Passes, Passes Everywhere

The Broncos trailed by only a touchdown (14-7) with nearly half of the second quarter left (7:01 to be exact) when they officially gave up on the run.  Case Keenum would drop back on 17 of the next 18 snaps, and 44 of their last 49 offensive plays for the afternoon.  Keenum finished with 51 pass attempts while being sacked 4 other times.  Denver finished with just 16 points in a 34-16 loss to the Jets.

The Packers never made it that far.  Never really intending to run the ball against Detroit, the shallow commitment that Green Bay made to the run ended at the 11:45 mark of the second quarter, after the last of four straight carries from Aaron Jones.  Detroit was ahead 17-0 at the time.  Aaron Rodgers was in passing mode for 48 of Green Bay’s last 57 plays.  He ended the game having thrown 52 passes while suffering 4 sacks.  The Packers also lost 31-23.

Knowing that any chance they had of victory depended on them running the ball, the San Francisco 49ers stayed somewhat committed to the run until 8:22 remained in the game.  At that point they trailed Arizona by only 8 points (14-6) on a day when they would end up rushing for 147 yards.  But even they couldn’t keep with it.  Backup quarterback C.J. Beathard dropped to pass on 20 of his final 23 snaps.  For the game, Beathard threw 54 passes and was also sacked 4 times.  San Francisco scored just 18 points in their loss.

Over almost 5 complete quarters of football, Baltimore’s Joe Flacco threw the ball 56 times.  The Ravens never scored a touchdown, and lost 12-9 in Cleveland.

After the Colts fell behind the New England Patriots 24-3 at the half, it was pretty clear that Andrew Luck would be throwing a lot for the rest of the evening.  Luck put the ball in the air 38 times in the second half alone – finishing with 59 passes for the game in a 38-24 loss.

With 5:27 left in the third quarter, Jacksonville’s T.J. Yeldon earned a hard yard around right end.  Trailing Kansas City 23-0 at that point, the Jaguars would not hand off to a running back again.  Jacksonville’s last 42 offensive plays resulted in 36 Blake Bortles passes, three sacks of Blake Bortles, two quarterback sneaks by Blake Bortles to pick up first downs.  And one 21-yard touchdown scramble by Blake Bortles.

Blake ended up with a 61-pass afternoon, with the expected result – a 30-14 loss.

Now, of course it’s understood that once a team falls significantly behind in a game, they don’t have the liberty to be as patient with the running game as they might like to be.  And, furthermore, if you have an Aaron Rodgers or an Andrew Luck behind center, a heavy emphasis on the pass might well be your best option.

But if your quarterback is Case Keenum or C.J. Beathard – or even, perhaps, Blake Bortles – then abandoning the running game (regardless of the score) is tantamount to surrender.  Even beyond this, I’m not sure very many coaches appreciate how quickly a game can turn around, once your offense regains control of the line of scrimmage.  Once you commit to running the ball.

Let’s take the worst of these situations.  Let’s say that you are Jacksonville and down 23 points with five and a half minutes left in the third quarter.  Suppose they had stayed committed to the run just a little longer?  What if they had drained the last 5:27 of the third quarter on a nice 75-yard, 12-play run-dominated touchdown drive – and remember that when Jacksonville did choose to run the ball, they did average 5.9 yards per attempt.  It is entirely possible that if they had continued to work their running game, that the Chief defense might have given into fatigue – leading to an even more productive running game in the fourth quarter.

At this point – with about 15 minutes left – they would have pulled to within 23-7.  The Kansas City offense would have been off the field for quite a while.  With KC’s offensive rhythm interrupted, perhaps the Jags defense could have managed a quick three-and-out, giving the Jacksonville offense another chance to continue pounding a tiring KC defense.

In such situations, momentum in a game can chance quickly – a sudden turnover, perhaps a big play from special teams.  Now, we have a ballgame again.  Something that just will not happen with Bortles throwing the ball 61 times.

