Tag Archives: Buffalo Bills

Scary When They Run the Ball

It was a bit of a deer-in-the-headlights moment.

In the spotlight was Frank Reich – head coach of the enigmatic Indianapolis Colts.  It was the post-game press conference, and Frank was explaining that – respecting the top ranked run defense of his opponent that day (the world-champion Tampa Bay Buccaneers) – his Colts decided to pursue promising matchups in the passing game.

It was exactly one week earlier that the Colts seemed to legitimize their season.  In splitting the first ten games, the Colts had managed to cling to the .500 mark with only one of their wins coming against an opponent (San Francisco) that currently sports a winning record (and they were not a .500 team when the Colts faced them).  Oh, they had played some of the better teams close.  They had lost one-score games to the Rams, Ravens and Titans.  But that signature win was always one mistake away.

And then they went to Buffalo in Week 11 to play the then-East division-leading Bills.  They shredded them.  On a cold and blustery afternoon in Orchard Park, the dome-residing Colts took it to Buffalo in a complete team victory, 41-15.  The highlight of the rout was the Indy running game, featuring an offensive line that is arguably football’s best and the NFL’s leading rusher – a dynamic young back named Jonathan Taylor.  Taylor logged 185 of Indianapolis’ 264 rushing yards – an impressive total against a Buffalo defensive unit that ranked (at the time) third in the league against the run.  Taylor scored 5 touchdowns that day.

It was the second time in three games that Indy had surpassed 200 yards on the ground, and they had ascended to fourth in the league in rushing, averaging 147.9 yards a game.  This is a Colt team that can truly be scary when they run the ball.

But against the Bucs, they folded up the running attack early.  Taylor jogged into the locker room at the half with just 8 carries and only 25 yards.  The team – on the strength of 2 Carson Wentz scrambles – managed just 47 ground yards in the first half.

Here’s the thing, though.  The Colts carried a 24-14 lead into the half.  You know those matchups in the passing game that Coach Reich mentioned?  They worked like a charm.

Most of them involved tight end Jack Doyle, who bedeviled the Bucs throughout a first half that saw him catch 4 passes for 59 yards and a touchdown.  And once it involved a little-known, third-year wide receiver named Ashton Dulin, who took advantage of Tampa Bay’s concentration on Michael Pittman and T.Y. Hilton to slip open over the deep middle and haul in a perfectly thrown, 62-yard touchdown strike.

For thirty heady minutes, the Colts had put their game against the world champs into the hands of Wentz, and things couldn’t have gone much better.  Carson finished the half 16 of 24 for 197 yards and 3 touchdowns – adding up to a 131.4 rating.

The second half began in the same vein.  Taking the opening kickoff, Carson completed 5 of 7 passes for 55 yards as he drove the Colts to the Tampa Bay 20 yard line.  It was here that the game would turn.

Shaquil Barrett – one of the Super Bowl heroes – sprinted around the edge to sack Wentz.  The ball shook free, and Barrett recovered.  From there, it took Tom Brady and the Tampa Bay offense 6 plays and 2:52 to negotiate the 65 yards for the touchdown.

Carson finished the game completing just 6 of his last 13 passes (46.2%) for just 54 yards (4.15 per pass), with no touchdowns.  His two second half interceptions (he had thrown just 3 all season to that point) were responsible for half of the four second-half turnovers that saddled the Colts with a very costly 38-31 loss (gamebook) (summary).

But here’s the kicker.

The first 18 plays that Indy ran in the second half were all called passes – during which time the Colts fell from a 10-point lead to a 31-24 deficit.

It wasn’t until there was 10:06 left in the game that Jonathan Taylor got his first carry of the second half – a 5-yard burst up the middle.  That would be the first play of a 10-play, 75-yard touchdown drive that would temporarily tie the score at 31-all.  Taylor would carry the ball on 8 of the 10 plays – his only carries of the second half – and he would slice easily through the Tampa defense, scrolling up 58 yards on those carries (7.3 per).

They wouldn’t have the opportunity to run again.  Brady would drain most of the rest of the clock driving the Bucs to the go-ahead touchdown.  A 72-yard kick return by Isaiah Rodgers gave the Colts the ball on the Buc 32, making things interesting.  But Carson missed on his final two passes, having the last one picked off as time ran out.

Question Abound

The loss leaves Reich awash in questions that have no easy answers.  Could the Colts have run the ball against the Bucs if they had stayed with their running game longer?  Or was Tampa lulled into pass rush mode after 18 consecutive passes?  Can Carson Wentz be the big game passer that he appeared to be in the game’s first half?  Or is he really the Wentz who contributed 3 of the team’s 4 second half turnovers?

And – most perplexingly – if he’s both (which is not an unlikely answer), then how do you know when to take the ball out of his hands and return to the running game.

If they had taken the excellent first half that Carson had given them with his arm, and then came out running the ball in the second half, who knows what might have happened.  But the only way that Frank could have known to do that was to know going in that Carson was going to struggle in the second half.  In a critical, late season game against a top opponent, Carson Wentz was the answer.  Until suddenly he wasn’t.

