Tag Archives: Jared Goff

Super Bowl LIII: Defense Matters

It is, of course, not surprising that the reviews of Super Bowl LIII were not outstanding.  Coming on the heels of one of the most prolific offensive seasons in the sport’s history, America was expecting a shootout between the league’s second (LA) and fourth (NE) highest scoring offenses.

During the 2018 regular season, all teams averaged 373.5 points (the second highest in history), and averaged 5635.6 yards (also second highest in history).  The 26.5 touchdown passes thrown per team were an NFL record.

It isn’t surprising that the casual fan, spoiled by the offensive excess of the regular season should take a little offense at the little offense provided a couple of Sundays ago.  It is easy to be underwhelmed by the New England Patriot’s 13-3 conquest of the Los Angeles Rams (gamebook) (summary).  Too many fans, I fear, have been drawn to the pinball-like quality of play over the recent seasons – to the point where they can no longer appreciate the achievement of both of these under-rated defensive units.

But the resounding message from both teams on this latest Super Bowl Sunday – and, perhaps a message that will resonate through the coming season – is that defense matters.

Defense matters a lot.

Last year we ran through a few of the offensive achievements of the almost-highest-scoring Super Bowl in history.  This year’s collection of Super Bowl notes will be much different.

Super Bowl Notebook:

New England’s 13 points were the fewest ever by a Super Bowl winner.  The Miami Dolphins completed their perfect 1972 season with a victory in Super Bowl VII (7) by scoring just 14 points in beating Washington.

With the 14-7 final, that game had been the lowest scoring Super Bowl ever until this one.

The Rams tied the record for fewest points scored in a Super Bowl game.  That was also set by the Dolphins when they lost Super Bowl VI (6) to Dallas, 24-3.

Back in Super Bowl III (3), Joe Namath famously guaranteed a victory.  His prediction was correct, but he, himself, threw 28 passes that afternoon without throwing for a touchdown.  He became the first quarterback to win a Super Bowl without throwing a touchdown pass, and his 28 pass attempts stood as the most ever thrown by a winning Super Bowl quarterback without throwing a touchdown pass.  That record stood until this last Super Bowl, when none of Tom Brady’s 35 throws resulted in a touchdown.

Jared Goff’s 229 passing yards were the fewest by a losing quarterback in the Super Bowl since Rex Grossman threw for just 165 in losing Super Bowl XLI (41) to Peyton Manning and Indianapolis 29-17.  That next year, the almost undefeated Patriots would lose the first Super Bowl of the Brady-Belichick era.

Speaking of Manning, he is still the last losing quarterback of a Super Bowl to average less than 6 yards per attempted pass in the big game.  In the shellacking that he and his Denver teammates absorbed at the hands of Seattle in Super Bowl XLVIII (48), Peyton threw 49 passes, but gained just 280 yards (5.71 per attempt).  Goff came close to joining him – he averaged just 6.03 yards per attempted pass.  His 12.1 yards per completion is also the lowest among losing Super Bowl quarterbacks since that Manning game – Peyton averaged only 8.2 yards per his 34 completions.

Brady’s victory pushed Michigan ahead of Notre Dame as the college with the most alumni-quarterback Super Bowl victories.  Michigan now has 6 – all belonging to Brady.  The fighting Irish have earned four from Joe Montana and one from Joe Theismann.  Notre Dame quarterbacks have lost only two Super Bowls (one each by Theismann and Daryle Lamonica), so their percentage is still better.

University of California quarterbacks continues to struggle on the big stage.  With Goff’s loss, they are now 1-4, with Aaron Rodgers accounting for their only victory – but also one of their losses.  The other U-Cal losses belong to Craig Morton (2) and Joe Kapp (1).

The Rams’ 62 rushing yards were the fewest by a losing team in a Super Bowl since the Denver Broncos managed just 27 rushing yards against Seattle in Super Bowl XLVIII (48), and the 35 rushing yards that Todd Gurley led the Rams with were the fewest yards rushed for by the leading rusher of a losing team since Denver’s Knowshon Moreno led the Broncos with 17 rushing yards in that Super Bowl against Seattle.

You have to go back 18 years, to Baltimore’s demolition of the New York Giants in Super Bowl XXXV (35) to find a losing team that managed fewer total yards than the Rams’ 260 this year.  On that day, the Giants finished with 152.  Those Giants were also the last team not to score an offensive touchdown in the Super Bowl until the Rams this year.

The previous record for fewest combined offensive touchdowns in a Super Bowl was two. This had been done in six previous Super Bowls – most recently in Denver’s 24-10 victory over Carolina in Super Bowl 50.  This year, the Rams and Patriots combined for just one.

On the plus side, a few individuals came through with noteworthy performances.

This Super Bowl now marks a dozen years since the winning team produced a 100-yard rusher.  Indianapolis’ Dominic Rhodes ran for 113 yards against Chicago back in Super Bowl XLI (41). New England’s Sony Michel’s 94 yards this year is the closest anyone on the winning team has come since then (although two losing teams have managed 100-yard rushers in the interim).

Meanwhile Julian Edelman’s 141 receiving yards are the most by a member of a winning team since Super Bowl XXXVIII (38).  That was another New England Super Bowl win, with Brady to Deion Branch accounting for 143 yards.

Taking On the Patriots

Defending the explosive and creative LA Rams is a significant challenge for any defense.  In some ways, though, the Patriots present a more difficult challenge in that they have been the playoffs’ most persistent and prolific running team.

They bludgeoned the LA Chargers with 155 rushing yards (and 4 rushing touchdowns) on 34 carries in their Divisional Round game.  They followed that up by laying 176 more rushing yards (and 4 more rushing touchdowns) on 48 rushes on Kansas City in the AFC Championship game.

Before them now was a Ram defense that had been exceedingly susceptible to the run all season.  All regular season, that is.  During the regular season, they had ranked twenty-third at stopping the run, allowing 122.3 rushing yards per game, and 5.1 rushing yards per attempt – the league’s worst such figure.

But as the playoffs dawned, this Ram run defense flipped the switch, providing a turnaround as unexpected as any I’ve witnessed.  Confronted with top running offenses in their first two playoff games, Los Angeles first muffled the Dallas Cowboys – possessors of the NFL’s top rusher in Ezekiel Elliott.  Dallas finished the game with just 50 yards rushing (47 by Elliott).  Next up were the New Orleans Saints.  The Saints had been the sixth-best running team in football during the season, while leading the league with 26 rushing touchdowns.  They had racked up 137 more yards in their first playoff game against Philadelphia.

Again, though, the surprising Ram run defense had all the answers.  The Saints managed just 48 yards on the ground against LA.

So one of the sub-themes of this contest would be the matchup of the suddenly unstoppable Patriot ground game against the suddenly immovable Ram run defense.

Starting the game with the ball in their possession – as the Rams deferred – the Patriots began with the ground assault.  On the game’s first play from scrimmage, Michel burst for 13 yards.  All of New England’s first four plays were runs, the first three of them gaining at least five yards. Three plays into the game, the Patriots already had half as many rushing yards (24) as New Orleans had managed against the Rams in the Championship Game.

The fourth running play managed “just” three yards, setting up Brady’s first pass on second-and-seven from the Ram 34.

New England’s Openings

To this point, this drive was eerily similar to the Patriots’ previous two playoff games.  Getting the ball first against both the Chargers and Chiefs, New England had authored two long clock-draining, soul-crushing touchdown drives.  They had marched 83 yards in 14 plays against the first LA team.  That drive had taken the game’s first 7:11.  In their next matchup against KC, they pounded them for 80 yards in 15 plays of a drive that consumed the first 8:05 of that game.

Four plays into the Super Bowl, the combined totals for all three of their first drives read 33 plays, earning 190 yards that had run a collective 18:02 off the clock.

But a funny thing happened as New England sat poised to score their third consecutive opening drive touchdown – an interception.

With Ram cornerback Aqib Talib dropping into deep zone coverage up the offensive right sideline, Receiver Chris Hogan sat down in an open spot in the flat. What should have been an easy first down, though, turned into disaster as Brady’s throw brought Hogan back toward the center of the field, allowing defensive back Nickell Robey-Coleman to get back in the play, where he deflected the ball high enough in the air that linebacker Cory Littleton could slide under it and make the interception.

While that play didn’t necessarily turn the tide of the game, it did turn the tide on the Patriot running game.  After allowing those 24 yards on New England’s first three runs, Los Angeles would surrender just 37 more rushing yards on the Patriots next 16 runs (2.3 yards per attempt).  Of those rushes, the only one to gain more than five yards was an 8-yard wide receiver sweep run by Edelman.

Under-Appreciated Defenders

In the silencing of the Saint running game, the Ram defense was led by their two highest profile defensive linemen – Aaron Donald and Ndamukong Suh.  Bill Belichik and Josh McDaniel’s brilliant response was to not run at Donald.  Of New England’s 32 rushing plays on the evening, only six were run in Donald’s direction – and two of those occurred when Aaron was the only defensive lineman on his side of the field.  If the Rams were going to stop the New England ground game, it would have to be stopped by someone other than Donald.

