Tag Archives: Kansas City Chiefs

How the Cowboys Can Win Without Zeke

Last Sunday’s marquee matchup brought the Kansas City Chiefs into Dallas to play the Cowboys in what will probably be star running back Ezekiel Elliott’s last football game for a while.

With two prolific offenses going against two spotty defenses, this was expected to be something of a shootout – and, for an 11 minute 44 second window that bridged the second and third quarters – it was.  Beginning with 13 seconds left in the first half, the two teams scored touchdowns on four consecutive possessions.  The most dramatic of these coming on the very last play of the first half.

With two seconds left and Kansas City on their own 44-yard line, Dallas dropped almost its entire defense into the end zone – expecting the Hail Mary.  What they got instead was a short toss over the middle to Tyreek Hill.  Tight ends Travis Kelce and Demetrius Harris had already released into the pattern and were there to provide a convoy as Hill zig-zagged the final few yards for the touchdown.

But, beyond this localized offensive explosion, the rest of the game belonged to the defenses – especially the Dallas defense – as they controlled the Chiefs throughout their 28-17 victory (gamebook).

The Big D is for Defense

Kansas City entered the game ranked sixth in the NFL in passing yards.  They went home with a modest 255.  They entered the game ranked third in total offense, but gained just 323 yards.  Through eight games, the Chiefs had averaged 4.9 yards per rushing play – the third best average in the league.  Against Dallas, they averaged just 3.6.  With 236 points scored already, KC was the league’s third-highest scoring team.  The Cowboys held them to 17 points.

Kansas City’s only two touchdowns came on the last play of the first half and the first drive of the second half.  Of their 323 yards, 125 came on the 11 plays of those two possessions (just a tick under 40%).  Their other 44 offensive plays contributed just 198 total yards (only 4.5 per play).

With Elliott’s suspension about to kick in, there is concern about whether Dallas will be able to hold on to that last playoff spot.  Clearly, no team can lose a player like Zeke and not sag at least a little bit.  But there are a lot of other pieces on this Cowboy team.  They still have one of the best offensive lines in the game, and they have talented running backs to run behind that line.  In 24 carries so far this season, Alfred Morris and Rod Smith have combined for 185 rushing yards.  They still have Dak Prescott.  And they have a defense that is turning the corner.

Dallas entered the bye week having allowed 30 or more points in 3 of their last 4 games.  Through the season’s first five games, they were allowing 26.4 points and 339.8 yards per game – 118 of them rushing yards.  In the three games since their bye, the Cowboys are surrendering just 15.3 points on 299.3 total yards per game – 73.3 of them rushing yards.

It’s not at all inconceivable that the other pieces of the Cowboy’s operation will keep the team in contention until Elliott makes his way back – which would be for the final two games of the regular season against Seattle and Philadelphia.

Things Not Too OK in KC

It is, in fact, possible that Kansas City – though not threatened with the loss of their star running back – should be more concerned than Dallas.  With a 6-3 record, a two-game lead in the division, and a softening schedule ahead, the Chiefs will have only themselves to blame if they don’t make the playoffs.  But the recent trend is concerning. Their 5-0 start did include victories over New England and Philadelphia in the season’s first two weeks, before the Patriots and Eagles started figuring things out.  Their recent steak of three losses in four games includes losses to contending teams in Pittsburgh and now Dallas.  After rushing for at least 112 yards in each of their first five games, KC has managed no more than 94 in any of the last four.  Running back Kareem Hunt still leads the NFL with 800 rushing yards, but most of that yardage was amassed during the 5-0 start.  He gained just 37 yards against Dallas, and over the last four games has totaled 191 yards on 58 carries (3.3 per).

As the season churns through its middle weeks, it’s becoming increasingly clear that what made Kansas City special early in the year was the dynamic running game.  Their defense never has been elite, and while the passing game has still been effective it hasn’t been able to atone for the missing running game.

If the Chiefs want to entertain thoughts of playing deep into January, they will need to re-discover that running attack.

Jacksonville Provides the Model

Some 994 miles to the east of Dallas, the rising Jacksonville Jaguars provided something of a model for how the Cowboys might go about things for the next few weeks.

Faced with playing without their dynamic running back Leonard Fournette (also suspended), the Jags got 110 rushing yards from Leonard’s two backups Chris Ivory and T.J. Yeldon on their way to 148 rushing yards on the day.  They also notably expanded the role of quarterback Blake Bortles.

Blake, who had never thrown more than 31 passes this season in a Jacksonville win, threw 27 times in the first half alone – on his way to a season-high 38 pass attempts.  It was still a very safe passing attack.  Blake made very sure the throw was there before delivering the ball.  He wasn’t dazzling by any means.  But with 24 completions for 259 yards and a touchdown, he was effective as he commanded an offense that converted on 12 of 18 third downs, and ran the clock for 40:14.

