Audibles at the Line: Week 7
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.
Baltimore Ravens 14 at Buffalo Bills 19
Bill Barnwell: Trent Edwards makes a great throw to Roscoe Parrish against Samari Rolle on a go route that ends up with pass interference. The dropback looked much better. Unfortunately, Marshawn Lynch does his DeShaun Foster impersonation on first down and loses four. Then, on second down, Edwards runs a sweet play fake and makes an even better decision to throw it away when no-one's open. Great throw by Boller against some sort of mutated Cover-2 the Bills ran -- the perfect 20-yard out over some defensive back's outstretched arms.
Stuart Fraser: Yamon Figurs has now muffed, fumbled, or otherwise dropped three straight kickoff returns. Quinn Sypniewski has fumbled. The Ravens' much-injured offensive line keeps getting penalties which really aren't helping drives. Willis McGahee, after a slow start, is actually doing pretty well. Ooh, that was well timed, since he just ran the ball 46 yards for a touchdown, stiff-arming a safety along the way. The play was kind of strange -- you'll probably see a highlight. He seemed to kind of stop near the line of scrimmage and then take off again. Boller threw a block on a chasing linebacker during the run, which Rich Gannon raved over. I'm trying to remember if Gannon ever did something similar.
Something else to note is that I'm pretty impressed with Trent Edwards. The Bills are doing a good job of pass protection (injuries to the Ravens are, of course, helping) but he generally seems to be pretty accurate, isn't forcing throws into tight coverage, and generally looks more like an NFL quarterback than J.P. Losman does.
Bill Barnwell: I've been impressed by Angelo Crowell. He's wrapping up well on tackles without allowing any additional forward movement, and he's getting from sideline-to-sideline pretty quick. The Bills isolate Corey Ivy on Lee Evans and Evans runs a perfect pattern right past him for 30 yards. The Bills pick on Ivy again inside the 10 with a fade pattern by Josh Reed, of all people, and Ivy can't keep up and gets ticked for pass interference. Boy, does he suck.
Mike Tanier: I remain impressed by Edwards, even after an ugly read and throw in the fourth quarter that almost turned the game around. Not only is Edwards smart with the ball, but he was running the no-huddle effectively for much of this game. Most importantly, he made a play or two down the field. I think of young dink-and-dunk quarterbacks like young junkball pitchers in baseball. A quarterback needs to have big-play ability to turn into a great player, otherwise he's Rick Mirer. It was good to see Edwards uncork a few deep balls (one for a long gain to Evans, another to draw pass interference to Parrish) against a good defense.
The Ravens offense without Todd Heap and Daniel Wilcox just isn't an offense. They have other major injuries, but they did a real good job covering for losses on the offensive line. But you just can't insert the third and fourth tight ends in an offense that throws to Heap a lot and uses lots of two-TE sets and expect it click. It's a good thing Boller was in for Captain Checkdown, because McNair is such a legendary "tight-end-o-phile" that he probably would try to throw passes to Ozzie Newsome in the owners' box if Mason wasn't open.
Ryan Wilson: I, too, like Trent Edwards. And although he makes a lot of swell decisions most of the time, when he makes a mistake he doesn't get cheated. Twice now he's thrown a potentially back-breaking pick, and both times he's stared a hole through his intended target. Generally speaking, I'm against drafting running backs early in the first round, but I absolutely love the way Marshawn Lynch plays. He only averaged 3.1 yards per carry, but imagine how what he'd have if Dick Jauron wasn't afraid to OK a few pass plays. And unlike, say, Shaun Alexander, it takes two, sometimes three guys to get him down. Pretty awesome to watch.
As long as Brian Billick is calling offensive plays, I will just regurgitate the following statement: The Ravens' defense and special teams need to score 21 points if the team is going to have a chance to win. The team might be better off punting on first down and taking their chances with Ed Reed returning a pick for six.
Kyle Boller, on the other hand, looks like he's matured since he was starting back in '05. His fourth quarter touchdown pass to Derrick Mason was a laser that split three defenders. Perfect pass. Never thought I'd say that about Boller. To me, it seems obvious he should be the team's starter from here on out, but I also think Billick should be relegated to the Joe Gibbs oversight role.
Stuart Fraser: Two early contenders for the Keep Choppin' Wood award. The first is Brian Billick, who, with a third-and-1 at roughly midfield, down 14-19, calls two consecutive passes, because everybody gives Kyle Boller the game to win or lose in that position. The second is the Yahoo/NFL GamePass feed, which has so far managed about 45 minutes of uptime, at least where I'm sitting. Which is a really great thing for your international stream to be doing the week before your much trumpeted international series kicks off, NFL.
Atlanta Falcons 16 at New Orleans Saints 22
Sean McCormick: Atlanta tried to get a little tricky by running a play where Joey Harrington started off in shotgun and walked toward the line as if he was going to change the protection and the ball was direct snapped to Warrick Dunn. The only problem is that the ball was direct snapped to nobody. It went right between Harrington and Dunn, and it ended up being a huge loss.
Vince Verhei: I saw that play. I thought it was supposed to be a regular shotgun play, but whatever Harrington was shouting at his linemen must have sounded an awful lot like "Hike!" So tack it up to poor player preparation, not poor play design.