It’s a tender situation that Coach Reich will have to feel his way through for the rest of the season – a season which now may not include a playoff opportunity.

Indy Needed This Game

More than just a win that got away, this loss could go a long way to pushing the Colts out of the playoffs.  They are now 6-6 and one of a half-dozen AFC teams that are all sitting either at .500 or within a game of the .500 mark.  They play Houston this week, and then have their bye.

It will be the first two games after their bye (in Weeks 15 and 16) that will now – in all likelihood – tell their fate.  They play at home against the torrid New England Patriots, and then travel to Arizona to play a Cardinal team that will probably have all its pieces back by then and will be in the fight for their conference’s top spot.  Neither of these is a very good matchup for the Colts, but they are now in a position where they will need to win one of those games.  If they lose both, the best they will finish is 9-8, which almost certainly won’t be good enough. 

If the Colts don’t make it, that could be very good news for a team like Kansas City.  The Chiefs are currently sitting at the top of their division, but their closing schedule is fairly brutal.  Three of their final four are road games at the Chargers, the Bengals and the Broncos.  Kansas City has played much better lately, but I still think it will be a down-to-the-wire struggle for them to get into the dance.  If the Colts do fall short, that could make all the difference for the Chiefs.

Trying to Figure Out the Champs

On the other end of this intriguing matchup from last Sunday are the world champion Buccaneers.  While, on the one hand, Indianapolis’ offensive game plan was a smashing success (in the first half, anyway), the Colts were also able defensively to mostly derail football’s top scoring offense.

They denied Brady the deep-strike weapons that have characterized this team.  Brady threw only one pass at a target more than 20 yards from the line of scrimmage, and averaged just 5.85 intended air yards on his throws.  This means that his average target was less than six yards from the line of scrimmage.  His two primary targets – Chris Godwin and Mike Evans – were limited to a combined 10 targets.  Together, they managed 7 catches for just 40 yards.

Tom Brady – who entered the game as football’s fourth rated passer (104.3) – ended his afternoon with just 226 passing yards and a rating of 88.6.  He averaged just 9.04 yards per pass completion.  It could have been a dicey situation for the champs, but Tampa Bay found a way forward.  They decided to do what Indianapolis was unwilling to do – take over the game with their running attack.

The Tampa Bay Buccaneers have a curious relationship with their running game.  Perhaps you remember that in the big game last February the Bucs ran through the Chiefs to the tune of 145 yards, with Leonard Fournette (aka Playoff Lenny) accounting for 89 of them.  The dynamic of that game, of course, was very different.  Tampa Bay jumped out to the early lead and turned to the running game to control rest of the contest.  Eighty-five of those yards came in the second half.

That was the surprising thing about Sunday’s game.  Almost always, the Bucs respond to a deficit with their passing attack.  In a Week Eight loss to New Orleans they ran the ball only 14 times even though they averaged 5.1 yards per rush.  The next week – in a loss to Washington – they ran the ball just 13 times – although they gained 4.1 yards per attempt.  These two losses came on the heels of a 182-yard rushing explosion in a win against the Bears.

Tampa Bay can clearly run the ball better than most teams.  They just don’t like to do it.  They brought in TB12 and lined up all of those receivers to fill the air with up-the-field passes.  Coming into the Colt game, Brady had thrown the second most passes of any quarterback in football (423) and the Bucs’ 219 rushing attempts ranked as football’s second fewest.

But the ground game bailed them out in the second half last Sunday.  Fourteen running plays (gaining 87 yards) balanced 15 called passing plays (gaining 94 yards) to guide the come-from-behind victory.  Again, it was Playoff Lenny who scampered around left end for the 28-yard touchdown run that provided the winning margin.  Fournette paced the 142-yard team effort with 100 rushing yards of his own (on just 17 carries).  He scored three of the four rushing touchdowns that the Bucs achieved against a Colt defense that had allowed only 4 rushing touchdowns all season.  Leonard also caught Brady’s only touchdown pass, capping off his four touchdown day.

Don’t get me wrong.  Tampa Bay’s passing attack is plenty potent.  But it can be dealt with – especially when they willingly make themselves one-dimensional.

This offense also gets much scarier when they decide to run the ball.

Clear Sailing Ahead?

There is, of course, a lot of football to play.  But over the last few weeks the stars have been aligning somewhat for the Bucs, and a path to the top spot in the conference is beginning to emerge.  Much of this is the result of the recent struggles of the Cowboys, who seemed in great shape to take the top spot until they dropped their last two games.  They are now sitting in fourth place.

The other piece of great news for the Bucs is the deterioration of both the Saints and Panthers – division opponents against whom Tampa Bay will play half of its remaining schedule.  With no more division foes that seem capable of bringing them down, the Bucs now have 6 winnable games in front of them.  The most challenging of those, of course, will be their Week 14 match-up against Buffalo.  That game will be at home, giving them an edge.

If they do get past the Bills and finish the season 14-3, that will put significant pressure on the two teams ahead of them to also win out.  The Packers – currently 9-3 and the second seed – still have to go in to Baltimore to play the Ravens in Week 15.  A tough draw.  The conference’s current top seed – Arizona (9-2) – also has a challenging road contest ahead when they travel to Dallas to play the Cowboys in Week 17.

