What I Saw, Week 7 – 2013

Blair Miller > WHAT I SAW – WEEK 7, 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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Away from the game(s)

I SAW some interesting scores this week.  But first let’s pause to mourn the loss of two colossal figures in NFL history, especially in Texas.

RIP Titans owner Bud Adams, who owned the team for 54 seasons.  Adams is an under-recognized icon.  He co-founded the AFL, and moved the (then) Houston Oilers to Tennessee.  He was also comfortable going against the grain in terms of race by championing black starting quarterbacks when it was taboo, especially Hall Of Famer Warren Moon, but also Steve McNair and Houston native Vince Young (whom Adams reportedly wanted to draft but his front office opted instead for Mario Williams).  Along with late Chiefs owner Lamar Hunt, Adams made the AFL the league it became and helped merge it with the NFL.  In short, the present status of the NFL in the sporting world is due in large part to Adam’s role in its history.

This week is doubly mournful for fans of the Texans franchise this week, as they lost another icon just days earlier….

I SAW the death of a Bum.  Iconic head coach (and father of Texans defensive coordinator Wade) Andrew “Bum” Phillips died last week.

Known primarily as a players’ coach, the affable and stereotypical ’ol southern coach (Bum used to wear a ten-gallon cowboy hat for road games) made Buddy Ryan look like a city boy.  As part of a cadre of unique coaching personalities, he was part of the ascendance of the AFL teams within the NFL and could have perhaps made the Super Bowl once or twice if not for the Steel Curtain era in Pittsburgh.  (Bum’s Oilers lost to the Steelers twice in the AFC Championship.)

Sad times in Texas and Tennessee.

Now back to the weekend action on the field.

I SAW the NFL continue its crazy ways.  Let’s try to take a peek into the landscape of the months to come – feeble as it might be.

A reliable way to get one’s self considered as batshit crazy would have been to predict that going into Week 8 of the NFL season the Chiefs would be the lone unbeaten team.  To a lesser (and opposite) extent, the same could be said about the Giants, who took until Monday night to notch their first win of 2013.  Crazy thing is, Kansas City looks legitimately legit and New York still managed to look horrible in their win over the Vikings.  That’s life every year at the extremes in the NFL – there are always a few eye-poppers.

Despite going 3-1 this week (Dallas and Philly played one another) the NFC East still looks like the cesspool of the league thanks largely to porous defenses.  The softness in stature of the strongest division in recent history had been in the works for the last few years.  Even less expected: Every team in the AFC East has a record of .500 or better.  Who would have predicted that?

In fact, New England’s relative vulnerability might broaden the playoff picture in the AFC.  At this point – and I can’t believe I’m typing this – Denver and Kansas City could be the two best teams in the conference, making up one of those intense scenarios where the division champ secures one of the top two seeds and a bye week, while the second place team ends up as a Wild Card playing on the road in the first round of the playoffs.  Also, I foresee a dogfight for the conference’s second bye week between New England, Indianapolis and Cincinnati.  All three teams are very good, but have a more glaring mix of strengths and weaknesses than the two AFC West teams right now.

Meanwhile, the NFC looks to be ruled by the West as well.  Seattle stands a cut above at the moment, but would anyone be surprised if division foe San Francisco made a run at them before season’s end?  The Saints seem poised to run away with the South, in large part due to a spate of injuries in Atlanta.  They look like the best bet for the second seed in the conference right now.  (Imagine, for a moment, arguably the two teams in the NFL with the biggest home field advantages – the Rainy City and ’Nawlins – hosting postseason games until they played each other….)  That’s because of the slop that is the East division, and Detroit, Green Bay and Chicago are strong, but they’re going to beat each other up before the season is said and done.

All this speculation is just that – guesswork.  The league is a fun, wide-open party right now.  Unless we’re discussing injury reports….

I SAW a dark day come Monday morning, when the official reports on player injuries started pouring in.

On Monday Night Countdown, ESPN’s Chris Berman tossed out an old Marv Levy quote about roster depth and injuries: “Depth is great until you have to use it.”

A number of NFL teams are feeling that lurch after a Sunday full of serious injuries to key players.  Actually, I can’t remember a single day that saw more players go down that were in the top 5 players or so on their team in terms of importance.  Some of the teams won’t feel as hampered by dipping into their roster as others because they have said depth.  For example, the Bengals have at least 4 capable cornerbacks so the loss of Leon Hall isn’t as crippling as, say, Sam Bradford going down for St. Louis.  But all of these players are so good and play such huge leadership roles on their teams that even top-notch backups won’t ease the loss on the field or in the locker room.

Jay Cutler, QB and Lance Briggs, LB, Chicago – There’s a more detailed take on the crippling day for the Bears in the Washington wins vs. Chicago, 45-41 section.  (CB Charles Tillman also left the game.)  Let’s just say that the roster in the Windy City got winded harder than any other in Week 6.

Brian Cushing, LB and Arian Foster, RB, Houston – I say more about the tragic loss of Cushing below (see: Kansas City wins vs. Houston, 17-16).  Foster’s hamstring injury isn’t necessarily a shocker, given that he missed the preseason with a bad hammy and as such came into the regular season behind schedule in terms of playing shape.  Like Chicago, the Texans lose arguably their two biggest leadership figures on both sides of the ball.

Reggie Wayne, WR, Indianapolis – I’m not even a Colts fan, but this one hurts the most. Indy is on the cusp of something big, but at this point in their development they need as much out of their roster as they can get to pull it off.  Losing Wayne doesn’t just equate to losing the most talented offensive player on the team.  Wayne is arguably the most grounding leadership presence post-Peyton Manning apart from head coach Chuck Pagano.  Now Chuckstrong has to be Waynestrong, while hoping the QB Andrew Luck doesn’t get pushed up against the ropes too much without a consistently open target downfield in the passing game.

