What I Saw, 2014 – Week 3

Blair Miller > WHAT I SAW – WEEK 3, 2013

One Legendary Coach Bill Parcells-ism: “I go by what I see.”

Yogi Berra once said, “You can observe a lot by watching.”

This is What I Saw from the past week’s NFL action.

(A list of TFQ’s PROPS from this column will be posted monthly.)

Follow us on Facebook and @TFQuarter

HELLO NFL JUNKIES!!!

I was on the DL with some personal/health issues, but am trying to get back to speed.  You’ll get weekly editions of What I Saw – I just don’t know with my new work demands, etc if they’ll be as comprehensive as last season.  But I’ll always try to give you my own unique take that is worth reading beyond the mainstream schleps.

Away from the game(s)

I SAW myself issue a series of CHILL PILLS last year at this time, declaring that declarations were too premature this early in the season.  So far, the 2013 season has done all it can to stymie that mindset.  Many recently good teams have been having a hard time sustaining success, and other dark horses aren’t so dark anymore.  There’s so much to cover in this regard that I’ll just take a splatter-attack at the scene as it concerns those on the extremes:

Let’s start on the dark side, the list of 0-3 teams:

New York Giants – The G-Men lead the list of “what the fuck” flailing teams so far.

Pittsburgh – You have to go back to the pre-Bill Cowher era to see the Steelers’ fortunes this bleak.

Washington – The read option isn’t a come from behind offense, and the ’Skins pass D is killing them.

Minnesota – Maybe the most likely team from last season’s playoffs to struggle in 2013, but this is a bit much.

Tampa Bay – We all gave head coach Greg Schiano’s intense college style a free pass during last season’s success.  Maybe it’s time to reconsider.

Jacksonville – Sorry.  Who wants to talk about the Jaguars?

There’s really only one team on this list that shouldn’t come as a surprise – the Jaguars.  The Giants, Redskins and the Steelers are quite surprising and, frankly, none of them have shown many signs of hope for them turning things around in the immediate future.  According to STATS LLC only five 0-3 teams since 1978 have made the playoffs.  The last team to make the playoffs after an 0-2 start was the 2007 Super Bowl-champ Giants, but they look so shitty right now that damning talk of pride is already being uttered within the organization.

As per NFL Network’s Game Day Final, 75 percent of NFL teams since 1990 have made the playoffs after starting 3-0.  This season’s 3-0 teams have to like those odds:

New England – Feels like business as usual in Foxborough, but it’s actually the first time since their undefeated regular season in 2007 that the Patriots have started 3-0.

Kansas City – The rabid Chiefs fan base has been waiting for this for years.  One problem: both their franchise and new head coach Andy Reid are known for postseason letdowns.  Just sayin’.

Chicago – It’s too early to say conclusively, but the Marc Trestman hire is smelling like roses in the Windy City.

New Orleans – The biggest surprise isn’t so much the Saints’ presence on this list as it is their revamped defense.

Seattle – Looking like the best team in football this September.

I SAW that NO team is safe from weirdness – be it good or bad – even if you play in the darling TV areas.  To wit:

The Jets are the best team in New York.  Much more about the apparent demise of the G-Men below.

2013 marks the first time in NFL history that the Giants and Redskins start the season 0-3.

I SAW Niners DE Aldon Smith decide to check himself into rehab this week after getting arrested for a potential DUI last Friday morning.

You’ve all likely heard the details by now.  A large part of the fallout has been about whether letting Smith play against the Colts on Sunday was the right thing for the team to do.  From the way Michael Silver reported the situation during NFL Network’s Game Day Final, Smith approached them Saturday with the news that he wanted to seek help, the team wanted to keep him close and let him know they were all part of a family, so they let him play and stay with his teammates until after the weekend when more specific plans could be made.  Silver said that the team thought deactivation for Sunday would send the wrong message, especially to Smith, who could have felt alienated.

I’ve gotta call bullshit on that one.  I understand the comaraderie part of it, but it sounded like they just couldn’t address it until the game was put out of the way.  Come on – how many people work for the Niners?  Surely if the organization was serious about Smith missing the game, his needs could have been reasonably met through a plethora of other means than letting him on the field.

Those thoughts aside, here’s my opinion on the matter.  I’m sure many of you will disagree with it….Maybe let’s call it what I hope.  I hope what happened was that Smith was so accountable/apologetic and willing to turn himself around but also so very emotional and fragile that the Niners organization deemed it best to give him the “satisfaction” of playing with his team before going into what should be as much as a month of rehab.  (I won’t even hint that the third-year pro is satisfied about anything this weekend.)  Framed that way, the decision makes sense to me.  It doesn’t have to be an issue of setting a bad example within the organization because that can be handled internally (Jim Harbaugh runs the tightest of ships), and frankly, if I were the Niners I wouldn’t give a shit about what example it might serve to opposing teams.  Everyone should work to protect their players.  I guess all I’m saying is that I can conceive of a situation where it seemed better for Smith’s rehab going in to let him have this last game – and be safe, around his teammates, not brought further down in mood by the guilt from having to watch the game from the sideline.  We can be sure he hasn’t avoided the punishment of missing games.  The lesson of denying playing time to an irresponsible player might be somewhat moot once said player has already willingly agreed to miss a handful of games.  Rehab of any kind works best if the person going in can do so under the most favorable of conditions, and to me it looks like the Niners had that in mind while handling Smith’s personal problems.  I hope.

I SAW shame on MMQB.com’s Peter King for saying this about Niners DE Aldon Smith’s second DUI in less than 2 years: “I think Aldon Smith is trying to catch up to Lawrence Taylor, in all ways.”  That’s just an ignorant view of people with problems.  I recall stating that King was overly harsh toward Taylor in an earlier What I Saw, albeit for an alleged sexual charge.  This time, to say that Smith is “trying” to emulate Taylor – in a way that is potentially less egregious than King has previously depicted – is over the top, like saying Smith had it coming.  While there should be harsh judgments for DUIs it seldom helps the offender to leave it at that.  King’s statement insults at minimum three people at once: Taylor, Smith, and himself.  Consider me a fourth.

