The Mistake Green Bay Can’t Afford to Make

Yes, the game was pretty much decided by the time the Minnesota Vikings broke their huddle to line up for a third-and-one on the San Francisco 40-yard line.  There was only 2:53 left in the game, and the Viking were on the short end of the 27-10 score (which would be the final) (gamebook) (summary).  The next three snaps would be a kind of microcosm of their day.

The last time they had run the ball – and I grant that it had been awhile (since the 11:00 mark of the quarter) – they ran underneath Pro-Bowl defensive end Nick Bosa.  Modest as it was, the six yards gained on that run were the most they would have on any running play that afternoon.  Now, on third-and-one, they decided that they would run at Bosa again.  The difference here, of course, was that on third-and-one Nick was looking for the run, and easily stood tackle Riley Reiff up and dumped running back Dalvin Cook for no gain.

Quickly racing to the line on fourth-and-one, Minnesota tried the quarterback sneak – which was also stuffed.  The Vikings would get another shot, though, as San Fran had used a timeout just before the play.  On their second fourth-and-one, quarterback Kirk Cousins threw deep up the left sideline for receiver Stefon Diggs, who maneuvered around cornerback Emmanuel Moseley just enough to get his hands on the ball at about the 6-yard line before it slipped out of his arms. A second later, safety Jimmie Ward drove him to the ground.

That would be Minnesota’s last offensive play of the season, as the 49ers would consume the rest of the clock.

Enjoying the best season of his career, Cousins – whose 107.4 passer rating was the fourth best in football – led Minnesota to an excellent offensive season.  Their 407 points scored were the eighth most in the NFL, and the passing success was linked to a revived running game behind Cook, who with 1135 rushing yards and 13 touchdowns, also had his best year.  Minnesota finished as the sixth-best running team (averaging 133.3 yards per game) and were fourth in rushing attempts with 476.  Counting the playoffs, they finished with 20 or more points scored in 12 of their 18 games, including 5 games where they scored over 30 points, highlighted by a 42-30 battering of Detroit in Week Seven.

I point all of this out, because you certainly wouldn’t have suspected any of this by watching them play last Saturday.  It is rare in the playoffs that a team is dominated to the extent that San Francisco obliterated the Viking offense.

For the game, Minnesota managed just 7 first downs (none of them rushing), and went 2 for 12 on third down (0-for-6 in the second half).  They were also 0-for-1 in the red zone, on their way to just 147 total yards.  They managed just 21:33 of clock time, with only 9:25 of that happening in the second half.  They were out-rushed by San Francisco 186 yards to 21.

Cousins and the passing game managed just 172 yards and an 84.3 rating while absorbing 6 sacks and numerous other pressures.

Surprisingly, though (or, perhaps not), this was the second time in four weeks that the Viking offense had been similarly dominated in a critical game.  Their Week 16 loss at home to Green Bay (with the NFC North Division title on the line) played out eerily similar (a 23-10 Viking loss).

In that game they were also held to just 7 first downs (1 of them running), went 4-15 (just 2-7 in the second half) on third down, 0-for-2 on fourth down, and 0-for-1 in the red zone on their way to 139 total yards.  They controlled the ball for only 22:28 against Green Bay – including just 11:47 of the second half, as the Packers outrushed them, 184-57.

Cousins was sacked 5 times in that game, throwing for 122 yards with a 58.8 rating.

The underlying cause in both of these batterings was the same.  Minnesota stopped running the ball.  They had only 16 running plays against the Packers (just 5 in the second half).  They ran only 10 times against San Fran (just 3 of those after halftime).

The 49ers, of course, gave Minnesota every reason to think that they couldn’t run the ball against them.  Favorite plays that the Vikings had run all season returned little in San Fran.

Earlier in the game (before the third-down-run attempt), Minnesota had tried a couple of quick running plays that ran away from Nick Bosa.  These were plays on which Bosa wasn’t even blocked, as the Vikings expected Cook to be well gone by the time Bosa could make an appearance from the other side of the formation.

But Nick made both of those tackles after a total of one yard gained.  Minnesota hadn’t fully accounted for left defensive tackle Sheldon Day.

A former fourth-round draft choice of Jacksonville in 2016, Sheldon fell to San Francisco about midway through the 2017 season.  Not as large as some interior linemen – Sheldon is “only” listed as 294 – Day brings an above-average quickness to the interior line while maintaining sufficient lower body strength to get under double-teams.  Since the injury to starter D.J. Jones, Day has quietly carved out a larger niche for himself in the 49er defensive scheme.  Sheldon has started each of the last three games, seeing the field for about half the defensive snaps.

Last Saturday, he was a significant deterrent to what little running game Minnesota attempted.  It was Day clogging up the point of attack in both of the earlier runs that sent Cook back toward the middle where Bosa could claim him.

Mental errors by tight ends also hampered the running game.

On the game’s second play, left guard Pat Elflein left DeForest Buckner to penetrate into the Viking backfield while he hunted up a linebacker.  Buckner was supposed to be trapped by Kyle Rudolph, who ran right by him.  After Kyle had finished running the complete distance behind the line of scrimmage without blocking anyone, he glanced back over shoulder with the look of a man who knew he’d forgotten something fairly important.  Buckner, of course, tackled Cook in the backfield for a one-yard loss.

Now, at the 9:25 mark of the first quarter, with a first-and-ten at their own 21, the Vikings tried an off-tackle run.  Josh Kline pulled right-to-left from his right guard position.  Imagine his surprise when he arrived at the point of attack to find that tight end Irv Smith Jr. was also pulling (left-to-right) from his position on the end of the line.  Both would-be blockers – heading for the same point of attack – collided, allowing an easy tackle on the part of 49er linebacker Fred Warner.

By any assessment, this was not a banner offensive day for Minnesota.  Still, at the end of the day, the team with football’s fourth-most rushing attempts finished with just 10.

So dependent on the run all season, Minnesota surprisingly showed no commitment at all to the running game, even though they weren’t seriously behind until the fourth quarter.  Only twice in the contest did Minnesota run on consecutive plays.  They ran on their first two offensive plays of the game.

Then, on their first possession of the second quarter, after Cousins was sacked at the Viking 4-yard line, Minnesota called two safe running plays to avoid an end zone disaster and set up to punt.

