Big Blue Goes Gray: Everything We Learned From the First Two ‘Monday Night Football’ Games
On Monday, the returns on two new offenses came in with drastically different results. As you can probably tell from the 35-14 final score, the revamped Detroit Lions came through with flying colors. Eli Manning and the New York Giants? Whatever the opposite of flying colors is, that’s what they did. For all the changes they reportedly made during the offseason, on Monday, Big Blue was hopelessly grounded and gray.
Afterward, Tom Coughlin described the game as “a nightmare,” which seemed unusually generous given the circumstances. The Lions took the ball to start the game and scored four plays later, with Matthew Stafford improvising out of the pocket and finding a wide-open Calvin Johnson, who had managed to get himself free by running two Giants defensive backs into one another. Good offenses use pick plays to create space, but this was Ender’s Game stuff. The Lions took the lead after 169 seconds and never came close to relinquishing it.
Stafford improvising became a theme of the night. The Lions quarterback has rarely used his legs to create plays during his five seasons in the league, but a thinner, more mobile version of the Detroit QB ripped the Giants apart when he got out of the pocket and changed angles on Monday, producing two touchdown passes to Johnson before adding a five-yard scramble for a score. It’s very similar to what new head coach Jim Caldwell did with Joe Flacco after taking over as Baltimore’s offensive coordinator late in the 2012 season; go back and watch that Super Bowl and you’ll be surprised at how frequently Flacco gets out of the pocket and throws on the run, often with a good amount of success. If Stafford has the mobility to elude pass-rushers and the timing to create on the fly with Megatron, it would add a terrifying wrinkle to an already dominant combination.
Meanwhile, the Giants may have held Detroit’s running game to just 76 yards on 30 carries, but they did little else right on defense. An early-game stinger forced Jason Pierre-Paul to miss part of the contest, and the Giants had absolutely no pass rush to speak of: Stafford was knocked down just once all day, on a five-yard sack by Robert Ayers in the third quarter. Defensive coordinator Perry Fewell tried to create pressure, but honestly, there wasn’t much he could do. Stafford’s receivers ripped the Giants apart when they tried to match up in man coverage, with Johnson repeatedly beating Dominique Rodgers-Cromartie, while the returning Stevie Brown was stretched in all directions by Reggie Bush. Then Fewell went back to zone, but even that was ugly, with a blown coverage led to a big play for a wide-open Golden Tate down the sidelines. Overall, it was a great day for secondary targets, as the duo of Bush and Tate combined to catch all 12 of the passes thrown to them for a total of 142 receiving yards.
The idea of a pair of receivers catching 12 passes in a row seems almost comical for the Giants. Eli Manning’s goals for the year, per new offensive coordinator Ben McAdoo and his Fu Manchu,1 were to complete 70 percent of his passes and throw fewer interceptions. You probably don’t need me to tell you he went 0-for-2 in Game 1. Manning completed just 18 of the 33 passes (54.5 percent) he threw last night, producing an anemic 163 yards on those attempts while being picked off twice.
The first pick had almost nothing to do with Manning — starting tight end Larry Donnell failed to adjust to a presnap hot route call and never turned around for the pass. The ball then bounced off and around DeAndre Levy’s body before he seemingly hauled it in on the floor at the very last second, a call that was too close to confirm or overturn on replay. The second pick, a throw Manning made against his body on the run, is just about the worst throw you can imagine a veteran quarterback making. For all the talk about mechanics and scheme change, this was an awful decision under any circumstances. The first interception was zero percent Eli and the second was 200 percent Eli — and even if McAdoo “fixes” his quarterback, he’s still going to have games like this.
