Tag Archives: Buffalo Bills

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.

Just Not Meant To Be

I promise you that there is no truth to the rumors that Frank Reich and the Indianapolis Colts are petitioning the Supreme Court to overturn the results of their WildCard playoff game against the Buffalo Bills.  I wouldn’t be a bit surprised, though, to find out that there are many members of that team and organization who are still having a hard time believing that they didn’t win that game.  By a lot.

Significant underdogs entering the contest (the final Vegas line had them as 7 point dogs), the Colts played as near-perfect a first half as humanly imaginable.  Controlling the clock for 19:41 of the half, Indy ran a beautifully balanced attack (19 runs, 19 passes).  They allowed no sacks, committed no turnovers, and held football’s best third-down offense to 0-for-4 on that down.  Now, with two minutes left in the half, holding a 10-7 lead, the Colts sat on Buffalo’s one-yard line facing a third and goal.

To that point in the game, Indy had out first-downed Buffalo 13-5, and outgained them 226-to-108.  The next two minutes would arguably be the most excruciating of the Indianapolis season.

It began with allowing the goal-to-go situation to slip through their fingers.  Jonathan Taylor lost three yards on a pitch to the left.  Now, it was fourth-and-four.  In retrospect, the field goal here would have made all the difference.  But, understanding that kicking field goals would probably not be sufficient to beat a team as explosive as Buffalo – and not knowing how many more chances they might get to put their collective foot on Buffalo’s neck – they went for it – with Philip Rivers’ pass for Michael Pittman falling incomplete.

There was still 1:46 left in the half, and the Colts had all of their time outs – so they had every expectation of getting the ball back with good field position before half-time.  But the nightmare wasn’t over yet.

Instead of going conservative – backed up as they were against their own goal line – Buffalo’s offense came out going deep.  After quarterback Josh Allen missed on a deep pass over the middle on first down, he came back and fired a second deep ball on second down.  Thirty-seven yards downfield, receiver Gabriel Davis caught the ball along the right sideline as he went out of bounds.

Ruled a catch on the field, the play went to a booth review.  Clearly Gabriel dragged the left toe.  The question was the right.  Did it come down on the line?  After a long review, they couldn’t tell for sure, so the play stood.  Honestly, I thought I might have seen the narrowest band of green in between his toe and the line, but it wasn’t at all clear.  Davis was given the catch, and now – with still 1:33 left in the half – Buffalo was almost to mid-field.

And then, two plays later, it all happened again.  The identical situation, with just two minor changes.  The pass was shorter this time (only 19 yards) and it went to the left sideline.  But, again, it was Davis grabbing the pass as he stepped out of bound.  Again, the officials called it a catch.  Again, by the thinnest of margins, there wasn’t enough evidence to overturn.

If either of those calls had been ruled incomplete, they couldn’t have been reversed.  If either of those calls had been reversed, it’s probable that Indy would have won.

Nonetheless, the Buffalo drive continued.  The Bills sat on the Colts’ 33 with still 59 seconds left.

Twenty-two seconds later, it was fourth-and-three.  A stop here would have forced a field goal that still could have won the game for Indy.  But, on a hard count at the line, defensive lineman Kemoko Turay jumped, and Buffalo was gifted a first-down on the Colt 21.

On the very next play, Allen took a shot for John Brown up the right sideline where he was working against a back-up cornerback named Isaiah Rodgers.  Isaiah – going full horizontal in the end zone – intercepted the pass, ending the Buffalo drive and sending the Colts into the locker room at the half with their 10-7 lead still intact.

Except that Isaiah didn’t quite intercept it.  With his hands still trying to settle around the football, Rodgers hit the ground in the end zone.  As he did, the ball bounced ever so briefly off the ground and out of his control.  On review, the interception was overturned.

Two Josh Allen runs later, and Buffalo was in the end zone, taking back the lead that they wouldn’t relinquish again – on their way, now, to the 27-24 victory (gamebook) (summary) that sent Indianapolis home for the offseason and sets the Bills up for a Divisional Round matchup against Baltimore.

For the afternoon, Indianapolis ended all 9 of their possessions in Buffalo territory – ending up with 472 yards of total offense.  But all they had to show for those drives were three touchdowns, 1 field goal, two punts, two failed fourth downs, and one makeable 33-yard field goal attempt that bounced off of both posts before falling, unsuccessfully, to the turf.  Meanwhile, Buffalo’s final points on the night came on a 54-yard field goal off the toe of Tyler Bass.

If any one of those incidents had gone the other way, it might very well be Buffalo waiting until next year.  You get the feeling sometimes that some things are just not meant to be.

Finding Out About the Bills

Like many other fans, I expected this victory to be much easier for Buffalo.  That this game was a down-to-the-wire struggle (and the game ended with Rivers throwing a Hail Mary into the end zone from the Buffalo 47) showed me the things I’ve been waiting to find out about this Buffalo team.  The Bills rode into the playoffs on the strength of a six-game winning streak cobbled together largely against poor teams.  The two winning teams that were a part of that streak (Pittsburgh and Miami) were fading at the time Buffalo played them.  Regardless of the opposition, none of their final six games ended closer than ten points.

What would happen – I wondered – when they ran into that opponent that would force them to fight through the whole sixty minutes.  That opponent was the Colts.  While it was important to see this team answer every challenge handed to them by this very good Indianapolis team, it was more important for me to see how they did that.

The Josh Allen Experience Rolls On

You may have noticed that I don’t jump quickly on the bandwagon of every promising young quarterback who has a good couple of games.  The playoffs are my litmus test.  Can he stand in the pocket and deliver against a top opponent with the season on the line.  Saturday afternoon, Josh checked all of the boxes – and not just with his arm.

Josh Allen – the runner – had been dialed back in recent weeks.  He ran 11 times against the Jets in Week Seven, and then 10 more times the next week against New England.  In the first game after the bye against the Chargers, Josh toted the ball 9 more times.  But over the last five games of the season, his legs became more and more an afterthought.  In their Week 17 win over Miami, Josh ran just twice for 3 yards.

But Josh, the runner, was on full display against the Colts.  He ran 11 times (8 intentionally).  The rest of the team carried the ball just 10 times.  He gained 54 yards on those rushes – with the rest of the team running for just 42 yards.  Not numbers that would necessarily impress Lamar Jackson, but an added element that I think caught the Colts by surprise, and could provide more worries for defensive coordinators down the line.

But mostly Josh threw the ball.  Thirty-five times he hurled it – sometimes under pressure, sometimes not.  He finished with 26 completions for 324 yards and 2 touchdowns.  He was particularly effective in the important second half of the game, when he completed 78.9% of his passes (15 for 19) for 186 yards.  And he delivered the deep ball, looking even better throwing deep in the playoffs than he looked during the season.  He was 10 of 16 for 223 yards and a touchdown on throws more than ten yards from scrimmage (a 127.1 rating), including going 4 for 5 for 129 yards and a touchdown on his throws of more than twenty yards.

Throughout the game, Josh threw the ball like a quarterback who expected to have success – who expected to win.  To those of us whose resident image of the Josh Allen Bills was their melt-down in last year’s playoffs and their loss earlier this season to Arizona, this was an important re-set.

Done In By Their Own Mistakes

For the second consecutive week, the Chicago Bears lost a game that was closer than the score indicated.  Their Week 17 contest against the Packers (that ended up 35-16) was a 21-16 game until less than four minutes remained.  As participants in Super Wildcard Weekend, the Bears went into the half trailing just 7-3 against 11-point favorite New Orleans.  Again, the game got away from them, the Saints eventually claiming a 21-9 victory (gamebook) (summary).

Regardless of the final score, Chicago had its window of opportunity.  While New Orleans finally had all of their major players (Drew Brees, Alvin Kamara and Michael Thomas) healthy and on the same field at the same time, their practice time together had been limited – and it showed throughout the entire first half.  While the offense sputtered through that first thirty minutes, the Saints’ defense also began the game just slightly back on its heels.

For thirty minutes on Sunday afternoon, this was a very vulnerable team.

But, when you are an underdog team playing one of the NFL’s elite teams, there are plays you just have to make.  When the opportunities present themselves, you have to take advantage.  Over a 9:35 span of that first half, the Bears had three opportunities slip through their fingers – golden invitations to re-write the narrative of the game that they and their fans will be lamenting over the long offseason ahead of them.

With 3:58 left in the first quarter, quarterback Mitchell Trubisky rifled a 28-yard pass to receiver Javon Wims.  The Bears were now set up on the New Orleans’ forty.  At this point, with 3:42 left, coach Matt Nagy dialed up the flea flicker.  Mitch shifted out of his quarterback position to line up as the outside receiver on the right side, with running back David Montgomery assuming his position behind center and taking the direct snap.  Montgomery handed the ball to Cordarrelle Patterson, who looked like he was going to run a sweep to the right.  But before he reached the corner, he lateralled the ball back to Trubisky.

Dazzled by the eye-candy, New Orleans had dropped coverage.  Wide open in the end zone was Wims, and Trubisky’s pass was deadly accurate, dropping right down into – and completely through – Wims’ hands.

Like a punch to the stomach, you could feel the air come out of the Chicago sideline.

Three plays later, the Bears came up short on a fourth-down scramble by Trubisky, and the Saints took over on their own 32.

As the second quarter opened, New Orleans had progressed up to the Chicago 41.  But here cornerback Duke Shelley made a huge interception of a deflected pass.  Almost.  As with the interception that wasn’t for Indianapolis, before Shelley could secure the pass, the tip brushed off the turf.  On review, the play was changed to incomplete.

With 11:38 left in the half, the Bears recovered a New Orleans fumble on the Saint 24.  It was 7-0 New Orleans at the time.  Presented with a final golden opportunity in the half, Chicago moved to a second-and-six at the 10-yard line.  But, after a one-yard pass to tight end Cole Kmet, Saint defensive back Malcolm Jenkins left Kmet with a quick opinion, before turning and heading back to the huddle.

If Kmet had just let him walk away, the Bears would have had third-and-five at the nine-yard line.  But Cole, with the ball still in his hands, followed after Jenkins, offering a few opinions of his own – a move which drew the attention of line judge Greg Bradley and field judge Nathan Jones, who tried to push them apart – with Kmet vocalizing all this time.  With his piece finally said, Cole flipped the ball – somewhat disdainfully to Jones who was standing behind Bradley.  No angle of the play shows who actually threw the flag, but it almost must have been Bradley – who couldn’t have seen that the flip was to Jones and who must have assumed he was flipping it in the direction of Jenkins – an assumption made all the easier by the manner in which Kmet flipped the ball.

The flag came out, and now Chicago had a third-and-20.  They settled for a field goal on the drive.  On the first Chicago possession on the third quarter, another squabble ended with receiver Anthony Miller punching defensive back Chauncey Gardner-Johnson.  He was summarily ejected, thus depriving Chicago of yet another weapon.

Don’t get me wrong.  The penalty against Kmet was bad officiating.  The officials should have conferred and picked up the flag – and in this situation, it was inexcusable of them that they didn’t.  But still if Cole hadn’t escalated the situation by following after Jenkins and jawing at him, the entire thing could have been avoided.  The same could be said for Miller’s disqualification.

To take advantage of a team like the Saints at their vulnerable moments, teams like the Bears need to keep their composure.

Is Trubisky a Franchise Quarterback?

Throughout all of this meltdown, there was Trubisky.  His only contribution to this fiasco was to throw a perfect pass into Wims’ arms.  Throughout this game – as he did in the Green Bay game – Mitch played pretty well.  He didn’t turn the ball over and completed 65.5% of his passes against one of football’s best pass defenses.  In watching both games, it’s hard to say that the problem was the quarterback.  At the very least, I would say that Trubisky – the Mitch Trubisky that we saw coming down the stretch – isn’t a quarterback who will hold your team back.

That, of course, isn’t the question that Chicago needs to have answered.  They need to know if Mitch is THAT guy – the one who can put the team on his shoulders and carry them into the promised land.

