Wednesday, September 29, 2010

The Hangover 9-29-2010

Sorry for the delay, but this one is a doozy...

- I’m not sure what can be said about the 49ers at this point. Certainly, a lot of blame has been rightly put on Jimmy Raye, an offensive coordinator who stubbornly refused to take his myriad targets and spread the field, trusting Alex Smith to buy Frank Gore room to move in the defensive front with the pass game. Still, this whole thing feels…off. Vernon Davis getting just 6 targets in a game in which the Chiefs jumped out to an early lead seems like a mistake. Worse still was the defense’s inability to put real pressure on Matt Cassel, who has been flustered under pressure all year, with 0 sacks on the day. In the end, though, you have to wonder if it might be time to move on from Alex Smith. This team is too talented at its offensive skill positions for Alex Smith to be playing with this little confidence (Note to anyone considering Mike Nolan as a head coach: He still hasn’t lived this down, and this team’s stagnation for the last few years is as much on him as anybody else). Smith’s inability to take advantage of good single coverage matchups has shut down Frank Gore’s ground game, which has, in turn, further limited Smith’s options, which was supposed to be the greatest strength this offense had. In the end, a move to a new offense, helmed by a new quarterback (FREE TROY SMITH) who has the mobility to buy receivers like Crabtree and Davis the extra time or space they clearly need, looks like the only way to really turn things around.

- I’m buying the Chiefs. Say what you will about the lack of marquee names (irrelevant) or the lack of depth at receiver (a deceptive truth), but this team is proving that you can’t teach speed, and enough speed on the offensive side of the ball eventually kills teams that can’t win shootouts or control the clock. Between McCluster and Charles (who combined for 126 yards as a TD through the air, with Charles adding another 97 yards on the ground), the backs can more than make up for the lack of a speed threat at wide receiver, as both are capable of lining up practically anywhere on the field. That trick play that opened Bowe up deep? That’s the start of a beautiful thing if the Chiefs start to realize that a quickness ground game can be just as effective at opening up receivers as one that goes for power between the tackles. Furthermore, that kind of speed means that this offense isn’t a fluke; hell, we may have just seen them play their first truly competent game. Given a bye week to prepare, is it crazy to think this team could steal one from either a Colts team whose zones won’t shift fast enough to keep up or a Texans team whose run defense is slowly getting exposed as suspect, then run the table through a weak November schedule (JAX, BUF, OAK, DEN, ARI, SEA) to enter the last month of their season (and their last three divisional games) with a 10-1 record the opposition can’t catch? Just a great job of matching talent to system, then using both to their full potential.

- Honestly, if you’re the Lions, I think you fire Shaun Hill for the simple fact that he only targeted Calvin Johnson 7 times. Against that undersized, relatively weak secondary, the Lions should have had an aerial field day, with Megatron sitting at the head of the table. Instead, they managed a pedestrian 237 yards and just 1 TD through the air, along with 2 INT. Also, why rush an undersized Jahvid Best into that defensive front at all? A stubborn consistency is what gets coaches fired, Jim Schwartz. I honestly believe this might be the best 0-3 team in football, but at some point, they need to decide to lean heavily on their strengths instead of trying to be some balanced team they simply aren’t equipped to be.

- No, Vikings, you aren’t back. Still, that was a better example of how the game plan should look as long as Sidney Rice is gone.

- How bad is the Patriots secondary? Ryan Fitzpatrick went 20/28 and hung 287 yards and 2 TD on the day. Yes, there were 2 INT to go along with it, but this team has all the earmarks of a secondary that gets killed by bigger deep ball receivers (ahem…JETS). They can take advantage of obvious mistakes by the quarterback, but if you can isolate them, their physical talent (and make no mistake, those corners, particularly McCourty, all have the physical talent to make life difficult through the air) gets outweighed by a lack of body control and positioning. Throw in an AFC in which the playoff contenders are all sporting oversized deep threats, and this team is going to be asked to win a lot of shootouts. That said, this offense can go with anybody, and if their secondary gets coached up the way Belichick has coached up less gifted players, they’ll be a scary playoff team, but it’s going to be one of the more frantic runs to the playoffs that Pats fans have experienced in the last decade. Whatever the reflection of “grinding it out” is, this is that.

- Look, the franchise is a mess, but there is no way you’re convincing me that releasing Trent Edwards wasn’t the right move for the Bills. Hell, I’d just rotate through QBs all year to see if there was anybody worth getting excited about. Oh, and we’ll discuss this later, but if they take Jake Locker…oh man…we’re gonna need a better word for “bust”.