Anyone who thinks quarterbacks have no impact on the yards their receivers gain after the catch needs to watch Byron Leftwich and Joey Harrington play for the same team in the same game. Harrington can find open receivers and throw accurate passes, but his arm is weak, his passes hang in the air, and defenders have time to close in and make immediate tackles. Leftwich, on the other hand, zips his passes in to receivers before defenders can react, giving them opportunities to make plays. Between that and his willingness to throw a pass more than 15 yards downfield once in a while, he's clearly the better quarterback, despite his very... slow... release and tendency to stare down receivers. Of course, all that's assuming his ankle injury doesn't effect him all season.
Note to Bobby Petrino: Jerious Norwood is a much, much better running back than Warrick Dunn. He has a higher rushing DVOA. He has a higher receiving DVOA. He has a higher success rate. If you don't have faith in advanced stats, well, he's averaging 5.8 yards per carry to Dunn's 3.1. And yet you continue to give Warrick Dunn the majority of the team's carries every single week. This is stupid, Bobby. This is very, very stupid.
And all of that may be moot, because apparently there is a curse on the Falcons' offensive tackles. Renardo Foster, the undrafted rookie who started at left tackle for Wayne Gandy, played OK, all things considered. But he suffered what looked like a very nasty knee injury and was carted off the field. I didn't catch the name of his replacement. He may have been the winner of a halftime field goal kicking contest or something.
The Saints' offensive line gave Drew Brees plenty of time to throw all day, and he generally looked OK, but his interception was bizarre. The Saints were going for it on fourth-and-2 from the Atlanta 34 right before halftime. Brees play faked and rolled out to his right. There was no defender chasing him and he had a wide receiver wide-open, but he threw the ball right into the hands of Demorrio Williams.
Arizona Cardinals 19 at Washington Redskins 21
Bill Barnwell: The Cardinals' passing game is really struggling. Dropped passes, throws into traffic, and then a London Fletcher interception taken to the house. Next series, Warner fumbles a snap. He probably shouldn't be in there, although Will Carroll can speak to the propensity of his injury to heal much better than I can.
I hated this play call from the Cardinals: Fourth-and-2 from the Washington 48. They line up five-wide and send Anquan Boldin in motion. He catches an immediately-thrown screen and attempts to use the two wideouts as blockers, but there are already three guys on that side of the field and once Boldin stalls, the linebackers flood and Boldin's got nowhere to go. On the next play, though, Jason Campbell makes an absolutely abysmal throw on a screen, not getting it over Bertrand Berry, who tips it right to Calvin Pace (who had also snuffed out the screen and might have just picked it off himself). Campbell should've just eaten it. Then, Arizona goes for it on fourth-and-goal from the four-yard line with six seconds left in the half and converts. Never let it be said Ken Whisenhunt doesn't have balls. Of course, the extra point gets blocked, but it was worth it. There's a fracas after the play and I think a ref leg-dived one of the Cardinals linemen.
More strange stuff in the Cardinals passing game. Boldin runs a slant on third-and-1 and Warner hits him in the arms while Boldin's not even looking for the ball. London Fletcher gets some sort of mythical unsportsmanlike conduct penalty when he hits Fitzgerald on a third-and-10. It looked absolutely fine to me, so I assume it was some kind of taunting or other penalty. Warner looked much better in the second half, throwing with more precision, but he got hit from behind on a straight speed rush by Andre Carter around Levi Brown and was stripped inside the 15. You can't line up Brown versus Carter one-on-one and give him five seconds to get to Warner.
Mike Tanier: Robo-Kurt's accuracy was off by a few degrees in this game. This game reminded me of Cardinals games I would watch two years ago, when Warner would score 14 points for the Cardinals and 17 for the opposition.
Ned Macey: The announcers spent the whole game praising Warner's guts, while he handed the game to Washington. Maybe the injury is a legitimate excuse (and the constant right-handed handoffs were amusing to watch), but he threw two terrible interceptions which set up 14 points for Washington. He also inexplicably took two delay of game penalties inside the Redskins' ten-yard line. The first was the initial play to start the fourth quarter. He didn't even seem to realize that the clock was running down, and was surprised when the ref blew the whistle. Washington neutered their game plan and just tried to nurse the lead. It almost cost them. Mike Sellers was featured more than he has ever been featured in his life in an odd game plan.
Ben Riley: Very interesting series to end the game. Cards down by eight, Tim Rattay enters for the first time in the game. The Redskins stack the line and blitz, Rattay rolls right, Shipp lays a nice block and Rattay hits Leonard Pope in the end zone. The Cards then go for two with Rattay split wide, direct snap to Anquan Boldin, who rolls right and -- throws an interception. Ah well, it was still a good try.
Doug Farrar: Two things you don't often see: A kicker starting a fight -- Neil Rackers going after Carlos Rogers after the aforementioned missed extra point, taking Rogers to the ground (!) by his facemask; and the gadget play that lost the Cardinals the game after they scored late to make it 21-19. Ken Whisenhunt hails back to his Pittsburgh days, runs Boldin out there as quarterback on the two-point conversion, and Boldin throws a pick to LaRon Landry. Mr. Whisenhunt, you're officially in the running for Keep Choppin' Wood, and Neil Rackers couldn't save you.
Stuart Fraser: I'd defend Whisenhunt's call. It's not as if his gadget plays have a history of never working, and Boldin, a converted quarterback, can certainly throw the ball -- just not, apparently, to the right player.
