Friday, October 29, 2021

Packers Pick Off Cardinals in Arizona

 By Eric Goska

Rasul Douglas intercepts in the end zone in Arizona.
(screenshot from NFL Game Pass)

Call it a nix-six pick?

Maybe that’s not the best way to refer to an interception that prevents a touchdown late in a game. But absent something better, the term will have to suffice.

Whatever you want to call it, the play Rasul Douglas made late Thursday in Arizona cries out for a catchy nickname. His end-zone interception with 12 seconds remaining allowed Green Bay to escape with a 24-21 win over the previously unbeaten Cardinals.

Not all interceptions carry the same weight. Some, like a long heave before halftime, are akin to a punt. Others, either directly or indirectly, result in points.

Still others seal victory.  Though perhaps not as glamorous as a pick-six, they determine who wins and who loses.

Down 24-21 with three minutes, 23 seconds remaining, Arizona mounted its final drive hell-bent on scoring. The team began at its 1-yard line after quarterback Aaron Rodgers’ fourth-down pass was batted incomplete.

Just over three minutes later, Kyler Murray had his team perched at the Green Bay 5. With 15 seconds remaining, the Arizona quarterback had potentially three shots to pierce the Packers’ end zone.

He got only one.

The Cardinals appeared well-positioned to take the lead. In their previous 22 fourth-quarter plays, they had gashed Green Bay for 166 yards (7.5 average) and 10 first downs.

But Douglas was about to change that. Tasked with guarding A.J. Green, Douglas, and not the former All-Pro receiver, came up with the ball in the end zone on Murray’s first throw there on that final drive.

Douglas tapped both feet down to make sure before heading off to celebrate.

Quite an accomplishment for a player who was on the Cardinals’ practice squad just weeks earlier. A third-round pick by the Eagles in 2017, Douglas was signed to the Packers’ active roster on Oct. 6.

But Douglas did more than provide the climatic play. He registered a team-high nine solo tackles and was on the field for all 55 of Arizona’s offensive plays.

He also saw extensive action in two other games. He had five tackles against the Bears, and made four stops, and forced a fumble against Washington.

Solid work, but nothing as memorable as his dagger in the desert.

So, what separates Douglas’ pick from the many others in Packers history? Time and location.

Since 1942, only nine Green Bay defenders have intercepted a pass in the last two minutes of a game with the line of scrimmage tucked inside the Packers’ 10-yard line. Douglas and Doug Evans (in 1995) are the only two to have done so with the ball resting inside the 6.

Douglas’ interception won’t soon be forgotten. It’s also one that might carry some weight when playoff seedings are determined.

No Fly Zone
 
Since 1942, nine Packers defenders have intercepted a pass launched from inside the Green Bay 10-yard line in the last two minutes of a game.
 
  LOS    Date               Interceptor          Opponent    Opposing QB      Final Score
  GB3    10-22-1995      Doug Evans              Vikings           Brad Johnson         GB won, 38-21
  GB5    10-28-2021      Rasul Douglas          Cardinals       Kyler Murray         GB won, 24-21
  GB7    11-19-1967       Willie Wood              49ers              John Brodie            GB won, 13-0
  GB7     9-28-1969       Herb Adderley         49ers               John Brodie           GB won, 14-7
  GB7    10-11-2015       Quinten Rollins       Rams              Nick Foles               GB won, 24-10
  GB8    11-29-1981      Mike Douglass          Vikings          Tommy Kramer     GB won, 35-23
  GB8    10-4-1987        Jim Bob Morris        Vikings          Tony Adams           GB won, 23-16
  GB8      9-5-1993        Roland Mitchell        Rams              Jim Everett           GB won, 36-6
  GB9    10-21-1956       Jim Capuzzi             Rams              Rudy Bukich          GB won, 42-17

One, One-and-a-Half, and Two-Gap—A Simplified Explanation

 By John Turney 

Last year we mentioned  Brandon's Staley's "gap-and-a-half" front but we never really gave an explanation as to what it is. So in this post, we will give the basics. The more complicated part of it we will leave to those better qualified.

In 1983 the Rams switched from being a 4-3 to a 3-4, but it was a two-gap 3-4, unlike many today which are hybrid schemes, they may be a 3-4 base defense but they are not doing as much one-gapping. For example, Wade Phillips ran a one-gap 3-4 most of his career and did so with the Rams from 2017-2019.

Then in 2020, Brandon Staley brought in some college concepts that allowed for run stopping-of played properly but allows for more people in coverage because they can run a lighter box, 6 players rather than seven. It's called different things but it's often a 5-1 looking from (personnel is 33 nickel) but when they line up it looks like a 5-1 with the ends in two-point stances. To make it work, since they are short in the box the front three have to cover all the interior gaps.  

In 2021 Raheem Morris is doing the same things, using the same scheme but like Staley did in 2020 he mixes in 3-4 one-gap and 3-4 two-gap and sometimes some 4-3 concepts as well but the "go-to" front is usually the 5-1. Morris is also using the same coverages (match zones, especially quarters—but other things as well). It's definitely Staley part II—Rams head coach Sean McVay hired Morris to take over Staley's playbook and replicate hat Staley did so well in 2020.

So, in that the two 3-techniques (players aligned one on the outside shoulder of the guard or 4i (4 inside) techniques are in the inside shoulder the offensive tackle.  This makes the front  "TITE" or as it is sometimes called "MINT" or even a "Bear" even though a Bear front is two 3-techniques and this is two 4i techniques or maybe a 3-technique and one 4i technique. 

