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Super Bowl LII: The Last Word

For more than three hours on the evening of February second, all of America (or at least the football-watching portion of that population) tuned into Super Bowl LII looking for the precise moment that the Philadelphia’s Eagles’ Cinderella ride would turn back into a pumpkin.

Even after the Eagles – history’s most dis-respected number one seed – had opened up a 15-3 lead on the New England Patriots just 21 minutes into the contest, the haters remained unconvinced.  We had all seen this film before.

With 5:15 left before the end of the half, Nick Foles’ long toss up the right sideline deflected into the hands of New England’s Duron Harmon for the game’s first turnover.  Surely that would change the momentum of the game.  But after New England went 90 yards for a touchdown following the interception, Philadelphia answered with a touchdown of their own before the half and went into the locker room with a ten-point lead.

Like the monster in all of the slasher films, the defending champions from New England refused to die.  They opened the second half with touchdowns on three consecutive drives, and finally – with 9:22 left in the game – pushed ahead 33-32.  Surely this would finally be the end of the under-dog Eagles.

This was, after all, the same Patriot team that overcame a 28-3 deficit in the Super Bowl just the year before, and just two weeks earlier had overturned an 11-point deficit against Jacksonville to qualify for this year’s big game.  It seemed almost expected that Philly’s 12-point lead would at some point evaporate.

But on this evening the under-appreciated Eagles slew the dragon from Boston by doing the one thing that the Falcons (in Super Bowl LI) and the Jaguars (in this year’s AFC Championship Game) were unable to do.

They kept scoring.

In last year’s Super Bowl, the Falcons were done scoring at the 8:31 mark of the third quarter.  After having three earlier touchdown drives of at least 62 yards, the Falcons totaled just 44 yards (and 3 first downs) on their last 4 possessions.  Jacksonville scored its last touchdown of the game at 7:06 of the second quarter.  They had moved for 158 yards and 11 first downs in their back-to-back touchdown drives.  Over their final 9 possessions of the game, the Jaguars managed just two field goals, 193 yards and 9 first downs.

Doug Pederson’s offense never relented.  Every time the Patriots surged back into the game, the Eagles responded.  They ended the Super Bowl by scoring on all of their last 5 possessions following the interception to carry off a 41-33 victory (gamebook).

Reversing the Trend

There was an era not too long ago when the Super Bowl was traditionally one of the dullest contests of the season.  Beginning with the Raiders 38-9 thumping of the Redskins back in Super Bowl XVIII (18), all of the next 5 Super Bowls would be decided by at least 19 points, with four of the five being decided by 22 points or more.  The average margin of victory in those five Super Bowls was 27.6 points.  Two Super Bowls after the last of those (Washington’s 42-10 pummeling of Denver), the San Francisco 49ers authored the most lopsided victory in Super Bowl history – a 55-10 rout also at the expense of the Broncos.  It was an era where advertisers pushed to get their commercials aired in the first quarter as a large percentage of the viewing population had moved on to something else long before halftime.  From Dallas’ 24-3 victory over Miami in Super Bowl VI (6), through Tampa Bay’s 48-21 conquest of Oakland in Super Bowl XXXVII (37), only 9 of 32 contests were decided by one score or less, and the average margin of victory was a disappointing 16.5 points.

But, beginning with New England’s tense 32-29 victory over Carolina that next season, the dynamic has decidedly changed.  Ten of the last fifteen have been one score games – including this one, which ended with Tom Brady throwing into the end zone as time expired.

And while the recent decade has brought us more competitive contests, the last three have been nothing short of transcendent.  Three seasons ago, the Super Bowl brought us Peyton Manning’s farewell.  One of the great presence’s in recent football history, Peyton went out a champion, leading Denver to a 24-10 decision over Carolina.  Last season, of course, Brady and the Patriots authored one of the great comebacks of all-time.

And two weeks ago the no-chance Eagles fashioned a stunning upset in a game that set a hatful of Super Bowl offensive records. League-wide all teams averaged 334.1 yards per game.  The Eagles racked up 323 yards and the Patriots managed 350 yards.

At the half.

Offense Galore

During the entertaining first half, the two teams combined for 673 yards on 72 plays – a breath-taking 9.3 yards per play.  By about the mid-point of the third quarter the two teams had set the Super Bowl record for combined yardage.  They would finish the affair with 1151 total yards and 9 combined touchdowns.  Nine different players ended with a run or a catch of at least 20 yards.  Four of them had pass catches of over 40 yards.

Together, the Eagles and Patriots were 15 for 26 on third down (.577), including 8 of 12 (.667) in the second half.  They were also 3-for-4 on fourth down.  The 33 points scored by New England were the most ever by a losing team in a Super Bowl (supplanting the 49ers, who scored 31 points in losing Super Bowl XLVII [48]) and the combined total of 74 points came within 1 point of the Super Bowl record (in Super Bowl XXIX [29] the 49ers outscored the San Diego Chargers 49-26).  Considering that this game saw two missed extra-points, a missed field goal, and two failed two-point conversions, that record held by the slimmest combination of circumstances imaginable.

The Defining Moment of Super Bowl LII

The contest will forever be remembered for the touchdown that the Eagles scored on fourth-and-goal with 38 seconds left in the first half.  Leading by just three points, and with New England set to receive the second-half kickoff, Philadelphia simply could not afford to come away from this opportunity without points.  So, even the decision to go for the touchdown here was risky.  And for Pederson to reach deep into his bag of tricks for the tight-end option pass to the quarterback ranks as one of the gutsiest calls in the now-long history of the Super Bowl.  The potential for disaster here was huge.  With an inexperienced passer throwing to the flat on the goal line, any of the numerous ways that play could have backfired would almost certainly have cost Philly the game.

But the play didn’t backfire.  Trey Burton threw an accurate pass, and Foles made the catch in the end zone.

It will be remembered by many as the critical play of the game.  But here’s the thing.  Even in spite of this highlight-reel play, the Eagles still found themselves trailing with nine minutes left in the season.  The actual play of the game – not so much highlight reel stuff – might well have been Philadelphia’s other fourth-down play.

That the Eagles trailed by one with 9:22 to go was the least of their concerns.  The raspberry seed in their collective wisdom tooth was the Patriot offense that they had not yet managed to stop.  In nine possessions to that point of the game, New England had managed at least 1 first down in all of them, and 2 or more in 7 of the 9.  Six of the nine had covered at least 74 yards, and eight of them accounted for at least 48 yards.  The nine had resulted in 4 touchdowns, 2 field goals, 1 missed field goal, 1 missed fourth-down play, and the end of the first half.  Every drive but one to this point had ended in Philadelphia territory – and the one that didn’t made it to the 50-yard line.  Philadelphia needed to find some way to keep this offense off the scoreboard for the rest of the game.

So, as the Eagles lined up along their own 25-yard line with those 9:22 to go, more than just the score to put them back in front, Philadelphia needed to kill the clock.  And when a third-and-one screen pass to Torrey Smith ended shy of first-down yardage, the Eagles’ season hung in the balance.

There was still 5:39 left in the game.  With the fourth-and-one, Philadelphia sat on their own 45-yard line.  A punt here was an open invitation for New England to put an exclamation point on their comeback.  But a failed fourth-down play would give the Patriots a short field and a golden opportunity for the game-clinching score.  In spite of the fact that Philadelphia ran for 164 yards this day, they opted for a pass, risking everything on the arm and the judgement of the much maligned Nick Foles.

Nicky Who?

As recently as 2015, Nick was a sometimes starter for the St Louis Rams, fashioning a 4-7 record as a starter with an exceedingly modest 69.0 passer rating.  He spent 2016 sitting on the bench in Kansas City, and had much the same function in Philadelphia for most of this year.

And now, everything depended on him.

