1. BATTLE FIGHT FOREVER
I was rambunctious and irascible, and still currently am, entering the 2020 NFL Season. There were an infinite number of things to hover the magnifying glass over once the season had started, and since then, I’ve been swimming in the hole left behind by the detonated volcano.
One of these things was the 2020 Minnesota Vikings’ offense. My favorite football team of all-time is the 2011 Houston Texans. They finally had the defense to dance with their offense, and Houston carved the league up, winning quickly and easily, turning Sundays into a casual business trip, until Albert Haynesworth treated Matt Schaub’s foot like a squeaky toy at the bottom of the pile.
I still miss that offense. It was square and perfect and beautiful. The throws were easy. The cutbacks took Arian Foster to exodus. Play action with no one around the quarterback and a wide open deep post downfield is one of my favorite landscapes.
With Gary Kubiak back as the offensive coordinator I was ready to dip myself into nostalgia, that sick and vile thing, that putrescent and disgusting thing. Dalvin Cook hitting the outside zone cut back lanes. Adam Thielen carrying an entire passing offense and making sick downfield catches off play action. Multiple tight end sets. Each play looking like the other. Kirk Cousins’s trotting out wide through yellow leaves wearing knee high leather boots and a floppy hat with no one around except for his Instagram photo taking handler.
So far, the entire operation is a disaster. Minnesota lost over half of their defense this offseason. The idea was for the top talent still around to make up for the mistakes made by the young guys and slime scrapers. This hasn’t occurred. Cornerbacks fail to stay on top of the route. Yannick Ngakoue is out of shape. There’s still no Danielle Hunter. Minnesota has found themselves down early and unable to keep feeding Dalvin Cook and Alexander Mattison until Cousins can go BLAM-O.
Because of this, Kirk Cousins is having to carry Minnesota with only one plus receiver available to him. Cousins has never been the singularity. He’s a bit of code required to make the robot operate. Add this to already dubious pass blocking and the results have been disastrous. The only thing 2011 about this Vikings’ offense is Gary Kubiak.
The Vikings’ offensive coordinator is part of the problem here too. Sometimes, it looks like he’s actively trying to kill Cousins. Against Green Bay, Kubiak had Cousins under center, and carrying a play action fake into his own endzone. The Packers brought a cornerback blitz and gutted him for the safety.
Cousins doesn’t have the mobility behind this offensive line to play under center like this, unless the run game is rocking, and he’s utilizing play action in situations that makes sense, not like in his own endzone.
Last week, on the Vikings’ only competent drive while the game was competitive, Cousins was under center, in an empty formation. Although the protection was sound, Cousins was horrified operating from this setting. Instead of being deeper in the pocket, further away from the rush, and more confident to create, he tosses this one off the crossbar while skittering fear. Come on, Gary.
Cousins hasn’t helped things with his ball placement either. On this throw, he doesn’t put it on Irv Smith’s outside shoulder. Darius Leonard (#53) is running the out route as well as Smith (#84) is. Cousins puts places the ball inside. It’s an egg brain decision, and shoddy ball placement rolled up into one dropped interception.
On this quick slant to Bisi Johnson, Cousins rockets it behind him. The ball goes up. It finds the defender right behind him.
Theilen and Cousins clasped together to complete some miraculous passes against Green Bay, but this week, Thielen only had 3 catches on 8 targets for 31 yards. The Colts keyed in on this relationship.
It’s the typical Kubiak play action pass. Fake the hand off. Roll out right. The Colts are in cover three, with the strong safety Khari Willis (#37) playing the robber. At first he breaks on the first field side receiver, until he sees Thielen in his peripheral. He stops, turns, and carries the post to undercut the route and shield Thielen from the catch point. This allows rookie safety Julian Blackmon to attack the ball. It bounces off his hands, and back to Willis anyways. This interception before the end of the half turns 12-3 into 15-3.
