Tag Archives: Baltimore Ravens

Running Teams BeGone

The longer the Raven defense held Buffalo close, the more imminent their victory seemed. 

Throughout the first half, Baltimore’s top-ranked running attack seemed one fingernail away from cracking the big run that would break the game open.  They finished the half with 77 rushing yards, averaging 4.3 per running attempt.  But no touchdowns, as the first half ended in a 3-3 tie.

Now, in the second half, Baltimore seemed poised to break through.  Beginning at their own 25-yard line, Baltimore would drive to the Buffalo 9-yard line in 14 grinding plays – 7 runs (for 31 yards) and 7 passes (5 of 6 completed for 39 yards and a 4-yard sack).

Now there were only 58 seconds left in the quarter.  Baltimore, facing third-and-goal, was one play away from tying this game up.  Quarterback Lamar Jackson followed tight end Mark Andrews with his eyes as Mark settled into a void in Buffalo’s zone defense about three-yards deep into the end zone.  Jackson’s subsequent throw would result in his only touchdown pass of the game.

Unfortunately for him, it wouldn’t be to Andrews – or any other Raven player.

Running Teams Begone

The Divisional Round in the AFC found two of football’s top three running games still in the hunt for the title.  The Ravens – playing in Buffalo on Saturday night – had averaged an astonishing 191.9 rushing yards a game through the regular season.  Their 555 rushing attempts, and their 5.5 yards per rush were also easily the best marks in football.  Their 24 rushing touchdowns ranked third.

Sunday would see the defending champs in Kansas City host the surprising Cleveland Browns.  Now 12-5 after holding off Pittsburgh in the WildCard Round, Cleveland carried the third most potent running attack – averaging 148.4 yards per game.  They ranked fourth in attempts (495) and fifth in both yards per rush (4.8) and rushing touchdowns (21).  Both played their final games of the season over the weekend, with both teams scoring fewer than 20 points.  Baltimore fell to Buffalo, 17-3 (gamebook) (summary), while the Chiefs took down the Browns 22-17 (gamebook) (summary).  Each journey to that result, though, was quite different.

Ravens Done In By an Old Weakness

As I speculated about this game last week, I pointed out that Baltimore wasn’t a long drive team.  They were a big-play running team, every bit as dependent on the big play as Tampa Bay.  Against Buffalo, Baltimore racked up 150 rushing yards – but none of their individual runs struck for more than 19 yards.

As this team still struggles to throw the ball with much effectiveness against the better teams, the more Buffalo forced them to put drives together, the more opportunity it presented for them to take advantage of the inefficiencies in the Baltimore passing attack – an incompletion, a holding penalty, a sack – an interception.

In the pivotal moment of this game, it was that interception that told the tale.

Aware that Jackson had locked onto Andrews, cornerback Taron Johnson dropped his zone a little deeper and edged toward the middle.  His interception and subsequent 101-yard return broke the Ravens’ back, sending them home for the offseason, and sending the Bills into Kansas City with a trip to the Super Bowl on the line.

Lamar’s final passing line of 14 for 24 for 162 yards and the interception pans out to a 61.5 passer rating.  The rating system isn’t perfect, but that number fairly accurately describes Lamar’s afternoon.  Jackson also found himself sacked three times, as Buffalo decided to pressure him.  As opposed to Tennessee in the WildCard round – who sent extra rushers after Jackson just 4 times in the game – Buffalo blitzed him 13 times (a full 43.3% of his drop-backs).

This is still an effective approach as it forces Jackson to recognize protections and hot routes and forces him to speed up his process.  Last Saturday, it was one final lapse in the passing that ended Baltimore’s season.

Valiant in Defeat

The loss is all the more bitter in light of another marvelous performance by Wink Martindale’s defense.  One week after muffling Derrick Henry and Tennessee’s running attack (the Titans were second in the NFL, by the way, at 168.1 rushing yards per game), the Raven defense – with a bit of an assist from the gusting winds – mostly dismantled Josh Allen and his third-ranked passing game.

Josh threw only one touchdown pass of his own, was limited to 206 yards and an 86.1 rating.  During the season, Allen ranked fourth in passer rating at 107.2.  He averaged just 8.96 yards per completion Saturday night, as Baltimore mostly inhaled his deep passing game.  Josh completed just 1 of his 6 passes of more than 20 yards.

Football’s finest receiver (as far as yards and catches go) was still unstoppable.  Stefon Diggs finished with 106 yards on 8 catches.  But Baltimore shut out two of Buffalo’s more important secondary receivers.  Cole Beasley and Gabriel Davis had no catches on a combined 6 targets – Davis drawing especially close coverage.  On the average throw in his direction, Gabriel had a defender 0.8 yards away.

The second-ranked offense by yards, Buffalo managed just 220 yards against Baltimore, scoring just ten points on offense (remember, the other 7 came courtesy of the Bills’ defense).  It was a superior performance, more than worthy of sending the Ravens into the Conference Championship Game.

That will have to be comfort enough for Raven fans between now and next September.

Not the Same Old Browns, But Still . . .

The story in Arrowhead was quite different.  Armed with a potent running attack against a team that has shown some weakness in stopping the run, Cleveland decided not to deploy it.  Straggling into the locker room at the half, the Browns had run the ball just 6 times for 18 yards.  Not coincidentally, Kansas City (which had run the ball 12 times for 60 yards) held a 17:43-12:17 time of possession advantage and a 19-3 lead.  Former Chief Kareem Hunt, who had rushed for 841 yards and caught 38 passes for Cleveland this year, had no touches in the half.

The Browns forged their way back into the contest in the second half, on the strength mostly, of that running game.

Neglected for thirty minutes, Cleveland punched through the KC defense to the tune of 94 second-half rushing yards at a clip of 5.9 yards per carry.  Had they started the game that way, the story might have been different.  As it was, Cleveland began the second half in catch-up mode, and the passing game wasn’t up to the challenge.

Against the 94 rushing yards, Baker Mayfield threw for only 70 yards in the second half – averaging just 3.5 yards per attempted pass and 5.83 yards per completed pass – some of that influenced by a KC game-plan that blitzed Baker on 52.6% of his drop-backs.

As Cleveland’s season ends, and as KC prepares to meet Buffalo, it’s fair to remember how far the Browns have come this year.  Just 6-10 last year, Cleveland is only three years removed from the team that was 0-16 in 2017.  Whether or not they have actually turned a corner is a question that will have to wait for next year.  They still lost both games to Baltimore this year, and the first game to Pittsburgh.  That they beat the Steelers in the season’s final game is more attributable to Pittsburgh resting its starters.  Their conquest of the Steelers in the WildCard round still feels more like a Pittsburgh meltdown than anything that Cleveland did – remember, that game began with the snap sailing over Ben Roethlisberger’s head and things went south from there.

Still, this Cleveland team nearly came all the way back against Kansas City after trailing by 16 points.  But for a heart-breaking fumble through the end zone that eliminated a golden first half scoring opportunity, Cleveland might well be preparing for Buffalo.  This Cleveland franchise will be one to keep an eye on next year.

Of Huntley and Henne

Adding to the intrigue of the Divisional Round games – and possibly to the Championship Game – both Baltimore and Kansas City finished the game (and not by choice) with their backup quarterbacks on the field as both of the league’s last two MVP quarterbacks went out of the game with concussions.

In Buffalo, on the drive that followed the pick six, Jackson had a second-down snap sail over his head.  Lamar chased it down and managed to heave it out of bounds before he was tumbled by Tremaine Edmunds and Trent Murphy.  He landed on his back in the end zone – bouncing his head off the turf.  It was his last play of the season.

Into the breach came Tyler Huntley – a rookie out of Utah who had thrown 5 passes during the regular season.  Tyler was Baltimore’s third back-up quarterback of the year after various difficulties befell Robert Griffin III and Trace McSorley

Tyler wasn’t terrible.  He completed 6 of 13 for 60 yards and ran for another 32.  On Baltimore’s last possession of the season, Tyler drove the team to the Buffalo ten-yard line, where his fourth-down-pass was deflected away by Edmunds.

Honestly, at that point, the absence of Jackson wasn’t much of an issue.  Lamar has never brought a team back from a 14-point deficit, and it’s most unlikely that this would have been the night.  In this game, Jackson’s absence was mostly a footnote.  That wasn’t the case in Kansas City.

Henne-thing’s Possible

About half-way through the third quarter, KC quarterback Patrick Mahomes tried to skirt right end to convert a third-and-one.  He couldn’t get around Mack Wilson, and then struggled to get up after the hit.

And suddenly, the season rested on the shoulders of back-up Chad Henne.

From the hoopla that surrounded the event, one would think that no back-up quarterback in NFL history had ever made a play in a game.  In truth, Chad’s situation wasn’t nearly as dire as the 35-3 deficit that Frank Reich inherited against Houston all those years ago.  Still, there were plays that needed to be made, and Chad made them.

He entered a 19-10 game (KC in front), facing a fourth-and-one.  He would finish this drive and have two more of his own in the fourth quarter.  In this drive, he was on his 48-yard line, still needing quite a few yards to get into field goal range.  This is a drive I will get back to.

On his subsequent possession, Chad threw an interception into the end zone to open the door a crack.  The Chief defense quieted the uprising, forcing a punt that gave the ball back to Henne with 4:09 left in someone’s season – Kansas City clinging to a 22-17 lead.

Here, Chad’s job was to run out the clock.  More than anything else, KC didn’t want to give the ball back to the Browns.  It was during this drive that the legend of Chad Henne was born.

On third-and-four with 3:21 left, Chad completed a five-yard pass to Darrel Williams (whose contributions to this game would equal those of Henne).  Then, on the final play before the two-minute warning, Chad suffered a sack at the hands of Myles Garrett.

Now, it was third-and-fourteen with KC still pretty deep in their own territory (their own 35).  Without a huge play here, Cleveland would be getting the ball back with around a minute left to do something with.  With his receivers covered and the pocket collapsing, Chad Henne pulled the ball down and darted up the left sideline.  As he approached the first-down marker – and with M.J. Stewart closing in – Chad hurled himself, head-first, toward that precious first-down line.

As he slid across that line, the KC sideline (and the fans in the stadium) erupted.  The moment was so galvanizing that it didn’t even matter that the officials marked the ball just short – bringing up fourth-and-inches.  At that point, it only served to add one more memory for Chad – a five-yard, fourth-down completion to Tyreek Hill in the right flat that put a bow on things.

That Final Field Goal

The Chad Henne moment was – without a doubt – the most romantic moment of this round.  He could be even more important in the Championship Game, depending on how things develop with Mahomes – who is in concussion protocol.

But, I keep coming back to that moment when Chad first came into the game – with a fairly critical first down to get.

Talking to the press after the game, coach Andy Reid made a point of the fact that the loss of Mahomes didn’t weaken the knees of his football team at all.  That was evidenced on the fourth-and-one play, when Williams burst around left end for 12 yards to earn the first down with authority.  He shot around the right end for 16 more on the next play (dragging Browns as he went), to pull the ball down to the Cleveland 24.

Four plays later, Harrison Butker kicked the 33-yard field goal that gave them an important buffer.

Williams – who finished with 78 rushing yards and 16 more on pass receptions – spent much of the season – like Henne – deep on the depth chart.  His opportunity in this game came because of the injury to number-one back Clyde Edwards-Helaire.  During the season, he had only 39 carries.

Sung and Unsung

Kansas City has now won 23 of Patrick Mahomes’ last 24 starts.  So much of the attention during this run has gone to the marquee names – Mahomes, Tyreek Hill, Travis Kelce, Chris Jones, etc.  And justifiably so.  These are franchise talents that have combined to vault this team into the elite circles of the NFL.

But just as critical are the contributions of many other players you don’t hear much about.  Demarcus Robinson, Daniel Sorensen, Tanoh Kpassagnon – and now Darrel Williams and Chad Henne.  These guys aren’t the most awe-inspiring talents to dot an NFL roster.  But what they are is play-makers.  I don’t think it’s unfair to say that Kansas City’s roster is deeper in guts than it is in raw talent, but the fact is that the deeper you grind into the playoffs the more important the guts of a team becomes.

There are now four teams left in the tournament.  With most of them, I’m not at all sure how they will respond to the critical moments that will decide these last three games.  But I know how Kansas City will respond.  Someone on this roster will make a play.  It might be a small play to keep a drive going, or pulling a receiver down a yard short of the first-down marker.  It might be a play that the media won’t remember after the game.

But when the money is on the table, you can be sure that someone on this roster – starter or reserve – will make a play.  Buffalo’s challenge is actually greater than It appears on paper.

But, if Patrick can’t go . . .

The NFL Profiles as a Touchdown Pass League

Four teams are left standing – in many ways, very disparate in their approaches to winning.  It’s an interesting blend of strengths and weaknesses that will make, no doubt, for a lively finish.

These four teams do, though, have one commonality that binds them together.  Their quarterbacks get the ball into the end zone.

Looking at the last four quarterbacks standing, we have Aaron Rodgers In Green Bay.  His 48 touchdown passes led the league.  He will be matched this weekend against Tampa Bay’s Tom Brady, who’s 40 touchdown passes ranked him second (tied with Seattle’s Russell Wilson).  The AFC Championship Game will pit Number 4 (KC’s Pat Mahomes – assuming he’s available) against Number 5 (Josh Allen of Buffalo).  Mahomes threw 38 in the regular season, and Allen tossed 37.

