Tuesday, November 01, 2011

NFL Week 8: unsightly television

If you watched any games Sunday, chances are that you wished you had spent your time differently. One of the best games of the afternoon matched a 2-win team and a 1-win team. Sunday night was another forgettable game, over almost as soon as it started, much like the Tebow Era in Denver.
  • The Lions have played two complete games this year, both against AFC West opponents. The defense dominated the hopelessly overmatched Tebow, recording seven sacks and forcing three turnovers, two of which were returned for scores. The offense ripped through Denver's mediocre pass defense, with Stafford completing 70% of his passes for 267 yards and 3 TDs (and no interceptions). His first touchdown was on Detroit's first drive, with Titus Young standing alone in the end zone, no Broncos within 15 yards of him, waiting patiently for the ball to arrive. His last came on a play when Denver was offside and where Champ Bailey guessed wrong and couldn't make up the step he lost on Megatron. It was a good game to have right before the bye week, but doesn't necessarily say anything about how the Lions will respond to their post-bye schedule. 
  • John Fox had to do it. It would be silly to ship Tebow somewhere without demonstrating that he can't get it done in Denver (and before you suggest that that would ruin his trade value, look around the league: there are plenty of misfits who keep getting jobs as backups or even as starters), so it was better to get it over with. The Broncos are two games behind everyone in the West and have Oakland and Kansas City up next; it's all but certain that those will be losses, especially with Tebow at the controls. He exemplifies the misplaced notion of "winner": just about anyone could be put at the controls of that Florida offense, and with a complementary defense, record W after W. It's all well and good to be a good runner, but that doesn't work in a league where the bench players are highly-touted college athletes. Even Cam Newton is only contributing about one-eighth of his value through his running; again, as in Tebow's case in college, touchdowns tend to distort the value of his game. (This is true for non-QBs as well: no doubt many were greatly impressed with LaDainian Tomlinson's 2006 season because of his TDs, but he was just third in DVOA among RBs that season. Counting stats tend to throw people off.) Tebow has a poor throwing motion and an inaccurate arm, and the name for someone with those characteristics is usually "wide receiver". 
  • The train wreck that is the Colts' season continued through Tennessee on Sunday. Painter is gradually becoming more comfortable in the offense, but he's still having a lot of problems finishing both series and drives: Indianapolis was just 6 of 17 on third downs and scored just one touchdown on four trips inside the 10. The Colts did manage 158 yards on 26 carries, so it wasn't as though they were a one-dimensional offense, but without a red-zone target or a solid offensive line, Painter is probably worse off inside the 10 than he is outside it. (It makes sense when you think about it; the closer you are to the end zone, the smaller the area the safeties have to protect, so it becomes harder to complete the 6- to 10-yard routes that have been a staple of the Indianapolis offense when you don't have a laser rocket arm.) The Colts have a couple of possibly-winnable games coming up, though. After the Falcons visit this Sunday, they host Jacksonville and Carolina on either side of a bye week. Should they lose those, their best hope may be the week 16 game hosting Houston if the Texans have clinched a playoff spot and can rest starters by then. (This would depend on the top two spots in the AFC also being locked up by then; the AFC North winner might be two games ahead of Houston, but the AFC East winner might not be.)
  • Tennessee didn't look particularly impressive, so it was fortunate that they were playing an overmatched opponent. The Chris Johnson Experience continues to be one of the mysteries of modern football: I've seen a suggestion that he's simply trying to preserve himself to play out his long, lucrative contract, but that seems ridiculous to me, given that a) he'd be run out of town long before then if he were actually jaking it and b) the theory is that playing at half speed is a great way to get hurt (because you won't react in time to other people playing at full speed). I think it's more accurate to say that he isn't in great shape because of his holdout and that he simply isn't that good of a back in the first place. Once you get into the inevitable regression toward the mean that most backs have after a career year (this is the source of the so-called Madden jinx: of course you aren't going to have another good year after a career year, otherwise it wouldn't be a career year), the contract looks like a bad deal for the Titans, and looking at Johnson's performance this season (dead last in DYAR, third from the bottom in DVOA), it makes you wonder why they extended him in the first place.
