Tag Archives: Arizona Cardinals

What Happens When He’s Not There?

In the second game of the 2019 season, Pittsburgh quarterback Ben Roethlisberger felt a twinge in his throwing arm as he delivered a pass. And that was it for him. His 2019 season was over that quickly.

Unfortunately for Pittsburgh – as with most teams – the loss of their starting quarterback was pretty much the death-knell for their season. A probable playoff team, last year’s Steelers struggled to an 8-8 finish. This year, both San Francisco and Dallas saw their seasons eviscerated by the loss of their starting quarterbacks. The 49ers went to the Super Bowl last year. This year, they floundered to a 6-10 record (of course, quarterback was not their only significant injury in 2020). The Cowboys just missed last year’s playoffs (they were 8-8). They also finished 2020 with a 6-10 record. They were down to their third-string quarterback for a stretch of the season.

If you follow a team for any number of years, then your team has almost certainly – from time to time – had to deal with the loss of your starting quarterback.

So there are many in the NFL family who can fully commiserate with the situation that unfolded in SoFi Stadium, last Sunday. With a playoff berth on the line in the final game of the regular season, the Arizona Cardinals faced off against the Los Angeles Rams and their backup quarterback John Wolford – who had never thrown a pass in the NFL.

One series into the game, and Arizona was down to their second string quarterback as well – a chap named Chris Streveler, who – like Wolford – had never thrown an NFL pass.

Of the two challenging situations, the Rams suddenly had the advantage. They at least knew during the week that they would be going with their backup, and had the opportunity to adjust the game plan around him. For Arizona, they found out slightly more than three minutes into the game that everything was going to have to change.

Neither backup dazzled – although both had their moments. Neither was terrible – although both threw interceptions that cost their teams touchdowns. For Arizona, though, that touchdown would be their only scoring on the day. The Rams fared better – if only moderately so.

Yes, the Rams were 0-for-4 in the Red Zone – but at least they got there. Using a controlled passing game and – surprisingly – the legs of Wolford, LA managed four drives that lasted at least ten plays – three of which consumed more than six and a half minutes of clock time. They ended up with three field goals, with the other drive ending with a fumble on the Arizona goal line. The Cardinals recovered that fumble – temporarily avoiding disaster – only to give back two points on a safety two plays later.

All of that, and a Troy Hill touchdown on an interception return, was enough for the Rams to claim the sixth seed in the playoffs and send Arizona home by an 18-7 score (gamebook) (summary).

For the afternoon, John Wolford became the closest thing either team had to a Kyler Murray (Arizona’s starting quarterback). John picked up 56 rushing yards on six runs – four of them designed runs, and 2 scrambles. He picked up 4 first downs with his legs – more than the rest of the runners on his team combined (Cam Akers and Malcom Brown combined for just 3) and as many running first downs as the entire Arizona team (they managed 4 as well).

Which brings me to my afternoon’s rumination. Setting aside the added preparation time that Wolford had and just looking at these two backup quarterbacks, their skill sets and the systems they operate in, which would you say would have an easier time stepping in for the starter? John Wolford taking over for Jared Goff? Or Chris Steveler replacing for Kyler Murray? I believe a convincing argument could be made here for Wolford. This wouldn’t be because John is necessarily any more talented than Chris. It would have to do more with the offenses they were sliding into.

The rage over the last several years has been the dual-threat quarterback. Murray, Lamar Jackson, Deshaun Watson – there are several others. These are young quarterbacks who are raising the bar of athleticism for the position across the NFL – quarterbacks who run by design, not just when the pass play breaks down. The threat of these guys pulling the ball back and darting through the line for chunk running plays keeps defensive coordinators up at night.

But what happens when you design your offense around a particular talent and then you lose that talent? What happens when he’s not there? In earlier interviews, Baltimore coach John Harbaugh discussed how every personnel decision that the entire organization made revolved around the singular talent of Lamar Jackson. Harbaugh is a brilliant coach, and he has constructed a wondrous football chrysalis around Jackson designed in every particular to enhance his skill set and minimize his weaknesses.

But what happens when the irreplaceable talent needs to be replaced? In a critical game against Pittsburgh this season, Jackson wasn’t available due to that COVID thing. In his place, the substantial talent of Robert Griffin III – whose skill set is similar to Jackson’s – tried to run the same offense with no real success. The Ravens managed just 219 total yards and lost 19-14.

In fairness to RGIII, Baltimore’s practice time was almost non-existent – again due to the COVID outbreak that they were trying to manage. But even given adequate amounts of practice time, there is only one Lamar Jackson – and if his singular talent is the epicenter of your football organization, then when that light blinks out – whether for a game or a season – your football universe finds itself in a very dark place.

This is why I suspect that the dual-threat quarterback will end up being more fad than revolution.

When the Rams realized that Jared Goff would be unable to start, they didn’t have to abandon their offense. If Wolford wasn’t able to operate the full complexity of the system, he was nonetheless able to run some of Goff’s offense, and the Rams were able to match the parts that he was comfortable with.

In fact, since John is noticeably more mobile than Jared, the Rams were able to add into the offense the kind of designed runs that worked so well for them last Sunday. Conversely, no amount of preparation could make Streveler comfortable in Murray’s offense because Chris doesn’t add the critical piece to this offense that Kyler does.

Arizona’s offensive identity is as one of football’s best running teams. They entered the game averaging 4.7 yards per rush, their 145.9 rushing yards per game ranked third in the league, and their 22 rushing touchdowns were the second most. The problem here is that Arizona’s elite running attack is fitted tightly around Kyler Murray’s legs. Going into the game, he was responsible for half of their rushing touchdowns and more than a third of their rushing yards. Remove his 54.5 rushing yards per game from the team total, and Arizona immediately falls into the lower half of the league’s running attacks.

Kyler’s edge speed might have been Arizona’s equalizer against the stout defensive line of Los Angeles’ third-ranked run defense (allowing 94.1 yards per game, and 3.8 per rush). Without that outside aspect to worry about, the Rams inhaled Arizona’s formerly elite running attack.

Donald and Fox

Discussion of the Los Angeles defense always begins – as it should – with tackle Aaron Donald. As usual, Aaron was a force against the Cardinals. Also catching my eye, though, was fourth-year defender Morgan Fox. As the season has gone on, and his opportunities have increased, Fox has been developing into an impact player on the Ram defensive line.

Morgan, of course, got the sack that knocked Murray out for most of the game. His work against the Cardinal running game was equally impressive, as his improving technique allows his natural strength to impact games.

Barely a minute into the game, with Murray still under center, the Cards faced a second-and-three on their own 43. The run design would send Kenyan Drake off right tackle, with left tackle D.J. Humphries pulling to lead through the hole. But Fox slipped under the pads of right tackle Kelvin Beachum and drove him into the backfield – into the pulling lineman that had come to open the hole, creating something of a train wreck in the Arizona backfield. Morgan then sifted through the bodies until he found the running back and pulled him to the ground.

