Sixth-Seeds Survive

If there was ever a more obvious game plan, I have yet to see it.

WildCard Weekend began with a matchup of divisional rivals.  The Colts and Texans were meeting up for the third time this season.  If you knew nothing else about this game, you knew that the Indianapolis game plan would rely heavily on the arm of quarterback Andrew Luck.

In game one (a 37-34 OT win for Houston), Indianapolis had managed only 41 yards rushing.  In the rematch, 10 weeks later, the Colts worked their ground game for only 50 yards in their 24-21 victory. Meanwhile, Luck had found plenty of matchups he liked in the secondary.  He threw 62 times in the first game for 464 yards.  He threw 41 more times in the re-match for 399 yards.

The season numbers seemed to back the game history.  In spite of the fact that Indianapolis had rushed for 158 yards in their season-ending victory against Tennessee, they still ended the season with the NFL’s twentieth ranked rushing attack – averaging just 107.4 yards per game.

Against them was one of the better defensive front sevens, highlighted by stars like J.J. Watt, Jadeveon Clowney, Whitney Mercilus and Benardrick McKinney.  They finished the season third against the run, allowing just 82.7 yards per game.  The 3.4 yards per rushing attempt that opponents averaged against the Texans was the stingiest figure in the NFL.

In a weekend of down-to-the-wire action, the only game not to be decided on the last play (virtually) proved to be the most surprising.  That Indianapolis won may not be so surprising.  The Colts have wins in 10 of their last 11 games.  That it wasn’t a one score game is somewhat surprising.  Given the history of the two teams and the way the rest of the weekend went, you might have expected a last-minute field goal here.  That being said, the 21-7 final isn’t all that far from normal (gamebook) (summary).

The shocker here is how the Colts won.  On the ground.  On the road.  Against one of the three best run defenses in football.

With no apologies and little fanfare, Indianapolis blew Houston off the line of scrimmage to the tune of 200 rushing yards on 35 attempts, averaging 5.7 yards per attempt.

That, and a large early lead – Indy was up 21-0 at the half – forced Houston to pack away its own running attack (they were ranked eighth in the NFL) and try to win the game on the talented but inexperienced arm and legs of quarterback Deshaun Watson.  As things would play out, his first playoff game was not his finest hour.

First, the Colts Running Game

At the heart of Indy’s rebound from their 1-5 start is their re-invented offensive line.  They won fame this year by keeping Luck upright for 5 straight games.  There hasn’t been much mention made of this group’s ability to block for the run.  That seemed to be an ancillary function.

They were a most important cog in a passing game that saw their quarterback felled only 18 times all season.  They were a foundation upon which Andrew’s 4593-yard, 39-TD pass season was built.  If asked, I suppose most fans of the club would conjecture that these gentlemen could probably block for the run – if that need should ever arise.  But why would they want to?

Last Saturday afternoon, they wanted to.

Their 85 first-half rushing yards nearly equaled their total for the first two games played against these teams.  During the course of that back-breaking first half, the Colts ran the clock for 17:39, out first-downed Houston 20-6, rolled up 277 yards of total offense, went 6-6 on third down, committed just one 5-yard penalty, never punted (of course) and finished 3-4 in the red zone (the first half ran out on their last trip in).  And, of course, allowed no quarterback sacks – this would be yet another game that Andrew would not suffer a sack.

Even though they never scored in the second half, they kept brutalizing the Texan defense, adding 115 more rushing yards on 19 more carries to their total.  Running back Marlon Mack was the main beneficiary.  He ended the day with 148 rushing yards.

Most of that yardage, of course, came behind the blocks of sensational rookie left guard Quenton Nelson.  He set the tone for the night on Indy’s first long run of the game, Mack’s first-quarter, 25-yard sprint around left end.  Nelson pulled to lead, and drove Clowney off the edge and out of the picture.

Nelson has gotten a lot of praise – especially over the last several weeks – and all of it well earned.  But last Saturday the domination was general along the entire line.  This even includes the efforts of blocking tight-end Mo Alie-Cox.  He was also left to block against Clowney several times, and handled the assignment well – if not with the splash of the rookie Nelson.

In particular, I would like to make note of very strong games from the linemen who stand next to Nelson – center Ryan Kelly and left tackle Anthony Castonzo.

