Audibles at the Line: AFC Wild Card Games
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.
For the next two weeks, we'll be splitting Audibles in two, one for each conference. This article covers the two AFC Wild Card games; you can find the article on the NFC games here.
Saturday, January 3
Indianapolis Colts 17 at San Diego Chargers 23 (OT)
(Before the game...)
Will Carroll: This LaDainian Tomlinson injury thing is all PR. I'll be surprised if Mort didn't get played.
Bill Barnwell: All PR in what sense?
Will Carroll: It's not that bad. The adductor tendon isn't that "mission critical" to what he does, even if it is detached. It's certainly not going to get any worse.
(Once the game starts...)
Bill Barnwell: Kelvin Hayden looks hurt.
Will Carroll: And L.T. doesn't. If Madden starts saying what a tough guy he is, the PR worked.
Doug Farrar: Well, Mike Scifres is just fine. His fourth punt was a 67-yarder with backspin that landed on the Colts' five-yard line. The concern, of course, is that he has already punted four times with five minutes left in the first half.
I'm hoping that Ryan Clady's physical play will allow him to avoid the sophomore slump so common among recent stud rookie left tackles (Marcus McNeill and Joe Thomas seem to me to be a bit more "finesse-y"), but man -– what has happened to McNeill? He has very little power and he's really slow getting from A to B.
Aaron Schatz: Golly, Anthony Gonzalez is good. The Colts won't miss Marvin Harrison at all -- although they better make sure they get themselves another good slot receiver in case Gonzalez, Reggie Wayne, or Dallas Clark gets hurt in 2009.
Mike Tanier: Tight end-around to Clark: There's something I see once every 30 years or so.
Bill Barnwell: Colts are all up the middle except for double-moves here and there. Darrell Reid as a split back in the pro set was pretty fun.
Mike Tanier: The first half has been all about field position. Scifres and Darren Sproles have made major contributions by pinning the Colts while giving the Chargers the ball past midfield twice. Hunter Smith hasn't been nearly as good, and the Colts return game is a non-factor as always.
Ned Macey: I don't know how hurt Tomlinson is, but they're definitely playing Sproles, and he's delivering. I always wonder how many carries/touches Sproles could take in a season. He always seems to make big plays against the Colts, while the Colts have generally done a pretty good job on Tomlinson.
Doug Farrar: Nice reaction by Antonio Cromartie on the Wayne touchdown pass. "Oh, THIS guy? Cover THIS guy? You sure? Well, OK ... but if it turns out I was supposed to stand here and let him run past, I'm telling Coach it was all your fault!"
Will Carroll: Tomlinson's got a Grade II strain. He could back into this game if he would take a painkiller shot.
And Manning is an offensive terrorist. The defense can do everything right, everything right, and one little mistake and he'll just bomb them. Cromartie giving Wayne that head start is going to be a highlight we see for years if the Colts win this.
Ben Riley: Not that we needed more evidence that Norv Turner is not a good coach, but the 60-plus-yard touchdown Reggie Wayne just scored is a direct result of Chargers confusion on defense while trying to substitute. Yes, Ron Rivera is the defensive coordinator and bears direct responsibility for the mistake, but the mishap just seems so emblematic of Turner's general failure to manage his teams.
Doug Farrar: I think it's more emblematic of the Colts' ability (specifically, Peyton Manning's ability) to set the tone in timing and situation.
Vince Verhei: To be fair to Cromartie, it wasn't just him -- the safety to that side was also standing sideways, staring at the sideline, when the ball was snapped.
Mike Tanier: The problem with having all 11 defenders shifting like mad before the snap is that somebody is going to shift himself totally out of position.
Doug Farrar: Regarding Sproles, I bet he'd be pretty durable up to maybe 250 or 275 carries because the big guys don't seem to get very many clean hits on him. It seems that he's able to hide behind his linemen from the first wave, and the back six/seven can't really get a solid shot. If you add in his ability as a return man and his productivity as a pass catcher, that's a near-every-down guy.
Will Carroll: I don't know if it's possible, but if charters could note "went down to avoid hit" or "got jacked up," there's probably something to be learned there. There was a team this fall that installed small accelerometers not just on helmets but on shoulder pads, right in front, and turned them off after one day. They just flat got scared by the numbers they were seeing -- in practice!
Bill Barnwell: Dwight Freeney set up that sack by going wide all night. When he ran the spin move, McNeill was totally out of sorts. Of course, on the next play, the Chargers knew he'd succumb to his uncontrollable wanderlust and take the wide route, so they ran a draw right at him.
