Behind a Lot Lately

There is this moment in Groundhog Day.  Phil (the Bill Murray character) has just driven his truck off a cliff, where it landed upside down at the bottom of a gorge.  Andie MacDowell’s character (Rita) shudders a bit at the horror, and Larry (played by Chris Elliott) tries to comfort her by saying, “He . . . might be okay.”  One second later the truck explodes in fire.  Larry then adds quietly, “Well, no.  Probably not now.”

There was a moment like that in last night’s game.  The Cardinals began the top of the second by throwing the ball around a bit, and gift-wrapped the first two runs of the game for Philadelphia.  The bases were now loaded with one out, but with the score still just 2-0, one could reasonably think “we might be okay”.  Of the 20 batters to put the ball in play against Cardinal starter Dakota Hudson on this evening, 17 would hit the ball on the ground.  A well-placed ground ball here could very well stop the bleeding.

But Philadelphia’s next hitter – Bryce Harper – turned out to be one of the three who got the ball in the air.  When it finally came down (in the right field bullpen), the Phillie lead grew to 6-0.  Well, no, probably not now.

May has been playing a little like Groundhog Day for the Cardinals.  Especially the last week or so.  In losing 5 of their last 6, the Cards have been falling behind early and often.  Thursday night in Washington they fell behind 2-1 in the fourth and never recovered.  Friday in Chicago, it was 3-0 Cubs after 3.  The Cards went quietly after that.  On Sunday, it was 1-0 Chicago after 2.  St Louis would never catch up in that one either.

Up until the point that they were waxed by Cincinnati 12-1 on April 26, this edition of the Cardinals had never trailed by as many as ten runs in a game, and had faced a deficit as large as five runs only once.  They have now trailed by double-digits three times in the last 12 games.  Last year’s team – on its way to a modest 88-win season – only trailed by as many as ten runs three times all season (a 13-5 loss to Jon Lester and the Cubs on June 15, an 11-4 loss to Max Fried and Atlanta on June 30, and a 17-4 spanking at the hands of Rich Hill and the Dodgers on September 15).

By way of comparison, the 2018 Cardinals pitching staff faced 6,246 batters.  They faced 2,558 of them while holding a lead (41.0%), faced another 1,671 (26.8%) with the game tied, and 2,042 (32.7%) while trailing in the game.  All last season, the pitchers faced just 21 batters (0.3%) with a deficit of ten runs or more.

In March-April of this year – even including the blowout against Cincy, the Cardinal pitching percentages were: ahead – 44.1%; even – 22.3%; and behind – 33.6%

Over their last six games, they have one win – the 6-0 win on Monday during which they never trailed – and have had brief leads in 2 of the 5 losses.  All included during this losing skid, the Cards have only been ahead 16.9% of the time and tied another 29.6% of the time.  Cardinal pitchers have trailed in the game 53.5% of the time.  In just the last six games, they have already pitched to 4 batters (1.9%) while trailing by at least ten runs.

I have quoted the pitching staff numbers.  The hitters in all these cases, of course, will be similar.

One of the immutable baseball truths is that you are never as good as you look when you are winning and never as bad as you look when you are losing.  Truly, this team isn’t as helpless as it has seemed over the last week or so.  But the losing is taking, I think, an emotional toll on this young team.

In April, this team hit .281 when they were trailing in a game.  They erased one four-run deficit, and came close to doing that on two other occasions. 

Recently, though, the bats have been very quiet once the team has fallen behind.  Over the last six games, they are hitting just .231 while trailing in games.  Over their last 5 defeats, they have scored just 7 runs after they have fallen behind.  Only three of those runs scored while the games were close enough to matter.

Of course, you would like to see the team stop falling behind early.  You would also like to see some of that early season bounce-back from the bats on those occasions when they do fall behind by a few runs.

Dakota Hudson

In spite of last night’s debacle, Dakota Hudson has been trending upward over his last several starts.  After beginning the year with a 6.08 ERA, a .350 batting average against, and a .633 slugging percentage against (courtesy of 5 home runs allowed over his first 13.1 innings), Hudson has been better over his last 4 starts.  He still surrenders more home runs than he should (4 over his last 21.2 innings), but with a more palatable 3.74 ERA.

Paul Goldschmidt

Things will certainly start looking better once Paul Goldschmidt figures things out a bit.  After another hitless evening (0-for-4 with 2 strikeouts), Goldschmidt has sunk to .245 for the season.  Over his last 10 games (9 starts) Paul has had 41 plate appearances.  He has 6 singles, 15 strikeouts and a groundball double play to show for it – a disappointing .146/.146/.146 batting line.  It has been 12 games since Paul’s last extra-base hit, 13 games since his last run batted in, and 14 games since his last home run.

Marcell Ozuna

After a torrid early-season streak, Marcell Ozuna is another Cardinal who has fallen on hard times of late.  After his 0-for-3 last night, Marcell is now 2 for 19 (.105) over his last five games.  He falls to .222 for the month (6 for 27).

Marcell did have a first-inning opportunity – while the game was still scoreless – with a runner at first and two outs.  He grounded out to end the inning.  Over the last 6 games, Ozuna is 0-for-9 when the game is tied, and 6 for 31 (.194) for the season in that situation.

Harrison Bader

When he first returned from the injured list, Harrison Bader provided a little pop with his bat.  Lately, though, he has been affected by the general offensive downturn.  Hitless in 2 at bats last night, Bader is 3 for 16 (.188) so far this month.

Kolten Wong

The disappearing act of second baseman Kolten Wong also continued.  Hitless, again, in 3 at bats, Wong is now 0 for his last 13 and is hitting .091 (2 singles in 22 at bats) this month.

Leadoff Homer from Carpenter Sparks Four-Run Inning

Vince Velasquez – the hard-throwing Philadelphia starting pitcher – had fallen behind the leadoff batter in the fifth by a 3-1 count.  He and the Phillies were already down 2-0, and a leadoff walk here would not help.

The 3-1 fastball (officially 91.8 mph) hugged the outside corner of the strike zone, but it was up a bit.  The batter – Matt Carpenter – flicked his bat and lofted a fly ball just deep enough into center to clear the wall (and the glove of Phillie center-fielder Obudel Herrera).  Before the inning would end, St Louis would add three more runs – enough to put the wraps on a 6-0 win (box score).

All season long, the Cardinals have led off innings as well as almost anyone in baseball.  Their .357 on base percentage leading off innings is tied with Atlanta for the best in the National League and fourth-best in baseball (according to baseball reference).  Consistently putting the leadoff man on base was a big part of the amazing offensive consistency that this team enjoyed in April – when they scored 5.45 runs per game.

The early games of May have been less impressive, with the offense struggling to manage 3.67 runs per game.  As far as putting the first batter of an inning on base, St Louis is still doing that at a high level.  Three of the 8 leadoff batters reached base last night – and the leadoff on-base percentage for the month is still .340.  But what has been lost lately is the ability to build on that momentum.  In April, 55% of the Cardinal leadoff hitters who reached base ended up scoring.  Thus far in May, leadoff batters who reach are only scoring 28% of the time.  Carpenter was the only one who scored last night.

Jose Martinez opened the Cardinal second with a walk, and moved into scoring position when he advanced on a long fly ball off the bat of Yadier MolinaKolten Wong followed with a hard hit out, and after an intentional walk to Harrison Bader, pitcher Miles Mikolas struck out looking.

Carpenter again led off the next inning and walked.  Nothing came of that, either, as the walk was followed by a strikeout and a double-play grounder.

Through St Louis’ first 53 offensive innings of the month, their leadoff hitters have reached 18 times.  Only 5 of those have scored – 2 of them on leadoff home runs.  They are applying the pressure, but failing – so far this month – to take full advantage.

Last night, two two-run home runs (by Molina and Paul DeJong) kept the offense on schedule, but until they can start to push their leadoff runners around the bases, the Cardinal offense will continue to be a hit-and-miss affair.

Yadier Molina

In addition to calling a terrific game behind the plate, Yadier Molina was also the offensive engine last night.  He finished with three hits, including the home run that put the Cards ahead.  Yadi has now hit in all of his last 5 starts, going 7 for 19 (.368).  He has also hit safely in 23 of his last 25 starts, hitting .337 over that span (33 for 98).

Marcell Ozuna

Marcell Ozuna hit a couple balls hard last night, but results have been hard to come by lately.  Over his last 4 games, Marcell is hitting .125 (2 for 16).

Among his contributions to the April offense, Ozuna was one of the most effective Cardinals leading off an inning.  In the 26 April innings he led off, he hit .375 (9 for 24) with a .423 on base percentage.  He ended up scoring in 8 of the 11 innings that he began by reaching base.

Last night, he led off two innings, going 0-for-2.  He is 1-for-7 as a leadoff hitter so far this month.

Kolten Wong

The struggles continue for Kolten Wong.  Hitless in 2 at bats last night (although he also drew a walk and lofted a sacrifice fly), Wong is now hitless in his last 10 at bats, falling to .243 for the season.

Kolten has 2 hits (both singles) this month in 19 at bats (.105).

Miles Mikolas

The opening day starter, Miles Mikolas lasted only 5 innings in each of his first two starts, serving up 8 runs (and 4 home runs) in those efforts.

In his last 6 starts, Mikolas seems to be getting better each time out.  He went 7 scoreless against Philadelphia last night, allowing 3 hits.  In his two May starts, Miles has given just 1 run over 13 innings.  He has both the Cardinal wins this month, with an 0.69 ERA.

Since those first two starts Mikolas is 4-1, with a 3.16 ERA, walking just 6 batters over his last 37 innings.  He has thrown 67% of his last 532 pitches for strikes, holding opponents to just a .232 average.

Jordan Hicks

With one out in the ninth, manager Mike Shildt summoned closer Jordan Hicks into the game with a 6-run lead.  Hicks hadn’t appeared in a game in any of the last 6 days.  The reason for this inactivity was two-fold.  First, the Cards haven’t been presented with a save opportunity in quite a while.  Secondly, the Cards are monitoring the talented right-hander’s innings.  Hick responded by striking out both batters he faced – both on devastating sliders over 90 mph.

Jordan has now retired all of the last ten batters he’s faced – striking out 6 of them.  Since an early-season blown save, Jordan has an 0.75 ERA over his last 12 innings, holding batters to an .086 batting average in those innings.

Third Inning Woes Bedevil Flaherty and the Cards

The tone for the weekend was set on Friday afternoon.  To be precise in the third inning.

Jack Flaherty drew the assignment for the first game of the series, and through two innings it looked like the Cubs might be in trouble.  Jack struck out a couple in the first, stranding a runner, and then struck out the first two batters in the second.  After Kyle Schwarber walked, a harmless ground ball off the bat of Jason Heyward ended the inning.  Game scoreless after two.

All season so far, the thorn in the Cardinal side has been the starting pitching.  And the usually critical inning has been that third inning as the top of the order gets its second look at the pitcher.  That happened again to St Louis on Friday afternoon.

After Flaherty struck out opposing pitcher Kyle Hendricks, he walked Daniel Descalso – albeit, yes, one of those balls should have been called a strike.  After a passed ball, another walk put two runners on base for Anthony Rizzo.

Two pitches later, Rizzo was trotting around the bases, the Cubs had a 3-0 lead and would never look back in the game (which they would win 4-0 – box score) and the series (which they would sweep in three games).

Beyond the damaging third, Jack would pitch well.  He would even strike out 9 over his 5.2 innings.  The walks that preceded the home run would also be a theme throughout the series, as Cardinal pitchers would walk 14 Cub batters (2 intentionally) in 24 innings.  It all made for a less-than-competitive series.

The Dangerous Third and Fourth Innings

Throughout recent baseball history, the most dangerous inning has typically been the sixth.  That is the inning that a starter may suddenly tire, and the inning before the back-of-the-bullpen arms usually come into play.  To an extent, that is true again this season.  The league ERA in the sixth is a fairly high 4.63 (according to baseball reference), and the major league batting line in the sixth sits at .248/.326/.432.  By season’s end, the sixth may regain its position as the most offensive inning.

For the moment, though, it only ranks as the third most offensive inning behind the third (4.79 ERA) and the fourth (4.73) as all over baseball offenses are beginning to adjust to that starter the second time through the order.

In few places has the carnage of the third inning been felt more than in St Louis, where Cardinal starters have now served up 11 home runs and 28 runs.  Their season ERA in that inning – after 34 games – is an unsettling 7.15, and the batting line against is an equally distasteful .281/.389/.578.

Most of the Cardinal issue of playing from behind too early in games springs from distinct third-inning difficulties.  In Flaherty’s case, half of his 8 home runs allowed have come in that inning, where he carries a 14.85 ERA.  He has yet to allow a run in either of the first two innings this season.  In those 14 innings (7 first innings and 7 second innings), Jack has surrendered just 10 hits – all singles – while striking out 14.  From the fourth inning on, Jack does well enough, with a 3.38 ERA, a .233 batting average against, and a .266 on base percentage against.  He has struck out 19 in the 16 innings represented by his efforts in the fourth, fifth, sixth and seventh innings.

If we could just figure out a way to get him through that nettlesome third.

Questions of Character

Obviously, it is easy enough to make way too much of three games in early May.  In many ways, this situation is not unlike the early season matchups with the Brewers.  As Milwaukee won 5 of the first 7, it would have been easy to say that the Brewers were clearly the better team.  St Louis won the last three games between those teams, and has since evened the series.  A similar thing could happen down the line with the Cubs.

Here’s the thing, though.  Beginning with the playoff series between these teams after the 2015 season, the Cubs have dominated this matchup (see accompanying chart) to the tune of a .609 winning percentage. 

