A Time to Refrain from Sliding

There were 57 seconds left in the first half – a 6-6 tie between the Los Angeles Rams and the Seattle Seahawks.  The Rams, out of time outs, faced a third-and-eight on their own 27-yard line.

Abandoning the pocket, Ram quarterback Jared Goff was scrambling towards the first-down that would keep the drive going.  But as he approached the sticks, and linebacker Bobby Wagner closed in, Jared slid to a stop one yard before the marker, setting up a Ram punt.

In the broadcast booth, ex-Dallas quarterback Troy Aikman reviewed the play, and watching Jared slide short, he pointed out that “there’s a time to slide and a time to go for it.”

For some time, now, I have been trying to put my finger on exactly what it was about Jared that was preventing me from truly believing in him.  That play – and the comment by Aikman – helped clarify the thing for me.

The particular play, of course, mattered little.  Even if he had ducked his head and plowed through for the first down, the Rams were still in their own territory with 40-some seconds and no time outs – an unlikely scenario for more scoring.  But of great significance is the revelation that emerged from the moment.

Put into the language of the Proverbs, there is a time to slide, and a time to refrain from sliding.  Jared didn’t slide due to any lack of toughness.  Later in the game, Goff would break his thumb against a helmet, would pop the thumb “back in,” and continue playing.  He slid because he didn’t realize that it was a time to refrain from sliding.

Coach Sean McVay’s system is called “quarterback friendly.”  What that means is that the system defines things very clearly for the quarterback in most situations.  The system features a lot of boots and roll-outs that give Jared a lot of one-key options (if the safety comes in, throw it over his head; if he stays back, throw underneath him).  Usually the game plan features a lot of play action (on average, the Rams run play action about 50% more often than the average offense).  This pulls linebackers in toward the line, widening the gap between the levels of the defense.

(On Sunday afternoon, for some reason, LA got away from its play-action identity, calling it only 9 times.)

When Goff can roll out of his break and see what he is looking for in the secondary, he can be very decisive and very effective.

It also helps that the Rams’ concept is heavy on short passes to receivers with room to add yardage after the catch.  At the beginning of the week, Jared was running football’s fourth shortest passing game – his average completion was to a receiver just 4.8 yards from scrimmage.  But that receiver would then add an average of 6 more yards after the catch (the second highest after-the-catch average in the league).

Jared’s problems come when things don’t go quite according to plan – as happened on this particular scramble.  Jared was caught in-between at the decisive moment.  Go for it? Slide?

When the moment comes too quickly for him, Jared goes with a reaction – a reflex really.  There’s the defender – time to slide.

It was the exact process behind Goff’s worst moment in Los Angeles’ 20-9 loss to Seattle (gamebook) (summary).

The possession before, leading 6-3, the Rams began on their own 14 with 8:37 left before the half.  Ten plays later, LA had moved the ball 47 yards to the Seattle 29, while nursing 5:06 off the clock.

On first-and-ten, the Rams ran play-action.  But Goff was flushed from the pocket and came scrambling out to his right.  As he approached the line of scrimmage and the sideline at about the same time, it was decision time.  Run the ball?  Throw it away?  Try to find a receiver?

There was no time for him to ponder, so Jared reacted.  Downfield he caught a flash of receiver Robert Wood somewhere up the sideline.  He came to a nearly full stop just as he was about to reach the line, thought it over for the briefest of moments before trying to flip the ball up-field to Woods.

The ball fluttered away from the line, where Quandre Diggs closed on it and made the interception.

Defending the Rams

Throughout the game, Seattle was able – in a lot of ways – to speed things up for Jared, putting him in that in-between zone for much of the afternoon.

As their defense has been coming together coming down the stretch, Seattle has been able to generate a significant pass rush with just their down linemen.  Even though the Seahawks sent an extra rusher only 11 times, the pressure on Jared was steady throughout the game.  Goff ended up being sacked 3 times (all in the second half) and hit a total of 9 times – part of 18 pressures that kept pushing him into that in-between zone.

Additionally, they sat on Jared’s short routes, forcing him to look farther up the field.  His average completion in this game was to a receiver 6.75 yards from scrimmage (who then added only 3.00 additional yards after the catch).  It was not an offensive style that the Rams are comfortable in.

Seattle also took away the right sideline – the side that Jared rolls to when he’s in trouble.  Jared was just 5 of 13 (38.5%) when throwing to the right side of the field for 70 yards and that one interception.

It was a nuanced game-plan from an opponent that understands Jared’s strengths and weaknesses very well.

Is this fixable?  I’m not sure.  None of his issues have anything to do with what Jared knows or what he has or hasn’t been coached to do.  It’s that moment when his instincts take over that he gets into trouble.  And I’m not sure what to do about a quarterback’s instincts.

Missed Opportunities

The interception caused at least a three-point swing – if not a ten-point swing – as Seattle turned the mistake into a field goal (remember that the Rams were within field goal range at the time).  It was one of three Ram drives that lasted at least 5 minutes.  They scored a total of 3 points off of those drives.

On their first possession of the second half, LA drove 69 yards on 12 plays in a drive that lasted 7:17.  It brought them to first-and-goal from the 2.

From there they ran on four straight plays, being turned away each time.  Would one of those downs have been a good opportunity for a play-action pass?  Possibly.  But I find I can’t argue with a coach who wants to run the ball right at them in that situation.  It is axiomatic in football that if you can’t get one yard when you really need it (especially when you take four shots at it), that you don’t really deserve to win.

In the Rams’ case last Sunday afternoon, they couldn’t, and they didn’t.

Not How You Start

One of the game’s most instinctual quarterbacks played for the other team.  That would be Russell Wilson.  Long regarded as one of the better deep throwers in the game, Wilson missed that deep shot several times in the first half.  Harassed himself by the Ram front four, Wilson went into the locker at the half with that 6-6 tie, and little production to show for the first 30 minutes.  Wilson was 10-of-19 (52.6%) for only 84 yards.

On the first third-down of the second half, Russell rolled out and lofted a 45-yard beauty up the right sideline to David Moore.  It led to the game’s first touchdown, and sparked a second half in which Wilson completed 10 of 13 (76.9%) for 141 yards (10.85 yards per attempted pass).

The Seahawks look a lot better as they head into the playoffs than they did last year (and this win clinched the division title for them).  This year, their defense looks to be a strength (you couldn’t say that last year) and they have healthy running backs (remember last year that all of their running backs were injured).

And, of course, they have Russell Wilson.  Seattle looks like they will be a tough out.

A Time to Throw Long

In Week 11, the Pittsburgh Steelers went to 10-0 with a relatively easy 27-3 conquest of Jacksonville.  At that point, it looked like the AFC would be coming down to Pittsburgh and Kansas City.

Ten games into the season, the Steelers were scoring 29.8 points a game, never scoring fewer than 24 in any one game.  Defensively, they were allowing just 17.4 points per game.  Offensively, they were football’s fourth highest-scoring team, while the defense led all of football in fewest points allowed.  They also ranked fourth in total yardage given up (third against the pass).  The 71.8 passer rating against them was the lowest in football.  They also led all defenses in sacks (38) and sack rate (9.9%).

Utilizing a new quick-pass offensive style, 38-year-old quarterback Ben Roethlisberger was sustaining a 101.4 passer rating, while being sacked just 10 times (only 2.6% of his drop-backs).  Things couldn’t have gone much better for the Steelers to that point.

All of that changed with their Week 12 game against the Baltimore Ravens – this was the game that was postponed about three times and finally played with about half of the Ravens on the COVID list.  Pittsburgh squeaked to a 19-14 win, but things wouldn’t be the same thereafter.  The Steelers lost the next three games, scoring 17 points against Washington, 15 against Buffalo, and – shockingly – just 17 against Cincinnati.  (The defense served up a total of 76 points during that stretch, as well – over the four games just preceding, Pittsburgh had surrendered a total of 46 points).

During this offensive brown-out, Pittsburgh converted just 11 of 41 third downs, and their running game – never among the league’s best – completely disappeared.  Through ten games, they were averaging 102.2 rushing yards a game and 3.9 yards per carry (both figures below the league averages).  During the losing streak, they managed just 51.3 rushing yards a game and just 2.9 per carry.

As for Ben and the short passing game, teams had begun to sink their coverages securely around all the quick-opening underneath routes.  His completion percentage dropped from 67.1% to 57.8%, his per-pass average fell from 6.67 yards to 5.17 yards, his yards per completion went from 9.9 to 8.9, and his touchdown percentage fell from 6.3 to 3.9.  Meanwhile his interception percentage rose from 1.3 to 3.1.  During the losing streak, Roethlisberger’s touchdown-to-interception ratio was a struggling 5-4, and his passer rating sat at 71.8 – exactly what Pittsburgh’s defense had held opposing passers to over those first ten games.  Add in a case of the drops that his receivers suffered through (and during one three-game stretch Ben had 14 of his passes dropped) and you have a picture of an offense in a bit of a crisis.

Clearly, it was time to change things up.  Defenses would now have to be loosened up, or they would smother the life out of the Steelers.

With the division title there for the taking, Pittsburgh welcomed the 10-4 Indianapolis Colts into Heinz Field for a critical Week 16 matchup rife with playoff implications.  Certainly, the message of the past few weeks had registered.  It was time to throw the ball long.

But for thirty horrific minutes against the Colts, things just snowballed.  Roethlisberger completed only 11 of 20 through that first half for but 98 yards.  The rushing attack accounted for just 4 yards on seven rushes – none of them gaining more than 2 yards.

Indianapolis trotted off the field at the half having outgained the Steelers 217-93, and their 21-7 halftime lead was only marred by a short-field touchdown allowed.  Pittsburgh’s defense had briefly risen to the moment, striping the ball away from Indianapolis quarterback Philip Rivers in the early moments of the second quarter.  The recovery was advanced to the Indy 3-yard line – about as far as the Steeler offense could sustain a drive.

In the aftermath of Pittsburgh’s surprising 28-24 comeback victory (gamebook) (summary), the questions posed to Ben and to head coach Mike Tomlin wondered why they waited till the second half to throw the ball up the field.  The answer, of course, was that they didn’t.  The deep strike had been a part of the game plan from the beginning, but throughout the first two quarters they just couldn’t connect with the big play.

One, in particular, worth remembering came with 14 seconds left in the half.  Diontae Johnson flew up the right sideline, and Ben let it go for him.  But Johnson veered his route back toward the middle, while Roethlisberger’s throw continued up the sideline.  In the locker room at the half, the two got together and compared notes on the play.

Say this for the Steelers and Tomlin their coach.  Through all of this, there was no panic.  They knew that they just needed to hit on one of those plays to dispel the dark clouds and get a little momentum going.

And so it was, with 3:23 left in the third quarter and the Steelers now down 24-7, that Johnson flew up that same right sideline and Roethlisberger lofted that same pass.  This time, however, Johnson’s route hugged that sideline.  He finally caught up with the pass at about the point he was crossing the goal line.  In the signature moment of the comeback, Diontae laid out for the throw.  Responsible for 13 drops this season, this time Johnson reeled in the big one, and the rally was on.

During the rousing second half, Ben completed 23 of his last 29 passes (79.3%) for 244 yards and 3 touchdowns.  He completed 3 passes of more than 20 yards up-field.  In addition to the 39-yard strike to Johnson, Ben completed a 34-yarder to Chase Claypool and the rally capping 25-yard touchdown toss to JuJu Smith-Schuster.  That throw – with 7:38 left in the contest – gave Pittsburgh it’s only lead of the afternoon – the only one they would need.  The one that produced the 28-24 final.

Ben entered the contest running the NFL’s third-shortest passing game.  His average completion was only 4.5 yards from the line of scrimmage.  On Sunday, his average completion was 6.09 yards from scrimmage – which is about the league average.  The quick pass was still very much a part of the offense – in fact, 84% of Ben’s throws (including all three touchdown passes) were out of his hand in less than 2.5 seconds.  Coming into the game, only 75% of his throws were out of his hand that quickly.

The difference on Sunday was how well the passing game did when Ben did hold the ball for more than 2.5 seconds.  Through the first 14 games of the season, Ben’s passer rating when he held the ball was a disappointing 63.5.  Last Sunday, he was 6-for-7 for 88 yards when taking more than 2.5 seconds.

Going Forward

It was certainly a relief for the Steeler organization to break through a little bit like this.  It’s probably premature, though, to assume that their struggles are over.  The pass offense in general will profit from this slight change in emphasis.  There is nothing like hitting a few deep throws to get the defense to back off and open up some underneath routes.  The running game, though, is still a mess.  Pittsburgh came out of the Colt contest with all of 20 rushing yards and a 1.4 yard average per carry.  Colt running back Jonathan Taylor had almost that many on one carry (he broke off an 18-yard run in their first possession of the second half).

Until they fix their running game, I don’t believe in the Steelers’ ability to run the table in the playoffs.  As opposed to last year, very few of the teams likely to make the playoffs are run-dependent teams.  But almost all of them – especially the ones that are most likely to bring home the hardware – have a legitimate running game that they can turn to whenever they need to.  Pittsburgh does not.  At some point during the playoffs that is almost certainly going to bring them down.

The Disappearance of the Colt Running Game

After running the ball 20 times in the first half, Indianapolis ran just 8 times in the second.  After controlling the clock for 18:17 of the first half, they held the ball for just 14:11 thereafter, adding fuel to the Pittsburgh comeback.

In the post-game, questions were asked about the disappearance of the running attack.  Coach Frank Reich informed the press that they had more runs called, but they checked out of them when the Steelers showed certain pressures.  Elaborating on the situation, Rivers offered that the Colts had called running plays from formations with three wide-receivers on the field.  The intent was that Pittsburgh would remove a linebacker in favor of a defensive back and open up some running space.  But according to Philip, Pittsburgh stayed with their base personnel, and Indy chose not to run against that front seven without significant numbers of big people on the field to block them.

They weren’t asked why they didn’t run more large-package formations (two or three tight ends, for example) and try to keep the running game going.

A Time to Refrain from Throwing Long

Matt Ryan’s season has been opposite – in many ways – from Ben Roethlisberger’s season.  Record, of course, is an obvious point of comparison.  Pittsburgh took the field against Indy carrying an 11-3 record.  As Ryan’s Atlanta Falcons took the field in Kansas City to play the reigning world champions, they sported a 4-10 record.

But more than record separates these two veteran quarterbacks – the very styles of their passing attacks are strikingly different.  Where Roethlisberger has spent almost the entire season throwing short, quick passes, Ryan’s attack has been one of football’s most up-field attacks.  Going into last Sunday’s contest against the Chiefs, Matt was second in the league in air yards per pass thrown.  His average target was 8.8 yards from scrimmage.  He led the entire NFL in air yards per completed pass, with his average completion occurring 7.5 yards from scrimmage.

