Pittsburgh’s New Two-Second Rule

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The second half, however, was very different.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

A Word on the Defense

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

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

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

And the Titans

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

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

Re-Engineering Seattle’s Offensive Line

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

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

It was the fifth sack Seattle allowed during the game.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Some examples:

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

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

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

Reconsidering Neanderthalism

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

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

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

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

Regarding Arizona

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

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

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

Defying Gravity – NFL Style

By game’s end, Chicago quarterback Nick Foles was just launching desperation deep throws up the field to covered receivers.  In his last drive of the game, Foles threw 8 passes.  Four were short passes designed to cover the yardage needed for the first downs that would keep the drive moving.  He completed all of those, but for just 18 yards.  The other four went up the field.  The shortest of these carried 19 yards to Darnell Mooney.  It was the only one of the four that was completed – the others were batted harmlessly to the turf.

Coming into the game, Nick was averaging 7.97 air yards per pass attempt (the league average is 7.94).  On Monday night against the Los Angeles Rams, Nick averaged 11.2 air yards over his 40 attempts, meaning that for the game he threw the ball about 130 yards farther up the field than the offense ideally called for.

He had four different receivers with multiple targets who averaged more than 15 yards per target: Allen Robinson (16.8 on 4 targets), Cole Kmet (17.5 on 2 targets), Mooney (22.1 on 7 targets) and Javon Wims (24.0 yards on 2 targets).

The multiple offered prayers made sense.  The Bears were down 14 points as he began that drive, and – to Chicago’s credit – instead of trying to nickel-and-dime their way down the field when down two scores, they were looking for that big play that would give them a chance to come back.

But the fact that they were in that position (and that they scored no offensive touchdowns during the game) were potent indicators that their game plan had failed on all levels.

Needing to neutralize the Ram pass rush, the emphasis was on the running game.  The Bears sought to keep ahead of the chains, complete a lot of short passes, and look for their deep shots where they could.  But the running game was crushed from the very beginning.  By games end, the Bears had called only 17 running plays (against Foles’ 40 passes) and gained only 49 ground yards.  Chicago’s running backs averaged only 1.12 yards before contact by the defense (the NFL average is 2.43).  Lead runner David Montgomery broke 3 tackles on the night, but that only earned him an extra 2.0 yards after contact, as there was always another Ram defender waiting.  Avoiding the pass rush didn’t work either.  Foles came into the game having suffered just 4 sacks in his 3 previous starts.  He was sacked 4 times alone by the Rams – punctuating LA’s 24-10 conquest (gamebook) (summary).

It was another struggling outing for an outfit still trying to find itself.  Chicago – on the heels of managing just 279 yards Monday night – now ranks twenty-ninth out of thirty-two teams in total offense, and dead last running the ball – averaging 84.1 yards a game.  Their 3.8 yards per carry is just thirtieth.  Their 1.6 rushing yards before contact is second worst in the league (Buffalo is getting 1.5 before contact so far this year).  This number, by the way, is kept by pro-football reference here.

The passing attack hasn’t been any healthier.  Foles holds a 77.6 passer rating – ranking him twenty-seventh.  Two series before that final series against the Rams, Nick completed one of those deep balls – a 42-yard fling to Robinson.  It was the team’s very first completion of 40 yards the entire season.

Oh, did I mention that – after Monday’s loss – the Bears are 5-2.

This has been one of the surprising sub-themes of the first half of the 2020 season.  There are several flawed teams – teams that struggle profoundly on one side of the ball – that are, nonetheless, off to excellent starts.  The Bears have ridden their usually elite defense to stay within a half game of the Packers.  They aren’t the only ones doing better than their numbers would suggest.

The Buffalo Bills are below the league average in both points scored and points allowed, but they lead their division with a 5-2 record.  The Rams are also riding their defense as the offense has been just good enough to get them to 5-2.

The Titans, Seahawks and Saints are all struggling defensively.  They are 5-1, 5-1 and 4-2 respectively.

Their achievements have been entertaining, but they beg the question, how long can these teams keep this delicate balancing act going?  Dragging an ineffective half of the team behind them creates a kind of mathematical gravity that all these teams are trying to overcome.  History suggests that unless these teams shore up their weak units, their seasons are due to end in disappointment.  The Rams missed the playoffs last year after suffering through similar offensive inconsistencies.  The Seahawks and Saints both made the playoffs despite leaky defenses, but both lost early in the playoffs, ultimately let down by those defenses.

Buffalo did make the playoffs, although they were not a plus offensive team, and their lack of firepower was noticeable as they lost in the first round of the playoffs.  The Titans, of course, made it to the Conference Championship in spite of having a middling defense (number 21 in yards allowed and number 12 in scoring).  Even at that, though, they were better in 2019 than they have been so far this year (number 25 in yards allowed and number 16 in points allowed).

With several teams playing well on both sides of the ball, all of these teams may defy gravity for a while – perhaps even until the playoffs.  But, like Nick’s long, downfield passes,  gravity can only be defied for so long.

TB and TB12 Cruise Again

One of the teams that seems to be excelling on both sides of the ball is the Tampa Bay Buccaneers.  Their 45-20 thrashing of Las Vegas (gamebook) (summary) does come with a caveat, though.

The Raiders are the latest team that has struggled with a mini outbreak of the virus.  It cost them much of their practice time this week – and a starting offensive lineman.  Not optimal situations when facing a team playing as well as Tampa Bay is right now.

Even so, the game Raiders kept things closer than you might have expected.  Up until there was 7:29 left in the game, Las Vegas was still within four points (24-20).  But the Bucs scored two touchdowns in the next 49 seconds, and the rout was on.

Working with air-tight pass protection, Tom Brady threw for 369 yards and 4 touchdowns, leading to a 127.0 passer rating.  Watching Tom that afternoon should have finally dispelled any remaining concerns that his skills were eroding with age.  His apparent decline in New England the last couple of years had more to do with the erosion of the talent around him – yes, the receiving corps, but also the offensive line that afforded him little pocket time.  In Tampa Bay, he has all the luxuries that the Patriots could no longer afford him, and Tom is answering with a vintage season.

But Brady and his closet full of receivers is only half the story in Tampa Bay.  The Buccaneers have come to the party with a defense that is very much in the conversation for the NFL’s best.  In yards allowed, they rank third, ranking first against the run.  Opposing offenses average just 66 rush yards a game against them.  The 3.0 yards they allow per rush is also the NFL’s best average.  They hold opposing passers to an 84.3 rating – this is the sixth lowest figure in football.  This is underpinned by a pass rush that has already claimed 25 quarterbacks (the second highest total in the league), and is dropping them on 9.1% of their drop-backs (the fourth best figure in the NFL).

As predicted over the offseason, this Tampa Bay team has a lot of pieces, and must be considered as legitimate challengers.  There are a couple of lingering questions I have about them, though.  Questions that I hope to have answers for by the time the playoffs start.

Concern number one is the rushing attack.  Against Vegas, Tampa Bay ran for only 85 yards in a game they won (eventually) by 25 points.  They ran only 25 times in the game, while Brady threw 45 times.  For the season, Tampa Bay sits at nineteenth in the league in rushing (105.7 yards per game).  But the feeling is not that the Bucs can’t run – it’s that they won’t.  Bruce Arians is clearly enamored with his passing game – which is all well and good, until somebody takes it away.

In his heyday in New England, the Patriots always seemed to be able to morph into a dominating running team when they felt the need to.  The day that Tom runs into that elite pass rush that grounds his passing game, he isn’t going to have an effective running attack to turn to.  If that happens in the playoffs . . .

My other concern has to do with their grit.  All of their wins, so far, have come with all the pieces clicking together.  They have mostly won walking away.

But their two loses this season have been in the games when they needed to overcome some adversity – their own mistakes, bad calls from the officials, great efforts by the other team, etc.  Thus far they haven’t been able to prevail in those gritty fist-fights that championship teams need to win if they are going to reach the promised land – games like the ones the Steelers and Cardinals won last week.

This team, while impressive, still needs to prove to me that they can deal with adversity.  Tom Brady notwithstanding.

Green Bay’s Imperfrect Storm

According to the various game reports, the Green Bay Packers were cruising early last Sunday, as they pulled out to a 10-0 lead over the Tampa Bay Buccaneers.  This lasted right up to the 12:50 mark of the second quarter, when a Tampa Bay cornerback named Jamel Dean stepped in front of Packer receiver Davante Adams and intercepted Aaron Rodgers’ pass – returning it 32 yards for the touchdown.  With that play flipping the momentum, the Bucs came roaring back for the victory.

There is, of course, a strong element of truth there.  Tampa Bay did go on to score the final 38 points on the evening in a convincing 38-10 victory (gamebook) (summary).  The truth, as usual, is more nuanced than that.  Even before this particular tipping point, there were signs that all was not right with the Packers.  Rodgers – beyond the interception – endured what must surely be one of the worst games of his storied career, but the fault extends well beyond Aaron’s struggles as he was widely let down by his teammates – and, for that matter, even the design of the offense contributed to the lopsided loss.

