What a 'Bettor Better Know' - NFL Week 8 and World Series Game 6

Point Blank Thumbnail Tuesday

David Malinsky

Tuesday, October 31, 2017 3:04 PM GMT

Tuesday, Oct. 31, 2017 3:04 PM GMT

What a 'Bettor Better Know' across NFL Week 8 and World Series Game 6. ... For many of the key issues who to bless and who to blame is crucial so cue up some classic Kristofferson...

Point Blank – October 31, 2017

Will this be the last time to bring baseball unto focus until next March? There is a part of me that hopes not, because of the extravaganza that Game 7 could provide, with some worn out pitching staffs leading A.J. Hinch and Dave Roberts to try to pull some rabbits out of a hat. They may already face some of that this evening, though the discussions of Game 6 take a plot twist – it isn’t just about the players and managers now, but the baseballs as well.

The nature of the Game 6 discussion, as well as various takes from this week’s NFL action, brought to mind a running theme, and since it is another long read the jukebox will get plugged in for a Tuesday appearance. In sorting through many of today’s notions it is the subtle difference between who is the bless, and who is to blame, for the outcomes, and that takes us over to the great Kris Kristofferson.

If I ever do put together some kind of seminar on sports handicapping, the opening would not be about statistics or sports at all, but instead a class assignment to go listen to some Kristofferson for a while, to try to develop the necessary mindset needed to navigate across waters that are rarely calm. This is not a long-play to extend across your reading today, and I couldn’t find a live version anywhere, but for a better understanding of life in general, and the balancing act of sporting outcomes in particular, this is a classic -

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First the course syllabus:

All the cards are on the table
You done laid your money down
Don't complain about your chances, boy
It's the only game in town

 

And sometimes, like in today’s analysis though games in which blessing and blames are not easily deciphered, there is the reminder that across life searching for answers won’t always lead to conclusions, which one must be willing to accept as part of the game –

For the moral doesn't matter
Broken rules are all the same
To the broken or the breaker
Who's to bless and who's to blame?

Now let’s try to attach as best we can some blessings, and some blame, as the MLB season nears the climax and the NFL reaches the midway point.

 

Item: On to Game 6, and how much really is about the balls?

It would be nice to merely talk about Justin Verlander, Rich Hill, the Astros and Dodgers offenses and what is left of their bullpens, but that isn’t the true story this evening. The focus does need to go to the baseball’s themselves, because of the impact they have had.

The first key is to understand what has happened – it is not about the balls being juiced and carrying further, but instead those balls being a little slicker, making it tougher for the pitchers to snap off their breaking balls. The best take on the subject came from Tom Verducci at Sports Illustrated, which I suggest you read through.

The issue becomes two-fold. First would be to properly measure the impact it has had to this point, which is not easy, and second is to gauge what it does to the psyche of the pitchers going forward, which may be nearly impossible. The problem is that this can get into their heads, having them less confident in their breaking pitches, perhaps to the point of not throwing them at all.

For Exhibit A on that front let’s go to Verlander, who takes the mound this evening - “I know Mr. Manfred said the balls haven’t changed, but I think there’s enough information out there to say that’s not true. I think the main complaint is that the balls seem a little bit different in the postseason, and even from the postseason to the World Series balls. They’re a little slick. You just deal with it. But I don’t think it’s the case of one pitcher saying, ‘Hey, something is different here.’ I think as a whole everybody is saying, ‘Whoa, something is a little off here.’”

I don’t have a handicapping answer here. If the baseballs weren’t an issue and it was just about the performers going out to naturally do what they do, I would have an interest in the Verlander/Hill portion tonight, and be looking for Detroit First Five Innings at even money or better (which may not get out there anyway). But while Verlander was effective in game 2, he only recorded one swinging strike from his slider, the lowest count for the entire season, and allowed two home runs, including one to Corey Seager.

It is Verlander’s open acknowledgment that he believes the baseballs are different that will keep me sidelined until after the game begins. Whether they really are or not becomes a secondary issue to the fact that he believes they are. But fortunately, this being 2017, I don’t have to commit to anything before first pitch, and will instead be prepared for the In-Running prospects as the game unfolds.

