OK coach, here’s your dilemma.
You are coming out at halftime, down by 14 points. Your game plan is in a bit of disarray. You tried to run the ball some in the first half, but came into the locker room with just 43 rushing yards, and averaging just 3.3 yards per carry.
By the way, you entered the game averaging just 3.8 yards per rush (ranking twenty-ninth in the 32-team league) and you were facing the NFL’s third-highest scoring offence paced by football’s top-ranked passer.
So, what’s your plan?
More than one team has been known to abandon the run entirely in such circumstances (a couple of weeks ago, you’ll recall that Tampa Bay ran just twice in the second half – one of those a kneel-down at the end – of a blowout loss to New Orleans). And the Buccaneers aren’t the only team that seems to look for any excuse to leave their running game behind.
Most teams in this situation won’t entirely abandon the run. They’ll sprinkle one in now and then, trying to keep the appearance of balance. But they will mostly call twice as many passing plays from that point forward.
You might wonder why that is. There is – at the beginning of the third quarter – still plenty of time. But for some reason, there is usually little thought – much less commitment – to establishing the running game.
There are, I believe, several factors at play. On some basic level, I think that some offensive coordinators feel that running the ball in that situation is like giving up – as though the only way to claw yourself back into the game is to come out throwing. (I fear some fans feel that way, too).
Additionally, the glory of being an offensive coordinator is drawing up passing plays. Few people are overly impressed with running plays – no matter how clever.
Add to this the mythos of the passing game – the possibility of that one big play that can immediately turn the momentum of the game in your favor.
No, I’m afraid most of the time the temptation to start throwing the ball all over the field is too strong to resist. In some coaches’ mind, running the ball is only for killing the clock at the end of the game. Otherwise, it’s a wasted play.
On a weekly basis, I see teams in this situation, and I keep wondering if any of them understand the value of running the ball in that circumstance. I wonder if there are any of them out there that really get it.
Last Sunday, I found one. Indianapolis’ Frank Reich gets it.
His game last Sunday presented as Aaron Rodgers and his 116.4 passer rating (best in football) against a Colts defense that ranked first overall (in yards allowed) and second against the pass. Furthermore, Indy came into the contest holding opposing passers to a 78.9 rating – the lowest permitted by any team.
It was the irresistible force against the immovable object.
But, during a nightmare first thirty minutes, the immovable object that formerly was the Indianapolis pass defense got itself moved all over the field. The Packers put 4 touchdowns on the board, 3 of them on passes from Rodgers. Aaron took a 121.9 rating into the locker room, having completed 13 of 16 passes (that’s 81.3%) for 160 yards (that’s ten yards per attempted pass).
When you considered that running the football was not a strength of that offense, along with the strong possibility that Rodgers might keep doing in the second half what he did to you in the first, you could make a very strong case for putting the ball in Philip Rivers’ hands and hoping he could work a miracle.
So, imagine my surprise when Frank opened the second half with 8 consecutive running plays. Imagine the message that sends – to both teams.
When Rivers finally threw his first pass of the second half (a one-yard completion to De’Michael Harris), Indy’s initial drive of the half had already consumed 55 yards and four-and-a-half minutes.
It was the opening salvo of a drive that would eventually reach 14 plays (only one more run) and 56 yards while eating up the first 7 minutes and 17 seconds of the quarter.
The drive only ended in a field goal (trimming the deficit to 28-17) and so was quickly forgotten. But that drive and those running plays re-wrote the narrative of the game. On their subsequent possession, Green Bay went three and out – their lack of offensive rhythm very much influenced by the length of the Indianapolis drive, and the next thing you know, the Colt offense was back on the field with the ball at their own 40. Three minutes and 57 seconds later, Indy was in the end zone, with a subsequent two-point conversion cutting the Packer lead to just 3 with a full quarter to go. And the comeback was on.
Here is the principle that Reich understands that eludes most other coaches. Most coaches trailing in the second half think only of points – and throwing the football seems the most direct way to put points on the board. More important, though, than points is control of the game and the momentum that comes with that control.
For the first seven-plus minutes of the second half, Indianapolis imposed its will on Green Bay. Even though they still trailed by 11 after that drive, they were now in control of the game. The line of scrimmage belonged to them, and the final result – a 34-31 overtime win (gamebook) (summary) was really – at that point – a foregone conclusion.
Over the last 32:50 of the game (counting in 2:50 of overtime), Indianapolis ran the ball 24 times and controlled the clock for 21:02 of that time.
As for the Packers, their game plan dissolved in the second half. Green Bay is one of the teams that occasionally forgets that it needs its running game. After gaining 56 rushing yards on 14 first-half runs, the Packers employed the running game only four times in the second half –for just 10 yards. Rodgers filled in the void with 22 passes, but without his first-half efficiency. Aaron completed just 14 of them for 151 yards.
