Tag Archives: Pittsburgh Steelers

Panthers Plummeting

The field goal attempt was 52 yards – hardly a gimme – but the kick wouldn’t have been good from any distance.

It started wide right, and, as kicker Graham Gano and all of Carolina held their collective breath, it just refused to hook back to the left.  At least not enough.

The miss didn’t officially lose the game – the Panthers and the Seattle Seahawks were still tied at 27 – but at that point, everyone pretty much knew what was coming next.  Three plays later, Seattle had moved from its own 42 to the Panther 10-yard line.  From there, a couple of kneel downs and a spike set up Seahawk kicker Sebastian Janikowski for the game-winning field goal – which he provided as time expired (gamebook) (box score).

In the game’s first half, Panther quarterback Cam Newton had completed all 14 passes thrown.  Carolina committed no penalties, allowed no sacks, and outgained Seattle 236 to 154.  Seventy-seven of those yards had come on 15 rushing plays (5.1 yards per rush), as Carolina would set the early tone in this contest between two run-first teams.

And yet, the Panthers trotted off to the locker room ahead just 13-10.  The culprits were an 0-4 mark on third down, and a 1-4 conversion rate inside the red zone.  On their first drive of the game, the Panthers moved to fourth-and-2 at the Seattle 5-yard line.  Calling a quarterback draw, Newton waited – perhaps too long – for the blocking to develop and was then pulled down inches short (or so said the official) of the first down.

Two other times, Carolina would have to settle for field goals.  It was enough to keep Seattle in the game, and would cost the Panthers in the end.

Carolina would add another 143 rushing yards in the second half – finishing with 220 on the game – but it wouldn’t be enough.  Seattle quarterback Russell Wilson would work his own special brand of second half magic.  Russell would complete 15 of his last 19 passes (78.9%) for 218 yards and 2 touchdowns to lead the comeback.  Much of this came courtesy of two critical deep passes.

Moments after a Bradley McDougald interception in the end zone had denied Carolina yet again in the red zone – and still trailing 13-10 about midway through the third quarter – Wilson found David Moore all alone up the right sideline for 54 yards.  Cornerback James Bradberry had slipped in coverage, providing the opportunity.  Moments later a touchdown pass to Tyler Lockett gave the Seahawks their first lead of the game.

Now it’s immediately after the Gano miss.  Coverage confusion between backup defensive back Corn Elder and Captain Munnerlyn allowed Lockett to uncover deep down the right sideline.  That 43-yard completion set up the game-winning field goal.

With the win the Seahawks stay on pace.  At 6-5, they now have the tie-breaker over Carolina.  If it should come to that.  For Carolina, the story is more concerning.

Three weeks ago – after they had pushed around Tampa Bay, 42-28, Carolina held a 6-2 record and looked like a playoff lock.  They have now lost three in a row.  The streak began with a spanking at the hands of the Steelers (52-21), and proceeded with a loss to an uninspiring Detroit team (20-19).  Now, in a kind of must-win game against Seattle at home, the Panthers came up short again.

At 6-5 their playoff position isn’t critical yet.  But the trend this team is on is a concern.  They still have two games remaining against New Orleans.  I have a hard time seeing this team winning either of those – which would bring them to 7 losses.  That would mean that they would probably have to win all of their other games.  Problem is that two of those other three are on the road – where the Panthers are just 1-4 this season. 

The first of those will be this Sunday in Tampa Bay.  The Bucs are not in playoff contention this year, but they do play notably better at home, where they are 3-2 this year.  Then the Panthers move on to Cleveland.  The Browns also are not playoff candidates this year, but they have won two in a row – over Atlanta and Cincinnati – and have played considerably better of late.

An 8-8 record probably won’t get you into the playoffs this year, so Carolina’s path in is to either win both of their next two road games, or win at least one of those two and find a way to win one of the two against New Orleans.

If they should fail – and I think they will have quite a lot of difficulty achieving either of those objectives – then the Minnesota Vikings (6-4-1) are lurking to claim the NFC’s last playoff spot.  Minnesota faces a challenging finish as well.  They go into New England this week and into Seattle next week.  They finish the season at home, but against the rising Chicago Bears.  However, they also have a home game against Miami.  The game that decides the final NFC playoff berth may well be the road game that the Vikings will play in Detroit in Week 16.  The Vikings beat the Lions in Minnesota 24-9 in Week 9.

Denver Halts Pittsburgh’s Win Streak

On the AFC side of the ledger, not much materially changes in the playoff picture.  Pittsburgh’s surprising 24-17 loss in Denver (gamebook) (box score) could potentially drop the Steelers to the fourth seed from the third.

In terms of annoying losses, this one might score an eleven on a ten scale.  For the afternoon, the Steelers rolled up 527 yards against the Denver defense – ranked twenty-second in the league as the game began.  They also committed four turnovers and had a field goal blocked.  They also missed three wide open receivers running behind the Denver defense.  There are at least a half-dozen scenarios that have Pittsburgh winning this game handily.  It was – to say the least – frustrating.

While all of the turnovers hurt, two were particularly damaging.

