2017 Pre-Season So Far

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I like to follow a couple of teams through pre-season alongside my own Bengals and the major storylines. This will include the team being featured on HBO’s Hard Knocks as that gives you a chance to see all of the games that you get the highlights of and gives me an in to a team I don’t know.

So this year I am following the Tampa Bay Buccaneers thanks to them being on Hard Knocks, and the LA Rams who happen to have been last year’s Hard Knocks and Amazon’s All or Nothing team, but mainly I’m watching the Rams this pre-season to see how their new head coach Sean McVay does in turning around their offence. Even if at thirty-one he is making me feel like I’ve done nothing with my life…

I will pick up the week two games next week, but what have I learnt in the first two Hard Knocks episodes and the week one pre-season games?

Well, this years Hard Knocks has mostly been good fun with a strong cast of characters. I’ve been impressed with Jameis Winston who is clearly invested in trying to be a good leader for his team. Not only is he working hard and making his way round the whole team, but the moment that was eye opening to me was when he approached a group of smiling linemen during the Buccaneers game against the Bengals and almost quietly dropped a line about being glad they were enjoying themselves but that Ryan (Ryan Griffin, backup quarterback fighting for a roster spot with newly signed Ryan Fitzpatrick) was injured. It was an effective way of making his point.

Winston is still searching for the right blend of risk taking and protecting the ball, a discussion we saw him having with head coach Dirk Koetter, but only time will tell if he can find it.

Winston is not the only player showing leadership, and it was a surprise to number 49, Riley Bullogh, to be singled out by Koetter in a meeting about displaying leadership, since he was their third string mike linebacker. Most teams don’t carry three mike linebackers if they play a 4-3 defence, but I was impressed not only with the way Bullogh has been portrayed on Hard Knocks, but also with the way he played and he also managed to catch the eye whilst I was watching the game against the Bengals. I think he may well make the team.

Sadly, we’ve already had our first painful cut, and it is always hard to watch someone go through this, but second year kicker Robert Aguayo seems to have struggled ever since being picked in the second round by the Buccaneers last year. He was an incredibly accurate kicker in college, but whether it is the pressure of being such a high round pick for a kicker, or simply the reality of kicking in the NFL, he has not managed to be consistent in the NFL and although he was picked up on waivers by the Chicago Bears, it hard to know if he’ll be able to turn things round. The problem is likely to be that this narrative will follow him around, as will the questions about his career, and you would have to be incredibly tough minded to set this aside when you know it will keep following you. I hope he turns things around, but only time will tell.

I’ll pick up other players as we go forward, the duo of new signing DeSean Jackson and establish receiver Mike Evans have featured heavily and should provide Winston with a nice balance on offence, but the other player who seems to be a genuinely good guy as well as a wrecker of offences, both in practice on game day is Gerald McCoy. Seeing this seven-year veteran carrying others pads around, dressed in a kimono, and testing the waters of what is an acceptable celebration has been a lot of fun. It’s always nice to see a different side of players who you so often only get to see in a helmet and pads.

So as the Buccaneers played and lost to the Bengals, what is there to say about the team from Cincinnati?

Well apart from getting a win, the Bengals offence line seemed to hold up and there were promising signs on offence, although you can only tell so much in pre-season. However, with a running and passing touchdown, third string quarterback Jeff Driskel made a claim that the Bengals should keep three quarterbacks on the roster this season. Given the number of receivers that they might want to keep, this could be difficult as the Bengals have only been keeping two recently, but I suspect Driskel would get snapped up by another team if they tried to stash him on the practice squad.

It is hard to say too much about pass coverage when you only have the TV copy to watch, but on defence the pass rush did catch the eye, particularly Jordan Willis although Carl Lawson looked good as well and I think both players could help add and an extra pass rush element to the defence this season. However, the pass coverage in the middle of the field was soft, and this is definitely something to keep an eye on.

So if the Bengals looked solid, how did the LA Rams go in their first game against the Dallas Cowboys?

Well the major thing that struck me on the offensive side of the ball was ball security. I suspect this will be a point of emphasis in the coming weeks as the ball was put on the ground a lot. Fumbles and drops hampered the team, and although McVay won his first game, there is still a lot of work to do. That said rookie running back Justin Davis caught the eye when he wasn’t fumbling with his burst and ability to make defenders miss, and so if he can secure the ball he could become a useful backup to Todd Gurley. Only time will tell if the o-line will play better through the season, but it was certainly strange to see Andrew Whitworth playing in the blue and white of the Rams. I’ll need to see more of second year quarterback Jared Goff to form any serious opinion, but he hasn’t shone yet and that has to be worrying given what the Rams gave up to select him number one in the 2016 draft.

Still, the Rams traded for Sammy Watkins last week and it will be fun to see if Watkins can stay fit this season, and if he can help the Rams turn round their passing attack.

The defence for the Rams looked good though, they seemed to be picking up the defence of new co-ordinator Wade Philips quickly and this was without Aaron Donald, although I will be interested to see how the disruptive tackle lines up in Philips’ 3-4 defence.

This leaves with one final point to make about the pre-season so far before I start catching up with the week two game, the Rams switch to the blue and white helmets with the white face-masks is definitely a good one as they look great.

Who says you do not learn anything in pre-season!

The Tao of The Wrong Football

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Training camps have started and with the Hall of Fame game out of the way, preseason football starts in earnest in the coming week.

Dan and I have been podcasting roughly every other week for a while now, and this blog has been bubbling under since April , but if I don’t get it written soon then it won’t happen so embracing Andrew Brandt’s maxim that deadlines spur action, let’s talk a little bit about our plans for the upcoming season.

