Monday, January 31, 2022

Rams Teams Who Played Three Games in the Playoffs—Is This The Best Defense?

 By John Turney 
The Rams beat the 49ers 20-17 last night because they were a wild card team it was the third playoff game they have been in in the 2021-22 season.

Since the merger, only six Rams teams have done that. Of course, that means little in that a lot of Rams teams played in NFCCG weekend like the 2021 iteration but they didn't win and get to the Super Bowl like the 1979, 1999, 2001, and 2018 teams. The 1989 Rams didn't make the Super Bowl but won a Wild-card game and a Divisional round game. 

The point we are making is how good this Rams defense has been in the playoffs. It has been oft-criticized with many Rams fans calling for his firing during the season. His defense was not the best in the NFL like in 2020 but it was solid in most aspects, stopping the run, getting picks, saving the quarterback, hurrying him, knocking him down. It has proven it was always good enough to get to the Super Bowl.

So we've looked at the past three-game playoff game Rams squads and this is what the numbers show:

Here are the charts—
Conversion chart
Here are the more traditional figures—

Raheem Morris
The 2021 Raheem Morris-led defense is tops against the run by a wide margin—54.0 yards a game and a 3.1 YPC. They also led in the fewest total yards allowed. This makes the case that they are at the top of this selected group. They are also third in sacks and third in picks, had the lowest third-down conversion marks of this group, and have a defensive passer rating of 67.0—excellent for this era.

Lovie Smith
The 2001 Lovie Smith defense allowed the fewest rushing TDs, fewest passing yards, picked off the most passes (thank you Brett Favre)—and created the most turnovers with ten.

Peter Giunta, here with the Giants
The co-led 1999 defense had the most sacks and sack yardage. The run game coordinator was John Bunting and the play-caller was Peter Giunta. 

Fritz Shurmur

Fritz Shurmur was the DC in 1989 and his unit tied for the fewest points allowed with 50; They tied with the 1979 Rams in allowing 16.7 PPG. They also allowed only two TD passes,

Bud Carson
Carson's 1979 Ram defense holds the passing marks including the lowest defensive passer rating fewest attempts and completions. His group also stopped his opponents on fourth down on all four tries (0.0%).

Wade Phillips
Wade Phillips was the defensive coordinator for the 2018 Rams and though they didn't lead in anything they still played good run defense—the best until last night. 

Of this group, only the Giunta/Bunting bunch won it all with Sam 'backer Mike Jones making "The Tackle". Morris' defense has a chance to do the same and if they play like they have in the last three games they should win a Super Bowl on their own home turf. 
Above are the starting defenses in the playoffs, for the most part. In the 2018 NFCCG Rams opened in nickel. Last night they opened in a 4-3 Pro (6-1) which they use versus teams that run the ball well. They also used their base 3-4 defense, which they don't use much, preferring their 5-1 (33 nickel) front.

The 1979 Rams were a 4-3 team. It was the Ray Mayavasi defense but Bud Carson, who joined the Rams in 1978 played much more Cover-2 than Malavasi did because he had Nolan Cromwell, who had the range to play it. In the 1979 playoffs, Carson employed the Rams Dollar defense which was seven defensive backs on the field but it was really just a nickel defense with two defensive backs playing linebacker—Ivory Sully and Dwayne O'Steen. 

The Dollar was used to face the Cowboys thrid-down spread offense which the Cowboys they were so successful in using. Carson thought that a safety or corner, playing linebacker, would cover Preston Pearson better than linebackers Jim Youngblood and Bob Brudzinski. Also, it should also be noted that this was the game Jack Youngblood sustained an oblique fracture in his left leg and it limited his effectiveness in the 2½ games he played with the broken leg. 

In 1989 they were a 3-4 base but used a lot of nickel and dime personnel, which flustered Randall Cunningham. They also had two versions of their "Five linebacker" packages.

One was the Eagle which could be converted to their "Hawk" by simply stemming their nosebacker (Fred Strickland) to an inside linebacker position. That converted a 6-2 (safety was usually in the box) to a 5-3, or rather a 6-1 to a 5-2 in your a purist. But the personnel was five linebackers.

Additionally, they had a five-linebacker dime defense with four linebackers as defensive linemen and Mike Wilcher, the usually right outside linebacker playing the Mike 'backer. 

Bud Carson's defense was the one being used in 1999 by Giunta. It was a 4-3 with multiple fronts, even, overs and unders, a Bear front (46), and so on. On passing downs Charlie Clemens often came in as what is now often called a "Joker" or he'd play LDE and Kevin carter would sink to left defensive tackle and Ray Agnew would go out of the game. The nickel back as Dre Bly and Taje Allen was the dime.

The defense played poorly in 2000 so Lovie Smith and his Tampa-2 scheme was imported after leaving Tony Dungy's staff in Tampa. In addition to the starters above, Leonard Little would replace Ahanotu in the nickel. Again, Dre Bly was the fifth DB.