There is still a thing I need to see from Mitch – something that’s almost a little unfair to ask of him.  The elite guys have an ability to raise the level of play of everyone on the field with them.  There’s a confidence and a command that exudes from a Tom Brady or a Drew Brees that I haven’t yet seen from Mitch.  I’m not necessarily suggesting that if Brady had thrown the same pass that Wims would have caught it for him – and yet, that’s exactly the kind of thing that happens for Tom and Drew and all of the other top quarterbacks.  Unfair?  Yes, it is a little.  But it’s real.

At the same time, I don’t know that even Tom Brady could pull out a win when the other team controls the ball for 21 and a half minutes of the second half.

On the broadcast, Tony Romo suggested that you change quarterbacks when you have someone better.  At this point, Chicago doesn’t have anyone better.  My suggestion to the Bears’ organization (and fans) would be to build up the team around Mitch, and then see what he looks like.

Getting Back in Sync

Coming off a shaky first half, the Saints advanced in the playoffs and re-discovered their rhythm by turning back to the run game to augment their horizontal passing attack.  Twenty-two of their final 38 plays were runs, with Kamara getting 15 of them.  Alvin finished the day with 99 rushing yards (and a touchdown) on 23 carries.  Brees, meanwhile, completed 14 of 16 second-half passes (87.5%) for 145 yards and a second touchdown.

For the game, 28 of Drew’s 36 actual passes (minus 3 throw-aways) were at targets less than ten yards from scrimmage.  He completed 25 of those (89.3%) for 193 yards and 2 touchdowns (a 119.2 rating on those throws).  This included 6 of 7 screen passes for 31 yards and a touchdown, as New Orleans remains one of the most dangerous screen teams remaining in the playoffs.

None of this was terribly splashy.  Drew completed just one downfield pass the whole game (a 38-yard strike to Thomas up the left sideline).  But an effective running game setting up a proficient short passing attack can have a devastating effect.

The Saints only had three second half possessions – each running at least 11 plays, each driving at least 64 yards, and each draining at least 5:11 off the clock.  The Saints converted 6 of 8 third downs during the half, and sustained one of those drives by getting Chicago to jump off-sides on fourth-and-three (another damaging lack of discipline from the Bears).

The first two possessions ended in touchdowns, and the last ended with Brees trying to leap over the goal line from the one-yard line on fourth down.  Originally credited with a touchdown, the call was reversed and the Bears were given the football on about their one-inch line, down 21-3 with 2:19 remaining in their season.

At that point – for the game – Chicago had run just 38 plays, gained 140 total yards, earned a total of 6 first downs, and had 19 minutes and 43 seconds of possession.  The Bears finished up the game salvaging a little pride.  They used the last 139 seconds of their season to drive those 99 yards on 11 plays, the last 19 of those yards on a final touchdown pass to former Saint Jimmy Graham – who sprinted off the field and up the tunnel immediately after the catch.

For the Bears, that drive will be the starting point of an important offseason.  The Saints will use that dominating second half as a springboard into the Divisional Round, where they will renew acquaintances with an old friend from their division.

Careful What You Ask For

As he sprinted off the field on the heels of his team’s division clinching win over Philadelphia, Washington’s loquacious rookie defensive end Chase Young was heard to chant “I want Tom, I want Tom.”  The reference, of course, was to Tampa Bay quarterback Tom Brady – Washington’s opponent in the WildCard Round.  The old saying is “be careful what you ask for, you just might get it.”

After Tom and his Buccaneer teammates opened up on Young and his young Washington defense to the tune of 507 yards and 31 points, you would think Chase has seen enough of the legendary Mr. Brady – at least for a while.  As for Chase himself, he finally did get to Tom.  But it was only to chat him up after the game.  Coming off an encouraging rookie season that saw him finish second on the team in sacks and tackles-for-loss, and third in quarterback hits, Chase rarely put himself in shouting distance of the Tampa Bay quarterback during the actual game.

Except for their opponent’s continued dominance in the red zone – Washington ranked fourth in red zone defense this year, and limited the Bucs to just 1 touchdown in 5 red zone visits – the Tampa Bay offense and its veteran quarterback was generally unhindered by Washington’s second-ranked defensive unit.

As for Tom, he looked as proficient as ever.  Running the extreme downfield passing attack that coach Bruce Arians loves, Tom completed only 22 of his 40 passes (just 55%), but for 381 yards and 2 touchdowns – a stunning 17.32 yards per completion (the NFL average is just 11.1 yards).  During the regular season, Tom’s average target was 9.3 yards from the line-of-scrimmage – the highest average of any passer with at least 150 attempts.  Against Washington, he upped that to an average of 11.3 yards downfield (these numbers, by the way, are taken from the Next Gen Stats page), as 23 of Brady’s 38 actual passes (again, discounting throw-aways) went more than 10 yards from scrimmage – an uncommonly high 60.5%.  He completed 13 of those throws for 280 yards and 2 touchdowns (a 128.9 rating on those throws).  This number includes 4 for 7 on throws of more than 20 yards, for 118 yards and both of his touchdowns (these numbers are also from Next Gen).

What Changed?

One of the running narratives of the 2020 season was the sometimes uneasy marriage of Brady and Arians.  Bruce had more than one uncomplimentary thing to say to the media about his quarterbacks’ early struggles.  But now, Brady heads into New Orleans on his best roll of the season.  His 104.3 passer rating against Washington marks his fifth consecutive game over 100 in that category.  This is the only time he’s done that this season, and not un-coincidentally Tampa Bay has put together its only five-game winning streak of the season.

It all begs the question, what changed?  Was football’s most decorated quarterback holding this team back because of his repeated screw-ups?  Has Tom finally figured out what he was doing wrong?

The truth is it was never really about Tom.  He had a minor learning curve as he transitioned into a new philosophy without benefit of a training camp, but as I pointed out after their last loss to New Orleans, the major issues were the issues endemic to the system itself.  What has changed is that Bruce has shored up the two major areas I identified after Week Nine.

Pass Protection

In the last New Orleans game (a 38-3 loss in which Brady threw for 209 yards and 3 interceptions with no touchdowns), Tom was hit constantly.  This was fairly common in the early going.  Tom was under near-constant pressure.  The old man (yes, he’s 43) still moves around in the pocket pretty well, but he doesn’t have the escapability of some of the younger dual-threat quarterbacks.  If you want Brady to throw downfield, then he has to be protected.

Washington sacked him three times Saturday night, but pressured him very little otherwise.  Even though Washington ramped up their blitzing as the game went on (sending extra rushers Tom’s way on 41.9% of his drop-backs) the protection schemes were more than up to the challenge.

But this came after an adjustment.  Bruce kept lots of would-be receivers in the backfield, frequently running six- and seven-man protections – leaving just two or three receivers running routes.  Rob Gronkowski – for example – coming off a 45 catch season, had only one pass thrown in his direction as his function on Saturday was primarily as a blocker (very often on Chase Young).

Whether or not this irked Bruce – losing receivers downfield – I can’t say.  But that extra time was a major difference in the efficiency of the offense.  As was the second major adjustment.

Oh Look, It’s the Tampa Bay Running Game

After the first half ended, I made the following entry in my notebook, “Surprising run commitment.”  Tampa Bay had run the ball 14 times.  Before the half.  In their last game against the Saints, Tampa Bay ran the ball only 5 times the entire game (an all-time low).  That was one of four separate games in which the Bucs failed to make it to 20 rushes, and they finished twenty-ninth in rush attempts for the season with 369.  The only NFL teams to run less frequently were Detroit, Texas and Jacksonville – teams that spent almost the entire season trailing.

The running game was another factor that I pointed to after the last New Orleans game.  On Saturday, out of nowhere, the Bucs started handing the ball off.  Leonard Fournette was awarded a season-high 19 carries (which he turned into 93 yards and a touchdown) as the foundation of a 29-carry, 142-yard ground attack that exploited a slight weakness in the Football Team’s defense (they were thirteenth against the run this year) and further slowed the Washington pass rush.  Additionally, the healthy running attack kept Washington out of any exotic formations and coverages. 

When a team is running the ball against you, you have to stay fairly basic in your personnel and schemes. Few things open up a passing game as effectively as a strong running attack.

In all, it was the biggest rushing game from Tampa Bay since they trampled Carolina in Week Ten.  In that game, the Bucs hit season highs in rushes (37) and rushing yards (210).  That was the game that Ronald Jones ripped off a 98-yard touchdown run.

This is the thing about Tampa.  Every so often, they embrace their running game – almost always to good effect.  But the commitment is fleeting.  The very next week, they ran only 18 times (for 42 yards) in a 27-24 loss to the Rams.  As much as any team in the league, the Buccaneers stand ready to abandon their running game on any pretext.  Even in this game, as soon as Washington closed to 18-16 late in the third, Bruce went straight to the air.  Brady threw (or attempted to throw) on 7 of the 8 plays the next drive lasted.  The drive – which answered the Washington touchdown with a field goal – removed only 1:28 off the game clock before the ball was back in the hands of the Washington offense.

Like Mike

In a lot of ways, Arians reminds me of Mike Martz.  Mike – as some of you older St Louisans will recall – was Dick Vermeil’s offensive coordinator when he led the Ram franchise to its only Super Bowl win following the 1999 season.  Martz was then elevated to head coach after Vermeil retired.  This was the era when the Rams were known as The Greatest Show on Turf.

These teams had Marshall Faulk and a top offensive line.  They could easily have been a dominant running team in the mold of the Cowboys of the 1990s.  But Martz was overly fond of his passing attack, and would go for long stretches of a game absolutely forgetting that he had a running game.  Toward the end of his five-year run, the Rams would see all kinds of bizarre defenses, linebackers lining up everywhere and blitzing from all angles, safeties littering all levels of the defense – the Ram wide receivers got to the point where they would hit the ground as soon as they caught the pass because there was always a safety behind them ready to run through their backs.

Though this was as deep and as diverse a collection of offensive talent as you are ever likely to find on one team, the offense began to struggle to put points on the board because they made themselves one-dimensional.  Arians does this from time to time to his team.

The Tampa Bay offense that ran through the Washington team is a formidable group whose threat is magnified when they stay balanced and when they protect their passer.

Looking Forward to the Saints

This approach won’t be so easy to pull off against the Saints.  New Orleans features the fourth-ranked run defense, and could very well encourage Bruce to abandon the run early.  The Saints also feature a fine pass rush, but their secondary is much better than Washington’s and their defensive backs are much more comfortable in man coverage – which could make three-man routes problematical if the Bucs continue to keep six or seven in to pass protect.

Still, the Bucs look like they have figured some things out and now present as a much more potent foe than the last time they faced the Saints.

On offense, anyway.  Defensively, the Bucs are still trying to solve their season-long issues with the passing game.

Taylor Who?

The sensation of WildCard Weekend was a previously unheard of backup quarterback named Taylor Heinicke.  With Washington’s starting quarterback – Alex Smith – unable to go, Taylor would make the second start of his career, and his first since 2018.  He had thrown 77 passes in his entire career prior to lacing it up against Tampa Bay.  His career passer rating was a modest 71.7.

And yet, for 60 minutes Saturday night, Taylor gave the Tampa Bay defense all they could handle.  Running for 46 yards and a touchdown, Taylor also threw for 306 yards and another touchdown.  His success in throwing the ball down the field was almost Brady-like.

On throws to targets more than ten yards away, Heinicke was 12 of 19 for 224 yards and a touchdown – a 121.4 passer rating.  These included 3-of-5 on passes over twenty yards from scrimmage, good for 88 yards.

Taylor – who carried Washington to the Tampa Bay 49-yard-line with 2:22 left in the game before suffering the sack that ended the comeback – well deserved all the attention that surrounded him in the aftermath of his team’s narrow 31-23 loss (gamebook) (summary).

For the Bucs defense, though, it was the same conundrum that the better passing attacks have been taking advantage of all year.  Tampa can’t get a pass rush unless they blitz, but blitzing compromises their coverage.  They have also struggled in zone coverage all year, whether they run it behind a blitz or not.

The Saints will present a handful of difficult man-to-man matchups – Kamara, Thomas, Cook, Emmanuel Sanders – but I expect that this is how Tampa Bay will approach this contest.  They will come after Brees and hope the coverage can hold up.  Blitzing Drew is always a dangerous proposition, but this much is assured.  If they sit back in their leaky zone coverages, they will get picked apart.

