Andrew and Sterling take an awards-style look at the crowded playoff picture. Plus, a special Thanksgiving Loser League announcement!
14 Nov 2008
compiled by Vince Verhei
As most of you know, this is the fourth year of the Football Outsiders Game Charting Project, where a group of volunteers (and FO staffers as well) charts every game of the season to track things that the play-by-play does not track, and create new statistics. This is where we get our numbers on defensive coverage, or how often teams blitz or run play-action fakes. Occasionally you'll see these stats during the season, but the turnaround time is slow, so our database is usually behind the actual games by a couple weeks.
Then again, we don't need the database to learn something from the game charting project, because all that tape-watching turns us into scouts as much as statisticians. We asked a few of our game charters to share their thoughts on the games and teams they've charted so far this season. The comments below represent their opinions, not those of any FO writer. Most charters concentrate on a specific team or two, so not every team is represented. But if you want to know not just which teams are winning, but why, the insights are quite interesting.
This week, we'll look at comments about NFC teams; next week, we'll run comments about AFC teams.
Offense: Gus Frerotte has for the most part been an improvement over Tarvaris Jackson. He makes better decisions, and until the last game (vs. Green Bay) didn't have the tendency to just flat-out miss people. He isn't terrific, but he does know what is expected of him and can make most defenses pay for overplaying Adrian Peterson. If nothing else, Frerotte at least knows how to sell play-action, something that Jackson has never mastered.
The Vikings do miss the mobility that Tarvaris Jackson provided. His running in the season opener was what kept them in the game. I can't help but think that they could use Tarvaris in some kind of Wildcat package on occasion while still keeping Frerotte as the primary starter.
Adrian Peterson has faced stacked defenses most of the season. While he has been getting his yards, and gotten better in recent weeks, he is taking quite a pounding. In a number of games he really looked beat up by the end. It might seem cliche, but he doesn't seem to be sustaining drives in the first half of games. It is more in the second half where he starts to break off larger gains. He has also had difficulty hanging onto the ball at times.
While A.P. has gotten increasingly more carries, Chester Taylor hasn't been as productive in his limited action running the ball. He has been very good as a receiver and increasingly seems to be utilized as a third-down back.
Bryant McKinnie, after missing the first four games due to suspension, was a liability on the offensive line when he first came back. He has improved since then, but he played worse than his replacement when he first came back.
Bernard Berrian is easily the best receiver the Vikings have had since Randy Moss left. He consistently gets open, and it's more on the quarterbacks when he isn't producing.
Visanthe Shiancoe, after having a problem with drops early in the year, has become a consistent threat. The Vikings scheme plays to break him open several times a game, and this has lead to a number of wide-open scores.
The Vikings like to line up various non-receivers in receiver positions, including Adrian Peterson (though that hasn't been very successful), Garret Mills and even fullback Naufahu Tahi. Brad Childress (or Darrell Bevell) seems to have a thing for throwing to fullbacks, whether split wide or from the fullback position. The Vikings seem to be using fullbacks less in recent weeks.
Defense: Most teams that play the Vikings pick on Cedric Griffin. He repeatedly plays far enough off his cover target that if the pressure doesn't stop the opposing quarterback, teams can drive downfield by simply throwing to whoever he is covering. Ben Leber and Chad Greenway are also common victims, though Greenway is better than last year. Tyler Johnson, who had to start as a rookie when Madieu Williams missed most of the first half of the season, did passably OK, but the secondary seemed much better once Williams returned.
The defensive line took some time to gel. Early in the year, Jared Allen would disappear for stretches of a game, but he has really come on of late. Kevin Williams has benefited from the extra attention Allen draws. In the last few weeks, however, the Vikings have been able to generate pressure with just four.
The Viking run defense is still a strength, but it can be run on outside the tackles at times. E.J. Henderson's presence is missed.
The Giants have a big decision coming up this offseason with both Brandon Jacobs and Derrick Ward entering free agency. While I would love for both to be re-signed (the Giants are in a pretty good salary cap position), it's unlikely that both will be returning, especially with Ahmad Bradshaw in the wings.
