All posts by Joe Wegescheide

The Will to Keep Running the Ball

Although they went into the half trailing 14-6, the Baltimore Ravens had sent their rivals in Pittsburgh a clear message.  Repeatedly during that first half, Baltimore’s featured back, Alex Collins slashed the Steeler defense right up the middle.  That the Ravens couldn’t cash in on this production came from the fact that Baltimore had no answer for the Steeler blitz schemes.  Joe Flacco wasn’t sacked, but he finished the first half just 9 of 16, with Baltimore converting just 2 of 7 third downs.

But, with Collins providing the spark, Baltimore had gained 57 yards in 14 rushes – and average of 4.1 yards per.  It would certainly seem to be an advantage to build on.

Baltimore ran the ball exactly twice in the second half.

I could probably write about this every week.  In an NFL that is increasingly passing-centric, the will to keep running the ball is becoming increasingly rare.

In Baltimore’s case – even though they went into the half down by just 8, the Steelers opened the second half with an impressive 15-play, 75-yard touchdown drive that ate up the first 8:14 of the second half.  Six of the plays on the drive were runs (three times as many runs in that drive than Baltimore would attempt for the rest of the game).

Emotionally, that drive was damaging, but the reality of the situation was that the Ravens trailed just 20-6 with still 6:46 left in the third and the entire fourth quarter left.  More than enough time to run their offense.  But the will to keep running the ball failed them.  So, even though they struggled protecting Flacco – and even though their running attack was the most effective aspect of their offense in the first half – the Ravens folded up their running game. 

Flacco threw the ball 21 times in the second half, getting sacked on two other drop backs.  With little time to look downfield, Joe’s tosses became mostly a series of short dump offs.  He completed 14 of those passes, but for just 97 yards.  The Ravens finished the second half with just 99 yards of total offense, on its way to a 23-16 loss (gamebook) (box score).

Playing with the lead, Pittsburgh wasn’t shy about pounding the Baltimore defense.  Although they never gained more than 5 yards on any single second half run, Pittsburgh nonetheless ran 17 times in the second half – earning just 40 yards with those attempts (2.4 per).  Nonetheless, the Steelers converted 6 of 9 third downs and controlled the ball for 20:14 of the second half.

Seattle is Willing

In stark contrast is the game the Seattle Seahawks played at home against the Los Angeles Chargers.  Seattle has re-committed to the run, and even with primary hammer-back Chris Carson nursing hip and thigh injuries – and even though they spent the entire second half trailing by as much as 15 points, the Hawks never stopped running the ball.  Of their 32 running attempts on the day, 15 came in the second half.  They finished with 154 rushing yards, and 35:41 of possession. 

Seattle did lose this game, 25-17 (gamebook) (box score), but were throwing into the end zone from the Charger 6-yard line as the game ended.  As with the Ravens, the Seattle passing game couldn’t take advantage of the production from the running game.  The Chargers denied Seattle’s receivers any down-the-field opportunities, forcing Russell Wilson into an endless string of dump-off passes.  Tyler Lockett finished the game with 3 catches for 22 yards – none longer than 9 yards.

The Chargers – who racked up 160 rushing yards of their own – had just enough to hold them off.  Both of these teams will be in contention down the stretch, and one of the reasons will be their commitment to balance.

Both play defense pretty well, too.  The Chargers and Seahawks combined to go 1-for-13 on third down in the second half. 

A final thought about this game:

Seattle is now 1-2 at home this year.  Every game in Seattle they show the noise decibel graphic (the highest I think I remember seeing was 106 – which is good and loud).  You also get plenty of shots of the crowd cupping their lips with their hands in a desperate attempt to affect the game with sheer volume.  In the first place, of course, just screaming is an artistic achievement of dubious merit.  More than that, though, the effect seems to be negligible.  Some years ago, it was much more effective than it has been recently, as the league seems to have mostly adjusted.  The Chargers didn’t seem overly disturbed by it.  Seattle has also lost at home to the Rams – a division opponent that comes into Seattle every year and seemed not to notice the noise.  But you Seattle fans, you keep on screaming at the top of your lungs – you’re so cute when you’re just senselessly yelling.

Rodgers v Brady

Already this season, there have been several marquee quarterback matchups – many of which have absolutely lived up to the hype. 

Back on September 16, the Kansas City Chiefs and the Pittsburgh Steelers engaged in an entertaining 42-37 contest (won by KC).  In that game, Ben Roethlisberger threw for 452 yards and 3 touchdowns, but was out-done by rising star Patrick Mahomes, who threw for 326 yards of his own.  And 6 touchdowns.

Then on September 23, the New Orleans Saints finally subdued the Atlanta Falcons 43-37.  In that matchup, Matt Ryan gave the Saints all they could handle, throwing 5 touchdown passes among his 374 yards.  Not quite enough, as it turns out, as Drew Brees threw 3 touchdowns of his own among 396 passing yards.

The New England Patriots have already been involved in two such free-for-alls.  They had their own encounter with Kansas City, winning 43-40 behind Tom Brady and his 340 passing yards – just barely overcoming 4 more touchdown passes from Mahomes and his 352 passing yards.

They followed that game the next week with an exciting 38-31 conquest of Mitchell Trubisky and the Bears.  Trubisky threw for 333 yards in the defeat.

My favorite so far this year has been the September 27 contest between Jared Goff and the LA Rams and Kirk Cousins and Minnesota.  In this back-and-forth game, both quarterbacks executed at a remarkably high level.  Cousins completed 36 of 50 passes for 422 yards and 3 touchdowns (without an interception).  His passer rating for the evening was an impressive 117.2.  His team lost.

Goff completed 26 of 33 for 465 yards and 5 touchdowns (also without interception), leading the Rams to a 38-31 conquest.  His passer rating that game was a maximum 158.3. 

(You will hear many commentators refer to 158.3 as a “perfect” score.  It is, of course, not perfect.  Jared did miss on 7 passes.  It is more accurate to refer to that number as the maximum rating, as the system will not permit a higher rating.  If Goff’s night had been perfect – if he had completed all 33 of his passes for 619 yards and 7 touchdowns, the passer rating system would not – indeed could not – reward him with a higher rating.)

Brees and Goff also met up in Week 9 in another game that lived up to the hype – that game will be looked at in a bit.

And so, last Sunday night – as two legendary quarterbacks squared off – much of America was hoping for a similar shootout.  Again, the Patriots and Brady would be involved – this time opposite Aaron Rodgers and the Green Bay Packers.

This time, though, the expected shootout never developed.

Both of the legendary throwers did well.  Rodgers finished the night 24 of 43 (55.8%) for 259 yards and 2 touchdowns.  Brady threw for 294 yards on 22 of 35 throwing (62.9%) and 1 touchdown.  Rodgers’ receivers – who seem to be a rather ordinary collection this year- repeatedly had difficulty beating their man coverage assignments.  Rodgers spent much of the evening scrambling around in the backfield waiting for a receiver to come open before checking the ball down.

As for the Patriots, they spent the evening re-discovering their running game.  Even with top running threat Sony Michel on the sidelines, New England still ran the ball 31 times for 123 yards and 3 touchdowns.  James White got a few more carries than usual (12), and the Patriots continued the re-purposing of receiver/kick returner Cordarrelle Patterson as a running back.  Patterson finished the day with 11 rushes for 61 yards and a touchdown.

Patterson may have been as impressive as anyone on the field.  Now in his sixth season, the talented Mr. Patterson – who has never quite found his niche as a regular in the offense – may have finally discovered himself at running back.  Cordarrelle is a violent, take-no-prisoners, downhill runner.  In fact, if you kind of squinted as you watched him running with the ball, you might swear you were watching LeGarrette Blount.  He even has a similar weakness.  When the defense could get him going sideways, his impact was much less.  If the Patterson at running back experiment continues, this could have very interesting long-term repercussions.

In the end – as usually happens when the Patriots take the field – New England walked off the victor, 31-17 (gamebook) (box score).  One way or another they almost always figure out a way to beat you.

Deferring a Mistake?

