Week 6 Review

“Just look at that pumpkin!” -John Madden, looking at the moon.

Football season can really make you see the value in having nine TV sets, because you really need nine TV sets to watch. All of them have to be big. The biggest would be a theater-sized 16′x9′ projection screen. Too good to be true? Not for John Madden, it isn’t. That is the actual setup he watches on every Sunday since he retired from broadcasting.

EA Sports has been wildly successful in achieving their motto, “if it’s in the game, it’s in the game.” The Madden franchise has so successfully and accurately imitated the NFL, that the NFL has turned around and started imitating Madden.  That got me thinking about other examples of life imitating art, like when a tiger attacked Roy of Siegfried and Roy in the Simpsons in 1993, and then it happened in real life in 2007. Or like when the Simpsons predicted that instead of saying goodbye, we’d all say “smell you later,” and how we all say that now. So perhaps whenever art begins to imitate life well enough, on some deeply human level, life in return begins to imitate that art.

It was no surprise to anyone but me that the Saints would beat the Bucs on Sunday, but I’ll bet not too many people expected the Redskins and Broncos to be competitive, and the Cowboys to suck.  So there!  On to last week’s games:

New Orleans Saints 31 at Tampa Bay Buccaneers 6
Last week I predicted that the Buccaneers would win on the strength of their pass defense. Well, so much for that idea! Drew Brees threw three touchdown passes in the first three quarters, giving way to Chris Ivory, who rushed for 158 yards in 15 carries, averaging 10 and 1/2 yards per carry! I did say that Tampa was weak against the run, at least.

Dallas Cowboys 21 at Minnesota Vikings 24
It’s dismaying how an exciting, hard-fought football game like this one could be made to sound boring, as seen through the eyes of announcers Troy Aikman and Thom Brenneman.  The bar I was at insisted on playing the Dallas/Minnesota audio instead of the Broncos/Jets audio. It’s not like Greg Gumbel and Dan Dierdorf are especially good, but they are at least mediocre.

One of the Cowboys receivers scored on a long play where his defender fell down. Not falling down seems to be one of the most important skills in football, especially if you play defense. My favorite (non-)play of the game, though blown dead by a false start, was when 311 lb. Kevin Williams crashed through the line, his momentum carrying him into Tony Romo.  Williams absolutely leveled him, Romo comically flailing on to the Texas turf. No player was reported to suffer any concussions on this play.

New York Jets 24 at Denver Broncos 20
Almost no one was giving the Broncos half a chance last Sunday, but I was.

Early on I noticed that rookie cornerback Perrish Cox was always around the ball on defense. I presume the Jets were targeting him in order to avoid Champ Bailey. Though Bailey gave up one long touchdown to Braylon Edwards, it wasn’t his fault. The play took Edwards through a bunch of traffic and Champ just kinda got slowed up in it. It didn’t look like the Jets designed it as a pick play, but that’s how it worked out. Cox played well for a fifth-round rookie being asked to cover Edwards and Santonio Holmes. On his best play of the day he nicely broke up a pass to Holmes in the end zone, which set up a Syd’Quan Thompson interception on the next snap–Mark Sanchez’s first of the year. The Broncos were using a lot of sneaky coverages to fake Sanchez out. On one cunning play Cox lined upon Edwards playing man-on-man, but as Edwards is about halfway through his route, they suddenly switched to a zone. Edwards was passed off to safety Nate Jones, who surprised Sanchez by jumping front of the pass and nearly intercepting it. At times it backfired—such as one instance where Jones was manned up on Dustin Keller but didn’t follow Keller when he made his cut, apparently expecting help that wasn’t there, which allowed Keller to gain an easy first down.  More often than not though it was effective. Anything the Jets did something on offense can be chalked up to superior atheletic skill trumping the Broncos’ superior defensive scheme.

The Denver offense had number of awesome plays, as usual. There was the sweet end-around pitch to Eddie Royal, which was immediately followed by two dynamite plays where Jabar Gaffney showed everyone how you’re supposed to play wide receiver:  covered by Darelle Revis, Gaffney came to the football, rather than just letting it come to him, and he ended up schooling what might have been the tightest coverages he’ll ever see in his career. On another play Kyle Orton showed his Tebow skills are also better than Tim Tebow’s, juking All-Pro linebacker David Harris so hard he would have needed a jet pack to recover. The play was reminiscent of the one a few years ago when Tom Brady juked out Brian Urlacher without any previous warning that he had the ability to do so.

