The Savage Truth

On his very first play from scrimmage, Baltimore showed Houston quarterback Tom Savage the respect they had for his passing attack by sinking safety Tony Jefferson down to the line of scrimmage, creating an eight-man front.

Our first stop on what I will call “back-up quarterback week” is Houston, where Savage was making his fourth consecutive start in place of injured Deshaun Watson.  The week before, in just his second career win (31-21 against Arizona), Savage reached season-highs in pass completions (22) and passing yards (230).  He also set career bests in completion percentage (68.75), touchdown passes (2) and passer rating (97.1).  It was the first time in his NFL career that he was over 90 in rating points.

But as far as Baltimore was concerned, he was just Tom Savage whose best passing efforts should prove no significant challenge to the Raven’s second-ranked pass defense.

The Results

By game’s end, that would prove to be the case.  Houston would end up with only 16 points, and Baltimore would stay in the thick of the playoff hunt with a 23-16 victory (gamebook).  Along the way, Savage would toss two bad interceptions (against no touchdown passes), and turn the ball over a third time on a strip sack.  He would finish the game with a less-than-mediocre 57.5 rating.

Taken as a whole, Tom’s Monday evening looked like the typical evening endured by most back-up quarterbacks across all of the NFL.  Tom had many nice moments Monday night.  He completed 13 of 20 in the first half, and finished the night as the first quarterback this season to surpass 250 passing yards against the Raven defense.  Along the way, Savage showed a better touch on the deep pass than his opponent for the evening – the Raven’s Joe Flacco.

On his first drive he found Bruce Ellington over the middle for 29 yards, and drew a 19-yard pass interference penalty on a well-thrown long toss down the left side.  Those would lead to the only touchdown the Texans would score on the evening.

He hit DeAndre Hopkins over the deep middle in the second quarter for a 34-yard gain that set up a field goal.  Another well-thrown deep pass to Hopkins in the fourth (DeAndre would finish the night with 125 yards on 7 catches) would set up their final field goal of the night.  He also made many solid reads in the short passing game, throwing the ball for most of the night with good anticipation and excellent touch.

But, in the end, the mistakes and the missed chances in the red zone (he was 3 for 7 for negative 3 yards in the red zone) overcame any improvements and saddled Houston with its third loss in the four games that Savage has started in Watson’s absence.

Savage v Watson

In the five previous games that Deshaun had started, Houston had averaged 39 points, 420.6 yards and just 1.6 turnovers per game.  In the four games since, they have averaged 17 points, 307.8 yards and 2.5 turnovers.

Savage is an earnest laborer, but his talents are fairly marginal.  He doesn’t have a powerful arm, and doesn’t run a dynamic downfield passing game.  When your game is the controlled passing game, you don’t have the luxury of making mistakes.  Tom has thrown 5 interceptions over the last three games, and has lost seven fumbles on the season – even though he has played only 4.5 games.  This might be the best opportunity Tom will ever get to prove himself as a starting NFL quarterback.  So far, things could be going better.

Focus on the Run

It should also be noted that Savage’s opportunities were enhanced by Baltimore’s focus on the Houston running game.  This is another big change in the Houston offense in Watson’s absence.  In the last five games that Deshaun started, Houston averaged 141.4 rushing yards per game.  When they took the field for Watson’s last game, they carried the third-ranked running game in the NFL – and then added 142 more against a fine Seattle defense.

In the four games since, Houston has averaged only 95.8 rushing yards per game – falling now to seventh in the league.

Meanwhile, Baltimore keeps getting better and better against the run.  The truth is never as simple as the absence of one defender.  Nonetheless, during a five-game stretch that coincided with defensive tackle Brandon Williams‘ absence from the lineup, Baltimore was pounded to the tune of 169.4 rush yards per game.  In the last four games – all with Williams back in the lineup – the Ravens have allowed just 64.25 yards per game.  This includes holding the formerly potent Texans offense to just 66 rushing yards and just 2.6 yards per rush.

Breaking with the most recent trend toward smaller defensive lineman, the three Ravens who controlled the middle last night are sort of throw-backs to the recent era of large defensive tackles that muddle the middle of the line of scrimmage and allow their linebackers to flow to the play.  And Baltimore’s three big guys enjoyed quite a night.  Williams (335 pounds – listed), Michael Pierce (339) and Willie Henry (310) pushed around the middle of Houston’s line in a way the Texans haven’t been handled all season.  Houston center Nick Martin spent almost as much time in the Texans’ backfield as his quarterback.