  • So this happened. New Orleans went into St. Louis with a solid offense, expecting to blow apart the Rams' shaky defense, and instead they found themselves down 24-0 in the third quarter. The offense scored just two touchdowns, one coming in garbage time, so it makes you wonder how this happened. I can't say. Sometimes the Saints seem to get a little too cute on offense, spending too much time on fancy plays (see Mike Martz offense) and not enough on bread-and-butter plays. This time, it seemed that maybe the problem was that Brees simply couldn't get the ball downfield consistently. Again, having that trouble against the Rams' defense is odd. It's a big loss, especially given that the South doesn't play the West, so none of the Saints' division competitors are playing St. Louis. (Atlanta has beaten Seattle; Tampa Bay plays Carolina later this season.) Fortunately, the Saints can atone for this game by beating the Bucs and Falcons; that would send them into the bye with no less than a 1.5-game lead over both teams. Losing to Tampa Bay could be a problem, though, because that would give the Bucs a sweep, and that would force the Saints to sweep Atlanta to avoid a complete tiebreaker disadvantage.
  • Smoke and mirrors, or perhaps smoke, mirrors, and Steven Jackson. Somehow, St. Louis is no longer winless. A team that had exactly one decent game prior to Sunday, a 7-point loss to a team that hasn't won since, went out and beat one of the best teams in the NFC. Steve Spagnuolo has to feel good about that win, especially with the bulk of the Rams' tough schedule behind them. Pittsburgh and San Francisco (twice) remain, plus the are-they-or-are-they-not Bengals, but the rest of the games are possible wins if everything goes right. It was notable that the win occurred without Sam Bradford in the lineup, though. The overrated second-year player has followed up his poor rookie season with an equally-poor, if not worse, 2011, and it's worth considering whether or not the Rams would take another QB if they pick high enough in 2012. (Don't laugh: there are nine teams with 2 or fewer wins at this point.) I'm not suggesting that Feeley is any kind of answer to their problems, but Bradford certainly hasn't done anything yet to show that he can do more than throw a lot of passes. 
  • Miami is getting this defeat-from-the-jaws-of-victory thing down. They didn't have the Giants on the ropes, but they'd done enough to hold a lead late into the fourth quarter. It's hard to win those games, though, when you can't move the ball, something the Dolphins have struggled with all year. Reggie Bush had a seemingly-impressive game, gaining 103 yards on 15 carries, but that included gains of 35, 28, and 13 – 76 yards in total, leaving just 27 yards on his other 12 carries. He's still a wide receiver playing running back. At best, he'll get outside and get past people, but more often than not, he'll barely get to the line of scrimmage. Four of his carries were for 1 yard or less, and those simply aren't plays that this Dolphins offense can overcome. (On one series, Moore scrambled for a first down on third-and-long, a drive that ended in a touchdown; the other three carries led directly to punts.) Surprisingly, it's not the offensive line, or at least some of it isn't. Miami is 11th in ALY through six games (but 30th in ASR, although there is some question as to how much of that is on the QB and how much is on the line). Daniel Thomas has far outshined Bush at RB, but with Thomas out, that pretty much kills any running game the Dolphins should have. Marshall and Hartline have been pretty good at receiver as well, and Fasano has contributed at TE, but just as Thomas' injury has killed the running game (even if the Giants choose not to tackle on some plays), Henne's injury has killed the passing game. Matt Moore is still the guy who couldn't beat out Jimmy Clausen in Carolina. Tony Sparano will lose his job over this, but I don't think it's his fault that Miami has no depth.
  • The Giants nearly extended their Tale of Two Teams, almost adding a loss to the Dolphins to their losses to Washington and Seattle. New York now has three wins of four or fewer points, something that sounds uncommon but happens to one or two teams every year. Right now, those games are keeping the Giants separated from the pack in the East and in the hunt for the #2 seed in the NFC. (The Giants play both Green Bay and New Orleans later, so they could potentially do better than second.) For some reason, the Giants' offense tends to do really well against better opponents and struggle against weaker ones. That may be fine come playoff time, but there's no guarantee New York will get there. No one else in the East seems to be playing really well (Eagles fans, sit down until you can explain your pass defense), but a two-game lead is easy to overcome with head-to-head games, and the Giants still have four division games left to play, including two against Dallas. 
