compiled by Doug Farrar
Each Sunday, the FO staff sends around e-mails to each other, both during and after the games. It lets us share ideas for columns and comments, and get an idea of how teams that we can't watch are playing. Be aware that the material in this roundtable might seem a bit disjointed and un-edited. It also might still show up later in the week in other columns, or in comments in PFP 2008. Games are chosen based on our own personal viewing preferences, and are going to reflect the teams we support and the cities where we live.
New York Giants 16 at Philadelphia Eagles 13
Mike Tanier: The Eagles ran a reverse wideout option where Donovan McNabb had to block for Greg Lewis, who threw a deep pass to L.J. Smith. Whoever came up with that play should be slapped. "Let's see, we'll have McNabb risk his health by blocking, we'll have Greg Lewis making decisions with the ball in his hands, and we'll have L.J. trying to make a catch in traffic. That's freakin' brilliant. Can we bring Ryan Moats back and have him do some algebra during the play, too?"
Ben Riley: Wow. I just switched over to this game to see Plaxico Burress make a nice catch and then run for about ten yards holding the football like a baton in one hand. Does he always do that? And didn't Tom Coughlin teach Tiki the wondrous benefits of the four-point hold?
Ned Macey: Not exactly a Donovan McNabb redemption game. I have no idea how the Eagles look so good at some points and so bad at others. They marched the ball early and then just drifted for two quarters. At the end, they ran out of time despite two solid drives. Interesting play call when the Eagles were driving late. They ran it on second-and-long and third-and-long, forcing a fourth-and-6. Jason Avant gets hit early by Pierce, but no ref would ever make a call there on a desperation fourth-down play. (I kid -- the call should have been made last week against Baltimore, but also on Pierce.)
The Eagles, I believe, have outscored their opponents and are sitting at 5-8.
Mike Tanier: I really don't know what to say. Being an Eagles fan hasn't been fun lately. I wait for someone to make a play. Brian Westbrook makes one. I wait for somebody else, on offense or defense. Trent Cole comes through once in a while. Kevin Curtis or Lito Sheppard, maybe. When anyone else does something positive, it comes as a mortal shock. Brown made a great catch ... oh my God! Greg Lewis had a big game: Shocking! I have no faith that Takeo Spikes will make a big stop on defense or that a kick returner will break one or that a backup tight end will catch five passes for 45 yards and take pressure off everyone else.
I've watched the roster talent slowly slip since the Super Bowl year, all the while straining my eyes to see if Omar Gaither could be as good as the young Trotter or if Brian Dawkins could turn back the clock. Now I miss Cory Simon and Chad Lewis, Duce Staley and nickel backs like Al Harris and Rod Hood. I miss young Dawkins and young McNabb, young Tra Thomas and Jon Runyan. I don't want to rebuild, but I don't want to watch this team, this system, keep slipping.
St. Louis Rams 10 at Cincinnati Bengals 19
Ben Riley: Anyone know why Pat Summerall is calling the this game? His voice alone is almost making this game watchable. Almost.
Bill Barnwell: It's the FOX G-Team!
Miami Dolphins 17 at Buffalo Bills 38
Mike Tanier: Not watching this game, but I give the Dolphins a lot of credit for using guys like Beck, Gado, and Ginn. If they are going to stink, it's the least they can do to use lots of guys with short, easy-to-spell names so we don't have to waste our time with a lot of excess typing.
Ryan Wilson: Kudos to the Dolphins for using Lemon too. He just replaced Beck.
Ben Riley: You can call him "Cleo" if you want to save a letter.
Surprisingly, this game will continue to dominate my morning Audibles. Rian Lindell just nailed a 51-yard field goal in heavy rain to set a new Bills record for consecutive field goals (18). Somewhere, Vince Gallo is writing a sequel.
Oakland Raiders 7 at Green Bay Packers 38
Ben Riley: I'd be curious to chat with the game charters who do Green Bay games to see if Donald Driver always jumps a step backwards before he starts to run forward, or only when I'm watching him. It's a surprisingly effective move that tends to freeze the corner and allows Driver to pick up some nice yards after the catch.
I was about to start gushing over Ryan Grant until I remembered the leaking sieve that is the Raiders' run defense. Honestly, I think I would set the over/under on Ben Riley's rushing yards against Oakland's defense at 65.
("Bet the under!" -- Tanier.)
Doug Farrar: As favorable as you'd think the Ryan Grant-versus-the Oakland defensive line matchup would be for the Packers, it's made even more so by the Raiders' defensive staff, who must be game-planning based on two-month-old tape. They're running a lot of nickel coverage, focusing on bringing pressure with four, and leaving huge holes for Grant to run through. They do know that Brett Favre was injured against the Cowboys, right? Maybe you stop the run and then deal with whatever Favre might try to throw at you? I'm kind of astonished by this, considering that teams have run almost 200 more times on the Raiders than they've passed. In the first half, Green Bay ran 18 times and threw 14 times. Not unpredictable.