In both of the previous two matchups, New Orleans ran the ball a lot.  They ran even though they didn’t have much success on the ground – and nobody runs with much success against Tampa Bay, possessors of the league’s top run defense.  But New Orleans persisted.  Thirty-four rushes (for just 82 yards) in the first game and 37 more (for 138 yards) in the re-match.  This is something that they’ve understood all along.  The running game allows the offensive line to do their share of the hitting.  It lets them work over the defensive line, removing a great deal of spring from the pass rush.

My expectation is that this will continue.  New Orleans will force Tampa Bay to defend the running game for the whole sixty minutes and take their chances with a lot of third-and-manageable situations.

I’m still of the opinion that New Orleans is the better team.  But Tampa Bay has improved since the last meeting.  And it’s always difficult to beat the same team three times in one season.

Difficult, but not impossible.

Waiting til Next Year

With 6:19 left in the football game, Dante Fowler produced an enormous sack of Tampa Bay quarterback Tom Brady.

Ever since falling behind 23-10 at the half, the Atlanta Falcons had been fighting their way back into their season-ending contest against the Buccaneers.  As the fourth quarter began, the Falcons had narrowed the gap to 23-20, and the two teams traded touchdowns in their first possession of the final quarter.

But now, trailing just 30-27, Atlanta had the Bucs backed up at third-and-12, with still five-and-a-half minutes left in the game.  They needed one stop.

The game wouldn’t get Atlanta into the playoffs – at 4-11 they had long been eliminated.  The game couldn’t knock Tampa Bay out of the playoffs.  At 10-5, they had already punched their ticket.  But after a season of maddening defeats, Atlanta stood one stop away from giving their offense a last chance at a kind of redemption.

They needed one stop.

Unfortunately for the Falcons, on this Sunday afternoon, they never did stop the Buccaneers.  With the Falcons pass rush non-existent (they only rushed three on this play), Brady rolled slightly to his right and once again exploited the vulnerable right sideline.  On the afternoon, Brady completed 10 of 15 passes to the offensive right side of the field for 182 yards and 2 touchdowns.  He would get 47 of those yards here, as Chris Godwin settled in behind the cornerback and in front of the safety at the Falcon 7-yard line, where he hauled in a perfect strike from Tom.

Three plays later, Godwin caught a shorter pass from Brady – 4 yards for the touchdown that pushed the lead back up to ten (37-27) with 3:54 left.  Forty-three football seconds later, a Calvin Ridley fumble returned possession to the Buccaneers, and 9 seconds after that, Brady probed that right sideline again – with Antonio Brown on the receiving end of a 30-yard, catch-and-run touchdown that closed the book on this one, 44-27 (gamebook) (summary).

Tampa Bay Rolls On

With the victory, Tampa Bay cemented the fifth seed in the upcoming WildCard Weekend – they will head into Washington to play the “Football Team.”  The Tampa Bay team that struggled for any kind of consistency during a 7-5 start, finished the season winning their final four games – averaging 37 points a game in those contests.  What changed?

Mostly, it was things I pointed out earlier in the year.  A little more consistency in the running game, and the pass protection shored itself up considerably.  After Brady went down 17 times in the first 12 games, he has been dropped 5 times in the last four (3 of those in the first game against Atlanta).  Against the Falcons last Sunday, in fact, his protection was so good that he was provided with more than 2.5 seconds in the pocket on 27 of his 41 pass attempts (66%). 

Given lots of time for his receivers to work their way downfield, Tom went on to make short work of the Falcon secondary.  He completed 18 of those 27 passes for 342 yards (12.67 yards per attempted pass and 19 yards per completion).  After spending the early part of the season missing on his downfield tosses, Tom was 3-for-8 on passes more than 20 yards from scrimmage.  Those completions accounted for 101 yards and 2 touchdowns.

For the afternoon, Tom threw for 399 yards and 4 touchdowns.  He averaged 15.35 yards on his 26 completions.

It has also helped that the four teams that Tampa Bay subdued – a list which includes Atlanta twice – are among the league’s worst defensive teams – especially when it comes to pass defense.  The Falcons finished twenty-seventh in passer rating against.  Minnesota finished twenty-third, and Detroit finished dead last, allowing opposing passers a 112.4 rating.  None of those teams was ever able to generate any kind of consistent pass rush, either (the two situations often go hand in hand).  The Falcons were twenty-sixth in sack rate, while the Viking and Lions tied for twenty-eighth, each managing to put the opposing passer on the turf on only 4.1% of his drop-backs.

Tampa Bay has been on an impressive run – led by their quarterback.  Since falling behind Atlanta 17-0 in the first half three weeks ago, Brady has completed 69 of his last 97 passes (71.1%) for 1067 yards (11.00 yards per attempt, and 15.5 per completion), with a 10-1 touchdown-to-interception ratio – good for a satisfactory 137.3 passer rating.

It’s enough to make Tampa Bay fans giddy, but the shadow of their previous struggles still hangs over this team.  Until this offense shows that it can handle a team that can pressure the quarterback – and the Washington team they are about to face is such a team – these questions will continue to follow them.

The Falcons Wait til Next Year – Again

For the Falcons, it’s another season of waiting for next year – this final loss like so many others this year (except that they never held a lead to spit up).  The two plays mentioned earlier were just two of several that could have turned this one around.

Rolling out a surprising short-passing game designed to control the clock and keep Brady off the field, Atlanta forged four long drives that consumed more than six minutes each.  They scored touchdowns on two of them, but the other two both petered out on the Tampa Bay 3-yard line.  Those two drives combined for 28 plays and 149 yards while eating 14:16 off the clock – but resulted in only 6 points combined.

(By the way, running an offense that may be very similar to the attack that Tampa Bay may see against Alex Smith and the Football Team, Falcon quarterback Matt Ryan threw no passes more than 20 yards from scrimmage, but completed 23 of 30 (76.7%) short passes into Tampa’s very vulnerable underneath zone defenses.  Throw in a bit of bad weather in Washington, and Tampa Bay could be in for a lot more trouble than they might anticipate.)

As for the Falcon defense, they never showed up.  Tampa Bay never went three-and-out.  In their nine possessions before the final one (in which they ran out the clock), Tampa Bay scored on 8 of them (five of them touchdowns).  Each drive ended in Atlanta territory, and the only time they didn’t score, they lost the ball on a fluky interception.  Receiver Scott Miller, attempting a diving catch, had the ball ricochet off his shoulder as he hit the ground.  The ball popped into the air, where defensive back Ricardo Allen gathered it in.

Other than that, it was another dismal defensive performance.

This Falcon franchise has never recovered from blowing that 28-3 lead in Super Bowl LI.  Now, after three consecutive losing seasons, the remnants of that team have started to go – and more may follow.  Coach Dan Quinn was let go after an 0-5 start.  Thirty-five-year-old Ryan and 31-year-old receiver Julio Jones (who missed the last few games of the season with a hamstring injury) may follow as the Falcons may very well embark on a rebuilding program.

That will depend – in large part – on the decision of the still-to-be-hired general manager.  So this team could look very different by kickoff 20201.

For the record, Matt Ryan doesn’t believe that they need to tear everything down and start over.  Neither does interim coach Raheem Morris.  They both believe this team is very close.

For that matter, so does everyone who has played the Falcons this year.  This might, in fact, be one of the most highly-regarded 4-12 teams in NFL history.

But, at least until next year, they are just a 4-12 team.

Dolphins Also Waiting Til Next Year

The Tua Tagovailoa era in Miami began in Week Eight with a 28-17 victory over the Los Angeles Rams.  In that game, Miami’s defense and special teams both scored touchdowns in support of the rookie quarterback.  Miami would go on to win Tua’s first three starts, and five of his first six.  The team that was 5-11 and in last place in its division last year was now 8-4 and had suddenly thrust itself into the playoff conversation.

Tua Season One came to an abrupt end last Sunday afternoon, as the young Dolphin squad was shredded by the Buffalo Bills, 56-26 (gamebook) (summary).  That game formed an uncommon symmetry with Tua’s first game in that the Bills got touchdowns from both their defense and special teams.

In one sense, the Dolphins – who would have earned a playoff berth with a win – fell short because they are still developmentally behind the Bills.  In a larger sense, though, they simply failed to overcome their 1-3 start.  In winning nine of their final twelve, Miami would have fought its way into the dance if they had managed just one more early win.  In Week Two they lost to this same Buffalo team, 31-28.  Two weeks later, they lost a one-score game to Seattle (31-23).  One more play in either of those games, and who knows.

This last game was fairly decided by halftime – as Buffalo carried a 28-6 lead into the locker room.  Even in what has been a very nice turn-around season, you might forgive Dolphin fans if they were a little antsy about Tua and the future of this program at that point.  Tagovailoa went into the locker at the half having completed 12 passes, but for only 89 yards.  His 4.68 yards per pass attempt and 7.42 yards per completion played into some lingering, season-long concerns.  Tua entered the contest averaging just 9.6 yards per completion.  Of 36 qualifying quarterbacks, that average ranked thirty-fourth.

Let’s just say that the early sampling of Tagovailoa wasn’t terribly evocative of what Tom Brady was doing in Tampa Bay.

The second half of that game, though, would throw a bit of a twist on the Tagovailoa narrative.  Previously, a short tossing, safety-first signal caller (he had thrown just 2 interceptions all season), Tua morphed into an up-the-field, high-risk, high-reward gunslinger.  With “relief pitcher” Ryan Fitzpatrick unavailable (due to a positive COVID test), Miami had little choice but to saddle up Tua and try to engineer a comeback.  That didn’t come close to happening, but the proceedings proved to be more interesting than anticipated.

In 8 second half possessions, the Dolphins racked up 332 yards (yes, in one half) and 21 first downs.  Tua threw for 272 yards in that half (more than in all but two of his previous complete games).  In those 8 drives, the Dolphins scored 3 touchdowns (one on a pass from Tagovailoa), turned the ball over 4 times (3 on interceptions from Tagovailoa), and had the other drive end on downs after their only 10-play drive of the game had taken them to the Buffalo 48.

After scoring a combined 48 points through the first three quarters, Buffalo and Miami combined to put up 34 in the fourth quarter alone – making for an entertaining, if not frightfully close, contest.

As for Tua, he finished the game 4-for-8 on passes of more than twenty yards for 104 of his 361 passing yards.

I’m not saying that this one half will turn Tua into a born-again gunslinger.  But it should, I think, allay some concerns about his deep-ball abilities.

Moving On

As for the Bills, they are division winners for the first time since 1995, and have qualified for the playoffs in consecutive seasons for the first time since 1998-1999.  That’s quite a few years.

And they roll into the playoffs as hot as anyone.  They have won 6 in a row and 9 of their last 10.

That being said, I do have concerns about the Bills.  Of primary concern is a run defense ranked seventeenth in the league only because the high-scoring offense has mostly protected it.  They are still serving up 4.6 yards per rush attempt (which ranks twenty-sixth), and have yielded ground yards to every team that has tried to run against them.  There really isn’t a ground attack that they’ve faced that I would say they have actually stopped.

My other concern is how this team will respond in an alley fight.  Almost all of their recent victories have been by sizable margins – and have been especially characterized by quarterback Josh Allen standing in comfortably clean pockets throwing to wide open receivers.  What will happen when this team runs into a team that will pressure them – that will force them to win the game by making contested plays in critical moments?  Will they be able to win the ugly games that you frequently have to win in the playoffs?  That’s what I’m waiting for this Bills team to show me.

None of this, though, should come into play on Saturday.  I expect their victory over Indianapolis to be similar to some of their other recent wins.

My take on the Colts is that they are a team that does everything well, but nothing exceptionally well.  They are a very solid, but unspectacular club.  In that regard, I think that they are dangerous team – but they don’t have enough playmakers to answer Buffalo’s high-level passing attack.

The Bills will be tried – but probably not this week.

Concerns in Pittsburgh

In case you were wondering, the Pittsburgh Steelers haven’t always looked like this.  For the first five games of the season, their re-imagined offense couldn’t have worked better.  They averaged 31.2 points per game – never scoring fewer than 26 in any game – and their offense was spectacularly balanced.  While quarterback Ben Roethlisberger was completing 69.1% of his passes with an 11-to-1 touchdown-to-interception ratio and a 109.1 passer rating, the running game was adding an average of 136.8 yards a game (4.3 per carry) and 7 touchdowns of its own.

