Eventually the Pressure Gets to Everybody

There was 10:43 left in the game, with Seattle down by ten points and facing a second-and-seven from their own 48.  Trying to disguise their coverage, the Rams lined Kenny Young in the middle linebacker position, even though his responsibility in the zone scheme would be the right flat.  So, when running back Alex Collins ran straight toward that area at the snap, Young had to quickly vacate the middle.

When Seattle wide receiver D.K. Metcalf curled into that void left in the middle, he was about as wide open as he would be the whole game.  He had first down distance.  But the throw never came.

At the snap, Los Angeles linebacker Terrell Lewis blitzed, and there was no one to account for him.  Tight end Greg Olsen – who lined up over him – released immediately into the pattern, and Duane Brown – the tackle on that side – was occupied with Micah Kiser.  Lewis stepped gingerly into the backfield, as if he couldn’t understand that there was no one there to block him.  He hesitated for just a second, but it was enough to give quarterback Russell Wilson the moment he needed to make the throw to Metcalf to pick up the first down.

But Wilson froze.  Knowing that Lewis was coming, Russell pulled the ball into his chest, ducked his head, and braced himself for the impact that was still about two seconds away.

Russell Wilson is and has been for several years one of the great competitors in the league – and, in fact, has been one of the faces of the league.  But by the fourth quarter of Sunday afternoon’s game in Los Angeles, Russell was pretty much shell shocked.  The relentless pressure that the Rams poured upon will do that.

Eventually the pressure gets to everybody.  And for Wilson these days, the pressure is coming from many different directions.

In his first possession of this game, Wilson led the Seahawks on an excellent 7-play, 78-yard touchdown drive.  They held the ball for 9 plays and over four minutes the next time they had the ball, but ended up punting.

When Wilson and the offense came out for their third possession, they trailed by ten points.  In their Week Nine game against Buffalo, they were down 14-0 before they could blink.  When you play in front of a defense ranked last in the NFL in yards allowed and twenty-eighth in points allowed, you feel pressure from more than just the defense lining up against you.  You get pressure from your own defense.

Wilson also has the pressure to be the running game as well, as the Seahawks cannot keep healthy running backs in their backfield.  So all of that responsibility falls on him as well.  Wilson led his team in rushing again against the Rams, accounting for 60 of their 113 ground yards.  For the season, Russell has rushed for 325 yards.  Of the players on the active roster, DeeJay Dallas and Travis Homer are tied for second on the team in rush yards.  They each have 88.

It’s a lot to put on the back of Wilson, who also spent much of Sunday afternoon with hundreds of pounds of defensive linemen on his back as Seattle ran into the buzz saw that is the Ram defense.  Los Angeles sacked Wilson 6 times (5 of those in the second half), hit him numerous other times, and held him to a passer rating of 57.0 – his worst single-game rating since Week 14 of the 2018 season – on their way to a 23-16 victory (gamebook) (summary).  In a 21-7 conquest of the Minnesota Vikings, Wilson was just 10 for 20 for only 72 yards with no touchdowns against 1 interception.

As far as the sacks go, Russell has now been sacked at least twice in every game this year.  You would have to go back to Week Three of the 2019 season to find the last time Wilson hasn’t been sacked in a game.  He has now been sacked at least 3 times in 5 of the 9 games played so far this year, getting sacked 4 times or more in four of those games.

This issue has reached its tipping point over the last two games, which has seen Wilson go down 11 times – the basis for all the turnovers coming out of the quarterback position recently.  In Seattle’s first 5 games, Wilson turned the ball over only 3 times.  He has coughed it up 10 times in the last 4 games – 7 of those in the last two contests.

This has all led to another source of pressure on Wilson – pressure from the coaching staff.

But there is more than enough blame to go around, here.  Wilson should have expected better from his coaching staff, too, which called very few zone-beating plays, even though a high percentage of zone was expected.

All that being said, though, Wilson looked as disoriented as I have ever seen him.  With 7:59 to go in the game, Wilson turned a third-and-four at the Ram 38-yard line into a third-and-nine as he watched the play clock expire.  He then threw an interception on third-and-nine.

On Seattle’s last drive, with about a minute and a half left in the game, Wilson scrambled 14 yards for a first down.  But with the sidelines in sight, Russell slid to a stop in bounds that kept the clock winding – even though the Hawks were down by two scores.

Repeatedly, Wilson seemed hesitant – waiting to see what might develop instead of anticipating which receivers were about to uncover.  At times, he seemed a little lost.

As galling as anything else, Wilson lost the feel for his signature moon-ball – those long highlight reel rainbow throws that arch impossibly high over the defender and drop straight down into the receiver’s arms.  It’s a unique skill that has made Wilson one of the league’s best deep ball threats.

On Sunday, Wilson was 0-for-6 with an interception on passes over 20 yards, with his throws coming out surprisingly flat and more like line drives that either gave defensive backs the opportunity to make a play on it, or that went soaring over the receiver’s head.

With 4:27 left in the first half, Seattle ran one of their few zone-beating plays as Greg Olsen’s vertical route demanded the attention of Darious Williams, pulling him away from his responsibility for the deep left.  Freddie Swain leapt into the void and ran to the corner of the end zone, wide open.  Wilson threw it over his head.

With 13:47 left, D.K Metcalf flew up the left sideline, gaining a step on Jalen Ramsey, only to have Wilson’s throw graze off his fingertips.

With 52 seconds left in the contest, another middle vertical from Olsen held the safety on the right side (Nick Scott), leaving Williams all alone against Tyler Lockett.  At one point, Lockett was about 7 yards behind Williams.  But by the time the throw arrived (and this one would have been perfect), Williams had closed the gap enough that he could launch himself into the air, and – left arm at full extension – deflect the pass away.

So went the day for Russell Wilson – and for the Ram defense.  Especially Darious Williams who had both interceptions to go with the miracle pass defense.

Defense Is For Real

Nitpicking Wilson’s performance would be easy enough – he didn’t have his best day.  But after watching the game, I came away more impressed with the Ram defense than I am concerned about the Seahawk offense.

Over the last six games this Ram defense has really hit its stride.  They have given all of 7 offensive touchdowns (and several of those have come on short fields).  In those games, opposing passers are rating just 76.0 and opposing running games are gaining just 85.5 yards a game and 3.7 yards per carry.

The Rams blitzed Wilson some – just 26% of the time (which is less than the 29.7% league average).  The Rams aren’t a heavy blitz team – sending an extra rusher only 28.4% of the time.  But that’s because the Rams don’t need to blitz.  With havoc-wreckers like Leonard Floyd, Michael Brockers and especially Aaron Donald on the line, the Rams are one of those teams that have the luxury of getting great pressure from four rushers and playing disciplined zone defense behind them.

The two lynch-pins of the defense are Donald – whose greatness is challenging the limits of the English language to codify it, and cornerback Ramsey – who can generally make any feared wide receiver disappear.  He did this, mostly, to Metcalf.  DK entered the game second in the NFL in receiving yards with 788, third in average yards per catch with 18.3, and second in receiving touchdowns with 8.  He exited the game with 2 catches for 28 yards, mostly lined up against Ramsey.

Here, though, is another coaching issue.  I don’t really remember Ramsey switching sides of the field to take Metcalf, and he never took Metcalf when he lined up in the slot.  He stayed almost exclusively on the defensive right corner.  It was the Seattle game plan that kept lining DK up over Ramsey, making most of what the Rams wanted to do that much easier.

There are several things the Rams can do differently and better when they rematch against the Rams in Week 16.  But none of them are likely to matter too much if they can’t find a way to still Aaron Donald.

By reputation one of the elite linemen in football, Aaron was every bit of that last Sunday.  On multiple occasions, Seattle tried to triple-team Donald.  Mostly that benefitted the other pass rushers.

With 5:25 left in the third, the entire left side of the Seattle offensive line (tackle Brandon Shell, guard Damien Lewis, and center Kyle Fuller) took on Donald.  When the Rams blitzed, running back Nick Bellore was forced to stay in and try to block blitzing linebacker Micah Kiser.  When Kiser blew right past Bellore, Wilson was forced to evacuate the pocket, running right into the waiting arms of Floyd.

Other times even the triple team wasn’t enough to slow down Donald.

With 2:02 left in the game, the Hawks faced first-and-ten on the Ram 48.  Seattle assigned Fuller, Jamarco Jones (playing guard after Mike Iupati went down) and Dallas to neutralize Aaron.  They couldn’t.  Donald churned his way through all of them, still arriving at the quarterback in time to force a bad throw.

As well as the zone coverage in the back played, there were many times that the pressure covered up one of their breakdowns.

With 14 seconds left in the first half, Lockett turned cornerback Troy Hill completely around as he ran through the back of the zone.  But by that time, Russell was running for his life.  Olsen had barely brushed Floyd as Leonard came pouring in all but unabated on his pass rush.

With 9:28 left in the game, safety Jordan Fuller settled down on Lockett’s cross, allowing Metcalf to blow past Williams (one of the few times that Seattle shifted Metcalf to the right side).  Again, Russell never had the chance.  This time linebacker Justin Hollins beat Shell to collapse the pocket.

The Los Angeles defensive concept puts quarterbacks in quite a bind.  There were almost always receivers open early underneath the zones.  An offense could choose – if it wanted to – to create a game plan around three-yard dump passes and hope they can drive the field without committing a penalty or dropping a pass.

But if they decide to hold the ball and wait for something to develop downfield, they will usually run out of time to come back to their check down route.  Unless you can stop Donald, you will have to throw quickly or not at all.

One way or another, the pressure will eventually get to them.

Here We Go Again

You wouldn’t realize it now, but up until last year New Orleans’ Drew Brees had gone 15 consecutive years making at least 15 starts a season – 236 starts in those seasons, an average of 15.7 per.  Nearly an ironman.  Then, on September 15 last year, Drew damaged a ligament in his throwing thumb, and the Saints were suddenly without their franchise quarterback for who knew how long.

It’s getting to be like this in New Orleans.  Whether it’s heart-breaking playoff losses, mind-bogglingly bad officiating, or untimely injuries, the perils of the New Orleans Saints are beginning to take on overtones of a soap opera.  This year, star wide receiver Michael Thomas was injured in the first game of the season and missed seven games.  Now that he is back, the Saints will be without Brees again.  Five broken ribs and a collapsed lung will keep him on the shelf for a while.  (By the way, I know the 41-year old, smallish quarterback doesn’t look particularly tough, but he led New Orleans on two scoring drives after sustaining all that damage before he took himself out of the game).

So what happens now?

Well, last year when Brees was injured, their backup – Teddy Bridgewater – stepped in and led the Saints to five wins in his five starts.  This year (with Bridgewater moved on to be the starter in Carolina) former Buccaneer Jameis Winston will get the same opportunity that Teddy got last year – the chance to re-invent himself and regain some credibility.

Will the results be the same?  Well, that is the million dollar question.  Even though the Saints are leading their division, the race is quite tight.  Any slippage in Brees’ absence could easily cost New Orleans a playoff opportunity.

As with Bridgewater last year, Jameis has his doubters.  In the closing act of his five-year career in Tampa Bay, Winston completed only 60.7% of his passes, and even though he led the NFL in passing yards with an impressive 5109, his 33 touchdown passes were offset by his league-leading 30 interceptions.  A lot of people don’t see that style blending well with the Saints’ system.

But, of course, last year Winston was in Bruce Arians’ no-risk-it-no-biscuit system.  Last year, Jameis averaged 10.4 air yards per every pass attempted – the second highest average in the NFL, behind only Matthew Stafford at 10.6.  Last week I pointed out that not every quarterback can thrive in that system.

A better understanding of who Winston is might be clearer from his first four seasons with the Bucs.  In spite of the fact that Winston played for pretty bad teams (they were 21-33 in his starts over those years) Jameis still managed to complete 61.6% of his throws at an average of 12.4 yards per completion.  He threw 88 touchdown passes over those seasons (4.6%) while having just 58 passes intercepted (3.0%).  And remember, Winston was throwing from behind a lot.  Last year – playing for a better 7-9 team, Winston checked in with a 5.3 touchdown percentage (0.7 better than his previous career percentage) at a cost of a 4.8 interception percentage (1.8% higher than his earlier career).

