Tipping Points: Week 3

Jimmy Garoppolo
Jimmy Garoppolo
Photo: USA Today Sports Images

by Scott Spratt

It wasn't all in the games everyone expected, but Week 3 featured a number of compelling fourth quarters, much of it courtesy of backup quarterbacks thrust into starting roles. Giants rookie Daniel Jones was a major part of a wild ending in Tampa Bay, but I'll give the nod for my game of the week to first-time starter Mason Rudolph and his Steelers facing the undefeated but suddenly turnover-prone 49ers.

Game of the Week

Steelers at 49ers

Despite the contrasting preseason expectations of the two teams, the 49ers entered this game a strong bet to take care of business at home against 2018 third-round pick Mason Rudolph and the Steelers. Through two weeks, the 49ers were third-best DVOA team in football, and even with a game and a half of Ben Roethlisberger, the Steelers were the third-worst. But the 49ers seemed determined to hand the Steelers their first win of the season, turning the ball over four times in the first half and trailing 6-3 at the intermission.

Jimmy Garoppolo will be credited with picks for two of those four turnovers, but neither interception was his fault. The first was a screen pass to Matt Breida, who played hot potato before deflecting the ball right to T.J. Watt, who snagged the interception to set up the Steelers in 49ers' territory. The second was an on-target slant pass to Dante Pettis for what would have been a first down on a second-and-11, but Pettis couldn't secure the catch, and the ball careened into the hands of new Steelers defensive back Minkah Fitzpatrick. The Steelers couldn't take full advantage of either short field, but even minimal gains set them up for easy field goals and a 6-0 lead.

The 49ers' fourth and fifth drives ended in lost fumbles. The first came on a Raheem Mostert carry where Fitzpatrick got his helmet on the ball to dislodge it, ending the drive just 15 yards shy of the end zone. The next came on an aborted snap where they turned it over within 10 yards of scoring. The 49ers were able to kick a field goal on their sixth drive, but they still ended the first half in a three-point deficit despite outgaining the Steelers 188 yards to 76.

The 49ers' second-ranked DVOA defense was keeping them in the game, and they flipped the momentum on the fourth play of the second half, generating pressure that forced Rudolph out of the pocket where he threw a dreadful interception to cornerback K'Waun Williams. That set the 49ers up with a short field on the Steelers' 38. Wide receiver Kendrick Bourne covered more than half of that yardage on one 22-yard catch, and running back Jeff Wilson capped the drive with a 1-yard touchdown on a third down at the goal line.

Finally trailing 10-6, the Steelers needed to generate some offense. Through the first 39 minutes of the game, Rudolph had thrown for just 54 yards on 2.6 yards per attempt. He more than doubled that on an 11-yard slant that JuJu Smith-Schuster proceeded to take another 65 yards up the left sideline for a score.

It was the first major mistake by the 49ers' defense, but this time, their offense was able to respond with a 10-play, 75-yard touchdown drive. Garoppolo converted a third-and-1 with a quarterback sneak in his own territory to avoid the three-and-out. He then found rookie wideout Deebo Samuel for a pair of catches, the first for 20 yards in a gap in the zone in the middle of the field; the latter a few yards short of the sticks down the left sideline, with Samuel proceeding to power through would-be-tackler Steven Nelson for another first down. Garoppolo took the 49ers to the doorstep of the end zone with a 12-yard completion to Pettis. He threw a strike despite being hit as he threw by an unblocked Terrell Edmunds. And on the next play, Wilson broke the plane for his second score of the day.

Once again, the Steelers received the ball down four points, this time at 17-13 with a minute left in the third quarter. They promptly went three-and-out, but so too did the 49ers after offensive holding and illegal blindside block penalties landed them in a second-and-26 inside their own 10-yard line. On their next possession, the Steelers needed just three plays to score. James Conner deftly avoided a tackle in the backfield and scampered for 10 yards and a first down. Then Rudolph floated a deep pass that landed where James Washington likely would have been if he hadn't been tackled by cornerback Jason Verrett. The defensive pass interference was a smart one since it turned what likely would have been a touchdown into just a 32-yard gain, but karma allowed the Steelers to score that touchdown on the very next play. Rudolph threw a beautiful deep pass to hit a wide-open Diontae Johnson in the left side of the end zone. Verrett seemed to abandon his man Johnson on the play, perhaps assuming Rudolph would throw the ball to his initial read on the right side of the field.

