A 'Bettor Better Know' that there are major changes in grading for the Houston defense, the Jets are who we think they are, and there goes most of Ben McAdoo's menu...
It is a bit of a mess sorting through the NFL this week, with several major injuries that will not just impact the immediate power ratings, but long-term mood for several teams, and sorting through some of the rubble is important because of the challenge of the board ahead – there is the rare prospect of a half dozen games with point spreads higher than a full touchdown (assuming a healthy Marcus Mariota for Monday night), a few of them stretching into double figures.
Time to roll up the sleeves and get to work, although I will save one of the prime topics, the major turnaround in Cam Newton’s form now that he has had the time to play his way into shape, for a Thursday lead, when Panthers/Eagles come front and center.Item: What now for the Texans defense
In Friday’s weekend edition there was a take focusing on the proper evaluation of the Houston defense through the first four games of the season, that group playing much better than in 2016, even though some of the simpler tracking measures (cough…yards per game, cough…) would not show that. Now it becomes a scramble, as the Texans once again face life without J.J. Watt.
They accounted themselves pretty well without Watt in 2016, but you can’t get too caught up in that because this is an entirely different scenario, with Whitney Mercilus also lost for the season and Brian Cushing in the midst of his 10-game suspension. If someone had made the case in the pre-season that those were three of the top four Houston defenders, with Jadeveon Clowney fitting into that order somewhere, they would get no argument from me.
This is not just a talent downgrade for the defense, but perhaps the triple crown of Talent/Leadership/Tactics, and it creates a major challenge for Romeo Crennel. Crennel has been working around Cushing’s absence by getting good work out of rookie LB Zach Cunningham, with fellow rookie Dylan Cole also seeing a lot of playing time, but starting a pair of rookies at that position group brings obvious playbook limitations. Today they’ll be working out free agent Lamarr Houston, who the Bears chose to make an injury settlement with rather than bring him back off suffering a torn ACL in 2016.
Clowney and others made the anticipated comments about the emotional impact of losing those leaders, but he also snuck in the key: “A lot of our game-planning is built around those two.” Yet there is a small sliver of a silver lining – a limited Cleveland offense comes to town this week, and then there is a bye to provide Crennel and Bill O’Brien with time to re-toll the schemes based on who is available.
O’Brien is well aware of the challenge: "It is what it is. It's going to take an effort by a lot of different people to fill those roles. Guys are going to have to step in. It's going to be a lot of different guys."
Pending the possibility of Houston getting signed, I have not done my final charting yet, but this downgrade will be substantial. Without digging deeper just yet I cannot recall the last time any team had three former Pro Bowl defenders out at the same time, and it matters, even more, when one of them may well be the best defensive player in the league. Perhaps an even worse plight is the Giants offense because there is also a lack of optimism to turn it around.Item: Ben McAdoo only needs a cocktail napkin now, not that Denny’s menu
I am not sure if there is a sequence of events out there for McAdoo to hang on to his job, and it would not be a surprise if his dismissal comes during the upcoming bye in two weeks when the Giants will be 0-7. At this point, the power ratings challenge is that there is not a damn thing that McAdoo, or any coach, could do to make this offense work.
The season began with a major challenge for that offense. We can go back to that team-by-team tour, which noted that the Giants might have the NFLs worst group of RBs, and even in a modern era that has opened the doors for the passing game, there needs to be at least a semblance of an ability to run. In opening 0-5 the offense has managed only 69.4 rushing yards per game from the RB position.
There was the hope they could make up for that with one of the most dynamic WR trios in the NFL, Odell Beckham, Brandon Marshall and Sterling Shepard. Those three are all injured now, and if we rate this week’s starting offenses around the league, the 11 players in the Giants huddle are almost assuredly the worst group.
How bad was it on Sunday? With Dwayne Harris also injured, the closing drive featured the only available WR left, Roger Lewis, and three tight ends. Lewis is only in his second year, an undrafted free agent that made the cut in 2016, and is not going to beat #1 cover corners, like the next two matchups against Harris/Talib and Sherman. Joining the cast so far this week is free agent Tavarres King, and Travis Rudolph has been elevated from the practice squad, but there isn’t much upside there.
McAdoo is blunt, and also practical - “Everyone is disappointed; I’m aware of it. Everyone is irritated; I’m aware of it. My focus right now is trying to help with the personnel department to field a football team this week to give us a chance to win.”
There are no offensive schemes available to make this work, especially in a hostile environment against one of the NFL’s best defenses. That challenge for the handicapper is to find the best option from the Giants/Broncos wagering menu to make it work.
Meanwhile, folks are getting excited about the other team from New York, but they shouldn’t be…Item: Could the Jets become the first team ever to go from 3-2 to 3-13
There is a certain sporting whimsy in looking at the NFL standings and seeing the Jets tied for first place at 3-2. There will be even more to come over the course of the week, as the Gotham media sets up the “showdown for the AFC East lead” as the Patriots come to town. Yet as I do my charting the Jets may well still be who the markets thought they were at the beginning of the season, with one of the lowest Season Win totals of any non-expansion teams ever. It leads to a genuine question – might Sunday’s win over the Browns be the last they get this season?