Trailing 3-0, Pittsburgh took possession on their own 25 with 6:26 left in the first quarter.  Eleven plays later, the Steelers had run away all of the remaining time in the quarter, while moving to a third-and-1 at the Denver 24.  They began the second quarter with a perfectly executed screen pass to Xavier Grimble, who broke clear up the left sideline.  As he approached the goal line with the touchdown that would have given Pittsburgh the lead, Grimble was suddenly met at the one by Will Parks, whose tackle dislodged the ball from Grimble’s grasp.  Xavier could only watch as the ball trickled over the goal line and into foul territory – ending the long drive with no points scored, and giving Denver the ball at the 20.

For all of their issues, Pittsburgh nonetheless took possession on their own 44-yard line, trailing by one touchdown, with still 4:26 left in the contest.

Methodically they moved the ball inside the Bronco 5-yard line.  With still 1:07 left in the contest, Pittsburgh faced a third-and-goal at the 2-yard line.  But the snap to Ben Roethlisberger was wide enough to throw off the timing of the play.  Panicked just a bit, Ben heaved the ball into the end zone in the general direction of Antonio Brown.  Before it could get there, a defensive lineman named Shelby Harris – who looked for all the world like he was rushing the passer – dropped one step into coverage and found the ball heading right toward him.  His goal-line interception provided Pittsburgh with its the final indignity of the night.

Denver has now won consecutive games against teams that have come in riding impressive winning streaks.  Their closing schedule is softer than their beginning, encouraging some hope among Bronco fans.  I still hesitate to call their playoff chances “good.” In the AFC, both the Chargers and the Colts are likely to win ten games each – meaning the Broncos would have to win out to join that conversation.

On Sunday, they seemed more lucky than good.  They will need more than luck to fight their way into the dance.

Big Ben’s Perfectish Game

It is Thursday evening, November 8 (ten days ago)

On their first play from scrimmage, the Pittsburgh Steelers lined up with receivers JuJu Smith-Schuster and James Washington spread wide to the left of quarterback Ben Roethlisberger.  Carolina cornerback Captain Munnerlyn initially lined up over Smith-Schuster as if in man coverage.  But as the play developed and Washington curled into the flat along the sideline, Munnerlyn dropped Smith-Schuster and moved to his zone assignment where Washington was.

One little problem.  The Panthers were not in zone.  They were in man coverage – and Juju Smith-Schuster was his man.

In the very same fraction of a second that Munnerlyn turned his attention to Washington, Roethlisberger released his perfectly thrown deep pass, hitting Juju in stride just before the Carolina 45-yard line, on his way to a game opening 75-yard touchdown.

That would set the tone.

The Carolina Panthers came into the contest 6-2 and looking like one of the NFL’s elite teams.  But they walked into a buzz-saw in Pittsburgh leaving the Steel City on the bad end of a 51-14 score (gamebook) (box score).

The Steelers had it all working.  The defense limited Carolina to 242 yards, while sacking Cam Newton 5 times and forcing 2 turnovers.  The running attack rang up 138 yards and a touchdown.

But for all that, the day belonged to Ben Roethlisberger and his indomitable (at least it was a week ago Thursday) passing attack.

Primarily a zone defense team, Carolina realized that they couldn’t sit in their zones in this game or Ben would eat them alive.  So they opened their defensive playbook.  They showed man, but then played zone.  They showed zone but then played man.  On the touchdown pass to Vance McDonald (and Ben would throw 5 touchdowns on the night) Vance came in motion across the formation and no one followed him – a clear indication of zone.  Yet once the play began, McDonald was man covered by star Panther linebacker Luke Kuechly with safety help over the top.  Even that wasn’t enough, as McDonald got behind both in the back of the end zone.

Throughout the game, Carolina would line up six or more potential pass rushers across the line of scrimmage, dropping most of them into coverage once the play began.  Perhaps the most amazing aspect of Roethlisberger’s performance was how quickly he deciphered the defensive scheme and how rapidly he delivered the football.

With 3:50 left in the first half, Pittsburgh faced a third-and-six on their own 29-yard line.  Six Panthers crowded the line of scrimmage, but three droped off after the snap.  One of those dropping out – DE/LB Julius Peppers hadn’t taken three steps into his coverage before the football whistled past his ear to receiver Ryan Switzer who had beaten the entire Panther defense to the soft spot in the zone just behind Peppers.

And so it went.

With just under five minutes left in the third quarter, Pittsburgh faced a third-and-eight from its own 37-yard line.  The Steelers lined up with three receivers bunched to the right, and Carolina showed man coverage.  As Roethlisberger prepared to receive the ball, Kuechly and Munnerlyn crept up to the line – again showing six potential blitzers.  When Ben dropped his hands, Kuechly and Munnerlyn fell back to their previous positions.  Luke then took another step in, but backed off again – prompting Roethlisberger to change the play.

After spending most of the game bluffing the blitz, Carolina actually came this time.  Both Kuechly and Munnerlyn rushed, with end Mario Addison dropping back into coverage.  Instead of man, the Panthers played zone (with just six defenders) behind the blitz.  Still, Ben and the Steelers had the answer.  Running back Jaylen Samuels scooted across the formation to pick up Munnerlyn – who was running free to the quarterback.  With the blitz answered, Roethlisberger waited for the zones to expand, at which point he dumped the ball off to McDonald in the short middle of the field.  Vance gathered the pass in and turned up field to complete a 19-yard gain and another first down.

Pittsburgh was 8-of-11 converting third downs that night.

