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The Mailbag: Referee Armageddon

Minnesota’s Stolen Game Plan

The Vikings out-Niner the Niners, and the rest of the worthy news from Week 3 in the NFL

Well, nobody expected that. After manhandling the Packers and Lions in consecutive weeks, the 49ers traveled to Minnesota and were soundly defeated by the Vikings on Sunday, 24-13. The Niners were unlucky that the game wasn’t closer — they had Donte Whitner drop a dead-to-rights pick-six in the fourth quarter that would have changed everything — but it would be fair to say that the Vikings were the better team of the two on Sunday.

So, what happened? The Vikings basically beat the 49ers with their own game plan, following many of the same simple concepts and stories that the Niners had been able to pull off in their victories over Green Bay and Detroit. You can lump the whole thing into one word, like execution, but there’s more to it than that. There are five ideas that stand out as the primary reasons why the Vikings were able to upset the Niners on Sunday:

They stayed in favorable game situations (by getting an early lead). The Niners got out to a 10-0 lead against the Packers and a 7-0 margin over the Lions and then maintained those leads for the rest of the game. That put the Niners in situations where they could rely upon their running game, chew up clock, and unleash their pass rush in front of conservative, safe coverage. Even the great passing attacks of Green Bay and Detroit weren’t able to throw the ball and catch up against the 49ers, and it’s safe to believe that the Vikings would have struggled in the same situation.

Minnesota turned the table on San Francisco on Sunday. By scoring on their opening drive and maintaining a lead throughout the game, the Vikings forced the Niners to throw in order to catch up. The Niners only gave Frank Gore 12 carries (from which he produced an impressive 63 yards) because they had to try to move the ball downfield with Alex Smith. While Smith has looked great while throwing with a lead and a reliable running game this season, he wasn’t anywhere near as effective on Sunday. The Niners didn’t pick up a single third down during the final 35 minutes of the game after picking up those three long third downs on a key fourth-quarter drive against the Lions last week.

Christian Ponder outplayed Smith, and he did so while doing a rather accurate impersonation of the “good” Alex Smith from these past couple weeks. That included one specific aspect of Smith’s play …

The Vikings won the scramble-and-bootleg game. The Niners had great success during the first couple of weeks by getting Smith out of the pocket and forcing the defense to stretch horizontally. When a defense is geared up for yet another run between the tackles, it’s almost impossible to stop play-action with a quarterback getting to the edge to throw to multiple levels of receivers.

That’s exactly what the Vikings were able to do, though. They ended San Francisco’s first drive with a third-down sack of Smith on a play in which he bootlegged, got to the edge, waited for somebody to get open … and got creamed by the superb Chad Greenway. And on the opening drive of the third quarter, after a deep return by Kyle Williams, the Vikings held the Niners to three points by stopping Smith on a third-and-3 rollout. A touchdown there would have brought the Niners within one score and then tied the game on Smith’s impressive ensuing touchdown drive.

Ponder, on the other hand, won the game based on his work outside the pocket. It’s hard to remember a quarterback showing more poise in the face of pass pressure than Ponder did on Sunday, especially when he scrambled. On Minnesota’s daring decision to go for it on fourth down at the end of their opening drive, Ponder bootlegged left, stood calm in the face of pressure from Dashon Goldson, and lofted up a perfect pass for tight end Kyle Rudolph, who ended up with an easy touchdown. Ponder would also scramble for a touchdown and make a number of other plays while scrambling outside the pocket. He didn’t take a single sack on the day.

Some of the credit also belongs to Vikings head coach Leslie Frazier and offensive coordinator Bill Musgrave, who were aggressive enough to make the correct decision and go for it on that fourth-and-goal inside the 2-yard line. That contributed to the third winning factor for Minnesota …

They got touchdowns, not field goals. Before Sunday, the Niners defense had allowed one touchdown and three field goals in situations where they weren’t up by multiple scores in the fourth quarter. The classic bend-but-don’t-break defense broke on Sunday, with the Vikings scoring three touchdowns on their trips to the red zone. San Francisco had scored six touchdowns and five field goals during their first two games, but they had to settle for three field goal attempts and one lone touchdown on their drives into Minnesota territory.

