Tuesday, November 01, 2011

2011 week 8 recap and writing schedule

So this week I'm going to do the recap a little differently. Instead of breaking it down game by game, I'm going to do this as a kind of blob of random thoughts on the games loosely connected together. Apology's if this annoys anyone but I just find this method a little easier.

The first thing that needs to be addressed is the performance of Tim Tebow, or rather the completely ridiculous hyperbole that has been spewed all over the press as a result of the game. Now I'm not trying to sugar coat it, it wasn't the finest day in Tebow's career by a long shot. But at the same time, some of the stuff I've read, from ProFootballTalk.com to the Denver Post etc, is just absolutely stupid.

People are calling this the worst performance by a quarterback they've ever seen and so on, however I would disagree. A few things that need to be kept in mind before everyone jumps on the bandwagon are that not only did Tebow throw for one touchdown, but he actually hit Eric Decker perfectly in stride in the endzone for what appeared to be a second, except Decker's second step after catching the ball went onto the white lines, crossing it out.

Tebow also hit a number of his receivers in the chest at various points, passes that they failed to catch. I'm not really sure how these can be blamed solely on Tebow, but hey, I guess anything goes when there's a hot story to be pushed! It should also be kept in mind that from a technical perspective, the offensive line looked awful. Rookie Orlando Franklin, who spent the majority of his college career playing at guard (and looking pretty good at that position) was at right tackle... getting absolutely trashed by Cliff Avril (2 sacks, 2 forced fumbles, 1 fumble recovery for a TD). Zane Beadles, playing at left guard, got ripped to shreds at times.

It was something of a mess and it goes a long way to explaining why Kyle Orton didn't have that much luck either. It should be worth noting that once the clock got inside the four minute mark, the Lions called off most of their heavy pass rush, which finally allowed the Broncos line to cope, and at which point Tebow actually started stringing passes together. In fact, probably the only thing more annoying than the unwarranted bashing of Tebow in the press is that everyone is now jumping on the Lions again as if they're destined for the Super Bowl and calling them "the real deal" just because they beat the Broncos. They're not. No, they're really not.

Speaking of heavy pass rushes, the Bills shutting down the Redskins was pretty impressive. The Bills shifted rookie first rounder Marcel Dareus to the nose tackle position in their 3-4 scheme, with seemingly stunning results. Dareus had 2.5 sacks himself, which contributed to a 9 sack performance overall by the Bills defense. Dwan Edwards also picked up 1.5 sacks. How much of that was down to the Bills new scheme and how much was down to the Redskins singular failure in recent weeks to protect their quarterback is up for debate.

John Beck threw two interceptions just to make the night even more miserable for Redskins fans as they were shut out. The Bills offense stepped up in this game, though doubtless their performance will be overshadowed by the D. Ryan Fitzpatrick was 21/27 for over 250 yards, while Fred Jackson carried 26 times for another 120 yards onto his season tally. He also added 74 yards off 3 receptions to cap a great day.

And the pass rush theme continues, as the Rams pulled off the shocker of the day against the Saints. What impressed me most was how much variety the Rams threw into their defense, sometimes going with a three man line, and sometimes bringing linebackers down to threaten the blitz. It made the front harder to read for the Saints line and created a plethora of one on one opportunities, not least for Chris Long who finished the game with 3 of his defense's six sacks.

On offense, while A.J. Feeley struggled still, Steven Jackson was back with a bang, running for 159 yards and two touchdowns off his 25 carries. It was the Saints offense that caught the most attention though. Not only did they let the sacks pile up as they struggled to handle a more confusing defense than expected from the Rams, but Brees also threw 2 interceptions and for large parts of the game was severely restricted in his throwing.

Another pass rush that came up big was the Giants. They, like the Rams, tried a bit of variety with some 3-4 fronts at times and also by bringing the blitz to compliment their base 4 down lineman fronts. The five sacks they put together as a unit had a big impact, as did Eli Manning's 31/45 for 349 yards and two touchdowns. It's still a little worrying though that a strong performance like this resulted in just 20 points, as the Giants went 1/3 in the red zone.

Possibly the biggest story of the Dolphins/Giants game turned out to be Reggie Bush. Bush had 15 carries for 103 yards, including some tough runs up the middle and a few tackle breaking runs. It was most unBush like and at least gives Dolphins fans a faint glimmer of hope.

But I want to go back to talking about pass rush and that means the Minnesota Vikings win over the Panthers. That seems like an odd thing to say because the Vikings only pulled out 3 sacks, but they could have had a lot more if it wasn't for the physical skills of Cam Newton, who displayed impressive strength and balance once more.

The reason why I'm so high on what the Vikings, Rams and Giants did this weekend is because they really pushed the mould of what an NFL 4-3 defense should do. Not since I think Buddy Ryan's Bear defenses have we seen 4-3 defenses that have blitzed as much and had as much success as the three teams mentioned above. It was refreshing to see them cast off the age old shackles of having to generate all their pressure with just the front four guys and trying something new.