Coming in in the second half last Sunday, Jameis did what Brees was doing.  Brees’ 8 completions covered a total of 9 air yards (an average of 1.1 air yards per pass) but led to 67 yards after the catch (an average of 8.4).  Winston completed 6 second half passes that totaled 14 air yards (just 2.3 yards up the field) that were followed by 49 yards after the catch (8.2 per).

It’s a small sample size, but there is no reason to believe that Winston can’t fit into the Saint system.  And if you can’t expect him to play with the anticipation and the precision that Brees might, there are parts of Jameis’ game that are stronger than Brees’ game.  Expect Sean Peyton to find ways to leverage Winston’s greater mobility and stronger arm.

Another reason for optimism is the stretch of the schedule that this has happened in.  New Orleans’ next four opponents are Atlanta, Denver, Atlanta again and Philadelphia.  There are no gimmies in the NFL, and any of these teams could administer a defeat to the Saints.  But all three of these teams are below .500.  If you had to go four or so games without your starting quarterback, these would be the four you would probably choose.

There’s no reason, yet, for Saint fans to toss their cookies.  You’ve all seen worse situations than this.

More Good Saint Defense

Given the condition of the San Francisco team in general (and the offense in particular) – and the 49ers are one NFL team that won’t shed any tears over New Orleans’ injuries – you have to be careful not to make too much of this.  But for the second consecutive week the heretofore nettlesome New Orleans defense turned in another excellent performance.  After decimating Tampa Bay the week before, San Francisco was held to just 281 total yards – only 49 on the ground.  The Saints carried the game, 27-13 (gamebook) (summary).

Over the last two games they have 5 quarterback sacks and 5 interceptions (after intercepting just 4 passes through the first 8 games).  The combined passer rating against them in those two games is just 53.8.  Meanwhile, the Bucs and 49ers combined to run for just 57 yards against them over the two games on 30 attempts – 1.9 yards a carry.

If this New Orleans defense is, in fact, coming together, it will ease a bigger worry than the absence of Drew Brees.

Three Side Notes

One – The 49ers made a fairly close contest of this in the first half as they stuck diligently to their game plan.  They ran the ball (21 times in the first half) even when they weren’t seeing a lot of yards from it (only 41).  But they controlled the clock (for an impressive 22 minutes even) and had Nick Mullens balance with the controlled passing game.  Nick was 13 for 18 for 134 yards and a touchdown in that half – a 111.8 rating.

Even though they came out of the half trailing just 17-10, they entirely ditched that approach in the second half.  They ran the ball just 4 times (for 8 yards) and had Mullens throwing the ball 20 times in the half (he completed just 11 for 113 yards and 2 interceptions – a 31.9 rating).

New Orleans controlled the second half clock for 19:06.

Two – After the big win the previous week over Tampa Bay, the Saints were seen celebrating in the locker room as though they had just won the Super Bowl.  Sometimes stuff like that wakes up the karma gods and bad things (like losing your starting quarterback) have been known to happen.  I think football players in general should be more humble and sporting than they are (yes, the self-worship bothers me).  It seems the karma gods agree.  Sometimes.

Three – the penalty on the hit was widely criticized – as it should be.  It was, in all respects, a perfectly clean hit.  I may have been the only one not surprised to see the flag fly.  Defensive players need to understand that even if the hit is legal, if you hurt the quarterback, you will get penalized.  The official really can’t help himself.  The entire world is watching the quarterback lying on the turf and he begins to feel self-conscious – as though he owes it to the team that’s just lost their quarterback some measure of compensation.  The higher profile the quarterback, the more likely this penalty becomes.

So here now is the defensive checklist when dealing with a quarterback in or near the pocket:

You can’t hit him anywhere near his head.  You can’t hit him anywhere near his knees.  You can’t drive him to the ground when you hit him.  You can’t land on him with your full body weight.

And, on top of all that, you can’t hurt him.  Other than that, you can do whatever you want to the quarterback.

As It Turns Out It Isn’t Actually Over Till It’s Over

The football world’s head turned over and over in response to the Kyler Murray game-winning, Hail-Mary touchdown toss to DeAndre Hopkins that trumped the Buffalo Bills 32-30 (gamebook) (summary).  And rightfully so.  The accuracy of the pass (while Kyler was running for his life) and Hopkins’ in-traffic catch should both have carried a “do not try this at home” warning.  These plays pay off so rarely that when the last second shot into the end zone does work, it will cause a ripple through the league – and much more so when the game Is of this significance.

But hidden underneath the big moment at the end are some troubling trends that concern me about the Bills.

The biggest number of the day, in my opinion, was 217.  Those were the rush yards given up by the Bills.  It was the second time this season that Buffalo has given up more than 200 rushing yards.  Murray was responsible for 61 of them, but his yardage was the tip of the iceberg.  Kenyan Drake ripped through them for 100 yards on just 16 carries, and Chase Edmonds added 56 more on 8 carries.

But this is the worst part.  Of the 156 yards gained by Arizona’s two running backs, 110 came after contact.  The NFL average is  just 1.91 yards gained after contact per rushing play.  Arizona’s running backs averaged 4.58.  Forty-five of Edmonds 56 yards (80%) came after contact.

The Buffalo defense just does not seem to be coming together.  This is the fifth time this season – including their last two games – that they have surrendered 30 points.  They are now eighteenth in scoring defense and twentieth in total defense – including twenty-eighth against the run, as they are allowing 135 yards a game and 4.8 yards a carry (the third-worst average in the league).

Unless their defense finally comes to the party, Buffalo will have no hope of hanging onto their division lead, and will go quickly and quietly from the playoffs.

The other notable observation regards quarterback Josh Allen.  Allen was blitzed in this game, perhaps, more than he’s ever been blitzed.  Arizona, which began the game as football’s fifth-most blitz happy team – came after Allen on a full 54% of his drop-backs.  With his line doing a middling job of picking up the blitzes, Allen’s accuracy and decision making were negatively impacted.  Josh – who had done a great job of protecting the football thus far – tossed two interceptions and limped home with a 77.3 rating.  It will be interesting to see if he gets heavier doses of the blitz going forward.

Could Miami Earn the Second Seed?

As I watch the seasons unfold, I try hard not to over-react to any one game or any one player.  Yet I do have to admit that the Miami Dolphins have gotten my attention.  They have won four in a row, and their victims have included the Rams and the Cardinals.

Rookie quarterback Tua Tagovailoa has been getting the Lion’s share of the attention.  Tua has been doing a reasonably good job.  The team is 3-0 in his starts, and he has yet to throw an NFL interception (through 77 passes).

But the Dolphins, with – I believe – the hardest part of their schedule behind them, are much more than Tua.  They have a bend-but-don’t break defense that allows the fifth fewest points in the league (in spite of the fact that they rank only nineteenth in yards allowed).  More than that, it is a big-play, opportunistic defense that currently ranks third in takeaways.

And don’t forget about their special teams.  Whether they are blocking punts or returning them for touchdowns, it seems the Miami special teams are making game-changing plays every week.

And, they won’t face another winning team until December 13.

If Buffalo fades – as I think they might – what would it take for the Dolphins to earn the second seed?  If they don’t succumb to the inconsistencies of youth and start to lose games that they should win, then their chance to wrest the second seed will probably come down to that December 13 home game against Kansas City.

Could the too-young Dolphins actually squeak past the defending champions?  Truthfully, if you watch their games, Kansas City seems to have come back to the pack – even if only slightly.  And their run defense has fallen to twenty-ninth in the league.

Of course, this was about how they looked at this point of last season, too.

For the moment, I am going to entertain the prospect of the Dolphins winning that very significant Week 14 home game, and I am going to pencil them in as my two-seed, sliding KC to third.  The Chiefs will also be playing the Raiders, the Bucs and the Saints before the season is quite over, so they will have ample opportunity to stub their toes coming down the stretch.

Still, if they go out there and slap the Raiders around (as I kind of suspect they will) then don’t be surprised if I quickly reverse field on this.

At any rate, the Dolphins have gotten my attention.

No Biscuit Tonight, Boys

The words “Mike Evans was open” don’t really do the situation justice.  You have to see the whole scene.

It is moments after Bruce Arians’ team had been sliced and diced in about as many ways as one can imagine.  On a day that was supposed to mark the transfer of power in the NFC’s South Division, Bruce’s high-flying Buccaneers were trampled by the seemingly vulnerable New Orleans Saints, 38-3 (gamebook) (summary).

Now, a decidedly unhappy Arians was facing the media, discussing the performance of his high-profile quarterback – histories most decorated quarterback, if you will – Tom Brady (or TB12 as his brand has come to be known).

Eight games into his Buccaneer career, Brady had thrown for 2189 yards, and 20 touchdowns against 4 interceptions.  After a bit of a ragged start to the season – remember Tom had a very limited offseason to embrace a new system – the six games leading up to the showdown against New Orleans couldn’t have been much better.  The ageless Mr. Brady had thrown 17 touchdowns against just 1 interception from Weeks Three to Eight.  The Bucs had won five of the six, with Tom carrying an exemplary 110.3 passer rating.

Week Nine against the Saints wasn’t a night that will add to Brady’s legend.  He finished 22 of 38 for 209 yards, no touchdowns and 3 interceptions – a 40.4 rating.  And that represented a small improvement from the second half to the first, when his rating was a shocking 24.1.

In the aftermath of the debacle, Bruce seemed to be of the opinion that his quarterback left some throws on the field.  So, in your mind’s eye, you have to see Bruce, haggard of face, with about a weeks’ worth of gray stubble on his chin.  You have to see the smolder in his eyes and hear the bitterness in his voice as he informs the gathered press that “Mike Evans was open.”

Often, a coach should look at the tape before he renders opinions like that.  Coach Arians didn’t, so I thought that maybe I would – just to see how much of this disaster to lay on the broad shoulders of Mr. Brady, and how much was the failing of the team around him.

So, the question I ask is, “was Evans, in fact, open, and did Brady, in fact, fail to get him the football?”  After a review of the tape, I found out that, yes, Mike Evans was in fact open, and that Brady didn’t throw him the ball.  It happened once in 41 pass attempts.

The second quarter has just begun, and Tampa Bay is already down 14-0.  They are first-and-ten on their own 18.  Pre-snap, the Saints showed two-deep safeties, but at the snap, they rotated into cover-1.  Evans was in the slot to the left, and safety P.J. Williams dropped down to cover Evans.  But then for some reason, he didn’t.  For some reason PJ was caught flat-footed and Evans zoomed past him all alone into the void in the deep middle of the field.

But Brady didn’t it throw him the ball.  Apparently, as Williams came down, Brady assumed (as did the rest of the Saint secondary) that Evans’ vertical would be covered. So he turned his shoulders and threw (high) to Scott Miller running an out to the right sideline.

To push the point, Evans – who finished the contest with 6 targets, 4 catches and 64 receiving yards – did, in fact, come open late in his routes two or three other times where he could have made impactful plays if Tom had thrown him the ball.  But, in Brady’s defense, in all of those situations he was either already on the ground or being dragged down when Mike uncovered.

In fact, if you want to know what actually happened to Tampa Bay’s vaunted passing game, then you should know that the primary issue was pass protection – especially to Brady’s left.

Saint defensive end Trey Hendrickson recorded the second two-sack game of his career – he actually had a third, but the play was nullified by a penalty.  All of these happened on consecutive plays toward the end of the third quarter – and all at the expense of left tackle Donovan Smith.  But it wasn’t just Hendrickson who profited.  When Marcus Davenport batted the pass that became Brady’s first interception, the tackle he was steadily pushing into the backfield was Smith.

But Donovan was positively steady compared to the guard at his right.  Joe Haeg was something of a swinging gate.  In the nearly incessant heat that Brady was under, the origin point was almost always that left guard spot.  In particular, David Onyemata – who lined up against him most – spent the bulk of the game in the Buccaneer backfield.  The Saints blitzed some – mostly in the second half after it became apparent that Tampa Bay simply wasn’t going to run the ball anymore (and if you’ve not head, the Bucs set an all-time record for fewest rushes in a game with 5.  For the whole game).  The absence of even the threat of a running game, made it all the easier for the Saint defensive line to come after Tom all day long.

