Audibles at the Line: AFC Divisional Round
Compiled by Doug Farrar and Vince Verhei
Each weekend, 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 2009.
This week, we'll be splitting Audibles in two, one for each conference. This edition discusses only the two AFC Divisional games. Discussion of the NFC Divisional games can be found here.
Saturday, January 10
Baltimore Ravens 13 at Tennessee Titans 10
Doug Farrar: Kerry Collins starts Tennessee's first drive exploiting Baltimore's one defensive weakness: the pass to the flats. The Titans then call two runs up the mdidle to Chris Johnson. If there was a common headstone among teams that lost to the Ravens this year, it would read, "They Tried to Run Up the Middle." (Notable Exception: The New York Giants.) Seriously, guys. Either promise LenDale White a bunch of Whoppers if he can pass-block well enough to be that guy, or send Johnson outside. He's not going to break it up the middle. Period, end of story, next.
Aaron Schatz: Boy, the Ravens really don't want Joe Flacco throwing on third-and-long. Running on two straight third-and-longs, yikes. That draw to Willis McGahee on the second one, third-and-14, was a complete give-up play. I wonder -- when they finally let Flacco throw the ball on third down, will it catch the Titans totally off guard? They better have a play-action fake on that play when they decide to let Flacco throw it.
Doug Farrar: And who threw the killer block on Chris Johnson's (outside) touchdown run? Reserve center Leroy Harris, who peeled off to the right, got to the second level, and took Ray Lewis out of the play. I know they're going to miss Kevin Mawae's savvy out there, but Mawae was surprisingly easy for Baltimore to push around in Week 5. Harris does give them a power boost (though running inside is still nuts against these guys).
Well, I guess they got over their fear of Flacco throwing on third-and-long on that touchdown to Derrick Mason on third-and-13 from the Tennessee 48 with 1:31 left in the first quarter. Nice thousand-yard gap between Nick Harper and Chris Hope in the zone coverage.
At the end of the first quarter, the Titans start using Johnson's ability to cut back against the Ravens. On Johnson's 32-yard run to end the first quarter, they went two tight ends to the right, but Bo Scaife motioned left to seal the backside block outside. Johnson was able to slip through the seam and get upfield. Your move, Rex...
Aaron Schatz: Hope really should have been to Mason in time on the Mason touchdown catch. And I do notice that Mason seems to be covered by Harper (or on Harper's side of the zone) more than by Cortland Finnegan today.
Bill Moore: My wife's comments on the 5 minutes of TEN/BAL we have seen so far:
After Chris Johnson's post-touchdown celebration: "What's with the stupid handshake thing?"
After Mason's touchdown catch: "...and this guy is skipping like a little girl"
After Dan Dierdorf's comment about not calling Flacco a rookie anymore: "Doesn't the term 'rookie' just define that it's his first year?" Me: "Yes." Her: "So he's just sounding like an idiot." Me: "Welcome to the world of Dan Dierdorf."
Not that she's wrong in any way, but certain things need not be said out loud. This is why I watch football with the guys.
Doug Farrar: Boy, that short middle is open season for Kerry Collins. He can just blast away to his tight ends on those little slants, and the Ravens seem to have no answer for it.
Aaron Schatz: The flags are coming hot and heavy today. It looks like we've got 11 so far, halfway through the second quarter. Who's the head official out there today? I went to look at the database; the game with the most flags this year was Giants-49ers in Week 7, which had 28. The first game between these teams had 24.
Doug Farrar: Terry McAulay is in charge today. His crew called 199 penalties in 15 regular-season games, which isn't really out of the ordinary.
Bill Barnwell: Did Howie Long buy a block of commercial time or something?
I'm really impressed with how the Titans are playing except for the two turnovers. They're doing a great job of isolating Johnson against linebackers in the run and the pass and letting him beat them both with his speed. That cutback against Lewis on the 30-plus-yarder up the middle was a thing of beauty.
In the passing game, Fabian Washington was the target on virtually every play up before the final drive, when Tennessee went after Samari Rolle. The biggest difference between the regular season game and the first half of this game is that the Titans are doing a fantastic job in pass pro -- even the center (outside of the one early snap).
Not sure what the Ravens' game plan has been. They have barely run the ball, and they seem to think that isolating Mason or Mark Clayton on double moves is their prime offensive strategy.
Aaron Schatz: Well, it got them one touchdown, and then a very long, nice pass, caught slightly out of bounds. So it may not be the dumbest strategy.
