Giants guard Geoff Schwartz usually does a silent roll call of the entire offense on the first play of every drive. It’s an ideal time for a broad look at the game, as assignments take a brief backseat to situation. That, he says, is when he notices which wide receivers are in the huddle. And as Schwartz surveyed the pass-catchers before the Giants’ final drive, there were some new faces staring back at him. “I’m like, ‘Oh yeah … we’ve got some young guys in there,’” Schwartz said after Sunday night’s win over the Niners. The young guys were Myles White and Geremy Davis, who’ve combined for four more career catches than Odell Beckham Jr. had last night.
Beckham was on the sideline when the final drive began, with the Giants trailing San Francisco, 27-23, and 1:41 left. He’d tweaked one of his problematic hamstrings “five or six plays” before scoring a touchdown late in the third quarter, and he hadn’t been on the field since. Waiting for him on the bench was Rueben Randle, who was dealing with a hamstring issue of his own. With the Giants down four points and their two best receivers, Beckham says he had a message for running back Shane Vereen as the offense took the field. “I told him, ‘You have to put the team on your back. Somebody has to do it,’” Beckham says. “He stepped up big, not that it surprised me.”
As soon as a reporter mentioned Vereen’s name, Beckham started shaking his head. Tom Coughlin had the same response during his press conference. In just five games, the Giants have learned what the Patriots already knew: Vereen is one of the NFL’s unique talents, a running back that can serve as the centerpiece of a team’s passing game if the situation calls for it. Without Beckham and Randle, that situation arrived Sunday, and of the 82 yards on the Giants’ game-winning drive, Vereen contributed 51 on three catches.
Vereen’s second catch of the drive was a 16-yard gain that took the Giants past midfield. On the very next play, an Eli Manning pass sailed into the arms of a diving Tramaine Brock, seemingly dashing the Giants’ hopes and costing them a win against the reeling Niners. But as soon as the replays hit the video board in MetLife Stadium, it was clear the Giants still had life.
There was only one way the news could get any better during that review, and it did when no. 13 trotted back into the huddle. Coughlin said Beckham had been lobbying to come back into the game, and after he was cleared by the medical staff, Coughlin relented. It took one play for Beckham to make a difference. The pass interference penalty he drew on Kenneth Acker down the left sideline took the Giants within striking distance with just 26 seconds on the clock.
It wasn’t the first time Beckham victimized Acker last night. It was Acker who Beckham spun into the turf as he reversed field and sauntered into the end zone for that third-quarter score. All game, there were reminders of how many different ways Beckham affects the contest. He torched a cornerback on a deep route down the sideline that would have been a touchdown with a better throw. He chewed up the San Francisco secondary on slants and short in-breaking routes. Even at (a generously listed) 6-foot, Beckham can be whatever type of receiver on any given play. And on his way to a seven-catch, 121-yard day, he was every kind imaginable.
Beckham got a lot of attention Sunday night (he was targeted 11 times), but when he was looking to put the game away, Manning took aim at a slightly bigger target. After Larry Donnell used his helmet to cradle a pass that whizzed past NaVorro Bowman’s ear, he fell back onto the turf while squeezing the ball so tightly that it looked like it might actually pop. The throw capped the 27th time Manning has led the Giants to a regular-season win after trailing in the fourth quarter. “It says we’ve got a better quarterback than a lot of people think,” Vereen said of Manning’s final drive. “We love him, we trust him, we follow him. He’s our leader.”
Manning was far from flawless. He threw a bad interception late in the first half and nearly did the same on a drive that ended with a 24-yard Josh Brown field goal. But without his top two receivers near the end, and without much from his running game, Manning still hung 30 points on a defense Coughlin insisted is better than San Francisco’s record shows. “Everyone wanted to talk about the three losses in a row,” Coughlin said. “I wanted to talk about Green Bay. They held Green Bay to 17 points.”
Manning’s 41 completions and 54 attempts were both career highs, and he needed all of them. Losing to a 1-3 team is never fun, but with the rest of the NFC East stumbling, a win meant a chance for the Giants to get a small step ahead of their division mates. They didn’t look as impressive as they have in recent weeks, especially on defense, but their struggles against the run came in part because they were missing both Robert Ayers and Devon Kennard in the front seven.
With players on both sides of the ball hurt and Colin Kaepernick looking better than he has at other points this year, it looked as if this one might be the sort of game that slips away from the Giants. But they managed to crawl their way to their third win. In the NFC East right now, that’s enough.
One of the reasons some folks were so high on Philadelphia coming into the year was that the talent on the Eagles defense could carry them for stretches. And no one in that group has more talent than Fletcher Cox.