The idea for this blog post was hatched over a pub table as we started to make plans for the new season, and it is slightly scary that this was already nearly four months ago. I’m now heading into my fourth season of blogging about the NFL and I have always tried to find ways to improve as a writer and make the blog better. Dan was involved from the start through our pick competition and after a season and a half came to me with the idea of us doing a podcast, which I was very happy to do as long as it was his baby and so Dan became a podcast producer.

I like to take time off during the offseason to refresh, and so whilst still following the draft and free agency, I lay off the writing although if I can I’ll read some books about coaching/American Football. One of the books that left a lasting impression on me was Pete Carroll’s Win Forever – as it crystallised one of the things that I had come to believe about successful sports teams. I do not believe there is only one way to run an NFL franchise that can bring you success, but I do think it is important that there is a coherent approach, and it is surprising how often it feels like there isn’t one guiding a team. In his book Carroll lays out how he came to believe it is vitally important for a coach to set down his coaching philosophy so you can explain it and enact it, and he takes you through his and invites you to come up with one of your own.

I could never get mine down below the twenty-five word target, which given some of my posts on here and the fact that I write novels, perhaps should not be a surprise. But it did set me thinking.

So, whilst talking about our plans for the new season, how to balance the work involved with our day jobs and other hobbies, I thought we should try to flesh out the guiding philosophy of the site.

In the about page of the site, that was pretty much written when the site was setup back in 2014, I set out the goals as follows:

“This site shall be a place of reasoned arguments, opinions, and factual writing unless things go very wrong for the Bengals. There will be traditional film study and analytics, as both have things to offer the football fan, and it gives me the opportunity to be wholly wrong in more than one area.”

This has not changed in three seasons and whilst is still a reasonable place to start, the way that I write on this site as I’ve tried to improve what I do and make it more manageable with the rest of my life has definitely evolved.

So I took the notes I had used to try to craft a philosophy having read Carroll’s book and started to adapt them to the blog. I also asked Dan to make a list of his personal characteristics, which turned out to be not too dissimilar to mine:

Gee: competitive, obsessive, patient, engineer, drummer, writer, goal orientated, scientific approach

Dan: driven, competitive, persevering, improvement oriented, fanatical, organised.

It probably makes sense given our shared interests in football and music, our time spent together in bands, and the similarities in the above lists that during our time working together on the podcast there has been hard work, but never been any conflict. There has been plenty of constructive criticism, but nothing coming close to an argument.

Using the above lists I fleshed out the other notes I had been taking and having worked it through with Dan, I will now lay them out for you.

“In an infinite universe, all things are possible, but anything worth doing is too complex to guarantee success so all you can do is commit to the best possible process to optimise your outcome.”

It is not quite Bill Walsh’s book title, The Score Takes Care of Itself, but I love physics and I wanted to stress the universalness of the guiding philosophy.

Dan put in his list of characteristics improvement orientated, and I very much believe in practice and the idea that you improve through multiple incremental steps. This is something you will often hear mentioned by sports teams with a technical focus such as British cycling, but for me it is also born out of being an engineer and trying to take a scientific approach to things.

As an IT engineer, when you have a strange new problem to solve, you don’t just dive in and start randomly changing things. You have to do your research and then work through the problem systematically, changing one thing at a time so you can eliminate possibilities and identify the true source of the problem. I think this approach to diagnostics and problem solving can pretty much be applied to anything.

I also think it is important to focus on what you can control, i.e. the content and how you produce it. So we will focus on continuing to assess and improve what we do so the site does not stand still but keeps moving forward.

So if this is the guiding philosophy, how do we do this and what are we actually aiming for?

The aims are fairly straightforward:

  1. To entertain and inform
  2. We will not be afraid to be wrong or tackle big issues, but we will not lecture
  3. Endeavour to tell the whole story and embrace nuance.

Mostly these speak for themselves, but I will expand a little as these aims are born out of something I wanted to embrace about blogging. I have never set out to chase traffic, this site was setup to help me get better at writing by giving me a structured outlet to practice, but this also meant I was free to write how I wanted. You will probably have heard me talk about the hot take culture on the podcast, but in case you have not I dislike it intensely. There is nothing wrong with taking a position, in fact there is no point in endlessly hedging and saying nothing, but this should be a position you genuinely believe in rather than an a point made to artificially create an argument between two people or generate traffic. Life is infinitely complex, and this can be reflected in sport, and so should in my opinion be reflected in thoughtful commentary, which can still be fun!

It also doesn’t hurt to demonstrate that it is possible to disagree respectfully and to engage in thoughtful discussion rather than dismiss out of hand any point you disagree with. A cursory look round the internet might show how seldom this idea is observed these days.

Given these aims, what are the rules that we put in place to ensure this happens? Well in truth, given the way we work that comes down to two things:

  1. Produce the best content you can
  2. Own your role and trust in each other

Rule one works because we are both trying to improve what we do with a guiding philosophy born out of an existing approach rather than trying to apply an external idea we’ve borrowed and trying to make fit. Stated on its own, rule one is meaningless, but within the context of what I have laid out it is all that is required. Essentially it is a reminder.

Rule two was born out of necessity, but is also grounded in something I’ve come to believe through over twenty years of playing in bands. When Dan came to me about the podcast, I had to be practical as I was already watching games and writing a blog whilst leading a busy life and not wanting to be disowned by my partner. I wanted to try it, but I made sure to let Dan know that it had to be his project. He writes the notes and plans the pod, edits our separate recordings into a coherent conversation and sorts out distribution. We collaborate on news stories in terms of discussing stories, but he basically runs the show and does a great job.