For most of the game, that someone (or those someones) tuned out to be Michael Brockers and Dante Fowler. Brockers made 7 of the Rams 31 tackles against the run after gains of just 17 yards (2.4 per). Fowler was primary on 3 tackles against the run for a total of one yard lost.

Even when they weren’t making the tackle themselves, they were disruptive forces in the run game.  Mostly lined up against Joe Thuney, Brockers consistently stood his ground, clogging the line and preventing linemen from advancing to the linebackers.

Fowler seemed especially aware of what the Patriots were attempting.  He foiled a couple of screen passes (and Brady and the Patriots were only 1 for 4 completing screen passes) and made quick penetration on several running plays.

With 9:55 left in the first quarter, and New England facing a first-and-ten on their own 24, they tried to send Michel up the middle.  The blocking scheme on this run called for Trent Brown – the tackle lined up opposite of Fowler – to help Thuney double Donald.  With that, the Patriots pulled Shaq Mason from the left side to block on Fowler. But Dante read the play instantly and was into the backfield before Mason could get near him, smothering Michel for a 4-yard loss.

Later on in that drive, now with 6:17 left in the opening quarter, New England sat at third-and-eight on the Ram 31.  They tried to sneak a draw to James White underneath the pass rush of Donald.  Fowler read that, too, and chased White down after a three-yard gain – a play that forced a failed New England field goal attempt.

This was the pattern through most of the game, as the Patriot offense ground to a near halt as the running game sputtered.

For a little while.

Persistence Pays Off

But the ever patient Patriots kept running the ball.  On 68% of their first down plays (23 of 34), the Pats ran the ball.  And eventually, the Rams did wear down.

Beginning with a 19-yard sprint from Michel with 1:18 left in the third, the Patriot running attack took over the rest of the game.  New England’s final 12 rushes would account for 94 yards (7.8 yards per), 4 first downs, one touchdown, and the two runs that basically decided the game.

The last Patriot drive of the season began on its own 4-yard line.  There was still 4:17 left in the game, and the Patriot lead was a slim 10-3.  After their first run earned a yard, the Patriots faced second-and-nine from their own 5.

To this point, NE had almost completely avoided running at Donald.  Of the six times they did test him, five of those runs gained just 4 yards.  At this critical juncture, though, with Donald playing three-technique (over the outside shoulder of right guard Mason), the Patriots lined up with two tight ends to the left of the formation (away from Donald). The Rams overshifted, moving their other two defensive linemen to the left side, leaving Donald and two linebackers alone on the right side.

Just prior to the snap, tight end Dwayne Allen came back in motion to the right side, balancing the lines.  At the snap, Marcus Cannon and Mason doubled Donald, with Cannon then going through for Littleton.  Allen kicked Fowler to the outside, and Thuney came pulling from left guard to lead through the hole by blasting undersized linebacker Mark Barron.  The rest was green grass for Michel, whose 26-yard gallop brought New England from the shadow of its goal line.

Now it is two plays later – with still 2:42 left in the season, but the Rams now down to one time-out.  The Patriots face second-and-seven on their own 41.  Now, the Patriots would do the same thing, but in reverse. And with the same success.

NE lined up with two tight ends to the right side, and the Rams responded by overshifting their line to that side. The Pats then motioned Rob Gronkowski back to the left side and ran there. Thuney and David Andrews put an initial double-team block on Brockers (lined over center, the farthest left defensive lineman the Rams had), with Thuney then going through to get in the way of Littleton. Brown tossed Fowler to the inside, and Gronk crunched Lamarcus Joyner to the outside. James Develin led through the hole and removed Barron from the equation. Rex Burkhead then sliced back inside and ran to daylight.

New England had done the same thing to Kansas City late in that contest to spring a couple of long runs.

With a second 26-yard run in a matter of four plays, New England authored a game-clinching, nine-play, 67-yard drive (all of them running plays!) that ended in a field goal.  It left the Rams with a ten-point deficit, no timeouts, and 1:12 of season left to do something about it.

Although they were essentially stalled for most of the game, in the end, New England finished with 154 rushing yards (and another rushing touchdown) and their sixth title.  In winning their three playoff games, NE had scored 11 touchdowns – nine of them on the ground.

The Develin Factor

Once a staple of offensive football, the fullback has become almost a relic.  In the new pass-happy NFL, the fullback has mostly given way to a third or fourth wide receiver.  But in New England, the fullback is alive and well in the person of James Develin – a specialist whose job it is to ensure green pastures for the running back who will follow him through the hole.  Develin was on the field for only 30 plays (42% of the offensive snaps), but his presence was felt.  The Rams had 13 runs of more than three yards in this game.  Develin led through the hole on 7 of them.  He also led through on the two-yard touchdown run.

It is a stretch to say that the success the Patriots have found with Develin will spread to other teams.  But the concept certainly works in New England.

Brady and the Passing Attack

With the running game mostly held at bay, the very confident Ram defenders gave Tom Brady and his receivers all they could handle.  In one of his least effective Super Bowls, Brady finished with 262 passing yards and a 71.37 passer rating.  Tom didn’t have his best game.  Some of his throws were off target, and a few of his decisions could well be questioned.  But the largest parts of this story are the Ram defenders.  Whether in zone or in man, Talib, Joyner, John Johnson, Barron, Robey-Coleman – and yes even Marcus Peters – continuously provided tight coverage and gave Brady few opportunities.

But with such opportunities as presented themselves, Brady managed to get the ball mostly to his two prime-time targets.  Super Bowl MVP Julian Edelman finished catching 10 of 12 passes thrown his way for 141 yards and 8 first downs.  Tight end Rob Gronkowski caught 6 of 7 for 87 yards and 3 first downs.

Combined, Brady was 16 of 19 (84.21%) throwing to those two for 228 yards (12 yards per attempt and 14.25 per completion).  His passer rating to those two targets was a Brady-like 116.67.

But when the Rams managed to take away those targets and force Brady to go elsewhere, the story was much different.  Throwing to all other receivers, Brady was 5 of 16 (31.25%) for 34 yards (2.13 per attempt) with one interception – a 14.58 rating.

It’s Julian’s World

The challenge with Edelman is mostly a man coverage issue.  One of football’s quickest receivers, Julian is almost always able to get that first step on a defender.  And while he doesn’t have the kind of break-away speed that will leave a defender in his wake, he is as tough at catching footballs with defenders hanging on him as you will find in the league.

In this contest, Edelman was kept company by all of the principle Ram defenders.  He saw a lot of Talib, but frequently lined up slot-left where he would draw slot-corner Robey-Coleman.  He would then frequently run across the field (left-to-right) with Nickell in pursuit.  Of Julian’s receptions and yards he caught 5 of 6 for 73 yards and 4 first downs on the right side of the field.  Against all man coverage, Edelman caught 7 of 9 for 112 yards and 5 first downs – almost all of these with a defender within arms grasp.

These were difference making catches and yards.

Gronk in the Zone

While zone coverages will tend to minimize Edelman’s impact, they are a double-edged sword as someone will then have to deal with Rob Gronkowski, one of the NFL’s best at finding soft spots in zones.  Brady threw to Gronk in zone coverages 4 times, his 4 completions resulting in 40 yards (although just 1 first down).  Gronk would have his moment against man coverage, too.

There is 7:43 left in the season, game tied at that point 3-3, Patriots on LA’s 31.  Here would be the first of a series of plays that would determine the outcome of the season.

As the Patriots lined up, the Rams made one last attempt to confound the New England passing game.  As Edelman went in motion to the right, no one followed him – a zone indicator.  Then Littleton crowded the line, threatening a blitz – which would probably be man coverage.  Perhaps they were a little too cute, here.  Apparently, the only ones they confused were themselves.

On Brady’s last pass of the season, the Rams found themselves in man coverage, but with disadvantageous matchups.  They finished with safety Joyner on Edelman and cornerback Talib on running back Burkhead.

The defensive lineup also left Littleton one-on-one with Gronkowski all the way up the left side line.

For the game, Brady would only throw three long passes.  All would go up the left sideline.  The first two of these came with Marcus Peters isolated on Chris Hogan, with Peters responding to the challenge both times.  This time a perfect pass led Gronk over the top of Littleton.  Rob’s catch gave the Patriots first and goal on the two, and set in motion the end game.

Third and Less Than Automatic

Against the Chiefs, the Patriot offense thrived on third down, converting 13-of-19.  The Ram defense kept its team in the game by holding the Patriots to a much more pedestrian 3 of 12 on this down.  Here they played predominantly man coverage, leading to something of a hit-and-miss result.  In spite of the fact that New England only converted three of these opportunities, Brady was still 6 for 10 on third down, and the Patriots averaged 7 yards on third down.  The three first downs were all catches by Edelman (11, 25, and 27 yards).  New England’s other 9 third down plays accounted for a total of 21 yards.