Kelly’s overall strong game was highlighted by key, impressive blocks made on the last series of the game, with Houston fully aware that the Colts would be trying to run out the clock.  With three minutes left, Kelly came quickly off his double-team block of Brandon Dunn to dig linebacker Zach Cunningham out of the middle.  That block sprung Mack for 15 yards.  On the very next play, while Kelly and right guard Mark Glowinski were in the act of crumpling Dunn to the ground, Ryan quickly bounced back up to get enough of the on-rushing Cunningham to help create the crease that led to Mack’s game-icing 26-yard run.

As good as Kelly was, Castonzo may have even been better.  He set the edge on numerous left side runs – including his own impressive take out of Clowney on a 29-yard run by Mack late in the third.

Castonzo was also in the middle of two very important runs by Luck.

On third-and-6, backed up at their own 16 early in the third, Houston flushed Luck out of the pocket with a blitz.  Damage was averted, though, as Castonzo was able to push Mercilus wide and open a running lane.  Luck’s 9-yard run netted a first-down and kept the clock moving.

On their next drive, they faced second-and-15 on their own 18.  The Texans blitzed again, with D.J. Reader bursting immediately up the middle.  Again, Castonzo provided the escape hatch as he wedged Clowney inside and gave Luck the corner.  He ran it for 10 yards.

Neither of these drives went on to produce points, but the Luck runs allowed them field position for the punts that would follow.

Containing Deshaun

When the football wasn’t in the hands of the Colts and their pounding offense, the Colts’ defense was busy putting its own imprint on the game.

As Deshaun Watson belongs to that class of young quarterbacks that is much better outside the pocket than in it, the Colts would challenge him all night to beat them from the pocket.  During the season, the Colts were one of the NFL’s most zone-heavy defenses.  Today they mixed freely, playing more man than usual, and blitzing more frequently than usual.

Even the blitzes, though, were designed to close escape lanes and keep Watson in the pocket.

From there, Deshaun had ample opportunities to damage the Colts, but kept at home, Watson was unable to consistently deliver accurate passes.  I counted at least 8 poorly thrown passes to open receivers from Watson while in the pocket – including the two potential game changers.  At the end of the second quarter, he had Hopkins in the end zone on fourth-and-one, but bounced the throw.  With 5:42 left in the third, he had Ryan Griffin all alone deep up the left sideline.  This pass he overthrew.

There were also times that he ignored other open receivers as he continued to look for DeAndre Hopkins, and other curious lapses of judgement.

Maybe the most curious of all occurred moments after he missed Griffin on the deep throw.  It is third-and-15, Houston on the Colts’ 47-yard line.  The Colts will blitz Kenny Moore off the slot to Watson’s left.

Deshaun looked right at him.  Saw him blitzing free from the slot.  And then casually turned away from him to see if Hopkins was opened.  Surprisingly, he was sacked by Moore on the play.

It was only his first playoff game, and young Mr. Watson is certainly a talented individual.  There is room for improvement in his game.

The Other Sixth Seed Also Survived.

Sunday night in Chicago, the other sixth-seed also advanced when Chicago kicker Cody Parkey (who kicked three field goals on the night) “double-doinked” (to borrow Chris Collingsworth’s phrase) the 47-yard field goal attempt that would have sent Chicago on to the divisional round.  After a season-long issue of hitting the right upright, this time Parkey hit the left.  From there the ball dropped down to the cross bar.  While it could just as easily have bounced over the crossbar, instead the ball bounced harmlessly back to the field.  And the rest was silence.

The statistical footnote on the Bears’ season? They finished the game 0-3 in the red zone.  They committed only three penalties in the entire game – all coming during Philadelphia’s lone touchdown drive.  They accounted for 52 of the 83 yards of that drive.

As I watched the game ending bounce of the field goal that sealed the 16-15 win (gamebook) (summary), I couldn’t help but remember that the Bears could have kept Philly from the playoffs if they had taken the second half of the last game of the season off.

Fodder for thought for the offseason.

Closing Out the Neanderthals

For thirty minutes last Sunday afternoon, the Los Angeles Chargers played about as perfect a half as they could have hoped for.  Embarrassed at home by the Baltimore Ravens two weeks earlier, the Chargers trotted off the field at halftime in Baltimore with a 12-0 lead.

Throughout their run to the playoffs, the Ravens and their Neanderthal running attack had gotten off to fast starts.  They had piled up over 100 rushing yards in the first quarter in the first matchup against the Chargers – a trend that had permitted rookie quarterback Lamar Jackson to find his way with the passing game.  To have any chance in this one, the Chargers knew they would have to bottle up the run game early.