Since then – by degrees – the offensive performances have regressed to a place that Pittsburgh hopes is subnormal.

Beginning with their Week Seven victory over Tennessee, the Steeler running game dried up.  Over their last eight games, the Steelers have abruptly dropped to 59.3 yards a game and just 3.0 yards per rush.  But even then the passing game kept Pittsburgh afloat.  Pittsburgh continued to win and to score – 28.4 points a game even without the running attack – as their record climbed to 10-0.  They still hadn’t been held under 24 points in a game.

Since then, the offense has taken another deep step backward, scoring a total of 51 points over its last three games – the last two of them losses.

In the first two of those games, Pittsburgh was matched against two of the premier defenses in the league (Baltimore and Washington).  During their first loss of the season against Washington, the Pittsburgh running game hit rock bottom – 21 yards on 14 carries.

The disappointment against the Football Team would be followed by a prime time game – a Sunday night affair against the Buffalo Bills.  For all of the fact that Buffalo carried a 9-3 record into the contest, this game looked to be just what the doctor ordered for the ailing Pittsburgh offense.  Buffalo was allowing 25.5 points a game, and the weakest part of the their defense was the run defense, which was allowing 126 rushing yards a game, and the 4.7 yards per carry they were allowing was the fifth highest in football.

Buffalo had become one of football’s better offensive teams (scoring 27.75 points a game and ranking third in passing yardage), but defensively, they seemed like a team that Pittsburgh could re-set itself against.

None of this, of course, came about.

In the aftermath of Buffalo’s 26-15 conquest (gamebook) (summary) all there was for the Steelers was more frustration and more than a few questions, as an embattled Buffalo defense made a few statements of its own.

Plan of Attack

While the numbers don’t suggest it, Pittsburgh truly did try to run the ball against the Bills.  That they finished with only 17 attempts was due to two factors.

First, of course, was that the running attack never bore fruit.  Pittsburgh managed just 47 yards on those rushes (2.8 per attempt) with no attempt exceeding 7 yards.

Even then, I believe the Steelers would have kept trying were it not for their spectacular failures on third down.  If you are going to keep trying to run the ball, then you have to convert your third downs – and Pittsburgh could not.  Entering the day ranked seventh in the league in third-down conversions (45.5%) – and facing a Buffalo defense ranked twenty-fourth in allowing third-down conversions (44.0%), Pittsburgh converted on just 1 of their 10 opportunities – almost all of them very manageable.  The Steelers faced third-and-nine twice and third-and-seven once.  All the others were six yards or less.  Pittsburgh finished the contest with 7 three-and-outs in 12 possessions (if you don’t count the end of the first half).  Roethlisberger was 1 for 9 for 13 yards and a sack on this down.

This speaks directly to Buffalo’s approach to Pittsburgh’s lightning-fast short passing game.

Here, I looked at the new-look approach in Pittsburgh that tries to get the ball out of Ben’s hands in under two seconds.  This was the focus of Buffalo’s game plan – to take away all of the quick-opening routes that make this approach possible.

The Bills mixed a lot of coverages, always with a focus on the easy, underneath routes.  On the first third-down of the game, the Bills played man but dropped the defensive ends into the short middle zones.  With 10:06 left in the third quarter, and Pittsburgh facing third-and-nine, the Bills played zone, but had middle-linebacker Tremaine Edmunds chase JuJu Smith-Schuster’s shallow cross.  When they played zone, they did so with laudable discipline.  But in third down, they mostly played tight, suffocating man coverage.

No one defensive back followed any particular receiver.  Cornerback Tre’Davious White played a lot of what I call Deion coverage.  The rest of the defense would play whatever they were going to play.  White would play man against one receiver. (Deion coverage is so named for the great Deion Sanders who played this coverage during his time in San Francisco.)  Whenever the Steelers would line up in four receiver sets, with three receivers to one side, White would take the receiver on the single receiver side and play man against him.  This was even true when Pittsburgh put tight end Eric Ebron on the single receiver side and had all of the receivers on the other side.

The pressure piece of the defensive plan came principally from two sources – whoever was lined up over Alejandro Villanueva, and Matt Milano.

Villanueva struggled notably keeping the ends – mostly Mario Addison – from going around him.  Milano showed surprising passion when he joined the rush.  Buffalo didn’t send him that often, but every time they did he seemed to impact the play.

It all added up to Pittsburgh’s worst offensive game of the season by points scored, and second worst by yardage.  (Their 224 yards of total offense being only 3 yards better than their Week Eight win in Baltimore.)  In addition to an engulfed running attack, Roethlisberger threw for just 187 yards while completing a season-low 56.8% of his passes (21 of 37).  He threw multiple interceptions for only the second time this season.  He was sacked for the first time in six games, averaged just 5.05 per pass attempt (his lowest figure of the season) and finished with his worst passer rating of 2020 (65.9).

Buffalo couldn’t have asked for any more from its defense.

The Bills’ Offense Adjusts

For the first thirty minutes, the Pittsburgh defense returned the favor in kind against the Buffalo offense.  If the Steeler running attack was moribund, the Buffalo ground game was even more non-existent.  The Bills ran just 7 times in the first half for just 34 yards.  If Ben Roethlisberger’s passing attack was stuck in neutral, Josh Allen’s passing attack was all but stopped (if not quite in reverse).

The Steeler plan for Allen and the Bills’ passing attack was pressure and lots of it.  Already the third-most blitz-happy team in football (they came into the game blitzing 40.2% of the time), Pittsburgh upped the ante against Buffalo, bringing at least one extra rusher on 58.7% of Josh’s drop-backs.  The first-half results were devastating.  Allen went into the locker room having completed 10 of 23 passes (43.5%) for a miniscule 76 yards (3.30 yards per attempt).  Stir in no touchdown passes and 1 interception, and that adds up to a 34.0 rating.

The dominant Buffalo defense held Pittsburgh to an anemic 143 yards of total offense through two quarters.  The equally dominant Pittsburgh defense reduced the Bills to an anorexic 102 yards of total offense.  That Buffalo led at the half 9-7 was due only to the fact that Buffalo cornerback Taron Johnson returned one of Roethlisberger’s interceptions 51 yards for a touchdown.

But while Pittsburgh never could solve Buffalo’s defensive scheme, the Bills were able to make the necessary adjustments at halftime, refocusing on the running game and providing Allen with more protection (including double-teams on disruptive defensive lineman Cameron Heyward).  The difference was enormous.

Buffalo ran the ball 20 times in the second half and, consequently controlled the ball for 21:40 of the final 30 minutes.  With the blitz slowed enough for Allen stand in the pocket and find a receiver, Josh completed 14 of his final 20 passes for 162 yards.  He also threw the two decisive touchdown passes.  Buffalo outgained the Steelers 232 to 81 over the final two quarters.

On To the Playoffs

Earlier this evening, Buffalo claimed the AFC Eastern Division title as they routed the Denver Broncos 48-19.  I had thought that once they reached this part of their season, the Bills would begin to struggle.  Up until they beat San Francisco a couple of weeks ago, their defining moment was the Hail Mary pass that cost them a seemingly sure victory over Arizona.  I didn’t expect them to beat either the 49ers or the Steelers.

Regardless, Buffalo has exceeded my expectations and has punched its ticket to the dance.  The Miami Dolphins will now have to right their ship quickly to fend off the Browns for the last AFC playoff spot.

As for the Bills themselves, even after this win and the beating they’ve just given the Broncos, I don’t really believe in them just yet.  Especially that defense.  There are only three other teams this season that Buffalo has held below 20 points – the Jets twice, the Chargers and tonight the Broncos.  My gut feeling is that last Sunday night’s victory had more to do with Pittsburgh’s struggles than Buffalo’s prowess.

I want to see the Bills’ defense hold up against one of the better running teams in the league – a matchup that may not come until the playoffs.

Other AFC Playoff Ramifications

With the loss, the Steelers are now in trail position behind the Chiefs for the top seed in the conference.  Waiting for someone to beat the Chiefs isn’t the most encouraging of situations.

Shifting NFC Playoff Picture

For the third time in two weeks an upset authored by a team from the NFC East has scrambled the playoff picture.  In Week Thirteen the New York Giants upset the Seattle Seahawks to threaten their hold on the NFC West.  Later that week, Washington handed Pittsburgh its first loss – beginning the process that has knocked them out of the top seed in the AFC (for the moment, anyway).

Then, in Week Fourteen the Philadelphia Eagles shuffled the NFC picture by knocking off top-seeded New Orleans.  Green Bay now holds the inside track to the top seed in that conference, and the bye that goes with it.

Meanwhile, Washington won again, and is starting to look like they are the class of the NFC East.  Moreover, the Football Team, now 6-7, closes its season with winnable games against the Panthers and the Eagles – meaning they have a legitimate shot at taking an 8-8 record into the playoffs.  Until recently, I think everyone was resigned to the likelihood that the NFC East Champ would go to the playoffs with a sub-.500 record.

Finally, I’ve been re-thinking the NFC West recently – especially the Seahawks.  Even though they are only 3-2 over their last five, there are signs that things are starting to come together in the Emerald City in two very important areas.

First, the running attack seems to be back – helped enormously by the return to health of feature back Chris Carson.  Over the last five games, Seattle has averaged 127.8 rushing yards a game.  They are gaining 4.5 yards per carry in those games.  Carson hasn’t resumed a full workload yet – he hasn’t carried more than 13 times in any of the three games since his return.  But he was over 60 rushing yards in each of the last two, and is averaging 5.5 yards a carry since his return.

The other improving area is the defense.

A liability for most of the season, the Seahawk defense looks like they are starting to figure things out.  They have allowed a total of 37 points over their last three games, holding all of those opponents to less than 300 yards.  Now, none of those teams boast much of an offense (they were the Eagles, Giants and Jets), so that gives me a little pause.  But I never felt that the Seattle defense was really as bad as they’ve played for most of the year – and I always expected that their running game would be more impactful than it’s been.

In short, even though the competition has been a bit weak, this is the Seattle team I thought we’d see all season.  They have the pivotal Week 16 matchup against the Rams at home, and for the moment that is enough for me to shift them back to being the favorites in their division and claiming the third seed (behind Green Bay and New Orleans) – with the Rams probably sliding to the fifth seed.

Not Quite In the Zone

When wide receiver Cole Beasley came in motion (left-to-right) behind the formation, it caused a ripple of hand gestures throughout the San Francisco defense – most of it centering around middle linebacker Fred Warner.  Prominent among this flurry of hand signals was the one where the player points the index finger from each hand to the opposite sides of his helmet.  This common signal (that seems to suggest the other players think about what’s about to happen) is universally used by both offenses and defenses to replace the first play called in the huddle with the backup play.  By the time the snap occurred, the San Francisco defense seemed to think it was on the same page.

There was 9:56 left in a semi-critical game against the Buffalo Bills – a game the 49ers were currently trailing by a 27-17 score.  The Bills were sitting on the San Francisco 28, facing a second-and-ten.

Since the ensuing defensive play appeared to be a mish-mash of both plays called – and after watching this through several times – I will give you my best guess as to the original defense called, and what it should have changed into.

As Buffalo originally lined up with Beasley on the left, San Francisco walked Dontae Johnson to line up across from him.  As the game progressed, the 49ers made increasing efforts to try to fool the Buffalo offense – largely with no success.  Here they were going to be in zone again, but wanted the Bills to think it would be a man coverage with Johnson giving the appearance that he had Beasley.  In this setup, I believe that Johnson was to be responsible for the underneath zone on that side (the offensive left), and that the defensive end on that side (Kerry Hyder) would rush the passer, with the end on the other side (Arik Armstead) dropping into the underneath zone to the other side.

When Cole came across the formation, Johnson followed him – again, as he would in man coverage.  This was when all the “chatter” occurred among the defense.  The switch now would have Johnson taking the underneath zone on the offensive right side (the side that Beasley was now on), with Armstead now free to rush the passer and Hyder dropping off in coverage.  Warner would be joining the rush, so there would still be four coming after quarterback Josh Allen.

