Time to Take the Colts Seriously

Early in the season, they were easy to forget about.  As the season developed, they were easy to dismiss.  But, on the heels of their 22-16 road victory in Arizona (gamebook) (summary), the Indianapolis Colts can no longer be forgotten or dismissed.  As the playoff picture comes into focus (with just two games to play) the 9-6 Colts are sitting right in the middle of the action.  If they playoffs started today, they would be headed to Buffalo for a WildCard showdown with the Bills. 

It wasn’t always this way.

Five weeks into the season, the Colts sat at 1-4.  That they were tied for second in the division is more a reflection on the AFC South.  At that point, they were two games behind the 3-2 Tennessee Titans (having already lost to them).  They were tied with Houston, with both of those teams one game better than 0-5 Jacksonville.

As they fought their way back to a 5-5 mark, they were still easy to dismiss.  Their five victories came at the expense of Miami (who started 1-7), Houston (4-11), San Francisco (2-4 after their loss to the Colts), the Jets (another 4-11 team), and 2-13 Jacksonville. They had played tight games against many of the NFL’s better teams, but consistently came up short.  They lost to Seattle by 12 points, lost a three-point game to the Rams, were beaten twice by Tennessee (by 9 points and then by 3 at home in overtime).  They also lost by 6 in overtime against Baltimore. 

That loss seemed particularly telling.  They had led that game 22-3 early in the third quarter.  If not for a missed extra point and two missed field goals (a 37-yarder that was blocked and a 47-yarder that missed as time expired) Indy would have won that one in regulation. With two pushover division foes contributing four conference wins, the Colts – at this point – looked like a likely playoff participant, but not a team to be overly concerned about.

That perception has changed as the Colts have continued their surge, winning four of their last five.  Yes, one of those wins came against the lowly Texans, but the other three wins came in convincing fashion against teams that are clearly in the playoff mix.  They beat Buffalo (currently 9-6 and leading the East) 41-15.  They have followed that up by pushing around the New England Patriots (also 9-6 and second in the East) 27-17, to go along with their Christmas day win in Arizona against the 10-5 Cardinals.

Their only loss since Week Eight came at the hands of the defending world champions from Tampa Bay.  In their Week 12 loss to the Buccaneers (38-31), they took a 10-point lead into the half.  It was a bizarre game, as Indy muffled Tampa Bay’s top-ranked passing game (holding Tom Brady to 226 passing yards and an 88.6 rating) but were skewered by Leonard Fournette (100 yards on just 17 carries) and a Buccaneer ground attack that accounted for 142 yards and 4 touchdowns while averaging 5.3 yards per carry.

Now, with only 8-7 Las Vegas and Jacksonville standing between them and an 11-6 record, the Colts have moved up to fifth in the league in scoring (420 points) and – with Jonathan Taylor’s 1626 rushing yards leading the way – up to second in the league in rushing yards (154.9 per game).  This is a team that can’t be looked past anymore. Their Christmas win came despite losing (to injury or COVID) 4 starting linemen, Darius Leonard – the heart and soul of their defense, Rock Ya-Sin – a starting cornerback, starting safety Khari Willis, and possession receiver Zach Pascal (who has 36 passes caught this year). 

While – as injury/COVID impacts go – Indianapolis hasn’t necessarily been the league’s hardest hit team, this is – nonetheless – a significant amount of chaos to deal with.  Especially as several of these COVID casualties showed up on the list the morning of the game. In some ways, the Colts are built for the kind of chaotic season.  Taking their cue from their ever-steady head coach Frank Reich, this team just does not panic – not when they were 1-4 and not when they were forced to re-invent their roster just hours before the game.

Sometimes You Just Can’t Win

In the post-game interviews, the focus will frequently center on the performance of the quarterback.  That would prove true after this game as well.  But, if you didn’t watch the game and only heard the questions being asked, you would think that the team survived in spite of a sub-standard performance from Carson Wentz – the man behind center.  Both Wentz and Reich answered numerous questions about a few off-target passes in the third quarter that cut a couple of drives short.

That seems to be how everyone is with Wentz this year.  Coming off a final disappointing season in Philadelphia, the world seems quick to note those moments when Carson falls short, and struggles to remember those times he’s performed well. Yes, Carson missed a couple of throws in that quarter.  But Carson Wentz was probably as responsible for the victory as any other single player on the team. 

Yes, Taylor gained his 100 yards rushing, again (108 to be exact) – doing so largely on his own.  With the re-tooled offensive line providing little push, Jonathan accounted for 85 of those yards after contact (3.1 per carry), breaking 3 tackles along the way.

The rest was Wentz, who finished the evening completing 18 of 28 passes for 225 yards and 2 touchdowns – leading to a passer rating of 112.9.  In a turnover-free effort, Wentz led the Colts to an 8-for-15 performance on third-down (53.3%) and was particularly effective on his deep throws.  Only 6 of his 28 passes were directed at targets more than 10 yards from the line of scrimmage, but Carson completed 5 of them for 108 yards.  This includes going 2-for-2 for 53 yards and a touchdown on passes of more than 20 yards.

It hasn’t always been pretty, but like the rest of his team, Wentz is a survivor.

Merry Christmas, Indianapolis

Offsetting the joy in Indianapolis is the frustration in Arizona on the heels of a game that was there for the taking.  Two missed field goals and a missed extra point account for the difference in the score right there.  Toss in a safety on a poor snap that bounced past quarterback Kyler Murray and rolled into the end zone and a critical illegal contact penalty that erased a would-have-been turnover, and you get the picture. 

Arizona ended the game with 11 accepted penalties that cost them 85 yards – most of them legitimate, as the officiating crew shared a bit in the holiday giving.

Late in the second quarter – Indy up 9-6 – the Colts were driving.  Just before the two-minute warning, Carson Wentz scrambled on a third-and-five, with the officials awarding him the first down on what looked to be a very generous spot.  Under other circumstances Coach Kliff Kingsbury might have challenged. But Arizona had already lost an earlier challenge, and even though he would probably have won this one, the risk of losing that final challenge with still more than half the game to play seemed too great.  So, the play went unchallenged. Four plays later – and with 52 seconds left in the half – a phantom pass interference call against Marco Wilson gave the Colts a first down at the Arizona 13-yard line.  While this drive didn’t end in a touchdown, the penalty allowed Indy to survive their own holding penalty on the next play and still stay in range for the field goal that gave them a 12-9 halftime lead.

It was that kind of game.

Panic in the Desert?

A three-game losing streak for a team that began the year 7-0 might be a cause for panic among some.  Within the team, there doesn’t seem to be a sense of panic.  Much of the damage done them during the skid has been self-inflicted and thus under their control.

One developing point of concern is Murray and the passing game.  Through their 7-0 start, Kyler was leading the NFL in completion percentage (73.5%), had thrown 17 touchdown passes to just 5 interceptions, and held a 116.8 passer rating (football’s second highest rating).  In the five games he’s played since, Kyler has seen his completion percentage drop to 63.5%, has thrown more interceptions (5) than touchdown passes (4), with a passer rating of just 80.4 (NFL average is 90.8).  According to the Sportradar group that handles the “advanced stats” for the football reference site, Kyler’s accuracy has dropped from a superior 84.9% in those first 7 games to just 73.7% since (NFL average is 73.7%).