Ben’s dominance reflected in his passing line for the game.  He finished completing 22 of 25 passes for 328 yards and the 5 touchdowns.  His efforts earned him the maximum passer rating of 158.3.

Maximum but Not Perfect

Over and over you will hear announcers refer to this magic number (158.3) as a perfect rating.  That, of course, is clearly not true.  Whatever else you might want from a perfect night, you would at least want all of the passes completed.  That 158.3 number does not in any sense reflect perfection.  Through the bizarre intricacies of the formula itself, that score happens to be the highest that it will award – the maximum score, if you will.

This is a discussion I’ve been intending to have for some time.

The passer rating system as we know it today was created prior to the 1973 season.  Previously, passers had been rated either by total passing yards or completion percentage.  And no previous system took into account interceptions thrown

The 1973 system, then, attempted to achieve an equal balance between four averages.  It takes completion percentage, average yards per pass, touchdown percentage and interception percentage into consideration.  The guts of the calculation are as follows:

5*(Completion Percentage + (5*avg yards per pass) + 2.5 + (4*touchdown percentage) – (5*interception percentage))/6. 

This is certainly complex enough.  But then each of the individual categories is randomly capped. (perhaps to prevent any one area from overweighing the others?) The completion percentage category is capped at 77.5%.  In the prior Thursday’s game, Ben completed 88%, so the last 10.5% of his completion percentage didn’t help his rating.  The cap in average per attempted pass is 12.5.  Ben averaged 13.12 in this game – essentially the system disregarded his last 15.5 passing yards. The touchdown maximum is 11.9%. With Roethlisberger throwing an even 20% of his passes for touchdowns that meant that his last two touchdowns helped his rating not at all.  Zero, of course, is the maximum best score for interception percentage.  This category is also capped on the high end, as anything more than 9.5% won’t hurt you any further.  According to the system, throwing a third of your passes for interceptions is no worse than throwing a tenth of your passes to the wrong side.

Why the caps were put into place is a mystery.  Without the artificially placed maximums, Ben would have scored a 196.8 against Carolina.  Without the imposed maximums, the highest possible score would be 831.3 (a scenario where every pass thrown results in a 99-yard touchdown), and the lowest possible score would be -414.6 (a scenario where every pass thrown is intercepted).

For any normal use, the accepted range between 0 and 158.3 is sufficient.  But the only people who call the 158.3 figure “perfect” are those that do not understand it.

Ben was really good that Thursday night.  He was pretty close to perfect.  But not perfect.

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.

A New Quarterback in Kansas City

There was a surreal moment at the end of first quarter in Heinz Field last Sunday.  With 54 seconds left, the Steelers – trying desperately to get their bearings – faced third-and-ten on their own 19.  As quarterback Ben Roethlisberger dropped back, Kansas City linebacker Justin Houston got his right hand under right tackle Marcus Gilbert and drove him back into Roethlisberger.

Ben, wedged into the pocket, tried to lift the ball to get rid of it, but the play resulted in disaster.  As Houston pushed Gilbert into Roethlisberger, the ball popped loose.  Chief defensive end Chris Jones scooped up the ball at about the five-yard line and stepped it into the end zone.

And suddenly the Pittsburgh Steelers, with 40 seconds still left in the first quarter, playing at home, trailed the Chiefs 27-0.

In the moments that followed that disaster, the game pivoted 180 degrees.  A holding penalty on Orlando Scandrick nullified the sack and the score, setting the Steelers back up with a first-down on their own 24.

Four plays later, Ben pitched a 26-yard touchdown pass to Jesse James.  The Kansas City lead was reduced to 21-7, and the teams would go into the locker room at the half tied at 21.

It was an impressive comeback from a proud Pittsburgh team.  In the end, though, it would prove fruitless.  While the Steeler defense was able to muffle the Kansas City offense long enough to get them back in the game, by the end of the day it was clear they were overmatched.

On a day when the Steeler running game (minus holdout Le’Veon Bell) could manage just 33 yards, Ben Roethlisberger went to the air 60 times, completing 39 of those passes for 452 yards and 3 touchdowns – leading Pittsburgh to a usually sufficient 37 points.

But the day belonged to the first-year quarterback standing on the other sideline.

How much the football universe knew about Patrick Mahomes before this year is uncertain.  After his first two games under center in KC, they can no longer afford to ignore him.

He opened up with a four touchdown pass performance against the Chargers in Week One.  It was impressive, but the offensive plan against Los Angeles was more cute that dominating.  There were a lot of dinky flip passes to wide receivers running in front of Mahomes while still behind the line of scrimmage.

The beast that slayed the Steelers was a very different animal.  Whatever misgivings one might have had after the Charger game, Mahomes’ dissection of the Steelers was all any observer could desire.  He read every defense that Pittsburgh threw at him.  He stood tall in the pocket when he could and escaped easily from trouble when he needed to.  He threw terrific touch passes and fired laser shots down field – all with impressive accuracy.  Watching him run the offense was even more impressive than reading his numbers – and that is saying quite a bit as the numbers themselves are more than a little eye-popping.

Pat finished his game against Pittsburgh throwing 28 passes – of which he completed 23 for 326 yards.  And 6 touchdowns (giving him 10 for the first two games of the season).  As he threw no interceptions, his passer rating for the day was an acceptable 154.8.

