The Chief Offense Must Do More to Protect its Run Defense

On the game’s signature running play, no one blocked Chris Jones.

The play – a zone run to the offensive left – began with the ball marked on the right hashmark.  By the time Tennessee power back Derrick Henry cut the run back upfield, nine of the eleven tiring Kansas City defenders had flowed past the left hashmark.  When Henry cut back, there were only two Chiefs on that half of the field; cornerback Bashaud Breeland – who was downfield in coverage – and Jones – the only KC defender who was playing the possible cut back.

Breeland couldn’t make his way around Tennessee receiver A.J. Brown, and was never a factor.  Playing the potential for a deeper cutback, Jones was too far away from Henry to do anything other make a futile dive at his feet.  Although running to his right, safety Juan Thornhill was able to stop and position himself directly in front of the hard-charging Titan hammerback.  Thornhill – who lists at just 205 pounds – make a desperation dive at Henry’s feet, but Derrick easily hopped over the attempt and sprinted the rest of the way untouched – a 68-yard touchdown run.

In his first game back after missing a couple of weeks with a knee injury, Kansas City quarterback Patrick Mahomes showed a little rust.  He threw several balls high.  But nonetheless led a very productive offensive attack.  He ended up throwing for 446 yards and three touchdowns, while leading the Chiefs to 530 yards of total offense and 32 points.  The points could have been more, were it not for two botched field goal attempts on back to back fourth-quarter drives.

But for all of this, Kansas City lost for the fourth time in ten games this season, 35-32 (gamebook) (summary).  As they head into their Monday Night game against the Chargers, they Chiefs rank twenty-second in the league in total defense.  They have now allowed 12 rushing touchdowns – the fifth highest total in the league – and 288 rushing attempts against them – the fourth highest total in the league.  The 5.1 yards they average per rushing attempt against is the thirtieth best average in the league, and – allowing 148.1 rushing yards per game – Kansas City is only the thirty-first ranked rushing defense in the NFL.

The glaring weakness suggested by these numbers was fully and completely exploited by Tennessee last week.  Take away the long touchdown run, and Tennessee still piled up 109 rushing yards on 16 carries (6.8 yards per carry).  And that was just the second half.  Tennessee finished the contest with 225 yards on the ground, and 2 rushing touchdowns.  This is now the second time this season Kansas City has served up more than 200 rushing yards, and the fifth time in ten games that they have been shredded for at least 180 rushing yards.

When you watch them on film, there is no mystery behind this.  The Chiefs are a small defense, built for quickness and rushing the passer.  Safeties Thornhill and Tyrann Mathieu are among the least physical safeties in the NFL, and the defensive line features pass-rush specialists like Frank Clark who are decided liabilities against the run.

Kansas City does have a few big defenders on its roster – Khalen Saunders is listed at 324 and Derrick Nnadi is reported at 312.  Both are quite young – Nnadi drafted in the third round last year, and Saunders was this year’s third rounder – and neither is as effective against the run as the Chiefs may have hoped.

In a more representative run, with 9:27 left in the game, Titans guards Nate Davis and Rodger Saffold drove Nandi and Saunders (respectively) straight up the field, while tackle Jack Conklin popped unobstructed into the second level where he deleted linebacker Reggie Ragland from the equation – just another 12-yard run from Henry.

I can’t really think what KC can do at this point to shore up this weakness, so it will become imperative as the season winds its way down that the offense protect the run defense.  There are two ways this can be done.

The first is with a grinding, ball control offense – one that will run the clock and keep the smallish defense resting on the sidelines.  The Super Bowl winning Dallas teams of the early 1990’s won with a small, quick defense.  But they protected them with Emmitt Smith and a clock-eating offense.  This, however, would require an almost complete overhaul of who the Chiefs are on offense.

The other way an offense can protect a small defense is with early leads.  Teams that fall behind early 21-3 or 28-7 generally retire their running games for the evening and lean almost exclusively on their passing attacks – a course that will play right into the hands of the Chief defense as currently constructed.

Going forward, Kansas City will have to embrace one of these philosophies.  Offensively, I believe they are still potent enough to make the playoffs, but unless they protect their defense more, they will be one and done when the second season arrives.

NFC is a Scrum

Last week, I took a look at the standings and, weighing that against what I’ve seen so far this season, speculated on eventual playoff seedings.  After the carnage of Week Ten, I am still relatively confident about my take on the AFC contenders.  But, as far as the other conference goes, there is no other way to put it.  The NFC is a scrum.

The previously undefeated San Francisco 49ers lost at home in overtime – but could just as easily have won if their backup kicker had made a 47-yard field goal.  The New Orleans Saints were pelted by the one-win Atlanta Falcons.  The Dallas Cowboys also lost at home to Minnesota, although the Vikings needed to withstand two Dallas red zone drives in the closing moments.  Green Bay beat Carolina in the snow at home, but by the narrowest of margins as Christian McCaffrey’s final second assault on the end zone ended up a scant few inches short.

The NFC contenders show a great disparity in records – from San Francisco’s 8-1 to four teams at 5-4 – but the play has been consistently pretty even.  This conference still feels very much up for grabs.

San Francisco Loses

I wish I had a nickel for every time the Monday Night booth mentioned the MVP award.  Seattle quarterback Russell Wilson’s candidacy for this post-season award almost seemed to overshadow the game itself, which was a beaut.  Myself, I have never invested much interest, either in the opinions of a bunch of sportswriters (whose analysis tends toward the shallow), or in the validity of the concept of a most valuable player in any team sport – much less football, where any level of success is a result of a team effort.  But, if I did expend energy worrying about football’s best player, I probably wouldn’t do it in Week Ten with nearly two months of games left to be played.

That being said, I think I would as soon watch Russell Wilson play as I would anyone playing the game today.  Whether he is the “MVP” or not, he is certainly a master at his craft, and the heartbeat of his team.  Russell Wilson can play for me anytime.

On this particular evening, the San Francisco pass defense gave as good as it got against Wilson and the Seahawks.  Russell entered the evening leading all NFL quarterbacks in touchdowns (22), touchdown percentage (7.5), interception percentage (0.3 – he had only thrown one), and passer rating at 118.2.  He also ranked third in passing yards (2505) and fifth in average yards per pass attempt (8.55).  On their end, the 49ers pass defense brought its share of statistical evidence, allowing the fewest passing attempts (226), fewest completions (127) and highest sack percentage (11.7%).  They were first in the league in total pass defense (by yards) and second by passer rating points (65.7).

The contest between the two showed how evenly matched they were.  The pass rush dropped Wilson 5 times, held him to fewer than 10 yards per completion, and intercepted him for just the second time this season (and that in the red zone in overtime).  Meanwhile, Wilson completed 70.6% pf his passes (24 for 34) and tossed just the eighth touchdown pass allowed by the 49ers.  His passer rating at the end of the day more-or-less split the difference, at 86.9

The difference in Seattle’s 27-24 overtime win (gamebook) (summary) was the dominance of its own running game and a surprising resurgence of its own underperforming defense.

Not as run-centric as they were last year, when they ran the ball 534 times while throwing just 427 times, the Seahawks are still very Neanderthalish in their offensive approach.  While ranking just eighth in rushing yards, Seattle came into the contest fourth in the NFL in running attempts with 273 – just slightly more than 30 per game.

The approach features Chris Carson as the hammerback.  Listed at just 5-11, but 222 pounds, Chris is that running back that defensive secondaries hate to deal with in the second half of games.  He entered Monday’s contest as the NFL’s fifth leading rusher with 764 yards, and second in carries – having taken 175 of Seattle’s rushing attempts.  The Hawks had handed off to Chris at least 20 times in 5 of its previous 6 games – and would do so again Monday night.

In spite of the fact that San Francisco jumped out to a 10-0 first-quarter lead – and in spite of the fact that the per-carry yield wasn’t great – Seattle kept giving Chris the ball.  His 6 first half carries netted just 19 yards.  But in the second half and overtime, Carson led a 26-carry, 114-yard ground game with 70 yards and a touchdown on 19 carries.  On a night when their passing game wasn’t consistently effective, Seattle was still able to rely on its running game to sustain drives (8 of their 19 first downs came on running plays) and control the clock.

More important (and surprising) than the success of the Seattle running game was the breakthrough performance of its defense.

Last week, when I suggested that Seattle was going to fade from playoff contention in the second half, I cited its surprisingly poor defensive performance.  Of the first nine teams to line up against the Seahawks, eight of them scored at least 20 points, and five piled up at least 400 yards – with the Falcons gaining 510 in Week Eight.  Seattle’s defense came staggering into their showdown ranked twenty-fifth in total defense and twenty-second in scoring defense.  They had gotten to opposing quarterbacks just 15 times in 9 games and had allowed 12 rushing touchdowns – the second highest total in the league.

Regardless of how the contest between Wilson and the San Fran pass defense played out, this was the mismatch that was expected to decide the game.  The 49ers came into Monday night with the league’s second most productive running game (a remarkable 171.1 yards per game) with a league-leading 13 rushing touchdowns.

Coach Pete Carroll and defensive coordinator Ken Norton responded to the mismatch the only way they could, by committing eight and sometimes nine defenders to stopping the run.  At all costs, they were not going to let San Francisco shove the ball down their throats.  It would leave the pass defense somewhat vulnerable and playing more man coverage than usual, but the intent of the game plan was clear.  They were putting the game on the shoulders of 49er quarterback Jimmy Garoppolo.  If San Francisco was going to win this game, Jimmy would have to throw them to victory.

Halfway through his first full season at the 49ers helm, Jimmy Garopollo is very much an unknown quantity.  His record as a starter (16-2 coming into the contest) was spectacular, but Jimmy was much more a cog in the machine than the featured weapon.  The 49ers this year are among the most Neanderthal of teams.  Eight games into the season, Jimmy had thrown the ball just 226 times, while he had handed off 303 times.  With a dominant running game, and football’s top defense, Jimmy’s job has been more to not lose games.  The league had not yet seen how he would perform if the game rested on him.

So it was on Monday night that Seattle mostly muffled the San Francisco running game.  Leading rusher Matt Breida finished with just 18 yards on 10 carries, and the team finished with just 87 yards on 27 carries (3.2 per).  Under the microscope for the first time this season, Jimmy’s numbers were disappointing – he finished 24 for 46 for just 248 yards, throwing 1 touchdown pass, but also tossing one interception.  His 66.2 rating (which was 41.8 in the second half) was less than impressive, but it doesn’t tell the whole story.  Garoppolo was operating without his only two reliable targets (George Kittle and Emmanuel Sanders).  He also faced a much more productive Seattle pass rush than anticipated.

Jimmy went down 5 times on the evening (only the third time this season that Seattle has managed more than two sacks in any game).  In the middle of this mayhem was defensive end Jadeveon Clowney.

For five seasons, Clowney was an impact defender in Houston.  While he had played well since becoming a Seahawk in the offseason, Jadeveon hadn’t yet shown his new team the elite playmaker he had been through his earlier career.  That changed on Monday night, as Clowney threw around San Francisco offensive linemen like they were so many rag dolls.  He finished with just one of the five sacks, but pressured Garoppolo ten times, hurrying him 5 times and knocking him down on 4 other occasions.

He also recovered a fumble and scored Seattle’s first points of the night.  When Clowney is playing at this level, the Seahawk defense suddenly looks a whole lot better.

It should also be pointed out that Garoppolo had six passes dropped, a couple of them on those critical overtime drives.

The truth about Jimmy is that his numbers could have easily been much better.  They also could have been much worse.  Two of his first four passes in that critical game-tying drive in the waning moments of the fourth quarter were thrown directly into the hands of defenders K.J. Wright and Bobby Wagner. Both easy interceptions were dropped.

My own read on Garoppolo is that I don’t think he’s “special.” He’s not a guy who can raise the level of the team he’s on.  But he did more good things than bad last week.  He’s a guy who will always give the 49ers a chance to win.