If Minnesota is going to salvage this season offensively, they’ll need to stick to the run even when they fall behind. The protection and receiving talent isn’t enough for a quarterback who already limits his offense in his own ways. And they also need to get more out of Justin Jefferson. Minnesota should learn the lesson Tennessee learned last season with A.J. Brown. There’s no need to slowly integrate him into the offense. Jefferson is an excellent route runner, who’s great in the slot. Run more 11 personnel. Place him there, let him run slants from this spot, and hit him on deep digs created from Theilen running deep with cornerbacks feeding on him like some oceanic symbiotic relationship.
Already, Kubiak is having to battle his way out of this hole. He had the following to say after Minnesota’s blow out loss to the Packers:
We’re trying to chase four quarters,” Kubiak said. “What was the difference? It’s always little things…That’s part of football. You’ve got to battle through mistakes. Keep battling and keep playing and stay positive in your approach. We did that.
Well, whatever, nevermind. I guess it still is 2012.
2. A COWARD’S REWARD
Bill O’Brien’s cowardice has crushed the Texans in their last three losses. He kicked a field goal at Kansas City’s 13 yard line on 4th and 1. The Texans proceeded to give up 41 straight points after this decision, because, according to Bill O’Brien, he didn’t have a play for that situation, when his entire life is devoted to having a play for this situation.
In week one he followed this with another wonderful display of cowardice against Kansas City. He kicked a field goal on 4th and 4 at Kansas City’s 50 yard line with the game tied 7-7. The Chiefs scored a touchdown, kicked a field goal at the end of the half after a Ka’imi Fairbairn miss, and scored another touchdown to start the second half, to turn 7-7 into 7-24. Game over. When you play Kansas City you have to wring the sponge dry.
And against Baltimore, he did it again. He was gelded after a 4th and 1 decision at Houston’s own 34 yard line worked against him, because he had Darren Fells in a flex-wing position, and ran the play that even the basement dwellers knew was coming. Down 10-23, Houston faced 4th and 6 at Baltimore’s 17. Rather than go for it, and try to make it a one score game, O’Brien decided to maintain a two-score difference, because he still doesn’t understand that the other team gets to have the ball, and when they have the ball, they also get to try and score points.
On the following possession Baltimore, one of the most aggressive fourth down teams in the league, went for it on 4th and 1 at Houston’s 30 yard line. Greg Roman went with their spooky bird offense that has Mark Ingram at quarterback. With the line of scrimmage filled up they ran a lead play off tackle. The end line of scrimmage play side double team crunched Whitney Mercilus (#59) up to Benardrick McKinney (#55). It’s 300+ pounds of Patrick Ricard (#42) on Justin Reid (#20). It doesn’t get easier.
Baltimore rubbed O’Brien’s nose in it, and as Uprooted Texan put it so eloquently, the difference between the house training dog and O’Brien, is that the dog eventually learns how to stop crapping in the house.
3. JUST THROW TOUCHDOWNS
Football is a pretty easy game. In order to win, all you have to do is just score touchdowns. Take that for data.
The Tennessee Titans found themselves again after kicking four field goals last week. On Monday Night Football they left ten points on the board because of missed field goals. Ryan Tannehill took it upon himself to set up a group offensive ‘journey’ to a yoga retreat back to the endzone.
Against the Jacksonville Jaguars, in a freaking!!!! epic!!!! AFC South battle, Tannehill threw four redzone touchdowns.
Arthur Smith is a redzone archon. The redzone results he found last season have continued to this season. One of the staples of his redzone passing offense is motion to find and create matchups, and give his receivers more space to operate. On touchdown #1, Jonnu Smith (#81) motions to a bunch formation. He releases after Corey Davis (#81), giving him a one v. one matchup against Andrew Wingard (#42). The free safety is drawn to Davis’s post. Leaving Smith one v. one. The coverage isn’t bad. Wingard just loses him when Smith turns curls away to the sideline. From there, Tannehill scorches one right over Wingard’s back.
On touchdown #2, Tannehill motions Corey Davis from a wide to a tight split. This signals man coverage between Davis and excellent rookie cornerback C.J. Henderson (#23), and most importantly, it also creates more space for Davis to run his route. Davis takes an outside release, fakes the corner at the top of his route, and breaks inside on a deep dig. Wingard, the single high safety, is a buzzing creature to the light to the two wide receiver side, and can’t come over to affect this throw. Tannehill puts the ball over the defender’s back once again.
