1.) THE KIDS
2013 was long ago. 2007 was even longer ago. For over a decade football has been dominated by the same quarterbacks: Philip Rivers and Eli Manning (kind of), Ben Roethlisberger, Drew Brees, Tom Brady, Peyton Manning, and Tony Romo (also kind of). Manning walked off with a Superbowl, sold out to Budweiser, and kissed the Papa—this is what Eyes Wide Shut is really about. Tony hit the booth, and was replaced by Dak Prescott after a preaseason broken back. Roethlisberger and Brees are out with injuries and have been replaced by third round pick Mason Rudolph, and former first round pick Teddy Bridgewater. Eli was benched for Daniel Jones. Rivers is still slinging cauldrons of soup at the habitat for humanity. And Brady, well he has no soul, and will never die.
The previous generation of quarterbacks is slowly starting to fade away. Good! I’m so tired of seeing these same old men. There’s no hero’s journey. Nothing to learn. We got it. Roethlisberger is big and stupid and requires elephant tranquilizers to bring down. Brees stands on his top toes and accurate. Eli is a frumpy gingham oxford shirt. Brady and the Patriots are smarter than everyone. Rivers, well, Rivers can play as long as he wants, the arm angle, scrambling, and fourth quarter fails are always a recipe for a beautiful Sunday.
The kids are finally starting to take over. Gardner Minshew (age 23), Kyle Allen (23), Luke Falk (24) replaced Sam Darnold (22), Lamar Jackson (22), Patrick Mahomes (24), Josh Allen (23), Kyler Murray (22), Rudolph (24), Deshaun Watson (24), Jared Goff (25), Baker Mayfield (24), Mitch Trubisky RIP (25), Dwayne Haskins (22), Daniel Jones (22), Jameis Winston (25), and Josh Rosen (22), were their team’s primary starters last week. That means there are sixteen 25 and under quarterbacks without including Trubisky.
Methodical precision, and ruthless efficiency are for after work Michelob lights and hardware store coupons. I’d rather watch the kids throw sublime passes after making absurd decisions. I want the silly. I want to see what’s new. I’m so tired of the past.
2.) THE JAGS RUN SCHEME
There it is. Finally. The Jaguars’ run game I envisioned when I laid on my carpet in August came to fruition at the end of the September. The first three weeks their run offense was putrescent. Cam Robinson was hurt. Andrew Norwell was wide and slow. They primarily ran outside zone. It sucked.
Leonard Fournette spent the first three weeks running laterally and tackled around the line of scrimmage play after play. The Jaguars’ offensive line couldn’t reach defensive linemen, and they didn’t know how to block the scheme they were forced to block. I’m about to throw up.
Leave J.J. Watt one v. one against a tight end and scurry up to block the safety. Sure. Go for it. Great idea.
And even when they tried to get vertical, they ignored the second level completely. The Jaguars’ offensive line didn’t do anything well.
The Jaguars had a rush offense DVOA of -16.3% against Kansas City, -9.3% against Houston, and -58.6% against Tennessee. It rocketed up to 10.1% against Denver, when they carried the ball 38 times for 269 yards and averaged 7.1 yards a carry. Gardner Misnhew sideline passing carried the offense for the first three weeks. The unexpected went back to what was expected this summer as Fournette, barbaric and brutal, caried the Jaguars’ offense.
What changed was the run scheme. The Jaguars ran the outside zone every once in a while, instead of nearly single play. They finally started getting Fournette vertical, leading him across the street like after school crossing guards, and created powerful double teams.
This is counter left against the Broncos’ base defense. The trey block between James O’Shaughnessy (#80) and Cam Robinson (#74) crumbles the defensive end, and O’Shaughnessy gets enough at the second level. Tight end Geoff Swaim (#87) is lined up as a fullback. He pulls along with Will Richardson Jr. (#76), who moved from left tackle to right guard and replaced A.J. Cann in the starting lineup. Each pull pops the defender, but neither one creates movement. Stalemates. Rather than take the bare minimum, Fournette cuts it wide, and cuts inside of Will Parks’s (#34) shoddy run fit. From there he takes it for the first.
This is the same play, but here Richardson Jr. drives the edge defender out, allowing Fournette to hit the run where its drawn up.
