Tag Archives: Los Angeles Rams

What Happens When He’s Not There?

In the second game of the 2019 season, Pittsburgh quarterback Ben Roethlisberger felt a twinge in his throwing arm as he delivered a pass. And that was it for him. His 2019 season was over that quickly.

Unfortunately for Pittsburgh – as with most teams – the loss of their starting quarterback was pretty much the death-knell for their season. A probable playoff team, last year’s Steelers struggled to an 8-8 finish. This year, both San Francisco and Dallas saw their seasons eviscerated by the loss of their starting quarterbacks. The 49ers went to the Super Bowl last year. This year, they floundered to a 6-10 record (of course, quarterback was not their only significant injury in 2020). The Cowboys just missed last year’s playoffs (they were 8-8). They also finished 2020 with a 6-10 record. They were down to their third-string quarterback for a stretch of the season.

If you follow a team for any number of years, then your team has almost certainly – from time to time – had to deal with the loss of your starting quarterback.

So there are many in the NFL family who can fully commiserate with the situation that unfolded in SoFi Stadium, last Sunday. With a playoff berth on the line in the final game of the regular season, the Arizona Cardinals faced off against the Los Angeles Rams and their backup quarterback John Wolford – who had never thrown a pass in the NFL.

One series into the game, and Arizona was down to their second string quarterback as well – a chap named Chris Streveler, who – like Wolford – had never thrown an NFL pass.

Of the two challenging situations, the Rams suddenly had the advantage. They at least knew during the week that they would be going with their backup, and had the opportunity to adjust the game plan around him. For Arizona, they found out slightly more than three minutes into the game that everything was going to have to change.

Neither backup dazzled – although both had their moments. Neither was terrible – although both threw interceptions that cost their teams touchdowns. For Arizona, though, that touchdown would be their only scoring on the day. The Rams fared better – if only moderately so.

Yes, the Rams were 0-for-4 in the Red Zone – but at least they got there. Using a controlled passing game and – surprisingly – the legs of Wolford, LA managed four drives that lasted at least ten plays – three of which consumed more than six and a half minutes of clock time. They ended up with three field goals, with the other drive ending with a fumble on the Arizona goal line. The Cardinals recovered that fumble – temporarily avoiding disaster – only to give back two points on a safety two plays later.

All of that, and a Troy Hill touchdown on an interception return, was enough for the Rams to claim the sixth seed in the playoffs and send Arizona home by an 18-7 score (gamebook) (summary).

For the afternoon, John Wolford became the closest thing either team had to a Kyler Murray (Arizona’s starting quarterback). John picked up 56 rushing yards on six runs – four of them designed runs, and 2 scrambles. He picked up 4 first downs with his legs – more than the rest of the runners on his team combined (Cam Akers and Malcom Brown combined for just 3) and as many running first downs as the entire Arizona team (they managed 4 as well).

Which brings me to my afternoon’s rumination. Setting aside the added preparation time that Wolford had and just looking at these two backup quarterbacks, their skill sets and the systems they operate in, which would you say would have an easier time stepping in for the starter? John Wolford taking over for Jared Goff? Or Chris Steveler replacing for Kyler Murray? I believe a convincing argument could be made here for Wolford. This wouldn’t be because John is necessarily any more talented than Chris. It would have to do more with the offenses they were sliding into.

The rage over the last several years has been the dual-threat quarterback. Murray, Lamar Jackson, Deshaun Watson – there are several others. These are young quarterbacks who are raising the bar of athleticism for the position across the NFL – quarterbacks who run by design, not just when the pass play breaks down. The threat of these guys pulling the ball back and darting through the line for chunk running plays keeps defensive coordinators up at night.

But what happens when you design your offense around a particular talent and then you lose that talent? What happens when he’s not there? In earlier interviews, Baltimore coach John Harbaugh discussed how every personnel decision that the entire organization made revolved around the singular talent of Lamar Jackson. Harbaugh is a brilliant coach, and he has constructed a wondrous football chrysalis around Jackson designed in every particular to enhance his skill set and minimize his weaknesses.

But what happens when the irreplaceable talent needs to be replaced? In a critical game against Pittsburgh this season, Jackson wasn’t available due to that COVID thing. In his place, the substantial talent of Robert Griffin III – whose skill set is similar to Jackson’s – tried to run the same offense with no real success. The Ravens managed just 219 total yards and lost 19-14.

In fairness to RGIII, Baltimore’s practice time was almost non-existent – again due to the COVID outbreak that they were trying to manage. But even given adequate amounts of practice time, there is only one Lamar Jackson – and if his singular talent is the epicenter of your football organization, then when that light blinks out – whether for a game or a season – your football universe finds itself in a very dark place.

This is why I suspect that the dual-threat quarterback will end up being more fad than revolution.

When the Rams realized that Jared Goff would be unable to start, they didn’t have to abandon their offense. If Wolford wasn’t able to operate the full complexity of the system, he was nonetheless able to run some of Goff’s offense, and the Rams were able to match the parts that he was comfortable with.

In fact, since John is noticeably more mobile than Jared, the Rams were able to add into the offense the kind of designed runs that worked so well for them last Sunday. Conversely, no amount of preparation could make Streveler comfortable in Murray’s offense because Chris doesn’t add the critical piece to this offense that Kyler does.

Arizona’s offensive identity is as one of football’s best running teams. They entered the game averaging 4.7 yards per rush, their 145.9 rushing yards per game ranked third in the league, and their 22 rushing touchdowns were the second most. The problem here is that Arizona’s elite running attack is fitted tightly around Kyler Murray’s legs. Going into the game, he was responsible for half of their rushing touchdowns and more than a third of their rushing yards. Remove his 54.5 rushing yards per game from the team total, and Arizona immediately falls into the lower half of the league’s running attacks.

Kyler’s edge speed might have been Arizona’s equalizer against the stout defensive line of Los Angeles’ third-ranked run defense (allowing 94.1 yards per game, and 3.8 per rush). Without that outside aspect to worry about, the Rams inhaled Arizona’s formerly elite running attack.

Donald and Fox

Discussion of the Los Angeles defense always begins – as it should – with tackle Aaron Donald. As usual, Aaron was a force against the Cardinals. Also catching my eye, though, was fourth-year defender Morgan Fox. As the season has gone on, and his opportunities have increased, Fox has been developing into an impact player on the Ram defensive line.

Morgan, of course, got the sack that knocked Murray out for most of the game. His work against the Cardinal running game was equally impressive, as his improving technique allows his natural strength to impact games.

Barely a minute into the game, with Murray still under center, the Cards faced a second-and-three on their own 43. The run design would send Kenyan Drake off right tackle, with left tackle D.J. Humphries pulling to lead through the hole. But Fox slipped under the pads of right tackle Kelvin Beachum and drove him into the backfield – into the pulling lineman that had come to open the hole, creating something of a train wreck in the Arizona backfield. Morgan then sifted through the bodies until he found the running back and pulled him to the ground.

He made a similar play on the left side with 2:32 left in the first half – the Cards facing second-and-six on their own 24. This time he drove Humphries into the backfield and tossed him to one side before corralling Drake. Game by game, Morgan is developing into a worthy line-mate of the great Aaron Donald.

At only 6-1, Aaron isn’t the tallest of defensive linemen – a characteristic that actually helps him gain leverage – but one look suggests that he is one of the strongest players in the NFL. That would be an accurate assessment.

With 12:50 left in the first quarter, Arizona was sending Drake off right tackle again. Donald lined up on the left side over guard Justin Pugh. With the play going away from Aaron, Arizona apparently thought they would be okay pulling Pugh to the right side and asking center Mason Cole to cross-block on Donald.

After getting underneath Cole’s attempted block, Donald drove him all the way across the formation, eventually pushing Cole out of the way and tackling Drake two yards deep in the backfield.

But for as strong as Aaron is, it’s his quickness and intelligence that sets him apart.

There’s 5:46 left in the game, and Arizona faces a first-and-fifteen from the Ram 45. Donald lines up over the right shoulder of right guard Justin Murray. One second before the snap, Aaron jumps to the other side of Murray so that he is in what they call the “A” gap – that space between the center and guard. Almost immediately after he arrived at that new position, the ball was snapped, and Aaron flew past Murray in one fluid motion. The moment that Kyler (who was then back in the game) handed the ball to Chase Edmonds, Aaron was there to harvest him for a three-yard loss.

About five minutes earlier, Kyler called the read-option. At the snap, Aaron immediately took away the inside run, executing a swim move on Pugh that you almost have to run the tape in slow motion to see.

Clearly unable to hand the ball off, Kyler pulled it back and tried to make it to the edge. His problem now was Fox – the unblocked end that he was supposed to “read.” Seeing that Donald had taken away the inside run, Morgan realized that he didn’t have to crash inside, and stayed wide to play the quarterback keeper.

Out of other options, Kyler tried to outrace Morgan to the edge – and on another day, he just might have. But Murray’s ankle injury cost him just enough speed that he couldn’t quite get past Fox. Morgan grabbed his shoulder as he was passing and pulled him down for a four-yard loss.

By game’s end, Arizona had rushed for nearly 100 yards below their season average. They finished with 48 yards and a 2.7 average (2 yards below their season average). In the second half, they gained 7 yards on 7 carries. This is not a formula for victory for the Cards.

Rams Next Get the Seahawks

Onward and upward for the Rams will lead them back into Seattle for the second time in three weeks for another inter-division rematch. The teams split their first two meeting this year, with the Rams winning 23-16 in Week Ten, and the Hawks getting their revenge, 20-9, in Week 16 (the win that clinched the division for them).

Of all of the WildCard games, this is the hardest to call – made none the easier by the uncertainty of Goff’s injury. Will he play? How well will he play if he does?

Even beyond those questions, we have two teams that know each other inside and out. Add to the fact that Seattle’s offense hasn’t looked in sync against a winning team since they lost a 44-34 contest to Buffalo in Week Nine.

This one reads like a coin flip going in. I’m going to lean to the Seahawks, only because they are the most comfortable in these kinds of tight, one-score games

On some level, it feels only fitting that one of these rivals should be the one to end the other’s season.

A Time to Refrain from Sliding

There were 57 seconds left in the first half – a 6-6 tie between the Los Angeles Rams and the Seattle Seahawks.  The Rams, out of time outs, faced a third-and-eight on their own 27-yard line.

Abandoning the pocket, Ram quarterback Jared Goff was scrambling towards the first-down that would keep the drive going.  But as he approached the sticks, and linebacker Bobby Wagner closed in, Jared slid to a stop one yard before the marker, setting up a Ram punt.

In the broadcast booth, ex-Dallas quarterback Troy Aikman reviewed the play, and watching Jared slide short, he pointed out that “there’s a time to slide and a time to go for it.”

For some time, now, I have been trying to put my finger on exactly what it was about Jared that was preventing me from truly believing in him.  That play – and the comment by Aikman – helped clarify the thing for me.

The particular play, of course, mattered little.  Even if he had ducked his head and plowed through for the first down, the Rams were still in their own territory with 40-some seconds and no time outs – an unlikely scenario for more scoring.  But of great significance is the revelation that emerged from the moment.

Put into the language of the Proverbs, there is a time to slide, and a time to refrain from sliding.  Jared didn’t slide due to any lack of toughness.  Later in the game, Goff would break his thumb against a helmet, would pop the thumb “back in,” and continue playing.  He slid because he didn’t realize that it was a time to refrain from sliding.

Coach Sean McVay’s system is called “quarterback friendly.”  What that means is that the system defines things very clearly for the quarterback in most situations.  The system features a lot of boots and roll-outs that give Jared a lot of one-key options (if the safety comes in, throw it over his head; if he stays back, throw underneath him).  Usually the game plan features a lot of play action (on average, the Rams run play action about 50% more often than the average offense).  This pulls linebackers in toward the line, widening the gap between the levels of the defense.

(On Sunday afternoon, for some reason, LA got away from its play-action identity, calling it only 9 times.)

When Goff can roll out of his break and see what he is looking for in the secondary, he can be very decisive and very effective.

It also helps that the Rams’ concept is heavy on short passes to receivers with room to add yardage after the catch.  At the beginning of the week, Jared was running football’s fourth shortest passing game – his average completion was to a receiver just 4.8 yards from scrimmage.  But that receiver would then add an average of 6 more yards after the catch (the second highest after-the-catch average in the league).

Jared’s problems come when things don’t go quite according to plan – as happened on this particular scramble.  Jared was caught in-between at the decisive moment.  Go for it? Slide?

When the moment comes too quickly for him, Jared goes with a reaction – a reflex really.  There’s the defender – time to slide.

It was the exact process behind Goff’s worst moment in Los Angeles’ 20-9 loss to Seattle (gamebook) (summary).

The possession before, leading 6-3, the Rams began on their own 14 with 8:37 left before the half.  Ten plays later, LA had moved the ball 47 yards to the Seattle 29, while nursing 5:06 off the clock.

On first-and-ten, the Rams ran play-action.  But Goff was flushed from the pocket and came scrambling out to his right.  As he approached the line of scrimmage and the sideline at about the same time, it was decision time.  Run the ball?  Throw it away?  Try to find a receiver?

There was no time for him to ponder, so Jared reacted.  Downfield he caught a flash of receiver Robert Wood somewhere up the sideline.  He came to a nearly full stop just as he was about to reach the line, thought it over for the briefest of moments before trying to flip the ball up-field to Woods.

The ball fluttered away from the line, where Quandre Diggs closed on it and made the interception.

Defending the Rams

Throughout the game, Seattle was able – in a lot of ways – to speed things up for Jared, putting him in that in-between zone for much of the afternoon.

As their defense has been coming together coming down the stretch, Seattle has been able to generate a significant pass rush with just their down linemen.  Even though the Seahawks sent an extra rusher only 11 times, the pressure on Jared was steady throughout the game.  Goff ended up being sacked 3 times (all in the second half) and hit a total of 9 times – part of 18 pressures that kept pushing him into that in-between zone.

Additionally, they sat on Jared’s short routes, forcing him to look farther up the field.  His average completion in this game was to a receiver 6.75 yards from scrimmage (who then added only 3.00 additional yards after the catch).  It was not an offensive style that the Rams are comfortable in.

Seattle also took away the right sideline – the side that Jared rolls to when he’s in trouble.  Jared was just 5 of 13 (38.5%) when throwing to the right side of the field for 70 yards and that one interception.

It was a nuanced game-plan from an opponent that understands Jared’s strengths and weaknesses very well.

Is this fixable?  I’m not sure.  None of his issues have anything to do with what Jared knows or what he has or hasn’t been coached to do.  It’s that moment when his instincts take over that he gets into trouble.  And I’m not sure what to do about a quarterback’s instincts.

