Category Archives: Football

Offense from Defense

Six weeks into the 2017 NFL season, the scoreboard shows that – of the 444 touchdowns scored so far – 402 have been scored by the offensive team (276 TD passes and 126 TD runs).  But Week Six was noteworthy – in part – for touchdowns racked up by special teams and, especially, defense.  Of the 34 defensive touchdowns scored this season, 10 were scored in Week Six.  Of the 8 special teams touchdowns scored this season, 5 were scored this week.

These two alternate touchdown sources contributed to one of the most entertaining games of the season last Sunday when New Orleans held off a late Detroit rally to “escape” with a 52-38 victory (gamebook).  That game alone contributed 4 defensive touchdowns and 1 special teams score – with four of these five alternate scores occurring in the game’s last 24 minutes.

Along the way, the Saints may have become the first team ever to score 50 points while going just 2 for 12 on third down (including 0 for 7 in the second half).  It is also surprising in that superstar quarterback Drew Brees suffered through his worst statistical game of the season.  Hitting the field with a 108.3 passer rating for the season, Brees – who had thrown no interceptions on the seasons and was averaging 7.47 yards per pass – tossed 3 interceptions in Sunday’s second half and averaged just 6.00 yards per pass on his way to a 78.2 passer rating.  His afternoon featured a goal-line interception for a Detroit touchdown that – for the moment – fueled the Lions’ furious comeback.

When your opponent rolls up 38 points, it’s rare that your defense is regarded as heroic.  Nonetheless, with the score against them inflated by a defensive score and a punt return for a touchdown, the Saint defense sacked Lion quarterback Matthew Stafford 5 times, hit him on 6 other pass attempts, deflected 12 passes, intercepted 3 and recovered 2 fumbles.  The Saint defense scored 3 touchdowns outright, and set up another.  In between, they saw Detroit make some plays – but on this day, the big-play New Orleans defense was more than a match.

After losing their first two games (to 4-2 Minnesota and 4-2 New England), the Saints have cobbled together three consecutive wins (against 4-2 Carolina, 3-2 Miami, and now 3-3 Detroit).  As you can see, New Orleans’ early schedule has been pretty challenging.  Things could get a little softer for the next few weeks.  They will line up Sunday against the 4-2 Green Bay Packers – but without their superstar quarterback Aaron Rodgers who went down last week with a broken collarbone.  After that, they draw the Bears (2-4) and Buccaneers (2-3).  After yielding 1025 total yards in their first two games (with no turnovers), the New Orleans defense has only surrendered 821 over their last 3 (with 9 turnovers).

If the Saint defense has turned the corner – and if the offense stays as balanced as it’s been the last three weeks – this Saints team could hold its own in the highly competitive NFC South all the way into December.

Matthew Stafford

There are moments when sports become transcendent.  I’m going to waft a little poetic, here, for a few paragraphs – so if your tolerance for bad poetry is a little low, you might want to skip this section.

With the third quarter about half over, a fortunate deflection of a Stafford pass landed in the arms of Saints’ rookie first-round-pick Marshon Lattimore.  Twenty-seven yards later, Lattimore was being swarmed by his teammates after he had scored what seemed to be the back breaking touchdown.  With 23 minutes and 34 seconds left in the game, Detroit trailed 45-10.  Not only were they trailing, but they were paying a horrific physical price.

About four minutes before, safety Glover Quinn was lost after taking a knee to the head.  About two minutes later, the other safety Tavon Wilson went down for a while.  With six-and-a-half minutes left in the third – and with the Lions’ still 35 points behind – they lost their most explosive playmaker when Golden Tate went to the sidelines with an AC joint sprain in his shoulder.

And then there was the beating the offensive line took.  Already missing starting guard T.J. Lang, Detroit lost two more offensive lineman in the third and fourth quarters, as both Greg Robinson and Ricky Wagner suffered ankle injuries.  So, on top of everything else, Detroit faced a five-touchdown deficit with, essentially, three backup offensive linemen in the game.

In the midst of all of this adversity was battered quarterback Matthew Stafford.  Already hobbled by a bad ankle and a tender hamstring, Stafford endured a savage beating at the hands of the physical New Orleans defense.  Before the comeback even got up a head of steam, a shot to the ribs had Matthew flinching for the rest of the drive.

With every reason to sit their remaining healthy starters and just wind out the clock.  With no legitimate chance for victory, and no coherent reason to keep trying, the emotionally resilient Lions pulled their broken bodies off the Superdome turf and mounted a comeback for the ages – almost.

Pounded by free-rushers, and scrambling as much as he could on a bad ankle, baby-faced Matthew Stafford was every inch a man on Sunday afternoon.  Coming back for more every time he was belted to the turf, and with his limping teammates rallying around him, the Lions improbably reeled off 28 consecutive points – and did so in a span of just 14:15 immediately after they had lost their most explosive playmaker.

When defensive tackle A’Shawn Robinson stepped in front of Brees’ quick slant and waltzed into the end zone, the Detroit Lions sat just seven points back (45-38) with still 6:41 left on the clock.  Immediately afterward, the Lion defense held New Orleans to a quick three-and-out.  There was still 5:23 left on the game clock as punter Thomas Morstead launched his kick to the left-corner of the end zone, where one final mistake would doom the Lions and their comeback.

On an afternoon when Detroit would surrender 193 rushing yards and would turn the ball over five times, their clinching mistake would involve neither.  Already having scored on a 74-yard punt return, Jamal Agnew now muffed Morstead’s punt.  As it rolled toward the end zone, Agnew raced after it.  He managed to scoop it up and advance it just enough out of the end zone to avoid the safety.  As it turned out, the safety might have worked out better.

Setting up on their own one-yard line, the Lions promptly surrendered their second in-their-own-end-zone touchdown of the game as defensive end Cameron Jordan hauled in his own deflection for the final points of the day.

The loss leaves Detroit 3-3, but still very much in the mix in the NFC North, where the Packers will have to soldier on without Rodgers.

In the end, it was just a loss, and the fact that they made a game out of it matters not at all in the standings.  If they had pulled the plug on the game at 45-10 and gone down quietly, it wouldn’t have hurt them any more in the standings.  But as it relates to the team going forward, the almost comeback is enormous.  On an afternoon when Stafford had – statistically – his worst game of the season (and one of the great ironies of Week Six is that the highest scoring game of the season so far featured the worst statistical games of the season so far for both star quarterbacks), Matthew’s uncommon toughness galvanized his team.

Detroit has some issues that need to be dealt with.  Their running game still isn’t a positive force for them, and for some reason they have a hard time getting started until the fourth quarter.  So Jim Caldwell and his crew have work to do.

But the heart of this team is something they will not have to worry about.

A Look at the Dandies

There were lots of story lines possible for Sunday’s Duel of the September Dandies.  The two quarterbacks were potential story-lines.  Los Angeles Rams’ second-year signal caller, Jeff Goff – a September sensation – was coming off a scuffling 48.9 passer-rating performance in last week’s loss to Seattle.  On the Jacksonville side, quarterback Blake Bortles had thrown 1 pass in the second half of the Jaguars impressive victory over Pittsburgh.  So a revenge of the quarterback’s theme could have been one story line.

More likely, this would be a story of the feature backs.  The Rams Todd Gurley was mostly ignored in the Seattle game (he carried 14 times), while Jacksonville’s dynamic Leonard Fournette racked up 181 yards against the Steelers.  Since neither defense had shown much ability to stop the run (the Rams came into the game allowing 133.6 rushing yards per game and 4.5 yards per carry, while the Jags were getting stung to the tune of 146.4 rushing yards per game and 5.4 per rush), it was easy to see both backs enjoying big afternoons.

Then, of course, there was the offensive shootout story line.  The Rams came into play averaging 30.4 points per game, while Jacksonville was scoring 27.8 points per contest.

In the end, none of those story lines proved decisive – all though all of them had their moments.

As to the quarterbacks, Goff had a fine bounce back day against a decidedly tough secondary.  He finished with a solid 86.2 rating day, although he threw only 21 times (just 7 times in the second half).  As for Bortles, he threw 15 times in the second half and 35 times for the game.  But, once again, it was obvious that Jacksonville’s passing attack is less than supremely dangerous.  Once the Rams pushed ahead in the fourth quarter, forcing the Jags’ running game to the sideline, it was clear how run-dependent they are in Jacksonville.

The running backs were a better story.  On Fournette’s very last carry against the Steelers the week before, Leonard streaked 90 yards for the clinching touchdown.  On his first carry Sunday, he sprinted 75 yards for a touchdown.  I’m not sure how many players have had back-to-back touchdown runs that totaled 165 yards or more.  Fournette is a threat from anywhere on the field.

However, after that initial burst, the Rams’ talented defensive line took over the game.  Leonard carried 20 more times during the game for a total of just 55 yards.

Gurley, on the other hand, never had that monster burst.  But he consistently found yardage between the tackles.  Todd finished with 116 yards on 23 carries (5.0 per), and proved to be the most consistent offense that either team was able to sustain.

As to the shootout story line, the first quarter ended with the Rams on top 17-14.  But things settled down surprisingly after the first 15 minutes.  In fact, after the first quarter neither team managed another offensive touchdown, as St Louis ground its way to a 27-17 victory (gamebook).

At the end of the day, though, it was the difference in the special teams that decided the game.  One great advantage the Rams have is two elite kickers – and both contributed to the win.  Punter Johnny Hekker did bounce one punt into the end zone, but finished with a 43.1 net punting average for the game.  Place kicker Greg Zuerlein added two field goals (one of them from 56 yards).

But it was the other side of the special teams game (when Jacksonville kicked to Los Angeles) that decided the game.  The Rams returned a kickoff and a blocked punt for the deciding touchdowns, while a shanked punt set up a field goal.  Jacksonville kicker Jason Myers also missed two field goals, although both of them were from more than 50 yards out – underscoring the value of having that long-range weapon.

In the game’s aftermath, I find myself not completely convinced by either team.  Remembering that these teams combined for a total of 7 wins last year (4 by the Rams and 3 by the Jags), it is impressive that these teams have achieved that total already this year (4 for the Rams and 3 for the Jags).  But both franchises have some growing to do before they could be considered among the elite teams.  Both have developed top running games, but both are less than astonishing in the passing game.  Both also seem a little vulnerable defending the run.  Jacksonville’s pass defense looks like it has risen to one of the better pass defenses in the league.  The Rams, of course, excel in the kicking game.

Both of these teams are clearly headed in the right direction.  It will be interesting to watch their development as the season progresses.

The One National Anthem Protest Thread that Everyone in America Should Read

This post is an open invitation for everyone who is affected by the recent National Anthem protest trend that’s sweeping across the nation’s the sport’s scene.  This simple protest has resonated in almost every community and as high up as the White House.  Balanced opinions on this divisive topic are hard to come by.  For a few minutes, I am going to ask the voices on both sides of the aisle to look clearly at the issue and the questions it raises.

And, of course, I am going to make recommendations.  I am not the oldest of old men, but, as the song says, “I’ve seen fire and I’ve seen rain.”

Disrespecting the Flag Disrespects All of America

Let me start off by saying that I truly don’t believe that the protestors intend to disrespect all of America.  In their minds they are issuing a call to action – a wake-up call, if you will, to those legions of Americans who seem unmoved (or at least unresponsive) to social situations that – if left unchanged – will erase more than 150 years of progress and destroy this country.  Although I don’t, personally, agree with the protest, the people who oppose it should begin by recognizing that the intent of these protestors is noble.  In their minds and hearts, they are trying to redeem this country.

That being said, though, the truth is that language – even symbolic language – means what it means.  Every time a new state is added to the union, a new star is added to the flag because the flag represents all of us.  It is the enduring symbol of every single American who ever has and ever will live.  Every patriot who bled out his life on a foreign shore – as did every policeman and firefighter who perished in the 911 attacks – had his or her earthly remains wrapped in the flag that you are protesting.  In its various versions it is the same flag that draped the caskets of fallen presidents Lincoln and Kennedy.  It is the same flag that raised over Iwo Jima.  It is as connected to the history and future of this nation – and to every individual in it – as any symbol could be.

Helpful, here, might be a few words from a pledge that we used to say in school (I don’t even know if this is being done anymore).  We learned, “I pledge allegiance to the flag of the United States of America, and to the Republic for which it stands.  One nation, under God, indivisible.”

For good or for bad, that word – indivisible – connects us all to that symbol.  It connects us to that flag.  But even more than that, it connects us to the ideal that is America.  As you are probably aware, the pledge ends with the phrase “with liberty and justice for all.”