The Al Harris first-half interception was all about effort. Josh McCown had overthrown Jerry Porter by about ten yards, but Harris kept hustling on the route while Porter went into his, "Oh, look -- another crappy throw from a Raiders quarterback" stride. On the other hand, Porter's touchdown at the end of the first half was an across-the-body throw by McCown that was more in Harris' breadbasket, and Harris was all over Porter, but Atari Bigby knocked Harris off the play as Porter took the ball away. I have a feeling that when all is said and done, Bigby could join DeShaun Foster as an all-time FO bete noire.
Bill Barnwell: I've said it before, but watching Favre move around in the pocket is really a thing of beauty -- there's never a misstep. He always knows exactly where to step to and where his protection is.
You know it's cold when Ed Hochuli is wearing a long-sleeved shirt.
I like Josh McCown, but he hasn't looked great. His completions are either to wide-open receivers in zones or, in the case of his touchdown pass, a lob that should have been intercepted but for a miraculous Jerry Porter leap.
Oakland is "...beginning to believe in the system." What part of the system is that? The one that allows seemingly eight yards a carry?
Doug Farrar: There seems to be more of a concerted effort in the second half for Oakland to follow Grant with its linebackers. They'll blitz once in a while, but all Favre has to do is the quick step-up-and- throw, so that's generally no good. Another of the seemingly endless questions about this formerly great Raiders defense (they really were quite good last year, right? That wasn't a mirage?) is when the tackling in the secondary became so atrocious. There seems to be a lack of overall coordination back there, as if you'd be more likely to suffer a hit by an Oakland defensive back if you were another Oakland defensive back.
Of course, you probably don't want Stanford Routt solo on Greg Jennings on a Brett Favre bomb, either. I think that was a clear example of the "Mike Rumph Variable." Tight end Donald Lee put this game far, far away with a long touchdown run after catch, during which he stiff-armed Stuart Schweigert into next month. Favre reacted by giving center Junius Coston a big ol' butt slap. A spontaneous and funny gesture -- unfortunately, it triggered a barrage of "Brett Favre is just having fun out there" stuff from the booth. Lord, save us. What Favre is doing is looking very good after that outing against Dallas, and this isn't a team I'd want to face in the playoffs.
Sean McCormick: That was about as embarrassing a tackle attempt by Schweigert as you'll see in this league. He had the angle to take Lee down around the five-yard line, but he let himself get caught up in trash and never even attempted to get his helmet on Lee until they were over the goal line.
Tampa Bay Buccaneers 14 at Houston Texans 28
Russell Levine: Well, the Bucs had a three-game lead with four to play, stole a game on the road last week, and were starting the third-string (at least at the start of the season) quarterback again. So I suppose a letdown is not that unexpected. Still this game reveals how large the gap is between the elite teams in the NFC (Dallas, Green Bay) and a half-decent club like Tampa that has benefited greatly from a soft schedule.
Tampa Bay started two possessions in Houston territory and went three-and-out both times. Late in the third quarter and trailing by 7, they forced a turnover and appeared poised to perhaps tie the game, on third down the center snapped the ball before McCown was ready, turnover, game-icing touchdown.
I was really impressed with Sage Rosenfels. Other than holding the ball too long on that turnover, and forcing a couple throws into coverage, he was very poised, accurate, and kept picking up third downs by stepping up and hitting the open guy. On the other side of the ball, you couldn't miss Mario Williams, who would like the world to know that maybe the Texans knew what they were doing last April. He was a force coming off the edge and had two drive-killing sacks and a number of key stops in the run game.
For Tampa, the edge rushers were also impressive. Greg White is a nobody that has been cut eight times and was last seen in the Arena league. Jovan Haye has a similarly indistinct background. Yet nobody in Tampa has missed Simeon Rice this year despite much gnashing of teeth when he was cut. The play of those two has allowed Gaines Adams to be brought along slowly. He didn't start until week 9, and looked very lost early in the season. Yet he's coming on, made some nice run stops and has been getting into the backfield on pass plays as well.
If this game costs Tampa Bay the third seed, and they end up at Dallas instead of at Green Bay in the second round (assuming they can beat the wild card team -- a big assumption for a team with one win over an opponent with a winning record), they will very much regret their flat performance.
Dallas Cowboys 28 at Detroit Lions 27
Ben Riley: OK, Detroit has first-and-goal from inside the one-yard line. T.J. Duckett's been plowing through the Cowboys' defensive line. Time to slay the demon, Mike. You can do it.
Michael David Smith: In a way, the Lions' offense is better without Roy Williams because the ball can just go to whoever's got the best matchup. Too often they try to force things to Williams when he isn't open.
Aaron Schatz: I missed part of this game driving over to Ian Dembsky's house but from what I can tell, Detroit is playing much more man coverage than usua. That still doesn't explain how this subpar defense managed to keep Terrell Owens without any catches for the entire first half. In the final two minutes, Detroit went to the zone, and Romo just calmly marched the Cowboys down the field for a touchdown. On the last play, you had a zone blitz where Dewayne White had to backpedal and cover Marion Barber coming out of the backfield. Yes, that's the matchup the Lions want in the red zone, sure.
Ian wants to know when it became legal for CBS to show FOX highlights during halftime and vice versa. We always remember that CBS could only show AFC footage and FOX could only show NFC footage.