Answering Questions in Dallas

On October 13 of this year, the Minnesota Vikings season suddenly became a whole lot more interesting.  That was the date of their Week Six contest against Philadelphia.

To that point, the Vikings were at 3-2, but the wins were against the Falcons, Raiders and Giants – teams that were struggling to put things together.  Their losses were against the only two contending teams they had played so far – Green Bay and Chicago.  The defense – always Mike Zimmer’s top concern – was performing quite well (Minnesota had allowed only 73 points to that point), but the offense was – as usual – a concern.  Five weeks into the season, they were a very good running team.  They averaged 166.4 rushing yards per game, and 5.4 yards per attempt.

Ah, but the passing game.

With fine performances against the lesser teams, quarterback Kirk Cousins carried an even 100.0 passer rating into the contest.  But, as had been his disturbing pattern, he had underperformed in the bigger games.  He was only 14 for 32 with 2 interceptions against the Packers.  He threw for just 233 yards against the Bears with no touchdowns and 6 sacks.  The whispers that have dogged Cousins’ career were increasing in volume and frequency.  Not a guy who can win the big game.  Doesn’t show up when the lights are brightest.

Two winters ago, the Minnesota Vikings were standing in the wrong place at the wrong time.  They were in Philadelphia playing in the NFC Championship Game against the Eagles when Nick Foles suddenly went off.  The rest, is history.

In Week Six, it was the Eagles standing in the wrong place at the wrong time.  They were in Minnesota when everything clicked for Kirk Cousins.  The Vikings’ supposed franchise quarterback stopped second guessing himself, and just threw the football.  The difference was immediately noticeable.

By halftime, he had thrown for 209 yards and two long touchdown passes to formerly disgruntled wide receiver Stefon Diggs.  Kirk would finish that game 22 for 29 for 333 yards and 4 touchdowns.  He would be charged with one interception on a pass that bounced off of Diggs’ hands.

But his 138.4 passer rating was just the start.  Kirk never looked back, showing the same form in wins over Detroit and Washington, and also threw well in a loss to Kansas City.  In the four games preceding the Sunday night showdown in Dallas, Cousins had completed 88 of 127 throws (69.3%) for 1175 yards with an 11-1 touchdown to interception ratio.  His four-week passer rating of 124.0 brought his season number to 112.0 – third best in the NFL.

Now, Kirk would be faced with that big, primetime, everyone-watching game against the Cowboys in Dallas.  Would he be able to respond?

The first half of the game belonged to the quarterbacks.  Cousins didn’t disappoint, as he completed 16 of 21 (76.2%) for 170 yards and 2 touchdowns without an interception.  His opponent, Dallas’ Dak Prescott more or less matched him, hitting 12 of 21 for 189 yards and 2 touchdowns of his own – also without interception.  Cousins went into the locker room with a 17-14 lead and a 131.1 rating to Prescott’s 118.9.

The second half belonged to the Minnesota linemen – offensive and defensive.  In a way, the second half of Minnesota-Dallas looked an awful lot like the second half of Seattle-San Francisco.  The Vikings polished away their 28-24 victory (gamebook) (summary) by running the ball and stopping the run.

After his excellent first half, Cousins threw the ball just 11 times.  Meanwhile the NFL’s leading rusher – the Vikings Dalvin Cook (894 yards) had been a bit under-utilized in the first half, finishing with 27 yards on 9 carries.  He battered the Cowboys with 17 second-half carries for 70 yards and a touchdown.  The game’s signature drive was a 13-play, 75-yard touchdown drive that the Vikings closed the third quarter with.  Eleven of the 13 plays were runs, including four straight once the Vikings achieved a first-and-goal from the six.  The drive consumed 6:59 of the clock, and left Cowboys trailing 28-21.

In all, Minnesota called 24 running plays in the second half alone, racking up 110 yards (4.6 per). The Vikings controlled the ball for 18:10 of the second half.

On the other side of the ball, Minnesota’s defense inhaled the Dallas running game.  Ezekiel Elliott (on his way to a 47 yard rushing game) carried only 8 times after intermission, gaining just 10 yards.  His longest run of the day was just 6 yards.  The Cowboys as a team finished the second half with just 6 yards rushing on 9 carries, and just 50 yards for the game.  Dallas finished the game with no rushing first downs – something fairly unheard of.

Prescott responded by throwing 25 times in the second half, with mixed results – 16 receptions for 208 yards, 1 touchdown, and 1 interception.  Cowboy receivers Amari Cooper (11 catches for 147 yards) and Randall Cobb (6 catches for 106 yards) had big games, and Prescott ended up with 397 yards passing.

But once again, the Cowboys loss coincided with their inability to establish a running game.

And the Usurpers Bowl

The LA Rams journeyed to Pittsburgh in a game between two teams that are just on the outside of the playoffs but had – at the start of the week – and inside track on replacing two of the teams currently holding playoff positions.  Again, defense carried the day as the emotional Steelers throttled LA’s tenth-ranked offense by a 17-12 score (gamebook) (summary).

LA finished the first half 0-for-8 on third down, and quarterback Jared Goff finished the half with a 65.9 rating.  He was sacked 3 times in the half, and was under constant pressure throughout.  The high-powered Rams had just one play of 20 yards in that half.

The Steelers sewed things up with 3 second half turnovers, in a game that saw no offensive touchdowns in the half.

Most of the playoff optimism in Pittsburgh stemmed from the fact that between this game against the Rams and their season ending contest in Baltimore, Pittsburgh plays one of football’s softest schedules.  In that regard, Thursday’s loss in Cleveland has damaged them more than the victory over Los Angeles helped them.  Certainly, should Pittsburgh finish out of the playoffs, Thursday’s loss in Cleveland will linger in the memory.

Patriots No Match for Running Ravens

In all honesty, it was a lot like trying to tackle a feral cat.

There is about a minute and a half left in the third quarter.  Baltimore is leading New England 24-20, and is driving, with a first-and-ten on the Patriot 16.  Tight End Mark Andrews and running back Gus Edwards both ran flat routes to the offensive right side, and quarterback Lamar Jackson rolled to that side, probably with the intent to lob a short pass in that direction.

But Patriot defensive tackle John Simon came free on the blitz and met Jackson about ten yards behind the line – dropping him for a big loss and bringing up second and long.  At least, it looked like that would happen.

But, with Simon one yard away from his prey, Jackson came to an immediate dead stop and in the blink of an eye pivoted 90 degrees to his left and started to shoot up the middle.  He immediately realized that this was a bad idea, as end Lawrence Guy stood just in front of him.

Before the mind could quite register that Lamar was headed up the middle, he turned on his right foot in the act of running, and was suddenly running to his left again, away from both Guy and Simon, only to look up and find linebacker Kyle Van Noy not three yards away from him, ready to gather him in.  Or so he thought.

Jackson, still seven yards behind the line of scrimmage, was completely boxed in by this trio of Patriots that converged on him quickly.  Just not quick enough.  Before Van Noy and Guy could meet at the quarterback, Lamar was gone – darting through the small gap between them.  And suddenly a sure 10-yard loss had become an 11-yard gain – with Baltimore setting up with a first-and-goal on the five.

Two plays later, Lamar would loop a short scoring pass to Nick Boyle for the back-breaking touchdown in Baltimore’s eventual 37-20 conquest of the previously undefeated Patriots.

Jackson runs with remarkable instinct.  He feels the nearness of defenders, and his feet and body adjust and course correct faster than Lamar’s brain could possibly comprehend the situation.

Later Jackson set up Baltimore’s last touchdown with a nine-yard run through a hole that just didn’t really exist.  Like a page of newsprint blown by a fierce breeze, New England spent a frustrating Sunday evening just trying to get a grip on the problem that is Lamar Jackson.

There is no question that Jackson is a gifted, gifted athlete.  The question of whether he is an NFL quarterback still has no easy answer.  With Sunday’s victory, Lamar is now 12-3 lifetime as a starter, and his pelts now include the defending champions in New England.  So to that extent, you would have to say that yes, Mr. Jackson is indeed an NFL quarterback.  And, if you don’t accept throwing the football as a primary function of a quarterback, then Lamar definitely fits the job description.

However, if you believe that an NFL offense needs more than one dimension, then Jackson remains a work in significant progress.  His final numbers from Sunday evening were terrific.  He completed 73.9% of his passes against the vaunted New England defense (17-23) with a touchdown pass, no interceptions, and a 107.7 passer rating.  And, yes, the Patriots did enter the game allowing just 52.4% of the passes thrown against them to be completed. Prior to Sunday, they had allowed just two touchdown passes, while intercepting 19 passes and holding opposing throwers to a 40.6 rating.  In all of those numbers, they led the league – and by a substantial margin.  So the statistics support Lamar’s arm.

Watching the game, however, left you with a distinctly different impression.

Jackson’s longest pass play of the afternoon was a 26-yarder to wide receiver Marquise Brown.  From the point where Lamar released the ball to the point where Brown gathered it in, the football traveled maybe three inches as this was one of those flip passes in the backfield that Kansas City has popularized.  Of his 23 passes, 8 were thrown within a yard of the line of scrimmage (he was 8-8 on those passes) and 14 of the 23 didn’t travel more than 5 yards from scrimmage.

For the evening, Jackson threw only 3 passes more than 10 yards from scrimmage – completing just one.  His 16 completions for the evening were in the air a total of 51 yards – fewer yards than he contributed with his legs (61) and fewer yards than Mark Ingram earned on his longest run of the day – a 53-yarder.

Now, you can spin this a lot of ways if you want, but the in front of your eyes fact of the matter is that Baltimore’s dominant running attack and solid defense allowed the Ravens to mostly hide the passing aspect of their quarterback play.  Just watching Lamar throw, the ball doesn’t look like it fits in his hand quite right.  He runs like a gazelle, but throwing the ball almost looks like he’s committing an unnatural act.

I’m afraid that I still believe that if Baltimore ever needed to depend of Jackson’s arm to win a game for them, they will be in trouble.  Even in this game against New England, you could tell that Lamar still had the element of surprise every time he threw.  Even on third down, New England was playing run first.

The question then becomes, will Baltimore, in fact, ever need Lamar to pass them to victory?  Of the Ravens’ 372 offensive total yards, Jackson directly accounted (rush yards and pass yards) for just 224 – relatively low for a quarterback.  Runners other than Jackson accounted for 149 of Baltimore’s 210 rushing yards (71%).  None of this is meant to diminish Lamar’s impact on the game.  He is certainly the fear element on the offense – none of their running backs or receivers strike fear into the hearts of defenders.

This is just to establish that the Ravens are more than just Lamar Jackson.  Their offensive line is arguably football’s best, and could probably sustain a dominant running attack whoever the quarterback might be.  Lamar is the extra gear on top of a very dangerous offensive machine.  On game day, he looks like a one man offense – and the announcers talk about him as though he were a one man offense.

Moreover, this Baltimore attack would lose its lynchpin if something were to happen to Jackson.  But don’t misunderstand.  This is a dangerous offense, no matter who is standing under center.  In the purity of its Neanderthal principles, the Baltimore Ravens have reduced the video-game aspect of today’s NFL into a primordial expression of basic manhood.  They come to punch you in the mouth.  Last Sunday evening, it was more than the defending world champions could recover from.

Last week, I questioned the Patriot defense, essentially asking whether their record-setting numbers were legitimate or a function of the softness of their schedule.  Looking back at the game they played against Cleveland the week before, I pointed out some areas of vulnerability that I suspected future opponents might exploit.  In their victory last Sunday, Baltimore exploited almost every one of them.

Frankly, I’m expecting to see a re-match here later on in the playoffs.  Having seen them, now, up close it will be interesting to see what adjustments New England makes.

Chargers Trying to Creep Back into Relevance

It was a game like so many others in recent Charger history.  Trailing Tennessee 23-20 in their Week Seven matchup, Los Angeles’ defense stopped the Titans on fourth-and-one at about midfield, giving Philip Rivers and the LA offense one more shot at a victory (or at worst, a game-tying field goal that would send the contest to overtime).  They had no timeouts left, but did have 2:35 left on the clock.