If that wasn’t bad enough, the Packers ran into a Tampa Bay team playing its most complete game of the season.  The offense was near flawless as they committed no turnovers, committed no penalties, suffered no sacks, and went 4-for-4 in the red zone.  Defensively, they played much tighter in their zone coverages than they have previously, and, from about the mid-point of the third quarter on, they switched to stifling man coverages that I didn’t know they had in them.

For Green Bay, it all amounted to an imperfect storm.

Starting With Aaron

From the very beginning of the game, Rodgers was playing fast and a little on the frenetic side.  With 11:27 left in a still scoreless first quarter, the Packers dialed up a quick wide receiver screen to Equanimeous St. Brown along the left sideline.  But the moment the ball reached Rodgers hands, he spun and immediately fired the ball, well before St. Brown could possibly turn around and catch it.

Arguably, his most frazzled moment came with 5:24 left in the first – with the Packers up 3-0, facing a first-and-10 on the Buccaneer 41.  His first target on the play was Adams on a quick out.  The window would have been a little tight, but Rodgers has made tighter throws than that.  For whatever reason, though, he decided against it and pulled the ball down.  Just in front of him, he had Aaron Jones wide open underneath the zone.  But Aaron couldn’t pull the trigger.

At this point, although the pocket was still fairly secure, Rodgers bolted, spinning out to his left.  He pumped to throw, but pulled the ball down, and spun again back to his right – all but running right into William Gholston – a Tampa Bay defensive lineman.  Escaping his grasp, Aaron scrambled back to his right where he fired the ball out of bounds in the general direction of Adams.

In spite of this shakiness, Aron recovered enough to finish off the touchdown drive, and finished the first quarter 8 for 12.

His first play of the second quarter found Aaron escaping the pocket again at the first hint of pressure.  After more scrambling, he threw high to Jones in the flat.  On second down, Rodgers rolled right on a naked boot.  No one had blocked Jason Pierre-Paul, who seemed more interested in containing Rodgers than forcing the issue.  As Aaron meandered toward the right sideline, with JPP keeping a watchful eye on him, he had some opportunities.  He had TE Robert Tonyan underneath and he had Malik Taylor at the sticks.  But Rodgers didn’t throw the ball until he threw it away the moment before he went out of bounds.

On the next play, he threw the first of his two game-changing interceptions.

Unsettled by the Blitz

It wouldn’t be accurate to say that Rodgers was relentlessly blitzed, but DC Todd Bowles did make that extra rusher a substantial part of his game plan.  Of the 41 times that Aaron dropped back, he saw an extra rusher 18 times (43.9%).  In spite of the fact that 3 of the 4 sacks that Tampa Bay recorded against Aaron came on the blitz, they weren’t generally effective in getting pressure on the Green Bay quarterback.  What it did do, though, was to speed up his clock.  Almost always, as soon as he saw the blitz coming, Rodgers would immediately unload the ball.

This is what happened on both of his interceptions.  On the first one, Sean Murphy-Bunting was coming unblocked from the secondary.  But he was still more than five yards away from Rodgers when Aaron quickly snapped the ball to a covered Adams.  On third down of the subsequent possession, Tampa Bay sent 6 rushers.  In spite of the fact that the blitz was pretty much completely picked up, Aaron rushed the throw to Adams, who hadn’t achieved any kind of separation from CB Carlton Davis.  The ball was batted by Davis (or Adams) and may have been tipped at the line by JPP.  It eventually ended up in the arms of safety Mike Edwards, who returned the pick to the two-yard line.  One play after that, Tampa Bay had a 14-10 lead.

The day didn’t get any worse than that for Rodgers, but it never got much better.  He made other rushed decisions and passes.  Other times, he had open receivers that he just threw poorly to.  It was a day that Aaron could certainly have used some help from his teammates.  He wouldn’t get it.

Little Help from His Friends

For their part, the rest of the offense had a correspondingly bad day.  The offensive line was spotty in protection – especially against the blitz – and running back Jamaal Williams (one of the Packers’ most improved players) was repeatedly unable to pick up blitzing linebackers and defensive backs.

As for the receivers, they were officially charged with 6 dropped passes – although a few of those were a little unfair.  Marcedes Lewis was charged with a drop on a throw that was well beyond him.  His dive for it brought him close enough to have the ball brush off his fingertip.  Nonetheless, there were enough legitimate drops to add to Aaron’s frustrations.

Even the usually reliable Davante Adams contributed to the offensive malaise.  He was charged with two drops of his own, and, with Green Bay facing a third-and-8 with 5:40 left in the third, he uncovered on a deep throw up the right sideline and hauled in one of Aaron’s best and most confident throws of the game.  But the pass was ruled incomplete, as Adams – who caught the ball with his back to the sideline – failed to negotiate the sideline and stepped out of bounds.

At least a half-dozen other times, Rodgers stared into the teeth of Tampa Bay’s zone defenses only to find he had no outlet or underneath route to dump the ball off to.  I’m not sure I’ve ever seen a game plan that routinely didn’t provide for check-down routes against the zone defenses they knew they would see.

The futility was general – and seemed to effect the entire team.

If I were to speculate on a reason – other than it was just one of those days – I might point to the lack of the running game.

Running the ball against the Bucs has become almost legendarily difficult.  Last year, they allowed an average of just 73.8 rushing yards per game, and only 3.3 yards per carry – both figures were the best in the NFL.  This year so far they have been even better.  They came into the Packer game surrendering just 58.4 rushing yards per game, and only 2.7 yards per carry – again, both numbers were the NFL’s best.

In spite of the fact that the Packers were among football’s best running teams (averaging 150.8 yards per game and 5.1 yards per attempt), Green Bay’s response was to give up on the run before they even took the field.  They ran the ball just 10 times in the first half, and only 21 times on the day – many of those late in the fourth after the contest was decided.

Over the last few seasons, the Packers have become more reliant on the balance their running game provides than, perhaps, even they are aware.  I wouldn’t be at all surprised if the abandonment of this foundation of their offense wasn’t a contributing factor in the general disorientation that the offense experienced.  I wrote a couple days ago about identity.  Green Bay surrendered an important chunk of its identity before the game even kicked off.

Recognizing the Defense

In caviling the various elements of the Packer offense, I’m afraid some readers might understand this as minimizing the contributions of the Buccaneer defense.  That couldn’t be farther from my intentions.

If anything, last Sunday’s game served as a coming out party for one of the NFL’s most compelling defensive units.  Through their first 5 games, their patented zone defenses were distressingly squishy.  Only four teams in football started Week Six allowing a higher completion percentage than the Bucs –a problematic 70.9%.

There was none of that on Sunday (helped, of course, by the fact that Green Bay frequently didn’t provide for a check down).  Rodgers came in completing 70.5% on the season.  He left town having completed just 16 of 35 – 45.7%.

But as tight as the zone coverages were, the revelation to me from the game was the Tamp Bay Buccaneers in man coverage – especially Carlton Davis, who was generally Adams’ escort for the evening.

Davis didn’t shut out Green Bay’s most dangerous receiver, but he pretty much played him to a draw.  Adams finished with 6 catches, but for just 61 yards, no touchdowns and no plays longer than 18 yards.  And without explosive plays from Davante, the rest of the receiving corps was fairly easily silenced.  Number two receiver – Marquez Valdes-Scantling covered mostly by Murphy-Bunting – found precious little space.  He finished with 3 catches for 32 yards.  Taylor has become Green Bay’s the third receiver – he had no receptions and only one target.

Green Bay’s Persistent Concern

Once again, the question comes down to receiving depth in Green Bay.  It was a worry last year.  It was part of the angst of the recent draft.  And on Sunday, it came back to bite them again.  One of the reasons – I believe – that Tampa Bay was so comfortable in calling man coverages was because after Adams, the Packers didn’t have anyone that would strike fear into them.

In a Week Three win over New Orleans, Allen Lazard erupted with a 146-yard receiving game – and immediately went on IR.  His return might have a sizeable impact on this offense.

But for right now, no one knows when that return will be.  And no one seems to have any other immediate answers.

Bills Surprised by KC Running Attack

My question, after digesting the film, is was this the plan from the beginning?  Or was it the mist?

Last Monday night, the game that should have been the Thursday night game between Kansas City and Buffalo was finally contested.  The game-time temperature was a nippy 51 degrees and the cardboard patrons were treated to a fine mist.  This would develop into a light but fairly steady rain as the game progressed.  But I think the teams had more trouble with the mist.

With the game’s first possession, Buffalo and their quarterback Josh Allen threw the ball three times – all incomplete as the slippery football seemed to sail on Josh.

On the succeeding possession, Kansas City’s All-Everything quarterback Patrick Mahomes also threw three times.  He completed one for a short 8-yard gain, while having the other two slide off target.  But they also ran the ball 5 times during that drive (counting a scramble from Mahomes).  The running plays gained 25 yards and 2 first downs.

They finished the first quarter with 56 rushing yards on only 6 attempts, but that didn’t convince them quite yet.

