Tag Archives: New Orleans Saints

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Not Dead Yet

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

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

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

Hekker’s Moment

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Jared Emerging

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

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

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

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

The Saints in Evolution

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

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

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

Pass Rush is Always the Key

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Goff Abides

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

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

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

Oh That Play-Action

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

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

That Last Drive

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

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

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

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

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

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

Not To Forget

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The Ndam-inator?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Still the Wrong Team

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

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

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

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

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

Thoughts in the Aftermath

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

What To Do?

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

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

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

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

Send the Best Teams

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

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

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

Opening the Box

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Solving Nick Foles

While discussing the Rams’ victory yesterday, I made note of the impact of playoff emotion in the performance of the home teams in last weekend’s playoff games.  The Chiefs, the Rams and the Patriots all began their 2018-19 playoff runs with emotion-driven first halves that propelled them to victory.  Playoff emotion would be a palpable factor in the Division Round’s final game – although this game would serve up a variation on the theme.  This time the emotion would be present – at the start, anyway – on the visitor’s sideline.

In Week Eleven, the Philadelphia Eagles made their first visit to New Orleans.  The visit was less productive than they had hoped, as the Saints waltzed over and through them 48-7.  Now the Eagles – under the direction of their magical quarterback Nick Foles – were back in the Big Easy with a trip to the Championship Game on the line.  They vowed things would be different, and from the very first snap, they were.

With the first offensive opportunity, the Saints tested the Eagle secondary vertically.  Speed receiver Ted Ginn – who was injured when these teams met for the first time – went up the field, and quarterback Drew Breese rifled it out there.  But defensive back Cre’von Leblanc reached up and picked it off.

(As a side note, Breese would finish the first half with just 6 incompletions – four of them on pass attempts to Ginn, covered mostly by Leblanc).

Before the home crowd could digest the transpirings, Foles had lofted a 37-yard touchdown pass to Jordan Matthews.  The Saints managed nothing on their second possession, and Foles promptly marched the Eagles 75 yards in 10 plays, leaping over the goal line himself for their second score.

As the dust of the first quarter settled, it was the sixth-seeded Eagles – the team that had been blown out on this very field not quite two months previous – the team who had advanced this far only because a last second field goal in Chicago the week before had hit the upright – was taking it to the top-seeded New Orleans Saints 14-0.  At that point in the contest, the Eagles had 151 total yards, 8 first downs, and 9:19 of possession.  The Saints had no yards, no first downs and 1:04 of possession.

Missed Opportunity

After the Saints punted on their third possession, the Eagles missed a huge opportunity to put a dagger in the hearts of the Saints and their fans.

The second quarter had just started.  Philadelphia faced second-and-nine from their own 48.  Against the cover-2 zone of the Saints, Matthews ran a deep cross – holding safety Vonn Bell toward the middle of the field, while tight end Zach Ertz surprised cornerback Marshon Lattimore by streaking up the left sideline.  With Ertz clearly open, a good pass would have opened up a 21-0 lead, and would probably have sent Philly on to Los Angeles.  I point out that this was just the type of pass that Foles had flawlessly delivered all throughout last year’s playoff run and in the first quarter of this game to Matthews.

But, in what would be a growing pattern though the rest of the contest, the Saints got just enough pass rush pressure.  This time it was Alex Okafor who just managed to get around left tackle Jason Peters quickly enough that Foles rushed the throw, hanging it just enough for Lattimore to run under it and intercept.

The Turning Point

Having barely survived what could certainly have been a game-clinching score, New Orleans coach Sean Payton knew his offense had to wake up and get his team back in the game.  The last thing his team needed right now was another three and out.

But that was exactly what he got.

When Mark Ingram’s dive over left guard resulted in no gain, the Saints were left to punt from their own 30 on fourth-and-one.  There were still almost 12 minutes left in the half.

Sometimes it is uncertain at exactly what point a team turns the tide in a game.  Some games pivot obviously and clearly on one single play.  In this game, that turning point was clear.

