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?
01 Nov 2006
by Bill Barnwell & Ian Dembsky
Ian: Greetings Rotohead Nation! Welcome to another edition of Scramble for the Ball. This week, I want to start off talking about short-yardage situations. Third-and-1 and fourth-and-1 are such a strange situation in the football world. When they arise, it's as if the game that had been going on stops entirely, and two new units need to come on to the field to determine not which is the better football team, but which is the better rugby team. It's about time we started referring to offense, defense, special teams, and short-yardage as a team's four main units.
How many times have we seen a team moving the ball efficiently up the field, gaining yards in chunks of 4-7 yards, well on their way to a scoring drive, when suddenly a second down play leaves the offense with a third-and-short? We all know what's coming. Remove those oh-so-skilled wide receivers, and don't bother making the defense cover the entire field behind them. Instead, bring in your extra tight ends, your extra offensive linemen, and in some cases a defensive linemen to help show the other team that while you can gain about five yards a play with normal offense, that's not nearly as important as proving your big men can push the other team's big men backwards one yard. Of course, with about 18 big football men stuffed close together, it's not terribly uncommon for the running back to find nowhere to go, and instead go down for a one- or two-yard loss. Now, instead of the well-oiled machine that was moving the ball quite consistently, you now bring on the field goal kicker or the punter, and your offense heads for the sidelines.
I wish teams would not do this. I wish they'd leave the same offensive package on the field that gained five and four yards on the previous plays, and gain another five yards. It's a lot easier to do when the defense has to cover the whole field, as opposed to simply plugging the line of scrimmage with everybody. If you've got a Brandon Jacobs on your team, who pretty much can't be stopped by anyone, then by all means pound away; otherwise leave your skill players on the field and just keep doing what got you to third-and-1 in the first place.
Bill: It's so surreal to see Brandon Jacobs in the sentence above when he was doing his best impersonation of Ron Dayne and Matt Cassel last season. I agree with Ian here, though -- short-yardage is full of too much chicanery right now. I've been watching a lot of Jets games since I'm writing that chapter in the book, and they do some really, really maddening things on offense. They will line up in a tight, bunched formation and then shift guys into five-wide. Why? So we can see Chris Baker run an out and Chad Pennington do his David Eckstein impersonation? That's not using your talent well. Another play they run was covered in this week's Audibles; Bill Moore saw the Jets had Chad Pennington motion out of the backfield and split out wide so that Brad Smith could take the snap. He had the same thought about it I had two weeks ago -- what's the point? It's not as if Pennington is Michael Vick out there. The commentators talk about how "confusing" it must be for the defense, but if anything, it leaves you one guy less to worry about as a receiver, assuming the opponents realize that putting Chad Pennington in the open field is about as ill-advised a personnel move as possible.
Ian: Another thing I want to talk about is the much debated non-touchdown pass to Baker at the end of the Jets-Browns game. With the Jets down seven at the end of the game and facing fourth down, Pennington evaded the rush nicely and lofted a pass to Baker in the corner of the end zone. Cleveland defensive back Brodney Pool nailed Baker before he could come down with the ball inbounds, and Baker was ruled out of bounds -- no catch. This was not a reviewable play, because officials can't "speculate" on whether or not Baker would have come down in bounds; they can only review what actually happened, much to the dismay of Jets fans everywhere.
Here's what I think: Yes, he would have come down inbounds; no, the rules should not be changed to allow for such speculation. However, the rules should, in fact, be changed. Why does the rule exist that if a receiver would have caught a pass in bounds, yet is pushed out, the official can rule that he would have caught it and therefore it's a catch? Here's a crazy idea: Make the receiver get his feet in bounds. That's right, I want to abolish the "force-out" rule. Think about what that rule is saying: If a player would have caught the ball, if not for the defense playing defense, then it should be ruled a catch." How about we remove the confusion, and allow the defense to, well, play defense? If a receiver can't catch the ball and get two feet in (or a knee, butt-cheek, etc.), then he doesn't deserve the catch. End of story.
Bill: I don't know, Ian. I mean, you keep going down this trail, soon every team will be bringing the Nasty Audibles into their playbook again. And what then, I ask? Will you say that the penalties for Ref Bashing should be abolished and that the refs should all look like Ed Hochuli?