New Orleans finished with three official sacks, had a fourth called back by penalty, and pressured Brady into an intentional grounding.  In addition, Tom was hit numerous times and chased around nearly as often.  His final interception of the game came as he was running for his life to his right and tried to throw the ball back over the middle.

All things considered, it was a rather rude way to treat the most decorated quarterback of our generation.

Compounding the problem for Tampa Bay – and this was, I think, the most surprising occurrence of the day – was the nearly air-tight coverage that New Orleans’ secondary applied to the Buccaneer receiving corps.  One of the things that I heard over and over when Brady moved south was all the weapons he had – oh, those receivers.  On Sunday night, they almost completely vanished.

Through much of the second half, the Saints switched to more zone defenses – leveraging their thirty-plus-point advantage.  The occasional easy throws allowed Brady helped his rating creep just north of 40 of the night.

But in the first half it was predominantly man coverage.  Janoris Jenkins (primarily) held Antonio Brown to just 2 first half catches for 16 yards.  Chauncey Gardner-Johnson was primarily responsible for Chris Godwin (he finished the first half with 2 catches for 27 yards).  Marshon Lattimore always relishes his battles with Evans – he held Mike to 1 catch for 22 yards in the first half.  And the other Jenkins – safety Malcolm Jenkins rode herd on Rob Gronkowski.  The Gronk finished the first half with 1 catch for 2 yards on 4 targets (he did drop one, but that would also have been for a short gain).

On a night when Brady could have used anyone to get open early, he was mostly hung out to dry and left to the mercy of the relentless pass rush.

He was also let down a fair bit by the play calling and general offensive approach.  As discussed, the abandoning of the running game did significant damage.  Not only did it enable the pass rush, but it permitted New Orleans to control the clock for an oppressive 40 minutes and 4 seconds – further stressing an already weary defense.

There were also more than a few times that there were short routes that came almost immediately open.  But the Bruce Arians way is to look deep first, and then short.  On days when the pass rush is coming fast and furious, there isn’t always time to come back to that short route before the defense is on you.  The catch phrase I hear associated with this philosophy is “no risk it, no biscuit.”  It’s not, necessarily, a system that anyone could prosper under.  The talented Jameis Winston – who quarterbacked in Tampa last year – led the NFL in passing yards with an impressive 5109 passing yards.  He also threw 33 touchdown passes.  But those passes were offset by 30 interceptions.  It is the risk/reward of the Arians system.

On Sunday night, Brady threw 6 passes whose targets were more than 20 yards downfield.  He was 0-for-6 on those throws with an interception.  In fact, Tom’s final line of 22 for 38 for 209, 0 touchdowns and 3 picks resembled fairly closely some of Winston’s afternoons in Tampa Bay.

(Parenthetically, I would be remiss if I didn’t point out that Winston – who now serves as the backup QB in New Orleans – finished up the rout by taking the last series.  He even completed a 12 yard pass to add insult to injury).

Tampa Bay’s playoff situation is still solid, and this is just one game.  But, again, Tampa Bay’s mental and emotional toughness gets called into question.  In two losses against the Saints and one against the Bears, they haven’t shown the ability to win the alley-fight games – something that will bear watching as the season progresses.

Where Did This Come From?

Of all the unexpected results of a wildly unpredictable game, it is the Saint secondary that has me most amazed.  That the New Orleans offense should so thoroughly dominate Tampa Bay’s third-ranked defense could not have been expected.  But the Saints are one of football’s better offenses, and they were getting star wide-receiver Michael Thomas back.  One would never expect Tampa Bay – or any team – to only run the ball 5 times.  But New Orleans came in as football’s third-ranked run defense (they are now number one) so it’s not too surprising that the Buccaneer running game wasn’t too impactful.  New Orleans’ pass rush – if not among the league’s best – was at least above average – although not so good that you would expect the pressure that they applied.

But the pass defense?  For the first seven games of the season, New Orleans’ pass defense had been an open wound.  They had surrendered 19 touchdown passes – the most in football – while opposing passers rated out at 108.4 against them – the fifth highest opposing rate in the game.  Anyone facing this team would expect to throw the ball all over the field and have great success.

But there were the two Jenkins’ (and the two Williams’ for that matter) and the mercurial Marshon Lattimore sticking with the most respected receiving corps in the game.  Where did this come from?  Where has this been all year?  The pressure certainly helped, but there is no other way to say this.  The Saint secondary dominated Tampa Bay’s receivers.

I don’t know how anyone could have seen that coming.

FWIW

The Buccaneer roster has undergone some change over the last few weeks.  If Sunday night’s game is any indication of what the pecking order will be going forward, then, perhaps you should make note of these trends.

Leonard Fournette looks like he will be running back number one going forward.  He played 66% of the offensive snaps while Ronald Jones II played 32%.

And it doesn’t look like Antonio Brown will need to complain about playing time.  He played 78% of the snaps.  His time seems to be coming at the expense of leading receiver (by yardage) Scott Miller.  Scotty played 38% of the snaps.  It also looks like he will take some snaps from Gronkowski.  Through most of the third quarter, Tampa Bay played with four wide receivers while Gronk watched from the sidelines.  He finished playing just 54% of the snaps, although some of that was his being held out of the end of the blowout.

Whether the score disproportionately affected the playing time of these individuals is yet another thing to keep an eye on going forward.

Losing their Balance, But Not the Game

The kick, of course, never really had a chance.

With 2 seconds left in Carolina’s contest against the Kansas City Chiefs, placekicker Joey Slye lined up a 67-yard field goal.  If successful, the kick would bring the ten point underdog Panthers an improbable 34-33 victory over the reigning world champions.

As a rookie in 2019, Slye had made 8 of 11 over 50 yards, but none longer than 55.  So far this season, including an attempted 51-yarder that had hit the left upright earlier in the game, Joey was 0-for-3 over 50 yards.  That, of course, was just chatter.  A field goal of 67 yards had never been achieved – and it wouldn’t be on this night.  Joey’s kick was way off to the right.  It was never close.

And the defending champions escaped again, 33-31 (gamebook) (summary).  That the game was as close as it was was due in part because of the desperate play of the Panthers, trying to stem their then-three-game losing streak and stay relevant in the playoff race; in part because of the return of running back Christian McCaffrey; and, significantly, in part because the Chiefs strayed from their game plan – again.

For his entire career, head coach Andy Reid has had an uncomfortable relationship with the running game.  It cost him profoundly in Philadelphia.  The 2004 season – the first time Andy went to the Super Bowl – is a ready example.

The Eagles were 13-3 that season and their offense featured Pro Bowlers Donovan McNabb (the quarterback), Terrell Owens (the featured wide out) and running back Brian Westbrook.  In the 15 games that he started, McNabb threw the ball 469 times.  As a team, the Eagles attempted 547 passes (the ninth most in the NFL).  Owens caught 77 passes for 1200 yards and 14 touchdowns (and he missed a couple of games with an injury).  But Westbrook finished with only 812 rushing yards, getting just 13.6 carries per game.  He had almost as many receiving yards (703) as he did rushing yards.

When they ran the ball, Philadelphia averaged 4.4 yards a rush – the tenth best total in football.  They just didn’t do it.  They finished thirty-first in rushing attempts and twenty-fourth in rushing yards.

They had moments where they loved the running game.  They had four separate regular season games in which they ran for more than 140 yards, and then dominated Atlanta in the Championship Game with 156 rushing yards on 33 attempts.

But that run commitment was gone by the time they reached the Super Bowl.  In their 24-21 loss to New England they ran just 17 times for 45 yards as McNabb tried, unsuccessfully, to pass them to a victory.  Donovan threw the ball 51 times in that game, throwing 3 interceptions and finishing with a 75.4 rating.

Something in Andy Reid chafes when a running play gains only a yard or two.  Usually, the running game works early or it’s set aside.

During last year’s Super Bowl run, Reid seemed to embrace the running game as never before.  One could almost argue that it was the difference in the Super Bowl.  After running for 118 and 112 yards against Houston and Tennessee, the Chiefs added 129 rushing yards on 29 carries against San Francisco, on a day when the 49ers were making life difficult for Mahomes.

When Kansas City expended their first-round draft choice on running back Clyde Edwards-Helaire, the football world wondered if this meant the re-birth of the running game in Kansas City.  It did.  For about three games.

In victories over Houston, the Chargers and Baltimore, Kansas City ran an average of 29 times a game for an average of 141 rushing yards.  The balance also lifted the passing game, with Patrick throwing for 9 touchdowns in those games and holding a 114.3 rating.  With the exception of a surprising 245 yard rushing day against Buffalo in Week Six, Kansas City has mostly gotten away from the running attack.  In their Week Five loss to the Raiders, they ran just 20 times for 80 yards while attempting 46 passes.

Against Carolina, Kansas City ran on their first two offensive plays.  It’s very likely that the game plan against the Panthers would have been run-heavy.  Through their first eight games, Carolina had been fairly tough against the pass.  They came in allowing just 6.64 yard per pass attempt (fifth in the league) including just 9.6 yards per completed pass – the NFL’s lowest figure.  They had also allowed just 9 touchdown passes.

But run defense had been as enduring issue.  Seven of their first eight opponents had run for at least 117 yards against them, and they were yielding 124.9 rushing yards per game – at 4.7 yards per rush attempt.  The 12 rushing touchdowns they had allowed already in 2020 ranked them thirtieth in that department.  By any measure, Carolina presented themselves as an inviting target for Kansas City’s running attack.

But, the Panthers had scored a touchdown on their opening drive, and the first two running plays had netted just 2 yards, so that was enough of that.  Mahomes threw on 8 of the next 9 plays, leading the Chiefs to a field goal.

Once the Panthers answered that field goal with another touchdown, there was obviously no time to fool around with the running game.  Mahomes led them to another field goal with a six-play drive that was all passing.  This was part of a sequence of ten straight passing plays for Kansas City until Edwards-Helaire would pick up a first down with a 7-yard run on second-and-three with a little more than 6 minutes left in the half.  It was the fourth and final Kansas City run of the half – a half which ended with them trailing 17-13.

Getting the ball first in the third quarter, KC ran on two of their first three plays (possibly having reminded themselves of the game plan?).  Those runs garnered 4 yards each.  Not enough.  That drive ended with four consecutive pass plays.

The next time they possessed the ball, they scored on a 59-yard, 5-play touchdown drive.  The drive was 4 passes and a gadget running play (Tyreek Hill sprinted around left end on the jet sweep for 8 yards).

Once they finally got the lead back (20-17) their next offensive play was a run – for no gain.  And so it was back to the pass.  And so it went.

With 1:52 left in the game, Kansas City took over on the Carolina 42 after a failed onside kick attempt.  The Chiefs were clinging to their 33-31 lead, and Carolina still had all of their time outs.  Surely, you would think, the Chiefs would take the air out of the ball here and try to at least burn through the Panther time outs.  And they did.  For one play.

On a day when the Chiefs ran only 11 times (and one of those a Mahomes scramble), and never called back-to-back running plays after the first two plays of the game, Kansas City ran once, for no yards, and turned back to the pass.

It worked out about the same, in this instance.  Mahomes was sacked, causing the Panthers to call their second time out, and then a short completion brought the third before KC punted away.

By game’s end, the Panthers had controlled the ball for 38:01, finally possessing the ball on their own 9 with 1:26 left, needing only a field goal to win.

The Chiefs are one of the few teams that can get away with this.  Even with no run game for support, and an exhausted defense that surrendered more yards and points than usual (the Chiefs were yet another team that lost the yardage war but won the game last Sunday), Patrick Mahomes and that passing game was still equal to the moment.  Patrick finished 30 of 45 for 372 yards and 4 touchdowns without an interception – a 121.7 rating.

