1. LAST CHRISTMAS I GAVE YOU MY HEART
On Christmas Day, with red and green cleats, the color scheme in living rooms and front doors and sweaters across the world, were splattered across a New Orleans turf as Alvin Kamara did something no one has ever done before. Kamara had six rushing touchdowns, breaking a record multiple players held with five, and should have had seven, if it wasn’t for Taysom Hill being Sean Payton’s animus. Over the course of the game Kamara had 22 carries for 155 yards on the ground.
Kamara broke only four tackles on this historic day. New Orleans’s offensive line filled the floor Kamara’s tree rested upon with plastic paper and polyester bows. Minnesota was with only one of their Erics, Eric Wilson. Playing mostly Nickle, with Eric Kendricks out, replaced by Blake Lynch, Hardy Nickerson, and Jordan Brailford, the Saints’ offensive line was a moon moving the ghastly purple Minnesota tide. New Orleans ran outside zone 22 times for 184 yards and 5 touchdowns. Purple pain.
Along New Orleans’s front, Cesar Ruiz (#51) and Terron Armstead (#72) were especially brutal. Ruiz had an all-time outside zone blocking performance. Disheveling defensive tackles inside creating easy seams. Hands suffocating the second level. Armstead shoved defensive ends wide to open up the ‘B’ gap, and packaged linebackers and relocated them to different nation states.
Here’s all 22 carries, 184 yards, and 5 touchdowns from their outside zone Christmas performance.
2. JUST DO IT ALL
Robert Saleh’s mailbox is filled with interview requests and love letters from all across our football loving country. I’m not buying it. To me, Saleh is similar to Mike Vrabel. He’s a leader of men. Someone you’d cut your dick off and love playing football for. But as a playcaller and scheme designer, there’s nothing special here. Last year San Francisco had an all-time pass defense because Dee Ford was the worst pass rusher on a front that included Nick Bosa, Arik Armstead, and Deforest Buckner. They also had and still have Fred Warner and Dre Greenlaw, two coverage linebackers who can carry out every coverage task, and an all-time great sideline thirds corneback in Richard Sherman.
This season the defense has dropped off with Bosa, Ford, and others on injured reserve. The numbers are bloated and better than the play by play performance thanks to the turnovers they’ve forced. They’ve also received an unexpected healthy season from Jason Verrett. To make up for it, Saleh has morphed to playing more cover four and cover one with creative blitzes since the front four pressure isn’t what it was last year.
He’s done a fine job, but for a team, like the Lions, who are 32nd in defensive DVOA, and the Texans, who are 30th in defensive DVOA, Saleh needs an enormous talent overhaul to do the things everyone does to coach a great defense. There isn’t a schematic difference he can make to make a single season turnaround needed to make his hiring worth it.
The crux of the issue is Saleh can’t take players like Warner with him, who completely controlled the center of the field against Arizona, in San Francisco’s upset win over the Arizona Cardinals.
On second and ten, the 49ers are playing cover four with a rat linebacker spying Kyler Murray in case he takes off and tries to replicate his early season rushing success. One of the problems a quarters defense has is that it’s a middle of the field open coverage. The seam can split the safeties and create open deep throws in this manner. To counteract this, the 49ers have Warner check the seam before looking to wall off any crossing routes.
Murray checks safety Tarvarius Moore (#33) who turns to the sideline vertical. With this middle half open, Murray tries to put the ball on Dan Arnold’s (#85) inside shoulder. Warner has this covered though. This footrace is tied. Warner is on this inside shoulder and the throw is covered. He also leaps at the correct instant without ever running into the receiver to draw the penalty. The other safety Marcell Harris (#36) comes over the top and is almost able to intercept the high pass required because of Warner’s seam carry.
On 3rd and 5 with 2:40 remaining Warner pulls it off again. This attempt is more convoluted though. The Cardinals have a 3x1 wide receiver formation. The 49ers are showing blitz and then rolling into their quarters defense. Rather than play man on the backside, the 49ers make a cut call, which drops the rotating safety into a robber position to cover the drag. On the boundary side Warner has the same responsibility. He checks from the seam to the drag. KeeSean Johnson (#18) runs a post and into Warner’s responsibility.
Murray assumes Warner can’t go from the ‘A’ gap to the seam to make this play, and he’s mistaken. His throw is up the hashmarks forcing Johnson to adjust away from his momentum to make a high one handed catch. Warner morphs from a linebacker to a floating grim reaper carrion devouring avarice. The ball bounces just outside his outstretched hands.