These two players, call then the 4i-techs, have to control the B-Gaps but also "squeeze" the A-Gaps to help the nose tackle who is head up on the center and has to two-gap it most of the time, making the so-called gap-and-a half a hybrid scheme. 

So here is a very basic rundown of the schemes.

Two-Gap
So, here is how a two-gap scheme works—
The players long up head up on their players, the ends in a 4-technique (head up on a tackle) and 0-technique which is head up on the center.  

The way Fritz Shurmur, Bill Parcells, and the other two two-gap schemes had their guys play was as follows: At the snap of the ball explode into their player and push him back, and read the play. If the flow goes to your right, play the gap to your right. If the flow goes to the left, play the gap to your left.
The linebackers flow to the ball, reading the same flow and their keys.



One-Gap
In Wade Phillips' version of the 3-4 everyone including the linebackers had a gap—

Ideally, the edge to the play side will turn back flow (set the edge with penetration to proper depth), the backside edge will have cutbacks, bootlegs, and reverses (CBR), the playside tackle will penetrate and disrupt the play, hoping to make the tackle, the backside tackle will do the same but also wat for cutback. The backers will fill their gaps looking to make the tackle in the ball carrier shows in their gap. The theory is to wreck the play by filling all the gaps. It does not bean that happens with every gap every play—the offensive linemen get paid, too but that is the idea, penetrate and disrupt.

Really, it is a pass rush and if pass shows the linebackers will drop to their zones (or cover their man).   


Gap-and-a-Half 
In this system, the run defense is designed to clog the middle and bounce runs to the outside where the linebacker and safety rotating down make plays on the ball carrier. The defense wants to make a pile in the middle with fewer people handling the gaps than does a 3-4 (either one-gap or two-gap) or a 4-3. But playing a gap-and-a-half a team can play with six players in the box rather than seven if they choose. 

Staley's defense last year and this year with the Chargers and Morris' this year do that with a 5-1 look that has three linemen in the TITE front and two linebackers on the edge of the line of scrimmage and one linebacker on the second level. The personnel is a 33 nickel, but when you look at it it could be described as a 5-1 with 5 on the line and 1 MIKE backer. 
One example of the 5-1

Certainly, the defense would run stuff the run in the middle holes if it is run there but if the gap-and-a-half does not get good penetration, as it often does not, the runner has to find a gap outside of the B-gaps is a good thing. The edge players should get penetration and it is still close enough for the MIKE of the left- or right-safety to get there, depending on who is rotating down.

The idea is to have the nose effective two-gap if he is head up, push the center back and read the flow, as is seen above. However, he has help from the B-gap players who are playing their gap, plus trying to squeeze the gap next to them, covering half the gap with the body of the guard. In a sense, they are making a pile of sorts that a back cannot get through.


As with all defenses, there are, of course, variations and wrinkles. The defensive coordinator can slant the line, effectively making it a one-gap. And many times, due to his tremendous skill set, Aaron Donald will freelance and get penetration as he did under the 4-3 from 2014-16 and the one-gap 3-4 from 2017-19.

He's too good a defensive weapon to have push a guard around. He can do it, but what makes Donald rare is that he can push a guard if needed, but can also beat him with a fast charge into a guy with a swim, a rip or just getting his head in front of the guard. Or, if the guard gets a good jump Donald can backdoor it and still make a play chasing it. It would be a waste if the Rams didn't give Donald the green light to do that when he sees something he likes.

It is a football axiom "If you can do it, do it" meaning if you need to break the scheme you can do it as long as you make the play. If not, you play the scheme the coach's way.

In a way, it is like the national campaign slogan "If You See Something, Say Something" that raises public awareness of the indicators of terrorism-related crime or even crime in general. With Donald, if he sees something he can DO something to stop the offensive play. 

And as we mentioned there are many more components we just are not familiar with that someone else can explain but fans should know "two-gap" means "one-gap" right after the snap of the ball. If flow goes on way, then that is the gap you fill, the way of the flow. 

Presnap one gap gives the player knowledge of where he is going and uses quickness to fill the gap, but also if he beats the blocker gets into the backfield and really mucks things up for the offense. 

Then, "gap-and-a-half" is somewhere between the two, asking a player to take a gap but not penetrating but squeezing a gap next to him and this allows for a "light box" (six rather than seven players) and therefore if pass shows it gives an extra defender in coverage.

Since the Rams (and Broncos and Chargers and some others) play left- and right safeties rather than strong and free both have to be able to rotate down from the Cover-2 shell the Rams usually show and read and fill. That is one the lone MIKE 'backer does as well, though, on slants or other calls he can take a gap. 

Last year this defense worked as well as it possibly could with the rams ranking at or near the top in the major defensive categories as well as both for the run and the pass. The light box worked well but also this year and last year the Rams mixed in one- and two-gap with the gap-and-a-half and sometimes even employed a gap-and-a-half in a 3-4 (normal box), not just in the light box.

In 2021, under Morris, it has not been as good as it was in 2020—not in the run, not versus the pass, points allowed, pass rush but they have beaten teams that were in the playoffs last year and lost to a red-hot Kyler Murray Arizona Cardinal team and the defensive passer rating is 80.4, the same as it was for the 2020 season.

The coverages Morris is running are the same, though Ramsey is playing in the slot more than last year, but also note that Ramsey didn't do it much early in the season. Perhaps Staley was getting the new scheme installed and making sure the players had it down pat before he started tweaking it. 

