Tag Archives: Philadelphia Eagles

Eagles More Than Wentz

Last Sunday in the NFL the Detroit Lions survived against a three-win Chicago team when a last-second, 46-yard field goal sailed wide.  Last Sunday, the winless Cleveland Browns went into the fourth quarter against the division-leading Jacksonville Jaguars trailing by only a 10-7 score before the Jags pushed their way on to a 19-7 win.  Baltimore also struggled through three quarters against the Aaron Rodgers-less Packers before pulling away in the fourth.  The six-win Chiefs succumbed to the two-win Giants.  New Orleans stretched its winning streak to eight games, but they needed a nearly miraculous comeback against Washington.  Across the NFL, Week 11 saw many contenders struggle to push aside lesser teams.

And then there was Philadelphia.

In what was billed two weeks ago as a titanic showdown for the soul of the NFC East, the untouchable Eagles swept aside the suddenly hapless Dallas Cowboys, 37-9 (gamebook).  This even though the Cowboys made things as tough for Philadelphia as imaginable for the game’s first 30 minutes.  That first half featured 18:29 of ball control by the Dallas offense, and the Dallas defense stopping the Eagle offense on all six of their third-down opportunities.  Coming into the game with the league’s fourth-ranked running attack, Philadelphia went into the locker room with just 35 rushing yards.  None of their 10 runs had gained more than 7 yards.  In addition, quarterback sensation Carson Wentz finished the first half just 7 of 18 for 80 yards.

For all of this, Dallas went into the half leading just 9-7.  As it turns out, they never would make it into the end zone.

But in the dominant second half that would see Philadelphia outgain Dallas 268-99 and outscore them 30-0, the heroes went well beyond Wentz.  Carson made his contributions with 2 touchdown passes, but threw only 9 times in the second half.  If the point hadn’t been sufficiently made before, this game demonstrated how much more the Eagles are than just a star quarterback.

In fact, the more you watch the Eagles play, the harder and harder it is to ignore the outstanding work of both the Philadelphia offensive and defensive lines.

The Lost Art of Pulling

A generation ago, the Miami Dolphins stitched together the only un-defeated un-tied season in the Super Bowl era.  In 14 regular season games, they threw the ball only 259 times.  An average team playing in 2017 would hit that mark at about halftime of their eighth game of the season.  Those Dolphins ran the ball 613 time in 14 games – an average of 43.8 rushing attempts per game.  They never ran for fewer than 120 yards in any of their games, rushed for at least 200 yards 8 times in the regular season and almost two more times in the playoffs (they reached 198 against Cleveland and 193 against Pittsburgh), and topped 300 yards once (in Week 12 they amassed 304 rushing yards against New England).  They averaged 211.4 rushing yards a game.

The offensive line that powered this running game consisted of Wayne Moore (265 pounds), Bob Kuechenberg (253 pounds), Jim Langer (250 pounds), Larry Little (265 pounds) and Norm Evans (250 pounds).  The life of an offensive lineman back in 1972 was much different than it is today.  Back then, zone blocking didn’t exist.  A 300 pound offensive lineman would have been considered a liability.  Back then, offensive linemen moved all of the time.  Guards were nearly always pulling – it was the era of the great Lombardi sweep.

In 2017 most offensive linemen tilt the scales at over 300 pounds.  Sunday’s Eagle lineup featured Halapoulivaati Vaitai (315 pounds), Stefen Wisniewski (295), Jason Kelce (282), Brandon Brooks (343) and Lane Johnson (303).  The lightest member of this year’s Eagle offensive line is roughly 17 pounds heavier than the heaviest member of the Dolphin line of yesteryear.

As it turns out, offensive linemen in 2017 mostly pass protect.  They do still pull – or try to pull – but this relic of football’s offensive past is starting to fade for lack of effectiveness.

At 300-plus pounds, few of the modern offensive linemen possess the quickness to get away from the line of scrimmage before being caught up in the congestion, and the speed to make it to the designated spot while the play is still going on.  There is another key component necessary to allowing one of your linemen to pull successfully that is also mostly lacking – the art of the downblock.