  • Christian Ponder didn't suck against Carolina, so that may have been the difference between a win and an embarrassing loss. As it was, the Vikings still needed a poor decision by Ron Rivera and an inexplicable miss by Olindo Mare to avoid overtime on the road. Yes yes Jared Allen yes yes, but honestly, this team misses Ray Edwards. Their pass defense in general is not good, which is a problem in a division with Aaron Rodgers and Matthew Stafford (who've both led teams to wins at Minnesota this season) and in a conference with Drew Brees (who'll visit Minnesota in December). The Vikings' passing game with Donovan McNabb was atrocious, so there is considerable pressure on Ponder to pick up the offense and turn things around fairly quickly. (The pressure should lessen a bit as the Vikings fall out of the playoff picture, but for now, it looks barely possible that they could get in.) Adrian Peterson is having another solid season, so he can help take some of that pressure off Ponder, but there are equally big problems on both sides of the ball. That missed field goal may have disguised them for a week.
  • Cam Newton is doing a great job for a rookie, but he's had some help. The running game has experienced a resurgence, in no small part thanks to some improved line play. The Panthers were 17th in ALY and 14th in ASR going into the Minnesota game; compare that with 27th and 31st in 2010. On the other hand, he's doing quite a bit of it on his own, and by "it", I mean "throwing the ball to Steve Smith because dude is always open even if you think he's not." Last year, Smith was targeted just 99 times by QB Carolina. This year, he's been targeted 73 times through 8 games, and his 46 receptions match his total from all of last season. Yes, more than a little of that comes from safeties unsure whether they should play run or pass, whether it's Newton or a back carrying the ball, but it also comes from having a guy who can throw the ball to his by-far-best receiver. Neither Clausen nor Moore understood that last year. (That bodes ill for Miami the rest of this season.) 
  • I guess the Ravens are also who we thought they were. Yet another three-touchdown second-half lead is left by the wayside. It isn't all the loss of Dominique Rodgers-Cromartie, either ... Arizona's defense actually wasn't that good last year. They simply didn't replace DRC and didn't get better at other positions, and on top of that, Kevin Kolb has been miserable. The line is working much better on running plays – 30th in ASR, 4th in ALY – but I haven't seen any Cardinals games, so I don't know how much of that is on Kolb and how much is on the offense as a whole or on the protection specifically. The Baltimore game shows the weaknesses of the team, when you look closely at what happened: Arizona had just three drives into Baltimore territory, two ending in field goals and the other in a scaredy-punt. (It was fourth-and-15, true, but you don't punt from the 36.) Their touchdowns came on a punt return and after turnovers; when it was up to the offense, nothing really happened, and the defense couldn't keep generating turnovers. The St. Louis game will be gut-check time for Ken Whisenhunt; a loss there may mean it's time for him to start boxing up his stuff.
  • The Ravens were about 30 minutes away from dropping into third place in the AFC North, which is a scary place to be when you consider the number of teams with 4 or 5 wins who are not leading their divisions. At that point, Joe Flacco and the rest of the offense realized that it was a bad idea to keep giving Arizona the ball, so they went on two long scoring drives (80 and 88 yards) and turned an interception into another touchdown, then pinned the Cardinals with an I-guess-you-can punt that ended up setting up a short drive for the game-winning field goal. None of the early Super Bowl contenders have both a top-half offense and a top-half defense, so each has a significant flaw. To no one's surprise, the Ravens' flaw is on offense, as you can see from this game. The defense can hardly be blamed for giving up 27 points (or 20, given that the punt return came against special teams), not when Arizona was 2 of 11 on third downs (but 1 of 1 on fourth) and managed just 207 total yards. Joe Flacco has regressed from his previous top-10-type form to a more Sanchez-like quarterback; his completion percentage is down about 8 points from his career average, which is even worse when you consider that completion percentage is ... um ... actually down from the last few years, but anyway, overall performance is up (ANY/A of 5.9 vs. 5.7 in 2010 and 5.6 in 2009). You don't have to have a dynamic QB to be a championship team, but you can't turn the ball over frequently; a pedestrian offense can't overcome that, and even a great defense can't do much when you give up the ball inside your 30.