And that was it.

This is the mistake that Green Bay simply cannot make.  They cannot afford to abandon the run and become one-dimensional.  The 49er pass rush will have them for desert.

And teams have run against San Francisco from time to time.  Three times they allowed more than 140 rushing yards in a game – losing two of those – while they finished just seventeenth in the league against the run (allowing 112.3 yards a game) and twenty-third in average yards per attempt (yielding 4.5 yards per).  In fact, the 10 rushes by the Vikings were the fewest rushing attempts any team has made against San Francisco this season.

Even if the Packers (who averaged a healthy 4.4 yards per rush this season) don’t enjoy great early success on the ground against San Fran they have to keep trying.

The Packers, themselves, never really established a true offensive identity.  On their way to placing eighteenth in total offense, Green Bay finished seventeenth passing and fifteenth rushing.  Their approach saw them generally sticking with whatever was working that day.  They had 5 games in 2019 where they ran for more than 140 yards.  But they also had 6 games when they ran the ball fewer than 25 times.

In all honesty, whatever their approach the Packers will be hard pressed to sustain much offense against the refreshed 49er defense.  Their only significant advantage on offense stems from the fact that San Francisco’s all-world cornerback Richard Sherman doesn’t change sides of the field.  He will camp the entire game on the offensive right side – meaning that the Packers can avoid having Sherman shut down their only reliable receiver (Davante Adams) by simply lining him up on the other side of the formation.

This will allow Green Bay a few shot plays, but won’t keep them on the field or keep San Francisco’s offense on the sideline.

For that, they will need their running game.

And a healthy dose of luck.

Two Questions Following the Titans’ Conquest of the Patriots

The pass game and the run game support each other in so many ways that it is difficult to quantify the impact that each has on the other.

The Tennessee Titans began last Saturday’s contest in New England with a 12-play, 75-yard drive that ate up 6:58 of the first quarter clock.  Coming into the game with the NFL’s third most prolific running attack – backboned by the NFL’s leading rusher – The Titans played nearly the entire first drive with three tight-ends on the field.  Although this is a pronounced running formation, the Patriot defense’s respect for the Tennessee passing attack was such that they responded to these formations with a standard 4-3 defense and two deep safeties.

This provided an edge that Tennessee took full advantage of, as running back Derrick Henry chewed up 49 yards on 7 carries.  He did the heavy lifting in a drive that produced the touchdown that gave Tennessee a temporary 7-3 lead.

The Patriots responded quickly to the problem, switching to a 3-4 defense, replacing Deatrich Wise with Jamie Collins.  They also began dropping secondary players toward the line.

This strategy enjoyed a brief success, as Tennessee went three-and-out on its next two possessions, with Henry held to 4 yards on 2 carries.

So Tennessee responded just before the half by playing two wide receivers and just two tight ends.  Two tight ends is still a strong run formation, and in previous versions of the Titans might have had no impact on the Patriots.

But the reborn Tennessee passing attack – featuring the NFL’s top rated passer – is increasingly impossible to ignore.  Ryan Tannehill finished 2019 with a 117.5 passer rating.  His 70.3% pass completion percentage didn’t come by virtue of a series of dump-off passes either.  Ryan also led the NFL in yards per completion (13.6) and yards per attempted pass (9.59).

So when the Titans introduced a second wide receiver, the Patriots responded with five defensive backs.  That was the personnel grouping they were in when Henry broke a 29-yard run off of right tackle – the first play of a 7-play, 75-yard drive that consumed most of the last 2:16 of the half.  Henry carried 4 more times in that drive for 24 yards – including the last yard for Tennessee’s last offensive score of the game.

This was the beginning of the chess match between Bill Belichick and Titans’ OC Arthur Smith.  Throughout most of the second half, New England returned to the formation that frustrated the Rams in last year’s Super Bowl – a 6-1 that was really four down-linemen with a linebacker wide to each side and one linebacker roaming the middle.  The intent here was to defend the edges – which they did with great effectiveness.

But sending Henry back up the middle didn’t stop the Tennessee running game.  It just slowed them down.  Instead of ripping off 7 to 12 yard bursts, the Titans wore down New England under a series of 3-to-6 yard body blows.  After gaining 106 yards on 14 carries in the first half, Henry ground out 76 second half yards on 20 grueling second half runs – allowing Tennessee to run the clock for 19:42 of that last half.

For the game, it was another sizeable rushing performance by Henry.  Derrick finished the evening with 182 yards on 34 carries.  He was the engine that fueled the Titans’ 20-13 WildCard victory over the defending champions from New England (gamebook) (summary).

Wither the Patriots

In the aftermath of this win that apparently caught everyone but me by surprise, there are the expected questions about the Patriots.  Is that it for the dynasty?  Is Tom Brady finished?

Well.  Every dynasty does, eventually, end.  And some day Brady will – in fact – have to yield to age and mortality.  Those days may not necessarily be upon us yet.

Clearly, New England and Brady took steps backwards this year.  The 420 points they scored was their fewest since they managed 410 in 2008.  That, of course, was the year that Brady missed and Matt Cassel quarterbacked the team.  The Pats also finished fifteenth in total offense – their lowest in 16 years.

As for Brady, his 60.8% completion percentage was his lowest in 6 years, his 24 touchdown passes were his fewest (in a full year) since 2006, his 3.9% touchdown pass rate was the lowest of his career, his 10.9 yards per completion was his lowest since 2002, and his 88.0 rating was his worst since he rated 87.3 in 2013.

Far too often in sports you are only as good as your last game.  Exercising a bit of memory is frequently more effort than fans and sports writers want to expend.  There are some things that need attention in New England, but the future isn’t as black as it no doubt appears to some of the faithful.

About 80% of everything wrong in New England can be fixed by fixing the offensive line.  Over the long history of the New England dynasty, the Patriots have had to rebrand themselves several times depending on the skill sets of the roster at any given time.  Throughout all these re-inventions, the Patriot offensive line was always ready to enable whatever offensive focus the team decided to embrace, from power running to short passing game.  Without any exaggeration, the most underappreciated aspect of the New England dynasty has been the consistent excellence of its offensive line.