That, of course, is not the case in present-day America.  In truth it never has been the case, and possibly never will be.  It’s possible that a lofty ideal like that may forever elude any nation composed of flawed mortals.  But is that a reason to disrespect an entire nation?  Because it struggles to live up to its own idealized vision of what it should be?  Is it a just protest when the disrespect includes all the people (and there are really quite a lot of them) that have and are working for change?  Do the teammates that are standing (or kneeling) next to you deserve your disrespect? Does Barak Obama deserve your disrespect?  Does Abraham Lincoln?  Does Jackie Robinson?  Does the Reverend Dr. Martin Luther King?  You know he died for this vision of America, right?  When he went to the mountaintop, what he saw there was the same vision of what America could be that the founding fathers had when they fought and died to make this little political experiment a reality.  Protesting a flag is not as simple as it seems.  A lot of people – good and bad – get caught in that deceptively complex protest.

On the Other Hand, These Protests are Clearly Protected Speech

Part of the fall out of these protests are attempts by Dallas Cowboys owner Jerry Jones, NFL Commissioner Roger Goodell, and President Donald Trump to snuff out the protests.  They need to understand that this cannot be done.  Any attempt at legislating this away will be swept out by any court challenge.  One of the amazing and terrific things about America is that Americans have the right to disrespect this country and anything connected with it.  There is no power in the land – including the President himself – that can legislate away the basic constitutional right of free speech.

And herein lies one of the great ironies of the entire debate.  In their haste to defend the honor of America and her flag, these powerful individuals are attempting far more damage than the protestors could ever inflict.  While the common protest is a simple show of disrespect, what Trump, Goodell and Jones (and probably some others) are trying to do would actually undermine some of the most cherished freedoms that those soldiers I mentioned earlier died to protect.  If allowed to stand, these legislations will begin to erode this government of the people, by the people and for the people until it becomes just another form of dictatorship.  So, my first bit of advice will be to all individuals, great and small, who want to see these protests stop.

How to Make the Protest Go Away

Last week, Vice President Mike Pence gained great notoriety by walking out of an Indianapolis game because some of the players knelt in protest.  These National Anthem protests have gotten headline time for the President and some others that I’ve mentioned.

If that is the point of all this – the national attention – then by all means keep denouncing and walking out.  Keep attempting to legislate it away.  None of these actions will bring the protests to a stop, but they will – for a while, anyway – keep your names in the papers.  If, however, you really want to see these protests stop, there is an exceedingly simple tactic that I recommend to you.

Ignore them.

Now, by saying this I don’t mean to suggest that all of this is simple attention-mongering on the part of the protestors.  I give them credit for more than that.  There is, however, no doubt that the attention lavished on these protests has fueled them like gasoline on flames.  At one point it started to turn into a competition over who could show the most disrespect.  I remember hearing of one of them who rode the stationary bike during the National Anthem.

It’s the society that the professional athlete is raised in.  Whatever he does, good or bad, is always attention-worthy.  When the attention stops, much of the motivation for protesting will go with it.  After all, what’s the point of sending a message over a channel that no one is listening to?

The best advice I can give to everyone on this side of the debate is to simply let it go.  Give them there protest.  I promise you that the Dallas Cowboys, the NFL, and the United States itself all have many problem that are far more pressing than a couple of football players that have decided to kneel during the National Anthem.

And Some Advice for the Protestors

I will begin by recommending a message of choice.  I’ve seen more and more teams doing this this year, but the first time I saw it done was last year by the Seattle Seahawks.  Instead of kneeling, they stood together with their arms linked.  Exactly what this gesture meant to them, I can’t say.  But this is what the symbolism of that moment said to me:

Here we stand together.  We are America.  We are of all her races and peoples.  We come from all backgrounds, from great privilege all the way down to heart-breaking want.  We understand that our country is far from perfect, but we face her issues together as teammates, as Americans.  We still believe in the ideal that is America, and we believe that as long as we stand together and work together there is no problem that we can’t overcome.

I found it to be an especially touching message.  In particular, it is a message of hope.  Kneeling can be easily seen as giving up on America.  To some extent it says that “until the rest of the people in this nation rise to my standards of what your behavior should be, I have nothing to do with you.  I am not a part of you.”  Disdain is rarely an effective method of fomenting change.  A message of hope that will work with people where they are and how they are is much more likely to move the county toward positive change.

Beyond this, though, I think the entire concept of the protest needs to be re-examined.

A Better Idea than Kneeling During the National Anthem

One thing you should be aware of is that the protest is now becoming counterproductive.  The protest has taken on a life of its own, and has now completely overshadowed the very important issue that lies underneath it.  Nobody is talking anymore about the young black lives that have perished under circumstances difficult to justify.  While this national wound continues to suppurate, all the attention is going to which football players are and aren’t kneeling during the National Anthem.  Once the protest crowds its cause out of the public consciousness, it needs to be re-examined.

Again, if this is about the attention, then by all means keep doing it.  As long as the powers that be keep trying to stamp out this act of expression, kneeling during the National Anthem should garner ample amounts of attention.  But a bunch of kneeling football players will never change America.  All of the sound and fury connected with these protests will never help heal America.  My challenge to you is to get off your knees and go to work.

Are there troubled neighborhoods in the cities you play in?  or in the cities that you grew up in?  Walk those streets.  Walk them with your teammates.  Be with the people in their troubles.  Initiate dialog.  Help lift the national vision.

Movie stars have never hesitated to leverage their celebrity to champion causes that they feel strongly about, whether it’s feeding children in Africa or pushing congress to spend more money on AIDS research.  While some athletes have embraced the opportunities presented to give back to their communities – and all cities that are privileged to have major league franchises have benefited considerably from the efforts of community-minded ballplayers – the influence that you can be for good is still a largely untapped resource.

If this issue is important enough to earn the focused attention of players throughout the NFL, then please don’t be content to kneel at the National Anthem.  Seek out people in your communities who will be forces for change as mayors and aldermen – and police chiefs, for that matter – and throw your support behind them.  Share your stories.  Share your concerns.  Share your hopes.  If the America of today is a nation you can’t abide being a part of, then help us to re-shape this country into something we can all be proud (or prouder) of.

All of this is difficult and sometimes uncomfortable work – and that, really, is the point that I’m getting at.

Protesting is – after all – an easy thing.  These days kneeling during the National Anthem is an easy action to take.  And for that reason it can never initiate lasting change.  Before you is an opportunity to be a significant part of the answer – and more importantly, to be a significant part of the healing.

But none of that will happen as long as you stay on your knees.

That Team from Carolina is Relevant Again

After losing a thrilling Super Bowl after the 2015 season, Cam Newton and the Carolina Panthers stumbled out of the gate in 2016.  Hitting their bye week at 1-5, they recovered somewhat afterwards, but still ended the season 6-10.  The biggest tumble – statistically – came on the defensive end.  The 2015 team had finished sixth in both points and yards allowed.  They closed 2016 ranked #21 in yards and #26 in points allowed.  Their top ranked scoring offense also fell to #15.

The NFL, it seems, is more than just a week-to-week league.  It’s also a year-to-year league.

Shaking off the memory of last year as though it was a bad dream that never happened, the Carolina Panthers have re-emerged this season.  They sit at 4-1 heading into tonight’s intriguing matchup with the also 4-1 Philadelphia Eagles.  We’ve chatted about the Eagles a few times already this season.  Perhaps we should take a few minutes to get to know the 2017 Carolina Panthers.

The personnel is pretty much the same that took the field for Super Bowl 50.  It’s still Cam Newton at quarterback.  He is coming back from off-season shoulder surgery, and has been particularly sharp his last two times out.  Against the Patriots and Lions he completed 48 of 62 passes (77.4%) for 671 yards, 6 touchdowns and 1 interception.  That should be enough to keep the Eagles concerned.

Behind him is running back Jonathan Stewart (who has been playing through his own little injury – a badish ankle).  His top target in 2015 – tight end Greg Olsen – is still with Carolina, but not on the field these days – he is sidelined temporarily by a broken foot.  In his absence, the offense has gotten more balanced, as Newton has spread the ball around more evenly.

Cam has four receivers who have between 237 and 272 passing yards.  Of the four, only Devin Funchess figured prominently for the 2015 team (he caught 31 passes that year for 473 yards).  He already has 24 this year for 269 yards.  Leading the team in receiving yards so far this season is Kelvin Benjamin with 272 yards.  He was injured for all of 2015.  Behind him at 271 yards is venerable Ed Dickson, who began the year as Olsen’s backup.  His numbers jumped precipitously after his career afternoon in Detroit.

Until Sunday, Dickson’s career best had been only 79 yards – and he hadn’t done that since 2011.  He collected almost that many yards on one play Sunday.  With 6:14 left in the first quarter, Carolina faced a second-and-14 from their own 32.  Newton tossed the ball to Dickson between two defenders about seven yards beyond the line of scrimmage.  The supposed dump off pass turned into a 64-yard dash as several would-be tacklers failed to get the rumbling Dickson to the ground until he had brought the ball to the Detroit 4 yard line.

This was the centerpiece in a dynamic first half for both Newton and Dickson.  Although Carolina went into the locker room ahead just 17-10, Cam had lit up the Detroit defense to the tune of 15 for 17 for 237 yards.  Ed had caught 4 of those passes for 152 yards.  For a little context, in three full seasons in Carolina, Ed had never had more than 134 receiving yards in any of those seasons.

Both players had a bit more pedestrian second half.  Newton was a solid 11 for 16 for 118 yards, with just one of those passes going to Dickson for 23 yards.

Fourth Quarter Detroit

Once again, the fourth quarter belonged to Detroit.  Trailing 27-10 with just 8:58 left in the game, the Lions drove for 122 of the 133 total yards they would gain in the second half on their last two drives – both resulting in touchdowns.

Detroit had used two of its timeouts on defense during the Carolina possession in between the Lion touchdowns.  Holding the one last timeout, and with 3:32 still on the clock, Detroit elected to kickoff and try to hold the Panthers again.  It almost worked.  With 2:30 left in the game, Carolina faced a third-and-9 on its 24.  One more defensive play would give the ball back to Matthew Stafford with nearly two minutes left, needing just a field goal for a tie.  But one final completion from Newton to Benjamin down the left sideline for 17 yards sealed the deal (gamebook).

The Lions now sit at 3-2.  Both losses have been at home, but both have been razor-thin losses to two teams (Atlanta and Carolina) who are a combined 7-2 and look like they will be January heavyweights.  Next for them is a very dangerous New Orleans team.

Early Assessment

Both teams leave this contest with questions to answer.

Detroit has been excellent in almost all considerations, but a persistently non-existent running game threatens to derail their season.  In week two, they racked up 138 rushing yards against the Giants (in a 24-10 win).  In their other 4 games they have totaled 300 yards.  In the second half of Sunday’s game, their running line was 4 attempts for 5 yards.  That’s even more distressing when you realize that those rushes included one 12-yarder from Ameer Abdullah.  Detroit’s other 3 running plays in that half netted a loss of 7 yards.  This is an area that needs to be fixed if Detroit is ever going to compete with the big boys.

Carolina’s running game also ranks in the lower half of the league (they rank nineteenth, averaging 98.6 yards per game), but they haven’t typically struggled here.  In fact, they took the field Sunday having racked up 465 rushing yards through their first 4 games – a fine 116.3 per game.  They had gained 272 rushing yards in their previous two games.

But Detroit’s surprising run defense did an impressive number on them.  Carolina struggled to end the game with 28 yards on 28 rushes.  Even though Newton’s final three kneel-downs surrendered 6 yards, Carolina’s second half rushing totals of 13 yards on 17 carries is more than a little surprising.  In fact the two teams combined for only 18 rushing yards in 21 attempts – uncommonly low, even in this passing era.

More concerning for Carolina is the pass defense.  After a slow start, Stafford became the latest quarterback to enjoy a big afternoon at the Panther’s expense.  Stafford was 14 of 19 (73.7%) after intermission for 158 yards and the 2 closing touchdown passes – a 133.2 rating.  For the season, opposing QBs are completing 69.8% of their passes against the Panthers, tossing 7 touchdowns while Carolina has collected just 1 interception through its first 5 games.  The QB rating against them so far this season is an elevated 98.1.

In their defense, the last three quarterbacks they have lined up against are all pretty good – Stafford follows Drew Brees and Tom Brady.  But they need to come up with some answers.  They face another real good one tonight in Carson Wentz.

