Posted on: November 24, 2011 11:30 pm
Posted by Josh Katzowitz
So, what did we learn today from the Thanksgiving games? No. 1, Green Bay is clearly the best team in football (as if we didn’t already know that), and No. 2, at this point, there doesn’t seem to be anybody in the NFC who has the ability to keep the Packers out of the Super Bowl.
Listen, the 49ers, who fell 16-6 to Baltimore, are a great story, and what Jim Harbaugh has done this year for them has been amazing. Quarterback Alex Smith has had one of the biggest career turnarounds this season. Frank Gore is still one of the best running backs in the league, Patrick Willis is one of the best linebackers and Justin Smith is one of the most underrated defensive ends.
But as a challenger to the Packers, San Francisco still has big problems. The 49ers offensive line was porous, allowing nine sacks, and their offense wasn’t in the least bit dynamic. And they’ve still got Smith leading the team. Sure, he’s been solid this year, but he also threw a bad interception in the end zone at the end of the first half that killed a promising drive and then got caught intentionally grounding the ball with 1:28 left to go in the game.
And once the Ravens went up 13-6 on a Joe Flacco touchdown pass to Dennis Pitta, the 49ers simply didn’t have the capabilities to make a comeback. Yes, the 49ers had a short week and had to travel from the Pacific to the Atlantic, and that couldn’t have been easy. But if you were looking for that something special out of the San Francisco squad, it was certainly hard to spot.
So, you can count the 49ers out of the NFC title race.
As my colleague Ryan Wilson pointed out earlier today, Ndamukong Suh might have cost the Lions the game against the Packers (and perhaps their season?). At the beginning of the game, Detroit played Green Bay evenly, but the Lions top player lost his cool by trying to stomp (literally!) on his opponent and Detroit showed it's not up to playing an entire game vs. the defending Super Bowl champs.
So, you can count out the Lions.
The Cowboys? They played a Dolphins team at home, and really, they should have won by double-digits. Yes, Miami is vastly improved these past couple weeks, but Dallas is supposedly one of the better teams in the NFC. The Cowboys shouldn’t be struggling with the Dolphins so much that they needed a last-second field goal to win the game.
So, you can count out the Cowboys.
Well, who CAN compete with the Packers? The Saints? Maybe, because they’re probably the second-best team in the conference right now. The Bears? Not with Caleb Hanie running the show? The Giants? Eli Manning is having a wonderful season, but their defense has been hit hard by injuries.
Hell, maybe the 49ers actually could give the Packers a hard time if they were to play. After all, Ray Rice said the 49ers were the best team the Ravens have faced this year "by far." He must have been talking about the defense only.
But for now, we’re not sure if anybody in the NFC actually is good enough to play with the Packers. And now we only have eight weeks left to find out if that kind of team actually exists.
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Posted on: November 9, 2011 10:54 am
Posted by Eye on Football Analyst Andy Benoit
The NFC’s top team from the East will travel some 3,000 miles to face the top team from the West in a game that could ultimately decide the No. 2 playoff seed. Here’s a five-point look at this matchup between two overachieving clubs.
1. Old School offenses
If not for HD quality picture and the first-down line, you could fool yourself into thinking the year is 1990 when watching these two offenses line up on Sunday. Both are built around traditional rushing attacks, operating predominantly out of classic 12, 21 or 22 personnel (12 personnel = 1 back, two tight ends; 21 personnel = two backs, one tight end; you can guess what 22 personnel equals).
The difference is that the Niners this season have successfully run the ball, while the Giants have not (San Francisco ranks sixth in the NFL with 137.6 yards rushing per game; New York ranks 29th with 88.8).
Jim Harbaugh has good horses in Frank Gore and the more dynamic but less experienced Kendall Hunter, but it’s not a glistening backfield like those found in Philadelphia, Houston or Oakland. To compensate, Harbaugh has done a masterful job manufacturing rushing yards through formation variations, motion and subtle subterfuge. The Niners show opponents a lot of different looks with their running back and tight end alignments. And with mobile guards like Mike Iupati and, to an extent, Adam Snyder, they can frequently change up their movement-oriented run-blocking techniques. They have the most variegated ground game in the NFL.
The Giants would like to mimic this, but Ahmad Bradshaw hasn’t been healthy and Brandon Jacobs hasn’t been impactful. More encumbering has been the shakiness of the offensive line. The center position has been particularly problematic. David Baas has battled injuries and struggled with gap-shooting defensive tackles against Miami two weeks ago; when Baas has been out, Kevin Boothe has looked how you’d expect a career backup tackle to look at center. Most telling is that recently, offensive coordinator Kevin Gilbride has been almost exclusively aerial in his late-game play-calls.
2. The Quarterbacks
The Giants have managed six wins despite a sputtering ground game. The reason? Eli Manning has played the best football of his career. Herein lays the difference between New York and San Francisco. Both teams have former No. 1 overall drafted quarterbacks, but only one can put the game on its quarterback’s shoulders.
Manning is seeing the field clearer than ever (fortunately for him, New York’s front line struggles have not been in pass protection). His command of the offense and sound decision-making have propagated the eruptions of tight end Jake Ballard and slot receiver Victor Cruz. Ballard is an enhanced version of Kevin Boss; Cruz, with his unique body control and sticky hands, is a more explosive – though less stable – version of Steve Smith.