Let me begin by saying that I am a big fan of deferring after winning the coin toss.  Often you will hear coaches and commentators chat about the opportunity to end the first half with a score, and then open the second half with another.  Sound philosophy, but I maintain that even if you don’t end the first half with that score, you still want to begin the second half with the ball in your hands aware of what has to happen in the second half for you to win the game.

Therefore, it came as no real surprise that – after the Los Angeles Rams won the toss against New Orleans – they deferred.  Five minutes and 35 seconds later, the Rams watched as running back Alvin Kamara completed a 10-play, 75-yard drive by skirting left end for an 11-yard touchdown run.

Nothing the Saints could have done could have worked better to engage the home crowd.  From time-to-time throughout the rest of the game, the Rams would momentarily silence the crowd.  But the rest would only be momentary.  The Saints continually re-sparked them.  Perhaps, when you’re on the road against one of the most dynamic offenses in the league, deferring may not be the best option.

As opposed to the Seattle crowd, the fans in the Superdome had just come to watch and enjoy a football game.  Their contribution was less outright noise, and more a contagious energy that the home team clearly feeds off of.

Three minutes and 17 seconds into the game, New Orleans coach Sean Payton upped the anti.  After a third-and-two run came up short, Payton kept his offense on the field.  In fact, he kept backup quarterback Taysom Hill in the shotgun, trusting him to throw the pass in this critical situation.  It looks like he wanted to throw to starting quarterback Drew Brees – who had lined up at receiver.  But when Hill wasn’t completely sure, he pulled the ball down and sprinted 9 yards for the first down, punctuating the run by lowering his shoulder and driving Ram defensive back Lamarcus Joyner backward for the last couple of yards.

In no uncertain terms, the Saints, the Rams, the crowd at the Superdome and all the fans watching on TV understood that Sean Payton was coaching this like a playoff game.  He had no intention of trading field goals for Ram touchdowns.

The Saints went on to score touchdowns on 5 of their 6 first half drives (the other ending with a turnover), going 5-5 in the red zone.  This was all part of a first half, offensive orgy, the likes of which the fans tuned in hoping to see.  Neither team punted, and the first half saw 52 points scored and 557 yards of offense.

To this point, most of the offense favored the Saints, who carried a 35-17 lead into the locker room.  To the Rams’ credit they didn’t let the game end like that.  Rarely behind at all this season, the heretofore undefeated Rams came roaring back.  Trailing 35-14 at one point, Los Angeles evened the game at 35-all with still almost ten minutes left in the game.

After turning around the organization last year, the Rams are back this year intent on proving that they are as good as anyone in the game.  They left that lingering impression, even as New Orleans pulled away late for the 45-35 win (gamebook) (box score).  The game’s clinching play came with about 4 minutes left when Michael Thomas slipped in behind Ram corner Marcus Peters.  Brees (who finished the game with 346 passing yards and 4 touchdowns) lobbed the ball over Peters’ head, and Thomas did the rest on a 72-yard catch-and-run touchdown.

Prominent in this game is an officiating trend that I find quite disappointing.

The game is tied at 14 in the second quarter, with 13:14 left before halftime.  The Rams, facing fourth-and-four, are setting up for a field goal (they are on the Saint 16-yard-line).  But it’s a fake.  Holder Johnny Hekker took off with the snap and raced around right end, stretching the ball toward the first-down marker.  The spot was not generous, and the ball was marked short.  The Rams challenged the call.

Looking at the replay, it looked for all the world that Hekker had extended the ball past the marker, but after review, the call stood. 

Later, the tables seemed to balance a bit.  As Ram running back Malcom Brown weaved down the sideline for an 18-yard touchdown, it appeared – on replay – that he had clearly stepped out at about the eight-yard line.  Again, the call on the field (touchdown) was upheld.

The NFL has made no secret that this year they are making a sustained effort to back the call on the field.  I confess myself perplexed by this.  There are certainly problems with the replay system as it’s now run, but one of the problems is not the replay replacing the official’s correct call with an incorrect one.  The one constant in the system is that the replay (most of the time) gives a clearer view of what actually happened on the play.  Wherever possible, replay gets it right.  The most fallible element in the equation continues to be the human referees.  Why we are now treating them as mostly infallible makes little sense to me.

Looking at the Playoff Picture

With the NFL season creaking past the half-way mark, the playoff picture is beginning to come into focus – a little bit, anyway.  With a lot of football left to play, here is an early look at how things might play out.    We’ll consider by conference and division.

AFC

Western Division

The Kansas City Chiefs, from the opening game, have been one of the most compelling stories of 2018.  With first-year starter Patrick Mahomes sparking the offense, the Chiefs have won eight of their first nine.  As of today, Kansas City holds the top seed in the conference.

Their one loss, of course, has been to the New England Patriots, leading many to think that perhaps that may come back to bite them – and it might.  But for now they still have a one-game lead over New England, and unless someone else can topple them, I still give them the advantage.

The Chiefs opened the season by rolling over the Los Angeles Chargers 38-28.  The Chargers would start the season with losses in 2 of their first 3 games.  With slow starts being a long-standing tradition for the Chargers, it was easy to sort of dismiss them.  But, of course, the Chargers’ losses have been to the Chiefs and Rams, two teams that have only been beaten once each all season.  As to the Chargers, they haven’t lost since, and, at 6-2 hold the first wildcard spot.

Nothing suggests that they will give up that position.  It has been a long time since Philip Rivers and company have been in the playoffs, but it looks for all the world like that drought is about to end.

Eastern Division

Even with their victory over Kansas City, the New England Patriots are still a game behind the Chiefs for first over-all in the conference.  As has been their recent pattern, the Patriots stumbled a bit out of the gate – losing 2 of their first 3 games.  They have won their last six in a row.  That the Patriots will win their tenth consecutive division title is pretty much a foregone conclusion.  The great question will be, can they catch KC.

The date to circle here is December 16.  New England’s Week 15 matchup is against the Steelers in Pittsburgh.  If the Patriots continue to run the table to that point, then this game will likely determine the top seed in the conference.  If New England pulls it out, they will probably earn that seed.  If not, that loss will probably give KC just the breathing room it needs.

Rising in the division are the Miami Dolphins.  After squeaking out a 13-6 win against the Jets, the Dolphins sit at 5-4 just a tick behind the 5-3 Bengals for that last playoff spot.  While I think Miami may stay in the hunt through the end of the season, the Dolphins don’t really do anything terribly well, and their closing schedule is quite rugged.

In addition to another game against the Patriots, the fish have road games in Green Bay and Minnesota.  Right now, the tell-all matchup could be their Week 12 contest.  They play Indianapolis in Indianapolis.  After a brutal start, the Colts have begun to play better.  If Miami is good enough to win this game on the road, they could be a significant part of the free-for-all for that final wildcard spot.  Right now, I don’t believe that they will, so – as of this writing – I don’t see Miami in the playoff pool.

North Division

The AFC North is a bit of a scrum so far this season.  As of this writing, the Pittsburgh Steelers (another team that started sluggishly) has fought its way back into first with a 5-2-1 record, just better than Cincinnati’s 5-3 mark.  Baltimore lurks at third.  They have fallen to 4-5 after last week’s loss to the Steelers, their third straight loss.

As the weeks roll on, the Steelers look more-and-more like they are still the class of this division.  After a 1-2-1 start, Pittsburgh has consecutive wins against Atlanta, Cincinnati (on the road), Cleveland, and Baltimore (also on the road).  They currently hold the third seed, and the present expectation is that they will hold on to that.

Less convincing – in my opinion – are the Bengals.  Currently holding that last wildcard spot, the Bengals are thirtieth in scoring defense and thirty-second in yards allowed.  Their closing schedule is notably tough.  They still have road games in Baltimore, Los Angeles (against the Chargers), and Pittsburgh.  Their home schedule includes New Orleans and Denver.  Unless Cincinnati fixes their defense real fast, it’s hard to imagine them surviving their second-half schedule.

Baltimore, on the other hand, is mostly through with the difficult part of its schedule.  Their road games are fairly challenging.  They will play Atlanta, Kansas City and Los Angeles (also the Chargers).  But four of their last seven are fairly soft home games against Cincinnati, Oakland, Tampa Bay and Cleveland.  If they take care of business at home and win one of those road games, then the Ravens will be looking at a 9-7 record.  Considering that one of those wins was a 21-0 shutout of Tennessee in Week 6, that record could very well earn them that last spot.