Sam Bradford, QB, St. Louis – I go off below, chastising the Bears for having Josh McCown as the best Plan B if the franchise cornerstone goes down.  St. Louis has Kellen Clemons.  Barf.  One could argue that the Rams should have had a better option, given that Bradford isn’t exactly an Ironman.  But GM Les Snead and head coach Jeff Fisher’s rebuilding plan has the team so stocked with youth that maybe they lost sight of the vulnerability at QB during the offseason.

Leon Hall, CB, Cincinnati – When healthy the seventh-year pro has been one of the most underrated corners in the league.  The frenetic attack of the Bengals D under Mike Zimmer relies on tight one-on-one coverage that Hall has been anchoring so far this season.  Dre Kirkpatrick or Adam Jones are more than capable second stringers, but that’s exactly what they are – backups.  You can bet other teams will test whoever steps in for Hall.

Jermichael Finley, TE, Green Bay – Finley’s not the leader or main cog like the players above, but the Packers are so thin in the receiver department right now that his loss is significant.  Plus, the hit on him was one of the more violent ones to date this season and raises concern for the mercurial tight end – who was taken off the field in a stretcher Sunday after already suffering a concussion mere weeks ago.

I SAW the pressure cooker of the baseball playoffs reach a boil heading into the World Series.  A few thoughts on the MLB postseason:

The Cardinals seem almost unbeatable in clutch games.  Boston’s going to need another outburst like Shane Victorino’s grand slam against Detroit if they are going to gain momentum.

To me, that Jose Iglesias grab that everyone is calling a huge clutch catch in Game 5 of the ALCS was a Kenobi swipe.  (Similar to a gratuitous Obi Wan spin from the original Episode IV fight against Vader.)  I won’t call it a TV catch, meaning that it was done for the camera, but Iglesias’ body language had more flare than the difficulty of the catch required.

I was watching Tigers 3B Miguel Cabrera play through pain and fall short in another chance at a title, and I realized in the statistical orgy that is baseball that winning championships may not hold as much weight in a player’s overall body of work than it does in other sports.  Have you EVER heard someone talk about Ted Williams and say, “yeah, but he didn’t win a championship” like others do about all-time greats in the NFL and NBA like Dan Marino or Karl Malone?  Hell, LeBron James was fighting against that criticism before he’d played ten years as a pro, but Greg Maddux was widely considered the best right-handed handed pitcher since Bob Gibson before he won a World Series in his ninth season in the big leagues – and had he not won any titles at all it’s hard to imagine it affecting his legacy.    I’m not sure what that means, but just thought I’d mention it.

I SAW, call it a cheap shot, but I chuckle every time NFL Network analyst (and 3-time Super Bowl-winning star with the Patriots) Willie McGinest laughs audibly when his colleague, former role player and FB Heath Evans, is introduced as a Super Bowl winner at the start of the show.  As is the loving way in the sport of football, know your place, boy.

Byes: New Orleans, Oakland

TNF- Seattle (6-1) wins @ Arizona (3-4), 34-22

I SAW a great celebrity summation of this game, courtesy Cardinals QB Carson Palmer, who said, “We knew we needed to be great, and we were not great today.”

No shit, Sherlock.

I SAW the Seahawks continue their dominance, now off to a franchise-best 6-1 start.  Seven sacks of Cardinals QB Carson Palmer and two turnovers that were converted into touchdowns certainly helped.

I SAW the Cardinals solidify themselves as the anti-Rams.

Over the last few seasons St. Louis, Arizona’s counterpart in the division, has been a bugaboo for the Seahawks and especially the Niners.  But Arizona has been fodder for the three teams, having now lost eight straight division games.  Anyone will tell you: You’ve got to win within your own division.

I SAW Seahawks QB Russell Wilson have a big night in the stadium he started his pro career in.

No joke – since Wilson himself is down for the nickname Danger Russ Wilson (his Twitter tag is @DangeRussWilson), I keep wanting to yell DAAYYNGER!  Watch yourself!”  Even though Mystical and his bastardizing of a Pharcyde sample makes me want to puke.

DAAYYNGER!  Wilson is for real. He’s already up in the top group of quarterbacks when it comes to discipline with footwork – and that is generally what makes an elite QB in my eyes.  He’s so grounded, so healthily monotonous.  Everything smells of “let’s just keep working hard, 24/7/365.”

…I hate to say it, but given the Seahawks history in this department, did anyone else think Wilson was on Adderall during the NFL Network postgame interview?  Some bloodshot eyes, frenetic face…. I digress.

I SAW two pro quarterbacks passing each other in their careers, in opposite directions.  Awkwaaard.

When it comes to downfield passing, Seattle’s Russell Wilson and Arizona’s Carson Palmer are like night and day so far this year.

Russell Wilson Vs. Carson Palmer – Throws 15+ Yards Downfield, Thursday Night

Wilson Palmer
Comp-Att 5-7 2-7
Yards 111 36
TD-INT 2-0 0-1

(ESPN Stats & Information)

In fact, despite the presence of Cousin Larry Fitzgerald, asking Palmer to go deep this season has been ridiculous.  A league-leading 8 interceptions on passes 15 yards or longer downfield makes drawing up the deep ball about as good an idea as Larry and Jennifer making out in Perfect Strangers without Balki interrupting somehow.

I can’t help but notice that Cardinals head coach Bruce Arians isn’t saying much about his QB lately…. Maybe that’s because Carson Palmer has thrown 13 interceptions so far this season – second only to Eli Manning’s steaming log of 15.  This team is officially so bad on offense that feeding Cousin Larry Fitzgerald the pigskin instead of sheep from Mepos is no longer cutting it.  I say that because ’Zona threw its 6th pick this year with Fitzgerald as the target.  That’s tied with Rueben Randle of the Giants for the most interceptions per target this season.  (ESPN Stats & Information)  Giants QB Eli Manning is spreading around interceptions to receivers like Selena Gomez spreads Nutella, but that shouldn’t obscure the fact that the ball is going to Fitzgerald – and everyone who is or isn’t covered in Nutella knows it.  Ask Serena.