So what did the Broncos do to lose? Sure, it’s easy to blame the pass interference at the end. But that is the nature of the NFL. The better team doesn’t always win, because in a close game like this one, a tiny iota can be the difference between winning and losing; a random bounce of an oblong football, or the unpredictable whims of an inconsistent referee.

But here’s the thing: really good teams don’t have to find ways to win close games, because really good teams don’t play close games. Really good teams blow inferior opposition out of the water. If you see a team that has a lot of wins in close games, expect them to start losing games at any moment, and if you see a team that seems to keep losing heartbreakers, don’t worry, they will win some close games as well.

29 of Orton’s 35 attempts were aimed at Lloyd, Gaffney, and Royal. I’d like to see a little more Demaryius Thomas in the future, and a little less Daniel Graham. If McDaniels wanted to throw to a tight end, maybe he should have kept Tony Scheffler, who’s having an admirable season for the Lions. And instead of Knowshon Moreno and Tim Tebow together, wouldn’t you rather just have one guy who’s better than Mario Haggan?

Also playing admirably for the Lions: Alphonso Smith.  More on that below.

Miami Dolphins 23 at Green Bay Packers 20
I noticed before the game that Davone Bess was Miami’s leading receiver. On Sunday though, it was Brandon Marshall putting up the bigger numbers, gaining 127 yards on 10 catches out of 17 targets, compared to Bess’ 37 yards and a touchdown on 5 out of 9 targets. Both receivers played well on Sunday—Bess gained a first down or touchdown on 4 out of his 5 catches, Marshall on 8 of his 10. However, Bess did much of it against Packers All-Pro corner Charles Woodson, while Marshall was usually covered by Tramon Williams.

Miami is trending upward and Green Bay is trending downward. Green Bay is still in a better position overall, mostly because they play in the NFC North rather than the AFC East, where a very good team could still end up in third place.

Atlanta Falcons 17 at Philadelphia Eagles 31
Kevin Kolb looked special on Sunday, throwing several beautiful-looking touchdown passes. His story was lost behind the gruesome hit Dunta Robinson laid on DeSean Jackson, causing unknown amounts of brain damage that both men may or may not fully recover from.

A friend of mine who happened to play a little professional football wrote me about the issue and explained his perspective pretty convincingly:

“From the age of six these guys have been raised to play a violent game. Key word being violent. Football is not a contact sport, it is a collision sport. NFL players do not spend countless hours becoming as big as they can, as strong as they can, as fast and athletic as they can, to pump their brakes to think about how and where to hit another player. And in return you are going to suspend them for the very thing they are paid to do in the first place! The NFL, bottom line isn’t protecting the players, its protecting its business (money). If you don’t want to be in a fire, DONT be a fireman. If you don’t want to die in a gun fight! Don’t be a gun fighter. If you don’t want to take a big hit! Don’t play football! From day one when you signed up for pop warner you knew the risk.” —Majid Holt

There is a lot of sense in that.  Watching genetic Herculean freaks smash into each other for sport is fun, and I am certain that being one of those genetic Herculean freaks smashing into each other is even more fun!

But I don’t enjoy watching people get hurt. I’m afraid that the NFL doesn’t care about player safety, like Majid said, in case the issue might interfere with their goal of increasing revenue.  It’s important to note that in this context they may benefit from pretending like they want to take player safety seriously, but lip service and the occasional token rule tweak are about all we’re going to get in the near future.

If I wanted to defend the NFL, I’d say something like you’ve got to break a few eggs to make an omelet.  But then I’d remember that some of these guys aren’t going to be able to walk by the time they’re 60. Looking back on my own life, I’m not sure if it doesn’t take much real understanding to be able to say yes, I know the risks involved in playing football.  It’s much harder to grok it.

San Diego Chargers 17 at St. Louis Rams 20
San Diego. Green Bay. Dallas. Miami. The teams with the worst special teams units are the teams who seem to be underachieving this year. And of those bad special teams units, San Diego’s is the worst. In most of their games, the Chargers have been playing great offense and defense. They led the league in yard differential per drive coming into last week’s game against the Rams. But this time, it wasn’t the special teams who let everyone else down. This time, everyone let everyone else down.  The Rams beat them in every phase of the game. Sam Bradford completed nearly 60% of his passes for 198 yards and touchdown with a Halloween party-bag of wide receivers. Phillip Rivers was sacked 7 times, 5 of them by the defensive line. Don’t forget that Steve Spagnuolo was the guy who coached all those great Giants defensive lines, and who came up with the game plan that shut down the great 2007 Patriots offense in the Super Bowl. Like Jim Schwartz’s Lions, Spagunolo’s Rams seem to be getting better and better.  I doubt they are good enough to contend for the division, but in the weak-as-steamed-broccoli NFC West, something like that could totally happen.

