Tag Archives: Pittsburgh Steelers

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.

Introducing the New Jacksonville Jaguars

As I was watching the game, I tried to remember the last time I watched Jacksonville play.  It may actually have been their last playoff game following the 2007 season.  Surely, I must have caught one of their games in the last decade?

Anyway, if – like me – the Jacksonville Jaguars have flown beneath your radar for the last few years, you should know that things are a bit different there these days.

First of all, there is a newish head coach.  Jack Del Rio hasn’t been here since 2011.  The head coach during most of the lost years between was Gus Bradley.  In four almost complete seasons (2013-2016) his teams never won more than 5 games.  The team is now entrusted to Doug Marrone, who started to turn Buffalo around a few seasons ago.

The defense has been refurbished.  Last year’s first-round draft pick – cornerback Jalen Ramsey – has given Jacksonville an attitude in the secondary.  He has been complimented this year by the additions of cornerback A.J. Bouye (who was an important part of Houston’s very good secondary last year), safety Barry Church (who came over from Dallas), and defensive end Calais Campbell (who was in Arizona last year).

And now, all of a sudden, there is a semi-legitimacy to the Jaguar defense (semi-legitimate because they allowed 569 rushing yards over the three consecutive games before Sunday).

The offensive concept is kind of new, too.  Less passing from quarterback Blake Bortles and more handing off to this year’s first-round draft pick, running back Leonard Fournette.  At 240 pounds (listed) Fournette is constructed along the lines of the power backs of old – the kind that wears away at the will of the defensive secondary to tackle him in the fourth quarter.

The re-birth in Jacksonville has been somewhat hit and miss so far.  They have losses to teams that you should think they would have beaten (Tennessee and the NY Jets).  They’ve had one game where they turned the ball over 3 times – but that was the only game that they’ve turned it over more than once.  Only once have they gained more than 313 offensive yards, while serving up at least 371 yards on defense three times in their first five games.  So there is some work that still needs to be done there.

Last Sunday, they engaged in a very interesting matchup against a somewhat similar Pittsburgh team.  As the two teams hit the field Sunday afternoon, both featured high-octane running games and tough secondaries that challenge every pass.  Both also featured suspect run defenses.  The Jaguars had just been chewed up for 256 yards by the Jets (of all people).  The week before that Chicago (of all people) had drilled the Steelers for 222 rushing yards – although it should be noted that that was the only game so far that they had allowed more than 91 rushing yards.

The way this game was expected to play out, the two running games would take turns bashing each other’s defenses, until Steeler quarterback Ben Roethlisberger would take advantage of enough opportunities downfield to give Pittsburgh enough margin that Jacksonville would be forced into a passing game.  That story line never developed.

Instead, it was only Jacksonville that followed the expected game plan.  Of their 32 first-half offensive plays, 18 ended up being runs.  They gained only 3.3 yards per rush, but they kept running.  Meanwhile, Pittsburgh never did really get back to Le’Veon Bell, who carried the ball only 9 times in the first half.  Thinking that they could open up the running game with an early passing attack, Ben threw the ball 21 times in the first half, with mostly tepid results (12 of 21 for 152 yards and an interception).

The Steeler strategy further dissolved in the second half, when consecutive possessions ended in deflected passes that wound up as interception touchdowns for Jacksonville.  Suddenly, a game that was 7-6 at the half had turned into a 20-9 Jacksonville lead.  Things went downhill for Pittsburgh after that.  Bell finished the day with only 15 carries.  Ben ended up throwing 55 passes and getting 5 of them picked.

Meanwhile, Jacksonville kept running.  Fournette had 14 carries in the second half alone – the last one being the most memorable.  Leonard burst off left tackle for a game icing 90-yard touchdown run.  He finished with 181 of Jacksonville’s 231 rushing yards (on 37 attempts) in Jacksonville’s 30-9 conquest (gamebook).

Perhaps the most telling number to come out of that second half was 1.  That was the number of passes thrown by Jacksonville quarterback Bortles.  Once Jacksonville pushed to that 11-point lead, Blake never threw again – this includes hand-offs on a third-and-7 and a third-and-11.

There are, apparently, a lot of pieces in place in Jacksonville.  One piece, I guess, that they are still looking for is that quarterback.

Up next for the Jaguars is a very interesting game against another franchise that is trying to rise from the ashes – the now Los Angeles Rams.

Meanwhile, in Houston . . .

While the Jags are probably still looking for their quarterback of the future, Houston thinks they have found theirs.  Again.

Last year, that was going to be Brock Osweiler.  Two years before that it was Ryan Fitzpatrick.  Since about the midpoint of the 2013 season, when they finally figured out that Matt Schaub was not the man who would lead them to the promised land, they have cycled a lot of quarterbacks in and out of Houston.