Year Cubs Cards Pct
2015 3 1 .750
2016 10 9 .526
2017 14 5 .737
2018 9 10 .474
2019 3 0 1.000
       
  39 25 .609

This decided advantage has less to do with the talent differential between these two teams than it is a matter of character.  The last 64 games between these two franchises has left the indelible impression that the Cubs are tougher mentally than their St Louis counterparts.  Nowhere was that more evident than in the big September showdown in 2017.

There were 12 games left in the season, and St Louis went into Chicago trailing by just three.  Seven of those final 12 would be between the Cards and the Cubs (the last 4 at home), effectively affording St Louis every opportunity to claim the division.

The Cubs swept the first three in Chicago.  By the time the series returned to St Louis, the Cards were already pretty much out of contention – trailing by 6 with 7 to play.  But Chicago won 3 of those 4 anyway.

The organization has spent the last three off-seasons lusting after that “impact” bat.  But there is no evidence, yet, that they have at all answered the character gap that exists between them and their rivals from the North.

After the Cards were dominated in the opener of this series, President John Mozeliak was quoted as saying, “The good news for baseball is that the Cubs and the Cardinals are good.  That’s good for the game.”

The Cubs clearly are good.  The Cardinals still have a lot to prove in that regard – at least if “good” means good enough to actually compete with the Cubs.  For anyone who saw the Sunday night debacle (box score), it make take a while to convince them of St Louis’ legitimacy.

John Gant

John Gant allowed his first inherited runner of the season to score in the Sunday blowout.  He also struck out another batter, and fanned 4 in his 2 innings over the weekend.  Gant has struck out 9 over his last 5 innings.

Dominic Leone

As it was last Friday against Cincinnati, so it was Sunday night against the Cubs.  It was Dominic Leone on the mound when the game spun out of control.  He surrendered 6 ninth-inning runs to the Reds, to pad a 12-1 loss.  The Cubs stuck him with 6 more in their eighth inning to turn a 7-2 game into a 13-2 laugher.

Through his first 11 games, Dominic held a 1.64 ERA and a .111 opponent’s batting average.  Over his last 4.2 innings he has been bashed to the tune of 14 runs on 14 hits – a 27.00 ERA.  The last 32 batters he has faced hold a .500/.563/.929 batting line against him.

Dexter Fowler

Dexter Fowler lost some starts recently to a bout with an illness, but he continues to hit.  He came off the bench to deliver a single on Friday, and added another hit Sunday afternoon.  Over his last 19 games, Dexter is hitting .383 (23 for 60).

Paul Goldschmidt

Paul Goldschmidt managed two quiet singles in the Sunday blow-out.  They were his only hits in the series. Paul has not yet reached his comfort level at the plate for his new team.  After a 2-for-13 series in Chicago, Goldschmidt is hitting .211 (4-for-19) for the early part of May.  All his hits have been singles, and he has no walks to go with 8 strikeouts, so his whole batting line for the month so far is .211/.211/.211 (with a double play and a caught stealing).

His hits Sunday came in his first two at bats, in the first and third innings.  For the series, from the fourth inning on, Paul was 0-for-8 with 4 strikeouts.  Paul has not yet been much of a late-inning presence for the Cards.  From the seventh-inning on this season, Goldschmidt is 7 for 40 (.175).

Kolten Wong

Kolten Wong’s tailspin continues.  Hitless in 4 at bats yesterday, Wong has dropped to .248 for the season.  He was 1-for-9 against the Cubs, and is 2-for-17 (.118) this month so far.

Lack of Two Out Hits Contribute to Loss in Washington

The one everyone remembers came in the eighth inning.  Singles by Jedd Gyorko and Marcell Ozuna, and a walk drawn by Harrison Bader loaded the bases for the Cards with two out in a game they had trailed 2-1 since the fourth inning.

Backup catcher Matt Wieters (who had contributed one of the early hits) was due, but it was the eighth inning and manager Mike Shildt had a bench loaded with regulars who were getting the night off.  The at bat would go Paul Goldschmidt, and he would be hitting against the left-hander.  Washington had brought in closer Sean Doolittle to face the right-handed Bader trying to earn a four-out save.

After losing his 8-pitch battle with Bader, Doolittle would now have to face the slugger Goldschmidt with no place to put him.  But also with two out, so Sean was always just one pitch away from getting out of the mess.

Goldschmidt fouled off the first three pitches, took a ball, and then flinched on a 1-2 inside fastball that was off the plate.  First-base umpire Quinn Wolcott emphatically rung him up.  The replays showed that it was close.

While that will be the one remembered, it was only one of several such late opportunities presented to the Cardinals, all of which slid by the boards.  In fact, from the fourth inning on – the inning they fell behind – St Louis had at least one hit in every inning, and had the tying run in scoring position in three of those innings (including that eighth).  But the lack of that two out hit – compounding the earlier mistakes that had put them in the hole to begin with – were too much for them to overcome, and the five-game winning streak came to an ignominious 2-1 end (box score).

The lone Cardinal run scored in the third, but the inning was greatly defused when Wieters was picked off of second after Dakota Hudson missed on an attempted bunt.  Washington scored their two runs in the fourth on a throwing error and a double play.  So, even though the hitters were mostly dominated for the second straight night by National starters (Stephen Strasburg last night and Max Scherzer the night before), St Louis will head to Chicago knowing they mostly let this one get away.

In the end, they finished 1 for 7 with runners in scoring position, and 0 for 3 in the sixth, seventh and eighth runners in scoring position and two out.  A single by Gyorko and Matt Carpenter’s walk gave Ozuna and Tyler O’Neill the RBI opportunities in the sixth.  Marcell popped out and O’Neill struck out.  The seventh inning opportunity came courtesy of an infield hit from Yairo Munoz and a walk drawn by Jose Martinez.  The inning ended when Kolten Wong’s foul fly decided not to go out of bounds and floated back to where right fielder Victor Robles could gather it in.

St Louis finished the game 2-for-11 (.182) with two out, ending six of their nine innings with strikeouts.  For the season – in spite of the fact that they have been one of baseball’s most consistent offenses – they are hitting just .246 with two outs.  An area I know they expect to be better in.

On the other hand, the Cards were 5 for 13 (.385) with no one out.  They remain one of baseball’s best hitting no-out teams, raising their season average to .293 and their on base percentage to .357 in that situation.  For the season, 56.7% of all Cardinal runners who reach with no outs have come home to score.

MattCarpenter

Given to pronounced slumps over recent years, Matt Carpenter is currently fighting his way through another.  Last year, when his season started slowly, he had the advanced metrics to fall back on that showed he was still hitting the ball hard – just not having any luck.

Recently, though, Matt just isn’t hitting the ball at all.  After last night’s 0-for-3 with 2 strikeouts, Carpenter finished the Washington series just 1 for 16 (.063) with 11 strikeouts.  He is kind of a mess right now.

In his only at bat of the game with two out, Matt flew out fairly deep to center to end the first.  Carpenter is now 2 for 24 (.083) on the season with two out, driving in just 1 run.

Pitching Revival

Even in defeat, the recent improvement in the Cardinal pitching remains evident.  Starting with six very strong innings from Dakota Hudson, Washington ended with just 5 hits (all singles) and 11 strikeouts.  Frankly they were lucky to score at all.

After being fairly battered early, the Cardinal pitching staff seems to have found its footing a bit.  They have now fashioned 5 quality starts over their last 9 games, producing a 3.26 team ERA while holding opposing teams to just a .217 batting average.  The once concerning rotation has contributed 52 innings over those 9 games, with a 2.77 ERA and a .229 batting average against.

This is much more according to the plan.

Better With Two Outs

One of the great improvements over the last 9 games has been in St Louis’ ability to get that third out.  The first 282 batters to face the Cardinals with two out this year drew 35 walks and smacked 28 extra-base hits – including 15 two out home runs.  That batting line translated into .249/.358/.494

Over the last 9 games, 110 batters have faced the Cards with two outs.  They have 13 walks and just 4 extra-base hits – including just 1 home run – a batting line of .240/.336/.302.  Last night, Washington was 2-for-11 with two outs – but also with two more walks.

DominicLeone

After being battered over two games against Cincinnati (allowing 8 runs in 1.1 innings), Dominic Leone returned to form against Washington.  In 1.2 scoreless innings he struck out 4.

One of the Cardinal strengths all year has been pitching with no one out, as opponents have only hit .202 against St Louis in that situation.  Leone has been a solid part of that.  He struck out both of the batters he faced with no outs last night.  Batters are now 2-for-19 (.105) with 8 strikeouts when pitted against Leone with no one out.

Unfortunately, Dominic has also contributed to the two out struggles.  The hit he gave up last night came with two out, bringing opposing hitters to 9 for 19 (.474) against Leone in that situation.

When You’re Trying Not to Hit the Curve Ball

Last night in Washington, Adam Wainwright made his record-tying start with catcher Yadier Molina.  These two have formed the battery for 248 Cardinal games over the years – tying the Tom Glavine/Javy Lopez record.

In rolling through 6.2 innings in the game, Adam threw 80 pitches.  Twenty-six of those were curve balls – Waino’s signature pitch.  The fastest of these (according to Brooks Baseball) spun in at 77.6 mph.  Adam’s fastest pitch of the game (a sinker) registered all of 92.4 mph.  During the evening, 12 of Adam’s 80 offerings cracked the 90-mph barrier.

The league, of course, is well aware of who Wainwright is – especially at this point of his career.  Beating Wainwright means that you need some strategy for coping with that curve.

If he’s missing the strike zone with it, then the adjustment is easy.  Just don’t swing at it.  If he is throwing that curve for strikes, you can try to wait for him to hang one – Victor Robles got a hanger on a 3-1 pitch and sailed it over the wall.

But if he’s not hanging them often, then most teams will take the approach the Nationals took last night – hit him early in the count.  Once Adam gets two strikes on you, you become vulnerable to Uncle Charlie.  Early in the count, Wainwright will throw more cutters and sinkers to set the hitter up for the curve.  Twenty-one of the 29 batters to face Adam ended their plate appearance before strike two, with 7 of them hitting Adam’s first strike.

Across all of baseball, this is very profitable hitting territory.  According to baseball reference, all major league hitters are hitting .342 and slugging .617 when they hit that first strike.

But, of course, Wainwright and Molina have been around a bit as well.  Figuring that the Nationals would be looking to hit something other than that curve, they mixed plenty of cutters (13) and sinkers (23) – especially early in the count.  In a sense, it was a case of be careful what you ask for.  The battery of Wainwright and Molina was consistently effective at jamming the Washington hitters – who were very obliging.

In the second inning, Matt Adams got enough of one of those inside cutters to float it into short left-center for a single.  The next inning, Adam Eaton was quick enough on another inside cutter to stroke it just fair over the right-field wall.  For the rest, it was a predictable mix of relatively easy fly-ball outs.

For the rest of the series, Washington will have to deal with pitchers with more stuff in Miles Mikolas and Dakota Hudson.  But last night, they were treated to a demonstration of pitching as an art form.  When he’s right, Adam can make it look fairly easy.

Ah, But Those Home Runs

In spite of the strong performance, Wainwright did serve up two more home runs.  For the rotation, now, that is 34 home runs allowed in 151 innings.  The opposing slugging percentage against Cardinal starters is .502 – the second highest in all of baseball.

That Bullpen is Still Plenty Tough

As they have for most of the year, St Louis’ bullpen came in and closed the door.  Over the last 2.2 innings, Washington managed only 1 hit and no runs.  The batting average against the Cardinal bullpen falls to .178 – the lowest in the majors.

John Gant

Adding another strong outing to his excellent start, John Gant threw 1.1 scoreless innings last night.  His season ERA slides to an unexpected 0.98.

He reached two strikes on all 5 batters he faced last night, a facet of his game that has been exceptional this year.  So far this season, 63.2% of all batters John has pitched to have ended up in two-strike counts.  They have not prospered, hitting .050/.116/.050.

Speaking of Two Strikes

Almost as masterful on the other side was Washington starter Anibal Sanchez.  Mr. Sanchez, himself, featured a cutter that never exceeded 89.5 mph.  But he spotted it expertly on the corners of the zone.

He, and the relievers who followed him, put 27 of the 38 Cardinal batters in two-strike counts – on their way to ringing up 15 strikeouts and holding one of baseball’s most consistent offenses under four runs for just the fifth time this season.

Jose Martinez

Contrary to the plan at the start of the season, Jose Martinez started for the thirteenth consecutive game last night.  For the third straight of those games, he finished with 2 hits.  He has hit in 11 of those games, getting multiple hits in 7 of them.  Jose carries a .462 average (20 for 47) as he is making it exceedingly difficult for management to put him back on the bench.

One of those hits (his second inning single) came on a 1-2 pitch.  Martinez – among his other accomplishments – is the best two-strike hitter on the team, carrying a .318 average (14-for-44) when down to his last strike.

Matt Carpenter

While most of the team seems to be perking along, things are still a struggle for Matt Carpenter.  Matt found himself in two-strike counts through all 5 of his at bats.  He walked once and struck out the other 4 times.  He now has 7 strikeouts over his last 2 games.  For the season, only Paul Goldschmidt (61.4%) has found himself in two-strike counts with more frequency that Carpenter (60.0%).  Once considered the team’s best two-strike hitter, Carp is hitting .145 (9-for-62) in that situation so far this year.

Yadier Molina

And, yes, Yadier Molina’s career-best-tying 16-game hitting streak came to an end in the win.  Yadi was 0-for-3 with a walk.  During the streak, Molina hit .328 (21 for 64) with a couple of home runs.  Yadi drove in 19 runs during that streak.

Young but Surprisingly Patient

So, clearly, these are not your father’s Washington Nationals.  Famously, Bryce Harper abandoned the club over the off-season.  Familiar names like Ryan Zimmerman and Anthony Rendon are still Nationals. But haven’t played recently due to injuries.