He made a similar play on the left side with 2:32 left in the first half – the Cards facing second-and-six on their own 24. This time he drove Humphries into the backfield and tossed him to one side before corralling Drake. Game by game, Morgan is developing into a worthy line-mate of the great Aaron Donald.

At only 6-1, Aaron isn’t the tallest of defensive linemen – a characteristic that actually helps him gain leverage – but one look suggests that he is one of the strongest players in the NFL. That would be an accurate assessment.

With 12:50 left in the first quarter, Arizona was sending Drake off right tackle again. Donald lined up on the left side over guard Justin Pugh. With the play going away from Aaron, Arizona apparently thought they would be okay pulling Pugh to the right side and asking center Mason Cole to cross-block on Donald.

After getting underneath Cole’s attempted block, Donald drove him all the way across the formation, eventually pushing Cole out of the way and tackling Drake two yards deep in the backfield.

But for as strong as Aaron is, it’s his quickness and intelligence that sets him apart.

There’s 5:46 left in the game, and Arizona faces a first-and-fifteen from the Ram 45. Donald lines up over the right shoulder of right guard Justin Murray. One second before the snap, Aaron jumps to the other side of Murray so that he is in what they call the “A” gap – that space between the center and guard. Almost immediately after he arrived at that new position, the ball was snapped, and Aaron flew past Murray in one fluid motion. The moment that Kyler (who was then back in the game) handed the ball to Chase Edmonds, Aaron was there to harvest him for a three-yard loss.

About five minutes earlier, Kyler called the read-option. At the snap, Aaron immediately took away the inside run, executing a swim move on Pugh that you almost have to run the tape in slow motion to see.

Clearly unable to hand the ball off, Kyler pulled it back and tried to make it to the edge. His problem now was Fox – the unblocked end that he was supposed to “read.” Seeing that Donald had taken away the inside run, Morgan realized that he didn’t have to crash inside, and stayed wide to play the quarterback keeper.

Out of other options, Kyler tried to outrace Morgan to the edge – and on another day, he just might have. But Murray’s ankle injury cost him just enough speed that he couldn’t quite get past Fox. Morgan grabbed his shoulder as he was passing and pulled him down for a four-yard loss.

By game’s end, Arizona had rushed for nearly 100 yards below their season average. They finished with 48 yards and a 2.7 average (2 yards below their season average). In the second half, they gained 7 yards on 7 carries. This is not a formula for victory for the Cards.

Rams Next Get the Seahawks

Onward and upward for the Rams will lead them back into Seattle for the second time in three weeks for another inter-division rematch. The teams split their first two meeting this year, with the Rams winning 23-16 in Week Ten, and the Hawks getting their revenge, 20-9, in Week 16 (the win that clinched the division for them).

Of all of the WildCard games, this is the hardest to call – made none the easier by the uncertainty of Goff’s injury. Will he play? How well will he play if he does?

Even beyond those questions, we have two teams that know each other inside and out. Add to the fact that Seattle’s offense hasn’t looked in sync against a winning team since they lost a 44-34 contest to Buffalo in Week Nine.

This one reads like a coin flip going in. I’m going to lean to the Seahawks, only because they are the most comfortable in these kinds of tight, one-score games

On some level, it feels only fitting that one of these rivals should be the one to end the other’s season.

NFL Week 13: Resurrection and other flavors of redemption

Last week we took a pretty in depth look at the Los Angeles Rams’ loss at the hands of the San Francisco 49ers.  A lot of fingers were pointed at quarterback Jared Goff – and we looked at some of the things that he could have done better.

We also hastened to point out that Jared wasn’t the only Ram having a bad day.

One of the beautiful things about sports is that it is constantly offering opportunities for redemption.  Sunday – in a conference game that was arguably more important than the one they lost to the 49ers, Jared Goff and his LA teammates took down the Arizona Cardinals 38-28 (gamebook) (summary).

In exorcising their demons from the previous week, the Rams simply returned to who they were and didn’t permit the Cardinals to be who they are.  As I watch these teams week in and week out, it continually surprises me to note how often they abandon the elements of their game that make them successful.  In the Rams’ case, the elements aren’t a great secret.

First, LA runs the football – even if the running game isn’t spectacularly productive.  They ran the ball 31 times against Arizona – even though they only earned 3.8 yards per rush.  Nineteen of those carries came in the first half – even though they only produced 50 yards (2.6 per).

But the running game is the foundation of the passing game – particularly the play-action game that so much of the offense depends upon.  Last week against San Francisco, Goff threw only 4 play-action passes.  On Sunday against Arizona, Jared ran play-action 15 times.

Working off the running game and the play-action, the rest of the passing game returned to what it does best.  A week ago against San Fran, Jared was 1-for-5 throwing the ball more than 20 yards downfield, and 1-for-7 if the pass was more than 10 yards from scrimmage.

On Sunday, none of Jared’s 47 passes travelled 20 yards from scrimmage in the air.  That is not a misprint. Jared threw no deep balls at all against the Cards.

Instead, Jared ran an extremely short, quick passing game.  His average target was just 3.62 yards from scrimmage.  Of the receivers who had more than 2 passes lobbed in their direction, tight end Tyler Higbee was the “deepest” threat.  The 6 passes thrown to him travelled an average of 8.5 yards from scrimmage – an average that was twice as deep as either of the star wide receivers.  Cooper Kupp was an average of just 2.9 yards from scrimmage on the 9 passes thrown to him.  He caught 8 for 73 yards, but 47 of those came after the catch.  Robert Woods had 11 passes thrown his way.  On average he was 3.2 yards from scrimmage when Goff threw it his way.  He caught 10 of those passes for 85 yards – 62 of those after the catch.

Additionally, Jared’s supporting cast earned significant redemption as well.  Joseph Noteboom at left tackle was much improved and pass rush pressure was much less than the previous game.  And the receivers Kupp and Woods both had a far easier time against the Arizona zones than they did the 49ers’ man coverages.

And in the center of it all was Jared Goff.  He completed 37 of his 47 short passes (78.7%) for 351 yards – 253 of them (72.1%) after the catch.

People have this image of the Ram offense as being a deep-strike, big-play-dependent unit.  The Rams sometimes unwittingly promote that misperception when they get away from their foundation and start trying to be that team.  Their foundation, I’m afraid, is much more boring.  Run the ball, and then dump it quickly into the hands of your playmakers.  It doesn’t necessarily make for great copy – but it can be devastatingly effective.  On Sunday the Rams held the ball for 22:42 of the first half.  Arizona ran just 21 plays in that half – an imbalance that put the Cardinals behind early and had them out of sorts throughout.

Defense Redeemed by the Offense As Well

Like the Rams, the Cardinals’ offense is run-based as well.  Again, many people don’t realize that, because the headlines usually belong to the passing game – Kyler Murray throwing to DeAndre Hopkins (who came into the game third in the NFL in receptions – 77 – and fourth in receiving yards – 967).