(Interesting side note: The Giants were looking at Bradshaw before the draft, but at the premiere of "We Are Marshall," Kate Mara -- the film's star, and daughter of Giants' Vice President of Player Evaluation Chris Mara -- introduced her father to Marshall Head Coach Mark Snyder. The two men discussed Bradshaw, presumably leading the Giants to take a shot at him in the seventh round. She's beautiful, a successful actress, her family owns the Giants, she attends all the games in her family's luxury box, and she helps in the scouting process. Marry me.)
Since Jacobs is such a unique combination of size and speed and he gets the bulk of the carries, everyone presumes the choice will be Jacobs -- but I'm not sure it's so clear cut. Jacobs can flat-out not catch a pass. He is simply awful in passing situations and is unacceptable as a third-down back. In addition, I think Jacobs is helped out more by the success of the offensive line than Ward.
Once they get past the line of scrimmage and into the second line of defense, Jacobs is more punishing with his hits on linebackers and safeties. That may accumulate and provide great benefit in other areas of the game (requiring eight men in the box, which could leave Plaxico Burress in single coverage). However, if the defense is able to get penetration, Jacobs will easily get tackled for a loss. If he gets hit before he can get his momentum going, he can be stopped.
Ward, on the other hand, is more evasive and much better at reading blocks. Ward does not shuffle his feet and slow down when approaching the line like Jacobs sometimes does, he instead quickly makes a read, cuts, and then bursts through the gap.
Rushing DVOA likes Ward over Jacobs by a bit, 28.1% (first in the league) for Ward to 22.5% (third) for Jacobs. But in receiving, the gap is startling -- Ward is 18.0% (15th). Jacobs doesn't qualify with only 10 passes because the Giants have given up throwing to him, but with his 10 attempts, he has a DVOA of -39.1%.
In addition, since Jacobs can't catch, Ward has been the only back used in passing situations and has proven himself to be quite a good blocker. While Ahmad Bradshaw is a punishing runner despite his small size (5-foot-9, 195 pounds), I'm not sure his small frame would be suitable for blocking blitzers on third and long -- a role he would inherit if Ward leaves.
Another factor is the ability of the Giants' front office and offensive line to generate successful running backs. That makes spending big money on either player seem like a bad choice. Ryan Grant couldn't make the team last year and Danny Ware, who is always inactive, led the NFL in preseason rushing. That may not seem like much, but he looked mighty impressive (and better than Grant did the year before) behind that line too.
When watching Jacobs on a regular basis, you have to remember that his runs are more impressive than they might seem at first. He may not get very far half the time, but due to his size, the always falls forward, gaining an additional two yards with his height after being stopped -- even on the short runs. Despite this, if the Giants are forced to keep only one back this offseason, the better choice may be Ward.
This will be a great disappointment to the New York fans, but Ward is the better all-around back and will likely be cheaper to re-sign (he actually was a free agent this past offseason, but no one else wanted him coming off of an injury, so the Giants re-signed him cheaply to a one-year deal). Throw in that Bradshaw, despite his small size, is a bruising runner much more in the Jacobs mold and the questions of whether the punishment Jacobs takes will lead to a shortened career, and the choice seems pretty obvious to me.
When a team plays as poorly as the Lions have for the first several weeks of the season, it's difficult to figure out exactly where to begin. Is it the scheme? It certainly seems as though the Lions don't have the personnel to play Cover-2, much less Tampa's variant: linebackers are constantly pulled out of position by any type of play-fake, corners don't cover short passes, the safeties and the middle linebacker frequently leave deep zones unprotected, and the defensive line struggles to get a pass rush.
But if it's the scheme, then isn't it eventually the coordinator's job to try a scheme better suited to his players? Well, the Lions aren't necessarily any better in man coverage. Leigh Bodden in particular has looked completely lost in man, leaving huge cushions or biting on fakes and watching his man fly past. Detroit hasn't tackled particularly well in most of their games either, and I'm not sure you can pin that on Joe Barry.
