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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.

Rams Dismiss Cowboys

Playoff emotion is a strange phenomenon.  Frequently, it makes it impossible to predict with any certainty how a playoff game will proceed.

Coming off compelling Wildcard victories, the Indianapolis Colts, Dallas Cowboys and Los Angeles Chargers all seemed to have plausible chances of beating their Divisional round opponents. 

After all, the Colts had now won 10 of 11, winning their last game by rushing for 200 yards against a tough Houston defense.  Now they would face a Kansas City team, that, although they were 12-4 on the season and held the top seed in the playoffs, had also lost three of five games shortly before the playoffs began. Furthermore, their weakness was defense – especially run defense. On their way to finishing twenty-seventh in run defense, allowing 5.0 yards per rushing attempt, the Chiefs had allowed at least 119 rushing yards in four straight games.

Dallas went in to Los Angeles with wins in eight of their last nine games.  They sported one of football’s elite defenses.  They were number seven overall, number six in allowing points, and number five against the run.  Along the way, they had humbled two of football’s top offenses, New Orleans and Seattle.  They were facing a Ram team that had also lost a little steam down the stretch.  Their regular season ended in victories over two struggling units (Arizona and San Francisco). Their two games before that were losses in Chicago (15-6) and at home against Philadelphia (30-23).  They had also been a shaky defensive unit – especially against the run, where they ranked twenty-third.

The Chargers, of course, were coming off one of their best seasons in recent memory – in fact, they had fashioned a better record this season than the Patriots, who seemed to be more vulnerable this year than at any time in their recent past.  From Week 10 through Week 15, the Patriots had lost three of five games – with none of the losses coming against playoff teams (Tennessee, Miami and Pittsburgh).

As Divisional Weekend dawned, all three of these home teams looked ripe for the plucking.  By halftime in each of these games, the home team had accumulated comfortable leads after dominating first halves, and were well on their way to stamping their tickets to the Championship Round.

Certainly all three profited from the week off.  Getting that week off is always a big deal this time of year. But the dominations of these first halves was about more than rest.  Under the unique influence of playoff energy, these teams were able to perform at levels unknown to them during the regular season.

This was especially true of the defenses in Kansas City and Los Angeles.  Maligned all season – and, in fact, regarded as outright weaknesses of their respective teams – the defensive units of the Chiefs and Rams responded with their best games of the season.

Kansas City ate the Colts alive – running game and all.  But what happened in Los Angeles could not have been predicted by the most expert analyst anywhere.

Where Did This Defense Come From?

I have written a few times about the Ram defense – especially their weakness in stopping opposing running games.  A sampling of their ranking in a few important categories would show them twentieth in points allowed (384 – 24 per game), twentieth in completion percentage allowed (65.1%), twenty-third in rushing yards allowed per game (122.3), twenty-fifth in average yards allowed per completed pass (11.80), twenty-sixth in average yards allowed per attempted pass (7.70), twenty-seventh in percentage of passes going for touchdowns against them (5.8%), and thirty-second – dead last in the NFL – in average yards allowed per rush attempt at 5.1.

It wasn’t any kind of foregone conclusion that Dallas would win this game. But I think everyone expected them to score against the Rams – and especially (with Ezekiel Elliott and the league’s tenth most productive running attack) it was expected that Dallas would be able to run the ball.

To everyone’s amazement – except perhaps the players and coaches in the Ram locker room – the Cowboy running game never got off the launching pad. Allowing just 40 yards in the first half, Los Angeles’ run defense put up what I think is the most surprising statistical line of the week.  Over the last 30 minutes of this particular contest, 13 Dallas rushing attempts produced just 10 yards – a 0.8 average – with no single run managing more than 5 yards.  The Cowboys were 0-5 on third down in the second half, and just 1-10 on the game.

But the suddenly impenetrable run defense was only part of the story – and if Dallas’ second half rushing production was the weekend’s most surprising result, it was only slightly so.  Just behind it was this rushing line: 24 rushes, 170 yards, 7.1 yard average, and 2 rushing touchdowns.

That line belonged to the Ram offense.  For the first half.

The Running Rams?

As though they were running through defenders made of tissue paper, the LA running attack poured through the Cowboys and their fifth-ranked rushing defense.  The vaunted defense that had allowed just 14 first downs and 176 yards the entire game against New Orleans, watched the Rams roll up 291 yards of total offense – including 20 first downs – in the first half alone.  They never forced a Ram punt through those first 30 minutes.

By game’s end, LA had zipped through Dallas for 273 rushing yards, controlling the clock for 36:13.

Explanations?

Some of how this happened defies rational explanation.  The Ram offensive line is – of course – one of football’s best. But that night – under the playoff glare and responding to the electricity of the crowd – they may have played – individually and collectively – the best games of their lives.

This must especially be true for center John Sullivan.  I say that because it’s hard to imagine that he could have played any better. A ten-year veteran, Sullivan has never been honored with Pro-Bowl or All-Pro selections.  Last Saturday evening, he was a study in perfect technique.  As the Ram running game predominately probed the middle of the Dallas defense (and 145 of the 273 yards came between the guards) the constant in almost all of the successful Ram running plays was John Sullivan – with his pads under Maliek Collins or Antwaun Woods, and his legs constantly driving – running Dallas’ most accomplished run defenders out of the picture.  This was a day that John will long remember.

Much more recognized (and decorated) is the Rams’ veteran left tackle, Andrew Whitworth.  Whitworth has had many excellent days, but this was probably one of his better ones as well.  Every time I looked up, it seemed like Whitworth was flipping Randy Gregory to the ground.

These two I point out, but the domination was general across the line.

So, yes, all these guys played one of their best games.  But there were other factors at play here that also deserve a look.

First of all, LA was able to really exploit Dallas’ defensive scheme.  Dallas isn’t a team with big offensive linemen that clog the middle of the field, allowing the linebackers to roam as they will.  Dallas’ one-gap scheme depends on everyone – including their linebackers – holding his gap.  They got much more than they bargained for with the Rams’ down-hill running attack.  While Sullivan and Whitworth were moving people up and down the line of scrimmage, guards Rodger Saffold and Austin Blythe poured unabated into the second level of Dallas’ defense.  Jaylon Smith, Leighton Vander Esch and Xavier Woods will see these guys in their nightmares for the next few weeks, as they spent the entire afternoon trying to duck under or around the large, quick linemen that seemed always to be bearing down on them.

Another factor that contributed to some gaping holes for Todd Gurley and C.J. Anderson was tight end Tyler Higbee.

A third-year player and second year starter, Higbee has developed into a fairly dependable target.  He caught 24 passes this season, one off of his career high (and added two more on Sunday).  But Higbee’s less discussed value for the Rams is as a blocker.  Tyler is actually among the better blocking tight ends in the league – and he was another Ram blocker who always seemed to be at the point of attack.

Among his better moments was a pancake of Demarcus Lawrence that opened the cutback lane for Anderson’s 7-yard run with about five minutes left in the first.  With four minutes left in the third, Higbee pushed Lawrence all the way down the line of scrimmage to open up an 8-yard run for Gurley.

He also came across the formation a couple of time to deliver potent wham blocks to defensive linemen brave enough to try to penetrate the LA backfield.  He did this to Caraun Reid with 8:45 left in the second to spring Gurley for 8 yards.  He also did that to Taco Charlton with 8:41 left in the game to give Anderson 5 yards up the middle.

LA’s Offensive Foundation

But the bigger picture here are the foundational principles that the Ram offense is based on.  They are actually built to be a dominant running team – and statistically, you would have to say that they are.  They finished third in the league behind the Neanderthal teams in Seattle and Baltimore, and averaged 4.9 rushing yards per attempt.

The two things that you always see from the Rams heavily advantage their running attack.

First, their almost undeviating use of three wide receivers always forces teams to match up with at least five defensive backs.  Even as the Rams shredded the Cowboy run defense, they still could only play two linebackers because they had to respect the Ram passing game.  The inherent danger in the Ram passing attack also prevents opponents from loading “the box” with more than seven defenders.