Two minutes and sixteen seconds of football time later, running back Melvin Gordon fumbled at the one yard line, and the Chargers had another frustrating loss to absorb.

The Chargers had been a playoff team last year, but at 2-5 a return trip in 2019 seemed remote.

But, in the week-to-week NFL, things can change quickly.

After surviving a trip to Chicago – thanks to a missed last-second field goal – the Chargers came back home to face one of the NFC’s most feared teams, the 7-1 Green Bay Packers.  It was not a contest Los Angeles was expected to win.

Late last Sunday afternoon, Rivers took a knee and watched the clock expire on a 26-11 Los Angeles victory (gamebook) (summary) that was both unexpected and gratifying.

Rivers – the long-time Charger quarterback – led an efficient passing attack with 294 yards on 21 of 28 passing, but the deciding factors in this one were the reborn running game and a remarkable performance from the defense.

For two games in 2019, the Chargers showed the kind of offensive balance that had brought them a playoff berth last year.  After they ran for 125 yards in the opener against Indianapolis, they tacked on 137 more in Week Two against the Lions.

But, thereafter, the running game fell into disarray.  For the next six weeks, they would fail to reach 80 yards rushing – registering fewer than 40 rushing yards in each of the last four games.  In their Week Eight win in Chicago, they had run the ball only 12 times for 36 yards.

With the running game now dropping to twenty-eighth in the league (69.5 yards per game), and their 3.5 yards per carry also fading to twenty-eighth in the league, the Chargers dismissed offensive coordinator Ken Whisenhunt and gave the play calling duties to Shane Steichen.  One of his mandates was to revive the running game.

Mission accomplished.

By halftime last Sunday, the Chargers had more yards (49) than in any of their four previous games.  But that was only the warm-up.  Throughout the second half, Rivers threw the ball only 6 times.  The rest was a bludgeoning running game that clicked off 27 running plays for 110 yards, and 2 touchdowns.  That was just the second half.  LA finished the game with 159 rushing yards on 38 carries.

The exclamation point came with 10:39 left in the game and LA ahead 19-3.  Facing fourth-and-goal on the Packer 1, Michael Badgley booted an apparent 19-yard field goal that seemed to seal the game at 22-3.  But not so fast.  An offside penalty against Green Bay’s Tony Brown was – surprisingly – accepted by LA coach Anthony Lynn.  With the ball now at the half-yard line, Lynn took the points off the board and emphatically waived his offense back on the field.

Faced with that same yard (or, at least, half-yard) that he had been unable to negotiate against Tennessee, Gordon plowed through limited Packer resistance to produce the game-clinching score.

The victory owed as much to a tenacious defense that chased Packer quarterback Aaron Rodgers all over his backfield.  Green Bay ran only 18 plays for 50 first-half yards.  They ended the day with only 184 yards – with Rodgers managing just 161 passing.  Factoring in the sacks, Green Bay averaged more yards per running play (4.1) than they did per pass play (3.7).

It kinda makes you think that the Packers might have been a little more interested in running the ball.  In recent weeks running back Aaron Jones has transformed into something of a superstar.  He entered the game with 11 touchdowns on the season already (8 rushing and 3 receiving).  The previous week he had landed on the Kansas City Chiefs to the tune of 226 scrimmage yards.

Last Sunday, Jones got 9 touches.  He ran the ball only 3 times in the second half.  Adding in a Rodgers’ scramble, Green Bay had 4 second half running plays (even though they trailed only 9-0 at the half).  They finished the game with 45 rushing yards on 11 carries.  Perhaps they could learn a little something from the reborn running team they faced last Sunday.

It’s easy to make too much of this one game.  Clearly, with their season on the line, the Chargers played with much greater urgency than Green Bay – who seemed mostly out of sorts.  Desperation is a great advantage, but one Los Angeles won’t always have.  Tonight, for example, in Oakland they will face a 4-4 Raider team that is just as desperate to salvage its season.

While their playoff odds are still pretty long, this game did remind you how talented the Chargers are – and what a handful they can be when they run a balanced offense.

Not Quite Elementary My Dear Watson

Fresh off of his heroic game-winning touchdown pass against the Raiders – after having been kicked in the eye – Deshaun Watson and the 5-3 Houston Texans invaded London to play their division rivals from Jacksonville – the 4-4 Jaguars.

The Texans and Jag-u-ars accommodated their English cousins with a smashing show of American footballery – better, to be sure, on the part of the Texans – who earned the 26-3 victory (gamebook) (summary).

While the spotlight rested firmly on Watson, Deshaun was quite outshone by his running game.  As Watson threw for just 201 yards, that running game, spearheaded by Carlos Hyde, rolled through the beleaguered Jag-u-ars to the tune of 216 yards and 6.4 yards per carry.  A jolly good show.

The game itself was rather crisply played.  The two teams combined for just 6 punts and 11 penalties – reasonable totals, both.  And no turnovers.

Well, for the first 53 and a half minutes.

And then the floodgates opened as the two teams combined to spit up the football 5 times over the last 19 plays of the contest.  Most of those turnovers came courtesy of Jacksonville’s rookie quarterback, Gardner Minshew II.  Gardner – a mostly unheralded sixth-round pick out of Washington State – had inherited the starting position when Nick Foles was hurt in Week One.  With the surprise opportunity, Minshew fashioned a 4-3 record and a 98.8 passer rating coming into the contest.  Before his encounter with the Texans, Gardner had tossed just two interceptions.  In the fourth quarter alone, Minshew tossed two and fumbled the ball over twice.

Bit of a sticky wicket, what?

Unfortunately, this rather messy start was his last before the expected return of Mr Foles, and the buzz is that Nicky will get the ball on the other side of Jacksonville’s bye this week.  Timing, as they say, is everything.

On Football In England

There has been some chat recently about giving a European city – possibly London – a permanent place in American football.  The Los Angeles Chargers have already denied rumors that they would be moving across the pond.  The thought of a regular NFL franchise in Europe (the London Corgis anyone?) does have some intriguing aspects.  It would mean more regular early Sunday morning football games (which may or may not be a good idea) and, perhaps, the eventual melding of cultures (steak and kidney pie sold at Yankee concession stands?), it would also present its own set of issues.

In the first place, the season would almost have to extend an extra week to 18 weeks, with each team getting two byes.  Whoever this European team would be, they would be making 8 trips across the Atlantic every year.  This could, perhaps, be fewer, if the schedule makers tried to group their road and home games and the team decided not to travel back if their next game were also on American soil.

Even so, this team would be back and forth frequently, and would face a competitive disadvantage if they were only allotted one bye.  Should they ever host a playoff game, the travelling team might feel unusually pressed to put together their best game.

It would also be interesting to see what division they would be placed in – it would have to be one of the Eastern Divisions.

Anyway, it is a topic that seems to be under discussion.  As always, it is anyone’s guess as to how that will turn out.

First Thoughts on the 2019 Playoff Picture

With everybody having played at least eight games, now – and some having played nine – the 2019 playoff picture is starting to come into focus.  By this point of the season, most of the teams that are in playoff position traditionally will hold onto those spots.

With eight weeks of games to play, though, there will be some shifting of positions, and usually a couple of teams that will drop out of contention.  This year, I have my eye on two teams – one AFC and one NFC that are not currently in playoff position that I rather suspect will be there by the time December rolls around.

But first, let’s take a look at how things are currently set-up.

AFC East

The defending NFL Champions got their hats handed to them on Sunday night, but they still currently hold the top seed in the AFC by virtue of their 8-1 record.  The loss does narrow the gap between them and the two 6-2 teams that are chasing them.  One of those teams – the Buffalo Bills – are in New England’s same division.  Beyond the perception that New England is a significantly better team, still, than Buffalo, the Bills schedule will also hinder them from chasing the Patriots down from behind.

Beginning with Week 13, Buffalo has road games coming up in Dallas, Pittsburgh and New England – as well as a home game against the scary Baltimore Ravens.  New England has a difficult closing schedule, too.  Philadelphia, Dallas, Houston and Kansas City all await them after their bye – but at least the Patriots will get to play Dallas and Kansas City at home.  The likelihood of Buffalo pulling out the division title is, I think, slim.  They are, however, currently sitting in the top wild card spot.

AFC North

At 6-2, Baltimore is currently the only over .500 team in this division, and unlikely to be caught.  If that does happen, though, it will be because the Ravens had struggled through the hardest remaining stretch of their schedule.  Beginning in Week 11, they play Houston at home, the Rams in LA, San Francisco at home, and in Buffalo.  There may yet be a solution for this revolutionary Baltimore offense, but at the moment, their playoff credentials appear solid.

AFC South

This is the AFC’s tightest division at the moment, with a half game separating the 6-3 Houston Texans (who currently hold the number 3 seed) and the 5-3 Indianapolis Colts (who currently hold the second wildcard spot).  With Houston’s remaining schedule slightly easier than Indy’s, the Texans seem likely to hold on.

Both teams have challenging closing schedules, but most of Houston’s tough games are at home (where they will play Indianapolis, New England and Tennessee).  Their most challenging road games for the rest of the season take them into Baltimore to play the Ravens in Week 11, and into Tennessee in Week 15.

The Colts, on the other hand, will finish with four of their last six on the road – all of them difficult games (Houston, Tampa Bay, New Orleans and Jacksonville).  Those four road games will be especially critical for Indianapolis, because right now I don’t think 9-7 gets you into the playoffs.  In fact, at the moment, I have the Colts marked as the AFC team that will cough up its playoff position and watch the postseason from home.

AFC West

The Raiders have made a little run of late to creep back to .500, but they are still 1.5 games behind Kansas City, who seem to have survived the loss of their superstar quarterback without losing their lead in the division.  The Chiefs do have some tough road games left – in Tennessee, in Los Angeles against the Chargers, and in New England.  But even if they lose all of those games, it is hard to imagine them being overtaken by Oakland – or anyone else in that division.

NFC West

The NFC West is the home of the only undefeated team left in football – the 8-0 San Francisco 49ers.  They are, of course, currently the top seed in the NFC.  Talk of an undefeated season here is fairly premature, as San Fran’s closing schedule is borderline brutal.  On the plus side, though, they only have three more road games this season – games that will take them into Baltimore, New Orleans and Seattle.  A couple of the home games should be pretty difficult, too, as the Seahawks, Packers and Rams will all come to the city by the bay.

If this 49er team isn’t the real deal, they will be exposed rather quickly, now.  However, since they have answered every challenge presented them so far, I will give them the benefit of the doubt and call them the best team in this division.

Chasing them for the moment are the 7-2 Seahawks and the 5-3 Rams.  Seattle currently holds the top wild card spot, with the Rams just out of the playoffs – if they would start today.  At 7-2, Seattle’s position certainly looks solid – and their fanbase might have every reason to expect to see this team in the playoffs.  But Seattle has two major storm clouds hanging over them.  The first is a truly brutal closing schedule.  The second is a terrible defense.

There is no other way to say this, but Seattle has managed to fight its way to a 7-2 record in spite of one of football’s worst defenses.  With their 40-34 overtime win on Sunday, Seattle has now allowed at least 20 points in 8 of their 9 games, and 30 or more three times.  They have surrendered over 400 yards five times, including their 27-20 Week Eight win over Atlanta when they allowed 510 yards.  They rank twenty-second in the league in scoring defense, and twenty-fifth in yardage allowed.

They are twenty-eighth against the pass – in no small part because they have managed just 15 quarterback sacks this season.  They are twenty-ninth in sack rate, dropping the opposing passer on only 4.2% of his drop-backs.  Against the run, they are allowing 4.7 yards per rushing attempt, and have allowed 12 rushing touchdowns this season – the NFL’s second highest total.  Only Carolina – allowing 14 – has served up more.

