Short-yardage passing had a good year, except at the end of the Super Bowl. We look at the return of quarterback runs, the rise in pass-happy strategy, and 2014 success rates for offense and defense.
24 Sep 2013
by Scott Kacsmar
If you like blowouts, this weekend (and Monday night) was right up your alley. Rather than the record pace of close games from Weeks 1 and 2, we had just eight games with a fourth-quarter comeback opportunity in Week 3.
The three quarterbacks credited with leading a fourth-quarter comeback entered Week 3 with one career comeback win between them. It was that kind of strange week, which includes the first non-offensive game-winning score of the season in Cincinnati. With such a wild game dying for a long recap, let's get right to it.
Type: 4QC (Non-offensive game-winning score)
Largest Fourth-Quarter Deficit: 9 (30-21)
Win Probability (start of fourth quarter): 0.09
While expectations pointed towards a shootout, this was an odd game dominated by scoring runs.
First it was 14-0 Cincinnati after a great opening drive by the offense and a costly fumble by Green Bay's Jeremy Ross (released Monday) on the ensuing kickoff. After that, Cincinnati's offense played terribly with four giveaways, including a BenJarvus Green-Ellis fumble -- remember when he was praised for never fumbling? -- returned for a touchdown.
Green Bay actually led 16-14 at half-time despite the offense's struggles. The offense got on track in the third quarter with drives of 80 and 92 yards to complete a 30-0 scoring run. Seemingly having lost control of the game, the Bengals finally answered back on offense in just four plays. A.J. Green caught a 20-yard touchdown and Marvin Lewis decided to kick the extra point to make it 30-21. An argument could easily be made to go for two instead, but let's not go there. This was not your usual game.
The Packers had been protecting the ball, but that now started to unravel. Terence Newman's interception off Aaron Rodgers led to Mike Nugent missing on a 52-yard field goal as the game moved toward the fourth quarter.
With a first down at the Cincinnati 27-yard line, Rodgers got a little greedy and Leon Hall made him pay with another interception. This play marked the first time since the 2010 NFC Championship that Rodgers had thrown multiple interceptions in a game, and it was a big one.
From there, Andy Dalton led a 95-yard touchdown drive featuring several chunk plays. Marvin Jones caught a 12-yard touchdown, but Nugent's extra point was blocked. That kept it at 30-27.
Green Bay had a lot of time left to burn (10:49), but it did produce a long drive. After taking a timeout, Rodgers was sacked, knocking the Packers out of field goal range and setting up a big third-and-12. Randall Cobb got what he could on the short pass, but a good challenge by Lewis put him inches short and set up fourth-and-1.
With the ball at the Cincinnati 30-yard line, it's hard to say you can trust Mason Crosby for a 47-yard field goal here. Gee, think maybe letting your quarterback, who is 22 of 26 (84.6 percent) on these short-yardage runs in his career, run the sneak would be a good call?
Rookie running back Johnathan Franklin got the call instead. He fumbled the ball at the line. It was recovered by Reggie Nelson, who put a nice spin move on Rodgers, but he too fumbled. Newman was there to pick up the ball and return it 58 yards for the go-ahead touchdown with 3:47 left. Just a stunning play and a very questionable play call.
That concluded the third and final run of the game, which was 20-0 Cincinnati.
So, at this point, did you have high expectations for Rodgers to lead the game-winning touchdown drive? Forget the past history for a second. This was one of his worst games and the Packers were missing Jermichael Finley after an early concussion. They were down on running backs with Ross playing in the backfield.
However, this was the rare situation for Green Bay where it was a four-point deficit and a time-consuming touchdown drive likely would win the game. With a lot riding on this drive, let's review what happened.
Short passes were the key this time. It cannot be overstated how good Jordy Nelson is at two things: making touch catches on the sideline and opening up space for his teammates to catch the ball (sometimes illegally). Here are the first two plays where Nelson's subtle blocking creates space for other Green Bay receivers to catch the ball. The FOX score is covering up the second play, but Nelson got a good block in with the ball in the air to help a seven-yard gain.