Ian: Fans in Dallas have to be in a good mood following Tony Romo's performance in Carolina. Could things have gone any better? He avoided the rush and ran in some key spots. Jason Witten went from an afterthought (and many fantasy waiver wires) to a key target in the offense, and a lucky find for anyone who pounced when someone else dropped him. Then there's Terrell Owens. It's unbelievable that T.O. hadn't gone over 100 yards so far this season with Drew Bledsoe at the helm. Tony is looking to T.O., and looking to him often. Bledsoe was spending too much time looking at the defensive tackles laying on top of him. With the defense paying well, the running game working, and the passing game now on track, Dallas is going to be a serious team to reckon with from here on out.
Bill: I think Drew is probably looking on the bright side right about now. This time, no internal bleeding!
Ian: One team that's already a force to be reckoned with is the San Diego Chargers, and Philip Rivers is a big reason why. Way back in our preview column for the AFC Over-Unders, I had this to say about the Chargers' chances of hitting the over: "The good news is the schedule. The Chargers open with a game at Oakland, then a home game against Tennessee, then a bye week. That should give Philip plenty of time to get his feet wet while the Bolts jump out to a 2-0 record." Things couldn't have gone any more to plan. The Chargers dominated early by leaning on the running game, and now that Rivers is accustomed to the speed of the NFL, he's confident reading the field when it's time to air it out. It certainly doesn't hurt to have defenses focusing so much on Tomlinson, but it's clear that he's developed into a franchise quarterback that should be leading the Bolts for seasons to come.
Bill: Hey, if we're gonna start patting ourselves on the back for what we said about the Chargers in the preview, I believe the words "mortal lock for ten wins" appeared somewhere in there. While the Chargers are doing very well for themselves, I'm a little worried about their front seven. Granted, one of the huge plusses of this team was its depth there, but we've got a linebacker shot and out for the season, a linebacker on steroid suspension, and the Other Ukraine Freight Train on the defensive line out for a month. I'm not worried about those guys who are playing, necessarily, but they're all going to have to see more snaps and be in situations they're not as ideal for -- so expect some degradation of their numbers against the run and against the tight end over the next few weeks. In particular, they're not a particularly good matchup against Kellen Winslow this week.
Ian: One quarterback whose franchise status is on hold is Matt Leinart. What happened? After an incredible debut in which he picked the vaunted Bears defense apart, he's had two miserable outings in a row. This is a prime example of throwing a young passer into the fire to soon. When he lined up against Chicago, the Bears had no idea what to expect, and he surprised them with his quick releases and accurate throws. In the two weeks following his coming out party, opponents have learned to shut down this quick passing game by dropping more linebackers into coverage, since game-planning to stop the run isn't needed to stop the weak ground game headed by Edge. Leinart is having trouble finding open receivers, and then the pocket is breaking down. He'll probably get better down the road, but young quarterbacks often struggle when asked to put the team on their shoulders so early in their careers.
Bill: I think it's just the process of film adjustments. Defenses have adjusted and are double-covering Anquan Boldin (eight catches in two games), which will be alleviated when Larry Fitzgerald returns. In addition, if everyone didn't know the Cardinals offensive line was useless before the Bears game, well, they did afterwards. I'm pretty sure you could stop Edgerrin James with a two- or three-man front at this point, which means there are simply going to be too many bodies in the secondary. I have faith that things will turn around, though. I mean, he's looked bad, but it's not like he's been Alex Smith out there.
Ian: Of course, sometimes veterans have their bad days as well. Brad Johnson was simply awful against New England. I predicted that Minnesota would win the NFC North thanks to "the only consistent quarterback play in the division." Monday night was not consistent quarterback play. The early interception Johnson threw at the Patriots goal line was simply atrocious, a play I've come not to expect from him. It was all downhill from there. He's going to have to play smarter if the Vikings are to compete for a wild card, as the division title is almost certainly out of reach.
Bill:: In all fairness, Ian, I don't see how you could say Brett Favre isn't consistent considering he's on his ninth day with Teamocil. Or Prilosec. Whichever it is.
Ian:It was interesting to note how both the Vikings and Patriots came out with the same game plan. They knew the other team was solid at stopping the run, so they didn't bother with it. It was pass, pass, pass from both offenses. Of course, in a game like that, it's no surprise that the Tom Brady-led Patriots came out victorious.
Some other quick hits from around the league: Just ask Brett Favre how helpful a good ground game is. He's got a 4-0 touchdown-to-interception ratio in his past three games ... The Eagles are once again giving up on the run game too easily. McNabb can't do everything, every week ... As good as Peyton Manning was, let's give credit to Reggie Wayne. That was just a route-running clinic he put on against Denver ... Houston just needs to be rid of David Carr and headed in a new direction. He has talent, but they're not going anywhere with him at the helm. Now Vince Young, there's a winner ... Seneca Wallace's performance on the road in Kansas City deserves far more praise than he's getting credit for ... (Shhh... The Oakland defense is really good...)
