AAF: Super Bowl

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It may be going up later than I had hoped, but the Super Bowl amateur adventures in film post is one of my favourites to write all year as it allows me to hold on to football for a week longer. For Super Bowl LII I wanted to take a look at the Patriots’ offensive line going up against the Philadelphia Eagle’s defensive line.

The first thing I have to say is that there was naturally a bit of mission creep when looking at the coaching tape as when looking at pass protections you have to also include any tight ends or running backs who end up blocking and for the Eagles I have to include any blitzing players.

The reason I wanted to highlight this is one of the firth things that leapt of the tape was just how good a blocker Rob Gronkowski is. Now I’ve heard plenty of people laud him as possibly the best tight end to play depending on how the rest of his career goes, but it is one thing to hear that Gronk is a good blocker and another to see how key he was in certain protection schemes. I am not claiming to be an expert, but there were plenty of snaps where it was Gronkowski’s job to stay in and block the defensive end or come inside on run plays to clear a linebacker out and he did this very effectively. This then could allow the Patriots double both interior linemen of the Eagles four man front which helped contain Brandon Graham when he moved inside to rush alongside Fletcher Cox.

In this game the Patriots did a number of things with their line. Yes they would run block as unit left or right, or they would pull right guard Shaq Mason or get Mason and left guard Joe Thurney up into the second level of the defence. There were also screen plays where centre David Andrews joined either or both guards to get downfield and spring the player catching the ball for good gains. However, whilst the Patriots mixed up their protection and how they blocked for the run, one feature that stay consistent through most of this game was Nate Solder being left to block his defender one on one in pass protection. Yes occasionally Rob Gronkowski or a running back would hit the end of their way out for a route, but Solder got virtually no help as this was the way that the Patriots could have the numbers to double defensive tackle Fletcher Cox and/or any other of the Eagles’ defensive line, except their right end who was Solder’s responsibility. There were only a couple of times that this caused a problem with one being the fourth and ten that Tom Brady converted in the Patriots’ final drive where Solder got to Fletcher Cox, who was running a stunt with defensive end Vinny Curry, but Solder was pushed back virtually into Tom Brady who still managed get the throw off and complete the pass for a first down just before Chris Long tackled Brady having got round right tackle Cameron Flemming. I remember one other play where Solder was straight beaten by an end but as the statistics tell us, the Patriots were able to move the ball well for large parts of this game, and Solder played a big part in enabling the pass protection schemes to work.

So what did happen to the Eagle’s vaunted pass rush? Well the answer is more complicated than just that the Patriots offence took care of them. Seldom does one player or one group of players dominate a game as much as we might think, and whilst the Patriots did play well there were still occasions where the Eagle’s line interrupted plays. It is hard to say the Eagle’s defence played well when they gave up over five hundred yards passing yards but more of that was due to their opposition than poor play.

The Eagles depth at defensive line was one of their strengths this season and certainly you could certainly see that at play in this game as not only was there a good mix of players, but they lined up on at various places along there four man front. There were plenty of times when Brandon Graham would move in from defensive end to rush as a second defensive tackle alongside Fletcher Cox so the Eagles could get another pass rushing end into the game. The only sack of the game was Graham’s play that ended the Patiots’ tenth drive, which basically sealed the game and Graham was rushing inside on this play with Chris Long outside him. I, like a lot of people, had the feeling that with 2:21 on the clock and Brady getting the ball that the Patriots were about to march down the field and win the game. However, whilst this crucial sack was the only one of the game, the Eagles did hit Brady another nine times and were able to affect throws even if they couldn’t get to him. In fact one of the reasons that the Eagles didn’t get more pressure was because Brady was so quick at getting the ball out and several times it was the timing of Brady’s throw as much as the blocking in front of him that defeated the Eagles pressure.

Overall this was a really interesting game to watch on coaching tape with the Patriots moving the ball but not having it all their own way and ultimately the Eagles won out with their defence able to make just enough plays that when coupled with their stellar offensive performance.

I’m going to take a few weeks off as I head into the offseason with some plans to do some reading, research for next season, and to get a second book published. I will be okay without football for a while but I’m sure the itch to write and blog will return and it will be a long time before there are games to watch again. However, this game will live in our minds for a long time, no small thanks to the performance of both teams and if the Eagle’s legacy is that teams are more aggressive with their play calling and approach that would be no bad thing.

It will as ever, be a long offseason.

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Super Bowl Preview

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The big day is here and as the end of my fourth season of blogging about the NFL approaches it is just left to preview the Super Bowl and take a look at the coaching tape next week. This year the final game comes down to the Philadelphia Eagles taking on the New England Patriots.

The Patriots have reached the Super Bowl for the third time in the last four seasons and this is Tom Brady and Bill Belichick’s eighth Super Bowl in seventeen years, which is simply an unprecedented number for a head coach and quarterback that match any other team’s number of total Super Bowls. This year started poorly with a loss to the Kansas City Chiefs and two losses in the first four games but still the Patriots were able to amass a 13-3 record and once again make the Super Bowl.

Their defence started off poorly, particularly in coverage, but improved through the year as communication got sorted and they found their way. This defence is still not a great one in terms of yards given up and finished the regular season ranked thirty-first in the league by DVOA with the rush defence a poor thirtieth and the pass defence a more respectable twenty-first. Their front seven has lost talent recent years and losing Don’t’a Hightower and rookie Derek Rivers to injury really didn’t help. However, the Patriots managed to finish the season fifth in points allowed this season and have their classic bend but don’t break approach working well enough that they haven’t given up more than twenty-seven points since the first four games where they started so poorly. The secondary has been playing well recently and it was a very typical move to pick up James Harrison off waivers late in the season and it would not be a surprise to see the veteran pass rusher make a couple of plays again in this game.

If the Patriots defence has struggled, the offence has excelled once again despite Tom Brady turning forty as he fights time to keep his career going. Brady finished the regular season with four and a half thousand yards, thirty-two touchdowns and only eight interceptions and already has a trademark come from behind win against the Jaguars in the post season. They were the number one ranked offence in the league by DVOA leading the league in passing offence and number three in rushing offence. There was an overhaul of their receiver group but they had to do all this without Brady favourite Julian Edelman who tore his ACL in pre-season. Still, Brady has made use of the plethora of running back options out of the backfield as well as tight end Rob Gronkowski who led the team in passing yards and receiver Brandin Cooks who seems to have quietly gone over a thousand yards as well this year. Special mention ought to go to receiver Danny Amendola who showed up big against the Jaguars when it mattered most and has a reputation for making big plays in the playoffs.

