What I Saw, Week 4 -2013

Blair Miller > WHAT I SAW – WEEK 4, 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.)

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It’s hard to believe that 29 teams in the NFL (except for the Packers and Panthers, who got screwed with an early Week 4 bye) are already at the quarter pole of the 2013 season.  That’s where we’re at, though, so let’s try to take stock of September in the craziest pro sport in North America.  This marks the first time that we can start to make more substantial judgments on where teams are going this season.  I hear throughout the years that players and coaches tend to divide the season up into four quarters, or 4-game spans.  So it stands to reason that even teams are taking stock of themselves at this point.  Let’s follow suit.

Away from the game(s)

I SAW something I don’t think I’ve seen in my lifetime: The Steelers and Giants both legitimately suck.  They might be able to turn it around, but the future this season for both franchises looks pretty bleak.  As resilient as both franchises have been in recent years, the notion of either team rebounding to survive into January is verging on the absurd. After all, only the 1992 Chargers have ever come back from an 0-4 hole to make the postseason.

I SAW a typically frustrating interview with NFL commissioner Roger Goodell.

All I have to say is this: Thank god the NFL is concerned with “change[ing] the complexion of the game to create more competitiveness and fan interest.”  Yeah, there needs to be more fan interest in the NFL.  That must be why it leads the North American pro sports with a $9-billion annual revenue.  It also must be why I feel like the league permeates all of my pores with the media coverage of it.  OH – there’s also the ongoing assault on girlfriends and wives with the Thurday night game, offering only two full days in a week between reasons for their boyfriend to be a dick about having to sit in front of the TV.  Yes, it’s important to amp interest up.  Rich assholes.

I SAW a few justifiable non-football shout-outs this week:

I’ll let my tweet speak for itself on this one:

While on the topic of the NBA (this is, after all, a predominantly football-basketball blog) there has been a submission to the league committee to make the finals a 2-2-1-1-1 format instead of the current 2-3-2.  Please, god, let them see the light and make the change.

PROPS to Yankees closer Mariano Rivera for one of the most impressive pitching careers anyone has ever seen.  I’ll always believe that his best stat isn’t a recorded one…if there was a broken bats stat Rivera would lead all players by a laughable margin.

PROPS to Yankees starting pitcher Andy Pettite for being the only player in MLB history to play 18 seasons without a losing record.  Wow.

That puts the remaining guy left out of the Core Four for the 90s and 00s Yankees (Pettite, Rivera, Jorge Posada, Jeter) as Derek Jeter.  Memories….

Byes: Carolina, Green Bay

TNF- San Francisco (2-2) wins vs. St. Louis (1-3), 35-11

I SAW a solid piece by Michael Silver (I’d cite his affiliation if I was sure I knew them all) about Niners head coach and his newfound adversity after a start in San Fran that saw little of it.

I SAW the Rams amount to a get-well win for the Niners Thursday night.  I thought St. Louis might contend for a playoff run; I didn’t expect them to be a get well win in September.  After the Rams opened up the scoring with a field goal San Fran scored 28 straight points.

I SAW Niners LB Nararro Bowman continue to prove he’s one of the best linebackers in the NFL. In fact, I’d rank both he and teammate Patrick Willis in the league’s top five, and it’s so hard to appraise each of them fairly while they play alongside one another.  Against the Rams, Bowman had to take the field without Willis, and he dominated to the tune of 5 tackles, 2 sacks, 3 tackles for loss, 2 QB hits and a pass defended.

I SAW Niners LB Navarro Bowman say this about his defense:

If we keep playing, our offense will come around sooner or later.

He’s right.  The sign of top teams are ones that have an element of the game – in this case a physical defense – that can carry the others, should they falter.  Eventually, the theory is, the mistakes gets worked out and the team gets rolling again.  Maybe the Niners offense won’t return to its previous dominant form but at least the team is struggling through this now, as opposed to during December.

I SAW a total dick move by Niners head coach Jim Harbaugh to line up his offense with 4 seconds left to call a timeout and then attempt a free kick.  Actually, it isn’t so much a dick move as a Bill Belichick move.  But the timeout was somewhat unnecessary unless the coaching staff didn’t have the special teams ready fast enough, which I doubt Harbaugh would admit to.

I SAW that Niners QB Colin Kaepernick has completed just 34% of his throws 15 yards or more downfield.  (ESPN Stats & Information)  Last year he completed 54% of such passes.  It’d like to leave it at the injury situation at the receiver positions, but one thing that concerns me is that the Niners seem to be running way less of the pistol formation than they did in 2012.  That formation killed San Fran opponents last season, and I believe that the inability to stretch the field beyond 10 yards has taken away that part of the Niners game plan.

I SAW the Rams really miss RB Stephen Jackson in this game.  In Jackson, St. Louis basically let their best offensive player in the two games against the Niners last season (and most reliable one in general) go via free agency last summer.  The Rams gained 18 YDS rushing on 19 carries – that’s just too one-dimensional to contend in such a tough defensive division.  Part of the St. Loo dismal performance was due to a Niners defense that got back to what it does best – stopping the run.

I SAW the Rams offense in shambles – an apt yet tough appraisal of an offense in September with no significant injuries.  What, you didn’t think new offensive coordinator Brian Schottenheimer would take this squad to new heights?  I mean, all he did was help turn the Jets offense into a joke.

