While some offenses got better in Week 3, there is also some blame to bad defense.... A bowl of fire makes a fine lunch, when there is a proper sophistication to the heat.
The level of football ramped up across the NFL in Week 3, in terms of offensive execution, but for much of the marketplace it came from unexpected directions, several sportsbook directors noting that the Sunday winning handle was among the highest of their lifetime. When there is confusion it means opportunity, of course, and those that can find the highest degree of clarity from the results will put themselves in a position to win.
This is one of those weeks in which I could double the talking points, so there will be some other notions brought into play here over the next few days, to keep this missive within a reasonable limit (in truth, I am still at a loss in terms of grading Raiders-Redskins to anything near a comfort level). So let’s get to work in breaking it all down.
Item: Yes, it is time to re-evaluate Rams DC Wade Phillips
Sub-Item: The Buffalo offense didn’t solve anything
Based on the flow in the comments threads, many of you have likely see this one coming, so why not put it in the lead?
There had been a bit of a feel-good story when Phillips got a Super Bowl ring in his first season as Denver defensive coordinator in 2015, and while the post-Peyton Manning offense was not good enough to get the Broncos back into the playoffs last season, the defense captured the #1 spot on the Football Outsiders adjusted ratings for the second straight season. That is quite an achievement, or so it appeared. But given the early performances of both the Denver and LAR defenses this season, it begs for an adjusted look.
First, let’s note that the Phillips achievement in Denver wasn’t necessarily brilliant when we consider the following -
Season Overall vs. Run
2014 #3 #3
2015 #1 #4
2016 #1 #21
Phillips inherited an awfully good group, with Von Miller having a Hall of Fame arc to his career and the CB tandem of Chris Harris/Aqib Talib rivaling any that has ever played the sport. DeMarcus Ware was also a part of those rotations, and Brandon Marshall and T.J. Ward brought a lot. Yet note that while the pass defense remained at a high level of excellence, Denver fell way off vs. the run in 2016.
Fast forward to this season, the Broncos transitioning away from the Phillips schemes, and the Rams being oriented towards them. Through three weeks the performance levels against the run tell quite a tale:
Team YPG 2016-17 YPR 2016-17
LAR 103.8 139.0 3.9 4.3
DEN 130.3 59.7 4.3 2.6
While it is early, there have been enough games played, and enough diversity across those opponents, to attach some meaning. The Broncos have held LeSean McCoy and Ezekiel Elliott to 29 yards on 23 carries the past two weeks, which is spectacular. Meanwhile, the Rams have not played a team that should finish in the upper third of the league in overall production.
What has been enlightening to view is how out of position the Rams have been against the run, in particular the linebackers and safeties. Aaron Donald and the defensive front may hold their own based on talent, but the back seven is a different story, and there has appeared to be significant confusion.
As noted here last week, the Broncos have talked openly about changing their schemes, and it has been noticeable. With those cover corners in Harris/Talib they can gamble on one-on-one coverage more than any other team, which allows the safeties to get up into the box. They have done that, with plenty of success.
So what happened at Buffalo on Sunday? Mostly it was football happening. While the Bills put 26 points on the scoreboard, those points came as a result of just 272 yards at 4.3 per play, with only three teams having a lower PP mark last week. The problem of Tyrod Taylor syncing up with his WRs remains, with well over half of his completions (13 of 20) going to McCoy and TE Charles Clay, and Taylor was sacked on 13.3 percent of his dropbacks. The positive scoreboard was a result of efficiently squeezing just about everything the Bills could out of their production level, and not much of anything bad that could be said about the Denver defense, except for a few ill-timed penalties.
There is another defensive unit that I have written some bad things about already this season, and their issues may be growing instead of shrinking.
Item: The Patriots defense goes from bad to worst (literally)
Last Tuesday, the New England defense earned a topic headline for rating next to last in the NFL in yards-per-play allowed. Now the Patriots have that bottom spot all to themselves, and by a pretty clear margin – they are allowing 7.1 yards per play, with no other team worse than 6.8, and note that 27 of the 32 teams are at 5.8 or lower. The league average is 5.3, NE running almost two full yards worse than that.