In a 3-tight-end set, Foles had Zach Ertz tight to the right side, and Brent Celek and Burton lined up tight to the left.  Ertz and Celek ran a simple shallow cross against New England’s man coverage.  Devin McCourty – in coverage on Ertz – ran headlong into Celek and Patrick Chung – who had coverage on Celek.  And now there was just Ertz roaming completely free underneath.  The pressure on Foles was quick.  Trey Flowers slipped immediately inside tackle Halapoulivaati Vaitai to flush Foles to his left, and Kyle Van Noy stunted around Vaitai’s back to hit Nicky just after he released the ball.  The throw was a little high, but Zach pulled it down.  And the Eagle drive continued.

That play was the lynch-pin of a devastating 14-play, 75-yard drive that consumed 7:01 from the remaining game-clock.  Foles connected twice more with Ertz for third-down conversions – including the 11-yard touchdown pass (on third-and-7) that concluded the drive.  McCourty had Zach in man coverage on that play as well, but Devin stumbled just slightly as Zach made his break to the inside, creating the opening that led to the game-clinching touchdown.

Coming off the game of his life against Minnesota, Nick Foles was very good again against New England.  He finished 28-of-43 (65.12%) for 373 yards, 3 touchdowns and the interception.  His rating against the Patriots overall was a strong 106.06.  But once again, he was at his very best on third down.

Against the Vikings, he completed 10-of-11 on third down for 159 yards and 9 first downs (including 2 touchdowns).  On third-down against the Patriots, Nicky completed 11 of 14 for 169 yards – again for 9 first downs and 2 touchdowns. Thus Nick Foles finished the last two games of the season completing 21 of 25 passes (84%) for 328 yards, 18 first downs and 4 touchdowns on third down – a combined 158.33 rating.

Of all the remarkable numbers amassed by Foles in his surprising Super Bowl run, his dominance on third down are both the most amazing and the most vital.

He also finished the game on a hot streak comparable to the way he finished up the Vikings.  Beginning with his 22-yard touchdown toss to Corey Clement about midway through the third, Nicky finished 13 for his last 16 (81.25%) – albeit for just 127 yards (9.77 per completion) – and 2 touchdowns.  His passer rating reached 139.32 as he finished the game.

Coming down the stretch, Nick began to look more and more for Nelson Agholor – who was matched mostly against Chung.  Patrick – one of the defensive heroes for the Patriots during the playoff run – had a tough Super Bowl that included being knocked out of the game twice.

Five of Foles’ last 16 passes went in Agholor’s direction, with Nelson catching all five for 54 yards and 4 first downs.

Defensive Measures

As did Minnesota, New England decided to play man coverage against the Eagle receivers and brought frequent pressure.  Nick got man coverage on 79% of his drop-backs, including being blitzed 37% of the time.  Foles chewed up the Patriot blitz to the tune of 11 of 16 (68.75%) for 126 yards and 1 touchdown (a 113.02 passer rating).  The Patriots did a little better when they played man and didn’t blitz (a 109.49 rating on 11 of 18 passing for 184 yards, 2 touchdowns and the interception).

Best of all against Foles may have been the zone defenses the Patriots threw at him, though they went to zone too infrequently to make much of a judgement.  Foles was 6 of 9 against the New England zones, but for just 63 yards and 2 first downs.

When they could pressure Foles, they did very well against him. Credit to the Eagle offensive line that Nick only threw 11 passes under duress (about a fourth of his attempts).  He completed only 3 of those passes for just 9 yards.  All three of those completions came in that pivotal fourth-quarter touchdown drive.  Foles was also just 4 for 11 when they could flush him out of the pocket. Again, this was something New England couldn’t do enough of.

Does Foles Have an Encore In Him?

The great post-season mystery now becomes what happens with Nick Foles?  With emerging superstar Carson Wentz set to return, this playoff run was essentially an audition for Foles.  Have these last three games convinced anyone that Nicky is their quarterback of the future?  Or is it more likely – given his recent performance in St Louis – that this playoff run had more to do with the team around him?

Let me say this for Foles.  During the playoff run, he made excellent decisions and threw a very catchable ball.  He especially has a nice touch on deep passes.  In all this, though, I don’t think I’m completely convinced Nicky is the answer as anyone’s starter.   And even after all this, I’m not sure that everyone understands what was truly remarkable about Foles, the Eagles, and their 2017 playoff run.

Put the tape back in and watch the first possession of the game.  Watch Foles coolly and confidently run the Eagle offense.  In the eyes of the rest of the world, Nick Foles had everything to prove.  But that’s not what you saw two weeks ago.  You saw a backup quarterback playing in the Super Bowl with absolutely nothing to prove – to himself or anyone else.  That is because his entire team, from owner down to ball boy, had already placed their entire confidence in him.  Nick Foles was their quarterback.  The defense didn’t put extra pressure on themselves. Neither did the offensive line.  The coaches made no effort to hide their quarterback.  He threw 11 times in the 16 plays of Philadelphia’s first two drives (a field goal and a touchdown) and threw on 10 of the 14 plays of the game-winning drive in the fourth quarter.

Without exception, everyone in the Eagle locker room firmly believed that Foles would deliver a starting quarterback effort that evening – and with 373 passing yards, 3 touchdown passes tossed – and one caught, Nicky Foles did just that.

Imagine for a moment how difficult that is.  Imagine All-Pro defensive lineman Fletcher Cox standing on the sideline watching Wentz not get up after scoring that touchdown against the Rams.  Imagine what must have been going through his head.  And Jason Kelce’s.  And Zach Ertz’.  And coach Pederson’s.  In the pit of your stomach, how can you not feel that your season had just ended?  Remember, Carson Wentz was not just their starting quarterback.  He was the soul of the team.  He was the piece that made the whole machine go.  If you had been watching the NFL season up to that point, you would have tabbed Carson Wentz as one of the handful of irreplaceable players.  Every other member of the Eagle team must have felt his loss as a debilitating punch to the gut.

And then somewhere in between that devastating moment and the time the Eagles took the field for their first playoff game that most under-appreciated element of professional sports took over.  The Eagle locker room healed itself.  They embraced Nicky Foles, and endowed him with their complete trust and confidence.  This wasn’t a pretend “oh, sure, we’re all behind you” confidence.  Nicky Foles became – for a few dynamic weeks – the sum of the faith of his team.

Even should the Eagles and Wentz go on to experience success on the level of the Patriots, this first Super Bowl win (and the under-dog status that they carried into it) will always be memorable to them.  I’m not sure, though, history will forever remember this aspect of this remarkable achievement.

Oh, Yes . . .

Speaking of history, the quarterback on the other end of this entertaining contest has been involved in a bit of it himself.

The Eagles managed to hold Tom Brady and the Patriot offense to field goal attempts in three of their first four possessions by bringing fairly consistent pressure.  But as New England’s offensive line got their feet set under them, Brady became Brady again.

Beginning with a 25-yard completion to Rob Gronkowski on the second play of the third quarter, and continuing until Brady threw the touchdown pass to Gronkowski that put New England ahead in the fourth, Brady completed 12 out of 14 passes for 181 yards and all three touchdowns.  He worked with great frequency and effectiveness to the left side, where Ronald Darby was a frequent target.  Tom completed 12 of 14 passes (85.71%) to the offensive left side of the formation for 215 yards (15.36 yards per attempt) and 1 touchdown – a 142.56 rating.  In fact, subtract two spikes to stop the clock and his last 7 passes against rather extreme zone defenses, and Brady was 25 of 39 (64.1%) for 465 yards (18.6 yards per completion) with the 3 touchdowns – a 130.82 passer rating.

Not much that Philly tried against Tom succeeded. The Eagles went to predominantly man coverages – doing so on 70% of Brady’s pass attempts (other than the spikes or the prevents).  They blitzed less often than New England (only 20% of the time), but with no better results.  Tom went 6 for 8 for 111 yards against the Eagle blitzes.  But when they played man without the blitz, things went even worse.  Brady completed only 11 of 20 passes against those man coverages (55%), but for 215 yards (19.55 yards per completion) and 2 of his touchdowns – a 126.04 rating.  The Eagles didn’t play much zone – and just as well.  Tom was 8 of 11 (72.73%) when they did, for 139 yards (12.64 per attempted pass) and the other touchdown – a 145.08 passer rating.

