The same old Bengals appear to have learned some new tricks. Unsurprisingly derided after falling behind 24-7 to the Seahawks at home during the third quarter, Cincinnati launched into a stirring comeback and scored 20 unanswered points, eventually using a Mike Nugent field goal off the left upright to come away with a 27-24 victory in overtime. It was a remarkable comeback for a team that had about a 3 percent chance of winning when it took over on offense down 17 points with 2:03 to go in the third quarter. Then again, ESPN’s Football Power Index suggests the Bengals had a 3.4 percent chance of starting the year 5-0, and here we are.
Most of the immediate commentary after the game seemed to suggest that the Seahawks blew this lead, that it was more about the mistakes Seattle made than the good work done by Cincinnati to fuel the comeback. Offensive coordinator Darrell Bevell seemed to come in for specific criticism about his game plan, with Seattle fans feeling like the Seahawks hadn’t done enough to try to add to their lead, a sore spot given that the Seahawks nearly blew a narrow lead against the Lions last week and couldn’t hold a 10-point lead while going scoreless in the fourth quarter of the Super Bowl.
I’m not so sure. The evidence that the Seahawks can’t hold a lead during the Russell Wilson era doesn’t seem to track. Since Wilson arrived in 2012, the Seahawks are 16-0 when they hold a 10-point lead at halftime. They’re 20-2 (.909) with a 10-point lead at the end of the third quarter, having lost the Super Bowl and Sunday’s game. The rest of the league is 375-31-2 (.922) over that same time frame.1 The Seahawks might be haunted by two very recent games gone awry, but they haven’t been appreciably worse at holding leads than the rest of the NFL.
Change it to a seven-point lead and the Seahawks are 27-3 (.900) after three quarters when the rest of the league has been 458-52-3 (.895). They’re 21-0 with a seven-point lead at halftime.
After going up 24-7 when Bobby Wagner recovered a fumbled Rex Burkhead end around and took it to the house, the Seahawks started their next drive on their own 2-yard line. It would be the first of four possessions they would have before the Bengals tied the game at the end of regulation, each of which would start with subpar field position. The Seahawks didn’t start a single one of those drives with fewer than 80 yards to go for a touchdown, which didn’t help matters.
I went back and watched those four drives to see (admittedly with the benefit of hindsight) if the Seahawks were too conservative. It’s hard for me to say they were. I think you could make a case that Bevell’s play calling was too predictable, given that he went run-run-pass on two of Seattle’s last three possessions. Predictable doesn’t necessarily have to be ineffective, though, and Seattle had enough success running the football that the play calls weren’t really the problem.
The problem was a 280-pound defensive end who the Seahawks would have literally needed a 12th man to block. Carlos Dunlap was an absolute monster during those final four drives and either directly or indirectly resulted in each of their respective demises. He whipped the brutally overmatched Garry Gilliam on third-and-3 for a sack to end the first drive. He beat Gilliam again on the next third-and-4, knocking Wilson down while forcing the quarterback into a premature, inaccurate failed bomb to Jermaine Kearse.
On the next drive, the Seahawks slid to account for a Bengals blitz and ended up with inexperienced running back Thomas Rawls matched up versus Dunlap, which ended poorly; Rawls was barely able to cut Dunlap for a moment, which only gave Wilson enough time to spin frantically under pressure from Dunlap, fall down, and deliver an incomplete pass as he was about to be laid out by George Iloka. And on third down during the final Seahawks drive in regulation, needing a stop, Dunlap feigned rushing outside and then cut inside to spy Wilson just as the Seattle star broke upfield to try to scramble for a first down. Geno Atkins came off of his man to sack Wilson for no gain, narrowly beating Dunlap to the punch. This is what a conservative offense looks like:
It wasn’t easy for Seattle on those final four drives. Rawls actually did a very effective job as a runner, given that there was penetration into the backfield from Cincinnati’s defensive line or free run blitzers on just about every play. Seattle did take a shot downfield on the first of those four possessions and nearly came away with a big play when Tyler Lockett badly burned Dre Kirkpatrick, but Wilson’s throw carried Lockett to the boundary, and the rookie wasn’t able to get his feet inbounds or draw a pass interference call on the desperate Kirkpatrick, with his 37-yard reception overturned on replay.