If the Bucs and the Cards both reach 14-3 on the season, the Bucs would get the nod based on their record against common opponents.  Having already beaten Dallas, Chicago, and, now, Indianapolis, the Bucs would need only to win both of their remaining games against Carolina to finish 5-1 against their common opponents (the Bucs lost a Week Three game to the Rams).  The Cards would finish 4-2 against those same opponents.  They have already beaten the Rams and lost to the Panthers.  This scenario would predict them finishing out with wins in Chicago and then at home against the Rams and the Colts, with that Week 15 game against the Cowboys being the potential second loss.

The opportunity is there, but in a wildly unpredictable season, the Bucs have no margin for slip ups.

The Bills Also Turn to the Running Game

Buffalo is another team that has a conflicted relationship with its running game.  In Devin Singletary they have a premium running back who is averaging 4.7 yards per carry over the course of his three-year career.  But for that career, he is only getting 10.4 carries per game – and just 8.9 carries a game this year – a career low.

In Buffalo’s 3-1 start, Devin carried the ball 49 times (12.3 per contest) and averaged 5.3 yards per carry.  But beginning with the Week Five and Six games against Kansas City and Tennessee, Singletary was abruptly shoved to the sidelines.  Over the next six games (a span in which Buffalo went 3-3) Devin never carried more than 7 times in any game, and finished with just 34 total attempts (5.7 per).  And, yes, he was still averaging 4.6 yards per carry in those games.

Last Thursday, this Buffalo squad faced off against a New Orleans team in possession of the NFL’s third-best run defense (allowing just 89.8 yards per game).  This wouldn’t seem to be the game that the Bills would re-discover their balance.

And yet, as Buffalo took its 10-0 lead into the half, they had done so with admirable balance.  Quarterback Josh Allen had thrown 16 passes and the Bills had run the ball 16 times.

Some caveats:

First, the 16 runs included 2 scrambles by Allen on plays that were called passes. Josh was also sacked a couple of times – so the actual first half play calling was 20 passes and 14 runs.  Still better balance than we’ve usually seen from the Bills.

Second, the balance in approach didn’t yield a great harvest in yards.  The 16 runs produced 55 yards (3.4 per), with no run exceeding 9 yards.  Singletary gained 7 first-half yards on 4 attempts.  This is very much in line with the difficulties most teams have in running the football against New Orleans.

Given the early struggles, I expected the Bills to mostly discard the running game in the second half.  To my surprise, Buffalo answered their 16-rush first half with 16 more running plays in the second half – with 11 of those carries going to the almost forgotten Singletary.

In the macro, the second half results were very similar to the first half.  The 16 running plays advanced the ball just 58 yards (Devin’s 11 rushes amounting to just 37 yards).  But the balance played enormous benefits in the passing game.

Throwing the ball just 12 times in the second half, Allen completed 10 of those passes (83.3%) for 137 yards (11.42 yards per attempt) and 3 touchdowns as Buffalo opened up the game on its way to a 31-6 victory (gamebook) (summary).

All of the running opened up the play-action game for Allen and the Bills.  Of Josh’s 28 passes, 12 made use of a run-fake – fully 42.9% of the passing attack.  And the results were cheering.  Allen completed 10 of the 12 play-action passes for 124 yards and 3 touchdowns to offset an interception.  His passer rating on these throws was an excellent 122.9.

While the direct effects of Buffalo’s running attack were fairly modest (113 yards on 32 rushes), the indirect benefits showed in a more diversified and dangerous passing attack.

This is another offense that becomes much more challenging to defend when they remember to run the ball.

Are the Rams Soft?

The running games had much tougher sledding in Lambeau in Sunday’s late contest between the Packers and the Los Angeles Rams.  Although they won the games 36-28 (gamebook) (summary), Green Bay only earned 2.9 yards per rushing play (92 yards on 32 attempts).  Along the way, though, second-year running back AJ Dillon opened some eyes.  He finished with just 69 yards on 20 carries (3.5 per), but should have had far fewer.

His 20 carries produced 22 yards before contact by the defense.  But AJ broke a career-high 5 tackles in the run game (he would break another after a pass), and gained 47 yards after contact (2.4 per carry).

It was the kind of occurrence that has some wondering if the Rams – losers, now, of three in a row – are soft.  And not just physically soft.  Is this Ram team emotionally soft as well?

Coming out of the half trailing just 20-17, the Rams turned the ball over twice in the second half, never made it into the red zone, and watched quarterback Matthew Stafford complete just 12 of 24 after intermission.  Over the last three weeks, there have been chances for this team to fight their way back into the games, but the fight hasn’t seemed to rise to the opportunities.

I feel that you dismiss the Rams at your own peril.  I grant you that they look vulnerable at the moment.  But they’ve also had some significant roster churn recently.  I don’t think the Ram team that you’re seeing right now will be the Ram team that you’ll see in a few weeks.  This is a team that’s better than they look.

That being said, their offensive philosophy does lean toward the soft.  Previous editions of the Sean McVay Rams have featured the running game as the foundation, with the passing game building off the running game.  It was a system in which every play looked like it was a zone run, which then added a lot of play-action and boots by the quarterback to get him safely outside the pocket.

