This Would Have Been the Day

Late in their Week Six loss to Arizona, Cleveland lost their starting quarterback, Baker Mayfield, to a significant injury to his non-throwing shoulder.  With a quick turnaround before their next game that Thursday, the Browns welcomed the slumping Denver Broncos missing not only their quarterback, but also both of their top two running backs (Nick Chubb and Kareem Hunt).  If ever Denver were going to take down the Browns, this would be the day.

But, instead, Case Keenum stepped in and played a solid game in relief of Mayfield, and a heretofore unknown running back named D’Ernest Johnson stepped into the shoes of the two All-Pros and ran through the Broncos to the tune of 146 yards, leading Cleveland to a crucial 17-14 victory.

Early in next Sunday’s game, New Orleans’ quarterback Jameis Winston suffered a season-ending knee injury, leaving the Saints with just Trevor Siemian to contend with Tom Brady and the defending champions from Tampa Bay.  Again, though, the backup came through.  Backed by a ferocious defense, Siemian did just enough to nudge New Orleans into the victor’s circle, 36-27.

Later that day the then 5-1 Dallas Cowboys dropped in on the scuffling 3-3 Minnesota Vikings.  They would be without their star quarterback, as Dak Prescott wasn’t sufficiently recovered from a calf injury he sustained two weeks earlier.  In his place, Cooper Rush would make his first career start.  If the Vikings were ever going to take down the Dallas juggernaut, this would be the day.

Instead, Rush threw for 325 yards and two touchdowns – the last being the game winner in the closing moments of the 20-16 Dallas win.

The super-substitute show took center stage in Week Nine as two damaged teams went on the road to face formidable opponents.  On Sunday afternoon, a vitiated Arizona team went into San Francisco to face a desperate 3-4 49er team.  Unavailable to them were quarterback Kyler Murray and his top two receiving targets – DeAndre Hopkins and A.J. Green.  On the first play of the game, leading rusher Chase Edmonds joined those other guys on the sideline with an ankle sprain.

The Cardinal injury situation was such that the 7-1 Cardinals were listed as a 3.5 point underdog to the 3-4 49ers.  If ever San Francisco was going to work its way past the Cardinals, this would have been the day.

Later that night, the Los Angeles Rams hosted the Tennessee Titans.  Tennessee was, arguably, as hot as any team in football.  They came in on the heels of four straight victories, three of them over playoff teams from last year.  But they also came in without running back Derrick Henry – as irreplaceable an offensive talent as there is in the league.  Since there are enduring questions about Tennessee’s offensive viability without Henry, they seemed especially vulnerable as they lined up against the 7-1 Rams.  If the Rams were going to push Tennessee around, this, seemingly, would be the day.

But, as with the earlier examples cited, the shorthanded franchises walked away – not just with wins, but with easy victories.  The Cardinals jumped out to a 17-7 halftime lead and cruised on to a 31-17 win (gamebook) (summary).  Tennessee took a 21-3 advantage into the locker room at halftime, and never looked back as they polished off the Rams, 28-16 (gamebook) (summary).

In many ways, these two contests were almost the same game.  There were a few common threads that ran through each of them.

Someone Steps Up

As you would expect, with major playmakers missing, someone else needed to rise to the occasion.  Both the Cardinals and the Titans saw that happen.

For the Cardinals, the leading role went to “other” running back James Conner.  Conner will spell Edmonds frequently during the game.  Mostly, though, James is the short-yardage back.  Coming into the game, Conner was averaging only 3.8 yards per carry, but had scored 8 rushing touchdowns.  In general, he is not thought of as a “big play” threat.

But with Chase on the shelf, James showed a pop that surprised many.  His 96 yard rushing day included a 35-yard burst in the second half.  His 77-yard pass receiving day included a screen pass that he took 45 yards for a touchdown.  Seventy-three of those 96 rushing yards came after contact – 3.5 YAC yards per carry.

Conner was perfectly complimented by backup quarterback Colt McCoy.  In a nearly flawless performance, Colt completed 22 of 26 passes – including 10 of 11 in the second half, when his only incompletion was a third-down drop by Zach Ertz.

The game-plan was as predictable as it could be for a backup throwing his first passes of the year.  It was almost all short stuff.  Of the 25 passes he actually threw at a target (he had one throw-away), only 3 were thrown at receivers more than 10 yards downfield.  Otherwise, he got rid of the ball quickly and put it in places that allowed his receivers room to run after the catch.  Of his 249 passing yards, 193 came after the catch (8.8 YAC yards per catch).  He also made great use of play-action, going 12 of 14 (85.7%) for 177 yards and a touchdown on those throws.

Colt was the picture of the quarterback playing within himself.  The big runs from Conner and the disciplined controlled passing game from McCoy was just what the doctor ordered for the Cards.

None of Tennessee’s offensive backups made much of a splash.  In the absence of Henry, the team added veteran running backs Adrian Peterson and D’Onta Foreman. Peterson accounted for 26 scrimmage yards, and Foreman 29.  The difference maker for the Titans was its defense.

The Titan defense is kind of hard to figure out.  In Week Seven they shut down the sometimes explosive Kansas City Chiefs in a 27-3 win – impressive even though the offense allowed the defense to play downhill.  Nonetheless, holding the Rams to 16 points makes only four times in nine weeks that Tennessee has held an opponent to fewer than 20 points.  They have four other games where they have given up more than 30 points.  In general, though, as the pass rush has picked up, the pass defense overall has tightened up.

In their 3-2 start, they dropped an opposing quarterback just 10 times in 177 pass attempts (just 5.6%).  Consequently, they allowed those passers a 100.3 rate and a 9-3 touchdown-to-interception ratio, while allowing 26 points a game.  Beginning with their Week Six Monday Night contest against Buffalo, the Titan pass rush re-charged.  Tennessee has managed three or more sacks in three of their last four contests – all wins.  Over their last three games – against Patrick Mahomes, Carson Wentz and now Matthew Stafford – the Tennessee pass defense has allowed just 4 touchdown passes, while intercepting 5 passes and holding those passers to a 69.1 rating.

They were at their aggressive best against the Rams – who brought the league’s fifth-ranked offense (both in yards and points).  But a combination of disruptive inside pressure – especially from tackle Jeffery Simmons – and split safety coverage grounded the Rams and their high-powered offense.

Inside, Simmons put together the best game of his three-year career.  His 3 sacks against the Rams were more than he had in the season’s first 8 games combined (2.5) and equaled his total from all of 2020.  He also knocked Stafford down once and recorded a “hurry” – defined as forcing the passer to throw sooner than he wanted, or chasing him from the pocket – for a season-high five pressures.

Through his first 8 games, Matthew had suffered just 7 sacks, and was being dropped on just 2.5% of his pass attempts.  Both figures were the lowest for any qualifying passer.  That protection allowed Stafford to ignite a down-field passing attack that averaged 9.07 yards per attempted pass (the second-best average in the NFL), 13.2 yards per completion (the fourth-best figure), 22 touchdown passes (second), and a touchdown percentage of 8.1% (third).  His season-long 118.0 passer rating was second in the league at the start of the game.

But Simmons and the Titans sacked Stafford four times in the first half alone – and finished the game with 5.  Matthew threw just one pass more than twenty yards downfield (an incompletion) and was just 6 for 13 (46.2%) on passes from 10 to 20 yards from scrimmage.  He finished the first half with just 62 passing yards.  After throwing just 4 interceptions over his first 8 games, Stafford tossed 2 in the first half.

The heroic defensive performance was almost completely responsible for the Titans’ 18-point halftime lead – a deficit which the Rams were unable to overcome.

Which brings me to the second common thread.

Turnover Clusters

Both losing offenses put themselves in a trail position when they bunched turnovers early in the game.  Two first-half fumbles cost the 49ers dearly.  The first – by one of football’s top tight ends, George Kittle – set Arizona up near mid-field.  It took the Cards 9 plays from there to put the ball in the end zone for the game’s first points.  The second quarter fumble was, arguably, more deflating.

Trailing, now, 14-0, San Francisco was finally finding a little offensive momentum.  After ripping off at least 11 yards on three consecutive plays, the 49ers found themselves with a first-and-ten on the Cardinal 30 with still 12:35 left in the half.  Here receiver Brandon Aiyuk went vertical to corral a long pass from San Fran quarterback Jimmy Garoppolo.  But, instead of first and goal, linebacker Isaiah Simmons came from behind and punched the ball free, where it was recovered by Jordan Hicks (who had also made the first fumble recovery) on the 8 yard line.

Arizona then ground 8:23 off the clock as they drove into range for the field goal that built their lead to 17-0.

A critical part of this turn of events was that the Cardinals capitalized on the opportunities presented them.  They scored 10 points off the two turnovers – the exact margin of their halftime lead.

The turnover cluster that doomed the Rams was even more spectacular.

It was almost exactly at that same point of the second quarter, with 12:36 left before the half.  Los Angeles was leading 3-0 at this point.

A brilliant punt had backed the Rams up inside their own five-yard line.  After a short pass left them with a third-and-four on their own ten, Simmons turned the game decisively in the Titans’ favor.

Blowing through the line, Jeffery wrapped his arms about Stafford and was about to drag him down at the goal line.  Concerned that he might give up a safety, Matthew flipped the ball blindly toward the line.  His hope was that it would fall incomplete and give his team a chance to punt.  But before the ball could find the turf, linebacker David Long picked it off.  He didn’t quite take the ball all the way to the end zone, but gave the Titans a first-and-goal at the two.  It took them 1 play to take the lead.

Bad enough.  But on the very first play of the next possession, Stafford’s sideline pass for Robert Woods was picked off by Kevin Byard.  This time, the Titan defender wasn’t denied the end zone.  In 15 seconds of football time, Tennessee had turned a 3-0 deficit into a 14-3 lead.  They would not be headed.

The lead itself, of course, was huge.  Even more important, though, was what it meant to the Arizona offense for the rest of the game.  When you are starting your backup quarterback – and missing all of your playmakers – the one thing you hope is that your second line people aren’t put in a position where they will have to make an exceptional play to win the game.  The sizeable lead allowed them to keep playing small ball, grind the clock, and keep the Ram offense on the sideline.

Coaching and the Expectation of Victory

I have great respect for both of the losing coaches in these games.  Both Sean McVay and Kyle Shanahan have led their teams to Super Bowls recently, and both are top offensive minds.  But I think that both of these games were won in the locker room as much as they were on the field.  Just watching the Cards and the Titans you could see that they were not just hoping that something good would happen.  There was no one on these teams that was surprised by the outcomes.  Even minus several irreplaceable talents, both Arizona and Tennessee expected to win their games.

Clearly, the coaches and players view their weekly contests differently than their fan base does.  The decimation of the Arizona roster would have put me in a mostly hopeless state – were I a follower of the Arizona version of the Cardinals.  Were I a Tennessee fan, the announcement that Henry was likely done for the season would cause me to abandon hope for the rest of the season.  In the locker room, though, the attitude is decidedly different.  Yes, they all miss Derrick – and the impact of his loss on the team is not lost on them.  But they thing they all understand from the beginning of the season is that the nature of the game is that anyone can be lost for the rest of the season at any time.  No one on a football team can be irreplaceable.  The “next-man-up” mentality is a football cliché, but it is – nonetheless – how you have to approach a football season.

This expectation begins with the coaching staff and extends down through the rest of the locker room.  After six middling seasons at Texas Tech, Arizona coach Kliff Kingsbury came to the NFL with some question marks.  His Red Raider teams finished five games under .500, never finished in the top-25, and only went to three bowl games (losing two of them).  It’s not the optimal pedigree for an NFL coaching hopeful.

But the Cardinals have enjoyed steady success under Kingsbury – who now has them at 8-1 halfway through his third season as their coach.  And never has he been better than in the middle of this crisis.  Even as more players were going down around him, Kliff and his entire sideline exuded the confidence of a team that doesn’t believe it can be beat – regardless of the circumstances.

Arizona’s situation is better than Tennessee’s.  The Cardinals will be getting their stars back.  They just have to weather the storm.  Derrick Henry will almost assuredly not be back – and if they should make the unwise decision to try to bring him back, his foot injury would leave him as only a shadow of his former self.

In the wake of Henry’s loss (and despite what I wrote earlier about no one being irreplaceable), the struggles of the Titan offense are concerning.  Ryan Tannehill threw for just 143 yards and the offense managed just 194.  If this is how the rest of the season will go, Tennessee could be in trouble.

Even so, what a pleasure it is watching their coach – Mike Vrabel – prowl the sidelines.  Behind him is 14 years as a tough-as-nails linebacker – mostly in New England, where he won three Super Bowls.  Now Mike brings that same intensity and toughness to the Titans.  You don’t have to watch him for very long to see that he lives for Sunday.  On Mike’s teams, competitiveness outweighs talent.  His main expectation is that his players will fight to the final gun.  You get the feeling that he could lead a team of girl scouts to victory on Sunday, so long as those girls were tough enough to punch someone in the mouth.

That begin said, his Titans are in a bind.  Last Sunday, his defense rose up and came to the rescue.  But it’s unlikely that they will be able to ride just their defense to a playoff berth.  In Week Eight, the Saints rode an overwhelming defensive performance to an upset win over the Buccaneers.  Last Sunday, that defense didn’t have enough answers to help them past Atlanta.

If Mike can’t get more juice out of his offense, it will likely be a long, short season for the Titans.

Super Bowl Re-Matches

The Titan/Ram game was one of five Super Bowl rematches that played out over Week Nine – and, even though that Super Bowl was played 22 seasons ago, it’s still the second-most recent of the re-matches – most of which date back to the earliest days of the Super Bowl.

The re-matched games were Super Bowl I (Green Bay over Kansas City) played after the 1966 season, Super Bowl III (the Jets over the then-Baltimore Colts) played after the 1968 season, Super Bowl XII (Dallas over Denver) played after the 1977 season, Super Bowl XXXIV (the then-St Louis Rams over Tennessee) played after the 1999 season, and Super Bowl XXXVIII (New England over Carolina) played after the 2003 season.  Of the coaches and players involved, only New England coach Bill Belichick is still with the same team in the same capacity.

If you believe that revenge is a dish best served cold, then its sweet revenge for the four oldest of the Super Bowl losers, as they all came away with victories over their former conquerors.  The Patriots were the only ones to replicate their previous victory.

It’s Still About the Defense

It wasn’t that long ago, you know.  These guys used to be NFL royalty.  Just last February, they rolled into the Super Bowl in Tampa riding the high of a 16-2 record (counting two playoff victories) and boasting an offense that seemed like it could score at will against anybody.