For most teams, this is not a formula for success.  The Rams (another team that sometimes forgets that they are a running team first) have lost a few games this year when they have lost their balance.  On Sunday night, Tampa Bay set an All-Time record when they ran the ball only 5 times all game (one of those a kneel-down).  They got their lunch handed to them.

But Kansas City can do this and get away with it.  Sometimes.

Still, it’s a tendency to keep an eye on.

Derrick Brown

While never thoroughly challenged, the few time that KC did run the ball, the Panther’s run defense did respond well.  KC’s 11 runs included a scramble and the jet sweep from Hill.  Of the nine (yes, there were only nine) actual running attempts by running backs, the Chiefs gained just 22 yards.  Six of the nine runs managed less than four yards.

In the middle of what action there was, was Carolina’s first-round draft choice, defensive lineman Derrick Brown.  He was mostly unmovable – especially holding his ground well against Kansas City’s attempted double-teams.  The principle beneficiary here was linebacker Shaq Thompson, who had to deal with little traffic from offensive linemen and had ample opportunity to fill the holes as they opened.

Whether Carolina could have sustained this over the course of the game is something that we can’t know.  The Chiefs made no real effort to wear them down.  But to the extent that he was challenged, Carolina’s first-round draft choice acquitted himself well.

Sometimes it’s the Small Things

Inserted as the starting quarterback from day one, 2019’s first overall draft pick endured a trying year.  Taking 96% of the offensive snaps, Kyler Murray – the legendary Texas high school quarterback who never lost a game – oversaw a fairly dismal 5-10-1 season.

It wasn’t all his fault, of course.  But it wasn’t all not his fault, either.  None of his numbers jump out at you.  As a passer his touchdown-to-interception rate was 20-12 and his passer rating was below the league average at 87.4.  He led the league in one category – being sacked.  He went down 48 times.

As a runner, Kyler ran for 544 yards and averaged 5.8 yards per rush.  That – the running – is what I remember most from his rookie season.  There is almost a mesmerizing quality to Kyler Murray’s runs.  At 5-10, Kyler is shorter than I am, and he runs with very short strides – but those short, choppy strides come so fast that they almost blur into each other as he runs – almost the way a hummingbird’s wings blur together when the bird is in flight.

Funny looking?  In a sense, yes.  But undoubtedly effective as he consistently buzzed – hummingbird-like – around and around would-be tacklers.

Arizona began 2020 on a much more positive note, winning two of its first three – including a surprising opening game conquest of the San Francisco 49ers.  Encouraging, but the biggest difference in the offense only seemed to be Kyler shouldering more of the running game.  In 2019 he averaged 5.8 rushes a game for just 34 yards a game.  Three games into the season, he had carried the ball 26 times for 187 yards – including 91 in the win over the 49ers.  He had rushed for 4 touchdowns in those games, averaging 7.19 yards per rush.

But the passing didn’t seem notably improved.  Completing a modest 66.37% of his passes, Kyler was below the NFL average in both yards per pass (6.96) and passer rate (79.7).  His 4 touchdown passes being offset by 5 interceptions.

But then, in a very strange Week Four, Kyler kind of turned a corner, albeit in a 31-21 loss to Carolina.  He ran for 78 more yards, but was held out of the end zone (as a runner).  He also fumbled the ball away.  As a passer, he completed 24 passes, but for an inconsequential 133 yards.  But, his 24 completions came in just 31 attempts (a 77.42%).  And, while not being intercepted, Kyler threw 3 touchdown passes.  It all added up to a 116.7 rating.

And all of a sudden, Murray was reborn as an NFL passer.  He led them to three consecutive victories, with the Cardinals scoring 30 or more points in each of them.  While it would have been more impressive if these points had been scored against better defenses (the vanquished teams were the Jets, Dallas and Seattle), it was nonetheless apparent that Kyler was becoming as much a threat with his arm as he had always been with his legs.

Counting the Panther game, Murray averaged 265.3 passing yards per game, tossing 9 touchdown passes against just 2 interceptions.  He posted a 105.1 rating.  He also ran for another 250 yards in those games, scoring 3 more touchdowns with his legs.

This brings us to last Sunday.

The marquee game, of course, would be that evening when a couple of old guys would renew their assaults on the record books when New Orleans would travel to Tampa Bay.  But in a sense the Miami/Arizona game was something of an undercard as a pair of first round draft choices from the last two years would be crossing swords for the first of what is supposed to be many clashes.  With Kyler growing into his role as the franchise quarterback in Arizona, Miami was just starting to take the wrappings off of its future at the position – Tua Tagovailoa.

Tua Time had officially been inaugurated the week before when the Dolphins beat the Rams – mostly without much from Tagovailoa who threw for just 93 yards.

In this mini-showcase of burgeoning stars, Tua did very well – much better than in his first start.  Tagovailoa completed 20 of 28 for 248 yards and 2 touchdowns.  Tua did very, very well.

But Kyler went off.

Even in this era of double-threat quarterbacks, it is doubtful that any one player has so completely dominated a quality opponent the way that Murray flayed the Dolphin defense.

The Dolphins came into the game as the fourth-most blitzing team in football, sending that extra-rusher 40.3% of the time – and they ramped that figure up against Kyler, coming after him on 15 of his 32 dropbacks.  Murray never blinked, completing 21 of 26 passes (80.8%) for 283 yards (10.88 yards per attempted pass) and 3 touchdowns with no interceptions.  His final passer rating of 150.5 came very close to the maximum points the system will award.

As opposed to the Seahawks and some of the other teams he had lit up earlier, in Miami he faced one of football’s top defenses.  The Dolphins had yielded just 8 touchdown passes coming into the game, and the 3.0 % of the passes against them that went for touchdowns was the second lowest in the league.  The overall passer rating against them at the start of the game was a stingy 81.7 – the fourth best such rating in the league.  Kyler’s achievement was no mean feat.

Moreover, he didn’t dink and dunk his way to his big game.  Murray averaged 9.6 intended air yards on his throws (the league average is 7.89).  His completions were an average of 11.0 yards down field.  The league average is just 6.15.  America remembers his perfect, arching, 56-yard touchdown bomb to Christian Kirk, but that throw was just the tip of Murray’s proverbial iceberg.  He finished 9 of 10 for 203 yards and 2 touchdowns on passes more than 10 yards from scrimmage – including 3 of 4 for 112 yards and 2 touchdowns on throws over 20 yards from the line of scrimmage.

It was a dominating air show.  And that was only his arm.

Whether it was scrambling away from the blitz, scorching the defense on the read-option runs, or just slicing through them on those darting quarterback draws, Murray added to the Dolphin frustration with 106 rushing yards (and 1 touchdown) on 11 carries.  And there’s an inside the numbers story there as well.

While Kyler was slipping out of their grasp, Miami held Arizona’s actual running backs to 72 yards on 26 carries.  Against everyone but Murray, the Dolphin front seven was dominant.  Across the NFL, the average running play gains 2.44 yards before contact.  The Arizona running backs were just 1.2 yards from the line of scrimmage before they were hit.  In retrospect, this might have been one of the best performances ever by a defense who allowed 178 rushing yards.

Yes, things could hardly have gone any better for young Kyler last Sunday afternoon.  Except, of course for one thing.  The Cardinals outgained the Dolphins 442 yards to 312 and punted only once in the game.  But they lost, 34-31 (gamebook) (summary).

To put it in election terms, the yardage total is a lot like the popular vote.  Most of the time the team that gains the most yardage is the team that will win – especially if that difference is 100 or more yards.  But the points are like the electoral college votes.  They don’t always follow the popular vote.

Sometimes the difference is in the small things.  One play, one break, one mistake – any little thing can sometimes undermine an otherwise dominant effort.

When Murray slithered through the Miami defense for a 12-yard touchdown run with 2:33 left in the third quarter, it looked like the Cardinals were about to leave the Dolphins behind.  They led at that point 31-24.

But the gritty Dolphins answered with a 93-yard drive that included two third-down conversions and a darting 17-yard scramble from the Miami quarterback.

Then it was Kyler’s turn.  Starting at his own 27 with 11:14 left in the game, Murray drove Arizona all the way to the Miami 40.  There they faced a fourth-and-one with just 5:20 left.  Already 2-for-2 on fourth down, Arizona went to the well one more time.  This time, though, they didn’t leave the ball in Murray’s hands and let him find a crease.  This time running back Chase Edmonds got the carry – and was denied.

Miami quickly turned the turnover into a field goal, and now Kyler would have one final opportunity, starting on his own 25 with 3:30 left, down 34-31.

One minute and 32 seconds later, Zane Gonzalez lined up a 49-yard field goal.  Dolphin kicker Jason Sanders had already been an important cog in getting Miami the lead, drilling home field goals from 56 and 50 yards.  This effort from Gonzalez was a pretty good kick – very straight and right down the middle – that is, until it faded and dropped just short of the post.

Tua then iced the verdict with a one-yard quarterback sneak on third-and-one with 1:05 left.  The first-down drained Arizona of its last time out and allowed the Dolphins to run out the clock.

And that’s how it happens.  A big scramble from the rookie quarterback, a big play from the defense on a fourth-and-one (on a call that Arizona might wish to have back), a makeable field goal that falls just short, and for the second straight week, the Dolphins claim a game that they were outgained in – the Rams finished the previous Sunday’s game with a 471-145 yardage advantage.

Sometimes “just finding a way” is one of the greatest traits a team can develop.

Also Winning Though Outgained

For 30 minutes in the early time slot on Sunday, the Indianapolis Colts gave the Baltimore Ravens all they could handle.  The Colts entered the contest with football’s second-ranked defense – and more particularly football’s second-ranked run defense.  Colt opponents were averaging just 79.9 rushing yards per game and only 3.4 yards per attempt.  The Ravens – of course – are football’s most feared running attack, leading the league at the time in both yards per game (178.7) and yards per rush (5.5).

At the intermission, this was a one-sided contest – at least as far as the yardage was concerned.  Baltimore staggered into their dressing room with 4 first downs and 55 yards of total offense.  The vaunted running game had been stuffed to the tune of 18 yards on 10 carries.

Critical for the Colts, however, was their inability to take full advantage of that dominance.  Driving at the end of the first quarter for the touchdown that would have given them a 14-0 lead, safety Chuck Clark scooped up a Jonathan Taylor fumble and returned it 65 yards for a touchdown.  It was the only thing that went right for the Ravens, but its importance was incalculable.  Instead of trailing, perhaps, 17-0 at the half, Baltimore was only behind 10-7.

The second half saw a reversal.  Baltimore never caught up with Indy as far as the yardage goes.  The Colts ended the game with a 339-266 yardage advantage, including a 112-110 lead in rushing yards.  It has been a long, long time since anyone out-rushed the Ravens in a game.

But Baltimore did come all the way back to pull out the 24-10 win (gamebook) (summary).  Along the way, they may have discovered a little bit of what had been wrong with their offense.

First of all, they were predictably run-heavy in the second half, running 28 times to just 10 passes.  But the passing game was markedly different than it has been.

For whatever reason – perhaps to establish Lamar Jackson as a feared passer – the Baltimore passing game so far had been as up-the-field as almost any in football.  Lamar came into the game averaging 9.2 intended air yards per pass (again, the NFL average is 7.89).  This ranked him second in all of football.

The results of this approach would have been predictable.  Jackson came into the game in the lower tier of passers.  His 60.5% completion percentage ranked thirtieth, and his 9.1% sack rate was thirty-second.

The story of the second half, though, was short-and-quick.

As opposed to Murray’s game against Miami, Jackson hit Indianapolis with underneath stuff.  He averaged just 3.74 air yards for his 23 throws in the game.  He threw only 4 passes more than 10 yards upfield, and none of them went as far as 20 yards.

But what the attack lacked in pizzazz, it made up for in efficiency.  Lamar completed all 10 of his second half throws to lead the comeback.

Sometimes that small thing that decides contests like this is an officials’ call.  In this one, another Colt turnover set up the go-ahead touchdown, but under questionable circumstances.