Passing deep in Arizona?

balki-moisturepimp-dot-com

I SAW Seahawks RB Marshawn Lynch start off relatively quiet and then in the second half look like a man among boys, in particular on a running TD that was (correctly) reversed prior to TE Kellen Davis’s touchdown catch that made it 23-13 Seattle.  Lynch appeared to casually dip his shoulder into LB Darnell Dockett but there was nothing casual about it.  Dockett went flying, his helmet flying even farther after being popped off by Lynch.  Dockett is not a soft player, either.

I SAW the Cardinals reprise their status from last season as the worst blocking team in the NFL.  According to ESPN Stats & Information, ’Zona QB Carson Palmer was put under duress or sacked on 27 of his dropbacks against Seattle – tied for most in a game in the NFL season.  Does Palmer handle this pressure well, like, say, Packers QB Aaron Rodgers?  Well, when under duress this season Palmer is 25-of-55 with no TDs and 4 INTs.  So, I’d say no.  That helps set up a shameful QB recognition….

I SAW Cardinals QB Carson Palmer’s game be so balls on Sunday that he got all testacle-y.

TRIVIA BOMB:

Palmer now has 5 straight games with multiple interceptions.  According to Elias Sports Bureau, he’s the first person to do so since Vinny Testaverde in 2000.

Cincinnati (5-2) wins @ Detroit (4-3), 27-24

I SAW a fitting end to a fun game:

The Nuge (Bengals K Mike Nugent) kick the winning FG in Detroit, in a cat scratch fever of a game.  And the mascot matchup was cat on cat.  Love it.

I SAW that for all the improvements the teams made this season compared to 2012, the same issues dog the Lions in their losses: Lack of takeaways and a consistent running game.  Detroit has forced just one turnover in their three losses, and has failed to rush for 100 yards in any of those games.

I SAW a display of what could arguably be the two top receivers for the next several seasons, in Detroit’s Calvin Johnson and Cincy’s A.J. Green.  Both guys had 155 receiving yards, and they combined for three TDs.  Megatron is the unquestionable boss at wideout, but there are times like Sunday when he forces a defender into a benching (CB Chris Houston) that Green reminds you of the dominant physical skills he possesses.  If the Bengals can learn how to sustain success – and get a QB that can deliver the ball more accurately – he’s going to be a beast.

I SAW the Bengals win in large part because they decided to try and take strikes downfield on offense.  WR A.J. Green came into the game with the NFL’s second-most targets at least 20 yards downfield (14, according to ESPN Stats & Information) and on Sunday he caught 2 of 4 targets in those situations.

This is a complicated spot for the Bengals to be in in terms of offensive philosophy.  Dalton has yet to evolve into a scoring weapon for Cincy – even several big completions on Sunday were underthrown to open receivers, let alone the incompletions – but as his team’s prospects continue to improve on the strength of a stalwart defense it’s getting harder to deny that it needs more big scoring plays in order to win when it really counts.  With no home run hitter at tailback and one at wideout (Green), the burden to produce falls on Dalton.  Maybe he’ll be able to perform to results closer to his career-high 135.9 passer rating in this game, maybe not.  But on Sunday it seemed apparent that offensive coordinator Jay Gruden is at least willing to find out by dialing long distance.

It’s yet another sign of how much so the NFL is skewing towards passing that a top defensive team (Cincy is in the top 3 right now this season, in my opinion, behind Seattle and Kansas City) with strong special teams and a reliable running game has to start trying to take the lid off of their offense in order to stay competitive.

I SAW Bengals CB Leon Hall go down with an Achilles injury.  Hall’s absence is a huge blow to a great defense.  He’s the type of unsung man-to-man corner that enables a strong pass rush like Cincy’s.

I SAW Lion Matthew Stafford be the first quarterback to throw for 300 yards in a game against the Bengals in 20 straight games – mind you, half of those are credit to Megatron….

I SAW PROPS to Lions WR Calvin Johnson, whose 9 catches for 155 yards allowed him to pass Herman Moore for the franchise lead in 100-yard receiving games, with 35…out of 98 played.  Jesus, Megatron – that’s a rate of a 100-yard game every 2.8 games played.  That Hail Mary jump ball that he caught late in the second half among 3 defenders – with a fourth in the vicinity – was a joke.

Washington (2-4) wins vs. Chicago (4-3), 45-41

I SAW an exciting double 40-burger, during which the Bears scored the most points in one loss in franchise history.  (ESPN Stats & Information)

There was another double, worth of a TRIVIA BOMB:

This game marked just the fourth time in NLF history that opposing teams each had one player score three TDs on the ground.  (Elias Sports Bureau)

Games With 3 Rushing TDs By Opponents – NFL History

Year Winning Player Losing Player
2013 Roy Helu Jr. Matt Forte
2008 Brandon Jacobs DeAngelo Williams*
2003 Onterrio Smith Priest Holmes
2000 Warrick Dunn Marshall Faulk

*- 4 Rushing TDs

Unfortunately the game isn’t the only thing that the Bears lost….

I SAW Bears QB Jay Cutler leave the game with a serious groin injury.  In other words, Nutler busted a nut that could keep him out at least a month.  Perennial disappointment Josh McCown stepped in and played well against one of the shittier pass defenses in the NFL.

It boggles my mind that a team of Chicago’s status can allow McCown to be the next option if their starter gets hurt – which he did.  McCown played admirably given the circumstances, but come on.  Reports have Cutler out at least a month with a torn groin.  I’m no scientist like Batman, but if Cutler’s groin is torn enough, a month seems very optimistic.  The Bears have signed Jordan Palmer, who was a QB for the team during training camp.  It was just the start of horrible news in the windy city (see below).

Nutler’s injury comes at an awful time for him.  This is the last year of the QB’s contract and coming into September there were whispers that he could command a deal in the $100 million range if he elevated the Bears to the next level.  But now Cutler is going to miss an open-ended amount of time after putting forth a very small sample set under new head coach Marc Trestman.  Neither Trestman nor GM Phil Emery brought Cutler to Chicago so they may not be too inclined to give him a huge payday unless he can return to the field and guide the team to some success in the playoffs.