Defending the Rams

With the Patriot offense managing just enough points, this game fell on the shoulders of the New England defense in their matchup against one of the game’s top offenses.

Ram quarterback Jared Goff supervised the NFL’s fifth-ranked passing attack, while he finished eighth in passer rating at 101.1.  When you have an offense that has too many weapons to concentrate on, usually the best answer is to stop it at its source.  The Patriots answered the new-age Ram offense with an age old defensive prescription.  They dialed up the pressure.

While Jared saw about an even mix of coverages (he saw man coverages 49% of the time) it was the effectiveness of the man coverages that made the difference.  In his 20 snaps throwing against man, Goff was just 8 of 18 (44.44%) for just 101 yards and his interception – a 39.35 passer rating.  He was also sacked twice.

And whether the Pats were playing man or zone, Jared was under frequent blitz pressure.  All told, Goff was blitzed on 46.3% of his pass attempts (19 of 41).  And even when they weren’t blitzing, the pressure on Goff was nearly constant.  After registering only 30 sacks during the regular season, the Patriots racked up 10 in three playoff games.  The use of blitzes was a big part.  Even more than that, though, over their last three games the Patriots raised the defensive line stunt to almost an art form.

The defensive line stunt has been in existence since the beginning of football.  The defensive end comes in and the tackle loops around.  It challenges the awareness of the offensive line.  By this point of the season – with football’s two best teams left – it should be assumed that both offenses can handle the concept dependably.

But in New England the Patriots have been tinkering with this – combining it with blitzes, stunting with linebackers, employing the experience of their defenders to analyze and adjust.  The benefits could not have been predicted.

Kansas City was never able to solve the Patriot stunts.  The Rams fell into the same pattern.  Goff faced at least some pressure on 30 of his 41 pass attempts (73.2%).  According to the scoresheet, he was hit on 12 of those (with linebackers Kyle Van Noy and Dont’a Hightower each accounting for 3).  Including the sacks, Jared faced extreme pressure on 16 of his passes (39%).  Repeatedly – especially early in the game when the Patriots played more zone – this pressure averted what could have been disasters downfield.  On the 12 passes when Goff was being hit while throwing, he completed just 3 for 36 yards and his interception.  His rating on those plays was 4.86, and, including the sacks, the Rams gained a total of 5 yards on those 16 plays.

By contrast Brady (who was only blitzed 8.3% of the time) only saw that level of pressure on 8.3% of his attempts (3 of 36).

Stephon Gilmore (who mostly stayed with Brandin Cooks) and Jonathan Jones (who was impressive against Robert Woods) were principle heroes in this contest.  Jones has not been a name to conjure with for the most part this season, but over the last two games, Jonathan has met the challenges of Tyreek Hill and Robert Woods.  He was most impressive.

The Results

The results of this suffocating pass defense could hardly have been anticipated.  Goff never completed more than three consecutive pass attempts, and LA – failing on its first 8 third down attempts – ended up punting on its first 8 possessions.  The Rams accounted for a total of 82 yards in those first 8 drives, averaging 2.7 yards per play.

Los Angeles ended the day 3 for 13 on third down.  Goff dropped back to pass on 12 of the 13 third-downs.  He finished 3 of 10 with 2 sacks, being blitzed on 6 of the 12 plays.  All told, Los Angeles’ 13 third-down plays totaled 13 yards.  The answer throughout the game was relentless pressure.  New England had several defensive lineman that executed the stunts to perfection and applied frequent pressure.  Lawrence Guy, Adrian Clayborn and Trey Flowers all played very well.

But the difference really was the linebackers Van Noy and Hightower.  With the speed to loop from one side of the formation all the way to the other, and the instincts that guided their timing in and through the line, they were a complication that neither the Chiefs nor the Rams ever managed to solve.

Fourth Quarter Excitement

Los Angeles’ first play of the fourth quarter came with 14:47 left and the score tied at three.  To that point, Goff and the passing game had been dominated.  Jared was 9 of 21 (42.86%) for just 95 yards (4.52 per pass attempt) and 3 sacks for 29 yards of loss.  The vaunted LA passing attack was sitting at 66 total yards for the night.

The fourth quarter – in spite of the fact that the Rams would never score again – would be different.  Throwing 17 times in the fourth quarter alone, Jared completed more passes in that quarter (10) and for more yards (134) than in the entire game previous to that point.  On the receiving end, Brandin Cooks emerged, catching 5 passes for 88 yards.  With the big quarter, Cooks finished the game with impressive totals of 8 catches for 120 yards.  But the numbers looked better than they played for both.

Almost all of this damage came during Los Angeles’ last two possessions.  With the season winding down Jared completed 6 of his last 11 throws for 102 yards and 5 first downs.  Cooks was the target on 5 of those throws – finishing with 3 catches (all for first downs) and 64 of the 102 yards.

But.

While the first of those drives began promisingly enough, there was much more opportunity there than was realized.  And the Rams’ last drive of the season – even after I’ve watched it several times – remains a head scratcher.

That Puzzling Last Drive

OK, I grant from the beginning that at this point the Ram chances were very slim.  With 1:12 left, they were getting the ball on their own 25, down by 10 and with no time outs.  Their bad situation was immediately complicated by a holding penalty by Rob Havenstein (who was certainly not in consideration for Super Bowl MVP).

Back on his own 15 now, with 66 ticks left on the clock, Goff and the Ram offense would throw three consecutive short passes to the middle of the field, completing the first two.  By this time, the New England zones were quite soft, as they invited Los Angeles to throw all the short passes they wanted.

Woods caught the first one for 10 yards and was tackled in bounds.  Cooks turned a dump off into a 24-yard gain up the middle, but was also tackled in bounds to keep the clock running.  When the third straight short pass fell incomplete, it was something of a blessing for the Rams as the clock finally stopped – albeit with just 21 seconds left.  During all of these short attempts, the Rams neither sent anyone deep toward the end zone, nor did they send any receivers to the sidelines.  Everyone ran short sit-down routes designed to get them open against zones – and they did achieve that.  But they were long past the point in the game where getting open underneath the zone coverages would do them any good.

The next throw was deep-ish, Goff tossing a nice pass into a small window into the arms of Cooks for 21 yards (and 45 of Cooks’ yards would come on his two catches on this drive).  But again, with no time outs, this throw went over the middle.  Down two scores, Goff finally made it up to the line and spiked the ball with all of 8 seconds left in the season.

Again, the situation was difficult and victory unlikely however they went about this last drive.  But exactly what they thought they would accomplish with that play selection will remain one of the enduring mysteries of Super Bowl LIII.

Wither the Ram Running Game

To this point, we haven’t discussed the Ram running attack – mostly because there is little to discuss.  As pointed out earlier in this piece, it has been a long time since a running attack accounted for fewer yards in the Super Bowl than the Rams’ did.  Truthfully, it didn’t seem like the running game was even an important part of the game plan.  Kansas City had seemed uninterested in running against the Patriots two weeks before.  They ran just 12 times all game.  In the Super Bowl, the Rams followed suit.  They ran just 18 times all day – in spite of the fact that until that last drive they were never more than 7 points behind.  Fifty-five plays the Rams ran this in this game within one score of the Patriots.  They threw on 37 of them.  They ran 20 plays with the score tied.  They threw on 14 of them.  Los Angeles ran only 16 plays all evening in New England territory – throwing on 15 of them.

These are not the numbers of a team with a running mindset.

And when they did run, they seemed almost insistent that they were going to run behind right tackle Havenstein.  Of their 18 running plays, 8 went over right tackle.  One of them developed into Los Angeles’ longest run of the day – through no success of Havenstein’s.  At the edge, he was stuffed by Flowers, but Gurley cut the run back the other way for 16 yards.  The other 7 runs behind Havenstein gained just 18 yards.

In-Offensive Lines

Heroes in the Divisional Round win against Dallas, when they racked up 273 rushing yards, the Los Angeles offensive line – all of them – came up short in the Super Bowl.  They struggled in pass protection all night and failed to generate any sustained semblance of movement for the running game.  In a game that was hard fought and tight throughout, the Rams’ fatal flaw was the offensive line that had been their backbone throughout their breakthrough season.

But of all the struggling afternoons, no one’s was longer than right tackle Rob Havenstein’s.  Especially the fourth quarter.

Rams’ first drive of the fourth quarter.  It is second-and-11 from the LA 22, game tied at 3 with 12:23 left.  Deep routes from Woods and Cooks cleared the right flat for Gerald Everett.  But Goff had no time to get the ball there as he was sandwiched between Flowers (who had slipped past Austin Blythe) and infrequently used defensive end John Simon, who beat Havenstein around the edge.  The throw fell incomplete.

Now facing third-and-11, the Rams profited from a defensive holding call and a 16-yard pass to Cooks – in spite of the fact that this time it was Guy who was beating Havenstein on the pass rush.