And then there was the defense.

Moving up to number 3 overall and staying the league’s top rated defense against the run, the Jaguar defense dominated in a 23-7 victory (gamebook).  Having allowed, now, just 117 points, they also remain the league’s toughest team to score against.

They were especially dominant in the second half.

During the Bengals first series of the third quarter, running back Joe Mixon squeezed through the middle for a six-yard gain.  On the last play of that quarter, Mixon would gain six more yards up the middle.  Cincinnati’s other 5 running plays in the half lost a total of 7 yards.

The Bengals finished the last 30 minutes with 31 yards and just 3 first downs.  They averaged 1.6 yards per offensive play.

The more they do this, the more this Jacksonville team begins to believe in itself.  They remain one of the more compelling teams at the mid-way point of the season.

Incidentally, the last time that Jacksonville and Cincinnati played was Week Nine of the 2014 season.  The Jags were beaten that day 33-23 as Jeremy Hill ran for 154 yards and 2 touchdowns.  Jacksonville was on its way to a 3-13 season, while the Bengals (who have fallen to 3-5 this season) were then on their way to a 10-5-1 record and a playoff berth.  Life in the NFL can certainly change quickly.

Here’s to the Defense

On the Monday night before (October 23) The Eagles and the Redskins combined to put up 58 points in a sort of coming-of-age party for Philadelphia’s rising star, Carson Wentz.  Last Monday (October 30) was a day for the defense.

With their backs against the wall, and in desperate need of a victory, the Denver Broncos (then 3-3) took the field at Arrowhead to face the 5-2 Kansas City Chiefs.  Kansas City boasted the second-highest scoring offense in the league (having scored 207 points through their first 7 games), the third-ranked offense in the league based on yards, and ranked fifth-ranked in both rushing (129 yards per game) and passing (behind quarterback Alex Smith’s impressive 120.5 passer rating).

Denver opposed them with the number one overall defense in football.  They also ranked second against the run (allowing just 71.8 rushing yards per game), sixth against the pass (although with a higher than expected 91.7 rating), and ninth in keeping opponents off the scoreboard (they had allowed just 118 points through their first 6 games).

When the dust had settled, the Chiefs walked off the field with a 29-19 victory (gamebook) that would seem to indicate that the #3 offense had taken care of business against the #1 defense.  In actuality, the story was much different.  The victorious Chiefs finished the night with just 276 yards, going 2-for-12 on third down, 0-for-3 scoring touchdowns in the red zone, and 0-for-2 in goal-to-go situations.  Of their 29 points, 13 were scored off of Denver turnovers and 3 others resulted after the Broncos failed on a fourth-down play at mid-field.  Of Kansas City’s 14 offensive drives, only one gained more than 50 yards.

The second half domination was even more complete.  After halftime, the Chiefs managed just 77 yards and 3 first downs.  Superstar rookie running back Kareem Hunt carried the ball 12 times in the second half for just 8 yards.

None Shall Run

Stopping the run was the first plank of Denver’s defensive game plan.  Hunt regained his league leadership in rushing yards, in spite of the fact that he was held to just 46 yards.  The team that allowed less than 72 rushing yards a game and had not allowed a rushing touchdown all season, left the field having given up just 79 rushing yards – and still no rushing touchdowns.

With the running game stuck in neutral, the KC offense would rest on the arm and head of Alex Smith.

The Game Plan

The discussion about Smith continues.  Is he a franchise quarterback?  Is he a game managing, system quarterback?  Can he put a team on his back (like Russell Wilson did on Sunday) and win a game when his running game was struggling to produce?  For the first seven games, the 2017 season had been Smith’s breakout season.  In 6 of the first 7 games, he produced a passer rating of at least 104.9 – on his way to the best rating in the league at the start of the night.

But as with Pittsburgh a couple of weeks ago, the Denver defense proved too tough a nut to crack.  The Bronco game plan relied on its five principle secondary players – cornerbacks Aqib Talib, Chris Harris, Bradley Roby and Will Parks; along with safety Darian Stewart – to stick tightly in man coverage to the KC receiving corps.  They would challenge Smith all night to make precision throws into tight windows – a challenge he was mostly not up to.

As the evening wore on, and Alex’ frustration mounted, he began to play fast.  Even though the actual heat in his kitchen was only moderate (right tackle Mitchell Schwartz was extremely effective keeping Von Miller at bay), Smith began rushing his decisions and giving up on plays early.  The play-action and misdirection plays that had provided some offensive spark in the first quarter were mostly abandoned by the third.  And once Denver could get Alex on the run he was 0-for-4 throwing the ball.

Alex finished the night just 14 of 31 for 202 yards, on his way to a season-worst 77.6 rating.  He was just 5 of 14 for 55 yards in the second half.  Yes, the coverage was tight, but not at all perfect.  There were plays there to be made.  Alex just didn’t make them.