Minnesota did squeeze out an extra score, though, by …

Doing the “little things” better to create points. Usually, it’s the Niners who do something unexpected to create an extra field goal for themselves or stop an opposing team from getting an extra scoring opportunity. That 63-yard field goal from David Akers two weeks ago is a perfect example. The Vikings were able to pull that off during their final drive of the first half, moving the ball 33 yards in 52 seconds to set up a 52-yard field goal by rookie kicker Blair Walsh. That included a daring throw over the middle to Percy Harvin, who was able to sprint toward the sidelines and get out of bounds before being taken down.1

That drive was set up by Minnesota’s second blocked field goal of the season, this one preventing the seemingly automatic David Akers from finishing a 49ers drive with points. Who knows how the game plays out if that six-point swing doesn’t happen?

And, finally, the ultimate expression of the Harbaugh 49ers that came back to bite them …

Minnesota won the turnover battle. Although it looked like the Niners would claim a draw after Jim Harbaugh’s “fourth timeout” challenge picked up a Toby Gerhart fumble, Alex Smith’s first interception in 249 passes produced San Francisco’s third turnover of the day and resulted in a minus-one turnover margin for the game. It’s only the fourth time the Niners have lost the turnover battle under Harbaugh, and three of those games have been losses.

And the last point relates back to the first one. When the Niners play their game and get an early lead, their smothering defense and sound running game almost always create a positive turnover margin. During those rare games in which they have to try to catch up with passes, they have to play to their weakness and risk throwing interceptions. It’s all connected.

Fortunately for the Niners, they caught a lucky break in terms of scheduling. They’re assigned to play the Jets next week, a team that will likely be without star cornerback Darrelle Revis, who appears to have suffered a serious knee injury during his team’s win over the Dolphins on Sunday. The Niners are a better team than the Jets, even with Revis around, but the absence of New York’s best player very well might help them get back on track next weekend.

Awful Moments in Betting

With 1:50 left in the Bills-Browns game on Sunday, Bills linebacker Bryan Scott picked off a Brandon Weeden pass and scampered back toward the Browns end zone. He was tackled just a yard short of the goal line, giving the Bills first-and-goal from the 1-yard line, but with a 24-14 lead and 1:50 left, the Bills chose to take it easy. They kneeled three times from the 1-yard line to end the game.

The total for this game in Vegas? You can probably guess that it opened at 44 points before eventually settling in at 45. So if you had the over in this game, you came within one yard of winning or pushing your bet, only to fall short because the Bills didn’t care about scoring. That’s a pretty awful moment in betting. But if you had the under, of course, you’re thanking your lucky stars that the Bills decided against handing Tashard Choice a garbage-time touchdown. So, as it always is, betting on football is either the best or the worst, with absolutely no in-between.

The Best Defense You’ve Snickered at This Year

The idea of being under-the-radar in the NFL is tired — it’s the NFL; it’s not like the papers stop covering a team if they aren’t winning every game by 30 points — but there is a unit in the league that’s really playing well without any attention being lavished upon it. And you’re not going to guess who they are.

Come on down … the Miami Dolphins run defense!

Yeah, the Miami Dolphins run defense! You haven’t thought about them, have you? Well, they’ve actually been quite nice over these first three weeks. On Sunday, they held the thing that vaguely resembles a running offense for the Jets to 88 yards on 33 carries, for a rushing average of just 2.7 yards per carry.

OK, so you don’t believe that shutting down Shonn Greene & Co. means anything? Fair enough. What about last week, though, when they held the Raiders — who broke off a big run against the Steelers on Sunday — to 1.6 yards per carry? Is that not good enough?

If you need some proof that the Miami run defense has played excellent football, then you’ll have to go back to Week 1. There, the Dolphins went up against the elite rushing attack of the Texans and held them to a minuscule 2.4 yards per carry on 35 attempts. Since then, the Texans have averaged nearly double that figure against the Jags and Broncos. In fact, each of the teams the Dolphins have shut down has run the ball much more effectively across their two other games.

It may end up meaning very little if Ryan Tannehill continues to take snaps for the Dolphins, but let’s give a beleaguered franchise some credit. Outside of perhaps the 49ers, Miami has the best run defense in football.

Thank You for Not Coaching

There were too many coaching-decision topics for discussion to cover in today’s article, and I didn’t want to leave any out.

So, with that in mind, come back tomorrow. I’m going to take the Tuesday column that has a new name (that isn’t “This is the NFL thing that used to be called ‘The Fabulous and the Flops'”) and devote this week’s edition entirely to the various enormous coaching decisions that popped up.