Indianapolis Colts 27 at Washington Redskins 24
This game calls attention to why today’s TV coverage is unacceptable. Imagine a typical down.  The ball is snapped; Peyton Manning drops back.  The receivers take off on their routes, disappearing off the screen as the camera is zooming in on the quarterback. We can’t really see what the two lines are doing, because looking across the field from the sideline jumbles everybody up into a confusing mass. Manning looks, throws, and wow! A receiver is wide open! How did that happen? We don’t know! What coverage was the defense in? Nobody knows! It all happened off the side of the screen! There is high-quality NFL football being played, and TV networks refuse to let us watch it.  If Madden the video game is going to influence anything, then I want it to influence this.  You don’t play madden using a sideline cam.  You play Madden using a camera located about where the overhead cable camera is.  This way you can see everything: both lines, the defensive coverages, and the receivers throughout their routes.  The only thing you don’t see is the expression on the quarterback’s face.  But as far as the networks are concerned, football is played one quarterback against another.  But alas, the cable cam is new, and even though football itself is liberally open to innovation, the TV networks are not.  They’ve been doing the sideline cam for fifty years, and dagg nabbit, they’re used to it!  No, networks first need to be realize that there are 21 other starters on a football team besides the quarterback.  Take that one step and the others will follow.

In a way much like Denver’s Josh McDaniels, Washington’s Jim Haslet is a brilliant coach in some areas, but one with certain screwy fixations that end up holding him back.  Tim Tebow, tight ends named Gronkowski, and a balanced offense are to McDaniels as a hyper-aggressive defense is to Haslet.  He schemed up what would have been a very good defensive gameplan for an offense like the one the Colts run, except for the fact that Manning was able to disarm it as easily as Bill Clinton is able to disarm a conversational faux pas in Arkansas.  Haslet wanted to keep Manning from being able to make any reads before the snap by having his players wave their arms around like mad, to stand up, shift positions, and generally do something random. It’s a good idea–that defensive gameplan is one reason why Jim Kelly never won any of those Super Bowls.  But Manning’s seen it before, and he adjusted by switching to the fastest hurry-up offense the NFL has ever seen. The Redskins defenders didn’t have the time to stunt around like they planned, they were struggling to just keep up!

I picked the Redskins to win this game because I thought they would continue to run the same scheme they’ve been running all year.  That is, blitz aggressively up front to get quick pressure, allowing the defensive backs to only worry about covering short routes since they know Manning is going to have to throw quickly.  It’s been too aggressive for the more conventional offenses they’ve faced so far, and it’s put them in bad situations, but I thought it would be just about right for the Colts.  And it worked  extremely well, after they switched back to it with 9 minutes left in the game.  By then it was too little, too late.

I feel pretty good about how they played on offense. Ryan Torain was breaking multiple tackles every time he touched the ball. The Colts defense is bad, but they aren’t that bad.  Torain’s blockers were all over the field for him too, able to peel off their linemen since Chris Cooley, Mike Sellers, and Anthony Armstrong were making their blocks and sealing the edges so well.

Washington’s line was playing well for most of the game, aided though they were by a ref crew that happened to be disinclined toward calling holding on either team. But the Colts made an interesting adjustment: they started to use their line to rush McNabb in kind of a run mode.  Their linemen would stay in their lanes and hold their ground, which not only impeded Donovan’s vision downfield, but made it more difficult for him to tuck the ball away and scramble to gain yardage. I’ve never noticed a defense doing this on purpose, but it was a clever plan that worked well enough to win.

Two weeks ago, the Colts were in last place in the AFC South. This week they’re in first.

Seattle Seahawks 23 at Chicago Bears 20
Okay, I admit it: I laughed and cheered when fat #69 Henry Melton made a play for the Bears on Sunday. He’s listed on their website at 260 lbs but he plays way fatter than that. This game included the best (legal) hit of the day. 200 lb. Earl Bennett leveled 220 lb. punter Jon Ryan and sent him flying during a punt return, helping to spring Devin Hester for a fourth quarter touchdown.