Frankly, when Brady and the offense got the ball back, trailing by 5 with 2:21 left and holding one time out, I thought – and I’m sure I wasn’t alone – that the Patriots would add one more improbable comeback to their swelling playoff lore.

Not What You Might Have Expected

But then the unusual happened.  Instead of the Patriots making that clutch fourth-quarter, game-deciding play, it was the Eagles making it against them.  In a game that featured just one punt and one sack, it was the latter that finally decided matters.  With New England facing a second-and-2 on their own 33, Brandon Graham surged underneath Patriot guard Shaq Mason and closed quickly enough on Brady that he hit the ball as Tom was raising it for a pass.

For a small eternity the football – and the season – bounced freely on the turf, to be gathered in in the next heartbeat by Eagle defensive end Derek Barnett.  The Eagles had the ball on the Patriot 31 with just 2:09 left.

This would be the only time of the game that the Eagles would go conservative – and it almost cost them.  Three running plays gained 4 yards.  Jake Elliot finished the one minute-four second drive with the field goal that gave us the final score, and when New England finally got the ball back for their desperation drive, there was only 58 seconds left in the season – and the Patriots had 91 yards to cover.

And even at that, they were still throwing into the end zone as time expired.

A Warning Note

Among the more glamourous offensive records set in Super Bowl LII was the passing yardage record.  Brady became the first quarterback in the Super Bowl to throw for 500 yards in a game (505 to be exact).  Whose record did he break?  Why his own, of course.  The year before in Super Bowl LI Brady had thrown for 466 yards.  Across all of football this year, the average quarterback threw for about 3800 yards for the 16-game season.  In the last two Super Bowls, Brady has thrown for 971.

Impressive? Of course.  But the reason behind the record is even more instructive.  In Super Bowl LII, the Patriots ran 72 offensive plays.  They trailed in every one of them.  They didn’t have so much as one offensive snap where they were at least tied in the game.  They trailed by 10 points or more in 24 of those plays.

Two weeks earlier against Jacksonville, New England held the ball for 61 offensive plays.  They trailed in 42 of those – finding themselves down by ten points or more in 22 of them.  In last year’s Super Bowl, they trailed in 67 of 93 plays, finding themselves at least ten points behind in 53 of them.

So, during their last two Super Bowl games and their last AFC Championship game, New England has run a total of 226 plays.  They have been behind 80% of the time (181 plays) and trailed by at least 10 points almost half of the time (99 plays – 43.8%).  Brady – of necessity – has thrown 110 passes in his last two Super Bowls.

Taking nothing away from the Falcons, Jaguars or Eagles, the Patriots have been having an increasingly difficult time matching their opponent’s emotion in these big games.  Brady reported to Al Michales that he didn’t even feel nervous at the start of this – his eighth Super Bowl.  In particular, during the start of the Atlanta game, the Patriots looked almost like they were standing still.

There are already a sizeable number of mysteries that the 2018 season will answer.  The 2017 season saw a lot of upheaval.  Long-time doormats in Jacksonville, Tennessee, Buffalo, Los Angeles (and, yes, Philadelphia) all earned playoff bids.  Are these teams on the rise? Or one year wonders?  Meanwhile playoff mainstays in Green Bay, Dallas and Seattle watched from home.  Are they franchises in decline?  Or were they mostly unlucky?  What does the future hold for marquee quarterbacks like Eli Manning, Aaron Rodgers, Deshaun Watson, Jimmy Garoppolo, Kirk Cousins, and Alex Smith – not to mention backups turned into heroes Nick Foles and Case Keenum?

As compelling as any of these mysteries is what we will see from the 2018 version of the New England Patriots.  How they respond to this surprising loss will be one of the stories to follow – and one of the keys to the direction the franchise is heading.

As for the Eagles – who jumped from 7-9 in 2016 to world champions this year – they will now be challenged with handling success.  Staying on top is always harder than getting there.

It all sets up for a fascinating 2018.

The Patriots are Hard to Kill

It’s always difficult to say how things might have turned out.

As Tom Brady and the Patriots broke the huddle with just 10:49 left in the game – and possibly their season – they faced a third-and-18 back on their own 25-yard line.  They were trailing by ten points.  It’s not fair to say that the entire game rode on this play, but if Jacksonville could stop this one third-and-18 play and run any kind of time off the clock on their next possession, the noose would certainly tighten around the necks of the defending champions.

But, comfortable in the pocket, Brady fired a strike 21-yards down the middle of the field where Danny Amendola gathered it in for the first down.  A few moments later, Brady would throw the touchdown pass to Amendola that would set the come-back in motion.  To no one’s profound surprise, the Patriots would go on to claim a 24-20 victory (gamebook) and propel themselves into Super Bowl LII.

In one sense, it was classic New England.  With them it always seems that when someone needs to make a play, someone does.  The grit level on this team is uncommonly high.  But there is another aspect of this play (and this game) that will (or at least should) haunt the players, coaches and fans of the Jacksonville Jaguars for the rest of the off-season.  On perhaps the game’s pivotal play, Brady looked up to see the Jacksonville defense in cover-4.

The Zone of Woe

In last week’s Divisional Round, Jacksonville had barely survived Pittsburgh.  In spite of a seemingly insurmountable early lead, the Steelers kept crawling back into the game, and they did it by the grace of the Jaguar zone defenses (my review of the proceedings is here).  Repeatedly, linebackers didn’t drop deep enough or wide enough.  Frequently defensive backs abandoned their zone responsibilities to follow a receiver.  And time after time they were burned by it.

In the game’s very first series, analyst Tony Romo pointed out that – while the Jaguars had played zone on the first two snaps – the expectation was that they would play the New England receivers almost exclusively with man coverage throughout the game.

There was every reason for him to have this expectation.  Tony saw the same thing I did.  While they tend to play undisciplined in zone coverage, Jacksonville is among the very best in football at man coverage.  In fact, when Brady faced man coverage last Sunday, he was held to just a 45.45% completion percentage, while averaging 5.36 yards per attempted pass.  His passer rating against the Jacksonville man-coverage schemes was a pitiable 62.31.  When permitted to challenge the Patriots man-on-man, the Jaguar defenders backed up all of their bragging leading up to the game.  For all the chatter from and concerning second-year cornerback Jalen Ramsey, the surprising star of the defense was Aaron Colvin who matched the quickness of Amendola almost every chance he had to cover him.

Mystifyingly, he infrequently got that opportunity.

Of his 42 dropbacks, Brady faced man coverage only 12 times – less than 29% of the time.  All the rest of the game he saw zone coverages – and relished them.  He completed 21 of his 27 passes against the zones he saw (77.78%) for 231 yards – an average of 8.56 yards per attempted pass – with both of his touchdown passes thrown against the Jacksonville zone.  His passer rating of 127.01 was more than double his rating against man coverages.  And for some un-obvious reason, Brady saw zone coverages over 70% of the time.

I’m not sure if Jacksonville believed that zone coverages could limit New England’s big-play opportunities, but nothing could be farther from the truth.  After giving up a bushel-full of big-plays to the Steelers, Jacksonville saw New England complete 5 passes of at least 20 yards, including 2 passes of at least 30 yards against those leaky zones.  On the third-and-18 play mentioned above, neither linebacker (Telvin Smith nor Myles Jack) really dropped at all into their zones.  They mostly stood still, creating at least a ten-yard gap between them and the secondary – more than enough room for Brady and Amendola to maneuver.

While all of the defensive flaws previously mentioned were in evidence, Jacksonville’s most exploited weak link last Sunday was probably cornerback A.J. Bouye.  Excellent in man coverage all year, AJ plays zone as though the concept were to allow the receiver to catch the ball and then make the tackle.  Cognizant of not getting beaten deep, Bouye gives ground, and continues to give ground.  Of Brady’s 21 completions against zone coverages, no fewer than 5 were passes of at least 10 yards to receivers (mostly Brandon Cooks) who simply ran up the left sideline and turned around to catch the pass.  These 5 pass played totaled 69 yards.