How the mighty have fallen.

Beginning with that Super Bowl loss, and running through last Sunday afternoon in Nashville, Tennessee, the Kansas City Chiefs are 3-5 and have been outscored 234-197.  Most recently, they were rolled over by the Titans in a 27-3 rout (gamebook) (summary).

Theories, of course, abound.  For the benefit of my readers, I will sort through the theories that I have heard to assess how much fact – if any – is contained in them.

Theory – Super Bowl Hangover

Last year as the San Francisco 49ers were floundering early, I looked into the whole Super Bowl hangover thing.  There certainly were some Super Bowl participants who suddenly fell back to the pack, but I didn’t find any kind of consistent pattern.  Truthfully, the vagaries that govern football (injuries, draft fortunes, the presence of new coaches in your division, etc.) seem to jostle all participants at about the same rate.  The real surprise is when a team manages to skirt all of that chaos and remain on top for any sustained period.  I don’t think there’s much of a “hangover” factor here.

Theory – Mahomes and Other Principals Partying Too Much During the Off-Season

If that was going to happen, it would have happened after the previous Super Bowl (which they won).  Frankly, Super Bowl losers aren’t generally in as much demand as the winners.  Quarterback Patrick Mahomes has done a couple of State Farm commercials, but so has Aaron Rodgers, and his production hasn’t fallen.  I doubt that there’s anything here.

Theory – The Chiefs are Solved and the Buccaneers Gave the World the Blueprint

A lot of what Tampa Bay did to Kansas City has popped up in several of their games this year.  I don’t tend to give too much credit to the scheme, though.  It was mostly a simple “Tampa 2” concept (not named, of course, for the current Buccaneer team but for the split-safety zone concept established more than twenty years ago by then-coach Tony Dungy when he coached the Bucs).  This coverage isn’t new, and the Chiefs (and everyone else) knows the routes that will beat it.

What Tampa Bay did to Kansas City in the Super Bowl was more a function of pass rush.  The Chiefs had lost a tackle in the Championship Game, and resolved the problem by shifting starters around the line.  The newly-constructed line played with disastrous results last February.  From first snap to last, Mahomes was literally running for his life.  The Bucs could have employed any coverage scheme and it would have worked out just fine.  In fact, they played a high percentage of man coverage against the Chiefs in that game – also to great effect.

In the aftermath of that loss, Kansas City has completely re-invented its offensive line – to the point that no remaining starter from last year is in this year’s starting lineup.  This has had some effect.  As offensive lines need some time to develop, Patrick’s protection hasn’t been as stable as he’s used to, and a fair amount of their recent offensive struggles can be tied to uncomfortable amounts of pressure.

Theory – It’s Mostly Patrick’s Fault

In the wake of the Tennessee loss, quarterback Mahomes is being targeted for the largest slice of the blame.  This, of course, is part of playing quarterback.  You always get too much credit when you win and too much blame when you lose.  There are numbers that the critics can grasp on to.  His 62.3 passer rating (Patrick was 20-35 for 206 yards, no touchdowns and 1 interception) was the lowest of his career.  He also lost a fumble in that game.  For the season so far, Patrick’s numbers have slid noticeably.  His 97.9 passer rating (while still above the NFL average) would be the worst of his career and currently sits about ten points below his career rating (107.2).  The 9 interceptions he’s thrown are already more than his totals from the previous two entire seasons, and only three shy of the career high of 12 he threw in his rookie season.  In both of his previous seasons, his interception percentage was 1.0.  This year, 3.2% of his throws are ending up in the arms of the other team.

There is also film that supports some of this.  Against the Titans, his interception came on an ill-advised throw.  His fumble came after a scramble in which – rather than sliding and avoiding further contact – Patrick continued the run in an attempt to gain a few more yards (and was subsequently stripped of the ball).  To cite just one example, Steve Young on Monday Night Countdown laid 80% of the responsibility on Mahomes.  Eighty percent?  Really?

Clearly, Mahomes has played better in the past than he is playing this season.  But to target him as the primary problem is to fall into the trap of crediting or blaming the quarterback for nearly everything that happens on the team.  Patrick has been pressing, but there are reasons for that not of his making (I will be getting to that in a minute).  Patrick Mahomes is still Patrick Mahomes.  He isn’t even close to being Kansas City’s biggest problem.  (Sorry, Steve.  I have great respect for you, but on this I’m going to have to respectfully disagree.)

Theory – Body Snatchers

OK, I haven’t actually heard anyone claim that aliens have captured the real Kansas City Chiefs and replaced them with pods, but I’m sure someone out there has floated that theory.  Without the medical examinations that could confirm or deny this, I can’t, of course, say with any certainty that this hasn’t happened.  I will, though, err on the side of common sense and call this very unlikely.

So What Is It?

Two weeks ago, after their loss to Buffalo, I looked at the issues in Kansas City and proclaimed, with much certainty, that the biggest problem with the Kansas City offense is the Kansas City defense.  Nothing that’s happened in the last two weeks – even this game in Tennessee when they scored only 3 points, managed just 334 yards of offense, and turned the ball over 3 times – has at all changed that assessment.  Ninety percent – that’s my number, and I’m sticking with it.  Ninety percent of the KC problem is the defense.  If that ever gets fixed, the rest of the world will be amazed at how quickly the offense will regain its footing.

Taking Another Look

To support this, let’s take another look at the Tennessee game.  For now, forget the statistics and just look at what happened.

The Chiefs won the toss and deferred.  The Titans started with the ball, and drove the field – 75 yards in 8 plays, draining 4:10 off the clock.  The Chief offense takes the field already down 7 with still 10:50 left in the quarter.

They pick up a couple of first downs, gaining the fifty-yard line.  On third down, though, a sack brings the drive to an end and KC punts.  This isn’t evidence of a dysfunctional offense.  No offense scores every time it possesses the ball.  For his part Mahomes was 3-for-3 passing for 21 yards (remember, the deep safeties were taking away the deep pass).  When the KC special team unit downed the ensuing punt on the Tennessee 3-yard line, things were looking pretty good.

Five minutes and 34 seconds of football time later, Tennessee had driven the entire 97 yards, taking 9 plays to do so.  Now there are 42 second left in the first quarter, the Chiefs have run 7 offensive plays and they trail 14-0.

The Chiefs pick up another first down on their ensuing drive, but end up punting again.  Now the members of the Chief offensive unit are standing on the sidelines watching again as the Titans start rolling through the defense again.  Twelve plays, 60 yards, and six minutes and 39 seconds of football time later, the Kansas City defense finally holds on third down.  Tennessee, however, has moved into field goal range again, and tacks on another 3 points.

There is a reason why defenses love it when their offense goes on long, clock draining drives.  That is because no offense, however talented and experienced, prospers from standing on the sidelines for 20-30 minutes at a time.  It’s impossible for any offense to maintain any semblance of rhythm or energy when they are wandering aimlessly along the sideline hoping that someone on the defensive side can please make a play.

There is now 8:07 left in the half, and the Chiefs are down 17-0.  The offense’s great crime is that they failed to score on their first two possessions.  At this point, they’ve run exactly 11 plays and held the ball for 5:30.  In contrast, the Titans have already run 28 plays for 232 yards (8.3 yards per play).  Their time of possession so far is 16:23.

The problem now compounds, because this is not a one-off kind of situation.  The Chiefs have seen this before.  All season, the offense has had the challenge of keeping up with the points the defense is yielding.  Beginning from game one, Cleveland scored 29, Baltimore put up 36, the Chargers rung them up for 30 – and so did Philadelphia.  Buffalo scored 38.  Except for their Week Six win in Washington when they held the Football Team to just 13 points, every single opponent had put up 29 points or more.  Kansas City came into the afternoon ranked twenty-eighth in total defense and twenty-eighth in points allowed.  The struggles include a pass rush that had accounted for just 7 sacks (last in the league) which influenced a secondary that was allowing 12.7 yards per completion (thirtieth in the league).

The run defense hadn’t been spectacular, either.  They were allowing 5.2 yards per rush (thirtieth).

So, perhaps, you can forgive Mahomes and the offense if at this point they start to press a bit. With the defense showing no signs that they can slow the Tennessee offense, Patrick did compound the problem here by trying to force a pass into Josh GordonRashaan Evans came away with the interception, and it started all over again.  Tennessee drained another 5:08 off the clock as they ground their way to another touchdown – and a 24-0 lead.

By the time the second quarter came to a merciful end, Kansas City had held the ball for just 1:28 of the entire quarter.  Tennessee had gone 6-for-7 on third down during a first half in which they held the ball for a remarkable 23:16.  They had scored every time they touched the ball, and went into the locker room with a 27-0 lead.

Kansas City had the ball long enough for Mahomes to throw just 9 passes in the half.  But he’s 80% of the problem?

The second half was more even – possession wise.  But, of course, once you’re down 27-0 it doesn’t really matter all that much, does it?  At that point, you’re game plan is pretty much in the dumpster, you don’t have the luxury of running the ball anymore (at least, you don’t think you do), and all you can do is throw short passes underneath coverages that will allow anything but the deep strike that could get you back in the game.  Oh yes, and the pass rush – with no running game to be concerned with – is at liberty to tee off and come after the quarterback.  It’s not a conducive work environment for any offense to operate in.

For what it’s worth, Kansas City ran off a mind-numbing 51 plays in the second half.  Mahomes and his backup Chad Henne combined to throw 42 passes after intermission.  But it wasn’t nearly enough to turn the tide.

Star receiver Tyreek Hill (who didn’t help matters by dropping a couple of passes) finished with 6 catches even though he wasn’t targeted at all in that first half.  His 6 catches amounted to just 49 yards.

Two Points

There are two points that I want to be clear about at this point.

First, I don’t want to dismiss the effort of Tennessee’s defense.  Holding the Chiefs to 3 points under any circumstances is laudatory.  Even while the offense allowed this defensive unit to play downhill, the Tennessee defense still made the plays necessary to get KC off the field, and when they had the chances to make game-altering takeaways, they came through.  They deserve ample credit for the result that I have no intention of denying them.

Second, I don’t intend to give the KC offense a complete pass.  They certainly had things they could have done better.  After their defense managed their lone turnover against the Titans, Kansas City moved to a first-and-ten at the Tennessee 28-yard line.  Back-to-back penalties (holding and then a false start) pushed the ball back to a first-and-25 at the 43.  That drive ended three plays later on a missed field goal.

There are certainly things that Mahomes and the offense can clean up.  But come on, man.  Let me give you a baseball analogy.  You’re team goes three-up-and three-down in the top of the first.  Your pitching and defense then gives up 11 runs in the bottom of the first.  The next morning in the paper, you expect the writers to digest the early pitching difficulties that put the rest of the game out of reach.  You don’t expect them to point the finger at the offense for not having the foresight to score 15 runs in the first.

The clear truth of the Kansas City situation is that its defense is hemorrhaging games.  If they can fix that before too much of what’s left of the season slips away, this team might have a chance to fight for a playoff spot.

Titans On a Roll

While KC remains stuck in neutral, the Tennessee Titans are rising.  In back-to-back weeks, they’ve produced convincing wins over the two team that played for the conference championship last year.  I’m still not completely convinced about their defense, but this offense is rising quickly.

Of course, the presence of Derrick Henry in any backfield will alter any team’s defensive approach.  In past years, though, the Titan offense faltered in those contests where the defense was able to minimize the impact of the running game.

This, in fact, was such a game.  In spite of their season-long struggles against the run, Kansas City fought valiantly to keep Derrick in check.  Henry – leading the NFL in rushing yards – finished the game with just 86 yards on 29 carries (3.0 per).  In the second half – the part of the game that Derrick usually takes over – he managed just 34 yards on 12 carries (2.8 yards per).  For his 29 carries he gained just 28 yards before contact.

Handling Henry

The prevailing approach to Derrick Henry is penetration.  Commonly, for example, a team intending to run their back up the middle will have the middle of the offensive line initially engage the defensive linemen with a couple of double-team blocks.  After the initial block, one of the offensive linemen will then disengage and move to the second level of the defense to block a linebacker – who would traditionally be hovering in the area to deny the back this particular opening.

This isn’t happening anymore when teams try to defend Henry.  The linebackers don’t hang back and wait.  As soon as the running threat develops, they are headed into the backfield, so any attempt at a double-team block will only open a lane for the penetrating linebacker.

The necessary thing is to get to Derrick before he can get his feet going.  Henry is a terrifying combination of a lineman’s size with a scat-back’s speed.  His momentum is the game-changer.  Once he gets up a head of steam, he’s a nightmare.  But if you can get him to stop his feet, or get to him before he gets started, you’re odds of making that tackle go up dramatically.

Kansas City did this all night, firing linebackers and hustling safeties from the secondary to the line.  Their success included dropping Henry in the backfield for losses four times.  On each of those plays, the impact tackle came from Nick Bolton – the rookie linebacker from Missouri.

In the midst of a sagging defense, Bolton has been one of the few standouts.  Nick is already playing with a veteran’s awareness.  Against Tennessee, he was decisive and explosive as he poured into the backfield.  Statistically, this was his best game of the season.  His 4 tackles for a loss were part of his 9 primary tackles to go along with 6 assists – giving him 15 combined tackles.  If the Chief defense does manage to turn things around, expect Bolton to be in the middle of it.

Bolton was helped considerably by large defensive lineman Khalen Saunders.  Khalen is currently at the bottom of the defensive line pecking order.  His 23 snaps were the fewest of any of the KC defensive linemen.  But even in his limited opportunities, Saunders notably impacted the run defense.  Khalen is one of those old-school linemen.  He’s the kind that absorbs multiple blockers to allow the linebackers (like Bolton) behind him to roam unfettered up and down the line.  Khalen may not be much of a pass-rush factor, but for his presence against the run, the Chiefs should really consider giving him more playing time.

Henry, by the way, had similar difficulties against the Bills – who also played penetration against him.  The struggle is less obvious, because Derrick did manage to break off the one long run – a 76-yard touchdown sprint.  In his other 21 carries, Derrick accounted for just 70 more yards (3.3 per carry), with no other run going for more than 19 yards.

This is an approach that I expect more teams to employ, and Tennessee will have to make some adjustments if they are to remain one of the league’s top running teams.  You might see them running more trap plays, to take advantage of linebackers who are shooting across the line.  They might also try more quick pitches to get Henry on the edges without giving opposing linemen the opportunity to get him in the backfield.

