Coming Back Down to Earth

Eleven evenings after they dispatched the Kansas City Chiefs, the Buffalo Bills were in the process of dominating the Tennessee Titans.  With their 38-20 win in Kansas City, the football world was beginning to turn their eyes to Buffalo as the new standard bearer – at least as far as the AFC is concerned.

Now, on Monday Night Football, the Bills were mostly pushing around the Titans.  At the half, Buffalo had held possession of the ball for 20:15.  Tennessee quarterback Ryan Tannehill went to the locker room having completed just 4 of 12 passes, including an interception, and, while the Bills were rolling up 17 first downs against the Titans, Tennessee could manage but 5.

Yet, for all of that, the Bills headed for the locker room leading at the half, but by only 20-17.  It’s a very bad omen when you thoroughly dominate a team in the first half, but it doesn’t show on the scoreboard.  Two seismic occurrences held Tennessee in this game.

Missed Chances

On their first two possessions of the game, Buffalo combined to run 23 plays for 112 yards.  They chewed up 10:46 of the first half clock.  One of those possessions even came on a short field after the Tannehill interception.  But, at the conclusion of those two drives, Buffalo led just 6-0, being held to field goals each time.

On the second possession, from first-and-goal at the five yard line, they had a touchdown called back for a holding call – it would be the first of two touchdowns called back.

Balanced against Buffalo’s two long clock-controlling drives that only ended in field goals, were Tennessee’s two touchdown “drives” of the first half.  Together, they combined for 3 plays, 86 yards and took a total of 47 seconds.  Tennessee’s first touchdown of the game came on the first play after Buffalo’s second field goal.  Running back Derrick Henry exploded up the middle for 76 yards – along the way, reaching a speed of 21.88 miles per hour – the top speed recorded for a ball carrier in the NFL this season.

That’s the fearsome combination that you get with Derrick.  He’s bigger than some of the linemen that block for him.  You’ll see him on the sidelines chatting with guards and tackles that have to look up to see him.  But he doesn’t run like any lineman I’ve ever seen.  Derrick Henry – and this isn’t news – presents a unique challenge.

Tennessee’s other first half touchdown came on a two-play, 11 yard “drive” after Buffalo’s Josh Allen suffered an interception of his own.

For the game, Buffalo held the lead for 36:57.  The Titans were only ahead for 14:10 of an entertaining game that saw 8 lead changes.  Tennessee’s offense had 11 possessions during the game.  They were playing with a lead in only one of them – the last one when Tannehill took a knee to run out the final 21 seconds to finalize their improbable 34-31 win (gamebook) (summary).

The game highlights all center around Buffalo’s final play – Allen’s failed quarterback sneak on fourth-and-goal at the Tennessee three-yard line.  Buffalo’s loss was less about that last play than it was about their first two drives.  They were also hampered by a Tennessee game plan that featured a lot of two-deep safeties (the same look that Buffalo gave Kansas City in Week Five) that worked to a similar effect.  The explosive Buffalo offense was held to just 4 plays of 20 yards, none longer than 31 yards.

As heard on the broadcast, Tennessee also schemed to get Allen rolling to his left rather than let him roll to his right.  That bit of the game plan worked out about as well as Mike Vrabel and his staff could have hoped.  Of the 45 passes that Allen actually threw to a target, 21 were thrown to the left side while only 12 were thrown to the right.  But while Josh went 8 for 12 for 94 yards and a touchdown throwing to his right, he was less dynamic going to the other side.  He completed 17 of the throws to the left – a healthy 81%, but for only 149 yards – just 8.8 per completed pass.  He also threw an interception throwing to his left, while none of his touchdowns went in that direction.  His passer rating on throws to the left side was an exceedingly modest 76.4.

Finally, Buffalo was undone by their own unwillingness to balance their offense.  I wrote about this last week.  In the post-game, coach Sean McDermott was asked about his team’s continued struggles in the red zone.  Buffalo was 2 for 5 in the red zone Monday night, and is now 16 for 29 on the season – a 55.2% that ranks them twenty-seventh in the league.  One reason is that this team doesn’t trust its running game.

