Audibles at the Line: NFC 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 edition discusses only the two NFC Wild Card games. Discussion of the AFC Wild Card games can be found here.
Saturday, January 3
Atlanta Falcons at Arizona Cardinals
Doug Farrar: I just turned over to Football Night in America in time to see the man who built the only 0-16 team in NFL history telling the viewing audience how the Falcons built a winning team. I'm sorry, Mr. Millen, but you're blown out. How on earth is anyone supposed to take this guy seriously as an analyst anymore?
Vince Verhei (at the same time): NBC has added Matt Millen to their pregame show. One, why did this show need another talking head? Two, how can ANYONE put any credibility in anything this man says about football?
Will Carroll: Because he's on NBC. There's an inherent credibility -- they could put someone off the street on TV and if he looks and acts the part, he'll be an expert next week. I call this the "Matt Berry effect."
Bill Barnwell: I can think of plenty of exciting ways to implement Millen into the FNIA telecast. A segment where one Lions fan a week comes on and yells at a muzzled Millen for five minutes would be great. A "Where are they now?" segment where Millen interviews guys like Bill Schroeder and Az Hakim would be good. A piece where Millen passes the buck on every one of his failed decisions to various Ford properties would be fine.
Doug Farrar: Nice first defensive series by the Falcons, going blitz/blitz/blitz look-drop back-bring three. Warner didn't have much for that. He's going to have to beat the blitz to make them call it off.
Vince Verhei: Cards have a crucial second-and-10 deep in their own territory on their first drive, and the play call is ... a deep pass? To Dominique Rodgers-Cromartie? With Larry Fitzgerald and Anquan Boldin and Steve Breaston on this team, this is when you choose to get cute?
Doug Farrar: Early on, Matt Ryan's throwing more accurately to the Cards than Kurt Warner is.
Of course, right after I write that, Warner throws a 42-yard bomb to Larry Fitzgerald in the end zone, and Fitzgerald outleaps his double-team for the touchdown.
Vince Verhei: OK, that flea-flicker touchdown clinched it for me: Larry Fitzgerald is the best receiver in football right now. He has everything -- size, speed, and some of the best hands you'll ever find. What a phenomenal athlete.
Mike Tanier: That Fitzgerald catch on the flea-flicker was suh-weet. And I liked the variety of the running plays that set it up: a mix of draws and counters, nothing too elaborate, but it made the Falcons respect the run a little.
Aaron Schatz: Great play-calling by the Cardinals on their second drive, just great. Completely going against their own tendencies and attacking Atlanta's weakness with two runs, a standard run and then a draw, and then once you suck them in, the flea-flicker. Of course, Kurt Warner threw the flea-flicker to a double-covered receiver, but apparently a double-covered Larry Fitzgerald is not actually double-covered. Wow.
Bill Barnwell: Think Arizona wanted to send a message?
Aaron Schatz: OK, does someone want to tell the Falcons that the Cardinals seem to know they like to run, and perhaps they might try something else on first or second down?
Doug Farrar: I'm not sure that having Turner bounce outside is the best plan, either. He's best when he gets a blast straight up and picks up three yards after first contact.
Vince Verhei: Boy, that Chike Okeafor sack was a huge play on Atlanta's second drive. If Ryan has time to throw, he has Michael Jenkins open on a corner route for 30-plus yards.
Bill Barnwell: Cris Collinsworth confusing that with the return of the Cards' pass rush was incorrect. Coverage sack pass rush.
Mike Tanier: The Falcons possessions are as long as bathroom breaks right now. I missed all but the sack on the last one.
I think of the Falcons as a team that runs some junk early: bubble screens, a reverse or something, to diversify the offense without making things hard for Ryan. They don't seem too diverse right now.
Doug Farrar: And with 11:49 remaining in the first half, John Parry and his crew wake up and actually call an offsides penalty on the Cardinals. No biggie on the five you missed, guys...
Vince Verhei: Good strategic move by the Falcons offense at the start of the second quarter. They're getting beaten badly by Cardinals pass rushers, so they go to a series of swing passes and bubble screens, getting the ball out of Ryan's hands quickly and giving White and Douglas chances to make plays.