The best bands I have been in have been based around everyone having an equal say, and using the best idea no matter whose it was. This only works if you take care of what you are meant to, and trust the others to do the same.

Circling back to football, it is also how a team has to operate as on every play, elven people are working together to carry out a set sequence of actions, which works best if everybody focuses on their own role and trust the others to do the same i.e. teamwork. The rule should speak for itself, but it is good to have the reminder.

So there you have it, the Tao of The Wrong Football.

It is not easy to be a fan of the Cincinnati Bengals right now

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It is not easy to be a fan of the Cincinnati Bengals right now.

I woke up Saturday morning, a second draft day with two picks having taken place overnight, what players had been added to the roster? Then I read the story and my heart sank.

Joe Mixon is a name notorious to many, and had been one of the major discussion points leading up to the draft. There were other players in the draft with a recent history of violence, including a player selected in the first round who has recently been accused of rape, but with the surveillance video of the Mixon assault having been leaked, the evidence was there for all to see and Mixon was the first name discussed with major off-field issues.

For the record I have not watched the video, much like the Ray Rice video I don’t feel the need to witness one of the worse days the victim will ever have to face. In the particular case of Mixon, after exchanging words with Amelia Molitor, Molitor shoved and then slapped Mixon who responded by punching her in the face. Molitor fell to the floor, her face slamming into a table on the way past, leaving her with four facial fractures, including a broken jaw.

Unlike Ray Rice, who at age twenty-seven was coming towards the end of his running back career when he was suspended for the season, Mixon is a talented running back who is under twenty-one and enters the league ready to play, and so the Bengals decided that with the 48th pick of the draft, that he was worth the risk.

Male violence is sadly all too common, and is a societal problem not just one for NFL players. Overwhelmingly violence towards women and girls is carried out by men, and whilst men can be victims of domestic violence and women can be perpetrators, most violence – whether against women or men is perpetrated by men.

There is an argument for second chances, and for not only punishment but for rehabilitation. Mixon received a one-year deferred sentence and was ordered to undergo counselling along with 100 hours of community service. The assault occurred in 2014, and Mixon was suspended from football for the following year.

I’m not an expert on the sentencing of violent crimes, and not sure there is a definite correlation between circumstances and punishment, nor do I particularly like judges to be forced to give out specific sentences under restricted guidelines. To me the separation of powers that should be a part of well-structured democracy means that judges should have the freedom to interpret the law as best they can. However, I can’t help but feel that a sentence such as the one Mixon received is in part due to his status as a well know promising football player.

Still he has complied with the restrictions and by all accounts is still undergoing counselling and in his first interview as a Bengal has talked about controlling situations he places himself in and controlling his responses.

In the face of this it is worth noting that Mixon had a confrontation with a parking attendant after received a parking citation in 2016 where he ripped up the citations and threw them in the face of the attendant before inching forward with his vehicle to intimidate the office. This was on university property and he was suspended for a game.

On the other hand, he has recently settled a civil case brought by Molitor and they met to express their regrets. That said, Molitor is still dealing with the after affects of the assault, the psychological remaining long after the body has healed, and it is hard to see how the video being so widely distributed can do anything other than pick at the scars left behind. This is the legacy of violence even before social media and mass video made such moments so much harder to escape.

You can see how the Bengals are approaching the pick of Mixon from this article where you will see some familiar information.

We’ve had various NFL draft commentators talk about Mixon’s talent and referencing his off-field issues but not engage about them.

We’ve heard that only four teams were prepared to pick Mixon, although there are plenty of other players with violent incidents in the draft, and many of them were picked. There just wasn’t video evidence.

The NFL’s punishment for Mixon was to ban him from their combine event, which is a glorified prospect sports day in coverage, but for the team is mostly about getting to interview prospects, take accurate measurements, and carry out their own health checks.

I will refrain from my usual detailed criticism of Roger Goodell’s approach to discipline, and simply say that this so called punishment only really means that teams will have to go to a player’s pro day held at the university, and so this is not so much a punishment as a way for the NFL to not have to deal with such a player being at their combine event, by not having him be there. For the record, all thirty-two teams had a scout at Joe Mixon’s college pro day.

The sad fact is that this is not going away, and nor is the dilemma surrounding it. The Kansas City Chiefs faced this exact situation last year when they selected Tyreek Hill last year in the fifth round and he played excellently for them. Mina Kimes wrote an excellent piece entitled The uncomfortable reality of Tyreek Hill’s success and I’d highly encourage you to read it if you are not already familiar with it.

In fact go read it – it covers everything that is difficult about this topic, and then come back here.

Joe Mixon hasn’t even played a down for the Bengals and I know that I don’ want them to have picked him. The hard headed say that if you are going to pick such a player, then you might as well make sure you get the player you want and not worry about where he is picked. You have already made that decision. It’s just hard to apply the usual draft equation in this situation. The discussion of risk vs talent is simply not appropriate and I think I would feel like this if Mixon had been picked up as an undrafted free agent.

We can probably agree that there is no simple solution to this, and that we should keep having these conversations and that we should feel uncomfortable. Hell it should make us angry.

I’m disappointed that the Bengals picked Joe Mixon. I cannot see a world where I’m actively cheering on the player when I know what he has done. There have already been calls for a boycott of Bengals games in local papers, and to donate money to charity instead, certainly the money I was thinking of spending on a new jersey will go to a charity in the UK. I’m not pulling away from the Bengals as a team, I feel that would be cheating, I’ll watch every snap as usual and I will document what happens. I’ll be evaluating Mixon the player and how he acts. I will be just as conflicted. The joy has gone and may well never come back.