Now for the difficult sorting that some of this week’s NFL results bring to us, no complaints about the balls, but plenty of questions as to the way they happened to bounce…

 

Item: Yes, the Saints defense is getting better, but…
Sub-Item: That Saints defense has sure had the luck of the draw
Sub-Item: Grading Mitch Trubisky’s long run

An early running theme for me this season was that the New Orleans defense had an opportunity to be one of the most improved units in the NFL. It began back during the summer team-by-team tour, carried over into playing their Team Total Over 8 as a Best Bet on the opening House of Yards podcast, and on last week’s HOY it was Saints/Bears Under as the Best Bet. They really are improved, and there will be an intriguing question as the season unfolds as to whether a DB can be Rookie of the Year, in this case Marshon Lattimore’s play putting him in the running.

The numbers are enlightening, and let’s use Yards Per Pass and Passer Rating for an easy visulization:

Season       YPP       PR
2015          8.3    116.2
2016          7.8    102.5
2017          7.1      79.3

But now the week opens with the Saints laying a full touchdown to Tampa Bay, plenty of 7.5 having been available to early shoppers, and it means that the markets have done what they are supposed to do, making adjustments for emerging changes in performance level. But are they going too far now?

Yes, the Saints have improved. But those statistics also have the luck of the draw built in, facing a travel-weary Miami team and the lethargic Jay Cutler in London, and the past two weeks getting Brett Hundley and Mitch Trubisky handed to them. The showing vs. Detroit was truly impressive, coming up with five sacks of Matthew Stafford and five turnovers, but some of the recent games have been lay-ups.

There is one aspect of the Sunday win over Chicago that requires tweaking, Trubisky getting credit for a 46-yard run on what was designed as a pass play, the rookie QB breaking the pocket after he could not find anyone open downfield. Plays like that defy easy tracking.

It was not a run by the Bears or a rush attempt against the Saints defense, and it also has the novelty of being an explosive play by the offense, and failure by the defense, despite it actually being a “win” the other way based on the original intention. Chicago wanted to throw the ball downfield, and couldn’t.

The best antidote I have found to junking up the stat column is to remove long QB runs out of sack situations completely, but make a note off to the side, because there is something to be acknowledged about the athleticism of the QBs that matters. Yet this will go into all of the official data-bases as a designed 43-yard run, and that is of no help to anyone trying to learn about the Bears offense, or Saints defense.

 

Item: Carolina’s defense may really be this good
Sub-Item: Tampa Bay’s offense is a mess

Getting less attention regarding defensive improvement and current marketplace sex appeal is what the Panthers are doing. At the midway point in the season they have held half of their opponents without an offensive touchdown, and when you consider that the four that did reach the end zone were directed by Tom Brady, Drew Brees, Carson Wentz and Matthew Stafford, it tells us something.

This defense took a step back in 2016, gambling that some young players could step up in the secondary as they allowed Josh Norman to leave, and it did not work. But it wasn’t a mistake in evaluating talent – James Bradberry and Daryl Worley may have had their issues as rookies, but Bradberry now leads the team in snaps played at 465, while Worley has also been solid. What the Panthers were looking for they have found, a pair of cover corners that bring the size (both are 6-1, Bradberry is listed at 210 and Worley 205) to be physical in coverage. And it goes without saying the impact that Luke Kuechly has when he can play every game. The back seven is talented, the front four has depth (seven different players from that group have played at least 100 snaps), and Ron Rivera and DC Steve Wilks know how to scheme it up.

On Sunday they also appeared to be playing chess while it was merely checkers for Dirk Koetter and Todd Monken in that 17-3 domination of Tampa Bay, and after I began having reservations about that Bucs offensive coaching duo in 2016, they are coming more clearly into focus now.

The dominant story line out of Tampa may be whether Jameis Winston should be shut down for a few games, as he plays through an AC sprain in his right shoulder; in each of the past two weeks he has not thrown a ball in practice until Friday. At 2-5, there might also be a notion of shutting him down for the season.