Certainly that game against Cincinnati two weeks from now will weigh heavily.  If the Bengals want the playoff opportunity, they will probably have to go into Baltimore to get it.

Southern Division

Continuing the trend of turnarounds are the Houston Texans.  Left for dead after an 0-3 start, Houston has won 6 straight and have claimed the lead in this division.  And, while none of the teams they’ve beaten have been upper-echelon teams, it has been convincing enough to establish the Texans as the probable class of the division and probable number 4 seed.  The streak includes division road wins in Indianapolis and Jacksonville.  Closing out the season, Houston plays 4 of its final 7 at home – and those are all winnable games (Tennessee, Cleveland, Indianapolis and Jacksonville).  Their road games are tougher, but not really terrifying.  They have games in Washington, New York (Jets), and Philadelphia.

Houston ranks ninth in total defense, seventh in scoring defense, and second in run defense.  Their position is currently quite good.

Behind them are the 4-4 Titans of Tenessee and the Indianapolis Colts, who are lurking at 3-5. 

As for the Colts, their slow start included losing 5 of their first 6.  But the Colts are now coming off two decisive victories and have 5 of their next 7 at home.  Those five home games are all winnable.  They have the Jaguars, Titans, Dolphins, Cowboys and Giants coming in.  One of their road games is against the fading Jacksonville team.  Even though they also have probable road losses in Houston and Tennessee, a 9-7 finish is not out of reason for Indianapolis.

Unfortunately for them, a home-and-home split with Tennessee – if they can get it – will probably not be enough.

After Monday night’s conquest of the Cowboys, the Tennessee Titans become the real unknown of the division.  They have been scuffling through the first part of their season playing behind a compromised quarterback.  Last night, Marcus Mariota looked considerably better.  If this is true – and the NFL is such a week-to-week league that one game isn’t enough to convince – then the Titans could easily re-write the playoff lineup.

But it will have to happen immediately.  Basically, the critical part of the Titan’s schedule is the next three weeks.  They play at home against the Patriots, on the road in Indianapolis, and on the road in Houston.  If they can steal one of those games, their prospects brighten considerably.

They end the season at home against the Jets, at home against the Jaguars, on the road against the Giants, then at home against the Redskins and the Colts.

Remember, though, that the Ravens hold the tie-breaker against them, so Tennessee’s closing run will probably have to be at least 6-2.  Doable, but a stiff challenge.

NFC

Southern Division

There is a strong feeling that the conference’s top seed was decided last Sunday during New Orleans’ dazzling 45-35 conquest of the LA Rams.  The game leaves the Saints at 7-1 with the tie-breaker over the now 8-1 Rams.  Again, there is a long way to go, but the Saints have had that air about them all season.

They may cough up that top seed, but they will have to be caught from behind – difficult to do.

Also in this division is the top wild-card team.  The Carolina Panthers have looked as legit as the Saints, and are an equally solid bet to hold on to their place.

Western Division

With the loss, the Los Angeles Rams – for the moment, anyway – surrender the top seed.  They, along with the Chiefs and the Saints, have been one of the top stories in the league.  Another team that mostly seems unstoppable at times, the Rams are clearly headed for the playoffs.

At the moment, the Seattle Seahawks don’t seem to be too relevant.  After a disappointing 25-17 loss at home to the Chargers (I’m telling you, that team is worth keeping an eye on), the Seahawks sit at an uninspiring 4-4.  Things will probably get worse before they get better.  Their next two road games will be in LA against the Rams and in Carolina.  Assuming they win the home game in between against Green Bay, they could face their last 5 games with a 5-6 record.

However, from that point on, the schedule mostly becomes their friend.  Their final five games include two against San Francisco and a home game against Arizona.  They also have Minnesota, but at home.  Even assuming they can’t keep up with Kansas City (even though that, too, is a home game), with the soft end of schedule, a 9-7 record is not out of reason.

And that would probably be enough to get them a playoff ticket.

Northern Division

In one of the most competitive divisions, the Chicago Bears have eked in front of the Minnesota Vikings with a 5-3 record to the Vikes 5-3-1 mark.  Close now, my expectation is that as the season wears on the Bears will pull away.

Gaining confidence with each week, Chicago’s remaining road schedule is less than daunting.  They will yet play in Detroit, New York (against the Giants), and San Francisco before ending the season in Minnesota – by which point the division should be decided.  Their remaining home games are stiffer, and will give a sense of how good this young Chicago team is.  Three of the games are division matches against the Lions, Vikings and Packers.  They will also host the Rams.  So there is opportunity for them to slide back in the pack. But, with their easy road schedule, if they can represent at home, this division is theirs for the taking.

As for the Vikings, in addition to both games against the Bears, Minnesota will also face road challenges in New England and Seattle – games that I don’t expect them to win.  The game in Seattle in Week 14 will probably be the most decisive.  The winner here probably gains that final playoff spot.  With the tie on their record, Minnesota will almost certainly not be involved in any tie-breakers.  They will probably either end the season 9-6-1 or 8-7-1, meaning they will go into the playoffs before any 9-7 team (if they finish 9-6-1), but after any 10-6 team.

Eastern Division

The Eastern Division of the NFC is limping through the season as the parity division.  Washington currently holds the division lead, at just 5-3, one game better than the 4-4 Eagles.  With the season at the half-way mark, Washington is the only current division leader that I expect to relinquish its lead and – in fact – miss the playoffs entirely.

While the Eagles have yet to remotely resemble the team that soared to last year’s title, my feeling is that they are still intrinsically the better team, and will rise to the top before the season is quite completed.  These two teams still have both of their games against each other before them.  If Washington is the better team, they will have their opportunities to demonstrate that.

Fading Hopes

As the early playoff picture takes shape, two of last year’s premium combatants will be challenged to return.  Two years ago, the Atlanta Falcons played in the Super Bowl.  Last year they played as deep as the Divisional Round before yielding to the eventual champs.  Last year’s Jacksonville Jaguars weren’t ousted until the Patriots took them in the AFC title game.

This year’s Falcons sit third in their division at just 4-4.  There is still plenty of time for them to rebound, but it hurts that they are in the same division as New Orleans and Carolina – two teams that seem to be among the NFL’s best.  At best, the Falcons seem to be battling for that last wildcard berth.

Adding to the stress is a very challenging closing stretch.  Their last six games take them into New Orleans, at home against Baltimore, on the road in Green Bay (this will be December 9, and the tundra is likely to be frozen), home again against Arizona, on the road in Carolina (both of their remaining games against the top two teams in their division will be on the road), and then a final road game in Tampa Bay.

It’s a tall order.  If the Falcons fight their way back into the playoffs, they will have definitely earned it.

Jacksonville’s situation is a little more desperate.  After a 3-1 start that included a convincing 31-20 conquest of New England, the Jaguars have lost 4 straight.  They are now tied for last in their division, and trail Houston by two games.

The record, though, isn’t the greatest concern here.  That would be – as it has been through most of his career – Blake Bortles.  The four losses have followed a similar formula: stop the run, get a lead, and force Blake to beat us with his arm.  In the 4 losses, Bortles is 78 for 140 (55.7%) for 926 yards with 3 touchdowns and 5 interceptions.  His 68.3 passer rating in these games highlights the concern.  Jacksonville has scored 46 point in the 4 games.

Does Jacksonville have enough season left to climb back in?  No question.  Do they have the quarterback to get them there?  To be determined.

Last Sunday’s Rams/Saints clash had a decided playoff atmosphere to it.  That intensity will become more and more common as we head down the stretch and seasons will start to be defined by the outcomes.

It’s my favorite time of the year.

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.

Cards End Home Season with a Whimper

The Cardinals’ post season chances were not completely extinguished during their disappointing 2-1 loss to Milwaukee last night (box score).  But if, in fact, St Louis does miss the post season for a third straight year – and that is more likely than not – this game (and, in fact, this series) will linger in the memory.

In particular, history will remember the stumble.  Headed around third with the potential tying run with two outs in the eighth inning, pinch runner Adolis Garcia fell and was easily out at home.  The throw was off line enough that it is fairly certain that Garcia would have scored.