Last year, all quarterbacks averaged 34.2 passes per game.  So far this year, that number has increased to 36.6.  In Week Five, in addition to the six quarterbacks I listed who threw the ball at least 50 times, there were three others who threw the ball more than 40 times.  All Week Five quarterbacks averaged 37.6 passes per game.

Lots of teams are just too eager to give up on the run

Sticking With the Run

One team that has re-committed to the run is the Seattle Seahawks – even though in Russell Wilson they have the kind of electric quarterback that could consistently throw the ball 40 times and do pretty well.

But, for the first time since the height of the Marshawn Lynch era, the Seahawks have become a tough running team.  Against the Rams last Sunday, Chris Carson ran for 116 yards, and Mike Davis added 68 more.  In all, Seattle rushed for 190 yards.  Of those, 114 came right up the middle.

After totaling 138 rush yards through their first two games, Seattle has earned at least 113 rush yards in each of their last three games – totaling 474 yards in those games.  Seattle has re-discovered its identity.

Wilson finished the game throwing just 21 times – with a 132.5 passer rating.  Seattle put up 31 points, going 7 for 12 on third down.  Alas, it was not enough as the still undefeated Rams managed a come-from-behind, 33-31 victory (gamebook) (summary).

Five games into the season, and the 5-0 Rams still look unstoppable on offense.  The Rams have already put up 173 points on the season (scoring at least 33 in each game), and rank first in total offense, second in passing and seventh in rushing.  They are a relentless and scary group.

Chiefs Win Too

Also undefeated – and seemingly unstoppable on offense – are the Kansas City Chiefs after their 30-14 conquest of Jacksonville (gamebook) (summary).

This was the game in which Bortles threw 61 passes.  Some of the throws were terrific.  Many weren’t.  Some of his decisions were questionable.  He ended the day chucking 4 interceptions and made several other dangerous throws.

These are the kinds of games that make me wonder about Blake.  When everything else is functioning as planned – when the defense is throttling the opposing offense and the running game is keeping the offense on schedule – when his pass protection is solid and his speed receivers can stretch out the underneath zones – when all of this is clicking, Blake Bortles can be (and has been) devastatingly good.

But when he has to put the team on his shoulders – like we’ve seen the other franchise quarterbacks do – this kind of thing happens.

Discipline Concerns in KC?

While the victory was surprisingly easy for the Chiefs, before the game ended they collected four incomprehensible after-the-whistle fouls that led to the ejections of two players. 

The shenanigans began with 44 seconds left in the first half and the Chiefs up 20-0.  Bortles went up the right sideline with a long throw broken up by Orlando Scandrick.  It should have been second-and-ten from the KC 20.  But, inexplicably, after the play KC defensive end Dee Ford turned and shoved Jacksonville guard Josh Walker right in front of the referee.  That gave the Jags a first and goal.

Nothing came of this as Bortles tossed an end-zone interception two plays later.

About midway through the third quarter – with KC still up 20-0 and driving – running back Kareem Hunt bolted up the sideline for 24 yards.  As soon as linebacker Telvin Smith forced him out of bounds, Hunt raced back up to Smith to deliver an abrupt head-butt.  This was the most egregious of the fouls, and KC ended up settling for a field goal.

Chris Jones became the first Chief to get tossed from the game.  When Jacksonville finally trimmed the lead to 23-7 with 3:10 left in the third, Jones – on the ground after the extra-point was kicked – inexplicably punched the Jacksonville lineman that he was on top of in the leg.

Dee Ford got himself tossed from the contest and contributed to Jacksonville’s final scoring drive of the game.  Facing third-and-15 with about half the last quarter gone, Bortles was flushed from the pocket and scrambled toward the right sideline.  Before he could get there, a shove from Allen Bailey sent him over the line and tumbling into the bench area.

What should have been a fourth-and-20 became a first-and-10 as Ford made it a point to stand over the fallen Jacksonville quarterback long enough to draw the flag and get himself ejected (this is a taunting penalty).  With the extra chance, the Jags pushed their way to the game’s final touchdown.