The Jags also pulled Richardson Jr. wide with success too. The Jaguars have six offensive linemen. Cedric Ogbuhei (#77) in on the line of scrimmage, and there’s another tight end left. Each blocker is blocking big on big. They cover up Denver’s defense. D.J. Chark (#17) delivers a crushing block on the filling safety, the type of thing you see from the Rams every Sunday, and from there, Richardson Jr. leads the way for Fournette. He cuts outside of his open field block to pick up another first down.
Fournette’s vision is underrated. With him at running back the offensive doesn’t need to make spectacular blocks. They just need to be competent and get their heads on the defender. With enough shields in front of him, Fournette can read and cut, and use his athleticism from there.
The Jaguars have one tight end right, and Chark lined up tight. They are in an off-set I formation with their tight end acting as the fullback, who is also lined up right. The Broncos have five defenders to this side of the formation, and three to the other. The backside gets each hat on each hat.
Fournette reads it immediately. Cuts it back for another enormous gain.
And even when the run blocking wasn’t spectacular, Fournette could carry on ahead, shoulder pads made of skulls, shrunken head squished and oozing under his left arm, and cackling, while defensive linemen fall off of him. He had 98 yards before contact, 3.4 yards a carry, and is now averaging 1.1 yards for the year. This was better than usual. But Fournette provided for himself too. He broke 5 tackles, and had 127 yards after contact, which comes out to 4.4 yards a carry. Last season he broke 17 tackles. He’s up to 16 already this year. He’s back to his old self. Vertical straight ahead Fournette is the best Fournette.
The outside zone wasn’t gone completely. It still exists. The Jaguars just used it as an occasional pitch to buckle the hitter’s knees. It’s a tertiary play that comes after all the inside zone and power run plays.
Fournette’s 81 yard carry was an outside zone run. The biggest reason for its success is the formation. The Jaguars have two tight ends left. The Broncos are in Nickle with a safety in the box. It’s 7 v. 7. Jacksonville has the advantage here. The blocking is fine. Jawaan Taylor is able to get just enough of Von Miller. The key here is the backside block. A.J. Cann is in. The defensive tackle slants inside. Cann runs him all the way inside and the inside linebacker Todd Davis (#51) gets caught behind it, allowing Fournette to cut inside and explode through the hole. From there he leaps over a safety, and Marqise Lee (#11) makes a phenomenal block to carry him further.
In a week to week game, it’s easy to get caught up in what happens during the infancy of the season. I thought the Jags were mounted on a wall after two weeks. The offensive line was horrendous. The defense injured. Then Minshew sideline passed in a hurricane to beat Tennessee, and the run game came alive against Denver. Everyone in the AFC South is 2-2. No one is dead. The Jags are back. Preseason predictions lives on.
3.) AH, SCREW IT
I’ve watched dozens of football games, and I haven’t seen one pass interference penalty overturned. I’m sure it has happened, but that’s a single tear of joy in these sad sand dunes. Time after time the head coach, red faced and furious, throws the flag with a petulant AHHHH [KITTEN] IT attitude. It must feel so good to toss that flag. As therapeutic as turning the windshield into a spider web. It’s the coach’s version of a 10 a.m. beer and cigarette.
They don’t know what it will take to overturn one of these calls. Yet, they keep tossing it, with no success. Timeouts are wasted to prove a point. You’d have to take out an axe and lop off a guy’s head for pass interference to be overturned or added to a play. This rule exists to make New Orleans happy and ensure a calamity like that doesn’t happen again.
I mean, if this obvious pick play, at home, against New England, won’t be overturned, nothing will.
4.) RAISE THE FLAG
In March, I was preparing myself to become a Tampa Bay Buccaneers fan. I hoarded SPF 175 sun screen. The minifridge was stacked with Admiral Nelson. Salt shakers were in my cushions. Wide leaf potted banana plants are the foliage for my heated baby pool. I changed my diet from plant based to cigar and steak based. I was ready to ruin my life. I was ready to raise the flag.
The Buccaneers were one of the unluckiest teams in the league in 2018. They replaced their coaching staff with Byron Leftwich at offensive coordinator, Bruce Arian at head coach, and Todd Bowles at defensive coordinator. I loved the Shaq Barrett signing when it happened. Their first five draft picks were all defensive players, and their roster was littered with early round defenders who had yet to break out. Plus, Jameis Winston, all that arm strength, and their receivers, all that size, would be plucked into Arians vertical offense. I was dying for it.