Later in the year, Ramsey was in the slot position "nickel" or "star" position, whatever one wants to call it a lot more. So the Rams still are a quarters, quarters match, soft zone team, or will also play single-high off-man coverages as well. They did last year and this year as well, play Tampa-2 in the red zone.

Here are some recent examples of the fronts we've outlined all from the Lions game last Sunday—

Gap-and-a-half out of a 3-4

One-gap out of a 3-4

Two-gap out of a 3-4

Gap-and-half out of the 5-1 (33 nickel)

A further explanation of the coverages would probably be in order at some point, but that is a discussion for another day. But in general, the Rams show a Cover-2 shell almost all the time. They will rotate one of the safeties into the middle for a single-high robber coverage (to try and thwart in cutting routes like digs and posts). Or they will play a lot of match quarters or even cover-6 as well as others. 

Neither last year nor this year have they played much aggressive man coverage—it does not work with this scheme. The idea is that teams are not going to be able to consistently have long drives and that it is better to play that way than give up big plays by playing man coverage and giving up chunk play after chunk play. 

If they wanted to play aggressive man coverage a lot they could simply junk the gap-and-a-half and play a 4-3, wreck havoc and get into the backfield and really help the DBs because you cannot play light box light the Rams do and also play aggressive coverage, it does not fit very well. Fronts and pass rush is always tied to the coverages called.

For the last two years with the light box TITE fronts and they have played mostly soft coverages and relied on the defensive backs to make great breaks on the ball and challenge receptions when the ball arrives and in 2020 they were tremendous at it. This year they have not had quite the success they did in 2020 but they are getting better at it. 

Why the dropoff? It is speculation but video study gives us the view that LS Jordan Fuller is not yet to the John Johnson III level—it took Johnson a couple years to get to All-Pro level (One of our Second-team All-Pro safeties in 2020).  And RS Taylor Rapp is not where Fuller was (a top rookie in '20) at that position last year. The Rams also lost Troy Hill, and the "next man" up is not quite to the level he was and so on down the line. 

The same is true for the defensive line and possibly linebackers, too. However, it is set in Jello right now because we have not yet hit the midpoint of the 17-game 2021 season.

There are ten games left and we have no idea if the 2021 defense will get better or worse or even stay the same under Morris, but it does seem this year's unit is picking up steam. We'll see if they can overcome some of the personnel losses from last year and start shutting down some of the good offenses they will face the next couple of months.

Thursday, October 28, 2021

Rams Trade Kenny Young for a Swap of a 7th Round-Pick for a 6th—Or Did They?

 By John Turney 
Kenny Young
We've written about trade strings before. How one pick can be exchanged for another, then another until the fill value of a pick can be realized by a team. Here is one post. Here is another. There are a few more we've done. You can search for them.

The Kenny Young one is interesting because it involves lots of low-round picks and current rosters members and for former top pick by the Rams that goes back a long ways.

So, where to begin?

The Rams acquired Kenny Young from the Ravens with a 5th round pick for Marcus Peters. That 5th rounder went to the Dolphins to take Aqib Talib's salary off the Rams' hands and in return, the Rams got a 2022 7th round pick. 

Young was sent to the Broncos this week plus a 2024 7th rounder in return for a 2024 6th rounder.

Talib was acquired for a 5th round pick, so that was the 5th round out. Peters was acquired for a 2nd round pick and a 4th but the Rams got a 4th rounder back. 
Aqib Talib and Marcus Peters
So, that is a 2nd, 4th, and 5th out, for Peters, Talib, and a 6th rounder in. Follow? We will clarify later.

Now, what was done with the picks? Of course, the 2022 7th and 2024 6th are in the bank, earning interest.

But the Rams had the 6th from the Peters as well, but we will get to that shortly.

The Rams had two 6th rounders in 2018 that they shipped back to the Broncos for that same 5th they sent to Denver for Talib. With that 5th they took linebacker Obo Okoronkwo.
Obo Okoronkwo
How did they get those two 6ths? One they got from the Raiders for dropping two slots in the 3rd round and they took Joseph Noteboom who would have been there at 87. So, basically, it was a free 6th rounder. The other 6th came from sending Robert Quinn and a Rams 6th to the Dolphins. It was the lower of two picks the Rams acquired for their 2011 1st rounder. The other higher pick (a #4) was used to take starting center Brian Allen.

Back to the 6th round from Peters. It was a sweetener in the deal for Brandin Cooks. That 6th and a #1 went to the Patriots for Cooks and a 4th rounder. That fourth was used to acquire a 5th and 6th (#197) rounders from the Panthers—like splitting Aces in blackjack. The 5th rounder was used to take linebacker Micah Kiser. 
Micah Kiser
It gets complicated here. That 6th (#197) rounder was pared with another 6th rounder

The Rams had a 6th round pick from trade former #1 Greg Robinson to the Lions for a 6th (#194) round pick. The Rams traded that to the Falcons for two 7th (#244 and #246) rounders. The Rams traded one those 7th (#256) rounders.

So, in one of those trade value chart trades the Rams sent Washington one of the lower 6ths (#197) and the 7th (#256) rounder for two 6ths in the middle that Washington owned (#205 and #231). Savvy?
Traven Howard
With the two #6s the Rams took linebackers Trevon Young and Traven Howard and with the still unused 7th they took another linebacker Justin Lawler.
Justin Lawler
So, a 3rd out, Quinn out (former 1st), Greg Robinson out (former 1st), five 6ths out, two 7ths out, Cooks, a 3rd, a 4th, two 5ths, and four 6ths in two 7ths in.