That being said, the Redskins defense showed its true colours Sunday as arguably the worst pass defense in the NFL this season by allowing McCown to pass for a 119.6 passer rating in relief of Cutler.  It would be foolish to expect those numbers from the backup quarterback again in the weeks to come.  At least Tresman’s offensive scheme so far this season has been to simplify the reads/decisions in the pocket for Cutler, so McCown won’t have a lot of complexity to adjust to while he takes over.  It gets worse for Chicago, though….

I SAW Bears LB Lance Briggs go down for what is being reported as 4-6 weeks with a broken shoulder.  Chicago’s vaunted D was already playing without several linemen and linebacker D.J. Williams (injured reserve) – and it showed against Washington while Roy Helu Jr. ran all over a run defense that often dominates the line of scrimmage en route to the ’Skins scoring their most points in a game since 2005.  Now Chicago loses their best all-around defender in Briggs, who currently ranks 5th in the NFL with 64 tackles.

Rookie Jon Bostic and Kasheem Greene are going to have to take on a lot more responsibility sooner than the coaching staff would have liked, but that’s life in the NFL.  Oh – and star CB Charles “Peanut” Tillman left with a knee injury too.  Jinkies!

Overall, the Bears were the team hit hardest by injuries over the weekend.  They busted two nuts and a Lance – sounds like a bad cyclist cancer joke.

I SAW Redskins rookie TE Jordan Reed have what could be a breakout performance and a big boost to his team’s overall production on offense.  The former Florida Gator caught all nine of his targets for 134 yards and a TD.  His 17 receptions this season are tied for second-most on the team.

Tight end is a very important position in the read-option scheme that Washington favors, and Fred Davis has been a bugaboo there because he can’t stay healthy.  Reed’s performance leading into Sunday likely emboldened the front office to make the move they made by placing Davis on the inactive list for the game, and the decision to feature Reed paid big dividends.

QB Robert Griffin III is improving on his sluggish start to the season, but has yet to return to the elite form he displayed during his rookie year.  (Case in point: his sixth interception of the season Sunday is already more than his total of 5 last season.)

The best sign of RG3’s ongoing return to full strength was his season-high 84 rushing yards, with a majority of them coming in the read-option.  In fact, the Redskins had a season-high 79 yards on option plays and Griffin had 70 of those – a marked improvement from the first five games of 2013.

Robert Griffin III on Read-Option Plays – This Season

First 5 Games Week 7 vs. Redskins
Rushes 8 8
Yards Rushing 41 70
Yards Per Rush 5.1 8.8
Yards Before Contact 23 69

(ESPN Stats & Information)

Combine what might be a rejuvenated ground game with a playmaking tight end, and it could be good news in D.C. going forward.

I SAW PROPS to Devin Hester who tied Hall Of Famer Deion Sanders for most ever with his 19th career kickoff return for a TD.  Marshall Faulk made a great point on NFL Network’s Game Day Final about how the new kickoff rules have limited Hester’s impact in games, as opposed to his skills diminishing.  Hester’s skills sure didn’t look diminished on Sunday – he ran all over the field to score that TD.

N.Y. Jets (4-3) win vs. New England (5-2), 30-27-OT

I SAW an early candidate for one of TFQ’s Upside-Down Awards at the end of the season:  

Thief In The Night Award

The Patriots saw both a 6-game regular season streak against the Jets and a 12-gamer against the AFC East snapped when New York escaped with a win on an unexpected penalty that set up a winning field goal in overtime.

Former head of officiating Mike Perreria was all over it on Twitter within moments, deeming the call a good one:

The violated rule in question is NFL Rule 9, Section 1, Article 3 (b)(2) and Pats special teamer Chris Jones committed it.  Peter King gives a good take on the incident here.

My take?  It’s a rule, it was broken and there is no controversy.  The flag made possible a winning field goal by Nick Folk – his 16th straight made field goal to start the season.  It’s a surprising lapse by Bell Belichick and his staff.  Not only was a new emphasis on this call communicated to all NFL teams prior to this weekend (at least that’s what the league claimed – and Patriots players denied – via NFL Network on Monday), but pushing a player into the line on a field goal attempt is typical habit for many teams and as such any new rule that draws attention to it should affect one’s coaching strategy.  In other words: New rule, don’t do it.  To lose sight of this and thusly show poor situational coaching is quite un-Belichick-like.

I SAW Patriots QB Tom Brady have his second game without a TD pass in his last three games after the second-longest streak in NFL history of consecutive games with a scoring throw (52).  He also went just 22 of 46 for 228 yards and a pick-6.

I don’t want to say that Brady is having a bad year.  It’s more like he’s having the sorts of season he had pre-2007, when he would just do enough for the team to win regardless of his stats.  Problem: His team lost a game they should have won on Sunday, and he seems more rattled by pressure than usual.

I SAW two eyebrow-raising stats from this game that doesn’t bode well for New England:

The Patriots converted one of their dozen third down attempts.

The Jets ran the ball 52 times, controlling the clock for 46:13 against the Pats.

I SAW Jets rookie QB Geno Smith rebound from an awful pick-6 to Patriots CB Logan Ryan in the first quarter.

What did Smith see out there beyond the hash marks that led him to believe he should throw over there?  He definitely didn’t see Ryan, who took a gimme pick to the house.

I SAW Patriots TE Rob Gronkowski fail to corral a fourth quarter pass with one hand.  What I saw was a drop.  Gronk easily could have put his left hand on the ball as well, but instead tried to pull it down with just the right.  Either it was a lack of discipline at an important time of a close game for Gronk, or a bad decision to let him play if he can’t use his surgically repaired (left) arm on basic plays.

Gronk had 114 yards on eight catches in the game but overall the Gronk-Tom Brady connection looked rusty, connecting just 8 times on what was a career-high 17 targets for the tight end.

