Writers of Pro Football Prospectus 2008

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» Defense and Rest Time

Do defenses really wear out over the course of a game? Do defenses benefit from long drives that give them more time to rest on the sideline? Guest columnist Ben Baldwin investigates.

09 Jan 2012

Audibles at the Line: Wild Card Weekend

compiled by Rivers McCown

Each Sunday, the FO staff sends around e-mails about the games that each of us are watching. We share information about the games that the rest of the group might not be watching, ask questions, and keep everyone else informed about which games they might want to tune into (if they can).

On Monday, we compile a digest of those e-mails and produce this feature. By its nature, it can be disjointed and dissimilar to the other articles on the site.

While these e-mails are generally written with Audibles in mind, they do not represent a standard review of all the games each week. That means we aren't going to cover every game, or every important play. We watch the games that we, as fans, are interested in watching, so your favorite team's game might not be covered to your fullest desires or even at all. (If you are a Seahawks or Patriots fan, you are probably in luck; if you are a Bills fan, not so much.) We have no intention of adding new authors to cover every game on a given Sunday, nor will we watch a different game from the ones that we're personally interested in watching, just to ensure that Audibles covers every game.

Saturday, January 7th

Cincinnati Bengals 10 at Houston Texans 31

Tom Gower: What happens when you're not sustaining drives on offense? You need big plays. I thought Glover Quin's pass interference was probably unnecessary, but it was flag-worthy, and then a well-executed screen to Brian Leonard set up the Cedric Benson touchdown.

Ben Muth: Brian Cushing was unblocked on that first Bengals touchdown, but he overran his gap and Benson cut right up inside of him.

Aaron Schatz: In the first quarter, this Cincinnati offense is all short stuff except for that long bomb that ended up in the pass interference on Quin.

Ben Muth: Brooks Reed leads Earth in those cleanup sacks where someone else gets there first or flushes the quarterback right into him.

Tom Gower: Mike Nugent missed a long field goal, but Jay Gruden has done a nice job of giving Andy Dalton short and makeable throws thus far. The third-down sack came when his option wasn't there. His standard operation procedure there is to roll and buy time, but Antonio Smith's rush disrupted him and, as Mr. Muth noted, Reed picked up another cleanup sack.

Aaron Schatz: Seriously, Marvin Lewis. You're going to challenge a spot to try to avoid third-and-1? What, you aren't confident you can get the yard in two downs? You need to risk blowing a challenge on this?

Mike Tanier: Not a big fan of challenging a third-and-1 spot early in the second quarter. Make the first down. You might need that challenge later. Or the timeout.

Tom Gower: The big Donald Lee play was ugly defense -- Cushing and DeMeco Ryans overplayed the roll and pump fake, then the defensive backs couldn't tackle him. J.J. Watt had a really nice play to disrupt the shovel pass on third down, though.

Aaron Schatz: And the Bengals challenge again when Owen Daniels and a Bengals defensive back (Clements?) seem to catch a ball at the same time. Is it a catch? A pick? Incomplete? Why are the Bengals using a challenge on a totally questionable play? Shouldn't they be saving it in case there's a scoring play later, or something that the officials *obviously* get wrong?

Tom Gower: And ... the Cincinnati Bengals are out of challenges with 4:51 to play in the first half after Marvin Lewis' second questionable challenge of the
game. Especially when it's your last challenge, I'd save it for a particularly high-leverage play you're likely to win. In Marvin's imagination, this at least qualifies for the former, but it's certainly not the latter.

Mike Tanier: Hi, I am Marv Lewis, and I squander all of my challenges on wishful thinking.

Ben Muth: Not a great half by Chris Myers. He got blown up by Geno Atkins early, then he missed a cut block on Manny Lawson that killed a screen that could have gone all the way if he got the chop.

Mike Tanier: Myers looks like a guy who should talk with a crazy Australian accent and throw boomerangs at people to steal their gasoline.

Tom Gower: Right guard Mike Brisiel is also not having his best game; he's been out with an injury and is not at 100 percent yet.

That was a fantastic individual play by Watt on the touchdown. Like T.J. Yates' throw earlier that Jonathan Fanene batted down, it was a little obvious. I think part of Gruden's conversation with Dalton may have been not throwing that ball there.

Aaron Schatz: Four thoughts at halftime:

1) The Bengals cornerbacks are playing better than I expected.
2) The Bengals need to work on the backside contain on those stretch runs.
3) J.J. Watt is awesome. I wonder if you could use him in a Mike Vrabel goal-line role?
4) Once again, it's worth noting just how stupid those Marvin Lewis challenges were.

Rivers McCown: Agree about Cincy's cornerbacks. Very little zone coverage and they've been quite solid so far.

Interesting to see the Texans play dime on second down a couple of times in that half -- not something they've typically done this season. (At least other than obvious two-minute drill situations.)

Danny Tuccitto: My first half impressions:

1) I still don't know how Myers missed that block on the screen to Arian Foster. One second, Foster's gone. The next second, he's tackled.
2) Cincy's front seven can't seem to contain themselves from overpursuing to the play side. It's happened at least four times that I can remember. We'll probably see a bunch more play-action bootlegs and misdirection runs in the second half.
3) Before blowing up a screen near the end of the half, Brian Cushing was underwhelming in terms of his zone integrity.
4) I believe the same gloves used by Daniels to get a death grip on the catch that was challenged were also used by Watt to corral his interception. Aside from the ridiculous hands displayed by both, Daniels being the first to congratulate Watt on the sidelines is another piece of circumstantial evidence.
5) Rivers McCown is a nervous wreck.

Mike Tanier: Backside contain is not an easy job against a team that stretch runs like the Texans. You have a lot of space to defend, plus the fear of a rollout, backside block, etc.

Danny Tuccitto: Agreed. Just seems like the Bengals are doing a below-replacement job of it so far in this one. Especially given that they have to have practiced it all week, and that they played the same stretch-running Houston offense just four weeks ago.

Ben Muth: NBC just showed a graphic saying Chris Johnson had 319 touches this year. Having watched a good deal of Titans possesions, I can assure you it seemed like far, far more.