The Flourishing Passing Game

Or they could continue to allow defenses to do that, and just take advantage of them with the passing game.  This has been their historic weakness.  In the past, if they couldn’t run, they couldn’t score.  Increasingly, that is no longer the case.

Against KC, quarterback Ryan Tannehill completed 21 of 27 passes for 270 yards.  According to the SportsRadar group that provides advanced stats to the football reference page I linked to above, Ryan was on target with 24 of the 26 passes he actually threw to a receiver – an impressive 92.3% accuracy rate.  Throwing against a defense that was overly focused on the running game, Ryan connected with his top receiver A.J. Brown 8 times for 133 yards and a touchdown.

The thing about this passing attack, though, is its potential to get better.  Offseason acquisition Julio Jones – coming from a storied career in Atlanta – has yet to be truly involved in the attack.  Bothered all season by a hamstring issue, Julio has only 17 catches so far this year.  On Sunday, Josh Reynolds had more snaps (30) than Jones did (29).

If this offense develops the way they hope it will, once Julio is fully healthy and completely integrated into the passing attack, defenses will be presented with a truly awful dilemma.

The more you watch this Tennessee team, the easier it is to believe that they will be right there at the end.

The Bengals Have Grown Some Claws

In a mild upset, the Baltimore Ravens came out for the second half of their game against Cincinnati trailing – albeit by a modest 13-10 score.  It took them very little time to rectify the situation.

Three plays and 1:40 after they received the second-half kickoff, the Ravens were in the end zone – courtesy of a marvelous catch in the very back of the end zone by Marquise Brown.  Now, it was 17-13 Baltimore.

From that point of the contest, one of those teams was done scoring, while the other would keep piling on points – and it wasn’t the team that most of us probably expected.  It was, in fact, the Ravens who were done scoring, and the upstart Cincinnati Bengals – who had spent the last several years as Baltimore’s private punching bag – who kept gashing the Raven’s once-proud defense with an improbable bevy of big plays, roaring their way to an eye-opening 41-17 victory (gamebook) (summary).

The Ravens never knew what hit them.

The astonishing thing wasn’t just all the points the Bengals scored.  It was how fast they were doing it that made everyone’s head spin.

Bengals at WARP Speed

The last time the Bengals had scored a touchdown against Baltimore was Week 10 of 2019.  Ryan Finley with a six-yard pass to Tyler Eifert that was pretty much the lone highlight in a 49-13 bashing.

On Sunday, they hit them for five touchdowns – all of them from outside the red zone, and four of them coming on plays of 32 yards or more.  During the rout, they put together three different touchdown “drives” of at least 64 yards, none of which involved more than 4 plays.  Those three drives consumed a total of 9 plays and took 4:30 off the clock.  The 9 plays accounted for 229 yards – an average of 25.4 yards per play.

Those three drives were part of a much longer streak, in which Cincinnati scored 6 times (the 5 touchdowns and a field goal) in 7 possessions.  Those 7 drives combined to cover 448 yards in but 35 plays (12.8 yards per play).  The aggregate time of possession of those 7 drives was 13:13.

It didn’t look like it would play that way in the beginning.  Throughout the first quarter – which ended with Cincy up 3-0 – the Bengals struggled to keep Baltimore blitzers out of their backfield.  Additionally, they repeatedly tried (with no notable success) to take advantage of Anthony Averett in coverage.

For the first fifteen minutes, Baltimore had the clear look of being the better team.

But this young Cincinnati team has suddenly gotten more physical than I remember them in a long time.  After they fixed some miscommunication in the offensive line, they dampened down the Baltimore blitz.  Then, when the Bengals turned to another matchup – everything came together for them.

Renewing Old Acquaintances

It was a big day for second-year quarterback Joe Burrow – who averaged 18.09 yards per completion on his way to 416 passing yards and 3 touchdowns.  It was as big a day – if not bigger – for his ex-college, and now current pro-teammate Ja’Marr Chase.

Matched against decorated corner Marlon Humphrey, Chase was limited to 1 catch for 9 yards until about a minute and a half remained in the first half.  Then, in the waning seconds of the half, the Bengals made a discovery that would alter the trajectory of the rest of the game.

They discovered that Humphrey couldn’t cover Chase.

Ja’Marr caught 3 passes for 45 yards in the two-minute drill that moved Cincy close enough for the field goal just before the half.  And then, the kid went off in the second half.

Targeted 6 times in the final 30 minutes, Chase caught 4 of the passes.  He earned 146 yards on those catches, including the signature play of the day.  After catching a deep curl-in in some traffic up the right sideline, Ja’Marr spun out of about three different tackles and broke free – completing the 82-yard touchdown pass that pushed the Cincy lead to 27-17 with 5:48 left in the third.

Chase ended his afternoon with 201 receiving yards, and the difference was his physicality.  He cleared Humphry a couple of times on some crossing routes, but for the most part Marlon stayed pretty close.  For the 10 passes thrown in his direction, Ja’Marr’s average separation from his nearest defender (mostly Humphrey) was a modest 2.11 yards (the NFL average is 2.88).  But being close to Chase isn’t good enough.  Ja’Marr is a big kid with above-the-rim skills who spent the bulk of the afternoon taking balls away from Humphrey.

Cincinnati racked up 321 yards of offense in the second half alone – on their way to 520 for the game.  After halftime, they out-rushed the Ravens 93-52, something you won’t see happen all that often.

In the press conferences after the game, the young Bengals seemed not at all surprised by the outcome.  They, evidently, expected to win the game – and expect to be in this for the long haul.  This could turn into a nice little rivalry.

Worries for the Ravens

At 5-2, Baltimore isn’t in any particular trouble.  But they come out of this bashing with a couple of worries.

First is their defense again.  One week after they looked like the Ravens of old in taking apart the LA Charger offense, they were hurt with big plays again.

In seven games, Baltimore has surrendered 21 touchdowns – 12 of them on plays of 20 yards or more.  All of last year, they only allowed 37 touchdowns – only 7 of those on plays of 20 or more yards (and 1 of those was an interception return).

Last year, only 5 opposing passers managed passer ratings against the Ravens of 100 or better (with Baltimore losing 4 of those 5 games).  This year, that’s already happened three times in the first seven games.  Of the 11 passers from last year who didn’t manage a 100 point rating, only one of them led his team to more than 30 points against Baltimore. (That was Baker Mayfield, who led Cleveland to 42 points in Week 14, in spite of a passer rating of just 87.5.)  This year that’s already happened once in the four games that the Ravens have not allowed a 100 point passing day to an opposing quarterback.  On opening night, Derek Carr finished his game with just an 89.5 rating, but still sent the Raiders to a 33-27 win (albeit that was an overtime game).

Against the Bengals, as soon as their communication issues were solved, they were able to regularly pick up the Baltimore blitzes, essentially leaving the Raven secondary out to dry.  Cincinnati is a division foe, so they’ve seen Baltimore’s blitz package quite a lot.  On Sunday, that familiarity may have given them an advantage.

At any rate, the Ravens currently sit at sixteenth defensively in points allowed, and twenty-fourth in yardage given up.  They are also sixteenth in opposing passer rating (96.1).  It’s a concern.  Allowing 23.4 points per game will take its toll on the season if it keeps up.

The other issue –again – is the passing game.

Jackson and the Passing Game

As Cincinnati kept piling on the points, it took Baltimore more and more out of its running game, and put the onus on Lamar Jackson and the air attack.  While Cincinnati was scoring 6 times in 7 drives, Baltimore’s final 7 drives led to no points and just 146 yards on 36 plays (4.06 yards per).  Jackson completed only 4 of his final 13 passes.  According to Sportsradar (who handles the Advanced Stats tracking for the football reference page linked to above), 13 of Lamar’s 30 actual passes (minus a throw-away) were labelled as “bad,” meaning that the receiver didn’t have a reasonable chance to make the catch.  That’s fully 43.3% of those passes.

Two things happened to Jackson that influenced his sub-50% passing performance.  One that was unusual and one that has been a recurring issue all year.

The enduring problem occurs when Lamar has to throw quickly.  Against Cincy, when he had more than 2.5 seconds to throw, Jackson did quite well.  He only completed 10 of 19, but did so throwing for 203 yards and a touchdown – a 108.0 passer rating.  For the season – when provided with more than 2.5 seconds to make a throw – Lamar carries a 120.8 passer rating, with a 9-2 touchdown-to-interception ratio.

But it’s when he has to make that quick decision of where to go with the ball that his performance suffers.  Lamar was 5-for-12 for just 54 yards when he had less than 2.5 seconds to throw on Sunday – a 55.6 rating.  For the season, Lamar holds a 73.5 rating when throwing the ball in less than 2.5 seconds, with a 1-to-3 touchdown-to-interception ratio.

The Bengals also frustrated Jackson by occasionally playing close man coverage against his underneath receivers.  I don’t really understand why other teams don’t do this – and, frankly why Cincy didn’t do more of this.  So much of Jackson’s success in the passing game comes from dropping underneath passes to uncovered receivers.  The Bengals didn’t make that all that easy for Lamar on Sunday, and he finished 4 for 12 on passes from 0 to 10 yards from scrimmage – an area of the field in which he generally thrives.  He was 10 for 12 in that region against the Chargers the week before.

Again, no reason to push the panic button in Baltimore.  But these are causes for concern.

On the Other Coast

On Monday Night – on the other side of the continent – the exact opposite game was playing out.  Here, on the dampened turf of Lumen Field in Seattle, the New Orleans Saints survived the Seahawks by a 13-10 score (gamebook) (summary).

In the second half of the Cincinnati-Baltimore game, the Bengals outgained the Ravens 321 yards to 221.  In Seattle, both teams combined to gain 165 yards in the second half (87 for the Saints and 78 for the Hawks). Each team managed one field goal after halftime – a half that featured only one play of more than 20 yards.

But the highlight of the game was a spectacular second-quarter drive.

Trailing 7-0, New Orleans took possession of the ball on its own 12-yard line with 14:39 left in the half.  Nineteen plays and 10:16 later, the drive petered out on the Seattle two-yard line, where Brian Johnson produced the first field goal of his NFL career (from 21 yards).

The drive included 11 running plays for 34 yards, but even that’s deceptive.  Eighteen of those yards came on a Winston scramble.  The ten actual called running plays only earned 16 yards.  Jameis was 5 of 7 passing for 58 yards on the drive.  New Orleans also lost 6 yards on an exchange of penalties.  The Saints went 0-for-3 on third down during the drive (the teams were a combined 1-for-11 on third down in the first half), but converted two fourth-and-ones with quarterback sneaks.

The 86 yards that New Orleans gained on that drive nearly equaled the 87 they would gain in the entire second half – and, yes, it was very much in keeping with the meme of the game that this extensive drive would end with a field goal attempt.

The Seahawks managed 219 total yards for the game, with 84 of those (38.4%) coming on one play.  Early in the first quarter, D.K. Metcalf worked his way behind the coverage of Marshon Lattimore for the long touchdown that gave the Hawks a brief lead – and would be their only touchdown on the night.

Seattle’s conservative game plan (27 called runs v 28 called passes in a game they lost) is understandable when you remember that Seattle was without star quarterback Russell Wilson.  In his absence, they were cautious with backup Geno Smith.

With 1:34 left in the third quarter, Seattle recovered a fumble on the Saint 32.  They were trailing 10-7 at that time.  Instead of pressing the issue and looking for the touchdown that would put them ahead, Seattle ran twice, missed a short pass, and kicked the tying field goal.  Now 2-5, the Seahawks are facing long odds to gain entrance to the playoff field.  Getting their quarterback back will help.

Saints Under Wraps, Too

As to the Saints, they have been extremely run-centric all season as they wait for new quarterback Jameis Winston to grow into the role.

Entering the contest, Winston had thrown only 116 passes on the season – ranking him thirty-first of the 32 qualifying passers in the league.  New Orleans is – in essence – rebuilding Jameis after the damage done to him in Tampa Bay.

Winston ended up throwing 35 passes Monday evening – his most as a Saint, and the second game in a row in which he had thrown the ball 30 times.  Through the first four weeks, Jameis hadn’t made more than 23 pass attempts in any game, so it looks like New Orleans is, perhaps, starting to take the wraps off a little.

There was some first-half success dropping the ball off to Alvin Kamara.  He caught 8 passes for 109 yards and New Orleans’ only touchdown in the first half.  The second half was more of a muddle.  Jameis was also under 50% (6 for 15), throwing for just 58 yards (3.87 per attempted pass), so you would think that New Orleans leaves with some offensive concerns as well.

In a sense, the Saints are also missing key contributions from a quarterback.  In their case, though, it’s their backup QB Taysom Hill – who has missed a couple of games with a concussion.  This is clearly a more diverse and dangerous offense when Hill is around doing all of the things that Taysom Hill does.

Now 4-2, New Orleans faces the stiff part of their season.  With their bye week behind them, over the next eight weeks the Saints will play six games against teams currently at or above .500 – including many of the top ranked teams in the league.  The stretch will begin and end with games against the defending champions in Tampa Bay (the Bucs are currently 6-1).  They will also play the 5-1 Dallas Cowboys, the 5-2 Tennessee Titans and the 4-2 Buffalo Bills.  In between Tampa Bay this week and Tennessee in Week 10, New Orleans will welcome an Atlanta Falcon team that pushed itself back to the .500 mark (they are currently 3-3) after a rough start.

So we will see quite soon what this team made of in its first season post-Drew Brees.

Coming Back Down to Earth

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

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

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

Missed Chances

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Chargers Also Tumble

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

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

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

A Week-to-Week League

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

And things are just starting to heat up.

To Thine Own Self – – and so forth

The hand-writing was on the wall from the very beginning. 

After Arizona won the toss and deferred, Matt Prater launched the opening kickoff into the end zone, and Cleveland began on their own 25.  In their only offensive possession while the game was still even, quarterback Baker Mayfield threw the ball four times and the Browns punted.

Here is why that was significant.

Through their first five games of the 2021 season, The Cleveland Browns had run 175 running plays, gaining 938 yards (187.6 per game) and 12 rushing touchdowns.  They averaged 5.4 yards per rush.  All of those numbers ranked first in the NFL.  Combined with the fact that they had only run 158 passing plays, these numbers stamp the Cleveland Browns as one of the new-Neanderthal teams in the NFL.

Neanderthal?

Let me explain my use of that term for those of you who haven’t been reading this space over the last few years.

