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?
26 Nov 2012
compiled by Danny Tuccitto
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).
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Andy Benoit: Through one quarter, Fitzpatrick has missed open receivers downfield near the sidelines at least twice so far.
Danny Tuccitto: Only took four minutes for Reggie Bush to cut back into unblocked defenders on a stretch play. This late in the season, he either has an Everest-like learning curve or he just doesn't care that it's wrong.
Vince Verhei: Take two run-first teams, both of whom are stronger in the front seven than they are in the offensive line, and you get Dolphins-Seahawks. It's 7-7 at halftime, with both scores coming from great individual plays. Miami's touchdown came when Reggie Bush was good Reggie Bush, and slipped a bunch of tackles on his way into the end zone. Seattle's touchdown was set up by a long pass to Golden Tate, who got his feet tangled with the cornerback, but caught the ball as he was falling down.
We've got a Buffalo Wild Wings commercial come to life as the game has been held up due to sprinkler delay. If they kept playing, it would have been the ultimate folly game.
Warren Moon -- in attendance as part of the radio broadcast -- just barely held onto his single-game franchise record of 17 consecutive completions. Early in the fourth quarter, Russell Wilson had completed 16 in a row, but the 17th pass fell incomplete. What's worse, that was third down, so the streak-snapping incompletion led to a punt, and Miami scored the tying touchdown on the ensuing drive.
Early in the fourth quarter, Seattle's red zone interception is negated when Earl Thomas gets flagged for roughing the passer, and Miami scores a tying touchdown on the next play. Thomas was jumping to block the pass, and was actually in midair when the ball was still in Ryan Tannehill's hand. At that point, what's Thomas supposed to do? He can't fly! (After the game, Thomas confirmed, "I can't fly. I'm not Superman. I did everything possible to try and not rough the passer.")
Leon Washington answers Miami's touchdown with a 98-yard score of his own on the ensuing kickoff. That's his eighth career kickoff return touchdown, tying Josh Cribbs' record.
The Dolphins get a field goal at the gun to win 24-21, which must be a frustrating loss for Seattle. Their defense blew two seven-point leads in the fourth quarter, and Miami's last three drives totaled more than 220 yards, with two touchdowns and a field goal. Fortunately for the Seahawks, Tampa Bay and Minnesota lost too; or this could have been the game that cost them a playoff spot.
Matt Waldman: Falcons offense eviscerating the middle zones of the Bucs pass defense. Matt Ryan is 8-of-8, and in the red zone.
Falcons score on a shotgun pitch play to Rodgers, his first of the year. Rodgers had a 20-yard run in the first series on the same play. They haven't run this play much all year, but it is working well against the Bucs.
Andy Benoit: Even with Julio Jones back and Bucs extra thin at cornerback, Jacquizz Rodgers is a key part of Falcons game plan in the first quarter.
Trends with Falcons red zone play-calling: interior screens to running backs and toss sweeps out of shotgun.
Aaron Schatz: On their first drive, it was surprising to see the Falcons run so much (and so well) against the top-ranked Tampa Bay run defense. I think they had something like seven or eight runs to just two or three passes. Also, the Falcons are definitely using Jacquizz Rodgers more than Michael Turner today, hoping to get more space for running outside. Gerald McCoy and Brian Price are beating the Falcons' interior linemen a lot, and Lavonte David has clearly been a big addition against the run.
On the other hand, the Buccaneers are really having a problem covering Tony Gonzalez: just plain wide open a few times.
Matt Waldman: Doug Martin catches a pass in the right flat, makes a defender miss at the line of scrimmage, and weaves across the width of the field for a 42-yard gain that is nullified by penalty. Two plays later, the Falcons sack Freeman, and force a punt. Beautiful run after the catch by Martin, though. He's running with a lot of confidence between the tackles and in the open field.
Ronde Barber reads Matt Ryan's eyes, and undercuts Roddy White for the interception. On the ensuing drive, Mike Williams throws a double-pass to Vincent Jackson to get inside the five-yard line.