The Bengals obviously deserve credit for eventually winning the game with what they did on offense, as well, and a lot of that goes on the shoulders of Andy Dalton, who brought the Bengals back even though his offensive line was outplayed by Seattle’s front four for most of the day. Even during that 17-point comeback in the fourth quarter, Dalton was routinely getting popped by free defenders. He even called his own number to set up the second touchdown, recognizing that the Seahawks didn’t have any linebackers in the box, sneaking in from 5 yards out to make it 24-21. That’s the sort of play we normally use to anoint Tom Brady as a mystical football genius, and he very well might be, but Dalton deserves a lot of credit for what he did, too. In fact, he had a lot in common with Brady on this day.
You know what else Brady does? Drop 25-yard passes into a teacup for his uncoverable tight end, and that’s what Dalton did during that fourth quarter:
You may also notice the safety in coverage there, somebody Brady was able to pick on during the Super Bowl. Kam Chancellor won the game for the Seahawks last week, and he’s unquestionably a great player, but the Bengals worked him in the passing game on Sunday. There was that gorgeous pass from Dalton, a play where he’s clearly targeting Tyler Eifert vs. Chancellor in one-on-one coverage and trusting that his tight end is the better player. Eifert caught two touchdowns Sunday, and they came on virtually identical passes. Both times, Eifert ran past Chancellor, who failed to carry the burgeoning star up the seam long enough to provide meaningful support, producing easy touchdown passes and arguments among Seattle defensive backs:
Earl Thomas is going to be a Hall of Famer, but he can’t cover the entire end zone by himself, as he’s likely shouting at the end of that play. The Bengals also attacked Chancellor in those intermediate zones repeatedly during their last touchdown drive, including a three-pass sequence where they went at him three times in a row with Marvin Jones and Mohamed Sanu for a total of 40 yards and two first downs. It shouldn’t serve to take anything away from Chancellor and what he did last week (or his impact on the Seattle defense), but the Bengals unquestionably had success throwing at him on Sunday.
They had even more fun throwing at Cary Williams, who is quickly becoming a notable problem at cornerback. It was easier to hide Williams’s struggles behind the Chancellor holdout, but after some painful moments during the first four weeks, Williams was desperately exposed during Sunday’s game. The Seahawks have spent the vast majority of the year in their traditional alignment, leaving Richard Sherman on his preferred left side of the field (on the right side of the offense) and Williams on the right.
Just as the Patriots spent the entire Super Bowl keeping their best receivers away from Sherman, Bengals offensive coordinator Hue Jackson made the wise decision to leave A.J. Green on Williams’s side of the field to start the game. It wasn’t pretty. After a blown coverage on Sherman’s side versus the same switch verticals concept the Broncos ran for big plays against the Seahawks last year produced a 44-yard gain for Marvin Jones,2 the first of two aforementioned Eifert touchdowns put Cincy up 7-0.
It was very possibly a blown coverage on Chancellor’s part, although it’s hard to tell without coaches tape. The Bengals added a wrinkle by motioning out Gio Bernard to overload that side.
The next drive was a bridge too far. Green beat Williams at the line of scrimmage and caught a fade for an easy 22-yard completion on first-and-15. On the next play, he absolutely eviscerated Williams, leaving him in his dust and shedding him for a 72-yard touchdown catch on another fade, only for the play to be called back for a hold by star tackle Andrew Whitworth. After that series, defensive coordinator Kris Richard finally capitulated and moved Sherman to Green’s side of the field to shadow Cincinnati’s superstar wideout.
It wasn’t exactly a one-on-one matchup for the rest of the day, as Cincinnati moved Green around and snuck him into the slot, but there was far more of Sherman on Green than the Bengals would have hoped. Eventually, they went after Williams with their secondary receivers and got pass interference penalties of 27 and 29 yards, including one that preceded the Eifert deep corner over Chancellor as part of the game-tying drive.
For all of that, though, Dalton had to make the throws. He did throw an ugly interception in the end zone on a pass that was far too late, but otherwise, he was mostly brilliant. This won’t count as a prime-time game when you split up Dalton’s numbers to prove that he can’t win games when his team really needs him to, but games like this against dominant defenses should prove that he can produce big games when his team needs him to do so. I don’t really believe in statement games or games where a quarterback turns the corner and becomes a different passer afterward, but if you do, this was one of those games. As much as the Seahawks blew this lead, it was more about the likes of Dalton and Dunlap winning it for the increasingly impressive Bengals.
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There are some who would love it to be 2008 all over again. Shia LaBeouf. Lil Wayne. Myspace. The Detroit Lions are not on that list, but on Sunday, it felt a little bit like 2008 at Ford Field. The Lions were already one of the league’s more disappointing teams after following their playoff run with an 0-4 start to the 2015 season, but they hadn’t delivered the sort of embarrassing performance that marked their winless campaign seven years ago. That’s no longer the case, as the Lions turned the ball over six times and benched starting quarterback Matthew Stafford during a 42-17 loss to the Cardinals.
