In what is likely the best opening week of college football we've seen in years, we're treated to a series of neutral-site, out-of-conference matchups that could have a resounding impact on the entire college football season.
29 Oct 2008
by Doug Farrar
New York Giants 21 at Pittsburgh Steelers 14
The defensive line was unquestionably the star of the New York Giants' improbable championship run last season. In Super Bowl XLII, that line decimated New England's seemingly impenetrable front five, wreaking havoc all day. The Giants continue to perform at a very high level in that department, ranking seventh in defensive DVOA and ninth in defensive Adjusted Line Yards despite the losses of Michael Strahan and Osi Umenyiora. Only the Steelers have a higher Adjusted Sack Rate.
Still, if you look at the games and the numbers this year, the Giants' best line currently resides on the other side of the ball. This was an underrated unit last year, and they're finally getting some attention as the offense becomes the story. You can't rank first overall in offensive DVOA without a great line. I had been waiting to write about this line until they came up against a real test, and a trip to Pittsburgh to face the Steelers' awesome defense seemed like the perfect time. Left tackle David Diehl, left guard Rich Seubert, center Shaun O'Hara, right guard Chris Snee, and right tackle Kareem McKenzie had to make some adjustments and it took some time to set everything right. But in the end, the Giants won the battles up front, and I think this game was a real turning point for the five guys who keep the New York offense running.
On the first play of the game, first-and-10 from the New York 20, the Steelers brought four at the line. Running back Brandon Jacobs headed right on a pitch, and Snee pulled right. Gap integrity is a huge thing when you're facing the Steelers, and linebacker James Farrior got inside between right tackle Kareem McKenzie and tight end Kevin Boss as McKenzie dealt with the push inside. As Snee pushed LaMarr Woodley outside, Farrior wrapped up Jacobs, and the Giants suffered a loss of three yards on the first play.
On second-and-13, Larry Foote blitzed untouched, but Manning, operating out of the shotgun, hit running back Derrick Ward on a four-yard outlet pass. The Giants then got their first taste of that creative Pittsburgh defense, where linebackers and safeties can arrive from a host of different locations. Third-and-9 saw the Steelers bring five, with Troy Polamalu giving a presnap blitz look before dropping into coverage. It took a shotgun formation (and Jacobs helping with backfield blocking for Manning) to complete an eight-yard pass to (the other) Steve Smith. One yard short of their first first down, the G-Men punted the ball away.
The second drive was slightly more successful, as the Giants started from their own 35 with a 17-yard pass from Manning to Domenik Hixon. Operating out of the shotgun again, and with Jacobs helping with blocking, Manning had just enough time to get the ball off. The Giants showed their first power formation from the Steelers' 48, with seven at the line and Jacobs getting five yards. O'Hara did well to engage nose tackle Casey Hampton at the snap, passing him off to Snee and hitting the second level. A cutback lane was open for Jacobs on the left side, and that's where he went before Hampton moved over to make the tackle. Chris Hoke replaced Hampton on the next play, which allowed O'Hara to get down and dirty with some really nice (legal) handfighting inside.
The Giants were doing well here, matching the physical Steelers blow for blow. Third-and-five from the Pittsburgh 43 saw the Steelers break through, but Manning dumped another pass off to Ward out of a shotgun, trips left formation. Ward rumbled forward down to the Steelers' 26-yard line. Just as much as the New York line was ready for the challenge of that defense, the game plan was also to mitigate constant pressure with shorter passes, and the Giants took their chances with their physical backs against the Steelers linebackers and secondary in space. Ward led the Giants with five receptions.
One reason for the Giants' success against the tough middle of the Pittsburgh defense, led by Hampton, was that they weren't afraid to go back to the well if something didn't work. Against defenses this effective, you'll often see teams finesse themselves out of the picture, but offensive coordinator Kevin Gilbride refused to play that game. When Jacobs was stopped for no gain on first-and-10 from the Pittsburgh 26 with nine minutes left in the first quarter, the next call was Jacobs inside, and this time, it was a six-yard gain. On the first run, the Steelers simply caved that line in. But the Giants responded with force on the six-yarder, as Jacobs headed off left guard with Snee pulling left and demolishing Larry Foote and pushing him back a good three yards.
I have been impressed in the past with this line's ability to block in tandem, pulling guards against slide protection. I was just as impressed in this game with the ability to line up, straight ahead, and go man-on-man when the first play from scrimmage indicated that the fancy stuff was out. Manning continues his short shotgun passes, and the linemen held the point just long enough. A Jacobs fumble recovered by McKenzie helped stall that drive and led to a John Carney field goal, but the Giants knew they had the line to withstand Pittsburgh's brutal attack.
