Six weeks into the 2017 NFL season, the scoreboard shows that – of the 444 touchdowns scored so far – 402 have been scored by the offensive team (276 TD passes and 126 TD runs). But Week Six was noteworthy – in part – for touchdowns racked up by special teams and, especially, defense. Of the 34 defensive touchdowns scored this season, 10 were scored in Week Six. Of the 8 special teams touchdowns scored this season, 5 were scored this week.
These two alternate touchdown sources contributed to one of the most entertaining games of the season last Sunday when New Orleans held off a late Detroit rally to “escape” with a 52-38 victory (gamebook). That game alone contributed 4 defensive touchdowns and 1 special teams score – with four of these five alternate scores occurring in the game’s last 24 minutes.
Along the way, the Saints may have become the first team ever to score 50 points while going just 2 for 12 on third down (including 0 for 7 in the second half). It is also surprising in that superstar quarterback Drew Brees suffered through his worst statistical game of the season. Hitting the field with a 108.3 passer rating for the season, Brees – who had thrown no interceptions on the seasons and was averaging 7.47 yards per pass – tossed 3 interceptions in Sunday’s second half and averaged just 6.00 yards per pass on his way to a 78.2 passer rating. His afternoon featured a goal-line interception for a Detroit touchdown that – for the moment – fueled the Lions’ furious comeback.
When your opponent rolls up 38 points, it’s rare that your defense is regarded as heroic. Nonetheless, with the score against them inflated by a defensive score and a punt return for a touchdown, the Saint defense sacked Lion quarterback Matthew Stafford 5 times, hit him on 6 other pass attempts, deflected 12 passes, intercepted 3 and recovered 2 fumbles. The Saint defense scored 3 touchdowns outright, and set up another. In between, they saw Detroit make some plays – but on this day, the big-play New Orleans defense was more than a match.
After losing their first two games (to 4-2 Minnesota and 4-2 New England), the Saints have cobbled together three consecutive wins (against 4-2 Carolina, 3-2 Miami, and now 3-3 Detroit). As you can see, New Orleans’ early schedule has been pretty challenging. Things could get a little softer for the next few weeks. They will line up Sunday against the 4-2 Green Bay Packers – but without their superstar quarterback Aaron Rodgers who went down last week with a broken collarbone. After that, they draw the Bears (2-4) and Buccaneers (2-3). After yielding 1025 total yards in their first two games (with no turnovers), the New Orleans defense has only surrendered 821 over their last 3 (with 9 turnovers).
If the Saint defense has turned the corner – and if the offense stays as balanced as it’s been the last three weeks – this Saints team could hold its own in the highly competitive NFC South all the way into December.
There are moments when sports become transcendent. I’m going to waft a little poetic, here, for a few paragraphs – so if your tolerance for bad poetry is a little low, you might want to skip this section.
With the third quarter about half over, a fortunate deflection of a Stafford pass landed in the arms of Saints’ rookie first-round-pick Marshon Lattimore. Twenty-seven yards later, Lattimore was being swarmed by his teammates after he had scored what seemed to be the back breaking touchdown. With 23 minutes and 34 seconds left in the game, Detroit trailed 45-10. Not only were they trailing, but they were paying a horrific physical price.
About four minutes before, safety Glover Quinn was lost after taking a knee to the head. About two minutes later, the other safety Tavon Wilson went down for a while. With six-and-a-half minutes left in the third – and with the Lions’ still 35 points behind – they lost their most explosive playmaker when Golden Tate went to the sidelines with an AC joint sprain in his shoulder.
And then there was the beating the offensive line took. Already missing starting guard T.J. Lang, Detroit lost two more offensive lineman in the third and fourth quarters, as both Greg Robinson and Ricky Wagner suffered ankle injuries. So, on top of everything else, Detroit faced a five-touchdown deficit with, essentially, three backup offensive linemen in the game.
In the midst of all of this adversity was battered quarterback Matthew Stafford. Already hobbled by a bad ankle and a tender hamstring, Stafford endured a savage beating at the hands of the physical New Orleans defense. Before the comeback even got up a head of steam, a shot to the ribs had Matthew flinching for the rest of the drive.
With every reason to sit their remaining healthy starters and just wind out the clock. With no legitimate chance for victory, and no coherent reason to keep trying, the emotionally resilient Lions pulled their broken bodies off the Superdome turf and mounted a comeback for the ages – almost.
Pounded by free-rushers, and scrambling as much as he could on a bad ankle, baby-faced Matthew Stafford was every inch a man on Sunday afternoon. Coming back for more every time he was belted to the turf, and with his limping teammates rallying around him, the Lions improbably reeled off 28 consecutive points – and did so in a span of just 14:15 immediately after they had lost their most explosive playmaker.
When defensive tackle A’Shawn Robinson stepped in front of Brees’ quick slant and waltzed into the end zone, the Detroit Lions sat just seven points back (45-38) with still 6:41 left on the clock. Immediately afterward, the Lion defense held New Orleans to a quick three-and-out. There was still 5:23 left on the game clock as punter Thomas Morstead launched his kick to the left-corner of the end zone, where one final mistake would doom the Lions and their comeback.