The newest quarterback of the future is Deshaun Watson, the twelfth overall pick in this year’s draft.  Around him they have crafted a clever, deception-based offense.  I would guess that almost 40% of their offensive snaps Sunday night (at least until they were behind far enough that Kansas City knew they would have to drop back and pass) involved some end-around motion from a back or receiver circling back into the backfield.  This was sprinkled in with a significant amount of zone-read looks.

The effect on the Houston running game – at least on Sunday night – was significant.  Several times the backfield action proved just distracting enough to allow the Texans significant yards between guard and center.  For the evening, Houston piled up 144 rushing yards and averaged 6.3 yards per carry.

On the passing end, the numbers have been very kind to Watson.  Through the first 145 passes of his professional career, Deshaun carries a 100.7 passer rating.  This comes mostly through the virtue of his touchdown passes.  He tossed 5 Sunday night, and now has 9 over his last two games, and 11 over his last three.  It’s a very encouraging start, but Deshaun is far from a finished product.

His decision making – both in passing and in the read-option run game – was sometimes spotty.  He wasn’t intercepted on Sunday night, but that wasn’t through lack of opportunity.  Kansas City had a few should-have-been interceptions (two that would have been returned for touchdowns) that were dropped.  Understand, I’m not saying Deshaun performed poorly.  What I am pointing out is that the talented Mr. Watson is still a rookie quarterback, and there will be some growing pains along the way.

Speaking of Pain

On two of the most innocuous-looking plays of the season, during the game’s opening drive, two enormous presences in the Houston defense were deleted for the season.  On the game’s seventh play, and after a seemingly uneventful pass rush, dynamic linebacker Whitney Mercilus knelt on the turf.  Seemingly nothing major, Whitney suffered a torn pectoral muscle – ending his season.  Seven plays later, superstar J.J. Watt went down just a little awkwardly on another seemingly uneventful pass rush.  The result – a tibial plateau fracture that would require season-ending surgery.  Such is the thin, thin line between an outstanding season and another bad-luck finish.  Houston is a courageous team, led by a fine head coach in Bill O’Brien.  But they will be challenged to plug two larger-than-life holes in their defense.

Watt’s exit was possibly the most heavily covered of any in recent NFL memory.  The cameras followed every step of the way.  We saw JJ hobble to the sidelines.  We saw him going into and out of the medical tent.  Watched him limp into the locker room; saw the ambulance waiting grimly for him outside the locker room.  We had the haunting shot of JJ sitting inside the closed ambulance, his face framed perfectly through the back window by the emergency insignia of the ambulance door.  We even had drone coverage of the ambulance’s arrival at the nearest hospital.

Over-done?  I don’t think so.  In his few short seasons in the NFL, JJ has exceeded simple legendary status.  He is more than just the face of the franchise – not that that’s a small thing.  He is one of the faces of the league.  Even more than that, he is kind of a symbol for Houston itself – especially in the wake of the recent natural disasters in the area.  JJ Watt will leave a legend-sized hole in the Houston defense and in the entire NFL.

And Then There is Kansas City

While Houston was having one of its more heart-rending evenings of the young season, the Kansas City Chiefs kept on keeping on.  With their informative and entertaining 42-34 win (gamebook) the Chiefs are 5-0 and the last undefeated team in the NFL.

How will this play out?  They have looked unstoppable, but that kind of thing has been known to happen through the early weeks of a season.  Quarterback Alex Smith has been playing on a level that most didn’t believe that he had in him.  After 158 passes this season, Smith is completing 76.6% of them, averaging 8.80 yards per attempted pass, and he checks in with a convincing 125.8 quarterback rating that features a touchdown-to-interception ratio of 11-0.

Is he for real?  Are the Chiefs for real?  It’s too early, I think, to tell.  Their recent success – and the recent struggles of the Steelers (discussed above) sets up a very interesting contest this Sunday as Kansas City hosts Pittsburgh.  The Steelers are a proud franchise, not used to being picked on by the Jacksonville’s of the league, and they are bent on responding.  Pittsburgh is also the team that ended Kansas City’s playoff run last year, when they invaded Arrowhead last January and escaped with an 18-16 victory (gamebook).  In that game, Alex finished 20 of 34 for just 172 yards with 1 touchdown pass and one interception (a 69.7 rating).

Perhaps our understanding of both teams will be a bit clearer after next Sunday’s game.

New England Patriots on the Verge of Another Title

It was already going to be an uphill climb.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

When the Game Got Away From Pittsburgh

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

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

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

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

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

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

And then they checked the replay.

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

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

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

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

New England’s Defense

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Super Bowl Prediction

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Could the Pittsburgh Running Game Send Them to the Super Bowl?