If the Patriots march to the Super Bowl had an air of inevitability about then the Eagles are almost a surprise representative for the NFC. In the offseason GM Howie Roseman continued to develop his team and signed a number of veterans who all seem to have contributed at various points giving the Eagles one of the most complete rosters in the league. Not content to rest on what he had done in the offseason Roseman also traded for Jay Ajayi in what appears to have been an almost prescient move when Carson Wentz, who was having an MVP calibre season, was lost for the season to injury in the Eagles’ week fourteen win against the LA Rams. The Eagles actually only lost their final game with nothing to play for once Wentz went down and also finished the regular season 13-3.

The Eagles offence may have finished the season ranked eighth in the league by DVOA, but they have found a way thanks to creative play calling, an offensive line that gets the job done and a rush attack that looks stronger than its ranking of seventeenth by DVOA. There has been much talk of the rush-pass-option or RPO plays that they run, but fundamentally this is a unit that continued to play well with a backup quarterback who looked genuinely good in his last outing against one of the best defences in the league. The huge question for the Eagles in this Super Bowl is whether head coach Doug Pederson and his staff can come up with a game plan that allows Nick Foles to be as effective in the Super Bowl with all the pressure that comes with being the starting quarterback for the big game. The Eagles strength and depth amongst their skill players facilitate the multiple ways their coaching staff attack different teams and should allow for the coaches to play how they want against the Patriots.

The Eagles defence finished the regular season ranked fifth in the league by DVOA and been effective against both the run and pass but particularly against the run where they rank third. This is perhaps not surprising given that the strength of this defence is the defensive line that has not only played well, but features depth which allows Jim Schwartz to not only be aggressive but maintain a fearsome pass rush into the fourth quarter when a lot of team’s pass rush gets tired. The Eagles have enough in their back seven to take advantage of this pass rush but it will be interesting to see how they fare against a quarterback of Brady’s ability in the season’s biggest game and so now feels like a good time to get into the matchups.

The big cliché before this game is one that I have used myself when talking about a team’s ability to beat Brady, namely that the formula is rushing four and playing good coverage. Now it is true that this is a formula to beat most teams, but it is harder to do than it first seems and Brady seems to be so strong against most defence but the way to bother him is to get pressure up the middle. The Jaguars played well for the most part against the Patriots but Brady still found a way and that has to be the worry for Eagles in this game. They will blitz more than the Jaguars and possibly have a better pass rush although their coverage players are not a strong. Still in Fletcher Cox they have a formidable rushing defensive tackle and the Patriots’ ability to mitigate this will go a long way to deciding the game. In Dante Scarnecchia the Patriots have one of the best offensive line coaches in the league and between his unit and Brady’s ability to recognise what a defence is doing and get rid of the ball they have the tools to allow the offence to function against the Eagles rush. In what I think is going to be a feature of this Super Bowl, the coaching matchup between these two sides of the ball is going to be fascinating. How the Eagles chose to cover Gronkowski and their success in executing it could go a long way in deciding this game.

When the Eagles have the ball the coaching matchup is also going to be enthralling. The usual approach that Belichick is known for on defence is that he makes a team beat them left handed i.e. he takes away what the opposing team does best. I have written before about the way he does this in coverage by putting his best cover corner on his opponent’s second best receiver and double covering their best, but this is not so easy when the ball is spread around the offence and it doesn’t feel to me like the Eagles have an obvious primary option to use this approach on. My hunch would be that with a backup quarterback, even one as talented as Nick Foles, the approach will be to stop the run and make Foles prove that he can play near the standard he set in the conference championship game and beat you. Even then, this is another great coaching matchup and as usual, red zone defence is going to be a key factor as it usually is for a team that often gives up few points even if the opponent can move the ball between the twenty yard lines.

I am really excited about this game as it has great promise in terms of the coaching matchups and the players involved, but it is a real shame that the Eagles are without Carson Wentz and I have to give the edge to the Patriots. It feels to me like this should be a close game with the experience of Brady and Belichick likely to win the day but I definitely think the Eagles will be a stern test and I can see them winning. The greatness of this Patriots run is already assured and we are witnessing a historic head coaching and quarterback pairing, perhaps for the last time, but that doesn’t guarantee they will triumph.

Now all that is left is to watch the game and witness football history.

AAF: Eagles’ Offence

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With the big game taking place tomorrow night, I have spent the last couple of days taking a look at the coaching tape from the Philadelphia Eagle’s big win over Minnesota Vikings in the NFC conference championship game.

This was an interesting to look at as for much of this game if felt like there was not as much between the Vikings defence and the Eagles offence as I felt when first watching the game. However, the Eagles were able to move the ball effectively for a lot of  the contest and it was a couple of bad plays in the secondary that really stretched the score line in the Eagles favour alongside the Vikings’ inability to move the ball with their offence.

The Eagles were able to run the ball effectively thanks to a combination of LeGarrette Blount and Jay Ajayi with Corey Clement also chipping in with some nice plays as a third running back. This genuine run threat allowed the Eagles to make effective use of play action and RPO. Now there has been a lot of talk read-pass-option in the NFL recently and so it is clearly an area I need to read up on in it a bit. The basic idea is that you have a play where the quarterback can either throw or handoff the ball depending on how the defence lines up. I certainly saw plays that would fit the bill and you do generally see more quick pass plays with the offensive line run blocking these days that would seem to fit the bill. I am a little hesitant to be too definitive as I don’t have the benefit of knowing the play calls or extensive discussions with coaches to help me pick them out on game tape (these posts are called amateur adventures in film for a reason) but I can see how it would be effective in the hands of the right quarterback.

RPOs are one way to attack a team, as is misdirection and that is definitely something Doug Pederson brought to his offence in this game. There was a lot of pre-snap motion from tight ends or receiver Nelson Agholor who ran as many fake runs as he did taking the ball from Nick Foles.