Ben Riley: I missed the first quarter of this game driving back from the casting ponds in Golden Gate Park -- five minutes of which were spent breaking out in hives as The Fixx's "Saved by Zero" came on the radio -- but reading the above e-mails, it sounds like the Cardinals had success with a flea-flicker. Have we ever examined how often that play works? Because I almost never see it *not* work. If I was an offensive coordinator, I'd call for at least three flea-flickers per game.
Will Carroll: This is more something for Tanier, but doesn't the flea-flicker beg for a more modern re-design? The running back hardly ever sells it and as a variant on play action, the timing is seldom good -- though that could go back to practice time.
Vince Verhei: Blitzing five or six to get pressure in Kurt Warner's face? Good idea.
Blitzing seven and leaving Lawyer Milloy to cover Anquan Boldin one-on-one with no deep safety help? Bad idea. Very, very bad idea.
Aaron Schatz: For crying out loud, Lawyer Milloy IS the deep safety help. He's a safety, after all. Does someone want to explain to me where the hell the other two Atlanta defensive backs were looking as Boldin was going up the sideline? On the long-distance camera shot, they seemed to actually be running away from where Milloy was chasing Boldin.
Going back a drive, how on earth did Michael Jenkins not get the first down when he stretched for the sticks? The sticks were RIGHT THERE. He saw them! How could he not stretch past them? I think that was a really wussy field goal attempt. If you are a run-first team, damn, shouldn't you be able to get fourth-and-inches on the opposing 30?
Bill Barnwell: The flea-flicker was a bad play -- the Falcons didn't fall for it and the throw was into double coverage. Fitzgerald just made an astounding catch. The flea-flicker had nothing to do with it.
Vince Verhei: Doug was right about the offsides going uncalled. There have been at least two more on this drive (after Boldin's touchdown) that the refs have missed. One was a tackle -- a tackle! -- lined up in the neutral zone, head looking laterally, right at the ball.
Aaron Schatz: Cris Collinsworth just made a big deal about how Matt Ryan has better numbers throwing left than he does throwing right. That's even stranger than you might think, because Roddy White -- by far Atlanta's best receiver -- plays on the right side more than he plays on the left side.
I just went to check the penalties data and Parry's crew actually called an average number of defensive offsides this season. Somehow, Jerome Boger's crew called nearly twice as many offsides as any other crew. I wonder what is up there.
Checking on flea-flickers ... this isn't definite because sometimes charters find a flea-flicker that wasn't marked as such in the standard play-by-play. I have 13 flea-flickers listed this year; Carolina was the only team to do it twice. Numbers: 7-for-11 plus two sacks, one interception (Joe Flacco against the Browns), no touchdowns (!) and an average of 14 net yards per play.
I don't know if the Falcons actually saw the flicker coming. I said double coverage, and it looked like double coverage, but a later replay showed Chris Houston and Lawyer Milloy reversing field and desperately trying to get back there. It was a close play mostly because the ball hung a little bit, and Fitzgerald made the play work despite that.
Ben Riley: Jerome Boger is the worst referee in the NFL. That might have something to do with all the offsides.
So 7-for-11, averaging 14 net yards -- that's pretty good, right? I also think it would have Wildcat-like strategic benefits, such as making linebackers hesitate before crashing the line on running plays. On the other hand, if the quarterback drops the flicker, that would be bad. Very bad.
Mike Tanier: Flea-flicker points:
1) It is a high-risk play for several reasons. A) The risk of a fumble on an errant pitch by the running back; B) the risk that outside pressure will get to the quarterback while the play is setting up; C) There are usually only two receivers running routes, so the quarterback has no place to go with the ball if the defense doesn't bite. One eligible receiver is taken up by the pitch, and at least one other must help sell the fake by run blocking, usually a fullback or tight end if not both.
