Tag Archives: Matthew Stafford

Gotta Find That Guy

Eight weeks is a long time for frustration to fester.

The Los Angeles Rams were a 7-2 ballclub as they took the field in San Francisco on Monday, November 15.  More than all of that, they were the talk of the football world, having just added Odell Beckham Jr. and Von Miller to their roster.  They now had the look of this super-team that was ready to take on all comers.  Two hours and fifty minutes later, they limped into the locker room on the embarrassing end of a 31-10 blowout by a 49er team that had entered the game just 3-5.

The loss was humbling enough, but the manner of it made it that much harder to swallow.  San Francisco bludgeoned them on the ground, running the football 44 times for 156 yards.  It was San Francisco’s fifth consecutive victory against their division rival, and their formula was embarrassingly simple.  They were – once again – the more physical team.  Starting their first drive on their own 7-yard line, the 49ers bullied the Rams off the ball going 93 yards on 18 grueling plays – 13 of them runs.

For eight weeks, the Rams have worn that loss while putting themselves in position to win the division.  These two separate threads of the season ran together in the season finale last Sunday.  Now 12-4, the Rams could win the division and claim the conference’s second seed with one more win.  And, as serendipity would have it, their opponent for their first-ever Week 18 game were those same 49ers.  To make the pot even sweeter, San Francisco came into LA riding a 6-2 streak that had started with their Monday night win, and were one win away from sneaking into the playoffs.

In one fell swoop (as it were), the Rams could sew up their division, claim the second seed and knock the 49ers into the offseason – all while proving that they weren’t as soft as the league was starting to think they were.

For 29-and-a-half minutes, the Rams were all of that.  They landed on the 49ers like the Marines landing on a beach.

Taking the opening kickoff, LA drained the first 8:53 off the clock, converting three third-downs on their way to a first-and-ten on the San Francisco 19.  The 49ers held them out of the end zone on that drive, forcing the Rams to settle for a field goal.  The reprieve was only temporary.

San Francisco managed one first down on their first possession before punting back to the Rams, who went immediately back on the attack.  This time, LA’s 12-play, 61-yard, 6:25 drive found the end zone, and San Francisco’s early deficit grew to 10 points.

Four minutes later, it looked like the game had slid away from the 49ers.  After all three of their plays in the subsequent possession lost yards, San Francisco found itself punting from its own 7-yard line.  When Mitch Wishnowsky’s 43-yard punt was returned 31 yards by Brandon Powell, the Rams were set-up on the 49er 19.  It took them just 3 plays to make the score 17-0.

The San Fran defense withstood one final first-half drive from the Rams without allowing further damage, but the halftime statistics gave clear evidence of Los Angeles’ complete domination.

LA controlled the ball for 19:53 of that first half, including going 7-10 on third down.  San Francisco finished the first half with just 19 offensive plays (remember they had had 18 on their first possession on that Monday night game) for only 83 yards.  The 49ers had just 10 rushing yards on only 5 carries.

And don’t for a moment believe that the Rams weren’t emotionally invested in this rivalry.  After that last touchdown, Ram coach Sean McVay raced into the end zone to join in the celebration.

To this point, the game couldn’t be more satisfying to Coach McVay and the Ram organization.

But fortunately for San Francisco, they didn’t go into the locker room down the full 17-0.  Getting the ball with 38 seconds left in the half, quarterback Jimmy Garoppolo got the ball to wide receiver Brandon Aiyuk for two “chunk” plays – gains of 19 and 26 yards respectively – that positioned the 49ers for an end-of-half field goal.

That may not sound terribly significant, but the points would turn out to be vital, and just that late offensive success would be enough to ease San Francisco back into rhythm.

Tale of Two Halves

As a kind of microcosm of this most unpredictable season, the 49ers dominated the game’s second half every bit as thoroughly as the Rams had dominated the opening half.  San Francisco held the ball for 19:22 of the second half, outgaining LA 287-103.