Even that disastrous Lions team under Rod Marinelli might have struggled to come up with a first-half stinker as bad as what Detroit mustered up on Sunday. Although surely aided by a Cardinals team that seems to absolutely relish its chances to annihilate the league’s lesser lights, the Lions turned the ball over four times during a sputtering first half. The 2008 Lions never did that. It happened only three times during the 2014 campaign, and truthfully, the Lions should have had a fifth first-half giveaway on an Ameer Abdullah fumble, only for the Cardinals — who should have had enough practice by now — to narrowly recover the fumble out of bounds.
The Lions benched Abdullah after that fumble, his second of the day, and Stafford followed shortly thereafter. Head coach Jim Caldwell warned Stafford that he would be benched if he threw another interception after halftime, and not wanting to waste much time, Stafford threw a pick on fourth-and-3 when he tried to force a ball to Calvin Johnson on the opening possession of the second half. True to his word, Caldwell brought in Dan Orlovsky, who added another pick in his 38 pass attempts.
Caldwell said after the game that he has no intention of making a long-term quarterback change, and there’s little reason to think Orlovsky would be any better than Detroit’s incumbent, but Stafford has been a problem this year. Stafford has never been the most careful of quarterbacks, but after posting a career-low interception rate of 2.0 percent during his first season under Caldwell in 2014,3 the hope was that he would be more careful with the football. That hasn’t been the case; after throwing 12 picks in 16 games last year, he’s already thrown eight interceptions during Detroit’s first five contests in 2015. His interception rate is up in the Kirk Cousins range at 4.1 percent.
Stafford posted a 1.0 interception rate in 2010, but in only three games before injury.
The biggest drop-off for Stafford, statistically, has been on intermediate throws traveling between 10 and 20 yards in the air. The famously big-armed passer always has the ability to make plays downfield, but the Lions have typically capitalized on that by exploiting teams’ fear of getting beat for those big plays with steady doses of dig routes and back-shoulder throws. Last year, Stafford was effective on those passes, producing an 85.7 QBR while throwing five picks on 138 tries. In 2015, Stafford has been awful in that same range, posting a lowly 31.7 QBR, good for 32nd in the NFL. He’s already thrown five interceptions in that range on just 42 attempts.
What’s weird for a quarterback with Stafford’s arm strength is that he is simply not getting the ball downfield very frequently. He’s averaging 6.12 air yards per attempt, which is 32nd among quarterbacks this year. Only Philip Rivers, Tony Romo, and Alex Smith are averaging fewer air yards per attempt. Last year, Stafford averaged 7.80 yards per attempt, which was just below the league average of 8.12 air yards per throw.
It’s fair to say that part of the game plan from embattled offensive coordinator Joe Lombardi has been designed to get the ball out of Stafford’s hands and away from his disappointing offensive line, which hasn’t coalesced at all. The Cardinals knocked down Stafford and Orlovsky 11 times on 71 dropbacks. Veteran center Dominic Raiola had slipped by the end of his final season last year, but replacement Travis Swanson has been a mess this season. The Lions may very well want to move left guard Manny Ramirez to center and slot first-round pick Laken Tomlinson in at guard, but Ramirez has been forced to fill in on the right side while star guard Larry Warford has struggled with a high ankle sprain. Warford missed the Cardinals game after re-aggravating the ankle injury two weeks ago.
Injuries, indeed, are the biggest reason the Lions have been so bad this season. There are other disappointing teams that can claim to be affected by injuries to their star players — the Cowboys, Steelers, and Ravens come to mind — but nobody in the league has been decimated by injuries quite like the Lions have. The list is actually quite staggering:
The Lions must have been thrilled to get Levy back this week, but his return to the lineup only lasted a handful of snaps before he re-aggravated his hip ailment and left the game. His status going forward is unknown. The one unit of the team that has remained healthy has been the secondary, but that has been a disaster. Darius Slay has been toasted for big plays each of the past three weeks, with John Brown getting him for a 49-yard gain up the sideline on Sunday. Rashean Mathis is beginning to look his age; the Cardinals were able to hit a big running play when Mathis went missing in coverage. Third-round selection Alex Carter, who was supposed to offer depth at cornerback, is on short-term injured reserve with an ankle injury and won’t be back until Week 10 at the earliest.
