights a somewhat worrisome early trend – all the more worrisome as this was a concern since the end of last year.  Once Trevor Rosenthal was lost – first to arm surgery and then to release – I had concerns about the eighth and ninth innings.  Seventeen games into the season, the Cards have served up 17 home runs – seven of those coming in the eighth or ninth innings.  Through all of last year, St Louis allowed 183 home runs – just 40 of them in the eighth or ninth innings.

Newcomers

The seventh of these late homeruns came last night, when new Cardinal Greg Holland entered the eighth inning of a comfortable 5-1 Cardinal lead and immediately made a game of it by issuing a walk and serving up a two-run homer.

Acquired to be the ninth-inning answer, Holland has had a shaky debut wearing the birds-on-the-bat.  Unsigned throughout spring training, Holland inked his contract on opening day, rushed down to Florida, threw in two extended spring training games, and was rushed to the big-league club.  He has now faced 15 major league hitters, retiring just 6 of them.  Of the others, 7 have walked, 1 has a single, and Javier Baez has a home run.

Greg has clearly missed spring training.  But the Holland mystery extends even beyond that. Greg lasted until opening day because all of baseball shied away from giving him the long-term contract he was seeking.  This was largely due to an epic second half collapse that saw Greg stagger to the finish line with a 6.38 ERA and 5 homeruns allowed in 24 innings after the All-Star break.

So, the question hangs before us.  Is Holland struggling just because he missed spring training?  Or is this the continuation of his brutal second half of 2017?  Greg will certainly get his chance to answer.  The Cards will give him every opportunity to work his way through his difficulties.

Holland headlines a few “highlight” acquisitions the Cards made over the off-season – none of them exactly setting the baseball world on its ear right now.  The big “get” was Marcell Ozuna.  Coming off an excellent season during which he had hit .312 with 37 home runs and 124 runs batted in, Marcell’s opening act in St Louis has been comparatively muted.  He will await tomorrow’s game against the Cubs holding a .271/.288/.386 slash line.

The already discussed Leone was another off-season addition to the pitching staff – his early days in St Louis have been more eventful than desired.  The Cards also added Miles Mikolas – who had been pitching in Japan for the last three seasons (and with considerable success).  Miles had been 31-13 with a 2.18 ERA across those seasons.  His 2018 starts have been hit and miss so far.  After two fairly average games against Milwaukee, he landed on the struggling Cincinnati team his last time out, allowing them just 1 run over 7 innings.

All of these new Cardinals will be hoping for better things over the course of the season’s last 145 games.  There have been no appearances yet for Luke Gregerson – another much praised off-season acquisition who began the season on the disabled list.  Now healthy, his Cardinal debut is imminent.

Of the new additions, the only one who is opening eyes is former Cardinal tormentor Bud Norris.  A former anchor of the Houston rotation and one-time 15-game winner with Baltimore, Norris has been morphing into a bullpen role over the last several season – mostly with un-remarkable results.  In his first 9 Cardinal games, Bud has 4 saves and a 1.93 ERA.  Encouraging.

On the other side of the new-comer coin is the hyper-impressive rookie Jordan Hicks.  Over recent seasons, the big league team has regularly benefitted from the ready arms and bats of their deep minor league system.  Hicks is the first to make his mark this season.  Regularly topping 101 mph with his devastating sinker, Jordan has allowed no runs through his first 9.1 major league innings.

Rumor has it that elite hitting prospect Tyler O’Neill will be with the team before tomorrow’s series finale.  Tyler is one of many impressive outfield bats that the Cards are challenged to find opportunities for.

Pitching in Tight Games

While the pitching, in general, has been one of the early season bright spots, there have been significant issues while the games are tight.  In particular, through their first 48.2 innings pitching with the game tied or with St Louis holding a one-run lead, the Cardinal pitching has been a little buffeted with a 5.36 ERA.  In those innings (slightly more than 5 games worth) Cardinal pitchers have walked 29 batters, hit 4 others, and served up 7 home runs.

This disturbing trend seems to cut across almost the entire staff.  Among the starters, only Luke Weaver has been up to this particular task.  Of the 17.1 innings Luke has pitched so far this year, 14.1 of them have come with the score either tied, or with the Cards holding a one-run lead.  Weaver has responded with a 1.26 ERA, allowing just 7 singles in 47 at bats (a .149 batting average and slugging percentage).  Elsewhere, the numbers are less rosy.

Adam Wainwright has been better than average – although still with a 4.05 ERA in 6.2 such innings.  Carlos Martinez has pitched 5.2 innings so far with no more than a one-run lead.  The 34 batters he has faced in those moments hold a .320/.500/.520 slash line against him – leading to a 7.94 ERA.  Mikolas is at 9.00 through 6 such innings, and Michael Wacha is scuffling along with a 9.53 ERA in 5.2 innings.

Some of the members of the bullpen have also struggled – albeit in fewer innings.  Matthew Bowman, Holland, Leone and Norris have combined for a 10.50 ERA and a .370/.500/.741 slash line in six innings while trying to hold a one-run lead or less.

The results of this struggle are more-or-less predictable.  Eleven times this season, so far, St Louis has managed to push to a lead of two runs or more.  They are 10-1 in those games.  In three other games, they have held leads, but never of more than one run.  They have lost all three of those games.

Batting when Trailing by More than 1 Run

On the other hand, in 6 of the team’s first 17 games they have fallen behind by two runs or more.  They have lost all six.  There have been 5 other games that they have trailed in, but by no more than one run.  They have come back to win 4 of the 5.

In 101 at bats so far in the young season where this team has trailed by two runs or more, they are hitting a fairly anemic .168 (17 for 101).

Surprising Pitching

But by far the biggest (and most pleasant) early season surprise has been the pitching.  An area of concern before the season started – and of greater concern after the first two games – the Cardinals have recovered to show one of the better pitching staffs through the first half of April.  With Martinez (1.75 ERA) and Weaver (2.08) leading the way, St Louis will open the day tomorrow with a 3.22 team ERA.  They have been particularly effective in a few key situations.

When pitching with runners in scoring position, they have held opposing batsmen to just 28 hits (24 singles and 4 doubles) in 142 at bats – an impressive .197 average combined with a .225 slugging percentage.  Also – faced with that runner at third and less than two outs, they have surrendered that run in only 10 of 30 such opportunities.  So far, only 6 of 33 inherited runners (18.2%) have scored against them.

Which all leads to my favorite obscure statistic of the Cardinal’s early season.  Seventeen games into the season, opposing hitters are just 2 for 16 (.125) against Cardinal pitching with the bases loaded.  This becomes my favorite because 2 for 16 is also exactly what the Cardinal batsmen are when they have been up with the bases loaded so far this season.  In that sense, it presents a kind of microcosm of the year so far.  While the Cards have done their fair share of run scoring, it has been a rather inconsistent effort, marked by many missed opportunities.  Their record has been primarily achieved as a result of the unexpected success of the pitching staff.

A Long Way from Done

As heady as this early success is, the truth is that nothing is yet proven.  Of the hold-over pitchers, all have had stretches of excellent pitching.  The question isn’t – and never was – could they look good in April.  All of the hold-over pitchers faded noticeably in September last year – fueling the team’s slide from contention.  I am also unconvinced that this team has done anything to materially address the character gap that was evident all year between them and the league’s better team.

All of these question marks will hang over their heads until September.

But for now, 10-7 is nothing to complain about.

Super Bowl LII: The Last Word

For more than three hours on the evening of February second, all of America (or at least the football-watching portion of that population) tuned into Super Bowl LII looking for the precise moment that the Philadelphia’s Eagles’ Cinderella ride would turn back into a pumpkin.

Even after the Eagles – history’s most dis-respected number one seed – had opened up a 15-3 lead on the New England Patriots just 21 minutes into the contest, the haters remained unconvinced.  We had all seen this film before.