Whatever else you do in the NFL – whether you run and stop the run, throw high-percentage, low interception passes, or spend your games dialing up shot plays – the indispensable accessory your team must have if it’s going to make a deep playoff run is that quarterback who gets you into the end zone.

It’s the NFL’s gold standard in the early years of the new decade.

What Baltimore’s Learned About Derrick Henry

No one blocked Pernell McPhee.  I think that no one thought that they needed to.

There was 8:26 left in a scoreless first quarter between the Baltimore Ravens and the Tennessee Titans.  It was the first Sunday game of Super WildCard Weekend.  The Titans, with a first-and-ten on the Raven 22, handed the ball off to battering ram running back Derrick Henry (who, as I’m sure you’re aware, rolled up 2027 rushing yards this year).

There’s a thing that almost always happens when the ball is placed into Henry’s hands.  The entire defense converges on the Titans’ titan-sized back (who is still charitably listed as the 247 pounds he weighed when he came out of college).  “Rally to the ball,” is the common theme that you hear when defenses talk about stopping Derrick Henry.  Apparently it takes a village.  (This actually turns out to be true, but not quite in the way that most teams practice it.)

So now, here was quarterback Ryan Tannehill handing the ball to Henry, and here was McPhee standing just off right tackle, not rallying to the ball.  Not doing anything, really.  He was just waiting.

The middle of the defensive line is one of the great strengths of this Baltimore team.  Moving guys like Calais Campbell, Derek Wolfe and/or Brandon Williams very far off the line is rare occurrence.

In this instance, it was Nate Davis – one of the really good guards in the NFL – trying to wedge Wolfe off his spot.  Not only did he not succeed, but Wolfe even started pushing him backward into the on-rushing Henry.  Seeing that nothing was developing in front of him, Derrick bounced the play outside to his right – right into the waiting arms of McPhee – who had done an uncommon thing (at least as far as Tennessee opponents are concerned).  He held his contain.

Several weeks ago, I made a point of highlighting Henry’s ability to rapidly cut into the void of a defense.  Those voids exist because most teams don’t have the discipline to stay in their contain when Derrick has the ball.  At that point, they are all about rallying to the ball.  But not the Ravens last Sunday afternoon.

In a display that must surely have caught the attention of the other defensive coordinators in the league, the Baltimore front seven played gap control defense.  As a team, they just never over-reacted to the ball in Henry’s hands.

Tennessee holding a 10-3 lead with 9:59 left in the first half.  The Titans are first-and-ten on their own 25.  Tennessee lines two tight ends to the end of the line on the left, executing a “stretch run” to that side, with Henry the ball carrier.  Linebacker Tyus Bowser gave some ground to the double-team block of those tight ends (Geoff Swaim and Jonnu Smith) but didn’t yield the edge.  On the interior, left tackle David Quessenberry and left guard Rodger Saffold were equally incapable of pushing through Wolfe and Williams, respectively.  Rookie linebacker Patrick Queen met the attempted block of center Ben Jones without budging, and another impressive rookie – Justin Madubuike, who we will talk a little more about later – had full control of Davis.

As Henry looked up, there wasn’t the slightest sliver of daylight for him to exploit at the point of attack – and there was McPhee holding contain on the cutback.

One quarter later, Baltimore now ahead 17-10 with 8:55 left in the third. Henry again looking for any crack in the Raven line.  Tight end MyCole Pruitt had the task of pushing McPhee off the edge.  Didn’t happen.  Saffold was equally unable to remove Madubuike.  Williams occupied both Jones and Davis, leaving Queen a completely clean gap – with Campbell holding his contain waiting for the cutback attempt.  Again, frustration for Henry.

This is a snapshot of what the whole game was like for Derrick, who finished with a season-low 40 rushing yards on 18 carries (for a season-low 2.2 yards per rush).  He had scored 8 touchdowns over his previous 6 games, but there was no end zone for him tonight.

Watching all of this play out, I was left with a couple of impressions – the first about gap defense in general and the second an understanding of how this specifically relates to Henry and the Titans – something, in short, that Baltimore has learned from the last two games against Derrick and Tennessee.

Two Gap Principles

First, gap control only works when your front seven trusts each other.  The reason, after all, that a player abandons his gap is because he believes that some other defender in some other gap isn’t capable of making a play by themselves.  One of the reasons that Baltimore’s defense is so good – and this is an elite defense – is because they all trust each other to make their plays.  Gap control is the ultimate “do your job” defensive approach.

It’s understandable that gap control could waver a bit when Derrick Henry is on the other side.  Who, after all, is capable of tackling King Henry one-on-one.  And yet, the Ravens did all night.  Here’s the thing that they understand.

Derrick Henry is a momentum runner.  In that sense, he’s different than, say, Baltimore’s J.K. Dobbins, who is at top speed the instant the ball is put into his hands.  At more than 250 pounds, Derrick needs a few steps to build up some momentum.  Once that happens, your defense is in deep trouble, but this almost always obliges the offensive line to at least get him past the line of scrimmage.  Up until that point, frankly, Henry is no harder to bring down than most other backs.

Usually this isn’t a problem, as Derrick runs behind one of football’s better run-blocking lines.  But on Sunday afternoon all of those good run blockers had their lunches handed to them.  Derrick averaged only 1.3 yards from scrimmage before being contacted (his season average of 2.5 yards before contact was about average).  Consequently, Derrick gained only 0.9 yards per run after contact (during the season his 2.8 yards after contact were among the league’s best).

Among the most culpable for this difficulty is tight end Swaim.  Usually trusted to give Derrick the edge, Geoff was pushed around the entire afternoon – never more so than on the three-yard loss that Henry sustained on a first-and-goal play from the Baltimore seven-yard line with 6:25 left in the first.  On that play, linebacker/end Matt Judon shot through Swaim as though he was made of toilet paper and dropped Henry as soon as the ball hit his hands.

Madubuike

Before I move too far away from this, just a bit of recognition for Justin Madubuike.  Justin is a rookie third-round draft choice out of Texas A&M who I hadn’t noticed before.  But every time I looked up on Sunday, there he was making another play.  In particular, for a big guy (and he’s listed at 293) he seems to have the technique down for slipping between double-teams.  He did this twice to make big plays on Sunday.  With 2:30 left in the first, he slipped between Saffold and Quessenberry, forcing Derrick to bounce the run back into traffic.  On that play, Justin was even quick enough to catch him from behind and pull him down.

Later, with 6:07 left in the third quarter (and with Henry on the sideline putting his shoe back on), a back named Darrynton Evans was sent off left tackle.  But Judon was there to deny him the corner – he was pushing Swaim into the backfield.  There was no opening next to him, either, as Quessenberry was having no luck moving Wolfe.  As Evans was starting to turn the run back to the right, Madubuike split the guard and tackle on the other side (Nate Davis and Dennis Kelly) and made the tackle.

Justin, apparently, got his opportunity during the COVID outbreak that the Ravens suffered through earlier this season – and given that chance, he seems to be making the most of it.  In a lot of ways Madubuike fits the mold of many of the great defensive linemen that have played in Baltimore.  He’s big enough to hold the line, but athletic, good with his hands, and difficult to lay a block on.  The Ravens may have a find in Justin.

Can Other Teams Do This Against Derrick?

In theory, other teams might employ this same approach when playing against Henry, but there are a couple of caveats that apply.  First and foremost, your team would need a defensive line capable of repelling that very good offensive line.  Baltimore was good enough to do this (at least for one game).  I’m not sure there are many other teams in the league that could.

There’s another piece to Derrick’s struggles in this game, though, that can’t simply be attributed to outstanding defense.  For some reason, although presented with several opportunities, Derrick Henry never took off down the sideline.  This is a stunning development for those of us who have watched him all year.  Almost all of his signature runs have found him outside of the defense, rolling full-steam down the sideline – usually the right sideline behind blocks from Kelly and Davis.  Some of that was the Ravens closing off cutback lanes.  Even with that, though, Derrick had several chances for the big run, and either didn’t see them, or passed them up for some other reason.

Third quarter, Baltimore ahead 17-10, Titans with 2:50 left in the quarter with a first-and-ten at the Raven 25.  The Titans line up with two tight ends to the left, causing the Baltimore defense to shift in that direction.  Now, the only Raven defender to the right of tackle is cornerback Marcus Peters, who disappeared from the play when the receiver he was covering – Nick Westbrook-Ikhine – ran a vertical up the right side.  Now the entire sideline is vacant.

Linebacker Jihad Ward tries to set the edge, as Henry starts rolling toward that vacant sideline, but Kelly has him under control.  Jihad’s chances of keeping Henry from the sideline are exceedingly poor.  But just before turning the corner, Derrick changes his mind and darts back toward the middle – where he is held to a three-yard gain.

Now there’s 12:11 left in the Tennessee season, first-and-ten on their own 42, trailing 17-13.  Westbrook-Ikhine again runs Peters downfield, opening the sideline.  This time, Judon – on the right edge – is pushing Swain into the backfield, but Henry has the angle and a still mostly clear path to the corner.  For some reason, he decides that he can’t get around Judon, and tries to turn back inside.  This time he actually trips over Swain’s feet and can only make it back to the line of scrimmage.

It’s futile to speculate why Derrick didn’t try – at least once – to get around the edge.  But he didn’t.  Sufffice it to say there were about four or five of these opportunities – enough to change the outcome of the event.

Not Much Without Henry

For the game’s first fifteen minutes, Tennessee looked like they could make short work of the Raven defense, even without much contribution from Henry.  Tennessee controlled the clock for 10:23 of that quarter, running 20 plays and rolling up 126 yards and 10 points.

For the entire rest of the game, Tennessee added just 3 more points, gaining just 83 yards on 31 plays.  Over the last three quarters Baltimore owned the time of possession battle, 29:01 to 15:59.  With their early lead not enough to force Baltimore out of its running attack, the Titan defense was faced with the necessity of defending football’s most dangerous ground attack for the full sixty minutes.  Needless to say, it did not end well for them.  The sometimes unstoppable Ravens sliced and diced their way through Tennessee to the tune of 236 rushing yards, on their way to a 20-13 victory (gamebook) (summary).

Leading the assault was quarterback Lamar Jackson, who piled up 136 of those ground yards.  Lamar piled up another 1005 rushing yards during the season, and his 6.3 yards per attempt led all of football.  Lamar was the centerpiece of a rushing game that averaged 191.9 yards per contest and 5.5 per attempt – both numbers easily the best in the NFL.

It’s hard to imagine that the NFL has ever seen a more dangerous ball-carrier than Jackson.  His ability to change direction almost at the speed of thought, makes tackling Lamar about as easy as tackling a feral cat.

But as natural and instinctive as Jackson is a s a runner, he is still that unnatural and forced as a passer.  Some have made claims that Lamar’s passing has continued to improve substantially.  In all honesty, I don’t see it.  Even in victory, Lamar isn’t truly throwing the ball any better or more consistently than he did in last year’s playoff loss.

Lamar’s Continuing Struggles

Several things continue to leap off the tape when you watch Jackson play.  First and most obvious is his minus arm strength.  The farther downfield you ask him to throw, the more erratic his performance becomes.  The Ravens, of course, understand this about Lamar.  At the same time, they understood that Tennessee was distinctly vulnerable to the downfield passing game.  With no pass rush to speak of, the Titans couldn’t play zone, and neither of their cornerbacks was a match for top receivers Marquise Brown or Miles Boykin.

On this particular afternoon, Baltimore had no difficulty getting receivers behind the Tennessee defense.  Getting the ball to them, though, was a different matter.  Look no farther than Jackson’s first quarter interception.

Boykin lined up in a tight split to the right with cornerback Malcolm Butler playing over him.  Malcolm played over Boykin’s outside shoulder, with the intent to keep him away from the sideline and direct him back toward his help in the middle of the field.  Butler’s outside leverage notwithstanding, Boykin extended his vertical stem until he was on top of Butler – at which point he broke sharply outside and started streaking up the sideline, gaining separation from Malcolm with every step.

Some 38 yards downfield, though, was too far.  Lamar’s throw was not only short but well to the inside.  It actually looked like Butler was the intended receiver.

I’m not really sure that there is anything you can do about arm strength.  If there were some exercises or drills that could add length to your throws, then everyone would be throwing 60-yard lasers like Josh Allen.  At some point, I think you have to accept that his arm is what it is and plan accordingly.

There are other issues, though – mental things – that Baltimore should well expect Lamar to have improved on by now.  These are also issues.

For one thing, Lamar still hasn’t developed that feel for when he can continue to wait on the deep routes to come open, and when he needs to check the ball down.  The Titans finished last in football in quarterback sack percentage.  They recorded only 19 for the season (Pittsburgh’s T.J. Watt recorded 15 all by himself), and only managed to drag the opposing passer to the ground on 2.9% of his drop-backs.

Sunday they took Lamar down 5 times.  In looking at that number, no one need assume that Tennessee suddenly became the Steelers.  On every one of those sacks, Jackson had ample time and opportunity to either check the ball down, throw it away, or pull it down and run with it.  In almost all of those cases, Lamar kept waiting for deep routes to come open until he’d run out of time.