On an afternoon when Detroit would surrender 193 rushing yards and would turn the ball over five times, their clinching mistake would involve neither. Already having scored on a 74-yard punt return, Jamal Agnew now muffed Morstead’s punt. As it rolled toward the end zone, Agnew raced after it. He managed to scoop it up and advance it just enough out of the end zone to avoid the safety. As it turned out, the safety might have worked out better.
Setting up on their own one-yard line, the Lions promptly surrendered their second in-their-own-end-zone touchdown of the game as defensive end Cameron Jordan hauled in his own deflection for the final points of the day.
The loss leaves Detroit 3-3, but still very much in the mix in the NFC North, where the Packers will have to soldier on without Rodgers.
In the end, it was just a loss, and the fact that they made a game out of it matters not at all in the standings. If they had pulled the plug on the game at 45-10 and gone down quietly, it wouldn’t have hurt them any more in the standings. But as it relates to the team going forward, the almost comeback is enormous. On an afternoon when Stafford had – statistically – his worst game of the season (and one of the great ironies of Week Six is that the highest scoring game of the season so far featured the worst statistical games of the season so far for both star quarterbacks), Matthew’s uncommon toughness galvanized his team.
Detroit has some issues that need to be dealt with. Their running game still isn’t a positive force for them, and for some reason they have a hard time getting started until the fourth quarter. So Jim Caldwell and his crew have work to do.
But the heart of this team is something they will not have to worry about.
A Look at the Dandies
There were lots of story lines possible for Sunday’s Duel of the September Dandies. The two quarterbacks were potential story-lines. Los Angeles Rams’ second-year signal caller, Jeff Goff – a September sensation – was coming off a scuffling 48.9 passer-rating performance in last week’s loss to Seattle. On the Jacksonville side, quarterback Blake Bortles had thrown 1 pass in the second half of the Jaguars impressive victory over Pittsburgh. So a revenge of the quarterback’s theme could have been one story line.
More likely, this would be a story of the feature backs. The Rams Todd Gurley was mostly ignored in the Seattle game (he carried 14 times), while Jacksonville’s dynamic Leonard Fournette racked up 181 yards against the Steelers. Since neither defense had shown much ability to stop the run (the Rams came into the game allowing 133.6 rushing yards per game and 4.5 yards per carry, while the Jags were getting stung to the tune of 146.4 rushing yards per game and 5.4 per rush), it was easy to see both backs enjoying big afternoons.
Then, of course, there was the offensive shootout story line. The Rams came into play averaging 30.4 points per game, while Jacksonville was scoring 27.8 points per contest.
In the end, none of those story lines proved decisive – all though all of them had their moments.
As to the quarterbacks, Goff had a fine bounce back day against a decidedly tough secondary. He finished with a solid 86.2 rating day, although he threw only 21 times (just 7 times in the second half). As for Bortles, he threw 15 times in the second half and 35 times for the game. But, once again, it was obvious that Jacksonville’s passing attack is less than supremely dangerous. Once the Rams pushed ahead in the fourth quarter, forcing the Jags’ running game to the sideline, it was clear how run-dependent they are in Jacksonville.
The running backs were a better story. On Fournette’s very last carry against the Steelers the week before, Leonard streaked 90 yards for the clinching touchdown. On his first carry Sunday, he sprinted 75 yards for a touchdown. I’m not sure how many players have had back-to-back touchdown runs that totaled 165 yards or more. Fournette is a threat from anywhere on the field.
However, after that initial burst, the Rams’ talented defensive line took over the game. Leonard carried 20 more times during the game for a total of just 55 yards.
Gurley, on the other hand, never had that monster burst. But he consistently found yardage between the tackles. Todd finished with 116 yards on 23 carries (5.0 per), and proved to be the most consistent offense that either team was able to sustain.
As to the shootout story line, the first quarter ended with the Rams on top 17-14. But things settled down surprisingly after the first 15 minutes. In fact, after the first quarter neither team managed another offensive touchdown, as St Louis ground its way to a 27-17 victory (gamebook).
At the end of the day, though, it was the difference in the special teams that decided the game. One great advantage the Rams have is two elite kickers – and both contributed to the win. Punter Johnny Hekker did bounce one punt into the end zone, but finished with a 43.1 net punting average for the game. Place kicker Greg Zuerlein added two field goals (one of them from 56 yards).
But it was the other side of the special teams game (when Jacksonville kicked to Los Angeles) that decided the game. The Rams returned a kickoff and a blocked punt for the deciding touchdowns, while a shanked punt set up a field goal. Jacksonville kicker Jason Myers also missed two field goals, although both of them were from more than 50 yards out – underscoring the value of having that long-range weapon.
In the game’s aftermath, I find myself not completely convinced by either team. Remembering that these teams combined for a total of 7 wins last year (4 by the Rams and 3 by the Jags), it is impressive that these teams have achieved that total already this year (4 for the Rams and 3 for the Jags). But both franchises have some growing to do before they could be considered among the elite teams. Both have developed top running games, but both are less than astonishing in the passing game. Both also seem a little vulnerable defending the run. Jacksonville’s pass defense looks like it has risen to one of the better pass defenses in the league. The Rams, of course, excel in the kicking game.
Both of these teams are clearly headed in the right direction. It will be interesting to watch their development as the season progresses.