Some of the answer lies in the latest defensive approach to Kyler.  Keeping him in the pocket is only the first part.  What teams are doing now is circling him into the pocket, keeping tall defensive linemen right in front of him, forcing the diminutive Murray to throw over top of them.  This affects his deep passing more than his short game.  Against the Colts, Kyler was 15-19 (78.9%) on passes from the line of scrimmage to ten yards out, but just 3 for 11 on passes of more than ten yards. Beyond just generally cleaning up the mental mistakes, Arizona may want to put some thought on getting Murray out on the edge and out from under the redwoods.

Back in Control

While Indianapolis was dropping out of sight during the season’s early weeks, the Buffalo Bills were soaring.  Their 38-20 Week Five conquest of the Kansas City Chiefs gave them a 4-1 record and bragging rights over the AFC.  They then lost 5 of their next 8, including a home loss to the New England Patriots. New England’s concurrent six-game winning streak pushed them two games ahead of Buffalo in the division and put them in position to put their collective feet on the Bills’ necks. 

But Buffalo got off the mat with a Week 15 win over Carolina, while the Colts were busy ending New England’s winning streak.  Now just one game separated the Bills and Patriots, as Buffalo made the journey into Foxboro last Sunday.

Early in the first quarter, we were given a glimpse into the type of game this would be.  After an initial three-and-out from the Patriots, the Bills went 61 yards to paydirt on their first possession, taking 6:57 and 13 plays to get there.  New England answered with a 75-yard touchdown drive that took 13 plays and chewed up 7:09 of the clock.  Buffalo then came back with a 68-yard, 10 play, 5:27 drive that resulted in a field goal.

The two teams combined to produce 7 drives that covered at least 60 yards, took at least 10 plays, and ground at least four minutes off the clock.  Along the way, the Bills and Patriots combined to go 8 for 10 on fourth down.

After Buffalo took a 17-7 lead into the half, they opened the third quarter with a 14-play, 64-yard, 5:58 drive that led to a touchdown.  The Patriots responded with a 75-yard, 14-play, 7:21 drive for a touchdown.  On their turn, Buffalo moved 66 yards for the next touchdown – that drive taking just 9 plays and 4:59.  Ten plays after the ensuing kickoff, the Patriots were back in the end zone, following a 75-yard drive that took 4:05 off the clock.  Then it was Buffalo, again, celebrating a touchdown after a 13-play, 75-yard drive that drained another 5:07 off the clock.

Down, now, 33-21 with just 2:30 left in the game, the Patriots mounted one final effort.  But, with 1:13 left, and facing a fourth-and-ten from the Buffalo 49, the Bills’ defense finally made the game-clinching stand.  It was Safety Micah Hyde with the game-sealing interception on the Bills’ three-yard line (gamebook) (summary).

Considering that this was anyone’s game right up until Buffalo’s final touchdown drive, the statistics were surprisingly lopsided.  Buffalo outgained New England 428-288, won the turnover battle 2-0, and converted 6 of 12 third downs – while allowing the Patriots to convert just 1 of 10 for the game.  Buffalo never punted, controlled the clock for 35:09 and ended 7 drives in the red zone.

But Buffalo only turned four of those red zone opportunities into touchdowns, kicking two field goals and turning the ball over on downs in their other opportunities.

In a matchup of football’s two tightest pass defenses, the Bills won both ends of the challenge.  The Patriots entered the contest holding opposing passers to just a 70.3 rating – second lowest in the NFL, behind only Buffalo.  The Bills entered the contest leading all defensive football in completion percentage (57.8), yards per pass attempt (5.75) touchdown passes allowed (11) touchdown percentage (2.4), and passer rating 66.7.

They went on from there to make life generally miserable for New England’s Mac Jones, who completed just 14 of 32 passes for 145 yards and 2 interceptions – a 31.4 passer rating.  Josh Allen – Buffalo’s signal caller – prospered against the stiff Patriot defense, throwing for 314 yards and three touchdowns on his way to a 104.4 passer rating – breaking New England’s string of 8 games in which no opposing passer had managed a rating higher than 73.1.

Key to the matchup was fifth receiver Isaiah McKenzie.  With receivers Cole Beasley and Gabriel Davis sidelined (COVID), Isaiah made the most of his opportunities.  With defensive back Myles Bryant in constant trail position, McKenzie caught 7 passes for a career-high 103 yards.

And that was just the second half.

He finished the best game of his career with 11 catches for 125 yards and a touchdown.  As much as anything else, it was a situation of Buffalo having one more talented receiver to throw into the route than New England could effectively cover.

Going Forward

So, now the Bills and Pats are tied at 9-6, having split their season series.  The next tie-breaker is division record – where Buffalo currently holds a one game lead with each team having one more division game to play.  Buffalo’s remaining games are against Atlanta (7-8) and the Jets.  New England finishes against Jacksonville and an 8-7 Miami team (in Miami) that is riding a six-game winning streak of its own and is trying to crash the postseason party. The path forward is more direct for the Bills, but in the most chaotic NFL season in recent memory, anything can still happen in these last two weeks.

Concern in Buffalo

While the stars are aligning for the Bills, there is also some reason for concern in Orchard Park.  In their losing effort, New England ran for 149 yards (averaging 5.5 yards per rush).  They thus become the fourth consecutive opponent – and fifth in six games – to run for at least 137 yards against Buffalo.  The Bills have surrendered over 200 ground yards in two of those games. Over those last six games (which they have spilt 3-3) Buffalo is being pushed around in the trenches to the tune of 161.2 rush yards a game and 4.8 per carry.  New England’s Damien Harris plowed through them for 103 yards in just 18 carries.  He piled up 71 of those yards before contact from a defender (a distressing 3.9 per carry).

This is a significant concern.  There are a good many AFC playoff teams that emphasize the run – including the two that have already put up 200 rushing yards against the Bills (Indy and New England).  This conference also includes dominant running teams in Tennessee and Baltimore who will hope to be reasonably healthy come playoff time.

Add to this the fact that Buffalo’s own running game is pretty thin after quarterback Allen – who does most of the heavy lifting in that department – and the fact that their home ballpark in mid-winter can be significantly pass-adverse, and you have a full-blown “situation.”

Their lingering inability to slow the run game may very well lead to an early playoff exit for the Bills.

Rams and 49ers Try to Scramble NFC West Picture

A breathless Lisa Salters was trying to get in the last of her report as the Los Angeles Rams were working their first possession of the second half.  After her halftime conversation with LA coach Sean McVay, she let the Monday Night television audience know that the Rams placed a priority on getting points out of this opening drive.

The words were barely out of her mouth when Ram quarterback Matthew Stafford arched a perfect long pass deep over the middle of the field, dropping the ball right into the arms of receiver Van Jefferson at the Arizona goal line for a 52-yard touchdown pass.