In fact this seems like a good time to talk about backup quarterback Nick Foles as he was really good in this game and not just from running quick pass plays. The impressive thing was how he was able to hold the ball on third down and find receivers. The pass towards the end of the second half that saw Alshon Jeffery score a fifty-three yard touchdown was nice but thirty-nine year old corner Terance Newman was beaten pretty easily for Jeffery to get behind the defence. However, there were other really nice throws where he had to show good pocket presence or roll out to throw the ball and I think my favourite play was the flea flicker that the Eagles ran in the third quarter to Torrey Smith who beat Trae Waynes on a stop go route, which combined with the hand off of the flea flicker was pretty devastating, and Foles was able to lead Smith into the end zone with the throw so that Harrison Smith playing deep safety on this play couldn’t get across to stop it.

The fourth quarter saw the Eagles run out a lot of clock effectively with a single back formation with an extra offensive lineman and two tight ends, but part of the effectiveness was the ability of Jay Ajayi to attack the edges of the defence although he is a powerful back can make yards go up the middle.

One of the things I’m most curious about for the Super Bowl is to see Pederson and his staff go up against Belichick and his coaches.  It should be a really well coached Super Bowl and the Eagles’ offence has a lot of tools that you can use to attack a defence that has given up a lot of yards this season. Much rests on how close to this performance Nick Foles can get, but I saw a lot to like as I will write about tomorrow when I preview the game.

Finally, this is a tough one for the Vikings who had a couple of injuries and a couple of bad plays, but they weren’t so far away from competing in this game but it was a bad timing for their performance level to drop for what has been one of the best defences in the league this year. This is one of the big reasons why they will be sat at home watching with the rest of us tomorrow.

AAF: Jaguars’ Offence

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For this particular amateur adventure in film I took a look a look at the Jacksonville Jaguars loss to the New England Patriots and specifically looked at what was going on with Jaguars’ offence.

For most of this game the Jaguars held a somewhat surprising lead and there has been some question about the play calling with some suggesting the Jaguars got too conservative. We can’t know what discussions were taking place on the side-line but having gone through the tape I can see how this accusation of being too conservative can be made.

The Jaguars are a self-declared run first team but they do use a mix of 11 personnel as well as two/three tight end groupings to go along with their running backs. One interesting wrinkle the Jaguars used several times was to have two running backs lined up in variations of shotgun with either both running backs stood next to Blake Bortles or to have Corey Grant flexed out as a slot receiver. The Jaguars did use plenty of more traditional two back sets with a fullback but this is not where the real issue seemed to come for the Jaguars in the run game. The single back formation seemed to work fine for running the ball, but when Bortles was in shotgun with just one running back stood next to him the Jaguars seemed to struggle to run the ball effectively and there were two stretches in this game where they predominantly ran on first and second down.

The one that everyone is talking about is in the fourth quarter but this play calling conservatism actually started in the second quarter. During the Jaguars fourth drive they start out with 21 personnel lined up in shotgun and Leonard Fournette ran up the middle for a small loss. The rest of the drive consisted of seven consecutive plays out of a one back shotgun formation that yield another three runs on first or second down, one completed third and long with a really good throw by Bortles, another third down completion by Bortles that was a good throw but was ruled out due to them not getting the play off in time, and a third down sack where Bortles scrambled to bide time and couldn’t convert.

After this drive the Jaguars then proceeded to give up a touchdown to the Patriots offence before demonstrating even more conservatism at the end of the first half when with fifty seconds left on the clock they knelt twice to get to half time. The end of halves are absolutely a time when you can get an edge by taking advantage of a possession to stretch a lead or close a gap, particularly if you are getting the ball at the start of the third quarter, but the Jaguars chose not to take advantage of this.

The third quarter started with a sustained Jaguars’ drive that led to a field goal, their next drive was a quick series and out, before they were able to drive the ball from their own nine yard line to get their final points with a field goal early in the fourth quarter and then the single back shotgun runs started in earnest again.

So if two stretches of conservative play calling  with only run plays being called on first and second down played a part in losing the Jaguars the game, what got the offensive moving in the first place? The answer is a balanced offence that used play action on first and second down as well as mixing in drop back throws. The Jaguars used the same action on multiple play where the first play was a play action pass, and then later on they used the same motion but actually handed the ball off to Fournette. Blake Bortles protected the ball for this game and made some nice throws, but there were one or two he simply missed and in the end he couldn’t make the kind of top quality plays the Jaguars needed to get over the top and win this game. That said, if the Jaguars had been a little more adventurous on first and second down at the end of both halves then with just a few more points they could have won this game. There were stretches when they successfully attacked the outside of the Patriots defence with both run and pass, which makes the runs up the middle in the conservative stretches so frustrating as they helped the Patriots defence slowly squeeze the Jaguars so that when at the end of the game, the Jaguars desperately needed Bortles to win the game, he couldn’t do it.

Some will argue that you can’t win with Bortles, and that he is not good enough to justify a nineteen million dollar contract next year. I’m not sure you can’t sign him up for a more reasonable number over a few years and see what you can develop behind him. I think the playoff experience will do Bortles some good but that if the Jaguars want to take another step next season, they need to play better situational football and try to apply pressure with their offence rather than simply limit Bortles mistakes. It’s not like he is suddenly going to turn into Tom Brady or Drew Brees, but in a league that is very short handed for quarterbacks I can see how a more aggressive approach with taking significantly more risks would better complement the Jaguars’ already impressive defence and who knows then what is possible?

I’m going to sneak in one little comment to show both what Bortles is capable of, but also to highlight an interesting wrinkle I saw from the Patriots ahead of their Super Bowl matchup. In the third quarter on third and eight, the Jaguars lined up in shotgun with 11 personnel and number 11 Marquise Lee in the slot. When Lee motions from the right side of the formation to the opposite side, Patriots defensive back Eric Rowe follows him, which often indicates man coverage. The fun thing is that when the ball is snapped, Rowe immediately rushes the passer, but Bortles was able drop back enough to throw the ball to running back TJ Yeldon who had come through the line and they got the first down. It was a good play from Bortles, but I loved the little detail on the coaching film, which is why I do this in the first place.

