Tag Archives: San Francisco 49ers

Not Quite In the Zone

When wide receiver Cole Beasley came in motion (left-to-right) behind the formation, it caused a ripple of hand gestures throughout the San Francisco defense – most of it centering around middle linebacker Fred Warner.  Prominent among this flurry of hand signals was the one where the player points the index finger from each hand to the opposite sides of his helmet.  This common signal (that seems to suggest the other players think about what’s about to happen) is universally used by both offenses and defenses to replace the first play called in the huddle with the backup play.  By the time the snap occurred, the San Francisco defense seemed to think it was on the same page.

There was 9:56 left in a semi-critical game against the Buffalo Bills – a game the 49ers were currently trailing by a 27-17 score.  The Bills were sitting on the San Francisco 28, facing a second-and-ten.

Since the ensuing defensive play appeared to be a mish-mash of both plays called – and after watching this through several times – I will give you my best guess as to the original defense called, and what it should have changed into.

As Buffalo originally lined up with Beasley on the left, San Francisco walked Dontae Johnson to line up across from him.  As the game progressed, the 49ers made increasing efforts to try to fool the Buffalo offense – largely with no success.  Here they were going to be in zone again, but wanted the Bills to think it would be a man coverage with Johnson giving the appearance that he had Beasley.  In this setup, I believe that Johnson was to be responsible for the underneath zone on that side (the offensive left), and that the defensive end on that side (Kerry Hyder) would rush the passer, with the end on the other side (Arik Armstead) dropping into the underneath zone to the other side.

When Cole came across the formation, Johnson followed him – again, as he would in man coverage.  This was when all the “chatter” occurred among the defense.  The switch now would have Johnson taking the underneath zone on the offensive right side (the side that Beasley was now on), with Armstead now free to rush the passer and Hyder dropping off in coverage.  Warner would be joining the rush, so there would still be four coming after quarterback Josh Allen.

What actually happened at the snap was that both ends dropped into coverage, leaving only three rushers.  Bad enough, but Beasley’s presence on the right side of the formation caused a kind of fascination among the 49er defenders.  When Cole ran his short little curl route, he had three sets of eyes riveted on him.  Armstead was on his inside shoulder, and Johnson on the outside.  Needless to say, Cole Beasley’s curl route was taken away.

Now, all of this is what I’m pretty sure was (and wasn’t) supposed to happen.  What I’m very sure wasn’t supposed to happen was that Beasley’s curl should also capture the rapt attention of cornerback Richard Sherman, who stared intently at Beasley’s route while the receiver who lined up to his side (Gabriel Davis) soared unaccompanied up that sideline.

During his 4-touchdown performance, Allen had more than one easy touchdown pass.  This was his longest of the night, and his easiest.  With no defenders in the area, this was just pitch and catch.

From his gesture to the safety to his side (Tarvarius Moore) it’s clear that Sherman expected him to have the deep zone – so somehow Richard must have thought that the changing of the plays also involved a switch from the cover-four (each defensive back being responsible for one fourth of the field) that everyone else was playing, to a cover-three, where each of the other defensive backs would have deep coverage over each third of the field, keeping him (Sherman) in the underneath zone.  There is no reason given why San Francisco should need three defenders in the same zone, defending against the same short curl pattern.

Needless to say, this was the play that broke the 49ers back and solidified the Buffalo victory.  It was not – by a long shot – the only play that the 49er defense turned into a clown show.

Let me be clear about this.  Nothing I’m about to write in any way diminishes the performance of the Buffalo quarterback.  Josh Allen was terrific last Monday night against the vagabond 49ers (exiled to Arizona for a while, at least).  Allen threw the ball with great anticipation and fabulous accuracy.  Throughout he was confident and in complete command of the offense – to the point where he seemed two steps a head of the defense all night.  This dominance is thoroughly reflected in his numbers.  He finished the game a withering 32 of 40 (80%) for 375 yards and the 4 touchdowns (that would be a passer rating of 139.1 – one of four games this year in which his passer rating was higher than 125).

He was 8-for-8 on all throws over ten yards (for 189 yards), including 4-for-4 on all throws over twenty yards (for 114 yards).  Josh, by any evaluation method, was all that Buffalo could have hoped for.

That all being said, I don’t recall the last time I saw a San Francisco team so error prone in their coverages.

With 6:54 left in the first half and the game tied at 7, Buffalo was at the 49er 42, facing first-and-ten.  The Bills flanked three receivers out to its right, and San Fran answered with three defensive backs and man coverage.  Problem – one of those defensive backs (Johnson, again) was blitzing on the play.  No one accounted for the receiver (Beasley) that he was supposed to be covering.  Adjusting to the gaffe, Warner stepped over and tried to provide coverage, but I very much doubt that the design of the defense was to leave a linebacker in single man coverage on a wide receiver.

That would have been an easy completion, but Josh had an even easier one before him.  Three crossing patterns created a lot of congestion in the secondary, allowing tight end Dawson Knox ample separation from cornerback Jason Verrett.  Allen tossed him the ball for an 8-yard gain.

But Josh didn’t even take full advantage of San Francisco’s worst mess-up.

With 14:21 left in the second quarter, and Buffalo trailing 7-0, tight end Lee Smith ran a fly pattern straight up that right sideline.  No one covered him.  At all.  Sherman doesn’t blitz much, but he came on that play.  And he was the only defender on that side of the hash-mark.  Many of the few fans in the stand were closer to Lee than the nearest defender.  Josh didn’t see him (obviously). He completed a more difficult pass into a tighter window (22 yards to Davis).  He no doubt kicked himself when he saw the film.

These last two mistakes occurred when the 49ers were trying to mix in a blitz with their man coverage.  Far more constant and damaging were their blunders in zone defense.

Coming out of the half, ESPN confronted America with an eyebrow-raising graphic.  Throwing against the San Francisco zones, in the first half alone, Allen was 14 of 15 for 190 yards and one of his touchdowns.  The 49er zones didn’t get any better in the second half.  The week before, in their defensive domination of the Rams, they moved away from their zones after Los Angeles had early success against them, and became a predominantly man coverage team.  Last Monday night, they sprinkled in occasional man coverage.  But they never laid aside their zones, and continually paid the price for that.

The struggles that San Francisco has in zone coverage seems to be general – with all members of the secondary experiencing some issues with the concept.  But zone defense is a particular challenge for slot corner Dontae Johnson, who seemed to be at the epicenter of almost all of the breakdowns.

With 26 seconds left before halftime, the 49ers put a bit of a pass rush on Allen for one of the few times all night.  Almost everywhere up field, the 49er defense was sitting in their disciplined zones waiting for Josh – under more stress than usual on this evening – to try to force a throw in somewhere.  But Johnson – who had the underneath zone to the defensive right sideline just never widened into his zone.  There was no other receiver drawing his attention.  He got sufficient depth on his drop.  But for some reason, he never widened out.  Perhaps, not seeing a receiver threatening the area, he thought he was more valuable taking away the middle?

Anyway, Diggs came on a long, deep crossing pattern all the way behind Dontae all the way over from the other side of the field to take up residence in Johnson’s vacated zone.  A relieved Allen fired him the ball for 18 yards.