Then, on the first play of their first possession of the second quarter, Mahomes fumbled the snap.  He recovered the slippery ball, and completed two passes to turn a second-and-11 into a first down.  It was at this point – apparently – that coach Andy Reid must have observed to himself that the running game had worked pretty well.  Maybe, until the conditions soften a bit, it would be a good idea to string together a few running plays.

And so they did.  In a very un-Andy like sequence, the Chiefs ran on six consecutive downs.  They gained at least 5 yards on each run, and totaled 46 yards on the six plays. That brought them to Buffalo’s 10-yard line, where 2 passes later KC was in the end zone for the second time and possessors of a 13-10 lead (after the extra-point sailed wide right).

Thereafter, the Chiefs didn’t exactly take the ball out of Patrick’s hands.  He still threw his passes – and threw them very well.  But from that point on, the running game became focal point of the attack.  By halftime Kansas City had authored 15 runs – amassing 117 yards.  Entering the contest, KC was averaging 119.4 rushing yards per game.

But they were only getting started.  The second half would see the sometimes pass-happy Chiefs add 31 more running plays for an additional 128 bruising yards.  By the time Mahomes took the game’s final kneel-down, the Kansas City Chiefs had drubbed the Buffalo defense into abject submission.  They finished with 245 rushing yards on 46 soul sucking carries as they outfought the Bills 26-17 (gamebook) (summary).

The center piece of the onslaught, of course, was rookie running back Clyde Edwards-Helaire.  He accounted for 161 of the yards (on 26 carries) – averaging 6.2 yards a carry.  It was the second 100-yard game of his short career, and vaulted him to second in the NFL in rush yards so far for 2020.

Make no mistake about it, Edwards-Helaire is a gifted runner.  He spun out of a few tackles and put a nifty juke on Buffalo safety Jordan Poyer to turn what would have been about a 15-yard run into a game-high 31 yard burst.  Clyde ran very well.

But the stars that night were the members of the offensive line – a surprising occurrence, considering their condition.

When KC opened the season against Houston in mid-September, the offensive line starters were Eric Fisher (LT), Kelechi Osemele (LG), Austin Reiter (C), Andrew Wylie (RG) and Mitchell Schwartz (RT).  When Schwartz went down with a back injury on the last play of that first series, he became the third member of that starting five to require a replacement.  Mike Remmers – already in the lineup replacing Osemele at left guard – slid over to take Schwartz’ tackle spot, leaving left guard to an unknown second year player with just 8 career snaps with the offense.  This was, of course, 2019’s seventh-round draft pick, Nick Allegretti.  The third new face on the line belonged to center Daniel Kilgore.  He would be making his first start as a Chief, but had started 56 over the previous 8 years with San Francisco and Miami.  He had been a fifth-round pick of the 49ers back in 2011.

All things considered, it seemed an unlikely enough group to dominate a game, but they absolutely did.  For the 46 running plays, Kansas City backs averaged 3.0 yards before contact – the NFL average is 2.4. While they all played well, the standouts were the two newest guys, Allegretti and especially Kilgore.

It was these two – along with Wylie – who formed a kind of moving shield during Edwards-Helaire’s 31-yard run, as they swept Buffalo’s Quinton Jefferson and rising superstar Tremaine Edmunds before them.  Later, with 13:31 left in the game and the Chiefs facing a first-and-10 on their own 47, Kilgore and Allegretti fired out on a double-team block on Ed Oliver (who has seen enough of those two to last him a while now).  The run was designed to go up the middle, but Buffalo’s Edmunds had anticipated the hole and was moving to fill it even as Nick and Daniel were opening it up.

Seeing what was developing, Kilgore left Oliver to Allegretti and slid quickly over to knock Tremaine out of the way.  Allegretti finished up the block on Oliver – pancaking him to the turf.  The run was only 5 yards, but was an apt example of how these replacement linemen played as though they had been doing this together for a decade.

It was like this the whole game.  Kansas City’s mostly unheralded offensive line beat Buffalo to a pulp.  Certainly an encouraging note for the Chiefs, who should at least get Reiter back next week with Schwartz listed as questionable.

Issue for Buffalo

For the Bills, the aftermath might be a little more unsettling.  Last year’s club finished tenth in the league against the run – giving just 103.1 yards per game (although that season featured a similar meltdown when they allowed 218 rush yards in a 31-13 loss to Philadelphia).  This year’s team took the field against the Chiefs allowing a not-so-bad average of 108.6 rush yards per game – and that after allowing 139 to the Titans the week before.  Run defense has not been thought to be a special problem in Buffalo.

But my enduring memory from this game is how small the Bills front seven looked on the field against the Chiefs.  Oliver, Jefferson, Justin Zimmer and Vernon Butler (who is listed at 330) were easily handled – and frequently manhandled – by KC’s makeshift line.  The defensive ends – especially Jerry Hughes and A.J. Epenesa are pass rushers who put up little resistance to the running game. Darryl Johnson and Mario Addison aren’t notably better.

Of the two linebackers that played Monday night, Edmunds seems to have the physicality necessary, but is still fooled too often.  On several plays, influenced by KC’s misdirection, Tremaine found himself shooting into the wrong hole.  Meanwhile, the other linebacker, A.J. Klein seemed, frankly, to be targeted by the Chiefs.  After the first quarter or so it seems that they ran exclusively to his side of the formation, where all of the aforementioned offensive linemen took turns pushing him out of the way.

None of the secondary – especially Cameron Lewis (who plays the hybrid linebacker position) or Poyer (who – as the strong safety – often plays down in the box) showed any particular vigor in tackling.

This might turn into an Achilles Heel for this team.  It will be interesting to see if any of their future opponents challenge this aspect of their defense.

Of course, it could also be that they were just taken by surprise.  I mean, hey, if I had told you before the game that KC would run 46 times and throw just 26 times, you would have asked me to take a drug test, right?

In the end, you have to feel a little sorry for the Bills – and a little concerned for the rest of the defenses in the NFL.  Here they went and constructed a game plan that they hoped would limit the big passing plays only to watch the Chiefs run the ball right down their throats.

A Case of Mistaken Identity

Life without Jimmy Garoppolo didn’t turn out to be particularly smooth for the San Francisco 49ers.

Throughout Jimmy’s tenure as the top guy in San Francisco, there has been a lot of background chatter about his ceiling.  Is he a system quarterback?  A game manager? Or an elite kind of guy?

His season and the system he plays in lend no easy answers to those questions.  But one thing the early season has shown is that the 49ers are a better team with him than without him.

Injured about halfway through the Week Two conquest of the Jets, Garoppolo watched from the sidelines as the 49ers held onto that game, and convincingly took their Week Three contest against New York’s other struggling team.

But at about the point where some San Francisco fans were about to tab the quarterback position as an interchangeable part, the 49ers slogged through an ugly loss against Philadelphia.  There followed an even uglier loss to Miami in Week Five.

Garoppolo was actually back to start that game against the Dolphins (which added fuel to the QB discussion when he was replaced at half time).  The team was now 2-3, and at that point Jimmy didn’t look like the guy who could lead them back to the promised land.  Garoppolo just didn’t look like the same guy from 2019.

That, in fact, could be said of the whole team during the losses to the Eagles and the Dolphins.  The defense, of course, was adjusting to the absence of Nick Bosa (gone for the year with an injury) and DeForest Buckner (traded to Indianapolis).  But the mystery was the offense.

The 2019 version of the 49ers ran the ball 31.1 times a game (the second most in football) and ran their passing game off the running game.  They ran the ball 89 more times in their two playoff victories that year.  But, during the loss to Philadelphia, there were the 49ers chucking the ball 45 times while running just 20.  Against the Dolphins, they ran just 19 times while throwing 35 times.

Who were these guys?  And what had they done with the San Francisco offense?

In the NFL, the season’s tipping points come early – and especially so when playing in what is arguably football’s toughest division.  With the high flying LA Rams (who some analyst had suggested might be football’s best team) coming in for the Sunday Night game, a loss here would administer a severe blow to the 49ers’ playoff hopes.

Remembering Who They Are

And so, with his back sort of against the wall and his starting quarterback still not 100% on his bad ankle, coach Kyle Shanahan dusted off a game plan that could have come from the middle of 2019.  A plan that spoke to his team’s offensive identity.

Identity is actually a surprisingly important aspect of offensive success in the NFL.  It’s an act of self-definition around a core philosophy.  Last year San Francisco exploded onto the NFL scene as not just a run-first team, but as arguably the most explosive and creative of the run-first ball-clubs that have started to resurface in the NFL.

Sunday night against the Rams, that’s who they were.  Again.

Through the evening’s first 30 minutes, the 49ers controlled the ball for 21:22 of them.  This dominance included two touchdown drives that lasted more than six minutes each.  The play sheet looked balanced – 20 runs and 21 passes – but with only a couple of exceptions the passes were exceedingly short, high percentage passes that were really just an extension of that running game.  For the evening, of Garoppolo’s 33 passes, 9 were behind the line of scrimmage, and another 12 were within 5 yards of the line of scrimmage.