I SAW the most significant in-season trade in recent years take place when the Browns traded RB Trent Richardson, the third overall pick of the 2012 draft, to the Colts in exchange for Indy’s Round 1 pick in next year’s draft.

On paper, it’s not that bad of a move for Cleveland.  The most direct explanation for their decision is that new GM Mike Lombardi and head coach Rob Chudzinski didn’t draft either QB Brandon Weeden or Richardson and often new regimes like to furnish key positions with their own preferred players.  In this sense, the Browns are trying to kill two birds with one stone, ridding themselves of a potential franchise back they didn’t favor and also adding draft currency to likely help them take a new quarterback in the 2014 draft because they clearly aren’t happy with Weeden either.

Part of the problem with analysis of this trade is that I think draft picks are grossly overvalued in this day and age.  Richardson is more of a question mark than most fans (especially fantasy fans) realize, but he’s still an actual person who shows promise.  I still think there’s an under-recognized fact that draft picks are just abstract opportunities that hold a merely virtual value prior to hindsight.  If I were running the team, I’d have kept Richardson.

Above and beyond the trade value angle, I wish that new front office teams in cities that have long suffered worked more with what they have instead of gutting the present for what rarely turns out to be a much better future.  What Cleveland needs most is continuity, and a shakeup every three or four years ain’t cutting it.

I SAW an amusing, if not inadvertent, jab at the ongoing debate surrounding college athletes and their lack of income from their performances.  Pro boxer and avid gambler Floyd Mayweather more than doubled his $200,000 bet in Vegas on Texas A&M in the first half of their game against SMU.  A&M is quarterbacked by superstar Heisman winner Johnny Manziel, and Mayweather tweeted this after his winfall.

Congratulations @JManziel2 for putting on a fantastic show. He may not be able to make money off himself but I can.

I SAW One part of the wild chaos that the league doesn’t like so much: As Sports Illustrated’s Peter King pointed out, the Steelers and Vikings head into their game in London next week at a combined 0-6.  To make matters worse, the four teams playing there this season are currently a combined 1-11.  Have the Brits seen a decent product on their home turf yet?  Oh, don’t worry though, folks across the pond – the Jaguars are going to be a featured team in the years to come.  Jesus.  It’s like how we ship all of our computer garbage overseas to places like Nigeria so that they have to worry about it.  Here, England, take our shit games.

I SAW an appropriate response to the claim that the read option offense is just a fad because of the early struggles of young dual threat QBs like Redskin Robert Griffin III and Niners Colin Kaepernick: Shaddup.  Not only is it far too early to rush to judgment, but one important point prevails.  The read zone option is not a very good come-from-behind scheme because of it’s rushing aspect that risks eating up too much clock, and many teams that favor it are falling behind early in games.  What is already tried and true is that if you want to hinder any offense put pressure on it via the scoreboard to make it one-dimensional.

I SAW a good Derrick Thomas episode of A Football Life on NFL Network.  Made me cry.  Like a man.  Looking forward to the Steve Sabol episode next week.

TNF- Kansas City (3-0) wins @ Philly (1-2), 26-16

I SAW the Eagles suffer their franchise-tying 8th straight home loss, according to the NFL Network broadcast.  That’s not good for business.

I SAW some of the early exaggerated praise for the debut of Eagles head coach Chip Kelly get fumbled all over the field, like the ball on Thursday night when Philly players carried it – to the tune of five turnovers.

I still really like what Kelly has done with this franchise.  He’s led an assault on all aspects of athlete life, in a way that also priorities good health and proper rest for the specific player.  You can tell he’s already done wonders for the skill players not named Michael Vick (I still see Vick as wildly inconsistent) – namely the french Seans, LeSean McCoy, who leads the league in rushing yards, and DeSean Jackson, who is second in receiving yards.  But the defense is arguably as bad as it was last season, which partly chased former head coach Andy Reid out of town.  One gets the sense that everyone from Kelly with the playcalling to the players overextending with the football are trying to do too much on offense to make up for the porous D.

There are also the perils of an up-tempo offense that can’t punch the ball into the end zone, with a defense that bends and breaks: As Deion Sanders pointed out on NFL Network, Philly gained 260 yards rushing but trailed in time of possession by more than 18 minutes.  That’s very unusual.  If you’re going to be that fast on offense, it’s going to accentuate the faults on the other side of the ball since defenders have to be out on the field more.

I SAW Michael Vick rip off the longest run of his career Thursday – a 61-yarder.  I was surprised by that stat.

I SAW that Andy Reid’s underrated success as a mind behind a good offensive line is already making the Chiefs blocking better, particularly in passing situations.

I SAW PROPS for Chiefs LB Justin Houston.  I remember from one of the few Top 100 Players of 2012 episodes of the NFL Network I bothered to watch that the players ranked Seahawks CB Richard Sherman at No. 50 and Houston at 49.  I still think that Sherman should be rated better than Houston – and that both should be rated higher! – but at the time I was up in arms because my opinion was, “Justin Houston?  Are you kidding me??”

I am no longer up in arms.

Houston’s game in Philly on Sunday: 4.5 sacks, 1 forced fumble, 2 fumble recoveries, 3 passes deflected.

I maintain my non-belief in Chiefs QB Alex Smith.  But Houston’s performance deserves PROPS against any team.