With 5:15 left before the end of the half, Nick Foles’ long toss up the right sideline deflected into the hands of New England’s Duron Harmon for the game’s first turnover.  Surely that would change the momentum of the game.  But after New England went 90 yards for a touchdown following the interception, Philadelphia answered with a touchdown of their own before the half and went into the locker room with a ten-point lead.

Like the monster in all of the slasher films, the defending champions from New England refused to die.  They opened the second half with touchdowns on three consecutive drives, and finally – with 9:22 left in the game – pushed ahead 33-32.  Surely this would finally be the end of the under-dog Eagles.

This was, after all, the same Patriot team that overcame a 28-3 deficit in the Super Bowl just the year before, and just two weeks earlier had overturned an 11-point deficit against Jacksonville to qualify for this year’s big game.  It seemed almost expected that Philly’s 12-point lead would at some point evaporate.

But on this evening the under-appreciated Eagles slew the dragon from Boston by doing the one thing that the Falcons (in Super Bowl LI) and the Jaguars (in this year’s AFC Championship Game) were unable to do.

They kept scoring.

In last year’s Super Bowl, the Falcons were done scoring at the 8:31 mark of the third quarter.  After having three earlier touchdown drives of at least 62 yards, the Falcons totaled just 44 yards (and 3 first downs) on their last 4 possessions.  Jacksonville scored its last touchdown of the game at 7:06 of the second quarter.  They had moved for 158 yards and 11 first downs in their back-to-back touchdown drives.  Over their final 9 possessions of the game, the Jaguars managed just two field goals, 193 yards and 9 first downs.

Doug Pederson’s offense never relented.  Every time the Patriots surged back into the game, the Eagles responded.  They ended the Super Bowl by scoring on all of their last 5 possessions following the interception to carry off a 41-33 victory (gamebook).

Reversing the Trend

There was an era not too long ago when the Super Bowl was traditionally one of the dullest contests of the season.  Beginning with the Raiders 38-9 thumping of the Redskins back in Super Bowl XVIII (18), all of the next 5 Super Bowls would be decided by at least 19 points, with four of the five being decided by 22 points or more.  The average margin of victory in those five Super Bowls was 27.6 points.  Two Super Bowls after the last of those (Washington’s 42-10 pummeling of Denver), the San Francisco 49ers authored the most lopsided victory in Super Bowl history – a 55-10 rout also at the expense of the Broncos.  It was an era where advertisers pushed to get their commercials aired in the first quarter as a large percentage of the viewing population had moved on to something else long before halftime.  From Dallas’ 24-3 victory over Miami in Super Bowl VI (6), through Tampa Bay’s 48-21 conquest of Oakland in Super Bowl XXXVII (37), only 9 of 32 contests were decided by one score or less, and the average margin of victory was a disappointing 16.5 points.

But, beginning with New England’s tense 32-29 victory over Carolina that next season, the dynamic has decidedly changed.  Ten of the last fifteen have been one score games – including this one, which ended with Tom Brady throwing into the end zone as time expired.

And while the recent decade has brought us more competitive contests, the last three have been nothing short of transcendent.  Three seasons ago, the Super Bowl brought us Peyton Manning’s farewell.  One of the great presence’s in recent football history, Peyton went out a champion, leading Denver to a 24-10 decision over Carolina.  Last season, of course, Brady and the Patriots authored one of the great comebacks of all-time.

And two weeks ago the no-chance Eagles fashioned a stunning upset in a game that set a hatful of Super Bowl offensive records. League-wide all teams averaged 334.1 yards per game.  The Eagles racked up 323 yards and the Patriots managed 350 yards.

At the half.

Offense Galore

During the entertaining first half, the two teams combined for 673 yards on 72 plays – a breath-taking 9.3 yards per play.  By about the mid-point of the third quarter the two teams had set the Super Bowl record for combined yardage.  They would finish the affair with 1151 total yards and 9 combined touchdowns.  Nine different players ended with a run or a catch of at least 20 yards.  Four of them had pass catches of over 40 yards.

Together, the Eagles and Patriots were 15 for 26 on third down (.577), including 8 of 12 (.667) in the second half.  They were also 3-for-4 on fourth down.  The 33 points scored by New England were the most ever by a losing team in a Super Bowl (supplanting the 49ers, who scored 31 points in losing Super Bowl XLVII [48]) and the combined total of 74 points came within 1 point of the Super Bowl record (in Super Bowl XXIX [29] the 49ers outscored the San Diego Chargers 49-26).  Considering that this game saw two missed extra-points, a missed field goal, and two failed two-point conversions, that record held by the slimmest combination of circumstances imaginable.

The Defining Moment of Super Bowl LII

The contest will forever be remembered for the touchdown that the Eagles scored on fourth-and-goal with 38 seconds left in the first half.  Leading by just three points, and with New England set to receive the second-half kickoff, Philadelphia simply could not afford to come away from this opportunity without points.  So, even the decision to go for the touchdown here was risky.  And for Pederson to reach deep into his bag of tricks for the tight-end option pass to the quarterback ranks as one of the gutsiest calls in the now-long history of the Super Bowl.  The potential for disaster here was huge.  With an inexperienced passer throwing to the flat on the goal line, any of the numerous ways that play could have backfired would almost certainly have cost Philly the game.

But the play didn’t backfire.  Trey Burton threw an accurate pass, and Foles made the catch in the end zone.

It will be remembered by many as the critical play of the game.  But here’s the thing.  Even in spite of this highlight-reel play, the Eagles still found themselves trailing with nine minutes left in the season.  The actual play of the game – not so much highlight reel stuff – might well have been Philadelphia’s other fourth-down play.

That the Eagles trailed by one with 9:22 to go was the least of their concerns.  The raspberry seed in their collective wisdom tooth was the Patriot offense that they had not yet managed to stop.  In nine possessions to that point of the game, New England had managed at least 1 first down in all of them, and 2 or more in 7 of the 9.  Six of the nine had covered at least 74 yards, and eight of them accounted for at least 48 yards.  The nine had resulted in 4 touchdowns, 2 field goals, 1 missed field goal, 1 missed fourth-down play, and the end of the first half.  Every drive but one to this point had ended in Philadelphia territory – and the one that didn’t made it to the 50-yard line.  Philadelphia needed to find some way to keep this offense off the scoreboard for the rest of the game.

So, as the Eagles lined up along their own 25-yard line with those 9:22 to go, more than just the score to put them back in front, Philadelphia needed to kill the clock.  And when a third-and-one screen pass to Torrey Smith ended shy of first-down yardage, the Eagles’ season hung in the balance.

There was still 5:39 left in the game.  With the fourth-and-one, Philadelphia sat on their own 45-yard line.  A punt here was an open invitation for New England to put an exclamation point on their comeback.  But a failed fourth-down play would give the Patriots a short field and a golden opportunity for the game-clinching score.  In spite of the fact that Philadelphia ran for 164 yards this day, they opted for a pass, risking everything on the arm and the judgement of the much maligned Nick Foles.

Nicky Who?

As recently as 2015, Nick was a sometimes starter for the St Louis Rams, fashioning a 4-7 record as a starter with an exceedingly modest 69.0 passer rating.  He spent 2016 sitting on the bench in Kansas City, and had much the same function in Philadelphia for most of this year.

And now, everything depended on him.

In a 3-tight-end set, Foles had Zach Ertz tight to the right side, and Brent Celek and Burton lined up tight to the left.  Ertz and Celek ran a simple shallow cross against New England’s man coverage.  Devin McCourty – in coverage on Ertz – ran headlong into Celek and Patrick Chung – who had coverage on Celek.  And now there was just Ertz roaming completely free underneath.  The pressure on Foles was quick.  Trey Flowers slipped immediately inside tackle Halapoulivaati Vaitai to flush Foles to his left, and Kyle Van Noy stunted around Vaitai’s back to hit Nicky just after he released the ball.  The throw was a little high, but Zach pulled it down.  And the Eagle drive continued.