But there are reservations for Koetter that are similar to what I have written often about Ben McAdoo in New York – he was elevated to HC in Tampa before he had proven that he could be a competent OC in the NFL, and I just don’t see anything in the Todd Monken resume, nor the game plans the Buccaneers bring to the field, to indicate that he can be successful at this level. The problems of this offense may not just be about Winston’s health; I see scheme issues that may not be solved by the current regime.

 

Item: The Pittsburgh offense and defense both had great Juju
Sub-Item: The Lions still have red zone issues

Yes it is a lay-up to work with the spiritual concepts of juju and the huge play that JuJu Smith-Schuster made for the Steelers on Sunday. And yes I want to bring Smith-Schuster front-and-center because his 97-yard touchdown reception against the Lions led to what I believe should be in the hall of Fame for post-game quotes: "To be honest, the reason I kept looking back because in Madden, my speed is (only) 82, 83. The next thing you know, I pulled away, swerved to the right and was able to get the touchdown."

But there are some serious handicapping points to ponder form that game, on both sides of the ball.

First is that we go to the well again in evaluating Ben Roethlisberger’s ability to be accurate downfield, which remains an issue, but has been given the positive statistical support of long TDs to Smith-Schuster and Antonio Brown in recent weeks that were far more about the run after the catch than the throw. But at least in this instance, it was truly a good pass by Big Ben:

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He Gone!!! #JuJu #Steelers pic.twitter.com/xWzwpzpoDw

— Blitzburgh (@Steel_Curtain4) October 30, 2017
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Then there is the flip side, and one of the most challenging Offense/Defense grading distributions of the seasons. Entering the game the Steeler defense was on a run that had them threatening to be called the league’s best, yet the Lions moved through them for 482 yards at 7.0 per play. But none of those yards involved crossing the goal line, Detroit having the third-highest count ever for a team that did not register a TD.

What does a handicapper do with this? It ends up being a mixed bag. Stafford and the offense made a lot of plays, so there was a sense of optimism from him afterwards - “Well, I think it was really good. I think if we’d put it in the end zone, you’d call this a breakout performance. We got inside the 10 and didn’t put the ball in the end zone for one reason or another. But from 20 to 20, we were playing as good of football as we have this year I think.

“Being aggressive in the passing game, our running game was clicking. We were doing that with at one point two guys that haven’t played a whole lot of football for us blocking. Jim Bob was dialing up plays for me to get the ball out early then being aggressive at certain points, so I thought it was a great mix. Our guys are executing.”

But winning games against tough competition requires touchdowns, and touchdowns often require the ability to run successfully in the red zone. This has been something missing from the Lions in the past, and remains a black hole – they only have 2 rushing TDs all season, and even with a healthy Ameer Abdullah they are only churning out 3.5 per rush, #28 in the league. There is a weakness here that the Detroit offense may not have the ability to solve.

 

Item: On Bill O’Brien’s end game
Sub-Item: Richard Sherman knows a bit about QBs
Sub-Item: The Texans lose another key defender

Bill O’Brien can both be blessed, and blamed, for Houston’s tough road losses of 36-33 at New England and 41-38 at Seattle this season. The blessing is in taking a team of average abilities and having them in position to win at two of the toughest places in the NFL, both times the Texans having the lead and the ball in the late stages. But then there comes the blame of not maximizing those possessions to close out the wins.

I am a bit mixed when it came to Sunday’s end-game vs. the Seahawks. There was the classic dilemma in play: 3rd-and-four at the 26-yard line, Houston leading 38-34 with 1:53 remaining, and with Seattle having one time-out left. Does the HC focus entirely on getting the first down, or does part of the football consciousness go to running the ball to force the Seahawks to call their last time out? O’Brien opted for the latter move, and while I have seen him vilified across the Sports Mediaverse because of the game outcome, it really isn’t that cut and dried, especially because the Texans had already run for one first down on that drive.