Particularly if he gets so little help from the players around him. One count during the game had Manning at seven drops, and even if that seems high (no two people see drops the same way), it’s still far too many for an offense that doesn’t need any help to suck. Manning’s leading receiver was Donnell, a tight end with just three career catches on his résumé, who finished with five receptions for 56 yards. Victor Cruz went missing for most of the contest. Rashad Jennings averaged 2.9 yards per carry, and that wasn’t even really his fault; the Giants’ offensive line was abysmal, as you may have noticed when Nick Fairley walked J.D. Walton nearly into Manning during that interception clip. Jerry Reese gave marginal players like Walton and Jennings guaranteed money in free agency in the hopes of finding competence, but against a more athletic Lions defense, Reese got replacement-level work from replacement-level players.
If you were looking for signs on Monday that the Giants needed to either bench or trade Eli, you got mixed signals. The new offensive scheme and mechanics didn’t look great, and Eli had wildly disappointing numbers, but the offensive line was so bad and the receivers so useless that you couldn’t possibly imagine Ryan Nassib being better in those same spots. We saw Bad Eli and Not Eli’s Fault in different stretches of the game. Maybe sometime soon, Good Eli will sneak his head through the clouds and bless us with his presence. After one week, though, he seems as far away as ever.
NFL games aren’t decided by luck. They’re decided by thousands of individual battles between players on opposing teams who have spent years in preparation for an exact moment. But luck can sure have a disproportionate impact on the result of a football game, and the MNF nightcap between the Cardinals and Chargers exhibited how quickly luck can turn a loss into a win.
For most of the first three quarters of their 18-17 victory, chance tormented the Arizona Cardinals. In a close game that (surprisingly) showcased defense, the Chargers got out to a 17-6 lead after three quarters despite being outplayed. How? Fumble recoveries and special teams. The first muff of the game came two plays after a 63-yard bomb from Carson Palmer to Michael Floyd, with Andre Ellington dropping his second handoff of the day. The recovery was so close that the referees actually ruled Cardinals right tackle Bobby Massie down with possession, only for the call to be overturned by a Chargers review. The second fumble saw Massie badly beaten by debuting Chargers end Jeremiah Attaochu, who stripped Palmer to set up a Chargers drive on the Arizona 29-yard line — resulting in a San Diego touchdown three plays later. Attaochu also managed to narrowly block a first-half Cardinals punt, which gave the Chargers the ball on the Arizona 17 and set up their opening field goal.
Injuries to Cardinals defensive starters Frostee Rucker and John Abraham helped a Chargers team that was outgained 211-to-108 during the first half. After piecing together their best drive of the night to start the third quarter with a touchdown, the Chargers took advantage of the short field afforded them by the Attaochu fumble recovery to score on a Ryan Mathews run and go up 17-6.
The game seemed mostly over at that point, but after the teams traded punts, the wind suddenly spun the luck in Arizona’s direction. The Cardinals abandoned the run and stuck with a successful short passing game, leading to a touchdown that brought them within five, pending the extra point. They correctly decided to go for two, only to fail on a weird Wildcat direct snap to Jonathan Dwyer. Strangely, the Cardinals were actually lucky to fail on the conversion without even realizing it; the miss probably ended up winning them the game.
San Diego came back with a six-minute drive designed to eat as much clock as possible while ending in a score. Luck still seemed to be in the Chargers’ favor when a third-down interception by Arizona’s Tony Jefferson was wiped away by a generous defensive holding call. Three plays later, Antonio Gates beat Jefferson in man coverage for a 34-yard gain on third-and-13, seemingly ensuring the Chargers would come away from their drive with a minimum of three points. But on the ensuing third-and-8, Philip Rivers failed to catch a shotgun snap, which proceeded to bounce all the way back to the Arizona 43-yard line, taking the Chargers out of field goal range while leaving the Cardinals down five points with 6:58 to go.