Numbers From the Patriot Come Back

Zone or no zone, the game featured the usual Brady heroics.  He was 11 for 16 (68.75%) when trailing in the game by at least 10 points – his completions going for 167 yards – an average of 10.44 yards per attempted pass.  He also threw the first of his touchdown passes in this circumstance for a passer rating of 123.70.  In the fourth quarter alone he was 9 of 14 for 138 yards and both touchdowns.  Eight of his 9 fourth-quarter completions achieved first downs.  His fourth quarter rating was 136.31.  In case you are wondering, that is really good.

Fewer Heroics from Bortles

While Brady’s heroics have come to be expected, the curiosity in this game was the quarterback on the other sideline.  The much-maligned Blake Bortles had led his team into the Championship Game with a strong performance against Pittsburgh.  His passing line in this game would be good, but deceptively so.

His first appearance in a Championship Game finished with Blake completing 23 of 36 passes for 293 yards and a touchdown – good for a 98.5 rating.  But this number comes with a couple of caveats.

First of all, Blake’s great day was pretty much a function of short passes off of play action.  Because the Jaguar running game is so proficient, Bortles repeatedly threw off play action.  He was 10 of 13 (76.92%) throwing off play action for 158 yards (12.15 per attempted pass) and his only touchdown pass – good for a 142.47 rating.  Nine of the ten completions gained first downs.

Additionally, when throwing to receivers who were less than ten yards from the line of scrimmage, Blake completed 18 of 23 (78.26%) for 180 yards and the touchdown – a rating of 113.77%.  When throwing to receivers at or beyond ten yards from the line of scrimmage, Blake was only 5 of 13 (38.46%) for 113 yards.

Additionally, Blake faded as the game went along.  He began his afternoon hitting 15 of his first 17 passes (88.24%!) for 184 yards and a touchdown.  Thereafter, Blake was only 8 for his last 19 (42.11%) for 109 yards.  Blake had some late-game opportunities.  But he either didn’t notice the receiver, or made a poor pass.

Missed Opportunities

It’s half-way through the third, with the Jags leading 17-10.  Bortles is backed up on his own 10-yard line, but rolls to his right and sees Marqise Lee open on a crossing route at the 25 or so, but he heaves the throw into the sideline.

In the waning moments of the third quarter, still 17-10, Jacksonville is first-and-ten on the New England 27.  This time it was Allen Hurns wide open up the right sideline, but Blake didn’t see him and dumped the ball off to Ben Koyack in the flat (who dropped the pass).

An early fourth-quarter pass to Marcedes Lewis might have done some damage, but Bortles couldn’t elevate the pass to give the taller Lewis a chance to out-jump the smaller Patrick Chung.

About half-way through the fourth quarter, still clinging to a 20-17 lead, another pass to Lewis was broken up by Chung.  Had he not made up his mind so soon, he would have seen Keelan Cole wide open over the middle for a damaging first down.  Instead, Jacksonville punted back to New England.

On their next possession he threw just behind Hurns, losing a first down and bringing up third-and-nine.

On their last desperation drive – trailing now 24-20 with 2:12 left – Bortles miss-connected with Fournette up the left sideline.  Even while Lee was uncovering on the right.

Of course, no quarterback – even Brady – hits every pass or notices every open receiver.  This is only to point out that while Brady was orchestrating his come-back, Bortles had opportunities as well.  There were plays there to be made.

Assessing Blake

What does all this mean in regards to Bortles?  There have been questions surrounding him all season (and I am one the ones who have asked them).  How do the Jags evaluate their future at this position?  In short, is Blake a quarterback to build around?

I don’t think we can say yet.  Certainly this game highlighted the gulf between Bortles and Brady.  But, honestly there is a gulf between Brady and everybody.  This was also Blake’s first playoff run.  I don’t yet know what his ceiling is.  But I am left with the distinct impression that the more he played – and especially the more he played in big games – the better and more confident he got. The verdict on Blake is “wait and see.”

Running Against the Patriots

The final great expediency before the Patriots was to stop the Jacksonville running game.  In their surprising run that brought them to within about ten minutes of the Super Bowl, the Jaguars unveiled the most prolific running game in the NFL.  They averaged 141.4 yards per game on the ground, and scored 18 rushing touchdowns – second most in football.  Seven different times during the regular season they rushed for more than 150 yards, including rolling up 231 yards on the Steelers the first time they faced them.  In their two playoff victories they stung Buffalo with 155 yards and Pittsburgh with 164.  Running the ball was clearly their offensive bedrock and their best chance to upset the invincible Patriots.

But, although they only finished twentieth in the NFL in defending the run, the Patriots run defense – as I have noted – has come together at the season’s most critical juncture.  They allowed just 124 rushing yards combined over their last two regular season games and then held Tennessee (coming off a 202-yard rushing performance in their first playoff game) to just 65 yards.

With the early success of the passing attack, Jacksonville opened an early 14-3 lead.  That, with an under-rated defensive effort that kept New England in check, allowed the Jaguars to keep attempting to run against New England.  Thirty-two times (30 times not counting a couple of kneel-downs by Bortles at the end of the first half) Jacksonville challenged the Patriot run defense.  They ran the ball on 19 of their 32 first down plays.

Those 30 legitimate rush attempts netted just 103 yards (3.4 yards per carry).  In the second half – when Jacksonville desperately needed to sustain a little offense – it was even worse.  Fifteen times they ran in the second half for just 41 yards (2.7 per).  After compiling 5 rushing first downs in the first half, they managed just 1 in the second half.  Four rushing plays in the fourth quarter – all by Leonard Fournette – totaled just 3 yards. (Note: one of the keys to this success was keeping Bortles in the pocket.  After Blake had rushed for 88 yards against Buffalo, he had only the two kneel-downs in this one.)

A significant portion of this success was defensive design. During 18 of those 30 running plays, New England stacked 8 or 9 defenders close to the line of scrimmage.  Those running plays earned just 43 yards (2.4 per).  The 12 times Jacksonville ran the ball with 7 defenders or less “in the box” they produced 60 yards (5.0 per).

But as in recent weeks, the bulk of this success was the disciplined play of an unheralded collection of defenders who have made a habit of imposing their will on some of the game’s better running games.  Again, Malcolm Brown, Trey Flowers and Patrick Chung provided outstanding run defense.  Ricky Jean-Francois made more plays than one might suspect.

But standing out to me in this game was a lightly-regarded six-year pro and former seventh-round draft pick playing his first season in New England and his first as a starter.  As the game went on, Lawrence Guy began to own it.

Only credited with 3 official tackles against the run, Guy repeatedly held his ground against double-team blocks to stack up the line of scrimmage.  Once in the second quarter he pushed the double-team formed against him back into the backfield to disrupt the play.  On one third quarter run, he tossed center Brandon Linder aside like so much laundry to make the tackle.  As near as I could tell, Lawrence had himself the game of his life in the most important game of his career (so far).

The significance of this development cannot be overstated.  With Carson Wentz unavailable for Philadelphia, the Eagles will be faced with the same expediency of running the ball that both the Titans and Jaguars had.  Unless they can manage this suddenly elite defensive front any better that Tennessee or Jacksonville, they will almost certainly suffer their same fate.

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.

Clarity at the Top of the AFC Playoff Race

There were two minutes and six seconds left in what was arguably the most significant game in the AFC this season.  After finishing second to the Patriots so many times, the Pittsburgh Steelers were one defensive stop away from claiming this victory.  New England broke the huddle, first down with the ball on their own 23, holding two time outs, but trailing 19-24.

On the first play of the drive, quarterback Tom Brady stepped up into the pocket and tossed the ball toward tight end Rob Gronkowski, running a shallow cross from the offensive right toward the left.  But the ball was tipped.  Cameron Heyward grazed the ball with his fingertips – enough to throw it off course.