I SAW Rams CB Janoris Jenkins look great despite the loss.  My favourite moment was a sexy-smooth hip rotation at the end of the first quarter.  Niners WR Anquan Boldin made a move on the second-year corner but Jenkins stayed in control – somehow just keeping his hips in a neutral position, waggling back and forth, swiveling his head at each move in order to see the ball if it came his way – and then used his eye-popping closing speed to break up a would-be catch.

Denver (4-0) wins vs. Philadelphia (1-3), 52-20

I SAW the Broncos offense under Peyton Manning, 2013 edition, in need of a nickname.  For now I’m going with Clockwork Orange because the group just keeps churning out eye-popping statistics like clockwork.  To wit: Manning himself told the press via NFL Network’s Around the League that the offense is “working like clockwork”.  (I came up with the name before I heard the Manning presser – I swear.)  I’m hoping that the Denver offense will wear these accessories in a late-October Halloween game.

clockworkorange1

(https://www.etsy.com/blog/en/files/2012/10/clockworkorange1.jpg)

I can just see the folks at ESPN Stats & Information with smoke coming out of their ears while coming up with these nuggets, aka a huge salvo of TRIVIA BOMBS:

–       Denver scored a franchise-record 52 points on Sunday.  It was the most points scored against the Eagles since 1972.  Denver’s 49 points in Week 1 ties for third-highest total in team history.  The Broncos have put up three 40-burgers in four games to start the season.  The other game?  A pathetic 37 points.

–       Only the 1966 Cowboys, with 183, have scored more points than the Broncos’ 179 through a team’s first 4 games.

–       Manning was off-target on just two throws against Philly on Sunday (not counting defensed passes and drops), giving him only 14 such throws so far all season.  To put that in perspective, there have been 36 games since the start of the 2008 season in which a QB missed on 14 or more throws.  In one game.

–       Manning’s 16 TD passes through 4 games is an NFL record.

Most TD Passes Through 4 Games – NFL History

Year Player Pass TDs
2013 Peyton Manning 16
1999 Kurt Warner 14
1966 Don Meredith 14
1943 Sammy Baugh 14

–       Browns QB Milt Plum in 1960 is the only other player other than Manning to have thrown 16 TDs without an interception.

–       Wes Welker, Demaryius Thomas and Eric Decker each had at least 5 receptions for 76 yards, and it’s not the first time this season that this has happened.  Denver is the only team to have multiple games with three receivers reaching those totals.

–       As I mentioned last week, Manning is tearing defenses apart with a more short passing, high yards-after-the-catch-oriented offense than he’s employed for some time.  After 4 games his average attempt travels 7.9 yards downfield – his shortest in a season since 2006.

–       To add, Broncos receivers are averaging a whopping 179.5 yards after the catch per game.  Since the start of the 2006 season, no team has finished with an average of more than 162.0.

–       Keep in mind that all of this – 28 of 34, 327 yards, 4 TD, 0 INT, 146.0 Rating – was with Manning not even stepping onto the field in the fourth quarter Sunday.

As per Peter King at TheMMQB:

–       Denver never had to attempt a third down play during any of its last 4 TD drives.  Think about that.  It means at worst case that two plays happened before converting another first down.  How dizzying must that span have been for the Eagles defense?

Imagine what this team might be like once LB Von Miller returns from his suspension.  CB Champ Bailey is due back as well (injury), but, well, he got burned a lot last season.  He has earned the right for the benefit of the doubt so we’ll see if he’s lost a step or not….Either way, the notion that this roster can improve in the near future is a scary one for opponents.

I SAW Broncos QB Peyton Manning continue to threaten the single season record for TD passes.  With 16 touchdowns through 4 games Manning is on pace for 64 by the end of the regular season – 14 more than Tom Brady’s NFL-record 50.  If present circumstances persist I think Manning will set a new record, if for nothing else because he is enjoying the same thing Brady did in his historic 2007 season: A hilarious amount of time in the pocket without pressure.  The guy has forever to throw in the pocket, and the O-line appeared not to have missed a step without their best player, Ryan Clady, who is injured.

I SAW that even the Broncos return game is firing on all cylinders.  According to STATS LLC Trindon Holliday has a TD return rate of 1 per every 3.5 games – the best such rate since the 1970 merger.

I SAW – oh yeah, the Eagles.  On one hand they became another ruined opponent for the Broncos.  On the other, their offense is still playing at a high level.  Philly became the first team in NFL history to gain over 1,000 passing yards and 750 yards rushing through the first four games of a season.

However, as I mentioned last week, when the defense is as porous as the Eagles’ is, a quick strike offense can be problematic.  In fact, it can be freakishly problematic – as is the case for head coach Chip Kelly’s team, which somehow leads the NFL in rushing (198.2 yards/gm) and is dead-last in average time of possession (24:58).  That’s insane.

I can’t think of any other stat that could go more against conventional wisdom than that.

Seattle (4-0) wins vs. Houston (2-2), 23-20-OT

I SAW the Seahawks get off to their first 4-0 start in franchise history.  Sometimes when a team is playing a season that just has…that feel, unique things start to happen.  For instance, take in this TRIVIA BOMB:

On Sunday Seattle won their first game in franchise history during which they trailed by 14 points or more entering the fourth quarter.  They had been 0-105 in such situations going into the weekend.

I SAW Seahawks CB Richard Sherman pick off a late fourth quarter pass, blow a shoe, and take it to the house with a sock foot to essentially force overtime.  Revis this, Revis that.  For my money, Sherman is the best cornerback in the NFL right now.  And I love that he thinks so too, will tell you about it without being asked to, and will even write about it as a columnist for The MMQB.  He’s like a smarter Rickey Henderson.  Really.  Sherman scored a 4.2 GPA at Dominguez High School (an inner city Los Angeles high school that also produced NBA stars Tyson Chandler, Brandon Jennings and Tayshaun Prince) and a reported 3.9 GPA at Stanford.  Like Henderson, you might not like his yapping but barring injury he’s here to stay.