Most of the post-game conversation centered on the stumble, but the bigger story was right on the scoreboard, under the “Hits” column, where the Cardinals totaled two for the night.

St Louis finished the Brewer series with just 9 runs on 18 hits, hitting just .189 for the series.  This continues a month-long trend that has seen the Cards fade in the batting average category.  They have now hit .237 in 24 games this month.  After working so hard all season to climb back up to the .250 mark in team batting average, after last night’s game the team has slipped back down to .249 on the season.

But the result is even more microcosmic – if you will – as it ended the home season (at least the regular season portion of it).  Cardinal hitters weren’t really as dominated as it seemed.  I counted 9 line drives hit by Cardinal batters, only one of which turned into a hit (Paul DeJong’s fourth-inning double). There are days you hit 9 line drives and only one of them ends as an out.  Factor in the stumble and the fact that Milwaukee’s game-winning hit was a flare over third, and, well, it was one of those games.

Nonetheless, the one run on two hits is the kind of result that is becoming increasingly common at Busch.

Home Not So Sweet Home

Old Cardinal fans – and I now qualify as one of those – will speak reverently about the mid-80’s and the Whitey Ball era.  The Whitey Herzog Cardinals had great success as a team perfectly tailored to its ballpark.  The spacious dimensions bothered them not at all, as few of them were truly long-ball  threats.  These were the Cardinals of Vince Coleman, Willie McGee and Ozzie Smith that raced across the steaming mid-summer AstroTurf stealing hits of all varieties, while slashing line drives into the spacious gaps (which were even more spacious at old Busch) and flying around the bases with reckless abandon.

In recent years, as the Cardinals have assembled a collection of talented hitters – almost all of whom are home run threats – Busch Stadium is starting to work against them.

Finishing September 6-9 at home, the Cards hit just .231 at Busch.  They hit 11 home runs in those 15 home games.  With three road games left (this weekend in Wrigley) St Louis has hit 19 road home runs this month in just 9 games.  They have averaged 6.00 runs per game on the road this month and just 4.67 at home.

Since the All-Star Break, the Cards have played 32 road games and 33 home games.  They have hit 54 home runs in those 32 road games, hit .268 as a team, and scored 5.59 runs per game.  In the 33 games at Busch they have hit 33 home runs, hit .244, and scored 4.73 runs per game.

The full season totals reveal that these trends have lasted for the full 159 games so far.  With the home season over, the 81 game totals read 351 runs scored (4.33 per game) 83 home runs hit, and a .245 team batting average.  With three games left in the road season, St Louis has already scored 397 runs (5.09 per game and 46 more than they’ve scored at home), hit 122 home runs (39 more than at Busch) and carry a .254 team batting average.

They finished the season with a 43-38 record at home.  They already have 44 road wins with three games left.  Even though last year’s team had a better record at home than on the road, they still scored more runs away from home (402) than at home (359).  The home run differential was smaller, but still indicative – they hit 106 on the road and 90 at home.  In 2016 the numbers were 424 runs and 121 home runs on the road to 355 runs and 104 home runs at home.  You have to go back to 2014 to find the last time the Cards scored more runs (332-287) and hit more home runs (57-48) at Busch than they did on the road.  That was a very different team, featuring only two players with 20 or more homers.  Jhonny Peralta hit 21 and Matt Holliday hit 20 that year.

While I know this reads like a call to move the fences in, that is not my intent.  What these numbers truly portend is the Cardinal’s increasing reliance on the home run for offense.  All I’m really saying is that a team that plays in a spacious home park needs to diversify.  Situational hitting.  Better base running.  Maybe more contact and less strikeouts.  That wouldn’t necessarily be a bad thing.

Otherwise the Busch will continue to be a disadvantage to the Cards.

Matt Carpenter

Matt Carpenter drew two walks and came around to score the only Cardinal run of the evening.  He was otherwise 0-for-2 on the night including a strikeout.  In 23 September games, Carpenter has drawn 18 walks.  But in 82 at bats now has only 14 hits – 10 singles, 3 doubles and 1 home run.  His September average fades to .171, with a .244 slugging percentage.

Carpenter is one of those Cardinals who has struggled most notably at his home ballpark.  During what has generally been a break-out second half for Carp, he has managed just 4 home runs at Busch, while hitting 13 on the road. 

For the season, the National League’s leading home run hitter has hit 13 home runs in his home ballpark – while hitting .240.  Away from Busch, Matt Carpenter has had 329 plate appearances, resulting in 27 singles, 26 doubles, 23 home runs, 57 runs, 50 runs batted in, 52 walks (10 intentional), and a .278/.395/.626 batting line.

Yadier Molina

St Louis is also still waiting for Yadier Molina to lock in again.  Hitless in 3 at bats last night, Yadi is hitting just .200 (9 for 45) since returning from his elbow injury 13 games ago.  Yadi has now gone 6 games without drawing a walk, and has only 1 walk in his last 12 games.

Add Yadi’s name to the list of hitters who might very well be glad to be done with Busch.  Molina finished his home season with 239 plate appearances in his home ballpark.  They achieved just 36 singles, 12 doubles, 3 home runs, 23 runs batted in, 12 walks, 35 strikeouts, 1 hit-by-pitch, 2 sacrifice flies, and 7 double plays grounded into – a .228/.268/.321 batting line.

Yadi has been a different hitter on the road.  He is 69 for 228 in his road games (.303), his hits including 8 doubles and 17 home runs. He has 51 runs batted in in 59 road games, where he slugs .561.

Kolten Wong

Kolten Wong was also 0-for-3 in last night’s game.  He is now 4 for 17 (.235) over his last 6 games with no extra-base hits.

Harrison Bader

Harrison Bader’s September average has also fallen to .227 (17 for 75) after his 0-for-3 last night.  Bader hasn’t drawn a walk, now, in 5 games, and hasn’t stolen a base in 13 games.

Bader finished his first full season at home hitting .250 (49 for 196) with 2 home runs.  Away from home, Harrison is 49 for 172 (.285) with 7 doubles, a triple, and 10 home runs – a .512 slugging percentage.

John Gant

Ever eager to get his bullpen in the game, Mike Shildt ran out to get John Gant after he had secured the first out in the fifth.  Although he walked 3 – a recurring issue – he finished (possibly) his season on a pretty strong note, allowing only 1 run.  In the most significant start of his young career, Johnny did well enough.

His previous two starts could have gone better.  He was blown out in a damaging loss to Los Angeles in mid-September, and lasted less than three innings his last time out against San Francisco – a game the Cards came back to win.

These struggles in September have weakened his position in the Cardinals’ long-range plans, but his year has – overall – been a success.  Since his last return from Memphis, John pitched in 19 games – 16 as a starter – going 6-4 with a 3.12 ERA.  He did walk 48 batters in those 89.1 innings.

Walks From the Bullpen

The walks from the bullpen are starting to pile up, now.  Cardinal relievers walked 5 more in 4.2 innings last night.  Amazingly, only one of those walks scored – but it was the run that beat them.

The Cardinal bullpen has now issued 62 walks in 95 innings this month.  Even allowing for the fact that 10 of those were intentional, that is still 4.93 un-intentional walks every 9 innings.  In the season’s second half, the bullpen has walked more batters (138) than the rotation (122), even though they have pitched more than 100 fewer innings.  They have averaged 4.72 un-intentional walks every nine innings.

Chasen Shreve

Chasen Shreve’s entire evening focused on facing one left-handed batter – Christian Yelich.  Shreve threw 5 pitches, 4 of them balls, and then watched from the dugout as Yelich scored the winning run.  Shreve has now walked 9 batters in his 13.1 Cardinal innings – 6.08 per game.  His on-base percentage against is now risen to .367.

Dakota Hudson

Dakota Hudson pitched through 1.2 innings without allowing a run of his own.  He did, however, surrender the Texas Leaguer that plated Shreve’s run.  With that, 8 of the last 11 runners that Hudson has inherited have come home to score.

Dakota also walked a batter in the next inning.  In his first 27 major league innings, Hudson has a 2.67 ERA and a .191 batting average against.  But Dakota has now walked 17 batters in those innings (5.67 per nine innings).