More than any other part of the team, the line drastically underperformed this season.  There was never a running game to turn to, as there were never holes to run through.  New England finished 18th on the ground this year (106.4 yards per game) and 25th in yards per carry at a struggling 3.8.

On the pass blocking side, Brady finished as the fifth hardest quarterback to sack as he went down on just 4.2% of his dropbacks.  That number belies the struggles his line had in pass protection.  A frequent sight in any New England game this season was Brady flinging the ball into the dirt to avoid a sack.

This year, football reference has been tracking – among other things – passes thrown away.  To no one’s surprise, Brady led the league in that dubious category, his 40 throw-away’s being almost a third more than the next closest quarterback (Aaron Rodgers threw away 31).  Brady only tossed away 22 passes last year.

At no time was the offensive line’s shortcomings more apparent – or more costly to the team – than on the goal line situation that provided the turning point of the game.

With a little more than five minutes left in the first half, a 12-yard pass from Brady to Rex Burkhead gave the Pats a first-and-goal at the one yard line.  Running back Sony Michel lost a yard on a first-down carry.  Burkhead gained that yard back on a second-down run.  Then Michel lost two more yards running on third down.  Then Nick Foles kicked the field goal.

This kind of futility is never seen in New England.  Not until this year, anyway.

Yes, their receivers didn’t get the separation they have in the past, and there was almost zero production from the tight end spot (in the absence of Rob Gronkowski).  But the season long headache in New England was a poor offensive line.

The Patriot dynasty will end one day.  But as long as Belichick and Brady are still wearing Patriot blue, New England will never be more than a tinker away from their next Super Bowl run.

Can the Titans Do It?

The other question that deserves a look concerns the prospects of the Titans authoring another upset tonight in Baltimore.  Can Tennessee take down the seemingly unbeatable Ravens?

Yes, I believe they can.  But it won’t be easy.  There are a couple of enormous challenges that any opponent of Baltimore faces.

First, of course, is Lamar Jackson.  Almost every team has difficulties with him the first time they face him.  His quickness is nearly impossible to simulate in practice.  Most teams play much better the second time around against Lamar, but his athleticism is an extreme shock the first time you line up against him.

But, while Jackson garners most of the attention, I believe the more remarkable story (and challenge) is the Baltimore defense.  After allowing 96 points in consecutive games against Kansas City, Cleveland and Pittsburgh in Weeks Three through Six, the Baltimore defense has become inviolable.  Over the last 11 games of their winning streak, Baltimore is yielding just 14.5 points, 16.5 first downs, and 268.9 total yards – including just 174.1 passing yards – per game.

Along the way, they have accounted for 19 turnovers, while allowing opposing quarterbacks to complete just 56.3% of their pass attempts while struggling to a 70.7 passer rating against them.

The secret sauce here is the blitz.  Baltimore comes at you from all over at the highest rate of any team in the NFL.

If Tennessee can’t come up with an answer for the Baltimore blitz, they will be in for a long evening.

The way I see this game, the first half will tell the story.  If the Titans can get out in front by ten or more points, it will be difficult for Baltimore to keep running throughout the second half – especially with Tennessee being all too willing to drain the clock with their own running game.  This could force the Ravens into a situation where they will have to rely on Jackson’s passing skills.  For the record, Lamar has never overcome a deficit of more than seven points to lead his team to victory.

On the other hand, if the Ravens take a nice lead into the second half, they will be nearly uncatchable.  They will continue to grind the clock with their running game and the Raven pass rushers will pin back their ears and come full speed for Tannehill – who will be forced to take on a larger role as Tennessee won’t be able to use Henry as much as they would like.

And if the first half ends more or less even, then we’ve got a coin flip.  It will depend on which defense wilts under the pounding of the other team’s sledge-hammer running game first.

The Titans have a significant (but not impossible) challenge ahead of them.

Bills Defense No Match for Watson’s Magic

It had been almost exactly a year before.  The playoffs following the 2018 season began in Houston on January 5, 2019.  Coming off an 11-5 season that saw them win the AFC South, the Texans welcomed the Indianapolis Colts.

By halftime, the Texans trailed 21-0, on their way to a 21-7 loss.  The Colts had rolled up 85 rushing yards by halftime, on their way to 200 rushing yards.  Houston quarterback Deshaun Watson had managed just 90 passing yards.  He would finish his first playoff game completing 29 of 49 passes for just 235 yards (just 4.8 yards per attempted pass), with only one completion accounting for as many as 20 yards.

With deep threat Will Fuller on the sidelines, star receiver DeAndre Hopkins was getting extra attention from the Colt defense.  He finished that game with just 5 catches for 37 yards.

But that was last year.

Fast forward to January 4, 2020.  Again, the Texans had won their division (they were 10-6 this year), and again they would host the very first playoff game, spreading out the welcome mats for the Buffalo Bills – a team making only its second trip to the playoffs in a couple of decades.  Surely, things would be better this time around.

And they were.  Instead of a 21-0 deficit, Houston went into the locker room trailing just 13-0.  The Bills had rolled up an even 100 rushing yards, while sacking Watson 4 times and limiting him to just 49 passing yards, none longer than 11 yards – the Texans managed just 4 first downs and 81 yards of offense during that first half.

Yes, Fuller was out of the lineup again, and Hopkins – seeing coverage from Buffalo’s Tre’Davious White – was off to another tenuous start.  At the half, DeAndre was still looking for his first reception.

You will forgive the Houston faithful for feeling that they had seen this game before.

But things were about to get worse.

Not quite five minutes into the second half, Hopkins caught his first pass pf the game – and promptly fumbled it, giving Buffalo possession on Houston’s 38.

With 6:46 left in the third quarter, Buffalo sat on Houston’s 12-yard line with a third-and-eight.  They were one intermediate pass play away from sealing the home team’s fate.

A Legend Returns

Toward the end of October, Houston’s playoff future took a sizeable hit, when the Texans’ faithful learned that five-time first-team All Pro and three-time defensive player of the year J.J. Watt’s season would end early for the third time in the last four years.  The great J.J. had sustained another pectoral tear.

But reports of his demise would turn out to be somewhat exaggerated.  As the season wound down and the Texans were making their playoff push, Watt made it known that he believed he could be back on the field for the start of the playoffs – and true to his word, there he was.  In body, anyway.

