Possibly the closest Super Bowl matchup in history also poses the question: how much does it mean when certain aspects of an NFL team improve dramatically in the second half of the season?
27 Oct 2008
compiled by Doug Farrar and Vince Verhei
Each Sunday, the FO staff sends around e-mails to each other, both during and after the games. It lets us share ideas for columns and comments, and get an idea of how teams that we can't watch are playing. Be aware that the material in this roundtable might seem a bit disjointed and un-edited. It also might still show up later in the week in other columns, or in comments in PFP 2009. Games are chosen based on our own personal viewing preferences, and are going to reflect the teams we support and the cities where we live.
Doug Farrar: After the Cowboys go three-and out on their first drive (Brad Johnson's going to check down all day when he isn't running for his life), Dallas punter Sam Paulescu puts what might be the biggest hit of the game on punt returner Clifton Smith. Smith had some yardage up the middle until Paulescu sent him backward with a legitimate hit. I was waiting to see which backup tight end or linebacker did it, until I saw the jersey number "2."
In golf terms, Brad Johnson is the guy with yips so bad, he lays up on a par-four with a seven-iron ... and still shanks it into the woods. From the tee. Marion Barber is Dallas' entire offense at this point. We are now hearing those terrifying words: "Wouldn't it be better to give Brooks Bollinger a chance?"
Bill Barnwell: Even worse, Doug, it's more like, "How could Brooks Bollinger possibly be worse?"
Doug Farrar: The Cowboys are doing some weird things on defense -- lining up in a wide 4-3 with nobody over center, which allows Jeff Garcia to enjoy these huge rushing/throwing lanes up the middle. Not sure what they're looking for there. According to our numbers, no team runs up the middle more than the Bucs. Garcia is also working with Jeff Faine on different snap counts from the shotgun -- either a delay on the first foot motion, or waiting until the second foot motion. He's got DeMarcus Ware on a string with it. Ware's already been called for two offside penalties in the first half.
On Dallas' final drive of the first half, Johnson throws three balls out of bounds. The Bucs respond by racking up four defensive penalties for a total of 30 yards, and Johnson manages to get a jump ball to Roy Williams for a touchdown at the end of the half. As Phil Simms might say, Jon Gruden is besides himself.
Bill Barnwell: Early candidate for Balls of the Week and KCW: Cato June takes a personal foul penalty for retaliating at Marc Colombo at the end of the play, giving the Cowboys first-and-goal on the 6 with six seconds left, but the flag is thrown just as Wade Phillips takes his final timeout. Phillips dials up a fade to Roy Williams for a touchdown.
Ben Riley: Ah, the teams change but song remains the same. Facing a critical third-and-four with about 50 seconds left to play, Jeff Garcia hits a wide open Jerramy Stevens square in the numbers -- and Stevens promptly drops it. Everyone reading this in Seattle just nodded their head and took a long swig of their Red Hook ESB. (Luckily for Stevens, the Bucs converted on fourth down.)
Doug Farrar: Problem was, the Bucs lost out on several gifted opportunities, struck out in the red zone over and over, and just killed themselves with penalties. That's how you lose to a team that looked as bad as detailed above -- you just have to look a little worse.
Vince Verhei: A remarkable coincidence in the New England and Dallas games. Bill Belichick's team is down by the goal-line with six seconds to play. He gambles and runs a play rather than take the gimme field goal. A flag pattern to Randy Moss on the left side of the field falls incomplete, but Belichick gets lucky and has 1 second left to kick a field goal.
A minute or two later in Dallas, Wade Philips faces the same situation: goal-to-go with 6 seconds left. He also opts to run a play, and runs the same play: A flag pattern to the left. This time Roy Williams makes the touchdown catch.
Aaron Schatz: For Christmas, can we buy Matt Cassel some pocket presence? How about maybe some bat echo radar, that beeps every time there's a pass rusher in the vicinity?
If you like good secondary play, this is not the game for you. With Ellis Hobbs in and out with injuries, the Pats have been down at times to just second-year sixth-rounder Mike Richardson and two rookies.
For the Rams, Fakhir Brown is giving Randy Moss more cushion than a BBW stripper. The Patriots offense is far more consistent than the Rams offense, but it is 13-10 Pats at halftime because Donnie Avery had a long touchdown catch. The Patriots would be doing a little better if they didn't keep trying to run the shotgun draw to Kevin Faulk, a play the Rams clearly see coming and have stuffed nearly every time.
