A look at fourth-down decision making in 2014 highlights Sean Payton, Marc Trestman, and... wait, this can't be right... Jim Caldwell? Plus: Chip Kelly may be less aggressive than you think he is.
05 Dec 2011
compiled by Rivers McCown
Each Sunday, the FO staff sends around e-mails about the games that each of us are watching. We share information about the games that the rest of the group might not be watching, ask questions, and keep everyone else informed about which games they might want to tune into (if they can).
On Monday, we compile a digest of those e-mails and produce this feature. By its nature, it can be disjointed and dissimilar to the other articles on the site.
While these e-mails are generally written with Audibles in mind, they do not represent a standard review of all the games each week. That means we aren't going to cover every game, or every important play. We watch the games that we, as fans, are interested in watching, so your favorite team's game might not be covered to your fullest desires or even at all. (If you are a Seahawks or Patriots fan, you are probably in luck; if you are a Bills fan, not so much.) We have no intention of adding new authors to cover every game on a given Sunday, nor will we watch a different game from the ones that we're personally interested in watching, just to ensure that Audibles covers every game.
Tom Gower: So after Vince Young's terrible interception, the Seahawks drive 60 yards in five plays for a go-ahead touchdown. The drive features (a) a positive gain on a dumpoff when Jamar Chaney ignores the back for no apparent reason, (b) a 26-yard pass to Ben Obomanu where Chaney decides not to play downfield at all for no apparent reason, and (c) a 15 or so-yard touchdown run by Marshawn Lynch where Chaney had Lynch wrapped up and blew the tackle.
Danny Tuccitto: Somewhere, Mike Tanier is personifying "drunk and disorderly."
Tom Gower: Young has enough of his own problems. Clay Harbor and Riley Cooper dropping passes on back-to-back plays on the opening drive of the second half, Cooper's tipped to Brandon Browner for the interception, are not helping
Vince, seriously? He looks for LeSean McCoy on the swing pass, sees David Hawthorne right there, then throws the swing pass anyway. Naturally, Hawthorne intercepts it and takes it back for a game-sealing score.
Vince Verhei: Watch a replay of Hawthorne on that. It's hysterical. He moves out to cover McCoy, and they both realize McCoy is covered and stop running, nearly coming to a standstill. Hawthorne, convinced his job on this play is completed and the pass is absolutely not headed his way, gives a bored look into the backfield to see if anything more exciting is going in that part of the world. And there, lo and behold, is the ball, in midair, headed his way. I half-expected him to duck out of the way, the pass caught him so off-guard.
The Seahawks use a lot of over and under shifts, so they often end up in kind of a 3-4 look with 4-3 personnel. Tonight, it looked like they were running a lot of straight 3-4 stuff, with Chris Clemons, normally the pass-rushing end, standing up as an outside linebacker. I assume the idea here was to get more lateral movement out of the defense, so they'd have a easier time chasing McCoy all over the place. If I'm right about that, it says a lot about McCoy that they'd switch up their entire defensive philosophy just to try to contain him.
Rivers McCown: Lo, so it was written in the Book of Just Winning: When we say someone just wins games, we have never clarified for which team he wins games for.
Ben Muth: The Redskins just ran three straight tosses to Roy Helu inside the 15-yard line and ended up with a touchdown. They must have seen something on tape to go outside three times in a row that close to the goal line.
Aaron Schatz: The confusion over incomplete passes and fumbles is getting ridiculous. T.J. Yates gets hit in the Atlanta-Houston game, it's an incomplete pass. The ref calls the pass incomplete right there anyway, but apparently there's no whistle. So Atlanta picks up the ball and runs it back the other way. Houston thinks the play is over, and a different official signals touchdown for Atlanta. Apparently it was reviewed from above and they went with touchdown, which I think is the wrong call. The replay looked to me like an incomplete pass by Yates. But also, why was the default call to go with the ref who signaled touchdown over the ref who signaled incomplete pass? In a play like this, that's an important question, because you have to go with the default if the review doesn't show "conclusive evidence." The ref who was right there next to the play signaled incomplete. Shouldn't the default be incomplete?