Carrying a 21-6 lead back onto the field after halftime, the 49ers leaned all the more heavily on the running game, calling 16 runs while Garoppolo dropped back 13 times (he threw 12 passes and scrambled once).  The 17 runs helped them control the clock in the second half as well, as they held the ball for 16:33 of that half on their way to a gritty 24-16 victory (gamebook) (summary).

The run commitment on the part of the 49ers is even more impressive than the raw number of attempts.  While the 2019 49ers averaged a healthy 4.6 yards per rushing attempt, the Sunday night 49ers averaged just 3.3.  The 17 second half runs averaged just 2.7 yards per, with no run longer than 10 yards.

But San Francisco kept running, anyway, because they remembered that that is who they are.

As For the Rams

All through the first 5 games of their season, the LA Rams had been what the 49ers were on Sunday night.  The 49ers’ identity was their identity.  It was the Rams who came into the game with the NFL’s second most rushing attempts (169 – 33.8 per game), while quarterback Jared Goff was throwing the ball only 30.4 times a game.

But the Rams knew that San Francisco was playing with significant losses in their secondary, and they were just determined to exploit them through the air.  This is a weakness that Sean McVay and the Rams fall into sometimes.  It’s a pass happy hubris that clouds their thinking and sometimes causes them to forget who they are.

On Sunday night, Los Angeles averaged 5.9 yards per rush – but only ran 19 times.  Rookie running back Darrell Henderson gained 88 yards and averaged 6.3 per carry – but was only given the ball 14 times.  They met consistent success when they went to their ground attack, but they chose not to use it.

Meanwhile, Jared Goff went to the air 38 times with middling results (19 completions, 198 yards, 2 TDs and 1 damaging interception).  As opposed to Garoppolo, 8 of his passes soared more than 20 yards up field (only 2 of them being completed), while only 19 were within ten yards of the line of scrimmage.  One of the better screen teams in the game, the Rams ran only 3 screen passes.

For most of the night, the Rams just looked out of sync – a common side effect when you forget who you are.

Speaking of Identities

For nearly forty years – going back to the days of Chuck Noll – the Pittsburgh franchise has been identified by its defense.  Since 1972, the Steelers have finished in the top five in total defense 24 times – finishing first 9 times.  In points allowed, they have been among football’s top five 18 times – leading 6 times.

Last year – even though they finished fifth in both measures – the Steelers mostly fell from relevance after they lost their starting quarterback in Week Two (even though they still battled on to an 8-8 record).  Ben Roethlisberger is back and looking (so far) as good as ever.  The defense is back, too – currently ranking second in yards allowed and third in points on their way to a 5-0 start.

This success, though, has to be taken with something of a grain of salt.  Their first four victories of the season didn’t come against the stiffest of competition.  They beat the NY Giants (currently 1-5), the Denver Broncos (currently 2-3), the Houston Texans (currently 1-5), and the Philadelphia Eagles (currently 1-4-1).

So that meant that last Sunday’s game against Cleveland (4-1 as they took the field) was their first “test” per se of the season.  I put that in quotes, because I’m still not convinced about Cleveland’s ability to show up for the big games.

At any rate, the Browns came in with four consecutive wins, scoring at least 34 points in each.  They came in with football’s top rushing offense – averaging 188.4 yards per game, while running the ball 34.4 time a game – also the most in football.  Their 5.5 yards per rush ranked second, and their 8 rushing touchdowns were tied for third most in the NFL.

The Steelers answered this challenge in dominating fashion with a 38-7 victory (gamebook) (summary).

The offense did well enough, but the star of the day was the Steeler defense that scored one touchdown outright on an interception return by Minkah Fitzpatrick, and set up three other touchdowns on short fields following another interception and two stops on fourth-and-short.

For the game, Cleveland finished with just 220 yards, went 1 for 12 on third down (0-for-5 in the second half), had its quarterback sacked 4 times, and pushed its way into the red zone just once.  In the game’s second half, they managed just 3 first downs and just 70 yards.

The vaunted Cleveland running attack finished with just 75 yards on 22 carries (3.4 yards per).

However significant a challenge the Browns may have presented (and remember, they are now without Nick Chubb), this Steelers team is beginning to attract the attention of some of the “experts” around the league.  Whether or not their gaudy record is a function of an easy schedule will quickly be put to the test as the Steelers are set to face the Tennessee Titans (currently 5-0) and the Baltimore Ravens (currently 5-1) in the next two weeks.

Last Sunday they were all over the field against Cleveland.  The prospect of watching them line up against Derrick Henry and Lamar Jackson makes for a compelling couple of weeks.

A Closer Look at Cincinnati’s Loss to Baltimore

At first glance, you wouldn’t give it a second thought.  Scanning down the final scores from Week Five of the 2020 season, you wouldn’t even necessarily pause at Baltimore 27 – Cincinnati 3 (gamebook) (summary).  The Ravens, of course, were 3-1 and coming off of a spectacular 14-2 season in 2019.  Cincinnati, meanwhile, was scuffling along at 1-2-1 after a trying 2-14 season in 2019 that awarded them the league’s first-round draft pick – a quarterback named Joe Burrow, who would be starting (yes, a rookie QB going against Don Martindale’s blitz happy defense).  Twenty-seven to three?  Nothing to see here.

But, behind the score were all kinds of interesting numbers – two of which turn out to be mirages, but tell an interesting story anyway.  In no particular order, the intriguing numbers are:

  • Baltimore quarterback Lamar Jackson threw 37 passes while the Ravens – a notorious run-first offense – ran only 24 times. And this in a game where they mostly cruised to victory.
  • The Ravens – nonetheless – ran for 101 yards in the first half alone.
  • They did this without any real ground contribution from Jackson, who finished the first half with 1 run for negative four yards. Lamar would finish the game with just 2 rushes for 3 yards.
  • And, finally, Cincinnati, despite the loss, controlled the clock for 20:08 of the second half.

Here are the story lines behind the numbers.

First, Jackson and the Raven passing attack.  There is little question that Baltimore came into the game intending to feature its passing attack.  Lamar threw on his first offensive play, and threw 3 times in the 5 plays of the first series.  In the second series, he threw on three straight downs at one point, and later in the drive threw on 4 of 5 plays – the only interruption in the sequence being his -4 yard run.

Baltimore ran 42 first-half plays, and called passes on 29 of them.  The Ravens came to pass.  The question is, why?

Thirty passes from the Ravens, who, in 2019, ran the ball on 596 occasions, while throwing it only 289 times, is usually a distress signal.  Jackson’s passing has been a fallback in case the running game isn’t working or if the Ravens should fall behind.  This was only the seventh time in Lamar’s career (including playoff games) in which he has thrown as many as thirty passes in a game.  The Ravens are now 4-3 in those contests.

Exactly what was on Coach John Harbaugh’s mind, I cannot – of course – know.   But I will weigh in with my opinion.  I believe that one of Baltimore’s 2020 objectives is to prove (to the world, if not to themselves) that Jackson can run a passing game at an elite level.  They are, I think, looking for a showcase opportunity – one that will make their opponents think twice about game plans that will dare Lamar to beat them with his arm.  And, in the lowly Bengals, Harbaugh thought he had that perfect opponent.

The results worked out less well than Harbaugh and Jackson might have hoped.  Yes, Lamar threw a lot, and Baltimore won, but the passing game wound up less than elite.  Jackson finished 19 of 37 (51.4%) for only 180 yards – 4.86 yards per pass attempt and 9.47 yards per completion.  He did throw 2 touchdown passes, but was also intercepted – leading to a disappointing 71.9 passer rating.  Worse, still, he was lucky that two other interceptions – thrown right into the hands of Cleveland defenders – were dropped.

Two important takeaways.

Cincinnati is now seeing Lamar for the fourth time, and is starting to make some adjustments.  Throughout most of his career, Jackson has made a living booting out of the pocket and threatening the perimeter.  As he would do so, the defense would drop their pass coverages and rush up to meet Jackson – leaving, in their wake, any number of short receiving options (usually a tight end) with no coverage in sight.

Last Sunday, Cincinnati, for the most part, kept Lamar in the pocket.  They were mostly successful in getting pressure off both ends keeping him from booting out – with the result that downfield coverage wasn’t dropped, and Jackson was forced to read, make good decisions and make accurate throws.  He struggled somewhat in all of those challenges.

Takeaway number two.  Cincy’s focus was on the underneath receivers, with the result that Lamar had a few up-the-field options.  Jackson, in fact, threw 6 passes at targets more than 15 yards from the line of scrimmage.  He missed on all 6 – badly, in most cases.

To date, efforts to establish Jackson as a potentially dominate passer have been less than successful.

Moving on to the 101 rushing yards that Baltimore achieved in the first half alone, that, I’m afraid was mostly a mirage.  The Ravens popped two very long runs – a 42-yard dash around the edge by Devin Duvernay, and a similar 34-yard burst from J.K. Dobbins.  The rest of the team managed 26 yards on 11 attempts – far below expectations.

This number ties into the next surprising number.  Jackson with 1 run for the half for -4 yards.