The other thing you always see from the Rams is tight formations.  You will see other offenses line receivers up from sideline to sideline.  This is a boon to the passing game, as it usually forces the defense to declare its coverage.  But it can make the outside running game a little more challenging as blockers will have to deal with defenders already defending the edges.

But tight formations bring all of the defenders in tight as well where the blockers can get to them more easily.  It also creates invitingly wide sideline alleys and forces defenders to race ball-carriers to the edges.  Dallas’ contain defenders only dropped outside contain a couple of times on Saturday, but every time they did it cost them a substantial run – including Goff’s game-clinching 11-yard sprint around right end on third-and-seven with just two minutes left in the game.

One other take-away from the Rams and their running attack.

Back when they outscored Kansas City in the 54-51 game, I noted that while both teams easily could have controlled the game by running the ball, both chose not to.  Based on that game, I questioned the will of those teams to keep running the ball even if the running game was available to them.  My evaluation then was that both of these teams were so invested in their passing attacks, that they would be compelled – at some point – to abandon the run and go back to the air.

If nothing else, this game disproves that opinion – at least as far as the Rams go.  After 48 running plays, I think the Rams have proven that they will – under certain circumstances – commit to the run.

Moments that Mattered

As with any one-score loss, there were a few pivotal moments – some that, perhaps, didn’t seem so pivotal at the time – that ended up being huge.  The Rams’ first field goal drive was aided by two offside penalties.  Moments before Gurley’s 35-yard touchdown run gave LA a 20-7 lead, Goff – still on his own side of the fifty – threw incomplete on third-and-14.  But instead of a punt, the Rams got a new set of downs as Byron Jones kept the drive alive with a hands-to-the-face penalty. 

With 52 seconds left in the first half, the Cowboys were in field goal range at the Ram 36 with an opportunity to cut the lead to 20-10.  On third-and-seven, with no one open downfield, quarterback Dak Prescott began to scurry around in the pocket.  As he ducked to his left, Ram linebacker Dante Fowler – who had been leaping to tackle Prescott – reached back with his right hand.  His elbow and forearm did actually strike Prescott in the helmet – albeit very lightly – while his fingers momentarily grasped the back of Dak’s helmet before sliding off.  That was the entirety of the contact on that play.  It was closer to being a “roughing-the-passer” penalty than anything else.  But it was somehow enough to have the play blown dead with an in-the-grasp call.  This would be the only quarterback “sack” by either team in the game.

That call pushed the Cowboys out of field goal range.

About half-way through the fourth quarter, the Rams faced fourth-and-goal on the Cowboy 1 yard line.  Ahead 23-15 at that point, a field goal might have made sense.  But Sean McVay gambled on the touchdown – and got it on a one-yard run from Anderson.  It’s the playoffs.  No time to turn timid.

Watching the Quarterbacks

Much of the evening’s attention went to the two young quarterbacks in the game.  Prescott was playing just his third playoff game, and Goff his second.  It’s still too early to tell for sure if either one is the real deal.  Both had moments of brilliance intermingled with moments of ineffectiveness.

Prescott was the more inconsistent of the two.  He is still much more effective outside the pocket than in it.  Still, he played his best at the end when the game was on the line.  That has been pretty consistent in all three of his playoff games.

Goff also missed some throws and made some decisions he would like to re-visit, but played well enough to win.  The question that I haven’t resolved yet is how much of the success we’re seeing from the passing game is Goff and how much McVay.  This Sunday’s contest in New Orleans should prove informative.

Going Forward

Los Angeles will bring a few question marks with them as they invade the Big Easy.  How good is this defense?  Are they the dominating team they appeared to be against the Cowboys? Or are their season-long ranking a better barometer?  Will they appreciably slow the Saint offense?  Or will the contest resemble the Week Nine game between these two teams – a 45-35 Saint win that saw New Orleans gain 487 yards of offense – 141 of them on the ground?

Is the league catching up with Goff and the passing game?  His passer rating has been under 80 in four of his last six games – with Arizona and San Francisco being the only exceptions.  The Saints have been getting better and better in pass defense – they were exceptional last Sunday.  Will New Orleans be able to slow the potent Ram offense?

And the running game?  So dominant against Dallas, will they be able to run against the Saints as well?  New Orleans was the league’s second ranked run defense.  That match-up may be decisive.

The back end of the NFL playoffs doesn’t usually play out like a soap-opera cliff hanger.  But these two teams seem to developing week by week.

In the AFC, the Chiefs will have to knock out the perennial champions in New England.  But the NFC is wide open.  Two short years ago, the Saints were 7-9 while the Rams were 4-12.  This year, one of those teams will play in the Super Bowl.

Hubris in the Air

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Halting the Run an Issue for the Rams

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

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

That theme was built upon last Sunday.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Not a lot of teams can get away with that.

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

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

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

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

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

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

That would be the pattern all day.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The Will to Keep Running the Ball

Although they went into the half trailing 14-6, the Baltimore Ravens had sent their rivals in Pittsburgh a clear message.  Repeatedly during that first half, Baltimore’s featured back, Alex Collins slashed the Steeler defense right up the middle.  That the Ravens couldn’t cash in on this production came from the fact that Baltimore had no answer for the Steeler blitz schemes.  Joe Flacco wasn’t sacked, but he finished the first half just 9 of 16, with Baltimore converting just 2 of 7 third downs.

But, with Collins providing the spark, Baltimore had gained 57 yards in 14 rushes – and average of 4.1 yards per.  It would certainly seem to be an advantage to build on.

Baltimore ran the ball exactly twice in the second half.

I could probably write about this every week.  In an NFL that is increasingly passing-centric, the will to keep running the ball is becoming increasingly rare.

In Baltimore’s case – even though they went into the half down by just 8, the Steelers opened the second half with an impressive 15-play, 75-yard touchdown drive that ate up the first 8:14 of the second half.  Six of the plays on the drive were runs (three times as many runs in that drive than Baltimore would attempt for the rest of the game).

Emotionally, that drive was damaging, but the reality of the situation was that the Ravens trailed just 20-6 with still 6:46 left in the third and the entire fourth quarter left.  More than enough time to run their offense.  But the will to keep running the ball failed them.  So, even though they struggled protecting Flacco – and even though their running attack was the most effective aspect of their offense in the first half – the Ravens folded up their running game. 

Flacco threw the ball 21 times in the second half, getting sacked on two other drop backs.  With little time to look downfield, Joe’s tosses became mostly a series of short dump offs.  He completed 14 of those passes, but for just 97 yards.  The Ravens finished the second half with just 99 yards of total offense, on its way to a 23-16 loss (gamebook) (box score).

Playing with the lead, Pittsburgh wasn’t shy about pounding the Baltimore defense.  Although they never gained more than 5 yards on any single second half run, Pittsburgh nonetheless ran 17 times in the second half – earning just 40 yards with those attempts (2.4 per).  Nonetheless, the Steelers converted 6 of 9 third downs and controlled the ball for 20:14 of the second half.

Seattle is Willing

In stark contrast is the game the Seattle Seahawks played at home against the Los Angeles Chargers.  Seattle has re-committed to the run, and even with primary hammer-back Chris Carson nursing hip and thigh injuries – and even though they spent the entire second half trailing by as much as 15 points, the Hawks never stopped running the ball.  Of their 32 running attempts on the day, 15 came in the second half.  They finished with 154 rushing yards, and 35:41 of possession. 

Seattle did lose this game, 25-17 (gamebook) (box score), but were throwing into the end zone from the Charger 6-yard line as the game ended.  As with the Ravens, the Seattle passing game couldn’t take advantage of the production from the running game.  The Chargers denied Seattle’s receivers any down-the-field opportunities, forcing Russell Wilson into an endless string of dump-off passes.  Tyler Lockett finished the game with 3 catches for 22 yards – none longer than 9 yards.