But the Cardinals also brought the NFL’s fourth-ranked running game into the contest, averaging 155.9 yards a game.  In fact, the game’s most critical matchup seemed like it would be the Arizona running attack against the Ram’s fourth-ranked run defense (they were allowing 93.5 rushing yards a game).  How that conflict resolved itself would go a long way to determining the victor in this one.

Arizona finished the contest with just 92 rushing yards – a clear win (apparently) for the defense.  But it’s overstating things to say that the Ram defense shut off Arizona’s running game.  In the first half, the Ram offense that held the ball for more than 22 minutes was the primary force holding the Cards to just 18 rushing yards (on 8 carries).  Then – as the second half wore along – the Cards, by degrees, got away from the running attack that is their foundation.

On their first drive of the second half, the Cardinals marched 75 yards on 15 plays – 7 of them runs.  They ran the ball 6 more times the rest of the game.  Kenyan Drake averaged 4.9 yards a carry (3.1 of that after contact), but only had 10 rushes for the game.  Arizona averaged 4.4 yards per rush for the contest, but only ran 21 times.  They ran only 13 times in the second half – even though they averaged 5.7 yards on those runs.

Arizona wasn’t so much stopped by the Ram defense as they were compelled to keep up with the Ram offense.  This time it was Arizona that all but abandoned play-action (they ran just 4 play-action passes).  And with the play-action removed, Arizona’s passing game wilted under Murray’s inconsistencies.

The summary that I referenced above charges Kyler with 12 bad throws.  Not counting the pass he threw away and one spike to stop the clock, that would be 32.4% of his other 37 passes (and would include the two passes batted down at the line).  Murray is now tied with New England’s Cam Newton for the NFL lead in balls batted down by linemen – each now has 15.  This is a problem for the diminutive Murray when a defense can keep him in the pocket and force him to throw over the taller linemen.

That dynamic also influenced several of Kyler’s other bad passes, as he had to add extra loft into the throws.

In all ways and by all accounts, it was redemption at its purest.  And, in addition to putting the Rams back on the right foot, it re-scrambled their division.

The East Scrambles the West

After the loss to San Francisco, the Ram’s had the look of a third-place team (and frankly seemed more likely to be caught from behind by San Fran than they were to claim the division title).  But last weekend shook everything up in the very competitive West – aided by an unexpected broadside by one of the competitors in the much-maligned NFC East.

The Rams’ win in Arizona gives them a temporary advantage over the Cardinals (the teams will meet again in Week 17, but in Los Angeles).  Meanwhile the rest of the division did the Rams a huge favor and lost their games.  Buffalo dumped the 49ers, to push them back off the Rams’ heels, and the lightly-regarded New York Giants pulled a big upset over Seattle – knocking them back into the stew with everyone else.

While not necessarily easy, before the Rams, now, are a series of winnable games – beginning this evening against New England.  They play the winless Jets in Week 15.  Then they close with two division contests – playing in Seattle (where the Seahawks seem to be fading a bit) and then wrapping up with the Cardinals.  If they win three of the final four, they will finish 11-5 – which will very likely be enough to give them the division title and probably the conference’s third seed.

Behind them, Seattle would fall to fifth, and Arizona will probably slide down to seventh (as this loss will likely mean that Tampa Bay will finish with a better record and re-claim that sixth seed).

It’s a lot of upheaval, but in a very tight division all you really need is one weekend where everything breaks your way.  The Rams are now in the driver’s seat.  But now, they have to win the winnable games in front of them, or they could pass the division right back to the Seahawks.

AFC Playoffs Shifted, Too

The upheaval in the AFC was much less over the weekend.  The Tennessee Titans with the inside track on the third seed were surprised by the Cleveland Browns.  That loss opens the way for the Dolphins to claim that seed, pushing Tennessee into fourth.

Not So Much Redemption as a Resurrection

On November 18, 2018, two 6-3 teams clashed at FedEx Field in Washington DC.  The Houston Texans – led at the time by Bill O’Brien with second-year quarterback Deshaun Watson leading the charge – opposed Jay Gruden’s Redskins – with Alex Smith under center.

The Texan defense was generally making life miserable for Smith.  His 12-for-27, 135 yard, 2 interception day held his passer rating down to a halting 29.1.  And then, Alex’ life just got miserable.

With 7:56 left in the third quarter, and the Texans leading 17-7, Alex suffered a gruesome leg injury while being sacked by Kareem Jackson.  And at that moment, Alex was no longer the quarterback for the Washington team.  He was no longer anyone’s quarterback.  In fact, it was not at all certain at the time that he would be able to keep his leg.

(Ironically enough, his backup that day was Colt McCoy – who was the NY Giant backup quarterback that engineered New York’s upset of Seattle).

Anyway, after many surgeries, much prayer, and an insane amount of work, Alex Smith rose from the athletic dead.  On October 11 of this year – one month and one week shy of two years since his potentially career ending injury – Alex returned to the field for Washington to throw 17 otherwise unremarkable passes in a loss to the Rams.  Four weeks later, he was their starter, and last Monday he led the football team in our nation’s capital to its third straight win – a rather significant 23-17 conquest of the previously undefeated Pittsburgh Steelers (gamebook) (summary).

The Football Team made little effort to run the ball – only 21 rushes the entire game.  Even if leading runner Antonio Gibson hadn’t gone down with an injury in the game’s first series, Washington was unlikely to get any movement against the Steeler’s dominating front 7.

On the 21 times that they did try to run, their runners averaged just 1.05 yards before they were contacted by a defender (the NFL average gives the back 2.46 yards before contact on average), and just another 1.1 yards after contact (NFL average = 1.86).

And so that left throwing the ball against football’s most feared pass defense as the most viable path forward. 

The Steelers weren’t just number one in the league in passing yards allowed.  They also allowed the lowest completion percentage (54.5) and the third lowest yards per attempted pass in the league (6.63).

At its core, Pittsburgh is an aggressive, blitzing defense that came into the contest sending extra rushers 39.8% of the time – the third highest frequency in the league.  That aggression leads to a lot of sacks (a league-leading 41, dropping the opponent’s passer on a league-leading 10.1% of his drop-backs) and a lot of interceptions.  They led the league with 16 – or 4.4% of the passes thrown against them.  That number was also first.  Pittsburgh also carried the lowest opponent’s passer rating against at 71.5.

And so you would think that 21 running plays and 49 drop-backs would play right into the Steelers’ hands.  Washington did give up a few sacks – 3, to be exact – all of those in the first half when the Steelers ran out to a 14-3 lead.  Alex wasn’t sacked in the second half.  He threw no interceptions in either half.  He threw (and connected on) a few deep balls (he was 2-for-5 on throws over 20 yards), but mostly just checked the ball down taking advantage of Pittsburgh’s uncharacteristically lose zones.

Running back J.D. McKissic was open all night in the flats.  He finished catching all 10 passes thrown his way for 70 yards (55 of those after the catch).

Alex finished 31 of 46 for 296 yards and a touchdown (a 92.3 rating that was as good as Washington could have hoped for).  Washington controlled 17:37 of the second half clock.

