The NFL has warts residing on its straight and perfect nose. Player safety, concussions, poor primetime game selections, the sloppy first two months of the season, the need for quarterbacks, and the silly catch rules deride a great game. All of these blemishes override the game when teams come moping into the beginning of the year.
But then December comes. Teams know how to play with and against each other. It gets dark sooner, the fans get drunk earlier, and of course get louder. The weather becomes just as hostile as the esoteric clans. And the game becomes the best that’s out there. This past week had multiple great and important games, and there were legitimate playoff atmospheres in Pittsburgh, Kansas City, and Seattle. All of it making you realize that yes, in fact, football is very good.
Here’s what what I liked about week 15.
1.) Jalen Ramsey v. DeAndre Hopkins
The AFC South is starting to garner national attention. The lamestream media is beginning to discuss the division that has gone from putrid-to fun-to kind of good. “Yeah, I saw Freddie Gibbs at Red7 with only 15 people in the crowd” will soon turn into “I liked the Jaguars-Titans rivalry back when it was on Thursday Night and each team had a total of five wins.” I am absolutely insufferable.
Next year this division will be legitimately good. The Texans will have recovered from their injuries, the Colts will have Andrew Luck back, a top five pick, and at least $85 million in cap space, the Titans will hopefully have moved on from Mike Mularkey, and the Jaguars will still have a top five defense, and maybe a better offense. And next year when all this happens, and we actually see two! AFC South teams make the playoffs, the best matchup in the division will still be Jalen Ramsey against DeAndre Hopkins, or, the best cornerback in the NFL against the third best? receiver in the NFL.
This past Sunday, with T.J. Yates huffing glue at Hopkins he had 4 catches on 10 targets for 80 yards and 1 touchdown. It looks worse than it is on paper. Throughout the game Hopkins was able to beat Ramsey off the line of scrimmage with cuts and swims that left Hopkins open, but hung up and waiting for Yates’s limp tosses.
On this first one, Hopkins is being pressed by Ramsey at the line of scrimmage. Hopkins has an outside release. He swims under the jam like a defensive lineman. He breaks to the sideline. He angles his body to box out Ramsey from his outside half, and calls for the ball to his right hand in the post. Yates doesn’t put enough on it, and puts the ball inside. Because of his positioning, Hopkins is still able to phase Ramsey out of the throw, and high point the ball to make the catch.
This route is despicable. Ramsey is playing off man coverage with a safety helping in the middle of the field. Hopkins takes off up field, fakes the out, and gets Ramsey to turn his hips. He then turns back inside and runs behind Ramsey’s back wide open. From there he waits for a long lofting pass. Hopkins is able to come back for it and make the catch between both defenders.
This is a quick smoke play. Hopkins is running a curl. Ramsey is playing off man coverage. Yates takes three steps out of the shotgun and fires it his way. Ramsey breaks downhill on the route with Hopkins’s back to him. He flicks open his nightstick to bring the hit. When he hits Hopkins however, nothing really happens. Hopkins simply withstands the hit and stands his ground. Last year Ramsey obliterated Hopkins a few times on plays like this, and this year Hopkins is stronger and is able to out machismo Ramsey.
His last catch were the only points scored by Houston. Ramsey is pressed up against him at the line of scrimmage. Hopkins jabs outside and cuts back inside around the press. He hand fights with Ramsey as the route progresses, gives a light shove, and accelerates away from the coverage. Yates puts the ball right over his shoulder. Ramsey leaps and falls short, gathering back up to his knees in disbelief.
We all need things to look forward to as we attempt to live and enjoy the present. This week I’ll be getting my stupid National Parks calendar for 2018. As soon as the 2018 NFL schedule comes out, two Sundays will be marked fat and red HOPKINS v. RAMSEY. The best v. the best, except this time Deshaun Watson will be Hopkins’s quarterback.
2.) Marshawn Lynch Throwing The Shoulder
Lynch is a national treasure. He sees the world in a specific and beautiful way, and has a unique voice to describe the world we live in. Whether it’s playing video games with Conan O’Brien, or advocating for one of his charities to help the city of Oakland, it’s a joy to listen to him say what he has to say.
