The Chicago Bears' offensive woes have come to a head, with Sunday's loss to Green Bay serving as the breaking point for wide receiver Brandon Marshall.
“Everybody involved in the offense should be held accountable, even if that means jobs,” Marshall said during an emotional press conference after Chicago's 21-13 Week 15 loss.
Figuring out exactly where to lay the blame is the hard part. QB Jay Cutler admitted that he's playing hurt, and his drooping stats reiterate that point; the depleted offensive line is in over its head, with new left guard James Brown having a terrible game Sunday, and right guard Chris Spencer having all sorts of issues against B.J. Raji; and the receivers, aside from Marshall, are nonexistent.
But some credit for that third issue Sunday goes to the Packers, who turned in a terrific defensive performance despite the continued absence of Charles Woodson.
The play calling and pass blocking were issues, but Cutler attempted just six passes to players not named Brandon Marshall or Matt Forte -- the only one he completed was a 15-yarder to Armando Allen. Alshon Jeffery, Chicago's No. 2 option, did not catch a single pass and was flagged for three offensive pass interference penalties. Sam Shields did a number on Jeffery, eliminating him with one-on-one coverage. That success allowed the Packers to focus their attention elsewhere, namely on Marshall.
Green Bay utilized a number of different looks on the Bears' top receiver, but most of them involved bringing safety Morgan Burnett down to provide bracket coverage, either behind a linebacker or corner Tramon Williams. Marshall still managed to catch six passes, but he finished with a mere 58 yards and struggled mightily in the second half.
Casey Hayward, meanwhile, had a clutch interception while covering Devin Hester -- Hester either ran the wrong route or Cutler made an awful throw (possibly both). That was the only time Cutler looked Hester's way all afternoon. Cutler also did not throw a single pass in the direction of Chicago's tight ends, who could not find room before Green Bay's pass rush arrived.
The Bears' offense is a mess. Green Bay's secondary, though, played about as well as it can on Sunday.
1. The Steelers' secondary, on the other hand ...: Pittsburgh's starters at cornerback Sunday against Dallas were Keenan Lewis and Josh Victorian, the latter most recently of the Arena Football League's New Orleans Voodoo.
Predictably, the Steelers had major issues defending the pass -- Tony Romo completed 71.4 percent of his passes (30 for 42) for 341 yards. That number jumped to 82.4 percent when the Steelers were unable to pressure Romo, per Pro Football Focus, and only Lewis put up any semblance of resistance.
Most of what Romo did was pretty simple, too, as he threw 30 of those 42 passes shorter than 10 yards. That approach both negated Pittsburgh's pass rush and put the ball in the hands of Dallas' playmakers, often in one-on-one situations with overmatched defenders.
Pittsburgh now faces must-win games against Cincinnati and Cleveland, which means shutting down Andy Dalton and Brandon Weeden. It will take a much better effort than what the Steelers delivered in Dallas.
2. Revisiting Jake Locker's game-winning touchdown run: Amidst the dreck that was Monday night's New York-Tennessee game, the Titans pulled off a pair of exceptional blocking plays -- and both went for touchdowns.
The first was Chris Johnson's 92-yarder, on which the Titans basically won every battle at the line of scrimmage, giving Johnson an open cutback lane up that middle. Johnson found it and sprung loose into the secondary.
The Titans' second TD, the game-winner, came on a designed run for QB Jake Locker.
The Titans sprinted Locker out left, with tackle Michael Roos pulling as receiver Kendall Wright and Johnson basically acted as blocking backs. ESPN did a terrific job explaining this play Monday night, even pulling up footage of San Francisco's Colin Kaepernick scoring on an identical call against the Jets earlier in the season.
ESPN's Jon Gruden called it a "bunch crunch" formation -- refer to it as whatever you want, but it's an overload setup, with two receivers plus a tight end to Locker's left.
The Titans outnumbered the Jets at the point of attack, allowing Locker to turn the corner and get to pay dirt untouched.
3. The added dimension of Colin Kaepernick: Peter King touched on this topic in-depth in his latest must-read Monday Morning Quarterback, but San Francisco's key late touchdown Sunday in New England -- right after the Patriots had tied the game at 31-all -- came against a Cover-Zero defense.
That terminology simply means that the Patriots had no deep defenders and instead brought both safeties up tight to guard against a run and/or blitz. Kaepernick turned and fired to Crabtree, who beat the only defender outside for a touchdown.
But this is part of the challenge of defending Kaepernick and the 49ers' read-option packages. New England did a decent job against those run plays, thanks to Vince Wilfork controlling the middle and Rob Ninkovich crashing down on Kaepernick wide.
The choice for a defense is a catch-22, though. Either you back off and play a traditional Cover-1 or Cover-2 and risk being thin in the box against a run or you pack everyone in tight and free up passing lanes. The ability to figure out the resulting advantages has been done masterfully by Chip Kelly at Oregon -- his team is passing more and more -- and Kaepernick brings that edge to the 49ers.
4. Josh Freeman takes a big step back: It requires a total team meltdown to lose a game 41-0, but Freeman picked a bad time to turn in one of the worst games of his career. The four interceptions he tossed all came on horribly inaccurate throws, and he had plenty of time to set on at least three of them.
This is what happens when a team shuts down Doug Martin, as New Orleans did Sunday and as an increasing number of opponents have done as the Bucs have hit the skids. Freeman can complete deep passes, but he needs the wrinkle of a viable run threat to help. When asked to come up with plays on his own, this tends to be the result.
5. Save the tape, Carolina: The Panthers continue to thrive late in the year -- they're now 8-6 combined over the past two Novembers and Decembers. Sunday in San Diego was as close to a complete performance as the Panthers have delivered in a long time.
And that goes for both sides of the ball. Cam Newton played a smart, efficient game, while DeAngelo Williams and Carolina's receivers delivered steady showings. The defense, meanwhile, controlled the line of scrimmage, freeing Carolina's linebackers to make plays. Thomas Davis was particularly effective, but the Panthers brought pressure on Philip Rivers from all over the field.
6. Baltimore's problems run deeper than the run game: The Jim Caldwell experiment did not get off to a good start. Denver, as it is wont to do, blasted the Ravens' offensive line, throwing Joe Flacco off-kilter. Flacco can be horribly ineffective, too, if he fails to find a comfort zone.
But a stat line that stands out: Anquan Boldin, 0 catches, six targets.
The Ravens need someone beside Ray Rice to start making some plays. They didn't get that against Denver.
7. Houston's underrated defensive star: J.J. Watt might win Defensive Player of the Year and set a new NFL sacks record. His efforts have overshadowed everyone else on the Texans' defense, including DE Antonio Smith.
Smith is tied for second on the team with six sacks, and he had a big game Sunday against the Colts, too -- in addition recording a sack of Andrew Luck, Smith came up with five QB pressures. His takedown of Luck was Wattesque, as Smith utilized a quick swim move to beat Indianapolis' blocking inside.
Watt and Smith often line up on opposite ends of the defense, and it's critical for Houston to have a second reliable pass-rushing threat.