September Dandies

The beginning of every new season brings with it a few September dandies.  These are the teams that take the league by surprise.  Usually, they are teams that have been bad recently – Jacksonville, for example.  Sometimes, they are teams that have been pretty good, but are suddenly playing at an other-worldly level – like Kansas City.  It’s usually about this time of the season that these teams start coming back to earth.

Two of these dandies got a little splash of reality last Sunday.  Buffalo – off to a surprising 3-1 start – fell to Cincinnati.  The surprising Rams of Los Angeles (who had also been 3-1) had scored 142 points through their first four games.  But that gaudy offense came to a crashing halt Sunday at home to a still vulnerable Seattle team in a 16-10 loss (gamebook).

Saddled with an offensive line that has yet to come together, the Seahawks have exploited San Francisco and Indianapolis for 325 rushing yards in those two games, and only 221 yards combined rushing yards in the other three.  Against Los Angeles’ leaky run defense (which had surrendered 531 yards over their previous 3 games), Seattle managed just 62 yards on 25 carries.  Quarterback Russell Wilson has also been running for his life entirely too much.

On the defensive side of the ball, Sunday’s game was not dissimilar to most of the other games Seattle has played this year – significant yards given up, but few points. Seattle ranks just seventeenth in yardage allowed, but they are the fifth hardest team to put points on the board against so far this season.  On Sunday, the Rams had several opportunities to spin the scoreboard in what ended up as a frustrating loss.

Los Angeles turned the ball over 5 times, including an uncommon lost opportunity on their first drive.

Beginning on their own 38, the Rams marched smartly to the Seahawk 12 in just 6 plays – facing no third downs on the drive.  Then running back Todd Gurley broke around left end heading for the end zone, where safety Earl Thomas closed quickly on him.  Gurley was in the act of stretching the ball toward the end zone (and, in fact, the play was originally ruled a touchdown), but before it could get there, Thomas batted it lose.  On its way out of bounds, the loose ball struck the pylon and rolled through the end zone.  Ruled a touchback, the Rams couldn’t even get a field goal chance out of their impressive opening drive.

And so it went.  In addition to the turnovers, usually automatic kicker Greg Zuerlein shanked a 36-yard field goal to open the second half.  And, in a final indignity, with 8 seconds left and the Rams facing a fourth-and-10 from the Seahawk 20, quarterback Jared Goff found rookie third-round draft choice Cooper Kupp breaking clean over the middle in the end zone.  But Jared’s potential game-winning toss was agonizingly too high and wide and only grazed off of Kupp’s fingertips.  The Rams finished the game outgaining Seattle 375-241, but only had 10 points to show for it.

In what was, perhaps, the first high-stakes game of his career (first-place in the division was on the line), Goff finished 22 of 47 (46.8%) including just 14 of 32 in the second half (43.8%).  In many of those instances, Jared had receivers as open as you can expect to get against Seattle, but he couldn’t get the ball on target.

Whether this loss signals the beginning of the end for the Rams remains to be seen.  Los Angeles will get its chance to respond Sunday when they line up against Jacksonville in an early-season “Dandy” bowl.  When the schedule came out, not too many would have circled this Week Six game between Jacksonville (3-13 last season) and the Rams (4-12 last season) as a game of interest.  But so it is.

As I mentioned earlier, the NFL is a year-to-year league.

Introducing the New Jacksonville Jaguars

As I was watching the game, I tried to remember the last time I watched Jacksonville play.  It may actually have been their last playoff game following the 2007 season.  Surely, I must have caught one of their games in the last decade?

Anyway, if – like me – the Jacksonville Jaguars have flown beneath your radar for the last few years, you should know that things are a bit different there these days.

First of all, there is a newish head coach.  Jack Del Rio hasn’t been here since 2011.  The head coach during most of the lost years between was Gus Bradley.  In four almost complete seasons (2013-2016) his teams never won more than 5 games.  The team is now entrusted to Doug Marrone, who started to turn Buffalo around a few seasons ago.

The defense has been refurbished.  Last year’s first-round draft pick – cornerback Jalen Ramsey – has given Jacksonville an attitude in the secondary.  He has been complimented this year by the additions of cornerback A.J. Bouye (who was an important part of Houston’s very good secondary last year), safety Barry Church (who came over from Dallas), and defensive end Calais Campbell (who was in Arizona last year).

And now, all of a sudden, there is a semi-legitimacy to the Jaguar defense (semi-legitimate because they allowed 569 rushing yards over the three consecutive games before Sunday).

The offensive concept is kind of new, too.  Less passing from quarterback Blake Bortles and more handing off to this year’s first-round draft pick, running back Leonard Fournette.  At 240 pounds (listed) Fournette is constructed along the lines of the power backs of old – the kind that wears away at the will of the defensive secondary to tackle him in the fourth quarter.

The re-birth in Jacksonville has been somewhat hit and miss so far.  They have losses to teams that you should think they would have beaten (Tennessee and the NY Jets).  They’ve had one game where they turned the ball over 3 times – but that was the only game that they’ve turned it over more than once.  Only once have they gained more than 313 offensive yards, while serving up at least 371 yards on defense three times in their first five games.  So there is some work that still needs to be done there.

Last Sunday, they engaged in a very interesting matchup against a somewhat similar Pittsburgh team.  As the two teams hit the field Sunday afternoon, both featured high-octane running games and tough secondaries that challenge every pass.  Both also featured suspect run defenses.  The Jaguars had just been chewed up for 256 yards by the Jets (of all people).  The week before that Chicago (of all people) had drilled the Steelers for 222 rushing yards – although it should be noted that that was the only game so far that they had allowed more than 91 rushing yards.

The way this game was expected to play out, the two running games would take turns bashing each other’s defenses, until Steeler quarterback Ben Roethlisberger would take advantage of enough opportunities downfield to give Pittsburgh enough margin that Jacksonville would be forced into a passing game.  That story line never developed.

Instead, it was only Jacksonville that followed the expected game plan.  Of their 32 first-half offensive plays, 18 ended up being runs.  They gained only 3.3 yards per rush, but they kept running.  Meanwhile, Pittsburgh never did really get back to Le’Veon Bell, who carried the ball only 9 times in the first half.  Thinking that they could open up the running game with an early passing attack, Ben threw the ball 21 times in the first half, with mostly tepid results (12 of 21 for 152 yards and an interception).

The Steeler strategy further dissolved in the second half, when consecutive possessions ended in deflected passes that wound up as interception touchdowns for Jacksonville.  Suddenly, a game that was 7-6 at the half had turned into a 20-9 Jacksonville lead.  Things went downhill for Pittsburgh after that.  Bell finished the day with only 15 carries.  Ben ended up throwing 55 passes and getting 5 of them picked.

Meanwhile, Jacksonville kept running.  Fournette had 14 carries in the second half alone – the last one being the most memorable.  Leonard burst off left tackle for a game icing 90-yard touchdown run.  He finished with 181 of Jacksonville’s 231 rushing yards (on 37 attempts) in Jacksonville’s 30-9 conquest (gamebook).

Perhaps the most telling number to come out of that second half was 1.  That was the number of passes thrown by Jacksonville quarterback Bortles.  Once Jacksonville pushed to that 11-point lead, Blake never threw again – this includes hand-offs on a third-and-7 and a third-and-11.

There are, apparently, a lot of pieces in place in Jacksonville.  One piece, I guess, that they are still looking for is that quarterback.

Up next for the Jaguars is a very interesting game against another franchise that is trying to rise from the ashes – the now Los Angeles Rams.

Meanwhile, in Houston . . .

While the Jags are probably still looking for their quarterback of the future, Houston thinks they have found theirs.  Again.

Last year, that was going to be Brock Osweiler.  Two years before that it was Ryan Fitzpatrick.  Since about the midpoint of the 2013 season, when they finally figured out that Matt Schaub was not the man who would lead them to the promised land, they have cycled a lot of quarterbacks in and out of Houston.

The newest quarterback of the future is Deshaun Watson, the twelfth overall pick in this year’s draft.  Around him they have crafted a clever, deception-based offense.  I would guess that almost 40% of their offensive snaps Sunday night (at least until they were behind far enough that Kansas City knew they would have to drop back and pass) involved some end-around motion from a back or receiver circling back into the backfield.  This was sprinkled in with a significant amount of zone-read looks.

The effect on the Houston running game – at least on Sunday night – was significant.  Several times the backfield action proved just distracting enough to allow the Texans significant yards between guard and center.  For the evening, Houston piled up 144 rushing yards and averaged 6.3 yards per carry.

On the passing end, the numbers have been very kind to Watson.  Through the first 145 passes of his professional career, Deshaun carries a 100.7 passer rating.  This comes mostly through the virtue of his touchdown passes.  He tossed 5 Sunday night, and now has 9 over his last two games, and 11 over his last three.  It’s a very encouraging start, but Deshaun is far from a finished product.

His decision making – both in passing and in the read-option run game – was sometimes spotty.  He wasn’t intercepted on Sunday night, but that wasn’t through lack of opportunity.  Kansas City had a few should-have-been interceptions (two that would have been returned for touchdowns) that were dropped.  Understand, I’m not saying Deshaun performed poorly.  What I am pointing out is that the talented Mr. Watson is still a rookie quarterback, and there will be some growing pains along the way.

Speaking of Pain

On two of the most innocuous-looking plays of the season, during the game’s opening drive, two enormous presences in the Houston defense were deleted for the season.  On the game’s seventh play, and after a seemingly uneventful pass rush, dynamic linebacker Whitney Mercilus knelt on the turf.  Seemingly nothing major, Whitney suffered a torn pectoral muscle – ending his season.  Seven plays later, superstar J.J. Watt went down just a little awkwardly on another seemingly uneventful pass rush.  The result – a tibial plateau fracture that would require season-ending surgery.  Such is the thin, thin line between an outstanding season and another bad-luck finish.  Houston is a courageous team, led by a fine head coach in Bill O’Brien.  But they will be challenged to plug two larger-than-life holes in their defense.

Watt’s exit was possibly the most heavily covered of any in recent NFL memory.  The cameras followed every step of the way.  We saw JJ hobble to the sidelines.  We saw him going into and out of the medical tent.  Watched him limp into the locker room; saw the ambulance waiting grimly for him outside the locker room.  We had the haunting shot of JJ sitting inside the closed ambulance, his face framed perfectly through the back window by the emergency insignia of the ambulance door.  We even had drone coverage of the ambulance’s arrival at the nearest hospital.

Over-done?  I don’t think so.  In his few short seasons in the NFL, JJ has exceeded simple legendary status.  He is more than just the face of the franchise – not that that’s a small thing.  He is one of the faces of the league.  Even more than that, he is kind of a symbol for Houston itself – especially in the wake of the recent natural disasters in the area.  JJ Watt will leave a legend-sized hole in the Houston defense and in the entire NFL.

And Then There is Kansas City

While Houston was having one of its more heart-rending evenings of the young season, the Kansas City Chiefs kept on keeping on.  With their informative and entertaining 42-34 win (gamebook) the Chiefs are 5-0 and the last undefeated team in the NFL.

How will this play out?  They have looked unstoppable, but that kind of thing has been known to happen through the early weeks of a season.  Quarterback Alex Smith has been playing on a level that most didn’t believe that he had in him.  After 158 passes this season, Smith is completing 76.6% of them, averaging 8.80 yards per attempted pass, and he checks in with a convincing 125.8 quarterback rating that features a touchdown-to-interception ratio of 11-0.

Is he for real?  Are the Chiefs for real?  It’s too early, I think, to tell.  Their recent success – and the recent struggles of the Steelers (discussed above) sets up a very interesting contest this Sunday as Kansas City hosts Pittsburgh.  The Steelers are a proud franchise, not used to being picked on by the Jacksonville’s of the league, and they are bent on responding.  Pittsburgh is also the team that ended Kansas City’s playoff run last year, when they invaded Arrowhead last January and escaped with an 18-16 victory (gamebook).  In that game, Alex finished 20 of 34 for just 172 yards with 1 touchdown pass and one interception (a 69.7 rating).

Perhaps our understanding of both teams will be a bit clearer after next Sunday’s game.

Frustrating Week for Some Elite Receivers

Late in Pittsburgh’s decisive 26-9 victory over Baltimore (gamebook), semi-ignored wide receiver Antonio Brown was shown knocking over an empty water jug.  He was one of several name receivers whose afternoons were less than headline-worthy.  The play before, he had broken clean over the deep middle.  Unfortunately, quarterback Ben Roethlisberger didn’t see him, and didn’t throw him the ball.