On the very next play, the rush flushed Allen from the pocket and had him running to his right.  This time, Dontae (playing on the other side, now) widened his zone all the way to the sideline, but couldn’t get any depth.  As Diggs’ sprint up the field pulled the top of the zone ever deeper, Johnson stayed shallow – providing Beasley oceans of room between the levels of the defense on his deep out.  That pass accounted for 20 more yards and set up the field goal that stretched Buffalo’s lead to 10 points at the half.

Now there is 6:08 left in the game, Buffalo leading 34-17.  The Bills were deep in their own territory – at their six-yard line, facing a third-and-six.

Trying to fool Allen to the very end, the 49ers lined six potential rushers along the line of scrimmage, and placed their defensive backs directly across from the receivers in a position that would suggest bump-and-run coverage.  This would be zone again, but dressed up to look like a big blitz.

At the snap, all the linebackers and defensive backs backed off and hunted up their zones.  Again, Johnson – responsible for the underneath zone to the offensive left – didn’t widen out.  Beasley ran past him up the field, but only one yard past him – apparently enough for Dontae to think he was someone else’s problem.  When he had barely passed Johnson, Cole floated wide open into the zone that Johnson never widened into – good for 11 yards and another first down.

Wide open was the theme of the night.  According to Next Gen stats, Buffalo receivers averaged 3.64 yards of separation from their nearest defender at the time of the pass.  And that only counts the receivers that Josh threw to.  That doesn’t take into account the receivers like Smith (cited earlier) who were also wide, wide open but didn’t get the ball thrown their way.

The NFL average is 2.86 yards of separation, that one yard being the NFL difference between “open” and “wide open.”

Then again, this is the COVID-19 season, so can you really blame the San Francisco pass defenders for practicing their social distancing?

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.

Here We Go Again

You wouldn’t realize it now, but up until last year New Orleans’ Drew Brees had gone 15 consecutive years making at least 15 starts a season – 236 starts in those seasons, an average of 15.7 per.  Nearly an ironman.  Then, on September 15 last year, Drew damaged a ligament in his throwing thumb, and the Saints were suddenly without their franchise quarterback for who knew how long.

It’s getting to be like this in New Orleans.  Whether it’s heart-breaking playoff losses, mind-bogglingly bad officiating, or untimely injuries, the perils of the New Orleans Saints are beginning to take on overtones of a soap opera.  This year, star wide receiver Michael Thomas was injured in the first game of the season and missed seven games.  Now that he is back, the Saints will be without Brees again.  Five broken ribs and a collapsed lung will keep him on the shelf for a while.  (By the way, I know the 41-year old, smallish quarterback doesn’t look particularly tough, but he led New Orleans on two scoring drives after sustaining all that damage before he took himself out of the game).

So what happens now?

Well, last year when Brees was injured, their backup – Teddy Bridgewater – stepped in and led the Saints to five wins in his five starts.  This year (with Bridgewater moved on to be the starter in Carolina) former Buccaneer Jameis Winston will get the same opportunity that Teddy got last year – the chance to re-invent himself and regain some credibility.

Will the results be the same?  Well, that is the million dollar question.  Even though the Saints are leading their division, the race is quite tight.  Any slippage in Brees’ absence could easily cost New Orleans a playoff opportunity.

As with Bridgewater last year, Jameis has his doubters.  In the closing act of his five-year career in Tampa Bay, Winston completed only 60.7% of his passes, and even though he led the NFL in passing yards with an impressive 5109, his 33 touchdown passes were offset by his league-leading 30 interceptions.  A lot of people don’t see that style blending well with the Saints’ system.

But, of course, last year Winston was in Bruce Arians’ no-risk-it-no-biscuit system.  Last year, Jameis averaged 10.4 air yards per every pass attempted – the second highest average in the NFL, behind only Matthew Stafford at 10.6.  Last week I pointed out that not every quarterback can thrive in that system.

A better understanding of who Winston is might be clearer from his first four seasons with the Bucs.  In spite of the fact that Winston played for pretty bad teams (they were 21-33 in his starts over those years) Jameis still managed to complete 61.6% of his throws at an average of 12.4 yards per completion.  He threw 88 touchdown passes over those seasons (4.6%) while having just 58 passes intercepted (3.0%).  And remember, Winston was throwing from behind a lot.  Last year – playing for a better 7-9 team, Winston checked in with a 5.3 touchdown percentage (0.7 better than his previous career percentage) at a cost of a 4.8 interception percentage (1.8% higher than his earlier career).

Coming in in the second half last Sunday, Jameis did what Brees was doing.  Brees’ 8 completions covered a total of 9 air yards (an average of 1.1 air yards per pass) but led to 67 yards after the catch (an average of 8.4).  Winston completed 6 second half passes that totaled 14 air yards (just 2.3 yards up the field) that were followed by 49 yards after the catch (8.2 per).

It’s a small sample size, but there is no reason to believe that Winston can’t fit into the Saint system.  And if you can’t expect him to play with the anticipation and the precision that Brees might, there are parts of Jameis’ game that are stronger than Brees’ game.  Expect Sean Peyton to find ways to leverage Winston’s greater mobility and stronger arm.

Another reason for optimism is the stretch of the schedule that this has happened in.  New Orleans’ next four opponents are Atlanta, Denver, Atlanta again and Philadelphia.  There are no gimmies in the NFL, and any of these teams could administer a defeat to the Saints.  But all three of these teams are below .500.  If you had to go four or so games without your starting quarterback, these would be the four you would probably choose.

There’s no reason, yet, for Saint fans to toss their cookies.  You’ve all seen worse situations than this.

More Good Saint Defense

Given the condition of the San Francisco team in general (and the offense in particular) – and the 49ers are one NFL team that won’t shed any tears over New Orleans’ injuries – you have to be careful not to make too much of this.  But for the second consecutive week the heretofore nettlesome New Orleans defense turned in another excellent performance.  After decimating Tampa Bay the week before, San Francisco was held to just 281 total yards – only 49 on the ground.  The Saints carried the game, 27-13 (gamebook) (summary).

Over the last two games they have 5 quarterback sacks and 5 interceptions (after intercepting just 4 passes through the first 8 games).  The combined passer rating against them in those two games is just 53.8.  Meanwhile, the Bucs and 49ers combined to run for just 57 yards against them over the two games on 30 attempts – 1.9 yards a carry.

If this New Orleans defense is, in fact, coming together, it will ease a bigger worry than the absence of Drew Brees.

Three Side Notes

One – The 49ers made a fairly close contest of this in the first half as they stuck diligently to their game plan.  They ran the ball (21 times in the first half) even when they weren’t seeing a lot of yards from it (only 41).  But they controlled the clock (for an impressive 22 minutes even) and had Nick Mullens balance with the controlled passing game.  Nick was 13 for 18 for 134 yards and a touchdown in that half – a 111.8 rating.

Even though they came out of the half trailing just 17-10, they entirely ditched that approach in the second half.  They ran the ball just 4 times (for 8 yards) and had Mullens throwing the ball 20 times in the half (he completed just 11 for 113 yards and 2 interceptions – a 31.9 rating).

