Tyrod’s Last Interception

As the game got progressively farther and farther out of reach, the New Orleans defense dropped into deeper and softer zone coverages.  With 8:41 remaining in the third period, already leading 24-3, and with Buffalo facing a third-and-12 from their own 23, the Saints rushed only three while the other eight members of the defensive unit started backpedaling at the snap.  Among those dropping into coverage was 299 pound (listed) defensive tackle Sheldon Rankins – who took one step to rush the passer, and then dropped back.

Deep into the zone, wide receivers Kelvin Benjamin (lined up wide left) and Deonte Thompson (lined up wide right) began running their deep crossing routes.  In the slot to the right, Jordan Matthews curled wide open into the right flat – but on third-and-12 a flat pass would be fairly inconsequential.

Also aligned right was tight end Charles Clay.  As he started to run his underneath route, he noticed Rankins standing there, and adjusted his route away from him and toward the right sideline.  Quarterback Tyrod Taylor noticed the same thing and tossed the ball toward Clay running away from Rankins.  Matthews was just as wide open, but the decision to throw the ball to Clay was sound.  It was a shorter throw and Charles was running away from a slower defender.  With a head of steam, Clay had the better chance to convert the third down.

And none of that is changed by the fact that Sheldon ended up with the ball in his hands, chugging towards the Buffalo goal line (right tackle Jordan Mills finally shoved him out of bounds at the 3-yard line).

The Interception and its Aftermath

The throw wasn’t terrible.  It could have been caught.  Clay could certainly have helped his quarterback by pulling it in.  At the same time, it wasn’t a really good throw.  It was behind him enough that it him in the shoulder.  From there, it popped into the air and dropped into Rankins hands.  Even if Clay had caught the ball (because Taylor couldn’t properly execute the pass) he still wouldn’t have achieved the first down because the throw pulled him back into the defender.

The Saints would make short work of the opportunity – they scored on the very next play – and continued on to a 47-10 victory (gamebook).  Taylor would play two more series (going 1 for 3 for 8 yards) before relinquishing the reins to Nathan Peterman – who played almost the entire fourth quarter.

That would prove to be a warm-up, as a few days later he was granted this Sunday’s start in Los Angeles against the Chargers.  It will be a career first for the rookie fifth-rounder out of Pittsburgh.

Assessing Tyrod Taylor

All things considered, it was an odd end (or perhaps temporary interruption) in the story of the converted running back/wide receiver.  Always an unorthodox quarterback – and one I always had my doubts about – Taylor goes to the bench having thrown just 3 interceptions and holding a 91.4 passer rating this year and a 92.1 rating for his 52-game career (including 38 starts).

On the other hand, his team is now 19-18 with him as the starter.

In this particular game, Taylor finished 9 of 18 for just 56 yards, with no touchdowns and the interception.  His longest completion of the night was for 9 yards.  His longest run was for 13 yards, as he almost had more running yards (27) than passing yards.

While the numbers were pretty atrocious, it should also be pointed out that his opportunities were fairly limited.  His receivers were rarely able to find the seams of the zones, and had great difficulty shaking man coverage in those moments – mostly early – when New Orleans mixed in some man coverage.

Certainly if it had been Tom Brady or Aaron Rodgers or one of the elite quarterbacks, he would have challenged the zones.  He would have zipped passes into the tight windows.  But not everyone is a Brady or a Rodgers.  I believe that quite a few NFL quarterbacks would have struggled in that situation last Sunday.

Taylor was failed by the play-calling as well.  On their second offensive snap. Buffalo went play-action, drawing the New Orleans linebackers back toward the line and opening a significant gap in the zone.  Tyrod hit Benjamin on the slant for 9 yards.  For whatever reason, they never went back to play action again, surrendering one of their most effective tools against the Saints’ zone defenses.

There was certainly enough blame to go around.

Missed Opportunities

But, of course, Tyrod could have done better.  The few chances he had he mostly missed, with his best opportunities coming in Buffalo’s opening drive.

Putting together their only sustained drive of the game, the Bills reached the New Orleans 18-yard line with 11:12 to go in the still-scoreless first quarter.  They faced second-and-9.  Getting man coverage, Benjamin ran up the right sideline.  But cornerback Ken Crawley was with him all the way.  Moreover, Benjamin’s route  drew the attention of free-safety Marcus Williams – who was also waiting for the throw in the corner of the end-zone (which sailed over everyone’s head).

Meanwhile, to the left side of the formation, tight end Clay had beaten safety Vonn Bell to the inside, and, with Williams vacating the deep middle, Clay would have had an easy touchdown.  But Taylor – who had been watching Clay’s route develop – gave up on him and turned his attention to Benjamin just at the point where Clay left Bell behind.

It would be Tyrod’s best chance to put Buffalo in the end zone all day.

On third down, New Orleans played zone.  Benjamin – again lined up to Taylor’s right – sat down in front of Crawley, as open as he would be all day.  This potential first down fizzled as Taylor’s pass was well behind Kelvin.  Buffalo settled for a field goal.  They wouldn’t score again until their last drive of the game, when Peterman threw a touchdown pass to Nick O’Leary with 1:54 left in the game.

Why Buffalo is Changing Gears

In between, it was all the things that have concerned me about Tyrod.  He didn’t anticipate receivers as they were about to break open.  He didn’t throw with great accuracy.  He didn’t challenge the zone coverages.  And – especially later in the game – he gave up on plays too early.  By the third quarter, he was ready to run at the first glimpse of daylight.

But more than all of this – and what I think is the predominant reason why coach Sean McDermott is moving away from Taylor – is the feeling that once this offense falls behind it cannot come back.  Under Taylor, the Buffalo offense has been dynamic from time to time, as long as they can keep running the ball and Taylor can look for big play opportunities.  But once they fall behind, the passing game by itself isn’t usually explosive enough to bring the Bills back into the game.

So, Nathan Peterman will get the next start.  In his one quarter of work, Peterman completed almost as many passes and for more yards than Tyrod did in three quarters.  Nathan finished 7 of 10 for 79 yards and the touchdown.  Encouraging, but to be taken with a grain of salt.  Once the Saints’ lead pushed toward the 40-point mark, much of the intensity of the game diminished.

It could be argued that former coach Rex Ryan’s commitment to Taylor cost him his job.  McDermott seems unwilling to let that happen to him.

Where This Does to the AFC Playoff Picture

The loss, of course, doesn’t help Buffalo’s playoff chances.  They do still currently have a hold on that last playoff spot, but it looks increasingly like they will lose it.  Once 5-2 and riding a dangerous running game and an opportunistic defense, Buffalo has yielded 81 points in losing their last two games.  The team that allowed only 561 rushing yards through their first seven games (80.1 per) has been brutalized for 492 in the last two games alone.  With a rookie quarterback at the helm, and with Kansas City and New England (twice) looming on their schedule, it becomes increasingly difficult to see Buffalo in the playoffs.

It also becomes increasingly difficult to see them knocking off New England on Christmas Eve.  When I was contemplating playoff positioning here, I felt that this was one surprise game the Bills might pull off.  It was a loss that might have pushed the Patriots into the fourth playoff spot.  Without that loss, the top of the AFC becomes a real scrum.  If this comes down to strength of victory, the Patriots could ease past Jacksonville for the third seed.

Fear New Orleans

Meanwhile, after opening up a 17-3 halftime lead, New Orleans took the air out of the ball.  Drew Brees threw just 5 times in the second half.  The Saints rolled for 214 rushing yards in the second half alone.  They ran 33 times and controlled the clock for 24:08 of the last 30 minutes.  The week before against Tampa Bay the Saints controlled the ball for 17:08 after intermission, running 20 times for 112 yards.  So, in the second halves of their last two games, New Orleans has piled up 326 rushing yards on 53 rushing attempts.  Brees has thrown a total of 13 passes in the second halves of those games.

Over their last two games, teams have exploited the relative “lightness” of the middle of Buffalo’s defensive line.  Built for speed, Buffalo has no defensive ends listed as heavier than Shaq Lawson’s 269 pounds.  Their interior line had only two listed at 300 pounds or heavier.

And it was here – the middle of Buffalo’s defensive front – that New Orleans concentrated its attack.  Relentlessly, New Orleans’ guards Larry Warford (listed at 332) and Andrus Peat (listed at 312) pushed Buffalo’s smaller interior linemen out of the way in an offensive game plan that was as subtle as a sawed-off shotgun.  Among the awards that the NFL doesn’t give out is offensive lineman of the week.  If they did, Saint center Max Unger might be a worthy candidate.

Against New Orleans, Buffalo began with Cedric Thornton lined up over center.  At 299 pounds (listed) Thornton wouldn’t seem to be a lightweight – although at 6-6, Cedric might seem to be a better fit on the outside.  But neither Thornton nor the since-released Jerel Worthy were a match at all for Unger.  Max dominated both to an extent rarely seen in the NFL.

Still a dangerous passing team with one of the league’s elite quarterbacks, New Orleans now boasts the league’s third best running game (averaging 142.2 yards per game).  They also feature the league’s eighth-ranked defense (number six against the run and number seven against the pass).

There are few weaknesses to find here.  The NFL season is long, and much can and will change between now and January.  But this is a team to be feared.