What actually happened at the snap was that both ends dropped into coverage, leaving only three rushers.  Bad enough, but Beasley’s presence on the right side of the formation caused a kind of fascination among the 49er defenders.  When Cole ran his short little curl route, he had three sets of eyes riveted on him.  Armstead was on his inside shoulder, and Johnson on the outside.  Needless to say, Cole Beasley’s curl route was taken away.

Now, all of this is what I’m pretty sure was (and wasn’t) supposed to happen.  What I’m very sure wasn’t supposed to happen was that Beasley’s curl should also capture the rapt attention of cornerback Richard Sherman, who stared intently at Beasley’s route while the receiver who lined up to his side (Gabriel Davis) soared unaccompanied up that sideline.

During his 4-touchdown performance, Allen had more than one easy touchdown pass.  This was his longest of the night, and his easiest.  With no defenders in the area, this was just pitch and catch.

From his gesture to the safety to his side (Tarvarius Moore) it’s clear that Sherman expected him to have the deep zone – so somehow Richard must have thought that the changing of the plays also involved a switch from the cover-four (each defensive back being responsible for one fourth of the field) that everyone else was playing, to a cover-three, where each of the other defensive backs would have deep coverage over each third of the field, keeping him (Sherman) in the underneath zone.  There is no reason given why San Francisco should need three defenders in the same zone, defending against the same short curl pattern.

Needless to say, this was the play that broke the 49ers back and solidified the Buffalo victory.  It was not – by a long shot – the only play that the 49er defense turned into a clown show.

Let me be clear about this.  Nothing I’m about to write in any way diminishes the performance of the Buffalo quarterback.  Josh Allen was terrific last Monday night against the vagabond 49ers (exiled to Arizona for a while, at least).  Allen threw the ball with great anticipation and fabulous accuracy.  Throughout he was confident and in complete command of the offense – to the point where he seemed two steps a head of the defense all night.  This dominance is thoroughly reflected in his numbers.  He finished the game a withering 32 of 40 (80%) for 375 yards and the 4 touchdowns (that would be a passer rating of 139.1 – one of four games this year in which his passer rating was higher than 125).

He was 8-for-8 on all throws over ten yards (for 189 yards), including 4-for-4 on all throws over twenty yards (for 114 yards).  Josh, by any evaluation method, was all that Buffalo could have hoped for.

That all being said, I don’t recall the last time I saw a San Francisco team so error prone in their coverages.

With 6:54 left in the first half and the game tied at 7, Buffalo was at the 49er 42, facing first-and-ten.  The Bills flanked three receivers out to its right, and San Fran answered with three defensive backs and man coverage.  Problem – one of those defensive backs (Johnson, again) was blitzing on the play.  No one accounted for the receiver (Beasley) that he was supposed to be covering.  Adjusting to the gaffe, Warner stepped over and tried to provide coverage, but I very much doubt that the design of the defense was to leave a linebacker in single man coverage on a wide receiver.

That would have been an easy completion, but Josh had an even easier one before him.  Three crossing patterns created a lot of congestion in the secondary, allowing tight end Dawson Knox ample separation from cornerback Jason Verrett.  Allen tossed him the ball for an 8-yard gain.

But Josh didn’t even take full advantage of San Francisco’s worst mess-up.

With 14:21 left in the second quarter, and Buffalo trailing 7-0, tight end Lee Smith ran a fly pattern straight up that right sideline.  No one covered him.  At all.  Sherman doesn’t blitz much, but he came on that play.  And he was the only defender on that side of the hash-mark.  Many of the few fans in the stand were closer to Lee than the nearest defender.  Josh didn’t see him (obviously). He completed a more difficult pass into a tighter window (22 yards to Davis).  He no doubt kicked himself when he saw the film.

These last two mistakes occurred when the 49ers were trying to mix in a blitz with their man coverage.  Far more constant and damaging were their blunders in zone defense.

Coming out of the half, ESPN confronted America with an eyebrow-raising graphic.  Throwing against the San Francisco zones, in the first half alone, Allen was 14 of 15 for 190 yards and one of his touchdowns.  The 49er zones didn’t get any better in the second half.  The week before, in their defensive domination of the Rams, they moved away from their zones after Los Angeles had early success against them, and became a predominantly man coverage team.  Last Monday night, they sprinkled in occasional man coverage.  But they never laid aside their zones, and continually paid the price for that.

The struggles that San Francisco has in zone coverage seems to be general – with all members of the secondary experiencing some issues with the concept.  But zone defense is a particular challenge for slot corner Dontae Johnson, who seemed to be at the epicenter of almost all of the breakdowns.

With 26 seconds left before halftime, the 49ers put a bit of a pass rush on Allen for one of the few times all night.  Almost everywhere up field, the 49er defense was sitting in their disciplined zones waiting for Josh – under more stress than usual on this evening – to try to force a throw in somewhere.  But Johnson – who had the underneath zone to the defensive right sideline just never widened into his zone.  There was no other receiver drawing his attention.  He got sufficient depth on his drop.  But for some reason, he never widened out.  Perhaps, not seeing a receiver threatening the area, he thought he was more valuable taking away the middle?

Anyway, Diggs came on a long, deep crossing pattern all the way behind Dontae all the way over from the other side of the field to take up residence in Johnson’s vacated zone.  A relieved Allen fired him the ball for 18 yards.

On the very next play, the rush flushed Allen from the pocket and had him running to his right.  This time, Dontae (playing on the other side, now) widened his zone all the way to the sideline, but couldn’t get any depth.  As Diggs’ sprint up the field pulled the top of the zone ever deeper, Johnson stayed shallow – providing Beasley oceans of room between the levels of the defense on his deep out.  That pass accounted for 20 more yards and set up the field goal that stretched Buffalo’s lead to 10 points at the half.

Now there is 6:08 left in the game, Buffalo leading 34-17.  The Bills were deep in their own territory – at their six-yard line, facing a third-and-six.

Trying to fool Allen to the very end, the 49ers lined six potential rushers along the line of scrimmage, and placed their defensive backs directly across from the receivers in a position that would suggest bump-and-run coverage.  This would be zone again, but dressed up to look like a big blitz.

At the snap, all the linebackers and defensive backs backed off and hunted up their zones.  Again, Johnson – responsible for the underneath zone to the offensive left – didn’t widen out.  Beasley ran past him up the field, but only one yard past him – apparently enough for Dontae to think he was someone else’s problem.  When he had barely passed Johnson, Cole floated wide open into the zone that Johnson never widened into – good for 11 yards and another first down.

Wide open was the theme of the night.  According to Next Gen stats, Buffalo receivers averaged 3.64 yards of separation from their nearest defender at the time of the pass.  And that only counts the receivers that Josh threw to.  That doesn’t take into account the receivers like Smith (cited earlier) who were also wide, wide open but didn’t get the ball thrown their way.

The NFL average is 2.86 yards of separation, that one yard being the NFL difference between “open” and “wide open.”

Then again, this is the COVID-19 season, so can you really blame the San Francisco pass defenders for practicing their social distancing?

Here We Go Again

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

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

So what happens now?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

More Good Saint Defense

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

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

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

Three Side Notes

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Could Miami Earn the Second Seed?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

At any rate, the Dolphins have gotten my attention.

Bills Surprised by KC Running Attack

My question, after digesting the film, is was this the plan from the beginning?  Or was it the mist?

Last Monday night, the game that should have been the Thursday night game between Kansas City and Buffalo was finally contested.  The game-time temperature was a nippy 51 degrees and the cardboard patrons were treated to a fine mist.  This would develop into a light but fairly steady rain as the game progressed.  But I think the teams had more trouble with the mist.

With the game’s first possession, Buffalo and their quarterback Josh Allen threw the ball three times – all incomplete as the slippery football seemed to sail on Josh.

On the succeeding possession, Kansas City’s All-Everything quarterback Patrick Mahomes also threw three times.  He completed one for a short 8-yard gain, while having the other two slide off target.  But they also ran the ball 5 times during that drive (counting a scramble from Mahomes).  The running plays gained 25 yards and 2 first downs.

They finished the first quarter with 56 rushing yards on only 6 attempts, but that didn’t convince them quite yet.

Then, on the first play of their first possession of the second quarter, Mahomes fumbled the snap.  He recovered the slippery ball, and completed two passes to turn a second-and-11 into a first down.  It was at this point – apparently – that coach Andy Reid must have observed to himself that the running game had worked pretty well.  Maybe, until the conditions soften a bit, it would be a good idea to string together a few running plays.

And so they did.  In a very un-Andy like sequence, the Chiefs ran on six consecutive downs.  They gained at least 5 yards on each run, and totaled 46 yards on the six plays. That brought them to Buffalo’s 10-yard line, where 2 passes later KC was in the end zone for the second time and possessors of a 13-10 lead (after the extra-point sailed wide right).

Thereafter, the Chiefs didn’t exactly take the ball out of Patrick’s hands.  He still threw his passes – and threw them very well.  But from that point on, the running game became focal point of the attack.  By halftime Kansas City had authored 15 runs – amassing 117 yards.  Entering the contest, KC was averaging 119.4 rushing yards per game.

But they were only getting started.  The second half would see the sometimes pass-happy Chiefs add 31 more running plays for an additional 128 bruising yards.  By the time Mahomes took the game’s final kneel-down, the Kansas City Chiefs had drubbed the Buffalo defense into abject submission.  They finished with 245 rushing yards on 46 soul sucking carries as they outfought the Bills 26-17 (gamebook) (summary).

The center piece of the onslaught, of course, was rookie running back Clyde Edwards-Helaire.  He accounted for 161 of the yards (on 26 carries) – averaging 6.2 yards a carry.  It was the second 100-yard game of his short career, and vaulted him to second in the NFL in rush yards so far for 2020.

Make no mistake about it, Edwards-Helaire is a gifted runner.  He spun out of a few tackles and put a nifty juke on Buffalo safety Jordan Poyer to turn what would have been about a 15-yard run into a game-high 31 yard burst.  Clyde ran very well.

But the stars that night were the members of the offensive line – a surprising occurrence, considering their condition.

When KC opened the season against Houston in mid-September, the offensive line starters were Eric Fisher (LT), Kelechi Osemele (LG), Austin Reiter (C), Andrew Wylie (RG) and Mitchell Schwartz (RT).  When Schwartz went down with a back injury on the last play of that first series, he became the third member of that starting five to require a replacement.  Mike Remmers – already in the lineup replacing Osemele at left guard – slid over to take Schwartz’ tackle spot, leaving left guard to an unknown second year player with just 8 career snaps with the offense.  This was, of course, 2019’s seventh-round draft pick, Nick Allegretti.  The third new face on the line belonged to center Daniel Kilgore.  He would be making his first start as a Chief, but had started 56 over the previous 8 years with San Francisco and Miami.  He had been a fifth-round pick of the 49ers back in 2011.

All things considered, it seemed an unlikely enough group to dominate a game, but they absolutely did.  For the 46 running plays, Kansas City backs averaged 3.0 yards before contact – the NFL average is 2.4. While they all played well, the standouts were the two newest guys, Allegretti and especially Kilgore.

It was these two – along with Wylie – who formed a kind of moving shield during Edwards-Helaire’s 31-yard run, as they swept Buffalo’s Quinton Jefferson and rising superstar Tremaine Edmunds before them.  Later, with 13:31 left in the game and the Chiefs facing a first-and-10 on their own 47, Kilgore and Allegretti fired out on a double-team block on Ed Oliver (who has seen enough of those two to last him a while now).  The run was designed to go up the middle, but Buffalo’s Edmunds had anticipated the hole and was moving to fill it even as Nick and Daniel were opening it up.

Seeing what was developing, Kilgore left Oliver to Allegretti and slid quickly over to knock Tremaine out of the way.  Allegretti finished up the block on Oliver – pancaking him to the turf.  The run was only 5 yards, but was an apt example of how these replacement linemen played as though they had been doing this together for a decade.

It was like this the whole game.  Kansas City’s mostly unheralded offensive line beat Buffalo to a pulp.  Certainly an encouraging note for the Chiefs, who should at least get Reiter back next week with Schwartz listed as questionable.