Two scrimmage plays after the touchdown, Ram linebacker Leonard Floyd intercepted a pass from Cardinal quarterback Kyler Murray, giving the Rams possession again on the Arizona 19.  Seven plays later, Stafford – being chased to his right – dropped a perfect strike to top receiver Cooper Kupp in the front corner of the end zone.

And suddenly, a game that was 13-13 at the half had turned into a 27-13 Ram lead only 5:15 into the second half.  The Rams would hold on from there for a 30-23 win (gamebook) (summary).

One of the primary adherents to the Gospel of SuperStars, the Rams have earned more than their share of suspicion so far this year. In the offseason, they had added Stafford in a trade with Detroit, and in the early going, it looked like Stafford was the missing piece.  They began the season 3-0, with each win coming against a team that had made the playoffs the previous year – including a win against the world champion Buccaneers.

Thereafter – beginning with a Week Four loss at home against these Cardinals – things got steadily more problematic.  They did run off a string of four straight wins after their loss to Arizona, but all were against losing teams.  As soon as the tougher teams showed up on the schedule, the Rams bowed before them.  They lost three straight games to the Titans (28-16), 49ers (31-10) and Packers (36-28).

In the midst of that streak, they continued to add superstars, picking up Odell Beckham Jr. to pair with Kupp on the outside, and adding Von Miller to a defense that already contained stars like Aaron Donald and Jalen Ramsey.  The whisper around the league was that this team was talented, but soft.

So, now, it was a Monday Night game in Arizona against a Cardinal team that – at 10-2 – was in a position to claim a playoff berth with a win.  At 8-4 the Rams were very much in the thick of the playoff race – and not entirely out of contention for the division title.  But a loss here would stretch the losing streak to four games, drop them three games behind Arizona, and provide the Cardinals with a sweep of the season series in a rivalry that has been owned – in recent years – by the Rams.

The stakes have rarely been higher in these bi-annual gatherings of teams that used to call St Louis home.

The evening’s main event would pit the Los Angeles offense (ranked fifth in the NFL in both yardage and points scored) against the Arizona defense (which entered the contest ranked fifth in yards and fourth in fewest points allowed).  This would be highlighted by the match between Stafford – running the NFL’s third most prolific passing attack – and the Cardinal’s fourth-ranked (by yardage) pass defense.  At 106.3, Matt’s passer rating was second best in football.  The Arizona pass defense was only allowing opposing passers an 83.3 rating – football’s fifth best such figure.

It was the undercard, though, that I felt would decide the event – the contest between Los Angeles’ talented, but underperforming defense (missing Ramsey for this contest) and Arizona’s offense – a unit that was third in the league in scoring led by a quarterback – Murray – whose 112.2 passer rating led the NFL.

Before the Ram offense could become relevant, the LA defense would have to come up with a few answers.

Defense Holds it Together

For the game’s first eleven minutes, it looked like it would be the Arizona offense putting its stamp on the evening.  After running the first 4:02 off the clock in marching to a first-possession field goal, and after the Arizona defense forced a quick three-and-out, the Cardinal offense seemed poised to push their lead to ten points as they drove 63 yards over the course of a 12-play 6 minute six second drive.

But in the first of what would be a recurring pattern, Arizona’s drive came up empty.  Three times that evening, the Cards would work their way deep into Ram territory only to come away with no points.  Twice they would come up empty on fourth down.  This time, Kyler’s second-and-goal throw from the LA four-yard line would end up in the hands of Ram linebacker Ernest Jones.

Much of Arizona’s offensive inconsistencies stemmed from the loss of their running game.  With Aaron Donald (who finished with 3 sacks of Murray) leading the charge, the Ram defensive line mostly dominated the affair.  The Cardinals were held to just 103 rushing yards – but even that was misleading as 61 of those yards came from scrambles by Murray.  James Conner – the only Cardinal running back to carry the ball – scored 2 rushing touchdowns, but managed only 31 yards on 13 carries (2.4 yards per carry).  Only 10 of those 31 yards came before contact by the defense, as the Cardinal offensive line found it impossible to push back the Ram defenders.

The line also provided consistent pressure on Kyler, who kept trying to push the ball up the field against backup cornerbacks Darious Williams and David Long.  Of the 48 passes that Kyler actually aimed at a receiver (he had one throw-away), fully 19 were at targets at least 10 yards from scrimmage, including an unusually high 10 passes thrown more than 20 yards up field (you rarely see more than five of these thrown in a game).

But the back-up corners acquitted themselves as well as could be hoped – especially against feared receiver DeAndre Hopkins.  Mostly shadowed by Williams, Hopkins averaged only 1.65 yards of separation on the 12 passes thrown in his direction.  He caught just 5 of them for 54 yards.

As for heat in his kitchen, Kyler was dumped 4 times, hit as he threw twice more, and hurried (defined as either throwing before he wanted to or being chased from the pocket) 12 other times.

Normally one of football’s most accurate passers, the pressure combined with Murray’s extreme efforts to throw the ball downfield, kept the Arizona passing attack in check.  Kyler finished just 32 of 49 (his 65.3 completion percentage nearly 10 points below the 72.7 percent he started the night with). Murray completed only 3 of his 10 long passes.

Sparked by Kyler’s ground yards and the big pass plays that he did hit, Arizona ended the night with a healthy 447 yards of total offense.  But they were 2-for-4 in the red zone, and 2-for-4 on fourth down, as their aggressive nature may have gotten the better of them this time.

It wasn’t what you could really call a dominant defensive performance – but it was just enough to make those points early in the third quarter hold up.

Stafford Rises to the Moment

It is one of football’s axioms that the quarterback gets too much credit when the team wins and too much blame when they lose.  Truthfully, most games are won or lost on the line of scrimmage – and the Rams’ held sway on both lines during this game.  But on this Monday evening, the difference probably was the play of the Ram quarterback.

During the ups and downs of the LA season, Matthew Stafford has been very much in the spotlight.  For 12 interesting years in Detroit, Matthew was a curiosity.  He led 33 fourth-quarter comebacks, and 40 game-winning drives.  Along the way, he impressed the league with his plus arm and late-game toughness.  But his over-all record in Detroit was just 83-94-1, he had winning records only 4 times in those 12 seasons – and managed 10 or more wins just twice in his Lion career.

He comes to the Rams having played in just 3 playoff games in his career – losing all three.

So who, really, is Matthew Stafford?  Is he an elite quarterback who languished for years in a moribund organization?  Or is he a talented guy who was never really good enough to help Detroit turn the corner?  Is he the guy that the Rams have seen too much of this fall?  Good enough to be a nightmare to struggling teams, but who falls apart when matched against the better teams?

During the losing streak, Stafford achieved a 77.5 passer rating.  He completed just 61.4% of his passes (78 of 127) and threw as many interceptions as touchdown passes (5 each).