Vince Verhei: At halftime, Baltimore is lucky to be in this game. Virtually every big play -- the turnovers and the Mason touchdown -- went their way.
That Mason touchdown, by the way, is the reason you see scouts fawning over arm strength. Yes, Hope was late getting over, but against most quarterbacks, he still would have been on time. That throw came on a rope.
My favorite Dierdorf moment came when the Ravens were roughing up Chris Johnson after a tackle. Leroy Harris came over to break it up. The refs called a personal foul, but got the wrong number, calling it on Michael Roos. The replay showed Roos standing there while Leroy Harris raised his forearm over his head and brought it down on the back of a Ravens defender in the pile. Dierdorf watched this and declared, "THAT IS NOT A FOUL."
I haven't watched much Tennessee this year. Has Jevon Kearse been this effective all year?
Ben Riley: I missed the first half of this game, but to answer your question Vince, Kearse has been surprisingly good. The Freak comes out in Nashville, apparently.
Aaron Schatz: I think it is an issue of keeping him healthy. Remember, he only played a couple games in 2006 and then last year he was in and out of the lineup. The Titans do a lot of defensive line rotation, and you've got Dave Ball and Jacob Ford playing a lot of snaps. In our individual defense data, about half the teams only have two defensive ends with at least 25 "plays." About half the teams have three. The Titans are the only defense with four.
That IBM commercial forgets to mention other things math can do, like tell you that Baltimore will turn things around from 6-10 and go to the playoffs. Next stop, NUM3ERS guest starring appearance!
Vince Verhei: Halfway through the third quarter, it's time for Tennessee to go pass-wacky. Johnson is on the sidelines, and the Ravens pass rush has been negligible all day, especially if they don't blitz.
Doug Farrar: They can also go ball-control with the short pass. They've encountered trouble when Collins goes for the home run.
Aaron Schatz: Wait, what was I saying about Jevon Kearse? Turns out even when they keep him healthy all year, they can't keep him healthy all year.
Doug Farrar: There's a guy limping off the field after every play -- brutal game. Late in the third quarter, this is looking less like a football game, and more like a Civil War re-enactment. Will the winning team be able to field a full roster next week?
Aaron Schatz: If San Diego goes to the Super Bowl because they upset Pittsburgh and whichever team wins this game barely has enough healthy players to take the field next week, I'm going to puke on myself.
Vince Verhei: Baltimore continues to get the big plays. Their go-ahead field goal is set up by a 29-yard punt return, then a deep lob to a double-covered Mason, but both defenders slipped and fell down.
Doug Farrar: And with all the talk about Flacco's arm, that seemed like one he got away with. If he throws that into his own secondary, yikes.
Vince Verhei: All clichés about war and battle and combat aside, I've never seen a game with this many injuries. Guys are constantly staying down after the play, or limping off the field, or pointing to their arm/shoulder/neck and calling for a sub. It's brutal out there.
Dierdorf did make one good comment earlier, noting that contemporary players wear their helmets looser than his contemporaries did, and they fly off easier. I've seen at least three helmets pop off today. Cortland Finnegan just had his pulled off on a very benign swipe by the fullback. It did not stop him from leading with his head to help make the tackle.
This game may inspire a new FO stat: Consistency. We need a measure of how many plays were simply positive, as measured by DVOA. Tennessee has probably "won" at least 70 percent of the plays in this game.
Bill Moore: Dierdorf: "I'll tell you something that's not rocket science. Teams that are -3 on the turnover differential, you can count their winning percentage on one hand."
Huh? Unless he lost some parts of fingers in the war, I think that would be more orthopedic science than rocket science.
Doug Farrar: If you're the Ravens, and you're pinned down at your own goal-line, down 10-7 late in the game, do you take the intentional safety and gain the field position advantage of the free kick from your own 20, as opposed to pinning your punter in a bad situation? If I have Baltimore's defense, and a 3-0 turnover advantage, I think I might.
(Baltimore gets a play off after the play clock has expired.)
Bill Connelly: I realize you have to take human error into account and all, but ... how does delay of game not get called there? And I realize they can't in the current rules, but wouldn't that be a pretty easy thing to review with replay?
Bill Moore: Baltimore just scored their field goal. If Tennessee drives and scores, it's Willis McGahee's fault for running out of bounds with 1:48 left on the clock.
Aaron Schatz: Well, Tennessee didn't score, so McGahee gets away with that one.