In finishing up I keep coming back to something I read whilst preparing to write this blog post. The Counting Dead Women Campaign is the work of Karen Ingala Smith, and is focussed on the documenting of male violence against women. One final piece of homework for you, read If we’re serious about ending men’s violence against women and girls, we need to listen to feminists, then find one to listen to.

The Wrong Football Podcast – Episode 44 – 2017 Post Draft Pod!

We’re back, and seemingly, we’ve forgotten how to read aloud… never mind the rust though, we’ve got this years NFL Draft covered! Not only that, but we’re taking a look at some of the movers and shakers from the earlier part of the off-season, and some of the bigger names who have decided to call time on their careers. How do we rate your team’s chances after the draft? Tune in and find out – this week on The Wrong Football Podcast!

Source: The Wrong Football Podcast – The Wrong Football Podcast – Episode 44 – 2017 Post Draft Pod!

The Bengals Offseason: Hope Turns to Nerves

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It’s a little earlier than I usually like to delve back into football in the offseason, but with the bulk of free agency over, the hope of the offseason had already turned to worry for this Bengals fan. I thought I’d write a little bit about this rather than trying to cover all the signings and moves that have just taken place, and hopefully reflect some thoughts on the wider situation.

There are many ways to build a roster in the NFL, and the Cincinnati Bengals are very much a team who believe in draft and develop rather than spending wildly in free agency. This is an approach that I very much agree with, but it is worth taking note that the New York Giants spent a lot in free agency last year and significantly improved their defence. I think the trick is to make sure you get the right kind of players at the right kind of price, which sounds pretty trite, but given that there are thirty-two teams competing for the same players (theoretically) then as the saying goes, it only takes one a*#?hole, to drive up the price.

Still, the focus for the Bengals was always going to be resigning their free-agents, and this is where things got interesting for the Bengals and their fans. One of the problems the team had last season was protecting Andy Dalton, particularly as Cedric Ogbuehi seemed to struggle at right tackle. With two offensive line starters up for free agency, this would seem like a resigning priority along with cornerback Dre Kirkpatrick. However, the only player out of these three priority players who did resign with the Bengals was Kirkpatrick. I was not entirely surprised that right guard Kevin Zeitler was signed elsewhere as Bengals.com editor Geoff Hobson had been writing about the philosophy of Bengals being not to invest heavily at the guard position, and with the Cleveland Browns having a huge amount of cap space, they could simply offer much more money than the Bengals were prepared to pay. I was hopeful that stalwart left tackle Andrew Whitworth would play another season, but at thirty-five years old the LA Rams were prepared to give Whitworth a multi-year deal that was too rich for the Bengals to compete with.

And like that, the best two players on the offensive season last season are no longer Bengals and the commentary has not been good about this. I am worried, but there is at least a working plan behind these moves that I am not sure have been explored enough in the media. Although, I could have easily missed the discussion.

No one would want to lose their long term left tackle when there have been few signs of regression in his play, and Kevin Zeitler was one of the best right guards in the league going into a second contract. Nor is the upheaval in the offensive line helpful when this is the position group that most relies on continuity on the team.

However, one of the strengths of the New England Patriots, and something that Bill Belichick is often praised for is the team’s ability to let go players at the right time, and they would rather let a player go too early than a year too late. It is not exactly fair to compare Marivn Lewis to one of the greatest coaches in the game, and nor does Lewis have the control of personnel that Belichick has, but I can at least see the plan the Bengals have in place.

Two years ago the Bengals drafted two tackles in the first two rounds, and this was clearly the start of their succession plan. Last offseason the Bengals did not resign Andre Smith and Ogbuehi was set to start at right tackle after missing most of his rookie season recovering from the knee injury he had when drafted. I don’t think it is controversial to say that this did not go well, and now he will be starting at left tackle in place of one of the best tackles in the league. However, he spent the majority of his time in college playing left tackle, and whilst his struggles with the bull rush will not simply disappear, it seems too often that people think you can just swap linemen between the right and left sides of the line. These days there are more quality pass rushers coming from the left side of the defence, and so your right tackle needs to be able to hold up in pass protection. I’m not sure how different your right and left tackle need to be as this depends greatly on scheme, opponent, and philosophy, but I do worry about the assumption that you can move linemen around and so I’m hoping that Ogbuehi does better in what could be his more natural position.

The problem is that we can’t know until the live games start. The Bengals have resigned Andre Simth, but the talk is that he will be replacing Zeitler at right guard, which is another change in position although at least it will be a right handed stance.

Apart from the resigning of receiver Brandon LaFell and running back Cedric Peerman, the only other big moves the Bengals made was to sign twenty-six year old middle linebacker Kevin Minter from the Arizona Cardinals and released long term starter Rey Maualuga. This looks to be a like a straight replacement, but also signals a shift in philosophy away from the fierce hitting Maualuga who was excellent against the run, but in the modern NFL was nearly limited to a two down player thanks to the spread formations and passing attacks that now dominate the league. I am sorry to see Maualuga to go, but this is a move that makes a lot of sense to me, and whilst not a splashy move, by releasing both the thirty year old Maualuga and the thirty-five year old Kevin Dansby the Bengals have got a lot younger at a position that is increasing having to be able to cover in the open.