It’s fair to say that the most disconcerting performance might be from one of the few Lions actually healthier than he was a year ago. Lions fans likely dreamt that the Detroit passing attack would include the Golden Tate who broke out in 2014 along with the 2011 to 2013 version of Calvin Johnson, who averaged 111.7 receiving yards per game over that three-year stretch. Throw in Abdullah, a preseason sensation, and it seemed like Detroit could piece together a top-five passing attack if everyone stayed on the field in 2015.
Megatron hasn’t missed any time, but he doesn’t look like the world-destroyer from the past. He was held to five catches for 64 yards on seven targets by resurgent Cardinals cornerback Patrick Peterson on Sunday, with Tate being targeted 18 times on the other side of the field. He has faced a murderers’ row of cornerbacks over the past three weeks with Peterson, Sherman, and Denver’s Aqib Talib/Chris Harris Jr. combination, but this is Calvin freaking Johnson. He’s supposed to be the one who gives cornerbacks bad matchups, not the other way around.
Through five games, Johnson has caught 32 passes on 52 targets for 322 yards. That yardage total is what really concerns me. Remove passes that travel fewer than five yards in the air from the equation (in other words, no screens), and Johnson is averaging 2.6 yards after the catch. The only wide receivers with 15 such catches averaging fewer YAC on those throws are DeAndre Hopkins (who is probably exhausted from all the targets), Michael Crabtree, and Allen Robinson. On those same throws from 2011 to 2013, Johnson averaged 4.5 yards after catch. Stafford has always been the sort of quarterback comfortable throwing his receivers into big hits; it’s scary to wonder whether Johnson, who turned 30 several weeks ago, has been permanently slowed by them.
And really, if Stafford and Megatron aren’t playing like superstars, this team is going to struggle. The Lions have two of the eight highest cap hits in the league, with Stafford making $17.7 million and Johnson in line for a whopping $20.6 million. The Lions are also responsible for $9.7 million in dead money from Ndamukong Suh’s deal. The trio counts for $48 million, which is just under one-third of Detroit’s entire cap space. The Lions can’t do much about Suh, and they may not regret missing out on Suh’s massive deal, but they clearly chose to build around the offensive components of their big three. If Stafford is subpar and Johnson is simply a pretty good wideout, the Lions are toast, and that’s before considering the injuries elsewhere.
2016 is the first year the Lions can seriously consider moving on from either of their stars. They would save $11.5 million on their cap by cutting or trading Stafford, although they would still owe him $11 million in dead money. It would be a similar figure to dump Johnson, whose contract remains onerous. His cap hold will come in just over $8 million more next year ($24.0 million) than the second-most expensive wideout (Julio Jones, $15.9 million).
I don’t think the Lions should try to get rid of Stafford or Johnson with no clear path to a replacement, but as currently constructed, they’re in trouble. If their stars are struggling for adequacy and the rest of their roster is riddled by injuries, they’re going to be really bad. That’s why I wouldn’t endorse making major moves. As much as Caldwell and Lombardi are easy to blame for the team’s problems, they don’t run the cap. And if they replace longtime general manager Martin Mayhew this offseason, whoever comes in for Mayhew will need two years to rebuild the roster and reconfigure the team’s salary structure. The Lions are a massive runaway train that will be virtually impossible to steer back onto the tracks quickly unless the brakes suddenly come back to life. And right now, the only thing they’re running away with is last place in the NFC North.
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The 2015 Titans aren’t exactly in win-now mode, but they shouldn’t be in the business of giving victories away, either. That’s what they did Sunday, blowing a brilliant defensive performance and a 10-0 third-quarter lead to lose 14-13 to a Bills team they outplayed for most of the day. It’s a loss you can pin at least in part on Ken Whisenhunt, who spent the vast majority of the game coaching not to lose. His conservative decision-making ended up costing the Titans the points that served as the margin of victory.
In the abstract, you can understand why Whisenhunt would have been concerned about his team’s ability to win in the trenches in short-yardage situations against a dominant Bills defense. His offensive line was missing guard Chance Warmack and included a limited Taylor Lewan, who committed two penalties (another was declined) before leaving the game with a stinger. And indeed, Tennessee’s running backs had a tough time on the ground, combining for just 49 rushing yards on 22 attempts.
What Whisenhunt does have is a mobile quarterback. Marcus Mariota is the perfect sort of quarterback to employ on fourth down, agile enough to slip through creases and an experienced operator with getting the ball out quickly for short, accurate passes. During his time at Oregon, Mariota posted a 90.8 QBR on fourth-down pass plays and converted on 11 of his 17 fourth-down rush attempts. Mariota probably isn’t the sort of fourth-down wrecking machine that Cam Newton is in Carolina, but he aids your chances dramatically.