A 13-yard run from Gurley was then erased by a holding penalty – not Havenstein this time but center John Sullivan, setting up a first-and-20 from the LA 33.

With the Patriots in zone this time, Woods found an open spot deep in the middle of the coverage that would probably have achieved them the first down.  But Goff had no chance on this one, either.  This time it was Flowers turn to blow through Havenstein, who barely touched him.  Flowers flushed Jared immediately out of the pocket and into the arms of Jonathan Jones for a two-yard loss.

Goff was able to get the next throw off – incomplete on a deep route to Cooks.  There was pressure, though, from Hightower working, again,  around Havenstein.

Facing third-and-22, LA tried a running play.  This time it was Flowers, again, shooting past Havenstein to make the play in the backfield.  The Rams punted on the next play.

While this drive – in which he was beaten on five consecutive plays – marked the low spot, Rob’s day was generally underwhelming.  A defensive tackle named Deatrich Wise Jr – who didn’t play in the Championship Game against KC, and was only on the field for 31 snaps in this one – still led New England in tackles against the run with 5 (and after gains of only 18 yards).  Most of this success came at Havenstein’s expense.

This will not be a film Rob will look forward to reviewing.

The No Fly Zone

Of all the interesting statistical tidbits that emerged from this contest, maybe the most illuminating concerned the fifty-yard-line.  In this defensively dominated game, both offenses mostly had their way when they were operating in their own territory.

While on his side of the field, Brady completed 17 of 23 passes (73.91%) for 213 yards (9.26 per attempted pass and 12.53 per completed pass) for a 102.26 rating.  The Patriots ran 44 plays on their side of the field, gaining 335 yards with those plays (7.6 per) and earning 15 first downs.

Goff, for his part, was also better in his own end where he completed 14 of 25 (56%) for 181 yards (7.24 per attempt and 12.93 per completion).  His rating in his own end was 78.92, and the Rams gained 238 yards on their 44 plays in their own territory (5.4 per) with 11 first downs.

But as soon as each offense crossed the fifty, the defenses took over.

Brady was 4 for 12 (33.33%) for 49 yards (4.08 per attempt) and his interception in Ram territory (12.15 rating).  His Patriots managed 72 yards and 3 first downs in their 24 plays in Ram territory (3.0 per).

Goff was 5 of 13 (38.46%) for 48 yards (3.69 per attempt) and his interception (and two sacks) – good for a 17.47 rating.  With LA running just once on the New England side of the fifty, the Rams finished with 22 yards and 2 first downs to show for their 16 plays in opposition territory – 1.4 yards per play.

Combined the two star quarterbacks finished 9 for 25 (36%) for 97 yards (3.88 per pass attempt) with 2 interceptions and 3 sacks (a 14.92 rating) on the other side of the fifty.  The two teams ran a total of 40 plays in each other’s territory, finishing with just 94 yards (2.4 per play) and 5 first downs.

Of New England’s 154 rushing yards, 122 came on their side of the field.  All of Edelman’s passing yards, and 117 of Cooks’ 120 came on their own respective sides of the field.  The two teams combined for 27 plays that went for at least ten yards.  Only three of them came on the far side of the fifty.  The Rams had two of the three – 18 and 17 yard passes to Robert Woods when they were just barely over the fifty.

New England dialed up only one impact play in opposing territory – that last pass to Gronkowski.

That play to the Ram 2-yard line, set up Sony Michel’s touchdown run.  The game’s only touchdown thus came on the only red zone play from either team on an evening when neither team would start a drive in the other’s territory, and – thanks to superior punting from Johnny Hekker and Ryan Allen – each team started three drives inside its own ten-yard line.

That is how you get a 13-3 game.

In one of the most impressive post-season performances in memory, the Patriots played the league’s top two scoring offenses in consecutive contests. The Rams and Chiefs combined for 107 offensive snaps.  They never took one snap with a lead in either game.

The Plays that Weren’t Made

For all of that, though – for as well and as passionately as the Patriots played on defense – the entire contest could easily have gone in the other direction.  As always in tight contests like this, it comes down to a few moments – a handful of plays made and not made.  Most of these swirl around former Patriot Brandin Cooks, whose 120 receiving yards will be forever overshadowed by the yards he didn’t get.

There was 3:42 left in the third.  New England was clinging to a 3-0 lead, but the Rams were sitting on the Patriot 29-yard line.  New England was in cover four – a defense they don’t run very often, and don’t execute with much confidence.

Robert Woods settled into a pocket in the zone over the deep middle, drawing the complete attention of both of the middle zone defenders, Jones and Devin McCourty – so much so that Jones paid no heed at all to Cooks as he sped up the middle into the end zone unattended.  Just before he reached the end line, with no one else around him, he turned and looked for the ball.  Goff delivered a strike for what might have been a game-changing touchdown.  But at the very last second, Jason McCourty – whose assignment had been the deep right sideline – came racing from the far side of the field to deflect the pass, just as it was about to nestle in Brandin’s hands.

That enormous play fended off disaster and kept the Rams at bay until that penultimate – and game deciding – fourth quarter drive.  Here, down 10-3, they faced third-and-nine on their own 45 with 5:29 left.  The Rams will spend the off-season wishing they could have back any of these next four plays.

Goff converted the first down with an 11-yard toss over the middle to Josh Reynolds.  Effective, yes.  But this was one of the few plays in which Jared wasn’t under immediate pressure. And there were opportunities upfield.  Cooks had beaten Gilmore off the line and had a step on Stephon up the left sideline.  Perhaps even more open was Woods, who had split his doubleteam up the middle.  Either of those were big plays (and maybe touchdowns) waiting to happen.

Goff completes his next pass as well – this time 17 yards to Woods on the right sideline.  But again, the greater opportunity was missed as Reynolds had blown past Jason McCourty up the right sideline.  The Rams have moved to first-and-ten on the Patriot 27.  But with the rare gift of time in the pocket, the opportunities had been so much better.

Having passed up the deep option the last two plays, Goff wouldn’t let that happen a third time.  Cooks ran a go up the right sideline, separating just enough from Gilmore.  At the goal line, the football, Cooks and Gilmore all arrived at about the same time.  The throw was perfect.  Cooks had it briefly in his right hand.  But Gilmore had just enough hold of his left hand that he couldn’t bring it up to complete the catch.  A second later the ball was rolling harmlessly in the end zone.

Interference?  I would say yes.  Gilmore clearly held down Cooks’ arm and by the accepted understanding of pass interference that would qualify.  Should it have been first and goal?  Probably.  But before any Ram fans get too worked up, let me hasten to point out that this missed pass interference call was nothing in comparison to the flagrantly missed pass interference that put the Rams in the Super Bowl in the first place.

Karma, I suppose.

Now it’s second-and-ten.  For three straight plays, his beleaguered offensive line had bought Jared enough time to read the defense and make a throw.  They would not be able to provide him a fourth.

The Patriot blitz overloaded the offensive right side, with Hightower rushing to Havenstein’s outside shoulder, and Wise clubbing Blythe to the inside. Into the gap created by those two rushes, NE sent two defensive backs. Gurley properly took the inside rusher (Devin McCourty), but there was no one to account for Duron Harmon, who came free.

Under serious pressure Goff heaved the pass up the right sideline. With six rushing, New England’s defensive backs played deep, and Gilmore – staying on top of Cooks’ vertical – was waiting for the throw.

This was pretty much the dagger.  New England’s running game then keyed the drive to the field goal that gave us the final score.

Rare Symmetry

That interception was part of an uncommon symmetry that began and ended this contest.  After this interception, the Rams’ final drive of the season ended with a missed a field goal.  The Patriots had begun the game with an interception and a missed field goal on their first two possessions.  In a sense, the season itself was somewhat symmetrical as well.  Not quite five months earlier, the Falcons and Eagles had begun the season with what was expected to be a shootout.  It wasn’t, with Philadelphia escaping with an 18-12 win.  That was on a Thursday.  The next Sunday Patrick Mahomes would light up the Chargers and begin the magic carpet ride that was the 2018 season.

With this re-assertion by two determined defenses lingering now in our memories for the next seven months, it leaves us with questions to ponder as we await the 2019 season.  Does this game signal a turnaround for defenses?  Will there be concepts that other defensive coordinators will steal from these two teams that will cause scoring to drop next year?  During the season, a few teams turned to run-first philosophies.  Most of these of necessity, but at least one of them seemed to do it from choice.  Will Neanderthal football continue its resurgence?  Or was this just a non-passing fancy?  And what will be the result of the blown call that ended the season for New Orleans?  Will the NFL react to that? And how?

Every year, now, I find that instead of being the final answer, the Super Bowl leaves more questions to answer for the next year.  Enough to stew on over the next seven months.

Yes, Virginia, the Wrong Team is Going to Super Bowl LIII

If he had taken a step to the right – maybe two steps.  It’s impossible to say for sure how the rest of the game might have played out, but it is certainly conceivable that all the story lines of Super Bowl LIII could have been re-written by one first-quarter play.