Rudolph's second touchdown pass put the Steelers up three again with 10:22 left in the game. The 49ers seemed determined to quickly erase that deficit. Breida gained 7 yards through a small gap to the right side, and then Garoppolo floated one to the speedster Marquise Goodwin for 25 yards. Breida, Mostert, and Wilson took the next four carries for 35 yards to get to the Steelers' 8-yard line, but after a short run and an incompletion, the 49ers were staring at a third-and-7. A field goal would have been a disappointment so close to the end zone, but it would have at least tied the game. But instead, the 49ers mistimed their pre-snap motion, and the shotgun snap hit receiver Richie James as he worked his way from the left to the right side of the backfield. Clearly not expecting the ball, James couldn't secure it, and Watt was able to jump on it for his second and Steelers' third fumble recovery, all three with the 49ers poised to score in the red zone.

With a three-point lead and a little less than seven minutes of clock to kill, the Steelers started their next drive with a run and a short play-action completion, both to Conner. That netted them a first down and advanced the clock to 5:36. That's when the 49ers' turnover luck finally took a turn. Conner was working hard to try to avoid a loss on a first-and-10 carry, but he instead lost the ball, setting up the 49ers on the Steelers' 24-yard line with just under five and a half minutes left in the quarter.

Garoppolo started the ensuing drive with a 9-yard completion to George Kittle, and then the 49ers started to kill some clock. They handed off twice to Wilson, and Garoppolo sneaked for a first down in between. Garoppolo hit Kittle again to get inside the 10, but an offensive holding penalty backed them up to the 20. They looked like they might advance to a manageable third down when Garoppolo found James with space to work with along the left sideline, but Fitzpatrick laid out for an excellent tackle that left them with a third-and-11 from the 14.

It was one of Fitzpatrick's several clutch defensive plays on the day, and his acquisition looked to be the headline in a Steelers win. They just needed their defense to make a stop on third down to hold the 49ers to a game-tying field goal and their offense to execute a two-minute drill to kick a game-winning field goal. Even without the ball, the Steelers owned the slight edge in Game-Winning Chance (GWC), 50.3% to 49.7%.

The Steelers didn't bring any extra pressure on that critical third-and-11, but both Watt and Stephon Tuitt got a hand on Garoppolo. Garoppolo was able to escape that pressure, but he could not connect with Pettis on a pass to the end zone. The Steelers defense seemed to have done its part, but a flag was down. Away from the pass, Mark Barron had wrapped up Kittle in the middle of the field for a blatant defensive holding penalty. That gave the 49ers an automatic first down on the 9-yard line at the two-minute mark, and their GWC jumped to 66.7%.

Two plays later, Garoppolo found Pettis in the front left of the end zone for a touchdown.

After the extra point and kickoff, the Steelers had just 1:09 to score a touchdown from their 22, down 24-20. The 49ers decided to bring pressure at the first-time starter, and Rudolph did well to avoid it and throw the ball away on first down and scramble for 7 yards on second down. But that latter play cost the Steelers their second timeout and put them in a third-and-3 with just 51 seconds left in the game. The 49ers rushed just four defenders on that play, and that ironically created the sack that the blitzes couldn't. Rudolph couldn't find an open receiver, and after taking several seconds and dancing away from a pair of pass-rushers, he was taken down by defensive tackle DeForest Buckner, who knocked the ball lose. The Steelers' Matt Feiler was able to jump on it, but that still left the team with a do-or-die fourth-and-12. Rudolph had time for a throw, but he sailed his pass over the head of James Washington, returning the ball to the 49ers on downs and allowing them to kneel for the victory.