I SAW QB Matt Schaub officially become an issue for the Texans.  Sure, he had 355 yards passing, but in this era passing yards are quickly becoming a misleading statistic.  (See: Manning, Eli.)  The play action isn’t as effective as it has been in the past when it protected Schaub’s flaws, so now his shortcomings are more exposed.  I haven’t had a chance to verify that it’s more of an issue that it used to be, but I get the sense watching Schaub that his mental clock in the pocket has shortened, meaning that he starts to look agitated and makes bad decisions sooner than he needs to.  Case in point: You just can’t throw that pass on the Richard Sherman pick-6.  You just can’t.  Calm down and do almost anything else instead of mindlessly committing to the pass attempt come hell or high water.

Schaub has played big in some close games in recent years – and I’m not saying backup T.J. Yates is the answer – but it’s looking more and more like he’s part of the problem in Houston instead of the solution.  After all, a good QB on a top-tier team doesn’t go 3 straight games with a pick-6 like Schaub has.  (Really, that’s weird-bad.)  If you don’t agree, consider this nugget from ESPN Stats & Information: Sunday was the 8th time Schaub has thrown a pick with 3 minutes or less to go in the fourth quarter – and Houston in 0-8 in those games.  If you’re a likely playoff team you need your quarterback to be more clutch than that.

I SAW Seahawks sophomore QB Russell Wilson give a great example of how conventional stats aren’t always a good indicator of success at the position.  Wilson’s line was middling at best: 12 of 23 (52.2%) for 123 yards, 0 TDs, 1 INT for a 49.7 rating.  But he rushed 10 times for 77 yards (7.7 average) and both his completions and runs were often clutch.  Seattle was 3-of-14 on third down too, but a leader at QB sometimes just finds a way in harmony with what the rest of his team gives him and Wilson epitomized that Sunday.

Detroit (3-1) wins vs. Chicago (3-1), 40-32

I SAW Lions RB Reggie Bush carve up the Bears defense on the ground, especially up the middle.  He danced and jumped all over the Chicago safeties like they were one of those duct taped pieces of linoleum that breakdancers use on pavement.

linoleum breakdance

(Check out the moves on this guy at http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=8bOzxtgvBMI)

Chicago was without DT Henry Melton, their unsung anchor on the D-line, and it showed.  With a banged-up knee Bush got great head starts through holes at the line of scrimmage and juked his way to a day that accounted for 173 yards of offense for Detroit.  It should remind everyone how desperately his team needed a playmaker to compliment WR Calvin Johnson and the passing game.

At one point, the Lions put up 24 straight points over a mere 3:26 of game time.  The Bears piled up some garbage points to make it interesting, but ultimately needed a failed onside kick to work to stay alive.

This is the first game that I can remember watching since Detroit’s 11-win playoff season two years ago in which all three phases played winning football.  Sunday made for a very good confidence-building win for a team that seemed on the verge of plummeting back into a rebuilding phase after the 4-win debacle of 2012.

I SAW no reason to question the approach of new Bears head coach Marc Trestman.  He’s been doing a great job simplifying the offense for QB Jay Cutler by cutting the field in half in terms of reading the defense.  (This is basically what any team should do with a non-elite QB.)  This scheme also helps the O-line, which came into its toughest test so far this season against Detroit’s disruptive interior defenders, having only allowed 3 sacks of Cutler.

With Chicago’s improved protection in mind, one underrated hire this offseason was bringing Aaron Kromer as offensive coordinator.  Kromer used to be the offensive line coach in New Orleans, where QB Drew Brees was seldom sacked no matter what sort of adversity faced the Saints line.

That being said, sometimes an erratic quarterback thwarts even the best laid plans.  Cutler threw up three interceptions and lost a fumble, looking like the Cutler of old while leading the Chicago offense to a woeful 1-for-13 on third down.  The QB told the Associated Press that he “felt good about [his] decision making, [he] just missed some throws.”  Give Cutler some credit – according to NFL Network’s Rebecca Haarlow, two sources told her that the QB was ill prior to the game and had to have an IV for fluids before kickoff.  That might help explain his erratic afternoon, but he’s never been one to make excuses.

I SAW a rare bad showing for the Bears defense.  If Sunday’s result seemed odd to you, you’re right.  The last time an opponent put up a 40-burger on Chicago it was led by QB Kurt Warner way back in 2009.

Kansas City (4-0) wins vs. New York Giants (0-4), 31-7

I SAW two teams that couldn’t appear to be heading in more drastically different directions.  Let’s set off two TRIVIA BOMBs to illustrate that notion:

–       According to STATS LLC the Chiefs are one of two teams in “modern league history” to win just two games or less in one season and then start 4-0 in the next.  Also, the Chiefs are off to their first 4-0 start in 10 years.

–       The Giants are only the third team in NFL history to give up 30 or more points and at least 3 turnovers in each of their first 4 games of the season.

NFL Teams That Allowed 30+Pts & Gave Up 3+Turnovers – Each Of First 4 Games of Season

Year Team Finish (W-L)
2013 Giants ?
1954 Cardinals 2-10
1954 Redskins 3-9

Elias Sports Bureau

(Weird that the other two were both in 1954.)