What made it troublesome in Week 3 was that it was the type of setting that Bill Belichick and Matt Patricia usually take full advantage of: a young QB who can be confused by dialing up some complex looks. The Pats did come up with two interceptions and two sacks of Houston rookie Deshaun Watson, and needed all of that, the Texans rolling up 417 yards at 6.2 per play.
It took a brilliant closing drive by Tom Brady to gut that win out, and had that not happened think about this for a perspective of what bad defense can mean: Had the Patriots lost, they would have been 0-2 straight-up at home in games in which they were favored by more than a touchdown, and had both a turnover advantage and a net penalty advantage. Through eight quarters at home they are +3 in turnovers and +115 yards in penalties, yet have been outscored by 12. Let that sink in.
It may get better for that group this week, because the Carolina offense may have some issues that defy an easy solution with the current roster.
Item: The Carolina offense may be what it is
There are questions in play about whether Cam Newton is at full health after missing time because of a shoulder injury in training camp, and he has looked like a shadow of his former self to this stage, with only Andy Dalton, Joe Flacco and DeShone Kizer having a lower passer rating; and also not much burst from his legs, with only 46 yards at 3.3 per carry. This does not all fall on his shoulders (literally and figuratively), however.
Losing Pro Bowl TE Greg Olsen was a significant blow, then on Sunday the Panthers played most of the game without No. 1 WR Kelvin Benjamin. It isn’t just a matter of those being the best Carolina talents at their positions, and major cogs in the scheme of the offense, but that the Panthers are perilously thin behind them. Ed Dickson is a solid blocker at TE but does not bring anywhere near Olsen’s abilities in the passing game and caught just one ball for nine yards vs. New Orleans. There isn’t much at all behind Benjamin (his MRI on Monday showed no structural damage, but he is no better than questionable for this week); the only passes caught by his replacements were a pair for five yards from rookie Curtis Samuel. If Benjamin can’t go this week, who starts: Samuel or undrafted free agents Damiere Byrd or Russell Shepard?
Newton had 19 completions on Sunday, nine to Christian McCaffrey. Outside of Delvin Funchess there isn’t anyone who opposing defenses will fear down the field, and Funchess isn’t all that dynamic. Much of the blame for the Panther struggles will be directed toward Newton, but there are problems galore that don’t bring an easy fix, even against the struggling defense they will face this week.
Item: It isn’t just about the OL struggling with the Seahawks
Pete Carroll admitted he had a problem after Seattle’s loss at Tennessee, when his defense was gashed for 420 yards at 6.7 per play. The best way for the Seahawks offense to work around a weak OL is to play fast, and Russell Wilson shines when they go up-tempo. But that tempo also means the Seattle defense having to be on the field too much, and in a game that produced a league-high 139 snaps that defense struggled mightily in the second half, allowing 24 points and 165 rushing yards.
Part of what the Seahawks need to be able to do is get their RBs in play in the ground game, regardless of the tempo, with only 15 of 72 plays being carries from that position for just 43 yards. But that is not news. What is news are the open frustrations of that defensive unit after Sunday’s poor showing.
Let’s go to something from safety Kam Chancellor that made the files, after he alluded to some “bickering” going on: “Yeah. Yeah, we’ll get to it. We were saying something when it first happened. And after while, if you start getting into it too much you start losing your energy and your focus. We said as much as we could say. In the end, everybody is their own man. Everybody’s got a part on this defense. And we’ve just got to do better. We’ve all got to do better.”
That leaves a couple of issues to follow going forward, both Carroll’s decisions regarding offensive tempo (don’t be shocked if he plays fast early this week, then backs off the throttle if a lead is established), and also whether the riff inside of the defensive huddle is something that can spur a better direction ahead, or whether they might be some fractures that are difficult to heal.
Item: Atlanta was -3 in turnovers, including a Pick-Six, and won
Sub-Item: Detroit was +3 in turnovers, including a Pick-Six, and lost
Yes, the Lions came awfully close to winning against the Falcons on Sunday, but to believe that the final play was the razor’s edge in a coin toss of a game creates a most misleading impression. Atlanta outplayed Detroit to the tune of 6.6 yards per play to 4.9, which is decisive, and was also enough to overcome the miscues.