Doug Farrar: I've seen some really weird cushions this year. Fakhir Brown on Moss I can understand, but what the hell is Anthony Henry doing giving 8-yard leads to Antonio Bryant in the Cowboys-Bucs game?
Aaron Schatz: I was a bit surprised by how off Marc Bulger was during this game. He had a couple of really short throws on screens and dumpoffs, and a couple of passes that were overthrown by a couple of miles (and not, I don't think, intentionally thrown away). He also had a couple of plays where he was so tuned in to one receiver that he missed another one completely open on the other side of the field.
On the other hand, Matt Cassel was quite good except for his usual bad pocket presence. One of his two interceptions wasn't really his fault, a tipped pass that Randy Moss should have had. We did see the continuation of a trend that has been going all season, with Pats receivers dropping some easy passes. The lower catch rates this year aren't just Cassel's fault.
Finally, at the end of this game Dante Hall really looked like an idiot. The Pats kneeled on the ball but still had to punt back to the Rams with something like 15 seconds left. Chris Hanson punts to the end zone, Hall catches it, and he wastes something like 10 seconds trying to figure out if he wants to run it out of the end zone or not. He ends up with "not," and the Rams get a grand total of one last-gasp play from the 20. Good understanding of the clock there, Dante.
Ben Riley: So "Ne-Yo" is singing a nice national anthem, and CBS pans to a shot of a fan holding an inflated Chargers helmet in one hand, an inflated Saints helmet in the other. Hold on there Brits, you'll get this thing figured out eventually.
Doug Farrar: I wrote last week that the Chargers' defense seems to play a lot smaller without Shawne Merriman, and it applies even more this week. They have a good front three that is getting sacked up at the line, and Deuce McAllister is running through what looks like a field of cornerbacks.
Ben Riley: Beginning of the second quarter, Drew Brees hits a wide-open Devery Henderson in the corner of the end zone. Lance Moore then celebrates by leapfrogging over Henderson -- even though Henderson was standing straight up. Am I crazy for thinking that's pretty impressive, vertical-wise? Can anyone in the NFL do that?
Bill Barnwell: I'm willing to bet Adrian Wilson could.
Ben Riley: Also, the Saints kicker then missed the extra point. Shameful performance in a nation that values good kicking.
Vince Verhei: Best part of this game: Lance Moore scores a touchdown and celebrates with a soccer-style powerslide. He is penalized 15 yards for unsportsmanlike conduct and the sellout crowd at Wembley responds with THUNDEROUS boos. Do you hear that NFL? The rest of the world thinks this rule is stupid!
Sean McCormick: The Jets have clearly decided to blitz Tyler Thigpen into the ground, and they're doing it very efficiently. The K.C. offense has only touched the ball twice and Thigpen has hit the turf three times. The Jets are doing all this despite the conspicuous absence of Vernon Gholston anywhere on the field. The No. 6 pick in the draft seems to have given up his spot pass rushing duties to David Bowens.
Update: A "Brett-Favre-being-Brett-Favre" moment, as he chucked one up a good 7 yards past his intended receiver and right into the hands of Brandon Flowers, who was sitting deep in a cover three. The crowd is not amused.
More Favre excitement as he chucks the ball under pressure at the most thoroughly double-covered receiver I've ever seen. To say that Laveranues Coles was bracketed would do a disservice to brackets everywhere.
Bill Barnwell: That's just Brett having Deanna's back and proving that he hasn't changed.
Sean McCormick: The Chiefs played very well in this game, and they got strong play from both their older players (Tony Gonzalez) and their newer ones (Brandon Flowers, Dwayne Bowe). The most surprising performance came from Tyler Thigpen, who was either getting sacked or throwing completions down the field, with very little middle ground. The Jets brought pressure off the edges very successfully, but when the rush didn't get there, Thigpen consistently found Dwayne Bowe in single coverage and made the defense pay.
As for the Jets, they should be very happy they have Leon Washington, who consistently put the offense in position to get back the points Favre so busily threw away to various Chiefs defenders. Without Washington, this would have been a Chiefs victory.