The Jets were mostly terrible at Cleveland. They were nearly doubled up in total offense, 419-212. They were out-rushed 140-34, They lost the yards per play 6.0 to 4.2. The passing game netted only 178 yards on 33 drop-backs, while the pass defense made Kevin Hogan (16-19-194, with one interception and two TD passes) look like a first-round draft choice. They also committed nine penalties for 80 yards. But they got a win because on this day the Browns turned the ball over three times, and rookie kicker Zane Gonzalez missed two field goals.
Now let’s put the three-game win streak in perspective. Miami was in an awkward travel spot and had Jay Cutler at QB (#30 in passer rating at 74.8). Jacksonville was in an awkward travel spot, and had Blake Bortles at QB #26 at 78.2). Cleveland is Cleveland and started DeShone Kizer (#32 at 49.5).
Now the schedule picks up, and the Jets will likely be the underdogs the next 13 games. They could easily lose all of them. The question for this week is how much they will lose by, and because that one brings a fascination let’s get right to it.Item: Is Tom Brady getting sacked more often OK if it is the result of deeper passes being thrown (and how much of this is Nate Solder?)
I like looking towards power teams when they are being threatened enough by upstarts that they take those inferior opponents seriously. All Bill Belichick needs are the current standings to make sure his team brings the proper concentration level. There is a tactical issue on paper, however – the one strength the Jets do have is a defensive front that has some playmakers, and the sack rate for Tom Brady has jumped precipitously this season. Should that be a cause for concern, not only this week but with the New England offense overall?
Let’s start with the numbers. Brady has already been sacked as many times through five games (16) as he did in the dozen he played in 2016 (15), and by percentage, it has gone from 3.4 to 7.6. That looks ominous, doesn’t it? But some of that has to be attributed to football being football – the 2016 sack% was the second lowest of his career, an unlikely occurrence at his age, and was going to be difficult to maintain. Let’s also attribute some of it to the changing faces at WR, which not only has meant some assimilation issues, but also the football reality that the current group is running deeper patterns – the 12.8 per completion this season is #2 in Brady’s career, and more than a half yard above the 12.2 of 2016.
The wildcard in this is LT Nate Solder, who has had a poor season so far. He has allowed Brady to be hit at least once from his position in every game, including three sacks, and in each of the past three games, there were multiple hits allowed. When players in the skill positions miss practice time and need to work their way back into playing rhythm, there is a high degree of visibility, something I will detail with Newton on Thursday. But Solder didn’t play in the pre-season because of an ankle injury, and a case could be made that it has left him behind in his season development. That will lead to some reading between the lines this week, with the temptation to pull a trigger with the Patriots vs. the Jets at hand.Item: Yes we have to talk about Ben Roethlisberger againSub-Item: Big Ben was so terrible that Blake Bortles was allowed to be Blake Bortles
“Maybe I don’t have it anymore.”
Those were the words splashed across much of the Sports Mediaverse after Roethlisberger had a simply disastrous game vs. Jacksonville, one in which the eye test was every bit as bad as the numbers indicated. I don’t want to be too redundant because his struggles have already been a topic here, but it was his own psyche in the post-game that brings it front-and-center. Much like a baseball pitcher, confidence is huge for a QB, and Big Ben’s crisis on that front comes before a difficult road showdown at Kansas City, and then a home challenge against a Cincinnati defense playing about as well as any in the league.
While so much focus will go to Sunday’s awful showing, it is time for the reminder that it was not a one-off, a gradual decline in Roethlisberger’s down-field accuracy beginning in 2016:
There may not be any snapping back to form, but instead an acceptance that the skills have diminished. The rest of the offense still is as talented as any, so there remains a tantalizing ability, so there is a real challenge of sorting through just how much the QB position is costing the team.
I bring this up because we also need to view Roethlisberger’s Sunday struggles based on what it allowed Blake Bortles to get away with. Bortles and the Jaguars offense were dismal in last week’s loss to the Jets, when they could manage only a field goal on their final 10 possessions, that coming on a short drive after a turnover. On Sunday the game situation was such that Bortles only threw one pas the entire second half, and the 90-yard scamper for a TD by Leonard Fournette represented 28.6 of their yardage production for the game. Without that run it was a miserly 4.3 per play, a week after they generated just 4.1 against the Jets.
Bortles did not have to throw much vs. the Steelers, but when he did it didn’t work anyway, just 82 net yards on 16 drop-backs, including an interception. There is a lot of optimism in Jacksonville right now, the defense playoff-worthy and Fournette bringing life to the ground game. Yet what has held them back in the past may be what will still be holding them back going forward, a lack of leadership and production from the key position on the field.Item: Time to be careful with Seahawks/Rams assumptions
It didn’t take long for the Sports Mediaverse to play back to the past when Seattle 16 LAR 10 went final, including the likes of “The Seahawks showed them who the real class of the NFC West still is” and “The Rams are still who we thought they were”. It is easy to fall into judgments like that because the stories basically write themselves.