Roll on the Eagles offence against the Vikings and then the Super Bowl!

Fallen at the Final Hurdle

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So between illness and life it feels like a while since I’ve had a chance to sit down and get things written for the blog or said on the podcast.

The conference championship games from last weekend produced one blow out and once close contest, and the two losers have very different problems to face in the offseason although both have questions surrounding their quarterbacks.

In the first game the Jacksonville Jaguars fell to a seemingly inevitable Tom Brady comeback that put the New Patriots back into the Super Bowl again. I say again as this is the eighth time that Brady and Belichick have made the final game since 2001 but more on that next week. The Patriots had to stage another comeback because for a large chunk of this game the Jaguars were in the lead. In fact they took the lead at the start of the second quarter and didn’t relinquish it until 2:48 in the fourth quarter. The defence looked to control the Patriots whilst Blake Bortles looked good, throwing for nearly three hundred yards and a touchdown without turning the ball over. There has been much discussion of the decision to kneel with fifty second left in the second quarter and I agree that this was a contributing factor but the problem for me arose in the second half for the Jaguars’ offence. I’ve heard some say that the play calling was to conservative and others that the Patriots adjusted and that the Jaguars ran out of plays. It is hard for me to comment on how many passing plays the Jaguars had prepared, but the run on first down and lack of play action short throws did make it feel like the Jaguars were trying to protect their lead late in the game when I was watching this game for the first time. I’m going to go back and look at the Jaguars offence on coaching tape to see what happened this week so I might come back to this later.

The Jaguars themselves felt like they were the better roster after this game and couldn’t quite believe that they lost, but once again the Patriots proved themselves to be the masters of situational football and this is a team game. The good news is that the Jaguars have made plenty of progress and have a young foundation to build upon next year. As I watched the game I was thinking that Bortles had taken a step having come through two games of playoff pressure, but with an option that pays him nineteen million dollars next season, there still seems to be a lot of expectation that he might not be retained. I don’t really want to second guess this, but it will be the big turning point of the Jaguars’ offseason as they can either exercise the nineteen million option, sign him to a long term deal or cut him. There is nothing to say that he won’t sign a long term deal at a number that helps the Jaguars continue to build a team, after all that is what Brady has done, but I suspect regardless of what happens with the quarterback, this team will be making noise next year. The question is where the offence can live up to the standards the defence has set this season.

The second game started well for the Minnesota Vikings, with them taking a 7-0 lead and moving the ball well until Case Keenum had his throwing motion altered by the Eagle’s Chris Long on a play in the second Vikings’ drive that caused Keenum to throw an interception and then things fell spectacularly apart. The Vikings were not to score another point as the Philadelphia Eagles ran out easy 38-7 winners.

There must be a familiar sense of doom for Vikings fans given their history of tough playoff losses but following their miracle win the week before, the Vikings just couldn’t find a way to compete. On offence they simply were unable to cope with the depth of the Eagles’ defensive line and the pass rush stopped what had been a formidable offence as Stefon Diggs and Adam Thielen can’t do much if Case Keenum can’t get them the ball. The Vikings quarterback only took one sack but was not comfortable and the Vikings could keep their offence balanced as they fell further behind the Eagles.

Perhaps more surprising was how much the Vikings defence struggled against the Eagles’ offence. This was a unit that had been historically good on third down this season ranked second by DVOA with a far more even split between rush and pass defence than the Jaguars ranked above them. However, Doug Pederson found a way to maximise the abilities of his backup quarterback (albeit a highly qualified one) and demonstrated a big improvement from the previous week’s narrow win over the Falcons. This was a matchup I was really looking forward to as Zimmer is one of the best defensive minds in the game but he seemed to have no answer to the Eagles in this game. The loss of Andrew Sandejo in the game had a dentrimental effect and was something I noticed when he went out against the Saints the week before, and Xavier Rhodes was also struggling with a toe injury that saw him leave the for a stretch and although he battled, the defence clearly struggled. I’ll be taking a look at the Eagles offence next week as I prep for the Super Bowl so these injuries will be worth paying attention to then.

The tough thing for the Vikings as they head into the offseason is that not only do they currently have three quarterbacks going into free agency, but they have an established defence with many players already getting paid and a pair of linebacker starters expiring at the end of next season. This means they can’t really afford to wait around on developing a quarterback but with the multiple injuries of Sam Bradford meaning you can’t rely on him to play, the fact that Teddy Bridgewater has barely played in two years thanks to his horrific knee injury, and Case Keenum only having a year of quality starting who do you sign and at what size contract is a huge question. That’s if the Vikings even stick to the quarterbacks on their roster, but with offensive co-ordinator Pat Shurmur moving on to become the head coach of the New York Giants the Vikings will have a new offensive co-ordinator who they will be picking from those still available. The impressive thing Shurmur managed this year was to build a functioning offensive line and make the most out of a starting quarterback who had not achieved to this level before. An offseason of change on offence awaits and whilst it is certainly not impossible that the Vikings will be good on offence again next season given the quality of skill players theu have, Mike Zimmer and his staff face a big challenge going into next season. I have a lot of faith in Zimmer and I’m not saying they can’t do it, but you wouldn’t necessary count on it and with Aaron Rodgers coming back from the injury for the Green Bay Packers the NFC North could be a hard division for the Vikings to win again next season.

Conference Championship Games

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Jacksonville Jaguars @ New England Patriots

This weekend’s games start with the boisterously confident Jaguars travelling to face a Patriots team who seem as buttoned down as ever despite the ESPN story that broke about tensions between the owner, his head coach and their half of fame quarterback.

The Patriots made short work of the Titans last week and have seemed destined for the AFC championship game for most of the season. The defence may have struggled early in the season and finished ranked thirty-first by DVOA but they also gave up the fifth fewest points in the regular season and look to be good enough when paired with the number one offence in the league. Lots of people are familiar with the Bill Belichick’s defensive approach of taking away what a team does best and you imagine that they will be focussing on stopping the run and making Blake Bortles beat them with his arm. We could even see them focussing on containing Bortles in the pocket as Belichick acknowledged his running ability, although you can’t exactly rely on what little information you get out of a Belichick press conference.