All of that smoothness – as well as the toughness that comes from a run-first mentality – is pretty much a thing of the past.  In the second half against the Pack, McVay called 25 passes against just 7 runs – contributing materially to Green Bay’s 20:50 – 9:10 time of possession advantage.  For the game, Green Bay nearly doubled the Rams in possession time 39:40 to 20:20.  After that much time on the field, even the toughest defense will look soft.

Of Stafford’s 38 passes, only 4 came off of play action.  For the season, Stafford is throwing off of play action just 18.3% of the time (the league average is right at 23%).  They ran the ball 20 times in last Sunday’s game – including a Stafford kneel-down that ended the first half.  Not enough.

A re-commitment to the running game would dramatically change the way that defenses approach this Ram team.  Historically, they have been a much tougher offense when they were a run-first operation.

Coming Back Down to Earth

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

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

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

Missed Chances

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Chargers Also Tumble

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

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

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

A Week-to-Week League

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

And things are just starting to heat up.

The Kansas City Blueprint

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

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

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

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

But not on Sunday night.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

KC’s Biggest Problem

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

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

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

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

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

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

Time to Panic?

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

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

The Bills Are Not Believers

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

A Changing of the Guard?

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

Amen, coach.  Amen.

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

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

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

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

How Do You Solve a Problem Like Mahomes

EDITOR’S NOTE: This post was originally written on the Saturday afternoon before the Super Bowl. Technical issues prevented its publication before the game was played.

We have 6:22 left in the second quarter, and the contest between the Buffalo Bills and the Kansas City Chiefs was at a bit of a cross-roads.  At stake, of course, was a trip to tomorrow’s big game in Tampa.

Buffalo had jumped out to an early 9-0 lead (par for the course for Kansas City) but by this point, the Chiefs had already retaken the lead, 14-9.  Now, Kansas City had the ball again, but faced a third-and-six on their own 38.  After Buffalo had forced KC to go three-and-out on its opening possession, the Chiefs had answered with consecutive touchdown drives of 80 and 82 yards.  At this moment, the Bills needed a stop pretty badly.  A third straight KC touchdown, and the season will start to slip away from Buffalo.

To this point, Buffalo had only blitzed the Chiefs and quarterback Patrick Mahomes 4 times through his first 20 pass attempts.  Sensing the magnitude of this opportunity, they now lined six potential rushers along the line of scrimmage.  While the threatened blitz would prove to be a fake, it would offer something of a twist.  The two linemen lined up in the “A” gaps (A.J. Epensa and Darryl Johnson) dropped back into pass coverage, while the linebackers lined up on the outside (Matt Milano and Tremaine Edmunds) joined the rush.

As Milano charged into the backfield, running back Darrel Williams – who might have been tasked with blocking him – slipped quietly past him and into his pattern – allowing Milano unimpeded access to the quarterback.  As Patrick lifted his arm to throw the ball, he – and everyone else watching the game – knew that it was already too late.  Milano was on top of him and had him for the sack that just might have turned the game around.

And then the magic happened.

In the heartbeat before Milano arrived, Mahmoes pulled the ball back down and with the subtlest of shoulder rolls moved himself enough out of harms’ way that he reduced Matt’s initial hit to a glancing blow off his upper right arm. As Patrick tried to slide past, Milano lunged and pulled the Chief quarterback’s legs out from under him.  Mahomes went down, but by then it was too late to do the Bills any good.  Patrick had already released the ball.

The defensive plan had worked, in the sense that bringing both linebackers off the edge allowed one (Milano) to gain a free run at Mahomes.  Its drawback was that it put defensive linemen in key pass defense positions.  Here, even as running back Williams floated out into the flat to look for Mahomes pass, he drew the attention of one of those defensive linemen – Johnson – who started to stray from his middle area to play the running back.  A more experienced pass defender would probably have seen that the back was already covered by safety Jordan Poyer – whose zone responsibility it was.  That experienced pass defender would certainly have judged that tight end Travis Kelce – who had just run past Johnson and was settling in the soft spot in the zone just behind him – would present a more immediate danger and would have drifted back toward his middle responsibility and tried to deny that target.

But Johnson was uncertain, and, in fact, covered neither as he hovered somewhere between the two.  Somehow aware of all of this – even as he was dealing with the present peril of Milano – Patrick Mahomes, in that half second before Matt took him to the ground, released a perfect pass to the most open receiver on the field.  The play gained 11 yards and the first down that kept the drive alive.

But if that play was a kidney punch to the Bills’ Super Bowl dreams, the next play would be a knife to the heart.

Now it would be Epensa – back to rushing the passer – that would beat KC tackle Eric Fisher off the snap.  He would come cleanly and be on top of Mahomes before he could set up in the pocket.  Again, Buffalo had the big defensive play in its grasp.  And again it didn’t happen.  Somehow Mahomes spun out of another sure sack and made another un-erring throw just seconds before Epensa returned and drove him to the turf.