It did appear that he was able to make decent adjustments at times. Against Minnesota, the Lions strayed from the traditional Tampa-2, blitzing frequently, usually with an overload zone blitz (sending two or more blitzers on one side and dropping the opposite defensive lineman into coverage). What was interesting was at times, the Lions would blitz two or three plays in a row, stopping the Vikings each time, and would then drop back into a standard Tampa-2 defense, which would promptly yield a big gain.
Offensively, the line does seem to be better than last year, and there's a reason for that: Their power success is much, much better than last season (75 percent vs. 50 percent). The Lions do have quite a few 10-plus carries this season (23 percent, seventh in the league), and with the Lions throwing fewer passes this season (on pace to throw about 100 fewer passes), raw sack totals are down, but sadly, the truth is that the offensive line is still bad. One-third of the Lions' runs are stuffed, and yes, about once every series, Smith or Johnson will plunge bravely into the line for no gain (or worse). These plays are usually followed by check-down passes and punts.
Receivers have not gotten much separation, and the few times they have, the ball usually has not found its mark. Even on intermediate passes, the Lions aren't getting much YAC, so you can see why the offense is struggling. Even without Mike Martz, the passing game relies on timing and separation, neither of which has been a strength this year. While Detroit would like to stay committed to the running game, their first-quarter woes have forced them to use their standard 1-3-1 and 1-4 sets on a regular basis. When five receivers are out in patterns, defenses are getting pressure on Jon Kitna and Dan Orlovsky, even without blitzing, so the Lions frequently compensate by keeping in tight ends and running backs, which leads to a lot of dumpoffs and thrown-away passes ... because the receivers aren't getting much separation.
One of the reasons for the Bears success B.G. (Before Grossman) was an offense that ranked 15th in DVOA behind a passing game that was more successful than their running game. The success of the passing game was based on some simple concepts that you have probably successfully used while playing Madden Football. It's a simple idea, but you try to create mismatches between the offense and defense and continue to exploit the mismatches. The Bears have the luxury of having two tight ends (Desmond Clark and Greg Olsen) who can split out wide and become effective wide receivers; they can also line up in a three point stance and block on the line. This allows the Bears to use the same personnel to have seven people on the offensive line or four wide receivers. Just like in Madden, if you see you opponent coming out with six defensive backs you run; if he comes out in goal-line, you pass. The Bears routinely go from a power running formation to a shotgun formation on the next play and vice versa. This flexibility allows them to take advantage of teams who keep the same personnel out for the whole series.
The perfect example of the mismatches was the Vikings game; the Bears used the same personnel, but went no-huddle most of the game. This neutralized the ability of the Williams "brothers" at defensive tackle because the no-huddle did not allow for them to be pulled on passing downs, and when they were resting it allowed the Bears to sneak run plays in. This offensive ingenuity has helped them take advantage of their strength (two good tight ends) and play away from their weakness (poor wide receivers).
Tampa Bay is such a Frankenstein mix of parts this year, it has been hard to get a read on them, and frankly hard to see how they are 6-3. Frequently I feel like they're ready to give up on Jon Gruden, but then they'll come out breathing fire the very next series (see: Arrowhead). Somehow I think it's appropriate that Wayne Fontes is always coming down from his cocoon in Tarpon Springs to watch Bucs games.
On offense, the Bucs have 10 guys suited to playing straightforward football ... and Jeff Garcia. I think having Garcia (and the rest of his quarterback stable) in a way enables Gruden to indulge in his obvious desire to be the Great Coaching Genius of his generation. All the West Coast gimmicks, all the presnap motion in the first quarter to test defenses, all the crazy bunched formations; I don't see it as being really helpful, except that Garcia is clearly no longer capable of running a downfield passing game with any authority, and I suppose the staff thinks the other guys are not ready, or never will be.
The bunched formations are particularly maddening. They'll show all 11 guys in a space not much wider than the hashmarks, but with a lone back and the wide receivers looking like an accordioned version of the spread. Tight ends often involved here. And naturally they almost always throw from this ... rarely to great effect. I guess if Garcia is going to eventually throw a wicked pick trying to get it to outside guys running go routes, maybe it's best to not even threaten it with your formation? I have seen a few teams lulled into complacency by it, though, and fail to cover simple tight end routes in the huge expanse of flat left by the crazy formation. It's of no help in the running game, though.