Prominent in the new Washington lineup are three prospects under 23 years of age.  Carter Kieboom (what a great name for a baseball player) is just 21 – he started at shortstop.  Victor Robles is the 22-year-old centerfielder.  And, of course, the future face of the franchise, 20-year-old Juan Soto is the left fielder.

For the kids and the rest of the Nats (and the rest of the lineup was all over 30), it was another day of what might have been.  A three-run second gave them an early lead, but a six-run Cardinal fifth flipped the narrative, and St Louis carried home a 6-3 victory in the series opener (box score).

In many ways, the game followed the desired Cardinal script.  The resilient lineup finally broke through after the pitching staff – especially the bullpen – kept the opponent within range.  Washington finished with just the 3 runs on only 4 hits.  The kid starters finished the evening 0-for-10.  But they also drew a couple of walks and saw an aggregate 61 pitches.

By game’s end, the Nationals (old as well as young) exacted 177 pitches and 6 walks from the Cardinal pitching staff.  The three-run second was aided notably by a couple of walks, and Washington manufactured an eighth-inning rally against John Brebbia as they walked the bases loaded – including a ten-pitch walk nursed by Soto.

I have only seen Washington for one game, but patience seems to be the organizational meme this year.  Thirty-seven National batters stood in at the plate last night.  Thirty-one of them took the first pitch – 15 of them taking first-pitch strikes.

Things didn’t quite work out for them last night, but sometimes process proceeds production.  It was a little uncommon to see such young players committed to patient at bats.  It will be something to keep an eye on as the series – and their season – progresses.

Cardinal Bullpen Nearly Unhittable

Washington’s patient approach took its toll on the St Louis bullpen, as well.  Cardinal relievers – forced to cover 4 innings after starter Michael Wacha could only give them five – ended up throwing 76 pitches over those four innings.  Still, when all was said and done, the Nationals finished 0-for-12 against the St Louis pen.  The batting average against Cardinal relievers drops now to .180 – the lowest in the majors (Houston’s bullpen is a fairly distant second at .202).

The pen does have some issues – walks and home runs.  But nobody is putting together strings of hits against these guys.

Offensive Consistency Amazing

While none of the offensive numbers from last night’s game are particularly newsworthy, at the end of the day the Cards had put up six more runs.  Twenty-eight games into the season, St Louis has scored at least four runs in 24 of them.  They currently sit tied for third in the major leagues (with the Yankees) for most runs per game – 5.54.

While the Nats were hesitant to swing at the first pitch, the Cards did so 12 times.  St Louis is actually one of baseball’s best hitting teams when they swing at the first pitch.  They were 6 of 12 last night in at bats that began with a swing at the first pitch, and are hitting .292 on the season in those at bats.

Marcell Ozuna

In the middle of the rally – again – was Marcell Ozuna.  His was the two-run single that put the Cards ahead.  Ozuna has now driven in 10 runs over his last 5 games – including 3 game-winning hits.  Marcell has now driven in the winning run a team-leading 4 times (Paul Goldschmidt is second with 3).

Jose Martinez

Jose Martinez added two more hits, including a double, and another run batted in last night.  Jose has been in the starting lineup for 12 straight games.  He is hitting .409 (18 for 44) in those games.

Jose collected the first Cardinal hit of the game – his line single in the fourth. Martinez, I think, gives the impression of being an impatient hitter, but in that at bat he took the first three pitches before jumping on the fourth pitch.  For the season, Jose actually takes the first pitch of an at bat 84.6% of the time.  That figure actually leads the team (Matt Carpenter is only taking the first pitch 77.5% of the time).

And when he takes that first pitch, he ends up hitting .365 in those at bats.

Harrison Bader

Gone for ten days earlier this month nursing a slight hamstring pull, Harrison Bader’s opportunities have been somewhat sparse since his return.  To this point, Bader doesn’t seem to have suffered from his relative inactivity.  He had 2 hits last night in his first start since his return (including the home run that put St Louis on the board) and has been 3 for 6 since his return with a walk and a hit by pitch.

He also hasn’t lost his touch in the outfield.

Matt Carpenter

Speaking of Carpenter, the only time he put a ball in play last night he tried going again to left field – a fly out.  His other plate appearances ended in a walk and three strikeouts.

Things still haven’t been falling Matt’s way.  He has gone 8 games without an extra-base hit, hitting .192 (5 for 26) in that span.

Jedd Gyorko

Playing time has been sparse for Jedd Gyorko as well.  A major contributor the last couple of seasons, Jedd has yet to make much of an impact.  Twenty-eight games into the season, Gyorko has 20 at bats.

Last night, getting a rare start, he took the first pitch in all 3 plate appearances, going 0-for-3 with a strikeout.  The season is very young, but to date, Jedd has taken the first pitch 14 times, going 0-for-13 in those at bats with 1 walk and 6 strikeouts.  Jedd is 2-for-7 the times he has swung at the first pitch.

NoteBook

Last night was only the fourth time in ten series that St Louis won the opening game of the series.  They went on to sweep the other three series (two games against Pittsburgh, four against the Dodgers, and three against the Brewers).

Conquest of Reds Closes Out 7-2 Home Stand

Home has not always been where the heart is for the St Louis Cardinals over recent seasons.  In fact, during their three-year playoff absence, one of the galling factors has been their struggles at home.

Through the first 16 years of this century (2000-2015), the Cardinals were 835-519 (.617) at home (counting playoffs).  During that same span (including playoffs) they were only 694-668 (.510) on the road.

Over the last three seasons, though, that home field advantage has all but completely disappeared.  Between 2016 and 2018, your Cardinals have played just .514 ball at home (125-118).  This number includes the only season in this century when the Cards finished with a losing record at home (38-43 in 2016).  During those same seasons, they are 132-111 (.543) on the road.

The most apparent reason for the home issues seems to be the largeness of the ballpark.  Busch has always played large – especially as far as getting baseballs to sail over the wall.  As the Cardinals have become more and more reliant on the home run ball over the last few years, they have – at times – seemed out of place in their own ballpark.

From 2000-2015, St Louis averaged 4.75 runs per game at home and 4.73 runs per game on the road.  Home runs still came easier on the road (1 for every 31.93 at bats, vs 1 per 34.11 at bats at home), but a more diversified Cardinal offense was capable of finding other ways to score.  Over those 16 seasons, they hit 173 more home runs on the road (1492) than at home (1319) – an average of 10.8 more home runs on the road than at home per season.

Since 2015, The Cards have averaged 4.38 runs per game at home, against 5.08 runs per game on the road.  While they have improved to 1 home run per 28.92 at bats at home, those blasts are still significantly easier away from Busch – where St Louis managed a home run every 24.37 at bats.  Over the last three years they hit 72 more home runs on the road (349) than they did at home (243) – an average of 24 more road homers than home runs in their home park each year.

So, one of the most encouraging notes of the very early season has been the Cardinals prowess at home.  Sunday’s 5-2 conquest of Cincinnati (box score) concluded a 7-2 home stand that pushed the Cards to 12-4 at home so far this season.

The early results shows no more success hitting the ball out of their home park than in any past season.  In fact – if anything – the home runs at home have regressed a bit so far in 2019.  In the first 16 home games, the Cards have managed just 16 home runs – 1 every 32.44 at bats.  They have been home run machines on the road.  In 11 road games they have driven 23 balls over the wall – 1 every 17.17 at bats.

But – as a team – the Cards are hitting .277 at home, scoring 5.69 runs per game.  During the just-completed home stand, St Louis collected 90 hits and scored 54 runs while hitting just 9 home runs during the 9 games.  But they managed 6 runs per game on the strength of their .302 team batting average.

In spite of the home runs, St. Louis is hitting just .258 on the road, scoring a still-impressive 5.27 runs per game.

Yes, the season is still very, very young, and this is a trend that could completely disappear as the season rolls on.  The early read on this team is that they will certainly hit their share of home runs.  But this edition of the Cardinals may not be as dependent on the long ball as some of their predecessors.  That would be a huge step in the right direction for this franchise.

Matt Carpenter

Matt Carpenter – bedeviled for most of the season by the shifts that he has been trying to hit against – has picked up a few hits to the other side in recent games – some on bunts and some on floaters into short left.  This part remains a work in progress (Carpenter doesn’t have an extra-base hit in his last 7 games).  But the on-base part of his game is definitely coming back.  He has drawn 6 walks (and scored 6 runs) over his last 5 games – a span during which he holds a .455 on base percentage.  He was 2 for 5 against the Reds with 3 walks – reaching base in 5 of his 8 plate appearances.

In his first 61 plate appearances at home, Matt holds a .393 on base percentage.  All of his first three home runs this season have come on the road.

Dexter Fowler

The Dexter Fowler resurgence continued over the weekend against the Reds.  Dexter went 3 for 8 with 3 walks – a .583 on base percentage during the series.  Dexter basically tore things up during the home stand.  In his 32 plate appearances, Fowler contributed 7 singles, 3 doubles, 1 home run, 5 runs scored, 6 runs batted in, 5 walks and a hit-by-pitch.  This translates to a .423/.531/.654 batting line – a 1.185 OPS.

Dexter has hit in 13 of his last 15 games, batting .396 (21 for 53) with 6 multi-hit games.  He is also now hitting .333 at home (15 for 45) so far this year.

Jose Martinez

Jose Martinez wrapped up a 3-for-9 series against Cincinnati with 2 hits and the game-winning RBI on Sunday.  Finding his way back into the starting lineup, Jose has now started 11 consecutive games, and is hitting .400 (16 for 40) in that span.  In the 9 games of the home stand, Jose hit .438 (14 for 32).

Martinez is now the Cardinals’ leading hitter at home.  He is a .435 hitter (20 for 46) at his home ballpark.  Up next for Jose is a road trip into Washington and Chicago.  His early season struggles mostly came on the road.  In his first 24 road plate appearances, Jose has managed just 3 singles and 1 double, while striking out 9 times and grounding into 2 double plays.  Martinez carries 3 runs batted in and a road batting line of .167/.167/.208 into tonight’s contest against the Nationals.

Paul DeJong

Going 4 for 12 against the Reds, Paul DeJong has now pushed his hitting streak to 8 games.  Paul is hitting .382 (13 for 34) during the streak, with 6 of those hits going for extra-bases (5 doubles and a home run) – a .618 slugging percentage.

DeJong now carries a .397 batting average at home (25 of 63) with 13 extra-base hits (10 doubles, 1 triple and 2 home runs) – a .683 slugging percentage.  In just 48 road at bats, DeJong has 3 road home runs.

Kolten Wong

Not everyone prospered during the Cincinnati series.  After a very hot start, Kolten Wong continued to regress to his norms.  Wong finished the series just 2 for 11.  It has been 9 games since his last multi-hit game.  In that span, Kolten is hitting just .167 (5 for 30).  Only one of those hits (yesterday’s double) was for extra-bases.

Wong might be one of the few Cardinals looking forward to the road trip.  Almost all of his early success came away from Busch.  After this last home stand, Wong is now a .154 hitter in his home park (8 for 52).  His 8 hits include only 2 for extra-bases (both doubles), for a .192 slugging percentage.

On the road (through 11 games) it has been a different story for Kolten.  In his 44 plate appearances away from home, Wong has achieved 8 singles, 2 doubles, 1 triple, all 4 of his home runs, 7 walks (1 intentional) 2 hit-by-pitches, and 3 stolen bases.  Kolten has driven in 10 runs while grounding into no double plays in his 11 road games.  His batting line there is an impressive .429/.545/.886.

Pitching Better than the Numbers Suggest

In the conquest of the Reds, the Cardinal pitching numbers continued to suffer.  Cincinnati finished the set hitting 5 more home runs and scoring 17 runs – leaving the Birds with a 5.67 team ERA for the series.  The numbers – of course – are skewed by the beating the team took on Friday night – a 12-1 shellacking (box score) that featured all five of the home runs Cincy hit this weekend. 

In truth, the series showcased some of the finest Cardinal pitching to date.  Subtract three pitchers who struggled (Miles Mikolas, Dominic Leone and Tyler Webb) and the rest of the pitching staff posted a 1.33 ERA over 20.1 innings.

The 73 batters who faced the rest of the staff managed just 12 singles, 1 double, 3 walks, 1 sacrifice hit and 1 sacrifice fly – a .188/.219/.203 batting line.

Over the course of the home stand, the starters (3.73 ERA) out-performed the bullpen (4.75 ERA) for one of the few times this season.  During the upcoming road trip, the starters will be very much under the microscope.  In the early days of the season, they have been very much Jekyll and Hyde.  They are 9-2 with a 3.49 ERA and a .240 opponent batting average at home.  They are 1-4 on the road (for a 5-6 Cardinal road team).  They have served up 17 home runs in 52 road innings while struggling to a 6.58 ERA, a .307 batting average against, and a .628 slugging percentage against.

This will be a big opportunity for them.

Jack Flaherty

The clear pitching highlight for the weekend was the effort of Sunday’s starter – right-hander Jack Flaherty.  A revelation last year, Jack has been as inconsistent as most of the Cardinal rotation.  But on Sunday he shut out Cincinnati on 4 hits over his 7 innings, walking just 1.

Flaherty is now 3-0 at home with a 1.88 ERA.  He has walked just 4 batters in his 24 home innings, holding the rest to a .184 batting average.

Jordan Hicks

Closer Jordan Hicks came in to a 2-0 game in the eighth inning – ostensibly to record a four-out save.  After St Louis added three runs in the bottom of the eighth, Hicks was removed – as the game seemed well under control (it would get more interesting at the end).

Nonetheless, Jordan finished the series pitching in both the Saturday and Sunday games, retiring all four batters faced (with two strikeouts) and claiming a save (on Saturday) and a hold (on Sunday).  Hicks has been good all year long – but especially at home where he is 6-for-6 in save opportunities and has surrendered just one run in 6 innings.  Batters are hitting just .105 against him at home.

