What a 'Bettor Better Know' about lousy QB play in the NFL, and some OL issues getting even worse. ... In World Series Game 1, the heat really is on Kershaw & Keuchel.
I’ll be deviating from the usual all-NFL Tuesday edition to get Game 1 of the World Series into play, and in this case it adds a needed dignity – how about a pair of 100+ win teams going head-to-head after a weekend of professional football that brought some truly abysmal offense. Yes, you can credit some of that to good defensive play, but not all, which will be a prime topic this week.
The first pitch tonight also brings another opportunity to pay tribute to Eric Strasser, who had been known as Palmtree in the Point Blank community over the years and brought us such terrific insight across the MLB diamonds, in particular around this time. We lost our friend a couple of months ago, but his memory will be in the front of the consciousness when they yell “Play Ball” this evening, and to bring back some of the memories this week’s NFL lunch was at one of our favorite haunts. I’ll get to that in a moment, but first let’s begin with the kind of dialog he and I often had: At one point do we accept a performance pattern as being a reality, and not an outlier calling for regression?
Item: World Series Game 1, the Heat is On (literally) for Dallas Keuchel and Clayton Kershaw
There was record heat across southern California on Monday, including 102 degrees in downtown Los Angeles, which is projected to reach triple digits again today. The best guess forecast for first pitch in Chavez Ravine is for around 98-99 degrees, the all-time high for a World Series game (Yankees-Diamondbacks played one at 94). That heat will make the ball carry a little better and also tax the abilities of the starting pitchers to work deep into the game, and that matters here because both Keuchel and Kershaw bring more vulnerability than the way the game is being priced. You can play Over 7 at +110 in the morning marketplace, and at +105 or better I will be in play.
I can start with what would be the kind of philosophical discourse Eric and I would often have about whether performance numbers were a pattern that could be followed in their directions for a particular pitcher or a candidate for regression. Here is the gist: there isn’t really anything about Keuchel that would point him out as a candidate for a major home-away split. He is one of the best ground-ball guys in the majors, including a rather spectacular 66.8 GB% this season, which is the best single-season my records show of pitchers that worked at least 140 innings. Ground-ballers tend to bring more of a home/away consistency, their specialty not impacted by the different outfield dimensions across various venues.
But it has now been 517 career innings at home for Keuchel, and 467.2 on the road, and here we are heading into tonight:
Category Home Away
W/L 36-21 28-31
ERA 2.94 4.43
BB/9 2.3 2.7
HR/9 0.6 1.2
That is a pronounced gap, in particular the home run allowance being double what it has been at Minute Maid Park. While that ballpark does play a role in run prevention, and contributes to Keuchel’s splits, his Home/Away gap is more than a half run higher than all other Houston pitchers across this span.
Why do seemingly illogical patterns hold up longer than they should? Often it can be because they get into the head of a performer, and for those who read here daily you know how much emphasis is put into the confidence level of players. Keuchel did manage to go 8-2 in personal decisions on the road this season, where the allowance was lowered to 3.53, but when compared to his 2.26 at Minute Maid Park that was not far off of his career gap, and the home run counts were even wider, a 0.5 at home vs. a 1.3 on the road.
Will Keuchel be more confident tonight than in the past from a foreign mound? It remains a valid question. The Astros lefty was dominant in two home playoff games, a 2-0/0.71, but in the only road outing he couldn’t finish the fifth inning in Yankee Stadium, leaving with the Astros down 4-0.
And then there is Kershaw, the best pitcher of his generation, and a candidate to be considered the best of all time. Except there are genuine questions about his current form, both in terms of effectiveness and also how deeply he can work this evening.
Since returning from the DL on Sept. 1 it has been a 3.71 ERA over nine appearances, none of them lasting longer than 100 pitches, and only once did Kershaw finish the seventh inning. He averaged less than one full strikeout per inning across that span, and allowed 11 home runs, at least one leaving the park in each of the last eight outings. In three playoff games it has been a 3.63 allowance, again with less than a strikeout per inning pitcher (16 across 17.1 frames), and with six home runs given up.
These two offenses were #1 (Astros at 33.0) and #2 (Dodgers at 30.1) in offensive WAR this season, I believe this total is too low given the punch that they bring, the Tuesday heat and the fact that neither starter may be at the top of their game, and that is enough to get in play at this price point.
Now on to the offensive ugliness that continues to be 2017 NFL. …
Item: The QB play was pretty sad this weekend, and now may get even worse
Both watching the games and doing the postmortem grading afterwards was a gruesome process this week in the NFL. There were so many elements out of the ordinary, perhaps the most prominent being that a half-dozen teams finished at 3.3 or less on NYA, or Net Yards Per Pass Attempt, a calculation that includes sacks as pass plays. That is unheard of, and there really should have been a seventh with the Bears – Mitch Trubisky connected to a 70-yard play to Tarik Cohen, and on the other 10 dropbacks it was a net of 15 measly yards.