Neanderthal football is primordial football.  It’s football before all the razzle-dazzle, throwing the ball 50 times a game trends that have started to take over the sport ever since the early eighties.  Neanderthal football doesn’t necessarily have to be unsophisticated.  There are many very sophisticated running concepts in the game.  But the baseline mentality of Neanderthal football is the running game.  It has all the intrinsic gentleness of a punch in the mouth.  At its core is the attitude that we are going to shove this thing right down your throat and there isn’t anything you can do to stop it.

There are few things in football more demoralizing than running into the teeth of an elite Neanderthal team.  A clever defensive coordinator can always try something different to diffuse an effective passing game.  But if a team is just blowing you off the line, there is no genius defensive strategy that can stop that.  All you can do is bow your head and take it for the full sixty minutes.

Their early season credentials have marked Cleveland as the Alpha Neanderthal, but not last Sunday – and, there were suspicions going in that it would be this way.  Missing from the lineup were the two starting tackles (Jack Conklin and Jedrick Wills Jr.).  This is enough to put a dent in any Neanderthal running attack.  But also out of the lineup with a calf injury was elite running back Nick Chubb.

Coming off an explosive 161-yard rushing day against the LA Chargers, Nick had 90 carries on the season (the fourth most in football), 523 yards (remember this was after five games), the second most in football, and was averaging 5.8 yards per carry – the fourth best number in the league.

His backup – the very talented Kareem Hunt – was also nursing some injuries and would be on a “pitch count,” if you will.

The injury situation – combined with their confidence in Mayfield as a thrower and their concerns about keeping pace with Kyler Murray and the explosive Cardinal offense – all mitigated toward suspending their Neanderthal agenda and turning to a pass-first concept.  It was a temptation that coach Kevin Stefanski couldn’t resist.  On an afternoon when Mayfield would try to match Kyler throw-for-throw, football’s top running team would put the ball in the hands of a running back just 15 times (less than half of their usual workload), and in the hands of a wide receiver once on a reverse.

Against those 16 called running plays, Baker would throw 28 passes, find himself sacked 5 other times and forced to scramble 3 times.  Throw in 3 additional passes by his backup Case Keenum, and that’s 39 called passing plays.

As you might predict by looking at the play-calling, things did not work out well for the Browns.  Murray and the Cardinals scored on their first five possessions of the game, and sailed on to a 37-14 conquest (gamebook) (summary).

Of course, I get all the reasons that they didn’t stick with their run first approach.  As I mentioned, there were several good reasons to shake things up a bit.  Here’s the problem with that.

A football team develops an identity.  This is a team-specific differentiator.  It identifies that element of their game that sets them apart – something the players can grasp on to and understand that “this is how we win.”

With all teams, finding their identity is an important aspect of the season.  With Neanderthal teams, this identity is even more personal – if you will.  To run the ball in the NFL – to run as the foundation of a system that you believe will take you to the Super Bowl – requires an all-in to that type of football.

You create you team culture around the mental and physical toughness that it takes to hammer other teams into submission.  And then – even if there are several good reasons for it – you suddenly become a different team – a finesse passing team? – well, it rarely ends well.

There Were Issues

That being said, the times when Cleveland did try to run, there were frequent issues – and most of those centered around the two backup tackles (Blake Hance on the left side and James Hudson on the right).  Neither player had a good outing.

A characteristic example came on Cleveland’s very first real running play.  After calling passes on their first six offensive plays, the Browns drew an off-side penalty from new Cardinal defensive lineman J.J. Watt on their first called run.  On first-and-five, Cleveland set up a gashing run to the right side.  Center J.C. Tretter and right guard Wyatt Teller drove Cardinal nose tackle Michael Dogbe about seven yards up field and then dumped him onto the turf.  Meanwhile, left guard Joel Bitonio washed Leki Fotu right down the line and out of the play.  On the right end, receiver Odell Beckham Jr. crashed down on Budda Baker, and running back Demetric Felton pulled from the other side of the line and led the way up the cleaned out right sideline.  It was a perfectly set up sweep – except for two things.  The left and right tackles.

Watt (working against Hance) and linebacker Devon Kennard (matched up against Hudson) sliced immediately inside of their respective blockers and met at the running back, who had just gotten the ball in the backfield.  Hunt managed to make it back to the line of scrimmage.

More than just getting physically beaten, the inexperience of these tackles led to some damaging missed assignments.  With 8:53 left in the third quarter – trailing now 23-14 – Cleveland faced a first-and-ten on its own 46.  On this play, the struggles of the tackles were amplified by Cleveland’s misplaced faith in the blocking abilities of wide receiver Harrison Bryant and tight end David Njoku.

Bryant was supposed to seal the right edge by removing linebacker Isaiah Simmons.  That didn’t happen.  Worse, the Browns were trusting Njoku to seal Watt to the inside.  That was a mismatch.  JJ blew through David and almost made the play in the backfield.

But, as Hunt spun out of Watt’s reach, there was a gap that should have been cleared between JJ on the inside and Simmons – waiting on the corner.  But sitting in that gap, was linebacker Zaven Collins.  In the design of the run, he was undoubtedly Hudson’s assignment.  As they lined up, there was no one between James and Zaven.  But Hudson didn’t give him a second look.  In the confusion of the moment, he thought his assignment was the other linebacker (Jordan Hicks).  Collins made the tackle for a loss of a yard.

Beyond the Tackles

This was stressful enough, but Cleveland’s shaky offensive line play extended beyond the struggles of the tackles.  Earlier Zaven Collins profited from a similar gaffe from Tretter.  There was 14:45 left in the second quarter.  The score was 14-0 Arizona, and Cleveland had the ball, first-and-ten on its 16-yard line.  A zone-left run is bottled up.  Bryant and Hance, again, were unable to move Kennard and Fotu off the line.  After snapping the ball, Tretter had Zaven standing right in front of him – standing in the area that would be the cut-back lane.  JC looked at him, but for some reason decided not to block him – turning his attention, instead to the backside of the play.

With no cutback lane available, Hunt tried – with limited success – to squeeze between Kennard and Fotu.  That play managed 2 yards.  It wasn’t at all unusual on this afternoon to see Cardinal linebackers unchallenged as they clogged cutback lanes and met backs at the point of attack.

Of all of the struggling linemen, perhaps no one had a worse afternoon than guard Joel Bitonio.

With 6:44 left in the first quarter, and the Browns on the Arizona 45 facing a second-and-five, Arizona lined up with linebacker Hicks over center, and Dogbe aligned over Bitonio.  They stunted on the run play, with Dogbe crashing inside on Tretter and Hicks looping around into the backfield.  But Joel didn’t make the switch, with the result that both he and Tretter were blocking Dogbe, and Hicks – flowing untouched into the backfield – forced the run wider around the end than the other blocks could support.

Hunt was held to no gain on the run, which was nullified anyway by a holding call.

With 12:21 left in the first half, Cleveland had second-and-six on its 29-yard line.  As before, nothing was cleared on the left side of this zone-left run.  This time, though, defensive lineman Jeremiah Ledbetter controlled Bitonio so completely that he used Joel as a shield to keep Tretter from catching up to Hicks.

Jordan was waiting for Kareem two yards deep into the backfield.

There were more – these were just two moments that stood out.

Reasons?

The loss of a couple of starting linemen will have a ripple effect on the rest of the line.  While defensive linemen rotate in and out of the game, the offensive line typically plays every down together.  At their best, an offensive line operates as one organism – and the loss of one or two of them can be disruptive.

It’s entirely possible that the Browns would have continued to struggle regardless of how committed to the run that the coaching staff remained.  It’s also possible that the struggles of the rest of the line were a result (at least in part) of Cleveland’s deciding not to run.  Run blockers and backs get into a rhythm in the running game that is every bit as palpable as the rhythm that a passer and his receivers get into in the passing game.  But you have to run the ball for that to happen.  When a team that runs all of the time suddenly stops running, it can have a deleterious effect on the linemen who are accustomed to doing the hitting – instead of being hit.  Even the backup linemen, I believe, would have gotten better if they were allowed to settle into the contest.

My instinct is that the Browns should have stayed true to their culture. Even with second-string linemen and backup running backs, they would have given a better account of themselves had they tried a little harder to impose their will.

What to Make of the Browns

All of this becomes more interesting as we try to get a feeling for who this Cleveland team is.  After rising from the dust abruptly last year, they have made a habit of losing their statement games.  They famously had Baltimore dead to rights on Monday night last year before finding a way to lose that game.  They have already lost could-have-been statement games this year against Kansas City and the LA Chargers, as well, now, as the Cardinals.  And while the Arizona game wasn’t terribly close, they played the Chiefs and Chargers nearly evenly – to the point where one more play might have made the difference.

They play a very significant game this evening.  Not only did they lose the game to Arizona, they also lost their other running back, their starting quarterback – and possibly Beckham as well.  All this before having to play a Thursday night game.

Their character is about all they have left tonight as a stripped-down version of the Browns will try to snap this two-game losing streak.  The one factor in their favor is that their opponents (the Denver Broncos) are a very beatable team.

It’s quite early in the season, still, but it almost feels like this game represents a mini-referendum on the state of the Browns.  If they have the grit to find a way to overcome all of this adversity and get past a lesser opponent, then I think we can feel good about where this team is headed.

And if they don’t, well, that will make a statement as well.

The Kansas City Blueprint

In terms of passer rating (70.9), it was the second worst regular-season performance of his career.

With his last pass of the evening Patrick Mahomes connected with wide receiver Tyreek Hill on an 11 yard pass that put Kansas City on Buffalo’s 15-yard line.  First-and-10 with four minutes left in the game.  The problem was, though, that the Chiefs were down 18 points, with little real hope of closing all of that gap in the final four minutes.

Two plays later, the snap of the wet football squirted through Patrick’s hands.  Buffalo recovered the free ball and that was that.  Three minutes and 27 seconds of football time later, Buffalo quarterback Josh Allen took the final knee, and the Bills trotted off the field 38-20 victors (gamebook) (summary).

For Mahomes, the end, perhaps, couldn’t have come soon enough.  When they stepped onto the field, Kansas City represented the league’s second best offense – both in terms of yards and points.  Mahomes himself had been – through four weeks – the league leader in touchdown passes thrown (14) and percentage of passes resulting in touchdowns (9.9%).  His 119.6 passer rating was the second best such figure in football.

But not on Sunday night.

His 33 of 54 night accounted for but 272 yards (only 8.24 per completed pass).  His 2 touchdown passes were more than offset by his two interceptions – his final play fumble being the third turnover on his ledger that night.  Of his 33 completions, only one accounted for more than twenty yards, and the Chiefs finished with 4 turnovers – one which was converted directly into a touchdown for Buffalo, and two of the others came in the red zone as the Chiefs seemed poised to make a game of it after-all.

All of their last three drives ended in Buffalo’s red zone, with only one resulting in a touchdown.  They also turned the ball over on downs at the Buffalo 32-yard line.

By any measure, not this offense’s best day.

There is, however, a growing feeling that this was more than just “one of those days.”  Those who watched the game couldn’t help but notice that Buffalo spent the evening with their safeties very deep with the mandate to let no one in behind them.

The message of the defense was clear.  Run, if you want to.  Drop in all the short passes underneath the safeties that you want.  We will gladly give you all of that.  But no big plays.  If you boys are going to beat us, then you will have to do it slowly and patiently.  You will have to put together a drive.

Since their beating in last year’s Super Bowl, the Chiefs have seen quite a lot of that concept.  It raises a legitimate question.  Can a team that has earned the reputation as football’s most explosive offense cope when that explosive element is taken away?  Color commentator Cris Collinsworth all but offered this as the blueprint for beating the Chiefs.  Deep safeties.  No long pass plays.  Make ‘em crawl.

As completely as that particular defense worked last Sunday night, the facts – as they usually are – are a bit more complicated than that.

In the first place, this coverage scheme is neither new nor unprecedented.  Buffalo played a fairly conventional Tampa-2 – a defensive concept that has been around ever since Tony Dungy was coaching in Tampa Bay a few decades ago.  I guarantee that teams have played split deep-safeties against them before.

Moreover, there are routes that are designed specifically to beat that coverage.  Even beyond the simple underneath completions, there are routes that flood the outside zones – putting those safeties in binds – as well as routes that draw those safeties far to the side lines and open up the middle.  I promise you that Kansas City knows all about those routes.

But, to its credit, when this coverage is employed with exceptional discipline (and Buffalo did that on Sunday night) it can be a very effective inhibitor of the deep passing attack.

Finally, it’s fake news to think that Kansas City lacks the patience to put together long scoring drives.  That has been, in fact, how they’ve usually combated this style of defense.  To pluck just one example, I give you their Division Round conquest of Cleveland last year.  They built a 19-3 halftime lead on the Browns on the strength of two long scoring drives of the type that some people doubt they are capable of.  They marched 75 yards with the opening kickoff in a 10-play drive that drained the first 5:49 off the clock.  Later in the second quarter, they put together a 13-play, 53-yard drive that ate 6:29 of clock (although that drive ended with a field goal).  They put together another such drive in the third quarter – an 11-play, 60-yard, 5:05 drive that also ended in a field goal.  For the game – a 22-17 Chief victory – Kansas City ran the ball 24 times for 123 yards, with Mahomes throwing the ball only 30 times.  Just one of those throws was at a target more than 20 yards up field.

It should also be noted that the Chiefs did the same thing to Buffalo with their first two drives on Sunday night.  Their opening drive consumed 17 plays and 6:29 of the clock – ending in a field goal after an advance of 56 yards.  The next time the offense took the field, they put together an 80-yard, 12 play, 7:55 touchdown drive.

There is no reason to cling to any notion that this offense lacks the patience to drive the ball.  They have amply proven this to be untrue.

OK, fine.  So what happened on Sunday night?  If Kansas City is fully capable of defeating this proposed formula, why did Buffalo have such success with it?

Well, part of the answer was pressure.  When a quarterback has a rugged evening, there is almost always a pressure aspect involved.  After the debacle of their last Super Bowl appearance, Kansas City has gone out and completely revamped its offensive line – and by that, I mean there are no returning starters there.

It’s a good and talented group, but it takes offensive lines a little while to come together.  By season’s end, I expect this group to provide consistent protection to Mahomes and to be a force in the running game.  To this point, however, they are a bit up and down.  Buffalo was able to exploit that inconsistency from time to time.  Pressure was part – but only part – of the answer.

KC’s Biggest Problem

In all honesty, the biggest problem with the Chiefs’ offense is the Chiefs’ defense.  The reason that Kansas City was able to put together those long first-quarter scoring drives was that the defense wasn’t getting blown out yet.  But once Buffalo scored on three consecutive second quarter possessions and opened up a 24-10 lead, it changed the whole dynamic of the game.