Some of this is certainly game-situation related.  The Falcons have been behind a lot this year.  But mostly this is an organization that believes that if you have a quarterback with a strong arm and top-shelf receivers like Julio Jones (who missed this game), Calvin Ridley and Russell Gage, then your offense should be doing more than dumping screen passes to running backs.

And so Ryan has taken his shots up the field.  Targeted 68 times, Jones has been an average of 11.2 yards from scrimmage for every pass thrown in his direction.  Ridley’s average is 15.1 yards away for each of his 131 targets.  Another receiver (who also didn’t play last Sunday) Olamide Zaccheaus has been targeted 32 times this year at an average distance of 13.8 yards upfield.

Against Kansas City, you could make the argument that this mind-set should continue, the assumption being that with the Chief scoring machine on the other sideline, your own offense should be all about the points – as many as possible as quickly as possible.

The problem was that the game’s biggest statistical mismatch was Patrick Mahomes and the Kansas City passing attack (ranked first in the NFL) against the Falcon passing defense (ranked second to last).  The Chiefs ranked above average to well above average in every significant passing statistic – including passer rating, where Mahomes ranked third at 110.6.  The Falcon defense ranked below average to well below average in every significant passing statistic – including passer rating, where their 103.2 ranked fifth-worst.  These numbers suggest that for the Falcons – or anyone, really – to try to bomb it out with the Chiefs – trying to match them touchdown pass for touchdown pass – is mostly like bringing a butter knife to a gun fight.

So, Atlanta tried a different approach.  While coaches Raheem Morris and Jeff Ulbrich fashioned a daring defensive game plan that worked better than it had any right to, offensive coordinator Dirk Koetter played complimentary football.  The offensive objective was to control the clock, keep Mahomes and his receivers on the sideline – hopefully at the end of the day denying them a possession on two.  So Atlanta ran the ball as much as they legitimately could (which turned out to be 23 rushes).

And they went to the short passing game.

In contrast to the offense run most of the season, Matt and the Falcons went all Ben Roethlisberger on the Chiefs.  Of Matt’s 35 passes, only 3 were at targets more than 20 yards from scrimmage.  With two of his top wide-receivers on the shelf, Matt dropped the ball off liberally to his tight ends and running backs.  Eighteen of his passes went to that grouping.  Ridley still provided the occasional long threat (he was an average of 15.0 yards downfield on his 9 targets), but Gage became another check-down option.  Targeted 5 times, Russell finished with 4 catches for 23 yards – his average depth of target being just 1.4 yards.

For the game, Matt’s average target was 6.51 yards from scrimmage – still higher than average, but more than two yards shorter than normal.  To this point of the season, the Falcons were averaging only 4.0 yards after the catch.  Against KC they averaged 5.56.  In fact, in the final analysis, Ryan’s 300-yard passing game broke exactly evenly between yards in the air (150) and yards after the catch (also 150).

The results were as much as Atlanta could have hoped for.  Matt completed 10 of 12 (83.3%) in the first half for 129 yards (10.75 per attempted pass).  For the game, he completed 77.1% of his passes (27 of 35), tossed a couple of touchdowns, and finished with a 121.1 passer rating against a very good pass defense.

This in spite of the fact that he was blitzed almost half of the time (19 of his 39 drop-backs), was sacked 4 times and hit 12 times on the day.  The Falcons finished with only 14 points, but did so while controlling the clock (33:12) and limiting KC’s possessions (they had 10 instead of the normal 12 or 13).

It was a very gritty offensive performance that gave this team a legitimate shot at the upset.

A Time to Blitz

Two, of course, can play at the blitzing game, and Atlanta returned the favor by coming after Mahomes.  They came after him with an extra rusher 39.1% of the time (18 blitzes in 46 drop-backs) and played aggressive man-coverage behind.  Much of the success of the plan – and it did succeed – came, I think, from the surprise factor.  It was probably the last thing that KC expected.

Few teams challenge the athleticism of the KC receivers.  And few teams come after Mahomes.  Over the course of the season coming into that game, Patrick was seeing blitzes only 20.2% of the time – mostly because he is one of football’s best at picking apart teams that blitz him.

In the postgame, Patrick owned that he missed checking into some protections and didn’t find the hot routes that he usually does.  As much as anything else, I believe that had to do with the surprise of the Atlanta game plan.  Patrick was rarely hit or hurried as the line did its usual excellent job of picking up the blitz.  Mahomes wasn’t sacked.  But his timing was visibly effected.

Patrick ended his afternoon with a pedestrian 79.5 passer rating – his lowest of the season.  His final line showed him below the NFL average in all of the passing categories, except yards per completion.  As you might expect against a defense that featured a heavy dose of blitz, there were some big plays hit, and Patrick did pick up 278 yards on his 24 completions (11.58 per).

All things considered, though, on both sides of the ball the Falcons delivered a surprising effort against arguably football’s best team.  It was almost enough to secure them the victory.

In Their Grasp

The game deciding sequence began with just 2:07 left in the contest.  Trailing 14-10, the Chiefs faced first-and-ten on the Atlanta 25.  Mahomes went for it all, lofting a pass for Tyreek Hill in the middle of the end zone down the right sideline.

Just in front of him, a leaping AJ Terrell, in a breath-taking show of athleticism, soared above Hill’s head and latched onto the ball at its highest point, pulling down the interception that would almost certainly end Kansas City’s long winning streak.  Except that as he landed in the end zone, the impact jarred the ball out of his grasp.

You knew what would happen then.

On the very next play, Damarcus Robinson shook free of Kendall Sheffield (who had no safety help) to gather in the 25-yard pass that put the Chiefs back in front 17-14.

Atlanta still had 1:55 of clock left and two time outs.  And true to their plucky nature, back came the Falcons.  Ryan completed three quick passes to bring Atlanta to the KC 28 yard line with a minute left.  Later, an offsides penalty put the Falcons on the Chief 21-yard line, first-and-five, 27 seconds left – Atlanta still with two timeouts.

Three incomplete passes later, now with 14 seconds left, Atlanta brought out Pro-Bowl kicker Younghoe Koo – riding a streak of 27 consecutive field goals – to give them a tie and send the game into overtime.

And, of course, he missed – the kick fluttering wide to the right.  And with that, Kansas City’s amazing streak continues (gamebook) (summary).  The Chiefs have now won 10 in a row, 14 of 15 for the season, and 23 of their last 24.

For all of that, though, there is a strong sense that this is a Kansas City team that’s winning on guile, guts and a fair amount of luck.  Of their ten straight wins, the last seven have all been one-score games (and four of those have been decided by a field goal).  This list includes excellent teams like New Orleans and Tampa Bay, but also includes several that you would think should be more easily subdued – Carolina, Denver and, of course, Atlanta.  They are now winning games that they probably should lose.

That’s all well and good, but I have this unshakeable feeling that a tough-luck loss is coming for them.  I absolutely concur that this is football’s best team, but even the best team loses from time to time.  At this point, that loss could well interrupt their playoff run.  If that loss comes.

Once More Into the Breach

Meanwhile, the nightmare season for the Falcons now has only one more game to go.  After yet another galling loss to a team on its way to the playoffs, Atlanta now gets a second helping of Tom Brady and the Buccaneers.  I am not even going to attempt to recap all the woulda-shoulda-couldas of the Falcons’ season – the number of late leads lost, the number of near victories – at this point its water under the bridge.

I will say this, though.  This last game against Tampa Bay, I believe, has become very important for this franchise – perhaps even more than it is to the Bucs.  After everything they’ve been through, getting one more shot at Brady, one more chance to prove themselves against a playoff team – one last chance before the season ends to close out a team – all of these things will be enormous for this franchise.

The Proverb says that to everything there is a season.  For the Falcons, though, that season will have to be next season.

Dolphins Run Patriots Out of Playoffs

There were several different scenarios of how this game might play out.  Before the New England Patriots took the field last Sunday in Miami, there were several probable courses this game could take, the most probable of them – despite the disparity of the records and the fact that Miami was playing at home – were scenarios that favored the Patriots.

It was well within probability that the Patriot defense would shut-down Miami’s struggling running attack (which began the day averaging just 95.2 yards per game, and their 3.6 yards per carry was dead last in the NFL).  Once that had happened, the veteran Patriot defense – employing all of their wiles – would surely take advantage of rookie quarterback Tua Tagovailoa, who was not only facing a Bill Belichick defense for the first time in his career, but would be doing so without any of his top five receivers available to him.

Another plausible scenario, amplifying a bit on the first one, had the Patriots’ fifth-ranked running attack controlling the game and keeping Tua and his offense on the sidelines.  Another considered that the Patriots – playing for their playoff lives against a young team that was possibly not yet ready for that kind of intensity – would make some crucial defensive play (or something) to turn a tight game into their favor.

The most plausible scenario that ended with a Miami victory featured the Dolphins’ second-ranked scoring defense keeping New England off the scoreboard long enough for a defensive score or a game-changing play from the special teams to bring them victory.

Far, far down the line and deep into the “very improbable” section of the list was the scenario that had the Dolphins – saddled with one of football’s worst running games – blowing through the Patriot defense to the tune of 250 rushing yards and 3 touchdowns behind a back (Salvon Ahmed) that no one had ever heard of before, while controlling the clock for 37:26.

And yet, exactly that was the story of Miami’s surprising 22-12 vanquishing of the New England Patriots (gamebook) (summary).  In spite of the scenarios, the surprise wasn’t that Miami won (they are 9-5 now, after all).  It was how they did it – their 250 yards being more than the combined total of any two games the Dolphins had previously played this season.

In contemplating the question, “where has this been all season,” I suggest the following possibilities.

The Unknown Backs

In addition to missing all of his top five receivers, Tua was also down his leading rusher.  Myles Gaskin – currently on the COVID list – missed his sixth game of the season.  But they did activate Matt Breida off the COVID list for this game, and paired him with Ahmed – an undrafted rookie out of Washington, making just his third career start.  Salvon finished with a game-high 122 rushing yards, and Breida – who was part of the crowded backfield in San Francisco last year – added an impressive 86 more – averaging 7.2 yards per carry.

Exactly how Ahmed escaped the attention of the rest of the NFL is uncertain.  What is certain is that he can run.  On a 31-yard streak down the right sideline, Salvon reached a top speed of 21.03 mph – making him Week 15’s fastest ball carrier.

For his part, Breida showed unexpected quickness to the outside.  This ability to cut and accelerate was a deciding factor in Matt’s two longest runs.  When Lawrence Guy plugged up the center of the field with 7:24 left in the game, Breida shot to the right and found a seam for a 24-yard gain.

Earlier in the game, with 12:26 left in the third quarter, the Dolphins faced a second-and-one from the Patriot 29.  As the hole opened right up the middle, linebacker Terez Hall poured through to seal it.  It seemed at that point that Hall had Breida dead-to-rights for a loss on the play, but before Terez could make the play, Matt was gone, veering toward – and eventually up – the left sideline.

On the play (which gained 14 yards) no one blocked safety Devin McCourty who had lined up fairly close to that sideline.  Devin saw Matt coming all the way, but Breida still beat him to the sideline and ran past him.

Nothing in this suggests any deficiency on the part of Gaskin, who has played reasonably well when available.  But these lesser known backs – perhaps because they are less known, or because they have fresh legs here in Week 15 – brought a spark to the Dolphin running game that has been mostly missing this season.

An Offensive Line Comes Together

During the broadcast, color commentator Charles Davis – as he watched these events unfold – credited a young offensive line starting to jell.  Dolphin rushers came into the contest getting just 2.14 yards per rush before contact – a figure that reflects heavily on the offensive line, and that was the seventh worst in the NFL.  The team that played against the Patriots didn’t look like that at all.

Miami runners averaged 4.86 yards per carry before contact (the NFL average is 2.45), with Matt Breida leading the way.  On average, over his first 12 carries Matt was 6.3 yards up-field before the first defender could lay a glove on him.

And this wasn’t the case of a couple of big runs skewing the stat-line.  Time after time the Dolphin line pushed the Patriots off the ball and into the secondary.  Of their 42 running plays, 27 earned at least 4 yards (a decisive 63%).  Coming together?  Well, last Sunday they certainly looked like it.

Among those young linemen, the one that I enjoyed watching most was rookie right tackle Robert Hunt, Miami’s first second round pick out of Louisiana, making his ninth career start.  On the 31-yard run by Ahmed mentioned earlier, Hunt was the only blocker – lineman or otherwise – to that side to give Salvon the edge.  No problem.  Robert threw blocks on both the outside defenders (pushing Chase Winovich and Jonathan Jones out of the play) to present Ahmed with a clean sideline.

My favorite play came at the very end of the third quarter.  The Dolphins faced third-and-8 from the Patriot 34.  Miami ran a draw play with Patrick Laird.  Hunt grabbed defensive end Deatrich Wise and not only flung him out of the way, but used him as a kind of human broom to clear out two other defenders (Myles Bryant from the secondary and Winovich trying to pursue from the edge).  Laird ran through the pathway that Hunt cleared for 12 yards and a first down.

How good Hunt will or won’t become, time will tell.  But I like that he plays with an edge – a kind of “get off my lawn” meanness that can be infectious along that offensive line.  I think Dolphin fans are going to enjoy watching young Robert anchor that line for a good many years to come.

Those that pay attention to line play, anyway.

Patriots’ Defensive Erosion

There was 9:03 left in the game. The Dolphins, clinging to a 15-12 lead, had a first-and-ten on their own 25-yard line.  Tua opened to hand the ball to Ahmed, who headed up the middle, only to find the middle well clogged.  Guard Michael Deiter got no movement on Guy, and Ted Karras couldn’t get off his double-team block on Adam Butler in time to clear linebacker Anfernee Jennings out of the middle.  But Salvon gained 13 yards on the play anyway.

From the edge to Ahmed’s right, linebacker Shilique Calhoun crashed in to involve himself on the run up the middle.  As he did, tight end Durham Smythe, pulling left-to-right roll blocked him out of the play, creating a gaping alley around the right end – essentially through the exact area that Calhoun had surrendered.

Among the trunk-full of challenges that New England has dealt with this season is finding healthy defenders.  They lost Patrick Chung and Don’t’a Hightower at the beginning of the season, as they opted out due to COVID concerns, and the Patriots have been steadily losing defensive players ever since.  They lost two more in this game, as top cornerback Stephon Gilmore and linebacker Ja’Whaun Bentley both went down.  Calhoun is a fifth-year linebacker, playing his second season in New England who has made just one career start.  Normally on the field for about 25% of the snaps, Silique found himself playing more than half of the defensive snaps due to Bentley’s injuries.