Frequently, as a guard takes his place at the line of scrimmage, there is a defensive tackle lining up across from him.  If this guard is supposed to pull on this particular play, that would render him unable to block the tackle – allowing him to disrupt the play.  To compensate, another near-by lineman – in this case, usually the center – would slide over at the snap and block the tackle.

This agility and athleticism was the trademark of those Dolphins and many other teams of that era.  Today – since defensive linemen are getting smaller and much quicker – it is difficult for offensive linemen to cut them off before they can penetrate.  Much of the time these days, when linemen pull, it ends up as a scrum in the offensive backfield.

But Not the Eagles

All of which makes watching the Philadelphia Eagles such a singular experience.  These Eagles pull like no team I’ve witnessed in many years.  There were probably more cleanly executed pulls, traps and downblocks executed in Sunday’s game than most teams will manage in a season.

While there may well have been a dozen or so perfectly executed run plays, perhaps the best came on the second play of the fourth quarter.  The Eagles faced first-and-10 on their own 48, and lined up with tight end Zach Ertz tight to the right side.  At the snap, left guard Wisniewski bolted around center, heading toward the right side of the formation, while center Kelce executed his perfect downblock on Cowboy nose tackle Maliek Collins.  Meanwhile, the right guard and tackle (Brooks and Johnson) double-teamed Dallas’ other tackle – David Irving, and Ertz flew past end Demarcus Lawrence.

After the initial double-team staggered Irving, both Brooks and Johnson quickly disengaged and hurtled into the defensive secondary, where they effortlessly cleared out linebackers Jaylon Smith and Justin Durant.  As to Lawrence – who was unblocked to this point – he had to hesitate to see whether Wentz was going to keep the ball and roll to his side.  This caused him to pause just long enough to allow Wisniewski to plow through him. Ertz hunted up cornerback Byron Jones and drove him up the field.

By the time running back LeGarrette Blount reached the line of scrimmage, the entire Dallas defense had been picked off and pushed out of the way – exactly as it had been drawn up.  Blount would finally be caught from behind on the Cowboy 22 – after a 30 yards gain.

On that play, left tackle Vaitai had the easiest assignment – turning Cowboy end Taco Charlton to the outside.  But on this evening every Eagle lineman would have their moment – even Vaitai who is filling in for injured legend Jason Peters.  On Philadelphia’s longest offensive play of the game – Jay Ajayi’s 71-yard run – it would be Vaitai, pulling from left tackle – who would throw the key block.

Ghosts of Cowboys Past

The entire second half would be eerily reminiscent of the Cowboy teams of the mid-1990s that would pound teams into submission in the second half of their games.  Philadelphia ran the ball 23 times in the second half for 180 yards – sending them to 215 rushing yards on the game.

A total even the 1972 Dolphins wouldn’t have been embarrassed to own.

And Then There Was the Defensive Line

Almost as dominant was the Eagle defensive line.  They kept the pressure on quarterback Dak Prescott the entire night, while rarely letting him escape the pocket.  Watching the game, it seemed like the Eagles blitzed constantly.  In reality, Prescott saw only 10 blitzes in his 35 drop-backs (29%).  But those blitzes were effective enough.  Dak was only 3 for 8 for 19 yards, 2 sacks, and 1 interception when facing the Eagle blitz.

The rest of the time Fletcher Cox, Timmy Jernigan and Chris Long constricted the pocket.  Right defensive end Derek Barnett had the opportunity to exploit Dallas’ weakness at left tackle.  With starting tackle Tyron Smith missing his second straight game, Dallas turned to Byron Bell.  While his effort was decidedly better than Chaz Green’s the game before, the Cowboys still struggled all night trying to keep Barnett out of the backfield.

The pressure from Barnett, the blitzes and the false blitzes all took their toll on Prescott.  Dak played fast most of the night, and his accuracy suffered noticeably.  What a change for Dak from last year.

Last year at this time, Prescott was playing easy behind what was then regarded as football’s best offensive line.  But left guard Ronald Leary is in Denver now, and right tackle Doug Free retired.  With Smith sitting out with his injury, the Cowboys are down to just two of last year’s five starting offensive linemen.

And it makes quite a difference.