Hudson’s style does seem to adapt well to Busch.  In his rookie season, Dakota finished allowing no runs in his 14.1 home innings with a .149 batting average against.

Carlos Martinez

Carlos Martinez also walked two batters in his two innings at the end of the game.  Martinez has pitched 17.1 innings in 14 relief appearances.  He has now walked 11 in those innings, but is also 4-4 in save opportunities with a 1.56 ERA, a .186 batting average against, and 19 strikeouts.

NoteBook

At 3:16, last night’s game was the fifteenth consecutive Cardinal game to last at least three hours.  The streak includes one game that checked in at exactly three hours (a 4-3 loss to Pittsburgh on September 12).  The longest of the streak was the 3:49 that it took the Cards to lose the first game of this series to Milwaukee on Monday night.  The 15 games have averaged 3:20:12.

How Will Cards Respond After Bruising Loss?

As the St Louis Cardinals set up for their final home game of the season (at least of the regular season), the home stretch can only be looked back on with a sense of loss.

On September 5, the Cards had just finished taking 2 of 3 from Washington – with Carlos Martinez earning his first save as the new Cardinal closer.  They were 78-62 at that point, they trailed the Chicago Cubs by just 4.5 games, and held the second Wild Card spot, trailing Milwaukee by just a half game.

Ahead of them were 3 road games against a downtrodden Detroit club.  Following that, the Cards had 13 of their next 16 at home, finishing the season with three potentially meaningful games in Chicago against the Cubs.  Everything was set up before them.

The reality failed to match the anticipation.  They began by losing 2 of 3 in Detroit and then lost 4 of 7 in the first home stand.  Their chances swelled when they won 2 of 3 in Atlanta, but faded again as the team went only 3-2 in the first 5 games of their final home stand.  The losses were especially stinging – losses to Milwaukee in the first two games of a critical series – the last one, last night’s 12-4 battering (box score).

They have responded, so far, going 9-9 with this opportunity.  They are still 4.5 games behind the Cubs, but with only 4 games left, there is not enough season left to catch them.  They have fallen, now 4 games behind the Brewers for that first WildCard spot, and have slipped a half-game behind Colorado for the last playoff spot.

The question, for tonight and for the last three games in Wrigley, is how will this young team respond?  With an opportunity still before them and four difficult games left, how will this young team respond to this latest adversity?

Loss Leads to Loss

One of the most glaring differences between the September Cardinals and the Post-All-Star-Break Cardinals is their ability to respond to a loss.

From the beginning of the season’s second half until September 1, the Cardinals lost consecutive games just once (July 22 in Chicago and July 23 in Cincinnati).  They lost a total of 13 games during that span, and were 12-1 the next game.

September began with a 3-game losing streak, and the trend hasn’t stopped.  The current streak is the fourth losing streak of at least 2 games this month.  The Cards – who have already lost twice as many games as they did in all of August – are just 4-7 this month following a loss.

At the center of the slide has been the pitching staff.  After leading the charge through August, the pitchers have struggled greatly in the season’s final month.  After last night’s melt down, the team’s September ERA sits at 4.82.  The starters have been bad enough – they have thrown just 6 quality starts in 23 games with a 4.69 ERA.  The bullpen has been even worse.  They have served up more home runs (14) than the starters (13) even though they have pitched 26.2 fewer innings.  The September bullpen ERA is now 4.98 with a .282 batting average against.

Instead of responding after a loss, the pitching staff has performed worse in their opportunities to halt a losing streak.  In 11 after-loss games in September, the pitching staff boasts a 5.22 ERA.  In their last 100 such innings, Cardinal pitchers have served up 17 home runs, 23 doubles and 2 triples.  Opposing hitters, in games after a Cardinal loss, are slugging .469 against St Louis.

As with the month in general, bad starting pitching (only 3 quality starts and a 4.97 ERA) has been trumped by worse relief pitching (5.47 ERA and an opponent’s batting line of .275/.387/.519).  In games after a loss this month, Cardinal relievers are walking 5.66 and allowing 2.01 home runs per nine innings.  In these games the bullpen has accounted for almost as many innings (49.1) as the starters (50.2).

As much, perhaps, as any other number set, these numbers tell the story of the disappointing month.

Austin Gomber

While I remain very high on the future of left-handed curveballer Austin Gomber, the truth remains that in these critical September games, he hasn’t been a part of the answer.  After his struggles last night, Austin hasn’t seen the fifth inning in two of his last three starts.

Gomber has had particular difficulty in the stopper role.  He has a 5.68 ERA this season in games after a loss.  In the second half, Austin is 2-2 in 7 games (6 starts) after a loss with a 6.52 ERA and a .302 batting average against.

John Brebbia

In a season of turmoil in the Cardinal bullpen, John Brebbia has emerged as a significant – if under the radar – contributor.  He helped hold the team semi-close last night with 1.2 innings of scoreless, hitless relief.  Over his last 13 appearances, John has pitched 13 innings, allowing just 1 run (0.69 ERA) on only 7 hits while striking out 19.  The last 48 batters to face John are hitting just .159 with a .250 slugging percentage.

For the season, Brebbia has appeared in 20 games after a Cardinal loss, totaling 24.1 innings.  He has a 2.59 ERA in those games, and a .222 batting average against.

Last night was also the tenth time this season the Cards asked John for more than one inning.  To this point he has proved himself capable of multiple innings.  In his 10.1 “additional” innings, Brebbia has allowed 3 runs (2.61 ERA) and only 8 hits (.205 batting average).  A slight decline in strikeouts (9 in those 10.1 innings) is the only evidence of increased difficulty.

Mike Mayers

The game began to seriously spin out of reach once Mike Mayers came into the game.  Mike’s season just will not turn around.  In the course of just 14 pitches, Mike gave up two more runs on a single and a home run, extending a 7-4 deficit into a 9-4 deficit.

In his last 8 appearances (totaling 5 innings) Mayers has taken damage to the tune of 8 runs on 15 hits including 2 home runs.  The last 33 batters he has faced hold a batting line of .500/.531/.833.  His second-half ERA has now risen to 6.41, as batters have hit .321 and slugged .556 against him with 4 home runs in just 19.2 innings.

Brett Cecil

Brett Cecil then one-upped Mayers by serving up a three-run home run in the eighth.  This has been another lost season for Cecil.  His second half has been particularly devastating.  In 15 games since the break, Brett has pitched 9.2 eventful innings that have seen 16 runs on 17 hits including 4 home runs.  He has also walked 10 batters in those innings.  The batting line against him in the second half is a sobering .370/.482/.674.

Marcell Ozuna

With three singles last night, Marcell Ozuna pushed his second half batting average up to .300 (66 for 220).  He is hitting .310 this month (27 for 87).

Jose Martinez

Jose Martinez stayed hot.  With a single and a double, Jose now has three consecutive two-hit games.  He has hit in 6 of his last 7, getting two hits in 5 of the six.  He is 11 for his last 27 (.407).  Five of the hits are for extra-bases (4 doubles and a home run), so Martinez is slugging .667 during the streak.

Since the break, Jose is hitting .322 (65 for 202).

Matt Carpenter

For all the hope that Matt Carpenter would go on another hitting tear, it hasn’t materialized yet.  Hitless in three at bats last night, Carp is hitting .175 in September (14 for 80).  He has 1 home run and a .250 slugging percentage this month.

Paul DeJong

Among the casualties last night was Paul DeJong’s 8-game hitting streak.  Paul was 0-for-3 with a sacrifice fly, and is still hitting just .223 for the second half.  But he hit .324 (11 for 34) during the eight games, with 3 doubles and 2 home runs.  He drove in 7 runs and slugged .588 in those 8 games.  He had also hit safely in 15 of his previous 16 games, hitting .306 in those games.  Very encouraging signs.

Jedd Gyorko

Jedd Gyorko had a tough night.  His 0-for-3 included a strikeout and a double-play grounder.  Games after a loss have not been his specialty.  He has played in 54 of them, now, with a .234 average (36 for 154).

