Jersey numbers are the band names of sports. We want each one to have a story, a meaningful anecdote that offers a glimpse into why hard-to-know people identify as they do. And just like with band names, the stories often disappoint.
Since the moment he put on his no. 43 Chargers jersey and started scurrying around defenders, Branden Oliver has evoked memories of Darren Sproles in San Diego. Sadly, the number isn’t homage. As an undrafted free agent out of Buffalo, Oliver had two choices this summer. When he didn’t like the look of 44, he tossed it aside. Unwittingly — even unwillingly — the Sproles comparisons were born. “I knew 43 was Darren Sproles’ number, but I didn’t think of it like, ‘I’m trying to be like Sproles,’” Oliver told the San Diego Union Tribune’s Michael Gehlken in August. “That’s the perception that people are getting. I’m just trying to be me … I’m like 15 pounds heavier, physical.”
He has a point. It wasn’t all angle routes and plays in space for Oliver yesterday. He ripped off 114 yards on his 19 carries against the Jets run defense, succeeding where so many workhorse running backs have failed in the past two seasons. The play that defined his day — and defines where he diverges from Sproles — actually came through the air, when he bounced off Calvin Pryor at the goal line on his way to a 9-yard touchdown.
Oliver finished with 182 of the Chargers’ 439 yards — a total that could have been higher had they not taken their foot off the gas. We know that the Jets secondary is a welcoming bunch, but this was still an undressing of what’s been, at worst, an average defense through four games. Philip Rivers continued his weekly routine of chewing up cornerbacks and spitting out their bones. San Diego’s offense was obliterated by injuries by the end of the day — losing their third center this year while both right tackle D.J. Fluker and receiver Keenan Allen hobbled off — but it may not matter if Rivers keeps playing like this. He’s on a level all his own right now.
The Cowboys Offense
Two red zone turnovers threatened to ruin it all, but the Dallas offense was clicking yesterday. DeMarco Murray has been so good that it’s worth dealing with the awful fumble that comes every 30 or so carries, and aside from an ugly interception, Tony Romo had plenty of his old magic. Watching him spin away from a hell-bent J.J. Watt to find Terrance Williams for a 43-yard touchdown brought me back to the fall of 2006, Romo’s first year as a starter and my freshman year of college, when the lone Cowboys fan on my floor would yell “ROMO!” in a high-pitched squeal every time Tony was bailing from the pocket to do something crazy. It was fun to see.
It doesn’t hurt that he has Dez Bryant, either. When I think of Bryant, I usually envision an image of him snatching a ball out of the air on a slant or muscling a cornerback in the end zone. Impossible, juggling catches aren’t what I go to first. Clearly, that might have to change. The game was decided the moment Bryant came down with that ball. It was a catch that all but ensured a 4-1 start for the Cowboys. A team people were writing off by halftime of Week 1 is now tied with the Eagles atop the NFC East.
Since he has come into the league, there are few backs who have looked as good as Arian Foster does when it’s all working. A career in Houston’s one-cut system was part of it, but Foster really is the smoothest runner in the NFL when he’s right. He looked more than right yesterday.
Foster averaged 6.8 yards per carry against the Cowboys for a total of 157 with two touchdowns. Houston’s passing game continues to be a problem, but a week after the Texans running backs checked in at less than 1 yard per carry against Buffalo, it’s nice to know they can still get something going on the ground.
Before last season, it probably would have been fair to say that Marcell Dareus was the (non-quarterback) disappointment from the top of the 2011 NFL draft. As Von Miller, Patrick Peterson, Aldon Smith, and Watt turned into stars, Dareus toiled in Buffalo. I think it’s safe to say he is no longer the black sheep.
He turned in one of the best games of his career yesterday, just as the Bills desperately needed it. Linemate Kyle Williams was off to maybe the best start of his career, and with him inactive yesterday, the brunt of Buffalo’s interior pass rush fell to Dareus. He responded with a career-high three sacks, two more tackles for loss, and two extra hits on Matthew Stafford, all while holding down the middle of a Bills defense that allowed about 3.6 yards per carry to Detroit’s running backs.
It’s hard to be better than that stat line, but Dareus really was yesterday — eating up double-teams, freeing up teammates on stunts, clogging the pocket. He and Williams have emerged as the best interior duo in the league, and they are wreaking havoc on opposing offensive lines.
Does anyone else remember that Brandon Lloyd had a 99 “spectacular catch” rating for years in Madden? If you ever wondered why, there you go. That is Matrix shit, and it came as part of a crucial late-game drive that eventually put the game away.
Consider that catch another entry in what’s been one of the strangest NFL careers ever. Brandon Lloyd had a season in which he started 12 games and caught 23 passes. Four years ago, he led the league in receiving. Last year, he quit football to study metallurgy. Now, he’s defying gravity as the no. 4 receiver on a team fighting for the playoffs. That either tells us a whole lot or absolutely nothing. I can’t be sure which.
Brian Hoyer is a guy from Cleveland who’s quarterbacking his hometown franchise — a franchise that hasn’t won a championship in 50 years. It’s starting to feel like he knows this is all house money.