That play was the lynch-pin of a devastating 14-play, 75-yard drive that consumed 7:01 from the remaining game-clock.  Foles connected twice more with Ertz for third-down conversions – including the 11-yard touchdown pass (on third-and-7) that concluded the drive.  McCourty had Zach in man coverage on that play as well, but Devin stumbled just slightly as Zach made his break to the inside, creating the opening that led to the game-clinching touchdown.

Coming off the game of his life against Minnesota, Nick Foles was very good again against New England.  He finished 28-of-43 (65.12%) for 373 yards, 3 touchdowns and the interception.  His rating against the Patriots overall was a strong 106.06.  But once again, he was at his very best on third down.

Against the Vikings, he completed 10-of-11 on third down for 159 yards and 9 first downs (including 2 touchdowns).  On third-down against the Patriots, Nicky completed 11 of 14 for 169 yards – again for 9 first downs and 2 touchdowns. Thus Nick Foles finished the last two games of the season completing 21 of 25 passes (84%) for 328 yards, 18 first downs and 4 touchdowns on third down – a combined 158.33 rating.

Of all the remarkable numbers amassed by Foles in his surprising Super Bowl run, his dominance on third down are both the most amazing and the most vital.

He also finished the game on a hot streak comparable to the way he finished up the Vikings.  Beginning with his 22-yard touchdown toss to Corey Clement about midway through the third, Nicky finished 13 for his last 16 (81.25%) – albeit for just 127 yards (9.77 per completion) – and 2 touchdowns.  His passer rating reached 139.32 as he finished the game.

Coming down the stretch, Nick began to look more and more for Nelson Agholor – who was matched mostly against Chung.  Patrick – one of the defensive heroes for the Patriots during the playoff run – had a tough Super Bowl that included being knocked out of the game twice.

Five of Foles’ last 16 passes went in Agholor’s direction, with Nelson catching all five for 54 yards and 4 first downs.

Defensive Measures

As did Minnesota, New England decided to play man coverage against the Eagle receivers and brought frequent pressure.  Nick got man coverage on 79% of his drop-backs, including being blitzed 37% of the time.  Foles chewed up the Patriot blitz to the tune of 11 of 16 (68.75%) for 126 yards and 1 touchdown (a 113.02 passer rating).  The Patriots did a little better when they played man and didn’t blitz (a 109.49 rating on 11 of 18 passing for 184 yards, 2 touchdowns and the interception).

Best of all against Foles may have been the zone defenses the Patriots threw at him, though they went to zone too infrequently to make much of a judgement.  Foles was 6 of 9 against the New England zones, but for just 63 yards and 2 first downs.

When they could pressure Foles, they did very well against him. Credit to the Eagle offensive line that Nick only threw 11 passes under duress (about a fourth of his attempts).  He completed only 3 of those passes for just 9 yards.  All three of those completions came in that pivotal fourth-quarter touchdown drive.  Foles was also just 4 for 11 when they could flush him out of the pocket. Again, this was something New England couldn’t do enough of.

Does Foles Have an Encore In Him?

The great post-season mystery now becomes what happens with Nick Foles?  With emerging superstar Carson Wentz set to return, this playoff run was essentially an audition for Foles.  Have these last three games convinced anyone that Nicky is their quarterback of the future?  Or is it more likely – given his recent performance in St Louis – that this playoff run had more to do with the team around him?

Let me say this for Foles.  During the playoff run, he made excellent decisions and threw a very catchable ball.  He especially has a nice touch on deep passes.  In all this, though, I don’t think I’m completely convinced Nicky is the answer as anyone’s starter.   And even after all this, I’m not sure that everyone understands what was truly remarkable about Foles, the Eagles, and their 2017 playoff run.

Put the tape back in and watch the first possession of the game.  Watch Foles coolly and confidently run the Eagle offense.  In the eyes of the rest of the world, Nick Foles had everything to prove.  But that’s not what you saw two weeks ago.  You saw a backup quarterback playing in the Super Bowl with absolutely nothing to prove – to himself or anyone else.  That is because his entire team, from owner down to ball boy, had already placed their entire confidence in him.  Nick Foles was their quarterback.  The defense didn’t put extra pressure on themselves. Neither did the offensive line.  The coaches made no effort to hide their quarterback.  He threw 11 times in the 16 plays of Philadelphia’s first two drives (a field goal and a touchdown) and threw on 10 of the 14 plays of the game-winning drive in the fourth quarter.

Without exception, everyone in the Eagle locker room firmly believed that Foles would deliver a starting quarterback effort that evening – and with 373 passing yards, 3 touchdown passes tossed – and one caught, Nicky Foles did just that.

Imagine for a moment how difficult that is.  Imagine All-Pro defensive lineman Fletcher Cox standing on the sideline watching Wentz not get up after scoring that touchdown against the Rams.  Imagine what must have been going through his head.  And Jason Kelce’s.  And Zach Ertz’.  And coach Pederson’s.  In the pit of your stomach, how can you not feel that your season had just ended?  Remember, Carson Wentz was not just their starting quarterback.  He was the soul of the team.  He was the piece that made the whole machine go.  If you had been watching the NFL season up to that point, you would have tabbed Carson Wentz as one of the handful of irreplaceable players.  Every other member of the Eagle team must have felt his loss as a debilitating punch to the gut.

And then somewhere in between that devastating moment and the time the Eagles took the field for their first playoff game that most under-appreciated element of professional sports took over.  The Eagle locker room healed itself.  They embraced Nicky Foles, and endowed him with their complete trust and confidence.  This wasn’t a pretend “oh, sure, we’re all behind you” confidence.  Nicky Foles became – for a few dynamic weeks – the sum of the faith of his team.

Even should the Eagles and Wentz go on to experience success on the level of the Patriots, this first Super Bowl win (and the under-dog status that they carried into it) will always be memorable to them.  I’m not sure, though, history will forever remember this aspect of this remarkable achievement.

Oh, Yes . . .

Speaking of history, the quarterback on the other end of this entertaining contest has been involved in a bit of it himself.

The Eagles managed to hold Tom Brady and the Patriot offense to field goal attempts in three of their first four possessions by bringing fairly consistent pressure.  But as New England’s offensive line got their feet set under them, Brady became Brady again.

Beginning with a 25-yard completion to Rob Gronkowski on the second play of the third quarter, and continuing until Brady threw the touchdown pass to Gronkowski that put New England ahead in the fourth, Brady completed 12 out of 14 passes for 181 yards and all three touchdowns.  He worked with great frequency and effectiveness to the left side, where Ronald Darby was a frequent target.  Tom completed 12 of 14 passes (85.71%) to the offensive left side of the formation for 215 yards (15.36 yards per attempt) and 1 touchdown – a 142.56 rating.  In fact, subtract two spikes to stop the clock and his last 7 passes against rather extreme zone defenses, and Brady was 25 of 39 (64.1%) for 465 yards (18.6 yards per completion) with the 3 touchdowns – a 130.82 passer rating.

Not much that Philly tried against Tom succeeded. The Eagles went to predominantly man coverages – doing so on 70% of Brady’s pass attempts (other than the spikes or the prevents).  They blitzed less often than New England (only 20% of the time), but with no better results.  Tom went 6 for 8 for 111 yards against the Eagle blitzes.  But when they played man without the blitz, things went even worse.  Brady completed only 11 of 20 passes against those man coverages (55%), but for 215 yards (19.55 yards per completion) and 2 of his touchdowns – a 126.04 rating.  The Eagles didn’t play much zone – and just as well.  Tom was 8 of 11 (72.73%) when they did, for 139 yards (12.64 per attempted pass) and the other touchdown – a 145.08 passer rating.

Frankly, when Brady and the offense got the ball back, trailing by 5 with 2:21 left and holding one time out, I thought – and I’m sure I wasn’t alone – that the Patriots would add one more improbable comeback to their swelling playoff lore.

Not What You Might Have Expected

But then the unusual happened.  Instead of the Patriots making that clutch fourth-quarter, game-deciding play, it was the Eagles making it against them.  In a game that featured just one punt and one sack, it was the latter that finally decided matters.  With New England facing a second-and-2 on their own 33, Brandon Graham surged underneath Patriot guard Shaq Mason and closed quickly enough on Brady that he hit the ball as Tom was raising it for a pass.