The last time the Giants were 0-4 was 1987.  And without an injury to QB Eli Manning it’s hard to imagine things looking bleaker for the G-Men.  Unless….

I SAW Giants star DE Jason Pierre-Paul twist his knee Sunday.  It didn’t look good.  Apparently it’s not as bad as it looked, but maybe a rest is a blessing in disguise.  After back surgery JPP hasn’t been his usual self, which is typical for that type of injury.  It might take until next year for him to be back to full strength, so among potential compensation injuries and general wear and tear, why force it?  I’m not saying shelve the man, but there’s no reason to force him into duty.

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

Paper Wall Blocking Award

 (You know when college teams come out of the tunnel and burst through a paper banner?  Often offensive linemen or whole O-lines end up barely sufficing as such while getting torn apart by defensive fronts.  This dubious distinction is given for the paper-thinnest protection offered for an NFL QB in 2012.) 

Yes, the line wasn’t as bad this week.  Yes, RT Justin Pugh held emerging LB Justin Houston sackless and without a pressure.  For the season, however, New York’s O-line is a joke.   QB Eli Manning’s being sacked 14 times doesn’t lead the NFL but that statistic doesn’t accurately indicate the amount of duress he has been forced to play under.

I SAW cause to praise the Chiefs defense thus far in 2013.

I know the Giants suck (still weird) but the Kansas City defense is legit.  The Giants didn’t run a single play in the red zone on Sunday.  New coordinator Bob Sutton is a very well traveled man, having cut his chops under Bo Schembeckler in Michigan and also head coached at Army.  Translation: He’s seen just about everything.  That helps the Chiefs players fly to the ball the way they do this season.  Also, as I mentioned in last season’s column, former GM Scott Pioli did an underrated job of roster building here, particularly up the middle of the defense.

I SAW SLICK moves by Chief Dexter McCluster on his third quarter punt return TD.  The spin move to break it was in open space, but no less sexy for it.  And the jump cut to break it free to the open field was sweet.  That’s the McCluster Chiefs fans have been wanting to see.

FYI- it takes a lot of balls to spin toward the middle of the field on a punt return.  More often than not, the returner can get clocked by a tackler streaking down the field in his pursuit lane.

I SAW Chiefs (and former Eagles) head coach Andy Reid improve to 3-0 against his old division, the NFC East.  Just sayin’.

Buffalo (2-2) wins vs. Baltimore (2-2), 23-20

I SAW the Ravens further plead their case for the newest defending champ not to make the playoffs.

Surely I’m not the only one surprised by the fact that the Baltimore is floundering.  It’s a young season and who knows which teams will or won’t regroup, but the Ravens are to a lesser extent emulating the Giants in that they are adopting the identity of their overpaid non-elite quarterback – streaky as all hell, and really damn bad when they play poorly.

The Baltimore offense gained 345 yards against a Bills defense that yielded 513 in a loss to the Jets last week – and was missing 3 of its 4 starting defensive backs, no less.

Ray Rice and Bernard Pierce combined for just 24 yards rushing, but that is likely due to the fact that Buffalo had no reason to feel threatened by Baltimore’s rushing attack.  The result: just 3 first downs and 45 yards total through the Ravens’ first 7 possessions.

On top of that, the Ravens D gave up 203 yards rushing to the Bills, who had amassed just 224 total in their first 3 games.

I SAW Ravens QB Joe Flacco throw 5 interceptions against the Bills Sunday.  For those scoring at home that’s an assload of interceptions for a guy who’s supposed to be “elite” and makes about $20 million per season. Keep in mind that both of the Bills starting cornerbacks missed the game due to injury.

Actually, Flacco’s 7 interception total this season is tied for second-most among defending Super Bowl MVPs through their first 4 games.

Most INTs Through First 4 Games By Defending Super Bowl MVPs – All-Time

Year Player Interceptions
1967 Bart Starr 9
2013 Joe Flacco 7
2000 Kurt Warner 7
1992 Mark Rypien 7

(Elias Sports Bureau)

I obviously can’t recall Starr’s season, but I remember those had by Warner and Rypien – and how ass they were.  If that’s the road Flacco is heading down, look out.

I SAW Ravens offensive coordinator Jim Caldwell continue to go all Cam Cameron (the previous coordinator who was let go in part because of his reluctance to establish a rushing game).  Honestly, when a QB like Joe Flacco is having a 5-interception day, why should he be throwing 50 times, and the backs running nine times?

Nine times….

That includes just two rushes in the second half.  It drives me nuts when an offense loses its identity because it gets too horny over the prevailing trend toward the passing game.  I’m not arguing against the statistical evidence in favor of the passing game, but a coach has to use the talent he has on his roster accordingly, and at the moment Baltimore’s offense should be a much more run-oriented squad.

I SAW no need to take anything away from the Bills defense, despite Ravens QB Joe Flacco’s dismal day.  Of particular note is rookie LB Kiko Alonso.  For a first year interior linebacker, his instincts in space are outstanding.  The coaching staff is letting stalwart defensive tackles Kyle Williams and Marcell Dareus occupy blockers and giving Alonzo the room to make reads and do his thing.  So far it’s a very successful formula.  Alonzo has 4 interceptions this season, and he became the Bills’ first rookie linebacker to pick off a pass in three straight games.