On the other side of the ball the numbers still seem to be there for Tom Brady who has had a couple of niggling injuries this season and had another scare this week when he jammed his hand in practise. There has been a lot of speculation regarding Brady’s hand but the reports are that he sustained a cut to his thumb in practice and that has had to be stitched, but Brady practised Friday and should start the game. The big mismatch for the Patriots’ offence will be Gronkowski as it usually is, but they will face a stern test from the best defence in the league by DVOA. If there is a formula for beating Brady in the playoffs it involves being able to get pressure with four and good coverage. The Jaguars have the players to do this but the Patriots are likely to use bigger personnel packages to challenge the defence and take advantage of a rush defence that finished the regular season ranked twenty-sixth by DVOA.

The Jaguars come into this game full of confidence having won their first two playoff games in a long time but their defence whilst ranking number one in pass defence by DVOA, only ranks twentieth against tight ends and fifteenth against running backs when looking at DVOA against specific types of receiver. The Jaguars already have a tendency to rush four and cover as mentioned above, but if they can’t stop Brady finding his tight ends and running backs then we know Brady has the patience and skill to keep picking up short gains and drive the length of the field to score.

The offence for the Jaguars looked much better last week and they used play action well to get Bortles throws he is comfortable with. A lot will rest on Leonard Fournette’s ankle and whether he can play as he did in the first quarter of last week’s game. That said, whilst TJ Yeldon is a very different running back that might lack the power of Fournette to take on stacked fronts, he proved effective catching the ball against the Steelers and had three times for fifty-seven yards giving him the most receiving yards in the game. If Bortles can continue to spread the ball around like he did last week then the Jaguars might be able to eke out the points they need, but you have to think that he will facing a Patriots defence that will be disciplined in their run defence, focussing on not allowing Bortles to scramble as well as the running backs, and try to make Bortles beat them by making accurate throws into tight windows.

I think that most people would still give the edge to the Patriots but the Jaguars faced that last week as well and they are probably the team the Patriots least wanted to face given their resemblance to other teams that have beaten them in the post-season in the past. It should be a fascinating game.

Minnesota Vikings @ Philadelphia Eagles

The NFC conference game pits the first seed Eagles against the second seed Vikings who finished the season with the same 13-3 record and who were the fourth and fifth ranked teams by DVOA at the end of the regular season.

The Eagles eked out a win last week against the Falcons on the back off a controlled offence performance and a defence that kept the Falcons from getting two hundred yards passing or one hundred yards rushing. The Eagles defence finished the season ranked fifth in the league by DVOA and were top ten against both the run and the pass. The strength of the defence is their line and in Fletcher Cox they have one of the best interior linemen in the league. They will try to pressure the Vikings and will need to as their secondary could struggle to contain the Vikings’ excellent receivers.

However, if the Eagles are to win this game then their offence has to do a job with their backup quarterback. The game plan last week was to run the ball to control the game and give Nick Foles the kind of throws he can make to win the game. They may have only scored fifteen points with one touchdown and run the ball eighty-six yards but it was enough for them to the win. In Nick Foles they have a backup with a lot more experience than most and whilst no one expects him to replicate the amazing form he had for one year under Chip Kelly, the Eagles have proved they can be competitive with him. However, they are facing a fearsome defence that is co-ordinated by one of the best defensive minds in the game.

The Vikings defence finished the season ranked second in the league by DVOA and excellent players at all three levels of the defence. They may show blitz a lot with Mike Zimmer’s trademark double A gap look where two linebackers line up on the defensive line from where they can then blitz or drop into coverage. Unlike the Jaguars’ number one unit, the Vikings are pretty evenly balanced against the run and the pass so this scheme matchup of Zimmer against Doug Pederson and his offensive staff should be an intriguing schematic battle.

The Vikings offence has played remarkably well when you consider that they have lost both a starting quarterback and running back. Still, Case Keenum has been playing since week two of the regular season and has had a really productive break out season culminating in a last second win last week. He is ably helped by one of the best pairings of receivers in the league and the Eagles will have their work cut out to cover both Stefon Diggs and Adam Thielen. The Vikings may not run the ball brilliantly, in fact they only ranked seventeenth by DVOA, but they do it often and well enough for it to enable their play fakes to be effective and so they will try to keep the Eagles defence guessing.

The Vikings will be without their home field advantage but were competitive on the road and I think have a slight edge in this game with the Eagles not having Carson Wentz. However, if the Eagles stay in this game the Philadelphia crowd will make life very difficult and this could be a very close game.

The Playoff Fallen

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So I need to catch up with the teams who have departed the playoffs so having started this post last week, here’s my now finished run through the playoff fallen starting with the losing wild card teams.

The first team to fall were the Kansas City Chiefs who managed to lose a game to the Tennessee Titans that they were leading 21-3 at half time. The Chiefs have been up and down this season with a significant mid-season lull that gave way to a four game win streak coming into their playoff game against the Titans. However, a number of factors combined for the Chiefs to lose this Wildcard game and demonstrated one of the warts that has affected them all year. The defence of the Chiefs has had problems ever since safety Eric Berry ruptured his Achilies, but their overall ranking of thirtieth by DVOA and dead last against the run showed up in this game when the Chiefs failed to stop the Titans’ second half come back and Derrick Henry finishing the game with one hundred and fifty-six rushing yards. The Chief offence also came to a sputtering stop once Travis Kelce left the game with a concussion meaning the Titans could focus on stopping the speedy Chiefs receivers with two deep safeties. The Chiefs further played into this by only giving Kareem Hunt elven carries in the entire game and running Alex Smith at inopportune moments. The Cheifs’ recent playoff record is also clearly on their usually very loud crowd’s mind as it got quieter the better the Titans did, although I defy any fan to be confident when the opposing quarterback throws a touchdown pass to himself.