Issue for Buffalo

For the Bills, the aftermath might be a little more unsettling.  Last year’s club finished tenth in the league against the run – giving just 103.1 yards per game (although that season featured a similar meltdown when they allowed 218 rush yards in a 31-13 loss to Philadelphia).  This year’s team took the field against the Chiefs allowing a not-so-bad average of 108.6 rush yards per game – and that after allowing 139 to the Titans the week before.  Run defense has not been thought to be a special problem in Buffalo.

But my enduring memory from this game is how small the Bills front seven looked on the field against the Chiefs.  Oliver, Jefferson, Justin Zimmer and Vernon Butler (who is listed at 330) were easily handled – and frequently manhandled – by KC’s makeshift line.  The defensive ends – especially Jerry Hughes and A.J. Epenesa are pass rushers who put up little resistance to the running game. Darryl Johnson and Mario Addison aren’t notably better.

Of the two linebackers that played Monday night, Edmunds seems to have the physicality necessary, but is still fooled too often.  On several plays, influenced by KC’s misdirection, Tremaine found himself shooting into the wrong hole.  Meanwhile, the other linebacker, A.J. Klein seemed, frankly, to be targeted by the Chiefs.  After the first quarter or so it seems that they ran exclusively to his side of the formation, where all of the aforementioned offensive linemen took turns pushing him out of the way.

None of the secondary – especially Cameron Lewis (who plays the hybrid linebacker position) or Poyer (who – as the strong safety – often plays down in the box) showed any particular vigor in tackling.

This might turn into an Achilles Heel for this team.  It will be interesting to see if any of their future opponents challenge this aspect of their defense.

Of course, it could also be that they were just taken by surprise.  I mean, hey, if I had told you before the game that KC would run 46 times and throw just 26 times, you would have asked me to take a drug test, right?

In the end, you have to feel a little sorry for the Bills – and a little concerned for the rest of the defenses in the NFL.  Here they went and constructed a game plan that they hoped would limit the big passing plays only to watch the Chiefs run the ball right down their throats.

A Closer Look at Cincinnati’s Loss to Baltimore

At first glance, you wouldn’t give it a second thought.  Scanning down the final scores from Week Five of the 2020 season, you wouldn’t even necessarily pause at Baltimore 27 – Cincinnati 3 (gamebook) (summary).  The Ravens, of course, were 3-1 and coming off of a spectacular 14-2 season in 2019.  Cincinnati, meanwhile, was scuffling along at 1-2-1 after a trying 2-14 season in 2019 that awarded them the league’s first-round draft pick – a quarterback named Joe Burrow, who would be starting (yes, a rookie QB going against Don Martindale’s blitz happy defense).  Twenty-seven to three?  Nothing to see here.

But, behind the score were all kinds of interesting numbers – two of which turn out to be mirages, but tell an interesting story anyway.  In no particular order, the intriguing numbers are:

  • Baltimore quarterback Lamar Jackson threw 37 passes while the Ravens – a notorious run-first offense – ran only 24 times. And this in a game where they mostly cruised to victory.
  • The Ravens – nonetheless – ran for 101 yards in the first half alone.
  • They did this without any real ground contribution from Jackson, who finished the first half with 1 run for negative four yards. Lamar would finish the game with just 2 rushes for 3 yards.
  • And, finally, Cincinnati, despite the loss, controlled the clock for 20:08 of the second half.

Here are the story lines behind the numbers.

First, Jackson and the Raven passing attack.  There is little question that Baltimore came into the game intending to feature its passing attack.  Lamar threw on his first offensive play, and threw 3 times in the 5 plays of the first series.  In the second series, he threw on three straight downs at one point, and later in the drive threw on 4 of 5 plays – the only interruption in the sequence being his -4 yard run.

Baltimore ran 42 first-half plays, and called passes on 29 of them.  The Ravens came to pass.  The question is, why?

Thirty passes from the Ravens, who, in 2019, ran the ball on 596 occasions, while throwing it only 289 times, is usually a distress signal.  Jackson’s passing has been a fallback in case the running game isn’t working or if the Ravens should fall behind.  This was only the seventh time in Lamar’s career (including playoff games) in which he has thrown as many as thirty passes in a game.  The Ravens are now 4-3 in those contests.

Exactly what was on Coach John Harbaugh’s mind, I cannot – of course – know.   But I will weigh in with my opinion.  I believe that one of Baltimore’s 2020 objectives is to prove (to the world, if not to themselves) that Jackson can run a passing game at an elite level.  They are, I think, looking for a showcase opportunity – one that will make their opponents think twice about game plans that will dare Lamar to beat them with his arm.  And, in the lowly Bengals, Harbaugh thought he had that perfect opponent.

The results worked out less well than Harbaugh and Jackson might have hoped.  Yes, Lamar threw a lot, and Baltimore won, but the passing game wound up less than elite.  Jackson finished 19 of 37 (51.4%) for only 180 yards – 4.86 yards per pass attempt and 9.47 yards per completion.  He did throw 2 touchdown passes, but was also intercepted – leading to a disappointing 71.9 passer rating.  Worse, still, he was lucky that two other interceptions – thrown right into the hands of Cleveland defenders – were dropped.

Two important takeaways.

Cincinnati is now seeing Lamar for the fourth time, and is starting to make some adjustments.  Throughout most of his career, Jackson has made a living booting out of the pocket and threatening the perimeter.  As he would do so, the defense would drop their pass coverages and rush up to meet Jackson – leaving, in their wake, any number of short receiving options (usually a tight end) with no coverage in sight.

Last Sunday, Cincinnati, for the most part, kept Lamar in the pocket.  They were mostly successful in getting pressure off both ends keeping him from booting out – with the result that downfield coverage wasn’t dropped, and Jackson was forced to read, make good decisions and make accurate throws.  He struggled somewhat in all of those challenges.

Takeaway number two.  Cincy’s focus was on the underneath receivers, with the result that Lamar had a few up-the-field options.  Jackson, in fact, threw 6 passes at targets more than 15 yards from the line of scrimmage.  He missed on all 6 – badly, in most cases.

To date, efforts to establish Jackson as a potentially dominate passer have been less than successful.

Moving on to the 101 rushing yards that Baltimore achieved in the first half alone, that, I’m afraid was mostly a mirage.  The Ravens popped two very long runs – a 42-yard dash around the edge by Devin Duvernay, and a similar 34-yard burst from J.K. Dobbins.  The rest of the team managed 26 yards on 11 attempts – far below expectations.

This number ties into the next surprising number.  Jackson with 1 run for the half for -4 yards.

Even though the Ravens were emphasizing the pass, I don’t believe they put Lamar under orders not to run.  Even after his disappointing outing, Lamar is still the team’s leading rusher (238 yards and 5.8 yards a carry).  Jackson’s incomparable ability as a broken field runner is the element that transforms the Ravens’ offense into one of the NFL’s scariest.  There is no reason to believe that Baltimore would willingly shelve the most frightening part of their offense.

I believe that Cincinnati took it away from them.

The foundation of the Raven running attack is the read-option.  The quarterback takes the football and sticks it into the stomach of the running back.  As he does so, he reads the backside defensive end.  If the end crashes down on the runner, the quarterback pulls the ball back and spins into the void the defensive end left.  If the end stays wide, playing the quarterback, the QB releases the ball to the back for the quick hitter up the middle (that the end will now be unable to help contain).  When the defense cooperates, this can be run to devastating effect – especially when the play involves the skill sets of players like Jackson and Mark Ingram.

But, what if the defense doesn’t cooperate?  What if the defense realizes that the “option” in the read option belongs to them?  As the play unfolds, isn’t it actually the end that decides which option will be employed?  And if the end decides that having Ingram (or Gus Edwards, or some other running back) plow up the middle is preferable to seeing Jackson on the edge, then he has merely to stay wide to keep the ball out of Lamar’s hands.

Cincinnati did this over and over and over again – consistently inviting Jackson to leave the ball with the back.  Baltimore’s final rushing tally was a very healthy 161 yards, but 96 of those yards came on 3 long runs (Ingram did break one of those line bucks for 20 yards in the second half).  Baltimore’s other 65 yards were earned at the cost of 21 carries (3.1 yards per carry) – and only 3 of the yards came from Jackson.  Of all of the things that the Bengals achieved in this game, this is the one that I wonder if other teams will pick up on.

Serving up 27 points never looks like a terrific job by the defense.  In this case, though, I believe that Cincinnati’s defense should almost take a bow.  They largely muffled the passing attack that Baltimore tried to unleash on them, and they withstood the Raven running attack far better than the numbers indicate – even to the eliminating Lamar Jackson from the running attack.

The Ravens’ final total of 332 yards is modest, and their offensive achievements show just one touchdown drive of over 50 yards.  Baltimore’s other two touchdowns were a function of the defense.

Wink Martindale’s unit scored one touchdown outright (a 53-yard fumble return from Patrick Queen) and set the offense up on the Bengal 16 yard line after a Marcus Peters interception.  In and of themselves, the offense had very little reason to beat its chest.

Which brings us to the final interesting number – the 20:08 of possession time that Cincinnati maintained in the second half.  Yes, that is a mirage, too.  But not entirely.

Trailing 17-0 at the half, Cincy coach Zac Taylor decided on a ball control game plan.  This is counter-intuitive, but was the right decision to make.  He realized that having his rookie quarterback wind up and throw the ball 30 times in the second half would only lead to disaster.  But, if he could settle the game down, hold the ball, keep Jackson on the sideline, and maybe put together a long scoring drive or two, Cincinnati might just hang around long enough in this game to catch a lucky break at the end.

So, the Bengals came out running the ball and throwing short passes.  The running worked very little, but they kept at it.  They ran the ball 19 times in the second half, even though they were never closer than 17 points, and even though the 19 rushes only netted 48 yards (2.5 per).

The short passing worked out a bit better.  Burrow completed 10 of 11 second half passes (90.9%), but for just 96 yards.  But the 20:08 of second half possession wasn’t quite as dominating as it sounds.

With 11:23 left in the game, and trailing 20-0, Cincy began its penultimate drive on its own 23-yard line.  Four plays – and not quite three minutes later – the Bengals had a first-and-ten on its own 47.  Burrow, at this point, found receiver Mike Thomas on a short curl for 9 yards down the left sideline.  There, cornerback Marlon Humphrey punched the ball free.  It bounced right to Queen who scooped it up and ran down the sideline for the score.

Thereafter, the Bengals took the ensuing kick and ran off a 14-play, 55-yard, 7 minute 49 second drive that resulted in a field goal for the game’s final points, leaving just 37 seconds on the clock.  Cincinnati’s large time of possession advantage in this half was a product of having the two back-to-back drives (which totaled 10 minutes and 51 seconds) with no Baltimore offensive possession in between.

The Bengals were, however, outscored 7-3 during their almost 11 consecutive minutes of possession.  Additionally, as the game wound down, it was obvious that Baltimore was more than content to let Cincinnati run out the clock.

Even so, it was a plan that came close to succeeding.  They fell short because of the fourth quarter fumble and the fact that they never did find a way to halt the pressure – even when they were only throwing short passes.  Joe Burrow was sacked 4 times in the second half and 7 times in the game.  Every time they would seem to pick up a little offensive momentum, an untimely sack would disrupt the drive.

This half of the contest is still a clear mismatch.  But Cincinnati looks like a team that has more than a little clue of what it needs to do to become relevant in this division again.

Crazy Second Halves

In the second half of the Tuesday night contest between Buffalo and Tennessee, the Bills were a perfect 8-for-8 on third down.  They scored all of 6 points in the half and lost to the Titans 42-16 (gamebook) (summary).  Since that is enormously difficult to do, let’s look at their second half possessions and figure out how this happened.

Coming out of the half trailing 21-10, Buffalo opened the second half on defense, where they forced Tennessee’s only punt of the half.  The result could have been better, as the Titans downed the punt on Buffalo’s three.

Converting a third-and-two, a third-and-one, and a third-and-ten, the Bills found themselves in a second-and-four on the Titan 33.  But, on the fourteenth play of the 6 minute, 45-second drive, quarterback Josh Allen underthrew Gabriel Davis, and Malcom Butler intercepted.