On the Other Hand

Luckily for Smith and KC, they didn’t have to be miracle workers that night.  If they had their hands full with the Denver defense, the Broncos’ offense was having an even worse time.  Already an area of concern, Trevor Siemian and his unit turned the ball over four times on the evening (with the special teams contributing a fifth turnover).  And, again, it was the same concern.  Once Denver falls behind, they knew they were in trouble.  They are an offense built to play from ahead.  Or, at least, they were.  In the aftermath of his disappointing afternoon (Trevor scored a 43.5 passer rating on 19 of 36 throwing for 198 yards and three interceptions) coach Vance Joseph has given Denver’s next start (in Philadelphia this week) to backup Brock Osweiler.

It’s an unfair thing to blame Denver’s 3-4 start on one player.  It is, nonetheless, true that most of the other aspects of this football team do seem to be functioning at a fairly high level.  Their defense has been among the best in football, while the running game ranks tenth in the league, averaging 123.4 yards per game.  The receiving corps that includes Demaryius Thomas, Emmanuel Sanders (when healthy) and Virgil Green is sufficiently talented.  The perception all along has been that Denver has been held back by the limitations of its quarterback.

Despite flashes of excellence, Osweiler has mostly disappointed in his opportunities to prove himself as a starting quarterback in the NFL.  There is no way – at this point – of telling how short his leash will be.  But this Sunday will begin his next opportunity.

The Protest – Again

As I noted in Wednesday’s post, since the National Anthem protests are still in the news, for the next little while I will be including a link back to my position on all of this.  It is here, and, if I do say so myself, worth a read.

Raiders Save Season with Wild Finish

Week Seven began with one of the season’s wildest and most enjoyable games as the Raiders – trailing by 10 in the fourth quarter – salvaged their season (for the moment, anyway) by rallying for a 31-30 victory over Kansas City (gamebook).  The win improves them to 3-4 and keeps them two games behind the Chiefs in the division (a loss would have spilled them four game behind).

As the score suggests, this was an offensive fireworks display.  The two quarterbacks (Alex Smith and Derek Carr) combined for 422 passing yards.  And that was just the first half.  By game’s end, the two teams had combined for 930 total yards (748 of them passing yards) and 7 touchdowns.  They also combined to go 14 for 28 on third down, and 1-for-1 on fourth down.

The teams combined for 8 plays over 30 yards, including a 38-yard touchdown pass to from Carr to Amari Cooper (Cooper finished with 11 catches for 210 yards and 2 touchdowns) off a “flea-flicker,” and a deflected almost-interception that landed right in the arms of the Chiefs’ Albert Wilson for a 63-yard touchdown.  It also featured one of the wildest finishes that I’ve seen lately – so the enjoyment factor of this game was pretty substantial.

Derek Carr has now started 53 NFL games, and led his team to fourth-quarter, come-from-behind victories in 13 of them.  Slightly more than half of his 25 career wins have been in this kind of game.

Kudos for the Raiders’ Defense?

By game’s end, Kansas City had put up 30 points, scored 3 touchdowns, racked up 425 yards, and averaged 7.1 yards per play.  Not necessarily a defensive performance that you would be inclined to celebrate.  Yet the Raider defense did prevent the Chiefs offense from controlling the game on the ground.

Boasting the fourth ranked running offense in the NFL (at 134.8 yards per game), and facing a Raider defense that was struggling to stop the run (they entered ranked twenty-first allowing 117.2 yards per game), the Chiefs wanted very much to run some clock and keep Carr’s explosive offense on the sidelines.

They opened the game with four straight running plays (gaining only 10 yards) and ran five times (for 12 yards in their opening drive), but never were able to establish their ground game. Rookie running back Kareem Hunt broke off one run of 34 yards, but managed just 54 yards on his other 17 carries.  The talented running back – who has already picked up more than 100 yards in the second half alone of a couple games this season – carried 11 times in the second half of this game for just 39 yards (3.5 per carry).  KC finished the game with just 94 rushing yards, and only controlled the clock for 30:36.  They scored points, but kept leaving Oakland time to answer.

The Longest Eight Seconds

But all of that was just prologue.

The game had 23 seconds left, and Oakland was still down 30-24.  They faced a third-and-10 on the Kansas City 29.  Carr slid slightly to his left in the pocket and launched a pass toward the pylon at the left corner of the end zone.  For the second straight play, the Raiders had two receivers in the area of the pass.  But his time the deeper receiver (Jared Cook) was far enough behind the other receiver (Seth Roberts) that the two didn’t collide.  Cook elevated, made the catch, and tumbled into the end zone.  Touchdown.  The game – for the moment – was tied, and there was much rejoicing in the stadium as everyone awaited the extra-point.