How the Cowboys Can Win Without Zeke

Last Sunday’s marquee matchup brought the Kansas City Chiefs into Dallas to play the Cowboys in what will probably be star running back Ezekiel Elliott’s last football game for a while.

With two prolific offenses going against two spotty defenses, this was expected to be something of a shootout – and, for an 11 minute 44 second window that bridged the second and third quarters – it was.  Beginning with 13 seconds left in the first half, the two teams scored touchdowns on four consecutive possessions.  The most dramatic of these coming on the very last play of the first half.

With two seconds left and Kansas City on their own 44-yard line, Dallas dropped almost its entire defense into the end zone – expecting the Hail Mary.  What they got instead was a short toss over the middle to Tyreek Hill.  Tight ends Travis Kelce and Demetrius Harris had already released into the pattern and were there to provide a convoy as Hill zig-zagged the final few yards for the touchdown.

But, beyond this localized offensive explosion, the rest of the game belonged to the defenses – especially the Dallas defense – as they controlled the Chiefs throughout their 28-17 victory (gamebook).

The Big D is for Defense

Kansas City entered the game ranked sixth in the NFL in passing yards.  They went home with a modest 255.  They entered the game ranked third in total offense, but gained just 323 yards.  Through eight games, the Chiefs had averaged 4.9 yards per rushing play – the third best average in the league.  Against Dallas, they averaged just 3.6.  With 236 points scored already, KC was the league’s third-highest scoring team.  The Cowboys held them to 17 points.

Kansas City’s only two touchdowns came on the last play of the first half and the first drive of the second half.  Of their 323 yards, 125 came on the 11 plays of those two possessions (just a tick under 40%).  Their other 44 offensive plays contributed just 198 total yards (only 4.5 per play).

With Elliott’s suspension about to kick in, there is concern about whether Dallas will be able to hold on to that last playoff spot.  Clearly, no team can lose a player like Zeke and not sag at least a little bit.  But there are a lot of other pieces on this Cowboy team.  They still have one of the best offensive lines in the game, and they have talented running backs to run behind that line.  In 24 carries so far this season, Alfred Morris and Rod Smith have combined for 185 rushing yards.  They still have Dak Prescott.  And they have a defense that is turning the corner.

Dallas entered the bye week having allowed 30 or more points in 3 of their last 4 games.  Through the season’s first five games, they were allowing 26.4 points and 339.8 yards per game – 118 of them rushing yards.  In the three games since their bye, the Cowboys are surrendering just 15.3 points on 299.3 total yards per game – 73.3 of them rushing yards.

It’s not at all inconceivable that the other pieces of the Cowboy’s operation will keep the team in contention until Elliott makes his way back – which would be for the final two games of the regular season against Seattle and Philadelphia.

Things Not Too OK in KC

It is, in fact, possible that Kansas City – though not threatened with the loss of their star running back – should be more concerned than Dallas.  With a 6-3 record, a two-game lead in the division, and a softening schedule ahead, the Chiefs will have only themselves to blame if they don’t make the playoffs.  But the recent trend is concerning. Their 5-0 start did include victories over New England and Philadelphia in the season’s first two weeks, before the Patriots and Eagles started figuring things out.  Their recent steak of three losses in four games includes losses to contending teams in Pittsburgh and now Dallas.  After rushing for at least 112 yards in each of their first five games, KC has managed no more than 94 in any of the last four.  Running back Kareem Hunt still leads the NFL with 800 rushing yards, but most of that yardage was amassed during the 5-0 start.  He gained just 37 yards against Dallas, and over the last four games has totaled 191 yards on 58 carries (3.3 per).

As the season churns through its middle weeks, it’s becoming increasingly clear that what made Kansas City special early in the year was the dynamic running game.  Their defense never has been elite, and while the passing game has still been effective it hasn’t been able to atone for the missing running game.

If the Chiefs want to entertain thoughts of playing deep into January, they will need to re-discover that running attack.

Jacksonville Provides the Model

Some 994 miles to the east of Dallas, the rising Jacksonville Jaguars provided something of a model for how the Cowboys might go about things for the next few weeks.

Faced with playing without their dynamic running back Leonard Fournette (also suspended), the Jags got 110 rushing yards from Leonard’s two backups Chris Ivory and T.J. Yeldon on their way to 148 rushing yards on the day.  They also notably expanded the role of quarterback Blake Bortles.

Blake, who had never thrown more than 31 passes this season in a Jacksonville win, threw 27 times in the first half alone – on his way to a season-high 38 pass attempts.  It was still a very safe passing attack.  Blake made very sure the throw was there before delivering the ball.  He wasn’t dazzling by any means.  But with 24 completions for 259 yards and a touchdown, he was effective as he commanded an offense that converted on 12 of 18 third downs, and ran the clock for 40:14.

And then there was the defense.

Moving up to number 3 overall and staying the league’s top rated defense against the run, the Jaguar defense dominated in a 23-7 victory (gamebook).  Having allowed, now, just 117 points, they also remain the league’s toughest team to score against.

They were especially dominant in the second half.

During the Bengals first series of the third quarter, running back Joe Mixon squeezed through the middle for a six-yard gain.  On the last play of that quarter, Mixon would gain six more yards up the middle.  Cincinnati’s other 5 running plays in the half lost a total of 7 yards.

The Bengals finished the last 30 minutes with 31 yards and just 3 first downs.  They averaged 1.6 yards per offensive play.

The more they do this, the more this Jacksonville team begins to believe in itself.  They remain one of the more compelling teams at the mid-way point of the season.

Incidentally, the last time that Jacksonville and Cincinnati played was Week Nine of the 2014 season.  The Jags were beaten that day 33-23 as Jeremy Hill ran for 154 yards and 2 touchdowns.  Jacksonville was on its way to a 3-13 season, while the Bengals (who have fallen to 3-5 this season) were then on their way to a 10-5-1 record and a playoff berth.  Life in the NFL can certainly change quickly.

Throw-Back Saints Keep Throwing

Last week, I talked about the new vertical NFL.  This week, though, is throw-back week as we will spend a few minutes with the New Orleans Saints during their convincing 30-10 triumph over the Tampa Bay Buccaneers (gamebook).

Nine weeks into the NFL season, Drew Brees sits (statistically) among the elite quarterbacks of the league.  He currently ranks first in completion percentage (71.6), third in passes completed (197) and passer rating (105.0), and fifth in passing yards (2214) and yards per pass attempt (8.05).  Yet, he is doing all of this without an “elite” receiver.  In Ted Ginn, Drew does have a receiver who can provide a vertical threat – but not in the way that the elite guys like Julio Jones and Antonio Brown can provide it.  Michael Thomas is probably underrated in the NFL world at large.  He has caught 50 passes already this season.  But nobody speaks of either of these receivers in reverential tones.

In an increasingly vertical NFL, Brees and the Saints are still among the very best at the horizontal passing game.

Tough Days in Tampa Bay

Opposing them last Sunday – perhaps better said – offered up to the Saints last Sunday were the tilting Buccaneers.  Their 2-1 start now just a distant memory, the Bucs walked the plank for the fifth consecutive time Sunday.  Injuries, youth and the frustration of their season slipping away from them have all taken their toll.  In addition to being outgained 217-88 in the first half, allowing the Saints to control the clock for 17:08 of the second half, watching their three top pass catchers (Mike Evans, Cameron Brate and DeSean Jackson) held without a catch in the second half, and seeing top running back Doug Martin held to 7 yards on 8 carries for the game; Tampa Bay also saw their starting quarterback Jameis Winston leave at the half with a re-injury to his shoulder, saw a blocked punt turn into a touchdown, and watched Evans ignite and altercation when he came off the sideline to blindside Marshon Lattimore.

In short, the wheels are starting to come off just a little in Tampa Bay.

In their current condition, these Bucs were no match for the peaking Saints.  In the vertical NFL discussion, I pointed out that the driver for all of this was the shutdown corner.  Tampa Bay is still looking for that guy.  Now minus veteran cornerback Brent Grimes, they opposed New Orleans Sunday with four rookies or first-year players and one second year player seeing significant playing time in the Tampa Bay back seven. With so much youth, the Bucs were limited to simple coverages – two deep zones and safe man coverages, with cornerbacks lining up eight yards off of the receivers and back-peddling at the snap.

Saints Taking Advantage

With volumes of underneath room, Brees and the Saints took everything the Bucs gave them.  And took and took and took.  Drew threw the ball over 20 yards only three times all day – completing just one.  He also threw (and completed) one 19 yard route and one 11-yard route.  Everything else was thrown within ten yards of the line of scrimmage.

Twenty-two times Brees threw short routes – including 6 screen passes.  He completed 19 of these throws for a total of 190 yards – 148 of those yards coming after the catch.  These include 14 passes thrown within five yards of the line of scrimmage.  Thirteen of the fourteen were completed for 111 yards – 113 of the 111 yards coming after the catch.  For the game, 155 of Brees’ 263 passing yards came after the catch.

Drew mostly picked on Grimes’ replacement.  First year player Ryan Smith, making his third career start at right corner, gave plenty of room and got plenty of attention.  Of Drew’s 29 passes, 16 went to the offensive left side.  Brees was 12 of 16 for 145 yards throwing to his left – even though Robert McClain, on the other side, was giving just as much room.

