1. A week ago, we all watched Drew Brees lead a Drew Brees comeback for a Drew Brees win, and remembered Drew Brees making other Drew Brees comebacks en route to other Drew Brees wins. But for the bulk of this season, the story of the Saints has been “things that aren’t Drew Brees.” Around these parts, we’ve written plenty about how the Saints suddenly got good on defense (yes, and on the offensive line, we’ll get to that, so stand down, Jonathan Jones fan boys), fueling their turnaround after three straight 7-9 seasons.
And the defense’s dominance has been the result of massively improved play in the secondary, thanks in large part to the addition of Marshon Lattimore. Rookie safety Marcus Williams has been an upgrade in the back, and CB Ken Crawley (who is on a personal 10-game winning streak, by the way) has been a gift from the heavens opposite Lattimore. But the rookie corner has given them a Defensive Player of the Year-caliber shutdown corner, taking pressure off the rest of the secondary, which in turn has bought an extra beat for a B-plus pass rush, allowing them to produce at an A-level. With Lattimore (ankle) (and Crawley) out for the Rams game, the pH level of this defense gets thrown off, and not in a good way.
But like all great teams, there’s chemistry between what the Saints do on the offensive and defensive sides of the ball. Almost a romance. Like The Notebook. Or all those movies that used to come on Cinemax late at night. The defense is much improved, but the run game (there’s that offensive line, told ya we’d get to it!) has given that defense a big boost. Over the first two weeks of the season, the Saints defense was on the field for 33 minutes, 11 seconds per game. During the eight-game winning streak, the Saints have won the time-of-possession battle in every game but one (last week’s overtime win over Washington), and the defense has been on the field for an average of just 26:24.
So as much as there is a concern that Jared Goff and Co. will carve up a shorthanded secondary, the Saints running game can easily remedy that, especially against a Rams defense that is talented, fast, aggressive, and susceptible to the run.
L.A. gave up big rushing days at Dallas (189 rushing yards, 7.0 average) and Jacksonville (169, 6.5), as well as in losses to Washington (229 rushing yards, 5.9) and Minnesota (171, 4.9). The Saints are good up front, but they are also so diverse, and both Mark Ingram and Alvin Kamara thrive on the kind of misdirection designs that can pick this Rams defense apart. Linebackers Alec Ogletree and Mark Barron are fast and light. Aaron Donald, as spectacular as he is, can get overaggressive and take himself out of position at times. The Saints should be able to use the Rams’ defensive strengths against them. That, more than Brees, Goff and the Saints’ injuries, could be the story of this game.
2a. Welcome back, Paxton Lynch! Hope you learned how to fix everything since the last time we saw you.
The Broncos of 2016 and ’17 are a cautionary tale of what happens when you don’t find the right bridge QB. They signed Mark Sanchez, who was beat out by Trevor Siemian, who showed some promise before falling off a cliff, and then all they had left was Brock Osweiler. And that’s how you arrive at a moment like this (commentary from my podcast co-host and adult contemporary singer/songwriter Andy Benoit).
Paxton Lynch was supposed to be a multi-year project. It’s hard enough to sell a fan base on a first-round, multi-year project QB, but impossible when you don’t have anyone else who can play on your roster. So now, putting in the proper development time goes out the window, and into the fire Lynch goes despite the shoulder injury he’s been nursing all season and despite the fact that he hasn’t thrown a meaningful pass in almost a calendar year.
Oh! And then there’s the fact that the Broncos just fired offensive coordinator Mike McCoy on Monday. So Lynch has been a Denver Bronco for a little less than 19 months, and he’s currently on his third offensive coordinator (now Bill Musgrave, if you’re scoring at home) and third quarterbacks coach (now Klint Kubiak).
The only way the road map for Lynch could have gone more poorly was if they put him in charge of unclogging the rickety ol’ garbage disposal in the break room (someone keeps putting their gunked-up Hot Pocket sleeves down there and the only way to fix it is to jam your fingers way down in to dig out the clog—and as you know, with the faulty wiring sometimes that thing just turns on by itself!).
But the lack of a serviceable bridge QB means the Broncos need to know right now whether or not Lynch secretly developed on his own. And if he didn’t (he didn’t), they’re back to the drawing board at quarterback this offseason.
2b. Keenum/Elway ’18.