Something that’s not talked about often enough is Manning’s arm strength. He’s among the small handful of quarterbacks who truly can make all the throws; and he doesn’t need to be on balance or in perfect pocket conditions to do it.
Alex Smith, on the other hand, does need perfect pocket conditions. Smith is not functional with bodies around him. When he does have room, the throw usually has to target his first or second read, as he’s never had the poise to work deep in his progressions. This is one reason the Niners have spent so much time in 12 or 21 or 22 formations. When there are only three receivers running routes, defenses are more inclined to bring an eighth defender in the box, thus allowing for more one-on-one coverage concepts outside. This makes things simpler for the quarterback.
The Giants, on the other hand, are able to split into three, and sometimes four, receiver formations for long stretches and let Manning run the show.
These are two of the best pure pass-rushing defenses in the NFL. Pure meaning both are willing but not compelled to blitz. When they do blitz, it’s often primarily in an effort to command isolated matchups for rushers on the edge. For these defenses, those matchups will almost always be favorable.
For the Giants, Osi Umenyiora augments his incredible speed by being the league’s best snap-count anticipators in obvious passing situations. Opposite him, a healthy Justin Tuck is a versatile, fundamentally sharp force, and a rising Jason Pierre-Paul has willowy power and speed that make him a potentially more explosive version of Tuck. And don’t forget that linebacker Mathias Kiwanuka is a former first-round defensive end who can turn the corner.
You already know all this, though. What you may not know is that San Francisco’s pass-rushers are not too many rungs behind New York’s. Sixth-year pro Ahmad Brooks has finally learned how to apply his startling speed and fluidity on an everydown basis (even against the run, which close observers two years ago would not have predicted).
Rookie Aldon Smith plays with Manny Pacquiao-like hand-quickness to go with natural leverage that punctuates his first-round athleticism. What’s more, most 3-4 defenses don’t bank on getting pressure from their ends. But they don’t have a weapon like Justin Smith. He wears opponents out and makes three or four splash plays a week. Opposite Smith, Ray McDonald, when healthy (he injured his hamstring in Week 8) has been equally dynamic this season.
Both defenses have the versatility to create pass-rushing mismatches through position relocation and group concepts. All of the men mentioned above are outside players who can align inside, stand up as de facto blitzing linebackers or properly set up and execute crashes and stunts with teammates.
4. The Coverage Effect
These difficult-to-block four-man pass-rushes force quarterbacks to throw under duress into seven-man coverages. As they showed at New England last week, the Giants linebackers and safeties are getting more comfortable recognizing and attacking passing lanes. It helps that their cornerbacks, though inconsistent early in the season, can play press-man coverage outside.
Corey Webster has been particularly impressive in recent weeks, often shadowing the opposing team’s top receiver. He’s well equipped to defend the lithe but inexplosive Michael Crabtree.
The Niners love to play two-man out of their nickel defense. This puts cornerbacks Carlos Rogers, Tarell Brown and Chris Culliver man-to-man on the wideouts and allows the two safeties, Donte Whitner and Dashon Goldson, to roam free over the top. Rogers, who starts outside but plays the slot in nickel, is having a career-year. Brown blends into the scheme in a good way. Culliver, a precocious third-round rookie, always plays with a great sense for his surroundings.
Even if Hakeem Nicks, discreetly a top-10 NFL receiver, returns from his hamstring injury this week, the Giants are going to have a tough time consistently getting wideouts open against this Niners secondary.
5. The inside linebackers
We saved the best for last: San Francisco’s inside linebackers (and just San Francisco’s – New York’s entire linebacking corps is very mediocre).
Patrick Willis and NaVorro Bowman form the best inside linebacking duo in football. The past few years, Willis has rightfully been regarded as the best in the business. This season, he may be the second best on his own team, as Bowman, a 2010 third-round pick, leads San Fran in tackles.
Setting these two apart is the fact that they both play all three downs. That’s incredible in this day and age of spread offenses. In nickel and dime defense, Willis and Bowman perform coverage assignments normally reserved for defensive backs. They have the speed, change-of-direction prowess and awareness to do it. Both are quick-closing tacklers, instinctive run-defenders and innate playmakers.
So who will win? Check our NFL expert picks for all Week 10 games.
Follow @Andy_Benoit on Twitter or contact him at Andy.Benoit-at-NFLTouchdown.com.
Tags: Adam Snyder, Ahmad Bradshaw, Ahmad Brooks, Aldon Smith, Alex Smith, Andy Benoit, Carlos Rogers, Chris Culliver, Corey Webster, Dashon Goldson, David Baas, Donte Whitner, Eli Manning, Film Room, Frank Gore, Hakeem Nicks, Jake Ballard, Jason Pierre-Paul, Jim Harbaugh, Justin Smith, Justin Tuck, Kendall Hunter, Kevin Booth, Kevin Boss, Kevin Gilbride, Michael Crabtree, Mike Iupati, Navorro Bowman, New York Giants, Osi Umenyiora, Ray McDonald, San Francisco 49ers, Tarell Brown, Vernon Davis, Victor Cruz
Posted on: October 13, 2011 10:24 pm
Posted by Ryan Wilson
You've been warned, Jim Harbaugh and the 49ers offensive line: if you don't want to spend Sunday afternoon scraping Alex Smith off the Ford Field turf you better block Ndamukong Suh.
"I don't think any part of my game is intimidation, fear factor," Suh said during a Thursday conference call with reporters. "It's more of, you either need to guard me or I'll continue to hit your quarterback. And if you're not going to protect me from your quarterback, then I'm going to continue to hit him."