  • Congratulations, Blaine Gabbert! You just might be this decade's Joey Harrington: a guy with good college numbers who walks into the wrong situation and ends up beaten out of the league with not even your dignity intact. There's no guarantee that Harrington would have been successful had he been drafted by a better team, but he certainly had the odds against him when he arrived in Detroit, and a similar situation faces Gabbert. Jacksonville has a pretty good defense and an abysmal offense. Some of that is on McCown, but while Gabbert has been better, that just underscores how bad McCown was. The rookie has completed just under 46% of his passes through Week 7, worst in the league, and had 5 fumbles and 4 interceptions coming into the Houston game (where he added another fumble and 2 picks). The only thing keeping the Jaguars from the basement is that the Colts are that much worse. Jacksonville is like Baltimore Lite: not as good on defense, even worse on offense. 
  • The Texans are still head-and-shoulders above the rest of the South, even if the standings don't yet reflect that. If Houston can continue to post wins through this part of their schedule, they should end up a couple of game ahead of Tennessee in December, and by the time they travel to visit the Titans on New Year's, they should be resting their starters. (With Carolina and Indianapolis the two games before that one, Houston should pick up any remaining wins they need to lock up the division.) It's a tribute to Houston that they've been able to do this with both Johnson and Foster missing parts of various games; well, that and the fact that injuries knocked out the Colts. 
  • No quarterback, no running game ... Washington is in free fall. Just 10 first downs, 178 total yards, no points ... the defense cannot do it themselves. (Not that they aren't trying: London Fletcher was credited with 20 tackles Sunday. Granted, a lot of that can be scorekeeping, but 12 were solo tackles, and those are hard to fudge.) Expect the 49ers to rough up John Beck this week as well; if Washington can't bounce back the following week at Miami, it might be time for Voldemort to make some changes. You know he doesn't like it when things aren't going well, and losing to Miami is, these days, a sign that things aren't going well.
  • Ryan Fitzpatrick had a nice day for the Bills: 21 for 27, 262 yards, 2 touchdowns. The interception in the end zone wasn't a good thing, but the Bills avoided a problem when Washington couldn't capitalize on either that or the fumble in Buffalo territory. (That's the advantage of making mistakes against a team with a terrible offense.) The Jets are up next, and this will be a big game for the Bills. Win and they drop the Jets two games out; lose and they'll be tied with New York (but effectively behind them due to the head-to-head loss). The key will be similar to Sunday's game: don't give the Jets good field position. Make them work for yards and points and you can beat them. 
  • New England: 50 plays, 213 yards, 3 of 10 on third down. No, they didn't have any long kick returns, and no, they only forced one turnover, so it wasn't like they could make the most of the possessions they had like Arizona did. Defensive problems are one thing – every team with a solid offense has them this season – but if other teams can shut down the Patriots' passing attack the way the Steelers did, Belichick will have all of January to figure out how to improve the team for next season. And no, before you ask, it wasn't that the Steelers have a dominant defense. This season, they're 10th against the pass, so they're not bad, but not the Ravens or Jets or Lions. (Ha ha. I just put the Lions' pass defense in the same category as teams like Baltimore and the Jets, and they belong there. Ha ha.) Those same Jets are on the schedule again in two weeks, so there isn't a lot of time to get those offensive issues straightened out. 
  • Once again, Roethlisberger bombed a bad defense; this time, he didn't get quite enough points to produce a convincing win, but any win against a good team is a good win, especially with Cincinnati and Baltimore keeping pace (for now). Pittsburgh has a chance to go into their bye with a nice 1.5-game lead if they sweep those games, but to do that, they have to be more productive on offense. Both AFC North opponents have stout pass defenses (better than Pittsburgh's, in fact), so the Steelers can't afford to waste the opportunities they do get. Three red-zone drives ending in field goals, another inside the 30 that ended in a missed field goal ... Pittsburgh left a lot of points on the board against a bad defense, and it nearly cost them. If they do the same thing the next two weeks, they'll be 6-4 and in third place during their bye week.