3. Franchise quarterback tears his ACL in August. Hurricane wipes out the season opener. Newly signed and much-needed veteran linebacker goes AWOL and shows up at his old team’s practice saying he regrets everything.* The offensive line coach is forced to resign after starring in a video intended for a, uh, “companion,” in which he’s snorting an unidentified white substance (that is presumably the kind of white substance you would snort with such a companion). Depending on the casting it’s either a gritty drama or an off-the-wall sitcom (get me Craig T. Nelson!) but set it in Chicago and NBC will buy it.
It’s been a wild two years for Adam Gase and the Dolphins. They came back from the dead to make the playoffs a year ago, and mathematically they’re still very much in the AFC wild-card race at 4-6, but 2017 is surely on the verge of becoming a lost season. Jay Cutler has looked like a recently retired quarterback. On coaches film, the back seven of the defense looks an awful lot like Electric Football. But the most disappointing aspect of the Dolphins continues to be the offensive line play.
Around this time last year, it looked like this group was turning a corner. They’ve certainly invested in the O-line; Mike Pouncey, Ja’Wuan James and Laremy Tunsil were all top-20 picks, and for a short time they were playing like it. Tunsil, who looked like a potential All-Pro at left guard, has been playing left tackle full-time this year and has steadily regressed. Pouncey has stayed healthy for once but his play has fallen off. The always up-and-down James was slightly more up than down compared to past years, but he’s out for the season with a groin injury. And you wonder how much the unit as a whole misses Chris Foerster, who was one of the best O-line coaches in football before, well . . . The result is that Adam Gase can’t run anything the least bit expansive in the passing game, and that’s really his calling card. The Dolphins have been reduced to a quick-strike attack that doesn’t play to the strengths of Gase or the receiving corps, the roster’s strongest position group aside from the D-line.
Sunday in Foxboro provides something of a possibility for the Dolphins to actually be the offense they want to be, even with Matt Moore under center. The Patriots rely on coverage more than the pass rush, so Moore should have time. It then becomes a battle of (relative) strength on strength, with the Dolphins receivers going up against the New England secondary. Miami won’t win this game because the other team has Tom Brady, but we could see at least a glimmer of what this offense is supposed to look like, and what it could be with a full complement of talent next fall.
* — Lawrence Timmons’ Bogus Journey is the most under-covered story of 2017.
4. The Nathan Peterman Era in Buffalo appears to have lasted 30 minutes. In that sense he’s the William Henry Harrison of Bills quarterbacks. Except that nobody involved died of typhoid fever caused by drinking water contaminated by human feces. And that is literally the nicest thing that’s been written about Peterman’s performance in his first career start.
But, just so we’re on the same page here (and I promise I won’t write 27,000 words on the subject like I did last week): The Bills weren’t going to beat the Chargers last week no matter what they did at quarterback. You know that now, right? After what the Chargers’ pass rush did to that offensive line? After Buffalo’s run defense got steam-rolled again? After the entirety of the offense was a couple LeSean McCoy big plays until the Chargers had retreated into the kind of shell defense that Peterman picked apart against the Saints when trailing by 44 points two weeks ago? Peterman starting was the difference between a 30-point loss and a 15-point loss, not something that will factor into the Bills missing the playoffs.
5a. If a few NFL owners are bummed out by the ratings so far this season, just wait until the playoffs. Packers, Cowboys, Broncos, Washington and the New York teams (and maybe Seattle) out. Rams, Vikings, and two if not three teams from each of the South divisions (whose fans are great, but whose appeal on a national level is not) in.
In a decade, ownership will likely look back and chuckle over their obsession with archaic Nielsen TV ratings in 2017. But the failure to properly promote some of the league’s rising teams is something they’ll regret for a while. Anyway, enjoy Packers-Steelers on Sunday night.
5b. If you are looking for an alternative to the Sunday night game, first-year Argos coach and reigning Annis Stukus Trophy winner Marc Trestman will try to lead Toronto to a Grey Cup upset over Calgary. (Free personal finance advice: Stampeders, giving just seven points, is free money.)
6. So about the Seahawks, who are staring down a tough stretch run. The one silver lining to losing Richard Sherman was the chance for everyone to get more familiar with Shaquill Griffin. Two things you might not know about the third-round rookie: He spells his first name with two L’s and no E, and he’s going to be a very good player in Seattle, with the size, fluid movement skills and ball-tracking ability to be a rock at a boundary corner spot for a long time.