Dominic Leone

Dominic Leone, with a second chance to make a first impression, was really having a terrific year.  Having lost almost his entire first season in St Louis to injury, Dominic’s first 11 appearances of 2019 hinted at the pitcher the Cardinals believed they were signing.  After 11 innings, Leone held a 1.64 ERA and a .111 batting average against.

He appeared in two of the weekend games against the Reds and was batted around.  He entered the ninth inning of the first game, trailing 6-1.  Thirty-four pitches later, he left the mound trailing 12-1 with still only two outs in the inning.

He returned for Sunday’s ninth inning, this time holding a 5-0 lead.  Again, he couldn’t finish the inning as he gave hits to 3 of the 5 batters he faced and turned the game over to John Gant with the Cards still holding a 5-2 lead.  In all, he faced 14 batters over the two games who hit .692 against him and slugged 1.154.

It is hoped that these two nights against Cincinnati were a blip.  But his next trip out of the pen will certainly be worth noting.

Lots of Winning Teams Early

Tonight the Cardinals – ok, the first-place Cardinals – will open the last series of their season’s second homestand.  As homestand’s go, this one has been quite productive (St Louis has won five of the first six).  They will be welcoming the Reds of Cincinnati for their first visit of the season, and will be laying their gaudy 15-9 record on the line.

With so much baseball left to be played, it’s a little treacherous to draw any serious conclusions from anything witnessed so far.  That being said, it is usually about this time of the season that I start to separate out the games played against winning teams – or at least against .500 teams. These games serve as a litmus test of sorts, giving a general idea of who rises to the level of the better competition and who does not.

For the first 24 games of the season, that separation won’t show very much.  That is because, going into tonight’s contest against the 10-14 Reds, the Cards have played only two games all year against teams that have lost more than they have won.

All of the interest in the early-season schedule involved all of the early games against Milwaukee – and 10 of these first 24 have been against the Brewers.  But the Brewers are only part of the early season gauntlet run by the Cardinals.  To this point, they have only lined up against one team that currently sports a losing record.  That team would be the Reds who they played a couple of times in Mexico.

In fact, when considered against the records of their opponents in games against other teams, St Louis’ early success becomes even more impressive:

Cardinal Opponent Record against everyone else
Team W L W-L%   Team W L W-L%  
LAD 4 0 1.000   LAD 16 7 .696  
MIL 5 5 .500   MIL 8 8 .500  
NYM 2 1 .667   NYM 12 9 .571  
PIT 2 0 1.000   PIT 12 9 .571  
SDP 1 2 .333   SDP 12 10 .545  
                   
  14 8 .636     60 43 .583  

 

Against everyone except Cincinnati, the Cards are 14-8 (a .636 winning percentage).  Those teams – as the chart indicates – are playing .583 ball against everyone else.

Of course, there is no promise that everyone over .500 right now will still be over .500 even by this time next month.  The Dodgers and Brewers, of course were division champs last year, and the last two teams standing in the National League.  The Pirates won 82 games last year and seem to be better.

The Mets and Padres, of course, both had losing records last year, but both look much different in 2019.  San Diego has added Manny Machado to go along with the rise of 20-year-old Fernando Tatis Jr.  Meanwhile, the Mets have seen the emergence of their own young superstar in Pete Alonso.

It is, of course, impossible at this early stage of the season to tell for sure who is legit and who will fade.  But right now all of these teams are playing quite well. And the Cardinals are beating them.

In fact, the high concentration of winning teams on the early schedule presents a unique challenge to this blog.  Here, we poke inside of the numbers to pull out their secrets.  But the level of competition at the moment is so skewed that seemingly significant statistical trends could just be anomalies.

For example, through 24 games and 213 innings, the Cardinal pitching staff has already surrendered a surprising 46 home runs.  They allowed only 144 all of last season.  The rotation’s ERA of 4.80 ranks twenty-first out of 30 major league teams.

But, St Louis has played 10 games against a Milwaukee team that is second in baseball with 51 home runs, and the Dodgers (against whom they have played four times) are next in baseball with 46.  Those two teams alone have accounted for 30 of the 46 home runs off of St Louis.

As the season goes forward, these numbers will normalize.  Until that time, some of this will have to be taken with a grain of salt.

Up next is Cincinnati and Washington (11-12) before St Louis plays its next team that currently holds a winning record – that would be the 12-11 Cubs.  They will be followed by another string of teams that currently are at least at .500 – Philadelphia (13-12), Pittsburgh, Atlanta (12-12) and Texas12-12).

It is way too early to predict that any of these records will hold up.  If they do, however, the Cardinals will find themselves battling .500 or better teams in 38 of their first 47 games.  Along the way, we should get a pretty good of what this team is made of.

Scoring Changes So Far – For Those of you Scoring at Home

There have only been two early scoring changes to be aware of – if you follow this sort of thing.

In the second game of the season – in the fourth inning – a pitch from Jack Flaherty eluded catcher Yadier Molina.  At the time it was ruled a passed ball, but has been subsequently changed to a wild pitch.

Last Monday (April 22), the Cards carried a 5-4 lead into the seventh inning against Milwaukee.  Matt Carpenter opened the inning with a flare over third base.  By the time the Brewers got the ball back in, Matt was on second.  Originally ruled a double, that call has been changed to an error charged to Ryan Braun.  The hit/error set the stage for the 7-run inning that would push that game out of reach.

Carpenter loses both the hit and the double.  Milwaukee pitcher Jacob Barnes is spared a hit and an earned run, and the Brewer pitching staff gets another of those runs flipped from earned to unearned.

Super Bowl LIII: Defense Matters

It is, of course, not surprising that the reviews of Super Bowl LIII were not outstanding.  Coming on the heels of one of the most prolific offensive seasons in the sport’s history, America was expecting a shootout between the league’s second (LA) and fourth (NE) highest scoring offenses.

During the 2018 regular season, all teams averaged 373.5 points (the second highest in history), and averaged 5635.6 yards (also second highest in history).  The 26.5 touchdown passes thrown per team were an NFL record.

It isn’t surprising that the casual fan, spoiled by the offensive excess of the regular season should take a little offense at the little offense provided a couple of Sundays ago.  It is easy to be underwhelmed by the New England Patriot’s 13-3 conquest of the Los Angeles Rams (gamebook) (summary).  Too many fans, I fear, have been drawn to the pinball-like quality of play over the recent seasons – to the point where they can no longer appreciate the achievement of both of these under-rated defensive units.

But the resounding message from both teams on this latest Super Bowl Sunday – and, perhaps a message that will resonate through the coming season – is that defense matters.

Defense matters a lot.

Last year we ran through a few of the offensive achievements of the almost-highest-scoring Super Bowl in history.  This year’s collection of Super Bowl notes will be much different.

Super Bowl Notebook:

New England’s 13 points were the fewest ever by a Super Bowl winner.  The Miami Dolphins completed their perfect 1972 season with a victory in Super Bowl VII (7) by scoring just 14 points in beating Washington.

With the 14-7 final, that game had been the lowest scoring Super Bowl ever until this one.

The Rams tied the record for fewest points scored in a Super Bowl game.  That was also set by the Dolphins when they lost Super Bowl VI (6) to Dallas, 24-3.

Back in Super Bowl III (3), Joe Namath famously guaranteed a victory.  His prediction was correct, but he, himself, threw 28 passes that afternoon without throwing for a touchdown.  He became the first quarterback to win a Super Bowl without throwing a touchdown pass, and his 28 pass attempts stood as the most ever thrown by a winning Super Bowl quarterback without throwing a touchdown pass.  That record stood until this last Super Bowl, when none of Tom Brady’s 35 throws resulted in a touchdown.

Jared Goff’s 229 passing yards were the fewest by a losing quarterback in the Super Bowl since Rex Grossman threw for just 165 in losing Super Bowl XLI (41) to Peyton Manning and Indianapolis 29-17.  That next year, the almost undefeated Patriots would lose the first Super Bowl of the Brady-Belichick era.

Speaking of Manning, he is still the last losing quarterback of a Super Bowl to average less than 6 yards per attempted pass in the big game.  In the shellacking that he and his Denver teammates absorbed at the hands of Seattle in Super Bowl XLVIII (48), Peyton threw 49 passes, but gained just 280 yards (5.71 per attempt).  Goff came close to joining him – he averaged just 6.03 yards per attempted pass.  His 12.1 yards per completion is also the lowest among losing Super Bowl quarterbacks since that Manning game – Peyton averaged only 8.2 yards per his 34 completions.

Brady’s victory pushed Michigan ahead of Notre Dame as the college with the most alumni-quarterback Super Bowl victories.  Michigan now has 6 – all belonging to Brady.  The fighting Irish have earned four from Joe Montana and one from Joe Theismann.  Notre Dame quarterbacks have lost only two Super Bowls (one each by Theismann and Daryle Lamonica), so their percentage is still better.

University of California quarterbacks continues to struggle on the big stage.  With Goff’s loss, they are now 1-4, with Aaron Rodgers accounting for their only victory – but also one of their losses.  The other U-Cal losses belong to Craig Morton (2) and Joe Kapp (1).

The Rams’ 62 rushing yards were the fewest by a losing team in a Super Bowl since the Denver Broncos managed just 27 rushing yards against Seattle in Super Bowl XLVIII (48), and the 35 rushing yards that Todd Gurley led the Rams with were the fewest yards rushed for by the leading rusher of a losing team since Denver’s Knowshon Moreno led the Broncos with 17 rushing yards in that Super Bowl against Seattle.

You have to go back 18 years, to Baltimore’s demolition of the New York Giants in Super Bowl XXXV (35) to find a losing team that managed fewer total yards than the Rams’ 260 this year.  On that day, the Giants finished with 152.  Those Giants were also the last team not to score an offensive touchdown in the Super Bowl until the Rams this year.

The previous record for fewest combined offensive touchdowns in a Super Bowl was two. This had been done in six previous Super Bowls – most recently in Denver’s 24-10 victory over Carolina in Super Bowl 50.  This year, the Rams and Patriots combined for just one.

On the plus side, a few individuals came through with noteworthy performances.

This Super Bowl now marks a dozen years since the winning team produced a 100-yard rusher.  Indianapolis’ Dominic Rhodes ran for 113 yards against Chicago back in Super Bowl XLI (41). New England’s Sony Michel’s 94 yards this year is the closest anyone on the winning team has come since then (although two losing teams have managed 100-yard rushers in the interim).

Meanwhile Julian Edelman’s 141 receiving yards are the most by a member of a winning team since Super Bowl XXXVIII (38).  That was another New England Super Bowl win, with Brady to Deion Branch accounting for 143 yards.

Taking On the Patriots

Defending the explosive and creative LA Rams is a significant challenge for any defense.  In some ways, though, the Patriots present a more difficult challenge in that they have been the playoffs’ most persistent and prolific running team.

They bludgeoned the LA Chargers with 155 rushing yards (and 4 rushing touchdowns) on 34 carries in their Divisional Round game.  They followed that up by laying 176 more rushing yards (and 4 more rushing touchdowns) on 48 rushes on Kansas City in the AFC Championship game.

Before them now was a Ram defense that had been exceedingly susceptible to the run all season.  All regular season, that is.  During the regular season, they had ranked twenty-third at stopping the run, allowing 122.3 rushing yards per game, and 5.1 rushing yards per attempt – the league’s worst such figure.

But as the playoffs dawned, this Ram run defense flipped the switch, providing a turnaround as unexpected as any I’ve witnessed.  Confronted with top running offenses in their first two playoff games, Los Angeles first muffled the Dallas Cowboys – possessors of the NFL’s top rusher in Ezekiel Elliott.  Dallas finished the game with just 50 yards rushing (47 by Elliott).  Next up were the New Orleans Saints.  The Saints had been the sixth-best running team in football during the season, while leading the league with 26 rushing touchdowns.  They had racked up 137 more yards in their first playoff game against Philadelphia.

Again, though, the surprising Ram run defense had all the answers.  The Saints managed just 48 yards on the ground against LA.

So one of the sub-themes of this contest would be the matchup of the suddenly unstoppable Patriot ground game against the suddenly immovable Ram run defense.

Starting the game with the ball in their possession – as the Rams deferred – the Patriots began with the ground assault.  On the game’s first play from scrimmage, Michel burst for 13 yards.  All of New England’s first four plays were runs, the first three of them gaining at least five yards. Three plays into the game, the Patriots already had half as many rushing yards (24) as New Orleans had managed against the Rams in the Championship Game.

The fourth running play managed “just” three yards, setting up Brady’s first pass on second-and-seven from the Ram 34.

New England’s Openings

To this point, this drive was eerily similar to the Patriots’ previous two playoff games.  Getting the ball first against both the Chargers and Chiefs, New England had authored two long clock-draining, soul-crushing touchdown drives.  They had marched 83 yards in 14 plays against the first LA team.  That drive had taken the game’s first 7:11.  In their next matchup against KC, they pounded them for 80 yards in 15 plays of a drive that consumed the first 8:05 of that game.

Four plays into the Super Bowl, the combined totals for all three of their first drives read 33 plays, earning 190 yards that had run a collective 18:02 off the clock.

But a funny thing happened as New England sat poised to score their third consecutive opening drive touchdown – an interception.

With Ram cornerback Aqib Talib dropping into deep zone coverage up the offensive right sideline, Receiver Chris Hogan sat down in an open spot in the flat. What should have been an easy first down, though, turned into disaster as Brady’s throw brought Hogan back toward the center of the field, allowing defensive back Nickell Robey-Coleman to get back in the play, where he deflected the ball high enough in the air that linebacker Cory Littleton could slide under it and make the interception.

While that play didn’t necessarily turn the tide of the game, it did turn the tide on the Patriot running game.  After allowing those 24 yards on New England’s first three runs, Los Angeles would surrender just 37 more rushing yards on the Patriots next 16 runs (2.3 yards per attempt).  Of those rushes, the only one to gain more than five yards was an 8-yard wide receiver sweep run by Edelman.