With 4:18 left in the first half, the Ravens, still down 10-3, faced first-and-ten on the Tennessee 49-yard line.  The Titans blitzed rarely throughout the afternoon, but they brought one here, playing a very soft and very deep zone defense behind it.  As Jackson stood in the pocket, both Boykin and Willie Snead broke wide open underneath the coverage – Snead deep enough downfield to get a first down.  But Jackson didn’t throw it.  He was waiting on Hollywood’s deep route.  Down the right sideline, Marquise “Hollywood” Brown was running a deep route that did, eventually split the zone.  But by the time Hollywood broke through, Jackson was on the turf.

Lamar did better (statistically) in the second half – completing 10 of his 13 throws.  But at that point the Ravens had given up on the deep throws and had Jackson dumping the ball off short to the first open receiver he saw.  As often as not, that turned out to be TE/Fullback Patrick Ricard, who the Titans struggling pass defense frequently forgot to cover.  It was a comforting second half, but it doesn’t negate the aspects of throwing the football that are still foreign to Jackson.

One play in particular encapsulates where Lamar is as a passer in season three of the Jackson Experiment.

Still trailing 10-0, the Ravens have the ball on Tennessee’s ten-yard line.  There’s 10:41 left in the first half and Baltimore is faced with a third-and-six.  Running back Dobbins was flanked wide to the left, and Tennessee trotted linebacker David Long out to the perimeter to cover him.  Conscious of Dobbins speed, Long allowed him a substantial cushion.  Next to Dobbins, Dez Bryant was in the slot, with Malcolm Butler directly over him in bump-and-run coverage.  At the snap, Dez headed for the corner of the end zone, bringing Butler with him.  Their path cut off Long’s path to Dobbins, who was running a shallow cross back across the middle.  J.K., at this point, was as wide open as any receiver was all day.  He was a short toss away from Jackson, would have easily picked up the first down, and well might have scored.

Jackson never threw him the ball.  Dobbins, you see, was not his first read.  You can see Lamar’s head turn and follow his first read – Dez Bryant headed for the corner of the end zone – for several seconds.

Dobbins was wide open just below Bryant.  It’s almost inconceivable that Lamar didn’t see him.  But his second read was Andrews over the middle.  So, after watching Dez for a while (too long, really), he turned his attention to Mark.  He even raised his arm to throw him the ball. But by then it was too late.  The pocket collapsed and Lamar pulled the ball back into his body just before Brooks Reed drove him to the ground.

This is where Jackson is as a passer.  After 37 regular season starts and three more in the playoffs, passing is still a paint-by-numbers exercise.  I guarantee you that any of the “passing” quarterbacks in this league, understanding the route combination would realize pre-snap that Long couldn’t possibly cover Dobbins’ route from a five-yard cushion.  Aaron Rodgers, Patrick Mahomes, Josh Allen, Tom Brady, Russell Wilson, Drew Brees – pick your favorite – all these guys would have the ball in J.K.’s hands about a half second after the snap.

This evening, Jackson and his Ravens will travel to frigid (and possibly snowy) Orchard Park, New York, to face a very good Buffalo team.  One team’s playoff journey will continue.  Football is always a wildly unpredictable event.  If anyone claims that they predicted that Cleveland would jump out to a 28-0 lead on Pittsburgh if the first quarter of last week’s game, I would certainly ask to see the proof.

But within our understanding of the liklihoods of this game, the story lines seem crystal clear.

If the Baltimore defense can find a way to slow the Buffalo offense to the point where Lamar can keep running the ball, then the Ravens will probably win.  About the only notable weakness in this Buffalo team is its run defense.  Even in beating Indianapolis last week, they still surrendered 163 rushing yards to the Colts.

Those of you who watched that game might be quick to point out that more than half of those yards (82 to be exact) came on just three plays.  Other than that, the Colt run game was little heard from.  It wasn’t like they pounded the ball down the Bills’ throat all day.

This is true.  But understand that this is who the Ravens are as well.  They are not a grinding, 12-play, nine-minute, three-yards-and-a-cloud-of-dust team.  They are a big play running team – a one-missed-tackle-costs-you-a-48-yard-touchdown kind of team.  In their own way, they are just as dependent on the big play as the Tampa Bay Buccaneers.  And if they are allowed to keep running the ball for the whole sixty minutes, that big run will almost assuredly come to pass (no pun intended).

On the other hand, if Buffalo solves the Baltimore blitz scheme (and a blitz-based pass defense always comes with some element of risk) and puts Baltimore in a position where they have to start throwing the ball, then the Ravens will be in trouble.

And that’s even if it doesn’t snow.

Still No Closer to Solving Lamar

The words had barely escaped Brian Griese’s lips.

In the Monday night booth this year, the former quarterback was suggesting possible adjustments that Cleveland might make in the second half of their contest against Baltimore.  As the third quarter began, the Browns were facing a 21-14 deficit after having been shredded for 134 rushing yards in the first half.  The bulk of those yards (78 of them) belonged to Raven quarterback Lamar Jackson.

And so now, as the Ravens faced a third-and-three from their own 37 on their first possession of the second half, Griese offered his final piece of advice to the Browns.  Find a way to “contain” Lamar Jackson.

And right on cue, they didn’t contain him.

Running their signature read-option play, with running back J.K. Dobbins aligned to his right, Jackson placed the ball in Dobbins hands while reading the unblocked defensive end to his left – on this play, Browns’ All-Pro Myles Garrett.

Garrett was caught in no-man’s land.  In fact, the entire Cleveland team was caught in no man’s land.  As Jackson lifted his eyes, he noted that only three Cleveland defenders remained on the left side of the hash marks.  There were two defensive backs (M.J. Stewart and Terrance Mitchell) both lined up wide to the left and out of the play, and Garrett who was all alone to defend both options of the read-option, as well as the left sideline.

Jackson kept the ball.  As Dobbins went racing past, Garrett took one false step in his direction, and Lamar darted inside of him, streaking, uncontained, through the gaping void off of left tackle.  Linebacker Malcolm Smith did eventually get an angle on Jackson and brought him to the ground but after a 44 yard gain.  Gus Edwards scored a touchdown on the next play.

Coming out of their bye at 5-3, the Cleveland Browns strung together a four-game winning streak that thrust them into the middle of the playoff conversation, and even – after the Steelers finally lost a couple of games – had them thinking about a possible division title.  The first three of those victories came against lightly regarded foes (Houston, Philadelphia and Jacksonville), but the last of them was the signature victory they had been waiting for – a 41-35 conquest of the Tennessee Titans.

And so – as they took the field last Monday evening – the Cleveland Browns were feeling really good about themselves.  Until the Ravens took the field and number 8 came out of the tunnel.  He (Jackson) continues to be Cleveland’s kryptonite.

No team has played Baltimore’s third year quarterback more than the Browns, and no team has less success against him.  Of the eight teams that have faced Jackson more than once, no team allows him more rushing yards per game (73) or a higher rushing average (6.74) than the Browns.  And when Lamar throws the ball, only Houston has spotted him a higher passer rating than the 112.0 he carries against Cleveland.  (In two games against the Texans, Jackson holds a 134.5 passer rating.)

The league in general has concluded that there is a certain discipline needed on defense if you are going to successfully “contain” the dynamic Mr. Jackson.  Your pass rushes can’t leave any open gaps for him to exploit.  Some teams have started to blitz Jackson a little more, not only to shorten his processing time, but also to keep all of the pass-rush lanes occupied.

Cleveland blitzed just 4 times and frequently opened a running lane for Lamar.  Of his game-high 124 rushing yards, 49 came on 5 scrambles when the pass rush provided him an escape.

The Browns are also still inclined to drop their pass coverages every time Jackson threatens to pull the ball down and run with it.  This happened on both of Lamar’s big throws – the 39-yarder to Mark Andrews that led to the go-ahead touchdown before the end of the first half, and the 44-yard touchdown pass to Marquise Brown that fueled the fourth-quarter comeback.

And when they weren’t doing all of that, Brown defenders were abandoning their containment assignments.  That’s what happened on the 44-yard run at the beginning of the third quarter.

Lined up in the gap that Jackson would eventually exploit was linebacker B.J. Goodson.  But as the play began, both offensive tackle Orlando Brown Jr. and guard Bradley Bozeman pulled to the right – an influential enough occurrence to convince Goodson that he wasn’t needed on the left side and draw him across the formation.

In fairness, the pulling linemen are a concern.

You may not have noticed, but Baltimore does almost no “zone-blocking.” Their running attack is a precision instrument – almost like the attack that the Don Shula Dolphins might have executed back in the 70’s.  It’s a targeted affair, replete with double-teams, pulling lineman and multiple blockers at the point of attack.  I would estimate that Bozeman spent nearly half of his evening pulling to open up that right sideline for Jackson and the running backs.  Of the 231 rushing yards they eventually laid on the Browns, 112 of them came up that inviting right sideline.  So, the pulling Raven linemen wasn’t something to be taken lightly.

Nonetheless, defenders with contain responsibility need to keep contain.

“Do Your Job” is, of course, the famed Bill Belichick mantra that serves to simplify the complexity of winning football.  If your job is to contain or rush or cover, do that and don’t try to do someone else’s job as well.  This is the recurring difficulty that Cleveland has whenever they play Lamar and the Ravens.

As it turns out, “doing your job” requires trust.  Right now, when playing against Jackson, the Cleveland defenders do not trust each other.  Until they do, expect their struggles against the Ravens to continue.

Cleveland as a Playoff Contender?

Jackson has now made five starts against Cleveland.  Their best efforts against him were their first two (Baltimore winning the first 26-24 in December of 2018, and Cleveland answering with a 40-25 win the next year).  Jackson eclipsed neither the 100 yards rushing nor the 100 passer rating plateaus in either game.  But the more they play him, the worse Cleveland gets.

In their Week 15 matchup last year, Lamar torched them for 103 yards rushing and a 120.1 passer rating.  In the opening game this year, Jackson ran only 7 times for 45 yards (remember, there were no exhibition games for him to warm up in), but he made up for that with a 152.1 passer rating.  Last Monday, his 124 rushing yards were complimented by his 115.6 passer rating.  The Brown offense battled back gamely, but in the end, it was another loss to their bitter division rival, 47-42 (gamebook) (summary).

Cleveland’s regular season will close with a showdown against the other principle team in the division – the Pittsburgh Steelers, who also thrashed the Browns in an earlier contest (38-7 in Week Six).

Until they can show that they can beat (not just play with) the division heavyweights, Cleveland’s playoff hopes will be nebulous at best.  With the Dolphins hanging just one game behind the Browns and with a somewhat easier closing schedule, this week’s contest against the Giants (a team significantly tougher than its 5-8 record indicates) becomes a must win for Cleveland.

If they lose that game, it will almost certainly force them to beat Pittsburgh on the last day of the season to get in.  It’s a situation, I’m sure, they would rather not be forced into.

Of Super Bowl Hangovers

Do you believe in the Super Bowl Hangover?  I don’t.  The pattern isn’t really there.  Over the last several decades, there have been a few teams that have lost the Super Bowl that have vanished, but it doesn’t happen with any kind of regularity.  Among the recent losers of Super Bowls, the 2018 New England Patriots rebounded from their loss to Philadelphia in SB LII to beat the Rams in SB LIII.

So there is no real evidence for a Super Bowl hangover – but losing the big game can occasionally bring bad juju.  After blowing a huge lead and losing Super Bowl LI, the Atlanta Falcon franchise has never recovered.

Real or not, the two most successful teams of 2019 are both undergoing gut-wrenching “hangover” seasons that have both coaches and fans tearing their hair out.  The winningest team in football last year, the Baltimore Ravens (then 14-2) are scuffling to make their way back into the playoffs.  They are currently 6-5 and out of the playoffs, but not without prospects.

The top seed in the NFC last year was the San Francisco 49ers.  They were 13-3 last year.  At 5-6 this year, the 49ers are also currently out of the playoffs.  Their chances of making it back aren’t so good, given the strength of the division that they play in and the fact that one team from the NFC East will get an invitation.

In Week 12 (which ended on Wednesday) both of these teams were significant underdogs in important divisional clashes – and both responded with efforts consistent with their championship breeding.  Whatever their difficulties, these two teams are not about excuses or concessions.  Downtrodden or not, both of these teams battled to the very end.

San Francisco

In San Francisco this year, the issue has been injuries.  The team on the field would be mostly unrecognizable to fans from 2019 – a listing of the missing would be too exhausting to undertake.  Last Sunday they lined up against the 7-3 Rams, opened up a 17-3 lead on them, and then held on as the Rams scored the next 17 points – aided by a defensive score.

That score was extra-significant, as the 49er defense almost entirely defused the sometimes potent LA offense.  Being a division rival, the 49ers knew just what to do to shut them down.

Slowing the Rams

Los Angeles’ passing game is a function of its running game, and when the running portion is removed, the passing attack almost always flounders.  The Rams finished the game with a deceptive 126 rushing yards and 4.5 yards per carry.  Nearly half of those yards came on one 61-yard off-tackle burst by Cam Akers – a run which set up Los Angeles’ only offensive touchdown of the game.

Beyond that run, the Rams’ other 27 running plays managed just 65 yards (2.4 yards per rush).  None of the other running plays gained more than 8 yards.  This inability to run the ball not only made the LA offense one-dimensional, but it also effectively removed the play-action passes from their playbook.  Coming into the game, 35.8% of the Ram passes involved play-action.  Of the 31 passes thrown against the 49ers, LA employed play-action just 4 times.