But on Monday, the Seahawks’ first game without Sherman since 2010, Griffin suffered a concussion making a tackle on the second play from scrimmage, and now he’ll be out for the 49ers game on Sunday. Seattle likely has enough to get by in Santa Clara, but the secondary is the soul of this team, the one thing that’s consistently been there through the shaky play of the offense and a pass rush that has had a tendency to disappear at times in 2017. For now they’re running out vets Jeremy Lane and Byron Maxwell as the starting corners, which means the team’s greatest strength is now a significant weakness (the pass rush won, the secondary did not against Atlanta), and one that might not get much better over the final six weeks of the season.
7. A quick note on one of my 153 least-favorite things in the NFL rule book: offsetting penalties that shouldn’t offset.
On Monday night, on a third-and-8 late in the first quarter, Seahawks CB Neiko Thorpe got beat on a slot wheel route by Falcons receiver Marvin Hall (for shame, Neiko, don’t you practice against Doug Baldwin!). Thorpe reached out and grabbed Hall, a clear hold. With one of his receivers taken out of the play and pressure bearing down, Ryan threw the ball away out of bounds. The hold on Thorpe was deemed to have been offset by Ryan’s intentional grounding, a penalty that only occurred because of the first penalty. To treat them as equal infractions makes no sense.
This is one of those plays on which officials could have used common sense and just not thrown the intentional grounding flag, but despite the fact that they’re asked to make approximately 10,000 judgment calls over the course of a game (just ask Kirk Cousins) officials often seem to get downright giddy when presented with the opportunity to enforce an illogical rule as if they were soulless, emotionless robots (What is this “love” you speak of?). So to lift this burden off of them, why not just add some basic logic to the concept of off-setting penalties. Here’s how they should work:
If they are linked penalties that happen in succession, the first penalty is the one that’s enforced. For instance, the example from Monday night. Or say a pass rusher jumps offsides and then a lineman holds him to keep him from deboning the quarterback, the offsides is enforced. Or a lineman holds, leading to an extended play with illegal contact or pass interference late in the down, the holding gets enforced.
I know what you’re thinking: In this thrilling yet terrifying new world order, as soon as there’s a flag on one team the other team has free reign to commit a thousand penalties over the course of the play. But on such plays, the team that picks up the second penalty then gives up the option to take the play. They have to accept the penalty.
What penalties would offset? If they’re considered to have occurred simultaneously (for instance, illegal hands to the face by an offensive lineman and a defensive back independent of each other and at approximately the same moment—it would be a judgment call!). And flags that come on both teams after the play (roughing the passer, unsportsmanlike conduct, taunting, unnecessary roughness, all that stuff that doesn’t actually affect a play).
And while we’re at it, all pre-snap procedure penalties on the offense (illegal formation, illegal shift, etc.) should be blown dead, just like a false start. Back it up five yards and let’s move on with our lives; no reason to waste everyone’s time by making the offense run a play, then bringing it back for an infraction that probably didn’t affect the defense anyway. It’s a terrible look. Actually, just give me a weekend with the rulebook this spring. I’ll get it cleaned up.
8. Despite the really dumb thing he said to get the boot from MNF to begin with—and the curious timing of his return considering what’s going on in our nation at the moment—Bocephus’s re-introduction to Monday Night Football this season admittedly hit me right in the nostalgitator (that’s an internal organ located right between your colon and your appendix, I believe). “All My Rowdy Friends” returning to MNF reignited my decade-long quest to find the Chris Farley-as-Bocephus SNL skit that seems to not be anywhere on the internet somehow. And reminded us all of the 90s, the best decade for the NFL, when shoulder pads were large enough to house families of small woodland creatures, every wide receiver wore a number in the 80s, and if you wanted to know the score of an out-of-town game you had to either turn on CNN Headline News or wait until Primetime, just like God intended.
I had originally written a note on the rebooted version of the MNF song for my Week 2 column, but decided to hold it and allow some time to move on from the “I despise it because it’s new” phase and make sure I was firmly in the “I despise because it’s objectively atrocious” camp. And, now, here we are. Among my biggest issues with the new version: I sincerely doubt that Hank Williams Jr. is friends with any of these gentlemen, and even if he was, Jason Derulo and the guys from Florida Georgia Line don’t qualify as “rowdy” by any stretch of the imagination. ESPN could have at least re-branded the song “A Couple of Milquetoast Acquaintances Are Stopping By For a Couple Minutes Tonight ( . . . Oh, and They’re Bringing Cher’s Auto-Tuner).” Or, better yet, they could have had Gruden do a spoken-word version. Or, even better yet, they could have just scrapped the whole project.
9. Ladies and gentlemen . . . Creedence Clearwater Revival!
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