Aaron Schatz: Rackers hooks the field goal slightly to the left, and you can hear the announcers pausing because they expected Joe Gibbs to pull that "last-minute timeout" crap. The kick hooks left... and.... the Redskins ... (timeout?) ... are going ... (timeout?) ... to win (timeout?) ... the game.
San Francisco 49ers 15 at New York Giants 33
Doug Farrar: New York's methodical opening touchdown drive was marked by Eli Manning drawing the 49ers into encroachment twice with hard counts, San Francisco's continued inability to stop the run, and Manning's efficiency -- had Derrick Ward caught the two screens he dropped, Manning would have completed all seven passes he threw. The Giants' line is pushing San Francisco back even when the 49ers bring up extra defenders, and Darryl Johnston wonders if there's some sort of Manning "cadence gene." We need to go back and figure out how many encroachment penalties Archie Manning caused. Eli going play action with screens and dumps -- they're not asking him to do too much, which is very wise.
Meanwhile, the Giants are feeding on the surprisingly horrid 49ers offensive line. On the second play of San Francisco's first drive, Michael Strahan just blew up rookie right tackle Joe Staley for a sack, and the offensive line collapsed on third down. This was the "Four Aces" package written about by Mike Tanier in Two Deep Zone -- Strahan, Osi Umenyiora (who absolutely destroyed fullback Moran Norris on a first-half near-sack), Justin Tuck and Matthias Kiwanuka. They bring six guys total, and Strahan's in the backfield before anyone knows what to do. New York's second drive was stopped by a Derek Smith pick caused by Marques Douglas getting around two Giants and tipping the ball. Douglas is really having a great season.
Bill Barnwell: 49ers have had trouble holding onto the ball. Dilfer fumbled a snap and Gore never grabbed a handoff. The first time, the 49ers recovered and scored; the second time, the Giants recovered. Mike did a good job of covering this in TDZ, but it's amazing to see the difference in the Giants from the preseason and first two games of the year. They look disciplined in their lanes and functional within their positions as opposed to the mix of flailing and overpursuit that marked the earlier games.
Ben Riley: Hilarious series in this game. San Francisco has fourth-and-1 at the 20 and decides to go for it -- Easterbrook, stop scribbling in your notebook -- which prompts Johnston to ask Tony Siragusa if Trent Dilfer should run a sneak. "NO, NO!" shrieks Siragusa. (Gore converts the first, and on the next play Arnaz Battle scores.)
Doug Farrar: The Quote of the Day contest has packed up and left town. Matt Vasgersian: "There is absolutely nothing wrong with the Giants' running game. While Tiki Barber sits on a couch every morning and talks about shoes and handbags with Ann Curry and Al Roker, Brandon Jacobs, Derrick Ward and Reuben Droughns are running wild." Yee-ouch!
I'm starting to come around ever so slightly on Elisha. He threw an exceptional pass to Amani Toomer at the end of the first half. He got the ball off with a defender hitting his throwing arm, but still threw it over Walt Harris's head and right to Toomer on the run. There's evidence of some development in his hard counts, the way he can extend a drive, the minimization of stupid risk throws. He'll still throw a goatball once in while, but this is a better version of a quarterback who has never impressed me before.
Two things I think the Competition Committee has to review in the off-season: Obviously the sneaky time outs/field goal thing is a problem, but the new rule about delay of game penalties on post-play spikes seems a bit ticky-tack. Ashley Lelie brought in an incredible 47-yard bomb from Dilfer at the start of the third quarter, and yes, he did spike the ball, but it really did seem like honest emotion, not just another receiver acting like a jerk. I understand that the NFL wants to keep the games moving, but you can't ask these people to play to the heights of their potential (hey, even Ashley Lelie does it once a year or so!) and then remove all emotion from the game. This should be a judgment call, and I think degree of difficulty in the play itself should be taken into account.
Ben Riley: Agreed, but the penalty for irrationally exuberant spiking is pretty weak (backed up five yards).
Doug Farrar: Of course, Umenyiora gets to Dilfer a couple plays later, causes a fumble, and returns it for a touchdown. New York ran an overload right, blew up the line again, and that was that. This came one play after Strahan took Staley to school again. I've seen offensive lines implode from one year to the next (I live in Seattle), but this is ridiculous. Staley, in particular, is getting mauled from every direction.
Sean McCormick: Is it me, or is the Giants defensive line about as predictable a dominant unit as you'll find? Whenever they go up against an offensive line with some weaknesses, they absolutely demolish it. When they play a team with a good offensive line, they do nothing. I'm not sure if it's a scheme thing or a question of personnel (maybe the lack of a dominant nose tackle). In any event, this 49ers line was made to order for them, and they're tearing through it like wet tissue paper.
Bill Barnwell: I think it's both. I think they can be exploited with misdirection and letting them overpursue, but they're going to make some plays regardless. Even when the defense was terrible the first two weeks, they still made some plays on pure athleticism.
Michael David Smith: Assuming the Giants keep playing this way they'll have won four straight games by more than 10 points. Anyone know the last time they did that?
Aaron Schatz: The answer is... one year ago.
Week 5: 19-3 over Washington
Week 6: 27-14 over Atlanta
Week 7 : 36-22 over Dallas
Week 8: 17-3 over Tampa Bay
Remember, they were in the DVOA top 5 at midseason or something like that, then went into the crapper. However, before 2006, four straight Giants double-digit wins had not happened since 1990. The Giants have fallen apart in the second half for three straight years now. It was less apparent in 2005, because a lot of it was going from big wins to small wins. In 2004, they were 5-2 and ended 6-10.