The struggling secondary was further exposed by a mostly non-existent pass rush.  Brees was sacked once and hit – I think – only one other time on a blitz.  Tampa Bay sits last in the NFL with only 8 quarterback sacks this season.

Defining Moments

Perhaps the day on defense could be summed up by the afternoon of rookie safety Justin Evans.  Making just his fourth career start, Justin was at the focal point of the two worst moments of Tampa Bay’s day.

There was only 1:06 left in the second quarter.  New Orleans, ahead only 9-3 at this point, faced first-and-10 at Tampa Bay’s 33-yard line.  Brees dumped a screen pass into the hands of Alvin Kamara – one of the NFL’s impact rookies – and the screen pass broke big.

Catching up to him at about the 15-yard line, Evans tried to wrap his arms around the shifty Kamara, only to be spun about like last week’s laundry and left sitting on the turf while Kamara finished a weaving 33-yard touchdown run.

Now there is 9:46 left in the third quarter – the Saints leading 23-6.  They have the ball on the Buc 36-yard line, first-and-10.  It is perhaps understandable – given that the Saint passing game had consisted almost entirely of short tosses – that Evans might have expected more intermediate passing.  Even so, he was standing flatfooted looking into the backfield as Ginn sped past him.  Seconds later, Ted pulled in Brees’ perfectly thrown strike for the 36-yard touchdown that iced the contest – New Orleans’ only completed long pass of the game.

Next For the Saints

While Tampa Bay seems headed for a “growth” year, New Orleans increasingly looks like a team to be contended with.  After Brees threw for 185 yards in the first half, the Saints opened up their running game for 112 yards in 20 rushing attempts in the second half alone.  They now rank fourth in passing yards and seventh in rushing yards in the NFL.  Defensively, they still rank fifteenth, but that’s a little deceptive.  After allowing 470 yards in their first game and 555 in their second, New Orleans hasn’t allowed more than 347 in any game since.  They are averaging 264.7 yards allowed per game over their last six.  It’s a team that can beat you in a lot of ways.

Their winning streak – now at six games – has already included three road wins (in Carolina, Miami and Green Bay).  Now they will journey to Buffalo – a different sort of team with a unique offensive and defensive style.  In the week-to-week NFL, it will be interesting to see how they adjust.

Playoff Positions at the Halfway Mark – 2017

As of last Monday night, every team in the NFL will have played at least eight games, and by this point the playoff picture is starting to take shape.

Last year, five of the eight division leaders after nine weeks went on to win their division, and six of the eight made the playoffs.  Of the 12 teams that held playoff positions at the nine week mark last year, nine eventually punched their playoff ticket.  To a significant extent, the cream will have risen to the top by this point.

Like last year, though, there will probably be a few teams that catch fire coming down the stretch.  Last year, Pittsburgh, Green Bay and Miami all made the playoffs, although none would have if the season had ended after Week Nine.  Pittsburgh and Green Bay even made it to their Conference Championship Game.  So, while most teams that look like they are in will probably be in, there will surely be some shifting of positions before season’s end.

After nine weeks last season there were three 7-win teams.  All of them made the playoffs.  Two of the three 6-win teams also made the playoffs (with Denver being the odd man out here).  Of the five teams with five wins at this point, only Minnesota failed to make the playoffs.

At four wins, your chances at getting an invite to the dance were 3 of 11 – this is where the Steelers, Packers and the Dolphins were last year.

Ten other teams had 3 wins or fewer after nine weeks.  None of them made the playoffs – although Tampa Bay fell just short.

The upheaval was limited (only three of the twelve playoff spots changed hands) but where it occurred it was very dramatic.

So, Who Holds Playoff Spots This Year

At the moment, the AFC playoff picture has New England and Pittsburgh jostling for the top seed.  Both are 6-2 and leading their divisions (the Patriots by just one game in the East and the Steelers by a 2.5 in the North).  Kansas City is still 6-3 and two games ahead in the West.  They are the third seed at the moment.  A week two victory by Tennessee over Jacksonville has the Titans officially ahead of the Jaguars by a tie-breaker in the South, although both teams are 5-3.  The Jags hold one of the Wild Card positions at the moment, with Buffalo holding the other.  The Bills are also 5-3.

In the NFC, the Eagles of Philadelphia sit atop the conference with a league-best 8-1 record.  Their lead in the Eastern Division is solid at 2.5 games.  The other three division leaders are all 6-2.  They are Minnesota in the North (they lead by two games), New Orleans in the South (their lead is just a half game), and the Los Angeles Rams in the West (who lead by one).  The Wild Card spots right now are held by Carolina (6-3) and Seattle (5-3).

How Might the AFC Play Out?

It won’t mean very much as far as making or not making the playoffs, but the Week 15 collision between the Patriots and Steelers looks like it will determine the Conference’s top seed.  It’s a hard game to call at the moment.  The Patriots are usually playing their best football by Week 15, but let’s not underestimate Pittsburgh.  Ever since a bad loss to Jacksonville, the Steelers have been playing with great focus and urgency.  They are probably a better team than they were last year, and the Patriots are maybe not as good.  They game is played in Pittsburgh, so, for now, I give the Steelers the nod in this one, and the inside track to the number one seed.

The loss may drop the Patriots farther down than number two, though.  Remember, two weeks before New England also has a tough road game in Buffalo.  I don’t really know if I believe in the Bills, but their defense can be dominating and they will be fighting for their playoff lives.  This game looms as the largest on Buffalo’s remaining schedule.

The loss (if they lose it) may be extra damaging for the Patriots, because both the Chiefs and Jaguars have significantly softer schedules.  Kansas City has had some stumbles lately, but the only team left on their schedule that currently holds a winning record is Buffalo – and they get to play that game at home.  Jacksonville will get a rematch with Tennessee at Tennessee.  That will be the only road game Jacksonville will play against a winning team for the rest of the year.  They also have Seattle left on their schedule, but that game will be at home.  It is not beyond reason to see both of those teams pushing past New England, sending the Patriots into the Wild Card round for the first time in a while.

As to Tennessee, this is another team that I can’t quite embrace.  They have won on the road in Jacksonville and at home against Seattle.  They have also lost to Miami and were wiped off the board (57-14) in Houston.  The Titans will have their chance to prove themselves to me, though.  They play in Pittsburgh in Week 11, and then close out the season with home games against the high-flying Rams and Jaguars.  Since their schedule is notably harder than Jacksonville’s, I give the Jags the nod in the division race, but still acknowledge that Tennessee’s position in the playoff race is as solid as it’s been in years.

Will Buffalo hang onto that last Wild Card spot?  If they do they will have to earn it.  Their next four opponents are: the torrid New Orleans Saints; the improving LA Chargers in LA; Kansas City in Kansas City; and then New England.  To finish with ten wins and a pretty safe playoff chance, the Bills will probably have to win two of the four games – or, if they only win one, they will have to win in New England in Week 16.  Failing that, the best they could do is nine wins, and that might not be good enough.

Sitting at 4-5, the Baltimore Ravens fly pretty far below most people’s radar.  But consider their closing schedule.  After their bye this week, Baltimore goes into Green Bay to play the Packers without Aaron Rodgers.  Then they come home to play Houston without Deshaun Watson.  They do play an under-rated Detroit team after that – but that game is at home.  They follow that with a tough road game in Pittsburgh.  But after that?  The last three games are Cleveland in Cleveland, and then Indianapolis and Cincinnati at home.  If they can get to that point at 6-7 (or perhaps better), they have a very realistic shot at finishing 9-7.  If that all plays out, their conference record (potentially 8-4) would edge Buffalo’s (potentially 7-5) for the final playoff spot.

So, with eight weeks to play, here is how I predict the AFC to finish out:

1 – Pittsburgh; 2 – Kansas City; 3 – Jacksonville; 4 – New England; 5 – Tennessee; 6 – Baltimore.

How Might the NFC Play Out?

Unlike the AFC, the top competitors in the NFC all have significant challenges ahead of them.  The Eagles will face Dallas twice, Seattle and the Rams.  New Orleans has Buffalo, Washington, the Rams, Carolina and Atlanta twice left on its schedule.  The Rams will play Minnesota, New Orleans, Philadelphia, Seattle and Tennessee before all is said and done.

That the Rams – who truly look to be for real – have both their games against New Orleans and Philadelphia at home gives them, I think, the inside track – with all three looking to me like winners in their respective divisions.

In Minnesota, the Viking do have a two game lead, but they face a tough schedule.  Among their remaining home opponents are the Rams.  They also play on the road in Washington, Detroit, Atlanta and Carolina.  With either Case Keenum or Teddy Bridgewater at quarterback, it’s hard for me to imagine this team finishing strong.

The team to watch for in the North is Detroit.  The Lions are a flawed team, with an average defense and a struggling running game.  They do have great resiliency.  They also have an inviting schedule.  In Weeks 12 and 13 they have games against Minnesota (at home) and Baltimore (on the road).  Other than that, the schedule reads Cleveland, Chicago, Tampa Bay, Chicago, Cincinnati and Green Bay.  Especially if the Bucs are still without Jameis Winston and the Packers are still without Rodgers, this is a much softer schedule than the Vikings will face.  Enough so, that I think that the Lions will slip by Minnesota for the division title – leaving the Vikes as the first Wild Card.