Butler’s 68-yard return set Tennessee up for another short touchdown.  An earlier interception had given the Titans a first down on the Buffalo 16 yard line (this became a 16-yard touchdown pass to A.J. Brown.  Later on, a 40-yard punt return by Kalif Raymond set the Titans up on the Buffalo 30.  Tennessee punched that one home, too, on an eventual touchdown run by Derrick Henry.  Now they were on the 12 yard line.  It took just 3 plays for quarterback Ryan Tannehill to get them into the end zone on a 4-yard toss to Jonnu Smith.

Now down 28-10, Buffalo would begin the next drive on their own 10 (after a holding call on the kickoff).  Again, they would work their way onto Tennessee territory, converting a third-and-three, a third-and-one, and a third-and-seven, leading eventually to a second-and-ten on the Titan 22.  Here, Allen fired a touchdown pass to T.J. Yeldon in the end zone.  With the failed two-point conversion – and ten minutes even left in the game – Buffalo now trailed 28-16.

When they got the ball back – with just 3:49 left in the contest – they trailed 35-16, courtesy of an 11-play, 75-yard Tennessee drive.  At least that was when they were supposed to get the ball back.  But Andre Roberts fumbled the ensuing kickoff, and it was Tennessee with yet another short field.  This time they had the ball on Buffalo’s 18.  Six plays later, Tannehill tossed another short TD pass to Smith.  There was 1:59 left, and the Titans lead had swelled to 42-16.

For the game, Tennessee was 6-for-6 in the red zone.  To their credit – and in spite of the fact that they hadn’t played in more than two weeks – they converted every single short field that Buffalo gave them.

At this point, Buffalo let backup QB Matt Barkley finish the game.  He also converted two third downs – a third-and-six, and fittingly a third-and-eight on the last play of the game.  The final ticks of the game saw Buffalo – out of time outs – rushing to the Tennessee nine-yard line to attempt one final play.

Buffalo finished the game an impressive 13-17 on third down.  But they turned the ball over three times, and Tennessee made them pay each and every time.

Meanwhile, in Cleveland, the Browns and the Indianapolis Colts combined for 25 second-half points – in spite of the fact that neither team managed an offensive touchdown in that half.

The second half of that game belonged almost entirely to the pass defenses, fueled by furious pass rushes.  Colt quarterback Philip Rivers – whose relative immobility prevented him from escaping the pocket – continued his career-long pattern of rushing decisions under pressure.  While completing 13 of 22 second half passes, Rivers was not sacked.  But he threw for only 123 yards and was intercepted twice.  Baker Mayfield – the much more mobile passer for the Browns – had an even worse second half.  He was just 2 for 9 for 19 yards with 2 interceptions of his own.

The second half scoring consisted of a 47-yard interception return from Cleveland’s Ronnie Harrison, an ensuing 101-yard kickoff return by Indianapolis’ Isaiah Rodgers, a safety called when Rivers was called for intentional grounding in the end zone, and 3 field goals – two from Indy and one from Cleveland – all adding up to a 32-23 victory for the Browns (gamebook) (summary).

Who Yells at Tom?

With three minutes left in the third quarter of Tampa Bay’s Thursday Night game in Chicago, new Buccaneer quarterback Tom Brady was seen shouting at his center on the way off the field after a failed third-down play.  His coach, Bruce Arians, defended Brady to the media afterward.  The general message is that this is what leaders do.  And, certainly, if anyone has the credibility to call out another teammate, it is Brady – the most decorated quarterback of his generation.

I don’t know, though.  It has always seemed to me that yelling at (or correcting) another player is a coaching function.  You leave yourself open, you see.  What happens then, when you have a mental lapse during the game – and all players are human.  Even the great Tom Brady has lapses.

And sure enough, in the critical moment of his team’s 20-19 loss to the Bears (gamebook) (summary), Tom made the mental mistake that sealed the defeat.

He forgot that it was fourth down.  Afterwards Brady danced around the question, and Coach Arians stated emphatically that it didn’t happen.  But it did.

With 38 seconds left in the game, and Tampa Bay on their own 41 yard line trailing by one, the Bucs faced a fourth-and-six.  Eschewing a shorter route that would have picked up the first down and kept the drive going, Brady threw deep over the middle – incomplete.  Afterwards, as the teams were changing, Brady looked confused and held up four fingers in the attitude of asking what happened to fourth down.

Again, everybody blanks from time to time.  But the whole scenario got me wondering who yells at Brady?  If he had done that in New England, he would certainly have heard about it.  In New England nobody’s ego is sacrosanct.  Not even the (arguably) greatest quarterback of all time.

But in Tampa Bay, who yells at Brady?  All I feel from the Tampa Bay contingent – from the head coach all the way down – is a sense of deference to Brady.  It’s OK when he shouts at his teammates.  And, apparently, it’s OK when he forgets its fourth down.

This could be more imagined than real, but Brady just seems more mistake prone in Tampa Bay than I remember him being in New England.  He has already been intercepted 4 times – half as many as he was all last season in New England – and he has lost a fumble (so he is averaging a turnover a game).  Two of the interceptions have been returned for touchdowns.

None of this is anything to panic over.  Tampa Bay is still 3-2 and just getting to know each other.

But I still wonder.  Will anyone in Tampa Bay push Brady if he needs to be pushed?  Or is his persona considered too sacred.  Remember, they did woo Tom to Tampa Bay with the promise of a gentler corporate culture (along with a boatload of money). 

I wonder, though, if that won’t cost them in the long run.

Bills Defense No Match for Watson’s Magic

It had been almost exactly a year before.  The playoffs following the 2018 season began in Houston on January 5, 2019.  Coming off an 11-5 season that saw them win the AFC South, the Texans welcomed the Indianapolis Colts.

By halftime, the Texans trailed 21-0, on their way to a 21-7 loss.  The Colts had rolled up 85 rushing yards by halftime, on their way to 200 rushing yards.  Houston quarterback Deshaun Watson had managed just 90 passing yards.  He would finish his first playoff game completing 29 of 49 passes for just 235 yards (just 4.8 yards per attempted pass), with only one completion accounting for as many as 20 yards.

With deep threat Will Fuller on the sidelines, star receiver DeAndre Hopkins was getting extra attention from the Colt defense.  He finished that game with just 5 catches for 37 yards.

But that was last year.

Fast forward to January 4, 2020.  Again, the Texans had won their division (they were 10-6 this year), and again they would host the very first playoff game, spreading out the welcome mats for the Buffalo Bills – a team making only its second trip to the playoffs in a couple of decades.  Surely, things would be better this time around.

And they were.  Instead of a 21-0 deficit, Houston went into the locker room trailing just 13-0.  The Bills had rolled up an even 100 rushing yards, while sacking Watson 4 times and limiting him to just 49 passing yards, none longer than 11 yards – the Texans managed just 4 first downs and 81 yards of offense during that first half.

Yes, Fuller was out of the lineup again, and Hopkins – seeing coverage from Buffalo’s Tre’Davious White – was off to another tenuous start.  At the half, DeAndre was still looking for his first reception.

You will forgive the Houston faithful for feeling that they had seen this game before.

But things were about to get worse.

Not quite five minutes into the second half, Hopkins caught his first pass pf the game – and promptly fumbled it, giving Buffalo possession on Houston’s 38.

With 6:46 left in the third quarter, Buffalo sat on Houston’s 12-yard line with a third-and-eight.  They were one intermediate pass play away from sealing the home team’s fate.

A Legend Returns

Toward the end of October, Houston’s playoff future took a sizeable hit, when the Texans’ faithful learned that five-time first-team All Pro and three-time defensive player of the year J.J. Watt’s season would end early for the third time in the last four years.  The great J.J. had sustained another pectoral tear.

But reports of his demise would turn out to be somewhat exaggerated.  As the season wound down and the Texans were making their playoff push, Watt made it known that he believed he could be back on the field for the start of the playoffs – and true to his word, there he was.  In body, anyway.

To this point of the game, his production had been about what one might have expected from a player who had missed ten weeks.  Thirty-eight and a half minutes into the first Wildcard playoff game, Watt had 0 tackles, 0 sacks, 0 pressures – 0 anything.  Until this moment, with the season flickering in the wind.

That Moment

On this third-down play, Watt shot around Buffalo tackle Chris Clark before he could blink.  Josh Allen had just enough time to take the snap and look up before he was crushed for an 8-yard loss.  The home crowd – starving for something to cheer about – erupted.  Buffalo would still add the field goal that made the score 16-0.  Now, with the third quarter winding down, it would be up to Watson and the offense.

On cue, Deshaun lead the offense 55 yards in 7 plays, bringing them to a third-and-eight at the Buffalo 30.  The seasons of these two teams would pivot sharply on the next two plays.

On third-and-eight, the Bills blitzed from the edges, with Micah Hyde pouring in from the offensive right, and Matt Milano circling around from the left.  Both blitzers would get home.

Running back Duke Johnson tried to pick up Hyde, but Micah ran right through him, pushing Johnson back into Watson’s lap. Milano had it much easier, as no one blocked him.  Left tackle Laremy Tunsil had every opportunity, but was so focused on Jerry Hughes’ inside stunt that he didn’t even see Milano sprinting into the backfield behind him.  Both would end up hitting Watson, but they would be too late as Deshaun got the throw off less than a second before the contact came.

With extra rushers coming, White – in single coverage on Hopkins, in a close split to the right of the formation – took an inside position and backed off about seven yards.  He retreated even more as the play began – responding to DeAndre’s vertical stem – until Hopkins had pushed him past the first-down marker.  At this point, Hopkins cut to the sideline to receive Deshaun’s perfect pass.

With the first down secured, Deshaun faked a handoff to Carlos Hyde into the center of the line, causing an involuntary step to the right on the part of the entire defense.  Watson then pulled the ball in and sprinted around right end.

With Hopkins shielding off White down the sideline, and fullback Cullen Gillaspia throwing a sealing block on Buffalo’s Hyde to set the edge, an alley opened up for Watson as he sped toward the goal line.

He got as close as the six-yard line before Jordan Poyer plowed into him.  Defensive end Trent Murphy jumped on the backs of both at the five.  Micah Hyde finally showed up at the one – but it was, for Buffalo, an exercise in futility.  Watson was not to be denied, as he dove over the goal line, dragging Buffalo Bills with him.  It was the first of two “magical” Deshaun Watson plays that would decide the contest.

Yes, Watson.  The game was definitely afoot.

These were the first of 19 consecutive points that Houston would score, sending them briefly ahead, 19-16.  A late drive by Buffalo led to a tying field goal with five seconds left, and the game was headed to overtime.

A Little Overtime Magic

After each team held the ball for one fruitless possession, Houston began the final drive of the game from their own 17 with 9:02 left in (what would turn out to be) the only overtime session.  Less than five minutes later, Watson would turn in the play that this game will be remembered for.  Actually, though, the Bills lost this game four plays earlier.

Again, it would be a third-down opportunity gone awry.

There is 6:56 left in the period.  The Texans were still backed up on their own 19, facing a third-and-eighteen.  Any kind of stop here – and third-and-18 is about as comfortable a defensive position as one can hold – probably gives the ball back to Buffalo somewhere near midfield.

Playing almost a prevent defense, Buffalo backed six defenders to about the 40-yard line, leaving a 20-yard gap between the four pass rushers and the rest of the defense.  Circling out of the backfield, Duke Johnson found himself all alone as he gathered in Watson’s short pass – after which, of course, he began to streak immediately toward the first-down sticks, running headlong into the converging Buffalo defense.  The two forces met at about the 30-yard line, two yards short of the line to gain.

At that point, Duke picked a spot about equidistance between Tremaine Edmunds and Siran Neal, hitting that small gap with enough force to plow through those two gentlemen for the final two yards needed to sustain the drive.

Let’s be honest.  When the other guy converts a third-and-eighteen against you, you don’t deserve to win.

Four plays later, Houston is facing a second-and-six on Buffalo’s 44.  Into the game for Houston came a sixth offensive lineman (Roderick Johnson) to add to the pass protection.  Buffalo responded by rushing seven.  Coming off the corner un-blocked was Neal, who stormed unabated toward his target.  On the other side, Roderick Johnson’s attention was divided between Milano (again) and Murphy, allowing Milano to skirt rather easily around him.  He, too, was speeding towards Watson.

