Monday, September 28, 2020

Green Bay's Drive Continued in New Orleans

 By Eric Goska

Two of the best dueled in New Orleans Sunday Night.
(screenshot from NFL Game Pass)

Given their track record, the Green Bay Packers should qualify for a State Farm Good Driver Discount.

Green Bay improved to 3-0 in a 37-30 shootout over the New Orleans Saints at the Superdome Sunday night. In what is becoming routine, the Packers again scored on more than half of their possessions.

Converting opportunities at a rate better than 50 percent is nothing to sneeze at. The six teams that have done so this seasons all have winning records.

Being able to score—and often—has never been more important. According to the NFL, teams have combined for 50.9 points per game through the season’s first three weeks (not counting the Chiefs-Raiders Monday night matchup). That pace is well ahead of the record 46.8 per game tallied in 2013.

Those who can’t keep up risk falling behind.

Fourteen clubs have scored 80 or more points so far including five that are undefeated. The combined record of those 14 teams is 29-13 (.690).

Green Bay leads the league with 122 points. Seattle, with 111, is the only other outfit above 100.

In New Orleans, the Packers scored on 7 of 11 possessions. Aaron Rodgers tossed three touchdown passes, Aaron Jones counted once on the ground and Mason Crosby booted three field goals.

Only two of Green Bay’s four scoreless drives against the Saints could be classified as failures. JK Scott punted late in the second quarter after the Packers had advanced 13 yards, and Jones came up short on fourth-and-one early in the fourth quarter.

The other two drives hardly qualify as such. Wil Lutz kicked off to Tyler Ervin who returned 17 yards as time ran out in the first half. Rodgers killed the clock with a kneel-down to end the game.

The Packers’ success in prime time came close to what they did against the Vikings and Lions. In Minnesota, Green Bay scored on 7 of 10 advances. Against the Lions, they hit on 6 of 10.

Taken together, the Green and Gold has scored points on 20 of 31 possessions. That success rate (64.5 percent) is a team record, shattering the previous mark of 53.1 (17 of 32) set in 2015.

That’s pedal-to-the-metal good.

Green Bay’s robust average leads the league as well, although that could change pending the outcome of the Chiefs-Ravens clash. Baltimore (60%; 12 of 20) and Kansas City (57.9; 11 of 19) rank second and third, respectively, but one or both could move ahead of Green Bay with an exceptional showing.

Historically, cashing in at a clip of 45 percent or better through the first three games has been next to impossible for the Packers. They did so in 1996 (47.2 percent), 2013 (47.2) and 2015 (53.1).

In ringing the bell 20 times this season, the Packers have scored 13 touchdowns and 7 field goals. Crosby hasn’t missed, connecting on kicks of 31, 43, 43, 35, 52, 33 and 49 yards.

So why is Green Bay off to such a zero-to-60 start?

First, a number of players, Rodgers and Jones in particular, have bettered their game. Second, head coach Matt LaFleur’s offense has added a number of new wrinkles that are proving effective.

Helping, too, might be the fact that the Packers have not turned the ball over. Rodgers has fired nine TD passes without a pick, and the team’s lone fumble – by Jones in the opener – went out of bounds.

That’s pedal-to-the-metal good—minus any accidents.

Finally, Green Bay’s improved scoring efficiency might be part of a league-wide upswing. Last year, teams scored on 372 of 1,076 possessions (34.6 percent) through three games. This year, that percentage has risen nearly seven points to 41.5 (427 of 1,209).

Whatever the reasons, Green Bay would do well to continue its scoring ways. Teams that lead the league in point production tend to fare well.

Of the 30 teams that have led the league in scoring since 1990, 18 earned the No. 1 playoff seed in their conference. Thirteen made it to the Super Bowl. Six, including the 1996 Packers, won the NFL championship.

The Packers have hit the road running in 2020. Here’s hoping their driving record continues to be good.

Driven

The 12 Packers teams that scored on better than 40 percent of their offensive possessions in the first three games of a season.


