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.

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