Brown – an elite pass receiver – finished the game with just 4 catches for 34 yards, with none longer than 14 yards.  He was thrown at only 5 times in the second half.  He caught just 1 of the 5 for only 8 yards.

The reason wasn’t necessarily because Baltimore’s coverage was unsolvable.  On this afternoon, Pittsburgh beat down the Ravens with Le’Veon Bell and their battering ram running game.  Pittsburgh finished the afternoon with 173 rushing yards on 42 attempts – with Bell accounting for 144 of the yards and 35 of the carries.  Possibly not Brown’s idea of a great time, but brutally effective.

Pittsburgh is now preparing for a matchup against a suddenly interesting Jacksonville team that bears some watching.

More Frustration in Indianapolis

For three long hours in Seattle on Sunday evening, star Colt’s wide-receiver T.Y. Hilton spent more time chasing Seahawk defenders into the end zone than he did catching passes.  Hilton – who only had one pass thrown in his direction in the game’s second half – finished about where Brown did (3 catches for 30 yards).  The difficulty in Indy, though, is a bit different.  The Colt running game didn’t dominate the evening.  They only gained 98 yards on 25 attempts.  Indianapolis’ offense is currently trying to deal with the absence of unlucky star quarterback Andrew Luck, who is recovering from a torn labrium.

In to the breech is ex-New England backup Jacoby Brissett.  Jacoby had his moments, but it’s no secret that the 1-3 Colts are hoping to somehow remain relevant until they can get Luck back on his feet.

Even so, the Colts took a 15-10 lead into the locker room at halftime.  At that point, the Colts held a 205-140 advantage in total yards, and had controlled the clock for 19:56 of the half.  As late as with 2:19 left in the third quarter, this game was tied at 18.

And then, Seattle went off.

They racked up 28 points over the final 17 minutes of the game, cruising to a 46-18 victory (gamebook).  Some of the second half numbers are a little bit astonishing.  Seattle outgained Indianapolis 337-32, while averaging 8.4 yards per play (to only 1.7 for the Colts) as they hit Indianapolis with a barrage of big plays – both over land and through the air.

The Seahawk run game produced 3 second half runs of at least 22 yards (two of them touchdown runs) on their way to 158 yards in 22 carries (this was the second half alone).  Meanwhile, quarterback Russell Wilson completed 4 other passes for at least 21 yards (none of them of the dump off variety) on his way to a 13 for 17, 182 yard half.

After seeing the field for only 10:04 of the first half, Seattle held the ball for 22:08 of the second half.

Next up for the Seahawks is a match-up with the suddenly interesting Rams.  This is an early opportunity to get a feel for these two teams.

Other Star Receivers Held Off the Scoreboard

In Atlanta’s 23-17 loss to Buffalo (gamebook), superstar receiver Julio Jones and his talented teammate Mohamed Sanu were held to 3 catches for 30 yards, and 1 catch for 3 yards respectively.  Neither caught a pass in the second half.  The cause here was not so much defensive scheme (although the Bills do merit some credit) or a dominating running game, or even the efforts of a second string quarterback.  The answer here was the worst development that Atlanta could hear – injuries to both players.

Jones left with a hip flexor, and Sanu went out with a hamstring.  Atlanta gets their bye this week, and they expect to have Jones back by the next week.  Sanu will probably be out for a few weeks more.

Deprived of two of their top three receivers, the Falcon passing game looked extremely mortal.  QB Matt Ryan was only 13 for 24 after the intermission for only 107 yards.  He threw 2 more interceptions.  He was 0 for 5 on the game (0 for 4 in the second half) throwing to Taylor Gabriel – their next most talented receiver.

On the other side, Bills quarterback Tyrod Taylor threw the ball just 6 times in the second half, and only 20 times for the game.  Buffalo ran the ball 23 times in the second half, even though they gained only 3.1 yards per carry.  For the game, they ran 36 times, gaining just 3.3 yards per.  Their discipline and commitment to the running game are admirable – and, I suspect, vital to the success they have had recently.

Meanwhile, the defense did slow Jones and Sanu even before their injuries, and did a better job against the Falcon running game than the numbers suggest.  Atlanta finished with 149 yards, but 55 of those came on two bursts from Tevin Coleman.  Atlanta’s other 27 rushes managed just 94 yards.

Speaking of Injuries

There are, of course, significant injuries every week.  Jones’ doesn’t look like it will keep him out for very long.  Oakland’s 16-10 loss to Denver (gamebook) was marred by another injury to Oakland’s rising star Derek Carr.  He went out late in the third with a transverse process fracture in his back.  The recovery time is expected to be 2 to 6 weeks.

Even before Carr went down, Oakland’s offense was struggling with the Bronco defense.  In particular, for the second week in a row, the Raider running game was missing in action.  In the second half, they ran 6 times for 1 yard.  For the game, new feature back Marshawn Lynch carried just 9 times for 12 yards.  The team totaled 24 rushing yards on Sunday and has just 56 over the last two games.

With Carr gone for a while, and games upcoming against struggling teams in Baltimore and LA (the Chargers) expect to see Oakland focus on fixing their running game.

John Gant Ends Season in Cardinal Rotation

The sense that I get of it is that even if these last three games had mattered John Gant would still have gotten the start last night.  Nothing against John, but I find it an interesting indictment of the condition Cardinal pitching staff as the last few days of the season dwindle away.

I am pointing this out to frame a fairly simple argument for keeping Lance Lynn.  I ask this question.  Who are your five next year, if there is no Lance Lynn?  Carlos Martinez, sure.  Luke Weaver? Yes, I think so.  Michael Wacha?  Yes, I think he showed enough to warrant a spot.

That’s three.  And then?

Adam Wainwright?  A serious health concern heading into the offseason.  Alex Reyes?  Probably not ready to shoulder a starter’s innings load.  Jack Flaherty?  Doesn’t quite look like he’s quite major league ready to me.  John Gant?

You see what I mean?  The St Louis Cardinal organization is loaded with promising pitchers.  But the crest of the wave is probably a year or two away.  With a Lance Lynn to bear up some of those innings, this team can remain competitive while they rebuild.  If Lance goes, well . . .

Ironically, Gant nearly broke the streak of non-quality Cardinal starts (which is now run to 14).  He took the mound in the sixth inning having allowed just two runs.  Alas, the only two batters he faced in that inning reached and later scored, providing the pivotal inning of Milwaukee’s 5-3 victory (box score)

The starting rotation thus stays stuck on 7 quality starts for the month (now through 27 games) with a 4.62 ERA.

Meanwhile, the offense finished with just 6 hits.  The Cardinals face the last two games of the season with a .237 team batting average for the month of September.

Stephen Piscotty

Stephen Piscotty’s goals may have slid from hoping to get hot for the last month of the season to hoping to get one more hit before the season ends.  With last night’s 0 for 3, Piscotty is 0 for 16 over his last 6 games, and has now gone 16 games without driving in a run.  He is hitting .180 (9 for 50) in those games.

Meanwhile, his average for the month fades to .221 (15 for 68), and his second half average is down to .223 (25 for 112).  Of course, Randal Grichuk was 0 for 2 as well last night.  He is hitting just .222 this month (12 for 54).

NoteBook

The Cardinals end the season losing the first game of their last two series.  Of the 52 they played, they won the first game just 25 times.

In those 25 series, they were 53-25 (but only 28-25 after that first game).  The average length of those games was 3:02.6, while 2,755,380 attended them (an average of 35,325.4).  It was almost always hot when the Cards won the first game of a series – an average temperature of 80.3.  They finished 16-5-4 in those series.  When the other team forced a rubber game, though, St Louis was just 2-4.

It’s Always a Bad Sign . . .

When your team dominates the first half, but you don’t walk off the field with the lead.  That was Arizona’s story Monday night as they pushed Dallas around 152 yards to 57; 10 first downs to 5, and 20:19 of possession time – but they went into the locker room with a 7-7 tie.  When that kind of thing happens, you kind of figure you’re going to have trouble.

And they did.  Dallas took control of the second half and finished with a 28-17 victory (gamebook).

The last couple of weeks have been very different for the Cowboy offense.  They only scored 19 points in their opening win over the NY Giants, but the offense mostly operated as expected – 129 rushing yards as part of a 392 yard night of total offense.

All of a sudden, though, the vaunted Dallas running game has been at least partially derailed and the Cowboy receivers are struggling a bit to gain separation from tight man coverage.  The running yards have been 139 total over the last two games.  When the running game doesn’t work, the whole Cowboy offense looks out of kilter.

Against Denver in Week Two the Cowboys put their running game on the shelf and then unraveled in a 42-17 loss.  Monday night they kept running the ball – even though the running game never really came together.  Star running back Ezekiel Elliott finished with a modest 80 yards on 22 carries – and 50 of those yards came on just 2 carries.  But the important thing was that they kept at it.

Against Denver, quarterback Dak Prescott threw 50 times – to mostly poor effect.  Monday he threw just 18 times – to mostly spectacular effect.  A few big plays from the offense and a dominating performance from defensive end Demarcus Lawrence were enough to get by.  But if the running game continues to struggle, Dallas’ season will quickly get much tougher.

Interesting Game in Detroit

Yes, the defending NFC Champion Falcons were very lucky to escape Sunday’s game without enduring their first loss (gamebook).  What an effort by the Lion defense.  They mostly contained uber-receiver Julio Jones (91 yards on 7 catches is contained when talking about Jones) and they intercepted 3 passes off of Matt Ryan (yes, 2 of them were tipped – still).

All in all, it’s about as well as you will see the Atlanta passing attack defended.

The thing that separates the Falcons, though, is the running attack.  The Falcons finished the day with 151 rushing yards to only 71 for Detroit.  Awfully hard to overcome – although the Lions almost did.

A Tale of Two Quarterbacks

I still don’t know what to make of Tyrod Taylor.  He certainly has some skills, but is he a franchise quarterback?  He is unorthodox, but frequently unorthodox is good.

Whichever, Tyrod had himself an afternoon against Denver last Sunday.  Some of his throws were letter perfect.  Some were pretty wide of the mark, but his receivers made outstanding catches of them.  One of his two touchdown passes bounced off the hands of one receiver into the hands of another.  Hey, when it’s your day, it’s your day.  He ended up with 213 passing yards and a 126.0 rating.

Significantly, Buffalo ran the ball 33 times – even though they only managed 2.3 yards per rush.  Buffalo committed themselves to balance, and let Taylor work within the structure of the game plan.  Tyrod made many, many big plays that contributed to the Buffalo victory.  He was never asked to win the game himself.

Ironically, that is exactly the general idea that Denver operates under with their quarterback Trevor Siemian.  They want to play great defense, run the ball, and let Siemian make good decisions in the passing game.  They don’t want him to have to win the game for them.

As they fell behind, though, they had to depend more and more on Siemian.  He ended up tossing two interceptions contributing to the 26-16 loss (gamebook).

It is understood that Denver is not built to come from behind.  This will almost certainly catch up with them at some critical point during the season.

Speaking of Quarterbacks

I have promised on several occasions to initiate a discussion of Giant quarterback Eli Manning.  I had intended to do this at some point when baseball season was over and the discussion here is only on football.  But Eli did that thing on Sunday that he does better than any quarterback that I can remember.

After three very unremarkable quarters of football, the Giants, trailing 14-0 at this point, seemed on their way to another bloodless loss.  Then, out of nowhere, Eli and the Giant offense flipped the switch.  They scored 24 points in the fourth quarter.  They still lost – on a last minute field goal (gamebook) – but the complexion of the game suddenly changed.

There are – of course – other fourth-quarter quarterbacks.  But none of them that I remember have the Teflon ego that Eli seems to have.  Eli can be awful for three quarters, and then play the fourth as though none of that had ever happened.

It used to puzzle me that he could do that, until a couple of seasons ago I remembered.  He’s Peyton Manning’s little brother.  Then it all made sense.

What must it be like to grow up the highly competitive little brother of the highly competitive Peyton Manning?  They must have challenged each other in every sport imaginable, from checkers to ping pong to one-on-one basketball.  And, of course, Peyton would always win.  He was older (and, frankly better) at all those things, so every time Eli followed Peyton onto the basketball court, he knew he was in for a beating.

So why would he do it?  Picture in your mind Eli, the snarky little brother, who lives for that one moment.  He’s losing 22-0, but he has that one play – he fakes a jumper, but spins around to get his one unchallenged layup.