Russell Wilson and company run a mostly magical offense, but this tepid defense will face this closing schedule beginning this Monday night (team record in parenthesis): in San Francisco (8-0), in Philadelphia (5-4), home vs Minnesota (6-3), at the Rams (5-3), at Carolina (5-3), home against Arizona (3-5-1) and home against San Fran (8-0).  Unless this defense gets much better before Monday night, this is the NFC team that I foresee giving up its spot in the dance.

NFC South

Lurking just off of San Francisco’s port bow are the New Orleans Saints – now 7-1 and holders of the conference’s second seed.  New Orleans’ future Hall of Fame quarterback Drew Brees went to the sidelines injured in the second game of the season.  The Saints won all five games that he missed – three of them on the road (in Seattle, Jacksonville, and Chicago), two of them when the offense scored fewer than 14 points (12-10 over Dallas and 13-6 over Jacksonville) and the other three when the defense allowed more than 21 points (33-27 over Seattle, 31-24 over Tampa Bay, and 36-25 over Chicago).

And now Brees is back.  That is more than just a little bit scary.  This team does everything well – throw the ball, run the ball, stop the run, sack the passer – and is now in a mindset of doing whatever it needs to to win.

Their remaining schedule isn’t all that fierce, and the tougher games remaining will be mostly played at home (Carolina, San Francisco and Indianapolis).  They close the season on the road in Tennessee and in Carolina.  Compared to some of the other schedules, this one doesn’t sound so bad.

Good chance here for the Saints not only to win their division, but slip in front of the 49ers for the conference’s top seed.  That Week 14 game against the 49ers is already rife with playoff importance.

Carolina (5-3) is the only other winning team in that division.  The Panthers have had some bad moments, but have overall looked legitimate.  They do play the Saints twice, so catching New Orleans is possible, but the Panthers also have a few hard road games ahead.  Besides playing in New Orleans, they will also journey into Green Bay and Indianapolis.  If they win their home games, however, and pick up at least the road win in Atlanta, the Panthers could reasonably expect a 10-6 finish, which could make them one of the contenders for the playoff berth that the Seahawks will vacate.

NFC North

This one will come down to the wire between the 7-2 Green Bay Packers and the 6-3 Minnesota Vikings.  This one will come down to tie-breakers, with (my prediction) the Packers winning because of a better record in common games.  The Packers currently hold the third seed.  The Vikings currently sit as the number two wild card team, likely to finish as the number one wild card.

NFC East

This division has suddenly gotten tighter as the Eagles have started to piece their game together.  The Dallas Cowboys (5-3) hold a half game lead over the 5-4 Philadelphia team.

The Cowboys’ remaining schedule has a few top teams on it.  They will play Minnesota and the Rams at home.  The nastiest road game they have left is in New England in Week 12.  They also play in Philly in Week 16.

All of Philadelphia’s toughest remaining games will come at home.  Their remaining road schedule takes them into Miami, into Washington, and into New York to play the Giants.  The home schedule, on the other hand, is plenty daunting.  Their remaining home opponents include New England, Seattle and Dallas.  If they lose two of these three – and I rather think they will – they will probably see the division crown end up in Dallas – and may find themselves out of the playoffs entirely.  Even at 10-6, Philadelphia could well join Carolina as 10-6 teams watching the playoffs on TV.

Who’s Getting In?

The NFC has no shortage of quality teams waiting to claim Seattle’s spot.  Of the trio of teams with a real good chance of finishing 10-6, the Rams will probably get the nod.  Playing in the very competitive NFC West, their “strength of victory” number could well be the deciding factor.

The AFC usurper will be one of the better stories of the season.

The Pittsburgh Steelers began the season getting run off the field in New England.  In their Week Two loss against Seattle, they lost their starting quarterback, Ben Roethlisberger, for the season.  Turning to backup Mason Rudolph, they lost two of the next three to begin the season 1-4, dropping off of everyone’s radar.

Since then, Mike Tomlin’s crew has won three in a row.  They haven’t all been pretty, but the victories do include a road win at the Chargers and Sunday’s 26-24 squeaker over Indianapolis on a missed field goal at the end of the game.

The Steelers and Rudolph still don’t scare anybody.  But take a glance at the rest of their schedule.  This Sunday they get the Rams at home (the usurper’s bowl?).  They end the season against Baltimore in Baltimore.  In between, this is how it reads: Cleveland, Cincinnati, Cleveland, Arizona, Buffalo (at home), and the New York Jets.  Even if they lose to the Rams and the Ravens, if Pittsburgh takes care of business against the weak sister teams in between, they will be going back to the playoffs – however short that stay might be.

So, here is how I call the final seedings:

NFC: Saints (1) 49ers (2) Packers (3) Cowboys (4) Vikings (5) and Rams (6).

AFC: Patriots (1), Ravens (2), Chiefs (3), Texans (4), Steelers (5) and Bills (6).

There are still a lot of games to be played, but this is how it looks to me at the half-way point.

How Good, Really, is the Patriot Defense?

The defensive numbers through the first seven weeks were fairly historic.  The offense claims to be a work in progress – although if you were to guess which team leads the NFL in points scored, the answer isn’t Kansas City.  Last Sunday, as they took the field to face the Cleveland Browns, The New England Patriots – at the time 7-0 – had allowed all of 48 points.  On the season.  While the Patriots were playing the Browns, across the continent the Carolina Panthers were in the process of serving up 51 points in that single afternoon.

On the way to their 48 points allowed, New England had allowed opposing passers to complete just 50.8% of their passes, gaining just 5.00 yards per pass attempt.  Both of those figures were the stingiest in the league.  But that is just the start.  Of the first 242 passes thrown against them, there had been only one touchdown pass.

One.

NY Giant quarterback Daniel Jones had found Golden Tate for a 64-yard touchdown pass in the second quarter of their 35-14 Week Six loss to New England.  I’m not sure if any team had ever – in the modern era – gone five games without allowing a touchdown pass.  Meanwhile, if opposing quarterbacks hadn’t had much luck throwing touchdown passes, they had a much easier time with interceptions.  Eighteen of them – a 7.4% rate.  Cleveland quarterback Baker Mayfield stepped onto the field against a defense that allowed opposing passers a mind-numbing 35.6 passer rate.  For context, the league average was 91.4.  New England quarterback Tom Brady brought a 94.8 rating into the contest – a glaring 59.2-point margin over the Patriots’ opposing passers.

Ah, yes.  Those opposing passers.  Who were they again?

Well, in Week One they did get the better of Pittsburgh veteran Ben Roethlisberger (a 65.6 rating on 47 passes) – albeit Ben was more than a little betrayed by receiver Donte Moncrief who dropped 3 passes.

But after the Pittsburgh game, the schedule and the opponents were decidedly soft.  They next played the still-winless Miami team, facing both Ryan Fitzpatrick (23.8 rating) and Josh Rosen (33.8).  After them came the Jets (currently 1-6).  New York didn’t have their starting quarterback available for this game, so the Pats got rookie Luke Falk making his first career start.  He managed a 47.2 rating in a 30-14 loss.

Up next was the only winning team New England has played all season – the currently 5-2 Buffalo Bills.  Second-year starter Josh Allen was only 13-for-28 for 153 yards and 3 interceptions in the 16-10 Patriot win.  It should be noted that Buffalo’s strong suit has been more its defense than its offense.

After Buffalo came now 1-7 Washington and the immortal Colt McCoy (Colt is 7-21 for his 5-year career as a starter with a 78.4 career rating).  He scored a 61.0 rating as he threw for just 122 yards with an interception in a 33-7 loss.

Their next opponent – the New York Giants – are now all of 2-6, making them one of the more significant challenges New England has faced in the early going.  They would also be starting a rookie QB – the aforementioned Mr. Jones who had taken the reigns from Eli Manning.  This would be Daniel’s fourth career start.  He did throw the touchdown pass.  He also chucked 3 interceptions and finished with a 35.2 rating in the loss.

New England warmed up for Cleveland with a Monday nighter against the other New York team.  This time the Jets did have their number one ready to go.  Sam Darnold – another second-year starter – was making his sixteenth career start, and the Patriots took advantage of him, too.  Sam, in fact, made New England look like a defense of Hall-of-Famers.  In the 33-0 loss, Sam completed 11 of 32 for just 86 yards and 4 interceptions – an agonizing 3.6 rating.

There are a lot of quarterbacks in the MVP conversation this year.  The Patriots haven’t played any of those guys.  In fact, to this point of the season, the opposition had been so squishy soft – so much youth, inexperience, and lack of supporting cast – that it’s easy to wonder how much of this record-setting pace is legit, and how much is the softness of the opposition.  In a sense, the Patriots have been like the major college programs that have lined up a lot of cupcakes to make themselves look better than they are.

That, of course, will be changing.  Coming up for NE is Baltimore, Philadelphia, Dallas, Houston and Kansas City – presumably with Patrick Mahomes back.  So these questions will soon be answered.  But there are some hints in the game they just played against Cleveland.

Baker Mayfield was a college legend as a three-year starter in Oklahoma, finishing up with the 2017 Heisman Award and going to Cleveland as the first overall draft pick and as the future of the franchise in 2018.

By Game Four, Baker was the starter and was more than mildly impressive in his rookie season.  He produced three 300-yard passing games, threw three or more touchdown passes 4 times, and finished five of his starts with a passer rating of over 100.  In back-to-back games in Weeks Eight & Nine last year (against Atlanta and Cincinnati) Baker completed 36 of 46 passes (78.3%) for 474 yards, throwing 7 touchdowns without an interception – a two-game rating of 149.2.

Baker finished his rookie season with a 93.7 rating and led the formerly moribund Browns to a 6-7 record in his starts.

Against this backdrop, the expectations for 2019 were fairly high in Cleveland.  They went into New England last Sunday just 2-4 on the season, taking a step backward in almost all phases.  Defensively, they ranked twenty-third overall, and twenty-second in scoring defense.  This included ranking thirtieth against the run and thirty-first in average yards per rush against at 5.0.

As for Mayfield, his second look at the NFL has been much more difficult than his first.  Through his first six games, Baker had fallen to thirtieth in passer rating (66.0), thirty-first in completion percentage (56.6%) and last of all qualifying passers in interception rate, as 11 of his first 198 passes this season had been intercepted (5.6%).

In many ways, Baker was just another struggling second-year starter to face the Patriots – and the final numbers from the game suggested much the same.  The Patriots rolled to the victory, 27-13 (gamebook) (summary), while holding Baker to a 79.2 rating.  I don’t know that that tells the entire story, however.

While not earth-shattering, Baker’s 79.2 rating was the highest against New England by a considerable margin this season, and Mayfield – who entered the game next to last in completion percentage – completed 64.5% (20 of 31) of his passes against the team allowing barely more than 50% of the passes thrown against them to be complete.

As befits their season, Cleveland turned the ball over on three consecutive first-quarter snaps.  The first – running back Nick Chubb’s first fumble of the game – was returned for a touchdown by the defense.  The second – Nick Chubb’s second fumble of the game – denied the Browns a scoring opportunity.  The third – a bizarre interception of a shovel pass – gave the Patriot offense a short field and set up another New England touchdown.  A Halloween-esque first quarter had left the Browns in a 17-0 hole.

It was too deep a deficit for Cleveland to overcome, but from that point of the game on they outscored New England 13-10.  There were a few pieces of the Brown game plan that worked better than one might have thought – pieces that other teams (like the Ravens) might incorporate into future game plans against the Patriots.

First of all, Cleveland ran the ball against New England.  And they didn’t stop running even after they fell behind early.  Ten first-half rushing plays were followed by 12 second-half rushes.  The Browns finished with 159 rushing yards.

The Patriots came into the game ranked second against the run (allowing 74.7 yards per game), but it was a fairly hollow honor.  With big early leads, New England had defended just 126 running plays – the fewest in the league.  The few previous times the Pats had needed to defend the run for the full four quarters, they showed some vulnerability there.  Buffalo ran for 135 against them in Week Four, and Washington added 145 more the next week.