Aaron Schatz: From the pocket, Matt Ryan just threw it out of the end zone by about 25 yards trying to avoid a sack with four seconds left in the half. Can somebody explain to me why that's not intentional grounding?
All of Tampa Bay's big pass plays seem to be on the left side today. They just had another in between the corner and the safety. For inquiring minds, here's Atlanta's defensive DVOA by pass direction going into today's game (ranking in parentheses):
Readers may wonder why we're not talking about Mike Smith's strange decision to kick a 48-yard field goal with 13 seconds left instead of a) punting the ball or b) running some sort of "QB run around like a crazy person" play that would take more time off the clock.
Yeah, I guess it was pretty dumb. Even though a punt probably gets a touchback, the difference between Tampa Bay having 80 yards to go or 62 yards to go probably means a lot with only enough time for two more plays.
Robert Weintraub: I didn't see this game because I was driving the utterly banal stretch of I-75 between Florida and Georgia, but I listened to the whole thing thanks to the miracle of satellite radio. It was just like being back in Cincinnati! (Only I've never been there save a handful of games.) But since no one else seems to have watched any of it either...
Mohamed Sanu appears to be emerging as a legitimate successor to TJ Houshmandzadeh. He had two touchdown receptions (four in three games), and ran for a first down from the backfield. He also plays special teams, and is a strong blocker. The radio guys were talking about Sanu's soft, enormous hands -- the play-by-play man's handshake story bordered on salacious. His coming to the fore as a legit No. 2 wideout opposite AJ Green is a major reason that the Bengals have scored 93 points in the last three games.
Speaking of Green, he went without a touchdown reception for the first time in ten games.
Carson Palmer was booed vociferously by the small-but-lively crowd (blackout in Cincinnati). He was sacked twice on the first series of the game, and it all went downhill from there.
BenJarvus Green-Ellis had his best game with the Bengals by far. He broke two long runs that came up just shy of the end zone. On the second of these, Marvin Lewis challenged even though the Bengals were up 24-10 and (at worst) had first-and-goal inside the one-yard line. The challenge failed, but then Cincinnati got stuffed on three plays, and had to kick a field goal. Sadly, that means Lewis will feel justified in his next ten absurd challenges.
Sure, it came against a Giants team taking a mid-season breather, plus the sorry Chiefs and Raiders, but three straight Bengals routs is not something any of us fans are accustomed to: You have to go back to 1976 to find the last three-game stretch of Cincinnati wins by 18 points or more. Remember the Bicentennial and the election of Jimmy Carter, kids? Norv Turner, Jason Garrett, and Andy Reid are straight ahead on the schedule, by the way.
Aaron Schatz: A terrible play turns great for the Steelers. Chris Rainey hits a wall on the goal line, but nobody wraps him up, so he is able to bounce back outside, and score.
Midway through the fourth, Browns penalties move them back to third-and-31. Draw play by Trent Richardson gets like three yards. What's the point? Whenever I see that, I always think that more teams really need to teach their quarterbacks to quick kick. You would get much better field position off it than running the give-up draw followed by a standard punt return.
J.J. Cooper: Either the offensive line play is the worst ever or the officials are calling holding too tightly. It seems much more a case of understanding that every grabbed jersey doesn't have to be called a hold. It is making an already ugly game almost unwatchable.
Also the Steelers started the game with Rashard Mendenhall at tailback. He quickly fumbled, and was replaced by Jonathan Dwyer, who also fumbled. He was replaced by Isaac Redman, who also fumbled. The Steelers then turned to 180-pound fourth-stringer Chris Rainey. He fumbled too but because Pittsburgh recovered, so Mike Tomlin stuck with him. Eventually Tomlin let Mendenhall back in the game, but he quickly fumbled again. As I said, this game has been nearly unwatchable.
Aaron Schatz: Mike Tomlin: Not an expert on fumble luck.