I SAW the Patriots defense have its 34th straight game with a takeaway, the longest active streak in the NFL.  (CBS Broadcast)

I SAW Jets WR Jeremy Kerley show some moxie in the clutch.  He caught eight passes, six of which converted first downs on third down plays.

Kansas City (7-0) wins vs. Houston (2-5), 17-16

I SAW myself check myself.  The Chiefs are off to their best start since 2003 and are essentially locked into the playoffs at this point behind a relentless defense and a wisely conservative offense.  Self?  Didn’t think so.

Mind you, Kansas City didn’t look very good offensively on Sunday.  This game was up for grabs, the Chiefs needed a huge goal line stand in the third quarter, and Houston took it to them at times.  But this is the sort of close, physical game that a potential contender needs to win, no matter the deficit.

TRIVIA BOMB:

According to STATS LLC, 31 teams have started 7-0 during the Super Bowl era.  All of them have made the playoffs.  Fifteen of them made it to the Super Bowl, and nine of those won in the big dance.

I SAW the Chiefs start their 18th drive in opponents territory this season after Quintin Demps’ kick return midway through the third quarter.  That’s a big credit to Kansas City’s defense and special teams.

I SAW no balls on the Texans for pulling an early first-quarter Sonya.

Look it up:

Sonya (SAWN-Ya): 1. Warren Sapp’s housekeeper in an NFL Network.  2. Running a draw play on third-and-long.  Originates from when Sapp thinks about what has been occupying his days after retirement and he pictures himself playing Madden Football with Sonya, yelling “you can’t run the draw on third-and-long, Sonya!”

I SAW the first pro start for Texans QB Case Keenum get upstaged by two big injuries.  Well, maybe anything could have upstaged Case Keenum.  But RB Arian Foster left the game early with a hamstring injury that was serious enough to have him back on the sidelines in street clothes by the second quarter.  With its QB position in shambles, the last thing Houston needs is to lose their feature back for an extended time.

I’ve said it before and I’ll likely say it again – the Texans are in a tailspin that might cost both head coach Gary Kubiak and QB Matt Schaub their jobs.  Mired in their first 5-game losing skid since 2005 this team is on stormy seas without a rudder.

The Texans sustained another injury that was arguably more devastating….

I SAW Texans LB Brian Cushing go down again with a left knee injury due to a low block.  Cushing’s season-ending injury injury last year against the Jets is widely recognized as the catalyst for the offseason rule change that tries to crack down on such situations.  Chiefs RB Jamaal Charles’ block was much less egregious than others – even Cushing’s last tragic run-in – but you’ve gotta feel for the Texans backer.  I feel for any athlete who re-injures him or herself in the next season after injuring that same area of the body.  Tough to overcome.

I SAW PROPS to Chiefs RB Jamaal Charles, who rushed for 100+ yards and scored a TD in his first seven games of the season.  That’s the second longest such streak in NFL history, behind O.J. Simpson (9 straight games, in 1975) and ahead of Jim Brown (6 games, 1958).  (Elias Sports Bureau)  That’s pretty good company.

San Francisco (5-2) wins @ Tennessee (3-4), 31-17

I SAW the Niners win their fourth straight after a weak start, starting a long road trip with a victory.  After flying cross-country to Tennessee this weekend, San Fran now jets across the pond to London to face the Jaguars.  Niners head coach Jim Harbaugh has been adept at guiding his team through long road trips before though, and, frankly, focusing against a letdown team like winless Jacksonville is perfect for a travel-distracted team so long as Harbaugh sells it the right way.

I SAW the Niners offense resemble the look of last season on Sunday perhaps more than any other game so far this season.

It’s worth noting that getting back to the past has been in the works for a few weeks in San Francisco.  According to ESPN Stats & Information, the win versus the Titans was the fourth straight game that the Niners have elected to run the ball (not excluding kneel downs) – and the results compared to their slow start have been striking:

Niners on Designed Rushing Plays – 2013

First 3 Games Last 4 Games
% Of Total Plays 35 59%
Rush Yards Per Game 61.0 158.5
Yards Per Rush 3.0 4.5
TD 2 9

Much like the Redskins did against the Bears (see: Washington wins vs. Chicago, 45-41), the Niners also got back to the read-option that had been so devastating last season.  Coming into the game, QB Colin Kaepernick ran the ball nine times for 14 yards all season on read-option plays.  On Sunday he had 5 rushes for 36 yards and a TD.

There are a lot of youngish players on both Washington and San Fran, the read-option is very chemistry/timing oriented, and my bet is that both teams will get more dangerous on the ground as in-season experience grows.

I SAW Titans QB Jake Locker play well in his return from injury.  He put up 326 yards on 25-of-41 passing (60.9%) for 2 TDs, 1 INT (his first of the year) and a 92.1 rating.  A lot of those yards came while playing from behind in the second half while climbing out of a 24-0 hole, but the Niners defense doesn’t give up easy yards.  Locker looked like the game was finally slowing down for him in the pros before he got hurt and it looked like the setback hasn’t taken away from that.

Green Bay (4-2) wins vs. Cleveland (3-4) 31-13

I SAW the Packers win their third straight game to take the lead in a competitive NFC North.

Packers rookie RB Eddie Lacy had another strong day, with 22 carries for 82 yards and a TD.  Yes, that’s just a 3.7 average per carry, but it’s a huge deal for Green Bay to be able to depend on a productive 20+ carries from a running back – something they haven’t had during the Aaron Rodgers era.  As long as he stays healthy, I expect Lacy to carry more of the workload going into cold weather, while the receiving corps is on the mend.

However, some unsung players are stepping up.  WR Jarrett Boykin finished with 8 grabs for 103 yards in his first start.

