Frankly, Mike Tomlin Won't Give a Damn in Preseason Opener

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David Malinsky

Friday, August 11, 2017 2:28 PM GMT

Steelers coach Mike Tomlin simply doesn't care about preseason scoreboards. ... 2017 Packers: Will the "Nitro" be a Successful Capers Caper? … Baseball was rather kind to Lance Lynn again. ... Why you should be liking Cole Hamels more than the rest of the marketplace does...

Point Blank – August 11, 2017

One of the major running themes in developing your sports handicapping acumen has now, for better or worse (and I won’t editorialize on that front here), become a mainstream phenomenon: the notion of “Fake News.”

There is a significant degree of that common across what I call the Sports Mediaverse, a phrase you will read often here. There are so many 24/7 media organizations that the ranks are forced to be filled by underqualified contributors, not just in terms of talent but also work ethic. Although in truth you can’t necessarily fault that ethic – for many the paycheck is the same whether they work hard or not. Such are the times.

There are other symptoms of the disease, among them the fact that headlines often border on the absurdity, a consequence of the click-bait era. In theory you should never read just a headline anyway, but studies tell me that many of you do, and as dangerous as that has always been, in 2017 and the foreseeable future it can be intellectual suicide.

Steelers/Giants on Friday night brings us a timely example. If you are not a student of recent NFL preseason results and only saw the headline "Steelers coach Mike Tomlin likes preseason games" without reading the article from the Pittsburgh Tribune-Review (and I don’t mean to pick on them because I have friends that work for the paper), where would that take your thought processes? Might you think the Steelers could be live underdogs tonight?

The reality is much different. Perhaps Tomlin does “like” preseason games, but it is for reasons that don’t connect up much with the scoreboard outcomes. In fact, Tomlin’s recent run has been rather abysmal, a 3-14 SU over the last four seasons, including 0-8 on the road in which the average defeat was by a dozen points. You even have to put an * by one of the wins – the Steelers beat New Orleans in Week 3 last year perhaps by default, the Saints currently 0-9 over the last three August auditions.

So what was the Tribune-Review article about? Tomlin crafting an almost humorous positive take on these games, reaching back for just about anything he could find. This pretty much sums it up:

“I've had an appreciation for the preseason going all the way back to my position coach days. I'm just a lover of football. I believe all of these (young players) here working have a legitimate chance, and I think the preseason games give the guys an opportunity to put their skills on display — not only for (the Steelers) but for the other 31 teams. This process that is team development and division of labor and team building, I just have a lot of respect for it and appreciation for it. And I think the preseason games are a big part of it.”

That was it. Don’t expect much at all from the Steelers tonight in terms of trying to generate anything on the scoreboard. Ben Roethlisberger, Antonio Brown, Le'Veon Bell and Maurkice Pouncey won’t be there, which takes a lot of Pro Bowl out of the offense, and second-team QB Landry Jones also won’t play (rookie Josh Dobbs will get the start). The defense will be without Ryan Shazier, Bud Dupree, Artie Burns and Mike Mitchell at least.

I have some #268 NY Giants in pocket, -2.5 having been out there early despite the Tomlin preseason pattern readily available for the oddsmakers to have read before the send-outs (and you can be sure that they will be adjusting Minnesota’s Mike Zimmer carefully next week, off of both the market activity, and game outcome, for Vikings/Bills). There is nothing wrong with a reasonable -3 (up to -120), but above that the value begins to recede. It is still the preseason, after all.

 

2017 Packers: Will the ‘Nitro’ be a Successful Capers Caper?

Our one-a-day team tour to set up NFL 2017 heads to Green Bay, and a question as to whether the Packers have any upside beyond the level that got them to last season's NFC Championship Game. Were they just a few steps away last season or was this a case of the QB taking them much further than they should have gone?

The numbers easily bear out how good Aaron Rodgers was in 2016, but the eye test moved him a few rungs higher on the ladder; this was brilliant QB play getting just about as much as there was to get out of what was an average roster across the board. That included overcoming a defense that was No. 23 both overall and against the pass, according to the Football Outsiders charts.

In the playoffs, Rodgers made enough plays to escape at Dallas, where the defense allowed 31 points and 429 yards at 6.7 per snap. But the following week it was 44 points and 493 yards at 7.3 per play from the Falcons, and it could have been worse with Atlanta content to work clock after scoring that 44th point with 12:07 remaining. In 132 snaps across those two games, the Green Bay defense came up with one takeaway.

The dismal showing brought up questions about defensive coordinator Dom Capers in the offseason, and they were fitting – he would be turning 67 before the 2017 campaign began (his birthday was Monday), and for as great as his career has been, was he going to be able to adapt one more time to a changing league?