Without the play-action to draw the linebackers and define the reads, Ram quarterback Jared Goff suffered through a forgettable afternoon.  Those 31 passes resulted in 19 completions for just 198 yards.  He also tossed a couple of interceptions to go with no touchdown passes – a 52.9 rating.

Jared is answerable for a good slice of that result.  He did not have a good game.  But in equal measure, Goff was let down by his teammates.

While not having nearly the injury issues that San Francisco has endured, the Rams have a significant hole at left tackle.  Fifteen-year veteran Andrew Whitworth has been the anchor to this offensive line ever since these Rams rose to prominence.  But a torn MCL and damage to the PCL in his left knee have him on injured reserve for what is officially described as a “significant length of time.”  The 49er game was the second game that Whitworth has missed, and a suitable replacement has not yet emerged.

In his absence, Joseph Noteboom – a third-year pro and former third-round draft pick out of TCU – made his tenth career start, but struggled all game long in pass protection.  He, in fact, almost made a star out of Dion Jordan, the San Francisco end who most frequently lined up opposite of him and routinely beat him to his outside.

This offensive line weakness provided San Francisco with a critical advantage.  Noteboom’s struggles meant that the 49ers could put consistent pass-rush pressure on Goff without having to resort to blitzing.

And the pressure did come.  Goff was sacked only twice, but was hit numerous other times (7 according to the gamebook account, but it seemed more than that).  Initially, though, this didn’t seem all that damaging.

San Francisco began the game in zone defenses, and the Rams answered with a salvo of short completions.  Jared completed all of his first 6 passes for 69 yards, getting the ball quickly out of his hands before the pass rush became an issue.  At this point, the 49ers switched to predominantly man coverages, and that – combined with the pressure – brought the LA passing game to an almost full stop.  From that point on, Goff was 13 of 25 for 129 yards and the 2 interceptions (a 33.6 rating).

Critical to man coverage is the performance of the cornerbacks.  After a season of relentless injuries, the 49ers are starting to get some of their pieces back.  Important additions for this game included running back Raheem Mostert, receiver Deebo Samuel, and star cornerback Richard Sherman.

Unlike many teams, though, the San Francisco cornerbacks do not travel.  For whatever reason, the 49ers don’t choose a receiver and have Sherman erase him from the game.  Instead, Richard sits on the left corner and waits to see who the opposing team will send out to challenge him on any particular play.

Thus, this defensive concept requires a second high-level cornerback to man the other side of the field.  And in Jason Verrett (at least for last Sunday) San Francisco had him.  At one time (2014), Jason was a first round draft pick of the (then) San Diego Chargers, and even made the Pro Bowl in 2015.  But a series of injuries interrupted his career.  Six times since 2015, Jason has landed on either the Injured Reserve list or the Physically Unable to Perform list.  Last season – his first as a 49er – Jason was healthy for only 4 defensive snaps.  A hamstring injury even cost him the first two games of this season.  But cornerback was an area of concern last year for the 49ers, and as soon as Jason was able to get back on the field, he has been a starter, playing at least 77% of the snaps in every game since.

On Sunday, Jason took all comers at his right cornerback position.  He ran up the field on Josh Reynolds’ verticals, and stayed with Robert Woods and Cooper Kupp on all their intermediate crossing routes.  Verrett combined with Sherman, safety Jimmie Ward (who played a phenomenal game – mostly taking away the Ram tight ends) and Emmanuel Moseley (and Jamar Taylor before he went down with an injury) in blanketing the Ram receivers.  The Rams have had issues with this before.  This is not the first time their receivers (especially Kupp) have vanished before tight man coverage.

So Goff’s situation throughout the game was fairly bleak.  Rarely did he have time to throw the ball, and rarely did he have anyone open to throw it to.  No matter his level of performance, it would have been almost impossible for Jared to have a great game, given the circumstances.

Goff finished the game only 1-for-5 on passes more than 10 yards downfield.

And then, of course, when he did get opportunities, he missed far too many of them.  Accuracy was a problem.  More than a few open receivers he just missed.

The most agonizing of these came with 3:26 left in the third, LA on the 49er 22 yard line, still trailing 17-3.  San Francisco switched to a zone coverage for this down and confused themselves with the coverage (not the only time that happened).  Kupp’s curl in pulled Verrett away from the defensive right sideline and out of his deep zone area.  Behind him, Darrell Henderson ran a wheel route up that sideline.  Moseley, realizing the gaffe, tried to catch up to Henderson, but was still a clear three yards or so behind him when Goff lofted what should have been a walk-in touchdown pass.  Overthrown by about two feet.

LA still salvaged a field goal out of that drive, but the four points lost on that pass would have made a huge difference in the game.

More troubling for Goff and the Rams is his pronounced tendency to pre-determine where he was going to throw the ball.

On his first sack, with 11:26 left in the second, Reynolds lined up wide right and ran a deep out against Sherman.  Respecting his speed, Sherman gave him sufficient room to run his out.  But Jared wasn’t looking his way.  He spent far too long looking to the left side, where Verrett had Gerald Everett’s out route smothered, and Ward was all over Kupp’s shallow cross.  By the time that Jared gave up on either of those routes and turned his attention back to his right, it was too late.  Kerry Hyder (who was working against Noteboom on that down) was there to take him down.

Now there is 5:13 left in the half.  The Rams are down 7-3 and face a third-and-two on their own 28.  San Fran is in zone again.  Linebacker Dre Greenlaw dropped very deep into his intermediate zone, and Everett basically turned around underneath him about two yards off the line of scrimmage – wide open for the first down.  Jared never looked at him.  He was waiting for Woods to find a space behind Fred Warner over the middle, finally throwing behind Woods as the pressure (Jordan pushing Noteboom back into his lap) started to show.

The most damaging of these poor decisions came with 2:26 left in the game.  The score was tied at 20, and LA faced a third-and-five on their own 44.  Back in man, San Francisco made one of their few glaring mistakes in that coverage.  The Rams lined up with three receivers on their left, but the 49ers only answered with two defensive backs.  His pre-snap look should have suggested to Jared that someone might be left uncovered over there.  That someone turned out to be Robert Woods, who’s deep cross was open not just for the first down but with enough distance (assuming a decent run after the catch) to put them in position for the game-winning field goal.

But Jared was already sold on Kupp’s streak up that sideline – even though Moseley was with him stride for stride.  Given a chance, Cooper might have won on a 50-50 ball, but again, Jared’s throw was well out of bounds.

It’s games like this that must give the Rams’ management pause.  Jared has had some great games for the Rams over the last few years – and his contributions were significant in LA’s Super Bowl run a couple of years ago.  I wouldn’t be at all surprised to see Jared rebound this week with a big game against Arizona.  But games like this are part of the mix, too.

The 49ers on Offense

San Francisco’s offensive approach was a perfect complement to the 49er defensive dominance.  With many of their recognizable stars still on the sideline, the 49er offense went conservative.  They ground out 33 runs, even though they only averaged 3.5 yards per carry, and they tossed a bevy of short passes.

Of Nick Mullens’ 35 throws, 24 were less than ten yards from scrimmage – and 10 of those were behind the line.  No individual number set points this out more than Deebo Samuel’s.  Deboo finished his first game back with 11 catches for 133 yards.  He had 136 of those yards after the catch.  So the aggregate air distance of all of his catches was -3 yards.  His route chart (available here), shows that 7 of his 11 catches were behind the line, and only 2 of them were more than 4 yards deep.

Conservative, yes, but effective.  After forcing that last Ram punt, the 49ers drained the last 2:10 off the clock driving 56 yards on 11 plays (5 runs, 5 passes, and one field goal) to walk away with an upset 23-20 win (summary).

Yes, San Francisco’s path back to the playoffs seems unlikely.  But the pride and professionalism of Kyle Shanahan’s team is still evident.  It bodes well for next season and beyond.

NFC Playoff Thoughts

The Rams lost no ground even though they lost the game – at least not to the Cardinals, who also lost last week to New England.  They will meet this Sunday in Arizona to probably determine the NFC’s fifth and sixth seeds.

I have held Tampa Bay in the fifth seed, thinking that if they run the table they will finish with a better record than either the Rams or Cardinals.  Increasingly, though, I have a hard time seeing Tampa Bay run the table.  With one game against Minnesota and two against Atlanta, I have a feeling that they will lose at least one of those and will finish as the seventh seed.

We’ll see.

Baltimore v Pittsburgh

Almost entirely across the country, the Steelers and Ravens finally lined up against each other last Wednesday afternoon.

Baltimore’s issues this season have been less injury and more familiarity.  Baltimore almost raced to the Super Bowl last year on a stylistically distinct brand of football.  But now in really their third season running this unique run-centric offense, a lot of defenses are starting to catch up.  The same is somewhat true of their high-blitz percentage defense (coming into the game, the Ravens – at 44.8% – were blitzing more than any other defense).  Indecipherable in 2019, more and more clubs are starting to decode this defense.  At least a little.

All together, things have been more difficult for Baltimore this year.  They have had particular difficulty against the better teams, where they had already fallen to Kansas City, Pittsburgh and Tennessee.  Now 6-4, Baltimore journeyed into Pittsburgh to renew hostilities with the undefeated Steelers.

But before the game – scheduled for Thanksgiving night – could kickoff, Baltimore found itself in the midst of a major COVID outbreak that forced numerous postponements of the game.  Even when the contest finally began on Wednesday afternoon, over half of the Raven’s roster was unavailable – either because of the virus (the Ravens had 14 players disqualified) or to other injuries (Baltimore carried 10 on the injured reserve list and had another [Tight end Mark Andrews with a thigh injury] unavailable for the game).

The resulting team more resembled a junior varsity than an NFL club, and – as with San Francisco – the fan who remembers last year would scarcely recognize this team.  On offense alone, about 7 of the 11 regulars were unavailable for this game – and – given the almost non-existent practice time that the replacement Ravens had (I think they had two practices), the results were predictable.  Baltimore finished the game with but 219 yards of total offense.

Minus their quarterback and two top running backs, football’s top ranked rushing team still managed to bang out 129 ground yards (68 of those belonging to backup quarterback Robert Griffin III).  But the Raven passing attack – a season-long concern – was nowhere to be found.

Facing relentless pressure from the Steelers and insufficient practice time to knock the rust off, Griffin the passer finished his afternoon just 7 of 12 for an anemic 33 yards.  The aggregate distance that his 7 completions traveled from the line of scrimmage was just 3 yards.  According to his chart (available here), 4 of Griffin’s 7 completions were at or behind the line of scrimmage, and none of his completions traveled more than 8 air-yards from scrimmage.  He was 0-for-3 on all passes beyond that.

And yet, when third string quarterback Trace McSorley connected with Marquise Brown on a 70-yard touchdown pass with just 2:58 left in the game, the Ravens suddenly found themselves in a one score game (19-14 Pittsburgh) with almost three minutes left and all of their timeouts still in their possession.

Although they carried their own share of unavailable stars, the Raven defense fought tenaciously throughout the game to give Baltimore this one final chance.  And nowhere were they more determined than in the red zone, where they limited football’s seventh most efficient red zone offense (the Steelers came in scoring touchdowns 69.4% of the time that they reached the end zone) to just 1-for-4 in this contest.  Now, they needed just one more stop to give the beleaguered offense one last shot at a miracle.

It was not to be.  The gritty Steelers converted two clutch third-downs to sustain that final drive, consume all of Baltimore’s timeouts, and drain the last three minutes off the clock.

On third-and-six from his own 17, quarterback Ben Roethlisberger dropped a perfect 16-yard pass into the arms of James Washington even as he was surrounded by about three defenders.  Facing third-and-one on the Raven 45 with 1:19 to go, Benny Snell rolled off of an attempted tackle and second-efforted his way to the clinching first down.

It was just enough to keep the Steelers undefeated (gamebook) (summary) while dropping Baltimore now down to 6-5.  Thus the Steelers retain their one-game lead on the Chiefs for the conference’s top seed, and Baltimore – for the moment – sits outside the playoff grouping.  Their situation, though, is less desperate than it looks.  With the end of the Steeler game, the Ravens have now passed the most difficult part of their schedule.  Before them now are Dallas, Cleveland, Jacksonville, New York (Giants) and Cincinnati.  As the Raven players filter back – and most of the COVID players are expected to be back in time to play Dallas on Tuesday – they should find themselves favored in all of these remaining games.  But two players not expected back this season will cast a large shadow over the Ravens’ viability in the playoffs.  A fractured and dislocated ankle has shelved elite left tackle Ronnie Stanley, and a major knee injury has ended the season for Nick Boyle – arguably football’s best blocking tight end.

For a team that lives and dies with the running game, these are devastating losses.

Regardless, expect to see Baltimore in the playoffs – and expect to see them to be a tough out once they get there.

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.

Nobody but Baltimore

There was 1:17 left in the first half as the Steeler defense deployed to defend a third-and-six.  The offense they were defending was back on its own 27.

Secure in the belief that a team facing third-and-6 with just 1:17 left in the half and 73 yards to cover would be throwing the ball, they employed seven defensive backs, leaving only two defensive linemen (Cameron Heyward and Stephon Tuitt) and their two pass rushing outside linebackers (Bud Dupree and T.J. Watt) to apply the pressure.  The linebackers would come on speed rushes, while the linemen would run a twist.  The secondary would play cover-3, while providing a little extra attention to the more concerning receivers.