The Chargers – who racked up 160 rushing yards of their own – had just enough to hold them off.  Both of these teams will be in contention down the stretch, and one of the reasons will be their commitment to balance.

Both play defense pretty well, too.  The Chargers and Seahawks combined to go 1-for-13 on third down in the second half. 

A final thought about this game:

Seattle is now 1-2 at home this year.  Every game in Seattle they show the noise decibel graphic (the highest I think I remember seeing was 106 – which is good and loud).  You also get plenty of shots of the crowd cupping their lips with their hands in a desperate attempt to affect the game with sheer volume.  In the first place, of course, just screaming is an artistic achievement of dubious merit.  More than that, though, the effect seems to be negligible.  Some years ago, it was much more effective than it has been recently, as the league seems to have mostly adjusted.  The Chargers didn’t seem overly disturbed by it.  Seattle has also lost at home to the Rams – a division opponent that comes into Seattle every year and seemed not to notice the noise.  But you Seattle fans, you keep on screaming at the top of your lungs – you’re so cute when you’re just senselessly yelling.

Rodgers v Brady

Already this season, there have been several marquee quarterback matchups – many of which have absolutely lived up to the hype. 

Back on September 16, the Kansas City Chiefs and the Pittsburgh Steelers engaged in an entertaining 42-37 contest (won by KC).  In that game, Ben Roethlisberger threw for 452 yards and 3 touchdowns, but was out-done by rising star Patrick Mahomes, who threw for 326 yards of his own.  And 6 touchdowns.

Then on September 23, the New Orleans Saints finally subdued the Atlanta Falcons 43-37.  In that matchup, Matt Ryan gave the Saints all they could handle, throwing 5 touchdown passes among his 374 yards.  Not quite enough, as it turns out, as Drew Brees threw 3 touchdowns of his own among 396 passing yards.

The New England Patriots have already been involved in two such free-for-alls.  They had their own encounter with Kansas City, winning 43-40 behind Tom Brady and his 340 passing yards – just barely overcoming 4 more touchdown passes from Mahomes and his 352 passing yards.

They followed that game the next week with an exciting 38-31 conquest of Mitchell Trubisky and the Bears.  Trubisky threw for 333 yards in the defeat.

My favorite so far this year has been the September 27 contest between Jared Goff and the LA Rams and Kirk Cousins and Minnesota.  In this back-and-forth game, both quarterbacks executed at a remarkably high level.  Cousins completed 36 of 50 passes for 422 yards and 3 touchdowns (without an interception).  His passer rating for the evening was an impressive 117.2.  His team lost.

Goff completed 26 of 33 for 465 yards and 5 touchdowns (also without interception), leading the Rams to a 38-31 conquest.  His passer rating that game was a maximum 158.3. 

(You will hear many commentators refer to 158.3 as a “perfect” score.  It is, of course, not perfect.  Jared did miss on 7 passes.  It is more accurate to refer to that number as the maximum rating, as the system will not permit a higher rating.  If Goff’s night had been perfect – if he had completed all 33 of his passes for 619 yards and 7 touchdowns, the passer rating system would not – indeed could not – reward him with a higher rating.)

Brees and Goff also met up in Week 9 in another game that lived up to the hype – that game will be looked at in a bit.

And so, last Sunday night – as two legendary quarterbacks squared off – much of America was hoping for a similar shootout.  Again, the Patriots and Brady would be involved – this time opposite Aaron Rodgers and the Green Bay Packers.

This time, though, the expected shootout never developed.

Both of the legendary throwers did well.  Rodgers finished the night 24 of 43 (55.8%) for 259 yards and 2 touchdowns.  Brady threw for 294 yards on 22 of 35 throwing (62.9%) and 1 touchdown.  Rodgers’ receivers – who seem to be a rather ordinary collection this year- repeatedly had difficulty beating their man coverage assignments.  Rodgers spent much of the evening scrambling around in the backfield waiting for a receiver to come open before checking the ball down.

As for the Patriots, they spent the evening re-discovering their running game.  Even with top running threat Sony Michel on the sidelines, New England still ran the ball 31 times for 123 yards and 3 touchdowns.  James White got a few more carries than usual (12), and the Patriots continued the re-purposing of receiver/kick returner Cordarrelle Patterson as a running back.  Patterson finished the day with 11 rushes for 61 yards and a touchdown.

Patterson may have been as impressive as anyone on the field.  Now in his sixth season, the talented Mr. Patterson – who has never quite found his niche as a regular in the offense – may have finally discovered himself at running back.  Cordarrelle is a violent, take-no-prisoners, downhill runner.  In fact, if you kind of squinted as you watched him running with the ball, you might swear you were watching LeGarrette Blount.  He even has a similar weakness.  When the defense could get him going sideways, his impact was much less.  If the Patterson at running back experiment continues, this could have very interesting long-term repercussions.

In the end – as usually happens when the Patriots take the field – New England walked off the victor, 31-17 (gamebook) (box score).  One way or another they almost always figure out a way to beat you.

Deferring a Mistake?

Let me begin by saying that I am a big fan of deferring after winning the coin toss.  Often you will hear coaches and commentators chat about the opportunity to end the first half with a score, and then open the second half with another.  Sound philosophy, but I maintain that even if you don’t end the first half with that score, you still want to begin the second half with the ball in your hands aware of what has to happen in the second half for you to win the game.

Therefore, it came as no real surprise that – after the Los Angeles Rams won the toss against New Orleans – they deferred.  Five minutes and 35 seconds later, the Rams watched as running back Alvin Kamara completed a 10-play, 75-yard drive by skirting left end for an 11-yard touchdown run.

Nothing the Saints could have done could have worked better to engage the home crowd.  From time-to-time throughout the rest of the game, the Rams would momentarily silence the crowd.  But the rest would only be momentary.  The Saints continually re-sparked them.  Perhaps, when you’re on the road against one of the most dynamic offenses in the league, deferring may not be the best option.

As opposed to the Seattle crowd, the fans in the Superdome had just come to watch and enjoy a football game.  Their contribution was less outright noise, and more a contagious energy that the home team clearly feeds off of.

Three minutes and 17 seconds into the game, New Orleans coach Sean Payton upped the anti.  After a third-and-two run came up short, Payton kept his offense on the field.  In fact, he kept backup quarterback Taysom Hill in the shotgun, trusting him to throw the pass in this critical situation.  It looks like he wanted to throw to starting quarterback Drew Brees – who had lined up at receiver.  But when Hill wasn’t completely sure, he pulled the ball down and sprinted 9 yards for the first down, punctuating the run by lowering his shoulder and driving Ram defensive back Lamarcus Joyner backward for the last couple of yards.

In no uncertain terms, the Saints, the Rams, the crowd at the Superdome and all the fans watching on TV understood that Sean Payton was coaching this like a playoff game.  He had no intention of trading field goals for Ram touchdowns.

The Saints went on to score touchdowns on 5 of their 6 first half drives (the other ending with a turnover), going 5-5 in the red zone.  This was all part of a first half, offensive orgy, the likes of which the fans tuned in hoping to see.  Neither team punted, and the first half saw 52 points scored and 557 yards of offense.

To this point, most of the offense favored the Saints, who carried a 35-17 lead into the locker room.  To the Rams’ credit they didn’t let the game end like that.  Rarely behind at all this season, the heretofore undefeated Rams came roaring back.  Trailing 35-14 at one point, Los Angeles evened the game at 35-all with still almost ten minutes left in the game.

After turning around the organization last year, the Rams are back this year intent on proving that they are as good as anyone in the game.  They left that lingering impression, even as New Orleans pulled away late for the 45-35 win (gamebook) (box score).  The game’s clinching play came with about 4 minutes left when Michael Thomas slipped in behind Ram corner Marcus Peters.  Brees (who finished the game with 346 passing yards and 4 touchdowns) lobbed the ball over Peters’ head, and Thomas did the rest on a 72-yard catch-and-run touchdown.

Prominent in this game is an officiating trend that I find quite disappointing.