So where are we now that the midway point is nearing? It is the same story that has been in play since the start of the season – not enough good QBs and OL to go around. And with guys like Carson Palmer and Jay Cutler (yes, he matters just a bit, but I will save Dolphins-Ravens for a deep dive on Thursday), being lost at QB, and Joe Thomas, Trent Williams, Larry Warford, Brandon Scherff and Jason Peters in the OL, it gets worse instead of better.
Let me set a perspective that explains it best: How many teams do not have what I would grade as a true NFL starter as the season reaches the mid-point. Would you believe almost one third of the league? Let me list them alphabetically: Arizona, Chicago, Cleveland, Denver, Green Bay, Indianapolis, Miami, Minnesota, NY Jets and San Francisco.
Baltimore’s Joe Flacco barely avoids that list, and yes I include Trubisky there, but not Houston rookie Deshaun Watson. Which of the two will be best in the long-term remains a question, but for now I believe Watson is ready, while the Chicago rookie needs some work.
That is a lengthy list, and it brings some challenges ahead for the handicapper. You can see an impact of this play across the board, the NFL Passer Rating going from 88.4 in 2015 to 87.6 last season, and now down to 86.1. Those are the cards being dealt as we break down the 2017 campaign, and one of the prime tasks in grading each game is how much we weight outcomes as having been Good Defense or Bad Offense. That takes us to Pittsburgh to begin the tour. …
Item: Is there a steel curtain being built again in Pittsburgh?
Sub-Item: Is the Bill Lazor honeymoon already over?
The Steelers have had three games now with all defensive starters on hand, and it is time to take notice. There was the statistical blight of Leonard Fournette’s 90-yard touchdown burst against them, but there can be a proper * for that, with the run taking place with Jacksonville leading by 14 points with less than 2:00 remaining. Outside of that, it has been a series of outstanding efforts, shackling Kansas City on the road about as well as it is going to be done this season, and then playing an almost flawless second half against the Bengals on Sunday.
When I factor interceptions in, which is a key part of my ratings, Andy Dalton and the Bengals were held to less than one yard per pass attempt. The Pittsburgh grading for the second half was spotless -- erase of a final kneel-down by Dalton on the last play that I don’t track, and Cincinnati gained 20 yards in 20 plays, with Dalton getting sacked four times and being intercepted twice. A big chunk of the positive yardage was an 8-yard escape by Dalton that could have been the fifth sack.
As is the case with all games, it does have to be viewed two ways – there is the good of what the Steelers did, an emerging storyline, but also the crash of a Bengals offense that had shown some promise in the first couple of games under the direction of Bill Lazor through a change in tactics, but those games also providing Mike Tomlin and Keith Butler with something to see on film.
The issue for the Bengals was and remains working around a weak OL, Dalton getting sacked at a 9.1 percent clip this season, far above this 5.8 career norm. Getting the ball out quickly worked against some opponents that had not game-planned for it, but now that opponents have seen it, does Lazor have a counter?
And if the new OC didn’t face enough pressure, there came this from rookie RB Joe Mixon: “Yeah, that’s frustrating. I felt like [Le'Veon] Bell got the ball 35 times. I get it seven. All in the first half, then don’t touch the ball again. Jeremy got the one touch in the second half. It was frustrating to us running backs. We are in the room and feel like we are a part of the offense. It worked in the first half, why not in the second?... “I only got seven carries. I can’t showcase nothing if I don’t get the ball. There ain’t nothing else I can say.”
That is naturally a distraction that an already troubled situation does not need, and Marvin Lewis was on point when he said that Mixon needs to “show a little maturity.” As for Lazor, the new OC had to tiptoe a bit across his response:"In the last two games that we won somewhere between probably two and five of our skill position players were probably pissed at me after the game and it's between two and five. It's just the fact. That's NFL football. Not everyone is going to be happy with their touches all the time."
The Bengals may have a fragile offense both tactically and in terms of their psyche right now, though fortunately they have the Colts coming to town, the only team threatening New England for the bottom of the Yards Per Play defense charts. So naturally we go to the Patriots win over Atlanta next. …Item: Will the Atlanta season disappear into a fog?
Sub-Item: How much credit do we give to the Patriots defense for making a few big plays, but not many small ones?
To say that Atlanta is in a fog right now, having gone from Super Bowl to 3-3, and with those near-miss endings at Chicago and Detroit having them precariously near a 1-5, is not just a cheap excuse to bring in this photo from Sunday night in Foxboro.