The real shame is, the Bucs could be a pretty good run-first team with the personnel they have. Earnest Graham is a fine interior runner. The offensive line (particularly the right side) does very well when called upon to run block. The wide receivers and tight ends (Mark Clayton in particular) do a fantastic job in the running game. The fullback injuries have surely been a factor, but it just doesn't seem like Gruden is interested in "going there." Instead, we have the second-most passing attempts per game, and are ninth in passing yardage.
Offensive personnel: On the line, Davin Joseph has become a beast. He's not immaculate in pass-protect, but he is the strength of the line. Arron Sears is improving, and has a knack of being in the right place downfield a lot. Jeremy Zuttah has made a lot of rookie mistakes, but seems to have "the tools." Jeremy Trueblood has been consistent in all phases, but will struggle against the elite guys.
I think the staff fears for Earnest Graham's long-term viability, but for now, he's playing great ball. I love watching him take on secondary guys in isolation. Warrick Dunn is getting a bit predictable in looking for the cutbacks and certainly doesn't have long-run speed, but he's smart about choosing his spots and still has decent hands; a great backup runner.
I can't speak to the other quarterbacks, but Garcia's limitations are there for everyone to see, as is his fire/competitiveness/etc. He is going to make one horrible throw every game, though, which you really can't have in the West Coast Offense.
Alex Smith is rightly the starter, does everything well except maybe finding space over the middle ... but then again, I'm not sure he's asked to. John Gilmore blocks well in power formations. Jerramy Stevens can still tantalize with his size, etc., but he's not getting better, and not fixing his flaws (the drops) at this point in his career.
Antonio Bryant has been the offensive MVP, no doubt. He's made some staggering catches, yes, but does everything he's asked with full commitment (including run-blocking) and has the tools to beat almost any cornerback. They've got his head on straight somehow, and I truly wonder what damage he'd do on an elite team, with an elite quarterback. Chad Johnson-esque numbers are not out of his reach, and perhaps he'll play younger than his book age, due to less wear-and-tear ... then again, he could go off the rails just as easily. Joey Galloway's been hurt, Ike Hilliard is at the end of the line, but Michael Clayton has had by far his best season since his rookie year, and blocks downfield like a champ. He doesn't scare defenses and never will, but I can imagine worse second receivers for run-first teams.
Defensive personnel: Gaines Adams is better than casual fans realize from a few highlight clips; he's made some outstanding individual stops against the run, and has about as good a burst off the line of scrimmage as anyone I've seen since Dwight Freeney in his heyday. The staff likes to drop him into space in a zone blitz occasionally, where he actually looks intelligent, unlike most ends who turn into clods when the time comes. Greg White should be the starter down the road, but Kevin Carter seems to have the gig. He's a real liability against the run, and doesn't get to the quarterback. Neither tackle is elite, but neither get blown up frequently. The rotation guys are not special.
Barrett Ruud is the guy holding the back seven together. He will, every once in a while, hesitate or pick the wrong gap against runs between the tackles. Aside from that, he's typically outstanding -- smart, quick, proper tackler. A ready-to-package NFL star with the fan-friendly name, etc., and I don't think he'll fail to emerge over the next couple years, assuming the Bucs get to play a big game on the national stage ... which is a big "if." Cato June's problems are well-known but he's been good for Tampa Bay. I wish I could say Derrick Brooks is still inhumanly good, but he's really seemed to lose his footing during the course of the season. He's still supremely bright and gets into the right places, but doesn't shed blockers well and can be juked in space. Which really hurts to say about the heart of the team.
Ronde Barber is similarly beginning to let flaws creep into his game; biting on the Tyler Thigpen touchdown is hardly his only black mark. Ronde can still keep up with the wide receivers downfield, but has gotten a bit worse in run support; he'll often gamble big and make a great stop one play, then take himself out of the action the next. He's certainly better than P hil Buchanon still. Aqib Talib is not far away from being better than both. I expect the Bucs don't want to break him of his gambler's instincts. The safeties all seem to me to be replacement-level, no more. Sabby Piscatelli doesn't look ready for his starting role.