As it turned out, the celebrating was a might premature.  There was actually a lot of football left on this night.

As they kept watching the replay, it became apparent that Cook’s rear end had plopped to the turf while the football was still on the half-yard line.  There were eight seconds left, and Oakland had first-and-goal.

Michael Crabtree would get the first opportunity.  Lined up wide right, Crabtree raced into the end zone where he was met by KC defensive back Marcus Peters.  Carr delivered the ball, and Crabtree gave Peters a gentle push that sent Peters’ legs out from under him.  Crabtree caught the pass, but flags flew immediately.  Offensive pass interference.  Now there were three seconds left, and Oakland had first-and-goal from the 10.

Was it a penalty?  Well, it was a push.  Crabtree did extended his arms to gain separation.  In honesty, you frequently see worse than that get ignored.  But there was a push, so the call was mostly legit.

Before Carr even delivered the next pass (which was high and off the fingertips of Cook in the end zone) there was already a flag in the end zone.  Ron Parker had been called for holding Cook.  There were all zeros on the scoreboard clock, but the Raiders would get one un-timed down (since a game can’t end on a defensive penalty).  First and goal from the five.

Was it a penalty?  Well, Parker didn’t truly impede Cook, but he did latch on and go for a bit of a ride.  Frankly, he was more staggering and holding on for balance than trying to keep Cook out of the end zone.  Not the worst hold I’ve ever seen, but yes.  A penalty.

Now it would be Cordarrelle Patterson – lined up in the slot to the left – working against Eric Murray.  As Patterson streaked past, Murray latched on to him and hung with him to the back of the end zone, where he pushed Patterson over the line as the ball was arriving.  Some of the Chiefs were starting to celebrate, but most saw the flag on the ground.

That holding call brought the ball back to about the two yard line – almost exactly where it was ten minutes ago after Cook’s first catch – where Oakland would have yet another untimed down.

Now they would go back to Crabtree – lined wide left this time.  Derek rolled to his left and delivered a strike to Crabtree just a step beyond the same pylon that Cook had fallen in front of.  He collected the pass, and the game (finally) was over.

The win broke a four-game Raider losing streak, during which they had not scored more than 17 points.  It was the first time since Week Two that the Raiders had looked like the Raiders.  They have put themselves a bit behind in the playoff chase, but there is still a lot of football to be played.

Rematch in the Fog

Last February, the New England Patriots and the Atlanta Falcons got together in Houston for that Super Bowl thing.  In a game for the ages (discussed here), the Patriots trailed 21-3 at the half, and 28-9 through three quarters before rallying to a 34-28 overtime win.

Last Sunday night, they re-convened in Foxborough for a regular season re-match.  The story-lines this time, though, were slightly different.  The defending champion Patriots began the season with their re-built defense not really ready for prime time.  In a 2-2 start, the Patriots allowed 32 points and 456.8 yards per game (132.8 of them rushing yards).  In their previous two previous games, they had held Tampa Bay and the Jets to 14 and 17 points respectively.  Progress, yes, but against two fairly middling offenses.

The Atlanta narrative was more concerning.  After a 3-0 start, the Falcon’s had lost their two previous games at home against Buffalo and Miami, scoring just 17 points in each.  So they hit the turf as a team searching – a little bit, anyway – for answers.  They wouldn’t find any that night.  At least not early.

Fixing the Falcons

Thirty minutes into the game, the teams headed for the locker rooms with the Patriots holding a 17-0 lead.  The once dominant Falcon offense had managed just 130 yards and 7 first downs.  Quarterback Matt Ryan had completed just 9 of his first 16 passes – only 2 of them to All-World receiver Julio Jones for 30 yards.

This offensive brown out had many people scratching their heads.  The answer proved to be fairly fundamental.  The Falcons’ difficulties traced to a struggling running game.

People may not remember that during the Super Bowl, the Falcon’s set the tone with their running game.  Five of their first nine offensive plays were runs – gaining 56 yards.  They hit the halfway mark of that game with 86 rushing yards.  They were especially effective getting around the corner.  Nine times they tested the edge of New England’s run defense in Super Bowl LI, averaging 7.6 yards per.

Anyone who remembers the Falcon offense from the end of last season, will remember the great energy that surrounded it.  That energy came from the very aggressive, explosive running game.  As good as Ryan and Jones are – and they are both plenty good – the key to the Atlanta offense is their running game.  When it misfires, the whole Falcon offense looks out of sync.  That was the story of the first half.

Even though Atlanta finished the game scoring just 7 points in a 23-7 loss (gamebook), the second half proved much, much better – and it began with the running game.