The Steelers came into the game leading all of football in sacks (26) and sack percentage.  They were corralling opposing quarterbacks on a remarkable 11.4% of their drop-backs.  This kind of known passing situation played decidedly to their strength.

There was just one teensy problem with all of this.  The team that they were playing was the Baltimore Ravens.  This just in, you have to play the Ravens differently than you play every other team.

Nobody runs the ball in this situation.  But in Baltimore, details like down-and-distance, position on the field and time left to halftime matter little to them.  Baltimore ran the ball anyway.

Left guard and tackle Bradley Bozeman and Orlando Brown Jr. both pulled to the right.  Quarterback Lamar Jackson feinted a handoff to J.K. Dobbins (which slowed no one).  Bozeman picked off Watt.  Right tackle D.J. Fluker rushed into the void that Tuitt left as part of his stunt and met the other tackle – Heyward – as he was coming from the other side.  Brown only had to push safety Terrell Edmunds to the ground to complete a rather gaping hole.  After the play fake, Jackson darted into the void, earning 8 yards before the pursuit caught up with him.

Leading 14-7, Baltimore began their final drive of the first half on their own 8 yard line with just 3:44 left.  Plenty of time to run the ball.  Their ensuing drive consumed 15 plays – 8 of them runs.  Nobody does this.  Nobody but Baltimore.

No team in the NFL embodies the neo-Neanderthal mentality like the Ravens (my use of the term Neanderthal is explained and defended here).  Some teams run the ball as a kind of changeup, hoping to maybe pick up a couple of yards while giving the other team’s pass rush something to think about.  Many other teams understand that a healthy running game provides balance that augments the passing attack.

In Baltimore, their reason for getting up in the morning is to run the football down your throat.  Baltimore embraces the physicality of running the football, the thrill of imposing their will on an opponent – even an elite defensive opponent like the Pittsburgh Steelers.  Pittsburgh entered the contest sporting gaudy defensive numbers.  They were number one overall and number two against the run, holding opponents to just 68.8 rushing yards per game and only 3.4 yards per attempt.

The Ravens nearly tripled that number in just the first half.  Over the course of an entire game, only one team had previously managed 100 rushing yards against them.  In Week Two, Denver dented them for 104 rushing yards.  Even top running teams like Cleveland (75 yards) and Tennessee (82 yards) couldn’t move the stout Steeler run defense.

The Ravens thumped them for 179 yards on 28 carries (6.4 yards per).  And that was just the first half.

By the time the game was over, the running Ravens had stung the Steelers to the tune of 265 rushing yards on 47 carries.  It’s the kind of output that can’t help but catch the attention of teams around the league – not to mention the fans at home.

The Steelers have a little less than four weeks to figure things out, as they get a rematch with this feared running attack on Thanksgiving evening.  Here are a few things they might want to look at more closely the next time these two teams get together.

Deadly on the Edges

As you might expect, Baltimore brings the physical.  When you play them, you should expect to have the interior of your line repeatedly challenged.  In fact, two of the very best players on the field last Saturday were Baltimore reserve linemen Fluker and Patrick Mekari.  When starting right guard Tyre Phillips and left tackle Ronnie Staley left early with injuries, coach John Harbaugh reshuffled his line, pulling right tackle Brown over to left tackle and inserting Mekari and Fluker into right guard and tackle, respectively.

They then ran predominantly to the right side. For their part, the Raven backup players pushed around the Steeler defensive linemen about as well as the starters would have done.

But as tough and nasty as things were on the interior of the defense, the Ravens are positively deadly on the edges.  If it’s true that they embrace the physicality of the running game, it’s also true that they embrace the finesse of it.  If it’s true that their runners are tough, tackle-breaking runners, it’s also true that they have speed to burn and elusiveness that is Halloween scary. 

During Pittsburgh’s long defensive afternoon, Baltimore managed to get outside on them 26 times – those runs picking up 188 yards (7.2) per.

Baltimore has a handful of reliable plays that they use to get outside.  They get great mileage out of the zone read play.  This worked better than it should have against the Steelers because it takes advantage of aggressive edge rushers.  Gus Edwards’ 28 yard run early in the second quarter took advantage of Watt and his penchant for playing on the other side of the line.

On the other side, Dupree bit frequently on the zone read, with Jackson picking up significant yardage running around him.

Late in the game, they broke out the straight option play.  Jackson ran it with Dobbins a couple of times to the left (gaining 7 and 9 yards) and once to the right for 15 yards.

Harbaugh’s running game is raised almost to an art form – excellently designed and wonderfully executed, it is designed to get scary quick runners on the outside where they can cause all kinds of havoc.

A Couple of Keyes

Against most offenses, you can play the running game on the way to the quarterback.  Against Baltimore, you always have to play the run first.  So pass rushing ends have to keep contain.

Number two: Keep a wary eye on Ricard and Boyle.

The casual observer who keeps his eyes on Jackson probably has little idea of how important Patrick Ricard and Nick Boyle are to the smooth operation of Harbaugh’s running game.  These two mobile offensive linemen are absolutely key to getting the runner to the outside.  I would guess about 90% of the time you see a Raven streaking up the sideline, you will find that Boyle has led around the corner and thrown the key block. The issue here is that Boyle is usually a mismatch against most linebackers – much less defensive backs – that try to deny the edge.

Against Baltimore, I would be tempted to play five down linemen, with the edge linemen keeping a particular eye out for Boyle whenever he tries to open up the corner.  The more traffic you can keep out there, the better your chance to contain this outside running game.

Finally, the thing I see over and over with Baltimore’s outside running game is the absence of the corner back.

With 7:29 left in the game, Baltimore was driving to what they hoped would be the game-winning touchdown.  They had first-and-ten on their own 25 and ran the option to the left side.

Penetration from Dupree forced the pitch to Dobbins who headed for the sideline.  In hot pursuit was Vince Williams, who had leapt over Boyle’s attempted block.  But Dobbins still beat him around the corner and picked up 7 yards because that’s how far downfield Devin Duvernay had pushed corner back Steven Nelson.  If Nelson had held the line of scrimmage, he could have turned Dobbins back inside where Williams could get him.

None of the Raven wide receivers are particularly physical – nor are they outstanding blockers.  But they are all willing and feisty competitors out there.  The way it usually works is that the receiver takes off as though running a deep route.  The corner keeps backing up to stay on top of the route.  Then, when the play turns out to be a run instead, the receiver is several yards downfield in between the runner and the defensive back and only needs to chicken fight with him for a few seconds to achieve his desired result.

If, on the other hand, the defensive back would play under the receiver (remembering that most of Jackson’s throws require the receiver to come back for the ball, anyway), he will be much better positioned to come up and deny the edge – and might even be better positioned to defend the pass.

These are only a few ideas of things that might be adjusted by any defense tasked with slowing this running game.  No guarantees are given as to their effectiveness.

The principle point, though, is that you have to defend the Ravens differently.  They don’t play football like everyone else.

And the Steelers?

For the game, Pittsburgh was out-rushed 265 to 48.  In total yardage, it was Baltimore 457 to 221.  But it was Pittsburgh who won the contest, 28-24 (gamebook) (summary).  In spite of their dominance on the ground, Baltimore’s intermittent passing woes undid them.  This time four turnovers from Jackson (and there was almost a fifth) cost them the game.

For all that they were pushed around a good deal on Saturday, Pittsburgh made the plays that they needed to make.  They, at 7-0, are football’s last undefeated team.

But if Baltimore chalks them up for another 265 rushing yards on Thanksgiving, that status could be very much in jeopardy.

QB Controversy in San Diego? (Oops, I meant LA)

So, as I understand how it went down, Charger quarterback Tyrod Taylor was receiving a pre-game injection for his chest/rib injury. Fate intervened, and LA’s erstwhile starting quarterback ended up with a puncture wound to the lungs.  Moments before the game began, first-round draft pick Justin Herbert learned he was about to make his NFL debut.

And with that, a love affair was born.  If not for the Chargers’ fans, then at least for analyst Tony Romo, who, after about three snaps, pronounced the kid as a quarterback prodigy.

Tony may have been jumping the gun a bit, but he wasn’t entirely wrong.  Considering he was making his first start against the defending world champions from Kansas City, there was a lot to like in our first glimpse of Mr. Herbert.

He began his NFL career leading the Chargers on a 79-yard, 8-play touchdown drive – Justin himself covering the last 4 yards on a scramble.  Before halftime of his first game, Justin had thrown for 195 yards and had a touchdown pass to go with his rushing touchdown.

And, he went into the locker room with a 14-6 lead.  Much more than that, no one can really ask.

His second half was less polished.  There were a few bad decisions sprinkled among his 13 throws – in particular a forced pass that led to his first career interception at the Chief 5-yard line in the waning seconds of the third quarter.

Two-and-a-half minutes after the interception, Kansas City had tied the score at 17-all, on their way to a hard-fought 23-20 overtime win (gamebook) (summary).

Beyond his numbers (and Herbert finished his first NFL game 22 for 33 for 311 yards) Justin had the look of someone who will do very well in the NFL.  He’s a smart kid (I thought they said he was a biology major!) and it was clear that he understood what he was looking at as he scanned the Kansas City pass defenses.  He delivered a good ball as well – crisp passes with good accuracy.  The LA fans should be justly excited.

Which brings us to this.  Still unable to play, Taylor will be sitting out Week Three, so Herbert will be under center for at least one more week.  Eventually, though, Tyrod will be cleared to play, and coach Anthony Lynn will have a decision to make.

Taylor is one of the good guys of the NFL.  He seems always (except when in pain as last week) to be wearing a bright smile, and to the best of my knowledge, everyone who has ever played with him is enormously fond of him.

After carrying a clipboard for his first four years in Baltimore, Tyrod came to Buffalo to be the starter, a position he held for 3 moderately successful seasons, directing them briefly into the playoffs after the 2017 season.

But, by 2018 he was holding a clipboard again – first in Cleveland and then last year he backed up Philip Rivers in LA.  Tyrod was ecstatic for the opportunity to be the starter again.  But this is now something Lynn is going to have to consider – especially if Herbert keeps doing well.

If the original plan was for Herbert to hold a clipboard for a year and soak up knowledge, then Taylor would be a more than adequate mentor to learn from.  But that genie is out of the bottle now, and there may be no going back.

The fact is that Taylor is a solid system quarterback, but no more than that.  His career record is 24-21-1 with an 89.5 lifetime passer rating.  All are solid, if not spectacular numbers.  For his career he has only had 1.4% of his passes intercepted – an excellent number.  Tyrod is serviceable, but he is not the guy to lead Los Angeles into the promised land.

Whether Herbert is that guy (Tony Romo’s endorsements notwithstanding) remains to be seen.  It is likely, though, that Herbert is already a better option than Taylor.  Yes, he will certainly make mistakes along the way.  But he will also make plays that Taylor won’t.

The more Justin plays – and, of course, the better he plays – the harder it will be to give the position back to Tyrod, who may very well be in for another season of holding a clipboard.

If Herbert struggles in his second start against Carolina, that would, of course, buoy Tyrod’s chances.  But if Justin plays as well against the Panthers as he did against the Chiefs . . .

LA’s Other QB

If there is a brewing controversy in Charger Land, the Rams have no such dilemma.  Jared Goff has never looked better.   He completed 13 of 14 first-half passes against Philadelphia, on his way to a 142.1 rating performance in a 37-19 victory (gamebook) (summary).

The eye-catching numbers coming from the Rams, though, are the rushing numbers.  With Todd Gurley moved on to Atlanta, the Rams no longer have a primary back.  No matter.  In their season opening win against Dallas, they ran the ball 40 times for 153 yards (Goff threw only 31 passes).  Last week against Philly, they ran 39 more times for a seriously impressive 191 yards (Goff again with only 27 passes).

It seems that every year more and more clubs are toying with the idea of going Neanderthal (Neanderthal teams are those teams that run more than they throw).  Two games into the season, the Rams – even with a committee approach to the running back position – seem intent on joining that throng.

Alpha Neanderthals Roll On

For 30 minutes last Sunday the Houston Texans gave as good as they got against the Baltimore Ravens.  The Ravens’ sometimes unstoppable running attack was quite throttled – held to just 44 yards (just 28 from Lamar Jackson).  Houston went into the locker room with a 200-172 yardage advantage, and might well have gone in with a 10-6 lead.

But – true to their MO – the Texans came up short on a fourth-and-one that set Baltimore up on the Houston 34 for a short touchdown drive.  Then, seven-and-a-half football minutes later, a fumble after a pass reception found its way into the arms of L.J. Fort, who returned it for a touchdown, leaving Houston with a halftime deficit (their spirited play notwithstanding) of 20-10.

Whatever hopes Houston carried into the second half were immediately crushed by football’s Alpha Neanderthals.  The Ravens opened the second half with a soul crushing 14-play, 60-yard drive that consumed 8:36.  Even though Baltimore was forced to settle for a field goal, the blueprint for the final 30 minutes had been delivered.

Jackson tossed 4 short passes during that drive.  After that drive, he would throw the ball only 3 more times on the day.  Baltimore would finish the game with 17 consecutive running plays (counting the kneeldowns at the end).  Undergirded by the relentless Baltimore ground attack, the Ravens held the ball for 18:17 of the second half, and ran away from the Texans 33-16 (gamebook) (summary).