Backed deep in his own end, down by two touchdowns and facing fourth down, Payton rolled the dice on the season.  The punt was faked.  The snap went directly to up-back Taysom Hill who bulled his way through the middle of the Eagles punt return unit to earn the first down.  With that play, the New Orleans sideline – as well as the entire stadium – erupted.  From that moment, the game belonged to New Orleans.

On the next play, Brees hit Michael Thomas on a deep crossing route that went for 42 yards.  Seven plays later, Drew flipped a two-yard touchdown pass to Keith Kirkwood, and the Saints were officially back in the game.

Footnote on Hill

Used at quarterback, tight end, and receiver as well as on special teams (where he had blocked a punt earlier this year to turn the tide of another game), Hill’s biggest impact on offense has been as a running quarterback.  As a receiver, he had caught 3 passes on the season for 4 yards.  As a passer, he had thrown 7 passes, completing just 3 – albeit for 64 yards.

In all this usage, Hill had never caught a touchdown pass or thrown a touchdown pass.  On consecutive plays in the third quarter, he almost did both.

There is 7:45 left in the third quarter.  The Saints – still trailing 14-10 – have first-and-ten on the Eagle 46-yard line.  Hill lines up wide right and run a go up the sideline, streaking into the end zone and behind the secondary.  But Brees’ pass is just underthrown enough that Avonte Maddox was able to get back and just get a hand on the pass, knocking it away.

Undeterred, Payton lined Hill up at quarterback on the next play, where he delivered a perfect 46-yard touchdown strike to running back Alvin Kamara – a play nullified by a holding penalty on Andrus Peat.

Well, maybe this week against the Rams?

The Drive

Those plays came in the middle of the most impressive drive that I have seen in quite some time.  With 13:22 left in the third quarter, and still leading by four points, the Eagles punted the ball away to New Orleans.  The next time the Eagle offense took the field – now trailing by three points – there was only 1:40 left in the quarter.  Over the 11:29 of game time in between those points, the Saints had put together an 18-play, 92-yard drive, culminating in a touchdown pass to Thomas.  The drive highlighted another interesting variation on the trend established in the other Divisional Round games.

The Chiefs, Rams and Patriots had all had dominating halves in their victories.  In their case, those had all been the first half.  The Saints put together a half just as dominating as any of those teams – they just did it in the second half.

Over the last thirty minutes of this contest, the Saints racked up 15 first downs (to only 4 by Philadelphia) and 226 total yards (to just 51 by the Eagles).  They never punted – converting 6 of 8 third downs.

They held the ball for 22:32 of the final thirty minutes, running on 19 of their final 38 snaps.  Behind Ingram and Kamara, they pounded the Eagles for 96 yards in the half.  During the season, Philadelphia had ranked seventh in the NFL in stopping the run, allowing an average of just 96.9 yards per game on the ground.

And when they decided to throw it, Breese completed 15 of 19 (78.9%) for 130 yards and the touchdown to Thomas.

They didn’t light up the scoreboard like those other teams, but in its own way this victory was just as impressive.

But the clock-grinding offense was just one factor in the impressive second half.  At the end of the day, this team would still have to find a way to stop Nick Foles and his magic carpet ride.

The Pass Defense Finds Answers for Foles

In a sense, this game was a microcosm of the Saints’ pass defense this season.

As the 2018 season dawned, the Saints were something of a mess on pass defense.  Without a real concept, and with little feel for what they do well, they were consistently sliced up by opposing passing attacks.  The fact that they won seven of their first eight had more to do with an impressive offensive unit outscoring its opponents.

The first time they faced the Rams this season, LA quarterback Jared Goff threw for 391 yards and 3 touchdowns (in a 45-35 Saints win).  Eight games into the season, New Orleans had allowed at least 20 points in five game, giving 30 or more three times.

The first 294 passes thrown against them had resulted in 206 completions (70.1%) for 2601 yards – 8.85 yards per attempted pass, and 12.6 yards per pass completion. Opposing passers had flung 18 touchdown passes against them in just 8 games, while the Saint defenders had managed just 4 interceptions.  The Saints exited that game with the Rams with a horrific passer rating against of 112.1.  For the season.