This could well be Alex Smith’s final game for the Chiefs given his 1-4 playoff record in the five season that he and head coach Andy Reid have been with the franchise and with Patrick Mahomes waiting in the wings. I don’t believe this loss can really be blamed on Smith and they could stick with him as they develop a still raw Mahomes but patience does seem to be wearing thin for a section of their fans and the narrative seems to be that Smith will leave in the offseason. Their current offensive co-ordinator Matt Nagy has already left to be the new head coach of the Chicago Bears and with Smith’s current playoff record perhaps it is time to change with a new coordinator coming in. The defence will also need an overhaul given the age of a number of players and their reliance on a twenty-nine year old safety who will be recovering from an Achilles injury next season. In recent years the Chiefs have been competitive but their approach last offseason seemed to be split between short term and long term agendas and I am curious to see how they approach this one.

The second team to lose on wild car weekend were the LA Rams whose remarkable turnaround season couldn’t overcome the playoff experience of the Atlanta Falcons whose defence was able to stifle the Rams offence. This was mainly due to excellent tackling against the short routes so although Todd Gurley did get over one hundred yards on the ground, he was not able to dominated in the way he has for much of the season. As frustrating as this loss was, part of the problem were repeated special teams miscues by Pharoh Cooper early in the game, which was not a reflection of his Pro Bowl special teams play through the year. Still, this was a season of marked improvement for the Rams with plenty of young players to grow with their coach and you would expect them to be competitive next season but it has to be hard for Andrew Whitworth to lose another wild card playoff game.

The Buffalo Bills scraped into the playoffs on the back of a final drive fourth down touchdown pass from the Bengals’ Andy Dalton but they couldn’t overcome the Jaguars in their first playoff game in eighteen years. The Bills defence managed to contain the Jaguars offence by committing to stopping the run and daring Blake Bortles to beat them in his first playoff game. This plan could have worked if Tyrod Taylor didn’t have nearly as bad a game as Bortles and LeSean McCoy was fully healthy, but the offence couldn’t do enough and the game was lost 10-3. This was still a turnaround for the Bills and first year head coach Sean McDermott has things to work on but offensive co-ordinator Rick Dennison paid the price and the Bills will be one of several teams looking for a quarterback this offseason. The Bills could continue their improvement, but they will be limited until they get a quarterback and offence in place that everyone in the franchise believes in.

The final wild card game saw the Carolina Panthers lose to the New Orleans Saints for the third time this year. The Panthers have been very solid on defence all year, but their offence has been very up and down. A slow start was not that surprising given that Cam Newton was coming off shoulder surgery in the offseason and the Panthers were trying a new approach, but this never really took and the offence didn’t really start to work until Newton began to run more. This made the play of Newton very important for how the offence went, which is not that unusual for a quarterback but Newton’s size ability to run, whilst being a dangerous weapon, has to make up for his volatility in the passing game. When Newton is on he is as dangerous a quarterback as there is in the league, but with injuries at receiver (the Panthers also traded away Kelvin Benjamin during the season) and Newton’s favourite target tight end Greg Olsen battling with a foot injury that was clearly still affecting him, he was not able to beat the Saints despite playing well. Going into the offseason the Panthers have replaced offensive co-ordinator Mike Shula with Norv Turner so a new offence will be installed in the summer and it will be fascinating to see how these changes work and how Newton takes to although at least he will be able to practise this offseason.

Moving on to last week’s games and the first team to fall were the Atlanta Falcons who couldn’t match their performance against the Rams when they lost to the Philadelphia Eagles in a tight competitive game. The Falcons were only able to score ten points on the league’s fifth ranked defence by DVOA but whilst the offensive rankings of the Falcons don’t look bad (tenth in passing and sixteenth rushing by DVOA) it does feel like this unit underachieved given the calibre of players available. Yes some regression from last year’s stellar performance was to be expected but it has been a difficult year for Steve Sarkisian in taking over from Kyle Shanahan and whilst he is coming back next season, there will be pressure to improve or the discontent could cause real problems. This could be true for the whole staff given the painful playoff exit and the Super Bowl last year given that both games were winnable. Still, if the offence can be brought round and the defence continues its rise the Falcons could be very formidable next season.

The Tennessee Titans had done well to win their first game against the Chiefs, but there are limits and it was always going to be a tough job to go into Gillette stadium and beat the New England Patriots. To their credit, the Titans kept it competitive for a quarter and took a 7-0 lead before the Patriots shook off the rust from their bye week and ran out easy 35-14 winners. The Titans were pretty average in all three phases of the game this season and actually ranked three places lower by overall DVOA at eighteenth compared to last season. Despite getting a playoff win head coach Mike Mularkey was unable to come to an agreement with the Titans’ front office and so they will be looking for someone new to develop Marcus Mariota. The team definitely improved under Mularkey with a pair of winning seasons but the play of their young quarterback does not look to have progressed as you would hope and I have to think they are looking for a new offensive philosophy and someone who can make one of the most dynamic quarterback in recent college history look like that in the pro game. Given the success that the Chiefs and others have had in incorporating elements from the college game into their offence this does seem achievable, but it all depends on who takes over. Still, at least the Titans have progressed and they are no longer a team devoid of talent and identity, but there are some very big decisions to be made this offseason.

The NFL had great pair of games on Sunday and the opener saw the Pittsburgh Steelers lose to the Jacksonville Jaguars 45-42 and crash out the playoffs at home. The Steelers had got a first round bye with a 13-3 record and finished the regular season ranked inside the top ten in all three phases of the game by DVOA. However, there were two problems that sank them in this game. I am reluctant to talk about motivation and whether the players were looking past the Jaguars to a conference championship game at the Patriots, a matchup that many had expected for a lot of the season, but what I can say is that the Steelers started slow. The Jaguars got out to a 21-0 lead early in the second quarter, and whilst the Steelers were able to get back into the game, they were never able to get closer than seven points until the very last second of the game with a meaningless touchdown that came too late. The Steelers offence did manage to put up forty-two points against one of the best defences in the league but it was not easy and there had to be a lot of impressive catches and fourth down conversions to get them. On the other side of the ball, the Steelers’ defence never looked the same one Ryan Shazier was lost to the spinal contusion he picked up in the Steelers’ brutal game against the Bengals in week thirteen. The talk has mostly been about fourth down conversions and the slow start, but the Steelers defence let a league average offence with Blake Bortles as their quarterback put up forty-five points on them and that has to hurt.