Ben Riley: For the fourth time today, FOX cuts to commercial with a screen shot of a drunken female Detroit Lions fan dressed in a naughty Santa suit, bobbing up and down with a beer in her hand. Quoth Joe Buck: "Merry Christmas."
Doug Farrar: As long as she doesn't fake-moon the crowd, or elongate her home run trot, Buck's OK.
Bill Barnwell: Hopefully it's F*** DA EAGLES girl, and she's now on tour.
Ben Riley: I know a lot of Audibles ink has been spilled on the subject of the stupid spike penalty, but Calvin Johnson just got called for it while lying on the ground, after he smacked his arms together in frustration. Does anyone know if there's any sort of discretion built into the penalty, or whether it's automatic if the ref sees it?
Doug Farrar: Well, it's a judgment call, I guess. He smacked his arms together? Did he throw the ball away or anything?
Ben Riley: Yeah, the ball hit the ground. But it wasn't a "spike" in the conventional sense of the word. If it truly is a judgment call, the flag shouldn't have been thrown. And just to rub some salt into MDS's paper cut, Jason Hanson missed the ensuing field goal attempt. Ouch.
Aaron Schatz: Tony Romo got called for the stupid spike after he spiked in frustration when Dallas had a delay of game. I hate this penalty. Hate it, hate it, hate it. HATE IT. WHO CARES? Earlier in the game, Marion Barber ran out of bounds and spiked the ball because he was excited about getting a first down. That wasn't called. What are the rules on this stupid thing?
Sean McCormick: You know, I went to Arizona State, and I don't remember Shaun McDonald being open 100 percent of the time. I assumed he was having a good year in part because teams were so focused on Williams and Johnson, but with Williams out it hasn't affected him at all.
Sean McCormick: Dallas with some Patriots-style good fortune. On third-and-6, Romo tries to scramble and gets the ball knocked out of his hands from behind. The ball squirts forward, hits a Detroit defender, and he proceeds to kick it full speed back towards a Cowboy. A lineman falls on it, Dallas converts on fourth down and their last-gasp drive continues.
Aaron Schatz: Has Sean McHugh been this good all year? He was a huge part of why the Lions could run the ball, great blocking to clear holes for Kevin Jones up the middle. He was also taking on blitzers -- and even made some big plays coming out of the backfield to catch the ball. (The one thing I don't understand: motioning McHugh out wide. That wasn't fooling anyone.) I would love to see more of this guy. If Mike Martz can be convinced to run the ball, maybe he can be convinced to use a fullback more often if he has a good one.
The whole Dallas comeback felt exactly like New England last week against Baltimore. Remember last week when Jaws kept saying in the fourth quarter, "you can feel Baltimore losing this, you can feel Baltimore losing this?" Ian and I were saying the same thing about Dallas and Detroit. Deep down, it just seemed like the Cowboys would come back. Maybe Tony Romo and Tom Brady share DNA or something.
Pat Laverty: Yeah, they've probably dated some of the same starlets.
Oh wait, that's probably not what you meant by "share DNA," was it?
(Editor's note: There was some really terrible math in the original version of this next comment. It has been corrected.)
Vince Verhei: I nominate the Detroit coaching staff for Keep Choppin' Wood this week. Dallas trails 20-14 early in the third quarter. They have second-and-8 at their own 5. Terrell Owens catches a pass for four yards, but is called for offensive pass interference. Detroit, however, declines the penalty, leaving Dallas with third-and-4.
Now, the penalty for offensive pass interference is 10 yards from the original line of scrimmage, right? In this, case, it would be half the distance to the goal, so Dallas would have the ball at their own 3, with 10 yards to go for a first. So the Detroit coaches chose third-and-4 rather than second-and-10. I can see how you'd rather have to stop Dallas on one play instead of stopping them twice, but this is still stupid. Worse yet, doesn't OPI also involve a loss of down? So by declining the penalty, didn't the Lions choose third-and-4 at the 9 instead of third-and-10 at the 3?
San Diego Chargers 23 at Tennessee Titans 17
Aaron Schatz: I have a bit of advice for San Diego. Don't call the "fake screen to one side, spin around, actual screen on other side" play when Billy Volek is in the game. First of all, the backup doesn't get enough reps in practice to get the timing on that play down correctly. Second, he is BILLY VOLEK.
Shaun Phillips completely horse-collared Chris Brown when Brown scored a touchdown to put Tennessee up 10-3 on San Diego. Two hands, inside the pads, from behind. No call. Either call the damn penalty or take it off the books. What the hell? This is not like bitching about holding; we're talking about avoiding injuries here.
Sean McCormick: The combination of Albert Haynesworth and Kyle Vanden Bosch are just destroying the left side of the San Diego line. On third-and-5 with two minutes to go, the Titans ran a stunt that got Vanden Bosch completely free because the guard was so worried about where Haynesworth was going.
David Lewin: I wonder if Chris Chambers is actually going to hurt San Diego's offense? On the play before the game tying touchdown they threw a fade to Chambers which he obviously failed to catch. Normally they run this play for Gates, who is much better at it, but somehow people remain convinced that Chambers is good. Fortunately the Chargers came to their sense on the next play and threw a fade to Gates -- which he caught. Nonetheless, they wasted a crucial down passing to the lowest percentage receiver in the NFL at the expense of one of the highest.