The rest was up to an under-hyped defense that blitzed almost not at all (only 9 times) and sat in deep zones to deny the big plays.  This worked well in general, but especially in the second half when Steeler quarterback Ben Roethlisberger finished just 14 of 26 for but 107 yards (4.12 per attempt and 7.64 per completion).  He was also intercepted on a deflection.  Pittsburgh’s lone 20-yard play of the second half was a 22-yard lob to Eric Ebron.  On the last play of the game.

Speaking of Ebron, he dropped two passes, and the Steelers all together dropped six.  The week before they dropped four, so Ben’s receiver’s haven’t been doing him many favors of late.

For the second straight game, the Steelers showed no interest at all in running.  After throwing 51 passes against Baltimore on Wednesday, Ben threw 53 more on Monday – without getting sacked in either game.  Some of that was surely influenced by the tough run defenses of the Ravens and the Football Team.  But a lot is the new identity of the Steelers.  They are a passing team, now.

With the game tied at 17 with 4:57 left in the contest, the Steelers faced fourth-and-one on the Washington 28.  They decided to go for it.  But they didn’t run the ball.  In Pittsburgh these days, fourth-and-one is a passing down.

The throw was incomplete.  Washington took over and kicked the field goal at 2:07 that gave them the lead they would not relinquish.

The win keeps Washington tied with the Giants atop the NFC East, and they only have one more winning team left on their schedule – a Week 15 meeting with Seattle.  But the Redskins aren’t a winning team either (their surprise victory over Pittsburgh notwithstanding) and the Giants have the tie-breaker (they swept Washington earlier this season), so the path to the playoffs will be somewhat complicated for the Football Team in Washington.

But some part of you has to be rooting for a story like Alex Smith, doesn’t it?

Here We Go Again

You wouldn’t realize it now, but up until last year New Orleans’ Drew Brees had gone 15 consecutive years making at least 15 starts a season – 236 starts in those seasons, an average of 15.7 per.  Nearly an ironman.  Then, on September 15 last year, Drew damaged a ligament in his throwing thumb, and the Saints were suddenly without their franchise quarterback for who knew how long.

It’s getting to be like this in New Orleans.  Whether it’s heart-breaking playoff losses, mind-bogglingly bad officiating, or untimely injuries, the perils of the New Orleans Saints are beginning to take on overtones of a soap opera.  This year, star wide receiver Michael Thomas was injured in the first game of the season and missed seven games.  Now that he is back, the Saints will be without Brees again.  Five broken ribs and a collapsed lung will keep him on the shelf for a while.  (By the way, I know the 41-year old, smallish quarterback doesn’t look particularly tough, but he led New Orleans on two scoring drives after sustaining all that damage before he took himself out of the game).

So what happens now?

Well, last year when Brees was injured, their backup – Teddy Bridgewater – stepped in and led the Saints to five wins in his five starts.  This year (with Bridgewater moved on to be the starter in Carolina) former Buccaneer Jameis Winston will get the same opportunity that Teddy got last year – the chance to re-invent himself and regain some credibility.

Will the results be the same?  Well, that is the million dollar question.  Even though the Saints are leading their division, the race is quite tight.  Any slippage in Brees’ absence could easily cost New Orleans a playoff opportunity.

As with Bridgewater last year, Jameis has his doubters.  In the closing act of his five-year career in Tampa Bay, Winston completed only 60.7% of his passes, and even though he led the NFL in passing yards with an impressive 5109, his 33 touchdown passes were offset by his league-leading 30 interceptions.  A lot of people don’t see that style blending well with the Saints’ system.

But, of course, last year Winston was in Bruce Arians’ no-risk-it-no-biscuit system.  Last year, Jameis averaged 10.4 air yards per every pass attempted – the second highest average in the NFL, behind only Matthew Stafford at 10.6.  Last week I pointed out that not every quarterback can thrive in that system.

A better understanding of who Winston is might be clearer from his first four seasons with the Bucs.  In spite of the fact that Winston played for pretty bad teams (they were 21-33 in his starts over those years) Jameis still managed to complete 61.6% of his throws at an average of 12.4 yards per completion.  He threw 88 touchdown passes over those seasons (4.6%) while having just 58 passes intercepted (3.0%).  And remember, Winston was throwing from behind a lot.  Last year – playing for a better 7-9 team, Winston checked in with a 5.3 touchdown percentage (0.7 better than his previous career percentage) at a cost of a 4.8 interception percentage (1.8% higher than his earlier career).

Coming in in the second half last Sunday, Jameis did what Brees was doing.  Brees’ 8 completions covered a total of 9 air yards (an average of 1.1 air yards per pass) but led to 67 yards after the catch (an average of 8.4).  Winston completed 6 second half passes that totaled 14 air yards (just 2.3 yards up the field) that were followed by 49 yards after the catch (8.2 per).

It’s a small sample size, but there is no reason to believe that Winston can’t fit into the Saint system.  And if you can’t expect him to play with the anticipation and the precision that Brees might, there are parts of Jameis’ game that are stronger than Brees’ game.  Expect Sean Peyton to find ways to leverage Winston’s greater mobility and stronger arm.

Another reason for optimism is the stretch of the schedule that this has happened in.  New Orleans’ next four opponents are Atlanta, Denver, Atlanta again and Philadelphia.  There are no gimmies in the NFL, and any of these teams could administer a defeat to the Saints.  But all three of these teams are below .500.  If you had to go four or so games without your starting quarterback, these would be the four you would probably choose.

There’s no reason, yet, for Saint fans to toss their cookies.  You’ve all seen worse situations than this.

More Good Saint Defense

Given the condition of the San Francisco team in general (and the offense in particular) – and the 49ers are one NFL team that won’t shed any tears over New Orleans’ injuries – you have to be careful not to make too much of this.  But for the second consecutive week the heretofore nettlesome New Orleans defense turned in another excellent performance.  After decimating Tampa Bay the week before, San Francisco was held to just 281 total yards – only 49 on the ground.  The Saints carried the game, 27-13 (gamebook) (summary).

Over the last two games they have 5 quarterback sacks and 5 interceptions (after intercepting just 4 passes through the first 8 games).  The combined passer rating against them in those two games is just 53.8.  Meanwhile, the Bucs and 49ers combined to run for just 57 yards against them over the two games on 30 attempts – 1.9 yards a carry.

If this New Orleans defense is, in fact, coming together, it will ease a bigger worry than the absence of Drew Brees.

Three Side Notes

One – The 49ers made a fairly close contest of this in the first half as they stuck diligently to their game plan.  They ran the ball (21 times in the first half) even when they weren’t seeing a lot of yards from it (only 41).  But they controlled the clock (for an impressive 22 minutes even) and had Nick Mullens balance with the controlled passing game.  Nick was 13 for 18 for 134 yards and a touchdown in that half – a 111.8 rating.

Even though they came out of the half trailing just 17-10, they entirely ditched that approach in the second half.  They ran the ball just 4 times (for 8 yards) and had Mullens throwing the ball 20 times in the half (he completed just 11 for 113 yards and 2 interceptions – a 31.9 rating).