And that is the game.  The scoreboard is now irrelevant.  In that glorious moment – that he will never let Peyton forget until the next time they take the court – Eli has completely undone all the indignities of the first part of the game.  He’d gotten him.  It was just one play, but Eli knew that it would burn in his brother’s psyche.

Fast forward about 20 years and Eli is an NFL quarterback.  But that mentality is still in there.  Inside he is still that snarky little kid who can take a beating that would shake – a least a little bit – the confidence of even established players.  This doesn’t make Eli a great quarterback.  But it gives him a very interesting ability.

As to the Eagles, I don’t know if head coach Doug Pederson reads my blog, but he certainly responded as if he did.  One week after I chided him for ignoring LeGarrette Blount and his running game, Philadelphia ran for 193 yards – 67 by Blount.  Not surprisingly, they won.

Cardinal Hitters Grind Down Reds’ Young Hurlers

These are the names of the Cincinnati pitchers who worked in last night’s game: Rookie Davis, Keury Mella, Luke Farrell, Deck McGuire, and Alejandro Chacin.  I haven’t taken the time to check how many games/innings these pitchers have thrown in the major leagues, but I would guess that it’s pretty negligible – and this is understandable as Cincinnati is trying to evaluate these young pitchers for next year and beyond.

Not always – as I can think of many games this year where young pitchers with minimal experience have tied the Cards in knots – but most of the time the patient, veteran Cardinal hitters have taken advantage of inexperienced (and sometimes veteran) pitchers.  They did this last night.

For background, across all of baseball (according to baseball reference), pitchers generally prosper if they can avoid getting that first pitch swung at.  If the batter takes that first pitch – regardless of whether it’s a ball or a strike – their average drops to .249 with a .417 slugging percentage – and even lower if the first pitch they take is a strike (.223 and .357).

But last night Cardinal hitters – even with the pressure of their uphill push to the playoffs – hit comfortably after taking the first pitch from these young pitchers.

Thirty-three of the forty-four Cardinal batters watched the first pitch go by.  They went on to hit .321/.424/.714.  Even the 17 that took first pitch strikes went on to hit .313/.353/1.250.

This isn’t necessarily an isolated occurrence.  Again (according to baseball reference), the Cards rank fourth in all of baseball in team batting average (.262) after taking the first pitch, trailing only Houston (.272), Colorado (.271), and Washington (.263).  They lead all of baseball in on base percentage in those at bats (.359).  The Cubs are second at .357.  They trail only Houston in slugging percentage after taking the first pitch, .450-.443.

I think all along as we have followed this team, we have appreciated their ability to take pitches and work at bats.  Perhaps we didn’t realize that they are among the best in baseball at this.

On the other hand, last night St Louis was only 2 for 10 when they swung at the first pitch.  For the month of September, this team is only hitting .224 when they swing at that first pitch.  Over all of baseball, batters hit .270 in at bats when they swing at the first pitch thrown.

With 9 more runs, St Louis is still scoring 4.89 runs per game this month, and 5.03 runs per game in the season’s second half.

Tommy Pham

Having a breakthrough season, Tommy Pham looks like he will be finishing strong.  With 3 more hits last night, Tommy has 7 in his last 3 games.  Pham now has 250 plate appearances since the All-Star Break.  These have resulted in 42 singles, 13 doubles, 1 triple, 10 home runs, 36 walks, 5 hit-by-pitches, 1 sacrifice bunt, 1 sacrifice fly, and 10 stolen bases.  It all adds up to a convincing .319/.430/.536 batting line.  Tommy has scored 47 runs in 59 games in the season’s second half.

In both the fifth and sixth innings, Tommy took first pitch fast balls right down the middle for strikes, and came back to get hits on pitches later in the at bat that were not as good as the first one he took.  Tommy is kind of the poster child for the Cardinals proficiency in hitting after taking the first pitch.  Pham is a .328/.447/.569 hitter this season when he takes the first pitch, and only a .259/.292/.402 hitter when he comes out swinging.  He was 0 for 1 last night when he swung at the first pitch.

Kolten Wong

While Tommy Pham is finishing his breakthrough season strong, Kolten Wong is limping toward the finish line.  While it’s impossible to tell how much is his back problem and how much is just a slump, what is known is that Kolten is 0 for 15 over his last 6 games, 3 for 32 (.094) over his last 11 games, and 5 for 36 (.139) this month.

Luke Weaver

Luke Weaver, in winning his sixth straight start and seventh straight decision, only went 5 innings last night, leaving a 6-run lead to the bullpen. Since his return from Memphis on August 17, Luke has pitched in 7 games – 6 as a starter.  He is 6-0 with a 1.41 ERA and 50 strikeouts over 38.1 innings in those games.  In four September starts Luke is 4-0 with a 1.52 ERA and a .209/.227/.291 batting line against.  He has 29 strikeouts in 23.2 September innings.

It is clear that the Cardinals wouldn’t have the slim playoff hope that they have without the notable contribution of Mr. Weaver.

Of the 20 batters Luke faced last night, 15 took his first pitch.  Only 3 of those was called a strike.  Getting ahead 1-0, though, against Luke Weaver doesn’t necessarily ease your way.  None of the 12 walked, and only two managed hits (both singles).  For the season, batters who start out 1-0 against Luke are only hitting .230.

Luke will throw that first-pitch fastball temptingly off the corner and invite the hitter to chase it.  If not, Luke’s fastball has enough late life that even when the hitter is looking for it, it’s hard to barrel up.  Luke is increasingly able to throw his curve and changeup for strikes when behind in the count – making that running fastball all the more difficult to get a jump on.

Luke walked no one last night (no Cardinal pitcher issued a walk), and only went to three-balls on 3 batters.  Luke is armed with a fastball that runs up at about 96.  But he also has great poise and knows how to pitch.  He’s quite developed for a kid who just turned 24.

Hopeful News from the Bullpen

Bullpens don’t tend to get too much notice in a 9-2 blowout (box score) – and understandably so.  But Cincinnati can hit a bit, so shutting them out on 1 hit over the last 4 innings was no mean feat.  During the month of September, the evolving Cardinal bullpen has inched its ERA down to 3.16.  Its reason for hope, but let’s wait and see if they can hold it together against Chicago and Milwaukee.

NoteBook

Last night was the first time in seven games that the Cardinals didn’t trail at some point of the contest.

With the victory, the Cards are 10-12-3 in road series this year.  They are now 37-40 on the road this season.

Yadier Molina’s two-run double brings him to 80 runs batted in this season – tying his career high set in 2013.

Over Early

Unfortunately, a couple of the marquee matchups from Week Two of the NFL were over early.  The most surprising of these was the Dallas-Denver game.  After a 13-3 season last year, the Cowboys lost to the Packers by an eyelash in the Divisional round.  At 9-7, Denver had just missed the playoffs.  The Broncos were expected to be greatly challenged by the potent Dallas Cowboys and their elite running game.

Instead, when they looked up at halftime, the Cowboys found themselves trailing 21-10, having been outgained 246-97, out-rushed (surprisingly) 96-12, and losing the time of possession battle 18:36-11:24.  Things didn’t get any better in the second half, and Denver rolled on through to a 42-17 victory (game book).  Trevor Siemian commanded the offense, throwing the ball just 32 times, while Denver battered the Cowboy defense to the tune of 39 rushes for 178 yards.  The Bronco offense operated at peak efficiency.

For the Cowboys, the mystifying numbers were 40 yards rushing – 24 of them from quarterback Dak Prescott – and 1 lone rushing first down.

Yes, Denver stacked the box to take away the run.  Yes, when that happens it is incumbent on the passing game to take advantage of one-on-one matchups in the secondary.  (Of course, with 3 elite cornerbacks who stuck like glue to the Dallas receivers, there weren’t really any matchups to exploit).

But even granting that, the bottom line is that Dallas handed the ball to star running back Ezekiel Elliott just 4 times in the first half, and only 9 times in the entire game.

In what will be a recurring message in this edition of football notes – and may be a recurring theme this season.  You have to at least try.  Dallas conceded their most potent offensive weapon, and played – I think – right into the hands of the Broncos.

Less surprising – perhaps – was the New England Patriots 36-20 conquest of New Orleans (game book).  The Saints are still a bit of a work in progress – especially defensively – and New England was stinging from a beating they had taken in Week One.  This game was 20-3 after one quarter, and 30-13 at the half.  While most of their running came late – after the game was well in hand, New England did finish up very balanced – 39 passes, 31 runs.  Tom Brady finished his afternoon with 447 yards and 3 touchdown passes.

As for New Orleans, yes, I know the score was lopsided pretty quickly.  But still, as far as the running game goes, you have to at least try.  After carrying the ball just 6 times for 18 yards in New Orleans’ first game, former Minnesota star Adrian Peterson carried just 8 times for 26 yards.  I can’t imagine this was the plan when he came to the Saints.

Over Early – Well, Maybe Not

Headed in that same direction were the Green Bay Packers, who looked up to find themselves down 24-7 at the half in Atlanta.  Green Bay, however, didn’t roll over.

With quarterback Aaron Rodgers chucking the ball 32 times in the second half – and throwing for 258 yards and a couple of touchdowns, the Packers threatened to make a game of it, ending up on the downside of a 34-23 score (game book).  The Packers were 3 for 3 on fourth down.

Green Bay has some work to do to narrow the gap between them and the Falcons.  One aspect that doesn’t help is their running game.  With Ty Montgomery enthroned as the “feature” back, the Pack finished the game with 59 rushing yards on 15 carries – 10 of them by Montgomery – while Rodgers threw the ball 50 times.  Again, Green Bay was in comeback mode – I get that.  But my concern is that this is about what Green Bay will always get from their running game.  I just don’t see Ty Montgomery carrying the ball 20 times a game and still being healthy through Week 8.

The Packers seem to be one-dimensional by design.  And even though Rodgers is a truly great quarterback, that puts enormous strain on that passing game – even when fully healthy.  And now with Jordy Nelson and Randall Cobb banged up a little, the sledding will get even rougher.

Tine to File a Missing Person’s Report?

In the moments following his team’s 27-20 loss in Kansas City (game book), Philadelphia coach Doug Pederson lamented his team’s inability to get their running game going.

Well, hmm.  Let’s see.  Quarterback Carson Wentz handed the ball off all of 8 times in the first half and 13 times all day.  This in a game that Philadelphia never trailed in by more than one score until the last two minutes.

You know what, Doug, you have to at least try to run the ball.  Last week I mentioned that a lack of a running game would eventually catch up to Wentz and the Eagle offense.  So this week, Wentz accounted for 55 of Philadelphia’s 107 running yards and was sacked six times.

During all of this, LeGarrette Blount – he of the 1100 yards for New England last year – has completely vanished.  After getting 14 carries in Week One, he got zero on Sunday.  His only touch of the day was one pass thrown in his direction – which he caught for 0 yards.

If you are missing for two weeks, isn’t that the legal threshold for filing a missing person’s report?

Pitching From Behind Not an Issue for Lackey and the Cubs

During the offensive surge that characterized the Cardinals for most of the second half of the season, the one thing that opposing pitchers didn’t want to do was fall behind in the count to them.  From the All-Star Break through the end of August, Cardinal at bats that began with a 1-0 count ended up with the Cards hitting .333/.460/.573.  Twenty-nine of those 672 plate appearances ended with the Cardinal batter hitting a home run.

As August has faded into September, however, this has ceased to be the case.  Whether the team is feeling the pressure of the pennant race, or whether many of the young players are running out of gas, falling behind the Cardinal hitters is now where you want to be.  During the month of September so far, 196 Cardinal hitters have watched the first pitch miss the zone for ball one.  Those batters have gone on to hit just .232/.385/.464.  While the .385 on base percentage looks healthy, throughout all of major league baseball (courtesy of baseball reference) the average on base percentage for all at bats that begin with ball one is .388.

Yesterday afternoon – in an abbreviated appearance – Chicago veteran John Lackey schooled the Cardinal hitters (young and old).  He threw only 46 strikes among his 74 pitches, and only half of the 18 batters he faced saw first-pitch strikes.  He spent the 4.2 innings that he worked yesterday delivering pitches on the corners of the strike zone, and showing little concern – for the most part – whether the pitch resulted in a ball or a strike.  (The spectacular exception to this, of course, was the 2-2 pitch that John thought that he had struck Carlos Martinez out on.  This was the pitch that led to the bruhaha that got Lackey and his catcher tossed from the game).