Kansas City has been a scary-good team.  But there is still a lot of season left.  Composure will be important as the games get more important down the stretch.  It’s hard to say if some slight loss of discipline will be the mistake that costs the Chiefs their season.

Turning the Corner?

One of the shocks of opening weekend was Cleveland forcing a 21-21 tie with divisional heavyweight Pittsburgh.  The Browns, of course, had been winless the season before, and 1-15 in 2016.  They had lost 44 out of 48 games over the previous three seasons.

Following the tie with the Steelers, the Browns have picked up victories against the Jets, and last week they outlasted the Baltimore Ravens, 12-9 in overtime (gamebook) (summary).  Five weeks into the 2018 season, Cleveland holds the NFL’s second-ranked running game, grinding out 144.6 rushing yards a game, and averaging 4.6 yards per rush. 

Meanwhile the defense has been notably better.  Through five games, the Browns have allowed more than 21 points only once, rank twelfth in defensive points allowed, and have held opposing passers to a 74.2 passer rating.  Flacco’s rating was only 60.0 after his 56-pass afternoon on Sunday.

For many futile years in the American League, baseball’s Cleveland Indians were called the “mistake by the lake.”  In recent years, Cleveland’s baseball team has turned its program around.  Perhaps – just perhaps – the NFL’s version of the mistake by the lake might finally be competitive for the first time in a while.

A Rough Start

The last time Frank Reich (new head coach in Indianapolis) saw the New England Patriots, he was roaming the Philadelphia sidelines as the offensive coordinator during last year’s Super Bowl.  How compelling to imagine what that experience must have been like, as two career backup quarterbacks (Reich and Eagle head coach Doug Pederson) constructed a game plan for their backup quarterback (Nick Foles) to conquer the seemingly unconquerable Patriots.

It took them until the last play of the game, but Frank’s Eagles prevailed.

His experience last Thursday was much different.

As of Tuesday morning, Reich’s Indianapolis Colts are carrying an injured-reserve list of 10 different players.  There were nine additional players who were unavailable for the game against the Patriots.  This group included go-to wide receiver T.Y. Hilton.  Significantly, that group also included starting cornerbacks Nate Hairston and Kenny Moore, as well as useful third-corner Quincy Wilson.  During the game, they lost starting safety Clayton Geathers and backup Matthias Farley.

The Patriots would have presented a significant challenge even if the very-young Colts were completely healthy.  With significant injuries, their hands were tied even more.

Offensively, the re-built Colts showed a little spunk.  Rookie running back Nyheim Hines showed a little spark, although Indy failed to really establish anything on the ground.  Meanwhile, quarterback Andrew Luck’s surgically re-invented right shoulder continues to rebound.  Trailing 24-3 at the half, the Colts closed to within 24-17 with almost 13 minutes left.

But the thinning of the secondary left them all too vulnerable in pass defense.  Afraid that they couldn’t match up with the Patriot receivers, the Colts went to very soft zones.  With no appreciable pass rush, Tom Brady and his cohorts repeatedly exploited the underneath areas of the coverage.

With 8:49 left in the first half, Brady overthrew running back James White on a go route up the right sideline.  It was his first legitimate miss of the game.  Prior to that toss, Tom had completed 14 of his first 15 pass – his only incompletion being a drop by Julian Edelman.

Brady wrapped up that first half 23 of 27 (85.2%) but for just 203 yards (just 8.82 yds per completion).  His two first-half touchdown passes – along with his one 1-yard touchdown dive – were instrumental in building that 24-3 first half lead.  For the evening, Brady only completed one down-field pass.

It resulted in the five hundredth touchdown pass of Tom’s career.  After standing comfortably in the pocket for a small eternity, Brady launched a deep strike to Josh Gordon, curling into the right flat of the end zone.  Josh wasn’t alone – there were two Indianapolis defenders waiting for the throw, but he made a very athletic adjustment to the ball, positioning himself to make a leaping grab of the pass.

Welcome to New England, Mr. Gordon.

