Alex Mack, Andrew Luck, Andy Dalton, Cam Newton, Carolina Panthers, Cincinnati Bengals, Cleveland Browns, Indianapolis Colts, Joe Thomas, Johnny Manziel, Luke Kuechly, NFL, Randy Starks, Tyler Eifert, Week 9 Picks
I’m attempting a little personal madness this morning as I try to fit three separate things I usually write into one week saving article so here goes.
The Bengals welcomed the Browns to town this Thursday as the battle of Ohio played out in from of a national audience, and it was a dramatic turn around from last year’s game that the Browns won, leaving Andy Dalton with 2.0 passer rating.
On offence the Browns started Johnny Manziel and it feels somewhat strange that he is starting and we’ve had barely a mention of the incident with his girlfriend in their car. We don’t know all the details yet so it is too early to judge, but given that the NFL are investigating what happened, it feels odd for him to be playing in this new world of investigations and Commissioner’s exempt list that we have become so familiar with. On the field he demonstrated both the flaws within the structure of the offence that is the real criticism of his play, and that when plays brake down you get glimpses of the play making ability that tantalise some into thinking that he could make it work. Whilst you wouldn’t say he exactly played badly, the one touchdown drive he had relied heavily on three long plays where he was forced out of the pocket and was able to find a receiver down the field. The problem is that the Bengals adjusted at half time to focus on keeping him in the pocket and the Browns didn’t score another point. The Browns generated a measly two hundred and thirteen yards total offence, unable to run or pass consistently to sustain drives leading to them getting ten less first downs than the Bengals in the game.
Part of the Browns struggle was that despite having two very well known offensive linemen in Alex Mack and Joe Thomas, they really struggled against the Bengals defensive line who were able to get pressure on Manziel consistently even if they only started sacking him in the second half. Watching the line you frequently saw Geno Atkins disrupting plays with penetration and he got himself a sack whilst Carlos Dunlap picked up two. There were also a number of batted passes when Manziel was throwing the ball, as the defence adapted and stiffened to keep the Browns contained all game.
The Bengals offence took advantage of the Browns problems with run defence gaining one hundred and fifty-two yards split between the team leading Giovani Bernard and Jeremy Hill. Meanwhile Andy Dalton was quietly efficient in the passing game, throwing for two hundred and thirty-four yards on twenty-one completions from twenty-seven attempts with Tyler Eifert catching all three of his touchdown passes. Eifert has been one of the huge differences to the Bengals this year with the matchup problems he creates and the help he has given in the red zone contributing to this team’s number two ranking on offence by DVOA.
I don’t feel there’s a lot to write about the Browns defence having already mentioned their season long problem with defending the run, but they did manage to get a couple of sacks and actually looked quite good against the pass in this game. However, even when things went well the Browns gave up points in Brown like ways. In the second quarter on the drive where they gave up a touchdown, Randy Starks stuffed Giovani Bernard and immediately gave up a fifteen yard penalty for taunting, and not content with that later on he gave the Bengals a first down and rescued their drive when he was caught offside on a play that should have turned the ball over due to an incompletion.
In the first half I thought my pick for the game might stand a chance with the Browns only four points behind at the end, but the defence adjusted and the Bengals eased themselves out to another win. I’m still waiting for things to go wrong, but obviously I am thrilled with how the season has gone so far. The Browns were shopping players at the end of the trade window, although who would think that they would make the most of any of the draft picks they were looking for. There needs to be a much more stable plan in Cleveland if they hope to ever do something in the AFC North.
Now it is time for me to move into the coaching tape write up, which this week I am combining with my normal weekly column as I am running out of time this week, but also I fell into one of the traps that highlights the joys and the madness of the NFL.
We all enjoy the excitement, admire the skill, and marvel at the physicality of watching football on game day, but there is also a whole other world of things to discover in the coaching tape. The all twenty-two and end zone views allow us to study all the personnel groupings, formations, and schematic battles that occur on every down, showing us why a receiver is wide open, why a player is dancing through the offensive line to make a tackle or sack in the backfield.