Harrison Bader

Harrison Bader also had a nice hitting streak stopped – his had been a seven-game streak, during which he hit .381 (8 for 21) with 3 doubles and 2 home runs – an .810 slugging percentage.

Six Walks Make Things Easy for Milwaukee

After five excellent innings last night, Jack Flaherty carried a 1-1 tie into the sixth inning against Milwaukee.  With the season hanging in the balance, Jack’s command suddenly abandoned him.  After he retired Lorenzo Cain on a ground ball, he walked Christian Yelich, hit Jesus Aguilar with a pitch, and then walked Travis Shaw – loading the bases.  Big boy hitters Ryan Braun and Mike Moustakas were due up.  Flaherty had struggled a bit in this inning, but had still pitched a strong game.  He had thrown 93 pitches to this point, and could legitimately been given the chance to work his way out of the mess.

But manager Mike Shildt, who believes fervently in his bullpen – despite the recent results – hustled to get his relievers into the fray.

Eighty pitches and 3.2 innings later, the pen had not only allowed 2 of the 3 runners that Flaherty left, they surrendered 3 more on top of that on 5 hits and 4 more walks.  It made things easy enough for Milwaukee as they took the important opener of this three game set, 6-4 (box score).

In relief of Flaherty came fellow rookie Dakota Hudson.  Dakota has shown great promise, but control has not been his greatest strength.  Hudson walked the first batter he faced – forcing in a run.  Hudson has now walked 16 batters in 25.1 innings (5.68 per 9 innings).

After him came yet another rookie – Jordan Hicks.  The Brewers added another run off him in the seventh, set up by two more walks.  Jordan has walked 42 in 76 innings (already).  He is averaging 4.74 walks per 9 innings.

Winning is difficult enough when the pitching staff walks six batters.  When 5 of the 6 walks (as well as a hit batter) all happen in the span of two innings, it adds another layer of difficulty to the task.  In Flaherty, Hudson and Hicks, the Cards have three dynamic arms that will form part of a great foundation for years to come.

Last night, they were not equal to the moment.  The opportunity to eclipse Milwaukee has all but vanished, and St Louis’ grip on the last playoff spot is very tenuous.

The sixth walk was intentional from veteran Bud Norris.  That would be the walk that was at the center of the throwing error that sent home Milwaukee’s winning run.

The Cards have been a very scrappy team over the season’s second half.  Coming down the stretch, certain aspects of the team are proving to be less than reliable.  Especially unreliable has been the bullpen.  During the month of September, Cardinal relievers are walking 4.76 batters unintentionally every nine innings, while scuffling to a 4.55 ERA.  The batting average against them this month has been a distressing .281.

Truthfully, the starting pitching this month hasn’t been notably better than the ‘pen.  After Flaherty’s game, St Louis has gotten just 6 quality starts in the 22 games played so far this month, with the rotation struggling to a 4.45 ERA.

Still, I sometimes find myself wishing that Mike wasn’t quite so eager to get his relievers into the game.

Jack Flaherty

Young Flaherty entered the month on a major roll, having tossed 5 consecutive quality starts.  Jack’s regression this month is symptomatic of the entire staff.  In his 5 September starts, Flaherty has 1 quality start and a 4.50 ERA.  In his 26 September innings, Jack has walked 15 batters and hit 2 others – leading to a .325 on base percentage.

Among the many impressive aspects of Flaherty’s game is his ability to get hitters out when behind in the count.  Of the 22 batters he faced last night, he finished behind in the count to 8 of them.  A couple walked, but the other six managed just 1 hit (Cain’s single on a 3-2 pitch in the third), with 1 strikeout (Moustakas on a 3-2 pitch in the fifth) and one ground-ball double play (Yelich in the first on a 2-1 pitch).

In the season’s second half, Flaherty has allowed batters just a .194 batting average (12 for 62) when he has been behind in the count.

Dakota Hudson

Hudson walked in a run when he gave a 4-pitch walk to Braun.  Until September, Hudson had never issued a 4-pitch walk.  He has done so 3 times in 9.2 innings so far this month.

Hudson has also allowed 7 of the 10 runners he’s inherited this month to score.

Jordan Hicks

Jordan Hicks hasn’t had the best September.  He has now given up runs in two straight games – blowing saves in both games.  In 8.2 innings this month he has given 5 runs on 7 hits and 6 walks.

Bud Norris

Back on the mound after seven days, Bud Norris was more unlucky than bad.  The triple he allowed could have been better played, and his errant throw was trying to pick off a batter that he had intentionally walked.  Even so the downward trend continues for Norris.

The loss was his fifth in a row.  Even more concerning, in his 7 appearances since his last save, Bud has lasted just 4 innings while being lit up for 7 runs (6 earned) on 6 hits and 8 walks (albeit 2 were intentional).  He has thrown only 54% of his pitches for strikes this month, while the last 27 batters to face him hold a batting line of .333/.538/.944.  It has not been a pretty month for Mr Norris.

Mike Mayers

Seeing that, you might think no pitcher on the staff has had a worse 7-game stretch than Bud Norris.  You would only think that, though, because you haven’t considered Mike Mayers’ last 7 games – a stretch during which he has only managed 4.1 innings while serving up 6 runs on 13 hits (including 4 doubles and a home run).  The last 28 batters to face Mayers hold a .520/.556/.800 batting line.

Many, many month ago as the team was wrapping up spring training, Mike had generated considerable buzz during an excellent camp.  Spring training was a long time ago.

Jose Martinez

His misplay in right was a pivotal moment in the game, but Jose Martinez continues to swing a hot bat.  He had 2 hits last night (including a home run) for the fourth time in the last 6 games.  During that stretch, Jose is hitting .391 (9 for 23) with a .652 slugging percentage (he has 3 doubles to go with the home run).

Martinez leads the club in second half batting average at .318 (63 for 198).

Jose’s home run off of Josh Hader came on a 2-0 pitch.  Deep behind in the count is a place you do not want to be against Jose Martinez.  This season, when Jose is ahead in the count 2-0, 3-0, or 3-1 he is a .410 hitter (16 for 39).  In the second half, he has been hitting .563 (9 for 16) on those pitches.

Yadier Molina

Although St Louis only had 8 hits on the night, they were mostly well distributed.  Only Jedd Gyorko and Yadier Molina (among the starters) were held off the hit sheet.  The team is now hitting just .243 for the month.  Yadi is now hitting .211 (8 for 38) since his return from his elbow injury.

Another Late-Game Big Inning Leads to a Cardinal Victory

It was a 2-0 Cardinal lead as last night’s game turned into the sixth inning.  A walk, a hit, a squeeze bunt, and another single pushed another two runs across, building the Cardinal lead to 4-0.

After a bunt and a foul out, the inning threatened to end there.  Then, suddenly, Jose Martinez drove a two-run double and Paul DeJong scored Martinez with a single.  And with that, St Louis had put up 5 runs in the sixth – cushioning their 9-2 victory over San Francisco (box score).

The Cardinal offense hasn’t always been a work of art of late.  Through the month of September, they are hitting .244 as a team, with just a .399 slugging percentage.  But they are still scoring 5.48 runs per game this month.  They have had a knack for the big inning.

So far this season, St Louis has just 15 innings in which they have scored 5 or more runs.  Three of those have come in the last 14 games.  They have had 4 more 4-run innings in those games, and 3 three-run innings.  In the first 142 games of the season, St Louis totaled 72 innings of three-runs or more – about one every other game.  Over the last 14 games, St Louis has fashioned 10 such innings – nearly three every four games.  They have averaged right at 6 runs a game in those 14 games – although they have hit just .257 and slugged .398 in those contests

They have shown, of late, an impressive killer instinct – something this team hasn’t had a lot of in recent years.  They have had games where they have been dominated early but have roused themselves with a breakthrough inning later on.  Of their three 5-run innings referenced above, one came in the sixth, another was the seventh, and the third was a 6-run eighth.  Of the four recent 4-run innings, two of those came in the eighth inning.  So did one of those three-run innings.

A club that can be consistently dangerous late in games could make quite a run in the playoffs.  If they can get there.

Martinez

Jose Martinez was in the middle of the offense again.  With two doubles and two runs batted in, Jose has now had three 2-hit games in his last five.  Since the All-Star Break, Martinez is hitting .316 (61 for 193).