New Orleans controlled the second half clock for 19:06.

Two – After the big win the previous week over Tampa Bay, the Saints were seen celebrating in the locker room as though they had just won the Super Bowl.  Sometimes stuff like that wakes up the karma gods and bad things (like losing your starting quarterback) have been known to happen.  I think football players in general should be more humble and sporting than they are (yes, the self-worship bothers me).  It seems the karma gods agree.  Sometimes.

Three – the penalty on the hit was widely criticized – as it should be.  It was, in all respects, a perfectly clean hit.  I may have been the only one not surprised to see the flag fly.  Defensive players need to understand that even if the hit is legal, if you hurt the quarterback, you will get penalized.  The official really can’t help himself.  The entire world is watching the quarterback lying on the turf and he begins to feel self-conscious – as though he owes it to the team that’s just lost their quarterback some measure of compensation.  The higher profile the quarterback, the more likely this penalty becomes.

So here now is the defensive checklist when dealing with a quarterback in or near the pocket:

You can’t hit him anywhere near his head.  You can’t hit him anywhere near his knees.  You can’t drive him to the ground when you hit him.  You can’t land on him with your full body weight.

And, on top of all that, you can’t hurt him.  Other than that, you can do whatever you want to the quarterback.

As It Turns Out It Isn’t Actually Over Till It’s Over

The football world’s head turned over and over in response to the Kyler Murray game-winning, Hail-Mary touchdown toss to DeAndre Hopkins that trumped the Buffalo Bills 32-30 (gamebook) (summary).  And rightfully so.  The accuracy of the pass (while Kyler was running for his life) and Hopkins’ in-traffic catch should both have carried a “do not try this at home” warning.  These plays pay off so rarely that when the last second shot into the end zone does work, it will cause a ripple through the league – and much more so when the game Is of this significance.

But hidden underneath the big moment at the end are some troubling trends that concern me about the Bills.

The biggest number of the day, in my opinion, was 217.  Those were the rush yards given up by the Bills.  It was the second time this season that Buffalo has given up more than 200 rushing yards.  Murray was responsible for 61 of them, but his yardage was the tip of the iceberg.  Kenyan Drake ripped through them for 100 yards on just 16 carries, and Chase Edmonds added 56 more on 8 carries.

But this is the worst part.  Of the 156 yards gained by Arizona’s two running backs, 110 came after contact.  The NFL average is  just 1.91 yards gained after contact per rushing play.  Arizona’s running backs averaged 4.58.  Forty-five of Edmonds 56 yards (80%) came after contact.

The Buffalo defense just does not seem to be coming together.  This is the fifth time this season – including their last two games – that they have surrendered 30 points.  They are now eighteenth in scoring defense and twentieth in total defense – including twenty-eighth against the run, as they are allowing 135 yards a game and 4.8 yards a carry (the third-worst average in the league).

Unless their defense finally comes to the party, Buffalo will have no hope of hanging onto their division lead, and will go quickly and quietly from the playoffs.

The other notable observation regards quarterback Josh Allen.  Allen was blitzed in this game, perhaps, more than he’s ever been blitzed.  Arizona, which began the game as football’s fifth-most blitz happy team – came after Allen on a full 54% of his drop-backs.  With his line doing a middling job of picking up the blitzes, Allen’s accuracy and decision making were negatively impacted.  Josh – who had done a great job of protecting the football thus far – tossed two interceptions and limped home with a 77.3 rating.  It will be interesting to see if he gets heavier doses of the blitz going forward.

Could Miami Earn the Second Seed?

As I watch the seasons unfold, I try hard not to over-react to any one game or any one player.  Yet I do have to admit that the Miami Dolphins have gotten my attention.  They have won four in a row, and their victims have included the Rams and the Cardinals.

Rookie quarterback Tua Tagovailoa has been getting the Lion’s share of the attention.  Tua has been doing a reasonably good job.  The team is 3-0 in his starts, and he has yet to throw an NFL interception (through 77 passes).

But the Dolphins, with – I believe – the hardest part of their schedule behind them, are much more than Tua.  They have a bend-but-don’t break defense that allows the fifth fewest points in the league (in spite of the fact that they rank only nineteenth in yards allowed).  More than that, it is a big-play, opportunistic defense that currently ranks third in takeaways.

And don’t forget about their special teams.  Whether they are blocking punts or returning them for touchdowns, it seems the Miami special teams are making game-changing plays every week.

And, they won’t face another winning team until December 13.

If Buffalo fades – as I think they might – what would it take for the Dolphins to earn the second seed?  If they don’t succumb to the inconsistencies of youth and start to lose games that they should win, then their chance to wrest the second seed will probably come down to that December 13 home game against Kansas City.

Could the too-young Dolphins actually squeak past the defending champions?  Truthfully, if you watch their games, Kansas City seems to have come back to the pack – even if only slightly.  And their run defense has fallen to twenty-ninth in the league.

Of course, this was about how they looked at this point of last season, too.

For the moment, I am going to entertain the prospect of the Dolphins winning that very significant Week 14 home game, and I am going to pencil them in as my two-seed, sliding KC to third.  The Chiefs will also be playing the Raiders, the Bucs and the Saints before the season is quite over, so they will have ample opportunity to stub their toes coming down the stretch.

Still, if they go out there and slap the Raiders around (as I kind of suspect they will) then don’t be surprised if I quickly reverse field on this.

At any rate, the Dolphins have gotten my attention.

Sometimes it’s the Small Things

Inserted as the starting quarterback from day one, 2019’s first overall draft pick endured a trying year.  Taking 96% of the offensive snaps, Kyler Murray – the legendary Texas high school quarterback who never lost a game – oversaw a fairly dismal 5-10-1 season.

It wasn’t all his fault, of course.  But it wasn’t all not his fault, either.  None of his numbers jump out at you.  As a passer his touchdown-to-interception rate was 20-12 and his passer rating was below the league average at 87.4.  He led the league in one category – being sacked.  He went down 48 times.

As a runner, Kyler ran for 544 yards and averaged 5.8 yards per rush.  That – the running – is what I remember most from his rookie season.  There is almost a mesmerizing quality to Kyler Murray’s runs.  At 5-10, Kyler is shorter than I am, and he runs with very short strides – but those short, choppy strides come so fast that they almost blur into each other as he runs – almost the way a hummingbird’s wings blur together when the bird is in flight.

Funny looking?  In a sense, yes.  But undoubtedly effective as he consistently buzzed – hummingbird-like – around and around would-be tacklers.

Arizona began 2020 on a much more positive note, winning two of its first three – including a surprising opening game conquest of the San Francisco 49ers.  Encouraging, but the biggest difference in the offense only seemed to be Kyler shouldering more of the running game.  In 2019 he averaged 5.8 rushes a game for just 34 yards a game.  Three games into the season, he had carried the ball 26 times for 187 yards – including 91 in the win over the 49ers.  He had rushed for 4 touchdowns in those games, averaging 7.19 yards per rush.