Tennessee (3-1) wins vs. New York Jets (2-2), 38-13

I SAW Titans QB Jake Locker go down with a serious injury.  Though it was the second impact when he slammed into Quentin Couples, I don’t know why the initial hit by DL Muhammad Wilkerson on the QB, when he dipped his helmet into Locker well after he had thrown, wasn’t a penalty.  It was a weird injury, that looked more upper-body related when watching it live, but the fact that it’s the hip – and required a cart-off followed by an overnight hospital visit – seems ominous.  As it stands, Locker is reportedly out for 4-8 weeks.

This injury might be the first true bummer injury of the season.  Locker looked like he was coming into his own, and the Titans have built a shrewd roster that knows how to win without concern for stats.  Now they have a serious storm to weather.  Hopefully it won’t amount to a serious setback.

I SAW the Jets defense born again, rotating more fresh bodies than they’ve had in recent years thanks to a healthier and more robust roster.  They gave up 38 points, but New York outgained Tennessee on offense; it was the 4 turnovers that sunk them.

I SAW Jaguars rookie QB Geno Smith give up a fumble in his own end zone when the pass rush came and he tried to go behind his back with the football, a la a basketball player.  There really shouldn’t be an excuse for trying to go behind the back when changing hands with the football.  In this case, the culprit is actually sloppy footwork.  If you watch the play what happens is that Smith lets his upper body get too far behind his feet, which induces him to tuck the ball back with his throwing arm instead of tucking it away and more likely losing his balance.  At that point the rook should have taken the sack instead of going all Jason Williams on it.

Jason Williams-from nbamashups on Tumblr

(www.nbamashups.tumblr.com)

(To be clear, Smith wasn’t trying to lazily dish the ball behind his back like an old Charles Oakley – he was trying to switch hands behind his back, which is simply awful technique.  I also just like this drawing.  Check out the Tumblr blog at the link above.)

I SAW more on Jets QB Geno Smith:

He’s truly doing a good job, despite what the stat sheet might say.  With 2 interceptions and 2 lost fumbles against the Titans the rookie has 11 turnovers this season.  Only the lowly Giants have more turnovers as a team this season.  Peyton Manning led the league in his rookie season with 28 interceptions.  There’s no way to compare Manning with Smith in a way that doesn’t make Smith look like a pile of crap, but it’s worth noting that there is no substitute for on-field experience. Smith has had his low moments, but he’s also showed poise and resilience.  Hopefully the Jets thrive/build on that.  Frankly, I’m not sure they have much of a choice, now that Mark Sanchez is done for the year (see below).

I SAW that the reports from the Imperial Empire from Star Wars on the demise of planet Alterraun have been greatly exaggerated.

I’m talking about Titans CB Alterraun Verner, who through just four games has 4 interceptions and 2 fumble recoveries.  That’s big-time.

I SAW Jets QB Mark Sanchez go out for the season with what will be shoulder surgery on his throwing shoulder.  Since he’s in the final year of a bloated contract and the relationship between him and the franchise has been tumultuous at best, it’s probably safe to say that we’ve seen the last of Sanchez in a Jets uniform.

Cleveland (2-2) wins vs. Cincinnati (2-2), 17-7

I SAW myself feeling stoned by this game.  (Yeeessssss….by the game.)  Wow.  This is one of those early season games that make you wonder about either franchise.

I SAW the Brian Hoyer honeymoon prolonged.  He went 25 of 38 for 269 yards, 2 TDs, 0 INTs and a 103.9 rating.  The Browns QB won his first home start – and second straight victory – of his NFL career in an upset of the Bengals.  I loved Hoyer’s Larry Bird three-point contest move, celebrating before the ball even reached its target.  Hoyer was already running toward the logo at midfield before RB Chris Ogbonnya caught the game-sealing TD pass.

The day was a brief moment in the sun for one of the most infamous sports cities in North America, when, after the Browns victory, the Indians clinched their first MLB playoff berth since 2007.

I SAW two of the most improbable TRIVIA BOMBs we might see this season:

Brain Hoyer became the first Browns quarterback to win his first two starts since Mark Rypien in 1994, and TE Jordan Cameron set a new franchise record for tight ends with 30 receptions over a 4-game span.

I SAW that, without trying to take away from the Browns’ performance, it’s worth noting that the Bengals were missing starting DBs Leon Hall and Reggie Nelson due to injury.

I SAW Bengals WR A.J. Green have another lackluster performance this season.  Yes, it came against Browns CB Joe Haden, who is a very good cover man.  But elite wideouts don’t have games like that, much less multiple ones in a season.  Green has to find a way to be more dominant because QB Andy Dalton isn’t talented enough to make him better than the league’s top corners like the great pivots do.

Minnesota (1-3) wins v Pittsburgh (0-4), 34-27 (London)

I SAW the Steelers fall to 0-4 for the first time since 1968.

Dating back to last season the Steelers have now won just two of their last 11 games.  It’s not just the inept offense – the defense is taking awfully undisciplined pursuit angles and even if they saw things properly it looks like they’re too slow to keep up.  Go back and watch the long TDs by Greg Jennings and Adrian Peterson – it’s ugly.  To add to the misery, Pittsburgh hasn’t forced a turnover yet this season.  That’s ugly too.

I SAW cartoon stink lines rising off of Steelers left tackle Mike Adams in London – and it wasn’t the British humidity.   Adams was a pylon out there.  At some point, his awful play might get QB Ben Roethlisberger hurt.

I SAW Vikings WR Greg Jennings have a big reception Sunday in the first quarter – a slick catch-and-run for a touchdown to put Minny ahead 10-0.  Sometimes I wonder if Jennings’ reputation is deserved, and then I see stats like this: According to ESPN Stats & Information only Jennings and Giants WR Victor Cruz have seven 70-yard touchdown receptions since 2006.  The GOAT Jerry Rice has the career record in that category, with 9 TDs.