Missed Opportunities

The interception caused at least a three-point swing – if not a ten-point swing – as Seattle turned the mistake into a field goal (remember that the Rams were within field goal range at the time).  It was one of three Ram drives that lasted at least 5 minutes.  They scored a total of 3 points off of those drives.

On their first possession of the second half, LA drove 69 yards on 12 plays in a drive that lasted 7:17.  It brought them to first-and-goal from the 2.

From there they ran on four straight plays, being turned away each time.  Would one of those downs have been a good opportunity for a play-action pass?  Possibly.  But I find I can’t argue with a coach who wants to run the ball right at them in that situation.  It is axiomatic in football that if you can’t get one yard when you really need it (especially when you take four shots at it), that you don’t really deserve to win.

In the Rams’ case last Sunday afternoon, they couldn’t, and they didn’t.

Not How You Start

One of the game’s most instinctual quarterbacks played for the other team.  That would be Russell Wilson.  Long regarded as one of the better deep throwers in the game, Wilson missed that deep shot several times in the first half.  Harassed himself by the Ram front four, Wilson went into the locker at the half with that 6-6 tie, and little production to show for the first 30 minutes.  Wilson was 10-of-19 (52.6%) for only 84 yards.

On the first third-down of the second half, Russell rolled out and lofted a 45-yard beauty up the right sideline to David Moore.  It led to the game’s first touchdown, and sparked a second half in which Wilson completed 10 of 13 (76.9%) for 141 yards (10.85 yards per attempted pass).

The Seahawks look a lot better as they head into the playoffs than they did last year (and this win clinched the division title for them).  This year, their defense looks to be a strength (you couldn’t say that last year) and they have healthy running backs (remember last year that all of their running backs were injured).

And, of course, they have Russell Wilson.  Seattle looks like they will be a tough out.

A Time to Throw Long

In Week 11, the Pittsburgh Steelers went to 10-0 with a relatively easy 27-3 conquest of Jacksonville.  At that point, it looked like the AFC would be coming down to Pittsburgh and Kansas City.

Ten games into the season, the Steelers were scoring 29.8 points a game, never scoring fewer than 24 in any one game.  Defensively, they were allowing just 17.4 points per game.  Offensively, they were football’s fourth highest-scoring team, while the defense led all of football in fewest points allowed.  They also ranked fourth in total yardage given up (third against the pass).  The 71.8 passer rating against them was the lowest in football.  They also led all defenses in sacks (38) and sack rate (9.9%).

Utilizing a new quick-pass offensive style, 38-year-old quarterback Ben Roethlisberger was sustaining a 101.4 passer rating, while being sacked just 10 times (only 2.6% of his drop-backs).  Things couldn’t have gone much better for the Steelers to that point.

All of that changed with their Week 12 game against the Baltimore Ravens – this was the game that was postponed about three times and finally played with about half of the Ravens on the COVID list.  Pittsburgh squeaked to a 19-14 win, but things wouldn’t be the same thereafter.  The Steelers lost the next three games, scoring 17 points against Washington, 15 against Buffalo, and – shockingly – just 17 against Cincinnati.  (The defense served up a total of 76 points during that stretch, as well – over the four games just preceding, Pittsburgh had surrendered a total of 46 points).

During this offensive brown-out, Pittsburgh converted just 11 of 41 third downs, and their running game – never among the league’s best – completely disappeared.  Through ten games, they were averaging 102.2 rushing yards a game and 3.9 yards per carry (both figures below the league averages).  During the losing streak, they managed just 51.3 rushing yards a game and just 2.9 per carry.

As for Ben and the short passing game, teams had begun to sink their coverages securely around all the quick-opening underneath routes.  His completion percentage dropped from 67.1% to 57.8%, his per-pass average fell from 6.67 yards to 5.17 yards, his yards per completion went from 9.9 to 8.9, and his touchdown percentage fell from 6.3 to 3.9.  Meanwhile his interception percentage rose from 1.3 to 3.1.  During the losing streak, Roethlisberger’s touchdown-to-interception ratio was a struggling 5-4, and his passer rating sat at 71.8 – exactly what Pittsburgh’s defense had held opposing passers to over those first ten games.  Add in a case of the drops that his receivers suffered through (and during one three-game stretch Ben had 14 of his passes dropped) and you have a picture of an offense in a bit of a crisis.

Clearly, it was time to change things up.  Defenses would now have to be loosened up, or they would smother the life out of the Steelers.

With the division title there for the taking, Pittsburgh welcomed the 10-4 Indianapolis Colts into Heinz Field for a critical Week 16 matchup rife with playoff implications.  Certainly, the message of the past few weeks had registered.  It was time to throw the ball long.

But for thirty horrific minutes against the Colts, things just snowballed.  Roethlisberger completed only 11 of 20 through that first half for but 98 yards.  The rushing attack accounted for just 4 yards on seven rushes – none of them gaining more than 2 yards.

Indianapolis trotted off the field at the half having outgained the Steelers 217-93, and their 21-7 halftime lead was only marred by a short-field touchdown allowed.  Pittsburgh’s defense had briefly risen to the moment, striping the ball away from Indianapolis quarterback Philip Rivers in the early moments of the second quarter.  The recovery was advanced to the Indy 3-yard line – about as far as the Steeler offense could sustain a drive.

In the aftermath of Pittsburgh’s surprising 28-24 comeback victory (gamebook) (summary), the questions posed to Ben and to head coach Mike Tomlin wondered why they waited till the second half to throw the ball up the field.  The answer, of course, was that they didn’t.  The deep strike had been a part of the game plan from the beginning, but throughout the first two quarters they just couldn’t connect with the big play.

One, in particular, worth remembering came with 14 seconds left in the half.  Diontae Johnson flew up the right sideline, and Ben let it go for him.  But Johnson veered his route back toward the middle, while Roethlisberger’s throw continued up the sideline.  In the locker room at the half, the two got together and compared notes on the play.

Say this for the Steelers and Tomlin their coach.  Through all of this, there was no panic.  They knew that they just needed to hit on one of those plays to dispel the dark clouds and get a little momentum going.

And so it was, with 3:23 left in the third quarter and the Steelers now down 24-7, that Johnson flew up that same right sideline and Roethlisberger lofted that same pass.  This time, however, Johnson’s route hugged that sideline.  He finally caught up with the pass at about the point he was crossing the goal line.  In the signature moment of the comeback, Diontae laid out for the throw.  Responsible for 13 drops this season, this time Johnson reeled in the big one, and the rally was on.

During the rousing second half, Ben completed 23 of his last 29 passes (79.3%) for 244 yards and 3 touchdowns.  He completed 3 passes of more than 20 yards up-field.  In addition to the 39-yard strike to Johnson, Ben completed a 34-yarder to Chase Claypool and the rally capping 25-yard touchdown toss to JuJu Smith-Schuster.  That throw – with 7:38 left in the contest – gave Pittsburgh it’s only lead of the afternoon – the only one they would need.  The one that produced the 28-24 final.

Ben entered the contest running the NFL’s third-shortest passing game.  His average completion was only 4.5 yards from the line of scrimmage.  On Sunday, his average completion was 6.09 yards from scrimmage – which is about the league average.  The quick pass was still very much a part of the offense – in fact, 84% of Ben’s throws (including all three touchdown passes) were out of his hand in less than 2.5 seconds.  Coming into the game, only 75% of his throws were out of his hand that quickly.

The difference on Sunday was how well the passing game did when Ben did hold the ball for more than 2.5 seconds.  Through the first 14 games of the season, Ben’s passer rating when he held the ball was a disappointing 63.5.  Last Sunday, he was 6-for-7 for 88 yards when taking more than 2.5 seconds.

Going Forward

It was certainly a relief for the Steeler organization to break through a little bit like this.  It’s probably premature, though, to assume that their struggles are over.  The pass offense in general will profit from this slight change in emphasis.  There is nothing like hitting a few deep throws to get the defense to back off and open up some underneath routes.  The running game, though, is still a mess.  Pittsburgh came out of the Colt contest with all of 20 rushing yards and a 1.4 yard average per carry.  Colt running back Jonathan Taylor had almost that many on one carry (he broke off an 18-yard run in their first possession of the second half).

Until they fix their running game, I don’t believe in the Steelers’ ability to run the table in the playoffs.  As opposed to last year, very few of the teams likely to make the playoffs are run-dependent teams.  But almost all of them – especially the ones that are most likely to bring home the hardware – have a legitimate running game that they can turn to whenever they need to.  Pittsburgh does not.  At some point during the playoffs that is almost certainly going to bring them down.

The Disappearance of the Colt Running Game

After running the ball 20 times in the first half, Indianapolis ran just 8 times in the second.  After controlling the clock for 18:17 of the first half, they held the ball for just 14:11 thereafter, adding fuel to the Pittsburgh comeback.

In the post-game, questions were asked about the disappearance of the running attack.  Coach Frank Reich informed the press that they had more runs called, but they checked out of them when the Steelers showed certain pressures.  Elaborating on the situation, Rivers offered that the Colts had called running plays from formations with three wide-receivers on the field.  The intent was that Pittsburgh would remove a linebacker in favor of a defensive back and open up some running space.  But according to Philip, Pittsburgh stayed with their base personnel, and Indy chose not to run against that front seven without significant numbers of big people on the field to block them.

They weren’t asked why they didn’t run more large-package formations (two or three tight ends, for example) and try to keep the running game going.

A Time to Refrain from Throwing Long

Matt Ryan’s season has been opposite – in many ways – from Ben Roethlisberger’s season.  Record, of course, is an obvious point of comparison.  Pittsburgh took the field against Indy carrying an 11-3 record.  As Ryan’s Atlanta Falcons took the field in Kansas City to play the reigning world champions, they sported a 4-10 record.

But more than record separates these two veteran quarterbacks – the very styles of their passing attacks are strikingly different.  Where Roethlisberger has spent almost the entire season throwing short, quick passes, Ryan’s attack has been one of football’s most up-field attacks.  Going into last Sunday’s contest against the Chiefs, Matt was second in the league in air yards per pass thrown.  His average target was 8.8 yards from scrimmage.  He led the entire NFL in air yards per completed pass, with his average completion occurring 7.5 yards from scrimmage.

Some of this is certainly game-situation related.  The Falcons have been behind a lot this year.  But mostly this is an organization that believes that if you have a quarterback with a strong arm and top-shelf receivers like Julio Jones (who missed this game), Calvin Ridley and Russell Gage, then your offense should be doing more than dumping screen passes to running backs.

And so Ryan has taken his shots up the field.  Targeted 68 times, Jones has been an average of 11.2 yards from scrimmage for every pass thrown in his direction.  Ridley’s average is 15.1 yards away for each of his 131 targets.  Another receiver (who also didn’t play last Sunday) Olamide Zaccheaus has been targeted 32 times this year at an average distance of 13.8 yards upfield.

Against Kansas City, you could make the argument that this mind-set should continue, the assumption being that with the Chief scoring machine on the other sideline, your own offense should be all about the points – as many as possible as quickly as possible.

The problem was that the game’s biggest statistical mismatch was Patrick Mahomes and the Kansas City passing attack (ranked first in the NFL) against the Falcon passing defense (ranked second to last).  The Chiefs ranked above average to well above average in every significant passing statistic – including passer rating, where Mahomes ranked third at 110.6.  The Falcon defense ranked below average to well below average in every significant passing statistic – including passer rating, where their 103.2 ranked fifth-worst.  These numbers suggest that for the Falcons – or anyone, really – to try to bomb it out with the Chiefs – trying to match them touchdown pass for touchdown pass – is mostly like bringing a butter knife to a gun fight.

So, Atlanta tried a different approach.  While coaches Raheem Morris and Jeff Ulbrich fashioned a daring defensive game plan that worked better than it had any right to, offensive coordinator Dirk Koetter played complimentary football.  The offensive objective was to control the clock, keep Mahomes and his receivers on the sideline – hopefully at the end of the day denying them a possession on two.  So Atlanta ran the ball as much as they legitimately could (which turned out to be 23 rushes).

And they went to the short passing game.

In contrast to the offense run most of the season, Matt and the Falcons went all Ben Roethlisberger on the Chiefs.  Of Matt’s 35 passes, only 3 were at targets more than 20 yards from scrimmage.  With two of his top wide-receivers on the shelf, Matt dropped the ball off liberally to his tight ends and running backs.  Eighteen of his passes went to that grouping.  Ridley still provided the occasional long threat (he was an average of 15.0 yards downfield on his 9 targets), but Gage became another check-down option.  Targeted 5 times, Russell finished with 4 catches for 23 yards – his average depth of target being just 1.4 yards.

For the game, Matt’s average target was 6.51 yards from scrimmage – still higher than average, but more than two yards shorter than normal.  To this point of the season, the Falcons were averaging only 4.0 yards after the catch.  Against KC they averaged 5.56.  In fact, in the final analysis, Ryan’s 300-yard passing game broke exactly evenly between yards in the air (150) and yards after the catch (also 150).

The results were as much as Atlanta could have hoped for.  Matt completed 10 of 12 (83.3%) in the first half for 129 yards (10.75 per attempted pass).  For the game, he completed 77.1% of his passes (27 of 35), tossed a couple of touchdowns, and finished with a 121.1 passer rating against a very good pass defense.

This in spite of the fact that he was blitzed almost half of the time (19 of his 39 drop-backs), was sacked 4 times and hit 12 times on the day.  The Falcons finished with only 14 points, but did so while controlling the clock (33:12) and limiting KC’s possessions (they had 10 instead of the normal 12 or 13).

It was a very gritty offensive performance that gave this team a legitimate shot at the upset.

A Time to Blitz

Two, of course, can play at the blitzing game, and Atlanta returned the favor by coming after Mahomes.  They came after him with an extra rusher 39.1% of the time (18 blitzes in 46 drop-backs) and played aggressive man-coverage behind.  Much of the success of the plan – and it did succeed – came, I think, from the surprise factor.  It was probably the last thing that KC expected.

Few teams challenge the athleticism of the KC receivers.  And few teams come after Mahomes.  Over the course of the season coming into that game, Patrick was seeing blitzes only 20.2% of the time – mostly because he is one of football’s best at picking apart teams that blitz him.

In the postgame, Patrick owned that he missed checking into some protections and didn’t find the hot routes that he usually does.  As much as anything else, I believe that had to do with the surprise of the Atlanta game plan.  Patrick was rarely hit or hurried as the line did its usual excellent job of picking up the blitz.  Mahomes wasn’t sacked.  But his timing was visibly effected.