Up until that point, what Lackey did that was sort of spectacular in its own right, was that he almost never gave in to the hitter.  Even behind in the count, he kept pitching to the black.  The middle-of-the-plate cutter that Martinez singled on was about the only timed all afternoon that Lackey gave in to a hitter.  The 9 batters who saw ball one from John finished 0 for 7 with 2 walks (one intentional).  His effort set the tone for the rest of the game, as St Louis finished just 1 for 14 (.071) in at bats that began 1-0.  Lackey wouldn’t be around long enough to get the decision, but the Cubs would shortly take advantage of a lack of composure on the part of Martinez to cruise past the Cards, 8-2 (box score).

The afternoon continued the sudden cooling overall of the Cardinal offense.  They finished the day with just 7 hits, and are now hitting .236 overall this month.  September, in the midst of a playoff push, is an inopportune time for a team to go into a batting slump.

Stephen Piscotty

Stephen Piscotty did have another misadventure on the bases, but this one was mostly bad luck.  His ground ball shot past third, headed for the corner.  But, as Piscotty was turning around first and chugging toward second, the ball caromed off the jutting corner of the left field stands and shot all the way back to the infield, where Javier Baez retrieved it and threw Piscotty out at second.  It was that kind of day at Wrigley.

Even so, Stephen finished with 2 of the Cardinal hits, and continues to re-establish himself.  Piscotty is now up to .289 (11 for 38) for the month of September, and .295 (18 for 61) since his return from Memphis.

Yadier Molina

From the break through the end of August, Yadi was a .396 hitter (19 for 48) when the pitcher fell behind him 1-0.  Chicago reliever Pedro Strop did that in the seventh inning yesterday, but Yadi ended the at bat flying out on a 1-2 pitch.  For September, Yadi is now 3 for 15 (.200) after getting ahead in the count 1-0.

Kolten Wong

A September mostly dominated by back issues is beginning to drag down what has been to this point a breakthrough season for Kolten Wong.  Hitless in 2 at bats yesterday, Kolten is now down to .192 for the month (5 for 26).

Harrison Bader

In a year of rookie firsts, Harrison Bader has hit his first real dry patch as a big leaguer.  After yesterday’s 0 for 3, Harrison his hitting .130 (3 for 23) over his last 7 games.  He has gone 8 games without driving in a run.

Brett Cecil

Brett Cecil is pitching almost exclusively now in low leveraged situations.  Yesterday he pitched the seventh trailing by 6 runs.  Still, it was a very crisp inning – he set down all three batters faced (two on strikeouts) on only 13 pitches.  Cecil has now strung together 5 consecutive scoreless outings (covering 6 innings) during which he has allowed just 4 hits.  He has generated 18 swinging strikes from the last 59 swings taken against him – a healthy 31%.

Where in the World is LeGarrette Blount

As we open our first NFL discussion of the season, it didn’t escape my notice that LeGarrette Blount is no longer lining up in the New England backfield.  Those who may remember, I considered Blount last year to be one of the great under-utilized weapons in football.  He surprisingly finished with 1161 yards last year – surprising because his opportunities were so irregular.

He had four different games last year where he rushed for over 100 yards.  He had 4 other games where he had less than 15 carries.  LeGarrette is the sledge-hammer back that wears down a defense as the game goes along.  Fifteen carries isn’t enough to even get him warmed up.  If he had played in an offense that would feature him – the way that Dallas features Ezekiel Elliott – his numbers would be comparable.

If you are the New England Patriots, however, and you have an embarrassment of offensive talent, then it’s understandable that Blount may not get a featured role every game.  If you are the Philadelphia Eagles – the team whose uniform Blount now wears – it might be a little less defensible.

In his Philadelphia debut last Sunday, LeGarrette finished with 46 yards on 14 carries.  I know the Eagles are extremely high on young QB Carson Wentz, but even if Wentz is the next Tom Brady, a more balanced offense would be a substantial boon to Carson’s development.

Carson, by the way, had a big day on Sunday (26 of 39 for 307 yards and 2 touchdowns) leading the Eagles to a 30-17 win over Washington (GameBook).  He made more highlight reels, though, for his backfield elusiveness than for his pocket passing.  If Carson spends the entire season getting chased around like he was on Sunday, the Eagles season will probably fall far short of expectations.  All the more reason to balance the attack.

Speaking of New England

The Patriots have given Blount’s role to a former Buffalo Bill named Mike Gillislee.  He ran for all three touchdowns that New England scored on Thursday night.  Mike is a tough and intelligent runner, who can certainly get low at the goal line.  But he is not the weapon that Blunt was.  As the season wears on, I think the Patriots will miss having that dominating presence.

Speaking of a dominating presence, Kansas City rookie Kareem Hunt lit up the defending champions for 148 rushing yards (101 of them on 10 second half carries).  Alex Smith and Tyreek Hill looked pretty dominant, too in Kansas City’s 42-27 dumping of the Patriots (GameBook).  The Patriot defense will be a work in progress.  My strong recommendation to the Saints and everyone else who will face New England in the early going is to take advantage while you may.

Some Love for Some Weary Defenses

Both Seattle and the New York Giants lost tough first week matches, and both offenses have issues.  A lot of the defensive numbers were nothing to write home about, but both were impressive in their own right.

In their 17-9 loss to Green Bay (GameBook), the Seattle defense was on the field for 39 minutes and 13 seconds as the Packers ran 74 offensive plays to only 48 for the Seahawks, and outgained Seattle 370 yards to 225.  Yet, Green Bay’s only touchdowns came on a 6-yard drive after Seattle turned the ball over deep in its own territory, and a 32-yard touchdown strike from Aaron Rodgers to Jordy Nelson when Green Bay quick-snapped, catching Seattle trying to run in substitutions.

For as dominating as the Packers were in the game, kudos to the Seahawk defense for keeping it as close as it was.

In Dallas, the Cowboys were on their way to dealing the Giants a similar dose of domination.  They held the ball for 20:33 of the first half, out gaining New York 265-49.  At that point, Dallas had 87 rushing yards on 18 carries, and QB Dak Prescott had thrown for 183 more, with a 91.8 passer rating.  They led 16-0 at the half.

Now, the way this script normally plays out is that the weary defense collapses as the fourth quarter wears on, and he Cowboys break the game open.  None of that happened this time. The bloodied Giant’s defense held Dallas to just 127 second half yards.  Elliott had 11 second half carries for only 43 yards (3.9 per), and the Giants actually held a time-of-possession advantage of 16:19 to 13:41 after the intermission. Dallas cruised on to its 19-3 win (GameBook), but the Giant defense made a statement.

So did the Giant offense.  That was the problem.

Football is back.  Week One is in the books.  The long journey has begun.

The Final Report on Super Bowl LI

I sometimes think most teams that play the New England Patriots are beaten before they step onto the field.  Imagine a speech that most head coaches might make to their team on Tuesday morning of Patriot week:

“Men, this week we play the Patriots.  Can we beat them?  Absolutely.  But only if we put together our most complete game of the season.  We can’t make mistakes, because this team will make you pay for each and every one of them.  So this will be our challenge this week – to play our most perfect game of the season.”

I don’t know how a team plays this game afraid of what will happen if they make a mistake.  But I have seen a lot of teams play New England with that kind of temerity.

Facing New England in the Super Bowl

Exactly what Atlanta coach Dan Quinn said to his team the week leading up to the Super Bowl I – of course – don’t know.  But I strongly doubt it bore any resemblance to the statement above.  From the game’s opening series this brash young team walked up to the four-time champion Patriots and punched them right in the mouth.  For two-and-a-half quarters the underdog Falcons treated the team from New England to a football version of “shock and awe” that featured explosive running, circus catches and eleven defenders who seemed to be everywhere on the field at once.  As the first half drew to a close, two shocking story lines were unfolding before the stunned Patriot team and dumfounded crowd of almost 71,000 at Houston’s NRG Stadium.

First, unbelievably, the Falcons were blowing out the Patriots.  The Falcons are a good team and – everyone conceded – a team that could well beat New England (if they played a perfect game).  But no impartial analyst that I know of would have predicted a blow-out victory.  But that was exactly what was happening, and there seemed nothing that New England could do about it.  For the first 36 minutes and 29 seconds of the game, New England was hopelessly outmatched on both offense and defense.

But even that might not have been as stunning as the second unexpected development.  The New England Patriots – the model franchise of the NFL – was melting down on the sport’s biggest stage.  After the game, they said there was no panic.  But those of us who watched the game know differently.

New England is Melting?

Over a 27:13 span that began at the 14:19 mark of the second period and extended through the 2:06 mark of the third period, almost every single one of the Patriot stalwarts failed to execute in opportunities to halt Atlanta’s momentum.  The skid began with the fumble by 1000-yard running back LeGarrette Blount.  Atlanta quickly turned that into a touchdown and a 7-0 lead.  Moments later a tight-end named Austin Hooper beat safety Patrick Chung on a deep post pattern for the score that made it 14-0.

Then it was Tom Brady’s turn.

With 2:36 left in the first half, and the Patriots holding the ball at the Atlanta 23, Danny Amendola beat cornerback Brian Poole to the inside and Brady threw him the ball.  But cornerback Robert Alford – who began the play trailing Julian Edelman – broke off his coverage and settled right in front of Amendola.  His interception and subsequent 82-yard touchdown return pushed the Atlanta lead to 21-0.

Before the half would end, Brady – rattled by the heavy pressure he had been under to that point in the game – would badly miss two open receivers (Edelman streaking past Alford over the deep middle of the field with 1:43 left in the half, and Chris Hogan in the right flat with 33 seconds left), and throw the ball just enough behind another receiver (Edelman again) open on a short crossing route, that the defender (Alford, again) could make a play on the ball.

They settled for a field goal, cutting the deficit to 21-3 at the half.

The Second Half

With the Falcons up by 18 and getting the ball to open the second half, it was widely conceded that the first two possessions of the third quarter would be critical to New England’s ability to stay competitive in this game.  First, they would need a defensive stop.

They got one.

After running back Devonta Freeman was dropped in the backfield for a three-yard loss on first down, he took a short pass for a seven-yard gain.  Then, on third-and-six, cornerback Eric Rowe defended a pass into the left flat to Taylor Gabriel (at that point, just Matt Ryan’s second incompletion of the game).  Atlanta punted.  When Julian Edelman brought the kick back to the Patriot 47 yard line, the stage seemed to be set.

But now it was Chris Hogan’s turn.  The 9-catch, 180-yard hero of the Championship Game, Hogan flew up the left sideline, gaining separation from cornerback Jalen Collins.  Brady’s throw was right to the outside shoulder where only Hogan could get it.  And it clunked off his hands.

A second-down screen-pass lost two yards, bringing up third and twelve.  Julian Edelman lined up to the right and ran another short crossing pattern with Alford again in trailing position.  This time Brady’s throw hit Julian perfectly in the hands.  But now it was Edelman who watched the ball slide through his fingers.

With the momentum quashed, the Patriots punted.  The Falcon’s would not go three-and-out again.  Eight plays later, Atlanta had covered 85 yards and opened a 28-3 lead.  That – for all practical purposes – seemed to clinch the title for the Falcons.

That the Patriots went on to mount the most remarkable comeback in Super Bowl history doesn’t diminish all that the Falcons achieved to that point of the game.  In the aftermath, individuals have surfaced who have wanted to criticize how the Falcons handled the rest of the game (play-calling, etc.).  While I’m sure that – if they had it to do over – they might make some different choices, what happened over the game’s last 27 minutes is more a credit to the New England Patriots than it is the fault of the Falcons.  If there were a few things Atlanta might have done differently or better, there were a myriad of things that New England needed to do almost perfectly to make the comeback happen.

That they were able to do that adds to the legendary status of some of the Patriot stars.  But even in defeat, there were several reputations either made or solidified on the Atlanta sideline.

Matt Ryan

Let’s start first with quarterback Matt Ryan.  Everyone knew the backstory.  Five years into his career as a much-hyped franchise quarterback, Ryan had led his team to a 56-22 record with a 90.9 passer rating.  But he was just 1-4 in the playoffs.  Everyone heard the whisper.  Matty Ice (as he is called) is not a big game quarterback.  If there is one misperception that should be laid to rest after this year’s playoff tournament, it should be that.