For a small eternity the game – like the football itself – hovered over the turf of Heinz Field.  And standing beneath it was Steeler defensive back Sean Davis well positioned to make the game-sealing interception.

But the ball was fluttering unevenly – and it was quite wet from the continuous rain – and it glanced off Sean’s left hand, falling harmlessly to the ground.

And, in that moment, you knew how things would turn out.  The exact details of this one couldn’t possibly have been foreseen, but as Davis lay on cold-wet turf mourning the interception that got away, you knew that that was the mistake that would cost Pittsburgh the top seed in the conference.

Consecutive 26-yard passes from Brady to Gronkowski positioned New England at the Steeler 25-yard line.  From here, Rob made the play that Davis couldn’t.  Brady’s next pass was short and looked like it would land at Gronkowski’s feet.  But Rob managed to turn his body back toward the ball and was able to pluck it cleanly before it hit the ground.

New England scored the touchdown on the next play, that – after the two-point conversion (that also went to Gronkowski) – gave New England its 27-24 lead.

At that point, there were 56 seconds left.  Just enough time for another fantastic finish.

On the first play of the succeeding Pittsburgh drive, rookie receiver JuJu Smith-Schuster took a short pass over the middle and flanked the New England defense.  Sixty-nine yards later he was pulled down on the Patriot ten-yard line.  There were 34 seconds left as Pittsburgh called its final time out.  Quarterback Ben Roethlisberger then found tight end Jesse James just in front of the end zone.  James’ knees touched down short of the goal line, but as no Patriot had touched him he was free to fall the rest of the way into the end zone for the game-winning touchdown.

But not so fast.

As the officials kept reviewing the play and as the announcers in the booth kept cycling through the replay, it began to dawn on everyone that James hadn’t held the ball all the way to the ground.  As he was landing in the end zone, he came down ball-first.  The impact jarred it enough that it popped loose – just for an instant before Jesse gathered it back in.  But that instant was enough.  The call on the field was reversed – and Pittsburgh never would score that touchdown.

Even more shocking would be that the Pittsburgh offense wouldn’t even walk off the field with the game-tying field goal.  Two plays later – on a play that looked like Ben was going to spike the ball to set up the field goal – Roethlisberger’s end-zone pass was deflected and intercepted.  The Patriots had escaped again with a 27-24 victory (game book), and that it came with a twist of controversy made it seem all the more familiar.

Up until those devastating last two minutes, Pittsburgh achieved everything it needed to.  Roethlisberger started 15 of 19 with 2 touchdown passes, and the Steelers went 7 for 9 on third downs and held the ball for 19:53 of the first 30 minutes of play.  The Patriots went to the locker at the half trailing 17-10 with only 20 yards rushing.

Pittsburgh finished the game out-rushing New England 143-77, with featured back Le’Veon Bell chalking up 117 yards on 24 carries (4.9 yards per).  Meanwhile, after superstar wide receiver Antonio Brown left the game with an ankle injury, rookie Smith-Schuster rose to the occasion.  His 69-yard catch and run finished his evening with 6 catches (in 6 targets) for 114 yards.  Pittsburgh ended the afternoon 10 of 16 on third down while holding New England to just 3 of 9 on that down.  The Steelers ended with 35:07 of possession time.

If this were a fantasy league matchup and statistics were the driving force, this would have been a victory for the Pittsburgh Steelers.  But this is the lesson that the Patriots repeatedly teach the rest of the NFL.  Both Davis and James had the chance to end the game, but neither could finish.  When you play New England, you pay dearly for all your mistakes.  No matter how well you play through the rest of the game, even slight errors in the fourth quarter will cost you almost every time.

Just ask the Atlanta Falcons and Seattle Seahawks.

Deciding Things in the West

Four weeks into this NFL season, when the Kansas City Chiefs sat at 4-0 and the Los Angeles Chargers had fallen to 0-4, few would have predicted that their December 16 matchup would have been for control of the AFC West.  Yet, with LA winning seven of nine after an 0-4 start, and the Chiefs dropping six of eight after winning their first five, both teams brought 7-6 records into last Saturday’s matchup in Arrowhead.

For the Chiefs, the year-long indicator has been the running game.  In their 5-0 start, they ran for at least 112 yards in every game, averaging 156.2 yards on the ground.  They averaged 33 points a game through the first five.  Over the next six games, the running attack slowed to a crawl.  They averaged just 76.3 rushing yards in those games.  Kansas City lost 5 of the 6, averaging just 18 points a contest.

But the KC tailspin ended just in time – and it was the running game that led out.  Even though they lost their Week 13 contest against the Jets, the running attack started to resurface (they finished that game with 112 rushing yards).  They ran for 165 in Week 14 while beating Oakland 26-15.

Now hosting LA in Week 15 they carried a tight 10-6 lead into halftime.  From there – looking like the early season Chiefs – they rolled to a 30-13 win (game book). While the defense took the ball away four times, the second half belonged to rookie running back Kareem Hunt and his offensive line.  Hunt motored for 115 yards on 16 carries, and the team finished with 126 rushing yards on 21 carries.

In the second half alone.

For the game – while quarterback Alex Smith kept the Charger pass defense honest completing 23 of 30 passes (76.7%) – Hunt finished the afternoon with 155 yards rushing, another 51 receiving, and 2 total touchdowns.  The Chiefs hung 174 rushing yards onto the Charger defense.

Even with the loss, though, Los Angeles’ playoff chances weren’t damaged all that much.  With games remaining in New York against the 5-9 Jets and at home against the 6-8 Oakland Raiders, the Chargers have a legitimate shot at a 9-7 record.  They trail three other teams (all currently 8-6) for one of the two wild-card positions.  One of those teams (Baltimore) also has a fairly soft closing schedule (they finish at home against 3-11 Indianapolis and at 5-9 Cincinnati).  But the other two teams in front of the Chargers face significant challenges.

Buffalo closes its season on the road against the Patriots and Dolphins.  Since the Chargers beat Buffalo back in Week 11, if the Bills lose either game they will lose a tie-breaker to Los Angeles based on head-to-head record (assuming LA can win its last two).  Meanwhile Tennessee finishes with the 10-4 Rams and the 10-4 Jaguars – a daunting challenge for a team that has lost three of its last five, including back-to-back losses to Arizona (6-8) and San Francisco (4-10).

As expected, New England’s win brings clarity to the top of the AFC playoff picture.  The Patriots, the Steelers, the Jaguars and the Chiefs.

At least that’s how it looks now.

Are the Falcons Really the Falcons Again?

Perhaps your memory of the 2016 Atlanta Falcons is similar to mine.  As they hit their peak last year, they came out of the locker room ready to play.  On their playoff run, they developed a “shock-and-awe” meme that served them very well.

On the final game of the regular season (January 1 of this year), Matt Ryan tossed 4 touchdown passes, and the running game provided 88 yards and another touchdown.  And that was just the first half, as the Falcons jumped to a 35-13 lead (scoring touchdowns on their first five possessions) on their way to a 38-32 conquest of New Orleans.

Against Seattle, in the Divisional Round, it did take them a few possessions to solve the league’s third-ranked scoring defense, but the Falcons punched through with 19 second-quarter points, on their way to a 36-20 win.  In the Championship Game against the Packers, they were ahead 10-0 after the first quarter and 24-0 at the half, scoring touchdowns after both Green Bay turnovers.  They eventually built a 37-7 lead, and went on to win that one 44-21.

And then in the Super Bowl, Atlanta raced out to a 21-3 halftime lead.  Halfway through the third quarter, they led 28-3 – again scoring two touchdowns on turnovers.  In all three phases (as the familiar cliché goes), the Falcons put you on the defensive from the very beginning.  It almost gave them an aura of invincibility.

This Year’s Falcons a Work in Progress

For a variety of reasons, that aspect of the Falcons has been kind of hit and miss this season.  Even during their 3-0 start, they were sometimes that team and sometimes not.  Some of this has been due to stubbornness on offense.