After their initial first down of the third quarter, the Falcons ran on four consecutive plays for 34 yards.  Atlanta pushed on for 90 rushing yards in the second half – 56 by Devonta Freeman – and the passing game responded with Ryan hitting 14 of his last 17 passes.  Even though only 7 points came from them, all three of Atlanta’s second half drives lasted at least 10 plays, all gained at least 55 yards, and all ended in the red zone.  They missed a 36-yard field goal when Matt Bryant hit the left upright.  Another drive fizzled when the Falcons failed on fourth-and-goal from the one – so things could have been much better.  Now 3-3, the Falcons trail 4-2 New Orleans by one game in their division. They are still very much in the discussion.

Coming Together in New England

As for the Patriots, they are now suddenly 5-2 and a half-game ahead of Buffalo in their division.  Their victory depended on two significant achievements.

First, the new-look defense was surprisingly successful in eliminating the big play from the Atlanta offense.  Even in the second half the Falcons managed only two plays of more than 20 yards – and they were just barely over 20 yards.  One of Freeman’s runs gained 21 yards in the third, and one of Ryan’s fourth-quarter completions went for 22 yards to Justin Hardy.  Ryan’s 14 second half completions totaled just 123 yards.  Jones finished the game with 9 catches, but none of them for more than 16 yards.

The other important thing they did was run the ball.  Thirty six times they probed the Falcon run defense, racking up 162 rushing yards.  This is becoming a growing concern for the Falcons.  After holding the Packers to just 59 rushing yards in Week Two, their rushing yards allowed has risen every game since.

New England finished with 34 minutes and 5 seconds of ball control.  For all of their early season vulnerability, the Patriots seem to have figured some things out.

And the Fog

What ended up being a very well-played, informative game was played against the strange backdrop of an intense fog that rolled in from the bay.  It was thick enough to make punts and arching passes something of an adventure.  The players were mostly unaffected, but the fog took its toll on the spectators.  TV audiences – thanks to the crawling spidercams – were treated to what was undoubtedly the first broadcast in NFL history that showed almost the entire game from the quarterback’s perspective.

An interesting view for anyone who ever wanted to read coverage.

Quarterbacks with Question Marks

On the previous Sunday evening, the Kansas City Chiefs had roughed up the Houston Texan’s defense for 450 yards.  They pushed them around on the ground to the tune of 127 yards (107 by super rookie Kareem Hunt) and another 323 through the air as oft-maligned quarterback Alex Smith completed 29 of 37 passes for 3 touchdowns and a passer rating of 130.2.  The 42-34 victory left them at 5-0 with a seemingly unsolvable offense.

As they took the field last Sunday afternoon, they were bludgeoning opponents on the ground, racking up 156.2 yards per game and an unheard of 5.7 yards per carry.  When they wanted to throw, Smith was producing a 125.8 passing rating (for the season) – a performance that included completing 76.6% of his passes with no interceptions.  For five games, the Kansas City offense had its way with the rest of the NFL, scoring 32.8 points per game.

And then they ran into a buzz saw.  For the first 30 minutes, the Pittsburgh Steelers dominated Kansas City the way that top 25 NCAA teams dominate Division II teams in their home-coming games.  As they walked into the locker room at halftime, the Steelers had controlled the ball for 21 minutes and 41 seconds, outgained KC 232 yards to 6 (no that is not a misprint) that included a 116 to minus-2 differential in rushing yards (that is not a misprint either).  They held a 16-1 edge in first downs.

While the Chiefs would play better in the second half, they ended the game with just 251 total yards and a 19-13 loss (gamebook).  The heretofore unstoppable Alex Smith finished with an 88.6 passer rating.

What happened?  The short answer is Le’Veon Bell, but the full answer is more complex than that.

After losing commitment to the run in their previous week’s loss, the Steelers wielded Bell and their offensive line like a cudgel.  Bell finished with 179 yards on 32 carries, and the Steelers team finished with 194 yards on 37 carries.  Although they didn’t score on all of them, Pittsburgh had three different first-half drives that all lasted at least 6:19 – two of them lasting 12 plays.  To their credit, the Kansas City defense never did completely implode.  But neither could they get themselves off the field.

Here is what always happens when one team’s offense pushes the other team’s defense around in the first half – and I’ve seen this hundreds of times.  This is, in fact, what had happened to Pittsburgh the previous week.

The only chance the pushed around team has is to have early success running the ball.  After the Steelers chewed up the first 6:19 of the game, Kansas City gained 4 yards on its first two runs.  Then, after the Steelers ran off another 6:25 of the clock, the Chiefs came out throwing and never got back to the running game.

I point out that there was no need to abandon the running game.  At the point that they gave up on the run, they were only trailing by six with three full quarters to go.  But NFL teams don’t seem to have the will to counter-punch with the running game unless they see early returns.  Even though the quarterback has been sitting cold on the sidelines for 12:44 of the first 15:05 of the game, all NFL coaches seem to feel the irresistible urge to get back into the game by throwing the football.