This, too, takes its toll on the back-up quarterback.  With no effective running game to relieve the pressure, it becomes that much more difficult to cope with a defense that came into the game holding opposing passers to a 66.9 rating.

Wither Houston?

The Texans’post-game press conference was pretty grim – as you might expect.  The difference between the 5-6 record they might have had with the win and the 4-7 that they now hold is very nearly the difference between NFL life and death.  Savage came to the podium, but didn’t stay long enough to even hear – much less answer – one question.  And try as he might, even the valiant Bill O’Brien couldn’t keep the disappointment out of his voice.

O’Brien carries on the very best of old-school traditions.  Lining up against some of football’s best teams with a shadow of the team that he thought he would have, Bill persistently shoulders the blame for all of his team’s shortcomings.  He will never point to the long list of missing players, nor will he turn to any other excuse.  He understands that football will not weep for you.  In the emotionally savage realm that is the football season, you line up and play – and the injuries, however and whenever they come – can only be viewed as opportunities for someone else.

Houston’s season won’t get any softer.  Still ahead are games against Tennessee, Jacksonville and Pittsburgh.  After two straight division titles, a 2017 playoff berth is all but completely out of the picture.  This will almost certainly be a year of growth through adversity for the Texans.  But Bill and his team understand this important fact:

The minute that you allow yourself to feel sorry for yourself – the minute that it becomes OK to lose a game because of your injuries – you have lost a critical emotional discipline that all winning organizations carefully cultivate.  All organizations that sustain a championship culture take absolute personal responsibility for their results.  The words “if only” are never heard among teams like New England, Pittsburgh, and the other organizations with championship pedigrees.  You won’t hear them in Houston either.

The Texans will rise from this season mentally stronger.  With O’Brien at the helm, they are in good hands.

And as for Baltimore

The Ravens survived at home against Houston.  Now 6-5, Baltimore’s playoff chances are as good as any of the teams in the wild-card scrum.  This is not a great team, by any means.  Their offense mysteriously sits thirty-first out of thirty-two teams, and they are clearly surviving because of excellent special teams and a defense that ranks seventh-best in yards and second-best in points allowed.

Concerning about the Ravens is their inability to beat any teams with winning records.  They have losses to Jacksonville (44-7 in Week Three), Pittsburgh (26-9 in Week Four), Minnesota (24-16 in Week Seven) and Tennessee (23-20 in Week Nine).  Anyone watching this team would have strong doubts that they could win a critical game against a quality opponent.

Fortunately for them, they won’t need to do that until the playoffs.  Their remaining schedule has an upcoming home game against a dangerous but flawed Detroit team, and a difficult road matchup against Pittsburgh.  After that, they are on the road against winless Cleveland, and then they finish with home games against struggling franchises in Indianapolis and Cincinnati.

Of the teams in the hunt, they may have the easiest route.

Trending Up in Buffalo

Sitting just on the outside of the playoff hunt, Buffalo earned a critical road victory against a Kansas City team that I didn’t think they would beat.  This was a “found” win.  Now 6-5 instead of the 5-6 that I expected, Buffalo – like Baltimore – can see a clearing path to the playoffs.  They still have two challenging games against the Patriots, but the rest of the schedule is Indianapolis and Miami twice.

If Buffalo moves into the playoff picture, then probably falling out will be the Tennessee Titans.  At 7-4, the Titans are presently leading the AFC South (on the strength of an earlier win against also 7-4 Jacksonville).

Tennessee will conclude with a fairly challenging schedule.  They have this same Houston team up next week, followed by two road games (albeit against Arizona and San Francisco).  They then finish up at home against the Rams and Jaguars.  This is a team that I could easily see fading down the stretch.

Eagles More Than Wentz

Last Sunday in the NFL the Detroit Lions survived against a three-win Chicago team when a last-second, 46-yard field goal sailed wide.  Last Sunday, the winless Cleveland Browns went into the fourth quarter against the division-leading Jacksonville Jaguars trailing by only a 10-7 score before the Jags pushed their way on to a 19-7 win.  Baltimore also struggled through three quarters against the Aaron Rodgers-less Packers before pulling away in the fourth.  The six-win Chiefs succumbed to the two-win Giants.  New Orleans stretched its winning streak to eight games, but they needed a nearly miraculous comeback against Washington.  Across the NFL, Week 11 saw many contenders struggle to push aside lesser teams.

And then there was Philadelphia.