But on the football field he doesn’t quite have it anymore. No longer can he lead an entire rushing attack on his own. He has been crushed by defenders several times this season, flattened by some brutal tackles, tackles that have never bothered him like that before. The burst isn’t quite there. The stomping through the hole like an ogre through a bone filled cave is more van driving down the highway. He doesn’t devour linebackers anymore. Yet, when he gets a defensive back one on one it is no longer 2017, it’s 2013 again. He can absolutely toss brains against the wall, and send shockwaves through bones when smaller defenders have to individually tackle him.
He still has his uses as a second running back, and he’s still really good in short yardage situations. Lynch came back to play for Oakland. Hopefully he remains there again next year, but hopefully the Raiders get a running back number one, and can better utilize him as a short yardage bruiser instead of as their staple running back.
3.) The Cowboys’ Defense With Sean Lee
The Cowboys are still in it. Somehow. Someway. They can still make the playoffs. They need to win their last two against a Seattle team that all of the sudden can’t stop the run, and a Philadelphia team that will have nothing to play for other than sticking a box cutter into the ribs of their most virulent rival. In addition to this they need Detroit to lose one of their last two games, and for either Carolina, Atlanta, or New Orleans to lose their last two . They could also get in if Carolina and New Orleans lose their last two, but that ain’t going to happen.
The big news this week is that Ezekiel Elliot is coming back after serving his six game suspension. I had no idea how great Elliot is. I was team his offensive line is the bigger reason for his success. Then he went to Siberia. Now, I actually have an understanding of all the things that he does to make this offense work, and how he improves on the great blocking receives.
Although that is some hUGE news, the bigger news has been that Sean Lee is back playing for Dallas. With him on the field the Cowboys are an entirely different defense. It’s like Carolina with and without Luke Kuechly. He can affect the pass and run game, and communicates with the defense to get everyone in the perfect spot to defend what the offense is cookin’ up.
With Lee on the field Dallas’s defense has given up an average of 18 points a game, and has an average DVOA of 5.57%. When he is away or standing on the sideline Dallas’s defense has allowed an average of 29.8 points per game, and has an average DVOA of 16.48%. The only good defensive game they had without him was a Thursday Night win over Washington that can be summarized as the game when the Redskins had a lot of turnovers. If you are into win loss records Dallas is 7-2 with Lee, and 1-4 without him. The Cowpokes are two different teams with Lee on the field.
It’s more than just communication and brains. The guy makes plays. Here is one of many he made against Oakland, a game where he had ten tackles. The Raiders are running the inside zone. Kelechi Osemele heads to the second level to block him. He side steps the swamp creature, leaps to the right, and comes around the edge to tackle Lynch for a loss.
4.) Aaron Rodgers Puking On The Table
To live is to suffer. And for the past, I don’t know, 25 years, Packers’ fans haven’t really suffered. They went from Brett Farve to Aaron Rodgers. They have seen two Superbowl wins. They have no idea what the rest of us have to go through.
After starting Brett Hundley for eight games they got Rodgers back. The pins were pulled from his collarbone. He exchanged that weird bra like brace they give you for shoulder pads and went back to playing football last week. And I was scared rigid. I was horrified they were going to win out and sneak their way back into the postseason, and get obliterated in the second round, while Packers’ fans continue to live a life of playoff appearances and playoff victories.
But reality is always more interesting that wishful wishes and presidential dreams. Rodgers played against Carolina and put up 24 points. And more importantly he had three interceptions. Two of which were Rodgers superhuman plays he couldn’t muster for completions, that instead fell short and ended in interceptions.
Both of these Rodgers interceptions are similar. The warlock evades the pass rush and has Jordan Nelson breaking deep. On this first one, Rodgers jumps to his left away from interior pressure, and heaves it towards the sideline off his back foot. Nelson is open on the left hash, but quickly turns to the sideline when Rodgers tosses it up. Despite throwing it to a closer spot on the field, Rodgers is still unable to get enough under it. It lands short and is intercepted.
On the second one he again has Nelson open. He climbs the pocket and throws with momentum. If he wasn’t meek this would be a touchdown. Instead, it again lands short and the beaten cornerback is able to recover under the ball for the interception.