Any NFL coach who gambles with something that has never been tried before, earns my respect.  Even more so when this gamble occurs against the backdrop of the playoffs.  And when this concept seems to be completely at odds with conventional wisdom, well, words fail me.  So, much of the credit for Los Angeles’ nail-biting 23-17 conquest of Baltimore (gamebook) (summary) goes to their very brave defensive coordinator Gus Bradley.

The idea of beginning the game against one of football’s most run-heavy team with seven defensive backs on the field seemed counter-intuitive.  Visions of large offensive linemen smashing through 140-pound cornerbacks to open gaping holes did pass through my mind.  But the concept was inspired.

Rather than a read-and-react approach to defending the run, the Chargers employed a penetration based concept – their quick secondary players shooting the gaps and disrupting the running game in the backfield.  As the half progressed, and the running game stalled, Jackson’s discomfort with the passing attack grew.  He finished the first half 2-for-8 with an interception.

As clever as the plan was, though, it was only half a concept.  If Baltimore was allowed to keep running the ball, eventually the big linemen would wear down the smaller defensive backs and the end result would be much the same as their first game.  Along with the early defensive success, Los Angeles desperately needed its offense to contribute enough points to force the Ravens to abandon the run and go to the air.

The offensive unit answered with a balanced, ball-control, safety-first game plan that almost out-Neanderthalled the Neanderthals.

Through the game’s first thirty minutes, the defense silenced Baltimore, holding them to just 69 total yards and 3 first downs while forcing 2 turnovers.  Offensively, the Chargers controlled the clock for 17:36 of the half, running the ball 14 times while committing no penalties or turnovers.  The only irritant for Los Angeles was an 0-for-2 mark in the red zone that forced them into kicking four field goals.  Even one touchdown – had they managed to achieve it – might have been enough to close out the Ravens.

The back-breaking play seemed to come on the opening kickoff of the second half.  Already hanging by their fingertips, the Ravens saw their season flash before their eyes as Los Angeles’ Desmond King took the second half kickoff 72 yards, putting the ball on the Baltimore 26-yard line.

It was at this point, though, that a looming blowout became the most compelling game of wildcard weekend.  In a matter of moments, the whole feel of the game flipped.

After the next three plays gained three yards, Baltimore’s Za’Darius Smith blocked the ensuing field goal attempt.  Baltimore’s offense still couldn’t unwrap itself, but at least they had an opportunity to punt the ball out of their own territory.  That would prove enormous when tight-end Virgil Green would fumble the second down pass, placing the Ravens at the Charger 21-yard line with a golden opportunity to get back into the game.  At this point, there was 10:26 left in the third quarter.

The frustration would continue for the Ravens’ offense.  Three more runs would manage only 6 yards, and the golden opportunity resulted in only a field goal.  But Baltimore’s special teams were not done with this one.  After the Baltimore defense – which finished the regular season ranked first in yardage allowed and second in points allowed – forced another three-and-out, Javorius Allen burst through the line and partially blocked the ensuing punt.  The Ravens, still down 12-3, were back in business on the Charger 40-yard line and (with 6:54 still left in the third) M&T Bank Stadium was shaking off its rafters.

But now the roller-coaster would tilt back the other way.  Baltimore’s still toothless offense would only manage 8 yards, and super-star kicker Justin Tucker would miss his first-ever playoff field goal (albeit it was a 50-yarder).

And now, back came the Chargers.

With 3:36 left in the third, LA quarterback Philip Rivers dropped a 12-yard pass into the arms of Antonio Gates.  That would be the first first-down by either team in the second half.  The Chargers would pick up two more on the drive, as their two longest plays of the second half would come on back to back plays.

With second-and-6 on the Raven 43, receiver Mike Williams managed some separation on a skinny post.  Rivers hit him in stride for a 28-yard gain.  That would be Los Angeles’ only 20-yard play of the game.  On the next play, Melvin Gordon gave the Charger’s dormant running attack it’s only spark of life as he picked his way around left-end for 14 more yards.

Now there are 11 seconds left in the half.  LA has a second-and-goal from the 2-yard line.  Little-used fullback Derek Watt (who had caught just one pass during the regular season), curled completely open into the right flat.  Rivers floated him the ball, but underthrew it just enough that Watt had to go to his knees to attempt the catch.

For a small eternity the ball bobbled between Derek’s hands, chest and knees – even as Watt was rolling his body toward the end zone, now close enough that he could breathe on it.  As he was rolling over the line – still untouched – he tucked the football securely into his grasp, just a heartbeat before Baltimore’s Chris Board touched him down.

The line judge ruled him down inches short.  Astonishingly – even though there seemed to be ample evidence to over-turn the ruling – the call withstood the review, and Los Angeles was denied the touchdown.