New Orleans controlled the second half clock for 19:06.

Two – After the big win the previous week over Tampa Bay, the Saints were seen celebrating in the locker room as though they had just won the Super Bowl.  Sometimes stuff like that wakes up the karma gods and bad things (like losing your starting quarterback) have been known to happen.  I think football players in general should be more humble and sporting than they are (yes, the self-worship bothers me).  It seems the karma gods agree.  Sometimes.

Three – the penalty on the hit was widely criticized – as it should be.  It was, in all respects, a perfectly clean hit.  I may have been the only one not surprised to see the flag fly.  Defensive players need to understand that even if the hit is legal, if you hurt the quarterback, you will get penalized.  The official really can’t help himself.  The entire world is watching the quarterback lying on the turf and he begins to feel self-conscious – as though he owes it to the team that’s just lost their quarterback some measure of compensation.  The higher profile the quarterback, the more likely this penalty becomes.

So here now is the defensive checklist when dealing with a quarterback in or near the pocket:

You can’t hit him anywhere near his head.  You can’t hit him anywhere near his knees.  You can’t drive him to the ground when you hit him.  You can’t land on him with your full body weight.

And, on top of all that, you can’t hurt him.  Other than that, you can do whatever you want to the quarterback.

As It Turns Out It Isn’t Actually Over Till It’s Over

The football world’s head turned over and over in response to the Kyler Murray game-winning, Hail-Mary touchdown toss to DeAndre Hopkins that trumped the Buffalo Bills 32-30 (gamebook) (summary).  And rightfully so.  The accuracy of the pass (while Kyler was running for his life) and Hopkins’ in-traffic catch should both have carried a “do not try this at home” warning.  These plays pay off so rarely that when the last second shot into the end zone does work, it will cause a ripple through the league – and much more so when the game Is of this significance.

But hidden underneath the big moment at the end are some troubling trends that concern me about the Bills.

The biggest number of the day, in my opinion, was 217.  Those were the rush yards given up by the Bills.  It was the second time this season that Buffalo has given up more than 200 rushing yards.  Murray was responsible for 61 of them, but his yardage was the tip of the iceberg.  Kenyan Drake ripped through them for 100 yards on just 16 carries, and Chase Edmonds added 56 more on 8 carries.

But this is the worst part.  Of the 156 yards gained by Arizona’s two running backs, 110 came after contact.  The NFL average is  just 1.91 yards gained after contact per rushing play.  Arizona’s running backs averaged 4.58.  Forty-five of Edmonds 56 yards (80%) came after contact.

The Buffalo defense just does not seem to be coming together.  This is the fifth time this season – including their last two games – that they have surrendered 30 points.  They are now eighteenth in scoring defense and twentieth in total defense – including twenty-eighth against the run, as they are allowing 135 yards a game and 4.8 yards a carry (the third-worst average in the league).

Unless their defense finally comes to the party, Buffalo will have no hope of hanging onto their division lead, and will go quickly and quietly from the playoffs.

The other notable observation regards quarterback Josh Allen.  Allen was blitzed in this game, perhaps, more than he’s ever been blitzed.  Arizona, which began the game as football’s fifth-most blitz happy team – came after Allen on a full 54% of his drop-backs.  With his line doing a middling job of picking up the blitzes, Allen’s accuracy and decision making were negatively impacted.  Josh – who had done a great job of protecting the football thus far – tossed two interceptions and limped home with a 77.3 rating.  It will be interesting to see if he gets heavier doses of the blitz going forward.

Could Miami Earn the Second Seed?

As I watch the seasons unfold, I try hard not to over-react to any one game or any one player.  Yet I do have to admit that the Miami Dolphins have gotten my attention.  They have won four in a row, and their victims have included the Rams and the Cardinals.

Rookie quarterback Tua Tagovailoa has been getting the Lion’s share of the attention.  Tua has been doing a reasonably good job.  The team is 3-0 in his starts, and he has yet to throw an NFL interception (through 77 passes).

But the Dolphins, with – I believe – the hardest part of their schedule behind them, are much more than Tua.  They have a bend-but-don’t break defense that allows the fifth fewest points in the league (in spite of the fact that they rank only nineteenth in yards allowed).  More than that, it is a big-play, opportunistic defense that currently ranks third in takeaways.

And don’t forget about their special teams.  Whether they are blocking punts or returning them for touchdowns, it seems the Miami special teams are making game-changing plays every week.

And, they won’t face another winning team until December 13.

If Buffalo fades – as I think they might – what would it take for the Dolphins to earn the second seed?  If they don’t succumb to the inconsistencies of youth and start to lose games that they should win, then their chance to wrest the second seed will probably come down to that December 13 home game against Kansas City.

Could the too-young Dolphins actually squeak past the defending champions?  Truthfully, if you watch their games, Kansas City seems to have come back to the pack – even if only slightly.  And their run defense has fallen to twenty-ninth in the league.

Of course, this was about how they looked at this point of last season, too.

For the moment, I am going to entertain the prospect of the Dolphins winning that very significant Week 14 home game, and I am going to pencil them in as my two-seed, sliding KC to third.  The Chiefs will also be playing the Raiders, the Bucs and the Saints before the season is quite over, so they will have ample opportunity to stub their toes coming down the stretch.

Still, if they go out there and slap the Raiders around (as I kind of suspect they will) then don’t be surprised if I quickly reverse field on this.

At any rate, the Dolphins have gotten my attention.

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.

Just One Thing – Analyzing Super Bowl LIV

Sunday, December 29 in Kansas City, Missouri was cloudy, quite chilly, and memorably beautiful.  It was Week 17 of the 2019 NFL season – the final regular weekend of football’s one hundredth season.

Earlier in the week, Chiefs’ coach Andy Reid had decided to play his regulars and try to win the game.  There were reasons to consider the other path – resting his regulars before the playoffs began.  The Chiefs had long since locked up their division and were comfortably positioned to host a playoff game on WildCard Weekend.  They did have a chance to claim the second seed and a first round bye – but for that to happen the almost unthinkable would have to occur.  The woeful Miami Dolphins would have to go into Foxboro at the end of December and beat the defending champion Patriots.

An improbable enough scenario that Reid could be forgiven if he chose the path of safety.  As the fourth quarters of both games played out on that memorable Sunday afternoon, and it began to be apparent that both parts of this improbable scenario were playing out, an almost surreal euphoria settled over the denizens of Arrowhead Stadium.  A promising postseason had suddenly become much more promising.

Getting a first round bye is a huge factor in gaining the Super Bowl.  It is inexpressibly sweeter when that bye is won at the expense of a bitter rival – the much-detested New England Patriots.  The final day of the recently concluded regular season was one of the sweetest days to be a Chiefs fan in about a half century.

Two Sunday’s later, all of the hope and euphoria lie crumbled on the Arrowhead Stadium floor.

Thanks to Tennessee’s upset of Baltimore the night before, the road to the Super Bowl now led through Kansas City – a fact that made the transpirings that Sunday afternoon all the more bitter.