But last Monday Night, Matt couldn’t have been much better.  On an evening when he was blitzed on a third of his drop-backs and faced more pressure than he has in any other game this season, Stafford completed 76.7% of his passes (23 of 30), threw for 3 touchdowns (for the third game in a row), while tossing no interceptions.  The SportRadar group that provides data to the football reference site scored Stafford’s on-target rate at 86.7% (26 of his 30 passes on target).  His end of game passer rating was a strapping 139.2 – his second highest as a Ram.  But it was his second half air show that made all the difference for Matt and the Rams.

After halftime, Stafford completed 11 of his last 13 passes (84.6%) for 169 yards (13 yards per attempt and 15.36 per completion).  His accuracy was very much a function of his decision-making.  Twenty-one of his 30 passes were short – either screen-passes or at targets less then ten yards from scrimmage.  Matthew completed 17 of those, as he frustrated the Cardinal blitz by taking the ready underneath receiver.  At the same time, he knew which of the Arizona coverage schemes he could take advantage of.  He (in contrast to Kyler Murray) threw only 4 deep balls.  But he completed 3 of them for 119 yards and the touchdown to Jefferson.

It was the kind of big-game, must-have performance that the Rams have been hoping for from Stafford.  Whether its sustainable or not is the wait-and-see over the season’s last four weeks.

Ram-ifications

The LA win probably damaged Arizona more than it helped the Rams.  While the Rams narrowed the Cardinals’ division lead to one game, LA still faces a fairly brutal closing schedule – brutal enough that they probably won’t catch Arizona from behind.

The Cardinals, though, entered the night as the conference’s top seed.  They have now dropped to third, and will probably stay there – allowing the Packers (who have an earlier win over the Cardinals) to slide into the second spot.  (I’m still betting that the Bucs will end up as the Conference’s top seed).

The Rams remain in likely position to claim the top wild-card spot.

The Wild-Wild Week 14

By the end of the game, even non-Pittsburgh fans must have been rooting for the Steelers. 

For nearly 38 minutes last Thursday, the Pittsburgh Steelers put on as embarrassing a display of football as they have at any point during Mike Tomlin’s tenure.  It was more than just their complete inability to achieve anything on offense, or the way the Minnesota offense blasted enormous holes through the Steeler’s defensive front.  Even simple things like getting a snap off before the play-clock ran out or even a routine hand-off seemed beyond them.

When, with six minutes and change left in the third quarter, a Viking field goal pushed the score to 29-0, you sensed that everyone – players, coaches and fans alike – were all just waiting for this thing to end.  You wouldn’t have predicted then that the last play of the game would find the Steelers deep in Minnesota territory, one completed pass away from tying the game – but that is, in fact, how things played out as Minnesota held on for a 36-28 victory.

That game would serve as a kind of template for the week that would follow, as near historic comebacks abounded throughout Week 14, all of them – to the dismay of the romantics in the room – falling just short.

Dallas opened up a 24-0 lead on Washington at halftime, before holding on to a 27-20 win.  Cleveland opened up a 24-3 lead on Baltimore just before halftime before holding on for a 24-22 win.  Buffalo trailed Tom Brady and Tampa Bay 24-3 at the half.  They finished up taking the Bucs to overtime before finally losing 33-27.

The Cincinnati Bengals didn’t dig themselves quite as deep a hole, but still trailed San Francisco 20-6 (playing at home) entering the fourth quarter.  They, too, would force overtime – and even eke ahead as they kicked a field goal on their initial overtime possession.  But like all the other near-comebacks, they couldn’t hold on at the end – losing to the 49ers 26-23 (gamebook) (summary).  After each team had one apparent touchdown overturned by replay during regulation, San Francisco finally won the game after replay overturned the call on Jimmy Garoppolo’s 12-yard pass to Brandon Aiyuk – who was initially ruled out on the one-yard line.

Not Quite Ready for Prime Time

For several weeks, I have been floating the possibility of Cincinnati pulling off the upset and winning their division.  Back-to-back bad losses (both at home) have started to sour me on the prospect.  The warm-weather Chargers came into Cincinnati two weeks ago and pushed the Bengals around.  Last week, it was a bevy of Cincinnati mistakes – the most damaging ones in the first half – that put the Bengals in the hole they were almost able to climb out of.  Two muffed punts by Darius Phillips contributed to 10 San Francisco points.  After the last muff, Cincinnati almost got away with holding the 49ers to another field goal.  But after Garoppolo’s third-down pass fell incomplete, the 49ers were given a second chance on a taunting penalty charged to Vonn Bell.

Coming down the stretch, the Bengals have reminded everyone of just how young and mistake-prone they still are.  A loss this week in Denver – against a decidedly tough Bronco pass defense – drops the Bengals to 7-7.  Even if they should win their last three, it probably won’t be enough to edge out Baltimore (who will play three of their last four at home). 

The caveat here, of course, is the uncertainty surrounding the injury to the Raven’s starting quarterback, Lamar Jackson.  My gut feeling on the Jackson situation is that he won’t miss a game.  Those games will be against tough opponents (Green Bay, the Bengals, the Rams and Pittsburgh), so Baltimore’s home-field advantage had better be enough to get them by.

Burrow Puts Up More Numbers

While the game didn’t go Cincinnati’s way, young quarterback Joe Burrow continues to impress.  With his pinkie finger (dislocated in the game the previous week) apparently no trouble at all, Burrow bedeviled the 49ers, completing 25 of 34 passes (73.5%) for 348 yards (10.24 per attempt) and 2 touchdowns.  Both touchdown passes came in the second half when Joe completed 15 of 20 throws (75%) for 249 yards (12.45 per attempt and 16.6 per completion).

All season, Joe has been one of football’s most accurate passers.  Last Sunday (again according to SportRadar), Burrow threw only 2 bad passes.  He had 3 others dropped on him and another batted away at the line of scrimmage.  In all, 85.29% of his passes were on target (29 of 34).  For the season, Burrow is throwing an NFL-leading 83% of his passes accurately at his targets (the NFL average is 73.8%).

The depth of the throw doesn’t seem to diminish Joe’s accuracy.  He was 6 for 7 for 115 yards on throws between 10 and 20 yards downfield, and 4 for 6 for 105 yards and 2 touchdowns on throws of over 20 yards.

Again, though, there is a youth factor.  In just his second season, Burrow will enter Sunday’s critical matchup against Denver having tossed 14 interceptions (tied for most in the NFL).  It doesn’t get a lot easier for the Bengals after this week, either, as they will face Baltimore, Kansas City and Cleveland.

AFC Playoff Situations

I expect that both the Ravens and Bengals will take some losses coming down the stretch.  The Ravens’ defense and experience will probably be enough to give them the division title and the three-seed.  For all their youth, I still think the Bengals have enough to hang on to the conference’s final playoff spot – even though that will probably mean they will have to slip past Buffalo to get there.

Back in Week Five, the Bills dominated the then-struggling Kansas City Chiefs.  They were 4-1 and looked like they were the conference’s team to beat.  And that’s what’s happened ever since then.