But change was coming.

The first Ram game was Eli Apple’s second game with the Saints.  The story of the evolution of the Saints defense is tied to the acquisition of Apple, and his growing comfort level in the New Orleans secondary.  From shaky ex-Giant to solidifying presence, Apple hasn’t been the only change in the Saint secondary.  But he has been one of the most important.

Since the first Rams’ game, the Saint secondary has improved from one of football’s worst, to one of it’s best.  Over the 8 games preceding Sunday’s game against the Eagles, New Orleans had allowed just 178 completions in 279 passes (63.8%).  These completions have resulted in just 2022 yards (7.25 per pass and 11.4 per completion).  The touchdown-to-interception ratio has also become much more competitive at 12-8.  The second-half passer rating against is an impressive 87.7

This game followed a similar pattern.

In the two nearly flawless first drives, Nick Foles was the Nick Foles of last year’s playoffs.  Up until the throw that was intercepted, Nick had completed 9 of his first 10 passes for 127 yards and the Matthews touchdown.  His passer rating at that point was 152.1.

Beginning with that first interception from Lattimore (and, yes, there would be another), Foles completed just 9 of his last 21 passes (42.9%) for just 74 yards.  He would throw no more touchdown passes (the Eagles would not score again) and would end the day with 2 interceptions.  After his first 10 passes, his rating plummeted to 12.9.

After racking up 151 total yards and 8 first downs on those first two drives, Philly managed just 94 yards and 6 first downs the rest of the way.  After starting 2-for-2 on third down, the Foles third-down magic evaporated.  Philadelphia ended their season coming up short on their last 5 third-down attempts.

Much of the answer was the New Orleans offense.  With the Eagles getting only 7:28 of clock time in the second half, it was difficult for them to sustain any rhythm.  But even when they had their opportunities, the Saints’ defense found answers.

Covering the Receivers

If there was one constant after the first quarter it was the inability of the Eagle receivers to gain separation.  This actually happened from time to time during the season last year, and also earlier this year.  While the combo of Alshon Jeffery and Nelson Agholor came up huge in last year’s playoffs, they have had frequent games where they have mostly disappeared.  In the second half of Sunday’s playoff game, Jeffery caught 2 of 5 thrown to him for 8 yards.  The only pass thrown in Agholor’s direction bounced incomplete.

After trying varying schemes and matchups early in the game, defensive coordinator Dennis Allen settled on a mostly simple scheme.  Man coverage with one or two safeties ready to help over the top.  For the most part, it was Lattimore accompanying Jeffery, while Apple occupied Agholor and P.J. Williams supervised Matthews or Tate.  While Foles’ performance wasn’t up to last year’s standards, in fairness he frequently had no place to go with the ball.

The trouble with man coverages, of course, is what to do with Zach Ertz.  Allen’s answer was a composite answer, with almost everyone else in the line backing corps and secondary taking a turn at covering Zach.  Sometimes – though not as often as you might have expected – Ertz saw double coverage.  Of the varying defenders assigned to him, Ertz may have seen linebacker Alex Anzalone and safety Vonn Bell more than others, but it was almost always someone different.  In short, it took a village.

On the surface, this wouldn’t seem like an awe-inspiring plan.  But it held up for two reasons.  First, when Foles saw his receivers in man coverage, his first looks were for Jeffery and Agholor down the field.  Second, the Saints – although they never sacked Foles – managed just enough pressure to disrupt him before he could cycle down to Ertz. 

When he did, he found opportunity.  Zach caught all three passes thrown to him in the second half for 35 yards.  Two of those receptions went for 16 and 17 yards – Philadelphia’s only second half plays to cover at least ten yards.

But if lack of open receivers was Nickys’ principle problem, it wasn’t his only problem.

Discomfort in the Pocket

One of the under-remembered aspects of last year’s playoff run was the pass protection afforded Nick Foles.  Almost all of those devastating deep passes that he delivered came from a very clean pocket.  Allen, of course realized that pressuring Nick would help his cause.  That, of course, would not be easy against the Eagles’ able offensive line, and became harder when New Orleans lost their second best pass rusher Sheldon Rankins for the rest of the season during Philly’s second offensive drive.

