All posts by Joe Wegescheide

Hubris in the Air

Earlier this week, America was treated to the highest scoring Monday Night Football game of all time – an entertaining affair in which the Los Angeles Rams outlasted the Kansas City Chiefs by a 54-51 score (gamebook) (box score).  The game featured 1001 yards of offense (539 of them in the second half) and 14 touchdowns – 1 rushing, 10 passing, and 3 defensive scores.

In the aftermath, I have been wondering if we really learned anything from the game.  As the game began, it was assumed that both of the average defenses on the field would be hard pressed to keep up with the elite offenses they would be facing.

The Chiefs came into the game as the league’s second highest scoring team – averaging 35.3 points a game.  They were number three in total offense, and fourth in passing yards behind quarterback Patrick Mahomes – who came into the week with a league-leading 31 touchdown passes.  They would line up against a Ram defense that was allowing 23.1 points per game and was notably vulnerable to the run.  They ranked twenty-fourth, allowing 122.1 yards per game on the ground, and 5.2 yards per rush.

For their part, the Rams offense came into the tilt ranked second in yards per game and second in running the football, averaging 144.8 ground yards a game.  They were also football’s third highest scoring team – at 33.5 points per game – with their young quarterback Jared Goff directing the league’s fifth most prolific passing attack.  Kansas City’s answer was a defense that ranked only twenty-third at stopping the run (121.7 yards per game, and 5.1 per rush), twenty-eighth at stopping the pass, and twenty-ninth overall.  They were allowing 24 points a game.

Perhaps the extent of the scoring would be unexpected, but the general anticipation was of a game somewhere in the neighborhood of 42-37 or thereabouts.

So, I thought that I would look through the numbers from the game and see what surprised me.  First I saw the three interceptions from Mahomes – Patrick had thrown only 7 all year, so that was unexpected.  Of course, he hasn’t been behind in the last two minutes of too many games.

Then I noted the rushing numbers.  For the Chiefs, just 98 yards, while the Rams were held to just 76.  How, you would wonder, would two teams who had pronounced difficulty stopping the run hold two of the NFL’s most prolific running attacks to less than 100 yards?

The answer is that they didn’t.  Essentially, Los Angeles and Kansas City shut down their own running attacks.  The Chiefs ran just 20 times and the Rams just 21 (including two kneel downs).

This, then, becomes my most valuable take-away from this game.  In a contest in which either team could have taken charge by turning to their running attack, neither chose to.  Understanding that the evening would probably be a showcase for two nearly unstoppable passing attacks, both teams bought into the challenge and answered throw for throw.  For as balanced as both of these teams have been all year, when push comes to shove, they turn first to their passing attack.  With just under ten minutes left in the third quarter, Kareem Hunt carried the ball on consecutive plays.  They gained 14 yards.  It was the only time in the entire game that either team ran the ball on consecutive downs.

This is especially insightful as it regards Kansas City.  As the game wore on and the Rams defensive line began to completely disregard the running game, they notably increased the pressure on Mahomes.  Four of the five KC turnovers (all connected to the passing game) occurred in the games second half.

At any point, Kansas City could have re-centered themselves and taken over the game with Hunt – exploiting the Rams most noted weakness (explained more in depth here).  But they didn’t.  Somewhere along the line they decided that they would conquer or perish on Mahomes strong right arm.  The Rams, I am convinced, would have made a similar decision.

It is – if you think about it – a kind of hubris.  It’s almost as though running the ball was an act of cowardice.  What the evening evolved into was a game of aerial chicken, with neither team willing to disgrace itself by turning to the running game – even though that likely would have been the most direct path to victory.

So, if I’m a future opponent of either of these teams, I would understand that this is their psychology.  Both of these teams feel best about themselves when they are throwing the ball, and neither really has the patience to beat you by consistently running the ball.

Beating the Rams or the Chiefs will be a challenge for anyone, but here is how my game plan would set up:

Most important is to shorten the game.  Keep the possessions to a minimum.  Running the ball against these teams is a must.  You will have to commit to running the ball – even if you fall behind by a little bit early.  Keep running.  Both of these defenses are vulnerable to a disciplined running attack.  Work the clock.  Let these quarterbacks cool their jets on the sidelines.