Buffalo has lost its last two games, and 5 of 8 since their big win over KC.  The Bills are spiraling at the wrong time of the year.  The Chiefs. Meanwhile, have been headed in the opposite direction, winning their last 6. 

Kansas City certainly looks playoff bound.  Whether they will be able to hold off the young Chargers for the division title is a question that will begin to be answered as those two teams face off tonight.  Kansas City also has two interesting road games to close the season – at Cincinnati and at Denver.  Still lots to be decided there.

Garoppolo and the 49ers

San Francisco, of course, kept their playoff hopes alive.  And they did so with another fine effort from the under-appreciated Garoppolo.  He made only one bad throw, and delivered an accurate ball 81.6% of the time.  For the season, Jimmy is on target 80.5% of the time.  That currently ranks him fifth among all qualifying quarterbacks behind Burrow (83%), Murray (81.8%), Miami’s Tua Tagovailoa (81.5%), and the Charger’s Justin Herbert (81.1%).  It’s pretty good company.

San Francisco has stated fairly clearly that the starting position will belong to rookie Trey Lance as soon as he is “ready.”  I hope they know what they’re doing.

The Bob Gibson Initiative and the Cardinal Compromise

So, it’s lunchtime, and you drop into your favorite deli for your usual ham-and-swiss on a kaiser roll.

“Hey, Murray,” you warmly greet your friend behind the counter. “My usual.”

“Right,” he says.  “That’ll be one pastrami with extra mustard and double pickles.”

“No, Murray.  Ham-and-swiss.  You know.”

“Not today, pal.”

“What?”

“I get double the mark-up on the pastrami as I do the ham.  Ditto the mustard and the pickles.”

“But I hate pastrami.  And your mustard gives me heartburn.”

“No problem. I’ll toss in a small bottle of Pepto for $10.”

“I don’t want Pepto.  Or pastrami and mustard, for that matter.”

“Tough tiddly.”

“What bread are you putting that on?”

“It’s the rye.”

“I’m allergic to rye.  You know that.”

“Pal, you got me confused with someone who cares.  Now, you’re taking the big bag of chips today.  Let’s see, you’re getting the 42-ounce soda, too.”

“That’s more soda than I drink in a year.”

“You’re welcome.  Add in a 35% tip, and lunch comes to $38.67.”

“I don’t want any of this stuff.  Not one thing in here.”

“Sounds like a personal problem to me.  I do counselling for $150 an hour, do you want me to schedule a session for you.”

“No. I just want my ham-and-swiss on a roll.”

“For the last time, bud, that’s not happening.  Tell you what, though, we’ll call it an even $40 and ‘ll let you off with the small bag of chips. Now, let’s have your card.”

Whether or not – in this situation – you would have the temerity to walk out or allow yourself to be intimidated into paying $40 for a lunch you will only throw away, one thing is very clear.

You will never go back to that deli.

You see, you, the customer, don’t exist to make sure this deli’s profit margins stay high.  The deli exists to provide you the dining experience you are seeking at a competitive price.  That’s how business rolls in these much advertised United States of America.  And when the tail tries to wag the dog – as in the scenario I’ve just presented – it tosses out the very foundation that a capitalist society is built on.

It causes a disturbance in the force.

And yet, in spite of the commonality of this knowledge, the ownership of America’s major league baseball franchises are casually tossing about the notion of a “universal designated hitter” as a bone in the current negotiations with the players union.  This, in spite of the fact that they know full well that the overwhelming majority of National League fans abhor the abomination of the designated hitter.

It is, in fact, treated as a foregone conclusion that we have seen the last of pitchers taking their rightful place in the batter’s box.  The general response to the fan’s objections is commonly phrased as “tough tiddly. You better get used to the DH, because you don’t have a choice.”

Hoping for common sense to prevail in a situation already devoid of all sense except nonsense is a tenuous position at best.  Nonetheless, I go on hoping that the powers that be will understand that alienating one half of your fan base on the heels of a work stoppage that will have them already soured on baseball is not a great business plan.

Sadly, the attitude seems to be that we are little more than sheep who will let them do anything they want to what was once a perfect game.  They once thought that way about the players, too, until the players proved to have more grit and determination than they anticipated.  Now, I’m afraid, it’s our turn to show a little grit and determination.

The truth of the situation is that we, the fans, have all the leverage.  All of this very large pile of money that these two sides are going to scratch and claw for derives from us.  They, without us, are nothing.  We, on the other hand – however fond of baseball we may be – have many other options for our entertainment dollar.  If baseball’s ownership isn’t bright enough to recognize where the balance of power here lies – and that’s the direction that things seem to be headed – then the next response will have to be ours.

Here’s my fear.

First of all, I abhor the designated hitter, and the thought of having to deal with it permanently churns my stomach. (For an in-depth discussion of the reasons why the NL should continue to reject this silliness, click here.  This discussion goes well beyond the usual generalities of “oh, you know, the tradition, and, oh, you know, the strategy.”)

The issue, though, is deeper.  It’s well known that the powers that be are all about tinkering with the game.  These addled souls are laboring under the delusion that there must be some way to turn the short-attention-span, MTV generation into baseball fans.  That is the impetus behind the three-batter rule and the foolishness of seven-inning doubleheaders and beginning any extra-inning with an automatic runner at second.  There is much further that they could push.  And if they get away with this – if they can shove this undesired rule down our throats without consequence – then who knows where they may push things.

So, to keep the DH – and any other bizarre alterations – well at bay, we may have to assert the strength of our position.  If that opportunity comes before they do anything stupid, that would be optimal.  If not, then we may be forced to make them suffer after the fact.

I propose a strategy and a compromise.

Strategically, the only way we move them is to close your wallet.  Even a partial reduction of your financial footprint will have an impact.  If you usually go to 40 games a year, go to 15.  If you usually watch 100 games a year, watch 40.

If you have an MLB.TV subscription, cancel it.

Turning off the TV will be especially important during the playoffs.  The ink is still dry on an enormous national deal that MLB signed at the end of last season.  The contract depends heavily on the postseason, as that is when ratings tend to be the highest.  If viewership falls off notably (and even a 15-20% decline would be catastrophic) the owners will come quickly to understand that we are not a factor to be trifled with.

Sadly, by then, it may be too late.

My game plan – which I have called the Bob Gibson Initiative, in honor of the great Cardinal pitcher who was also a very dangerous presence as a hitter – comes with a work around for fans who aren’t thrilled with the concept of a five-year baseball fast.  There are several resources already in place that can adequately scratch that baseball itch.

First, let me recommend the radio.  Yes, MLB sees a profit from sale of radio rights.  These, I assure you, are far below the monies realized from television broadcasts.  In most communities, the radio version of the game is every bit as good as – and most of the time superior to – the televised version.  That is certainly true in St Louis, where John Rooney and Ricky Horton provide as clean and as engaging a baseball experience as you will find anywhere in the country.

After the fact, the radio commentary can be augmented with video from a several sources – a couple provided by MLB itself.