The problem for someone like me is that this season I am picking one game to go through, and then I have everything to look at. I am still refining my note taking, but I sat for an hour going through the Colts at Panthers from week eight and didn’t even make it out of the first quarter!
What I did see was that the Panthers defence is really good, and if you look at the end zone view you can really see why Luke Kuechly is such a special linebacker. Not only is he active before the snap, but he diagnoses the play so quickly and can knife forward to stuff the run at the line of scrimmage or drop seamlessly into coverage. It was also interesting to look at the Panthers offence and see just how they are maximising their output from Cam Newton, who is playing better this season but still overthrows receivers regularly in the passing game and can lack touch. However, he is a unique weapon in the running game as you simply do not see a quarterback regularly run head down like a running back into the opposing defence. It would terrify me if I was a Panthers fan as he takes so many hits, but he also pops up into the kind of face to face confrontation with the tackling defender in a way reminiscent of a running back, which is a lot of fun.
I didn’t see that many snaps by the Colts offence due to the flow of the quarter, but it is strange to see the media narrative surrounding Andrew Luck’s season, where he has gone from the next generational league saving quarterback in the preseason to a failing quarterback. There are worrying trends this season, he’s always thrown interceptions, but they are getting worse this season, and I got to see that in the one quarter of football in this game that I did see. On third down Charles Tillman playing right corner dropped into an under zone and Luck clearly did not account for him when he threw to TY Hilton running a route behind the corner, and so Tillman was able to intercept the ball before Hilton had a chance to make the catch. The problem is not so much the receivers, but the offensive line they have put in front of Luck and the twenty-fifth by DVOA rush offence they have given him this season. A young quarterback is always helped by a rushing game, and there has been a long string of quarterbacks who have been knocked out of the league by playing behind lines that could not protect them. The Colts fired their offensive coordinator and promoted Rob Chudzinski in a weirdly timed move given they have a short week before facing the leagues best defence and then go into a bye.
If you read anything about NFL coaching, then you will likely hear about the hours they put into looking at tape and coming up with plans, and as an amateur with an interest it easy to how. When you start looking at the personnel on the field, how they are lined up on both sides of the ball, what the offence is running, what coverages are the defence playing, how well each player executed, down and distance, what reads a player had to make… the list really could be if not endless, extremely long. At least if you are a position coach then your area of focus is defines, and I think this is how I am going to try to reduce the task for me as I simply can’t spend hours and hours looking at one game no matter how much I want to. However, I can see how coaches do it, and why there’s always something else to see, because it is endlessly fascinating. Whether it’s watching route combinations to see how they get a player open, how a defence has balanced getting pressure against covering the five possible receivers of the offence, or the simple joy of watching a pass rusher setup an offensive linemen with a series of outside speed moves before bull rushing up the inside to get a sack, there is always a new nuance to learn or play to admire. There are so many coaching hours put into what we see each week, and the margins are so fine that very capable people can look foolish when they have probably been stressing all week a particular point that a player simply didn’t execute on Sunday. That is one of the strengths of the Patriots, they are so well coached that they appear ready each and every week despite the fact that they play such radically different game plans depending on the opponent.
I could continue to wax lyrical, but I would rather say that if you have NFL Game Pass, do yourself a favour and take a look at some coaching tape. It’s okay to be lost, but stick with it and I think you will start finding new things to admire and be fascinated by.
Now I finally move into the picks for this week, where Dan has already picked up a game on me this week so let’s see if I can get it back:
Dolphins @ Bills (-2.5)
I’m not convinced by either side who were both meant to be competing for the AFC East title this season, but things look at lot more familiar with the Patriots running away with the division. The Dolphins lost a huge part of their defence in Cameron Wake, and whilst I don’t expect a repeat of he beating they took last time they played, the Bills are getting some players back and have to get something going soon if they want to save their season
Gee’s Pick: Bills
Dan’s Pick: Dolphins
Packers @ Panthers (+2.5)
I think this is game of the week and it is being show for free on Freeview in the UK this weekend. I’m not sure why the Packers have got a five and half point swing given that they are on the road and the Panthers have playing very well this season. I think this is going to be a close game and if I am getting points as an unbeaten home team then I’ll take them, even if the Panthers do have to lose at some point
Gee’s Pick: Panthers
Dan’s Pick: Packers
Titans @ Saints (-7.5)
The Titans have fired their coach, and visit a Saints team who have definitely got their offence working better although the Giants’s defence was as poor as the Saints’ in last week’s highly entertaining game. I don’t see the Titans winning, and whilst the Saints may struggle to get this far ahead with their defence, it’s not going to stop me picking them.