Andy Benoit: Charlie Batch’s third interception was a perfect example of why he’s a third-string quarterback: a fluttering deep ball that came up several yards short of Mike Wallace, landing perfectly into the heart of a double team that had had more than enough time to drift over.
Aaron Schatz: Yeah, I would be curious to see how close those defensive backs were when Batch threw it because, by the time the ball came down, they were both stapled to Mike Wallace.
J.J. Cooper: On the first play of a potential game-winning drive late in the fourth quarter, Rainey just fumbled for the Steelers' seventh turnover. That's now a fumble lost by each of Pittsburgh's four running backs.
OK, this game gets its fitting final act. Trent Richardson apparently fumbles, but officials rule he was down. Replay shows it was a fumble, but the Steelers can't challenge because they're out of time outs. And since it occurred with 2:10 to go, it is not automatically reviewed.
J.J. Cooper: When I said the holding calls were ridiculous, I went back and counted: nine holding calls in the second half.
Andy Benoit: Lawrence Timmons stood out all game for Steelers; not just with his tipped pick-six, but also with his speed to the edge in run defense.
Tom Gower: The Jaguars hold a 7-6 lead, and it's been the sort of first half that you'd expect between two of the half-dozen or so worst teams in football. (Before Tennessee's game against Miami, I'd have said three). Chad Henne successfully attempted contested passes in the middle of the field on the Jaguars' touchdown drive, but he's been sacked four times by one of the worst pass rushes in football. Still, he hasn't had those spray-y moments he had late in last week's game, and is 10-for-14 against a secondary that hasn't challenged him much.
Meanwhile, the Titans have looked like the offense I expected coming into this season. Chris Johnson has looked good at times in putting up some mediocre rushing totals, and been a good option on checkdowns. And while Jake Locker (8-for-16) has had moments that make me wonder if he'll ever be an above-average NFL passer, his receivers haven't helped him out at times (e.g., Nate Washington had a bad missed toe-drag of the sort I'd expect from, say, Lavelle Hawkins).
Oh, also, even though Henne's downfield pass ended up falling incomplete, Mike Mularkey went bold again, going for it on fourth-and-3 from the Titans 45-yard line with a minute to play in the half. Naturally, the Titans took advantage of the good field position (plus three timeouts), and picked up their second field goal of the game.
Aaron Schatz: Grrrr...We're never going to be able to keep Mularkey this aggressive if the defense can't hold after those occasional failures. Also, I would like to see them throw, say, a five-yard pass on fourth-and-3; not a downfield pass.
Tom Gower: In the second half, Cecil Shorts, who is having a nice second season, found a hole open in the Titans secondary, and eluded a couple of tacklers for a 59-yard touchdown. The Titans answer with a field goal, but Jacksonville is ahead 14-9 at the end of the third quarter in a stadium where they've lost every game this season by at least 17 points.
Fifty-five minutes into his 11th game of 2012, Karl Klug gets his first sack of the season. Apparently, those seven sacks on 10 sacks-plus-pressures in 2011 weren't indicative of a future superstar after all!
Ben Muth: Kansas City has moved the ball a little bit early, twice driving into field goal range. On the second drive the Chiefs elected to kick on fourth-and-2 from the four-yard line. Arrowhead does not like the decision.
There was just a crazy sequence on Kansas City's drive early in the second quarter. Romeo Crennel decides to go for it on fourth-and-inches from the Broncos' 40-yard line. They go five-wide, and Brady Quinn gets the first down on a quarterback sneak, except Crennel called a time out just before the snap. After the break, the Chiefs line up in five-wide again, but this time the Broncos jump offsides, giving Kansas City the first down. But of course they're still a bad football team, so Quinn takes a sack to push them out of field goal range, and are forced to punt anyway.