That call almost changed the game.

With the third quarter over, the teams switched sides.  But – mysteriously – the ball was now placed a full yard away from the goal line, instead of the fraction of an inch that it should have been.  This, too, would prove to be significant.

On third-and-one Gordon drove off left-tackle, stretching the ball for the end zone.  Then, suddenly, the ball was rolling free in the end zone.  It dribbled softly right up to cornerback Marlon Humphrey, who scooped it up, rolled to the opposite side of the end zone, and then soared up the offensive right sideline untouched for the score.

The apparent score.

While the Baltimore fandom erupted, thinking they had just closed the gap to 12-10 (assuming the extra-point), the scoreboard, in fact, now rendered the score as 18-3 Los Angeles, and the officials at the other end were signaling touchdown.  Touchdown, Chargers.  Their ruling was that Gordon had broken the plane before the ball came out.

After another extended review session, neither result held.  The final ruling was that Melvin had not broken the plane, but that he was down by contact just inches short of the goal line.  An argument could be made that the ball might have been loose before his elbow hit.  It is, of course, also true that had the officials either awarded Watt the touchdown to begin with – or even marked the ball appropriately to begin the quarter – all of this discussion could have been averted.

As it was, Gordon – running up the middle on fourth-and-1 – scored easily.  The resulting two-point conversion pushed the Charger lead to 20-3.  This became 23-3 when Michael Badgley added a 47-yard field goal with 9:09 left in the game.

At the beginning of the fourth quarter, the Baltimore fans were calling for Joe Flacco.  As the final quarter ticked away, those calls mostly faded, as the Ravens fans were starting to accept their fate. 

Using essentially the plan that I described here, the Chargers had mostly resisted the urge to blitz Jackson, opting, rather to keep him in the pocket and confuse him with coverages.  As expected, it forced Jackson to hold the ball.  Jackson was sacked six times alone in the second half of the game.  When Jackson’s third-down pass to Hayden Hurst fell incomplete, the Ravens faced fourth-and-11 from their own 40, with only 7:02 left in their season.

At that point, Baltimore had -2 passing yards for the game.

And then, the game would turn for one final time.

Almost off the field – almost ready to go into victory mode – the Charger pass defense fell asleep on two consecutive plays.  On fourth-and-11, Jackson lofted a touch pass to Willie Snead in behind the soft zone coverage.  That pass gained 29 yards and kept the season alive.

On the very next play, cornerback Casey Hayward stood nonchalantly staring into the Raven’s backfield while Michael Crabtree blew past him up the right sideline.  Jackson arched him a perfect pass, and suddenly – with 6:33 left – Baltimore had crept to within 23-10.  Up until the pass to Snead, Baltimore had managed one first down in the second half of the game.  But things, suddenly, were different now.

After another three-and-out, Baltimore was in business again.  With less than five minutes to go, however, and up by two scores, the Chargers were content to give short passes as long as the clock kept running.

Now, the Ravens had pushed their way to midfield, but with only 3:21 left.  It was second-and-10.  After managing to keep Lamar in the pocket for most of the game, here Jackson managed to escape.  Rolling to his right – a step ahead of the pass rush – he flung the ball back across his body to the other side of the field where Derwin James waited to intercept it.  But Jackson threw with just enough arm to layer it agonizingly over James’ fingertips, and into the waiting arms of Kenneth Dixon.  By the time James would run him down from behind, Dixon would take the pass all the way to LA’s 11-yard line.

A few moments later, Jackson would roll to his right again before firing a 7-yard touchdown pass to Crabtree (that one would also require a lengthy review).  With two minutes left, Jackson had brought them back to 23-17 on the strength of his arm.

That would be as close as it would get.  The defense would respond with its second consecutive three and out – the sixth time in the game the Chargers would go three-and-out – but, with one last chance – with 66 yards to drive and 45 seconds to get there – Jackson suffered his seventh (and final) sack of the game – a strip sack that ended Baltimore’s final possession of the season.

For the game, Baltimore’s second-ranked run offense finished with just 90 yards on 23 carries.  No running back managed more than 5 yards on any individual carry.  Jackson himself was responsible for almost all of the running damage done – 54 yards on 9 rushes.

The Ravens had been the last of the Neanderthals in the tournament.  On Saturday, Seattle had fallen to Dallas 24-22 (gamebook) (summary).

In that game, the Cowboys matched the Seahawks with the fifth-ranked run defense.  Their one-gap concept was much different than the one the Chargers used, but was equally effective.