Patrick ended his afternoon with a pedestrian 79.5 passer rating – his lowest of the season.  His final line showed him below the NFL average in all of the passing categories, except yards per completion.  As you might expect against a defense that featured a heavy dose of blitz, there were some big plays hit, and Patrick did pick up 278 yards on his 24 completions (11.58 per).

All things considered, though, on both sides of the ball the Falcons delivered a surprising effort against arguably football’s best team.  It was almost enough to secure them the victory.

In Their Grasp

The game deciding sequence began with just 2:07 left in the contest.  Trailing 14-10, the Chiefs faced first-and-ten on the Atlanta 25.  Mahomes went for it all, lofting a pass for Tyreek Hill in the middle of the end zone down the right sideline.

Just in front of him, a leaping AJ Terrell, in a breath-taking show of athleticism, soared above Hill’s head and latched onto the ball at its highest point, pulling down the interception that would almost certainly end Kansas City’s long winning streak.  Except that as he landed in the end zone, the impact jarred the ball out of his grasp.

You knew what would happen then.

On the very next play, Damarcus Robinson shook free of Kendall Sheffield (who had no safety help) to gather in the 25-yard pass that put the Chiefs back in front 17-14.

Atlanta still had 1:55 of clock left and two time outs.  And true to their plucky nature, back came the Falcons.  Ryan completed three quick passes to bring Atlanta to the KC 28 yard line with a minute left.  Later, an offsides penalty put the Falcons on the Chief 21-yard line, first-and-five, 27 seconds left – Atlanta still with two timeouts.

Three incomplete passes later, now with 14 seconds left, Atlanta brought out Pro-Bowl kicker Younghoe Koo – riding a streak of 27 consecutive field goals – to give them a tie and send the game into overtime.

And, of course, he missed – the kick fluttering wide to the right.  And with that, Kansas City’s amazing streak continues (gamebook) (summary).  The Chiefs have now won 10 in a row, 14 of 15 for the season, and 23 of their last 24.

For all of that, though, there is a strong sense that this is a Kansas City team that’s winning on guile, guts and a fair amount of luck.  Of their ten straight wins, the last seven have all been one-score games (and four of those have been decided by a field goal).  This list includes excellent teams like New Orleans and Tampa Bay, but also includes several that you would think should be more easily subdued – Carolina, Denver and, of course, Atlanta.  They are now winning games that they probably should lose.

That’s all well and good, but I have this unshakeable feeling that a tough-luck loss is coming for them.  I absolutely concur that this is football’s best team, but even the best team loses from time to time.  At this point, that loss could well interrupt their playoff run.  If that loss comes.

Once More Into the Breach

Meanwhile, the nightmare season for the Falcons now has only one more game to go.  After yet another galling loss to a team on its way to the playoffs, Atlanta now gets a second helping of Tom Brady and the Buccaneers.  I am not even going to attempt to recap all the woulda-shoulda-couldas of the Falcons’ season – the number of late leads lost, the number of near victories – at this point its water under the bridge.

I will say this, though.  This last game against Tampa Bay, I believe, has become very important for this franchise – perhaps even more than it is to the Bucs.  After everything they’ve been through, getting one more shot at Brady, one more chance to prove themselves against a playoff team – one last chance before the season ends to close out a team – all of these things will be enormous for this franchise.

The Proverb says that to everything there is a season.  For the Falcons, though, that season will have to be next season.

The Quarterback Kvetching Society

The old saying goes that the quarterback always gets too much credit when his team wins, and too much blame when it doesn’t.  My experience confirms this.  Even so, complaining about your quarterback is one of our basic constitutional rights that we sometimes take for granted.

2020 (different in a lot of ways from other years) is also distinct for the amount of criticism attached to “made” quarterbacks.  Throughout history, there have been some of these great field generals that have elevated themselves to the point where they are (usually) considered immune from the harping that lesser quarterbacks are subjected to.  Can you imagine any in the football universe openly caviling Johnny Unitas or Joe Montana?  Didn’t think so.

And yet, this year some resumed signal callers have been called out, publicly by their coaches as well as by the fandom in general.  The discussion of “what’s wrong with Tom Brady” has turned into a season-long polemic that has abated only slightly with Tampa Bay finally winning a game.  Brady, of course, is history’s most decorated quarterback – the numbers of Super Bowls, awards and records need not be recounted here.  In earlier posts (here is one) we’ve tried to take an objective look at the swirl of chatter around (arguably) the finest quarterback of this generation.

Of the up-comers, Jared Goff of the Rams – who led them to a Super Bowl a few years ago – has also taken some gentle flack from his head coach – and we looked as his efforts in an earlier post as well.

But of all these decorated quarterbacks, none has been under the constant assault that New England’s Cam Newton has been subjected to.  A former MVP, Newton – as you must surely recall – led the Carolina Panthers to the Super Bowl on the heels of a nearly undefeated season (they were 15-1) just 5 years ago.  When he signed on as Brady’s replacement, it was widely assumed that cam would lead that franchise back to glory.  Yes he is 31 now, and has had some injuries.  But Cam was Lamar Jackson before Lamar Jackson – and he still carried some of that Superman mystique that defined his earlier success in Carolina.

It hasn’t exactly been plug-and-play for Cam in Foxboro.  He was benched for Jarrett Stidham in the fourth quarter of last Thursday’s 24-3 loss to the Los Angeles Rams (gamebook) (summary).  Cam’s numbers were as sluggish as the entire Patriot offense looked during that effort.  Newton was 9 for 16 for 119 yards.  He threw 1 interception while throwing no touchdowns (obviously).  His passer rating of 53.9 was only his fourth worst of the season.  On the season, he is having 3.3% of his passes intercepted (which would tie his career high if it stays there) while only tossing touchdowns on 1.7% of his passes (he has never been below 3.7% in any full season of his career).

I can’t speak for the entire internet, but pretty much everywhere I’ve looked the word in the web is that he’s done.  In the press conference after the game, the press circled coach Bill Belichick like so many vultures demanding to know why he was still sticking with Newton (“What has he shown you to warrant your confidence?” and other such questions).  Obviously, the press covering the Patriots is tired of Cam and are already clamoring for Stidham.

By the way, Belichick’s press conferences – which have always been pained affairs – have taken on a distinctly funerary overtone these days, with Bill looking positively embalmed on Thursday night.

It is somewhat ironic that I am defending Newton – and I mostly will.  If you search the Cam Newton tags on my site, you will find some posts where I delve into the things that have prevented him from becoming the enduring star that he could (here is one, there are others).  But as with Brady and Goff, I believe that his critics are short-sighted, and that he has become the lightening rod for a lot of issues that New England’s offense is struggling with.

This is not to say that Cam is blameless.  His lack of discipline and hit-and-miss mechanics are still underpinning his inconsistencies.  Football reference (in the summary I linked to above) charged him with 4 “bad throws” – so one out of every four passes didn’t go where Cam would have intended.  Those would include his last two throws before being benched.  Damiere Byrd and James White both had a little separation, but the throws were off the mark.  Of course, New England was already down 24-3 at that point, so . . .

But Newton also averaged 13.22 yards per pass completion, and three of his nine completions accounted for at least 25 yards – with two of them moving the ball 30 or more yards downfield.  His 9 completions traveled an average of 9.7 yards in the air – the highest such average of any quarterback last week.  And this against a pass defense that came into the game ranked first in both fewest yards allowed per pass (6.05) and fewest yards per completion (9.7).

In all honesty, when you look at Cam on film, he doesn’t look all that different than he did in his glory days with the Panthers – he is still the same blend of sometimes dazzling talent and sometimes maddening disappointment.  The big difference in the Newton of today and the Newton of yesteryear is the support system around him.  Cam is, in fact, struggling with the same issues that made Tom Brady look old last year – lack of pass protection, and lack of playmakers to throw the ball to.

You may not be aware, but Brady led all of football in 2019 in throwing away passes – he unloaded 40 of them last year – 9 more than Aaron Rodgers’ 31.  The bulk of these involved Tom just getting the ball out of his hand to avoid taking a sack.  Newton is less committed to avoiding sacks, and so is throwing away fewer passes (only 8 so far).  He is, consequently, getting sacked more (on 7.1% of his drop backs, so far this year).  But he is operating under the same duress that Brady encountered last year.

In 22 drop backs against the Rams, Newton was sacked 4 times and knocked down 3 others as Los Angeles hit him 10 times and forced 2 scrambles.  He was hurried on a couple of other occasions.

And then, of course, there are the receivers.  Between injured reserve and COVID-19, Julian Edelman has missed the least 7 games.  Of the pass catchers that were available, only Byrd showed any consistent ability to gain separation.  Damiere averaged 3.7 yards of separation on the 8 passes thrown in his direction.  Cam’s other receiving options (Jakobi Meyers, N’Keal Harry and Devin Asiasi) combined averaged just 1.52 yards of separation.

Regardless of your expectation for Newton, this is not a formula for success.  Few quarterbacks could thrive in this circumstance.  Belichick is the last head coach you can imagine that will give in to the whinging of the press and the internet, so it’s doubtful that he will give the offense to Jarrett.  Bill – while certainly not content with Cam’s performance – realizes that his situation is challenging.  So Newton will keep getting his opportunity to work through these things.

It is doubtful that his treatment by the press will be equally fair.

The Rams Roll On

As to the Rams, their formula against the Patriots was an extension of the plan they ran against Arizona the Sunday before.  Lots of running and lots of short passes.

They finished with 36 rushing plays that accounted for 186 yards (5.2 per).  While the New England Cam (Newton) endured a frustrating night, Los Angeles’ Cam (Cam Akers) was having a breakthrough performance.  The Rams’ rookie running back slashed through the Patriot defense for 171 of those yards (on 29 carries).  Of those 171 yards, 112 came before contact, as the LA offensive line owned the contest.

And the passing continues to be exceedingly short.  Goff’s average target was only 4.6 yards away from the line of scrimmage (Week 14’s third shortest range passing attack).  Of the 24 passes he actually threw to a receiver (he threw one of his 25 passes away), 20 of them were less than ten yards from scrimmage.

Jared finished with just 137 passing yards for the night, but only threw 7 passes in the second half, as the Rams ran on 23 of 31 second half snaps.

And that is a formula for success.

Kansas City Also Rolls On

One place they aren’t kvetching over their quarterback play is Kansas City, where they Chiefs won again.  Once again, they spotted their opponent (this time the Miami Dolphins) a 10-0 lead, but had pulled back in front 14-10 by halftime, on their way to a 33-27 conquest (gamebook) (summary).  The Chiefs have now won 12 of 13 this season, and 21 of their last 22 (including playoffs).

But this time the quarterback play wasn’t as clean and pristine as usual.  Patrick Mahomes was sacked 3 times (one of them for a 30-yard loss, which I understand is a record) and tossed 3 interceptions in a 4-turnover day for Kansas City.

Forty-four games into his young career, this was only the second time that Mahomes had thrown 3 picks in a game.  The only other time was that epic showdown with the Rams in Week 11 of 2018.  Los Angeles won that one 54-51, and Patrick threw 6 touchdown passes to go along with his interceptions.

That was, in fact, the last regular-season game in which Patrick threw more than one interception (he did, you’ll recall, throw 2 in last year’s Super Bowl).  So that snapped his streak of 31 consecutive regular season games without throwing multiple interceptions.

Mahomes finished the game 24-of-34 for 393 yards and 2 touchdowns (a 91.9 rating) after a torrid second half in which he completed 11 of his final 15 passes for 221 yards.  That equates to 14.73 yards per attempted pass, and 20.09 yards per completion.

How to Beat the Chiefs

So here was the pattern – very reminiscent of their playoff journey.  They look bad early.  Sacks, fumbles (Mahomes also fumbled during the game, but KC recovered it), drops – interceptions.  Suddenly, its 10-0 bad guys (or, Dolphins, in this case).

Then one good thing happens for the Chiefs – one big play.  This time Tyreek Hill on a running play scooted 32 yards for a touchdown.  One big play, and the Chiefs exploded.

Counting that drive, the Chiefs scored touchdowns on three of four drives in not quite a quarter’s worth of playing time.  This first drive began with 10:14 left in the second quarter, and the fourth drive ended with 13:50 left in the third.  All together, the four drives required just 19 plays while accounting for 204 yards (10.7 yards per play).  They consumed a total of 7 minutes 11 seconds, and included – in addition to the big run by Hill – a 21-yard pass to Travis Kelce, a 26-yard pass up the sideline to running back Clyde Edwards-Helaire, and a picture perfect, 44-yard deep strike to Hill running behind the secondary.

Toss in a 67-yard punt return for a touchdown by Mecole Hardman after Miami’s next posession, and the dynamic Kansas City offense and special teams tossed up 28 points in 10:30 of football time. (The Dolphins, by the way, entered the game allowing the second fewest points in the NFL – not that that matters to Kansas City).

So, this suggests a strategy.

Don’t give up that first big play!

Knowing that this is football’s most momentum-phillic offense, don’t allow the play that swings the momentum to their side.  This is roughly equivalent to telling a pitcher that the way to stop the Dodger hitting attack is to simply not make any mistakes with any of his pitches – and, as pieces of advice go,  just as practical.

So seriously, how do you go about slowing this team?  Well, that’s the million-dollar question, isn’t it?  In this space, I will sometimes speculate about things I might try against various offenses if I were the defensive coordinator charged with concocting a game plan.

To date, I don’t have a comprehensive answer for the Chiefs.  I wouldn’t take the deep-zone approach designed to prevent the big play.  Kansas City is one of the few offenses that can consistently drive the field taking all the short and intermediate throws that you give them.  And, frankly, the teams that take that approach against them usually give up the big play, anyway.  I would opt for man coverage.

Ideally, you would like to double everybody.  In practice, that’s impossible.  But I would double-cover Hill, and I would literally mug Kelce at the line – even walking a defensive lineman out over him in an attempt to disrupt him.

But the basic approach would be pressure.  A vigorous, relentless pass rush will stop any passing attack.  Here, though, is the rub.  You have to get that pass rush from just your four down linemen.  If you blitz him, Mahomes will destroy you.

It is, to say the least, a conundrum.

Miami Trending Down

After a 1-3 start, the Dolphins suddenly caught fire.  They won five in a row, including splash wins against the 49ers, Rams and Cardinals.  In addition to the surprisingly stingy defense, Miami featured the franchise quarterback that they had drafted in the first round of the most recent draft (that would be Tua Tagovailoa) and a certain knack for finding a way to win games that they looked like they should have lost.  They also received outstanding special teams play.

