Aaron Donald, Arizona Cardinals, Case Keenum, Deone Bucannon, Gerard McCoy, Jameis Winston, Jeff Fisher, Lovie Smith, Mike Evans, NFL, St. Louis Rams, Tampa Bay Buccaneers, Tavon Austin, Todd Gurley, Tyrann Mathieu, Week 15 Picks
It was a slightly odd Thursday night game given that if you were to look at the statistics on their own without the score, you would think that the Tampa Bay Buccaneers actually won the game, but in the end the Rams ran out convincing winners in what could be their last game in St Louis.
The Rams have now won two games straight and part of that turn around seems to be the change in offensive coordinator. Whilst the Buccaneers did an effective job of bottling up Todd Gurley, the Rams came with game plan that made the most of Tavon Austin’s ability with the ball in his hands, and an efficient passing game that gained two hundred and thirty-four yards from fourteen receptions out of seventeen attempts. I am not going to say that Case Keenum is an amazing quarterback, but this did look like a functional NFL offence, which it has not done for a lot of the season, and I will be as curious to see what this team does in the offseason with the construction of the roster as where the franchise will actually play its games.
The Buccaneers defence played well in the run game in terms of restricting Todd Gurley, which is not a surprise given that they were ranked fifth in rush defence by DVOA coming into this game. However, they were not that sure in their tackling, and had problems dealing with the shifty Austin. No one really stood out, although Gerard McCoy flashed, but he has not hit the lofty heights that we have come to expect given his performance in previous seasons. They have however, begun to look like they can make Lovie Smith’s Tampa Two defence effective, which seemed to be a real question earlier this season and they will be hoping to build on that next year.
The Buccaneers offence in contrast, had some good performances, but the yardage gained hides the fact that they got very little going in the first half, gave the ball away twice and could have lost the ball again if they had not recovered one of their fumbles. It was odd in that to start the game they tried to rely on their run game as they have much for the season, but whilst Doug Martin ran the ball effectively, Jameis Winston kept missing his receivers with throws that were too high. In fact Winston had this problem crop up through much of the game, but it was particularly prevalent in the early part of the game and led to difficulties maintaining drives. In the second half, and particularly in the fourth quarter the Buccaneers were able to get things going, and Winston was able to make some big plays with his arm, particularly to receiver Mike Evans who had an impressing one hundred and fifty-seven yard game from nine receptions, although he was targeted seventeen times. The one interception Winston did have was a bad read as he failed to take account of a dropping corner, but he has been much better in his first season than many feared and if they can get him some more options and improve his offensive line then the Buccaneers definitely have a quarterback for the foreseeable future.
There is no doubting the talent on the Rams defence, but it has rarely been able to get everyone playing well at the same time. The particularly impressive player for them in this game was Aaron Donald, who may not have had any sacks, but did get two tackles for a loss as well as three quarterback hits whilst causing all kinds of problems for the Buccaneers offensive line. It should not be possible for a defensive tackle as large as Donald to move as quickly as he does, but he also possesses the strength to shed blockers to make tackles in the run game, and in his second year is making a case to be included in the conversation with the other defensive greats.
In the end the Rams ran out comfortable winners in this one, but I am not sure it will be enough to save Jeff Fisher his job, whilst the improvement the Buccaneers have made this season should mean that Lovie Smith gets another year to continue the rebuilding job in Tamp Bay
I want to write a little about the coaching tape I watched this week before moving onto our picks for week fifteen. I was looking at the way that Cardinals use safeties Deone Bucannon and Tyrann Mathieu, which is pretty much how I outlined last week, but it is still impressive to see on tape.
For Bucannon, although listed as a safety he really does play as one of their linebackers, using his movement skills to avoid blocks and make plays. Not only did he force a fumble and recover it, but he was able to tackle Adrian Peterson in the backfield, and was second in tackles only to Tyrann Mathieu.