The NFC Championship battle between the New Orleans Saints and the Los Angeles Rams, of course, ended in controversy – and controversy such that the wrong team is clearly going to the Super Bowl. But, when the Saints lined up on the Ram 15-yard line with still 7:55 left in the first quarter, the game seemed to hang in the balance (and, in fact, maybe it did).

The Saints began the game with an 11-play 56-yard drive that ate the first 4:56 of the game.  Disappointingly, for them, that drive only ended in a field goal.  Not to worry, though.  On LA’s third play of the afternoon, Demario Davis came up with an interception, and the Saints were sitting on the Ram 16-yard line with an early chance to pounce.

A first down run gained only a yard, so that brought us to this pivotal second down play.

Michael Thomas aligned wide to the right, and Tre’Quan Smith was in the slot to that side.  Both went vertically up the field.  At about the five-yard line, Smith found the Ram defender waiting for him.  With the defender assuming inside leverage, all Smith would have had to do is move to his right.  Even just a little bit.

He had – as a matter of fact – the whole right sideline as Ram defender Aqib Talib had followed Thomas deep into the end zone. But even failing that, a step or two to the right would have earned him enough separation to resume his vertical.

Instead, Smith turned left – right into the defender. Quarterback Drew Brees threw the ball in that direction anyway, thinking perhaps to draw a penalty.  He did not.  The officials ruled (correctly, let the record show) that Smith had initiated the contact.

The Ram defender on that play – by the way – was a young cornerback named Nickell Robey-Coleman.  It would not be the last time his name would be mentioned in this game.

After the third-down screen pass came up short, the Saints kicked the field goal.  The lead crept up to 6-0, but there was a feeling even then that this might come back to haunt them.  A huge opportunity was missed.  Even after they scored on their next possession – bringing the lead to 13-0 – the feeling persisted.  A 17-0 score (or even a 21-0 score if Dan Arnold had managed to hold onto a potential touchdown pass on that first drive) is a different game entirely than the 13-0 deficit the Rams faced.

Not Dead Yet

Even at that, though, an early 13-point lead should have been enough, right?  The Saints were, after all, the top seed in the Conference, bearing a 14-3 record and playing at home against a talented but young team unused to this kind of pressure or deficit.

In the aftermath of the contest – an eventual 26-23 Ram overtime victory (gamebook) (summary), some may have questions about the worthiness of the young team from LA. But coming back twice from deficits of at least ten points on the road in the playoffs in the ear-splitting din of the Superdome on a day when the Saints’ defense had mostly silenced the LA running game is no mean feat.

The Rams fought their way back into contention on the strong arm – and stronger will – of baby-faced quarterback Jared Goff, a suddenly effective defense, and a big play from the special teams.

Hekker’s Moment

Johnny Hekker is one of the NFL’s most decorated punters.  In general, punters aren’t the most sought-after players on the team.  You punt when your team has failed to convert on third down, so there is always an aura of failure attending your efforts.  Unlike place-kickers, there are no last second, game-winning punts that will put your name in the headlines of tomorrow’s newspapers.

That being said, the punting aspect of the game is very important, and through his first seven seasons, Hekker has been one of the best, sporting a career 47.0 yard average, to go along with four first-team All-Pro selections.

And, oh yes, he sometimes throws the ball instead of punting.

So now it’s the first play of the second quarter.  You are the Rams, and you are trailing 13-0. You do not yet have a first down in the game. You face a third-and-five from your own 30 (remember you are deep in your own territory). You cannot have another three-and-out.

But that’s exactly what happens.  The third-down screen pass comes up short, and the punting unit takes the field, ready to return the football – and the momentum – to the home team.  At this moment, things are feeling a little bleak.

Johnny took the snap.  Took one step like he was going to punt.  Then raised the ball in his right arm and tossed a perfect pass to Sam Shields in the right flat.  Sam avoided the first tackler, advancing the ball to the 42-yard line for a first down.

Shields, of course, had been a star in Green Bay in the early years of this decade.  He was an important part of the Packer team that won Super Bowl XLV (45).  Six years ago – in a Divisional Round game – Sam intercepted a Colin Kaepernick pass and returned it 52 yards for a touchdown.

His career seemed to be over after he played one game in 2016 and spent the rest of the year on injured reserve.  He was cut at the end of that year, and missed the entire 2017 season.  He reappeared with the Rams this season – healthier than he had been in a while – to flesh out some thinness in the Ram secondary – and to play on special teams.  He had even made two starts earlier in the season.  He had also caught a pass previously this season from punt formation – against Green Bay, as it turned out.

This was his biggest moment on a big stage in several years.

Considering where they were on the field and what the stakes were should the play backfire, the gamble was huge.

To this point, the game seemed to reverse-parallel the game the Saints had played the week before against Philadelphia.  In that contest, the Eagles came out with the early momentum, and it was the Saints finding themselves down 14-0 before they had even managed a first down.  They also turned the tide with a fake punt early in the second quarter – also from their own 30.

Here, though, the parallels ceased.  From that point on in the Eagle game, the Saints absolutely dominated.  In this one, the momentum switches were far from over.  The Saints went on to score a touchdown after their fake punt.  The Rams managed only a field goal.  But even that changed the feeling of the entire game.

Jared Emerging

By now, the Jared Goff story has been told and re-told.  The first overall pick in the 2016 draft, the Ram quarterback struggled through his rookie season.  Under a new coach in 2017, Goff has turned the corner and has now lead the Rams into the playoffs in consecutive seasons, posting 100+ passer rating in both of the last two seasons.

His accomplishments have generated no small stir around the league.  While I have been impressed as well, I always want to see a quarterback under the pressure of the playoffs.  That, I maintain, is when you can really tell what is in him.

Through his first two playoff games, Jared has been solid, but unspectacular.  In last year’s playoff loss to the Vikings, Goff threw a lot (45 passes) for not a lot of gain (259 yards on 24 completions).  He did throw a touchdown and did not throw an interception.  He played pretty well in the Divisional Round victory over Dallas this year as well.  But the passing attack that day – a modest 186 yards on 15 of 28 passing – was carried by the Rams’ overwhelming running attack (273 yards and 3 touchdowns on 48 carries).  So far – in all honesty – nothing to really show that Jared was the next great quarterback.

The final numbers in this contest were also modest.  Goff finished 25 of 40 for 297 yards with 1 touchdown and 1 interception.  Those numbers, however, don’t accurately reflect the achievement.  Inside those numbers was the performance the Rams had been hoping for.

The Saints in Evolution

As the season progressed, the New Orleans pass defense evolved from being one of football’s shakiest to one of the best.  I detailed some of that progress after the Eagle game as we looked at how they pulled the plug on Nick Foles’ playoff magic.  With their second-ranked run defense bottling up the Rams third ranked run offense (and LA would follow up that big game against Dallas with just 77 rushing yards), the Saints showed Goff a little bit of everything in pass defense.

Jared saw an almost even mix of man coverages (21 times) vs. zones (20).  He saw frequent blitzes – 16 in his 41 dropbacks (39.0%).  These were effective, too.  As with Philadelphia the week before, Jared almost always dealt with enough pressure to keep him uncomfortable in the pocket.  On 58.5% of his pass attempts (24 of his 41), he had some kind of traffic in his pocket.  This included 1 sack and 7 other times that he was hit as he threw.

In those attempts, he completed just 13 of 23 (56.52%) for 184 yards (8.00 per attempt and 14.15 per completion).  His interception also came on one of those attempts, for a passer rating of 64.40 when under pressure.  While he was never sacked during any of the 16 blitzes he saw, he was held to just 8 of 16 (50%) for just 105 yards (6.56 per attempt) – a 71.09 rating.

Pass Rush is Always the Key

Pressure is always a factor in the passing game.  As they say, even the best quarterbacks can’t beat you when they are on their backs.  Brees, by comparison, was blitzed only 7 times by the Rams, but completed only 3 of those 7 passes for 20 yards (albeit one of those completions went for a touchdown).  When they could get what I call “uncomfortable” pressure on Drew, his rating fell to 59.23 (9 of 14 for 112 yards and his interception).  The difference was that Brees felt that heat on only 16 of his 42 dropbacks.

The Rams, of course, are always a challenge do defend, both because of scheme and personnel.  With two primary targets – Robert Woods (86 catches, 1219 yards and 6 touchdowns) and Brandin Cooks (80 catches, 1204 yards and 5 touchdowns), defensive coordinator Dennis Allen understood he couldn’t rely on man coverage as much as he had against Philadelphia.  So he mixed things constantly throughout, challenging the young quarterback’s recognition and ability to respond to pressure.

That being said, when he did go to man coverage, he would need a big effort from slot-corner P.J. Williams.