Seems pretty clear to us. And we're guessing most of the quarterbacks who have previously faced Suh wouldn't disagree with his sentiments. (We enter into evidence exhibits A and B below.)
"And it's not necessary me putting fear of I want you to be scared of me. It's the fear of if you don't take care of business and you don't study and come up with a great plan, the other eight, nine guys I play next to are going to go after your quarterback, as well."
Alex Smith, who has enjoyed the best start of his seven-year NFL career, will rely on his offensive line to keep him from getting mugged. And that, 49ers right guard Adam Snyder realizes, is no small chore. "It's going to be a challenge," Snyder said, according to CSNBayArea.com's Matt Maiocco. "The guy's a good player. He's quick, really good with his hands. He's a big dude."
Through five games, San Francisco's offense has been more effective through the air than on the ground, though some of that has to do with Frank Gore's slow start. That said, Suh has a good sense for what the 49ers do well and why they've been so successful this season.
"They have a great tandem of running backs, in obviously, Frank Gore and (Kendall) Hunter," Suh said. "They're workhorses and get the job done for them. The biggest thing I've noticed within their offense is they try and play their game and limit mistakes. I know as a team, we've always capitalized on mistakes. We need not to let them have any breakout runs. They pride their offense on running the ball. One thing we need to do is shut them down."
And a friendly reminder: if you don't want Suh clubbing your quarterback, be sure to block him ... or else.
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Posted on: October 13, 2011 11:37 am
Posted by Eye on Football Analyst Andy Benoit
Raiders vs. Browns
Keep an eye on: Raiders passing game
The Raiders are a run-first team, no doubt. That shouldn’t change against the Browns.
Cleveland can stop the run well enough, especially if middle linebacker D’Qwell Jackson stays clean from blockers. But at some point, Jason Campbell will have to make a play or two through the air. Expect Darren McFadden to be the primary receiving weapon out of the backfield.
Throws to McFadden have easy, defined reads for Campbell (who often flounders late in his progressions and when his pocket gets too crowded for him to take a full step into his throw) and they should be available given the way Cleveland’s linebackers have struggled in underneath coverage. Most of those struggles have come against athletic tight ends.
The Raiders, however, are more inclined to run tight end Kevin Boss down the seam and swing McFadden underneath. The Browns will likely commit a safety (perhaps T.J. Ward) to tight end coverage and allow Scott Fujita to cover McFadden (expect zone principles since Fujita doesn’t have a prayer at running with McFadden in man coverage).
This isn’t to say Campbell won’t go to his wide receivers. He’s been attacking deep more in October than he did in September. That’s a response to the new speedy duo of Denarius Moore and Darrius Heyward-Bey. Both are raw but potentially lethal. (No. 3 receiver Jacoby Ford is also a burner.) They’re not a potent one-two punch yet, though. Moore’s only big game came against the Bills, when Heyward-Bey was out of the lineup.
We may find out which receiver the Raiders like better this Sunday. Campbell has avoided throwing at top-flight corners this season (he hardly looked to Darrelle Revis’ side in Week 3 and rarely challenged Houston’s Johnathan Joseph in Week 5). Browns second-year sensation Joe Haden is most definitely a top-flight corner (he may have the most natural change-of-direction ability of any defensive player in football).
If Haden returns from his sprained knee, he’ll likely line up on the defensive left side. Whoever Oakland puts on the offensive left side (i.e. away from Haden) figures to be the go-to target. That could tell you what wide receiver pecking order the Raiders prefer.
Ravens vs. Texans
Keep an eye on: Brian Cushing
The third-year pro has been arguably the best inside linebacker in the AFC this season. That’s significant considering how mightily Cushing struggled as the middle linebacker in Houston’s 4-3 scheme last season.
But the inside duties are different in Wade Phillips’ new 3-4. With less field to cover, Cushing has been able to be more of an attacker than a reader-and-reactor. That’s a style best suited for his speed and ferocity.
Cushing hunts down outside runs extremely well and shows vigor when tasked with clearing out a lead-blocker. Both are critical traits for containing a Ravens ground game featuring a dynamic B-and C-gap runner like Ray Rice and a fullback like Vontae Leach.
Cushing is also noteworthy because of what he means to Houston’s pass-rush. Against the Raiders last week, Phillips resorted to frequent inside blitzes in an effort to instill panic in Oakland’s pass protectors and command one-on-one matchups for the rushers outside. Cushing continuously stood out for timing his blitzes well and executing them with reckless abandon.
With Mario Williams out, Phillips may feel compelled to be even more aggressive with linebacker blitzes. And he’s certainly seen the Week 4 film of Joe Flacco and the Ravens struggling to sort out many of the Jets’ inside blitzes.
Lions vs. 49ers
Keep an eye on: the tight ends
The 49ers and Lions are very different offenses. The Lions run a modern, semi-spread, aerial attacking offense. The 49ers run a 1980s, compact, ground-pounding offense.
That’s primarily a function of the quarterbacks. Though both are former No. 1 overall picks, Matthew Stafford is gun-slinger while Alex Smith is, comparatively, a spitball shooter. (To be fair, Smith did have a terrific game against the Bucs. He diagnosed coverages well and made a few stick throws.)