That game followed a similar pattern, with Dallas owning the first-half time of possession (19:24) and holding the NFL’s most potent running attack to just 73 yards, while running for 164 yards of their own – 137 of them from the legs of Ezekiel Elliott.

The Cowboys can be that kind of defense.  They had a similar game earlier this year against New Orleans – a game in which their defensive line just dominated.  Although they are not consistently this good, this defense – with Elliott and the running game – is dangerous.  Their next matchup is with the explosive Los Angeles Rams.

As for Seattle, their Neanderthal style revived their season and put them into the playoffs.  In this particular game, though, with the running game stalling, it seemed that they should have turned more to the passing game.  But that is the thing with running teams.  If you are committed to your running attack, then you have to stay with it.  Almost always the results show in the fourth quarter.  Dallas, in stuffing the Seahawks running game for the full four quarters, did something few teams are able to achieve.

How Seattle will want to revisit this next year should be interesting, and give notice on the future of Neanderthalism in the NFL.  They could reasonably adopt a more modified position, balancing the run and pass more than they did this year.

As impressed as I was with their running attack this year, I will have to say that this Wildcard game was one time when I felt that quarterback Russell Wilson was inhibited by the game plan.

For the Seahawks – as with everyone else not still playing this season – it’s a matter of tune in next year and see.

Chargers Ready for the Rematch?

It took a while, but after a substantial review the officiating crews on the ground and in New York determined that Jarvis Landry had maintained control of the football.  What had originally been called an incomplete pass now put Cleveland on Baltimore’s 39-yard line with 80 seconds left in the season.

At that point, the fate of three teams and one division teetered on the negotiation of just six yards – the six yards Cleveland would need to put themselves into field goal range – albeit a long field goal.

Cleveland – winless a season ago – needed those six yards for a shot at finishing 2018 with a winning record.  The Pittsburgh Steelers – their own game finished – had not left the field in Pittsburgh.  They were helplessly watching the scoreboards from their own stadium.  They needed those six yards and a successful field goal to vault past Baltimore and claim a playoff spot.  For the Ravens, everything depended on keeping Cleveland off the scoreboard.  Losing this game – a game that they had led 20-7 at the half – would cost them a playoff berth and end their season.

The drama of the final minute overshadowed – for the moment, anyway – three big first half moments that eluded Cleveland and forced them into this position.

With 1:53 left in the first half, the Ravens had first-and-goal on the 1-yard line. Ahead 20-7, they had their opportunity to salt the game away.  Quarterback Lamar Jackson leapt over the line, extending the ball over the goal for the apparent game-icing touchdown.

But he hadn’t gone far enough.  Replays clearly showed Jackson pulling the ball back to him before it crossed the line.  That might have brought up fourth-and-goal, and the Ravens may have tried it again, but as Lamar was bringing the ball back in, defensive lineman Larry Ogunjobi stuck a hand between the ball and Jackson’s chest and batted the football out of Lamar’s grasp.

When Cleveland defensive back Jabrill Peppers picked up the ball on the 7-yard line, there was no one in front of him.  But the potential 93-yard fumble return touchdown was denied him.  Seeing the official rule the touchdown, someone blew the whistle, ending the play.  A review did give the ball to the Browns, but back on their own 7-yard line.

On the very next play, Landry, split the deep middle of the Raven defense.  Cleveland rookie Baker Mayfield saw him break clear and lofted the football in his direction.  It was a good throw, but not to either shoulder.  Baker tossed the ball directly over Landry’s head, and Jarvis was forced to try to run under it like Willie Mays making a basket catch.  As he looked up, the ball caromed right off his facemask – ending the opportunity for another huge play.

All of that bad luck notwithstanding, the Browns still ended the first half with Greg Joseph lining up a 46-yard field goal attempt.  Joseph – who would be tasked with attempting a 51-yarder if Cleveland could manage those last six yards – saw his 46-yard attempt fade wide to the left.

Had the results of any of those moments panned out in Cleveland’s favor, it might well have been the Ravens making a desperate late-game attempt.  Instead, it was the Browns sitting six agonizing yards away from field goal range.

Three incomplete passes later, Cleveland faced fourth down.  The second down pass had been open.  Landry – again – was running toward the left sideline with Jimmy Smith trailing.  But Mayfield’s pass was behind him and back toward the defender.