In any case, regardless of what he thought his team’s chances might be on fourth down, Whisenhunt coached like a man who had little faith in his offense. The Titans drove to the Buffalo 36-yard line on their opening drive, only for Whisenhunt to skip a fourth-and-2 attempt or a 54-yard field goal attempt from Ryan Succop in pleasant weather to punt, pinning the Bills on their 11-yard line.
The Bills went three-and-out, as they would do for most of the first half; their five first-half drives produced a total of just 52 yards and four first downs. The Titans took over and again drove before stalling out on the Buffalo side of the field, this time punting on fourth-and-9 from the Buffalo 48, again to the 11-yard line. That’s reasonable: You can see the Titans wanting to play field position and force Tyrod Taylor to march downfield on their quietly impressive pass rush.
After another punt, Tennessee broke through into the red zone and finally got into scoring position. Again, though, Whisenhunt played it safe. The Titans eventually faced a fourth-and-2 from the Buffalo 3-yard line and chose to kick a 21-yard field goal. It doesn’t seem to fit. The numbers narrowly say to go for it, but if Whisenhunt was playing field position, wouldn’t he have appreciated the value of locking the Bills inside their 5-yard line even after a failed conversion attempt?
You’ll hear announcers and coaches blabber on about how important it is to take the lead and score the first points in a game, but a 3-0 lead almost never holds up. There have been 180 games in the post-merger NFL with a team leading 3-0 at halftime, as the Titans did Sunday. In just 27 of those 180 games (15 percent), the leading team has maintained its shutout through the second half. It was naive of Tennessee to expect the defense to shut the Bills out for the entire game.
Whisenhunt kept going. He punted on fourth-and-7 from the Titans’ 45-yard line, and after another failed Bills drive combined with a 26-yard punt return, the Titans took over on the Buffalo side of the field. They moved the ball to the 39-yard line, and on yet another fourth-and-2, Whisenhunt again chose to look past the numbers and punt.
Only one team, the Chiefs, punted even once during the first half on fourth-and-2 or less inside the opposition’s 40-yard line during the 2014 season. Whisenhunt’s Titans did it twice in one game! He finished up the half by handing the ball off to Dexter McCluster on a draw from the Tennessee 10-yard line with 10 seconds left.
The Titans forced one more short possession after the break and then punched in a 1-yard touchdown by Antonio Andrews to go up 10-0. It looked like they had probably done enough to keep themselves ahead of a moribund Bills offense, but things suddenly clicked to life for the Bills against a tiring Tennessee front seven. Taylor began to break free, scrambling for 26 yards on one third down before taking a quarterback draw for a 22-yard score.
Whisenhunt’s Titans responded with a drive that started on their own 5-yard line and took nearly seven minutes off the clock. It included a successful conversion on second-and-1 from Andrews, his second conversion on three 1-yard tries Sunday. And when the drive stalled on the Buffalo 23-yard line, Whisenhunt faced a fourth-and-2 and … kicked another field goal to go up 13-7 with 9:41 left. The New York Times‘s fourth-down bot liked that one, and it’s the most defensible conservative call Whisenhunt made all day.
The head coach was betting on his defense to come through and prevent the Bills from scoring a second touchdown, but it didn’t work out that way. Taylor scrambled for 24 yards on third-and-23, with a 15-yard horse collar penalty tacked on for linebacker Zach Brown. Taylor then hit nominal no. 1 receiver Chris Hogan (with Sammy Watkins inactive with a calf injury) for 46 yards before finding Hogan on a quick out for the game-winning score. The Titans picked up one first down on their two ensuing drives, and even that required an absurd unnecessary roughness call on Corey Graham.
Quite literally, Whisenhunt’s conservative decision-making cost his team the game. Chase Stuart noted on Twitter that Whisenhunt’s three decisions on fourth-and-2 cost his team 2.5 points versus the optimal decision, which would have been going for it in each case. Even allowing that the Titans would not have had quite as much success as an average team going for it in the same situations, there’s a comfortable gap between the 2.5-point difference and the single-point margin of victory in Tennessee.
It’s a shame, too, because the Titans might actually have a shot at competing to win an even-more-moribund-than-usual AFC South. They’re in the middle of a homestand that will see them play the lowly Dolphins and the somehow-undefeated Falcons over the next two weeks before traveling to winnable road destinations in Houston and New Orleans. If Tennessee had managed to hold on to the lead against the Colts in Week 3 and beaten the Bills this week, it would have had serious playoff aspirations at the top of the South. Instead, just as was the case on Sunday, the Titans appeared to let opportunity slip through their grasp.