I am unconvinced that New England defends the run as well as their defensive resume suggests, and that team (like Baltimore) that will run with great conviction will give them more than a little problem.

The second offensive goal against the Patriots is one that Cleveland managed only sporadically.  After watching the Patriot defense for 8 weeks, I am convinced that 75% of their effectiveness is the man coverage skills of Stephon Gilmore and a high-blitzing pass rush.  (The Patriots entered the game with 26 sacks on the season – ranking second – and a sack percentage of 9.7% – third best in the NFL.)

Baker saw blitzes on 15 of his 37 drop-backs (just slightly over 40%).  On most other occasions, New England showed blitz, but then dropped out.

The pressure packages had their successes, as Mayfield went down 5 times, was hurried on 3 other occasions, and forced to scramble once.  But when the line could give Baker time, he showed that the New England secondary wasn’t nearly as impenetrable as advertised.

This happened on Mayfield’s touchdown pass.  As this was only the second touchdown pass allowed by the Patriots all season, you might think it was a remarkable design.  As it turns out, the most unusual thing about it was that the quarterback wasn’t running for his life.

Tight end Demetrius Harris ran a deep corner route from the New England 21 with linebacker Don’t’a Hightower in coverage.  But he was not the only receiver open.  The two underneath crossing routes were also open – Jarvis Landry running away from Gilmore, and Pharaoh Brown with a couple of steps on Patrick Chung.

The ability to slow down the New England pass rush might be the single most important imperative for all future Patriots opponents.  On this play, the Patriots showed blitz, but backed out.

One significant adjustment that Cleveland made in its approach was a focus on quick decisions by Mayfield in the short passing game.  This was a double-edged sword.  On the plus side, this approach allowed Baker his high completion percentage and somewhat frustrated the pass rush.  This was mostly evident in the game’s first half when Mayfield was sacked just once, and completed 11 of 14 passes (78.6%), but for just 80 yards – which was the weakness in the scheme.  On more than one occasion, third wide receiver Antonio Callaway was running away from his defender on a go route.  But in all of those occasions, Baker had already decided where he was going with the football.

Realizing that Gilmore will always inhibit the production of your top receiving threat, future New England opponents should understand the value of a third receiver with deep-threat speed.  In this game it was Callaway causing problems for J.C. Jackson and Jason McCourty – two very good corners, but not in Gilmore’s class.

Of course, whether your quarterback can hold the ball long enough to find that receiver is another issue.

One of the very interesting things that Cleveland did in New England was to deny the Patriot pass defense a clear set of targets.  I think they only did this once, but the concept is worth further exploration.

With 49 seconds left in the third quarter, Cleveland lines up with only one wide receiver (Odell Beckham) on the field.  They have three tight ends and running back Dontrell Hilliard.  There is no one in the backfield with Baker, as Beckham is part of a bunch of three receivers (Ricky Seals-Jones and Brown) to Baker’s right, and Hilliard and Harris wide to his left.

Without a bevy of wide receivers to focus on, New England responded with man coverage, but only against the three receivers bunched to the right.  On the offensive left side, they played zone.  With the Patriots rushing just three, and Mayfield understanding what New England was doing, he was able to wait long enough for linebacker Jamie Collins to drift toward the center of the field before delivering a strike to Demetrius Harris, who had settled in one of the soft spots of the zone.

That play gained 12 yards on third and two.

The bottom line is that there are opportunities here.  A team like Baltimore that will keep running the ball will give themselves the best advantage.  Moreover, any team that runs against New England as many as thirty times in a game will almost certainly quiet down the blitz tendencies – another thing I think Baltimore could do.

But it will still – at some point – come down to making plays in the passing game.  At some point, Lamar Jackson will have to make the same kind of read that Mayfield made, and throw to the right receiver against the right coverage.  And this is where I am not yet convinced.  Lamar has made strides, but he will have to show me he can make these kinds of reads.

Tomorrow night’s New England-Baltimore matchup is one of the most intriguing of the season’s first half.  The Ravens are not a team built for coming from behind.  If the Patriots get up on them early, it could spell trouble for Baltimore.  However, I also don’t think that New England is built to take 25-30 rushing plays against that vaunted defense.  If Baltimore stays close and keeps running, I think that will spell trouble for the Patriots.

With New England at 8-0, and Baltimore 5-2, this game could have significant consequences as far as playoff seeding goes.  By this time tomorrow night, we will know a lot more about both of these teams.

The Frustration Bowl

It could only end this way.  It was the Chargers and Bears, after all.

Since it was the Los Angeles Chargers, there was the usual amount of self-destruction.  Keenan Allen tripped over his feet on two consecutive third-down passes, and Hunter Henry dropped another third-downer.  The Chargers ended up 2-10 on third down (0-5 in the first half)

Allen and Mike Williams both dropped touchdown passes in the end zone in the second half.  Los Angeles missed a field goal, had an interception, and committed 8 penalties.  With less than a minute to play in the first half, Charger defenders twice committed third-down penalties that extended Chicago’s final drive of the half.  In many ways, the same old Chargers.

And yet, in spite of the self-inflicted wounds, Los Angeles broke their huddle with the ball on their own 15-yard line with just 2:04 left in the game, and holding a precarious 17-16 lead (the Bears had also done some self-destructing).

But things at this point weren’t quite as simple as taking a knee and going home.  Chicago had managed to maintain all three of its timeouts.  They would also get a stoppage after the next play at the two-minute warning.

With no chance to really eat the clock (or force Chicago to use a time out) with a run on first down – and since Los Angeles has suddenly become averse to running the ball – Ken Whisenhunt dialed up another pass play.  To this point, Chicago had not sacked Charger quarterback Philip Rivers.

But, on this play, Khalil Mack spun around left tackle Trenton Scott and spilled Rivers for a six-yard loss.  The Charger fans knew what was coming next.

Two plays later, it was third-and-12, with 1:55 still to go.  The Bears had used only one of their time outs.  With the Bears’ defense dropping deep into zone coverages, Henry found an open patch of grass, took the pass, and turned up field.  True to his Charger DNA, Henry got 11 yards on third and 12.  The ensuing Chicago time out and punt left Chicago quarterback Mitchell Trubisky on his own 35-yard line, with 1:33 and one time out left on the clock.

The week before had not been Trubisky’s finest hour.  In a 36-25 home loss to New Orleans, Mitch ended up throwing the ball 54 times with only 251 yards to show for it (4.65 yards per attempted pass).  As he took the field to begin this game, Mitch had fallen to next to last in average yards per pass at 5.24, and dead last in the NFL in yards per completion, averaging just 8.1 yards for every pass completed.

Needless to say, it was not a comfortable week for Mitch.

Additionally, the first 58.5 minutes of this contest had seen its share of frustration for the home town team.  They controlled the clock for 19:22 of the first quarter, but went 0-for-4 in the red zone, kicking 3 field goals and missing another.  They would finish 1-for-5 in the red zone; 1-for-4 in goal-to-go-situations.  But the back breaker seemed to come about midway through the final period.

With 9:39 left in the game, Chicago receiver Taylor Gabriel exploited a blown assignment in the Charger secondary and tore up field with only Thomas Davis trailing far behind.  But Mitch overthrew him.  On the next play, LA defensive end Joey Bosa pushed tackle Charles Leno into Trubisky.  Mitch tried to spin out of trouble.  The ball slid out of his grasp.  And Los Angeles had the ball deep in Chicago territory.

It was the second brutal turnover by Chicago in the half, and the one that set up LA’s lone second half touchdown.  But now the football gods were giving Mitch another chance.

On second down, Mitch floated a perfect pass to Gabriel, who had found a void in the LA zone deep to the offensive left.  No overthrow this time.  Gabriel pulled it in for 22 yards.  On the next play, Trubisky found Allen Robinson over the middle for 9 more yards.

The Bears were now on the LA 34-yard line – about a 51-yard field goal, if they kicked it then.  They needed one more play.

With 53 seconds left in the game, and the Bears on the 32-yard line, they got that play.  And it was Trubisky that delivered it.

As he dropped to pass, his pocket began to implode in front of him.  As before, Mitch spun out of trouble, but this time holding onto the ball.  Stepping out of Melvin Ingram’s diving tackle attempt, Trubisky darted 11 yards down to the 21 to put a dagger into the hearts of the Chargers.

There were still 43 seconds left, and the Bears did still have one time out, so they could potentially have taken a shot at the end zone – or at least tried to move in a little closer.  Coach Matt Nagy would take heat for this, but his team was riding a two-game losing streak, and while the offense had played better this week, they were far from mistake free – having turned the ball over on consecutive possessions earlier in this half.

Not willing to put at risk a game he felt was already won, Nagy had Trubisky kneel down, drain the clock, and call his final time out.

And so it would have to come down to this.  Over the last few seasons, there are probably not two teams anywhere in the NFL that have lost more games on missed kicks in the waning seconds than the Chargers and the Bears.  There were four seconds left on the scoreboard clock as Eddy Pineiro lined up his 41-yard kick.  Trubisky and Rivers watched helplessly from the sidelines.

The snap was good.  The hold was perfect.  For about one second it looked like the kick would slice just inside the left upright.  But then it began to tail, and, well, you can guess the rest.

Both of these teams had made the playoffs in 2018, and were hoping to build off of that success.  Both now have losing records (the Chargers are 3-5, the Bears 3-4) although there is still enough season left to turn things around. But both of these franchises are left with questions.

The victory softens the scrutiny the Chargers will be under – at least for a week.  Los Angeles still delivered an inconsistent performance with too many dropped passes and too many penalties.  Add to the concerns a vanishing running game.

Los Angeles ran the ball only 12 times the entire game.  In the second half, they had 5 rushes for 7 yards.  This is now the third time in the last 4 games that LA has run the ball less than 20 times.  In 2018, they at least had a semblance of balance, ranking nineteenth in rushing attempts (399) and fifteenth in rushing yards (1873).  This year’s team has fallen to twenty-eighth in both categories (160 rushing attempts for just 556 yards) as well as in average yards per attempt (3.5).  With Melvin Gordon back in the fold to go along with leading rusher Austin Ekeler, the Chargers should be able to run the ball at least as well as most.  Gordon had 8 carries on Sunday, and Ekeler 3.  At this point, this is beginning to get pretty glaring.

In Chicago, they will be spending another uncomfortable week.  They will now have to go into Philadelphia to play a dangerous Eagle team.  The questions here are plenteous.

The vultures circled Piniero’s locker after the game.  It was a tough miss.  Eddy is 12 for 15 this year, including a game-winner against Denver in Week Two.  Everybody misses sometimes.

Nagy will be asked about his game management – and about his choice of starting quarterback going forward.  Matt could have been more aggressive at the end, but imagine the hullabaloo if something untoward – like another interception – had deprived them of the opportunity to kick a makeable field goal.

As to Trubisky, yes he has regressed a bit.  In leading the Bears to the playoffs last year, he registered a 95.4 passer rating with a 24-12 touchdown-to-interception ratio.  This year he is at 81.4 with a 5-3 ratio.

Chicago fans – not necessarily noted for patience – would do well to keep a few things in mind.  First of all, the development of a young quarterback isn’t always a straight-line progression.  The Trubisky of 2018 is still in there, but may take a little more time to unfold.

Moreover, Mitch hasn’t been the same – certainly as far as running the ball – since his injury.  In 2018 he ran 68 times for 421 yards (6.2 average) and 3 touchdowns.  With the 2019 season half over, Mitch has just 9 rushes for 31 yards, so health would seem to be a significant factor.

If I were a Bear fan – in spite of the agony of another irritating loss – I would take a couple of clear positives away from this game.

First, in spite of some continued inconsistencies, Mitch Trubisky led the team on what was essentially a game winning drive with just a minute and a half left in the game.  If Piniero hits the field goal, Chicago is celebrating Trubisky as the hero.

Even more important, in Week Eight the Bears re-discovered their commitment to the run.