Aldon Smith Leads NFL in Sacks After Three Weeks—After a Four-Year Absence

By John Turney

No one knew what to expect from Aldon Smith on the football field when the Cowboys signed him for the 2020 season. He last played in 2014 with the Oakland Raiders.

Smith, now 31, leads the NFL with 4 sacks after three weeks of NFL games and is the clear front-runner for NFL Comeback Player of the Year.

Smith had a long list of legal issues, in fact, here they are per Wikipedia—

But he is in the clear now and moving on with his life and that is all society and football fans can ask. Certainly, it's very early but he's doing better than most thought he would. and though Dallas is 1-2 they must think they have the right end spot as being very solid with Smith looking like he did in 2012, not 2015. 

Friday, September 25, 2020

Derland Moore—Yet Another Good Defensive Lineman Gone

 By John Turney

Late last night Crescent City Sports reported at Derland Moore, longtime New Orleans Saint had passed away from cancer. This morning the Saints official website confirmed the report. He was just 68 years of age.

Moore growing up at the foothills of the Ozarks in southeast Missouri, near Poplar Bluff  he was the son of a farmer and a shot-putter.  He told ESPN that he'd "(N)ever heard of the University of Oklahoma or the Sooners . . . That shows how worldly I was growing up in the Missouri Ozarks.” The football field in his hometown is now named after him but he was not a great high school player but his field events in track were enough to get hi to the University of Oklahoma where he played for Chuck Fairbanks and was an All-American defensive lineman there in 1972.

He was not as highly recognized as the famous trio of Selmon brothers— Lucious, Dewey, and Lee Roy but he caught the eye of Saints coach J.D. Roberts and was drafted at the top the Second-round of the 1973 draft.

He was a backup as a rookie but moved into a starter's role in 1974 and held it, at a few different positions though 1984. He played a straight 4-3 from 1974-77 then played a Flex 4-3 when Dick Nolan arrived in 1978. In 1981 with Bum Phillips and defensive coordinator Wade Phillips he was moved to left defensive end. Then in 1982 to Phillips' though he was better suited for nose tackle.

He was strong, a run-stopper if you will, but could get some push, twice he had 8 sacks and in 1983, as a nose, he had six sacks. 

Chart: Pro Football Journal

Moore was not one of those players who earned any post-season honors and with the Saints, he never played on a winning team.  The only time he played in the post-season was his final year in 1986 with the Jets. He was signed to fill the hole left by Joe Klecko who had an injured knee and also played in the season finale and two playoff games.

In the 1986 Wildcard win over the Chiefs Jet defensive coordinator praised the newly acquire Moore, saying "He's one tough guy, he really helped us". Moore made a key tackle on a 4th and one play and also deflected a pass and helped keet the Chiefs to 67 yards rushing and a 3.4-yard average gain.

Moore was a two-time NFL Players Arm Wrestling Championships, which Moore won in both 1983 and 1984 in Las Vegas and is a member of the Saints Hall of Fame and the Missouri Sports Hall of Fame. Additionally, he was a member of the Saints' 40th Anniversary Team and in 2016 the Saints celebrated their 50th anniversary and Moore was named one 50 greatest players in franchise history.

He finished his career with 627 tackles and 46.5 sacks and deflected 11 passes along the way. He was a hard-working grinder who used his strength to win, hold his ground, and some innate quickness to get to the quarterback enough to keep guards honest.

God speed strongman. 

Thursday, September 24, 2020

Rams Defense Looks Like It Is Emphasizing Overshifts More Than In Past Few Seasons

 By John Turney

In simple terms, one-gap defenses can play even fronts, overshifted fronts or undershifted fronts. "Fronts" are how the defensive linemen are alined in relation to the offensive line. They can be evenly aligned or shift an extra player towards the tight end side or away from the tight end. The former is an overshift. The latter is an undershift.

Two-gap defenses (3-4) have a nose tackle so the defense his balanced. However, one-gap 3-4 defenses usually play the nose tackle "shaded" one side of the center, on his shoulder generally, and while yes, one guy may be "two-gapping" it is considered a one-gap defense. Ina 4-3 defense one player may play two-gaps as well, but that is a story for another day.

