“Second Read” rewinds the tape after each NFL weekend to determine why the games played out the way that they did … and what it all may mean for the rest of the season.
Easily the best bit of news from this lost Philadelphia Eagles season has been the rapid maturation of Nick Foles at quarterback. The Eagles are just 1-3 in his starts (1-4 in his appearances), but over his last three outings, Foles is completing 66 percent of his passes (70 for 106), has not thrown an interception and has a QB rating in the mid-90s.
At no time has his improved control of the game been more obvious than in the final seconds Sunday against Tampa Bay. Foles threw a touchdown pass with 3:55 left to pull Philadelphia within 21-16, then led a game-winning drive over the final 2:44, capped off with a TD toss to Jeremy Maclin.
Philadelphia coach Andy Reid said that Foles called the final play himself -- from the Tampa Bay 1, he rolled right as Maclin ran a quick out against man coverage (photo here).
It was a smart play call that led to a relatively easy pitch-and-catch, while taking advantage of Tampa Bay's attention to the middle of the field. It also was Foles' second-best play of the final drive.
About 15 seconds earlier, Foles moved the Eagles from the 23-yard-line to the 1 with a sensational pass to Jason Avant. Foles dropped one into Avant down the middle, placing it between bump-and-run cornerback coverage and deep safety help (photo).
Foles did get a bit fortunate the play before -- he threw one behind Marvin McNutt that should have been intercepted. Given second life, though, he made the Buccaneers pay.
A few more observations from winding back the Week 14 game film:
1. San Diego wins up front: I'm trying to recall a game during which a team's offensive line so drastically improved as the Chargers did Sunday, and I'm having a hard time. San Diego's first drive came crashing to a halt on three straight incompletions, as Philip Rivers had to deal with heavy pressure from the Steelers.
From the midpoint of the second quarter on, though, San Diego consistently won battles up front. That success was most noticeable in the passing game, where Rivers had ample time to throw. In fact, the Steelers managed just one sack all day despite 42 Rivers drop-backs.
And while the run game was not nearly as effective, San Diego did enough there too to help grind down the clock -- especially on the third quarter's opening drive, which lasted nearly 10 minutes and resulted in a touchdown.
The key play there: a 17-yard draw play to Ronnie Brown on 3rd-and-13, made possible by a terrific pulling block from guard Rex Hadnot:
Pittsburgh's defense thrives on disrupting offenses in their own backfield. The Chargers kept the Steelers from doing that Sunday, and an easy win was the result.
2. More evidence in support of the zone-read: Are you paying attention, Chip Kelly?
Both Cam Newton and Colin Kaepernick put the zone-read option to work on Sunday, with each QB breaking off a long touchdown run. The formations were different -- Newton started in the shotgun, with a running back to his left and blocking tight end to his right; Kaepernick was in the pistol, flanked by that "diamond" formation -- but the plays were essentially the same.
Newton faked a handoff inside to DeAngelo Williams, then took off left behind Greg Olsen. He picked his way through a hole to the sideline and outraced the Atlanta defense to the end zone.
Kaepernick had an extra body in the backfield alongside him, but ran the same fake and found the same hole. He kept the ball as running back Frank Gore dove inside, then Kaepernick sprinted left with Delanie Walker and Garrett Celek paving the way.
You cannot run the zone read any more perfectly than Newton and Kaepernick did in those two instances Sunday. The results speak for themselves.
3. Michael Brockers shines again: It's been a bit of an uneven rookie season for Brockers, but he has now turned in back-to-back impressive performances. Sunday, he led St. Louis' charge up front against a depleted Buffalo offensive line.
The Bills entered Sunday enjoying an above-average year in terms of keeping QB Ryan Fitzpatrick upright -- Buffalo allowed just 20 sacks over its first 12 games, good enough to have its line ranked in the upper-third of the league in that stat. St. Louis dropped Fitzpatrick five times Sunday, and it was Brockers leading the charge from the interior.