Last year, Dallas streaked to a 13-3 record and the top seed in their conference.  This year they are unlikely to make the playoffs.  That’s how quickly life can change in the NFL.  The Eagles and the other teams currently riding on top of the football world should take notice.

Eagles Run through Broncos

In the latest exhibit of the week-to-week nature of the NFL, the Denver Broncos were scorched by the Philadelphia Eagles last Sunday by a surprising 51-23 score (gamebook).

The Broncos entered the game with the number one ranked defense (in yardage allowed).  That they ranked sixth against the pass was important enough against the Eagle passing game.  Even more impressive, this defensive unit ranked second in the NFL against the run (allowing 72.9 yards per game).  They were also surrendering just 3.0 yards per attempt (also second in the league), and had yet to give up a rushing touchdown.

The week before they mostly silenced an excellent Kansas City offense with man coverage and a stifling run defense that took away chief weapon Kareem Hunt.  With Philadelphia’s best receiving threat (Zach Ertz) on the bench, the prospects of the Broncos shutting down Philadelphia seemed at least plausible.

For, maybe, 15 minutes.

By the Way, Philadelphia Can Run the Ball

Already ahead 17-3 after the first quarter, Philadelphia kept scoring, finishing, finally with 7 touchdowns and 4 field goals.  It is no longer surprising when Carson Wentz – even without his best receiver – chews up an opposing defense.  Wentz finished his afternoon with 4 touchdown passes and a 118.7 passer rating.  What very much surprised me about this game was the Eagle running attack.  Against a team that had surrendered more than 80 rushing yards just once in their first seven games this year, the Eagles finished the game with 197 rush yards on 37 attempts (5.3 yards per attempt).  The team that had yet to allow a rushing touchdown served up 3 on Sunday.

All of a sudden, this offensive line merits some re-evaluation.  Right tackle Lane Johnson – a pass blocking hero in the Monday night game against Washington, stepped up again in that role.  This time he gave Von Miller all he could handle.  Guards Brandon Brooks and Stefen Wisniewski spent the afternoon pushing Denver ends Derek Wolfe, Shelby Harris and Adam Gotsis five or more yards into the defensive backfield.  Center Jason Kelce showed surprising power against 300-pound nose tackles Domata Peko and Zach Kerr.

Some of the offensive line’s best moments belonged to fill-in tackle Halapoulivaati Vaitai.  On most of the Eagle’s biggest runs of the game, Vaitai was at the point of attack with the critical block.

The Eagles didn’t really get serious with their running game until there were two minutes left in the first half.  They were already ahead 24-9 at that point.  The Eagles were on their own 40.  Their first 10 running plays of the game had earned a modest 23 yards.  But then a plan emerged.

Finding Flaws in the Denver Defensive Scheme

The heavy lifting on the Bronco run defense has fallen all year to fast flow linebackers Brandon Marshall and Zaire Anderson – along with several secondary players who almost always play in linebacker positions.  Mostly these are Darian Stewart and Will Parks.  The defensive line’s only responsibility in the Denver scheme is to penetrate.  For the season, so far, they have been very proficient at disrupting runs in the backfield, leaving the linebackers and others to clean up.

What their linemen don’t do often – or well – is occupy blockers.

Now, with two minutes left in the half, the Broncos are expecting pass.  They open with six in the box.  They have pass-rush specialists Miller lined up at left end, and Shane Ray at right end.  Vaitai pushed Ray off to the sideline, while Wisniewski and Kelce pinned Harris to the inside.  With Harris unable to get off of Kelce’s block, Wisniewski popped through to the second level.

In what would be a recurring theme all afternoon, Brandon Marshall would be contending against linemen getting nearly free releases into the second level.  Wisniewski easily pushed Marshall out of the way, and new Eagle Jay Ajayi motored through the gap for 14 yards.  The Eagle staff must have liked how that worked out, because they ran almost the same play again.  Once again, Vaitai removed Ray.  Wisniewski handled Shelby Harris by himself this time, as Kelce pulled around the end.  Brandon Brooks streaked untouched toward Marshall pushing him out of the way.  With most of the Bronco defense on the ground, Ajayi scooted untouched around the left end and sped 46 yards for his first Philadelphia touchdown.

