Based on what the Packers said postgame, you might think they had lost to the Jaguars or Titans yesterday. “You have to show up every week,” Jordy Nelson told the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel’s Tyler Dunne, “and we didn’t show up today.” When an offense gets rolling like the Packers’, its players believe they’re going to dictate every game. But that’s just not how it went in Buffalo. Green Bay didn’t play Washington, Oakland, or the Jets; they played the team with the best pass defense in football.
Buffalo was no. 1 in pass-defense DVOA before shutting down the league’s most explosive offense. Over the past two years, the strength of Buffalo’s (very good) defense has been its pass rush. The Bills have the best sack rate in the NFL this year,1 and last year only Carolina was better. Mario Williams’s 26 sacks in his past 30 games are a big part of that, but Buffalo pushes the pocket from everywhere. Former Colts first-round pick Jerry Hughes resurrected his career as an edge rusher in upstate New York, and interior pass-rush duos don’t get much better than Kyle Williams and Marcell Dareus. Dareus, especially, has reached another level in his fourth season. He has 10 sacks — more than any other defensive tackle — and belongs in the conversation, along with Ndamukong Suh and Gerald McCoy, about the best players at his position.
On 8.7 percent of opponents’ dropbacks.
If the Bills were going to slow down Aaron Rodgers and the Packers, it was going to start with those four. Detroit was one of the few teams to give Rodgers problems this year, and the Lions did it by crushing the pocket and giving him little room to work. But that’s not how things went yesterday. The Bills sacked Rodgers once — the game-sealing strip by Mario Williams, which came against Green Bay’s rookie center turned swing tackle J.C. Tretter — and hit him only three times. Instead, it was the back end of the Buffalo defense that stifled the league’s best quarterback.
A rash of drops — including a likely touchdown for Nelson — didn’t help, but at a point in the first half, Rodgers was 8 of 24. That’s about more than just flubbed catches. There weren’t many places to go with the ball, and every player in the Buffalo back seven seemed to contribute. Corey Graham knocked away two perfectly thrown balls to Nelson down the right sideline, the second of which would have gone for a touchdown. Stephon Gilmore had a strong showing on the outside. Linebacker Nigel Bradham, a fourth-round pick from 2012 who started just two games last year, continued his excellent season.
No one better personified the Bills’ effort — and what their defense has become — than Bacarri Rambo. Washington selected the safety in the sixth round of the 2013 draft. He made a few scattered starts in his first season while the Redskins scrambled to find a secondary that could cover, well, anyone, but then he was cut two games into this season — and Washington has been the worst pass defense in football since. On Sunday, starting for the best pass defense in football, Rambo had the first clean interception of Rodgers all season, and less than a quarter later, he added another. That’s the type of defense the Bills have become: a place where cast-offs (Rambo, Hughes) and retreads (Graham) are making game-changing plays in meaningful December games. There’s still work to do on offense — plenty of it — but what the Bills have built on the other side of the ball creates a truly miserable experience for opponents. Teams should be dreading that “@ Buffalo” line on the schedule, and it’s been a long time since anyone could say as much.
Dez Bryant lit the box score on fire for Dallas, but let’s talk about what Romo has done this year. Last night was another near-perfect game in a season with plenty of them. Romo ranks third in the league in QBR, behind Rodgers and just behind Peyton Manning. He trails Rodgers by less than an inch for the league lead in yards per attempt. He’s tied with Drew Brees for the highest completion percentage in football. And he’s done all of it just a few months removed from back surgery — not to mention the two broken bones in his back.
The Cowboys running game and that offensive line help, but the 34-year-old Romo is having the best season of his career. The Zack Martin–Tyron Smith–DeMarco Murray part of Dallas’s plan has rightly been mentioned constantly this season, but among all the $100 million quarterback contracts handed out recently, Romo has given his team the most bang for its buck. Because it’s the Cowboys, there’s still a very real chance that Dallas goes 11-5 and somehow misses the playoffs. Its season likely comes down to next Sunday afternoon in Indianapolis. The good news: The Cowboys will have the best quarterback on the field.