I have long admired Kanas City coach Andy Reid.  I have always been under the impression, though, that he would probably never win a title.  There are some coaches that can just never find that quarterback that can get them there.

It is a long, long way from Week Two to the playoffs, and young Mr Mahomes still has a lot to prove.  I do think it’s a little early to start casting his bust for Canton.

But, to this point, it looks like Andy just might have found his quarterback.

And in Jacksonville, Too

The backbreaking play – when it came – came with more of a whimper than a bang.  It wasn’t a rifle shot down the field or a snazzy trick play like the one Philadelphia used in the Super Bowl.  The dagger came on a simple shallow cross, assisted greatly by a grinding kind of effort from a player who is usually a little more visible.

The reigning AFC Champs spent last Sunday afternoon in sunny (it was 97 degrees) Jacksonville Florida.  Last January, these New England Patriots staged one of their patented comebacks to keep the Jaguars out of the Super Bowl.

On this Sunday in September, however, the Patriots ran into the same kind of buzz saw that the Steelers did. The Jaguars scored touchdowns on three of their first four possessions, and then added a field goal on their fifth.  That field goal capped a 15-play, 71-yard drive that consumed the first 7:10 of the second half.  As the kick sailed through the uprights, the Patriots found themselves behind (again) by a 24-3 score with just a quarter and a half remaining.

Of course, it would not end like that.

A touchdown pass from Tom Brady to Chris Hogan in the waning moments of the third quarter made the score 24-10.  Early in the fourth quarter, a field goal inched the Patriots closer.  When Kyle Van Noy intercepted a pass in Jacksonville territory with still 13:30 left in the game, the crushing blow from the defending conference champs seemed imminent.

But the Jags came up with a turnover of their own, and managed to stop New England on their next series – using a challenge to overturn what would have been a Patriot first down.

Now there was 7:48 left in the game.  Jacksonville had first-down on their own 39 yard line.  Quarterback Blake Bortles found Dede Westbrook open on a shallow crossing pattern.  Westbrook, running from the offensive right to the left found the sideline and turned up field. 

Already a substantial gain, the play turned into the game-breaker as receiver Keelan Cole cleared the sidelines with a critical block.

In the first quarter, Cole made a remarkable one-handed catch up that same sideline (relatively speaking) on a pass that was considerably behind him.  That reception set up his own 24-yard touchdown grab.  These were the highlight catches of Keelan’s impactful first half – which saw him collect 4 passes for 77 yards.

Now, however, he was Keelan Cole – the blocker.  He was Keelan Cole – the football player.

Had he not thrown the key block, it’s anyone’s guess how the game might have turned out.  Given a reprieve, the Patriots might very well have held the Jags to a field goal – or perhaps forced another turnover.  Keelan’s block may have been the most critical play of the game.

It did open the way for the touchdown that New England never recovered from.

Who is BlakeBorltes?

The quarterback in the spotlight that afternoon was Bortles.  The Patriots challenged him to beat them through the air and up the sidelines, and Blake kept doing that all afternoon.  He finished his day’s work shredding New England for 377 yards on 29 of 45 passing.  Along with his 1 interception, Blake tossed 4 touchdowns.  His passer rating ending up as an excellent 111.1.

In its own way Blake’s day was as impressive as Mahomes.  In that he humbled the sometimes invincible Patriots.  That he always kept his cool whether secure in the pocket or on the run.  That he unerringly diagnosed everything New England’s defense tried to do to him.  That he threw the ball with great accuracy and never made that critical mistake that quarterbacks so often make against New England – in all these areas, Blake’s day was as laudable as any quarterback in Week Two – even if his game was more contained and less aggressively athletic than Mahomes’.

In an earlier title, I hinted at a new quarterback in Jacksonville.  It is, of course, still Blake Bortles.  But maybe a new Blake Bortles.  Certainly different than the Blake Bortles that threw only one pass in the second half of his Week Five game last year in Pittsburgh.

Just watching him play and looking at his history it is easy to overlook Blake Bortles.  Maybe it’s time we stop doing that.

And in Tampa Bay

With Jameis Winston missing the first three games of the season due to suspension, the Buccaneers had a need for a stop-gap quarterback.  Veteran Ryan Fitzpatrick seemed a perfect fit.  Now, all of a sudden, there is a potential quarterback controversy in Tampa Bay.

Fitzpatrick – the stopgap – has led Tampa Bay to two compelling victories against teams (New Orleans and Philadelphia) that were in the playoffs a year ago.  And he has done so in about as perfect a fashion as one could hope.

His combined line against the Saints and Eagles reads 46 of 61 (78.7%) for 819 yards, 8 touchdowns and 1 interception.  This adds up to a not-too-shabby 151.5 passer rating.  Fitz will get the Monday night game this week against Pittsburgh, and then Winston will be eligible to return.  Whether he returns to hold the clipboard or not remains to be seen.

Ready for Week Three

As Week Three is beginning to kick off around the football universe, the season is already beginning to suggest the surprise stories that might play out for the rest of the season.

There is, of course, a long way to go.