How unlikely is it for the game outcome to be on the other side of that disparity? Courtesy of Warren Sharp, since 2011 teams that had a +3 advantage in turnovers, including one of the turnovers being returned for a touchdown, were 124-3. Now they are 124-4.
In terms of taking it forward, one of the keys addressed here last week was what Jarrad Davis means to the Detroit defense, and his absence was noticeable. But the flip side is more difficult to sort through.
One of the cardinal sins of QB play is to throw interceptions while in the lead, which Matt Ryan did three times, and it is an abomination to throw a Pick-Six when leading by double figures, which Ryan also did. It was poor game management by a guy who should know better, and it is something to file away regarding the comfort levels of this offense under Steve Sarkisian.
Item: Until the final drive, the Dolphins had 149 yards
The Miami offense looked every bit as bad on the field as the way the scoreboard and box score measured in the loss to the Jets, and in truth it should have been worse – they got their only points, and over one-third of their yards, on that closing drive over the final 2:15, which included Adam Gase calling a timeout with 0:06 left to get off one final snap and avoid a shutout.
Gase got right to the point on Monday: “I’m upset about the way our offense played. I’m just tired of watching it for two years. Just garbage. So, we’re going to figure something out. I'll find the guys that want to do it right, and those are the guys that will play.”
And more:"It's just surprising, some of the stuff we don't do right. We basically skimmed it back as much as we could over the last year. Trying to make it so we can play fast and [win favorable] matchups. We're not doing it, so we'll figure out a way to make adjustments."
I am not sure why Gase is “surprised.” Bringing Jay Cutler on board late was almost inevitably going to cause some transition problems, and even if Cutler plays well it still won’t flow smoothly. But then consider the logistics the team has been through, which exacerbates this – there hasn’t been anything resembling normalcy in the practice routine once they left for the west coast to avoid Hurricane Irma, and it won’t get any better with the London trip this week vs. the Saints. This is not a prime setting for a coach to be tinkering with his playbook and his depth chart.
I am going to take a lead and get in play with #251 New Orleans (Sunday, 9:30 AM Eastern) while there is still -2.5 to be had in the marketplace, an easy find in Nevada this morning, but becoming difficult elsewhere. I believe the Saints not only are far more cohesive than the Dolphins in terms of tactics at this stage, but the London trip also brings disparate concentration levels – they have already flown over, and are off next week, which puts the full focus on game-planning to win. Meanwhile, Miami has so many more details to work through, and even if all of the pieces do come together there remains the fact that the upside is limited with Cutler running the offense. There is no guarantee that any of the execution levels get better this week.
Item: Those Kansas City snap counts are at it again (don’t you dare get fooled)
I won’t delve too deeply into this because it has been discussed in the past, but for more you can go here on details of how the Chiefs focus on not turning the ball over, aggressively pursuing takeaways, and putting a high priority on special teams has led to some awkward tracking. Their baseline offensive and defensive numbers can be misleading largely because the KC style gives the opponents more opportunities – through the first four years of the Andy Reid era, the Chiefs defense was on the field for 255 more snaps than their offense.
So here comes 2017 and what do we find? More of the same.
KC offensive plays: 167
KC defensive plays: 211
So if someone tries to tell you that the Chiefs are overrated, because they are 3-0 despite being outgained by 85 yards, tell them to just go away.
KC offensive yards per play: 7.1
KC defense yards per play: 5.2
Given the scheduling and the stats, the Chiefs have been the NFL’s best team so far. Will they remain at that level? The talent isn’t quiet that good. The key is that understanding how they do it under Reid needs to be a part of your handicapping consciousness.
Item: I’ll get to the Bears on Thursday, but for those that need to grade the Steelers …
There are some fascinating subplots to Chicago-Green Bay on Thursday night, so I am going to lay them out in that day’s edition of PB. Part of that stems from fascinating subplots from Steelers-Bears on Sunday, so to get to work on re-evaluating Pittsburgh let’s lay it out.
The Steelers do have an issue on offense right now, and it stems from the top down – Ben Roethlisberger has looked old in the pocket, and his downfield accuracy in particular has not been there, while Le'Veon Bell is running like a guy who missed most of training camp and is just working his way into shape, which he is. Both of those elements should get better, though it may take some time.