Over the last month or so, gravity seems to have caught up with them a bit.  They have split their last 4 games, with their other loss coming against the Denver Broncos.  Through his first three starts, Tua posted a passer rating of 104.9, throwing 5 touchdowns against no interceptions.  In losing two of this last three, Tua’s rating has slipped to 88.3 as his completion percentage has dropped to 60.8%.

Sunday against KC, Tagovailoa was just 28-for-48 for 316 yards and 2 touchdowns to weigh against his first career interception – an 83.3 rating.  He was also sacked 4 times (the Broncos got him 6 times).

He was just 5-for-12 for 80 yards in the 10-to-20 yard range.

However it plays out in the end, this has been a welcome resurgence season for the Dolphins.  But, over the last few games and heading into a tough finishing stretch (Miami closes with New England, Las Vegas and Buffalo), their youth has been starting to show.

NFL Week 13: Resurrection and other flavors of redemption

Last week we took a pretty in depth look at the Los Angeles Rams’ loss at the hands of the San Francisco 49ers.  A lot of fingers were pointed at quarterback Jared Goff – and we looked at some of the things that he could have done better.

We also hastened to point out that Jared wasn’t the only Ram having a bad day.

One of the beautiful things about sports is that it is constantly offering opportunities for redemption.  Sunday – in a conference game that was arguably more important than the one they lost to the 49ers, Jared Goff and his LA teammates took down the Arizona Cardinals 38-28 (gamebook) (summary).

In exorcising their demons from the previous week, the Rams simply returned to who they were and didn’t permit the Cardinals to be who they are.  As I watch these teams week in and week out, it continually surprises me to note how often they abandon the elements of their game that make them successful.  In the Rams’ case, the elements aren’t a great secret.

First, LA runs the football – even if the running game isn’t spectacularly productive.  They ran the ball 31 times against Arizona – even though they only earned 3.8 yards per rush.  Nineteen of those carries came in the first half – even though they only produced 50 yards (2.6 per).

But the running game is the foundation of the passing game – particularly the play-action game that so much of the offense depends upon.  Last week against San Francisco, Goff threw only 4 play-action passes.  On Sunday against Arizona, Jared ran play-action 15 times.

Working off the running game and the play-action, the rest of the passing game returned to what it does best.  A week ago against San Fran, Jared was 1-for-5 throwing the ball more than 20 yards downfield, and 1-for-7 if the pass was more than 10 yards from scrimmage.

On Sunday, none of Jared’s 47 passes travelled 20 yards from scrimmage in the air.  That is not a misprint. Jared threw no deep balls at all against the Cards.

Instead, Jared ran an extremely short, quick passing game.  His average target was just 3.62 yards from scrimmage.  Of the receivers who had more than 2 passes lobbed in their direction, tight end Tyler Higbee was the “deepest” threat.  The 6 passes thrown to him travelled an average of 8.5 yards from scrimmage – an average that was twice as deep as either of the star wide receivers.  Cooper Kupp was an average of just 2.9 yards from scrimmage on the 9 passes thrown to him.  He caught 8 for 73 yards, but 47 of those came after the catch.  Robert Woods had 11 passes thrown his way.  On average he was 3.2 yards from scrimmage when Goff threw it his way.  He caught 10 of those passes for 85 yards – 62 of those after the catch.

Additionally, Jared’s supporting cast earned significant redemption as well.  Joseph Noteboom at left tackle was much improved and pass rush pressure was much less than the previous game.  And the receivers Kupp and Woods both had a far easier time against the Arizona zones than they did the 49ers’ man coverages.

And in the center of it all was Jared Goff.  He completed 37 of his 47 short passes (78.7%) for 351 yards – 253 of them (72.1%) after the catch.

People have this image of the Ram offense as being a deep-strike, big-play-dependent unit.  The Rams sometimes unwittingly promote that misperception when they get away from their foundation and start trying to be that team.  Their foundation, I’m afraid, is much more boring.  Run the ball, and then dump it quickly into the hands of your playmakers.  It doesn’t necessarily make for great copy – but it can be devastatingly effective.  On Sunday the Rams held the ball for 22:42 of the first half.  Arizona ran just 21 plays in that half – an imbalance that put the Cardinals behind early and had them out of sorts throughout.

Defense Redeemed by the Offense As Well

Like the Rams, the Cardinals’ offense is run-based as well.  Again, many people don’t realize that, because the headlines usually belong to the passing game – Kyler Murray throwing to DeAndre Hopkins (who came into the game third in the NFL in receptions – 77 – and fourth in receiving yards – 967).

But the Cardinals also brought the NFL’s fourth-ranked running game into the contest, averaging 155.9 yards a game.  In fact, the game’s most critical matchup seemed like it would be the Arizona running attack against the Ram’s fourth-ranked run defense (they were allowing 93.5 rushing yards a game).  How that conflict resolved itself would go a long way to determining the victor in this one.

Arizona finished the contest with just 92 rushing yards – a clear win (apparently) for the defense.  But it’s overstating things to say that the Ram defense shut off Arizona’s running game.  In the first half, the Ram offense that held the ball for more than 22 minutes was the primary force holding the Cards to just 18 rushing yards (on 8 carries).  Then – as the second half wore along – the Cards, by degrees, got away from the running attack that is their foundation.

On their first drive of the second half, the Cardinals marched 75 yards on 15 plays – 7 of them runs.  They ran the ball 6 more times the rest of the game.  Kenyan Drake averaged 4.9 yards a carry (3.1 of that after contact), but only had 10 rushes for the game.  Arizona averaged 4.4 yards per rush for the contest, but only ran 21 times.  They ran only 13 times in the second half – even though they averaged 5.7 yards on those runs.

Arizona wasn’t so much stopped by the Ram defense as they were compelled to keep up with the Ram offense.  This time it was Arizona that all but abandoned play-action (they ran just 4 play-action passes).  And with the play-action removed, Arizona’s passing game wilted under Murray’s inconsistencies.

The summary that I referenced above charges Kyler with 12 bad throws.  Not counting the pass he threw away and one spike to stop the clock, that would be 32.4% of his other 37 passes (and would include the two passes batted down at the line).  Murray is now tied with New England’s Cam Newton for the NFL lead in balls batted down by linemen – each now has 15.  This is a problem for the diminutive Murray when a defense can keep him in the pocket and force him to throw over the taller linemen.

That dynamic also influenced several of Kyler’s other bad passes, as he had to add extra loft into the throws.

In all ways and by all accounts, it was redemption at its purest.  And, in addition to putting the Rams back on the right foot, it re-scrambled their division.

The East Scrambles the West

After the loss to San Francisco, the Ram’s had the look of a third-place team (and frankly seemed more likely to be caught from behind by San Fran than they were to claim the division title).  But last weekend shook everything up in the very competitive West – aided by an unexpected broadside by one of the competitors in the much-maligned NFC East.

The Rams’ win in Arizona gives them a temporary advantage over the Cardinals (the teams will meet again in Week 17, but in Los Angeles).  Meanwhile the rest of the division did the Rams a huge favor and lost their games.  Buffalo dumped the 49ers, to push them back off the Rams’ heels, and the lightly-regarded New York Giants pulled a big upset over Seattle – knocking them back into the stew with everyone else.

While not necessarily easy, before the Rams, now, are a series of winnable games – beginning this evening against New England.  They play the winless Jets in Week 15.  Then they close with two division contests – playing in Seattle (where the Seahawks seem to be fading a bit) and then wrapping up with the Cardinals.  If they win three of the final four, they will finish 11-5 – which will very likely be enough to give them the division title and probably the conference’s third seed.

Behind them, Seattle would fall to fifth, and Arizona will probably slide down to seventh (as this loss will likely mean that Tampa Bay will finish with a better record and re-claim that sixth seed).

It’s a lot of upheaval, but in a very tight division all you really need is one weekend where everything breaks your way.  The Rams are now in the driver’s seat.  But now, they have to win the winnable games in front of them, or they could pass the division right back to the Seahawks.

AFC Playoffs Shifted, Too

The upheaval in the AFC was much less over the weekend.  The Tennessee Titans with the inside track on the third seed were surprised by the Cleveland Browns.  That loss opens the way for the Dolphins to claim that seed, pushing Tennessee into fourth.

Not So Much Redemption as a Resurrection

On November 18, 2018, two 6-3 teams clashed at FedEx Field in Washington DC.  The Houston Texans – led at the time by Bill O’Brien with second-year quarterback Deshaun Watson leading the charge – opposed Jay Gruden’s Redskins – with Alex Smith under center.

The Texan defense was generally making life miserable for Smith.  His 12-for-27, 135 yard, 2 interception day held his passer rating down to a halting 29.1.  And then, Alex’ life just got miserable.

With 7:56 left in the third quarter, and the Texans leading 17-7, Alex suffered a gruesome leg injury while being sacked by Kareem Jackson.  And at that moment, Alex was no longer the quarterback for the Washington team.  He was no longer anyone’s quarterback.  In fact, it was not at all certain at the time that he would be able to keep his leg.

(Ironically enough, his backup that day was Colt McCoy – who was the NY Giant backup quarterback that engineered New York’s upset of Seattle).

Anyway, after many surgeries, much prayer, and an insane amount of work, Alex Smith rose from the athletic dead.  On October 11 of this year – one month and one week shy of two years since his potentially career ending injury – Alex returned to the field for Washington to throw 17 otherwise unremarkable passes in a loss to the Rams.  Four weeks later, he was their starter, and last Monday he led the football team in our nation’s capital to its third straight win – a rather significant 23-17 conquest of the previously undefeated Pittsburgh Steelers (gamebook) (summary).

The Football Team made little effort to run the ball – only 21 rushes the entire game.  Even if leading runner Antonio Gibson hadn’t gone down with an injury in the game’s first series, Washington was unlikely to get any movement against the Steeler’s dominating front 7.

On the 21 times that they did try to run, their runners averaged just 1.05 yards before they were contacted by a defender (the NFL average gives the back 2.46 yards before contact on average), and just another 1.1 yards after contact (NFL average = 1.86).

And so that left throwing the ball against football’s most feared pass defense as the most viable path forward. 

The Steelers weren’t just number one in the league in passing yards allowed.  They also allowed the lowest completion percentage (54.5) and the third lowest yards per attempted pass in the league (6.63).

At its core, Pittsburgh is an aggressive, blitzing defense that came into the contest sending extra rushers 39.8% of the time – the third highest frequency in the league.  That aggression leads to a lot of sacks (a league-leading 41, dropping the opponent’s passer on a league-leading 10.1% of his drop-backs) and a lot of interceptions.  They led the league with 16 – or 4.4% of the passes thrown against them.  That number was also first.  Pittsburgh also carried the lowest opponent’s passer rating against at 71.5.

And so you would think that 21 running plays and 49 drop-backs would play right into the Steelers’ hands.  Washington did give up a few sacks – 3, to be exact – all of those in the first half when the Steelers ran out to a 14-3 lead.  Alex wasn’t sacked in the second half.  He threw no interceptions in either half.  He threw (and connected on) a few deep balls (he was 2-for-5 on throws over 20 yards), but mostly just checked the ball down taking advantage of Pittsburgh’s uncharacteristically lose zones.

Running back J.D. McKissic was open all night in the flats.  He finished catching all 10 passes thrown his way for 70 yards (55 of those after the catch).

Alex finished 31 of 46 for 296 yards and a touchdown (a 92.3 rating that was as good as Washington could have hoped for).  Washington controlled 17:37 of the second half clock.

The rest was up to an under-hyped defense that blitzed almost not at all (only 9 times) and sat in deep zones to deny the big plays.  This worked well in general, but especially in the second half when Steeler quarterback Ben Roethlisberger finished just 14 of 26 for but 107 yards (4.12 per attempt and 7.64 per completion).  He was also intercepted on a deflection.  Pittsburgh’s lone 20-yard play of the second half was a 22-yard lob to Eric Ebron.  On the last play of the game.

Speaking of Ebron, he dropped two passes, and the Steelers all together dropped six.  The week before they dropped four, so Ben’s receiver’s haven’t been doing him many favors of late.

For the second straight game, the Steelers showed no interest at all in running.  After throwing 51 passes against Baltimore on Wednesday, Ben threw 53 more on Monday – without getting sacked in either game.  Some of that was surely influenced by the tough run defenses of the Ravens and the Football Team.  But a lot is the new identity of the Steelers.  They are a passing team, now.

With the game tied at 17 with 4:57 left in the contest, the Steelers faced fourth-and-one on the Washington 28.  They decided to go for it.  But they didn’t run the ball.  In Pittsburgh these days, fourth-and-one is a passing down.

The throw was incomplete.  Washington took over and kicked the field goal at 2:07 that gave them the lead they would not relinquish.

The win keeps Washington tied with the Giants atop the NFC East, and they only have one more winning team left on their schedule – a Week 15 meeting with Seattle.  But the Redskins aren’t a winning team either (their surprise victory over Pittsburgh notwithstanding) and the Giants have the tie-breaker (they swept Washington earlier this season), so the path to the playoffs will be somewhat complicated for the Football Team in Washington.

But some part of you has to be rooting for a story like Alex Smith, doesn’t it?

Of Super Bowl Hangovers

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

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

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

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

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

San Francisco

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

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

Slowing the Rams

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The 49ers on Offense

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

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

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

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

NFC Playoff Thoughts

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

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

We’ll see.

Baltimore v Pittsburgh

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Eventually the Pressure Gets to Everybody

There was 10:43 left in the game, with Seattle down by ten points and facing a second-and-seven from their own 48.  Trying to disguise their coverage, the Rams lined Kenny Young in the middle linebacker position, even though his responsibility in the zone scheme would be the right flat.  So, when running back Alex Collins ran straight toward that area at the snap, Young had to quickly vacate the middle.

When Seattle wide receiver D.K. Metcalf curled into that void left in the middle, he was about as wide open as he would be the whole game.  He had first down distance.  But the throw never came.

At the snap, Los Angeles linebacker Terrell Lewis blitzed, and there was no one to account for him.  Tight end Greg Olsen – who lined up over him – released immediately into the pattern, and Duane Brown – the tackle on that side – was occupied with Micah Kiser.  Lewis stepped gingerly into the backfield, as if he couldn’t understand that there was no one there to block him.  He hesitated for just a second, but it was enough to give quarterback Russell Wilson the moment he needed to make the throw to Metcalf to pick up the first down.

But Wilson froze.  Knowing that Lewis was coming, Russell pulled the ball into his chest, ducked his head, and braced himself for the impact that was still about two seconds away.