Again, the game came down to Garoppolo.  Taking over on his own 12-yard line, down 24-17 with 1:27 left on the clock and no timeouts, Jimmy threw for 21 yards to Aiyuk and 43 yards to Deebo Samuel to position things for a game-tying, 14-yard toss to Jauan Jennings with 26 ticks left.

San Francisco would subsequently win in overtime, 27-24 (gamebook) (summary).  The win sent the 49ers into the dance as the sixth seed.  In spite of their loss, the Rams won their division anyway when Arizona lost.

While the two-minute drive was compelling, the game’s signature moment came on San Francisco’s second drive of the second half.  Having already trimmed the LA lead to 17-10, and after turning the Ram offense away on their first second-half possession, the 49ers took over on their own 26 with 8:48 left in the quarter.

They proceeded to call ten straight running plays – nine of them right up the middle.

Same Old Rams?

Back in the day, when the Rams were in St Louis and the 49ers were perennial Super Bowl contenders, the 49ers beat the Rams 17 consecutive times from 1990 to 1998 (only the last 8 of those wins occurred during the Rams’ tenure in StL).  After these bi-annual beatings, the 49ers would always shrug and say, “same old Rams.”

No one said “same old Rams” after this game.  Even so, that kind of sequence – ten consecutive runs up the middle – sends a message.  After just 10 ground yards in the first half, San Fran racked up 96 yards (on 20 attempts) in the second thirty minutes, and added 29 more (on 6 attempts) in their overtime field goal drive.

After halftime, the 49ers racked up 125 rushing yards on 26 carries (4.8 per).  They converted 7 of 10 third downs over that span.  Even if no one said it, it was indeed the same old Rams.

After a shaky first half against Baltimore, Matthew Stafford and the LA passing game scorched the Ravens in the second half of Week 17.  He was 14 for 14 for 162 yards and a touchdown in the second half of that game.  He began the contest against the 49ers in that same vein – completing 15 of his first 16 for 153 yards and 2 more touchdowns.  From halftime of Week 17 to halftime of Week 18, Stafford completed 29 of 30 passes (96.7%) for 315 yards (10.5 per attempt) and 3 touchdowns, with no interceptions – a 143.8 passer rating.

In the second half of the 49er game – and struggling against an unrestrainable San Francisco pass rush – Matthew finished the contest completing just 6 of his last 16 passes for 85 yards.  He did throw a touchdown pass, but also tossed two more interceptions – bringing his total to 7 over the last 3 games of the season.  The final interception was an underthrow in overtime.  Given their opportunity to answer the San Francisco field goal, Stafford had Beckham up the right sideline with a step on 49er corner Ambry Thomas.  But Odell could only watch helplessly as Matthew’s short throw ended up in the arms of the San Francisco defensive back, ending the game.

As much as the 49er offensive line physically dominated the Rams defense, the San Fran defensive line had its way against the Ram offense.  LA ran for only 14 yards on 15 first half carries, on its way to 64 rushing yards for the game – at 2.4 yards per attempt.  More than half of that yardage came after contact, as the defensive front couldn’t be parted.  Sony Michel – LA’s leading rusher – carried the ball 21 times, getting only 13 yards before being contacted by the defense (0.6 per carry).  Five of their 27 running plays were tackled behind the line of scrimmage.

Stafford, meanwhile, was sacked 5 times, hit 6 other times and hurried 3 more – meaning disruptive pressure on 37.8% of his 37 drop-backs.  No matter who is under center for your team, he will rarely thrive under that kind of pressure.

So the Rams are off to the playoffs, hosting round three against Arizona, with all of the question marks still hovering over them.  They are an undeniably talented team, and they are unquestionably capable of dominating on any given Sunday.  But consistency remains a lingering question.  And now, so does their toughness.

Wither Jimmy G

Headed to Dallas to play the Sunday afternoon game, the 49ers and Jimmy Garoppolo are back in the playoffs – their middling 10-7 record accented by a season-closing 7-2 run.

In the closing drives – the field goal just before the half and the tying touchdown at the end of the game – Jimmy completed 8 of 9 passes (not counting the spike right before the field goal) for 144 yards and the touchdown.  He was 4 for 5 for 50 yards as he drove them to the winning points in overtime.