Jacksonville Somehow Survives the Steelers

At the end of Wildcard Weekend, four teams advanced to the Divisional Round.  Of the four, the Jacksonville Jaguars were clearly the least impressive, squeaking by a marginal Buffalo team by a 10-3 score.  One week later, with the dust settled from the Divisional Round, there is only one of the four Wildcard winners that will be advancing to the Championship Game – those same Jacksonville Jaguars on the heels of an improbable 45-42 victory over the Pittsburgh Steelers (gamebook).

The game evolved into a surprising shootout – given that these were two of the better defensive teams in the league.  The Jaguars finished the regular season ranked second in total defense, while the Steelers were seventh.  The teams combined to go 15 for 30 on third down (including 10 of 18 in the second half) and 5 for 7 on fourth down – including 4 fourth-down touchdowns.  They combined to score touchdowns on all 8 trips into the red zone and all five combined goal-to-go situations.

But the combined points and numbers fail to give a sense of the shape of the game, which saw Pittsburgh fall behind 21-0 early in the second period, and found them still trailing 28-7 until there were only 25 seconds left in the first half.  Like New Orleans later on Sunday afternoon, the Steelers almost authored an epic comeback against the usually elite Jacksonville defense.

Pittsburgh’s Downfall

Ultimately, the Steelers couldn’t overcome their own mistakes and bad decisions.  Nor could they contend with Jacksonville’s running game.  Regarding the latter, Jacksonville finished the first half with 116 rushing yards.  By game’s end, the Jaguars had dialed up 35 running plays that accounted for 164 yards (a 4.7 average) and 4 rushing touchdowns.  The Steeler defense had only allowed 14 rushing touchdowns through the entire regular season.

But even in the face of the almost always fatal inability to stop the run, the Steelers will spend the offseason haunted by a few mistakes and curious decisions.

Jacksonville scored one touchdown on a recovered fumble, and scored another after an interception left them on the Steeler 18.  They had another short field with 2:18 left in the fourth quarter, when Pittsburgh inexplicably opted to try an onside kick, in spite of the fact that they still held two timeouts and the two-minute warning.  The failed attempt set Jacksonville up on the Steeler 36, where 33 seconds later they kicked the field goal that provided the final margin of victory.

Fourth-Down Decisions

There were also a couple of fourth-down decisions that stung.  It’s hard to criticize this aspect of the game, since the Steelers were 4 of 6 on fourth down, including three touchdown passes.  But all of their fourth-down conversions were from four yards or more – including conversions of fourth-and-10 and fourth-and-11.  Their only failures on fourth down were their two fourth-and-1 opportunities.

There is 1:12 left in the first quarter, and Pittsburgh is already down 14-0.  They are in field goal range at the Jacksonville 21 (and I here remind you that they eventually lost by just three points).  It is, as I said, fourth-and-about a half-yard.  Quarterback Ben Roethlisberger tossed the ball to running back Le’Veon Bell, trying to get around the corner.  Half the Jacksonville defense met him in the backfield and dropped him for a 4-yard loss.

Then came what was – in retrospect – the turning point of the game.

It’s the beginning of the fourth quarter, Jacksonville is punting and clinging to a 28-21 lead.  But the punt is partially blocked by Robert Golden, and Pittsburgh sets up just 48 yards away from a tie ballgame.

Three running plays to Bell leave the Steelers a half-yard short.  The Steelers dial up a play-action pass that grazes off the fingertips of JuJu Smith-Schuster.  Five plays later, Jacksonville back Leonard Fournette (who finished the game with 109 rushing yards) pounded in his third rushing touchdown of the game, and the Steeler deficit was back to 14 points.

In both of the fourth-and-short instances, a quarterback sneak might have been a better call.  If Ben had managed that half-yard in just one of those two moments, Pittsburgh is likely to have at least tied the score and taken the game to overtime – if not won the game outright.

Concerns in Jacksonville

Jacksonville won, but not without a disturbing scare.  Remembering that Jacksonville finished the season number one against the pass, second (to Pittsburgh) in quarterback sacks, and first in passer rating (all quarterbacks this season averaged just a 68.5 rating against the Jaguar defense), it has to be at least a little concerning to the Jacksonville coaches and fans that – even knowing Pittsburgh would be forced to rely on the pass to get back into the game – they were still unable to slow them down.

Ben threw for 311 yards and three touchdowns after the intermission.  After sustaining a 104.9 passer rating in the first half, Roethlisberger upped that to 113.7 over the last two quarters.  For the game, Ben threw for 469 yards, establishing a 110.5 passer rating along the way.  A Jaguar pass defense that had only allowed 17 touchdown passes during the regular season, saw Roethlisberger toss 5 against them last Sunday (a fitting companion piece to the regular season game between these two teams when Roethlisberger was intercepted 5 times).

Not Quite in the Zone

Even more concerning, many of those yards were much too easy.  During the course of the game, Jacksonville played more than twice as much zone coverage as they did man coverage.  They didn’t play it well.  In particular, linebackers Myles Jack and Telvin Smith (who provided the two turnovers in the first half) are decidedly stationary in zone coverage.  They don’t really drop deep, and they are hesitant to cover receivers in the flat.  I counted no fewer than five passes from Roethlisberger to undefended receivers in the flat that gained at least 9 yards.  These five plays together accounted for 72 easy yards.

