Tag Archives: Los Angeles Chargers

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.

Yes, But Now They Will Have to Stop the Run

The Cleveland Browns were still clinging to a 27-21 lead when their first drive of the fourth quarter petered out on their own 22-yard line.  Facing a fourth-and-20, even had they known what was about to happen, they didn’t really have much choice.  They had to punt – a 39 yarder that was fair-caught by Jalen Guyton on the Charger 39.  What followed was an offensive back-and-forth seldom seen in the NFL these days.

The Chargers went 61 yards for the touchdown in just 4 plays – taking just 1:29 off the clock.

Cleveland answered with a two-play, 78-yard touchdown “drive” that clicked 42 seconds off the clock.

Then it was Los Angeles’ turn.  They went 75 yards in 11 plays for their next touchdown – that drive lasting 3:16.

Five plays and 75 yards later, the Browns were in the end zone finishing a 2:39 drive.

No problem.  The Chargers covered their 75 yards in 6 plays – taking 1:30 to do so.

With 2:55 left in the game – and Cleveland still leading 42-41 thanks to a two-point conversion that they made, and an extra-point missed by Los Angeles kicker Tristan Vizcaino – the streak finally ended when Kareem Hunt’s third-and-9 carry gained only 3 yards, and the Browns – backed on their own 18 – were compelled to punt again.

The five drives (all ending with touchdowns) took 28 plays resulting in 364 yards of offense and taking just 9:36 to do so.  The 28 plays gained an average of 13 yards each.

This was the high point of a wild-and-wooly second half that saw the two teams rack up 593 yards of offense and score 56 points – 41 of them in that explosive fourth quarter.

The Chargers – making real noise in the early part of the season – came away with the 47-42 win (gamebook) (summary).

Deservedly, the praise was loudest for second-year quarterback Justin Herbert – who threw for 398 yards and 4 touchdowns (he ran for a fifth) and averaged 15.31 per completed pass.  There were a couple other critical elements of this win, though.

One was Los Angeles’ under-rated running game.  Lined up against the NFL’s third-best run defense (allowing just 66.0 yards per game and 3.1 yards per carry), the Chargers punched through for 112 important rushing yards and 3 ground touchdowns.  They averaged 4.9 yards per carry on their 23 rushes, with Austin Ekeler doing the heavy lifting.  He pounded his way for 66 yards on 17 carries, getting almost half of his yards (32 of them) after contact.

This physical running attack contributed materially to LA’s resurgent red zone performance.  Through four weeks, LA had converted 20 trips into the red zone to just 11 journeys into the end zone.  That 55% efficiency ranked them twenty-fourth in the league.

On Sunday, though, they were 4-for-4 with three of those touchdowns coming from the running game.  The highlight reels feature the big plays – and 4 of the combined 12 touchdowns were on plays of 40 yards or more.  But the ultimate difference here was the running game and LA’s 4-for-4 red zone performance compared with Cleveland’s 3-for-6 in the same territory.

That, by the way, was another noteworthy shift for the Chargers.  While they were one of the statistically worst red zone offenses, after four weeks they had proved equally challenged defensively in the red zone.  Eight of their opponents’ 11 red zone possessions had ended in touchdowns – a 72.7% that ranked them twenty-fifth in the league.  But not on Sunday.

Riverboat Brandon?

All of that, though, probably still would not have been enough to win this game without head coach Brandon Staley’s almost reckless willingness to go for it on fourth down.  Four times Staley let his offense try to pick up that first down.  They succeeded outright on three of those and were gifted the fourth on a fairly questionable pass interference penalty.

Cleveland opened the second half with a 52-yard touchdown sprint from Nick Chubb to push the Browns’ lead to 27-13.  At that point, there was still 12:31 left in the third.  Los Angeles’ subsequent 84-yard, 14 play drive was almost over before it began.  A third-and-9 pass from Herbert to Donald Parham came up two yards short.  Already down two touchdowns, Staley’s team was sitting on its own 24-yard line when he took the fourth-and-2 gamble that proved to be the turning point of the contest.

Ekeler’s 9-yard run kept the drive going.  It would be the first of two fourth-down conversions on that drive.  Herbert capped the drive with a 9-yard touchdown run, and just like that LA was back in the game.  The Chargers would score touchdowns on 5 of their last 6 possessions to complete the comeback against a Cleveland team (now 3-2) that had been making some noise of their own during the early season.

Talking about the fourth-and-2 after the game, Staley said the decision was not really analytics driven.  It was a response to “the game that was before (him).”  In the press conference he denied any feelings of concern about the call – even though a failure to convert could well have been disastrous for them.  Two yards, he implied, were nothing.  However confident he truly was, his team rewarded his faith with a conversion, and ultimately a victory.  They are now 4-1 on the season.

Cleveland’s Lament

For the Browns, the lament was with the way the first half played out.  In what could only be called a display of domination, Cleveland controlled the ball for 21:39 of the first half, outgaining the Chargers 263-168.  But they went into the locker room ahead by just one touchdown (20-13) due entirely to their own red-zone struggles.  They were 2-for-5 in that half.

They kicked two field goals – one after their opening drive had moved 75 yards in a 10-play, 6:32 drive that stalled at the LA 17, and the other after they recovered a Charger fumble on the LA 22 yard line.  That opportunity, though, came with just 38 seconds left in the half, and Cleveland holding just one timeout.  They weren’t able to mount any real threat and settled for three points.

The other red zone trip ended without any points.  While Los Angeles was unstoppable on fourth down, Cleveland rolled snake-eyes on their own fourth-down gamble.  On fourth-and-2 from the LA 17, receiver Odell Beckham dropped the pass that would have kept the drive alive.

Thus, the Browns let Los Angeles hang around until their own offense could get untracked.

San Francisco Pays the Price

Some 350 or so miles to the south-east, San Francisco head coach Kyle Shanahan’s fourth-down aggressiveness may well have cost his team the game.

In fairness to Kyle, he was starting a rookie quarterback against the highest scoring team in the league, so he may well have felt that he couldn’t really afford to punt.  If it was fourth-and-reasonable, he was probably pre-determined to go for it.  In contrast to the Chargers’ success, the 49ers finished 1-for-5 on fourth down in a 17-10 loss in Arizona (gamebook) (summary).  Had he known how well his defense was going to play, he might well have reconsidered.