As the drive went on, Nelson got bolder with his blocks, certainly making contact early with the ball in the air and getting away with offensive pass interference. The second play to follow here was a big third-and-8 after Carlos Dunlap knocked down a pass at the line on second down. Nelson opens up space for Ross, who makes a nice move to gain enough for the first down.
After blocking, Nelson showed us that other talent with a great 18-yard catch on the right sideline. Maybe they should have taken more advantage of the outside receivers with Leon Hall out on this drive.
With the ball at the Cincinnati 25-yard line, I hated this next play. Rodgers pump faked, trying to set up the touchdown, but threw deep and out of bounds to James Jones near the end zone. Why go for the score now and leave Cincinnati 90 seconds to get at least a field goal? Managing the clock in the final minutes has never been more important. This was not a good play call to manage the situation.
Rodgers then came back to the short passes with a five-yard gain to Nelson. When trying to go to Cobb in the face of a six-man blitz, the pass was knocked down at the line by Dunlap. Each team called a timeout before the crucial fourth-and-5 play.
In an empty set, the Packers again had pick master Nelson doing his job, but Rodgers wanted to throw right to Jones. The pass never got there as left tackle David Bakhtiari's cut block on Michael Johnson failed and the pass was once again tipped. That's the ball game.
How unusual were the three passes batted down at the line on the final drive for Rodgers? He's had one full game with three such throws in the last five years, according to ESPN Stats & Information.
The Packers fell to 1-2 while all of the historically bad fourth-quarter numbers return. Rodgers is 5-24 (.172) at comeback opportunities, which could include a 0-20 record against teams .500 or better should the 49ers and Bengals finish well.
The Packers are 9-26 (.257) when Rodgers has to lead them to the winning points in the fourth quarter or overtime, but 49-5 (.907) in all other games. That's the largest gap in NFL history, perfectly quantifying the front-running nature of the Packers in his reign.
While everyone wants the one-line explanation for why this is such a problem for Green Bay, it's never that simple. Everyone's at fault and each game is different with the only similarity being a loss in the end. This time it was more about the failures of an offense that finished the game with two interceptions, a fumble-six and a turnover on downs on the final four drives.
You can blame the quarterback, the coach or a rookie running back, but there was a lot that factored into the loss. Normally when the Packers go up 30-14, they do not get behind again. Forget the last drive; Rodgers cannot force that interception to Hall with the 30-21 lead. He has not had multiple interceptions in years, but that's what it took to get the Bengals back in it.
Cincinnati is the first team in NFL history to win after leading by at least 14 points and trailing by at least 16 points in the same game. Yeah, it was just that kind of day.
Technical note: Dalton does not get credited with a game-winning drive as this game did not have a game-winning drive. The winning points were a return touchdown, which has happened four times now in Cincinnati history. This is indisputable.
Dalton does not get a fourth-quarter comeback either as the offense never took the field in the fourth quarter in a one-score game. This game does show up in the "other game of note" table for Dalton as he receives some credit for the one touchdown drive in the fourth quarter when trailing 30-21. This game does not get counted as an opportunity for either stat for Dalton given the Bengals never had possession in the fourth quarter with the game tied or down by one score. This is subject to change.
Not subject to change: another failed game-winning drive for the Packers.
Largest Fourth-Quarter Deficit: 7 (17-10)
Win Probability (GWD): 0.20
Quarterback: Jake Locker (1-4 at 4QC and 2-4 overall 4QC/GWD record)
These two semi-surprise teams in the AFC have played nothing but close games in 2013. Sunday would be the tightest yet for 60 minutes (and then some). San Diego took a 17-10 lead into the fourth quarter, but failed to score on its final three drives.
Tennessee chipped away with a field goal drive, kept alive by a 17-yard pass to Nate Washington on fourth-and-3. The Chargers were bleeding the clock, but a huge holding penalty on Rich Ohrnberger stalled the drive. Not even giving Philip Rivers a chance on third-and-9, San Diego ran the ball for just four yards.