Russell Wilson is and has been for several years one of the great competitors in the league – and, in fact, has been one of the faces of the league.  But by the fourth quarter of Sunday afternoon’s game in Los Angeles, Russell was pretty much shell shocked.  The relentless pressure that the Rams poured upon will do that.

Eventually the pressure gets to everybody.  And for Wilson these days, the pressure is coming from many different directions.

In his first possession of this game, Wilson led the Seahawks on an excellent 7-play, 78-yard touchdown drive.  They held the ball for 9 plays and over four minutes the next time they had the ball, but ended up punting.

When Wilson and the offense came out for their third possession, they trailed by ten points.  In their Week Nine game against Buffalo, they were down 14-0 before they could blink.  When you play in front of a defense ranked last in the NFL in yards allowed and twenty-eighth in points allowed, you feel pressure from more than just the defense lining up against you.  You get pressure from your own defense.

Wilson also has the pressure to be the running game as well, as the Seahawks cannot keep healthy running backs in their backfield.  So all of that responsibility falls on him as well.  Wilson led his team in rushing again against the Rams, accounting for 60 of their 113 ground yards.  For the season, Russell has rushed for 325 yards.  Of the players on the active roster, DeeJay Dallas and Travis Homer are tied for second on the team in rush yards.  They each have 88.

It’s a lot to put on the back of Wilson, who also spent much of Sunday afternoon with hundreds of pounds of defensive linemen on his back as Seattle ran into the buzz saw that is the Ram defense.  Los Angeles sacked Wilson 6 times (5 of those in the second half), hit him numerous other times, and held him to a passer rating of 57.0 – his worst single-game rating since Week 14 of the 2018 season – on their way to a 23-16 victory (gamebook) (summary).  In a 21-7 conquest of the Minnesota Vikings, Wilson was just 10 for 20 for only 72 yards with no touchdowns against 1 interception.

As far as the sacks go, Russell has now been sacked at least twice in every game this year.  You would have to go back to Week Three of the 2019 season to find the last time Wilson hasn’t been sacked in a game.  He has now been sacked at least 3 times in 5 of the 9 games played so far this year, getting sacked 4 times or more in four of those games.

This issue has reached its tipping point over the last two games, which has seen Wilson go down 11 times – the basis for all the turnovers coming out of the quarterback position recently.  In Seattle’s first 5 games, Wilson turned the ball over only 3 times.  He has coughed it up 10 times in the last 4 games – 7 of those in the last two contests.

This has all led to another source of pressure on Wilson – pressure from the coaching staff.

But there is more than enough blame to go around, here.  Wilson should have expected better from his coaching staff, too, which called very few zone-beating plays, even though a high percentage of zone was expected.

All that being said, though, Wilson looked as disoriented as I have ever seen him.  With 7:59 to go in the game, Wilson turned a third-and-four at the Ram 38-yard line into a third-and-nine as he watched the play clock expire.  He then threw an interception on third-and-nine.

On Seattle’s last drive, with about a minute and a half left in the game, Wilson scrambled 14 yards for a first down.  But with the sidelines in sight, Russell slid to a stop in bounds that kept the clock winding – even though the Hawks were down by two scores.

Repeatedly, Wilson seemed hesitant – waiting to see what might develop instead of anticipating which receivers were about to uncover.  At times, he seemed a little lost.

As galling as anything else, Wilson lost the feel for his signature moon-ball – those long highlight reel rainbow throws that arch impossibly high over the defender and drop straight down into the receiver’s arms.  It’s a unique skill that has made Wilson one of the league’s best deep ball threats.

On Sunday, Wilson was 0-for-6 with an interception on passes over 20 yards, with his throws coming out surprisingly flat and more like line drives that either gave defensive backs the opportunity to make a play on it, or that went soaring over the receiver’s head.

With 4:27 left in the first half, Seattle ran one of their few zone-beating plays as Greg Olsen’s vertical route demanded the attention of Darious Williams, pulling him away from his responsibility for the deep left.  Freddie Swain leapt into the void and ran to the corner of the end zone, wide open.  Wilson threw it over his head.

With 13:47 left, D.K Metcalf flew up the left sideline, gaining a step on Jalen Ramsey, only to have Wilson’s throw graze off his fingertips.

With 52 seconds left in the contest, another middle vertical from Olsen held the safety on the right side (Nick Scott), leaving Williams all alone against Tyler Lockett.  At one point, Lockett was about 7 yards behind Williams.  But by the time the throw arrived (and this one would have been perfect), Williams had closed the gap enough that he could launch himself into the air, and – left arm at full extension – deflect the pass away.

So went the day for Russell Wilson – and for the Ram defense.  Especially Darious Williams who had both interceptions to go with the miracle pass defense.

Defense Is For Real

Nitpicking Wilson’s performance would be easy enough – he didn’t have his best day.  But after watching the game, I came away more impressed with the Ram defense than I am concerned about the Seahawk offense.

Over the last six games this Ram defense has really hit its stride.  They have given all of 7 offensive touchdowns (and several of those have come on short fields).  In those games, opposing passers are rating just 76.0 and opposing running games are gaining just 85.5 yards a game and 3.7 yards per carry.

The Rams blitzed Wilson some – just 26% of the time (which is less than the 29.7% league average).  The Rams aren’t a heavy blitz team – sending an extra rusher only 28.4% of the time.  But that’s because the Rams don’t need to blitz.  With havoc-wreckers like Leonard Floyd, Michael Brockers and especially Aaron Donald on the line, the Rams are one of those teams that have the luxury of getting great pressure from four rushers and playing disciplined zone defense behind them.

The two lynch-pins of the defense are Donald – whose greatness is challenging the limits of the English language to codify it, and cornerback Ramsey – who can generally make any feared wide receiver disappear.  He did this, mostly, to Metcalf.  DK entered the game second in the NFL in receiving yards with 788, third in average yards per catch with 18.3, and second in receiving touchdowns with 8.  He exited the game with 2 catches for 28 yards, mostly lined up against Ramsey.

Here, though, is another coaching issue.  I don’t really remember Ramsey switching sides of the field to take Metcalf, and he never took Metcalf when he lined up in the slot.  He stayed almost exclusively on the defensive right corner.  It was the Seattle game plan that kept lining DK up over Ramsey, making most of what the Rams wanted to do that much easier.

There are several things the Rams can do differently and better when they rematch against the Rams in Week 16.  But none of them are likely to matter too much if they can’t find a way to still Aaron Donald.

By reputation one of the elite linemen in football, Aaron was every bit of that last Sunday.  On multiple occasions, Seattle tried to triple-team Donald.  Mostly that benefitted the other pass rushers.

With 5:25 left in the third, the entire left side of the Seattle offensive line (tackle Brandon Shell, guard Damien Lewis, and center Kyle Fuller) took on Donald.  When the Rams blitzed, running back Nick Bellore was forced to stay in and try to block blitzing linebacker Micah Kiser.  When Kiser blew right past Bellore, Wilson was forced to evacuate the pocket, running right into the waiting arms of Floyd.

Other times even the triple team wasn’t enough to slow down Donald.

With 2:02 left in the game, the Hawks faced first-and-ten on the Ram 48.  Seattle assigned Fuller, Jamarco Jones (playing guard after Mike Iupati went down) and Dallas to neutralize Aaron.  They couldn’t.  Donald churned his way through all of them, still arriving at the quarterback in time to force a bad throw.

As well as the zone coverage in the back played, there were many times that the pressure covered up one of their breakdowns.

With 14 seconds left in the first half, Lockett turned cornerback Troy Hill completely around as he ran through the back of the zone.  But by that time, Russell was running for his life.  Olsen had barely brushed Floyd as Leonard came pouring in all but unabated on his pass rush.

With 9:28 left in the game, safety Jordan Fuller settled down on Lockett’s cross, allowing Metcalf to blow past Williams (one of the few times that Seattle shifted Metcalf to the right side).  Again, Russell never had the chance.  This time linebacker Justin Hollins beat Shell to collapse the pocket.

The Los Angeles defensive concept puts quarterbacks in quite a bind.  There were almost always receivers open early underneath the zones.  An offense could choose – if it wanted to – to create a game plan around three-yard dump passes and hope they can drive the field without committing a penalty or dropping a pass.

But if they decide to hold the ball and wait for something to develop downfield, they will usually run out of time to come back to their check down route.  Unless you can stop Donald, you will have to throw quickly or not at all.

One way or another, the pressure will eventually get to them.

Rising on their Defenses

After 16 mostly glorious years with the Chargers. Philip Rivers was on the move this offseason – one of several noteworthy quarterbacks who changed addresses since the 2019 season ended.  Rivers arrival in Indianapolis didn’t get the attention that that one guy who used to play in New England got when he moved to Tampa Bay.  In most circles, it wasn’t even as discussed as New England’s replacing that one guy with that other guy who used to play in Carolina.  But as it turns out, the quarterback position with the Colts was one of football’s most desirable.

Playing without franchise quarterback Andrew Luck in 2017, the Colts faded to a 4-12 record.  But 2018 brought the promise of better things.  Luck was back, and with him came new coach Frank Reich.  And one of Frank’s first objectives was to fix Andrew’s offensive line.  To that end, he invested a first and a second round pick on a couple of linemen (Quenton Nelson and Braden Smith) who plugged right into the lineup. 

The results were life-changing for Luck.  He was sacked only 18 times in all of 2018 – once going 5 straight games without a sack.

The team rebounded to go 10-6, win a wild card spot, and make it all the way to the divisional round before falling to the up-coming Kansas City Chiefs.  Yes, thing were definitely looking up in Indy.

And then, on the eve of the 2019 season, Andrew Luck retired.  And all of a sudden there was a void at the most important position on the team.  His backup – Jacoby Brissett – was elevated to the starters’ spot.  Jacoby played OK, but more-or-less re-cemented the idea that he was a fine backup, but not the guy who could lead this team to the promised land.

But an interesting thing occurred that season.  Without a franchise quarterback, Reich and his staff kind of re-purposed that offensive line and found that they could be as dominant a run-blocking unit as they had been a pass blocking unit.  Even without a feared passing game, the Colts finished seventh in the NFL, averaging 133.1 rushing yards per game.  With the addition, now, of a high-level quarterback (Rivers) this looked like an offense that would be potent in all aspects.

Funny how reality doesn’t always meet expectations.

The Philip Rivers experience hasn’t always been fabulous, but hasn’t been terrible.  He went into last Sunday’s game against Detroit with an OK passer rating of 93.0 (NFL average was 94.5), and the prized running game had bottomed out – coming into the game against the Lions ranked twenty-eighth (98.0 yards per game) with their 3.6 yards per carry ranking dead last.  Injuries had something to do with this, as last year’s feature back (Marlon Mack) lasted 4 rushes before landing on IR with a torn Achilles tendon.

About the only statistical evidence of the impressive offensive line that they built in Indy is Rivers’ sack numbers.  Six games into the season, Philip had only been sacked 5 times (the fewest of all qualifying quarterbacks) and on just 2.5% of his passing attempts – the lowest ratio of any qualifying QB.

Fortunately, Indy’s early schedule mostly matched them up against defenses with issues of their own.  They managed 20 points against Jacksonville, 28 against Minnesota, 36 against the Jets, 23 against Cleveland, and – the game before they would play Detroit – they added 31 points against Cincinnati.  The only noteworthy defense they have faced so far belongs to Chicago, and they did win that contest by a 19-11 score.

It was all just soft enough to raise questions about how proficient the offense really is.

More than that, though.  After finishing in the middle of the pack in most defensive measures in 2019, the Colts took the field Sunday against the Lions ranked second in the NFL in total defense and fourth in scoring defense.  The team that faced off against the Lions was ranked second against the pass – including leading the NFL in interceptions (10), interception percentage (5.2) and passer rating against (71.7) – and third against the run – allowing just 88.3 rushing yards per game on just 3.5 yards per carry (the NFL’s fourth best figure).

By all assessments, Indianapolis had fought its way to a 4-2 record on the unexpected rise of its defense.  But again, given the relative softness of their schedule, could those numbers be a mirage as well?

Almost as if to answer the questions, the Indianapolis Colts landed on the Lions with both units last Sunday.  The long dormant running game sprung to life, bludgeoning the Lions for 119 yards on 39 grinding carries.  Behind them, Rivers – on his way to a 123.5 rating – threw 3 first-half touchdown passes.  After tossing just 4 touchdowns over his first 5 games as a Colt, Philip rebounded with 6 over his next 6 quarters.

Defensively, the Colts played their best half of the season in that first half, holding Detroit to just 80 total yards, and only 5 rushing yards on 5 carries.  This perfectly complementary game paved the way for Indy to control the clock for a surprising 22:06 of the first half – on its way to 37:46 of ball control for the game and a mostly dominant 41-21 victory (gamebook) (summary).

Previously, one of the least blitzing teams in the NFL (they came into the game sending extra rushers just 13.8% of the time), the Colts surprised Matthew Stafford and Detroit by employing a blitz-heavy game plan (20 times in Matthew’s 42 drop backs).  They finished the game with 5 sacks after recording just 13 through their first 6 games.

The Same but Different

The quarterback fortunes of the Miami Dolphins also changed dramatically over the offseason – but this chronic issue wasn’t solved in free agency.  The Dolphins invested their first-round draft pick (the fifth overall) on their quarterback of the future – former Alabama signal caller Tua Tagovailoa.

Unlike Rivers in Indy, Tua didn’t step into the starters’ role immediately.  He watched from the sideline for the season’s first six games as the Dolphins (a 5-11 team the year before) fought their way to a 3-3 record behind veteran passer Ryan Fitzpatrick and a surprisingly effective defense of their own.

Ranked thirtieth in yards allowed and dead last in points allowed in 2019, the Miami Dolphins took the field last Sunday against the LA Rams (which happened to be Tua’s first NFL start) boasting football’s third-ranked scoring defense.

Tagovailoa, himself, was mostly underwhelming.  On his way to a pedestrian 12 for 22 passing game for 93 yards, Tua made some impressive throws, but mostly looked like a rookie making his first NFL start.

The defense, however, added significantly to its resume (and added a twist to the concept of top scoring defense).  While holding the Rams to just 17 points, they more than matched that by scoring 21 of their own (essentially).  Forcing 4 first-half turnovers, the Dolphins scored one touchdown outright (Andrew Van Ginkel ran 78 yards with a recovered fumble), and set the offense up with very short fields on two of the others (Miami’s touchdown drives covered 33 and 1 yards).  Add in a punt return touchdown (an 88-yard beauty from Jakeem Grant) and it was more than enough for a 28-17 win (gamebook) (summary).

