The Fast vs. The Furious
The Philadelphia Eagles have this word they love: “tempo." As in: “We really like to play fast." They lead all NFL teams in offensive plays run this season, averaging 72.9 per game, nine more than the average team runs in a game. In Mark Sanchez’s three wins since taking over as quarterback from the injured Nick Foles, the Eagles have scored 45, 43 and 33 points.
The Seattle Seahawks, fortified by the return of speedy middle linebacker Bobby Wagner and anvil-in-the-shoulder-pads strong safety Kam Chancellor in the past two games, have held their last two foes to two field goals, total. Through 13 NFL weeks, Seattle has finally reclaimed its place atop the NFL yards-allowed standings, a spot it dominated last season.
Seahawks (8-4) at Eagles (9-3) Sunday at Lincoln Financial Field. Great game. And great timing. Seattle’s finally playing to its 2013 postseason form. Philadelphia has its offensive line healthy and LeSean McCoy running like a rushing champion.
"We had a great weekend after playing on Thanksgiving," said Seattle defensive coordinator Dan Quinn this week. “Got to spend good time with the family and have a little mini-bye. But this was a good week for that. Normally you get to watch four games for your scouting report. I was able to watch a little more of Philadelphia because of the extra time, so that was valuable.”
"How many of their 12 games did you watch?" I asked.
"Pretty much all of them," Quinn said.
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Quick aside before I dig into this game: The NFL is on a hot streak with its schedule; there should be a back-pat for the czar of the schedule, Howard Katz, and his staff of four men who went through 500,000 computer-generated schedule options last winter and picked this one. Check out the past four weeks, including this one:
• Week 11: Seattle (6-3) at Kansas City (6-3) in the early Sunday window in a battle of hot teams … Ditto Detroit (7-2) at Arizona (8-1) and Philadelphia (7-2) at Green Bay (6-3) in the late window … New England (7-2) at Indianapolis (6-3) in a classic quarterback duel on Sunday night.
• Week 12: Early: Detroit (7-3) at New England (8-2) … Late: Arizona (9-1) at Seattle (6-4) in the start to the Seahawks’ defensive revival.
• Week 13: Two Thanksgiving gems: 8-3 Philadelphia at 8-3 Dallas, and a 2013 NFC title game rematch of 7-4 Seattle at the 7-4 Niners … The first Brady-Rodgers game, a classic at Lambeau Field … And on Sunday night, Peyton Manning and Denver in a pennant race game at Kansas City.
• Week 14: Seattle at Philly in a huge NFC home-field-impact game … And another Sunday-night gem: New England at the resurgent 8-4 Chargers.
Next week, two fortuitous Sunday decisions: San Francisco at Seattle in the late Sunday afternoon window, Dallas at Philadelphia at night. The schedule-makers hit a hot streak at the right time.
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What Quinn learned from all that video:
"I didn’t just watch the coaches’ tape," he said. “I wanted to watch the TV copy too, to judge the time from whistle to snap." In other words, he put a stopwatch on the video when the play clock began, and timed the seconds until the next snap happened. “If they want to play fast, they take 12, 13 seconds. That’s pretty fast. Normally, they probably take 18, 19 seconds. Fortunately we’ve played against some teams that played pretty fast, so we’re accustomed to it."
“I see a fast-paced offense when I watch the Eagles,” Wagner says, “but I don’t see it as such a big deal. If we tackle well, and stay in gaps, we’ll be fine.”
Quinn said when the Seahawks reported to training camp, he and coach Pete Carroll had the defense playing against the no-huddle consistently, because they knew they’d have a lot of snaps against no-huddle teams this year. And this week, all week, Quinn said, they’ve practiced against the no-huddle again.
"Mark Sanchez is really good on the boots, the nakeds," Quinn said. “He doesn’t take a lot of deep shots. What fits him is getting out on the edges and making plays."
Quinn said his message to his defense this week centered around “getting cleats in the grass, early, and attacking. I will get the plays in early. Also, be great tacklers. Tackling will be at the forefront of everything we do Sunday."
That’s where Wagner and Chancellor come in. When the Seahawks are at their best, Wagner cleans up the intermediate area of the field, and Chancellor is an enforcer deep and a strong presence in the box against the run and against tight ends. The cover corners, Richard Sherman and Byron Maxwell, are left to protect the sides of the field, and free safety Earl Thomas is a classic center fielder with monster back tendencies (making plays everywhere his instincts take him).