Jose’s game-breaking double came off of right-hander Pierce Johnson.  One might wish that the right-handed Martinez might do a bit more damage against lefthanders, but you certainly can’t complain about his ability to hit righties.  With that double, Jose is hitting .324 (45 for 139) since the break, and .311 (123 for 395) for the season against right-handers.  Those numbers lead the team in those time frames.

Yadier Molina

Does where you bat matter?  Probably not.  Still Yadier Molina – with his two hits last night – is hitting .296 (8 for 27) since he took over the seventh spot in the order 7 games ago.

One of Yadi’s two hits last night came off Andrew Suarez – the lefty that started the game for San Francisco.  Yadi is now 19 for 57 (.333) against lefties since the break.

Harrison Bader

Harrison Bader now has a little hitting streak going.  With his 2-for-3 last night, Bader has hits in 6 straight games, batting .412 (7 for 17) with 2 doubles and 5 runs batted in during the streak.  He is slugging .882 in those 17 at bats.

Bader’s double came off the lefty Suarez.  Organizationally, the Cards have had trouble finding right-handed hitters who could really hit left-handers.  Bader might be one of those guys.  Since the break, Harrison is hitting .326 (15 for 46) against them, with a .587 slugging percentage (6 doubles and 2 home runs).  He is a .306/.383/.541 hitter against them with 5 home runs and 14 runs batted in in 111 at bats for the season.

Yairo Munoz

Yairo Munoz drove in the game’s first run with a second-inning single off the lefty.  Although he doesn’t play regularly, Munoz has hit lefties as well as anyone on the team since the break.  He is 13 for his last 37 (.351) against them with 7 walks (a .455 on base percentage).

Miles Mikolas

On the pitching end, it was Miles Mikolas again.  Miles has been the beacon of stability in an otherwise tempest-tossed pitching staff.  Mikolas tied for the league lead in wins with his 17th, and there was nothing scuffling about it.  Miles tossed 7 innings allowing 1 earned run on just 2 hits, no walks, and 8 strikeouts.

Over Miles last 4 starts, he has twice as many wins (4) as he does walks allowed (2).  He has thrown 71% of his last 407 pitches for strikes, and holds a 2.81 ERA and a .230 batting average against in those outings.

Miles is 7-1 in the second half, with a 3.19 ERA.  The starting pitching in general has been top-notch in the second half.  They have combined to go 24-15 with a 3.46 ERA and a .246 batting average against.

Right-handed batters were only 1 for 9 against Miles last night, and 2 for 13 against all Cardinal pitchers.  All season, the Cardinal staff has been one of baseball’s best against right-handers, holding them to a .239 batting average, with Mikolas leading the way holding them to a .198 average.

John Brebbia

John Brebbiaa allowed a couple of hits, but no runs.  He has allowed 1 run over his last 11.1 innings (an 0.79 ERA).  In 15.2 innings since the break, John’s ERA is 1.72.

A New Quarterback in Kansas City

There was a surreal moment at the end of first quarter in Heinz Field last Sunday.  With 54 seconds left, the Steelers – trying desperately to get their bearings – faced third-and-ten on their own 19.  As quarterback Ben Roethlisberger dropped back, Kansas City linebacker Justin Houston got his right hand under right tackle Marcus Gilbert and drove him back into Roethlisberger.

Ben, wedged into the pocket, tried to lift the ball to get rid of it, but the play resulted in disaster.  As Houston pushed Gilbert into Roethlisberger, the ball popped loose.  Chief defensive end Chris Jones scooped up the ball at about the five-yard line and stepped it into the end zone.

And suddenly the Pittsburgh Steelers, with 40 seconds still left in the first quarter, playing at home, trailed the Chiefs 27-0.

In the moments that followed that disaster, the game pivoted 180 degrees.  A holding penalty on Orlando Scandrick nullified the sack and the score, setting the Steelers back up with a first-down on their own 24.

Four plays later, Ben pitched a 26-yard touchdown pass to Jesse James.  The Kansas City lead was reduced to 21-7, and the teams would go into the locker room at the half tied at 21.

It was an impressive comeback from a proud Pittsburgh team.  In the end, though, it would prove fruitless.  While the Steeler defense was able to muffle the Kansas City offense long enough to get them back in the game, by the end of the day it was clear they were overmatched.

On a day when the Steeler running game (minus holdout Le’Veon Bell) could manage just 33 yards, Ben Roethlisberger went to the air 60 times, completing 39 of those passes for 452 yards and 3 touchdowns – leading Pittsburgh to a usually sufficient 37 points.

But the day belonged to the first-year quarterback standing on the other sideline.

How much the football universe knew about Patrick Mahomes before this year is uncertain.  After his first two games under center in KC, they can no longer afford to ignore him.

He opened up with a four touchdown pass performance against the Chargers in Week One.  It was impressive, but the offensive plan against Los Angeles was more cute that dominating.  There were a lot of dinky flip passes to wide receivers running in front of Mahomes while still behind the line of scrimmage.

The beast that slayed the Steelers was a very different animal.  Whatever misgivings one might have had after the Charger game, Mahomes’ dissection of the Steelers was all any observer could desire.  He read every defense that Pittsburgh threw at him.  He stood tall in the pocket when he could and escaped easily from trouble when he needed to.  He threw terrific touch passes and fired laser shots down field – all with impressive accuracy.  Watching him run the offense was even more impressive than reading his numbers – and that is saying quite a bit as the numbers themselves are more than a little eye-popping.

Pat finished his game against Pittsburgh throwing 28 passes – of which he completed 23 for 326 yards.  And 6 touchdowns (giving him 10 for the first two games of the season).  As he threw no interceptions, his passer rating for the day was an acceptable 154.8.

I have long admired Kanas City coach Andy Reid.  I have always been under the impression, though, that he would probably never win a title.  There are some coaches that can just never find that quarterback that can get them there.

It is a long, long way from Week Two to the playoffs, and young Mr Mahomes still has a lot to prove.  I do think it’s a little early to start casting his bust for Canton.

But, to this point, it looks like Andy just might have found his quarterback.

And in Jacksonville, Too

The backbreaking play – when it came – came with more of a whimper than a bang.  It wasn’t a rifle shot down the field or a snazzy trick play like the one Philadelphia used in the Super Bowl.  The dagger came on a simple shallow cross, assisted greatly by a grinding kind of effort from a player who is usually a little more visible.

The reigning AFC Champs spent last Sunday afternoon in sunny (it was 97 degrees) Jacksonville Florida.  Last January, these New England Patriots staged one of their patented comebacks to keep the Jaguars out of the Super Bowl.

On this Sunday in September, however, the Patriots ran into the same kind of buzz saw that the Steelers did. The Jaguars scored touchdowns on three of their first four possessions, and then added a field goal on their fifth.  That field goal capped a 15-play, 71-yard drive that consumed the first 7:10 of the second half.  As the kick sailed through the uprights, the Patriots found themselves behind (again) by a 24-3 score with just a quarter and a half remaining.

Of course, it would not end like that.

A touchdown pass from Tom Brady to Chris Hogan in the waning moments of the third quarter made the score 24-10.  Early in the fourth quarter, a field goal inched the Patriots closer.  When Kyle Van Noy intercepted a pass in Jacksonville territory with still 13:30 left in the game, the crushing blow from the defending conference champs seemed imminent.

But the Jags came up with a turnover of their own, and managed to stop New England on their next series – using a challenge to overturn what would have been a Patriot first down.

Now there was 7:48 left in the game.  Jacksonville had first-down on their own 39 yard line.  Quarterback Blake Bortles found Dede Westbrook open on a shallow crossing pattern.  Westbrook, running from the offensive right to the left found the sideline and turned up field. 

Already a substantial gain, the play turned into the game-breaker as receiver Keelan Cole cleared the sidelines with a critical block.

In the first quarter, Cole made a remarkable one-handed catch up that same sideline (relatively speaking) on a pass that was considerably behind him.  That reception set up his own 24-yard touchdown grab.  These were the highlight catches of Keelan’s impactful first half – which saw him collect 4 passes for 77 yards.