It’s simple math.  If you’re down by 18 points in the second quarter, you don’t have time to go on 8-minute scoring drives.  At that point of the contest, you have to look for chunk plays – an objective that the Tampa-2 defense (when well played) will make almost impossible.

If I were a Chiefs fan, I don’t think I’d be all that worried about the offense.  I would save my worry for the defense.

Kansas City has allowed at least 29 points in every game this season – giving up 30 or more in each of the last 4 (with three of those ending up as losses).  Over the last three games, the pass defense is allowing 316 yards a game.  They have given 9 touchdown passes in those games while collecting no interceptions and managing to get to the opposing quarterback just 4 times.  Over those games, the passer rating against this defense is 119.8 – two-tenths of a point better than the rating that Mahomes brought into the Sunday night contest.

Regarding the run defense, only the Chargers so far this year have failed to put up at least 103 rushing yards and run for an average better than 4.3 against them.

Five weeks into the season, the Chiefs rank last in all of football in points allowed, next to last in yards given up, and third from last in rushing yards allowed, rushing touchdowns given up, and average yards per rush.  Right now, Kansas City is a very bad defensive team, and their sinking defense is pulling the rest of the team down with it.

Time to Panic?

At this point, I am quick to note that this isn’t the first time that Kansas City has had early season defensive struggles.  In the pre-Mahomes era it wasn’t at all unusual to see them flounder a bit out of the gate.  Historically, they have always been able to pull things together as the season went on.  With 17 games on the schedule this year, three early losses shouldn’t impact things that much.

They would definitely be better off solving this sooner rather than later.

The Bills Are Not Believers

From my seat, the most telling development wasn’t Kansas City’s offensive struggles, nor was it what the Buffalo offense did to the Kansas City defense.  It was what the Buffalo offense didn’t do that caught my attention.

Everyone remembers that the 2020 Bills were among the more run-averse teams in the league.  Top running backs Devin Singletary and Zack Moss combined for fewer than 19 carries a game – and such running as they did, they did at the end of games when they had the lead.  In the second half of their Championship Game loss to the Chiefs, they ran the ball only 7 times – and 4 of those were scrambles from Allen.

In simple terms, they were that team that didn’t believe in its running game, and willingly made itself one-dimensional, allowing the offense to be all about Josh Allen.

For the first four weeks of 2021, it was a very different offensive concept.  After running “just” 25 times in a season-opening loss to Pittsburgh, Buffalo has had running afternoons of 143 yards on 30 carries against the Dolphins; 122 yards on 33 carries against Washington; and 199 yards on 40 tries against Houston. 

Suddenly, the Buffalo Bills were the NFL’s fifth-best running team, averaging 145.3 rush yards per game.  They were also fourth in running attempts with 128.  Considering that Kansas City was saddled with the thirtieth ranked run defense, it seemed a surety that part of the offensive plan against the Chiefs would include a significant role for the newly proficient running game – which could play a crucial part in controlling the clock and keeping KC’s high-octane offense on the sideline.

But whatever vulnerability the Chiefs might have had against the Bills’ running attack can now only be a matter of speculation.  They never challenged them.  Buffalo packed up its running game and strapped its offense securely to the arm and legs of Josh Allen.  Singletary opened the season with 259 rushing yards through four games, picking up 5.3 yards per carry.  In a game that Buffalo won by 18 points, Devin carried the ball all of 6 times.

Josh ran the ball.  Allen was the team’s leading ball carrier.  He had 11 rushes for 59 yards.  It’s all OK as long as the ball is in Josh’s hands.  But the message here is pretty clear.  Singletary – who really is a talented running back – is good enough to run against Miami, Washington and Houston.  But in the big games, the only one we trust is Josh.

It’s an approach that will almost assuredly catch up with them at some point – especially against the tougher defenses.  Teams that willingly make themselves one-dimensional make things so much harder on themselves.

Not to belabor this point, but a cold-weather team that could potentially see nasty weather in December and January would be very well served to maintain as vital a running game as possible.

A Changing of the Guard?

After the game, the reporters tried to coax the Bills into proclaiming themselves the new kings of the hill.  Showing great maturity, the Bills refused to go down that path.  Josh kindly reminded reporters that it was only October, and four wins doesn’t get you into the playoffs.  In his turn before the microphone, coach Sean McDermott preached the virtue of humility.  “In this league,” he said, “a little humility can go a long way.”

Amen, coach.  Amen.

A little cautionary tale.  Not quite a year ago, the Tampa Bay Buccaneers endured a blood-bath against New Orleans.  They were thoroughly trashed by the Saints, 38-3 – their second loss of the season to New Orleans.  After their overwhelming victory, the Saints were – well, less than humble.

Several month later, one of those two teams was raising the Lombardi Trophy.  And it wasn’t the Saints.

Buffalo is clearly one of the best-coached teams in the NFL.  Not just in terms of X’s and O’s, but also in the mental side of the game.  They have been taught the skill of staying level in what is a decidedly week-to-week league.

That mental balance will serve them very well during the rigors of a very long NFL season.  And if they can achieve a little more balance in their offense, well, that will help, too.

Yes, But Now They Will Have to Stop the Run

The Cleveland Browns were still clinging to a 27-21 lead when their first drive of the fourth quarter petered out on their own 22-yard line.  Facing a fourth-and-20, even had they known what was about to happen, they didn’t really have much choice.  They had to punt – a 39 yarder that was fair-caught by Jalen Guyton on the Charger 39.  What followed was an offensive back-and-forth seldom seen in the NFL these days.

The Chargers went 61 yards for the touchdown in just 4 plays – taking just 1:29 off the clock.

Cleveland answered with a two-play, 78-yard touchdown “drive” that clicked 42 seconds off the clock.

Then it was Los Angeles’ turn.  They went 75 yards in 11 plays for their next touchdown – that drive lasting 3:16.

Five plays and 75 yards later, the Browns were in the end zone finishing a 2:39 drive.

No problem.  The Chargers covered their 75 yards in 6 plays – taking 1:30 to do so.

With 2:55 left in the game – and Cleveland still leading 42-41 thanks to a two-point conversion that they made, and an extra-point missed by Los Angeles kicker Tristan Vizcaino – the streak finally ended when Kareem Hunt’s third-and-9 carry gained only 3 yards, and the Browns – backed on their own 18 – were compelled to punt again.

The five drives (all ending with touchdowns) took 28 plays resulting in 364 yards of offense and taking just 9:36 to do so.  The 28 plays gained an average of 13 yards each.

This was the high point of a wild-and-wooly second half that saw the two teams rack up 593 yards of offense and score 56 points – 41 of them in that explosive fourth quarter.

The Chargers – making real noise in the early part of the season – came away with the 47-42 win (gamebook) (summary).

Deservedly, the praise was loudest for second-year quarterback Justin Herbert – who threw for 398 yards and 4 touchdowns (he ran for a fifth) and averaged 15.31 per completed pass.  There were a couple other critical elements of this win, though.

One was Los Angeles’ under-rated running game.  Lined up against the NFL’s third-best run defense (allowing just 66.0 yards per game and 3.1 yards per carry), the Chargers punched through for 112 important rushing yards and 3 ground touchdowns.  They averaged 4.9 yards per carry on their 23 rushes, with Austin Ekeler doing the heavy lifting.  He pounded his way for 66 yards on 17 carries, getting almost half of his yards (32 of them) after contact.

This physical running attack contributed materially to LA’s resurgent red zone performance.  Through four weeks, LA had converted 20 trips into the red zone to just 11 journeys into the end zone.  That 55% efficiency ranked them twenty-fourth in the league.

On Sunday, though, they were 4-for-4 with three of those touchdowns coming from the running game.  The highlight reels feature the big plays – and 4 of the combined 12 touchdowns were on plays of 40 yards or more.  But the ultimate difference here was the running game and LA’s 4-for-4 red zone performance compared with Cleveland’s 3-for-6 in the same territory.

That, by the way, was another noteworthy shift for the Chargers.  While they were one of the statistically worst red zone offenses, after four weeks they had proved equally challenged defensively in the red zone.  Eight of their opponents’ 11 red zone possessions had ended in touchdowns – a 72.7% that ranked them twenty-fifth in the league.  But not on Sunday.

Riverboat Brandon?

All of that, though, probably still would not have been enough to win this game without head coach Brandon Staley’s almost reckless willingness to go for it on fourth down.  Four times Staley let his offense try to pick up that first down.  They succeeded outright on three of those and were gifted the fourth on a fairly questionable pass interference penalty.

Cleveland opened the second half with a 52-yard touchdown sprint from Nick Chubb to push the Browns’ lead to 27-13.  At that point, there was still 12:31 left in the third.  Los Angeles’ subsequent 84-yard, 14 play drive was almost over before it began.  A third-and-9 pass from Herbert to Donald Parham came up two yards short.  Already down two touchdowns, Staley’s team was sitting on its own 24-yard line when he took the fourth-and-2 gamble that proved to be the turning point of the contest.

Ekeler’s 9-yard run kept the drive going.  It would be the first of two fourth-down conversions on that drive.  Herbert capped the drive with a 9-yard touchdown run, and just like that LA was back in the game.  The Chargers would score touchdowns on 5 of their last 6 possessions to complete the comeback against a Cleveland team (now 3-2) that had been making some noise of their own during the early season.

Talking about the fourth-and-2 after the game, Staley said the decision was not really analytics driven.  It was a response to “the game that was before (him).”  In the press conference he denied any feelings of concern about the call – even though a failure to convert could well have been disastrous for them.  Two yards, he implied, were nothing.  However confident he truly was, his team rewarded his faith with a conversion, and ultimately a victory.  They are now 4-1 on the season.

Cleveland’s Lament

For the Browns, the lament was with the way the first half played out.  In what could only be called a display of domination, Cleveland controlled the ball for 21:39 of the first half, outgaining the Chargers 263-168.  But they went into the locker room ahead by just one touchdown (20-13) due entirely to their own red-zone struggles.  They were 2-for-5 in that half.

They kicked two field goals – one after their opening drive had moved 75 yards in a 10-play, 6:32 drive that stalled at the LA 17, and the other after they recovered a Charger fumble on the LA 22 yard line.  That opportunity, though, came with just 38 seconds left in the half, and Cleveland holding just one timeout.  They weren’t able to mount any real threat and settled for three points.

The other red zone trip ended without any points.  While Los Angeles was unstoppable on fourth down, Cleveland rolled snake-eyes on their own fourth-down gamble.  On fourth-and-2 from the LA 17, receiver Odell Beckham dropped the pass that would have kept the drive alive.

Thus, the Browns let Los Angeles hang around until their own offense could get untracked.

San Francisco Pays the Price

Some 350 or so miles to the south-east, San Francisco head coach Kyle Shanahan’s fourth-down aggressiveness may well have cost his team the game.

In fairness to Kyle, he was starting a rookie quarterback against the highest scoring team in the league, so he may well have felt that he couldn’t really afford to punt.  If it was fourth-and-reasonable, he was probably pre-determined to go for it.  In contrast to the Chargers’ success, the 49ers finished 1-for-5 on fourth down in a 17-10 loss in Arizona (gamebook) (summary).  Had he known how well his defense was going to play, he might well have reconsidered.

With his defensive ends keeping quarterback Kyler Murray confined in the pocket the entire evening, the 49er defense effectively removed Kyler as a running threat.  Murray ended the contest with 1 rushing yard in 7 carries.  Even granting that the last three of those 7 carries were extreme kneel-downs in which Kyler lost a total of 7 yards, this effort on the part of the San Francisco defense successfully eliminated a foundational element of the Cardinal offense.  Forced to stay home, Murray still threw the ball very well.  He completed 71% of his passes (22 of 31) and finished with an excellent passer rating of 104.1.

But denied his perimeter game, the passing game lacked its customary explosiveness.  Only two of Kyler’s 22 completions exceeded 30 yards, and, after tossing 9 touchdown passes through the first 4 games, Murray managed just 1 against San Fran.

The Arizona running game – which had been averaging 136.5 yards per game and 4.4 yards per carry – also struggled in the absence of Murray’s contributions.  The Cards finished with just 94 rushing yards, and a 3.5 per carry average.  It was an outstandingly disciplined performance from a defense that has been less that elite through the first quarter of the season.

On the offensive side, though, (as Jimmy Garoppolo missed yet another game with an injury) Shanahan gave rookie quarterback Trey Lance his first career start.  Trey – very much a work in progress – completed 15 of his 29 passes, which pretty accurately expressed his game – about equal parts good and bad.

Trey is one of the new-style quarterbacks who is more polished as a runner than a thrower, and as with all such runners, Kyle intended to showcase that ability.  Lance led all rushers in the game with 89 yards on 16 carries – 12 of them designed runs.  While it’s a nice weapon to have, I don’t think there’s any question the 49ers leaned too heavily on Trey’s legs.

His 12 designed rushes represented slightly more than one fifth of their 59 offensive plays.  He had more designed runs than handoffs to top rusher Elijah Mitchell, who carried just 9 times, and more carries than throws to top receiver Deebo Samuel (who saw only 9 passes in his direction).

Instead of letting Trey lean on his more established play-makers, Shanahan put the burden of the offense pretty squarely on the legs of his 21-year-old rookie signal caller.  A questionable approach.

But Oh Those Fourth Downs

Nonetheless, with the outstanding effort of the defense, the 49ers might still have won the game if they had just taken the points that were presented to them.

Twice in the first half, Shanahan passed up field goal opportunities, opting instead for Trey’s legs.  Both times the gambit fell short.  The second of those was the signature moment in the game, when Lance was denied at the goal line by Isaiah Simmons and Tanner Vallejo.

In the fourth quarter, Cardinals ahead by just three points, 10-7, the 49ers faced a fourth-and-four just barely on the Arizona side of the fifty-yard line.  This time Lance tried to throw for the first down – with no better results.  Given a short field, Kyler moved the Cards the 52 yards they needed in 5 plays for the game-icing touchdown.

If they had kicked field goals when they could have, they would have been ahead in the contest, 13-10, when the fourth and four came up.  If they had then punted and pinned Arizona deep instead of handing them the ball at midfield, it’s conceivable that the Cardinals might not have gained anything more than a field goal from the ensuing drive.

I realize, though, that this is asking a lot of any coaching staff – especially in an era where analytics are pushing teams to be more aggressive with their fourth down opportunities.  Especially the fourth-and-goal at the one – the moment that ended with the goal-line collision.  It’s hard to send the field goal unit onto the field in that situation.