Teams Protecting Leads
The Titans’ collapse was the worst yesterday, but it was far from the only one. The Bears had a 21-7 lead. The Bucs led by 11 in the fourth quarter. The Lions had a two-touchdown lead. A lot of teams didn’t seem all that interested in winning, and that includes the Eagles, who tried letting a 27-point lead slip away against Austin Davis and the Rams.
After the Titans, it’s hard to say whose loss was the most heartbreaking. If Tampa Bay hadn’t sneaked out a win last week against the Steelers, bungling the fourth quarter like it did Sunday against the Saints would have been particularly sad. Any comeback that involves a safety is tough to stomach.
I’m still going with Chicago, though.1 It looked as if the Bears were driving at the end of the first half to put the game away, but then Robbie Gould botched a 35-yard field goal and Cam Newton drove the Panthers down the field to make it 21-14 at the break. The Bears kept it just close enough for some trademark Jay Cutler antics late. And Matt Forte putting the ball on the ground didn’t help, either. Somehow, Chicago is only a game out in the NFC North, which won’t matter when the Packers hang half a hundred on them at Lambeau in November.
Detroit’s collapse wasn’t as inexcusable, but its day was certainly more painful. The damage starts with Calvin Johnson, who was hobbled to the point of worthlessness last week and had to leave the game because of a hit to the knee/ankle yesterday. We all know what happens to the Lions offense without Johnson, and some of that futility was on display as they failed to do much of anything against the Bills.
Buffalo’s defense deserves at least some credit. It’s a stout group, one that happens to be led by former Lions coach Jim Schwartz. Even more than Johnson limping to the locker room, the image from yesterday that really has to sting the Lions is the one of Schwartz getting carried off the turf at Ford Field. There’s something cruel about losing a game in miserable fashion only to see the symbol of your past misery revel in the agony.
The only thing worse than the smirk on Schwartz’s face is knowing that he asked his players to do this earlier this summer. Jim Schwartz is a special guy.
The Cardinals Defense
Giving up 41 points and nearly 500 yards passing is never good, but it’s even worse when a team loses its best player in the process. Calais Campbell, who numbers among the best defensive players in football, is going to miss at least a few weeks from an MCL sprain suffered on a questionable hit by Julius Thomas.
Bruce Arians came out after the game and called the block “the dirtiest play I’ve seen in 37 years.” That may be a little much, but it’s what should be expected of a coach defending one of his stars. The block was rightly flagged, but what seemed like a standard chop-block call was actually slightly different. What Thomas and Ryan Clady pulled is something known as a “lure” block, in which the offensive tackle goes into his pass set while an outside player cuts the defensive end from the side. It’s a penalty, and as Larry Fitzgerald said, “It’s bullshit.”
Cut blocking in football is a dicey subject, but it’s pretty simple to figure out whether a play is dirty. If a blocker is coming at a defender from the front, and that defender has a reasonable chance to avoid the block, it’s fair game. If it’s from the side, it’s not. Don’t hit people in the side of the knee! I don’t think Thomas was blatantly trying to injure anyone; he just made a block he never should have tried to make.
Following his team’s 31-0 shellacking in San Diego and a benching of Geno Smith, Rex Ryan did his best to get in front of what’s sure to be an ugly week of questions. “This is on one person and that’s it,” Ryan said, according to ESPN.com’s Rich Cimini. “It’s certainly not on the quarterback or one individual. It’s on me. [Mike McCoy] really outcoached me … It’s a complete ass-whipping and it was me that got his ass kicked.” Some of that is right. McCoy did outcoach the Jets’ defensive staff, as Rivers was clearly ready for every type of pressure that the Jets had coming from every direction.
But it wasn’t Ryan’s defense that failed to cross midfield until midway through the fourth quarter. The Jets quarterbacks were a combined 12-for-31 and averaged 2.4 yards per attempt. If Smith and Michael Vick were one quarterback, that would have been the fifth-worst mark with at least 30 pass attempts since the merger. San Diego’s defense isn’t exactly the 2013 Seahawks.
Ryan may want to take the heat off Smith and everyone else, but the Jets’ problems are about more than one person. On Saturday, the New York Daily News published a story listing the many missteps of John Idzik’s tenure as the Jets GM. Little of the reporting is new, but gathered in one place, it’s damning. Their fourth-round pick from this draft has already been cut. Dimitri Patterson, who has been on seven teams in 10 years, was their answer for a starting cornerback in free agency.
Distinguishing talent evaluation from development is nearly impossible, but looking at the Jets’ roster, it feels like it’s been years since Ryan had much to work with. The Jets led the league in sacks through four weeks thanks to pressure that was almost completely manufactured, and it’s a miracle that, somehow, they’d been able to cobble together even an average pass defense. That’s without even mentioning the offense, whose no. 1 receiver was the fourth-best pass-catcher in Denver last year and whose quarterback may actually be worse than he was as a rookie. This isn’t about just one man. And if it continues, Rex won’t be the only one who can absorb all the blame.