If that happens, that would leave the last Wild Card spot for either the Dallas Cowboys or the Carolina Panthers.

Of the two, Carolina has the decidedly easier schedule.  Their most dangerous remaining opponents are New Orleans and Atlanta on the road and Minnesota at home.  The Cowboys, on the other hand, play Atlanta, Philadelphia twice and Seattle.  The Panther’s opportunity is better, but I still feel that Dallas (even perhaps without Ezekiel Elliott) is starting to come together.  This Dallas team looks more like its built for the stretch run than the Panthers.

As for Seattle – also a 5-3 team – well, they are on everyone’s schedule.  The Seahawks will be a challenge for anyone, but this imperfect team will play a who’s who of top teams from here to the end of the season.  Still ahead for Seattle is Atlanta.  Then, in consecutive weeks from Weeks 13-16 they will face Philadelphia, Jacksonville (on the road), the Rams, and Dallas (in Dallas).  Too tall an order, I think, for this year’s Seattle team.

So, my predicted NFC playoff rankings are:

1 – Los Angeles Rams; 2 – Philadelphia; 3 – New Orleans; 4 – Detroit; 5 – Minnesota; 6 – Dallas.

Of football’s other four-win teams, Oakland and Atlanta would seem to be the most likely to put together the kind of run we saw last year from Green Bay and Pittsburgh – but both have issues.  Washington could be a dark horse, but they are pretty far behind in a highly competitive conference.

As always, it will be interesting to see how it all plays out.

Eagles Run through Broncos

In the latest exhibit of the week-to-week nature of the NFL, the Denver Broncos were scorched by the Philadelphia Eagles last Sunday by a surprising 51-23 score (gamebook).

The Broncos entered the game with the number one ranked defense (in yardage allowed).  That they ranked sixth against the pass was important enough against the Eagle passing game.  Even more impressive, this defensive unit ranked second in the NFL against the run (allowing 72.9 yards per game).  They were also surrendering just 3.0 yards per attempt (also second in the league), and had yet to give up a rushing touchdown.

The week before they mostly silenced an excellent Kansas City offense with man coverage and a stifling run defense that took away chief weapon Kareem Hunt.  With Philadelphia’s best receiving threat (Zach Ertz) on the bench, the prospects of the Broncos shutting down Philadelphia seemed at least plausible.

For, maybe, 15 minutes.

By the Way, Philadelphia Can Run the Ball

Already ahead 17-3 after the first quarter, Philadelphia kept scoring, finishing, finally with 7 touchdowns and 4 field goals.  It is no longer surprising when Carson Wentz – even without his best receiver – chews up an opposing defense.  Wentz finished his afternoon with 4 touchdown passes and a 118.7 passer rating.  What very much surprised me about this game was the Eagle running attack.  Against a team that had surrendered more than 80 rushing yards just once in their first seven games this year, the Eagles finished the game with 197 rush yards on 37 attempts (5.3 yards per attempt).  The team that had yet to allow a rushing touchdown served up 3 on Sunday.

All of a sudden, this offensive line merits some re-evaluation.  Right tackle Lane Johnson – a pass blocking hero in the Monday night game against Washington, stepped up again in that role.  This time he gave Von Miller all he could handle.  Guards Brandon Brooks and Stefen Wisniewski spent the afternoon pushing Denver ends Derek Wolfe, Shelby Harris and Adam Gotsis five or more yards into the defensive backfield.  Center Jason Kelce showed surprising power against 300-pound nose tackles Domata Peko and Zach Kerr.

Some of the offensive line’s best moments belonged to fill-in tackle Halapoulivaati Vaitai.  On most of the Eagle’s biggest runs of the game, Vaitai was at the point of attack with the critical block.

The Eagles didn’t really get serious with their running game until there were two minutes left in the first half.  They were already ahead 24-9 at that point.  The Eagles were on their own 40.  Their first 10 running plays of the game had earned a modest 23 yards.  But then a plan emerged.

Finding Flaws in the Denver Defensive Scheme

The heavy lifting on the Bronco run defense has fallen all year to fast flow linebackers Brandon Marshall and Zaire Anderson – along with several secondary players who almost always play in linebacker positions.  Mostly these are Darian Stewart and Will Parks.  The defensive line’s only responsibility in the Denver scheme is to penetrate.  For the season, so far, they have been very proficient at disrupting runs in the backfield, leaving the linebackers and others to clean up.

What their linemen don’t do often – or well – is occupy blockers.

Now, with two minutes left in the half, the Broncos are expecting pass.  They open with six in the box.  They have pass-rush specialists Miller lined up at left end, and Shane Ray at right end.  Vaitai pushed Ray off to the sideline, while Wisniewski and Kelce pinned Harris to the inside.  With Harris unable to get off of Kelce’s block, Wisniewski popped through to the second level.

In what would be a recurring theme all afternoon, Brandon Marshall would be contending against linemen getting nearly free releases into the second level.  Wisniewski easily pushed Marshall out of the way, and new Eagle Jay Ajayi motored through the gap for 14 yards.  The Eagle staff must have liked how that worked out, because they ran almost the same play again.  Once again, Vaitai removed Ray.  Wisniewski handled Shelby Harris by himself this time, as Kelce pulled around the end.  Brandon Brooks streaked untouched toward Marshall pushing him out of the way.  With most of the Bronco defense on the ground, Ajayi scooted untouched around the left end and sped 46 yards for his first Philadelphia touchdown.

Second Half All About the Run

Whether this was the plan all along or a sudden revelation, we won’t know.  But throughout the entire second half, Philadelphia attacked this weakness in Denver’s run scheme.  Wentz threw the ball only 6 times after the intermission, while the Eagles ran 24 running plays for 108 yards.  As the Broncos always seem to be in pass rush mode, all the Eagles needed to do was stop the penetration.  If the line could do that, they would have mostly unfettered access to the linebackers.

With 11:54 left in the third quarter, the Eagles faced a second-and-4 at the Denver 22.  The Eagles stacked three receivers to the right (tight ends Trey Burton and Brent Celek, and receiver Mack Hollins).  The Broncos responded with their 3-4, with Shaquil Barrett playing in Miller’s usual left linebacker position and safety Darian Stewart flanked to the left of Marshall like a linebacker.

Burton turned Barrett to the outside.  Hollins stung Stewart (who was coming on a blitz).  Celek pulled and got a trap block on Shelby Harris, who was penetrating through the middle.  Just into the game after an injury to Lane Johnson, Isaac Seumalo (who was more than a little impressive in his limited opportunities) stopped Kerr’s attempt to penetrate from the left end position.  Wisniewski also handled Gotsis in a one-on-one situation.  So on this particular play, both Brooks and Kelce went untouched into linebackers Marshall and Anderson, respectively.  By the time the pile enclosed around running back LeGarrette Blount, Blount had picked up another 10 yards.

Five plays later, another Eagle running back Corey Clement took a pitch from Wentz on an option play at the goal line to score the touchdown that pushed the Eagle lead to 38-9.

A Blue-Print Against the Bronco Defense?

Remembering that this was a run defense that had held Dallas to 40 rushing yards, Buffalo to 75, and Kansas City to 79, it bears asking how repeatable this success could be.  Could other teams do this to the Broncos?  I think yes, providing a couple of things.

First and foremost, the offensive line would have to keep the Denver front seven out of the backfield.  Philadelphia made it look easy, but they will present a challenge for most offensive lines.  Also, the potency of the Eagle passing game kept Denver from making stopping the run a priority.  Even after this debacle, Denver is still number 5 against the run.  I would have to see a few more teams do this to Denver before I would expect some kind of change in scheme.

Too Many Running Backs?

In regard to the Eagles, the addition of Ajayi might make too many running backs.  On Sunday the 34 carries by running backs were distributed thusly:  Clement had 12, 9 for Blount, 8 for Ajayi, and 5 for Wendell Smallwood.  Classically, a team settles on a primary running back.  Usually 8-12 rushes isn’t enough for a runner to get into the rhythm of the game.  Probably, now, that will be Ajayi.  The Eagles have a bye this week, and may emerge on the other end with Jay being the 25-carry back.  But I know they like the other three guys a lot, too.  Plus, you figure Carson will still be throwing the ball a lot.

Finding enough footballs to keep everyone happy and sharp could prove to be a challenge.  Such are the challenges of an 8-1 team.

Going Vertical – the New Meme of the NFL

In Sunday’s marquee game, Russell Wilson of the Seattle Seahawks and Deshaun Watson of the Houston Texans (whose season has just come to a sudden end) combined for 8 pass plays of over 30 yards.  A couple of them where short passes that broke.  But the great majority were vertical shots intended to challenge the respective secondaries.  It was the kind of game that’s being played more and more these days, as the NFL is beginning its latest shift forward to the past.  The era of the long pass play is returning.

A Quick History of the NFL

Coming out of its rugby roots, the early years of the NFL were run dominated.  In 1940, for example, Washington’s slinging Sammy Baugh led the NFL in passing with 1367 yards over an 11-game season – an average of 124.3 yards per game.  That year there were 4,136 rushing attempts to only 2,254 attempted passes.