But the passing didn’t seem notably improved.  Completing a modest 66.37% of his passes, Kyler was below the NFL average in both yards per pass (6.96) and passer rate (79.7).  His 4 touchdown passes being offset by 5 interceptions.

But then, in a very strange Week Four, Kyler kind of turned a corner, albeit in a 31-21 loss to Carolina.  He ran for 78 more yards, but was held out of the end zone (as a runner).  He also fumbled the ball away.  As a passer, he completed 24 passes, but for an inconsequential 133 yards.  But, his 24 completions came in just 31 attempts (a 77.42%).  And, while not being intercepted, Kyler threw 3 touchdown passes.  It all added up to a 116.7 rating.

And all of a sudden, Murray was reborn as an NFL passer.  He led them to three consecutive victories, with the Cardinals scoring 30 or more points in each of them.  While it would have been more impressive if these points had been scored against better defenses (the vanquished teams were the Jets, Dallas and Seattle), it was nonetheless apparent that Kyler was becoming as much a threat with his arm as he had always been with his legs.

Counting the Panther game, Murray averaged 265.3 passing yards per game, tossing 9 touchdown passes against just 2 interceptions.  He posted a 105.1 rating.  He also ran for another 250 yards in those games, scoring 3 more touchdowns with his legs.

This brings us to last Sunday.

The marquee game, of course, would be that evening when a couple of old guys would renew their assaults on the record books when New Orleans would travel to Tampa Bay.  But in a sense the Miami/Arizona game was something of an undercard as a pair of first round draft choices from the last two years would be crossing swords for the first of what is supposed to be many clashes.  With Kyler growing into his role as the franchise quarterback in Arizona, Miami was just starting to take the wrappings off of its future at the position – Tua Tagovailoa.

Tua Time had officially been inaugurated the week before when the Dolphins beat the Rams – mostly without much from Tagovailoa who threw for just 93 yards.

In this mini-showcase of burgeoning stars, Tua did very well – much better than in his first start.  Tagovailoa completed 20 of 28 for 248 yards and 2 touchdowns.  Tua did very, very well.

But Kyler went off.

Even in this era of double-threat quarterbacks, it is doubtful that any one player has so completely dominated a quality opponent the way that Murray flayed the Dolphin defense.

The Dolphins came into the game as the fourth-most blitzing team in football, sending that extra-rusher 40.3% of the time – and they ramped that figure up against Kyler, coming after him on 15 of his 32 dropbacks.  Murray never blinked, completing 21 of 26 passes (80.8%) for 283 yards (10.88 yards per attempted pass) and 3 touchdowns with no interceptions.  His final passer rating of 150.5 came very close to the maximum points the system will award.

As opposed to the Seahawks and some of the other teams he had lit up earlier, in Miami he faced one of football’s top defenses.  The Dolphins had yielded just 8 touchdown passes coming into the game, and the 3.0 % of the passes against them that went for touchdowns was the second lowest in the league.  The overall passer rating against them at the start of the game was a stingy 81.7 – the fourth best such rating in the league.  Kyler’s achievement was no mean feat.

Moreover, he didn’t dink and dunk his way to his big game.  Murray averaged 9.6 intended air yards on his throws (the league average is 7.89).  His completions were an average of 11.0 yards down field.  The league average is just 6.15.  America remembers his perfect, arching, 56-yard touchdown bomb to Christian Kirk, but that throw was just the tip of Murray’s proverbial iceberg.  He finished 9 of 10 for 203 yards and 2 touchdowns on passes more than 10 yards from scrimmage – including 3 of 4 for 112 yards and 2 touchdowns on throws over 20 yards from the line of scrimmage.

It was a dominating air show.  And that was only his arm.

Whether it was scrambling away from the blitz, scorching the defense on the read-option runs, or just slicing through them on those darting quarterback draws, Murray added to the Dolphin frustration with 106 rushing yards (and 1 touchdown) on 11 carries.  And there’s an inside the numbers story there as well.

While Kyler was slipping out of their grasp, Miami held Arizona’s actual running backs to 72 yards on 26 carries.  Against everyone but Murray, the Dolphin front seven was dominant.  Across the NFL, the average running play gains 2.44 yards before contact.  The Arizona running backs were just 1.2 yards from the line of scrimmage before they were hit.  In retrospect, this might have been one of the best performances ever by a defense who allowed 178 rushing yards.

Yes, things could hardly have gone any better for young Kyler last Sunday afternoon.  Except, of course for one thing.  The Cardinals outgained the Dolphins 442 yards to 312 and punted only once in the game.  But they lost, 34-31 (gamebook) (summary).

To put it in election terms, the yardage total is a lot like the popular vote.  Most of the time the team that gains the most yardage is the team that will win – especially if that difference is 100 or more yards.  But the points are like the electoral college votes.  They don’t always follow the popular vote.

Sometimes the difference is in the small things.  One play, one break, one mistake – any little thing can sometimes undermine an otherwise dominant effort.

When Murray slithered through the Miami defense for a 12-yard touchdown run with 2:33 left in the third quarter, it looked like the Cardinals were about to leave the Dolphins behind.  They led at that point 31-24.

But the gritty Dolphins answered with a 93-yard drive that included two third-down conversions and a darting 17-yard scramble from the Miami quarterback.

Then it was Kyler’s turn.  Starting at his own 27 with 11:14 left in the game, Murray drove Arizona all the way to the Miami 40.  There they faced a fourth-and-one with just 5:20 left.  Already 2-for-2 on fourth down, Arizona went to the well one more time.  This time, though, they didn’t leave the ball in Murray’s hands and let him find a crease.  This time running back Chase Edmonds got the carry – and was denied.

Miami quickly turned the turnover into a field goal, and now Kyler would have one final opportunity, starting on his own 25 with 3:30 left, down 34-31.

One minute and 32 seconds later, Zane Gonzalez lined up a 49-yard field goal.  Dolphin kicker Jason Sanders had already been an important cog in getting Miami the lead, drilling home field goals from 56 and 50 yards.  This effort from Gonzalez was a pretty good kick – very straight and right down the middle – that is, until it faded and dropped just short of the post.

Tua then iced the verdict with a one-yard quarterback sneak on third-and-one with 1:05 left.  The first-down drained Arizona of its last time out and allowed the Dolphins to run out the clock.

And that’s how it happens.  A big scramble from the rookie quarterback, a big play from the defense on a fourth-and-one (on a call that Arizona might wish to have back), a makeable field goal that falls just short, and for the second straight week, the Dolphins claim a game that they were outgained in – the Rams finished the previous Sunday’s game with a 471-145 yardage advantage.

Sometimes “just finding a way” is one of the greatest traits a team can develop.

Also Winning Though Outgained

For 30 minutes in the early time slot on Sunday, the Indianapolis Colts gave the Baltimore Ravens all they could handle.  The Colts entered the contest with football’s second-ranked defense – and more particularly football’s second-ranked run defense.  Colt opponents were averaging just 79.9 rushing yards per game and only 3.4 yards per attempt.  The Ravens – of course – are football’s most feared running attack, leading the league at the time in both yards per game (178.7) and yards per rush (5.5).