The 2018 rams with Wade Phillips used a 3-4 one-gap scheme, often the undershift called Will Wink. It performed well in the playoffs but struggle in the regular season against the run. Ndamukong Suh was out-of-position at the nose tackle spot and had a so-so season but he was ignited in the two playoff games before returning to his regular-season form in the Super Bowl

Morris runs the Brandon Staley defense for the most part. The 5-1 and the 40 nickel with All-Pro Jalen Ramsey as the nickel or "Star" as they call it. It's a gap-and-a-half scheme with the nose and Aaron Donald and A'Shawn Robinson playing their gaps but squeezing the one next to them but pushing and learning enough to get the linemen cooking them to move into or at least partially block the pathway of a runner trying to hit the A-Gaps.

Match-quarters are the basic coverages for the Rams but they often rotate to a Cover-3 robber and some Cover-2 in the red zone is used as well.

We've covered the basics of the schemes with some highlights. More could be posted but we hope the broad strokes will give readers some food for thought. 

Your comments welcome below—

Sunday, January 30, 2022

Rams and Bengals Advance

 By John Turney

The Bengals shocked the NFL world by beating the Chiefs today and this evening the Rams edged the 49ers. 
Cooper Kupp   Credit: Fox Sports
The Rams won 20-17 in their eleventh NFCCG appearance and are now 4-7. In doing so Matthew Stafford set Ram record for completions (31), attempts (45), yards (337), and touchdowns (2) in an NFC Championship Game. Cooper "MVP" Kupp set marks for receptions (11), yards (142), and touchdowns (2). Odell Beckham Jr.'s nine catches (second) and 113 yards (third) make top lists as well.

The Rams defense allowed 282 yards, good for eighth out of eleven games even though 282 yards is an excellent total in this day and age. The 17 points the Rams allowed was good for the fourth-best in NFC title games.

The run defense allowed 50 yards on 20 carries (2.5-yard average gain) good for the second-fewest rushing yards allowed by Rams in a Conference Championship game. The 2.5 yards per carry is also the second-best. The best was the 2018 records from the Saints game (21-48-2.3-0). And obviously, the zero rushing touchdowns are tied for first, being the fifth time that has occurred.

It was a solid night for the Rams.

As for the Bengals, this was just their third time to go to an AFCCG and they are now 3-0. Joe Burrow set the marks for completions, attempts, yards, and tied for the most touchdowns, besting Ken Anderson and Boomer Esiason's marks.

Both games were excellent and it will be a good matchup in Los Angeles in two weeks for all the marbles.

AFCCG and NFCCG Preview

 By John Turney
Classic players from each team:  Art by Merv Corning

With both conference's title games later today it is an exciting time for NFL fans and fans of the four teams involved—the Kansas City Chiefs, the Cincinnati Bengals will battle in Arrowhead Stadium in Kansas City and the San Francisco 49ers and the Los Angeles Rams square off in SoFi

AFC

Chiefs Offense
Mahomes, we speculate, will be tremendous. Everything has already been written so anything we add is superfluous.  He didn't have his best year (we predicted that he would be the MVP) but it was a very good (not great) year. We think he will be on. He has the weapons, a bug TE, fast receivers, and a decent running game when his backs are healthy.


The Chiefs were 3rd in total offense and 5th in yards per play. Their passer rating, as a team was 98.1 and the opponents had a defensive passer rating (DPR) of 92.0. They allowed the third fewest sacks in terms of percentage in the NFL and had the 10th lowest interception percentage. Only the running game lags. 

We think the Chiefs will move the ball and score their points (28.2, fourth in NFL) and we predict will get more than their season averages in yards and points.

Bengals Defense
The Bengals have some talent on defense and some size in their front six. Sam Hubbard is, in our view, a player, and Trey Hendrickson (a free agent signee from the Saints) is a Pro Bowl-level defensive end.

Look for Trey Hendrickson to play his joker role on some third downs as both a spy on Patrick Mahomes and also to pick his gap and rush. This is in addition to his base role and a defensive end in the 4-3 and a stand-up linebacker in their 5-1 (which is spreading around the NFL).

DJ and BJ (Reader and Hill) are the defensive tackles. Hill spent most of the year as a third-down rusher and we picked him to our All-Role Player/Backup Team. Now, he's a starter because Larry Ogunjobi, a free agent pickup from the Browns, got hurt. 

Hill is more than capable and at times, can dominate. The Bengals can stop the run—seven times they held opponents under 80 yards. But then in the season final two games, they gave up 360 yards to the Chiefs and the Browns and that cause their rush defense to drop from 92.2 yards a game to 102.5.

Which will it be versus the Chiefs? The good run defense or the bad one? 

The linebackers are decent but are not Pro Bowl-types. The secondary and their numbers are almost all in the 20s—the bottom 1/3 of the NFL.

so we predict the Chiefs will score at least 35 points.

Bengals Offense
Joe Burrow is Joe Namath in a modern passing game. But with all the hoopla about him, his passing yardage (4611), and his passer rating (108.3) he still needs to be careful today. His run game is not great though Joe Mixon is good, very good, even. But they move the ball in rushing yards that ranks 23rd in NFL and their average yards per carry is just under average.

The Bengals don't need Mixon to gain 100 yards. The Bengals need for Burrow to not have to throw every down. And a run game that is efficient and does not turn the ball over will go a long way to keep the Bengals in the game.