One of the more difficult targets for a zone defense to account for is the receiver who comes from the other side of the formation and settles in behind them.  On this play, that was Mahomes’ other primary target – Tyreek Hill.  Milano, who had all but had the sack on the previous play, had zone responsibility there.  But with both Kelce and running back Clyde Edwards-Helaire hanging out near the line of scrimmage, Matt hadn’t gotten any depth on his drop at all.  Byron Pringle, the wide receiver on that side (the right side), ran a go pattern up that sideline, taking cornerback Tre’Davious White and safety Poyer with him.  So the void that Hill settled into – about ten yards behind Milano and about 25 yards in front of White – was about as open a patch of ground that any receiver would see that day.

By the time the defense converged on Hill, the play had covered 33 yards.  Kansas City was now on Buffalo’s 18-yard line, and two plays later they were in the end zone, pushing the score to 21-9 on their way to the 38-24 victory (gamebook) (summary) that would send the Chiefs to their second consecutive Super Bowl.

Kansas City has now won 25 of Patrick Mahomes last 26 starts.  He and his Chiefs, over just the last two years, have become football’s new gold standard.  Everyone else who now has designs on hoisting the Lombardi Trophy at the end of the year understands that at some point they will have to go through the Chiefs – and they will probably have to do it in Kansas City.

In 2020, the Buffalo Bills had a watershed year.  Their 13 regular season wins were their most since 1991.  They had back-to-back winning seasons for the first time since 1998-99, making consecutive trips to the playoffs for the first time since those years as well.  They won their division for the first time since 1995.  This was the first time since 95 that they had survived past the Wild Card Round.  They played in their first AFC Championship Game since 1993 – the last of their four consecutive Super Bowl losses.  Their 501 points scored was a franchise record.  They ranked second in the NFL in both points and yards – their highest ranking in those categories since the height of the Jim Kelly era.  They finished second in yards back in 1992 and second in points the year before.

By any measuring stick, this had been a glorious season for the Buffalo Bills.  But, two Sunday’s ago it was their turn to participate in the NFL’s least favorite game show: How Do You Solve a Problem Like Mahomes?

Of course, the real problem is that it’s not just Mahomes.  As sensational as the 25-year-old phenom is, there are no successful one-man teams in the NFL.  In KC, Patrick finds himself surrounded by elite receivers who all operate under the watchful eye of coach Andy Reid – long regarded as one of the most creative designers of offense in the business.  It is a perfect blend of talent and system.  And it’s giving the rest of the NFL heartburn.

So How Are They Stopped?

There are only two basic approaches to this offense – or any prolific offense – that have any real chance of success.  There are some variants off of these, but essentially you either have to cover the receivers or sack the quarterback.  This sounds overly simplistic – and either plan is certainly a challenge to execute – but you would be surprised how many teams that line up against the Chiefs fail to focus on these basic fundamentals.  Many teams try to confuse them with bizarre coverages – opting for obfuscation rather than actual coverage.  Many more make the mistake that Buffalo did on Championship Sunday.  They try to wait them out.  They play conservative zone defenses, try to eliminate the big plays, and force this team to put together long drives – hoping along the way that something – a dropped pass, a sack, a penalty, maybe a turnover – will stall the drive before the Chiefs reach pay-dirt.

Against a lot of teams, this isn’t a bad approach.  Even good offenses frequently have trouble repeatedly sustaining drives.  The team Kansas City will face tomorrow afternoon is such a team.  But the Chiefs are not.  Repeatedly over the course of the last two seasons, Kansas City has shown themselves perfectly comfortable playing patient offense.  Against Buffalo, they orchestrated three long, time-consuming drives.  Beginning at the end of the first quarter, they marched 80 yards on 14 plays of a drive that consumed 6:58.  That resulted in their first touchdown.  They opened the second half scoring a field goal after a ten-play drive, and put the fork in the Bills in the fourth quarter with an 11-play, 5 minute 35 second drive that covered 58 yards (after an interception) for their final touchdown.

And the only reason that they didn’t have more long drives for scores is that they didn’t need to.  As badly as Buffalo wanted to stop the big play, they were unable to.  During the offensive deluge that followed their opening series, Kansas City hurt Buffalo with plays of 33, 50 and 71 yards, while nicking them with 12 other plays of 10 yards or more.  After the initial three-and-out (which was the first time all season they had gone three-and-out on their opening drive), KC went touchdown, touchdown, touchdown, end of half, field goal, touchdown, touchdown, end of game.

Through KC’s first 27 pass attempts, Buffalo blitzed just 6 times and played zone defenses 22 times.  At this point in the proceedings, Patrick had answered with 21 completions in those 27 throws (77.78%) but for 208 yards (9.9 per completion) and a touchdown – good for a 111.11 passer rating.

This brings us to Kansas City’s first drive of the second half. Already trailing 21-12 Buffalo had the Chiefs facing another third down (third-and-five) in their own territory (the Chiefs were already on the Bills 43).  Convinced at this point that their safe zone concept wasn’t bearing fruit, Buffalo switched tactics.  Beginning with that snap, Buffalo would play man coverages on 9 of KC’s last 12 pass attempts.  They would blitz more times (7) on the Chiefs’ last 12 drop-backs than they had in the entire game previous to this (6). 