Now the Rams had Cook. They sent him to Houston. What was the net-net of that? The terms of that deal was a 2020 2nd round pick and a 2022 4th rounder. That #2 was wide receiver Van Jefferson who is making excellent contributions to the club. 

Now the real can of worms which we won't go into (but we could) but just remember this—Greg Robinson was part of the 2012 Robert Griffin trade. And that trade had implications in the Goff trade (as did Sam Bradford) which brought Matthew Stafford to the Rams with help from the Dante Fowler trade and his leaving to sign with the Falcons. 

And Fowler going to the Rams was, in part, compensation for losing Sammy Watkins (the other part was Terrell Burgess). Also, in trading for Watkins in 2018 the Rams gave up E.J. Gaines (a 2014 #6) and a 2018 #2 pick but in return got a 2018 #6 selection which the Rams took Sebastian Joseph-Day—their starting nose tackle.

But again, this is kind of tangential to the original trade string but these things can really get entangled and confusing and this is one of the hardest we've tried to unravel.  
Sebastian Joseph-Day
Again, not going into super-duper detail the Griffin deal brought the Rams years of services from Alec Ogletree and Michael Brockers. Brokers will be bringing in a 2023 #7 pick and Ogletree brought in a #4 and a #6 and those were used to draft John Franklin-Meyers and John Kelly. The Rams cut  Franklin-Meyers in 2019 which seemingly was a mistake in that he's played very well with the Jets who picked him up right away and he just signed a big-money deal with them.
John Franklin-Meyers 
So, the Griffin deal won't be closed until that 7th rounder is used in 2023 since the Greg Robinson pick (#6-2018) has been completed unless Traven Howard gets traded for something. He's the last thread on that string.

So, let's total the "string"—
The Rams got good use out of the "in" players with the exception of Greg Robinson then unloaded them. Quinn is still productive but not what he was in his prime. Peters is still productive but is out this season with a torn ACL. Cooks is productive and Young, we shall see but his situation is set up for him to be a good player, knowing the Fangio system, more or less. 

Allen and Jefferson are starters, Noteboom has started some and is penciled in to take Andrew Whitworth's place at left tackle but that remains to be seen. Howard and Lawler are backups. Kiser was a starter last year but was cut this year and replaced in the starting lineup with Young and was picked up by Denver and due to injuries ended up starting. Then he got hurt causing the need for Denver to acquire Young in the first place meaning Young took Kiser's place twice in one season for two different teams.

Certainly, Les Snead and Sean McVay don't look at these trades the way we just did. They just make the trades and look at them as inventory, not really connecting which pick came from where except in some cases. 

When Goff was acquired Snead did make special mention that one of the #2s came from the Bradford trade (Rams also got Nick Foles and there was a swap of a #4 and #5 between the teams) and that one of the #3s was a compensatory pick for Rabbit Jenkins.

But nothing was mentioned that the #3 that went to Detroit came for Dante Fowler, at least that we could find, this making the Stafford acquisition a bit cheaper when explained as they did with Goff and the mitigation with the Bradford and Jenkins picks. 

Nonetheless, it is fair to say Trader Les is working the picks, high and low to bring in players. In this case, it was mid-to-late round linebackers for the most part plus a couple of linemen and a really good receiver not to mention the loosely connected players Joseph-Day and Burgess.

He still has a couple late-round future picks plus the one for Michael Brockers. Let's see what happens with those and see how long this string can last. 

Wednesday, October 27, 2021

Adam Schefter—J.J. Watt Out for the Season. How Does This Affect His Legacy?

By John Turney 
Via Twitter Adam Schefter is reporting that Cardinals defensive lineman J. J. Watt is out for the year due to a shoulder injury—

Here are his updated career stats—
Earlier this season Watt surpassed 100 run/pass stuffs, an exclusive Pro Football Journal stat that is a more reasonable stat that measures tackles behind the line of scrimmage other than sacks. That way one can add the stuffs plus sacks and in this case, Watt has 102 sacks and 101 stuffs for both for a total of 203.0 which is really stunning.

According to PFJ's Nick Webster's research only Bruce Smith, Deacon Jones, and Watt are part of the 100-100 club.

Watt is a five-time consensus All-Pro and a five-time Pro Bowls/All-AFC pick and a three-time NFL Defensive Player of the Year and other accolades like being a consistent member of the Top 100 club by the NFL Network. After the 2018 season, he was on his way to being the 3-4 defensive end G.O.A.T. or at challenging for it. He came back for two years of injuries with a 16-sack season with 7 forced fumbles to be right in line with his DPOY years. 
However, the last three years have not built his case being inured all three of them to various degrees and now totals eleven seasons and has been injury-free in six of them. While we may not be talking a Gale Sayers/Dwight Stephenson-type career but as of now he's got the same number of consensus All-Pros and Pro Bowls as both of them but he has played longer, but those extra years have not been all that productive.

It will be interesting if he can come back for the playoffs (we have zero idea) but we fully expect him to play in 2022 and beyond if healthy but it might be a reach for him to ever regain his 2018 level of play again. 

He can still be effective, sure, but can he play 17 games? 15? Can he be a double-digit sacker and a 30-40 QB hit/pressure guy? We, again, do not know, but at 33, we'd take the under on both of those stats over the next few years, he has appears to have hit the age wall, the injury wall, and the production wall—three "alerts" if you will. 