After a penalty on the punt, Jake Locker was faced with a difficult situation to earn his first fourth-quarter comeback win: go 94 yards in 2:05 without a timeout. He did just lead a 99-yard go-ahead drive in Houston last week, but this was time sensitive. Like in Houston, he was again very good on the drive in what was overall one of his better games in the NFL (and possibly his best).
Following five straight completions to start the drive, Delanie Walker's dropped pass nearly ended things with an interception on the bounce, but to Walker's credit he hit the defender to cause the incompletion. From the San Diego 34-yard line, Locker had Damian Williams open in the end zone, but he overthrew him. Sticking with the deep ball, Locker gave Justin Hunter a chance in one-on-one coverage with Crezdon Butler and he won for his first career reception with 15 seconds left. That's some first impression for the rookie.
Rivers moved the ball to his own 43-yard line with two seconds left, down to one miracle. The lateral-filled play lasted forever, but what better way to end it than Rivers kicking the ball and walking off in disgust?
Classic San Diego and a great day for Locker and the Titans.
Win Probability (GWD): 0.53
Quarterback: Matthew Stafford (8-15 at 4QC and 10-15 overall 4QC/GWD record)
We have good news and bad news, Washington fans. The good: you made it through each quarter with the game still being competitive. The bad: your defense is still awful and Robert Griffin III is not quite back yet. He threw an interception in the red zone in the second quarter that was so bad, well…
Tied 17-17 in the fourth quarter, Griffin scrambled into scoring range, but his headfirst dive ended with a fumble. Despite the fact he went down on his own, the ground can cause a fumble here, hence the Lions recovered the ball for a huge turnover. Watching the Victor Cruz play in Arizona (2011) and seeing that ruled as Cruz giving himself up, it's hard to see much difference from what Griffin did here. That's a tough one.
To make matters worse, it took two plays for Matthew Stafford to put the ball in field goal range after a 47-yard pass to a wide open Nate Burleson. David Akers made the 28-yard field goal, but 11:08 remained.
Griffin appeared to have a 57-yard touchdown pass to Aldrick Robinson, but it was taken away after review showed him failing to complete the process of the catch. The Redskins botched the next snap and would have to punt.
Detroit went into clock-killing mode early. Facing a fourth-and-1 at the Washington 12-yard line with 4:47 left, Jim Schwartz obliged me with the quarterback sneak. Of course Stafford converted. Even better, the Lions went for the dagger with a dangerous pass to Calvin Johnson that found its way in there for the touchdown. That's how you extend the lead. That's 27-17 with 3:56 left, and that's 0-3 for Washington.
The Redskins did get a field goal and the ball again, down 27-20, with 0:38 left. But Griffin threw his Hail Mary to the side with four Lions and one Redskin instead of the big group with the other Redskins, so of course the game ended with no catch.
For the first time ever, the Giants, Redskins and Steelers -- three of the league's old-school franchises -- are all 0-3.
Win Probability (GWD): 0.51
Quarterback: Geno Smith (1-1 at 4QC and 2-1 overall 4QC/GWD record)
Expectations were not very high for these teams with rookie quarterbacks, but so far they have done enough to keep the games manageable for EJ Manuel and Geno Smith. Each team has three game-winning drive opportunities already.
This game probably should have never came down to one, but it did after the Bills rallied back from a 20-6 deficit in the third quarter to tie things 20-20 in the fourth after a 33-yard touchdown pass to Scott Chandler (Steve Johnson with the two-point catch). Part of the problem was penalties. For the game, the Jets had 20 penalties for 168 yards, and no, that's not a typo.
In a game that was filled with big plays, leave it to Santonio Holmes to break free from Justin Rogers on a 69-yard touchdown with 9:23 left. It is the eighth game-winning touchdown catch for Holmes. Smith was 16-of-29 for 331 yards.