Slot corner is – and has been for several years, now – a specialty skill.  Increasingly, teams are living and dying on the skills of a man who is commonly regarded as the third corner.  If you are a team like the Saints that relies on a particular slot corner, then that will always mean that the opposing team – in this case, the Rams – will get to dictate that matchup.  In short, whoever lines up in the slot gets covered by Williams.

Throughout the long afternoon of football, Los Angeles ran both of their lead receivers several times at Williams in the slot.  For the most part – and with a big assist from the consistent pressure up front – Williams held up.

He was beaten by Cooks once for a 36 yard pass up the sideline, and gave up two completions to Woods (7 and 16 yards).  Of the 21 times the Saints were in man coverage, they blitzed on 14 of them.

These blitzes were most likely to come against the Rams’ two-minute offense and in overtime.  In the last two minutes of the first half, the Rams saw blitzes on 4 of the 6 passes they threw.  They scored the touchdown, anyway.  In the drive that resulted in the game-tying field goal, Allen blitzed on 5 of the 8 passes without getting the big play hoped for.  Goff was also blitzed on all 3 of his overtime pass attempts. He got them in field goal range, anyway.

Even though he faced blitz pressure on 8 of his last 11 passes, and 12 of the 17 he threw in two-minute or overtime scenarios, Goff still led the team to scores in those three possessions.

On those occasions when pressure came without the help of a blitz, it almost always came in the form of Cameron Jordan.  With their second best defensive lineman (Sheldon Rankins) unavailable, everything fell to Jordan at his left defensive end position, locked for most of the afternoon in a battle with Ram right tackle Rob Havenstein.  Jordan did have his moments.  He collected New Orleans’ only quarterback sack of the afternoon, and disrupted – or nearly disrupted – several other attempts (including the last completion of the game to Tyler Higbee).  But Havenstein’s consistent effort against Jordan – most of the time without help – was a huge piece of the Rams’ victory.

Goff Abides

In the end, though, Jared Goff dealt with all of this.  He dealt with the blitzes, the pressure from Jordan, the noise, the deficit, the mixing of coverages that challenged him to get the ball to his best receivers.  And he steadily got better as the game progressed.

Trailing by three at the half (13-10), the Rams got the ball to start the second half.  Any expectations held by Ram faithful were quickly dispelled with another three-and-out, the last of those an incompletion by Goff as David Onyemata (playing for the injured Rankins) applied pressure up the middle.  The Rams punted, and the next time they saw the ball, they trailed 20-10 with 8:34 left in the third.

From that point until the winning kick sailed through the uprights, Goff took over.  He led them on scoring drives on four of their last five possessions.  Jared ended the game completing 13 of his last 18 passes (72.22%) for 183 yards.  In those pressure packed drives, he averaged 10.17 yards per attempted pass, and 14.08 yards per completed pass.  Nine of those 13 completions went for first downs, including 3 that gained at least 25 yards and the one touchdown pass to Higbee (that came off of play-action, by the way).  His passer rating coming down the stretch was 123.15.

Oh That Play-Action

Not enough has been said about the Rams’ use of play-action.  Whether it’s Todd Gurley or C.J. Anderson in the backfield, its impact on the defense is highly disruptive.  The touchdown to Higbee was set up by a 25-yard catch and run by Cooks up the left sideline.  The play was wide open because the defender that had responsibility for that zone (Demario Davis) had been completely sucked into the line by the play fake.  With 8:08 in the game and the Rams still down by three, another play-fake caused utter chaos in the Saint secondary – with half of them ending up playing man and half zone.  The confusion left linebacker Davis chasing Josh Reynolds from behind on a 33-yard play that led to the tying field goal.

If there is anything to say about the Rams’ use of play action, it may be that they don’t do enough of it.  While I’m sure there is a point of diminishing returns, LA went to play-action on just 13 of their 41 pass plays (Goff going 9 for 12 for 108 yards, 1 TD and 1 sack).  Goff’s passer rating coming off play action was a substantial 129.86.

That Last Drive

With all of this, perhaps Goff’s best moments came in the abbreviated overtime possession.  After John Johnson gave LA possession on their own 46 with an interception, Goff and the offense knew they needed a few more yards.  After play-action on the first play of the drive, Goff booted to his left and looked up to find Alex Okafor almost on top of him.  But there would be no loss here.  In a blink of an eye, Goff had the ball out of his hands in into the arms of Higbee for the 12-yard gain that put the Rams in the shadow of field goal range.

After a first down run pushed the Rams back to the 45, they faced second-and-thirteen, needing, perhaps, a few more yards for a more manageable long field goal.

With the season on the line, Cameron Jordan tore through the Rams’ line.  Eight yards behind the line of scrimmage, Jordan gripped Goff’s left shoulder with his meaty left hand.  The Rams were that close to being pushed out of field goal range.  On his way to the ground with what would have been a devastating sack, Goff floated a prayer to Higbee (again) stationed in the left flat for just such circumstances.  His catch and subsequent 6-yard gain was the final piece needed.

Two plays later, Ram kicker Greg Zuerlein ended the Saints’ season with a booming 57-yard field goal (that probably would have been good from 67).

That final heave to Higbee may have constituted equal parts skill and luck.  And while it is true that the Rams shouldn’t be headed to the Super Bowl – Goff’s heroics notwithstanding – the one thing this game did establish is that the stage is not too big for the young Ram quarterback.  Throughout the emotional roller-coaster ride that was this year’s NFC Championship game, Goff never unraveled.  He never dropped his focus.

Not all of his reads were flawless, and not all of his throws were great.  But for a very young man playing in the biggest game of his life (at least until Sunday) Jared Goff was everything the Rams could have asked for.

Not To Forget

The other huge aspect of this upset was the LA defense.  For all of the hoopla that surrounds the high-octane offense and the swirling controversy that surrounds the end of the game, the biggest story throughout really was the Ram defense.  And, frankly, for the second week in a row.

The Ram defense has been picked on all year – considered an albatross around the team’s neck.  In their regular season matchup with these Saints, they surrendered 45 points, 487 yards and 31 first downs.  They limped to the season’s end ranked twentieth in scoring defense – having allowed 384 points – and twenty-third against the run – allowing 122.3 rushing yards per game.  During the season, the Rams allowed an astonishing 5.1 yards per rushing attempt – the worst figure in the league.

This was supposed to be the mismatch.  The Saints – number eight in total offense, number three in scoring (they scored 504 points this year) and, especially, number six in rushing offense (126.6 yards per game) were supposed to take control of this game at the line of scrimmage and walk away with it.  After the Rams opened up their 13-0 lead in the first quarter, it looked like a mortal lock.

No one would have believed at this point that the Saints would manage just one more touchdown and one more field goal through the rest of the game.  But this just in.  All of a sudden – and out of nowhere – the Ram defense has suddenly become good.  Very good.  Especially against the run.

Their playoff run has taken them through two of the top rushing offenses in football.  Before they faced the Saints, they faced the Dallas Cowboys – the tenth ranked rushing offense (122.7 yards per game) and home of the NFL’s leading rusher in Ezekiel Elliott.  The Cowboy ground game never got out of neutral.  When the game ended, Dallas had all of 50 rushing yards (47 by Elliott) on 22 carries (20 by Elliott) – a sobering 2.3-yard average.

The Rams were just as good last Sunday against Mark Ingram (9 carries for 31 yards) and Alvin Kamara (8 carries for 15 yards).  Ingram had one 16-yard burst in the third quarter.  Subtract that run, and his totals were identical with Kamara’s.  For the game New Orleans ended with 48 yards on 21 attempts – again, 2.3 per carry.

So, in two playoff games, two top running offenses have combined for 98 rushing yards against this re-born Ram defense.  By comparison, in their last two games of the season, bottom-dwelling Arizona and San Francisco ran for 104 and 127 yards respectively.  Over their last ten regular season games, the only team that didn’t run for at least 100 yards against this LA defense was Kansas City – and that was only because they didn’t want to.  They were too busy throwing for 448 yards in that interesting 54-51 game.

This sudden prowess against the run has certainly come out of nowhere.  But the reason for it is fairly clear to anyone who watched the Rams during the season and in the playoffs.  If there is one player who is the difference here, that player would be Ndamukong Suh.

The Ndam-inator?

Ndamukong Suh was a star on the defensive line of the Detroit Lions in the early years of this decade.  A passionate player with a penchant to let his passions run away with him, Suh has worn out his welcome with two teams.  When the Rams brought him in on a one-year contract, they envisioned the unblockable combination that he would form in the middle of their defense with Aaron Donald, one of the elite defensive players of his generation.

Certainly, for most of the season, that dominant combination hasn’t been there – not consistently, anyway.  Suh has not played poorly – that would be unfair.  But for most of the season the Rams truly haven’t seemed to care about opposing running games.

That has changed.  The Rams most definitely care.  And as for Suh, that passion is back.  He was a one-man wrecking ball in the middle of the line, and a principle reason that neither Dallas nor New Orleans managed a pulse in their running games.  The rest of the defense has fed of his energy as well.