Because the original official had signaled incomplete pass, both teams had started to sub in their field-goal units. So while that one Atlanta player was returning the "fumble," both teams had more than 11 players on the field. So after the Atlanta player scores, the officials call offsetting 12 Men on Field penalties on both teams. They ended up putting the ball at the point where the officials estimated the returning player was when the extra players started coming on the field, which was the Atlanta 35. That's got to be the first time I've ever seen a 12 Men on Field penalty shorten a turnover return, rather than get called before a play started. What a weird play.
Mike Tanier: No need for professional refs in this league. Nosiree!
Ben Muth: Yates just tried to make a tackle on Dunta Robinson without using his arms at all on an interception return. It didn't work, but it didn't matter since the play was called back for defensive holding. Still, it was a really funny visual.
Rivers McCown: I wasn't real impressed with Matt Ryan -- he was checking off on practically every play, Wade Phillips was giving him man-to-man on the outside practically all day, and he was sailing a lot of throws without much actual pressure. His receivers definitely didn't help him out either, but I think part of that was offset by the fact that Kareem Jackson continues to draw an NFL paycheck.
Yates was not dominant by any stretch, but I thought he looked really comfortable out there. His one big screwup (the pick-six to Robinson) was called back on holding, but even counting that, I thought he only threw about four or five balls I'd describe as bad, and Andre Johnson dropped a long play-action pass that would have put him closer to 240 yards than 190. I know Atlanta's secondary took a blow with Brent Grimes out, but for a first-time starter I was pretty impressed.
He sort of reminded me of Matt Moore at the end of the year with the Panthers in 2009. And just like with Moore, it is my sincere hope that he manages to make sure Texans fans don't have to watch Jake Delhomme play football again.
Aaron Schatz: The Colts march the ball down on the porous Patriots defense. They get a first-and-goal from the 1. On the first play, Joseph Addai is stopped for no gain. For the second play, they try a quick snap and Jerod Mayo bats away the pass. On third down, they waste time, have to call timeout to avoid delay of game, come back, get a false start, and then Dan Orlovsky is sacked. Field goal. That's about the Colts season in a nutshell there. They have first-and-goal from the 1 and lose 12 yards.
Mike Tanier: I think I just saw the last ember of Colts self-respect die on that last Rob Gronkowski touchdown.
Aaron Schatz: The Patriots nearly managed to blow a 31-3 lead in the fourth quarter. When the Colts made it 31-17, that seemed like a cute backdoor cover. When they made it 31-24 with 40 seconds left, that probably gave Bill Belichick heartburn. The Pats recovered the onside kick and held on for the win, but this was a good example of why our stats don't stop counting plays in a blowout. That 21-point late Colts comeback tells us something about these teams. In particular, it tells us the Patriots pass defense is still really bad.
Mike Tanier: The Bengals have played pretty well. The Bengals are down 14-0.
J.J. Cooper: The Steelers get a gift on a 40-something yard pass interference penalty on Chris Crocker. Ben Roethlisberger's pass to Mike Wallace was way off line, but that meant that Wallace had to redirect himself back toward the middle of the field, which means he bumped into Crocker. It doesn't seem like Crocker did anything wrong, but then with pass interference that doesn't seem to always matter.
Like Mike said, the Bengals are playing pretty well and have nothing to show for it. A.J. Green got behind Ike Taylor early for a 43-yard catch which set up a touchdown pass to Jermaine Gresham, but that was called back on a false start penalty on Green. So the Bengals settled for a successful field goal, which was waved off because of delay of game. Then Cameron Heyward blocks the second field goal attempt. Now Pittsburgh's got a 14-0 lead, and the Steelers have forced and recovered a Brandon Tate fumble on the resulting kickoff. This could get ugly quickly.
Robert Weintraub: For what it's worth, Cincy was about ten points worse than Pittsburgh, not 28. The penalty nonsense on the opening drive really took some of the life out of the Bengals. Then Pittsburgh got three scores off a terrible pass interference call, a fumble on the ensuing kickoff, and a punt return touchdown that was keyed by a block in the back that went uncalled -- one so blatant that even Jim Nantz and Phil Simms were laughing about it. When one did get called the next time the Bengals punted, Nantz said something like "Bengals fans are wondering why that wasn't called on the last punt," and they were giggling. Needless to say, I was not.