Last year’s passing attack was uncommonly explosive.  Trigger man Matt Ryan tossed 38 touchdown passes and averaged a league-best 13.3 yards per completed pass.  Un-coverable receiver Julio Jones was a huge cog in the machine.  He finished 2016 with 1409 yards on 83 catches even though he missed two games.

For most of the season, the Falcons have been struggling to regain that trademark deep strike attack against defenses geared to prevent just that sort of thing.

Over the last two games, though, Atlanta has started to adjust.  Their last two games (a 27-7 win over Dallas two weeks ago and last week’s 34-31 victory over Seattle in Seattle – gamebook) showed a similar pattern.

Crucial Wins

Both games played closely for a half.  The Falcons led Dallas 10-7 after thirty minutes, and then went into the locker room ahead of Seattle 24-17.

Both games saw a resurgence of the running game in the second half.  In the Dallas game, Atlanta managed 41 first half rushing yards (just 3.2 yards per carry).  The first half running was even worse against Seattle – 12 yards on 14 carries.  But 16 second half carries against the Seahawks produced 77 yards (4.8 per), one week after the Falcons racked up 91 yards on 21 second half carries against the Cowboys (4.3 yards per).  So, over the last two games, Atlanta is a combined 27 rushes for 53 yards in the first halves of those games (1.96 yards per), and a combined 37 rushes for 168 yards (4.5 per) in the two second halves.

Off of that resurgent running game, Ryan and the Falcons have layered a more patient passing attack – one less reliant on big plays and more willing to take what the defense is offering.  Against Dallas, Ryan began 11 of 17 for just 94 yards with no touchdowns and one interception.  After the half, he riddled the Cowboy pass defense to the tune of 11 of 12 for 121 yards and 2 touchdowns.  Similarly, he went into halftime against Seattle just 9 of 15 for 98 yards and 1 touchdown.  Thereafter, he was 10 of 12 for 97 yards and another touchdown.

So – again combining the halves of the two games – Matty is 20 of 32 (62.5%) for 192 yards (6.00 per attempt and 9.60 per completion) with 1 touchdown pass and 1 interception in the two first halves – a very pedestrian 76.6 passer rating.  In his last two second halves, Ryan is 21 for 24 (87.5%) for 218 yards (9.08 yards per pass and 10.4 per completion), with 3 touchdowns and no interceptions.  This adds up to a passer rating of 144.1.

Looking Like Last Year’s Falcons

Against the Seahawks, Atlanta took the opening kickoff and marched 52 yards for a touchdown.  The defense contributed a quick interception, setting the offense up again for a short-field touchdown.  It was 14-0 Falcons after just 7 minutes of play.  When the Falcons returned a fumble for a touchdown early in the second quarter, their lead swelled to 21-3 after less than 16 minutes of play – very reminiscent of the shock-and-awe Falcons at the end of the 2016 season.

With these two crucial victories, the Falcons have pushed their way – temporarily – into the playoff picture.  But it will be an almost weekly grind for this Atlanta team.  Now 6-4, their last 6 games will feature two games against the 4-6 Tampa Bay Buccaneers.  The rest of the schedule will be two games against the 8-2 New Orleans Saints, and games against the 9-2 Minnesota Viking and the 7-3 Carolina Panthers.

The up-and-down Falcons cannot afford to take any more weeks off – even against Tampa Bay.  The path before them is very daunting.

Seattle Footnote

The Seahawks have now lost two consecutive home games and barely survived Houston the game before.  None of these teams seemed overly disturbed by the intense noise generated by the crowd.  This was especially true of the Falcons – who have now been exposed to it several times over the last few years.

Don’t Look Now

The Falcon’s opponents in that last Super Bowl have been on a roll of their own.  After losing two of their first four games, the New England Patriot’s secured their sixth straight victory with a 33-8 domination of the Oakland Raiders (gamebook).

Part of this was fairly expected.  Pass defense has been an inviting Raider weakness all season.  They entered the game allowing opposing passer’s a devastating 110.5 rating against them.  Not an encouraging situation when facing Tom Brady and the heralded Patriot passing attack.  Brady flayed them to the tune of 30 of 37 for 339 yards and 3 touchdowns.  Of course, he threw no interceptions – leading to a 131.9 passer rating.  New England started the game 5 of 6 on third down, and then averaged 8 yards per offensive play in the second half.

The Patriots’ Pass Defense is a Thing

But the thing to take strong notice of with the Patriots is the defense – especially the pass defense.  Mostly disorganized and something of a mess early in the season, New England’s first four opponents exploited the Patriots’ re-constructed pass defense.  They completed 69.7% of their passes against them, averaging 13.5 yards per completed pass.  In those first four, New England allowed 11 touchdown passed while intercepting just 3 passes.  It all added up to a distressing 116.5 passer rating against.

Over the next three games, the pass defense started to show improvement.  The completion percentage dropped to 63.5%.  The yards per catch also diminished to 11.5.  Over those next three games, New England allowed just 4 touchdown passes, with their 2 interceptions bringing them to a more normal 89.4 passer rating against.  (NFL averages are currently 62.5% completions, 11.3 yards per completion, and an 88.2 passer rating.)

Over their last three games, Patriot opponents have now completed just 56.3% of their passes, gaining just 10.6 yards per completion.  The touchdowns and interceptions have been equal at 3 each.  The passer rating against them over those games has been just 71.7.  While one of those contests was against Brock Osweiler and the struggling Denver offense, the other two have been against the Chargers and Raiders with dangerous quarterbacks Philip Rivers and Derek Carr.  Rivers entered that game with an 89.9 passer rating.  Carr’s was 91.8.  They combined for a 71.1 rating in their games against New England.

Especially in these last three games, the Chargers, Broncos and Raiders played very well for most of the game.  But every time they had a little lapse, they paid for it.  And every one who plays New England understands that this is how it is when you play the Patriots.  They will make you pay for all of your mistakes.

Just like last year.

The AFC Playoff Picture

With Kansas City’s surprising loss, the Chiefs – once 5-0 on the season – are starting to slip behind the crowd fighting for the number one seed.  The Week 15 contest between New England and Pittsburgh still looks like it will decide the AFC’s top seed.  Jacksonville now pushes ahead of the Chiefs for the number 3 spot.  Tennessee currently leads Baltimore for the fifth wildcard spot, but as the teams come down the stretch, I’m expecting the Ravens to swap places with the Titans.  Baltimore still looks out of sync on offense, but Tennessee has three road games in their next four, and when they finally come home they will have the Rams and the Jaguars to face them – too tough for a team that I don’t really believe in yet.

Speaking of the Rams

In one of the season’s more anticipated games, the Los Angeles Rams (then 7-2) visited the Minnesota Vikings (then also 7-2).  Most anticipated was the clash between the Ram offense – leading the NFL in scoring at 296 points, while ranking third in total offense, fifth in rushing (128.8 yards per game) and sixth in passing (led by hot second-year quarterback Jared Goff and his 101.5 rating) – and the Minnesota defense – ranked third against the run (just 81.3 yards per game), fifth in total yardage, and tenth in allowing fewest points (just 165).  Opposing passers struggled to an 80.8 rating against Minnesota – the eighth lowest rating in the NFL.

For as anticipated as the matchup was, the result was disappointingly one-sided.  The impressive Viking defense smothered the Rams’ running game.  Todd Gurley ended the day with just 37 yards on 15 carries, never gaining more than 8 yards on any run.  They also eliminated the big-play passing attack.  The Rams had no completion over 23 yards.  In the game’s second half, they had no play longer than 15 yards.  Goff completed 12 second half passes for only 107 yards (8.92 per completion).  He finished the game with a very modest 79.2 rating.

Meanwhile, the Vikings capably exploited Los Angeles’ defensive weakness against the run.  The Rams came in allowing 118 rushing yards a game (ranked twenty-fourth).  Minnesota pounded then to the tune of 171 yards – running the clock for 20:06 of the second half – on their way to a convincing 24-7 win (gamebook).