I SAW Vikings QB Matt Cassel play well in relief of the injured Christian Ponder.  Even though Ponder has sucked so far in his short career, I’m not saying there should be a quarterback controversy in Minnesota.  Cassel did throw a nice, lively ball on Sunday though….

I SAW Steelers rookie RB La’Veon Bell score two touchdowns in his pro debut.  Both of the runs were inside the Vikings 10-yard line, and Bell only managed 57 yards on 16 carries (3.6 average), but Pittsburgh desperately needs some sort of playmaker to emerge to help QB Ben Roethlisberger.  Now that he’s recovered enough from a foot injury to make it onto the field, maybe Bell can be that guy.

UPDATE (03/11/2013): My trusty proofreader Count Yorga threw this TRIVIA BOMB my way: Vikings RB Adrian Peterson had is 12th career TD rush of 60+ yards.  The great Jim Brown is second all-time to Peterson in that category – with 9.  That’s also PROPS.

 

Arizona (2-2) wins vs. Tampa Bay (0-4), 13-10

I SAW the Cardinals show some quality stamina, playing spotty football for about 56 minutes until the defense – namely CB Patrick Peterson, with two clutch interceptions – flexed its muscles and the offense made that effort count by scoring a tying touchdown.  Arizona has had a disappointing season so far, but being able to find one’s self as a team in the dying minutes of a hard-fought game is something for new head coach Bruce Arians and company to build on.

I SAW Bucs benched QB Josh Freeman not even suit up for this game.  In fact, he watched the game from a stadium suite.  I’ve never been a personnel executive, but that seems like the kiss of death to me.  I personally think head coach Greg Schiano (and general manager Mark Dominik) are acting too rashly.  What if rookie quarterback Mike Glennon gets hurt?  Start third stringer Dan Orlowsky, I suppose.  Whatever the case, the franchise appears to be done with Freeman in a way that it was finished with star wideout Keyshawn Johnson when they deactivated him 10 games into the 2003 season.  Awkwaaaard.

Freeman brought this upon himself to a certain extent.  This is a QB who has completed just 53 percent of his passes since Schiano was brought on as coach, and has looked beyond flappable at the end of close games.  The clincher for the front office, however, must have been when the 5-year pro overslept for the team picture and then wasn’t voted as a team captain afterward.  To make matters worse, the situation has reached near-scandal status.

Now the Bucs look to a rookie who just isn’t seeing the game develop at the appropriate speed in the pros in Glennon.  I belong to the school that in most cases it’s better to let a young quarterback learn in real game situations, but that doesn’t mean Tampa Bay is going to be very competitive while doing so.  Regardless, Glennon is the future of the Buccaneers QB position.  Unfortunately for Josh Freeman – and his team, whose hand has been forced – the future is now.  And “now” happens to be what looked like a wide-eyed kid unwisely lofting a ball outside the hash marks toward the vicinity of Cards CB Patrick Peterson.  Glennon’s first NFL interception was a typical rookie gaffe – and it’s not indicative of the level of play the Bucs need from the position to win games.  It’s too bad, because so much of the roster is in a good position to win if they could just have a game manager at quarterback.

I SAW the Cardinals rushing defense remind the NFL that it is legit.  Bucs RB Doug Martin came into the game ranked second in the league in rushing yards, but was held to 45 yards on 27 rushes (1.7 average) in a matchup that favored the ground game.  The acquisition of free agent Carson Palmer garnered a lot of positive reviews in Arizona during the offseason, but so far all I see is a quarterback who can find All-World WR Larry Fitzgerald and can’t do much else, which isn’t much of a change for the franchise from the moribund situation at that position ever since Kurt Warner retired.

Indianapolis (3-1) wins vs. Jacksonville (0-4), 37-3

I SAW the Jaguars get outscored 75-8 in the first half so far this season.  That’s shit.

When the Colts scored to make it 34-3 in the third quarter they had outgained the Jags 363-70.  That’s even shittier.

I SAW the Jaguars start the season 0-4 for the third time in franchise history.  They have never gone 0-5, but there’s a first for everything.  A new franchise low seems believable if you consider that Jacksonville has lost 12 of its last 19 games by double digits (STATS LLC).

Sometimes sucking can disorient observers…how in the hell is Jags QB Blaine Gabbert already 5-21 as a starter in the pros?  Poor bastard.

I SAW Colts DE Robert Mathis get three sacks Sunday.  Indy needs to get more action going in the pass rush.  Hopefully this will be a cue for the front seven to start being more disruptive.  The team came into the weekend tied for ninth in the league in sacks, but they hadn’t been striking fear in anyone as far as a pass rush goes.

I SAW myself still unable to get over how silly-ugly the new Jaguars helmets look.  It’s like they had all-gold helmets, and then saw their stinking selves in the mirror so the paint burned off of the front.  Gold or matte black?  Make up your mind, Jags owner Shad “Shaka” Khan.

I SAW the Jaguars get outscored by an average of 24.5 points so far this season.  That’s sad.  Not so sad for people in suicide pools who still can bet on teams playing Jacksonville, though.

Washington (1-3) wins @ Oakland (1-3), 24-14

I SAW the Redskins finally pull out a win, and it came in vintage Mike Shanahan style.