Bill Barnwell: Philadelphia's running at John Abraham and Jamal Anderson on the edges to start, trying to mitigate the pass rush. To an extent, that's been their scheme (especially without Shawn Andrews in the lineup), but they're really focusing on running at them. Of course, when they do drop back to pass, Anderson jukes out Jon Runyan and picks up a sack.
The Eagles are just matching up Asante Samuel against Roddy White. Result on second drive: One pass defensed, one interception.
Nonsense roughing the passer penalty on Trent Cole where he was being tripped on the way to the passer and, despite maintaining excellent form and not leading with his head, was given a flag anyway. They basically wanted him to defy the laws of physics to avoid hurting Ryan.
Eagles run a reverse with Donovan McNabb blocking. We had a conversation on the e-mail list this week about quarterbacks getting killed on the Wildcat. Here's a situation where your quarterback -- your flimsy, injury-prone quarterback -- can get hurt.
Jamaal Jackson olés Curtis Lofton on what looked to be a developing screen, but Jackson pushes him right through an open hole into McNabb, who coughs up the ball.
The Eagles are going to have to try a 50-plus-yard field goal to end the half. I feel Tanier's blood boiling already. Scratch that. The Falcons let DeSean Jackson get behind them for 25 yards on a corner route. Are they the Bears in disguise?
Ben Riley: L.J. Smith just got hit hard and is yet to get off the turf. I know we never root for injuries, but something tells me Mike Tanier is a little less worried about this one.
Mike Tanier: I don't like L.J. But I don't want him dead either! I just want him selling real estate out in Upper Darby. Way to take one for the team, L.J. And I saw a couple of good blocks you threw today buddy, freeing DeSean Jackson on one and helping Runyan seal the edge on another.
The Eagles win was aided by one of the worst calls I have ever seen: a muffed punt call where the kid from the Falcons never touched the ball. The Falcons couldn't challenge because they were out of timeouts. Of course, the NFL accepts no mechanism for the refs double-checking their call.
Of course I will take the win, and I can't say the Eagles won "because of the call" because they were up by six in the waning minutes. And there were other calls, including the Trent Cole sack, that were blown by the same group of officials.
I will just chalk this game up as another one filled with too much "referee interpretation," another example of a game where official mistakes/odd calls were a distraction. They are becoming more and more prevalent. The Commish, of course, is cracking down on the criticism instead of the problem.
Bill Barnwell: The refs just got back-to-back calls on the goal-line right in the Giants-Steelers game, so bully!
Mike Tanier: By the way, Bill, you are right that I don't want to come across to strongly as anti-ref. I think that the procedures should be better defined to allow them to correct their calls.
Mike Tanier: The Ravens ran a lot of Wildcat plays with Troy Smith and Joe Flacco. Maybe, with two quarterbacks, we should call them A-11 plays. You will see them in the highlights because Flacco caught a long bomb on one of the plays. We were talking in the thread on Saturday about why defenses aren't crushing the quarterback on these Wildcat plays. I would love to see DeAngelo Hall try to crush Flacco and see what happens. I am thinking DeAngelo Roadkill would happen.
Vince Verhei: I just saw the Smith-to-Flacco bomb. That was so great. The defense wasn't even that fooled. Flacco just ran a fly pattern by linebacker Ricky Brown and caught the pass in stride for 43 yards.
I think we have our KCW winner. Ravens kick off in the second quarter after going up 16-0. The ball lands at about the 5, 5 yards from the out of bounds line. Problem is, Oakland returner Johnnie Lee Higgins is so out of position he has to sprint over and back to catch it. He reels it in and takes three steps to slow himself ... and then just strolls out of bounds at the 2.
Bill Barnwell: This game is just numbing football. Dumpoff. Dumpoff. Garrard run. Dumpoff.
Vince Verhei: Cleveland's offense is so ridiculously boom-or-bust. They gained 10 or more yards 12 times; those plays averaged 22.6 yards. The other 40 plays averaged just 1.4 yards. They gained 51 yards on a fourth-and-1 play at their own 47, a huge gamble that paid huge dividends. They also blocked a field goal and were plus-1 in turnovers. The Jaguars were more consistent, but couldn't produce the big play they needed. Matt Jones had about four chances to make a miracle in the end zone on the Jags' second-to-last play, but the ball eventually fell to earth. I don't know if "luck" is necessarily the right word here, but this six-point win for the Browns could easily have been a two-touchdown loss.