Having said that, the Bengals tackling was atrocious, really for the first time all year, and the pass blocking was subpar once the Steelers got ahead and unleashed the hounds. Cincy was without both starting corners and their best pass rusher, so they played a lot of zone, and were far more passive than usual as a result. On the other hand, the Indian food I for dinner was excellent, so there's that.
Tom Gower: Well, I was anticipating a mostly drab but close game between the Bills and Titans, but the first quarter was fairly interesting. When Ryan Fitzpatrick hasn't been getting his passes broken up, he's been finding the holes I
thought he might be able to hit. C.J. Spiller has also been effective when he's found the edge. He had a 42-yard touchdown called back for holding and another touchdown that counted when he recovered his own fumble in the end zone after a separate long run. That last score came off a replay reversal, and I'm not sure I would've overturned the call on the field.
The Titans lead 17-7 though, early in the second quarter. Chris Johnson, who's running like he did last week and also in 2009 except with very good instead of extraordinary deep speed, has two touchdowns, including a vintage one on a 48-yard draw play. The Bills defense is looking particularly non-threatening, which is good because Damian Williams is not having a good game.
Aaron Schatz: In the red zone, apparently the Buffalo Bills like to throw one-yard passes that don't go anywhere near the end zone. For crying out loud, they threw a one-yard slant to Brad Smith on second-and-2 and he got tackled short of the sticks.
Tom Gower: Well, the Titans game in the last three quarters was more like what I was expecting. The Titans ground out a couple field goal drives, including one up 17-10 when Mike Munchak elected to go for it on fourth-and-1 in the red zone and converted. The Bills had a field goal, then pushed out a touchdown drive with a couple fourth-down conversions to cut the deficit to 23-17. With 2:58 and two timeouts left, Chan Gailey kicked deep, and the Bills ended up getting the ball back deep in their own end with a minute to play and didn't even make it to Hail Mary range.
Mike Tanier: I have really been missing the high school teacher experiences, including going to lots of high school games. Luckily, I have Broncos-Vikings.
Vince Verhei: Tim Tebow is not waiting for the fourth quarter this week. He has thrown a pair of touchdowns to Demaryius Thomas in the third quarter. One was a fade route in the end zone where it looked like the nearest defensive back was more concerned with an imaginary receiver running a skinny post. The other came when Tebow scrambled to the sideline, the defense came up to cover, and Tebow threw back to the middle to Thomas on a crossing route.
However, both touchdowns left the Broncos down by two points, and they opted to go for one each time. I know there's a whole quarter to go, and the Vikings haven't let you do much on the ground all day. Still, your quarterback is theoretically a great goal-line weapon, and it's better to be tied than to be behind. Anyone want to argue for taking the single point(s) there?
Aaron Schatz: Nope. I agree. I think it makes sense for Denver to always go for two. Probably Carolina as well.
Mike Tanier: The Broncos fail a lot in short yardage. Two fails would be a four-point swing. They tend to win by three, and they thrive on only having to drive for only a field goal late in games.
Aaron Schatz: Denver in short-yardage situations before Tebow became the starter: 33-percent conversion rate.
Denver in short-yardage situations after Tebow became the starter: 67-percent conversion rate.
And as I type this, Denver scores a two-point conversion to tie the game. They scored on two plays. The first one was a long pass to a wide-open Thomas. Thomas sure has been wide open a lot today, but this wasn't a play that had broken down. This was just him beating Cedric Griffin straight out.
Vince Verhei: The front page of ESPN.com presently says Denver is beating Minnesota 272-29.
After Percy Harvin takes a 3-yard crossing route 48 yards for a touchdown, the Broncos drive down the field again and Willis McGahee scores from 24 yards out. In the fourth quarter, the Broncos go finally go for two, and Tebow runs it in to tie the game. Harvin, by the way, has caught all seven passes thrown his way for 145 yards and two scores. This may be the best game for the Florida Gators all year.
Aaron Schatz: On third-and-long with 1:45 left, the Vikings finally manage to actually cover Thomas. An incomplete pass, followed by a Matt Prater field goal, ties the game with 1:33 left. Can Christian Ponder do a fourth-quarter Tebow to Tebow?