Now for some football particulars that matter, perhaps more in retrospect to look back on the decision over time. Yes, it can be daring to call for a rookie quarterback to throw a pass in that setting, and it was a wild ride for DeShaun Watson that afternoon, the Houston offense piling up 38 points and a stunning 509 yards, but also having five sacks and three interceptions. I couldn’t help by file this from Richard Sherman in the aftermath, Sherman knowing a thing or two about being up against tough QBs. This is after he was asked what he would have said to Watson:

“‘You played the best game any quarterback has ever played against us, and we’ve played all the legends. I respect how you hung in there and kept battling and battling. My God, Houston’s so lucky. By next year, he’s going to be a top five quarterback in this league. …He makes you dig to the deepest part of your competitive juices to beat him.”

O’Brien may have more than just a rookie QB on his hands. But now an additional factor not only as to why the Texans really needed that first down to seal the game, and also something to follow for their defense going forward – a unit that was already playing without J.J. Watt, Brian Cushing and Whitney Mercilus had to take the field for the last drive without Christian Covington, who has been lost for the season.

Covington had become a big part of the DL rotation after Watt’s injury, playing 83 snaps across those games vs. Kansas City and Cleveland, and was on the field for 25 at Seattle before being injured. It was a tired Houston pass rush, DE Joel Heath also not available, that had to attempt to coral Russell Wilson on the closing march, which they could not do.

The Texans front seven is paper thin right now, yet much like the focus that I put on the Washington OL last week, the marketplace often does not recognize the non-skill players. I am going to get in play against them and take #461 Indianapolis at a full +13, not fully committing to holding a position on the Colts, but wanting to have that number in pocket. This defense doesn’t have the personnel left to be in this price range right now.

 

Item: The trade winds blow far heavier this season

There have been some surprising moves over the past 24 hours, and some of them of major market impact. Instead of sorting through them here I will bring the full set front-and-center as the Wednesday lead topic, or co-lead should there be a World Series Game 7, since there are still a few more deals that could take place before the 4 PM EST deadline.

There is a lot to see this time, and some of the moves should have implications into the playoffs in January, throwing plenty of food for thought into the mix. Sorting through this can also call for some thought-provoking food, like some classic Jamaican oxtails…

 

Vegas: Monday with the Review-Journal NFL box score page

One of the special pleasures of living in Las Vegas is having access to one of the broadest culinary spectrums of any city, the economic climate being favorable for entrepreneurs with a little daring. And because we are becoming such a melting pot, it also allows for folks that don’t mind putting their pride on the line, believing in themselves enough to plate their passion before the dining audience.

It is because of this that I can treat myself to a terrific lunch of oxtails, served Jamaican-style, at House of Manchester.

This is Jamaican food as it has been through the centuries, not adapted towards North American palates, and it is in the genuineness that the flavors shine – when you get the opportunity to have owner/chef Mickel Sutherland talk about the recipes, he can’t help but refer to his grandmother a few times. Everything from the kitchen is made from scratch, hence why the Beef Patties that are ubiquitous to Jamaican places across the U.S. are not always on the menu, because they are labor-intensive, and also because Sutherland will not bulk order frozen products that he could sell. That home-made touch includes such creations as Tostones Con Queso, which played well off of the oxtails.

On Monday the oxtails were the star. You get a lovely waft of thyme as they come from the kitchen, as well as the assortment of vegetables that were part of the braising process, and the cooking was impeccable, the pleasure of both having the meat moist, but also some crust on a few of the edges that show how much passion was put into the process. Those few bites of glorious crunch, the meat and seasonings having been given a proper long sear, are why oxtails are prized so much by those of us that have experienced that treat. Their texture allows for that kind of cooking but it takes technique and care in the preparation, and at House of Manchester that care is evident. You should take a nibble on the sprigs of roasted thyme to get a nice jolt of the earthiness they bring, and fresh coconut water is the ideal way to wash it down.

House of Manchester is a small place in an industrial neighborhood that you could easily miss while driving by – you park right on the street in front. But while it may seem an out-of-the way place for many folks, they are less than a mile off of the I-15 freeway, which makes for easy access from just about anywhere in the valley.

 

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