Kareem Hunt entered the game with 609 rushing yards on 97 carries through his first 5 NFL games.  He finished Sunday carrying the ball only 9 times the whole game, even though KC never trailed by more than 9 points.

How did the Steelers – who came into the game allowing 136.6 rushing yards a game and 5.1 yards a carry – muffle the powerful Kansas City running game?  They stopped the first three runs and let Kansas City turn off their own running game.

Alex Smith

With the decision made to go to the air, the fate of the Chiefs rested on the arm and head of Alex Smith.  In a game eerily similar to the playoff game they lost to Pittsburgh last year, Alex threw the ball pretty well.  Last January he was 20 of 34.  Last Sunday he was 19 of 34.  He lost 18-16 last January.  He lost 19-13 on Sunday.

Let me be clear about this.  It is unfair to pin this loss on Alex Smith.  Pittsburgh dominated this game on both sides of the line of scrimmage.  But, because the KC defense managed to hold the team in the game, Alex – as he did in the playoff game – had late chances to win the game.  In particular, there were two throws – two plays that were there to be made – that Smith just didn’t make.

There was 2:31 left on the game clock.  The Chiefs had second-and-10 on the Steeler 15.  Alex did get pressure.  Mike Hilton came free on a blitz.  But standing all alone in the left corner of the end zone was Demarcus Robinson.  Smith overthrew him.  That drive ended in the field goal that made it a 19-13 game.

Then, with 1:11 left, Smith and the Chiefs had the ball again, second-and-10 from the Steeler 40.  Again, it was Robinson breaking clean over the middle.  And, again, Smith’s throw was too high.

As Kansas City has surrounded Alex with more and more offensive playmakers, we are finally beginning to see the quarterback that Smith can be.  More than just a game-manger, Alex Smith is a craftsman with plus mobility.  He makes excellent decisions, he makes them quickly, and he delivers the ball with great accuracy.  Most of the time, anyway.  There is no mental or physical reason why Alex couldn’t lead his team to a championship.

Except that he hasn’t.

With Smith, it’s all about the playoffs now.  However great his regular season is, everyone will be waiting for him to play in January the way he plays in September and October.

(Footnote: Kansas City played last night and suffered a stunning 31-30 loss to Oakland.  Even so, Alex was back to the Alex Smith of the first five games.  He finished his evening 25 of 36 for 342 yards and 3 touchdowns.  His passer rating for the evening was a stellar 127.3 and he still hasn’t thrown an interception this season.  We’ll have more to say about this game later, I suspect.)

Cam Newton

Last Thursday, Cam Newton’s Carolina Panthers fell to Philadelphia, 28-23 (gamebook).  Again, pinning the loss on Newton would be unfair.  Like Kansas City, Carolina’s running game was also inhaled by Philadelphia’s dominating defensive front.  For the game, every Carolina ball-carrier not named Cam Newton was held to 9 yards on 14 carries – an almost mind-numbing stat.

Still, Newton’s final line was disappointing.  Throwing 52 times, Cam completed 28 for just 239 yards (Carolina had only one play of twenty yards in the game).  Newton offset his one touchdown pass with three interceptions – a 48.5 passer rating.  More than just the numbers, though, this game brought to the surface all the questions that I (and others) have about Newton.

Mechanics

Always a point of discussion with Newton is his inconsistent mechanics.  More than any quarterback I watch, Cam is content to throw flat footed.  There were probably ten Newton throws last Thursday thrown without Cam planting his feet and getting his body behind the throw.  When you see his tosses sail high or fall well short, usually you will see Cam throwing flat footed.

Superman in the Backfield?

Everyone knows that Cam has a thing for Superman.  Many of his self-congratulatory antics connect him with his boyhood idol.  But sometimes in the back field he acts like he thinks he really is Superman.  None of the other mobile quarterbacks will stay rooted in the pocket as it begins to close in on him.  They will spin out and move the pocket away from the pressure.  Even the less mobile quarterbacks will at lease retreat a few steps from the chaos directly in front of them.  Failing all else, they will cover up the ball and take the sack.

One of Newton’s curious quirks is that he will stand planted on his spot and try to throw the ball over the top of linemen that are almost standing on his toes.  There were at least a half-dozen throws that Newton made in that game where he tried to throw over a lineman that was standing in his kitchen.

His first interception came on such a throw.  About half-way through the second period, Eagle defensive lineman Fletcher Cox got under Panther guard Trai Turner and pushed him right back into Newton’s face.  Watching the replay, I actually think that Turner was stepping on Newton’s foot when Cam threw the ball.  Certainly, he was close enough that Cox could reach over Turner and still hit Newton’s arm as Cam made the pass – which fluttered duck-like until Eagle cornerback Rasul Douglas gathered it in.

It is almost as though Newton expects all those linemen to bounce off his chest like so many bullets.  But even that won’t put a crease in the brow of Cam’s offensive coordinator as deep as his other recurring quirk.