For a small eternity the football – and the season – bounced freely on the turf, to be gathered in in the next heartbeat by Eagle defensive end Derek Barnett.  The Eagles had the ball on the Patriot 31 with just 2:09 left.

This would be the only time of the game that the Eagles would go conservative – and it almost cost them.  Three running plays gained 4 yards.  Jake Elliot finished the one minute-four second drive with the field goal that gave us the final score, and when New England finally got the ball back for their desperation drive, there was only 58 seconds left in the season – and the Patriots had 91 yards to cover.

And even at that, they were still throwing into the end zone as time expired.

A Warning Note

Among the more glamourous offensive records set in Super Bowl LII was the passing yardage record.  Brady became the first quarterback in the Super Bowl to throw for 500 yards in a game (505 to be exact).  Whose record did he break?  Why his own, of course.  The year before in Super Bowl LI Brady had thrown for 466 yards.  Across all of football this year, the average quarterback threw for about 3800 yards for the 16-game season.  In the last two Super Bowls, Brady has thrown for 971.

Impressive? Of course.  But the reason behind the record is even more instructive.  In Super Bowl LII, the Patriots ran 72 offensive plays.  They trailed in every one of them.  They didn’t have so much as one offensive snap where they were at least tied in the game.  They trailed by 10 points or more in 24 of those plays.

Two weeks earlier against Jacksonville, New England held the ball for 61 offensive plays.  They trailed in 42 of those – finding themselves down by ten points or more in 22 of them.  In last year’s Super Bowl, they trailed in 67 of 93 plays, finding themselves at least ten points behind in 53 of them.

So, during their last two Super Bowl games and their last AFC Championship game, New England has run a total of 226 plays.  They have been behind 80% of the time (181 plays) and trailed by at least 10 points almost half of the time (99 plays – 43.8%).  Brady – of necessity – has thrown 110 passes in his last two Super Bowls.

Taking nothing away from the Falcons, Jaguars or Eagles, the Patriots have been having an increasingly difficult time matching their opponent’s emotion in these big games.  Brady reported to Al Michales that he didn’t even feel nervous at the start of this – his eighth Super Bowl.  In particular, during the start of the Atlanta game, the Patriots looked almost like they were standing still.

There are already a sizeable number of mysteries that the 2018 season will answer.  The 2017 season saw a lot of upheaval.  Long-time doormats in Jacksonville, Tennessee, Buffalo, Los Angeles (and, yes, Philadelphia) all earned playoff bids.  Are these teams on the rise? Or one year wonders?  Meanwhile playoff mainstays in Green Bay, Dallas and Seattle watched from home.  Are they franchises in decline?  Or were they mostly unlucky?  What does the future hold for marquee quarterbacks like Eli Manning, Aaron Rodgers, Deshaun Watson, Jimmy Garoppolo, Kirk Cousins, and Alex Smith – not to mention backups turned into heroes Nick Foles and Case Keenum?

As compelling as any of these mysteries is what we will see from the 2018 version of the New England Patriots.  How they respond to this surprising loss will be one of the stories to follow – and one of the keys to the direction the franchise is heading.

As for the Eagles – who jumped from 7-9 in 2016 to world champions this year – they will now be challenged with handling success.  Staying on top is always harder than getting there.

It all sets up for a fascinating 2018.

Yes, Actually, That Will Be Nick Foles in the Super Bowl

There was 1:25 left in the first half.  The Eagles held a modest 14-7 lead, but had second-and-ten on their own 47-yard line.  With a pass rush coming from his right, quarterback Nick Foles took a couple of steps to his left.  But there was more trouble coming from there as Everson Griffen came roaring unabated toward him.  Before he was hit, Foles flung the ball up the left sideline in the general direction of Mack Hollins.  And then Griffen buried him.

The blow looked worse than it was.  Foles bounced right back up.  That pass was not to be his last pass of the game.

But it would be his last incompletion.

To that point in the contest, Nicky’s numbers were modest.  He was now 11 for 18 (61.11%), but for just 95 yards (just 8.64 yards per completed pass).  Only 7 of those 11 completions had earned first downs, and he carried a 75.00 passer rating as he went to the turf.  In short, he was Nick Foles.

But when he got back up off the turf, he was Joe Montana.

Foles in a Frenzy

On the next play, receiver Alshon Jeffery put a double-move on cornerback Terence Newman.  Alshon veered slightly towards the middle of the field.  Newman followed along, only to be surprised when Jeffery cut back underneath him and broke free down the right side-line.  Foles was undergoing another very close call in the pocket as Griffen and Emmanuel Lamur almost got their hands on him.  But Nick was slick enough to elude their grasp.  He lofted an arching rainbow toward the goal line that Jeffery ran under, and suddenly Philly was up 21-7.

For Foles, it was the first of what would grow to be 15 consecutive pass completions – a streak that would take him through the rest of the game.  Four of those final 15 completions went for 36 yards or more, and all fifteen together totaled 257 yards (an average of 17.13 yards per).  Twelve of his final 15 completions went for first downs, including 3 for touchdowns.

Philadelphia cruised past the Vikings 38-7 (gamebook) to earn a berth in Sunday’s Super Bowl opposite Tom Brady and the Patriots.  Foles’ impressive evening included going 10 of 11 on third down for 159 yards and 2 touchdowns (with 9 of his 10 completions gaining first downs), on his way to a 352-yard, 141.41 passer rating performance.

There is little I can say – even after studying the film – that can explain the greatest game of Nick Foles’ career.  It was, essentially, four huge passes (totaling 172 yards) and a whole bunch of shorter passes (totaling 180 yards).  He was 19 for 20 on passes that were less than ten yards from the line of scrimmage.  He took what the Viking defense gave him, and took advantage of his deep opportunities when they arose.

Vikings Fading

Hearkening back to their Divisional Round game against New Orleans, perhaps this melt-down is more revealing of the state of the Viking defense at the close of the season than it is the skills of the Philadelphia offense.  In the second halves of their last two games, the Vikings allowed Drew Brees and Nick Foles to complete 28 of 33 passes (84.85%) for 321 yards (9.73 yards per attempted pass).  They allowed the two QBs to throw for 20 first downs, including 5 touchdowns.  Minnesota failed to record a sack in either second half.  The Saints (as you recall) almost came back from a 17-0 halftime deficit against the Vikings.

In retrospect, perhaps they should have played more basic man coverage.  It was the most effective defense they threw at Foles the whole game.  They rarely played zone against Nick (only 6 times) and they paid for that decision almost every time.  Nick stung them for 5 completions in those six throws for 80 yards and 2 touchdowns.  Blitzing Nicky was just as catastrophic.  He completed 11 of the 12 passes he threw against the Viking blitzes (91.67%) for 157 yards (13.08 per attempted pass).  Eight of the 11 completions went for first downs, including one for a touchdown – yielding a passer rating of 146.53 against the blitz.

But 16 different times, they simply challenged Jeffery, Nelson Agholor and the other Eagle receivers to win against man coverage, with no blitz to dilute the coverage.  Nick was a good, but not remarkable 10 of 15 (66.67%) for 115 yards (7.67 per) with the only sack he endured on the evening.  He threw no touchdown passes against this straight man coverage, and finished with an 89.58 passer rating against this defense.

But even had Minnesota played more man coverages – and even if they had continued successful – winning this game would have been difficult with only 7 points put on the board.

Keenum Fading as Well

If the performance by the one Cinderella quarterback (Foles) was astonishing, the performance of the other (Case Keenum) was less than surprising.  A career backup, Keenum was tossed into the spotlight this season after Minnesota lost their first two quarterbacks to injuries.  Behind a strong running game, an elite defense, and the emergence of rookie receiver Adam Thielen, Keenum had the year of his life.