There indeed is a major psychological factor in play with a team that has done a lot of things right this season, but has not maximized. That creates the awkward mindset issue – from a play-by-play standpoint the production is almost identical, the Falcons a net +1.1 yards better than their opponents in 2016, and sitting on that same +1.1 now, a 6.7-5.6 in 2016 vs. a 6.2-5.1 this season.
A young defense that has been drafting players to fit Dan Quinn’s schemes has indeed improved, while the offense has fallen off. But on balance, +1.1 is not a bad place to be. Except for this – in 2016 that gap in yards led to a net of +134 points in the regular season; so far in 2017 the Falcons are -4 on the scoreboard. What they did last season was maximize their opportunities; what is happening now is a major failure on that very front. They gained 6.1 yards per play at New England, did not have a turnover and only allowed one sack. Somehow that was only turned into seven points.
Now the question: Is this a talented team that was more than good enough to win the championship last year, and can get the scoreboards to correlate to that YPP gap the rest of this season, or is this one that is a bit fragile because there wasn’t a winning legacy before 2016, the three previous seasons having been a combined 18-30?
Usually I start with the top down to measure this kind of setting, which means the coaching and the QB. I have written often enough the concerns about OC Steve Sarkisian, and the failure to maximize the offense does fall largely on his shoulders, but I like Quinn, and his ability to steady the ship becomes a prime focus point. This made the files, I believe a HC bringing the right mindset:
“No. 1, they are really a resilient group. Of course, like any competitor, they’re (ticked) because we know we have a higher standard that we want to play to. So when you don’t attain that, you get disappointed. The preparation and the process, that they go through to get ready has been on point, but we are not executing at the level that we can. That’s what we are going to work (on) like crazy to get right. They do recognize that they are their own extension of each other.”
But as for Matt Ryan, perhaps there is the biggest psychological block of all, especially as he keeps reading/hearing across the Sports Mediaverse about the decline from 2016. Here is the problem – there really has not been a decline from Ryan, who has simply gone out and been who he is this season. What needs to be done is have 2016 accepted as having been an outlier, and the best way to set perspective for that is to look at Passer Rating and Yards Per Pass across his career:
Season PR YPP
2008 87.7 7.9
2009 80.9 6.5
2010 91.0 6.5
2012 99.1 7.4
2013 89.6 7.7
2014 93.9 6.9
2015 89.0 7.5
2016 117.1 9.3
2017 89.3 7.8
The 2017 Ryan has pretty much been the Ryan he has been over the past decade, except for one magic carpet ride. Is the self-perception worse than it should be because of the that arc to the Super Bowl? This is something he needs to get under control, because his leadership will be a crucial factor over the weeks ahead.
As for the Patriots defense, was it good on Sunday or just opportunistic? There were four different trips to the red zone by the Atlanta offense in which no points were scored, which is a major challenge in terms of determining degrees of merit and blame. For most of the game the New England defense wasn’t special, only forcing two punts without generating a turnover, and for the season 30 of the other 31 teams are giving up at least a full half yard less per play. The jury remains out with this group, but unlike the waning confidence of the Falcons, this defense likely believes they are better than they have been, which does matter going forward.
Item: The Browns are a true mess, except for that rush defense
Sub-Item: What if Joe Thomas does not come back at all?
Should a seminar on interpreting Bad Offense/Good Defense ever need to take place in a formal setting, a video of Tennessee 12, Cleveland 9 would be the showcase, the teams going to a full overtime extension without a touchdown being scored. When the Browns had the ball it was mostly bad offense, the shuffling at QB arguably making things worse instead of better, and now there is a genuine fear for that unit going forward – the Pro Bowl left tackle Thomas isn’t just out for the remainder of the season, but may not play again. Do not underestimate how much that means for a team that badly needs not only his physical abilities at LT, but his leadership.
There are no immediate answers for the offense, which could have Cody Kessler as the starting QB this week. That group has only reached 20 points once all season and doesn’t have much hint of direction. But there is something interesting happening on the other side of the ball.
The Cleveland defense front has been salty this season, putting up some resistance even before Myles Garrett was able to take the field, and that front four of Garrett, Emmanuel Ogbah, Danny Shelton and Trevon Coley is showing a lot of upside. Garrett and Shelton were first-round picks and Ogbah a second-rounder, and all four starters are relative newcomers to the league.
Despite getting little help from their offense, the Browns are tied with Denver for fewest yards per rush allowed at 3.0, holding up despite the work load (#23 in rush attempts faced). They maintained a solid wall against a potent Titans ground game on Sunday, holding them to 80 yards at 2.5 per attempt. There may be a legitimate strength emerging here that can fly below the radar screens of the marketplace.