Cover three is a typical first and ten call. It gives the defense eight defenders in the box, and players in position to defend vertical passes. San Francisco breaks it out. Warner is again working from the seam to the drag. The slot receiver runs a corner this time. The flat defender who would normally pick up the drag instead gains depth to sit underneath this route to take away the throw. The drag to Arnold (#85) is open. It’s an easy completion.
Warner refuses for the play to end there. He drives on this throw and is in position to make a tackle once the receiver turns up field. Three converge on the tackle. Warner puts his arms and head on the ball, forcing the fumble, and recovering, giving the ball back to his offense.
As great as these plays are, Warner’s best coverage play came on 4th and 2. The 49ers opted to go with cover one, play press-man coverage, and run a sim-pressure. Kerry Hyder Jr. (#92) drops into the outside hook and is replaced with the blitzing linebacker Dre Greenlaw (#57). Warner shows blitz, but pops out to muddy the throwing lane. In these passing situations the Cardinals have relied on speed outs and slants to DeAndre Hopkins. They utilized the same route they’ve relied upon all year. This time Warner is able to bat the pass away and prevent DeAndre Hopkins from converting after beating Verrett’s coverage.
Keep these plays close to your heart, fresh in your mind. Now think back to previous Texans games. Remember the same two high shells? Remember the linebacker failing to carry the seam? Saleh can’t teach Zach Cunningham or Tyrell Adams to make these plays. This is a talent issue, not a scheme issue.
Houston doesn’t have the talent or the players to play the scheme Saleh, or any defensive coordinator for that matter would run. They need an entire defensive overhaul after Bill O’Brien seeped talent from its defense, decided to invest in an offense he could only get a maximum of mediocre production out of, and kept his hands in his pocket while the tough, smart, and dependable players he kept became wrinklier and saggier versions of their former selves.
For Houston’s head coaching search, it’s all about the offense. It’s all about getting the most out of Deshaun Watson. Nothing else matters. A defensive minded head coach doesn’t have the horses to suddenly transform this defense. Saleh can’t take Warner with him. Matt Eberflus can’t take Darius Leonard with him.
3. RUINING THANKSGIVING ISN’T ENOUGH
The only thing Detroit Lions fans have left is Thanksgiving football. It’s their thing. They get it every year. It’s their tradition. And as I learned this past year, traditions are rituals are vital because they make things important and special, and gives society the strings needed to tie us together and prevent us all from eating each other instead.
That being said, ruining Thanksgiving should be enough for Lions fans. Their football team shouldn’t ruin Thanksgiving and Christmas. Last week the Lions did exactly this. In Matt Patricia gray sweat pant uniforms they lost 47-7. Their only points scored were off a punt return. In a single half Tom Brady produced a stat line of 22 of 27 for 348 yards and 4 touchdowns. He learned how to throw the football to Mike Evans again. The tight alignment vertical routes were there. Matthew Stafford hurt his leg early on, proving why they gave Chase Daniel the contract they gave him, only for him to produce zero points and get benched for David Blough, the quarterback they tried to ensure they wouldn’t have to play again by signing Daniel.
That’s not even the bottom. No. The bottom is Blaine Gabbert playing the entire second half. Walking onto the field cold. Hitting Rob Gronkowski on an easy seam route touchdown completely uncovered. That’s the bottom.
The Lions can keep Thanksgiving, but never, not ever again, should they be given Christmas to ruin again.
4. ROE v. WALLER
The Dolphins have one of the best defenses in football. At its heart it’s a single high press-man coverage defense that loves to blitz a lot, in a tropical island black hair blue eyes sort of way. The Raiders are a tough team to play like this against because they have an intelligent offense and offensive line that picks up the blitz well, and they have the 6’6” Darren Waller, who is a man coverage nightmare.
Against Miami Waller caught four vertical passes in four different ways, and each one came in man coverage against Eric Rowe. It was 6’6” against 6’1” and Waller won each time.
On this throw, the Raiders are in empty with five wide receivers. Waller (#83) is wide right against Rowe (#21). Waller chops his feet in place before taking an outside release. There is zero semblance of pressure. Carr has shown throughout his career he’s a great quarterback when the pass rush is empty. Standing still, clean and clear, he puts the ball over Rowe’s outside shoulder and into Waller’s leaping hands.