Vince Verhei: That's it, I'm getting a powder blue Mike Scifres jersey. Six punts, all of them downed inside the 20. Five of them netted 50 yards or more, and the other was fair caught at the Indianapolis 9. (There's an offseason story to write: Great games by punters in the playoffs.)
Aaron Schatz: Actually, I promise to include that in either Quick Reads or the DVOA ratings this week.
Ben Riley: Forget the punter, I'm ordering myself a powder blue Darren Sproles jersey. What an unbelievable performance -- truly one of the greatest individual efforts I've ever seen.
Will Carroll: The NFL overtime rule is unquestionably the stupidest rule in sports. They tweak the rules all the time, yet this abomination is still there. The NCAA can't figure out playoffs, but they've got overtime right.
Bill Barnwell: Hate NCAA OT. NFL's version of the shootout. Forget sudden death, just do 15 minutes.
Vince Verhei: NCAA's overtime is horrid. Games last forever, special teams no longer count, everyone gets silly numbers. I greatly prefer what the NFL has now to almost every alternative I hear. I'm paraphrasing Madden here, but as he noted, the Colts did have a chance -- they had a chance to play defense and special teams and get a stop. And they failed.
Russell Levine: I could not agree more with Vince on college OT. It IS the football equivalent of the shootout. If you're a team that thrives on defense, special teams, and field position, you are at an immense disadvantage. A game going to three or four OTs can last for an extra hour.
I'm not sure what the solution is for the NFL -- maybe a 10 minute, non-sudden death OT period. But they should not change the regular season OT.
Sean McCormick: Count me in as someone who despises the college overtime rules. I don't have a problem with sudden death, but I think you can make a good argument for adding an extra 15 minutes a la soccer. If the score was still tied at the end of the extra session, you could move on to sudden death.
Bill Barnwell: Yeah. And I mean, it's not as if the Colts were dominating the game and lost on a fluke. They recovered a fumble in the end zone. Peyton Manning had multiple dropped interceptions. Most of their yardage came on a trick play (albeit one DVOA won't realize is a trick play). I would guess that the Chargers will end up with a DVOA in the mid-30s and the Colts with something like -15%.
I'm going to keep a checklist of all the tired narratives spoiled by each loss this round. So far, we've got:
- Team of youths who don't realize that they're under pressure (Atlanta)
- Quarterback who just wins (Ryan)
- Bruising running game that wins close games (Atlanta/Turner)
- Team that's been there before (Indy)
- NFL MVP (Manning)
- The team with the most momentum wins (Indy)
Bill Moore: Praying. Praying is what caused Antonio Gates to have a good game today. Apparently the Colts failed to do enough praying.
Ned Macey: Well, he did fumble in overtime surrounded by three Colts and happened to land on the ball, so maybe prayer was his solution. (Although the official box score doesn't have the fumble scored at all).
In regulation, Colts outgained the Chargers by 84 yards and forced the game's only two turnovers, but it was still tied. This was a great example of guts vs. stomps, as these two teams are basically equal, but today the Chargers got a few more breaks. Or made their own breaks with the punting. The ball that went out at the 1-yard line is one of the great clutch punts I've ever seen.
Each punter got six punts. Scifres netted 51.7 yards; Smith netted 31.5 yards. I know the Colts' special teams remain a bugaboo, but that's just an otherworldly performance by Scifres and a bad day from Smith. During the season, San Diego punting was worth only 1.5 more points than Indianapolis punting. Punt returns were another 10, but San Diego was below average, and I'm not sure what anyone could have done with Scifres' punts. Given Sproles' fumble at the 1-yard line, I think Scifres is game MVP.
Aaron Schatz: I saw that the readers seem to be bitching about the officiating in this game. I know there were a lot of flags but did I miss some kind of crazy bad officiating festival at the end of this game?
Bill Barnwell: The refereeing wasn't great, but I think suggesting that the Colts would win this game if it were better would have been pretty ridiculous. They laid an egg, and didn't adjust when the Chargers dumped off checkdown after checkdown to Sproles. Losing Gary Brackett ended up being absolutely huge for them. Gonzalez was great against Cason, but everyone else on offense ... not good.
Will Carroll: Yeah, I'll agree. There were a lot of flags, but I can't think of any bad ones or even arguable, really. Madden made a big deal about Winter's propensity for tossing flags, but he had a nice batting average tonight. NOT why the Colts lost.