Defensively, I don’t think I would play much zone at all against either team.  That would be too easy for them.  I would play mostly man defenses, with a feature on pressure.  About the only time either of these passing attacks were stopped Monday night was when they had pressure.  As you do this, you are accepting the fact that you will give up the occasional big play.  Playing man against either of these teams is fraught with peril.  But the virtue of a pressure-based defense is that whatever happens on the possession, it will happen quickly.  You’ll get burned for the quick touchdown, you’ll get the interception, you’ll get the quick three-and-out, but you won’t be getting those 11-play, 87-yard, 6:30 drives against you.

The overriding concept is long, clock-consuming drives by your offense, briefly interrupted by very quick possessions by the Rams or Chiefs.  As game plans go, I admit it’s less than perfect, but I think it gives the best chance.

What you don’t want to do – unless you are New Orleans – is engage these teams in aerial warfare.  That just doesn’t work out.

Tennessee’s Tumbling Playoff Chances

One week ago we were lauding the Tennessee Titans after their decisive conquest of the Patriots.  One week later, those same Titans were eaten alive by the Indianapolis Colts, 38-10 (gamebook) (box score).

The list of distressing elements of this one – if you are Tennessee – is long and hard to prioritize.  But let’s begin with the defense.  The game started with Tennessee as the league’s top scoring defense, having allowed just 151 points.  Further, they had allowed the fewest touchdown passes – just 11 through the first 9 games.  They came in ranked sixth overall in yardage, and sixth against the pass, as they held opposing passers to just an 89.5 rating.  Additionally, they were tenth against the run – allowing just 99.8 yards a game and 3.9 yards a carry.

But, quietly rebuilding after a 1-5 start, the Indianapolis Colts have undergone a kind of re-birth, and the centerpiece has been the offense.  Even when they were losing games early, they still scored points.  They had scored 260 (nearly 30 per game) as the game began.  And in the middle was Andrew Luck.

Andrew Luck burst on the scene back in 2012 as the heir to Peyton Manning.  He led the Colts to three consecutive 11-5 seasons and three consecutive playoff berths his first three seasons in the league.

His rising start was interrupted by an injury plagued 2015, and he then missed all of 2017 with arm miseries.  The promising career that was Andrew Luck – and the resurgence in Indianapolis – both seemed to have ended before they had truly begun.  With the 1-5 start – even with Luck back and starting to look healthy again – 2018 looked like it would be yet another lost year in Indianapolis.

Quietly, the Colts started figuring things out, but it was easy to dismiss the early stages of the turnaround.  Victories over the Bills and Raiders (teams that are a combined 5-15) didn’t generate tremendous attention.  A tight 29-26 win over Jacksonville made it seem more real – but last years’ division champs have been fading as well.  Now 4-5, Indy needed a statement win before they could really be taken seriously.  Their dismantling of this Tennessee team more or less qualifies for that.

During the route, Luck completed 11 of 12 second half passes (91.7%) and tossed 2 of the 3 touchdowns passes he had for the game.  He finished 23 of 29 for 297 yards and with 143.8 passer rating.  He was 9-for-9 throwing to T.Y. Hilton for 155 yards and 2 of the touchdowns.

As I start to sour on the Titans playoff chances, it’s not so much because they lost this game.  Even with this loss, their soft remaining schedule still gives them a strong chance.  It was a couple of other elements arising from this loss that makes me wonder about the Titans going forward.

One of the elements is the team they lost to.  It’s hard not to be convinced by the Colts the way they’ve played their last four games.  Their ending schedule is also manageable.  The Colts, though, if they earn that final playoff spot will have to do so on the road (they are 2-3 on the road, so far).  Their final three road games will be against the division.  Before all is said and done, they will go into Jacksonville, into Houston and into Tennessee (for the season’s last game).  They will have to earn it.

For that reason, I might still lean toward Tennessee.  But here’s the other thing.  On a fairly routine sack at the end of the first half, quarterback Marcus Mariota’s day ended.  It was a mild re-occurrence of the elbow issue he had earlier in the year and seemed to be over.  He is officially listed as questionable for Monday night in Houston.