To this point of the game, his production had been about what one might have expected from a player who had missed ten weeks.  Thirty-eight and a half minutes into the first Wildcard playoff game, Watt had 0 tackles, 0 sacks, 0 pressures – 0 anything.  Until this moment, with the season flickering in the wind.

That Moment

On this third-down play, Watt shot around Buffalo tackle Chris Clark before he could blink.  Josh Allen had just enough time to take the snap and look up before he was crushed for an 8-yard loss.  The home crowd – starving for something to cheer about – erupted.  Buffalo would still add the field goal that made the score 16-0.  Now, with the third quarter winding down, it would be up to Watson and the offense.

On cue, Deshaun lead the offense 55 yards in 7 plays, bringing them to a third-and-eight at the Buffalo 30.  The seasons of these two teams would pivot sharply on the next two plays.

On third-and-eight, the Bills blitzed from the edges, with Micah Hyde pouring in from the offensive right, and Matt Milano circling around from the left.  Both blitzers would get home.

Running back Duke Johnson tried to pick up Hyde, but Micah ran right through him, pushing Johnson back into Watson’s lap. Milano had it much easier, as no one blocked him.  Left tackle Laremy Tunsil had every opportunity, but was so focused on Jerry Hughes’ inside stunt that he didn’t even see Milano sprinting into the backfield behind him.  Both would end up hitting Watson, but they would be too late as Deshaun got the throw off less than a second before the contact came.

With extra rushers coming, White – in single coverage on Hopkins, in a close split to the right of the formation – took an inside position and backed off about seven yards.  He retreated even more as the play began – responding to DeAndre’s vertical stem – until Hopkins had pushed him past the first-down marker.  At this point, Hopkins cut to the sideline to receive Deshaun’s perfect pass.

With the first down secured, Deshaun faked a handoff to Carlos Hyde into the center of the line, causing an involuntary step to the right on the part of the entire defense.  Watson then pulled the ball in and sprinted around right end.

With Hopkins shielding off White down the sideline, and fullback Cullen Gillaspia throwing a sealing block on Buffalo’s Hyde to set the edge, an alley opened up for Watson as he sped toward the goal line.

He got as close as the six-yard line before Jordan Poyer plowed into him.  Defensive end Trent Murphy jumped on the backs of both at the five.  Micah Hyde finally showed up at the one – but it was, for Buffalo, an exercise in futility.  Watson was not to be denied, as he dove over the goal line, dragging Buffalo Bills with him.  It was the first of two “magical” Deshaun Watson plays that would decide the contest.

Yes, Watson.  The game was definitely afoot.

These were the first of 19 consecutive points that Houston would score, sending them briefly ahead, 19-16.  A late drive by Buffalo led to a tying field goal with five seconds left, and the game was headed to overtime.

A Little Overtime Magic

After each team held the ball for one fruitless possession, Houston began the final drive of the game from their own 17 with 9:02 left in (what would turn out to be) the only overtime session.  Less than five minutes later, Watson would turn in the play that this game will be remembered for.  Actually, though, the Bills lost this game four plays earlier.

Again, it would be a third-down opportunity gone awry.

There is 6:56 left in the period.  The Texans were still backed up on their own 19, facing a third-and-eighteen.  Any kind of stop here – and third-and-18 is about as comfortable a defensive position as one can hold – probably gives the ball back to Buffalo somewhere near midfield.

Playing almost a prevent defense, Buffalo backed six defenders to about the 40-yard line, leaving a 20-yard gap between the four pass rushers and the rest of the defense.  Circling out of the backfield, Duke Johnson found himself all alone as he gathered in Watson’s short pass – after which, of course, he began to streak immediately toward the first-down sticks, running headlong into the converging Buffalo defense.  The two forces met at about the 30-yard line, two yards short of the line to gain.

At that point, Duke picked a spot about equidistance between Tremaine Edmunds and Siran Neal, hitting that small gap with enough force to plow through those two gentlemen for the final two yards needed to sustain the drive.

Let’s be honest.  When the other guy converts a third-and-eighteen against you, you don’t deserve to win.

Four plays later, Houston is facing a second-and-six on Buffalo’s 44.  Into the game for Houston came a sixth offensive lineman (Roderick Johnson) to add to the pass protection.  Buffalo responded by rushing seven.  Coming off the corner un-blocked was Neal, who stormed unabated toward his target.  On the other side, Roderick Johnson’s attention was divided between Milano (again) and Murphy, allowing Milano to skirt rather easily around him.  He, too, was speeding towards Watson.

Neal arrived first, hitting Watson squarely in the back.  It was a twisting blow that forced Deshaun’s back foot off the ground and tilted him severely to the right.  Without any doubt, Watson would have gone down had that been the only blow sustained.  But before Deshaun could fall, Milano arrived and hit him from the same side – his right – that he was about to fall to.  Milano’s hit was exactly what Watson needed to stabilize him.  At the same time – like a human physics experiment – the energy from the two would-be-tacklers transferred through Watson’s body to each other, leaving Deshaun standing upright, while Neal and Milano ended up on the turf.

Now, Deshaun was rolling out of the pocket to the right when he looked up and happened to see running back Taiwan Jones standing all alone along the right sideline.

Taiwan Who?

Taiwan Jones had been the 125th pick in the 2011 draft, going to Oakland where he spent six unremarkable seasons.  He spent the next two seasons (2017-2018) in equal obscurity in Buffalo.

Now 31 years old, he drifted to Houston this year, where he was seen almost exclusively on special teams (the same role he had held in Oakland and Buffalo).  His only previous offensive action this season came in the meaningless Week 17 loss to Tennessee.  Jones had his only 9 carries and caught his only pass of the season in that game.

In the Wildcard game, he somehow managed to see the field for two offensive plays – one of them the biggest play of the season so far for the Texans.

His presence of the field put safety Micah Hyde in a quandary.  Jones lined up wide right, and Hyde lined up opposite him.  Jones was clearly his responsibility.  But, near to the line to that side was Hopkins – who had been getting the better of White for most of the second half.