Greg Gumbel thinks a lot of teams would look to settle for a field goal on second-and-goal from the nine-yard line with 40 seconds left in the half, but you have to go for the end zone when you have Peyton Manning. I know it's easy to rag on announcers, but is there a single coach in the history of football that wouldn't try to score a touchdown in that situation? That's one of the dumbest things I've ever heard said on national television.
Vince Verhei: So far in this surprisingly close game, the Chiefs have had two false starts on third-and-1. Third-and-6 is too much to ask of Brady Quinn.
Ben Muth: Do you think Romeo Crennel's poor clock management haunts him in other facets of his life? Does he show up to dinner parties an hour early, and sit awkwardly as the hosts set up? Does the school office have to call and remind him to pick up his kids? I'm sure he can't handle microwaving popcorn. The only question is whether half the bag ends up as unpopped kernels or if the whole thing gets burnt to charcoal.
Danny Tuccitto: Romeo and the Chiefs automatically qualified for the 2013 Orville Redenbacher's Pop Up Bowl.
Andy Benoit: Henry Melton beat Brandon Fusco inside for a sack on the Minnesota's first play. Then, Jasper Brinkley blew up the lead block of Evan Rodriguez on the Bears’ first play, resulting in a Forte fumble (his first of the season).
Early in the second quarter, Brandon Marshall had a play with minus-12 yards after catch. However, he's catching the ball well so far. It's unusual for a guy who struggles with drops, but Marshall is good at plucking the ball out of the air. His drops tend to come when he reacts to the ball instead of attacking it.
Marshall is also very good at using his upper body to get positioning downfield, like a post-up basketball player. It’s a major advantage against zone coverage because, rather than having to locate the holes to get open, he's essentially making in-position zone defenders into out-of-position man-to-man defenders.
Evan Rodriguez just got his first touch on the season. (Chicago originally said he was going to be their Aaron Hernandez.)
The Bears have run a methodical offense in the first half built around interior running and the occasional quick slant or play-action. It’s the exact type of play-calling you would favor when your offensive line isn’t very good, and is facing a four-man pass rush.
The end zone pass interference penalty that Brandon Marshall drew with five minutes left in the half was a product of great coaching and design. Chicago called a two-man route with maximum protection. When you go with maximum protection against a zone defense and four-man rush, you’ll get time to throw because there are no green-dog blitzes (i.e., man-to-man defenders rushing the passer instead).
Most of Christian Ponder’s poor passes this season have been a result of mechanical issues, particularly with his feet. Chris Conte's first-half interception on an overthrow was no exception: Ponder's feet weren’t completely set.
And on the next play following the turnover, Matt Spaeth's touchdown was a great play by Jay Cutler, who eluded Jared Allen, rolled left, and threw accurately into a tight window just before getting hit.
Without Percy Harvin, the Vikings had no downfield passing game in this one. Jarius Wright got Harvin's snaps, but he was used more as an underneath option. Jerome Simpson wasn’t a factor downfield, and also had two blatant drops. On the bright side, Adrian Peterson remains a beast: He still finishes a lot of runs by lowering his head like a battering ram, and 80 percent of his rushing yards this season have come out of two-back sets even though most of those runs don’t involve a traditional lead-blocker.
With about five minutes left, Minnesota had third-and-1 at Chicago's goal line. They went to the air, but Ponder had nowhere to go with the ball. On fourth-and-1, they went to the air again, with the same outcome. If they Vikings knew they were using four downs, why didn’t they feed Peterson on third down? He had been rolling on that drive.
Aaron Schatz: NORV ALERT! With a 13-10 lead and 4:19 to play, San Diego goes three-and-out in less than a minute after a three-yard dumpoff on third-and-7.
NORV UPDATE! Ray Rice, I mean, wow. Down three with 1:59 left, the Ravens have to go for it on fourth-and-29. Joe Flacco dumps the ball off to Rice. After he gets through ten or so yards of empty space, Rice somehow outmaneuvers three Chargers defenders standing right in front of him, goes around to the left, and then dives for the first down. I think 28 yards of YAC. A block by Anquan Boldin on Eric Weddle also helped.