The game is tied at 14 in the second quarter, with 13:14 left before halftime.  The Rams, facing fourth-and-four, are setting up for a field goal (they are on the Saint 16-yard-line).  But it’s a fake.  Holder Johnny Hekker took off with the snap and raced around right end, stretching the ball toward the first-down marker.  The spot was not generous, and the ball was marked short.  The Rams challenged the call.

Looking at the replay, it looked for all the world that Hekker had extended the ball past the marker, but after review, the call stood. 

Later, the tables seemed to balance a bit.  As Ram running back Malcom Brown weaved down the sideline for an 18-yard touchdown, it appeared – on replay – that he had clearly stepped out at about the eight-yard line.  Again, the call on the field (touchdown) was upheld.

The NFL has made no secret that this year they are making a sustained effort to back the call on the field.  I confess myself perplexed by this.  There are certainly problems with the replay system as it’s now run, but one of the problems is not the replay replacing the official’s correct call with an incorrect one.  The one constant in the system is that the replay (most of the time) gives a clearer view of what actually happened on the play.  Wherever possible, replay gets it right.  The most fallible element in the equation continues to be the human referees.  Why we are now treating them as mostly infallible makes little sense to me.

Passes, Passes Everywhere

The Broncos trailed by only a touchdown (14-7) with nearly half of the second quarter left (7:01 to be exact) when they officially gave up on the run.  Case Keenum would drop back on 17 of the next 18 snaps, and 44 of their last 49 offensive plays for the afternoon.  Keenum finished with 51 pass attempts while being sacked 4 other times.  Denver finished with just 16 points in a 34-16 loss to the Jets.

The Packers never made it that far.  Never really intending to run the ball against Detroit, the shallow commitment that Green Bay made to the run ended at the 11:45 mark of the second quarter, after the last of four straight carries from Aaron Jones.  Detroit was ahead 17-0 at the time.  Aaron Rodgers was in passing mode for 48 of Green Bay’s last 57 plays.  He ended the game having thrown 52 passes while suffering 4 sacks.  The Packers also lost 31-23.

Knowing that any chance they had of victory depended on them running the ball, the San Francisco 49ers stayed somewhat committed to the run until 8:22 remained in the game.  At that point they trailed Arizona by only 8 points (14-6) on a day when they would end up rushing for 147 yards.  But even they couldn’t keep with it.  Backup quarterback C.J. Beathard dropped to pass on 20 of his final 23 snaps.  For the game, Beathard threw 54 passes and was also sacked 4 times.  San Francisco scored just 18 points in their loss.

Over almost 5 complete quarters of football, Baltimore’s Joe Flacco threw the ball 56 times.  The Ravens never scored a touchdown, and lost 12-9 in Cleveland.

After the Colts fell behind the New England Patriots 24-3 at the half, it was pretty clear that Andrew Luck would be throwing a lot for the rest of the evening.  Luck put the ball in the air 38 times in the second half alone – finishing with 59 passes for the game in a 38-24 loss.

With 5:27 left in the third quarter, Jacksonville’s T.J. Yeldon earned a hard yard around right end.  Trailing Kansas City 23-0 at that point, the Jaguars would not hand off to a running back again.  Jacksonville’s last 42 offensive plays resulted in 36 Blake Bortles passes, three sacks of Blake Bortles, two quarterback sneaks by Blake Bortles to pick up first downs.  And one 21-yard touchdown scramble by Blake Bortles.

Blake ended up with a 61-pass afternoon, with the expected result – a 30-14 loss.

Now, of course it’s understood that once a team falls significantly behind in a game, they don’t have the liberty to be as patient with the running game as they might like to be.  And, furthermore, if you have an Aaron Rodgers or an Andrew Luck behind center, a heavy emphasis on the pass might well be your best option.

But if your quarterback is Case Keenum or C.J. Beathard – or even, perhaps, Blake Bortles – then abandoning the running game (regardless of the score) is tantamount to surrender.  Even beyond this, I’m not sure very many coaches appreciate how quickly a game can turn around, once your offense regains control of the line of scrimmage.  Once you commit to running the ball.

Let’s take the worst of these situations.  Let’s say that you are Jacksonville and down 23 points with five and a half minutes left in the third quarter.  Suppose they had stayed committed to the run just a little longer?  What if they had drained the last 5:27 of the third quarter on a nice 75-yard, 12-play run-dominated touchdown drive – and remember that when Jacksonville did choose to run the ball, they did average 5.9 yards per attempt.  It is entirely possible that if they had continued to work their running game, that the Chief defense might have given into fatigue – leading to an even more productive running game in the fourth quarter.

At this point – with about 15 minutes left – they would have pulled to within 23-7.  The Kansas City offense would have been off the field for quite a while.  With KC’s offensive rhythm interrupted, perhaps the Jags defense could have managed a quick three-and-out, giving the Jacksonville offense another chance to continue pounding a tiring KC defense.

In such situations, momentum in a game can chance quickly – a sudden turnover, perhaps a big play from special teams.  Now, we have a ballgame again.  Something that just will not happen with Bortles throwing the ball 61 times.

Last year, all quarterbacks averaged 34.2 passes per game.  So far this year, that number has increased to 36.6.  In Week Five, in addition to the six quarterbacks I listed who threw the ball at least 50 times, there were three others who threw the ball more than 40 times.  All Week Five quarterbacks averaged 37.6 passes per game.

Lots of teams are just too eager to give up on the run

Sticking With the Run

One team that has re-committed to the run is the Seattle Seahawks – even though in Russell Wilson they have the kind of electric quarterback that could consistently throw the ball 40 times and do pretty well.

But, for the first time since the height of the Marshawn Lynch era, the Seahawks have become a tough running team.  Against the Rams last Sunday, Chris Carson ran for 116 yards, and Mike Davis added 68 more.  In all, Seattle rushed for 190 yards.  Of those, 114 came right up the middle.

After totaling 138 rush yards through their first two games, Seattle has earned at least 113 rush yards in each of their last three games – totaling 474 yards in those games.  Seattle has re-discovered its identity.

Wilson finished the game throwing just 21 times – with a 132.5 passer rating.  Seattle put up 31 points, going 7 for 12 on third down.  Alas, it was not enough as the still undefeated Rams managed a come-from-behind, 33-31 victory (gamebook) (summary).

Five games into the season, and the 5-0 Rams still look unstoppable on offense.  The Rams have already put up 173 points on the season (scoring at least 33 in each game), and rank first in total offense, second in passing and seventh in rushing.  They are a relentless and scary group.

Chiefs Win Too

Also undefeated – and seemingly unstoppable on offense – are the Kansas City Chiefs after their 30-14 conquest of Jacksonville (gamebook) (summary).

This was the game in which Bortles threw 61 passes.  Some of the throws were terrific.  Many weren’t.  Some of his decisions were questionable.  He ended the day chucking 4 interceptions and made several other dangerous throws.

These are the kinds of games that make me wonder about Blake.  When everything else is functioning as planned – when the defense is throttling the opposing offense and the running game is keeping the offense on schedule – when his pass protection is solid and his speed receivers can stretch out the underneath zones – when all of this is clicking, Blake Bortles can be (and has been) devastatingly good.

But when he has to put the team on his shoulders – like we’ve seen the other franchise quarterbacks do – this kind of thing happens.

Discipline Concerns in KC?

While the victory was surprisingly easy for the Chiefs, before the game ended they collected four incomprehensible after-the-whistle fouls that led to the ejections of two players. 

The shenanigans began with 44 seconds left in the first half and the Chiefs up 20-0.  Bortles went up the right sideline with a long throw broken up by Orlando Scandrick.  It should have been second-and-ten from the KC 20.  But, inexplicably, after the play KC defensive end Dee Ford turned and shoved Jacksonville guard Josh Walker right in front of the referee.  That gave the Jags a first and goal.

Nothing came of this as Bortles tossed an end-zone interception two plays later.