Gee’s Pick: Saints
Dan’s Pick: Saints
Raiders @ Steelers (-4.5)
The Raiders are for real this season, beating a Jets team that may not have looked like themselves, but the Raiders have a winning record and hope for the first time in years. This week they face a different kind of team in the Steelers who are coming off a tough loss to the Bengals where they also lost Le’Veon Bell for the season. The Steelers have hung tough all year with a defence that has kept them in games whilst their potentially explosive offence has rotated injuries. I can see the Steelers winning it, but given all that’s going on I’m not sure why they are giving up more points this week against Raiders, even if the Raiders do have to come across from the west coast.
Gee’s Pick: Raiders
Dan’s Pick: Raiders
Rams @ Vikings (-2.5)
This looks to be another good game, but it might be one too many for a Vikings team who have quietly done well, but may well struggle against this Rams defence, whilst rookie Todd Gurley is rapidly looking like one of the best running backs in the league.
Gee’s Pick: Rams
Dan’s Pick: Rams
Washington @ Patriots (-13.5)
Things have faded in Washington whilst the Patriots go from strength to strength and whilst the points give me pause, not for long enough to go against the Patriots at home.
Gee’s Pick: Patriots
Dan’s Pick: Patriots
Jaguars @ Jets (-6.5)
The Jets quarterback situation alone is enough for me to think that this game will be closer than this line suggests, and whilst I have a history of getting Jaguar picks wrong, they are coming off a win in London where they finally had to put together a late drive to win and did. I could regret this, but I’m jumping back on the Jaguars bandwagon for another week.
Gee’s Pick: Jaguars
Dan’s Pick: Jets
Falcons @ 49ers (+6.5)
The Falcons have flaws, and I might be worried about this line if it was not for the fact that the 49ers are starting Blaine Gabbert at quarterback this week. Watch me be wrong spectacularly later today, but I can’t pick it.
Gee’s Pick: Falcons
Dan’s Pick: Falcons
Giants @ Buccaneers (+2.5)
The Giants have activated Jason Pierre-Paul, and whilst I have no idea if this will impact their pass rush or not, I have more faith in their offence than the Buccaneers defence. I just don’t trust the Buccaneers even if they did beat the Falcons last week.
Gee’s Pick: Giants
Dan’s Pick: Giants
Broncos @ Colts (+3.5)
The Colts new offensive coordinator has his toughest test in his first week, and whilst the points do give me a little pause given that the Colts are at home, they are not a good team and I think the Broncos remain unbeaten for another week behind their amazing defence. It will be interesting to see if their offensive performance against the Packers was an anomaly or a sign of things coming together after their bye week.
Gee’s Pick: Broncos
Dan’s Pick: Broncos
Eagles @ Cowboys (+2.5)
The Cowboys have not won a game since losing Tony Romo, and the Eagles defence is what they have been leaning on this year. You can never be certain about anything with the Eagles this year, but I think they will win this one.
Gee’s Pick: Eagles
Dan’s Pick: Eagles
Bears @ Chargers (-3.5)
The Chargers’ injury problems continue as they lost Keenan Allen for the year to a lacerated kidney, which is an injury that makes you shudder just to write it. The Chargers defence is a mess, whilst Rivers has to play at a high level to keep his team close in losses, and they have had no home field advantage. I think the Bears will keep this one close as they have at least become solid in John Fox’s first year even if this hasn’t turned into wins.
Gee’s Pick: Bears
Dan’s Pick: Bears