Though vastly different, both offenses are built around the same base personnel package: two tight ends. The Lions frequently line up with Tony Scheffler and Brandon Pettigrew while the Niners often feature Vernon Davis and Delanie Walker. The conundrum that two tight end personnel presents for a defense is in deciding what personnel to respond with.
Go with nickel and you risk getting run on (especially when facing the Niners, given that Davis and Walker are both solid run-blockers). Go with a base defense and you risk getting thrown on (especially with the Lions since Scheffler often splits out as a third receiver in the slot).
All four tight ends are weapons. For the Lions, Brandon Pettigrew is surprisingly mobile given his 265-pound frame and ’09 knee injury (from which he’s seemingly gained mobility through rehabbing). Scheffler is a swift downfield target.
For the Niners, Vernon Davis is as athletic as they come. No one save for maybe Jermichael Finley is as dangerous down the seams. Delanie Walker is not as good as Bay Area fans think, but he’s versatile in patterns and can block from a standstill position, off of motion or in a lead out of the backfield.
For more NFL news, rumors and analysis, follow @EyeOnNFL on Twitter, subscribe to our NFL newsletter, and while you're add it, add our RSS Feed.
Tags: Alex Smith, Baltimore Ravens, Brandon Pettigrew, Brian Cushing, Cleveland Browns, D'Qwell Jackson, Darrelle REvis, Darren McFadden, Darrius Heyward-Bey, Delanie Walker, Denarius Moore, Detroit Lions, Houston Texans, Jacoby Ford, Jason Campbell, Jermichael Finley, Joe Flacco, Johnathan Joseph, Kevin Boss, Lions vs. 49ers, Mario Williams, Matthew Stafford, Oakland Raiders, Raiders vs. Browns, Ravens vs. Texans, Ray Rice, San Francisco 49ers, Scott Fujita, T.J. Ward, Tony Scheffler, Vernon Davis, Vontae Leach, Wade Phillips
Posted on: October 10, 2011 1:25 am
Edited on: October 15, 2011 12:36 pm
Posted by Will Brinson
Sorting the Sunday Pile takes all of Sunday's NFL action and figures out the most important storylines for you to digest. Send your complaints, questions and comments to Will Brinson on Twitter.Make sure and listen to our Week 4 podcast review below as well and feel free to subscribe via iTunes.
1. The Billboards Worked!
When John Fox decided to bench incumbent starter Kyle Orton at half for would-be Denver football messiah Tim Tebow, it seemed like a pretty good excuse for Fox to let the fan-favorite quarterback struggle his way to a miserable second half, giving Fox has a totally justifiable excuse for refusing to answer any Tebow-related questions and instead just glaring at whoever asks them with a stern, judgmental look.
Then Tebow scored on a rushing touchdown that was a designed quarterback draw.
Then Tebow threw a screen pass to Knowshon Moreno, a ball so blessed by Tebow's hand that Moreno used its powers to break several tackles, cross the goalline and bring the Broncos inexplicably within two points.
So, um, we have a quarterback controversy, right? Rich Gannon and Marv Albert certainly think so.
Fox agrees, I think. Maybe. Possibly.
"I think Tim Tebow sparked the team today," Fox said. "We haven't had a chance to watch the tape. We haven't had time to watch the film. I think at this point we've got a bye week. We do need to improve offensively. And it will all be up for discussion."
Right. We definitely do. Although it's pretty arguable that Tebow, despite his shortcomings, should be starting for the Broncos. Kyle Orton will be a free agent after this year, and would still have trade value to a few teams (ahem, Miami).
Tebow, as Fox noted, managed to make the Broncos play harder, even if his own personal play was lacking. Yes, he ran for a touchdown. Yes, he threw for another. And, yes, he gave the Broncos a shot at winning a game in which they had no business having a shot to win. But he still finished 6 of 13 4 for 10 for 34 79 passing yards (28 came on the Moreno touchdown) and played so poorly up until four minutes left in the game that at least one dork fired up Photoshop and created fake, apologetic billboards.
(Ed. Note: Had Orton's stats in there. My bad. Note strikes. Still doesn't make Tebow's stats "good.")
Doh. And, yeah, I literally put this on Twitter 10 seconds before Tebow scampered in for his first touchdown.
Look, I'm prepared to take a ton of flak from Broncos fans in the comments for even begin to suggest that going to Tebow isn't the smart move. But from a perspective of "putting the best player under center" it isn't. Orton's still better. But the Broncos are bad and won't sniff the playoffs this season, so perhaps rolling the dice with Tebow now and at least seeing what he can is the play.
He apparently inspires the team, and that's great. But the reality is that he's a below-average quarterback with a limited skill set who just about helped his pretty awful team pull off a come-from-behind victory against a much better team at home.
Yet, we're still talking about Tebow. And that's OK. But there's a whole lot of chatter about Tebow being "the guy" in Denver. And even though the statistics and the tape show that he wasn't all too productive -- though the statistics can't measure heart, not yet anyway! -- that chatter won't stop until Fox caves and names him the starter.
Which should make the next two weeks (the Broncos are on the bye) of speculation super-duper fun.
2. The Snooze Button Is Broken
Leading up to the Eagles's Week 5 matchup with the Bills, Michael Vick made sure the media knew that Philly no longer saw themselves as "the Dream Team." Unfortunately for him, we already knew that. It comes with the territory on a 1-3 start.