The injury is sobering, because it means that this is a shadow that will hang over the Titans and their quarterback at least all the rest of this season.  Even if Mariota comes back, any random hit – and Marcus is one of those QBs that run an awful lot – could send him to the sidelines and bring in Blaine Gabbert.

As I look at the Titans now, I am not convinced that they will have Mariota on the field enough to make this happen for them.

More Flux in the NFC East

Every week in the NFC East a new front-runner emerges.  Two weeks ago, when I first projected the division, I backed the defending champion Eagles to eventually emerge.  They have lost two straight games since then, and seem to be in considerable disarray.  So last week, I conceded that Washington was probably the team that would enter the playoffs from this division.  They not only lost their last game, but their starting quarterback for the rest of the season.

Who’s left?  Could it be Dallas?  The Cowboy team that was left for dead all those weeks ago?

Don’t look now, but the Cowboys have pulled off back-to-back, must win games against the Eagles and the Falcons.  Now, tomorrow the Redskins limp into Irving with first place on the line.  Suddenly, everything is before the Cowboys.

Minnesota’s Blueprint?

Down 14-0 at the half and 22-6 with about half the fourth quarter left, the Minnesota Viking made a spirited comeback against the Chicago Bears.  They fell short, but made a game of it, 25-20 (gamebook) (box score).  The Vikings found success in their hurry-up offense, throwing underneath the Chicago coverage.  When they tried to get greedy, they suffered (Eddie Jackson’s crushing 27-yard interception return coming on one of Kirk Cousins’ last attempted long passes).

After passing for just 57 yards in the first half, Cousins completed 23 of 33 in the second half (69.7%), but for just 205 yards.  But he kept moving the chains.  Receiver Stefon Diggs was targeted 15 times in the second half alone.  He caught 11 of the passes for 93 yards and one of the two second half touchdown passes.  Adam Thielen was targeted 7 times in that half, catching 5 for 48 yards.

Whether it’s a blueprint remains to be seen.  But for 30 minutes last Monday night, the Bears’ defense seemed to be on its heels a lot.

Big Ben’s Perfectish Game

It is Thursday evening, November 8 (ten days ago)

On their first play from scrimmage, the Pittsburgh Steelers lined up with receivers JuJu Smith-Schuster and James Washington spread wide to the left of quarterback Ben Roethlisberger.  Carolina cornerback Captain Munnerlyn initially lined up over Smith-Schuster as if in man coverage.  But as the play developed and Washington curled into the flat along the sideline, Munnerlyn dropped Smith-Schuster and moved to his zone assignment where Washington was.

One little problem.  The Panthers were not in zone.  They were in man coverage – and Juju Smith-Schuster was his man.

In the very same fraction of a second that Munnerlyn turned his attention to Washington, Roethlisberger released his perfectly thrown deep pass, hitting Juju in stride just before the Carolina 45-yard line, on his way to a game opening 75-yard touchdown.

That would set the tone.

The Carolina Panthers came into the contest 6-2 and looking like one of the NFL’s elite teams.  But they walked into a buzz-saw in Pittsburgh leaving the Steel City on the bad end of a 51-14 score (gamebook) (box score).

The Steelers had it all working.  The defense limited Carolina to 242 yards, while sacking Cam Newton 5 times and forcing 2 turnovers.  The running attack rang up 138 yards and a touchdown.

But for all that, the day belonged to Ben Roethlisberger and his indomitable (at least it was a week ago Thursday) passing attack.

Primarily a zone defense team, Carolina realized that they couldn’t sit in their zones in this game or Ben would eat them alive.  So they opened their defensive playbook.  They showed man, but then played zone.  They showed zone but then played man.  On the touchdown pass to Vance McDonald (and Ben would throw 5 touchdowns on the night) Vance came in motion across the formation and no one followed him – a clear indication of zone.  Yet once the play began, McDonald was man covered by star Panther linebacker Luke Kuechly with safety help over the top.  Even that wasn’t enough, as McDonald got behind both in the back of the end zone.

Throughout the game, Carolina would line up six or more potential pass rushers across the line of scrimmage, dropping most of them into coverage once the play began.  Perhaps the most amazing aspect of Roethlisberger’s performance was how quickly he deciphered the defensive scheme and how rapidly he delivered the football.