Danny Tuccitto: Chris Crocker just had a really ugly series of plays on the Texans' touchdown drive to put them up 24-10. First, he doesn't read the screen to Foster even though Foster basically lets two guys (including Crocker) freely rush right by him. Then, Foster jukes him out of his shoes on a dumpoff. Then, he drops a sure interception with a degree-of-difficulty one-tenth of Watt's. Then, it takes all of one step to the right from Yates to allude his untouched rush. Ugly.

Mike Tanier: Late in the third, if the Bengals don't get points on this drive, it's over.

Tom Gower: Bengals left guard Nate Livings is not having a very good game.

Ben Muth: That last sack by Earl Mitchell was a straight blown protection. Center goes right, guard goes left, defensive tackle eats quarterback alive. Must be tough to hear calls in Houston right now.

Mike Tanier: The center should have helped him on that sack instead of chasing ghosts.

Danny Tuccitto: I've been fiddling around with our individual defensive stats all day, so here's an interesting nugget. With a sack and a batted pass against the Bengals, Mitchell registered two pass plays today. He had three all season.

Rivers McCown: The Mensa meeting that was punting on fourth-and-3, down 14 in the fourth, versus calling a timeout to stop said punt, was a thing of beauty.

Aaron Schatz: Houston is totally in control now that this is about salting away a lead in the fourth quarter.

Ben Muth: I think Cincinnati's defense did a great job of playing physical in the running game early, and kind of caught Houston off guard. As the game has worn on, however, guys have started over-running plays or peeking inside, and Houston's backs are making them pay. Really nice example of how Houston's running game, with all the cut blocks and pressure it puts on all gaps, just wears defenses (even good ones) down.

Tom Gower: This isn't exactly news, but after that touchdown run to make it 31-10, it is an excellent time to declare Arian Foster is having a great game. Vision, patience, acceleration. The opportunities that are there don't matter if the back doesn't take advantage of them. Foster did.

Vince Verhei: I watched the entire game on DVR. I started 90 minutes late, yet finished before the late game started. Yay technology!

Foster is a special back, but I thought the Houston line had way more good plays than bad ones. Yes, they had some struggles in the first half (that play where Atkins manhandled Myers several yards into the backfield was something else), but I thought they played well late. I don't know this, but it felt like Houston's success rate on runs was far north of 50 percent in the second half, when it was obvious Yates wasn't going to be passing anymore.

Speaking of Yates, the announcers were really putting him over at the end of the game, but come on now. Most of his success came because Cincinnati couldn't get pressure (there's that offensive line again), and his biggest play came when Andre Johnson got open by 10 yards.

Meanwhile, he missed a few easy throws early, and he threw a critical interception in the second half. You won't find it in the boxscore, because Cincinnati dropped it, but Yates still made a bad throw. He played OK, and much better than I would have expected for a third-stringer, but he's not the reason Houston won this game.

Rivers McCown: I'm excited for the Matt Schaub (not a playoff QB) versus Yates (proven winner) debates this offseason.

Robert Weintraub: Not much to say about the Bengals other than it went roughly the way I expected, save I figured Cincy would be in hailing distance in the fourth quarter. Once Watt made that play, and Crocker didn't, the game was over. I told my Bengals crowd (yes, we have one here in Atlanta) that to win we'd have to make a "outlier" play, and hope Houston botched theirs. Instead, the opposite happened. All credit to the Texans lines on both sides -- they played tremendous football. The Bengals missed Bobbie Williams mightily over the last month and change -- all the nastiness was leeched from the offensive line once he went down.

Still, I'm quite depressed, mainly as another year has passed without my team winning a playoff game, which they haven't done in my adult lifetime. Just once, I'd like to see the Bengals come up big in a big game. When we had a situation a la Houston's today, that is, a home playoff game after a long absence (2005), instead of a cathartic victory our franchise quarterback had his knee shredded on the game's second play, and we lost to our most hated rival. Just my cross to bear, I guess -- penance for being a Yankees fan, I suppose.

Detroit Lions 28 at New Orleans Saints 45

Mike Tanier: Notice how Calvin Johnson's touchdown celebration now involves holding the ball with as much ostentatious security as possible without using it as a prop. The modern NFL is a minefield.

Tom Gower: Pierre Thomas has had a couple pretty solid runs tonight where the Lions simply were not able to bring him down.

The Lions were having more success early throwing in Jabari Greer's direction than I expected, particularly with Titus Young. Even if the Lions weren't having success at Greer, there's still Roman Harper to target, and of course Patrick Robinson, who was in coverage on Megatron's touchdown to make it 14-7.

Aaron Schatz: I think a lot of those passes in Greer's direction aren't necessarily Greer in man coverage. There was one, for example, where Greer faded back to cover the deep area while a linebacker was supposed to drop back to be in front of Johnson, and Johnson got open past that linebacker.

I wish I had something insightful to say about this game, but so far (with 5:00 left in the second) it has gone pretty much as expected except that the Saints have fumbled twice.

Danny Tuccitto: OK, so for everyone who absolutely hates when people criticize officials, that Drew Brees fumble is why -- at least for me -- it's necessary. This is the pinnacle of the profession, supposedly the best in the business, and what we have here are multiple officials committing the most basic error of officiating mechanics, the inadvertent whistle, that costs Detroit a return touchdown ... in a playoff game no less! I mean, that's just inexcusable at this level. Judgment calls are one thing, basic officiating mechanics are quite another.

Ben Muth: Nick Fairley celebrates the first time he got near a ball carrier by slamming Thomas. He's lucky it wasn't a 15-yard penalty.

Vince Verhei: The technical term for that slam Fairley used is a "uranage."

Brees is 17-of-21 at halftime, the Saints are 3-for-4 on third down (and 1-for-1 on fourth down), and the Saints are losing.

Tom Gower: Stephen Tulloch is reminding me why I was glad the Titans didn't give him the kind of money he was looking for in free agency. Some poor tackling, some biting on playfakes to create holes, some deep zone coverage where he doesn't get deep enough.