Bengals Special teams
McPherson is an excellent kicker. Their punter is decent, not special. The return and coverage units are about average both ways. No advantage for them. The Chiefs have that in special teams.

Chiefs Defense
The Chiefs defense was not good early in the year they became very good, though the Bills Playoff Game didn't show it. But, overall they were in the bottom third in yards in most categories. So, we think the Bengals can make some hay. But if the Cheifs defense, under Steve Spagnuolo, can muster a game like the seven he called in the second half of the season when the Chiefs held opponents to around 300 yards in offense but there were some poor games in there as well

We predict the Bengals will score 27 points.

Chiefs Special teams
Townsend and Butker, the punter and kicker are both excellent. The Chiefs are at one on of the best on punt returns and at covering the, The same is also true of the kickoff units.

This is a big advantage for the Chiefs.


NFC
49ers Offense
49ers offense is special in terms of what they do. Garoppolo's hand, we are convinced it hurt more than he's saying. While that does not account for every poor throw he's made it has to be a big factor in some of the errant passes he's thrown recently.

The 2021 49ers remind us of the 1979 Rams. They both had seven losses and had a quarterback who could be very good and could be very poor—Vince Ferragamo.

Both had/have great running games but had injuries to backs during the season but replacements took over and played great.

Both had dominating front sevens. And both had injuries in the secondaries that skewed their defense stats somewhat.

However, the '79 Rams didn't have someone like Deebo Samuel. he's nothing like the NFL has seen since Lenny Moore from 1957-64. They both are excellent runners and gifted pass catchers. Deebo does more though in being part of the run blocking game (as is Cooper Kupp).

We like watching the run game of the 49ers that still uses a fullback and a tight end a lot of the time and when they are on their game precision passing, at least inside the numbers. Our eye test suggests that Garrapolo is less effective throwing outside the numbers. Inside he gets the ball off quickly, as quickly as any quarterback in the NFL and he fits it into tight windows.

So, smashmouth, play-action offense versus the Rams defense.

Rams Defense
In 2020 the Rams were, statistically the best in the NFL—fewest yards allowed, fewest points allod, a good pass rush, a low DPR. They did it all.

This year it is a good but not great defense. They still do some things well—they stop the run, they get to the passer, they pick off passes but during the regular season they had issues on thrid down. In the playoffs they seem to have rectified that. 

But they are playing their nemesis and that changes things.

Aaron Donald still can make a claim that he's the best player in the NFL and Greg Gaines has come on as well. Donald in, obviously one of our All-Pros and Gaines was part of our mock All-Madden team and made our Almost All-Joe, and our All-Role Player/Backup Team team as well. 

It looks like linebacker Troy Reeder will have to share time with Ernest Jones who has been on IR. he's designated to comeback and will likely get quite a few reps. He's a rookie and with that came some mistakes but he is athletic and smart and was improving until he got hurt.

The Rams are banged up at safety but Nick Scott is playing well in place of Jordan Fuller, knocking balls loose, picking off a pass in the playoffs. Terrell Burgess is playing in place of Taylor Rapp who is still in concussion protocol at least on run downs. Eric Weddle plays on passing downs in a platoon situation you don't see that often in an NFL secondary.

Von Miller is coming on and looking like his former self. Leonard Floyd is solid. Justin Hollins has been spelling the outside linebackers and in one package he plays a joker as an inside linebacker who can drop but really is there to rush—picking a hole and dogging, much like the position we mentioned Trey Hendrickson will play.

So, we still thing the 49ers will be bullies and grind out 25 points.

Rams Offense
It is mostly on Matthew Stafford. If he played well they will win. If he throws up a stinker, Rams lose. it is as simple as that. 

In five years as Rams head coach Sean McVay has run the ball 4o% of the time, year-in, year out. Against the Cardinals in the Wild Card round the Rams ran the ball 67% of the time as he channeled Chuck Noll and Don Shula. Stafford threw just 17 passes but still threw for 200 yards.

The next week it was different because they got a big lead (27-3) and then proceeded to lose it (to a 27-27 tie) and then on the final drive Stafford did what he was hired to do, go deep.

The Rams quick-snapped the ball, one of the Bucs linebackers didn't get the blitz call and Kupp ran a decoy rout that became the target. He whipped Antion Winfield, Jr. on perhaps what could be called a skinny post and flashed for Stafford to see and he threw a dime to Kupp and the rams pulled the game out—one that could have been a high embarrassment. They made chicken soup out of chicken shit. 

Cooper Kupp is the Rams offense. We thought he should be the MVP, not just the Offensive Player of the Year. he was always open, rarely dropped a ball, blocked in the running game. 

still, after that sidebar, in the playoffs, the Rams have run the ball 53% of the time, a far cry from what we're used to seeing from the Rams.

We predict the Rams will score 29 points. 

Rams Special teams
Matt Gay and Johnny Hekker are both excellent. Branden Powell coming in from the PS has been a godsend. before him, it was such a mess that Cooper Kupps had to field punts just to prevent disasters. In the middle of the season, the Rams fell for a couple of fake punts and couldn't field an onside kick.

Most of that was straightened out, however. We will see if poor special teams play rears its ugly head. The 49ers may try a fake, or the Rams might. No punter is better at it than Hekker.