A re-invigorated Suh speaks well for the Rams in their upcoming battle with New England.  But there are also a couple of warning notes that need to be sounded.

First, historically Suh’s on-field passion has been a two-edged sword.  Yet to be determined will be how he will respond in that biggest of all stages.

Second, he and Donald are on the field a lot.  In this age of shuffling in defensive linemen to keep them fresh, Donald and Suh are decidedly old school.  Of the 67 defensive plays the Saints offense ran last Sunday, Suh played 61 and Donald played 66. (The only time he was off the field, by the way, was the ninth play of New Orleans’ opening drive – so Aaron was on the field for all of their last 55 plays).

This does take its toll.  By the end of the game you could see the weariness – especially in Donald who still gets double-teamed on every play – even if Suh is next to him.

I point this out because this is what happened to the Falcons when they played New England in the Super Bowl two years ago.  They spent the first two quarters chasing Tom Brady all over the pocket.  By the fourth quarter, they were all gassed.  Will Donald and Suh have the stamina to run with the Patriots for four (or more) quarters?

Still the Wrong Team

Yes, it was an impressive game by the Rams in so many facets.  In many ways, probably their best game of the year.  Doesn’t change the fact that they should be watching the Super Bowl on TV this year.  To this point we’ve looked at everything that shaped this fascinating game, except the play that will eternally define it.

The game is tied at 20.  There is 1:49 left in regulation.  The Saints face third-and-10 at the Ram 13 yard line. A young receiver named Tommylee Lewis circles out of the backfield and heads up the right sideline.  Brees floats the ball at about the time Lewis regains the line of scrimmage. It is at about this point that Robey-Coleman realizes that this is his man, and that he will probably not get there in time.  Panicking, and with the season on the line, Robey-Coleman puts his head down and races for Lewis.

He will not look back for the ball.  At this point, he doesn’t believe that he will arrive before it.  But Brees – throwing a tad early before the pressure can get close – puts quite a lot of air underneath. At just about the five yard line – yes the same five yard line that he had made contact with Smith in the first quarter – Robey-Coleman blasted through Lewis like a bowling ball picking up a ten-pin spare.

The good news was that he had prevented a potential touchdown.  The bad news was that he had just committed one of the most flagrant pass interference penalties in recent memory.  Far from his assessment of the situation at the beginning, Robey-Coleman not only beat the ball there, but he beat it by several yards, clearly tackling the receiver long before he would have a chance to make the catch.

Shockingly, no flag was thrown.  The All-Star officiating crew had missed it.  The play took four seconds – officially.  Its repercussions will ripple for a long while.

Thoughts in the Aftermath

I’d like to address this in a couple of ways.  While not at all denying that the missed call costs the Saints a Super Bowl trip, I don’t think this mistake should gloss over the self-inflicted injuries that New Orleans did to themselves to put themselves in this situation.

I mentioned earlier the missed opportunities in the Red Zone.  If one of those trips results in a touchdown perhaps the game is different.  There was also that almost opportunity to knock them out of field goal range in overtime.

Even more to the point was the handling of these last two minutes.  With marginally better decision making and execution, the Saints would be preparing for the Patriots right now, anyway.

Just before the two-minute warning, Drew Brees heaved the ball up the right sideline for Ted Ginn.  This is a connection the Saints had been trying to make all day.  This is the only time they connect, as Ginn leaps and comes down with a 43-yard reception.  Of four deep passes thrown by Brees today, this was the only one completed.  The connection puts the ball 13 yards away from the touchdown that would ice the game, with just 1:58 left to play.

Incredibly, the Saints will never gain another positive yard on offense.  In fact, their last seven offensive plays of the 2018 season will lose a total of 7 yards (including the one-yard kneel down that would end regulation).

At this point, they could have chosen to call three running plays, drain the Rams of their timeouts, and kick the field goal.  That would give the ball back to LA with about a minute left and needing just a field goal to tie.  In the Rams’ ensuing drive, the had only managed about to midfield at the one-minute mark, so there is some evidence to support the case for running the ball and kicking.

However, Coach Sean Peyton was understandably concerned about leaving a minute on the clock for Sean McVay and his offense, so he decided he needed to get at least one first down – preferably while still forcing the Rams to deploy their time outs.

So, he called a first-down pass.  A very safe first-down pass to Thomas, open over the middle.  But the throw was at his shoe tops, and Michael couldn’t come up with it.  Now what?  Not only is it second-and-ten, but the clock has stopped saving the Rams a time out.  Still 1:55 to go.

Kamara’s last running play of the season gains nothing.  Right guard Larry Warford and tackle Ryan Ramczyk try to lead Alvin around the corner, but neither can lay a block on linebacker Mark Barron, who slips between the two of them to make the play.  Third-and-ten, with the Rams using their second time out. Still 1:49 to go.

It was at this point that the infamous pass to Lewis occurred.  Even after the blown call, though, the Saints still had their chances.  They promptly did kick the field goal, so they had a three-point lead.  Had they kept the Rams out of field goal range, they would still have won.

Failing that, they also won the overtime coin-toss.  Later that evening, the New England Patriots would demonstrate what to do with an opening possession in overtime.  The Saints had that same opportunity.  Their three overtime offensive plays turned out to be equally instructive.

Starting with the ball on their own 26, Brees had a pass batted down at the line of scrimmage.  After picking up one final first down on a pass interference that was called (the fans let the officials hear it again), a six-yard loss on a Mark Ingram run attempt (with Garrett Griffin attempting to throw the critical block against Suh), and an interception thrown while Dante Fowler was hitting Brees set in motion the final Ram drive.

What To Do?

Still and regardless, it all never should have happened.  If the penalty had been called, the Saints would have been awarded a first down on the Ram 5.  There would still be 1:45 left, but LA at that point would have only one timeout left.  New Orleans could have drained the clock to about the last 20 seconds and then kicked their field goal.

There is no way to soft sell this moment.  It was a nightmare for the fans and players of the Saints – made more bitter by the fact that they had lost in heartbreaking fashion in last year’s playoffs.

It’s a nightmare for the league as well.  With their officiating always under scrutiny, they now have a documented case where the officiating sent the wrong team to the biggest game of the year.  However Super Bowl LIII plays out, it will be tainted by the absence of the Saints.  If Brady-Belichick win yet another ring, the question will always be, could they have beaten the Saints.  And if the Rams go on to claim the title – well, what can you say, then, to the team that had actually beaten the Rams.

It’s the kind of situation that needs to prompt change, but not over-reaction – a very hard balance to strike.  In that spirit, there are some changes I’d like to propose.

Send the Best Teams

First of all, for the last several years, the NFL has been sending All-Star officiating crews to the playoffs.  So, instead of officiating crews that have been working together all year, the NFL has graded each official and has rewarded the highest graded officials in their respective responsibilities by sending them to officiate the playoff games.

With this moment as Exhibit One, it simply cannot be said that the officiating has been any better in the playoffs than it has been during the season.  In the Indianapolis-Texas Wild Card game, the Colts were set up with a touchdown on a phantom pass interference call in the end zone.  There have been several other concerning calls.  In the Patriot-Chief game, a critical New England drive was kept alive by a phantom roughing-the-passer call.

If the All-Star teams are not any better than the best of the regular officiating crews, then my suggestion is to let the best crews go to the playoffs.

Opening the Box

Beyond that, I think the time has finally arrived to toss pass interference into the pool of challengeable calls.  I do this with some trepidation.  Opening penalties to review is a kind of Pandora’s Box, and certainly something to be wary of.  Clearly, every penalty can’t be reviewable.

On the other hand, there already are penalties that are reviewed.  Too many men on the field penalties can be reviewed, and no one has a concern with that for the very simple reason that too many men is completely cut and dried.  When the ball is snapped one team either has twelve (or more) players on the field, or they do not.  No gray area, here.

What this actually means is that the NFL is aware that some penalty calls are highly subjective.  Holding is a very subjective call.  Allowing holding calls to be reviewed would have horrific repercussions.

But my question is, is pass interference objective? Or subjective?  I am going to argue the former.

In the video era, thousands of pass interference calls (both those that were made and those that should have been made) have been relayed to television audiences.  As these enormously impactful calls have been scrutinized, I believe that the league has finally arrived at a clear standard – an objective standard, if you will – of what is and what is not pass interference.  (Defensive pass interference, at any rate.)  The arm bar, the turning of the receiver’s body, the holding down of the arm, etc. 

Conversely, offensive pass interference still seems to be very much open to interpretation.  There still doesn’t seem to be any real consistency in how much pushing off the receiver can do and still not get called for it.

I maintain,though, that at this point the standard for defensive pass interference is clear enough and consistent enough that it can be held to the review standard.  It would be a bold step, but in its defense let me point out that this will likely happen again.

Sadly, it is too late to give justice to the New Orleans Saints.  It is not too late to provide an opportunity for justice to the next poor team who gets denied a Super Bowl trip do to a mangled pass interference call.