Odell Beckham Jr.
For anyone who doesn’t know Gil Brandt, he ran the Cowboys for about three decades. Understandably, he’s among the most respected scouts the NFL has ever seen. It shouldn’t be a surprise, then, that he loves Odell Beckham Jr.
Every so often, players come along who just look different: They move in a way others don’t, and they make plays that other can’t. Beckham is one of those guys. He hauled in three more touchdowns yesterday, and the trio seemed to be a presentation of every skill he possesses. There was a short throw taken 30 yards across the field for a score. There was a contested ball in the end zone. And there was a diving catch in the back corner. In the best class of rookie wide receivers ever, Beckham stands alone. Everyone has spent a Madden season force-feeding a single player to pile up earth-shattering numbers; Beckham is having that season in real life
There was a stretch yesterday — at the end of the first and early in the second quarters of the early games — when something like 75 percent of the day’s touchdowns were scored by units other than the offense. In the first half alone, Pittsburgh, New England, Kansas City, Baltimore, Houston, and Buffalo all got points from their defenses and special teams in a variety of ways: a blocked field goal (Patriots), a blocked punt (Ravens), punt returns (Chiefs and Bills), and interception returns (Steelers and Texans). It was ridiculous, and during what turned into a pretty bland slate of games, it was necessary. The best of the day has to go to De’Anthony Thomas. After a sluggish start, the Chiefs are now fifth in weighted special teams DVOA. It was only a matter of time before the combination of special teams coordinator Dave Toub — the architect of the Devin Hester era in Chicago — and Thomas became appointment television.
The Bengals’ Playoff Chances
It’s tempting to throw most of yesterday’s 30-0 drubbing at the Browns’ feet, but Cincinnati deserves some credit. After being ransacked at home against Cleveland five weeks ago, the Bengals responded with the perfect game plan. Throwing against the Browns has been nightmare fuel as of late, so the Bengals made the smart choice — they just didn’t throw it.
It might seem like a 45-24 run-pass split is the product of game flow in a four-score rout, but the Bengals came out running and never really stopped. Jeremy Hill carried the ball on Cincinnati’s opening four plays and didn’t let up, steadily churning out 148 yards on the ground. Giovani Bernard got his turn, too, toting it 15 times for 79 yards in one of his better per-carry games of the season.
Saying that the Bengals have finally found the right mix in their run game is probably overstating it. Cincinnati is 14th in rushing DVOA, and its big day came against the Browns’ bottom-four run defense. But the mix of Hill as the lead back and Bernard as a changeup and pass-catcher is probably Cincy’s best option. With the win yesterday, the Bengals find themselves well situated for the home stretch of the AFC playoff race. It hasn’t been the prettiest year of Marvin Lewis’s tenure in Cincinnati — and this team isn’t quite the group it was on defense over the past few years — but in a gantlet of a division, the Bengals are still on top through 14 games.
The Jaguars Offensive Line
No one deserves the punishment dealt to Blake Bortles yesterday. It’s been a rough season all around for the Jacksonville offensive line, but yesterday marked its awful triumph. Baltimore sacked Bortles eight times and tallied 15 quarterback hits. Left tackle Luke Joeckel had his hands full with Terrell Suggs — who finished with 2.5 sacks — and in a battle of rookies, center Luke Bowanko was dismantled by Timmy Jernigan.2 It was a bad day for Lukes.
Jernigan’s 43 snaps were the most he got all season. It’s a promising sign for Baltimore, but it also makes you wonder why the hell he wasn’t getting more.
Jacksonville’s brutal play up front has been frustrating all year. Save for a few decent Denard Robinson games against some ugly run defenses, the Jags have struggled to run the ball. Their sack rate — 10.8 percent of dropbacks — is comfortably the worst in the league. That’s not much help for a rookie quarterback who desperately needs it. Bortles has had his yeesh moments this year, but evaluating him isn’t any easier when he’s getting dumped in the backfield or seeing third-and-8 every series.