Strangely enough, Washington QB Robert Griffin III’s first game this season with less than 300 yards passing turned out to be his first win.  And it came with starting RB Alfred Morris on the sideline for most of the game with an injury.  Sounds like a recipe for a Washington loss, but backup RB Roy Helu Jr. was ready to ball, maximizing the impact of his 12 carries for 41 yards and a TD plus 2 catches for 43 yards.  This is nothing new for a Shanahan-coached backfield, having a beast of an athlete lower down on the depth chart.  Think of all those years in Denver, with Olandis Gary, Mike Anderson & Co. stepping up and running downhill with little chance for error.    

I SAW the Raiders offence serve as good for what has been ailing the Redskins defense this season.  I’m willing to bet that QB Matt Flynn getting sacked 7 times Sunday is just as much on the brutally overpaid quarterback as it is a credit to Washington’s D, but I’m sure the ’Skins are happy to take the win either way. TRIVIA BOMB:

According to STATS LLC the Redskins’ 1,464 yards allowed through three games was the most in NFL history since the 1951 New York Yanks gave up 1,494.  How bad is a total in this vicinity?  If it’s any indication, the Yanks folded after that 1951 campaign.

I SAW the nightmare in the Bay Area continue.  In fact, the Silver & Black offense helped make for a landmark defeat as it squandered a lead.  Oakland lost a game in which they led by 14 points or more after the first quarter for the first time in 15 years.  (The last time was in 1998 against the Chiefs.)  (STATS LLC) 

I SAW PROPS  to Redskins LB London Fletcher, who played in his 244th straight regular season game.  That passes Bill Romanowski for the most by a defensive player since the 1970 merger.  (STATS LLC)  Seriously – Fletcher is 38 years old, and he’s a proficient middle linebacker.  That’s crazy.

San Diego (2-2) wins vs. Dallas (2-2), 30-21

I SAW Chargers QB Philip Rivers looking like his old dominant self this season.

I’m vocal in my belief that Rivers’ previous head coach Norv Turner is a bad head coach but an excellent coordinator.  (See: Phillips, Wade.  He’s a defensive coach, Turner works on the other side of the ball.)  But Turner had a good relationship with Rivers for most of his six-year tenure running the ’Bolts.  Like any relationship, coach-player ones can become stale.  It’s looking more and more like such was the case in San Diego last season, given how rejuvenated Rivers looks in current head coach Mike McCoy’s scheme.  (With former Cardinals head coach Ken Wisenhunt as coordinator, no less.)  Consider (via STATS LLC):

–       In his last nine seasons, Rivers had two 400-yard passing games.  He has two this season.

–       In 2011 and 2012 combined, Rivers threw 35 interceptions.  This season he has just 2, against 11 touchdowns.

According to the Associated Press, the coaching staff is getting the offense to the line of scrimmage much faster prior to the snap, so Rivers and the O-line can make more thorough reads.  (Hmm…wonder if McCoy fell in love with that strategy working with Peyton Manning in Denver last season?)  It showed against the Cowboys.  Rivers looked very much in charge of the field pre- and post-snap, and he did so with natural body language.  This San Diego team is under-matched roster wise against most teams and their defense is soft, but it’s looking like Rivers should at least be able to keep them in games even if the D lays an egg.

I SAW Chargers rookie LB Manti Te’o make his pro debut against the Cowboys.  Or at least that’s what I saw on the internet.  Maybe it’s all a lie.

Seriously though, San Diego must really be hoping that Te’o can be a playmaker on defense.  They are starved in that department, with just 2 takeaways so far this season, and their best pass rusher, DE Dwight Freeney looks like he’s out for the year with a torn quadriceps.  Personally, I don’t see the rookie from Notre Dame becoming a premier player.  He’s got a great attitude and some undervalued skills, but I didn’t like any of the drills I saw him run prior to and after this year’s draft.  He looked noticeably unpolished, and fairly unaware or unconcerned with that, almost like his talent growing up made him sloppy.  I’m generally wary of that sort of player.  Then again, Steelers S Troy Polamalu fits that description, and it feels like everyone loves him but me.  Go figure.

I SAW Cowboys WR Dez Bryant have another beast of a game on Sunday, but how much does it really matter?  After all, Sunday marked Bryant’s seventh multi-TD game of his young career…but Dallas is 1-6 in them.

I SAW Cowboys LB Sean Lee have 18 tackles Sunday.  Lee is a tad undersized in certain matchups but overall is nearing elite status as a middle linebacker.  No one on the Dallas defense fits new coordinator Monte Kiffin’s famed Tampa 2 scheme better than the rangy Lee.

SNF-New England (4-0) wins @ Atlanta (1-3), 30-23

I SAW the two teams with the best win-loss records since 2008 meet up on Sunday night.  The way the Falcons have looked this season, it’s hard to believe that they’re part of that elite duo:

Falcons 4-Game Starts – Last 2 Seasons

2012 2013
W-L 4-0 1-3
Points/Gm 31.0 23.5
Red Zone % .600 (12-20) .398 (7-18)
Turnover Diff. +10 -1

(ESPN Stats & Information)

Atlanta’s problems are mostly what we expected them to be: A weak offensive line, lack of a pass rush and lackluster play from the safety positions.  But the O-line has been even worse than expected, and the injury to newly acquired RB Stephen Jackson has rendered the Falcons offense one-dimensional.  With the division rival Saints looking as good as they do right now Atlanta has to be very careful, lest they miss the playoffs.

I SAW this game go all Gonzo for Atlanta.

Their future Hall Of Fame tight end Tony Gonzalez caught 12 of the 13 times he was targeted, for 149 yards and 2 TDs.   (It says in different places online that Gonzalez was targeted 14 and/or 13 times….)