The Steelers clearly maintained belief in their team's playoff chances after the 0-2 start and with Roethlisberger done for the season. Otherwise, they wouldn't have traded a 2020 first-round pick for Fitzpatrick. But less than 5% of the teams from the past four decades that started 0-3 made the playoffs, and the 436-239 total yardage discrepancy suggests a significant quality difference between these two teams that the 49ers' five turnovers hid in the final score. It will likely also motivate the 49ers' continued placement near the top of the DVOA standings. They play their 3-0 division rival Rams in Week 6 after a bye and a home contest with the Browns, and that may prove to be a matchup of two of the best three or four teams in all of the NFC.

The Best of the Rest

Giants at Buccaneers

With the Giants trotting out rookie quarterback Daniel Jones for his first start on the road in Tampa Bay, this game wasn't supposed to be close. In fact, the Buccaneers were a six-point favorite, and they teased a potential blowout by scoring on all six of their first-half possessions. Three of those scores were touchdowns, all three by wide receiver Mike Evans, who showcased excellent ball-tracking, after-the-catch, and route-running abilities on what were three very different kinds of throws.

The Giants were trailing 28-10 at the start of the third quarter, but they immediately wrestled away the momentum with a 75-yard strike to Evan Engram on the first play from scrimmage of the half. The play looked very similar to Smith-Schuster's long touchdown catch-and-run from the Steelers-49ers game, but this one was more remarkable because it was the 240-pound tight end Engram who outran cornerback Vernon Hargreaves down the left sideline.

The Buccaneers seemed able to absorb some defensive mistakes given the rhythm of their offense from the first half, but that rhythm evaporated in the second half and the Bucs managed just 19 plays and 59 yards on their next three drives, all three of which ended in punts. In between, the Giants continued their Jekyll-and-Hyde routine with an 80-yard touchdown drive and two other possessions that lost yardage, but the rookie Jones made some great plays to drive the successes when the Giants had them. In particular, he rolled left to avoid pass-rusher Carl Nassib on a play-action pass and threw a strike downfield to Darius Slayton to set up the touchdown.

Highs and lows are understandable for any rookie quarterback, but they were particularly so for Jones in this game since star running back Saquon Barkley suffered a high ankle sprain in the second quarter and did not return. He will miss several weeks.

The Giants had cut their deficit to three points at 28-25 at the start of the fourth quarter, when Jameis Winston had the Bucs into the periphery of field goal range with a chance for more on a third-and-5. But defensive pressure forced Winston to step up in the pocket and try to hit Evans on the run. Instead, he sailed the pass high for an easy interception for linebacker Ryan Connelly. The Giants started the ensuing drive close to midfield with a chance to tie or go ahead, and on second-and-9, Jones wound up for a deep throw that could have given them the lead. But just before the release, Bucs pass-rusher Shaquil Barrett knocked the ball out of Jones' hand. The Bucs recovered and marched downfield, getting to a third-and-2 from the Giants' 5-yard line. There, the Giants front met Peyton Barber at the line of scrimmage, holding him to no gain and forcing a field goal. I would have loved to see Bruce Arians go for it on fourth down there since the made field goal only maintained a one-score game. I suspect a lack of confidence in Winston motivated his conservative decision, but another rushing attempt would have been the optimal choice, in any case, increasing the Bucs' GWC from 81.3% with the field goal attempt to 87.0% with a run.

The Giants had an even six minutes to answer, and things looked dire for them when Jones tried and failed to force the ball to a covered Russell Shepard on third-and-5 with pressure close behind him. The only saving grace of that three-and-out was that it took less than a minute and a half of game time, leaving their defense time to make a stop and return the ball to the Giants for an attempted two-minute drill. That seemed unlikely when Ronald Jones exploded through a hole on first-and-10 for 8 yards, but the Giants stopped Jones at the line of scrimmage on third down, and then safety Michael Thomas saved the game by tackling tight end Cameron Brate a line short of the first down with no one else to stop him if he had failed to make the play.