Cox plays all over the formation, but his strength is the ability to line up as a 3-technique tackle and go to work against overmatched guards. He dominated the interior of the Saints offensive line yesterday to the tune of three sacks, an additional tackle for loss, and two forced fumbles. The second turnover came early in the third quarter, just after Philadelphia had scored to take a 17-10 lead. On the first play of the drive, Cox dismantled Saints tackle Andrus Peat and dragged Drew Brees to the turf. The ball went spilling onto the ground before Cox pounced on it, giving the Eagles possession at the Saints’ 13-yard line. Sam Bradford tossed a touchdown on the very next play. It’s about as big of a two-play swing as any defender can have, and it was that sort of day for Cox.
Not many human beings could get away with dressing like the Joker, but Miller is definitely the exception.
Some men just want to watch offensive tackles burn.
It looks like Tyler Eifert is here to stay. The Bengals have offensive weapons all around Andy Dalton, but with A.J. Green sequestered to life outside the numbers against a Seahawks secondary that typically thrives there, Eifert became the focal point of the Cincinnati passing game.
Seattle came into the game ranked 30th in DVOA against tight ends, and that shouldn’t get any better after yesterday. Eifert finished with eight catches for 90 yards and two touchdowns, but the most impressive part of his day was just how many ways Hue Jackson deployed him.
On the most crucial play of the game, with the Bengals needing a field goal and only 1:25 left, Eifert lined up as a tight end to the right side. He managed just enough separation on a corner route to make a tough throw for Dalton possible, before making a ridiculous sliding catch that put Cincinnati in field goal range. On his two touchdowns, the Bengals used Eifert in the slot on the left, where he worked the middle of Seattle’s defense to perfection. And on the first play of the game-winning drive in overtime, Cincy lined Eifert up wide to the left to give him room to work on a slant against a cornerback.
This is the type of varied usage mostly reserved for the league’s true playmakers on offense, and at this point, it looks like Eifert might actually be one. With Green, Marvin Jones, that offensive line, and Gio Bernard looking better than he ever has, that’s a truly terrifying collection of players.
For the most part, the Rams did all they needed to against the Packers. Green Bay’s run defense bottled up Todd Gurley on a majority of his carries, but when he tore off a 55-yarder early in the fourth quarter, it was still just an 11-point game. On that drive, the Rams managed to get the ball inside the 10 before Foles threw an ugly interception — his third of four on the day — to Ha Ha Clinton-Dix in the end zone.
Foles would throw another on the Rams’ final drive, which mattered more to bettors than anyone else, but the truth is that without the miscues from Foles (and the missed field goals from Greg Zuerlein), St. Louis put together a viable bid to slay Aaron Rodgers at Lambeau Field. The Rams ended Rodgers’s nearly three-season streak of not throwing an interception at home and then added another for good measure.
With right guard Rodger Saffold missing most of the game with a shoulder injury, some shuffling along the Rams offensive line meant Foles was under siege. The Packers hit Foles 12 times, but none of the horrendous interceptions were the result of an altered throw or a batted ball. Tight end Jared Cook deserves some of the blame for cutting his route short on the ugly pick-six by rookie Quinten Rollins, but that doesn’t explain away some of the other decisions Foles made. The Rams’ ability to stick with two of the league’s best teams in consecutive weeks is encouraging, but they have to know they let this one slip away.
The Bills Offensive Line
Few teams made as many high-profile moves as the Bills this spring. The LeSean McCoy trade was a blockbuster deal, and along with the signing of Charles Clay, it looked like it would give Buffalo one of the more potent sets of offensive weapons in the AFC. The problem is that the team’s most glaring issue outside of quarterback went mostly unaddressed.
The offensive line in Buffalo was an issue last year, and although the Bills signed Richie Incognito off the street and drafted Louisville guard John Miller in the third round, those were hardly a guaranteed fix. Much of the problem stems from what happened during last year’s draft. In trading up to get Sammy Watkins, Buffalo handed Cleveland its 2015 first-round pick, leaving the Bills with one fewer asset that could have been used to improve the group up front. Things were only exacerbated when Buffalo took former Alabama tackle Cyrus Kouandjio in the second round. According to Ian Rapoport, several team doctors gave Kouandjio a negative grade on his medical exam, with most of the concerns revolving around his surgically repaired knee.
Whether the problem is health or simply ineffectiveness, Kouandjio has barely played, and that’s left 2014 seventh-round pick Seantrel Henderson as Buffalo’s best option at right tackle. Against the Titans, Henderson was routinely roasted for the second week in a row. This time, it was by Derrick Morgan, who’s finally having the breakout season everyone has been waiting for. Morgan had another 1.5 sacks yesterday, which gives him 4.5 on the season for a Tennessee defense that came into the game with the best pressure rate in football. Jurrell Casey added 1.5 sacks, and both he and Morgan drew holding calls on drives that ended with punts.