On touchdown #3, Jonnu Smith motions behind the formation to a trips right formation. The Jaguars have the perfect defense for this play. They have two rats in the hole sitting on crossing routes. Smith runs a quick drag. Adam Humphries (#10) does the same. The Jaguars show blitz, but drop Taven Bryan (#90) and Joe Schobert (#47) to defend each of these routes. Smith is nimble and quick, and scatters the defensive design into ocean by swimming over Bryan, and catching the pass.
On touchdown #4, Tennessee motions Anthony Firkser (#86) into the slot to create a trips right formation. He chips the defensive end before slipping into the flat. Jacksonville is running cover one robber with a linebacker in the hole. Usually excellent slot corner, D.J. Hayden (#25), has safety help. He maintains outside leverage with help over the top and inside. This gives Adam Humphries (#10) an unhindered release, and free path to the center of the field. Hayden can’t cover this much ground. Tannehill leads the pass away from him and right in front of the safety.
The Titans redzone touchdown rate is back to 85.7%. The third highest rate in the league. They’ve scored 6 touchdowns to 1 field goal according to Pro Football Reference’s drive finder. We’ll go with this statistical journal instead of following my own rudimentary calculations. For now, the Titans are back to being the Titans. Now they just need Jadeveon Clowney to get into game shape after skipping cardio all summer.
4. THE DEEP BALL WILL FIND ME
This space isn’t intended to merely be my personal space to write Josh Allen fan fiction. What if he had a mustache? What if he was the upback on a fake punt? What if lined up at tight end and John Brown threw him a pass? But sometimes certain things call for special celebrations. Josh Allen followed up the first 300 yard passing game of his career with the first 400 yard passing game of his career, and as a result, through the first two weeks of the season, Allen is leading the NFL with 729 passing yards.
To recap, last season Allen went from physical specimen, to competent short passer, who now needed to learn how to throw the deep ball to continue his path from cantaloupe picker to Pro Bowl NFL quarterback. During this journey, Allen has always been one of the most entertaining quarterbacks in the league. Leaping over Anthony Barr. Karate chopping defensive linemen in the throat. Throwing hail marys to a full back in a playoff game. Not even conversations with the lord are better than a Sunday spent with Josh Allen.
The enormous hole in his game was the deep ball. Despite having one of the best arms in the league, he couldn’t complete these passes. Footballs would fly 20 yards over the deep middle safety. Go routes would tail out of bounds. he couldn’t yield the power attached to his shoulder. This all led to Allen scrambling from an empty shotgun formation to convert on 3rd and 11.
In 2019, Allen completed only 36 of his 106 attempts over 15 yards for 963 yards, and threw 5 touchdowns to 5 interceptions. This season that has changed. Last week, against Miami, on throws over 15 yards Allen was 10/11 for 319 yards, 2 touchdowns, and averaged 29 yards an attempt. Even, I, a purveyor of deep passes, have never seen anything like this before.
The Bills had a great game plan to attack Miami. They used Cole Beasley to get over the first level of zone coverage to create easy post receptions. And they threw the ball to Stefon Diggs over and over again, who worked Miami’s pre-snap divider leverage from a wide variety of pre-snap positions, hitting posts against outside leverage, and working double moves to create space even when squeezed down the sideline. Throughout all of it, Allen put the ball in the perfect spot. Away from the defender, and leading his receiver.
Josh Allen was still Josh Allen during this game. He hasn’t let the deep ball get to his head, and make him forget who he is. He almost threw a pick-six into the flat. He threw two almost egregious interceptions on +15 yard attempts. And he choke slammed Kyle Van Noy into the core of the Earth. If Allen makes the journey from entertaining to ‘good’, at least the entertaining will always be here.
The Jets and Dolphins aren’t the toughest matchups even with the Jets’ defensive success last year, and the heavy investment Miami made into their defense this offseason. That being said, this is still a young player who has completed passes he had never been able to complete the past two weeks, and because of that, one of the big questions entering the 2020 season is slowly being answered.
