Perceptions and Realities
FOXBOROUGH, Mass. — When Rex Ryan stepped to the podium after his Jets fell to the Patriots, 13-10, on Thursday night, he looked as if somebody had just punched him in the gut. The Jets have lost 23 regular-season games in his four-plus seasons at the helm, but none sting more than those at hands of Bill Belichick and Tom Brady.
“It’s a divisional opponent; New England is one of the great teams in this league,” linebacker David Harris told The MMQB. “It’s kind of a measuring stick for him and for us.”
This one hurts Ryan to his core for a couple of reasons. Foremost, this was a golden opportunity to steal one against a Patriots team—the AFC East bullies the past 13 seasons—that isn’t operating from a position of strength. Brady’s targets were so vaunted that Julian Edelman, he of 69 career receptions entering the season, drew double and triple coverage in the end zone. If there was a time to knock off the Patriots, it was Thursday night, when Brady completed just 48.7% of his passes (his lowest mark since December 2002) and they managed just nine first downs, converted 22% of third downs and gained a putrid 3.6 yards per play. The Pats were ripe for the taking, and the Jets knew it.
“I think so,” said cornerback Antonio Cromartie in the bowels of Gillette Stadium. “We gave them seven points because of a blown coverage, we didn’t know the personnel that was in, and that’s seven points there. We felt like they couldn’t move the ball on us—they couldn’t run the ball or they couldn’t throw the ball on us, especially to the outside guys.”
The perception is that the Jets are a mess. This is the undeniable reality about the Jets: Rex Ryan and his staff can flat-out coach.
The other reason why Ryan was so despondent? This is the second straight season in which Ryan and his coaches took an undermanned and outclassed team to Gillette as double-digit underdogs, with Mark Sanchez and Geno Smith at quarterback, and put together a tremendous game plan, only to see the players fail to execute in crucial spots and lose by three points each time.
This is where perception meets reality. The perception of the Jets is that they are a mess. You have an owner, Woody Johnson, who doesn’t know which end is up on a football (OK, that part is true). There’s a new general manager, John Idzik, who had coach Rex Ryan forced upon him and is counting the days until he can install his own coach. You’ve heard there’s a disconnect between the kind of players Ryan needs to win, and the kind of players Idzik has given him. And that Ryan ultimately doomed himself by inserting Sanchez into the fourth quarter of an exhibition game, only to suffer a potentially season-ending shoulder injury.
As the narrative goes, Ryan is a dead coach walking. But the great thing about football is that perception doesn’t matter and reality plays out on the field for all to see. And this is the undeniable reality about the Jets: Ryan and his staff can flat-out coach. They just don’t have enough players yet. And haven’t, really, since he’s been the Jets’ coach. For years this coaching staff inflated how good they really were; it wasn’t until last season when they truly struggled to make something out of nothing.
Last year was torture. Up by three, the Jets had two opportunities deep in Patriots territory with less than 2:15 remaining to either add a score and seal the win, or leave little time and no timeouts for the Patriots to drive the field and force overtime. But receiver Stephen Hill dropped a wide-open pass at the 12-yard line, and then receiver Jeremy Kerley slipped on a route beyond the first-down marker, forcing Sanchez to take a sack. That latter really hurt. A first down conversion would have left the Patriots with almost no time to take the game to overtime, but Stephen Gostkowski kicked a 48-yard field goal to cap a six-play, 54-yard drive and force OT as time expired. In overtime, the Jets held the Patriots to a field goal and were driving when guard Brandon Moore whiffed on a pass block, and Sanchez didn’t secure the ball on a sack, leading to a game-ending fumble.
On Thursday night, the Jets had five possessions to either tie or take the lead with the Patriots leading 13-10, and went punt, interception, punt, interception and interception under an avalanche of dropped passes and poor throws by Smith.
“We’ve got to hang onto the football,” Ryan said Thursday night. “What you are paid to do is catch the football, and obviously we have to do a better job of that.”
He might as well have thrown in staying on your feet, blocking the guy in front of you and not throwing the ball to your opponent. All are part of the job descriptions that Jets players have increasingly failed at. Two games. Two times that Jets coaches put their players in position to stage a big-time upset over a hated division rival. Twice, Ryan and his staff were let down by players who failed to execute the basic elements of football. On Thursday night, Ryan didn’t say it outright but his defeated look conveyed the thought: What more can we as coaches do?