Not Going Through His Progressions

Much was made of the Panthers losing star middle linebacker Luke Kuechly to a possible concussion – and understandably so.  Kuechly is a force.

Less was made of the fact that Philadelphia also lost their starting middle linebacker.  Jordan Hicks had hurt his ankle at some point of the first half and didn’t play in the second half – and with his exit came a complete change in the Eagle defensive scheme.

Throughout the first half, the Eagles rushed with four, played tight man coverage and left Hicks to spy Newton.  With Hicks out of the mix, the Eagles became almost a 100% zone team in the second half – a defense they don’t run nearly as well.  Combined with the tiring of the pass rushers, Cam Newton had myriad opportunities to exploit holes in the Eagle zone.

Except that he never looked for those opportunities.  Perhaps rattled by the early game pressure, Newton spent most of the second half deciding – I think off his pre-snap read – where he was going to go with the ball.  One of the strangest habits he fell into was never looking to his right.  Of his 32 second half passes, 21 were thrown to the left – and on most of those he never even looked at what was going on to his right.  I will give you my two favorite examples:

There was 13:51 left in the third quarter.  The Panthers trailed 18-10, and had the ball first-and-10 at their own 35.  Newton executed a play-fake to Jonathan Stewart that completely fooled the entire left side of the Eagle defense.  Everyone over there came crashing into the Panther backfield, including safety Malcolm Jenkins (who would have made the tackle in the backfield) and cornerback Jalen Mills.

Lined up in the slot, Devin Funchess made a slight fake like he was going to block, and then popped clear in behind the Eagle defenders that raced heedlessly past him.  But Newton never looked.  He was already throwing the ball to Kelvin Benjamin on a short curl into a soft spot of the zone – a perfect throw, by the way, that Benjamin dropped.

But my favorite play occurred during Carolina’s first drive of the fourth quarter.

There is 13:30 left on the game clock, and the Eagles hold a 28-16 lead.  The Panthers are first-and-10 on their own 42.  After Benjamin and Russell Shepard switched sides, Cam had Shepard wide to his left, with tight-end Ed Dickson in the slot to that side.  His two most explosive receivers – Funchess and Benjamin – were now to his right.  Newton, of course, never looked to his right, as he dropped a nicely thrown 3-yard pass to Shepard who found a soft-spot underneath the zone coverage.

Even more compelling than the routes Benjamin and Funchess were running, was the defensive reaction to the play.  On the offensive left side, the Eagles were playing an “active” zone.  As Dickson ran his deep bow-out, the secondary closed on him.  As Shepard curled under the zone, it flowed to meet him.

On the offensive right side, the defense was, technically, playing zone.  But mostly they just stood and watched.  Cornerback Patrick Robinson, who had the short zone, jogged back about three steps and watched.  Mills had the deep zone, so he dutifully dropped to his required depth – but did little else.

Benjamin raced all alone to the right flat.  Robinson was – technically – within 15 yards of him, but didn’t even look at him, much less follow him.  A quick toss to the right flat would probably have been good for 12-15 yards.  Meanwhile, Funchess ran untouched and un-regarded right up the seam.  Mills watched him streak by without even a wave.  But Newton had already made up his mind, and settled for the 3-yard pass to Shepard.

For quite a while I puzzled over Cam’s compulsion for the left side, until it occurred to me that looking and throwing to the left is the easiest play for a right-handed quarterback to make.

Analyzing Newton

Here’s my take on Cam:

Newton is an enormously gifted football player.  Arguably he is the most gifted quarterback anywhere in football.  That can be a double-edged sword.  I don’t believe that Newton has ever struggled at any level of football – including the NFL where he was setting records in his very first game; and where two seasons ago he almost led this Carolina team to an undefeated season.  Since anything athletic has always come easily to Cam, it’s only natural that he wants football to keep coming easily.

Being a starting quarterback in the NFL is a great ride, and nobody enjoys the ride any more than Newton.  Whether he’s preening for the cameras after a first-down, or organizing team photos on the sideline while the game is still going on, or whether he’s directing teammates’ touchdown celebrations, the fun part of the NFL means an awful lot to Newton.  And – since his talents are such that he usually completes his passes even if he is standing flatfooted, or throwing with a lineman in his face, or even if he hasn’t scanned the field – it can be a little hard to impress upon him the importance of these techniques.  They become skills that less gifted quarterbacks have to develop to compete.

Newton will continue to enjoy significant success in the NFL, just on his athleticism alone.  But Cam won’t be a great quarterback until he embraces the discipline that greatness requires.

Introducing the New Jacksonville Jaguars

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Meanwhile, in Houston . . .

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

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

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

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

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

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

Speaking of Pain

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

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

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

And Then There is Kansas City

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

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

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

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

Could the Pittsburgh Running Game Send Them to the Super Bowl?