With 3:50 left in the first half, Pittsburgh faced a third-and-six on their own 29-yard line.  Six Panthers crowded the line of scrimmage, but three droped off after the snap.  One of those dropping out – DE/LB Julius Peppers hadn’t taken three steps into his coverage before the football whistled past his ear to receiver Ryan Switzer who had beaten the entire Panther defense to the soft spot in the zone just behind Peppers.

And so it went.

With just under five minutes left in the third quarter, Pittsburgh faced a third-and-eight from its own 37-yard line.  The Steelers lined up with three receivers bunched to the right, and Carolina showed man coverage.  As Roethlisberger prepared to receive the ball, Kuechly and Munnerlyn crept up to the line – again showing six potential blitzers.  When Ben dropped his hands, Kuechly and Munnerlyn fell back to their previous positions.  Luke then took another step in, but backed off again – prompting Roethlisberger to change the play.

After spending most of the game bluffing the blitz, Carolina actually came this time.  Both Kuechly and Munnerlyn rushed, with end Mario Addison dropping back into coverage.  Instead of man, the Panthers played zone (with just six defenders) behind the blitz.  Still, Ben and the Steelers had the answer.  Running back Jaylen Samuels scooted across the formation to pick up Munnerlyn – who was running free to the quarterback.  With the blitz answered, Roethlisberger waited for the zones to expand, at which point he dumped the ball off to McDonald in the short middle of the field.  Vance gathered the pass in and turned up field to complete a 19-yard gain and another first down.

Pittsburgh was 8-of-11 converting third downs that night.

Ben’s dominance reflected in his passing line for the game.  He finished completing 22 of 25 passes for 328 yards and the 5 touchdowns.  His efforts earned him the maximum passer rating of 158.3.

Maximum but Not Perfect

Over and over you will hear announcers refer to this magic number (158.3) as a perfect rating.  That, of course, is clearly not true.  Whatever else you might want from a perfect night, you would at least want all of the passes completed.  That 158.3 number does not in any sense reflect perfection.  Through the bizarre intricacies of the formula itself, that score happens to be the highest that it will award – the maximum score, if you will.

This is a discussion I’ve been intending to have for some time.

The passer rating system as we know it today was created prior to the 1973 season.  Previously, passers had been rated either by total passing yards or completion percentage.  And no previous system took into account interceptions thrown

The 1973 system, then, attempted to achieve an equal balance between four averages.  It takes completion percentage, average yards per pass, touchdown percentage and interception percentage into consideration.  The guts of the calculation are as follows:

5*(Completion Percentage + (5*avg yards per pass) + 2.5 + (4*touchdown percentage) – (5*interception percentage))/6. 

This is certainly complex enough.  But then each of the individual categories is randomly capped. (perhaps to prevent any one area from overweighing the others?) The completion percentage category is capped at 77.5%.  In the prior Thursday’s game, Ben completed 88%, so the last 10.5% of his completion percentage didn’t help his rating.  The cap in average per attempted pass is 12.5.  Ben averaged 13.12 in this game – essentially the system disregarded his last 15.5 passing yards. The touchdown maximum is 11.9%. With Roethlisberger throwing an even 20% of his passes for touchdowns that meant that his last two touchdowns helped his rating not at all.  Zero, of course, is the maximum best score for interception percentage.  This category is also capped on the high end, as anything more than 9.5% won’t hurt you any further.  According to the system, throwing a third of your passes for interceptions is no worse than throwing a tenth of your passes to the wrong side.

Why the caps were put into place is a mystery.  Without the artificially placed maximums, Ben would have scored a 196.8 against Carolina.  Without the imposed maximums, the highest possible score would be 831.3 (a scenario where every pass thrown results in a 99-yard touchdown), and the lowest possible score would be -414.6 (a scenario where every pass thrown is intercepted).

For any normal use, the accepted range between 0 and 158.3 is sufficient.  But the only people who call the 158.3 figure “perfect” are those that do not understand it.

Ben was really good that Thursday night.  He was pretty close to perfect.  But not perfect.