But the question always lingered.  What would happen if Minnesota ran into an opponent that would force Case to throw them to victory.  That opponent was almost New Orleans in the Divisional Round.  On his way to what would have been an uninspiring second half, Minnesota won the game on a last-second miracle pass from Keenum to Stefan Diggs (made possible by a missed tackle).  He was last seen standing on the sidelines leading his home crowd in the “Skoal” chant.  He was dressed in his pointy-hooded warm-up jacket, looking for all the world like a purple garden gnome.

Sunday in Philadelphia, the miracles ran out.  Forced to throw 48 times, Case finished with 28 completions (58.33%) for just 271 yards (only 9.68 per completion).  He did manage a touchdown pass, but also threw 2 interceptions.  His passer rating on the evening was an exceedingly modest 63.80.

While Foles excelled on third down, Keenum was just 6 for 10 for 57 yards and an interception.  Throw in his 0-for-2 on fourth down, and Keenum’s passer rating on third and fourth down was a miniscule 28.82.

Even worse – if such a thing were possible – was his adventures in the red zone, where Case completed only 2 of 10 passes for 15 yards with one interception – an uncommon 0.00 rating.  He also fumbled away another red zone opportunity on a sack.

Well, there was only one glass slipper, after all.  So it would have to strike midnight for one of them.  It is perhaps unfair, but the truth is that the best season of Case Keenum’s career failed to truly answer the questions about him.

Turning Toward Sunday

As to Foles going forward, the same perception of Keenum applies to him.  If someone (New England) can make Nick win the game with his arm, it would seem to diminish Philadelphia’s chances.

It is extremely hard to pick Philadelphia in the upcoming Super Bowl.  Foles vs Brady seems – on the surface of it – an unconscionable mismatch.  But understand this.  Philadelphia was always more than just their quarterback.  There are a lot of championship pieces on this Philadelphia team.  Not the least of these is the coach.  Philadelphia doesn’t get a lot of press for this, but they are an exceedingly well-coached team.

In New England – perhaps the best-coached team in recent memory – Philadelphia faces an enormous challenge.  But Sunday evening, they will get their chance.  In spite of the odds-makers, in spite of the Patriots’ mystique and overwhelming playoff experience – in spite of the disbelieving press – the Philadelphia Eagles will get their moment on the big stage with a chance to write their own ending to what has been something of a fairy-tale season.

And that, after all, is all that anyone could ask for.

The Patriots are Hard to Kill

It’s always difficult to say how things might have turned out.

As Tom Brady and the Patriots broke the huddle with just 10:49 left in the game – and possibly their season – they faced a third-and-18 back on their own 25-yard line.  They were trailing by ten points.  It’s not fair to say that the entire game rode on this play, but if Jacksonville could stop this one third-and-18 play and run any kind of time off the clock on their next possession, the noose would certainly tighten around the necks of the defending champions.

But, comfortable in the pocket, Brady fired a strike 21-yards down the middle of the field where Danny Amendola gathered it in for the first down.  A few moments later, Brady would throw the touchdown pass to Amendola that would set the come-back in motion.  To no one’s profound surprise, the Patriots would go on to claim a 24-20 victory (gamebook) and propel themselves into Super Bowl LII.

In one sense, it was classic New England.  With them it always seems that when someone needs to make a play, someone does.  The grit level on this team is uncommonly high.  But there is another aspect of this play (and this game) that will (or at least should) haunt the players, coaches and fans of the Jacksonville Jaguars for the rest of the off-season.  On perhaps the game’s pivotal play, Brady looked up to see the Jacksonville defense in cover-4.

The Zone of Woe

In last week’s Divisional Round, Jacksonville had barely survived Pittsburgh.  In spite of a seemingly insurmountable early lead, the Steelers kept crawling back into the game, and they did it by the grace of the Jaguar zone defenses (my review of the proceedings is here).  Repeatedly, linebackers didn’t drop deep enough or wide enough.  Frequently defensive backs abandoned their zone responsibilities to follow a receiver.  And time after time they were burned by it.

In the game’s very first series, analyst Tony Romo pointed out that – while the Jaguars had played zone on the first two snaps – the expectation was that they would play the New England receivers almost exclusively with man coverage throughout the game.

There was every reason for him to have this expectation.  Tony saw the same thing I did.  While they tend to play undisciplined in zone coverage, Jacksonville is among the very best in football at man coverage.  In fact, when Brady faced man coverage last Sunday, he was held to just a 45.45% completion percentage, while averaging 5.36 yards per attempted pass.  His passer rating against the Jacksonville man-coverage schemes was a pitiable 62.31.  When permitted to challenge the Patriots man-on-man, the Jaguar defenders backed up all of their bragging leading up to the game.  For all the chatter from and concerning second-year cornerback Jalen Ramsey, the surprising star of the defense was Aaron Colvin who matched the quickness of Amendola almost every chance he had to cover him.

Mystifyingly, he infrequently got that opportunity.

Of his 42 dropbacks, Brady faced man coverage only 12 times – less than 29% of the time.  All the rest of the game he saw zone coverages – and relished them.  He completed 21 of his 27 passes against the zones he saw (77.78%) for 231 yards – an average of 8.56 yards per attempted pass – with both of his touchdown passes thrown against the Jacksonville zone.  His passer rating of 127.01 was more than double his rating against man coverages.  And for some un-obvious reason, Brady saw zone coverages over 70% of the time.

I’m not sure if Jacksonville believed that zone coverages could limit New England’s big-play opportunities, but nothing could be farther from the truth.  After giving up a bushel-full of big-plays to the Steelers, Jacksonville saw New England complete 5 passes of at least 20 yards, including 2 passes of at least 30 yards against those leaky zones.  On the third-and-18 play mentioned above, neither linebacker (Telvin Smith nor Myles Jack) really dropped at all into their zones.  They mostly stood still, creating at least a ten-yard gap between them and the secondary – more than enough room for Brady and Amendola to maneuver.

While all of the defensive flaws previously mentioned were in evidence, Jacksonville’s most exploited weak link last Sunday was probably cornerback A.J. Bouye.  Excellent in man coverage all year, AJ plays zone as though the concept were to allow the receiver to catch the ball and then make the tackle.  Cognizant of not getting beaten deep, Bouye gives ground, and continues to give ground.  Of Brady’s 21 completions against zone coverages, no fewer than 5 were passes of at least 10 yards to receivers (mostly Brandon Cooks) who simply ran up the left sideline and turned around to catch the pass.  These 5 pass played totaled 69 yards.

Numbers From the Patriot Come Back

Zone or no zone, the game featured the usual Brady heroics.  He was 11 for 16 (68.75%) when trailing in the game by at least 10 points – his completions going for 167 yards – an average of 10.44 yards per attempted pass.  He also threw the first of his touchdown passes in this circumstance for a passer rating of 123.70.  In the fourth quarter alone he was 9 of 14 for 138 yards and both touchdowns.  Eight of his 9 fourth-quarter completions achieved first downs.  His fourth quarter rating was 136.31.  In case you are wondering, that is really good.

Fewer Heroics from Bortles

While Brady’s heroics have come to be expected, the curiosity in this game was the quarterback on the other sideline.  The much-maligned Blake Bortles had led his team into the Championship Game with a strong performance against Pittsburgh.  His passing line in this game would be good, but deceptively so.

His first appearance in a Championship Game finished with Blake completing 23 of 36 passes for 293 yards and a touchdown – good for a 98.5 rating.  But this number comes with a couple of caveats.

First of all, Blake’s great day was pretty much a function of short passes off of play action.  Because the Jaguar running game is so proficient, Bortles repeatedly threw off play action.  He was 10 of 13 (76.92%) throwing off play action for 158 yards (12.15 per attempted pass) and his only touchdown pass – good for a 142.47 rating.  Nine of the ten completions gained first downs.

Additionally, when throwing to receivers who were less than ten yards from the line of scrimmage, Blake completed 18 of 23 (78.26%) for 180 yards and the touchdown – a rating of 113.77%.  When throwing to receivers at or beyond ten yards from the line of scrimmage, Blake was only 5 of 13 (38.46%) for 113 yards.