Arians was hardly unique in his choice to punt the ball away on fourth-and-1 from his own 31, but it was actually a much worse strategic decision then even his choice to kick the previous field goal. With just 3:24 left on the clock and with the Giants now out of timeouts, a single yard would have practically guaranteed a Bucs' victory. Either a run (91.7% GWC) or a pass (87.4%) would have improved the team's chances of securing a win significantly compared to the punt (78.7%). The football gods clearly agreed and punished the Bucs with a couple of deep Jones completions, the first for 21 yards to Slayton and the second for 36 yards to a wide-open Sterling Shepard. That set the Giants up with a first-and-10 from the Bucs' 12-yard line at the two-minute warning.

With the Bucs down to just one timeout, the Giants could have sealed a win with a few in-bounds runs or completions followed by the touchdown. They couldn't make that best-case scenario happen after Jones missed on a pair of short attempts to Engram on second and third down. But Jones came through when the Giants needed him, scrambling untouched on a fourth-and-5 up the middle for a touchdown.

With the Giants now up by a point, it sounded like a home game for them in Tampa Bay. But just as the Broncos did last week against the Bears, the Giants had left time on the clock for the Bucs to answer. With 1:16 left and still with one timeout, the Bucs maintained a 45.8% chance to pull out the win. Those chances rose quickly to 96.1% after Winston completed a 20-yard pass to Chris Godwin, who rolled to the ground to catch a low throw, and a 44-yard rainbow to Evans that came up 9 yards shy of his fourth touchdown. But that's when Arians completed the third of his trio of back-breaking strategic errors.

Following a spike that stopped the clock at 13 seconds with a second-and-goal from the 9-yard line, Arians intentionally took a delay of game penalty and then lost 2 more yards on a rush to center the ball between the hash marks, believing his kicker Matt Gay would have a better chance to convert on a 34-yard field goal than on a 27-yard one. This was just the third game of rookie Matt Gay's career, so I suspect Arians formed that opinion based entirely on Gay's performance in Sunday's performance -- he had missed two extra points, one wide left and one low enough to be blocked by a defensive lineman who hadn't penetrated the backfield, but had converted on all four of his field goal attempts, which were from 23, 27, 47, and 52 yards. I can't speak to Gay's particular practice tendencies, but based on general kicker tendencies, Arians sacrificed 5.1% win probability, dropping his team from a 97.9% GWC with a 27-yard field goal attempt to 92.8% with the 34-yard one that Gay actually attempted. And well, the football gods didn't like that either.

It was a catastrophic loss for a Bucs team that despite their deficiencies had a real chance to win an injury-depleted NFC South. The win means less from a playoffs perspective for the now 1-2 Giants, even if for the time being it moves them into a second-place NFC East tie with the presumably much better Eagles. But Giants fans are likely less concerned about their short-term standings and more excited by the promising future their rookie quarterback Jones teased. He won a road game without Odell Beckham and mostly without an injured Barkley, and even if Arians had more than a hand in that result, Jones offers their team the hope they had been lacking in the twilight of Eli Manning's career.

Ravens at Chiefs

The Ravens-Chiefs contest was supposed to be the best game in Week 3, especially when it looked like rain and heavy winds could put a damper on the Chiefs' explosive offense. But Patrick Mahomes quickly dispelled that notion with three first-half touchdown drives, the third of which took just three plays thanks to an 83-yard touchdown completion to Mecole Hardman. The Ravens received the second-half kickoff, but down 23-6, they never got higher than a 15.2% GWC in the third or fourth quarters. Still, there were moments in the second half that suggested this matchup could be exciting if it came again in January.

The Ravens clearly are well-equipped to take advantage of the Chiefs' biggest weakness in run defense. Kansas City was dead last in DVOA run defense in 2018, and the Ravens racked up 203 yards on 6.3 yards per carry in this one despite trailing and being forced into a pass-skewed offensive game plan. After Mahomes' third touchdown stretched the Chiefs lead to 30-13, the Ravens answered with a 13-play, 75-yard drive that required just 4:45 of clock. Rookie receiver Marquis Brown made a drive-sustaining third-and-11 catch for 18 yards to end the third quarter. Seven plays later, Lamar Jackson survived a six-man blitz and an unblocked Juan Thornhill to complete a miracle 25-yard pass on fourth-and-5 to Seth Roberts 2 yards shy of the end zone.