About midway through the third quarter – with KC still up 20-0 and driving – running back Kareem Hunt bolted up the sideline for 24 yards.  As soon as linebacker Telvin Smith forced him out of bounds, Hunt raced back up to Smith to deliver an abrupt head-butt.  This was the most egregious of the fouls, and KC ended up settling for a field goal.

Chris Jones became the first Chief to get tossed from the game.  When Jacksonville finally trimmed the lead to 23-7 with 3:10 left in the third, Jones – on the ground after the extra-point was kicked – inexplicably punched the Jacksonville lineman that he was on top of in the leg.

Dee Ford got himself tossed from the contest and contributed to Jacksonville’s final scoring drive of the game.  Facing third-and-15 with about half the last quarter gone, Bortles was flushed from the pocket and scrambled toward the right sideline.  Before he could get there, a shove from Allen Bailey sent him over the line and tumbling into the bench area.

What should have been a fourth-and-20 became a first-and-10 as Ford made it a point to stand over the fallen Jacksonville quarterback long enough to draw the flag and get himself ejected (this is a taunting penalty).  With the extra chance, the Jags pushed their way to the game’s final touchdown.

Kansas City has been a scary-good team.  But there is still a lot of season left.  Composure will be important as the games get more important down the stretch.  It’s hard to say if some slight loss of discipline will be the mistake that costs the Chiefs their season.

Turning the Corner?

One of the shocks of opening weekend was Cleveland forcing a 21-21 tie with divisional heavyweight Pittsburgh.  The Browns, of course, had been winless the season before, and 1-15 in 2016.  They had lost 44 out of 48 games over the previous three seasons.

Following the tie with the Steelers, the Browns have picked up victories against the Jets, and last week they outlasted the Baltimore Ravens, 12-9 in overtime (gamebook) (summary).  Five weeks into the 2018 season, Cleveland holds the NFL’s second-ranked running game, grinding out 144.6 rushing yards a game, and averaging 4.6 yards per rush. 

Meanwhile the defense has been notably better.  Through five games, the Browns have allowed more than 21 points only once, rank twelfth in defensive points allowed, and have held opposing passers to a 74.2 passer rating.  Flacco’s rating was only 60.0 after his 56-pass afternoon on Sunday.

For many futile years in the American League, baseball’s Cleveland Indians were called the “mistake by the lake.”  In recent years, Cleveland’s baseball team has turned its program around.  Perhaps – just perhaps – the NFL’s version of the mistake by the lake might finally be competitive for the first time in a while.

A Rough Start

The last time Frank Reich (new head coach in Indianapolis) saw the New England Patriots, he was roaming the Philadelphia sidelines as the offensive coordinator during last year’s Super Bowl.  How compelling to imagine what that experience must have been like, as two career backup quarterbacks (Reich and Eagle head coach Doug Pederson) constructed a game plan for their backup quarterback (Nick Foles) to conquer the seemingly unconquerable Patriots.

It took them until the last play of the game, but Frank’s Eagles prevailed.

His experience last Thursday was much different.

As of Tuesday morning, Reich’s Indianapolis Colts are carrying an injured-reserve list of 10 different players.  There were nine additional players who were unavailable for the game against the Patriots.  This group included go-to wide receiver T.Y. Hilton.  Significantly, that group also included starting cornerbacks Nate Hairston and Kenny Moore, as well as useful third-corner Quincy Wilson.  During the game, they lost starting safety Clayton Geathers and backup Matthias Farley.

The Patriots would have presented a significant challenge even if the very-young Colts were completely healthy.  With significant injuries, their hands were tied even more.

Offensively, the re-built Colts showed a little spunk.  Rookie running back Nyheim Hines showed a little spark, although Indy failed to really establish anything on the ground.  Meanwhile, quarterback Andrew Luck’s surgically re-invented right shoulder continues to rebound.  Trailing 24-3 at the half, the Colts closed to within 24-17 with almost 13 minutes left.

But the thinning of the secondary left them all too vulnerable in pass defense.  Afraid that they couldn’t match up with the Patriot receivers, the Colts went to very soft zones.  With no appreciable pass rush, Tom Brady and his cohorts repeatedly exploited the underneath areas of the coverage.

With 8:49 left in the first half, Brady overthrew running back James White on a go route up the right sideline.  It was his first legitimate miss of the game.  Prior to that toss, Tom had completed 14 of his first 15 pass – his only incompletion being a drop by Julian Edelman.

Brady wrapped up that first half 23 of 27 (85.2%) but for just 203 yards (just 8.82 yds per completion).  His two first-half touchdown passes – along with his one 1-yard touchdown dive – were instrumental in building that 24-3 first half lead.  For the evening, Brady only completed one down-field pass.

It resulted in the five hundredth touchdown pass of Tom’s career.  After standing comfortably in the pocket for a small eternity, Brady launched a deep strike to Josh Gordon, curling into the right flat of the end zone.  Josh wasn’t alone – there were two Indianapolis defenders waiting for the throw, but he made a very athletic adjustment to the ball, positioning himself to make a leaping grab of the pass.

Welcome to New England, Mr. Gordon.

For Indianapolis, the 38-24 defeat dropped them to 1-4 in the early going (gamebook) (summary).  It will be a process in Indy.  Five weeks into his inaugural season, Reich’s Colts rank twenty-second in total offense, twenty-ninth in rushing yards, twenty-seventh in points allowed, twenty-third in total defense and twenty-eighth in pass defense.  But it does look like they have an idea of how to eventually get where they want to go.

A few healthy bodies would help them turn that corner a bit faster.

No One Beats the South But the South

Five of the eight teams that took the field for Wildcard Weekend represented the southern divisions of their respective conferences.  The AFC South sent Jacksonville and Tennessee and the NFC South was represented by New Orleans, Carolina and Atlanta.  Of the five, only Carolina will not be advancing to the Divisional round as they were the only Southern team to play another Southern team.  Their 31-26 loss in New Orleans marking the third time they had lost to the Saints this season.

But – from an array of compelling numbers coming out of these games, the most compelling just might be 88.  That was the number of rushing yards that Jacksonville quarterback Blake Bortles amassed.  Those 88 yards were the most by any player in the game.  In fact, the quarterbacks combined for 119 rushing yards on 18 attempts (6.6 yards per).  All of the running backs in the game combined for 166 yards on 48 carries (3.4 yards per carry).

But what makes that number 88 so compelling is that it is one yard more than his total passing yards for the game.  Blake finished the passing portion of his evening with 87 passing yards on 12 completions in 23 attempts.  He averaged just 3.78 yards per attempted pass, and just 7.25 per completion.

And won the game 10-3 (gamebook).

The Jaguars have been a team I have been reluctant to buy into all year – primarily because I wondered if they could muster a sufficient passing attack to win a game against a quality opponent on a day when their running game stalled and their defense gave up some points.  Sunday against Buffalo, Jacksonville held the ball for only 9:49 of the first half.  Their three leading receivers on the season (Keelan Cole, Marqise Lee and Allen Hurns) had no pass receptions among them, and each had only one pass tossed in his direction.  In the game’s second half, Blake threw only 8 passes while running 7 times.

Of all the winners from the Wildcard Round, Jacksonville is clearly the least impressive.

They won because the defense smothered Tyrod Taylor’s passing attack.  Taylor finished with a 44.2 rating.  Of the 37 passes he threw, only 17 were completed – and that for just 134 yards with no touchdowns and one interception.  His yards per pass attempted (3.62) and per completion (7.88) were very similar to Bortles.

Maybe we’ll just say it was excellent defense.  Sure, we’ll stick with that.

The Jaguars live to fight another round, but the looming challenge in Pittsburgh is much tougher than the one they’ve left behind.

More Defense in the Coliseum

The 2016 edition of the Atlanta Falcons was an offensive juggernaut.  In seemingly effortless fashion, they blazed their way to 504 regular season points (an impressive 31.5 points a game) and then added 108 more in three playoff games.  Along with their point total, they led the entire NFL in highest average per pass (8.2 yards).  They were second in total yards and touchdown passes.  They were third in both passing yards and rushing yards.