As they had on each of the preceding passes, Baltimore sent the house.  Eight players in pursuit of the Cleveland quarterback, who tried to get the ball to Duke Johnson on a crossing route that would probably have extended the drive.  But Baltimore linebacker C.J. Mosley – seeing that he had no chance to penetrate the Cleveland offensive line – instead took two steps backward.  Those two steps put him directly in line with the pass.  He stuck a hand up, batted the pass into the air, and then gathered it in on the way down.  The Ravens had held on, 26-24 (gamebook) (summary).

In a sense, the ending was anti-climactic (considering the setup), but it did finally bring clarity to the AFC North.  Pittsburgh was done.  After winning the previous two division titles and making four consecutive playoff appearances, the Steelers would be watching from home. (As a footnote, had the Tennessee-Indianapolis game later on that evening ended in a tie, the Steelers would have claimed the last playoff spot.  That of course, didn’t happen.)  Into the mix – breaking a three-year playoff drought – were the Ravens – even though by the skin of their collective teeth.

Inside the Baltimore Win

The Baltimore Ravens – in pure Neanderthal style – rolled up 121 rushing yards.  That was the first quarter.  They finished the first half with 179 rushing yards on 21 carries.  They finished the game with 296 rushing yards on 47 attempts.  These are college numbers, the kind the old Oklahoma Sooners used to ring up on the middling teams of the NCAA.  It was the fifth time in the last seven games that Baltimore had piled up more than 200 rushing yards, with Jackson throwing just 24 passes – only 8 in the second half.

Baltimore will be a tough matchup in the playoffs.  There is little mystery involved with them either offensively or defensively.  Their intentions are crystal clear.  But stopping them is another issue.

As far as this run-first offense goes, there are a couple troubling ways in which they are unique.  First of all, they usually find early success in the running game.  Over the years, running offenses have had to be a little patient and keep running, even if the early carries weren’t all that productive.  The process was a slow wearing down of the defense as the game progressed, with each successive running play – like a body blow – eroding the defense’s will.

This hasn’t been a problem with Baltimore. Even early in the contest, they rarely get stymied.  As mentioned earlier, here they had 121 yards in the first quarter.  Against the Chargers the week before, they ran for 119 in the first half – with 43 of those coming on the very first play from scrimmage.

It’s a tough thing for a defense to recover from.  When you are getting blown off the line of scrimmage from the very first play, it sends an impressive message.

Which brings me to the next point.  Unlike a lot of running teams, Baltimore’s running attack produces a surprising number of big plays.  Against Cleveland, Baltimore had seven runs of more than 15 yards, with five of those going for at least twenty.  When other teams run the ball on third-and-9, they are hoping either to fool someone or at least gain a few extra yards for the upcoming kick.  When Baltimore runs on third-and-9, they run with the expectation of getting the first down.

It’s actually a thing they feed off of.  Trailing 7-3 latish in the first quarter, Cleveland blitzed Jackson on second-and-3.  Lamar evaded all of the rushers, and then raced up the left sideline for 24 yards.  It was at that point, that the Ravens seemed to come alive.  Six plays later, Jackson sprinted right through the middle of the Cleveland defense almost untouched for the touchdown.  While they would sweat some at the end, Baltimore would never trail again.

The Baltimore passing game still trails its running game.  As he was in Los Angeles the week before, Jackson was as good as he needed to be Sunday against Cleveland, completing 14 of his 24 passes for 179 yards.  His best pass right now seems to be the slant – whether quick or deep.  When he has a receiver running away from a defender over the middle, Lamar usually delivers a confident accurate pass.  Fortunately for him, Cleveland frequently gave him that look as they blitzed him a lot, playing man behind.

As I contemplate defending Jackson and the Ravens in the playoffs, I’m not sure that I would blitz him all that much.  Teams blitz young quarterbacks to confuse them – and Cleveland did confuse Jackson some on Sunday.  But even when fooled, Lamar was consistently able to avoid the sack and resisted the urge to make dangerous passes.  He either threw the ball away, or turned on the blitzing defense for a big run.

That is the problem with blitzing Lamar.  You allow him to use his athleticism to surprise you.  If I were preparing Los Angeles’ defensive game plan, I would blitz Jackson sparsely.  I would show him the most exotic zone coverages I could manage, often showing him a false pre-snap.  My rush would focus on keeping Lamar in the pocket and making him beat me from there with his head and his arm.

Of course, I would still have to stop Gus Edwards, Kenneth Dixon, and that downhill running attack.

Los Angeles – having just played the Ravens two weeks ago – should profit somewhat from already seeing them up close.  With the WildCard round approaching, I don’t hold out a lot of hope for the Chargers in the re-match.  They are, in the first place, decidedly small up front.  In the second place, the Chargers haven’t looked much like themselves for a few weeks now.