But Nick Foles isn’t one of those dangerous quarterbacks who gets outside the pocket and causes trouble with improvisation.  We have talked already this playoff season about young quarterbacks who have difficulty winning the game from the pocket.  The other side of that coin is a guy like Foles who does his work from the safety of the pocket and is less comfortable on the move.  Sometimes it only takes a suggestion of pressure to make him feel uncomfortable and throw him off his game.

Even without Rankins – and without ever sacking Nick – New Orleans was consistently successful in tightening the pocket around him and not allowing him the full extension of his long arms.  Additionally, the Saints’ defenders increasingly played tighter and tighter on the Eagle receivers.  Knowing that Foles likes to get the ball out quickly, they took away his easy first reads and forced him into quicker decisions than he was comfortable with.  And with Rankins unavailable, most of the heavy lifting would fall to star defensive end Cameron Jordan.

Matched against one of the top offensive tackles in the league in Lane Johnson, Jordan (with no sacks and one pass batted down) wasn’t as disruptive as he’s been in other games.  On Sunday, he was just enough.

On second-and-ten from his own 40, with 14:55 left game and trailing by three, Nick had Jeffery open up the right sideline.  But Jordan was pushing both Johnson and Stefen Wisniewski back into the pocket, and Foles opted to check down to Darren Sproles for a 2-yard gain.

On the very next play, Golden Tate was running away from P.J. Williams on a deep cross.  But Jordan was pushing Johnson back into the backfield again.  He flushed Foles from the pocket almost into the arms of David Onyemata.  Nick got the pass off, but not accurately.

Now there is 2:58 left in the Eagle season, and they are on their own 42 down by six.  Saints back in cover-2.  Jordan was coming around his right side, flushing him up into Tyeler Davison – who was pushing center Jason Kelce back into Foles’ face.  Tate was barely open in a tight window, but Nick couldn’t get a good throw off.

It was like this most of the night for Nick.

Where Were the Hot Routes?

The Saints don’t blitz much – they only did so a handful of times on Sunday.  But the few times they did they were more disruptive than they should have been.  There were only a couple of times that they actually came free against Nick, but, surprisingly, the Eagles didn’t have anyone running short routes (hot routes) to beat the blitz.

This caused an incompletion to Jeffery on the first play of the last quarter when P.J. Williams wasn’t picked up.  Again, on third-and-eight with 8:50 left in the game, Anzalone came untouched on the blitz and Foles rushed a throw in Matthews’ general direction.

There were other occasions when the blitz was picked up, but Foles still rushed his decision making process.

The Endgame

For all of this, Philadelphia still had that last shot.  One tick before the two minute warning, sitting on the Saints 27, but needing the touchdown, the Eagles’ run as defending world champions ended on a simple curl route against a soft cover-two and a well thrown pass that slipped through the grasp of Jeffery into the hands of Lattimore.  And with that, New Orleans secured its 20-14 victory (gamebook) (summary).

Marshon Lattimore played and excellent game.  He finished, ironically enough, with interceptions on two of his least impressive moments.  His first came on an underthrown pass to a receiver who was open behind him.  His last came as he was simply sitting in his zone minding his own business when the ball fluttered in his direction.

All talk of strategy aside, sometimes these things come down to the bounce of a ball.

And Now the Rams

So now, the Saints get the Rams with a Super Bowl trip on the line.  The world, I think, expects a shootout similar to the earlier game.  I am unconvinced.  The Saints still have one of football’s better run defenses, and they have actually played excellent pass defense over the second half of the season.

For their part the Rams are coming off, arguably, their best defensive game of the season – and a game in which they ran for 273 yards, to boot.  Additionally, both of these teams are now familiar with each other’s offense.

Don’t get me wrong.  I’m not predicting a 3-0 game won on a last second 50-yard field goal.  But my feeling is that the defenses on both sides will make points more hard earned this time around.

On Sunday afternoon, we’ll find out.