With extra rushers coming, Hyde was obviously concerned about Hopkins.  Even as the play started and Micah began to retreat, he had his eyes on Hopkins.  DeAndre quickly got outside position on White, and began hurtling up-field.  Seeing this develop, Hyde abandoned Jones and provided tight inside-outside coverage on Hopkins.  Which was all well and good, but . . .

Seven or so yards up field, Jones stopped and settled into the right flat.  Noticing this, Hyde dropped his coverage of Hopkins.  The problem was at this point he was a good ten yards away from the man he was supposed to be covering.  For about three agonizing seconds Micah stood in no man’s land, no longer covering either receiver as Watson was rolling out of trouble in the pocket.  At about the same instant that Watson noticed Jones, Hyde came to get him at top speed.

The rest would be for the highlight reels.

Hyde was still nine yards away when Jones caught the ball and easily eluded Micah.  Before him was a whole lot of green – at least for the next 34 yards.  The next play would be the field goal that ended the contest, 22-19 Houston (gamebook) (summary).

More Watson

The magical plays will retain most of the attention from this game.  I am more impressed with the rest of Watson’s performance than with those two plays.

Deshaun belongs to that breed of improvisational quarterbacks who are most dangerous out of the pocket.  One of Buffalo’s defensive objectives would surely have been to keep Deshaun in the pocket – and they managed this with great success.  The two big plays described were about the only times Deshaun escaped contain.  The rest of the game, Buffalo was very disciplined in keeping Watson in the pocket.

And that is where he beat them from.

Throughout the game, Buffalo presented Deshaun with shifting defensive looks, mixing in healthy doses of blitz (the Bills blitzed on exactly one third of Watson’s dropbacks – 13 of 39).  The challenge was for Deshaun to process the defense and make the correct throw before the pressure got home.

And the pressure was significant.  When he wasn’t missing stunts, tackle Laremy Tunsil was pushed around by Jerry Hughes, who recorded 3 of Buffalo’s 7 sacks.  Deshaun was also forced to scramble 7 times.  The Houston offensive line was far from dominant – a concern as they prepare for Kansas City.

But when Watson did have a chance to read the Buffalo defense, he did so with exceptional success.  Here are a couple of examples.

With 2:48 left in the first quarter, Buffalo gave Watson a pre-snap blitz look, with two linebackers in the A-gaps.  At the snap, the potential blitzers backed into cover-2.  But before Lorenzo Alexander could find his zone, Deshaun deciphered the defensive intent and completed an 11-yard pass to Darren Fells.

Later, in the third quarter, the Bills tried the reverse, showing cover-2, but morphing into a blitz.  Again, Watson analyzed the situation quickly.  Lining up in the secondary to give the cover-2 look, Micah Hyde actually had man coverage on DeAndre Carter – split off to the left.  Realizing that Hyde couldn’t get over to Carter’s flat route in time, Watson was throwing the ball to DeAndre almost as soon as Hyde was moving toward him.

For the game, Watson completed 20 of 25 for 247 yards and a touchdown – a 121.2 passer rating.  He was 8 for 10 for 144 yards when Buffalo blitzed, and 12 for 15 for 103 yards and the touchdown when they didn’t.

It bears pointing out that throughout the season, Buffalo maintained one of the NFL’s elite pass defenses.  Opposing passers managed just a 78.8 rating against them – third best in football – and the 9.8 yards they allowed per completion was the second best figure in the league.  Last Saturday afternoon, Mr. Watson answered a significant challenge.

This is how good Deshaun can be.  The question, now, is can he – and the rest of his Houston teammates – be this good on consecutive weeks.  Sustaining their high level of play has been a season-long struggle for this team – and things won’t get any easier as they now travel to Kansas City.

Kansas City is something of an enigma, itself.  They are a high-powered offense that can run the ball when they remember to.  Defensively, they started off poorly.  Through their first ten games, opposing passers rated at 92.9.  They showed a decisive vulnerability against the run – yielding 148.1 yards a game, 5.1 yards per rush, and 12 rushing touchdowns.  Seven of their first ten opponents scored at least 20 points against them, with four of them scoring at least 30.

During the six-game winning streak that they closed the season with, the Chiefs gave twenty points only once – allowing a total of just 69 points in those games.  The last six quarterbacks they’ve faced have thrown 5 touchdowns against 10 interceptions as part of a 63.5 rating.  Meanwhile running success has dropped to 95 yards per game and just 2 rushing touchdowns given over those games.

Of course, these teams in general (Chargers, Raiders, Patriots, Broncos and Bears) have been given to offensive struggles, so it’s difficult to say how improved the defense really is.

Can Houston beat the Chiefs?  Well, they actually did back in Week Six – and in Kansas City no less.  The Texans ran for 192 yards in that game.  The question is, can they approach that again?

I still have a hard time trusting Houston, so I will be surprised to see them win this game.  But they certainly have the talent to get it done.

Historical Note:

The most famous NFL matchup between Houston and Buffalo came on January 3, 1993 – 17 years ago.  That was the greatest comeback in football history as Buffalo erased a 35-3 third quarter lead on its way to a 41-38 conquest of the Houston franchise (then, of course, they were the Oilers – the franchise that has become the Tennessee Titans).  As all-time comebacks go, the Texans’ 16-point comeback on Saturday pales in comparison to the one authored Frank Reich all those years ago.  But for now, the Texans will count it as partial payback.

Road Teams Advance in NFC

About five and a half minutes.

The Philadelphia Eagles seemed to be playoff longshots through Week 13.  Coming off their Week 10 bye, the Eagles lost three in a row – the last to the Miami Dolphins.  At that point they sat at 5-7 for the season, but still only one game behind their division rivals from Dallas.  Since one of Dallas’ six wins was a 37-10 clobbering of Philadelphia in Week Seven, Dallas’ lead was really two games with four games left.

To that point, the Cowboys were also 4-0 in the division, and held that tie-breaker as well (the Eagles were 1-1).

Philadelphia’s one ace in the hole was that their Week 16 re-match would be in Philadelphia, but in reality they knew that they would have to win out – including the Dallas game – and the Cowboys would have to drop a winnable game somewhere in these last four contests.

Other than Dallas (and perhaps including the Cowboys), the Eagles’ closing schedule wasn’t all that formidable – two games against the Giants and one against the Redskins.  But Dallas’ remaining schedule was also a little soft.  In addition to the Eagles, Dallas had the Bears, Rams and Redskins.