Additionally, Blake faded as the game went along.  He began his afternoon hitting 15 of his first 17 passes (88.24%!) for 184 yards and a touchdown.  Thereafter, Blake was only 8 for his last 19 (42.11%) for 109 yards.  Blake had some late-game opportunities.  But he either didn’t notice the receiver, or made a poor pass.

Missed Opportunities

It’s half-way through the third, with the Jags leading 17-10.  Bortles is backed up on his own 10-yard line, but rolls to his right and sees Marqise Lee open on a crossing route at the 25 or so, but he heaves the throw into the sideline.

In the waning moments of the third quarter, still 17-10, Jacksonville is first-and-ten on the New England 27.  This time it was Allen Hurns wide open up the right sideline, but Blake didn’t see him and dumped the ball off to Ben Koyack in the flat (who dropped the pass).

An early fourth-quarter pass to Marcedes Lewis might have done some damage, but Bortles couldn’t elevate the pass to give the taller Lewis a chance to out-jump the smaller Patrick Chung.

About half-way through the fourth quarter, still clinging to a 20-17 lead, another pass to Lewis was broken up by Chung.  Had he not made up his mind so soon, he would have seen Keelan Cole wide open over the middle for a damaging first down.  Instead, Jacksonville punted back to New England.

On their next possession he threw just behind Hurns, losing a first down and bringing up third-and-nine.

On their last desperation drive – trailing now 24-20 with 2:12 left – Bortles miss-connected with Fournette up the left sideline.  Even while Lee was uncovering on the right.

Of course, no quarterback – even Brady – hits every pass or notices every open receiver.  This is only to point out that while Brady was orchestrating his come-back, Bortles had opportunities as well.  There were plays there to be made.

Assessing Blake

What does all this mean in regards to Bortles?  There have been questions surrounding him all season (and I am one the ones who have asked them).  How do the Jags evaluate their future at this position?  In short, is Blake a quarterback to build around?

I don’t think we can say yet.  Certainly this game highlighted the gulf between Bortles and Brady.  But, honestly there is a gulf between Brady and everybody.  This was also Blake’s first playoff run.  I don’t yet know what his ceiling is.  But I am left with the distinct impression that the more he played – and especially the more he played in big games – the better and more confident he got. The verdict on Blake is “wait and see.”

Running Against the Patriots

The final great expediency before the Patriots was to stop the Jacksonville running game.  In their surprising run that brought them to within about ten minutes of the Super Bowl, the Jaguars unveiled the most prolific running game in the NFL.  They averaged 141.4 yards per game on the ground, and scored 18 rushing touchdowns – second most in football.  Seven different times during the regular season they rushed for more than 150 yards, including rolling up 231 yards on the Steelers the first time they faced them.  In their two playoff victories they stung Buffalo with 155 yards and Pittsburgh with 164.  Running the ball was clearly their offensive bedrock and their best chance to upset the invincible Patriots.

But, although they only finished twentieth in the NFL in defending the run, the Patriots run defense – as I have noted – has come together at the season’s most critical juncture.  They allowed just 124 rushing yards combined over their last two regular season games and then held Tennessee (coming off a 202-yard rushing performance in their first playoff game) to just 65 yards.

With the early success of the passing attack, Jacksonville opened an early 14-3 lead.  That, with an under-rated defensive effort that kept New England in check, allowed the Jaguars to keep attempting to run against New England.  Thirty-two times (30 times not counting a couple of kneel-downs by Bortles at the end of the first half) Jacksonville challenged the Patriot run defense.  They ran the ball on 19 of their 32 first down plays.

Those 30 legitimate rush attempts netted just 103 yards (3.4 yards per carry).  In the second half – when Jacksonville desperately needed to sustain a little offense – it was even worse.  Fifteen times they ran in the second half for just 41 yards (2.7 per).  After compiling 5 rushing first downs in the first half, they managed just 1 in the second half.  Four rushing plays in the fourth quarter – all by Leonard Fournette – totaled just 3 yards. (Note: one of the keys to this success was keeping Bortles in the pocket.  After Blake had rushed for 88 yards against Buffalo, he had only the two kneel-downs in this one.)

A significant portion of this success was defensive design. During 18 of those 30 running plays, New England stacked 8 or 9 defenders close to the line of scrimmage.  Those running plays earned just 43 yards (2.4 per).  The 12 times Jacksonville ran the ball with 7 defenders or less “in the box” they produced 60 yards (5.0 per).

But as in recent weeks, the bulk of this success was the disciplined play of an unheralded collection of defenders who have made a habit of imposing their will on some of the game’s better running games.  Again, Malcolm Brown, Trey Flowers and Patrick Chung provided outstanding run defense.  Ricky Jean-Francois made more plays than one might suspect.

But standing out to me in this game was a lightly-regarded six-year pro and former seventh-round draft pick playing his first season in New England and his first as a starter.  As the game went on, Lawrence Guy began to own it.

Only credited with 3 official tackles against the run, Guy repeatedly held his ground against double-team blocks to stack up the line of scrimmage.  Once in the second quarter he pushed the double-team formed against him back into the backfield to disrupt the play.  On one third quarter run, he tossed center Brandon Linder aside like so much laundry to make the tackle.  As near as I could tell, Lawrence had himself the game of his life in the most important game of his career (so far).

The significance of this development cannot be overstated.  With Carson Wentz unavailable for Philadelphia, the Eagles will be faced with the same expediency of running the ball that both the Titans and Jaguars had.  Unless they can manage this suddenly elite defensive front any better that Tennessee or Jacksonville, they will almost certainly suffer their same fate.

Jacksonville Somehow Survives the Steelers

At the end of Wildcard Weekend, four teams advanced to the Divisional Round.  Of the four, the Jacksonville Jaguars were clearly the least impressive, squeaking by a marginal Buffalo team by a 10-3 score.  One week later, with the dust settled from the Divisional Round, there is only one of the four Wildcard winners that will be advancing to the Championship Game – those same Jacksonville Jaguars on the heels of an improbable 45-42 victory over the Pittsburgh Steelers (gamebook).

The game evolved into a surprising shootout – given that these were two of the better defensive teams in the league.  The Jaguars finished the regular season ranked second in total defense, while the Steelers were seventh.  The teams combined to go 15 for 30 on third down (including 10 of 18 in the second half) and 5 for 7 on fourth down – including 4 fourth-down touchdowns.  They combined to score touchdowns on all 8 trips into the red zone and all five combined goal-to-go situations.

But the combined points and numbers fail to give a sense of the shape of the game, which saw Pittsburgh fall behind 21-0 early in the second period, and found them still trailing 28-7 until there were only 25 seconds left in the first half.  Like New Orleans later on Sunday afternoon, the Steelers almost authored an epic comeback against the usually elite Jacksonville defense.

Pittsburgh’s Downfall

Ultimately, the Steelers couldn’t overcome their own mistakes and bad decisions.  Nor could they contend with Jacksonville’s running game.  Regarding the latter, Jacksonville finished the first half with 116 rushing yards.  By game’s end, the Jaguars had dialed up 35 running plays that accounted for 164 yards (a 4.7 average) and 4 rushing touchdowns.  The Steeler defense had only allowed 14 rushing touchdowns through the entire regular season.

But even in the face of the almost always fatal inability to stop the run, the Steelers will spend the offseason haunted by a few mistakes and curious decisions.

Jacksonville scored one touchdown on a recovered fumble, and scored another after an interception left them on the Steeler 18.  They had another short field with 2:18 left in the fourth quarter, when Pittsburgh inexplicably opted to try an onside kick, in spite of the fact that they still held two timeouts and the two-minute warning.  The failed attempt set Jacksonville up on the Steeler 36, where 33 seconds later they kicked the field goal that provided the final margin of victory.