After a 31-24 loss in Buffalo, the Eagles are 1-4, and with all due respect to the very-much-for-real Bills, it's not even that hard to fathom. Sure, Andy Reid's team "won the offseason," but as their NFC East compatriots the Redskins know, that means nothing in the regular season.
"No. 1, there's nobody to blame but me," Reid said after the game. "That's how I look at it. I take full responsibility for it. It's my team."
And that's fine, because the Eagles are an incredibly sloppy team right now. If you need more proof than Vick's four interceptions -- he had six all of last year -- just look at the way each half ended. With the Eagles in the Bills territory, Vick took to long to throw the ball away and chunked the rock through the end zone as time expired. In Philly he might have gotten a second, but on the road, that clock's ticking, and the Eagles didn't got a shot at three points.
The worse crime came on a fourth and one with 1:23 to go and the Eagles down seven -- the Bills somehow managed to draw Juqua Parker offsides, grabbed a free first down and took knees to move their record to 4-1.
Buffalo is the real story, because it's absolutely improbable that they're a legit playoff contender. But the Eagles, clear-cut preseason favorites to win their division, are quite the nice juxtaposition to a Buffalo team that's well-coached, scraps for everything and plays sound football en route to winning games.
On the bright(ish) side, there have been seven teams since 1978 to make the playoffs after starting the season 1-4. So Philly's got that going for them.
3. Just Win, Baby
Since Al Davis died on Saturday morning, there were any number of very impressive, very emotional and very deserving tributes for one of the all-time great figures in NFL history.
But the best tribute of the weekend? Oakland figuring out how to just win in Houston, in what was clearly an emotional game for everyone on the Raiders payroll.
"I know he's looking down on this team," Raiders coach Hue Jackson said Sunday. "And he's with us every step of the way."
As Clark Judge noted Sunday, Oakland is indeed finding ways to "just win" and most of the season, they've looked better than their AFC-West counterparts the Chargers, despite sitting a game back in the standings of their division foes. They're still just 2-2 outside the division, but those two wins equal the number they had outside the AFC West in 2010.
If they can replicate their in-division success, 2011 could be a special year. And it probably won't hurt that Oakland has three-straight games at home starting in Week 6 -- you can bet that the Black Hole will be especially dark, which is exactly how Al Davis would have wanted it.
Real quickly, if anyone that's as "young" as I am (30; I'm using the term loosely) is confused by the heartfelt tributes to Al Davis over the weekend, take some time to read about his history in the AFL and NFL and watch some of the offerings the NFL Network is putting out there right now.
The stereotype that my generation takes from Davis is that he ran the Raiders into the ground with his obsession for speed and athleticism. This is because the Raiders last Super Bowl win was in 1983 and since they moved back to Oakland from Los Angeles in 1995, they've made the playoffs just three times.
Reality is that while some of those stereotypes do apply, Davis helped spark the rise of the NFL that we know today, he broke down serious barriers when it came to minority hiring in the NFL, and while he owned the team, the Raiders became the only franchise in NFL history to make a trip to the Super Bowl in four consecutive decades.
That's sustained success by any measure, and throughout it all, there really was only one constant: Al Davis.
4. Meanwhile, Across the Bay ...
The San Francisco 49ers are 4-1 after taking Tampa Bay to the woodshed 48-3 on Sunday afternoon in San Francisco.
Improbably, Alex Smith threw three touchdowns as San Fran's offense, with the help of a second-straight 125-yard rushing game from Frank Gore, carved up the Buccaneers defense. Vernon Davis found the end zone twice, and the 49ers used the all-around dominant performance to vault themselves to 4-1, as they maintained firm control over the NFC West.
What Jim Harbaugh is doing with San Francisco (and this is the second week in a row I've written this) is absolutely phenomenal, even if allowing a wide receiver to suffer a potentially serious ankle injury with four minutes left and up 41-3 deserves some flak.
Everyone felt confident believing that the Niners needed better coaching to really utilize their talent. That might be true.
But they're a miraculous comeback -- and just three points -- away from being undefeated, and it doesn't really matter who they've played against. Because, frankly, their schedule doesn't get that much tougher. Not counting NFC West games, San Francisco has games in Detroit, versus Cleveland, at Washington, versus the Giants, at Baltimore (Thanksgiving), and versus Pittsburgh.
No one's going to confuse them for the most dominant team in the NFL, even if their win Sunday looked that way, but even if they win the rest of their division matchups and lose the rest of their games (the latter's harder to fathom than the former, by the way) , they'd still end up with nine wins.
They're squarely in the driver's seat for a playoff game at home come January, Alex Smith's got the keys and everyone seems alright with this.
5. Paint it Blonde
I asked this like 12 times on Twitter Sunday, but no one could give me a good answer, so I'll ask again: How is that Reggie Wayne was the only person in the entire Colts organization that knew Curtis Painter was better than Kerry Collins?
Because Wayne knew -- he knew so much that he told us twice that Painter could compete. Unfortunately for Wayne, the newest Manning brother (Curtis!) actually prefers Pierre Garcon when it comes to touchdown passes ...
Don't get me wrong -- even Jeff George would have found Garcon on that play, so terrible was Brandon Flowers coverage. But it's pretty obvious at this point, even with Indy sitting at 0-5, that Painter gives them a better shot at winning than Collins, even if they're now 0-5 after a 28-24 loss to Kansas City.
So why did it take three games and a Collins concussion to figure that out? It's a great question and it probably involves someone(s) on the coaching staff or the front office not being as in-tune to the roster as Wayne is.