Vince Verhei: Before the two-minute warning, 20-some seconds ticked off the clock. The Vikings had two timeouts and elected not to use them.
Aaron Schatz: Ponder throws a pick in his own end and the Broncos are going to have it on the 20. They are going to win again in the fourth quarter, and we're going to hear about Tebow some more, apparently because he inspired Andre' Goodman to make that pick.
Mike Tanier: I guess one of us should point out that he looked real sharp much of the game and found a lot of open receivers. It might as well be me.
Aaron Schatz: Yes, Tebow definitely did look better as a passer today. It helped that the Vikings cornerbacks kept waiting for safety help that wasn't there, but Tebow did have to find those guys with accurate passes, and he did.
Vince Verhei: To be fair, Tebow made a lot of plays in the second half. Mostly because his receivers were wide-open, but he's missed a lot of wide-open receivers in recent weeks. Still, keep in mind how lousy the offense was in the first half: Seven drives, one first down, 45 yards, two lost fumbles, one safety given up.
Mike Tanier: But I remember a quarterback about 23 years ago ... great runner, technically very raw, had a great defense helping him, made two or three plays per game with his arm, and he led a team to a lot of eleven-win seasons. Games like this are viable, when you are completing about ten passes. All Tebow needs is a Gumby haircut and a return of the Arsenio Hall show...
Vince Verhei: It's funny, because after charting Denver's game against Kansas City this weekend, I was ready to come on here and talk about what a guilty pleasure it was watching Denver's offense and their slavish dedication to the running game, full of triple-tight-end sets, options, end-arounds and other creativity. But that's not really the offense we saw today, or at least not the offense that won the game. Denver only had six rushing first downs all game, and from what I saw it was your basic I-formation inside zone stuff. The big plays all came via the pass, and most of them with Tebow throwing out of the pocket.
Although I agree with Tanier that Tebow would be a lot more popular with a Gumby haircut.
Rivers McCown: Who wouldn't?
Mike Tanier: Vince's point about the Broncos offense is dead on. This is no longer wacky option stuff, this is just basic conservativism. And before my Tebow = Randall remark becomes a position statement, let me just say that I am drawing comparisons in the name of framing debate in a way that goes beyond Tebow Stinks and Tebow is Awesome, not suggesting that they will have the exact same career trajectory. Though I will say that I can now imagine the Broncos being exactly where the Jets now are in two years.
Vince Verhei: Dexter McCluster, all 5-foot-8 of him, catches a Hail Mary touchdown on the last play of the first half. He's got to be the shortest guy to ever do that, right?
Mike Tanier: How tall was that squirt from Jacksonville? And White Shoes was a bit of a smurf, right?
Vince Verhei: Good call Mike. White Shoes was 5-foot-9, which is close, but Mike Thomas of Jacksonville was 5-foot-8.
Mike Tanier: Tip drill Hail Marys are the provence of the tiny.
Mike Kurtz: Tim Jennings has had a great tackling day. He hasn't missed his guy yet, wrapped up perfectly, and even blew up a screen all by himself.
Vince Verhei: I love the Cam Newton low-speed chase on that option pass. I know he was setting up blocks, but he looked like an old guy riding a StairMaster.
Brian McIntyre: Brian Price of the Bucs was called for a personal foul today. Raheem Morris was asked after the game what he told Price following the play. Morris' response, courtesy of Stephen Holder of the St. Petersburg Times: "I told him to go home. F--k."
Mike Tanier: Go home and f--k? Go home you little f--k? Go home, aw ... f--k?
Vince Verhei: So, I think it's safe to say the Ravens have the most schizophrenic offense in the league. Or they just adjust completely to their opponent's weakness. Against Seattle's strong run defense a few weeks ago, they started with 18 passes and five runs. This week, against Cleveland's soft run defense, they start the game three passes and 17 runs.
Mike Tanier: It is raining at the Ravens-Browns game, and after a long gain, Ray Rice gets up with glops of sideline paint and grass all over his helmet. It looks like he was tackled face-first into a giant bowl of Caesar salad.