Playing as though they had forgotten every fundamental of football, the Chiefs were quickly buried in an avalanche of mistakes.  Dropped passes, blown coverages, blocked punts, muffed punts, pre-snap penalties – the Chiefs committed all of the above.  The beneficiaries of all this ineptitude were the visiting Houston Texans, who gratefully lapped up every gift they were presented.

Five minutes into the second quarter, Houston kicker Ka’imi Fairbairn added the field goal that increased the Texans’ lead to 24-0.  The silence in the stands was palpable.  In the long history of playoff disappointments endured by the Kansas City fandom, this one just might have been the most heart breaking.  So good for so much of the season, and now with the road to the Super Bowl paved before them, and to blow it all in the very first quarter – it was a bitter result indeed.

And then, one thing went right for the Chiefs.  Just one thing.

On the ensuing kickoff, Mecole Hardman returned the kick 58 yards to the Texan 42.  And that was all it took.

Just like that, the Kansas City Chiefs remembered that they were not the mistake-prone, bumbling offense that they had shown themselves to be for the first 20 minutes of this contest.  They remembered that they were one of football’s most potent offenses.  Two plays later, they were in the end zone (Damien Williams taking the touchdown pass off his hip), and the reverse route was on.

Beginning with that touchdown, the Chiefs would go on to score on eight straight possessions – earning touchdowns on the first seven of those possessions.  Down at one point 24-0, Kansas City would advance to the Championship Game on the strength of a 51-31 thrashing of the Texans.

For twenty minutes, Houston had played as nearly perfect a game as they could have hoped for.  Had they held onto that lead, they would then have inherited home field for the Championship Round.  But they made one mistake on special teams and let the genie out of the bottle.

But the Kansas City story was just beginning to be written.

The next week they again overcame a deficit (this time just 10 points) on their way to the 35-24 conquest of Tennessee that advanced them to the Super Bowl for the first time in a half century.

Once there, though, they found their mercurial offense virtually silenced – in particular, by the defensive line of the San Francisco 49ers.  Over the 60 brutal minutes of Super Bowl LIV, Patrick Mahomes spent most of the evening running for his life. 

They played San Francisco to a 10-all tie through the first thirty minutes, but as the third quarter dissolved into the fourth quarter the relentless pressure began to get to Mahomes.  In the late third quarter and into the early fourth – even when he did have time to throw – Patrick’s accuracy began to suffer.

With 5:36 left in the third quarter, trailing 13-10 and facing a third-and-12, Mahomes couldn’t get enough loft on his throw over the deep middle, tossing the ball right into the waiting arms of San Fran’s Fred Warner.

San Francisco turned that interception into the touchdown that put them ahead 20-10.

With 1:10 left in the third, Sammy Watkins was breaking into an open window in the middle of the 49er zone, but Patrick skipped the throw in.

Early in the fourth quarter – still trailing by 10 – Mahomes drove KC to a third-and-six at the San Fran 23 yard line.  With still 12:05 left in the game, this drive represented their best chance (and maybe last best chance) to claw themselves back into the game.

Running out of the slot to the left, Tyreek Hill darted quickly into the open middle against nickel-corner K’Waun Williams.  With a good throw, it’s first-and-ten on the 15.  But, playing very fast at this point, Mahomes slung the ball well behind Hill.  Tyreek reached back to try to make a play on it, but only succeeded in deflecting the pass into the air, where Tarvarius Moore made the interception.

The next time the Chiefs got the ball, there were fewer than nine minutes left in the game.  With a first-and-ten on their own 29, Mahomes completed this pass to Hill, but the gain could have been much more than the 9 yards they got.  With room in front of Tyreek, Patrick threw the ball short – almost into the dirt in front of Hill’s feet, with Tyreek making an excellent diving catch.

A run from Williams picked up the first, and initiated the most telling sequence of Super Bowl LIV.

On first down, a false start from Laurent Duvernay-Tardif set KC back five yards to the KC 35.  Now with a first-and-fifteen, Hill settled into an opening in the zone in front of cornerback Emmanuel Moseley.  Charging hard, Moseley arrived at the same time as the football, successfully breaking up the pass.

Now it was second-and-fifteen.  Hill, lining up on the right side, threatened the 49er zone with a strong vertical stem, pushing Richard Sherman and Jaquiski Tartt deeper and deeper.  When Tyreek put his foot in the turf and turned looking for the ball, he was on the San Fran 43-yard line with no defender within six yards of him.  Calling the game on FOX, Troy Aikman offered that this should have been Patrick’s easiest completion of the evening.  Instead, Mahomes (throwing with Solomon Thomas’ hand in his face) delivered well short again.  Hill came back for the pass and made a strong enough play on it that he was originally credited with a 16-yard reception that was easily overturned on review.

So, here was the Kansas City season.  Fourth quarter.  Just 7:13 left.  Trailing by ten points.  Facing a third-and-fifteen from deep in their own territory against the NFL’s third-most feared pass rush (rated on percentage of sacks).

To this point in the biggest game of his young career, the electric Pat Mahomes was clearly struggling.  He had completed just 4 of his last 11, and for the game to that point he was 19 of 32 (just 59.38%) for 181 yards (averaging just 5.66 yards per pass attempt, and just 9.53 per completion).  Only 8 of his 19 completions had earned first downs, and he had thrown no touchdown passes to offset his two interceptions.  His passer rating to that point of the game was a humbling 49.09 to go along with 3 sacks San Francisco had already rung up against him.

Things could scarcely have looked much worse at this point.

And then, one thing went right for the Chiefs.  Just one thing.

On third-and-fifteen, Mahomes lifted his eyes to find Hill all alone deep up the left sideline.  In spite of pressure from lineman DeForest Buckner (who was hitting Patrick as he was releasing the ball), Mahomes arched a strike into Hill’s waiting arms for a game-changing 44-yard gain.

And just like that, the Chiefs remembered again that they were one of football’s most prolific offenses.  Beginning with that completion, Patrick would complete 7 of his next 9 for 105 yards and 2 touchdowns.  Much like in the Houston game, KC went on to score touchdowns on their next three drives, flipping a 10-point deficit into an 11-point win, 31-20 (gamebook) (summary).

As with Houston, the San Francisco defense had played an exceptional game for 53 minutes.  But against Kansas City (who with the victory became the first team ever to come from 10 or more points behind to win three straight playoff games) any mistake could prove fatal.

In the almost three weeks since the official end of the season, this has been the lingering memory of this season’s playoffs.  In three post-season contests the Chiefs faced three quality defenses that each presented solid game plans that – for a time – were very well executed.  In all three games, at some point, the Kansas City juggernaut was on its heels and very vulnerable.

But if you were going to beat Kansas City this post-season, you needed to play mistake-free from opening kickoff to final gun.  It was a no-room-for-error tightrope that all these teams had to walk. At any point in the proceedings just one crucial play can flip the momentum.

And once the scoring starts, the Chiefs don’t need a lot of time to do big damage.  Against Houston, four of the seven touchdown drives took 2:03 of clock time or less.  Their three fourth-quarter touchdowns against San Francisco took 2:40, 2:26 and 0:13.