This time the Raiders are in 10 personnel. Carr is in a shotgun backfield. The Dolphins bring five. Waller is the slot receiver matched up against Rowe once again. Off the line, Waller uses his hands to jam Rowe, like he’s the one playing press-man coverage. Waller is running a post, but with a deep safety, he curves his route early to ensure the safety can’t affect the throw. This turns a 30 or 25 yard gain into a 19 yard catch and scamper out of bounds once the safety drives on his catch.
In a bunch right formation, Waller is the inside receiver in a two point stance. Las Vegas puts Henry Ruggs IIII (#11) into a jet sweep motion that he runs a wheel route out of. Waller and Hunter Renfrow (#13) run a route combination together against man coverage. Renfrow takes a delayed release up field that Waller runs a fade behind. Renfrow’s release and route gets him in between Rowe and Waller, giving Waller a free release and space to the outside. From this tight alignment Waller has more space to run. Carr checks the safety, then puts a deep throw for 33 yards over Rowe’s chasing helmet.
The final throw came out of a typical tight end alignment. Waller is the end man on the right side of the line of scrimmage matched up against Rowe once again. The Dolphins bring five. The route is the same as the one before. It’s a fade from a tight alignment. Carr checks the safety again. The ball is over Rowe’s helmet. Perfect and beautiful, just like how every second of every day is.
The Raiders 2019 season has been nearly identical to their 2020 season. A great offense destroyed by a terrible defense. Copy and paste. Just like Waller’s receiving production. Next season the Raiders will look to do the same thing. Upgrade their defense and hope they can get more development from their young players to find something close to passable. Derek Carr isn’t the problem. Their defense is.
Whenever you think football is football, that’s it, it can’t change or evolve any further, there’s always something else, there will always be something else.
Take for example the quarterback sneak. It’s as simple play. The quarterback takes the snap. He burrows into his center’s butt or the empty ‘A’ gap on either side of him, drives his legs, holds the ball tight, and prays for inches. This play is what it is. It can’t change.
This of course isn’t true. There’s always something else. Leave it to Kyle Shanahan to turn the quarterback sneak into something entirely different.
On third and one, with C.J. Beathard and Jeff Wilson Jr. in the backfield, Kyle Juszczyk motioned erratically behind the line of scrimmage from a flex wing position, to, what the hell, behind center. There he quickly took the snap and drove through the empty ‘A’ gap.
Football, football, always changes.
6. HECK YEAH
There was just about nothing good aside from Deshaun Watson in Houston’s newest loss, this one to the team they always beat, the team who creates memories for them, the Cincinnati Bengals. There was nothing good, aside from one thing, Charlie Heck (YEAH!) getting snaps at right tackle.
Let’s go back to last April real fast. In the fourth round of the 2020 NFL Draft, the Texans selected Charlie Heck. Most bemoaned the pick. Hated Charlie Heck. Tall and goofy. The son of a coach. Tough, smart, and dependable. Heck’s scouting report, in as little words as possible, was that he was a really good right tackle in 2018, and was a terrible left tackle in 2019. Being ambidextrous isn’t easy. You can’t just waltz from one side of the line of scrimmage to the other. The stance flips. Hand placement flips. Balance flips. Base flips.
Heck was a project swing tackle in the sense that he could play right tackle, but not left tackle. This was the problem with the pick. A swing tackle project wasn’t a good use of resources for a Houston team with plenty of bigger problems. All Heck did was allow Bill O’Brien to delete Chris Clark’s contact information from his cellphone. This wasn’t worth a 2020 fourth round pick for a team as told to us by the liars, had a lot of exciting things going on, and was trying to make the push from Divisional Round failure to Superbowl contender.
Heck finally got his chance last week. An injury to Laremy Tunsil led to Roderick Johnson moving from right to left, and Heck getting his chance to finally play at right tackle. At this spot, Heck had a really good debut, mainly matched up one v. one against Sam Hubbard, and consistently picking up E-T stunts.
It was all really good until Houston’s kind of sort final offensive snap. After taking great pass set after great pass set, Heck was too flat, and wasn’t able to meet Hubbard head on. Hubbard chopped and ripped and widened his path into Deshaun Watson’s blindside, playing the football, knocking it loose, and leading to a Cincinnati recovery that pretty much ended this one.