The Giants are clearly the most complete team in the league. Whenever they have a third-and-8 or -9, you just expect them to convert it, and they do. For all the flack Eli Manning gets, he rarely misses a read and almost always hits a receiver on stride.
The Cardinals' success is directly related to their passing game weapons and the fact that opposing defenses can't double-team everybody. In Week 1, Anquan Boldin was held without a reception in the first half. In the second half the Cardinals moved Boldin around and used Larry Fitzgerald as a decoy to create open space underneath. Boldin had eight catches on 11 targets in the second half; six of the catches resulted in first downs. Boldin is a beast and is continually exploiting mismatches. With Larry Fitzgerald demanding attention wherever he is on the field and the emergence of Steve Breaston as a deep threat, smaller nickelbacks or slower linebackers are forced to try and stop Boldin, who racks up YAC once he gets the ball.
We saw a lot of this in last Monday night's game against the 49ers as well. Fitzgerald had eight catches, but most underneath for shorter gains. Breaston got deep and had more than 120 yards receiving, while Boldin caught most of his passes within ten yards of the line of scrimmage and found the end zone twice. We also saw Boldin running the Wildcat a couple times. I was going to say I'm surprised we haven't seen Boldin running the Wildcat more this season, but I think I'll say don't be surprised to see Boldin running the Wildcat more the rest of this season. Pay the man.
Michael Turner was held in check in Week 2 against Tampa Bay. Turner had a third of his carries stopped for no gain. The Falcons' red zone offense suffered because of the struggling running game. Only two of the Falcons' 12 red zone plays gained more than one yard. The Falcons were not afraid to pass the ball after the running game stalled as they tried to attack Philip Buchanon, but he played relatively well, for him, giving up five completions on eleven targets.
Tampa Bay's running game was strictly boom-and-bust this game. Warrick Dunn only had two carries for more than 15 yards(one touchdown and one first down) while he had eight rushes for less than five yards. Earnest Graham had a similar line, but broke a 68-yarder to appease fantasy football owners.
The Bucs spread the passes around amongst the coverage, but all four of the passes at Chevis Jackson picked up first downs.
Tampa Bay's running game was inconsistent, and that carried over to their red zone performance. One of nine rushing plays in the red zone gained a first down, Dunn's 15-yard scamper. This game was won on field position as Matt Ryan threw two picks on Atlanta's side of the field that gave the Bucs the ball in the red zone. Ryan didn't look like a shell-shocked rookie this game, just an inexperienced quarterback running into a disciplined, strong defense.
Week 4 at Carolina was similar to the Week 2 matchup versus Tampa Bay. Michael Turner struggled running the ball against a good defense, and the passing game wasn't able to create plays down field. Michael Turner's longest run on 18 carries was for ten yards.
Again, the Falcons weren't afraid to go to the passing game, but Ken Lucas and Chris Gamble were up to the challenge. Ryan completed 11 of 21 passes against those two, but only four first downs and no touchdowns. Another game where Matt Ryan looked uncomfortable, but not panicky, but the Falcons weren't able to move the ball inside the Carolina 15-yard line all game.
Meanwhile, the Panthers picked on Brent Grimes a lot, with Muhsin Muhammad no less. Jake Delhomme completed eight of twelve passes against Grimes, seven of the eight for first downs or touchdowns. All six of Muhsin's catches against Grimes were for first downs and a touchdown.
My hometown team, and the team I've charted most of the season, has been a disappointing roller coaster, but it's better than trying to watch the Raiders. Nate Clements has been solid and I think he's living up to his contract. Although Larry Fitzgerald caught a touchdown in each game against Clements, he's been limited to underneath routes and I don't know anyone that can stop Fitzgerald one-on-one inside the five-yard line. I charted the 49ers-Lions game, but I don't even feel like that counted. Eleven of 16 completions went for a first down or touchdowns, and eight of 25 rushes did the same. The Lions receivers were sloppy and had six drops. Although Roy Williams and Calvin Johnson caught six passes against Walt Harris and Nate Clements, five were in the second half, well after the game was decided.