Halting the Run an Issue for the Rams

The problem is not just against the Seahawks, although it has been most pronounced in their two games against Seattle.  In their 35-23 win over the LA Chargers, the Rams allowed 141 rushing yards.  The New Orleans Saints also rang up 141 rushing yards against the Rams when they beat them in Week Nine, 45-35.

But stopping the run against Seattle has been a particular challenge for a Rams team that has shown few imperfections so far in 2018.  They beat Seattle in Week Five by a 33-31 score in spite of the fact that they surrendered 190 rushing yards.  In the NFL, teams that run for 190 yards rarely lose. 

That theme was built upon last Sunday.

When quarterback Russell Wilson’s fourth-down desperation heave soared over the head of receiver Tyler Lockett with 18 seconds left in the contest, the Rams had secured another nail-biting victory over the Hawks – this one by a 36-31 score (gamebook) (box score).

This win came in spite of the fact that Seattle earned 273 rushing yards on 34 attempts – an average of 8.0 yards per rush.

How does a team lose a game in which it runs for 273 yards, gets a 123.2 passer rating from its quarterback, and turns the ball over only once?  Well, that was the interesting dichotomy of this game.  While the Seattle offensive line generally had their way with the Ram defensive front seven when they went to run the ball, it was the Rams’ defensive front that dominated in passing situations.

Of the 34 times that Wilson dropped to pass, he was forced to throw the ball away twice, forced to scramble 4 other times, and sacked 4 other times. So 10 of his 34 drop backs were significantly disrupted by the pass rush.  This also turned the big plays that might have come through the passing game to a series of much shorter completions.  Wilson only had two pass completions over twenty yards in the entire contest, and totaled just 176 yards on his 17 completions.

This and the one critical turnover is about the only way you lose a game in which you’ve run for 273 yards – and, by the way, about the only way that you lose two games in which you total 463 rushing yards.

Much of this ground success is the product of a new philosophy in Seattle and an offensive line now much more proficient in run blocking than pass blocking.  With 173 more rushing yards in their Thursday night win against the Packers, Seattle now has seven straight games with at least 154 rushing yards.  That’s the kind of statistic you see associated with the old Oklahoma teams.  You rarely see that kind of run consistency in the NFL.

But this is who the Seahawks have re-branded themselves to be.  Thursday night, their 35 running plays stood opposite their 34 passing plays.  For the season, now, they have 323 running plays against 310 passing plays.  The running play total does include scrambles that might have been passes under better circumstances, so the actual Seahawk play-calling isn’t truly 51% run.  But this does make the point.

Seattle’s identity is to run through you until you show that you can stop it.  I’m going to call this Neanderthal football – a style hearkening back to the pre-1970s.

Thus, Seattle did some things last Sunday to the Rams that other teams might not be able to do.  Particularly impressive – during the running plays, anyway – was the middle of the Seattle offensive line.  Center Justin Britt and guards J.R. Sweezy and Jordan Simmons more than held their own against the Rams’ dominant interior linemen Aaron Donald and Ndamukong Suh.  Suh was frequently double-teamed, but that had more to do with his position in the center of the defense than any particular fear that Seattle had of him.  Throughout the game, they showed no particular hesitancy to leave any of their interior linemen one-on-one with any of the Ram defensive front seven.

Not a lot of teams can get away with that.

But even if much of the Seahawk success is a result of personnel and organizational philosophy, a good chunk of the LA struggle is endemic to the Rams themselves, and as such are things that other teams can exploit.

For one thing, the Rams are very quick on defense, but surprisingly small.  Even as it became apparent that the run game would be a primary focus, the Rams were decidedly unwilling to move out of their base 3-4 defense.  And who were those linebackers?

In their base defense, the Rams played almost every snap with some combination of Cory Littleton (6-3, 228), Mark Barron (6-2, 230), Dante Fowler (6-3, 255), Samson Ebukam (6-3, 245) and Matt Longacre (6-3, 265).  Frankly, when you look at the Rams lining up on defense, it almost looks like they have 8 defensive backs, as the linebackers are notably smaller than the linemen – a clearly advantageous alignment to stop the pass, but a potential liability against the run.