Fourth-Down Decisions

There were also a couple of fourth-down decisions that stung.  It’s hard to criticize this aspect of the game, since the Steelers were 4 of 6 on fourth down, including three touchdown passes.  But all of their fourth-down conversions were from four yards or more – including conversions of fourth-and-10 and fourth-and-11.  Their only failures on fourth down were their two fourth-and-1 opportunities.

There is 1:12 left in the first quarter, and Pittsburgh is already down 14-0.  They are in field goal range at the Jacksonville 21 (and I here remind you that they eventually lost by just three points).  It is, as I said, fourth-and-about a half-yard.  Quarterback Ben Roethlisberger tossed the ball to running back Le’Veon Bell, trying to get around the corner.  Half the Jacksonville defense met him in the backfield and dropped him for a 4-yard loss.

Then came what was – in retrospect – the turning point of the game.

It’s the beginning of the fourth quarter, Jacksonville is punting and clinging to a 28-21 lead.  But the punt is partially blocked by Robert Golden, and Pittsburgh sets up just 48 yards away from a tie ballgame.

Three running plays to Bell leave the Steelers a half-yard short.  The Steelers dial up a play-action pass that grazes off the fingertips of JuJu Smith-Schuster.  Five plays later, Jacksonville back Leonard Fournette (who finished the game with 109 rushing yards) pounded in his third rushing touchdown of the game, and the Steeler deficit was back to 14 points.

In both of the fourth-and-short instances, a quarterback sneak might have been a better call.  If Ben had managed that half-yard in just one of those two moments, Pittsburgh is likely to have at least tied the score and taken the game to overtime – if not won the game outright.

Concerns in Jacksonville

Jacksonville won, but not without a disturbing scare.  Remembering that Jacksonville finished the season number one against the pass, second (to Pittsburgh) in quarterback sacks, and first in passer rating (all quarterbacks this season averaged just a 68.5 rating against the Jaguar defense), it has to be at least a little concerning to the Jacksonville coaches and fans that – even knowing Pittsburgh would be forced to rely on the pass to get back into the game – they were still unable to slow them down.

Ben threw for 311 yards and three touchdowns after the intermission.  After sustaining a 104.9 passer rating in the first half, Roethlisberger upped that to 113.7 over the last two quarters.  For the game, Ben threw for 469 yards, establishing a 110.5 passer rating along the way.  A Jaguar pass defense that had only allowed 17 touchdown passes during the regular season, saw Roethlisberger toss 5 against them last Sunday (a fitting companion piece to the regular season game between these two teams when Roethlisberger was intercepted 5 times).

Not Quite in the Zone

Even more concerning, many of those yards were much too easy.  During the course of the game, Jacksonville played more than twice as much zone coverage as they did man coverage.  They didn’t play it well.  In particular, linebackers Myles Jack and Telvin Smith (who provided the two turnovers in the first half) are decidedly stationary in zone coverage.  They don’t really drop deep, and they are hesitant to cover receivers in the flat.  I counted no fewer than five passes from Roethlisberger to undefended receivers in the flat that gained at least 9 yards.  These five plays together accounted for 72 easy yards.

But this wasn’t all the trouble.  As the Jaguars pushed their lead to 21 points, they turned to the zone defenses as a way to inhibit the big passing play – thinking they could keep Pittsburgh from getting back in the game that way.  What they got was exactly what they were trying to prevent.  All three of Pittsburgh’s longest passing plays, and four of the six passing plays of 20-or-more yards came against the Jacksonville zones.  The two long passes to Martavis Bryant are illustrative.

There are 32 seconds left in the half.  Pittsburgh has fourth-and-11 at the Jacksonville 36.  The Jaguars are in quarters coverage.  The play call was designed to put safety Barry Church in a bind.  Barry had responsibility for the deep-middle slice of the field between Jalen Ramsey (who had the deep sideline to the offensive right) and Tashaun Gipson (who had deep-middle responsibility to the offensive left).

The Steelers sent two vertical routes into Church’s zone – with Antonio Brown lining up right and running the skinny post, and Bryant lining up left and running a deep cross into that same general area.  Whichever receiver that Church would choose, Roethlisberger would throw to the other.

Church made it easy on Ben.  He defended neither.  Church was another of the Jacksonville defenders that seemed notably uncomfortable in zone coverage.  For whatever reason, Barry allowed both receivers to streak past him, with Roethlisberger putting the ball perfectly in Bryant’s hands.

Now there are 58 seconds left in the game.  Bryant and Smith-Schuster are lined up wide right.  Jacksonville is still in quarters coverage, holding a ten-point lead as Pittsburgh faces a first-and-10 on the Jacksonville 47.  Bryant and Smith-Schuster both head up the field, but neither Myles Jack nor Aaron Colvin deepen their drop.  Both are distracted by Vance McDonald’s short turn-around route.  Juju’s deep route occupied Jarrod Wilson (playing the same coverage that Church played in the first half) and lifted him out of the play, opening the middle for Bryant – who caught the ball with plenty of room to run.  Martavis took the ball to the five-yard line for a 42-yard gain.

Analysis

A couple of important take-aways.

First, of course, is that Jacksonville isn’t nearly as secure in zone defense as they are when playing man.  The answer here isn’t as simple as deciding to play exclusively man coverages, as Jacksonville had some leaks there as well.  The defensive backs mostly did very well in man.  Ramsey was more than solid against Brown (most of Antonio’s 132 yards and both of his touchdowns came against zone coverages).

As this translates specifically to the upcoming Championship Game, Jalen has publicly challenged Patriot tight end Rob Gronkowski, and the other corner A.J. Bouye is quick enough to at least contend with Danny Amendola.  Both of these are talented defenders.  I expect they will both compete well with, but not dominate those New England receivers.

But the weapons in New England run very deep.  I don’t necessarily see any of the Jaguar linebackers who can defend Patriot running backs Dion Lewis or James White – both superior receivers.  In one of the few instances where Jacksonville was in man coverage, Le’Veon Bell toasted Telvin Smith for a 19-yard touchdown.  Expect to see more of that if Jacksonville plays more man coverage against New England.

The other take-away from this is more telling.  Both of the long passes to Bryant were plays that took some time to develop – time opposing quarterbacks don’t usually get against Jacksonville.  The Jaguar secondary has some good players, but also has a few that can be exploited.  Usually they are protected behind an overwhelming pass rush.

Last Sunday, that pass rush mostly disappeared, leaving the secondary fairly exposed – against both man and zone.  A defense that sacks the quarterback on 9.8% of his drop-backs saw Roethlisberger drop back 60 times last week while suffering just 2 sacks.  The week before, they managed only 2 sacks against Buffalo in 42 drop-backs.  New England’s offensive line is expert at pass blocking, so it can’t be automatically assumed that the rush will suddenly re-appear tomorrow.

Jaguars To-Do List

Now, they get New England.  As the report out of Patriot practice is that Tom Brady’s thumb is responding well, this game shapes up as a matter of two imperatives for the Jaguars.

First, the pass rush has to re-emerge.  The only defense against Brady is pressure – specifically pressure up the middle.  With no more pressure than they brought last Sunday, expect their pass defense to be sliced and diced again.

Second, they must run the ball.  The difference between the 10-point effort against Buffalo and the 45-point output against Pittsburgh was mostly the ability of Jacksonville to run the ball (with someone other than their quarterback).  The Jaguar’s running game is one of the best in football (actually ranking first), but as I pointed out yesterday, running the ball against New England is no simple task.

Presuming that Brady will be Brady tomorrow, the challenge facing Jacksonville is sizeable.

Patriots Advance — Again

With Jacksonville’s victory last Sunday, the NFL’s final four this year include three Cinderella teams.  The Jaguars were 3-13 last year – their sixth consecutive losing season.  This team hadn’t made the playoffs since 2007 and has never played in a Super Bowl.

The two teams that will battle it out for the NFC crown have also never won Super Bowls, although both the Minnesota Vikings and the Philadelphia Eagles have at least made it that far (the Vikings are 0-4 in the big game, the Eagles 0-2).  Those two teams have made it to the verge of the Super Bowl behind backup quarterbacks who have been lightly regarded and largely given up on.