With his defensive ends keeping quarterback Kyler Murray confined in the pocket the entire evening, the 49er defense effectively removed Kyler as a running threat.  Murray ended the contest with 1 rushing yard in 7 carries.  Even granting that the last three of those 7 carries were extreme kneel-downs in which Kyler lost a total of 7 yards, this effort on the part of the San Francisco defense successfully eliminated a foundational element of the Cardinal offense.  Forced to stay home, Murray still threw the ball very well.  He completed 71% of his passes (22 of 31) and finished with an excellent passer rating of 104.1.

But denied his perimeter game, the passing game lacked its customary explosiveness.  Only two of Kyler’s 22 completions exceeded 30 yards, and, after tossing 9 touchdown passes through the first 4 games, Murray managed just 1 against San Fran.

The Arizona running game – which had been averaging 136.5 yards per game and 4.4 yards per carry – also struggled in the absence of Murray’s contributions.  The Cards finished with just 94 rushing yards, and a 3.5 per carry average.  It was an outstandingly disciplined performance from a defense that has been less that elite through the first quarter of the season.

On the offensive side, though, (as Jimmy Garoppolo missed yet another game with an injury) Shanahan gave rookie quarterback Trey Lance his first career start.  Trey – very much a work in progress – completed 15 of his 29 passes, which pretty accurately expressed his game – about equal parts good and bad.

Trey is one of the new-style quarterbacks who is more polished as a runner than a thrower, and as with all such runners, Kyle intended to showcase that ability.  Lance led all rushers in the game with 89 yards on 16 carries – 12 of them designed runs.  While it’s a nice weapon to have, I don’t think there’s any question the 49ers leaned too heavily on Trey’s legs.

His 12 designed rushes represented slightly more than one fifth of their 59 offensive plays.  He had more designed runs than handoffs to top rusher Elijah Mitchell, who carried just 9 times, and more carries than throws to top receiver Deebo Samuel (who saw only 9 passes in his direction).

Instead of letting Trey lean on his more established play-makers, Shanahan put the burden of the offense pretty squarely on the legs of his 21-year-old rookie signal caller.  A questionable approach.

But Oh Those Fourth Downs

Nonetheless, with the outstanding effort of the defense, the 49ers might still have won the game if they had just taken the points that were presented to them.

Twice in the first half, Shanahan passed up field goal opportunities, opting instead for Trey’s legs.  Both times the gambit fell short.  The second of those was the signature moment in the game, when Lance was denied at the goal line by Isaiah Simmons and Tanner Vallejo.

In the fourth quarter, Cardinals ahead by just three points, 10-7, the 49ers faced a fourth-and-four just barely on the Arizona side of the fifty-yard line.  This time Lance tried to throw for the first down – with no better results.  Given a short field, Kyler moved the Cards the 52 yards they needed in 5 plays for the game-icing touchdown.

If they had kicked field goals when they could have, they would have been ahead in the contest, 13-10, when the fourth and four came up.  If they had then punted and pinned Arizona deep instead of handing them the ball at midfield, it’s conceivable that the Cardinals might not have gained anything more than a field goal from the ensuing drive.

I realize, though, that this is asking a lot of any coaching staff – especially in an era where analytics are pushing teams to be more aggressive with their fourth down opportunities.  Especially the fourth-and-goal at the one – the moment that ended with the goal-line collision.  It’s hard to send the field goal unit onto the field in that situation.

But as going for it on fourth down becomes ever more prevalent, all should be reminded that it comes with risks.  Brandon Staley and the Chargers probably don’t win their game if they didn’t repeatedly attempt to convert those fourth downs.  Kyle Shanahan got burned by a similar aggression.

Ready for Week Six?

Regardless of how they got there, the Cardinals reach Week Six with a 5-0 record, and the Chargers enter the week with a 4-1 record.  But at this point, both teams will have to address a concerning weakness.  Both teams have struggled stopping the run.

As Los Angeles survived the Browns, they did so in spite of the fact that they were shredded on the ground.  With Chubb’s 161 yards leading the way, Cleveland racked up 230 rushing yards.  In averaging 6.6 yards per rush, Cleveland broke 5 tackles and averaged 4.76 yards per rush after contact.

This was not an isolated incident.  This was the fourth time in five games that LA had surrendered 126 or more rushing yards, and the third time already that they have given up 186 or more.  They will enter Week Six carrying the league’s last-ranked run defense – allowing 157.6 rush yards per game.  They also rank last in yards per carry, allowing 5.6 per attempt.

A big deal?  It will be this week as they face off against the Baltimore Ravens and their fourth ranked rushing attack (148.8 yards per game).  If they don’t play better run defense against the Ravens, they will come crashing quickly back to earth.

For their part, even though they beat San Fran, the Cardinals were hurt on the ground again.  The 49ers finished with 152 rushing yards.  Subtracting the yards from the quarterback drops the ground yards to 63 – but in just 12 rushes – an average of 5.25 yards per rush.

Like the Chargers, the Cardinals had trouble wrapping up.  Even though the running backs only had 12 carries, they still broke 3 tackles and ground out 3.92 yards after contact.

As with the Chargers, this wasn’t a one-off.  Arizona has now allowed at least 121 rushing yards in four straight games, with three of those opponents earning at least 150 overland yards.  The Cards have sunk to twenty-eighth in the league in stopping the run (they are allowing 139 yards per game) and they are better only than the Chargers in yards allowed per rush (5.4).

Next for them is the same Cleveland club that scorched Los Angeles.  The Browns currently boast football’s top running game.  They lead the league in rushing attempts (175) yards (938 – 187.6 per game), average (5.4 per) and rushing touchdowns (12).

If the Cards can’t figure this part out, the Browns could very easily end their undefeated run.

Stopping the run is one of those essential, primordial football principles.  The Chargers and Cards have had great overall starts to the 2021 season.  But no one can survive for long in the NFL if you’re getting gashed in the run game.

If these teams don’t get better at this aspect, they will sink as quickly as they rose.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

LA’s Other QB

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

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

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

Alpha Neanderthals Roll On

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

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

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

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

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

And that was just the second half.