Under-Appreciated Defenders

In the silencing of the Saint running game, the Ram defense was led by their two highest profile defensive linemen – Aaron Donald and Ndamukong Suh.  Bill Belichik and Josh McDaniel’s brilliant response was to not run at Donald.  Of New England’s 32 rushing plays on the evening, only six were run in Donald’s direction – and two of those occurred when Aaron was the only defensive lineman on his side of the field.  If the Rams were going to stop the New England ground game, it would have to be stopped by someone other than Donald.

For most of the game, that someone (or those someones) tuned out to be Michael Brockers and Dante Fowler. Brockers made 7 of the Rams 31 tackles against the run after gains of just 17 yards (2.4 per). Fowler was primary on 3 tackles against the run for a total of one yard lost.

Even when they weren’t making the tackle themselves, they were disruptive forces in the run game.  Mostly lined up against Joe Thuney, Brockers consistently stood his ground, clogging the line and preventing linemen from advancing to the linebackers.

Fowler seemed especially aware of what the Patriots were attempting.  He foiled a couple of screen passes (and Brady and the Patriots were only 1 for 4 completing screen passes) and made quick penetration on several running plays.

With 9:55 left in the first quarter, and New England facing a first-and-ten on their own 24, they tried to send Michel up the middle.  The blocking scheme on this run called for Trent Brown – the tackle lined up opposite of Fowler – to help Thuney double Donald.  With that, the Patriots pulled Shaq Mason from the left side to block on Fowler. But Dante read the play instantly and was into the backfield before Mason could get near him, smothering Michel for a 4-yard loss.

Later on in that drive, now with 6:17 left in the opening quarter, New England sat at third-and-eight on the Ram 31.  They tried to sneak a draw to James White underneath the pass rush of Donald.  Fowler read that, too, and chased White down after a three-yard gain – a play that forced a failed New England field goal attempt.

This was the pattern through most of the game, as the Patriot offense ground to a near halt as the running game sputtered.

For a little while.

Persistence Pays Off

But the ever patient Patriots kept running the ball.  On 68% of their first down plays (23 of 34), the Pats ran the ball.  And eventually, the Rams did wear down.

Beginning with a 19-yard sprint from Michel with 1:18 left in the third, the Patriot running attack took over the rest of the game.  New England’s final 12 rushes would account for 94 yards (7.8 yards per), 4 first downs, one touchdown, and the two runs that basically decided the game.

The last Patriot drive of the season began on its own 4-yard line.  There was still 4:17 left in the game, and the Patriot lead was a slim 10-3.  After their first run earned a yard, the Patriots faced second-and-nine from their own 5.

To this point, NE had almost completely avoided running at Donald.  Of the six times they did test him, five of those runs gained just 4 yards.  At this critical juncture, though, with Donald playing three-technique (over the outside shoulder of right guard Mason), the Patriots lined up with two tight ends to the left of the formation (away from Donald). The Rams overshifted, moving their other two defensive linemen to the left side, leaving Donald and two linebackers alone on the right side.

Just prior to the snap, tight end Dwayne Allen came back in motion to the right side, balancing the lines.  At the snap, Marcus Cannon and Mason doubled Donald, with Cannon then going through for Littleton.  Allen kicked Fowler to the outside, and Thuney came pulling from left guard to lead through the hole by blasting undersized linebacker Mark Barron.  The rest was green grass for Michel, whose 26-yard gallop brought New England from the shadow of its goal line.

Now it is two plays later – with still 2:42 left in the season, but the Rams now down to one time-out.  The Patriots face second-and-seven on their own 41.  Now, the Patriots would do the same thing, but in reverse. And with the same success.

NE lined up with two tight ends to the right side, and the Rams responded by overshifting their line to that side. The Pats then motioned Rob Gronkowski back to the left side and ran there. Thuney and David Andrews put an initial double-team block on Brockers (lined over center, the farthest left defensive lineman the Rams had), with Thuney then going through to get in the way of Littleton. Brown tossed Fowler to the inside, and Gronk crunched Lamarcus Joyner to the outside. James Develin led through the hole and removed Barron from the equation. Rex Burkhead then sliced back inside and ran to daylight.

New England had done the same thing to Kansas City late in that contest to spring a couple of long runs.

With a second 26-yard run in a matter of four plays, New England authored a game-clinching, nine-play, 67-yard drive (all of them running plays!) that ended in a field goal.  It left the Rams with a ten-point deficit, no timeouts, and 1:12 of season left to do something about it.

Although they were essentially stalled for most of the game, in the end, New England finished with 154 rushing yards (and another rushing touchdown) and their sixth title.  In winning their three playoff games, NE had scored 11 touchdowns – nine of them on the ground.

The Develin Factor

Once a staple of offensive football, the fullback has become almost a relic.  In the new pass-happy NFL, the fullback has mostly given way to a third or fourth wide receiver.  But in New England, the fullback is alive and well in the person of James Develin – a specialist whose job it is to ensure green pastures for the running back who will follow him through the hole.  Develin was on the field for only 30 plays (42% of the offensive snaps), but his presence was felt.  The Rams had 13 runs of more than three yards in this game.  Develin led through the hole on 7 of them.  He also led through on the two-yard touchdown run.

It is a stretch to say that the success the Patriots have found with Develin will spread to other teams.  But the concept certainly works in New England.

Brady and the Passing Attack

With the running game mostly held at bay, the very confident Ram defenders gave Tom Brady and his receivers all they could handle.  In one of his least effective Super Bowls, Brady finished with 262 passing yards and a 71.37 passer rating.  Tom didn’t have his best game.  Some of his throws were off target, and a few of his decisions could well be questioned.  But the largest parts of this story are the Ram defenders.  Whether in zone or in man, Talib, Joyner, John Johnson, Barron, Robey-Coleman – and yes even Marcus Peters – continuously provided tight coverage and gave Brady few opportunities.

But with such opportunities as presented themselves, Brady managed to get the ball mostly to his two prime-time targets.  Super Bowl MVP Julian Edelman finished catching 10 of 12 passes thrown his way for 141 yards and 8 first downs.  Tight end Rob Gronkowski caught 6 of 7 for 87 yards and 3 first downs.

Combined, Brady was 16 of 19 (84.21%) throwing to those two for 228 yards (12 yards per attempt and 14.25 per completion).  His passer rating to those two targets was a Brady-like 116.67.

But when the Rams managed to take away those targets and force Brady to go elsewhere, the story was much different.  Throwing to all other receivers, Brady was 5 of 16 (31.25%) for 34 yards (2.13 per attempt) with one interception – a 14.58 rating.

It’s Julian’s World

The challenge with Edelman is mostly a man coverage issue.  One of football’s quickest receivers, Julian is almost always able to get that first step on a defender.  And while he doesn’t have the kind of break-away speed that will leave a defender in his wake, he is as tough at catching footballs with defenders hanging on him as you will find in the league.

In this contest, Edelman was kept company by all of the principle Ram defenders.  He saw a lot of Talib, but frequently lined up slot-left where he would draw slot-corner Robey-Coleman.  He would then frequently run across the field (left-to-right) with Nickell in pursuit.  Of Julian’s receptions and yards he caught 5 of 6 for 73 yards and 4 first downs on the right side of the field.  Against all man coverage, Edelman caught 7 of 9 for 112 yards and 5 first downs – almost all of these with a defender within arms grasp.

These were difference making catches and yards.

Gronk in the Zone

While zone coverages will tend to minimize Edelman’s impact, they are a double-edged sword as someone will then have to deal with Rob Gronkowski, one of the NFL’s best at finding soft spots in zones.  Brady threw to Gronk in zone coverages 4 times, his 4 completions resulting in 40 yards (although just 1 first down).  Gronk would have his moment against man coverage, too.

There is 7:43 left in the season, game tied at that point 3-3, Patriots on LA’s 31.  Here would be the first of a series of plays that would determine the outcome of the season.

As the Patriots lined up, the Rams made one last attempt to confound the New England passing game.  As Edelman went in motion to the right, no one followed him – a zone indicator.  Then Littleton crowded the line, threatening a blitz – which would probably be man coverage.  Perhaps they were a little too cute, here.  Apparently, the only ones they confused were themselves.

On Brady’s last pass of the season, the Rams found themselves in man coverage, but with disadvantageous matchups.  They finished with safety Joyner on Edelman and cornerback Talib on running back Burkhead.

The defensive lineup also left Littleton one-on-one with Gronkowski all the way up the left side line.

For the game, Brady would only throw three long passes.  All would go up the left sideline.  The first two of these came with Marcus Peters isolated on Chris Hogan, with Peters responding to the challenge both times.  This time a perfect pass led Gronk over the top of Littleton.  Rob’s catch gave the Patriots first and goal on the two, and set in motion the end game.

Third and Less Than Automatic

Against the Chiefs, the Patriot offense thrived on third down, converting 13-of-19.  The Ram defense kept its team in the game by holding the Patriots to a much more pedestrian 3 of 12 on this down.  Here they played predominantly man coverage, leading to something of a hit-and-miss result.  In spite of the fact that New England only converted three of these opportunities, Brady was still 6 for 10 on third down, and the Patriots averaged 7 yards on third down.  The three first downs were all catches by Edelman (11, 25, and 27 yards).  New England’s other 9 third down plays accounted for a total of 21 yards.

Defending the Rams

With the Patriot offense managing just enough points, this game fell on the shoulders of the New England defense in their matchup against one of the game’s top offenses.

Ram quarterback Jared Goff supervised the NFL’s fifth-ranked passing attack, while he finished eighth in passer rating at 101.1.  When you have an offense that has too many weapons to concentrate on, usually the best answer is to stop it at its source.  The Patriots answered the new-age Ram offense with an age old defensive prescription.  They dialed up the pressure.

While Jared saw about an even mix of coverages (he saw man coverages 49% of the time) it was the effectiveness of the man coverages that made the difference.  In his 20 snaps throwing against man, Goff was just 8 of 18 (44.44%) for just 101 yards and his interception – a 39.35 passer rating.  He was also sacked twice.

And whether the Pats were playing man or zone, Jared was under frequent blitz pressure.  All told, Goff was blitzed on 46.3% of his pass attempts (19 of 41).  And even when they weren’t blitzing, the pressure on Goff was nearly constant.  After registering only 30 sacks during the regular season, the Patriots racked up 10 in three playoff games.  The use of blitzes was a big part.  Even more than that, though, over their last three games the Patriots raised the defensive line stunt to almost an art form.

The defensive line stunt has been in existence since the beginning of football.  The defensive end comes in and the tackle loops around.  It challenges the awareness of the offensive line.  By this point of the season – with football’s two best teams left – it should be assumed that both offenses can handle the concept dependably.

But in New England the Patriots have been tinkering with this – combining it with blitzes, stunting with linebackers, employing the experience of their defenders to analyze and adjust.  The benefits could not have been predicted.

Kansas City was never able to solve the Patriot stunts.  The Rams fell into the same pattern.  Goff faced at least some pressure on 30 of his 41 pass attempts (73.2%).  According to the scoresheet, he was hit on 12 of those (with linebackers Kyle Van Noy and Dont’a Hightower each accounting for 3).  Including the sacks, Jared faced extreme pressure on 16 of his passes (39%).  Repeatedly – especially early in the game when the Patriots played more zone – this pressure averted what could have been disasters downfield.  On the 12 passes when Goff was being hit while throwing, he completed just 3 for 36 yards and his interception.  His rating on those plays was 4.86, and, including the sacks, the Rams gained a total of 5 yards on those 16 plays.

By contrast Brady (who was only blitzed 8.3% of the time) only saw that level of pressure on 8.3% of his attempts (3 of 36).

Stephon Gilmore (who mostly stayed with Brandin Cooks) and Jonathan Jones (who was impressive against Robert Woods) were principle heroes in this contest.  Jones has not been a name to conjure with for the most part this season, but over the last two games, Jonathan has met the challenges of Tyreek Hill and Robert Woods.  He was most impressive.

The Results

The results of this suffocating pass defense could hardly have been anticipated.  Goff never completed more than three consecutive pass attempts, and LA – failing on its first 8 third down attempts – ended up punting on its first 8 possessions.  The Rams accounted for a total of 82 yards in those first 8 drives, averaging 2.7 yards per play.

Los Angeles ended the day 3 for 13 on third down.  Goff dropped back to pass on 12 of the 13 third-downs.  He finished 3 of 10 with 2 sacks, being blitzed on 6 of the 12 plays.  All told, Los Angeles’ 13 third-down plays totaled 13 yards.  The answer throughout the game was relentless pressure.  New England had several defensive lineman that executed the stunts to perfection and applied frequent pressure.  Lawrence Guy, Adrian Clayborn and Trey Flowers all played very well.

But the difference really was the linebackers Van Noy and Hightower.  With the speed to loop from one side of the formation all the way to the other, and the instincts that guided their timing in and through the line, they were a complication that neither the Chiefs nor the Rams ever managed to solve.

Fourth Quarter Excitement

Los Angeles’ first play of the fourth quarter came with 14:47 left and the score tied at three.  To that point, Goff and the passing game had been dominated.  Jared was 9 of 21 (42.86%) for just 95 yards (4.52 per pass attempt) and 3 sacks for 29 yards of loss.  The vaunted LA passing attack was sitting at 66 total yards for the night.

The fourth quarter – in spite of the fact that the Rams would never score again – would be different.  Throwing 17 times in the fourth quarter alone, Jared completed more passes in that quarter (10) and for more yards (134) than in the entire game previous to that point.  On the receiving end, Brandin Cooks emerged, catching 5 passes for 88 yards.  With the big quarter, Cooks finished the game with impressive totals of 8 catches for 120 yards.  But the numbers looked better than they played for both.