Aaron Schatz: When Vince Young came out, Russell Levine and Tim Gerheim talked a lot about how he couldn't be compared to Michael Vick because his running style was so different. When he ran, he ran with purpose, and he rarely ran into traffic, normally taking a path that would get him out of bounds without contact. Well, now he's running like Vick. When the pass pressure gets there, he doesn't see a clear lane and go. He bends his knees a little, looks like he's struggling with indecision, goes into "action figure mode," and gets like two yards before he gets tackled. Not a good development for Mr. Young.
Vince Verhei: I think the comparisons between Vick and Young are absurd. Young is Vick with a weaker arm and less foot speed. They do have the same tendency to freeze up in a panicky "I don't know what to do!" manner. But I've yet to see one thing Young does on a football field better than Vick. Vick would at least tease you once in a while with a miraculous play before crashing back down to earth.
On the plus side for Tennessee, as long as Albert Haynesworth is playing, their defense will keep the game close and winnable against any opponent south or west of Massachusetts.
And speaking of quarterbacks who have lost their luster, I present Philip Rivers. Another week, another mention that Norv Turner is a horrible coach. Hey, here's a thought: Last year, the Chargers made the playoffs and lost their first game, then fired the coach. If they lose their first playoff game this year -- and with Jacksonville looming, that seems likely -- will they fire the coach again?
Aaron Schatz: Vince, your comments about Vick vs. Young are fine for the Vince Young of 2007, but I'm talking about how Young's response to the pass rush has declined this year. It's too bad that our resident Vince Young expert is over in Germany, but I'm sure he would agree with me. Texas Vince Young did not freeze up in that panicky "I don't know what to do!" manner. Honestly, 2006 NFL rookie Vince Young didn't freeze up in that panicky "I don't know what to do!" manner. I don't know what the problem is this year, but something is different. Part of the whole league-wide regression of second-year starting quarterbacks.
Sean McCormick: Sans Jay Cutler, who is, in Mike Mayock's words, "spinning it."
Vince Verhei: You know that commercial where Peyton Manning is opening doors in a hallway, then his inner child tells him to throw to Clark? I think young quarterbacks, young running quarterbacks in particular, don't see the doors. They try the first one, and if it doesn't work, they take off down the hallway, leaving the inner child shouting something about a hot read. Sometimes it works, sometimes it doesn't. Then they get too much knowledge, and start thinking about all the things they're NOT supposed to do, and suddenly they see all these doors and don't even know which one to open first.
Ned Macey: Correct me if I'm wrong about this, but the Chargers rank seventh in DVOA coming into this week, just went on the road against one of the very best defenses in football when Haynesworth is healthy and gutted out an impressive comeback. All in a game when their starting quarterback was hurt. And we're still taking shots at Norv? I'm also pretty sure the Chargers would be favorites even by DVOA numbers if they host the Jaguars. I reiterate, the Norv Turner hiring was a mistake, but it is not a great catastrophe that has ruined an otherwise perfect team.
Arizona Cardinals 21 at Seattle Seahawks 42
Doug Farrar: I simply don't understand the thought process behind bringing Shaun Alexander in for goal-line situations anymore. On Seattle's first drive, two nice Nate Burleson catches and a Maurice Morris run got the Seahawks to the Arizona three-yard line, and Alexander came in. First, this isn't fair to Morris, who's the far better back right now. Second, neither back is anything to write home about in the red zone. Third, bringing Alexander in is roughly equivalent to having Mike Holmgren hold up a big sign that says, "HEY! WE'RE GOING TO RUN THE BALL!" And why run it right behind Chris "The Human Turnstile" Gray? Shaun gets pushed back two yards. Morris comes back in, incomplete pass, field goal. There isn't a thing about Shaun Alexander that fits this offense at this point.
Bill Barnwell: Except that they both peaked two years ago?
Doug Farrar: Patrick Kerney has been stunting inside over the last couple of weeks. That's been a really effective thing for Seattle. He was right there for an important stop on Edgerrin James with that move. Plus, he's just killing Kurt Warner and giving Levi Brown a very expensive education. The Seahawks defense is mixing up pressure and coverage very well, though I wish they'd be a bit more aggressive on the injured Larry Fitzgerald at the line of scrimmage. I don't care who it is, if a guy can barely get up after a catch and he's limping all the time, maybe 10-yard cushions aren't a great idea.
And speaking of great receivers, most of you will see the highlight of the Bobby Engram touchdown catch, when he was practically horizontal in the end zone and brought the ball into his chest in time. This is a guy who suffered from Graves' disease last year, and now he's having the best season of his career. He'll be 35 in January. It's hard for me to avoid sounding like a homer when I talk about him.
The scrum that Sean Locklear and Darnell Dockett got into after Dockett ripped Chris Spencer's helmet right off his head has a bit of a past. Dockett has gotten away with quite a few late hits and horse collars in his esteemed career (the NFL evidently thinks that after-the-fact fines make up for missed calls), and the Seahawks were steaming mad a couple of weeks ago when a Rams defender ripped Rob Sims' helmet off his head and a flag wasn't even thrown. At least this time, Dockett was penalized.