At the intermission, this was a one-sided contest – at least as far as the yardage was concerned.  Baltimore staggered into their dressing room with 4 first downs and 55 yards of total offense.  The vaunted running game had been stuffed to the tune of 18 yards on 10 carries.

Critical for the Colts, however, was their inability to take full advantage of that dominance.  Driving at the end of the first quarter for the touchdown that would have given them a 14-0 lead, safety Chuck Clark scooped up a Jonathan Taylor fumble and returned it 65 yards for a touchdown.  It was the only thing that went right for the Ravens, but its importance was incalculable.  Instead of trailing, perhaps, 17-0 at the half, Baltimore was only behind 10-7.

The second half saw a reversal.  Baltimore never caught up with Indy as far as the yardage goes.  The Colts ended the game with a 339-266 yardage advantage, including a 112-110 lead in rushing yards.  It has been a long, long time since anyone out-rushed the Ravens in a game.

But Baltimore did come all the way back to pull out the 24-10 win (gamebook) (summary).  Along the way, they may have discovered a little bit of what had been wrong with their offense.

First of all, they were predictably run-heavy in the second half, running 28 times to just 10 passes.  But the passing game was markedly different than it has been.

For whatever reason – perhaps to establish Lamar Jackson as a feared passer – the Baltimore passing game so far had been as up-the-field as almost any in football.  Lamar came into the game averaging 9.2 intended air yards per pass (again, the NFL average is 7.89).  This ranked him second in all of football.

The results of this approach would have been predictable.  Jackson came into the game in the lower tier of passers.  His 60.5% completion percentage ranked thirtieth, and his 9.1% sack rate was thirty-second.

The story of the second half, though, was short-and-quick.

As opposed to Murray’s game against Miami, Jackson hit Indianapolis with underneath stuff.  He averaged just 3.74 air yards for his 23 throws in the game.  He threw only 4 passes more than 10 yards upfield, and none of them went as far as 20 yards.

But what the attack lacked in pizzazz, it made up for in efficiency.  Lamar completed all 10 of his second half throws to lead the comeback.

Sometimes that small thing that decides contests like this is an officials’ call.  In this one, another Colt turnover set up the go-ahead touchdown, but under questionable circumstances.

On their first offensive play of the second half, Colt quarterback Philip Rivers went up the right sideline for Marcus Johnson.  Cornerback Marcus Peters inserted himself between Johnson and the ball and grasped it with his fingertips.  As Peters was falling backwards, Johnson dislodged the ball and it fell to the ground.  Initially ruled incomplete.

On replay, the officials saw enough to rule it an interception.  I’m not sure that I see that – but even granting Peters the catch, then you also have to charge him with a fumble – which the officiating crew did.  Mysteriously, though, they awarded Baltimore a clean recovery – even though the whistle had blown before any recovery had been made.

Coming into the game, I felt that we would learn a bit about the Colts – and we did.  In many respects, they played very well against one of football’s best teams.  But the offense disappeared in the second half, and a little adversity – a defensive score and a questionable call – undid them.

We’ll keep an eye on the Colts, who may not quite be up to facing the elite teams quite yet.

First Look at the Playoffs

With everyone having played at least 8 games, it’s time to get an idea who is in the driver’s seat as far as playoff berths go.

NFC

Three of the four division leaders in the NFC all hold 6-2 records.  The three-way tie will go to conference records to break, giving the New Orleans Saints the current lead.  Seattle currently holds the second seed, and Green Bay is third.

With a sterling 3-4-1 record, Philadelphia holds the fourth seed as the East Division leader.  The current wildcard teams are Tampa Bay (5), Arizona (6) and the Los Angeles Rams (7).

I’m inclined, at this point, to accept these as the NFC playoff teams, but I don’t think the order will hold.  With the NFL’s leakiest defense and the toughest conference to play in, I don’t believe Seattle can hang with the Saints and the Packers.  I predict they will fall to third.  Between New Orleans and Green Bay, the Packers have the head-to-head win.  So, at this point here is how I see the NFC seeding for the playoffs: Green Bay (1), New Orleans (2), Seattle (3), Philadelphia (4), Tampa Bay (5), Arizona (6) and the LA Rams (7).

AFC

The AFC currently boasts the NFL’s lone unbeaten – the 8-0 Pittsburgh Steelers, who currently hold the top seed.  Right behind them are the defending champions from Kansas City at 8-1.  The rising Buffalo Bills have gone to 7-2.  Tennessee and Baltimore are both currently 6-2, but the Titans are leading their division, so if the playoffs started this week, they would be the fourth seed, with Baltimore slotting in at fifth.

The scrum right now is for the last two spots, with four teams currently sitting at 5-3.  Conference win percentage separates the Las Vegas Raiders as the sixth seed, with the Dolphins claiming the final playoff spot due to strength of victory.  Cleveland and Indianapolis are the two 5-3 teams currently on the outside looking in.

Will it stay this way?  I wouldn’t think so.

The Steelers and Chiefs – who don’t meet during the regular season – look right now to be good bets to stay where they are.  But chaos will come from the East in the form of the Dolphins.  In addition to looking like a team that’s coming together, their schedule down the stretch is much more favorable than the Buffalo team that sits a game and a half in front of them.  The Dolphins next four opponents are: the Chargers (2-6), Denver (3-5), the Jets (0-9) and the Bengals (2-5-1).  After that, things get a little more competitive.  Miami finishes with Kansas City (at home) New England (also at home) and then at Las Vegas before they finish with the big showdown in Buffalo.

I don’t believe the Dolphins will run the table, but they won’t have to.  Buffalo’s schedule is notably more challenging – beginning with this week’s game in Arizona against Kyler Murray.  Before that final game against Miami, Buffalo will also face San Francisco, Pittsburgh and New England.  The inconsistent Bills will be hard pressed to hold off the Dolphins.

The other change I see happening before season’s end involves the Raiders, who I don’t believe will hang on to their spot.  The Raiders surprised some people early – most notably New Orleans and Kansas City, but have been much more pedestrian over their last three games (when they were punished by Tampa Bay, 45-20, and squeaked out wins against Cleveland and the Chargers).  Before all is said and done they will play Kansas City again, along with Indianapolis and Miami.

That Week 14 game against Indy may prove to be decisive.  I rather think it will be the Colts that will take the Raider’s playoff spot from them.  If not an elite team, I think that Indianapolis can play with the better teams and are certainly good enough to make the playoffs.

This, then, is how I predict the AFC will seed: Pittsburgh (1), Kansas City (2), Miami (3), Tennessee (4), Baltimore (5), Indianapolis (6) and Buffalo (7).

There’s a long way to go, and I don’t consider myself married to this order.  But if everyone wins the games they should win, this is how it will play out.

And yes, that is a big if.