A huge part of that erratic offense is Derek Anderson. In the fourth quarter, The Browns had first-and-goal at the 1, score tied. First down, Jamal Lewis stuffed for -1. Second down, Anderson has Charles Ali open in the end zone, but overthrows him. Third down, Anderson has Braylon Edwards open in the end zone, but overthrows him. Browns have to kick a 20-yard field goal.
Vince Verhei: I maintain that the Bengals are the league's worst team. They came into the weekend ranked 30th in DVOA; today, the team ranked 27th beat them by 29 points. Their were two terrible plays in the second half. Kevin Walter caught a pass from Matt Schaub and rolled to the ground. Cornerback Johnathon Joseph jogged over to touch Walter down. Problem was, he was so lazy getting there that by the time he arrived, Walter was back on his feet. He shrugged off Joseph's two-hand touch and into the end zone. Then in the fourth quarter, Steve Slaton made a host of Bengals look bad on his 20-yard touchdown run. He juked linebacker Brandon Johnson out of his shoes. That's bad, but understandable. But within the 5-yard line, defensive end Robert Geathers and a defensive back (I wrote down No. 23, but that's running back Chris Perry. It may have been Joseph again; he's No. 22.) piled onto Slaton, and he just dragged them into the end zone. When 203-pound Steve Slaton is dragging approximately 475 pounds of defenders into the end zone, your defenders are not trying. This is terrible, terrible effort from a professional sports team.
Doug Farrar: A few things that stood out to me in this game:
Ben Riley: Not only that, it appears the J.T. O'Sullivan era is over. Already leading the lead in personal turnovers, after an abysmal first half Singletary benched him for Shaun Hill, who just led the 49ers down the field for San Francisco's first touchdown.
For the past couple of years, the Seahawks defensive line has feasted on 49ers quarterbacks, and today is no different. Rocky Bernard was nearly invisible for the first six games, but he's been generating pressure all day long, and Patrick Kerney's having his best game too. Where this Seattle defense has been all year is anyone's guess.
Bill Barnwell: Apparently, as I've always thought, those shoes are "turbo" shoes, because Weaver has two 40-plus-yard touchdowns.
Doug Farrar: I haven't seen that much neon on one person since Corey Glover in the early Living Colour days.
Ben Riley: Leonard Weaver is no glamour boy.
Doug Farrar: He's fierce!
Vince Verhei: Sad fact: Weaver's 43-yard touchdown catch in the third quarter was the team's longest pass play this year -- until he caught a 62-yarder in the fourth. The fullback now has the two longest pass receptions for Seattle this season. It is Week 8.
Singletary's ejection of Davis was newsworthy enough, but his comments at the press conference were the real story. He preached with passion about the type of players he needed, players who wanted to win, and how the team was better off with Davis in the showers than on the field. He spoke with bile and disgust. Then he finished, paused, calmed himself, and asked the press: "Wussup?"
Bill Barnwell: Nobody messin' in his neighborhood.
Doug Farrar: Link to the video here.
Ben Riley: Bobby Engram's great late career run is over. He looked horrible today, dropping balls, whiffing on blocks and failing to get separation at the line. He's given the Seahawks many great years, but he's 85 percent of the way to finished. Although it bears repeating that he's playing alongside Keary freakin' Colbert and Koren Robinson.
Bill Barnwell: And getting throws from Seneca Wallace.
Aaron Schatz: We could have the Stephen Colbert Award for Huge Balls and the Keary Colbert Award for No Hands. Twin Colbert Awards.
Mike Tanier: I am watching this goal-line stop at 13:06 in the second by the Steelers against Jacobs. For the record, Jacobs is a great goal-line runner. But on this play that is being challenged, he had a hole as big as a six-lane highway on the backside of the play. Jacobs ran right to barrel in behind his block, but there was a big hole to the left he could have walked through.
Sometimes you see small, shifty, experienced runners used as goal-line backs -- guys like Warrick Dunn. They are used because they can see the backside lanes that the defense concedes because they are selling out on the strong side. Guys like Terry Allen, late in their career, can read those defensive calls and score touchdowns. Jacobs normally can just power a ball like that in, and it is not like he is a rookie, but it makes a difference sometimes to have a more experienced back in there.