Even though the Ravens were emphasizing the pass, I don’t believe they put Lamar under orders not to run.  Even after his disappointing outing, Lamar is still the team’s leading rusher (238 yards and 5.8 yards a carry).  Jackson’s incomparable ability as a broken field runner is the element that transforms the Ravens’ offense into one of the NFL’s scariest.  There is no reason to believe that Baltimore would willingly shelve the most frightening part of their offense.

I believe that Cincinnati took it away from them.

The foundation of the Raven running attack is the read-option.  The quarterback takes the football and sticks it into the stomach of the running back.  As he does so, he reads the backside defensive end.  If the end crashes down on the runner, the quarterback pulls the ball back and spins into the void the defensive end left.  If the end stays wide, playing the quarterback, the QB releases the ball to the back for the quick hitter up the middle (that the end will now be unable to help contain).  When the defense cooperates, this can be run to devastating effect – especially when the play involves the skill sets of players like Jackson and Mark Ingram.

But, what if the defense doesn’t cooperate?  What if the defense realizes that the “option” in the read option belongs to them?  As the play unfolds, isn’t it actually the end that decides which option will be employed?  And if the end decides that having Ingram (or Gus Edwards, or some other running back) plow up the middle is preferable to seeing Jackson on the edge, then he has merely to stay wide to keep the ball out of Lamar’s hands.

Cincinnati did this over and over and over again – consistently inviting Jackson to leave the ball with the back.  Baltimore’s final rushing tally was a very healthy 161 yards, but 96 of those yards came on 3 long runs (Ingram did break one of those line bucks for 20 yards in the second half).  Baltimore’s other 65 yards were earned at the cost of 21 carries (3.1 yards per carry) – and only 3 of the yards came from Jackson.  Of all of the things that the Bengals achieved in this game, this is the one that I wonder if other teams will pick up on.

Serving up 27 points never looks like a terrific job by the defense.  In this case, though, I believe that Cincinnati’s defense should almost take a bow.  They largely muffled the passing attack that Baltimore tried to unleash on them, and they withstood the Raven running attack far better than the numbers indicate – even to the eliminating Lamar Jackson from the running attack.

The Ravens’ final total of 332 yards is modest, and their offensive achievements show just one touchdown drive of over 50 yards.  Baltimore’s other two touchdowns were a function of the defense.

Wink Martindale’s unit scored one touchdown outright (a 53-yard fumble return from Patrick Queen) and set the offense up on the Bengal 16 yard line after a Marcus Peters interception.  In and of themselves, the offense had very little reason to beat its chest.

Which brings us to the final interesting number – the 20:08 of possession time that Cincinnati maintained in the second half.  Yes, that is a mirage, too.  But not entirely.

Trailing 17-0 at the half, Cincy coach Zac Taylor decided on a ball control game plan.  This is counter-intuitive, but was the right decision to make.  He realized that having his rookie quarterback wind up and throw the ball 30 times in the second half would only lead to disaster.  But, if he could settle the game down, hold the ball, keep Jackson on the sideline, and maybe put together a long scoring drive or two, Cincinnati might just hang around long enough in this game to catch a lucky break at the end.

So, the Bengals came out running the ball and throwing short passes.  The running worked very little, but they kept at it.  They ran the ball 19 times in the second half, even though they were never closer than 17 points, and even though the 19 rushes only netted 48 yards (2.5 per).

The short passing worked out a bit better.  Burrow completed 10 of 11 second half passes (90.9%), but for just 96 yards.  But the 20:08 of second half possession wasn’t quite as dominating as it sounds.

With 11:23 left in the game, and trailing 20-0, Cincy began its penultimate drive on its own 23-yard line.  Four plays – and not quite three minutes later – the Bengals had a first-and-ten on its own 47.  Burrow, at this point, found receiver Mike Thomas on a short curl for 9 yards down the left sideline.  There, cornerback Marlon Humphrey punched the ball free.  It bounced right to Queen who scooped it up and ran down the sideline for the score.

Thereafter, the Bengals took the ensuing kick and ran off a 14-play, 55-yard, 7 minute 49 second drive that resulted in a field goal for the game’s final points, leaving just 37 seconds on the clock.  Cincinnati’s large time of possession advantage in this half was a product of having the two back-to-back drives (which totaled 10 minutes and 51 seconds) with no Baltimore offensive possession in between.

The Bengals were, however, outscored 7-3 during their almost 11 consecutive minutes of possession.  Additionally, as the game wound down, it was obvious that Baltimore was more than content to let Cincinnati run out the clock.

Even so, it was a plan that came close to succeeding.  They fell short because of the fourth quarter fumble and the fact that they never did find a way to halt the pressure – even when they were only throwing short passes.  Joe Burrow was sacked 4 times in the second half and 7 times in the game.  Every time they would seem to pick up a little offensive momentum, an untimely sack would disrupt the drive.

This half of the contest is still a clear mismatch.  But Cincinnati looks like a team that has more than a little clue of what it needs to do to become relevant in this division again.

Crazy Second Halves

In the second half of the Tuesday night contest between Buffalo and Tennessee, the Bills were a perfect 8-for-8 on third down.  They scored all of 6 points in the half and lost to the Titans 42-16 (gamebook) (summary).  Since that is enormously difficult to do, let’s look at their second half possessions and figure out how this happened.

Coming out of the half trailing 21-10, Buffalo opened the second half on defense, where they forced Tennessee’s only punt of the half.  The result could have been better, as the Titans downed the punt on Buffalo’s three.

Converting a third-and-two, a third-and-one, and a third-and-ten, the Bills found themselves in a second-and-four on the Titan 33.  But, on the fourteenth play of the 6 minute, 45-second drive, quarterback Josh Allen underthrew Gabriel Davis, and Malcom Butler intercepted.

Butler’s 68-yard return set Tennessee up for another short touchdown.  An earlier interception had given the Titans a first down on the Buffalo 16 yard line (this became a 16-yard touchdown pass to A.J. Brown.  Later on, a 40-yard punt return by Kalif Raymond set the Titans up on the Buffalo 30.  Tennessee punched that one home, too, on an eventual touchdown run by Derrick Henry.  Now they were on the 12 yard line.  It took just 3 plays for quarterback Ryan Tannehill to get them into the end zone on a 4-yard toss to Jonnu Smith.

Now down 28-10, Buffalo would begin the next drive on their own 10 (after a holding call on the kickoff).  Again, they would work their way onto Tennessee territory, converting a third-and-three, a third-and-one, and a third-and-seven, leading eventually to a second-and-ten on the Titan 22.  Here, Allen fired a touchdown pass to T.J. Yeldon in the end zone.  With the failed two-point conversion – and ten minutes even left in the game – Buffalo now trailed 28-16.

When they got the ball back – with just 3:49 left in the contest – they trailed 35-16, courtesy of an 11-play, 75-yard Tennessee drive.  At least that was when they were supposed to get the ball back.  But Andre Roberts fumbled the ensuing kickoff, and it was Tennessee with yet another short field.  This time they had the ball on Buffalo’s 18.  Six plays later, Tannehill tossed another short TD pass to Smith.  There was 1:59 left, and the Titans lead had swelled to 42-16.

For the game, Tennessee was 6-for-6 in the red zone.  To their credit – and in spite of the fact that they hadn’t played in more than two weeks – they converted every single short field that Buffalo gave them.

At this point, Buffalo let backup QB Matt Barkley finish the game.  He also converted two third downs – a third-and-six, and fittingly a third-and-eight on the last play of the game.  The final ticks of the game saw Buffalo – out of time outs – rushing to the Tennessee nine-yard line to attempt one final play.

Buffalo finished the game an impressive 13-17 on third down.  But they turned the ball over three times, and Tennessee made them pay each and every time.

Meanwhile, in Cleveland, the Browns and the Indianapolis Colts combined for 25 second-half points – in spite of the fact that neither team managed an offensive touchdown in that half.

The second half of that game belonged almost entirely to the pass defenses, fueled by furious pass rushes.  Colt quarterback Philip Rivers – whose relative immobility prevented him from escaping the pocket – continued his career-long pattern of rushing decisions under pressure.  While completing 13 of 22 second half passes, Rivers was not sacked.  But he threw for only 123 yards and was intercepted twice.  Baker Mayfield – the much more mobile passer for the Browns – had an even worse second half.  He was just 2 for 9 for 19 yards with 2 interceptions of his own.

The second half scoring consisted of a 47-yard interception return from Cleveland’s Ronnie Harrison, an ensuing 101-yard kickoff return by Indianapolis’ Isaiah Rodgers, a safety called when Rivers was called for intentional grounding in the end zone, and 3 field goals – two from Indy and one from Cleveland – all adding up to a 32-23 victory for the Browns (gamebook) (summary).

Who Yells at Tom?

With three minutes left in the third quarter of Tampa Bay’s Thursday Night game in Chicago, new Buccaneer quarterback Tom Brady was seen shouting at his center on the way off the field after a failed third-down play.  His coach, Bruce Arians, defended Brady to the media afterward.  The general message is that this is what leaders do.  And, certainly, if anyone has the credibility to call out another teammate, it is Brady – the most decorated quarterback of his generation.