Challenges Upcoming

Both of these early season surprise teams will get significant tests this Sunday.  The Dolphins draw the very intriguing Arizona Cardinals.  The Gridbirds (as we used to call them in St Louis) will bring football’s number one offence (by yardage) and number two running game (160.7yards per game) to the table.

Meanwhile, the Colts will get to prove their legitimacy against the Baltimore Ravens and their top tanked running game (178.7 yards per game and 5.5 yards per carry).  After Sunday, we will have a little better idea whether these teams – especially their defenses – are for real. Or just early season mirages.

Speaking of Defenses

Although beaten, the Rams have been playing high-level defense themselves.  They were, in fact, football’s second stingiest scoring defense – and virtually responsible for none of the points scored against the team on Sunday.  They were betrayed by an offense that surrendered all those turnovers while again losing sight of who they are.

In spite of the fact that they averaged 4.5 yards for every running play, they allowed themselves to be seduced away from that to the point that quarterback Jared Goff ended the game throwing the ball 61 times.  The Rams had entered the game with 222 rushing attempts (second most in football) and averaging 138.9 yards a game.

This is a recurring tendency of this Ram team.  All too frequently they allow themselves to get drawn into passing duels – duels that they usually lose.

A Case of Mistaken Identity

Life without Jimmy Garoppolo didn’t turn out to be particularly smooth for the San Francisco 49ers.

Throughout Jimmy’s tenure as the top guy in San Francisco, there has been a lot of background chatter about his ceiling.  Is he a system quarterback?  A game manager? Or an elite kind of guy?

His season and the system he plays in lend no easy answers to those questions.  But one thing the early season has shown is that the 49ers are a better team with him than without him.

Injured about halfway through the Week Two conquest of the Jets, Garoppolo watched from the sidelines as the 49ers held onto that game, and convincingly took their Week Three contest against New York’s other struggling team.

But at about the point where some San Francisco fans were about to tab the quarterback position as an interchangeable part, the 49ers slogged through an ugly loss against Philadelphia.  There followed an even uglier loss to Miami in Week Five.

Garoppolo was actually back to start that game against the Dolphins (which added fuel to the QB discussion when he was replaced at half time).  The team was now 2-3, and at that point Jimmy didn’t look like the guy who could lead them back to the promised land.  Garoppolo just didn’t look like the same guy from 2019.

That, in fact, could be said of the whole team during the losses to the Eagles and the Dolphins.  The defense, of course, was adjusting to the absence of Nick Bosa (gone for the year with an injury) and DeForest Buckner (traded to Indianapolis).  But the mystery was the offense.

The 2019 version of the 49ers ran the ball 31.1 times a game (the second most in football) and ran their passing game off the running game.  They ran the ball 89 more times in their two playoff victories that year.  But, during the loss to Philadelphia, there were the 49ers chucking the ball 45 times while running just 20.  Against the Dolphins, they ran just 19 times while throwing 35 times.

Who were these guys?  And what had they done with the San Francisco offense?

In the NFL, the season’s tipping points come early – and especially so when playing in what is arguably football’s toughest division.  With the high flying LA Rams (who some analyst had suggested might be football’s best team) coming in for the Sunday Night game, a loss here would administer a severe blow to the 49ers’ playoff hopes.

Remembering Who They Are

And so, with his back sort of against the wall and his starting quarterback still not 100% on his bad ankle, coach Kyle Shanahan dusted off a game plan that could have come from the middle of 2019.  A plan that spoke to his team’s offensive identity.

Identity is actually a surprisingly important aspect of offensive success in the NFL.  It’s an act of self-definition around a core philosophy.  Last year San Francisco exploded onto the NFL scene as not just a run-first team, but as arguably the most explosive and creative of the run-first ball-clubs that have started to resurface in the NFL.

Sunday night against the Rams, that’s who they were.  Again.

Through the evening’s first 30 minutes, the 49ers controlled the ball for 21:22 of them.  This dominance included two touchdown drives that lasted more than six minutes each.  The play sheet looked balanced – 20 runs and 21 passes – but with only a couple of exceptions the passes were exceedingly short, high percentage passes that were really just an extension of that running game.  For the evening, of Garoppolo’s 33 passes, 9 were behind the line of scrimmage, and another 12 were within 5 yards of the line of scrimmage.

Carrying a 21-6 lead back onto the field after halftime, the 49ers leaned all the more heavily on the running game, calling 16 runs while Garoppolo dropped back 13 times (he threw 12 passes and scrambled once).  The 17 runs helped them control the clock in the second half as well, as they held the ball for 16:33 of that half on their way to a gritty 24-16 victory (gamebook) (summary).

The run commitment on the part of the 49ers is even more impressive than the raw number of attempts.  While the 2019 49ers averaged a healthy 4.6 yards per rushing attempt, the Sunday night 49ers averaged just 3.3.  The 17 second half runs averaged just 2.7 yards per, with no run longer than 10 yards.

But San Francisco kept running, anyway, because they remembered that that is who they are.

As For the Rams

All through the first 5 games of their season, the LA Rams had been what the 49ers were on Sunday night.  The 49ers’ identity was their identity.  It was the Rams who came into the game with the NFL’s second most rushing attempts (169 – 33.8 per game), while quarterback Jared Goff was throwing the ball only 30.4 times a game.

But the Rams knew that San Francisco was playing with significant losses in their secondary, and they were just determined to exploit them through the air.  This is a weakness that Sean McVay and the Rams fall into sometimes.  It’s a pass happy hubris that clouds their thinking and sometimes causes them to forget who they are.

On Sunday night, Los Angeles averaged 5.9 yards per rush – but only ran 19 times.  Rookie running back Darrell Henderson gained 88 yards and averaged 6.3 per carry – but was only given the ball 14 times.  They met consistent success when they went to their ground attack, but they chose not to use it.

Meanwhile, Jared Goff went to the air 38 times with middling results (19 completions, 198 yards, 2 TDs and 1 damaging interception).  As opposed to Garoppolo, 8 of his passes soared more than 20 yards up field (only 2 of them being completed), while only 19 were within ten yards of the line of scrimmage.  One of the better screen teams in the game, the Rams ran only 3 screen passes.

For most of the night, the Rams just looked out of sync – a common side effect when you forget who you are.

Speaking of Identities

For nearly forty years – going back to the days of Chuck Noll – the Pittsburgh franchise has been identified by its defense.  Since 1972, the Steelers have finished in the top five in total defense 24 times – finishing first 9 times.  In points allowed, they have been among football’s top five 18 times – leading 6 times.

Last year – even though they finished fifth in both measures – the Steelers mostly fell from relevance after they lost their starting quarterback in Week Two (even though they still battled on to an 8-8 record).  Ben Roethlisberger is back and looking (so far) as good as ever.  The defense is back, too – currently ranking second in yards allowed and third in points on their way to a 5-0 start.

This success, though, has to be taken with something of a grain of salt.  Their first four victories of the season didn’t come against the stiffest of competition.  They beat the NY Giants (currently 1-5), the Denver Broncos (currently 2-3), the Houston Texans (currently 1-5), and the Philadelphia Eagles (currently 1-4-1).

So that meant that last Sunday’s game against Cleveland (4-1 as they took the field) was their first “test” per se of the season.  I put that in quotes, because I’m still not convinced about Cleveland’s ability to show up for the big games.

At any rate, the Browns came in with four consecutive wins, scoring at least 34 points in each.  They came in with football’s top rushing offense – averaging 188.4 yards per game, while running the ball 34.4 time a game – also the most in football.  Their 5.5 yards per rush ranked second, and their 8 rushing touchdowns were tied for third most in the NFL.

The Steelers answered this challenge in dominating fashion with a 38-7 victory (gamebook) (summary).

The offense did well enough, but the star of the day was the Steeler defense that scored one touchdown outright on an interception return by Minkah Fitzpatrick, and set up three other touchdowns on short fields following another interception and two stops on fourth-and-short.

For the game, Cleveland finished with just 220 yards, went 1 for 12 on third down (0-for-5 in the second half), had its quarterback sacked 4 times, and pushed its way into the red zone just once.  In the game’s second half, they managed just 3 first downs and just 70 yards.

The vaunted Cleveland running attack finished with just 75 yards on 22 carries (3.4 yards per).

However significant a challenge the Browns may have presented (and remember, they are now without Nick Chubb), this Steelers team is beginning to attract the attention of some of the “experts” around the league.  Whether or not their gaudy record is a function of an easy schedule will quickly be put to the test as the Steelers are set to face the Tennessee Titans (currently 5-0) and the Baltimore Ravens (currently 5-1) in the next two weeks.

Last Sunday they were all over the field against Cleveland.  The prospect of watching them line up against Derrick Henry and Lamar Jackson makes for a compelling couple of weeks.

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.

Super Bowl LIII: Defense Matters

It is, of course, not surprising that the reviews of Super Bowl LIII were not outstanding.  Coming on the heels of one of the most prolific offensive seasons in the sport’s history, America was expecting a shootout between the league’s second (LA) and fourth (NE) highest scoring offenses.

During the 2018 regular season, all teams averaged 373.5 points (the second highest in history), and averaged 5635.6 yards (also second highest in history).  The 26.5 touchdown passes thrown per team were an NFL record.

It isn’t surprising that the casual fan, spoiled by the offensive excess of the regular season should take a little offense at the little offense provided a couple of Sundays ago.  It is easy to be underwhelmed by the New England Patriot’s 13-3 conquest of the Los Angeles Rams (gamebook) (summary).  Too many fans, I fear, have been drawn to the pinball-like quality of play over the recent seasons – to the point where they can no longer appreciate the achievement of both of these under-rated defensive units.

But the resounding message from both teams on this latest Super Bowl Sunday – and, perhaps a message that will resonate through the coming season – is that defense matters.

Defense matters a lot.

Last year we ran through a few of the offensive achievements of the almost-highest-scoring Super Bowl in history.  This year’s collection of Super Bowl notes will be much different.

Super Bowl Notebook:

New England’s 13 points were the fewest ever by a Super Bowl winner.  The Miami Dolphins completed their perfect 1972 season with a victory in Super Bowl VII (7) by scoring just 14 points in beating Washington.

With the 14-7 final, that game had been the lowest scoring Super Bowl ever until this one.

The Rams tied the record for fewest points scored in a Super Bowl game.  That was also set by the Dolphins when they lost Super Bowl VI (6) to Dallas, 24-3.

Back in Super Bowl III (3), Joe Namath famously guaranteed a victory.  His prediction was correct, but he, himself, threw 28 passes that afternoon without throwing for a touchdown.  He became the first quarterback to win a Super Bowl without throwing a touchdown pass, and his 28 pass attempts stood as the most ever thrown by a winning Super Bowl quarterback without throwing a touchdown pass.  That record stood until this last Super Bowl, when none of Tom Brady’s 35 throws resulted in a touchdown.

Jared Goff’s 229 passing yards were the fewest by a losing quarterback in the Super Bowl since Rex Grossman threw for just 165 in losing Super Bowl XLI (41) to Peyton Manning and Indianapolis 29-17.  That next year, the almost undefeated Patriots would lose the first Super Bowl of the Brady-Belichick era.

Speaking of Manning, he is still the last losing quarterback of a Super Bowl to average less than 6 yards per attempted pass in the big game.  In the shellacking that he and his Denver teammates absorbed at the hands of Seattle in Super Bowl XLVIII (48), Peyton threw 49 passes, but gained just 280 yards (5.71 per attempt).  Goff came close to joining him – he averaged just 6.03 yards per attempted pass.  His 12.1 yards per completion is also the lowest among losing Super Bowl quarterbacks since that Manning game – Peyton averaged only 8.2 yards per his 34 completions.

Brady’s victory pushed Michigan ahead of Notre Dame as the college with the most alumni-quarterback Super Bowl victories.  Michigan now has 6 – all belonging to Brady.  The fighting Irish have earned four from Joe Montana and one from Joe Theismann.  Notre Dame quarterbacks have lost only two Super Bowls (one each by Theismann and Daryle Lamonica), so their percentage is still better.

University of California quarterbacks continues to struggle on the big stage.  With Goff’s loss, they are now 1-4, with Aaron Rodgers accounting for their only victory – but also one of their losses.  The other U-Cal losses belong to Craig Morton (2) and Joe Kapp (1).

The Rams’ 62 rushing yards were the fewest by a losing team in a Super Bowl since the Denver Broncos managed just 27 rushing yards against Seattle in Super Bowl XLVIII (48), and the 35 rushing yards that Todd Gurley led the Rams with were the fewest yards rushed for by the leading rusher of a losing team since Denver’s Knowshon Moreno led the Broncos with 17 rushing yards in that Super Bowl against Seattle.

You have to go back 18 years, to Baltimore’s demolition of the New York Giants in Super Bowl XXXV (35) to find a losing team that managed fewer total yards than the Rams’ 260 this year.  On that day, the Giants finished with 152.  Those Giants were also the last team not to score an offensive touchdown in the Super Bowl until the Rams this year.

The previous record for fewest combined offensive touchdowns in a Super Bowl was two. This had been done in six previous Super Bowls – most recently in Denver’s 24-10 victory over Carolina in Super Bowl 50.  This year, the Rams and Patriots combined for just one.

On the plus side, a few individuals came through with noteworthy performances.

This Super Bowl now marks a dozen years since the winning team produced a 100-yard rusher.  Indianapolis’ Dominic Rhodes ran for 113 yards against Chicago back in Super Bowl XLI (41). New England’s Sony Michel’s 94 yards this year is the closest anyone on the winning team has come since then (although two losing teams have managed 100-yard rushers in the interim).

Meanwhile Julian Edelman’s 141 receiving yards are the most by a member of a winning team since Super Bowl XXXVIII (38).  That was another New England Super Bowl win, with Brady to Deion Branch accounting for 143 yards.

Taking On the Patriots

Defending the explosive and creative LA Rams is a significant challenge for any defense.  In some ways, though, the Patriots present a more difficult challenge in that they have been the playoffs’ most persistent and prolific running team.

They bludgeoned the LA Chargers with 155 rushing yards (and 4 rushing touchdowns) on 34 carries in their Divisional Round game.  They followed that up by laying 176 more rushing yards (and 4 more rushing touchdowns) on 48 rushes on Kansas City in the AFC Championship game.

Before them now was a Ram defense that had been exceedingly susceptible to the run all season.  All regular season, that is.  During the regular season, they had ranked twenty-third at stopping the run, allowing 122.3 rushing yards per game, and 5.1 rushing yards per attempt – the league’s worst such figure.