With the Super Bowl on the line both teams will be pulling out all the stops and that includes gadget plays and special team gadget plays.


49er Defense
The 49ers defensive line is so fun to watch. Nick Bosa, the best 40 end in the NFL is relentless. Arik Armstead is really coming on closing the season with 9 sacks in the last 10 games, including the playoffs. Arden Key is a fine nickel rusher who comes in in likely passing downs.

Fred Warner had an off-year but in the last month has been playing at his former All-Pro level. His sump is over. Dre Greenlaw needs to keep a cooler head, last game he cost the 49ers 30 yards n preventable penalties and had one more that could have been called. If he makes those kinds of mistakes again it's unforgivable. 

The 49ers are in the top seven in the rankings in the traditional statistics and have the third-best pass rush in the NFL according to sack percentage. 

But, like the weakness of the Bengals, the 49ers have had problems at cornerback. AT times it was ugly. The safeties are decent but again, this year anyway, they are not close to a Pro Bowl level.

Special teams
Wishnowsky is fine, Gould is excellent. Their punt returns net little either way. But Holy Cow!. The 49ers gave up over 1,200 yards in kickoff return yardage and a touchdown. This is a legitimate weakness you know the Rams will try to exploit. 

Summary

Chiefs 35-27
Rams 29-25

Friday, January 28, 2022

Sam Hubbard—Pretty Darn Good

 By John Turney 

Not every defensive end has to have double-digit sacks to be a useful, contributing player. Sam Hubbard is one of those kinds of players.

Look for him to have some impact in the AFCG against the Chiefs. In our view, their right tackle is somewhat suspect and that is who Hubbard will line up against

At his pro day in 2018, he ran a 4.95 forty, not great for an edge rusher but his numbers in the drills at the NFL Combine we very good. His three-cone time was 6.84 seconds, his short-shuttle was 4.32, his vertical leap was 35 inches. Those agility numbers and the leap exceeded Chris Long who was a #2 overall pick in 2008. 

As a rookie, we named him Second-team All-Pro (behind Chris Long) and All-AFC as a nickel rusher. Our definition of a nickel rusher is a player who is not a starter but plays on passing downs. We always pick the best players who fill that role. 

The year after he recorded a career-high 76 tackles and 8.5 sacks before having somewhat of a slump in 2020. But this year, after averaging about 16 pressures a season in his career, he had 39—players like T.J. Watt, Nick Bosa, and Myles Garrett were all just a bit over 50. 

The Bengals have a few fronts they play, mostly a 4-3, but will mix in a 5-1 with Hubbard and Trey Hendrickson standing up as rushers but if one of them is the "Jack" the player opposite the nickel back he might drop into coverage. Hubbard and Hendrickson are both athletic enough to do that. 

So, when watching keep an eye out for Hubbard, he's a player who'd fit into the All-Joe-type of player, if you remember those teams chosen by USA Today's Larry Weisman. And we think he will play well Sunday. 

Tuesday, January 25, 2022

TUESDAY TIDBITS: "Trying to Take Away the Patterns"

By TJ Troup 
When the Bills took the lead with 13 seconds remaining in the game Sunday night; to me, it sure looked like all four road teams were going to win in the divisional round. Has that ever happened before? Moot point, as the Chiefs did not blink, and scored twice more against an excellent defense to advance to the AFC title game. 
Patrick Mahomes
Those folks that do analytics possibly can explain why each of the four teams won, but still, have my way of evaluating how each team won, and there is no common thread? Yards gained rushing, efficient passing on offense, pass protection, turnovers, or from the defensive perspective—"takeaways", and of course defensive passer rating. 

Maybe some of you who read this column will respond, and tell me what the common thread was for the winning teams? Wild-card weekend had some exciting football games, yet has there ever been a divisional round weekend better than this one? 

Had more than one Dr. Pepper, and devoured my smokehouse almonds! Of all the games though; was gripped the most by the Rams going to Florida and beating the Bucs. 

The Rams were 2-0 against Buccaneers in NFC title games, and facing the defending champions and Mr. Brady. Have read that so-called expert were surprised/shocked that Bowles blitzed Matt S.? Ok, all you Monday morning quarterbacks...tell me what defense you would have had Tampa Bay in? 

As a high school defensive coordinator many, MANY years ago made calls with the game on the line that I sure wish I had back! Then there are calls I made that were just what the Doctor ordered, yet humbly that was why I was paid the big money, to make the right call. 
Cooper Kupp
No matter what happens in the rest of Cooper Kupp's career he will be able to shut his eyes, and envision that well-thrown ball by Stafford coming down to him and making the catch. Yes, I literally jumped off the couch when that happened. Mr. John Turney is looking savant as his choice for MVP had another sparkling performance. 

Years ago helped Allan Barra when he wrote for the Wall Street Journal on research, and at one point in history had what I believed was the definitive stat for Championship Sunday. Oh, you want me to tell you what the stat was? Ok, the team that scored the first touchdown won at an incredibly high percentage, but over the past fifteen years that stat does not ring as true as it did back when I first did the research. 