Vince Verhei: If the Chargers lose this game, and Norv loses his job, then Ray Rice's 30-yard gain on fourth-and-29 needs to be his San Diego epitaph.
Aaron Schatz: Thirty yards? I think it was barely 29 yards. They're reviewing it. I think he made it, but just barely.
Tom Gower: If they flag Anquan Boldin's blindside block that injured Eric Weddle, the Ravens don't have a first down right now. As is, the Ravens have the first down, and are facing a defense with one healthy safety.
And now they've won in overtime. I want to register one complaint, though: I don't know why John Harbaugh elected to kneel three times before kicking the game-winning field goal. Those kneel-downs lost four yards, turning a 34-yard field goal into a 38-yard field goal. If he were 15 yards closer to the end zone, I could live with that, but at least run into the line for no gain instead of voluntarily losing yardage like that. I know, I know. Harbaugh gets fired if Flacco (or Rice) fumbles, but c'mon.
Aaron Schatz: I don't think there's a huge difference between 34 and 38. If it was over 45 yards, I would think Harbaugh was nuts.
Andy Benoit: Colin Kaepernick made a precise throw on the last play of the first quarter. After buying time, he had to dump the ball off, but his throw led Bruce Miller for the catch-and-run. Most quarterbacks would have just gone for the completion in that situation (especially young quarterbacks).
Aaron Schatz: San Francisco's offensive line doesn't look great today, at least when it comes to pass-blocking. I wonder how much of that is the line, and how much is that a different style of play from the quarterback can sometimes make the line look worse.
Andy Benoit: Most of it is the line. Niners have a great run-blocking offensive line; they're only average at pass-blocking. Of course, Kaepernick has an ability to extend the play, which is something something Alex Smith doesn’t give you.
Vince Verhei: I'm seeing a lot of Tweets impressed by Kaepernick today. I dunno. At halftime, the offense has one touchdown, three punts, one turnover, and only seven first downs. He's made some exciting plays, but it's not like he's dominating and it's not like he's playing a good defense, either.
Aaron Schatz: I agree with Vince here. It's not as impressive as last week against Chicago, although he would look better if not for an outright drop by a wide-open Vernon Davis.
Can anyone see the main way that San Francisco covered Jimmy Graham in the first half? He only had two catches for 16 yards, and was the intended receiver on Ahmad Brooks' pick-six. He's a hard guy to make disappear, but the 49ers are doing it.
Danny Tuccitto: I'm on the same page. You can definitely see what Kaepernick brings to the table in terms of elusiveness and arm strength, and how that makes San Francisco's offense even more multidimensional going forward. However, he's basically just played the typical 49ers role of "efficient quarterback." I don't see Alex Smith being much worse in this one except perhaps taking more sacks.
Andy Benoit: On Brooks' pick-six, San Francisco used him as a free spy/underneath defender, and Drew Brees never saw him. You play tendencies in the NFL, and the Niners have not used Brooks in that capacity much this year.
Whitner's pick-six was a tip off of a Colston drop. Colston elevated, but was (rightfully) preoccupied with Goldson blowing him up -- which he did. Whitner and Goldson are incredibly fast downfield hitters, especially when they get a running start; which is often in this scheme.
Brees seems to have a tendency to fumble on contact this year.
Aaron Schatz: Actually, I don't think that's necessarily a tendency this year; I think it's a tendency over his whole career. For a guy who never scrambles, Brees has an awful lot of fumbles nearly every season. He only had one last year, but averaged about seven per year from 2003 to 2010. It's a pretty small complaint about a guy as great as Brees, but it is part of the package.
Hey, look at that. The 49ers put Aldon Smith over on the other side so he can go up against the third-string right tackle Will Robinson, and on the first play he gets a sack when Robinson whiffs. Smith has such a high percentage of San Francisco's sacks, I would think you would want to double-team him as much as possible.
