Week 8 NFL Wrap-up: Ministers of Defense

Sunday started with a game that felt like it was both played and watched (on television) by hungover Americans who would have rather been sleeping. The Falcons and Lions contrived to deliver a product that more closely resembled the World League of American Football than the National Football League. And by that, I don’t mean to disparage the fine men of the WLAF, who gave it their all in the early ’90s. I mean a game played by WLAF alumni in 2014.

And that game surely would have been better coached. While there were myriad mistakes from the players on the field, Atlanta’s Mike Smith and Detroit’s Jim Caldwell repeatedly made suboptimal decisions, mismanaged the clock, and clung desperately to conservative tradition for as long as possible. Like a malfunctioning fireworks display, the game culminated in an awe-inspiring spectacle of stupidity, with mistakes firing in from all sides before a bizarre climax played out amid a chorus of boos.

Before we talk about the coaching mistakes, it’s hard to really overstate how poorly these two teams played. Atlanta got out to a 21-0 lead by scoring three touchdowns on its first four possessions, with Matt Ryan starting 14-of-17 for 160 yards with two scores. A patchwork Falcons offensive line that was starting a third-string center (James Stone) and right tackle (Ryan Schraeder, who I was sure was the guy who started Pitchfork for most of the first half) did an excellent job of keeping the Lions pass rush off Ryan, who seemed to get the Falcons out to an insurmountable lead. Since 1990, teams that went into halftime with a 21-point lead had been a combined 149-8, which is roughly Madison Bumgarner–in-the-playoffs good.

It went wrong quickly for the Falcons; in fact, they probably should have blown their lead even earlier. In one of the worst 20-minute stretches you’ll ever see, the Falcons fell apart. Ryan threw an unconscionable interception to Cassius Vaughn that would have qualified for intentional grounding if Vaughn had managed to drop it. The defense allowed Golden Tate to get open downfield on third-and-25 for a 59-yard touchdown catch. And Atlanta fumbled three times, but somehow managed to recover all three. It was like an unzipped version of what the Texans did in Pittsburgh on Monday night.

And that all started after … you know what? It can’t wait any longer. I’ve got to talk about the coaching. Robert Alford picked off Matthew Stafford to stop a Lions drive late in the first half, giving Atlanta the ball with 1:18 left and two timeouts. The Falcons had moved the ball with barely a hiccup, and in Ryan, they possessed a virtuoso quarterback who had driven his team downfield in mere seconds time after time after time.

That went for naught in a matter of moments. Atlanta dropped back to pass on first down, but Ryan was forced to scramble for six yards. Just as color commentator Troy Aikman noted the Falcons were right to hurry up to try to score, he saw the Falcons slowing down their substitutions and deliberately bleeding the clock, at which point he changed his tune and suggested that Smith thought his team had already scored enough and would be happy to go into the locker room with 21 points. They would, of course, not record a single score the rest of the way and lose by one.1

While Caldwell valiantly replied with 22- and 20-yard field goals to try to hand back the expected points Smith had forfeited, the real insanity showed up late in the fourth quarter. After the Lions scored a touchdown and failed on a two-point try to leave the score at 21-19, the Falcons needed to execute a four-minute drill to win the game. After picking up a pair of first downs on a blown coverage against a Harry Douglas wheel route and a well-executed screen to Julio Jones, the Falcons made it to the two-minute warning with Detroit down to one timeout. Let’s relive this in line-by-line form.

• Atlanta’s win expectancy as it goes to snap the ball after the two-minute warning is at 97 percent. If it simply manages to keep the clock running without gaining any yards, it will punt the ball to Detroit from inside Lions territory with about 25 seconds left. There is almost no way to lose.

• The Falcons find a way. After a run on first down uses up Detroit’s last timeout, as the announcers are literally reading the names of the broadcast production team — the verbal victory formation — Ndamukong Suh penetrates into the backfield and Stone commits a holding penalty (which was declined) to stop the clock. Stone performed admirably against Suh & Co. in his first career start, and I’m sure he held on instinct alone, but it would have been better if Stone himself had hit Steven Jackson in the backfield for a loss.

• The Falcons make it worse. They could still run the clock down to 1:00 or so, but on third down, they dial up another screen to Jones … who drops the pass. I don’t think you can be too angry at offensive coordinator Dirk Koetter for that call, given that he was putting the ball in the hands of his best offensive weapon with a very safe throw. Jones just dropped it. Atlanta has to punt.

• The Lions get the ball back on their own 7-yard line with 1:38 left, and Stafford quickly moves them to the Atlanta 31-yard line, at which point he spikes the ball on first down with 34 seconds left. From here, it’s a 49-yard field goal on a soggy, subpar surface for Matt Prater, who had been shaky for the Lions since arriving as the team’s third kicker. Because he once hit 50-plus-yarders regularly in the dream kicking environment in Denver, he is “in range.”