Ned Macey: I'm going to have to disagree with Bill on a couple of these points. Not on the refereeing, as every penalty they showed was a penalty, but "I think suggesting that the Colts would win this game if it were better would have been pretty ridiculous. They laid an egg...." is a bit ridiculous in and of itself. Had they completed a third-and-2 pass, where Manning has to be way over 50 percent, they would have won the game. Instead, he got sacked, and they lost. As to the "egg laying," the Premium Picks system thought the Chargers would win the game at a 76 percent confidence prediction, and the Colts came within a play or two of winning. After 120-plus minutes of games between these two teams (ranked seventh and eighth in DVOA), I think it is pretty clear that playing in San Diego, the teams are equal. When equal teams play, sometimes your kicker hits his first 50-plus-yard field goal in years and you win. Sometimes, a punt bounces out of bounds at the 1-yard line and you lose.
Defensively, I just think it is hard to fault the Colts (at least in regulation) on this one. They didn't adjust to the Chargers checkdowns because they were dedicated to stopping Vincent Jackson, who caught 59 balls for 1,098 yards, ranked fifth in DYAR, caught a 59-yard touchdown pass against the Colts in the regular season game, and had seven catches for 93 yards in last year's playoffs. This week, he had 0 catches. You can't just do that without compromising some other part of your defense, and in this case, the Colts gave up some underneath stuff.
Also, the Colts just didn't give up much. The Chargers' two non-overtime touchdowns were both drives under 50 yards. Their game-tying field goal drive was 30 yards. The Colts had five drives over 40 yards; the Chargers (counting overtime) had two. Considering the Chargers had the third best offensive DVOA in the league, I don't think defensive game-planning or adjustments were the problem.
The offensive futility against a physical 3-4 defense in a playoff game -- well, that's a story we've seen before, and I'll admit the one second-half big play was a fluke.
Bill Barnwell: I don't doubt that the two teams might be closer than the DVOA split I suggested the game would come out as, and I could very easily be wrong, but that doesn't necessarily mean that was the case on Saturday. Punting's a part of DVOA, and Scifres had a brilliant game.
I agree that they did a great job of stopping Jackson, but at some point, you have to cycle a linebacker over or let Bob Sanders shadow Sproles or something. They were getting killed on third downs, which is a big reason why I think their DVOA will end up looking so good -- how many third-and-9s or third-and-11s did the Chargers convert? Four?
The Colts outgained the Chargers by six yards despite having a much larger field to play on and having 71 of those yards come on one play. The Chargers had 26 first downs and the Colts 19 despite their relative starting field positions. This against a Chargers defense that, physical or not, was 20th in the league in defensive DVOA.
Ned Macey: San Diego was 7-for-15 on third and fourth down. Indianapolis was 6-for-16 on third and fourth down.
Sproles third-down reception conversions: 1 (in overtime).
Third-down conversions of six or more yards by Chris Chambers: 4.
San Diego also converted a long Sproles draw in the first quarter and a third-and-7 to Michael Bennett.
I know Bill of all people can hardly fault a defensive strategy that leaves Chris Chambers as the available option for move-the-chains third-down plays. He had five third-down conversions of any length all season!
Also, I don't doubt that the Chargers' DVOA would be higher, but I suspect that the off/def favors the Colts, and Scifres' game was just absurd and outside the Colts' control. Still, in an overtime game with roughly equal yardage and the losing team forcing the only two turnovers, it strikes me as a game where the teams were roughly equal.
Sunday, January 4
Baltimore Ravens 27 at Miami Dolphins 9
Doug Farrar: If there's one thing I'd do with the Wildcat here, it would be to run play-action off the sweep. Baltimore's leaving the seam open and going with the play, and I think Miami needs to get the Ravens thinking about the pass in the formation. Run the normal sweep, but have Williams hit the line to block right after the fake, and see what's open to Anthony Fasano.
Sean McCormick: I do like the way Miami is motioning the halfback into the backfield for their off tackle runs -- when the Ravens have had trouble against the run, it's been defending the outside run, particularly against passing sets. By bringing Brown and Williams across the formation and running at speed, it gives them a bit of a head-start on getting around the edge, kind of like a horizontal equivalent of the Arena League letting receivers get a head start running towards the line of scrimmage. It's not translating into consistent gains yet, but I guarantee it is setting up Baltimore for misdirection passing.
Doug Farrar: Wow. Not sure what the Ravens were thinking with the "direct snap" to Troy Smith and the straight run up the middle on third-and-4 halfway through the second quarter. That was an odd drive-ender.
Vince Verhei: Miami came out on their first drive with a lot of passes to running backs in the flats, and had success with them. And then they spent the rest of the first half running a bunch of misdirection stuff. It seemed their game plan was based on the Ravens missing a lot of tackles. When that predictably failed, they were left with desperation passes, and we all saw how that worked.