The last I’ve heard from the 49ers is that Jimmy’s job will be rookie Trey Lance’s as soon as he’s “ready.”  That means – I suppose – that however deep into the playoffs this team runs, there is strong likelihood that this will be the end of five very interesting years for Garoppolo in the city by the bay. 

Beginning with 2017, when he started his 49er career with a 5-0 record before missing the rest of the season with an injury, Jimmy’s tenure as the San Francisco signal caller has seen plenty of both wins and injuries.  In 5 years, Garoppolo has made 45 starts – 9 a year, or marginally more than half of the available starts.  But the team is 31-14 in those games, with Jimmy posting an outstanding 98.3 passer rating.

If this is, in fact, his final season here, then San Francisco can only hope that Lance will develop into a quarterback as good as Jimmy.  The real question surrounding Garoppolo is just exactly what will his next team be getting.

Is Garoppolo an Elite Quarterback?

After watching him carefully for the last several seasons, I have to say that if elite is the Tom Brady, Aaron Rodgers, Patrick Mahomes level, then no.  Jimmy doesn’t belong with that group.  He lacks that superstar gear that these other guys have.  You will rarely see Garoppolo thoroughly take over a contest and dominate the other team the way that those other guys can.

This doesn’t relegate Jimmy to the ”game manager” category.

Whoever gets him next will be getting a top quarterback.  Jimmy performs all of the quarterback duties at a very high level.  Furthermore, he makes big plays at important times of the game, and his leadership abilities are among the best in the league.  He commands the huddle and easily earns the trust and confidence of his teammates.  You almost never see Garoppolo without a smile on his face, an that inherent enjoyment and the easy confidence that it expresses rubs off on the teams that he plays for.

Could Garoppolo win a Super Bowl somewhere?  If he can stay healthy, he certainly could.  Could that place be San Francisco?  It could.  He, in fact, seems an excellent fit for Kyle Shanahan’s clever smoke-and-mirrors offense.

Of course, he will have to figure out how to stay on the field.

Speaking of Quarterbacks

The team that topped Garoppolo and the 49ers in that Super Bowl two years ago – the Kansas City Chiefs – also struggled out of the gate this year.  They started 3-4 before clipping off 8 straight wins.  Going into their Saturday season finale, Kansas City still had a shot at the top seed in its conference.

But, against a 7-9 Denver team that had nothing to play for except pride, the Chiefs almost stumbled down into the third seed, as it took a fourth-quarter defensive score to ease them past the Broncos, 28-24 (gamebook) (summary).

Although they threatened numerous blitzes, Vic Fangio’s group actually sent an extra rusher only twice in Mahomes’ fifty drop-backs.  It was part of an afternoon-long chess match, as Denver mixed looks and coverages, trying – and, for the most part succeeding – in staying one step ahead of the high-powered KC offense.  It helped that Kansas City’s star receiver Tyreek Hill was nursing a heel injury and played sparingly.  Even so, down three starting defensive backs, the Bronco defense held up heroically, almost completely denying the deep pass.

For the game, Patrick completed only 3 of his 14 passes aimed at targets more than ten yards up field.  Mahomes completed 27 passes that afternoon, but to targets that averaged just 2.41 yards from the line of scrimmage (the average NFL pass is caught 5.74 yards from scrimmage).

Unfortunately, denying the deep completion is only part of the battle against the Chiefs.  In this contest, they atoned for the depth of their receptions with yards after the catch.  Of Patrick’s 270 passing yards, 205 came after the catch – an average of 7.59 yards per.

Particularly dangerous in these situations were receiver Mecole Hardman (99 of his 103 receiving yards coming after the catch) and running backs Jerick McKinnon (40 of his 26) and Darrel Williams (33 of his 30).  The screen pass, was, in fact, the most dangerous part of the Chief offense on this day.  Mahomes completed 10 of his 11 screen passes for 126 yards and a touchdown (to McKinnon).