He’s right. Whatever you think is going on with the Jets, whatever your perceptions are, it has nothing to do with the coaches and the current personnel department. The players, right now and last season, are/were not good enough and failed to execute. And that’s on the previous general manager, Mike Tannenbaum, and his personnel staff. Sure, they got the Jets to the AFC Championship game in 2009 and ’10, and they should be commended for that. But they also allowed the Jets to get old and slow in too many spots too quickly. Many of them lost their jobs because of that, and now it’s Idzik’s job to rebuild the roster. He’s off to a good start, but it’s not going to happen overnight—especially with the cap jail the previous administration put the Jets in. And anyone who pretends that change should happen instantly has played too much fantasy football, because that thinking isn’t grounded in reality.
The Jets have a solid offensive line. Wideouts Santonio Holmes (when not pouting) and Kerley (when not injured) are good offensive pieces. They have a potentially outstanding young defensive line with Muhammad Wilkerson, Sheldon Richardson, Damon Harrison and Kenrick Ellis. Inside linebackers David Harris and Demario Davis are very good. Antonio Cromartie is a good cornerback, and there are a couple more promising players in the secondary.
But that’s it. The running backs and outside linebackers are average at best. There aren’t enough weapons. Even if Sanchez were healthy, he’d still be a below-average QB who might seem better than that because of how green Smith is. Those positions will be improved or overhauled next year, and the Jets will be on better footing.
The media-driven soap opera will tell you Ryan has little chance of seeing that come to fruition. Their appearances the past two seasons at Gillette Stadium, and what actually transpired between the white lines, should tell you that’s not reality.
Introducing a New Pass-Rush Stat*
One of biggest indicators of success for NFL defensive coaches is the ability to affect the quarterback.
Sure, that means sacks, which are an official NFL statistic. And quarterback hits, which are also tallied in press boxes. But affecting the quarterback, making him feel pressure, has several other factors, most of which aren’t officially tallied (though NFL teams do them internally).
We at The MMQB thought long and hard about finding a better way to evaluate quarterback pressure, both from individual and team standpoints. We've developed our own formula, which we think will highlight players who aren’t getting the glory stats (sacks) but are still affecting the quarterback just as much.
To be up front about it: This formula is far from a finished product. There could be tweaks along the way, and we welcome any feedback you might have.
The two statistics that we'll be tabulating are sack assists and drawn holds. The latter is self-explanatory. Pass rushers are sometimes held by offensive lineman before they can sack the quarterback. Those plays aren’t official plays for the NFL. But they can be nearly as damaging. It’s a 10-yard foul, although there is no loss of down.
A sack assist is given to a player who allows a teammate sack to get a sack. You see it all the time. One player comes flying at a quarterback, causing him to bolt, and the QB winds up in the arms of a different defender. Sometimes the sacker didn't do very much, yet he still gets credit for the sack. The player who actually caused the sack gets nothing. We’re going to change that.
Here’s how the formula works.
Because not all sacks are created equally, we have divided up sacks into three categories: solo, assisted and easy.
Solo sack (1.25 points): For the player who beats a blocker and gets the sack on his own. These are the real sack masters; they should be rewarded for their standout individual effort.
Assisted sack (.75 points): Given to the player who officially receives a sack but had help from a teammate in taking the quarterback down.
Easy sack (.75 points): An official sack that falls into one of the following categories: coverage sack (quarterback held the ball longer than 3.3 seconds because the coverage was so good); unblocked, usually because of a schemed blitz; offensive miscue, such as the quarterback tripping after getting stepped on by an offensive lineman; or garbage-time sack, which we have defined as a sack when the offense is trailing by more than two scores with four minutes or less remaining in the game.
Sack assist (.5 points): As described above, this is when a player aids in the sacking of a quarterback. The official sacker will get an “assisted” or “easy” sack (.75 points), and the disrupter gets a “sack assist.”
These three categories—drawn holds, hurries and hits—are not official statistics, but they’re extremely important. A team can have zero sacks, but if they accumulate hurries or hits, they’re making life extremely uncomfortable for a quarterback. The hurries and hits were shared with us by our friends at ProFootballFocus.com. Our hits and hurries include plays wiped out by penalty.
Drawn hold (.75 points): The player who draws a holding penalty on a pass play. Only tabulated if the penalty results in a “no play.” If there is holding on a sack and the sack counts, there is no drawn hold—although that player could get a sack assist.