I can’t think of a more impressive non-QB player in his late 30s or 40s since Darrell Green was one of the fastest players in the league and a dogged cover corner until his retirement at age 42.  You might be thinking that the GOAT, Jerry Rice comes in between there….In my opinion Rice is indeed the GOAT.  But he didn’t look just as proficient as he did – or better – in his prime compared to his twilight years like Gonzalez does right now.  Maybe Saints TE Jimmy Graham is becoming the best at the position right now, but by my eye test Gonzalez still wears the belt.  At 37, that’s PROPS.  The only player who comes close is current Redskins LB London Fletcher, who at 38 is still playing at a high level – and it’s a distant second.

I SAW that the Patriots might have finally found a dependable physical cornerback in Aqib Talib.  Everyone has been creaming their pants over Falcons WR Julio Jones for the last year and a half (when he’s healthy, anyway).  Talib was lined up against Jones for most of the game, tipping 3 passes and intercepting another that was intended for the second-year wideout.  To top it off, Talib was all over WR Roddy White on a last-ditch fourth down pass into the end zone that could have tied the game.  In all, according the TheMMQB, Talib allowed 1 catch for 1 yard.  Wow.

I SAW that, according to the NBC broadcast, the Patriots have 14 rookies on their playing roster, 7 of them undrafted free agents.  Seen in that context, New England is doing a great job so far this season.

I SAW Patriots All-Pro defensive lineman Vince Wilfork go down for the season with an Achilles injury early in the game.  I’d have to say that this will be New England’s biggest challenge in terms of a missing player since QB Tom Brady tore up his knee in Week 1 of 2008.  Wilfork is irreplaceable for this team.  You can say they played well in the game after Wilfork left, but Atlanta’s line blows.

I SAW Patriots RB LeGarrette Blount roll down the field faster than Spicoli rolls a blunt.  (Sean Penn’s character from Fast Times At Ridgemont High.)  For a big man, Blount is fast.  He turned the corner and got upfield with the speed of an AP or Jamaal Charles, but he weighs 250 pounds.  I mean, the guy has returned kickoffs in the NFL – at 250 pounds!  That’s impressive speed.  I know he’s had his off-field problems and maybe he doesn’t have a head for the game, but whenever Blount rips off one of these big runs I wonder why he doesn’t see the field much at all anymore.  There must be a reason (at least there was for Tampa Bay to let him go, and for the Pats to underuse him as well), but I don’t know what it is.

I SAW PROPS to Patriots rookie WR Kenbrell Thompkins for an amazing diving sideline catch in the end zone to put the Falcons ahead 27-13.

I’ve said it before and I’ll say it again: Pats QB Tom Brady has been dying to get a reliable edge receiver since he lost Randy Moss.  The franchise tried to spark a relationship like that when they signed Brandon Lloyd last season but it didn’t work out.  (MESSED UP FACT: Without suffering any huge injury, Lloyd isn’t even on a team right now, after leading the NFL in 2010 with 1,448 receiving yards.)  Who knows if Brady-Thompkins can become a reliable connection that could open up the field for the Pats, but if it doesn’t happen I bet it won’t be for a lack of trying.

MNF- New Orleans (4-0) wins vs. Miami (3-1), 38-17

I SAW shame for the Dolphins defense.  I know that the Saints have several weapons on offense, but to let RB Darren Sproles run free like he did so many times Monday night – 7 catches for 144 yards and a TD, 4 rushes for 28 yards and a TD – is inexcusable.  He was running virtually free on numerous wheel routes, like linebackers were just passing him off to no one.

I SAW the Dolphins show a need for tighter coaching on the defensive side of the ball.

It’s 3rd down and 20 midway through the second quarter on Monday night and New Orleans converts on a screen pass to Darren Sproles.  The play was perfectly executed by New Orleans, but Miami only sent 3 lineman for a pass rush on third-and-long.  I’m thinking this was a failure on the part of the coaching staff to react to the last-minute benching of their All-Pro DE Cameron Wake.  Sure, a three man rush in the nickel might have been enough with Wake on the field, but otherwise you need to send more people or else Saints QB Drew Brees will pick you apart.  Which he did.  The statistics bear this out, considering that Wake was available for the first 3 games, but not for Monday’s:

Dolphins Defense With 4 Or Fewer Rushers – This Season

First 3 Games Against Saints Monday
Comp % 55.7 74.1
Yards/Att 6.1 10.9
TD-INT 3-3 4-0

(ESPN Stats & Information)

I SAW cause for optimism in Geaux Nation with rookie S Kenny Vaccaro roaming the field.  The rook has things to work on – namely his first-step reads and his hip switch in and out of different coverage levels – but he’s showing the same sort of disciplined aggressiveness that the Chiefs’ Eric Berry and Seattle’s Earl Thomas have used to help build winning defensive backfields.

I SAW Dolphins left tackle Jonathan Martin get schooled Monday night.  I actually thought that he’d get embarrassed sooner than Week 4 – he hadn’t played well, just not gotten totally torn apart – but Junior Gallette is an emerging force for the Saints and at times he toyed with Martin.  That’s a problem that could sink Miami late in the season, or in the standings after facing a team like Buffalo twice, with Mario Williams frothing at the mouth to take on Martin.

STAY TUNED NEXT WEEK FOR WHAT I SAW, WEEK 5 – HERE AT TFQ. 

IN THE MEANTIME, FOLLOW US ON FACEBOOK AND @TFQuarter

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