The Giants couldn't get more than four field goals thorough the start of the fourth quarter; not even their line could trump the Steelers defense in the red zone. They have had more trouble offensively in the red zone, based on their DVOA in that area, than anywhere else. They rank 21st in the red zone, and 11th in goal-to-go. The surprise was that the Steelers defense -- 18th in red zone pass DVOA, 7th in rushing red zone DVOA, and 31st in goal-to-go situations -- had been problematic through week seven. This game alone shot them up to first in red zone rushing DVOA, and seventh in goal-to-go.
Appropriately, a block won the game for the Giants. Tied at 14 halfway through the fourth quarter after James Harrison's emergency try at long-snapping gave the Giants a safety, New York drove from their own 47 down to the Pittsburgh 2-yard line in six plays. The blocking of that line and tight end Boss was never more impressive. On second-and goal with 3:11 left in regulation, the Giants went heavy right, with guard Kevin Boothe lined up outside McKenzie. The play went left, as Harrison left his coverage area to go after the run, only to be blown back by Jacobs on a block that left Harrison wondering exactly where he was. Manning threw the ball to a wide-open Boss in the end zone, and that was the ballgame.
In the end, the Giants wore the Steelers down, and it was just as much about their offensive line as it was their vaunted defense. Pittsburgh gained only 10 yards in the fourth quarter, while the Steelers' defense gave up crucial longer runs on first down in the final Giants' scoring drive. New York's linemen were tested and pushed back repeatedly, but they kept fighting back and they showed their persistence in the end. This is where the heart of the defending champs can be found.
Atlanta Falcons 14, Philadelphia Eagles 27
Coming out of their nightmare 2007 season and needing a complete makeover more than any other NFL team, the Atlanta Falcons started their 2008 draft by selecting Boston College quarterback Matt Ryan third overall. Compared by many to another B.C. alum named Matt (Hasselbeck), Ryan was considered to be the best of a very weak quarterback class. The Falcons could have bolstered their line with that high pick, but that pulled the trigger on Ryan, and that decision has already proven to be very wise. Through seven games, Atlanta is 4-3, having matched last year's win total, and Ryan currently ranks 14th in DYAR among quarterbacks this season. He faced his biggest challenge to date at Philly's Lincoln Financial Field against an Eagles team ranked fourth in pass defense DVOA and fourth in Defensive Adjusted Sack Rate. Defensive coordinator Jim Johnson is well-known for his creative blitz packages, and lesser rookies would have folded in the face of Johnson's defense.
Ryan started the game deflecting Philadelphia's pressure with a short slant to Brian Finneran, a rollout pass to Roddy White, and a swing pass to Jerious Norwood. Taking the ball from his own 22 to the 50-yard line, Ryan then overthrew Harry Douglas out of the shotgun on third-and-4 to end Atlanta's first drive. On Atlanta's second drive, Ryan kept with the quick outs to offset pressure. He did have trouble with Asante Samuel. The cornerback tipped two early passes, and picked Ryan off on third-and-13 at the Philadelphia 32. Ryan thought he had Douglas downfield, and Samuel jumped the route.
The first quarter ended in frustration for the Falcons; drive number three went no further than the first two. Ryan only had two passes on this drive. On the first one, he tried a little pump fake and discovered that timing is very important when you're facing the Eagles defense; Trent Cole came through and just plowed him, picking up what looked like a pretty ticky-tack unnecessary roughness call in the process. Cole started his descent on Ryan as Ryan still had the ball, and I continue to wonder how the NFL expects defenders to de-molecuralize before they hit the quarterback when they're that close and the ball remains in the quarterback's hands. Ryan got his clock cleaned on a fair hit. The second pass was a five-yarder to Norwood on third-and-8 out of a shotgun set with two backs; the Falcons weren't going to jeopardize the franchise again.
The second quarter started out as more of the same. Ryan found out a bit more about NFL secondaries when Sheldon Brown broke up an out route to Roddy White on first-and-10, and Samuel broke up a beautiful long pass to White on third-and-9. The ball was at the end of White's reach, and Samuel pulled White away from the ball as he was trying to take it in.
Finally, drive number five saw some payoff. Ryan hit Michael Jenkins over the middle for 19 yards on first-and-20 (after a Todd Weiner holding penalty) as a two-tight set brought additional protection. He then overthrew Norwood by a couple time zones on a long play-action pass, and missed a screen to running back Jason Snelling after a fake draw. But on third-and-10 from the Atlanta 45 and 9:05 left in the first half, Ryan threw the kind of pass that has so many people excited about his future. The Falcons went shotgun, two backs, and Ryan threw a bullet between Samuel and linebacker Stewart Bradley (who will have his own Cover-3 profile soon) into White's hands. White ran 38 yards to the end zone. Samuel and Bradley were running toward each other, in a direct path to where the ball had to be for White to catch it. Ryan had to calculate the timing of that pass at a freakish level to avoid any number of things gong wrong, and that's exactly what he did.