Neal arrived first, hitting Watson squarely in the back.  It was a twisting blow that forced Deshaun’s back foot off the ground and tilted him severely to the right.  Without any doubt, Watson would have gone down had that been the only blow sustained.  But before Deshaun could fall, Milano arrived and hit him from the same side – his right – that he was about to fall to.  Milano’s hit was exactly what Watson needed to stabilize him.  At the same time – like a human physics experiment – the energy from the two would-be-tacklers transferred through Watson’s body to each other, leaving Deshaun standing upright, while Neal and Milano ended up on the turf.

Now, Deshaun was rolling out of the pocket to the right when he looked up and happened to see running back Taiwan Jones standing all alone along the right sideline.

Taiwan Who?

Taiwan Jones had been the 125th pick in the 2011 draft, going to Oakland where he spent six unremarkable seasons.  He spent the next two seasons (2017-2018) in equal obscurity in Buffalo.

Now 31 years old, he drifted to Houston this year, where he was seen almost exclusively on special teams (the same role he had held in Oakland and Buffalo).  His only previous offensive action this season came in the meaningless Week 17 loss to Tennessee.  Jones had his only 9 carries and caught his only pass of the season in that game.

In the Wildcard game, he somehow managed to see the field for two offensive plays – one of them the biggest play of the season so far for the Texans.

His presence of the field put safety Micah Hyde in a quandary.  Jones lined up wide right, and Hyde lined up opposite him.  Jones was clearly his responsibility.  But, near to the line to that side was Hopkins – who had been getting the better of White for most of the second half.

With extra rushers coming, Hyde was obviously concerned about Hopkins.  Even as the play started and Micah began to retreat, he had his eyes on Hopkins.  DeAndre quickly got outside position on White, and began hurtling up-field.  Seeing this develop, Hyde abandoned Jones and provided tight inside-outside coverage on Hopkins.  Which was all well and good, but . . .

Seven or so yards up field, Jones stopped and settled into the right flat.  Noticing this, Hyde dropped his coverage of Hopkins.  The problem was at this point he was a good ten yards away from the man he was supposed to be covering.  For about three agonizing seconds Micah stood in no man’s land, no longer covering either receiver as Watson was rolling out of trouble in the pocket.  At about the same instant that Watson noticed Jones, Hyde came to get him at top speed.

The rest would be for the highlight reels.

Hyde was still nine yards away when Jones caught the ball and easily eluded Micah.  Before him was a whole lot of green – at least for the next 34 yards.  The next play would be the field goal that ended the contest, 22-19 Houston (gamebook) (summary).

More Watson

The magical plays will retain most of the attention from this game.  I am more impressed with the rest of Watson’s performance than with those two plays.

Deshaun belongs to that breed of improvisational quarterbacks who are most dangerous out of the pocket.  One of Buffalo’s defensive objectives would surely have been to keep Deshaun in the pocket – and they managed this with great success.  The two big plays described were about the only times Deshaun escaped contain.  The rest of the game, Buffalo was very disciplined in keeping Watson in the pocket.

And that is where he beat them from.

Throughout the game, Buffalo presented Deshaun with shifting defensive looks, mixing in healthy doses of blitz (the Bills blitzed on exactly one third of Watson’s dropbacks – 13 of 39).  The challenge was for Deshaun to process the defense and make the correct throw before the pressure got home.

And the pressure was significant.  When he wasn’t missing stunts, tackle Laremy Tunsil was pushed around by Jerry Hughes, who recorded 3 of Buffalo’s 7 sacks.  Deshaun was also forced to scramble 7 times.  The Houston offensive line was far from dominant – a concern as they prepare for Kansas City.

But when Watson did have a chance to read the Buffalo defense, he did so with exceptional success.  Here are a couple of examples.

With 2:48 left in the first quarter, Buffalo gave Watson a pre-snap blitz look, with two linebackers in the A-gaps.  At the snap, the potential blitzers backed into cover-2.  But before Lorenzo Alexander could find his zone, Deshaun deciphered the defensive intent and completed an 11-yard pass to Darren Fells.

Later, in the third quarter, the Bills tried the reverse, showing cover-2, but morphing into a blitz.  Again, Watson analyzed the situation quickly.  Lining up in the secondary to give the cover-2 look, Micah Hyde actually had man coverage on DeAndre Carter – split off to the left.  Realizing that Hyde couldn’t get over to Carter’s flat route in time, Watson was throwing the ball to DeAndre almost as soon as Hyde was moving toward him.

For the game, Watson completed 20 of 25 for 247 yards and a touchdown – a 121.2 passer rating.  He was 8 for 10 for 144 yards when Buffalo blitzed, and 12 for 15 for 103 yards and the touchdown when they didn’t.

It bears pointing out that throughout the season, Buffalo maintained one of the NFL’s elite pass defenses.  Opposing passers managed just a 78.8 rating against them – third best in football – and the 9.8 yards they allowed per completion was the second best figure in the league.  Last Saturday afternoon, Mr. Watson answered a significant challenge.

This is how good Deshaun can be.  The question, now, is can he – and the rest of his Houston teammates – be this good on consecutive weeks.  Sustaining their high level of play has been a season-long struggle for this team – and things won’t get any easier as they now travel to Kansas City.

Kansas City is something of an enigma, itself.  They are a high-powered offense that can run the ball when they remember to.  Defensively, they started off poorly.  Through their first ten games, opposing passers rated at 92.9.  They showed a decisive vulnerability against the run – yielding 148.1 yards a game, 5.1 yards per rush, and 12 rushing touchdowns.  Seven of their first ten opponents scored at least 20 points against them, with four of them scoring at least 30.

During the six-game winning streak that they closed the season with, the Chiefs gave twenty points only once – allowing a total of just 69 points in those games.  The last six quarterbacks they’ve faced have thrown 5 touchdowns against 10 interceptions as part of a 63.5 rating.  Meanwhile running success has dropped to 95 yards per game and just 2 rushing touchdowns given over those games.

Of course, these teams in general (Chargers, Raiders, Patriots, Broncos and Bears) have been given to offensive struggles, so it’s difficult to say how improved the defense really is.

Can Houston beat the Chiefs?  Well, they actually did back in Week Six – and in Kansas City no less.  The Texans ran for 192 yards in that game.  The question is, can they approach that again?

I still have a hard time trusting Houston, so I will be surprised to see them win this game.  But they certainly have the talent to get it done.

Historical Note:

The most famous NFL matchup between Houston and Buffalo came on January 3, 1993 – 17 years ago.  That was the greatest comeback in football history as Buffalo erased a 35-3 third quarter lead on its way to a 41-38 conquest of the Houston franchise (then, of course, they were the Oilers – the franchise that has become the Tennessee Titans).  As all-time comebacks go, the Texans’ 16-point comeback on Saturday pales in comparison to the one authored Frank Reich all those years ago.  But for now, the Texans will count it as partial payback.

No One Beats the South But the South

Five of the eight teams that took the field for Wildcard Weekend represented the southern divisions of their respective conferences.  The AFC South sent Jacksonville and Tennessee and the NFC South was represented by New Orleans, Carolina and Atlanta.  Of the five, only Carolina will not be advancing to the Divisional round as they were the only Southern team to play another Southern team.  Their 31-26 loss in New Orleans marking the third time they had lost to the Saints this season.

But – from an array of compelling numbers coming out of these games, the most compelling just might be 88.  That was the number of rushing yards that Jacksonville quarterback Blake Bortles amassed.  Those 88 yards were the most by any player in the game.  In fact, the quarterbacks combined for 119 rushing yards on 18 attempts (6.6 yards per).  All of the running backs in the game combined for 166 yards on 48 carries (3.4 yards per carry).

But what makes that number 88 so compelling is that it is one yard more than his total passing yards for the game.  Blake finished the passing portion of his evening with 87 passing yards on 12 completions in 23 attempts.  He averaged just 3.78 yards per attempted pass, and just 7.25 per completion.

And won the game 10-3 (gamebook).

The Jaguars have been a team I have been reluctant to buy into all year – primarily because I wondered if they could muster a sufficient passing attack to win a game against a quality opponent on a day when their running game stalled and their defense gave up some points.  Sunday against Buffalo, Jacksonville held the ball for only 9:49 of the first half.  Their three leading receivers on the season (Keelan Cole, Marqise Lee and Allen Hurns) had no pass receptions among them, and each had only one pass tossed in his direction.  In the game’s second half, Blake threw only 8 passes while running 7 times.

Of all the winners from the Wildcard Round, Jacksonville is clearly the least impressive.

They won because the defense smothered Tyrod Taylor’s passing attack.  Taylor finished with a 44.2 rating.  Of the 37 passes he threw, only 17 were completed – and that for just 134 yards with no touchdowns and one interception.  His yards per pass attempted (3.62) and per completion (7.88) were very similar to Bortles.

Maybe we’ll just say it was excellent defense.  Sure, we’ll stick with that.

The Jaguars live to fight another round, but the looming challenge in Pittsburgh is much tougher than the one they’ve left behind.

More Defense in the Coliseum

The 2016 edition of the Atlanta Falcons was an offensive juggernaut.  In seemingly effortless fashion, they blazed their way to 504 regular season points (an impressive 31.5 points a game) and then added 108 more in three playoff games.  Along with their point total, they led the entire NFL in highest average per pass (8.2 yards).  They were second in total yards and touchdown passes.  They were third in both passing yards and rushing yards.

Quarterback Matt Ryan finished with a frightening 117.1 passer rating; top receiver Julio Jones missed two games, but still finished with 1409 receiving yards; and running back Devonta Freeman piled up 1079 rushing yards and 11 rushing touchdowns while averaging 4.8 yards a carry.

Very deep, very balanced, and very scary were the 2016 Falcons.  On offense.

The defense, however, lagged.  Their rankings were a much more modest twenty-seventh in points allowed and twenty-fifth in yards allowed.  They ranked seventeenth against the run and twenty-eighth against the pass.  Opposing passers threw almost as many touchdown passes against them (31) as Ryan tossed for them (38), contributing to an opponent’s passer rating of 92.5 – much higher than you would expect to see against a contending team.

At various points this season, we’ve discussed some of the Falcons’ offensive struggles.  Although with much the same personnel, nothing has come quite so easily for them this year.  They checked in with 151 fewer points this year (353) and Ryan’s passer rating sank to 91.4 – still excellent, but much more mortal than 2016.  In their first playoff game this year they scored 26 points on 322 yards – both fairly pedestrian totals – in their 26-13 victory (gamebook).

But, while the offense has been up-and-down, over the last two weeks a surprising development has taken place.  As the end of the regular season has bridged into the playoffs, the Falcon defense – especially their pass defense – has become Atlanta’s most noteworthy unit.

Two weeks ago, they smothered Cam Newton and the Carolina passing game.  They allowed just 14 of his 34 passes to be completed, while harvesting three interceptions.  Newton’s passer rating was a humbling 31.5.  Then last week against a high-flying Rams team (on the Rams’ home field no less) they shackled Jared Goff with a 77.9 rating as Goff completed only 24 of 45 passes for 259 yards.

Over the last two weeks, two very dangerous passing attacks have combined for 38 completions in 79 attempts (48.1%) for 439 yards (5.56 yards per attempt).  Newton and Goff combined to throw 2 touchdown passes against 3 interceptions for a combined passer rating of 57.9.

Against the Rams, they were everywhere – blanketing LA’s receivers like few teams have been able to all year.  If this is who the Falcons are now, they presents a strong challenge to their remaining opponents.  The offense has been sporadic, but that explosive team from 2016 is still in there somewhere.  If they can play elite pass defense, it significantly raises their stock.

Of all the teams playing on Wild Card Weekend, the Falcons looked most like the team that could force its way into the Championship Round or beyond.

I still think, though, that this is a team that could be handled by the team that is willing to keep running the ball against them.  A defense that values speed and quickness might struggle to hold up for four quarters against a team that keeps running at them.  The Rams finished with 115 rushing yards in a game where they only ran the ball 16 times.

With a backup quarterback running the offense, Philadelphia may not have a balanced enough offense to hurt Atlanta with their running game.  Should the Falcons make it past the Eagles, it will be interesting to see what challenge awaits them in the Championship Game.