Quarterback Matt Ryan finished with a frightening 117.1 passer rating; top receiver Julio Jones missed two games, but still finished with 1409 receiving yards; and running back Devonta Freeman piled up 1079 rushing yards and 11 rushing touchdowns while averaging 4.8 yards a carry.

Very deep, very balanced, and very scary were the 2016 Falcons.  On offense.

The defense, however, lagged.  Their rankings were a much more modest twenty-seventh in points allowed and twenty-fifth in yards allowed.  They ranked seventeenth against the run and twenty-eighth against the pass.  Opposing passers threw almost as many touchdown passes against them (31) as Ryan tossed for them (38), contributing to an opponent’s passer rating of 92.5 – much higher than you would expect to see against a contending team.

At various points this season, we’ve discussed some of the Falcons’ offensive struggles.  Although with much the same personnel, nothing has come quite so easily for them this year.  They checked in with 151 fewer points this year (353) and Ryan’s passer rating sank to 91.4 – still excellent, but much more mortal than 2016.  In their first playoff game this year they scored 26 points on 322 yards – both fairly pedestrian totals – in their 26-13 victory (gamebook).

But, while the offense has been up-and-down, over the last two weeks a surprising development has taken place.  As the end of the regular season has bridged into the playoffs, the Falcon defense – especially their pass defense – has become Atlanta’s most noteworthy unit.

Two weeks ago, they smothered Cam Newton and the Carolina passing game.  They allowed just 14 of his 34 passes to be completed, while harvesting three interceptions.  Newton’s passer rating was a humbling 31.5.  Then last week against a high-flying Rams team (on the Rams’ home field no less) they shackled Jared Goff with a 77.9 rating as Goff completed only 24 of 45 passes for 259 yards.

Over the last two weeks, two very dangerous passing attacks have combined for 38 completions in 79 attempts (48.1%) for 439 yards (5.56 yards per attempt).  Newton and Goff combined to throw 2 touchdown passes against 3 interceptions for a combined passer rating of 57.9.

Against the Rams, they were everywhere – blanketing LA’s receivers like few teams have been able to all year.  If this is who the Falcons are now, they presents a strong challenge to their remaining opponents.  The offense has been sporadic, but that explosive team from 2016 is still in there somewhere.  If they can play elite pass defense, it significantly raises their stock.

Of all the teams playing on Wild Card Weekend, the Falcons looked most like the team that could force its way into the Championship Round or beyond.

I still think, though, that this is a team that could be handled by the team that is willing to keep running the ball against them.  A defense that values speed and quickness might struggle to hold up for four quarters against a team that keeps running at them.  The Rams finished with 115 rushing yards in a game where they only ran the ball 16 times.

With a backup quarterback running the offense, Philadelphia may not have a balanced enough offense to hurt Atlanta with their running game.  Should the Falcons make it past the Eagles, it will be interesting to see what challenge awaits them in the Championship Game.

Adventures in Officiating

Officials – as you may have heard – are human, too.  Even the good ones make mistakes.  In the replay era, many of those mistakes can be caught, but not all.  When an officiating crew has a rough afternoon it’s bad enough.  When their bad day seems to tilt in favor of one of the teams, it can lead to significant frustration.

Unfortunately, three of Week Sixteen’s most important games were marred – to a greater or lesser degree – by curious officiating.

Kelvin Benjamin’s Touchdown that Wasn’t

Apparently the weekend’s most controversial call was the replay that overturned a touchdown that Buffalo’s Kelvin Benjamin seemed to score against New England.  Buffalo, here, is fighting for its playoff life and the Patriots are trying to tighten their grip on the number one seed in the AFC.

There are 6 seconds left in the first half, and New England is clinging to a 13-10 lead.  But the Bills have third-and-goal from the Patriot 4 yard line.

The Bills line up with three receivers bunched to quarterback Tyrod Taylor’s left, and Benjamin split out all by himself to the right, where he would be singled up against Patriot corner Stephon Gilmore.  Just before the snap, Gilmore backed up into the end zone in a position to hem Benjamin against the sideline.  Taylor lofted the ball to the very back right corner of the end zone, where Benjamin looked for all the world like he caught the pass that would give Buffalo the lead at the half.  Field Judge Steven Zimmer – with the play in front of him – was convinced enough to raise his arms for the touchdown.

Moments later – when the touchdown was reversed – there was consternation on the Buffalo sideline.  Yet, watching the replay, Kelvin didn’t catch the ball cleanly.  He reached with his right hand and batted the ball back toward him.  He did drag the left foot along the turf. But only while the ball was fluttering back toward his chest.  Once he secured the ball, Benjamin tried again to drag the toe.  But it hit against the heel of his right foot instead.

A lot of people in the NFL fandom get quite exercised when calls like this go New England’s way – and I get that.  Hating New England is a trendy position to take.  And this touchdown certainly could have stood.  It was exceedingly close.

But there was sufficient evidence for an overturn – and Buffalo settled for the field goal and the halftime tie.

Patriot quarterback Tom Brady threw only 9 passes in the second half – completing all of them for 105 yards and another touchdown.  He finished the game completing 21 of 28 passes (75%).  Meanwhile, the Patriot running attack ground away at the Bills.  Running back Dion Lewis rolled up 83 yards in the second half on his way to a 129-yard afternoon, and the Patriots finished with 193 rushing yards and 2 touchdowns to finish off Buffalo 37-16 (gamebook).  The Bills finished 0-for-4 in the red zone, and scored no offensive touchdowns on the day.  Even if the replay had upheld the Benjamin touchdown, it’s exceedingly hard to beat the Patriots scoring just one offensive touchdown.

Merry Christmas to the Los Angeles Rams

In Tennessee the fading Titans spent Christmas Eve struggling for their playoff lives matched against a Rams team that is right in the thick of the NFC playoff picture.  In fact, a victory in this contest would punch the Rams’ playoff ticket for the first time since 2004.  The officials (it was Walt Anderson’s crew) didn’t do the home team any favors.

At the center of the controversy was a handful of penalties that should have been called, but weren’t.  Two of them came on Titan punts.  Twice in the second half, Rams special team players pummeled Tennessee punter Brett Kern.  Both times Anderson claimed the kicks were partially blocked.  It is unlikely the first one was.  It is clear the second one was not.

That second missed roughing-the-kicker penalty was probably the more costly of the two.  There was 7:31 left in the game and Tennessee trailed by four.  They had fourth-and-ten at midfield.  The call there gives them a first down on the Ram 35-yard line.

If there was a call more galling to the Titan faithful than either of the missed roughing-the-kicker penalties, it could well have been the missed false start.

There is 7:13 left in the third quarter, with the game tied at 13.  The Rams are on the Tennessee 13-yard line, and have decided to go for it on fourth-and-one.  As they lined up to run the play, tight-end Tyler Higbee – lined up to the left side – flinched.  All of the Titan defenders on that side of the field started pointing and leaping desperately – trying to will the officials to throw a flag.

But they missed it.  False starts are almost never missed.  I don’t actually remember the last time I saw an offensive lineman get away with a false start.  But this one they missed.

Adding injury to insult, instead of being fourth-and-six (forcing a field goal try), the Rams ran the ball right into the area where the Tennessee defenders were flipping somersaults to draw the flag.  Ram running back Todd Gurley burst through the distracted defenders for a ten-yard gain.  On the next play, Jared Goff tossed the touchdown pass that gave Los Angeles the lead.

Sometimes It’s Best to Just Play

So.  Yes, it was an egregious error by the officials.  They should have stopped the play and assessed the penalty.  But increasingly the players are trying to officiate their games as well as playing them.  They spend endless energy reaching for their imaginary flags, as though they had some secret power over the officiating crew.  Usually it’s just harmless posing.  On this occasion, the Tennessee Titans would have been better served if they had just focused on stopping the play.  Had they stopped the Rams there, not only would Los Angeles not have scored the touchdown, but (since it was fourth down) they would not even have had the opportunity to kick the field goal.  That one stop – had Tennessee focused on it – may well have won them the game in spite of the officiating.