On their first offensive play of the second half, Colt quarterback Philip Rivers went up the right sideline for Marcus Johnson.  Cornerback Marcus Peters inserted himself between Johnson and the ball and grasped it with his fingertips.  As Peters was falling backwards, Johnson dislodged the ball and it fell to the ground.  Initially ruled incomplete.

On replay, the officials saw enough to rule it an interception.  I’m not sure that I see that – but even granting Peters the catch, then you also have to charge him with a fumble – which the officiating crew did.  Mysteriously, though, they awarded Baltimore a clean recovery – even though the whistle had blown before any recovery had been made.

Coming into the game, I felt that we would learn a bit about the Colts – and we did.  In many respects, they played very well against one of football’s best teams.  But the offense disappeared in the second half, and a little adversity – a defensive score and a questionable call – undid them.

We’ll keep an eye on the Colts, who may not quite be up to facing the elite teams quite yet.

First Look at the Playoffs

With everyone having played at least 8 games, it’s time to get an idea who is in the driver’s seat as far as playoff berths go.

NFC

Three of the four division leaders in the NFC all hold 6-2 records.  The three-way tie will go to conference records to break, giving the New Orleans Saints the current lead.  Seattle currently holds the second seed, and Green Bay is third.

With a sterling 3-4-1 record, Philadelphia holds the fourth seed as the East Division leader.  The current wildcard teams are Tampa Bay (5), Arizona (6) and the Los Angeles Rams (7).

I’m inclined, at this point, to accept these as the NFC playoff teams, but I don’t think the order will hold.  With the NFL’s leakiest defense and the toughest conference to play in, I don’t believe Seattle can hang with the Saints and the Packers.  I predict they will fall to third.  Between New Orleans and Green Bay, the Packers have the head-to-head win.  So, at this point here is how I see the NFC seeding for the playoffs: Green Bay (1), New Orleans (2), Seattle (3), Philadelphia (4), Tampa Bay (5), Arizona (6) and the LA Rams (7).

AFC

The AFC currently boasts the NFL’s lone unbeaten – the 8-0 Pittsburgh Steelers, who currently hold the top seed.  Right behind them are the defending champions from Kansas City at 8-1.  The rising Buffalo Bills have gone to 7-2.  Tennessee and Baltimore are both currently 6-2, but the Titans are leading their division, so if the playoffs started this week, they would be the fourth seed, with Baltimore slotting in at fifth.

The scrum right now is for the last two spots, with four teams currently sitting at 5-3.  Conference win percentage separates the Las Vegas Raiders as the sixth seed, with the Dolphins claiming the final playoff spot due to strength of victory.  Cleveland and Indianapolis are the two 5-3 teams currently on the outside looking in.

Will it stay this way?  I wouldn’t think so.

The Steelers and Chiefs – who don’t meet during the regular season – look right now to be good bets to stay where they are.  But chaos will come from the East in the form of the Dolphins.  In addition to looking like a team that’s coming together, their schedule down the stretch is much more favorable than the Buffalo team that sits a game and a half in front of them.  The Dolphins next four opponents are: the Chargers (2-6), Denver (3-5), the Jets (0-9) and the Bengals (2-5-1).  After that, things get a little more competitive.  Miami finishes with Kansas City (at home) New England (also at home) and then at Las Vegas before they finish with the big showdown in Buffalo.

I don’t believe the Dolphins will run the table, but they won’t have to.  Buffalo’s schedule is notably more challenging – beginning with this week’s game in Arizona against Kyler Murray.  Before that final game against Miami, Buffalo will also face San Francisco, Pittsburgh and New England.  The inconsistent Bills will be hard pressed to hold off the Dolphins.

The other change I see happening before season’s end involves the Raiders, who I don’t believe will hang on to their spot.  The Raiders surprised some people early – most notably New Orleans and Kansas City, but have been much more pedestrian over their last three games (when they were punished by Tampa Bay, 45-20, and squeaked out wins against Cleveland and the Chargers).  Before all is said and done they will play Kansas City again, along with Indianapolis and Miami.

That Week 14 game against Indy may prove to be decisive.  I rather think it will be the Colts that will take the Raider’s playoff spot from them.  If not an elite team, I think that Indianapolis can play with the better teams and are certainly good enough to make the playoffs.

This, then, is how I predict the AFC will seed: Pittsburgh (1), Kansas City (2), Miami (3), Tennessee (4), Baltimore (5), Indianapolis (6) and Buffalo (7).

There’s a long way to go, and I don’t consider myself married to this order.  But if everyone wins the games they should win, this is how it will play out.

And yes, that is a big if.

Nobody but Baltimore

There was 1:17 left in the first half as the Steeler defense deployed to defend a third-and-six.  The offense they were defending was back on its own 27.

Secure in the belief that a team facing third-and-6 with just 1:17 left in the half and 73 yards to cover would be throwing the ball, they employed seven defensive backs, leaving only two defensive linemen (Cameron Heyward and Stephon Tuitt) and their two pass rushing outside linebackers (Bud Dupree and T.J. Watt) to apply the pressure.  The linebackers would come on speed rushes, while the linemen would run a twist.  The secondary would play cover-3, while providing a little extra attention to the more concerning receivers.

The Steelers came into the game leading all of football in sacks (26) and sack percentage.  They were corralling opposing quarterbacks on a remarkable 11.4% of their drop-backs.  This kind of known passing situation played decidedly to their strength.

There was just one teensy problem with all of this.  The team that they were playing was the Baltimore Ravens.  This just in, you have to play the Ravens differently than you play every other team.

Nobody runs the ball in this situation.  But in Baltimore, details like down-and-distance, position on the field and time left to halftime matter little to them.  Baltimore ran the ball anyway.

Left guard and tackle Bradley Bozeman and Orlando Brown Jr. both pulled to the right.  Quarterback Lamar Jackson feinted a handoff to J.K. Dobbins (which slowed no one).  Bozeman picked off Watt.  Right tackle D.J. Fluker rushed into the void that Tuitt left as part of his stunt and met the other tackle – Heyward – as he was coming from the other side.  Brown only had to push safety Terrell Edmunds to the ground to complete a rather gaping hole.  After the play fake, Jackson darted into the void, earning 8 yards before the pursuit caught up with him.

Leading 14-7, Baltimore began their final drive of the first half on their own 8 yard line with just 3:44 left.  Plenty of time to run the ball.  Their ensuing drive consumed 15 plays – 8 of them runs.  Nobody does this.  Nobody but Baltimore.

No team in the NFL embodies the neo-Neanderthal mentality like the Ravens (my use of the term Neanderthal is explained and defended here).  Some teams run the ball as a kind of changeup, hoping to maybe pick up a couple of yards while giving the other team’s pass rush something to think about.  Many other teams understand that a healthy running game provides balance that augments the passing attack.

In Baltimore, their reason for getting up in the morning is to run the football down your throat.  Baltimore embraces the physicality of running the football, the thrill of imposing their will on an opponent – even an elite defensive opponent like the Pittsburgh Steelers.  Pittsburgh entered the contest sporting gaudy defensive numbers.  They were number one overall and number two against the run, holding opponents to just 68.8 rushing yards per game and only 3.4 yards per attempt.

The Ravens nearly tripled that number in just the first half.  Over the course of an entire game, only one team had previously managed 100 rushing yards against them.  In Week Two, Denver dented them for 104 rushing yards.  Even top running teams like Cleveland (75 yards) and Tennessee (82 yards) couldn’t move the stout Steeler run defense.

The Ravens thumped them for 179 yards on 28 carries (6.4 yards per).  And that was just the first half.

By the time the game was over, the running Ravens had stung the Steelers to the tune of 265 rushing yards on 47 carries.  It’s the kind of output that can’t help but catch the attention of teams around the league – not to mention the fans at home.

The Steelers have a little less than four weeks to figure things out, as they get a rematch with this feared running attack on Thanksgiving evening.  Here are a few things they might want to look at more closely the next time these two teams get together.

Deadly on the Edges

As you might expect, Baltimore brings the physical.  When you play them, you should expect to have the interior of your line repeatedly challenged.  In fact, two of the very best players on the field last Saturday were Baltimore reserve linemen Fluker and Patrick Mekari.  When starting right guard Tyre Phillips and left tackle Ronnie Staley left early with injuries, coach John Harbaugh reshuffled his line, pulling right tackle Brown over to left tackle and inserting Mekari and Fluker into right guard and tackle, respectively.

They then ran predominantly to the right side. For their part, the Raven backup players pushed around the Steeler defensive linemen about as well as the starters would have done.

But as tough and nasty as things were on the interior of the defense, the Ravens are positively deadly on the edges.  If it’s true that they embrace the physicality of the running game, it’s also true that they embrace the finesse of it.  If it’s true that their runners are tough, tackle-breaking runners, it’s also true that they have speed to burn and elusiveness that is Halloween scary. 

During Pittsburgh’s long defensive afternoon, Baltimore managed to get outside on them 26 times – those runs picking up 188 yards (7.2) per.

Baltimore has a handful of reliable plays that they use to get outside.  They get great mileage out of the zone read play.  This worked better than it should have against the Steelers because it takes advantage of aggressive edge rushers.  Gus Edwards’ 28 yard run early in the second quarter took advantage of Watt and his penchant for playing on the other side of the line.

On the other side, Dupree bit frequently on the zone read, with Jackson picking up significant yardage running around him.

Late in the game, they broke out the straight option play.  Jackson ran it with Dobbins a couple of times to the left (gaining 7 and 9 yards) and once to the right for 15 yards.

Harbaugh’s running game is raised almost to an art form – excellently designed and wonderfully executed, it is designed to get scary quick runners on the outside where they can cause all kinds of havoc.

A Couple of Keyes

Against most offenses, you can play the running game on the way to the quarterback.  Against Baltimore, you always have to play the run first.  So pass rushing ends have to keep contain.

Number two: Keep a wary eye on Ricard and Boyle.

The casual observer who keeps his eyes on Jackson probably has little idea of how important Patrick Ricard and Nick Boyle are to the smooth operation of Harbaugh’s running game.  These two mobile offensive linemen are absolutely key to getting the runner to the outside.  I would guess about 90% of the time you see a Raven streaking up the sideline, you will find that Boyle has led around the corner and thrown the key block. The issue here is that Boyle is usually a mismatch against most linebackers – much less defensive backs – that try to deny the edge.

Against Baltimore, I would be tempted to play five down linemen, with the edge linemen keeping a particular eye out for Boyle whenever he tries to open up the corner.  The more traffic you can keep out there, the better your chance to contain this outside running game.

Finally, the thing I see over and over with Baltimore’s outside running game is the absence of the corner back.

With 7:29 left in the game, Baltimore was driving to what they hoped would be the game-winning touchdown.  They had first-and-ten on their own 25 and ran the option to the left side.

Penetration from Dupree forced the pitch to Dobbins who headed for the sideline.  In hot pursuit was Vince Williams, who had leapt over Boyle’s attempted block.  But Dobbins still beat him around the corner and picked up 7 yards because that’s how far downfield Devin Duvernay had pushed corner back Steven Nelson.  If Nelson had held the line of scrimmage, he could have turned Dobbins back inside where Williams could get him.

None of the Raven wide receivers are particularly physical – nor are they outstanding blockers.  But they are all willing and feisty competitors out there.  The way it usually works is that the receiver takes off as though running a deep route.  The corner keeps backing up to stay on top of the route.  Then, when the play turns out to be a run instead, the receiver is several yards downfield in between the runner and the defensive back and only needs to chicken fight with him for a few seconds to achieve his desired result.

If, on the other hand, the defensive back would play under the receiver (remembering that most of Jackson’s throws require the receiver to come back for the ball, anyway), he will be much better positioned to come up and deny the edge – and might even be better positioned to defend the pass.

These are only a few ideas of things that might be adjusted by any defense tasked with slowing this running game.  No guarantees are given as to their effectiveness.

The principle point, though, is that you have to defend the Ravens differently.  They don’t play football like everyone else.

And the Steelers?

For the game, Pittsburgh was out-rushed 265 to 48.  In total yardage, it was Baltimore 457 to 221.  But it was Pittsburgh who won the contest, 28-24 (gamebook) (summary).  In spite of their dominance on the ground, Baltimore’s intermittent passing woes undid them.  This time four turnovers from Jackson (and there was almost a fifth) cost them the game.