By the final gun, Baltimore had gouged the Texans’ defense for 186 yards on 27 carries (6.9 yards per carry).

And that was just the second half.

As for Jackson, he was in for 54 of the team total 230 rushing yards.  And that’s the thing that I’m not sure people understand about Baltimore.  Yes, Lamar Jackson is a terrifying sight when he has the ball in his hands in the open field.  But the engine of this team isn’t Jackson.

Ronnie Stanley, Bradley Bozeman, Matt Skura, Tyre Phillips and Orlando Brown Jr.  The five horses of the offensive line.  They are far from household names, but may hold as much influence over the season as any quarterback or running back.  As they go, so go the Ravens.

Neanderthals No More

In their season opening conquest of Miami, the New England Patriots unveiled – along with a new quarterback – a new offensive philosophy.  They ran the ball down the Dolphins throats.  For 30 minutes Sunday night (well, for the 11:20 that they possessed the ball in the first half on Monday night), they still smacked of Neanderthalism – running the ball 13 times while throwing only 11 passes.

But, coming out of the locker room after halftime, the Patriots shook off all pretense of being a running team.  Putting the ball in Cam Newton’s hands, they watched as he threw 33 passes in the second half alone.  He also ran 6 times for 33 yards and a touchdown.  All other runners combined for only 6 other carries for a total of 2 yards.

In one of the weekends’ most entertaining games, the Patriots came up short against the Seattle Seahawks by a 35-30 score (gamebook) (summary).  On display – especially in that second half – was the mixed bag that Newton brings to the position.

In that second half – in which Julian Edelman caught 7 passes for 171 yards – Newton showed off the arm, throwing 50-yard line drives up field.  Perfectly on target when his mechanics were right.  Not so much when they strayed.

Also on display was the occasional carelessness that always seems to be a part of his game.  Especially the interception that he threw with 4:36 left in the third quarter and the Patriots trailing 21-17.

Damiere Byrd ran a quick out to the left sideline.  Newton saw him and flipped the ball in that direction.  He failed to check for the cornerback – Quinton Dunbar – who was lurking just off Byrd’s shoulder.

Even then, had it been a good pass, the most that Dunbar could probably have done was to bat it away.

But the throw wasn’t good.  Newton’s flip tailed back into the defender – looking, actually, as though it were intended for Dunbar.  The interception interrupted a Patriot drive that had reached mid-field and set Seattle up on their own 48.  Five plays later, Russell Wilson found Freddie Swain running all alone up the left sideline.  That 21-yard touchdown pass pushed the score to 28-17 and kept Newton in catch-up mode the rest of the night.

To his credit, Cam did almost bring them all the way back.  He was stopped 2 yards short of the end zone on a draw play as time ran out.  With Newton its almost always more good than bad.  For the game, he threw for 397 yards and carried a 94.6 rating.  All very good.  And on most nights, Newton and the Patriots would have been good enough to beat most any other team.  But . . .

The Newton Moment

Ever since the signing of Newton was announced, I have been dubious about the marriage of Cam and Bill.  As the second quarter began, there was another one of those moments that, again, caused me to shake my head.

The Patriots had second-and-goal from the 6.  Newton skirted right end and dove into the end zone for the touchdown that would put New England ahead 14-7.  Except that the officials ruled him down at the one – erroneously, I believe, as it looked like Newton scored.

But Cam didn’t wait to hear the officials’ decision.  In his mind, he had scored and it was time to worship at the shrine of Newton.  So, while the refs were marking the ball for play and winding the play clock.  The Patriots – following the command of Newton – were preening in front of a camera as Newton mimed pulling open his shirt to reveal the symbolic “S” that must adorn his chest (as no mere mortal could achieve the prodigious feats that Newton pulls off).

Fortunately, Newton was made aware of the fact that the game was still going on, so he was able to line the team up and run a play before the Patriots were either penalized five yards or forced to call a time out.  Cam, of course, finished what he started with a one-yard draw (the same play that would fail at the end of the game) to score the actual touchdown.

And, once again, he and the entire offense went off in search of a camera to repeat the sacred ceremony.

Always with Newton I feel it’s more about his ego that it is about the game.  It’s an oil that just will not mix well with the Belichick water.

Re-Inventing the On Side Kick

If the New England – Seattle game wasn’t the most entertaining of the weekend, then you would have to opt for Dallas’ 20-point comeback against Atlanta (summary).  The pivotal moment of that game came on an onside kick the Cowboys executed with 1:49 left in the game.

In recent seasons, the onside kick has been reduced by a series of rule changes to an all but meaningless exercise.  Until last Sunday afternoon, that is, when Dallas and their kicker Greg Zuerlein re-engineered the thing.

Instead of kicking down on the ball and trying to get a high bounce, Zuerlein laid down a bunt.  Actually, the thing resembled more of a putt.  Greg just nudged the ball forward, and he and the entire team followed along behind as it trickled slowly, resolutely toward the 45 yard line – at which point it would be a live ball.

The dumfounded Falcons – having never seen this before – didn’t know how to react.  They watched with the Cowboys and the fans on TV as the ball trickled far enough up-field for C.J. Goodwin to dive on it.

Six plays later, Zuerlein kicked the game winning field goal.

Certainly, part of the success of the ploy was that no one had ever done it before.  Atlanta didn’t know how to react.  In the booth, they pointed out that Atlanta didn’t have to wait for it to go the full ten yards.  They, in fact, could have moved in and made a play on the ball before that.

While that is true, it’s not clear that that would have made much difference.  As soon as a member of the receiving team should touch the ball, it would automatically become a live ball.  His touch would initiate a scrum for the ball that would be as likely to go to the kicking team as it would to the receiving team.

That is why I believe you will see more of this.  Whether the receiving team comes up to make a play, or hangs back and waits, at the end of the play, the kicking team will get its opportunity to fight for the ball.

Which is all you’re hoping for in that situation.

Lamar Jackson Exposed?

The party line in Baltimore goes something like this –

Hey, Lamar Jackson is a very young man (which is true, he turned 23 four days before his Divisional Playoff game).  Just look – they will say – how much he improved from his first year (again, true.  Both the eye test and the statistics bear that out).

They will then extrapolate that year-over-year improvement to project Lamar to be about the passing equivalent of Tom Brady in his prime by, say, next year.  In the aftermath of another humbling playoff defeat, I think we should tap the brakes a little on the “Lamar Jackson as Superhero” talk, and take a clear look at where Lamar Jackson, the quarterback, is now and what we can reasonably expect him to become.

The first – and, I think – most illuminating question to ask is, “what did Tennessee do to make this Baltimore game so different from the previous twelve Baltimore games?”  The answer is simply this:

They played with a lead.

While the world has been busy writing Lamar’s Hall of Fame induction speech, the most remarkable story to come out of Baltimore this season has been Don Martindale’s defense that has simply refused to let the Ravens fall behind.  Blitzing at a rate that most teams would call insane, Martindale’s defense – especially over the last eleven games of the regular season – was football’s most dominant unit.

Over that 11 game stretch – that included contests against Seattle, New England, Houston, the Rams and San Francisco – Baltimore allowed just 14.5 points and 268.9 total yards per contest.  They allowed just 14 offensive touchdowns over those eleven games – most of those coming late after the game had already been decided – while taking the ball away 19 times.  Opposing running games averaged just 94.8 yards per game, and opposing passers rated just 70.7.

Their foundational approach – which is to consistently send more rushers than you have people to block them – doesn’t seem on its surface to be rocket science.  But over the last three-quarters of the season, no one could crack this unit.  Not until the Tennessee Titans rolled into Baltimore with an idea of which blitzes they could take advantage of.

Both of quarterback Ryan Tannehill’s touchdown passes came against Baltimore blitzes – and suddenly the Ravens were down 14-0.

With the first quarter over, and down two scores, the Ravens – who ran the ball at a historical rate this year – began to slide away from the running game and began to lean on the arm and passing skills of young Mr. Jackson.

With three quarters of football left, wasn’t it too early to leave behind the running game?  I would say, yes.  But 14 points is a significant deficit, and there are some reasons why I can understand Baltimore’s decision to air the ball out – and in so doing, exposed the weaknesses still extant in Lamar’s passing game.

One factor, I will call the Derrick Henry factor.  The Raven’s running offense isn’t usually a quick-strike offense.  Over the course of the season, they averaged first in average time of possession and average plays run per drive (3:22 and 6.61 plays per).  Realizing that Tennessee would be grinding the clock with handoffs to Henry every time they possessed the ball, Baltimore may have felt that there wouldn’t be enough time for them to methodically drive down the field and chip away.

The second possible factor might simply be that Baltimore – for some reason – believed that Jackson was fully capable of bringing his team from behind using his arm as his primary weapon.

Coach John Harbaugh is one of the very best coaches in the NFL.  But if that is what he thought, he couldn’t have been more wrong.

By game’s end, Jackson would have thrown for a stunning 365 yards.  But that would be the result of an eye-popping 59 passing attempts – the results of which would also include 2 interceptions and 4 sacks – including a strip sack that set up Tennessee’s last touchdown of the game.  The soon-to-be-named MVP wrapped up a season in which he finished third in passer rating at 113.3 with a sobering 63.2 rating and – on the heels of his second consecutive playoff struggle – more than a few questions to answer.

In this story found at ESPN.com, coach Harbaugh references a meeting he has already had with Jackson regarding the improvements we should all be expecting next season from Lamar Jackson 3.0.  He, of course, didn’t share any details.  But here are a few things that I noticed from last Saturday’s game that might be on that list.  We’ll start with some of the more fixable things.

Staring down receivers: No, Lamar doesn’t do this as often as he did as a rookie, but it is something that happened on more than one occasion last Saturday.  The most damaging of these resulted in the Kenny Vaccaro interception – a play where he followed intended receiver Miles Boykin all the way to the flat.  The Titans were in zone on that particular play.  When you stare down a receiver against man coverage, usually only the deep safety can notice and adjust.  In zone, everyone is reading the quarterback’s eyes.

With 1:55 left in the first half (Baltimore trailing 14-3 at this point) Jackson had Marquise Brown tight to the end of the line on the right.  In this man coverage scheme, Adoree’ Jackson would have Brown, and had given him about nine yards of cushion.

At the snap, Jackson continued to retreat as Brown began his vertical stem, and Jackson was still about seven yards away from Brown when Marquise turned his route back over the middle.  At one point, Brown camped all alone in the middle of the field right in front of Lamar with Adoree’ still a good five yards behind him.

But Lamar was clearly watching only tight end Mark Andrews, who was having significant trouble shaking free of Kevin Byard.  Jackson looked nowhere else, until the pressure made him uncomfortable – at which time, he just threw the ball out of bounds. Which brings me to the next issue.

Missing Open Receivers:  Let’s be honest. No quarterback, regardless of skill or experience, finds every open receiver.  They all miss them, sometime.  With Jackson, it still happens with too much frequency.  And there are times where he still seems very uncomfortable in sorting out zone defenses.

The most glaring of these occurred at the 6:47 mark of the second quarter.  As Logan Ryan was drawn in by the play fake, Hayden Hurst blew right by him and found himself all alone down the middle of the field.  Lamar didn’t see him.

Two plays later, Tennessee was in cover-two, with Vaccaro responsible for deep routes to the right sideline.  Adoree’ Jackson had the flat to that side.  As Marquise Brown flew up that sideline past A Jackson for a should-have-been walk-in touchdown, Vaccaro – eyes on L Jackson – never looked behind him.  Lamar never looked at him, either.

With 13:39 left in the third, the Titans were in cover-three.  The Ravens had four vertical routes called, two up each sideline.  The two outermost receivers – Brown to the right and Boykin to the left – were all but abandoned by the defense, but Jackson threw to one of the receivers (Nick Boyle) that the secondary did settle around.

Lack of Anticipation:  There was a play that I can’t find now, so I’ll ask you to trust me on this one.  It was Hayden Hurst running a deep cross that Lamar gave up on even though it was clear that he would be open as soon as he made his break.

These are things I expect that Jackson can work on.  The problem is that to get better in these areas, you have to throw the ball more than 15 times a game.  Especially in a system that doesn’t rely much on the quarterback anticipating a route – or even reading a zone defense.  The Baltimore system is based on getting the defender to drop his coverage reacting to some flavor of play-action, and having Lamar throw the ball to the abandoned receiver.  These are things that can be practiced, but if not employed in games . . .

And then there are some things that I’m not sure can be improved with practice.  Things like . . .

Composure: Viewed honestly, Jackson didn’t sustain his focus as he tried to bring his team back from behind.  I often think this is the hardest part of quarterback play in the NFL.  Here are a couple of examples – both from the fourth quarter with the Ravens down by 22 points.

It’s first-and-ten from the Ravens’ 23.  Baltimore had four vertical routes called, with Tennessee in man, but backpedaling to keep the play in front of them – so there was lots of opportunity for a comeback route.  Lamar doesn’t even give the deep routes a chance to develop as he immediately dumps the ball off to outlet receiver Justice Hill for a 3-yard gain.

About a minute later Baltimore is first-and-ten on the Titan 42.  A similar story.  Four vertical routes running against man coverage – remember, we are trailing by 22 with 13:07 left – and Jackson immediately dumps the pass to Mark Andrews for no gain.