Point at Selective End Points

The Cardinals blew out the Eagles at home on Sunday, forcing three turnovers while lowering Michael Vick’s quarterback rating to “broken Wawa hoagie-ordering touch screen,” which isn’t even a real number. There were the usual crop of funny things that popped up as part of the Cardinals victory: recovering all three fumbles on the day, the stunning 12-point swing at the end of the first half, or the Kevin Kolb touchdown pass that saw two Eagles run into each other going for an interception and leave a tipped ball for Michael Floyd. If you were looking for a reason to believe in the Cardinals, though, this was the best performance they’ve had so far.

Obviously, I’m not on the bandwagon. My comp for the Cardinals is still last year’s Bills, who had one blowout win (over the Chiefs in Week 1) and two narrow victories (including one over the Patriots) before going quickly south. They’re certainly not the worst team in football, though, which is where I had them pegged before the season. Their defense is too good for that.

What I wanted to do, though, was put an end to the argument that’s crept up over the past week or so. For some reason, before Sunday, Cardinals fans grew particularly enamored of an 11-game split in judging their past performance. Why would that be? Well, the Cardinals were 9-2 in those games! It’s not surprising that, suddenly, looking at a team’s past 11 games (and now 12 games) would have become the most meaningful measure of information about a team!

The issue here is that these well-meaning Cardinals fans have employed an arbitrary end point to try to mask a more meaningful sample of data. Every end point is arbitrary, technically, but some — like a 16-game stretch, or one full season — are in common usage. No one’s ever found any meaning related to a 11-game or 12-game sample.

You can probably guess what happened in the games before that. The Cardinals, in fact, only started that 10-2 streak after a six-game losing streak. If you look at their 12 previous games before the 10-2 stretch, the Cardinals were 3-9. And if I really want to be a dick and employ arbitrary end points myself, I’ll note that the Cardinals were 3-15 in the 18 games before that 12-game stretch.

The more you think about this, it doesn’t make much sense. The idea behind noting that the Cardinals are 10-2 in their last 12 is that the Cardinals are secretly a great team who will keep up their excellent record going forward. Why then did the Cardinals, who went 3-9, suddenly get better and go 10-2 in their next 12 games? Why did that totally arbitrary win-loss split that had no meaning when the Cardinals sucked suddenly become meaningful now that they’re apparently great?

If you want to know why the Cardinals have been 10-2 over the last 12 games, there is a simple explanation: They’ve won virtually all their close games. Ten of those 12 games have been decided by a touchdown or less, and Arizona has won nine of them. They’ve basically been the Baltimore Orioles of football over the past 12 games. If you want to count on that happening over the next 12 games, be my guest.

It’s Always Good?

Sunday saw several games decided by missed field goals. That’s been a rare sight so far this season because, well, there just haven’t been many missed field goals. Before Sunday, NFL kickers had been an incredible 126-of-134 on field goals, a conversion rate of 94 percent. Ninety-four percent! During the opening two weeks of the season from 2009 through 2011, kickers had hit just 81.9 percent of their field goals. In other words, they put in about 16 more field goals than we might have expected.

On Sunday, the wind fought back. Amid Dan Carpenter’s notable overtime miss in Miami, which cost the Dolphins the game, the 1:00 starts produced seven missed field goals in 45 attempts, for a success rate of 84.4 percent. The afternoon and evening game kickers bounced right back, though, and hit each of their 16 attempts. In all, kickers went 54-for-61 on Sunday, an 88.5 percent clip.

The most interesting missed kick? Adam Vinatieri in Indianapolis. With 4:40 left and the Colts down two points, Vinatieri missed a 36-yard chip shot in his home dome that would have given the Colts a one-point lead. Vinatieri’s known as a great clutch kicker; his miss here ended up biting the Colts. Two drives later, the Colts managed to get the ball deep into Jacksonville territory, and when Donald Brown came up a yard shy of a first down on third-and-8, Vinatieri kicked a 37-yard field goal to actually put Indy up by one. Had Vinatieri hit the previous field goal, the Colts could have gone up four and played an ultra-prevent defense against a Jaguars team that would have needed to go the length of the field to score. Instead, they had to play reasonably normal defense against a team that just needed a field goal, and they gave up an 80-yard touchdown to Cecil Shorts — who waltzed through the safeties — on the opening play of Jacksonville’s drive.

And if Indianapolis had that field goal in their pocket, they might have had a better shot to tie. With the score in this hypothetical game at 22-20, the Jaguars would have kicked an extra point to go up by three. When the Colts returned the ensuing kickoff to their own 38-yard line, Andrew Luck would have only needed to move the ball about 30 yards to set up a creditable field goal chance for Vinatieri. Instead, they needed a touchdown and came up well short.

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Bill Barnwell is a staff writer for Grantland.

Archive @ billbarnwell

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