You won’t find it there now, of course, because the website (mlb.com) has pulled all of last year’s baseball content due to the expiration of the CBA.  But once baseball is back, all of their game summaries will come with a video tab.  On this tab, you will find all the video highlights from the game, including one called the “condensed game.”  Catching the radio broadcast, and then watching these highlights, can – all by themselves – give you the feeling of having watched the game.

If that isn’t enough, there are a couple more resources you should be aware of.

This is the MLB Film Room.  Again, it is pretty vacant now, but during the season – if there is a season – every pitch thrown during the season ends up here.  The filters take a little time to master, but this site will allow you – if you want – to watch every single pitch from any game you might have missed.

Both of these MLB resources aren’t immediate with the results.  You can’t actually watch the game in the Film Room as it’s happening.  But the lapse isn’t all that long.  I would usually catch up with all of them the next day, although I’m sure they are available much sooner than that.

Even better, in my opinion, is the Statcast site.  From this site, you can not only glean all kinds of wonderful information – the speed of the pitch, the exit velocity, the distance of the hit, and more – but they also have video of every pitch made during the season.

Of note is the fact that this site only updates once a day (in the morning), so if you go this route you will certainly be talking about next-day viewing.

The search engine here isn’t that difficult to get on top of, and (don’t tell anyone) but as of this writing (December 9) the video results from the season are still available here. (Either this site isn’t subject to the CBA, or no one has yet thought to remove the video from here.) I recommend anyone curious about this to go to this site, play with the search engine, and replay a game from 2021 (no guarantee is given that the video here will last).

For your information, in anticipation of the coming circumstances, I used all of these resources almost exclusively last baseball season.  I attended no games in person, and watched maybe three or four games on TV.  Yet, I ran my blog the entire season with no loss of connection.  I exit the season feeling even more satisfied than in seasons when I watched (in person or on TV) many more games.

If it becomes necessary, I am certain that all of these resources will adequately get us through – even if we have to mini-boycott for the entire five years of the new agreement – if and when it is signed.

The Compromise

Now, I understand that the Union is out for blood this year.  Since they feel they signed a bad agreement last time, their pride will compel them into “no compromise at all” mode.  Realizing that the desires of the fans and the correctness of the game means little to them, I have a compromise to offer them that I believe will be enticing to them.  I call it the “Cardinal Compromise.”

They, of course, crave the Universal DH because that will create 15 more starting positions.  Fine.  They want 15 more DH’s, let’s give them 15 more DH’s.  But let’s keep them in the American League.

In exchange for allowing the National League to maintain its integrity, let’s add a second DH to the American League lineups.  But – since we are amending this experiment – let’s fix at least one of the broken pieces of this ineffectual rule.  Give the AL two DH’s, but don’t require one of them to hit for the pitcher.  Let the manager decide which two players will play defense only.

Of course, in the vast majority of cases, the managers will choose to hit for their pitchers.  But under this amendment, the Angels will no longer be penalized on days they want Shohei Ohtani to both hit AND pitch.  For them to do that now, they would have to abandon the DH entirely for that game – putting them at a strategic disadvantage after Ohtani exits a game – especially if he is knocked out early.

To account for the added position, the rosters in both leagues could be augmented by one – the National League getting that extra player since they will play ten or so games in American League parks.  This gives the Union not only the 15 new DH’s, but 30 additional roster spots they wouldn’t have gotten otherwise. 

It should be enough to make everyone happy.  I can’t imagine that the American League will stress too much over the added DH.  Of the American League fans I know, I don’t think any of them understand why their lineup isn’t all DH’s anyway.

I’m sure, at first thought, this seems a bizarre compromise.  But if you can get past the initial shock of it and ponder it, you will come to see that this a very workable solution.  Here’s the caveat, though.  The Union gets the extra DH’s and roster spots as long as they understand that the DH issue in the National League is now closed.  We can’t go through this every five years.  Let’s decide this, once and for all.

If, at some point in the future, National League fans should actually desire the DH rule, then – of course – the discussion should be re-opened.  But failing that, let’s put an end to this debate.

I want to be clear about this.

I will never support the DH.  If, however, the day should come that the majority of National League fans should crave this, then it would behoove baseball to give them what they want – just as it behooves them now to give the fans what they want.  I won’t offer any objections.  The desires of the fans should always be the standard.

The owners and players have every right to debase themselves in their squabbling over who gets most of the big pile of money.  Honestly, we wouldn’t expect anything else from them.

But the issue of the Designated Hitter in the National League is not their issue to decide.  Here, they need to hearken to the consumer.

The owners’ relative boldness in this issue comes, I believe,  from their belief that the fans lack either the organization or the motivation to push back on this issue.  They are critically wrong in both assumptions.  Impacting their bottom line by at least 15% – a devastating occurrence for them – is not an unreachable goal.

Are there enough National League fans who hate the DH to cause this kind of financial impact.  Clearly there are.  We just have to set our minds to doing it.

Scary When They Run the Ball

It was a bit of a deer-in-the-headlights moment.

In the spotlight was Frank Reich – head coach of the enigmatic Indianapolis Colts.  It was the post-game press conference, and Frank was explaining that – respecting the top ranked run defense of his opponent that day (the world-champion Tampa Bay Buccaneers) – his Colts decided to pursue promising matchups in the passing game.

It was exactly one week earlier that the Colts seemed to legitimize their season.  In splitting the first ten games, the Colts had managed to cling to the .500 mark with only one of their wins coming against an opponent (San Francisco) that currently sports a winning record (and they were not a .500 team when the Colts faced them).  Oh, they had played some of the better teams close.  They had lost one-score games to the Rams, Ravens and Titans.  But that signature win was always one mistake away.

And then they went to Buffalo in Week 11 to play the then-East division-leading Bills.  They shredded them.  On a cold and blustery afternoon in Orchard Park, the dome-residing Colts took it to Buffalo in a complete team victory, 41-15.  The highlight of the rout was the Indy running game, featuring an offensive line that is arguably football’s best and the NFL’s leading rusher – a dynamic young back named Jonathan Taylor.  Taylor logged 185 of Indianapolis’ 264 rushing yards – an impressive total against a Buffalo defensive unit that ranked (at the time) third in the league against the run.  Taylor scored 5 touchdowns that day.

It was the second time in three games that Indy had surpassed 200 yards on the ground, and they had ascended to fourth in the league in rushing, averaging 147.9 yards a game.  This is a Colt team that can truly be scary when they run the ball.

But against the Bucs, they folded up the running attack early.  Taylor jogged into the locker room at the half with just 8 carries and only 25 yards.  The team – on the strength of 2 Carson Wentz scrambles – managed just 47 ground yards in the first half.

Here’s the thing, though.  The Colts carried a 24-14 lead into the half.  You know those matchups in the passing game that Coach Reich mentioned?  They worked like a charm.

Most of them involved tight end Jack Doyle, who bedeviled the Bucs throughout a first half that saw him catch 4 passes for 59 yards and a touchdown.  And once it involved a little-known, third-year wide receiver named Ashton Dulin, who took advantage of Tampa Bay’s concentration on Michael Pittman and T.Y. Hilton to slip open over the deep middle and haul in a perfectly thrown, 62-yard touchdown strike.