Vernon Davis has played rather well, which probably sounds strange, what with the poor numbers and missed opportunities. Davis is an excellent blocker, which has doomed him to being held back to block a lot more that in the past because of all the deep drops in the Mike Martz offense. Last season, Davis caught 52 passes, while this season he only has 17 receptions. This discrepancy has less to do with his abilities as a receiver and more to do with the amount of targets he's seeing.
Another "loser" in the 49ers offense if Frank Gore, which sounds absurd because he was leading the league in yards from scrimmage for a while. Gore is the type of runner who is always capable of breaking a big play, so it makes no sense to limit his touches. Martz seems to forget about Gore sometimes, important times. Against the Pats, Gore didn't have a third-quarter carry and only had three fourth-quarter carries, even though the game was close. Against the Eagles, when the 49ers gave up 23 points in the fourth quarter, while J.T. O'Sullivan turned the ball over three times, Gore only had two carries.
New England offensive coordinator Josh McDaniels is really good at creating mismatches for their receivers, just like the Cardinals. Randy Moss is a constant deep threat and often draws double-teams, allowing McDaniels to move Wes Welker around underneath as he sees fit to exploit coverages. Against the 49ers, Welker caught seven of the eight passes thrown his way and got five first downs. New England focused on nickelback Donald Strickland, much like the Cardinals did, and completed five of six passes against him for four first downs.
I didn't get what the 49ers were doing on defense against Moss. The 49ers chose to double Moss a lot, which is valid, but they used two cornerbacks to do it. I don't understand that logic. After all, corner backs are used to getting help over the top and not giving help over the top. Secondly, the book on Moss is to jam him at the line and disturb him physically. The 49ers played off Moss. On Moss' long touchdown catch, he ran free down the field for 10 yards before Walt Harris and Nate Clements were on him, only Harris stumbled and that was that. Touchdown.
Tight end Vernon Davis, the former first-rounder, may not fill the stat box, but he is a tremendous blocker on both the pass and the run. In passing situations, he can block ends and linebackers one-on-one, and he can also block at the point of attack on running plays, often used as a "wham" blocker. As a pass-catcher he is inconsistent but shows flashes of brilliance, and his few receptions are often for long gains; the unfortunate thing is that they don't come often enough.
Frank Gore has been absolutely carrying the 49ers on his back and has been playing very well. He has been doing well running the ball and catching as well. I would just like to see Mike Martz throw the ball to Gore more often in a Faulk-like role, because Gore has enough ability to flourish in that role.
Justin Smith has good moments, but just like other good players on the 49ers defense, his good plays don't come often enough because the unit as a whole is lacking. When the talent and scheme are subpar, an individual player can only do so much -- unless one of the linemen turns into Albert Haynesworth.
Linebacker Parys Haralson has been great pass-rushing on third downs.
Former Raiders tackle Barry Sims was brought in as a stopgap and has largely filled that role, though he is flagged for false starts and other penalties a bit too often.
Second-rounder Chilo Rachal of USC has been filling in for Sims against the Cardinals, and I've noticed that they've been running to Rachal's side often. He has been opening holes quite capably along with Vernon Davis and Michael Robinson.
Isaac Bruce has been a good but not great pickup for the 49ers, a vast improvement over the Darrell Jackson experiment. He's been steady and reliable, even making big plays that remind you of his younger days with the Rams. Rookie receiver Josh Morgan has been showing flashes of playmaking ability but has been inconsistent. I think he's someone to watch.
Sophomore left tackle Joe Staley, who did so well according to FO statistics in his rookie year at right tackle, has been steady overall. In the beginning of the year gave up key sacks and was called for holding penalties, but he got over it and seems to be doing better.
Pickup Takeo Spikes has played steady, picking off three passes even though he'd never picked off a pass in his career (obviously a fluke). But he has made plays in pursuit and even broken up pass plays.
The run defense hasn't been great. This is despite Isaac Sopoaga's move to the nose part of the time. Sopoaga is someone I thought was a great run-stopper waiting to shine, but he hasn't fared as well as I expected from watching him play at end.