In the usual alignment, this would have the smaller backers (Littleton, Barron and Ebukam) off the line as pure linebackers, and either Fowler or Longacre on the line as an undersized defensive end.

Other teams do this as well.  The small-but-quick linebacker concept isn’t unique to the Rams.  Unlike other teams that employ this concept, though, the defensive line of the Rams makes almost no effort at all to shield its linebackers.  While many teams will ask their down linemen to occupy blockers, giving their linebackers free range to chase down the running backs, the Rams basically leave their undersized defenders to fend for themselves.  Repeatedly, the Hawks’ large offensive linemen sprinted cleanly into the second level of the defense to gash open the LA run defense.  Perhaps when your defensive line includes stars like Suh and Donald, their focus is more an individual concept than a team one.  Perhaps.

On Seattle’s very first offensive play of the day – a 12-yard up the middle run from Mike Davis – Sweezy was on top of Littleton before he could blink and Simmons had unobstructed access to Barron.  Nobody impeded tight end Nick Vannett as he pushed away free safety Lamarcus Joyner, nor was fullback Tre Madden slowed as he hunted up Ebukam.

That would be the pattern all day.

On Seattle’s longest running play of the day, a 38-yard sprint on the first carry from Rashaad Penny, the Hawks employed a sixth offensive lineman as George Fant, playing the tight end position, lined up tight to the right of the formation.  The Rams responded by over-shifting their defensive linemen to that side.  The Hawks adjusted by running the ball back the other way.  Left tackle Duane Brown easily kicked out Fowler.  Meanwhile, the double-team block by Britt and Sweezy was so effective that they drove Suh all the way back into linebacker Barron opening a gaping highway through two levels of the defense.  Penny sliced through the gap and sprinted up the sideline until Joyner eventually ran him down.

Consistently throughout the afternoon, Seattle battered the Rams with an endless series of 5, 6, and 7 yard runs that featured offensive linemen having clean shots at the smaller Ram linebackers.

Even more damaging was the Rams’ loss of discipline against the Seattle running game.  Of the 273 rushing yards allowed, I count 93 surrendered by the Rams for simply not being where they were supposed to be.

Of these, the two most damaging plays were Penny’s 18-yard touchdown run in the first quarter that opened up when Ebukam completely neglected his containment responsibility and charged headlong into the backfield – allowing Rashaad to sprint untouched into the end zone; and a third-quarter, 24-yard run by Penny again around Ebukam who wasn’t quick enough to fulfill his containment responsibility.

Wilson – who added his 92 rushing yards to the 108 racked up by Penny – frequently hurt the Rams with his zone-read runs.

Just before the 24-yard run by Penny, Fowler bit hard on Wilson’s faked handoff, opening the sideline for an 11-yard run.  Barron also bit hard on the fake, so the run was wide open.  On a couple other zone-read runs from Wilson, linebacker Longacre didn’t over-commit to the run – keeping his eye on Wilson the whole time.  But even this nod to discipline wasn’t enough, as Matt was still too close to the formation.  Even though Wilson saw him trying to contain, he twice out-raced Longacre to the sideline – once for 12 yards with 2:48 left in the first half, and again for 11 yards early in the fourth quarter.

These were opportunities that were consistently open to the Seahawks the entire game.

Let’s be honest.  It will be difficult for most teams to beat the Rams by running at them.  When the opposing offense is running up 30-40 points a game against you at some point most teams will have to fold up the running game and try to match them air-strike-for-air-strike.

Interestingly, though, one of the teams that this weakness might come into play against will be the Rams’ next opponent.  Monday night at home, LA will match up with Kansas City.  Like the Rams, the Chiefs are 9-1 and boast an explosive offense.  With a dynamic passing attack of their own, Kansas City would seem to be able to keep up with LA’s air power.

But a significant feature of the Kansas City offense is an elite running game, centering on the cutback talents of Kareem Hunt.  Moreover, the Chiefs are among those teams that most challenge a defense’s discipline.  If any team employs the jet-sweep concept more than the Rams, it might be the Chiefs with speedsters like Tyreek Hill, who can threaten the edges like few players in the game.

The Ram-Chief game will be one of the season’s most anticipated – and is expected to be a shootout.  In a battle between two very even teams just a little lack of discipline might spell the difference.