The Ravens scored two plays later. Then, trailing 30-19, they attempted a two-point conversion. That choice surprised a lot of people since, even with a conversion, the Ravens would have still trailed by two scores. But it was the optimal strategic decision, improving the Ravens' GWC from 5.4% to 6.0%. The theory behind the aggressive choice is that it would allow the Ravens to adjust their subsequent strategy based on its results. Had they converted it, they could have won in regulation with a field goal, a touchdown, and an extra point. But failing it, they knew they needed two touchdowns in regulation, and that deficit wouldn't fall to three scores even if the Chiefs kicked another field goal. It was sound reasoning, but unfortunately for the Ravens, the attempt failed.

Still trailing 30-19 with 12:22 left in the fourth quarter, the Ravens defense badly needed a stop. They couldn't prevent a Travis Kelce first down on a second-and-6, but they did force three straight Mahomes incompletions on the Chiefs' next set of downs. The ensuing punt returned the ball to Jackson and the Ravens with 10:40 left in the game.

Time was clearly of the essence, but the Ravens recognized their advantage running the ball and rattled off 8- and 9-yard gainers that only took a minute of clock. Then, Jackson delivered a 31-yard teardrop pass to Brown who secured the catch, tapping down both of his feet just before falling out of bounds to the Chiefs' sideline. Jackson overthrew Brown in the end zone on the next play, and the Ravens fell back to a second-and-20 after an offensive pass interference penalty on Miles Boykin. But Jackson again avoided pressure on a third-and-17 and threw a desperation pass across his body from the right sideline to the left. Chiefs cornerback Charvarius Ward was camped waiting to catch an easy interception, but Willie Snead leaped in and wrestled the ball away from an improbably third-down conversion.

Two incompletions and a sack later, the Ravens were forced to settle for a Justin Tucker field goal that at least made it a one-score game at 30-22. That left the Ravens defense needing another stop, which looked unlikely after running back Darrel Williams went untouched to the right side for 41 yards to start the Chiefs' next drive. They were able to avoid any other chunk plays and limited the damage to a field goal. But that still left the Ravens' offense in an 11-point hole with just 4:30 to work with.

Jackson rattled off completions of 10, 5, 11, and 13 yards at the start of the Ravens' next drive, but all four pass-catchers were funneled down in bounds. Gus Edwards picked up another first down on a swing pass and was able to get out of bounds, but the Ravens had already lost nearly two minutes of clock. A 12-yard catch-and-run to Seth Roberts moved them to a first-and-goal from the 9-yard line, and two plays later, Jackson scrambled right for a touchdown just before the two-minute warning. It was just 9 yards, but it showcased everything Jackson brings to the table with his legs -- his speed, his agility, and his elusiveness.

The Ravens tried and failed again on a two-point conversion, and with just one timeout remaining plus the two-minute warning and still trailing by five points, they needed an onside kick. The problem is, the new rule that prevents kicking teams from running up to the line of scrimmage makes it nearly impossible for the kicking team to recover. EdjSports' GWC model gave the Ravens just a 7.0% chance of winning as Justin Tucker lined up for the kick. Tucker is the best kicker in the business, and his talent allowed the Ravens to innovate with a drop-kicked onside attempt. He was able to get some air under the ball, but he carried the kick too deep for his teammates to reach it before it fell into the waiting arms of Hardman, who astutely called for a fair catch.

The Ravens could have gotten the ball back with a bit under a minute to mount a touchdown drive, but Mahomes connected with Williams on a screen pass on third-and-9 that Williams took for 16 yards. That allowed Mahomes to kneel twice for the win.

Many will read the Ravens' battery of aggressive calls -- which they scattered throughout the game and not just in the fourth quarter -- as desperate attempts by a team that believed itself inferior to the explosive Chiefs. But those calls universally improved the Ravens' odds to win. It's easy to criticize coaches who make atypical decisions that lead to bad results, but fourth-and-1 punts cost teams points in the long run, too. The Ravens are demonstrating a willingness to make the best decisions for their team and face the criticism when they don't work out. In time, that approach should lead to more good results than bad ones.