He finished with 1.5 sacks and a couple more hits on Fitzpatrick. More than that, he was problematic enough in the middle to help free up his teammates elsewhere. St. Louis drafted Brockers for just this type of performance. With Chris Long, Robert Quinn and William Hayes crashing from their end spots in this defense, adding a dynamic presence at tackle elevates the Rams' front to another level.
4. Missing Brian Urlacher: Adrian Peterson rushed for 154 yards Sunday against Chicago, but the Bears limited him to 103 on his final 30 carries. Now, about that first run, which resulted in a 51-yard pickup ...
Maybe it happens with Brian Urlacher in the lineup anyway -- Urlacher has made his usual plethora of plays this season, but he's certainly not the player he once was. But Urlacher sidelined by an injury, the Vikings took full advantage of his replacement, Nick Roach, for Peterson's big-gainer.
The Vikings lined up with an extreme unbalanced formation (three tight ends off the right side of the line), and the Bears tried to counter by pulling almost everyone up into the box. Peterson ran right at Roach, who was absolutely blown off the ball by Rhett Ellison:
Roach wasn't the only Bear to make a mistake on the play -- Corey Wootton had a shot in the backfield and Chris Conte (No. 47) blew his angle on Peterson. Urlacher's fill-in, though, was at the point of attack.
5. A game Matt Schaub will have to shake off: Given a shot to make a statement on the road against Tom Brady, Houston's QB instead had his worst game of the season. Schaub completed 19 of 32 passes (a respectable 59.4 percent), but he repeatedly missed open targets.
That laundry list of errors included a misfire intended for Andre Johnson on a crossing pattern and an even worse overthrow on an open Lestar Jean in New England territory.
His most costly mistake came on an early interception, which killed one of Hosuton's lone promising drives. And it was a complete rookie mistake from Schaub. He had a wide-open Arian Foster on the play -- Foster ran a short curl route and sat, uncovered, at about the 10. Somehow, Schaub failed to locate either Foster or safety Devin McCourty, who was lurking deep and easily stepped in front of Schaub's pass to Kevin Walter.
Schaub appeared to make up his mind at the snap that he was going to Walter, and his decision burned him.
6. Cleveland grows into a dangerous foe: Winners of three straight, the Browns could wreak havoc in the playoff race with games against Washington, Denver and Pittsburgh to close the regular season.
It's hard to take a ton from Sunday's 31-6 blowout over a bumbling and emotionally-drained Kansas City team, but any time the Browns pick up a victory with Trent Richardson rushing for fewer than 50 yards (18 carries for 42), it's noteworthy. This is the second time Cleveland has pulled that off this season -- Richardson gained all of 37 yards in a win over Cincinnati earlier.
One big key, both times: Montario Hardesty. He had 56 yards rushing and a TD in that win over the Bengals, then broke off a couple of nice runs Sunday en route to a 52-yard performance.
Between Hardesty's supporting-role performance, a stout defensive effort and Travis Benjamin's punt-return TD, the Browns had the advantage of playing it a little safer with Brandon Weeden. Cleveland's QB attempted just one pass of more than 20 yards all day (an incompletion), yet still racked up 217 yards through the air. In the win over Cincinnati, he tried only two deep balls -- a 71-yard and a 29-yard completion.
A slow-and-steady approach works much better for this offense, even when Richardson is struggling.
7. Did Matthew Stafford get away with a penalty?: Finally, our first reader-requested review of the season ...
@chrisburke_si @priscocbs How is this play by Stafford legal, let alone not enough for league action? Just dirty. twitter.com/Isley23/status…
— Ryan (@Isley23) December 10, 2012
The play in question was the first of Sunday night's second quarter. Stafford handed off to Joique Bell, who headed right as Stafford peeled back left to help block a crashing Morgan Burnett. Stafford dove low at Burnett -- similar to how Stafford wiped out Frank Zombo while blocking on a Mike Thomas reverse earlier in the game. The problem here: Stafford hit Burnett around the thigh just as Riley Reiff engaged him up top. Stafford's action was legal on its own (and definitely not cause for a fine from the league), but combined with Reiff's presence, probably could have drawn a flag for a chop-block.