Super Bowl LIV Notebook:

Interceptions have always been something of a rarity in the Super Bowl – to a, perhaps, surprising degree.  When Jimmy Garoppolo’s desperation fourth quarter pass was intercepted, it marked the first time in Super Bowl history that both quarterbacks threw at least two interceptions.

For Patrick Mahomes, his 4.8% interception rate (2 interceptions in 42 tosses) was the highest for a winning quarterback in a Super Bowl since Pittsburgh won Super Bowl XL (40) 21-10 over Seattle in spite of 2 interceptions from Ben Roethlisberger in just 21 passes (a 9.5% rate).

Garoppolo’s 2 interceptions came in 31 passes – a 6.5% rate. That is the highest rate for any Super Bowl quarterback since Rex Grossman had 7.1% of his passes intercepted in Super Bowl XLI – Chicago’s 29-17 loss to Indianapolis.  Rex threw 28 passes that day – 2 of them to Colts.

Garoppolo’s 219 passing yards were also the fewest by a Super Bowl losing quarterback since Grossman’s 165 yards against Indy.

The Chiefs finished with a surprising 129 rushing yards – a good chunk of those yards coming on Damien Williams’ clinching 38-yard touchdown burst.  As San Francisco ran for 141 yards, that made this the first Super Bowl since the before-referenced Pittsburgh-Seattle Super Bowl (number 40) in which both teams ran for at least 120 yards.  The Steelers ran for 181 that day, while the Seahawks pounded away for 137.

That run, by the way, pushed Williams to 104 for the game.  He becomes the first running back from a winning Super Bowl team to exceed 100 rushing yards since Dominic Rhodes piled up 113 rushing yards for the Colts against Chicago in Super Bowl XLI (41).

49er wide receiver Kendrick Bourne caught 2 passes on the evening for just 42 yards.  Those yards, though, made him San Francisco’s leading receiver in yardage for the game. You would have to go all the way back to Super Bowl XXXV (35) – Baltimore’s 34-7 demolition of the New York Giants – to find the last time that the losing Super Bowl team didn’t manage one receiver with at least 60 yards.  Ike Hilliard led the battered Giant receiving corps that day with 30 yards on 3 catches.

The Undercard

So much of the focus of Super Bowl LIV went to the matchup of the irresistible force (the KC offense) vs the immovable object (the SF defense), that the matchup between the 49er offense (second highest in scoring and fourth in yards) against the much-improved Chief defense became mostly overlooked.

Looking ahead, though, the significance of the 49er appearance in Super Bowl LIV cannot be overstated.  For the last couple of seasons, we have noted the rise of the Neanderthal offense in the NFL – a Neanderthal offense is one that seeks to run the ball more than it passes.  Unimaginable a few seasons ago, there are now several teams who identify as primarily running teams.  And now one of them – San Francisco – has advanced as far as the Super Bowl.

In their games leading up to the Super Bowl. The 49ers were at their Neanderthal best.  During the regular season, their 498 rushing attempts and their 144.1 yards per game were both the second best totals in the NFL.  They ran the ball 47 times in the Divisional Round against Minnesota, rolling up 186 yards.  Quarterback Jimmy Garoppolo threw only 19 passes in that game.

Against the Packers in the Championship Game, they rolled up 285 rushing yards on 42 carries, while asking Garoppolo to throw just 8 times.

While logic would suggest that a similar approach – if effective – would go a long way towards keeping the KC offense on the sideline, apparently a run-heavy approach was never in the game plan.

On first down, of course, San Francisco employed a very Neanderthal approach.  The 49ers ran the ball 16 times on first down – 14 of those on first-and-ten.  This they did to excellent effect, rolling up 119 yards on those carries (8.5 yards per).

Off of that first-down running game, Garoppolo ran a devastatingly effective passing attack.  Throwing 12 times on first-and-ten, Jimmy completed 10 of those passes (83.33%) for 96 yards and a touchdown – a 127.78 rating.  As you might expect, the play-action pass was a featured part of the passing attack.  For the game, Jimmy was 12 for 15 (80.00%) on play-action for 123 yards (8.20 per attempt).  His lone touchdown pass came off of play-action, giving him a 123.06 rating for the game.

When he ran play-action on first-and-ten, he was 7-for-7 for 73 yards.  But all that changed on second down.

Against the Packers, San Fran ran the ball 12 times on second down for 101 yards (8.4 per), scoring 3 of their 4 rushing touchdowns on that down.  Against KC, they barely made the attempt.

On 16 second down plays, the 49ers ran just 4 times (for 12 yards).  They asked Jimmy to throw the ball 12 times on that down, with minimal results (6 completions for 66 yards).  Both of Garoppolo’s interceptions fell on second down – leaving him a rating of 27.08 on that down.

For all of that, though, Kansas City didn’t force many third-and-long situations.  San Francisco faced third down only 8 times all evening (converting 3)

Timely Defense

The game was, in fact, rather characteristic of how the Kansas City defense played down the stretch and into the playoffs.  They forced only one three-and-out, and throughout the contest they always seemed on the verge of yielding points.  San Francisco managed at least one first down in each of their first 7 possessions.  Two of those possessions consumed more than five minutes of clock time, and four of the seven ended in Chief territory – yielding two touchdowns, two field goals, one punt, one interception and a possession that ended with the end of the first half.

In many ways, the San Francisco offense clicked along according to plan – with one glaring exception.  San Fran had three consecutive possessions in the second half during which they held a lead.  They got the ball with 5:23 left in the third holding a 13-10 lead; their next possession came with 11:57 left in the fourth with a 20-10 lead; and shortly thereafter, still leading 20-17 with 6:13 left in the game they had another possession.

These possessions should have constituted the Neanderthal moment.  This is the game situation you strive for if you are that running team.  This was the time that San Fran needed to impose its will and take firm control of the game.  In those three drives, the 49ers ran 14 plays – 6 of them running plays that earned just 18 yards.  As they had done against Tennessee, the gritty Kansas City defense just did not allow the running game to take over.  They were disciplined in forcing Garoppolo to win the game with his arm.

And that would prove to be challenge enough.

All About the Pressure

As surprising as San Francisco’s decision to de-emphasize its running game was, Kansas City’s defensive response was equally puzzling.  Throughout the regular season, the Chiefs were a moderate blitzing team, adding extra rushers about 30% of the time.  Against a similar offense in Tennessee in the Championship Game, KC blitzed on just 9 of 34 passing attempts.

But against San Francisco they decided the answer would be the blitz.  And so they came.  They blitzed on San Fran’s first two passing plays (giving completions on both plays), and 10 times on the 49ers first 13 passes – including the last six in a row.

For the game, the Chiefs ended up blitzing 20 of Jimmy’s 33 drop backs (a surprising 60.6%).  And for 3 quarters the results couldn’t have been worse.

The 49ers’ offense is especially challenging to blitz.  The strength of their play-action attack was very effective in removing the pressure of the added rushers.  Typically, the line would react as though running a stretch play, with Garoppolo faking the hand-off and then rolling in the opposite direction of his line and – almost always – away from any trouble.  The first 14 times that the Chiefs blitzed, Garoppolo completed 12 of 14 for 131 yards and his touchdown pass to Kyle Juszczyk.