Three weeks in, Mahomes and the Chiefs have dismantled the Jaguars and Ravens, a pair of defenses with top-six preseason projections. They haven't missed a beat despite the injury to All-Pro receiver Tyreek Hill. It's difficult to envision anything other than a Chiefs-Patriots rematch in the AFC title game, but the Ravens had enough success and showed enough creativity in this game that a playoff rematch of these two teams would not be a forgone conclusion.

Bengals at Bills

The 3-0 Buffalo Bills may have provided more early-season drama than any other team in football, so after dominating the visiting Bengals defensively for their first nine drives -- which ended in an interception, two lost fumbles, and six punts -- it only made sense that Andy Dalton would rally Cincinnati with back-to-back touchdown drives to tie the game with 12:27 to go in the fourth quarter. The first of those drives was set up by an incredibly ill-advised interception for Josh Allen, who tried to be a hero under extreme pressure rather than getting rid of the ball and punting while up by a pair of touchdowns.

The second scoring drive almost ended in disaster for the Bengals when Dalton fumbled the snap on first-and-goal from the 1-yard line. Tremaine Edmunds of the Bills was able to recover the fumble for what would have been a back-breaking turnover, but the Bengals were handed a reprieve by defensive tackle Jordan Phillips' offsides penalty. Dalton hit Joe Mixon for a 1-yard score on the very next play.

Once again in need of points, the Bills needed Allen to make some plays. He nearly provided an exceptional one when, on a third-and-5, he avoided three Bengals pass-rushers as well as safety Jessie Bates. He dove and stretched out for a first down but came up a yard shy thanks to the persistent efforts of defensive tackle Geno Atkins.

Back on offense, the Bengals moved the ball with confidence. Dalton connected with Tyler Boyd for 26 yards, then with Joe Mixon for 33. That moved the ball to the Bills' 27-yard line with 6:25 left in the game. The Bengals only managed 2 more yards on their next three plays, but that was enough for Randy Bullock to kick a 43-yard field goal and hand the Bengals their first lead of the afternoon.

With another possession, down three and starting on their own 22, the Bills had seen their GWC peak of 97.2% erode all the way to 40.8%. But Allen wasn't done, and he hit tight end Dawson Knox for a smooth pass 20 yards downfield. Knox followed up with a pair of wicked stiff-arms that extended the catch to 49 yards.

Allen escaped pressure on the Bills' next two plays, scrambling for 6 and 8 yards, respectively. Two plays later, Allen held onto the ball on a zone read and crashed down a yard shy of his 11th career rushing touchdown in 14 starts. But it was no matter. Veteran runner Frank Gore finished off the touchdown drive with a 1-yard carry on the next play. The Bills were back on top, 21-17, with just 1:50 and one timeout left for the Bengals to answer.

Lorenzo Alexander erased a potential big gainer on first down, swatting down a Dalton pass that had some air behind it, but the Bengals were able to convert on a third-and-8 thanks to a Kevin Johnson defensive hold. That advanced the Bengals to their own 32 with 1:33 remaining, where Dalton completed a pair of short passes to Auden Tate for first downs. But on both of those catches, Tate was tackled in-bounds, running the clock down to 48 seconds on the Bengals' next first-and-10 from the Bills' 46-yard line. Alex Erickson was able to get out of bounds to stop the clock on his second-down catch-and-run of 13 yards, but Giovani Bernard unwisely cut a dump-off reception upfield and was tackled in bounds after 5 yards. Dalton spiked the ball on second-and-5 to stop the clock at 21 seconds, but that left him with more field to cover than time left to do it. He opted for an intermediate gainer on third down to try to move the sticks, but Dalton overthrew Tate. Tate got a hand on the pass, which was poised to fall incomplete to allow Dalton another chance on fourth down. However, safety Micah Hyde made a tremendous play to bat the pass back up in the air as he flew by on his attempted tackle, and Tre'Davious White was able to glove it for his second interception for the day. This one sealed the Bills' third victory.