• With no timeouts and 34 seconds left, the Lions take the ball on second-and-10 and … hand the ball to Joique Bell up the gut for a 1-yard gain. In just about every appreciable way, this move decreases Detroit’s chances of winning.

• The Falcons respond by calling timeout. I actually screamed. The Lions have had one of the worst kicking games in NFL history this season, they’ve sliced your defense apart when they’ve thrown the ball in the second half and yet are trying to settle for a long field goal, and you stop the clock for them? Why? The only reason I can imagine you would stop the clock would be in the hopes that you can get the ball back with time to score, which is ironic, given that the Falcons threw away an opportunity to try to score at the end of the first half out of self-satisfaction.

• Even more incredibly, the Lions run the ball again! Bell runs up the middle for 1 yard with 24 seconds left. Again, how does this make sense? The play’s going to end with about 18 seconds left. In that time frame, you’re going to run your offense off the field, run the special teams unit onto the field, get everyone lined up, and then successfully try a long field goal? If Bell runs for 15 yards, he takes enough time off the clock and the ball is sufficiently far enough from the sideline that the game’s probably over. If the Lions commit a penalty on offense, just as the Falcons did earlier, the game’s probably over. The best-case scenario is that you gain 4 yards and have to sprint your terrible special teams unit onto the field.

• Or you get bailed out because Atlanta defensive lineman Paul Soliai somehow commits a holding penalty. Defensive linemen never get called for holding penalties. By my count, there had been three accepted holding penalties on defensive linemen heading into Week 8. Think about how egregious this hold had to be to get called with the game on the line. And it was the right call.

• The Lions, still insisting they really want to burn as much clock as possible, give up a yard by kneeling on first down before spiking the ball on second down, leaving five seconds on the clock for Prater. The Detroit special teams unit — the same unit that was going to run on the field with a ticking clock and kick a game-winning field goal — surely knows the plan and has been ready to hop onto the field for more than a full minute by now.

• Somehow, the Lions ice themselves. Prater misses a 43-yard field goal, but that waiting death squad of ninja assassins masquerading as the Detroit special teams can’t get the ball snapped in time, producing a delay of game penalty. Even though most offensive penalties inside of two minutes produce a 10-second runoff (which would have ended the game) and Prater attempted and missed the field goal (which also would have ended the game), because the penalty technically took place before the snap, there’s nothing Smith can do about the whole thing.

• Having somehow run in a circle to get the ball back near the spot where all of this started, Prater hits the game-winning 48-yard field goal on the second try.

• On the plane home from London, Smith instinctively calls for a kneel-down in the middle of first class. I can’t prove this one happened.

Nobody deserved to win this game. I genuinely mean that. I know it would throw off the record books. I don’t care. Both teams deserved losses. Maybe more than one loss each. Bill Simmons gave himself 58 wins for his four missing weeks in the Friday picks column. No reason we can’t band together and give the Falcons and Lions five losses each for what happened Sunday morning. Hell, the Falcons won’t even be that far out of contention in the NFC South with five extra losses on their record.

The worst part is that in about one month, we’re going to forget how this game ended. The Lions are going to have a better record than they have had in the past, almost entirely because they’re currently 3-1 in games decided by a touchdown or less after going 6-14 in those same games over the previous two seasons, and some lazy pundit is going to write a column or ask a leading question about how the Lions have learned how to win, or how they’ve matured this season, or how they’ve refocused under Caldwell. And it will be total nonsense. When you hear that, remember this game. Actually, no. Forget this game ever happened. Do literally anything else with your life than think about this football game again.

Blitz On

There’s no reason the Arizona Cardinals should be able to do this. In one of the toughest divisions in football, with one of the toughest schedules in the league, having been down to Logan Thomas and while missing arguably their seven best defenders from the 2013 defense at one point or another this season, the Cardinals just keep on winning. They brought their record to 6-1 with a 24-20 nail-biter over the Eagles that came down to the final play, when Nick Foles’s 62nd pass attempt was caught out of bounds by Jordan Matthews to end the game.

It typified what the Cardinals have relied upon, even amid all of those defensive injuries: pressure. In a league where coaches are often risk-averse and roll out conservative coverages in key moments, nobody is more aggressive with the game on the line than the Arizona coaching staff. The Cardinals blitzed heavily in the fourth quarter to hold on to their narrow win over the Chargers in Week 1, and did so all throughout Philadelphia’s last drive.