Sometimes, it’s best to just play.

There is one noteworthy exception to this rule, and that is the case of pass interference.  I like to believe this isn’t true, but I swear there are times when the official waits to see if the receiver complains before he throws the flag.

Of course, we can’t let this game pass without mention of the onside kick that wasn’t.

Immediately after Tennessee had tied the score at 20, they ran a hurry-up onside kick.  As soon as the official made it to the sideline after marking the ball for play – and while the Rams were still congregating on their sideline – the Titans rushed to the field and bounced an undefended on-side kick that they recovered around the fifty.

Unfortunately, they caught not only the Rams, but the officiating crew off-guard.  A flag was thrown.  A conference was held, and Walt and his crew decided that the play didn’t count because the Rams had called a time out.  Of course, they hadn’t – and after some further discussion the time out was restored to Los Angeles, but the play still never happened.  And this is probably just as well for the Titans, as one member of the kickoff team was certainly off-sides, at least half never set, and a couple were running forward with the kicker.

Still in all of this, Anderson and his crew seemed to be several ticks behind.  To some degree, they seemed that way the entire game.

Gurley’s Big Day

Of course, Tennessee might have won anyway if they had found an answer for running back Todd Gurley.  His 22 rushes for 118 yards added to his 10 catches for 158 yards.  He scored two touchdowns, one of them an 80-yard scoring play off of a screen pass.  It works out to 276 yards from scrimmage on 32 catches.  He was the driving force in Los Angeles’ 27-23 victory (gamebook).

Early Presents for the Saints

But of all the teams saddled with a lump of coal on Christmas Eve, the most frustrated may have been the Atlanta Falcons.  They spent the afternoon in New Orleans.

As the game began, Atlanta found itself trailing the Saints for the division lead by one game, and – since they had beaten the Saints two weeks earlier – a win here would give them the tie-breaker.  So they were playing Sunday afternoon for no less stakes than the division title.

This game came with an extra-helping of irony.  The Falcon win two weeks earlier came with the Saints being flagged 11 times for 87 yards (against only 4 penalties called against Atlanta), and ended with a frustrated coach Sean Payton rushing onto the field to try to get a time out called.  The Falcons had been given 9 first downs off Saint penalties that day.

From the very beginning, it was evident that things would be much different in this game.  The Falcons drew three penalties in their first two offensive series – including a phantom unnecessary roughness penalty against Devonta Freeman.  They were subsequently penalized 3 more times in their next offensive series.  Over those first three series, Atlanta pushed for 89 yards of offense, but gave back 59 of them in penalties.

For the game, Atlanta ended up with 10 penalties for 91 yards, while the Saints were only flagged 3 times for 30 yards.  But this wasn’t to say that the Saints played a clean game.  Notable among the plays the Saints got away with were two fairly obvious pass interferences against Julio Jones.  Julio was also involved in the most head-shaking play of the day.

On the very last snap of the third quarter, Atlanta – trailing 20-3 at the time – had third and goal on the New Orleans 6-yard line. Quarterback Matt Ryan tolled to his right and rifled the ball to Jones, standing a yard deep in the end zone.  Just behind Jones was Saint cornerback Marshon Lattimore.  As the pass arrived in Jones’ hands, Lattimore pushed him out of the end zone.  Jones made the catch, but Down Judge Steve Stelljes called him down at the half-yard line.

A myriad of replays from all angles seemed to show that Julio had caught the ball with at least half of the ball over the line.  But it wasn’t convincing enough for the replay official to overturn.

As with many other opportunities presented to Atlanta that afternoon, the damage could have been mitigated if they could have pressed their advantage.  Facing fourth-and-inches for the touchdown that would put them back in the game, Freeman was buried in the backfield and the ball went over on downs.  Devonta Freeman was in the eye of the storm the entire game.  He had fumbled away an earlier chance at the one-yard line (in addition to getting called for the phantom penalty).

For the game, Atlanta scored just one red-zone touchdown in four such opportunities.  In half of their trips to the red zone – and both of their goal-to-go opportunities – Atlanta came away with no points at all.  Additionally, the aroused New Orleans defense sacked Ryan 5 times and held Atlanta to just 2 of 13 on third down.  That – in combination with the inconsistent performance of Peter Morelli’s crew – pushed the Saints to a 23-13 victory (gamebook).

Summary

My belief going into the weekend was that the teams that ended up winning these games were the teams that I thought were the better teams, so part of me wants to suppose that the Patriots, Rams and Saints would have found ways to win anyway.  It’s easy to say that about New England, as they dominated the second half of their game.  But the other two contests were quite a bit closer – ten points in the case of the Atlanta game, and Tennessee fell just four points short of their upset.  Close enough that a reversal of any of those calls would certainly have profoundly affected the game.

With one game left in the season, Buffalo, Tennessee and Atlanta all still have playoff chances.  Tennessee and Atlanta both face significant challenges (Jacksonville and Carolina, respectively).  The Bills immediate task (beat Miami) is easier, but they will be playing on the road and will need substantial help (beginning with Cincinnati beating Baltimore).

In all cases, these teams will be hoping for more consistency from the officiating crew.

Marquee Games Entertain, But Resolve Little

Two of the most anticipated games of Week 14 turned out to be two of the most entertaining games of the season.  Ultimately, though, neither may have added any clarity to the playoff picture.

Sunday night saw the suddenly hot Baltimore Ravens invade Pittsburgh.  Baltimore may not have been getting the attention that they – perhaps – merit this season.  In their Week Four game at home against these same Steelers, Baltimore trailed 19-0 at the half, staggering to an uninspiring 26-9 loss.  (Curious in that game is that other-worldly wide receiver Antonio Brown caught only one second half pass for just 8 yards, on his way to a 4-catch, 34-yards game.)

They entered their bye at just 4-5, and as late as the beginning of Week 13 they still ranked last in passing yards and next to last in total offense.

Through all the low moments of the season, John Harbaugh’s troops never flinched.  Believers in their locker room and trusting that over the course of the 16-game schedule the cream would eventually rise, the Ravens kept putting the pieces together.

In their Week 13 game, they overhauled the Detroit Lions 44-20.  They churned out a season-high 370 yards that day.  They also held the Lions to 78 rushing yards.  From Week Three to Week Seven, they surrendered at least 100 rushing yards in every game – and were pounded for at least 160 rushing yards in four of the five games.  In the five games since Week Seven, they have not allowed more than 78 yards in any of them.

Now it was the Sunday night of Week 14, and the Ravens found themselves with a 7-5 record and facing their 10-2 nemesis in Pittsburgh.  Offensively, the Ravens showed themselves every bit the equal of the Steeler defense that entered the game ranked second against the pass, fourth overall, fifth in points allowed, and eighth against the run (although it is worth noting that Pittsburgh was playing its first game without injured linebacker Ryan Shazier).  The Ravens put together six different drives of at least 50 yards, pounded Pittsburgh for 152 yards on the ground (led by Alex Collins and his 120 yards on 18 carries), scored touchdowns on all four of their red zone possessions (and all three of their goal-to-go possessions), and after falling behind 14-0 early in the second quarter, raced to a 31-20 lead by the end of the third quarter and a 38-29 lead midway through the fourth quarter.

But it was the Raven’s defense – the defense that had kept Baltimore alive all through the team’s offensive struggles – that was not up to the task at hand.  The Ravens’ defense entered the contest ranked first in interception percentage (5.1%), second in lowest passer rating against them (68.2), third in total pass defense and points allowed (207), fourth in sacks (33) and seventh in total defense.

But Ben Roethlisberger and the Pittsburgh offense had their way with them.  They converted 6 of 7 third downs in the first half – on their way to converting 12 of 18 for the night. Roethlisberger ended up throwing the ball 66 times for 506 yards – much of the damage coming on passes to Antonio Brown.