The Giants returned the punt to the 20 while I typed this. Maybe it won't matter.
Bill Barnwell: Did Ben Roethlisberger just try and argue that it was a delay of game after throwing a pick to Corey Webster?
Mike Tanier: That's a scary number of people jumping on the Living Color reference in the Seahawks-49ers discussion. It must mean that the Steelers and Giants are locked in a 14-12 "whovever fumbles at the wrong time loses" game that is hard to comment on.
Poop. Bad snap. Steelers give up a safety. It's fun when stuff happens while I type!
Doug Farrar: Bad few minutes for James Harrison in the fourth quarter. First, the muffed punt snap, then he gets obliterated by Brandon Jacobs on the Eli touchdown pass to Kevin Boss. Looked like he had little birdies circling his head after that block.
Aaron Schatz: One of the reason why the Steelers-Giants game is hard to comment on is that these teams are who we thought they were. These are both good teams. The Steelers have stuffed the run but the zone coverages behind their blitzes keep leaving guys open on third down. If anything, we've learned that good blocking does a pretty good job of neutralizing a good pass rush. The Steelers and Giants were both very high in defensive ASR before this game but only the Giants were high in offensive ASR. Roethlisberger has spent the game running for his life (as usual) while Eli Manning has yet to be sacked with three minutes left ... and the Giants just went up 21-14.
By the way, the Giants have two long snappers (Jay Alford and Zak DeOssie) while the Steelers now have zero. Maybe the Giants should be nice and lend them one?
Bill Barnwell: Two words: Trey Junkin.
This was a pretty straightforward game between two evenly matched teams where one team got virtually all the lucky bounces. That's not to say that the Giants aren't a good team -- both teams played pretty well -- but the fumbles and the tipped passes seemed to always end up in the Giants' favor.
That being said, there are going to be people saying "Oh, well, the Giants got that safety and it was the difference," which is untrue. The Giants' following drive was from essentially where they would've gotten the ball without the safety.
I think the thing that surprised me the most was how little pressure the Steelers put on Manning. From what we know about Eli by now, if you let him sit back in the pocket, he's going to find Steve Smith. Eli's good at getting his linemen in good places to handle blitzes, but there just weren't enough guys coming at Eli to really throw him off.
The other thing about Smith that I keep meaning to mention is how much of the improvement ascribed to Manning is actually Smith's presence in the lineup. Of course, when Aikman was mentioning that he was surprised that Kevin Boss wasn't playing a bigger role, he ignored that Smith is taking all the passes that Boss would otherwise grab. Smith absolutely makes this offense work in the slot, just like Welker in New England -- he just runs six-yard ins over and over again and whoever's matched up against him (the Steelers tried DeShea Townsend) can't bump him and keep up.
Ben Riley: Is there a tougher player in the NFL than Anquan Boldin? Three weeks after having his face rearranged, the Cardinals have inserted him back into the starting lineup and he just ripped off a 30-yard run on an end-around. Bill Bidwell, pay this man!
Doug Farrar: You should throw that on a DVD and mail it to Deion Branch.
Vince Verhei: The Cardinals played man coverage pretty much the entire game, and it worked early as they led 10-3 at halftime. Defensive backs were getting a lot of tipped passes. At that point, the Cardinals realized that Steve Smith was covered one-on-one by Roderick Hood. A parade of receptions ensued, though it should be noted that Smith pretty clearly stepped out of bounds on his long catch-and-run.
I somehow never noticed this, but John Kasay is virtually a straight-ahead kicker.
Funny sight of the day: Arizona linebacker Clark Haggans getting into a shoving match with Carolina kickoff specialist Rhys Lloyd. Way to man up, Mr. Haggans.
A huge hidden play in this game: Just before halftime, Arizona tries a fake field goal. Punter Dirk Johnson, the holder on the play, hits a wide-open Jerame Tuman in the flat, but free safety Charles Godfrey comes swooping in from the middle of the field to make the tackle. The play gained 10 yards, but the Cardinals needed 15. A field goal or touchdown on that play and Arizona likely goes on to win.