Falcons Can’t Finish

Sunday, February 5, 2017.  Super Bowl LI (51).  I can’t think of the Atlanta Falcons anymore without recalling that evening.

About halfway through the third quarter, a six-yard touchdown pass from Matt Ryan to Tevin Coleman pushed Atlanta’s lead to 28-3.  Taking nothing away from New England’s remarkable comeback, the fact remains that Atlanta – with the championship within their grasp – couldn’t finish.

In last year’s Divisional Round game, Atlanta failed to score in the second half, becoming a footnote in Philadelphia’s remarkable run to the championship.

Last Sunday, Atlanta fell to New Orleans, 31-17 (gamebook) (box score).  The loss – their third straight – leaves their record at 4-7 and their playoff hopes on life support.

All throughout this mystifying season, the Falcons have been close.  As they were close to winning it all a couple of years ago.  But finishing remains elusive.  They were within one score of the defending champions in the season opening game, but lost 18-12.  They have also lost by one score to New Orleans (43-37 in overtime in Week Three), Cincinnati (37-36 in Week Four), and Dallas (22-19 in Week Eleven). The losses to New Orleans (the first one), Cincinnati and Dallas were all at home.

This, of course, was not a one-score loss.  Still, it falls into the familiar pattern.  Eleven-and-a-half point underdogs coming into the game, the 4-6 Falcons gave the once-beaten Saints all they could handle, outgaining them 366 yards to 312, while controlling the clock for 30:59.

In the end, though, they couldn’t finish.

Driving all the way to the Saint 3-yard lineon their first possession, they coughed the ball up on a sack-fumble – the first of six sacks and four turnovers on the day.  That pretty much told story.  After a rare interception of Drew Brees, Atlanta had the ball on the New Orleans 39, still trailing 7-0.  Moments later they had a second-and-6 on the Saints’ 7-yard line.  Another sack forced them to settle for a field goal.  By the time the first half ended, Atlanta was down 17-3 and playing catchup.

The loss not only casts a shadow over the Falcon playoff hopes, but also diminished several good things that the Falcons did accomplish during the contest.  After his first-half difficulties, Matt Ryan did throw 2 second half touchdown passes, on his way to 377 passing yards.  Moreover, both Julio Jones and Calvin Ridley had 80+ receiving yards in the second half – part of a second half that saw Atlanta control the clock for 18:30 and outgain the Saints 221 yards to 109.

At 4-7, the Falcons are pretty much under the necessity to win all of their remaining games.  It’s a tall order, as those games include road games in Green Bay, Carolina and Tampa Bay.  Next week’s home game against Baltimore won’t come easily either – although they will have the luxury of playing against a backup quarterback.

Worth noting – I thought – in the loss was the improvement in the Atlanta defense.  Yes, I know that the numbers weren’t all that amazing.  Before the game was over, they had allowed 4 touchdowns, 31 points, and 312 yards – 150 of them on the ground.

But remember, please, that this was the New Orleans offense.  They came in not only as the highest scoring offense in the league, but having scored 144 points over their last three games while racking up 1542 total yards.

In spite of their inability to cope with New Orleans’ running game, the Falcons were able – to a great extent – to make the Saints passing game crawl.  Brees had only two completions more than 20 yards downfield, and only 3 for greater than 15 yards.  This – along with the first interception tossed by the league leader in passer rating since Week 8, and the first sack against him since Week 7 – made this victory more difficult than most – and certainly more difficult than you would have expected against Atlanta – who came into the game with the twenty-ninth ranked pass defense.

In trying to take away the deep pass, Atlanta played some zone defense – still not their strength.  Most of Drew’s short completions came against Atlanta’s soft zones.  But, more and more, Atlanta started playing man coverage against this high-octane passing attack.  They did all this well enough to hold top receiver Michael Thomas to 4 catches for 38 yards, and Alvin Kamara to one catch for 9 yards.

Conceptually, they covered Kamara with a defensive back, and double covered Thomas.  This is an approach tried with some frequency against New Orleans, but few opponents can make it work.  At times, the Falcon defense vaguely resembled the Super Bowl defense of a few years ago.  Some of the coverage schemes were quite inventive.  On one third quarter pass, Atlanta ran what looked like a defensive read-option double team of Thomas.