It is usually when a team gets outside of their plan that they get into trouble. I’m sure those in the front office would argue that they have execute several important moves, but there has been a lot of talent leave the team in recent years. In fairness, a large percentage were older players, and the Bengals would have liked to keep one of the two receivers they lost last year. The offensive line worries me thought, and will do until they prove themselves on the field no matter how many positive offseason pieces I read on player training. I am not panicking however, and with the draft coming up and the Bengals having elven picks thanks to the formula that grants compensatory picks to a team for lost free agents, I can see how they can build for next season. There is a lot on the line for Marvin Lewis, but if feels like I have been writing that a lot over the last few years, but there can only be so many failures to win a playoff game before something changes. There is no guarantee that would bring success, and Mike Brown is fairly famously loyal and not willing to waste money, either to cut players or fired coaches, but even his patience can only stretch so far.

For now, there’s the nerves and hope of the offseason, so back to other things to keep me distracted. I’ll write again around draft time.

AAF: Super Bowl

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I like to go back and look at the coaching tape of the Super Bowl as I cling on to the final game we have to tie us over until preseason, but these days I have learnt painfully that you have to focus on something or you can spend so much time on every play as there is a huge amount to look at. I stuck with my original plan to cover the match up of the Atlanta Falcons league leading offence going up against the New England Patriots defence which conceded the fewest points in the league this regular season.

The first quarter was unexpectedly scoreless, with both offences getting off to slow starts. The Falcons are a team that are known to play a lot of traditional two running back personnel groupings and this was certainly the case in this game. Their opening drive got off to a great start when Devonta Freeman ran left for thirty-seven yards. This play also demonstrated the way that the Falcons like to attack a team with personnel and formations as they may have lined up in a standard offset I formation, but full back Patrick DiMarco motioned out to line up as a receiver. However that drive soon petered out with two short gains and a sack on third down when Trey Flowers simply overpowered left tackle Jake Mathews to get to Matt Ryan. The Falcons’ second drive followed a similar pattern with Tevin Coleman starting it off with a nice nine yard run, which was followed by a ten yard pass to DiMarco before the drive bogged down and Matt Ryan was sacked on third down. This was less of a pass rush than a coverage sack as Ryan looked to his right and moved up in the pocket, being brought down by Alan Branch as Ryan moved past him although it was only credited as half a sack. Looking at the coaching tape it does appear that Julio Jones did find a soft spot between corner and safety on the left of the offence but as we don’t know the play call or read progression it is hard to comment on whether Ryan should have seen this or not under the circumstances.

The second quarter was one where the Falcons offence leapt into life, remembering that they had Julio Jones and seeing a switch in personnel groupings moving to 12 and 11 personnel, with full back DiMarco not playing and them replacing him with a tight end or receiver. Their third drive started with a pass forced into Julio Jones who wrestled the ball away from the corner trailing him. He then followed this up with a toe tapping catch at the side line despite having both a corner and the deep safety track him across the formation as he motioned before the snap. Then Freeman took over the drive, running on three straight plays which resulting in the first score of the game. The fourth drive also started with a big pass play when Taylor Gabriel ran a deep in against what looks to be a two deep zone coverage with Malcolm Butler staying out wide whilst Gabriel cuts in underneath the two safeties and gaining the Falcons twenty-four yards. On a play action pass on the next play Julio Jones was able to get single coverage for about the only time in the game and Matt Ryan was able to find him down the side line whilst under pressure. After a running play by Tevin Coleman, Matt Ryan was able to find Austin Hooper in the end zone on the second time of asking when Hooper was matched up against Patrick Chung. On the previous play Chung was able to break up the pass, but this time Hooper was running round him and through the end zone to make the catch with fellow safety Devin McCourty doubled up on Julio Jones.

The Falcons offence would not get the ball back in the first half after Robert Alford took his interception of Tom Brady back eighty-two yards for a touchdown. The Patriots were noticeably doubling up on Julio Jones, but Malcolm Butler seemed to be playing left corner rather than following a receiver round the formation for a particular match up, although the Patriots did look to be playing man coverage mixed in with zone.

The third quarter saw the last points the Falcons were to score in the game, and they got off to a poor start with a three and out with Devonta Freeman getting stuffed in the backfield for a three yard loss and the drive never really recovering. However, their sixth drive was more reminiscent of the second quarter. The Falcons remained in predominantly 11 personnel, making use of a third receiver, opening the drive with a seventeen yard catch by Taylor Garbiel although they did bring back their full back for two plays. On one of these Garbiel ran past Malcom Butler as he fell down and caught the ball before the safety Duron Harmon could get across as he was shaded towards Julio Jones on the other side of the field. The Falcons were able to march down the field and scored a touchdown where they lined up with three receivers on the right of a shotgun formation and Tevin Coleman lined up to the left of Matt Ryan. They then brought Coleman across the formation whilst the receivers ran up and in patterns, which got Rob Ninkovich caught up enough that we was unable to get to the edge and stop Coleman getting into the end zone.

The problem for the Falcons then began here, which is why I am stepping away from the quarter by quarter break down. Not only did the Patriots find a formula on offence that began to move the ball, but their offence started having problems of their own. The next time the Falcons got the ball, their drive came to an end when Ryan Schraeder was over powered by two rushers and Matt Ryan was sacked. The following drive the Falcons had only given up a field goal on defence, but first Tevin Coleman went out of the game with an injury, and on the very next play Devonta Freeman could only bump Dont’a Hightower on his way to sack Matt Ryan who fumbled the ball and the Patriots recovered.