For Chiefs fans (read: my good friend and colleague who runs Eye on Basketball, Matt Moore): let's not get too frisky just yet. Your two wins are squeakers against teams that are a combined 1-9. But Todd Haley's seat is cooling at least.
6. Come on, It's All Ball Bearings These Days!
Actually, if you're the Vikings, it's simpler than anything Irwin M. Fletcher ever suggested: just give Adrian Peterson the ball.
Through four games -- all losses -- Peterson was "only" averaging 20.3 carries per game. This isn't to suggest Leslie Frazier should have run him into the ground as soon as he got the head coaching gig in Minny, but if you're leading by double digits at halftime, there's nothing wrong with a healthy dose of AP.
Frazier finally figured that out, and let Peterson loose against a suddenly hapless Cardinals team. Peterson ended the day with 29 carries for 122 rushing yards and three touchdowns; all the scores came in the first quarter, making AP just the fourth running back in the last 20 years to find the end zone three times in one quarter.
The obvious gameplan led to an obvious result: Frazier's first win as a (non-interim) head coach.
Now he's got a bigger problem to solve -- what to do with his quarterback situation. Donovan McNabb struggled again, completing just 10 of 21 passes for 169 yards against a Cardinals secondary that doesn't begin to qualify as "competent." The oft-maligned QB was pelted with "We want Ponder!" chants from the crowd at the Metrodome, and it's probably time for Frazier to perk his ears up and listen.
Could Ponder have produced the same stat line as McNabb? Absolutely. And he certainly could have handed the ball off 29 times, with the potential upside of actually letting Frazier find out if he's a legit franchise quarterback.
7. When the Circus Comes to Town
Victor Cruz of the Giants now holds the (unofficial) NFL record for ridiculous, luck-based catches. Unfortunately for the Giants, he canceled out his big-top performance against Seattle with two absolutely back-breaking turnovers that eventually cost New York the game.
His final statline? Eight catches, 161 receiving yards, a touchdown, a rush for three yards, a terrible fumble and a tipped pass with just over a minute left that the Seahawks Brandon Browner returned 94 yards for a game-clinching pick six.
The catches are nice and the acrobatic entertainment is fun to watch (see: below). But you absolutely can't miss a catch near the goalline that results in the ball being tipped up to a crowd of defenders and gets intercepted.
Eli Manning and Co. could have won even if they probably shouldn't have, given that they were pretty much outplayed from the get-go. Instead, the Redskins are all alone atop the NFC East, which is exactly what Rex Grossman predicted, the Seahawks finally won a game on the East Coast and it's perfectly acceptable to go running for your bomb shelter right now.
8. Clock Mismanagement
Speaking of circuses, whoever spiked the collective Kool-Aid of NFL coaches with Andy Reid's Jamba Juice probably won a lot of money in their pick-em league this week -- the final two minutes of the early games featured a series of incredible gaffes, many of them game-changing.
The Panthers, for instance, lost by three. You think calling a timeout with two seconds left as the Saints scrambled to set up for a field goal, which they eventually made after the pause in action, helped New Orleans? Yes it did. The Saints won by three.
We chronicled the Eagles mistakes -- in each half, no less! -- above. This is nothing new to an Andy Reid-coached football team. But it's still inexcusable.
The Raiders probably appreciate the Texans going incomplete-incomplete-sack with three timeouts to close out the first half, instead of utilizing their clock-killers to get good field position and a shot at some points. The Raiders didn't score, and Jacoby Jones probably deserves some fault, but you can't give the ball back to the other team that quickly.
The Vikings and Giants also behaved in a manner unbefitting of quality teams near the end of the first half, and both Mike McCarthy and Hue Jackson made poor decisions to go for a two-point conversion at an inexplicably early time.
Just sloppy decisions all around. On the bright side, maybe this Les-Miles-to-the-NFL thing could work out after all!
9. Best Team's Best Win?
Perhaps the most impressive thing about the Packers march to the Super Bowl in 2010 was their resiliency amid tons of injury. Well, that and their ability to adapt when things weren't going their way. It's what great teams do, and it's what the Packers did once again on Sunday night, despite getting down early to a sharp-looking Falcons team and, most devastatingly their stalwart of a left tackle in Chad Clifton.
Bryan Bulaga was already out on the right side, but it didn't matter -- Mike McCarthy and Aaron Rodgers adjusted their gameplan and spent the second half doing their best General Sherman impersonation, piling up a whopping 25 unanswered points on Atlanta's defense en route to a convincing 25-14 win that puts the Packers at 5-0 for the first time since 1965.
"We just stayed patient," Rodgers said afterwards. "It was a tough game -- I took a lot of shots. I had to move around a lot. [The offensive line] did a great job. The rhythm wasn't there all the time, but we just stayed with it, stayed patient and knew the big plays were going to come."
Rodgers threw for 296 of his 396 passing yards after the half and completed passes to a franchise-record 12 receivers. That's even more impressive considering that the Packers seriously stalled after Clifton went out, as the Falcons were actually able to get some pressure on Rodgers.
It was a brief period in neutral, though, as Rodgers -- who's established himself as the best quarterback in the NFL at this point, and I hope you're alright with that -- and the Packers got rolling and ended up winning in near-blowout fashion.
If they continue to adjust when adversity hits as they have this season (and last), Mike Freeman's note earlier this week about the Packers going undefeated doesn't seem remotely far-fetched.