In recent times, call it since the merger, or perhaps since 1960, teams have used these types of fronts depending on where they want the extra defender. Some teams or coordinators use them all. Others prefer one over the others and are therefore an "under" team or an "over" team. 

The Rams defensive coordinator from 2017-19 was Wade Phillips and he preferred the under. He called it "Will Wink". This put Aaron Donald on the shoulder of the guard away from the tight end in most situations when the base defense was on the field. 

In Denver, Phillips ran "Will WInk" a 3-4 'under', line away from TE, "backers to TE side

Putting a player on the weak side guard is not something Phillips always has done, he didn't always 'flop' his defensive tackles. He's played them 'left' and 'right' before but Donald is one of those special players who demands to be put in a position to make plays. And since the popularization of the "under" defenses—really beginning in Minnesota with Keith Millard, then spreading throughout the NFL in the 1990s many coaches followed suit when they had a player who fit that bill, like John Randle, Warren Sapp, D'Marco Farr, La'Roi Glover and others.

This is a 3-4 undershift with the line shifted away from tight end and the 'backer towards the tight end

From 2018 Super Bowl. Donald on the weakside guard. Ideal for making plays in backfield

This year Brandon Staley, the Rams new defensive coordinator is mixing it up more. They still play the under, but after two games when they are in base or in nickel when there is a tight end on the field they are running the overshift more often than the under. This puts Aaron Donald on the shoulder of the guard on the tight end side. 

This is actually a 4-3 over. Staley worker for Vic Fangio in Denver, they ran both overs and unders
but if we had to guess, the over was more often employed

A 3-4 over, putting the 3-tech (in this case a 4i) on the tight end side


Overshift—line shifted to the tight end, linebackers away. This is nickel, but the principle still applies


And over. Dallas with H-B, usually second TE is treated the same as a fullback. Floyd, a left linebacker not a "Sam" in this case is a defensive end and Kiser is the "Sam". The 3-tech, Donald, is on the strong side. 

Staley doesn't run the over as much as Phillips ran the under, but it is still a change. Both coaches would mix in the Bear front which puts a defensive lineman over both guards and the center, though after just two games it's hard to know, but Staley did it quite a big versus Dallas, a team with a great runner. 

This is an under, with Donald on weak side, though with nickel personnel. Similar to Wade Phillips

Theories differ as to what is better and why. The "over" traditionally is thought to be better versus strong side runs, having the extra defender to the strong side, but vulnerable to weakside runs due to a "bubble" on the weakside. If the backside can be secured and the frontside plays their gap, it can be hard to run strongside. But that is in theory. The offense gets paid, too, and they are paid to be able to run strong or weak or whatever play is called. 

The under is supposedly better for likely passing downs, putting that Sapp/Randle-esque tackle on the weakside to penetrate and break up running plays on the way to the quarterback. He only has three reads—high hat (pass), block coming at him (beat block make play), and trap (fill hole meet trapper). That's it. 

But it also depends if you have that kind of player as well. As we mentioned many coaches, run both and Staley appears to be one of them. Phillips clearly had a preference in recent years. 

When a team plays left- and right defensive tackles then both tackles have to play strong and weak (as the outside linebackers do in the Rams new scheme) but Daly is still flopping the tackles as Phillips did but with that Phillips had Donald simply go away from the tight end, as did the WILL as did the MO (weak inside 'backer) as did the free safety.

Now, depending on the call, Donald can go either way, it's not automatic. It's a bit more complicated, not much, mind you, but a bit. If it's over, he finds tight end and goes that way, if it's under he finds tight end and goes the opposite side. With left and right tackles, it was easy for the tackles, just go left and right, and if the call was over, slide to tight end, and if it was under slide away. 

Donald, a supreme talent, will have no trouble with all of that. However, will opponents be able to find ways to take away little things from him that just came naturally? Or will it be harder not being able to know that maybe 90% of the time he was going to be one the weakside guard's shoulder whereas now, it maybe 40% or less? We just don't know what the number might be as of now.