I won’t go so far to say Heck should start at right tackle next year, Houston should release Zach Fulton, and move Tytus Howard to right guard. But it will be fun to watch Heck get his first start at right tackle if Tunsil sits out. Against a weak Tennessee pass rush he should have success once again as Houston tries to turn champagne into piss and ruin the Titans 2020 AFC South Championship. The pass set, squat on bullrush, punch timing, inside hand placement, and extension, it was all here, and we all need good things in a meaningless season. Hopefully we get it again next week to counteract Derrik Henry breaking the 2K mark against Houston.
7. OUR JOSH ALLEN
OUR Josh Allen has already done everything he could in the 2020 NFL regular season. He made the jump from daredevil to one of the six best quarterbacks in the league, finding the deep ball that always alluded him, and was named to the Pro Bowl. Buffalo had already won the AFC East for the first time in most millennial’s lives. Mission accomplished. The only thing left was to hold onto the #2 seed. After beating Pittsburgh, and each team tied at 11-3, the #2 seed was only for Buffalo to lose.
Rather than flail at the end, they crushed New England in another down Cam Newton game—this isn’t an aberration, Newton is done, this is the norm. Everything has come together in Buffalo down the stretch. Their defense, run game, and offensive line is catching up to one of the league’s best passing games. That being said, Allen was at the center of this 38-9 win, throwing for 320 yards and 4 touchdowns, and only being able to laugh at two dropped touchdown passes, carrying out Brian Daboll’s offense as he played with Bill Belichick like a jungle cat plays with its dying dinner. He only needed three quarters to do it too. Such a swell guy, getting Matt Barkley playing time.
Here are OUR highlights.
8. DROP BACK
The Falcons seasonal second half defensive resurgence is still ongoing. Atlanta held Kansas City to their lowest point total of the year of 17 points. Patrick Mahomes spent most of the day holding and searching and struggling to find open receivers. Keanu Neal was a flat covering devil. A.J. Terrell covered the vertical well and dropped what would have been the game sealing interception. They twisted and blitzed and created interior pressure—which will be the key to a Kansas City upset if someone pulls it off. And they also distorted Travis Kelce’s routes in a couple of different ways.
This space is famous for hating dropping defensive linemen in coverage. I hate 99% of it. The Falcons managed to pull it off in a more than competent fashion.
On third down, they showed six blitzing, but only brought four, creating the illusion needed for Patrick Mahomes to play hot potato. Rather than rush the passer they had their best defender Grady Jarrett jam Travis Kelce, knock him off the seam, then sit in a hook, which he promptly vacated to take off into the flat to tackle Mecole Hardman for a four yard gain, leaving him one yard short of the first down. Absolutely beautiful and unbelievable.
The Falcons do this every season. They have a great defensive second half. The following season we always wonder if it will carry over into the first half. It never does. This time it’s happening with a new head coach in Rahim Moore, who is fighting for the vacated head coaching position. I’m glad I don’t have to make this head coaching decision.
9. MYLES v. MEKHI
My favorite offensive line v. defensive line battle came between this year’s best edge rusher Myles Garrett and rookie left tackle Mekhi Becton. Garrett was able to get Becton early with his long arms and chop rip, but in the second half his rush was quenched by Becton. The Jets’ rookie left tackle has the perfect left tackle body. He has width, and length, making it a lunar orbit to turn the corner on him, and arms that give him the flexibility to punch when he wants to, and control the timing of contact with his longer reach. This little battle is worth the watch. Even though the Jets are a mess, they at least have Quinnen Williams they can continue to build their front around, and Becton, who they can build their offensive line around.
10. I’VE BEEN RUNNING THROUGH THE, I
I belong in a reptile house. Cold blooded, green and scaly, perched under heated bulbs on hot glued rocks. Eating once a week. Curled up and thinking and feeling. Anything below 70 degrees devours me, miserable and shivering.
Anything cold, involving hot chocolate and snow, is a different reality for me. It would be an entirely different version of me that could live through what most love. Fatter tits, pale skin, long scratchy beard, bright orange deer murdering overalls, spitting dip into my empty coffee cup. That would be me, if I was me, born in a different landscape and condition.
I can admire it from far away though. I love a wonderland snow game. Turn the heater off. Let the house settle down to 65 degrees. Wrap up in blankets. Put on the long johns reserved for those January desert mountain trips. Imagine that I’m there. Watching the field turn from pristine white, to trampled by footprints, to a parched and spotty front yard.
The Packers have the one seed locked up. Regardless of how you feel about Green Bay football, it’s a win for football loving people. It means more snow. More winter aesthetics. More wondering how our lives would be if we were different people than the people we are.