Tennessee finished with four sacks and hit Tyrod Taylor five times. With Titans living in the backfield, Buffalo’s offense never got much going. Taylor finished 10-of-17 for just 109 yards, and Buffalo’s running backs combined for only 50 yards on 18 carries. Without Taylor’s game-saving 24-yard scramble and some baffling decision-making by Ken Whisenhunt, it’s likely the Bills would be 2-3. Taylor has been impressive at times, and getting all of their playmakers back to the field will help, but if the Bills can’t block anyone, who’s holding the ball only matters so much.
It feels like these things never actually work. Tavon Austin scored on a similar-looking play for the Rams, who probably needed even more gimmicks near the goal line, but the key difference was that with St. Louis in the shotgun, his motion across the formation was far less transparent. One quarter later, with the Rams facing a third-and-2 near midfield, Foles spun and handed the ball to a sprinting Austin, who was stuffed for no gain. St. Louis was content to hand the ball to Todd Gurley (approximately) 126 times yesterday but gave way to gadgetry on a crucial third-and-short.
It didn’t end up mattering after Johnny Hekker pulled off a fake punt to keep the drive going, but all over the league yesterday, it felt like speed sweeps and end-arounds were non-starters for offenses. The Bengals came into the game with the league’s best passing offense by DVOA — and most of what offensive coordinator Hue Jackson has done this season has been excellent — but on first-and-10, Cincinnati was content to hand the ball off to Rex Burkhead tearing across the field. The handoff went awry, and after taking one bounce on the turf, the ball landed squarely in the hands of Bobby Wagner, who took it 23 yards to the house.
The Bengals eventually climbed out of the 17-point hole they’d dug, but that’s not the point. Throw these out, offensive coordinators. There has to be a better option.
Chiefs Fans, All of Us
Keith Myers/Kansas City Star/TNS via Getty Images
As soon as the replay came on, it was easy to tell how this ended. There was no one within a few yards of Jamaal Charles when he planted his right knee into the Arrowhead Stadium turf and instantly crumpled to the ground. As soon as I saw it happen, I reacted the only way you could: yelling “Oh no!” louder than someone should in public. The initial report is that Charles indeed has a torn ACL, for the second time in his career, and that he’ll be out for the rest of the season.
Geoff Schwartz blocked for Charles for just one season in Kansas City, where the offensive guard built up his value and earned a nice long-term deal from the Giants. No one appreciates a great running back like his offensive linemen. Those are the guys who know that at times, a player like Charles makes them look great even on plays they’re not. “I think as an offensive line and a running back, you kind of work together. They can make us look good, and there are plays where it’s just blocked up well,” Schwartz told me. “But a guy like Jamaal, he can definitely make O-lines look good.” Charles is one of the more underrated backs in the NFL, but he’s also one of the more underrated backs in the history of the NFL.
At this moment, Charles is still the league’s all-time leader among halfbacks in yards per carry at 5.5 yards per attempt, and at 5.1 this year, he was showing no signs of letting up. Those numbers tell a story. With his history of track success, Charles was billed as a burner coming out of Texas, but he’s actually the opposite of a boom-or-bust running back. DVOA is a per-play metric that, in part, measures efficiency on a given snap. Coming into yesterday, Charles ranked third. He finished second last season and seventh in 2013. He was 17th in 2012, but in the two seasons before his first ACL tear, he finished second and first.
In the five seasons he’s finished as the Chiefs’ primary back, his average DVOA has been sixth. That’s remarkable considering the volume of work Charles gets in the Kansas City offense, but what’s even more remarkable is that he’s done almost all of that work without a premier offensive line. Pro Bowls are hardly the best measure of offensive line play, but since Charles came into the league, just two Chiefs offensive linemen have been sent to Hawaii. One of them — Brian Waters — hasn’t played for Kansas City since 2010. For the most part, the Chiefs line has been a constant shuffling of replaceable players. Barry Richardson was an NFL starter for just three seasons, two of them coming during Charles’s run. Center Casey Wiegmann, who started the entire 2010 and 2011 campaigns, was 38 years old that second season. Jeff Allen was a starter for two seasons before eventually losing his job.
Continuity and exceptional talent have been a constant presence with the group blocking for Charles, but it’s never really mattered. Every year, Charles remains one of the two or three best running backs in football, all while serving as the Chiefs’ most potent threat in the passing game. Every time he touches the ball, it’s worth watching as he stops and starts in a way no one else can and makes something out of nothing better than few backs ever have. He’s a rare combination — a back that’s utterly thrilling while also being ruthlessly effective. The Chiefs aren’t the only ones who lost yesterday. We all did.
This post has been updated to correct the name of the stadium where Jamaal Charles injured his knee. It was at Arrowhead Stadium, not Soldier Field.