The offense also committed a critical turnover – an overtime fumble that set up the game winning field goal.
Rivers finished the contest with 288 passing yards and 3 touchdown tosses of his own – good for a 107.2 rating. He and the defense that held Green Bay to one field goal over the last two-plus quarters were the stars of the game accounts. But all of it grew out of the beginning of the second half when Frank Reich let his offensive line put its collective foot on the neck of the Packer defense.
The game was never the same thereafter.
Playoff Implications – NFC
The loss drops Green Bay a game behind New Orleans for the top seed in the NFC. The Packers hold the potential tie-breaker (a head-to-head win in Week Three), but are now trailing the Saints.
New Orleans – in its first game this season without Drew Brees – earned a 24-9 victory against Atlanta. This was Taysom Hill’s first start at quarterback, and he acquitted himself well. There is never a “great” time to have your starting quarterback go down. But as I pointed out last week, if the Saints have to loose Brees for a while, this would be the stretch of their schedule to do it in. Hill’s performance gives New Orleans every confidence that they can weather the storm.
But the biggest news affecting the NFC side of the playoff race is the revival of the New Orleans defense. The Falcon game – during which Atlanta scored no touchdowns while managing just 248 yards and 14 first downs – was the third consecutive dominant outing for the Saints’ defense.
Beginning with their vivisection of Tampa Bay in Week Nine, New Orleans has yielded a total of 25 points over the last three games (which is about the NFL average for one game), during which time they have surrendered totals of 1 touchdown, 109 rushing yards and 2.5 yards per rush against them. On the passing end, Tom Brady, Nick Mullens and Matt Ryan have combined for a 52.1 passer rating, while being sacked 13 times and intercepted 7 times (among 9 total takeaways).
It’s understandable that not much was made of their pushing around an injured San Francisco team, but Tampa Bay is one of the most highly regarded offenses in the league, and while the Falcons have struggled on defense, their offense has still been one of the more productive outfits in the league. Entering the game, the Falcons were averaging 27 points a game and were fourth in the league in passing offense. For his part, Ryan came into the contest carrying a 99.0 rating, founded on completing 67.2% of his passes, with a 15-5 touchdown-to-interception rate. Until the game against the Saints, he hadn’t thrown more than one interception in any game this season, or been sacked more than four times. In eight of those first nine games, Matt had been sacked once or twice. The only blemish was a Week Four loss in Green Bay, where Ryan hit the deck 4 times.
Against the Saints, Ryan was picked twice and sacked 8 times on his way to a season-low 48.5 rating.
The defense was, really, the one weakness that looked like it might keep New Orleans out of the top seed. Now, with the defense coming to the party, it looks like the Saints will be very hard to catch.
Meanwhile, in the NFC East, it’s increasingly difficult to hold on to Philadelphia as the champion there. Before their Week Nine bye, the Eagles had squeaked out important division wins against the Giants and Cowboys that seemed to put them in the driver’s seat. More than that, the Eagles had the look at that point of a team that was about to figure themselves out.
But, coming out of the bye, they have lost winnable games against the Giants and Browns. If you look at this team, you realize that except for those two wins just before their bye, the Eagles are a 1-6-1 team, with their only other win against a banged up San Francisco team (although, I grant that you could say nearly the same thing about every other team in this division).
All of the NFC East contenders have increasingly tough schedules for the rest of the season – but the Eagles might have the toughest. Coming up for them over the next four weeks are Seattle, Green Bay, New Orleans and Arizona. Then they go on the road into Dallas. Even in the less-than-mediocre NFC East, the Eagles will have to get a lot better real fast to hang in there.
Looking at the rest of the division – and based on the fact that they’ve already swept their season series with Washington – I’m going to pencil the New York Football Giants in as the champ of this division. The Cowboys won an emotional contest against Minnesota last week. But emotion is something you can only ride for so long. Dallas will finish the season going into New York to play the Giants in the game that will probably decide this division. Even though there may not be a significant number of fans in the stands, the fact that the Cowboys will have to combat the elements slides the advantage to the Giants in this one.
Monday Night Defense
The 55 rushing yards that the Colts piled up in their first 8 rushes of their second half were more ground yards than either of the Monday Night contestants managed for the entire game. The Los Angeles Rams – who earned the 27-24 victory (gamebook) (summary) ended the night with 37 yards on 20 carries, while Tampa Bay managed just 42 yards on 18 carries.
