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.
15 Sep 2013
by Rivers McCown
In a unsecluded photo booth in a mall in Middle America...
Good morning Mr. Johnson, Ms. Paul, I hope your paper-to-online blueprint plan is going well.
Before he won the Alabama game and the Heisman Trophy last year, Johnny Manziel was just another college football player that had no national footprint to speak of. Now, with the powers of mythmaking and a scandal over something as silly as allegedly selling autographs for money, The Johnny Manziel Story has evolved into an ever-present typhoon that threatens to consume us all. Lesser stories of actual goodness, of actual sadness, have been destroyed in its wake. CBS kept a camera on the man for the entirety of Saturday's matchup against No. 1 Alabama, no doubt waiting for him to rub his fingers together again.
Your mission, if you choose to accept it, is to spread the word of this ancient philosophy of journalism called "covering your subject." It is something that often gets lost in today's world, with the volume of information about the biggest stories quickly reaching critical mass.
To review, covering your story isn't always easy. When you are dealing with the pack of workaholic sociopaths that often become head coaches, it can in fact be dangerous for your job. Steve Spurrier will try to get you kicked off the beat. Nick Saban will refuse to answer legitimate public questions about what he knew about D.J. Fluker getting paid at Alabama. The right things in life often aren't easy, and often involve taking a little bit of a risk.
You must teach your colleagues not to allow the mega-story to overwhelm them. Stories of this power must be contained. The world does not need them to grow additional tendrils. Nobody needs to know what Tom Brady thinks of Johnny Manziel. If a person isn't involved in the story, and doesn't directly offer their thoughts on the matter, don't ask about it. Do not grow a garden of different threads because Lou Holtz wanted to grab Manziel by the throat. For that matter, don't ask every NFL owner or former general manager if Aaron Hernandez was on their draft board. Ask them about things they are involved in. You will find plenty of stories in their words, or lack of them, on the subjects they are deeply involved with.
As always, should you be fired for trying to expose the truth about things, there will be another opportunity for you somewhere.
This message will self-destruct if someone does not ask Tim Brando how he feels about it.
I feel one of the important things to do, as a fan and a writer, is to seek out the weirdest dilemma you can and try to explain it. So as a Texans fan this week, that would be ... uhhh, nope, I don't think I can understand this one. How about we just talk about Shiloh Keo?
Keo made two notably big plays on Monday Night Football against the Chargers, slamming Eddie Royal on what would have been a crucial third-down completion to force a punt, and then converting a fourth down on a direct snap as an up man in a punt formation. The hit on Royal was the first time I've ever seen Keo do something appreciably worthwhile as an NFL defender, so I decided that during my weekly half of charting, I'd make it a point to focus on Keo.
I'd like to tell you that his play was a big spark in the Texans comeback, but he was the designated deep safety on most of their plays, so I'd be lying to you. He only factored into coverage on a few plays beyond the Royal breakup, so I'll go over them from my notes.
First-and-10, 15:00, third quarter: This is one of the few times the Texans are in a two-deep safety look. Keo is playing inside of Malcom Floyd, but Floyd gets by him too quickly. Keo doesn't have the recovery speed to flip his hips and help out, and Floyd catches one over the top of Johnathan Joseph, beginning what would be San Diego's last touchdown drive. Clearly a bad play by the safety.
First-and-10, 3:45, third quarter: Keo is the lone deep safety, the play is to Antonio Gates out wide matched up on Danieal Manning. Keo didn't anticipate the ball heading in that direction at all and had very basic positioning, but it's hard to fault any safety for not getting all the way to the sideline from the middle of the field. Manning broke up the pass.
First-and-10, 9:48, fourth quarter: The Texans bring a zone blitz, I believe they are playing quarters coverage and Keo has the inner left quadrant. That forces Danny Woodhead inside, and that's where Brian Cushing is able to pick off Rivers for the game-tying interception.
Third-and-10, 9:21, fourth quarter: Keo is the lone deep safety, but plays toward the three side of a 3x1 formation. Royal beats Brice McCain to the outside, Keo hangs on to the middle a bit too long and isn't close to the ball when it is delivered. Royal drops it.
Third-and-2, 4:12, fourth quarter: The Texans are in Cover-2. Rivers thinks better of a dumpoff to his back, nearly losing the ball on his pump fake, then scrambles to the right. Keo cheats up, leaving the post route wide open behind him, but Rivers can't see it on the run and clunks a ball harmlessly to the turf in front of Vincent Brown.
