Closing Out the Neanderthals

For thirty minutes last Sunday afternoon, the Los Angeles Chargers played about as perfect a half as they could have hoped for.  Embarrassed at home by the Baltimore Ravens two weeks earlier, the Chargers trotted off the field at halftime in Baltimore with a 12-0 lead.

Throughout their run to the playoffs, the Ravens and their Neanderthal running attack had gotten off to fast starts.  They had piled up over 100 rushing yards in the first quarter in the first matchup against the Chargers – a trend that had permitted rookie quarterback Lamar Jackson to find his way with the passing game.  To have any chance in this one, the Chargers knew they would have to bottle up the run game early.

Any NFL coach who gambles with something that has never been tried before, earns my respect.  Even more so when this gamble occurs against the backdrop of the playoffs.  And when this concept seems to be completely at odds with conventional wisdom, well, words fail me.  So, much of the credit for Los Angeles’ nail-biting 23-17 conquest of Baltimore (gamebook) (summary) goes to their very brave defensive coordinator Gus Bradley.

The idea of beginning the game against one of football’s most run-heavy team with seven defensive backs on the field seemed counter-intuitive.  Visions of large offensive linemen smashing through 140-pound cornerbacks to open gaping holes did pass through my mind.  But the concept was inspired.

Rather than a read-and-react approach to defending the run, the Chargers employed a penetration based concept – their quick secondary players shooting the gaps and disrupting the running game in the backfield.  As the half progressed, and the running game stalled, Jackson’s discomfort with the passing attack grew.  He finished the first half 2-for-8 with an interception.

As clever as the plan was, though, it was only half a concept.  If Baltimore was allowed to keep running the ball, eventually the big linemen would wear down the smaller defensive backs and the end result would be much the same as their first game.  Along with the early defensive success, Los Angeles desperately needed its offense to contribute enough points to force the Ravens to abandon the run and go to the air.

The offensive unit answered with a balanced, ball-control, safety-first game plan that almost out-Neanderthalled the Neanderthals.

Through the game’s first thirty minutes, the defense silenced Baltimore, holding them to just 69 total yards and 3 first downs while forcing 2 turnovers.  Offensively, the Chargers controlled the clock for 17:36 of the half, running the ball 14 times while committing no penalties or turnovers.  The only irritant for Los Angeles was an 0-for-2 mark in the red zone that forced them into kicking four field goals.  Even one touchdown – had they managed to achieve it – might have been enough to close out the Ravens.

The back-breaking play seemed to come on the opening kickoff of the second half.  Already hanging by their fingertips, the Ravens saw their season flash before their eyes as Los Angeles’ Desmond King took the second half kickoff 72 yards, putting the ball on the Baltimore 26-yard line.

It was at this point, though, that a looming blowout became the most compelling game of wildcard weekend.  In a matter of moments, the whole feel of the game flipped.

After the next three plays gained three yards, Baltimore’s Za’Darius Smith blocked the ensuing field goal attempt.  Baltimore’s offense still couldn’t unwrap itself, but at least they had an opportunity to punt the ball out of their own territory.  That would prove enormous when tight-end Virgil Green would fumble the second down pass, placing the Ravens at the Charger 21-yard line with a golden opportunity to get back into the game.  At this point, there was 10:26 left in the third quarter.

The frustration would continue for the Ravens’ offense.  Three more runs would manage only 6 yards, and the golden opportunity resulted in only a field goal.  But Baltimore’s special teams were not done with this one.  After the Baltimore defense – which finished the regular season ranked first in yardage allowed and second in points allowed – forced another three-and-out, Javorius Allen burst through the line and partially blocked the ensuing punt.  The Ravens, still down 12-3, were back in business on the Charger 40-yard line and (with 6:54 still left in the third) M&T Bank Stadium was shaking off its rafters.

But now the roller-coaster would tilt back the other way.  Baltimore’s still toothless offense would only manage 8 yards, and super-star kicker Justin Tucker would miss his first-ever playoff field goal (albeit it was a 50-yarder).

And now, back came the Chargers.

With 3:36 left in the third, LA quarterback Philip Rivers dropped a 12-yard pass into the arms of Antonio Gates.  That would be the first first-down by either team in the second half.  The Chargers would pick up two more on the drive, as their two longest plays of the second half would come on back to back plays.

With second-and-6 on the Raven 43, receiver Mike Williams managed some separation on a skinny post.  Rivers hit him in stride for a 28-yard gain.  That would be Los Angeles’ only 20-yard play of the game.  On the next play, Melvin Gordon gave the Charger’s dormant running attack it’s only spark of life as he picked his way around left-end for 14 more yards.

Now there are 11 seconds left in the half.  LA has a second-and-goal from the 2-yard line.  Little-used fullback Derek Watt (who had caught just one pass during the regular season), curled completely open into the right flat.  Rivers floated him the ball, but underthrew it just enough that Watt had to go to his knees to attempt the catch.

For a small eternity the ball bobbled between Derek’s hands, chest and knees – even as Watt was rolling his body toward the end zone, now close enough that he could breathe on it.  As he was rolling over the line – still untouched – he tucked the football securely into his grasp, just a heartbeat before Baltimore’s Chris Board touched him down.

The line judge ruled him down inches short.  Astonishingly – even though there seemed to be ample evidence to over-turn the ruling – the call withstood the review, and Los Angeles was denied the touchdown.

That call almost changed the game.

With the third quarter over, the teams switched sides.  But – mysteriously – the ball was now placed a full yard away from the goal line, instead of the fraction of an inch that it should have been.  This, too, would prove to be significant.