As the injuries mount, the Patriots have been forced to draw ever deeper into their depth chart, with predictable results – including the erosion of the defensive discipline they were so regarded for last year.  This is especially evident, now, in the run defense.

Two weeks ago, New England ranked eighteenth in the league in run defense.  They have now fallen to twenty-seventh after serving up 436 rushing yards to the Rams and the Dolphins in their last two outings.  They are losing more at the line of scrimmage this year, but the gashing plays are happening as their not-ready-for-prime-time defenders lose track of their containment assignments.  With the loss, New England is officially eliminated from the playoffs – their trying season will run only two more weekends.  In a sense, that’s a mercy.

Dolphins Not Eliminated, But . . .

Even with the win, Miami’s playoff hopes aren’t a whole lot better than New England’s.  In a jostled AFC picture, the Dolphins are clinging to the final spot, leading Baltimore only because of a better conference record.  Baltimore will almost certainly win their final two games (against the Giants and Bengals), so Miami will have to do the same (against Las Vegas and Buffalo – both on the road) to hold their spot.  It will be a tough ask.

But even if the 2020 Dolphins don’t break their three-year playoff drought this year, it’s clear that Brian Flores has this team pointed, again, in the right direction.

 

These Old Guys Don’t Go Down Easy

Tom Brady and Drew Brees have been doing this for a long time.

They are a combined 84 years old, with Brees turning 42 during the playoffs.  They have combined for 41 seasons (counting this one) and 581 starts at the most critical position in their sport.  They have thrown a combined 21,023 passes, completing 13,831 of them (65.8%) for 158,303 yards and 1,141 touchdowns.

They went back and forth for a while this season for the all-time lead in touchdown passes.  With Brees missing the last four weeks with some broken ribs, Tom has earned himself a little separation from Drew.  Brady’s lead in all-time touchdown passes currently sites at 573-568.

These, by the way, are just regular season numbers.  The playoffs are worthy of a chapter of their own.

And then, last Sunday, both of these all-time greats trailed at one point in their games by a combined 31-0.  The games, of course, didn’t end that way.

Brees and His Near Comback

The decision to activate and then start Brees was made rather late in the week.  Up until Wednesday, or so, everyone was expecting another Taysom Hill start.  After missing four weeks, Drew was going to be a little rusty, anyway (and, perhaps, limited reps in practice might have amplified that).  Under the best of circumstances, Kansas City is a difficult team to line up against.

While the offense gets all the ink, Kansas City’s defense has been much more than on-lookers – especially the pass defense.  They might, in fact, be the best defense in the NFL that nobody talks about.  The Chiefs entered the game allowing completions on only 62.4% of the passes thrown against them – football’s third-best figure.  Moreover, they came into the game having made 15 interceptions, and restricting opposing passers to just an 84.2 rating.  This was the fourth best defensive rating in the NFL.

It would be unfair to attribute New Orleans’ slow start completely to rust on Brees’ part.  The Chief defense played very well.  But whatever the balance between rust and tight defense, the game couldn’t have started much worse for Drew and the Saints.  He started off missing on his first 6 passes (including an interception), and New Orleans went three-and-out on its first four possessions (if you include the possession that ended with the interception – which was thrown on third down).

The interception led to a short field (setting up one touchdown), and KC put together an 11-play, 80-yard, 5 minute and 1 second drive for a second touchdown.  In the early moments of the second quarter the Chiefs were ahead 14-0 and looking like they would leave New Orleans in the dust.

Even when Brees did begin to complete some passes, what evolved was a very different New Orleans game plan than we are used to seeing.  Instead of the precision, sideline-to-sideline short passing game, Drew’s attack was decidedly vertical.  Six of his 33 passes (one of his 34 passes was a throw-away) travelled more than 20 air-yards from scrimmage, and 4 others were more than ten yards.  Of his 15 completions, 4 were more than 15 yards upfield.

Accounting for the Change

Drew began the week running the second shortest passing game in the NFL – his average target being just 5.4 yards from the line.  On Sunday, his average target was 8 yards beyond the line of scrimmage (the NFL average is 7.81).  Why the difference?  It could be a combination of several factors.

In his post-game press conference, Drew blamed himself for not taking check-downs, so some of it was due – perhaps – to rusty decision making.  I believe, though, that there was more to it.  Psychologically, when you fall behind 14-0 to a team as dangerous as Kansas City, there must be some anxiety to score quickly to get back into the game .  I also think – especially with Michael Thomas out of the lineup in order to heal for the playoffs – that there was some focus by Kansas City on the short routes, almost as though the Chiefs might dare Brees to beat them over the top.

Whatever the underlying causes, the results were quite uncharacteristic.  Drew finished with an uncharacteristically low completion percentage (44.1 on 15 of 34) and an uncharacteristically low passer rating (84.7).  On the other hand, he also finished with an uncharacteristically high 15.6 yards per completion.  He finished with a very characteristic 3 touchdown passes.

He needed, perhaps, one more possession to bring New Orleans all the way back.  As it was, they fell in a thriller to the Chiefs, 32-29 (gamebook) (summary).

Saints’ Defense Better than the Score Indicates

Kansas City’s final offensive tallies included the 32 points, 411 yards of offense and 34 first downs.  Not the kind of numbers to suggest that the defense played all that well.  In this case, the numbers are less than descriptive of how the game played out.  The New Orleans defense came into the game with significant credentials as well.  At the start of the week, they ranked second in overall defense, second against the run and fourth against the pass.

Cognizant that even they couldn’t deny everything to the KC offense, New Orleans chose to allow the run in an effort to mitigate the aerial light show that quarterback Patrick Mahomes usually conducts with his quiver of speedy receivers.  So Kansas City’s running numbers were gaudy – 179 yards on 41 attempts.  But the elite passing attack was controlled (to a great degree).

As you might expect, Mahomes entered the game ranked in the top five in almost every passing category – including passer rating, where his 112.3 ranked second in all of football.  In that context, Patrick’s 26 for 47, 254 yard performance seemed pedestrian, indeed.  He competed just 55.3% of his passes (13.1% lower than his season average), averaged just 5.4 yards per pass attempt (3.07 below his season average) and 9.77 yards per completion (2.63 below his average).  He recorded no completions of longer than 23 yards, which he managed just twice, for his only passing plays of twenty-or-more yards.

His 92.0 passer rating was 20.3 points below his season average, and he only managed that because – being Patrick Mahomes – he still managed to toss three touchdown passes without having one intercepted.

The prescriptions for containing both of these skilled passing attacks were virtually identical: Heavy pass rush pressure from the front four, and tight coverage in the secondary.  Neither team blitzed much at all.  Mahomes saw an extra rusher just 7 times, and the Chiefs sent extra men at Brees only 5 times.  But the pressure from the down linemen and the coverage were impressive by both sides. 

Patrick was sacked 4 times as part of being hit 11 times while having 8 passes batted away by a defender.  Drew took only one sack, but was also hit 7 times while having 9 passes defended.  Brees’ wide receivers and tight ends managed an average of just 1.99 yards of separation (according to Next Gen stats) – a number which speaks to the impact that losing Thomas has on the rest of the team.

In fact, if there was one number that most expressed the difference between these two teams last Sunday, it might be the third-down tallies.

With their running game keeping them in manageable third downs, Kansas City finished 9-for-18 in those opportunities.  With their running game mostly abandoned (and New Orleans ran the ball only 17 times) and Drew’s passes falling incomplete much of the time, the Saints spent the afternoon in a lot of third and longs.  They finished 1-for-11 on that down.

This led to Kansas City running 92 plays and controlling the ball for 41:14 of the game.  The Saints just couldn’t stay on the field.  Their longest possession of the afternoon lasted just 2:40, and they finished with 7 three-and-outs (again, including the interception possession).

Encouragement in Defeat

Of all the teams that have lost to Kansas City this year (and that has been almost all of them), I believe that New Orleans can be most encouraged by their near miss.  They were playing with a quarterback rusty from the IR, playing without their best pass receiver, falling behind early by two touchdowns, and playing all of the fourth quarter without their best defensive lineman (Cameron Jordan got himself ejected).  And, for all of that, fell just one possession short.

Given the chance for a re-match (which could only happen in the Super Bowl), New Orleans must be convinced that they can play with this team.  Whether they can overcome the Mahomes magic, though, is another question.

That is the question that ultimately bedevils the entire league.

Brady’s Day

Tom Brady’s afternoon in Atlanta could have hardly started worse.  The downtrodden Atlanta Falcons hit them with a perfect half.  They converted 6 of 10 third downs, committed no penalties, no turnovers and suffered no sacks.  They rolled up a 261-60 advantage in total yards, a 16-5 advantage in first downs and took a 17-0 lead into the locker room at the half.

As opposed to the defenses in the Saint-Chief game, the word of the day for both defenses in this game was blitz and blitz some more.  Both teams blitzed at almost exactly the same rate.  Atlanta came after Brady 43.8% of the time (21 of 48 drop-backs), and Tampa Bay responded by sending extra rushers after Matt Ryan 43.4% of the time (23 blitzes in 53 drop backs).

In the first half, the story was Brady under siege and Atlanta keeping the rush away from Ryan.  In the second half, some protection adjustments gave Tom more time in the pocket, and allowed him to fully exploit the coverage difficulties that the Falcons have suffered with the entire season.

In the second half alone, Brady completed 21 of 29 passes (72.4%) for 320 yards.  Think for a moment about throwing for 320 yards in one half.

Brady average 11.03 yards per pass attempt in that half, and 15.24 per pass completion.  He also tossed a couple of touchdown passes as he conjured a few memories (bitter for the Falcon fans, to be sure) of the Falcons’ Super Bowl loss to New England.  The Patriots (er, I mean Buccaneers) came all the way back for a 31-27 victory (gamebook) (summary).

Playoff Consequences

Two surprising Week 15 upsets juggled the playoff situations a bit.  The Rams’ loss to the Jets caused some minor movement in the NFC.  That loss by LA, gives Tampa Bay an open opportunity to claim the fifth seed, dropping the Rams to sixth.  The two teams currently hold identical 9-5 records, with the Rams holding the head-to-head tie breaker.

But Tampa Bay’s closing schedule is Detroit and Atlanta again (very winnable games), the Rams finish with Seattle and Arizona.  If the Bucs win out and LA stubs its toe just once, the two teams will switch positions.

More Upheaval in the AFC

The other big upset was Cincinnati eclipsing Pittsburgh.  In absorbing their third loss in a row, the onetime presumptive first seed In the conference will now likely fall to third.  Pittsburgh and Buffalo now hold identical 11-3 records, with the Bills holding the tie breaker by virtue of their win over the Steelers last week.

And, finally, the Cleveland Browns got that one win that they needed to put themselves in the playoff driver’s seat when they beat the Giants on Sunday night.  Cleveland is now 10-4, Baltimore is 9-5 and Miami is also 9-5.  The Ravens hold the tie-breaker with the Browns (season sweep), and close with an easy schedule (they finish with the Giants and Bengals.)  Cleveland would have to win both of their games to stay ahead of the Ravens.  This week they have the Jets (who will come in enthused off their victory) and they finish with Pittsburgh, so I still think it likely that Baltimore will finish ahead of Cleveland (they will get the fifth seed).

So the Cleveland win now makes the Dolphins vulnerable. The Dolphins are a game behind the Browns and finish on the road in Las Vegas and Buffalo.  Miami’s playoff fate may depend on whether Buffalo needs to win that final game or not – and from the looks of things right now, I will guess that they will need that game.

If Cleveland does, in fact, get in, they will probably claim the sixth seed.  They have an earlier victory over Indianapolis, so the Colts could very well finish 11-5 this season and be relegated to the seventh seed.

Concerns in Pittsburgh

In case you were wondering, the Pittsburgh Steelers haven’t always looked like this.  For the first five games of the season, their re-imagined offense couldn’t have worked better.  They averaged 31.2 points per game – never scoring fewer than 26 in any game – and their offense was spectacularly balanced.  While quarterback Ben Roethlisberger was completing 69.1% of his passes with an 11-to-1 touchdown-to-interception ratio and a 109.1 passer rating, the running game was adding an average of 136.8 yards a game (4.3 per carry) and 7 touchdowns of its own.

Since then – by degrees – the offensive performances have regressed to a place that Pittsburgh hopes is subnormal.

Beginning with their Week Seven victory over Tennessee, the Steeler running game dried up.  Over their last eight games, the Steelers have abruptly dropped to 59.3 yards a game and just 3.0 yards per rush.  But even then the passing game kept Pittsburgh afloat.  Pittsburgh continued to win and to score – 28.4 points a game even without the running attack – as their record climbed to 10-0.  They still hadn’t been held under 24 points in a game.

Since then, the offense has taken another deep step backward, scoring a total of 51 points over its last three games – the last two of them losses.

In the first two of those games, Pittsburgh was matched against two of the premier defenses in the league (Baltimore and Washington).  During their first loss of the season against Washington, the Pittsburgh running game hit rock bottom – 21 yards on 14 carries.

The disappointment against the Football Team would be followed by a prime time game – a Sunday night affair against the Buffalo Bills.  For all of the fact that Buffalo carried a 9-3 record into the contest, this game looked to be just what the doctor ordered for the ailing Pittsburgh offense.  Buffalo was allowing 25.5 points a game, and the weakest part of the their defense was the run defense, which was allowing 126 rushing yards a game, and the 4.7 yards per carry they were allowing was the fifth highest in football.

Buffalo had become one of football’s better offensive teams (scoring 27.75 points a game and ranking third in passing yardage), but defensively, they seemed like a team that Pittsburgh could re-set itself against.

None of this, of course, came about.

In the aftermath of Buffalo’s 26-15 conquest (gamebook) (summary) all there was for the Steelers was more frustration and more than a few questions, as an embattled Buffalo defense made a few statements of its own.

Plan of Attack

While the numbers don’t suggest it, Pittsburgh truly did try to run the ball against the Bills.  That they finished with only 17 attempts was due to two factors.

First, of course, was that the running attack never bore fruit.  Pittsburgh managed just 47 yards on those rushes (2.8 per attempt) with no attempt exceeding 7 yards.

Even then, I believe the Steelers would have kept trying were it not for their spectacular failures on third down.  If you are going to keep trying to run the ball, then you have to convert your third downs – and Pittsburgh could not.  Entering the day ranked seventh in the league in third-down conversions (45.5%) – and facing a Buffalo defense ranked twenty-fourth in allowing third-down conversions (44.0%), Pittsburgh converted on just 1 of their 10 opportunities – almost all of them very manageable.  The Steelers faced third-and-nine twice and third-and-seven once.  All the others were six yards or less.  Pittsburgh finished the contest with 7 three-and-outs in 12 possessions (if you don’t count the end of the first half).  Roethlisberger was 1 for 9 for 13 yards and a sack on this down.