Danny Tuccitto: Nothing out of the ordinary to talk about in this game so far. The Rams, unsurprisingly, can't run the ball. The 49ers offense is playing close to the vest, and featuring their usual modicum of Isaac Sopoaga formations. Frank Gore is running effectively most of the time. David Akers is kicking field goals. The Niners offensive line is totally blowing protections, which allowed James Laurinaitis to register a sack of the untouched variety. Vernon Davis is dropping numerous passes, including a sure 40-yard touchdown just moments ago. Basically, a game that feels like it should be 21-0 San Francisco currently sits at 6-0.
Oh wait, I forgot. Patrick Willis is out with a hamstring injury, and Gore broke the franchise record for rushing yards. Minor details there.
Tom Gower: Watching A.J. Feeley play NFL quarterback for a team that's not very good without him against a good defense just feels like a completely wasted exercise. The Rams won't be able to run the ball, nor will they be able to pass the ball. Assuming the 49ers convert this current drive into points (they're up 6-0 and in goal-to-go), this game feels over.
Offensively, San Francisco is trying to keep things interesting, busting out wrinkles like some option stuff. I'm not quite sure why. Running room for Gore is tougher to find near the goalline, though, and thus we're about to be 9-0.
Danny Tuccitto: Two lesser-known 49ers have really impressed me today, both of whom got their opportunities today because of injured starters.
With Braylon Edwards inactive, Kyle Williams has shown himself to be superior in speed, hands, and physicality. His first catch was one of those snatch-it-out-of-the-air types, he absolutely decleated a Rams defensive back while blocking downfield on Delanie Walker's third-quarter end-around, and he shifted into ludicrous speed after catching an intermediate pass for his 56-yard touchdown. As far as Larry Grant goes, the Niners defense really hasn't missed a beat with Willis out, and that, in and of itself, says a lot about Grant. He's been stout against the run, especially the helmetless smack he put on Steven Jackson at the end of the third quarter. Against the pass, he hasn't been a liability in coverage by any means, and he sacked Feeley on an inside blitz that San Francisco likes doing with Willis.
Down 26-0 with about four minutes left in the game, the Rams punted on fourth-and-5. Then, at their own 33, still down 26-0 with about a minute left, the Rams huddled, ran the ball up the middle, and let the last 40 seconds of the game run out. I know it's not like you're going to come all the way back in those situations, but still, at least try, guys.
Ben Muth: Is it me or have there been a lot of blown coverages today? There were a couple in the Denver game, no one was close to Roddy White on his touchdown. Marion Barber had a touchdown called back where no one covered him. And then there was the Donald Driver touchdown at the end of the first half here. This seems like a lot, right?
Mike Tanier: Don't forget the Don't Cover Gronkowski initiative. And much of what the Eagles did on Thursday night.
Aaron Schatz: The Giants are having trouble covering Jermichael Finley on seam routes. The Packers receivers have dropped a couple balls today, and the Giants are getting good pressure on Aaron Rodgers -- although they are running into
the problem where they get pressure on Rodgers, but they are in man coverage so it is easy for Rodgers to just scramble for a good gain.
Tom Gower: Rodgers, tie game, own 20, one timeout? Just ridiculous. Absolutely ridiculous. Not sure it's possible to do it much better than that.
Rivers McCown: Rodgers is a sorcerer.
Aaron Schatz: And man, the Giants offense sure did play well to tie that game, too. For naught.
Mike Tanier: So, do you think Randall Cobb knelt one-yard deep in the end zone because he figured even getting to the 30 or 35 yard line was not as valuable as giving Rodgers six extra seconds?
Mike Kurtz: Absolutely. I guarantee the special teams coach told him to not take it out under any circumstances right before he took the field.
Tom Gower: With four minutes to play in a tie game, the Cowboys face fourth-and-1 at the Cardinals 44. They punt, and are fortunate enough to down the punt at the 5. The Cardinals' ensuing possession: Kevin Kolb underthrows a 5-yard pass, a 4-yard run up the middle, and Early Doucet drops a first-down pass after Kolb scrambles to escape from pressure. Dez Bryant then returns the Cardinals punt inside the 25 yard line, except of course there's a block in the back call and the Cowboys instead start inside their own 35.