Then week one happened. Winston threw three interceptions and two pick sixes. The 49ers jumped their interception total from last season in one game. Then week two happened. The Buccaneers ran the ball a lot and beat a buckshot blasted milk jug passing offense. I hated watching them so much. Then Mike Evans happened. Here we go. Then last week happened. The Bucs put 55 on the Rams, including a defensive touchdown on their own. My destiny has been fulfilled. I’m rosy and wearing Oakley’s.
The Buccaneers have awakened from their boathouse slumber. The bottoms of their feet are sunburned. The offense isn’t based around tight heavy formations and their run game. Now, they are wide and vertical, and are using the heavy formations as a complement, not as the foundation of their offense.
In the first two games Jameis Winston completed 12 of his 25 attempts that traveled further than 10 yards through the air (48%), for 244 yards (9.76 Y/A), and threw 2 touchdowns. In the last two games he’s completed 23 of his 34 attempts (67.6%) for 507 yards (14.9 Y/A) and has a touchdown to interception ratio of 4 to 1. The downfield passes weren’t ubiquitous, and the ones that were thrown rarely worked.
Winston is throwing it more, and most importantly, throwing it down the field with success more often. The Bucs pass:run ration has changed from 61:57 to 78:62. The biggest difference in the passing game has been the reemergence of Mike Evans. He caught only 6 of his 13 attempts for 89 yards in weeks 1-2. The last 2 weeks he’s caught 12 of his 22 targets for 279 yards and 4 touchdowns and is averaging a 23.25 yards per reception that only Mike Evans can average. He has switched places with Chris Godwin. Evans is now the occasional deep threat receiver, while Godwin has been carrying the offense, morphing into one of the best receivers in football.
Byron Leftwhich deserves credit from digging himself out of the pit he fell into. He’s like Chance at the end of Homeward Bound, and Evans and Winston are the happy family bawling at the site of him. This is the Bucs’ new offense. Four wide receiver sets with four enormous wide receivers attacking different sections of the defense.
Tampa has also been a good shotgun running team. Their interior, composed of Ali Marpet, Ryan Jensen, and Alex Cappa, are long haired freaks, who should be on the high seas, off the coast of Fiji, instead of on a football field. As a group they controlled Aaron Donald and Michael Brockers. Running out of the shotgun is an easy thing to do when you have tall receivers who can make safety smashing blocks like Godwin did on this touchdown run.
They balance the spread passing with heavy formations where they still attack the defense deep with play action.
It’s the perfect mixup. In these formations Winston has been able to throw from a clean pocket in run situations and the ball is almost always out at the top of his dropback. Gone are those 3rd and long situations he’s stuck throwing from. The average third down against San Francisco and Carolina has dropped from 9.3 and 9.8 yards to 6.5 and 6.9 the last two weeks.
Winston has also been great from a tight pocket. Last season this was the one aspect of his game that was bright and shiny. Sure, he threw a lot of interceptions, so many interceptions, but he was 2nd in DVOA while under pressure at -11.2%. Playing quarterback while wrapped around an anaconda didn’t affect him too much. This has carried on into this season. He’s tall and strong in the pocket, and can see over all the helmets and keep his eyes downfield.
The NFC South is confusing too. The Saints are 3-1 and have survived with an incredible run defense and checkdown Teddy doing nothing at all. The Panthers have been resuscitated by Kyle Allen’s fumbling. The Falcons look fried after the Keanu Neal injury and Matt Ryan has been blasphemous. Perplexing, it’s a microcosm of the entire NFC.
The key here is the Bucs are playing the football they are destined to play. This isn’t a talent hurdle. The coaching is no longer holding them back. They have played the toughest part of their schedule, and now have the 23rd easiest future schedule. It’s flipped from the third toughest projected schedule they faced entering the season.
I need to exchange my fall wardrobe from flannel to silky and floral. Oh no I think it’s starting again.
5.) FEEL THE FEELING
Rarely, does my heart get all wound up and yanked and tortured by the football field. I’m calm and simple. Sitting at the picnic table just enjoying how blue the sky can be, the way the clouds sit at ease, and how the tint of sunlight has changed. Things are dimmer. Maybe one day it won’t be 96 degrees and some colors will change.