Patriots Dominated in Tennessee

The formula for stopping Tom Brady has actually been known for a long time.  Pressure up the middle.  Break up the pass attack before anything can develop.  Easy to say – much harder to execute.

Over the years of the Patriot domination, one of the unspoken foundation pieces has been an elite offensive line and protection schemes focused on keeping Brady upright.  In fact, perhaps the most iconic image of the New England offense might be of Brady standing in his clean pocket for six or seven seconds while he thoroughly scans the field for open receivers.  The Patriots also know the formula.

Adding to the level of difficulty is the fact that the Patriot receiving corps is usually plentifully populated with very quick, very intelligent receivers who make very quick adjustments and almost always give Brady somewhere to go quickly with his throws in those infrequent occasions when he has to unload in a hurry.

And, of course, there is almost always a quality running attack that New England could turn to should they ever need to.  The running game gets little notice, being overshadowed by the passing attack, but it has made significant contributions to the Patriot cause. 

Last week – in their game against Green Bay (discussed here) – the Packers were actually able to sustain more pressure than usual against Brady.  This game could have been much more difficult for New England, had the running game not supplied 123 yards and 3 touchdowns on 31 rushes.

Cracks in the Foundation

Quietly, though, there has been some erosion among the foundation pieces of the Patriot dynasty.  Nate Solder – underappreciated, perhaps at left tackle for the previous seven seasons – is now in New York.  Shaq Mason – the highly acclaimed right guard – is out with an injury.  Dion Lewis, Brandin Cooks, and Danny Amendola are all elsewhere.  This – along with some reshuffling of the defense – has made the Patriots look fairly mortal from time-to-time this season.  With their most dynamic receiver – TE Rob Gronkowski – on the shelf with back and ankle injuries for a couple of games – the Patriots would appear to be as vulnerable now as they have ever recently been.

Still, the Packers didn’t have enough pieces to stop them, and the Patriots rolled into Tennessee with a 7-2 record and just a step behind Kansas City for the top seed in the division.  If this upset was to take place, few would have believed it would happen last week against the Titans.  Yes, Tennessee’s defense – statistically, anyway, seemed like it might present problems.  At 141 points, the Titans had surrendered the fewest points in the league, while ranking eighth in both total defense and pass defense.

But as impressive as they have been on defense, they have been that woeful on offense.  Their 134 points scored were twenty-ninth in the league, and they ranked thirtieth in both passing and total offense.  Yes, the Patriots might not score their customary 30 points.  But it was assumed that they would score some, and that punch-less Tennessee would have to mount some kind of substantial offense to have a chance in this game.

Patriots Ambushed

Two hours and 59 minutes later, the Patriots walked off the field, victims of a stunning 34-10 beating by the lightly-regarded Titans. (gamebook) (box score).

The stunning offensive display was, perhaps, less surprising than it should have been.  Yes, their numbers were bad to this point of the season.  But they have also played the entire year to this point with a compromised quarterback.  Over the last couple of weeks – and especially last Sunday – Marcus Mariota has shown himself mostly recovered.  This notably changes the narrative, both for this game and for the playoff picture.  Making throws that he couldn’t have imagined making earlier in the year, Mariota sliced the Patriot defense to the tune of 16 of 24 for 228 yards and 2 touchdowns.  His recovery combines with the continued emergence of wide receiver Corey Davis to give the Titans reason to hope that their offense could be considerably more explosive coming down the stretch.  Davis finished with 7 catches for 125 yards and a touchdown.

Still – even with the emergence of the passing attack – the offensive foundation in Tennessee remains the running game.  Controlling the line of scrimmage from start to finish, Tennessee pounded the Patriots to the tune of 150 rushing yards on 36 rushes.  Both feature back Derrick Henry and ex-Patriot Lewis finished with over 50 yards for the contest.

As stunning as the offensive performance was, it couldn’t overshadow the buzz generated by the defense as they dismantled the Patriots point-by-point. 

First, they inhaled the Patriot running game.  With no run gaining more than 9 yards, the Pats finished with just 40 yards on 19 carries (2.1 per).