Vince Verhei: And the Tennessee offense goes out with a most unrespectable whimper.
I do think it's time for the NFL to reconsider how the playoffs are seeded. I'm still fine with the four division champs and two wild cards getting in, but after that, it's ridiculous to pretend that an 11-5 Wild Card team is worse than an 8-8 division winner.
Aaron Schatz: The Titans got completely f***ed by the luck fairy tonight. It's nice that Baltimore won, because they are an excellent team, and we're rooting for Flacco, and of course it makes us look good -- our systems picked the Ravens for this game and I don't know of anybody else who picked the Ravens to make the playoffs before the season.
However, Tennessee outplayed Baltimore tonight. Unfortunately, their best offensive player was out for the second half. Rob Bironas missed a field goal that he normally makes. Four fumbles, and the only one the Titans recover is a muffed kickoff, which is rarely a turnover anyway. All those flags, and the officials miss a completely obvious one against Baltimore on their game-winning drive, the delay of game.
Bill Connelly beat me to the punch because I was working out during the fourth quarter, but I was going to say the same thing: They really should make delay of game a reviewable penalty. It is the kind of penalty that is generally obvious on review. It isn't going to be challenged very often -- what, maybe a handful of times per season? But still, on a big fourth-quarter drive like tonight, it is vitally important yardage.
I've said this a few times on the radio this season, but I don't know if I've said it in Audibles or on the site anywhere: I spent most of the season afraid that the Titans were going to end up like the 2001-2003 Eagles. Eventually, the fact that there was really no clear number-one receiver was going to bite them. I feel like that was part of the problem tonight. Justin Gage has been playing well, and he had 135 yards tonight, but he didn't seem to be as much of a factor in the second half.
There's nobody who, on a final drive like that, you say "well, Baltimore clearly has to watch out for X" or "Collins will probably be looking for X" first. So the Ravens can just spread their defense around, there's no need to screw up the basic defense to cover one option. I'm not talking about Randy Moss here -- it could be a "number one" route-running technician like Hines Ward or Derrick Mason. But their only go-to receiver is a running back who was on the sidelines with an ankle injury for half the game.
Bill Barnwell: Teams win 20 percent of the time with -3 turnover differential. Not an absolute killer. It wasn't Gage having a huge day, it was Fabian Washington having a terrible one.
Aaron Schatz: One other thing that bothered me, even though it didn't mean anything. Did Yamon Figurs get injured? If not, what the hell was Tom Zbikowski doing returning that final Tennessee kickoff? The guy returned two kickoffs during the season. Tie playoff game with five minutes, and you stick in a guy who barely returned any kickoffs all year and isn't particularly known as a burner? Huh?
Doug Farrar: Well, the dumbest roughing the passer call in NFL history gave the Titans that Week 5 game ... but it does make you wonder why the NFL can't have a system where the play stops on zero and anything after that is a freakin' penalty. Not "one second after, or whenever the guy looks up and looks back," but on the zero.
By the way, there were five defensive offside calls in this game. Think someone got a memo from the league after the Arizona-Atlanta game?
Aaron Schatz: Well, part of that is that when you have a team that is trying to get to the passer with just four guys, you are going to have players trying to time the snap count and occasionally they'll miss it. The Titans led the league in overall defensive penalties this year, plus they had 28 flags for offside, encroachment, or NZI, four more than any other defense.
Doug Farrar: Right. They're aggressive and they pay for it, but the Cardinals had 14 offside penalties in the regular season to Tennessee's 17. Then, all of a sudden ... nothing.
Bill Barnwell: I was really shocked at how futile the Ravens pass rush was at getting to Collins. He was sacked once, but there really wasn't anywhere near the level of pressure that we'd expect from the Ravens defense on him. As a result, Gage got to run longer routes and Collins was able to stand in the pocket and look Ed Reed off his throws. They really went after Washington over and over again, which is pretty strange considering he doesn't have the reputation as a target that Walker does. It seemed like everything they threw was in front of him -- will want to watch the tape and see if it was just double-moves that Gage kept cutting off or what. They ran that same deep-in versus Cover-2 that they did in the first game to perfection.
Flacco still has some work to do on his deep ball. There were a couple of chances for bigger plays downfield that he overthrew, something he did last week as well. Not a huge deal (since he can at least get the ball out there), but an offseason project.
