Also, the sadness of the Giants’ O-line, the Broncos’ struggles on the road, the Saints started 2018 like they started 2017, stop throwing to Julio in the red zone, get ready to doze off during a lot of Seattle Seahawks primetime games, looking back on the last L.A. vs. L.A. battle, the Super Bowl halftime show that should be, and will the Victory Loose Warm Beers In a Car Trunk™ be cracked open this week? Plus, musical guest: Rage Against the Machine!
1. Carson Wentz and Andrew Luck, twins separated at birth but with different hair and birthdates three years apart, cross paths in Philadelphia on Sunday.
Wentz and Luck are cut from the same cloth: Linebacker size with the ability to extend plays within the pocket. That style is partially responsible for catastrophic injuries, with Luck missing a season while recovering from shoulder surgery and Wentz missing a postseason run to a championship due to a torn ACL. Luck returned to the field two weeks ago and has played a different style this season. Rather than attacking downfield, it’s been a much heavier emphasis on shorter throws. Before the injury, 33.8% of his pass attempts were thrown beyond 10 yards, and 11.5% beyond 20. Those rates are down to 21.4% and 4.8% through two games this year. However, the Eagles’ struggles against Ryan Fitzpatrick and the Bucs’ downfield passing attack might give Frank Reich and the Colts braintrust reason to let loose a bit, especially in light of the fact that Tampa’s front five mostly held Philly’s pass rush in check. Even with left tackle Anthony Castonzo still out, when you consider the investment Indy has made in the interior offensive line, this might be the week to throw a little caution to the wind and let it fly.
As for Wentz, a torn ACL is far less of a long-term concern than shoulder surgery for a quarterback, but it seems much more likely that the Eagles take a conservative approach. That’s in large part because they have no weapons on the outside if Alshon Jeffery sits again—and even if he returns, he figures to be playing at far less than 100%. Four years from now this will be a heavyweight battle. On Sunday, we should hope to see a few more glimpses of the old Andrew Luck.
2. There are things we know about first-year Lions head coach Matt Patricia. He’s a scientist. He is banned from dozens of mini-golf courses in the six New England states due to his habit of dumping the basket full of those little scorecard pencils into his fanny pack. He has a beard. But what you might not know: He used to work for none other than Bill Belichick, who—ironically—does not himself have a beard, and who will be his opponent Sunday night.
Aside from the clichéd teacher vs. student angle on Sunday Night Football, this will be an especially fascinating test for Patricia’s young Detroit defense. The Patriots have a lack of weapons on the outside—at least until Josh Gordon is ready for a bigger role than run straight upfield then catch it/catch it then run straight upfield. But the Patriots have the kind of mismatch weapons at running back and tight end (well, one tight end) to give this Lions team fits. I am sticking to my assessment of Jarrad Davis as a future star once he gets the reps he needs to improve in coverage, but he’s not there yet. Christian Jones has also had issues; neither guy looks anywhere near comfortable in the new scheme. Though the one positive you can take away from an ugly first two games for Detroit: It seemed like this thing might go off the rails after the embarassing opener and a defecit in San Francisco, but they played hard and battled back a week ago.
Tom Brady has been to the postseason 14 straight seasons, and in that span the Patriots have only lost back-to-back (meaningful, Brady playing four quarters with something on the line) games six times. Detroit’s linebackers are going to have to be significantly better—or Matthew Stafford is going to have to stand on his head again—if it’s going to be seven.
3. I’m not gonna sit here and list the reasons why Maroon 5 isn’t a very good choice for the Super Bowl halftime show. I’ll just reiterate how disappointed I am that my idea for the halftime show—an alarm-clock radio that plays Led Zeppelin’s “The Ocean” four consecutive times—has once again not received proper consideration.