Given new life, the Cardinals then mounted their best drive of the evening from their own 9-yard line. Carson Palmer converted a third-and-10 with a 12-yard scramble, his longest run since 2009. Four plays later, Palmer threw a perfect touch pass to get Larry Fitzgerald his first catch of the game, a 22-yard completion that extended Fitzgerald’s streak of games with at least one reception to 150.2
That set the Cardinals up on the 30-yard line with 4:04 to go. Remember that two-pointer Arizona missed earlier? Had the Cardinals converted, they would have been down 17-14 here. Knowing NFL coaches and their propensity for risk aversion, it seems likely the Cardinals would have played for a tie in that situation. Instead, because the Cardinals were down five, they had no choice but to go for it. And sure enough, Arizona picked up a third-and-9 on a great catch by Michael Floyd (on a dangerous throw that Palmer probably wouldn’t have made unless he absolutely had to) before Palmer hit John Brown for the game-winning score on the ensuing play.
The Cardinals weren’t able to come up with the two-point conversion a second time, leaving the door open for the Chargers to win with a field goal, but the big-blitzing Arizona defense forced Rivers into a number of hurried incompletions before Larry Foote deflected Rivers’s fourth-down pass at the line, doing just enough to keep Keenan Allen from bringing in the ball and extending the game. It was a great play from a veteran defender, but to get there, the Cardinals needed to win the luck battle, even if they didn’t realize it while it was happening.
The Mathis Game
That Sunday night’s loss to the Broncos wasn’t the worst thing that happened to the Indianapolis Colts during the first week of the NFL season: It turns out they’d already suffered one of the season’s most serious injuries days before kicking off. Although the news didn’t break until Monday afternoon, suspended Colts linebacker Robert Mathis apparently tore his Achilles tendon while working out in Atlanta last week. Mathis was supposed to return to the Colts after his suspension in Week 5; now, he will miss the entire season.
There was no shame in losing to Peyton Manning and the defending AFC champions in Denver, of course, but we already saw how the Colts would struggle without Mathis during Sunday’s loss. Mathis had a league-high 19.5 sacks last season, nearly half of Indy’s team total of 42. During last year’s thrilling 39-33 victory over the Broncos, Mathis sacked his former teammate twice and knocked him down a total of four times, with one of those sacks producing a safety. On Sunday, with Mathis suspended and Ryan Clady back in the Denver lineup, the entire Colts team could muster only one sack and three knockdowns of Manning.
The Colts are not built to deal with a season-ending injury to someone like Mathis. His absence has left Erik Walden and Bjoern Werner as the team’s starting outside linebackers and primary pass-rushers in Chuck Pagano’s 3-4 defense. That’s a very questionable duo. Walden, who had the team’s lone sack on Sunday, is on the team for his abilities against the run. He has just 12 sacks amid 42 career starts. Werner, the team’s first-round pick in the 2013 draft, is a total question mark; he had 2.5 sacks in limited time as a rookie. The Colts’ primary backup on Sunday was special-teamer Andy Studebaker, who hasn’t recorded a sack since 2010. Pagano’s going to create some pressure through his scheme alone, but there’s only one guy here (Werner) who might be able to win one-on-one regularly against NFL tackles, and he has no track record of doing so.
If there’s anyone who won’t stand for this, it’s Colts general manager Ryan Grigson. Grigson has been the most aggressive GM in football in terms of trading away future draft picks to acquire players already in the league, notably young talents who might benefit from a change of scenery, like Trent Richardson and Vontae Davis. It would not be a shock to see him dip into the same market for a pass-rusher over the weeks to come. Whom might he target? Given his past, three obvious candidates stand out:
Dion Jordan, Dolphins: Oh, the eerie similarities! This is a regular Lincoln and Kennedy chain letter. Last year, Grigson’s big trade was for running back Trent Richardson after Vick Ballard tore his ACL before the end of Week 1. Richardson was the third pick in the first round of the previous year’s draft, chosen by an organization that traded up to grab him, only for the brain trust who authorized that swap to be fired. The Colts made the trade to fill a gaping hole in the hope of buying low on a player who had previously been seen as good enough to justify a top-five pick, giving up their own first-rounder in the process.