Even after these troubles the Falcons were ahead 28-20, and on the opening play of the drive ran a play action pass to Freeman who took the ball thirty-seven yards to midfield. After a nothing run play somehow whilst on the move Matt Ryan finds Julio Jones who makes another spectacular side line catch. At this point the Falcons are on the Patriots twenty-two yard line with around four minutes on the clock. There has been a lot of talk about second guessing the plays, and staying aggressive, but at some point you have to pay attention to the game flow. You are eight points up with four minutes left and a field goal makes this a two score game. I have a lot of sympathy with those who say run three times and kick the field goal, or run play action. But not only did Devonta Freeman get stuffed on first down for the loss of a yard, but Trey Flowers managed to bull his way past Alex Mack to bring down Matt Ryan for a loss of twelve yards. Whatever your thoughts on the play calls, Ryan has to get rid of the ball in this situation. The then Falcons nearly get themselves back into field goal range with a pass to Mohamed Sanu, but it gets wiped out by a second holding call of the game against Jake Mathews and Matt Ryan can’t get the pass complete to Taylor Gabriel.

The Patriots tie up the game, the Falcons have one last ditch to go ninety yards in fifty seconds, but fall way shot and the rest is overtime and Patriots folk lore. The clever thing is that the Patriots didn’t win with one thing, but on defence a combination of coverage and enough pass rush to end drives won them the game. Out of ten drives the Falcons were only able to score on three of them, and that is telling in that when the ball moved well for the Falcons they scored very quickly, but that was really only for a quarter and a half. Even then, with a little more attention paid to game flow they could have kicked a field goal and won the game. A Super Bowl loss will always generate a lot of what if type questions, but I have the feeling that the Falcons will have more than most.

And now we move onto the offseason and I’m taking a break for a couple of weeks, but it won’t be long before the itch to write about football returns. For now it is time to take a break from football and get to different writing and hobbies. Maybe that would be good for all of us.

Super Bowl Preview

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The big day is here, and despite the myriad of coverage that comes with the Super Bowl, here comes my own thoughts on the season that the Atlanta Falcons and New England Patriots have had and what we might see in tonight’s/tomorrow morning’s final game of the season. And there will be no discussion of the colour of the team’s jerseys!

The Atlanta Falcons were seeded second in the NFC having won their division with an 11-5 record. Splitting the season into four game sections as the coaches do, we can see that after losing their first game the Falcons won the first quarter by winning the next three games, they then split the next eight games across the middle quarters, but won out through the final quarter of the season and carried that momentum through the playoffs to the Super Bowl.

Their offence has played well all season, reaping the benefits of the blossoming relationship between offensive coordinator Kyle Shanahan and his quarterback Matt Ryan that led respectively to Shanahan being the expected head coach of the San Francisco 49ers and Ryan being named league MVP. Having focussed on what Ryan did and did not like from their first season together, the offence soared with Ryan throwing for just shy of five thousand yards, thirty-eight touchdowns and just seven interceptions. The offence scored thirty points or more in thirteen of their sixteen regular season games and both playoff games. This year they managed to balance the run game with the pass game, and that if defences focussed on stopping Julio Jones then Ryan was more than happy to distribute the ball with it not being unusual for five or more players to make catches during the game and thirteen different players caught touchdowns this year.

If the offence is what drives this Falcons team, then the defence has managed to do enough to win, which is impressive given the number of rookies and second year players that are contributing on this side of the ball. Their pass defence improved down the stretch despite losing Desmond Trufont to injury for most of the season, but their rush defence ranks only twenty-ninth by DVOA. They had a league leading fifteen and half sacks from Vic Beasley whilst one of their rookies Keanu Neal was second on the team in tackles as he drew comparisons with Seattle safety Kam Chancellor with his physical play. This is a unit that is a work in progress, but the profile of the players they are putting together is beginning to resemble the template of the defence in Seattle, which is hardly surprising given that this is where Head Coach Dan Quinn’s came from.

If the Falcons are melding their experienced offence with a young developing defence, then the Patriots are continuing their constant evolution in the relentless pursuit of excellence. This is the challenge that all NFL teams face, but few if any can match the success of Bill Belichik and Tom Brady, which is even more impressive given that it is taking place in a time of free agency and rules designed to enable all teams to be competitive.

The Patriots may have been missing Tom Brady for their first four games thanks to a dubious punishment from the deflate gate saga, from which I shall spare you a recap, but they still won three of those games including a 27-0 drubbing of the Houston Texans with their third string quarterback. Once Brady returned the offence hummed and the Patriots only lost one more game against the Seattle Seahawks as they went 14-2 and locked up the number one seed.

The Patriots offence is hard to generalise about as their approach changes from week to week depending on the opposition. It is perfectly possible for their incredible quarterback to be handing the ball off for the majority of the game if the plan demands it, or he could make fifty plus throws as the team pass their way to victory. What has been impressive is that they have achieved the results they have with Brady missing the games he did and Rob Gronkowski hardly playing this season thanks to injury. When he is on the field Gronkowski is putting together an argument to be considered one of the best tight ends to have played the game, but free agent pickup Martellus Bennett is a very good tight end in his own right and was second on the team in receiving yards this year and caught seven touchdowns. The other big free agent addition to the offence was receiver Chris Hogan, signed from the Buffalo Bills, who chipped in with nearly seven hundred receiving yards of his own and four touchdowns. It is worth noting that despite varying usage, running back LeGarrette Blount still ran for over a thousand yards this season and I haven’t even mentioned Julian Edelman who caught ninety-eight balls for eleven hundred yards himself.