For thirty heady minutes, the Colts had put their game against the world champs into the hands of Wentz, and things couldn’t have gone much better.  Carson finished the half 16 of 24 for 197 yards and 3 touchdowns – adding up to a 131.4 rating.

The second half began in the same vein.  Taking the opening kickoff, Carson completed 5 of 7 passes for 55 yards as he drove the Colts to the Tampa Bay 20 yard line.  It was here that the game would turn.

Shaquil Barrett – one of the Super Bowl heroes – sprinted around the edge to sack Wentz.  The ball shook free, and Barrett recovered.  From there, it took Tom Brady and the Tampa Bay offense 6 plays and 2:52 to negotiate the 65 yards for the touchdown.

Carson finished the game completing just 6 of his last 13 passes (46.2%) for just 54 yards (4.15 per pass), with no touchdowns.  His two second half interceptions (he had thrown just 3 all season to that point) were responsible for half of the four second-half turnovers that saddled the Colts with a very costly 38-31 loss (gamebook) (summary).

But here’s the kicker.

The first 18 plays that Indy ran in the second half were all called passes – during which time the Colts fell from a 10-point lead to a 31-24 deficit.

It wasn’t until there was 10:06 left in the game that Jonathan Taylor got his first carry of the second half – a 5-yard burst up the middle.  That would be the first play of a 10-play, 75-yard touchdown drive that would temporarily tie the score at 31-all.  Taylor would carry the ball on 8 of the 10 plays – his only carries of the second half – and he would slice easily through the Tampa defense, scrolling up 58 yards on those carries (7.3 per).

They wouldn’t have the opportunity to run again.  Brady would drain most of the rest of the clock driving the Bucs to the go-ahead touchdown.  A 72-yard kick return by Isaiah Rodgers gave the Colts the ball on the Buc 32, making things interesting.  But Carson missed on his final two passes, having the last one picked off as time ran out.

Question Abound

The loss leaves Reich awash in questions that have no easy answers.  Could the Colts have run the ball against the Bucs if they had stayed with their running game longer?  Or was Tampa lulled into pass rush mode after 18 consecutive passes?  Can Carson Wentz be the big game passer that he appeared to be in the game’s first half?  Or is he really the Wentz who contributed 3 of the team’s 4 second half turnovers?

And – most perplexingly – if he’s both (which is not an unlikely answer), then how do you know when to take the ball out of his hands and return to the running game.

If they had taken the excellent first half that Carson had given them with his arm, and then came out running the ball in the second half, who knows what might have happened.  But the only way that Frank could have known to do that was to know going in that Carson was going to struggle in the second half.  In a critical, late season game against a top opponent, Carson Wentz was the answer.  Until suddenly he wasn’t.

It’s a tender situation that Coach Reich will have to feel his way through for the rest of the season – a season which now may not include a playoff opportunity.

Indy Needed This Game

More than just a win that got away, this loss could go a long way to pushing the Colts out of the playoffs.  They are now 6-6 and one of a half-dozen AFC teams that are all sitting either at .500 or within a game of the .500 mark.  They play Houston this week, and then have their bye.

It will be the first two games after their bye (in Weeks 15 and 16) that will now – in all likelihood – tell their fate.  They play at home against the torrid New England Patriots, and then travel to Arizona to play a Cardinal team that will probably have all its pieces back by then and will be in the fight for their conference’s top spot.  Neither of these is a very good matchup for the Colts, but they are now in a position where they will need to win one of those games.  If they lose both, the best they will finish is 9-8, which almost certainly won’t be good enough. 

If the Colts don’t make it, that could be very good news for a team like Kansas City.  The Chiefs are currently sitting at the top of their division, but their closing schedule is fairly brutal.  Three of their final four are road games at the Chargers, the Bengals and the Broncos.  Kansas City has played much better lately, but I still think it will be a down-to-the-wire struggle for them to get into the dance.  If the Colts do fall short, that could make all the difference for the Chiefs.

Trying to Figure Out the Champs

On the other end of this intriguing matchup from last Sunday are the world champion Buccaneers.  While, on the one hand, Indianapolis’ offensive game plan was a smashing success (in the first half, anyway), the Colts were also able defensively to mostly derail football’s top scoring offense.

They denied Brady the deep-strike weapons that have characterized this team.  Brady threw only one pass at a target more than 20 yards from the line of scrimmage, and averaged just 5.85 intended air yards on his throws.  This means that his average target was less than six yards from the line of scrimmage.  His two primary targets – Chris Godwin and Mike Evans – were limited to a combined 10 targets.  Together, they managed 7 catches for just 40 yards.

Tom Brady – who entered the game as football’s fourth rated passer (104.3) – ended his afternoon with just 226 passing yards and a rating of 88.6.  He averaged just 9.04 yards per pass completion.  It could have been a dicey situation for the champs, but Tampa Bay found a way forward.  They decided to do what Indianapolis was unwilling to do – take over the game with their running attack.

The Tampa Bay Buccaneers have a curious relationship with their running game.  Perhaps you remember that in the big game last February the Bucs ran through the Chiefs to the tune of 145 yards, with Leonard Fournette (aka Playoff Lenny) accounting for 89 of them.  The dynamic of that game, of course, was very different.  Tampa Bay jumped out to the early lead and turned to the running game to control rest of the contest.  Eighty-five of those yards came in the second half.

That was the surprising thing about Sunday’s game.  Almost always, the Bucs respond to a deficit with their passing attack.  In a Week Eight loss to New Orleans they ran the ball only 14 times even though they averaged 5.1 yards per rush.  The next week – in a loss to Washington – they ran the ball just 13 times – although they gained 4.1 yards per attempt.  These two losses came on the heels of a 182-yard rushing explosion in a win against the Bears.

Tampa Bay can clearly run the ball better than most teams.  They just don’t like to do it.  They brought in TB12 and lined up all of those receivers to fill the air with up-the-field passes.  Coming into the Colt game, Brady had thrown the second most passes of any quarterback in football (423) and the Bucs’ 219 rushing attempts ranked as football’s second fewest.

But the ground game bailed them out in the second half last Sunday.  Fourteen running plays (gaining 87 yards) balanced 15 called passing plays (gaining 94 yards) to guide the come-from-behind victory.  Again, it was Playoff Lenny who scampered around left end for the 28-yard touchdown run that provided the winning margin.  Fournette paced the 142-yard team effort with 100 rushing yards of his own (on just 17 carries).  He scored three of the four rushing touchdowns that the Bucs achieved against a Colt defense that had allowed only 4 rushing touchdowns all season.  Leonard also caught Brady’s only touchdown pass, capping off his four touchdown day.

Don’t get me wrong.  Tampa Bay’s passing attack is plenty potent.  But it can be dealt with – especially when they willingly make themselves one-dimensional.

This offense also gets much scarier when they decide to run the ball.