Still up 17-3, New Orleans faced third-and-5 from the Falcon 43.  There were 11 minutes and 19 seconds left in the quarter.  The Saints lined up with three wide receivers to the right side (Tommylee Lewis, Thomas and Keith Kirkwood).  Tight end Josh Hill was tight to the left of the formation, with Kamara in the backfield to Brees’ left.

The Falcons answered with a man-look with Brian Poole lining up opposite Lewis, Desmond Trufant in position to bump Thomas off the line, and Robert Alford across from Kirkwood.  On the other side, De’Vondre Campbell had Hill and cornerback Isaiah Oliver had Kamara.  In the middle of the field stood safety Sharrod Neasman – perhaps keeping an eye on Brees should he try to run for the first down, or potentially a double cover for Hill.

At the snap, though, when Thomas initially broke to the outside, Alford went with him, forming a double-team with Trufant on Thomas.  Meanwhile, Neasman took Kirkwood’s in-breaking route.  Presumably, had Thomas broken to the inside, Neasman would have been a part of that double-team, while Alford would have gone with Kirkwood.

True to the way this game played out, after his initial outside step, Thomas broke back inside, causing a moment of indecision on Alford’s part.  That was enough for Thomas to lead Trufant on a collision course with Alford, leaving Thomas wide open down the left side.

Brees overthrew him, forcing a rare New Orleans punt.  It would be one of the few breaks the Falcons would get on this day.

A Note on TaysomHill

Every New Orleans broadcast includes some kind of feature on third-string quarterback Taysom Hill.  Listed as 6-2 and 221 pounds (although he looks much bigger) Hill has become quite a story.  He returns kickoffs, plays on all the coverage teams, and lines up all over the field – including tight end and wide receiver.

Hill is said to be the fastest player on the team.  Coach Sean Payton – who is something of a subject matter expert – claims that Hill will be a starting quarterback in this league.  As a receiver, Hill displays down-the-field speed, but none of the nuances (yet) of the position – double-moves, etc.  The same is true of his kick returning and other running.  Hill is a downhill runner, with none of the shiftiness that makes receivers like Tyreek Hill so feared.

So, what Taysom Hill may or may not develop into on the field remains purely speculative.  Here is what we know for sure about him.

Taysom Hill is a football player.

At the very end of the third quarter, Hill took a kickoff at his own 5 yard line.  Finding a crease up the left sideline, Hill exploded through it.  At the end of the corridor stood kicker Matthew Bosher.  Hill lowered his shoulder and blew through him and straight into the three defenders that were moving quickly into the area.  Later in the fourth quarter, now playing quarterback, Taysom kept the ball on a read-option run.  He punctuated his 8-yard run first by running through Foyesade Oluokun’s attempt to stop him in the backfield, and then by lowering that shoulder again and driving linebacker Campbell straight back into Damontae Kazee’s lap.  He then drove both of them a couple yards up the field before plowing into the midsection of Poole, who, with the help of the other two, finally brought Hill down.

There is, seemingly, no aspect of this game that Taysom Hill does not relish – whether it’s blocking from the tight end position or even the special teams roles that aren’t regarded as football’s most glamorous opportunities.  He certainly doesn’t shy away from contact.  In fact, judging from the face-wide grin he wears after hitting someone (or being hit), the contact might be the thing he likes best.

In all of this, everything about him is refreshing.  Whatever his eventual future is in this game, it’s hard not to root for this kid with a rare combination of size and speed.

Patriots Dominated in Tennessee

The formula for stopping Tom Brady has actually been known for a long time.  Pressure up the middle.  Break up the pass attack before anything can develop.  Easy to say – much harder to execute.

Over the years of the Patriot domination, one of the unspoken foundation pieces has been an elite offensive line and protection schemes focused on keeping Brady upright.  In fact, perhaps the most iconic image of the New England offense might be of Brady standing in his clean pocket for six or seven seconds while he thoroughly scans the field for open receivers.  The Patriots also know the formula.