SO, unless he does that he will likely be a five-time All-Pro, five Pro Bowl guy (though making a Pro Bowl in the future is more likely than All-Pro) but he has a 100% chance of being a first-ballot HOFer but with his being injured five of the last six seasons he may have lost his chance to be on the Mt. Rushmore of defensive ends. A few years ago he seemed like a lock.

Now? Not so much. 

Tuesday, October 26, 2021

TUESDAY TIDBITS: "Gotta Go To Work"

By TJ Troup 
As we approach mid-season the standings now indicate which teams have a shot at the playoffs, which teams should be looking at the draft(and possible coaching changes), and the handful of teams that are truly strong enough in all areas to make a Super Bowl run. When the schedule came out not sure how many folks circled the Thursday evening clash between the Cardinals and Packers as must-see viewing? 

October 28th, 1945 the Packers are defending league champions, and the Cardinals are now in the t-formation and going it alone after the debacle known as Card-Pitt in '44. Though slightly improved in 1945 no one believed that in three years the Chicago Cardinals would be one of the strongest teams in the league and that the Packers would rank with the worst teams in the league? So, here we are in 2021 and this game should be compelling football and I will have my Smokehouse almonds, and Dr. Pepper's ready. 

Each week really enjoy going back in history and weaving my tales about games and teams of the past(bet you knew that). Ready for our journey into history? 

Here we go—October 24th, 1976, and the Philadelphia Eagles under new coach Dick Vermeil are at home in Veteran's Stadium to take on a Viking team that has won 39 of their past 48 games, and were defending NFC Central Champions. 
Versatile running back Chuck Foreman sets a Viking team record as he gains 200 yards in 30 carries in the Minnesota 31-12 victory. Do not have the complete game film, but one play stood out where Ron Yary down blocks and creates a running lane big enough for a Minnesota snowplow. Since Vermeil was mentioned, he is part of the rest of today's saga. 

The Rams have played in Cleveland and won a championship, the Rams have played in Los Angeles and won a championship, but now in St. Louis as former showgirl Georgia F. moved the team they have had nothing but failure. 

Enter Dick Vermeil. Much had been written about his coaching career in Philadelphia, and he had been away from the coaching wars for many years, yet here he is attempting to rebuild the Rams and make them contenders? Neither Street & Smith's or the NFL Insider magazines predicted much success for the Rams in 1998. 

Vermeil won his first game in 1997 but had to endure an eight-game losing streak as St. Louis won just five games. Years ago received a letter from Steve Sabol asking me to join him in contributing to his next creative endeavor "America's Game". Humbled and honored and up to the task sent Steve detailed information on the best twenty champions that he should have on his list. 

When handing him the paperwork in his office, the smile on his face told me that I had done my job well (and it was sure fun). Viewing America's Game on the 1999 Rams over and over and carefully listening to the comments by Kurt Warner, DeMarco Farr, and coach Vermeil there is no doubt this is one helluva tale to tell. No one, and I mean NO ONE, saw the Rams in '99 becoming champions. 

The '98 season was much like '97, and in fact, the Rams won one less game. DeMarco Farr regales us with his views of the hiring of Vermeil, and how hard the practices were in those first two years, but only nine wins. Dick Vermeil had changed in some areas, yet his belief in "gotta go to work" had not. Before going any further, will briefly go back to Mater Dei High School and 1980. Though will be buried in navy blue & burnt orange, coach Armstrong of the Bears was just not my type of coach, but Vermeil having worked for George Allen and what he had accomplished at UCLA was! 

When the Eagles beat the Bears in the playoffs in '79 was just so damn impressed with how Philadelphia played, thus—my Mater Dei Monarch sophomore football team in 1980 was going to be coached just like the Eagles were under Vermeil. To this day, and you can sure ask my former players, they would relate how demanding and unrelenting practices were. Those 41 young men hated, and I mean hated being on the practice field with me during the week. We hit, we scrimmaged, and the drills we did were not only challenging but draining. Add to that the conditioning, oh yeah, the conditioning...and game day was like a day at the beach. Had one assistant, so basically I, much like Vermeil in Philadelphia coached everything. 

That team once they realized at such a young age that EVERY week was going to be like this, gave effort and "bought-in". The reward for them was very simple and basic, they continued to improve their skills, they came to realize they were tougher than every team we faced, and since there were 21 starters(only one player was deemed talented enough to start both ways), and substituted frequently they all were a part of a team that played for the league championship. To this day they are my favorites forever (for many reasons). 

Now back to the Rams, and thanks for enduring my personal story in 1980. The pros in the NFL usually do not practice that long or hard, and when you are not winning, well, as Dick states if the Rams don't win in his third season, he would be out of a job. Philadelphia did not win in Vermeil's first two years, but in that magical third season of '78 he guided them to the play-offs and built off of that to continue the upsurge to the game for the silver trophy. 

The Eagles in the mid-'70s could not stop the run, thus Vermeil had the defense changed from a 4-3 to a 3-4, and his d-line was the focus as he knew he had to have better players. His linebacking corps was superb with Bergey, LeMaster, and Bunting. Ah, John Bunting, a man who never got his due as a player, yet here he is helping Peter Guinta with the defensive game plans, and coaching the linebackers for the Rans.
Vermeil relates in the America's Game saga that he had grown, adapted and adjusted in that he did not coach everying, and though at times still intense, he was so much more relaxed. The offensive coordinator Mike Martz had at one time coached at the Community College level (Santa Ana), and Vermeil also had Junior College football in his background, and yes the author also has that on his coaching resume. 