Mike Tanier: I was impressed by the Giants offensive line in this game. Their backs are pretty good (though they can't catch), but they are consistently able to string out seven-yard gains to the outside because the blocking is so good.
Trent Dilfer is really terrible. He looked like he has never seen a Cover-2 defense before, he doesn't know that linebackers are sitting in underneath zones or that the cornerback is going to drop off of his receiver to cover a guy in the flat. In the second half, the Niners tried an adjustment where they went to seven-man protection and threw deep passes up the sidelines. That's when Dilfer completed that ball to Ashley Lelie, but the strategy didn't work because it was Dilfer throwing to Niners receivers, not a good quarterback throwing to good receivers. Some team is probably going to use that strategy successfully against this defense. It won't happen next week against Miami.
New England Patriots 49 at Miami Dolphins 28
Ben Riley: Twice today, Tom Brady has thrown deep to Randy Moss in double coverage in the end zone, passes that in Logical Football World, no quarterback should throw. Twice today, Randy Moss has made unbelievable grabs to score. Quoth my girlfriend: "It's like Moss has magnets in his hands."
Doug Farrar: I don't usually comment on Patriots games because so many others who know the team better write for FO, but I'll say one thing: This isn't even fair. This is beyond ridiculous. When your quarterback throws a bomb on third-and-18 into double coverage in the end zone and you know it's going to be a touchdown ... when there is no doubt in your mind ... wow. Just wow.
Bill Moore: Those two catches by Moss were insane. They should not have been caught. If anything, they both should have been intercepted. Dan Dierdorf said something pretty funny: "I don't know of any other situation where a quarterback looks down the field, sees double coverage, and says, 'Hey, I think I'll go there.'" I'm not sure that's the exact quote, but I'm too busy throwing up from quoting Dan Dierdorf.
Aaron Schatz: The fact that Norv Turner so discouraged Randy Moss that he went from this to an unspectacular starting wideout may be the best possible evidence that he's the worst head coach in NFL history. Unless it is the best possible evidence that Art Shell is the worst head coach in NFL history.
Mike Tanier: Norv Turner didn't really demoralize Randy Moss. He let Randy be Randy. Let him do whatever he wanted. And Art Shell was even worse. Randy isn't exactly Mr. Work Ethic. It's amazing what a guy can do when he is surrounded by coaches and teammates who won't take any of his crap.
Sean McCormick: I actually have a different read on Moss. I think he, like many great players, is contemptuous of incompetence. He recognized it right away in Oakland and mailed in his performances. When he's played with good quarterbacks, he's played hard and produced. He clearly wants to win -- he's just not stupid.
Mike Tanier: Contemptuous of incompetence? Sounds like an excuse for "lazy." If all Americans were "contemptuous of incompetence," nothing would ever get done. We all have some incompetent co-workers or bosses. I'm a teacher. What am I supposed to do: Figure if my superintendent is a ninny then I can show movies every day? I know a lot of good, hard working players get dragged down by bad teams. Moss helped drag down a bad team. Big difference. Sure he "wants to win." We all do. When you go in the tank in Week 2 because you don't like the situation you are in, then you don't want it that bad.
Sean McCormick: I really don't see it that way. Chad Pennington talked about Moss and said that if you put good players around him, he'll work hard, he'll play hard, and he'll generally be a fantastic teammate, and his pro career more or less backs that up.
Mike Tanier: So if he has a great situation around him he will try. And if he doesn't have an ideal situation he will go out of his way to make the situation worse. Sounds like a model employee to me. I hope Tom Brady doesn't get hurt, because if Matt Cassel comes in Moss will just give up and then go on every radio show complaining about the situation because he's just too good to be saddled with such a bad quarterback.
Aaron Schatz: I'm enjoying this as much as all the rest of the Patriots fans, but running the fake spike play at the end of the second quarter up 35-7 is a bit much. I know you guys aren't happy about all those times Miami beat you in the heat and humidity, but that is really, really bad sportsmanship.
Ben Riley: Lots of words could be used to describe the Patriots, so let me add another: Classless. With a capital "C." Leading 35-7, Brady just did the whole "fake spike to stop the clock" with 33 seconds in the first half. The Patriots are playing near perfect football -- it's a shame they seem to have forgotten about sportsmanship.
Vince Verhei: Bill Simmons has written about the "Eff You" touchdown. This was the "Eff You" game.
Aaron Schatz: Meanwhile, let's talk about the Dolphins. First, the good. Beautifully designed play by the Dolphins for their first touchdown. Reagan Mauia, the fullback, goes in motion wide right, and Rodney Harrison has to follow him because the Pats are in man coverage. That leaves the middle wide open behind the defensive line, and Cleo Lemon runs right up the middle for the score. Rookie center Samson Satele looks very good. Nice pick there.
The bad: Is Joey Porter even on the field in this game? Good personnel call there by the Pittsburgh Steelers front office.
Tennessee Titans 38 at Houston Texans 36
Bill Barnwell: Tennessee wins, somehow. That wins my vote for ugly great game of the year. The Titans deserved that one. Amazing. Sage freaking Rosenfels almost won the game. Appalling coverage by Lowry on that play. That was Madden-esque, where the safety just stands there and lets the guy just jump right in front of him for the score.