The results?  Worse.  They did get one “sack” (Jerry Hughes twirled Mahomes out of bounds for no loss of yardage).  Otherwise, Pat completed 8 of those final 11 passes for 117 yards and 2 more touchdowns – a 146.59 rating – as the juggernaut offense rolled on unabated.  Buffalo entered the game knowing they couldn’t permit big games by Kansas City’s two elite receivers – Kelce and Hill.  They pretty much had to take one of them away and limit the other.  Travis finished with 118 yards and two touchdowns on 13 catches and Tyreek caught 9 passes for an eye-popping 172 yards.  Mission less than accomplished.

For the game, Mahomes saw some form of zone coverage on 64.1% of his pass attempts. It slowed him very little – Pat was 20 of 25 for 185 yards and a touchdown (a 110.83 rating) against the Buffalo zones.  For the 14 snaps that they played man coverage against him, Patrick was even better – 9 of 13 for 140 yards and the other two touchdowns (a 144.23 rating).  They 11 times that Buffalo blitzed Mahomes didn’t work out well for them either – Patrick went 9 for 11 for 148 yards and all three of his touchdown passes when the Bills sent an extra rusher.

Buffalo’s zone had no answers for Kelce, who caught 10 of 12 passes thrown his way against the zone for 84 yards and one of his touchdowns.  When the Bills played man, it was the other guy (Hill) who damaged them.  Of the 13 passes Mahomes threw against man coverage. Four went to Tyreek.  Hill caught 3 of the 4 for 92 yards.

The deeper you dive into Mahomes numbers from this contest, the scarier they get.  He was 5 of 6 on third down (KC was 6 for 9 on third down until Patrick’s final kneel down), and he was 6 for 8 with 3 touchdowns in the red zone.  In the third quarter alone Mahomes was 9 for 10 for 123 yards and a touchdown.  Tyreek Hill accounted for 108 receiving yards in that quarter alone.

And the hotter the pressure the better he performed.  Of the 12 passes Mahomes threw under some form of duress – being at least enough pressure to hurry the throw – Patrick completed 9 for 169 yards and a touchdown – a 144.44 rating.  He never threw incompletions on consecutive passes.

But watching the tape of Patrick in this game is even more impressive than the numbers.  I reviewed each of his 39 drop backs.  He made one – just one – decision that I might quibble over.  With 7:06 left in the second quarter, Patrick kept rolling farther and farther to his right. Just before stepping out of bounds, he threw incomplete up the sidelines in the direction Nick Keizer.  On the play, he did have Mecole Hardman running past Taron Johnson on a middle post.  Even here, though, it looked like Hardman was running into the deep safety.  It wasn’t until later in the down that Mecole veered his route toward the right sideline and away from any defenders.

In a game in which he faced frequent quick pressure and more good coverage than bad, for him to make just one read that I could question is a little awe-inspiring.  It was probably as close to a perfect game (from a mental standpoint, anyway) as I have seen in quite a long time.

He looks a little pigeon-toed when he runs, and – officially – he stands just 6-3.  Standing among all the giants on the sideline, his physique resembles more that of the ball-boy than an NFL star.  That, and his mop of sometimes unruly hair give him the innocuous look of a high school senior asking if he can borrow the car on Friday night.  And he is the most dominant offensive force in football today.  Cocooned as he is in Reid’s offense and surrounded with a bevy of elite weapons, solving the problem of Patrick Mahomes doesn’t figure to be easy for anyone.  Some problems, after all, don’t have any good solutions.

What Will Tampa Bay Do?

Next up on the list will be the Buccaneers in tomorrow’s big game.  What will their approach be?  Not Buffalo’s.  By nature, they are more aggressive – and their zone defenses have been notoriously leaky and un-disciplined all year long.  They don’t have the option of playing zone 64% of the time (although Defensive Coordinator Todd Bowles is curiously fond of playing zone).  In man coverage, they are many times better than in zone – but they won’t be able to cover all of the Chief receivers all day.  If they stay in zone, Patrick will pick them apart.  If they play man, Mahomes will burn them more than once with the big play.  Man is still the better answer.

I would double-team Hill, trying as much as possible to get some hands on him as he’s leaving the line of scrimmage.  And I would employ defensive linemen to jam Kelce at the line – I’m not talking about a little chip before going in to rush the passer, I’m talking about knocking him down as he tries to get out.  Within a yard of the line of scrimmage, you can actually get away with anything short of an outright hold.

Even at that, though, it will come down to pressure.  None of their other schemes will matter unless they can get Mahomes on the ground – and they will really have to do this without blitzing.  In this regard, there is a strong ray of hope for the Bucs.  Kansas City lost a starting tackle (Fisher) in the Championship Game.  They responded then by moving right tackle (Mike Remmers) to Fisher’s left tackle spot, and moving right guard Andrew Wylie in to the right tackle spot, bringing Stefen Wisniewski off the bench to play right guard.  If KC keeps that alignment for the Super Bowl, then that one injury will incur upheaval at three offensive line positions.

