You gotta love the NFL. What a wild week filled with near upsets and close calls at the end of games. There is no doubt that the National Football League is the best of all reality T.V. series because of the unpredictable week-to-week nature.
Let’s look at some of the happenings and observations as we mark the official halfway point of the season.
Valiant effort from the Bills, but too much from the Chiefs
The Chiefs are following the old adage of the Raiders, by “Just winning baby”, regardless of how ugly they are doing it. Once again, that was another average performance by their offensive unit as they were out-gained by a whopping 260 yards. Despite their offensive deficiencies, the Chiefs find a way to win thanks to their defense which has scored five touchdowns so far this season. The Bills had the chance to take a lead early in the third quarter and were in striking distance of scoring a touchdown. Jeff Tuel, the second undrafted quarterback the Bills have harboured as they wait for E.J. Manuel to return from an MCL sprain, threw a 100 yard pick six to Sean Smith, which ended up swinging all the momentum to the Chiefs favour. In the fourth quarter, Tamba Hali returned a fumble 11 yards for a house call. Two big defensive plays when their offense sputtered and was corralled all game against an underrated Bills defense, was all Andy Reid and Kansas City needed to win their ninth game of the season. It does not always look pretty and the Chiefs have been out-gained yardage wise in five of their nine games, but they play great situational football and their defense is as stout as any in the league, allowing only 12.3 points per game. Sooner or later, Alex Smith will need to outright win a game for the Chiefs eventually, as he’s only thrown for over 260 yards once all season. For the time being, they can continue riding the coattails of that pressure defense.
Rex bests his brother in battle of the Ryan’s.
The brash style of Rex Ryan has always personally rubbed me the wrong way. As someone who has followed the other New York-based team and grows exhausted of the constant penchant for the Jets to be nothing more than an NFL sideshow, Ryan has been the poster boy of talking up a mediocre team. Finally, after an offseason mired with an average roster and rookie quarterback, the Jets are playing well enough for Ryan to back up the bravado with which he and his team plays with.
You would be kidding yourself if you didn’t think this has been Ryan’s best coaching job. Considering the yo-yo like performance of Geno Smith and his propensity to turn the ball over (13 interceptions, 3 fumbles) it is quite impressive how the Jets are able to allow the sixth fewest amount of yards per game with 313. Their interior defensive line has been dominant. Mohammed Wilkerson is proving to be a star who can stop the run and rush the passer, as evidenced by his 7 sacks already. Sheldon Richardson is a budding star with his speed and Warren Sapp-like quickness at the 3-technique.
Drew Brees was pressured consistently and never looked comfortable. Offensively, Marty Mornihweg is taking the ball out of Smith’s hand and allowing his running backs to carry the offense: a smart move against the likes of the Saints who boast a mediocre run defense. Chris Ivory (139 yards) was the main bell-cow in a Jets rushing attack that finished 2 yards shy of 200 total yards. This is the ‘ground and pound’ formula the Jets used to propel them to back-to-back AFC Championship games in 2009 and 2010 where they were a top 10 rushing team. Along with a stingy defense that applies relentless pressure to the quarterback and flies to the football, the Jets are creeping closer to the Championship form they reached over two seasons ago.
Browns defense is for real
Please do yourself a favour and watch the Cleveland Browns defense. A faction of no-name players, coached by Ray Horton who was the defensive coordinator for the Cardinals, Cleveland is second in the league in sacks with 31. This is a collective effort by a team where not one player has more than 4 sacks. Barkevious Mingo, who was their 6th overall pick, leads the team with the aforementioned four sacks, despite being a situational pass rusher on obvious passing downs and 3rd and long plays.
I have mentioned it once and will mention it again, Joe Haden needs to be considered among the upper echelon of corners. What I love about the former Florida Gators standout is that he is one of those corners who will stay completely glued to the opposing team’s elite wide receiver. Certain players like Nnamdi Asomugha, when he was an elite player, will own one part of the field, but will not necessarily cover the best receiver for the entire game. Haden relishes the challenge and is up for it. Let’s take a look at some of the upper echelon receivers that he has shut down this season:
Mike Wallace: 1 catch, 15 yards
A.J. Green: 7 catches, 51 yards
Calvin Johnson: 3 catches, 25 yards
Jordy Nelson: 5 catches 42 yards
None of them scored touchdowns.