Sean McCormick:You must mean Madden 2007. In Madden 2008, the safety would run straight through the receiver and pick it.
I think we can expect TMQ to make a note of the ill-advised blitz Houston ran on second-and-10 that left Roydell Williams in single coverage on the streak. Seven men cross the line ... and Houston loses.
Doug Farrar: Second week in a row that Kerry Collins engineered an impressive late drive. And Rob Bironas kicked eight field goals? Good Lord.
Tampa Bay Buccaneers 16 at Detroit Lions 23
Ben Riley: One thing I like about football is that it proves, over and over again, that economists sometimes know what they are talking about. Cause: Earlier this week, the Bucs traded for Michael Bennett. Effect: Earnest Graham is running and catching like a man possessed. (It also helps to face the Lions, whose defensive line should be better than it is.)
Doug Farrar : I think we may have to take the "Captain Checkdown" name from Steve McNair. With 11:29 left in this game, Jeff Garcia has completed 26 of 29 passes for 243 yards.
Sean McCormick: The Bucs just ran the greatest onside kick I've ever seen. They bunched up their coverage team in the middle of the field and kicked it really hard straight at a Lions -- the ball shot right off a Lion and went up in the air, and there were about eight Bucs charging to it.
Tampa Bay built on their first onside kick with their second one. They came out in the same formation with their team bunched in the center. Detroit bunched their cover men in the center in response. The kicker then kicked what was basically a soccer through pass into the space on the right side, giving his return team a chance to get after it running forward at full speed while the cover team had to backpedal. Detroit recovered, but it was a terrific special teams sequence.
New York Jets 31 at Cincinnati Bengals 38
Sean McCormick: The Bengals are doing everything they can to make the Jets defense effective. They are taking a ton of penalties that turn favorable downs and distances into unfavorable ones. Of course, this is the Jets defense we're talking about, so they're promptly giving up big pass plays anyway.
This could be the last game played by Chad Pennington. It's too bad, because this game was a perfect illustration of how low down the quarterback position is on the list of team problems. The Jets offense scored on each of its first five possessions, and they threw the ball successfully at every depth level.
What did the defense do with that performance? They gave up five scoring drives of their own, drives of 78 yards, 76 yards, 76 yards, 57 yards and 50 yards, despite Cincinnati making things harder on themselves by taking repeated penalties on offense. They gave up 130 yards to Kenny Watson on 31 carries. Kenny Watson. Just look at the drive stats for the game -- the Jets' offense averaged 36.1 yards per drive and 2.3 points per drive, which are fantastic numbers. The defense gave up 44.1 yards per drive and 3.4 points per drive, which are about as bad a set of numbers as you can possibly generate. But Pennington threw an interception that was returned for a touchdown while trying to drive the length of the field with no timeouts, so he's going to lose his job. It's absurd.
Bill Barnwell: Pennington sure does make a convenient scapegoat while you're ignoring the flaws of your team, though...
Michael David Smith: Is anyone actually ignoring the flaws of the Jets? I think everyone pretty much agrees that their defense sucks. That doesn't necessarily mean Pennington shouldn't get benched, though.
Bill Barnwell: The New York media is. Well, I mean, they mention it, but they focus on the Pennington thing like it's the difference between the Jets winning or losing when that's not the case whatsoever.
Sean McCormick: Right. The issue is one of proportion. It's not that the offense isn't in any way to blame, or that Pennington's limitations don't play into that in some way. But the defensive numbers are just staggering. The notion that changing quarterbacks or throwing downfield more is going to give a "spark" to a defense that just surrendered 44.1 yards a drive and 3.4 points a possession is just ludicrous. But it's going to be taken perfectly seriously by both fans and the media, who will look at the record and the game-ending interception and lump offensive and defensive performances together.
Chicago Bears 19 at Philadelphia Eagles 16
Vince Verhei: If opponents are going to kick or punt the ball out of bounds, well, there's really not much Devin Hester or the Bears can do about it. But if teams are just going to kick the ball high and short on kickoffs, as the Eagles did all day, don't you coach your guys to pitch back to Hester if at all possible? I saw one ball come down at about the 20, and as the up-man settled under it to make the catch, Hester actually ran by him to throw a block. Is that really the best way to win a game? The Bears should have been prepared for this tactic, and the players should have been able to get the ball into Hester's hands with a minimal risk of turnover.
Mike Tanier: The red zone in Philly has become like the Forbidden Zone from Beneath the Planet of the Apes. When the Eagles venture inside the 20, they find a bunch of guys who were locked in the old Vet Stadium holding pen now worshiping an atomic bomb. This is appropriate, because Andy Reid also worships a bomb. The Eagles red zone problems can only be solved by better play-calling or a cameo by Charlton Heston. I am just so sick of the Eagles dickering around in the red zone, keeping these second rate opponents hanging around. Run more. Make play-action more viable. It has gotten very tiring to watch.
Ben Riley: Bizarre call that I can't believe is right just made by Big Arms Hochuli. The Bears snap sideways past Brian Griese, and the ball is recovered by the Eagles and run back to the 20. But the play is whistled dead, because by rule a ball that is snapped past the quarterback is a false start. If that is the rule, why is that rule?
Doug Farrar: Two notable things about this game: Mushin Muhammad complaining about the hotel room service in the post-game press conference, and a group of birds surrounding Devin Hester as he tried to bring in a deep pass from Griese. The birds distracted him, and flew away. You think Belichick's bad? Philadelphia defensive coordinator Jim Johnson has assembled the forces of nature in Hitchcockian fashion, and he's getting away with it!