On third-and-one Gordon drove off left-tackle, stretching the ball for the end zone.  Then, suddenly, the ball was rolling free in the end zone.  It dribbled softly right up to cornerback Marlon Humphrey, who scooped it up, rolled to the opposite side of the end zone, and then soared up the offensive right sideline untouched for the score.

The apparent score.

While the Baltimore fandom erupted, thinking they had just closed the gap to 12-10 (assuming the extra-point), the scoreboard, in fact, now rendered the score as 18-3 Los Angeles, and the officials at the other end were signaling touchdown.  Touchdown, Chargers.  Their ruling was that Gordon had broken the plane before the ball came out.

After another extended review session, neither result held.  The final ruling was that Melvin had not broken the plane, but that he was down by contact just inches short of the goal line.  An argument could be made that the ball might have been loose before his elbow hit.  It is, of course, also true that had the officials either awarded Watt the touchdown to begin with – or even marked the ball appropriately to begin the quarter – all of this discussion could have been averted.

As it was, Gordon – running up the middle on fourth-and-1 – scored easily.  The resulting two-point conversion pushed the Charger lead to 20-3.  This became 23-3 when Michael Badgley added a 47-yard field goal with 9:09 left in the game.

At the beginning of the fourth quarter, the Baltimore fans were calling for Joe Flacco.  As the final quarter ticked away, those calls mostly faded, as the Ravens fans were starting to accept their fate. 

Using essentially the plan that I described here, the Chargers had mostly resisted the urge to blitz Jackson, opting, rather to keep him in the pocket and confuse him with coverages.  As expected, it forced Jackson to hold the ball.  Jackson was sacked six times alone in the second half of the game.  When Jackson’s third-down pass to Hayden Hurst fell incomplete, the Ravens faced fourth-and-11 from their own 40, with only 7:02 left in their season.

At that point, Baltimore had -2 passing yards for the game.

And then, the game would turn for one final time.

Almost off the field – almost ready to go into victory mode – the Charger pass defense fell asleep on two consecutive plays.  On fourth-and-11, Jackson lofted a touch pass to Willie Snead in behind the soft zone coverage.  That pass gained 29 yards and kept the season alive.

On the very next play, cornerback Casey Hayward stood nonchalantly staring into the Raven’s backfield while Michael Crabtree blew past him up the right sideline.  Jackson arched him a perfect pass, and suddenly – with 6:33 left – Baltimore had crept to within 23-10.  Up until the pass to Snead, Baltimore had managed one first down in the second half of the game.  But things, suddenly, were different now.

After another three-and-out, Baltimore was in business again.  With less than five minutes to go, however, and up by two scores, the Chargers were content to give short passes as long as the clock kept running.

Now, the Ravens had pushed their way to midfield, but with only 3:21 left.  It was second-and-10.  After managing to keep Lamar in the pocket for most of the game, here Jackson managed to escape.  Rolling to his right – a step ahead of the pass rush – he flung the ball back across his body to the other side of the field where Derwin James waited to intercept it.  But Jackson threw with just enough arm to layer it agonizingly over James’ fingertips, and into the waiting arms of Kenneth Dixon.  By the time James would run him down from behind, Dixon would take the pass all the way to LA’s 11-yard line.

A few moments later, Jackson would roll to his right again before firing a 7-yard touchdown pass to Crabtree (that one would also require a lengthy review).  With two minutes left, Jackson had brought them back to 23-17 on the strength of his arm.

That would be as close as it would get.  The defense would respond with its second consecutive three and out – the sixth time in the game the Chargers would go three-and-out – but, with one last chance – with 66 yards to drive and 45 seconds to get there – Jackson suffered his seventh (and final) sack of the game – a strip sack that ended Baltimore’s final possession of the season.

For the game, Baltimore’s second-ranked run offense finished with just 90 yards on 23 carries.  No running back managed more than 5 yards on any individual carry.  Jackson himself was responsible for almost all of the running damage done – 54 yards on 9 rushes.

The Ravens had been the last of the Neanderthals in the tournament.  On Saturday, Seattle had fallen to Dallas 24-22 (gamebook) (summary).

In that game, the Cowboys matched the Seahawks with the fifth-ranked run defense.  Their one-gap concept was much different than the one the Chargers used, but was equally effective.

That game followed a similar pattern, with Dallas owning the first-half time of possession (19:24) and holding the NFL’s most potent running attack to just 73 yards, while running for 164 yards of their own – 137 of them from the legs of Ezekiel Elliott.

The Cowboys can be that kind of defense.  They had a similar game earlier this year against New Orleans – a game in which their defensive line just dominated.  Although they are not consistently this good, this defense – with Elliott and the running game – is dangerous.  Their next matchup is with the explosive Los Angeles Rams.

As for Seattle, their Neanderthal style revived their season and put them into the playoffs.  In this particular game, though, with the running game stalling, it seemed that they should have turned more to the passing game.  But that is the thing with running teams.  If you are committed to your running attack, then you have to stay with it.  Almost always the results show in the fourth quarter.  Dallas, in stuffing the Seahawks running game for the full four quarters, did something few teams are able to achieve.

How Seattle will want to revisit this next year should be interesting, and give notice on the future of Neanderthalism in the NFL.  They could reasonably adopt a more modified position, balancing the run and pass more than they did this year.

As impressed as I was with their running attack this year, I will have to say that this Wildcard game was one time when I felt that quarterback Russell Wilson was inhibited by the game plan.

For the Seahawks – as with everyone else not still playing this season – it’s a matter of tune in next year and see.

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