5. HEAVEN IS THE ROOF
Russell Wilson made the ten best throws of the 2019 season. The go routes he completed stationary, and on the move, were angelic and extraterrestrial, and so far this season, he’s keeping it going. Although it’s only week two, we can already call off the throw of the year competition. This hitch and go to David Moore is a once in a lifetime throw for the 1% of quarterbacks who could pull this off, but for Wilson, it’s only somewhat more extraordinary than what he pulls off a few times every Sunday.
NFL’s Next Gen stats gave Wilson’s throw to Moore 6.3% completion probability. I don’t know what this means, I don’t know how they calculate it, but I don’t care, since I hate science, but regardless, it’s a nice sounding little number that perfectly encapsulates the image above, and the feats Seattle’s omnipotent quarterback is able to pull off.
6. FEELING LIKE 2018
My favorite front seven in NFL history is 2018 Houston. J.J. Watt coming down from Mt. Everest, finally healthy, and still in All-Pro form, while meeting Jadeveon Clowney on the same mountain path, healthy and together, smiling and laughing, which was the only time this occurred with both players in Houston. D.J. Reader had just evolved into one of the best run stopping defensive tackles in the game. Benardrick McKinney used spiked shoulder pads and a porcupined bat to bludgeon linemen in the hole and toss their gray ghostly corpses into the grave. Zach Cunningham delivered decapitations outrunning second level climbers from the backside of the play. Kareem Jackson bolted in from the secondary and torpedoed into ball carriers of any size and shape. And the other defensive linemen were competent enough NPCs to not be negatives in their attack.
This front seven was one of the best run defenses of all-time, and the pass rush they deployed, kept a pass defense with Shareece Wright starting at outside cornerback held together. This defense kept Bill O’Brien’s ball control offense from being expunged onto bathroom floors, and made the 2018 Texans an enjoyable team to watch, regardless of where your heartache exists.
Pittsburgh 2020 is my favorite front seven since then. It’s T.J. Watt detangling offensive tackles from the block with rapid rips and dips. Bud Dupree closing the space from the backside unblocked, crushing quarterbacks and ball carriers, and creating turnovers through violence. Tyson Alualu at nose tackle, somehow, after 17 years in the league, has crafted himself from solid pro to great run stopper. Cameron Heyward mixing bullrushes and a bull dog run defense together all in one bloody soup with bits of bone for croutons. Devin Bush Jr. playing 1990s middle of the field coverage, turning receivers into tombstones, and the middle of the field into a cemetery for them to lay forever in. Vince Williams cannon balling free on blitzes. And Stephon Tuitt, wry, limber and slippery.
It’s the type of front that can create pressure with only three, but still loves to blitz Bush, Williams, and even slot corner Mike Hilton, just because killing a quarterback isn’t enough, the real party is in the mutilation. This rush allows their secondary to cover the deep parts of the field with three, and leave entire sections neglected, because those long developing deep inward breaking routes require pass protection an offensive line can’t offer against this front.
It’s vicious and murderous. It’s black and yellow. It’s the best front in the NFL.
7. HE LIKES DOING WHAT HE LIKES
Philip Rivers loves to throw four routes. He hollers jubilating dagnabbits when he completes a sideline plastic bag heave to a physical go up and get it wide receiver, pops quick and empty and efficient five to seven yard crossing routes, hits his running back on swing routes after using his eyes to draw the coverage deep, and floats high light and airy corner routes to his tight ends.
Rivers’s time in Indianapolis hasn’t started off perfectly, but he’s figuring things out. He found his groove with Parris Campbell on crossing routes, until a PCL injury knocked him out. Jonathan Taylor’s junior year hands have carried over, and Nyheim Hines is a plus receiving back. T.Y. Hilton has dropped some big deep vertical passes, and Michael Pittman hasn’t gone up and got it down the sideline yet. This is the only thing missing now that Mo Alie-Cox, in Jack Doyle’s absence, has provided Rivers with a corner route option.
Last season, Rivers had Hunter Henry to provide him these throws. Fluffy, and pink, this touch pass combination was one of the rare wonderful things Los Angeles (C) had to offer in 2019.