But as the playoffs dawned, this Ram run defense flipped the switch, providing a turnaround as unexpected as any I’ve witnessed.  Confronted with top running offenses in their first two playoff games, Los Angeles first muffled the Dallas Cowboys – possessors of the NFL’s top rusher in Ezekiel Elliott.  Dallas finished the game with just 50 yards rushing (47 by Elliott).  Next up were the New Orleans Saints.  The Saints had been the sixth-best running team in football during the season, while leading the league with 26 rushing touchdowns.  They had racked up 137 more yards in their first playoff game against Philadelphia.

Again, though, the surprising Ram run defense had all the answers.  The Saints managed just 48 yards on the ground against LA.

So one of the sub-themes of this contest would be the matchup of the suddenly unstoppable Patriot ground game against the suddenly immovable Ram run defense.

Starting the game with the ball in their possession – as the Rams deferred – the Patriots began with the ground assault.  On the game’s first play from scrimmage, Michel burst for 13 yards.  All of New England’s first four plays were runs, the first three of them gaining at least five yards. Three plays into the game, the Patriots already had half as many rushing yards (24) as New Orleans had managed against the Rams in the Championship Game.

The fourth running play managed “just” three yards, setting up Brady’s first pass on second-and-seven from the Ram 34.

New England’s Openings

To this point, this drive was eerily similar to the Patriots’ previous two playoff games.  Getting the ball first against both the Chargers and Chiefs, New England had authored two long clock-draining, soul-crushing touchdown drives.  They had marched 83 yards in 14 plays against the first LA team.  That drive had taken the game’s first 7:11.  In their next matchup against KC, they pounded them for 80 yards in 15 plays of a drive that consumed the first 8:05 of that game.

Four plays into the Super Bowl, the combined totals for all three of their first drives read 33 plays, earning 190 yards that had run a collective 18:02 off the clock.

But a funny thing happened as New England sat poised to score their third consecutive opening drive touchdown – an interception.

With Ram cornerback Aqib Talib dropping into deep zone coverage up the offensive right sideline, Receiver Chris Hogan sat down in an open spot in the flat. What should have been an easy first down, though, turned into disaster as Brady’s throw brought Hogan back toward the center of the field, allowing defensive back Nickell Robey-Coleman to get back in the play, where he deflected the ball high enough in the air that linebacker Cory Littleton could slide under it and make the interception.

While that play didn’t necessarily turn the tide of the game, it did turn the tide on the Patriot running game.  After allowing those 24 yards on New England’s first three runs, Los Angeles would surrender just 37 more rushing yards on the Patriots next 16 runs (2.3 yards per attempt).  Of those rushes, the only one to gain more than five yards was an 8-yard wide receiver sweep run by Edelman.

Under-Appreciated Defenders

In the silencing of the Saint running game, the Ram defense was led by their two highest profile defensive linemen – Aaron Donald and Ndamukong Suh.  Bill Belichik and Josh McDaniel’s brilliant response was to not run at Donald.  Of New England’s 32 rushing plays on the evening, only six were run in Donald’s direction – and two of those occurred when Aaron was the only defensive lineman on his side of the field.  If the Rams were going to stop the New England ground game, it would have to be stopped by someone other than Donald.

For most of the game, that someone (or those someones) tuned out to be Michael Brockers and Dante Fowler. Brockers made 7 of the Rams 31 tackles against the run after gains of just 17 yards (2.4 per). Fowler was primary on 3 tackles against the run for a total of one yard lost.

Even when they weren’t making the tackle themselves, they were disruptive forces in the run game.  Mostly lined up against Joe Thuney, Brockers consistently stood his ground, clogging the line and preventing linemen from advancing to the linebackers.

Fowler seemed especially aware of what the Patriots were attempting.  He foiled a couple of screen passes (and Brady and the Patriots were only 1 for 4 completing screen passes) and made quick penetration on several running plays.

With 9:55 left in the first quarter, and New England facing a first-and-ten on their own 24, they tried to send Michel up the middle.  The blocking scheme on this run called for Trent Brown – the tackle lined up opposite of Fowler – to help Thuney double Donald.  With that, the Patriots pulled Shaq Mason from the left side to block on Fowler. But Dante read the play instantly and was into the backfield before Mason could get near him, smothering Michel for a 4-yard loss.

Later on in that drive, now with 6:17 left in the opening quarter, New England sat at third-and-eight on the Ram 31.  They tried to sneak a draw to James White underneath the pass rush of Donald.  Fowler read that, too, and chased White down after a three-yard gain – a play that forced a failed New England field goal attempt.

This was the pattern through most of the game, as the Patriot offense ground to a near halt as the running game sputtered.

For a little while.

Persistence Pays Off

But the ever patient Patriots kept running the ball.  On 68% of their first down plays (23 of 34), the Pats ran the ball.  And eventually, the Rams did wear down.

Beginning with a 19-yard sprint from Michel with 1:18 left in the third, the Patriot running attack took over the rest of the game.  New England’s final 12 rushes would account for 94 yards (7.8 yards per), 4 first downs, one touchdown, and the two runs that basically decided the game.

The last Patriot drive of the season began on its own 4-yard line.  There was still 4:17 left in the game, and the Patriot lead was a slim 10-3.  After their first run earned a yard, the Patriots faced second-and-nine from their own 5.

To this point, NE had almost completely avoided running at Donald.  Of the six times they did test him, five of those runs gained just 4 yards.  At this critical juncture, though, with Donald playing three-technique (over the outside shoulder of right guard Mason), the Patriots lined up with two tight ends to the left of the formation (away from Donald). The Rams overshifted, moving their other two defensive linemen to the left side, leaving Donald and two linebackers alone on the right side.

Just prior to the snap, tight end Dwayne Allen came back in motion to the right side, balancing the lines.  At the snap, Marcus Cannon and Mason doubled Donald, with Cannon then going through for Littleton.  Allen kicked Fowler to the outside, and Thuney came pulling from left guard to lead through the hole by blasting undersized linebacker Mark Barron.  The rest was green grass for Michel, whose 26-yard gallop brought New England from the shadow of its goal line.

Now it is two plays later – with still 2:42 left in the season, but the Rams now down to one time-out.  The Patriots face second-and-seven on their own 41.  Now, the Patriots would do the same thing, but in reverse. And with the same success.

NE lined up with two tight ends to the right side, and the Rams responded by overshifting their line to that side. The Pats then motioned Rob Gronkowski back to the left side and ran there. Thuney and David Andrews put an initial double-team block on Brockers (lined over center, the farthest left defensive lineman the Rams had), with Thuney then going through to get in the way of Littleton. Brown tossed Fowler to the inside, and Gronk crunched Lamarcus Joyner to the outside. James Develin led through the hole and removed Barron from the equation. Rex Burkhead then sliced back inside and ran to daylight.

New England had done the same thing to Kansas City late in that contest to spring a couple of long runs.

With a second 26-yard run in a matter of four plays, New England authored a game-clinching, nine-play, 67-yard drive (all of them running plays!) that ended in a field goal.  It left the Rams with a ten-point deficit, no timeouts, and 1:12 of season left to do something about it.

Although they were essentially stalled for most of the game, in the end, New England finished with 154 rushing yards (and another rushing touchdown) and their sixth title.  In winning their three playoff games, NE had scored 11 touchdowns – nine of them on the ground.

The Develin Factor

Once a staple of offensive football, the fullback has become almost a relic.  In the new pass-happy NFL, the fullback has mostly given way to a third or fourth wide receiver.  But in New England, the fullback is alive and well in the person of James Develin – a specialist whose job it is to ensure green pastures for the running back who will follow him through the hole.  Develin was on the field for only 30 plays (42% of the offensive snaps), but his presence was felt.  The Rams had 13 runs of more than three yards in this game.  Develin led through the hole on 7 of them.  He also led through on the two-yard touchdown run.

It is a stretch to say that the success the Patriots have found with Develin will spread to other teams.  But the concept certainly works in New England.

Brady and the Passing Attack

With the running game mostly held at bay, the very confident Ram defenders gave Tom Brady and his receivers all they could handle.  In one of his least effective Super Bowls, Brady finished with 262 passing yards and a 71.37 passer rating.  Tom didn’t have his best game.  Some of his throws were off target, and a few of his decisions could well be questioned.  But the largest parts of this story are the Ram defenders.  Whether in zone or in man, Talib, Joyner, John Johnson, Barron, Robey-Coleman – and yes even Marcus Peters – continuously provided tight coverage and gave Brady few opportunities.

But with such opportunities as presented themselves, Brady managed to get the ball mostly to his two prime-time targets.  Super Bowl MVP Julian Edelman finished catching 10 of 12 passes thrown his way for 141 yards and 8 first downs.  Tight end Rob Gronkowski caught 6 of 7 for 87 yards and 3 first downs.

Combined, Brady was 16 of 19 (84.21%) throwing to those two for 228 yards (12 yards per attempt and 14.25 per completion).  His passer rating to those two targets was a Brady-like 116.67.

But when the Rams managed to take away those targets and force Brady to go elsewhere, the story was much different.  Throwing to all other receivers, Brady was 5 of 16 (31.25%) for 34 yards (2.13 per attempt) with one interception – a 14.58 rating.

It’s Julian’s World

The challenge with Edelman is mostly a man coverage issue.  One of football’s quickest receivers, Julian is almost always able to get that first step on a defender.  And while he doesn’t have the kind of break-away speed that will leave a defender in his wake, he is as tough at catching footballs with defenders hanging on him as you will find in the league.

In this contest, Edelman was kept company by all of the principle Ram defenders.  He saw a lot of Talib, but frequently lined up slot-left where he would draw slot-corner Robey-Coleman.  He would then frequently run across the field (left-to-right) with Nickell in pursuit.  Of Julian’s receptions and yards he caught 5 of 6 for 73 yards and 4 first downs on the right side of the field.  Against all man coverage, Edelman caught 7 of 9 for 112 yards and 5 first downs – almost all of these with a defender within arms grasp.

These were difference making catches and yards.

Gronk in the Zone

While zone coverages will tend to minimize Edelman’s impact, they are a double-edged sword as someone will then have to deal with Rob Gronkowski, one of the NFL’s best at finding soft spots in zones.  Brady threw to Gronk in zone coverages 4 times, his 4 completions resulting in 40 yards (although just 1 first down).  Gronk would have his moment against man coverage, too.

There is 7:43 left in the season, game tied at that point 3-3, Patriots on LA’s 31.  Here would be the first of a series of plays that would determine the outcome of the season.

As the Patriots lined up, the Rams made one last attempt to confound the New England passing game.  As Edelman went in motion to the right, no one followed him – a zone indicator.  Then Littleton crowded the line, threatening a blitz – which would probably be man coverage.  Perhaps they were a little too cute, here.  Apparently, the only ones they confused were themselves.

On Brady’s last pass of the season, the Rams found themselves in man coverage, but with disadvantageous matchups.  They finished with safety Joyner on Edelman and cornerback Talib on running back Burkhead.

The defensive lineup also left Littleton one-on-one with Gronkowski all the way up the left side line.

For the game, Brady would only throw three long passes.  All would go up the left sideline.  The first two of these came with Marcus Peters isolated on Chris Hogan, with Peters responding to the challenge both times.  This time a perfect pass led Gronk over the top of Littleton.  Rob’s catch gave the Patriots first and goal on the two, and set in motion the end game.

Third and Less Than Automatic

Against the Chiefs, the Patriot offense thrived on third down, converting 13-of-19.  The Ram defense kept its team in the game by holding the Patriots to a much more pedestrian 3 of 12 on this down.  Here they played predominantly man coverage, leading to something of a hit-and-miss result.  In spite of the fact that New England only converted three of these opportunities, Brady was still 6 for 10 on third down, and the Patriots averaged 7 yards on third down.  The three first downs were all catches by Edelman (11, 25, and 27 yards).  New England’s other 9 third down plays accounted for a total of 21 yards.

Defending the Rams

With the Patriot offense managing just enough points, this game fell on the shoulders of the New England defense in their matchup against one of the game’s top offenses.

Ram quarterback Jared Goff supervised the NFL’s fifth-ranked passing attack, while he finished eighth in passer rating at 101.1.  When you have an offense that has too many weapons to concentrate on, usually the best answer is to stop it at its source.  The Patriots answered the new-age Ram offense with an age old defensive prescription.  They dialed up the pressure.

While Jared saw about an even mix of coverages (he saw man coverages 49% of the time) it was the effectiveness of the man coverages that made the difference.  In his 20 snaps throwing against man, Goff was just 8 of 18 (44.44%) for just 101 yards and his interception – a 39.35 passer rating.  He was also sacked twice.

And whether the Pats were playing man or zone, Jared was under frequent blitz pressure.  All told, Goff was blitzed on 46.3% of his pass attempts (19 of 41).  And even when they weren’t blitzing, the pressure on Goff was nearly constant.  After registering only 30 sacks during the regular season, the Patriots racked up 10 in three playoff games.  The use of blitzes was a big part.  Even more than that, though, over their last three games the Patriots raised the defensive line stunt to almost an art form.

The defensive line stunt has been in existence since the beginning of football.  The defensive end comes in and the tackle loops around.  It challenges the awareness of the offensive line.  By this point of the season – with football’s two best teams left – it should be assumed that both offenses can handle the concept dependably.

But in New England the Patriots have been tinkering with this – combining it with blitzes, stunting with linebackers, employing the experience of their defenders to analyze and adjust.  The benefits could not have been predicted.

Kansas City was never able to solve the Patriot stunts.  The Rams fell into the same pattern.  Goff faced at least some pressure on 30 of his 41 pass attempts (73.2%).  According to the scoresheet, he was hit on 12 of those (with linebackers Kyle Van Noy and Dont’a Hightower each accounting for 3).  Including the sacks, Jared faced extreme pressure on 16 of his passes (39%).  Repeatedly – especially early in the game when the Patriots played more zone – this pressure averted what could have been disasters downfield.  On the 12 passes when Goff was being hit while throwing, he completed just 3 for 36 yards and his interception.  His rating on those plays was 4.86, and, including the sacks, the Rams gained a total of 5 yards on those 16 plays.

By contrast Brady (who was only blitzed 8.3% of the time) only saw that level of pressure on 8.3% of his attempts (3 of 36).

Stephon Gilmore (who mostly stayed with Brandin Cooks) and Jonathan Jones (who was impressive against Robert Woods) were principle heroes in this contest.  Jones has not been a name to conjure with for the most part this season, but over the last two games, Jonathan has met the challenges of Tyreek Hill and Robert Woods.  He was most impressive.