In the Week 7 loss to New Orleans, the Chicago Bears ran the ball 7 times for the entire game – only twice in the second half.  They ran the ball a total of 24 times in the previous two games.  They entered Week Eight thirtieth in running attempts (125), twenty-eighth in rushing yards per game (70.0), twenty-eighth in yards per carry (3.4), and twenty-seventh in rushing touchdowns (2).

This is no way to support a young quarterback.  Last year, they ranked sixth in rushing attempts (468) and eleventh in yards (1938).  The 16 rushing touchdowns they scored ranked seventh.

On Sunday, though, the Bears finally found the man to replace last year’s leading rusher, Jordan Howard.  In a breakthrough game, rookie David Montgomery bolted through the surprised Charger defense for 135 yards on 27 carries – a 5.0 average.  The team finished with 38 rushing attempts (20 of them in the second half) for 162 yards – their most since battering Minnesota for 169 yards in Week 17 last year.

The averages – Montgomery’s 5.0 and the team’s 4.3 – are slightly deceptive.  The output included one 55-yard burst.  Take that away and David averaged 3.1 yards per on his other 26 carries, and the team average drops to 2.9.  Only 9 of Montgomery’s 27 carries, and 12 of Chicago’s 38 rushes gained more than 3 yards, so this was literally three-yards and a cloud of dust running.

The Bears opened the second half by running on their first six plays – one short of their entire total from the previous week.  If the Bears didn’t exactly gash Los Angeles, they at least showed more run commitment than at any time this year.

That is a building block.  The Eagles are significantly tougher against the run than Los Angeles (they currently rank eighth), so if the running game is back, it will get a stiffer test next week.

But if it is back, it will lead to better afternoons in Chicago.

Ravens’ Defense Finds Answers in Seattle

It is, I think, important to remember that both defenders that had their hands on the ball ended up scoring.

When, with about five minutes left in the second quarter, Marcus Peters intercepted the pass intended for Jaron Brown, he darted the full 67 yards down the sideline for the score.  With just under four minutes left in the game, D.K. Metcalf caught a short pass along the offensive left sideline.  As he tried to switch hands, the wet ball slipped away from him.  Raven defensive back Marlon Humphrey fell on the ball at the Seattle 18, but wasn’t content with possession.  Hustling to his feet, Marlon raced down the invitingly open sideline for the touchdown.

In the aftermath of the game – a 30-16 Baltimore victory over Seattle (gamebook) (summary), the assembled media was quick to shower praise on Lamar Jackson, the second year starter at quarterback who guided the team to this road victory over a top opponent.  But the offense on this day managed a modest 340 total yards and scored 1 touchdown.  The difference in this game – and something for future opponents of both the Ravens and Seahawks to keep in mind – was the Baltimore defense, whose two defensive scores capped off an afternoon of nearly total domination.

Last year saw the rise of what I called Neanderthal football teams – old school style offenses that committed to running the ball and imposing their will on their opponent.  Baltimore is pre-eminent among that club.  Their stated intent, in fact, is to revolutionize offensive football around the talents of Jackson.

That full revolution may or may not come to pass.  To this point, the Baltimore offense is pure Neanderthal – with all the advantages and limitations that come with this style of play.

Primary among the advantages of Neanderthal football is game control.  A brilliant defensive coordinator can design all kinds of exotic blitzes and coverage schemes to inhibit the passing game.  There is no brilliant defensive strategy to stop the run.  If you are getting gashed at the line, the only thing you can do is commit more defenders to the run – and that usually doesn’t work out in the long run.

So, if you can’t stop the Raven running game (and most people haven’t), then it will relentlessly pound your defense into submission, five or six brutal yards at a time.  Your offense will spend agonizing stretches of the afternoon wandering aimlessly along the sideline, while your battered defense will stand, hands on hips, sucking air and waiting for the next hammer blow.

In Seattle on Sunday, Baltimore held the ball for 17:38 of the second half – almost all of that on two devastating drives that decided the contest.

The game was tied at 13 with 6:51 left in the third when Seattle’s Jason Myers missed wide right on a 53-yard field goal attempt.  Now, with 6:46 left in the quarter, the Ravens took over at their own 43.  Five minutes and 26 seconds later, the 11-play, 62-yard Baltimore drive ended when Jackson knifed into the end zone from 8 yards out – Baltimore’s only offensive touchdown of the game.

Now, Seattle was trailing by 7 with just 1:20 left in the quarter. The Seahawk offense was only able to buy its defense a mild breather as their 7-play, 3:33 drive ended with a punt early in the fourth quarter.

Now it’s the Ravens again.  With 12:47 left in the game and the ball at their own 10, Jackson and the Raven embarked on a brutal 13-play, 96-yard drive that ground the next nine minutes even off of the clock.  When the Baltimore field goal finally allowed the devastated Seattle defense off the field and permitted the Seahawk offense back into the game, quarterback Russell Wilson and company faced a 10-point deficit, with just 3:47 left to play.  Their first play from scrimmage in that next drive was the Metcalf fumble that was returned for the game-icing touchdown.  Whether the long wait on the sideline – and the Seattle offense at that point had run all of 7 plays over the previous 18 minutes of football time – was a factor in Metcalf’s unforced error is hard to say, although that is the sort of thing that happens when your offense spends its afternoon watching from the sideline.

During those two back-breaking drives, Baltimore ran 24 plays, gained 158 yards, averaged 6.58 yards per offensive snap, and drained 14:26 off the clock – nearly a full quarter’s worth of time on those two drives.  True to their Neanderthal DNA, only 7 of the 24 offensive plays ended up being pass plays.  Jackson was sacked once, and actually threw the ball only 6 times completing 3 for 37 yards.  The Raven “passing attack” averaged 5 yards per play.  The 17 running plays in those two drives amassed 123 yards (Seattle managed just 106 rushing yards for the entire game), and averaged 7.23 yards per.

This is all the more impressive (and scary to future Baltimore opponents) when you take into account that Seattle realized that this would be the game plan.  They knew that Baltimore wouldn’t try to beat them through the air.  But even with extra focus on the relentless Raven running game, the Hawks were unable to derail it.  By game’s end, Baltimore had run the ball 35 times for 199 yards (116 from Jackson).

Baltimore gets this week off, as they prepare for a Week Nine showdown against the defending world champions.  Whether the New England brain-trust can generate a blueprint for slowing down the Baltimore running game, or whether Revolution Baltimore will grind the Patriots under their wheels will be one of the more compelling stories of Week Nine.

I will be so bold as to say that a significant part of the Patriot game plan will be to play from ahead.  One of the great limitations of a run-dependent offense is a pronounced difficulty in coming from behind.  In their Week Six matchup against winless Cincinnati, Baltimore surrendered a touchdown on the opening kickoff, falling behind 7-0.  That 7-point deficit is the largest that they have overcome this season to win (and they did squeak by Cincinnati 23-17).  In their two losses (33-28 to Kansas City and 40-25 against Cleveland), the Ravens fell behind early.  They trailed the Chiefs 23-6 at the half, and Cleveland 24-10 after three quarters.  Forced into passing situations, Jackson threw for just 267 yards against KC, and 247 yards (with two interceptions) against the Browns.

Jackson’s passing numbers against Seattle weren’t awe-inspiring.  He finished 9 of 20 for 143 yards, and they were that good because Lamar held the element of surprise when he threw.  Even when he would drop back to pass, Seattle realized that he was at least half looking for a running lane, so Seattle could never comfortably play full out pass defense.  Jackson is so shifty and ungraspable, that you can’t even full-out pass rush him.  Seattle learned this lesson the hard way in the second quarter.  On a third-and-ten, they brought Jamar Taylor on a corner blitz from Jackson’s right.  Flushed from the pocket, Lamar simply (and easily) sprinted around left end for 28 yards and the first down.

To date, the only way to contend with the Baltimore running game is to take it away from them with a sizeable lead.  And that will mean contending with the Baltimore defense.

The Raven defense has had its hiccups this year.  In their consecutive losses, they surrendered over 500 yards of offense in both games.  They played significantly better in their victories over the 2-4 Steelers and the 0-7 Bengals.  Seattle would present a better measuring stick of their improvement.

As Seattle charged onto the field, they carried with them the league’s fifth-ranked offense (by yards) and seventh-ranked by points.  They were ranked ninth in running the football – averaging 130.5 yards a game, and featured in Chris Carson the league’s fifth-leading rusher who was also second in carries.

But the offensive pride and joy was Russell Wilson and the passing game.  Ranked eighth in yards only because Seattle runs the ball so frequently, Wilson came into the matchup as football’s top rated passer (124.7 passer rating).  His 14 touchdown passes were second most in the league, and his touchdown percentage of 7.4% was the league best – even more impressive when weighed against the fact that Wilson had yet to throw an interception in 2019.

It wasn’t a timid passing game, either.  Wilson came into the night averaging 9.02 yards per pass attempt – football’s second highest average – and to that end had discovered in Metcalf one of the league’s bright new stars.  DK entered the game leading the NFL in yards per catch.

This last point was a primary concern for Baltimore’s defensive unit.  Mostly a man-to-man unit, they had surrendered more than their share of big plays – to the point where Baltimore ranked twenty-fifth against the pass, and their 13.1 yards allowed per completion was thirtieth out of the NFL’s thirty-two teams.

In my mind, this would be the game.  If the Ravens couldn’t manage to contain the deep-strike game of Wilson to Metcalf and Tyler Lockett, then they would be faced again with that early deficit and would have to rely on Jackson’s arm.  The game’s final statistics – as much as the defensive scores – spoke to Baltimore’s success.  In what ended up as his worst statistical performance of the season, Wilson completed just 20 of 41 passes for only 241 yards.  He averaged just 5.88 yards per throw, threw his first interception of the year (to Peters) and finished with a stunning 65.2 rating.  For their parts, Lockett finished with just 61 yards and Metcalf with 53.  In the second half, Tyler caught just 2 passes for 8 yards, and Metcalf hauled in just 2 of the 5 thrown his way for just 7 yards.

That was the game – Lamar Jackson and his Neanderthal offense notwithstanding.  Seattle managed just 3 points in the second half.  The defense clearly profited from the time-of-possession advantage provided by the offense.  But when it was their turn on the tundra, they rose to the challenge.  There were three defensive imperatives, and Baltimore succeeded in all three.

Imperative number one was to stop the run.  In its purest form, Seattle’s offense is a bit like Baltimore’s in that everything builds off the running game.  Once the running game gets started, then Wilson can be at his devastating best with his up-field, play-action passing game.

But on Sunday afternoon, the Baltimore defensive line made sure that that wouldn’t happen.  Brandon Williams and Michael Pierce are two members of the Baltimore squad that infrequently get recognized.  Their contributions to the team’s success are rarely flashy.  In fact, they spend a large part of every game on the bottom of large piles of humanity around the line of scrimmage.  But don’t underestimate their importance in this win.

Williams and Pierce are run stuffers.  They are the large bodies in the middle of the line that inhibit opponents’ running attacks, and are a prime reason that the Raven defense currently ranks third in the NFL against the run.  On Sunday, they checked Carson and the Seahawk running attack, holding him to 65 yards on 21 carries – with none of his efforts gaining more than 9 yards.

Imperative two called for finding an answer for Metcalf and Lockett.  Part of that answer had come via trade during the week, in the person of Marcus Peters, who plugged right in to the starting left cornerback role.

Baltimore played a lot of man coverage in this game, with mostly acceptable results.  In Peters, Brandon Carr and Marlon Humphrey, Baltimore now has three cornerbacks who they can comfortably leave on an island even against very good receivers.  These three were not perfect – and there was more than one Seattle receiver running open deep against them – but for the most part their man coverage was tight and adequate.  Since the Ravens infrequently flipped their corners, Seattle was usually free to select the matchups they wanted – mostly Metcalf against Peters, Lockett in the slot where he would be shadowed by Humphrey, and David Moore or Jaron Brown opposite of Carr.