Ryan ended his day with 23 completions in 44 attempts for 277 yards, two sacks, two touchdowns and two picks. Some of those incompletions were pressure-based, as the Eagles lived up to their reputation. Ryan ranked 13th in DYAR among quarterbacks last week. Were it not for a ridiculous unreviewable muffed punt call late in the game, the Falcons had a decent shot at an upset. Though he's still learning and the curve is always steep for NFL quarterbacks, Ryan was a big part of that. I asked Rob Rang, NFLDraftScout.com's Senior Draft Analyst, if there's anything that surprises him about Ryan's success based on what he saw of Ryan at Boston College.
"I'm not really surprised that Ryan has succeeded this early, but I am a little surprised that he's done it with a team that everyone wrote off before the season started," Rang said. "You could argue that the biggest surprise of Atlanta's draft has been left tackle Sam Baker, whose play has obviously helped his quarterback. But Ryan is a leader, he's a very cerebral quarterback, and he's great on the field as far as accuracy, reading defenses and adjusting at the line. You might beat him once, but he's going to learn from it and take care of things next time.
"Ryan doesn't have that huge arm, and I think a lot of teams fall in love with arm strength, but he's got enough to get the ball where it needs to go, and he's got so many other attributes."
I concur. Having watched Ryan in four different Falcons games, I don't think there's a necessary skill he either doesn't have or can't acquire over time. I am impressed with his ability to throw across his body -- not with the show-offy mystery balls you'll get from some of the stronger-armed quarterbacks in history, but passes with touch and accuracy. The late pass to Michael Jenkins that set up the winning field goal in the win over the Bears two weeks ago was a great example of that.
While he's not as mobile as Atlanta's last franchise quarterback, Ryan has the ability to roll out without losing his form and he's adept at stepping out of pressure in the pocket. It's unusual for a quarterback to have his sense of the pocket this early on in his NFL career, especially against a defense that brings this much pressure. Ryan's got all the throws, and his ability to stay cool under pressure will serve him very well as the Falcons find their way. If you want to find the next great NFL quarterback, this is where you should start looking.
Seattle Seahawks 34 at San Francisco 49ers 13
I had a few ideas for the third subject in this week's Cover-3, but then I remembered that Craig Massei, a good friend who covers the San Francisco 49ers for the SF Insider Web site and magazine, was a party to the most talked-about coach's press conference since Dennis Green wigged out two years ago. When new Niners head coach Mike Singletary threw tight end Vernon Davis off the field in a loss to the Seahawks and then went off postgame about what he will and will not accept, it was more than YouTube magic -- it was a balm for fans who have had their fill of this formerly great franchise's inability to resemble any fraction of what used to be.
Massei has covered the team for years, but nothing could prepare him for Singletary's mission statement. "I've never been around anything like it before in my life," he said. "It was spine-tingling because it was so forceful and genuine. One of my colleagues called it the greatest postgame news conference in history. It was really something. It kind of left you in awe, and it was something that immediately became the story and left the game kind of secondary. It made me think that, man, this guy's got something here."
One of the reasons that the press conference resonated so strongly was Singletary's role with the team. Mike Nolan's first hire when he took over the team in early 2005, Singletary "definitely was called upon for motivation and intensity," Craig said. "He'd often address the team once a week with a speech."
Why Davis? Was this a cumulative issue that finally boiled over? "Davis really hasn't been that much of a problem (in the past)," Massei said. "He's a hard-working guy, but he's still immature and has a big ego. Singletary was just setting him straight, and his action shouldn't be taken for more than that. I don't see it hurting the team in any way, and some will see it as a positive that he went overboard to make a point to Davis."
Still, Singletary's got a real uphill battle with his current team. "He's raising the Titanic," Massei said. "Something is wrong with this team at its core. Yeah, there's some good talent, but this team's a wreck right now. It's really sort of difficult to say what the front office is thinking, because things are sort of up in the air in that department also, and I think the team is thinking of cleaning house as much as anything after the season. I think the front office is going to kind of go with the flow with Singletary for a while and see where it leads."
Going with the flow is hardly Singletary's nature, though. It sounds as if everyone else will be trying to catch up!
27 comments, Last at 31 Oct 2008, 11:11pm by tuluse