It’s amazing watching the difference in Seattle’s defense with Wagner and without him. Seattle just doesn’t have a rangy presence with speed—other than Wagner. It really showed up against San Francisco. Wagner is tremendously disciplined in gap control, vital to coaches but unknown to most fans. Time and again, Colin Kaepernick or Frank Gore ran into brick walls trying to pierce the Seattle defensive front.
"Against the Eagles," Wagner said from the team’s training complex this week, “you need to be more gap-sound. LeSean McCoy is shifty—a great cutback runner. We understand we have to be in our gaps. We will be. I think we’re one of the best teams at staying in our gaps and being disciplined. From there, we have to be physical and run down the screens and tosses. They’re really good at those."
But Wagner didn’t sound overly concerned about the Eagles’ offense. Of course, you probably wouldn’t be concerned if you hadn’t allowed a touchdown in the past eight quarters—and held the last two teams to 204 and 164 yards, respectively. Imagine holding the Kaepernick/Gore/Anquan Boldin offense to 164 yards. In four quarters.
So the Seahawks won’t fly East this weekend with much trepidation. Excitement, but no trepidation.
"I see a fast-paced offense when I watch them," said Wagner, “but I don’t see it as such a big deal, the way everyone says. If we tackle well, and stay in gaps, we’ll be fine."
I relayed this what-me-worry attitude to Quinn, and he wasn’t surprised.
"You’ve been around Pete enough to know that he doesn’t want his team intimidated by anyone or anything," said Quinn. “So that doesn’t surprise me, what Bobby thinks."
It’s what the Seattle defense thinks. That’s why this will be so much fun Sunday at 4:25 p.m. in South Philly: The Eagles are confident, with their franchise running back in gear and their passing game making enough plays at warp speed to win big games. The Seahawks are playing like they did last year (“It definitely has that feel; everyone’s healthy, everyone’s back," Wagner said). All that’s at stake? Just a couple of division titles.
Player You Need To Know This Weekend
Timmy Jernigan, defensive tackle, Baltimore (number 97). A lot of pressure on Jernigan, for a rookie who turned 22 in September. With Haloti Ngata gone for the final four games of the season after a positive test for Adderall, Jernigan—who has averaged 20 snaps a game over the past six weeks—will have to come up big for Baltimore starting Sunday against Miami. The Ravens could get some needed help by moving human roadblock Terrence Cody from non-football injury to active; he seems ready to play. But look for the 6-2, 298-pound Jernigan to get the bulk of the snaps in the rotation as the Ravens try to hold the fort and win enough games to make sure Ngata will play again this season. The only way that could happen is if the Ravens make the playoffs. Jernigan has two sacks in the past three games, but he’s not the space-eating presence that makes Ngata so imposing.
About Last Night...
I know how great DeMarco Murray was Thursday night (41 touches, 228 yards) in the 41-28 victory over the woebegone Bears, but I thought his co-star, Tony Romo, was slightly more notable. Romo went 21 of 26 (he's been a 72 percent passer in the four games since suffering two broken bones in his back against Washington), and he demonstrated why Jason Garrett has shown so much faith in him since taking over as head coach. Early in the third quarter, under a big Bear rush, Romo, padded heavily, rumbled right and threw way down field for Cole Beasley. It looked like when Romo let the ball go he might have just been throwing it away. But no. This pass was perfect, right in Beasley's hands near the goal line. Beasley dove for the pylon, hit it and scored to give Dallas a two-touchdown lead. Those are the kinds of plays the Cowboys have been getting from Romo all year, and I was left to think when he made this one: Imagine if the guy was healthy? Romo has shown time and again over the past month that he has the ability to shut out the pain (or mask it with a shot) and play the position with the best in the game. With the protection Romo's been getting over the past four games—the Eagles loss the exception—the Dallas offense is going to be tough to put away if it makes it to January football.
Bose Sound Bite of the Week
A mic'd-up J.J. Watt, talking to teammates (or sometimes no one in particular) during last week's pre-game:
"All I know is, you mess with me, you got problems. That's all I know.
"What you got today 10 [DeAndre Hopkins]? Oh, I'll show you, I'll show you. Just make sure you've got a good view. Get some popcorn. Maybe some Jujubes. A slushie. Sno-Caps perhaps, maybe some Sno-Caps, I don't know. You're gonna want to be comfortable today. Watch the show! Watch the show!"
Regular Old Quotes of the Week
"I don’t worry about my future—haven’t participated in any of that speculation. I think I have a recessive gene for worrying about my own future."
—San Francisco coach Jim Harbaugh, on the rampant speculation that he is in the last season on the job with the 49ers.
"That’s the dumbest damn question I ever heard in my life. I had to laugh. That put a smile on my face."