I’m sure it has happened, but off the top of my head I don’t ever remember seeing it.  In the Bill Belichick era, I don’t remember a team that has consistently run the ball at the New England defense all the way through the game.

This thought ran through my mind yesterday as I was re-watching the Pittsburgh Steelers relentless pounding of the Kansas City Chiefs.  By game’s end, the Steelers had called 34 running plays against 32 passing plays.  Although they never led the game by more than 8 points, 15 of their 24 second half plays were runs – 12 handoffs to Le’Veon Bell and 3 kneel-downs by Ben Roethlisberger.  Bell finished the evening with 170 rushing yards on 30 carries (a 5.7 yard average).

During the regular season, the Steelers featured the fifth-most prolific passing game in the NFL.  Their running game finished in the middle of the pack with a slightly above average 110 rushing yards per game (the league average was 108.9).  There is – as they demonstrated last Sunday night – nothing average about their running game.  While they mostly choose to attack through the air, they effortlessly switched to a ground-oriented game plan to take advantage of Kansas City’s pronounced weakness against the run – the Chiefs finished twenty-sixth out of thirty-two team in stopping the run as they allowed 121.1 rushing yards a game.

In fact, one of the characteristics of the Steelers’ current winning streak – which has now reached nine games – is an increased reliance on the running attack.  In their 4-5 start, Pittsburgh averaged 90.7 rushing yards per game.  During the winning streak, that number had improved to 143.8 yards-per-game.  Over these nine games alone, Bell has amassed 1,172 rushing yards (146.5 per game as Le’Veon has only played in 8 of the 9 games) averaging 5.3 per carry and scoring 8 rushing touchdowns.  Clearly, this is a team that has re-discovered its mojo.

As they prepare to focus that running prowess on the challenge that is the New England Patriots (and I believe that Pittsburgh is the last, best remaining chance to deny the Pats another ring) let’s take a few moments to recognize the interior of that stellar offensive line.

Drafted in the first round (the eighteenth player selected) of the 2010 draft, center Maurkice Pouncey is now the unquestioned leader of the offensive line.  He will be going to his fifth Pro Bowl in seven seasons (missing the 2013 and 2015 seasons when injuries kept him off the field for 31 of the 32 games).  He has twice been named First Team All-Pro.  Savvy, gritty and relentless, his toughness rubs off on the rest of the line.  Pouncey played very well last Sunday, but was overshadowed by the dominant play of the two guards.

Left guard Ramon Foster has never been named to the Pro Bowl and has been mostly unrecognized since Pittsburgh signed him as an undrafted free agent out of Tennessee before the 2009 season.  He spent most of Sunday evening looking across the line of scrimmage at Kansas City’s much-decorated defensive tackle Dontari Poe, who has already gone to two Pro Bowls since his first-round selection in 2012.  These matchups were won decisively by the undrafted Foster who enabled Le’Veon Bell’s night by repeatedly pushing Poe off the line of scrimmage.

And then, there is right guard David DeCastro.  Picked in the first round two years after Pouncey, DeCastro was the engine behind the Steeler running attack.  Le’Veon’s 30 rushes included 16 that went for four yards or more.  In 13 of those 16, Bell scooted through a whole personally cleared by DeCastro.  Whoever lined up against DeCastro or Foster that night spent the evening going backwards.  It was as impressive a performance as you are likely to see.

Of course, in New England they will face much greater opposition.  In fact, looking again at the KC defense, I see that it was handicapped from the beginning.

Many of Bell’s explosive runs came with Kansas City having only two defensive linemen on the field.  The Chiefs actually spent considerable time in a 2-3-6 alignment.  For about 90% of the game, Pittsburgh’s offensive tackles didn’t have a defensive lineman to oppose them.

Some of the rationale for these alignments – of course – was to inhibit the Pittsburgh passing game (which it sort of did as Roethlisberger finished with 224 yards passing).  They may have been equally motivated by roster necessity as a rash of injuries forced the Chiefs into a lot of patchwork among the front seven.  In fact, while the 2-3-6 alignment frequently included safety Daniel Sorensen, he played his 30 snaps as an inside linebacker.  Seeing Daniel weighs in at 6-2, 208 pounds he was little match for the talented Steeler offensive line.

So New England will be tougher.  How the Patriots will line up is one of the anticipated mysteries, but you can expect Belichick and his crew to come up will a compelling plan to slow down this passing game.  But could they withstand the Steeler running game for the whole sixty minutes?  It would take an uncommon commitment to the run, since it likely won’t meet with a whole lot of early success.  But if Coach Mike Tomlin did decide to turn this into a line-of-scrimmage game, how would the Patriots hold up?

I don’t know.  As I said, I don’t think I’ve ever seen it tried.