Sunday I finally felt something. The Texans lost. I went to catch the end of MY Bills game. MY Josh Allen was down at the half and had the Patriots just where he wanted them. Confused. Flummoxed. Who is on the phone? Is everything ok? What is Matt Barkley doing in there? I bellowed a [KITTEN] from the most malevolent part of my heart. The dog yelped. Jamie Collins caught a pop fly after Kyle Van Noy hit Barkley midstream. Game over.
I hate the Patriots so much.
6.) PUSH THE BOULDER UP THE HILL
The Broncos are 0-4. They’ve lost three one score games. They have an expected win-loss record of 1.4-2.6. This is far from shocking. Have you watched Joe Flacco play football? He’s been the worst non-rookie quarterback in the league since Gary Kubiak left him to win a Superbowl. Damn, does he look like a doofus in all that milehigh orange.
What is shocking is how horrendous the Broncos’ defense has been. Vic Fangio is master at crafting elite defenses, and in Denver, he didn’t have to start from scratch. He had the pieces. He just needed to make them fit. This wasn’t a project in the garage he would need to tinker around with for years.
Denver’s defense is 27th in DVOA at 14.9%. They haven’t finished worse than 10th since 2014. The secondary is stuffed, and to create a pass rush, all Denver needed to do was leave Von Miller and Bradley Chubb out on the edge, and against offensive tackles. There’s just something I love about long sleeved edge rushers playing for Denver.
Fangio screwed it up. He had Miller and Chubb dropping back in coverage too much, sitting on the run, and rushing only three. He tried to implement the defense he always uses, instead of take what he had, and mold it into something slightly more beautiful. Through three weeks the Broncos had zero sacks. Their defensive line provided nothing. Chubb and Miller combined for a total of three quarterback hits, and they were all registered by Chubb.
This changed last week. The Broncos blitzed Gardner Minshew 16 times on his 33 attempts, the most they’ve blitzed this season, hit him 12 times, hurried him 5 times, and sacked him 3 times. Miller had two sacks and four quarterback hits. Chubb had one sack and three hits.
The sack was simple. Something you’ve seen Miller (#58) do dozens of times. This is nearly an impossible pass block for Taylor. His hand is in the ground. Miller is a ‘9’. The tight end doesn’t chip. Miller is riled up and buzzing, and unravels at the snap. The angle is perfect. The rip is precise. Minshew never sees it.
Maybe Fangio figured it out. It doesn’t really matter even if he did. Denver is 0-4. Chubb is out for the year with a torn ACL. It’s devastating the rest of the 2019 season will be missing his false start celebrations.
7.) DON’T WASTE YOUR TIME ON ME
Psshhhh. Jadeveon Clowney who? He isn’t even that good. He’s only an athlete. He isn’t a football player. Whitney Mercilus is better than he is. Look at the numbers. The context is the same. D.J. Reader hasn’t improved that much. You just don’t get it. Yeah, I watched the games. I’m not impressed. I’d rather have Jacob Martin, he has potential, Barkevious Mingo is vital for the special teams, and Houston needs a third round pick to make up for the Laremy Tunsil trade.
8.) CHICAGO RUSH
Fangio left for Denver to be a mouth breathing head coach. Replacing him in Chicago is Chuck Pagano. Fangio was known for surrealist pass coverages, with inverted looks and man-zone hybrids, and a mustache and trench coat covering it presnap. Pagano doesn’t have that same expertise. Instead, with Pagano, you get some wild blitzes, and defensive fronts.
It’s early and bright out. The sun is a merely an idea. But Chicago has one of the league’s best pass rushes. As a team the Bears have 17 sacks, 27 quarterback hits, and 46 pressures. They are on pace to have 68 sacks, a +18 improvement. Chicago is also tied for second in adjusted sack rate at 10.1%, and is 12th in pressure rate at 29.4%. Pro Football Reference has them credited with 58 blitzers. Last season Fangio routinely rushed only three and had Mack, Akiem Hicks, and Leonard Floyd carry the rush on their own, and they were reticent to bring more than four.