Indianapolis (2-1) wins @ San Francisco (1-2), 27-7

I SAW what could turn out to be a landmark, era-defining win for the Colts.  It’s early, yes, but stacked on top of that unusually poised franchise performance in 2012 QB Andrew Luck and his team could already be ascending to a higher status.  Luck didn’t have a huge game on the stat sheet, but he didn’t need to.  What he did do, though, was start the game with 6 straight completions and jump out to a lead, which is very helpful when facing the read option offense of the Niners.

I SAW the Niners offense so far this season serve as a lesson on how significant “feeling it” can be.  San Fran came out and looked great against Green Bay in Week 1 behind QB Colin Kaepernick’s amazing passing performance but they have had no confortable feel to their offense since.

I SAW a Niners team that looked like it was still reeling from the spankdown they received from the Seahawks last week.  San Fran still really misses injured wideout Michael Crabtree, and losing TE Vernon Davis for this game only made it harder for the offense to bunch up some first downs.  It’s easy to forget that Mario Manningham is also due to return sometime this season from an injury.  So San Fran’s QB Colin Kaepernick isn’t playing with a full arsenal.  That’s the main thing I see analysts talking about while analyzing the current woes of the last year’s Super Bowl participants.  (That, and the sudden departure of DE Aldon Smith, which I’ve covered above in Away from the game(s).)

San Francisco’s offensive woes quietly extend backward, beyond this season.

Niners Offense Under Jim Harbaugh (incl. playoffs)

First 31 Games Last 9 Games
W-L 23-7-1 5-4
Opppnent PPG 15.0 29.1
Opponent PPG Rank 1st 29th
PPG Differential +9.2 -3.7
20-Point Losses 1 3

(ESPN Stats & Information)

The point differential also speaks toward a defense that isn’t playing anything like what was widely considered one of the best units in the NFL.  The Niners D has been getting gouged in the rushing game, and the defensive backs look lost and indecisive at times.

I have faith that head coach Jim Harbaugh and his excellent staff will solve the problems.  After all, this is the first time this team has fallen below .500 under Harbaugh.  But for now there’s a lot more of them to address than just a shortage of key personnel.

I SAW new Colts RB Trent Richardson go from the shit pan into the fire, going from the moribund Browns to the Colts and having to face the stalwart Niners defenders mere days later.   (I gave my thoughts on that trade above, in Away from the game(s).)  Turns out things went just fine.  Richardson and teammate Ahmad Bradshaw took San Fran for 130 yards and 2 TDs, and the new Colt’s first carry in blue and white was a short touchdown run to cap a statement-making opening drive for Indy.

I SAW Sunday’s win as potential evidence that the Colts are fast becoming a roster capable of true situational football in the way that the Patriots made more fashionable during the early years under Bill Belichick when they could beat you with defense, passing, rushing and/or special teams – and that they could rely on a different combination of those things from week to week, depending upon what was best against the opposing team.  That’s one aspect of the Richardson trade we can already see being realized even though the back had just 35 yards rushing on 2.7 yards per carry.  Richardson will have his big games but that wasn’t likely against the huge front seven of the Niners, so offensive coordinator Pep Hamilton didn’t force it.  Instead, he used Bradshaw to change up the pace, and thus kept Colin Kaepernick and the Niners offense off the field and took pressure off of their own passer, Andrew Luck.

It might turn out that Colts GM Ryan Grigson sees the biggest benefit of his new trade as the versatility it gives his roster more than adding a feature running back.

I SAW the need to give Colts defense some credit.  Remember – head coach Chuck Pagano is a very accomplished defensive coach.  He helped shape the Ravens defense during the Ray Lewis era, and he was loved and respected by the several likely Hall Of Fame defenders that played for him there.  Most new pro head coaches take at least one season to truly get their fingerprints on the team to the extent that it translates to the field.  Add to that Pagano’s absence for 12 games last season to be treated for leukemia, and it’s safe to say that the Colts defense will be better than the bend, bend then break squad from last season.  (Not to mention the penchant the new Pep Hamilton offense has for controlling the clock…)

I SAW Niners star LB Patrick Wills leave with a groin injury after getting spun around on a tackle attempt on Colts WR Reggie Wayne.  By my estimation, the Niners have the best linebacker corps in the NFL, but they can ill afford to go without their defensive captain for long during this trying time.

I SAW Colts WR Reggie Wayne find gaps in the Niners defense like the elite receiver he’s been for about a decade now.  People wonder when his skill level will drop below a sustainable level.  Keep wondering.

I SAW no need to say much about Colts QB Andrew Luck facing his former Stanford head coach, Jim Harbaugh because neither of them seemed to care much about that storyline.  It was bound to happen sooner or later.  Might happen again.  And so on.

Cincinnati (2-1) wins vs. Green Bay (1-2), 34-30   

I SAW this game get whacky enough for a big TRIVIA BOMB:

The Packers scored 30 straight points – and lost.  It was the first time in 14 years a team had one a game in which their opponent did that (STATS LLC).  The last time?  September 1999, when the Cowboys stole one from the Redskins in overtime, 41-35, after Washington rallied behind 32 unanswered points to force extra play.

At one point, Cincinnati also scored 14 points in twelve seconds.

I SAW the Bengals win a wild game – a very close game in the box score, which to me is good evidence that the Bengals are becoming a legit team.

Cincy wasn’t perfect by any means – they had the same amount of turnovers as Green Bay, with 4 – but this was a character-building win for a team on the rise.  The defense is leading the charge.  Defensive coordinator Mike Zimmer and his squad did a great job of frustrating Packer QB Aaron Rodgers, who had his worst passer rating in a game (64.5) since a December game against the Lions in 2010 (34.7) in which he threw just 11 attempts.  The Bengals signature moment Sunday came on a goal-line stand to force a Packers field goal late in the Second quarter.  The defense consistently stretched Rodgers to the sidelines and while the he usually makes use of the best footwork in the NFL to find an open receiver, the Packers pivot didn’t see much more than blanketed receivers against Cincy.  What’s more, the Bengals haven’t given up a 300-yard passing game since Week 2 last season.  That’s a huge stat in this pass-heavy era.