Sean McCormick: It wasn't that shocking -- Tennessee was third in the league in Adjusted Sack Rate -- and if you look at the individual matchups along the lines, there's no point where the Ravens would seem to have a clear advantage. That said, it's definitely unusual to see a team with such pedestrian wide receivers able to rip up the Ravens secondary with such regularity on deep and intermediate routes.
While the Ravens weren't able to generate much pressure with their front four, give Rex Ryan credit for both the way he schemed his overload blitzes and his sense for when to call them. The only two things that stopped Tennessee's offense in the first half were the turnovers (which were primarily a result of sloppiness by the offensive players) and Ryan unleashing a new blitz on selected third downs.
The most impressive thing about Flacco right now is his footwork within the pocket. We all knew he had a cannon for an arm and was agile for a guy his size -- those things all showed up in his college game tape -- but there were real questions about his ability to set up quickly from under center and his ability to move within the pocket. Yesterday he was terrific while going up against a very good defense. He made one off-balance throw all day, his backwards pass to LeRon McClain to avoid a sack. Other than that, he was moving within the pocket, stepping up and following through. Ravens fans must feel giddy every time they see this guy.
Bill Barnwell: Sean, I was surprised about Baltimore not getting any pressure on Tennessee because they did last game -- even though they got no sacks, they got plenty of functional pressure on Collins, certainly enough to limit the routes that Tennessee could run. This game, no pressure, and they could do whatever they wanted.
Ned Macey: The sort of sad thing about all the turnovers was that it obscured an otherwise dominant offensive outing. (Sort of like, "Otherwise how was the play Mrs. Lincoln," I know.) Still, this offense with zero skilled wideouts had a higher DVOA than Dallas, Pittsburgh, Minnesota, and Baltimore. Mike Heimerdinger really did a good job this year working his offense for Collins, and I wonder how much the arrival of the newcomer (re-arrival, I guess) led to the decision to stick with Kerry Collins.
The most impressive thing for me was the number of slant throws that they completed. Back to Aaron's analogy about the 2001-2003 Eagles: That team could just not complete a slant pass against man coverage. You just have to be able to complete that pass against a team whose linebackers are blitzing, or you cannot have a functioning offense.
I also wonder how sustainable Baltimore's defense can be. Two weeks in a row teams have moved the ball on them, but they forced enough turnovers to carry the day. I know turnovers are repeatable (even if they got fumble-lucky), but at a certain point, they need to force more punts.
Sunday, January 11
San Diego Chargers 24 at Pittsburgh Steelers 35
Ben Riley: And there's Bill Leavy, calling an unsportsmanlike conduct penalty on Vincent Jackson for rubbing his chest briefly after coming down with an incredible touchdown catch (while being blatantly interfered with). Good to see some things never change.
Bill Barnwell: I wonder how they they'd handle the Jackson MMA camp tweaking their nipples before each fight.
Vince Verhei: Two thing I love in this game so far:
1) Phil Simms, when diagramming Vincent Jackson's touchdown, attempting to circle Darren Sproles and missing him by five yards.
2) Pittsburgh's fake fourth-down attempt, leading to Ben Roethlisberger's quick kick. A punt there is the smart play by a wide margin.
(Santonio Holmes scores for Pittsburgh on a 67-yard punt return.)
Excuse me, I have to go cancel my Mike Scifres jersey order from last week.
Aaron Schatz: OK, apparently the Chargers were so used to Scifres playing like a minor diety that they forgot how to cover punt returns.
Bill Barnwell: Do we go back to mispronouncing his name now?
Doug Farrar: Well, if a positive special teams play proved to be the difference for the Steelers, that would make this the weirdest postseason in NFL history.
Wow -- Marcus McNeill sucked both ways on that Darren Sproles run on third-and-25. He let James Harrison through from the edge, and stood there looking for UFOs as James Farrior clamped down on Sproles from right to left.
Vince Verhei: Sproles fails to pick up a first down on fourth-and-short. Norv Turner challenges the spot and loses. Phil Simms calls this a "good challenge." No! It's not! It's a waste of a challenge AND a timeout, on a play that wasn't THAT important -- even if you win the challenge, you're still on your own side of the field. It's not like you're guaranteed a field goal or anything. You should never challenge a play just to make sure the refs take a closer look at it; you should only challenge when they clearly got it wrong.
Doug Farrar: Was it Ben's idea to do "Stupid S**t Phil Simms Says" in next year's Scramble? It's not as if you'd ever be starved for content...