In what was billed two weeks ago as a titanic showdown for the soul of the NFC East, the untouchable Eagles swept aside the suddenly hapless Dallas Cowboys, 37-9 (gamebook).  This even though the Cowboys made things as tough for Philadelphia as imaginable for the game’s first 30 minutes.  That first half featured 18:29 of ball control by the Dallas offense, and the Dallas defense stopping the Eagle offense on all six of their third-down opportunities.  Coming into the game with the league’s fourth-ranked running attack, Philadelphia went into the locker room with just 35 rushing yards.  None of their 10 runs had gained more than 7 yards.  In addition, quarterback sensation Carson Wentz finished the first half just 7 of 18 for 80 yards.

For all of this, Dallas went into the half leading just 9-7.  As it turns out, they never would make it into the end zone.

But in the dominant second half that would see Philadelphia outgain Dallas 268-99 and outscore them 30-0, the heroes went well beyond Wentz.  Carson made his contributions with 2 touchdown passes, but threw only 9 times in the second half.  If the point hadn’t been sufficiently made before, this game demonstrated how much more the Eagles are than just a star quarterback.

In fact, the more you watch the Eagles play, the harder and harder it is to ignore the outstanding work of both the Philadelphia offensive and defensive lines.

The Lost Art of Pulling

A generation ago, the Miami Dolphins stitched together the only un-defeated un-tied season in the Super Bowl era.  In 14 regular season games, they threw the ball only 259 times.  An average team playing in 2017 would hit that mark at about halftime of their eighth game of the season.  Those Dolphins ran the ball 613 time in 14 games – an average of 43.8 rushing attempts per game.  They never ran for fewer than 120 yards in any of their games, rushed for at least 200 yards 8 times in the regular season and almost two more times in the playoffs (they reached 198 against Cleveland and 193 against Pittsburgh), and topped 300 yards once (in Week 12 they amassed 304 rushing yards against New England).  They averaged 211.4 rushing yards a game.

The offensive line that powered this running game consisted of Wayne Moore (265 pounds), Bob Kuechenberg (253 pounds), Jim Langer (250 pounds), Larry Little (265 pounds) and Norm Evans (250 pounds).  The life of an offensive lineman back in 1972 was much different than it is today.  Back then, zone blocking didn’t exist.  A 300 pound offensive lineman would have been considered a liability.  Back then, offensive linemen moved all of the time.  Guards were nearly always pulling – it was the era of the great Lombardi sweep.

In 2017 most offensive linemen tilt the scales at over 300 pounds.  Sunday’s Eagle lineup featured Halapoulivaati Vaitai (315 pounds), Stefen Wisniewski (295), Jason Kelce (282), Brandon Brooks (343) and Lane Johnson (303).  The lightest member of this year’s Eagle offensive line is roughly 17 pounds heavier than the heaviest member of the Dolphin line of yesteryear.

As it turns out, offensive linemen in 2017 mostly pass protect.  They do still pull – or try to pull – but this relic of football’s offensive past is starting to fade for lack of effectiveness.

At 300-plus pounds, few of the modern offensive linemen possess the quickness to get away from the line of scrimmage before being caught up in the congestion, and the speed to make it to the designated spot while the play is still going on.  There is another key component necessary to allowing one of your linemen to pull successfully that is also mostly lacking – the art of the downblock.

Frequently, as a guard takes his place at the line of scrimmage, there is a defensive tackle lining up across from him.  If this guard is supposed to pull on this particular play, that would render him unable to block the tackle – allowing him to disrupt the play.  To compensate, another near-by lineman – in this case, usually the center – would slide over at the snap and block the tackle.

This agility and athleticism was the trademark of those Dolphins and many other teams of that era.  Today – since defensive linemen are getting smaller and much quicker – it is difficult for offensive linemen to cut them off before they can penetrate.  Much of the time these days, when linemen pull, it ends up as a scrum in the offensive backfield.

But Not the Eagles

All of which makes watching the Philadelphia Eagles such a singular experience.  These Eagles pull like no team I’ve witnessed in many years.  There were probably more cleanly executed pulls, traps and downblocks executed in Sunday’s game than most teams will manage in a season.

While there may well have been a dozen or so perfectly executed run plays, perhaps the best came on the second play of the fourth quarter.  The Eagles faced first-and-10 on their own 48, and lined up with tight end Zach Ertz tight to the right side.  At the snap, left guard Wisniewski bolted around center, heading toward the right side of the formation, while center Kelce executed his perfect downblock on Cowboy nose tackle Maliek Collins.  Meanwhile, the right guard and tackle (Brooks and Johnson) double-teamed Dallas’ other tackle – David Irving, and Ertz flew past end Demarcus Lawrence.