Fangio Moves On

It was pretty much a foregone conclusion that this contest would be the last that Fangio would coach for the Broncos.  The supremely classy coach – whose performance was much better than his front office recognized – had nothing but accolades for the team and front office.

In the post-game interview after his last game, a reporter asked him why Denver has been unable to narrow the gap between themselves and the rest of their division – all of whom were in playoff contention right up to the last game of the season. After the briefest of pauses, Vic said – in an almost offhanded manner – “well, those other three all have top shelf quarterbacks.”

And there it is.  The difference between the Broncos and the rest of the division is pretty much completely covered in the gap that separates Patrick Mahomes, Derek Carr and Justin Herbert from Teddy Bridgewater and Drew Lock.  Coach Fangio’s unforgiveable sin was the same as Mike Zimmer’s (who we talked about last week) in Minnesota.  They made the mistake of hitching their fortunes to the wrong quarterback.

Whoever next takes the reigns in Denver will suffer the same fate in about three years unless he can find that guy.  In an NFL that’s increasingly quarterback-centric, it becomes all the more critical to find that quarterback who can take you to the promised land.  Whatever else you do well as a coach, your top skill had better be finding a top-shelf quarterback.

Kinda makes you think that San Francisco should re-visit its Garoppolo/Lance decision before it’s too late, doesn’t it.

Offense from Defense

Six weeks into the 2017 NFL season, the scoreboard shows that – of the 444 touchdowns scored so far – 402 have been scored by the offensive team (276 TD passes and 126 TD runs).  But Week Six was noteworthy – in part – for touchdowns racked up by special teams and, especially, defense.  Of the 34 defensive touchdowns scored this season, 10 were scored in Week Six.  Of the 8 special teams touchdowns scored this season, 5 were scored this week.

These two alternate touchdown sources contributed to one of the most entertaining games of the season last Sunday when New Orleans held off a late Detroit rally to “escape” with a 52-38 victory (gamebook).  That game alone contributed 4 defensive touchdowns and 1 special teams score – with four of these five alternate scores occurring in the game’s last 24 minutes.

Along the way, the Saints may have become the first team ever to score 50 points while going just 2 for 12 on third down (including 0 for 7 in the second half).  It is also surprising in that superstar quarterback Drew Brees suffered through his worst statistical game of the season.  Hitting the field with a 108.3 passer rating for the season, Brees – who had thrown no interceptions on the seasons and was averaging 7.47 yards per pass – tossed 3 interceptions in Sunday’s second half and averaged just 6.00 yards per pass on his way to a 78.2 passer rating.  His afternoon featured a goal-line interception for a Detroit touchdown that – for the moment – fueled the Lions’ furious comeback.

When your opponent rolls up 38 points, it’s rare that your defense is regarded as heroic.  Nonetheless, with the score against them inflated by a defensive score and a punt return for a touchdown, the Saint defense sacked Lion quarterback Matthew Stafford 5 times, hit him on 6 other pass attempts, deflected 12 passes, intercepted 3 and recovered 2 fumbles.  The Saint defense scored 3 touchdowns outright, and set up another.  In between, they saw Detroit make some plays – but on this day, the big-play New Orleans defense was more than a match.

After losing their first two games (to 4-2 Minnesota and 4-2 New England), the Saints have cobbled together three consecutive wins (against 4-2 Carolina, 3-2 Miami, and now 3-3 Detroit).  As you can see, New Orleans’ early schedule has been pretty challenging.  Things could get a little softer for the next few weeks.  They will line up Sunday against the 4-2 Green Bay Packers – but without their superstar quarterback Aaron Rodgers who went down last week with a broken collarbone.  After that, they draw the Bears (2-4) and Buccaneers (2-3).  After yielding 1025 total yards in their first two games (with no turnovers), the New Orleans defense has only surrendered 821 over their last 3 (with 9 turnovers).

If the Saint defense has turned the corner – and if the offense stays as balanced as it’s been the last three weeks – this Saints team could hold its own in the highly competitive NFC South all the way into December.