But this wasn’t all the trouble.  As the Jaguars pushed their lead to 21 points, they turned to the zone defenses as a way to inhibit the big passing play – thinking they could keep Pittsburgh from getting back in the game that way.  What they got was exactly what they were trying to prevent.  All three of Pittsburgh’s longest passing plays, and four of the six passing plays of 20-or-more yards came against the Jacksonville zones.  The two long passes to Martavis Bryant are illustrative.

There are 32 seconds left in the half.  Pittsburgh has fourth-and-11 at the Jacksonville 36.  The Jaguars are in quarters coverage.  The play call was designed to put safety Barry Church in a bind.  Barry had responsibility for the deep-middle slice of the field between Jalen Ramsey (who had the deep sideline to the offensive right) and Tashaun Gipson (who had deep-middle responsibility to the offensive left).

The Steelers sent two vertical routes into Church’s zone – with Antonio Brown lining up right and running the skinny post, and Bryant lining up left and running a deep cross into that same general area.  Whichever receiver that Church would choose, Roethlisberger would throw to the other.

Church made it easy on Ben.  He defended neither.  Church was another of the Jacksonville defenders that seemed notably uncomfortable in zone coverage.  For whatever reason, Barry allowed both receivers to streak past him, with Roethlisberger putting the ball perfectly in Bryant’s hands.

Now there are 58 seconds left in the game.  Bryant and Smith-Schuster are lined up wide right.  Jacksonville is still in quarters coverage, holding a ten-point lead as Pittsburgh faces a first-and-10 on the Jacksonville 47.  Bryant and Smith-Schuster both head up the field, but neither Myles Jack nor Aaron Colvin deepen their drop.  Both are distracted by Vance McDonald’s short turn-around route.  Juju’s deep route occupied Jarrod Wilson (playing the same coverage that Church played in the first half) and lifted him out of the play, opening the middle for Bryant – who caught the ball with plenty of room to run.  Martavis took the ball to the five-yard line for a 42-yard gain.

Analysis

A couple of important take-aways.

First, of course, is that Jacksonville isn’t nearly as secure in zone defense as they are when playing man.  The answer here isn’t as simple as deciding to play exclusively man coverages, as Jacksonville had some leaks there as well.  The defensive backs mostly did very well in man.  Ramsey was more than solid against Brown (most of Antonio’s 132 yards and both of his touchdowns came against zone coverages).

As this translates specifically to the upcoming Championship Game, Jalen has publicly challenged Patriot tight end Rob Gronkowski, and the other corner A.J. Bouye is quick enough to at least contend with Danny Amendola.  Both of these are talented defenders.  I expect they will both compete well with, but not dominate those New England receivers.

But the weapons in New England run very deep.  I don’t necessarily see any of the Jaguar linebackers who can defend Patriot running backs Dion Lewis or James White – both superior receivers.  In one of the few instances where Jacksonville was in man coverage, Le’Veon Bell toasted Telvin Smith for a 19-yard touchdown.  Expect to see more of that if Jacksonville plays more man coverage against New England.

The other take-away from this is more telling.  Both of the long passes to Bryant were plays that took some time to develop – time opposing quarterbacks don’t usually get against Jacksonville.  The Jaguar secondary has some good players, but also has a few that can be exploited.  Usually they are protected behind an overwhelming pass rush.

Last Sunday, that pass rush mostly disappeared, leaving the secondary fairly exposed – against both man and zone.  A defense that sacks the quarterback on 9.8% of his drop-backs saw Roethlisberger drop back 60 times last week while suffering just 2 sacks.  The week before, they managed only 2 sacks against Buffalo in 42 drop-backs.  New England’s offensive line is expert at pass blocking, so it can’t be automatically assumed that the rush will suddenly re-appear tomorrow.

Jaguars To-Do List

Now, they get New England.  As the report out of Patriot practice is that Tom Brady’s thumb is responding well, this game shapes up as a matter of two imperatives for the Jaguars.

First, the pass rush has to re-emerge.  The only defense against Brady is pressure – specifically pressure up the middle.  With no more pressure than they brought last Sunday, expect their pass defense to be sliced and diced again.

Second, they must run the ball.  The difference between the 10-point effort against Buffalo and the 45-point output against Pittsburgh was mostly the ability of Jacksonville to run the ball (with someone other than their quarterback).  The Jaguar’s running game is one of the best in football (actually ranking first), but as I pointed out yesterday, running the ball against New England is no simple task.

Presuming that Brady will be Brady tomorrow, the challenge facing Jacksonville is sizeable.

Clarity at the Top of the AFC Playoff Race

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

But not so fast.

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

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

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

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

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

Just ask the Atlanta Falcons and Seattle Seahawks.

Deciding Things in the West

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

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

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

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

In the second half alone.

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

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

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

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

At least that’s how it looks now.

Marquee Games Entertain, But Resolve Little

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The Changing AFC Playoff Picture

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

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

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

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

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

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

Meanwhile, in the NFC Showdown

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The NFC Playoff Picture – as it Now Stands

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

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

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

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

Congratulations to the Fans of the Miami Marlins

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

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

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

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

Pack Not Quite Back

The Sunday before, Packer quarterback Brett Hundley melted down on his home turf, tossing 3 interceptions and taking 6 sacks in a disappointing 23-0 loss to Baltimore.  Now there was about 4:25 left in the game as Hundley and the Packers broke the huddle.  The visiting Pack was facing off against one of the best and hottest teams in the NFL, Green Bay stood first-and-10 on the Pittsburgh 16, trailing just 28-21.