Martz was aggressive in his attacking style of offense, and he had worked wonders with Trent Green in Washington, but Green is out for the season with a knee injury, and his replacement ("We will rally around Kurt Warner, and we will play good football")...Kurt Warner? Every scout goes to the HyVee market in Iowa to find the next all-pro quarterback, right? 

Dick Vermeil tells us that only eight men were with him in 1999 from his first team! So, let's take a look at his personnel especially concentrating on the defense. 
First up though his offense. Vermeil made a great/significant trade for Ron Jaworski and he was truly outstanding in Philadelphia, and Kurt Warner has his bust in Canton. Though they have very different styles in throwing the ball, the one similarity is the Bill Walsh credo of "decisive and accurate". 

Wilbert Montgomery was an outstanding running back, and Vermeil sure gave Lawrence Phillips every chance, but his personal demons left the Rams searching, and again one of the truly significant trades of all-time—Marshall Faulk. The draft brought Torry Holt to join a once again healthy Isaac Bruce, and the St. Louis offense has firepower, playmakers, and versatility in so many weapons in the Vermeil offense. 

Jim Hanifan is one of the best offensive line coaches in league history, and his men continued to improve, and grown, and with Warner's quick-release they had a chance to put points on the board. How many points you ask? How about 526, and no that is not a misprint. Not sure about that greatest show on turf stuff, but every defensive coordinator must have spent the midnight oil trying to figure out if and how to stop the Ram offense. Now to the defense, as Vermeil knew that improvement on that side of the ball would truly make them playoff contenders. 

The Rams in 1998 allowed over 2,000 yards rushing, and 378 points. Since he had two excellent defensive linemen in Kevin Carter and DeMarco Farr and a stalwart run defender in Ray Agnew...he just needed a defensive end who could rush the passer, and pursue, and coach Vermeil already had him in second-year pro Grant Wistrom. 

Much like George Allen who inherited a staunch defensive line-----Vermeil upgraded his linebacking corp. Mike Jones was rock solid, and though Roman Phifer had played well, he left the Rams and was replaced by Todd Collins, a player who learned under Parcells & Belichick, and could play the run, and tackle. Lorenzo Styles is discussed in the publications as the "new" middle linebacker in St. Louis, but the job goes to unheralded London Fletcher. 

Was he the missing piece to the Rams defensive puzzle? No, since the Ram defensive improvement is the sum of the parts. Fletcher was a dramatic improvement as the Rams allowed only 1189 yards rushing in 1999. Keep in mind though since the offense had built big leads, opponents passed more in attempting to get back in the game. Still stopping the run was a key, and Vermeil had a front seven and some depth; thus some creative packages in the "nickel" defense, and rushing the passer (from 50 to 57 sacks 1998 to 1999). 

The Ram secondary had a defensive passer rating of 80.5 in 1998(league average was 78.3), but in 1999 they ranked second at 64.1 (league average was 77.1). How did this happen you ask? Ryan McNeil was a ballhawk at corner, yet was replaced by Dexter McCleon, and though he would not be ranked as one of the best corner's in the league, he was feisty and was more than adequate in coverage. 
Todd Lyght finally reached his peak at left corner. Talented, athletic, and smart, he played just outstanding in 1999. The safety positions again were manned by Billy Jenkins at strong safety, and Keith Lyle at free. Jenkins did his job, and Lyle was excellent in pursuit, and played stellar pass defense, but was injured during the regular season (he returned for the playoffs), and Devin Bush did an adequate job down the stretch. The key was in the "nickel" as rookie Dre Bly was savvy beyond his years, and a playmaker. The St. Louis Ram defense scored eight times, yes EIGHT TIMES during the season—talk about opportunism. 

The playoffs were dramatic in the difference in the games....86 points total in the Viking game, 17 in the NFC title game against Tampa Bay (thank you Rickey Proehl), and the ebb and flow of the Super Bowl XXXIV against Tennessee in the rematch of one of the three regular-season losses.

Was a guest of Steve Sabol for that dramatic victory, and at times reflected back to my many afternoons in the Coliseum and Angel Stadium watching the Rams play. Was one helluva game with the iconic finish. October 24th, 1999 the Rams destroyed Cleveland 34-3, but who knew that they would help change football history and win their only Super Bowl win at the end of the season under one of the best coaches ever, and a role model for me.

Another Great One Gone—R.I.P. Mike Lucci

 By John Turney 
This morning news came over social media that Lions great Mike Lucci had passed away at 81. Lucci also played for the Cleveland Browns for three seasons before being dealt to the Lions in 1965.

Actually, it was a three-way trade in a sense. The Browns sent Lucci and a draft pick to the  New York Giants for Erich Barnes. Then Lucci, Darrell Dess, and a draft pick were sent to the Lions and the Giants received Earl Morrall. 