Held to just 34 yards in the first game against the Ravens, Brown scorched the Baltimore defense for 139 yards on 7 catches.  And that was just the second half.  For the game, Antonio checked in with 11 catches for 213 yards as the Steelers scored 10 points in the last 3:30 of the game to pull out a gutsy 39-38 victory (gamebook).

The win does – I suppose – demonstrate that Pittsburgh is still the better team.  But of course, their comparative records already hinted at that.  Very little else changed with the verdict.  The victory doesn’t change Pittsburgh’s trajectory that much.  Winners again of their division, all of their chips are on the table for this week’s game against the defending champion Patriots.  That game will likely determine the AFC’s top playoff spot.

For Baltimore, the loss isn’t devastating – although certainly disappointing.  Even with a win, Baltimore was unlikely to overtake the Steelers for the division title.  Meanwhile, their remaining schedule is less than frightening.  This week they travel to Cleveland to face the 0-13 Browns.  They end with home games against Indianapolis (3-11) and Cincinnati (5-8).  No victories are assured in the NFL, but this is a very manageable closing schedule.  A 10-6 record and a probable fifth-seed are all before them – if they take care of business.  Depending on who else does what to whom, a loss in one of those games may not sink them, but it will certainly open the door for a myriad of other teams.

The Changing AFC Playoff Picture

Also rising in the AFC race are the Los Angeles Chargers.  After their 0-4 start, I have been hesitant to jump on their bandwagon.  With last week’s conquest of Washington, the Chargers now sit in a tie for the division lead with the Kansas City team that was – at one point – 5-0.  Those two teams meet tonight (I am typing this it is about 2:30 Central Time), with the winner probably taking the division crown and the loser probably making the playoffs as a wild card team.

Both Baltimore and Los Angeles have profited from the demise of the Tennessee Titans.  After stubbing their toes in Arizona, the Titans are still 8-5 and are still clinging to the first wildcard spot.  Buffalo (7-6) currently has the other, with the Ravens and Chargers (who are both also 7-6) currently out of the picture – separated by the NFL’s intricate tie-breaking system.

But Tennessee still has the re-invigorated San Francisco 49ers, followed by the Rams and Jaguars (both 9-4 teams) left on their schedule.  Tennessee really needed the Arizona game.  Seeing them finish at better than 8-8 now is a stretch.  For their part, the Bills host the Miami Dolphins this week (the Dolphins hot off their surprise conquest of New England), but then finish the season on the road in New England and in Miami.

Like Baltimore, the Chargers are finally coming to the soft spot of their schedule.  After tonight’s big game, they finish with the Jets and Raiders.  Given the remaining schedules, it is not at all difficult to see Baltimore and LA pushing Tennessee and Buffalo out of the last two playoff spots.

The Dolphins’ victory did not materially damage the Patriot’s playoff chances.  With the conference’s second best record, it would be hard to imagine them not getting a playoff invite.  Nonetheless, the loss was not insignificant.  If they now lose to Pittsburgh in Pittsburgh Sunday afternoon, New England’s chances of finishing with the third seed and being relegated to the wild card round increases significantly.  A loss on Sunday would be their fourth.  If Jacksonville wins out (and their remaining schedule is Houston, San Francisco and Tennessee) they will also finish the season with just four losses, and a conference-record tie breaker over the Patriots.  (Under this scenario, the Jags would finish 10-2 in conference play with the Patriots finishing 9-3).

Of course, if New England beats Pittsburgh, they will probably go in as the number one seed.  That is how much is riding on this particular game.

Meanwhile, in the NFC Showdown

A few hours before Baltimore and Pittsburgh squared off, the big NFC showdown between Philadelphia and the LA Rams took place. With the Eagles starting play at 10-2 and the Rams at 9-3 (and playing at home) it was easy to see home field throughout the playoffs riding on this game.

Coming off a disappointing loss to Seattle the previous week, the Eagles were ready for the Rams from the opening kick.  They scored 3 touchdowns in the game’s first 20 minutes, and took a 24-14 lead into halftime.  The Eagles rolled up 304 yards of offense and 17 first downs in the first half alone.

But the Rams would not go away quietly.  In a furious second half that featured two touchdown drives of 70 or more yards (each of which took less than three-and-a-half minutes) and a blocked punt returned for a touchdown, the Rams pushed their way to a 35-31 lead early in the fourth quarter.  But the Eagles scored the last 12 points of the day to finish with a 43-35 victory (game book).

Now at 11-2, the Eagles sit on top of the conference – and with the win over Los Angeles (and the tie-breaker that comes with that) – a clear path to the top seed in the division.

Except for the fact that they lost their quarterback along the way.

With about four minutes left in the third quarter, quarterback phenom Carson Wentz squirted into the end zone for an apparent touchdown.  The play wouldn’t count due to a penalty, but the hit he endured certainly would.  Sandwiched between two defenders as he dove over the line, the anterior cruciate ligament (ACL) in Carson’s left knee gave way.

Wentz actually finished the drive – even throwing an eventual touchdown pass to Alshon Jeffrey – before retiring to the sideline for good.  His spectacular 2017 season has come to a close.

Into the breach now is Philadelphia’s once-and-future starter, Nick Foles.

Foles led Philadelphia to a playoff berth in 2013, and was so impressive that the Rams traded Sam Bradford to Philadelphia for Nick.  But Foles was a disappointment in his one season for the then-St-Louis Rams, going 4-7 in his 11 starts for them in 2015.

So now Nick is back in Philly.  As I have pointed out numerous times this season (here for example), the Eagles have been more than just Wentz.  They have been bolstered by an excellent defense and a running game that has – at times – bordered on the phenomenal.  It is not inconceivable that Foles can bring them home with the top seed in the conference.  With the Giants, Raiders and Cowboys left (those last two games at home) the Eagles chances at home field throughout the playoffs are better than OK.

The question will be, what happens once the playoffs start.

The NFC Playoff Picture – as it Now Stands

Last week, the Seahawks took a leg up on the last NFC playoff spot with their upset win over Philadelphia.  This week, they gave it back through the combination of their own loss in Jacksonville and Atlanta’s upset of the New Orleans Saints.

Behind the 11-2 Eagles sit the 10-3 Minnesota Vikings (who are also coming off a loss).  The Rams and Saints – both 9-4 – come next, with the Rams holding the tie-breaker with their earlier win over New Orleans.

Carolina – after their big victory over Minnesota – has tied New Orleans at 9-4, but the Saints won both games against the Panthers, so they hold the tie-breaker.  The Panthers are solidly entrenched as the fifth seed, while Atlanta (by virtue of their win over New Orleans) has currently passed Seattle (after their loss to Jacksonville) for the last playoff spot.  Both of those teams are 8-5, with the Falcons holding the tie-breaker due to an earlier victory over the Seahawks.

While I think we’ll still see some shifting in the AFC, the NFC is starting to look pretty settled to me.

Congratulations to the Fans of the Miami Marlins

In a quick baseball note, it was announced earlier this week that the baseball team in Miami had traded All-Star outfielder Marcell Ozuna to the Cardinals.  In exchange, Miami received arguably the most electric arm in all of the minors and three more prospects.

The 2018 season will obviously be another re-building year in Miami, but for the years 2019 and beyond Marlin fans should be giddy about the trade.  Sandy Alcantara – the key figure in the trade – lights up the radar gun, routinely hitting 101 and sometimes 102 with an almost nonchalant delivery.  He also has devastating breaking pitches.  Sandy is just 22, and his command isn’t major league ready just yet.  But he has all the ability to be a dominant pitcher in this league for years to come.

If it were me, I would have never traded Alcantara for Ozuna even straight up.  Miami would have had to give me another solid major league player and one or two top prospects for Sandy.  To think that the Marlins not only didn’t have to give anything else to the Cardinals, but actually received three other excellent prospects – including a very exciting outfielder in Magneuris Sierra makes this trade nothing short of highway robbery.

My congratulations to the Marlin organization.  They read the smell of desperation coming from the Cardinal front office and took full advantage.  You may need to wait a year or two to see the fruits of this effort, but they will come.