Clear Sailing Ahead?

There is, of course, a lot of football to play.  But over the last few weeks the stars have been aligning somewhat for the Bucs, and a path to the top spot in the conference is beginning to emerge.  Much of this is the result of the recent struggles of the Cowboys, who seemed in great shape to take the top spot until they dropped their last two games.  They are now sitting in fourth place.

The other piece of great news for the Bucs is the deterioration of both the Saints and Panthers – division opponents against whom Tampa Bay will play half of its remaining schedule.  With no more division foes that seem capable of bringing them down, the Bucs now have 6 winnable games in front of them.  The most challenging of those, of course, will be their Week 14 match-up against Buffalo.  That game will be at home, giving them an edge.

If they do get past the Bills and finish the season 14-3, that will put significant pressure on the two teams ahead of them to also win out.  The Packers – currently 9-3 and the second seed – still have to go in to Baltimore to play the Ravens in Week 15.  A tough draw.  The conference’s current top seed – Arizona (9-2) – also has a challenging road contest ahead when they travel to Dallas to play the Cowboys in Week 17.

If the Bucs and the Cards both reach 14-3 on the season, the Bucs would get the nod based on their record against common opponents.  Having already beaten Dallas, Chicago, and, now, Indianapolis, the Bucs would need only to win both of their remaining games against Carolina to finish 5-1 against their common opponents (the Bucs lost a Week Three game to the Rams).  The Cards would finish 4-2 against those same opponents.  They have already beaten the Rams and lost to the Panthers.  This scenario would predict them finishing out with wins in Chicago and then at home against the Rams and the Colts, with that Week 15 game against the Cowboys being the potential second loss.

The opportunity is there, but in a wildly unpredictable season, the Bucs have no margin for slip ups.

The Bills Also Turn to the Running Game

Buffalo is another team that has a conflicted relationship with its running game.  In Devin Singletary they have a premium running back who is averaging 4.7 yards per carry over the course of his three-year career.  But for that career, he is only getting 10.4 carries per game – and just 8.9 carries a game this year – a career low.

In Buffalo’s 3-1 start, Devin carried the ball 49 times (12.3 per contest) and averaged 5.3 yards per carry.  But beginning with the Week Five and Six games against Kansas City and Tennessee, Singletary was abruptly shoved to the sidelines.  Over the next six games (a span in which Buffalo went 3-3) Devin never carried more than 7 times in any game, and finished with just 34 total attempts (5.7 per).  And, yes, he was still averaging 4.6 yards per carry in those games.

Last Thursday, this Buffalo squad faced off against a New Orleans team in possession of the NFL’s third-best run defense (allowing just 89.8 yards per game).  This wouldn’t seem to be the game that the Bills would re-discover their balance.

And yet, as Buffalo took its 10-0 lead into the half, they had done so with admirable balance.  Quarterback Josh Allen had thrown 16 passes and the Bills had run the ball 16 times.

Some caveats:

First, the 16 runs included 2 scrambles by Allen on plays that were called passes. Josh was also sacked a couple of times – so the actual first half play calling was 20 passes and 14 runs.  Still better balance than we’ve usually seen from the Bills.

Second, the balance in approach didn’t yield a great harvest in yards.  The 16 runs produced 55 yards (3.4 per), with no run exceeding 9 yards.  Singletary gained 7 first-half yards on 4 attempts.  This is very much in line with the difficulties most teams have in running the football against New Orleans.

Given the early struggles, I expected the Bills to mostly discard the running game in the second half.  To my surprise, Buffalo answered their 16-rush first half with 16 more running plays in the second half – with 11 of those carries going to the almost forgotten Singletary.

In the macro, the second half results were very similar to the first half.  The 16 running plays advanced the ball just 58 yards (Devin’s 11 rushes amounting to just 37 yards).  But the balance played enormous benefits in the passing game.

Throwing the ball just 12 times in the second half, Allen completed 10 of those passes (83.3%) for 137 yards (11.42 yards per attempt) and 3 touchdowns as Buffalo opened up the game on its way to a 31-6 victory (gamebook) (summary).

All of the running opened up the play-action game for Allen and the Bills.  Of Josh’s 28 passes, 12 made use of a run-fake – fully 42.9% of the passing attack.  And the results were cheering.  Allen completed 10 of the 12 play-action passes for 124 yards and 3 touchdowns to offset an interception.  His passer rating on these throws was an excellent 122.9.

While the direct effects of Buffalo’s running attack were fairly modest (113 yards on 32 rushes), the indirect benefits showed in a more diversified and dangerous passing attack.

This is another offense that becomes much more challenging to defend when they remember to run the ball.

Are the Rams Soft?

The running games had much tougher sledding in Lambeau in Sunday’s late contest between the Packers and the Los Angeles Rams.  Although they won the games 36-28 (gamebook) (summary), Green Bay only earned 2.9 yards per rushing play (92 yards on 32 attempts).  Along the way, though, second-year running back AJ Dillon opened some eyes.  He finished with just 69 yards on 20 carries (3.5 per), but should have had far fewer.

His 20 carries produced 22 yards before contact by the defense.  But AJ broke a career-high 5 tackles in the run game (he would break another after a pass), and gained 47 yards after contact (2.4 per carry).

It was the kind of occurrence that has some wondering if the Rams – losers, now, of three in a row – are soft.  And not just physically soft.  Is this Ram team emotionally soft as well?

Coming out of the half trailing just 20-17, the Rams turned the ball over twice in the second half, never made it into the red zone, and watched quarterback Matthew Stafford complete just 12 of 24 after intermission.  Over the last three weeks, there have been chances for this team to fight their way back into the games, but the fight hasn’t seemed to rise to the opportunities.

I feel that you dismiss the Rams at your own peril.  I grant you that they look vulnerable at the moment.  But they’ve also had some significant roster churn recently.  I don’t think the Ram team that you’re seeing right now will be the Ram team that you’ll see in a few weeks.  This is a team that’s better than they look.

That being said, their offensive philosophy does lean toward the soft.  Previous editions of the Sean McVay Rams have featured the running game as the foundation, with the passing game building off the running game.  It was a system in which every play looked like it was a zone run, which then added a lot of play-action and boots by the quarterback to get him safely outside the pocket.

All of that smoothness – as well as the toughness that comes from a run-first mentality – is pretty much a thing of the past.  In the second half against the Pack, McVay called 25 passes against just 7 runs – contributing materially to Green Bay’s 20:50 – 9:10 time of possession advantage.  For the game, Green Bay nearly doubled the Rams in possession time 39:40 to 20:20.  After that much time on the field, even the toughest defense will look soft.

Of Stafford’s 38 passes, only 4 came off of play action.  For the season, Stafford is throwing off of play action just 18.3% of the time (the league average is right at 23%).  They ran the ball 20 times in last Sunday’s game – including a Stafford kneel-down that ended the first half.  Not enough.

A re-commitment to the running game would dramatically change the way that defenses approach this Ram team.  Historically, they have been a much tougher offense when they were a run-first operation.