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

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

Neanderthals No More

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The Newton Moment

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

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

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

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

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

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

Re-Inventing the On Side Kick

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The Return of the Rushing Touchdown

A few weeks ago, we talked about the recent rise of teams that were beginning to run the ball more often than they threw it – I named them Neanderthal teams.

Those teams are all home now, but in the discussion I gave a timeline of passing vs running, both as far as plays called and touchdowns scored.  Once the number of touchdown passes eclipsed the number of rushing touchdowns, the trend has never reversed.  This year, the average NFL team threw 26.5 touchdown passes, while scoring just 13.7 times on the ground.

All of which makes last weekend’s results – the Divisional Round in this year’s playoffs – that much more unusual.

In Kansas City, young quarterback Patrick Mahomes has been the face of the passing revolution.  During the regular season, he led all passers, tossing an almost unheard of 50 touchdown passes.  Last Saturday, against Indianapolis, he threw none.  The Chiefs still hammered the Colts, though, as they bullied them with 4 rushing touchdowns.

A few hours after that game, the Los Angeles Rams took the field, hosting the Dallas Cowboys.  They are kind of the NFC face of the passing revolution, behind their young quarterback, Jared Goff.  Jared had thrown 32 touchdown passes during the season.  He also threw none in the Saturday playoff game.  The Rams, though, were also victorious – and looking almost Neanderthalish – as they bullied Dallas with 273 rushing yards and 3 rushing touchdowns.

In the early game Sunday, the New England Patriots also won behind their running game.  They hammered the Chargers to the tune of 155 rushing yards and 4 rushing touchdowns.  Along the way, they did manage one passing touchdown.

So, the first three winning teams in the Divisional Round combined to throw for 1 touchdown, while piling up a combined 11 on the ground.

In Sunday’s late game, Drew Breese broke the spell with 2 touchdown passes thrown against none scored on the ground.  That game deviated from the general theme of the playoffs second round – early domination.

In the first three games, the eventual winning teams averaged 26.3 points scored in the first half, averaged 304 yards of offense (again, just the first half), and controlled the clock for an average of 20:37 (with all of them at least at 20:11 of ball control in the first half).  Their average halftime lead was 19.3 points, and they had outgained their opponents by an average of 112.7 yards.  The combined difference in first downs at the half was 62-18.

All of these offenses were slowed a bit in the second half, with the Chiefs and Patriots cruising to victories.  The Cowboys did manage to creep back into their contest and made a game of it, but in the end, it was just too steep a hole to dig themselves out of.

By way of profiling the league, it’s worth noting that the NFL’s final four contain all four of the top scoring teams in football, but only one of the top ten scoring defenses (New England finished seventh).  By yards gained, all of the offenses finished in the top ten, with three of them being in the top 5.  There are no top ten defenses left standing.

Two of the top 5 passing offenses (by yards gained) are still playing, as are three of the top 8 quarterbacks ranked by passer rating.  This total includes the NFL’s top two rated passers – Breese (115.7) and Mahomes (113.8), with Goff (101.1) ranking eighth.  There are no top ten passing defenses (by yards) left, and by passer rating against, only New England – number 7 in the league at 85.4 – will be playing this weekend.

Of note, three of the top six rushing offenses are still playing.  Of the top ten run defenses, only New Orleans – second, allowing 80.2 yards per game – is left.

There was a moment when a handful of upstart defensive teams – Baltimore, Chicago, Dallas, Tennessee – looked like they might disrupt the league’s offensive meme.  Those guys are all home now.  These days, if you want to hang with the elite’s in the NFL, you better pack a head-spinning offense.

The AFC is setting up to re-match New England and Kansas City.  They met in the Week Six Sunday night game – a 43-40 Patriot win that reflected the story of the season.  These teams combined for 946 yards the first time they met.  They are also coming off the two most dominant games in the Divisional Round.

Taming the Colts

The Colts had been, perhaps, the best story in the NFL in 2018.  They famously began the year 1-5 and then won 10 of their next 11, bringing them into Kansas City for the second round of the playoffs.

Eight minutes and 32 seconds into the contest – after Tyreek Hill had weaved his way 36 yards through the entire Colts defense for a touchdown (yes, a rushing touchdown) – it was pretty apparent that the Colt’s dream run had come to an end.  At that point, they were already down 14-0.  During that eight-and-a-half minute span, they had watched the Chiefs march the length of the field twice (140 yards in 13 plays) for 2 touchdowns.  In their first two drives, the Colts had managed all of 7 yards in 6 plays.

Their first four possessions were all three-and-out’s, totaling 21 yards of offense.  By the time they managed their first first-down (with 1:18 left in the first half), they had already seen Kansas City rack up 18 first downs and 274 yards.  The only reason they were only down 24-7 was because they had blocked Kansas City’s only punt of the first half – recovering it in the end zone.  It was the only blemish on a surprisingly effective KC defensive effort.

The potency of the Chiefs’ offense being what it is, the two scoring drives were not that surprising.  The expectation, though, was that the Colts would be putting up some points of their own.  While the Chiefs have been one of the elite offenses all season, their defense has rarely come to the party.  They, in fact, showed up at the dance with the NFL’s thirty-first ranked defense – number 27 against the run and number 31 against the pass (remember, there are only 32 teams in the league). They had given up 421 points through their 16 games (26.3 per), and were allowing 5.0 yards per attempted run.

Coming off their game in Houston where they ran for 200 yards Indianapolis must have felt they could run on the Chiefs.  And, perhaps, if they could have kept themselves in the game, they eventually might have.

As it was – even though they only rushed 14 times on the day – they were beginning to break through.  Their last 9 rushes of the game netted 66 yards.  But by then, they were out of time and Kansas City was well on its way to a 31-13 victory (gamebook) (summary).

Playing in the Snow

Arrowhead greeted Indianapolis with 30 degree temperatures and a light blowing snow.  One of the NFL’s enduring truisms is that dome teams or warm weather teams always look out of place in bad weather.  Taking nothing away from the Chiefs’ defense – which was dominant for most of the game – Indy never looked comfortable in that environment.  One week after converting 9 of 14 third downs against the Texans, Indy finished Saturday 0-for-9.  Along the way, they went 0-2 in the red zone and committed 10 penalties for 70 yards.