The Texans blitzed him a few times at the end of the touchdown drive at the start of the third -- he's just not very instinctual at this at all. Even with a straight line path, he's not fast enough to significantly hurry Rivers at all. Of the special teams snaps I saw, he was unblocked most of the time as the up man, though he did limp off at one point in the third quarter as a blocker without getting a hand on anybody.
I think Keo's limitations are very apparent on film. He's got good natural instincts against the run, but he's not much of a tackler. He's a good special-teamer. The lack of catch-up speed and range keep him from doing much more in the NFL than his current role. He had a few big plays in this game, but they were within the context of the roles he has.
In other words, I think he's improved from an emergency safety to a reasonable third deep safety over this offseason. As long as the Texans can keep him in this specific role, he'll be replacement-level while they wait to see if and when Ed Reed gets back.
St. Louis (+6) at Atlanta - 1:00 PM ET (FOX)
The Falcons had a surprisingly rough time with last year's last-place DVOA defense, New Orleans, in Week 1. Rob Ryan's defense produced three sacks and Roddy White's high-ankle sprain left Matt Ryan with only a laughing clown decoy, which apparently does not distract NFL pass rushers quite as well as it does chainsaw-wielding maniacs. Robert Quinn destroyed Levi Brown last week, as you may have heard about on this site. This week is all about seeing where Sam Baker and Lamar Holmes measure up on Bruce Arians' elite tackle scale.
Carolina (-3) at Buffalo - 1:00 PM ET (FOX)
It's true, our preseason NFC South champs hit a bit of a snag in Week 1. It's also true that they were hosting one of the three NFC teams we had projected ahead of them, and lost by a one-score margin after the startlingly-good Panthers front seven held Seattle in check for most of the game. Buffalo's top-tier defenders (Jairus Byrd, Stephon Gilmore) are likely to miss a second-straight game, but Edge Manuel had a turnover-free debut and Doug Marrone has many advantages over Ron Rivera in that he is a sentient coach. Rivera doesn't know how to Power Slide in Mario Kart and has no interest in finding out how.
Minnesota (+5.5) at Chicago - 1:00 PM ET (FOX)
It is just one week, of course, but it looks like Marc Trestman fixed one of the NFL's most glaring weak spots over the past five years with only one offseason of time, a decent left tackle, a first-round pick, and the Jets guard that didn't buttfumble last season. If this is how quick Canadian investment can improve your life, I have an ex-girlfriend I need to give a second chance to. The Vikings should probably see if Jim Popp would like to be their quarterbacks coach. Or, at this rate, their quarterback.
Washington (+7) at Green Bay - 1:00 PM ET (FOX)
Sometimes, it's the problems you don't think you have. Washington knew it would have problems in the secondary, but probably didn't expect Robert Griffin to spend the entirety of Monday Night Football throwing off this front foot. The Packers focused hard on stopping the read-option, and then Colin Kaepernick threw for 412 yards on them. Green Bay spent all summer going back to school to stop the read option, and absent the Redskins unleashing a still-hurt Griffin, may barely see any of it in the first two weeks against the two teams most well-known for it last season. Maybe they should've just read some Chris Brown articles.
Miami (+1) at Indianapolis - 1:00 PM ET (CBS)
Vick Ballard went down in practice Friday with a season-ending knee injury, which means that for Pep Hamilton to continue ignoring the fact that his quarterback is really good at football, he'll have to shift the between-the-tackles workload to Donald Brown. That may have been a good way for the Colts to draft Andrew Luck in 2011, but it's not necessarily the optimal philosophy when he's already on the roster. Unfortunately, with Cameron Wake lining up over Anthony Castonzo and Gosder Cherilus, Hamilton will probably feel justified in letting the running attack protect his quarterback.
Cleveland (+7) at Baltimore - 1:00 PM EDT (CBS)
After arguably being the MVP of the preseason -- Dave Ragone wants his royalties check -- Brandon Weeden was re-introduced to the crushing reality of actual NFL games against the Dolphins last week. Cian Fahey's debut in Film Room showed the Ravens actually had some pretty damn functional parts on defense while Peyton Manning was busy dragging them up and down the field. Looks like reality will again conspire against the Browns this week, unless they can shutter up the right side of their line and teach Greg Little how to hold on to a football.