So, this Sunday the Cinderella Bengals look to win their first AFC title on the road, while the Chiefs are looking at going to the big dance for the third straight season, and not many teams can say that! Have stated in the past that my favorite rivalry is the 49ers vs. the Rams, and for just the second time they square off in the playoffs. 

Looking back at history there are not many seasons where both teams made the playoffs, let alone play each other. We will all read about the "keys" to victory online or on cable football shows, but if you want the real story go to my favorite football show: NFL MATCH-UP with Cosell and Bowen, those two men couple strategy with insight to give a clear picture. 

Now onto our history lesson for today. During the 2004 season, the Steelers looked to be a juggernaut with another silver trophy on the horizon. Standing in their way was the defending Super Bowl Champion Patriots. Am gonna subtract the game earlier in the year that Pittsburgh won over New England, so tell me all of you fans who savor playoff history, when is the last time you had a 14-1 regular season team (the Steelers) playing a 14-1 regular season team(the Patriots)? 

Yes, they both add to the win column with playoff victories setting up the rematch in southwest Pennsylvania. Big Ben cannot get the Steeler engine started, and on their first possession the Patriots begin with an end-around by Deion Branch for 14 yards, and Vinatieri puts the visitors on the scoreboard first. Tom Brady is still in his youth (has that changed?)and lofts a pass for Branch for 60 for the first touchdown of the game. 
Ben Roethlisberger
Remember my stat, yes in those days was a key to victory. Late in the half down 17-3 Big Ben has second and six on the New England nineteen-yard line, and throws towards Jerame Tuman. Was honored by Steve Sabol to be on his "blue ribbon" panel to pick the twenty greatest SB champions, and as I again watched "America's Game" this morning with my oatmeal listened again to coach Belichick and his famous line..." trying to take away the patterns that they were running at the sticks". 

Well, Bill your hard-nosed strong safety Rodney Harrison jumped the route, pilfered the pass, and dashed down the field for 87 yards with the help of a key block by Mike Vrabel(he earlier recovered a Bettis fumble)on the most significant play of the first half. New England 24 Pittsburgh 3. 

Though the Steelers fought back to close the gap to 31-20, the Patriots could feel their grip tighten on another silver trophy (yes they have to beat Philadelphia to do that) as they scored ten straight points. Coach Weiss again calls for Branch on an end-around, and this time he scores to seal the game. Pittsburgh entered the game with a defensive passer rating of 68.0, which ranked #2 in the league, and Mr. Brady was his usual efficient self as he posted a passer rating of 130.5! 

Wow, Big Ben and Tom Brady in January of 2005, and still playing in 2021. In closing, and shifting gears to the horsehide game—January 23rd is also the anniversary of Willie Mays being voted into the Hall of Fame. The "Say Hey" Kid received 409 of 432 votes, though cannot imagine anyone leaving him off their ballot? 

Have been blessed to see so many of the great ones play, and will go to my grave knowing no one, and I mean NO ONE was ever better than Mays in centerfield.

Monday, January 24, 2022

Predictions for the Hall of Fame Class of 2022

 By John Turney 

Every year we take a stab at guessing the Final 10 and then the Final 5 for the Hall of Fame. Above is our guess at the Top 10. We hope we get at least eight right. 

As many know the List of Final 15 is cut to 10. Then it is cut to Five and then those five get a "yes" or "no" and if they get 80% positive votes they are elected.

So, with those as our guesses, it means Patrick Willis, Devin Hester, Sam Mills, Torry Holt, and Jared Allen are our guesses who didn't make the first cut.

Of those, the one with the least confidence is Mills. Since it is his last season he may have cracked the top ten. 

Now the tough part. Who are our picks for the top five?

Let's start by saying whoever the top five are we predict all five will go in, as will Dick Vermeil, Cliff Branch, and Art McNally—the coach, senior, and contributor nominees this year.

Okay, the five.

We think the committee will in general respect the queue. Last year Zack Thomas, Leroy Butler, Reichard Seymour, and Tony Boselli were in the top 10 and history suggests they would move up but only to a certain degree. It would depend on the number of first-ballot types that were competing with them. This year the strongest first-ballot candidate is DeMarcus Ware,

Our first "lock" is Richard Seymour. Call it 95% sure. 
Next is LeRoy Butler. Call him 95% sure as well.
We think this is Tony Boselli's year as well. call it 80% sure.

This leaves two. 
DeMarcus Ware would have to be considered at least a 75% lock in our eyes.
Finally, it comes down to Zach Thomas and Bryant Young.

We are going out on a limb and say that with inside linebacker Patrick Willis on the ballot as well as Sam Mills (who may be in the Final 10—our shakiest pick to not be there) that Young gets the final slot.

We will find out soon if we are right or up in the night.

Saturday, January 22, 2022

Leading Men, Packers Fall to 49ers in Divisional Round

 By Eric Goska

The Packers added yet another dismal chapter to their ever-expanding dossier of postseason failure.

And like so many of the previous entries, this one will sting for years to come.

A strong start by Green Bay did nothing more than force the visiting 49ers to work harder. Trailing for what seemed like an eternity, San Francisco hung around until pulling the plug in the closing minutes to secure a 13-10 win in a divisional playoff game at Lambeau Field.

No autopsy needed. Abysmal special teams play ended Green Bay’s season.