After the initial double-team staggered Irving, both Brooks and Johnson quickly disengaged and hurtled into the defensive secondary, where they effortlessly cleared out linebackers Jaylon Smith and Justin Durant.  As to Lawrence – who was unblocked to this point – he had to hesitate to see whether Wentz was going to keep the ball and roll to his side.  This caused him to pause just long enough to allow Wisniewski to plow through him. Ertz hunted up cornerback Byron Jones and drove him up the field.

By the time running back LeGarrette Blount reached the line of scrimmage, the entire Dallas defense had been picked off and pushed out of the way – exactly as it had been drawn up.  Blount would finally be caught from behind on the Cowboy 22 – after a 30 yards gain.

On that play, left tackle Vaitai had the easiest assignment – turning Cowboy end Taco Charlton to the outside.  But on this evening every Eagle lineman would have their moment – even Vaitai who is filling in for injured legend Jason Peters.  On Philadelphia’s longest offensive play of the game – Jay Ajayi’s 71-yard run – it would be Vaitai, pulling from left tackle – who would throw the key block.

Ghosts of Cowboys Past

The entire second half would be eerily reminiscent of the Cowboy teams of the mid-1990s that would pound teams into submission in the second half of their games.  Philadelphia ran the ball 23 times in the second half for 180 yards – sending them to 215 rushing yards on the game.

A total even the 1972 Dolphins wouldn’t have been embarrassed to own.

And Then There Was the Defensive Line

Almost as dominant was the Eagle defensive line.  They kept the pressure on quarterback Dak Prescott the entire night, while rarely letting him escape the pocket.  Watching the game, it seemed like the Eagles blitzed constantly.  In reality, Prescott saw only 10 blitzes in his 35 drop-backs (29%).  But those blitzes were effective enough.  Dak was only 3 for 8 for 19 yards, 2 sacks, and 1 interception when facing the Eagle blitz.

The rest of the time Fletcher Cox, Timmy Jernigan and Chris Long constricted the pocket.  Right defensive end Derek Barnett had the opportunity to exploit Dallas’ weakness at left tackle.  With starting tackle Tyron Smith missing his second straight game, Dallas turned to Byron Bell.  While his effort was decidedly better than Chaz Green’s the game before, the Cowboys still struggled all night trying to keep Barnett out of the backfield.

The pressure from Barnett, the blitzes and the false blitzes all took their toll on Prescott.  Dak played fast most of the night, and his accuracy suffered noticeably.  What a change for Dak from last year.

Last year at this time, Prescott was playing easy behind what was then regarded as football’s best offensive line.  But left guard Ronald Leary is in Denver now, and right tackle Doug Free retired.  With Smith sitting out with his injury, the Cowboys are down to just two of last year’s five starting offensive linemen.

And it makes quite a difference.

Last year, Dallas streaked to a 13-3 record and the top seed in their conference.  This year they are unlikely to make the playoffs.  That’s how quickly life can change in the NFL.  The Eagles and the other teams currently riding on top of the football world should take notice.

Are the Falcons Really the Falcons Again?

Perhaps your memory of the 2016 Atlanta Falcons is similar to mine.  As they hit their peak last year, they came out of the locker room ready to play.  On their playoff run, they developed a “shock-and-awe” meme that served them very well.

On the final game of the regular season (January 1 of this year), Matt Ryan tossed 4 touchdown passes, and the running game provided 88 yards and another touchdown.  And that was just the first half, as the Falcons jumped to a 35-13 lead (scoring touchdowns on their first five possessions) on their way to a 38-32 conquest of New Orleans.

Against Seattle, in the Divisional Round, it did take them a few possessions to solve the league’s third-ranked scoring defense, but the Falcons punched through with 19 second-quarter points, on their way to a 36-20 win.  In the Championship Game against the Packers, they were ahead 10-0 after the first quarter and 24-0 at the half, scoring touchdowns after both Green Bay turnovers.  They eventually built a 37-7 lead, and went on to win that one 44-21.

And then in the Super Bowl, Atlanta raced out to a 21-3 halftime lead.  Halfway through the third quarter, they led 28-3 – again scoring two touchdowns on turnovers.  In all three phases (as the familiar cliché goes), the Falcons put you on the defensive from the very beginning.  It almost gave them an aura of invincibility.

This Year’s Falcons a Work in Progress

For a variety of reasons, that aspect of the Falcons has been kind of hit and miss this season.  Even during their 3-0 start, they were sometimes that team and sometimes not.  Some of this has been due to stubbornness on offense.