But a Week 14 loss to Chicago completed Dallas’ own three-game losing streak, and put the division clearly on the line in Philadelphia three days before Christmas.  The game wasn’t necessarily an artistic success, but the defense rose to the occasion, closing down Dallas’ running game and sending the Eagles on to the playoffs with a 17-9 victory (a curiously recurring score for the Eagles this year).

And so, three days into the new year, the improbable Eagles were hosting a playoff game.  After all the sound and fury of the chase, their opportunity to advance more-or-less evaporated about five and a half minutes into the game.

The Injury

Beginning their second series on their own 25 with 9:41 left in the first quarter, quarterback Carson Wentz play-faked to running back Miles Sanders and dropped back into the pocket.  But none of his receivers managed any early separation, and as the pocket began to crumble, Carson rolled to his right.  Seeing the movement, cornerback Bradley McDougald came crashing down on Wentz.

Realizing he wouldn’t have time to throw this pass, Carson pulled the ball back down and tried to duck inside of McDougald (taking a step back toward the rush).  Bradley didn’t miss the tackle, tripping Carson up while he was trying to get by him.  As Wentz began to go down, Jadeveon Clowney – in pursuit – was leaving his feet (also trying to bring Wentz down).  Clowney would tumble over Wentz in what appeared to be a harmless contact.  Chris and Al – calling the game on NBC – cut away to show a replay of the field goal attempt that Philadelphia had just blocked.  Meanwhile Wentz finished out the series, gaining a first down and moving Philly as far as their own 36-yard line before they were compelled to punt the ball away.

The Eagles have been in the playoffs, now, for three consecutive seasons – winning it all two seasons ago.  In both of the previous two years, Wentz could only watch from the sidelines.  Finally, Carson (Philly’s franchise quarterback) was making his playoff debut.  And after two series, it was over.  On the play in question, Clowney’s helmet collided with the back of Wentz’ helmet, driving his head forward into the turf.

And just like that, the Eagles were playing playoff football again with their backup quarterback.  This time, though, it wasn’t Nick Foles (who had gone 4-1 in the previous two playoff runs).  Nick had moved on to Jacksonville.  The season now belonged to 40-year-old Josh McCown (who was also making his playoff debut).  In his seventeenth season – mostly as a backup – Josh brought a 23-53 record as a starter, along with a 79.7 career passer rating into the contest.

The Attrition Bowl

If you were going to predict that an injury would play a critical part in any of the wildcard games, you might have expected it would be this one.  Seattle came into the contest missing – among others – all of their top three running backs, two starting offensive linemen, and a starting linebacker.

The Eagles also were missing two starting offensive linemen, and all of their playmaking wide receivers (DeSean Jackson, Alshon Jeffery and Nelson Agholor).  Starting running back Jordan Howard dressed for the game, but never saw the field.

Whoever would walk away from this one, would go limping into the division round.  And, although they were mostly outplayed by Philadelphia, that team – thanks mostly to Wentz’ injury – will be Seattle.

McCown

It’s difficult to pin this defeat on Josh, who came off the bench and did better than anyone could have expected.  McCown was 12 for 15 in the second half, throwing for 147 yards.  He looked as good throwing the ball as the numbers suggest, and brought the home crowd to its feet with an 11-yard first-down scramble in the first half.  His passer rating for that second half was 109.6 – arguably as much as they might have expected from Wentz.

Behind Josh in the second half, the Eagles chewed up 195 yards of offense and 13 first downs.  They controlled the ball for 19:13.

At the same time, though, they were 1-5 on third down, 0-2 on fourth down, and 0-3 in the red zone.  They also turned the ball over on downs just outside of the red zone on their next to last possession.  McCown played admirably.  It is, however, reasonable to expect that Carson would have coped better on third and fourth downs and in the red zone.  On Philly’s last offensive play of the season, McCown saw a clear rushing lane to the end zone (by the way, he has 13 career rushing touchdowns).  But at 40 years old, McCown couldn’t navigate those last 10 yards.

In a one-score game, all Philly would have needed was one play from Carson.

That score – by the way – was 17-9, the same score they beat Dallas by, and the same score they lost to Seattle by the first time these two teams met (gamebook) (summary).

For the Eagles, it was a frustrating end to a difficult season.  It seems they have spent the last two seasons paying for the good fortune of 2017.  They will take some positives into the offseason – particularly their defense.  After finishing the season tenth overall and third against the run, the Eagles mostly dominated the Seattle offense – especially the running game.

Seattle came into the game just behind the Ravens, 49ers and Titans in rushing yards.  The final numbers (64 yards on 26 rushes) don’t begin to tell the story.  Forty of those yards came on two long scrambles from quarterback Russell Wilson.  Subtract those, and Seattle’s other 24 running plays totaled 24 yards.

Seahawk Issues

It’s difficult to say that the missing running backs were much of an issue, as Travis Homer and recently re-signed Marshawn Lynch were barely able to take the hand-off before they encountered Eagle defenders.  The yards-before-contact for each tell a decisive story.  Homer managed -3 yards for the night before contact.  Lynch had it even worse at -5.

Defensive lineman supreme Fletcher Cox was the most un-blockable of the Eagle front seven, but all of them had a hand in abusing Seattle’s offensive line.  This might have been the worst performance ever by an offensive line for a team that won a playoff game.  This battered line will now travel into Green Bay where they might expect similar treatment at the hands of the Packers’ Za’Darious Smith, who has been nearly untouchable over the season’s last few weeks.

If that isn’t enough of a concern, the Hawks also fly to Green Bay saddled with the leakiest defense of any team left in the playoffs after having given up 398 points during the season.  They have allowed more points this season than Houston has scored.  Ranked twenty-second against the run, they gave another 120 to the Eagles. From time to time, the Packers have been a running team, so that will interest them.  And when Aaron Rodgers wants to throw the ball, he will undoubtedly target Tre Flowers – like everyone else has.

On Sunday evening, Seattle was flagged for 11 penalties, costing them 114 yards.  Mostly these were two pass interference penalties against Flowers and multiple holding penalties by various offensive linemen trying to keep Cox out of their backfield.