Beginning with Sid Luckman in the mid-1940s, the game began to undergo a revolution.  At some point, someone figured out that if my receiver is faster than your defensive back, then all I need is a quarterback who can throw the ball down the field and there would be little that your defense could do about it.

There are some who consider the 1950s and the first half of the 1960s to be football’s golden age.  It was the era of Luckman and Otto Graham.  Of Norm Van Brocklin, Daryle Lamonica and Bobby Lane.  Of Johnny Unitas and Joe Namath.  For the first time, football had truly embraced the pass.  It would never look back.

By the mid-sixties, defenses were beginning to tinker with a new concept called the “zone defense.”  The idea was that instead of having my defensive back try to run with a receiver faster than him, I would have my defensive backs positioned relatively evenly across the field, so that wherever this receiver ended up, I would have a defender there waiting for him.  This was a concept that would mostly rule defensive football for almost 50 years.

In the 80’s offenses adjusted.  Instead of trying to beat the zone defenses with vertical passes, the NFL passing game became increasingly horizontal, as offenses sought to stretch out those zones and widen the naturally occurring seams.  The meme became the West Coast offense – the staple of the San Francisco 49ers of the Bill WalshJoe Montana era.

And that is pretty much where football has been for about 25 years or so.

And Then

All of a sudden, as football enters the second decade of this new century, we are beginning to see elite athletes emerging as the new wave of cornerbacks.  Gradually defenses have learned that they don’t necessarily have to let a speed receiver lift the cover off of their zone.  Not if they could find themselves a shut-down corner – some elite defender that could run with even the fastest receivers wherever they went on the field.

And now, suddenly, everyone is looking for the next Richard Sherman.

But this cornerback mostly forces your defensive scheme back to a man-to-man concept.  This is especially true since most of the league’s better offenses are equipped with several receivers who are vertical threats.

Once the dominant defensive alignment in football, the famous Tampa Two (a brand of zone defense that featured two safeties that had deep responsibility for the two sidelines, while a linebacker dropped back into the deep middle) is now rarely seen.  The NFL’s new predominant defense is the single high safety with man coverage across the field.  This was the defense that Denver relied on to muffle the Kansas City passing attack last Monday night.

And, as football makes this adjustment, it invites the vertical passing game back into the equation.  Not only because it creates the one-on-one matchups, but also because the man coverage focus has compromised the ability of many teams to be effective in zone coverage.  I would guess that probably as many big passing plays last week came against poorly executed zone coverages as against man coverage matchups.

Pittsburgh and Detroit

As in Seattle, Pittsburgh and Detroit got together last Sunday in a game that showcased the best and the worst of the vertical passing game.  Pittsburgh won, 20-15 (gamebook) in a game that featured 9 combined pass plays over 30 yards.

In this particular game, there was only scoring drive in which more than half of the yardage did not come from one single play.  Pittsburgh opened the scoring kicking a field goal after a 59-yard drive.  A vertical pass from Ben Roethlisberger to JuJu Smith-Schuster for 41 yards set that up.

Detroit answered with a field goal after a 45-yard drive – 43 of which came on a vertical pass from Matthew Stafford to Marvin Jones.

And so it went.  A 33-yard pass to Jones early in the second set up another Detroit field goal (after a 39 yard drive) and a 6-3 Lion’s lead.  Forty of the Steelers seventy-five yard answering drive came on a deep jump ball from Roethlisberger to Antonio Brown.  The Steelers scored the game’s first touchdown after that play, and took a 10-6 lead.  The Lions quickly answered with another field goal, moving 42 yards to get into range (with 25 of those coming on a strike from Stafford to T.J. Jones).  Now it was a 10-9 Steeler lead. The Lions would take a 12-10 lead into the half when they moved 63 yards in 43 seconds to kick a field goal with 13 seconds left.  Again, T.J. Jones caught the deep ball (34 yards) to set up the kick.

In the second half, Pittsburgh went back on top 13-12 kicking a field goal after a short punt set them up at about mid-field.  Again, though, the 28-yards scoring drive featured an 18-yard pass from Ben to JuJu.

At the end of the third quarter, the Steelers would score the final touchdown of the day on a 98-yard “drive.”  This “drive” was one running play that gained 3 yards.  One holding penalty that gave back 2 of the yards.  One incomplete pass.  And one 97-yard touchdown strike (again to JuJu).  Smith-Schuster finished his afternoon with 193 yards on 7 catches.

Finally – as the third quarter lapsed into the fourth – the Lions put together an actual scoring drive.  They marched 74 yards in 10 plays.  It cost them 5:07 of playing time, though, and the payoff was only their fifth field goal of the game.

Lots of Yards, But . . .

The two teams combined for 874 yards – 728 of them through the air.  They finished with just 2 touchdowns.  In comparison, the West Coast offense is designed for sustaining offense.  Over the last two decades, pass completion percentages in the high sixties were not uncommon.  In this game, Roethlisberger completed 54.9% (17 of 31) of his passes, and Stafford completed 60% (27 of 45).  The vertical game is less consistent.

More so than the West Coast offense, the vertical passing game needs the balance of a strong running game to help convert the passing yards into touchdowns.  The Steelers were held to just 75 rushing yards.  The Lions – who never did get into the end zone – ran for just 71 yards.  They were 0-for-5 in the red zone, and 0-for-3 in goal-to-go situations.

For Detroit, now, the running game issue is beginning to fester.  Averaging just 82.1 yards per game, the Lions’ running game ranks twenty-eighth in football.  They have suffered agonizing losses to Atlanta (26-30 during which they ran for only 71 yards), Carolina (24-27, during which the running game contributed 50 yards), New Orleans (35-52, while running for 66 yards), and now Pittsburgh.  In all of these games, the missing running attack was a notable contributor to the defeat.

Meanwhile in New England

The defending champion Patriots also had more trouble scoring touchdowns than they had anticipated.  They scored one, kicking four field goals in their 21-13 win over the Los Angeles Chargers (gamebook).

The one enduring virtue of the zone defense is that – when well executed – it can inhibit the vertical game.  That was the focus of the Chargers in their contest against New England, as they forced the explosive Patriot offense to crawl.  Tom Brady completed none of his throws of more than twenty yards, and was only 1-for-6 when throwing more than 15 yards downfield.

Alas, the Patriots are comfortable enough in the horizontal game that they were able to take advantage of the Charger’s deep coverages.  Tom finished his night completing 68.1% of his tosses (32 for 47), albeit for only 10.41 yards per completion.  Running backs Rex Burkhead and James White combined to catch 12 of the 13 passes tossed their way for 153 yards.  Although they only averaged 3.0 yards per rush, the patient Patriots ran the ball 32 times, on their way to controlling the clock for 36:59 of the game.

Sometimes offensive success is less a matter of points than it is of controlling the game.

Again, on the Protests

In case you’ve not yet seen it, here is my link to my National Anthem protest post – since this thing is still in the news.

Here’s to the Defense

On the Monday night before (October 23) The Eagles and the Redskins combined to put up 58 points in a sort of coming-of-age party for Philadelphia’s rising star, Carson Wentz.  Last Monday (October 30) was a day for the defense.

With their backs against the wall, and in desperate need of a victory, the Denver Broncos (then 3-3) took the field at Arrowhead to face the 5-2 Kansas City Chiefs.  Kansas City boasted the second-highest scoring offense in the league (having scored 207 points through their first 7 games), the third-ranked offense in the league based on yards, and ranked fifth-ranked in both rushing (129 yards per game) and passing (behind quarterback Alex Smith’s impressive 120.5 passer rating).

Denver opposed them with the number one overall defense in football.  They also ranked second against the run (allowing just 71.8 rushing yards per game), sixth against the pass (although with a higher than expected 91.7 rating), and ninth in keeping opponents off the scoreboard (they had allowed just 118 points through their first 6 games).

When the dust had settled, the Chiefs walked off the field with a 29-19 victory (gamebook) that would seem to indicate that the #3 offense had taken care of business against the #1 defense.  In actuality, the story was much different.  The victorious Chiefs finished the night with just 276 yards, going 2-for-12 on third down, 0-for-3 scoring touchdowns in the red zone, and 0-for-2 in goal-to-go situations.  Of their 29 points, 13 were scored off of Denver turnovers and 3 others resulted after the Broncos failed on a fourth-down play at mid-field.  Of Kansas City’s 14 offensive drives, only one gained more than 50 yards.

The second half domination was even more complete.  After halftime, the Chiefs managed just 77 yards and 3 first downs.  Superstar rookie running back Kareem Hunt carried the ball 12 times in the second half for just 8 yards.

None Shall Run

Stopping the run was the first plank of Denver’s defensive game plan.  Hunt regained his league leadership in rushing yards, in spite of the fact that he was held to just 46 yards.  The team that allowed less than 72 rushing yards a game and had not allowed a rushing touchdown all season, left the field having given up just 79 rushing yards – and still no rushing touchdowns.

With the running game stuck in neutral, the KC offense would rest on the arm and head of Alex Smith.