I can’t wait to watch a healthy revenge riddled Rodgers. I can’t want to watch a healthy revenge riddled Rodgers next year. I’m ecsatatic that this year we get fresh blood in the NFC postseason, don’t have to deal with his witchcraft, and the Packers’ finally have to get a Costco sample of what the rest of us have to suffer through.
5.) Martavis Bryant Giving It To Stephon Gilmore
Stephon Gilmore wasn’t very good for the Bills last season. They left him in isolated man coverage and he was consistently beat on deep downfield tosses. He was of course rewarded for his bad season with a 5 year $65 million contract with the evil empire itself. This year he’s been playing isolated man coverage, some cover three, and has again been alright.
According to Football Outsiders’ charting stats he has given up 6.6 yards per pass (27th), has a success rate of 50% (58th), the average air distance of passes that target him is 11.3 yards (48th), and has allowed 1.5 yards after the catch (20th). These are all fine numbers for a starting cornerback, but not what you want for someone you sold your Bitcoin for.
I didn’t think the Steelers could hang with the Patriots. They never do. The Chiefs are to them to what they are to the Pats. And then last Sunday happened and they gave it to New England for three quarters or so. The biggest reason why were the horses they have outside to beat the Patriots’ defensive backs. Even with Antonio Brown out, Martavis Bryant and JuJu Smith-Schuster were able to beat up on New England’s cornerbacks. Bryant had 4 catches on 6 targets and 1 touchdown for 59 yards. Smith-Schuster had 6 catches on 6 targets for 114 yards.
My favorite catches had Bryant terrorizing the overrated and overpaid Gilmore.
This first catch isn’t terrible coverage. Bryant is lined up closer to the line of scrimmage than usual, and he takes a wide release. He has plenty of space to use his speed to run past the jam, and is able to get wide after coming into Gilmore to get separation. Gilmore takes a nice pursuit angle to get even with Bryant, but he can’t match his speed. Martavis seals the route with a diving catch. Spectacular.
His touchdown catch is him just abusing Gilmore. The Steelers are in an empty formation. They have four receivers bunched right, and another one isolated on the left. The rest of the receivers are all breaking to the right side of the field. Gilmore is in man coverage against Bryant. He’s shaded inside of him. Bryant jabs outside with his first step and then takes off inside, gaining inside leverage, and out running Gilmore. Roethlisberger puts the ball over Gilmore, and Bryant makes a snazzy one handed catch.
The Pats struggled covering Bryant and Smith-Schuster. Add Antonio Brown back to it after he comes back from his calf injury, and you could see Pittsburgh finally playing competitive football against New England in the post season, and possibly winning.
6.) Gronkowski Taking Over
The Patriots are so funny when it comes to Rob Gronkowski. They are so reluctant to use him. He’s like an invincibility cheat code the Patriots don’t want to use to get past a pesky level in Blood Rayne. They’ll go the majority of the game ignoring him, but then when things get close and clenched, they feed the man who runs with a refrigerator strapped to his back to drop a manhole cover on things. They did it against Buffalo two weeks ago, and did it again against the Steelers last week.
The Pats were down 19 to 24, and had the ball at their own 23 yard line. On the first play Tom Brady nearly threw an interception. The pass was slightly behind the defensive back. From there on they put Gronk in the slot, hopped on his back, and rode him into the redzone. Until this point he had 6 catches for 97 yards, and then he had 3 catches for 71 yards on the Pats’ final drive.
Each one of these Gronk catches were like a vegetable to a Yinzer’s heart. And each was oddly the same. Gronk is lined up as the slot receiver and he runs a deep post, or an out back across the middle of the field. Each time it worked, and each time it worked against a different Steelers’ coverage scheme.
The first catch had him as the inside receiver in a trips left formation. He’s matched up one v. one against the slot corner. The Steelers are in cover one robber. Gronk swims over the top once the road splits, and is wide open after he makes his cut. Brady briefly looks right while scuffling through the pressure and pulls the shallow safety that way. The entire middle of the field is open. Brady completes easy a pass while moving slightly to his right.