Second Half All About the Run

Whether this was the plan all along or a sudden revelation, we won’t know.  But throughout the entire second half, Philadelphia attacked this weakness in Denver’s run scheme.  Wentz threw the ball only 6 times after the intermission, while the Eagles ran 24 running plays for 108 yards.  As the Broncos always seem to be in pass rush mode, all the Eagles needed to do was stop the penetration.  If the line could do that, they would have mostly unfettered access to the linebackers.

With 11:54 left in the third quarter, the Eagles faced a second-and-4 at the Denver 22.  The Eagles stacked three receivers to the right (tight ends Trey Burton and Brent Celek, and receiver Mack Hollins).  The Broncos responded with their 3-4, with Shaquil Barrett playing in Miller’s usual left linebacker position and safety Darian Stewart flanked to the left of Marshall like a linebacker.

Burton turned Barrett to the outside.  Hollins stung Stewart (who was coming on a blitz).  Celek pulled and got a trap block on Shelby Harris, who was penetrating through the middle.  Just into the game after an injury to Lane Johnson, Isaac Seumalo (who was more than a little impressive in his limited opportunities) stopped Kerr’s attempt to penetrate from the left end position.  Wisniewski also handled Gotsis in a one-on-one situation.  So on this particular play, both Brooks and Kelce went untouched into linebackers Marshall and Anderson, respectively.  By the time the pile enclosed around running back LeGarrette Blount, Blount had picked up another 10 yards.

Five plays later, another Eagle running back Corey Clement took a pitch from Wentz on an option play at the goal line to score the touchdown that pushed the Eagle lead to 38-9.

A Blue-Print Against the Bronco Defense?

Remembering that this was a run defense that had held Dallas to 40 rushing yards, Buffalo to 75, and Kansas City to 79, it bears asking how repeatable this success could be.  Could other teams do this to the Broncos?  I think yes, providing a couple of things.

First and foremost, the offensive line would have to keep the Denver front seven out of the backfield.  Philadelphia made it look easy, but they will present a challenge for most offensive lines.  Also, the potency of the Eagle passing game kept Denver from making stopping the run a priority.  Even after this debacle, Denver is still number 5 against the run.  I would have to see a few more teams do this to Denver before I would expect some kind of change in scheme.

Too Many Running Backs?

In regard to the Eagles, the addition of Ajayi might make too many running backs.  On Sunday the 34 carries by running backs were distributed thusly:  Clement had 12, 9 for Blount, 8 for Ajayi, and 5 for Wendell Smallwood.  Classically, a team settles on a primary running back.  Usually 8-12 rushes isn’t enough for a runner to get into the rhythm of the game.  Probably, now, that will be Ajayi.  The Eagles have a bye this week, and may emerge on the other end with Jay being the 25-carry back.  But I know they like the other three guys a lot, too.  Plus, you figure Carson will still be throwing the ball a lot.

Finding enough footballs to keep everyone happy and sharp could prove to be a challenge.  Such are the challenges of an 8-1 team.

Carson Wentz and His Monday Night Party

As the Washington Redskins took the field last Monday Night, their defense was something of a puzzle.  They had surrendered 113 points through 5 games (22.6 per), holding only one opponent under 20 points.  Yet, they had the eighth-ranked run defense in the league, allowing only 88 yards per game, with only Kansas City rushing for more than 97 yards against them.  Meanwhile, opposing quarterbacks held only an 81.8 passer rating against this defense.  They had not – and still have not – allowed more than 298 net passing yards in any game.  The Skins were dropping the quarterback on 7.7% of the passing attempts against them.  Through the season’s first 5 games, they had allowed only 10 offensive touchdowns to be scored against them (they have also seen two fumbles returned for touchdowns against them).

So – in spite of the points they had allowed – this was a pretty accomplished defense.

Moreover, even though they allowed 30 points to Philly in the season opener, they did some very good things defensively.  They allowed the Eagles just 58 rushing yards (only 2.4 yards per rush).  They limited the potent Eagle offense to just 2 touchdowns.  Philadelphia was forced to kick 3 field goals and added a defensive score in the win.