But as going for it on fourth down becomes ever more prevalent, all should be reminded that it comes with risks.  Brandon Staley and the Chargers probably don’t win their game if they didn’t repeatedly attempt to convert those fourth downs.  Kyle Shanahan got burned by a similar aggression.

Ready for Week Six?

Regardless of how they got there, the Cardinals reach Week Six with a 5-0 record, and the Chargers enter the week with a 4-1 record.  But at this point, both teams will have to address a concerning weakness.  Both teams have struggled stopping the run.

As Los Angeles survived the Browns, they did so in spite of the fact that they were shredded on the ground.  With Chubb’s 161 yards leading the way, Cleveland racked up 230 rushing yards.  In averaging 6.6 yards per rush, Cleveland broke 5 tackles and averaged 4.76 yards per rush after contact.

This was not an isolated incident.  This was the fourth time in five games that LA had surrendered 126 or more rushing yards, and the third time already that they have given up 186 or more.  They will enter Week Six carrying the league’s last-ranked run defense – allowing 157.6 rush yards per game.  They also rank last in yards per carry, allowing 5.6 per attempt.

A big deal?  It will be this week as they face off against the Baltimore Ravens and their fourth ranked rushing attack (148.8 yards per game).  If they don’t play better run defense against the Ravens, they will come crashing quickly back to earth.

For their part, even though they beat San Fran, the Cardinals were hurt on the ground again.  The 49ers finished with 152 rushing yards.  Subtracting the yards from the quarterback drops the ground yards to 63 – but in just 12 rushes – an average of 5.25 yards per rush.

Like the Chargers, the Cardinals had trouble wrapping up.  Even though the running backs only had 12 carries, they still broke 3 tackles and ground out 3.92 yards after contact.

As with the Chargers, this wasn’t a one-off.  Arizona has now allowed at least 121 rushing yards in four straight games, with three of those opponents earning at least 150 overland yards.  The Cards have sunk to twenty-eighth in the league in stopping the run (they are allowing 139 yards per game) and they are better only than the Chargers in yards allowed per rush (5.4).

Next for them is the same Cleveland club that scorched Los Angeles.  The Browns currently boast football’s top running game.  They lead the league in rushing attempts (175) yards (938 – 187.6 per game), average (5.4 per) and rushing touchdowns (12).

If the Cards can’t figure this part out, the Browns could very easily end their undefeated run.

Stopping the run is one of those essential, primordial football principles.  The Chargers and Cards have had great overall starts to the 2021 season.  But no one can survive for long in the NFL if you’re getting gashed in the run game.

If these teams don’t get better at this aspect, they will sink as quickly as they rose.

How Else Would It End?

The end, when it came, was almost merciful.

Four hours and 15 minutes after it had started, Alex Reyes threw his final pitch of the season – a slider that caught too much of the plate – and Los Angeles’ Chris Taylor drove it into the sprawling mass of humanity beyond the left field wall.

And that was it.  After the franchise-record 17-game September winning streak had brought them a miraculous berth in the playoffs.  After all the 2011 vibes.  After a performance for the ages from Adam Wainwright.  After all of that, St Louis’ relevance in the playoffs lasted exactly 255 minutes.

The Dodgers are now up to their necks in their next series (against the Giants).  Next for the Cardinals will be spring training 2022.

I say merciful, because I honestly don’t think I could have taken another inning of watching the Cardinal hitters being bullied by the Dodger pitchers.  A first-inning single (struck at all of 75.7 mph) off the bat of Tommy Edman, a stolen base, a fly ball, and a wild pitch was all that stood between the Cardinals and being shut out in the final game of their season.

As they were thoroughly dominated over the last 8 innings of the game, it became apparent that – since the Cardinals weren’t going to score again – at some point, some Cardinal reliever would allow the run that would finish the season.

That the offense finished 0 for 11 with runners in scoring position was just the tip of the iceberg.  For the game, they were 0-for-19 with any runner on any base.  Nine of the 17 Cardinals who came to the plate with the bases empty reached base (5 singles, 2 walks and 2 hit batsmen) – a .529 on base percentage.  The 22 batters at the plate with some runner on managed 2 walks and a sacrifice hit.

They were just simply over-matched.

It was fitting, then, that that final blow came in the ninth inning, and came against Reyes.  It’s how all of our signature losses occurred this season.

From the All-Star Break to the end of the season, the Cardinals suffered through a 5.04 team ERA in the ninth inning.  In spite of their 23 September wins, the team’s ninth-inning September ERA was a concerning 6.04.

In the season’s second half, Reyes pitched 15.2 innings in the ninth inning – allowing 4 home runs with a 5.74 ERA.  The last three ninth-inning batters that Alex faced all hit home runs off of him – almost homering for the cycle.  Pittsburgh’s Yoshi Tsutsugo hit a three-run home run to beat the Cardinals 4-3 on August 29; Milwaukee’s Daniel Vogelbach touched off a grand-slam to send the Brewers to a 6-5 win on September 5; and then, the two-run drive from Taylor on Wednesday night.

In some sense, it was an almost predictable ending to a wildly unpredictable season.  What we are left with (in the aftermath) is a team that was mostly average for most of the season, enjoyed an unbelievable hot streak for about 20 games, and then became average again until the opportunities ran out on them.

After 163 games, I still don’t believe I truly know who this team was.

Looking ahead is actually much easier than looking back.  Going forward, we can say – with some surety – that the foundation is in place.  The young outfielders (question marks entering the season) all took great steps forward.  Paul Goldschmidt – after an uninspiring start – became one of the best hitters in baseball in the second half.  Nolan Arenado did some good things with the bat, and will probably be much better next year.

Against the wave of injuries that dogged the pitching staff, a myriad of pitchers got opportunities.  Thirteen different pitchers made starts for the Cards.  Eight of them made at least 11 starts.  Of the 13, only 6 are certain to be back next year, but from those 6 the team is confident it can craft a solid rotation: Adam Wainwright, Jack Flaherty, Miles Mikolas, Dakota Hudson, Jake Woodford and Johan Oviedo.  The plan is also to move Reyes (after pitching 72.1 innings in the pen) into the rotation.  The Cards also have a top prospect in Matthew Liberatore who could be in the mix as well.

The three lefties acquired around the trade deadline (Jon Lester, J.A. Happ and Wade LeBlanc) all pitched fairly well in stretches.  Some or all of them may be asked back.

Among the candidate’s for the rotation, then, there is quite a bit of depth, and a good blend of youth and experience.

After surviving a two-year deluge of injuries, the bullpen has a good many productive arms to choose from – beginning with fireballers Jordan Hicks and Genesis CabreraGiovanny Gallegos – who ended the season as the closer – will return with his devastating slider.  Two more very hard throwers in Junior Fernandez and Ryan Helsley should be healthy again by next year, and late additions T.J. McFarland and Luis Garcia (another hard thrower) should also have earned the attention of the team. 

St Louis had five different pitchers who crossed over the 100 mph mark this season.  Hicks (who threw as high as 103.2), Helsley (101.3), Fernandez (100.6), Garcia (100.5) and Cabrera (100.4).  Reyes came close (his fastest was 99.5) and Oviedo (who topped out at 98.7) threw the fastest pitch among the starters.  It’s a lot of high octane arms.

Add in Kodi Whitley – who was very impressive down the stretch, and the Cards have an abundance of options to go along with all the promising young hitters and the best defense in baseball.  This is a team that could easily see itself taking that next step.  That’s what made their long flirtation with the .500 mark so confounding.  They woke up on September with a 69-68 record, waiting until they were 14.5 games behind in the division with just 25 games left before flipping the switch.

A year of reasonably good health would help a lot.  The Cardinals lost a total of 1155 games to the injured list (an average of 7.1 injured players per every game played).  Four of the five who missed the most time were important pitchers who could have made a significant difference in the season.  Hudson missed 153 games, Hicks was gone for 133, Mikolas was down for 119 games, and Flaherty missed 88.  LeBlanc joined the club with 94 games left in the season, and spent the last 48 of those on the injured list.

All told, 891 of their injury days (77.1%) were to pitchers – a test to any team’s depth.

Assuming a normal injury year, there isn’t much left to be done to transform this group into a legitimate contender.  There is a personnel decision to make this offseason.  Do they believe that Edmundo Sosa – who was quite the sparkplug once he took over at short – is the starter there?  Or will they pursue one of several premium shortstops on the market.

The final step forward for this team will simply be to play better in the playoffs, themselves.  Of course, there is no dishonor in losing a tight game to an elite Dodger team.  But watching that game I don’t feel that they played well at all.

If you think about it, the pressure should have been squarely on the Dodgers.  They were the 106-win team – not to mention the defending champions – forced into a win-or-go home playoff with a team that finished sixteen victories behind them.  A loss in this game turns Los Angeles’ season into debacle.  And yet, it was the Dodgers who played their game in the one-game playoff, and the “playing-with-house-money” Cardinals who were visibly affected by the magnitude of the game.

Few of the hitters took good at bats.  Tyler O’Neill, Nolan Arenado and Yadier Molina went 0-for-12 with nary a good at bat among them.  Dylan Carlson did get a hit on a dribbler to the left side that beat the shift, but the rest of his at bats were nervous as well.

The nerves were even more pronounced on the pitching side – especially from Garcia and McFarland.  These were two arms whose consistency in throwing strikes had settled the bullpen remarkably in the season’s second half.  But Luis threw fewer than 60% strikes (just 16 of his 27 pitches), surviving his 1.2 innings giving a hit and a walk but no damage.  McFarland only found the strike zone with 8 of his 18 pitches.  While Alex served up the game-winning home run, the winning run was actually charged to T.J. – who had walked left-hander Cody Bellinger ahead of Taylor’s blast.  In 38.2 innings during the season, McFarland walked just 9 batters (one intentional).

Cody was only the second left-handed batter that TJ walked all season.

Last year in the series against San Diego I noticed much the same thing.  Far too many of them let the moment get to them.  They will not be a serious factor in the playoffs until they can learn to manage the emotions that go along with high-pressure ballgames.

We’re close.  It should all make for an intriguing off-season and a compelling 2022.

NoteBook

The Wildcard game lasted 4:15 – in spite of the fact that the teams combined for just 4 runs and 12 hits.  It was the longest Cardinal game since it took 4:34 to subdue the Mets in New York on September 14.  That game went 11 innings.  The Wildcard game was St Louis’ longest 9-inning game of the season.  The previous longest 9-inning game occurred on September 5 – when Vogelbach’s grand slam gave the Brewers a 6-5 walk-off win and ending a 4:08 marathon.

The official attendance of 53,193 was the biggest crowd to see a Cardinal game this season.  The season’s previous largest crowd was the 48,182 that showed up in Coors Field on July 3.

My Designated Hitter Rant

Every year now, baseball purists in the National League are continuously threatened with the permanent infliction of the designated hitter.  Last year, I responded with an extensive rant against the DH.  While trying to update that document, I managed to delete it.  So, I have re-written it here.  The hope is to set forth a reasonable argument for keeping the DH far, far away from National League parks.  I encourage you to read it and pass it along to other like-minded fans of this great old game.

One-and-Three is No Place to Be

When, with 55 seconds left in the game, Nick Folk’s desperation 56-yard field goal attempt doinked off the left upright, it cemented Tampa Bay’s victory and sentenced the New England Patriots to a 1-3 start in the second year of their post-Brady existence.  They finished 7-9 last year – mostly with Cam Newton under center.

It seemed as though the entire nation had tuned in to see the return of the great Tom Brady to New England, now with seven world championships and 3 MVP awards highlighting a twenty-two year resume (oh, and by the way, during the first quarter of the game Brady passed Drew Brees’ record for most career passing yardage – he finished the game with 80,560). It was expected that the defending champs from Tampa Bay had come to rub a little salt into the wounds of the Patriot faithful and administer a little insult to injury.  The expectation was that the Bucs would roll over the rebuilding Patriots.

But a funny thing happened on the way to their expected blowout.  A couple of funny things, actually.

First, Tom ran into a determined and impassioned defense, that – back by a drenching rain – had answers for nearly everything Brady and the Bucs threw at them.

After holding Brady to just 7 of 16 (43.8%) in the second half, Tom’s final numbers were a very un-Brady-like 22 for 43 (51.2%) for 269 yards and no touchdowns.  The Buccaneers scored just 1 touchdown on the night, while going 1-for-4 in the red zone as they scuffled to a 19-17 victory (gamebook) (summary).

Tom was 7-for-8 on screen passes for 57 yards.  On all throws that were to targets beyond the line of scrimmage, he completed just 15 of 35 (42.9%) for 212 yards (6.06 per) with no touchdowns – but also no interceptions (Tampa Bay did not turn the ball over) – a 63.0 rating.

In that regard, the Patriot defense delivered as much as could possibly be hoped for.  The Bucs managed just 1 play of 20+ yards in the entire second half.

Tampa Bay’s response to the difficulties of their passing attack was curious – considering that they are Tampa Bay.  They ran the ball.  Insistently.  In the fourth quarter, after New England had opened up a lead, Tampa ran on the first two plays of their next drive, and ran the ball six times during a grinding 15 play, 68 yard drive that ticked 6:59 off the fourth quarter clock and led to the field goal that regained the lead for Tampa Bay.

Tampa Bay is an odd duck with regards to its running game.

There are a few teams out there that run the ball for a living.  Cleveland and Baltimore – among a few others – will force you to stop their running attacks.  Most other teams are pass-first teams that will turn to the running game after they have built up a lead.  There are a handful of teams – Dallas is one – that present a balanced offense.

There are some teams that don’t really like to run, but if the running game is working early they might stick with it.  Kansas City has been this type of team in the past, although they may be morphing more toward the balanced concept.  In the past, Tampa Bay has fallen into this category – but not consistently.

If anything, the Bucs under Bruce Arians remind me of the old St Louis Rams under Mike Martz.  Sometimes, I think they forget that they have a running game.  They get so mesmerized thinking about Brady throwing the ball all over the lot, that they forget to hand the ball off once in a while.

This happened to them in Week Three.  They ran the ball 13 times in the entire game against the Rams.  The last legitimate running play they ran came with 13:24 left in the third quarter.  Leonard Fournette gained three yards off left guard.  Over the final 28 minutes of the contest, Brady ran the quarterback sneak once (for a touchdown) and scrambled twice.