Buffalo actually managed four more possessions in the game that would not end as both offenses went in the tank. Buffalo could not get past the Jets' 45-yard line on any of the drives. Manuel was just lobbing passes with no hope of being completed to a Buffalo receiver on third- and fourth-down plays.
Fittingly, the game ended with Manuel being credited with a spike as time expired at his own 10-yard line.
Smith is the first true rookie quarterback since 1960 to lead multiple game-winning drives in his team's first three games. No one saw that coming a few weeks ago, let alone back in April at the draft. It has not always been pretty, but Smith's average quarterback play is still an improvement over what the Jets had a year ago.
Largest Fourth-Quarter Deficit: 3 (27-24)
Win Probability (GWD): 0.35
Quarterback: Brian Hoyer (1-1 at 4QC and 1-1 overall 4QC/GWD record)
Everyone expected the Browns to be packing it in for 2013, but they came out and scored 31 points behind Brian Hoyer. This team had 16 points in the first eight quarters this season. They had 24 by halftime. See, get rid of Trent Richardson and Brandon Weeden, bring back Josh Gordon and problem solved.
Maybe the Vikings are just bad this year, which is what Football Outsiders (and myself personally) expected. But 0-3 with a home loss to Cleveland? That's low. Cleveland had gone 1-23 in its last 24 road games when allowing at least 20 points.
Cleveland brought out the fake punt and fake field goal (both successful), treating this like a Week 17 game for a 3-12 team. It led to a 24-14 lead, but Minnesota started intercepting Hoyer (three on the day) and eventually regained the lead, 27-24, early in the fourth quarter.
Both offenses began to stall at the level you would expect from them. Christian Ponder missed badly on a third-and-4 pass with 3:28 left. This is wide open to Greg Jennings for the first down for a good quarterback, but look where Ponder throws it.
Hoyer started at his own 45-yard line with 3:21 left, so this was a great setup to at least tie. The only other comeback opportunity in his career came in 2009 against Houston in Week 17 when the Patriots took Tom Brady out of the game late.
Already with 43 attempts on the day, Hoyer proceeded to throw it on 11 consecutive plays. He hit six of them with Gordon and tight end Jordan Cameron making the big plays. Gordon moved the ball to the Minnesota 7-yard line with 1:05 left. Now this is where many teams fail to get the winning touchdown and settle for the tie. Cleveland went for the win, but a misfire and a throwaway quickly brought up third-and-goal.
That's okay. Cameron on safety Harrison Smith is a mismatch and he came down with his third score of the day on a beautiful catch. Cleveland led 31-27.
Ponder found a way to run seven plays in 47 seconds, but those short completions are not much help when you need a touchdown. One Hail Mary from the Cleveland 34-yard line did not connect while the second never started as a sack by Desmond Bryant -- Cleveland's sixth of the day-- ended the game.
If the Browns aren't done in 2013, then the Vikings sure are.
Largest Fourth-Quarter Deficit: 3 (23-20)
Win Probability (GWD): 0.32
Quarterback: Ryan Tannehill (2-5 at 4QC and 2-5 overall 4QC/GWD record)
For the fourth time in five games, the Atlanta Falcons blew a double-digit lead. The only time they did not (Week 2 vs. St. Louis), they saw a 24-3 lead whittled down to seven points.
Mike Smith's Falcons may have the reputation as a team that pulls out tight games late, but they are very good in the first quarter too. From 2008-12, the Falcons led the league in first-quarter scoring differential (2.52 points per game). On Sunday, it was 10-0 Atlanta after having the ball twice.
The lead grew to 20-10 in the third quarter, but the Dolphins responded well despite two turnovers by Ryan Tannehill. The game was tied at 20 to start the fourth quarter. Jacquizz Rodgers and Jason Snelling were very productive in place of Steven Jackson. Snelling picked up 34 yards on a catch that was all YAC. That put the ball at the Miami 15-yard line, but Ryan threw three straight incompletions, forcing Matt Bryant to kick a 33-yard field goal. Atlanta led 23-20 with 11:39 left.