The Lions really need a defensive stop here after punting the ball away down 17-14 early in the third, or this could get out of hand in a hurry.

Danny Tuccitto: I'm really hoping that, at some point, NBC's crack staff is able to drum up and display either (a) how many broken tackles Detroit has or (b) how many yards after contact New Orleans has.

Aaron Schatz: Lions don't cover Jimmy Graham at the goal line ... man, now THAT is confusion.

Ben Muth: Apparently the Lions are not buying into the Graham hype.

Danny Tuccitto: Amari Spievey has become the Chris Crocker of the late game. Two blown coverages for touchdowns the last two drives: Somehow not picking up Marques Colston quickly enough even though he's in perfect position as Brees releases the pass, then not even bothering to locate Graham on the goal line.

Tom Gower: The Colston touchdown was Tampa-2 coverage. It was Tulloch's job to carry the deep middle and make Brees's job hard. Instead he reacted aggressively to the playfake and didn't have proper depth, giving Brees and easy throw and making Spievey's job hard. Spievey has a hard enough time with his job that he doesn't need that kind of help.

Aaron Schatz: Matthew Stafford just chucked the ball 40 yards downfield -- it almost looked like he was trying to throw it wildly into the upper deck -- and instead it landed right in Megatron's arms. Man, that was a throw.

Vince Verhei: The Saints were rushing eight on that play.

Aaron Schatz: And then on the Stafford bootleg touchdown, I loved the fake jump over the goal line by Kevin Smith. Why? First, it fooled the cameraman completely. Second, Smith didn't actually fake-jump over the goal line. He fake-jumped over like the 1.5-yard line. I don't think he ever made it to the goal line.

Tony Corrente's crew was near the bottom of the league in calling offensive holding this season, and we're seeing a lot of stuff that could be called holding tonight. A couple plays ago, Carl Nicks basically straight-up tackled Cliff Avril with no flag.

Ben Muth: Corey Williams needs to quit complaining about holding and get off a block.

Vince Verhei: I think we can now crown the best offense of all time: It's the 2011 New Orleans Saints, but only on third down. Now 7-of-10 on thirds, 3-of-3 on fourths. They should just take knees on first and second down to avoid penalties and turnovers, then go to work on third.

So, who's the best safety in the draft, and will Detroit need to trade up to get him?

Robert Weintraub: Probably Mark Barron of Alabama, and if Detroit picks after Cincy, yes.

Danny Tuccitto: It's interesting -- nay, symmetric -- that both games today basically hinged on one team immediately turning an interception into a touchdown, and their opponent giving up a touchdown immediately after dropping an interception. That's reductionistic for sure, but quite a narrative nonetheless!

Rivers McCown: Tim Tebow just makes whatever you just said happen.

Robert Weintraub: I wish there was a way to go back and get an overall sense of offensive productivity after a defense drops a pick. Seems like every time the Bengals dropped one, the other team cashed in ... but of course, I only remember when that happened and not when the defense held them.

Tom Gower: Saints possessions in the first 55 minutes: touchdown, fumble, fumble, field goal (end of half), touchdown, touchdown, touchdown, touchdown. If the Lions could get an actual defensive stop, they might not need turnovers.

Vince Verhei: Stafford-to-Johnson for another touchdown, that makes it 38-28 New Orleans. I ordinarily hate the non-surprise onside kick unless absolutely necessary, but the Lions pretty much have to try it here, right?

Rivers McCown: Detroit's safeties probably should spend the offseason working on the idea that Drew Brees is not actually going to throw the ball every time he winds up.

Danny Tuccitto: Great coverage by Tulloch on Graham to prevent the beating-a-dead-horse touchdown, but Thomas scores it on the next play instead.

Aaron Schatz: The Saints laugh at your silly notions of "running out the clock."

Vince Verhei: Collinsworth asks what adjustments the Saints offense made at
halftime. Cris, I can sum it up in two words: "Stop fumbling." That, and make sure you don't run out of time and have to settle for a field goal. Detroit couldn't slow New Orleans down one time tonight, except when the Saints dropped the ball.

Sunday, January 8th

Atlanta Falcons 2 at New York Giants 24

Rivers McCown: No Brent Grimes for Atlanta. That's going to take some air out of their tires.

Aaron Schatz: Boy, the Giants sure are intent on proving they can run the ball today. An off-tackle run on third-and-9?

Mike Tanier: Something something something punters something something.

Brian McIntyre: Midway through the first quarter, both defensive lines are dominating. Steve Weatherford's 38-yard punt that landed out of bounds at the Falcons' 10-yard line is the best play of the game.

Aaron Schatz: Falcons go for it on fourth-and-1 at Giants 24. Troy Aikman says: "As a road team in the playoffs, I would take the points here." I've never understood the conventional wisdom that being at home versus being on road changes the calculations of going for it on fourth. Unless you think the crowd is going to influence the officials when they spot the ball.

Mike Tanier: I think home versus road affects your overall risk level. And yes, I think it has influenced a spot or two over the course of history.

More important rule: You should always go for it on fourth down. Unless you are Mike Smith.

Aaron Schatz: Yeah, but shouldn't the road team be more aggressive, not more conservative? Isn't the general belief that the underdog needs to be more aggressive to try to win the game?

Robert Weintraub: Yeah, as in the old adage "play for the tie at home, the win on the road." I think we've moved into the age of "criticize it if it doesn't work, regardless."

Tom Gower: "Play for the tie at home, the win on the road" actually theoretically makes some sense in baseball because the home team has more winning conditions than the road team. In football, the home-road differential is some combination of comfort level and officiating bias, so it's not nearly the same. I'm with Aaron here.

Brian McIntyre Interesting pre-snap shifts by the Falcons on that fourth-and-inches play. First the six-man offensive line shifts to the left, with right guard Joe Hawley moving to center. tight end Michael Palmer was lined up at outside left tackle. He steps back, wide receiver Julio Jones moves onto the LOS. Palmer motions from left to right. He moves onto the LOS and extra offensive lineman. Sam Baker becomes an H-back. Running back Michael Turner, lined up at fullback in front of wide receiver Roddy White, moves from offset right to an I-Formation. White motions to the right, Matt Ryan sneaks it up the middle for ... no gain and a turnover on downs. Falcons offensive coordinator Mike Mularkey is interviewing for head coaching jobs in Jacksonville and Miami, by the way.