The Chiefs seemed to waver a bit late in the season – losing three of five at one point.  The week off seems to have done them good.  They appeared fresher and more energized than I had seen them recently.

And they will have to be at their readiest for next week.

Patriots Advance

With 15 seconds left in the first half, and already in field goal range, the Patriots decided to run one more quick play to better their field goal opportunity, even though they had expended their time outs. 

They faced a third-and-six on the Charger 36-yard line.  Quarterback Tom Brady flipped a quick pass out to wide receiver Philip Dorsett.  Although the Patriots believed that Dorsett had made it out of bounds at about the first-down marker, the official ruled that Michael Davis had managed to pull him down in bounds.  Caught by surprise, the Patriots were unable to line up and spike the ball before the half ended.  The field goal attempt never happened.

That was the first thing to go right all day for the beleaguered Los Angeles Chargers, who couldn’t wait to see the clock run out on that first half.  Of all the dominating early performances, this one by the Patriots was the most dominant.  They exited to the cheers of the crowd with a 35-7 lead that had featured 24 first downs, 5-6 conversions on third down, and a 5-5 performance in the red zone.  They had 347 yards of total offense, and already had a 100-yard rusher (Sony Michel with 105) and a 100-yard receiver (Julian Edelman with 107).  The Patriots finished the half with more first downs than the Chargers had offensive plays (23) and almost as many touchdowns (5) as the Chargers had first downs (6).

In the second half, the Patriots would take their foot off the gas a bit.  They would run the ball on 16 of their 31 second half plays.  They would score no more touchdowns, but would add two more field goals.  After controlling the clock for 20:11 of the first half, they would run it for 18:09 more in the second.

Charger quarterback Philip Rivers kept throwing the ball, and Los Angeles did a little late, cosmetic scoring, but this game – an eventual 41-28 New England win (gamebook) (summary) was over early.

Rattling Rivers

Even before the first half completely imploded, you could see Rivers seething on the sidelines and on the field.  He seethed at the officials, his own players, and probably his coaches, too – although the cameras didn’t catch that.

Composure has always been an issue for Rivers – even in his advanced years.  As a young player, he seemed to be more concerned about trash talking his opponent than focusing on playing quarterback.  In the past few years, that tendency has lessened, but he still has trouble letting go of things.  Yes, there were some calls that could have been made that weren’t.  Yes his teammates didn’t play very well – in particular his offensive line and running backs were frequently lacking at picking up the Patriot blitzes. But if you want to be that quarterback – the one that finally leads the Chargers to the promised land – then you really have to let go of things.

With the Patriots being so dominant, I don’t truly think there was anything that Rivers – composed or not – could have done to prevent them from advancing.  But his frustrations clearly impacted his focus and performance.  Philip just turned 37 in December.  He still has all the passion and competitiveness that he had when he was 17 – which is good.  Mostly.  With the few opportunities he has left, though, he will have to be mentally and emotionally stronger if he hopes to have his finger measured for that ring.

Meanwhile the Patriots

After last year’s Super Bowl I noted that the Patriots were finding it increasingly difficult to prepare for the start of playoff games.  After a decade plus of general domination, it seemed that playoff games didn’t matter to the organization as much anymore.  This was apparent in the recent playoff deficits this team has had to overcome.

Perhaps with the sting of the last Super Bowl still burning in their minds, this New England team was all business – all urgency – from the start.  They put together touchdown drives on all of their first four possessions, each consuming at least 63 yards.  Almost as if to add insult to injury, the one time in the entire half that New England punted, Desmond King muffed the punt, handing the thing back to New England on the Charger 35.  It took them four plays from there to punch in their fifth touchdown of the half.

A Lesson From the Masters

Analyzing the game on TV, Tony Romo kept making two recurring points, but never tied them together.  Let me do that for him.

Even before the opening kickoff, Romo warned that if the Chargers stayed in their normal zone defenses that Brady and the Patriots would pick them apart.  At various times before the game got completely out of hand, Romo implored them to change things up – especially in regard to pressuring Brady.  But they never really did.

At the same time, Tony marveled at the ability of the Patriots to morph into a completely different team almost at a whim.  In this case, he applauded the defense for their impersonation of the Baltimore Ravens.  This was a point he returned to often – how Bill Belichick and the Patriots can seamlessly adjust to any opponent or game situation.

Somewhere in the conjunction of these two concepts is a lesson for Chargers’ coach Anthony Lynn – and in fact for all coaches in the National Football League.

As much as anything else, Lynn’s Chargers were done in by the fact that they were inflexible.  Especially on defense, they did what they do.  Yes, most offenses cannot patiently and flawlessly work their way down the field against a disciplined zone defense.  At some point most offenses will make the drive-ending mistake.  Last Sunday, coach Lynn learned the hard way that the Patriots are not most offenses.

Meanwhile, those of us who have watched them for lo these many years understand that their adaptability is the main thing that has kept New England at the top.  The Patriots are not married to any particular offensive philosophy.  Nor are the constrained by any particular defensive approach.  Except for Tom Brady at quarterback, they are not committed to any set lineup.  And, except for a pronounced vulnerability when Brady gets pressure up the middle, there is no sure formula for beating the Patriots.

This is an extremely difficult pinnacle to reach.  There is a reason why New England’s success is unmatched.  But it might be the most important realization for any franchise that hopes to see itself someday appearing in their eighth straight Championship Game.

Tears for the Chargers?

In some of my discussions in 2016, I sounded a sympathetic note for the Chargers and their long-suffering fans.  In recent years, they have found all sorts of ways to let potential opportunities slip through their fingertips.

While I still feel some sympathy for some of the long-time players, I am finding it difficult these days to feel any heartbreak for the franchise.  As with a great many football fans, the thought of the Chargers selling out San Diego for the lucre of Los Angeles as left something of a bitter taste in my mouth.  This isn’t a harshness that I feel for the Rams – who originally moved from LA to St Louis.  (The Rams were actually in Cleveland until 1946.)  But the Chargers belong to San Diego.  Playing now before a mostly apathetic home crowd, it may well be many years before this franchise works its way through its bad karma.