For some reason throughout the game, Seattle believed they could take advantage of Carr deep.  Almost all of their receivers lined up to the offensive left and tried to get behind him.  By game’s end, 9 passes had been thrown in Brandon’s coverage area, resulting in 4 receptions for just 30 yards.  For the season, 40 throws at Brandon Carr have resulted in 19 completions (47.5%) for just 201 yards and 1 touchdown.  In passer rating points, throws against Brandon score a 70.9.  Future offensive coordinators looking for weak spots in the Baltimore defense should start to realize that Carr isn’t one of them.

But against Seattle, Baltimore wasn’t a man-heavy defense.  Especially as the game wore on and the run threat began to diminish, the Ravens went to a cover 4 concept, with deep drops from the linebackers underneath.  Whether this will become a consistent part of their game plan, or whether this tactic was specific for the Seahawks will be determined over the rest of the season.  But as far as Seattle is concerned, Baltimore understood that they are not a dink-and-dunk passing attack.  Their game is the quick strike – Russell Wilson looping deep passes that drop down the chute into the waiting arms of Lockett.  Throughout most of the last part of the game. Baltimore gave plenty of room under their deep drops, knowing that Wilson wouldn’t exploit them, and couldn’t beat them doing that even if he did.

So, between their press coverage off the line, and their smothering deep zone coverages, Russell Wilson almost never had anywhere to go with the football.  And he almost never had time to make that decision.

Imperative three was the pass rush.

Over and over this season, we have seen high-powered passing attacks (in Kansas City, Los Angeles and everywhere in between) silenced by intense pressure.  It is the oldest of axioms – no quarterback, however great, can beat you when he’s on his back.  And Russell Wilson spent most of Sunday afternoon on his back – or nearly there.  A testament to his greatness is that Baltimore finished the afternoon with only one sack in spite of consistent company in his backfield.

Never afraid of a blitz, Raven defensive coordinator Don Martindale never hesitated to send the house (a few times anyway).  Many other times, he showed the threat of an all-out blitz, with defenders then falling back to clog the passing lanes.  Almost every time that Baltimore showed blitz and backed out, the Seahawks seemed confused.

My favorite of these moments came early in the third quarter.  Carson – in the backfield to Wilson’s right – had his eye on Anthony Levine, who lined up in the A-gap in a blitzing attitude.  At the snap, Levine backpedaled, making Carson think he could release into the pattern.  But the Ravens had a stunt on.  As Patrick Ricard cleared center Justin Britt out of the way, Carson slipped through that opening.  As Chris was escaping the backfield, Matt Judon poured in through that same opening to get immediate pressure and force another errant throw from Wilson.  As they passed each other, Carson couldn’t help but watch Judon race into the backfield.  He even inadvertently pointed at Judon as if to say, “shouldn’t I be blocking you?”

Of all of Baltimore’s star players, Matt Judon probably garners the least attention.  But Matt was one of the primary forces behind the Ravens’ victory.  Stunting or not, Matt was more than any of the Seattle linemen could handle.  The scoresheet only officially credited him with one assisted tackle and one quarterback hit, but this doesn’t begin to reflect the impact Matt had on the game.  He all but lived in the Seattle backfield and was principally responsible for Russell Wilson’s long and frustrating afternoon.

While the Ravens will now prepare for New England, Seattle is left with some apparent vulnerabilities that future opponents may try to exploit.  As the game progressed, it was clear that Seattle missed the intermediate routes run by the retired Doug Baldwin.  The passing attack – as of Sunday, anyway – now rests squarely on the shoulders of Lockett and Metcalf.  Will the cover-4 look that Seattle saw so much of from the Ravens become a trend against them?  Until Seattle can develop or find a receiver that can do what Baldwin did, Metcalf and Lockett will see more than their share of attention.

And then, there is the Seattle offensive line.  The Seahawks haven’t been blessed with much health or consistency here so far this year.  Germain Ifedi has played every snap this year at right tackle, but is playing on an ouchy knee.  Left guard Mike Iupati had an early season foot injury that has cost him some time getting familiar with his new line mates.  And just in the last two or three games, George Fant has reclaimed his left tackle position (in spite of a balky shoulder) and rookie Jamarco Jones has taken over at right guard.  So there is a lot of youth, injury, and unfamiliarity here – and it showed against Baltimore.

Seattle is 5-2 and in no need to panic over one game.  Going forward, more production from the receivers would be helpful.  But the offensive line simply must get better – both for Chris Carson in the running game, and especially to keep Russell Wilson from getting beaten up in the passing game.  How they respond to this beating will ultimately define their season.

No Tears for the Cardinals

In the fifth inning of last night’s game, when Jose Martinez’ long fly into right-center bounced high off the wall and two runs scored, someone somewhere must have invoked the name of Pete Kozma.

Kozma, as you have probably heard, was the Cardinal bench player who drove in the winning runs in Game Five of the 2012 Divisional Series between these two teams.  Washington had held a 6-0 lead in that one at one point.

But 7-4 would be as close as St Louis would come.  They did load the bases with two out in the eighth inning – which is, I suppose, as much as you can hope for when you’ve fallen behind 7-0 in the first inning.  But, instead of letting Harrison Bader – who had drawn a walk and hit a line drive out – swing, Mike Shildt gave the at bat to Matt Carpenter, who ended St Louis’ last viable scoring opportunity of the season with a routine grounder to second.

One inning later, the ghost of Pete Kozma was exercised, and the Washington franchise (which had started out all those years ago in Montreal) was on its way to its first ever World Series.

With their 3 fifth-inning runs, the Cards at least made a game of it.  Those three runs also doubled the totality of the St Louis offense through the first three games.  Throughout, Washington pitching was dominant – holding the Cards to a .130/.195/.179 batting line, posting a 1.25 team ERA, and striking out 48 Cards over 36 innings.

It was a frustrating ending to a surprising season, but let’s not have any tears for the Cardinals.  This is not a veteran team seeking one last whiff of glory.  Far from seeing their window closing, the St Louis window is just opening.  This team counts no fewer than 16 high-ceiling players currently under 26 who got varying degrees of exposure to the pressure of the pennant chase and subsequent playoffs.  By contrast, there are only 9 players over thirty who made notable contributions to this team in 2019.

Watching some of the ups and downs of this team, one might forget how bright their future is – especially on the mound.  Jack Flaherty (who turned 24 yesterday) and Dakota Hudson (25) emerged during the course of the season to provide the foundation for the rotation for years to come.  Ready to join them as soon as next year are elite arms in Carlos Martinez and Alex Reyes (still just 25).  Both pitchers have battled injury issues over the last few years, so both will play under that shadow for a while.

Right behind them, though, are several other impressive prospects.  The list of potential starters include Ryan Helsley and Genesis Cabrera – both very successful out of the bullpen during the playoffs, Daniel Ponce de Leon and Austin Gomber (who also missed the season due to injury).

It isn’t at all difficult to imagine the Cardinals dominating some future playoff series (perhaps against Washington) in like fashion.

In spite of how it ended, the 2019 season saw several important steps forward for this franchise.  Most importantly, they re-took the division title, and did it standing up to the Chicago team that had pushed them around fairly regularly over the past three seasons.

If not everything, it is something to build on.  For now, that will have to be enough.

Cardinal Minutia

After Adam Wainwright’s effort on Saturday, St Louis threw no more quality starts.  So the 2019 team finished the season losing 33.8% of the time that they received a quality start (they were 53-27 in those games) including losing 4 of 5 in the playoffs.  Of the 19 previous editions of the Cards this century, only the 2008 team wasted good starting pitching at a higher rate.  At 50-26, they lost 34.2% of those games.

The high-water mark in runs scored was 17 in a 17-4 win against Pittsburgh on May 19.  Including the playoffs, St Louis scored 10 or more runs 18 times.

The most runs they scored in a losing effort was 8 in a 9-8 loss to the Giants on September 4.

They gave up ten or more runs 9 times – topped by the 13 they surrendered to the Cubs on May 5.  They did actually win one of those games – a 12-11 conquest of Cincinnati on July 19.

The Cards finished the season with three six-game winning streaks, and three five-game losing streaks.  Their longest stretch of games without losing two in a row was 30 games.  Beginning on August 9 against Pittsburgh (and just off a three-game sweep at the hands of the Dodgers) St Louis went 23-7 until they lost consecutive 2-1 games in Colorado on September 10 – 11.  That was pretty much the end of St Louis’ hot streak.  Beginning with those losses (and counting the playoffs), the Cards finished the rest of the season 13-15.

They also went 24 games without winning consecutive games.  This slump occupied most of May.  From the second until the 29th they were 6-18, finally winning the last game in Philadelphia and then sweeping the Cubs at home.

Their biggest lead in any game this season was 13 runs, achieved twice, on May 9 in the 17-4 win over Pittsburgh and in Game Five against Atlanta (an eventual 13-1 win).  They never lost a game where they led by as many as five runs, but they lost two that they had led by four runs – both to the Cubs in Chicago (6-5 on May 4, and 9-4 on June 8).

The maximum deficit they faced was 11 runs.  That happened twice, during a 12-1 loss to Cincinnati on April 26, and a 13-5 loss to Chicago on May 5.

In the 12-11 win over Cincy referenced earlier, the Cards came back from a 7-run deficit.  They also reversed two four-run deficits – the last of those coming on August 11 against Pittsburgh.  Toward the end of the season, they lost that ability to come back.  The last time they overcame a deficit of three runs came on August 22 against Colorado.  The last 5 times this season they fell behind by three runs (much less by more than three) they lost.

The longest game of the season – both by time and by innings – was the 19-inning marathon in Arizona on September 24, weighing in at 6:53.  The longest regulation game was the 9-8 conquest of Chicago in Chicago on September 21.  That game lasted 4:24.  The longest home nine-inning game lasted 4:05.  That was how long it took San Francisco to win that 9-8 game on September 4.

The fastest game the Cards played this season took just 2:11.  It was the night before the 4:05 game against San Fran, as Flaherty shut out the Giants 1-0.  The fastest road game also involved Flaherty pitching against the Giants.  This was his 1-0 loss on July 7 – the day before the All Star Break.  That game took 8 minutes longer (2:19).

All the Cardinal regular season games combined lasted 30,767 minutes.  If you watched every minute, it would have cost you 512 hours and 47 minutes (more than 21 days) – an average of 3:09.9 each.  The 9 playoff games added an additional 1823 minutes – that’s another 30 hours and 23 minutes.

The largest crowd St Louis played to was 53,070.  That was in Los Angeles against the Dodgers – the Cards lost that game 3-1 on August 6.  The largest attended home game was a Sunday afternoon game against Pittsburgh.  That May 12 game drew 48,555 – and the Cards lost 10-6.

Overall, St Louis played 82 times before crowds in excess of 40,000.  They won only 40 of those games.

The three smallest crowds of the season were the three games played in Miami, June 10-12.  They drew 6,585; 6,308; and 7,001 respectively.  No other game drew less than 13,000.

The smallest home crowd was the 35,819 that showed up on the evening of Monday April 22 to watch St Louis thump Milwaukee 13-5.  Overall they played 39 times to crowds of less than 30,000.  They won 25 of those.

The home attendance finished at 3,480,393 – an average of 42,967.8.  The total road attendance was 2,385,586 – an average of 29,451.7.

The hottest game of the year was Game Two of the Division Series – a 3-0 loss to Mike Foltynewicz in 94 steaming degrees.  The hottest game of the regular season came in Cincinnati on July 20.  St Louis lost that one 3-2 in 94 degrees.  The hottest home game checked in at 92 degrees.  That was a 3-0 win against Milwaukee on August 19.  The Cards were 10-3 when the game time temp sat at 90 degrees or higher.