Mike Tanier: Yes, but the birds failed. They need to bring the Vet Stadium rats back.
St. Louis Rams 6 at Seattle Seahawks 33
Doug Farrar: Seattle's opening scoring drive was a nice little flashback to 2005 -- Matt Hasselbeck goes five-for-five, throwing to four different receivers, actual blocking is observed, and the run game works with Shaun Alexander and Maurice Morris. The Rams answer with a drive in which two straight false starts are called on their offensive line, and Marc Bulger throws a desperation "doink" pass on third-and-22. Between the Rams and 49ers today, I've seen about all the horrible line play I can take. Not wanting to be left out, the Seahawks can't convert a fourth-and-inches, which gives the ball to St. Louis at the Seattle 48-yard line. Rookies Adam Carriker and Cliff Ryan were factors on the inside. Back to 2007 for the Seahawks, and their nonexistent ground game.
Nice sideline-cam shot of Marc Bulger rolling his eyes at Scott Linehan after the Rams can only get three points from their advantageous field position.
Ben Riley: The phrase "coverage sack" has always confused me a little, but three times today, Marc Bulger has stood in the pocket for two seconds two long, resulting in a Darryl Tapp sack. Meanwhile, Matt Hasselbeck is grabbing his ribs and missing on his passes. The era of Seneca Wallace, wide receiver, may end momentarily.
Doug Farrar: I'm pretty much ready for the era of Bill Laveroni, offensive line coach, to end momentarily. I know there's been a great deal of personnel churn on this line, and there's a young center and left guard to account for, but it's been a season and a half without Steve Hutchinson, and it's been the same crap pretty much the entire time -- minimal gaps, sloppy pulls, hurried throws -- plays can't develop with this line, and Mike Holmgren's offense requires plays to develop. There has to be a better way to do this.
For the second straight season, Nate Burleson gets a 90-plus-yard kick return against the Rams. The unsung hero on the play was reserve linebacker Will Herring, who blocked Ronald Bartell all the way downfield, running step-for-step with Nate. Darryl Tapp is having one of those Umenyiora-vs.-Justice games -- four sacks halfway through the third quarter, and that's after having a cast put on his right hand at halftime.
Ben Riley: Shaun Alexander just got stopped at the line, then ran backwards four yards before being stuffed for a big loss. That, in itself, is not worthy of an audible. What made the play unusual is that Matt Hasselbeck literally pointed down the field in the direction that Shaun should have been running, i.e., forward. From MVP to not knowing which direction to run: the 2007 Shaun Alexander!
At least four times today, Matt Hasselbeck has thrown a pass to the streaking fourth- or fifth-string wideout toward the end zone. Luckily for the Seahawks, none have been picked off -- unlike last week, when Hasselbeck threw an interception to the Saints at the worse possible time -- but he needs to remove that page from the playbook.
Aaron Schatz: The play-by-play says that Donnie Jones had an 80-yard punt in this game. Seriously?
Doug Farrar: Yes, and he also had one that went 64. That was a real 64-yarder, as Burleson was back to retrieve it. The one listed as 80 went more like 60, but Burleson misjudged that one in the air, and it went over his head and rolled a bit.
The second half of this game was basically a study in almost cruel domination -- a bit like a large cat playing with a very small mouse. The Rams had no answers for Seattle's defense, and Seattle's offensive liabilities didn't matter. From what I'm seeing here, I can't imagine that Scott Linehan will keep his job through the season. It's bad enough if you're the Dolphins and you lay open your throat to the Patriots -- but they're the Patriots, and there's a great chance you'll get your ass kicked even if you're a really good team. To get pushed around the plate and devoured by the Seahawks, a decent team who themselves would get waxed by the Patriots at this point, is just about inexcusable.
Linehan came in before the 2006 season and wanted to establish a power running game, more consistency, blah, blah, blah. But I think he's superimposed his idea of a team on a team created very differently by other people. This is not a physical team. It's a big-play offense with a noted lack of situational discipline -- the Rams have led the NFL in false starts since at least the day that Alex Barron was drafted -- and you can't just tell a team to "play this way" if it runs counter to their abilities.
I'm also starting to wonder if parity isn't on the way out. We have two 0-7 teams in the Rams and Dolphins, and if the Colts win tomorrow night, there will be a 7-0 and a 6-0 team. My guess is that it's been a while since that happened.
Mike Tanier: I wasn't watching this, but I read the comments and assumed that the Seahawks were involved in some nail-biter because they were enduring such criticism. It is 33-6 Seahawks, right? Somebody besides that defensive end played well, right?
Vince Verhei: This was, without question, the most disheartening 27-point win I've ever seen. The Seattle offense has serious problems that have already been discussed. The Seahawks started four possessions in St. Louis territory, and on those four possessions managed one touchdown, two field goals and an interception. That's against the Rams, not the Steelers. And while the defense couldn't really have played much better, beating a team with a backup tackle and a beat-up quarterback in your home stadium that produces extra false start penalties is not really a great achievement.
Still, the division completely, totally sucks, and the deviant part of my brain hopes the Seahawks win the division at 7-9.