This speaks directly to Buffalo’s approach to Pittsburgh’s lightning-fast short passing game.

Here, I looked at the new-look approach in Pittsburgh that tries to get the ball out of Ben’s hands in under two seconds.  This was the focus of Buffalo’s game plan – to take away all of the quick-opening routes that make this approach possible.

The Bills mixed a lot of coverages, always with a focus on the easy, underneath routes.  On the first third-down of the game, the Bills played man but dropped the defensive ends into the short middle zones.  With 10:06 left in the third quarter, and Pittsburgh facing third-and-nine, the Bills played zone, but had middle-linebacker Tremaine Edmunds chase JuJu Smith-Schuster’s shallow cross.  When they played zone, they did so with laudable discipline.  But in third down, they mostly played tight, suffocating man coverage.

No one defensive back followed any particular receiver.  Cornerback Tre’Davious White played a lot of what I call Deion coverage.  The rest of the defense would play whatever they were going to play.  White would play man against one receiver. (Deion coverage is so named for the great Deion Sanders who played this coverage during his time in San Francisco.)  Whenever the Steelers would line up in four receiver sets, with three receivers to one side, White would take the receiver on the single receiver side and play man against him.  This was even true when Pittsburgh put tight end Eric Ebron on the single receiver side and had all of the receivers on the other side.

The pressure piece of the defensive plan came principally from two sources – whoever was lined up over Alejandro Villanueva, and Matt Milano.

Villanueva struggled notably keeping the ends – mostly Mario Addison – from going around him.  Milano showed surprising passion when he joined the rush.  Buffalo didn’t send him that often, but every time they did he seemed to impact the play.

It all added up to Pittsburgh’s worst offensive game of the season by points scored, and second worst by yardage.  (Their 224 yards of total offense being only 3 yards better than their Week Eight win in Baltimore.)  In addition to an engulfed running attack, Roethlisberger threw for just 187 yards while completing a season-low 56.8% of his passes (21 of 37).  He threw multiple interceptions for only the second time this season.  He was sacked for the first time in six games, averaged just 5.05 per pass attempt (his lowest figure of the season) and finished with his worst passer rating of 2020 (65.9).

Buffalo couldn’t have asked for any more from its defense.

The Bills’ Offense Adjusts

For the first thirty minutes, the Pittsburgh defense returned the favor in kind against the Buffalo offense.  If the Steeler running attack was moribund, the Buffalo ground game was even more non-existent.  The Bills ran just 7 times in the first half for just 34 yards.  If Ben Roethlisberger’s passing attack was stuck in neutral, Josh Allen’s passing attack was all but stopped (if not quite in reverse).

The Steeler plan for Allen and the Bills’ passing attack was pressure and lots of it.  Already the third-most blitz-happy team in football (they came into the game blitzing 40.2% of the time), Pittsburgh upped the ante against Buffalo, bringing at least one extra rusher on 58.7% of Josh’s drop-backs.  The first-half results were devastating.  Allen went into the locker room having completed 10 of 23 passes (43.5%) for a miniscule 76 yards (3.30 yards per attempt).  Stir in no touchdown passes and 1 interception, and that adds up to a 34.0 rating.

The dominant Buffalo defense held Pittsburgh to an anemic 143 yards of total offense through two quarters.  The equally dominant Pittsburgh defense reduced the Bills to an anorexic 102 yards of total offense.  That Buffalo led at the half 9-7 was due only to the fact that Buffalo cornerback Taron Johnson returned one of Roethlisberger’s interceptions 51 yards for a touchdown.

But while Pittsburgh never could solve Buffalo’s defensive scheme, the Bills were able to make the necessary adjustments at halftime, refocusing on the running game and providing Allen with more protection (including double-teams on disruptive defensive lineman Cameron Heyward).  The difference was enormous.

Buffalo ran the ball 20 times in the second half and, consequently controlled the ball for 21:40 of the final 30 minutes.  With the blitz slowed enough for Allen stand in the pocket and find a receiver, Josh completed 14 of his final 20 passes for 162 yards.  He also threw the two decisive touchdown passes.  Buffalo outgained the Steelers 232 to 81 over the final two quarters.

On To the Playoffs

Earlier this evening, Buffalo claimed the AFC Eastern Division title as they routed the Denver Broncos 48-19.  I had thought that once they reached this part of their season, the Bills would begin to struggle.  Up until they beat San Francisco a couple of weeks ago, their defining moment was the Hail Mary pass that cost them a seemingly sure victory over Arizona.  I didn’t expect them to beat either the 49ers or the Steelers.

Regardless, Buffalo has exceeded my expectations and has punched its ticket to the dance.  The Miami Dolphins will now have to right their ship quickly to fend off the Browns for the last AFC playoff spot.

As for the Bills themselves, even after this win and the beating they’ve just given the Broncos, I don’t really believe in them just yet.  Especially that defense.  There are only three other teams this season that Buffalo has held below 20 points – the Jets twice, the Chargers and tonight the Broncos.  My gut feeling is that last Sunday night’s victory had more to do with Pittsburgh’s struggles than Buffalo’s prowess.

I want to see the Bills’ defense hold up against one of the better running teams in the league – a matchup that may not come until the playoffs.

Other AFC Playoff Ramifications

With the loss, the Steelers are now in trail position behind the Chiefs for the top seed in the conference.  Waiting for someone to beat the Chiefs isn’t the most encouraging of situations.

Shifting NFC Playoff Picture

For the third time in two weeks an upset authored by a team from the NFC East has scrambled the playoff picture.  In Week Thirteen the New York Giants upset the Seattle Seahawks to threaten their hold on the NFC West.  Later that week, Washington handed Pittsburgh its first loss – beginning the process that has knocked them out of the top seed in the AFC (for the moment, anyway).

Then, in Week Fourteen the Philadelphia Eagles shuffled the NFC picture by knocking off top-seeded New Orleans.  Green Bay now holds the inside track to the top seed in that conference, and the bye that goes with it.

Meanwhile, Washington won again, and is starting to look like they are the class of the NFC East.  Moreover, the Football Team, now 6-7, closes its season with winnable games against the Panthers and the Eagles – meaning they have a legitimate shot at taking an 8-8 record into the playoffs.  Until recently, I think everyone was resigned to the likelihood that the NFC East Champ would go to the playoffs with a sub-.500 record.

Finally, I’ve been re-thinking the NFC West recently – especially the Seahawks.  Even though they are only 3-2 over their last five, there are signs that things are starting to come together in the Emerald City in two very important areas.

First, the running attack seems to be back – helped enormously by the return to health of feature back Chris Carson.  Over the last five games, Seattle has averaged 127.8 rushing yards a game.  They are gaining 4.5 yards per carry in those games.  Carson hasn’t resumed a full workload yet – he hasn’t carried more than 13 times in any of the three games since his return.  But he was over 60 rushing yards in each of the last two, and is averaging 5.5 yards a carry since his return.

The other improving area is the defense.

A liability for most of the season, the Seahawk defense looks like they are starting to figure things out.  They have allowed a total of 37 points over their last three games, holding all of those opponents to less than 300 yards.  Now, none of those teams boast much of an offense (they were the Eagles, Giants and Jets), so that gives me a little pause.  But I never felt that the Seattle defense was really as bad as they’ve played for most of the year – and I always expected that their running game would be more impactful than it’s been.

In short, even though the competition has been a bit weak, this is the Seattle team I thought we’d see all season.  They have the pivotal Week 16 matchup against the Rams at home, and for the moment that is enough for me to shift them back to being the favorites in their division and claiming the third seed (behind Green Bay and New Orleans) – with the Rams probably sliding to the fifth seed.

Still No Closer to Solving Lamar

The words had barely escaped Brian Griese’s lips.

In the Monday night booth this year, the former quarterback was suggesting possible adjustments that Cleveland might make in the second half of their contest against Baltimore.  As the third quarter began, the Browns were facing a 21-14 deficit after having been shredded for 134 rushing yards in the first half.  The bulk of those yards (78 of them) belonged to Raven quarterback Lamar Jackson.

And so now, as the Ravens faced a third-and-three from their own 37 on their first possession of the second half, Griese offered his final piece of advice to the Browns.  Find a way to “contain” Lamar Jackson.

And right on cue, they didn’t contain him.

Running their signature read-option play, with running back J.K. Dobbins aligned to his right, Jackson placed the ball in Dobbins hands while reading the unblocked defensive end to his left – on this play, Browns’ All-Pro Myles Garrett.

Garrett was caught in no-man’s land.  In fact, the entire Cleveland team was caught in no man’s land.  As Jackson lifted his eyes, he noted that only three Cleveland defenders remained on the left side of the hash marks.  There were two defensive backs (M.J. Stewart and Terrance Mitchell) both lined up wide to the left and out of the play, and Garrett who was all alone to defend both options of the read-option, as well as the left sideline.

Jackson kept the ball.  As Dobbins went racing past, Garrett took one false step in his direction, and Lamar darted inside of him, streaking, uncontained, through the gaping void off of left tackle.  Linebacker Malcolm Smith did eventually get an angle on Jackson and brought him to the ground but after a 44 yard gain.  Gus Edwards scored a touchdown on the next play.

Coming out of their bye at 5-3, the Cleveland Browns strung together a four-game winning streak that thrust them into the middle of the playoff conversation, and even – after the Steelers finally lost a couple of games – had them thinking about a possible division title.  The first three of those victories came against lightly regarded foes (Houston, Philadelphia and Jacksonville), but the last of them was the signature victory they had been waiting for – a 41-35 conquest of the Tennessee Titans.

And so – as they took the field last Monday evening – the Cleveland Browns were feeling really good about themselves.  Until the Ravens took the field and number 8 came out of the tunnel.  He (Jackson) continues to be Cleveland’s kryptonite.

No team has played Baltimore’s third year quarterback more than the Browns, and no team has less success against him.  Of the eight teams that have faced Jackson more than once, no team allows him more rushing yards per game (73) or a higher rushing average (6.74) than the Browns.  And when Lamar throws the ball, only Houston has spotted him a higher passer rating than the 112.0 he carries against Cleveland.  (In two games against the Texans, Jackson holds a 134.5 passer rating.)

The league in general has concluded that there is a certain discipline needed on defense if you are going to successfully “contain” the dynamic Mr. Jackson.  Your pass rushes can’t leave any open gaps for him to exploit.  Some teams have started to blitz Jackson a little more, not only to shorten his processing time, but also to keep all of the pass-rush lanes occupied.

Cleveland blitzed just 4 times and frequently opened a running lane for Lamar.  Of his game-high 124 rushing yards, 49 came on 5 scrambles when the pass rush provided him an escape.

The Browns are also still inclined to drop their pass coverages every time Jackson threatens to pull the ball down and run with it.  This happened on both of Lamar’s big throws – the 39-yarder to Mark Andrews that led to the go-ahead touchdown before the end of the first half, and the 44-yard touchdown pass to Marquise Brown that fueled the fourth-quarter comeback.

And when they weren’t doing all of that, Brown defenders were abandoning their containment assignments.  That’s what happened on the 44-yard run at the beginning of the third quarter.

Lined up in the gap that Jackson would eventually exploit was linebacker B.J. Goodson.  But as the play began, both offensive tackle Orlando Brown Jr. and guard Bradley Bozeman pulled to the right – an influential enough occurrence to convince Goodson that he wasn’t needed on the left side and draw him across the formation.

In fairness, the pulling linemen are a concern.

You may not have noticed, but Baltimore does almost no “zone-blocking.” Their running attack is a precision instrument – almost like the attack that the Don Shula Dolphins might have executed back in the 70’s.  It’s a targeted affair, replete with double-teams, pulling lineman and multiple blockers at the point of attack.  I would estimate that Bozeman spent nearly half of his evening pulling to open up that right sideline for Jackson and the running backs.  Of the 231 rushing yards they eventually laid on the Browns, 112 of them came up that inviting right sideline.  So, the pulling Raven linemen wasn’t something to be taken lightly.

Nonetheless, defenders with contain responsibility need to keep contain.

“Do Your Job” is, of course, the famed Bill Belichick mantra that serves to simplify the complexity of winning football.  If your job is to contain or rush or cover, do that and don’t try to do someone else’s job as well.  This is the recurring difficulty that Cleveland has whenever they play Lamar and the Ravens.

As it turns out, “doing your job” requires trust.  Right now, when playing against Jackson, the Cleveland defenders do not trust each other.  Until they do, expect their struggles against the Ravens to continue.

Cleveland as a Playoff Contender?

Jackson has now made five starts against Cleveland.  Their best efforts against him were their first two (Baltimore winning the first 26-24 in December of 2018, and Cleveland answering with a 40-25 win the next year).  Jackson eclipsed neither the 100 yards rushing nor the 100 passer rating plateaus in either game.  But the more they play him, the worse Cleveland gets.

In their Week 15 matchup last year, Lamar torched them for 103 yards rushing and a 120.1 passer rating.  In the opening game this year, Jackson ran only 7 times for 45 yards (remember, there were no exhibition games for him to warm up in), but he made up for that with a 152.1 passer rating.  Last Monday, his 124 rushing yards were complimented by his 115.6 passer rating.  The Brown offense battled back gamely, but in the end, it was another loss to their bitter division rival, 47-42 (gamebook) (summary).

Cleveland’s regular season will close with a showdown against the other principle team in the division – the Pittsburgh Steelers, who also thrashed the Browns in an earlier contest (38-7 in Week Six).

Until they can show that they can beat (not just play with) the division heavyweights, Cleveland’s playoff hopes will be nebulous at best.  With the Dolphins hanging just one game behind the Browns and with a somewhat easier closing schedule, this week’s contest against the Giants (a team significantly tougher than its 5-8 record indicates) becomes a must win for Cleveland.

If they lose that game, it will almost certainly force them to beat Pittsburgh on the last day of the season to get in.  It’s a situation, I’m sure, they would rather not be forced into.

The Quarterback Kvetching Society

The old saying goes that the quarterback always gets too much credit when his team wins, and too much blame when it doesn’t.  My experience confirms this.  Even so, complaining about your quarterback is one of our basic constitutional rights that we sometimes take for granted.

2020 (different in a lot of ways from other years) is also distinct for the amount of criticism attached to “made” quarterbacks.  Throughout history, there have been some of these great field generals that have elevated themselves to the point where they are (usually) considered immune from the harping that lesser quarterbacks are subjected to.  Can you imagine any in the football universe openly caviling Johnny Unitas or Joe Montana?  Didn’t think so.