As it was, neither Remmers nor Wylie was overly impressive as pass protectors at the tackle spots.  This is significant, because the most impressive aspect of the Buc defense in their win over Green Bay were edge rushers Jason Pierre-Paul and Shaquil Barrett.  It’s putting a lot of pressure on those two players, but if they can dominate the Chief tackles – and if Andy doesn’t think up some scheme to neutralize them – then Tampa Bay has the opportunity to apply some real, consistent pressure on Mahomes and this offense.

Whether that will be enough, though, is the question.  Remember, Buffalo also put pressure on Mahomes, thinking on several occasions that they had him.  At the end of the day, there is still the Mahomes magic to overcome.

Growing Pains in Buffalo

Yes, the best season in Buffalo in a couple of decades ended in disappointment.  The question for them, now, will be what useful information can they glean from this?  In particular, this game was revealing about the state of development of their franchise quarterback, Josh Allen.

In their playoff win over Indianapolis, I was quick to praise Josh’s performance.  He responded, I thought, with great poise to a tightly contested playoff game against a well-coached team.  For much of this game, however, I was less than impressed.

After completing four of his first five passes, Allen slipped into the kind of play characteristic of a quarterback feeling the pressure of the importance of the game.

Over their next four possessions (which was saved from producing four punts by a muffed punt from KC that gave Buffalo the ball of the Chief three-yard line) Allen completed just 3 of 10 passes for only 11 yards.  He also suffered a sack that he turned into a 15 yard loss as he kept retreating.  (He would do this same thing on his last play of the season, losing 18 yards on a play that prevented Buffalo from taking one last shot at the end zone.)

During these series, Josh played very fast and will little confidence.  In short order, he a) nearly threw an interception trying to force an up-the-field throw to Cole Beasley; b) threw early and incomplete to Stefon Diggs before any of the routes could lift any of the zone coverages; c) checked down immediately to his running back Devin Singletary without giving an opportunity to any of the other receivers to get more than five yards downfield (that play gained just 2 yards).  On the very next play, he had Gabriel Davis one-on-one against mismatched safety Tyrann Mathieu.  But before Gabriel could take three steps, Josh was dumping the ball off to Diggs for 6 yards.  That was (d. 

Exhibit e) comes with 9:35 left in the first half.  The line provides him with a perfectly clean pocket, but Allen can’t seem to relax back there.  Instead of checking the ball down or throwing it away, Allen heaves the ball into the teeth of Kansa City’s cover-two.  He is fortunate that that one also wasn’t intercepted.

A final instance – exhibit f) occurred two plays later, Buffalo has a third-and-three.  Beasley ran right past L’Jarius Sneed on a vertical route.  Josh never looked at him.  He was locked in on Digg’s curl route to the right – which he over-threw when it did come open.

I should mention that on all of these plays, Allen had great protection and ample time to wait and make better decisions (and better throws, for that matter).  But he seemed unable to trust himself, his teammates, or the system.  His emotions were overcoming his training and the offense under him began to stall out.  Over the 15 plays that these important drives consumed, Buffalo advanced just 47 yards (3.1 per play) and held the ball for a combined 6:38.

To this point, it looked like a regression for Allen, and the beginning of some questioning about his ability to play on the biggest stage.  Fortunately for Buffalo, that wouldn’t be the final impression of Josh Allen.

Allen Rebounds

After that failed third down, Buffalo punted again and – of course – Kansas City drove for the touchdown that put them up 21-9.  Allen and the offense got the ball back with 4:12 left in the half.

On the first play of that drive, Kansas City tried to confuse Allen, bringing a cornerback (Sneed) off the slot on a blitz and sliding Daniel Sorensen from the middle of the line (where he was threatening a blitz) over to the side to cover Snead’s man (Beasley).  Allen saw immediately that Sorensen could never get there in time and had the ball in Beasley’s hands almost before Daniel could get out of his stance.  That play gained 14 yards.

Two plays later, Josh hit his tight end Dawson Knox the moment that he broke his route in toward the middle.  That throw was good for another 12 yards.  On the next play, Allen kept the play alive as long as possible and delivered an excellent throw on the run to running back T.J. Yeldon who had gotten up-field.  That was good for 20 more yards.

Beginning with that drive, Allen would complete 21 of his next 31 passes (67.74%) and would give a better showing of himself.  He even produced his own magic moment – a 15-yard pass to Diggs on third-and-13 that he made on the dead run as he was about to go out of bounds.  The second half of Allen’s performance was much more encouraging than the first.

Areas For Improvement

Even with Josh feeling more confidant as the game went on, his situational play will still have to improve.  He was just 5 for 9 on third down, with only 2 of those completions resulting in first downs – and only 2 for 5 for 8 yards and 1 first down when the third down was less than five yards.  In the red zone Josh was just 6 of 13 for 30 yards.  He did throw 2 touchdowns, but also threw a red zone interception, gave up the big sack at the end of the game that pushed them out past the thirty, and led two drives that shriveled inside the ten yard line.  Buffalo kicked field goals from the Kansas City 2 and 8 yard lines.

Even here, though, most of the problems were not so much Josh as the rest of the offense. On third down and in the red zone, the Chief defense turned more heavily to man coverages and blitzes.  In the red zone, Josh saw man on 12 of 14 drop-backs – including 5 blitzes.  On 10 third-down drop-backs, Allen faced man coverage 8 times with three of them including a blitz.