For all that they were pushed around a good deal on Saturday, Pittsburgh made the plays that they needed to make.  They, at 7-0, are football’s last undefeated team.

But if Baltimore chalks them up for another 265 rushing yards on Thanksgiving, that status could be very much in jeopardy.

As the QuarterBack Turns

I suppose at this point the NFL fans in the Bay area are referring to 2019 in fairy-tale tones – once upon a time, long, long ago.

If you can remember that far back, you will remember that the 49ers had answers everywhere you looked.  You want to talk defense? The 49ers were second best in yards allowed and number one against the pass.  Opposing passers averaged just 5.92 yards per pass attempt, and only 9.7 yards per completed pass.  Both those numbers were football’s best.  San Fran also racked up 48 sacks (football’s fifth highest total) dropping the opposing passer on 8.5% of his drop-backs (the third highest ratio in football).

The soul of that great defense was unstoppable end Nick Bosa and unbeatable cornerback Richard Sherman – both named to the Pro Bowl.

If you want to talk offense, you began with the running game – the NFL’s most feared west of Baltimore.  Their 498 rushing attempts and their 144.1 rushing yards per game both ranked second.  Their 23 rushing touchdowns were the most in the league.

That running game was fueled by two blazing fast runners – Raheem Mostert and Matt Breida.  Mostert’s 5.6 yards per carry was second in the league.  Breida – at 5.1 – wasn’t too shabby himself.

When they threw the ball, all was well then, too.  Franchise quarterback Jimmy Garoppolo was healthy and distributing the ball to an impressively deep collection of receivers.  It began with George Kittle – arguably football’s premier tight end.  He was joined by veteran wide out Emmanuel Sanders and two exciting young superstars – Deebo Samuel and Kendrick Bourne.

Yes, way back in 2019 there were answers everywhere.  That was then.

With the movement of Bourne to the COVID-19 restricted list, the 49ers took the field tonight against Green Bay without any of the players I’ve mentioned so far.  Some form of attrition (mostly the IR) has claimed every. single. one of them.

Beginning with a Week One loss against Arizona, the 2020 season has played like a soap opera – and every time the viewer is treated to an answer, two more questions open up.

But – like all soap operas – this one has multiple story lines.  One, in particular, that keeps the fans chattering centers on the play of quarterback Garoppolo.  Last year couldn’t have gone better for him as behind his excellent 102.0 passer rating, the 49ers took a 15-3 record into Super Bowl LIV against Kansas City.

But even with all this success, the questions persisted.  Were the 49ers a good team raised to greatness by Garoppolo’s charisma and nearly uncanny ability to make the big throw at the biggest moments of the game (excepting here one pass in the Super Bowl)?  Or was he just a system quarterback, made to look great because he was surrounded by a supremely talented team?

As it will almost always develop in a good soap opera, the warts start to show in season two even in our most beloved heroes. (A footnote here.  I never watch soap operas, but I’ve been told that these elements are staples of the genre).

And so, in episode one of “As the Quarterback Turns,” our hero plays quite well, throwing for 259 yards and 2 touchdowns.  But the good guys lost a 24-20 decision to Arizona when Jimmy threw incomplete three of four times in the red zone (basically) with less than a minute and a half left in the contest.

Hmmm.

In episode two, Jimmy G was off to a terrific start, completing 14 of his first 16 passes for 2 more touchdowns.  But, cue the organ music, an ankle injury sent him to the sidelines.  On their way to an easy 31-13 beating of the woeful Jets, 49er faithful were treated to Jimmy’s backup finishing up the game – a third-year undrafted free agent named Nick Mullens.  Nick, as a rookie, had gotten 8 starts while Jimmy was injured in 2018.  He went 3-5, but had some good moments while posting a 90.8 rating.

On this Sunday afternoon, though, Nick was not good.  His 8 completions in 11 tosses accounted for just 71 yards and were accompanied by an interception.

This provided an apt cliffhanger.  Since Garoppolo would be missing a few games with the injury, thoughts of Mullens taking over filled the 49er faithful with much anxiety.

Fortunately, though, in episode three San Francisco was playing New York’s other struggling team (the Giants), and Mullens turned all of the anxiety into accolades.  He was terrific.  He completed 25 of 36 for 343 yards and a touchdown in a 36-9 victory.

More than just the prettiness of the numbers, Nick showed an ability and willingness to go up the field that the faithful infrequently saw with Garoppolo.  And now, the discussions about Jimmy could begin in earnest.  Is it possible that he 49ers might, in fact, be better off with Mullens?  Stay tuned for the next episode.

Bad Nick was back in episode four, as Mullens threw 2 interceptions and lost a fumble.  Coming off the bench in that game was Mullen’s backup, C.J. Beathard.  Trailing Philadelphia 25-14 with less than six minutes left, CJ led the 49ers on one late touchdown drive, and had them on the Eagle 33 when time ran out on him.  Hollywood, I promise you, doesn’t do the unexpected plot twist any better than this year’s San Francisco 49ers.

Our hero returns for episode five, but the results are just plain ugly.  Jimmy plays the first half, throws two interceptions, and leaves with a 15.7 rating and a 30-7 deficit.  Garoppolo is still obviously too injured to play on his ankle.  Beathard returns for the second half.  He’s not great, but he doesn’t do any more damage, and the 49ers limp home 2-3 on the season after a 43-17 waxing at the hands of the Dolphins.

Were there calls now for Beathard to be the quarterback? I’m sure there were.  But it would be Jimmy G under center in our next episode.

Episode six finds our heroes in Levi’s Football Emporium in Los Angeles.  The Rams, that Sunday evening’s opponents, brought a 4-1 record into the contest – significant, because LA shared the same division with the 49ers.  It wasn’t exactly a must win, but a loss here would really sting.

Rising to the moment was Garoppolo.  Healthy(ish) for the first time since the season’s early weeks, Jimmy tossed 3 first half touchdown passes, achieved a passer rating of 124.3, and led San Fran to a much needed 24-16 conquest.

Back at .500, and finally looking like the team we remembered, it would certainly be easy sailing from here.  Right? Well, that’s not how soap operas work.

In episode seven, San Francisco pushed its record to 4-3 with a 33-6 conquest of the Patriots.  Good news, yes, but Garoppolo raised warning signs again as he chucked 2 more interceptions, putting together a 79.5 rating.

All this, then, set up episode eight, the first big showdown with the nettlesome Seattle Seahawks.  The Hawks – as you will remember – came within a fraction of an inch in the last game of the 2019 season from claiming the division title.  This year’s Seattle team came into the game with a gaudy 5-1 record, looking to push the defending champions from the bay a full 2.5 games behind.

But the Seahawks also came into the game last in the league in pass defense and twenty-ninth in sack percentage.  If there was ever a moment for the on-again-off-again Garoppolo to seize, this would be it.

In the aftermath of Seattle’s convincing 37-27 victory (gamebook) (summary), the kindest thing you could say about Garoppolo’s performance is “disappointing.”

At 11-for-16, his 68.8% pass completions was plenty good.  But the 11 completions went for just 84 yards (7.64 per) and he threw a crushing interception.  He finished the game with a 55.2 passer rating.

And injured.

What was the issue?  A combination, probably, of many things.  Was he still playing injured from before?  Almost certainly.  TV analyst Mark Schlereth pointed out a few times that Jimmy was still lifting that injured heel as he threw – a situation that was probably responsible for a couple of his throws that were well off target.

A bigger problem was probably all the injuries around him.  Without a running game to provide a base (San Fran ran only 22 times for 52 yards), and without all of his top receivers, Jimmy looked a bit like a fish out of water.  Some of the opportunities that he had he just didn’t take advantage of – either because he was playing so fast in his head that he didn’t see them, or because even though he saw them, he didn’t trust himself to be able to throw the ball that far.  Of his 16 passes, none of them sailed more than 15 yards past the line of scrimmage.

Two plays in particular stand out to me.

The game is still scoreless with 5:47 left in the first quarter.  San Fran faces a first-and-ten from the Seahawk 37.  After the play-fake, Jimmy rolls to his right.  Kittle quickly find the void in the middle of the zone and settles down about 13 yards up the field.

At this moment, George is directly in front of Jimmy and open.  Is it possible that Garoppolo can’t see him?  Jimmy doesn’t pull the trigger.  Instead, he stops, turns, and tries to hit Ross Dwelley in the left flat, throwing it well over his head.

A little more than a minute later, the 49ers face a third-and-five on the Seattle 20.  Still scoreless, now just 4:13 left in the first.

The Seahawks were in Cover-3, and the 49ers had the perfect play called.  Lining up wide right, rookie receiver Brandon Aiyuk ran a vertical stem against the cornerback responsible for the deep right third – Quinton Dunbar.  When Brandon broke his route and curled in at about the 10-yard line, Dunbar stopped with him – leaving the entire deep third open.  When Bourne – whose route was taking him to the deep right corner – saw middle linebacker Bobby Wagner settle short watching Kittle’s crossing route, Kendrick knew he had a walk-in touchdown and raised his hand for Jimmy to deliver him the ball.

Again, Jimmy didn’t pull the trigger.  Instead, he saw Kittle with a step on D.J. Reed on his shallow cross.  But Jimmy’s throw was bad.  It was behind the receiver, and Reed came away with the interception.

Seattle promptly drove to the game’s first touchdown.

Jimmy did not play well – whatever the reason.  But I think the outstanding issue for Garoppolo wasn’t either of these factors.  To fully understand Jimmy’s bad day, you have to factor in the unexpected pressure that he was under.

All season, so far, the Seahawks have been in the middle of the NFL in blitzing – and have consistently struggled to pressure opposing quarterbacks.  But on this Sunday afternoon, the Seahawks blitzed Jimmy lustily.  Of his 20 total dropbacks, Seattle sent extra rushers on half of them.

But it wasn’t just the quantity of the blitzes – it was the quality of them.  On 6 of the 10 blitzes, the pressure was significant enough to impact the play, with the Seahawks – who came into the contest with just 9 sacks over 6 games – dropping Jimmy on 3 occasions – 2 of them on blitzes.  The other sack came after they showed a potential seven-man blitz but dropped three interior defenders back while sending Reed from the slot.

On far too many of the blitzes, Jimmy had to deal with free rushers – or nearly free rushers.

It’s a 13-7 Seattle lead with 3:00 left in the first half.  Jimmy is on his own 13, facing a first-and-15.  Seattle blitzed off the left corner.  San Fran ran play-action with Jerick McKinnon running left to right, leaving no one home at all to pick up Ryan Neal’s blitz.  Jimmy managed to get a throw off for Aiyuk, but not where he could catch it.

Now there is just 1:23 left in the half with the Niners on their own 27 facing third-and-13.  Another blitz.  Wagner shot past center Hroniss Grasu in a blink and was on Garoppolo about as soon as the snap got back there.  This sack is listed in the Next Gen stats as one of the 16 or so fastest sacks of the season.

Jimmy’s final play of the game (and possibly season) came with 4:31 left in the third.  The Seattle lead has grown to 27-7, and San Fran faces a third-and-2 from its own 33.  Seattle blitzes again, but adds a twist.

Defensive end Alton Robinson crosses the face of right tackle Mike McGlinchey, heading toward right guard Daniel Brunskill.  This move from Robinson prevented McGlinchey from getting out in time to pick up Reed’s blitz as DJ (who made a significant impact in this game) came screaming around the corner.

As he saw Robinson head his way, Brunskill disengaged from L.J. Collier in order to pick up Alton.  In his mind, Daniel must have thought he was passing Collier on to the center.  But Grasu and left guard Laken Tomlinson were both occupied by Poona Ford.  The result was that both Reed and Collier sprinted almost untouched into the backfield.  Jimmy spun out of the initial contact and saw an opening to his left.  But as soon as he headed into it, Robinson closed it, with Garoppolo crumpling awkwardly underneath him.

