Week 11 NFL Wrap-up: Heavyweight Takedowns

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The Patriots staked their claim to the top seed in the AFC with a comfortable 42-20 win in Indianapolis on Sunday night. The star of the game was anonymous running back Jonas Gray, who spent most of his college career buried on the Notre Dame depth chart and was on the New England practice squad for the first six weeks of the season. Gray’s 199-yard, four-touchdown performance was stunning. What wasn’t so surprising was how Bill Belichick came up with another slant on his usual schemes, shifting the balance of power in his team’s direction yet again. X’s and O’s can’t win games, but they helped create an edge for the Patriots on Sunday.

With both the Patriots and Colts coming off a Week 10 bye, it was fair to suggest we might see a few wrinkles in each team’s playbook. Belichick didn’t settle for wrinkles; he added a new appendage.

Just as he did in January’s 43-22 playoff win over these same Colts, Belichick relied heavily on his running game to keep Andrew Luck off the field and prevent Indianapolis from wearing down New England’s thin defensive lineup. That, though, was with Logan Mankins at guard and former offensive line coach Dante Scarnecchia on the sideline. New England’s line has improved mightily since installing rookie Bryan Stork at center and Ryan Wendell at right guard after that disastrous loss to the Chiefs in Week 4, but they’re still hardly a dominant run-blocking unit.

The solution? Add an extra offensive lineman. As ESPN Boston’s Mike Reiss counted during the game, the Patriots lined up Cameron Fleming as a sixth offensive lineman on a whopping 37 snaps Sunday night. That’s virtually unprecedented.1 Plenty of teams will line up with an extra offensive lineman in short-yardage situations, but virtually nobody uses it as a basic offensive strategy. The Bears have used swing tackle Eben Britton as an extra blocker at times, and the Ravens would use six-lineman sets pretty frequently during Joe Flacco’s rookie season in 2008, but I don’t recall any game when a team used a sixth lineman this frequently. The Patriots didn’t go with a sixth lineman even once during that playoff win.

Indianapolis never consistently adjusted to the extra lineman. While the Colts themselves successfully used sets with six offensive lineman and/or an unbalanced line against the Eagles in Week 2, the NFL’s official gamebooks suggest that the Indy defense had seen no more than eight snaps against six-lineman sets this season, the majority coming near the goal line.

And while I’m sure Indy’s coaches were giving a lesson on what to look for, their defensive linemen — notably Josh Chapman — were getting blown off the line of scrimmage. Indy was without Arthur Jones, the 337-pound 5-technique end they added from the Ravens this offseason who might have been able to help in this exact spot. Star inside linebacker Jerrell Freeman missed a number of tackles, including a potential stop of Gray in the backfield that would have ended a drive. The Patriots ran the ball 41 times and lost yards only on a third-and-2 in the fourth quarter with the game well in hand. On that play Gray lost 2 yards, but the Patriots picked up the first down anyway on a face-mask penalty. That’s unreal.

Gray did his part. Cris Collinsworth noted during the game that Belichick and the offensive line would appreciate Gray hitting exactly the hole they expected on each and every play, and while it’s impossible to truly know which hole he was supposed to hit without the playbook, this looked and felt like a running game in harmony. Gray isn’t going to be a world-beater who makes six guys miss, but he was efficient, slicing through the holes the offensive line left for him and getting the maximum from the work his linemen had wrought. It was no accident that the Patriots left Shane Vereen — a more explosive but less disciplined runner — in a receiving role for most of the game.

The out-of-nowhere arrival of Gray speaks to another classic Belichick tenet: his faith in buying low on running backs. In that playoff game in January, the Patriots got a 166-yard, four-touchdown performance out of LeGarrette Blount, whom they had acquired from the Buccaneers for peanuts during the previous year’s draft. After letting Blount go to the Steelers in free agency and losing Stevan Ridley to a torn ACL and MCL, New England happily plugged in Gray and found results. It’s the same organization that bought low on Antowain Smith, Sammy Morris, and Danny Woodhead while turning BenJarvus Green-Ellis from an undrafted free agent into a starter. In fact, most of the Patriots’ serious investments at the position — the contract extension for Corey Dillon, their first-round pick on Laurence Maroney — haven’t quite worked out.