Or will the rule of some coaches be broken—don't mess with star players. Don't change what brought a player to the top. That remains to be seen. 

The weakside bubble in an overshifted defense, supposedly vulnerable if not played right by a defense

We will monitor this to see how varied Staley is in switching up the overs and unders and Bear fronts in likely run downs. And how much the Rams are in base (three linemen and four backers) or quasi-base. Wade Phillips used it as much as anyone but also cheated it a bit with one of his linebackers a smaller, athletic-type—often a safety so it was nickel personnel in a 3-4 under. And he had a few different personnel packages in base

It is worth noting, and this is not any type of criticism, that in the first couple of games the most devastating plays made by Aaron Donald have come out of the under, not the over. The knockdowns, the sack (a weakside stunt with a linebacker) came from the weakside. However, some of the top run plays did come from the over, when the threw around a tight end for example.

So, it is too early to tell anything, but fair warning. Donald will be on both sides this year more this year than in the last few, which doe constitute a change and is worth studying.

We will let you know what we see.

Tuesday, September 22, 2020

TUESDAY TIDBITS: "He Was the Fiercest Football Player I've Ever Known"

By TJ Troup

Larry Wilson Credit: George Bartell

Two weeks into the season and we have a couple games coming up next weekend that should be both entertaining, and give us insight as to which teams will rank at the top after three weeks. The Rams at Buffalo and the Chiefs taking on the Ravens are must-see football for me. This past Sunday marked the 50 year anniversary of Lem Barney returning an interception for a touchdown against the Packers in the Lions season-opening victory. Barney would end the year by again returning an interception for a touchdown against Green Bay, giving him 3 scores in four years against the Packers. For those of you who are youngsters----once upon a time the Lions actually had cornerbacks who could cover and make a play. 

Lem Barney credit: Chuck Ren

Will dovetail onto the recent tribute to Larry Wilson here at the Journal. Was visiting the Cardinal offices to do research years ago, and upon leaving met Larry in the elevator. Our short conversation soon became a ten-minute discussion as we talked about history, defensive philosophy, and his career. The Cleveland Browns played winning football in the '60s and the Cardinals always seemed to play their best against them. 

I brought up the fact that after his interception return against Pittsburgh with two broken hands in '65 he missed a few weeks. Wilson returned for the last game of the year and pilfered 3 passes against Cleveland including a 96-yard interception for a touchdown. Larry tied the league record for consecutive games intercepting a pass in '66, and as such he had 12 interceptions in a ten-game span. 

He brightened up as he learned where both Steve Sabol and myself had him ranked in the pantheon of free safeties. Larry Wilson was cordial, classy, and was amazed at how small physically he was. He ranks with the men who outperformed their physical gifts. 

Robert Burnes terrific book The Story of the Football Cardinals has many quotes on Wilson, yet my favorite comes from John David Crow . . . "He was the fiercest football player I've ever known". Having watched a virtual ton of film on Wilson, could go page after page listing all he accomplished, yet one game stands out for me. Since the Cardinals closed the season in 1960 with a victory over Pittsburgh to finish with a winning record, and there was plenty of talent on this team, many pundits thought St. Louis would be a contender in 1961. 

Pop Ivy resigned after twelve games with a record that year of 5-7. After defeating Dallas the Cardinals could even the slate at home against Pittsburgh. Wilson intercepts and sets up one score and in the 4th quarter he "red dogs" through one A-gap as middle linebacker Dale Meinert red dogs the other. 

They combine to sack Bobby Layne, force a fumble, and Wilson out fights Steeler center Buzz Nutter for the ball. An interception, a sack, and a fumble recovery in a shut-out victory; how many players can make that claim in league history? Later today will be on John Vorperian's show "Beyond the Game" discussing the NFL in the '50s and doing my usual compare/contrast with how this game of passion is played now. 

On a personal note, and cannot think of a better way of ending this saga; the passing of Lenore Fields. My high school best friend messaged me the other day about her passing, and there is no better time to enlighten all of you about inspiration. Winter of 1969 and as a soon to be 18-year old who thought he had all the answers this classy lady reached me like no other. 