Haden plays a physical brand of football where he uses his hands to leverage receivers and he is one of the best at re-routing players and not giving them free releases. Along with Buster Skrine and T.J. Ward, the Browns have one of the most underrated back-ends in the league
With solid play by Jason Campbell over the last two games, where he has thrown for 506 yards, 5 touchdowns, have re-energized their offense and passing game. Along with a stingy defense in a weak AFC North division, the Browns definitely have a shot in this race.
What’s up with the Seahawks run defense?
For a team that boasts monsters up the middle in Red Bryant and Brandon Mebane, the Seahawks have been gashed versus the run over the last two games, against 2013 6th round draft picks Zac Stacy and Michael James. It is one thing to allow a hundred yard rusher, but it is another to allow the Rams and Bucs to allow 200 yards rushing yards in each game. The Seahawks went from being ranked 6th in run defense at 92 yards per game, to 19th with 116 yards per game.
While it is hard to overreact when a team has had the defense acumen of the Seahawks against the run, a reputation that has allowed them to be called one of the best against the ground attack, it is very concerning how badly they have been bludgeoned on the ground, especially against teams that were ranked middle of the pack before they played Seattle.
Meet Mr. Stacy and Mr. James
Speaking of the aforementioned running backs of the Rams and Buccaneers, it is once again proof that you should never overpay for a running back. Stacy and James are both 6th round draft picks that fell under the radar. What you see from them is great patience. They let the holes materialize and have good vision at the line of scrimmage and the second level. Stacy especially, is a 5’8, 220lbs battering ram that explodes at the hole and can make one cut to gain chunk yards. Similarly with Mike James, who is a little more athletic as a runner, but possesses the same type of patience and ability to make players miss.
Stacy’s 134 and 127 yards in his last two games and James 158 yards against a great defense further prove the importance of the scouting department and finding running backs that are talented, but less heralded.
– Packers fans are holding their collective breaths that Aaron Rodgers’ injury is not too serious. Reports are that he suffered an injured left shoulder, his non-throwing shoulder. When he left the game and game back, his arm was not in a sling, so it could be that the feared collarbone injury was escaped. We’ll know shortly, but it would be a surprised if he did not miss at least 2-3 games.
– Tom Brady is back. Well, we said that after his game winning drive against the Saints, but this time, with his full arsenal of receivers fully healthy and Stevan Ridley running like he can, the Patriots are poised for a big second half.
– Speaking of that game, the Steelers are a mess. Troy Polamalu has been terrible all year, Ryan Clark and Ike Taylor are not the same players any more. The Steelers back-end is among the oldest of the league and are consistently getting beat in coverage.
– I just love the way this Panthers team is playing. They only sacked Matt Ryan once, but he felt constant pressure and ended up throwing three interceptions. Mike Shula is calling a much better game than Rob Chudzinski was when he was the coordinator of the Panthers last season. There was a great 4th and 1 call when Newton faked a play-action pass and lobbed it to a wide open Greg Olsen for a score. The running game gets a boost with the return of Jonathan Stewart in a true running back by committee. The Panthers combined for 131 yards, with not one player gaining over 43 on the ground.
– Alfred Morris finally had more than 20 carries. In their three wins, that is his carry total. In their five losses, he only touches the ball 14.6 times. What is frustrating for Redskins fans, is that there has not been one game where Morris (who is averaging 5.2 yars per carry) has been completely corralled, despite the low touches. Kyle Shanahan himself has been Morris’ worst enemy by calling too few running plays for his thoroughbred running back. The formula for the Redskins is for Morris to get 20-25 carries, which reduces the offensive burden on Robert “Three-Sticks”. Pierre Garçon had a stellar game catches everything that came his way.
– The Ravens offensive line has been terrible all season. Solomon Wilcotts pointed out how they have a mauling offensive line that has the potential to overpower teams, yet they are deploying a zone-blocking scheme. They are not as athletic as other units that run this type of scheme, therefore they are not holding their blocks as long at the point of attack. Ray Rice has suffered considerably due to their lack of hole-creation. Still, he does not look entirely healthy and seemed to have lost a step.
-Prayers out to Gary Kubiak. That was quite a scary moment watching the Sunday Night game. As for the contest, Case Keenum has put a stranglehold on the starting quarterback job. He is averaging over 10 yards per completion, where as Matt Schaub was at a paltry 6.7. Andre Johnson proved that he is still an elite receiver with 9 catches, 222 yards and 3 touchdowns. The Texans likely have a hole to big to dig themselves out of, but the future looks bright for Keenum who is not afraid of throwing it deep.