And yet, this year some resumed signal callers have been called out, publicly by their coaches as well as by the fandom in general.  The discussion of “what’s wrong with Tom Brady” has turned into a season-long polemic that has abated only slightly with Tampa Bay finally winning a game.  Brady, of course, is history’s most decorated quarterback – the numbers of Super Bowls, awards and records need not be recounted here.  In earlier posts (here is one) we’ve tried to take an objective look at the swirl of chatter around (arguably) the finest quarterback of this generation.

Of the up-comers, Jared Goff of the Rams – who led them to a Super Bowl a few years ago – has also taken some gentle flack from his head coach – and we looked as his efforts in an earlier post as well.

But of all these decorated quarterbacks, none has been under the constant assault that New England’s Cam Newton has been subjected to.  A former MVP, Newton – as you must surely recall – led the Carolina Panthers to the Super Bowl on the heels of a nearly undefeated season (they were 15-1) just 5 years ago.  When he signed on as Brady’s replacement, it was widely assumed that cam would lead that franchise back to glory.  Yes he is 31 now, and has had some injuries.  But Cam was Lamar Jackson before Lamar Jackson – and he still carried some of that Superman mystique that defined his earlier success in Carolina.

It hasn’t exactly been plug-and-play for Cam in Foxboro.  He was benched for Jarrett Stidham in the fourth quarter of last Thursday’s 24-3 loss to the Los Angeles Rams (gamebook) (summary).  Cam’s numbers were as sluggish as the entire Patriot offense looked during that effort.  Newton was 9 for 16 for 119 yards.  He threw 1 interception while throwing no touchdowns (obviously).  His passer rating of 53.9 was only his fourth worst of the season.  On the season, he is having 3.3% of his passes intercepted (which would tie his career high if it stays there) while only tossing touchdowns on 1.7% of his passes (he has never been below 3.7% in any full season of his career).

I can’t speak for the entire internet, but pretty much everywhere I’ve looked the word in the web is that he’s done.  In the press conference after the game, the press circled coach Bill Belichick like so many vultures demanding to know why he was still sticking with Newton (“What has he shown you to warrant your confidence?” and other such questions).  Obviously, the press covering the Patriots is tired of Cam and are already clamoring for Stidham.

By the way, Belichick’s press conferences – which have always been pained affairs – have taken on a distinctly funerary overtone these days, with Bill looking positively embalmed on Thursday night.

It is somewhat ironic that I am defending Newton – and I mostly will.  If you search the Cam Newton tags on my site, you will find some posts where I delve into the things that have prevented him from becoming the enduring star that he could (here is one, there are others).  But as with Brady and Goff, I believe that his critics are short-sighted, and that he has become the lightening rod for a lot of issues that New England’s offense is struggling with.

This is not to say that Cam is blameless.  His lack of discipline and hit-and-miss mechanics are still underpinning his inconsistencies.  Football reference (in the summary I linked to above) charged him with 4 “bad throws” – so one out of every four passes didn’t go where Cam would have intended.  Those would include his last two throws before being benched.  Damiere Byrd and James White both had a little separation, but the throws were off the mark.  Of course, New England was already down 24-3 at that point, so . . .

But Newton also averaged 13.22 yards per pass completion, and three of his nine completions accounted for at least 25 yards – with two of them moving the ball 30 or more yards downfield.  His 9 completions traveled an average of 9.7 yards in the air – the highest such average of any quarterback last week.  And this against a pass defense that came into the game ranked first in both fewest yards allowed per pass (6.05) and fewest yards per completion (9.7).

In all honesty, when you look at Cam on film, he doesn’t look all that different than he did in his glory days with the Panthers – he is still the same blend of sometimes dazzling talent and sometimes maddening disappointment.  The big difference in the Newton of today and the Newton of yesteryear is the support system around him.  Cam is, in fact, struggling with the same issues that made Tom Brady look old last year – lack of pass protection, and lack of playmakers to throw the ball to.

You may not be aware, but Brady led all of football in 2019 in throwing away passes – he unloaded 40 of them last year – 9 more than Aaron Rodgers’ 31.  The bulk of these involved Tom just getting the ball out of his hand to avoid taking a sack.  Newton is less committed to avoiding sacks, and so is throwing away fewer passes (only 8 so far).  He is, consequently, getting sacked more (on 7.1% of his drop backs, so far this year).  But he is operating under the same duress that Brady encountered last year.

In 22 drop backs against the Rams, Newton was sacked 4 times and knocked down 3 others as Los Angeles hit him 10 times and forced 2 scrambles.  He was hurried on a couple of other occasions.

And then, of course, there are the receivers.  Between injured reserve and COVID-19, Julian Edelman has missed the least 7 games.  Of the pass catchers that were available, only Byrd showed any consistent ability to gain separation.  Damiere averaged 3.7 yards of separation on the 8 passes thrown in his direction.  Cam’s other receiving options (Jakobi Meyers, N’Keal Harry and Devin Asiasi) combined averaged just 1.52 yards of separation.

Regardless of your expectation for Newton, this is not a formula for success.  Few quarterbacks could thrive in this circumstance.  Belichick is the last head coach you can imagine that will give in to the whinging of the press and the internet, so it’s doubtful that he will give the offense to Jarrett.  Bill – while certainly not content with Cam’s performance – realizes that his situation is challenging.  So Newton will keep getting his opportunity to work through these things.

It is doubtful that his treatment by the press will be equally fair.

The Rams Roll On

As to the Rams, their formula against the Patriots was an extension of the plan they ran against Arizona the Sunday before.  Lots of running and lots of short passes.

They finished with 36 rushing plays that accounted for 186 yards (5.2 per).  While the New England Cam (Newton) endured a frustrating night, Los Angeles’ Cam (Cam Akers) was having a breakthrough performance.  The Rams’ rookie running back slashed through the Patriot defense for 171 of those yards (on 29 carries).  Of those 171 yards, 112 came before contact, as the LA offensive line owned the contest.

And the passing continues to be exceedingly short.  Goff’s average target was only 4.6 yards away from the line of scrimmage (Week 14’s third shortest range passing attack).  Of the 24 passes he actually threw to a receiver (he threw one of his 25 passes away), 20 of them were less than ten yards from scrimmage.

Jared finished with just 137 passing yards for the night, but only threw 7 passes in the second half, as the Rams ran on 23 of 31 second half snaps.

And that is a formula for success.

Kansas City Also Rolls On

One place they aren’t kvetching over their quarterback play is Kansas City, where they Chiefs won again.  Once again, they spotted their opponent (this time the Miami Dolphins) a 10-0 lead, but had pulled back in front 14-10 by halftime, on their way to a 33-27 conquest (gamebook) (summary).  The Chiefs have now won 12 of 13 this season, and 21 of their last 22 (including playoffs).

But this time the quarterback play wasn’t as clean and pristine as usual.  Patrick Mahomes was sacked 3 times (one of them for a 30-yard loss, which I understand is a record) and tossed 3 interceptions in a 4-turnover day for Kansas City.

Forty-four games into his young career, this was only the second time that Mahomes had thrown 3 picks in a game.  The only other time was that epic showdown with the Rams in Week 11 of 2018.  Los Angeles won that one 54-51, and Patrick threw 6 touchdown passes to go along with his interceptions.

That was, in fact, the last regular-season game in which Patrick threw more than one interception (he did, you’ll recall, throw 2 in last year’s Super Bowl).  So that snapped his streak of 31 consecutive regular season games without throwing multiple interceptions.

Mahomes finished the game 24-of-34 for 393 yards and 2 touchdowns (a 91.9 rating) after a torrid second half in which he completed 11 of his final 15 passes for 221 yards.  That equates to 14.73 yards per attempted pass, and 20.09 yards per completion.

How to Beat the Chiefs

So here was the pattern – very reminiscent of their playoff journey.  They look bad early.  Sacks, fumbles (Mahomes also fumbled during the game, but KC recovered it), drops – interceptions.  Suddenly, its 10-0 bad guys (or, Dolphins, in this case).

Then one good thing happens for the Chiefs – one big play.  This time Tyreek Hill on a running play scooted 32 yards for a touchdown.  One big play, and the Chiefs exploded.

Counting that drive, the Chiefs scored touchdowns on three of four drives in not quite a quarter’s worth of playing time.  This first drive began with 10:14 left in the second quarter, and the fourth drive ended with 13:50 left in the third.  All together, the four drives required just 19 plays while accounting for 204 yards (10.7 yards per play).  They consumed a total of 7 minutes 11 seconds, and included – in addition to the big run by Hill – a 21-yard pass to Travis Kelce, a 26-yard pass up the sideline to running back Clyde Edwards-Helaire, and a picture perfect, 44-yard deep strike to Hill running behind the secondary.

Toss in a 67-yard punt return for a touchdown by Mecole Hardman after Miami’s next posession, and the dynamic Kansas City offense and special teams tossed up 28 points in 10:30 of football time. (The Dolphins, by the way, entered the game allowing the second fewest points in the NFL – not that that matters to Kansas City).

So, this suggests a strategy.

Don’t give up that first big play!

Knowing that this is football’s most momentum-phillic offense, don’t allow the play that swings the momentum to their side.  This is roughly equivalent to telling a pitcher that the way to stop the Dodger hitting attack is to simply not make any mistakes with any of his pitches – and, as pieces of advice go,  just as practical.

So seriously, how do you go about slowing this team?  Well, that’s the million-dollar question, isn’t it?  In this space, I will sometimes speculate about things I might try against various offenses if I were the defensive coordinator charged with concocting a game plan.

To date, I don’t have a comprehensive answer for the Chiefs.  I wouldn’t take the deep-zone approach designed to prevent the big play.  Kansas City is one of the few offenses that can consistently drive the field taking all the short and intermediate throws that you give them.  And, frankly, the teams that take that approach against them usually give up the big play, anyway.  I would opt for man coverage.

Ideally, you would like to double everybody.  In practice, that’s impossible.  But I would double-cover Hill, and I would literally mug Kelce at the line – even walking a defensive lineman out over him in an attempt to disrupt him.

But the basic approach would be pressure.  A vigorous, relentless pass rush will stop any passing attack.  Here, though, is the rub.  You have to get that pass rush from just your four down linemen.  If you blitz him, Mahomes will destroy you.

It is, to say the least, a conundrum.

Miami Trending Down

After a 1-3 start, the Dolphins suddenly caught fire.  They won five in a row, including splash wins against the 49ers, Rams and Cardinals.  In addition to the surprisingly stingy defense, Miami featured the franchise quarterback that they had drafted in the first round of the most recent draft (that would be Tua Tagovailoa) and a certain knack for finding a way to win games that they looked like they should have lost.  They also received outstanding special teams play.

Over the last month or so, gravity seems to have caught up with them a bit.  They have split their last 4 games, with their other loss coming against the Denver Broncos.  Through his first three starts, Tua posted a passer rating of 104.9, throwing 5 touchdowns against no interceptions.  In losing two of this last three, Tua’s rating has slipped to 88.3 as his completion percentage has dropped to 60.8%.

Sunday against KC, Tagovailoa was just 28-for-48 for 316 yards and 2 touchdowns to weigh against his first career interception – an 83.3 rating.  He was also sacked 4 times (the Broncos got him 6 times).

He was just 5-for-12 for 80 yards in the 10-to-20 yard range.

However it plays out in the end, this has been a welcome resurgence season for the Dolphins.  But, over the last few games and heading into a tough finishing stretch (Miami closes with New England, Las Vegas and Buffalo), their youth has been starting to show.

Not Quite In the Zone

When wide receiver Cole Beasley came in motion (left-to-right) behind the formation, it caused a ripple of hand gestures throughout the San Francisco defense – most of it centering around middle linebacker Fred Warner.  Prominent among this flurry of hand signals was the one where the player points the index finger from each hand to the opposite sides of his helmet.  This common signal (that seems to suggest the other players think about what’s about to happen) is universally used by both offenses and defenses to replace the first play called in the huddle with the backup play.  By the time the snap occurred, the San Francisco defense seemed to think it was on the same page.

There was 9:56 left in a semi-critical game against the Buffalo Bills – a game the 49ers were currently trailing by a 27-17 score.  The Bills were sitting on the San Francisco 28, facing a second-and-ten.

Since the ensuing defensive play appeared to be a mish-mash of both plays called – and after watching this through several times – I will give you my best guess as to the original defense called, and what it should have changed into.

As Buffalo originally lined up with Beasley on the left, San Francisco walked Dontae Johnson to line up across from him.  As the game progressed, the 49ers made increasing efforts to try to fool the Buffalo offense – largely with no success.  Here they were going to be in zone again, but wanted the Bills to think it would be a man coverage with Johnson giving the appearance that he had Beasley.  In this setup, I believe that Johnson was to be responsible for the underneath zone on that side (the offensive left), and that the defensive end on that side (Kerry Hyder) would rush the passer, with the end on the other side (Arik Armstead) dropping into the underneath zone to the other side.

When Cole came across the formation, Johnson followed him – again, as he would in man coverage.  This was when all the “chatter” occurred among the defense.  The switch now would have Johnson taking the underneath zone on the offensive right side (the side that Beasley was now on), with Armstead now free to rush the passer and Hyder dropping off in coverage.  Warner would be joining the rush, so there would still be four coming after quarterback Josh Allen.

What actually happened at the snap was that both ends dropped into coverage, leaving only three rushers.  Bad enough, but Beasley’s presence on the right side of the formation caused a kind of fascination among the 49er defenders.  When Cole ran his short little curl route, he had three sets of eyes riveted on him.  Armstead was on his inside shoulder, and Johnson on the outside.  Needless to say, Cole Beasley’s curl route was taken away.

Now, all of this is what I’m pretty sure was (and wasn’t) supposed to happen.  What I’m very sure wasn’t supposed to happen was that Beasley’s curl should also capture the rapt attention of cornerback Richard Sherman, who stared intently at Beasley’s route while the receiver who lined up to his side (Gabriel Davis) soared unaccompanied up that sideline.

During his 4-touchdown performance, Allen had more than one easy touchdown pass.  This was his longest of the night, and his easiest.  With no defenders in the area, this was just pitch and catch.

From his gesture to the safety to his side (Tarvarius Moore) it’s clear that Sherman expected him to have the deep zone – so somehow Richard must have thought that the changing of the plays also involved a switch from the cover-four (each defensive back being responsible for one fourth of the field) that everyone else was playing, to a cover-three, where each of the other defensive backs would have deep coverage over each third of the field, keeping him (Sherman) in the underneath zone.  There is no reason given why San Francisco should need three defenders in the same zone, defending against the same short curl pattern.

