On Firings, Promotions and the Smartest Play

A look at Joe Lombardi’s ouster in Detroit, the rejuvenated Dolphins, and how Rob Gronkowski fooled everyone last Sunday
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1) I think I’ve never seen a team as clearly rejuvenated under an interim head coach as the Dolphins are under Dan Campbell. We’ll see if it holds up. Energy and enthusiasm and all those other buzzwords that people love to blindly attribute to positive change only last if the scheme on the field is well crafted and well executed. So far, it has been. Defensively, we’re seeing a simpler approach that allows the front four to play more in attack mode. In return, those guys—particularly Ndamukong Suh and Cameron Wake—have generated the noise that was expected of them from the start. On offense, Ryan Tannehill is lining up under center more often, and less in shotgun. It’s still mostly a shotgun-based offense (that’s today’s NFL), but against the Titans in Week 6, Tannehill was under center more than he had been in Weeks 1-4 combined. And in the Week 7 blowout of the Texans, three of Miami’s five first-half offensive touchdowns came with Tannehill under center. Expect to keep seeing this old-school wrinkle as the season progresses.

• MIAMI’S MIRACLE MAN: He breathed life into a team that was all but dead, and now comes interim coach Dan Campbell’s biggest test: Can he lead the Dolphins to stun the Pats on a short week?

2) I think undrafted second-year pro Orleans Darkwa will become the Giants’ top first/second-down back soon. Darkwa led the team in rushing attempts against Dallas (eight for 48 yards) and offers better short-area agility and quickness than stiff inside runners Rashad Jennings and Andre Williams.

3) I think after seeing the Lions’ Week 6 film against the Bears and the hideous Week 7 film against the Vikings, I can understand the firing of Detroit offensive coordinator Joe Lombardi. The passing concepts were mostly unimaginative deep crossers that were easily taken away by the Bears’ secondary. Matthew Stafford posted big numbers, but that was due to several downfield plays that came out of structure (i.e. plays made in spite of the design). As for the Vikings game, the pass protection was a train wreck. Detroit was routinely outnumbered and out-leveraged by Minnesota’s pressure concepts.

• #CHUCKSTRONG GONE WRONG: Three years ago Indianapolis rallied around cancer-stricken coach Chuck Pagano as the Colts made a surprise run to the playoffs. Now the good vibes have been replaced by turmoil, and the community is left wondering what to think of the man who once inspired them

4) I think Vikings safety Harrison Smith is as important to his defense as any safety in the NFL. Smith’s speed does wonders for Minnesota’s disguises, before and after the snap.

• AN UNFAMILIAR ROLE: Three seasons ago, Adrian Peterson finished nine yards shy of setting the NFL’s single-season rushing record. In some ways, the All-Pro is now relearning his position

5) I think Rob Gronkowski’s 15-yard touchdown against the Jets may have been the smartest play-call all season. The Jets had shown a handful of Cover 0 blitzes on prior snaps. So the Patriots spread out in an empty set, with Gronk aligned in a standard tight end position next to the left tackle. At the snap, Gronk acted like he was blocking. His man defender, safety Marcus Gilchrist, saw that and rushed the passer. (This is called a “green dog blitz”—defenses do it because it beats having a man-to-man defender standing around just watching his guy block.) When Gilchrist rushed, Gronkowski leaked out on a route. Because the Jets were blitzing all-out, there was no safety to pick him up. It was a shrewd, subtle way to get the best tight end in the league uncovered in the red zone.

6) I think San Francisco’s biggest problem offensively, besides shaky quarterback play, is the putridity of the O-line’s right side. Tackle Erik Pears has struggled lately. Guards Jordan Devey and Andrew Tiller have rotated (always a red flag this late in the season), with both looking like backups.

• NFL DYSFUNCTION: While five unbeatens dominate the power rankings, five other erstwhile contenders are plagued by discord and dissent. Let’s put that chaos in order

7) I think Doug Martin looks like his 2012 rookie self. Great patience, quickness in confined areas, cutback vision and acceleration.

8) I think the Raiders might have the most diverse offense in football. They’re able to spread out and throw (Derek Carr’s forte). They have depth and versatility at tight end and fullback, lending them the flexibility to condense their formations and pound the ball inside. They can use motion and shifts to create mismatches for these miscellaneous players outside. The Raiders are even willing to bring Khalif Barnes off the bench as a sixth offensive lineman to create more power. Coordinator Bill Musgrave is doing a great job.

9) I think the two most improved corners in the league are Carolina’s Josh Norman (everybody’s favorite right now) and Philadelphia’s Nolan Carroll. Interestingly, each was probably the worst corner in his conference when forced to start outside very early in his career (Carroll was a Dolphin). Very commendable how much they’ve improved.

10) I think John Harbaugh was 100% right: if one of his defenders had hit Chris Johnson when he was on a pile of bodies on the “no whistle” 62-yard run, he would have been flagged. The refs blew this one. It happens.