But consider this – had that throw from Jared Goff to Cooper Kupp in the final minute been perhaps just an inch closer to Kupp’s hands, the Rams would have won a game in which they had a -3 turnover differential. Or the flip side, the Seahawks would have lost a game with a +3. Imagine how different the mood in the end zone would have been.
The Rams won the net yards per pass (counting sacks) 5.6 to 4.4. They won the yards per rush 4.5 to 2.5. Total offense was 375-241. But turnovers were 5-2, and they were substantial turnovers. It began on the opening possession when Earl Thomas managed to strip the ball from Todd Gurley near the goal line, the play originally being ruled a touchdown and then being reversed to a touchback instead.
That was one of four possessions in which the Rams reached the red zone without scoring a point. As such one needs to be careful with making any assumptions off of that scoreboard – the deeper digging may show a more important truth for each of the teams, in particular a Seattle ground game that only managed 39 yards on 19 attempts by RBs, despite that being the weakness of the LAR defense heading into the game.
It is also time to challenge assumptions about the Raiders…Item: About those Jack Del Rio gambles of 2016
Del Rio has generally seemed to be a conservative coach before a few of his moves led the Raiders to wins in some close games in 2016. When it was time to focus on them in our team-by-team tour back in August those details were laid out, with a rather fortunate ride taking a slightly above average team to 11-5. Much of that naturally got put on the shoulders of the HC, but was it good coaching, or just good fortune?
I bring it up because now there is a crisis of confidence emerging in Oakland, which can happen to a team that wasn’t as good as their record, but genuinely didn’t know that. As they find that out they naturally look to Del Rio for leadership, but the jury is still out on that front, in particular after his game management vs. Baltimore on Sunday.
The Raiders weren’t playing well on either side of the ball, but were still in the game with 8:58 remaining, down 27-17, and facing a fourth-and-three at the Ravens 44-yard line. Get the first down, turn the drive into either a FG or a TD, and it becomes a one-score game with more than enough time left for traditional football strategies to play out.
Instead, Del Rio punted, which was curious enough, but in terms of leadership skills, it was how he defended the decision that raised additional flags - “Hindsight is always 20/20 on things like that. You’re thinking you’re going to pin them inside the 20. We didn’t. You’re thinking the defense will give us a stop and get the ball back. We didn’t. We get the ball back after having to call timeouts on the plus side of the field. It didn’t go anything like what it needed to. A fourth-down call with nine minutes left in the game, was that the difference today? I don’t think so.”
Here was the problem – Del Rio’s strategy was to count on a defense to make a stop that had already allowed four scoring drives of 70 yards or more, including their last time on the field, when the Ravens went 72 yards in 12 plays for a field goal.
What happened next? Marquette King punted into the end zone, which you can’t blame the coach for. But the Baltimore offense kept the ball for 13 plays and 6:26 of valuable clock time before adding another three points. There was no possibility of the Raiders winning the game from that point, no possible sequence of realistic events.
Oakland may get Derek Carr back at QB this week, but there are problems to solve across the board. Amari Cooper needs to get his confidence back, as noted in a lead topic last week (he was a non-factor against Baltimore, with one catch for eight yards). Marshawn Lynch is only averaging 3.4 yards per carry. A lousy pass defense in 2016 is a lousy pass defense in 2017, #30 in Passer Rating allowed and #29 in net yards per attempt, despite having faced Joe Flacco, Trevor Siemian and Josh McCown along the way. It will take some strong and savvy leadership to solve the issues, and despite what happened in 2016, Del Rio’s ability to get this done is an open question.
Will Del Rio even be the Oakland coach when the Raiders get to Las Vegas in a few years? It would be a shame for him to miss out because you can get some creative pizza around this city.Las Vegas: Monday with the Review-Journal NFL box score page
One of the most pleasant aspects of living in Las Vegas is the diversity of the culinary scene and the easy access to so many options. So when it was time to combine several factors into the Monday location, wanting Astros/Red Sox on in the background while a cool morning was drifting the taste buds towards autumn, it was easy to find a proper setting.
Tony Gemignani is one of the better pizza guys on the planet, someone that brings a passion for the product, but also the vision to add layers of the invention while respecting tradition (and often it is the respect of tradition that is one of the best foundations for creativity). When he opened Pizza Rock as his first Las Vegas location, after launching his culinary career in the Bay area (he was born and raised on a farm in Fremont), it was a major win for the city, and you can also get a taste of his products at Pizza Rock (Green Valley Ranch) and Little Tony’s (Palace Station).
It is the Pizza Rock location downtown that beckons often when watching a sporting event is part of the plan, and the tie-in for Monday was to try one of Gemignani’s creations, an “Oktober Feast” Brown Butter Sage and Bacon Pizza (Malted Stout Dough, Mozzarella, Bacon, Prosciutto de Parma, Micro Arugula, Brown Butter and Sage).
You can see not only the creativity at play, but also the quality of ingredients, starting with a marvelous crust, and the individual components were first-rate. Because of the boldness of the flavors, it would have been even better as a dinner item, paired to a Rogue Hazelnut Brown or a porter (there is an extensive beer/wine list), but for lunch, Joe’s Root Beer, produced locally by the Joseph James Brewing Company, held its own.
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