Rivers was able to hit these same passes against Minnesota this week. One route would clear out the corner and the safety, leaving space for Alie-Cox to run behind. Say what you want about Rivers, but he knows how to make this throw.
The loss to Jacksonville soured a lot of good feelings about Indy being good this year, especially when factoring in the same old Philip Rivers interceptions. It’s still solid. And Rivers is still finding his way, learning out how to replicate the throws he likes. If Indy can find another source to replace Campbell, get Pittman working down the sideline, and teach Hilton how to hold onto the ball, the Colts will have a passing attack that perfectly pairs a quarterback with his strengths, all while allowing him to operate in a comfy cozy pocket. Pair this with a competent defense, and the things we wrote, talked about, and felt about the Colts a month ago will come to fruition.
8. DELAYED DEVELOPMENT
I love it when tight ends chip, aid in the play action fake, while the defenses scampers like a kicked anthill, then sneak off through an empty window, out and into open space, far away and isolated like a solitary back country camper.
Arthur Smith and Dirk Koetter both used their tight ends like this to create easy big plays this week. Tennessee broke this out on the first play of the game to create a 62 yard pass to Jonnu Smith.
The Titans fake the outside zone left, with a receiver on each side of the formation, and Smith as the end man on the line of scrimmage. After the run block is carried out, Smith comes inside of Taylor Lewan and Rodger Saffold’s blocks, to cover himself in stripes of greens and black. From there he seeps into the empty field, leaving rubble behind him, with the front seven’s attention still drawn on Derrick Henry. The outside receivers run a deep corner, and a post, against cover three. The post draws the corner along with him in man coverage since he’s vertical far enough to check the man-match requirements. Smith fills the empty space. These are some of the most well executed yards you’ll ever see.
The Falcons deployed a similar play. Except the difference here is Hayden Hurst is on the backside of the play. He blocks outside zone running left. The receivers run a dig and an out, drawing the secondary to the right, moving the opposite direction as Dallas’s front. The running back sits in the flat to fake a screen pass coming back to him. The entire time Hurst is working his way to the left sideline. By the time the defense realizes it, they drop their coffee cup in shock, as a limp becomes a run into the endzone.
9. THE BALL IS LAVA
Sometimes the end outcomes end up a little too perfect, and it leaves one wondering about the big picture questions, like, why are we here (?), where did we come from (?), who am I (?), what’s the point of all of this (?), is there a supreme creator who made all of this up (?), and if so, why would he do such a thing (?).
This week of football was too surreal. A little too simulated, and felt like a child playing with dolls imagining the happy lives their plastic people are living in that they created for them. Between the Atlanta Falcons blowing a 29-10 lead after treating the onside kick like it has COVID-19,
and the New England Patriots with Cam Newton, in Seattle, losing because they chose to run the ball on the final play of the game, everything, all of it, was just a little too bizarre, a little too perfect.
10. ENTROPY, STAY AWAY FROM ME
The best week of the NFL Season is week one. It’s right before the BIG BANG, right before the glass breaks, before the gates open the Greyhound’s cages, before entropy comes in and spills milk all over everything.
Most of the summer’s preseason projections are based around which team has the best players. This thinking operates in the vacuum of a pure and perfect world, where everyone’s bones are made of steel, and their tendons are carbon fiber, and their brains are perfectly preserved in a solipsistic jar, and injuries don’t exist. It’s a pure and perfect world. It’s the NFL’s garden of Eden.
The start of the season always brings horrendous injuries. Like death, they’re inescapable. So far we’ve lost Marlon Mack, Tavon Young, Nick Bosa, Parris Campbell, Saquon Barkley, Courtland Sutton, Malik Hooker, and Bruce Irvin for the season; Christian McCaffrey, Drew Lock, and Davante Adams for an extended period of time; Jimmy Garoppolo, Brandon Scherff, and Byron Jones are still waiting final details on their injuries. What a great big bummer. And it’s only going to accumulate from here.
This isn’t something I like. It’s just the same lesson we always forget to remember, that we have to learn all over again.