The coldest game of the year was played in Pittsburgh on April 1.  The Cards outfought the Pirates 6-5 in 11 innings in 37 degree temperature.  The coldest home game of the year was the First Game of the Championship Series.  The Cards were almost no-hit in 45 degree weather.  The coldest regular season home game also came against Pittsburgh on May 11.  The Cards lost that game 2-1 in 49 degrees.

The Cards played four games in temperatures under 50 degrees and lost three of them.

The average temperature of all Cardinal games was 75 degrees – 77 at home and 73 on the road.

In going 50-31 at home, St Louis won 15 series, lost 8 and split 3 others.  They were 41-40 on the road, winning 11 series, losing 13 and splitting 2.  With chances to sweep 15 series, they pulled off the sweep 9 times.  They were 5 of 8 at home, and 4 of 7 on the road.

In danger of being swept 14 times, they wriggled off the hook in 9 of those series.  They were only swept once at home – although they were in danger of being swept five times.  On August 3 and 4, Oakland came into Busch and swept a two game series from St Louis.  We were swept 4 times (in 9 opportunities) on the road.

The Cards finished the season 8-8 in rubber games.  They were 6-4 at home and 2-4 on the road.

Of their 52 series, St Louis won the first game 29 times.  They went on to win 21 of those series, losing 7 and splitting one.  When pushed to a rubber game after having won the first game of the series, St Louis was just 3-6.

Of the 23 series where they lost the first game, they came back to win 5 and split 4, while losing the other 14.  When they lost the first game, but came back to force a rubber game, they were 5-2.

St Louis played 23 series against teams that had won their previous series.  The Cards were 6-16-1 in those series, winning 27 games and losing 41.  They had 23 other series against teams that had lost their previous series.  The Cards were 17-3-3 in those series, going 53-21 in the games.  They also played 5 teams that were coming off a split of their previous series.  The birds were 3-1-1 in those series, winning 10 games and losing 6.

They had the opportunity to sweep 4 teams that had won their previous series.  The only one they actually managed to put the broom to was – surprisingly enough – the Dodgers.  The Cards won four in a row from them April 8-11 after LA had just swept a three-game series in Colorado.

Six series sweeps (in 9 opportunities) came against teams that had lost their previous series, and they closed out both sweep opportunities against teams that had split their previous series.

On the other hand, teams winning their previous series had 9 opportunities to sweep the birds, and managed to do so in 5 of those opportunities.  Teams that had lost their previous series had 5 opportunities to sweep St Louis, but could never manage that last win.

St Louis was 2-8 in rubber games against teams coming off series wins, and 6-0 in rubber games against teams coming off losing series.

Injuries of Note

Every teams suffers through injuries during the course of the season.  In terms of games missed, here are the players who missed the most time and a note about what that impact might have been:

First is Brett Cecil – who missed the entire season with carpal tunnel syndrome.  The impact here is hard to gauge.  Brett has been mostly a disappointment, and it’s likely that Andrew Miller would have gotten his innings anyway.

Alex Reyes also missed most of the season with injuries – even if he spent most of that time on the Memphis injury list.  This could have been very significant.  Had Alex stayed healthy (including not punching out the dugout wall) he might have started to put his game back on track.  When the major league team went through something of a crisis regarding its fifth starter, Reyes might have taken hold of that opportunity.

Jordan Hicks (85 games missed).  If Reyes wasn’t the team’s most significant injury, then that title falls to baseball’s hardest thrower.  Jordan was the team’s closer – and growing well enough into that role – at the time his season ended due to TJ surgery.  Most teams don’t have the pitching depth to lose their closer and still win their division.

Mike Mayers (83 games).  Mike missed a bit more than half the season with a lat strain in his right shoulder.  Mayers is another who can pop the fastball, but has never managed to pitch consistently well at the major league level.  I’m not sure his absence was much noticed.

Jedd Gyorko (51 games).  A right calf strain delayed the start of Jedd’s season.  When he finally joined the team, he was stuck on Shildt’s bench – with all the minimal playing time that implies.  Things imploded for Jedd in early June when a lower back strain sent him back to the injured list.  Before he could make it back, he suffered another calf strain and ended up getting surgery on his right wrist.  Before the trading deadline, he was sent to the Dodgers.  In the 55 games he spent on the active roster, Jedd made it into only 38 games – making just 9 starts. He had only 56 at bats as a Cardinal.

Jedd, of course, had been a thirty home run guy in the past.  For a team that suffered through frequent offensive struggles (including in the playoffs), Jedd’s bat might have made a difference.  It is not clear, though, whether he would have gotten many opportunities – even if he was healthy.

Carlos Martinez (44 games).  The Cards caught a break when Carlos’ right rotator cuff was only strained.  He slotted in at closer for the rest of the season after Hicks went down.  Healthy, though, Carlos might have been part of the rotation – and might be next year.

Yadier Molina (37 games).  The indispensable Cardinal missed more than a month of games to two turns on the injured list with a problem with the tendon in his right thumb.  Yadi was healthy for the playoffs and hit the last Cardinal home run of the season.

Luke Gregerson (32 games).  A right shoulder impingement cost Luke the first month or so of the season.  He was on the active roster for 12 games before being released.

Tyler O’Neill (32 games) and Lane Thomas (28 games).  Two young outfielders who were starting to carve out roles for themselves before injuries (a right elbow ulnar nerve subluxation for O’Neill, and a broken hand for Thomas) curtailed their seasons.  These are two intriguing bats that figure prominently into the Cardinal future.

Marcell Ozuna (28 games).  Ozuna, of course, missed a chunk of games with fingers that he broke during a base-running mishap.

The last Cardinal to miss significant time with an injury was Matt Carpenter, who went on the shelf for nearly a month (23 games) with a right foot contusion – the result of multiple foul balls off of the same spot on the foot.  I’m not sure that anything could be more representative of Matt’s season than this.

Minor League Breakthroughs

(Players on the Major League roster for at least 100 games who played part of the year in the minors)

Giovanny Gallegos (9 games in the minors, 153 with the Cards).  Gallegos was something of a national sensation out of the St Louis pen for much of the summer.  He faded somewhat at the end of the season as his innings piled up, but Gallegos will go into spring training next year with a prominent spot in the bullpen.

Yairo Munoz (6 games in minors, 150 with the Cards).  Yairo makes this list because he was officially optioned to Memphis for a few games.  But Munoz has played most of two full seasons for the Cards.  Of course, since he sits on Shildt’s bench, it’s OK if you’ve never heard of him.

Tyler Webb (17 games in the minors, 145 with the Cards) Less publicized than Gallegos, Webb followed a similar track.  By season’s end, he had become one of Shildt’s most trusted releivers.

Harrison Bader (18 games in minors, 135 with the Cards) Bader went into the season as the starting centerfielder and spent nearly a month in Memphis trying to re-discover his swing.  An elite defender, Harrison hit notably better when he returned.

Dominic Leone (60 games in minors, 102 with Cards).  Leone was another on the opening day roster who found himself spending a chunk of the season in Memphis.  Leone was actually one of the Cards’ most effective relievers when he returned.  I was surprised that Shildt didn’t carry him on the post-season roster.

Tommy Edman (61 games in the minors, 101 with the Cards).  Edman was perhaps the story of the year.  Not even a highly regarded prospect, Edman forced his way into the lineup, and will figure prominently into the 2020 plans.

Nats Tighten the Noose

The game was still scoreless when Victor Robles opened the bottom of the third with a ground ball single up the middle (just out of the reach of shortstop Paul DeJong).  After pitcher Stephen Strasburg bunted Robles down to second, Cardinal pitcher Jack Flaherty struck out Trea Turner.  The Nationals did have the lead run at second, but now there were two outs.

During his remarkable second half run, batters were only 15 for 109 (.138) when batting with two outs against Jack, with only 6 of the hits being for extra-bases (4 doubles and 2 home runs).  The two home runs were the only two-out runs batted in against Flaherty since the All-Star Break.

But Flaherty and the Cardinals had now run into the scorching hot Washington Nationals – a team that is currently getting every meaningful bounce and exploiting every opponents’ mistake.

Jack’s first-pitch fastball to Adam Eaton tailed back across the plate, and Adam bounced it off the plate and into centerfield for the first run of the game.  There followed in rapid succession Anthony Rendon’s soft flyball down the left-field line that Marcell Ozuna couldn’t keep in his glove, a walk to Juan Soto, and a wild pitch that moved Rendon and Soto into scoring position.

Already ahead 2-0, Howie Kendrick all but iced the contest, as he stroked a fastball the other way – perfectly placed into right-center.  And Washington had four, two-out RBIs.

They wouldn’t stop there.  In the fifth inning, John Brebbia would serve up two more two-out RBIs on doubles by Kendrick and Ryan Zimmerman.  In the bottom of the seventh, Zimmerman would single home the final run of the game – again, with two out.  In their 8-1 win (box score), the Nationals would drive in 7 of the runs with two-outs.

For the evening, Washington was 4 for 18 before there were two outs in the inning.  They were 7 for 15 with 5 doubles and 3 walks – a batting line of .467/.556/.800 – before St Louis could get the final out.

This hasn’t really been a problem all season.  Again, according to baseball reference, St Louis tied with the Cubs for third fewest runs allowed after two outs in all of baseball.  But now 9 of Washington’s 13 runs in the series have been driven in with two-out hits, and the Cards are backed up as deeply as they can be.

Fifteen years ago, the Cardinals were slugging it out with the Houston Astros (then part of the National League Central) in the League Championship Series.  The winner (which eventually turned out to be the Cards) seemed like they would be facing the Yankees in the series – New York had jumped out to a 3-0 lead against Boston (with Game Three, by the way, being a historic butt-kicking as the Yankees piled it on to the tune of 19-8).  It was hard to imagine a team more dead in the water than the 2004 Red Sox.

And then it was 3-1, Yankees.  Then 3-2.  Finally of course, Boston – Curt Schilling’s bloody sock and all – overcame the Yankees and their 3-0 lead and, in fact, never lost again as they swept the series that year in four games from St Louis.

To date, that is the only time a team has rebounded from a 3-0 deficit to win a series.  All season, this team (the Cards) has claimed that it is special.  Few conceivable achievements could mark it as more than special than to match the Red Sox’ feat.  Should they manage that, it’s interesting that their world series opponent would be either the Astros or the Yankees – the two teams that lost those Championship Series’ back in ’04.

But first, of course, they will actually have to win a game against Washington.  A good first step toward that would be to score their first run sometime before the seventh inning.  We’ll see.

Jose Martinez

Inserted into the lineup to provide a little offensive spark, Jose Martinez did contribute a couple of hits and scored the only Cardinal run last night.  Jose is 4 for 6 now on the series, and actually has a five-game hitting streak built mostly on pinch-hit at bats.  Martinez is 6 for his last 8.

Dexter Fowler

Dexter Fowler is the second member of the usual lineup (Matt Carpenter was the first) to lose his spot because of the team’s offensive difficulties.  Dexter was hitless in four at bats last night (with three strikeouts) and is 0 for 15 since the first inning of Game Five against Atlanta.  Fowler is 2 for 33 (.061) during the playoffs.  Harrison Bader will get tonight’s start in center.

Wong and Edman

Spark plugs all season long, Kolten Wong and Tommy Edman are the other two members of the starting lineup who have gone hitless through the first three games of the Championship series – they are both 0 for 10 against Washington.

With a team batting line of .121/.167/.143 over their last 96 plate appearances, there are no shortage of bats that have been missing in action recently.  The Cardinal season has reached the point where there are no more tomorrows.  Some of these guys will hit tonight, or they will be playing golf by the weekend.

NoteBook

The 8-1 final was as badly as St Louis has been beaten in a while.  It was, in fact, their largest margin of defeat since August 5.  They lost to the Dodgers that day 8-0 – the first game of a three-game sweep.

The seven run deficit they took into the sixth inning was also the largest seventh-inning deficit in a Cardinal playoff game since they trailed San Francisco 7-0 after six on their way to a 9-0 loss in Game Seven of the 2012 Championship Series.  The Cards, of course, had led that series three games to one at one point.