2) I have seen a flea-flicker from a shotgun that looked like a delay or a draw. The trick is that it has to look like a play in the offensive playbook, but it must also be possible for the back to execute the pitch, so he can't be sweeping to the sidelines. I think I have seen diagrams for flea-flickers based on counters, but I don't remember seeing the play live. The stretch runs we see so often from teams like the Eagles and Colts don't lend themselves to flea-flickers, because the quarterback usually fades to one side after the handoff, while the back runs to the opposite side. He'd pitch back to a quarterback with no protection in front of him.
Sean McCormick: I'd like to state the obvious and point out just how well Matt Ryan is playing. I know the Lewin Forecast forecast suggested that Ryan was not a particularly good prospect, certainly not a top-five caliber prospect, and his lousy completion percentages against good defenses and his tendency to throw picks against everyone seemed to back that up.
It makes me wonder just how terrible Boston College's skill position players must have been to make Ryan look mediocre so frequently.
Bill Moore: I watched a modest amount of B.C. football last year. B.C. didn't have outstanding talent in 2007 (Callendar was their only legit wide receiver threat for a team that topped out at No. 2), but Ryan made plenty of his own mistakes. He did have a tendency to force throws. His success in Atlanta is a mixture of solid ability with what I am assuming is good coaching.
Sean McCormick: Arizona's defense is lucky that they haven't been called for about eight offsides penalties by now. On that third-and-5, it looked like Antrel Rolle mistimed his blitz and was in the neutral zone too early. Not that it helped any.
Doug Farrar: I'd be interested to know what Atlanta's DVOA per formation is this year. It seems like they're so much more effective, run and pass, when they're not running single-back. Maybe it's just my own selective viewing, but when they're running I or offset I or the full house, it seems as if they're able to do so much more. The exception was the early Ryan pick, but I think the Cards were looking for the two-back set where both backs headed into short routes, and they just jumped on it.
Bill Barnwell: I think the Falcons blitz more in the second half. Cardinals have looked iffy in pass pro so far, especially in the backfield; Hightower (I think) whiffed on a Lawyer Milloy blitz and nearly got Warner killed.
Sean McCormick: I would agree with that. Arizona's blitz recognition or pickup has been abysmal to this point, even taking the second touchdown to Boldin into account.
Doug Farrar: Seriously. This Millen-as-an-analyst thing is unbelievable. If I saw Bernie Madoff on Moneywise, I'd find it more credible. Is this a comedy bit I'm not getting? Some sort of SNL tie-in?
Mark Zajack: How is Kurt Warner still in the game, much less alive, after Grady Jackson planted his 4,000 pounds on him?
Per Doug's earlier comment -- I'm curious too about the Atlanta offense DVOA per formation.
Watching a good amount of their games this year, I seem to remember them being really good out of I-formation. Especially two-tight end sets, where Roddy White is the only receiver. Power runs and a couple of deep throws a game. They took a deep shot in the first half out of that (where White dropped it).
Of course, Ryan's only deep ball to White of the third quarter was a jump ball won by Rodgers-Cromartie, but that was out of a two-receiver set.
Doug Farrar: Heh. The "Let Them Play" thing continues as Sam Baker gets away with an uncalled hold on Bert Berry early in the third quarter. The Falcons had third-and-25, and the hold happened in the end zone. That's a safety, two points the Cardinals didn't get, probably a makeup for all those offsides calls that didn't happen, and another outstanding example of consistency and discretion in officiating.
Aaron Schatz: Then we had the clear defensive pass interference by Chris Houston a few plays later. Lest the Arizona fans complain, the refs have clearly swallowed their whistles for the entire game, for both teams. Actually, in the fourth quarter they may have coughed up their whistles.
How the hell is Matt Ryan called for in the grasp in the end zone if Eli Manning is not called for in the grasp in the Super Bowl last year? I'm not trying to say the Super Bowl was invalid -- I'm trying to say that Arizona's safety was invalid. There seems to be no guideline for in the grasp, and for crying out loud Ryan got a pass off -- a complete pass! -- before he went down.
Ben Riley: The rule is: "Officials are to blow the play dead as soon as the quarterback is clearly in the grasp and control of any tackler, and his safety is in jeopardy." That's a judgment call, of course, but the tackle (or "grasp") of Ryan looked like it was headed for trouble, as he was about to get his back cracked. All that said, I'd get rid of the rule.