The Bengals' season felt over before it began when they lost A.J. Green to an ankle sprain in training camp. But they had real opportunities to steal wins on the road in Seattle and in Buffalo in Weeks 1 and 3. Instead, they came up one and four points short and now are 0-3 entering a Week 4 Monday night showdown against their also-winless division rival Steelers on Monday night. In contrast, the Bills' pair of close wins on the bookends of their short season have earned them a two-game cushion on the field of AFC teams on the outside of the wild card looking in. That could prove very useful with the team welcoming the undefeated Patriots to town in Week 4.

Rams at Browns

The high-flying Rams needed to win ugly on the road in Carolina in Week 1, and they faced a similar challenge on Sunday night after Baker Mayfield connected on a 2-yard touchdown with tight end Demetrius Harris, now starting with David Njoku on injured reserve. That play pushed the Browns back into the lead at 13-10 with 4:37 to go in the third quarter. Three plays later, Jared Goff made what he probably thought was a safe throw low and to the outside of receiver Brandin Cooks down the left sideline. But cornerback T.J. Carrie made an incredible diving catch and secured the ball in-bounds for an interception that gave the Browns another short field. (Earlier, Myles Garrett strip-sacked Goff with just enough time left in the first half for the Browns to kick a field goal.)

Any Browns offense at that point would have put the Rams in a bad spot, but Mayfield barely reached the line of scrimmage on a broken play on first down that ended up costing the team another yard after he fumbled and fortunately recovered it himself. On third-and-8, he threw behind an open Jarvis Landry, forcing a Browns punt.

With the ball back on offense, the Rams quickly took advantage of their second chance. Goff found Brandin Cooks just past the line to gain, and Cooks scampered another 12 yards to net his team 23. Two plays later, the Rams' pass protection gave Goff plenty of time to survey the field and find Cooper Kupp for a 21-yard strike and third-down conversion. That ended the quarter and set the Rams up on the Browns' 20-yard line. There, the Rams hit the Browns with a trick play, reversing a handoff to Cooper Kupp back to Robert Woods. Woods took the reverse around to the left sideline and advanced the ball all the way to within 3 yards of the end zone before Carrie could force him out of bounds.

Three plays and a false start later, Goff found Kupp wide open streaking toward the left side of the end zone for a 6-yard touchdown.

With 12:48 left in the fourth quarter, the Browns had plenty of time to erase their now four-point deficit. And that looked promising after Nick Chubb bullied his way through traffic for 13 yards and Mayfield extended a play in pressure and hit Odell Beckham, who came back for the 19-yard connection. But a short run, incompletion, and failed screen later, the Browns were in no-man's land on fourth-and-9 from the Rams' 40-yard line, and Freddie Kitchens decided to go for it. Generally speaking, EdjSports' GWC model supports an aggressive play in that situation, but it recommends a pass (28.3% GWC) over a field goal attempt (25.0%) or punt (24.4%). A run (23.3%) is the worst of the four options, but that's what Kitchens selected. Chubb managed to gain just 2 of the 9 yards the Browns needed in that spot.

After the demoralizing turnover on downs, the Browns defense needed a stop. And they almost had one when linebacker Joe Schobert got a hand on a scrambling Goff to bring him down 3 yards shy of a first down on a third-and-10. But safety Jermaine Whitehead inexplicably launched his helmet into an already-down Goff. He was flagged for unnecessary roughness, giving the Rams a first down at the Browns' 28. They reached a third-and-1 just inside the red zone when Goff faked a handoff and threw behind receiver Josh Reynolds incomplete. That made it fourth-and-1, and the normally unimpeachable Sean McVay sacrificed 3.6% GWC, attempting a field goal (84.4%) rather than trying to convert with a run (88.0%). Greg Zuerlein connected on his 37-yard attempt, but the Browns remained in striking distance down 20-13 with 6:29 left.

The Browns ensuing drive started about as badly as possible, with Damion Ratley failing to make a clean catch on a pooch kickoff, Tavierre Thomas committing an illegal block penalty, and Mayfield taking a first-down sack, the first of Aaron Donald's season. That backed the Browns into a second-and-17 from their own three, and a play later on third-and-10, Mayfield went down again, this time courtesy of Clay Matthews.