The Results

The results of this suffocating pass defense could hardly have been anticipated.  Goff never completed more than three consecutive pass attempts, and LA – failing on its first 8 third down attempts – ended up punting on its first 8 possessions.  The Rams accounted for a total of 82 yards in those first 8 drives, averaging 2.7 yards per play.

Los Angeles ended the day 3 for 13 on third down.  Goff dropped back to pass on 12 of the 13 third-downs.  He finished 3 of 10 with 2 sacks, being blitzed on 6 of the 12 plays.  All told, Los Angeles’ 13 third-down plays totaled 13 yards.  The answer throughout the game was relentless pressure.  New England had several defensive lineman that executed the stunts to perfection and applied frequent pressure.  Lawrence Guy, Adrian Clayborn and Trey Flowers all played very well.

But the difference really was the linebackers Van Noy and Hightower.  With the speed to loop from one side of the formation all the way to the other, and the instincts that guided their timing in and through the line, they were a complication that neither the Chiefs nor the Rams ever managed to solve.

Fourth Quarter Excitement

Los Angeles’ first play of the fourth quarter came with 14:47 left and the score tied at three.  To that point, Goff and the passing game had been dominated.  Jared was 9 of 21 (42.86%) for just 95 yards (4.52 per pass attempt) and 3 sacks for 29 yards of loss.  The vaunted LA passing attack was sitting at 66 total yards for the night.

The fourth quarter – in spite of the fact that the Rams would never score again – would be different.  Throwing 17 times in the fourth quarter alone, Jared completed more passes in that quarter (10) and for more yards (134) than in the entire game previous to that point.  On the receiving end, Brandin Cooks emerged, catching 5 passes for 88 yards.  With the big quarter, Cooks finished the game with impressive totals of 8 catches for 120 yards.  But the numbers looked better than they played for both.

Almost all of this damage came during Los Angeles’ last two possessions.  With the season winding down Jared completed 6 of his last 11 throws for 102 yards and 5 first downs.  Cooks was the target on 5 of those throws – finishing with 3 catches (all for first downs) and 64 of the 102 yards.

But.

While the first of those drives began promisingly enough, there was much more opportunity there than was realized.  And the Rams’ last drive of the season – even after I’ve watched it several times – remains a head scratcher.

That Puzzling Last Drive

OK, I grant from the beginning that at this point the Ram chances were very slim.  With 1:12 left, they were getting the ball on their own 25, down by 10 and with no time outs.  Their bad situation was immediately complicated by a holding penalty by Rob Havenstein (who was certainly not in consideration for Super Bowl MVP).

Back on his own 15 now, with 66 ticks left on the clock, Goff and the Ram offense would throw three consecutive short passes to the middle of the field, completing the first two.  By this time, the New England zones were quite soft, as they invited Los Angeles to throw all the short passes they wanted.

Woods caught the first one for 10 yards and was tackled in bounds.  Cooks turned a dump off into a 24-yard gain up the middle, but was also tackled in bounds to keep the clock running.  When the third straight short pass fell incomplete, it was something of a blessing for the Rams as the clock finally stopped – albeit with just 21 seconds left.  During all of these short attempts, the Rams neither sent anyone deep toward the end zone, nor did they send any receivers to the sidelines.  Everyone ran short sit-down routes designed to get them open against zones – and they did achieve that.  But they were long past the point in the game where getting open underneath the zone coverages would do them any good.

The next throw was deep-ish, Goff tossing a nice pass into a small window into the arms of Cooks for 21 yards (and 45 of Cooks’ yards would come on his two catches on this drive).  But again, with no time outs, this throw went over the middle.  Down two scores, Goff finally made it up to the line and spiked the ball with all of 8 seconds left in the season.

Again, the situation was difficult and victory unlikely however they went about this last drive.  But exactly what they thought they would accomplish with that play selection will remain one of the enduring mysteries of Super Bowl LIII.

Wither the Ram Running Game

To this point, we haven’t discussed the Ram running attack – mostly because there is little to discuss.  As pointed out earlier in this piece, it has been a long time since a running attack accounted for fewer yards in the Super Bowl than the Rams’ did.  Truthfully, it didn’t seem like the running game was even an important part of the game plan.  Kansas City had seemed uninterested in running against the Patriots two weeks before.  They ran just 12 times all game.  In the Super Bowl, the Rams followed suit.  They ran just 18 times all day – in spite of the fact that until that last drive they were never more than 7 points behind.  Fifty-five plays the Rams ran this in this game within one score of the Patriots.  They threw on 37 of them.  They ran 20 plays with the score tied.  They threw on 14 of them.  Los Angeles ran only 16 plays all evening in New England territory – throwing on 15 of them.

These are not the numbers of a team with a running mindset.

And when they did run, they seemed almost insistent that they were going to run behind right tackle Havenstein.  Of their 18 running plays, 8 went over right tackle.  One of them developed into Los Angeles’ longest run of the day – through no success of Havenstein’s.  At the edge, he was stuffed by Flowers, but Gurley cut the run back the other way for 16 yards.  The other 7 runs behind Havenstein gained just 18 yards.

In-Offensive Lines

Heroes in the Divisional Round win against Dallas, when they racked up 273 rushing yards, the Los Angeles offensive line – all of them – came up short in the Super Bowl.  They struggled in pass protection all night and failed to generate any sustained semblance of movement for the running game.  In a game that was hard fought and tight throughout, the Rams’ fatal flaw was the offensive line that had been their backbone throughout their breakthrough season.

But of all the struggling afternoons, no one’s was longer than right tackle Rob Havenstein’s.  Especially the fourth quarter.

Rams’ first drive of the fourth quarter.  It is second-and-11 from the LA 22, game tied at 3 with 12:23 left.  Deep routes from Woods and Cooks cleared the right flat for Gerald Everett.  But Goff had no time to get the ball there as he was sandwiched between Flowers (who had slipped past Austin Blythe) and infrequently used defensive end John Simon, who beat Havenstein around the edge.  The throw fell incomplete.

Now facing third-and-11, the Rams profited from a defensive holding call and a 16-yard pass to Cooks – in spite of the fact that this time it was Guy who was beating Havenstein on the pass rush.

A 13-yard run from Gurley was then erased by a holding penalty – not Havenstein this time but center John Sullivan, setting up a first-and-20 from the LA 33.

With the Patriots in zone this time, Woods found an open spot deep in the middle of the coverage that would probably have achieved them the first down.  But Goff had no chance on this one, either.  This time it was Flowers turn to blow through Havenstein, who barely touched him.  Flowers flushed Jared immediately out of the pocket and into the arms of Jonathan Jones for a two-yard loss.

Goff was able to get the next throw off – incomplete on a deep route to Cooks.  There was pressure, though, from Hightower working, again,  around Havenstein.

Facing third-and-22, LA tried a running play.  This time it was Flowers, again, shooting past Havenstein to make the play in the backfield.  The Rams punted on the next play.

While this drive – in which he was beaten on five consecutive plays – marked the low spot, Rob’s day was generally underwhelming.  A defensive tackle named Deatrich Wise Jr – who didn’t play in the Championship Game against KC, and was only on the field for 31 snaps in this one – still led New England in tackles against the run with 5 (and after gains of only 18 yards).  Most of this success came at Havenstein’s expense.

This will not be a film Rob will look forward to reviewing.

The No Fly Zone

Of all the interesting statistical tidbits that emerged from this contest, maybe the most illuminating concerned the fifty-yard-line.  In this defensively dominated game, both offenses mostly had their way when they were operating in their own territory.

While on his side of the field, Brady completed 17 of 23 passes (73.91%) for 213 yards (9.26 per attempted pass and 12.53 per completed pass) for a 102.26 rating.  The Patriots ran 44 plays on their side of the field, gaining 335 yards with those plays (7.6 per) and earning 15 first downs.

Goff, for his part, was also better in his own end where he completed 14 of 25 (56%) for 181 yards (7.24 per attempt and 12.93 per completion).  His rating in his own end was 78.92, and the Rams gained 238 yards on their 44 plays in their own territory (5.4 per) with 11 first downs.

But as soon as each offense crossed the fifty, the defenses took over.

Brady was 4 for 12 (33.33%) for 49 yards (4.08 per attempt) and his interception in Ram territory (12.15 rating).  His Patriots managed 72 yards and 3 first downs in their 24 plays in Ram territory (3.0 per).

Goff was 5 of 13 (38.46%) for 48 yards (3.69 per attempt) and his interception (and two sacks) – good for a 17.47 rating.  With LA running just once on the New England side of the fifty, the Rams finished with 22 yards and 2 first downs to show for their 16 plays in opposition territory – 1.4 yards per play.

Combined the two star quarterbacks finished 9 for 25 (36%) for 97 yards (3.88 per pass attempt) with 2 interceptions and 3 sacks (a 14.92 rating) on the other side of the fifty.  The two teams ran a total of 40 plays in each other’s territory, finishing with just 94 yards (2.4 per play) and 5 first downs.

Of New England’s 154 rushing yards, 122 came on their side of the field.  All of Edelman’s passing yards, and 117 of Cooks’ 120 came on their own respective sides of the field.  The two teams combined for 27 plays that went for at least ten yards.  Only three of them came on the far side of the fifty.  The Rams had two of the three – 18 and 17 yard passes to Robert Woods when they were just barely over the fifty.

New England dialed up only one impact play in opposing territory – that last pass to Gronkowski.

That play to the Ram 2-yard line, set up Sony Michel’s touchdown run.  The game’s only touchdown thus came on the only red zone play from either team on an evening when neither team would start a drive in the other’s territory, and – thanks to superior punting from Johnny Hekker and Ryan Allen – each team started three drives inside its own ten-yard line.

That is how you get a 13-3 game.

In one of the most impressive post-season performances in memory, the Patriots played the league’s top two scoring offenses in consecutive contests. The Rams and Chiefs combined for 107 offensive snaps.  They never took one snap with a lead in either game.

The Plays that Weren’t Made

For all of that, though – for as well and as passionately as the Patriots played on defense – the entire contest could easily have gone in the other direction.  As always in tight contests like this, it comes down to a few moments – a handful of plays made and not made.  Most of these swirl around former Patriot Brandin Cooks, whose 120 receiving yards will be forever overshadowed by the yards he didn’t get.

There was 3:42 left in the third.  New England was clinging to a 3-0 lead, but the Rams were sitting on the Patriot 29-yard line.  New England was in cover four – a defense they don’t run very often, and don’t execute with much confidence.

Robert Woods settled into a pocket in the zone over the deep middle, drawing the complete attention of both of the middle zone defenders, Jones and Devin McCourty – so much so that Jones paid no heed at all to Cooks as he sped up the middle into the end zone unattended.  Just before he reached the end line, with no one else around him, he turned and looked for the ball.  Goff delivered a strike for what might have been a game-changing touchdown.  But at the very last second, Jason McCourty – whose assignment had been the deep right sideline – came racing from the far side of the field to deflect the pass, just as it was about to nestle in Brandin’s hands.

That enormous play fended off disaster and kept the Rams at bay until that penultimate – and game deciding – fourth quarter drive.  Here, down 10-3, they faced third-and-nine on their own 45 with 5:29 left.  The Rams will spend the off-season wishing they could have back any of these next four plays.

Goff converted the first down with an 11-yard toss over the middle to Josh Reynolds.  Effective, yes.  But this was one of the few plays in which Jared wasn’t under immediate pressure. And there were opportunities upfield.  Cooks had beaten Gilmore off the line and had a step on Stephon up the left sideline.  Perhaps even more open was Woods, who had split his doubleteam up the middle.  Either of those were big plays (and maybe touchdowns) waiting to happen.

Goff completes his next pass as well – this time 17 yards to Woods on the right sideline.  But again, the greater opportunity was missed as Reynolds had blown past Jason McCourty up the right sideline.  The Rams have moved to first-and-ten on the Patriot 27.  But with the rare gift of time in the pocket, the opportunities had been so much better.

Having passed up the deep option the last two plays, Goff wouldn’t let that happen a third time.  Cooks ran a go up the right sideline, separating just enough from Gilmore.  At the goal line, the football, Cooks and Gilmore all arrived at about the same time.  The throw was perfect.  Cooks had it briefly in his right hand.  But Gilmore had just enough hold of his left hand that he couldn’t bring it up to complete the catch.  A second later the ball was rolling harmlessly in the end zone.

Interference?  I would say yes.  Gilmore clearly held down Cooks’ arm and by the accepted understanding of pass interference that would qualify.  Should it have been first and goal?  Probably.  But before any Ram fans get too worked up, let me hasten to point out that this missed pass interference call was nothing in comparison to the flagrantly missed pass interference that put the Rams in the Super Bowl in the first place.

Karma, I suppose.

Now it’s second-and-ten.  For three straight plays, his beleaguered offensive line had bought Jared enough time to read the defense and make a throw.  They would not be able to provide him a fourth.

The Patriot blitz overloaded the offensive right side, with Hightower rushing to Havenstein’s outside shoulder, and Wise clubbing Blythe to the inside. Into the gap created by those two rushes, NE sent two defensive backs. Gurley properly took the inside rusher (Devin McCourty), but there was no one to account for Duron Harmon, who came free.

Under serious pressure Goff heaved the pass up the right sideline. With six rushing, New England’s defensive backs played deep, and Gilmore – staying on top of Cooks’ vertical – was waiting for the throw.

This was pretty much the dagger.  New England’s running game then keyed the drive to the field goal that gave us the final score.

Rare Symmetry

That interception was part of an uncommon symmetry that began and ended this contest.  After this interception, the Rams’ final drive of the season ended with a missed a field goal.  The Patriots had begun the game with an interception and a missed field goal on their first two possessions.  In a sense, the season itself was somewhat symmetrical as well.  Not quite five months earlier, the Falcons and Eagles had begun the season with what was expected to be a shootout.  It wasn’t, with Philadelphia escaping with an 18-12 win.  That was on a Thursday.  The next Sunday Patrick Mahomes would light up the Chargers and begin the magic carpet ride that was the 2018 season.

With this re-assertion by two determined defenses lingering now in our memories for the next seven months, it leaves us with questions to ponder as we await the 2019 season.  Does this game signal a turnaround for defenses?  Will there be concepts that other defensive coordinators will steal from these two teams that will cause scoring to drop next year?  During the season, a few teams turned to run-first philosophies.  Most of these of necessity, but at least one of them seemed to do it from choice.  Will Neanderthal football continue its resurgence?  Or was this just a non-passing fancy?  And what will be the result of the blown call that ended the season for New Orleans?  Will the NFL react to that? And how?

Every year, now, I find that instead of being the final answer, the Super Bowl leaves more questions to answer for the next year.  Enough to stew on over the next seven months.