On that final snap, the Cardinals didn’t just send a fifth guy or twist two players around. They sent the house. They sent seven rushers2 against the Eagles, who kept in six men to block. Their goal was to sack Foles or force him to throw an uncatchable pass. Foles did a good job of backpedaling as long as possible to extend the play while keeping his eyes downfield, but his throw wasn’t great. Would it have been catchable without a great defensive play by Cardinals safety Rashad Johnson?

It’s not easy to tell exactly what happens on the play without coaches’ tape, and there weren’t any useful replays of the coverage, but Johnson appears to have made a game-saving play. Look in the end zone when the camera scans back after Foles’s pass and you’ll see bodies strewn on the ground; I don’t think it was a purposeful pick, but regardless of what happened, a Cardinals defender (who looks to be Tyrann Mathieu) and an Eagles receiver are flat on the turf, with Antonio Cromartie just behind his downed teammate. Arizona’s defensive backs were already in a four-on-four situation at the snap, which is usually disastrous against Chip Kelly. Two-on-three is downright suicidal.

I think Matthews would have been at least capable of making the catch and keeping his feet in bounds if it weren’t for Johnson. Watch the GIF and you see Johnson creep up to the line of scrimmage — he was assigned to Zach Ertz on the play, who ran a flat route that was likely designed to remove Johnson from the coverage. Although he realized Ertz was running a dummy route, Johnson didn’t give up on the play. He looked into the backfield to identify where Foles was going with the pass and then frantically sank back to the end zone, getting to the 6-foot-3 Matthews and the football just as it arrived.

Johnson was one of four Arizona safeties who saw frequent action Sunday, with the Cardinals going to that four-safety look more frequently after Patrick Peterson left with a second-quarter concussion. At least three of those safeties — Johnson, Mathieu, and 2014 first-rounder Deone Bucannon — were on the field for that final play. Safety, of course, is more a job title than a description in Arizona. As Robert Mays suspected in September, the Cardinals have frequently used Bucannon as a linebacker, as they did in many packages Sunday. And Mathieu spent more time as the slot cornerback Sunday than he previously had since returning from his torn ACL in Week 2. The trio combined with fellow safety Tony Jefferson for seven of Arizona’s 12 passes defensed.

That ridiculous depth in the secondary helped paper over the injury to Peterson, who had looked ordinary in coverage on Jeremy Maclin before going out with the concussion. It’s the same flexibility that has helped Bucannon cover for the departed Karlos Dansby and suspended Daryl Washington at inside linebacker, and the same freakish amount of athleticism that has helped the Cardinals manufacture a pass rush without the injured John Abraham and Darnell Dockett. The Cardinals didn’t sack Foles, but they knocked him down eight times amid those 62 attempts and pressured him steadily throughout.

Arizona doesn’t have many sacks on the year — just seven through seven games — but it has been able to create bad throws and remain a nuisance via steady blitz pressure. The Cardinals have blitzed on 27.7 percent of opposing plays, per ESPN Stats & Information, the third-highest rate in football. The blitz hasn’t produced sacks, but it has increased the percentage of time they bother the passer. The Cardinals are 23rd in pressure rate3 when they don’t blitz (relative to other teams when they’re not blitzing), but when they do send extra men after the quarterback, they’re the 15th-best team in terms of pressure (compared to other teams when they blitz). That’s not an enormous difference, but it’s enough to justify more frequent pressure.

Given how well they’ve done over the past two seasons and how much of that work has come despite injuries to much of the core in 2014, it’s logical to give a lot of credit to defensive coordinator Todd Bowles, who has to be considered one of the logical candidates for a head-coaching opportunity after the season. The 50-year-old Bowles has been in some unfair situations during his career and made the most of them. He actually went 2-1 as interim Dolphins head coach in 2011 after Tony Sparano was fired, which isn’t bad for a team that had gone 4-9 beforehand. He took over as interim Philadelphia defensive coordinator for 2012 after Juan Castillo was fired from the dying embers of the Dream Team Eagles. Bowles has worked wonders in Arizona, often with heavy pressure from players who aren’t natural pass-rushers when the team needs a big play. He’s manufactured a pass rush, and you could make the case that he’s manufactured most of the defense.

His big-pressure plan is a perfect philosophy to complement Bruce Arians’s downfield passing attack, which victimized the Eagles just minutes before the game-concluding stop. With the Cardinals facing a critical third-and-5 on their own 25-yard line and just 1:33 left, it would have been reasonable to target a throw to the sticks in hopes of extending the game.