Vince Verhei: Yeah, that was "Let's be as cute as we can possibly be, and if we happen to pick up the first down too, that's a bonus." This is kind of a weird analogy, but I just saw the new Sherlock Holmes movie, and it's filled with wacky and unusual camera angles that add nothing to the story, and are often just distracting. It's like Guy Ritchie wants every shot to scream "Look at me! I'm directing!"

Well, that fourth-and-1 was Mike Mularkey screaming "Look at me! I'm coaching!" Has any team ever started a drive at their own 25 and gone backwards for a safety before? That was unbelievable.

The Falcons traded five picks for Jones to get a better deep threat, right? Because they've had four drives, 25 plays, and I don't think they've gone downfield once.

Rivers McCown: Midway through the second quarter, these offensive coordinators are doing a bang-up job of establishing that they can't really run.

And as I say that, the Giants run game has finally started to show some life.

Tom Gower: Good play by Curtis Lofton, scraping his way to the hole on that Giants fourth-and-1 play. Bad play by Lofton not making the tackle.

In some other world, people would not think the game currently being 2-0 in the second quarter is more than enough justification to believe Coughlin should kick the field goal there instead of going for it.

Mike Tanier: The running game, and an Eli Manning scramble, powers a Giants touchdown drive. Mike Smith must wonder why everyone gets to convert 4th and short but him.

Robert Weintraub: If the Falcs lose today, this offseason in Flowery Branch will be consumed by talk of "power situations" after last offseason's "explosion plays."

Mike Tanier: The Giants interior line is getting a lot of pressure. Chris Canty and Rocky Bernard have sacks. I think the Falcons are concentrating their pass protection on the edges.

Robert Weintraub: The Falcons have struggled to replace Harvey Dahl at guard all season.

Mike Tanier: Yeah, the "move Sam Baker inside" experiment lasted about a quarter.

Vince Verhei: Huge break for the Giants on that punt right after the two-minute warning in the second quarter. The returner failed to field it, and I thought the ball was going to roll deep into New York territory. Instead it hit and bounced backwards, going a good 10 yards before the Falcons could track it down.

Robert Weintraub: Aikman rightfully points out that the Giants should have asked for a measurement on that third-and-inches. They could also have used the opportunity to have the refs check the spot on replay -- live, it appeared for sure to be a first down. Instead, Big Blue punts, and lead at halftime by five when it could have been more.

Vince Verhei: I have no idea what Atlanta was doing at the end of the half. No-huddle, hurry-up offense, but not calling a timeout until four seconds were left? Going into the half with two timeouts wasted? What the hell?

Ben Muth: I have nothing to add after the first half except to say that both defensive lines are playing significantly better than the offensive lines. It's hard to call winning plays when you can't block the four guys up front.

Mike Tanier: The Giants have cut out the middle man and have started injuring each other. There is nothing quite so Giants as a play that features a batted pass and two injured defenders.

Aaron Schatz: I'm a great believer in the idea that in general, running the ball is better than passing the ball in short-yardage situations. But given how much the Falcons seem to get stuffed running up the middle, maybe they need to try passing it on fourth-and-1.

Robert Weintraub: Wow, I thought the Bengals were bad in short-yardage situations. Great push by Canty in the middle.

Tom Gower: Mike Mularkey is doing a great job of making Mike Smith's fourth-down aggressiveness look bad.

Mike Tanier: Smith won't be happy until the fourth-down probabilities are totally rewritten. Really though, how about giving your big power back a chance instead of running sneaks behind bad blockers into a great defensive line?

Vince Verhei: This.

Watching Detroit yesterday and Atlanta today makes me really appreciate how good the Seattle safeties are.

Aaron Schatz: Yeah, I'm afraid we're going to be stuck spending another few days trying to defend the idea of going for it on fourth after this game.


Mike Tanier: The Giants did okay with it.

Aaron Schatz: Yes, but you are assuming that people will remember when fourth-and-1 works. In general, pundits only remember when fourth-and-1 fails. Plus, that whole "you have to take the points on the road" nonsense.

Mike Tanier: Turner just got blown up on third-and-1. How about, if you cannot block their defensive tackles, you should think twice about fourth-and-1 in field goal range?

Tom Gower: C'mon, Mike, what's your deal with slow-developing run plays on third-and-1 with no misdirection to even slow down the defense?

Mike Tanier: Human nature is about reducing risk in high-stress situations. It often defies probability, sometimes ridiculously so, but it is easy to understand, and even if I am a coach (teacher, parent) who understands the odds, I have to worry about the 49 people below me and the bosses above me who don't.

Robert Weintraub: I hate to dip into the college ranks for comparisons, but the reason Les Miles has his reputation is not only because he goes for it often on fourth down, but because he comes up with plays other than 22 Blast right into the teeth of the defense. His tight end-around on fourth-and-1 against Alabama a couple of years back is the best call in that scenario I recall seeing.

Mike Tanier: Reverses in short yardage will get you killed in the NFL. The Falcons tried two sneaks, one of them over-engineered, and also ran one fullback blast that didn't convert on third-and-short. I guess I am the only one on the thread that would have kicked two field goals in those situations. I mean, fourth-and-1 on the 45-yard line is a big difference from gimmie field goal range.

Robert Weintraub: I wasn't advocating the tight end-around necessarily, but they said zone read options would get you killed in the NFL, too. Practice something enough with a little misdirection and it works more often than not. If the defense is lined up in a way that doesn't look promising, call a timeout and kick.

The thing that is particularly deflating about getting stuffed on runs up the gut is the pride most teams take in physicality. Those plays linger more than most, for both sides. And Atlanta, for all its talk about getting more big plays, is at heart a power team, at least in their own eyes. They wanted to come into NYC and enforce their will up front. Maybe better not to fight that battle and use some wit too.