And then, as Kansas City began mounting its comeback, San Francisco stopped doing those things.  They still responded to the KC blitz with play-action, but it was a less-convincing “hint” of play-action with the line in pass blocking mode.  As the fourth quarter arrived, Jimmy stopped rolling out of the pocket and waited there for the pressure to arrive.  All of a sudden, instead of dictating to the Kansas City blitz, the 49ers stood still and let the KC defense dictate to them with a collection of delayed blitzes and overload blitzes that had Garoppolo throwing under heavy pressure for most of the last quarter.

After completing his first pass of the fourth quarter, Garoppolo’s numbers for the game read 18 for 21 (85.71%) for 195 yards (an average of 9.29 per attempted pass) with 1 touchdown and 1 interception – a rating of 101.39.  From that point on, Jimmy was only 2 for 10 for 24 yards and another interception – a 0.00 rating only because the rating system doesn’t allow for negative ratings.

When given a relatively clean pocket, Jimmy was 17 for 22 for 186 yards.  Under significant pressure – which didn’t happen on any consistent basis until that fourth quarter – Garoppolo was just 3 for 9 for 33 yards, an interception and a sack.  The last 6 times that KC blitzed, Garoppolo was 0-for-5 with the sack by Frank Clark on fourth-and-ten that pretty much closed things out.

Here again the KC defense continued their meme of rising to the occasion as they continued to play their best at the game’s most crucial moments.  But the deeper story is more complex than that.  Throughout the game, San Francisco ran plays and did things that worked.  And then they stopped doing them.

Receiver Deebo Samuel carried the ball on three rushing plays, gaining 32, 7, and 14 yards on those carries.  The last of those came on the third play of their first drive of the second half.  San Francisco never went back to it again.

Both coaching staffs have done an admirable job all season.  Under the pressure of the Super Bowl, though, I think out-thinking yourself becomes a very real danger.  San Francisco’s Kyle Shanahan may have done that.

Andy Reid, I think, was guilty of that as well.

Unexpected is Not Always Best

After the 49ers toppled the Packers to earn the right to play in Super Bowl LIV, I made this observation about their defense:

As teams began to understand the San Francisco defense, they realized that what made them special was the defensive line – especially Nick Bosa, Arik Armstead and DeForest Buckner.  Beginning with their Week Nine, 28-25 win over Arizona, the league began constructing game plans that would minimize the impact of the defensive line, and force the linebackers and defensive back to beat them. 

Opponents began to run the ball with more commitment, and when they threw the ball they kept more blockers in the backfield to block.  Or, noting that the 49ers run a predominantly zone defense, they resorted to shorter, quicker passes and a more ball-control concept.  (Here is the full post.)

Noting that the 49er defensive line was the only part of the San Francisco defense that could cause real havoc with the Chief offense, I expected Reid and the offense to do some of those things against San Fran.  At the very least, I expected they would provide some help for their tackles (an occasional tight end, perhaps a chip from a running back).

But largely none of that happened.  The Chiefs did throw a couple of quick passes, but never really exploited the short openings in the zone.  Extra protection for Mahomes almost never happened.  Kansas City did run the ball with more than expected frequency and with good commitment, but not often enough to impact the pass rush.  And most surprisingly, they left their offensive tackles on an island against the San Francisco ends virtually the entire game – even though it was obvious before their first quarter was concluded that these were mismatches.

If asked to name the most dominant player of Super Bowl LIV, I would nominate San Francisco defensive end Nick Bosa.  But he should have been.  The opposing coach practically invited him to be.

Against the Packers two weeks before, Bosa and fellow disruptive end Arik Armstead were frequently left alone against Packer tackles David Bakhtiari and Bryan Bulaga.  But Bakhtiari and Bulaga are two of the top tackles in football, and they gave as good as they got against the 49er ends.

Kansas City’s tackle tandem of Eric Fisher and Mitchell Schwartz don’t rank with the pair in Green Bay.  They are a rather middling pair of tackles.  But Andy Reid’s game plan treated them as though they were as elite as the ends he would be asking them to block.  Even after it became apparent that they were in over their heads, Reid made no move to alleviate the situation.

Schwartz fared a bit better against Armstead – who sometimes moved inside to rush where the Chiefs could get a double-team on him.  But left tackle Fisher spent the game at Bosa’s mercy.  And Nicky almost took Kansas City’s crown away from them.

Coming mostly from Bosa, 25 of Mahomes’ 50 dropbacks came under heavy pressure.  I define this as pressure that either forces the quarterback to run for his life, or that has him being hit as he throws the ball (or within a step of being hit), or pressure that forces the quarterback to make another decision with the football (like throwing it away).  Patrick was just 7 of 17 with an interception and a 61.40 passer rating under this kind of pressure – to go with 4 sacks and 4 scrambles.  It was this consistent heat that held the explosive Kansas City offense to just 10 points up until the halfway point of the season’s last quarter.

Even after the Chiefs began their comeback, the pressure continued.  Five of Patrick’s last 10 passes – including the 44-yarder to Hill and the go ahead toss to Williams – came under this level of intense pressure.  At the end of the day, it came down to Mahomes making important throws under great duress.  That he was able to deliver a Super Bowl victory in a game where his line never, ever gained control of the line of scrimmage is just another indicator of how special Patrick is.

And how consistently exploitable the 49ers were in the secondary.  As I had previously noted, the 49er defense is elite at the defensive line level, but notably less spectacular after that.  If there was one player whose mistakes might be most responsible for San Francisco’s defeat, that player might be cornerback Emmanuel Moseley.

Moseley’s Miscues

San Francisco’s only poor moment in the Divisional win over Minnesota was the 41-yard touchdown pass thrown from Kirk Cousins to Stefon Diggs – a deep pass poorly played by then-starting cornerback K’Waun Williams.  That play led to Williams being shifted to nickel corner and prompted San Francisco to elevate Moseley’s to the right corner spot opposite Richard Sherman.

On Super Bowl Sunday, that decision came back to haunt them.

Throughout, Emmanuel was very solid in man coverage.  The problem, though, is that San Francisco is a predominate zone defense – they were in zone 54.8% of the time in Super Bowl LIV – and in zone, Moseley fights an almost irresistible urge to wander – a tendency that expressed itself in a few of the game’s most critical moments.

With 14:08 left in the first half, the Chiefs – already leading 7-3 – had a first-and-ten on their own 44 after an interception.  Tyreek Hill lined up opposite Moseley and started up-field on what seemed to be a vertical route.  But after about 15 yards, Tyreek began to bend his route toward the middle, and Emmanuel drifted with him.  That allowed Sammy Watkins to settle into the vacated area, where he pulled down a 28-yard pass.  That play set KC up inside the 49er 30-yard line, and led to the field goal that accounted for their last scoring of the first half.

It was also Kansas City’s only play of 20 or more yards in the entire first half – an erratic effort that saw them head into the locker room only 1-for-6 on third down, and having gained only 155 total yards.