Green Bay is the middle stop on what I have called “back-up quarterback week”. (On Thursday we dropped in on Houston and Tom Savage).  Off to a 4-1 start with Aaron Rodgers behind center, the Packer season tilted suddenly in Week Six when a broken collarbone removed Rodgers from the equation – possibly for the season.

Into the breach stepped Hundley – a fifth-round pick out of UCLA in 2015.  Having thrown just 11 career passes before that fateful game, Brett was tossed into the middle of what has turned out to be a fairly brutal schedule.  After Minnesota (currently 9-2), Hundley’s first two career starts were against New Orleans (8-3) and Detroit (6-5).  After facing the 3-8 Bears in Week Ten, Hundley’s education tour led him against Baltimore (6-5) and now Pittsburgh (who started the day 8-2).

Of the teams he has faced so far, three of the six boast top-five total defenses – and Baltimore and Pittsburgh are numbers two and three in pass defense. But Hundley is a confident kid.  After being a bit overwhelmed by the Vikings and Saints, he rebounded nicely in his next two games.  He completed just 30 of 58 passes in those first two games (51.7%) for just 244 yards – an average of just 4.21 yards per pass and 8.1 per completion.  His 1 touchdown pass in those games was more than offset by 4 early interceptions, and his 39.7 passer rating was a concern.

But in his games against softer defenses in Detroit and Chicago, Brett was 44 of 63 (69.8%).  While this was much better, the down-field attack was still lagging.  He totaled just 457 yards in the two games – an average of just 7.25 yards per attempted pass, and only 10.4 per completion.  He threw no interceptions in those two games, but also threw just 1 touchdown pass.  Still, for someone making just his second and third career starts, his 95.8 passer rating was encouraging.

And then came the Baltimore game.

Understandably, few fans or pundits expected much from Hundley against the elite Steeler defense.

The Game of His Life

The Steelers opened the game with a 59-yard, 12-play, 6:46 touchdown drive to take a 6-0 lead (the extra-point was missed).

Now it was Hundley’s turn to answer.  After two running plays gave Green Bay a first-down on the Steeler 48, Brett threw his first pass of the game – a five-yard out to Davante Adams.

The drive seemed to stall immediately, as a running play gained nothing and Hundley seemed to take his eighteenth sack in just 178 drop-backs.  But Pittsburgh cornerback Artie Burns was flagged for a penalty that gave Green Bay a first down on the Steeler 38.

Two plays later – with the Packers facing a second-and-11 – Pittsburgh dropped into a cover-three zone.  At least 10 of the Steelers dropped into cover-three.  Cornerback Burns trumped his earlier mistake by chasing Adams back over the middle, leaving his deep third of the field uncovered.  Hundley looked up to find receiver Randall Cobb running all alone up the left sideline.  Seconds later, Hundley had tossed a 39-yard touchdown pass, and the Packers had a 7-6 lead.

After an interception gave the Packers the ball back at their own 45, a one-yard run and an incompletion put Green Bay at third-and-9.  The Steelers faked a blitz.  Five defenders started toward the line at the snap, but linebacker Ryan Shazier fell almost immediately back into coverage, looking for the running back he was supposed to cover.  But that first step in would prove fatal.  That running back – rookie Jamaal Williams – already had three or four steps on Shazier.  Shortly after Hundley flipped Williams the ball, center Corey Linsley peeled back and picked off Shazier.  Jamaal then found an alley and bolted the rest of the way for a 54-yard touchdown.  There was 1:22 left in the first quarter and Hundley had already thrown for 98 yards and two touchdowns (on only 3 completions).  The Steelers ended the quarter with 10:41 of possession, but trailing 14-6.

But Brett was not done.

The rest of the first half would pass uneventfully, and Green Bay’s first possession of the second half came down to a third-and-3 at their own 45.  The Packers defeated Pittsburgh’s single-high coverage with outside vertical routes from Jordy Nelson on the left and Adams on the right – the twin vertical routes preventing safety Mike Mitchell from committing to either side.  Adams shed cornerback Coty Sensabaugh with a slick stop-and-go, and Brett hit him in stride up the sideline.  From there, Davante eluded the late-arriving Mitchell and outran the rest of the defense for the 55-yard touchdown.

The game was 32 minutes and 54 seconds old, and the Packers had stunned the Pittsburgh defense for 3 touchdown passes of at least 39 yards – two of them over 50 yards.

To that point of the season, Green Bay had produced no touchdown passes of 35 yards or more, and only 2 over 30 yards.  In Brett’s first 158 passes, he had managed just 2 touchdowns and only 4 completions of more than 30 yards, none longer than 46 yards.  Through his first 12 passes against the Steelers, Brett already had 3 touchdown passes and 170 yards on 9 completions.

Back Come the Steelers

At that point, though, the game turned decisively in the favor of the Steelers – and especially their defense.  Reverting to simple man coverages and basic zones, the Steelers stopped trying to confuse the rookie, opting instead to force him to hold the ball long enough for the Steeler pass rush (second best in the NFL at the start of the night) to get home.  The strategy worked as well as could be hoped.  The next 8 times Brett dropped back he went 0 for 5 with 3 sacks.  Over their next three series, Green Bay ran a total of 13 plays netting 0 yards.  During this stretch, the Steelers never reverted to blitzing, finding ample pressure with simple line stunts that Green Bay struggled to adjust to.