Hurry (.5 points): When the actions of a defender causes the quarterback to alter his throw or footwork. This is what defenses call “moving a quarterback off his spot.”
Hit (.5 points): Recorded after or as the quarterback releases a pass and goes to the ground as a result of contact with a defender.
Once the film is graded, we come up with Pressure Points. We feel this is a much better way to evaluate what kind of quarterback pressure a player or team is generating. We will divide the performances by edge rushers (ends and outside linebackers), interior rushers (tackles and inside linebackers) and by team. Individually, we will handout two awards.
Top Edge Rusher of Week 1: Cameron Wake, Miami
In a close race, Wake (2.5 sacks) edged two players (Robert Quinn of the Rams and Justin Houston of the Chiefs) who each had three solo sacks. Why? In addition to his sacks, Wake had another eight quarterback disruptions. That’s as many as Quinn and Houston had combined.
Unsung Edge Rusher of Week 1: Dwight Freeney, San Diego
If you look at the official statistics, Freeney had one assisted tackle, a half sack and three hits. A closer look shows that Freeney had a total of nine quarterback disruptions. That’s doing some work.
Top (and Unsung) Interior Rusher of Week 1: Ndamukong Suh, Detroit
According to the official statistics, Suh had zero tackles, one hit and one pass defensed. That’s not even close to the true impact that he had. Suh directly caused two sacks with sack assists, and had nine other quarterback disruptions.
Here are two examples of Suh (circled in yellow) causing sacks, one for Nick Fairley, and the other split between Fairley and Ziggy Ansah. Each time, Suh’s pressure created the opportunity for his teammates.
The ranking of the interior rushers:
All 32 Teams
The impressive debut of Chip Kelly’s offense in the Eagles’ opening win against the Redskins sent tongues wagging around the NFL because of its fast tempo. It certainly was something to see. And less time between plays has been on the rise the past couple of seasons, so it’s only natural to think that’s going to increase. Watch just about any college football game, and you’re going to see fastbreak offenses. But I’m not ready to say that what you saw from the Eagles in the first half is the start of some revolution in the NFL. The biggest reason is the impact that injuries might have. The pro and college game is completely different in this regard, with college having much more rest built in. Most college teams play 12 regular season games with two bye weeks. They are limited to four hours of football work daily and 20 hours per week, including practice, classroom work and training. They have rosters up to 105 players. Some NFL teams play 13 straight weeks, including short weeks with one Thursday night game. The only limit on football time is three hours for the 14 padded practices. There are only 46 players available on game day. Those are major differences, and almost make full-time run-and-gun offenses unrealistic. And the other factor is that the hurry-up offense fatigues the offense just as much as it does the defense. The Patriots ran over 80 plays in three games last season: against Denver, Seattle and San Francisco. In all three games they were gassed in the fourth quarter, and there was a hangover. After Denver, the Patriots lost to Seattle. After playing the Seahawks and 49ers, the Patriots played poorly against the Jets and Jaguars. There might be a revolution in the offing, but we need to see more data first.
… and 10
1. The thing that stood out to me most during Week 1 was how much bad football was being played league-wide. I think we should get used to this early in seasons under the new collective bargaining agreement. With so much practice time being cut back in the preseason, including padded practices, teams just aren’t getting as much work as they used to—and it shows. The first couple weeks are now basically full-squad preseason games. The “real” season will probably start in Week 4.
2. The Ravens’ lack of receiving targets was at the forefront of their blowout loss to the Broncos, but just as concerning was the play of safety Michael Huff. He was brought in from the Raiders to help ease the pain caused by Ed Reed’s exit, but Huff was brutal against the Broncos, both in coverage against Julius Thomas and taking bad angles on each of Demaryius Thomas’ long receptions. It’s a huge drop to go from Reed and Bernard Pollard to Huff and James Ihedigbo. If a defense isn’t strong up the middle, it’s going to struggle. The Ravens are trying to get first-round pick Matt Elam ready. They need to move quickly.