If I can go this long writing about a Bears game without mentioning Julius Peppers, the guy blocking him probably did a good job.  Doug Farrar wrote a good piece reviewing Russell Okung’s game, and perhaps exploring the rookie left tackle’s potential (HINT: he’s probably going to be good).

Detroit Lions 20 at New York Giants 28
The second paragraph of the A.P. recap of this game begins, “The New York Giants simply found a way to keep winning Sunday.” Is that their way of saying  that Shaun Hill broke his arm in the second quarter, and Drew Stanton had to finish the game for the Lions?  Stanton actually played well against the best pass defense in the league, throwing for 222 yards, a touchdown, and an interception. The interception was a bad one though, ending the game at the Giants 38 yard line as the Lions were driving to tie.

Giants crackerjack receiver Hakeem Nicks was being covered by Alphonso Smith most of the game.  Smith held Nicks to 3 catches for 8 yards. Yikes! The Other Manning avoided Smith, picking instead on Jonathan Wade. You may remember Alphonso Smith as the guy Josh McDaniels traded a first round draft pick for, who was then traded for reserve tight end Dan Gronkowski. Yes, McDaniels essentially traded the 14th pick in the first round of the 2010 draft for the 255th pick in the seventh round of the 2009 NFL draft.  Way to go!

McDaniels doesn’t seem to feel comfortable coaching a team without at least one Gronkowski on the roster, so I’m sure he feels it was a fair trade.  And being a head coach he must know a lot more about football than I do.

Baltimore Ravens 20 at New England Patriots 23
Fun fact: New England is one of the three teams (along with Denver and Dallas) to have a Gronkowski on the roster. Also, Deion Branch is apparently really good for the Patriots and simultaneously really bad for the Seahawks.

Cleveland Browns 10 at Pittsburgh Steelers 28
Every team in the NFC has two or more losses already. Of the three AFC teams with only one loss, the Steelers are the only one without any obvious flaws. The Patriots have a terrible secondary, and the Jets have Mark Sanchez. In the 2009 Football Outsiders Almanac, Robert Weaintraub discusses how Mike Tomlin addressed last years weaknesses by hiring new coaches. The names Al Everst and Sean Kugler aren’t discussed often in the media, but they have been doing a slap-up job improving the team. The only concern is that star linebacker James Harrison will consider an early retirement if the NFL says he can’t hurt people anymore.  The NFL would be without her hero.

Tennessee Titans 30 at Jacksonville Jaguars 3
The most boring game of the week—I’m glad I fell asleep about when Trent Edwards entered the game. At least Edwards is somewhat interesting, since he’s young and I’m somewhat curious to see if he ever gets better. But I really don’t want to have to watch another game with Kerry Collins at QB. Even with a good offensive coordinator he’d be boring to watch. But with a hack like the Titans Mike Heimerdinger, watching this offense is only going to be slightly less unbearable than listening to a game called by Troy Aikman.

Oakland Raiders 9 at San Francisco 49ers 17
Alex Smith said before the game that he expected to get booed. That’s sad to me. The 49ers organization is in bad shape right now. They aren’t a terrible team, and they have some stars to build around.

It’s surprising that this was their first win of the year. It’s not surprising that the 49ers touchdowns were to Michael Crabtree and Vernon Davis—I pointed out last week that the Raiders are terrible defending passes to #1 WRs and TEs.

Fun fact: Raiders QB Jason Campbell didn’t complete any passes in either the second or third quarters.

Oakland Raiders owner Al Davis walks into the stadium before the Raiders' NFL football game against the San Francisco 49ers in San Francisco, Sunday, Oct. 17, 2010. (AP Photo/Paul Sakuma)

Kansas City Chiefs 31 at Houston Texans 35
I’m getting tired of writing about Kansas City’s mismanagement of their running back committee. But hey, it still beats watching baseball. So that was nice. Meanwhile on defense, the Chiefs refused to assign their best corner, Brandon Flowers, to follow the Texans best receiver, Andre Johnson. This strategy seems stupid, seeing as how Johnson destroyed Brandon Carr on the opposite side of the field. Chiefs fans should be irate about the criminal inflexibility they’re seeing from the coaching staff! It probably cost them this game, and they are likely to lose many others due to Todd Haley&co’s monomania.

FO writer Doug Farrar observed that the Chiefs first touchdown was on a play-action pass where the running back sold a convincing jump-cut without the ball. This is a new idea to me, reminiscent of the Greatest-Show-On-Turf Kurt Warner, who was the first QB I remember to sell a convincing pump fake before handing off to a running back on a draw play. That was sweet.


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