4a. We live in the world obsessed with symbolism over any kind of deep, substantive assessment—no more so than in politics and sports—and one week ago Deshaun Watson was very much in danger of falling prey to a new narrative. In case you missed it, Watson’s gaffe last week was essentially running out the clock with a three-point deficit. With the ball at midfield and 17 seconds left, rather than trying to get the ball out to the sideline to try to set up the Texans (who were out of timeouts) for a desperation field goal try, and facing a two-man rush, Watson loitered for nine seconds before scrambling, at one point fully crossing the line of scrimmage then running back behind it. He eventually threw the ball to DeAndre Hopkins in the middle of the field, ending the game. It was indeed a bone-headed play, erasing what little chance Houston had to force overtime in Nashville. But it’s also a largely meaningless data point in what remains an exceedingly promising first eight starts of Watson’s career.
The social media pitchforks were out. (And make no mistake: Twitter might be a giant comments section—98% of which is the intellectual equivalent of a giant, smoldering crater that was filled with soiled diapers immediately after being formed—but it’s still where most media members form their world view. Anyway, follow me on Twitter!) Watson was spared when someone reacted to his mistake by saying something irredeemably stupid, and then everyone forgot what they were so worked up about in the first place even though they never should have been so worked up about it. The circle of life.
Watson will likely be better than “fine” going forward; there’s no reason to doubt his ascension. And with the Giants shorthanded in the secondary (it’s a long drop from Eli Apple to B.W. Webb), this game represents a chance to re-establish himself as a budding superstar.
And if nothing else, last week’s gaffe did remind me of my favorite moment of the past five seasons:
[Paul Harvey voice] And that little boy who nobody liked grew up to be… Kirk Cousins. And now you know the rest of the story.
4b. As for the other side of the battle of disappointingly winless teams, the Giants are being done in by their offensive line. They have the skill-position talent to win a lot of games. They can’t do it if they’re completely incapable of blocking people.
In the opener, they were overpowered by the Jaguars’ front, which happens. Last week against Dallas, they were clearly unprepared for all those slot blitzes from a familiar division opponent who has never come after them like that. The individual talent on the Giants’ line is good enough to be passable, but O-line coach Hal Hunter has his work cut out for him. His guys were collectively curling into the fetal position and softly weeping every time the Cowboys ran a simple twist last Sunday night.
But besides finding general cohesiveness, how about some power runs with Will Hernandez paving the way for Saquon Barkley? That was the most exciting vision for Giants fans coming out of last April’s draft. And if you got a little bit of power going, you can start in with some RPOs, opening up some catch-and-run opportunities for Odell Beckham Sr.’s kid.
5a. Denver is a lovely part of the country, and far be it from me to rain on anyone’s proverbial parade, but this 2-0 start for the Broncos has a little bit of a déjà vu feel to it.
Two games into the 2017 season, the Broncos were 2-0—outlasting the Chargers in the season opener then destroying the Cowboys in the second game—both wins at Mile High. Trevor Siemian was tied for the NFL lead in touchdown passes (they had their quarterback!). The defense was elite again, holding Ezekiel Elliott to eight yards on nine carries in the Dallas win. Then, the Broncos came east to Buffalo in Week 3, where they were depantsed by the Bills. The wheels came off soon after.
Ultimately, the Broncos were one of the worst road teams in football last season. They were 1-7, the only win coming on a Thursday night in Indianapolis, four days after the Colts had played a snowy, overtime slugfest in Buffalo. Six of the Broncos’ seven road losses were by double-digits, with the seventh a 21-14 defeat to a bad Oakland team.