And as long as No. 12 is under center, neither does another Super Bowl.
10. The Old Don't Bury 'Em Yet Game
High-quality teams that are struggling, like the Steelers, always bust out this old chestnut, randomly ripping into an opponent and reminding us that they're not dead yet.
So we come not to bury the Steelers, but to praise them, on the heels of a 38-17 beatdown of the Titans on Sunday that happened despite a weakened Steelers offensive line, an aging Steelers defense, a surging Titans offense and a busted-up Ben Roethlisberger.
"I told ya, I was just faking it," Roethlisberger said. "I'm a wimp."
Ben, obviously, is the complete opposite of a "wimp," mainly because pain either a) doesn't effect him or b) makes him better. Or something -- the dude was limping like crazy in pre-game warm-ups, and I felt pretty good about my Steelers pick.
Then all 350 pounds of Max Starks managed to rejuvenate the Pittsburgh offensive line who bullied an underrated Tennessee front four, giving Jonathan Dwyer his first career 100-yard rushing game, only allowed Roethlisberger to get sacked once, and protected like a unit capable of helping a team get to the Super Bowl.
Oh yeah, the defense was OK too -- LaMarr Woodley made it quite clear early on that Pittsburgh was going to have a statement game, recording an interception and 1.5 sacks, one of which was one of the most beasty sacks I've seen in a while -- Woodley fought off a blocker after briefly getting his hands on Titans quarterback Matt Hasselbeck, and just forcing his way to the takedown.
Pittsburgh's still tied with the Bengals (right?), but they're both just a half-game back of the Ravens now, and in case you thought the Steelers would just limp off into the sunset, you were clearly wrong.
Worth 1,000 Words
Leftovers from Sunday's action ...
... What the hell was Matt Schaub thinking on the final play of Raiders-Texans??? Just a horrible pass.
... When Antonio Cromartie picked off Tom Brady to end the half in the Jets-Patriots tilt, it was the first red-zone interception that Tom Brady has thrown at home. Ever. In his career. Say what you want about cherry-picking stats, but that's absolutely insane.
... Comebacks continue: the Chiefs stormed back from 17 points down, making it the seventh time an NFL team has done so this season, the most in NFL history.
... Cam Newton became the first player in NFL history with more than five passing and five rushing touchdowns in the first five games of his career Sunday. Yes, they lost. Whatever.
... Speaking of that Panthers game, what it's gonna take for the NFL to let an official eject someone? Because what Roman Harper did -- needlessly cheap-shotting Steve Smith after Smith made it to the end zone Sunday -- was about as close as it came, and nearly sparked a brawl. Not to wussify the sport further but how about we make a statement before we get Auburn Palace 2.0.
Jim Irsay Pop-Culture Referencing Tweet That's Sure to Drive Colts Fans Insane of the Week
"Take a bottle,drink it down...pass it around"
This is what you want the owner of your football team saying shortly before Curtis Painter gets second career start to try and get your team the first win of the season. Obviously.
GIF O' THE WEEK
Courtesy of the fine mustachioed fellas at SB Nation, Victor Cruz' insane circus catch.
Hot Seat Tracker
Colts (-400) -- It occurred to me today ... if Andrew Luck is really patient and wants to enjoy life and learn things and go about things the smart way, wouldn't he want to end up sitting behind Peyton Manning for two or three years? He'd be like Aaron Rodgers on play-calling steroids after that time frame.
Dolphins (-250) -- Presumably, Luck is part of Ross' package to Gruden.
Rams (+150) -- One would think they'd trade the pick for a lot of wide receivers.
Jaguars (+250) -- Another team with a franchise passer, huh?
Vikings (+300) -- Boy, it's a good thing they didn't rent McNabb for just one year ...
Broncos (+400) -- But, but ... Tebow!
Cardinals (+500) -- Wouldn't this be awkward? "Hey, Andy ... Do you do refunds?"
Panthers (+750) -- Also a very serious "trade the pick" candidate.
Eagles (+1000) -- Are their odds of getting Luck better than their odds of making the Super Bowl? So. Awkward.
Last week, I pointed out that Aaron Rodgers easily eclipsed anyone else with his performance against the Broncos. (Stafford and Tom Brady got honorable mention and still do.) With stiffer competition on the road, Rodgers again stepped up in a big way. We're only five weeks into the season, so it's a touch silly to speculate on votes, but he'd win unanimously right now.
Tags: Aaron Rodgers, Adrian Peterson, Al Davis, Alex Smith, Andy Reid, Antonio Cromartie, Arizona Cardinals, Atlanta Falcons, Ben Roethlisberger, Buffalo Bills, Cam Newton, Carolina Panthers, Chad Clifton, Charlie Whitehurst, Christian Ponder, Curtis Painter, Denver Broncos, Donovan McNabb, Eli Manning, Frank Gore, Green Bay Packers, Houston Texans, Hue Jackson, Indianapolis Colts, Jacoby Jones, Jeff George, Jim Caldwell, Jim Harbaugh, John Fox, Jonathan Dwyer, Juan Castillo, Kansas City Chiefs, Ken Wisenhunt, Kerry Collins, Knowshon Morenso, Kyle Orton, LaMarr Woodley, Leslie Frazier, Marv Albert, Matt Ryan, Max Starks, Michael Vick, Mike McCarthy, Minnesota Vikings, New England Patriots, New Orleans Saints, New York Giants, New York Jets, Oakland Raiders, Pete Carroll, Philadelphia Eagles, Pierre Garcon, Pittsburgh Steelers, Reggie Wayne, Rich Gannon, Roddy White, Roman Harper, Ron Rivera, San Diego Chargers, San Francisco 49ers, Seattle Seahawks, Sorting the Sunday Pile, Steve Smith, Tim Tebow, Tom Brady, Tom Coughlin, Vernon Davis, Victor Cruz, Washington Redskins, Will Brinson
Posted on: October 7, 2011 12:08 am
Posted by Josh Katzowitz
Every Wednesday and Thursday during the NFL season, we get word that players from across the league have been fined for various illegal activities they had engaged in during the previous Sunday. Players are usually upset by the league’s actions, but most don’t raise a big stink.