Lucci had been a backup middle and outside linebacker and special teams player (a very good one) for the Browns but the Lions were preparing for the retirement of middle linebacker Joe Schmidt who was going into his 13th NFL season. Lucci spent that season backing up Schmidt and then in 1966 Lucci was the starter and held that position through the 1973 season.
In that eight-year span, Lucci received post-season honors from 1969-71, was the team defensive MVP those same years, and served as the Lions’ captain for six seasons. In 1969 Schmidt, now the Lions head coach, described Mike as “the best linebacker in the NFL in this year".
Ed Flanagan Greg Landry Charlie Sanders Mike Lucci and Steve Owens
1972 Detroit Lions Pro Bowl players
Also in that eight-year span (1966-73), in a league filled with middle linebackers named Dick Butkus, Ray Nitschke, Willie Lanier, Nick Buoniconti, Tommy Nobis, Mike Curtis, Lee Roy Jordan, none of them picked off more passes (21) than Lucci who was first among all middle 'backer in that category for those seasons and Lucci returned the most picks for touchdowns (four) as well.
Lucci, #52 with the Browns
An Ambridge, Pennsylvania, native he was from a first-generation Italian immigrant family. His father was a steel worker in the town of Ambridge which is located right across a bridge from Aliquippa (Mike Ditka's hometown) who was their big rival. Being the same age Ditka and Lucci played against each other in high school and the summer after high school both were lifeguards at Raccoon State Park and began a lifelong friendship. 

Both athletes had earned football scholarships to the University of Pittsburgh but after one year Lucci transferred to the University of Tennessee. As a Vol, he was All-Conference in 1960 and 1961, and received honorable mention All America in 1961 (UPI), and played in the 1962 Chicago College All-Star Game. 

He was drafted in the fifth round of the 1962 NFL draft (held in December 1961) by the Browns where he was All-Rookie in 1962 and earned an NFL championship ring in 1964 before his aforementioned trade to the Lions the next August. 

He also appeared as himself in the 1968 film Paper Lion which was based on sportswriter George Plimpton's tryout with the Lions in 1963. 
Lucci, far left, with Alan Alda, Alex Karras, and Roger Brown

After his NFL days, he was a WJR radio analyst for Lions games from 1976-78 as well as for NBC the next two seasons. He was a successful business executive and entrepreneur in the Metro Detroit Area. He was the former president of Bally Total Fitness and he also co-owned 19 Burger Kings in Michigan and Illinois. He was also a co-owner of Venture Contracting and Development based in Troy, Michigan.

Lucci is a member of the Beaver County Sports Hall of Fame (1979), the Pennsylvania Sports Hall of Fame (1986), the National Italian-American Sports Hall of Fame (1995), and the Michigan Sports Hall of Fame (2003). In 2017, he was named the Lions' Ricky Sandoval Award winner for his contributions to sports and the community.

Lions owners and chair Sheila Ford Hamp released this statement—

"We are deeply saddened to learn of the passing of Mike Lucci, whose passion for life was felt by all who knew him. Many will remember Mike for his toughness as a player during his nine seasons with the Lions. . . His positive presence as a leader within our Lions Legends community made him a familiar face to all, and his willingness to give back will always be part of his great legacy. We extend our heartfelt sympathies to his wife, Patricia, and the entire Lucci family."

Lucci is survived by his wife, Patricia, their two children, son Michael (Rebecca) Lucci and daughter Michelle Lucci, grandchildren Michael III and Nicholas, sister Kathy (William) Sholudko, nephew Billy Sholudko, and longtime assistant Nora Moretz. 


 


Monday, October 25, 2021

Tom Brady and Marshawn Lynch—NOT Separated at Birth in Their Commentary

 By John Turney 
One can learn a lot watching Monday Night Football With Peyton and Eli. One can hear a lot, too. 
Part of that ESPN2 Boradcasr is Peyton and Eli having guests join the Manning brothers. Tonight the first-quarter guest was Marshawn Lynch and Tom Brady was the second-quarter guest.

In both segments, there was an odd play at the snap. In the second quarter a snap ended up on the ground and Jameis Winston picked up the ball and threw it to Alvin Kamara for a touchdown.

When the ball was on the ground Brady uttered "Uh-oh".

Brady on the dropped snap by Winston
Credit: ESPN2

In the first quarter, there was a player where Geno Smith had to basically eat the ball and Lynch uttered something stronger than "Uh-oh"—

Lynch on the aborted play by Geno Smith
Credit: ESPN2


Sunday, October 24, 2021

Washington Hits Dead Zone in Loss to Green Bay

 By Eric Goska

Elvis showed up prior to the Green Bay
Washington game at Lambeau Field

The Packers’ defense replaced one streak with another Sunday.

The turnaround bodes well if the team hopes to steal a victory or two during an upcoming brutal 5-game stretch that will last through November.

Green Bay held off Washington 24-10 at Lambeau Field to win its sixth straight and improve to 6-1. In doing so, the Packers weathered a second half in which they gave up ample yardage but not the end zone.

Piloted by quarterback Taylor Heinicke, Washington rolled up 283 yards on 48 plays after the break. After fumbling away their initial possession of the second half, the visitors responded with four straight trips inside Green Bay’s 20-yard line.

Ah, the red zone. Through six games, the Packers had surrendered a touchdown each of the 15 times their opponents had ventured there. This inability to defend the goal had taken on a life of its own.

That changed Sunday. Washington ran 17 plays inside Green Bay’s red zone and came away with one field goal, that a 45-yarder by Chris Blewitt with two minutes, 25 seconds remaining.

Washington ran six, four, three, and four plays on its trips inside the red zone. The team penetrated as far as the Green Bay 1, 3, 12, and 9.

Washington twice lost the ball on downs. It yielded an interception on another, that an end-zone pick by Packers’ defensive back Chandon Sullivan.

Blewitt’s field goal capped the last deep dive.

Coming out of the commercial after Sullivan’s pick, Fox Sports showed a clip of the Packers’ defensive coordinator Joe Barry holding up three fingers. “That’s three,” he yelled.

His unit would get one more. Not since the Eagles’ in 2013 had a Packers opponent gone 0-for-4 in the red zone in a regular-season game.