Ben Riley: Ken Whisenhunt is going to be a very good coach for Arizona, but 1) the Cardinals are losing by 22 points with a minute left to play; 2) Patrick Kerney has been murdering Kurt Warner all afternoon; and 3) Larry Fitzgerald's playing with one leg. Hey Ken, time to take Kurt and Larry out of the game. They are entitled to careers.
The pessimism circus just left Seattle (bound for Detroit, I believe). The Hawks defense is playing lights-out over the last four weeks. Marcus Trufant had three picks today, Kerney another three sacks, and it ain't easy to run on Rocky Bernard and Brandon Mebane. Add Peterson and Tatupu and ... OK, Brian Russell is still a liability, but there's a lot to love about this defense. If you're from Seattle, that is.
Doug Farrar: Russell's OK in coverage, but he tackles like a girl. And I ain't talking about Holley Mangold.
The offense is coming around, and Matt Hasselbeck is running it to near-perfection. The defense is the best of the Holmgren era. They need to cut long snapper Boone Stutz before he even leaves the stadium, though. Special teams have become a real concern after a mostly wonderful year.
Ben Riley: Yes, in the spirit of non-pessimism, I didn't want to say anything about Seattle's special teams, which have fallen off a cliff. Part of the problem is that Josh "Franchise" Brown is getting about one nanosecond of hangtime on his kicks. Part of the problem is that punter Ryan Plackemeier has been ordered to kick to guys like Brian Westbrook. And, as Doug rightly notes, a BIG part of the problem is that the long snapper is someone actually named Boone Stutz.
Cleveland Browns 24 at New York Jets 18
Sean McCormick: Kerry Rhodes made his fourth interception in as many games, and it was a thing of beauty. The Browns ran a play-action bootleg with the action going left and Anderson rolling right to try and hit a receiver crossing from left to right. As soon as Rhodes saw the fake, he knew exactly where the ball was going and he broke on the ball well before Anderson threw it.
For all the grief that D'Brickashaw Ferguson gets for being understrength at the point of attack, it's Nick Mangold's lack of strength that is crippling to the run game. Mangold just cannot get push against anyone. The Jets had the ball on the two, tried to hammer it in twice and Mangold was stood up and stopped in his tracks both times (as was the runner following behind). It forced the Jets to throw on third down, and Sean Jones picked off Kellen Clemens in the end zone. It's possible that Mangold is playing hurt, as he's been dinged up for much of the year, but his inability to generate push on the inside is really limiting the offense.
Cleveland is using Joshua Cribbs a lot in their base packages. They line him up tight along the sideline with Braylon Edwards and motion him inside to give him a free release in the slot so he can run vertical routes. Cribbs seems to be on the field more than Joe Jurevicius. Has Cleveland been doing this all year, or is it a function of Cribbs' return success?
Mike Tanier: Cribbs has not been used much in the base package before now. He was a third or fourth wideout most of the year. I think he has always been listed as the No. 3, but the Browns often use Kellen Winslow as their third receiver and insert Steve Heiden at tight end.
Sean McCormick: Braylon Edwards is just too big and strong for Darrelle Revis today. Revis has been matched up in man coverage for most of the game, and even though his coverage has been tight, Edwards has been able to use his body to make the catch. Edwards caught a fade on fourth down that was thrown to his back shoulder by simply spinning around and plucking the ball from Revis' shoulder. He also had a huge gain on a crossing pattern where he pushed Revis to the ground as Revis tried to play the ball. Edwards finished off the drive by catching another fade, this time by going up over Revis.
Vince Verhei: So besides the rejuvenated quarterback, and the rebuilt offensive line, and the elite tight end, and the emerging wide receiver, it turns out there's something else to like about the Cleveland offense: the running back. I always thought Jamal Lewis was a powerful straight-line guy, who would run into a pile and either stop right there or burst through it for a big gain. But today I saw him making cuts, changing direction, making guys miss in the open field. I suspect a lot of this had to do with the fact he was playing the Jets.
Pittsburgh Steelers 13 at New England Patriots 34
Aaron Schatz: On NFL Matchup, Jaws pointed out that both Philadelphia and Baltimore have pressured Tom Brady by bringing speed against the two tackles outside, especially Nick Kaczur. Kaczur may be the only player in the Patriots' starting 22 who is a below-average starter in the NFL, and he's the clear weak link on this team. My guess is that if the Steelers win today, zone blitzes that exploit Kaczur will be a major factor. We'll see if I'm right...
Stuart Fraser: I've been planning to do something on Pittsburgh's pass rush, looking at how many defensive linemen, linebackers and defensive backs they rush on each play. Unfortunately I first got the idea to do this after the Miami game, which probably wasn't typical, and last week was too busy and I was too tired to look at the Bengals game.
My notes for Miami suggest that Pittsburgh doesn't zone blitz anywhere near as often as they have the reputation of doing, but that could just have been Dick LeBeau being vanilla because it was impossible to execute offense in that weather anyway.