For all that, the Giants are clearly playing better in all facets. Look out Green Bay...

Aaron Schatz: The Falcons defense finally started to cave in the second half. They played well the first half -- the pass rush was stronger than I expected, and the run defense was mostly excellent. But they just couldn't win the game on their own.

Ben Muth: Ugh, I'm already sick of reading stories comparing next week's Green Bay/New York game to the New York/New England Super Bowl.

Vince Verhei: OK, I realize Joe Buck and Troy Aikman need something to talk about in the last five minutes of what has turned into a blowout, but harping on the fourth-down plays is ignoring the obvious: The Falcons have two points today, and the offense has zero. Maybe they should have kicked field goals on those two plays. So they'd be losing 24-8 right now.

Meanwhile, Atlanta is averaging 3.0 yards per rush, 4.8 yards per pass play. The real story here is that New York's defense completely kicked Atlanta's offensive ass. The fourth-down calls are nitpicking.

Robert Weintraub: Lost amid the Falcons no-show is yet another season without a single playoff victory for Tony Gonzalez. He has five catches in the last two playoff games with Atlanta, for 51 yards.

Mike Tanier: Just to over-clarify my point beyond tedium:

There are two things I am talking about right now. One is my skepticism that we are 100 percent right in stating that going for it in situations similar to the ones Mike Smith faced today is the correct strategy. The other is our lament that most other commentators, fans, and so on will not "get it."

The first, I fear, is an example of taking a firm general principle and applying it to a specific situation. "Teams should go for it far more often" on fourth down is a long way from "teams with offensive line issues facing a defensive line full of All-Pros should go for it early in what appear to be low scoring games when they are in easy field goal range." I am 100 percent certain that the general statement is true. The latter statement is a heck of a lot less certain. And frankly, whatever data we can cite to back up the latter statement is not going to make me comfortable. We have tons of fourth down data, but how much fourth-and-1 from around the 25-yard line between (let's say) evenly matched opponents data do we have?

As for the second, well, human beings miscalculate risk, and human beings coach football games, play them, and own the teams. There are marginal risks that you cannot just shrug off. You can invest every dime in the stock market, knowing that probability says that your long-term outlook is absolutely fabulous. And if your wife leaves you because she is terrified that you are some riverboat gambler with the family savings, and she would prefer a few grand in a nice savings bond, you can take as much comfort as possible in the fact that you are mathematically correct and she did not understand the probabilities. I think that while a lot of the "conventional wisdom" is just outdated strategy or silliness, some of it is the recognition that humans don't "work that way," and that the guys look to the scoreboard and see 3-0 or 10-6 and they react in a certain way that cannot be quantified but also cannot just be thrown out unless you have a lot more than a handful of data points.

That said. my conservative strategy would have resulted in a 24-6 loss, probably, because the Falcons don't get the safety if they kick the field goal. So who really cares?

Danny Tuccitto: As the guy here coming from an academic background, where these kinds of debates happen all the time, I'm fully on board with the idea that theory and practice often diverge for situation-specific reasons.

With that said, I think the more important consideration here is that it seems like any debate about fourth-down strategy conflates two decisions: (1) whether or not to go for it, and (2) what specific play to call. Should Smith have gone for it? The stats say yes, and a more comprehensive situational analysis says perhaps no. Whatever. But should those unimaginative quarterback sneaks have been called? I'm doubting anyone can make a compelling argument for "yes."

Elias Holman: To extend the stock market analogy perhaps too far, looking at the aggregate fourth-and-1 statistics is like comparing performance across sectors or financial instruments, like energy stocks or junk bonds, but that doesn't tell you how the market as a whole will do from day-to-day, and unlike with real life where you can invest in a sector or hedge, you only get the opportunity to execute a single play. So it's equally important to select the correct stock/play that you think will give you the best return.

I think they picked the right sector (go for it), based on the available data, but selected the wrong stock(s). Ultimately, if you twice are unable to pick up a yard or so on fourth down in a playoff game, no amount of strategizing and analysis was going to help you though.

I guess what I'm really thinking is, it's okay to say "don't go for it on fourth-and-1 if you are inside your own 20" or "don't go for it on fourth-and-1 against the Giants because they are really hard to move on short yardage," but it's odd to then say "don't go for it on fourth-and-1 if you are the Falcons, because the Falcons make terrible play calls on fourth-and-1".

Mike Tanier: Yeah, the second sneak in particular was lame. The first, while wildly over-engineered, can be justified as including the threat of drawing the Giants offside.

Robert Weintraub: It was almost as though the first sneak was designed after the coaches said to themselves, "everybody quick snaps the quarterback sneak -- let's do the exact opposite!"

Pittsburgh Steelers 23 at Denver Broncos 29 (Overtime)

Robert Weintraub: Turning to game two of the day -- that fumble recovery by Denver on its second play was pretty big for an early play. If the Steelers get a short field and punch it in for 10-0? Trouble.

Ditto the drop by Jerricho Cotchery with nothing but green in front of him. Denver has gotten some breaks so far.

Mike Tanier: Tim Tebow looks like lefty Ben Roethlisberger when he stands in the pocket for two minutes, pump-faking, before completing a third-and-12 bomb.

Aaron Schatz: The first Denver scoring drive demonstrates one of the weird things about the Tebow offense: We think of Tebow as throwing a lot of short passes, bubble screens and whatnot, but actually he has thrown a lot of deep passes. It's one of the reasons his DVOA isn't at the bottom of the league despite that horrible completion rate. They've actually got more of a 1970s passing game. They just went down the field on two plays: a 51-yard pass and a 30-yard touchdown pass.

Vince Verhei: Tebow was third behind Matt Schaub and Carson Palmer in yards per completion this year.

Danny Tuccitto: On Denver's touchdown drive to make it 7-6, two things stand out to me about Pittsburgh's pass defense: (1) they only rushed four on third-and-long, which allowed Tebow to do his scramble thing, and (b) turn your heads and make a play on the ball, guys!