The result was the dreaded high ankle sprain.  The prognosis is about six weeks, if there is no surgery needed.

But the plot twists don’t end there.

Needing a replacement again, Nick Mullens stepped into the breach, and was good Nick again.  Playing in just the fourth quarter, Mullens led the 49ers on 3 scoring drives.  He completed 18 of 25 (72%) for 238 yards and 2 touchdowns (a 128.4 rating).

Yes, Seattle blitzed him, too (14 times in his 25 pass attempts), but Nick seemed quicker to recognize and seemed to have a better idea where his hot routes were.  And when he had time, Mullens didn’t hesitate to chuck the ball up-field with a confidence I haven’t seen from Garoppolo since, well, 2019.

The discussion about Jimmy’s merits as the starting quarterback are now postponed.  He is out of the picture for the foreseeable future.  And now someone is going to get an extended audition to quarterback this team, starting tonight as the 49ers faced the Green Bay team that they eliminated in last year’s NFC Championship Game.

The first chance – as you might have guessed – went to Mullens, who played OK when you remember that he still has a depleted team around him.  His 22-for-35, 291 yard, 1 TD and 1 interception night pans out to an 86.7 rating.  The team lost this one to the Pack, 34-17.

Was Nick good enough to earn himself another chance?  Probably.  Good enough to stem the conversations about him?  Probably not.

For what happens next, you will have to wait for the next episode of As the Quarterback Turns.

Rising on their Defenses

After 16 mostly glorious years with the Chargers. Philip Rivers was on the move this offseason – one of several noteworthy quarterbacks who changed addresses since the 2019 season ended.  Rivers arrival in Indianapolis didn’t get the attention that that one guy who used to play in New England got when he moved to Tampa Bay.  In most circles, it wasn’t even as discussed as New England’s replacing that one guy with that other guy who used to play in Carolina.  But as it turns out, the quarterback position with the Colts was one of football’s most desirable.

Playing without franchise quarterback Andrew Luck in 2017, the Colts faded to a 4-12 record.  But 2018 brought the promise of better things.  Luck was back, and with him came new coach Frank Reich.  And one of Frank’s first objectives was to fix Andrew’s offensive line.  To that end, he invested a first and a second round pick on a couple of linemen (Quenton Nelson and Braden Smith) who plugged right into the lineup. 

The results were life-changing for Luck.  He was sacked only 18 times in all of 2018 – once going 5 straight games without a sack.

The team rebounded to go 10-6, win a wild card spot, and make it all the way to the divisional round before falling to the up-coming Kansas City Chiefs.  Yes, thing were definitely looking up in Indy.

And then, on the eve of the 2019 season, Andrew Luck retired.  And all of a sudden there was a void at the most important position on the team.  His backup – Jacoby Brissett – was elevated to the starters’ spot.  Jacoby played OK, but more-or-less re-cemented the idea that he was a fine backup, but not the guy who could lead this team to the promised land.

But an interesting thing occurred that season.  Without a franchise quarterback, Reich and his staff kind of re-purposed that offensive line and found that they could be as dominant a run-blocking unit as they had been a pass blocking unit.  Even without a feared passing game, the Colts finished seventh in the NFL, averaging 133.1 rushing yards per game.  With the addition, now, of a high-level quarterback (Rivers) this looked like an offense that would be potent in all aspects.

Funny how reality doesn’t always meet expectations.

The Philip Rivers experience hasn’t always been fabulous, but hasn’t been terrible.  He went into last Sunday’s game against Detroit with an OK passer rating of 93.0 (NFL average was 94.5), and the prized running game had bottomed out – coming into the game against the Lions ranked twenty-eighth (98.0 yards per game) with their 3.6 yards per carry ranking dead last.  Injuries had something to do with this, as last year’s feature back (Marlon Mack) lasted 4 rushes before landing on IR with a torn Achilles tendon.

About the only statistical evidence of the impressive offensive line that they built in Indy is Rivers’ sack numbers.  Six games into the season, Philip had only been sacked 5 times (the fewest of all qualifying quarterbacks) and on just 2.5% of his passing attempts – the lowest ratio of any qualifying QB.

Fortunately, Indy’s early schedule mostly matched them up against defenses with issues of their own.  They managed 20 points against Jacksonville, 28 against Minnesota, 36 against the Jets, 23 against Cleveland, and – the game before they would play Detroit – they added 31 points against Cincinnati.  The only noteworthy defense they have faced so far belongs to Chicago, and they did win that contest by a 19-11 score.

It was all just soft enough to raise questions about how proficient the offense really is.

More than that, though.  After finishing in the middle of the pack in most defensive measures in 2019, the Colts took the field Sunday against the Lions ranked second in the NFL in total defense and fourth in scoring defense.  The team that faced off against the Lions was ranked second against the pass – including leading the NFL in interceptions (10), interception percentage (5.2) and passer rating against (71.7) – and third against the run – allowing just 88.3 rushing yards per game on just 3.5 yards per carry (the NFL’s fourth best figure).

By all assessments, Indianapolis had fought its way to a 4-2 record on the unexpected rise of its defense.  But again, given the relative softness of their schedule, could those numbers be a mirage as well?

Almost as if to answer the questions, the Indianapolis Colts landed on the Lions with both units last Sunday.  The long dormant running game sprung to life, bludgeoning the Lions for 119 yards on 39 grinding carries.  Behind them, Rivers – on his way to a 123.5 rating – threw 3 first-half touchdown passes.  After tossing just 4 touchdowns over his first 5 games as a Colt, Philip rebounded with 6 over his next 6 quarters.

Defensively, the Colts played their best half of the season in that first half, holding Detroit to just 80 total yards, and only 5 rushing yards on 5 carries.  This perfectly complementary game paved the way for Indy to control the clock for a surprising 22:06 of the first half – on its way to 37:46 of ball control for the game and a mostly dominant 41-21 victory (gamebook) (summary).

Previously, one of the least blitzing teams in the NFL (they came into the game sending extra rushers just 13.8% of the time), the Colts surprised Matthew Stafford and Detroit by employing a blitz-heavy game plan (20 times in Matthew’s 42 drop backs).  They finished the game with 5 sacks after recording just 13 through their first 6 games.

The Same but Different

The quarterback fortunes of the Miami Dolphins also changed dramatically over the offseason – but this chronic issue wasn’t solved in free agency.  The Dolphins invested their first-round draft pick (the fifth overall) on their quarterback of the future – former Alabama signal caller Tua Tagovailoa.

Unlike Rivers in Indy, Tua didn’t step into the starters’ role immediately.  He watched from the sideline for the season’s first six games as the Dolphins (a 5-11 team the year before) fought their way to a 3-3 record behind veteran passer Ryan Fitzpatrick and a surprisingly effective defense of their own.

Ranked thirtieth in yards allowed and dead last in points allowed in 2019, the Miami Dolphins took the field last Sunday against the LA Rams (which happened to be Tua’s first NFL start) boasting football’s third-ranked scoring defense.

Tagovailoa, himself, was mostly underwhelming.  On his way to a pedestrian 12 for 22 passing game for 93 yards, Tua made some impressive throws, but mostly looked like a rookie making his first NFL start.

The defense, however, added significantly to its resume (and added a twist to the concept of top scoring defense).  While holding the Rams to just 17 points, they more than matched that by scoring 21 of their own (essentially).  Forcing 4 first-half turnovers, the Dolphins scored one touchdown outright (Andrew Van Ginkel ran 78 yards with a recovered fumble), and set the offense up with very short fields on two of the others (Miami’s touchdown drives covered 33 and 1 yards).  Add in a punt return touchdown (an 88-yard beauty from Jakeem Grant) and it was more than enough for a 28-17 win (gamebook) (summary).

Challenges Upcoming

Both of these early season surprise teams will get significant tests this Sunday.  The Dolphins draw the very intriguing Arizona Cardinals.  The Gridbirds (as we used to call them in St Louis) will bring football’s number one offence (by yardage) and number two running game (160.7yards per game) to the table.

Meanwhile, the Colts will get to prove their legitimacy against the Baltimore Ravens and their top tanked running game (178.7 yards per game and 5.5 yards per carry).  After Sunday, we will have a little better idea whether these teams – especially their defenses – are for real. Or just early season mirages.

Speaking of Defenses

Although beaten, the Rams have been playing high-level defense themselves.  They were, in fact, football’s second stingiest scoring defense – and virtually responsible for none of the points scored against the team on Sunday.  They were betrayed by an offense that surrendered all those turnovers while again losing sight of who they are.

In spite of the fact that they averaged 4.5 yards for every running play, they allowed themselves to be seduced away from that to the point that quarterback Jared Goff ended the game throwing the ball 61 times.  The Rams had entered the game with 222 rushing attempts (second most in football) and averaging 138.9 yards a game.

This is a recurring tendency of this Ram team.  All too frequently they allow themselves to get drawn into passing duels – duels that they usually lose.

Pittsburgh’s New Two-Second Rule

I say the name Ben Roethlisberger.  Then I ask you to close your eyes and tell me the first image that comes to your mind.

Big Ben is in his seventeenth NFL season – and, in fact, just won his 150th start last Sunday.  He has 13 additional playoff wins, including two Super Bowls.  So, when I ask for the first image that comes to mind, I realize that that is covering a lot of ground.

If you’re like me, though, one of the very first images is of Ben lofting a perfect 50-yard strike to a fleet receiver (Antonio Brown, maybe?) who has about a step on his defender.  During his long career, Roethlisberger has been regarded as one of football’s best deep arms.

Yards per completion is one way to gage a quarterback’s up-the-field performance.  In general, the deeper you throw, the higher your yards per completion.  The NFL average (this year) is 11.2 yards per every completion.  For his career, Big Ben is averaging 12.1 yards per completion, leading the NFL in this category twice with 14.2 y/c in 2005 and 13.3 in 2010.  Of his 376 regular season touchdown passes, 88 have covered more than 30 yards, and 4 have covered more than 90 yards.

If this is your memory of Big Ben, then maybe (like me), you have been a little lost watching the Steeler games this year.  Third year offensive coordinator Randy Fichtner has re-invented the way Pittsburgh does business.  The long, up-the-field passes are fewer and farther between.  The goal now is for Ben to get the ball out of his hands quickly. He takes the snap (mostly from the shotgun) finds the first open receiver, and gets the ball out of his hands.

Among the advanced passing numbers tracked by pro-football reference (on this page) are average time in the pocket (before the throw comes out) and average intended air yards (average of how many yards in the air all of the passes go – whether completed or not).  In the “pocket time” category, you’ll find Big Ben tied with Teddy Bridgewater for shortest pocket time in the NFL (2.1).  He ranks twenty-ninth in intended air yards – at just 6.6.  In 2018 he averaged 7.8 air yards per pass.  In his abbreviated 2019 season, he averaged 9.3.  On Sunday against Tennessee he averaged 5.4.

So far this year, Roethlisberger is averaging 9.9 yards per completed pass.  He has never finished a season under 10.0 before.

The reasons behind the change could be varied.  It could be intended to keep Ben – now 38 years old – from taking hits.  It could be that the Steeler brain-trust envision this concept as the best usage of their personnel.  As far as speedy receivers go, Pittsburgh certainly has its quiver full.  Chase Claypool, JuJu Smith-Schuster, James Washington and the so-far unheralded Diontae Johnson can all get from point A to point B in a blur.  Perhaps, instead of having Roethlisberger standing in the pocket waiting for one of them to get 50 yards downfield – where a completion might be a 60% likelihood, it might be argued that a quick, high-percentage short pass to one of these speedsters with room to run is, in fact, the most efficient use of this talent.

Even as I continue to wonder if this is really the best offensive fit for Pittsburgh, I will admit that the numbers – so far – enthusiastically support the concept.  Big Ben entered last week’s game against Tennessee carrying a 109.1 passer rating.  If maintained, that would be the highest of his career.  The team also entered the game fourth in scoring offense.

