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.

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