More about Minnesota next week.

Next Up New Orleans

For the Rams, this is a sobering dash of cold water one week before one of the defining games in the NFC this season.  The Rams have some issues to address before facing the New Orleans Saints – currently riding an eight-game winning streak and boasting the top offense (by yards) in the NFL and the third best running attack (144 yards per game).  At 4.8 yards per rushing attempt, the Saints have the most explosive running game in the league.  After last week’s pounding, the Rams are now twenty-seventh in the NFL in yards per rushing attempt (4.5) and twenty-eighth in rushing yards allowed per game (123.3).

In a contest that will significantly impact home field advantage in the playoffs, the Rams have this game at home.  But they will have to find some way of stopping the New Orleans running attack without leaving themselves too vulnerable to Drew Brees and that passing attack.

It will be a tall order.

Going Vertical – the New Meme of the NFL

In Sunday’s marquee game, Russell Wilson of the Seattle Seahawks and Deshaun Watson of the Houston Texans (whose season has just come to a sudden end) combined for 8 pass plays of over 30 yards.  A couple of them where short passes that broke.  But the great majority were vertical shots intended to challenge the respective secondaries.  It was the kind of game that’s being played more and more these days, as the NFL is beginning its latest shift forward to the past.  The era of the long pass play is returning.

A Quick History of the NFL

Coming out of its rugby roots, the early years of the NFL were run dominated.  In 1940, for example, Washington’s slinging Sammy Baugh led the NFL in passing with 1367 yards over an 11-game season – an average of 124.3 yards per game.  That year there were 4,136 rushing attempts to only 2,254 attempted passes.

Beginning with Sid Luckman in the mid-1940s, the game began to undergo a revolution.  At some point, someone figured out that if my receiver is faster than your defensive back, then all I need is a quarterback who can throw the ball down the field and there would be little that your defense could do about it.

There are some who consider the 1950s and the first half of the 1960s to be football’s golden age.  It was the era of Luckman and Otto Graham.  Of Norm Van Brocklin, Daryle Lamonica and Bobby Lane.  Of Johnny Unitas and Joe Namath.  For the first time, football had truly embraced the pass.  It would never look back.

By the mid-sixties, defenses were beginning to tinker with a new concept called the “zone defense.”  The idea was that instead of having my defensive back try to run with a receiver faster than him, I would have my defensive backs positioned relatively evenly across the field, so that wherever this receiver ended up, I would have a defender there waiting for him.  This was a concept that would mostly rule defensive football for almost 50 years.

In the 80’s offenses adjusted.  Instead of trying to beat the zone defenses with vertical passes, the NFL passing game became increasingly horizontal, as offenses sought to stretch out those zones and widen the naturally occurring seams.  The meme became the West Coast offense – the staple of the San Francisco 49ers of the Bill WalshJoe Montana era.

And that is pretty much where football has been for about 25 years or so.

And Then

All of a sudden, as football enters the second decade of this new century, we are beginning to see elite athletes emerging as the new wave of cornerbacks.  Gradually defenses have learned that they don’t necessarily have to let a speed receiver lift the cover off of their zone.  Not if they could find themselves a shut-down corner – some elite defender that could run with even the fastest receivers wherever they went on the field.

And now, suddenly, everyone is looking for the next Richard Sherman.

But this cornerback mostly forces your defensive scheme back to a man-to-man concept.  This is especially true since most of the league’s better offenses are equipped with several receivers who are vertical threats.

Once the dominant defensive alignment in football, the famous Tampa Two (a brand of zone defense that featured two safeties that had deep responsibility for the two sidelines, while a linebacker dropped back into the deep middle) is now rarely seen.  The NFL’s new predominant defense is the single high safety with man coverage across the field.  This was the defense that Denver relied on to muffle the Kansas City passing attack last Monday night.

And, as football makes this adjustment, it invites the vertical passing game back into the equation.  Not only because it creates the one-on-one matchups, but also because the man coverage focus has compromised the ability of many teams to be effective in zone coverage.  I would guess that probably as many big passing plays last week came against poorly executed zone coverages as against man coverage matchups.

Pittsburgh and Detroit

As in Seattle, Pittsburgh and Detroit got together last Sunday in a game that showcased the best and the worst of the vertical passing game.  Pittsburgh won, 20-15 (gamebook) in a game that featured 9 combined pass plays over 30 yards.

In this particular game, there was only scoring drive in which more than half of the yardage did not come from one single play.  Pittsburgh opened the scoring kicking a field goal after a 59-yard drive.  A vertical pass from Ben Roethlisberger to JuJu Smith-Schuster for 41 yards set that up.

Detroit answered with a field goal after a 45-yard drive – 43 of which came on a vertical pass from Matthew Stafford to Marvin Jones.

And so it went.  A 33-yard pass to Jones early in the second set up another Detroit field goal (after a 39 yard drive) and a 6-3 Lion’s lead.  Forty of the Steelers seventy-five yard answering drive came on a deep jump ball from Roethlisberger to Antonio Brown.  The Steelers scored the game’s first touchdown after that play, and took a 10-6 lead.  The Lions quickly answered with another field goal, moving 42 yards to get into range (with 25 of those coming on a strike from Stafford to T.J. Jones).  Now it was a 10-9 Steeler lead. The Lions would take a 12-10 lead into the half when they moved 63 yards in 43 seconds to kick a field goal with 13 seconds left.  Again, T.J. Jones caught the deep ball (34 yards) to set up the kick.

In the second half, Pittsburgh went back on top 13-12 kicking a field goal after a short punt set them up at about mid-field.  Again, though, the 28-yards scoring drive featured an 18-yard pass from Ben to JuJu.

At the end of the third quarter, the Steelers would score the final touchdown of the day on a 98-yard “drive.”  This “drive” was one running play that gained 3 yards.  One holding penalty that gave back 2 of the yards.  One incomplete pass.  And one 97-yard touchdown strike (again to JuJu).  Smith-Schuster finished his afternoon with 193 yards on 7 catches.

Finally – as the third quarter lapsed into the fourth – the Lions put together an actual scoring drive.  They marched 74 yards in 10 plays.  It cost them 5:07 of playing time, though, and the payoff was only their fifth field goal of the game.

Lots of Yards, But . . .

The two teams combined for 874 yards – 728 of them through the air.  They finished with just 2 touchdowns.  In comparison, the West Coast offense is designed for sustaining offense.  Over the last two decades, pass completion percentages in the high sixties were not uncommon.  In this game, Roethlisberger completed 54.9% (17 of 31) of his passes, and Stafford completed 60% (27 of 45).  The vertical game is less consistent.

More so than the West Coast offense, the vertical passing game needs the balance of a strong running game to help convert the passing yards into touchdowns.  The Steelers were held to just 75 rushing yards.  The Lions – who never did get into the end zone – ran for just 71 yards.  They were 0-for-5 in the red zone, and 0-for-3 in goal-to-go situations.

For Detroit, now, the running game issue is beginning to fester.  Averaging just 82.1 yards per game, the Lions’ running game ranks twenty-eighth in football.  They have suffered agonizing losses to Atlanta (26-30 during which they ran for only 71 yards), Carolina (24-27, during which the running game contributed 50 yards), New Orleans (35-52, while running for 66 yards), and now Pittsburgh.  In all of these games, the missing running attack was a notable contributor to the defeat.

Meanwhile in New England

The defending champion Patriots also had more trouble scoring touchdowns than they had anticipated.  They scored one, kicking four field goals in their 21-13 win over the Los Angeles Chargers (gamebook).

The one enduring virtue of the zone defense is that – when well executed – it can inhibit the vertical game.  That was the focus of the Chargers in their contest against New England, as they forced the explosive Patriot offense to crawl.  Tom Brady completed none of his throws of more than twenty yards, and was only 1-for-6 when throwing more than 15 yards downfield.