Last year’s passing attack was uncommonly explosive.  Trigger man Matt Ryan tossed 38 touchdown passes and averaged a league-best 13.3 yards per completed pass.  Un-coverable receiver Julio Jones was a huge cog in the machine.  He finished 2016 with 1409 yards on 83 catches even though he missed two games.

For most of the season, the Falcons have been struggling to regain that trademark deep strike attack against defenses geared to prevent just that sort of thing.

Over the last two games, though, Atlanta has started to adjust.  Their last two games (a 27-7 win over Dallas two weeks ago and last week’s 34-31 victory over Seattle in Seattle – gamebook) showed a similar pattern.

Crucial Wins

Both games played closely for a half.  The Falcons led Dallas 10-7 after thirty minutes, and then went into the locker room ahead of Seattle 24-17.

Both games saw a resurgence of the running game in the second half.  In the Dallas game, Atlanta managed 41 first half rushing yards (just 3.2 yards per carry).  The first half running was even worse against Seattle – 12 yards on 14 carries.  But 16 second half carries against the Seahawks produced 77 yards (4.8 per), one week after the Falcons racked up 91 yards on 21 second half carries against the Cowboys (4.3 yards per).  So, over the last two games, Atlanta is a combined 27 rushes for 53 yards in the first halves of those games (1.96 yards per), and a combined 37 rushes for 168 yards (4.5 per) in the two second halves.

Off of that resurgent running game, Ryan and the Falcons have layered a more patient passing attack – one less reliant on big plays and more willing to take what the defense is offering.  Against Dallas, Ryan began 11 of 17 for just 94 yards with no touchdowns and one interception.  After the half, he riddled the Cowboy pass defense to the tune of 11 of 12 for 121 yards and 2 touchdowns.  Similarly, he went into halftime against Seattle just 9 of 15 for 98 yards and 1 touchdown.  Thereafter, he was 10 of 12 for 97 yards and another touchdown.

So – again combining the halves of the two games – Matty is 20 of 32 (62.5%) for 192 yards (6.00 per attempt and 9.60 per completion) with 1 touchdown pass and 1 interception in the two first halves – a very pedestrian 76.6 passer rating.  In his last two second halves, Ryan is 21 for 24 (87.5%) for 218 yards (9.08 yards per pass and 10.4 per completion), with 3 touchdowns and no interceptions.  This adds up to a passer rating of 144.1.

Looking Like Last Year’s Falcons

Against the Seahawks, Atlanta took the opening kickoff and marched 52 yards for a touchdown.  The defense contributed a quick interception, setting the offense up again for a short-field touchdown.  It was 14-0 Falcons after just 7 minutes of play.  When the Falcons returned a fumble for a touchdown early in the second quarter, their lead swelled to 21-3 after less than 16 minutes of play – very reminiscent of the shock-and-awe Falcons at the end of the 2016 season.

With these two crucial victories, the Falcons have pushed their way – temporarily – into the playoff picture.  But it will be an almost weekly grind for this Atlanta team.  Now 6-4, their last 6 games will feature two games against the 4-6 Tampa Bay Buccaneers.  The rest of the schedule will be two games against the 8-2 New Orleans Saints, and games against the 9-2 Minnesota Viking and the 7-3 Carolina Panthers.

The up-and-down Falcons cannot afford to take any more weeks off – even against Tampa Bay.  The path before them is very daunting.

Seattle Footnote

The Seahawks have now lost two consecutive home games and barely survived Houston the game before.  None of these teams seemed overly disturbed by the intense noise generated by the crowd.  This was especially true of the Falcons – who have now been exposed to it several times over the last few years.

Don’t Look Now

The Falcon’s opponents in that last Super Bowl have been on a roll of their own.  After losing two of their first four games, the New England Patriot’s secured their sixth straight victory with a 33-8 domination of the Oakland Raiders (gamebook).

Part of this was fairly expected.  Pass defense has been an inviting Raider weakness all season.  They entered the game allowing opposing passer’s a devastating 110.5 rating against them.  Not an encouraging situation when facing Tom Brady and the heralded Patriot passing attack.  Brady flayed them to the tune of 30 of 37 for 339 yards and 3 touchdowns.  Of course, he threw no interceptions – leading to a 131.9 passer rating.  New England started the game 5 of 6 on third down, and then averaged 8 yards per offensive play in the second half.