On the heels of a season where he scorched defenses to the tune of a 117.1 passer rating, Ryan spent the playoffs slicing up opponents like Japanese knives slice through tomatoes on TV.  Up to the point where his 6-yard touchdown toss to Tevin Coleman pushed the Falcon lead to 28-3, Ryan had racked up the defenses of the Seattle Seahawks, the Green Bay Packers and the Patriots to the combined totals of 65 completions in 89 attempts (73%) for 923 yards (10.37 yards per attempt and 14.2 yards per completion).  Fifty-one of his 65 completions had achieved first downs – including 9 that resulted in touchdowns with no interceptions.  This all adds up to a 139.9 passer rating.  There are a lot of descriptors that could be applied to that performance.  Choking is not one of them.

Against the Packers and the Patriots he completed 7 of 10 deep passes for 171 yards.  His passer rating on throws of more than twenty yards in the two biggest games of his season was 145.8.

Matt Ryan is pretty good (this just in).

Julio Jones

And then there is uber receiver Julio Jones.  The Super Bowl concluded Julio’s sixth season in the NFL.  He has already caught more than 100 passes in a season twice (and has 497 for his young career).  He has also been over 1000 yards four times (twice over 1500 yards) and has averaged 15.3 yards per reception for his career.  Over the last three seasons alone, Julio has caught 323 passes for 4873 yards and 20 touchdowns.  If there is a better receiver and more dangerous weapon out there than Julio, I have yet to see him.

His status in the Falcon offense set up one of the most intriguing matchups of the game.  How would Bill Belichick’s defense deal with Jones.  One of the trademarks of the New England defense is their ability to mostly neutralize their opponent’s most dangerous offensive weapon.  But is it possible to neutralize Jones?  If so, how would they go about it?

As I speculated about this a couple of weeks ago, the concept was exceedingly simple.  They double teamed him with a cornerback and a safety over the top.  I guessed that it would be Malcom Butler, but in the first half the defender on the spot was Ryan Logan.  Eric Rowe got that opportunity later.  Jones wasn’t exactly neutralized, but his four catches for 87 yards were well below the 180 yards he had accounted for against Green Bay.

On the one hand, you could call that “contained.”  On the other hand, remember that Atlanta only ran 46 offensive plays the entire evening and threw only 23 passes.  Had Ryan tossed up the 40 or so passes that he usually does, Julio’s numbers are probably more in line with the Green Bay game.

But even that is not the story.

Behind his 4 for 87 line are three highlight reel catches – a 19-yard over-the-middle catch that he pulled out of the hands of the defender (Logan Ryan), and two sideline catches that were varying degrees of impossible.  Anyone less than Julio Jones finishes the night with one catch for 23 yards.  The New England defense did what they came to do.  They forced Julio to play like the best receiver in football and kept him from hurting them at the key moments of the game.

Devonta Freeman

After surpassing 1000 rushing yards for the second straight season, Freeman dazzled under the bright lights of the Super Bowl.  At just 5-8 and 206 pounds, Freeman will never get the 25-30 carries a game that more durable backs (like Ezekiel Elliott in Dallas) might get.  But on a field littered with offensive talent, Freeman ended the day with the game’s longest run (a 37-yard sprint around left end) and the game’s longest pass reception (a 39-yard sprint with a dump pass into the left flat).  Davonta ended the day with 121 scrimmage yards and showcased his blazing speed and elite cutback ability.

Freeman also committed one of the most telling errors of the night.  It was Freeman in pass protection who was caught by surprise on the Dont’a Hightower blitz that produced the fumble that set the Patriot comeback in full motion.

Robert Alford

In spite of their early success, by the time the Super Bowl ended there wasn’t much cheering for the Atlanta defense.  But one highlight was Alford.  His was the signature defensive play of the night (the 82-yard interception return).  He also recovered a fumble and made 9 tackles on the night.

It was also Alford who was the key to the defensive strategy.  It was Alford who would be asked to cover New England’s top receiver (Julian Edelman) all over the field.  This would prove to be one of the most enjoyable and competitive contests-within-the-contest of the night.

Edelman was targeted 13 times in Super Bowl LI.  On 9 of those targets he was working against Alford in man coverage.  Alford won 5 of the 9 battles.  Edelman turned his 4 catches against Alford into 78 yards – including the pivotal 23-yard impossible catch of a pass that Alford had deflected with just slightly over two minutes left in regulation and New England still down by eight.

Julian caught his third pass of the Super Bowl on the very first play of the second quarter.  He would not catch another until that catch – the much replayed juggling catch of the deflected pass – with 2:28 left in regulation broke a streak of seven straight incompletions on throws in his direction.

Head Coach Dan Quinn and his Coordinators, Kyle Shanahan and Richard Smith

Not only did the Falcons play the game with fearless abandon, but the game plan was exceedingly well conceived and crisply executed.

Offensively, riding the hot quarterback was the easy part.  New England played a little bit of zone against Ryan, and watched him complete 7 of 8 passes for 93 yards.  Mostly they played man and saw Matty rip them to the tune of 10 of 14 for 191 yards and 2 touchdowns.  The passer rating for Ryan when throwing against New England’s man coverage was 153.3.  Of course, the Patriots also accumulated 4 of their 5 sacks when in man coverage – 3 of them with the aid of their frequent blitzes.  Nine of Ryan’s 28 drop-backs featured Patriots blitzes.

In addition to the hot passing hand, Atlanta found unexpected success running on the perimeter.  They rarely challenged Alan Branch and the other big boys in the middle of the line.  Of their 18 running plays, only two were designed to go inside the tackles – and those two runs lost two yards.  But the perimeter attack featured several quick pitches and some better than expected blocking by the wide receivers sealing the edge.  Notable in this effort was Mohamed Sanu, who mixed it up pretty well with the big boys.

New England – whether by design or not – was singularly unable to diffuse the big play nature of the Atlanta offense.  As opposed to New England’s grinding offense, the Falcons averaged 7.5 yards per offensive play.  Six of their 46 plays broke for at least 20 yards.  Atlanta’s scoring drives took 1:53 (71 yards in 5 plays), 1:49 (62 yards in 5 plays), and 4:14 (82 yards in 8 plays).

New England triumphed, though, because its defense never allowed Atlanta anything sustained.  The Falcons ended Super Bowl LI just 1 for 8 on third down (Ryan’s second-quarter, 19-yard touchdown pass to Hooper came on a third-and-nine play.  Ryan was just 1 of 4 on third down with his other four passing attempts ending in sacks.  Of all the necessary pieces of the Patriot comeback, perhaps this uncanny success on third down was the most improbable.

About the Falcon Play-Calling

Why didn’t Atlanta run more in the second half?  Nine first-half running plays (out of 19 total plays) earned them 86 yards and a touchdown.  Of their 27 second half plays, only 9 of them were runs.  Especially as New England was mounting their comeback, you would think the Falcons would see the benefit of controlling the game with the run.  There were, I think, two probable influences.

First, when they did run the effectiveness of the attack dried up.  Of their 9 second half running plays, only 3 gained more than three yards.  Three other runners were tackled for losses.

Second, when your offense doesn’t see the field for over an hour (which happened to Atlanta as the second quarter ran into halftime), you can’t have your MVP quarterback hand off three times and punt.  If you have Matt Ryan in your backfield with thirty minutes to win the Super Bowl, you have to put the ball in his hands.  And blocking for him would be a good idea, too.

Really, if you only have 46 offensive snaps, you just don’t have enough plays to run your offense.  I’m sure there were a lot of things Atlanta wanted to get back to, but never had that chance.

The Defensive Challenge

On the defensive side, the game belonged to the linemen – especially the ageless Dwight Freeney and the surprising Grady Jarrett (who matched his season sack total of 3 in the Super Bowl).  For two and a half quarters, the unheralded Falcon defense frustrated the high-flying Patriot offense.  They snuffed out the Patriot running game and hang with the Patriots in man coverage long enough to let the pass rush disrupt Tom Brady.

Their speed and aggressiveness took away the Patriot screen game (Brady’s five screen passes gained a total of 3 yards).  They also consistently dropped defenders into the short middle area that Brady loves to exploit.  Against the Steelers, Brady was 8 for 11 for 91 yards throwing into the short middle.  He was only 11 of 16 for 98 yards and an interception in that same area in Super Bowl LI.

At the point where Atlanta led 28-3, Brady had completed just 17 of 29 passes (58.6%) for 182 yards (6.28 per attempt and 10.7 per completion) with no touchdowns (to his own team, anyway) and one big interception.  His passer rating at that point was just 62.7.

The problem with the Atlanta game-plan, though, was that it was unsustainable.  As the Falcon defense remained on the field for a soul-sapping 99 snaps (including penalties and two-point conversions), the pass rush slowed and came to an almost complete halt.  As his time in the pocket increased, Brady’s comfort level and confidence both rose.  He completed 26 of his last 33 passes (78.8%) for 284 yards (8.61 per attempt, but still just 10.9 per completion) and the two touchdowns.  He closed with a 122.7 passer rating during the comeback.

Along the way, the Patriots exploited quite a few matchups.  Jalen Collins was a particular target.  With 14 targets, Collins was the most thrown at defender in the Super Bowl.  Those 14 throws resulted in 12 completions for 116 yards and both touchdowns.  But Collins was at least as much a liability in zone coverage as he was in man.  In man coverage, Brady completed 5 of 7 against Jalen for 58 yards.  In zone, Brady was 7-for-7 against Collins for another 58 yards and both touchdowns.

Collins also gave up 3 of the 5 catches that Patriot receiver Malcom Mitchell made in the fourth quarter alone.  Mitchell’s 63 fourth-quarter receiving yards were the most by any of the receivers from either in team in any quarter of the Super Bowl.

Other Issues

There were two other man-to-man matchups that the Patriots returned to with great frequency.  One was Danny Amendola working against Brian Poole.  Seven times Brady threw to Amendola with Poole working against him.  Danny caught five of those passes for 62 yards and 4 first downs.

The Falcons biggest matchup problem, though, wasn’t with any of the wide receivers.  In the middle of the comeback was running back James White.  Mostly, James drew the attention of middle linebacker Deion Jones.  Of his game-high 16 targets in Super Bowl LI, 8 came while covered by Jones in man coverage.  He caught 6 of those for 46 yards and caught 2 more against Jones in zone coverage for another 20 yards.

After watching Pittsburgh’s zone defenses struggle against the Patriot offense, Atlanta decided to rely on man coverages.  Of Brady’s 67 drop-backs, he saw some form of man coverage 44 times.  Brady completed 28 of 42 throws (with two sacks) for 355 yards.  All of his big passes came against man coverages.  When Atlanta dropped into zones, Tom completed 15 of 20 (75%) but for only 111 yards (5.55 per attempt and 7.4 per completion).

Would Atlanta have won the Super Bowl if they had run the ball more and played more zone defenses?  It’s impossible to say for sure, but my gut feeling is that I don’t think they would.  I don’t believe that hanging on and hoping the clock runs out wins this kind of game against this team.  Atlanta could have iced the game at any number of points in the second half.  They just needed to make one more play.

How to Make a 25-Point Comeback

One last remarkable aspect of this comeback was the Patriot approach.  For 23 of their 93 plays, New England trailed by more than 20 points.  Trailing by 20 points in the Super Bowl is a big deal.  But the Patriots showed admirable restraint, calling 6 runs among those 23 plays and only throwing two deep passes (both incomplete).  During this stretch, Brady nursed his team back into contention.  He completed 11 of 15 passes (73.3%) for just 97 yards (only 8.82 yards per completion).  But Atlanta did not sack him during any of those attempts. Those passes included a short touchdown toss to White.  His passer rating during the plays when he trailed by 20 points was 112.4.

Throughout the long, impossible road back from a 25-point deficit, the Patriots resisted the urge to get ahead of themselves.  Instead of the eye-catching, 30-yard up-field passing that Atlanta featured, New England played within themselves and ground down the young Falcon defense.

Emotion is a two-edged sword in the NFL.  Atlanta left the tunnel wound up almost to the snapping point.  They fell on the Patriots with an energy and passion that took New England by complete surprise.  But emotion is like a sugar rush.  There is almost always a crash at the end of it.

Maybe the single most impressive aspect of the Patriot comeback was the discipline of it.  It wasn’t at all unemotional.  But it was a clinical – almost surgical – exposure of the Falcon defense.  In a way, the comeback was an act of faith.  It was the response of a team that believed completely in its process.

It was the response of a team that didn’t believe it could be beaten.

The NFL GameBook for Super Bowl LI is here, and the Football reference Summary is here.

What’s Next?