- How is nobody talking about Gene Smith as a very good coach yet? He worked Sean Payton like a speed bag on Sunday, controlling the clock for almost 46 minutes compared to Payton’s 27. Make no mistake, that Saints are the most talented roster in the NFC South, if not the whole league, but the Falcons (and, to a lesser extent, the 49ers) gave everybody a blueprint for beating them: Control the clock, force them to go entirely vertical by clamping down on the run (this is where the loss of Reggie Bush becomes more important, and punish the offense for being one-dimensional by creating turnovers. No, you’re never going to shut the Saints offense down, but if you can turn their forest fire of an offense into a controlled burn, you can beat them in the last quarter (or OT, as the case was here).

- In fact, looking at that Atlanta roster, and particularly their weak secondary (Dunta Robinson is not scaring anybody), this team has to be one of the better tactical successes of the last few years. After Roddy White and Tony Gonzalez, the receiving talent falls off of a cliff, and Ryan still played a consistent, clean game against an opportunistic secondary.

- I can’t get excited about a Titans team that wins thanks to bizarre turnovers and gutless play calling. That may fly against the Giants, but at some point, particularly later in the year, teams are going to force VY to open things up for Johnson through the air, and instead of building towards that, Fisher seems to be hoping for lightning in a bottle when the pressure is on. That isn’t a plan to win; it’s a plan to survive, which is a total waste of the southpaw style of offense the Titans are capable of delivering.

- That loss does nothing to temper my excitement about the Bucs. First of all, the Steelers may have the best defense in the league right now, or at least the best that people are inexplicably terrified to go all in against through the air (seriously, everybody, you’re not opening up the pass with the run against these guys, so stop trying). Second, the Bucs defense was adjusting to the loss of starting safety Tanard Jackson, who is helpful to a young defensive front in run support. Third, that loss finally got Raheem Morris to realize what the rest of us knew all along: He’s probably not winning it all this year anyway, so why not see what kind of talent he’s got with Freeman throwing to both Mike Williams AND Arrelious Benn, who is finally practicing with the first team and put up 33 yards on 3 catches on Sunday. The whole reason this team has been catching both opponents and football fans off guard is their unpredictability by virtue of their youth, and Benn is yet another athletic prodigy who, with discipline and coaching, could become a mismatch generating weapon on this Bucs offense. With a year of strong coaching and development, the weapons that are already on this team could be nightmarish for defenders and offensive lines next year, and with another strong draft this team could be as complete as any roster in football, and with more dangerous talents, too.

- Here’s my pitch for why you don’t pull Carson Palmer, who looks like one of the worst quarterbacks in football, and with one of the best receiving rosters around him: Inexplicably, this team trusts him to turn it around, and with this offensive roster that trust is worth more than whatever minor uptick in stats the available replacements might give you. While they’re finding ways to win in spite of Palmer, the receivers haven’t turned on him at all, a fact made more remarkable considering the ages and personality types in this corps. If he can even approach average, the Bengals are going to be a much scarier team on offense, and history tells us that he can do at least that much. Meanwhile, pulling him sets his replacement, and the team as a whole, up for the kind of turmoil that actually ruins seasons. While the team might be unwilling to throw a veteran presence like Carson Palmer under the bus, a younger quarterback would get eaten alive by virtue of his lack of standing in the league and the locker room. That sort of problem plays itself out in disruptive disorganization on the field, and leads to teams losing the sort of close calls that the Bengals have managed to eek out over the last two weeks. If there were a stronger, veteran option available, things might be different, but in this case, there’s something to be said for letting the win-loss column determine whether or not the team should let Carson Palmer work his issues out on the field.

- Just once, I wish a solid Seneca Wallace (18/24, 1 TD, no turnovers) stat line would coincide with a team victory, but I suppose that’s asking a lot for a team whose best receiving threat (unless you count Josh Cribbs) is a very good second banana, and whose coach seems content to run a game plan that aims to finish close, and maybe even eek out a win, but never impose its will on a team. Yes, that last bit was harsh on Mangini, who has done a very good job on the personnel front, but it’s worth pointing out that Cribbs was run out of the backfield (where he’s been most dangerous, particularly in tandem with the equally speedy Wallace) for just two attempts and 20 yards, Wallace’s wheels have pretty much been tethered to the backfield (1 rush for 0 yards), and MoMass was targeted just once. I’d understand the hesitation to put together a truly unique game plan built around a lineup that is at once deeply flawed and uniquely gifted if the Browns were supposed to contend for a playoff spot, or even if a stronger, more evenly talented quarterback was coming back as the starter, but that’s not the case here. The Browns only have a shot at scaring teams if they try something truly different with that roster, and anybody who thinks Delhomme gives the Browns a better, or even equal chance of winning has forgotten the last year, including his opening day start for the Browns. I had hoped that, along with his deceptively smart personnel moves, Mangini would be more open to embracing a “win at all costs” mentality, one that provides the only path to victory available for the talent he has. Defensively, he’s taken that step; offensively, he’s scared to pull the trigger, a fact that is all the more disappointing considering how close this team has come to winning for three weeks running.