Game-Planning Wentz and the Eagles

In that first game, the Redskin defense briefly lost track of receiver Nelson Agholor when quarterback Carson Wentz looked like he had been sacked.  But Carson made one of his miracle escapes and lofted a prayer up the seam that Agholor pulled in for a 58-yard touchdown.  Other than that play, the Eagle receivers didn’t really hurt Washington.  Nelson caught 5 other passes that afternoon, but for only 28 more yards.  Alshon Jeffery – the other primary target – finished with just 3 catches for 38 yards.

So the plan coming in was to play aggressive man coverage with one deep safety (Montae Nicholson).  They would challenge those receivers to win their matchups, chase Wentz around with a generous sprinkling of blitzes, and assign a spy (yes, Carson Wentz is a dangerous enough runner that Washington assigned him a spy – usually linebacker Mason Foster), and take their chances at stopping the running game again.

For 26 minutes and 31 seconds on Monday night, the Redskin defensive plan worked like a charm.  Through their first 25 offensive snaps, Philadelphia had run the ball 11 times for 42 yards (15 of them from Wentz himself), and had been flagged for 3 penalties, costing them 23 yards.  Of Wentz’ first 11 drop backs, only 3 passes were completed for just 30 yards.  One other throw had been intercepted, and 3 other attempts had ended in sacks of the quarterback (giving back 24 of the yards).  With halftime creeping up, the Eagles had scored 3 points while moving the ball just 25 yards in a positive direction (once the penalties were weighed into the equation).

For their part, cornerbacks Quinton Dunbar, Kendall Fuller and Bashaud Breeland – hardly household names – held up excellently in coverage.  While, on the Philadelphia sideline, the Eagles had unwittingly played into Washington’s hands.

Philadelphia and the Running Game

Since that first game, Philadelphia had re-invested in the run.  In the five games since, they had totaled at least 101 rushing yards in each game, including the 214 they racked up against the Chargers in Week 4.  The Eagles came into the game ranked fifth in the NFL in running the ball (132.5 yards per game on 4.4 yards per carry), and they intended to run against Washington.

In Week One, tight end Zach Ertz caught all 8 passes thrown to him as Washington simply could not cover him.  As the Week Seven game began, Ertz was watching from the sidelines as blocking tight end Brent Celek saw most of the action.  With about three minutes left in the first half, Ertz had not even had a pass thrown his way.  Everything was working out as well as Washington could have hoped.

But Then

Of course – even if man coverage is the game plan – you can’t only play man coverage.  Sometimes you have to drop into a zone.  With the Eagles facing second-and-16 on their own 36 with just 3:29 left before the half, Washington dropped into a zone.  Carson Wentz exploited it.

Alshon Jeffrey lined up to the right behind speedy rookie Mack Hollins.  Both attacked vertically up the seam for about 15 yards, when Jeffery broke his pattern to the sideline.  When cornerback Breeland bit on Jeffrey’s out-route, it left safety D.J. Swearinger all alone with Hollins.  Wentz hit Hollins in stride, sending the rookie on to his first career touchdown, igniting Philadelphia’s turnaround, and beginning what would be a nightmare second half for Swearinger.  All of a sudden, a game that Washington was in control of was tied at 10, and Philadelphia was beginning to reconsider its approach.

Before the half would end, Ertz would catch both passes thrown to him for 50 yards and a touchdown.  By game’s end, Ertz had caught all 5 passes thrown his way for 89 yards.  In the two games played against Washington this season, Zach Ertz caught all 13 passes thrown his way for 182 yards.  Most of the damage came with Swearinger trying to chase him down, but he also proved too much for Foster in the odd times that Mason tried to cover him.

Washington came in with a great plan with one tiny flaw.  No one on their team can cover Ertz.  In watching the tape, I actually think he was open every time he went out for a pass.

As to Wentz, all through his 3 for 8 start I don’t think he was ever confused by what he saw.  The initial trouble was getting a receiver open.  Throughout the entire game, Wentz seemed ready for whatever the Washington pass defense showed him.  Carson is a toolsy quarterback, but his understanding of the passing game is quite advanced for a second year guy.