In either case, it's not entirely necessary to zone blitz to bring a speed rusher against a tackle -- there's a limit to how often you're going to want to bring a defensive back against New England's offense (especially if the Steelers are starting both backup safeties -- anybody heard anything about Polamalu yet?), but Pittsburgh's various outside linebackers aren't what I'd call bull-rush types. The 2-4-5 and 2-5-4 sets might well see a lot of use, with Lawrence Timmons and LaMarr Woodley in the game.
(Steelers running back Najeh Davenport goes deep for a 32-yard touchdown catch)
Sean McCormick: Najeh Davenport?
Stuart Fraser: Najeh. That was a pretty standard Pittsburgh "Right, a rusher got through the line, Ben scrambles outside and all the receivers run in a random direction until one of them gets open" play. I am pretty certain that play call didn't intend for Davenport to go deep.
Stuart Fraser: The Steelers are using an awful lot of the Eleven Angry Men, or the Mixer as CBS prefer to call it, mostly on third down. I'm guessing that LeBeau noticed that Baltimore's version of it was pretty successful in getting pressure on Brady, and decided to copy it. The Ravens also lined up with no D-linemen covering large sections of the Patriots' line on several occasions, and the Steelers are doing that too.
I've never really looked at Rex Ryan's defense for things he's stolen from LeBeau, so I'm not sure if the Pittsburgh and Baltimore brain trusts copy each other shamelessly, or if it's just a one-way thing.
Aaron Schatz: At halftime, this is really a good game with two good teams playing very good football, combined with one major coverage screw-up per team and the easily predicted Pittsburgh special teams mishap. Anybody who thought the Steelers were coming out to stuff the ball down the Patriots' throat with the run game was clearly wrong. Willie Parker just is not that kind of back, and he's been stuffed a ton with a couple of long runs. Luckily, Pittsburgh has an excellent quarterback with a talent for improvisation. I don't know if this is a specific tactic against Roethlisberger, but the Pats seem to be rushing only three on a good number of downs.
By the way, Ian and I have no idea what Shannon Sharpe said at halftime. At all. In any attempted sentence.
Tim Gerheim: Given that I'm in Germany, where football lies somewhere between curling and cricket in the sports popularity hierarchy, I'm going to have to have someone explain this one, because I can't wait for the nfl.com highlight to come out tomorrow:
T.Brady FUMBLES (Aborted) at NE 35, recovered by NE-R.Moss at NE 35. R.Moss to NE 33 for -2 yards. T.Brady pass deep left to J.Gaffney for 56 yards, TOUCHDOWN.
Stuart Fraser: It was a straight-out-of-the-Pittsburgh playbook trick play. It wasn't an aborted snap though -- Brady threw a pass backwards to Randy Moss, who fumbled, recovered, lateraled it back to Brady, who (under)threw the bomb to Jabar Gaffney, who was wide-open because Anthony Smith had bitten hard on all the trickery. (Despite this, Brady's throw was short enough that Smith almost managed to recover his position).
Sean McCormick: Think the old Tom Matte back to Earl Morrall followed by a long touchdown to Jimmy Orr. Only with a fumble in there.
Doug Farrar: Except that this time Morrall (Brady) actually saw Orr (Gaffney) in this case. Gaffney didn't have to wave his arm in vain.
Aaron Schatz: Actually, that one is in the Patriots' playbook too. They ran it last year against San Diego, with Daniel Graham, but Graham mistakenly threw the pass back to Brady forwards instead of backwards. Amazing play, but it almost didn't work, not only because of the Moss fumble but also because the ball hung in the air and Anthony Smith almost made it back to slap it away. Interesting wrinkle, if you watched the replay: Gaffney pauses in the middle of the field to try to sell the original backwards pass to Moss, then accelerates again to go into the end zone.
Mike Tanier: Did Aaron just inform us that a play the Patriots ran is in the Patriots' playbook?
Tim Gerheim: The best football analysis on the Web.
Aaron Schatz: Y'all know what I meant. I meant this wasn't the first time they've run this play in a game. Clearly, the Patriots figured out that the slant was there when the Steelers blitzed, and that was that. The Patriots ran something like 34 straight pass plays. Absurd. I was a little surprised the Steelers offense couldn't keep up. I'm curious what people think of the play call to run the Hines Ward tight end-around on fourth-and-goal.
Vince Verhei: I thought it was ridiculous. By calling that play, Mike Tomlin was basically saying, "I bet I can catch Bill Belichick's team unprepared for something." That's a bet nobody should ever take.
Just as remarkably, New England takes the ball over with a first- and-10 at its own one-yard line, and opens in the shotgun, putting Brady right in the middle of his own end zone. So now we know that they will truly use the shotgun anywhere. And this was when the death-by-a-thousand-flats-to-Wes-Welker began. (I just checked the play-by-play. The phrase "12-T.Brady pass short right to 83-W.Welker" appears five times in a row, all complete, for a total of 63 yards.)
Stuart Fraser: I thought the flat to Welker from the end zone was a smart (also fairly obvious) play call. In that game situation, it's obvious that if Brady stands back in the shotgun Pittsburgh will bring a big blitz and go for the safety, because it's the only thing that might get them back in the game. So the quick flat to the slot receiver has a good chance at going for a ton of yardage, which it did.
The next four flats were kind of taking the piss, but, again, this is against a team that never seems to adjust, so...