As much as any team out there, the Seahawks are a team that finds a way – usually getting just enough magic out of Russell Wilson to squeak by.  But they will be going into Green Bay with significant concerns.

Defense Undoes Saints

Statistically, the Saints finished the 2019 regular season in about the middle of the pack defensively – they were eleventh over-all and thirteenth in points allowed.  They profited significantly from playing in a division of mostly offensively challenged teams.  When matched against quality offenses, they didn’t perform nearly as well.

They allowed more than 20 points 9 times, including giving 31 to Carolina in Week 12, and 48 to San Francisco in Week 14.  They also allowed six passer ratings of over 100, and allowed more than 140 rushing yards on four other occasions – two of them in the last 4 weeks of the season.  This includes a game where Tennessee piled up 149 yards without Derrick Henry in the lineup.

The Minnesota Vikings were a fairly average offense in 2019 – they ranked sixteenth.  They were eighth in scoring – principally thanks to a defense that provided them 31 takeaways.  And they ranked sixth rushing the football – averaging 133.3 yards per game.

Against New Orleans, the Vikings put up 106 rushing yards by halftime, and quarterback Kirk Cousins averaged 12.74 yards per completed pass against them.  He put the dagger in the Saints’ season with a 43-yard chuck to Adam Thielen in overtime that set Minnesota up at the two-yard line.  In a situation where they just needed to keep the Vikings from reaching the end zone, Minnesota moved 75 yards in 9 plays to end New Orleans 26-20 (gamebook) (summary).

The Vikings have shown some vulnerability against the run this year.  They have allowed 140 or more yards five time – including three games allowing more than 150 – all of those over their last five games of the season.

But New Orleans could never get a running game going and had difficulty keeping ends Danielle Hunter and Everson Griffen off of Drew Brees’ back.  For all of this, though, the Saints had every opportunity to win this game.  They made a few mistakes, but made them at the worst possible times.

Mistakes, Big and Small

The Vikings had just closed to 10-6 on a field goal with 2:54 left in the first half.  Starting on their own 24, the Saints faced a third-and-six from their twenty-eight, with still 2:18 left in the half.  They also had all of their time outs.

So patient all year, Brees suddenly got impatient and floated up a deep pass to a double-covered Ted Ginn.  With help over the top, Anthony Harris undercut the route and picked the pass, bringing it all the way back to the Saint 45.

One minute and forty seconds later, Dalvin Cook sliced through the middle of the Saint line for the touchdown that gave Minnesota the lead.

But the Saints would get a golden opportunity to tie the game before the half when electric kick returner Deonte Harris brought the ensuing kickoff back 54 yards to the Viking 45 with still 12 seconds (and two timeouts) left.

A 20-yard shot to Michael Thomas gave the almost automatic Wil Lutz a shot at a 43-yarder.  But Lutz punched the ball wide right, and New Orleans went into the locker room with a 13-10 deficit.

Fast forward to the third quarter, Vikings now ahead 20-10.  With 2:08 left in the quarter, the Saints faced a fourth-and-three from their own 35 and sent the punting unit out to the field.

But it was a fake.  The irrepressible Taysom Hill took the direct snap and plowed forward for the first down.  All for naught, though.  The play was stopped for a false start called on Josh Hill.

Moving forward to the fourth quarter.  The Saints have pulled to within 20-17.  There are four and a half minutes left in the game.  Again the momentum maker is Taysom Hill, whose 28-yard burst up the sideline brought the Superdome crowd to its feet and left New Orleans with a first-and-ten from the Viking 20-yard line.

On the very next play, Hunter stripped the ball away from Brees and the drive abruptly ended.  It was Drew’s only fumble of the entire season.

The Vikings played one of their best games of the season, and will advance to San Francisco on Saturday.  The Saints will start to look toward next season.  For the third straight season they have been ousted from the playoffs under agonizing circumstances.

The Vikings will be underdogs again against the 49ers.  San Francisco, of course, has precious little playoff experience among their young roster, and have seen their defense slip a bit over the last few weeks of the season.  So you never know.

About This Hill Guy

Here were New Orleans four longest plays of the game:

1 – A fifty yard pass from Taysom Hill to Deonte Harris that set up the Saint’s first touchdown of the day.

2 – Taysom Hill runs 28 yards around left end – an electrifying run during which Hill shook off would-be tacklers like so many rag dolls.

3 – Drew Brees throws 20 yards to Thomas to set up the missed field goal at the half.

4 – Drew Brees throws a 20-yard touchdown pass to Taysom Hill, cutting the Viking lead to 20-17 in the fourth.

To this point, Taysom has been an appendage to the Saint offense – a kind of change of pace, brought in mostly to run for a first down on third and short – which he does very well, by the way.  He was on the field for only 41% of the New Orleans offensive plays.

The Saints in 2020 may look fairly different than they did this season.  I will make one bold prediction for them.  Mr. Hill – on the heels of his dynamic performance in this game – will begin to be a regular feature of the offense.  This can only be good news for those of us who watch the Saints on a regular basis.

Fear the Titans – Fear Them

The game had already been – essentially – decided.  With slightly more than three minutes left, the Tennessee Titans held a 28-14 lead in Houston over their division rivals.  But they still had a little bit of unfinished business.

Entering the game 165 yards behind Cleveland’s Nick Chubb, Tennessee’s Derrick Henry – after a huge game on the ground – now stood just 7 yards behind Chubb for the league rushing title.  And so, as Henry cruised down the sideline on his final carry of the day for the 53-yard touchdown that would push him past Nick, his sideline erupted with, perhaps, the most emotion they had shown all game.

What began as a must win for Tennessee to even extend its season into the playoffs, ended as a rout, and a coronation – of sorts – as the Titans rode Henry’s 211 rushing yards – and 3 rushing touchdowns (along with another excellent effort from quarterback Ryan Tannehill) to a 35-14 wildcard clinching victory (gamebook) (summary).

One of the tipoffs to Henry’s success came just after the touchdown as he stood along the sidelines embracing his offensive linemen.  If you didn’t know which one was Henry, it would be a little difficult to tell which was the running back and which was the offensive lineman.

Even as the running game has regained importance over the last few years – and even with the rise of a new generation of hammer backs – it is still unusual to see that running back standing eyeball to eyeball with his offensive line.