I don’t know, though.  It has always seemed to me that yelling at (or correcting) another player is a coaching function.  You leave yourself open, you see.  What happens then, when you have a mental lapse during the game – and all players are human.  Even the great Tom Brady has lapses.

And sure enough, in the critical moment of his team’s 20-19 loss to the Bears (gamebook) (summary), Tom made the mental mistake that sealed the defeat.

He forgot that it was fourth down.  Afterwards Brady danced around the question, and Coach Arians stated emphatically that it didn’t happen.  But it did.

With 38 seconds left in the game, and Tampa Bay on their own 41 yard line trailing by one, the Bucs faced a fourth-and-six.  Eschewing a shorter route that would have picked up the first down and kept the drive going, Brady threw deep over the middle – incomplete.  Afterwards, as the teams were changing, Brady looked confused and held up four fingers in the attitude of asking what happened to fourth down.

Again, everybody blanks from time to time.  But the whole scenario got me wondering who yells at Brady?  If he had done that in New England, he would certainly have heard about it.  In New England nobody’s ego is sacrosanct.  Not even the (arguably) greatest quarterback of all time.

But in Tampa Bay, who yells at Brady?  All I feel from the Tampa Bay contingent – from the head coach all the way down – is a sense of deference to Brady.  It’s OK when he shouts at his teammates.  And, apparently, it’s OK when he forgets its fourth down.

This could be more imagined than real, but Brady just seems more mistake prone in Tampa Bay than I remember him being in New England.  He has already been intercepted 4 times – half as many as he was all last season in New England – and he has lost a fumble (so he is averaging a turnover a game).  Two of the interceptions have been returned for touchdowns.

None of this is anything to panic over.  Tampa Bay is still 3-2 and just getting to know each other.

But I still wonder.  Will anyone in Tampa Bay push Brady if he needs to be pushed?  Or is his persona considered too sacred.  Remember, they did woo Tom to Tampa Bay with the promise of a gentler corporate culture (along with a boatload of money). 

I wonder, though, if that won’t cost them in the long run.

Slowing the Chiefs

In their three wins in last year’s playoffs, all three of their opponents held the high-scoring Kansas City offense down – for a while.  By the final whistle, though, the talented Chiefs’ offense had prevailed, scoring 51, 35 and 31 points – the last two games against two of the NFL’s best defenses.

During the 2019 regular season, though, the NFL’s fifth-most prolific scoring team was held below 30 points in 9 of their 16 games, proving that slowing down the Kansas City offense is possible.

Thus far in 2020, KC ranks eighth in scoring, and has been denied 30 points twice in the first four games.  Two games in particular have showcased the NFL’s very best efforts to restrict the irresistible force that is the Kansas City offense.  In Week Two, the Chiefs trailed 17-9 against the Chargers after three quarters before coming back to claim a 23-20 overtime win (summary).  Then, last Monday they were scuffling to a 6-3 lead over New England with less than a minute left in the third quarter before eventually pulling away for a 26-10 win (gamebook) (summary).

The two approaches differed greatly, but they represent the two best proven remedies for a quarterback with no weaknesses in his game.  You have to beat the rest of his team.

Pressure from LA

What the Charger defense does best is come after the passer.  They have yet to harvest many sacks (only 6 in four games), but they are tied for fourth in the league in QB pressures with 45.  With defensive linemen Joey Bosa and Jerry Tillery leading the way, KC quarterback Patrick Mahomes saw some form of direct harassment on 23 of his 47 passing attempts.  This doesn’t count the times he was forced out of the pocket.

It remains one of the age old truisms of football.  No quarterback can beat you when he’s flat on his back.  The trickiest aspect of this approach is that the pressure has to come from no more than four rushers.  The Chargers are blessed with dynamic linemen that can disrupt almost any passing attack.  But you have to do it with four.  Once you start blitzing Patrick, you are inviting disaster.

The Chargers might well have won that contest.  But, while the defense was dampening down the Chief’s firepower, the offense didn’t take full advantage of their opportunities.  After scoring 14 points in the first half, their first three drives of the second half all took them into Kansas City territory.  They managed just 2 field goals and had a pass intercepted on the KC five yard line.  The last field goal came after LA had a first-and-goal from the 4.

What happened, then, was that they let the Chiefs hang around long enough that one big play (the 54-yard touchdown strike to Tyreek Hill with Mahomes scrambling out of the pocket) turned the momentum of the game.

Patriots Played Coverage

New England’s defense doesn’t feature the pass rush ability of the Chargers.  But, the Patriots have (arguably) football deepest and most highly skilled secondary – led by cornerback deluxe Stephon Gilmore.  In their matchup with the Chiefs, New England frequently rushed only three and dropped eight into coverage, almost evenly mixing man coverages and zones.

This is also a very workable strategy when executed well.  It doesn’t matter how great the quarterback is if he doesn’t have open receivers to throw to.  Unusual in Kansas City during the Mahomes era, last Monday you saw Patrick standing in the pocket holding the ball.  And holding.  And holding while waiting for someone to uncover.

In 35 drop-backs. Patrick dealt with imminent pressure just 9 times – although he was forced to scramble on 5 occasions.  Such pressure as New England managed usually was not early pressure, but came after Mahomes had surveyed the field awhile.  While he completed 19 of 29 throws (65.5%), most of his completions were contested, and two of his incompletions were very nearly intercepted.

Save for Tyrann Mathieu’s fourth-quarter interception return for a touchdown, Kansas City would have finished the evening with an almost unheard of 19 points.

As with the Chargers, the Patriots were able to do this because they are the best in the NFL (or nearly the best) in what they do – coverage.  They have an aspect of their defense that is strong enough and consistent enough to interfere with the regular workings of Andy Reid’s offense.

And they didn’t blitz.

In between these two victories, Kansas City had a relatively easy time beating Baltimore 34-20.  The Ravens also boast an elite secondary, but their pass rush is a function of a variety of cunning blitzes.  Patrick and his offense feasted on the Baltimore blitzing.  They carried a 27-10 lead into the half, and never looked back.  Mahomes finished the night 31 of 42 for 385 yards and 4 touchdowns.

Even if you are one of football’s best blitzing teams, this is not the offense to try that with.

Also, like the Chargers, the Patriots failed to take advantage of the long stretch of the game that the defense held the Chiefs close.  New England, of course, was absent its starting quarterback.  (Apparently Superman is vulnerable to the COVID virus.  I must have missed that episode.)  Their offensive struggles were somewhat understandable.

Even so, this is another plank in the formula for slowing down (and, eventually, beating) KC – which now reads:

First, either through pressure or coverage, beat the players around Mahomes.

Second, blitz rarely if at all.

Third, don’t miss on scoring opportunities.  You will not beat this team 13-10.

And, oh yes, a final point.  During all of this you have to stop their running game as well.  Andy has taken quite a shine to his first-round draft pick – a running back out of LSU named Clyde Edwards-Helaire.  Clyde has put up 304 ground yards through the first four games.  If you over play the pass, Clyde and the Chiefs will punish you on the ground.

The good news in all of this is that, yes, the Chiefs can certainly be slowed.  But it clearly isn’t easy.

On Gibson’s Legacy – a Memorial

Funny.  It’s a moment that I thought I remembered perfectly – one of those incidents that, I thought, was seared into my brain.  But as I review the game account (here), I find that a few important details didn’t play out as I remembered it – causing me to wonder how much else of my memory of this is faulty.

Nonetheless, combining recorded fact with whatever remains of memory, I take you to the top of the third inning of an August 4, 1973 game in Shea Stadium, New York, with the Mets holding a 1-0 lead (the run unearned).

After Cardinal shortstop Mike Tyson lead the inning off with a double off of Met lefty Jerry Koosman, St Louis’ starting pitcher Bob Gibson beat out a bunt for a hit, sending Tyson to third.  (I had remembered that Gibson had singled, but it didn’t seem to me like it was a bunt).

In my memory. It was Lou Brock who hit the line drive.  And it was Wayne Garrett playing at third.  According to the record, Brock hit the sacrifice fly that tied the game (and provided the innings’ first out) and it was second place hitter Ted Sizemore who hit the line drive to third-baseman Ken Boswell.

Anyway, Boswell (if not Garrett) gloved the liner and fired to first to double off Gibson.  As he pivoted to return to the bag Gibson completely tore up his left knee.  In my boyhood imagination (I would have been 14 at the time), I see every ligament and tendon shearing away from the bone – although I’m sure the reality was much less severe.

Regardless, the injury was profound enough.  It would require surgery, and, frankly, Gibson would never really be the same again.  But that was still the future.  It’s at this point that the most vivid part of the memory occurs.

The inning was over, and the Mets trotted off the field.  Bob Gibson, the legendary ace of the staff, was rolling in agony just short of the first-base bag.  A relief pitcher hurried to the mound and began to warm up (it was Al Hrabosky, by the way), and a stretcher came out of the dugout to carry Gibson off the field.