3. Related to that, it was amazing to watch how deep the Ravens’ safeties played against Peyton Manning. They must have bought the hype about Manning’s arm being better. The Ravens played at a depth of about 15 yards. Last year, the Patriots were at 10 yards, daring Manning to throw deep. He couldn’t. Manning’s arm strength is better this season, but only marginally. The game plan should still be to make him throw deep to the corners of the field. He completed two of five passes in those areas, with touchdowns to Andre Caldwell and Thomas. Both were plays on which the receiver clearly beat the cornerback off the line with a long single-high safety. Manning tops out at about 30 yards.
4. Yes, I still think the Broncos are overrated. I never read too much into Week 1, especially now (remember item No. 1?), but I have to admit that some new blood is helping Denver in some previously weak spots. Right guard Louis Vazquez was an underrated signing from the Chargers. He’s never been a road grader in the run game, but he’s an excellent pass blocker. Defensive tackle Terrance Knighton was freed from purgatory in Jacksonville and instantly upgraded an average tackle group. And second-year undrafted safety Duke Ihenacho is the Broncos’ best safety by far. They were terrible at safety last season.
5. There has to be something going on injury-wise with Patriots defensive tackle Vince Wilfork. He’s never going to wow with quarterback pressure, but he has been elite at taking on double teams and holding his gap against the run. Wilfork struggled mightily with that in the first two games, to the point that Jets guard Vlad Ducasse completely handled him on Thursday night. This is something to watch because the Patriots are basically playing a three-man tackle rotation with Wilfork, Tommy Kelly (who also tired against the Bills) and undrafted free agent Joe Vellano. That’s all the Patriots have.
6. There was a fairly questionable call with 8:38 left and the Lions leading the Vikings, 27-24. On 3rd-and-5 from Minnesota’s 27-yard line, Lions quarterback Matthew Stafford appeared to throw an uncatchable ball to Calvin Johnson—the ball hit six yards beyond Johnson near the edge of the six-foot white border line—but Vikings cornerback Xavier Rhodes was called for pass interference. Big call, as the Lions went on to score and seal the game. I saw NFL's vice president of officiating Dean Blandino at the Patriots-Jets game on Thursday and asked him about it. He said a pass has to be blatantly uncatchable—at least outside that white stripe—for it to be deemed an uncatchable ball. Another question I have from that game: why was referee John Parry yucking it up with the Lions after a few plays, including that one? I’m sure the Vikings were thrilled Parry was giggling while announcing a big penalty in the game.
7. Cardinals receiver Larry Fitzgerald must feel like he’s been busted out of jail now that he has a real quarterback throwing to him. And Carson Palmer was very good for three quarters, but he was shaky in the fourth and showed many of the problems that have plagued him late in his career. He showed no pocket awareness, despite left tackle Levi Brown being a turnstile the entire game, especially when Robert Quinn blew around the corner to execute a sack/strip. The next series ended when Palmer rushed his throw and didn’t come close to connecting with Andre Roberts. Then on 3rd-and-2 after the two-minute warning, the Cardinals had a beautiful wheel route called for running back Andre Ellington—and a big play was there to be had—but Palmer threw it way too early and wide. So while Palmer’s an improvement over previous Cardinals quarterbacks (who wouldn’t be), he’s not yet a complete one.
8. The Patriots didn’t inquire about former receiver Brandon Lloyd. If anything, they called him to set up their emergency list like they do at every position to see who might be available should the worst happen. The ship has sailed on Lloyd and the Patriots. He was released because he wasn’t a fit in the locker room, not because of money. I never say never on player acquisitions. Desperation makes people do all sorts of things, but the Patriots aren’t that desperate yet.
9. When I first watched Philip Rivers throw a game-tying pick-six to Texans linebacker Brian Cushing midway through the fourth quarter on Monday night, I thought it was another example of Rivers making a bone-headed decision that hurt his team. It seemed like a fairly basic pressure by the Texans. When running back Danny Woodhead motioned out of the backfield, a safety rotated down to cover it. Rivers should have known Cushing would be reading his eyes in the middle of the field against a five-rush man that the Chargers didn’t have protected well. But after watching the coaches’ film, I’m mostly going to credit Cushing. It appeared that he was supposed to cover tight end Ladarius Green, who crossed underneath and away from where Rivers was throwing. Instead of moving toward Green, Cushing relied on instincts (and great pressure from linebacker Whitney Mercilus) to make a beeline for Woodhead and a tremendous diving interception. Rivers said he could have thrown a hot route against the blitz to Green as well. Cushing’s lucky Rivers didn’t do that—Green was wide open. But good players guess right, and Cushing did.