Some changes are already taking place. There appears to have been discord between offensive co-ordinator Todd Haley and Ben Roethlisberger but Haley’s contract has expired and he is not being renewed. It looks like quarterbacks coach Randy Fichtner will replace him and Roethlisberger looks to be a lot more committed to coming back next season than he was last offseason with all his talk of retirement. Still, given that Shazier had to have spine stabilisation surgery and as far as we know hasn’t walked yet, let alone be anywhere near playing football again (if that is even a possibility), the Steelers will need to address the defence again this offseason but it feels like they should be able to take another deep run next season.

If the first game on Sunday saw an upset against a veteran quarterback, the second saw a miraculous play knock out the New Orleans Saints and their future hall of fame quarterback. The Saints finally managed to assemble a defence that could do enough to get Drew Brees into the playoffs again, ably helped by the league’s best rushing attack by DVOA. Two all NFL rookies helped with this turn around and having seen off the Panthers last week, it looked like the Saints were going to beat the second seeded Minnesota Vikings when they found themselves on fourth down with seconds to go, no timeouts, and were one point behind the Saints. However, another one of the Saints’ rookies, safety Marcus Williams who already had an interception in this game made a horrible play as Stefon Diggs caught a ball in front of him. All Williams had to do was stop Diggs from getting out of bounds and hold him up so Diggs could be tackled in bounds, but he came flying past Diggs without touching him allowing Diggs to turn and suddenly there was no one between him and the end zone. The Vikings fans fortunes finally changed as the miraculous play went their way and the Saints promising season came to a shuddering halt.

That play will haunt Williams all offseason, whilst the franchise will be worrying about re-signing Drew Brees who is an unrestricted free agent. However, given the way this year’s team played, and the potential for their rookie players to develop further next year then it is hard not to see Brees back playing for the Saints and them being very competitive next season. After a number of years where they were asking Brees to do too much, they now look setup to compete as long as Brees is willing and able to play like he did this year. We should make the most of being able to watch him whilst we still can.

AAF: Patrick Mahomes

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The last week of the regular season was my final chance to take a look at a player or thing from twenty different teams, but it was the Chiefs decision to start rookie Patrick Mahomes in their final game ahead of the playoffs that caught my imagination.

I was intrigued to see the player that the Chiefs traded up in the first round to get last April even though they had a team capable of competing for and in the end winning their division. Having watched the game I think intrigued is definitely the word I would continue to use.

Patrick Mahomes spent most of his time taking shotgun snaps and the majority of his passes were quick throws and play action. The offence didn’t flow particularly, but there were a number of other offensive starters rested and once Kareem Hunt had run for thirty-five yard and a touchdown on his single carry he too was sat for the day now that he had the most yards on the ground for the season.

You can see why the Chiefs took Mahomes though. I tend to think that we are too focussed on arm strength when assessing a quarterback and as long as they have enough to deliver the ball accurately then you can build an offence for them to function. However, Mahomes clearly has an arm and whilst I’m don’t think I’m qualified to assess his mechanics particularly, he also has the ability to make time in the pocket and throw the ball on the move. As is frequently the case with this type of ability, this can result in wow plays that get you excited and balls that will make a QB coach scream in frustration. There were not too many, but there were definitely throws and decision that Mahomes will be discussing with his coach at some point.

The quick plays work as Mahomes can deliver the ball quickly and on target, with receiver Albert Wilson making a lot of yards after the catch to help Mahomes figures. There were plenty of times when Mahomes would escape pressure and find a receiver, dump the ball off or throw the ball away, and he was only sacked twice. He even shook of one attempted sack and completed a pass up the middle for the touchdown. However, he also threw a horrible interception where he simply overthrew the pass straight to Broncos safety Darian Stewart.

It is always hard to make grand pronouncements from one game, but it feels like a lot of people are already moving Alex Smith out of Kansas and I do wonder if the Chiefs might want to develop Mahomes for another season before they start him full time. Yes after conservative play calling and sitting Mahomes for a drive, he did lead the game winning drive that enabled the Chiefs to kick a field goal but he did get some help with a badly timed offside penalty from the Broncos. He clearly has talent, and I remain intrigued, which is as much as you should probably expect from first start in the NFL, but the Chiefs already have a quarterback who got them into the playoffs so whilst you will want him to start to develop. The timing of when this transition happens is going to be something that will be the focus for this team as soon as the season ends.

Wildcard Sunday

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Buffalo Bills (9-7) @ Jacksonville Jaguars (10-6)

The early game on Sunday is also probably the unlikeliest if you had asked anyone before the start of the season as it features the Bills breaking a seventeen season streak of not making the playoffs travelling to Jacksonville to face a Jaguars team who themselves haven’t played a playoff game in ten years.

The Jaguars stuck with interim head coach Doug Marrone having fired Gus Bradley during last season and brought Tom Coughlin back to help in the front office. The change has worked with a couple of further additions to an already talented defence creating a unit that led the league by DVOA and that has carried the team through the season. The only problem has been that the offence has been so focussed on running the ball and limiting quarterback Blake Bortles that this is not a team built to come from behind. With the league’s best passing defence this has not been a problem during the regular season but could be an issue in the playoff as the level of competition increases and they face some of the best offences in the league.

The Bills come into this game after the high of breaking a streak of missing the playoff but I’m not sure anyone would have predicted that happening during an offseason where the new regime overhauled the roster, trading away known names as they started again. This continued into the season and it was clear that a long term project was under way and that the team wanted a particular type of player on the roster. The main talk surrounding first year head coach Sean McDermott was his decision to start Nathan Peterman in week eleven. The rookie quarterback threw five interceptions and the game was lost horribly but to McDermott’s credit he did not lose the team after this debacle and nearly everything else has been impressive about the way the Bills have competed in his first year. Their offence may only be ranked twenty-sixth in the league by DVOA, but they can run the ball and Tyrod Taylor may be conservative but he does not turn the ball over. In LeShaun McCoy the Bills have a running back that can break big runs but he is carrying an ankle injury coming into this game and whilst it looks like he will start, a back that is successful because of their lateral movement and explosiveness is definitely going to be affected by an ankle problem. This is a shame given that the Jaguars rank a surprising twenty-sixth against the run. The Bills defence is sold rather than spectacular but did generate twenty-five turn overs, which was eleventh in the league.