Matthew Stafford

There are moments when sports become transcendent.  I’m going to waft a little poetic, here, for a few paragraphs – so if your tolerance for bad poetry is a little low, you might want to skip this section.

With the third quarter about half over, a fortunate deflection of a Stafford pass landed in the arms of Saints’ rookie first-round-pick Marshon Lattimore.  Twenty-seven yards later, Lattimore was being swarmed by his teammates after he had scored what seemed to be the back breaking touchdown.  With 23 minutes and 34 seconds left in the game, Detroit trailed 45-10.  Not only were they trailing, but they were paying a horrific physical price.

About four minutes before, safety Glover Quinn was lost after taking a knee to the head.  About two minutes later, the other safety Tavon Wilson went down for a while.  With six-and-a-half minutes left in the third – and with the Lions’ still 35 points behind – they lost their most explosive playmaker when Golden Tate went to the sidelines with an AC joint sprain in his shoulder.

And then there was the beating the offensive line took.  Already missing starting guard T.J. Lang, Detroit lost two more offensive lineman in the third and fourth quarters, as both Greg Robinson and Ricky Wagner suffered ankle injuries.  So, on top of everything else, Detroit faced a five-touchdown deficit with, essentially, three backup offensive linemen in the game.

In the midst of all of this adversity was battered quarterback Matthew Stafford.  Already hobbled by a bad ankle and a tender hamstring, Stafford endured a savage beating at the hands of the physical New Orleans defense.  Before the comeback even got up a head of steam, a shot to the ribs had Matthew flinching for the rest of the drive.

With every reason to sit their remaining healthy starters and just wind out the clock.  With no legitimate chance for victory, and no coherent reason to keep trying, the emotionally resilient Lions pulled their broken bodies off the Superdome turf and mounted a comeback for the ages – almost.

Pounded by free-rushers, and scrambling as much as he could on a bad ankle, baby-faced Matthew Stafford was every inch a man on Sunday afternoon.  Coming back for more every time he was belted to the turf, and with his limping teammates rallying around him, the Lions improbably reeled off 28 consecutive points – and did so in a span of just 14:15 immediately after they had lost their most explosive playmaker.

When defensive tackle A’Shawn Robinson stepped in front of Brees’ quick slant and waltzed into the end zone, the Detroit Lions sat just seven points back (45-38) with still 6:41 left on the clock.  Immediately afterward, the Lion defense held New Orleans to a quick three-and-out.  There was still 5:23 left on the game clock as punter Thomas Morstead launched his kick to the left-corner of the end zone, where one final mistake would doom the Lions and their comeback.

On an afternoon when Detroit would surrender 193 rushing yards and would turn the ball over five times, their clinching mistake would involve neither.  Already having scored on a 74-yard punt return, Jamal Agnew now muffed Morstead’s punt.  As it rolled toward the end zone, Agnew raced after it.  He managed to scoop it up and advance it just enough out of the end zone to avoid the safety.  As it turned out, the safety might have worked out better.

Setting up on their own one-yard line, the Lions promptly surrendered their second in-their-own-end-zone touchdown of the game as defensive end Cameron Jordan hauled in his own deflection for the final points of the day.

The loss leaves Detroit 3-3, but still very much in the mix in the NFC North, where the Packers will have to soldier on without Rodgers.

In the end, it was just a loss, and the fact that they made a game out of it matters not at all in the standings.  If they had pulled the plug on the game at 45-10 and gone down quietly, it wouldn’t have hurt them any more in the standings.  But as it relates to the team going forward, the almost comeback is enormous.  On an afternoon when Stafford had – statistically – his worst game of the season (and one of the great ironies of Week Six is that the highest scoring game of the season so far featured the worst statistical games of the season so far for both star quarterbacks), Matthew’s uncommon toughness galvanized his team.

Detroit has some issues that need to be dealt with.  Their running game still isn’t a positive force for them, and for some reason they have a hard time getting started until the fourth quarter.  So Jim Caldwell and his crew have work to do.