Doug Farrar: The defense played exceptionally well, especially in the second half. Marcus Trufant continued his improvement as a cover corner -- nobody will ever mistake him for Champ Bailey, but he's looking very solid out there. I don't think there's any question that as far as linebackers in a 4-3 scheme go, Seattle's are right up there with the best in their effectiveness and versatility. Backup tight end Will Heller impressed (he really should be playing more, because he can block!) and I liked what I saw from the interior defensive line rotation.
Unlike last week against the Saints, the Seahawks didn't regress against an inferior team. They're back in first place in their division, they've got a bye now, and they'll have some guys coming back healthy in two weeks. The concerns are obvious, but there's also room for guarded optimism.
One more thing: In the second half of this game, I'm thinking of Aaron's recent ESPN.com article about teams who bring on mobile (as in running, not as in pocket presence) quarterbacks, and how their rushing totals increase. I begin to wonder if, in the second half of games like this, when the Seahawks are doing little more than protecting a lead, they wouldn't get Seneca Wallace out there at quarterback and run some spread option plays.
Minnesota Vikings 14 at Dallas Cowboys 24
Aaron Schatz: I think I can feel a research project coming on, because watching this game, I'm just ultra frustrated at the Minnesota Cover-2 defensive schemes. How often can you let the other team's superstar receiver get open easily on the out? How often can you have two defensive backs sitting there while the tight end catches an easy eight-yard pass on first down right in front of them? I understand that the Cover-2 defense works well at times. I'm not talking about the run -- of course the Vikings are awesome stuffing the run. I'm talking about the pass, but Chicago and Tampa Bay have enjoyed some of the best defenses in NFL history over the past few years using this scheme, and defending the pass is certainly not the problem for the Indianapolis Colts.
And yet, I watch Romo here -- with a zillion yards, but losing most of the day because of bad bounces on fumbles -- and I watch Peyton Manning against Tampa two weeks ago, and Dallas when the Cowboys destroyed the Bears 34-10 with Terrell Owens going nuts, and Tom Brady against Minnesota on MNF last year, and Steve Smith in the NFC playoffs two years ago... It just looks too easy.
So it leads to a question, and thus a debate perhaps for now and a research project for later. Is it possible that:
a) When they play against a Tampa-2, are the top quarterbacks less affected by the strength of the defense than average quarterbacks are?*
b) Is the disparity between the good Tampa-2 defenses and the bad Tampa-2 defenses larger than the disparity between, say, the good 3-4 defenses and the bad 3-4 defenses?
c) Is the issue not the quality of the quarterback, but the quality of the number one receiver? Brady's big game against Minnesota last year would seem to suggest "no," but the fact that it was Jake Delhomme who destroyed the Bears in the 2005 playoffs would seem to suggest "yes."
* Assuming, of course, that the head coach of the team playing Tampa-2 was not the head coach of the other team the previous year, and did not play the part of the quarterback in practice prior to the game (known as the Jon Gruden Exception).
Doug Farrar: Well, if the idea of the Cover-2 is to allow underneath stuff and avoid the big play, while bringing enough pressure up front to avoid having your opposing quarterback just sit back there and tee off (as the Seattle defenses of 2003-2004 could not do), I'd say that the Vikings are at a severe disadvantage when running that scheme. Because they stop the run so well, and they're going to face minimal rushing attempts and maximum pass attempts, they're almost inviting offenses to carve them up. With that many attempts against a Cover-2 without pass pressure up front, conversions will happen -- over and over again. The Vikings are currently 26th in DVOA against the pass, and they're 27th in defensive Adjusted Sack Rate, and with defenses like that, you have to wonder which hand washes the other.
Mike Tanier: I think Cover-2 is just becoming one of those things like West Coast Offense was 12 years ago. Suddenly, all of these bad teams were running the West Cast Offense, and it didn't work, and people figured that the system stunk, when in fact the personnel was bad and the system didn't matter. When I see a team playing a lot of Cover-2 getting picked apart, I don't necessarily blame the scheme, because I assume that if they switched to more man coverage and started blitzing that would just make things worse.
Ned Macey: I'll take (b) first. Aren't the Jets the single worst defense in football so far this year? Weren't the Texans a terrible defense for years under Capers? Isn't Cleveland the third to worst defense in DVOA this year? I think there have been plenty of crappy 3-4 defenses that have been exploited over the years.
I'll take (a) next. The Cover-2 is not the same everywhere, and a coach can tailor it to stop the run or the pass. Dungy always has his team stronger against the pass than the run. After he left Tampa Bay, Monte Kiffin/Jon Gruden have played the run better at times.
As for (c), I think the Carolina-Chicago game might be skewing your thinking. If I remember correctly, they often left their corners in single coverage on Steve Smith, thus deviating from the traditional Cover-2. The Tampa Bay-San Francisco game referenced above obviously featured T.O. (four catches for 35 yards). Not to mention Tampa Bay's game against St. Louis in 1999 when they held them to 11 points or whatever when they had Isaac Bruce in his prime.
I'd propose two alternate theories:
a) Peyton Manning is a bad example because he and the Colts are designed to kill a Cover-2, just like you can't really say a 3-4 is superior because it makes the Colts struggle. The Cover-2 generally gives away where the rush is coming from, which makes any good quarterback extremely difficult to deal with. It's susceptible to teams that have two outside receivers to force the safeties wide and a great threat up the middle to exploit the opening. Drop to cover, and the running back kills you underneath.
b) You cannot run the Cover-2/Tampa-2 if you can't get pressure with your front four. If so, then a quarterback has all day to wait for someone to come free. Mix in linebackers who struggle in coverage (see Minnesota, at least last year), and it is a recipe for disaster. I will say this: Any defense that shows no variation is no good, so the best teams tweak their defense a bit for the opposition.