Alas, the Patriots are comfortable enough in the horizontal game that they were able to take advantage of the Charger’s deep coverages.  Tom finished his night completing 68.1% of his tosses (32 for 47), albeit for only 10.41 yards per completion.  Running backs Rex Burkhead and James White combined to catch 12 of the 13 passes tossed their way for 153 yards.  Although they only averaged 3.0 yards per rush, the patient Patriots ran the ball 32 times, on their way to controlling the clock for 36:59 of the game.

Sometimes offensive success is less a matter of points than it is of controlling the game.

Again, on the Protests

In case you’ve not yet seen it, here is my link to my National Anthem protest post – since this thing is still in the news.

Raiders Save Season with Wild Finish

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

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

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

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

Kudos for the Raiders’ Defense?

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

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

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

The Longest Eight Seconds

But all of that was just prologue.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Rematch in the Fog

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

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

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

Fixing the Falcons

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

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

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

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

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

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

Coming Together in New England

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

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

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

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

And the Fog

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

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

The Final Report on Super Bowl LI

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

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

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

Facing New England in the Super Bowl

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

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

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

New England is Melting?

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

Then it was Tom Brady’s turn.

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

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

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

The Second Half

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

They got one.

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

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

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

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

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

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

Matt Ryan

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

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

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

Matt Ryan is pretty good (this just in).

Julio Jones

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

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

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

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

But even that is not the story.

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

Devonta Freeman

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

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

Robert Alford

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

About the Falcon Play-Calling

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

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

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

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

The Defensive Challenge

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

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

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

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

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

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

Other Issues

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

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

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

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

How to Make a 25-Point Comeback

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

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

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

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

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

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

What’s Next?

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

See you then.

New England Patriots on the Verge of Another Title

It was already going to be an uphill climb.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

When the Game Got Away From Pittsburgh

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

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

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

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

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

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

And then they checked the replay.

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

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

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

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

New England’s Defense

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Super Bowl Prediction

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Plaudits for the Houston Pass Defense

As they went into the game as 16-point underdogs, no one was too surprised that Houston was brushed aside (34-16) in New England last Saturday night.  In the aftermath, not too many accolades came Houston’s way – even though they went into the half trailing by only four points and stayed within one score of the mighty Patriots until there were just 12 minutes and 16 seconds left in the game.

In the eye of the storm was Houston quarterback Brock Osweiler, whose predictable struggles hamstrung the offense.  Inside the game, though, was a much more interesting story – the story of the NFL’s number one defense (Houston’s) against the high-powered New England offense.  As Houston surrendered 34 points, one might assume that the New England offense dominated Houston’s top-ranked defensive squad.

That was pretty much the story of their Week 3 matchup.  In an overwhelming 27-0 victory, the Patriots (behind third string QB Jacoby Brissett) bludgeoned the Texans for 185 rushing yards and 3 rushing touchdowns.  Yes, New England only had two drives that went for more than 50 yards – but this was their third string quarterback, after all.  The Patriots were able to run the ball even though Houston knew they wanted to run.  The Patriots also fashioned touchdowns out of two fumbles they recovered deep in Houston territory and added a third TD on a drive that started on the Houston 47 after the Texans were forced to punt from deep within their own territory.  The first game was over early.

Even though the score of the re-match was decisive, the struggle between the Patriot offense and the Texan defense was a lot more even than might be suspected.  Houston’s special teams allowed one touchdown (Dion Lewis’ 98-yard kickoff return).  Houston’s offense gave up another after an Osweiler interception was returned to the Texan’s 6-yard line.  The Texan defense was only scratched for two touchdown drives that started in the New England side of the field, and one of those required a 30-yard pass-interference penalty against rookie cornerback A.J. Bouye on a pass that Chris Hogan might not have caught up to.

At game’s end, New England had been held to 98 rushing yards (and 3.6 yards a carry).  More impressively, Tom Brady and the passing game finished just 18 for 38 (just 47.4%) for 287 yards.  His 2 touchdown passes were off-set by two interceptions (matching the total number of interceptions he had thrown all year).  Tom ended the game with a passer rating of only 68.6.  It was just the second time in 13 games this season that Brady’s passer rating ended below 89 (Denver had held him to a 68.2 figure earlier).

Did the Texans give the NFL a blueprint on how to defend the New England passing game?  Sort of.  But it’s not the kind of game plan that any team can necessarily employ.  Looking at the teams that are left in the playoffs, I’m not sure that there is a whole lot of Houston’s game plan that will translate to either Pittsburgh, Atlanta or Green Bay.  Houston defensive coordinator Romeo Crennel lines his defense up in many confusing looks – causing more than his share of identification problems.  (Brady’s second interception came on a play where ten of the eleven Houston defenders were in man coverage, but outside linebacker Benardrick McKinney sat in a zone in the middle of the field and batted Brady’s pass in the air.) But the principles of the Houston plan were pretty basic.  Pressure up the middle and tight man coverage.

Six years ago in the Divisional Round, Rex Ryan – then the coach of the NY Jets – knocked off Brady and the Patriots 28-21 by pressuring him up the middle.  At that time, it was something of a revelation.  Tom was sacked 5 times that evening and rushed relentlessly.  Brady can usually sidestep pressure that comes from outside his pocket, but when the pocket collapses from the inside and Tom is forced to scramble he becomes much more mortal.

In last Saturday’s game, Brady got plenty of inside heat and threw a great many balls away while scrambling out of trouble.  Houston got significant pressure from budding stars Jadeveon Clowney and Whitney Mercilus, but the unsung star of this game was a lightly regarded backup tackle taken in the sixth round of the 2015 draft – Christian Covington.  Covington had only one sack all year and has just three in his 31-game NFL career.  Listed generously at 295 pounds, he looked something like a Borg cube as he repeatedly menaced New England in this game.  Not someone you would generally think is all that quick, Covington consistently beat rookie left guard Joe Thuney to the inside.  He didn’t register any sacks, but his persistent collapsing of the pocket forced Brady out of his comfort zone.

None of this is a news flash.  Most fans who have followed Brady’s career know about his issues with inside pressures and I’m pretty sure Pittsburgh noted the struggles of the rookie guard.  At this point, I almost expect to see James Harrison frequently line up inside over this guard.  What Houston was able to do, though, that other teams can’t necessarily do is put consistent pressure on Brady without blitzing frequently.  Blitzing Brady carries with it its own set of risks.

But “A-gap” pressure is only half the formula.  What made it work so well for Houston was the coverage in the secondary.  Cornerbacks Johnathan Joseph, Bouye, and even Kareem Jackson (who did get picked on a little) did what few secondaries are able to do.  They hung with New England’s super quick receivers both vertically and horizontally the entire game.  Even on those occasions when his offensive line gave him ample time, Brady’s receivers frequently struggled getting separation.  Even linebacker McKinney also held up very well in man coverage against patriot tight end Martellus Bennett (who caught one pass for four yards).

As strategies go, there was some hit-and-miss to this.  When his receivers did get some separation, Brady usually turned it into a big play.  With his 18 completions accounting for 287 yards, Tom averaged an impressive 15.9 yards per completion and finished with six pass plays of at least 20 yards and another 19-yard touchdown pass to James White (beating McKinney, who had less success covering the backs).

But, because they challenged every pass and held the running game mostly in check, Brady had difficulty sustaining the offense.

And this is the part that I don’t see any of the other teams still in the playoffs able to execute.  The Steelers, Falcons and Packers are predominant zone teams and much less skilled at man coverage.  While guys like Julian Edelman can find easy seams in zone schemes, Brady will always have a quick outlet.

With three games left in the NFL season, the Patriots remain the NFL’s most daunting challenge.  In addition to a defense that just does not surrender points and a dangerous running game spearheaded by battering ram LeGarrette Blount, all-everything quarterback Tom Brady has a collection of super-quick receivers who are exceedingly adept at finding the open spaces in most zones.  How Pittsburgh attempts to slow this offense will be one of the most intriguing matchups of the Championship Round.