I SAW the Packers defense regroup in a way that it hasn’t for at least two seasons.  Their opponents have scored just 13 points per game during Green Bay’s 3-game win streak.  (The MMQB)

Pittsburgh (2-4) wins vs. Baltimore (3-4), 19-16

I SAW that you know the season isn’t going your way as defending Super Bowl champs when, trailing 13-9 in the third quarter, you go for an onside kick to try and catch the Steelers off guard and get called for two penalties on the play.  That’s a microcosm of the frustration of Baltimore’s season thus far.

The Ravens head into a bye week having lost three of their last four games, but only by a combined score of eight points.

I SAW the Steelers rookie RB Le’Veon Bell rush for a season-high 93 yards on 19 carries on Sunday – 61 of them coming in the first half as Pittsburgh set the tone.  The team’s 141 yards was the highest rushing total for the team in almost a year.

Bell missed the first month of the season with a bad foot.  He’s a very solid prospect, but I thought that if he had to shoulder much of a load in Pittsburgh in his first year that it would be a bad sign for this team.  Now, things have gotten bad enough in Steeltown that Bell needs to be a bell cow for them.  Early results are promising.

Buffalo (3-4) wins vs. Miami (3-3), 23-21

I SAW the Bills escape with a win on a field goal with 33 seconds left in the game, after blowing a 14-point lead.  It was their first road win in seven tries.  They were seriously on the ropes, but then a Mario Williams sack-fumble gave Buffalo the ball with a manageable distance to cover for a winning field goal.

A sign of resiliency: Buffalo went 9-for-19 on third downs, and QB Thad Lewis managed to steer the team to a W despite getting sacked four times and disrupted far more often than that indicates.

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.) 

That aforementioned sack of Dolphins QB Ryan Tannehill serves as a testament to Miami’s season thus far.  In the offseason, Miami let left tackle Jake Long go to St. Louis via free agency, which started a straw-grabbing party ever since to try and protect Tannehill – who, with the lack of an imposing rushing game on his team, largely defines the fortunes of the ’Fins.  The coaching staff came to rest on Tyson Clabo to play right tackle, and he’s been a disaster that has fit in with the rest of the pylons on the O-line .  In all, Tannehill came into the game on pace to set the NFL record for times sacked in a season (STAS LLC) and Miami gave up two more on Sunday to take the total to 26 in 2013.  For those of you scoring at home, that’s shit.

I SAW the Dolphins lose their third straight game after getting off to their best start since 2002.  It’s getting close to having to paste QB Ryan Tannehill onto a milk carton.  (He threw for just 194 yards and two interceptions on Sunday, a 71.2 rating.)

I SAW Dolphins DE Cameron Wake play sparingly after missing the most of the last several games with a knee injury.  Unfortunately for Miami, Wake is more important to this team’s fortunes than it may have seemed.  Their expensive defense is on its heels without a game-changing pass rusher.

Carolina (3-3) wins vs. St. Louis (3-4), 30-15

I SAW Rams QB Sam Bradford go down for the season with a torn ACL on a sideline tackle.  This was one of those weird injury games when the player was just off his game, he and his team were struggling, and then a basic play (running out of bounds) ruined a season.

St. Louis only has $250,000 in salary cap space, which limits their options to replace their franchise QB.  As such, they are riding Kellen Clemons under center.  This feels like the nail in the coffin of the Rams’ season.

I SAW a very scrappy game in Carolina Sunday, with more than one scuffle after the whistle, and some intense response-trash talk from Panthers WR Steve Smith for Rams CB Janoris Jenkins after the game.  I really respect Rams head coach Jeff Fisher, but his players somehow balance a professional image with a very grimy style.  (“Grimy” being that grey area between genuinely dirty and clean.)

I SAW the Panthers win back-to-back games for the first time this season.  They’ve also won three out of their last four by an average of 26 points – and could be gathering steam in a weak division.  You could argue that Carolina has won against lesser teams.  The three such games came in wins against the deficient Giants, Vikings and Rams, and in their lone loss during that span they put up just 6 points against a good Cardinals defense.  But wins and production are the brass tax in an on-any-given-Sunday league, and momentum is a good friend.  So long as they don’t allow the Bucs game this Thursday night to be a trap game on short rest, don’t sleep on the Panthers.

I SAW the Panthers sporting the third-ranked overall defense in the NFL (303.2 YPG).  That might be one of the more surprising statistical developments this season.  They also hadn’t allowed any points in the first quarter until Sunday (as per the FOX Broadcast) – and those came on a safety when RB Mike Tolbert was felled by a busted blocking assignment.

Dallas (4-3) wins @ Philadelphia (3-4), 17-3

I SAW the Eagles lose a franchise-record 9 straight games at home in a game that saw two good offensive teams come out of the gates shitting their pants, with 13 punts in the first half.

I SAW the Cowboys notch their first road win of the season as well as elevate their status to 3-0 within the NFC East for the first time since 2007.  (STATS LLC)

For once it was the defense that stepped up.  After several games of being a punching bag in the passing game, Big D showed some D.  The Eagles were just the fourth team in NFL history to start the season with 6 straight games of at least 400 yards games (STATS LLC), but were held to 278.  More specifically, according to ESPN Stats & Information, Dallas held Eagles QB Nick Foles to 0-for-8 on throws at least 15 yards downfield.  Coming into the game, Foles led the NFL in completion percentage in such situations, with 58.3.  For a pass-weak defense that was missing their best player in DE DeMarcus Ware, who missed the first game of his 9-year career, that’s pretty damn good.  (Just like Falcons WR Roddy White.)

Actually, even more impressive is how Dallas played Sunday with 5 of their 8 defensive linemen from training camp gone with injury.  That’s something for the ’Boys to hang their hat on.  Even better: After Foles left with an injury, rookie Matt Barkley slid into the spot just in time to hand out three interceptions in the fourth quarter.  (Jesus.)  To add to the defensive victory, Dallas held the league-leading rusher LeSean McCoy to 18 rushes on 55 yards (3.1 average).  If coordinator Rob Ryan’s defense rallies for the remainder of the season, it will be this game that it can look back on as the turning point.