Listed heights and weights for NFL players are notoriously imprecise, but – as a point of comparison – Derrick Henry is listed at 6-3 and 247 pounds.  Of the other running backs that finished in the top ten in rushing, the next tallest was Cincinnati’s Joe Mixon, listed at 6-1.  Toiling in relative obscurity in Cincy, Mixon rolled up his second consecutive thousand yard season (1137) this year.  Taller than most, Mixon is still (officially) 27 pounds lighter than Henry at 220.

By listed weight, the next heaviest to Derrick are the bowling-ball backs – Dallas’ Ezekiel Elliott and Jacksonville’s Leonard Fournette.  Both are listed as 6-0 and 228 pounds – again almost 20 pounds lighter than Henry.

So Derrick’s sheer size is a factor – and the primary reason that his production rises notably in the second half of games.  On Sunday, Henry went into the locker room with just 47 rushing yards.  In the second half, he rolled up 164 – almost as many in those two quarters alone as he needed to catch Chubb.  For the season, Derrick earned 543 yards in the first halves of his games, averaging 4.1 yards per carry.  In the second halves he added 997 yards at 5.8 per carry.  In his combined third quarters alone, Derrick ran for more yardage (669 yards) than in the first two quarters of his games.

But Henry’s size is well-known.  What, perhaps, doesn’t get as much play is his speed and overall nimbleness.  Two plays before his 53-yard touchdown, Derrick popped for a 23-yard run.  Both plays were very similar.  The first run was a pitch to Derrick going down the left sideline.  He basically took the ball and outran Texan linebacker Brennan Scarlett around the corner.

The touchdown run was slightly more complex.  It began as a zone run left that Derrick cut back up the middle.  There was a lot of green in front of him, and only linebacker Peter Kalambayi waiting for him in the hole.  Peter was probably waiting for Henry to lower his shoulder and plow through him, but – channeling his inner scat-back – Henry pivoted adroitly off his left leg and cut sharply to the right.  With Kalambayi diving after him in vain, Derrick burst through the thinnest of openings between linebacker Barkevious Mingo and cornerback Keion Crossen and outran the rest of the defense for the last 40 yards down the right sideline.  I’m not sure Lamar Jackson could have done it better himself.

It is this unique combination of size, power, speed and quickness that makes Henry such a devastating weapon.  Derrick has now spent four complete seasons in Tennessee.  He has only one previous 1000 yard season, and has made just one previous trip to the playoffs.  After the 2017 season, the Titans went into Kansas City and won a wildcard game 22-21 fueled by 156 yards from Henry.  The next week – in the Divisional Round – they were dumped in New England (the site of today’s playoff game) 35-14, with Henry piling up just 28 yards.  He only carried 12 times.

Derrick has always been this kind of weapon.  His enduring problem in Tennessee is that the Titans could never muster a consistent enough passing game to allow them to keep handing the ball off to Henry for the whole game.  In fact, 2019 began the same as all of those other seasons.

Six weeks into the season, Tennessee was 2-4, with Henry averaging 18.8 carries a game for a modest 69.3 yards – averaging 3.7 yards per.  At that point, the team was handed over to Tannehill, and as the passing game picked up, so did Henry’s effectiveness.

Since the change in quarterbacks, Henry is averaging 21.1 carries and 124.9 yards per game – 5.9 yards per carry.  Over his last 6 games, he has been almost otherworldly, carrying 23.2 times a game for 149.3 yards per contest – almost 6.5 yards per carry.

The life brought to this offense by Tannehill almost can’t be overstated.  All Henry really needed was a solid passing attack.  To everyone’s surprise, what he got was arguably the most effective passing attack in the league.

Out of the mediocrity of his seasons in Miami, Ryan Tannehill has exploded onto the NFL scene like the second coming of Tom Brady.  His numbers are stunning.  His 117.5 passer rating leads the NFL – as does his average yards per pass (9.59) and his yards per completion (13.6).  His 7.7 touchdown percentage is second in the league, and his 70.3% completion percentage ranks third.

He passes the eye test, too.  If you watched him against Houston, you saw him following up his excellent decision-making with laser-precise throws into very tight windows.

You would not have expected this at the beginning of the season, but by every measure available to us, Ryan Tannehill looks to be the real thing.

All of this makes Tennessee one of the most intriguing darkhorses in the playoffs.  Two years later, they will be getting a second shot in New England – this time against a Patriot team that doesn’t seem to be a match for them.  Whether this Tennessee team could hold up against the Baltimore Ravens is a discussion we’ll have if that ever becomes relevant, but today I fully expect to see them end New England’s season.

As to the Texans, yes, they played this game under wraps.  Deshaun Watson, DeAndre Hopkins, Will Fuller, Kenny Stills, Laremy Tunsil, D.J. Reader, Benardrick McKinney and Bradley Roby never saw the field, while their star running back – Carlos Hyde – didn’t play after the first series.

The defensive players who made cameos that day included Zach Cunningham (20 snaps), Angelo Blackson (20 snaps), Mike Adams (13), A.J. Moore (11), Johnathan Joseph (7) and Whitney Mercilus (7).

While we have to take Sunday’s final with a grain of salt as far as Houston goes, it is nonetheless true that this has been a mostly disappointing team all season – never more so than when they followed a transformational victory over New England with a head-scratching loss to Denver in weeks 13 and 14.  In Week 15 of this season, they traveled into Tennessee to win the game that essentially gave them the division title and left them with little to play for last Sunday.

But even in that game, one came away believing that Tennessee was the better team.  After a shaky first half that saw them fall behind 14-0, the Titans came roaring back after the intermission to narrow the final to 24-21 – a performance that makes me doubt whether Houston could have won this game even if they had tried.

While Tennessee enters their playoff game this afternoon as a team on the rise, I can’t feel the same for the Texans – who also play this afternoon.

I don’t trust them.  Even playing at home, I don’t trust this team to rise to the occasion.  Their opponents today from Buffalo have consistency issues with their offense, but they are a legit defense.  Truthfully, the Bills have precious few victories over quality teams on their resume, so it’s hard to favor them going into Houston and winning.  But I do expect them to give the Texans all they can handle.

And I can no longer feel any surprise when Houston loses a game that most feel they could have won.