Dallas (+3) at Kansas City - 1:00 PM ET (FOX)
We know that the Cowboys probably won't have a +5 turnover margin every week. We also know that the Chiefs, current VOA leaders, probably won't play the Jaguars every week. I'll go out on a limb and predict the following:
San Diego (+7) at Philadelphia - 1:00 PM ET (CBS)
One of my main takeaways from Week 1 is that I probably undersold the San Diego front seven. Even with Bront Bird subbing in for Manti Te'o, and even with a frequent smattering of nickel against two tight end Texans looks, they held their own in the run game. Of course, the Texans offense is like a silent film compared to the unspeakable acts of offense happening under Chip Kelly's watch. Which is too bad, because Matt Schaub running any kind of option is the funniest football-related thing I can think of.
Tennessee (+9.5) at Houston - 1:00 PM ET (CBS)
Titans defensive tackle Jurrell Casey followed his excellent game against Pittsburgh up with the greatest of all Mass Media sins -- the locker room material. "We're going to go out there and make sure we put our foot up their (butt). Sorry about the cuss word," he told ESPN's AFC South blog about this matchup. No real comeback smack talk from the Texans, who instead granted the still-injured Ed Reed a walker for his birthday. Casey could very well have a big game -- Wade Smith is currently still starting at left guard for the Texans, but scouts say Reed's walker has more range.
Detroit (-1) at Arizona - 4:05 PM ET (FOX)
Reggie Bush is going through the hyperbole protocol this week. I've seen fantasy football experts I trust say they'd trade Doug Martin for him. NFL Matchup declared him the most dynamic player of Week 1. Look, Bush does some different things for this offense in the screen game, sure, but ... this is still Reggie Bush, right? Was it Bush in third place in this week's Quick Reads running backs rankings? Bush is a good fit for the scheme and the Lions have drawn up some good plays for him, but he's probably not going to become a breakout star in his eighth season. Now, Larry Fitzgerald playing like he used to? That I can see.
New Orleans (-3) at Tampa Bay - 4:05 PM ET (FOX)
Lavonte David chopped so much wood that he gave the Jets the game, but the real problem Tampa faced was a stagnant offense. Vincent Jackson did fine against Antonio Cromartie, but antiquated route designs and a general lack of consistency have Josh Freeman walking around with his head permanently looking over his shoulder, which helps explain his general lack of accuracy. Another overlooked factor? Carl Nicks out, Gabe Carimi in. That's one way to explain Doug Martin's poor first week. The Saints don't figure to have the manpower up front to exploit that the same way that the Jets do, but the Bucs aren't going to be able to pass muster with 17 points in this one either.
Jacksonville (+5.5) at Oakland - 4:25 PM ET (CBS)
I wrote about Terrelle Pryor's game in Indianapolis for ESPN Insider, then I watched all 60 minutes of the Jaguars-Chiefs game because I'm writing the AFC South chapters for FOA 2014. Did you know we're now entering year three of the Blaine Gabbert era? It feels longer than that, because the quarterback often tied to the Jaguars (for very asinine reasons), Tim Tebow, has been on three teams in that time span. The Jaguars may have had no financial incentive to make a change this season, but at this point in Gabbert's tenure, after watching him take a beating from the Chiefs and cower to the point where his first read was his only read, you can't blame anyone who roots for the Jaguars for wanting to see something different. Playing Gabbert is like playing Monopoly against someone who has hotels on three-fourths of the board.
Denver (-4.5) at NY Giants - 4:25 PM ET (CBS)
Given his 2012 comments that "like birth control, 99.9 percent of the time I'm going to come through for you," David Wilson must be planning on one hell of a long career. Wilson packed an astonishing -144.2% DVOA into seven carries last weekend against the Cowboys. Any fumbles against Denver will immediately be cashed in for points by the Peyton Manning Machine. The strategic question of importance is which Giants receiver the suddenly resurgent Dominique Rodgers-Cromartie will draw.
San Francisco (+2.5) at Seattle - 7:30 PM ET (NBC)
Doug Farrar took a good look at the hows and whys of Anquan Boldin's crazy day on Sunday. Here's how advanced statistics would put it: Boldin had 78 DYAR in Week 1, he had 145 DYAR in 2012. Those bunch formations should keep Richard Sherman from covering Boldin straight-up too often. San Francisco's ability to cover Seattle's deep receiving corps is still an open question, as Aaron Rodgers didn't have many problems there last week.