Here Gronk is again lined up in the slot. They put him in motion to the tight end position to see the coverage. The defensive back follows, and follows him back out to the slot. At the snap he blitzes. Despite the indicators seen for simpleton football men, the Pats pick it up. Nate Solder moves over one gap to the left to pick up the blitzer, and the back protects the ‘B’ gap. Film study. Gronk runs another post. He fits behind the linebacker, and under the safety. Brady places the ball in the spot right before the free safety. Gronk is tackled right away.
Back to man coverage. The Steelers are in cover one. Gronk is running a wide slant across the field. He takes a slow release off the line, and then screams once he makes his cut. Brady steps up the pocket away from pressure, and steps to the right to throw. It’s a low lying pass. The most dominant tight end to play the game picks the ball up off the ground to make the catch.
On the following play Dion Lewis scores, the Patriots take the lead, and now have the inside path to the one seed in the AFC.
7.) Marquise Goodwin, Legitimate NFL Receiver
For so long Goodwin has been a cute deep threat. Someone to toss up prayers to while he used Olympian speed to burn past slightly slower world class athletes. That was in Buffalo, back when he had Tygod. Now in a different offense designed by Kyle Shannahan he’s become an actual receiver. He’s no longer just a turbo button. He’s a curl and slant running third down convertible.
I don’t have much to say. I just like all three of these routes. It’s an example of what speed does. It gets defensive backs deep on their heels, which allows for lots of space when the receiver cuts back to the ball. It creates open slant routes thanks to simple outrunning. The 49ers are dying for a tight end or a big receiver to act as a redzone threat to score points, instead of having to rely on Robbie “GO-LDG-OLD” Gould for every score, but they may have a possible WR#2, and at a minimum they have a Taylor Gabriel esque slot receiver for the future.
8.) Hating The Tennessee Titans
The jig is up. I can’t do it anymore. I’m no longer able to TITAN UP. The party has gone from a Bloody Reunion to the overflowed toilet in Reeko. I’m hungover and I want to die and I got possums hanging from my eyes.
For the second straight year the Titans have ruined the only thing I’ve ever wanted, a week 17 AFC South title game. Last year they lost to Jacksonville in week 16 and Marcus Mariota broke his leg. The Texans won because of a Randy Bullock missed field goal, and clinched before a week 17 country cousin faceoff. This year their path was colliding with Jacksonville. They won the first matchup against Jacksonville. They just needed to head into week seventeen one game behind the Jags to set up the title game. Instead they blew it. They lost to both Arizona and San Francisco. They are two games behind Jacksonville. The Jags are playing the 49ers, and they are playing the Rams. It’s over.
This year they didn’t blow it because of injuries or misfortune. It was because of offensive incompetency. They have a foundation for a great offense, an offense that was really good last year. By going heavy and running the ball creatively through a wide variety of formations and using an assortment of pitches and motions, and running play action off these plays, they created a FUN, raucous and exciting offense. The problem is they run plays because they want to run them. Not because it’s the best way to attack the defense, but because it’s time to TITAN UP and do what we do best. It’s the equivalent of putting a helmet on and running head first into a wall.
Against the Texans they were going up against a defense that couldn’t stop deep passes, but had enough top defensive run talent left to stifle the run game. So what does Tennessee do? Run and run and run and not get anything going at all. It wasn’t until they realized they could throw the ball deep to Delanie Walker that things started moving.
Last week something similar happened. They were going up against a defense that ranked 16th in run defense DVOA, thanks to a young and nasty assortment of players, and 31st in pass defense DVOA. So what did the Titans do? They ran and ran and ran until they fell behind. Eventually they dropped the act. They went to a quick spread passing offense, and quickly moved the ball up and down the field. But then they went back to their old ways. On the two most important offensive plays of the game they tried to pry the defense apart and run the ball up the middle, and each time they were stopped. From there Robbie Gould hit more field goals to add dry kindle to the Jimmy G! aura.
I’m done. I can’t take it. A team with this much talent, and the ability to win games in an interested way has been wasted for too long. They haven’t made the playoffs since Kerry Collins was around. They aren’t going to this year. Fire Mularkey, and get rid of Dick LeBeau. Take the foundation they have built and scheme it to the opponent they are facing.