What made yesterday’s horror show even worse is that the Jags had a real chance at the biggest upset of the season. The Ravens managed 13 points on offense as Jacksonville’s defense handed Justin Forsett his worst per-carry average all year — by a full yard. Forsett scraped together 48 yards on his 16 carries, and while Joe Flacco had a decent day, Baltimore was awful (4 of 12) on third down. At this stage of the Jags’ grand plan, sticking with — and, at times, outplaying — a team like the Ravens is a net gain, but man, it would have been nice to steal this one.
I feel for Bradley Fletcher. It’s not his fault that the Eagles are intent on manning him up on some of the most vicious, coverage-destroying receivers in the league. The two worst games of Fletcher’s season have come against Jordy Nelson, who roasted him more than once down the right sideline in Green Bay, and now Dez Bryant. Philadelphia’s defensive philosophy is pretty straightforward. It has had the league’s top pass rush this year, generating pressure on a league-best 33.6 percent of dropbacks and ranking behind only the Bills in sack rate. The Eagles leave their corners in tenuous spots because Bill Davis is betting his front four will get to the quarterback before it matters. When they don’t, Fletcher is forced to engage in hand-to-hand combat with Bryant — and we all know how that ends.
Bill O’Brien has to be shaking his head today. Houston’s defense stymied the Colts offense. J.J. Watt added two more sacks, and as a whole, the Texans front four had Andrew Luck on the run. Luck finished with only 187 yards on 34 throws, and he even gifted Houston a score. If you’d told O’Brien on Sunday morning that a team averaging more than 30 points a game would score 17 against the Texans defense, I’m guessing he would have liked his chances.
But those chances took a significant hit when a broken leg ended both the game and the season for Ryan Fitzpatrick. Tom Savage could have been worse — could have — with his debut coming against a secondary that includes Vontae Davis, but that’s partially because the Colts dared him to throw. Indianapolis, whose run defense ranks near the bottom of the league, did all it could to slow down Arian Foster, and it worked. Foster had just 3.8 yards per carry, excluding a beautiful touchdown that was called back on a hold — a call that essentially ended Houston’s season. Those building a playoff case for the Texans this offseason (I’m looking at you, Bill Barnwell) constructed it based on three main points: Houston is a better team than it showed a year ago, its schedule is mush, and the defense has a chance to be very competitive.
Without Jadeveon Clowney opposite Watt, the defense never reached the heights it probably could have, but for the most part, that all turned out to be true. Houston beat the bad teams it played, lost to the good ones, and if they’d managed to steal either of the close ones against the Colts, the AFC South would still be up for grabs.
Sadly, we’ll have to wait at least another week before Manziel Mania takes hold. There’s no other way to put this: On the few snaps he did get — Cleveland ran 38 total plays — Manziel was awful. He did Manziel things. He broke tackles, and extended plays, and was generally thrilling before throwing the ball to someone on the other team or no one in particular. His two interceptions were horrendous, both coming after he did some scrambling and then lofted a ball downfield. If there is a takeaway from Manziel’s first start, it’s that arm strength may turn out to be a problem. The Part II of Russell Wilson’s plays end with him rocketing the ball downfield. Manziel’s ended with a ball fluttering toward a receiver who was open. It was like watching a blimp race a jet. “Hello, airplanes? It’s blimps. You win.”
Cleveland’s 30-0 disaster wasn’t all on Manziel, though. The Bengals ran the ball whenever and however they wanted to. Early in the second quarter, Cincy was facing a third-and-4 in Browns territory and, rather than throw, the Bengals ran a power play to Hill that easily got 9 yards. That’s how comfortable they felt running the ball yesterday. We already knew about the struggles of the Browns run defense, though. We didn’t know how Manziel’s first outing would look, and we do now.