For Indianapolis, the 38-24 defeat dropped them to 1-4 in the early going (gamebook) (summary).  It will be a process in Indy.  Five weeks into his inaugural season, Reich’s Colts rank twenty-second in total offense, twenty-ninth in rushing yards, twenty-seventh in points allowed, twenty-third in total defense and twenty-eighth in pass defense.  But it does look like they have an idea of how to eventually get where they want to go.

A few healthy bodies would help them turn that corner a bit faster.

Finished Birds Show Much Promise

The bottom – when it fell out – fell quickly.  A sensation in August (winning 22 of 28 games), the now very young St Louis Cardinals unraveled in September.  Entering the month, they sported the National League’s second best record, and sat just 3.5 games behind the Cubs for the league’s best mark.  At that point, they were a half-game ahead of Milwaukee for the first wildcard spot, and 3 games ahead of the Dodgers for the last playoff spot.

But at the first hint of September in the air, the delicate flower began to fold.  After winning two of three in early September from Washington, they were still third in the league (and the division) and still had a two-game grip on the last playoff spot.  As they began their last home stand, they still had control of their own destiny – holding that last spot, still, by 1.5 games.

As Milwaukee came into town – with six games left in the season – St Louis sat 87-69, not only still 1.5 games ahead for the second wildcard, but just two behind those Brewers for first wildcard, and just 4.5 behind the Cubs (who they would end the season against) for the potential division title.

The remarkable August had offered them no shortfall of opportunities.

All of these finally wound to an end in the pre-October chill of Wrigley Field as the too young Cardinals were exposed again by the Cubs, 10-5 (box score).  The loss finished a string where the baby birds lost 5 of their last 6 (and that on the heels of a three-game winning streak), 12 of the last 22 following the Washington series, and 15 of the 27 games in September.  Needless to point out, they will not be one of the clubs who will be playing in October.

It is easy, at the end, to be disappointed – and even easier to see where this club needs to get better.  And in future posts, we will look at all of this.  But I think, if we can take a step back and look at this little run in totality, I think we would have to admit that this not-quite-ready-for-prime-time team did more than hold its own.

Remember that of those 16 critical end-of-season games, only 3 were played against a team (San Francisco) that did not make the playoffs.  Of their 27 September games, 19 were against teams that finished with winning records.  Of the 68 games they played after the All-Star Break, fully 50 were against teams that finished the season over .500.  They were 29-21 in those games.  For the season, they lined up 93 times against teams that won more than they lost this year.  Through myriad injuries and significant upheaval, the 2018 St Louis Cardinals fought their way to a 50-43 record against these opponents.

Yes, at the end of the day, the youngsters – the pitchers especially – were not up to the September challenge.  But there was certainly enough promise on display to paint a very hopeful picture for much winning in 2019 and beyond.

Jack Flaherty

Jack Flaherty’s tremendous rookie season ended with something of a thud.  He lasted just 2.2 innings during the finale, serving up 4 runs on 4 hits.  His September ended with just 1 quality start in his last six, an 0-3 record, 18 walks and 2 hit batsmen in his 28.2 innings, and a 5.34 ERA.  There are better things ahead for young Mr Flaherty.  In spite of his shaky September, Jack started 19 games this season against teams that would win more than they lose.  His record in those games was only 5-7, but with a 3.35 ERA and a .198 batting average against.  He struck out 124 in 102 innings – 10.94 per nine innings against winning teams.

Jack is an arm to keep an eye on for next year.

As for his recent struggles, they pretty much mirrored the entire rotation this month.  Cardinal starters finished the month with a 4.60 ERA and just 7 quality starts among their 27 games.

Bullpen Sputters to the End.

The game was still close when Mike Shildt went to get Flaherty.  It was just 3-2 Chicago at the time.  So one last time, for 2018 anyway, Shildt entrusted the game to his bullpen.  The results were consistent with the performance through the rest of this month.  Five-and-a-third innings later, Chicago – in addition to scoring one of the runners that Flaherty had left on base – had scored 6 additional runs (4 earned) on 8 hits – including 3 doubles and a home run – and 3 walks.  Even though the offense eventually scrapped its way to 5 runs of their own, they were never really in it once the pen took over.