In this battle of playoff underdogs my heart wants the Bills to win, but the head thinks that the Jaguars are the better team. If Blake Bortles has a bad game and McCoy can show some of his top form then the Bills can win this game, but they really need further improvements to truly compete and I would expect the Jaguars to win this one.

This game does represent want the NFL wants, competitive balance with every team truly able to sell to their fans that next season we can make the playoffs..

Carolina Panthers ((11-5) @ New Orleans Saints (11-5)

The final game of the weekend looks to be one of the most competitive as two division rivals with matching records face off against each other.

The Carolina Panthers have had a strange season where their defence has looked good all year, finishing sixth by DVOA but the offence has been up and down all season. An early attempt to change the way Cam Newton plays did not work and it was only when they went back to running him that the offence was truly effective. The problem with this is that unlike the season where he led this team to the Super Bowl, Newton’s play has been erratic and he has put in some truly bad passing performances. However, he is a truly dynamic player that can wreak havoc running the ball and he is likely to need to as his receiving options are not playing that well currently and his favourite receiver Greg Olson has not returned to his usual form since returning from the foot injury that kept the tight end out for most of the season. The Panthers do have a dynamic rookie receiving running back in Christian McCaffrey but with the evolution of the offence it doesn’t feel like the Panthers have a clear overall plan and so he has flashed his undoubted skill rather than dominated.

The Panthers travel to face a Saints team who have demonstrated just how quickly a team can turn round in the NFL. The Saints were coming off three seasons of 7-9 and seemed to be wasting the end of Drew Brees Hall of Fame career as they could not surround him with a defence that could make the team competitive. The highlights of this turn around are two players who could arguably be offensive and defensive rookie of the year. In running back Alvin Kamara they have an efficient complement to Mark Ingram who is truly terrifying in space and has the hands to help Drew Brees in the short passing game. In Marshone Lattimore they have a rookie corner who looks anything but a rookie and although it took a few weeks for the defence to gel, they finished the season ranked eighth in the league by DVOA and the Saints were overall number one as well.

The easy narrative for this game is that it is hard to beat a team three times in a row, but football is a game of matchups and in both of their previous games the Saints have scored thirty points and won the game. The Panthers have been one of the more aggressive teams in the league in terms of blitzing and the Saints have been pretty similar in this aspect of defence, but Brees is a much more precise quarterback and is better equipped to exploit the quick passes necessary to disarm the blitz. Newton is more than capable of using his legs to gain yards and avoid pressure but it feels like the Panthers, whilst being competitive are less likely to win this game.

I am very much looking forward to seeing how this game unfolds, but I do expect the Saints to run out winners for a third time.

Wildcard Saturday

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Tennessee Titans (9-7) @ Kansas City Chiefs 10-6)

The first game of the weekend pits the stumbling Titans against the resurgent Chiefs.

The Chiefs started the season strongly, winning five straight games before losing their way in the middle of the season but having won their last four games they are looking something more like the team that started the season. Ever since Andy Reid handed play calling duties back to his co-ordinator Matt Nagy things have gone better for the Chiefs offence, which finished the season ranked fourth in the NFL by DVOA. However, the defence has continued to struggle, ranked thirtieth overall by DVOA and last is in the league against the run.

The Titans’ season never quite took off this season, but they kept grinding out enough results to make the playoffs. They are not the worst ranked team in the playoffs by DVOA but their offence has struggled and Marcus Mariota has not really looked right all year despite the team investing in receiving options in the offseason. It will not help an offence that was at least top ten in running the ball to be missing running back DeMarco Murray who has been ruled out through injury. The Titans will need to run the ball effectively against the Chiefs’ poor run defence to control the clock if they are to win this game and have lost half of their two pronged back field.

There is a template for the Titans to win this game, but on the road in the famously loud Arrowhead stadium I find it hard to see them running the ball well enough and containing the explosive Chiefs offence enough to win. They might keep it close, this is the playoffs after all, but in the end I think the Chiefs run out winners in this one.

 

Atlanta Falcon (10-6) @ Los Angeles Rams (11-5)

In one of the games of the weekend the Rams who changed their fortunes so drastically in a year welcomes a Falcons team who are still trying to get over last season.

The Rams made a statement against the Indianapolis Colts in the opening game of the season and have pretty much lived up to it for the rest of the year. In fact the only true bad loss of the year was against Washington in week two. Certainly by the time they faced the Seahawks for a second time they were up for the challenge and got the biggest win for a road team in Seattle in a very long time. There has been a lot of praise for thirty-one year old rookie head coach Sean McVay who has turned round a moribund offence whilst being brave enough to hire Wade Philips and let him do his thing despite Philips being over twice McVay’s age. The offence built around Todd Gurely, who ran for thirteen hundred yards and caught nearly eight hundred yards of passing, has made Jared Goff a competent quarterback and they have put up big scores against the teams they should whilst competing well against better competition. The defence has also played well and is also top ten by DVOA plus boasts in Aaron Donald, a terrifying interior pass rusher who should be defensive player of the year. They may lack playoff experience but they are a formidable proposition.

The Atlanta Falcons were always going to find the year after the lost such a big lead in the Super Bowl difficult, but with Kyle Shanahan leaving to become head coach of the 49ers the offence has stumbled all year. They have more than enough talent and in Julio Jones one of the very best receivers in the league but whilst some regression to the mean after last year’s stellar season was to be expected, this team is only just in the top ten of offences by DVOA and that doesn’t seem good enough. More worrying for them is that starting guard Andy Levitre tried to go in the last game of the season and only managed five plays. Facing Aaron Donald is not the time to have a backup playing one of your interior offensive line spots. Even more worrying for the Falcons is that their defence is a surprising twenty-second by DVOA and whilst I knew that Vic Beasly wasn’t playing with the form he had last season where he was one of the leading sack getters, I thought this fast young defence was better than their DVOA ranking. They also play the same scheme as the Seahawks who the Rams have played twice this year and so it could be a long day against a very good offence.

This looks to be a really good game, and I’m thoroughly looking forward to it, but I have to think that the Rams will win out in the end. That said, some small part of me still thinks that the Falcons of last season might re-appear, but it would be a surprising if the Rams didn’t win..