I SAW one thing to say on the hit that took Eagles QB Nick Foles out of the game on a rollout play: Get rid of the ball, Napoleon Dynamite.

I SAW Cowboys QB Tony Romo provide the most recent example of the declining value of passing yardage in appraising a quarterback’s value.  On Sunday he made his 100th career start and set the league record for passing yards in a career over that span.

Most Passing Yards Through First 100 Career Starts

Player Passing Yards
Tony Romo 27,485
Kurt Warner 27,441
Dan Marino 27,274
Peyton Manning 26,008

(Elias Sports Bureau)

That’s some solid company.  But my Romophobia forced me to look deeper behind this stat…. So I went stat digging.  How have those same QBs fared in the win column over that same span, especially when it counts most?

Best Winning % Among 4 QBs With Most Passing Yards Through First 100 Starts

Player Win % Playoff Record Over That Span
Dan Marino 62 3-3
Tony Romo 59 1-3
Peyton Manning 57 2-4
Kurt Warner 56 5-2

So the numbers justify my Romophobia to a certain extent.  Though he leads the pack in terms of yardage and regular season winning percentage he has the worst playoff record of the group.

San Diego (4-3) wins @ Jacksonville (0-7), 24-6

I SAW the Chargers win consecutive games for the first time this season.  QB Philip Rivers set the tone by completing his first 14 passes of the game.  Embattled RB Ryan Mathews had his second straight game with 100 yards rushing.   Even against actually competent teams (translation: not the Jaguars), those are two reliable ingredients for success.

I SAW the Jaguars stockpile more bad stats to pile on the steaming log that is their 2013 season thus far.

ANATOMY OF A JOKE:

The Jags are the first team since the 1984 Oilers to lose their first seven games of the season by double digits.  (Courtesy STATS LLC.  The Oilers lost their first 10 games in ’84 by 10 points or more.)

And now a sad, sad TRIVIA BOMB, courtesy of the MMQB’s Peter King.

I’ll let it speak for itself.  Here’s what King wrote:

Jacksonville has played three home games this year and not scored a touchdown.  The Jags have scored 2, 3 and 6 points in their three home games: a safety, a field goal and two field goals … and lost by 26, 34 and 18.  The Jags do not play in Jacksonville again until Nov. 17, against Arizona. In the next three weeks, they’re in London (against San Francisco, in a surrendered “home” game), on the bye, and at Tennessee.  When is the last time an NFL team hadn’t scored a touchdown in its home stadium by the middle of November? In 1977, when Tampa Bay failed to score a TD at home until Dec. 18, in the final game of the season.”

Elias Sports Bureau has more to add to that shit pile:

Jacksonville has scored a pathetic 11 total points through their first three home games.  That’s the fourth-lowest total since the 1970 merger.

Least Points Scored Through First 3 Home Games Of A Season – Since Merger

Team Year Points Scored
Buccaneers 1997 3
Eagles 1971 10
Chargers 1975 10
Jaguars 2013 11
Giants 1976 14

I SAW Jaguars RB Maurice Jones-Drew run nine times for just 37 yards and decline to talk with the media afterward.  I’d say that speaks for itself.  Pray for MoJo.

pray_for_mojo

(FOX Network)

Atlanta (2-4) wins vs. Tampa Bay (0-7), 31-23

I SAW the Falcons snap a three-game losing streak that is almost certainly too little too late for their playoff hopes – even if the roster wasn’t injury-riddled, which it is.

I SAW Falcons WR Harry Douglas step into the role of primary target and go off to the tune of 7 receptions for a career-high 149 yards and a touchdown.  It was the biggest day of Douglas’ career, who starred in relief of injured teammates Julio Jones and Roddy White, but the performance is also a testament to Atlanta QB Matt Ryan and the offensive system the team runs.  (White missed a game for the first time in his 9-year career.)

I SAW Falcons defensive coordinator Mike Nolan work from the sidelines during the game Sunday.  Since he took the job in Atlanta, Nolan had coached games from the press box.  That’s not exactly a reassuring sign for Falcons fans; the change smacks slightly of desperation.

I SAW Falcons RB Steven Jackson miss another game with lingering leg problems, further cementing his status as most disappointing free agent acquisition in the NFL this season.

I SAW that Buccaneers rookie QB Mike Glennon is not the answer at the position for Tampa Bay unless he can make some sort of a jump in terms of slowing the game down.  Glennon’s body language appears poised, but his timing is very off, in the sense that is likely due to taking too long with reads and/or progressions.  There were a few times he should have connected with teammates but he wasn’t able to make it happen.

I SAW PROPS to Bucs WR Vincent Jackson for a slick one-handed grab.

SNF- Indianapolis (5-2) wins vs. Denver (6-1), 39-33

I SAW a soft-milestone game for Colts QB Andrew Luck in a showdown with Peyton Manning during the latter’s overpublicized return to the town that he set records in.

Denver ran into a team that no one should want to play.  You can rest assured that the better teams in the NFL don’t want to face Indy because even if they might play down to the competition, the Colts certainly play up as well.  Indy has beaten three of the more respectable teams in the league in San Fran, Seattle and Denver.  ESPN Stats & Information put together the numbers to support the theory that the Colts were a nightmare for that elite trio of clubs:

Broncos, Seahawks and Niners Against the Colts & Rest Of The NFL – 2013

Vs. Colts Vs. All Other NFL Teams
W-L 0-3 17-1
PPG Differential -10.7 +10.7
Turnover Margin -4 +13

Say what you will about their inconsistent play – and I have – but Indy has yet to lose to a top team – and they haven’t lost consecutive games under Luck since opening day last season.

Luck might not seem like the appropriate focus of this game – especially with the return of Peyton Manning to the stadium he built in Indy – but that’s all the more befitting of the nature of calling Luck Mr. It Factor.