Aaron Schatz: It's hard to figure out when I'm not exactly an expert on quarterback mechanics, but I'm trying to figure out how much Roethlisberger's foot is hurting him here. He's certainly got no problem launching the ball deep.

Danny Tuccitto: On third-and-long with about 13 minutes left in the half, when Roethlisberger audibled from shotgun, I thought for sure it was because he noticed there were no Denver defenders in the middle of the field, and Mike Wallace was running a (pick-aided) slant out of bunch.

Wallace runs the slant, has two steps and inside position on the defender, and Roethlisberger throws it to a man-covered Emmanuel Sanders on a fade? Perplexing, at least to these untrained eyes.

Mike Tanier: If the Broncos go up 21-6, what is the over-under on how many passes they throw for the rest of the game?

Aaron Schatz: Nearing halftime, it looks like the foot is a problem for Roethlisberger. He can't move in the pocket at all, which is a huge part of his game. And oy, that interception. It wasn't really that bad. He just overthrew Heath Miller by a little bit. The problem is that there was a Denver defensive back in zone sitting right behind where Miller was trying to catch the ball, so it went right into his hands. It's not a bad decision if Roethlisberger throws it accurately.

Mike Tanier: Watch him when he goes from shotgun to the line to talk to the center. He has this weird hobble when he is not thinking about where he is stepping. I think every step he makes is planned, and he is bracing for pain. That cannot help the throwing mechanics.

Tom Gower: So now Max Starks has a knee injury, but they're shoving him back in there at left tackle just because of the other options, and they can't trust their protection with a gimpy quarterback so they go empty with five-wide. I think Roethlisberger has really gotten a lot better, compared to a couple years ago, at getting the ball out in the quick passing game, but the doom-saying Steelers fans all recognize this as a recipe for potential disaster.

Danny Tuccitto: Tendency alert: When Miller is lined up on the inside of a bunch, but with his hands on his knees instead of flexed, it's a weakside run where Miller crosses the formation to block.

Ladies and gentlemen, your "Maurkice Pouncey is out" moment.

Mike Tanier: You didn't like that orbital snap by Doug Legursky?

Danny Tuccitto: I'm pretty sure Legursky's snap reached escape velocity. He was trying to one-up Balloon Boy.

Aaron Schatz: Pittsburgh really telegraphs its wide receiver screens with the motions and formations. Also, it doesn't help when they are backwards and fumbled.

Ben Muth: How are refs so bad at determining forward passes live? It seems like they've blown a lot of those calls this year, and this latest one just killed the Broncos.

Mike Tanier: I don't remember seeing that call botched once per year up until this season. This year, I can think of three "lateral or not" plays, all called grossly wrong on the field.

Rivers McCown: Maybe it has something to do with the placement of the referees now? There was a big hubbub about the refs moving to accommodate no-huddle stuff a year or so ago.

Aaron Schatz: The problem then made even worse by the early whistles which, in the case of this game, prevented the officials from reviewing the play and properly giving Denver the ball.

Vince Verhei: I enjoyed Mike Wallace's "f--k y'all!" salute to the Denver fans on his touchdown run.

Aaron Schatz: Tebow had those deep throws early and now he's actually zipping in a few nice medium-length throws. But Roethlisberger is also looking better ... he's actually moving around in the pocket, and rolled out to get the touchdown pass to Cotchery that tied it.

Rivers McCown: They have to have upped the painkiller dose at halftime.

Tebow's missed throw on third-and-8 of the Broncos last possession in regulation was just brutal. The kind of throw that his critics feast on. That said, it's hard to hate on anyone connecting on the deep ball as often as he is in this game.

Ben Muth; Of course Tim Tebow is the first quarterback to play with the new OT rules.

Aaron Schatz: Denver's pass rush really stepped it up on that last attempted Pittsburgh drive of regulation.

Rivers McCown: Yeah, they got pressure quite a few times with three-man rushes, then brought five on the Hail Mary. And it worked.

Aaron Schatz: And the new overtime rules prove to be meaningless when Ike Taylor can't tackle Demaryius Thomas.

Rivers McCown: Taylor had a really poor game.

Well, looks like all that New England hand-wringing about wanting the Texans to lose so they could avoid the Steelers was unwarranted.

Danny Tuccitto: Holy s--t, Ike Taylor needs to consider another profession next year.

Aaron Schatz: The thing is, Taylor had a great year, based on FO game charting stats. He just had his worst game of the year at the worst possible time.

Tom Gower: Would it be a bigger total pill move for (a) me to point out the Broncos tight end on the left side wasn't on the line of scrimmage, leaving them with only six men on the line and making it an illegal formation, or (b) the refs to have actually thrown that flag to negate the touchdown?

Rivers McCown: I know Ryan Clark wasn't much in our charting stats, but I have to think having him probably would have helped with the whole "Tim Tebow averaging 15.0 yards per attempt" thing.

This is the first time since 2006 that all the home teams advanced out of the Wild Card games.

Aaron Schatz: The Broncos really took advantage of how heavily the Steelers were playing the run all day. But Tebow hasn't been able to make those throws the last three weeks. Today he suddenly was making all of those throws.

Robert Weintraub: When John Elway says let 'er rip, you let 'er rip. Taylor needs to be forced to take the bus home.

Also, for all you "gotta get points on the board" folks, the team that scored first in every Wild Card game lost.

Tom Gower: That was a ... more interesting game than I expected, and one I enjoyed watching. For "officials, please have no impact on the game" reasons, I'm glad the Broncos won, as the blown backwards pass/fumble call was a game-changer. For other stuff, well, I though the Steelers were an overall better team, but, well, this is far from the first time a team I've thought was better overall has lost a playoff game.

And on the fumble-that-wasn't, Mike Pereira gave a more in-depth explanation to PFT that matches what I thought after taking a look at the rulebook. Particularly, the issue is the Hochuli Rule is only of a limited scope, applying to passer incomplete versus fumble, which that play obviously was not. I'm not sure I agree with his explanation of why the change was as limited in scope as it was, and personally believe the rule should be changed in the offseason.