It is the flip side of Sunday that leads to tricky grading. The Bears offense only did one thing right in that win, run stretch plays to Jordan Howard and Tarik Cohen. That was it. Mike Glennon only generated 84 yards on 24 dropbacks and had one completion to a WR the entire game, that for just nine yards to Deonte Thompson. But all they needed to do to win were run those stretch plays.
Howard/Cohen combined for 216 yards on 35 rush attempts, the overwhelming majority of that on stretch runs that got them to the perimeter of the defense. The Steelers simply never figured it out, and the game-winning drive in OT was absurdly easy, the last three runs totaling 73 yards.
From DE Cam Heyward:“It was the stretch and it was the cutback. It’s about filling gaps. Whether it was me or other people, sometimes we just didn’t make the tackle. If one person doesn’t take care of their gap, then we’re fried.”
And safety Mike Mitchell: “Terrible. We were undisciplined and out of our gaps.”
But now comes the question: How much do we downgrade the defense overall for not stopping a play that they will not see much at all from this week’s opponent? That brings a conundrum.
As for the Bears, the matchup of those power runs into the Dom Capers Nitro is utterly fascinating. I apologize for making you wait for it, but in truth I want to do some reading between the lines from the Packers this week before going into detail and am wondering how much of their scheme they might change up, which is difficult on a short week. Such are the notions that get pondered over lunch.
Vegas: Monday with the Review-Journal NFL box score page
The Las Vegas food scene, and especially my own taste buds, got elevated when a branch of Chengdu Taste, the original in L.A.’s San Gabriel Valley called the best Sichuan restaurant in America by Kenji Lopez-Alt of Serious Eats, opened two years ago, and it has been a staple for me since (their exquisite Mapo Tofu has shown up in this very column in the past). So the fingers had also been crossed that an outpost of the noodle shop Mian, owned by the same folks and properly praised by Jonathan Gold (for my money the long-time #1 on the food reviewer power ratings), would also find its way to our fair city. It has, at 4355 Spring Mountain Road, about a mile from Chengdu Taste, and it has already lived it up to the reputation.
A former manager of Chengdu Taste is running the place, which made the transition easier, and the menu is filled with various takes on proper Sichuan noodles, not just in the spicing, but also the attention to detail in the texture of the noodles themselves. They are not merely there to off-set the spice, but bring dimensions of their own, which they do.
Be warned – these bowls are not for the faint of heart. As one would expect from the folks of Chengdu, it is Sichuan cooking at its purest, which means a reliance on the namesake peppercorns and chilies from the region to deliver a special level of fire. What they aim for is a balance in that heat, something that overpowers many palates, but if yours can stand up to it there is a complexity in play that is profound.
My favorite so far is Beef with Pickled Chiles, a vibrant broth that crosses a wide spectrum of flavors, with also that subtle numbing effect from the peppercorns. The quality of the noodles brings a balance to it, allowing for an extra layer of acidity from the peppers, and it is addictive. They will also bring you a bowl of pickled cabbage and what is called “mung bean soup,” but is actually a sweetened tea-like drink that helps cool the palate from the spices. Want extra noodles? Just ask, they come at no charge, but you likely won’t need them.
I don’t worry about cleansing the palate from the mung beans because so many of my Chinatown lunches have an automatic before I return to the desk – I have not found a better way to transition the taste buds from garlic/chilies and other Asian spices than a trip to iconic Ronald’s Donuts (4600 Spring Mountain).
Ronald’s is predominantly vegan (the upper two shelves in the case), but you wouldn’t know that from the taste if I didn’t tell you. Their version of a Boston crème has been my palette cleanser on perhaps a hundred visits through the years, and it was again on Monday.
Your first instinct when you read about vegan pastries might be of some young hipster place, but that is not the story at all – Janie and Henry Kang are Buddhist, so the offerings come from their beliefs, and not just an idea they thought they could make a buck off of. As such there is a high level of integrity that goes into the products, and to understand how remarkable their presence has been in this community, Ronald’s will be celebrating a 25th anniversary next June. Yes, they were open long before there was any such thing as a Chinatown. Those of us that live here consider both the owners, and what is in those cases, to be a treasure.
And if you want to know when PB is ready to go each day, as well as following along for some of the most important Sports Betting news as in unfolds, make @Vegaspointblank a part of your routine.