9.) Aaron Donald Trouncing A Horrendous Offensive Line
Donald is the best interior rusher in football. He has the best hands I’ve ever seen from a defensive lineman. He is no match for one blocker, and turns two into soup. It’s like watching the trench drill portion of the Madden 2005 minicamp brought to life, which may actually be closer to reality, than this simulated hellscape we will forever be trapped in.
He’s spectacular to watch against great offensive lines. He always produces and creates sacks for his friendos. He can stop the run. This season he’s a defensive player of the year candidate and has amassed 49.5 pressures (2nd), 11 sacks, and 39 tackles.
Against terrible lines like Seattle, he is out of this world. He derails drives all on his own, and turns offenses into special teams. Against the sad! Seattle offensive line he put a classic Donald game out into the universe.
This is all nasty, just nasty. Donald is lined up as a wide ‘3’ technique. He gets to the the guard’s outside shoulder immediately, knocks his punch away with one arm, and dips under all in one sweet motion. Then he dips to gain leverage and uses his shoulder to drive the guard back into the pocket. Things get a little murky because the video looks like a found footage movie, and like the conclusion of a found footage movie, someone ends up motionless in a bloody heap.
This is the same alignment with Donald as the ‘3’ technique. The pass blocking scheme is slightly different. The left side of the line is blocking man on man, the right side is moving one gap over. The guard has the ‘B’ gap. The center has the ‘A’ gap. Donald gets off the line and into the ‘B’ gap, jams his foot, and swims over into the ‘A’ gap. This move takes him directly into both blockers. He’s so powerful and so quick that he’s able to split both blockers and get into Wilson’s location. Wilson scampers away and runs directly into two Los Angeles defenders on the other side of the line.
Here’s Donald in the run game using the same technique he has used since he first put pads on. When the ball is snapped he takes on half of the guard, punches, and spins him to the center. There he sits in the gap and waits. Controlling the gap he’s supposed to. He checks his watch, and then pounces on the running back when he comes his way. The run goes for zero.
The final incredible play he made in the first half, there was no point of watching the second half, ended in hysterical fashion for Wilson. Donald is again the ‘3’ technique, but this time he’s rushing from the left side. He quickly swims over the guard, and comes into the center. Again, in one motion, he rips under the center, and gets after the quarterback. Wilson drops the ball to become a runner, and his eyes as well. He runs in an entire circle and ends up deeper in the backfield. One of the things that makes Donald great is his ability to stop, plant, and turn back around to find the quarterback when he gets too deep. He does the same here and finds Wilson once again, and wraps him up. With Wilson all curled up, he throws the ball backwards to take a sack, and a 23 yard loss.
If you have ever wondered why, even during the Jeff Fisher era, that the Rams have given the Seahawks such a rough time, this is the place to start. Interior pressure devours quarterback. They drown in it. There’s nowhere to escape. When you take a force like this and oppose him against a shoddy offensive line this is what happens.
10.) Melvin Gordon Fresh Like Frozen Berries
This season when you think of the great running backs, and there have been a lot, you think of Le’veon Bell, Todd Gurley, Akeem Hunt, Alvin Kamara, and LeSean McCoy. But you probably forgot about Melvin Gordon. He has 931 yards (7th), 6 touchdowns (T-5th), is averaging 3.8 yards a carry (26th), and has 375 receiving yards. He was used a little too often earlier this year and got kind of used up, his lips where chapped, his paps were swollen, and his legs were heavy. Then they found out about Austin Ekeler and were able to split the means of production between the two. The last three weeks Gordon has looked more like himself. Doing things like spinning out of a tackle and accidentally breaking his way through five more.
Or catching another pass in the flat and KICKING DOWN THE DAMN DOOR.
And in addition to the open field moves, Gordon is one of the better redzone runners in football. His vision when things get compressed is phenomenal.
Gordon hasn’t been a darling of efficiency. He’s been trapped between the tackles, overworked and overused. Next season will be more fun. Next season the Chargers will know what they have with Ekeler from the beginning, and will have the monstrous Forrest Lamp back and along with the rest of their offensive line that has been raddled with injuries.