If the offence was its usual supple and efficient self, the defence was less obviously excellent, but led the league in scoring defence and in the end it is points that really matter. The talk leading into the Super Bowl has been of Belichick’s ability to take away what the opposition does best, and certainly Belichick and defensive coordinator Matt Patricia are excellent coaches, but all coaches want to stop what the opposition does best. The question is usually how much of your resources are you prepared to commit to stopping that one thing as due to there only being eleven men on the field, by focussing on one thing you weaken the defence in other areas. One of the Patriots’ tactics that is often discussed has been the way they double the best receiver of the opposition with their second corner back and a safety, whilst placing their best corner man to man on the opposition second receiver to shut him down whilst the double team limits the number one receiver. However, even this is a simplification as what Belichick does so particularly well is place his players in a position to maximise their talent and so whilst Maclolm Butler is the most familiar name amongst the Patriots’ corners, thanks to his five foot eleven frame he tends not to be matched up against big physical receivers such as a Julio Jones.

This leading nicely into the Super Bowl matchup so let’s dive into that and I will start with the matchup I am most excited about, which is the Falcons’ offence versus the Patriots’ defence. The ability of the Patriots’ defence to force their opposition to play the game in a way they don’t want to will be tested by the flexibility of the Falcons’ offence approach. The Falcons are used to teams trying to take away Julio Jones, and with Matt Ryan’s ability to distribute the ball round his skill players and take advantage of both running backs’ ability to catch the ball coming out of the backfield they will feel confident in being able to move the ball. The Patriots run defence was ranked fourth in the league by DVOA and the injury to centre Alex Mack could hamper the interior of the Falcons’ offensive line, but if he gets time to throw the ball it is not hard to see Matt Ryan and his receivers ranked first by DVOA in passing attack take advantage of a Patriots defence that only ranked twenty-third against the pass. However, the Falcons will need to score points against a defence that may have given up yards, but their bend don’t break defence obviously limited their opponents effective, so as is so commonly the case red zone efficiency will be key. One last note on this matchup, this game pits the offence with the best yards after catch in the Falcons against the defence with the best yards allowed after the catch. Something may have to give.

The reason that the Falcons ability to score is so important is that for a lot of the time it has enabled their defence to play with a lead, and this has allowed the defence to rush the passer and do enough to win. However, unlike the Patriots’ disciplined front seven, the Falcons’ defence was twenty-ninth against the run, and what better way to counter act the Falcons high powered offence than for the Patriots to run the ball to control the clock and minimise the time the Falcons have the ball? There are some who are talking about how Belichick will put the ball in Brady’s hands to win the game, but I’m not so sure the ever pragmatic Belichick isn’t perfectly happy to muddy the game and win with defence like he did against the St Louis Rams and their legendary greatest show on turf offence. However, they have plenty of passing options to attack a young defence who might not have the experience to disguise their coverages and pass rushes, and if Brady goes to the line knowing what defence he is facing then he will simply excel. Although his approach is similar to the Seahawks, Dan Quinn and his staff have been more prepared to play man coverage with a single high safety mixed in with the trademark Seattle zone three coverage that also utilises a single high safety, but Brady will know what to look for to take advantage of this. The Patriots’ quarterback is also adept at stepping up in the pocket to avoid edge pass rushers such as Vic Beasley, and the return of line coach Dante Scarnecchia has seen a big improvement in the Patriots offensive line and much steadier play. In their playoff game against the Patriots, the Houston Texans were able to get pressure up the middle and rattle Brady, but whether the Falcons’ will be able to get an interior rush that can affect Brady will be a big question in this game.

Overall, it is hard to be definitive how this game will be played given it features two teams who have a lot of flexibility in their approach. There are a lot of narratives surrounding this game, the Falcons having the better players but the Patriots having the right team, Brady and Belichick’s excellence in the offseason, the supposed extra motivation for particular players which seems to be a bit of a nonsense given they are playing in a Super Bowl. Certainly more players on the Patriots have experience of playing in a Super Bowl, which might help, but this is not Dan Quinn’s first time coaching in a Super Bowl. I can see the Falcons running away with it, or the Patriots grinding out a convincing win, although I confess that with their experience I would favour the Patriots in a close game but not by much. The real x factor is the player we don’t know who will turn the game, Malcolm Butler made his name by his last second gaoling interception against the Seahawks, and you wouldn’t put it past the Patriots to have someone do this again with an unknown player, or for one of the first or second year players on the Falcons’ defence to really announce their arrival.

I for one am just looking forward to watching the game.

Do I have to watch the Pro Bowl?

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With only one real game left, and the offseason already under way for most teams, it is a slightly strange time of year. I have deliberately stayed away from looking at the Super Bowl matchup as there is another week to go and so there’s plenty of time to start looking at the two teams facing off for the grand prize of the season.

It feels weird to me, that with the NFL’s focus on being a year round sport they don’t hold the start of the offseason program until after the end of the playoffs. The teams are rushing to fill their coaching staffs having already hired their new head coaches, whilst the best coordinators are likely having to either juggle their prep for the most important games of the season with interviewing when they can, or don’t get a look in. It is generally expected that the San Francisco 49ers are going to hire Kyle Shanahan as their new head coach, and if they do so  he will be the only Super Bowl bound coordinator to get a job, which means the other teams are not picking from the best staffs, which in of itself is odd. It also puts him at a disadvantage when filling his own coaching staff as teams have already been scrambling to make hires, and whilst I’m sure Shanahan would deny it, the situation has to be some kind of distraction whilst preparing for games although certainly the Falcons offence doesn’t look to have missed a beat.