But the heart of this team is something they will not have to worry about.

A Look at the Dandies

There were lots of story lines possible for Sunday’s Duel of the September Dandies.  The two quarterbacks were potential story-lines.  Los Angeles Rams’ second-year signal caller, Jeff Goff – a September sensation – was coming off a scuffling 48.9 passer-rating performance in last week’s loss to Seattle.  On the Jacksonville side, quarterback Blake Bortles had thrown 1 pass in the second half of the Jaguars impressive victory over Pittsburgh.  So a revenge of the quarterback’s theme could have been one story line.

More likely, this would be a story of the feature backs.  The Rams Todd Gurley was mostly ignored in the Seattle game (he carried 14 times), while Jacksonville’s dynamic Leonard Fournette racked up 181 yards against the Steelers.  Since neither defense had shown much ability to stop the run (the Rams came into the game allowing 133.6 rushing yards per game and 4.5 yards per carry, while the Jags were getting stung to the tune of 146.4 rushing yards per game and 5.4 per rush), it was easy to see both backs enjoying big afternoons.

Then, of course, there was the offensive shootout story line.  The Rams came into play averaging 30.4 points per game, while Jacksonville was scoring 27.8 points per contest.

In the end, none of those story lines proved decisive – all though all of them had their moments.

As to the quarterbacks, Goff had a fine bounce back day against a decidedly tough secondary.  He finished with a solid 86.2 rating day, although he threw only 21 times (just 7 times in the second half).  As for Bortles, he threw 15 times in the second half and 35 times for the game.  But, once again, it was obvious that Jacksonville’s passing attack is less than supremely dangerous.  Once the Rams pushed ahead in the fourth quarter, forcing the Jags’ running game to the sideline, it was clear how run-dependent they are in Jacksonville.

The running backs were a better story.  On Fournette’s very last carry against the Steelers the week before, Leonard streaked 90 yards for the clinching touchdown.  On his first carry Sunday, he sprinted 75 yards for a touchdown.  I’m not sure how many players have had back-to-back touchdown runs that totaled 165 yards or more.  Fournette is a threat from anywhere on the field.

However, after that initial burst, the Rams’ talented defensive line took over the game.  Leonard carried 20 more times during the game for a total of just 55 yards.

Gurley, on the other hand, never had that monster burst.  But he consistently found yardage between the tackles.  Todd finished with 116 yards on 23 carries (5.0 per), and proved to be the most consistent offense that either team was able to sustain.

As to the shootout story line, the first quarter ended with the Rams on top 17-14.  But things settled down surprisingly after the first 15 minutes.  In fact, after the first quarter neither team managed another offensive touchdown, as St Louis ground its way to a 27-17 victory (gamebook).

At the end of the day, though, it was the difference in the special teams that decided the game.  One great advantage the Rams have is two elite kickers – and both contributed to the win.  Punter Johnny Hekker did bounce one punt into the end zone, but finished with a 43.1 net punting average for the game.  Place kicker Greg Zuerlein added two field goals (one of them from 56 yards).

But it was the other side of the special teams game (when Jacksonville kicked to Los Angeles) that decided the game.  The Rams returned a kickoff and a blocked punt for the deciding touchdowns, while a shanked punt set up a field goal.  Jacksonville kicker Jason Myers also missed two field goals, although both of them were from more than 50 yards out – underscoring the value of having that long-range weapon.

In the game’s aftermath, I find myself not completely convinced by either team.  Remembering that these teams combined for a total of 7 wins last year (4 by the Rams and 3 by the Jags), it is impressive that these teams have achieved that total already this year (4 for the Rams and 3 for the Jags).  But both franchises have some growing to do before they could be considered among the elite teams.  Both have developed top running games, but both are less than astonishing in the passing game.  Both also seem a little vulnerable defending the run.  Jacksonville’s pass defense looks like it has risen to one of the better pass defenses in the league.  The Rams, of course, excel in the kicking game.

Both of these teams are clearly headed in the right direction.  It will be interesting to watch their development as the season progresses.