At 5-7 and 203 pounds (official weight listing) no one will confuse Devin Singletary for Derrick Henry.  But Devin is averaging 5.2 yards per carry this season, and in 367 rushing attempts over his career, Singletary averages 4.8 yards per carry.  And – in spite of the fact that he’s smallish in stature – Devin is a tough runner. According to the “advanced stats” section of the football reference page I’ve linked to above, for his career Singletary is averaging more yards after contact (2.57) than before contact (2.26) and breaks a tackle every 11.5 carries (the league averages are about 2.5 yards before contact, 1.8 yards after contact, and a broken tackle on every 14 carries).

And yet, when Buffalo needed an inch to keep their chances going, the ball was in Josh Allen’s hands.  Devin was in double figures in carries through each of the first four games.  The Bills themselves ran the fourth-most times of any team in the league during their first four games, and their 145.3 rushing yards per contest ranked fifth in the league.  But once Kansas City popped up on the schedule, the running game went into hibernation – and such running game as they kept was all about Allen.

They ran as much as 28 times against the Chiefs only because they were well ahead in the fourth quarter.  They ran 23 times against the Titans (15 of those in the first half).  Singletary carried just 6 times in Kansas City – just twice in the second half.  He carried the ball 5 times in Tennessee.  With 12:10 left in the third quarter, Devin gained 4 yards up the middle.  It would be his last carry of the game, and his only carry of the second half.  Allen carried the ball 9 times in the loss to Tennessee – 5 of them designed runs.

Josh Allen is a compelling talent.  He is unmatched in the league for arm strength, he is more athletic than most quarterbacks, and he is the unquestioned charismatic heart of the team.  But when running the offense, McDermott and his staff have a fixation.  In big games, Josh is the only player they trust.  If there’s a yard to get, only Josh can deliver it.

If they didn’t have a talent like Singletary, that would be understandable.  But Devin is an awfully good back to be reduced to a spectator’s role in clutch situations.

Chargers Also Tumble

On the heels of a thrilling 47-42 conquest of Cleveland, the Los Angeles Chargers were also a team very much on the rise – and creating a lot of buzz.  Last Sunday’s matchup against Baltimore was heavily hyped as a showdown between two rising young quarterbacks – the Chargers’ 23-year-old second year signal caller Justin Herbert, and the Ravens’ 24-year-old former MVP Lamar Jackson.

The expected “showdown” never materialized, as Los Angeles was easily brushed aside, 34-6 (gamebook) (summary).  Coming off a scintillating 398-yard, 4-touchdown pass performance (he also ran for a score), Herbert struggled through the second worst (by passer rating) afternoon of his pro career.  In Week 13 of his rookie season, Justin and the Chargers were whitewashed by New England 45-0 – a game in which he managed a rating of just 43.7.  Last Sunday in Baltimore, things didn’t go much better for him.  Herbert completed just 56.4% of his passes (22 of 39) for just 195 yards – an average of 8.86 yards per completion.  His lone touchdown pass offset by an interception, it all led to a 67.8 rating.

It was a game the Chargers were never really competitive in.

A Week-to-Week League

The knee-jerk reaction here would be to wonder if both the Bills (who were actually road favorites against Tennessee) and the Chargers are over-rated.  It would be easy enough to re-cast them as two franchises led by very young quarterbacks (Allen himself is in his age-25 year), who aren’t really ready to win big games against established opponents.

A more accurate assessment would be that the NFL is a week-to-week league.  Of the two, Buffalo is farther along in the journey.  This is a team that played in the AFC Championship Game last year, and even though they are 4-2 now, this is still one of the top teams in the league.  If Allen had made that one inch on Monday night, the conversations this week would be different.

As far as the Chargers are concerned, there are still a few soft spots in their game that need to be strengthened before they can truly be considered contenders.  As I noted last week, this team has struggled all season to stop the run.  That was certainly evident as one of football’s better running teams exploited this flaw.

In controlling the clock for 19:18 of the first half, Baltimore battered the Chargers with 115 rushing yards on 16 carries and 2 touchdowns.  This was all just the first half.  They averaged an eye-popping 7.2 yards per carry, even though none of those runs gained more than 22 yards.  They came back in the third quarter to control the clock for 12:54 (of that quarter) on their way to pushing their lead from 17-6 to 27-6.  Baltimore out first-downed Los Angeles 9-0 in that third quarter.