End/tackle Ray McDonald has really improved on his solid rookie season and generates a good pass rush whether he's lined up at end or tackle. On third down passing situations, when used along with Smith and Haralson, their pressure can be pretty good.
Corner play hasn't been great, with Walt Harris looking old and Nate Clements not being able to hold his coverage forever with the 49ers' inconsistent pass rush. The safeties are nothing to speak of.
Michael Lewis has been a good returner for the 49ers, after years of unspectacular performance on returns.
The best team in the NFL is the New York Giants, and that has nothing to do with their status as reigning champs. They just don't have any weaknesses and can win off of throwing, running, or with a constricting defense.
Eli Manning: Eli just does such a good job of getting the ball out quickly. I've seen him so many times when there is a rusher in his face and he just won't scramble; he stands tall and makes calm decisions in the pocket. Manning is no game management baby-sitter, he is out to win the game by making a play and has been doing exactly that all year.
My Favorite Player in the NFL: Why doesn't anyone make a huge deal about what a freak Brandon Jacobs is? The only two defensive players on the field that are bigger than him are the tackles. The only two defensive players on the field faster than him are the cornerbacks.
Derrick Ward: Giants running backs are just conundrums. Derrick Ward has got quicks and shifts that make him look like young Warrick Dunn. Dunn is about 190 pounds. Ward is 230.
Nick Barnett: Why is Nick Barnett the linebacker that is always on the field for the Packers? A.J. Hawk should be playing in the middle and be our every down linebacker, and with the injury to Barnett there's a good chance that will happen soon. Hawk has been playing hurt all season and his play has dropped off because of it, so although this is may not be the best timing for Hawk, he should be the long-term answer at middle linebacker, not Barnett.
Other defenders: Brady Poppinga is a perfect fit at strong side and Brandon Chillar is exactly what we need at the weak side. Moving Hawk to the middle puts all our best players on the field. It's too bad Barnett got hurt, but he has been playing like a stiff even though he has not been listed on the injury report before this week.
The Eagles have well documented problems converting in short-yardage situations. The offensive line rightly shoulders a lot of the blame here, but it's also worth noting that the tight ends and wide receivers are put in position to block defensive ends they have no business trying to block.
For example, nursing a 30-26 lead with 2: 00 to go in the game against the 49ers, Philadelphia has a third-and-2 from the 49ers' 12-yard line. The Niners have no timeouts left; a first down here ends the game. Eagles line up in the I formation with two wide receivers and a tight end on the right. Instead of using two tight ends in an obvious running situation, the Eagles put wide receiver Hank Baskett in motion and have him block from an H-back position. Niners defensive end Justin Smith ran right through Baskett and stopped the running back for a one-yard gain, forcing the Eagles to kick a field goal and give the ball back to San Francisco still only up by one score. Here's my charting note: "Eagles failing to convert short yardage again. 84-H.Baskett is a WR, not a TE. He should not have been responsible for blocking DE 94-J.Smith even if it is on the backside of the play. Smith knifed through and made the stop - why not line up an extra TE on the line?"
In some ways this reminds me of good baseball teams that have poor records in close games: Sometimes it's bad luck, but sometimes it's because the "close game" personnel isn't very good, primarily the relief pitching. The Eagles don't have good "close game" personnel (no tight ends that can run-block) and they make the problem worse by asking players to do things they are not good at. In general the Eagles' receivers are good blockers downfield, but they are not able to power block in short-yardage packages.
Memo to offensive coordinators: Don't bother trying to fool Juqua Parker with end-around type runs to wide receivers. He never bites on the play. Both San Francisco and Atlanta took drive-killing tackles for loss on end-arounds in consecutive weeks against the Eagles. You should be running these plays to Trent Cole's side. Cole is aggressive in backside pursuit and would be more susceptible to play-action in one direction followed by a handoff to a motioning wide receiver going the other way.
Wondering why Lorenzo Booker can't get on the field? He can't protect the quarterback. He almost got Donovan McNabb killed in the Pittsburgh game by blowing a block on Lawrence Timmons in a play that resulted in an interception as Timmons hit McNabb during the throw. Brian Westbrook, on the other hand, is excellent as a running back in blitz pickup.