The offense has its tools, and QB Andy Dalton still has to prove himself in the playoffs, but this is the most balanced team in the AFC North, and you can say that this thought belongs better in my High Posts column, but Cincy is my dark horse for a first-round bye in the postseason, should New England or Denver falter.

I SAW Bengals DB Adam “Pacman” Jones play a very solid game against one of the best receiving corps in football.  Jones is quietly putting his game back together and is making impacts on the field.  Alas, a car that he was a passenger in on Monday was pulled over by police….

I SAW a head shaker when Packers head coach Mike McCarthy elected to go for it on fourth and 1 on the Bengals’ 30-yard line while nursing a three-point lead with under 4 minutes to go in the game.  The previous play – when WR Randall Cobb dove for what appeared to be a first down – had been overturned after review, and I had the sense that the commotion and/or frustration got the better of McCarthy’s decision making on that one.  The football gods agreed, since the fourth down attempt resulted in a fumble return for a TD by the Bengals for the final score.  Should’ve kicked the field goal to force the Bengals to go for a touchdown under pressure.

I SAW much ado about nothing when Packers QB Aaron Rodgers got in an argument with head coach Mike McCarthy on the sidelines during Sunday’s loss.  It’s an emotional game and guys get pissed off when things don’t go well.  End of story.

I SAW Packer QB Aaron Rodgers have his first multi-interception game since October 2010.  Impressive.

On the other hand….

I SAW a reader ask Peter King in his MMQB mailbag if he was right in feeling like Packers QB Aaron Rodgers doesn’t pull off many last-minute wins.  King relied that he wasn’t sure as far as the stats were concerned.  I don’t think it’s enough to prove the theory, but I took a look at Rodgers’ career and noticed this: Rodgers is just 5-17 in games decided by four points or less.

Detroit (2-1) wins @ Washington (0-3), 27-20

I SAW the media vultures get hungrier and hungrier, hovering above Washington.  Redskins QB Robert Griffin continues to look worse than he did at Baylor, the most telltale moment being when Lions rookie DE Ezekiel Ansah chased him down from behind.  Ansah gets credit for his speed at the position with that play, but RG3 is an accomplished track star that one would expect could leave Ansah behind.

Despite the loss, however, Griffin looked much more comfortable within the flow of the offense than he had in Weeks 1 and 2.  There isn’t a lot to analyze here, in my opinion.  The second-year pro didn’t take a single real-situation snap during training camp or preseason.  When he stepped under center on opening Sunday, it was the first such rep he’d had since before tearing his knee against Seattle in January.  Any legitimate quarterback needs his practice reps.  Now Griffin is getting reps and he should keep improving as he goes.

But as I’ve already mentioned a few times this week, it’s hard to work the deadly read option Washington covets when your defense puts you in a hole early in games….

I SAW the biggest problem with the Redskins, the same one as last season: A horribly mismatched defensive backfield.  In fact, Washington has been giving up ground faster than a real estate agent in Detroit.

Most Yards Allowed Through First 3 Games Of Season, Since 1966

Team Yards
2013 Redskins 1,464
1978 Colts 1,452
2006 Texans 1,451
2012 Saints 1,432
2005 Niners 1,431

(Elias Sports Bureau)

With specific reference to Sunday’s loss, Lions QB Matt Stafford had gone 0-for-4 in the first two games trying to connect with his start wideout Calvin Johnson 15 yards down the field of farther.  Against the Redskins Megatron caught 4 of the 5 passes thrown in those situations.

If Washington can’t figure out how to defend people it isn’t going to matter how well RG3 plays.

I SAW that the Lions offensive line is very improved from last season, particularly in the running game.

I SAW myself wondering: Is it already too late to declare Redskins LB Brian Orakpo injury-prone?

I SAW that Lions WR Nate Burleson should have done like Peyton Manning and enlisted the help of this douchebag – and his car.

Papa John car

(www.theautochannel.com)

Yeah, maybe Papa John could have brought Burleson his pizza.  Instead, according to Andrew Siciliano on NFL Network, Burleson accidentally swerved his car trying to balance two sliding pizzas riding shotgun, hit a median and broke his arm.  The injury will require surgery and the duration of his time away is unclear.

Seriously, a tough blow for Burleson and the Lions.  Burleson went down for the season in the early goings last year, and Detroit’s offense suffered noticeably without anyone to take the heat off of Calvin Johnson.  I don’t know if Detroit is considering a trade or a free agent signing, but they might want to.

Carolina (1-2) wins vs. New York Giants (0-3), 38-0

I SAW the first true jaw-dropper of the 2013 season.

Anatomy of a bedshitting:

The Giants suffered their worst shutout loss in 40 years, according to NFL Network’s Game Day Final.

Their 150 yards of total offense against Panthers, who had what was then the 26th ranked defense in the NFL helped them get schooled in the time of possession game by 13 minutes and 34 seconds.

New York gained 18 yards in the first half, their lowest total in any half since 2001. (ESPN Stats & Information)

I don’t like to use fantasy stats much in this column, but this one was hard to resist: Panthers QB Cam Newton had about 10 more standard-scoring fantasy points than the whole Giants offense.

The G-Men’s 3 turnovers against Carolina gave them 13 for the season.  (Their 13th last season didn’t happen until Week 10.)  It’s been twelve years since a team had that many turnovers in the first three games – Detroit and Dallas both did it in 2001.  (STATS LLC)

This and more had people both inside and outside of the the organization setting a grim tone.  Both head coach Tom Coughlin and former Giants LB Carl Banks evoked the motivation of playing for pride – a rough state of affairs before the end of September.  On the Giants’ radio show with announcer Bob Papa, Banks single out the offensive line, saying that they had to somehow find a way to make ends meet despite the fact that their awful performance to date means that defenses will be pinning their ears back and going after QB Eli Manning over and over until that strategy is stopped.