For years, the question has become not whether the Packers will come up short, but how. And for years, the team has invented new ways to flame out.

Consider:

  • Steve Young whistles a 25-yard TD pass to Terrell Owens with three seconds left.
  • Colin Kaepernick rushes for 181 yards and two touchdowns.
  • Raheem Mostert explodes for 220 yards and four touchdowns.

And those are merely 49ers performances that helped short circuit Green Bay. There have been far too many others, some too painful to recall.

Credit the Packers with a quick getaway. They drove 69 yards in 10 plays, never facing third down as they went up 7-0 on A.J. Dillon’s 6-yard burst with five minutes, 35 seconds elapsed.

By the end of the first quarter, Green Bay had salted away 109 yards and seven first downs. San Francisco: minus-seven and zero.

Until Saturday night, the Green and Gold had been 10-0 at Lambeau Field in the playoffs when producing more yards and more first downs than their opponent in the opening 15 minutes. Might as well toss that stat in the dumper along with the season.

Never ahead by more than seven, Green Bay continued to lead deep into the fourth quarter. It remained in front despite Marcedes Lewis’ lost fumble and Josiah Deguara’s drop. It did so despite allowing the 49ers to start three drives from their 40 or beyond.

The Packers stayed out front despite quarterback Aaron Rodgers being sacked five times, 49ers defensive back Jimmie Ward blocking Mason Crosby’s first field goal attempt and Allen Lazard being the only Green Bay receiver other than Davante Adams to catch a pass.

The team held on because its defense battled. San Francisco didn’t record a first down or pass completion until six-and-a-half minutes remained in the second quarter. The 49ers had negative yardage on third down until midway through the third quarter.

Even after quarterback Jimmy Garappolo and tight end George Kittle hooked up for 24 yards – the 49ers’ longest offensive gain of the night – Green Bay held tight. Four plays later, linebackers Rashan Gary and De’Vondre Campbell dumped running back Elijah Mitchell for a loss on fourth-and one.

The Packers held the upper hand on the scoreboard until 4:41 remained in the fourth quarter. That’s when defensive lineman Jordan Willis blocked Corey Bojorquez’s punt and safety Talanoa Hufanga ran it in from six yards out to tie the game at 10 apiece.

A lead that had held for 49:44 went poof. And San Francisco, which had never been on top, finally got there on Robbie Gould’s 45-yard field goal as time expired.

Game over.

Only once before had the Packers been out front longer in a playoff game that they lost. They led for 51:42 in a 28-22 loss to Seattle in which they blew a 16-point lead and failed to recover a late onside kick.

Just one more in a long line of blunders that cost Green Bay in the postseason. There have been so many, someone should write a book.

Packing a Lead, Handed a Loss
The 8 playoff losses in which the Packers held the lead for 20 or more minutes on the game clock.

Time      Date                         Opponent             Result
51:42     Jan. 18, 2015              Seahawks            GB lost, 22-28
49:44     Jan. 22, 2022              49ers                    GB lost, 10-13
48:06     Jan. 11, 2004              Eagles                  GB lost, 17-20
21:56     Jan. 14, 1996              Cowboys             GB lost, 27-38
21:41     Jan. 3, 1999                49ers                    GB lost, 27-30
21:33     Jan. 16, 2016              Cardinals             GB lost, 20-26
21:20     Jan. 20, 2008              Giants                  GB lost, 20-23
20:16     Dec. 26, 1960             Eagles                  GB lost, 13-17

Friday, January 21, 2022

Another Tale of Tackle Totals

 By Nick Webster 
Cam Heyward
A few weeks back here at The Journal we channeled the late great John Madden to name a 2021 All Madden team; a difficult exercise and one that required us to make terribly difficult choices. We think that the most difficult among them was at the Defensive Tackle position where the generational/all-time talent Aaron Donald had to occupy one spot, and Vita Vea occupied the second spot. 

However there's a case to be made, and one that Madden himself would likely pain over, for Cameron Heyward. Heyward had a truly fantastic season this year, one which was an outlier among defensive tackles recently, and Heyward certainly plays with a style that Madden would surely appreciate.

We've covered in recent articles the value, and frequently the lack of value, associated with tackle statistics as they've been compiled. However in the last few years—and certainly since around 1999 - play-by-play compiled tackle statistics are actually quite reliable. 

Heyward this year tied with Christian Wilkins of the Miami Dolphins to lead all DTs with 89 tackles per play-by-play statistics. This is an exceptional measure of activity for a defensive tackle. Of course, we value all sorts of characteristics of interior line play, and there's no question that Aaron Donald is the most disruptive interior defender of 2021, and the last 40 years.  

However, activity and participation in plays is important too, and this is where tackles are meaningful. In fact, we would argue that tackles are a more meaningful measure of activity for an interior lineman than they are for a linebacker, or certainly for a defensive back. 

Tackles for an interior alignment indicate that the first line of defense was making the stop, tackles for Linebackers typically mean that either the first line didn't make a stop, or a scheme was designed for the first line to take up blockers and Linebackers to clean up. Tackles for defensive backs often mean a very poor front seven, or a scheme that brings safeties into the box to act as quasi-linebackers.