The Patriots’ Pass Defense is a Thing

But the thing to take strong notice of with the Patriots is the defense – especially the pass defense.  Mostly disorganized and something of a mess early in the season, New England’s first four opponents exploited the Patriots’ re-constructed pass defense.  They completed 69.7% of their passes against them, averaging 13.5 yards per completed pass.  In those first four, New England allowed 11 touchdown passed while intercepting just 3 passes.  It all added up to a distressing 116.5 passer rating against.

Over the next three games, the pass defense started to show improvement.  The completion percentage dropped to 63.5%.  The yards per catch also diminished to 11.5.  Over those next three games, New England allowed just 4 touchdown passes, with their 2 interceptions bringing them to a more normal 89.4 passer rating against.  (NFL averages are currently 62.5% completions, 11.3 yards per completion, and an 88.2 passer rating.)

Over their last three games, Patriot opponents have now completed just 56.3% of their passes, gaining just 10.6 yards per completion.  The touchdowns and interceptions have been equal at 3 each.  The passer rating against them over those games has been just 71.7.  While one of those contests was against Brock Osweiler and the struggling Denver offense, the other two have been against the Chargers and Raiders with dangerous quarterbacks Philip Rivers and Derek Carr.  Rivers entered that game with an 89.9 passer rating.  Carr’s was 91.8.  They combined for a 71.1 rating in their games against New England.

Especially in these last three games, the Chargers, Broncos and Raiders played very well for most of the game.  But every time they had a little lapse, they paid for it.  And every one who plays New England understands that this is how it is when you play the Patriots.  They will make you pay for all of your mistakes.

Just like last year.

The AFC Playoff Picture

With Kansas City’s surprising loss, the Chiefs – once 5-0 on the season – are starting to slip behind the crowd fighting for the number one seed.  The Week 15 contest between New England and Pittsburgh still looks like it will decide the AFC’s top seed.  Jacksonville now pushes ahead of the Chiefs for the number 3 spot.  Tennessee currently leads Baltimore for the fifth wildcard spot, but as the teams come down the stretch, I’m expecting the Ravens to swap places with the Titans.  Baltimore still looks out of sync on offense, but Tennessee has three road games in their next four, and when they finally come home they will have the Rams and the Jaguars to face them – too tough for a team that I don’t really believe in yet.

Speaking of the Rams

In one of the season’s more anticipated games, the Los Angeles Rams (then 7-2) visited the Minnesota Vikings (then also 7-2).  Most anticipated was the clash between the Ram offense – leading the NFL in scoring at 296 points, while ranking third in total offense, fifth in rushing (128.8 yards per game) and sixth in passing (led by hot second-year quarterback Jared Goff and his 101.5 rating) – and the Minnesota defense – ranked third against the run (just 81.3 yards per game), fifth in total yardage, and tenth in allowing fewest points (just 165).  Opposing passers struggled to an 80.8 rating against Minnesota – the eighth lowest rating in the NFL.

For as anticipated as the matchup was, the result was disappointingly one-sided.  The impressive Viking defense smothered the Rams’ running game.  Todd Gurley ended the day with just 37 yards on 15 carries, never gaining more than 8 yards on any run.  They also eliminated the big-play passing attack.  The Rams had no completion over 23 yards.  In the game’s second half, they had no play longer than 15 yards.  Goff completed 12 second half passes for only 107 yards (8.92 per completion).  He finished the game with a very modest 79.2 rating.

Meanwhile, the Vikings capably exploited Los Angeles’ defensive weakness against the run.  The Rams came in allowing 118 rushing yards a game (ranked twenty-fourth).  Minnesota pounded then to the tune of 171 yards – running the clock for 20:06 of the second half – on their way to a convincing 24-7 win (gamebook).

More about Minnesota next week.

Next Up New Orleans

For the Rams, this is a sobering dash of cold water one week before one of the defining games in the NFC this season.  The Rams have some issues to address before facing the New Orleans Saints – currently riding an eight-game winning streak and boasting the top offense (by yards) in the NFL and the third best running attack (144 yards per game).  At 4.8 yards per rushing attempt, the Saints have the most explosive running game in the league.  After last week’s pounding, the Rams are now twenty-seventh in the NFL in yards per rushing attempt (4.5) and twenty-eighth in rushing yards allowed per game (123.3).

In a contest that will significantly impact home field advantage in the playoffs, the Rams have this game at home.  But they will have to find some way of stopping the New Orleans running attack without leaving themselves too vulnerable to Drew Brees and that passing attack.

It will be a tall order.