So consider this an official pumping of the brakes on the undefeated Broncos as they head to Baltimore on Sunday. Case Keenum has gotten the job done through two games, but he’s looked just as uneven as Siemian did during the early going last season. The defense has played well overall, but gave up some plays to a rebuilding Raiders offense last week. We’ll have a much better read on the Broncos’ outlook after they play a middling—though well-rested—Ravens team on the road
5b. Conversely, two games into last season we were shaking our heads and chuckling “same old Saints” after New Orleans allowed 29 to the Vikings in the opener then 36 to the Patriots at home. The start to this season has been even more disconcerting for a defense that was very much on the rise last year, allowing 48 to FitzMagic’s Bucs and 18 to Tyrod Taylor’s Browns (the latter doesn’t sound that bad, but consider Taylor threw for 246 yards and 8.2 per attempt with a 94.6 passer rating against New Orleans, and 216 yards, 4.0 yards per attempt and a 46.5 rating in his season’s other six quarters). There’s something to be said for the Saints defense having potentially maxed out a year ago; it’s not often that a unit has two players (Cam Jordan and Marshon Lattimore) perform at a Defensive Player of the Year level. But there’s at least precedent for this group starting slow
6. New Orleans goes to Atlanta this week, a battle of two should-be Super Bowl contenders who were tripped up Week 1. In the case of the Saints, it’s been the aforementioned defense. As for Atlanta, this offense might go as their red-zone efficiency goes.
During their record-setting 2016 season, the Falcons scored 5.19 points per red-zone possession, eighth-best in the NFL, including 39 red-zone TDs, third in the league. Last year, those numbers slid to 4.48 points per RZ possession (23rd) and 27 RZTDs (11th). They would have dropped off from that 33.8 points per game they averaged in 2016 regardless—the big plays just weren’t there—but the drop wouldn’t have been nearly as sharp if their red-zone effectiveness had held.
In that regard, Atlanta’s Week 2 was as encouraging as Week 1 was discouraging. In the opener at Philadelphia, Atlanta made five red zone trips and came away with nine points combined on them. In Week 2, they made four red-zone trips and came away with 28 points.
Looking at the ball distribution in the red-zone, in Week 1 Julio Jones got three targets (with no catches and one interception), Austin Hooper got two, Devonta Freeman got one, and they ran the ball five times. In Week 2, Calvin Ridley caught a TD on a slant on the opposite side of the field from Jones, and later Austin Hooper scored on a corner route as the single receiver on his side of the field with Jones lining up with a trips grouping on the other side. The other TDs were Matt Ryan on a sneak at the goal line, and Ryan on an eight-yard scramble out of a spread look.
Jones didn’t get a single red-zone target in Week 2, and maybe there’s something to that. The conventional wisdom has been to force-feed Julio in the red-zone, but during that record-setting season in 2016 he was sixth on the team in red-zone targets (9), scoring just two RZTDs on the year. Last year he had twice as many RZ targets, leading the team with 18, and scored half as many touchdowns. I’ll save you the trouble of doing the math by disclosing that half of two is one.
In a nutshell, if you look at 2016 vs. 2017, and Week 1 vs. Week 2 of the current season, the Falcons might be better off going elsewhere near the goal line. And as good as Julio is, he just hasn’t been the kind of back-shoulder force you’d think he’d be down there. He’s caught only half of his 110 career RZ targets, with just 23 TDs among them. His best use down there might be as a decoy.
7. I know, it happened Thursday night, but no one jostles me awake from my trademark 40-hour naps until Saturday, so I’m now going to write a couple things about the Browns’ historic victory:
a. Thursday was what Baker Mayfield and Sam Darnold were supposed to be right now. Mayfield was very much pro-ready. Darnold was probably not quite there. So if, last May, you were having a conversation about how Mayfield and Darnold would look in their Week 3 matchup, Thursday is probably pretty close to what you would expect. And also you have boring conversations.
b. It is a little weird seeing Darnold asked to run a conservative, misdirection-heavy attack while Mayfield was typically hitting his back foot and ripping it. It feels like that’s what Darnold should be doing more of. Though, considering the absurdly conservative decision to sit Mayfield for two-and-a-half games, Hue Jackson might have taken a different tack if the Browns weren’t trailing by 14 points when Mayfield came onto the field for his first NFL action.
c. Not a big deal; Mayfield deserves all the praise he’s getting for his Thursday night performance, Hue Jackson deserves to be heckled until our voices are hoarse for sitting Mayfield behind Tyrod Taylor for any period of time let alone two-plus games. BUT! Mayfield did lose track of a safety on a third-quarter red-zone throw, and if Doug Middleton catches one of the easiest interceptions he’ll ever be offered up, we’re all singing a different tune. Something sad. Emo.