The issue here was that Josh’s receivers had considerable trouble freeing themselves from Kansas City’s man coverage.  This was glaringly true of Stefon Diggs who caught only 3 of 7 targeted passes against man coverages for just 18 yards.  Overall, Josh faced man coverages for 59.6% of his passes, and finished just 15 of 30 for 134 yards – a surprisingly low 4.47 yards per attempt and 8.93 per completion (against man, these averages are usually much higher).  Both of his touchdown passes came against man coverages, but so did his interception – a 70.69 passer rating.

Additionally, Buffalo would profit from better pass protection – especially at the tackle position where both Dion Dawkins and Daryl Williams frequently gave up the corner.  Williams, in particular, frequently forgot blitzers coming off of his corner.  Many Chief rushes were permitted free access to the Buffalo backfield because Daryl turned inside to double-team a tackle.  Whether they can reasonably expect Dawkins and Williams to improve, or whether they bring in different tackles, this is an area of weakness that Kansas City exposed.

My final recommendation to Buffalo would be to re-invest in your running attack and balance out your offense.  In this game, Buffalo’s final rushing totals looked healthy enough – 18 rushes for 129 yards.  Don’t be deceived by that, though.  Eighty-eight of those yards came from quarterback Allen – 67 of those on scrambles.  Wide receiver Isaiah McKenzie added a couple of gadget runs that produced 9 yards and 2 first downs.  As far as an actual running back taking an actual handoff and trying to pick up yards behind the offensive line, that happened just 9 times during the game for only 32 yards (3.6 per).  They ran for just 1 first down, and none of those attempts went for more than 7 yards.

Head Coach Sean McDermott was asked after the game whether he should have run the ball more.  His response – along the lines of “we had to score as much as possible and couldn’t afford to be hampered by second-and-long situations” – reveals a mindset, perhaps, that only sees value in the running game when you want to run out the clock at the end of the game.  I maintain that Buffalo will continue to scuffle in the red zone (they ranked thirteenth this year) until they develop a legitimate running attack.

The Chess Match Against the Buccaneer Offense

The most interesting of the chess matches for the big game tomorrow will be the Chief defense trying to keep a lid on the Tampa Bay offense.  As I discussed earlier, Tampa Bay very much lives and dies with the big play, so that will be a focus of the defense.  But, as with restricting big plays by the Kansas City attack, this is always easier said than done.  Antonio Brown – I understand – is officially questionable for the game.  But even without Brown, Tampa Bay has a nimiety of receivers, and whether in zone or man coverage, Kansas City will be hard pressed to contain all of them – although I will take this occasion to point of that the Kansas City secondary is much better than generally realized.

This is especially true of cornerbacks Bashaud Breeland, Charvarious Ward and Sneed – who is listed as probably for tomorrow.  All three authored very tight coverage – especially in man situations.  Additionally, safeties Sorensen, Tyrann Mathieu and Juan Thornhill are intelligent playmakers who have a penchant making big plays.

As with the Tampa Bay defense, the answer will be pressure.  If they can bring the heat against Brady, they will almost assuredly win the game.  But this will also be a part of the chess match.  Kansas City is fond of the blitz.  They blitzed Allen 19 times two Sunday’s ago (exactly one third of his drop-backs), but as Tampa Bay has evolved, they have become more comfortable with keeping people in to block.  At least once against Green Bay the Bucs protected against a six-man rush with an eight-man barrier.

When the Chiefs blitzed on Championship Sunday, it was usually a fairly intense blitz.  On 14 of the 19 blitzes they sent at least six pass rushers.  Whether they will continue that trend against the Bucs – and whether the Bucs will continue to keep multiple players in the backfield to block – will be questions that will go a long way to determining the outcome of this one.

The key player – perhaps for the entire Super Bowl – might well be defensive tackle Chris Jones.  During last year’s playoffs, Jones was dominant.  Then the Chiefs signed him to the big contract.  Chris has played well this year – but has rarely been the force that he was last year.  There were about three plays in this game, though, that were reminiscent of the 2019 edition of Chris Jones – a couple of times where he burst through the line throwing offensive linemen out of his way.

If that Chris Jones shows up tomorrow, it could re-write the narrative of the game.  All quarterbacks have difficulty with pressure up the middle.  For pocket passers like Tom Brady, middle pressure is a well-known kryptonite.  A guy like Jones – the Chris Jones of last year, anyway – could give the Chiefs that inside force without the need to bring extra rushers, and could play a huge role in inhibiting the Tampa Bay big play.

And a Prediction

After mulling this over, I’m going to predict a Kansas City win.  While there is a clear path here for a Tampa Bay win, too much has to go right for them.  This especially takes into account the vulnerability of their pass defense, but also calculates their dependence on the big play.

Kansas City’s relative weakness at offensive tackle gives Tampa Bay a critical opportunity, but overall the Chiefs are a better team, with a locker room full of guys who routinely make big plays in big games.

And they have Mahomes magic going for them too – quite a problem.

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.