The September numbers tell the story.  In 104.1 innings (almost 4 a game), the Cardinal bullpen gave 71 runs (58 earned) on 111 hits including 15 home runs.  They also walked 68 batters.  They finished the month with a 5.00 ERA, a .275 batting average against, and a .376 on base percentage against.

In the 19 games against winning teams that St Louis played last month, the bullpen vulnerability was even more pronounced.  In their 72.2 innings against the Nationals, Pirates, Dodgers, Braves, Brewers and Cubs, St Louis relievers gave 61 runs (49 earned) on 88 hits (including 12 home runs) and 53 walks.  Their 6.07 ERA in those contests was accompanied by a .299/.403/.510 batting line against – a cool .913 OPS.

The bullpen was a concern going into last off-season.  It will be again.

Austin Gomber

Austin Gomber’s trajectory – and season’s end, for that matter – closely mirror that of Flaherty.  Another of the August revelations, Gomber served up 4 runs of his own in two relief innings in the finale.  His damage included allowing his fourth home run in his last 10.2 innings.  Austin ended September with a 9.15 ERA in 19.2 innings that included a batting line against of .356/.408/.578.

TylerWebb

The season’s last two runs allowed were charged to Tyler Webb.  They were both unearned.  All of the last 5 runs that Tyler allowed this year were unearned.

Dakota Hudson

Dakota Hudson did finally get the last out of the sixth inning – but not until after he had allowed both inherited runs to score.  Ten of the last 13 runners that Hudson (a starter in the minors) has inherited have scored.

Jose Martinez

Jose Martinez finished his first season as an April-September (mostly) every-day player with two more hits and a walk.  Martinez came down the stretch with hits in 9 of his last 11 games, getting two hits in six of them.  In those critical games against Atlanta, San Francisco, Milwaukee and Chicago, Jose hit .357 (15 for 42).

Martinez is another interesting decision that the front office will have to make this offseason.  He is no spring chicken (Jose is 30), his power is good but not great (he hit 17 home runs), and he is a shaky defender – although much better in the outfield than at first base.  There is talk of moving him to an American League team where he can DH, but he doesn’t hit for enough power to truly profile as the DH type.

That would also leave right field open, so the Cards would open the season with either Tyler O’Neill, Dexter Fowler, or some combination of both in right.  Unless, of course, they could sign Bryce Harper – something I would have to see to believe.

One thing to keep in mind with Jose.  He led the team in batting average after the All-Star break, as he hit 318 (69 for 217).  He hit .333 after the break last year (49 for 147) which would have led the team if he had gotten a regular’s at bats.

Moreover, he hit .344 (52 of 151) in his 46 second half games against winning teams.  At this point, I’m not convinced that the Cards are a better team without him.

Paul DeJong

Wading through a difficult season, Paul DeJong did, at least, end on a high note.  With his two hits in the finale, Paul ended his season with hits in 4 straight games, and in 12 of his last 13.  For the streak, he hit .302 (16 for 53) with 6 doubles and a couple of home runs.  He drove in 11 runs and slugged .528 over those last 13 games.

Patrick Wisdom

A little too old, perhaps, to be considered a true prospect, Patrick Wisdom (now 27) turned some heads with his bat over the last few weeks of the season.  Whether he has an organizational fit or not makes for a good question, but he certainly took advantage of the opportunities that presented themselves.  With his two hits yesterday, Wisdom finished 7 of his last 18 (.389). 

Also intriguing about Wisdom is that his production went up against the better teams.  It’s a decidedly small sample size, but in his 24 games against winning teams, Wisdom hit .323 (10 of 31) with a double and 3 home runs.  He drove in 8 runs in those 31 at bats and slugged .645 against the league’s better teams.

Wisdom is yet another intriguing piece of the Cardinal future.  That last week of the season confirmed that the future isn’t quite now for this team.  But August wasn’t a complete mirage.

The future here is soon.

NoteBook

From the point where they removed the “interim” label from Shildt’s job title, St Louis went 15-16.