Did Cris Collinsworth really just say it was a little early for the Falcons to go for it on fourth down? There are six minutes left to play and the Falcons are trailing by two touchdowns, Cris. There is no tomorrow. You go for it! And you throw it to Jerious Norwood, who picks up the first down and scrambles to the Cardinals' 30-yard line. (This Audible brought to you courtesy of TMQ's notebook.)
Aaron Schatz: Again, not taking away from Eli Manning's miracle. I just think Matt Ryan deserves the same chance to make a miracle.
Ben Riley: I'm with you. The rule is too subjective and it deprives us of good football. Just trying to explain why the referee made the call.
Mark Zajack: God, I hate "in the grasp." The whole "protect the quarterback" thing is a little ridiculous. Here's a question: If you really want to protect the quarterback, why not get rid of intentional grounding? At least say, any throw past the line of scrimmage is OK, and forget the "tackle box" stipulation. Is that so crazy?
Will Carroll: Because to do that would be noticeable and removes the chance of abject violence. If a guy feels the rush of a coverage sack and just spikes it, fans will go nuts. They want to see blood and guts and someone's helmet shoot through the spine of the quarterback ... unless it's their quarterback. With in the grasp, at least he got there and the ref is calling for mercy.
Doug Farrar: My personal favorite was the "unabated to the quarterback" call, where the play stops on a defensive offside. By removing the free play, you penalize the offensive team in ostensibly protecting the quarterback.
After the way officiating has gone this year, I'm really afraid we're going to have another postseason like 2005, where so many games were marked by horrible calls even before the Super Bowl.
Mike Tanier: It's just more overzealous interpretation of the rulebook. You are calling a safety, basically handing a team two points and the ball with your whistle. It had better be clear cut, but in the NFL they think otherwise. They think, "oh, this could affect the course of a game or a season. It's time to arbitrarily apply a vague part of the rulebook as aggressively as possible." I've seen it so many times in the past five years that I think it's almost pathological. I think these guys get together and talk themselves into the nuttiest decision possible, and then it's completely forgotten the next time a similar situation arises.
Aaron Schatz: Are we all enjoying the Cardinals throwing with a six-point lead and three minutes left? Run out the clock? Like I said in the game preview, Arizona does not believe in your pathetic "running out the clock." Fitzgerald and Breaston are catching the passes, so it's hard to criticize right now.
And then Sean Payton took over Ken Whisenhunt's brain, and the Cardinals ran an end-around with two minutes left. Yay!
Ben Riley: What was that? Luckily for the Cards, they converted on third down, but that was extraordinarily stupid.
Bill Barnwell: I just feigned handing my friend a beer and Keith Brooking started sprinting towards Boston.
Aaron Schatz: They converted on third down with a deep route to some tight end nobody has ever heard of, wide open up the seam. Stephen Spach, now you can hang out with Tory Humphrey and John Gilmore in the "unknown tight ends torching the Falcons" club.
Doug Farrar: There are games in which one team just looks bigger than the other. When Carolina ran over the Buccaneers on Monday Night Football late in the season, they looked that way. Perception or reality, but by the fourth quarter, the Cardinals just looked like a bigger team than they actually were. More physically dominant. The Falcons tackled horribly all game, and the Cardinals had ball control when they needed it. That was the difference to me. Arizona got a hat on a hat, to abuse the old cliché, and Atlanta didn't.
Ned Macey: OK, I know the Falcons run defense is really bad. But which of the following playoff running backs had the highest DVOA this season? Adrian Peterson, LaDainian Tomlinson, Joseph Addai, Willie Parker, or Edgerrin James? Considering Hightower's near-Perryesque performance, it would have been criminal if James was not reinserted as the starter. Assuming an Eagles win (dangerous), Carolina has an equally bad run defense, so Edge could make a nice post-release contract push here.