If Lamar were under siege, then, of course you check the pass down.  On both of these plays, Jackson had plenty of time in the pocket and could easily have waited two or three seconds to see if one of his verticals could shake free.

Accuracy: Even a bigger problem.  Far too many of Lamar’s passes are just off target.  His receivers in this game were charged with 7 drops – and, in the NFL, if you get your hands on the pass, you are expected to pull it in.  But, Good Lord at least half of the drops were on passes behind the receiver, or over his head, or some other poor location that adds unnecessary difficulty to the play.

The best example of this is the first interception – the one that slid through Andrews’ fingertips.  Andrews has been making that catch – elevating above his defender – all season.  I have thought all along that he is one of the most consistent I have ever seen in coming down with the hard-thrown pass just over his head.  He didn’t make it high enough for this one – and his sore ankle may have had much to do with that – so it could be construed as bad luck.

But here’s the thing.  There was no one in front of him.  With Logan Ryan trailing him, the next closest Titan was Vaccaro who was almost 8 yards away with his back turned to Andrews as he was busy chasing Boykin up the sideline.  This wasn’t a tight window that he was throwing into.  If Jackson had just led him, it’s likely that instead of the interception, Jackson and Andrews could have a sizeable gain.

With 13:47 left in the game, Hurst got in behind Tennessee’s Amani Hooker despite a cover-four defense, but could only watch as the pass sailed over his head.  With 1:58 left in the game, Brown and Boykin are both running deep crossing routes and end up colliding with each other.  It doesn’t matter as the pass was way over both of their heads.  On the final play of their season – fourth-and-eleven from Tennessee’s 21 yard line – Miles Boykin beats Tramaine Brock cleanly on a crossing route and is wide open at the sticks – but the throw is too far in front and Miles can only feel it slide through his fingertips.

There are about a half-dozen more examples I could cite.  Additionally, his accuracy falls off sharply the farther up-field he tries to throw.  Saturday night, Jackson was only 5 of 15 on passes more than 15 yards up-field (just 4 for 11 at more than 20 yards).  Comparing to other quarterbacks in the divisional round who trailed by double-digits at some point during their game, Patrick Mahomes was 5-9 at 15 yards or more, and 1-2 over 20 yards.  Deshaun Watson was 10-14 with a TD over 15 yards, including 7-11 at 20 yards or more.  Russell Wilson was also 5-9 at more than 15 yards – including 2-3 at more than 20 yards.

And Lamar’s problems with accuracy are even more pronounced when he tries to make . . .

Passes Deep Outside:  This was actually part of Tennessee’s game plan.  I won’t go back and cite chapter and verse here – Dan Fouts did a fine job pointing these out during the broadcast.  Some of these throws sailed out of bounds, some were short – all were late.

These are areas that I’m not sure how much better Lamar can get.  Some of these are arm-strength issues.  I don’t know if there is anything you can do to get more arm strength.  I mean, if there were exercises that could improve that, then everyone would be throwing 70-yard lasers down the field.

If he can improve his anticipation, he could throw those deep routes earlier.  That would make some difference.  But that is problematical, too – if for no other reason than it allows more time for bad things to happen (receivers falling down, defenders baiting the throw, etc).

Who Lamar Jackson is right now is a gifted, gifted runner with about average passing skills who is cocooned in a brilliant system that – as much as is humanly possible – features his skills while masking his deficiencies.  Harbaugh may eventually do this well enough that he might get Jackson that Super Bowl ring someday.  But at this point I rather doubt that Lamar will ever be a great passer.

He will certainly never be as great throwing the ball as he is running with it.  I don’t know that it’s possible for anyone to ever be that good at throwing the ball.

For those of you thinking the results of this game were just rust, the critical understanding that needs to come out of this is that the Titans expected this to happen.  They weren’t just hoping Lamar would have a rusty game.  They knew that if they could get ahead and force the Ravens to pass that Baltimore would be in for a struggle.

Oh, And By The Way

So, Tennessee won this battle of Neanderthal football teams, and I have spent the entire post writing about Baltimore.  The Titans, it seems, are headed to Kansas City for the AFC Championship Game.  How will they do?

Considering that this team has just gone into New England and Baltimore and authored huge upsets, it’s getting harder and harder to pick against them.

But the challenge they will face in Kansas City is different than any they have faced so far.  The Chiefs are the most proficient and diversified offense in football.  Where the Titans could game-plan around Jackson’s weaknesses, they won’t find any in Mahomes’ game.  Patrick can make all of the throws and read all of the defenses.  And he can come from behind, too.

If Tennessee can keep it close through the first half, their chances increase.  The second half is almost always when Henry takes off.  Keeping the game close enough through the first half, though, will be a significant challenge.  The Titans are not an elite defense.  They were twenty-first overall and twenty-fourth against the pass.  Facing an elite offense that is currently firing on all cylinders may be too much to ask of this courageous Tennessee squad.

The more I think about the upcoming Super Bowl, the more it shapes up as a contest between the irresistible force (the KC offense) against the immovable object (the SF defense).  The Packers and Titans will be greatly challenged to re-write the script.

Chargers Ready for the Rematch?

It took a while, but after a substantial review the officiating crews on the ground and in New York determined that Jarvis Landry had maintained control of the football.  What had originally been called an incomplete pass now put Cleveland on Baltimore’s 39-yard line with 80 seconds left in the season.

At that point, the fate of three teams and one division teetered on the negotiation of just six yards – the six yards Cleveland would need to put themselves into field goal range – albeit a long field goal.

Cleveland – winless a season ago – needed those six yards for a shot at finishing 2018 with a winning record.  The Pittsburgh Steelers – their own game finished – had not left the field in Pittsburgh.  They were helplessly watching the scoreboards from their own stadium.  They needed those six yards and a successful field goal to vault past Baltimore and claim a playoff spot.  For the Ravens, everything depended on keeping Cleveland off the scoreboard.  Losing this game – a game that they had led 20-7 at the half – would cost them a playoff berth and end their season.

The drama of the final minute overshadowed – for the moment, anyway – three big first half moments that eluded Cleveland and forced them into this position.

With 1:53 left in the first half, the Ravens had first-and-goal on the 1-yard line. Ahead 20-7, they had their opportunity to salt the game away.  Quarterback Lamar Jackson leapt over the line, extending the ball over the goal for the apparent game-icing touchdown.

But he hadn’t gone far enough.  Replays clearly showed Jackson pulling the ball back to him before it crossed the line.  That might have brought up fourth-and-goal, and the Ravens may have tried it again, but as Lamar was bringing the ball back in, defensive lineman Larry Ogunjobi stuck a hand between the ball and Jackson’s chest and batted the football out of Lamar’s grasp.

When Cleveland defensive back Jabrill Peppers picked up the ball on the 7-yard line, there was no one in front of him.  But the potential 93-yard fumble return touchdown was denied him.  Seeing the official rule the touchdown, someone blew the whistle, ending the play.  A review did give the ball to the Browns, but back on their own 7-yard line.

On the very next play, Landry, split the deep middle of the Raven defense.  Cleveland rookie Baker Mayfield saw him break clear and lofted the football in his direction.  It was a good throw, but not to either shoulder.  Baker tossed the ball directly over Landry’s head, and Jarvis was forced to try to run under it like Willie Mays making a basket catch.  As he looked up, the ball caromed right off his facemask – ending the opportunity for another huge play.

All of that bad luck notwithstanding, the Browns still ended the first half with Greg Joseph lining up a 46-yard field goal attempt.  Joseph – who would be tasked with attempting a 51-yarder if Cleveland could manage those last six yards – saw his 46-yard attempt fade wide to the left.

Had the results of any of those moments panned out in Cleveland’s favor, it might well have been the Ravens making a desperate late-game attempt.  Instead, it was the Browns sitting six agonizing yards away from field goal range.

Three incomplete passes later, Cleveland faced fourth down.  The second down pass had been open.  Landry – again – was running toward the left sideline with Jimmy Smith trailing.  But Mayfield’s pass was behind him and back toward the defender.

As they had on each of the preceding passes, Baltimore sent the house.  Eight players in pursuit of the Cleveland quarterback, who tried to get the ball to Duke Johnson on a crossing route that would probably have extended the drive.  But Baltimore linebacker C.J. Mosley – seeing that he had no chance to penetrate the Cleveland offensive line – instead took two steps backward.  Those two steps put him directly in line with the pass.  He stuck a hand up, batted the pass into the air, and then gathered it in on the way down.  The Ravens had held on, 26-24 (gamebook) (summary).

In a sense, the ending was anti-climactic (considering the setup), but it did finally bring clarity to the AFC North.  Pittsburgh was done.  After winning the previous two division titles and making four consecutive playoff appearances, the Steelers would be watching from home. (As a footnote, had the Tennessee-Indianapolis game later on that evening ended in a tie, the Steelers would have claimed the last playoff spot.  That of course, didn’t happen.)  Into the mix – breaking a three-year playoff drought – were the Ravens – even though by the skin of their collective teeth.

Inside the Baltimore Win

The Baltimore Ravens – in pure Neanderthal style – rolled up 121 rushing yards.  That was the first quarter.  They finished the first half with 179 rushing yards on 21 carries.  They finished the game with 296 rushing yards on 47 attempts.  These are college numbers, the kind the old Oklahoma Sooners used to ring up on the middling teams of the NCAA.  It was the fifth time in the last seven games that Baltimore had piled up more than 200 rushing yards, with Jackson throwing just 24 passes – only 8 in the second half.

Baltimore will be a tough matchup in the playoffs.  There is little mystery involved with them either offensively or defensively.  Their intentions are crystal clear.  But stopping them is another issue.

As far as this run-first offense goes, there are a couple troubling ways in which they are unique.  First of all, they usually find early success in the running game.  Over the years, running offenses have had to be a little patient and keep running, even if the early carries weren’t all that productive.  The process was a slow wearing down of the defense as the game progressed, with each successive running play – like a body blow – eroding the defense’s will.

This hasn’t been a problem with Baltimore. Even early in the contest, they rarely get stymied.  As mentioned earlier, here they had 121 yards in the first quarter.  Against the Chargers the week before, they ran for 119 in the first half – with 43 of those coming on the very first play from scrimmage.

It’s a tough thing for a defense to recover from.  When you are getting blown off the line of scrimmage from the very first play, it sends an impressive message.

Which brings me to the next point.  Unlike a lot of running teams, Baltimore’s running attack produces a surprising number of big plays.  Against Cleveland, Baltimore had seven runs of more than 15 yards, with five of those going for at least twenty.  When other teams run the ball on third-and-9, they are hoping either to fool someone or at least gain a few extra yards for the upcoming kick.  When Baltimore runs on third-and-9, they run with the expectation of getting the first down.

It’s actually a thing they feed off of.  Trailing 7-3 latish in the first quarter, Cleveland blitzed Jackson on second-and-3.  Lamar evaded all of the rushers, and then raced up the left sideline for 24 yards.  It was at that point, that the Ravens seemed to come alive.  Six plays later, Jackson sprinted right through the middle of the Cleveland defense almost untouched for the touchdown.  While they would sweat some at the end, Baltimore would never trail again.

The Baltimore passing game still trails its running game.  As he was in Los Angeles the week before, Jackson was as good as he needed to be Sunday against Cleveland, completing 14 of his 24 passes for 179 yards.  His best pass right now seems to be the slant – whether quick or deep.  When he has a receiver running away from a defender over the middle, Lamar usually delivers a confident accurate pass.  Fortunately for him, Cleveland frequently gave him that look as they blitzed him a lot, playing man behind.

As I contemplate defending Jackson and the Ravens in the playoffs, I’m not sure that I would blitz him all that much.  Teams blitz young quarterbacks to confuse them – and Cleveland did confuse Jackson some on Sunday.  But even when fooled, Lamar was consistently able to avoid the sack and resisted the urge to make dangerous passes.  He either threw the ball away, or turned on the blitzing defense for a big run.

That is the problem with blitzing Lamar.  You allow him to use his athleticism to surprise you.  If I were preparing Los Angeles’ defensive game plan, I would blitz Jackson sparsely.  I would show him the most exotic zone coverages I could manage, often showing him a false pre-snap.  My rush would focus on keeping Lamar in the pocket and making him beat me from there with his head and his arm.

Of course, I would still have to stop Gus Edwards, Kenneth Dixon, and that downhill running attack.

Los Angeles – having just played the Ravens two weeks ago – should profit somewhat from already seeing them up close.  With the WildCard round approaching, I don’t hold out a lot of hope for the Chargers in the re-match.  They are, in the first place, decidedly small up front.  In the second place, the Chargers haven’t looked much like themselves for a few weeks now.

The Fading Chargers

When Los Angeles won their Week 15 matchup against Kansas City by driving 60 yards in the final 2:37 for the winning touchdown, they secured their tenth victory over their previous eleven games.  At that point it was easy to see them as a dangerous team going into the playoffs.

That Chargers team hasn’t been seen much the last two weeks.  In Week 16 they were dominated by the Ravens.  Last Sunday they had an opportunity to re-discover themselves against a struggling Denver team.  The Chargers eventually pulled away for a 23-9 victory (gamebook) (summary), but still showed more cracks than one would expect from a 12-4 team.