Vince Verhei: A key hidden play in this game: On a third-and-2, Roethlisberger hits Cary Davis in the flat for what looks like a sure-fire first down, but Quentin Jammer comes flying in with a beautiful tackle to make the stop. Next play, Pittsburgh's fake punt is stuffed, and the Chargers take advantage of the short field and kick a field goal. If Davis converts that third down, Pittsburgh likely goes on to score at least a field goal. It's not unrealistic to say that Jammer tackle caused a 6-point swing on the scoreboard.
Patrick Laverty: Do I have this right? Ben Watson scores a touchdown and puts the ball under his shirt in his belly as a "shout out" to his pregnant wife. 15 yards unsportsmanlike. Willie Parker does a figure-8 between his legs with the ball and then uses it to shoot a jump shot, nothing.
Sure am glad there's consistency in the officiating of unsportsmanlike.
Vince Verhei: Something I don't understand about San Diego's defense: They like to rush five, then play zone behind it. But unless one of the five rushers is completely unblocked, you can't play zone with only six guys. It's just too much real estate. It seems like the kind of thing you'd do three or four times a game, trying to catch the offense by surprise, not something you'd rely on as a cornerstone of your defense.
Aaron Schatz: Roethlisberger seems to be getting way more time to throw than usual today, and he's staying in the pocket much more than he usually does. Whether the Chargers are sending four or five, they don't seem to be getting there. I've seen a couple of good blitz pickups by Mewelde Moore.
Will Carroll: Are the blocking schemes normal? I was just about to say, it seems like he's getting more time which makes me wonder if they're protecting
more to keep them off his head.
Doug Farrar: Scary third-quarter stats: San Diego plays: 1. San Diego yards: 0.
Aaron Schatz: Byron Leftwich: Largest Victory Cigar Ever.
Vince Verhei: Because there is nothing else worth talking about in this hideously boring finish, I'd like to congratulate CBS for using the shot of Jim Nantz and Phil Simms with the world's cheesiest blue-screen effect putting a picture of the crowd behind them. It looks especially low-rent in HD.
Ben Riley: Did anyone else notice that James Harrison was getting held on virtually every play in the fourth quarter? In fact, I don't think I saw a clean block on him the entire game. He is the reason that the Steelers have to be the odds-on favorite to win it all at this point. Kill me now.
The other thing that stood out to me in this game: horrific tackling by the Chargers' secondary. There were at least three plays on third-and-long that should have resulted in a stop, but for Brian Russell-like effort on the part of the defense. The Chargers weren't going to win today regardless, but it was frustrating to watch.
Answering your question Doug, the SSPSS (Stupid S**t Phil Simms Said this Week) would not suffer from lack of material; whether I or anyone else could will themselves to listen to him for at least three hours every week is another story.
Ned Macey: If you can't get pressure on Roethlisberger, you can't beat the Steelers. For most teams, it isn't too hard to get pressure on him.
More than anything else, I became a Mike Tomlin fan today. They didn't all work, but the guy went all out. A fake punt, fourth-and-1 with a lead at the goal-line, and any number of downfield throws in run situations. I know Bill Cowher won the Super Bowl his last year in the playoffs, but I love the Steelers playing to win rather than not to lose.
As for San Diego, their defense sucks. For whatever reason, the defense matches up well against the Colts, but they struggle to get pressure and are not even stout against the run. I know they were better than 8-8, but I'm just glad an 8-8 team isn't hosting the AFC Championship.
Doug Farrar: San Diego's defense looked really small to me this season whenever I watched them; like there were three down linemen and about six defensive backs even when there weren't. Ron Rivera should be congratulated for getting the most out of that defense, because the loss of Shawne Merriman should have been a death blow.
And speaking of 3-4 defenses, I love the idea of the Ravens and Steelers throwing their defenses at each other one more time. I wonder if the Ravens don't have the slight advantage this time. Their defense is playing at an insane level, they've had success with the unbalanced line (which seems very portable), and Flacco seems to have grown exponentially (though there are still some wacky throws he needs to avoid).
Aaron Schatz: Oh, I don't think Flacco is any better now than he was back in Week 15, and I don't think the Baltimore defense is playing any better now than it was back in Week 15. That game could have gone either way and I'm guessing the same will be true about next week's game, no matter who actually is going to Tampa.
Bill Barnwell: You know, it's funny -- Ben Roethlisberger was a pansy or what-not until the ball was snapped. And then it turned out he was actually still really good. Who knew?
Patrick Laverty: The AFC Championship over-under is going to be around 4 and the NFC Championship over-under is going to be about 60.