She had a commanding presence, spoke to you in a way to have your complete attention, and her tests were like none had ever taken previously. Questions phrased in a way to elicit deep feelings brought to light on paper had a room of silence for 50 minutes on test day. Mrs. Fields inspired me on a daily basis, and upon leaving her class for the last time due to a schedule change to play baseball we spoke in the doorway for the last time. She looked up at me and put her hand on my forearm and stated "someday you will be an author". 

Yeah right, Lenore . . . as I'm thinking about the horsehide, Rawlings glove,  my Roberto Clemente Louisville Slugger, and competing in the Sunset League. Years later teaching U.S. History at Mater Dei High School my students were challenged, and taught in a way that they had never been before due to Lenore........her impact on me impacted so, so many others. RIP Lenore, you were one of a kind.

Sunday, September 20, 2020

For Green Bay: Two Games = 1000 Yards

 By Eric Goska

A view of Lambeau Field
roughly an hour-and-half before Green Bay hosted Detroit on Sunday

The final Sunday of Summer 2020 in Green Bay provided a beautiful morning for a bike ride.

The afternoon proved equally as accommodating for football.

The Green Bay Packers kicked off the second half of this memorable day by crushing the Detroit Lions 42-21 at Lambeau Field. Just over an hour before Mason Crosby toed the ball to start the contest, this author had to outrace a speedy, tenacious dog in order to get home to watch the game on television.

Green Bay’s offense picked up where it left off in Minnesota. So potent against the Vikings, the unit continued to excel against the Lions.

After amassing 522 yards in the opener, Aaron Rodgers and his teammates followed up with 488 yards at the expense of Detroit. In doing so, the Packers became just the sixth team in NFL history to exceed 1,000 yards in their opening two games of a season according to Pro Football Reference.

Eager to see how Lambeau Field would look on a game day without fans in the stands, I pedaled west on a nearly traffic-free Mason Street across the Fox River. I ducked under Ashland Avenue via 5th Avenue and, after a number of twists and turns, crossed Lombardi Avenue.

Just a smattering of folks had gathered at Stadium View Bar, Grill & Banquet. Turning right onto Armed Forces Drive, I came upon a completely-empty Bart Starr Plaza.

Though the stadium parking lot off Oneida Street was not entirely deserted, it lacked the noise and energy of a typical football-filled Sunday. No one posed in front of the bronze statues of Vince Lombardi and Curly Lambeau.

Even the party houses were mostly silent.

Side streets that were usually parked with cars from one end to the other, boasted long stretches of open space. Thirty-two could be found along both sides of Shadow Lane from Frank Street all the way to Gross Avenue. Half that many dotted Kenwood Street. And one, just one lone vehicle, was parked along Thorndale Street.

This was a game-day scene unlike any other in Titletown.

Nearly 70 years ago, the Los Angeles Rams (1,034 yards) became the first team to surpass 1,000 yards in their first two games. Four others followed: 1991 Bills (1,119), 1998 49ers (1,061), 2011 Patriots (1,126) and 2019 Ravens (1,083).

The Packers made it a six-pack with their showings against Minnesota and Detroit. The team has generated 1,010 yards in starting 2-0.

Their previous best to start a season was 965 in 2013

A good chunk of what they have put up has come on the ground. In two games, Green Bay has ripped off 417 yards rushing including 259 against the Lions.

Only once before – in 1947 (480) – did the club start off with more soil yards.

Aaron Jones led the charge Sunday. He peeled off 168 on 18 carries and scored twice on the ground. His 75-yard dash to pay dirt in the third quarter put Green Bay up 24-14.

By gaining 107 yards in that period alone, Jones became just the fourth Packer player to surpass 100 in a third quarter. He joined Howie Ferguson (109), Andy Uram (108) and Ahman Green (107) in that regard.

Pick an offensive statistic. There is a good chance Green Bay is off to its best or one of its best starts in whatever metric you choose.