Aaron Schatz: Maybe the Tampa-2 just looks worse than other defenses do when you don't have the right players. At least the Jets look like they are trying and they just suck. With the Tampa-2, when two defenders are just standing there while a wide open tight end catches an eight-yard pass in front of them, it looks like they aren't even trying. I realize this is how the scheme works, but it is agonizing, and this is from someone who doesn't even care about whether the Vikings win or lose.
Teams need to start fitting the scheme to the players and stop trying to squeeze players into the wrong scheme.
Sean McCormick: I happen to echo Aaron's feelings on the Tampa-2. I think it's a defense that is already lost its raison d'etre. The funny thing is that it came into vogue to combat the West Coast offenses that were the big thing in the mid 90's, but it had the bad luck to spread right at the time when the Rams were re-introducing the vertical game. At this point you need really good personnel to run it successfully, or you need a really good offense that puts enough pressure on the opposing offense to force it to take chances rather than take its time and pick the very obvious holes in the zone apart. And even a very good defense can be completely dissected by a team with the requisite tools. Yes, the Colts are absolutely ridiculous, but they laid out a blueprint against the Bucs a couple weeks ago that quite a few other teams can follow, just by attacking the MLB high-low with a tight end and a running back, while having receivers good enough to keep the safety spacing wide.
The 3-4 defenses that are failing are at least failing while trying to take an approach that actually disrupts the offenses that teams are currently running.
Bill Barnwell: Minnesota pulls off the fumble/lateral/fumble/recovered by the same player/touchdown return. The booth challenges and it's upheld. That's about ten minutes of Excel work. Romo also appears to attempt to slide-tackle one of the return convoy and comes up lame.
Aaron Schatz: After my rant, the Vikings pass defense is playing far better in the second half. I can't tell why. That's one of the things about watching games live vs. charting -- if I was charting, I would notice the difference. Can anyone tell if the Vikings are doing something different now? They definitely seem to be getting more pass pressure, but I think it is still generally just that front four.
One more note: Tarvaris Jackson is awful, just awful. He's a walking, talking advertisement for the Lewin Career Forecast. No accuracy, awful decision-making, constantly flustered by pressure. Seriously, Dave should get twin tattoos of Jackson and Jason Campbell with the words "LEWIN CAREER FORECAST 4EVER" above them.
Ryan Wilson: There's a very good case to be made that he shouldn't have been a second-round pick. That selection was all on Fran Foley, who traded back into the second round to take him. Dave's system puts the evaluation onus on the scouts, but this was the act of an underqualified executive who was fired soon after.
Pittsburgh Steelers 28 at Denver Broncos 31
Aaron Schatz: Apparently, shaky Ben Roethlisberger was not a one-year fluke, and neither was the decline of the Pittsburgh offensive line. He is getting killed out there tonight with the Denver pass rush, which is a little odd because Denver does not actually have a pass rush. He's looking a little jumpy, too. I know one of his strengths is throwing on the run, but he looks like he's starting to scramble almost immediately, and he did a pirouette-and-throw-at-receiver's feet thing on one play that was like his tryout for Alvin Ailey.
Ryan Wilson: I think we should hold off the the "Big Ben is still shaky" talk. The offensive line has always been in doubt -- that they were adequate in the first quarter of the season was the biggest surprise. I'm pretty sure the first pick was on offensive coordinator Bruce Arians -- he's fond of throwing deep, occasionally, no matter the coverage. The second pick was on Hines Ward. It wasn't a great pass, but you expect Ward to catch it. Other than that, I'm not sure why Roethlisberger is "shaky." Because he has 0.4 seconds to throw a pass, or because his wideouts can't get open?
Ben Riley: Remember our "Something called Spaeth just scored" conversation a few weeks ago? Well, he just scored again for the Steelers, prompting Al Michaels to say "Tim Spaeth" three times and John Madden to say it once. Matt Spaeth, fellas, Matt.
Doug Farrar: That was one hell of a game. After it was over, I was surprised to see that Roethlisberger was sacked four times, only because he seems so hard to bring down. As he was in 2005, and as he certainly was against the Seahawks earlier this season. He would complete passes with defensive tackles draped on his back. Kind of a coming-out party for Jay Cutler against this defense as well.
Ryan Wilson: This was the first time all season the Steelers' defense was the liability. As Doug mentioned, Roethlisberger is incredibly tough to bring down, but it's a double-edged sword. Sure, he'll make some big plays, but as a fan, you spend an inordinate amount of time yelling, "THROW THE FREAKING BALL!" ... right before he takes a 10-yard loss. That said, the offensive line managed to keep it together on the last touchdown drive, but anything inside 55 yards for Elam in Denver is just about automatic.
Doug Farrar: I recently interviewed Norm Johnson, who kicked for 18 years in the NFL with the Seahawks, Falcons, Steelers, and Eagles. We discussed the transient nature of his career and how difficult it is for players to find long-term situations that work best for all involved. Jason Elam and Matt Stover were two exceptions that were brought up, and that's what I was thinking about when Elam kicked the game winning field goal as time expired. That's a relationship between player and team that has worked so well for all involved.