Needless to say, this was the play that broke the 49ers back and solidified the Buffalo victory.  It was not – by a long shot – the only play that the 49er defense turned into a clown show.

Let me be clear about this.  Nothing I’m about to write in any way diminishes the performance of the Buffalo quarterback.  Josh Allen was terrific last Monday night against the vagabond 49ers (exiled to Arizona for a while, at least).  Allen threw the ball with great anticipation and fabulous accuracy.  Throughout he was confident and in complete command of the offense – to the point where he seemed two steps a head of the defense all night.  This dominance is thoroughly reflected in his numbers.  He finished the game a withering 32 of 40 (80%) for 375 yards and the 4 touchdowns (that would be a passer rating of 139.1 – one of four games this year in which his passer rating was higher than 125).

He was 8-for-8 on all throws over ten yards (for 189 yards), including 4-for-4 on all throws over twenty yards (for 114 yards).  Josh, by any evaluation method, was all that Buffalo could have hoped for.

That all being said, I don’t recall the last time I saw a San Francisco team so error prone in their coverages.

With 6:54 left in the first half and the game tied at 7, Buffalo was at the 49er 42, facing first-and-ten.  The Bills flanked three receivers out to its right, and San Fran answered with three defensive backs and man coverage.  Problem – one of those defensive backs (Johnson, again) was blitzing on the play.  No one accounted for the receiver (Beasley) that he was supposed to be covering.  Adjusting to the gaffe, Warner stepped over and tried to provide coverage, but I very much doubt that the design of the defense was to leave a linebacker in single man coverage on a wide receiver.

That would have been an easy completion, but Josh had an even easier one before him.  Three crossing patterns created a lot of congestion in the secondary, allowing tight end Dawson Knox ample separation from cornerback Jason Verrett.  Allen tossed him the ball for an 8-yard gain.

But Josh didn’t even take full advantage of San Francisco’s worst mess-up.

With 14:21 left in the second quarter, and Buffalo trailing 7-0, tight end Lee Smith ran a fly pattern straight up that right sideline.  No one covered him.  At all.  Sherman doesn’t blitz much, but he came on that play.  And he was the only defender on that side of the hash-mark.  Many of the few fans in the stand were closer to Lee than the nearest defender.  Josh didn’t see him (obviously). He completed a more difficult pass into a tighter window (22 yards to Davis).  He no doubt kicked himself when he saw the film.

These last two mistakes occurred when the 49ers were trying to mix in a blitz with their man coverage.  Far more constant and damaging were their blunders in zone defense.

Coming out of the half, ESPN confronted America with an eyebrow-raising graphic.  Throwing against the San Francisco zones, in the first half alone, Allen was 14 of 15 for 190 yards and one of his touchdowns.  The 49er zones didn’t get any better in the second half.  The week before, in their defensive domination of the Rams, they moved away from their zones after Los Angeles had early success against them, and became a predominantly man coverage team.  Last Monday night, they sprinkled in occasional man coverage.  But they never laid aside their zones, and continually paid the price for that.

The struggles that San Francisco has in zone coverage seems to be general – with all members of the secondary experiencing some issues with the concept.  But zone defense is a particular challenge for slot corner Dontae Johnson, who seemed to be at the epicenter of almost all of the breakdowns.

With 26 seconds left before halftime, the 49ers put a bit of a pass rush on Allen for one of the few times all night.  Almost everywhere up field, the 49er defense was sitting in their disciplined zones waiting for Josh – under more stress than usual on this evening – to try to force a throw in somewhere.  But Johnson – who had the underneath zone to the defensive right sideline just never widened into his zone.  There was no other receiver drawing his attention.  He got sufficient depth on his drop.  But for some reason, he never widened out.  Perhaps, not seeing a receiver threatening the area, he thought he was more valuable taking away the middle?

Anyway, Diggs came on a long, deep crossing pattern all the way behind Dontae all the way over from the other side of the field to take up residence in Johnson’s vacated zone.  A relieved Allen fired him the ball for 18 yards.

On the very next play, the rush flushed Allen from the pocket and had him running to his right.  This time, Dontae (playing on the other side, now) widened his zone all the way to the sideline, but couldn’t get any depth.  As Diggs’ sprint up the field pulled the top of the zone ever deeper, Johnson stayed shallow – providing Beasley oceans of room between the levels of the defense on his deep out.  That pass accounted for 20 more yards and set up the field goal that stretched Buffalo’s lead to 10 points at the half.

Now there is 6:08 left in the game, Buffalo leading 34-17.  The Bills were deep in their own territory – at their six-yard line, facing a third-and-six.

Trying to fool Allen to the very end, the 49ers lined six potential rushers along the line of scrimmage, and placed their defensive backs directly across from the receivers in a position that would suggest bump-and-run coverage.  This would be zone again, but dressed up to look like a big blitz.

At the snap, all the linebackers and defensive backs backed off and hunted up their zones.  Again, Johnson – responsible for the underneath zone to the offensive left – didn’t widen out.  Beasley ran past him up the field, but only one yard past him – apparently enough for Dontae to think he was someone else’s problem.  When he had barely passed Johnson, Cole floated wide open into the zone that Johnson never widened into – good for 11 yards and another first down.

Wide open was the theme of the night.  According to Next Gen stats, Buffalo receivers averaged 3.64 yards of separation from their nearest defender at the time of the pass.  And that only counts the receivers that Josh threw to.  That doesn’t take into account the receivers like Smith (cited earlier) who were also wide, wide open but didn’t get the ball thrown their way.

The NFL average is 2.86 yards of separation, that one yard being the NFL difference between “open” and “wide open.”

Then again, this is the COVID-19 season, so can you really blame the San Francisco pass defenders for practicing their social distancing?

The Taysom Hill Experience

Taysom Hill might have completed the pass had he thrown it.

The Falcon zone defense was quite deep, and Michael Thomas did have a bit of room to roam underneath it.  The pass in this situation might have worked.  It is, however, unlikely that it would have worked as well.

The game between Atlanta and New Orleans was still scoreless about midway through the first quarter.  Hill and the Saints were on their own 42, facing a first and ten.  Thomas, aligned wide right, was the only receiver to that side, and as he curled his route back over the deep middle, AJ Terrell (the corner responsible for the deep right sideline) strayed from his area of responsibility, following Thomas, but at a distance.  When safety Keanu Neal – responsible for the underneath zone – declined to cover that particular area to stay close on Latavius Murray, the right sideline was suddenly as deserted as an airplane during a pandemic.

Hill pulled the ball down and zipped down that sideline.  Forty-three yards later, Taysom was at the Atlanta 15.  On the next play, he threw his first-ever NFL touchdown pass, and the Saints were off and running.

By the way, as he reached the 15 and Terrell finally caught up with him, Hill did not lower his shoulder and run through him – as we are all used to seeing.  He demurely stepped out of bounds.  Apparently, nothing raises your awareness of your own mortality like becoming the starting quarterback.  This was a constant throughout the game – Taysom avoiding taking unnecessary hits.

Now there is 4:51 left in the second quarter. The Falcons are hanging in there – the score is now 7-6.  The Saints are first-and-ten on their own 25.  This time Alvin Kamara would probe that same sideline.

The Falcons were in man coverage.  With the Saints sending no receiver wide right, Terrell moved inside to line up over Tre’Quan Smith.  He was the right-most receiver and aligned tight to the formation.  At the snap, Smith turned into a blocker – and his technique is better than you would expect – and expertly steered Terrell out of the play, while right tackle Ryan Ramczyk set the edge by shoving end Jacob Tuioti-Mariner inside.  Coming in motion toward the right side, tight end Jared Cook brought defender Foyesade Oluokun with him, but he didn’t block him.  At the snap Oluokun sprinted into the backfield – a potential disruption.

But Kamara cut his run up inside of Foyesade and had only green in front of him.  Thirty-seven yards later he was dragged down on the Falcon 38.  Six plays later Taysom threw his second career touchdown, increasing the Saint lead to 14-6.

Facing off against their division rivals for the second time in three weeks, the Falcons made a much better show of this one.  But the Saints held them at bay in a 21-16 victory (gamebook) (summary), and these two gashing runs down an undefended sideline were arguably the difference in the game.

They also accounted for 80 of the 207 rushing yards that the Saints pinned on a Falcon defense that entered the week ranked sixth against the run (allowing 100.3 rushing yards a game).

The Saint offense has unquestionably been different (as you would expect) after the injury to the incomparable Drew Brees.  Through their first nine games, New Orleans averaged 34.9 passes per (with a 108.4 passer rating) and 29.6 rushes (averaging 120.8 yards per game and 4.1 per carry).

Over their last three contests (all wins) with Hill behind center, the number of pass attempts per game has dropped by about ten (to 25.3) – and the effectiveness of the passing game has regressed a bit too – again, as you might expect (although the passer rating is still a very solid 91.4).  The running game (also as anticipated) has spiked notably.

Here, though, it’s the magnitude of the spike in the running game that calls attention to itself.  In games against teams that were expecting the Saints to try to run the ball, New Orleans has averaged 38.7 rushing attempts and 200.7 rushing yards per game.  Since Hill took over, New Orleans is averaging 5.2 yards per rush.

Now, a couple of caveats.  First, of course, a three game sample is quite a small sample size under any circumstances.  Second, the biggest running day of the small sample size (the 229 yards they rung up on Denver) came in a game where the opposing Broncos didn’t have any of their quarterbacks available and couldn’t keep their offense on the field.  I am also not anywhere hinting that the New Orleans offense is better without Brees.  Without question, once Drew is healthy enough to return, all of New Orleans will celebrate his return.

What I am suggesting, though, is this little stretch of Neanderthalish games (here is one of the posts that explain my use of this term) could very well have long term benefits for New Orleans.

The first and most obvious is allowing Taysom to find a comfort zone operating as an actual quarterback, but the benefits trickle down to the offensive linemen as well, who get to spend about a month of their season doing more hitting than being hit.  The Saints were always a confident offense.  Now when Brees comes back, he will have the benefit of an offensive line and a running game operating at its peak efficiency.  Clearly a team that runs the ball a lot does it better and with more conviction than a team that only runs occasionally as a change-up off its passing game.

There will likely be some down-the-road benefit for Brees, himself.  The legendary 41-year-old quarterback will almost certainly benefit from a month away from the wear-and-tear on his body.  This little mid-season vacation increases the likelihood of having Drew healthy and strong come playoff time.

And then there’s Alvin Kamara.

Hill, himself, has been the biggest influence on the rushing numbers.  Taysom has averaged 58.7 rushing yards as the starting quarterback, averaging 5.2 yards per carry and rushing for 4 touchdowns in the three games.  But as Hill’s comfort with the offense grows, Kamara is increasingly coming into play.

Fantasy owners, of course, will bemoan Alvin’s disappearance from the passing game.  The running back who averaged 72 receiving yards a game in Brees’ offense has 3 catches for 7 yards total over the last three games.  But Alvin Kamara, the running back, has become more visible in each game that Hill has started.

After starting with just 45 rushing yardage in the first game against the Falcons, Alvin’s rush yardage increased to 54 yards against the Broncos.  Sunday against Atlanta, his 88 rush yards represented a season high, and his most since he ran for 97 yards in the first game of the 2019 season.

Kamara and Hill (who ran for 83 yards of his own), could become a compelling one-two running punch, as both are exceedingly proficient running either outside or inside.  While each broke long outside runs, both also made meaningful contributions running between the tackles.

Taysom still takes the bulk of the third- and fourth-and-short runs.  He converted two fourth-and-ones into first downs.  Meanwhile, Kamara delivered New Orleans’ final touchdown on two inside runs that covered a total of 21 yards – with a large assist from an increasingly in sync offensive line.

After a 10 yard pass from Hill to Jared Cook converted a third-and-seven, New Orleans was set up on the Falcon 21 with 9:43 left in the third.  The Saints were clinging to a 14-9 lead.

Left tackle James Hurst turned out Atlanta end-rusher Charles Harris, while the double-team block of center Erik McCoy and left guard Andrus Peat swept defensive tackle Tyeler Davison off to the left like a snow-plow clearing a street. After disposing with Davison, McCoy came off the double-team block and picked up linebacker Deion Jones.  As Kamara burst into the hole, the three of them stood in a tight line like a barrier reef – all sustaining these blocks and providing an impenetrable seal to the left.

The seal to the right came courtesy of right guard Nick Easton (who stuffed Grady Jarrett at the line) and tight end Josh Hill (who had no linemen to contend with as he led through the opening and took out safety Keanu Neal.

When they were all finished, Alvin looked up and saw a four-lane green highway stretched almost ten yards before him, with safety Ricardo Allen waiting at the end.  With Allen back on his heels, Kamara charged toward him, then spun away from him back inside where he earned the final few yards of the run.

On the next play, Alvin had the pleasure of charging through another gaping hole.

This time Taysom turned to the inside to make the handoff to Kamara.  That, along with Josh Hill’s pulling action toward the right gave the strong impression that the Saints were going to run around that inviting right end again.  It was enough to get almost the entire defense heading in that direction, leaving them virtually out of position when Alvin instead darted right into the same crease he travelled on the play before.

Jarrett’s initial movement to his left helped to perfectly set up Peat’s block on him.  The only two defenders left back on the left side were linebacker Oluokun (who was blocked out of the play by Hurst) and defensive back Isaiah Oliver (who was picked up by Tre’Quan Smith).  Smith is one of those small, fast receivers.  But as a blocker in the running game, Tre’Quan is very decisive and employs his small frame to its optimal effect.

Again, Alvin was running toward the goal line with no one before him – except Allen, again.  Ricardo, waiting at the goal line, decided that passively waiting on Alvin wasn’t necessarily a productive strategy.  So this time it was Allen who made the first move, diving for Kamara’s legs.  In one of the more athletic touchdowns of the week, Kamara managed to twist off the attempted tackle and spin himself through the air for the final two yards for the touchdown that represented the final margin of victory.

The date of Drew Brees’ return to the lineup is still unknown.  Very quickly the Saints’ season will get more difficult.  The hope is that Drew will be ready to take on the Chiefs when they come to call in Week 15, with the Vikings set to visit the week after that.

In the meantime, the Taysom Hill summer will probably get one more week against a down-trodden Eagle team in Philadelphia.  For however long it lasts, this has been an interesting and most informative stretch of the season, as Saints’ coach Sean Payton gets a close look at the guy he has speculated about replacing Brees “one day.”  I also believe that playing a different style of offense for these few weeks will have long-term benefits for the Saints.

But only if Taysom delivers all of the victories.