- I feel like the light switched on for the Cowboys, who finally realized, three quarters into what could have been their third straight loss, that they have the kind of passing weapons that every other team in the league wishes they had.

- Steven Jackson is joining Steve Smith in my hall of NFL street legends. 10 carries for 58 yards against an underrated defensive front that was daring Bradford to throw is impressive, and he’s been putting up rushing numbers like that since he arrived, with even worse passing games supporting him. If you watched that TD run, you understand that he’s in contention for the best combination of speed and power at running back in the last 5 years.

- Also, I’m starting to dig Bradford as a quarterback. He’s the good kind of patient, buying time with his legs for his reads to develop (as opposed to standing and waiting in the pocket), and not heaving the ball into any coverage he sees fit.

- I’m sticking with my pick of the Eagles winning the NFC East. Vick is playing smart while remaining unafraid to keep defenders scared of his wheels, and those skill positions are too fast not to get open with the time Vick buys them with his feet. Throw in a defense that is forcing opponents to play a slower game against the Eagles shoot-em-up style (7th against passing yards, and that includes games against air-it-out monsters Detroit and Green Bay), and the Eagles are too fast to defend comfortably, and too scary defensively to strike back at quickly. The beauty of the new Michael Vick is that he’s always had the weapon of his athleticism, but now it’s a scalpel as opposed to a machete, cutting only what he wants and leaving no collateral damage to the team.

- With Moreno injured, the Broncos offense has become unbalanced to the point of spectacle. Orton going 37/57 for 476 yards through the air while the ground game averages just 2.6 yards per carry on 18 carries goes beyond playing to your strengths and into ignoring your weaknesses out of spite. Balance is a terrible goal for an NFL coach to have, but it’s a necessary guidepost to prevent a team from becoming totally irrelevant. Also, somebody should probably have stepped in to cover Austin Collie (12 catches for 171 yards and 2 TD) by catch number 6.

- Darren McFadden has quietly turned a corner in his first three games. He’s averaged 5.3, 4.8, and 4.2 yards per carry in each game, with at least 95 yards each time, finally finding the end zone in this last start against the Cardinals. If the Raiders hadn’t beaten themselves with the kicking game, they’d be 2-1 right now, with two games to play against the 3-0 Chiefs. Just remember, it’s a long season, and Chaz Schilens is still getting healthy, meaning that run lanes are only going to get more open for McFadden, who has shown the burst that made his speed so deadly in college, and has been an apt receiver this year. Maybe the three year learning curve applies to RB/WR hybrids as well.

- Oh, and I told you so about DHB. Hell, he’s even proving me right about being better than Crabtree this year.

- We can act surprised all we want, but the Chargers have never been a particularly disciplined team; they’ve just had the high power offense to make up for their failings in other aspects of the game. Hmm…what changed this year…who could possibly be missing…what player that this team was so convinced it could leave behind that they pushed him to the point of refusing to ever play for them again could I be thinking of…

- Also, that game made me miss Neon Leon.

- My favorite part of this Chicago Bears phenomenon is that Jay Cutler and Mike Martz, whose irritable personalities have alienated most fans, just might be proving each other right with their play. Martz is giving Cutler the sort of bombs away game plan his arm was designed for, and Cutler is giving Martz the kind of daring mixed with accuracy that his game plan requires. The result is the fifth best pass offense in the league without a single elite wide receiver, and Cutler being in the same statistical category through three games as Peyton Manning, Tom Brady, and Drew Brees. For the record, he’s statistically better than the last two, and I wouldn’t trade any of their top four receivers for any one of Cutler’s (with the POSSIBLE exception of Greg Olsen).

- It’s crass to brag, but let’s just look at the numbers: Mark Sanchez was 15/28 for 256 yards, 3 TD, and no INT. Chad Henne was 26/44 for 363 yards, 2TD, and 1 INT. Oh, and one of those Henne touchdowns (along with 166 of his passing yards) went to a top flight physical receiver being covered by a number two corner. The comparison is OVER, people; at this point, the Dolphins are just getting in their own way (Brown and Williams had just 18 carries despite averaging over 4 yards per carry combined) to try and prove a point.

Whew. That’s all for this week. Follow us on twitter at @titraffic, and we’ll try to get more up this week. A podcast is forthcoming, as is a preview section, and maybe even a little something on the Browns (because I know WHAT DRAWS RATINGS!!!).

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