San Fran dodged one on the first play of the fourth quarter.  It was Watkins this time who started wide but curled toward the middle of the field – taking Moseley with him.  This left Hill all alone up the sideline against safety Jimmie Ward (who thought he only had the short zone to that side).  It was the pass rush – this time from Dee Ford – that saved the day, not allowing Mahomes enough time to wait for Hill to clear and ultimately forcing an errant throw.

They weren’t so lucky about eight minutes later.  On third-and-fifteen, and the season trickling through Kansas City’s fingers, Moseley once again abandoned his deep responsibilities to follow Watkins over the middle – making possible the momentum-changing 44-yard toss to Hill, who had the entire sideline opened to him.

For the game, when throwing to his left (Moseley’s side) Mahomes was 9 for 12 (75%) for 133 yards (11.08 yards per attempt and 14.78 per completion) – a 110.76 passer rating.  It will be something for the 49ers to chew on over the offseason.

A Tale of Two Tight Ends

One of the intriguing pregame storylines were the two tight ends, each of whom led his respective team in both receptions and receiving yards. 

In his third season out of Iowa, San Francisco’s George Kittle earned his second consecutive Pro Bowl berth on the strength of an 85-catch, 1053-yard season – his second consecutive year with over 80 catches and more than one thousand yards.

With the emphasis on the run in the 49ers’ first two playoff games, George had fewer opportunities than usual, catching 3 passes against the Vikings for 16 yards.  He had just one catch against Green Bay for 19 yards.

On the other side of the field was Kansas City’s Travis Kelce.  In his seventh season out of Cincinnati, Kelce was named to his fifth consecutive Pro Bowl.  He followed up his 103 catches in 2018 with 97 more during the regular season, and completed his fourth consecutive thousand yard season – with his 1229 yards in 2019 ranking him fourth among all receivers in football.

Travis was one of the heroes of the comeback against Houston.  He caught 10 passes for 134 yards and 3 touchdowns in that game.  He was held to 3 catches for 30 yards against Tennessee.

Interestingly, in that game, Travis saw almost exclusive coverage from defensive backs, as the Titans decided to defend more against his speed than his size.

This coverage concept followed both tight ends into their Super Bowl showdown.  Kittle saw a lot of safety Daniel Sorensen – and drew more frequent double coverage than Hill.  As for Kelce, almost every time he lined up as the lone receiver to either side he drew the attention of the cornerback on that side.  When he lined up to the offensive right side (Richard Sherman’s side), he would be subjected to a very physical press coverage.  Even if San Francisco would resort to zone coverage afterward, Sherman would still jam him at the line to disrupt his route.

This additional attention was very effective for both defenses, as neither end was particularly prominent in the passing game.  Kelce finished with 6 catches for 43 yards, and Kittle caught 4 for 36 yards.  During the regular season, Kittle had caught 27 passes on third down – 18 for first downs.  In the Super Bowl, George had no third down catches, and was targeted just once on that down.  Kelce didn’t even have a third down pass thrown his way.

The difference, though, was the offenses around them.  The extra coverage on Kittle didn’t seem to compromise Kansas City’s overall pass defense.  On the other hand, while the 49ers were extra-concerned with Kelce, Tyreek Hill was targeted 16 times, catching 9 of them for 105 yards.

On the Toughness of the Chiefs

After they pushed their way past Tennessee, I made note of the unexpected toughness of the flashy Kansas City offense.  That toughness was again on display in Super Bowl LIV.  We saw it from Mahomes, who took several big hits and bounced back up every time.

On the last Sunday of the NFL’s one-hundredth season, that toughness found its best expression in the Kansas City running game and emerging running back Damien Williams.

In his second season in Kansas City after four uninspiring seasons in Miami, Williams began the season as the “other” back behind LeSean McCoy.  After rushing for just 256 yards in all of 2018, Damien began 2019 in quiet fashion.  Six games into the season, Williams had just 48 carries for 100 yards even – 2.1 yards per rush.  Then, in a Week 7 win against Minnesota, Damien scorched the Viking defense for 125 yards on just 12 carries.

From that point forward – with the exception of three late season games missed with an injury – Williams began to surpass McCoy on the depth chart.  LeSean wasn’t even listed as active for the Super Bowl.

Williams averaged 6.3 yards a carry over his last 5 regular season games, and ended the season just ahead of McCoy, 498 yards to 465.

During Super Bowl LIV, Kansas City ran the ball 10 times with less than four yards to gain for a first down – once on first-and-one; five times on second-and-one, once on third-and-two, once on third-and-one, and twice on fourth-and-one.  They converted 9 of the 10, with Williams going 7-for-7 in those chances.

One of the memorable plays from the game was the colorful spin-o-rama play.  This was one of the fourth-and-one plays called for with 1:57 left in the first quarter.

The Chiefs lined up with two wide receivers (Watkins and Demarcus Robinson) joining Williams in the backfield.  Just before the snap, all four members of the offensive backfield executed a 360-degree turn.  It was a flashy move that served a sneaky purpose as it now aligned Williams directly behind the center, where he took a direct snap.

Damien would pick up the first down, but it wouldn’t be easy.  While he was still a yard in the backfield, Sheldon Day overpowered Fisher, grabbing Damien around his knees. As Day’s hands slid down to Williams’ ankles, it seemed certain that Damien would go down – possibly before gaining the first down.

But somehow he pulled his feet out of the snare, and, executing a second spin move on the same play, he twirled out of the grasp of Emmanuel Moseley. Then – with the goal line in sight – Damien lowered his shoulder and plowed through Jaquiski Tartt’s attempted tackle.  He was ultimately pulled down inches short of the goal line, having made the first down with plenty to spare.

Perhaps no single play encapsulates the 2019 Kansas City Chiefs better.  Underneath the eye-candy – unpinning the flash-and-dash – was an unexpected core toughness.  The physical toughness to convert short-yardage runs against an elite defensive line, combined with the mental and emotional toughness to overcome large deficits in three straight playoff games to bring home a championship.

And as for Williams, the man who scored the first touchdown in their comeback win against Houston ended up scoring the last two touchdowns of the season.  He heads into the offseason as, possibly, the least celebrated 100-yard rusher (he finished with 104) in Super Bowl history.

For Kansas City it may work out better that way.  Better, perhaps, that you remember the glitter and pay less attention to the grit.

The Mistake Green Bay Can’t Afford to Make

Yes, the game was pretty much decided by the time the Minnesota Vikings broke their huddle to line up for a third-and-one on the San Francisco 40-yard line.  There was only 2:53 left in the game, and the Viking were on the short end of the 27-10 score (which would be the final) (gamebook) (summary).  The next three snaps would be a kind of microcosm of their day.

The last time they had run the ball – and I grant that it had been awhile (since the 11:00 mark of the quarter) – they ran underneath Pro-Bowl defensive end Nick Bosa.  Modest as it was, the six yards gained on that run were the most they would have on any running play that afternoon.  Now, on third-and-one, they decided that they would run at Bosa again.  The difference here, of course, was that on third-and-one Nick was looking for the run, and easily stood tackle Riley Reiff up and dumped running back Dalvin Cook for no gain.