My greatest concern, if I were Chargers head coach Anthony Lynn, would be an offense that struggled just as much against Denver and their twenty-second ranked defense as it did against Baltimore’s first-ranked defense.  In particular, it was the offensive line that has started to underperform coming down the stretch.

The Chargers tried repeatedly to run the ball against Denver’s twenty-first ranked run defense.  Austin Ekeler worked his way around right end for a clever 41-yard run in the second half, but that was the only real success they had on the ground.  Their other 29 running plays managed just 75 yards – 2.6 yards per attempt.

Meanwhile, the pressure up the middle on Philip Rivers was constant throughout the game.  They never sacked him, but truly with Rivers you would rather not sack him.  Even after all these years, Rivers is still inclined, under pressure, to make a dangerous pass to avoid a sack.  Denver intercepted him twice, bringing Rivers’ interception total to 12 for the year – six of those in the last three games.  Philip has, in fact, thrown an interception on the opening drive of each of those games.

Los Angeles’ best chance of subduing Baltimore rests with their offense.  The team that can manage to find some holes in that Raven defense and forge enough of a lead that Baltimore will have to abandon its running game stands an excellent chance to beat them.  But for that team to be the Chargers, they will have to fix an awful lot of things very, very quickly.

The Chargers, I think, are in trouble here.

The Will to Keep Running the Ball

Although they went into the half trailing 14-6, the Baltimore Ravens had sent their rivals in Pittsburgh a clear message.  Repeatedly during that first half, Baltimore’s featured back, Alex Collins slashed the Steeler defense right up the middle.  That the Ravens couldn’t cash in on this production came from the fact that Baltimore had no answer for the Steeler blitz schemes.  Joe Flacco wasn’t sacked, but he finished the first half just 9 of 16, with Baltimore converting just 2 of 7 third downs.

But, with Collins providing the spark, Baltimore had gained 57 yards in 14 rushes – and average of 4.1 yards per.  It would certainly seem to be an advantage to build on.

Baltimore ran the ball exactly twice in the second half.

I could probably write about this every week.  In an NFL that is increasingly passing-centric, the will to keep running the ball is becoming increasingly rare.

In Baltimore’s case – even though they went into the half down by just 8, the Steelers opened the second half with an impressive 15-play, 75-yard touchdown drive that ate up the first 8:14 of the second half.  Six of the plays on the drive were runs (three times as many runs in that drive than Baltimore would attempt for the rest of the game).

Emotionally, that drive was damaging, but the reality of the situation was that the Ravens trailed just 20-6 with still 6:46 left in the third and the entire fourth quarter left.  More than enough time to run their offense.  But the will to keep running the ball failed them.  So, even though they struggled protecting Flacco – and even though their running attack was the most effective aspect of their offense in the first half – the Ravens folded up their running game. 

Flacco threw the ball 21 times in the second half, getting sacked on two other drop backs.  With little time to look downfield, Joe’s tosses became mostly a series of short dump offs.  He completed 14 of those passes, but for just 97 yards.  The Ravens finished the second half with just 99 yards of total offense, on its way to a 23-16 loss (gamebook) (box score).

Playing with the lead, Pittsburgh wasn’t shy about pounding the Baltimore defense.  Although they never gained more than 5 yards on any single second half run, Pittsburgh nonetheless ran 17 times in the second half – earning just 40 yards with those attempts (2.4 per).  Nonetheless, the Steelers converted 6 of 9 third downs and controlled the ball for 20:14 of the second half.

Seattle is Willing

In stark contrast is the game the Seattle Seahawks played at home against the Los Angeles Chargers.  Seattle has re-committed to the run, and even with primary hammer-back Chris Carson nursing hip and thigh injuries – and even though they spent the entire second half trailing by as much as 15 points, the Hawks never stopped running the ball.  Of their 32 running attempts on the day, 15 came in the second half.  They finished with 154 rushing yards, and 35:41 of possession. 

Seattle did lose this game, 25-17 (gamebook) (box score), but were throwing into the end zone from the Charger 6-yard line as the game ended.  As with the Ravens, the Seattle passing game couldn’t take advantage of the production from the running game.  The Chargers denied Seattle’s receivers any down-the-field opportunities, forcing Russell Wilson into an endless string of dump-off passes.  Tyler Lockett finished the game with 3 catches for 22 yards – none longer than 9 yards.

The Chargers – who racked up 160 rushing yards of their own – had just enough to hold them off.  Both of these teams will be in contention down the stretch, and one of the reasons will be their commitment to balance.

Both play defense pretty well, too.  The Chargers and Seahawks combined to go 1-for-13 on third down in the second half. 

A final thought about this game:

Seattle is now 1-2 at home this year.  Every game in Seattle they show the noise decibel graphic (the highest I think I remember seeing was 106 – which is good and loud).  You also get plenty of shots of the crowd cupping their lips with their hands in a desperate attempt to affect the game with sheer volume.  In the first place, of course, just screaming is an artistic achievement of dubious merit.  More than that, though, the effect seems to be negligible.  Some years ago, it was much more effective than it has been recently, as the league seems to have mostly adjusted.  The Chargers didn’t seem overly disturbed by it.  Seattle has also lost at home to the Rams – a division opponent that comes into Seattle every year and seemed not to notice the noise.  But you Seattle fans, you keep on screaming at the top of your lungs – you’re so cute when you’re just senselessly yelling.

Rodgers v Brady

Already this season, there have been several marquee quarterback matchups – many of which have absolutely lived up to the hype. 

Back on September 16, the Kansas City Chiefs and the Pittsburgh Steelers engaged in an entertaining 42-37 contest (won by KC).  In that game, Ben Roethlisberger threw for 452 yards and 3 touchdowns, but was out-done by rising star Patrick Mahomes, who threw for 326 yards of his own.  And 6 touchdowns.

Then on September 23, the New Orleans Saints finally subdued the Atlanta Falcons 43-37.  In that matchup, Matt Ryan gave the Saints all they could handle, throwing 5 touchdown passes among his 374 yards.  Not quite enough, as it turns out, as Drew Brees threw 3 touchdowns of his own among 396 passing yards.

The New England Patriots have already been involved in two such free-for-alls.  They had their own encounter with Kansas City, winning 43-40 behind Tom Brady and his 340 passing yards – just barely overcoming 4 more touchdown passes from Mahomes and his 352 passing yards.

They followed that game the next week with an exciting 38-31 conquest of Mitchell Trubisky and the Bears.  Trubisky threw for 333 yards in the defeat.

My favorite so far this year has been the September 27 contest between Jared Goff and the LA Rams and Kirk Cousins and Minnesota.  In this back-and-forth game, both quarterbacks executed at a remarkably high level.  Cousins completed 36 of 50 passes for 422 yards and 3 touchdowns (without an interception).  His passer rating for the evening was an impressive 117.2.  His team lost.

Goff completed 26 of 33 for 465 yards and 5 touchdowns (also without interception), leading the Rams to a 38-31 conquest.  His passer rating that game was a maximum 158.3. 

(You will hear many commentators refer to 158.3 as a “perfect” score.  It is, of course, not perfect.  Jared did miss on 7 passes.  It is more accurate to refer to that number as the maximum rating, as the system will not permit a higher rating.  If Goff’s night had been perfect – if he had completed all 33 of his passes for 619 yards and 7 touchdowns, the passer rating system would not – indeed could not – reward him with a higher rating.)

Brees and Goff also met up in Week 9 in another game that lived up to the hype – that game will be looked at in a bit.

And so, last Sunday night – as two legendary quarterbacks squared off – much of America was hoping for a similar shootout.  Again, the Patriots and Brady would be involved – this time opposite Aaron Rodgers and the Green Bay Packers.

This time, though, the expected shootout never developed.

Both of the legendary throwers did well.  Rodgers finished the night 24 of 43 (55.8%) for 259 yards and 2 touchdowns.  Brady threw for 294 yards on 22 of 35 throwing (62.9%) and 1 touchdown.  Rodgers’ receivers – who seem to be a rather ordinary collection this year- repeatedly had difficulty beating their man coverage assignments.  Rodgers spent much of the evening scrambling around in the backfield waiting for a receiver to come open before checking the ball down.

As for the Patriots, they spent the evening re-discovering their running game.  Even with top running threat Sony Michel on the sidelines, New England still ran the ball 31 times for 123 yards and 3 touchdowns.  James White got a few more carries than usual (12), and the Patriots continued the re-purposing of receiver/kick returner Cordarrelle Patterson as a running back.  Patterson finished the day with 11 rushes for 61 yards and a touchdown.

Patterson may have been as impressive as anyone on the field.  Now in his sixth season, the talented Mr. Patterson – who has never quite found his niche as a regular in the offense – may have finally discovered himself at running back.  Cordarrelle is a violent, take-no-prisoners, downhill runner.  In fact, if you kind of squinted as you watched him running with the ball, you might swear you were watching LeGarrette Blount.  He even has a similar weakness.  When the defense could get him going sideways, his impact was much less.  If the Patterson at running back experiment continues, this could have very interesting long-term repercussions.

In the end – as usually happens when the Patriots take the field – New England walked off the victor, 31-17 (gamebook) (box score).  One way or another they almost always figure out a way to beat you.

Deferring a Mistake?

Let me begin by saying that I am a big fan of deferring after winning the coin toss.  Often you will hear coaches and commentators chat about the opportunity to end the first half with a score, and then open the second half with another.  Sound philosophy, but I maintain that even if you don’t end the first half with that score, you still want to begin the second half with the ball in your hands aware of what has to happen in the second half for you to win the game.

Therefore, it came as no real surprise that – after the Los Angeles Rams won the toss against New Orleans – they deferred.  Five minutes and 35 seconds later, the Rams watched as running back Alvin Kamara completed a 10-play, 75-yard drive by skirting left end for an 11-yard touchdown run.

Nothing the Saints could have done could have worked better to engage the home crowd.  From time-to-time throughout the rest of the game, the Rams would momentarily silence the crowd.  But the rest would only be momentary.  The Saints continually re-sparked them.  Perhaps, when you’re on the road against one of the most dynamic offenses in the league, deferring may not be the best option.

As opposed to the Seattle crowd, the fans in the Superdome had just come to watch and enjoy a football game.  Their contribution was less outright noise, and more a contagious energy that the home team clearly feeds off of.

Three minutes and 17 seconds into the game, New Orleans coach Sean Payton upped the anti.  After a third-and-two run came up short, Payton kept his offense on the field.  In fact, he kept backup quarterback Taysom Hill in the shotgun, trusting him to throw the pass in this critical situation.  It looks like he wanted to throw to starting quarterback Drew Brees – who had lined up at receiver.  But when Hill wasn’t completely sure, he pulled the ball down and sprinted 9 yards for the first down, punctuating the run by lowering his shoulder and driving Ram defensive back Lamarcus Joyner backward for the last couple of yards.

In no uncertain terms, the Saints, the Rams, the crowd at the Superdome and all the fans watching on TV understood that Sean Payton was coaching this like a playoff game.  He had no intention of trading field goals for Ram touchdowns.

The Saints went on to score touchdowns on 5 of their 6 first half drives (the other ending with a turnover), going 5-5 in the red zone.  This was all part of a first half, offensive orgy, the likes of which the fans tuned in hoping to see.  Neither team punted, and the first half saw 52 points scored and 557 yards of offense.

To this point, most of the offense favored the Saints, who carried a 35-17 lead into the locker room.  To the Rams’ credit they didn’t let the game end like that.  Rarely behind at all this season, the heretofore undefeated Rams came roaring back.  Trailing 35-14 at one point, Los Angeles evened the game at 35-all with still almost ten minutes left in the game.

After turning around the organization last year, the Rams are back this year intent on proving that they are as good as anyone in the game.  They left that lingering impression, even as New Orleans pulled away late for the 45-35 win (gamebook) (box score).  The game’s clinching play came with about 4 minutes left when Michael Thomas slipped in behind Ram corner Marcus Peters.  Brees (who finished the game with 346 passing yards and 4 touchdowns) lobbed the ball over Peters’ head, and Thomas did the rest on a 72-yard catch-and-run touchdown.

Prominent in this game is an officiating trend that I find quite disappointing.

The game is tied at 14 in the second quarter, with 13:14 left before halftime.  The Rams, facing fourth-and-four, are setting up for a field goal (they are on the Saint 16-yard-line).  But it’s a fake.  Holder Johnny Hekker took off with the snap and raced around right end, stretching the ball toward the first-down marker.  The spot was not generous, and the ball was marked short.  The Rams challenged the call.

Looking at the replay, it looked for all the world that Hekker had extended the ball past the marker, but after review, the call stood. 

Later, the tables seemed to balance a bit.  As Ram running back Malcom Brown weaved down the sideline for an 18-yard touchdown, it appeared – on replay – that he had clearly stepped out at about the eight-yard line.  Again, the call on the field (touchdown) was upheld.

The NFL has made no secret that this year they are making a sustained effort to back the call on the field.  I confess myself perplexed by this.  There are certainly problems with the replay system as it’s now run, but one of the problems is not the replay replacing the official’s correct call with an incorrect one.  The one constant in the system is that the replay (most of the time) gives a clearer view of what actually happened on the play.  Wherever possible, replay gets it right.  The most fallible element in the equation continues to be the human referees.  Why we are now treating them as mostly infallible makes little sense to me.