Almost all of this damage came during Los Angeles’ last two possessions.  With the season winding down Jared completed 6 of his last 11 throws for 102 yards and 5 first downs.  Cooks was the target on 5 of those throws – finishing with 3 catches (all for first downs) and 64 of the 102 yards.

But.

While the first of those drives began promisingly enough, there was much more opportunity there than was realized.  And the Rams’ last drive of the season – even after I’ve watched it several times – remains a head scratcher.

That Puzzling Last Drive

OK, I grant from the beginning that at this point the Ram chances were very slim.  With 1:12 left, they were getting the ball on their own 25, down by 10 and with no time outs.  Their bad situation was immediately complicated by a holding penalty by Rob Havenstein (who was certainly not in consideration for Super Bowl MVP).

Back on his own 15 now, with 66 ticks left on the clock, Goff and the Ram offense would throw three consecutive short passes to the middle of the field, completing the first two.  By this time, the New England zones were quite soft, as they invited Los Angeles to throw all the short passes they wanted.

Woods caught the first one for 10 yards and was tackled in bounds.  Cooks turned a dump off into a 24-yard gain up the middle, but was also tackled in bounds to keep the clock running.  When the third straight short pass fell incomplete, it was something of a blessing for the Rams as the clock finally stopped – albeit with just 21 seconds left.  During all of these short attempts, the Rams neither sent anyone deep toward the end zone, nor did they send any receivers to the sidelines.  Everyone ran short sit-down routes designed to get them open against zones – and they did achieve that.  But they were long past the point in the game where getting open underneath the zone coverages would do them any good.

The next throw was deep-ish, Goff tossing a nice pass into a small window into the arms of Cooks for 21 yards (and 45 of Cooks’ yards would come on his two catches on this drive).  But again, with no time outs, this throw went over the middle.  Down two scores, Goff finally made it up to the line and spiked the ball with all of 8 seconds left in the season.

Again, the situation was difficult and victory unlikely however they went about this last drive.  But exactly what they thought they would accomplish with that play selection will remain one of the enduring mysteries of Super Bowl LIII.

Wither the Ram Running Game

To this point, we haven’t discussed the Ram running attack – mostly because there is little to discuss.  As pointed out earlier in this piece, it has been a long time since a running attack accounted for fewer yards in the Super Bowl than the Rams’ did.  Truthfully, it didn’t seem like the running game was even an important part of the game plan.  Kansas City had seemed uninterested in running against the Patriots two weeks before.  They ran just 12 times all game.  In the Super Bowl, the Rams followed suit.  They ran just 18 times all day – in spite of the fact that until that last drive they were never more than 7 points behind.  Fifty-five plays the Rams ran this in this game within one score of the Patriots.  They threw on 37 of them.  They ran 20 plays with the score tied.  They threw on 14 of them.  Los Angeles ran only 16 plays all evening in New England territory – throwing on 15 of them.

These are not the numbers of a team with a running mindset.

And when they did run, they seemed almost insistent that they were going to run behind right tackle Havenstein.  Of their 18 running plays, 8 went over right tackle.  One of them developed into Los Angeles’ longest run of the day – through no success of Havenstein’s.  At the edge, he was stuffed by Flowers, but Gurley cut the run back the other way for 16 yards.  The other 7 runs behind Havenstein gained just 18 yards.

In-Offensive Lines

Heroes in the Divisional Round win against Dallas, when they racked up 273 rushing yards, the Los Angeles offensive line – all of them – came up short in the Super Bowl.  They struggled in pass protection all night and failed to generate any sustained semblance of movement for the running game.  In a game that was hard fought and tight throughout, the Rams’ fatal flaw was the offensive line that had been their backbone throughout their breakthrough season.

But of all the struggling afternoons, no one’s was longer than right tackle Rob Havenstein’s.  Especially the fourth quarter.

Rams’ first drive of the fourth quarter.  It is second-and-11 from the LA 22, game tied at 3 with 12:23 left.  Deep routes from Woods and Cooks cleared the right flat for Gerald Everett.  But Goff had no time to get the ball there as he was sandwiched between Flowers (who had slipped past Austin Blythe) and infrequently used defensive end John Simon, who beat Havenstein around the edge.  The throw fell incomplete.

Now facing third-and-11, the Rams profited from a defensive holding call and a 16-yard pass to Cooks – in spite of the fact that this time it was Guy who was beating Havenstein on the pass rush.

A 13-yard run from Gurley was then erased by a holding penalty – not Havenstein this time but center John Sullivan, setting up a first-and-20 from the LA 33.

With the Patriots in zone this time, Woods found an open spot deep in the middle of the coverage that would probably have achieved them the first down.  But Goff had no chance on this one, either.  This time it was Flowers turn to blow through Havenstein, who barely touched him.  Flowers flushed Jared immediately out of the pocket and into the arms of Jonathan Jones for a two-yard loss.

Goff was able to get the next throw off – incomplete on a deep route to Cooks.  There was pressure, though, from Hightower working, again,  around Havenstein.

Facing third-and-22, LA tried a running play.  This time it was Flowers, again, shooting past Havenstein to make the play in the backfield.  The Rams punted on the next play.

While this drive – in which he was beaten on five consecutive plays – marked the low spot, Rob’s day was generally underwhelming.  A defensive tackle named Deatrich Wise Jr – who didn’t play in the Championship Game against KC, and was only on the field for 31 snaps in this one – still led New England in tackles against the run with 5 (and after gains of only 18 yards).  Most of this success came at Havenstein’s expense.

This will not be a film Rob will look forward to reviewing.

The No Fly Zone

Of all the interesting statistical tidbits that emerged from this contest, maybe the most illuminating concerned the fifty-yard-line.  In this defensively dominated game, both offenses mostly had their way when they were operating in their own territory.

While on his side of the field, Brady completed 17 of 23 passes (73.91%) for 213 yards (9.26 per attempted pass and 12.53 per completed pass) for a 102.26 rating.  The Patriots ran 44 plays on their side of the field, gaining 335 yards with those plays (7.6 per) and earning 15 first downs.

Goff, for his part, was also better in his own end where he completed 14 of 25 (56%) for 181 yards (7.24 per attempt and 12.93 per completion).  His rating in his own end was 78.92, and the Rams gained 238 yards on their 44 plays in their own territory (5.4 per) with 11 first downs.

But as soon as each offense crossed the fifty, the defenses took over.

Brady was 4 for 12 (33.33%) for 49 yards (4.08 per attempt) and his interception in Ram territory (12.15 rating).  His Patriots managed 72 yards and 3 first downs in their 24 plays in Ram territory (3.0 per).

Goff was 5 of 13 (38.46%) for 48 yards (3.69 per attempt) and his interception (and two sacks) – good for a 17.47 rating.  With LA running just once on the New England side of the fifty, the Rams finished with 22 yards and 2 first downs to show for their 16 plays in opposition territory – 1.4 yards per play.

Combined the two star quarterbacks finished 9 for 25 (36%) for 97 yards (3.88 per pass attempt) with 2 interceptions and 3 sacks (a 14.92 rating) on the other side of the fifty.  The two teams ran a total of 40 plays in each other’s territory, finishing with just 94 yards (2.4 per play) and 5 first downs.

Of New England’s 154 rushing yards, 122 came on their side of the field.  All of Edelman’s passing yards, and 117 of Cooks’ 120 came on their own respective sides of the field.  The two teams combined for 27 plays that went for at least ten yards.  Only three of them came on the far side of the fifty.  The Rams had two of the three – 18 and 17 yard passes to Robert Woods when they were just barely over the fifty.

New England dialed up only one impact play in opposing territory – that last pass to Gronkowski.

That play to the Ram 2-yard line, set up Sony Michel’s touchdown run.  The game’s only touchdown thus came on the only red zone play from either team on an evening when neither team would start a drive in the other’s territory, and – thanks to superior punting from Johnny Hekker and Ryan Allen – each team started three drives inside its own ten-yard line.

That is how you get a 13-3 game.

In one of the most impressive post-season performances in memory, the Patriots played the league’s top two scoring offenses in consecutive contests. The Rams and Chiefs combined for 107 offensive snaps.  They never took one snap with a lead in either game.

The Plays that Weren’t Made

For all of that, though – for as well and as passionately as the Patriots played on defense – the entire contest could easily have gone in the other direction.  As always in tight contests like this, it comes down to a few moments – a handful of plays made and not made.  Most of these swirl around former Patriot Brandin Cooks, whose 120 receiving yards will be forever overshadowed by the yards he didn’t get.

There was 3:42 left in the third.  New England was clinging to a 3-0 lead, but the Rams were sitting on the Patriot 29-yard line.  New England was in cover four – a defense they don’t run very often, and don’t execute with much confidence.

Robert Woods settled into a pocket in the zone over the deep middle, drawing the complete attention of both of the middle zone defenders, Jones and Devin McCourty – so much so that Jones paid no heed at all to Cooks as he sped up the middle into the end zone unattended.  Just before he reached the end line, with no one else around him, he turned and looked for the ball.  Goff delivered a strike for what might have been a game-changing touchdown.  But at the very last second, Jason McCourty – whose assignment had been the deep right sideline – came racing from the far side of the field to deflect the pass, just as it was about to nestle in Brandin’s hands.

That enormous play fended off disaster and kept the Rams at bay until that penultimate – and game deciding – fourth quarter drive.  Here, down 10-3, they faced third-and-nine on their own 45 with 5:29 left.  The Rams will spend the off-season wishing they could have back any of these next four plays.

Goff converted the first down with an 11-yard toss over the middle to Josh Reynolds.  Effective, yes.  But this was one of the few plays in which Jared wasn’t under immediate pressure. And there were opportunities upfield.  Cooks had beaten Gilmore off the line and had a step on Stephon up the left sideline.  Perhaps even more open was Woods, who had split his doubleteam up the middle.  Either of those were big plays (and maybe touchdowns) waiting to happen.

Goff completes his next pass as well – this time 17 yards to Woods on the right sideline.  But again, the greater opportunity was missed as Reynolds had blown past Jason McCourty up the right sideline.  The Rams have moved to first-and-ten on the Patriot 27.  But with the rare gift of time in the pocket, the opportunities had been so much better.

Having passed up the deep option the last two plays, Goff wouldn’t let that happen a third time.  Cooks ran a go up the right sideline, separating just enough from Gilmore.  At the goal line, the football, Cooks and Gilmore all arrived at about the same time.  The throw was perfect.  Cooks had it briefly in his right hand.  But Gilmore had just enough hold of his left hand that he couldn’t bring it up to complete the catch.  A second later the ball was rolling harmlessly in the end zone.

Interference?  I would say yes.  Gilmore clearly held down Cooks’ arm and by the accepted understanding of pass interference that would qualify.  Should it have been first and goal?  Probably.  But before any Ram fans get too worked up, let me hasten to point out that this missed pass interference call was nothing in comparison to the flagrantly missed pass interference that put the Rams in the Super Bowl in the first place.

Karma, I suppose.

Now it’s second-and-ten.  For three straight plays, his beleaguered offensive line had bought Jared enough time to read the defense and make a throw.  They would not be able to provide him a fourth.

The Patriot blitz overloaded the offensive right side, with Hightower rushing to Havenstein’s outside shoulder, and Wise clubbing Blythe to the inside. Into the gap created by those two rushes, NE sent two defensive backs. Gurley properly took the inside rusher (Devin McCourty), but there was no one to account for Duron Harmon, who came free.

Under serious pressure Goff heaved the pass up the right sideline. With six rushing, New England’s defensive backs played deep, and Gilmore – staying on top of Cooks’ vertical – was waiting for the throw.

This was pretty much the dagger.  New England’s running game then keyed the drive to the field goal that gave us the final score.

Rare Symmetry

That interception was part of an uncommon symmetry that began and ended this contest.  After this interception, the Rams’ final drive of the season ended with a missed a field goal.  The Patriots had begun the game with an interception and a missed field goal on their first two possessions.  In a sense, the season itself was somewhat symmetrical as well.  Not quite five months earlier, the Falcons and Eagles had begun the season with what was expected to be a shootout.  It wasn’t, with Philadelphia escaping with an 18-12 win.  That was on a Thursday.  The next Sunday Patrick Mahomes would light up the Chargers and begin the magic carpet ride that was the 2018 season.

With this re-assertion by two determined defenses lingering now in our memories for the next seven months, it leaves us with questions to ponder as we await the 2019 season.  Does this game signal a turnaround for defenses?  Will there be concepts that other defensive coordinators will steal from these two teams that will cause scoring to drop next year?  During the season, a few teams turned to run-first philosophies.  Most of these of necessity, but at least one of them seemed to do it from choice.  Will Neanderthal football continue its resurgence?  Or was this just a non-passing fancy?  And what will be the result of the blown call that ended the season for New Orleans?  Will the NFL react to that? And how?

Every year, now, I find that instead of being the final answer, the Super Bowl leaves more questions to answer for the next year.  Enough to stew on over the next seven months.

Patriots Advance on a Head and a Hand

Heads is the call.

After 60 minutes, 128 combined plays, 739 combined yards, 8 combined touchdowns and 62 combined points, it came to this.  A historic night of football – one that had begun in controversy in New Orleans and continued in the bracing 19-degree chill of Kansas City (that, at least, was the temperature at the beginning of the game) – came finally to New England’s Matt Slater standing next to referee Clete Blakeman calling the overtime coin toss.

Heads.

It was a head, and that set in motion the series of events that would decide the NFL’s second overtime Championship Game of the day. 

The NFL’s requirement for getting both teams at least one overtime possession is pretty soft.  All the Chiefs needed to do to put the ball back in the hands of Patrick Mahomes was keep New England out of the end zone.  Keeping offenses out of the end zone, however, had become a lost art in this game.  The Patriots had taken each of their last two possessions 60 yards for touchdowns.  The Chiefs had scored on all of their last three drives – two touchdowns and a field goal.  Even that is deceptive, though.  Kansas City was only held to a field goal on its last possession because they began that drive on their own 31-yard line with just 39 seconds left and needing the field goal to tie.