It is only in recent years that I do occasionally watch the Pro Bowl because I’m in the habit of catching up with the games and I am not quite ready to head into the offseason yet. The blog will be quieter over the coming months, but much like football is a year round prospect, so is my writing. I’ll be focussing on publishing a sequel to the book that was published last year and as ever I’ll be self-scouting the blog and looking to see what I can do better next year. I follow the news like everyone else in the offseason, but as I have never found a way into the college game I’m not in a position to write from strength about the draft process and whilst I’ll pick up the preseason as ever, I’ll be taking the time to learn other things. That said, I’ll try to post things around key moments like free agency and the draft, I follow all year even if I don’t always write about them.

As for the NFL, most coaches are already preparing for the draft and the offseason, and it will soon be the season of hope for all fans. However, there is the minor matter of the Super Bowl to be played next week, and whilst we are always looking for the next thing, let’s take our time and savour what remains of the current season. We are offered an intriguing matchup of offence against defence, and what is sometimes called the evil empire up against a Falcons team whose owner is sending all of the team’s employees to Houston for the Super Bowl. This is not unheard of as both the Panthers and the Broncos did this last season, but it is a nice gesture and a not inexpensive one.

Still with all the hype and stories to come, I am looking forward to the game itself, and in particular looking at the coaching tape of the Falcons offence against the Patriots defence. Let’s just hope we get as good a game as we are all hoping for. Roll on Super Bowl LI!

Do I have to watch the Pro Bowl?

The Wrong Football Podcast – Episode 41

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With Championship week now just a memory, we’re left with just one game to go in the 2016 season. We take a look back at the AFC and NFC Championship games to see how the Falcons and the Patriots made it to the ‘Bowl. We also talk about the current state of the Quarterback and just where we see potential MVP Matt Ryan fitting in the grand scheme of things. And what will Antonio Brown be streaming on Facebook next?! All that and more this week on The Wrong Football Podcast!

Source: The Wrong Football Podcast – The Wrong Football Podcast – Episode 41

Fallen at the Final Hurdle

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It’s that strange time of year when the excitement builds towards the Super Bowl and finding out who will be crowned champions, yet we are running out of games. Even sticking to my routine of watching coaching tape of the Super Bowl, there is still only one game left. For many their thoughts are turning to the offseason and the hope of training camp or the joy/worry of draft season. However, I will say goodbye to the two teams who fell just short of the Super Bowl in a pair of noncompetitive conference championship games.

The Green Bay Packers came into the conference championship on a scorching run of form, but sadly fell well short of the Atlanta Falcons, particularly when things fell apart for them in the first half. The Falcons game started the game strongly on offence, able to move the ball and scored on eight of their first nine drafts. However, things could have been different for the Packers if the usually reliable Mason Crosby hadn’t missed a field goal and Aaron Ripkowski hadn’t fumbled the ball as he rumbled towards the Falcons’ twenty yard down. Instead of tying the game, they Packers fell seventeen points behind and they simply were not able to stop falcons or get enough points to get themselves back in the game.

It was a tough way for the Packers to finish their season, which is how it goes for all but one team in the NFL, but this was your archetypal one game too far for them. Too many injuries and too much being asked of Aaron Rodgers. They will go into an offseason of discontent. I’m sure the questions around their defensive coordinator Dom Capers and GM Ted Thompson will resurface, and Rodgers himself has talked about the team needing more urgency next year. There are reasonable questions about whether the Packers are getting the most out of their super star quarterback with the team they are surrounding him with. It would not take a great defence to help get him to the Super Bowl, and improvements to the offensive scheme and the run game would also help. However, if it were not for the Patriots, the idea that a team could compete every year would not be so strong. The problem for the Packers whilst they focus on being a draft and develop team is that they will rarely get a high draft pick with their level of success. There are plenty of players to be found in the draft, but most teams need a high first round pick to acquire that top level of talent. I certainly would not advocate for a strong push in free agency either, but given the success of free agents like Julius Peppers and Jared Cook it would seem that Thompson could afford to add more players via this route if he is capable of finding them.

In the end you would expect the Packers to competitive next year, but there is plenty of work to be done in the offseason.

The Pittsburgh Steelers did what most teams do when the travel to Foxborough and lost to the New England Patriots. They never really got on terms with the Patriots with their offence hampered by the first quarter loss of Le’Veon Bell to a groin injury, whilst the defence played a zone scheme that Tom Brady picked apart as he threw for three hundred and eighty-four yards. There have been a lot of question about the game plan in the following days with players claiming they weren’t ready for the Patriots to play up-tempo or that the Pats hadn’t run a flea flicker this year when they did against Baltimore in week fourteen.

There are a lot of positives about the way the Steelers run their operation and they clearly have a talent for spotting receivers, but they have had more than their share of questionable character guys cause them problems recently. This season Martavis Bryant missed the year due to falling foul of the league’s drug policy, Le’Veon Bell missed three games at the start of the season due to missing drug tests, meanwhile the team had to answer question all week about Antonio Brown live streaming Mike Tomlin’s post game locker room speech. They go into the offseason with Ben Roethlisberger questioning if he will play next season, although most suspect the thirty-four year old quarterback will come back The Steelers will need to find Roethlisberger some more receivers to complement Brown, as there were too many dropped passes although if Bryant can get back on the field and stay there that would help. They also can’t allow them to be so reliant on Le’Veon Bell, as talented as he is if you look at the games missed through injury or suspension you cannot afford for him to account for such a large part of your offence. On defence you have to think that whilst James Harrison is coming back for another year, the Steelers will need a long term replacement for him to play on the other side to Bud Dupree.

It doesn’t feel like there is a huge overhaul needed, and the Steelers are one of the most stable franchises in the league, but I do wonder if at some point some of the questions around the locker room, and or coaching might lead to some kind of adjustment. It certainly won’t be anything spectacular, but it is worth keeping an eye on.