Adding to the level of difficulty is the fact that the Patriot receiving corps is usually plentifully populated with very quick, very intelligent receivers who make very quick adjustments and almost always give Brady somewhere to go quickly with his throws in those infrequent occasions when he has to unload in a hurry.

And, of course, there is almost always a quality running attack that New England could turn to should they ever need to.  The running game gets little notice, being overshadowed by the passing attack, but it has made significant contributions to the Patriot cause. 

Last week – in their game against Green Bay (discussed here) – the Packers were actually able to sustain more pressure than usual against Brady.  This game could have been much more difficult for New England, had the running game not supplied 123 yards and 3 touchdowns on 31 rushes.

Cracks in the Foundation

Quietly, though, there has been some erosion among the foundation pieces of the Patriot dynasty.  Nate Solder – underappreciated, perhaps at left tackle for the previous seven seasons – is now in New York.  Shaq Mason – the highly acclaimed right guard – is out with an injury.  Dion Lewis, Brandin Cooks, and Danny Amendola are all elsewhere.  This – along with some reshuffling of the defense – has made the Patriots look fairly mortal from time-to-time this season.  With their most dynamic receiver – TE Rob Gronkowski – on the shelf with back and ankle injuries for a couple of games – the Patriots would appear to be as vulnerable now as they have ever recently been.

Still, the Packers didn’t have enough pieces to stop them, and the Patriots rolled into Tennessee with a 7-2 record and just a step behind Kansas City for the top seed in the division.  If this upset was to take place, few would have believed it would happen last week against the Titans.  Yes, Tennessee’s defense – statistically, anyway, seemed like it might present problems.  At 141 points, the Titans had surrendered the fewest points in the league, while ranking eighth in both total defense and pass defense.

But as impressive as they have been on defense, they have been that woeful on offense.  Their 134 points scored were twenty-ninth in the league, and they ranked thirtieth in both passing and total offense.  Yes, the Patriots might not score their customary 30 points.  But it was assumed that they would score some, and that punch-less Tennessee would have to mount some kind of substantial offense to have a chance in this game.

Patriots Ambushed

Two hours and 59 minutes later, the Patriots walked off the field, victims of a stunning 34-10 beating by the lightly-regarded Titans. (gamebook) (box score).

The stunning offensive display was, perhaps, less surprising than it should have been.  Yes, their numbers were bad to this point of the season.  But they have also played the entire year to this point with a compromised quarterback.  Over the last couple of weeks – and especially last Sunday – Marcus Mariota has shown himself mostly recovered.  This notably changes the narrative, both for this game and for the playoff picture.  Making throws that he couldn’t have imagined making earlier in the year, Mariota sliced the Patriot defense to the tune of 16 of 24 for 228 yards and 2 touchdowns.  His recovery combines with the continued emergence of wide receiver Corey Davis to give the Titans reason to hope that their offense could be considerably more explosive coming down the stretch.  Davis finished with 7 catches for 125 yards and a touchdown.

Still – even with the emergence of the passing attack – the offensive foundation in Tennessee remains the running game.  Controlling the line of scrimmage from start to finish, Tennessee pounded the Patriots to the tune of 150 rushing yards on 36 rushes.  Both feature back Derrick Henry and ex-Patriot Lewis finished with over 50 yards for the contest.

As stunning as the offensive performance was, it couldn’t overshadow the buzz generated by the defense as they dismantled the Patriots point-by-point. 

First, they inhaled the Patriot running game.  With no run gaining more than 9 yards, the Pats finished with just 40 yards on 19 carries (2.1 per).

Additionally, the Titans were able to fully exploit the absence of Gronkowski.  With young cornerback Adoree’ Jackson contesting every pass thrown to Josh Gordon, Tennessee was able to double-team running back James White

Then, with the relentless pressure forcing Brady to play fast the entire game – and with few available open receivers – Tom Brady finished with one of the worst games of his career.  Tom finished with just 21 completions in 41 attempts (51.2%) and finished with just a 70.6 passer rating.