Signature Moments

The rest of the game would serve as notice for anyone in the football world who hadn’t yet heard of him that Carson Wentz is a force to be reckoned with.  He finished the game with a 126.3 passer rating and 4 touchdown passes – beating every coverage Washington threw at him.  He also memorably scrambled for 63 yards, leading the Eagles to their 34-24 victory (gamebook).  The win included a signature play in both the passing and running aspects of Carson’s play – calling cards to remember him by, as it were.

The Pass

There is 9:49 left in the third – Eagles now ahead 17-10.  They face third-and-goal at the 9 yard line.  Washington defensive end Terrell McClain almost makes a game saving play.  Bull-rushing his way past center Jason Kelce, McClain has Wentz in his grasp.  Almost.  Once again, Carson twists out of the way.  With Matthew Ioannidis and Mason Foster sandwiching him in, Wentz manages to flip the ball over the head of Foster with just enough juice to get it up the sideline in the end zone where Corey Clement gathered it in.

Linebacker Zach Brown’s adventure on that play more-or-less epitomized the night for Washington.  Clearly expected to cover Clement on the play, Brown blitzed immediately.  It was as Clement and Brown passed each other going in opposite directions, that Zach realized his error.  He pivoted quickly and began pursuit of Corey, but that only earned him the best view in the house of Clement’s touchdown.

The Scramble

Now it’s the fourth quarter.  There is 14:55 left, and Washington has fought back to make it a 24-17 game.  The Eagles are on their own 27, facing a third-and-8.

Washington blitzes.  As they did almost all night, the disciplined Eagle line picked-up the blitz, but gave ground as they did so, resulting in the Washington pass rush completely encircling Wentz.  For nearly two seconds, it seemed inevitable that Carson would be discovered at the bottom of a very large pile of bodies.  But then – somewhat miraculously – Wentz shot out of the cluster of humanity and sprinted 17 yards to the 44 for a back-breaking first down.  Moments later, Agholor would weave his way through another broken zone defense to haul in the clinching touchdown.

A funny thing about that moment.  While escape looked impossible, Wentz was never in any real danger.  All of his offensive linemen were there in between him and the Redskins.  They weren’t all standing, and in some cases they were just barely between, but I think the only hand laid on Carson during that whole progression was from Zach Brown (again) who reached over running back Wendell Smallwood and managed to put a hand on Wentz’ back.  In essence, his line formed a kind of cocoon around their franchise quarterback – from which Carson exploded at the first glint of daylight.

Love for a Lineman

Nothing in football happens in a vacuum, and all success on the gridiron is team success.  There were many names trumpeted as heroes of this contest – and there were many who played extremely well.  One name that probably won’t get any mentions is right tackle Lane Johnson.  He spent most of the afternoon lined up against Washington’s best pass rusher – two time Pro Bowler Ryan Kerrigan, who recorded 11 sacks last year – and made him disappear.  Kerrigan did get a half sack in the first quarter.  On that play, Ryan lined up over left guard Steve Wisniewski and slipped around him to get to Wentz.  As far as I remember, that was the only time that Kerrigan lined up inside.  He spent the rest of the game outside, trying (unsuccessfully) to work his way around Johnson.

Tapping the Brakes

It was a magical night for Carson Wentz and the (now) 6-1 Eagles.  But before we start reserving his spot in Canton and marking the Eagles down for home-field advantage, let’s hold on to a little perspective.  Carson has played 23 impressive games as a pro, and you can see why the organization is optimistic for the future.  But it is just 23 games.  Carson has yet to play a meaningful December game, much yet a playoff game.  It’s an auspicious start, but it’s just a start.

As for the Eagles, 6-1 is an excellent start.  But six wins won’t get you anywhere.  The most challenging part of the season lies ahead.

Remember, the NFL is still a week-to-week league – even for Carson Wentz and the juggernaut Eagles.

Quarterbacks with Question Marks

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Alex Smith

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

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

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

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

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

Except that he hasn’t.

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

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

Cam Newton

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

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

Mechanics

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

Superman in the Backfield?

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

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

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

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

Not Going Through His Progressions

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Analyzing Newton

Here’s my take on Cam:

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

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

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