While Belichick didn’t massively shift his defensive scheme, he did establish some matchups to fit the varying strengths and weaknesses of his secondary. It’s always easy to oversimplify defensive schemes, and even easier to do so without seeing the All-22 (which isn’t released until midweek), but it appears that the Patriots had a relatively concrete plan for how they wanted to handle Indy’s receivers.

Instead of attempting to lock up star Colts wideout T.Y. Hilton with Darrelle Revis, New England’s best cornerback, Belichick assigned arguably his worst regular corner in Kyle Arrington to Hilton and gave Arrington plenty of safety help. Hilton had three catches on seven targets for just 24 yards. Belichick trusted the rest of his cornerbacks to match up one-on-one across the board. Revis mostly followed Reggie Wayne around the formation. Brandon Browner went for Coby Fleener, and when the Colts went to three-wideout sets, Logan Ryan was the one on Hakeem Nicks. Fleener caught all seven passes thrown to him for a career-high 144 yards, and Wayne took advantage of an early blown coverage to pick up 46 yards, but overall the strategy did enough to slow Luck down. There are a handful of moments every game when Luck looks downfield past the camera’s view before throwing and it feels like there’s somebody running free on the other side of those passes; there weren’t really any throws like that last night.

The Colts might have been able to force the Patriots into more advantageous defensive looks by running the football effectively, but that just didn’t happen. Ahmad Bradshaw and Trent Richardson combined to carry the ball 14 times for just 4 yards, with Richardson chipping in a particularly Richardson-esque seven-carry, zero-yard night. Even worse, the Colts may keep struggling to run the football. Bradshaw, who has been dealing with foot problems for years, limped to the locker room with his cleat off during the second half.2 Tight end Dwayne Allen, the team’s best blocking end and arguably its second-best player on offense after Luck, was carted off in the first half with an ankle injury and did not return. If either of those guys are out for an extended period of time, Indy’s running game will suffer.

Indy may rue this loss all the way to January. Had they won on Sunday, the Colts would have been in position for a first-round bye, thanks to Denver’s loss to St. Louis. Instead, the Patriots now hold a one-game lead over the Broncos, a two-game lead over the Colts, and a 1.5-game lead over the Bengals with head-to-head victories over each of those three divisional leaders, guaranteeing Belichick & Co. the win in any tiebreaker scenario.3 The path to the Super Bowl in the AFC travels through Foxborough.

For all the fun of hyping a Luck-Brady matchup, this game really wasn’t about them at all. Neither would tell you they played their best game, with Brady throwing two awful interceptions in the first half. Luck falls to 0-3 versus Brady, just as his predecessor did during the six-game Indianapolis losing streak that opened the Brady-Manning rivalry.4

During Friday’s podcast, I asked Robert Mays who Luck’s natural rival has been and would be over the course of his career. The obvious guess is Jacksonville’s Blake Bortles, but he is a question mark at this point. Given that Luck has beaten Manning, I think the obvious candidate is Brady, but Brady is also going to be gone from the scene much sooner than Luck. Maybe it’s the guy who probably isn’t going anywhere anytime soon that Luck has to worry about. Brady’s not the nemesis after all. It’s Belichick.

Denver Broncos v St. Louis RamsDilip Vishwanat/Getty Images

This Is a Low

What, you want me to explain the Rams? I wish I could. The Rams have beaten the Seahawks and taken down the 49ers in San Francisco this season. They’ve also lost to the Vikings by 28 points and looked so hopeless last week that they turned to Shaun Hill to try to spark their offense. And three weeks removed from allowing 34 points to the Chiefs, a St. Louis defensive resurgence limited Peyton Manning to his lowest-scoring day as a Broncos quarterback in a 22-7 St. Louis victory.

Nobody else has held Manning to just seven points during his time with the Broncos. Even the Seahawks managed to give up a two-point conversion during last season’s 43-8 shellacking in the Super Bowl. The Broncos had scored 17 points or more in each of Manning’s first 41 regular-season games as the Denver quarterback while averaging a whopping 33.5 points. This year’s offense hadn’t been quite as notable as last season’s historically dominant offense, but it had been good enough for 31.8 points per game before Sunday.

St. Louis held that offense to one touchdown, a long Emmanuel Sanders catch-and-run on what appeared to be a blown coverage. To put it in perspective, the Rams allowed 24.8 fewer points than Denver’s average score in its other games this season. That’s the third-largest difference of the season:

How, exactly, did the 24th-ranked defense by DVOA heading into the week stop the Broncos offense?