J.J. Cooper: I'm a Steelers fan, so I know I have no room to complain about playoff losses. We've had a lot of good memories to go with the occasional gut-punch.

That being said, watching my team lose to a Tim Tebow-led team because of Tebow's passing does rank as the worst playoff loss I can remember in my personal fandom. The loss to the Titans in 2002 in overtime where a running into the kicker penalty gave the Titans a second attempt at a kick was tough. Dan Marino throwing all over the Steelers in 1984 wasn't fun either. The AFC Championship losses in 1994 and 2001 were brutal. But losing to an air-it-out Tebow attack? That's seeing your Florida vacation ruined by a surprise blizzard.

That being said, credit to Tebow for throwing with conviction, something he hadn't shown in recent weeks. And Thomas completely abused Taylor over and over.

If there's one thing to be said for the Steelers losing -- I'm rationalizing here -- after the refs blew that call on a lateral, if the Steelers had won, it would have clearly been in part due to an official's error.

Posted by: Rivers McCown on 09 Jan 2012

326 comments, Last at 12 Jan 2012, 11:36pm by dbostedo


by lester bangs (not verified) :: Mon, 01/09/2012 - 3:27pm

Aaron Schatz: The first Denver scoring drive demonstrates one of the weird things about the Tebow offense: We think of Tebow as throwing a lot of short passes, bubble screens and whatnot, but actually he has thrown a lot of deep passes.

They've hardly thrown the bubble screen this year, and they've hardly thrown short passes, period. The backs don't catch the ball much, either. Go back and watch the tapes.

Phil Simms is an easy target, but he made one good point related to this. After seeing Tebow complete a bubble screen to Eddie Royal on third and long, Simms pointed out "call that play on first down." Completely agree.

by theslothook :: Mon, 01/09/2012 - 4:17pm

A few points:

This is a terrible generalization, but echoing what vince said, safety play was a major contributing loss in every single one of these games. Several of the tebow's medium and deep passes were the result of polamalu jumping the middle crosser or flying to cover the tight end on the shallow flat.

Detroit's problem was more pronounced because not only are their safeties not good, but their linebackers really struggled as well, while both the bengals and falcons defenses played just well enough to be completely undermined by horrendous safety play.

the pt-it feels like safeties are struggling in general in this modern nfl. I have to believe part of the reason is because offenses have become more pronounced at attacking the middle of the field. The explosion in passing numbers from the qbs hasn't really led to massive increases for starting wide receivers, but instead, is coming from slot wideouts, tight ends, and running backs. I suppose, over the next few years, defenses will need to counter with lighter and faster safeties along with lighter and faster linebackers or they will continue to get destroyed in the middle of the field.

by Aaron Brooks Go... :: Mon, 01/09/2012 - 7:32pm

A good observation. Historically, DBs/WRs are size matches, OL-DL are size matches, and LBs are generally between RB and TE sized. This was fine when the RB is Jim Brown and the TE is Mike Ditka. Today, though, TEs are functionally removed from any need for lineplay, with the old FBs playing the blocking end role.

Here's the problem:

On NO, Darren Sproles is 5'6" and Jimmy Graham is 6'7". How do you size-match that? What may be coming is a return to the 70s-era of huge CBs and fast LBs. Seattle uses something like this now. Pittsburgh, Indy, and Baltimore filled the same function with a super SS who chased down whichever guy the LBs couldn't handle.

The evolution seems to be moving the very tall, slower receiver into a TE, instead of a wideout. Kellen Winslow, instead of Harold Carmichael. Consider also that the really elite WRs of the last few years -- Larry Fitzgerald, Randy Moss, the Johnson Bros, are basically really fast TEs -- too tall for CBs and too fast for LBs/safeties.

by Dull Science (not verified) :: Mon, 01/09/2012 - 4:17pm

I think Drunk Hulk explained Tebowmania best, he is the contemporary Seabiscuit.

I cry when I think of the future

by Trogdor :: Mon, 01/09/2012 - 4:21pm

Mike Tanier: Yeah, the second sneak in particular was lame. The first, while wildly over-engineered, can be justified as including the threat of drawing the Giants offside.

Exactly. We've all seen the silly plays where a team will pretend they're going for it, run a bunch of motion hoping the defense will be dumb enough to jump offside, then call timeout and kick. I think the Falcons planned on doing that to get the Giants' D into "they're not really going to snap it, just whatever you do don't jump offside" mode, thinking maybe they'd catch them sleeping and get much better push than they normally would.

So if you're the Falcons, maybe you get them to be stupid and jump. Maybe they're so concerned about not jumping, they get going a bit slow and you get the first down easy. Ultimately, though, maybe your offensive line sucks so much the Giants D-line could have started the play sitting cross-legged and backwards, and they still couldn't have picked up the three inches.

by TomC :: Mon, 01/09/2012 - 6:58pm

Trogdor the Burninator lives! Have you been in an internet-free cave for two years or something?

by Jetspete :: Mon, 01/09/2012 - 5:14pm

When instant replay was introduced in 1999, it was specifically brought back to overturn horribly egregious referee calls that everyone in the stadium and watching at home knew were awful (the vinny T touchdown vs seattle was the example used at the competition committee meeting). Instead, its being used as prayers by coaches to overturn things like the CJ touchdown or split hairs over whether or not a ball was moving out of bounds.

by RichC (not verified) :: Mon, 01/09/2012 - 5:30pm

Thats because the system is set up in a ridiculous manner.

The best use for replay would have been to just allow the referees to use it whenever they wanted/felt uncomfortable with the call/etc, and not let the coaches call challenges.

The problem is we end up with situations where the refs know they made the wrong call, and there's nothing they can do about it because the rules are so strictly coded.

by Perfundle :: Mon, 01/09/2012 - 6:02pm

So you want to put even more power in the hands of the refs? That'll go over well with the fans.

Also, based on how many obvious touchdowns end up getting reviewed, erring on the side of caution can make the average game be 4 hours long.

by RichC (not verified) :: Mon, 01/09/2012 - 7:37pm

I don't think the problem is with the refs having too much power. I think the problem is that the refs are human, and make mistakes, and have absolutely no way to fix those mistakes when they make them.