The T. Hills are Alive

Perhaps you’ve noticed that T. Hill is beginning to be a frequently recurring entry into NFL line scores and summaries. Suddenly, it seems there are T. Hills everywhere.

In New Orleans, T. Hill is, of course, Taysom Hill – interim quarterback who has passed and rushed the Saints to three consecutive victories in Drew Brees’ absence.

The Rams have a T. Hill of their own.  That would be defensive back Troy Hill.  Troy’s statistical impact was rather muted last night – he had one tackle and one pass defensed – but he had made a bit of a splash as he had scored defensive touchdowns in each of the previous two games (a fumble returned against San Francisco and a pick-six against Arizona).

There is also a Trysten Hill, who plays defensive line for Dallas.  You won’t be hearing much about him for the foreseeable future, as a knee injury has kept him on injured reserve since Week Five.

The king of the T. Hill, if you will, plays in Kansas City.  That would be receiver extraordinaire Tyreek Hill – arguably football’s most feared offensive threat.  Tyreek had an eventfully “uneventful” game last Sunday.  He finished his team’s conquest of Denver officially with 6 catches for 58 yards (and another 30 yards on a rush).  Unofficially, Tyreek caught two long touchdown passes that didn’t count.

Early in the second-quarter, a would-have-been 40-yard touchdown pass deflected off Tyreek’s hands up in the air.  The ball actually landed back in his arms and, although ruled incomplete on the field, would have been over-ruled to touchdown if KC had challenged.

With 10:16 to go in the fourth, Tyreek slipped in behind the defense to haul in a 48-yard touchdown pass.  But this one was nullified by a penalty.

Ah, well.  When your team wins anyway, it’s easy to laugh about, right?

NFL Week 13: Resurrection and other flavors of redemption

Last week we took a pretty in depth look at the Los Angeles Rams’ loss at the hands of the San Francisco 49ers.  A lot of fingers were pointed at quarterback Jared Goff – and we looked at some of the things that he could have done better.

We also hastened to point out that Jared wasn’t the only Ram having a bad day.

One of the beautiful things about sports is that it is constantly offering opportunities for redemption.  Sunday – in a conference game that was arguably more important than the one they lost to the 49ers, Jared Goff and his LA teammates took down the Arizona Cardinals 38-28 (gamebook) (summary).

In exorcising their demons from the previous week, the Rams simply returned to who they were and didn’t permit the Cardinals to be who they are.  As I watch these teams week in and week out, it continually surprises me to note how often they abandon the elements of their game that make them successful.  In the Rams’ case, the elements aren’t a great secret.

First, LA runs the football – even if the running game isn’t spectacularly productive.  They ran the ball 31 times against Arizona – even though they only earned 3.8 yards per rush.  Nineteen of those carries came in the first half – even though they only produced 50 yards (2.6 per).

But the running game is the foundation of the passing game – particularly the play-action game that so much of the offense depends upon.  Last week against San Francisco, Goff threw only 4 play-action passes.  On Sunday against Arizona, Jared ran play-action 15 times.

Working off the running game and the play-action, the rest of the passing game returned to what it does best.  A week ago against San Fran, Jared was 1-for-5 throwing the ball more than 20 yards downfield, and 1-for-7 if the pass was more than 10 yards from scrimmage.

On Sunday, none of Jared’s 47 passes travelled 20 yards from scrimmage in the air.  That is not a misprint. Jared threw no deep balls at all against the Cards.

Instead, Jared ran an extremely short, quick passing game.  His average target was just 3.62 yards from scrimmage.  Of the receivers who had more than 2 passes lobbed in their direction, tight end Tyler Higbee was the “deepest” threat.  The 6 passes thrown to him travelled an average of 8.5 yards from scrimmage – an average that was twice as deep as either of the star wide receivers.  Cooper Kupp was an average of just 2.9 yards from scrimmage on the 9 passes thrown to him.  He caught 8 for 73 yards, but 47 of those came after the catch.  Robert Woods had 11 passes thrown his way.  On average he was 3.2 yards from scrimmage when Goff threw it his way.  He caught 10 of those passes for 85 yards – 62 of those after the catch.

Additionally, Jared’s supporting cast earned significant redemption as well.  Joseph Noteboom at left tackle was much improved and pass rush pressure was much less than the previous game.  And the receivers Kupp and Woods both had a far easier time against the Arizona zones than they did the 49ers’ man coverages.

And in the center of it all was Jared Goff.  He completed 37 of his 47 short passes (78.7%) for 351 yards – 253 of them (72.1%) after the catch.

People have this image of the Ram offense as being a deep-strike, big-play-dependent unit.  The Rams sometimes unwittingly promote that misperception when they get away from their foundation and start trying to be that team.  Their foundation, I’m afraid, is much more boring.  Run the ball, and then dump it quickly into the hands of your playmakers.  It doesn’t necessarily make for great copy – but it can be devastatingly effective.  On Sunday the Rams held the ball for 22:42 of the first half.  Arizona ran just 21 plays in that half – an imbalance that put the Cardinals behind early and had them out of sorts throughout.

Defense Redeemed by the Offense As Well

Like the Rams, the Cardinals’ offense is run-based as well.  Again, many people don’t realize that, because the headlines usually belong to the passing game – Kyler Murray throwing to DeAndre Hopkins (who came into the game third in the NFL in receptions – 77 – and fourth in receiving yards – 967).

But the Cardinals also brought the NFL’s fourth-ranked running game into the contest, averaging 155.9 yards a game.  In fact, the game’s most critical matchup seemed like it would be the Arizona running attack against the Ram’s fourth-ranked run defense (they were allowing 93.5 rushing yards a game).  How that conflict resolved itself would go a long way to determining the victor in this one.

Arizona finished the contest with just 92 rushing yards – a clear win (apparently) for the defense.  But it’s overstating things to say that the Ram defense shut off Arizona’s running game.  In the first half, the Ram offense that held the ball for more than 22 minutes was the primary force holding the Cards to just 18 rushing yards (on 8 carries).  Then – as the second half wore along – the Cards, by degrees, got away from the running attack that is their foundation.

On their first drive of the second half, the Cardinals marched 75 yards on 15 plays – 7 of them runs.  They ran the ball 6 more times the rest of the game.  Kenyan Drake averaged 4.9 yards a carry (3.1 of that after contact), but only had 10 rushes for the game.  Arizona averaged 4.4 yards per rush for the contest, but only ran 21 times.  They ran only 13 times in the second half – even though they averaged 5.7 yards on those runs.

Arizona wasn’t so much stopped by the Ram defense as they were compelled to keep up with the Ram offense.  This time it was Arizona that all but abandoned play-action (they ran just 4 play-action passes).  And with the play-action removed, Arizona’s passing game wilted under Murray’s inconsistencies.

The summary that I referenced above charges Kyler with 12 bad throws.  Not counting the pass he threw away and one spike to stop the clock, that would be 32.4% of his other 37 passes (and would include the two passes batted down at the line).  Murray is now tied with New England’s Cam Newton for the NFL lead in balls batted down by linemen – each now has 15.  This is a problem for the diminutive Murray when a defense can keep him in the pocket and force him to throw over the taller linemen.

That dynamic also influenced several of Kyler’s other bad passes, as he had to add extra loft into the throws.

In all ways and by all accounts, it was redemption at its purest.  And, in addition to putting the Rams back on the right foot, it re-scrambled their division.

The East Scrambles the West

After the loss to San Francisco, the Ram’s had the look of a third-place team (and frankly seemed more likely to be caught from behind by San Fran than they were to claim the division title).  But last weekend shook everything up in the very competitive West – aided by an unexpected broadside by one of the competitors in the much-maligned NFC East.

The Rams’ win in Arizona gives them a temporary advantage over the Cardinals (the teams will meet again in Week 17, but in Los Angeles).  Meanwhile the rest of the division did the Rams a huge favor and lost their games.  Buffalo dumped the 49ers, to push them back off the Rams’ heels, and the lightly-regarded New York Giants pulled a big upset over Seattle – knocking them back into the stew with everyone else.

While not necessarily easy, before the Rams, now, are a series of winnable games – beginning this evening against New England.  They play the winless Jets in Week 15.  Then they close with two division contests – playing in Seattle (where the Seahawks seem to be fading a bit) and then wrapping up with the Cardinals.  If they win three of the final four, they will finish 11-5 – which will very likely be enough to give them the division title and probably the conference’s third seed.

Behind them, Seattle would fall to fifth, and Arizona will probably slide down to seventh (as this loss will likely mean that Tampa Bay will finish with a better record and re-claim that sixth seed).

It’s a lot of upheaval, but in a very tight division all you really need is one weekend where everything breaks your way.  The Rams are now in the driver’s seat.  But now, they have to win the winnable games in front of them, or they could pass the division right back to the Seahawks.

AFC Playoffs Shifted, Too

The upheaval in the AFC was much less over the weekend.  The Tennessee Titans with the inside track on the third seed were surprised by the Cleveland Browns.  That loss opens the way for the Dolphins to claim that seed, pushing Tennessee into fourth.

Not So Much Redemption as a Resurrection

On November 18, 2018, two 6-3 teams clashed at FedEx Field in Washington DC.  The Houston Texans – led at the time by Bill O’Brien with second-year quarterback Deshaun Watson leading the charge – opposed Jay Gruden’s Redskins – with Alex Smith under center.

The Texan defense was generally making life miserable for Smith.  His 12-for-27, 135 yard, 2 interception day held his passer rating down to a halting 29.1.  And then, Alex’ life just got miserable.

With 7:56 left in the third quarter, and the Texans leading 17-7, Alex suffered a gruesome leg injury while being sacked by Kareem Jackson.  And at that moment, Alex was no longer the quarterback for the Washington team.  He was no longer anyone’s quarterback.  In fact, it was not at all certain at the time that he would be able to keep his leg.

(Ironically enough, his backup that day was Colt McCoy – who was the NY Giant backup quarterback that engineered New York’s upset of Seattle).

Anyway, after many surgeries, much prayer, and an insane amount of work, Alex Smith rose from the athletic dead.  On October 11 of this year – one month and one week shy of two years since his potentially career ending injury – Alex returned to the field for Washington to throw 17 otherwise unremarkable passes in a loss to the Rams.  Four weeks later, he was their starter, and last Monday he led the football team in our nation’s capital to its third straight win – a rather significant 23-17 conquest of the previously undefeated Pittsburgh Steelers (gamebook) (summary).

The Football Team made little effort to run the ball – only 21 rushes the entire game.  Even if leading runner Antonio Gibson hadn’t gone down with an injury in the game’s first series, Washington was unlikely to get any movement against the Steeler’s dominating front 7.

On the 21 times that they did try to run, their runners averaged just 1.05 yards before they were contacted by a defender (the NFL average gives the back 2.46 yards before contact on average), and just another 1.1 yards after contact (NFL average = 1.86).

And so that left throwing the ball against football’s most feared pass defense as the most viable path forward. 

The Steelers weren’t just number one in the league in passing yards allowed.  They also allowed the lowest completion percentage (54.5) and the third lowest yards per attempted pass in the league (6.63).

At its core, Pittsburgh is an aggressive, blitzing defense that came into the contest sending extra rushers 39.8% of the time – the third highest frequency in the league.  That aggression leads to a lot of sacks (a league-leading 41, dropping the opponent’s passer on a league-leading 10.1% of his drop-backs) and a lot of interceptions.  They led the league with 16 – or 4.4% of the passes thrown against them.  That number was also first.  Pittsburgh also carried the lowest opponent’s passer rating against at 71.5.

And so you would think that 21 running plays and 49 drop-backs would play right into the Steelers’ hands.  Washington did give up a few sacks – 3, to be exact – all of those in the first half when the Steelers ran out to a 14-3 lead.  Alex wasn’t sacked in the second half.  He threw no interceptions in either half.  He threw (and connected on) a few deep balls (he was 2-for-5 on throws over 20 yards), but mostly just checked the ball down taking advantage of Pittsburgh’s uncharacteristically lose zones.

Running back J.D. McKissic was open all night in the flats.  He finished catching all 10 passes thrown his way for 70 yards (55 of those after the catch).

Alex finished 31 of 46 for 296 yards and a touchdown (a 92.3 rating that was as good as Washington could have hoped for).  Washington controlled 17:37 of the second half clock.

The rest was up to an under-hyped defense that blitzed almost not at all (only 9 times) and sat in deep zones to deny the big plays.  This worked well in general, but especially in the second half when Steeler quarterback Ben Roethlisberger finished just 14 of 26 for but 107 yards (4.12 per attempt and 7.64 per completion).  He was also intercepted on a deflection.  Pittsburgh’s lone 20-yard play of the second half was a 22-yard lob to Eric Ebron.  On the last play of the game.

Speaking of Ebron, he dropped two passes, and the Steelers all together dropped six.  The week before they dropped four, so Ben’s receiver’s haven’t been doing him many favors of late.

For the second straight game, the Steelers showed no interest at all in running.  After throwing 51 passes against Baltimore on Wednesday, Ben threw 53 more on Monday – without getting sacked in either game.  Some of that was surely influenced by the tough run defenses of the Ravens and the Football Team.  But a lot is the new identity of the Steelers.  They are a passing team, now.

With the game tied at 17 with 4:57 left in the contest, the Steelers faced fourth-and-one on the Washington 28.  They decided to go for it.  But they didn’t run the ball.  In Pittsburgh these days, fourth-and-one is a passing down.

The throw was incomplete.  Washington took over and kicked the field goal at 2:07 that gave them the lead they would not relinquish.

The win keeps Washington tied with the Giants atop the NFC East, and they only have one more winning team left on their schedule – a Week 15 meeting with Seattle.  But the Redskins aren’t a winning team either (their surprise victory over Pittsburgh notwithstanding) and the Giants have the tie-breaker (they swept Washington earlier this season), so the path to the playoffs will be somewhat complicated for the Football Team in Washington.

But some part of you has to be rooting for a story like Alex Smith, doesn’t it?

Of Super Bowl Hangovers

Do you believe in the Super Bowl Hangover?  I don’t.  The pattern isn’t really there.  Over the last several decades, there have been a few teams that have lost the Super Bowl that have vanished, but it doesn’t happen with any kind of regularity.  Among the recent losers of Super Bowls, the 2018 New England Patriots rebounded from their loss to Philadelphia in SB LII to beat the Rams in SB LIII.

So there is no real evidence for a Super Bowl hangover – but losing the big game can occasionally bring bad juju.  After blowing a huge lead and losing Super Bowl LI, the Atlanta Falcon franchise has never recovered.