Danny Tuccitto: Yeah, it's nice to see Aldon Smith finally lining up on the strong side. Brooks might have a pick-six in coverage, but he hasn't put the slightest hint of pressure on Brees when he rushes. You're going against a third-string tackle, man.
Vince Verhei: It probably won't matter since San Francisco ended up kicking a field goal to go up 10 with eight minutes left, but holy cow did Randy Moss just get away with pass interference in the end zone. He grabbed the defender by the front of the jersey, and spun him to the ground.
Ben Muth: Cardinals open up the game with a long touchdown drive. The biggest play was an unnecessary roughness penalty on Quintin Mikell, who jacked Andre Roberts up at the end of a play as he was standing around a pile. Even worse, the late hit occurred when Arizona came up 12 yards short on third-and-18.
Andy Benoit: I bet the Cardinals hadn't even had a 15-play touchdown drive during a walk through practice this season.
Tom Gower: Janoris Jenkins, who's made a ton of rookie-type mistakes lately, picks off Ryan Lindley and returns it to the house. It looked like Lindley was fooled by the coverage, expecting Jenkins to go deep with the outside receiver and vacating the flat for the shallow out by the slot receiver.
Ben Muth: Beanie Wells with a nice cutback and bounce for his second touchdown of the game. My guess is that Mikell lost outside contain because of short motion by Andre Roberts. When a wide receiver goes in short motion, it means he's probably blocking inside, which in turn means the safety scrapes over the top if the running back bounces outside. In this case, though, Mikell attacked inside instead.
Biggest benefit of the Ryan Lindley era is that it's forced Whisenhunt to call throws based on quick pre-snap reads and play action where the first read is underneath. This led to the pick-six but it has really helped the offensive line: zero sacks allowed the first half.
Lindley throws another pick because of miscommunication with Larry Fitzgerald. That's the second time where the two have been on completely different pages. Considering Fitzgerald seems to be responsible for personnel decisions, I'd make sure I'm simpatico if I were Lindley.
Lindley with a terrible throw on another pick-six for Janoris Jenkins. He tried to force it into a bracketed Fitzgerald off his back foot.
Andy Benoit: That was simply a bad play by Lindley -- Larry Brown Super Bowl XXX type of play.
Ben Muth: We need to retire the "Thunder and Lightning" nicknames for running back tandems. John Lynch says that's what people in St. Louis are calling Steven Jackson and Daryl Richardson.
With 5:30 left in the game, Jeff Fisher elects to kick on fourth-and-inches from Arizona's two-yard line to take a two-score game (11) to a two-score game (14). Don't know what the math is, but that seemed like a terrible call.
Tom Gower: I don't think it was that bad a decision.
Ben Muth: Let me rephrase. It wasn't a "terrible" decision (Lindley isn't scoring 11 or 14 points this late), but I don't get what a field goal gets you there.
Unbelievable note from Darren Urban on Arizona: "Somehow, the Cards lost two games to the Rams this season when quarterback Sam Bradford completed a total of 15 passes in the two games. Never thought that’d be possible."
Aaron Schatz: Cris Collinsworth is talking about how, with Clay Matthews injured, the Packers are easier to run on, and there's nobody you need to double team on the outside when you want to run. Is Matthews considered a particularly strong run defender? I've always just thought of him as a pass rusher.
I do think, though, that we're definitely seeing the effect of injuries on the Packers pass defense tonight. These young cornerbacks really don't seem up to the task against Manning, Cruz, and Nicks.
Vince Verhei: NBC's decision to play salsa music when Victor Cruz scored is my favorite broadcasting moment of 2012.
Aaron Schatz: Yeah, the cue didn't quite work right tonight, though. It came out choppy; was better in earlier games.
Oh, Mike McCarthy. You can't go on fourth-and-inches with your kicker in a massive slump? I'm sad.
Boy, this didn't turn out to be the most interesting game, did it?
228 comments, Last at 28 Nov 2012, 5:02pm by SandyRiver