The Fading Chargers

When Los Angeles won their Week 15 matchup against Kansas City by driving 60 yards in the final 2:37 for the winning touchdown, they secured their tenth victory over their previous eleven games.  At that point it was easy to see them as a dangerous team going into the playoffs.

That Chargers team hasn’t been seen much the last two weeks.  In Week 16 they were dominated by the Ravens.  Last Sunday they had an opportunity to re-discover themselves against a struggling Denver team.  The Chargers eventually pulled away for a 23-9 victory (gamebook) (summary), but still showed more cracks than one would expect from a 12-4 team.

My greatest concern, if I were Chargers head coach Anthony Lynn, would be an offense that struggled just as much against Denver and their twenty-second ranked defense as it did against Baltimore’s first-ranked defense.  In particular, it was the offensive line that has started to underperform coming down the stretch.

The Chargers tried repeatedly to run the ball against Denver’s twenty-first ranked run defense.  Austin Ekeler worked his way around right end for a clever 41-yard run in the second half, but that was the only real success they had on the ground.  Their other 29 running plays managed just 75 yards – 2.6 yards per attempt.

Meanwhile, the pressure up the middle on Philip Rivers was constant throughout the game.  They never sacked him, but truly with Rivers you would rather not sack him.  Even after all these years, Rivers is still inclined, under pressure, to make a dangerous pass to avoid a sack.  Denver intercepted him twice, bringing Rivers’ interception total to 12 for the year – six of those in the last three games.  Philip has, in fact, thrown an interception on the opening drive of each of those games.

Los Angeles’ best chance of subduing Baltimore rests with their offense.  The team that can manage to find some holes in that Raven defense and forge enough of a lead that Baltimore will have to abandon its running game stands an excellent chance to beat them.  But for that team to be the Chargers, they will have to fix an awful lot of things very, very quickly.

The Chargers, I think, are in trouble here.

Sizing Up Da Bears

Last Sunday afternoon in US Bank Stadium, Minneapolis Minnesota, the last real piece of business deciding the NFC side of the playoffs played out.

The suddenly re-invigorated Philadelphia Eagles would be playing against an injury-ravaged Washington team, so the Vikings had little hope that the Eagle season would perish quietly in the nation’s capital.  That left them with the imperative of winning their last game of the season – at home against division rival Chicago.

The Vikings had put themselves in “win-and-you’re-in” territory with consecutive solid wins against Miami and in Detroit.  On the one hand, they piled up 61 points in the two wins.  On the other hand, those two teams finished the season 7-9 and 6-10 respectively.  Would the recent success – which included 320 rushing yards in the two games – continue against this tougher opponent?

By the time the first half ended, it was more than apparent that it would not.  The Vikings hit the locker room trailing 13-3 with 18 rushing yards, and just 49 offensive yards in total.  They had no play gain more than 9 yards, were 1-7 on third down, punted 5 times and never made it into the red zone.

More than just being dominated by the Bear defense, Minnesota played tight, nervous football – none of them tighter or more nervous than quarterback Kirk Cousins – although, as Troy Aikman frequently pointed out, the Viking defense didn’t bring their best game either.

Trailing just 7-0 early in the second quarter, Minnesota surrendered a 10-play, 85-yard touchdown drive that ate 5:39 off the clock, and set the Bear victory in motion.  Crucial to the drive were two key third downs.

On third-and-11 from his own 24, Chicago quarterback Mitchell Trubisky overthrew his receiver up the left sideline.  Instead of bringing up fourth down, however, Chicago found themselves with a first-and-10 at their own 39, courtesy of a roughing the passer call against Stephen Weatherly.  The push to the ground was comparatively gentle, but he did take that extra step after the pass was thrown.

Five plays later, the Bears were in third down again – third-and-7 on the Viking 41.  This time Trubisky made the critical completion finding Taylor Gabriel up the left sideline for 40 yards.  Cornerback Holton Hill – filling in for the injured Xavier Rhodes – made an enticing target all night.  Chicago scored on the next play.

Minnesota made some small attempts to creep back into the game in the second half, but on this afternoon it was evident early that Chicago was the better team.  So, in the aftermath of their convincing 24-10 victory (gamebook) (summary), the only real question to come out of this game is about Chicago.  Are the Bears “playoff ready?”

Super Bowl Shuffle II?