Quickly racing to the line on fourth-and-one, Minnesota tried the quarterback sneak – which was also stuffed.  The Vikings would get another shot, though, as San Fran had used a timeout just before the play.  On their second fourth-and-one, quarterback Kirk Cousins threw deep up the left sideline for receiver Stefon Diggs, who maneuvered around cornerback Emmanuel Moseley just enough to get his hands on the ball at about the 6-yard line before it slipped out of his arms. A second later, safety Jimmie Ward drove him to the ground.

That would be Minnesota’s last offensive play of the season, as the 49ers would consume the rest of the clock.

Enjoying the best season of his career, Cousins – whose 107.4 passer rating was the fourth best in football – led Minnesota to an excellent offensive season.  Their 407 points scored were the eighth most in the NFL, and the passing success was linked to a revived running game behind Cook, who with 1135 rushing yards and 13 touchdowns, also had his best year.  Minnesota finished as the sixth-best running team (averaging 133.3 yards per game) and were fourth in rushing attempts with 476.  Counting the playoffs, they finished with 20 or more points scored in 12 of their 18 games, including 5 games where they scored over 30 points, highlighted by a 42-30 battering of Detroit in Week Seven.

I point all of this out, because you certainly wouldn’t have suspected any of this by watching them play last Saturday.  It is rare in the playoffs that a team is dominated to the extent that San Francisco obliterated the Viking offense.

For the game, Minnesota managed just 7 first downs (none of them rushing), and went 2 for 12 on third down (0-for-6 in the second half).  They were also 0-for-1 in the red zone, on their way to just 147 total yards.  They managed just 21:33 of clock time, with only 9:25 of that happening in the second half.  They were out-rushed by San Francisco 186 yards to 21.

Cousins and the passing game managed just 172 yards and an 84.3 rating while absorbing 6 sacks and numerous other pressures.

Surprisingly, though (or, perhaps not), this was the second time in four weeks that the Viking offense had been similarly dominated in a critical game.  Their Week 16 loss at home to Green Bay (with the NFC North Division title on the line) played out eerily similar (a 23-10 Viking loss).

In that game they were also held to just 7 first downs (1 of them running), went 4-15 (just 2-7 in the second half) on third down, 0-for-2 on fourth down, and 0-for-1 in the red zone on their way to 139 total yards.  They controlled the ball for only 22:28 against Green Bay – including just 11:47 of the second half, as the Packers outrushed them, 184-57.

Cousins was sacked 5 times in that game, throwing for 122 yards with a 58.8 rating.

The underlying cause in both of these batterings was the same.  Minnesota stopped running the ball.  They had only 16 running plays against the Packers (just 5 in the second half).  They ran only 10 times against San Fran (just 3 of those after halftime).

The 49ers, of course, gave Minnesota every reason to think that they couldn’t run the ball against them.  Favorite plays that the Vikings had run all season returned little in San Fran.

Earlier in the game (before the third-down-run attempt), Minnesota had tried a couple of quick running plays that ran away from Nick Bosa.  These were plays on which Bosa wasn’t even blocked, as the Vikings expected Cook to be well gone by the time Bosa could make an appearance from the other side of the formation.

But Nick made both of those tackles after a total of one yard gained.  Minnesota hadn’t fully accounted for left defensive tackle Sheldon Day.

A former fourth-round draft choice of Jacksonville in 2016, Sheldon fell to San Francisco about midway through the 2017 season.  Not as large as some interior linemen – Sheldon is “only” listed as 294 – Day brings an above-average quickness to the interior line while maintaining sufficient lower body strength to get under double-teams.  Since the injury to starter D.J. Jones, Day has quietly carved out a larger niche for himself in the 49er defensive scheme.  Sheldon has started each of the last three games, seeing the field for about half the defensive snaps.

Last Saturday, he was a significant deterrent to what little running game Minnesota attempted.  It was Day clogging up the point of attack in both of the earlier runs that sent Cook back toward the middle where Bosa could claim him.

Mental errors by tight ends also hampered the running game.

On the game’s second play, left guard Pat Elflein left DeForest Buckner to penetrate into the Viking backfield while he hunted up a linebacker.  Buckner was supposed to be trapped by Kyle Rudolph, who ran right by him.  After Kyle had finished running the complete distance behind the line of scrimmage without blocking anyone, he glanced back over shoulder with the look of a man who knew he’d forgotten something fairly important.  Buckner, of course, tackled Cook in the backfield for a one-yard loss.

Now, at the 9:25 mark of the first quarter, with a first-and-ten at their own 21, the Vikings tried an off-tackle run.  Josh Kline pulled right-to-left from his right guard position.  Imagine his surprise when he arrived at the point of attack to find that tight end Irv Smith Jr. was also pulling (left-to-right) from his position on the end of the line.  Both would-be blockers – heading for the same point of attack – collided, allowing an easy tackle on the part of 49er linebacker Fred Warner.

By any assessment, this was not a banner offensive day for Minnesota.  Still, at the end of the day, the team with football’s fourth-most rushing attempts finished with just 10.

So dependent on the run all season, Minnesota surprisingly showed no commitment at all to the running game, even though they weren’t seriously behind until the fourth quarter.  Only twice in the contest did Minnesota run on consecutive plays.  They ran on their first two offensive plays of the game.

Then, on their first possession of the second quarter, after Cousins was sacked at the Viking 4-yard line, Minnesota called two safe running plays to avoid an end zone disaster and set up to punt.

And that was it.

This is the mistake that Green Bay simply cannot make.  They cannot afford to abandon the run and become one-dimensional.  The 49er pass rush will have them for desert.

And teams have run against San Francisco from time to time.  Three times they allowed more than 140 rushing yards in a game – losing two of those – while they finished just seventeenth in the league against the run (allowing 112.3 yards a game) and twenty-third in average yards per attempt (yielding 4.5 yards per).  In fact, the 10 rushes by the Vikings were the fewest rushing attempts any team has made against San Francisco this season.

Even if the Packers (who averaged a healthy 4.4 yards per rush this season) don’t enjoy great early success on the ground against San Fran they have to keep trying.

The Packers, themselves, never really established a true offensive identity.  On their way to placing eighteenth in total offense, Green Bay finished seventeenth passing and fifteenth rushing.  Their approach saw them generally sticking with whatever was working that day.  They had 5 games in 2019 where they ran for more than 140 yards.  But they also had 6 games when they ran the ball fewer than 25 times.

In all honesty, whatever their approach the Packers will be hard pressed to sustain much offense against the refreshed 49er defense.  Their only significant advantage on offense stems from the fact that San Francisco’s all-world cornerback Richard Sherman doesn’t change sides of the field.  He will camp the entire game on the offensive right side – meaning that the Packers can avoid having Sherman shut down their only reliable receiver (Davante Adams) by simply lining him up on the other side of the formation.

This will allow Green Bay a few shot plays, but won’t keep them on the field or keep San Francisco’s offense on the sideline.

For that, they will need their running game.

And a healthy dose of luck.