Mike McCarthy chose to stay the course:“I think all of us in life have always gone through experiences in our past that you may have quit on something just to get that fresh, new start, and it feels good, but in hindsight it was not the best thing for you. I know I have personally. So I’ve always held true to that in my decision-making process.”

And Capers in return has chosen to make some changes; get ready for what the Packers will be calling the “Nitro” defense. From one of the original architects of the zone blitz now comes a different scheme to combat the modern passing game and the way that the field is being spread by opposing offenses. What makes it worth focusing on is that this is not just a matter of X’s combating O’s, but the fact that it also does take advantage of some depth in a key spot on the Packers roster.

What will the Nitro be? Expect to see the Packers in a lot of 4-2-5, but not the usual “nickel” packages that bring three CBs onto the field – instead it will be three safeties. The tactical key is the ability to better defend the pass without giving up too much in run support; the personnel key is that there is some excellent depth at safety.

The traditional safety tandem of Ha Ha Clinton-Dix and Morgan Burnett has solid chemistry, combining for nearly 2,000 snaps in 2016 (Clinton-Dix was on the field for 99.9 percent of the defensive plays, after 99.7 in 2015). It is their experience on the back-end that allows for some experimentation, and it is in the young talents of rookie Josh Jones and second-year man Kentrell Brice that there is the depth of talent to innovate.

Let’s go to Capers on the tactics: "We like the flexibility it gives us especially week to week when you’re playing different styles of offenses. A lot of these offenses, they’re just looking for matchups now. You’ve got to be able to match up with the same caliber of athlete.”

And McCarthy on the talent:“I think our safety group is as fine a group that I've seen in my 20-plus years in this league.”

The news isn’t all good for the defense – CB remains a problem, with rookie Kevin King not having a good camp (listed as third-team on this week’s depth chart). But there is some upside for the unit, though it is a bit different. It isn’t so much about this defense necessarily making plays, but rather preventing plays being made against them. As such there could be significant improvement without the numbers jumping out of the box scores, unless the savvy handicapper is ready to be looking for them.

The Packers allowed 7.1 net yards per pass attempt in 2016, which builds sacks into the equation; only the Saints and Raiders were worse. If a half yard gets shaved off of that no major rockets are going to go off across the Sports Mediaverse, yet it damn well may mean something.

 

About Last Night -- Baseball was awfully kind to Lance Lynn again

A major focus point in yesterday’s edition was on the Cardinals' Lynn not pitching the way his bottom line of 10-6/3.21 through this season indicated, and the 8-6 St. Louis win over Kansas City brought a box score that might lead to yawns in terms of grading the Cardinal starter. He actually lowered his ERA to 3.12 and did not get a decision, but in truth was once again not very good at all. Baseball continues to be kind.

Consider the first two innings, when seven of the 11 batters who went to the plate for the Royals reached base, yet only one run scored. Lynn had more walks than strikeouts, allowing a single-game OBP of .407, and to put that latter number into perspective, of the 156 hitters with enough plate appearances to qualify for the MLB rankings, only six are above that.

Lynn walked away with a single-game ERA of 3.00, but FIP called it 4.63 and xFIP 6.71. Those numbers better indications of the quality of his pitches. He will remain on the play-against watch list over the next cycle. Now for some play-on guys …

 

In the Sights -- The Cole Hamels full-season statistics are stale

I don’t need to write much about Houston's Charlie Morton, who was a feature topic here a couple of weeks ago, noting how his pitching makeup has changed so drastically this season. Since the All-Star break it has been 36 strikeouts vs. 21 hits allowed, and he dealt at a rather nifty 13.1 PPI in his last outing vs. Toronto.

Morton opposes Texas' Hamels on Friday night in Arlington, and I also like the form of Hamels right now -- yet the early markets have driven the Astros/Rangers Total from 9.5 to 10, with as high as Over -120 off of the new plateau, and that has created a 5.5 for the opening five innings. That will lead me to #972 Texas/Houston First Half Under (8:05 Eastern).

I believe the Hamels full-season numbers are stale, which is why there isn’t a market buy-in right now, his 4.39 FIP and 4.64 xFIP both career worsts by a significant margin (he has never had a season over 4.00 in either category). But the veteran lefty was not at full health earlier in the campaign, though he certainly is now.

A big part of the Hamels arsenal is control, so let’s break it down. Through his first six starts it was an ugly ratio of as many walks (16) as  strikeouts, far out of character for him. But since July 1 it has been a 37-8 K to BB ratio, and three of his last six games have produced at PPI of 12.9 or less. That is vintage Hamels, and what also matters is that because he missed so much time earlier in the campaign he is only sitting on 85.1 innings right now, which means a much fresher arm than would usually be the case as mid-August approaches.

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