Additionally, the Titans were able to fully exploit the absence of Gronkowski.  With young cornerback Adoree’ Jackson contesting every pass thrown to Josh Gordon, Tennessee was able to double-team running back James White

Then, with the relentless pressure forcing Brady to play fast the entire game – and with few available open receivers – Tom Brady finished with one of the worst games of his career.  Tom finished with just 21 completions in 41 attempts (51.2%) and finished with just a 70.6 passer rating.

It was the third straight game that Brady finished with a rating under 100 and the fifth time this season – including his 65.1 rating against Detroit earlier this season.  The Patriots are still 7-3 and in good shape.  But not looking as invincible as in season’s past.  Not yet anyway.

Two plays in particular underscored the disarray that the Titans caused in the New England offense.  With 10:34 left in the third, and trailing 24-10, the Patriots faced a second and ten from their own 30.  With a rare clean pocket, Brady tossed a strike 14 yards over the middle for a certain first down.  Receiver Julian Edelman never looked for it.  The ball hit Edelman flush in the helmet and bounced harmlessly away. 

Later in the fourth, down 27-10, the Pats faced third and seven.  New England had a little razzle-dazzle up its sleeve.  A handoff to White running to his left became a toss back to Edelman, coming back around to the right.  With linebacker Harold Landry bearing down on him, Julian jump-tossed to Brady, who had circled out of the backfield.  In the sense that the defense was totally fooled, the play worked as well as could be imagined.  As Brady pulled the pass in, there were no defenders within fifteen yards of him.  However, as he turned up field to run, Brady’s feet tangled.  He stumbled and finally went down – one yard short of the first down.  Going for it on fourth-and-one, a false start moved them back, and Brady’s fourth-and-six toss to Edelman over the middle was perfectly defended by Logan Ryan.

That’s how the day was for New England.

Titans Trending Up

On the other hand, this victory brightens things considerably in Nashville.  Last week when we discussed playoff situations, we noted that with a fairly soft closing schedule Tennessee needed to find a way to win one of their next three.  Mission more than accomplished.  Now – even should they drop their next two games (division road contests in Indianapolis and Houston), Tennessee still has a reasonable shot at a 10-6 record, which should earn them at least a wildcard spot.  Remember, Baltimore still holds the tie-breaker here, so the Titans will still have to finish with a better record.

Other Shifting Playoff Situations

The NFC East continues to be a division without direction.  In last week’s discussion, I championed the still underachieving Eagles as the team I expected to see hold forth.  Even with a vulnerable Dallas team playing in Philadelphia on Sunday night, the Eagles still managed to lose another game in the standings.  They now trail by two games.  With their disappointing loss to the Cowboys, coupled with Washington’s impressive victory in Tampa Bay, I am forced to admit that Washington is looking more and more like they are the class of that division.  With Carolina and Seattle in the same conference, it is unlikely that there will be a wildcard spot for the NFC East, so only the champion here is liable to go.

Saints Rolling On

While the Patriots, Falcons and Eagles all lost important games during Week Ten, the New Orleans Saints kept rolling on.  Showing no let-down after their huge conquest of the Rams, the Saints steam-rolled the Cincinnati Bengals, 51-14 (gamebook) (box score).

Much more perfect than this, an offense cannot hope to get.  They converted all of their first seven third-down opportunities.  They scored touchdowns the first five times they touched the ball, including going 4-4 in the red zone.  They had 10 possession for the game, scoring on the first 9 (6 touchdowns and 3 field goals).  Well ahead on their final possession, they settled for running off the final 4:42 of the game.

The final tally showed 244 rushing yards on 47 rushes (5.2 per), while QB Drew Brees recorded a 150.4 rating on 22 of 25 passing for 265 yards and 3 touchdowns.  New Orleans is making it look very easy right now.

Watching them, though, it seems that they are starting to get a little full of themselves – especially the defense.  This is curious, because the defense is the underachieving aspect of this team.  While the explosive offense continues to go about its business in a professional manner, the Saints defense (23rd in scoring defense, 23rd in total defense, and 31st in passing defense) celebrate all of their interceptions (they have only 6 on the season) by posing for pictures in the end zone.

Just a reminder: Pride goeth before a fall.

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.