This season it’s primarily Mack (#52), but he isn’t the majority anymore. He has 4.5 sacks, 4 quarterback hits, an 18 pressures, second only to Cameron Jordan. Some of his rushes are unbelievable. This inside out move is ghostly. He’s the edge defender in a 4-3 under front. He ducks right under the punch, it can’t be timed any better, flattens, and plays the ball.
Inside moves are a must for a pass rusher. Without it offensive linemen will sit on the same move, and you end up becoming Vic Beasley, wide and looping, rushes not mattering at all. The problem is it allows other blockers to help out in the effort. Mack turns this into a one v. two bar fight, where the underdog does the battering. I think this is a Texans’ website. It’s even more impressive when you consider how J.J. Watt has been neutralized by interior help. Mack can do the things that even Watt can’t.
Floyd (#94) is the perfect outside complement. His speed off the edge is tremendous. He has 2 sacks, 3 quarterback hits, and 9 pressures. This is going to be the best season of his career.
My favorite thing Pagano has done is pair Mack and Floyd together on the same side. I’d rather die than throw against this. The rush is immediate. Kirk Cousins doesn’t even try to deal with it. He checks it down right away.
Aaron Rodgers wasn’t so quick and fortunate earlier this year.
What makes it so brutal is that Floyd, being as wide as he is, leaves the tackle outstretched and hurrying to make an already diabolical block, and it almost guarantees Mack will have a one v. one rush against the guard. Mack can win with power or lateral movement in his matchup.
It isn’t just these two either. Nick Williams has 4 sacks and 5 quarterback hits. Roy Roberson-Harris has 2.5 sacks and 5 quarterback hits. These two have done a fantastic job filling in for the injured Akiem Hicks. Williams has a great understanding of leverage, is awesome at getting under and slinging blockers, and Roberson-Harris (#95) is more of a lateral, make you miss rusher. Each one has excelled in the one on one matchups a defense with Mack and Floyd on the edge dictates.
9.) MATTHEW STAFFORD DEEP
Since Flacco was traded to Denver, we needed a new worst contract in the NFL. Matthew Stafford was the next man up. He has a cap hit of $29.5 million this season, $31.5 million next year, and the Lions would save $5.5 million despite eating $26 million in dead money if they cut him after 2019. Stafford was all short. Tenny and tiny. His average depth of target was 7.2 yards, 32nd in the league, and he threw 21 touchdowns to 11 interceptions. 2018 was awful. It’s even worse when the contract is factored in.
Darrell Bevell of all people has gotten Stafford throwing the ball downfield again. This year his average depth of target is 11.1 yards, and he’s averaging 2.1 yards past the sticks. Both of these marks are second in the league, behind the benched and bearded Ryan Fitzpatrick. He’s thrown 9 touchdowns to 2 interceptions too.
Against the Chiefs he almost pulled off the upset by hitting the holes in their zone coverage. Stafford did a great job diagnosing the post-snap movement and splitting the various zone coverages Kansas City used. He was 8/15 for 171 yards and 2 touchdowns on throws that flew over 10 yards against the Chiefs.
I still don’t know if the Lions are good. They’ve played some of the wettest and wildest games of this season. What I do know is that Justin Coleman has been a great pickup, they play the ball well, their front is ferocious, and most importantly, Stafford has escaped being the least vaulable player in the league, and has started playing like top line quarterback once again. This version is back to throwing the ball downfield, while still maintaining high efficiency.
10.) LAREMY TUNSIL MAX SCHARPING DOUBLE TEAMS
I’ve been watching the Texans’ offensive line before it became cool. I learned how to watch the All-22 by scouring at Derek Newton’s pad level, and Brandon Brooks’s brute strength, and arguing online about the future these two have. 2015 was the peak of Texans’ offensive line watching for me. It was Duane Brown, wide and impassable, Xavier Su’a-Filo, maddening and up and down, Ben Jones, big bellied and as mediocre as it gets, and a spectacular right side combination.
I missed having enjoyable Texans’ offensive line play to watch. It’s back now that they went all in on Laremy Tunsil, used a first round pick on Tytus Howard, and a second round pick on Max Scharping. The best part has been Scharping (#74) and Tunsil (#78) double teams. This ‘duece’ blocks picks up Luke Kuechly (#59) and takes Efe Odaba (#94) backwards nine yards, creating a 40 yard Duke Johnson run.