Item: What now for the Redskins OL?
The dearth of quality offensive linemen around the league has been a talking point many times this season, and the lack of depth at the position also means that there are no easy fixes anywhere as injuries accumulate. That makes this a troubling week for Washington, not only facing a short turnaround from Monday night before hosting Dallas in a key NFC East game, but likely having to do it with a lot of shuffling up front.
In the final drives vs. Philadelphia on Monday, the Redskins had every available OL left on the field. I don’t have any answers regarding the status of various players this morning, but as a major story line to follow the rest of the week there were injuries to both tackles, Trent Williams and Morgan Moses, guard Brandon Scherff and center Spencer Long. Scherff’s injury appears to be the most serious, but Williams may be the most important. He has been held out of practice the past two weeks because of a knee injury, which he aggravated last night, and now faces the prospect of missing a key game.
The markets don’t always grade OL injuries with the weight they deserve, especially when there is a cluster in play, so there will be a lot of digging for info from Washington over the remainder of the week.
Item: How do we properly grade Panthers-Bears?
This game brings one of the most challenging grading aspects we will ever have to diagnose. One of the issues I bring into play regularly is that sorting for defensive or special teams touchdowns requires work on two ends, and too many handicappers only go halfway through the process. Yes, you reduce the scoreboard down for fluky plays that aren’t terribly predictive. But when that happens you also must adjust the box scores as well, those scoring plays depriving the team that made them of a possession, and putting the offense from the opposition right back on the field.
Hence we get the kind of jumble that Chicago 17, Carolina 3 creates, the Bears getting both of their TDs on long returns by rookie safety Eddie Jackson, who went 76 yards with an interception and 75 with a fumble. The box score is a mess that shows first downs 20-5 for the Panthers and total offense 293-153, which looks like domination, except that it really wasn’t when you get to yards per play being 4.2 to 4.1.
So that is where you leave it, right? Carolina really didn’t dominate, but instead benefited in the overall stats by a monstrous edge of 69 plays to 37, and didn’t really do anything better with the plays than Chicago did. Not quite. This one requires another layer.
Trubisky and the Bears offense were terrible. It wasn’t about not getting opportunities, it was about not doing anything with them. Where the added focus needs to go is a 70-yard pass to RB Tarik Cohen out of the backfield, a somewhat fluky play because it was not designed to go for anywhere near that. Remove it and the other 36 Chicago snaps produced just 83 yards. And from a passing standpoint, as noted earlier it means that the other 10 Trubisky dropbacks went for just 15.
The Bears ran horribly, netting just 2.6 per attempt. The passing attack had awful production, outside of one play. They were not limited to the low play count purely by the defensive scores, they limited themselves by not being able to stay on the field.
As for Carolina, the more I see of the offense the less impressed I am with OC Mike Shula. Cam Newton is having an inconsistent season with his physical play, which naturally is the catalyst for the offense, but what I continue to notice is how much reliance there is on him making plays. I am not seeing the offense create mismatches or opportunities via design, which is something that goes beyond what can be gathered from the box scores.
That is why there is so much focus on the proper grading, in terms of putting all of the elements of the sport together, but of course sitting down on Mondays to go through those boxes on the page, instead of the computer screen, remains a rite of passage across each season. …
Vegas: Monday with the Review-Journal NFL Box Score page
As noted in the opening, I decided to make this week’s box score lunch a sentimental one – when Palmtree and I were gathering for lunch it was more often than not at Weiss Deli (2744 North Green Valley Parkway). But I don’t just go there now for sentimental reasons, I go because their “Manny Weiss” is one of my favorite sandwiches in the city.
The Manny Weiss is an over-stuffed classic, consisting of Nova Lox, Whitefish Salad, cream cheese, lettuce, tomato, red onion and capers, all on good rye bread. It works so well not just because of the quality of the individual ingredients, but also the way they come together through a great mix of flavors and textures. There is a lot going on, and while it is a challenge to pull it off, if you can get everything into a single bite it is special. You’ll also get the requisite pickle, half of a pickled green tomato, and I usually opt for potato salad or cole slaw as the side, washed my down with a Dr. Brown’s cream soda. There isn’t a better pairing than that.
I have never been able to finish a sandwich at Weiss, though Palmtree could sweep through them like a well-turned 6-4-3 double play, and one of the bonuses about the Manny Weiss is that one of the wedges will hold up for a few hours in the fridge to become dinner. They are aware that their customers do that, so the layering does not have the tomatoes touching the bread, which prevents it from getting soggy.
I may just have to make Weiss an annual for the Monday before the World Series begins each year (when the temperature is cool bringing home a quart of their cabbage soup), and fond memories of the many baseball arguments that took place across those tables.
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