In fact, Cam Heyward's 89 tackles in 2021 are the most we've seen in many many years, how does this fit in context?  A simple Pro Football Reference query suggests that Heyward’s 2021 was the 34th best DT season in their database for DTs.  But recall that tackle stats pre-1999 are often dubious, when team tackle numbers from the PFR query are replaced with play-by-play numbers Hayward and Wilkins jump to #8 overall.

Names that remain in the Hayward neighborhood are the likes of Tim Krumrie, maybe the best Nose Tackle of the late-80’s, Cortez Kennedy who won Defensive Player of the Year despite being on a losing team, the mammoth Ted Washington who was a serially underrated journeyman who starred for 7 teams over 17 seasons and Ray Childress one of the most versatile linemen of the ’80s and ’90s.  Of those seasons Ted Washington’s 1996 still means that Hayward and Wilkins were as active as any DT in the last 25-years.

Here is a chart so you can see what we mean. 
"TT" means "team total"
"PBP" means tackles from play-by-plays or gamebooks.


Wednesday, January 19, 2022

Turnovers and a Title

By Joe Zagorski 
In 1973, the Minnesota Vikings advanced to the NFC Championship Game, where they played the Dallas Cowboys at Texas Stadium. In big games, regardless of the era, the winning team usually does not make as many mistakes as their opponent.  But what happens when they make a bunch of mistakes, and still manage to win?  The 1973 NFC Title Game served as a good case in point. The Vikings committed four turnovers, and the Cowboys committed six. At one specific point during the third quarter of this game, both teams were giving the ball away on consecutive plays. It was almost as if neither side wanted to win this game!

Now naturally, that was not either team’s intent. But it was a game with everything riding on it…a berth in Super Bowl VIII. Certainly, these two teams could have played better than one might think.  Now both the Doomsday Defense and Minnesota’s Purple Gang were playing well all throughout the game. But the turnovers appeared to be a matter more of nervousness than of running into a stellar defense. The most important element that this game possessed, however, involved a few key offensive drives. Minnesota’s offense managed to control the ball throughout the first quarter, and by game’s end, had accounted for a total of 306 yards. The Cowboys could earn only 153 total yards all game long.
Chuck Foreman

Minnesota took a 10-0 lead into halftime, thanks to another long drive which resulted in a 5-yard touchdown run on a sweep by rookie tailback Chuck Foremen, who incidentally won the NFC Rookie of the Year award.  Early in the third quarter, however, the turnovers began to have their say in the results. Dallas quarterback Roger Staubach threw a pass deep downfield that Minnesota cornerback Bobby Bryant intercepted at his own 2-yard line. 
Bobby Bryant (20), Drew Pearson (88) and Paul Krause (22)

This miscue turned out to be no worse than a great punt for the Cowboys.  And speaking of punts, the ensuing Vikings punt by Mike Eischeid resulted in Dallas’ first score of the game. Eischeid outkicked his coverage, and that gave Dallas return man Golden Richards enough time to make the catch, size up his blocks, and weave his way downfield.  In a few seconds and 63 yards later, Richards crossed the goal line, and the Cowboys drew closer to the Vikings, 10-7.
Minnesota answered back in very quick fashion. From his own 46-yard line, Tarkenton rolled out to his right and threw the ball deep down the middle. It looked like one of the longest passes that Tarkenton threw all year. Maybe it was one of the longest that Tarkenton threw all throughout his career, as he was not really known for having a strong arm.  But his 54-yard pass was perfect, as it was snared by Minnesota wide receiver John Gilliam in the end zone.  The Vikings had recaptured their 10-point lead.  
Roger Staubach and Walt Garrison
Unfortunately for the Cowboys, they would never get any closer. This was due to the fact that they continued to commit key turnovers.  Probably the biggest one occurred early in the fourth quarter when Staubach dropped back to pass and threw a short out bullet to “Bullet” Bob Hayes. Once again, Minnesota’s Bobby Bryant made another interception along the sideline.  He managed to regain his balance after leaping and catching the ball.  Bryant also managed to stay inbounds as he sprinted down the field. A convoy of Viking defenders escorted Bryant into the Dallas end zone to complete his 63-yard interception return for a score. Another field goal by Minnesota placekicker Fred Cox made the final score 27-10.
This was a game for Minnesota to dominate. Starting Dallas halfback Calvin Hill earned over 1,000 yards rushing during the season. But he did not play in this title game, as he was injured in the previous week’s divisional playoff game versus the Rams. The Cowboys would certainly miss Hill’s productive rushing stats. Without Hill, Dallas seldom had any decent offensive drives throughout the game. On offense, all of Minnesota’s weapons were functioning as well as they did all year long...minus their turnovers.  If you took away one or two of those, Minnesota may have won this game with an even greater margin.
Fran Tarkenton
An element of irony involved the final statistics.  Both quarterbacks—Fran Tarkenton and Roger Staubach—ended this contest equally by completing 10 passes in 21 attempts.  Tarkenton threw for 133 yards, however, and Staubach threw for 89 yards. For certain, Tarkenton’s 63-yard touchdown bomb to John Gilliam provided the difference in that statistic.