That’s the most obvious problem for Big Blue: the O-line.  Manning was sacked 7 times against Carolina – the third-highest single game total of his career, and the most in five years.  You can criticize the running backs for injury and poor play, but from what I’ve seen there isn’t any daylight for them to run to.  New York’s piss poor total of 133 rushing yards in its first three games is the fifth lowest to start a season since the 1970 merger.

Year Team Rushing Yards Wk 1-3
1993 Buccaneers 106
2012 Titans 117
1994 Saints 122
2006 Buccaneers 130
2013 Giants 133

(Elias Sports Bureau)

Banks is right – it’s a cruel world, and defenses are going to keep carving up the O-line until, well, 2014?

I SAW it worth noting that the last team to win the Super Bowl after an 0-2 start was the 2007 Giants.  This team knows how to right a ship.  But right now this ship doesn’t have a rudder.  The best thing they have going for them is that the Eagles and Redskins are reeling too, and that the Cowboys are just as good as New York at pissing away a season.

I SAW no need to take away from the performance by Carolina.  It was a very balanced victory for the Panthers.  Their seven sacks tied a franchise record, and the offense really clicked.  I’ve never worried about QB Cam Newton as much as other people have, but on Sunday he looked great both in the pocket and on the run.  I think one of the keys to his success is that Carolina isn’t really relying on any one weapon for Newton, but in a good way.  Newton is being coached well into making reads, and taking what the defense gives him, which is a more reliable approach than hoping WR Steve Smith can make big plays downfield.

I SAW Panthers RB DeAngelo Williams leap off of the milk carton and into the box score.  He had 120 yards rushing.  If you omit his 210 yards in Week 16 last season – which is understandable since it was against the historically shitty Saints D – he had his highest total since Week 10 in 2009.

Baltimore (2-1) wins vs. Houston (2-1), 30-9

I SAW the Texans get burned more effectively by big plays than a top-notch team should be.  Seriously, this team looks as flat as the soda in my grandmother’s fridge.  The defense isn’t scaring anyone, and the offense has had concerning slumps in each game this season.  If the Texans aren’t careful, this “new era” of playoff contention could be a mere short-term window.  The inconsistent play of QB Matt Schaub is an increasing problem.  He needs the team around him to excel so that his flaws don’t have as much of an effect on the scoreboard, and that’s not happening.   His TD-to-INT ratio of 6-4 has to improve.

I SAW the Ravens win for the first time without RB Ray Rice on the field since 2008.  Rice was sidelined with a strained hip flexor, and it’s unsure if he’ll be able to play next week against the Bills.  At least it’s just the Bills because Baltimore won’t get away with more middling offensive performances against good teams like they did Sunday.

I SAW the Ravens defense hasn’t let the blowout Opening Night loss to Denver rattle them.  They haven’t allowed a touchdown against them since that Thursday night.

Miami (3-0) wins vs. Atlanta (1-2), 27-23

I SAW two teams that have headed in different directions this September.

The Dolphins didn’t just look good – they looked resilient and poised en route to their first 3-0 start since 2002.  At the center of the success is sophomore QB Ryan Tannehill, who overcame five sacks and two turnovers by finishing each half strong and showing improved field vision while earning his first comeback win as a pro.  The defense still needs to improve and now must play without Pro Bowl DE Cameron Wake for at least one game, but many of the acquisitions Miami added on that side of the ball are paying dividends – like LB Dannell Ellerbe, who had 10 tackles and 1 QB hit against Atlanta and CB Brent Grimes who is rewarding the front office for taking a risk on him after an Achilles injury.

The Falcons don’t look right.  How much worse would this team look if it weren’t for second year WR Julio Jones?  The roster is already injury-riddled and if the Falcons aren’t careful QB Matt Ryan could be added to the banged-up players because the offensive line is too shitty to watch without shaking one’s head.  Meanwhile, the defense sure is making opposing offenses look good.  Watching them now, it’s hard to believe that this team was basically one play away from the Super Bowl in January.

I SAW Falcons TE Tony Gonzalez and WR Roddy White looking a bit broken down.  Don’t get me wrong – those two guys are among the NFL elite in terms of taking care of their bodies and playing younger than their mileage might indicate, but so far this season neither player looks physically fresh considering that it’s only September.

I SAW the Falcons generate a pass rush for once, with 5 sacks and 6 more QB hits.  Too bad they still lost.

I SAW Dolphins RB Lamar Miller with a huge drop of a sideline pass with about 2 minutes left in the game on a comeback drive.  Miami ended up converting a first down on the next play, but Miller has had far too many mental lapses in his young career.

New England (3-0) wins vs. Tampa Bay (0-3), 23-3

I SAW an early nominee for one of TFQ’s Upside Down Awards, given following the Super Bowl:

The Bad Negotiator Award

Given to the player who has the worst season in a contract year.

Buccaneers QB Josh Freeman continued his focused campaign for this season’s Bad Negotiator Award against the Patriots, going 19-for-41 for 236 yards, no TDs, 1 INT and a 54.5 rating.  Freeman’s stats through three weeks:

Comp % Yards/Gm TD INT Comps of 40+Yds Rating
45.7 190.3 2 3 0 59.3

As I mentioned above in Away from the game(s), Bucs head coach Greg Schiano’s hard-nosed style might be burning out his players.  If Schiano’s job security takes a hit the first thing he’ll probably try to do is jettison a shaky young starting QB that he didn’t draft.  So Freeman could go from a hopeful franchise quarterback just one or two seasons ago to a backup on another team in 2014 if he keeps this up.

UPDATE (September 25, 2013): SI.com reports that Freeman has been benched for rookie Mike Glennon, so there’s that.