With the Super Bowl now in the rear-view mirror and baseball still a few months away (yes I know pitchers and catchers are reporting already), it’s time for me to take a short vacation.  After 189 posts and many hundreds of thousands of words since last April, I intend to take a few weeks of to re-charge for the long season ahead.  Look for my posting again in early March as we start preparing for the 2017 campaign.

See you then.

New England Patriots on the Verge of Another Title

It was already going to be an uphill climb.

With 13:21 left in the game, the Pittsburgh Steelers trailed the New England Patriots 33-9.  Now they sat third-and-goal on the Patriot 2-yard line.  A touchdown and a 2-point conversion could make it a 16-point game with 13 minutes to play, allowing a glimmer of hope for the Steelers.

In the shotgun, Pittsburgh quarterback Ben Roethlisberger took the snap and surveyed the field.  His line – which held up tremendously against the Patriot rush all evening – was at its best on this play.

Trying to get around Steeler left tackle Alejandro Villanueva, Patriot defensive end Trey Flowers tumbled to the turf and laid there for about three seconds until he realized that Roethlisberger had still not thrown the ball – at which point he scrambled back to his feet and re-joined the rush.

Next to him, defensive tackle Alan Branch – whose contribution to this game was enormous – was tangled up with center Maurkice Pouncey and right guard David DeCastro.  After pushing into them for several seconds, Alan looked behind him to see where the pass had gone, only to realize that Ben hadn’t thrown it yet.

After six full seconds – an eternity by NFL standards – receiver Cobi Hamilton broke clear over the middle.  Roethlisberger delivered a strike and for a brief moment, the Steelers had a glimmer of life.

And in that same moment, yellow flags littered the field.  Hamilton – in his efforts to elude cornerback Eric Rowe – had stepped out of the back of the end zone and had become an ineligible receiver.  Knowing this was the case, Rowe dropped his pursuit, allowing Hamilton to uncover and encouraging Roethlisberger’s throw.

Now it was fourth and goal from the two.  Realizing that a field goal helped them not at all at this point, Pittsburgh lined up to go for it.  Again the target was Hamilton as he curled into the right flat, pursued this time by Logan Ryan.  Roethlisberger lofted the pass over Logan’s head, and Hamilton – spinning back for the ball in the end zone, actually felt the ball rest for a split second on his fingertips when Ryan reached a hand in and knocked the pass away before Cobi could bring it down.

If any two plays could serve as a microcosm of this game, it would be these two.  Throughout the contest – and in spite of the terrific athleticism of the Steelers – the Patriots were always just a little quicker and a little smarter as they punched their ticket to Super Bowl LI with a steady 36-17 victory.

Moreover, this was the second time that this game had pivoted on a critical goal line stand.

When the Game Got Away From Pittsburgh

The series of events which spelled the Steelers’ doom began with ten minutes left in the second period.  Pittsburgh had just capped a 13-play, 84-yard drive with a 5-yard touchdown run that cut New England’s lead to 10-6.  Now, with 10:06 left before the half, the Patriots faced a third-and-ten from their own 30.  One play away from giving the ball back to the aroused Pittsburgh offense, Patriot quarterback Tom Brady sat easily in his pocket (as the Steelers only sent three pass rushers after him), and found Julian Edelman all alone over the middle of Pittsburgh’s very soft zone for 12 yards and a first down.

Two plays later, New England was in third down again – third and eight – from its own 42.  Once again, Pittsburgh’s loose zone coverage left receiver Chris Hogan uncovered in the left flat.  He took Brady’s soft pass and raced down to the Steeler 34-yard line for a 22-yard gain.

Having had two chances to get off the field, Pittsburgh’s defense would not get a third.  On first-and-ten from the Pittsburgh 34, Brady handed the ball to running back Dion Lewis who ran with it almost to the line of scrimmage.  There he stopped and flipped the ball back to Brady, who finished the perfectly executed ‘flea-flicker’ with a touchdown toss to Hogan.  Now the Patriots led 17-6.

Back came the Steelers.  Two dump passes to DeAngelo Williams gained 18 yards and gave the Steelers a first down on their own 48.  Roethlisberger converted a third-and-two with a 12-yard pass to Antonio Brown, and followed that up with an 11-yard completion to tight end Jesse James.  First down at the Patriot 21.

On first down, Hamilton ran a streak up the left side and gained just a sliver of separation from Rowe, but Roethlisberger’s well-thrown back-shoulder pass bounced off Cobi’s chest.  This missed opportunity would soon be overshadowed by an even greater missed opportunity.  A 2-yard run by Williams brought Pittsburgh to third-and-eight from the New England 19-yard line at the two-minute warning.

Pittsburgh converted the third down as James beat safety Patrick Chung up the right sideline and Roethlisberger threw him the ball at about the 11-yard line with plenty of open space before him.  Converging on James as he reached the Patriot goal line were Chung and safety Duron Harmon.  Seemingly, they didn’t get there in time as James tumbled over the goal line.  The official’s arms raised.  The Pittsburgh sideline celebrated.  The points went on the scoreboard – it was now a 17-12 game with the Steelers contemplating a two-point try.

And then they checked the replay.

Harmon, somehow, had managed to drive James to the ground one-half yard away from the touchdown.  So it wasn’t 17-12 yet.  And, as it turned out, it never would be.

Two running plays lost four yards.  On the second running play, the Steelers had right guard DeCastro pulling – always dangerous on the goal line.  Patriot defensive lineman Vincent Valentine knifed through the void in the line and dumped Williams in the backfield.  Roethlisberger’s third-down throw to Eli Rogers was well wide, and the Steelers kicked the field goal.

Pittsburgh’s first four “red zone” plays netted 18 yards and a touchdown.  Pittsburgh’s fifth red zone play accounted for another 18 yards (the pass to James).  In Pittsburgh’s last seven red zone plays of the season, they netted just seven yards and missed two opportunities that would have changed the complexion of the game.

All in a day’s work for the New England defense.

New England’s Defense

In Foxborough, Massachusetts, everyone lives and works in Tom Brady’s shadow.  One of the most decorated quarterbacks in history, Brady has been the starter in New England for 15 full seasons, now.  Those teams have missed the playoffs only once, while Brady is less than twenty-four hours away from perhaps his fifth Super Bowl title.  He is the focus of the football universe.

But in 2016 – flying almost completely under the national radar – New England assembled an exceptional defensive unit that is as responsible as the offense for leading Patriots into the Super Bowl.  This defense will be one of the critical elements in their upcoming victory.  Unlike Atlanta or Green Bay there are no Vic Beasley’s or Clay Matthews’ or any name superstar.  No one from the Patriots was among the league leaders in sacks or interceptions.  Unlike the offense, there is no center of media attention.  Yet the Patriots (who during the season surrendered the fewest point of any defense in football) mostly dominated one of football’s best offenses (Pittsburgh came into the game ranked seventh in total yards and fifth in passing yards).  They did so in a manner that is wholly unique to the Patriots.  Instead of a collection of compelling talents, Bill Belichick and his staff has composed an army of specialists who simply do their job.

What defensive lineman Alan Branch does for a living is not remotely glamorous.  He is an unlikely candidate to appear on the cover of GQ magazine.  He doesn’t hold a fistful of records or gaudy sack totals.  It’s entirely doubtful that the cover of the next issue of Sports Illustrated will feature a glossy photo of Alan with his cleats dug into the Gillette Stadium turf fending off the charge of two enormous offensive linemen.  Yet that is how he spent most of the evening.

One week after the elite offensive line of the Steelers carved up the Kansas City Chiefs to the tune of 171 rushing yards, Pittsburgh was limited to just 54 in New England as Branch and his defensive line mates Trey Flowers, Malcom Brown and Jabaal Sheard relentlessly and unceremoniously hurled themselves at that offensive line.  Where as the week before, that line had repeatedly pushed the Kansas City defensive line back into its own secondary, this week nearly every Pittsburgh running play more closely resembled a rugby scrum where the line of scrimmage was littered with the bodies of fallen linemen, allowing the linebackers unfettered access to the ball carriers.

Behind the unyielding defensive line roams a linebacking corps that resembles a collection of Swiss army knives.  Rob Ninkovich, Shea McClellin, Kyle Van Noy, Dont’a Hightower and Elandon Roberts do a little bit of everything.  The rush the passer, they play tight pass coverage – especially in man schemes, and they tackle.  Oh yes, they tackle.  When the Patriot linebackers arrive on the scene, the progress of the ball carrier halts.  Over the years, the Patriots have earned the reputation as the most fundamentally sound team in football.  One needs look no further than this collection of linebackers to validate this reputation.

An honorary membership in this group needs to be extended to safety Patrick Chung.  Listed generously at 5-11 and 207 pounds, Chung doesn’t at all fit the physical profile of a linebacker.  But he is almost always within 7 or so yards of the line of scrimmage.  A lot of the defensive backs in the league will do what they can to let some of the bigger defenders stop the running games.  Patrick Chung lives to mix it up with the big boys.  Sometimes you will even see him lineup in between the big defensive linemen on the line of scrimmage.

The backbone of this impressive defense is a secondary that gets more impressive every time I watch them – especially cornerbacks Malcolm Butler, Logan Ryan and Eric Rowe.  Their efforts in man coverage against the very talented Pittsburgh receivers was more than a little stunning.

At the end of the day, Roethlisberger and his receiving crew ended up just 9 of 23 (39.1%) when throwing against New England when they were in man coverage.  Antonio Brown – one of football’s elite offensive talents – ended his night with just 7 catches for 77 yards.  For the season, Antonio caught 106 passes for 1284 yards.  His first two playoff games saw him collect 5 passes for 124 yards and 2 touchdowns against Miami, and 6 passes for 108 yards against Kansas City.

Against the New England man coverage scheme – which was basically Butler with safety help over top – Brown was only targeted 4 times.  He finished with 2 catches for 22 yards.

Let’s let that sink in a bit.  Four targets, two catches, twenty-two yards.  What was the unimaginably clever defensive scheme that the Patriots used to foil Pittsburgh’s most dangerous weapon?  Press man coverage from Butler with safety help over the top.  As defensive schemes go, this is hardly the theory of relativity.  What made it work was simple execution.  In the do-your-job universe of Bill Belichick, if your job is to cover Jones, then you cover Jones.  No other activity during the play will distract you from your job.  Patriot defensive backs do not get caught looking into the offensive backfield when they are in man coverage.  The expression of this philosophy is appallingly simple.  Its execution is something most teams consistently fail at.

Super Bowl Prediction

There is an assumption by many that the New England defense will be as helpless against Atlanta’s great wide receiver Julio Jones as every other defense has been.  I beg to differ.

As I play through the game in my mind, I see the Patriot offense probing the young Falcon defense until it settles on one of the weaknesses to exploit – it could be Atlanta’s issues in stopping the running game or its difficulty covering tight end Martellus Bennett in man coverage.  After the number that Brady did on the Steeler zone defenses, I doubt that we’ll see Atlanta play much zone against them.  They are not terribly good at zone defense, anyway.  Probably they will try to pressure Brady up the middle.  My guess is that we will see much more blitzing from Atlanta than we did from Pittsburgh.  The pressure will give the Falcons their best chance at slowing the Patriot offense.  But blitzing Brady comes with its own set of risks.  The Steelers only blitzed him six times and Brady was 6-for-6 for 117 yards and a touchdown when they did.

Anyway, it’s difficult to imagine that Atlanta will hold the Patriot offense to fewer than, say, 33 points.  This places the onus squarely on the Falcon offense to match the Patriots touchdown for touchdown.

When I reflect on how unimpressive Atlanta’s offensive line was against Green Bay and how dominant New England’s defensive line was against Pittsburgh’s much better offensive line, I have a hard time imagining that Atlanta will be able to establish any kind of running game.  This will force Matt Ryan to win the game through the air – throwing against this very skilled man coverage defense.

Will New England shut out the Patriots or eliminate Julio Jones entirely from the mix?  Almost assuredly not.  Ryan is an elite quarterback and Jones is probably the best wide receiver in football.

But will a one-dimensional Falcon offense (even if that one dimension is Ryan-to-Jones) be enough to win a point fest against the Patriots?  I’m going to have to say no.

After a season of turmoil, we are a few hours away now from its concluding game.  The Atlanta Falcons have grown up very quickly. They have now moved themselves into the upper echelon the NFL.  But – it says here – they are not yet a match for the Patriots.  But then again, who is?

The NFL Gamebook for the New England-Pittsburgh contest is here, and the Pro Football Reference Summary can be found here.