Mike Tanier: Slant/flats with Moss on the slant and Welker in the flat seem unbeatable today. Welker is open in the flat every time I look up.
Stuart Fraser: I think in most respects that was a fairly traditional '07 Steelers loss -- on the road (outside of Ohio), and characterized by a failure to adjust to the opposition. When facing New England's spread offense in good weather, with half your starting secondary injured, well, frankly you're going to lose anyway, but some adjustments are probably called for. Pittsburgh seemed to be almost entirely using the same defensive gameplan they'd used against Cincinnati -- right down to leaving Ike Taylor on Randy Moss as if he were Chad Johnson. Taylor's a good corner, but he's not that good. To be fair it did work on some series, before Brady adjusted to throwing with a pass rusher in his face (which I thought he did fantastically well).
Pittsburgh's offense was mostly fine between the 20s and died in the red zone. I don't know what precisely was wrong with it there. Santonio Holmes clearly wasn't at 100 percent, which probably didn't help, because Nate Washington isn't really consistent enough to be on the field as much as he is. (Washington is a great slot receiver when he remembers to catch the ball). Pittsburgh didn't feature Heath Miller anywhere near as much as I might have expected. Again, this might well be a sign of "game-planning is for wimps," since the tight end across the middle is part of the standard anti-Patriots offense. Of course, it's difficult to open up the underneath areas for your tight end if your deep-threat wide receiver is not at full effectiveness.
In conclusion, I'm now much less worried about a rematch in the playoffs, on the grounds that it's looking increasingly unlikely the Steelers will get that far.
Ned Macey: As any dutiful Colts fan must do, I root against the Patriots almost every week. That being said, I obviously have the utmost respect for them. What I really like is that they dominate without giving a damn about conventional wisdom. They appear to me to be running a similar offense to the one that Oakland ran in 2002, which was run by Bill Callahan, who had no pedigree. You have to have a unique offense to do it (as the Eagles tried but failed), but there is no reason you have to run the ball. Wes Welker is basically their running back. (Something similar can be said about the way they go for it on fourth down all the time.)
I feel like a sports radio host trying to drive calls by saying absurd things, but Wes Welker is not one of the 35 best receivers in football. I think he is PERFECT for what the Patriots are trying to do, but no team outside of New England would or should ever give up a second-rounder for him. The Pats obviously should because he allows them to do what they are doing, but he spends most of his time covered by nickel backs and the occasional linebacker, but he has the worst DVOA of any Pats receiver (Watson and Gaffney included). Peter King beats this horse every week (and we'll see it again Monday after the "Welker drive"), but the Dolphins got a haul for what in a normal offense is a solid but unspectacular receiver.
As for the Ward call, I don't think it had anything to do with preparation, but when they went empty and motioned Ward, I knew they were calling an end-around. I think it was a terrible call, period.
Bill Barnwell: That was sort of the point I made about Welker before the season. He has a 20% DVOA in the greatest offense of all-time. All three other wideouts are above him. Is he useful? Sure. Is he worth a second-round pick? Not really. This offense would be just as good with Gaffney in the Welker role and a healthy Chad Jackson in the Gaffney role.
Vince Verhei: If Welker is being covered by nickel backs and the occasional linebacker, then who's covering Gaffney? Nose tackles and beer vendors?
Ben Riley: Bill Barnwell, I drafted Wes Welker for my fantasy team. Wes Welker is a friend of mine. Jabar Gaffney, sir, is no Wes Welker. Seriously, he's a good wide receiver. He didn't play great tonight but almost any team in the NFL would be happy to trade a second-round pick for an 84-catch, seven-TD guy who seems to always be open on third down. And yes, I'm channeling my inner Peter King right now. Would you like to hear about my experience in Starbucks this week?
Bill Barnwell: You're ignoring the point. They use Walker in that role. I'm saying they could use Gaffney in the same role (say, if Welker had gotten hurt), and they wouldn't skip a beat. Is Welker better than Gaffney in that role? Maybe. Is the difference between the two worth a second-round pick? No.
Ben Riley: My point, and I do have one, is that Wes Welker is much, much better than Jabar Gaffney in that role, or any other role the Patriots might imagine. Wes Welker is good, Jabar Gaffney is below average. And that difference is/was well worth the Patriots' second round pick.
Bill Barnwell: OK. So what makes you say that Wes Welker is good and Jabar Gaffney is below average?
- Wes Welker, 2005, rookie year: 434 yards, 56% catch rate, 14.1% DVOA
- 2006: 687 yards, 67% catch rate, 0.1% DVOA
- This year: 84 catches, 896 yards, 7 touchdowns
Plus, he's shifty and hard to cover, makes tough catches over the middle, returns punts, and Bill Belichick thought he was dangerous enough to trade for him. In contrast:
- Jabar Gaffney, 2005: 492 yards, 61% catch rate, -13.4% DVOA
- 2006: 142 yards, 55% catch rate, 8.5% DVOA
- This year: 22 catches, 237 yards, 3 touchdowns
If Gaffney was as good as Wes Welker, he had all of 2006 to prove it. Instead, he had a whopping 11 receptions on a team that wasn't exactly teeming with wide receiver talent. Welker is clearly outplaying him this year. I don't think this is a borderline call. Welker is much, much better than Gaffney.