If Bucannon is exceptional because of the position he is playing given his size, then Tyrann Mathieu demonstrates an amazing flexibility in the way he is used around the Cardinals defence. He basically lines up as either a safety or slot corner, and is usually around the line of scrimmage, but from there he can exploit his athleticism either rushing towards the play, or drop into coverage. In the Cardinals blitz heavy scheme he frequently rushes from the slot corner position or from the line, and was able to get pressure on the QB multiple times. The pass play I mentioned in last week’s write up where Mathieu batted down a ball behind the line of scrimmage was actually coming off such a slot corner blitz, and given that Teddy Bridgewater was looking left as the ball was snapped, I would guess hat Mathieu either keyed off that or adjusted his blitz angle in case the ball came out early, and it was this that allowed him get a hand to the ball.
Overall what I appreciated about the Cardinals defensive scheme was that they have collected a number of good athletes and are putting them in a position to make the most of their physical gifts whilst giving themselves flexibility in an era where offences are becoming increasingly multiple and aggressive in the pass game. I don’t know if there are going to be other teams that copy them, but the principle of having that much coverage ability combined with aggressive pressure is one we may well see copied, if perhaps with different types of personnel.
Finally we go on to the rest of our week fifteen picks, with Dan and I both going 1-1 so far.
Falcons @ Jagaurs (-3.5)
The points scare me because despite the improvement of the Jaguars this season, they are still not reliable week to week, but they are coming off a win where they scored fifty points whilst the Falcons are on a horrendous run of losses. I don’t see the Falcons ending that run on the road in Jacksonville this week.
Gee’s Pick: Jaguars
Dan’s Pick: Jaguars
Bills @ Washington (+0.5)
It feels like I have been wrong about this Washington season all year, but with the Bills falling from playoff contention thanks to last week’s loss and their continued ill discipline which seems to be a feature of Rex Ryan’s teams, I think that Washington will win this game as they try to stay in the NFC East race. The worry is that Washington has been inconsistent on both sides of the ball, but they have been better at home and with something to play for I will take the half point that doesn’t really mean anything.
Gee’s Pick: Washington
Dan’s Pick: Bills
Bears @ Vikings (-5.5)
The Chicago Bears have been better than most thought they would be this season, but the Vikings put up a very credible performance against a very good Cardinals team in Arizona and will hopefully be healthier after the extra rest. Their defence has been good all year and was solid last week despite missing some of its best players, and they will want to get their season back on track in this divisional game and I think they will. They might not cover the points, but I think the Vikings are the better team so that’s the way I am going.
Gee’s Pick: Vikings
Dan’s Pick: Vikings
Titans @ Patriots (-14.5)
The points make me pause, but the Titans are on the road and do not have the players around rookie quarterback Marcus Mariota to compete with the Patriots given the return of Rob Gronkowski and what he means to their offence. The Titans only scored one touchdown against the Jets last week, and that was a trick play, so I don’t see them doing much in their second game on the road in a row, so whilst I should pick the Titans because of the points, I just can’t bring myself to do it.
Gee’s Pick: Patriots
Dan’s Pick: Patriots
Texans @ Colts (-1.5)
The AFC South is in such a state that two teams with 6-7 records are playing for the division lead, with both of them starting backup quarterbacks. There is very little to hang your hat on in this game, but the Texans at least have JJ Watt and a defence that has been coming on in the second half of the season even if they did struggle against the Patriots last week, so that’s what I will put my trust in for this game.
Gee’s Pick: Texans
Dan’s Pick: Texans
Chiefs @ Ravens (+7.5)
The Chiefs are on one of the hottest streaks in the NFL at the moment, which is a testament to the job head coach Andy Reid did in keeping this team together through their 1-5 start that easily could have wrecked their season. The Ravens have been specialising in close games for much of the season, even if they had been losing most of them, but the injuries finally passed a point where they could compete and lost badly last week. I think that the Chiefs offence will be better this week for not playing in horrendous conditions, and will cover the points in this one.