It was the fourth 0-for-4 notched by the Pack this century. In addition to Washington and Philadelphia, Chicago (2006) and Jacksonville (2001) also came up empty in four tries.

Maybe more impressive was the number of plays Green Bay had to endure to protect its end zone. Heinicke and Antonio Gibson combined to gain 17 yards on 7 rushes. Heinicke completed 4-of-8 passes for 24 yards (16.7 rating) and was sacked twice (minus-21).

Total, that’s 17 plays for 20 yards and two first downs. Not much to show for the nearly seven minutes Washington spent so tantalizingly close to paydirt.

Nearly 60 years have passed since the Packers withstood a greater assault without yielding a touchdown in the red zone. On Nov. 18, 1962, Johnny Unitas and the Colts ran 18 plays inside the Packers 20-yard line and came away with nothing more than a Dick Bielski field goal. A fumble, a sack and a fourth-down incompletion ended Baltimore’s other chances as it succumbed 17-13.

Having shut down Washington, Green Bay now gets a chance to extend its string of four straight red-zone denials against the unbeaten (7-0) Cardinals on Thursday night. And what a test that will be as Arizona has made more trips (32) inside the 20 than any team not named the Buccaneers.

Dead Zone
 
Since 1945, most plays an opponent has run in Green Bay’s red zone in a regular-season game without scoring a touchdown from there.
 
    No.    Yds        Opponent           Date                      Final
      18       24          Colts                      11-18-1962          GB won, 17-13
      17       20          Washington        10-24-2021          GB won, 24-10
      16       25          Chargers              10-24-1999          GB won, 31-3
      15       38          Steelers               10-26-1975          GB lost, 13-16
      15       10          Bears                     10-31-1993          GB won, 17-3
      15       18          Dolphins              9-14-1997            GB won, 23-18
      14       18          Vikings                  9-30-1973            GB lost, 3-11
      14       15          Rams                     9-5-1993               GB won, 36-6

Wednesday, October 20, 2021

Jim Porter—Here is What The Hall of Fame is Doing Wrong

 By John Turney 

David Baker, the President of the Pro Football Hall of Fame, abruptly stepped down last week and was replaced by Jim Porter. By all accounts, Porter is a man of integrity who is from the Canton area and has been on the Hall of Fame board. He comes from the newspaper business which should give him excellent rapport with the Hall of Fame voters and should be able to remember their names and is likely already on a first-name basis with most, if not all of them.

Yesterday, Porter did an interview with Clark Judge and Ira Kaufman on "Eye Test for Two" and when asked about possible changes in the structure of Hall of Fame classes said, that he wanted to keep the integrity of the process and that it remains consistent and that was "important to him".  He wants all the players and coaches and contributors to go through the same process and that essentially all be vetted similarly so the standards remain high, at least that is our interpretation. We would agree 100%. No free passes.

Then, after some prodding by Judge and Kauffman, Proter said he was open to possible changes in the number of seniors being increased and perhaps even increases to the total number of inductees from right to perhaps nine adding that there would have to be a process of input from voters and that the changes be approved through the Hall of Fame and so on. But the bottom line is that changes were possible in the future.

So, if the number could increase from eight to nine—and we are speculating here—that could mean adding a senior without cutting a contributor and coach, meaning rather than raising the seniors to two, as it used to be, and rotating a coach and contributor every other year there could be two scenarios and one coach and contributor plus the five modern players which would be none total inductees. 

Or, there could be two seniors and the rotation of a coach and a contributor and six moderns. Either way, nine would be good. We won't hold our breath on that one but it would be a good thing if it were taken seriously. 

Porter then told the hosts "I want to know from our voters what we're doing wrong". 

Well, we have nothing to do with the voting but these suggestions by Judge and Kaufman were spot one. 

Here is what you are doing wrong, and yes, we are being facetious—You are delaying changes! You have been on the job for almost a week!
Al Wistert
Here is what you need to do Mr. Porter—
Call an emergency meeting of the board. Have a zoom call with the voters and add the second senior slot. It is as simple as that. 

Do not wait for the current structure that is in place through 2024 to expire. Get it done now. Yesterday, even. 

It was errant to take away the second senior slot in the first place and worsened the problem of the senior backlog and the one we think was the architect of it is now gone so there is no one to lose face over a change back to the way it was.
Randy Gradishar and Chuck Howley
Yes, yes, of course, the Hall must cross the "t's" and dot all the "i's" and give the appearance of due diligence but this is a no-brainer. No one we know thinks there are two few seniors getting in the Hall of Fame. Even when two-a-year when getting in there were still worthy players waiting.

The universe of worthy coaches and contributors is much smaller than the universe of worthy players by any objective measure.

So, even if the number of inductees stays at eight, two seniors must be part of the mix and the coach/contributor rotation can be instituted. 

If the number can possibly be expanded to nine, even better—simply have two seniors and keep one coach and one contributor. Simple. 
Six modern players could mean a Jalen Ramsey-type corner
like Albert Lewis not slipping into the senior pool in the first place
If the number can be nine and the new addition is a modern player (to keep the senior pool from expanding), then it should be two seniors and the coach/contributor rotation to reach the total of nine. Again, simple.
Ken Riley and Lemar Parrish
But do it now, not in 2024 or 2025

Not making this your FIRST order of business is what you are doing wrong. 

Hall of Fame fans are counting on you and there will be close to 100% support from your HOF voters on some form of the versions we've outlined in this post. 
Mike Kenn and Joe Jacoby