  • So when you have two teams with bad offenses and better defenses playing, usually you figure that the offense that gets things done will win. (The idea being that if you're bad in one area, but get good production from it, the good areas will also produce and you'll win. It's the same thing with teams that cross, where one is bad on offense but good on defense and the other is the opposite.) So that basically happened: Cleveland had one McCoy-to-Cribbs touchdown and a whole lot of nothing else. Also, McCoy fumbled four! times ... Cleveland only lost one, but the thing to remember is that fumbles themselves are bad. (Not as bad as interceptions, which are of course always turnovers, but they do generally end the play right there, and they do sometimes become turnovers, and when a QB fumbles the ball, it's not uncommon for a bunch of defensive players to come running at the ball while the fast offensive players are downfield and unable to help out.) San Francisco's defense is very good, but I wonder how much of that was McCoy not reading coverages well or holding onto the ball too long (or both). That does come with experience, but one of the problems with a coaching change is that you can only do that so often; if things don't improve, next you start making changes at skill positions. McCoy has actually regressed from last season. The lack of a running game is most likely part of that, but maybe some of it is opposing teams learning about McCoy faster than he's learning to read NFL defenses. That's not a good sign.
  • Alex Smith had another caretaker game for the 49ers: don't turn the ball over, get some first downs, hand off to Frank Gore a lot, let the defense take care of the rest. It generally leads to unexciting games, but then I don't think most players care at all about the excitement factor if they are winning. (Most fans, for that matter, don't care as much as they might suggest. It's easy enough to take a team that might be playoff-caliber and destroy it in a year or two, if that's what you want ... just hire Josh McDaniels. Zing! See, I told you they wouldn't mind the slow-and-painful wins.) San Francisco already has a win at Detroit, and they host the Giants the week after next. They don't play New Orleans, but the two games above should give Harbaugh a decent idea of how his team stacks up against possible NFC playoff opponents. 
  • Cincinnati lost to Denver but beat Buffalo. Which team is the real Cincinnati? Given that they're still coached by Marvin Lewis (who's in his ninth season in Cincinnati, which I think is 27 seasons in the real world) and owned by Mike (All in the Family) Brown, it ought to be the former. But the defense is actually pretty good. You'd think the story would be rookie Andy Dalton, who's made some Bengals fans forget about Carson Palmer nearly pulling a Barry Sanders (unless they saw Palmer play for Oakland, in which case they're really glad Dalton is starting), but the big deal is the pass defense. Cincinnati's playing well enough that Dalton can learn on the fly, which makes the defection of Palmer even less important. Perhaps the defense will fall back to earth against Tennessee, Pittsburgh, and Houston (with a game against Baltimore in there as well), but even so, this certainly looks more like the playoff team from two years ago than the 4-12 team from last season.
  • I see Pete Carroll is going back to that two-quarterback system that's so popular in college these days. I remain unconvinced that he is the right man for the job, that he's any more capable of coaching in Seattle than he was in New England before. The Seahawks took advantage of a weak schedule and division to squeak into the playoffs and pull off a big upset at home, but there is no chance of that this season. Instead, Seattle looks like a LEGO team, the kind that you put together when your little brother accidentally puts all of the sets together, and then for some reason, you can never find all the special parts to make the models the way the instructions say you should. Charlie Whitehurst just looks like a QB piece; he doesn't really fit there. (Not in an NFL set. See if the kid across the street has a CFL set.) Marshawn Lynch hasn't been able to provide any kind of running game (not that he was that good in Buffalo in the first place; don't be fooled by counting stats, and remember that 1000 yards in a season is just over 60 yards a game). I'd make fun of the punt that Cincinnati returned for what was essentially the clinching touchdown, but it was fourth and 18 from the 7. You could think about going for it there in that situation (down 8 points, under 4 minutes to play), but that's a really difficult call to make, especially after a sack on third-and-long, and if you don't get the first down, then it's probably worse than what you'd get from most punts anyway. (On the other hand, you'd have more time left on the clock, not compared to a punt-return TD, but to a normal drive after a punt.)