This has really been the key to the success of 3-4 defenses. It's not that the structure of a 3-4 is inherently better for generating pressure, it's just that 3-4 teams tend to be more fond of the blitz and are more prepared to bring the heat from multiple directions. In fact most 3-4 defenses routinely bring five or more guys, something which it seems the 4-3 teams are just starting to figure out. I wouldn't be surprised, given how well these teams got on in Week 8, if we don't see more teams have a shot at it and start to see the record setting passing numbers start to slowly fall.

There was more to this game though than just the Vikings defense, not least the Panthers D which put up four sacks of it's own and got Christian Ponder moving. Ponder did ok this time, completing 18/28 for 236 yards and a touchdown, and he definitely looks like he's improving with each game. On the flip side, Cam Newton actually had a pretty good game, in the pocket and out of it, throwing 22/35 for 290 yards and 3 touchdowns, on top of running for 53 yards off 6 carries.

It was still the good and the bad though. The good was his passing, which looked more controlled this time, and his footwork on the drop back has measurably improved over the course of the season. But... he did fumble the ball twice and still has a knack for holding onto the ball a little. His offensive line isn't helping much. Like I said, without his movement skills (and perhaps some better Viking tackling at times) they'd have easily given up six or seven sacks total.

Like the Cardinals O-line did (six)! They simply couldn't handle Terrell Suggs and Paul Kruger. Kruger had two sacks coming off the edge and Suggs, while only picking up the one sack, was a menace in the Cardinals backfield all game. The Ravens offense still had it's struggles. 4/11 on third down, 3/6 in the red zone, and somehow Joe Flacco ended up passing another 51 times, hitting on 31 of those for 336 yards and a pick. Ray Rice had 18 carries for 63 yards and 3 short touchdowns, but I imagine the Ravens defense and Suggs in particular are still going to be looking at Cam Cameron nervously on future game days.

Onto Jacksonville at Houston and what can you really say about Blaine Gabbert? 10/30 for 97 yards, 1 touchdown and 2 interceptions? Yet apparently, if the main networks and sports news outlets are to be believed, he had a better day than Tim Tebow? This wouldn't have anything to do with the fact that everyone was touting Gabbert to be the best overall quarterback in the 2011 draft now would it? I'm sure that doesn't factor into it at all...

To be honest, Gabbert doesn't exactly have the worlds greatest O-line in front of him either, but at least his only gave up the one sack to Brooks Reed. Gabbert struggles to focus down field under pressure and shy's away from contact, even if he's half way through a throw. It's just not looking like there's anything there to build in, which at least exists in some of the other young quarterbacks who are not doing all that well (Dalton, Tebow, McCoy, Ponder).

The story for the Texans was more predictable. Arian Foster carried 33 times for 112 yards and a touchdown, as well as just the one catch for 12 yards this time. A standard of performance which is masking the story of Matt Schaub now that he doesn't have Andre Johnson on the field; that he's regressed back to being a 16/30 for 225 yard passer, compared to the giddy heights he's used to.

The story for division compatriots the Colts is much worse. Curtis Painter was asked to throw it 49 times against the Titans. Forty nine times? He managed 26 completions for 250 yards but another two interceptions brought more misery for him. I just find it amusing that given how well rookie running back Delone Carter played last week, that this week he got just 9 carries. Maybe it's because last week was so epically forgettable that the Colts also forgot about Carter?

The Titans might be forgetting about Chris Johnson. On one play, a power run right from the gun, Johnson cut back away from a clean whole right in to two Colts Linebackers. His 14 carries produced a mere 34 yards, a tally nearly doubled by Javon Ringer off the the same amount of carries. It didn't matter too much, as Matt Hasselbeck went 22/33 for 224 yards and what really should have been 2 touchdowns were it not for the red tape matter of a swing pass to Nate Washington just about travelling backwards a few inches, thus technically making it a pitch.

The most attention grabbing moment of that game for me though was the Colts defense, and the contrast between their "same old, same old" approach and that of teams like the Giants and Rams etc. While other people are pushing new ideas (or reviving old ideas?) the Colts are lumping along with a four man rush backed by either cover-2 or tampa-2, and looking for all the world like an inflexible block of concrete that has no ability to adapt while being picked apart by other teams.

Meanwhile in Pittsburgh it was another standard week for Ben Roethlisberger, which meant spending another 60 minutes getting bounced from pillar to post and generally having the shit kicked out of him, including two sacks for the impressive Patriot Andre Carter and four overall for that defense. Still Roethlisberger pressed on and actually finished 36/50 (yes, the Steelers throwing it 50 times) for 365 yards, 2 touchdowns and an interception.