Philadelphia’s Jason Babin has officially raised a big stink, upset by the $15,000 charge he incurred for his hit on 49ers quarterback Alex Smith that drew an unnecessary roughness penalty, and he let reporters know that he thought the fine was ludicrous.
"It's not like it was a late hit, it's not like it was a malicious hit," Babin said via the Philadelphia Inquirer. "The funny part was on that play Trent Cole was high-lowed ... and you can tell that [the 49ers] game planned it. So how are they going to fine me when you see a coach and players game plan to high-low arguably our best pass rusher on our team? That's a little sickening."
Two other reasons Babin -- who leads the league with seven sacks -- was perturbed. He thinks the NFL doesn’t like the way he plays the game and because he thinks the fine system seems so random.
"I don't think they like the way I play at all," Babin said. "I'm pretty sure they get nervous every time because they know I'm throwing and someone gets hurt. But that's what got me paid, that's what got me where I am today. I'm not going to change."
And as far as the inconsistency in the fine system?
"Oh, I'll call that one ($15,000), I'll call that 40,” Babin said. “There's no blueprint, there's no grid system to say, 'OK, this is how it works, let's plug it in.'"
So far for the Eagles, the only thing they know for sure when it comes to NFL fines is that whoever hits Michael Vick won’t have to worry about incurring one.
"That's crazy to me," Babin said. "If I get fined for that, we should have plenty thrown for Mike."
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Posted on: September 22, 2011 12:05 pm
Edited on: September 23, 2011 9:14 am
Posted by Will Brinson
The big storyline from Dallas' incredible comeback win in San Francisco was Tony Romo's ability to lead the team to victory despite suffering a punctured lung and broken ribs. (Or, as DeAngelo Hall might call them, "target practice zones.")
But as it turns out, 49ers quarterback Alex Smith suffered an injury too -- he suffered a concussion against the Cowboys but played through it.
Matt Barrows of the Sacramento Bee reports that Smith suffered the concussion "at some point during the game" but never showed symptoms while the 49ers were still playing. Only afterwards did Smith display symptoms of the concussion.
"Tough son of a gun," Niners coach Jim Harbaugh said Wednesday, per the Bee. "He was making some big-time plays. I think we talked about it after each of these games, definitely watch the tape and see the same thing. Pleased with the way Alex is playing and we definitely want to play better.
He wants to, we want to, and that goes for all positions on the offensive side of the ball, and include coaching in that. We're striving to do it all better."
One thing Harbaugh's team needs to do better is protect Smith -- he was sacked six times by Rob Ryan's defense, though the concussion didn't necessarily occur on one of those plays -- Barrows notes he was hit hardest on a completion. (I might argue whatever evil thing DeMarcus Ware did to Smith immediately following the photo to the right could qualify too though.)
Oh, and another thing Harbaugh's team could do better -- throw Vernon Davis the damn ball. The often mercurial tight end isn't thrilled about his production in 2011, and it's kind of hard to blame him.
The combination of Greg Roman's new offense plus a lack of healthy, talented receivers plus Smith desperately needing a safety valve was supposed to mean big stats for Davis this year. Instead he has just seven catches for 65 yards through two games and has remained, more or less, a non-factor thus far for the Niners.
So he and Harbaugh had a little chat on Wednesday.
"I had on my mind some things I felt we could've done better," Davis said, per Matt Maiocco of CSN Bay Area. "And I pointed them out to him, as far as getting everybody involved -- I mean, everybody, all the playmakers that we have.
Harbaugh denied that there was any discussion of "frustration" in the "two-way conversation" and that's fine. But if the 49ers keep losing and Davis keeps not seeing targets, the rhetoric in the discussion will probably get a little more heated.
Posted on: September 18, 2011 3:08 pm
Edited on: September 18, 2011 5:44 pm
Posted by Will Brinson
Earlier in the week, Dallas owner Jerry Jones made some comments about wideout Dez Bryant's status that made it seem as if Bryant was a full-on go for Sunday's game against the 49ers. Not so much: the second-year wide receiver is inactive Sunday for the Cowboys game in San Francisco.
Bryant is out with a thigh bruise, which he suffered on a punt return Sunday against the Jets, and which caused serious cramping for the wideout during the second half of last week's loss. Per the Cowboys website, Bryant tested the leg at Candlestick, but the team didn't feel as if he was ready to go.
But he's out, along with most of the Cowboys secondary -- Terrence Newman and Orlando Scandrick, most notably -- which makes a pretty good matchup against a weak 49ers team suddenly kind of dangerous.
Of course, this will only inspire Drew Pearson to say more nice things about Bryant's production thus far in his young career.
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