Second Half Quarterbacks

In their last game in New England, the Los Angeles Chargers looked like they finally had found their running game.  They lost, but rung up 157 rushing yards, with feature back Melvin Gordon accounting for 132 of them on just 14 carries (9.4 per carry).  Gordon had gained 997 yards the previous year, in spite of playing in only 13 games (starting 11).  The re-discovered running game would be important going forward.

On the other sideline, the Jacksonville Jaguars were welcoming back rookie running sensation Leonard Fournette after a one-game suspension.  Leonard had amassed 596 rushing yards in six games, including 311 in his previous two games.  With the running game being the foundation of the Jaguars’ offense, his return was welcomed.

At the half of last Sunday’s game between the Chargers and the Jaguars, Los Angeles held a 7-6 lead.  Gordon had managed just 16 yards on 8 carries.  Fournette was held to 21 on 9 carries.  By game’s end – after more than 71 minutes of football – these two premier backs had accounted for 60 combined yards on 33 combined rushes – less than two yards a carry.

With the running games unable to get untracked, the contest hinged on the two passing games.

Rivers vs Bortles

For their part, Los Angeles had veteran Philip Rivers.  Going head to head against the number one pass defense in the NFL (and also the defense with the lowest passer rating against – 63.5), Rivers held his own. Philip finished 21 of 37 for 235 yards with 2 touchdowns and 1 interception.  Without much of a running game, and with consistent up the middle pressure, Rivers and the Chargers fought their way to 17 points – about as much as could be reasonably expected under the circumstances.

The curiosity in this game was the other quarterback – Jacksonville’s much discussed Blake Bortles.

The quarterback who earlier this year threw only one pass in the second half of the Pittsburgh game, now held Jacksonville’s fate in his hands.

Throughout the first half, Jacksonville maintained admirable balance.  Their 27 plays were 14 runs and 13 mostly safe passes.  Bortles took one downfield shot, overthrowing Keelan Cole.  But Blake was 11-for-11 throwing underneath against the Chargers.  However, the short passes only accounted for 75 yards, and the only time that Jacksonville found the end zone was on a spectacular fake punt.  Other than Corey Grant’s 56-yard explosion, the running game had contributed just 33 yards.

So, the wraps came off Bortles in the games second half (which ended up being almost three full quarters).  And with decidedly mixed results.

After throwing 12 times in the first half, Blake threw 39 times in the second.  But his 11 first half completions were answered by only 17 in the second half.  His completion percentage fell from 91.7% through the first 30 minutes to just 43.6% thereafter.  After managing just 75 passing yards early, Blake threw for 198 thereafter, but for only a 5.08 yard average per pass, after averaging 6.25 in the first half.

As the focus was decidedly more downfield, his average per completion rose sharply from 6.82 to 11.65, and he threw for his only touchdown of the day.  He also threw two bad-decision interceptions that nearly cost Jacksonville the game.

The Jags held on for a 20-17 victory (gamebook), but the questions continue.  If Jacksonville needs Blake to throw the team to victory against a top opponent (perhaps in a playoff situation), could he do it?

Sunday’s second half against Los Angeles casts some doubt.

Second-Half Jared

Facing a team that had rolled up more than fifty point in its previous game, the Houston defense held the Texans in the game for the first 35 minutes or so.  The Los Angeles Rams had gone in at halftime with just 3 field goals and a 9-7 lead.  As in the Jacksonville game, the Rams’ premier running back Todd Gurley was a non-factor (as a runner).  He rushed for 19 first-half yards.  Meanwhile, Jared Goff and the passing attack weren’t re-writing history either.  Jared went into the locker room with only 104 passing yards on 11 of 20 passing.  Of the 131 total yards LA had to show for the first 30 minutes, 43 came on a short catch and run by Gurley.  Had the Houston offense been able to take advantage, the story of the second half might have been much different.

But the Texans let the Rams hang around and then watched as LA pulled away with 24 unanswered second-half points – on their way to a 33-7 victory (gamebook).  There were a couple of quarterbacks who had brilliant second halves last week.  Arguably Jared Goff’s was the best.

A little bit rushed and flustered through the game’s first thirty minutes, Goff returned for the second half on fire.  Beginning with a perfectly-thrown, 94-yard touchdown strike to Robert Woods, Goff went on to complete 14 of his last 17 passes (82.4%) for an astonishing 254 yards (an average of 17.93 yards per completion) with 3 touchdowns and no interceptions.  On the receiving end, Woods caught all 6 second-half passes thrown to him for 161 yards and 2 touchdowns. Coming one week after his third-and-33 touchdown catch, Woods is, perhaps, forcing his way into a bigger role on this offense.