The Rams went into halftime nursing a 17-14 lead with the running game having contributed only 5 yards (on just 6 carries). For their part, the Buccaneers ran 10 times for just 19 yards. A 6-yard run from Ronald Jones was the longest running play for either side in the first half. For the game, the single longest running play for either side belonged to the Rams’ Malcom Brown, who squeaked out a 14-yard gain off a draw-play on third-and-16.
Certainly, both teams might have tried to run the ball a little more – but on Monday Night there would have been little point. In the clash between the NFL’s second- (LA) and third – (TB) best defenses, the game belonged to both defensive lines. Remembering that the average running play in the NFL this season earns 4.31 yards – 2.43 yards before contact and 1.88 after, it’s instructive to note that as these two teams combined to average 2.08 yards total per rush, they managed just 1.13 yards before contact and 0.95 yards after contact.
For the first 30 minutes, the passing attacks were enough to compensate for the missing running attacks. Brady hit 16 of 24 (albeit for just 119 yards). He threw a touchdown pass and wasn’t intercepted (a 92.2 rating). The Rams’ Jared Goff completed 21 of 25 (84%) for 212 yards and 2 touchdowns (without interception) – a 128.7 rating.
In particular, the Ram game plan – unwilling to let the high-blitz Buccaneer defense tee-off on their quarterback – emphasized the quick pass. While all of the NFL averages 7.85 air yards per attempted pass, Jared was tossing at targets just 5.20 yards downfield. The attack was heavily wide-receiver oriented, as Cooper Kupp was targeted 13 times (he caught 11 for 145 yards) and Robert Woods had 15 passes tossed in his direction (he caught 12 for another 130 yards and a touchdown), but even at that it wasn’t an up-the-field attack. Goff threw only one pass over 20 yards in the air, opting instead to throw short to the receivers and letting them add yards after the catch. Kupp was an average of 6.5 yards up the field when he made his catches, and Woods was an average of just 5.1 yards from scrimmage when he hauled in his passes. Both receivers gained most of their yardage after the catch (74 for Kupp and 69 for Woods).
Jared also made good use of his tight ends. Tyler Higbee and Gerald Everett combined for eight catches for 46 yards.
Both passing attacks flailed in the second half. Goff finished with just 164 passing yards on his last 18 completions (9.11 per) and had his one touchdown pass offset by 2 second half interceptions – a disappointing 66.8 rating. As for Tampa Bay, Tom Brady endured a miserable second half. Under intense pressure – especially middle pressure – Brady finished just 10 of 24 (41.7%) for just 97 yards (4.04 yards per attempt and 9.7 per completion). He also threw 2 interceptions to offset his one touchdown pass and finished the half with a 32.8 passer rating.
There were 20 points scored in the second half – 17 of them off turnovers.
Increasingly we hear Tampa Bay coach Bruce Arians speak in frustrated tones about his high-priced quarterback. You would get the feeling from him that Brady’s failings were the cause of the Buccaneer offensive inconsistencies. My read is that Brady has played pretty well overall. The problems have been elsewhere.
Bruce wants to run a home-run ball offense – which is all well and good. But he needs pass protection to be able to do that. Especially in the second half, when the Rams knew they didn’t have to worry about the run, they poured into the Buc backfield rushing Tom on nearly every play. Unlike Goff, Brady kept trying to deliver footballs up the field – he threw six passes over 20 yards in the air – going 0-for-6 with both of his interceptions.
Antonio Brown – another down-field target – has almost completely absorbed Scott Miller’s snaps. Monday night Brown played 43 snaps, while Scotty had only 15, getting no official targets. Miller is the quick sideline-to-sideline receiver that would run the patterns that Julian Edelman ran for him in New England.
And when Tom does try to check it down, he hasn’t gotten a lot of help there either. Leonard Fournette dropped 3 passes Monday night, and his other running back (Jones) dropped another. Both have now dropped 5 passes already this season and are both dropping more than 10% of the passes thrown to them (the NFL average is 4.69%).
It’s enough to make one long for James White.
Candidly, as long as Arians continues to push the blame onto Brady’s shoulders, the longer it will take Tampa bay to fix things. If you want to run the offense that he wants to run, you can’t have constant pressure up the middle, you have to balance the game plan with a running attack, and people have to catch the passes thrown to them. There’s enough systemic blame to go around, here.
About the Tampa Bay Defense
While the offense has scuffled some in Tampa, the defense has been ringing up gaudy numbers. But the Buccaneer D isn’t without its share of flaws – issues that will almost certainly cost them in the playoffs.
The Bucs are tied with Pittsburgh as football’s second-most blitzing team. They send an extra rusher 41.9% of the time. But this is more from necessity than choice. Unlike the Rams, Tampa Bay can’t really generate much of a pass rush from their four down-linemen. If they don’t blitz, they don’t pressure.
