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.
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.
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.