Instead, Arians went for the game and got it. Carson Palmer signaled before the play that he would be going to rookie wideout John Brown, who hesitated ever so slightly on an in route before running a double move up the seam past Philadelphia’s quarters (Cover 4) coverage. The hesitation was just enough to freeze Eagles safety Nate Allen, who turned and ran about one step too late. Allen’s momentary lapse helped sink Philadelphia’s win expectancy from a game-high 84 percent down to a game-low 15 percent within two plays.4

It was a close win for the Cardinals, but it was hardly undeserved. These aren’t the 2012 Cardinals, a team whose reputation was built upon a run of close victories at the end of 2011 and the beginning of 2012. The 6-1 Cardinals have played just two games that were decided by one score or less, beating the Chargers and the Eagles in competitive contests. They don’t really have a blowout win on their résumé, but their one loss came to the Broncos, and they even entered the fourth quarter down by just four points in Denver (with Logan Thomas at quarterback) to a team that’s led by a total of 71 points after three quarters in their six other games.

Despite what the cliché holds, nobody knows how to win. By not being afraid of losing, though, Arizona has managed to claw its way to the top of the NFC alongside Dallas.

Green Bay Packers v New Orleans SaintsStacy Revere/Getty Images

Blitz Off

After their own crushing loss to the Lions last Sunday, the Saints got their NFC South division title hopes back on track with a 44-23 beatdown of the Packers. The win came in the Superdome and brought the 3-4 Saints to 3-0 at home. You can guess what their record is on the road.

The win led to another round of commentary that the Saints are a team built to win at home, that they’re a dominant team in the Superdome and simply can’t play at the same level on the road. It’s a theory commonly linked to their aggressive, pass-intensive style of play, which would naturally play well in the climate-controlled confines of the dome.

I’ve already written about how Drew Brees isn’t any worse in cold weather, just that he’s better at home than he is on the road. It’s true the Saints are better in Louisiana than they are anywhere else, but every team in football is better at home than it is on the road. The question with the Saints, really, is whether the difference between their home and road performance is bigger than that of other NFL teams.

The Saints have been significantly worse on the road in 2014, but what if we look back since 2006, the year that Sean Payton and Brees arrived in New Orleans? Here’s how they’ve performed inside and outside of New Orleans during the Brees era, with rankings relative to the rest of the NFL:

The numbers say it all. The Saints’ play on the road, relative to the rest of the league, is almost identical to how they’ve performed at home. If there’s anything to their poor road performance in 2013 and 2014 (a combined 3-9) that wouldn’t have been in effect during their away games from 2006 to 2012 (33-23), it’s not coming to mind. Given that their four road losses this year include three games decided by a field goal or less, the case that they’re fatally flawed away from home seems pretty spurious.

Their performance Sunday night hardly reflected the sort of delicate team the naysayers would have expected to succeed only in a dome, anyway. Mark Ingram took over the workload with Pierre Thomas and Khiry Robinson injured, carrying the ball 24 times for 172 yards and a touchdown, continuing a run of solid performances that dates back to his first real flashes of life in 2013. The defense struggled early against Aaron Rodgers, missing a number of tackles, but it eventually settled in and got steady pressure against the future Hall of Famer and mop-up replacement Matt Flynn, sacking the duo four times and knocking them down on five occasions.

New Orleans didn’t dial up exotic blitz packages to confuse Rodgers, either. The Saints spent most of the second half in two-deep coverage with a man on the underneath receivers, relying mostly upon getting pressure with their front four. The Saints blitzed just seven times, per ESPN Stats & Information, marking the second consecutive week that Saints defensive coordinator Rob Ryan dialed back his blitzes and played relatively conservative coverage.

Before their Week 6 bye, the Saints blitzed opposing offenses on 24.8 percent of plays, which was the fourth-highest rate in football. With Jairus Byrd out for the year and the blitzes struggling to get home and create pressure, Ryan appears to have made a shift during the bye and refocused his attention on securing the team’s oft-burned coverage. The Saints have blitzed on just 8.5 percent of offensive snaps over the past two weeks. That’s the second-lowest rate in football over that time span. Blitzing worked for Arizona. Not blitzing appears to have worked for New Orleans.

It’s a small sample, so it remains to be seen whether it’s a material difference that will last. While brother Rex famously won a playoff game against New England by shifting his defensive coverages to heavy doses of zone overnight, the Ryan family is not necessarily known for ceding to outside opinions and abandoning heavy pressure packages. At the same time, the Saints allowed 28.2 points per game before the bye and have now held the Lions and Packers to 24 and 23 points, respectively. Sustained improvement from the defense may be just what the Saints need to start winning on the road and staking their claim to the NFC South title for the first time since 2011.

Filed Under: NFL, Atlanta Falcons, Detroit Lions, Green Bay Packers, New Orleans Saints, Arizona Cardinals, Philadelphia Eagles

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Bill Barnwell is a staff writer for Grantland.

Archive @ billbarnwell