Moments later the stretcher returned empty to the dugout.  In spite of what must have been unimaginable pain, Gibson had somehow managed to pull himself back onto his feet, had chased the stretcher off, and limped his way resolutely to the mound – where he chased Hrabosky from the scene as well.  Improbably, incomprehensibly, Gibson – his knee hanging by a thread – was intending to pitch – not just the upcoming third inning.  In his mind, he had seven more innings to pitch before his evening was done.

Of course, Gibson didn’t throw another pitch that counted that Saturday afternoon.  He collapsed attempting his first warmup pitch – a predictable outcome, considering the structural damage done to the knee – and was really out of the game at that point.

Of the, perhaps, thousands of more-or-less vivid memories I have of the great Bob Gibson, this one almost always bubbles to the top.  This wasn’t a playoff game – or even a terribly vital end of season game.  He wasn’t an up-and-coming kid trying to cement an opportunity to stray in the rotation.  He was already a legend, with all of his achievements and records already in the books.

This was just, if you will, another game – one of 482 that he started in his sterling career.  Nothing about this game against the Mets marked it as any more important than any other game St Louis would play that year.  And, in retrospect, that’s what made this moment so impactful.

If it had been a playoff game, or a must-win, end of September contest, you could almost understand an athlete trying to overcome the physical damage done to him by sheer will power to win a must-have game.  And that was the thing about Gibson.

To Bob Gibson, every game was a must-have game.  More than anyone else, possibly, who ever donned the uniform of any professional team, Bob Gibson lived to win.  On every play of every game, he would find a way to beat you.  He would beat you with his head, he would beat you with his arm, he would beat you with his legs, he would beat you with his glove, he would beat you with his bat (I thank the living God that the obscenity of the designated hitter didn’t deprive his legend of this aspect of his game).

In the end, he would beat you with his heart.

He would beat you by one run or by a dozen.  He would win an artful, dominating 1-0 game, or he would beat you in a messy 7-6 affair.  But at the end of the day, at whatever cost to his body, Gibson would have poured his whole soul and being into expending every effort to come away the victor.

It is, I believe, how he defined himself.  He was Bob Gibson, today’s winning pitcher.

It had been nine years earlier – in the midst of another pennant chase – that a similar incident occurred.  A line drive off the bat of Roberto Clemente had broken Gibson’s leg.  Undeterred, Gibson returned to the mound, collapsing again attempting to make a warm-up pitch.

Bob Gibson’s statistical footprint in the annals of baseball history is huge.  A five-time 20 game winner, a two-time Cy Young award winner, holder of the all-time ERA record (1.12 in 1968) and the very first National League pitcher to strike out 3,000 batters – there is more, of course, but you get the idea.

To me, though, Gibson’s impact far exceeded the statistical evidence of his greatness.  Gibson’s name listed as the starting pitcher brought with it a kind of magic – some anticipation of greatness beyond what might be expected from mere mortals.  There was never a boastful moment, no bat flips after any of his home runs, no swagger or any need for any kind of showmanship.  Gibson beat you stoically – as though no other result should have ever been expected.

Several great players have that one play or one moment that seems to encapsulate everything they are.  Sometimes these moments happen under the glare of the World Series – think of Babe Ruth’s called shot, or Willie Mays’ back-to-the-infield catch.  Gibson had one of those moments, too.  It was the Joe Pepitone play.

In the ninth inning of Game Five of the 1964 World Series (an impossible 56 years ago this coming week).  The Cards held a 2-0 lead in the game, while the series – at that point – was tied at two games each.

Gibson’s two-run lead was threatened almost immediately when Mickey Mantle led off the inning reaching on an error.  Gibson rebounded by striking out Elston Howard.  Then came Yankee first baseman Pepitone.

Joe scorched a line drive right back up the middle, drilling Gibson squarely in the back.  The ball ricocheted off of Gibson and began to hop its way toward the Cardinal dugout, the path of the ball almost perfectly bisecting the third base line.

The hit would obviously be a single.  The question was could anyone get to it before it rolled into the dugout, an occurrence that not only would score Mantle, but might possibly leave Pepitone – the potential tying run – on third with just one out.  With third-baseman Ken Boyer well off the bag (Joe being a left-handed batter), the only likely possibility had catcher Tim McCarver somehow bouncing out of his crouch and managing to get to the ball – which was not moving slowly – before it escaped the field of play.

No one even thought of Gibson.  In the first place, the fury of his delivery always had him tumbling off the mound to the first base side – his considerable momentum was carrying him away from the play.  In the second place, Gibson, you’ll remember, had just been smoked by a line drive.  It was questionable whether he could even continue in the game.  Bob Gibson was the last person you would ever expect to see making this play.

And then, there he was, running the ball down at top speed.  He reached the ball at about the time it reached the chalk of the third base line, deftly grabbed it in his bare hand, swirled and – without looking – fired a dart to first base.  Out by a step.

On display in this moment, of course, was his amazing arm.  But beyond that was the raw athleticism and foot speed that many have forgotten he had.  It is infrequently remembered that Gibson played basketball with the Harlem Globetrotters for a while.  (Can you imagine a more stylistic mismatch than the show-off Globetrotters and the no-nonsense Gibson on the same court?).  Still, as far as ability goes, Gibson may have been as good a pure athlete as anyone who has ever toed the rubber.

But even beyond all of that, that moment revealed Gibson’s undiluted confidence in himself and his unwavering belief that he could make any play.  No other pitcher – even among the great fielding pitchers – even attempts that throw.  If this were, say, Greg Maddux – who was also a multiple gold glove winner at the position – he would have been ecstatic just to catch up with the ball, preventing any damage beyond a single.  He would then have put the ball in his pocket and prepared to face the next hitter.

But not Gibson.  There was no concession in his game.

In the succeeding years, I have often wondered what it must have been like to play on the field with him.  It would seem to me that you couldn’t play the game as you would with someone else starting.  His passion and fierce thirst for victory couldn’t do anything but demand the very best from everyone else on the field with him.  Add that, too, to the legend of the great Bob Gibson.  His presence on your team raised everyone’s game.

With the passing of Bob Gibson (and, of course, Lou Brock just before him), a great chuck of my childhood has succumbed to the mortal inevitability.  It’s a sobering thing to watch your boyhood heroes cross over.  Stan Musial was my father’s hero.  Stan defined baseball to an entire generation of Cardinal fans – as Gibson and Brock did to mine.  For my wife’s son, that generational player was Ozzie Smith.  For his son, it may have been Albert Pujols, or perhaps Yadier Molina.  For all we know, for the next generation of Cardinal fans, perhaps it will be Jack Flaherty and/or Dylan Carlson.

It’s the enduring beauty of the game of baseball – the true game, the old game.  The legendary players connect the generations of Americans.  From Cobb to Trout, from Matthewson to Kershaw, baseball has underpinned the American experience from the opening of the twentieth century up through the heartbreaking COVID year of 2020.

Blessed among the baseball community are those fortunate fans of the Cardinals, who for generations have been provided with a steady stream of those transcendent players that galvanize this otherwise unremarkable mid-Western town into a community – a passionate family that celebrates and sorrows over the fortunes of this singular franchise.

But even among the Cardinal pantheon, Gibson stands out.

If the Great Creator of Baseball Players should ever appear to me and say, “Joe, you’ve been such a great Cardinal for so many years, that – just for you – I’m going to create a pitcher who will be destined to be a Cardinal.  And for you, I will give him any attribute from any of history’s great pitchers that you choose.”

Given the choice of Nolan Ryan’s fastball, or Sandy Koufax’ curve, or Warren Spahn’s longevity – or any other pitch or trait from any other pitcher ever – I would turn to the Great Creator and ask Him for Bob Gibson’s guts.  For Gibson’s indomitable heart.

Any pitcher so endowed would find the pitches – would figure out the process – would work tirelessly in a dogged, single-minded pursuit of victory.  And along the way, he would make all the other players that would cross his path better by association.

Truly, Bob Gibson was a remarkable athlete.  But his success, and his legend, were rooted in so much more.

Rest in Peace, Gibby.

A Tale of Two Baseball Cities

In 2019 – the last “regular” regular season – the St Louis Cardinals broke their long playoff drought, won 91 games, and re-captured the division title from the usurpers from the North.  The heroes of the resurgence were a young and dynamic pitching staff that finished the season ranked second in the league in team ERA (3.80), with only the 106 win Dodger team doing better (3.37).

That team fought its way all the way to the league championship series – MLB’s version of the final four.  But once there, an old nemesis caught up to them – their own offense.  They scored only 2 total runs through the first three games – losing all of them – and ended with just 6 total runs scored in a four-game sweep at the hands of the soon-to-be World Champion Washington Nationals.  For the series the team slashed an embarrassing .130/.195/.179 – a humbling .374 OPS.

This had been a frequent problem during the regular season, when they scored just 4.72 runs per game (ranking tenth in the 15 team National League).  Their 210 home runs ranked twelfth in the league, their .245 team batting average ranked them eleventh, their .415 slugging percentage was twelfth, and their .737 OPS finished eleventh.