With 4:23 remaining at the start of their next drive, the Rams were well-positioned to kill clock and secure the road victory. And Todd Gurley did a lot of that work, advancing a second-down carry 9 yards to set up a manageable third-and-3. But with just under three minutes to go, Goff used a play-action fake and tried to hit Woods on an intermediate throw. He stared down his receiver but clearly never saw Schobert undercut the route. Schobert tipped the pass into the air where his teammate Juston Burris could make the interception.

The Browns were handed an absolute gift, starting their ensuing drive from their own 43 with 2:46 remaining and still within one score trailing 20-13. And they got another gift when an illegal contact penalty erased a split sack from Sam Ebukam and Michael Brockers that would have made it third-and-17 and given the Browns another first down, now at midfield. But two incompletions and a false start later, the Browns were staring at third-and-15. That's when Mayfield stepped up in the pocket out of pressure and threw one of his best passes of the night, hitting Landry just past the sticks and with enough space to run for another 10.

Mayfield found Ratley for another 16 yards two plays later and survived a shot from Donald to do it. Donald had unintentionally hit Mayfield in the helmet, which tacked on another 5 yards with a roughing the passer penalty and made it first-and-goal from the 4-yard line with 43 seconds to play. Mayfield threw the first-down pass away over the back of the end zone, and then his second-down pass was batted down by Ebukam. Six-foot safety Taylor Rapp made a game-saving deflection on a jump ball in the back of the end zone to the 6-foot-7 Harris, and then pass-rushers Dante Fowler and Matthews forced Mayfield back and out of the pocket on fourth down. He threw a pass in the air into the end zone, but with his momentum carrying him away from his target, Mayfield had no zip on the pass. Safety John Johnson pulled in the interception, giving the Rams their third win.

That final play epitomized the Browns' early-season struggles that have them at 1-2. Mayfield has taken a sack on 9.2% of his dropbacks this season, fifth-most of the 23 quarterbacks who have made all three starts for their teams. The Browns already had questions on their offensive line before Kendall Lamm and Chris Hubbard suffered knee and foot injuries. And Mayfield himself likely shoulders some blame for the pressure he has faced. He's one of just three quarterbacks who has averaged more than three seconds with the ball from snap to throw according to Next Gen Stats. Meanwhile, the Rams came away with a win in another close game to stay perfect and on pace with their surprising division rivals, the 49ers. Those two will play the first of their inter-division games in Week 6 in Los Angeles.


2 comments, Last at 24 Sep 2019, 4:56pm

1 Poor logic by Arians

"Arians intentionally took a delay of game penalty and then lost 2 more yards on a rush to center the ball between the hash marks, believing his kicker Matt Gay would have a better chance to convert on a 34-yard field goal than on a 27-yard one. This was just the third game of rookie Matt Gay's career, so I suspect Arians formed that opinion based entirely on Gay's performance in Sunday's performance -- he had missed two extra points, one wide left and one low enough to be blocked by a defensive lineman who hadn't penetrated the backfield, but had converted on all four of his field goal attempts, which were from 23, 27, 47, and 52 yards. I can't speak to Gay's particular practice tendencies, but based on general kicker tendencies, Arians sacrificed 5.1% win probability, dropping his team from a 97.9% GWC with a 27-yard field goal attempt to 92.8% with the 34-yard one that Gay actually attempted."

I'm not sure whether that particular kick would have been good from 7 yards closer (it might well have been, as it wasn't outside the posts by much), but the idea of "let's move the guy back because he missed two PATs" seems a clear example of Arians conflating small sample size results with mental state.

Field goal kickers aren't more accurate from further out. A guy who hits 3 50+ FGs in a row and misses 2 30-yarders in a row isn't more likely to hit a 50-yarder than a 30-yarder next kick. Field goal kickers have a routine. There's variance in the trajectory of the ball following the kick, and the further away the goal posts are, the more likely that variance will carry the ball outside the posts. It's simple physics.