Well, OK.  But Pittsburgh’s first 5 opponents this season don’t exactly feature some of the NFL’s most feared defenses.  The Steelers began the season conquering the New York Giants (1-6 so far), Denver (2-4), Houston (1-6), Philadelphia (2-4-1) and the 5-2 Cleveland team.  The Titans team that they faced off against Sunday also brought a 5-0 record to the table and were considered their stiffest challenge to date.  And for the first half of the game, everything seemed to align as the numbers suggested they should.

Again and again Ben quickly found open receivers underneath Tennessee’s pliant zone defenses.  Pittsburgh would score on each of its first four possessions, taking a 24-7 lead into the locker room.  As for Ben, up to the point where he heaved a last second interception on a Hail Mary attempt, he was carrying a 116.7 rating (17 for 24 for 160 yards and 2 TDs).  What’s not to like.

The second half, however, was very different.

Chastened by their first half problems, the Titans found ways to use the Steelers’ ultra-quick passing attack against them.  They played a bit more man coverage, and played it tighter, denying the receivers a quick opening.  When they went to zone, they tightened up the short zones, making sure tackles that eliminated most of the run after the catch.  And they blitzed more and more creatively – the pressure speeding up the process.  This was maybe the most effective aspect of what they did.  The pressure caused some bad throws and some bad decisions.  Pressure, by the way, is something they are pretty much guaranteed to see against Baltimore.  The Ravens blitz more than anyone in the league (46.1%).

The changes showed in Roethlisberger’s second half line – his 15 completions (in 24 attempts) accounting for just 108 yards with 2 interceptions against no touchdown passes, resulting in a 38.2 passer rating.

There are some things I see happening that are, I think, traceable to the new offense.  On Sunday Ben threw the ball 49 times.  Of these almost 50 throws, only 10 were farther than 10 yards up the field.  Ben completed only 3 of these – with 2 interceptions.  One of the great deep-ball throwers of his generation, Roethlisberger threw the ball more than twenty yards up field just 3 times.  He was 0-for-3 with the 2 interceptions.

That final interception came on his second deepest throw of the game – about 28 yards over the deep middle.  Smith-Schuster was trying to split the middle of a cover-two, with Jayon Brown running down the seam with him.  It would have been a 50-50 chance at best (Johnson, running clear underneath, would have been the better option), but Ben didn’t even allow JuJu the opportunity.  The throw sailed to the other side of the defender, putting Brown in between the ball and the receiver.  In about the middle of the end zone, the three converged.  Brown deflected the ball and Amani Hooker gathered it in.

It occurs to me that if you don’t air the ball out on something of a regular basis, your ability to do so suffers somewhat.  There’s a muscle memory aspect of the 50-yard bomb that may diminish if it’s not employed with some regularity in game situations.

A second point.  According to Ben’s passing chart (available here), 25 of his 49 throws went into roughly the same area – left of the hash and within 17 yards of the line of scrimmage.  It’s the kind of concentration that suggests the quarterback had decided where he was going to throw the ball before it was even snapped.

I saw him do this more than once.  With 3:04 left in the first half, and Pittsburgh ahead 14-7, Ben faced a second-and-5 on the Tennessee 25.  Again, Johnson was open in the flat, but Roethlisberger had already decided that he was throwing this one to Eric Ebron up the left sideline – which he did even after Tennessee’s defense defined itself as a pure zone, leaving Johnathan Joseph sitting there waiting for the ball.  This one wasn’t intercepted, but could have been.

A two-second passing attack gives itself to plays like this.  The pressure on the quarterback to make lightning fast decisions encourages him to subconsciously pre-determine where the ball will go.

As a final point, I noticed several times that the receivers stopped working to get open after a few seconds.  This was particularly true against the zone defenses.  Again, in an offense where the ball is almost always out after about 2 seconds, it’s human nature to let up a little after that normal time had elapsed.

I guess my question here is, does an offense have to be all one way?  Can’t they be both?  Along with all their catch-and-release plays, can’t they sprinkle in a few old fashion deep heaves?  If nothing else, it might open up a little more space for the catch-and-run plays.

A Word on the Defense

The most anticipated part of this game was the match-up between the Titan’s second-ranked offense and the Steelers’ second-ranked defense – specifically between Tennessee’s fifth-ranked, Derrick Henry-led running game against Pittsburgh’s second-ranked run defense.

The game didn’t disappoint.  Henry did have his moments, but at 75 yards on 20 carries he was very much contained.  The enduring memory from the game, though, was Robert Spillane pouring through the line at top speed and plowing into Henry at the goal line to deny him a touchdown.  For the moment, anyway.  It was about as close to lighting up Derrick Henry as you will ever see.

Next up, of course, are the Ravens and their league-leading running attack.  This should also be a great watch.

And the Titans

Valiant comeback aside, Tennessee’s last second field goal attempt sailed wide right and they went home with a disappointing 27-24 defeat (gamebook) (summary).  Even so, the energetic performance of its defense in the second half has to be very encouraging.  In spite of winning their first 5 games, they had allowed 30 or more points to Jacksonville, Minnesota and Denver.  As they faced off against the Steelers, they carried the twenty-eighth ranked pass defense.

But they held Pittsburgh to 3 points, 9 first downs and 134 total yards in the second half, providing a measure of hope for the rest of the season.  If Tennessee is hopeful of making another deep run in the playoffs, they will need THAT defense to show up more often.

Re-Engineering Seattle’s Offensive Line

Everyone in Seattle remembers how 2019 ended.  Trailing by as many as 18 points twice in the Divisional Game against Green Bay, the resilient Seahawks – minus both of their starting running backs – kept battling back.  Now with 3:22 left in the game, they had closed to just 5 points (28-23).

But, facing a third-and-5 on their own 42, the Packers’ Preston Smith sprinted around TE Jacob Hollister (who had no help against one of the NFL’s most skilled pass rushers) and dropped QB Russell Wilson for the sack that brought an end to their season.

It was the fifth sack Seattle allowed during the game.

In spite of a fine 11-5 regular season – and the attendant playoff berth – Seattle was left with several elements to fix during the offseason.  One of those elements was the struggling offensive line.  Yes, there were the sacks.  Wilson bit the turf 48 times during the regular season (only two quarterbacks went down more) and his 8.5% sack rate was twenty-ninth in the league.

The offensive line, though, was also surprisingly unhelpful in the running game.  I say surprisingly, because Seattle finished as the NFL’s fourth most prolific running team.  Inside the numbers, though, a different story emerges.

Here pro-football reference breaks out team rushing yardage by before and after contact for 2019.  Last year’s running attack finished just twelfth in average yards before contact (2.3).  In the playoff game against Green Bay, the struggles of the O-Line were even more evident.  All runners except Wilson combined for a total of 9 yards before contact on 17 carries.  In 12 carries Marshawn Lynch gained 26 yards on the ground – all of them after contact.

Not all of their offseason re-invention projects have panned out (note the continued defensive struggles), but six games into the 2020 season, the new-and-improved offensive line appears to be working.  Sacks are still an issue.  Wilson is still being sacked on 8.2% of his drop-backs.  But the improvement is most notable in the running game.

Last Sunday night, Seattle’s quest for an undefeated season came to a disappointing end with a 37-34 overtime loss to Arizona (gamebook) (summary).  Nonetheless they left their impression as they pummeled the Cardinals for 200 rushing yards on 30 carries.

In the spirit of full disclosure, it should be pointed out that a goodly chunk of those yards came from the legs of Wilson himself.  With 84 yards on 6 carries, Russell continues to be the juice in the Seattle running game.  But even removing his yards, the rest of the ball carriers accounted for 116 yards on 24 carries – 4.8 yards per carry.

More to the point, these ball carriers – minus Wilson – averaged 3.5 yards before contact.  Six games into the season, the Seahawks are averaging 3.7 yards per running play before contact – the second best total in the NFL (second to Arizona’s 4.1 average, by the way).

If you’ve not seen Seattle yet this year, the offensive line looks quite a bit different.  The starting offensive line for that Green Bay game was Duane Brown (LT), Jamarco Jones (LG), Joey Hunt (C), D.J. Fluker (RG) and Germain Ifedi (RT).  When the Seahawks took the field on Sunday, only the ever dependable Brown at left tackle was the same.  Here are the new members of the Seattle offensive line.

Left Guard Jordan SimmonsMike Iupati went into the season as the starter at this position, but a back injury has forced him to the sideline and opened an opportunity for Simmons.  Jordan’s career has been pock-marked with injuries, but, when healthy Simmons is an athletic lineman, comfortable blocking up the field.  While it is unclear how long Iupati will be shelved, Simmons is taking full advantage of this opportunity.

Center Ethan Pocic.  A second round pick (from LSU) in 2017, Ethan made the All-Rookie team in 2017.  Since then, he has mostly disappeared, re-surfacing in this year of offensive line re-invention.  After an injury plagued 2019, Ethan has played every snap this year – and has yet to commit a penalty (hope I haven’t jinxed him).

Right Guard Damien Lewis and Right Tackle Brandon Shell.  While the entire offensive line gave the Cardinals all they could handle, I was especially enthused by the play of the all-new right side of the line.  Lewis is this year’s third-round pick out of LSU, Shell is a former fifth round pick (South Carolina) who was a three year starter for the Jets signed in free-agency.  They both bring a presence and a much-needed physicality to the right side of the offensive line.

Some examples:

With 1:48 left in regulation, Lewis drove Angelo Blackson off the line, while Bell pushed Haason Reddick well wide of the play – it opened up a 7 yard off-tackle run for Carlos Hyde.  In the middle of the second quarter, Hyde picked up 7 more yards up the middle when Lewis and Shell blew Trevon Coley out of the middle of the line.  With 1:32 left in the first quarter, Chris Carson pushed through the middle for 7 yards as he tucked in behind Lewis and Shell as they swept the Arizona defense from before them.

Maybe my favorite – as far as attitude runs goes – was one of the very first.  With 12:44 left in the first quarter, Carson hammered off right guard for 10 yards.  Lewis and Shell began with a double-team block of Jordan Phillips.  Shell then came off the double-team and ranged into the second level to block out Jordan Hicks. Greg Olsen pushed Reddick off the edge.  Carson finished thing off running through the attempted tackle of De’Vondre Campbell.

Carson – who had injury issues last year – lasted only 15 plays in this one before leaving with a foot injury.  He will miss an indeterminate amount of time.  The injury hurts.  Carson is their toughest back by a significant margin.  According, again, to pro-football reference, Carson has 159 of Seattle’s 228 yards after contact, and 5 of the team’s seven broken tackles in the run game.

Reconsidering Neanderthalism

Another point that needs to be made about Seattle’s 200-yard rushing day.  It was not at all a product of the fact that the two teams played almost 10 minutes of overtime.  In that overtime period, Seattle ran 13 offensive plays – 12 passes and 1 run that lost 6 yards – which leads to another observation.

Last year, Seattle was one of football’s most dedicated run-first teams (I call these teams Neanderthals, and explain the reasoning here).  One of the early graphics on the broadcast pointed out that last year no team threw less frequently on first and second downs than the Seahawks.  This year, they lead all of football in throwing on first down.  Seattle, thus, becomes the first team to have gone full Neanderthal and then decided it wasn’t for them.

The 2020 philosophy is to put the ball in Russell Wilson’s hands and let their dynamic quarterback make his magic happen.  And that is all well and fine – but it caught up to them in the overtime period.

Perhaps the pendulum has swung too far to the other side?  Even without Carson, the Seattle running game was still causing the Arizona defense problems.  Perhaps, with a more balanced approach in overtime, that damaging interception never happens.

Regarding Arizona

You can’t help but be impressed by the Cardinals.  Down by 13 points twice, they kept fighting their way back.  Just 5-10-1 last year, the Cards are growing up fast.  But run defense could be something of an issue for them going forward.  After last Sunday, they are now twenty-fifth in run defense – giving 131.1 yards per game and 4.7 yards per attempt.  And watching Seattle roll them up, it didn’t seem to be a fluke.

Outside linebackers Reddick and Devon Kennard were not stout at all on the edges, and the interior linemen made no effort at all to occupy blockers.  Hicks and Campbell had linemen on top of them all evening.

Unless they make some adjustments, the Cards may see more of this kind of thing going forward.