In today’s NFL, run defense is not optional.  If you can’t stop the run, you won’t be invited to the playoffs.

But even if the Chargers aren’t quite ready to contend for the big prize yet, they are still a dangerous team, capable of upending any team on any given day.

If, in fact, you are looking for an actual take-away from these two games it wouldn’t be that Buffalo and Los Angeles are not as good as they’ve seemed.  The take away is that the teams that won these games – the Titans and Ravens – are more dangerous than they’ve shown so far this year.

The Titans have developed an annoying habit of playing down to their opposition.  They represent the only victory achieved by the New York Jets this season, barely beat a struggling Indianapolis team, and needed overtime to ease past a fading Seattle team.

But, in addition to devising a crafty game plan to slow the Bills (somewhat), Tennessee also laid into the league’s top defense – both for points allowed and yards allowed.  They cracked open the league’s third-best run defense (Buffalo had allowed just 78.4 yards per game) and chalked up 4 rushing touchdowns against a unit that had only surrendered 1 rushing touchdown through their first 5 games.

Meanwhile, after a slow start against a pass defense that was holding opposing throwers to a miniscule 60.7 passer rating (the best such figure in football), Tannehill completed his last 10 passes (including going 9-for-9 in the fourth quarter), on his way to a 14-17 second half.

Lest you’ve forgotten, this Titan team has made the playoffs in each of the last two seasons, and three of the last four – reaching the Championship Game after the 2019 season.  The core of those teams is still there – even if they’ve been a little uneven to start the season.

As far as Baltimore goes, well the Ravens up to this point have looked like the most vulnerable of the 4-1 teams.  The still winless Detroit Lions all but beat them – it took a Justin Tucker 66-yard field goal that hit the crossbar and bounced over to win that game.  The one-win Colts would have dumped Baltimore last Monday Night if their kicker could manage a field goal (or an extra point).  Even their signature win to this point of the season (a one-point seesaw victory over the Chiefs in Week Two) is lessened by the fact that Kansas City has begun the season as football’s worst defense.

If any team could have been thought of as lucky to this point of the season, it was the Ravens who could easily have finished the easiest part of their schedule 1-4 instead of 4-1.

At the height of the curiosity about the Ravens was the steep drop-off in their defense.  In recent years under coordinator Don Martindale (who goes by “Wink”) the Raven defense has been one of football’s most intimidating.  They ranked twenty-eighth going into the contest against the high-flying Chargers, and ever since Derek Carr and the Raiders lit them up on opening night, there’s been a suspicion that clubs knew which of Martindale’s blitz packages could be exploited with up-field passes.

Whatever suspicions the rest of the league might have had about the Baltimore defense were thoroughly laid to rest last Sunday afternoon as the Ravens laid waste to Herbert and football’s third-ranked passing attack.

The Chargers managed just 80 yards of total offense in the second half, averaging just 3.2 yards per play.  Never all that committed to the run, the Chargers abandoned all efforts in that regard at halftime, when they ran just 5 times for 6 yards over the last 30 minutes.  Of the 27 rushing yards that they did manage, 12 of those came on two scrambles from Herbert.  The 10 actual carries by running backs were good for only 14 yards, with no carry gaining more than 5 yards.

Of particular note was cornerback Marlon Humphrey who almost completely denied the left side of the field to the Los Angeles passing attack.  When throwing to the left side, Herbert completed just 6 of 15 passes for 44 yards and an interception – a passer rating of 20.1.

The Chargers had 11 offensive possessions in the game.  In none of them did they advance the ball more than 38 yards from their starting point.  If they hadn’t been given a short field after a second-quarter interception, this team would almost certainly have been shut out.

Remember that this is the team that had struck for three plays of at least 37 yards in their previous week’s victory against Cleveland.

This was not only Baltimore’s most complete game of the season, but – given the quality of the offense they were facing – I think this was easily the most dominating defensive performance of the year.

Baltimore’s offense gets most of the press.  But when you watch a defensive performance this thorough, it quickly reminds you why the Ravens are in that small circle of teams that no one wants to face in a big game.

This is about that point of the season – six weeks in or so – when the teams that have been flying high early start to come back to the pack a bit, and some teams that will be heard from at the end of the season (that may have gotten off to sluggish starts) begin to re-assert themselves.

And things are just starting to heat up.

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