I’m sure it has happened, but off the top of my head I don’t ever remember seeing it.  In the Bill Belichick era, I don’t remember a team that has consistently run the ball at the New England defense all the way through the game.

This thought ran through my mind yesterday as I was re-watching the Pittsburgh Steelers relentless pounding of the Kansas City Chiefs.  By game’s end, the Steelers had called 34 running plays against 32 passing plays.  Although they never led the game by more than 8 points, 15 of their 24 second half plays were runs – 12 handoffs to Le’Veon Bell and 3 kneel-downs by Ben Roethlisberger.  Bell finished the evening with 170 rushing yards on 30 carries (a 5.7 yard average).

During the regular season, the Steelers featured the fifth-most prolific passing game in the NFL.  Their running game finished in the middle of the pack with a slightly above average 110 rushing yards per game (the league average was 108.9).  There is – as they demonstrated last Sunday night – nothing average about their running game.  While they mostly choose to attack through the air, they effortlessly switched to a ground-oriented game plan to take advantage of Kansas City’s pronounced weakness against the run – the Chiefs finished twenty-sixth out of thirty-two team in stopping the run as they allowed 121.1 rushing yards a game.

In fact, one of the characteristics of the Steelers’ current winning streak – which has now reached nine games – is an increased reliance on the running attack.  In their 4-5 start, Pittsburgh averaged 90.7 rushing yards per game.  During the winning streak, that number had improved to 143.8 yards-per-game.  Over these nine games alone, Bell has amassed 1,172 rushing yards (146.5 per game as Le’Veon has only played in 8 of the 9 games) averaging 5.3 per carry and scoring 8 rushing touchdowns.  Clearly, this is a team that has re-discovered its mojo.

As they prepare to focus that running prowess on the challenge that is the New England Patriots (and I believe that Pittsburgh is the last, best remaining chance to deny the Pats another ring) let’s take a few moments to recognize the interior of that stellar offensive line.

Drafted in the first round (the eighteenth player selected) of the 2010 draft, center Maurkice Pouncey is now the unquestioned leader of the offensive line.  He will be going to his fifth Pro Bowl in seven seasons (missing the 2013 and 2015 seasons when injuries kept him off the field for 31 of the 32 games).  He has twice been named First Team All-Pro.  Savvy, gritty and relentless, his toughness rubs off on the rest of the line.  Pouncey played very well last Sunday, but was overshadowed by the dominant play of the two guards.

Left guard Ramon Foster has never been named to the Pro Bowl and has been mostly unrecognized since Pittsburgh signed him as an undrafted free agent out of Tennessee before the 2009 season.  He spent most of Sunday evening looking across the line of scrimmage at Kansas City’s much-decorated defensive tackle Dontari Poe, who has already gone to two Pro Bowls since his first-round selection in 2012.  These matchups were won decisively by the undrafted Foster who enabled Le’Veon Bell’s night by repeatedly pushing Poe off the line of scrimmage.

And then, there is right guard David DeCastro.  Picked in the first round two years after Pouncey, DeCastro was the engine behind the Steeler running attack.  Le’Veon’s 30 rushes included 16 that went for four yards or more.  In 13 of those 16, Bell scooted through a whole personally cleared by DeCastro.  Whoever lined up against DeCastro or Foster that night spent the evening going backwards.  It was as impressive a performance as you are likely to see.

Of course, in New England they will face much greater opposition.  In fact, looking again at the KC defense, I see that it was handicapped from the beginning.

Many of Bell’s explosive runs came with Kansas City having only two defensive linemen on the field.  The Chiefs actually spent considerable time in a 2-3-6 alignment.  For about 90% of the game, Pittsburgh’s offensive tackles didn’t have a defensive lineman to oppose them.

Some of the rationale for these alignments – of course – was to inhibit the Pittsburgh passing game (which it sort of did as Roethlisberger finished with 224 yards passing).  They may have been equally motivated by roster necessity as a rash of injuries forced the Chiefs into a lot of patchwork among the front seven.  In fact, while the 2-3-6 alignment frequently included safety Daniel Sorensen, he played his 30 snaps as an inside linebacker.  Seeing Daniel weighs in at 6-2, 208 pounds he was little match for the talented Steeler offensive line.

So New England will be tougher.  How the Patriots will line up is one of the anticipated mysteries, but you can expect Belichick and his crew to come up will a compelling plan to slow down this passing game.  But could they withstand the Steeler running game for the whole sixty minutes?  It would take an uncommon commitment to the run, since it likely won’t meet with a whole lot of early success.  But if Coach Mike Tomlin did decide to turn this into a line-of-scrimmage game, how would the Patriots hold up?

I don’t know.  As I said, I don’t think I’ve ever seen it tried.