  • Dallas gave up 239 yards rushing to Philadelphia. This was not Tony Romo's fault. Romo going 18 of 35, yeah, that's kind of on him (although the Eagles' defense had something to do with that), but this was a game that Rob Ryan would like to forget. Michael Vick: 75% completions, 279 yards, no interceptions, two touchdowns. LeSean McCoy: 30 carries, 185 yards, two touchdowns. (Sometimes I get the impression that the Ryans just don't know when to shut up and coach. Buddy's act wore thin really fast in Philadelphia and Houston. Rex is getting old in New York. Jerry Jones isn't going to put up with games like this for long in Dallas.) Not all 3-4 teams are equal, and right now, the Cowboys look more like Washington than Philadelphia. Up next: a must-win game against Seattle before Buffalo comes to visit Jerryworld.
  • It's funny how winning division games can turn a season around. Three weeks ago, the Eagles were 1-4 and looking like the biggest waste of money since W's presidential library. Now, they look like they could at least challenge for a wild-card spot, and if they can knock off the Giants in New York, maybe they could get more than that. A soft late-season schedule that has them playing Seattle, Miami, and Washington looks really good right now; the return trip to Dallas may not be so nice, but by then the Cowboys' season could well be over. First, though, Philadelphia has to take care of business against Chicago. The Bears' defense is weaker than the Cowboys' defense (no, really, it is), but it's still stout, and Vick doesn't need to put additional pressure on his defense. All he needs to do is move the ball, get points from drives, and let Cutler deal with the noise and the pressure.
  • So I guess maybe the Chargers just aren't that good after all. Their biggest win is a 10-point victory against Miami at home. They've got two more losses coming up, against Green Bay and Chicago, and honestly even with the Raiders' quarterback situation, that game could be up in the air. San Diego will be in the division race until the end, if for no other reason than that no one in this division is any good, but they won't have much of a chance in the playoffs if they do win it. Can you see the Chargers beating New England or Buffalo or Baltimore or Cincinnati or Pittsburgh? I can't. Something happened to this team between last season and this season. I haven't been following San Diego closely enough to know what it was, but whatever it was, Norv needs to find it and fix it now. Marty Schottenheimer got fired for not winning enough playoff games, but after the 2007 AFC Championship appearance in Turner's first year, the Chargers have won just one, in 2008 (and in overtime, at that). The natives, as they say, are restless.
  • By the same token, the Chiefs still aren't any good. They've just beaten several bad teams: Minnesota, Indianapolis, Oakland, and San Diego. With Miami and Denver next, they should be sitting at 6-3, all ready to convince foolish people that they're serious AFC contenders, but they still don't have a good QB, they still don't have a good backup for Jamaal Charles, and they still turn the ball over too much (16 giveaways, tied for second in the NFL with Philadelphia, San Diego, and Denver). The real Chiefs team is the one that got blown out by Buffalo and Detroit, and remember, Charles was healthy for the Buffalo game. 
The bye for the Packers meant that we were spared another week of OMG PACKERS BEST TEAM EVAR. (These people apparently only watch when Green Bay is on offense.) However, it also meant that the mass in the AFC spent another week slowly growing together. No AFC team has fewer than two losses; in fact, 11 of the 16 teams have either two or three losses. (Everyone thank Indianapolis and Miami now: they account for 12 of the 51 wins by that group.) The NFC still needs a couple more games between top teams to settle things out a bit, although the Rams, of all teams, suddenly made the NFC South race more interesting. Tampa Bay at New Orleans and the Jets at Buffalo should be two good division matchups to watch; the Giants and New England will be the featured 4:00 matchup, and then NBC will desperately be hoping that the second Pittsburgh-Baltimore game doesn't go the way of the first one (and the last two Sunday night games).

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