This means that DC Todd Bowles can only call man coverages when they blitz, because man coverages with no pass rush are an invitation to disaster.
Frankly, zone coverage without pass rush pressure doesn’t work out well either – as witnessed by the 69.2% completions against this defense. But at least the zone defenses allow fewer big plays off the completions.
And so, the Bucs blitz and blitz and blitz. And it mostly works out well. But it’s a tightrope walk that will, eventually, backfire on them.
There’s a lot of talent – offensive and defensive – in Tampa Bay, enough for people to tout them as Super Bowl contenders. But here in Week 12, the warts are starting to show.
Speaking of Warts
After a magical 2019, Baltimore has suffered through a disappointing 2020. Defenses have caught up a bit with the seemingly unstoppable offense of a year ago – setting up the precipitous decline from the 14-2 team they were last year to the 6-4 team they currently are.
Their last loss, though, might have been particularly galling – and particularly foreboding. Playing at home against the team that ended their dream last year, the Ravens opened up a 21-10 lead with only 9:34 left in the third quarter. For all of the offensive inconsistency that they have endured recently, the one constant has been that defense. Football’s top blitzing defense (44.0% through their first 9 games), the Ravens were also the toughest to score against – having allowed just 165 points to that point in the season. An eleven-point lead with a little more than a quarter-and-a-half to go should have been money in the bank.
But – as the Colts did against the Packers – the Titans came back against the Ravens. After being completely disrupted by the Raven’s blitz in the first half, quarterback Ryan Tannehill picked the Raven secondary – blitz and all – apart in the second half, bringing Tennessee all the way back for a 30-24 overtime victory (gamebook) (summary).
The Ravens certainly came after Ryan. They blitzed on 19 of his 35 drop-backs (54.3%). And for the first 30 minutes, it was a scheme that worked. Ryan was 7 for 13 for just 42 yards, a touchdown and a pick at halftime – a 54.0 rating.
But the Titans shored up the protection and started taking advantage of the Baltimore blitzes in the second half. Tannehill completed 15 of 18 (83.3%) in the second half for 217 yards (12.06 yards per pass attempt) with one touchdown – a 135.4 rating.
In the two biggest passes of the second half – the 50-yarder to Corey Davis that jump-started the comeback, and the 11-yard touchdown pass to A.J. Brown – Tennessee took advantage of cornerback Marcus Peters in coverage. Peters was the signature addition to the Raven defense when they got him last year – and Marcus is one of the most dangerous ball-hawks in the game. But Peters will give up big plays, too – one reason the Rams were willing to part with him.
If you are a Raven fan, then you are hoping that this was just a one-off situation. The last thing you need right now is for your defense (which was pushed around for 320 total yards in the second half and 4:39 of overtime) to start to become mortal.
The Raven Passing Attack – Again
A couple weeks ago when they almost beat Pittsburgh, it looked like the Ravens had re-discovered the secret of their passing game. Lamar Jackson – as you remember – came out flinging quick, short passes underneath the coverages. Whatever was re-discovered that week has been lost again.
Jackson averaged 9.93 air yards for every attempted pass – one of the five highest totals for the week. Even though he threw the ball only 29 times, 6 of those (20.7%) went over 20 yards downfield. He did complete two of them (including one for a touchdown), but also fueled the Titan comeback with an interception when he overthrew his target.
Baltimore keeps trying to prove to the world (and maybe to themselves) that Jackson is a legitimate deep threat with his arm. So far, without measurable positive results.
Playoff Implications – AFC
The Ravens, the Titans, the Colts. Over the last handful of weeks, these teams have kind of taken the measure of each other. Baltimore pushed Indianapolis around in Week Nine. Indy came back the next week and handled the Titans – who last Sunday did unto the Ravens. It’s a bit of rock-paper-scissors with playoff implications. With their win over Green Bay, I have to start taking Indianapolis seriously – and acknowledge that their win over Tennessee (in Tennessee) gives Indy the inside on the division title – especially if they can hold serve on their home court against the Titans this Sunday.
If they do, that would position the Colts as the four seed, and drop the Titans into the five slot. With their loss to Tennessee, the Ravens would fall to the sixth seed.
Meanwhile, I’m going to backtrack on the Dolphins. Last week when I speculated about them, perhaps, claiming the second seed in the conference, there was a caveat – unless this young team started losing games they were supposed to win. That’s more-or-less what I saw in their loss to the Broncos.
This Miami team seems to be a team capable of rising to the occasion. They will play very well in big games against top teams. But young teams sometimes have trouble sustaining that focus and intensity against lesser teams. Kansas City (winners of a gritty contest against the Raiders) are again my favorites for that second seed, with Miami still looking to me like a solid number three.
At least, that’s how I’m seeing it this week.