If Grigson traded for Jordan, he would be once again acquiring a third overall draft pick early in his second professional season. The Dolphins traded up to grab Jordan only for Jordan to have a disappointing rookie season, which helped lead to the firing of general manager Jeff Ireland. It’s unclear whether new general manager Dennis Hickey shares his predecessor’s enthusiasm for Jordan, especially given that the Dolphins have seen Olivier Vernon develop into a very viable starting defensive end across from Cameron Wake over the past 12 months. (There were rumors the Dolphins were considering a Jordan trade before this year’s draft.) Jordan would fit Grigson’s buy-young philosophy, and it would be a chance to acquire a freak athlete just one year removed from glowing scouting reports without any serious injuries on his résumé.
The big problem? Jordan’s suspended, with a positive PED test keeping him out until Week 5. Jordan also showed less in 331 defensive snaps last year than Richardson showed during his rookie season. Grigson might also be hesitant to deal his first-round pick for the second consecutive year after being burned (so far, at least) on the Richardson trade. Oh, well, that’s three big problems. But trading a first-round pick for Jordan would absolutely make spiritual sense on some level.
Jabaal Sheard, Browns: Hey, trading with the Browns worked out great last time! Sheard’s a luxury the Browns don’t need, an above-average 25-year-old outside linebacker who is slowly working his way out of Cleveland. The Browns signed Paul Kruger in free agency last year before drafting Barkevious Mingo two months later, and those two have moved into the starting lineup ahead of Sheard. After starting all 45 games he played during his first three years, Sheard came off the bench for the first time on Sunday, taking fewer than half (48 percent) of the defensive snaps.
Currently playing out the final year of his rookie deal, Sheard is unlikely to re-sign with the Browns after the season, given the likelihood that he’ll find starter-caliber money elsewhere on the market. He’s not the pure pass-rusher Mathis is, but with 22 sacks across 46 NFL games (including one on Sunday), he would immediately be Indy’s biggest pass-rush threat and could end up re-signing with the team after the season. Given Cleveland’s lack of leverage, he also wouldn’t cost as much as Jordan.
Brandon Graham, Eagles: A perennial candidate in mock trades on the Grantland NFL Podcast, Graham has exhibited consistent pass-rush pressure in limited time without ever getting a larger role in the Philadelphia defense. Despite being taken with the 13th pick of the 2010 draft,3 Graham started just 12 games during his first four years with the team, a stretch that has produced 11.5 sacks as a situational pass-rusher. In typical fashion, Graham played just 34 percent of the snaps against Jacksonville in Week 1, but those 25 snaps produced two tackles for loss. He’s unquestionably a better fit in the 4-3 than the 3-4, but given how desperate the Colts are for pass-rushers, beggars can’t be choosers. Graham’s also in the final year of his rookie deal, and the Eagles used a first-round pick on outside linebacker Marcus Smith (who didn’t play in Week 1), so it’s hard to see Graham having much of a future in Philadelphia. If they do make a trade, though, it won’t happen until next week, since the Colts host the Eagles in their home opener on Sunday.
If Grigson is suddenly a fan of holding on to his draft picks, on the other hand, the pickings are slim. Andre Carter’s still on the market, although it’s unclear whether he would be interested in suiting up. Will Smith was cut by the Patriots at the end of camp, having shown little pass-rushing burst after returning from a torn ACL. James Harrison just retired and hasn’t been a viable pass-rusher since 2011. Indy might just be best holding on to its selections and hoping that Werner’s a competent rusher. The Colts would be well served to find out soon; they play the Eagles this Sunday, a team that looked awful against an effective Jaguars rush in the first half before scoring 34 points against a gassed Jacksonville defense in the second. Games against Jacksonville and Tennessee follow, but if the Colts start 0-2, they could be two games behind the likes of the Texans or Titans before even getting into their divisional schedule.