And, yes, that is the Rams now 7-2.  The intensity of the stretch drive and of the playoffs may catch up to this young team at some point, but nine games into the season they look like more than just a September illusion.

What to Make of the Atlanta-Dallas Game

If Jared Goff’s second half was better than Atlanta’s Matt Ryan’s, it was only marginally so.  Like Goff, Ryan started out a little average.  He completed 11 of 17 first half passes, but for only 94 yards, with no touchdowns and 1 interception.  But coming out of halftime and holding to just a 10-7 lead, Ryan and the Falcon offense finally found their groove.  Matty finished his game completing 11 of his last 12 for 121 yards and 2 touchdowns.

Perhaps the great awakening in the Atlanta offense was nothing more than patience and a little dose of humility.  Instead of stubbornly trying to throw up the field to Julio Jones against coverages overloaded to stop that very strategy, Ryan and the Falcons spent the second half of last Sunday’s game peppering the Cowboys with underneath routes.  For the game, Ryan completed only one throw of over 20 yards (a 24-yarder to Jones early in the second half).  All of his other completions exploited Dallas’ focus on Jones and the deep passing game.

Equally important, the Atlanta running game emerged in the second half, gaining 91 yards on 21 carries and the Falcons walked away with a 27-7 win (gamebook).  One of the things the first half of the season has taught us is that the more balanced the Falcon offense is, the more explosive it is.

The Zeke Factor

The tempting thing here, of course, is to say “well, Dallas was without premier back Ezekiel Elliott, so . . .” But I’m not sure that effectively accounts for the outcome.

Elliott, famously, has been fighting a suspension for the entire year – a suspension that finally began with this game.  Would he have made a difference?  Of course.  But to say he would have propelled Dallas to victory not only slights the Atlanta Falcons and Alfred Morris (who replaced Elliott), but grossly over-values Elliott’s contributions.

The truth is that running the football was probably the best thing that Dallas did on Sunday. They finished with 107 rushing yards, and Morris had 53 of those on 11 carries (4.8 yards per).  The failure to truly establish the run game had more to do with the defense’s inability to contain the Falcon offense – allowing the score to get out of hand – and the struggles of the Cowboy passing game.

With tackle Tyron Smith nursing injuries, Dallas turned to Chaz Green to man that all-important left tackle spot.  To say that he was overmatched by Falcon rush end Adrian Clayborn would be a sizeable understatement.

Cowboy quarterback Dak Prescott finished the game completing 20 of 30 passes – but for only 176 yards.  Prescott began the game having been sacked only 10 times all season.  In this game alone, he went down 8 times (for 50 yards) – 6 of them credited to Clayborn (a game he will remember for a while).

In general, I’m inclined to think this game was more about the Falcons re-discovering themselves than it was conclusive evidence that the Cowboys are rudderless without Elliott.  Next up for Dallas is a crucial division matchup against Philadelphia.  Atlanta journeys to Seattle to play the damaged but dangerous Seahawks.  We will probably know more about both these teams by this time next week.

Playoff Implications

The game was billed as a must win for the Falcons – and that is true enough.  At 4-4, Atlanta’s position was certainly precarious.  Even with the win, though, the Falcons chances still aren’t great.  They currently sit one game behind the Seahawks for the last spot, so a win Monday night could thrust them momentarily into that playoff spot.  The Falcons also have a very tough closing schedule.  After Seattle in Seattle, they will still have Minnesota and Carolina on their schedule, as well as high-flying New Orleans twice.

If Atlanta is going to fight its way in, they will have to earn it.

In the long run, the loss may hurt Dallas more than the win will help Atlanta.  Considering how much harder Dallas’ remaining schedule is than Carolina’s (the team they will likely be battling for that playoff spot) this loss was very damaging to the Cowboys.  They still have two games against Philadelphia, as well as Washington, Oakland and Seattle on their list.  Carolina will have challenges – they have New Orleans, Minnesota and Atlanta left – but clearly not as many.  With Dallas needing to make up a game and a half on the Panthers, facing a tougher schedule, and now without their best linebacker (Sean Lee) for a while, Dallas’ playoff hopes are suddenly looking pretty bleak.

And the Panthers (who looked ripe for the plucking last week) have seen their playoff conditions notably improved with the Dallas loss.  A Week 14 win against the Vikings (and that game is at home) could easily propel Carolina into the fifth seed, leaving Minnesota as the sixth.

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.