The Championship Round

So, the NFL now has its final four.  It will be number one against number two in both conferences.  In a sense, though, it will be more than that.  Both conferences have something of a past-vs-future meme going on.

In New England and New Orleans we have two legendary coach-quarterback combinations.  Kansas City and Los Angeles (the Rams) bring a glimpse of tomorrow in rising stars Patrick Mahomes and Jared Goff.  In the case of the Rams, the youth meme even extends to coach Sean McVay.

It is premature to suppose that either Brady or Breese is ready to pass the torch just yet, but it will be interesting to see how these two games will be remembered ten years from now.

Chargers Ready for the Rematch?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Inside the Baltimore Win

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The Fading Chargers

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

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

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

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

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

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

The Chargers, I think, are in trouble here.

The Will to Keep Running the Ball

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

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

Baltimore ran the ball exactly twice in the second half.

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

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

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

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

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

Seattle is Willing

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

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

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

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

A final thought about this game:

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

Rodgers v Brady

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

This time, though, the expected shootout never developed.

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

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

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

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

Deferring a Mistake?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Clarity at the Top of the AFC Playoff Race

There were two minutes and six seconds left in what was arguably the most significant game in the AFC this season.  After finishing second to the Patriots so many times, the Pittsburgh Steelers were one defensive stop away from claiming this victory.  New England broke the huddle, first down with the ball on their own 23, holding two time outs, but trailing 19-24.

On the first play of the drive, quarterback Tom Brady stepped up into the pocket and tossed the ball toward tight end Rob Gronkowski, running a shallow cross from the offensive right toward the left.  But the ball was tipped.  Cameron Heyward grazed the ball with his fingertips – enough to throw it off course.

For a small eternity the game – like the football itself – hovered over the turf of Heinz Field.  And standing beneath it was Steeler defensive back Sean Davis well positioned to make the game-sealing interception.

But the ball was fluttering unevenly – and it was quite wet from the continuous rain – and it glanced off Sean’s left hand, falling harmlessly to the ground.

And, in that moment, you knew how things would turn out.  The exact details of this one couldn’t possibly have been foreseen, but as Davis lay on cold-wet turf mourning the interception that got away, you knew that that was the mistake that would cost Pittsburgh the top seed in the conference.

Consecutive 26-yard passes from Brady to Gronkowski positioned New England at the Steeler 25-yard line.  From here, Rob made the play that Davis couldn’t.  Brady’s next pass was short and looked like it would land at Gronkowski’s feet.  But Rob managed to turn his body back toward the ball and was able to pluck it cleanly before it hit the ground.

New England scored the touchdown on the next play, that – after the two-point conversion (that also went to Gronkowski) – gave New England its 27-24 lead.

At that point, there were 56 seconds left.  Just enough time for another fantastic finish.

On the first play of the succeeding Pittsburgh drive, rookie receiver JuJu Smith-Schuster took a short pass over the middle and flanked the New England defense.  Sixty-nine yards later he was pulled down on the Patriot ten-yard line.  There were 34 seconds left as Pittsburgh called its final time out.  Quarterback Ben Roethlisberger then found tight end Jesse James just in front of the end zone.  James’ knees touched down short of the goal line, but as no Patriot had touched him he was free to fall the rest of the way into the end zone for the game-winning touchdown.

But not so fast.

As the officials kept reviewing the play and as the announcers in the booth kept cycling through the replay, it began to dawn on everyone that James hadn’t held the ball all the way to the ground.  As he was landing in the end zone, he came down ball-first.  The impact jarred it enough that it popped loose – just for an instant before Jesse gathered it back in.  But that instant was enough.  The call on the field was reversed – and Pittsburgh never would score that touchdown.

Even more shocking would be that the Pittsburgh offense wouldn’t even walk off the field with the game-tying field goal.  Two plays later – on a play that looked like Ben was going to spike the ball to set up the field goal – Roethlisberger’s end-zone pass was deflected and intercepted.  The Patriots had escaped again with a 27-24 victory (game book), and that it came with a twist of controversy made it seem all the more familiar.

Up until those devastating last two minutes, Pittsburgh achieved everything it needed to.  Roethlisberger started 15 of 19 with 2 touchdown passes, and the Steelers went 7 for 9 on third downs and held the ball for 19:53 of the first 30 minutes of play.  The Patriots went to the locker at the half trailing 17-10 with only 20 yards rushing.

Pittsburgh finished the game out-rushing New England 143-77, with featured back Le’Veon Bell chalking up 117 yards on 24 carries (4.9 yards per).  Meanwhile, after superstar wide receiver Antonio Brown left the game with an ankle injury, rookie Smith-Schuster rose to the occasion.  His 69-yard catch and run finished his evening with 6 catches (in 6 targets) for 114 yards.  Pittsburgh ended the afternoon 10 of 16 on third down while holding New England to just 3 of 9 on that down.  The Steelers ended with 35:07 of possession time.

If this were a fantasy league matchup and statistics were the driving force, this would have been a victory for the Pittsburgh Steelers.  But this is the lesson that the Patriots repeatedly teach the rest of the NFL.  Both Davis and James had the chance to end the game, but neither could finish.  When you play New England, you pay dearly for all your mistakes.  No matter how well you play through the rest of the game, even slight errors in the fourth quarter will cost you almost every time.

Just ask the Atlanta Falcons and Seattle Seahawks.

Deciding Things in the West

Four weeks into this NFL season, when the Kansas City Chiefs sat at 4-0 and the Los Angeles Chargers had fallen to 0-4, few would have predicted that their December 16 matchup would have been for control of the AFC West.  Yet, with LA winning seven of nine after an 0-4 start, and the Chiefs dropping six of eight after winning their first five, both teams brought 7-6 records into last Saturday’s matchup in Arrowhead.

For the Chiefs, the year-long indicator has been the running game.  In their 5-0 start, they ran for at least 112 yards in every game, averaging 156.2 yards on the ground.  They averaged 33 points a game through the first five.  Over the next six games, the running attack slowed to a crawl.  They averaged just 76.3 rushing yards in those games.  Kansas City lost 5 of the 6, averaging just 18 points a contest.

But the KC tailspin ended just in time – and it was the running game that led out.  Even though they lost their Week 13 contest against the Jets, the running attack started to resurface (they finished that game with 112 rushing yards).  They ran for 165 in Week 14 while beating Oakland 26-15.