d. Apologies for pointing this out, but poor Jamar Taylor. He’s a fine cornerback (despite a rough start to his new life opposite Patrick Peterson in Arizona), and after spending the last two seasons in Cleveland he is currently on a personal 19-game losing streak. I’d be crazy to pass up this marketing opportunity, so here goes: Those three loose cans of Genesee, plus one Busch, from two summers ago will remain locked in the trunk of my car—snuggled in my Jake Plummer Arizona Cardinals replica jersey from the Champion Outlet in Waterloo, N.Y., in order to keep them at room temperature—until he gets a win. Or until someone jimmies the lock a little bit; it will pop right open.
8. Far be it from me to critique any network’s programming choices—I’ve seen every episode of Aqua Teen Hunger Force approximately 14 times apiece and unlike most Adult Swim viewers I watched every one of them sober if you don’t count alcohol and inhalants. But the number of times the Seahawks will be nationally televised in 2018 seems regrettable.
The first issue is that the most fascinating and talented player on the roster (for now), Earl Thomas, plays free safety and therefore spends most of his time off-screen on the broadcast angle (long live the Madden cam). But, of course, the main problem is that offense.
New offensive coordinator Brian Schottenheimer deserves more than two games to prove himself in Seattle (even if his Jets tenure was… less than inspiring), and it’s exceedingly difficult to design for Russell Wilson, who’s at his best playing out-of-structure and off-schedule. Still, through two games (and, really, dating back to late last season), the offense is basically Russ patting the ball five or six times before the pocket collapses and swallows him up. And then Michael Dickson comes out. Which is actually the best part of a Seahawks game at this point.
This is shaping up to be like the mid-autumn nightmare of 2017, when the Miami Dolphins were on primetime three straight weeks. The Seahawks are on in primetime five times this season, and most of the nation will be subjected to that offense when they host the Cowboys today. It’s a good afternoon for raking the leaves. Or if they haven’t fallen in your yard yet, just mime raking leaves for three hours. It’s good practice for the real thing.
9. The Chargers should feel right at home on Sunday: in greater Los Angeles and with no one in the stadium rooting for them. Their visit to the Rams also marks the first L.A. vs. L.A. game in nearly 24 years.
Let us turn back the clock to 1994, when these United States were a much different place. Physicists Clifford Shull and Bertram Brockhouse’s development of the neutron scattering technique earned them a Nobel Prize. The world watched as Justin Bieber, once a fetus, was birthed in a Canadian hospital. It would be another seven years before the advent of Wikipedia, empowering even the laziest of researchers to, for instance, “turn back the clock to 1994.”
And on a pleasantly warm November afternoon at Anaheim Stadium, the Los Angeles Rams hosted the Los Angeles Raiders in a game that thrilled anyone hoping to see Chris Miller and Chris Chandler for the price of a single admission. (From what I can tell off old game stories, apparently Rams quarterbacks were getting destroyed all season, and the oft-concussed Miller replaced an injured Chandler in the second quarter in this one.)
Super Bowl champion Jeff Hostetler (to be clear, this game was not the Super Bowl) threw for 218 yards and a couple of first-half TDs, the second one to “Rocket” Ismail—who earned his nickname while studying with Matt Patricia at RPI. The Ismail TD had been a counter punch to Chandler’s TD throw to “Flipper” Anderson—who got his nickname for his support of John Kerry in the 2004 presidential election. Though in the end, it was a couple of clutch fourth-quarter field goals by “Jeff” Jaeger—who got his nickname from the shortening of his birth name “Jeffrey”—that proved to be the difference. Jaeger’s makes from 44 and 47 yards provided enough cushion for the Raiders in a 20-17 victory that was remembered by no one until you just finished reading this.
10. Ladies and gentlemen . . . Rage Against the Machine! (Appropriate for a number of reasons these days, and today the album title is among them…)
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