As the last offseason arrived, team offense was clearly one of the peak areas of concern.

Finishing out of the playoffs that year – and by a considerable amount – were the Cincinnati Reds (possessors of a disappointing 75-87 record.

Apart from the records, though, the two teams were very similar in many respects.  The Cincinnati pitching staff was only a whit behind the Cardinal staff.  They finished fourth in the league in ERA, and their ERA+ (which makes ballpark adjustments) was actually higher than St Louis’ (112-111).

But, like the Cardinals, the Reds struggled to score runs.  At 4.33 runs per game, they ranked twelfth.  They were also bottom third in batting average (.244), OBP (.315), and OPS (.736 – 1 point below the Cardinals).

Over the winter of 2019-20, these two teams approached their common deficiency in very different ways.  The Reds filled their purse with coin (as much as they could) and went to gamble on free-agent roulette.  They eventually (and at the cost of significant treasure) came away with two of the more highly regarded bats on the market – Nicholas Castellanos and Mike Moustakas.  Castellanos was coming off a year in which he had hit .289 and slugged .525 on the strength of 27 home runs and a remarkable 58 doubles.  Moustakas was coming off a 35 homer season.  As both players had ended 2019 playing for division rivals (Castellanos in Chicago and Moustakas in Milwaukee), the moves had the extra benefit of depriving two of the Reds main competitors of important offensive pieces.

The storied Cardinal franchise took a totally opposite approach.  Their situation was this: the great offensive lag came mostly from the outfield, and their farm system was teeming with young promising outfielders.  They could either follow Cincinnati into the marketplace and join in the scrum to sign established – if aging – hitters (to the detriment of developing their young stars).  Or, they could initiate a youth movement and open up opportunities for these young and promising hitters.

They went so far down the youth-movement road that they even declined the opportunity to re-sign Marcell Ozuna (a 29 home run man in 2019) because he was seeking a two-year deal and the Cardinals didn’t want to tie up one of the outfield positions for the next two years.

(Ozuna subsequently signed in Atlanta, where he had a terrific 2020.  Parting ways with him is much more understandable when you remember that his two years in St Louis were less than compelling.  His OPSs were above average [.758 and .800] but not seemingly irreplaceable.)

Into the breach, the Cardinals had high hopes for Tyler O’Neil (a minor league power guy who had shown flashes in limited major league action the previous two years), Harrison Bader (a gifted defender in center field who had hit well in the minors, but had struggled against breaking pitches in St Louis), and Lane Thomas (who exploded onto the scene as a rookie in 2019 with 4 home runs and a .316/.409/.684 slash line in 38 at bats before a broken hand ended his season).

Additionally, the Cards were leveraging a trio of outfield talents who had yet to make their St Louis debuts, but were having their ways in the minors – Austin Dean, Justin Williams, and top prospect Dylan Carlson.  St Louis declined to foray into the market, deciding to play the hand they had been dealt.

So Who Was Right?

For the Cards, things could hardly have panned out worse in this frustrating COVID season.  This team, you of course remember, had the compounding difficulty of overcoming a 17-day, mid-season interruption due to a virus outbreak, and spent the rest of the short-long season trying to catch up – the infamous 53 games in 44 days gauntlet.  During the whole of the extravaganza, they never did hit.

They dropped to twelfth in the league in runs per game (4.14).  They also finished dead last in home runs (51).  Those numbers may be artificially low as more than a third of their schedule was comprised of 7-inning games.  But nothing mitigates the rest of the numbers.

The team batting average slid to .234 (eleventh), the team slugging percentage dipped to .371 (next to last).  The team OPS was also next to last (.694).

And the young outfielders?  Mostly dismal.  O’Neill – in spite of getting regular playing time – slashed .173/.244/.286.  Bader also started regularly and hit .226 – albeit with some on base (.336) and some slugging (.443).  Thomas got a small window of opportunity to make an impression.  He did, but not the kind he or the Cardinals were hoping for as he slashed .111/.200/.250 in about the same number of at bats (36) that he had had the year before.  Dean only had 4 at bats, and Williams just 5 – so they are still unknowns. (Dean and Williams, while in “camp” didn’t have the advantage of having actual minor league games to develop in.)

And Carlson – in 35 games and 110 at bats – hit .200/.252/.364 with 3 home runs.

As a team, the club slipped a bit and hovered around the .500 mark all season.  Considering the challenges they faced, though, that they managed that and still made the playoffs is a noteworthy achievement (I talk about that here).

One game away from advancing to the Divisional Round, though, St Louis lost a 4-0 game to San Diego (boxscore), a game in which nine separate Padre relievers took turns dominating the Cardinal lineup.  The pitching staff slipped a bit in 2020 (they finished fourth) – and they let a potential series win in Game Two slip through their fingers.  But in the season’s final opportunity, it was the offense that let them down one final time.

This team that unofficially led the league in tipping its cap to the opposing hurler, had the uncommon occasion to tip its cap to nine separate pitchers on the same day.  Without misrepresenting in the least, offense remains a question in St Louis.

And Cincinnati?

But if the Cardinal approach didn’t work, then neither, really, did the Reds.’  While neither was a colossal disappointment, both of the big free agent bats regressed in their first seasons in Cincy.  Castellanos hit only .225 and his OPS fell to .784.  Moustakas slipped to .230, with his OPS fading to .799.  He hit inly one more home run (8) than O’Neill (who hit 7).

As for the team, they fell to fourteenth in the league in runs scored (just 4.05 per game), last in team batting average (a surprising .212), and thirteenth in on base (.312).

A pitching staff that rose to second in the league in ERA, along with a minor offensive resurgence during the last week of the season carried the Reds into the playoffs.  But once there . . . .

Well, first of all, let’s point out that being swept in a playoff series is nothing new to Cincinnati.  In this century, the Reds have qualified for the playoffs only four times.  Not only have they lost all four of the series, but they have been swept in three of them – including this year.  But this year’s sweep reached historic proportions.

In 77 at bats over 22 innings against Atlanta, the Reds managed only 13 hits – just one for extra-bases – while striking out 28 times.  And scoring no runs.  That’s right, twenty-two consecutive innings of zero on offense for the Reds. 

And the free-agent bats?

Well, Moustakas was 0-for-8 In the series.  Castellanos was OK.  He hit .300 (3 for 10) with the team’s only extra base hit (a double).  But while he didn’t disappear, he didn’t carry the team, either.

A Tale of Four Cities?

As it turns out, I could actually have titled this piece a tale of four cities.  In a symmetry as perfect as it is improbable, all of the top four teams in the NL Central qualified for the playoffs – exactly half of the NL’s participants came from this division.  Although there was no structure in place to prevent or repress it, none of the four faced each other.  The Cards and Brewers played the two team from the West, while the Cubs and the Reds played the entrants from the East.  All of the Central teams not only lost their series, but all four were shutout in their final game.

In fact, the Cardinals were the only team to so much as win one playoff game this postseason.  Apart from St Louis’ surprising 16-run eruption over the first two games, all of the NL Central’s offenses honked out – as they had all season.  The Cubs scored 1 run over their two playoff games, and Milwaukee scored 2.  The St Louis Cardinals alone accounted for 84.2% of all the runs scored by their division in the playoffs – something I wouldn’t have bet on.

The Central clubs (now tossing Pittsburgh in the mix), occupied 5 of the 6 bottom spots in the league in runs scored, filled all five bottom spots in team batting average, and filled five of the bottom seven spots in slugging percentage.  In this division – among other things – 2020 brought a pandemic of zeros.

So, What Happens Next?

The Cubs – or so it seems – will be tearing down and starting over.  Who knows what to expect from them.  How the Brewers will approach their issues is also an unknown.

The Reds and the Cards, now in year two of their troubling offensive brown-outs, are faced with the intriguing choice of continuing their process from last year, or trying something different.  Does Cincinnati go out and lavish tens of millions of dollars on more hired bats – even knowing that there is no guarantee that these hitters won’t disappoint them as the last group had?  Will the Cardinals continue to stand pat, believing that 2021 will see more delivered from Carlson, Bader Thomas, et al?  Faith and patience isn’t always rewarding – but chasing after hired bats doesn’t always work, either.

Another offseason dawns before these two teams.  Both will have a lot of soul searching to do between now and next April.

If these haven’t exactly been the worst of times, they certainly haven’t been the best of times either.


Starting every game of the Cardinals’ brief playoff run, Paul Goldschmidt ended up starting the last 13 consecutive games of the season at first base.  At season’s end, he held the longest streak on the team of consecutive starts at one position.  Goldy actually started every game of the season, but served as the designated hitter in a few of them.

My Designated Hitter Rant

As the DH seems to be a real threat in the near future – and many expect it to be universal and permanent by 2022 if not sooner – I am going to include the link to my DH rant at the bottom of all my baseball posts this year (and next, probably).  If you have already read it, you should know that I added a section on July 30 after the Cards first five games with the DH.  Here is the link.  If this idiocy is to become law, I want to do everything I can to make sure as many people as possible understand why this is wrong.