As the coin went up in the air, there was a strong suspicion that a trip to Super Bowl LIII hung suspended with it.  The coin landed in New England’s favor, and the Patriots did not waste the opportunity.  Thirteen plays and 4:52 later, on the Chiefs’ 2-yard line, tight end Rob Gronkowski – lined tight to the left of the formation – pushed KC linebacker Breeland Speaks further out to the left and back towards the end zone.  At the same time, tackle Trent Brown (lined up next to Gronkowski) drove defensive tackle Justin Hamilton the other way – back into the line of scrimmage.  Through the opening produced by those two blocks came Patriot fullback James Develin.  He collided with – and pushed back – linebacker Reggie Ragland.

All this set the stage for Rex Burkhead, who plowed into the void, bowling through the attempted arm tackles of Ragland and Speaks to end the 37-31 Patriot victory (gamebook) (summary), and send New England back to the big stage for the third consecutive season.

The Running Patriots

The yards were the final two of an impressive 176 rushing yards the New England hung on the KC defense on the last of 48 soul-crushing runs – most of them into the middle of that over-extended defense.  The Patriots finished with touchdowns on 3 of their last 6 rushing attempts, and have now rushed for four touchdowns in each of their playoff games so far – this after rushing for 18 touchdowns through 16 regular season games.

It is somewhat characteristic of Bill Belichick that it would be Burkhead at the end.  On an evening when running back Sony Michel set the tone early and often – on his way 113 rushing yards of his own and two touchdowns – Belichick and offensive coordinator Josh McDaniels switched to Burkhead with about six minutes left in regulation.  Rex isn’t quite the battering ram that LeGarrette Blount had been in seasons past – but he is stylistically similar. Rex is a no-nonsense, here-I-come kind of runner.  Perhaps, the Patriot brain trust wanted to employ a slightly more physical runner against the tiring KC defense.

Whatever the cogitations, it was Burkhead carrying the ball on 8 of New England’s last 9 rushing plays, including the dive that sent New England on and sent Kansas City home.

Mahomes Rises to the Moment

While the final taste is bitter for the Chiefs, it is nonetheless impressive that they pushed the game that far.  Mahomes and Kansas City ended the first quarter with minus 11 offensive yards, as Pat was 0-for-2 passing with a sack.  The Chiefs would be held to no points and just 32 offensive yards throughout the first half – a half in which Mahomes would throw just 8 passes while being sacked 3 times.

Had you watched only the first half, you would have left with the impression that this young Chiefs team was badly outclassed by the superior Patriots.  Even through three quarters, with New England holding a comfortable 17-7 lead, you might have considered the contest decided.

But back came the Chiefs, scoring 24 fourth-quarter points to force a tie game, with Patrick Mahomes throwing for 110 yards and 2 touchdowns in the fourth quarter alone.  After his unexceptional first half, the Chiefs’ first year starter at quarterback completed 12 of his 23 second half passes for 230 yards and 3 touchdowns.  Nine of those 12 completions went for first downs, and his passer rating for the half was a satisfying 126.81.

With his primary targets (Tyreek Hill and Travis Kelce) getting heightened attention from the New England defense, Mahomes found success throwing the ball to a couple of less attended receivers.  “Other” receiver Sammy Watkins caught 3 passes in the second half for 102 yards, and running back Damien Williams caught 5 for 66 more yards and 2 touchdowns.

Along the way, though, this offensive performance by Kansas City was stylistically very different than most of their regular season games.

The Chiefs Try to Adjust

First of all, Kansas City abandoned their running game very early.  The ground attack whose 180 yards was very instrumental in dismissing Indianapolis the week before was a non-factor.  KC ran the ball only 12 times (and one of those was a scramble from Mahomes) for just 41 yards.  It is not at all clear that they ever intended to run the ball, and certainly after New England showed some early offensive success, the Chiefs were more than willing to put the running game away.

In the aftermath of that very entertaining 54-51 shootout that Kansas City had earlier this year against the Rams, I questioned both teams’ will to run the ball.  I think that came into play here.  The Chiefs were at home, playing against the twenty-second ranked pass defense (by yards) with a trip to the Super Bowl on the line.  They didn’t want to get there running the ball.  They intended all along to pass.

In the end, KC threw the ball on 25 of their 29 first-down plays.

That suited New England just fine.  They would rather not have to concern themselves with the run.  Defending Kansas City’s passing attack was challenge enough.  Throughout the season, Mahomes had led a high-percentage passing attack.  With most teams backing off Hill – and sending a lot of defenders deep to watch him – and with Kelce usually dominant over the middle against both zone and man coverages – Patrick finished his regular season completing 66% of his passing attempts.  He was very near that in his first-ever playoff game against Indy (65.9% on 27-of-41 passing).

But now, New England will change the dynamic.  They tightened up the coverage and emphasized pressure.  They diligently double-covered Hill, and pressed Kelce off the line.  Tight press coverage has its advantages.  It gives the defending team an opportunity to challenge every pass – making it more difficult for the offense to sustain drives.  It is also a precarious decision, as press man coverage also opens the door to potential big plays down the field.

That is precisely what the second half of this game evolved into.  In a sense Belichick and McDaniels engaged in a high-stakes game of Russian roulette with Mahomes and the KC passing attack.

Patrick’s 12 completions in 23 throws is only 52.2%.  But half of those completions gained more than 20 yards (those 6 completions, in fact, totaled 196 yards) – including all of his last 4 completions of the season (which totaled 109 yards).  Of Mahomes’ 31 pass attempts, 9 were up the field at least 20 yards from the line of scrimmage.  He completed 4 of the 9 for 144 yards.

As the Chiefs advanced the ball out of their own territory, the downfield game became even more dangerous.  Between the 50-yard line and the red zone, Mahomes was only 4-for-8.  But all four completions covered at least 23 yards – totaling 121 yards.  In total, when starting on the New England side of the field, Mahomes was 6-for-11 for 134 yards, with all 6 completions going for first downs – including 3 touchdowns.  His passer rating in Patriot territory was an outstanding 137.88.

Defending Patrick

Man? Or Zone?

That’s always the question as a defense prepares a plan for an opposing passing game.  While there are no absolutes, a zone defense will provide more of a mental challenge to a quarterback, while man defenses will tend to challenge his physical abilities.  For that reason, I expected to see New England challenge Kansas City’s first year starter with mostly zone coverages.  They didn’t – although perhaps they should.

Mahomes saw no zone coverages at all in the first half of the game, and only 8 zone coverages in the entire game (22.9% of his drop-backs).  It’s a small sample size, but Pat didn’t respond very well to them, completing just 2 of 7 passes for 6 yards (and being sacked once).  Beyond just the numbers, he seemed hesitant.  Two of the throws he just heaved out of bounds.  Three of the others were just dump offs.  Only two of the attempted passes went beyond ten yards (one toward Kelce and one towards Williams) and both fell incomplete.

Hard to say how it would have played out if New England had kept mixing in zone coverages.

But the game plan against Mahomes and KC was more basic.  Deny Tyreek Hill.  To that end, Hill (and Kelce and Mahomes) saw a steady diet of man coverage.  In Hill’s case, it was an almost constant double-team, with Jonathan Jones pressing Tyreek at the line, and safety Devin McCourty staying over the top on any deep route.  With no safety help, Kelce was mostly given over to the care of a young defensive back named J.C. Jackson.

That part of the plan went pretty well.  Hill only beat the double-coverage once – his 42-yard reception being his only catch of the night, and Kelce finished the game with just 3 catches for 23 yards, although Jackson did commit a fairly critical pass interference penalty against him.

For the game, Mahomes saw some form of man coverage on 26 of his 35 drop-backs (and this doesn’t even count one play of prevent-man that New England ran against him late in the fourth quarter).  Mahomes met the challenge admirably – even without much participation from his two leading receivers.  Against the man schemes of the Patriots, Pat completed 13 of 23 passes (again, just 56.52%), but for 268 yards and all 3 of his touchdowns.  Ten of those 13 completions gained first downs, and his passer rating against these man coverages was a superior 137.32.

If the Patriots were intent on taking away Hill and Kelce, Mahomes made them pay with Watkins and Williams.  Sammy Watkins was 0-for-1 working against zone defenses, but he damaged the Patriots’ compromised man coverages to the tune of 4 receptions for 114 yards.  Williams results were similar – he was 1-2 for 4 yards against zone, but 4-for-6 for 62 yards against man concepts – but here a different weakness was exploited.

Super Check-Down.

The challenge against Watson was defending the vertical without safety help.  With Williams the problem was all the room allowed underneath.  All 4 of the passes completed to him were less than five-yards from the line of scrimmage, but he broke two of them for long gains (33 yards and a 23-yard touchdown on a screen pass).  His day might have been even more electric, as he was open up field on all three of the other throws sent his way.  In what was an otherwise sterling effort, those three passes (all overthrows) might be the only ones Patrick might wish to have back.

Pressing Pat

In as much as blitzing Mahomes goes, the Patriots were cautious.  Blitzing is one of those elements that will sometimes play to the strength of athletic quarterbacks.  They blitzed him only 10 times – but were very effective when they did.  Three of the 10 blitzes resulted in sacks, and Mahomes managed completions on only 2 of the 7 passes that he managed to get off against the Patriot blitzes (granted, both completions were chunk plays, totaling 69 yards).

Even without directly blitzing, the Patriots were still able to apply substantial pressure.  They were not always close enough to hit him as he threw – although they did manage that level of pressure on 13 of his drop-backs – but they were almost always able to provide enough pressure to keep him uncomfortable.  On 60% of Mahomes’ pass attempts (21 of his 35) there was at the very least an onrushing defender or a hand grasping for him, or some presence near enough to force the pass to come out sooner – or at a different angle – than intended.  For the most part, this pressure also achieved its secondary objective of keeping Patrick in the pocket.

The Patriots are not a team with a dominant pass rusher.  They, in fact, finished the regular season ranked thirtieth in sacks (with just 30) and thirty-first in percentage of times sacking the quarterback (Patriot opponents only went down on 4.7% of their pass attempts against New England).

The Patriots have picked up this area of their game now that the playoffs are upon us.  Against the Chargers, they sacked Philip Rivers only twice, but showed consistent pressure.  They sacked Mahomes 4 times in this game, with the pressure coming from several different defenders through a variety of line stunts – that Kansas City had repeated difficulty picking up – and disguised rushes from the secondary.  In this mix, defenders like Don’t’a Hightower, Adrian Clayborn and Trey Flowers were consistently in Mahomes’ face.

Most visible of all, though, was linebacker Kyle Van Noy.  Van Noy accounted for 2 of the 4 sacks and several other pressures.  In addition, he made 4 other tackles against the passing game, and 2 of the 11 tackles made against the KC running game.

Beyond the numbers, though, Van Noy seemed to be a constant presence on the field.  There were times during the game that you might have thought there were three guys out there wearing Kyle’s jersey.

More Mahomes

Through all of this, young Patrick kept bouncing back.  

At various times, New England threatened to turn the contest into a rout.  They lead by 14 at the half, and spent a good chunk of the game ahead by at least ten points.

At these moments, Mahomes played some of his best football as he kept bringing the Chiefs back.  Taking the field to begin three different drives with deficits of at least 10 points, Mahomes led his team to touchdowns on two of them.  The only time he failed was at the very end of the first half – down 14-0 – KC began with the ball on its own 42 with 27 seconds left.  That one-play drive resulted in a sack and a 15-yard loss, after which the Chiefs quietly retired to their locker room.

Through those other two critical drives, Patrick was 7 for 9 for 119 yards and 2 touchdowns.

Also, while one of the Patriot focuses was keeping Mahomes in the pocket, that kind of thing is easier said than done.  While they were mostly successful – and they did hold him in the pocket on 26 of his 35 attempts despite nearly constant pressure – they couldn’t always contain him.  And when Mahomes got outside of the pocket, he continued to demonstrate why he is one of the most dangerous quarterbacks on the perimeter.

I do, first, want to draw a distinction between Mahomes outside the pocket and under control, and Mahomes running for his life and just flinging the ball away.  The later dynamic did happen a couple of times.

But on the 7 plays where Patrick rolled out under his own control, he completed 6 of the 7 passes for 149 yards and 2 touchdowns.  It was on these plays that Watkins was at his most dangerous as well.  Three of the 4 completions and 104 of the 114 yards that Watkins totaled during the game came with Mahomes wandering from the pocket.

It was a dangerous, dangerous quarterback that watched from the sidelines as New England ended the game.  Sometimes, in this crazy game, it’s possible to be too dangerous.  It could, perhaps, be argued that on this evening Kansas City may have been too explosive.

Too Explosive?

If it’s true that New England’s use of man coverage provided opportunities for big plays, it is also true that those big plays minimized the time that Kansas City’s offense had on the field.  Kansas City hurt New England with 4 touchdown drives on their way to their 31 points.  But – because they were big-play dependent – those 4 touchdown drives consumed a total of 7 minutes and 54 seconds.  The Patriots opened the game with a touchdown drive that – by itself – was longer (8:05) than all of KC’s touchdown drives added together.

By the time Burkhead’s plunge ended the affair, the KC defense had been on the field – absorbing the relentless pounding of the Patriot running game – for an almost incomprehensible 94 plays and 43 minutes and 59 seconds.

This, too, was part of the Patriot game plan.  The most secure way to keep Mahomes from beating you is by keeping him on the sidelines.

This part of the game plan fed off the victory the week before, and begins to form a trend that the Rams should at least be concerned about.