Now hosting LA in Week 15 they carried a tight 10-6 lead into halftime.  From there – looking like the early season Chiefs – they rolled to a 30-13 win (game book). While the defense took the ball away four times, the second half belonged to rookie running back Kareem Hunt and his offensive line.  Hunt motored for 115 yards on 16 carries, and the team finished with 126 rushing yards on 21 carries.

In the second half alone.

For the game – while quarterback Alex Smith kept the Charger pass defense honest completing 23 of 30 passes (76.7%) – Hunt finished the afternoon with 155 yards rushing, another 51 receiving, and 2 total touchdowns.  The Chiefs hung 174 rushing yards onto the Charger defense.

Even with the loss, though, Los Angeles’ playoff chances weren’t damaged all that much.  With games remaining in New York against the 5-9 Jets and at home against the 6-8 Oakland Raiders, the Chargers have a legitimate shot at a 9-7 record.  They trail three other teams (all currently 8-6) for one of the two wild-card positions.  One of those teams (Baltimore) also has a fairly soft closing schedule (they finish at home against 3-11 Indianapolis and at 5-9 Cincinnati).  But the other two teams in front of the Chargers face significant challenges.

Buffalo closes its season on the road against the Patriots and Dolphins.  Since the Chargers beat Buffalo back in Week 11, if the Bills lose either game they will lose a tie-breaker to Los Angeles based on head-to-head record (assuming LA can win its last two).  Meanwhile Tennessee finishes with the 10-4 Rams and the 10-4 Jaguars – a daunting challenge for a team that has lost three of its last five, including back-to-back losses to Arizona (6-8) and San Francisco (4-10).

As expected, New England’s win brings clarity to the top of the AFC playoff picture.  The Patriots, the Steelers, the Jaguars and the Chiefs.

At least that’s how it looks now.

Second Half Quarterbacks

In their last game in New England, the Los Angeles Chargers looked like they finally had found their running game.  They lost, but rung up 157 rushing yards, with feature back Melvin Gordon accounting for 132 of them on just 14 carries (9.4 per carry).  Gordon had gained 997 yards the previous year, in spite of playing in only 13 games (starting 11).  The re-discovered running game would be important going forward.

On the other sideline, the Jacksonville Jaguars were welcoming back rookie running sensation Leonard Fournette after a one-game suspension.  Leonard had amassed 596 rushing yards in six games, including 311 in his previous two games.  With the running game being the foundation of the Jaguars’ offense, his return was welcomed.

At the half of last Sunday’s game between the Chargers and the Jaguars, Los Angeles held a 7-6 lead.  Gordon had managed just 16 yards on 8 carries.  Fournette was held to 21 on 9 carries.  By game’s end – after more than 71 minutes of football – these two premier backs had accounted for 60 combined yards on 33 combined rushes – less than two yards a carry.

With the running games unable to get untracked, the contest hinged on the two passing games.

Rivers vs Bortles

For their part, Los Angeles had veteran Philip Rivers.  Going head to head against the number one pass defense in the NFL (and also the defense with the lowest passer rating against – 63.5), Rivers held his own. Philip finished 21 of 37 for 235 yards with 2 touchdowns and 1 interception.  Without much of a running game, and with consistent up the middle pressure, Rivers and the Chargers fought their way to 17 points – about as much as could be reasonably expected under the circumstances.

The curiosity in this game was the other quarterback – Jacksonville’s much discussed Blake Bortles.

The quarterback who earlier this year threw only one pass in the second half of the Pittsburgh game, now held Jacksonville’s fate in his hands.

Throughout the first half, Jacksonville maintained admirable balance.  Their 27 plays were 14 runs and 13 mostly safe passes.  Bortles took one downfield shot, overthrowing Keelan Cole.  But Blake was 11-for-11 throwing underneath against the Chargers.  However, the short passes only accounted for 75 yards, and the only time that Jacksonville found the end zone was on a spectacular fake punt.  Other than Corey Grant’s 56-yard explosion, the running game had contributed just 33 yards.

So, the wraps came off Bortles in the games second half (which ended up being almost three full quarters).  And with decidedly mixed results.

After throwing 12 times in the first half, Blake threw 39 times in the second.  But his 11 first half completions were answered by only 17 in the second half.  His completion percentage fell from 91.7% through the first 30 minutes to just 43.6% thereafter.  After managing just 75 passing yards early, Blake threw for 198 thereafter, but for only a 5.08 yard average per pass, after averaging 6.25 in the first half.

As the focus was decidedly more downfield, his average per completion rose sharply from 6.82 to 11.65, and he threw for his only touchdown of the day.  He also threw two bad-decision interceptions that nearly cost Jacksonville the game.

The Jags held on for a 20-17 victory (gamebook), but the questions continue.  If Jacksonville needs Blake to throw the team to victory against a top opponent (perhaps in a playoff situation), could he do it?

Sunday’s second half against Los Angeles casts some doubt.

Second-Half Jared

Facing a team that had rolled up more than fifty point in its previous game, the Houston defense held the Texans in the game for the first 35 minutes or so.  The Los Angeles Rams had gone in at halftime with just 3 field goals and a 9-7 lead.  As in the Jacksonville game, the Rams’ premier running back Todd Gurley was a non-factor (as a runner).  He rushed for 19 first-half yards.  Meanwhile, Jared Goff and the passing attack weren’t re-writing history either.  Jared went into the locker room with only 104 passing yards on 11 of 20 passing.  Of the 131 total yards LA had to show for the first 30 minutes, 43 came on a short catch and run by Gurley.  Had the Houston offense been able to take advantage, the story of the second half might have been much different.

But the Texans let the Rams hang around and then watched as LA pulled away with 24 unanswered second-half points – on their way to a 33-7 victory (gamebook).  There were a couple of quarterbacks who had brilliant second halves last week.  Arguably Jared Goff’s was the best.