Defensively, the Bears have looked ready for most of the season.  After the Vikings finished just 1-11 on third downs, amassing just 164 yards of offense, Chicago finished the season as statistically dominant as any defense in recent years.  They finished first in interceptions (27), in percentage of passes intercepted (4.40), in lowest passer rating against (72.9), fewest points allowed (283), and fewest rush yards allowed per game (80.0).  They finished second in yards allowed per completed pass (10.2).  While ranking third in total defense by yards allowed, they also finished third in lowest percentage of pass completions allowed (61.3) and fewest yards per attempted pass (6.27).  Additionally, they were fourth in average yards allowed per rush (3.8) and lowest percentage of third downs converted (34.2).  They finished fifth in fewest percentage of passes going for touchdowns (3.6) and lowest red zone touchdown percentage (50.0).

What these numbers represent is a defense with no visible weaknesses.  They have demonstrated themselves as elite against both the run and the pass, while handling the situational moments (third down, red zone) as well as any other unit in football.

They reached their peak during their Week 14 dismantling of the high-powered Los Angeles Rams.  In that 15-6 victory, they limited Los Angeles to 14 first downs and 214 yards while taking the ball away 4 times (Chicago’s 36 takeaways also led the league).

Certainly any offensive coordinator faced with scoring against this unit will be challenged.  My best council for any team facing Chicago – beginning with Philadelphia this Sunday – is to preach ball security.  Throwing the ball away on third down and punting isn’t always the worst decision.

You see, while the Bear defense has established themselves as one of the elite NFL units, Chicago’s offense is less accomplished.  They finished the season ranked just twenty-first in total yardage and passing yardage.  While not one of the Neanderthal teams that I wrote about last week, Chicago is still quite reliant on its running game.  After watching young Mr Trubisky come down the stretch, I am of the opinion that if Chicago needed to rely on his arm to win a playoff game this year, they might be in trouble.

Mitch was just OK against Minnesota on Sunday.  While he completed 18 of 26 (69.2%), he threw for just 163 yards (just 9.06 per completion). Almost without exception, Trubisky’s best passing performances this season have come in games where he throws fewer than 30 passes.

Six times this year, Mitch has had the luxury of throwing fewer than 30 passes in the game.  Chicago won all six of them.  His passer rating was over 100 in four of those games.  His passer rating in those games combined was 118.5, with a 12-1 touchdown to interception ratio.

In his other eight games, Mitch threw the ball at least 30 times.  The Bears were 5-3 in those games.  His rating surpassed 100 only twice in those games, while he had five games under 80.  His rating in those games was a modest 82.2 with a 12-11 touchdown to interception ratio.

Offensively, the Bears turned the ball over 24 times themselves.

So, the game plan looks to me to be the following:  Take care of the ball.  Don’t give them any easy scores.  Take away the Chicago running game, and make Mitch throw to beat you.

By next year (as Trubisky matures) this strategy may not work anymore.  But I’m not sure that this year Trubisky is a consistent enough reader of defenses and thrower of accurate passes to put this team on his shoulders and carry them to a title.

Mike Nagy’s Interesting Dilemma

Going into the game, Mike Nagy confessed to Misters Buck and Aikman that he was at something of a loss on how to proceed coaching a game that might quickly become meaningless – at least to his team.  Whether he would rest key players, whether he would keep fighting to win the game – all of these were decisions that he would make at the time.

As things turned out, this game was, indeed, quickly rendered meaningless to his Chicago Bears – and just as quickly turned all-important to the team he was facing.  As the Rams and Eagles moved quickly in front of their opponents – on their ways to easy victories – it was obvious by halftime that the Bears, whether they would win or lose, would be unable to improve their playoff position.

However, going in at the half ahead by just 10 points, they were in a position to determine their opponent in the wildcard round.  It’s a point worth making.  At this point, it was quite clear that the Bears were better than the Vikings.  The Eagles, making a late season run that was at least reminiscent of their championship run of last year, present something of an unknown quantity.  With thirty minutes of football remaining, the Bears had it within their power to eliminate Philadelphia before they could even set foot in the playoffs.  An uninspiring second half that would coax the Vikings to victory would set up the rematch between these two teams next weekend, and leave Nick Foles and the Eagles watching on television.

It’s unknown whether this thought crossed Nagy’s mind – and if it did, it is very unlikely that Mike would bend that way.  The basic integrity of the NFL is stronger than people might suspect.  Nagy and the Bears did the thing they came to Minnesota to do.  They beat the Vikings, eliminating them from the playoffs.

Depending on what happens Sunday afternoon against the defending champions, that may be an opportunity that could haunt them through the offseason.