Sean McCormick: It's funny how there's always one game which goes against the narrative so heavily that it seems in retrospect that it should have been obvious. You look back at that Cardinals-Falcons game and say to yourself, "Well, of course Arizona would load up against the run and would be able to shut down Turner, and of course Matt Ryan would struggle at times on the road in a hostile stadium against a defense that was daring him to beat them, and of course Arizona would go against tendency and take Edgerrin James out of mothballs to attack Atlanta's soft run defense," and on and on. And yet, had Atlanta run three straight times to start the game and gotten six yards a pop, that would have seemed like an obvious thing as well.
Russell Levine: I loved the way Arizona played it on offense (except the end-around) in the final four minutes. So many teams in that situation try to grind out a first down on the ground and end up punting it right back to a team with momentum. They stayed on the attack instead of playing the clock. The end-around was an embarrassing, horrid, ridiculously bad call. But Warner bailed them out with one more first-down pass.
Sean McCormick: The most decisive factor in this game may well have been Atlanta's inability to disguise their snap count. Yes, the Cardinals were flirting with (which is to say brazenly guilty of) several offsides infractions, but there were plenty of times when their defense -- particularly Okeafor and Berry on the edges -- were coming across as the ball was snapped. Sam Baker had a really hard time, but it's not that he was late so much as that the Falcons were clearly tipping their count somehow.
Sunday, January 4
Philadelphia Eagles 26 at Minnesota Vikings 14
Vince Verhei: Jimmy Johnson was doing a wacky, special effects-laden feature on Adrian Peterson and Brian Westbrook for the Fox pregame show, and mentioned the disparity in their fumble numbers. Unfortunately, he only listed their fumbles LOST. Because if the ball bounced out of bounds or into a teammate's hands, I guess it was never fumbled at all.
Eagles have third-and-9 at the 26. A pass that would have picked up a first down is dropped. Philadelphia is called for holding on the play, but the Vikings decline, setting up a 43-yard David Akers field goal.
Would you have accepted the penalty? It would have given the Eagles third-and-19 at the 36, looking at a 50-plus-yard kick if they don't gain any more yards. There is the chance Philly will convert the first down, but there is also the chance of a sack or turnover on third-and- long.
I am ready to punch the director of this game right in the throat. He's showing us everything except the actual game. There's the usual shots of the quarterback's eyes, then a lingering shot of Brad Childress with his usual flummoxed expression, and then a frantic cut back to the field when the ball is snapped and he remembers, oh yeah, there's actual football going on.
Ben Riley: Let's stipulate that Adrian Peterson is an awesome player, perhaps the best in the NFL. With that out of the way, should he really be doing his best Usain Bolt impersonation and slowing down to wave the football around before he scores? He almost -- repeat, almost -- got caught before getting into the end zone.
Bill Barnwell: Sheldon Brown's pass interference penalty was the first time he'd been flagged for DPI or Illegal Contact all year.
Ben Riley: The Vikings apparently didn't study the gametape for the Eagles-Seahawks game in Week 9. If you rotate the safeties to take away Kevin Curtis and DeSean Jackson, unheralded Brent Celek will get open over the middle, and Donovan McNabb will not hesitate to throw to him. Why L.J. Smith had to lose his starting job via injury is beyond me. (Any thoughts on that, Mike?)
Vince Verhei: Wow, that Chad Greenway in-the-grasp sack was MUCH worse than anything we saw yesterday. How long did he have McNabb wrapped up? 1 second? Was it even that long?
Bill Moore: 1. Forward progress on a pass?
2. What's Jackson doing jumping out of bounds to duck the kicker?!?
Ben Riley: That was absurd. The way these playoffs are going, the competition committee is going to have to revisit this rule. (Although, it may have been a no-harm no-foul situation, as it looked like grounding to me.)
Exchange at my little playoff watching party:
Me: "C'mon DeSean Jackson, lower your shoulder and hit the punter! Don't go out of bounds!"
Friend: "Uh, I think the punter is bigger than him."
Doug Farrar: Looks like someone got a memo for the postseason about quarterback protection and is taking it to heart in an extreme fashion.