It was the third straight game that Brady finished with a rating under 100 and the fifth time this season – including his 65.1 rating against Detroit earlier this season.  The Patriots are still 7-3 and in good shape.  But not looking as invincible as in season’s past.  Not yet anyway.

Two plays in particular underscored the disarray that the Titans caused in the New England offense.  With 10:34 left in the third, and trailing 24-10, the Patriots faced a second and ten from their own 30.  With a rare clean pocket, Brady tossed a strike 14 yards over the middle for a certain first down.  Receiver Julian Edelman never looked for it.  The ball hit Edelman flush in the helmet and bounced harmlessly away. 

Later in the fourth, down 27-10, the Pats faced third and seven.  New England had a little razzle-dazzle up its sleeve.  A handoff to White running to his left became a toss back to Edelman, coming back around to the right.  With linebacker Harold Landry bearing down on him, Julian jump-tossed to Brady, who had circled out of the backfield.  In the sense that the defense was totally fooled, the play worked as well as could be imagined.  As Brady pulled the pass in, there were no defenders within fifteen yards of him.  However, as he turned up field to run, Brady’s feet tangled.  He stumbled and finally went down – one yard short of the first down.  Going for it on fourth-and-one, a false start moved them back, and Brady’s fourth-and-six toss to Edelman over the middle was perfectly defended by Logan Ryan.

That’s how the day was for New England.

Titans Trending Up

On the other hand, this victory brightens things considerably in Nashville.  Last week when we discussed playoff situations, we noted that with a fairly soft closing schedule Tennessee needed to find a way to win one of their next three.  Mission more than accomplished.  Now – even should they drop their next two games (division road contests in Indianapolis and Houston), Tennessee still has a reasonable shot at a 10-6 record, which should earn them at least a wildcard spot.  Remember, Baltimore still holds the tie-breaker here, so the Titans will still have to finish with a better record.

Other Shifting Playoff Situations

The NFC East continues to be a division without direction.  In last week’s discussion, I championed the still underachieving Eagles as the team I expected to see hold forth.  Even with a vulnerable Dallas team playing in Philadelphia on Sunday night, the Eagles still managed to lose another game in the standings.  They now trail by two games.  With their disappointing loss to the Cowboys, coupled with Washington’s impressive victory in Tampa Bay, I am forced to admit that Washington is looking more and more like they are the class of that division.  With Carolina and Seattle in the same conference, it is unlikely that there will be a wildcard spot for the NFC East, so only the champion here is liable to go.

Saints Rolling On

While the Patriots, Falcons and Eagles all lost important games during Week Ten, the New Orleans Saints kept rolling on.  Showing no let-down after their huge conquest of the Rams, the Saints steam-rolled the Cincinnati Bengals, 51-14 (gamebook) (box score).

Much more perfect than this, an offense cannot hope to get.  They converted all of their first seven third-down opportunities.  They scored touchdowns the first five times they touched the ball, including going 4-4 in the red zone.  They had 10 possession for the game, scoring on the first 9 (6 touchdowns and 3 field goals).  Well ahead on their final possession, they settled for running off the final 4:42 of the game.

The final tally showed 244 rushing yards on 47 rushes (5.2 per), while QB Drew Brees recorded a 150.4 rating on 22 of 25 passing for 265 yards and 3 touchdowns.  New Orleans is making it look very easy right now.

Watching them, though, it seems that they are starting to get a little full of themselves – especially the defense.  This is curious, because the defense is the underachieving aspect of this team.  While the explosive offense continues to go about its business in a professional manner, the Saints defense (23rd in scoring defense, 23rd in total defense, and 31st in passing defense) celebrate all of their interceptions (they have only 6 on the season) by posing for pictures in the end zone.

Just a reminder: Pride goeth before a fall.

The Will to Keep Running the Ball

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

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

Baltimore ran the ball exactly twice in the second half.

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

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

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

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

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

Seattle is Willing

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

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

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

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

A final thought about this game:

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

Rodgers v Brady

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

This time, though, the expected shootout never developed.

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

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

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

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

Deferring a Mistake?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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