Trent Cole doesn't have the sack numbers from last year, but he has really developed as a complete end. He can stand up to attacks at him in the run game and really excels at sliding down the line in backside pursuit. I have several comments noting his excellent play in run pursuit. It's worth noting that he is benefiting from improved play by Brodrick Bunkley, who is commanding more double-teams as well. I would say Bunkley is the most improved player on the Eagles defense this year.
Donovan McNabb is not at his peak from 5 years ago, but he's the primary reason for the Eagles success. His athleticism and decision making have masked over major problems on the offensive line and at tight end.
On the other hand, McNabb's inconsistency has made life difficult as well. He has missed some wide-open receivers.
Brian Dawkins is officially a liability in pass coverage. I've got many comments noting his inability to cover tight ends man-to-man, and the Eagles are still leaving him in single coverage against wide receivers on corner blitzes, which is a colossal mistake. For example, the Giants exploited Dawkins on a Sheldon Brown blitz for a 17-yard touchdown pass to Plaxico Burress on a third-and-9 play in the first quarter of their Week 10 game. Even worse, Dawkins has been taking poor angles as well. I noted at least four blown tackles by Dawkins in the comments, including two that resulted in long pass plays by Roddy White and Vernon Davis.
San Francisco had a lot of success against Philadelphia passing to tight ends. That's partly on Dawkins, and partly on linebackers Chris Gocong and Stewart Bradley. Short passes to the tight end are a great way to attack the zone blitzing scheme the Eagles like to use -- which is OK, since the Eagles will gladly give up a short pass on a zone blitz if 1) The safeties or linebackers can tackle the tight end quickly, and 2) The blitz gets there quick enough that the tight end isn't streaking down the seam.
Since I'm the "new guy," I'm assigned random teams most weeks. I do a lot of alt-tabbing to team roster pages -- it's either a really good thing or a really bad thing if I've learned your jersey number by now.
Since I get to write elsewhere about my hometown Philadelphia Eagles, I thought it made sense to pass along notes I have from watching a few other teams.
Most teams do some kind of zone blitzing these days, but it's interesting how differently they execute it. On the Eagles, the man dropping into coverage is generally a defensive end who bails immediately at the snap, as the coverage rotates behind him to cover an overload blitz on the opposite side. It's all very sensible and orderly.
Pittsburgh, on the other hand, will drop guys from anywhere. Furthermore, Dick LeBeau seems to ask his guys to first engage the blocker, then drop in order to better confuse the pass protection. You can't argue with success, but in Week 9, I watched Casey Hampton try to cover Clinton Portis in the flat after spotting him at least five yards and 125 pounds. That one didn't work so well.
Week six, Tampa Bay at Carolina. Jake Delhomme's pass is intercepted and run back almost 60 yards. Tampa Bay defensive tackle Jovan Haye is happy about the play, so naturally he does a cartwheel on his way off the field.
Bang. Flag for unsportsmanlike conduct, which referee Carl Cheffers helpfully explains came because Haye "did a cartwheel on the field using the ground to celebrate."
Leaving aside the question of whether a cartwheel is sportsmanlike, this call basically means the NFL has legislated against cartwheels, round-offs and handsprings -- but back flips and aerials are fine. May be time for the competition committee to revisit that language.
Julius Peppers: I charted him the week the Panthers played the Bucs and, man, was he impressive. It was one half of one game -- and Tampa Bay's game plan called for plenty of solo blocks -- but Peppers has been the most dominating defensive player I've seen this year.
Ronde Barber: If career longevity has a genetic component, I can see why Tiki retired when he did. Ronde looks ollllld. (No, I don't take a perverse pleasure in seeing this as an Eagles fan. Brian Dawkins is only slightly behind him on the curve.)
Clinton Portis: You can't watch five minutes of a prime time game involving Portis without hearing the announcers wax rhapsodic about his pass blocking ability, but in this case it's entirely justified. Washington leaves him alone on edge rushers and he just stones them, one-on-one, in space. It's beautiful.
28 comments, Last at 17 Nov 2008, 1:09pm by booker reese