  • First downs: 1st with 57 (51 in 2013)
  • Yards per rushing play: 1st at 6.22 (5.81 in 1955)
  • Points: 2nd with 85 (88 in 1945)

Boding well also is the fact that the Packers have scored on 13 of their 20 offensive possessions. Time does not permit a look back to see where that ranks in team history, but it stands to reason that any outfit that can score on nearly two-thirds of its drives is a team to be reckoned with.

As welcome as the early Green and Gold fireworks might be, two games, of course, does not a season make. But being undefeated is preferable to the alternative: getting chased down and mauled by a dog along 12th Avenue.

Oh, How Grand!

Teams that amassed 1,000 or more yards in the first two games of a season.

  Yards     Rush     Pass            Team             Year      Sacks       TOs

   1,126       200         926             Patriots             2011          3              1

   1,119       379         740                 Bills               1991           2              5      

   1,083       447         636             Ravens             2019          3              0

   1,061       417         644               49ers               1998          4              1

   1,034       269         765               Rams              1951          2              9 

   1,010       417         593             Packers            2020          1              0


Saturday, September 19, 2020

A Fine Defensive Lineman Gone Too Soon—Mile Tilleman RIP

 By John Turney

Mike Tilleman was a big Montana man, he played at 6-7, 275 pounds. The Saints website announced to today that he passed away

He was originally a Minnesota Viking. He was picked up by the New Orleans Saints in the 1967 expansion draft becoming on of the Original Saints. 

The Saints website stated, "In 1970, Tilleman had a breakout season and was awarded team MVP honors" which correlates to the statistics from the gamebooks of time. He doubled his previous high in tackles forced three fumbles and had nine plays behind the line of scrimmage. We named that year an honorable mention in our "Career Season" series a few years back

Chart credit: PFJ
note: we are working to fill in blanks in chart
Of course, in that era, it eas not easy for a defensive tackle to get any All-Pro or even Pro Bowl mention with names like Bob Lilly, Merlin Olsen, Alan Page, and Joe Greene in the NFL and in their prime. Also in the NFL were up-and-comers like Curley Culp and Mike Reid. So Tilleman's seasons from 1970-73, which were very good, went little-noticed though he averaged  90 tackles and 7 sacks a season. 

Certainly, Norm Van Brocklin noticed. He was the coach when the Vikings drafted Tilleman and in late 1972 Tilleman hung three sacks on the Falcons. In 1973 Tilleman was a Falcon, the team Van Brocklin was coaching at that time. Tilleman was to be the "Merlin Olsen" of that front four that had Claude Humphrey at left end and John Zook and right end and Mike Lewis at defensive tackle (a guy who has some wiggle to him). Tilleman was to be the beef. It didn't quite work out as planned but the defensive line was not the big issue in Atlanta, that's for sure.

Tilleman played two years at the University of Montana and was a two-time all-conference selection. but left after only two seasons to play pro football. Both leagues drafted him but he signed with the Vikings. Then to the Saints and the Falcons with a two-year stop in Houston.

The Saints got a hefty price for Tilleman in 1971— a tackle (Glen Ray Hines) and a linebacker ( Jess Lewis) plus a  1972 second-round pick and a  1973 third-round pick. With the Oilers, he played well, and really improved his pass rush nailing quarterbacks 8 times in 1971 and 11 times in 1972. That 1972 season earned him an honorable mention on the Oilers/Titans Career-year team we did in 2016. As was mentioned it was also impressive the Falcons enough to send a 1973 first-round pick (14th overall) to the Oilers for Tilleman. 

Tilleman ended his career with 718 tackles and 45 sacks and blocked three field goals. As for honors he didn't receive anything major, just an honorable mention All-AFC in 1972, and the Newark Star-Ledger gave him All-Pro honors in 1973. So, while not a recognized team by Total Football:  The Official Encyclopedia of the NFL of the NFLPA, it's not nothing, and recognized that he had a good year in 1973. We named that 1973 season a First-team All-Career Year in our ongoing series in 2016. 

Tillman was inducted into Montana’s Grizzly Sports Hall of Fame in 2003 and the Montana Football Hall of Fame in 2017. He was known for his charity work and community work in his native Montana. 

May he be remembered as a good player and a good man.