With 14 rushing yards, Brady led his team in that category last week.  Meanwhile, he threw the ball 55 times.  Both of those statistics mean that the Bucs lost.

This isn’t an isolated occurrence.  In their mid-season beat-down at the hands of the New Orleans Saints last year (analyzed here), Tampa Bay ran the ball 5 times in the entire game (including a kneel-down at the end).

That, for those of you who were along for our discussions last year, was a kind of turning point in the Buccaneer season.  As they pushed on to their championship, they religiously kept their offensive balance – one of several significant adjustments to their offensive concept as the season wore on (here is one post where I summarized these adjustments).

After running fairly infrequently in the first half (9 runs), Tampa Bay was all about the run in the second half.  While Brady threw the ball just 16 times, the Bucs ran 21 times – even though that gained them just 66 yards (3.1 per).  They had no running play longer than 8 yards.  And yet, they kept running.  Even though they weren’t reaping a bounty of yards on those plays – and even when they were behind in the fourth quarter.

Whether they will run the ball more than ten times the entire game next week is anybody’s guess.  The Bucs can be a little hard to anticipate sometimes.

Whether they were running because they hadn’t the previous week, or because of the rain, of for some other reason, one of the great benefits you reap from running is clock control.  Tampa Bay possessed for 18:03 of the second half.  It turned out to be important as it kept a suddenly nettlesome Patriot offense on the sidelines.

Ready for His Close-Up

If the world had tuned in for the chess match between Brady and Bill Belichick, what they were treated to was a coming out party for Brady’s replacement – a rookie quarterback named Mac Jones.

A cerebral kid, playing in just his fourth NFL game, Jones commanded the pocket, read defenses, and delivered accurate passes all night.  Tampa Bay blitzed him constantly until they realized that blitzing Mac wasn’t flustering him.

With color voice Cris Collinsworth singing his praises, Jones introduced himself to broader America in nearly spectacular fashion.  He completed 77.5% of his passes (31 of 40), and led New England to three lead changing scores – two of them in a wild fourth quarter.  Jones did an impressive job running all of the offense that offensive coordinator Josh McDaniels gave him to run.

That Jones and the Patriots lost was less a function of Mac’s play, and more a function of their limited offensive concept.

First of all, New England completely abandoned the run.  Tampa Bay is football’s best run defense, so no one expected New England’s re-building offense to damage the Bucs with their running game.  But you have to run some.  You need to maintain some balance.

Instead, the Patriots went into the locker room at halftime with all of 6 rushes for a total of negative six yards.  They ran exactly twice in the second half, for 5 official yards.  But even that figure is misleading.  Their longest running play of the game was really a screen pass to Nelson Agholor that ended up in the rushing statistics because the pass went backwards.  That play earned a whopping 4 yards.  Remove that play from the rushing statistics, and the Patriots finished with -5 yards on 7 rushes.  Their longest run of the day becomes a 1-yard plunge by Damien Harris.

You just can’t win with a gaping hole where your running attack is supposed to be.  Tampa Bay had totaled three quarterback sacks in its first three games.  They dumped Jones four times on Sunday Night – and a principle reason behind that was there wasn’t even a ghost of a running game that they had to respect.

The other thing that Jones didn’t do that needed to be done is throw the ball deep.  Yes, there was rain, and yes there was pressure.  But of his 40 passes, none were thrown more than 20 yards up field, and only 8 of them were thrown more than ten yards up field.  Thirty-one of 40 is an impressive percentage, but they were almost entirely screen passes and dump offs.

I don’t think anyone who watched him lead that 74-yard, 11-play, 6:21 first quarter touchdown drive could fail to be impressed by his presence and his decision making – not to mention his accuracy.  But right now, this 1-3 team is offensively limited.

You can see, though, that this franchise won’t stay down for too very long.

Pittsburgh

For many, many years the Patriots against the Steelers would decide the AFC representative in the Super Bowl.  Now – after the Steelers were taken down by Green Bay, 27-17 (gamebook) (summary) – both teams are 1-3.

Post-game, the critics are starting to weigh in quite loudly.  It seems trendy to write off the Steelers and veteran quarterback Ben Roethlisberger.  Admittedly, they don’t look very good right now, but I’m going to advise a little caution before turning the page on the Steelers. 

The NFL season is at its most deceptive right about now.  For whatever reason, some teams – even veteran teams with highly regarded coaching staffs – aren’t really meshing as the season begins.  Sometimes it takes a while for them to get out of neutral.  Four weeks into the season, it’s very easy to over-react to any number of developments – good or bad.

Twenty seconds before halftime, the Steelers seemed to have turned the game when Minkah Fitzpatrick blocked a field goal attempt.  He scooped up the ball at his own 25 and jetted into the end zone for the score that should have given Pittsburgh a 17-14 halftime lead.  The play was nullified by a penalty that I’m not convinced happened.

As the game wore on, Roethlisberger and the offense had some other opportunities to punch the ball in.  Specifically, Ben overthrew JuJu Smith-Schuster on a couple of shot plays.  The Ben-to-JuJu connection was just 2 for 8 (1 for 4 in each half) for just 11 yards, but the problems don’t seem irresolvable.

Certainly the Steelers can’t be happy about their start, but let’s not over-react.  It’s still quite early.  They need their offensive line to come together, find a little more potency in the running game, and get Ben back in rhythm with his receivers, but my instinct is that Pittsburgh will be heard from before the season is over.

Colts and Dolphins

Indianapolis and Miami combined for 21 wins last season.  The Dolphins just missed the post season – unusual for a 10-win team – and the Colts nearly pulled off a first-round upset of the Buffalo Bills.  They are both 1-3 now, after Indy fought past the Dolphins 27-17 last Sunday (gamebook) (summary).

This is head coach Frank Reich’s fourth season in Indianapolis and his fourth starting quarterback in those four seasons.  He has taken the Colts to the post-season in two of his first three years.  Now, the quarterback chaos of the offseason has landed Carson Wentz in Indy.  The move to Indiana was supposed to re-set Wentz’ career – and it may yet.  But true to the recent Colt tradition (and, I’m afraid true to Carson’s career pattern) injuries have kept him off the field and hindered his acclimation to his new team and new surroundings.

But, after an unremarkable first half, Wentz led the Colts to 20 second-half points on 12 of 16 passing (75%) for 150 yards and 2 touchdowns.  Perhaps the start of something big for Indianapolis?  Time will tell.

As for Miami, this is one that they just gave away.

In the first quarter, a muffed punt gave Miami the ball on the Indy 27 yard line.  They eventually drove to a first-and-goal on the Colt 5-yard line.  They settled for a field goal.  They would get another short field in the second quarter – starting at mid-field after Indianapolis punted from its own goal line.  They did nothing with that opportunity.

In the second quarter, they forced an Indianapolis punt – but an offside penalty gave the ball right back, and Indy turned the mistake into a touchdown.  In the third quarter, another offside penalty turned an Indianapolis third-and-11 into a makeable third-and-6 – possibly making the difference between a Colt field goal and the touchdown they eventually scored.

With 7:01 left in the game – Indy up by 20-10 – Emmanuel Ogbah chased Wentz down for no gain on a third-and-13.  It was a play that should have forced a field goal.  But Jaelan Phillips was hit with a phantom face-mask penalty.  Three plays later, Wentz threw his final touchdown pass of the game.

From a purely statistical standpoint, Miami didn’t make all that many mistakes.  They turned the ball over twice and were flagged for 5 penalties.  But they made all their mistakes at the worst possible times.  Even though their starting quarterback is out, this is a game that Miami should have won.

While I think that all four of these 1-3 teams are probably better than they have shown, their rugged starts have left them in holes of varying depths.  The Steelers are already two games behind the rest of the division (Cincinnati, Cleveland and Baltimore are all off to 3-1 starts).  In their division, they can’t afford to fall behind any further.  If they are going to shake themselves out of their doldrums, they had better do it quickly.

The Dolphins and Patriots are already two games behind Buffalo.  That team will be pretty hard to catch from behind.

The AFC South – where the Colts reside – is a different story, though.  At 1-3, Indy is only one game behind leader Tennessee (just 2-2).  Of the four teams that are surprises at 1-3, the Colts have the best prognosis.

But they can’t afford to flounder for much longer.

Tap the Brakes a Bit

Viewers of last Sunday’s match-up between Arizona and the LA Rams would have heard Chris Myers anoint the Cardinals as the best team in football.

It’s well too early to make sweeping declarations like that (even though the Cardinals are football’s last undefeated team), but there is a lot to like about this Arizona team – both for the season in general and the Ram game in particular.  Sunday’s performance (a 37-20 victory) was awfully impressive (gamebook) (summary).

The fact, for instance, that they were 8 for 13 on third down is good (61.5% – the league average is 40.7%).  But what the raw number doesn’t show is three important third-and-long conversions that all but broke the Rams’ backs.

With 9:40 left in the first half (Arizona up 14-10 at the moment), quarterback Kyler Murray broke out of the pocket and flanked the Ram defense – converting a third-and-16 with an 18 yard scramble up the left sideline.  Two plays later, James Conner was in the end zone with the score that pushed the Cardinal lead to 21-10.

Now there is 1:10 before the half, Arizona – up 21-13 – is just outside of field goal range at the Ram’s 39.  They face a third-and-14.

Murray is flushed from the pocket again and looks like he is about to pull he ball down and scramble for it.  Just before he reaches the line of scrimmage, he notices Rondale Moore just off to his right.  Moore takes the short pass and jets 16 yards for the first down that led to an end of half field goal and a 24-13 halftime lead.

By the time that Arizona faced a third-and-7 from its own 4-yard line, the game was pretty much decided.  There was 10:35 left in the game, with the Cards up 34-13.  But, as if to add the exclamation point, Chase Edmonds bolted up the middle for 54 yards.  It would lead to another field goal.

This is a Ram defense that isn’t used to giving up the big plays on third and long.  Throughout much of the game it didn’t seem like they were prepared for Kyler’s speed.  That’s a significant statement.  The Rams have played Murray twice a year ever since he came into the league.  If anyone would be prepared for Kyler’s quickness and speed, you would think it would be the Rams.

Lest you have forgotten, last year’s Ram team was first in total defense and third against the run.  The Cardinals cracked them open for 100+ rushing yards in each half – finishing with 216 ground yards.  And this behind a make-shift offensive line.

Arizona will prepare to face San Francisco tomorrow (with the 49ers giving rookie Trey Lance his very first start).  After four weeks, Arizona is number one in total offense and number one in scoring offense.  They are averaging 35 points a game.

It may be well too early to crown Arizona as the best team in football.  There are way too many games left to be played.  But in the early weeks, this team very much has the look of a team that has taken a giant step forward.  No longer just a good team likely to make the playoffs, this Arizona team looks like one that no one really wants to play right now.

Please Leave the Fences Where They Are

As the Cardinals lost the last two games of their regular season, they finished the regular season portion of the 2021 campaign with an identical home/road won lost record.  They finished at 45-36 in both.

If the overall records were identical, though, the offensive character of their road contests were vastly different.  In 81 home games, St Louis scuffled to 307 runs (3.79 per game), managed 77 home runs (one every 33.74 at bats) and slugged a modest .385.  For 81 road games, this was one of the most productive and dangerous offenses in baseball.  They scored 399 runs away from home (4.93 per game), slapped 121 home runs (one every 22.75 at bats) and slugged .436.

As the season rolled along, the gulfs separating home and road production deepened substantially.  Since the All-Star Break, the club scored 6.25 runs per game on the road, hit a home run every 18.3 at bats, and slugged .517 when they were away from the semi-cavernous confines of Busch.  Their corresponding home numbers were 3.70 rpg, 29.8 ab/hr, and .393 slugging percentage.  Over the last 32 games of the season, when they made their surge into the playoffs, St Louis scored 6.81 runs per game on the road, while scoring 3.75 at home; homered every 15.4 at bats away from home, as opposed to every 24.4 at Busch; and slugged much more proficiently on the road (.545) than they did at home (.406).

Some weeks ago, management acknowledged the issue and declared their intent to study changes that could be made before next season.  That statement caused two reactions.

First reaction: really?  It’s just now coming to your attention?  I, for one, have been writing intermittently about the team’s home/road differences for the five years that this site has been active, and I haven’t treated it as any kind of secret.  I would bet that every single ballplayer that has come through here has noticed that balls don’t fly out of here like they might in many other venues.  Certainly the fans know all about this.

And then, there are the historic numbers.  Over the course of just this century (including playoff games), St Louis is scoring 4.65 runs per game, while hitting 1790 home runs at Busch (a home run every 33.06 at bats).  On the road, they have been scoring 4.77 runs per game, while hitting 2114 baseballs over foreign fences – one every 29.04 at bats.

Whether or not you consider this a problem, it is, nonetheless, a fact that a lot of fly balls that would be home runs in many other parks die at the Busch Stadium warning track.  This has been going on forever.

And now you’re aware of it and looking into it?

Second reaction: The knee-jerk answer to a situation like this is to move in the fences.  A decision like that would almost certainly improve home run yield.  Whether that result would best benefit the home team is a somewhat more complex issue.

Logic, of course, suggests that if moving in the fences will aid the home team’s offense, it will also aid the offense of the visiting team.  If the reconfigured ballpark yields more opposing home runs than it adds Cardinal home runs, have you really done yourself a favor?

The numbers suggest that the current dimensions of their home ballpark are more essential to Cardinal pitchers than they are detrimental to Cardinal batsmen.  This season, the Cardinal staff pitched to a 3.65 ERA at home, with a .227/.305/.357 batting line against.  On the road, that ERA inflates to 4.32 with a line of .241/.336/.392.  Over the course of the century so far, the team ERA is 3.55 at home and 4.20 on the road.  At home, the pitching staff has held batters to a .246/.312/.383 batting line – a .694 OPS.  Away from pitcher-friendly Busch, batters are hitting .262/.331/.420 against Cardinal pitching – a .751 OPS.

Moreover – over the course of 22 seasons – St Louis has posted lower ERA’s at home than on the road in 20 of those seasons.  One of those seasons (2016) missed by the slimmest of margins when the road ERA of 4.07 barely edged that season’s home ERA of 4.08.  Meanwhile, there have been four seasons (2006, 2007, 2010 and 2019) where the home ERA has checked in more than a full run lower than the road ERA.  There have been 7 other seasons where the home ERA was at least three-quarters of a run better than the road performance.

Throughout the century so far, a Cardinal starter has achieved a quality start 54.4% of the time at home (973 of 1790), but only 43.9% of the time on the road (793 of 1806).