The Game Plan

The discussion about Smith continues.  Is he a franchise quarterback?  Is he a game managing, system quarterback?  Can he put a team on his back (like Russell Wilson did on Sunday) and win a game when his running game was struggling to produce?  For the first seven games, the 2017 season had been Smith’s breakout season.  In 6 of the first 7 games, he produced a passer rating of at least 104.9 – on his way to the best rating in the league at the start of the night.

But as with Pittsburgh a couple of weeks ago, the Denver defense proved too tough a nut to crack.  The Bronco game plan relied on its five principle secondary players – cornerbacks Aqib Talib, Chris Harris, Bradley Roby and Will Parks; along with safety Darian Stewart – to stick tightly in man coverage to the KC receiving corps.  They would challenge Smith all night to make precision throws into tight windows – a challenge he was mostly not up to.

As the evening wore on, and Alex’ frustration mounted, he began to play fast.  Even though the actual heat in his kitchen was only moderate (right tackle Mitchell Schwartz was extremely effective keeping Von Miller at bay), Smith began rushing his decisions and giving up on plays early.  The play-action and misdirection plays that had provided some offensive spark in the first quarter were mostly abandoned by the third.  And once Denver could get Alex on the run he was 0-for-4 throwing the ball.

Alex finished the night just 14 of 31 for 202 yards, on his way to a season-worst 77.6 rating.  He was just 5 of 14 for 55 yards in the second half.  Yes, the coverage was tight, but not at all perfect.  There were plays there to be made.  Alex just didn’t make them.

On the Other Hand

Luckily for Smith and KC, they didn’t have to be miracle workers that night.  If they had their hands full with the Denver defense, the Broncos’ offense was having an even worse time.  Already an area of concern, Trevor Siemian and his unit turned the ball over four times on the evening (with the special teams contributing a fifth turnover).  And, again, it was the same concern.  Once Denver falls behind, they knew they were in trouble.  They are an offense built to play from ahead.  Or, at least, they were.  In the aftermath of his disappointing afternoon (Trevor scored a 43.5 passer rating on 19 of 36 throwing for 198 yards and three interceptions) coach Vance Joseph has given Denver’s next start (in Philadelphia this week) to backup Brock Osweiler.

It’s an unfair thing to blame Denver’s 3-4 start on one player.  It is, nonetheless, true that most of the other aspects of this football team do seem to be functioning at a fairly high level.  Their defense has been among the best in football, while the running game ranks tenth in the league, averaging 123.4 yards per game.  The receiving corps that includes Demaryius Thomas, Emmanuel Sanders (when healthy) and Virgil Green is sufficiently talented.  The perception all along has been that Denver has been held back by the limitations of its quarterback.

Despite flashes of excellence, Osweiler has mostly disappointed in his opportunities to prove himself as a starting quarterback in the NFL.  There is no way – at this point – of telling how short his leash will be.  But this Sunday will begin his next opportunity.

The Protest – Again

As I noted in Wednesday’s post, since the National Anthem protests are still in the news, for the next little while I will be including a link back to my position on all of this.  It is here, and, if I do say so myself, worth a read.

Some Help for Russell Wilson

Last Sunday afternoon, Duane Brown manned his left tackle spot as his Houston Texans invaded Century Link Field to engage in a wild 41-38 shootout that his team lost to the Seattle Seahawks (gamebook).

Today, he is not back in Houston where the Texans are preparing to face the Indianapolis Colts.  Today, Duane – a former three-time Pro Bowl pick and one-time First-Team All-Pro – is still in Seattle, where his new team – the Seahawks – are preparing to face Washington.

To say that Brown will be a welcomed addition to the Seattle offense would be a profound understatement.  Even though they won the Sunday shootout on the strength of 452 passing yards and 4 touchdowns from the arm of Russell Wilson, the Seahawk running game reached near historic lows that afternoon.

That they finished with 33 yards on 21 rushes is a gross overstatement of the effectiveness of the Seattle ground game.  Those 33 yards were made possible by two late Wilson scrambles that totaled 32 yards.  Beyond that, the Seattle running game was a stunning 1 yard in 19 carries.  This total includes 6 tackles behind the line of scrimmage that totaled 19 yards in losses.  Seattle’s very first running play of the day was their only running play the entire game (not counting the scrambles) to gain more than 3 yards.  It gained 4.  Thereafter, the last 18 running plays lost a total of 3 yards.  Even conceding that two of those were kneel downs, the last 16 handoffs to running backs produced a total of minus 1 yard. Eddie Lacy and Thomas Rawls – two sometimes star running backs) combined for 12 carries for minus 1 yard.

This is domination that you rarely see anywhere in the NFL – much less against a contending team.  So, they will have a place in the lineup for Duane Brown – most probably left tackle.

The player who started at left tackle for Seattle on Sunday – Rees Odhiambo – was a third round pick in 2016 and made the first seven starts of his career this season.  He was an obvious weak link against the Texans, as Houston’s star defensive end Jadeveon Clowney turned him inside out all night.  Seattle made some attempts to help him with tight-end Jimmy Graham, but Graham wasn’t up to the task of stopping Clowney either.

The problem in Seattle, though, is that left tackle isn’t the only weak spot on the line.  In fact, if you watched the Seattle running plays, it would be hard to say that any of them won even a third of their individual matchups.  Throughout the game, Odhiambo could well have used some help from guard Ethan Pocic.  But when Ethan wasn’t up to his elbows in troubles of his own, he was needed to help center Justin Britt – who may have had the poorest afternoon of any of the Seattle linemen.

Given the low yardage totals, it goes without saying that none of the linemen created much space.  In Britt’s case, though, whoever lined up opposite of him seemed to spend quite a bit of time in the Seattle backfield.  This was mostly either D.J. Reader or Brandon Dunn.  At least once, it was middle linebacker Benardrick McKinney who lined up over center and shot past Britt into the backfield.

Beyond the inability to run to the offensive left (where Clowney was waiting – and the difficulties running up the middle (where Britt and the guards had trouble keeping the Texans out of the backfield) – the Seattle offensive line’s inability to get through the Houston defenders to the second level allowed McKinney and fellow linebacker Zach Cunningham to run mostly unimpeded from sideline to sideline.  So even when the Seahawks tried to turn the right corner, they usually had a couple linebackers waiting for them.

One of the most far-reaching implications of Seattle’s inability to generate anything from the offensive line was its effect on one of the staples of the Seahawk running game – the read option.

The interesting thing about most option plays in football – including the read option – is that the option belongs to the defense.  The defensive front seven chooses whether the quarterback hands off or keeps the ball.  In the several read options they ran on Sunday, Russell Wilson never ran the ball.  His four carries for the game were two scrambles and two kneel downs.  Houston’s defensive ends never bit on the running backs, because they knew they couldn’t be hurt by them.  The only running threat was Wilson, so every single time Houston opted to put the ball in the running back’s hands.

Duane Brown can’t get there fast enough.

Regarding the Crowd Noise

Seattle, of course, is famous for the crowd noise.  As opposed to – say – the Kansas City fans, whose enthusiasm for the game is natural, the Seattle crowd goes out with the intention of affecting every single offensive play run by the opposition.  As this phenomenon has gone on for several years now, I think it’s reaching a point of diminishing returns.

Early in the second quarter, Houston faced a fourth-and-1 on Seattle’s 48-yard line.  The crowd – which had been going full blast for the entire game – tried to find a higher level to try to interfere with the play.  But they didn’t really have a higher level.  They had been on “10” the whole game when their amplifiers didn’t have an “11.”  The noise level did, actually, rise a bit, but not enough to make a difference.  Lamar Miller burst up the middle for 2 yards and the first down, and four plays later Deshaun Watson was tossing another touchdown pass.  By the second half, the Texans were completely comfortable in the midst of all that noise.

It’s kind of like a pitcher who only throws 100-mph fastballs.  At 100-mph, that heater is a lot to deal with.  But if you keep seeing it over and over, it gets to the point where it doesn’t seem as fast as before.  And then, when that pitcher gets in a jam, he doesn’t have anything extra to reach back for.

I wouldn’t, for the world, suggest that the Seahawk fans vary their crowd noise – much less suggest that they just come to enjoy the game.  Some of them, I’m convinced, are more interested in making noise than watching the event.  I’m just suggesting that their fastball might be more effective if they learned to throw a change-up.

Speaking of Houston

I know I have spent the entire post talking about the offensive linemen instead of showering love on the quarterbacks.  They were terrific, and made for some truly great theatre.  I will have more to say about them later in the week.

On this evening, though, I do want to recognize the very first World Championship by the baseball team that resides in Houston – yes the lowly Astros are at long last Champions of the Baseball World.  I fondly remember the great battles we had with them when we were in the same division.  We always had the greatest respect for those Astro teams and for their fans.  And from what I can tell, the respect was mutual.  Congratulations, Houston.

And a Final Note

As the national anthem protests still seem to be making headlines – the Texans staged another protest before this game – I think for the next several posts I will offer a link to my insight on the whole thing.  I encourage everyone who has not read it to take a look.

Raiders Save Season with Wild Finish

Week Seven began with one of the season’s wildest and most enjoyable games as the Raiders – trailing by 10 in the fourth quarter – salvaged their season (for the moment, anyway) by rallying for a 31-30 victory over Kansas City (gamebook).  The win improves them to 3-4 and keeps them two games behind the Chiefs in the division (a loss would have spilled them four game behind).