Fast Starting Patriots

Against the Chargers, New England began the game with a withering 14-play, 83-yard touchdown drive that consumed the first 7:11 of that contest.  They bettered that drive with their opener against the Chiefs with a 15-play, 80-yard, 8:05 drive.  So, combined, their opening drives in their two playoff games have consumed 15 minutes and 16 seconds of playing time, while covering 163 yards on 28 plays.

In addition, the Patriots closed out the first half against LA with a 35-7 lead, 20:11 of ball control and a 347-128 yardage advantage.  The halftime numbers against KC were very similar.  Even though the lead was only 14-0, the time of possession sat at 21:07 and the yardage differential favored New England 245-32.  Combining the first halves of the Patriots two playoff games, New England has out-scored their two opponents 49-7.  They have outgained them 592 yards to 160, and have held the ball for 41 minutes and 18 seconds.

New England has opened both of these games on fire, and have put their opponents on their heels from the very beginning.  In this game, the Kansas City offense trailed on every single snap they took.

Tony Romo – calling both of these games for CBS – referenced New England’s supposed under-dog status as a driving force.  I suspect some of that is true.  After last year’s Super Bowl, I made note of the fact that the Patriots had made a habit of digging themselves early holes in their playoff games.  I think the realization that they have been less than emotional in these contests in recent years – amplified by the sting of last year’s bitter Super Bowl loss has fueled this Patriot resurgence.

If you asked them, I would bet that every single one of them remembers clearly the feeling walking off the field after last year’s big game.

Patriot Imperatives

Nobody understands or plays the game of complimentary football better than New England.  Much of their emphasis on the running game had as its underlying purpose the controlling of the clock and keeping Mahomes a spectator.  On their 43 first down plays, the Patriots ran 28 times.  Eleven of those 43 first down plays earned the necessary 10 yards to gain another first down – 5 of those coming from the running game and 6 from passes.

On their way to 36 first downs, New England failed to manage at least one first down only twice in their 12 drives.  One of those was a damaging fourth quarter drive when a pass bounced off the fingers of Julian Edelman for an interception.  The other was the kneeldown by Brady that ended regulation.

Inside Brady’s Day

All of this provides context for what appears, on one level, to be one of Tom Brady’s least productive playoff outings.  He did throw for 348 yards, but that was after 30 completions on 46 attempts.  With his one touchdown pass off-set by two interceptions thrown, his passer rating was a modest 77.08 (just 67.30 in the second half).  Challenged repeatedly with man coverage – and Brady saw man coverage on 76.1% of his attempts (35 of 46), he was consistently unable to convert those opportunities into big plays – his 22 completions in those opportunities accounting for just 235 yards (10.68 per).

Noticeably absent in these moments was tight end Rob Gronkowski.  Covered almost always by safeties Daniel Sorensen or Eric Berry, Rob was only targeted 7 times in man coverage, catching just 2 of the throws (note, this is against man coverage when KC was not blitzing.  Brady completed two huge passes to Rob when they caught the Chiefs in blitzes).

Most of this had little to do with any diminishment on the part of Brady – or even with him having a bad game.  In this particular matchup, one of the Patriot imperatives was no sacks – a point I’ll enlarge upon later.  While Kansas City’s defense has statistically underperformed in most categories this season, their one great strength was their pass rush.  Their 52 quarterback sacks led the league, and their 7.6% ratio of dropping opposing passers was football’s eighth-best figure.

Playing on the Chiefs home field, in front of their raucous crowd, the Patriots came to the determination that the one sure way that they could lose control of the game was to put themselves in long-yardage situations and let the Chiefs’ destructive pass rush pin back its ears and come after them.

There were at least a half dozen moments in the game where Brady would have had an up-the-field opportunity had he held onto the ball for just another second or two.  But that second or two – in this particular game against this particular opponent in this particular venue – proved to be an unacceptable risk.

Repeatedly in this game, Brady dumped off to the first open receiver to consistently keep himself and his team out of deeper trouble.  But don’t for one moment misunderstand.  When the play was there to be made, Brady made it.  And most of the time on the receiving end was one of football’s most underappreciated receivers. 

Indomitable Julian

There is 1:57 left in the season.  The Patriots, on their own 35-yard line, now trail 28-24.  About 15 yards downfield, Julian Edelman breaks over the middle – Kyle Fuller, closing fast, narrowing the window.  The throw leads Julian away from Fuller, and is just a tad high – high enough to make sure that only Edelman can catch it.  With Jordan Lucas descending from his safety position to make the play, Edelman stretches for the ball.  He pulls it in safely, and turns up field for about five more yards before absorbing the hit.

Another play in the life of Julian Edelman.

Edelman doesn’t make many lists of the top ten receivers.  He is not among the biggest or the fastest.  But I submit that Julian Edelman is among the toughest receivers in the NFL, with his mental toughness the equal of his physical toughness.  In fact, a great deal of the success that New England has had over the years, I believe, traces back to the mental toughness of role players like Edelman.  It is at the root, if you will, of the Belichick mantra “Do your job.”

Here with the season on the line Edelman runs a very precise route, and makes a very tough catch in a high-pressure situation.  That is his job.

And his arena is what I call the intermediate middle.  This is that area of the field between the numbers at least ten yards from scrimmage but less than twenty yards up field.  It’s a high-traffic area, where receivers are subject to the ministrations of a wide variety of safeties and other defensive backs.

It’s an area of the field where only the tough survive, and where Edelman dominates.  In this contest, in this intermediate middle section of the field, Brady and Edelman were 5-for-5 for 88 yards.  A zone can sometimes interfere with these routes, but the very quick Edelman is usually tough to deal with on a man-to-man basis.  In this game, Julian answered man coverage by catching 5 of 6 for 63 yards.

Patriot Imperatives, Revisited

In the avalanche of numbers, plays and observations that float in the wake of a game like this, there is one play and one meaning that keeps resurfacing.  The play is as innocuous as can be imagined, but what underpins that play is as revealing as any other moment in this game.

There are six seconds left in regulation.  Kansas City has just tied the game at 31.  Brady has the ball at his own 19-yard line.  He takes the snap and kneels.  And the game goes to overtime.

This is, of course, no big deal.  Most games end with a kneel down by one side or another.  Until you realize this.  New England ran 94 offensive plays in that long and historic evening.  This was the only one that lost yardage.

The Patriots ran the ball 47 other times.  Each and every time the runner made it at least back to the line of scrimmage.  (This might be one reason they switched to Burkhead in the fourth.)  Brady dropped to pass 46 times.  He wasn’t sacked in any of them – sometimes getting rid of the ball early before any hint of pressure could arrive.

With about 5:30 left in the third, wide receiver Phillip Dorsett is called for an offensive pass interference penalty.  It changes what would have been a third-and-four to a second-and-19.  Brady drops a screen pass off to Chris Hogan for 2 yards and then hands the ball of to James White for a couple more before they kick the field goal.

On this long and rewarding night, these were the only two plays the Patriots faced on any down the entire game that they needed more than ten yards for the first down.

One of the ramifications of this played out on third down.  New England converted 13 of 19 third downs.  Brady was 9 of 11 on third down (81.82%), for 119 yards, with all 9 completions going for first downs.  These were not all necessarily short-yardage third downs, either.  In fact, Tom was 6-6 for 84 yards (and 6 first downs) when faced with third-and-seven or longer.  But this was made possible by the fact that – with the exception of one drive – the Patriots never put themselves in a position where the KC pass rush could have at them.

(A footnote here.  On the game-winning, overtime drive, Brady faced and converted three third-and-ten’s.  Two of them went to Edelman in that intermediate middle.  The other was to Gronkowski, also in the middle but more underneath.)

Often I think we get caught up in game plans and designs.  While these are no doubt important, with the great teams I believe it frequently comes down to executing simple imperatives – with an imperative being an over-arching objective that may be of more importance than the actual game plan.

I actually think this is a constant of the Patriot approach.  They identify a few critical, necessary objectives, and then doggedly and consistently execute them.

Here, one of the Patriot imperatives was no negative plays.  At all costs, they wanted to keep themselves out of trouble by the Kansas City pass rush.  No negative plays is an easy thing to say. It’s the execution that’s the key.

A Final Moment to Ponder

And yet, for as well conceived and executed as the Patriot game-plan (and imperatives) were, they barely escaped to play another day.

For fans of the Chiefs, the long off-season might be filled with nightmares of a coin showing its head.  As damaging as that toss of the coin was, Chief fans might also have nightmares of a hand.

Dee Ford’s hand.

With 1:01 left in regulation, and with the Chiefs still ahead 28-24, Brady faced a third-and-ten from the KC 34 yard line.  But this time, his third down pass was intercepted by Charvarius Ward, and suddenly Kansas City had the ball and the lead, just 54 seconds away from Super Bowl LIII.

The euphoria was extremely short-lived.  There was a penalty.  Offsides – Dee Ford.  And there on the replay, plain as day, Dee’s hand completely across the line of scrimmage.

With the interception wiped out, it was only a matter of when.  Two plays later Burkhead scored the first of his two touchdowns, and the back-and-forth would continue.  Many Chief fans, I believe, knew then that this one was over

Kansas City committed only four penalties in the game for just 28 yards – and none in the first half.  That one will burn in the memory for a long time.

Up Next, Super Bowl LIII

With that, the stage is set for Super Bowl LIII (53, for those not into Roman numerals).  I’m afraid that I haven’t followed all the story lines, or any of the media madness which is attendant on this event, but mention must certainly have been made of Super Bowl XXXVI (36).  That was the first Super Bowl matchup between the Rams (then living in St Louis) and the Patriots – not yet a legendary franchise. 

Back then, St Louis was the established team – having won Super Bowl XXXIV (34).  They featured, arguably, the most renowned quarterback of that time – Kurt Warner, who led what was called the greatest show on turf.  The Patriots were the upstarts.  They had been 5-11 the year before, but were suddenly rising under a young first-year starter at quarterback named Brady.

The Patriots even advanced in the playoffs that year, like the Rams did this year, with help from a controversial game – you must remember the tuck rule game.  That was a Divisional Round game, and not a Championship Game – but the parallels are certainly there.  It would give a sense of coming full circle is the Rams and Jared Goff can do to New England what the Patriots did to them 17 years ago (has it really been 17 years)?

That will not be an impossible achievement.  The now-Los Angeles Rams present a significant challenge.  Again, their offense finished second in the league both in yards and in scoring.  If they are not quite as explosive as the Kansas City team New England just vanquished (KC finished first in both those categories), they are close (and certainly more balanced than the Chiefs).

I am also starting to believe in the LA defense.  I suspect that New England will have difficulty establishing that running game that has been so much a part of their first two playoff wins (they ran for 155 yards in their Divisional win against the Chargers).  In all honesty, I wasn’t overly impressed with the offensive line in this win – the 176 rushing yards notwithstanding.  It was more of a grinding effort than a dominant one, as NE averaged just 3.7 yards on their 48 rushes.

Of those 48 running plays, only 6 gained at least 10 yards.  Four of those came in the fourth quarter or overtime as exhaustion began to set in – and two of those took advantage of defensive lines that were over shifted, inviting New England to run to the under shifted side. 

On New England’s longest run of the day (a 14-yarder by Burkhead with 6:05 left in the fourth) the Chiefs only had two defensive linemen on the field. Xavier Williams lined up over the left shoulder of center David Andrews, and Allen Bailey played the three-technique tackle position in between right guard Shaq Mason and right tackle Marcus Cannon.  On the offensive left side, there was almost no one.  From Williams to the sideline, Kansas City defended with only rush-linebacker Ford – split quite wide to the outside – and safety Sorensen standing five yards off the line.

As Brady audibled to the weak-side run, Andrews held up Williams and left tackle Trent Brown pushed Ford further wide.  Left guard Joe Thuney had responsibility for Sorensen – who he did take care of, but had to run almost five yards downfield to get to him.  The Chiefs did this several times – creating a natural bubble that New England took advantage of.

The way Aaron Donald and Ndamukong Suh are playing, I believe New England will be hard pressed to establish a running game.

The passing situation is different.

For one thing, over their last two games, the Ram defense hasn’t had to deal with a tight end who is a threat.  Dallas was without their top receiving tight end (Geoff Swaim) and ended up throwing to Blake Jarwin and Dalton SchultzBen Watson – New Orleans’ best tight end – missed the Championship Game, and number two receiving threat from that position – Josh Hill – left after just nine plays with a concussion.  So the Rams will go from defending Blake Jarwin and Garrett Griffin to contending with Gronkowski.  Should be a stiffer test.

Secondly, while Aqib Talib played an outstanding game against Michael Thomas, I was still not all that impressed with the other corner, Marcus Peters.  He is still a weak link I expect Belichick to expose.

Even beyond the matchups, though, I think the Rams’ toughest challenge will be the endurance test.  Two Super Bowls ago, the Patriots wore down the Atlanta Falcons.  Two Sundays ago they wore down the Kansas City Chiefs (albeit it took them almost 65 minutes of football to do so).

While Donald and Suh are forces on that defensive line, it is also true that they rarely come off the field.  Will they in particular, and the Rams in general, have the stamina to stay with the Patriots for the full four (or perhaps five) quarters?

This New England outfit will be tough to deal with.  They have fought a long, hard year to get back here and the bitterness of the loss to Philadelphia is palpable around the organization.

My council to the Rams is, if you win the toss, take the ball.  Give yourselves the chance to hit the ground running.

Final Notes

First, to all those Cowboy fans who kept swearing to me that Tony Romo would make it to the Super Bowl, Sunday afternoon will prove you finally correct.  He will be there – in the broadcast booth sitting next to Jim Nance and predicting – with uncanny accuracy – what the offenses will do next.

Finally, Super Bowls past have sometimes been anti-climactic, with the game frequently falling short of the hype.  This matchup could produce one of the more exciting games.  But, for this game to top the Championship Games that have led up to this moment, well, it’s going to have to be some game.

Some game, indeed.