A little bit rushed and flustered through the game’s first thirty minutes, Goff returned for the second half on fire.  Beginning with a perfectly-thrown, 94-yard touchdown strike to Robert Woods, Goff went on to complete 14 of his last 17 passes (82.4%) for an astonishing 254 yards (an average of 17.93 yards per completion) with 3 touchdowns and no interceptions.  On the receiving end, Woods caught all 6 second-half passes thrown to him for 161 yards and 2 touchdowns. Coming one week after his third-and-33 touchdown catch, Woods is, perhaps, forcing his way into a bigger role on this offense.

And, yes, that is the Rams now 7-2.  The intensity of the stretch drive and of the playoffs may catch up to this young team at some point, but nine games into the season they look like more than just a September illusion.

What to Make of the Atlanta-Dallas Game

If Jared Goff’s second half was better than Atlanta’s Matt Ryan’s, it was only marginally so.  Like Goff, Ryan started out a little average.  He completed 11 of 17 first half passes, but for only 94 yards, with no touchdowns and 1 interception.  But coming out of halftime and holding to just a 10-7 lead, Ryan and the Falcon offense finally found their groove.  Matty finished his game completing 11 of his last 12 for 121 yards and 2 touchdowns.

Perhaps the great awakening in the Atlanta offense was nothing more than patience and a little dose of humility.  Instead of stubbornly trying to throw up the field to Julio Jones against coverages overloaded to stop that very strategy, Ryan and the Falcons spent the second half of last Sunday’s game peppering the Cowboys with underneath routes.  For the game, Ryan completed only one throw of over 20 yards (a 24-yarder to Jones early in the second half).  All of his other completions exploited Dallas’ focus on Jones and the deep passing game.

Equally important, the Atlanta running game emerged in the second half, gaining 91 yards on 21 carries and the Falcons walked away with a 27-7 win (gamebook).  One of the things the first half of the season has taught us is that the more balanced the Falcon offense is, the more explosive it is.

The Zeke Factor

The tempting thing here, of course, is to say “well, Dallas was without premier back Ezekiel Elliott, so . . .” But I’m not sure that effectively accounts for the outcome.

Elliott, famously, has been fighting a suspension for the entire year – a suspension that finally began with this game.  Would he have made a difference?  Of course.  But to say he would have propelled Dallas to victory not only slights the Atlanta Falcons and Alfred Morris (who replaced Elliott), but grossly over-values Elliott’s contributions.

The truth is that running the football was probably the best thing that Dallas did on Sunday. They finished with 107 rushing yards, and Morris had 53 of those on 11 carries (4.8 yards per).  The failure to truly establish the run game had more to do with the defense’s inability to contain the Falcon offense – allowing the score to get out of hand – and the struggles of the Cowboy passing game.

With tackle Tyron Smith nursing injuries, Dallas turned to Chaz Green to man that all-important left tackle spot.  To say that he was overmatched by Falcon rush end Adrian Clayborn would be a sizeable understatement.

Cowboy quarterback Dak Prescott finished the game completing 20 of 30 passes – but for only 176 yards.  Prescott began the game having been sacked only 10 times all season.  In this game alone, he went down 8 times (for 50 yards) – 6 of them credited to Clayborn (a game he will remember for a while).

In general, I’m inclined to think this game was more about the Falcons re-discovering themselves than it was conclusive evidence that the Cowboys are rudderless without Elliott.  Next up for Dallas is a crucial division matchup against Philadelphia.  Atlanta journeys to Seattle to play the damaged but dangerous Seahawks.  We will probably know more about both these teams by this time next week.

Playoff Implications

The game was billed as a must win for the Falcons – and that is true enough.  At 4-4, Atlanta’s position was certainly precarious.  Even with the win, though, the Falcons chances still aren’t great.  They currently sit one game behind the Seahawks for the last spot, so a win Monday night could thrust them momentarily into that playoff spot.  The Falcons also have a very tough closing schedule.  After Seattle in Seattle, they will still have Minnesota and Carolina on their schedule, as well as high-flying New Orleans twice.

If Atlanta is going to fight its way in, they will have to earn it.

In the long run, the loss may hurt Dallas more than the win will help Atlanta.  Considering how much harder Dallas’ remaining schedule is than Carolina’s (the team they will likely be battling for that playoff spot) this loss was very damaging to the Cowboys.  They still have two games against Philadelphia, as well as Washington, Oakland and Seattle on their list.  Carolina will have challenges – they have New Orleans, Minnesota and Atlanta left – but clearly not as many.  With Dallas needing to make up a game and a half on the Panthers, facing a tougher schedule, and now without their best linebacker (Sean Lee) for a while, Dallas’ playoff hopes are suddenly looking pretty bleak.

And the Panthers (who looked ripe for the plucking last week) have seen their playoff conditions notably improved with the Dallas loss.  A Week 14 win against the Vikings (and that game is at home) could easily propel Carolina into the fifth seed, leaving Minnesota as the sixth.

Going Vertical – the New Meme of the NFL

In Sunday’s marquee game, Russell Wilson of the Seattle Seahawks and Deshaun Watson of the Houston Texans (whose season has just come to a sudden end) combined for 8 pass plays of over 30 yards.  A couple of them where short passes that broke.  But the great majority were vertical shots intended to challenge the respective secondaries.  It was the kind of game that’s being played more and more these days, as the NFL is beginning its latest shift forward to the past.  The era of the long pass play is returning.

A Quick History of the NFL

Coming out of its rugby roots, the early years of the NFL were run dominated.  In 1940, for example, Washington’s slinging Sammy Baugh led the NFL in passing with 1367 yards over an 11-game season – an average of 124.3 yards per game.  That year there were 4,136 rushing attempts to only 2,254 attempted passes.

Beginning with Sid Luckman in the mid-1940s, the game began to undergo a revolution.  At some point, someone figured out that if my receiver is faster than your defensive back, then all I need is a quarterback who can throw the ball down the field and there would be little that your defense could do about it.

There are some who consider the 1950s and the first half of the 1960s to be football’s golden age.  It was the era of Luckman and Otto Graham.  Of Norm Van Brocklin, Daryle Lamonica and Bobby Lane.  Of Johnny Unitas and Joe Namath.  For the first time, football had truly embraced the pass.  It would never look back.

By the mid-sixties, defenses were beginning to tinker with a new concept called the “zone defense.”  The idea was that instead of having my defensive back try to run with a receiver faster than him, I would have my defensive backs positioned relatively evenly across the field, so that wherever this receiver ended up, I would have a defender there waiting for him.  This was a concept that would mostly rule defensive football for almost 50 years.