Now, however, he was Keelan Cole – the blocker.  He was Keelan Cole – the football player.

Had he not thrown the key block, it’s anyone’s guess how the game might have turned out.  Given a reprieve, the Patriots might very well have held the Jags to a field goal – or perhaps forced another turnover.  Keelan’s block may have been the most critical play of the game.

It did open the way for the touchdown that New England never recovered from.

Who is BlakeBorltes?

The quarterback in the spotlight that afternoon was Bortles.  The Patriots challenged him to beat them through the air and up the sidelines, and Blake kept doing that all afternoon.  He finished his day’s work shredding New England for 377 yards on 29 of 45 passing.  Along with his 1 interception, Blake tossed 4 touchdowns.  His passer rating ending up as an excellent 111.1.

In its own way Blake’s day was as impressive as Mahomes.  In that he humbled the sometimes invincible Patriots.  That he always kept his cool whether secure in the pocket or on the run.  That he unerringly diagnosed everything New England’s defense tried to do to him.  That he threw the ball with great accuracy and never made that critical mistake that quarterbacks so often make against New England – in all these areas, Blake’s day was as laudable as any quarterback in Week Two – even if his game was more contained and less aggressively athletic than Mahomes’.

In an earlier title, I hinted at a new quarterback in Jacksonville.  It is, of course, still Blake Bortles.  But maybe a new Blake Bortles.  Certainly different than the Blake Bortles that threw only one pass in the second half of his Week Five game last year in Pittsburgh.

Just watching him play and looking at his history it is easy to overlook Blake Bortles.  Maybe it’s time we stop doing that.

And in Tampa Bay

With Jameis Winston missing the first three games of the season due to suspension, the Buccaneers had a need for a stop-gap quarterback.  Veteran Ryan Fitzpatrick seemed a perfect fit.  Now, all of a sudden, there is a potential quarterback controversy in Tampa Bay.

Fitzpatrick – the stopgap – has led Tampa Bay to two compelling victories against teams (New Orleans and Philadelphia) that were in the playoffs a year ago.  And he has done so in about as perfect a fashion as one could hope.

His combined line against the Saints and Eagles reads 46 of 61 (78.7%) for 819 yards, 8 touchdowns and 1 interception.  This adds up to a not-too-shabby 151.5 passer rating.  Fitz will get the Monday night game this week against Pittsburgh, and then Winston will be eligible to return.  Whether he returns to hold the clipboard or not remains to be seen.

Ready for Week Three

As Week Three is beginning to kick off around the football universe, the season is already beginning to suggest the surprise stories that might play out for the rest of the season.

There is, of course, a long way to go.

Position Wars with 9 Games Left

Let’s take one final look at the impact the defensive alignments have had on the 2018 edition of the St Louis Cardinals.

Catcher

Yadier Molina has been less indestructible this season than he has been in the past.  A couple of injuries have forced him into extended periods of “rest.”  His reputation as the most irreplaceable Cardinal has been heightened by his absence.

In the 112 games that Yadi has started, the Cards are 63-49.  When Yadi doesn’t start, they are 21-20.

Of the backups, Francisco Pena has acquitted himself well.  The team is 15-14 in his 29 starts, and the team ERA when Pena starts (3.53) is actually slightly lower than when Molina starts (3.83).

First Base

The infield has been in a state of flux most of the year, but since the All-Star Break, the Cards have played their best baseball with Matt Carpenter starting at first.  Carp has made 36 of the 59 second-half starts at third, with the team responding with a 23-13 record. 

They haven’t been terrible without him at first, though – 13-10 since the break.

Since he was rescued from Washington, Matt Adams has seen more work than I would have anticipated.  He has started 12 games at first, with the team going 6-6 in those starts.

Although he has been the predominant starter since the break, Carpenter still does not lead the team in starts at first base for the season.  That honor still belongs to Jose Martinez, who was supposed to be the first baseman all year.  He has made 84 starts there this year, against 53, now, for Carpenter.  The team record with Jose at first is an effective 45-39 (.536), but much better with Carpenter – 31-22 (.585).

Second Base

As the season winds down, keeping Kolten Wong healthy and in the lineup becomes increasingly important.  Kolten has only been available for 11 of the first 18 games this month, and the difference shows.  With Wong at second, the team is 6-5 with a 4.53 ERA while scoring 5.55 runs per game.  They are 2-5 with a 5.06 ERA and 5.00 runs per game in the 7 that he has missed.

This importance is even more graphically portrayed when the whole of the second half is considered.  Since the break, Wong has started 31 games at second, with Yairo Munoz starting 17 times and Greg Garcia making 11 starts.  The team is 22-9 in Wong’s starts, 9-8 with Munoz, and 5-6 with Garcia.

Over the course of the season, five different Cardinals have started at second base – all of them starting at least 11 games there.  Wong has more than 5 times as many starts (94) as the next closest participant – the 18 starts that Munoz has made.  The records overwhelmingly favor Wong.  St Louis is 55-39 when he starts at second, 9-9 with Munoz, 8-8 with Garcia, 6-8 with Jedd Gyorko, and 6-5 in Carpenter’s 11 starts at second.

Shortstop

In retrospect, one of the glaring challenges the Cardinals have faced this year has been the long absences from the lineup of their starting middle infielders.  The drop-off has been just as notable during Paul DeJong’s absences.  Although he has not had the offensive consistency that he displayed in his rookie season, St Louis is still 59-43 (.578) when DeJong starts and 25-26 when he doesn’t.

Third Base

Much of the reason that the Cardinal record is so good with Matt Carpenter at first is that it allows Jedd Gyorko to start at third.  Since the break, Gyorko has made 31 starts at third – with a corresponding 22-9 record.  In Carpenter’s 17 second-half starts at third, St Louis is only 9-8.  They are 5-6 in the second half when anyone else starts there.

Since Carpenter began the year at third, he still has the most starts there with 74 to only 63 for Gyorko.  St Louis is 39-35 when Matt starts at third, and 37-26 with Gyorko.

Left Field

The single most stable position in the Cardinal lineup is left field where Marcell Ozuna starts every time he is healthy.  Marcell has started 17 of 18 this month, 50 of 59 since the break, and 138 of the first 153 games of the season.  Tellingly, in those few games when Ozuna has not made the start, the team record doesn’t suffer from his loss.  This season, the birds are 74-64 when Marcell starts in left, and 10-5 when he doesn’t.

Center Field

While left field has remained eerily stable, both center field and right field have undergone major revisions from the offseason plan.

As the Cards head down the stretch fighting for that last playoff spot, center field remains firmly in the grip of rookie defensive specialist Harrison Bader.  The team’s fourth outfielder (when the season began), Harrison has started 16 of 18 games this month in center.

Tommy Pham, of course, began the season in center.  His surprise trade to Tampa shortly after the All-Star break opened the way for Bader to play fulltime.  In his 10 second half starts in center, Pham led the team to a 5-5 record.  Harrison has had 44 post-break starts in center, with the team going 28-16 in those starts.

For the season, Bader still trails Pham in starts in center, 90-56.  St Louis was 45-45 in Pham’s starts.  They are 35-21 (.625) when Bader starts in center.

Right Field

Right field has also undergone a major shift.  This spot of turf was supposed to belong to Dexter Fowler.  Even though a season long slump threatened his grip on the position, new manager Mike Shildt re-committed to Fowler shortly after his ascension.  How that would have played out, we will never know.  A broken foot sidelined Fowler early in the second half.

His loss opened a spot for deposed first-baseman Jose Martinez – whose defense in right isn’t nearly as shaky as at first base.  Still not fully committed to Martinez as a fulltime answer in right, Jose has started only 12 of the month’s first 18 games there.  St Louis is 7-5 in those games.  They are 1-5 in the other 6 games. 

In the 14 second half games that Fowler started before his injury, St Louis was just 6-8.  When Martinez has stated. The team has been 23-8.

As the season heads into the home stretch, the elements that have shaped the Cardinals’ resurgence are fairly obvious.  First and foremost is the bullpen.  The team thrived during the bullpen’s exceptional August and has scuffled as the relievers have reverted during most of September. 

But the lineup adjustments and the return to health of the middle infield have had a great deal to so with it as well.