I'd like to nominate DeSean Jackson for the "Keep Choppin' Wood, if you don't break a nail picking up the axe" award. Late in the third quarter, he took a punt return 30 yards and then stepped out of bounds rather than deal with the one guy stopping him from the end zone -- that noted special teams tackling demon, punter Chris Kluwe. He then engaged in a bit of trash talk with ... Brad Childress. Got right in Grandpa's face. Oh, SNAP!
Aaron Schatz: Apparently the Vikings don't need Pat Williams to completely stuff the run. Brian Westbrook is getting absolutely nothing today, inside or out. That's killing the Eagles because they're constantly in third-and-long. Jason Avant has stretched for a couple really nice first downs but you can't get those six times a drive.
Vince Verhei: After yet another Philadelphia 1-yard run, I was sitting here thinking about a post Aaron made about an Arizona game a few weeks ago, about how they kept calling running plays even though it was clear there would be no benefit. And then Troy Aikman makes the same observation, only to him it's a positive. He says that passing on every down would place the offensive line in a bind. You know what else puts the offensive line in a bind, Troy? Second-and-9.
Ben Riley: Beautiful, beautiful downfield blocking on the Westbrook touchdown. As TMQ says, it's pretty fun to scramble for 70 yards when virtually everyone in front of you has been knocked down.
I can't believe Tarvaris Jackson cost the Vikings the game, dropping a perfect snap and...oh wait, you say soon-to-be-free-agent-and-all-pro center Matt Birk screwed up, and snapped the ball approximately two inches off the ground? Yeah, I saw that coming. What a weird way for the Vikings season to end.
Doug Farrar: Yeah, well, note to Tarvaris: Don't yell at your All-Pro center for making one mistake when you're one for your last ten, kid.
Ned Macey: I floated this idea in AGS a few weeks ago but don't think I explained my rationale very well. Jackson's late-game struggles were all too obvious. When the team is ahead and facing eight in the box, his mobility, arm strength, and confidence allow him to be a very effective quarterback. He throws well on the underneath routes and has the deep ball to Berrian. When he trails and teams sit back in zones, he is tentative and inaccurate. I suggested that Frerotte should play when they fall behind. Perhaps that was silly because Frerotte is just always bad, but Jackson was just abysmal in the second half. Jackson has a way to go, but he has shown flashes. Of course, he'll be 26 next year and no longer "young."
As for the Eagles, I think their offense played pretty well when you consider the quality of the opposing defense and the frequent bad field position. Still, they scored 17 points on the Asante Samuel touchdown, the Westbrook screen, and the Jackson punt return that set up a field goal. They were just a few plays from a redux of the Washington game.
Mike Tanier: I didn't mind that the Eagles were trying to run the ball despite little success. They did get a 20-something yard run from C-Buck early in the game, and they were using some of the runs that have been successful in the last week, like the shotgun draws. I'd rather see this team buck the percentages a bit than lapse into their worst habit of throwing 4 million times.
Did someone ask what L.J. Smith does that Brett Celek doesn't? Besides cash paychecks? L.J. has been a human blindspot in this organization for years, and I have never heard a sane justification for the job security he enjoyed until this injury.
That had to be the Eagles' best special teams game of the year, right? The Rocca punts, good Jackson returns, some long field goals by Akers, good coverage for the most part. It reminds me of the pre-TO days, when the special teams played great and the defense didn't let much up, so the offense didn't have to be awesome. The Eagles can't beat the Giants if their offense plays like it did on Sunday, but the defense and special teams are ready to beat anyone.
Doug Farrar: I’d just like to add that if this was Donovan McNabb’s last win in an Eagles uniform, he gave the fans who booed him all those years a performance to remember. The sideline throw to DeSean Jackson was about as pretty as any pass I’ve seen all season. I have no rooting interest for or against the Eagles, but I almost hope there is a “Will they trade him” angle this offseason, just because it might keep Brett $%^&* Favre off the top story for a couple of days. In any case, we got a solid reminder in this game of the difference between a quarterback who might have a few good weeks but bakes under the spotlight (Tavaris) and a guy who is the real deal despite whatever foibles may ail him.