Miami, just 1-5 at 4QC in 2012, went three-and-out. The clock read 10:14, but the Falcons moved it under five minutes as they often do. With Roddy White still trying to play through injury, Julio Jones had to step up again. He had two big catches for 43 yards on the drive, but on third-and-4 at the Miami 17-yard line, Ryan was under pressure and threw the ball away. That's when Bryant surprisingly blew the 35-yard kick wide right with 4:46 to play.
Now the Dolphins had plenty of time to drive for the winning touchdown and did indeed use up 13 plays and 4:08 to do it. On the drive Tannehill was 9-of-12 passing (two drops) for 69 yards. Down to the 1-yard-line, Tannehill used play-action to find tight end Dion Sims for the game-winning touchdown. Stephen Nicholas was no match in coverage.
Ryan is the master of the one-minute drill, but this was 80 yards for a touchdown and only one timeout with 38 seconds left. That's 0.05 in terms of win probability. It only took two plays before Ryan's floater was intercepted to clinch the win for Miami (3-0).
After winning the regular-season crown last year at 13-3, the Falcons are 1-2 with the undefeated Patriots coming to town. It's not time to panic, but losing these early leads needs to cease.
Only two this week -- both eventually decided by at least 17 points -- but both results were a bit shocking.
What's this? What's this?
There's running everywhere
There's incompletions in the air
I can't believe my eyes
I must be dreaming
Wake up, Scott, this isn't real
This game may have been the shocker of the young 2013 season. The Colts, who play just about everyone close, went into San Francisco as 10-point underdogs and came out with a 27-7 win -- their largest margin of victory since "Manning Bowl II" in 2010.
The Colts traded for Trent Richardson and somehow overnight they became the 2005 Pittsburgh Steelers, winning the ground battle (180 to 116) and having Andrew Luck throw it just 27 times for a career-low 164 yards.
It was coach Chuck Pagano's dream to build a team that won by playing smash-mouth offense and great defense. For the first time in years, the Colts looked like that team on Sunday, which is shocking given the high expectations for San Francisco after last week's ugly loss in Seattle.
Perhaps the 49ers, and Colin Kaepernick who struggled mightily against what was a suspect defense, are not who we thought they were. Kaepernick was just 2-of-8 passing at half-time and one of those completions was nearly intercepted. He was missing Vernon Davis and the receivers, outside of Anquan Boldin, are just not that impressive right now.
Richardson scored a one-yard touchdown on his first carry and the Colts led 10-7 at the half in an unexpected grind. San Francisco's only scoring drive of the day (a 91-yard march) featured the type of running attack we have come to expect from this offense, but the Colts shut things down afterwards. They beat the 49ers at their own game.
Reggie Wayne came alive late in the third quarter, but the Colts could not extend their 13-7 lead after Adam Vinatieri missed a 51-yard field goal with 12:41 to play. Even with great field position, the 49ers had their fourth three-and-out drive of the day after Kaepernick was sacked on third down. The Colts did a solid job of disguising who was rushing late in the play clock.
Ultimately, four rushers came at Kaepernick and the sack was split between Cory Redding and Robert Mathis. Now Indianapolis has really struggled to score points in the second half of games. They have been held to 0-7 points in 11 second halves since 2012. Heading into Week 3 that trailed only Jacksonville (12) for the most such games.
This was a big 80-yard drive to put the game away, but it would have stalled at midfield if not for a defensive holding call on third down. Darrius Heyward-Bey argued like hell for the flag, and surprisingly he was rewarded with a late one. At this point Ahmad Bradshaw took over with the best run of the season for the Colts, gaining 27 yards to put the ball in the red zone. Three plays later it was third-and-3 -- let it be known to Bill Polian this was not due to Richardson -- and Luck called his own number on a naked bootleg for a six-yard touchdown run with 4:13 left.