—Arizona coach Bruce Arians, on being asked on Sirius XM NFL Radio this week if he’d thought of benching struggling quarterback Drew Stanton for rookie Logan Thomas.
What I’ll Be Watching This Weekend
1. The leash on Brian Hoyer. As I wrote the other day, when Browns coach Mike Pettine was deliberating on Hoyer versus Johnny Manziel to start Sunday against the Colts, a Hoyer vote would say as much about the preparedness—or lack thereof—of Manziel. And so that’s why I don’t think three bad series by Hoyer gets him yanked by Pettine. Hoyer will get a legit chance to keep his job. By legit, I mean he’d have to be bad into the third quarter. I just get the feeling the Browns weren’t comfortable shortening the game plan and the options for the offense by playing Manziel.
2. Vengeance, sayeth the Colts, shall be ours. Three key Colts on Sunday were three bedrock players for the Browns in 2012: D’Qwell Jackson, Trent Richardson and Josh Cribbs. It’s not Wes Welker going back to New England or Peyton Manning going back to Indy, but those are three pretty big names going back to the Dawg Pound. “They gave up on me," Richardson said this week. Easy, Trent. You underperformed for the Browns, they got a first-round pick for you, and you’re still underperforming.
3. Adrian Peterson’s fate. With Peterson likely (but not certain) to be reinstated by a league appeals officer, Harold Henderson, next week, the ball would be in Minnesota’s court as to whether to activate him for the final three games of the year. We’ll hear lots about it this weekend, including whether the Vikings' coaching side is on the same page with the Vikings’ front-office.
4. The impact of Haloti Ngata’s absence. The Ravens are in a six-way tie for the sixth playoff spot in the AFC this morning, and they had perhaps the most advantageous schedule of all of those teams down the stretch (at Miami, Jacksonville, at Houston, Cleveland). But then their most impactful defensive player, Ngata, was suspended for four games Thursday for taking a banned PED, Adderall. That leads to the question: How on God’s green earth could you get popped for taking something on the banned list, knowing you’re going to be tested randomly at some point? Absolutely irresponsible.
5. The “division-leading" Falcons attempting to make a game of it at Lambeau on Monday night. The highly respected football scribe for the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel, Bob McGinn, quoted a personnel director for an NFL team thusly on the Atlanta-Green Bay Monday nighter, which should be over right around 9:35 on the East Coast—good for normal sleep patterns for a change: “If Green Bay doesn’t torch them for 40, I’ll be shocked."
6. The pass rush Atlanta never had will let Aaron Rodgers cook brats while he waits for receivers to get open. Kroy Biermann and Osi Umenyiora are tied for the Atlanta sack lead, with 2.5. A pass-rusher stumbles into 2.5 sacks in 12 weeks. Horrendous.
7. The Vikings, playing in temps fit for the ’70s Vikings. Jets at Vikes on Sunday at high noon on the campus of the University of Minnesota. Outdoors, of course. With a wind-chill temperature of about 23, with snow showers possible, and winds gusting up to 20 mph. “Pray for me," cornerback Captain Munnerlyn, a southern kid, told Mark Craig of the Minneapolis Star Tribune the other day. He wasn’t kidding.
8. Carolina could hand the NFC South to New Orleans. Panthers are 1-8-1 in the past 10 games (regrets, GM Dave Gettleman, about bankrupting the receiver and offensive line groups in the off-season?), and let me say one thing loudly: Don’t blame Cam. No quarterback’s playing well with a re-invented offense of mediocrity around him. No matter. Carolina will lose to the Saints at the Superdome on Sunday, Atlanta will get creamed by the Packers, and the Saints should coast to the NFC South title.
9. Pats-Chargers. Both teams were given up for dead at two different times this year—New England after the 41-7 pasting by Kansas City in Week 4 that left the Pats 2-2, and San Diego after losing 37-0 pre-bye and falling to 5-4. After 13 weeks, New England’s 9-3, the favorite to win AFC playoff home-field; the Chargers are 8-4 and the current fifth playoff seed. New England’s won seven of eight, San Diego three straight. NBC’s got a great one Sunday night. Good news for fans of footing: Qualcomm will have new turf Sunday night.
10. The Cardinals trying to stop the bleeding, with the playoffs suddenly in question. Two awful games in a row (losses to Seattle and Atlanta) make Sunday’s duel in the desert with physical Kansas City a must-win. The rest of the slate—revived St. Louis on the road, Seattle at home, at San Francisco—has nary a gimme. Arizona’s 9-3, and that’s great. But nothing is a sure thing anymore, not with the struggles of the offense and the injuries all over the D.
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