Conversely, the Cards have actually averaged more runs per game at home than on the road in 9 of the 22 seasons of this century.  In fact, this year has been the only time this century that their road production has outpaced their home scoring by more than a run per game.  As mentioned earlier, the run differential over the course of the century so far is just 0.12 runs per game (4.65-4.77), a much narrower gap than the difference in the pitching numbers.

Whose Ox Gets Gored?

Any offseason change – or lack of change – will negatively impact one half of the team.  So, management will have to choose.  Do we cheapen the home run by pulling in the fences (to the detriment of the pitching staff)?  Or do we leave things as they are (leaving things more difficult for the offense)?  Let me present a few points for consideration.

First – Who Gets Impacted Most?

The statistics already presented suggest the damage done to the pitching end will very likely outweigh any uptick in offensive production.  While the Cardinal lineup – as currently put together – does have more punch than many past versions of the team, there are many other lineups out there that are much more power packed (think of teams like Cincinnati, San Diego, Atlanta, the Dodgers – as well as American League teams like the Yankees, Red Sox, Blue Jays, etc.).  Without reservation, I will predict that a moving in of fences will do more to assist the opposition – especially in key series.

Two – Who Are We (speaking organizationally)?

While the current lineup does have several young sluggers who could profit from a more permissive home park, the real strength – both with the current team and with our soon-to-graduate prospects – is the pitching.  Before us are the entire careers of arms like Jack Flaherty, Dakota Hudson, Matthew Liberatore, Johan Oviedo, Alex Reyes, Jordan Hicks – and more.  Organizationally, St Louis has always been – and will continue to be – a pitching first organization.  Therefore, any move to compromise the pitching side of the team will almost certainly prove to be counter-productive in the long run.

Finally – Consider the Rest of the Division

Considering the rest of the division, clearly this ballpark is the most distinctive.  All of the other teams in the NL Central play in parks that invite the home run (Wrigley, of course, when the wind blows in can be difficult, but historically plays more in favor of the home run than against it).

Therefore – if Busch is kept the way it is – this will always be an uncomfortable road game for the other teams in our division who are uniformly built to hit easy home runs and are unremarkable defensively.  If our offense can continue to be productive in their parks – and there is no reason to think that they won’t – then we can develop the division’s greatest home field advantage if we keep the fences deep.  At that point, the step  to be taken would be a coaching step.

The on field leadership needs to understand the adjustments they need to make to be productive at home.

A Matter of Adjustments

Everything in life is a trade-off.  This is especially true in baseball.  If a large park (like Busch) inhibits the hitting of home runs, it opens the door to other types of offenses.  Deep outfields with spacious gaps are an invitation to doubles and triples.  To a team that can run and play defense, roomy outfields are a decided advantage.  Offensively, it calls for more opposite field hitting (which is an excellent approach anyway in an era where everyone employs exaggerated shifts almost all the time).  The ability to steal bases is also a much more valuable commodity here than in a band-box like the Great American Small Park.

WhiteyBall Deaux?

Everytime a Cardinal fan begins to extoll the virtues of hitting the ball the other way and stealing bases, he is accused of living in the past – of trying to re-create the Whiteyball era.  I’m asking you here to look past that prejudice and understand that a big ballpark rewards a different style of offense.  Yes, Whitey Herzog’s teams of the 1980’s maximized that concept in a way that I don’t believe can be fully re-created today.  But the core principles that made his offense successful are still true today.

Any team that approaches Busch like it were any other ballpark is inviting the frustration of a good many long fly balls dying on the track.  This team doesn’t have to fall into that trap.  Unlike Herzog’s teams, this club can play long ball in visiting parks, while adapting to the unique conditions of its home stadium.

Looking at our current lineup, you can see that most of them are excellent fits for this style of ball.  Players like Tommy Edman, Paul Goldschmidt, Harrison Bader, Tyler O’Neill, Nolan Arenado and Dylan Carlson wouldn’t be completely out of place in Whitey’s lineups.  The alterations necessary here would be milder than you might expect.

In some cases, the adjustment might be a platoon concept.  Like some teams employ different starters depending on whether the pitcher they face is throwing with his right or left hand, the Cardinal lineup could flip depending on whether or not they are playing at home.

This year – for instance – the Cards might have played Paul DeJong most of the time on the road – especially in small ballparks.  In just 170 road at bats, Paul hit 14 home runs.  He only hit .206 away from home, but slugged .488 and held a .775 OPS on the road.  At Busch, his numbers tumbled to .188/.281/.303 (a .582 OPS).  He hit 5 home runs in 186 at bats in his home park.

The home starts – in this scenario – would then predominately go to Edmundo Sosa.  Not a great power source on the road, Edmundo hit .256/.328/.381 on the road, but .289/.368/.398 at home.

As an approach, it’s a bit out of the box, but could be effective.

Mostly though, it would involve a difference in the batter’s approach.  For many in the lineup, the home/road differences aren’t enormous.  O’Neill hit 15 home runs at home, with a .303/.375/.560 batting line.  He hit .270/.330/.560 with 19 home runs on the road.  Goldschmidt was a .286/.348/.500 hitter at home with 14 home runs.  He hit 17 on the road with a .301/.381/.528 batting line.  Carlson hit .306/.364/.483 at home, and .227/.324/.394 on the road.  His 18 home runs were evenly divided.

With the expectation that Dylan’s continued maturity will improve his road performances, I don’t think these players would need to make major adjustments.  I think their production in both locales is more than adequate as is.  Really, there are only two regulars who would profit notably from understanding and adjusting to their home ballpark.

Arenado

If you were to only look at Nolan Arenado’s road numbers, you would see exactly the hitter the Cards hoped they were dealing for.  In 80 road games (308 road at bats), Nolan hit 20 home runs, drove in 56 runs, and hit .279/.336/.549 – an .885 OPS.  But, statistically speaking, the shock of switching Coors Field for Busch Stadium did take its toll.  In 285 home at bats, Nolan managed 14 home runs, with a .228/.287/.435 batting line (a .722 OPS).

In a late-season interview, Arenado expressed regret over the decline in batting average.  In the interview, it sounded like he understood that he had become overly pull-conscious at it sounds like he understands the changes that will bring his 2022 season more in line with his expectations.

Moving from Coors to Busch is about as severe a transition as I think you can experience.  I fully expect Nolan to make the necessary adjustments.

Bader

Of all the current Cardinals – at least among those who seem to have a future with the team – no one presents the opportunity for growth that Harrison Bader does.  On the road, Harrison Bader was not only an All-Star, but a potential MVP.  With injuries limiting him to just 51 road games (and 192 road at bats), Bader clocked 13 home runs, drove in 36 (although he always hit at the bottom of the order) and slashed .328/.380/.604 – a .984 OPS.  Normalizing his at bats to a 550 at bat season, if Bader had been healthy and played in a normal ballpark, he would have finished with 37 home runs, 103 runs batted in – and 17 stolen bases, for that matter – to go with his .984 OPS.

But the player whose skill set seems tailor-made for Busch struggled mightily in his home park.  In 175 Busch at bats, Harrison hit 3 home runs, drove in 14, and batted .200/.264/.303 – a .567 OPS.

Along with O’Neill, Harrison made impressive strides as a hitter in 2021.  But his power doesn’t really play in his home park.  During the season at home, he hit 13 fly balls that travelled at least 340 feet in the air.  Only 3 cleared the fence, while the other 10 were caught on the track.  His 13 road home runs came on just 22 fly balls hit at least 340 feet in the air.  He also collected 3 doubles on those hits.  Only two of his 16 home runs went to right field – both, of course, on the road (July 27 in Cleveland, and September 25 in Wrigley).

Toward the end of the season – as the team as a whole began to migrate from a philosophy of pulling for power to a more balanced offensive approach, Harrison began to make some of the adjustments that will ultimately bring him success in his home park.  Many of his most important hits during the winning streak came on at bats where he slapped an outside pitch to right.

Harrison would be the trickiest.  In theory, he could approach hitting on the road just as he did this year.  But he would accommodate his swing and mind-set when playing at home.  Tricky, but not impossible.

Will the Fences Come In?

I’m afraid that my expectations are that the fences will come in.  It’s an easily defensible move.  The best move, though, is to give this young and talented pitching staff the full benefit of an elite defense playing in a large ballpark, and making necessary adjustments to the way they play offense in spacious Busch.  This is the choice that will provide the maximum home-field advantage.

O’Neill

How deep the Cardinal playoff run will be is anybody’s guess.  If you have to get past the Dodgers’ then I guess a one game, win-or-go-home setting is easier than needing to beat them 4 of 7.  But one thing St Louis can hang its hat on is that young tiger Tyler O’Neill is riding into the playoffs on a torrid hot streak.

After a 6 for 10 series against Chicago – in which 4 of the hits were for extra-bases (including 2 home runs), Tyler ended his season hitting safely in 7 of his last 8 starts – getting multiple hits in 5 of those games.  O’Neill hits LA hitting .406 (13 for 32) and slugging .906 (2 doubles, 1 triple, and 4 home runs) in those starts.

The hot streak cemented Tyler’s recognition as Player of the Month in the NL.  In 32 September/October games, O’Neill hit .328 (39 for 119) and slugged .731 (7 doubles and a triple to go with his 13 home runs).  He scored 31 runs, drove in 30 (including 5 game-winning hits) and even stole 5 bases during the month.

Max Scherzer is, of course, a tough opponent.  But if he makes a mistake to Tyler, it could be a season-defining moment for the young man.

Carlson

One of the most intriguing hitters in the lineup as the playoffs arrive is the rookie Carlson.  Dylan hits the playoffs riding a seven-game hitting streak.  In his last 24 plate appearances, Carlson has 4 singles, 1 double, 3 home runs and 4 walks – a .400/.500/.900 batting line.  With every game, Dylan seems to be more and more comfortable in the big games and the big moments.

Nootbaar

Among the bench players, Lars Nootbaar is another rookie getting better with every at bat.  He finished on an 8 for 18 streak (.444) that included 2 home runs (both in the same game) – a .778 slugging percentage.

Lester and Woodford

The final two starters of the regular season – Jon Lester and Jake Woodford – both scuffled a bit in their playoff tune-ups.  Unlikely to pitch again unless St Louis advances into the Divisional Round, both left something to be desired in their final outings – and neither has really taken advantage of the benefits of pitching at home.

Lester lasted 5 innings in his start, allowing 4 runs on 6 hits – including a grand-slam.  Woodford gave 3 runs in his 5 inning outing.  In six starts at Busch this season, Jon went 0-1 with a 6.25 ERA.  He gave 5 home runs in 31.2 innings.  In his last 4 home starts, Jake posted a 5.09 ERA while allowing a batting average of .301.  His record was 1-2 in those games – including the last loss of the regular season.

NoteBook

St Louis won the first game of its last six series (a good trend to continue on Wednesday night).  Their final game loss broke their streak of six straight series victories.

Paul Goldschmidt authored the walk-off win on Friday, and Carlson put the Cards ahead with a late single in the Saturday game – although that hit did not hold up as the game winner.  Goldschmidt finished the season with 15 game-winning hits and 5 late, game-changing hits.  Carlson also finished with 5 late game-changing hits.

In the final analysis, Yadier Molina finished first on the team in game-winning hits with 16.  Goldy finished second, and Arenado – with 14 – finished third.

Molina also had the most late, game-changing hits with 6.  Right behind him were Goldschmidt, O’Neill and Carlson with 5 each.

At 2:11, the Sunday game (which was called after 7 innings) was the quickest game St Louis played since the second game of a June 20 double-header in Atlanta (also a 7 inning game) took just 1:58 to complete.  The 46,525 who showed up on Sunday was the largest crowd to see a Cardinal game since July 3, when a crowd of 48,182 flocked into Coors.  It was the largest home crowd of the season – edging out the 45,239 who had come to see the Saturday game the night before.

The series average of 44,460.7 was also the largest of the season, eclipsing that Colorado series that averaged 40,676.8 for four games in early July.

As noted above, St Louis finished 45-36 at home – winning 12 series, losing 9 and splitting 5 – in spite of the fact that they were outscored in their home games 314-307.  The home games averaged 3:06.3 and were played before a total attendance of 2,102,530 – an average of 26,281.6 per home date.  Home games were played in an average temperature of 78.0 degrees.  The Cards completed 6 of 7 possible sweeps at home.  Only Kansas City avoided the broom in St Louis, when they claimed a 6-5 win on August 8 (their only victory against their cross-state rivals in six games this season).  St Louis was swept twice at home in 6 chances, and were 4-4 in rubber games played in Busch.

With Sunday’s loss, St Louis fell to 21-5-2 in series when they won the first game.  They were just 2-16-6 when they lost the first game.  They went 3-5 when pushed to a rubber game after winning the first game of a series.  They were 2-4 when they forced a rubber game after losing the first game of a series.

St Louis finished 37-30 in games against teams that had won its previous series (they were 10-8-3 in 21 such series).  They swept 4 of those series (in 6 opportunities) but were swept twice in 4 chances by those teams.  They were 3-4 in rubber games against teams coming off a winning series.

In total, their 90-72 season consisted of 23 winning series, 21 losing series, and 8 splits.  They successfully swept 13 series in 18 attempts, suffered only 5 sweeps in 12 chances, and finished 5-9 in all rubber games.  All Cardinal games averaged 3:10.2 in length, and the total attendance of 3,764,509 averaged out to 23,382.0 per date.  The average temperature of all Cardinal games was 76.2 degrees.

When Edmundo Sosa started the final game at shortstop, it broke DeJong’s streak of 8 consecutive starts at the position.  Modest as it was, it was the longest current streak of consecutive starts at the same position by any Cardinal player.  As Mike Shildt took the final five meaningless games to rest some regulars, the season ended with no one having made more than 4 consecutive starts at the same position.  Arenado (at third base) and O’Neill (in left field) finished with those honors.

With a hit in two at bats in the final game, Harrison Bader finished his 2021 season with career highs in batting average (.267), slugging percentage (.460), OPS (.785) and home run percentage (4.0).  His strikeout rate (21.2 percent of his plate appearances) was the lowest of his young career.

My Designated Hitter Rant

Every year now, baseball purists in the National League are continuously threatened with the permanent infliction of the designated hitter.  Last year, I responded with an extensive rant against the DH.  While trying to update that document, I managed to delete it.  So, I have re-written it here.  The hope is to set forth a reasonable argument for keeping the DH far, far away from National League parks.  I encourage you to read it and pass it along to other like-minded fans of this great old game.