I SAW PROPS for Patriots QB Tom Brady for this TRIVIA BOMB:

Brady is now 139-39 as a starter.  As pointed out by Cold Hard Football Facts, he is the only QB in NFL history with 100 more wins than losses.

I SAW Aaron Dobson and Kenbrell Thompkins provide some hope for the Patriots in their quest to find the first dependable outside receiver for QB Tom Brady since the departure of Randy Moss.   Coming into Sunday, Dobson, a second round pick in this year’s draft, and Thompkins, an undrafted rookie, combined for a mere nine catches and a handful of drops in the first two games of the season.  Against the Bucs, Dobson led New England with seven catches for 52 yards and Thompkins found the end zone twice.  That production couldn’t have come at a better time for Brady and his injury-depleted offensive unit.  Keep an eye out for Dobson, whose 6’3” and 200 pound frame is well-suited to work the sideline throws that can free up the inside crossing routes that the Pats like to run.

I SAW the Patriots defense continue to look good, having allowed just 34 points so far this season.  New England has been soft against the pass in recent years, but so far they are the 6th-best passing defense in the NFL (188.3 yards per game).  Let’s not assume that the issues in the defensive backfield are solved yet.  After all, the three QBs that New England has faced are Buffalo’s E.J. Manuel, New York’s Geno Smith and Tampa Bay’s Josh Freeman.  Two rookies and a guy on a seat hotter than my pants after watching a Monica Belluci movie isn’t exactly a tough run of opponents.

I SAW LeGarrette Blount!  Seriously – he led the Patriots with 14 rushes for 65 yards (4.6 average).

Dallas (2-1) wins vs. St. Louis (1-2), 31-7    

I SAW that I still consider the Rams an underrated team, so this is a big win for the Cowboys.  Dallas carved up the St. Loo defense.  But we’ve all seen this before with Big D.  As Marshall Faulk mentioned last Sunday on NFL Network, the Cowboys aren’t talented enough to handle success; they don’t sustain long stretches of wins.

I SAW the Rams start slow again on offense.  They had 18 yards in the first half – their lowest total since 1997, according to the FOX broadcast.  This and the big scoring deficit rendered the offense one-dimensional, contributing to St. Louis gong 1-for-13 on third downs in the game.  No one wins playing like that.

I SAW Cowboys RB “Don Juan” DeMarco Murray put up a sexy day.  Murray must love playing the Rams.  He has two career games with more than 140 rushing yards and both of them are against St. Louis.  (He had 175 yards Sunday, and 253 in Week 7 of 2011.)

I said this a lot in last season’s column: Running the ball successfully and often enough is crucial for the Cowboys, no matter how often they’ve neglected calling run plays in recent years, because it takes responsibility away from QB Tony Romo.  In fact, I’ve been saying for years – especially after Jason Garrett took over the play calling duties after Sean Payton vacated the coordinator position for New Orleans – that Dallas neglects the running game far too often.  The proof’s in the pudding: According to ESPN Stats & Information Dallas came into the week having called only 27.1 percent of their plays as runs, but on Sunday they ran on 34 of their 59 offensive plays (57.6%).  It was actually their highest amount of run plays called in a game since Week 13 of 2010, which also resulted in a win against Peyton Manning and the Colts.

Any longtime readers know that I am a Romophobe.  He’s a talented quarterback, but I just don’t think he’s talented enough to handle and sustain success in the manner that should be expected of an elite QB.  If Romo’s attempts can be kept in the 20-33 attempts range I think he’s a dependable wining passer.  But when he has to carry the offense, he is wildly inconsistent.

I SAW Cowboys WR Dez Bryant get away with a push-off on one of his TD receptions.  He clearly shoved Rams CB Cortland Finnegan to the turf before going up for the ball, but drew no flag.  My guess is that players, coaches and referees all know that Finnegan is an overly physical shit disturber of a cornerback, and that with a lost step at 29 with his wear and tear, the Rams DB is going to have a harder time getting the respect from the zebras that he somehow enjoyed until now.

I SAW PROPS for Cowboys DeMarcus Ware, whose 2 sacks against the Rams passed Harvey Martin as the franchise leader for the career mark.

Seattle (3-0) wins vs. Jacksonville (0-3), 45-17

I SAW a game that had the feel of an old college game, with one team working its roster depth after taking the other team out to the woodshed.  And that’s exactly how longtime USC coach Pete Carroll worked it for the dominant Seahawks.

I SAW a tough travel for the Jags, especially with already bearing the burden of being a shitty team.  It’s a long way to travel, from Florida to Seattle.  An even longer trip back home after failing to gain 100 yards on offense until 8:30 remained in the third quarter.

I SAW Seahawks QB Russell Wilson improve to 10-0 at home for his pro career.  Not too shabby for a guy who is too short.

I SAW PROPS for Seahawks DE Chris Clemons for a comeback that has gone relatively under the radar.  Clemons tore his ACL on the same shitty January turf in Washington that felled Robert Griffin III.  On Sunday he only registered one QB hit (no tackles), but it was nice to see him out there.

Tennessee (2-1) wins vs. San Diego (1-2), 20-17 

I SAW the Titans continue to impress.  They haven’t turned the ball over yet this season, they haven’t shied away in big moments in close games, and they still have lots of room for improvement, like cutting down on the eleven penalties they had against the Chargers.

I SAW Titans QB Jake Locker play the signature game of his career thus far.  He was disciplined in the passing game, as his 96.6 rating would indicate.  But he looked at his best when he had to tuck the ball away and run.  It wasn’t just the 68 yards and the touchdown on the ground that raised eyebrows – it was the speed he showed when doing so, the first such time since he was drafted two years ago after a college career that implied he would have more such moments than he has so far.  Locker looked like he could be starting to get a feel for when and where to run, which can be an elusive instinct for quarterbacks.

