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?

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