The Colts badly botched the math by kicking the extra point to take a 20-7 lead. You have to go for two there, but with the way the 49ers were playing offensively, it would not matter. Kaepernick was sacked again on third down and fumbled the ball. Bradshaw punched in an insurance touchdown for the 27-7 final.
Richardson had 13 carries for 35 yards while Bradshaw and Donald Brown combined for 22 carries for 120 yards. While I can easily start bashing the trade again, we should have plenty of opportunities to do so. For this week, the fact the Colts had an effective running game in San Francisco of all places is remarkable.
I have watched every single Pittsburgh game live, in its entirety, for over a decade now, but on Sunday night that streak ended. While "the standard" was part of the reason, I wanted to watch the series finale of Dexter without spoilers. With the way this game started, by 9 p.m. it did not seem like it would be even necessary to write about it here.
Well, the Steelers did finally find an offense capable of moving the ball and scoring points. Even with a pick-six and 24-3 deficit, they were still in the game by half-time. The defense started to tighten, the offense stopped turning the ball over (for the moment) and Antonio Brown had a career game (nine catches for 196 yards and two scores).
Just like that, the Bears were hanging on to a 27-20 lead to start the fourth quarter. Pittsburgh settled for a field goal after the pass rush did enough to disrupt two Ben Roethlisberger passes to Brown.
With the Bears' sputtering offense just 2-of-10 on third down, the Steelers looked to be in good position after forcing a third-and-10 situation. That's when Jay Cutler came alive with a 13-yard scramble, laying a big hit into Robert Golden at the end of the play. On third-and-12, Pittsburgh's blitz was easily picked up and Cutler went deep for Brandon Marshall, who made the 41-yard catch with Ike Taylor in coverage. On third-and-5, Cutler went to Earl Bennett in the corner of the end zone for a 17-yard touchdown. It had to be challenged, but Bennett did a great job of dragging his second foot for the catch.
But aren't the Steelers and Dick LeBeau so great on third-and-long? Mike Tirico said it was true.
Well, statistically no defense has allowed more first downs (147) or a higher conversion rate (24.8 percent) on third-and-10 or longer since 2004. So no, that's a myth. When you like giving up a 10-yard cushion to receivers, it would make sense you would struggle more than other teams in these situations.
Three huge plays by Chicago on third down -- they were the three longest plays of the night for Cutler -- and the Steelers were toast at 34-23 with 5:48 left. Roethlisberger's second lost fumble was returned for a touchdown to produce the 40-23 final (the extra point was blocked). That's the most points allowed by a Mike Tomlin team (107 games).
It is the first 0-3 start for Pittsburgh since 2000. The Steelers are minus-nine in turnover differential with a big, fat zero on the takeaway side. They are the sixth team to go theft-less through three games in NFL history. That's not good news.
|NFL Teams with Zero Takeaways Thru 3 Games|
|Broncos||1979||2-1||10-6 (Lost AFC-WC)||37 (17th)|
|Rams||2004||1-2||8-8 (Lost NFC-DIV)||15 (31st)|
The Bears are doing usual Bears things with 11 takeaways in three games, but they do need to create more normal stops as that well will dry up like last season. For now, they are 3-0 and leading the NFC North as the Marc Trestman hiring looks mighty fine.
Fourth-quarter comebacks: 18
Game-winning drives: 19
Games with 4QC opportunity: 33/48 (68.8 percent)
10+ point comeback wins (any point in the game): 6
Future Encounters: Can the Rams again prevent the 49ers from beating them on Thursday night? I will accept anything but a tie. New England at Atlanta sounds good, but not good enough to keep me from turning the channel to AMC for Breaking Bad at 9 p.m. That will be over before what hopefully is a highly competitive game between the two quarterbacks with the best game-winning drive records in NFL history. Big stakes in Bears at Lions, while Tony Romo ("NFC Choker Guy") will meet Philip Rivers ("AFC Choker Guy") in a game I can only hope makes it to this column next week.
19 comments, Last at 25 Sep 2013, 7:39pm by LionInAZ