Real or not, the two most successful teams of 2019 are both undergoing gut-wrenching “hangover” seasons that have both coaches and fans tearing their hair out.  The winningest team in football last year, the Baltimore Ravens (then 14-2) are scuffling to make their way back into the playoffs.  They are currently 6-5 and out of the playoffs, but not without prospects.

The top seed in the NFC last year was the San Francisco 49ers.  They were 13-3 last year.  At 5-6 this year, the 49ers are also currently out of the playoffs.  Their chances of making it back aren’t so good, given the strength of the division that they play in and the fact that one team from the NFC East will get an invitation.

In Week 12 (which ended on Wednesday) both of these teams were significant underdogs in important divisional clashes – and both responded with efforts consistent with their championship breeding.  Whatever their difficulties, these two teams are not about excuses or concessions.  Downtrodden or not, both of these teams battled to the very end.

San Francisco

In San Francisco this year, the issue has been injuries.  The team on the field would be mostly unrecognizable to fans from 2019 – a listing of the missing would be too exhausting to undertake.  Last Sunday they lined up against the 7-3 Rams, opened up a 17-3 lead on them, and then held on as the Rams scored the next 17 points – aided by a defensive score.

That score was extra-significant, as the 49er defense almost entirely defused the sometimes potent LA offense.  Being a division rival, the 49ers knew just what to do to shut them down.

Slowing the Rams

Los Angeles’ passing game is a function of its running game, and when the running portion is removed, the passing attack almost always flounders.  The Rams finished the game with a deceptive 126 rushing yards and 4.5 yards per carry.  Nearly half of those yards came on one 61-yard off-tackle burst by Cam Akers – a run which set up Los Angeles’ only offensive touchdown of the game.

Beyond that run, the Rams’ other 27 running plays managed just 65 yards (2.4 yards per rush).  None of the other running plays gained more than 8 yards.  This inability to run the ball not only made the LA offense one-dimensional, but it also effectively removed the play-action passes from their playbook.  Coming into the game, 35.8% of the Ram passes involved play-action.  Of the 31 passes thrown against the 49ers, LA employed play-action just 4 times.

Without the play-action to draw the linebackers and define the reads, Ram quarterback Jared Goff suffered through a forgettable afternoon.  Those 31 passes resulted in 19 completions for just 198 yards.  He also tossed a couple of interceptions to go with no touchdown passes – a 52.9 rating.

Jared is answerable for a good slice of that result.  He did not have a good game.  But in equal measure, Goff was let down by his teammates.

While not having nearly the injury issues that San Francisco has endured, the Rams have a significant hole at left tackle.  Fifteen-year veteran Andrew Whitworth has been the anchor to this offensive line ever since these Rams rose to prominence.  But a torn MCL and damage to the PCL in his left knee have him on injured reserve for what is officially described as a “significant length of time.”  The 49er game was the second game that Whitworth has missed, and a suitable replacement has not yet emerged.

In his absence, Joseph Noteboom – a third-year pro and former third-round draft pick out of TCU – made his tenth career start, but struggled all game long in pass protection.  He, in fact, almost made a star out of Dion Jordan, the San Francisco end who most frequently lined up opposite of him and routinely beat him to his outside.

This offensive line weakness provided San Francisco with a critical advantage.  Noteboom’s struggles meant that the 49ers could put consistent pass-rush pressure on Goff without having to resort to blitzing.

And the pressure did come.  Goff was sacked only twice, but was hit numerous other times (7 according to the gamebook account, but it seemed more than that).  Initially, though, this didn’t seem all that damaging.

San Francisco began the game in zone defenses, and the Rams answered with a salvo of short completions.  Jared completed all of his first 6 passes for 69 yards, getting the ball quickly out of his hands before the pass rush became an issue.  At this point, the 49ers switched to predominantly man coverages, and that – combined with the pressure – brought the LA passing game to an almost full stop.  From that point on, Goff was 13 of 25 for 129 yards and the 2 interceptions (a 33.6 rating).

Critical to man coverage is the performance of the cornerbacks.  After a season of relentless injuries, the 49ers are starting to get some of their pieces back.  Important additions for this game included running back Raheem Mostert, receiver Deebo Samuel, and star cornerback Richard Sherman.

Unlike many teams, though, the San Francisco cornerbacks do not travel.  For whatever reason, the 49ers don’t choose a receiver and have Sherman erase him from the game.  Instead, Richard sits on the left corner and waits to see who the opposing team will send out to challenge him on any particular play.

Thus, this defensive concept requires a second high-level cornerback to man the other side of the field.  And in Jason Verrett (at least for last Sunday) San Francisco had him.  At one time (2014), Jason was a first round draft pick of the (then) San Diego Chargers, and even made the Pro Bowl in 2015.  But a series of injuries interrupted his career.  Six times since 2015, Jason has landed on either the Injured Reserve list or the Physically Unable to Perform list.  Last season – his first as a 49er – Jason was healthy for only 4 defensive snaps.  A hamstring injury even cost him the first two games of this season.  But cornerback was an area of concern last year for the 49ers, and as soon as Jason was able to get back on the field, he has been a starter, playing at least 77% of the snaps in every game since.

On Sunday, Jason took all comers at his right cornerback position.  He ran up the field on Josh Reynolds’ verticals, and stayed with Robert Woods and Cooper Kupp on all their intermediate crossing routes.  Verrett combined with Sherman, safety Jimmie Ward (who played a phenomenal game – mostly taking away the Ram tight ends) and Emmanuel Moseley (and Jamar Taylor before he went down with an injury) in blanketing the Ram receivers.  The Rams have had issues with this before.  This is not the first time their receivers (especially Kupp) have vanished before tight man coverage.

So Goff’s situation throughout the game was fairly bleak.  Rarely did he have time to throw the ball, and rarely did he have anyone open to throw it to.  No matter his level of performance, it would have been almost impossible for Jared to have a great game, given the circumstances.

Goff finished the game only 1-for-5 on passes more than 10 yards downfield.

And then, of course, when he did get opportunities, he missed far too many of them.  Accuracy was a problem.  More than a few open receivers he just missed.

The most agonizing of these came with 3:26 left in the third, LA on the 49er 22 yard line, still trailing 17-3.  San Francisco switched to a zone coverage for this down and confused themselves with the coverage (not the only time that happened).  Kupp’s curl in pulled Verrett away from the defensive right sideline and out of his deep zone area.  Behind him, Darrell Henderson ran a wheel route up that sideline.  Moseley, realizing the gaffe, tried to catch up to Henderson, but was still a clear three yards or so behind him when Goff lofted what should have been a walk-in touchdown pass.  Overthrown by about two feet.

LA still salvaged a field goal out of that drive, but the four points lost on that pass would have made a huge difference in the game.

More troubling for Goff and the Rams is his pronounced tendency to pre-determine where he was going to throw the ball.

On his first sack, with 11:26 left in the second, Reynolds lined up wide right and ran a deep out against Sherman.  Respecting his speed, Sherman gave him sufficient room to run his out.  But Jared wasn’t looking his way.  He spent far too long looking to the left side, where Verrett had Gerald Everett’s out route smothered, and Ward was all over Kupp’s shallow cross.  By the time that Jared gave up on either of those routes and turned his attention back to his right, it was too late.  Kerry Hyder (who was working against Noteboom on that down) was there to take him down.

Now there is 5:13 left in the half.  The Rams are down 7-3 and face a third-and-two on their own 28.  San Fran is in zone again.  Linebacker Dre Greenlaw dropped very deep into his intermediate zone, and Everett basically turned around underneath him about two yards off the line of scrimmage – wide open for the first down.  Jared never looked at him.  He was waiting for Woods to find a space behind Fred Warner over the middle, finally throwing behind Woods as the pressure (Jordan pushing Noteboom back into his lap) started to show.

The most damaging of these poor decisions came with 2:26 left in the game.  The score was tied at 20, and LA faced a third-and-five on their own 44.  Back in man, San Francisco made one of their few glaring mistakes in that coverage.  The Rams lined up with three receivers on their left, but the 49ers only answered with two defensive backs.  His pre-snap look should have suggested to Jared that someone might be left uncovered over there.  That someone turned out to be Robert Woods, who’s deep cross was open not just for the first down but with enough distance (assuming a decent run after the catch) to put them in position for the game-winning field goal.

But Jared was already sold on Kupp’s streak up that sideline – even though Moseley was with him stride for stride.  Given a chance, Cooper might have won on a 50-50 ball, but again, Jared’s throw was well out of bounds.

It’s games like this that must give the Rams’ management pause.  Jared has had some great games for the Rams over the last few years – and his contributions were significant in LA’s Super Bowl run a couple of years ago.  I wouldn’t be at all surprised to see Jared rebound this week with a big game against Arizona.  But games like this are part of the mix, too.

The 49ers on Offense

San Francisco’s offensive approach was a perfect complement to the 49er defensive dominance.  With many of their recognizable stars still on the sideline, the 49er offense went conservative.  They ground out 33 runs, even though they only averaged 3.5 yards per carry, and they tossed a bevy of short passes.

Of Nick Mullens’ 35 throws, 24 were less than ten yards from scrimmage – and 10 of those were behind the line.  No individual number set points this out more than Deebo Samuel’s.  Deboo finished his first game back with 11 catches for 133 yards.  He had 136 of those yards after the catch.  So the aggregate air distance of all of his catches was -3 yards.  His route chart (available here), shows that 7 of his 11 catches were behind the line, and only 2 of them were more than 4 yards deep.

Conservative, yes, but effective.  After forcing that last Ram punt, the 49ers drained the last 2:10 off the clock driving 56 yards on 11 plays (5 runs, 5 passes, and one field goal) to walk away with an upset 23-20 win (summary).

Yes, San Francisco’s path back to the playoffs seems unlikely.  But the pride and professionalism of Kyle Shanahan’s team is still evident.  It bodes well for next season and beyond.

NFC Playoff Thoughts

The Rams lost no ground even though they lost the game – at least not to the Cardinals, who also lost last week to New England.  They will meet this Sunday in Arizona to probably determine the NFC’s fifth and sixth seeds.

I have held Tampa Bay in the fifth seed, thinking that if they run the table they will finish with a better record than either the Rams or Cardinals.  Increasingly, though, I have a hard time seeing Tampa Bay run the table.  With one game against Minnesota and two against Atlanta, I have a feeling that they will lose at least one of those and will finish as the seventh seed.

We’ll see.

Baltimore v Pittsburgh

Almost entirely across the country, the Steelers and Ravens finally lined up against each other last Wednesday afternoon.

Baltimore’s issues this season have been less injury and more familiarity.  Baltimore almost raced to the Super Bowl last year on a stylistically distinct brand of football.  But now in really their third season running this unique run-centric offense, a lot of defenses are starting to catch up.  The same is somewhat true of their high-blitz percentage defense (coming into the game, the Ravens – at 44.8% – were blitzing more than any other defense).  Indecipherable in 2019, more and more clubs are starting to decode this defense.  At least a little.

All together, things have been more difficult for Baltimore this year.  They have had particular difficulty against the better teams, where they had already fallen to Kansas City, Pittsburgh and Tennessee.  Now 6-4, Baltimore journeyed into Pittsburgh to renew hostilities with the undefeated Steelers.

But before the game – scheduled for Thanksgiving night – could kickoff, Baltimore found itself in the midst of a major COVID outbreak that forced numerous postponements of the game.  Even when the contest finally began on Wednesday afternoon, over half of the Raven’s roster was unavailable – either because of the virus (the Ravens had 14 players disqualified) or to other injuries (Baltimore carried 10 on the injured reserve list and had another [Tight end Mark Andrews with a thigh injury] unavailable for the game).

The resulting team more resembled a junior varsity than an NFL club, and – as with San Francisco – the fan who remembers last year would scarcely recognize this team.  On offense alone, about 7 of the 11 regulars were unavailable for this game – and – given the almost non-existent practice time that the replacement Ravens had (I think they had two practices), the results were predictable.  Baltimore finished the game with but 219 yards of total offense.

Minus their quarterback and two top running backs, football’s top ranked rushing team still managed to bang out 129 ground yards (68 of those belonging to backup quarterback Robert Griffin III).  But the Raven passing attack – a season-long concern – was nowhere to be found.

Facing relentless pressure from the Steelers and insufficient practice time to knock the rust off, Griffin the passer finished his afternoon just 7 of 12 for an anemic 33 yards.  The aggregate distance that his 7 completions traveled from the line of scrimmage was just 3 yards.  According to his chart (available here), 4 of Griffin’s 7 completions were at or behind the line of scrimmage, and none of his completions traveled more than 8 air-yards from scrimmage.  He was 0-for-3 on all passes beyond that.

And yet, when third string quarterback Trace McSorley connected with Marquise Brown on a 70-yard touchdown pass with just 2:58 left in the game, the Ravens suddenly found themselves in a one score game (19-14 Pittsburgh) with almost three minutes left and all of their timeouts still in their possession.

Although they carried their own share of unavailable stars, the Raven defense fought tenaciously throughout the game to give Baltimore this one final chance.  And nowhere were they more determined than in the red zone, where they limited football’s seventh most efficient red zone offense (the Steelers came in scoring touchdowns 69.4% of the time that they reached the end zone) to just 1-for-4 in this contest.  Now, they needed just one more stop to give the beleaguered offense one last shot at a miracle.

It was not to be.  The gritty Steelers converted two clutch third-downs to sustain that final drive, consume all of Baltimore’s timeouts, and drain the last three minutes off the clock.

On third-and-six from his own 17, quarterback Ben Roethlisberger dropped a perfect 16-yard pass into the arms of James Washington even as he was surrounded by about three defenders.  Facing third-and-one on the Raven 45 with 1:19 to go, Benny Snell rolled off of an attempted tackle and second-efforted his way to the clinching first down.

It was just enough to keep the Steelers undefeated (gamebook) (summary) while dropping Baltimore now down to 6-5.  Thus the Steelers retain their one-game lead on the Chiefs for the conference’s top seed, and Baltimore – for the moment – sits outside the playoff grouping.  Their situation, though, is less desperate than it looks.  With the end of the Steeler game, the Ravens have now passed the most difficult part of their schedule.  Before them now are Dallas, Cleveland, Jacksonville, New York (Giants) and Cincinnati.  As the Raven players filter back – and most of the COVID players are expected to be back in time to play Dallas on Tuesday – they should find themselves favored in all of these remaining games.  But two players not expected back this season will cast a large shadow over the Ravens’ viability in the playoffs.  A fractured and dislocated ankle has shelved elite left tackle Ronnie Stanley, and a major knee injury has ended the season for Nick Boyle – arguably football’s best blocking tight end.

For a team that lives and dies with the running game, these are devastating losses.

Regardless, expect to see Baltimore in the playoffs – and expect to see them to be a tough out once they get there.