As the score suggests, this was an offensive fireworks display.  The two quarterbacks (Alex Smith and Derek Carr) combined for 422 passing yards.  And that was just the first half.  By game’s end, the two teams had combined for 930 total yards (748 of them passing yards) and 7 touchdowns.  They also combined to go 14 for 28 on third down, and 1-for-1 on fourth down.

The teams combined for 8 plays over 30 yards, including a 38-yard touchdown pass to from Carr to Amari Cooper (Cooper finished with 11 catches for 210 yards and 2 touchdowns) off a “flea-flicker,” and a deflected almost-interception that landed right in the arms of the Chiefs’ Albert Wilson for a 63-yard touchdown.  It also featured one of the wildest finishes that I’ve seen lately – so the enjoyment factor of this game was pretty substantial.

Derek Carr has now started 53 NFL games, and led his team to fourth-quarter, come-from-behind victories in 13 of them.  Slightly more than half of his 25 career wins have been in this kind of game.

Kudos for the Raiders’ Defense?

By game’s end, Kansas City had put up 30 points, scored 3 touchdowns, racked up 425 yards, and averaged 7.1 yards per play.  Not necessarily a defensive performance that you would be inclined to celebrate.  Yet the Raider defense did prevent the Chiefs offense from controlling the game on the ground.

Boasting the fourth ranked running offense in the NFL (at 134.8 yards per game), and facing a Raider defense that was struggling to stop the run (they entered ranked twenty-first allowing 117.2 yards per game), the Chiefs wanted very much to run some clock and keep Carr’s explosive offense on the sidelines.

They opened the game with four straight running plays (gaining only 10 yards) and ran five times (for 12 yards in their opening drive), but never were able to establish their ground game. Rookie running back Kareem Hunt broke off one run of 34 yards, but managed just 54 yards on his other 17 carries.  The talented running back – who has already picked up more than 100 yards in the second half alone of a couple games this season – carried 11 times in the second half of this game for just 39 yards (3.5 per carry).  KC finished the game with just 94 rushing yards, and only controlled the clock for 30:36.  They scored points, but kept leaving Oakland time to answer.

The Longest Eight Seconds

But all of that was just prologue.

The game had 23 seconds left, and Oakland was still down 30-24.  They faced a third-and-10 on the Kansas City 29.  Carr slid slightly to his left in the pocket and launched a pass toward the pylon at the left corner of the end zone.  For the second straight play, the Raiders had two receivers in the area of the pass.  But his time the deeper receiver (Jared Cook) was far enough behind the other receiver (Seth Roberts) that the two didn’t collide.  Cook elevated, made the catch, and tumbled into the end zone.  Touchdown.  The game – for the moment – was tied, and there was much rejoicing in the stadium as everyone awaited the extra-point.

As it turned out, the celebrating was a might premature.  There was actually a lot of football left on this night.

As they kept watching the replay, it became apparent that Cook’s rear end had plopped to the turf while the football was still on the half-yard line.  There were eight seconds left, and Oakland had first-and-goal.

Michael Crabtree would get the first opportunity.  Lined up wide right, Crabtree raced into the end zone where he was met by KC defensive back Marcus Peters.  Carr delivered the ball, and Crabtree gave Peters a gentle push that sent Peters’ legs out from under him.  Crabtree caught the pass, but flags flew immediately.  Offensive pass interference.  Now there were three seconds left, and Oakland had first-and-goal from the 10.

Was it a penalty?  Well, it was a push.  Crabtree did extended his arms to gain separation.  In honesty, you frequently see worse than that get ignored.  But there was a push, so the call was mostly legit.

Before Carr even delivered the next pass (which was high and off the fingertips of Cook in the end zone) there was already a flag in the end zone.  Ron Parker had been called for holding Cook.  There were all zeros on the scoreboard clock, but the Raiders would get one un-timed down (since a game can’t end on a defensive penalty).  First and goal from the five.

Was it a penalty?  Well, Parker didn’t truly impede Cook, but he did latch on and go for a bit of a ride.  Frankly, he was more staggering and holding on for balance than trying to keep Cook out of the end zone.  Not the worst hold I’ve ever seen, but yes.  A penalty.

Now it would be Cordarrelle Patterson – lined up in the slot to the left – working against Eric Murray.  As Patterson streaked past, Murray latched on to him and hung with him to the back of the end zone, where he pushed Patterson over the line as the ball was arriving.  Some of the Chiefs were starting to celebrate, but most saw the flag on the ground.

That holding call brought the ball back to about the two yard line – almost exactly where it was ten minutes ago after Cook’s first catch – where Oakland would have yet another untimed down.

Now they would go back to Crabtree – lined wide left this time.  Derek rolled to his left and delivered a strike to Crabtree just a step beyond the same pylon that Cook had fallen in front of.  He collected the pass, and the game (finally) was over.

The win broke a four-game Raider losing streak, during which they had not scored more than 17 points.  It was the first time since Week Two that the Raiders had looked like the Raiders.  They have put themselves a bit behind in the playoff chase, but there is still a lot of football to be played.

Rematch in the Fog

Last February, the New England Patriots and the Atlanta Falcons got together in Houston for that Super Bowl thing.  In a game for the ages (discussed here), the Patriots trailed 21-3 at the half, and 28-9 through three quarters before rallying to a 34-28 overtime win.

Last Sunday night, they re-convened in Foxborough for a regular season re-match.  The story-lines this time, though, were slightly different.  The defending champion Patriots began the season with their re-built defense not really ready for prime time.  In a 2-2 start, the Patriots allowed 32 points and 456.8 yards per game (132.8 of them rushing yards).  In their previous two previous games, they had held Tampa Bay and the Jets to 14 and 17 points respectively.  Progress, yes, but against two fairly middling offenses.

The Atlanta narrative was more concerning.  After a 3-0 start, the Falcon’s had lost their two previous games at home against Buffalo and Miami, scoring just 17 points in each.  So they hit the turf as a team searching – a little bit, anyway – for answers.  They wouldn’t find any that night.  At least not early.

Fixing the Falcons

Thirty minutes into the game, the teams headed for the locker rooms with the Patriots holding a 17-0 lead.  The once dominant Falcon offense had managed just 130 yards and 7 first downs.  Quarterback Matt Ryan had completed just 9 of his first 16 passes – only 2 of them to All-World receiver Julio Jones for 30 yards.

This offensive brown out had many people scratching their heads.  The answer proved to be fairly fundamental.  The Falcons’ difficulties traced to a struggling running game.

People may not remember that during the Super Bowl, the Falcon’s set the tone with their running game.  Five of their first nine offensive plays were runs – gaining 56 yards.  They hit the halfway mark of that game with 86 rushing yards.  They were especially effective getting around the corner.  Nine times they tested the edge of New England’s run defense in Super Bowl LI, averaging 7.6 yards per.

Anyone who remembers the Falcon offense from the end of last season, will remember the great energy that surrounded it.  That energy came from the very aggressive, explosive running game.  As good as Ryan and Jones are – and they are both plenty good – the key to the Atlanta offense is their running game.  When it misfires, the whole Falcon offense looks out of sync.  That was the story of the first half.

Even though Atlanta finished the game scoring just 7 points in a 23-7 loss (gamebook), the second half proved much, much better – and it began with the running game.

After their initial first down of the third quarter, the Falcons ran on four consecutive plays for 34 yards.  Atlanta pushed on for 90 rushing yards in the second half – 56 by Devonta Freeman – and the passing game responded with Ryan hitting 14 of his last 17 passes.  Even though only 7 points came from them, all three of Atlanta’s second half drives lasted at least 10 plays, all gained at least 55 yards, and all ended in the red zone.  They missed a 36-yard field goal when Matt Bryant hit the left upright.  Another drive fizzled when the Falcons failed on fourth-and-goal from the one – so things could have been much better.  Now 3-3, the Falcons trail 4-2 New Orleans by one game in their division. They are still very much in the discussion.

Coming Together in New England

As for the Patriots, they are now suddenly 5-2 and a half-game ahead of Buffalo in their division.  Their victory depended on two significant achievements.

First, the new-look defense was surprisingly successful in eliminating the big play from the Atlanta offense.  Even in the second half the Falcons managed only two plays of more than 20 yards – and they were just barely over 20 yards.  One of Freeman’s runs gained 21 yards in the third, and one of Ryan’s fourth-quarter completions went for 22 yards to Justin Hardy.  Ryan’s 14 second half completions totaled just 123 yards.  Jones finished the game with 9 catches, but none of them for more than 16 yards.

The other important thing they did was run the ball.  Thirty six times they probed the Falcon run defense, racking up 162 rushing yards.  This is becoming a growing concern for the Falcons.  After holding the Packers to just 59 rushing yards in Week Two, their rushing yards allowed has risen every game since.

New England finished with 34 minutes and 5 seconds of ball control.  For all of their early season vulnerability, the Patriots seem to have figured some things out.