Second Half Quarterbacks

In their last game in New England, the Los Angeles Chargers looked like they finally had found their running game.  They lost, but rung up 157 rushing yards, with feature back Melvin Gordon accounting for 132 of them on just 14 carries (9.4 per carry).  Gordon had gained 997 yards the previous year, in spite of playing in only 13 games (starting 11).  The re-discovered running game would be important going forward.

On the other sideline, the Jacksonville Jaguars were welcoming back rookie running sensation Leonard Fournette after a one-game suspension.  Leonard had amassed 596 rushing yards in six games, including 311 in his previous two games.  With the running game being the foundation of the Jaguars’ offense, his return was welcomed.

At the half of last Sunday’s game between the Chargers and the Jaguars, Los Angeles held a 7-6 lead.  Gordon had managed just 16 yards on 8 carries.  Fournette was held to 21 on 9 carries.  By game’s end – after more than 71 minutes of football – these two premier backs had accounted for 60 combined yards on 33 combined rushes – less than two yards a carry.

With the running games unable to get untracked, the contest hinged on the two passing games.

Rivers vs Bortles

For their part, Los Angeles had veteran Philip Rivers.  Going head to head against the number one pass defense in the NFL (and also the defense with the lowest passer rating against – 63.5), Rivers held his own. Philip finished 21 of 37 for 235 yards with 2 touchdowns and 1 interception.  Without much of a running game, and with consistent up the middle pressure, Rivers and the Chargers fought their way to 17 points – about as much as could be reasonably expected under the circumstances.

The curiosity in this game was the other quarterback – Jacksonville’s much discussed Blake Bortles.

The quarterback who earlier this year threw only one pass in the second half of the Pittsburgh game, now held Jacksonville’s fate in his hands.

Throughout the first half, Jacksonville maintained admirable balance.  Their 27 plays were 14 runs and 13 mostly safe passes.  Bortles took one downfield shot, overthrowing Keelan Cole.  But Blake was 11-for-11 throwing underneath against the Chargers.  However, the short passes only accounted for 75 yards, and the only time that Jacksonville found the end zone was on a spectacular fake punt.  Other than Corey Grant’s 56-yard explosion, the running game had contributed just 33 yards.

So, the wraps came off Bortles in the games second half (which ended up being almost three full quarters).  And with decidedly mixed results.

After throwing 12 times in the first half, Blake threw 39 times in the second.  But his 11 first half completions were answered by only 17 in the second half.  His completion percentage fell from 91.7% through the first 30 minutes to just 43.6% thereafter.  After managing just 75 passing yards early, Blake threw for 198 thereafter, but for only a 5.08 yard average per pass, after averaging 6.25 in the first half.

As the focus was decidedly more downfield, his average per completion rose sharply from 6.82 to 11.65, and he threw for his only touchdown of the day.  He also threw two bad-decision interceptions that nearly cost Jacksonville the game.

The Jags held on for a 20-17 victory (gamebook), but the questions continue.  If Jacksonville needs Blake to throw the team to victory against a top opponent (perhaps in a playoff situation), could he do it?

Sunday’s second half against Los Angeles casts some doubt.

Second-Half Jared

Facing a team that had rolled up more than fifty point in its previous game, the Houston defense held the Texans in the game for the first 35 minutes or so.  The Los Angeles Rams had gone in at halftime with just 3 field goals and a 9-7 lead.  As in the Jacksonville game, the Rams’ premier running back Todd Gurley was a non-factor (as a runner).  He rushed for 19 first-half yards.  Meanwhile, Jared Goff and the passing attack weren’t re-writing history either.  Jared went into the locker room with only 104 passing yards on 11 of 20 passing.  Of the 131 total yards LA had to show for the first 30 minutes, 43 came on a short catch and run by Gurley.  Had the Houston offense been able to take advantage, the story of the second half might have been much different.

But the Texans let the Rams hang around and then watched as LA pulled away with 24 unanswered second-half points – on their way to a 33-7 victory (gamebook).  There were a couple of quarterbacks who had brilliant second halves last week.  Arguably Jared Goff’s was the best.

A little bit rushed and flustered through the game’s first thirty minutes, Goff returned for the second half on fire.  Beginning with a perfectly-thrown, 94-yard touchdown strike to Robert Woods, Goff went on to complete 14 of his last 17 passes (82.4%) for an astonishing 254 yards (an average of 17.93 yards per completion) with 3 touchdowns and no interceptions.  On the receiving end, Woods caught all 6 second-half passes thrown to him for 161 yards and 2 touchdowns. Coming one week after his third-and-33 touchdown catch, Woods is, perhaps, forcing his way into a bigger role on this offense.

And, yes, that is the Rams now 7-2.  The intensity of the stretch drive and of the playoffs may catch up to this young team at some point, but nine games into the season they look like more than just a September illusion.

What to Make of the Atlanta-Dallas Game

If Jared Goff’s second half was better than Atlanta’s Matt Ryan’s, it was only marginally so.  Like Goff, Ryan started out a little average.  He completed 11 of 17 first half passes, but for only 94 yards, with no touchdowns and 1 interception.  But coming out of halftime and holding to just a 10-7 lead, Ryan and the Falcon offense finally found their groove.  Matty finished his game completing 11 of his last 12 for 121 yards and 2 touchdowns.

Perhaps the great awakening in the Atlanta offense was nothing more than patience and a little dose of humility.  Instead of stubbornly trying to throw up the field to Julio Jones against coverages overloaded to stop that very strategy, Ryan and the Falcons spent the second half of last Sunday’s game peppering the Cowboys with underneath routes.  For the game, Ryan completed only one throw of over 20 yards (a 24-yarder to Jones early in the second half).  All of his other completions exploited Dallas’ focus on Jones and the deep passing game.

Equally important, the Atlanta running game emerged in the second half, gaining 91 yards on 21 carries and the Falcons walked away with a 27-7 win (gamebook).  One of the things the first half of the season has taught us is that the more balanced the Falcon offense is, the more explosive it is.

The Zeke Factor

The tempting thing here, of course, is to say “well, Dallas was without premier back Ezekiel Elliott, so . . .” But I’m not sure that effectively accounts for the outcome.

Elliott, famously, has been fighting a suspension for the entire year – a suspension that finally began with this game.  Would he have made a difference?  Of course.  But to say he would have propelled Dallas to victory not only slights the Atlanta Falcons and Alfred Morris (who replaced Elliott), but grossly over-values Elliott’s contributions.

The truth is that running the football was probably the best thing that Dallas did on Sunday. They finished with 107 rushing yards, and Morris had 53 of those on 11 carries (4.8 yards per).  The failure to truly establish the run game had more to do with the defense’s inability to contain the Falcon offense – allowing the score to get out of hand – and the struggles of the Cowboy passing game.

With tackle Tyron Smith nursing injuries, Dallas turned to Chaz Green to man that all-important left tackle spot.  To say that he was overmatched by Falcon rush end Adrian Clayborn would be a sizeable understatement.

Cowboy quarterback Dak Prescott finished the game completing 20 of 30 passes – but for only 176 yards.  Prescott began the game having been sacked only 10 times all season.  In this game alone, he went down 8 times (for 50 yards) – 6 of them credited to Clayborn (a game he will remember for a while).

In general, I’m inclined to think this game was more about the Falcons re-discovering themselves than it was conclusive evidence that the Cowboys are rudderless without Elliott.  Next up for Dallas is a crucial division matchup against Philadelphia.  Atlanta journeys to Seattle to play the damaged but dangerous Seahawks.  We will probably know more about both these teams by this time next week.

Playoff Implications

The game was billed as a must win for the Falcons – and that is true enough.  At 4-4, Atlanta’s position was certainly precarious.  Even with the win, though, the Falcons chances still aren’t great.  They currently sit one game behind the Seahawks for the last spot, so a win Monday night could thrust them momentarily into that playoff spot.  The Falcons also have a very tough closing schedule.  After Seattle in Seattle, they will still have Minnesota and Carolina on their schedule, as well as high-flying New Orleans twice.

If Atlanta is going to fight its way in, they will have to earn it.

In the long run, the loss may hurt Dallas more than the win will help Atlanta.  Considering how much harder Dallas’ remaining schedule is than Carolina’s (the team they will likely be battling for that playoff spot) this loss was very damaging to the Cowboys.  They still have two games against Philadelphia, as well as Washington, Oakland and Seattle on their list.  Carolina will have challenges – they have New Orleans, Minnesota and Atlanta left – but clearly not as many.  With Dallas needing to make up a game and a half on the Panthers, facing a tougher schedule, and now without their best linebacker (Sean Lee) for a while, Dallas’ playoff hopes are suddenly looking pretty bleak.

And the Panthers (who looked ripe for the plucking last week) have seen their playoff conditions notably improved with the Dallas loss.  A Week 14 win against the Vikings (and that game is at home) could easily propel Carolina into the fifth seed, leaving Minnesota as the sixth.