In the 80’s offenses adjusted.  Instead of trying to beat the zone defenses with vertical passes, the NFL passing game became increasingly horizontal, as offenses sought to stretch out those zones and widen the naturally occurring seams.  The meme became the West Coast offense – the staple of the San Francisco 49ers of the Bill WalshJoe Montana era.

And that is pretty much where football has been for about 25 years or so.

And Then

All of a sudden, as football enters the second decade of this new century, we are beginning to see elite athletes emerging as the new wave of cornerbacks.  Gradually defenses have learned that they don’t necessarily have to let a speed receiver lift the cover off of their zone.  Not if they could find themselves a shut-down corner – some elite defender that could run with even the fastest receivers wherever they went on the field.

And now, suddenly, everyone is looking for the next Richard Sherman.

But this cornerback mostly forces your defensive scheme back to a man-to-man concept.  This is especially true since most of the league’s better offenses are equipped with several receivers who are vertical threats.

Once the dominant defensive alignment in football, the famous Tampa Two (a brand of zone defense that featured two safeties that had deep responsibility for the two sidelines, while a linebacker dropped back into the deep middle) is now rarely seen.  The NFL’s new predominant defense is the single high safety with man coverage across the field.  This was the defense that Denver relied on to muffle the Kansas City passing attack last Monday night.

And, as football makes this adjustment, it invites the vertical passing game back into the equation.  Not only because it creates the one-on-one matchups, but also because the man coverage focus has compromised the ability of many teams to be effective in zone coverage.  I would guess that probably as many big passing plays last week came against poorly executed zone coverages as against man coverage matchups.

Pittsburgh and Detroit

As in Seattle, Pittsburgh and Detroit got together last Sunday in a game that showcased the best and the worst of the vertical passing game.  Pittsburgh won, 20-15 (gamebook) in a game that featured 9 combined pass plays over 30 yards.

In this particular game, there was only scoring drive in which more than half of the yardage did not come from one single play.  Pittsburgh opened the scoring kicking a field goal after a 59-yard drive.  A vertical pass from Ben Roethlisberger to JuJu Smith-Schuster for 41 yards set that up.

Detroit answered with a field goal after a 45-yard drive – 43 of which came on a vertical pass from Matthew Stafford to Marvin Jones.

And so it went.  A 33-yard pass to Jones early in the second set up another Detroit field goal (after a 39 yard drive) and a 6-3 Lion’s lead.  Forty of the Steelers seventy-five yard answering drive came on a deep jump ball from Roethlisberger to Antonio Brown.  The Steelers scored the game’s first touchdown after that play, and took a 10-6 lead.  The Lions quickly answered with another field goal, moving 42 yards to get into range (with 25 of those coming on a strike from Stafford to T.J. Jones).  Now it was a 10-9 Steeler lead. The Lions would take a 12-10 lead into the half when they moved 63 yards in 43 seconds to kick a field goal with 13 seconds left.  Again, T.J. Jones caught the deep ball (34 yards) to set up the kick.

In the second half, Pittsburgh went back on top 13-12 kicking a field goal after a short punt set them up at about mid-field.  Again, though, the 28-yards scoring drive featured an 18-yard pass from Ben to JuJu.

At the end of the third quarter, the Steelers would score the final touchdown of the day on a 98-yard “drive.”  This “drive” was one running play that gained 3 yards.  One holding penalty that gave back 2 of the yards.  One incomplete pass.  And one 97-yard touchdown strike (again to JuJu).  Smith-Schuster finished his afternoon with 193 yards on 7 catches.

Finally – as the third quarter lapsed into the fourth – the Lions put together an actual scoring drive.  They marched 74 yards in 10 plays.  It cost them 5:07 of playing time, though, and the payoff was only their fifth field goal of the game.

Lots of Yards, But . . .

The two teams combined for 874 yards – 728 of them through the air.  They finished with just 2 touchdowns.  In comparison, the West Coast offense is designed for sustaining offense.  Over the last two decades, pass completion percentages in the high sixties were not uncommon.  In this game, Roethlisberger completed 54.9% (17 of 31) of his passes, and Stafford completed 60% (27 of 45).  The vertical game is less consistent.

More so than the West Coast offense, the vertical passing game needs the balance of a strong running game to help convert the passing yards into touchdowns.  The Steelers were held to just 75 rushing yards.  The Lions – who never did get into the end zone – ran for just 71 yards.  They were 0-for-5 in the red zone, and 0-for-3 in goal-to-go situations.

For Detroit, now, the running game issue is beginning to fester.  Averaging just 82.1 yards per game, the Lions’ running game ranks twenty-eighth in football.  They have suffered agonizing losses to Atlanta (26-30 during which they ran for only 71 yards), Carolina (24-27, during which the running game contributed 50 yards), New Orleans (35-52, while running for 66 yards), and now Pittsburgh.  In all of these games, the missing running attack was a notable contributor to the defeat.

Meanwhile in New England

The defending champion Patriots also had more trouble scoring touchdowns than they had anticipated.  They scored one, kicking four field goals in their 21-13 win over the Los Angeles Chargers (gamebook).

The one enduring virtue of the zone defense is that – when well executed – it can inhibit the vertical game.  That was the focus of the Chargers in their contest against New England, as they forced the explosive Patriot offense to crawl.  Tom Brady completed none of his throws of more than twenty yards, and was only 1-for-6 when throwing more than 15 yards downfield.

Alas, the Patriots are comfortable enough in the horizontal game that they were able to take advantage of the Charger’s deep coverages.  Tom finished his night completing 68.1% of his tosses (32 for 47), albeit for only 10.41 yards per completion.  Running backs Rex Burkhead and James White combined to catch 12 of the 13 passes tossed their way for 153 yards.  Although they only averaged 3.0 yards per rush, the patient Patriots ran the ball 32 times, on their way to controlling the clock for 36:59 of the game.

Sometimes offensive success is less a matter of points than it is of controlling the game.

Again, on the Protests

In case you’ve not yet seen it, here is my link to my National Anthem protest post – since this thing is still in the news.