And the Fog

What ended up being a very well-played, informative game was played against the strange backdrop of an intense fog that rolled in from the bay.  It was thick enough to make punts and arching passes something of an adventure.  The players were mostly unaffected, but the fog took its toll on the spectators.  TV audiences – thanks to the crawling spidercams – were treated to what was undoubtedly the first broadcast in NFL history that showed almost the entire game from the quarterback’s perspective.

An interesting view for anyone who ever wanted to read coverage.

Carson Wentz and His Monday Night Party

As the Washington Redskins took the field last Monday Night, their defense was something of a puzzle.  They had surrendered 113 points through 5 games (22.6 per), holding only one opponent under 20 points.  Yet, they had the eighth-ranked run defense in the league, allowing only 88 yards per game, with only Kansas City rushing for more than 97 yards against them.  Meanwhile, opposing quarterbacks held only an 81.8 passer rating against this defense.  They had not – and still have not – allowed more than 298 net passing yards in any game.  The Skins were dropping the quarterback on 7.7% of the passing attempts against them.  Through the season’s first 5 games, they had allowed only 10 offensive touchdowns to be scored against them (they have also seen two fumbles returned for touchdowns against them).

So – in spite of the points they had allowed – this was a pretty accomplished defense.

Moreover, even though they allowed 30 points to Philly in the season opener, they did some very good things defensively.  They allowed the Eagles just 58 rushing yards (only 2.4 yards per rush).  They limited the potent Eagle offense to just 2 touchdowns.  Philadelphia was forced to kick 3 field goals and added a defensive score in the win.

Game-Planning Wentz and the Eagles

In that first game, the Redskin defense briefly lost track of receiver Nelson Agholor when quarterback Carson Wentz looked like he had been sacked.  But Carson made one of his miracle escapes and lofted a prayer up the seam that Agholor pulled in for a 58-yard touchdown.  Other than that play, the Eagle receivers didn’t really hurt Washington.  Nelson caught 5 other passes that afternoon, but for only 28 more yards.  Alshon Jeffery – the other primary target – finished with just 3 catches for 38 yards.

So the plan coming in was to play aggressive man coverage with one deep safety (Montae Nicholson).  They would challenge those receivers to win their matchups, chase Wentz around with a generous sprinkling of blitzes, and assign a spy (yes, Carson Wentz is a dangerous enough runner that Washington assigned him a spy – usually linebacker Mason Foster), and take their chances at stopping the running game again.

For 26 minutes and 31 seconds on Monday night, the Redskin defensive plan worked like a charm.  Through their first 25 offensive snaps, Philadelphia had run the ball 11 times for 42 yards (15 of them from Wentz himself), and had been flagged for 3 penalties, costing them 23 yards.  Of Wentz’ first 11 drop backs, only 3 passes were completed for just 30 yards.  One other throw had been intercepted, and 3 other attempts had ended in sacks of the quarterback (giving back 24 of the yards).  With halftime creeping up, the Eagles had scored 3 points while moving the ball just 25 yards in a positive direction (once the penalties were weighed into the equation).

For their part, cornerbacks Quinton Dunbar, Kendall Fuller and Bashaud Breeland – hardly household names – held up excellently in coverage.  While, on the Philadelphia sideline, the Eagles had unwittingly played into Washington’s hands.

Philadelphia and the Running Game

Since that first game, Philadelphia had re-invested in the run.  In the five games since, they had totaled at least 101 rushing yards in each game, including the 214 they racked up against the Chargers in Week 4.  The Eagles came into the game ranked fifth in the NFL in running the ball (132.5 yards per game on 4.4 yards per carry), and they intended to run against Washington.

In Week One, tight end Zach Ertz caught all 8 passes thrown to him as Washington simply could not cover him.  As the Week Seven game began, Ertz was watching from the sidelines as blocking tight end Brent Celek saw most of the action.  With about three minutes left in the first half, Ertz had not even had a pass thrown his way.  Everything was working out as well as Washington could have hoped.

But Then

Of course – even if man coverage is the game plan – you can’t only play man coverage.  Sometimes you have to drop into a zone.  With the Eagles facing second-and-16 on their own 36 with just 3:29 left before the half, Washington dropped into a zone.  Carson Wentz exploited it.

Alshon Jeffrey lined up to the right behind speedy rookie Mack Hollins.  Both attacked vertically up the seam for about 15 yards, when Jeffery broke his pattern to the sideline.  When cornerback Breeland bit on Jeffrey’s out-route, it left safety D.J. Swearinger all alone with Hollins.  Wentz hit Hollins in stride, sending the rookie on to his first career touchdown, igniting Philadelphia’s turnaround, and beginning what would be a nightmare second half for Swearinger.  All of a sudden, a game that Washington was in control of was tied at 10, and Philadelphia was beginning to reconsider its approach.

Before the half would end, Ertz would catch both passes thrown to him for 50 yards and a touchdown.  By game’s end, Ertz had caught all 5 passes thrown his way for 89 yards.  In the two games played against Washington this season, Zach Ertz caught all 13 passes thrown his way for 182 yards.  Most of the damage came with Swearinger trying to chase him down, but he also proved too much for Foster in the odd times that Mason tried to cover him.

Washington came in with a great plan with one tiny flaw.  No one on their team can cover Ertz.  In watching the tape, I actually think he was open every time he went out for a pass.

As to Wentz, all through his 3 for 8 start I don’t think he was ever confused by what he saw.  The initial trouble was getting a receiver open.  Throughout the entire game, Wentz seemed ready for whatever the Washington pass defense showed him.  Carson is a toolsy quarterback, but his understanding of the passing game is quite advanced for a second year guy.

Signature Moments

The rest of the game would serve as notice for anyone in the football world who hadn’t yet heard of him that Carson Wentz is a force to be reckoned with.  He finished the game with a 126.3 passer rating and 4 touchdown passes – beating every coverage Washington threw at him.  He also memorably scrambled for 63 yards, leading the Eagles to their 34-24 victory (gamebook).  The win included a signature play in both the passing and running aspects of Carson’s play – calling cards to remember him by, as it were.

The Pass

There is 9:49 left in the third – Eagles now ahead 17-10.  They face third-and-goal at the 9 yard line.  Washington defensive end Terrell McClain almost makes a game saving play.  Bull-rushing his way past center Jason Kelce, McClain has Wentz in his grasp.  Almost.  Once again, Carson twists out of the way.  With Matthew Ioannidis and Mason Foster sandwiching him in, Wentz manages to flip the ball over the head of Foster with just enough juice to get it up the sideline in the end zone where Corey Clement gathered it in.

Linebacker Zach Brown’s adventure on that play more-or-less epitomized the night for Washington.  Clearly expected to cover Clement on the play, Brown blitzed immediately.  It was as Clement and Brown passed each other going in opposite directions, that Zach realized his error.  He pivoted quickly and began pursuit of Corey, but that only earned him the best view in the house of Clement’s touchdown.

The Scramble

Now it’s the fourth quarter.  There is 14:55 left, and Washington has fought back to make it a 24-17 game.  The Eagles are on their own 27, facing a third-and-8.

Washington blitzes.  As they did almost all night, the disciplined Eagle line picked-up the blitz, but gave ground as they did so, resulting in the Washington pass rush completely encircling Wentz.  For nearly two seconds, it seemed inevitable that Carson would be discovered at the bottom of a very large pile of bodies.  But then – somewhat miraculously – Wentz shot out of the cluster of humanity and sprinted 17 yards to the 44 for a back-breaking first down.  Moments later, Agholor would weave his way through another broken zone defense to haul in the clinching touchdown.

A funny thing about that moment.  While escape looked impossible, Wentz was never in any real danger.  All of his offensive linemen were there in between him and the Redskins.  They weren’t all standing, and in some cases they were just barely between, but I think the only hand laid on Carson during that whole progression was from Zach Brown (again) who reached over running back Wendell Smallwood and managed to put a hand on Wentz’ back.  In essence, his line formed a kind of cocoon around their franchise quarterback – from which Carson exploded at the first glint of daylight.

Love for a Lineman

Nothing in football happens in a vacuum, and all success on the gridiron is team success.  There were many names trumpeted as heroes of this contest – and there were many who played extremely well.  One name that probably won’t get any mentions is right tackle Lane Johnson.  He spent most of the afternoon lined up against Washington’s best pass rusher – two time Pro Bowler Ryan Kerrigan, who recorded 11 sacks last year – and made him disappear.  Kerrigan did get a half sack in the first quarter.  On that play, Ryan lined up over left guard Steve Wisniewski and slipped around him to get to Wentz.  As far as I remember, that was the only time that Kerrigan lined up inside.  He spent the rest of the game outside, trying (unsuccessfully) to work his way around Johnson.

Tapping the Brakes

It was a magical night for Carson Wentz and the (now) 6-1 Eagles.  But before we start reserving his spot in Canton and marking the Eagles down for home-field advantage, let’s hold on to a little perspective.  Carson has played 23 impressive games as a pro, and you can see why the organization is optimistic for the future.  But it is just 23 games.  Carson has yet to play a meaningful December game, much yet a playoff game.  It’s an auspicious start, but it’s just a start.

As for the Eagles, 6-1 is an excellent start.  But six wins won’t get you anywhere.  The most challenging part of the season lies ahead.

Remember, the NFL is still a week-to-week league – even for Carson Wentz and the juggernaut Eagles.