Eli: Trying to avoid playing Frank Gore against Minnesota's #2 run defense according to DVOA -- should I go with Corey Dillon against the Colts (30) or Brandon Jacobs against the Texans? Am I overplaying matchups and should I just stick with Gore?
Bill: I don't think you're overplaying matchups at all. The Patriots are going to try and keep the Colts offense off the field this week -- that means a steady dose of Dillon and Laurence Maroney. Two notes of caution, though: first, watch the pre-game shows on Sunday (the only time I'll ever urge you to do so, I promise) to see if the Patriots offensive line will be at 100 percent. Second, the Colts' troubles with establishing a pass rush and the likelihood that this will be a close game mean that Dillon won't be used as much as a pass blocker, meaning his propensity to get a few receptions as the hot read isn't as likely to appear this week.
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Ian: So many people turned in worthy efforts for the award this week. David Carr took a solid ground game and ruined it in a loss to the Titans. Maurice Hicks fumbled away Chicago's first kickoff, setting the tone for an awful day for his team. Tampa Bay's offensive line didn't give their offense a chance, and their receivers dropped numerous well-thrown balls that would have been huge plays. Carolina's receivers also soiled the bed, with virtually everyone getting in on the action. Brad Johnson certainly did his best to give away the game to New England. Stephen Davis' triumphant return became a quick Exit Stage Left when he coughed up a key fumble that was returned for a touchdown.
All of that paled in comparison, however, to the incredible effort by Ben Roethlisberger to deflate his team's chances at victory. You've heard it before, but it bears repeating: Oakland completed five passes for 51 yards. They only rushed for 81 yards. And yet they won by scoring 20 points, thanks in large part to two interceptions returned for touchdowns. Maybe Ben shouldn't have been playing due to the concussion he'd suffered the previous week, but the fact that he convinced his coaching staff to let him play makes him merit this even more. Congratulations Ben Roethlisberger, you're this week's Keep Choppin' Wood Award winner!
Bill: (3-0 last week, 15-8-1 overall)
If I keep this up, Scramble's going to start costing $40 a week and you're going to have to call a 900 number to hear it.
Do you know which Jacksonville is going to show up? That makes one of us. Doesn't matter, though; I think Bad Jacksonville (sadly this isn't Philadelphia or I could talk about Bad Andy) could beat Vince Young by ten at home. Good pizza?
OK, New Orleans had a bad game at home last week. And maybe Reggie Bush is out. Those things are bad. On the other hand, they're playing the Buccaneers. In the swirling Meadowlands on Sunday, they trusted Cadillac Williams enough to ... run the ball eight times for 20 yards. I am saying the Saints bounce back, maybe by double digits. Or maybe Matt Bryant will kick a field goal from the parking lot. Who knows?
This is a total hunch. Sorry. I couldn't pull the trigger on the Patriots at home against the Colts. It's like 65 in Boston today. If it were snowing, totally different story. I don't know, Kellen Winslow goes for 140 yards, the Browns defense keeps LT in check, Michael Turner runs for a long late TD to give the Chargers a slim victory. Why not?
Ian: (3-0 last week, 9-12-3 overall)
Ahhh, it's good to be off the schneid. After a season of disappointing picks, I finally pulled off a 3-0. Not only did I get all three picks right, but the thought behind them was dead on -- The Bears certainly pounded San Francisco into submission, Tony Romo started and was excellent in a high-scoring affair, and Laurence Maroney had a big game while Bill Belichick made Brad Johnson beat the Pats, which he couldn't do. I've got my mojo back, and thankfully I have some more confident picks on the way.
Get on the bandwagon everyone, there's room for all of you! Dallas killed Washington early in the season, and they've only gotten better since. Meanwhile, the Redskins have lost three games in a row, including a demoralizing loss to the Titans. These are teams headed in opposite directions, and that's going to continue on Sunday.
Someone explain this one to me. A week after covering a 16.5 point spread by nearly double, now they're only 13.5 point favorites against the floundering fish in windy, cold Chicago? Does anyone thing Joey Harrington will come in and lead the Dolphins to a near-upset of the Bears? Chicago will cover this one, easy.
In case you hadn't noticed, the Green Bay offense is on fire. They actually had two 100-yard rushers this past Sunday, and it took them only a combined 32 rushes to get there. Favre's not turning the ball over, and the defense has really come together and is performing well. Buffalo, meanwhile, is struggling to find an identity, and they're going to struggle against the Pack this weekend.
124 comments, Last at 09 Nov 2006, 2:48pm by Sid