Aaron Schatz: We always assumed that turnover return length was basically random. Bill did the research sometime this season and found that it is, but two players stick out with more turnover returns for touchdowns than you would expect from random noise: Ed Reed and DeAngelo Hall. So Chad Pennington throws that ball up, and he gets hit as he throws, and the receiver falls down, and you just knew Ed Reed was going to end up under that ball and here we go again. I wonder -- do the Ravens practice returning turnovers more than other defenses? They sure do seem to set up blocks really well, and their returns often go side to side, rather than the player with the ball just running into a pile of offensive players trying to tackle him.
Um, who the heck is "London 17" for the Dolphins? In the playoffs, should you really throw two straight passes to some guy nobody has heard of? I just checked, and this guy had six passes thrown to him in the regular season. Are the Dolphins that thin at wide receiver with Greg Camarillo out?
Doug Farrar: Yep. When Davone Bess got hurt, that was all she wrote. The Dolphins got as much as they possibly could out of their personnel this year, but the bubble finally popped.
Mike Tanier: London 17 was the band that sang "Let Me Go."
The Dolphins kept using that "jet sweep" formation, where the running back motions into the backfield and takes the handoff, after some early success. On later plays, the Ravens just strung the play out, and when the Dolphins tried to execute play action from the formation, I think they got a short completion on second-and-long.
Now, it's 20-3, so it's bye-bye Wildcat, bye-bye running from oddball formations. That may mean bye-bye Dolphins.
Aaron Schatz: Ed Reed just had ANOTHER interception, with a jump on the ball that was almost psychic, so I do think it is bye-bye Dolphins. By the way, did anyone else wonder why someone with uniform number 84 was rushing the passer? I actually went and checked, that's a guy named Edgar Jones who apparently switches back and forth from outside linebacker to tight end because with all the injuries this year the Ravens can't decide which position they need him at more.
And now, Sean Payton in "Invasion of the Body Snatchers!" Botched end-arounds for everyone!
Ben Riley: Was anybody else surprised to see Ed Hochuli refereeing this game? After "The Incident of Week 2," I thought for sure the NFL would let Ed focus on his triceps this January.
Vince Verhei: The Haloti Ngata vs. Samson Satele never really materialized -- Baltimore shifted Ngata around, so he wasn't often lined up right over center -- but when they did go head-to-head, it seemed like Ngata won the battle handily.
Jim Leonhard doesn't get a lot of press for the Ravens, but he had a great day today in run support too.
Sean McCormick: After 72 hours of Jets fans gnashing their teeth over cutting the two-time NFL Comeback player of the year for "He Who Shall Not Be Named," today's performance undoubtedly cooled them out. Pennington is an effective quarterback, but there's a ceiling on how much he can accomplish against a top defense, particularly if he doesn't have a top tier supporting cast. He simply doesn't have the arm to challenge a defense outside the hashes, and while he generally makes good decisions, he sometimes breaks down under pressure. Pennington is the reason why the Dolphins were playing today, but he was also the primary reason why this matchup looked so lopsided both on paper and on the field.
Doug Farrar: Well, Pennington did pretty well against the Ravens in their first meeting, but I think the Miami rushing plays kind of forced his hand this time. The Dolphins gained 52 yards on 21 carries in this game, and I cannot understand why they kept going up the middle. The Ravens led the NFL in defensive Adjusted Line Yards in the Mid/Guard area this year with 3.23 yards per carry allowed. It wasn't just right up the middle -- according to NFL GSIS, Baltimore allowed 1.95 yards per carry to left guard (best in the league) and 2.88 yards per carry to right guard (ditto).
The only successful rushing play they had today was that quick handoff to Lousaka Polite on third down out of the I for a couple of converted third downs. They couldn't get any power going to the left or the right -- I'm beginning to think that Justin Smiley's season-ending leg injury really hurt the offense -- and everything fell on Pennington's shoulders. Is there an NFL quarterback who could win a game against that defense, without a running game, and with the receivers Pennington had? I doubt it.
Sean McCormick: That's a fair point. As I said, I think Pennington can continue to operate effectively if he can play point guard and distribute the ball to playmakers, but he didn't have any at his disposal today. But part of the problem is that Pennington can only challenge a good defense down the field when they're biting on his play action; otherwise, he has no chance to stick the ball in. The stat line was worse than his other playoff performances, but the basic experience was pretty much identical.
Ben Riley: One question/observation from the Ravens game: At various points, Haloti Ngata dropped back into pass coverage. Given that Ngata is a tackle and weighs somewhere around 600 pounds (OK, 340), that seems beyond unbelievable to me -- are there other defensive tackles with that versatility?
Another question: What do people think the line will be on the Ravens-Titans game next week? I picked the Titans to win the Super Bowl, but suddenly I'm very nervous about my pick, even with Albert Haynesworth and Kyle Vanden Bosch back in the lineup.