One thing is evident so far in Tennessee: When Locker does well, so do the Titans.  According to STATS LLC, his team is now 4-1 when he has a QB rating of 90 or higher.  But this was just his fifth such game, so his franchise needs to see more of that.  Sunday’s win came against a suspect defense but this could be a stepping-stone sort of performance for Locker as he tries to put together pro-level results on the field.

New Orleans (3-0) wins vs. Arizona (1-2), 31-7

I SAW one of those confounding early season games.  Is the Saints’ defense really this improved?  Is Arizona’s offense really still this overmatched?  Both?

One thing is for sure, according to ESPN Stats & Information: The Saints have already matched the amount of games in which they held an opponent to 17 points or less last season, with three.  Defensive linemen Cameron Jordan and Junior Galette are showing potential as bookend pass rushers within Rob Ryan’s scheme.  The dominance on D allowed the Saints to dominate the clock by more than ten minutes.

I SAW fourth year Saints TE Jimmy Graham continue to prove, at an unusually early stage in a player’s career, that he is going to be special for a long time (barring injury, of course).  Not since Antonio Gates has a tight end been so consistently productive so quickly in his career.  I find it clichéd to focus on the basketball backgrounds of many contemporary NFL tight ends, but you can really tell from their playing styles that Gates and Graham played ball – more so even than the OG, Tony Gonzalez.

I SAW Cardinals QB Carson Palmer go 18 of 35 for 187 yards, no TDs and 2 INTs, with a 43.4 rating.  Funny…he doesn’t seem to be getting younger.

I SAW a TRIVIA GRENADE (not big enough for a bomb) to give hope to Geaux Nation: Last time the Saints started 3-0 they won the Super Bowl.

Cleveland (1-2) wins @ Minnesota (0-3), 31-27 

I SAW myself have a weird feeling about this game beforehand.  The Vikings defense had been getting away with loose coverage so far this season, and an improved Browns team was going to be playing angry after the media had all but written off their season following the Trent Richardson trade (see: Away from the game(s)).  But no one could have expected what happened….

I SAW Browns QB Brian Hoyer have one of those movie moment days.  The Cleveland native got his first significant playing time of his five year career – with his wife nine months pregnant, no less.  Sure, he threw three interceptions to end up with a subpar 68.5 rating, but going 30 of 54 for 321 yards and 3 TDs for an exciting win in your pro debut is pretty damn good.  In fact, Hoyer is the first Browns QB to throw for 300 yards in his debut with the team (Elias Sports Bureau).

Say what you will about the Trent Richardson trade, but one thing seemed clear Sunday in Minnesota: Even though the Browns aren’t happy with QB Brandon Weeden – which likely precipitated said trade – they’re sure going to lean on the passer for the rest of the season.  At least, that’s the best reason I can come up with for Hoyer throwing the ball 54 times against a pro defense.

I SAW Browns TE Jordan Cameron catch 6 passes and 3 TDs, one of which was thrown by punter/holder Spencer Lanning on a fake field goal.  Which begs the question: Who the fuck is Jordan Cameron?

I SAW that Vikings QB Christian Ponder has to figure out a way to string together completions or else his team is going to lose patience with him.  It’s almost impressive that they haven’t lost it yet.  He shows almost no confidence in the pocket.  Trying to build more packages that feature WR Greg Jennings might help.

I SAW a TRIVIA BOMB:

Browns punter/holder Spencer Lanning is the first player since 1968 with a punt, extra point and a TD pass in the same game.

New York Jets (2-1) win vs. Buffalo (1-2), 27-20

I SAW this rookie QB standoff got a bit wild.  Neither Geno Smith (Jets) nor E.J. Manuel (Bills) looked stellar, but both stood up to the occasion.  I was particularly impressed with Smith, who stayed poised and motivated after throwing two interceptions.

I SAW the reemergence of Jets WR Santonio Holmes after a lisfranc injury he suffered early last season.  New York needs him badly – he’s their only truly talented receiver.  It showed Sunday as QB Geno Smith targeted him 10 times, to the tune of 5 catches for 154 yards and a TD.  Let’s hope he’s back to stay.

I SAW that Jets head coach Rex Ryan may have finally once again found ways to get to the opposing quarterback.  I’d say eight sacks on Sunday is an indication of that, anyway.  On the other hand….

I SAW Rex Ryan’s Jets draw more flags than outside the UN.  20 penalties!  Twenty!  According to NFL Netowrk’s Game Day Final it’s just the 6th time since 1960 that a team had as many penalties.  Inexcusable.

I SAW that if you ever thought the Jets have pulled victories out of the fire with late game bombs, suck on this TRIVIA BOMB:

According to ESPN Stats & Information QB Geno Smith’s 69-yard 4th quarter TD pass to Santonio Holmes was the longest TD pass in the fourth quarter or later of a game since Neil O’Donnell connected with Jeff Graham against Miami in 1996.  Actually, only two go-ahead 4th quarter TD passes in franchise history have been longer, and you need to go back to the 1970s to find them: 83 yards from Joe Namath to Eddie Bell in ‘72, and 75 yards from Matt Robinson to Wesley Walker in ‘78.

I SAW Bills RB C.J. Spiller leave Sunday’s game with a knee injury.  If he misses much time, Buffalo is in bad shape.  Sorry – worse shape.

SNF- Chicago (3-0) wins @ Pittsburgh (0-3), 40-23

I SAW a crazy stat that sort of sums up the game, what with the Bears D playing up to its usual standards, and the Steelers offense sadly obliging them with shit play: According to STATS LLC, Chicago had their fourth game with multiple defensive touchdowns since the start of last season.  The rest of the teams in the NFL have 10 combined over that span.