What was abnormal this week was Tom Brady only hitting 24/35 for just 198 yards, 2 touchdowns. That's some very unBrady like numbers right there. He was still staring down receivers so nothing new there, but a big flag that went up for me was how little mobility he appeared to have left. Not that Brady was ever exactly a sprinter trapped in a football uniform, but he's become very stiff legged and you could see that once defenders got penetration through the line, Brady was practically dead meat. That's a worrying sign.

Like Tavaris Jackson going 21/40 for 323 yards, 0 touchdowns and 1 interception. The Seattle running game was non-existent so that's a non starter. It was bad enough for the Seahawks when Brandon Tate returned a punt for a touchdown, but the pick six by Thomas Howard was the final nail in Seattle's coffin. Andy Dalton had another pretty good day for the Bengals. 18/29, that's over 50%, for 168 yards, 2 touchdowns and 2 interceptions. He and receiver A.J. Green appear to be developing a bit of that quarterback/receiver chemistry that leads to long careers for both, though it's early days yet.

Early days too for Jim Harbaugh, but if he keeps this up he's set for a long career. Even as a 49ers fan I'm still not fully ready to climb on the bandwagon and tell the driver to get up and go, but with the lead the 49ers have the NFC West is looking pretty one way this season. I'm just worried what will happen come playoff time. Not least because for all the praise, San Francisco still only beat the Browns by 10 points, including two early touchdowns, while ending up 2/5 in the red zone.

On the bright side, it's still fun watching teams trying to block Ahmad Brooks (2 sacks) using a running back. Hint; that has a tendency to go down like a fart joke at a Papal speech. Aldon Smith and Patrick Willis also added to their sack tally. In addition to the sacks, Colt McCoy fumbled the ball 3 times, recovering 2 and losing one. He did manage to complete 22/34 for 241 yards, a touchdown and a pick, but he can't seem to shake off some of the more troublesome aspects of his play.

A problem not unknown to Alex Smith, who was 15/24 with a touchdown but didn't get over 200 yards passing. At least he's stopped throwing interceptions for now. Again it was running back Frank Gore that picked up the pace, with 31 carries for 134 yards and a touchdown with some great runs off tackle on power plays. Funniest moment of the game is tied between Issac Sopogoa and Joe Staley, both of whom came out of the backfield as stand in fullbacks and caught passes of 18 and 17 yards respectively.

And where there's fun to be had, laughter to be made, the Cowboys can't be far away. Unless they're playing the Eagles who are coming off a bye week, at which point they get left in the distance and busted open for over 200 yards on the ground, including 185 and 2 touchdowns for LeSean McCoy off 30 carries, then give up another 279 yards and two touchdowns through the air.

All this despite DeMarcus Ware recording four sacks.

The Eagles fought back with four of their own, with two going to Jason Babin, but it was their offense that undeniably won the game, ripping the Cowboys to shreds at will. In fairness, Cowboys receiver Laurent Robinson has to be given some praise for his 5 catches, 103 yards and a touchdown, as does rookie Cowboys back DeMarco Murray for his 8 carries for 74 yards (longest; 26), but it was a small drop in the ocean.

Cowboys fans will probably be the most cut up about Murray. After his record setting game last week he basically set a pace this week to beat his own record (9.25 yards per carry this week), yet still couldn't get the touches. I understand that the Cowboys were down by 21 early in the second quarter, but Romo completed less than 50% of his passes as once again the Cowboys offense struggled. Murray is clearly the ultra hot hand right now, give him a chance to prove his worth.

And finally we come to the Monday Night game. Or should that be the Monday Night botch. Botched snaps, interceptions, fumbles, missed tackles, this was tantamount to a horror show worthy of Halloween. Though it did have it's plus moments. Just not a whole lot of them.

Phillip Rivers was up to his old tricks, throwing 26/41 for 369 yards, 0 touchdowns and 2 interceptions. The Chargers would end up 1/4 in the red zone and didn't score a touchdown till the fourth quarter. That has to be depressing for Chargers fans, to watch your team march beautifully down the field week after week, then week after week come up short when it really matters the most.

Oddly enough it was Matt Cassel who came up a treat. Kind of. 19/32 isn't great, but he strung completions together right when they were needed most, overcoming his 2 interceptions to lead an overtime drive, with the help of some determined running from Jackie Battle to set up the winning field goal. Yet while the Chiefs may have won the game, people watching that scrappy game ended up as losers.

So with all the results in that leaves my week 8 picks at a ghoulish 7-6, taking my season tally to 68-48. Definitely must try harder next week.

As for the rest of this week, my writing schedule at the minute will involve looking at a run the Eagles used a few times with great success against the Cowboys and then putting down on paper my random and probably quite idiotic idea for how I would try and build a rival league to the NFL. I just want that down on (electronic) paper, for my own sanity. I'm sure there was also something else that I said I was going to look at this week, but I'm buggered if I can remember what it was.

Till the next time, enjoy your Halloween (mercifully we only had one visit. Of a child, not a ghost) and I'll see you soon.

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