Gee’s Pick: Chiefs
Dan’s Pick: Chiefs
Panthers @ Giants (+5.5)
This game has one of the matchups of the year with Panther’s corner Josh Norman likely going up against Odell Beckham. There is a lot of buzz about how the Giants love playing these kinds of games and upsetting good teams, but this Giants team is not like the one that beat the Patriots in two Super Bowls. Those teams may have come good at the end of the year, but they also had a fearsome pass rush and more to hang their hat on than Eli Manning getting hot. Yes the Manning to Beckham connection is effective, but this week they go up against one of the best defences in the league, and whilst the injuries the Panthers suffered last week worry me, I don’t see the Giants really being able to compete. This probably means the Giants will win as it’s hard to predict that the Panthers really will go undefeated, but I’m not prepared to pick against them this week despite needing them to win by six points on the road.
Gee’s Pick: Panthers
Dan’s Pick: Panthers
Browns @ Seahawks (-14.5)
I feel like I am picking a lot of sides giving away a lot of points this week, and they surely can’t all come in, but despite the Browns getting a win last week, I don’t see them repeating the trick as they travel from Cleveland to Seattle. The Seahawks defence is still very good, and with their offence now finding an effective passing game I’m not even worried about the loss of rookie running back Thomas Rawls in this one. I’m backing the Seahawks to run out convincing winners at home.
Gee’s Pick: Seahawks
Dan’s Pick: Seahawks
Packers @ Raiders (+3.5)
I think I am changing my mind on this one in that on the podcast I said I was not convinced by the Packers, having had false dawns before this season in terms of things turning consistently round on offence, and the Raiders have played well for large parts of the season even if they do make young team mistakes. However, with Mike McCarthy taking back play calling duties last week, and a faith that they will not allow Khalil Mack to get five sacks like the Broncos did last week, I think the Packers may well cover this one even if the half point does make me nervous.
Gee’s Pick: Packers
Dan’s Pick: Packers
Bengals @ 49ers (+4.5)
The 49ers defence seems to play better at home that than they do on the road, but they just lost to the Cleveland Brown and their rush defence is near the bottom of the league. I know what Hue Jackson is saying about the game plan this week, and to some extent I believe him as I didn’t think it was a bad display by AJ McCarron against the Steelers last week, but a young quarterback’s best friend is the run game, which fits the tactical situation of this game and so I think the Bengals will run on the 49ers a lot. It may well be a close game, but I am choosing to take a page out of Dan’s giant book of optimism and back my team to cover this week.
Gee’s Pick: Bengals
Dan’s Pick: Bengals
Broncos @ Steelers (-6.5)
This line is tricky for me in that whilst the Broncos offence stuttered last week, they still have a really good defence. The Steelers have a great set of receivers, and this should be a really good game, but the Broncos could well slow the Steelers down. I think they can for a while, but this Steelers team are just so good at the moment, and whilst I think I would pick differently if this game was in Denver, I am backing the Steelers in Pittsburgh to win and maintain the pressure on the Bengals because that’s what happens in the AFC North.
Gee’s Pick: Steelers
Dan’s Pick: Steelers
Dolphins @ Chargers (-1.5)
There have been comments coming out of the Chargers locker room that they are aware this could be the team’s last game in San Diego and they are desperate for a win. I think the Dolphins might be close to being a good team than some would have you believe, but they have not been good this season. However, I am not sure the Chargers should be favourites against many given how their season has been, and there has been very little home field advantage for them this season so I will join Dan back on Dolphins Island this week.
Gee’s Pick: Dolphins
Dan’s Pick: Dolphins
Cardinals @ Eagles (+3.5)
The Cardinals continue to get wins with a good defence and explosive offence, whilst the Eagles have been uneven all season and I simply don’t trust them. So even thought the Cardinals are on the road in Philadelphia, I am backing them to cover the points in this one.
Gee’s Pick: Cardinals
Dan’s Pick: Cardinals
Lions @ Saints (-2.5)
The Lions lost for a second week in the row, and it seems that being eliminated from the playoffs has stifled their little recovery. They are still playing better than they were, but then again so are the Saints. Their defence was not as bad last week as it has been all season, and they ran out convincing winners against the Buccaneers. This leaves me in something of a quandary, particularly as the Buccaneers were pretty convincingly beaten by the Rams on Thursday, but I am going for the team with the better record who are playing at home whilst keeping my fingers crossed.
Gee’s Pick: Saints
Dan’s Pick: Saints