Bill Barnwell: You can't have it both ways, though, if you're going to use DVOA as the measuring stick. Gaffney's more of a downfield threat than Welker is. His DVOA this year is better than Welker's in the same offense. In previous years, Welker was playing in a better passing offense than Gaffney. Is Gaffney not shifty and hard to cover? I would say he is. He also didn't have all of 2006 to prove it. He only spent a few games on the Patriots roster and once he learned the playbook, he did step up and put up big numbers in the playoffs. I'm not saying he's used as much. I'm saying he could do the same job.
If your argument is "Bill Belichick says as much", hey, that's fine, but just because Belichick acquired him doesn't mean Gaffney couldn't do it, either.
Mike Tanier: This discussion has gone to mediation:
1) Watching game film, it is pretty clear that a lot of Welker's catches come on little flat routes that most receivers could run well. The key is that Moss or Stallworth takes the cornerback past his depth on those routes. The split between Welker and Gaffney is not that wide.
2) It is hard to argue that the Patriots paid too much for Welker when they are currently undefeated and score a bajillion points per game, and they still managed to get a first round pick from a lousy team. Arguing that Welker isn't worth a 2nd round pick in isolation may have merit. Arguing he isn't worth it in the context of the Patriots, who wheeled-and-dealed to get Moss cheap and grab the Niners pick is different.
3) Does the player make the system or the system make the player? A job for Socrates.
Ryan Wilson: I have no idea how the game would've turned out, but Anthony Smith changed the momentum on those two blown coverages. The Steelers rebounded from the first play-action from Brady to Moss, but the Brady-to-Moss-to-Brady-to-Gaffney touchdown to start the third quarter was a backbreaker. Stuart mentioned the Steelers' defense inability to make adjustments, but it's important to remember that the Pats' offense was rolling. You have to blitz Brady, and with Ryan Clark and Troy Polamalu on the sidelines, you can only expect so much from the backups in coverage.
By the way, some Steelers fans have been calling for Smith to replace Clark since last season. There's a reason the Redskins missed Clark after they let him walk following the '05 season. He's a smart player who understands the responsibilities that go along with playing free safety.
Offensively, the Steelers did a lot well, in the first half, anyway. Ben Roethlisberger looks as sharp as ever, Willie Parker ran hard for the first time in a month, and the offensive line might've played their best game of the season, particularly in pass protection. This loss isn't shocking, but how the Steelers rebound next week against the Jags will say much more about Mike Tomlin's ability to prepare his players.
Oh, and on the end-around to Hines Ward on the goal line ... yeah, that was Bruce Arians' call, and I wasn't even shocked when I saw it. Doesn't mean I like it, but as Bill Cowher likes to say, it is what it is. Arians has caught some flak for shoddy play-calling this season, but I think he's done pretty well, what with the spotty pass blocking, and the running game sometimes disappearing for long stretches.
One more thing: Anthony Smith should've been flagged on the cheap shot he laid on Donte' Stallworth on the overthrow in the end zone. I was bellyaching to MDS earlier this week that LaRon Landry gave a cheap shot to Muhsin Muhammad on a similar play on Thursday, and this was virtually the same situation.
Aaron Schatz: I hope that Arnold Harrison of the Steelers gets fined a good amount for losing his cool and slamming Kyle Eckel in the back as he walked off the field after that last punt. That was not cool.
Indianapolis Colts 44 at Baltimore Ravens 20
Stuart Fraser: OK, this game is getting somewhat ridiculous -- not the actual plays, just that a player goes down injured after every third snap. Any theories as to why?
(A brief pause as the Ravens shoot themselves in the foot further to the tune of a turnover and a safety.)
Perhaps the plays are more ridiculous than the injuries. Jeez. It's almost as if the Ravens are trying to show the Steelers how to get properly blown out by one of the top AFC teams.
Ben Riley: Here's a question for someone with a rulebook. I know teams can elect to punt in lieu of a kickoff (as Baltimore just punted after the safety, presumably because of the rain). But can you onside punt?
Doug Farrar If you can, it might explain Ryan Plackemeier's recent performances. "No, I didn't shank another one, Coach. That was an onside punt!"
Stuart Fraser: At Football Outsiders, we often talk about how raw yardage stats can paint a misleading picture of a team's performance. Sometimes, however, they encapsulate an evening nicely. Passing yardage, one hour in: Indianapolis 133, Baltimore 9 (and actually more like -40 if you include the interception return).
Aaron Schatz: It's 9:30 p.m. and I just got home from picking up my daughter from her grandma's. I'm confused. Is this Sunday Night Football, or a performance of Edwin Abbott's classic novel "Emotionally Flatland?"
Ned Macey: Watching Kyle Boller's sterling performance tonight, maybe the Colts should play Jim Sorgi against the Patriots if they make it to the AFC Championship game.
Doug Farrar: The fourth quarter was notable for one thing: John Madden talking up Troy Smith like he was Mayock on Cutler, basically throwing Boller under the bus and saying that Brian Billick might as well see what Smith can do for the rest of the season. Then again, why not? Isn't it about time for another quarterback experiment in Baltimore?