The fourth team is the shark in the tank.  While this season of upheaval has seen most of the old guard falling by the wayside, even this monumental shift in the balance of power can’t unseat the New England Patriots.  Sunday, they will play in their seventh consecutive conference championship game.

Same Old Patriots?

The 2017-18 version of the Patriots are an intriguing blend of the expected and the mostly un-suspected.

On the expected side is quarterback Tom Brady, tight end Rob Gronkowski and a prolific offense.  In last Saturday’s 35-14 elimination of Tennessee (gamebook), the Titans thought to take the big play out of the Patriot arsenal and force them to drive the length of the field five yards at a time.  To a degree, they succeeded.  Of New England’s 80 offensive plays, only four gained 20 or more yards – and only one of those gained more than thirty.

The fly in the ointment, of course, is that the Patriots exhibited no trouble at all grinding up and down the field.  New England put together two drives that lasted more than five minutes – both consisting of 15 or more plays. Four times they scored touchdowns on drives that exceeded 50 yards (two of those traveling 90 yards or more).  They converted 6 of 9 third downs in the first half, and followed that by converting 5 of 8 in the second half.  That first half featured Brady throwing 7 times to the exceedingly quick Danny Amendola.  Danny caught all 7 passes for 62 yards – none of them longer than 15 yards.

New England scored touchdowns in all five red zone possessions.

Relentless, precise, methodical – everyone who faces the Patriots understands that they will have to find some way of coping with this elite offense.

Don’t Overlook the New England Defense

Less recognized are the week-in, week-out contributions of the Patriot defensive unit.  As opposed to the offense, there are no splash players here.  No one from the Patriot defense was named to the Pro Bowl – even as replacements for injured players (by comparison, three members of the offense and one from the Patriot special teams were named).  But as the 2017 season reaches its critical juncture, the Patriot defense is playing as well as any unit still playing – especially against the run.

In one of the most impressive displays of Wildcard weekend, The Tennessee Titans brutalized the Kansas City Chiefs with their running game (that game is discussed in some detail here).  With battering ram running back Derrick Henry pounding the center of the KC defense and quarterback Marcus Mariota sprinting around the ends, Tennessee amassed 202 rushing yards – 156 of them from Henry.

This ground dominance ended abruptly in New England.  Henry finished the game with 28 yards on 12 carries (a 2.3 average) with no run exceeding four yards.  Tennessee finished with just 65 rushing yards for the evening.

Brown and Flowers

At the center of the impenetrable defense was nose tackle Malcom Brown.  Listed at 6-2 and 319 pounds (modest measurements by NFL standards), Brown isn’t an imposing figure in the Vince Wilfork mold.  But the Patriots’ first-round pick in the 2015 draft has developed into an excellent technician in the middle.  All evening, he repeatedly got under the pads of Tennessee center Ben Jones (who was one of the heroes against KC).  Henry never had the middle of the field open for him as Jones was constantly being pushed back in his face.  Similarly, Trey Flowers – a rangy presence at defensive tackle/end – kept the Tennessee linemen that he faced in place, collapsing all of the running lanes.

Neither Brown nor Flowers are marquee names.  Flowers led the team with a modest total of 6.5 sacks.  But as the pieces have come together for the Patriots as they come down the stretch, Brown, Flowers and the rest of the role players in Bill Belichik’s (and Matt Patricia’s) defense commit to the inglorious work of taking on blocks, closing running lanes, and making sure tackles.

They were great.  But if I were to pick two running plays to illustrate what has made this New England run defense so tough, it would be the two times that Henry tried to get around the end.

Big Stops

There is 4:31 left in the first quarter, with the game still scoreless.  Tennessee faces first-and-ten on New England’s 45-yard line.  Mariota tosses to Henry, trying to race around left end.

Charged with sealing the edge is tight end Delanie Walker, but Flowers is having none of it.  He rides Walker right down the line, stringing out the sweep.  Wide receivers Eric Decker and Corey Davis were charged with clearing out defensive backs Devin McCourty and Malcolm Butler. Both failed, leaving both defensive backs free to meet Henry as he tried to turn the corner.  But most impressive on this play was safety/linebacker Patrick Chung.

The play called for much decorated tackle Taylor Lewan to peel away from the formation and head downfield to throw a key block against a smaller defensive back.  Chung never gave him the chance.

Listed at just 5-11 and 207 pounds, Chung would seem to be the kind of smaller back that Lewan would gobble up.  But Chung diagnosed the intent of the play immediately and flew into Lewan at top speed before he could get untracked, further stripping away Henry’s blocking on the play.   Derrick managed to pick-up three yards before McCourty and Butler halted his progress.

Chung Strikes Again

Now there is only 25 seconds left in the first half.  By this time the Patriots had opened up a 21-7 lead. The Titans sat on the Patriot 46-yard line, but faced a fourth-and-one.  Their decision to go for it would prove to be one of the turning points of the game.

Again Derrick Henry would test the left edge.  This time Decker lined up across from defensive end Kyle Van Noy, but lost that confrontation immediately.  At the snap, Van Noy pushed through Decker deep into the Titans’ backfield, allowing first Butler and finally Stephon Gilmore un-abated access to the ball carrier.  Tight end Jonnu Smith lined up just behind the tackle on that side, positioned where they thought he could double-team Van Noy.  But Kyle was through Decker before Jonnu could arrive.

But the compelling thing about this play was that it wasn’t designed to go around the end.

Supposing that Decker and Smith could push Van Noy wide, and that tight end Luke Stocker could seal Flowers inside, the Titans thought they could open a crease just off tackle.  Figuring that a defensive back would flow down to fill the gap, Tennessee pulled guard Josh Kline and sent him through the hole first to clean it out.  But Kline met with the same fate that Lewan had a quarter earlier.

Flying in at top speed, Patrick Chung met Kline in the hole and closed it immediately, leaving Henry with no escape route.  Derrick and the Titans lost five yards on the play.

Is Anyone Taking Notice?

Taking 300-pound linemen head on isn’t usually in the job description of 200-pound defensive backs.  Rare is the defensive back who will even try to take on a lineman.  Mostly, when they find themselves isolated against a lineman, you will see the defensive back try to find some way to slip around them.  Chung is a rare article.  He’s a defensive back who takes on linemen – and wins.

From a statistical standpoint, Chung probably ranks in the lowest tier of defensive backs.  He intercepted just one pass during the season, and never recorded a sack.  But Chung, I think, has quietly become the soul of this defense.  To a not-inconsiderable degree, the rest of the Patriot defense feeds off his fearlessness.  Chung, Brown and Flowers are the leaders of a workman-like defense – a defense that adheres to Belichick’s motto of “do your job” even when the job is less than glamourous.  Running the ball consistently against this defense will be a challenge.

Why Run Defense Matters

And this is a more significant development than many fans realize.  All of the other teams left standing are heavily run-dependent on offense.  In Blake Bortles, Nick Foles and Case Keenum, none of the other teams has a quarterback they can send out there with the mandate to win the game.  If Jacksonville finishes with 65 rushing yards on Sunday, they will lose the game.  The emergence of the Patriot run defense is a huge deal, indeed.

The other pressure weighing on opposing running games is the New England offense.  Trailing 21-7 at the half, the Titans closed down their running game.  Henry took one handoff (a 4-yard dive up the middle) after halftime.  Toss in a scramble from Mariota, and the Tennessee running game accounted for 10 second half yards on two attempts.  There is a significant onus on Jacksonville’s defense to keep the score close enough Sunday for the Jaguars to keep running the ball.

That matchup – for the right to represent the AFC in the Super Bowl – has suddenly gained several new layers of intrigue as injuries to Tom Brady’s wrist and thumb have been in all the headlines.  If the Patriots are forced to compete without Brady – or perhaps with a compromised Brady – it will significantly improve Jacksonville’s chances.

And ratchet up the pressure on the New England defense.