You don't think a line judge would like a second look at that PI call they just made, when they were trailing the WR/DB by 30 yards?

by Steve in WI :: Mon, 01/09/2012 - 7:33pm

I agree that the system is ridiculous, but I would worry that under your proposal, refs would review too many plays and the game would drag.

I've often thought that sticking to coaches' challenges is a good method in general, but I would change the rules such that coaches could challenge as much as they wanted up until they lost two challenges. Coaches would still have an incentive to throw the flag only when they have a good chance of winning and/or it's a crucial call, but they wouldn't be penalized for bad officiating. I say if a coach can get three rulings overturned (without losing more than one challenge), the referees aren't doing their jobs and he should be allowed to keep challenging.

by RichC (not verified) :: Mon, 01/09/2012 - 7:38pm

The vast majority of review time is going to come during TV-Timeouts. Seriously, a game with 1HR of play time has almost 2.5 HRs of commercial time. They could fit 50 reviews a game in without extending the game.

by RichC (not verified) :: Mon, 01/09/2012 - 7:40pm


I'd much rather the calls be correct, and have the game a little longer, than have games where a bad call decides the game, especially when the officials KNOW its a bad call, but can't do anything about it.

by DGL :: Mon, 01/09/2012 - 9:36pm

Put an eighth official in the booth, with a two-way radio to the Referee. Make it a job you work your way up to like Referee, so the booth official has significant experience working as a field official and the respect of the rest of the officiating team. If the booth official sees something that disagrees with the call on the field, he buzzes the Referee and the officials conference (just as the field officials can conference); the crew makes the decision based on what all eight officials saw.

Currently, if officials conference and pick up a flag, or change a in-bounds/out-of-bounds ruling, or change a catch/no-catch ruling, everyone's complimentary about how "they made sure they got the call right". Give the officials the tools to really make sure they get the calls right.

Plus, this opens up 17 new senior-level officiating jobs. The official's union will be all over it like the DH.

by tuluse :: Mon, 01/09/2012 - 8:47pm

There are a lot of clock stoppages makes games take longer that don't have anything to do with commercials.

Go watch a highschool game, it takes longer than an hour.

by RichC (not verified) :: Mon, 01/09/2012 - 7:41pm

Why even have the two challenges though?

Just allow them to challenge as long as they have timeouts left. The artificial challenge limit is silly. Lose the challenge, you lose a timeout. Win it, you don't.

by Eddo :: Mon, 01/09/2012 - 5:45pm

Minor nitpick: the Calvin Johnson non-TD was upheld on replay review.

by lester bangs (not verified) :: Mon, 01/09/2012 - 5:28pm

Every time I read a Vince Verhei piece, I can hear him screaming out "Look at me! I'm writing!"

Yes, it is possible to try too hard, or to have too much ego invested.

by Eddo :: Mon, 01/09/2012 - 6:31pm

"Run-to-win" is still very much alive! In Chris Burke's "Audibles" column (what an original name for a Monday-morning column!), he says:

"Jacobs ran over, around and through the Falcons defense en route to 92 yards in New York’s 24-2 playoff victory. Coupled with Ahmad Bradshaw’s effort on the ground, Bradshaw helped the Giants to a 172-yard rushing day — improving the team’s record to a staggering 8-1 this season when it rushes for 100 yards or more."

Even better, he follows that paragraph with a refutation of his run-to-win speculation:

"That mark alone could make Jacobs the X-factor when the Giants head on the road in the divisional round to meet Green Bay, the only team that’s beaten them when their ground game has hit century mark."

by Aaron Brooks Go... :: Mon, 01/09/2012 - 7:35pm

Is it wrong in the context of Denver? Although they passed well, those passes worked because Denver sucked Pittsburgh up to the line to stop the run, and threw deep over their heads. Denver ran to win.

by foobarfoofoo (not verified) :: Mon, 01/09/2012 - 8:33pm

BTW does "getting beaten by Tim Tebow" qualify for Super Bowl loser curse? ;)

by dmstorm22 :: Mon, 01/09/2012 - 9:02pm

No but losing your running back in Week 17 to an ACL, having your star QB sprain his ankle in Week 14 (or whatever week it was), and then having your two best d-lineman go down early in a playoff game probably does.

As an aside, the last three Super Bowl losers have now made the playoffs.

by Junior :: Tue, 01/10/2012 - 12:23am

Is there a list out there anywhere that says which crews will be refereeing the remaining playoff games?

Do the "best" officials still get into the playoffs or is it random now?

I'm concerned because Ron Winter and crew officiated this weekend.

Amazing if they were in the top 11 of crews by almost any measure.

Can we expect Jeff Triplette to ref the Super Bowl?

by dmstorm22 :: Tue, 01/10/2012 - 12:35am

I believe that the #1 guy gets the SB. The #2 and #3 guys get the title games. #1 and #'s 4-10 get the Wild Card and Divisional Games, so usually one of the guys reffing either this past weekend or this weekend will be reffing the Super Bowl. This didn't happen last year oddly, as Walt Anderson only reffed the Super Bowl, so they have possibly changed this, but that is how it works.

Those are the top-11 guys. There is some switching between crews so some guys aren't reffing with their original crews, but they are supposedly the highest rated during the season.

by PatsFan :: Tue, 01/10/2012 - 11:11am

Can we expect Jeff Triplette to ref the Super Bowl?

Don't even joke about that.

by jayinalaska :: Tue, 01/10/2012 - 5:04pm

You can go to http://www.football-refs.com/ for general information on NFL and NCAA officiating.

For this season, you can go to http://www.football-refs.com/nfl-referees-by-season/2011-crews/playoffss... to see the playoff assignments. Apparently, the NFL makes the assignment announcements week-by-week, so we don't know the assignments for the championship games or the Super Bowl, yet.

For those too lazy to go look themselves, here are the assignments for the divisional round:

Denver at New England – Gene Steratore

Houston at Baltimore – Pete Morelli

NY Giants at Green Bay – Bill Leavy

New Orleans at San Francisco – John Parry