Tim Hightower continues to impress. Earlier Tanier was talking about how smaller backs can be better at the goal-line because they have the patience to see cutback lanes. The Cards gave it to Hightower up the gut and he just bounced into a wall, then cut to his left and into the end zone for the score.
Ben Riley: I disagree with my fellow Scrambler Vince regarding Steve Smith's touchdown -- the replay did not clearly show his heel out of bounds, and the divot he turned up was all turf. On the other hand, Vince is absolutely right about Hightower's bounce-and-cutback touchdown -- it was a thing of beauty.
By the way, anyone notice that Steve Breaston turned in another near-100-yard performance this week, even with Anquan Boldin back in the lineup? I think it's fair to say at this point that the Cardinals have the best wide receiving corps in the league.
Doug Farrar: When your top three receivers all rank in the top 12 in DVOA and DYAR, it's a safe assumption.
Bill Barnwell: I disagree. I think what we're learning is that it's not that hard to play wide receiver across from Larry Fitzgerald with Kurt Warner as your quarterback.
Doug Farrar: Well sure, but I think that's part of the overall threat. You have to have the one uncoverable guy, to take the heat off the mere mortals.
Ben Riley: Well, Boldin is sweet with or without Fitzgerald or Warner. Breaston is a more interesting question, although I have to say, I'm impressed with what I've seen watching the Cardinals -- he fights hard in traffic and has great hands. Here's a question: what sort of production did Bryant Johnson have when Warner played? He's not exactly lighting it up in San Francisco, and he never seemed to do much in Arizona, although there were flashes of potential.
Doug Farrar: Breaston was more a pure return man at Michigan, if I remember correctly. In 2007, Johnson finished 71st in DVOA and DYAR with Warner starting 11 games. He wasn't noticeably better when Boldin was out for three games, either.
Bill Barnwell: Of course. But we've still seen a drop in DVOA from 42% to 26.1% with Boldin giving way to Breaston (not including today's game). What I'm saying is that Breaston is one of the mere mortals, a decent player who looks great in a particular scheme with particular players around him. He might be doing a good job, and I'm sure he's a good player, but I don't think there's any way he's one of the top 40 receivers in the league, let alone the top 12, even if DVOA and DYAR say so.
Ben Riley: Me neither. And he is the Cardinals' third option, so I'd take "somewhere between 40 and 60." But he definitely could fall into that D.J. Hackett-zone of guys who look good in a pass-heavy offense with lots of threats. All I'm saying is that with Q-Fitz, Breasty, and Early Doucet, I think the Cardinals have a really sweet set of wide receivers. Remember, I root for a team that's starting Keary Colbert and Koren Robinson right now.
Bill Barnwell: I think one of the things we do sometimes in an attempt to stand out is try and highlight secondary skill position guys. Sometimes, it's right. This seems like one of the situations where it's not, and we're hyping, like Ben said, something like the 55th-best receiver in football.
Aaron Schatz: We're not hyping him. Readers may be. I have found that FO writers have a much better understanding of the limitations of FO stats than readers do -- and we're pretty up front about it.
However, do remember Patrick Crayton was one of those "awesome numbers" third receivers in a good offense, and he truly is pretty good.
Bill Barnwell: So good that the Cowboys just traded a first-round pick because their lineup wasn't explosive enough. He's alright.
When we say that Breaston's numbers rank in the top 12 in the league, we're hyping him.
Aaron Schatz: Roy Williams is swell and all, but come on. That was Jerry Jones' ego. It's a small upgrade, not a big one, and the Cowboys had other needs. Backup quarterback, for example.
Bill Barnwell: The point is that they felt they needed an upgrade. And even beyond Crayton, we look at the history of guys with great DVOAs over 60 to 70 attempts, it's not really very pretty as far as eventual starting receivers go.
Vince Verhei: Jimmie Johnson was in the FOX studios wearing a navy suit with a white shirt and kelly green tie and pocket square. Mr. Tanier, your thoughts?
Mike Tanier: David Garrard would NOT wear it.
Doug Farrar: This is probably a good time to mention that Keyshawn Johnson desperately needs a visit to the House of Deion. On Countdown this morning, he had the Ultrasuede jacket and the Johnny Miller golf pants. I do not believe that HD is ready for this man.
81 comments, Last at 29 Oct 2008, 10:41pm by Quincy