Re-Engineering Seattle’s Offensive Line

Everyone in Seattle remembers how 2019 ended.  Trailing by as many as 18 points twice in the Divisional Game against Green Bay, the resilient Seahawks – minus both of their starting running backs – kept battling back.  Now with 3:22 left in the game, they had closed to just 5 points (28-23).

But, facing a third-and-5 on their own 42, the Packers’ Preston Smith sprinted around TE Jacob Hollister (who had no help against one of the NFL’s most skilled pass rushers) and dropped QB Russell Wilson for the sack that brought an end to their season.

It was the fifth sack Seattle allowed during the game.

In spite of a fine 11-5 regular season – and the attendant playoff berth – Seattle was left with several elements to fix during the offseason.  One of those elements was the struggling offensive line.  Yes, there were the sacks.  Wilson bit the turf 48 times during the regular season (only two quarterbacks went down more) and his 8.5% sack rate was twenty-ninth in the league.

The offensive line, though, was also surprisingly unhelpful in the running game.  I say surprisingly, because Seattle finished as the NFL’s fourth most prolific running team.  Inside the numbers, though, a different story emerges.

Here pro-football reference breaks out team rushing yardage by before and after contact for 2019.  Last year’s running attack finished just twelfth in average yards before contact (2.3).  In the playoff game against Green Bay, the struggles of the O-Line were even more evident.  All runners except Wilson combined for a total of 9 yards before contact on 17 carries.  In 12 carries Marshawn Lynch gained 26 yards on the ground – all of them after contact.

Not all of their offseason re-invention projects have panned out (note the continued defensive struggles), but six games into the 2020 season, the new-and-improved offensive line appears to be working.  Sacks are still an issue.  Wilson is still being sacked on 8.2% of his drop-backs.  But the improvement is most notable in the running game.

Last Sunday night, Seattle’s quest for an undefeated season came to a disappointing end with a 37-34 overtime loss to Arizona (gamebook) (summary).  Nonetheless they left their impression as they pummeled the Cardinals for 200 rushing yards on 30 carries.

In the spirit of full disclosure, it should be pointed out that a goodly chunk of those yards came from the legs of Wilson himself.  With 84 yards on 6 carries, Russell continues to be the juice in the Seattle running game.  But even removing his yards, the rest of the ball carriers accounted for 116 yards on 24 carries – 4.8 yards per carry.

More to the point, these ball carriers – minus Wilson – averaged 3.5 yards before contact.  Six games into the season, the Seahawks are averaging 3.7 yards per running play before contact – the second best total in the NFL (second to Arizona’s 4.1 average, by the way).

If you’ve not seen Seattle yet this year, the offensive line looks quite a bit different.  The starting offensive line for that Green Bay game was Duane Brown (LT), Jamarco Jones (LG), Joey Hunt (C), D.J. Fluker (RG) and Germain Ifedi (RT).  When the Seahawks took the field on Sunday, only the ever dependable Brown at left tackle was the same.  Here are the new members of the Seattle offensive line.

Left Guard Jordan SimmonsMike Iupati went into the season as the starter at this position, but a back injury has forced him to the sideline and opened an opportunity for Simmons.  Jordan’s career has been pock-marked with injuries, but, when healthy Simmons is an athletic lineman, comfortable blocking up the field.  While it is unclear how long Iupati will be shelved, Simmons is taking full advantage of this opportunity.

Center Ethan Pocic.  A second round pick (from LSU) in 2017, Ethan made the All-Rookie team in 2017.  Since then, he has mostly disappeared, re-surfacing in this year of offensive line re-invention.  After an injury plagued 2019, Ethan has played every snap this year – and has yet to commit a penalty (hope I haven’t jinxed him).

Right Guard Damien Lewis and Right Tackle Brandon Shell.  While the entire offensive line gave the Cardinals all they could handle, I was especially enthused by the play of the all-new right side of the line.  Lewis is this year’s third-round pick out of LSU, Shell is a former fifth round pick (South Carolina) who was a three year starter for the Jets signed in free-agency.  They both bring a presence and a much-needed physicality to the right side of the offensive line.

Some examples:

With 1:48 left in regulation, Lewis drove Angelo Blackson off the line, while Bell pushed Haason Reddick well wide of the play – it opened up a 7 yard off-tackle run for Carlos Hyde.  In the middle of the second quarter, Hyde picked up 7 more yards up the middle when Lewis and Shell blew Trevon Coley out of the middle of the line.  With 1:32 left in the first quarter, Chris Carson pushed through the middle for 7 yards as he tucked in behind Lewis and Shell as they swept the Arizona defense from before them.

Maybe my favorite – as far as attitude runs goes – was one of the very first.  With 12:44 left in the first quarter, Carson hammered off right guard for 10 yards.  Lewis and Shell began with a double-team block of Jordan Phillips.  Shell then came off the double-team and ranged into the second level to block out Jordan Hicks. Greg Olsen pushed Reddick off the edge.  Carson finished thing off running through the attempted tackle of De’Vondre Campbell.

Carson – who had injury issues last year – lasted only 15 plays in this one before leaving with a foot injury.  He will miss an indeterminate amount of time.  The injury hurts.  Carson is their toughest back by a significant margin.  According, again, to pro-football reference, Carson has 159 of Seattle’s 228 yards after contact, and 5 of the team’s seven broken tackles in the run game.

Reconsidering Neanderthalism

Another point that needs to be made about Seattle’s 200-yard rushing day.  It was not at all a product of the fact that the two teams played almost 10 minutes of overtime.  In that overtime period, Seattle ran 13 offensive plays – 12 passes and 1 run that lost 6 yards – which leads to another observation.

Last year, Seattle was one of football’s most dedicated run-first teams (I call these teams Neanderthals, and explain the reasoning here).  One of the early graphics on the broadcast pointed out that last year no team threw less frequently on first and second downs than the Seahawks.  This year, they lead all of football in throwing on first down.  Seattle, thus, becomes the first team to have gone full Neanderthal and then decided it wasn’t for them.

The 2020 philosophy is to put the ball in Russell Wilson’s hands and let their dynamic quarterback make his magic happen.  And that is all well and fine – but it caught up to them in the overtime period.

Perhaps the pendulum has swung too far to the other side?  Even without Carson, the Seattle running game was still causing the Arizona defense problems.  Perhaps, with a more balanced approach in overtime, that damaging interception never happens.

Regarding Arizona

You can’t help but be impressed by the Cardinals.  Down by 13 points twice, they kept fighting their way back.  Just 5-10-1 last year, the Cards are growing up fast.  But run defense could be something of an issue for them going forward.  After last Sunday, they are now twenty-fifth in run defense – giving 131.1 yards per game and 4.7 yards per attempt.  And watching Seattle roll them up, it didn’t seem to be a fluke.

Outside linebackers Reddick and Devon Kennard were not stout at all on the edges, and the interior linemen made no effort at all to occupy blockers.  Hicks and Campbell had linemen on top of them all evening.

Unless they make some adjustments, the Cards may see more of this kind of thing going forward.