From what I've seen of this game, Tony Romo seems to be scrambling a lot, which I assume means the Cardinals secondary is actually covering guys and taking away his initial read(s). The improvisation all too frequently seems to be leading to tight end dumpoffs no more than three yards downfield.
Rivers McCown: I didn't get home until the third quarter or so of this one, but Patrick Peterson showed excellent technique on a couple of deep balls in Bryant's direction.
Tom Gower: Romo completes a pass to the Cardinals 31 with 23 seconds left. Jason Garrett elects not to use either of his timeouts, and instead has Romo spike the ball with seven seconds left and send Dan Bailey out for a 49-yard field goal attempt. With the play clock running down, Jason Garrett gets worried and calls timeout. Bailey hits the field goal that doesn't count. On the one that does, Bailey mishits the ball and it goes short. Against all logic, we now head to overtime.
Ben Muth: Garrett clearly learned a lot from Norv Turner.
Mike Tanier: Is that why Garrett called timeout? I was so confused. For the record, Romo appeared to have the Cowboys lined up for the spike at about 12 seconds left, but waited and motioned a bit. I think everybody was lined up legally, so I figured he was calling a quick screen or something. He just took 5 extra seconds -- maybe a play's worth of time -- then spiked.
Ben Muth: Kolb behind this offensive line is terrible to watch. He seems to be naturally skittish, and this line gives plenty of reason for any quarterback to get nervous back there.
Tom Gower: That LaRod Stephens-Howling touchdown on a screen pass to win the game simply continued the complete absence, nay, refutation, of logic that brought this game to overtime in the first place.
Mike Tanier: Howling Wolf Stevens is still running. The Cowboys do make things interesting, don't they?
Tom Gower: The anti-Keep Chopping Wood award this week goes to Detroit Lions gunner John Wendling, who knew he went out of bounds going down the field and thus intentionally avoided touching the dead ball so he didn't get called for a penalty. The Saints start at their own 3 because of him.
Mike Tanier: Should we just recycle some old comments about how good the Saints offense is and stick them here? They are delivering more-or-less their standard beating right now.
Tom Gower: Yes, let's, and in the name of "opposing defensive back getting beat when team tries to play man coverage," insert "Eric Wright."
Mike Kurtz: The Lions have plenty of life left in them, and excel at playing from behind. New Orleans is putting on a hell of a show, but Detroit isn't roadkill. Yet.
Aaron Schatz: Man, the Lions are making some ridiculous catches tonight in tight coverage.
Tom Gower: OK, so at least in the third quarter, the Saints were stoppable on offense.
Jason Hanson just missed a 55-yard field goal attempt with the Lions down 24-17. It was fourth-and-12, and that's really a no-man's-land area. A punt likely results in a touchback for net 17, I wouldn't trust the defense even if the Saints are pinned down, and 12 yards is a long way to go for it. Sometimes, all options suck. I probably would have punted.
Rivers McCown: Yeah, I think you've got to punt there, as much as it pains me. Pinning Drew Brees deep in his own end isn't much of a deterrent, but it was the most-appealing of three bad options.
Tom Gower: Maybe it's just me, but I like the backbone by the refs tonight. It seems like the natural inclination is for teams to get penalized once or maybe twice for the same thing, and the refs decide they've gotten the message. Instead, the Lions keep committing offensive pass interference, and the refs keep flagging them for it.
Aaron Schatz: By "the Lions" you mean "Nate Burleson." Burleson has been flagged for OPI three times in this game.
Tom Gower: Was it just Burleson? I thought they also got Rashied Davis one time.
Mike Kurtz: Nope, just Burleson. I'm up against him in my do-or-die game of fantasy football today, so I am pleased by all three calls.
Danny Tuccitto: After tonight's game, it's apparent that Nate Burleson's name was pulled out of a hat at NFL officiating headquarters and won the grand prize of "Offensive Pass Interference Regression to the Mean Week." Regardless of how guilty or innocent he was, I haven't seen that much OPI called in one game in my life, let alone against one player in one game; and as a 49ers fan from Miami, I watched a lot of Michael Irvin back in the day.
224 comments, Last at 08 Dec 2011, 7:17am by T-Dub