Well, the simplest explanation is that the Rams put Manning in a spot where he couldn’t hurt them: the sideline. The Rams weren’t exactly great on offense, with one meaty 63-yard touchdown pass to Kenny Britt surrounded by five field goals’ worth of bread, but they did enough to hold the ball for almost 36 minutes. The defense played its part by shutting down the Broncos on third and fourth down. Denver had converted 44.4 percent of its third and fourth downs heading into Week 11, the eighth-best rate in the league. On Sunday, the team went just 4-for-15 (.267) on those plays, including an oh-fer in the second half.

I went back and watched those plays again, and there’s not one obvious solution that kept St. Louis afloat. The Rams were able to get pressure on Manning, but it was a little more subtle than your typical attack. They sacked Manning only twice and knocked him down four times on 56 dropbacks, but they had more functional pressure in terms of hurrying him and preventing him from getting comfortable in the pocket.

They also shifted the way Denver designed its plays and how Manning went through his progressions before the game even started. It’s a concept I think about a lot in terms of silly narratives. You know the idea about “establishing the run,” right? For whatever there is to be said about running the ball early (not a lot), if you’re actually a really good rushing offense, you’ve established the run before the game even started. During his MVP season in 2012, do you think Adrian Peterson needed to prove in the first quarter that he was going to run the opposing team over? Of course not. They already knew before the game started. Likewise, the Broncos were already aware the Rams could beat Manning up if they went with long drops, and as a result they tried to build their offense around quick throws.

It’s interesting to talk about the Rams as having such a dominant pass rush because, well, they didn’t for most of the season. While they were rightly hyped as having a fearsome front four heading into the season, they lost Chris Long to short-term IR in Week 1 and scuffled to a historic extent; they had just one sack through their first five games, an NFL record. Since then, things have been better. They’ve produced 18 sacks on 222 dropbacks in their last five games, an 8.1 percent sack rate that’s far closer to their 8.9 percent rate from 2013. They might also get Long back as early as next week, which should make them only more devastating up front.

They’re also developing talent behind that front four. Second-year contributors Alec Ogletree and T.J. McDonald have each taken steps forward this season, notably during this three-game stretch in which the Rams have allowed an average of just 11.3 points to the 49ers, Cardinals, and Broncos.5 After breaking up three passes, intercepting one, and forcing a fumble against the Cardinals a week ago, Ogletree knocked away two more passes and came away with another pick on Sunday. McDonald, meanwhile, looks like one of those lawn mower safeties who makes plays all over the field; he broke up three attempts on Sunday. The Rams knocked away 12 of Manning’s 54 passes.

As with the Colts, the Broncos couldn’t run the ball and suffered injuries that hindered their ability to move the chains. C.J. Anderson carried the ball just nine times for 29 yards, while Montee Ball went down after reaggravating his groin injury. He wasn’t the only Broncos skill-position player to get hurt, as Julius Thomas missed virtually the entire game with an ankle injury, while Emmanuel Sanders suffered a concussion on a brutal shoulder-to-shoulder hit that was incorrectly ruled to be unnecessary roughness. By the end of the game, Manning was throwing to Demaryius Thomas, Jacob Tamme, Anderson, and the ghost of Wes Welker. That’s not a good group of skill-position targets.

A performance this good might tempt you to wonder whether the Rams could break off a sudden winning streak and emerge as a late entrant into the NFC wild-card picture, and at 4-6 in a wide-open conference, they’re not officially out by any means. It’s also not a guarantee this wins bodes anything for their future. Remember that the Rams blew out the Colts in Indy last year, 38-8, before beating a 6-4 Bears team by 21. At 5-6, a Rams fan might have dreamed they could win out, but they promptly lost their next two games and finished 7-9.

More likely, the Rams have the potential to be a spoiler. They have three games left against the league’s dregs (Raiders, Washington, Giants) and three against playoff-caliber opponents (Chargers, Cardinals, Seahawks). They can be good enough to beat each of those three talented teams on their day, and they can be bad enough to lose to each of the three mediocrities when they’re off. Which Rams team is going to show up over the next six weeks? Your guess is as good as mine.

Filed Under: NFL, New England Patriots, Indianapolis Colts, Tom Brady, Andrew Luck, Peyton Manning, Denver Broncos, St. Louis Rams

Bill Barnwell is a staff writer for Grantland.

Archive @ billbarnwell