He definitely has It.  But Luck’s really not much of an attention-garnering player apart from the win-loss record and clutch plays…it’s clear Luck is the shit, and that it will last, but if you say “who’s the best QB at x”, the answer will seldom be Luck – unless the category is winning….  That sounds a bit like an early Tom Brady, actually.

I SAW Broncos QB Peyton Manning look mortal in yet another important game.

On NFL Network’s Game Day, Marshall Faulk and LaDainian Tomlinson rightfully pointed out how Manning’s throws lost velocity after a violent second quarter sack-fumble-safety by Colts DE Robert Mathis on the blind side.  The throws didn’t just lose velocity; they lost touch as well in the sense that they got wobbly and hung in the air more than they should have, which could be an indication that Manning wasn’t driving his weight into those throws due to a concern over contact.   The issue came up during Manning’s postgame press conference and let’s just say the stubborn competitor was not willing to admit that Mathis’ hit was or wasn’t a significant issue for his performance thereafter.

Either way, one thing is for sure: The Colts got after Manning.  They sacked or pressured the QB more in one game (32.1 percent of his 53 dropbacks) than he’d been since 2009.  Take a look at the difference between Denver’s undefeated start and Sunday night in terms of pass protection against the blitz:

Peyton Manning Vs. 5 Or More Pass Rushers – 2013

First 6 Games Week 7 Vs. Colts
Comp % 75.0* 25.0
Yards Per Attempt 10.2* 1.9
TD-INT 9-0* 0-1

*- Best among 37 qualified quarterbacks

(ESPN Stats & Information)

On a more general note, Manning’s history of coming up short in big games needs to be more recognized.

I SAW an (over) simplistic way to describe how the Colts handed the Broncos their first loss: They abused the dropback-heavy Jack Del Rio defense of Denver by running a lot of routes out into the flats and to shallow middle.  CB Champ Bailey is old and an easy take for a quick wideout, the safeties have a better nose for the run than the pass, and Denver’s defensive line isn’t tall enough to obstruct a quarterback’s throwing lanes to the areas out on the edge.

I SAW the Colts defensive backs play a statement game – in primarily man-to-man coverage against Peyton Manning, to boot.  Indy DBs Darius Butler and Vontae Davis did a great job of shadowing Broncos Wes Welker and Demaryuis Thomas, respectively.  (According to Peter King, Davis held Thomas to 2 receptions for 4 yards.)  DE Robert Mathis played like a man possessed, and now leads the NFL with 11.5 sacks.  Very much under the radar, second-year LB Jerrell Freeman is starting to really play well, showing range.

Coming into the game, the Colts were a tough team to figure out.  They’d won big games, especially against the Niners, but some other performances left many doubts.  This win certainly doesn’t erase any concerns – an offense that sort of lacks an identity, despite the invaluable leadership presence of QB Andrew Luck that now they must go the rest of the way without WR Reggie Wayne, a defense that could use more speed, young receivers that need more polish – but it equates to a big blow landed among the Top 5 teams in the AFC.

I SAW a huge injury when Colts WR Reggie Wayne tore his ACL trying to readjust his route to catch an underthrown ball by QB Andrew Luck.

The tone of interviews with Luck and head coach Chuck Pagano make the significance of losing Wayne obvious.  He is not only the most accomplished player on the team, but he had really stepped into a leadership role since Peyton Manning had neck surgery following the 2011 season.  Receivers T.Y. Hilton and Darrius Heyward-Bey have been disappointing so far this season in competing for the successor to Wayne, so the injury represents a big challenge for Luck going forward – not just in games, but in the locker room and practices.

I SAW Wes Welker come through in the clutch.

He even caught a pass over his off-shoulder to set up first and goal on the play prior to a killer fumble by Ronnie Hillman late in the game.  I’ve mentioned before that Welker has some holes in his catching technique, in the sense that a baseball hitter can have a hole in their swing, and that throw was right in one of them.  Given how many balls I’ve seen Welker fail to come up with in those situations I’d chalk it up to chance, but it was part of a big fourth quarter for the receiver.  Manning was typically off his game in a big matchup, and Welker had to make a few tough contorted catches as a result.

I SAW that I’ll say this about the significant Kevin Vickerson roughing the passer penalty on Colts QB Andrew Luck in the Colts’ end zone: The weak chest-bump shouldn’t be a violation.  But the players know they shouldn’t really touch a QB after he throws the ball, and Vickerson could have avoided the amount of contact he had with Luck, so it’s on the defender on this one.

MNF- N. Y. Giants (1-6) win vs. Minnesota (1-5), 23-7

I SAW myself smell this matchup all the way from last Wednesday.  You know you have a great game between two titans when ESPN play-by-play man Mike Tirico laments, “Well, at least it’s been a close game” early in the third quarter.

I SAW new Vikings QB Josh Freeman put up a dud in his first game after being signed by the Vikings two weeks ago.  Freeman let too many balls sail on him all night, and even underthrew a few for good measure.  ESPN Stats & Information told the tale: Freeman overthrew his target on a staggering 16 of his attempts on Sunday – the most by any QB in a game since the start of the 2006 season.  That’s Rick Ankiel-bad, and no way to spend $3 million (what Minny paid to sign Freeman after he was released by Tampa Bay).

I SAW that ESPN must have paid into use of the term Double A Gap Blitz, what with the extent to which analyst Jon Gruden milked the play on Monday night.  Gruden is really starting to wear thin as an analyst.  ESPN’s showy production doesn’t help.

I SAW the most hilarious sack I’ve ever seen, when Vikings DE Jared Allen was blocked out, but he reached around his opponent and grabbed QB Peyton Manning’s jersey from behind, holding him there until help came.  The best part was Manning’s facial expression, the “who the hell has me?” look.  The Rhinestone Cowboy got all Spinal Tap and made Eli Smell The Glove.

Spinal Tap Album Cover

STAY TUNED NEXT WEEK FOR WHAT I SAW, WEEK 8 – HERE AT TFQ. 

IN THE MEANTIME, FOLLOW US ON FACEBOOK AND @TFQuarter

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