So now, there are just less than nine minutes left in the game.  The Packers are seven points down, and are starting on their own 23.  But now their approach has changed.  Instead of giving the pass rush a shot to disrupt him, Hundley would line up in the pistol and fire at the first receiver that broke open.  This approach would depend on Hundley’s ability to quickly recognize and accurately react to what the Steller defense would present him.

As exciting as the earlier big plays had been, if I were a Packer fan I would be even more excited by Hundley’s performance in this last drive.

On first down, Pittsburgh got cute again.  They brought cornerback Mike Hilton off the corner.  The defense became a zone-blitz, with four rushers coming from Hundley’s left and the presumed rushers on his right dropping into coverage.  But the rushers from his left gave tight end Richard Rodgers a brief opening.  Hundley saw it immediately and had the ball in Rodgers’ hands before Shazier could slide over and close the window.  That play picked up 25 yards and put the ball on the Packer 48.

Now the Steelers dialed up one of their rare blitzes, but wanted to play zone behind it.  With Bud Dupree coming untouched from the edge, Hundley rolled away from the pressure and noted that Hilton – responsible for the right flat – was slow getting into his zone.  He tossed the ball to a wide-open Cobb for 12 more yards. And suddenly Green Bay was on the Steeler 40 with 7:28 left.

A one yard run left Brett with a second-and-9.  From a single-high man look, the Steelers dropped into zone coverage.  Again, Hundley saw it immediately.  With a quick glance to his left, Brett caused Shazier to take a step in that direction, widening the gap between him and Dupree (who had the right flat) just enough open a seam in the zone for Davante Adams to pop through for a 12-yard reception.  First-and-10 Packers on the Pittsburgh 27.

With both corners lined up 12 yards off the receivers, Hundley picked up 7 easy yards on a quick toss to Nelson lined up wide left.  A run and another short pass to Nelson (with Jordy stretching for the chains) picked up the first down at the Steeler 16 with still more than four minutes to go.

But here the Steelers would make their stand.  A running play was buried in the backfield for a 2-yard loss.  Hundley’s second-down pass flew over the head of a well-covered Adams.  On third-and-12, a dump pass to Cobb got half of the yardage.  Now it was fourth-and-6 with the clock spinning under three minutes to play.  The Packers decided to go for it, but spent their second time out when they didn’t like the defense that they saw.

Now down to one time out, still trailing by seven with 2:50 left, The Packers came out with an empty backfield, with Nelson, Geronimo Allison, and Rodgers lined up to the right of the formation, and Adams stacked behind Cobb to the left.  Pittsburgh played man coverage across with two high safeties.  This allowed Adams a one-on-one opportunity against William Gay, who he beat quickly with an inside-outside move.  Hundley delivered the ball perfectly, and the Packers had first and goal at the Pittsburgh 4.  Seconds later, Jamaal Williams soared over the goal line, and the game was tied.

No Joy in Green Bay

The game wouldn’t finish in story-book fashion though.  Green Bay would get one more possession starting on their own 18 with 1:20 left and just the one time out.  After a first-down sack, the Pack went conservative – a short pass and a run – and punted, playing for overtime.  With 17 seconds left, Pittsburgh moved from their own 30 to Green Bay’s 33 on two sideline throws to Antonio Brown (who finished with 169 yards and two touchdowns on 10 catches for the day).  One play later, Chris Boswell ended the evening with a 53-yard field goal.

After controlling the ball for 19:05 of the first half, after going 3-for-4 on third down in the second half, and after Le’Veon Bell racked up 114 yards from scrimmage (53 rushing and 61 receiving) in the second half alone, Pittsburgh still needed a long field goal as time expired to subdue the Packers (gamebook).

Aftermath

For the Steelers, they are now 9-2 and three games ahead in their conference with five to play.  They currently hold the top seed in the conference – getting a strength of victory nod over the Patriots.  Those two will meet in a significant contest in a couple of weeks.

Green Bay is now 5-6 and has four teams ahead of them for the final playoff spot in the NFC.  A 9-7 mark will probably not get you in on the NFC side, so the Pack – as they had to last year – will pretty much have to win out to stand a chance.

For the next two weeks they will face the 4-7 Buccaneers and then the 0-10 Browns.  After that, the schedule gets nasty, again.  They go into Carolina to play the 8-3 Panthers, then face the 9-2 Vikings at home, before ending the season on the road in Detroit (6-5).

The intriguing thing about this concluding schedule is that Aaron Rodgers – who was throwing the football prior to the game – will work out tomorrow (Friday) to see if he could return to the practice field Saturday.  If healthy, Aaron would be eligible to come off IR in time for those last three games.

So, if the improving Brett Hundley can keep this team alive with wins against two lesser opponents, this Green Bay team may well have playoff hope.  It’s still a very long shot, and the Pack has no margin for error anymore.  But the pieces are there, at least, for another fantastic finish.

Going Vertical – the New Meme of the NFL

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

A Quick History of the NFL

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

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

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

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

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

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

And Then

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

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

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

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

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

Pittsburgh and Detroit

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Lots of Yards, But . . .

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

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

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

Meanwhile in New England

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

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

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

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

Again, on the Protests

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

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.