I SAW the Steelers reaching an unprecedented low during the Mike Tomlin era.  Coming into this season, the Steelers head coach had never been below .500 for his career in Pittsburgh.  Now he’s three games below that mark and things aren’t exactly looking on the up-and-up.  It’s also the team’s worst start since 2000.  Their rookie tailback La’Veon Bell has yet to play a down this season due to injury and he’s playing next week in London but it’s hard to imagine his presence really changing fortunes in Steeltown.  The offensive line is a disaster, even more so than usual.  That unit came into Sunday having started a meager 102 combined games – the least in the NFL right now.  This helped contribute to the 5 turnovers the Steelers gave up to the Bears.  Pittsburgh outgained Chicago by 201 yards but still lost thanks to giving the ball away.

Sure, they still showed pride and resilience while coming back to make it a game in the second half but the Steelers are a staggering 30th in the NFL with just four total touchdowns scored this season.  That’s fucked up.  I like QB Ben Roethlisberger but you can tell he’s being stretched far too thin.  Even his technique looks strung out.  It feels like he’s always been asked to do too much but this season is really pushing it.

It’s more than just the offense, though.  The team looks punchless. Deion Sanders put it well on Game Day Final: “They are no longer the hammer.  They are the nail.”

I SAW Bears QB Jay Cutler look for second year WR Alshon Jeffery early.  I’d say head coach Marc Trestman has the quarterback’s ear.

I SAW Bears QB Jay Cutler get all Yogi Berra when addressing his lowering of his throwing shoulder to collide hard with a Steelers tackler on a run Sunday night:

I have to play the game and that’s how I sometimes have to play the game.  Sorry, I’m not sorry.”

Slow.  Clap.

MNF- Denver (3-0) wins vs. Oakland (1-2), 37-21

I SAW the Broncos win their 14th straight regular season win.  That ties the franchise record in 1998 when current team president John Elway was leading Denver to it’s second Super Bowl win.  They did it thanks in large part to a virtuoso performance by the quarterback….

I SAW Broncos QB Peyton Manning continue his Armin Tamzarian-like reign of terror this month.  Manning has 12 TD passes and no interceptions.  No other NFL offense has 12 touchdowns in total this season.

Manning’s performance Monday night was crazy.  According to ESPN Stats & Information, he completed a career-high 86.5% of his throws.  What’s more, all five of his incompletions were either drops or tipped by a defender.  That’s amazing for a guy who threw 37 passes.  Phil Simms in the Super Bowl amazing.

There are lots of ways to explain Manning’s supernatural numbers so far this season – the easiest being that he’s just that good.  To me there are two other reasons:

Wes Welker.  I’ve made my thoughts on the overrated wideout clear in a Deep Posts column.  Welker runs patterns that, while less physically challenging than others, requires an acumen for finding spaces and angles – most of which either Tom Brady or Manning have thrown him into over the years.  I argued that the Patriots were right to let him go in the offseason.  I also said that I expect him to do just as well if not better in Denver because the only other QB as proficient at seeing the field the way Brady and Welker did is Manning.  The numbers so far this season tell the story, and hint to an increase in scoring efficiency compared to the New England years.  In three games this season, Welker has been targeted 27 times, for four TDs – well above any such ratio he experienced with Brady.

Wes Welker’s Top 4 Seasons In Terms Of Scoring Efficiency

Season Targets-TD ratio
2013* 6.8
2010 17.6
2007 17.8
2011 19.3

*- through three games

That’s a marked improvement that probably won’t hold up all season, but it’s significant.  One explanation for this surge in efficiency for Welker leads us to the second reason for Denver offense’s dominance this season.  The defense is more spread out downfield to help Welker have better running lanes after he catches the ball because Manning’s receiving corps is unlike any he’s played with in his career.  Hold on – I know what you’re thinking.  To say that any receiver on the Denver offense is as talented as Marvin Harrison or Reggie Wayne is crazy.  But it’s the size of the bodies that Eric Decker, Demaryius Thomas and JuliusThomas have that allow Manning to connect on passes using less varied trajectories to get over/around defenders that gives him an edge he hadn’t enjoyed in Indy.

The result?  A crapload of points – and yards.  Yards after the catch, specifically.  If you thought Manning was dink-and-dunking earlier in his career, you hadn’t seen nothing yet.  According to STATS LLC, his 37 attempts on Monday tied for his shortest average pass attempt average in a game since 2010 – 6.6 yards per.  Overall, through three games this season Manning’s passes have traveled an average of just 8.0 yards downfield, which is his shortest since 2006.  And as would be expected with a surgeon like Manning working short routes, the yards after the catch are coming in bunches.  Broncos wide receivers lead the NFL this season with 355 YAC – including 130 of them against the Raiders and a career-high 60 of those for Decker.

As always with great quarterbacks that benefit from the system and personnel around them – which should never take away from their own impressive talent – Manning’s success is closely tied to his receivers in 2013.

I SAW an open man at the mike for postgame press conference in Peyton Manning.   Open in the sense that he is talking more about his mental processes and other interesting minutiae that he previously kept from the public.  To me, this is one of the most rewarding parts of watching a sports legend in the final stage of his/her career, when they become more personable and let their guard down.  Kobe Bryant was doing the same thing to an even greater extent before his Achilles injury last NBA season, Brett Favre did it on his way out of the NFL, and Manning is starting to as well.  Nothing wrong with humanizing people we put up on pedestals.

I SAW what was actually a pretty slick throw by Raiders RB Darren McFadden to FB Marcel Reese for a third quarter TD.

I SAW Raiders QB Terrelle Pryor showing much more pro talent than I expected when he was taken in the Supplemental Draft.  Could it be that the ol’ Yoda, late owner Al Davis, actually got one of his last personnel decisions correct for a change?  Probably not.

Glad to be back everyone!  I’ll try to give you as much of my own scoop as I can in the weeks to come.

STAY TUNED NEXT WEEK FOR WHAT I SAW, WEEK 4 – HERE AT TFQ. 

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