Minnesota’s 27-10 win over Dallas in the 1973 NFC Title Game offered one last irony. Their opponents in Super Bowl VIII would be the Miami Dolphins, who defeated the Oakland Raiders in the 1973 AFC Title Game, by an identical 27-10 final score.

Joe Zagorski is a member of the Pro Football Writers of America (PFWA) and the Pro Football Researchers Association (PFRA). He was named the recipient of last year’s Ralph Hay award from the PFRA for his lifetime achievement in pro football research and historiography. He is currently working on two separate pro football books: One is a retrospective of the 1973 Buffalo Bills, and the other is a biography of former Miami Dolphins Hall of Fame offensive guard, Larry Little. Zagorski currently resides in Oak Ridge, Tennessee.

Tuesday, January 18, 2022

A Cautionary Tale for Titletown

 By Eric Goska

Take heed, Packer Nation!

If your Green and Gold warriors don’t come out swinging, they’ll likely be one and done.

No halftime adjustments, no last-minute rally will save your team. If Super Wild Card Weekend was any indication, a strong start is a must.

Beginning Monday, Jan. 10, the Green Bay Packers invited fans to participate in a Letters to Lambeau campaign. Those so moved could submit notes, drawings and letters to support and encourage the team.

Consider this my Cautionary Tale for Titletown. The hare, not the tortoise, will prevail come Saturday.

Six games kick-started the playoffs. Four hardly qualified as contests with the Bills, Chiefs, Buccaneers, and Rams rolling to victory.

The common thread in all six? The winning team held the upper hand offensively – often by a wide margin – at the close of the first quarter.

For those on the short end . . . well . . . see you next year.

In the opening 15 minutes of play, Buffalo outgained (150 to 63 yards) and out-first downed (9 to 3) New England. Kansas City (65-12; 3-1), Tampa Bay (137-17; 11-1) and Los Angeles (122-[-3]; 7-0) did the same to Pittsburgh, Philadelphia, and Arizona, respectively.

Collectively, the six winners amassed 666 first-quarter yards to 161 for the losers. Victors notched 44 first downs to nine for those whose seasons came to a close.

The message is clear: dawdlers get left in the dust.

In 2019 and 2020, Matt LaFleur’s Packers produced a number of solid starts. The team drummed up more first downs and more yards in the opening quarter than their opponents in 16 of 32 regular-season games, going 14-2 in those contests.

This season, the number of double-doubles dropped to four. Yes, Green Bay was unbeaten in those games, but in order to capture a third straight NFC North title, the team had to overcome a greater number of slow starts.

This is reflected in the Green and Gold’s lack of first-quarter scoring. Green Bay has sent 35 teams to the postseason (an NFL record), but this club in 2021 was only the fifth of those 35 to be outscored (51 to 84) in the opening period.

The message bears repeating: The Packers need to come ready to play.

The upcoming playoff game at Lambeau Field will be the 25th at that venue for Green Bay. After starting 11-0 in the postseason at 1265 Lombardi Avenue, the team has been an unimpressive 7-6 in their last 13 encounters.

Want to get an idea of who will win before the final gun? Keep an eye on that first quarter.

The visiting team has recorded a double-double on eight occasions, with five wins. Green Bay has come away with that honor 10 times and has yet to be defeated when doing so.

The Packers would do well to increase that to 11 Saturday night when they host the 49ers in the divisional round.

Double Takes at Lambeau Field
The Packers are unbeaten (10-0) in playoff games at Lambeau Field when they come away with more first downs and more yards than their opponent in the first quarter.

Date                       GB                          Opponent                        Result
Dec. 31, 1961          4-70                       Giants (2-25)                   GB won, 37-0
Dec. 26, 1965         2-68                        Colts (0-23)                     GB won, 13-10
Jan. 2, 1966            8-130                      Browns (4-88)                 GB won, 23-12
Dec. 31, 1967          7-71                       Cowboys (3-35)              GB won, 21-17
Dec. 31, 1994          7-107                     Lions (1-20)                     GB won, 16-12
Jan. 13, 2002          3-52                       49ers (2-38)                      GB won, 25-15
Jan. 12, 2008         8-142                      Seahawks (5-35)               GB won, 42-20
Jan. 5, 2013            6-86                      Vikings (4-73)                    GB won, 24-10
Jan. 12, 2020         5-104                      Seahawks (2-52)               GB won, 28-23
Jan. 16, 2021         7-108                      Rams (3-71)                     GB won, 32-18


TUESDAY TIDBITS: "American Underdog"

By TJ Troup 

Will not be reviewing all six wild-card playoff games, yet aspects of the victories again reinforce the statistic that is most telling in pro football—team pass defense. 

You want examples? Well, hell yes, sure have them. Jones of New England actually was more efficient throwing the ball than the Buffalo Bills league-leading defensive passer rating category, but compare what Buffalo did on pass defense to what Mr. Allen did to the Patriot's second-ranked secondary (157.6—almost perfection). 
Dak Prescott
Every year, yes EVERY year since the merger in '70 there has been a road victory in the playoffs. The impressive San Francisco win when viewed from key statistical aspects tells the tale. Prescott had a passer rating in the game of 69.3 and was going against a secondary that ranked 25th with a porous 97.0 rating. 

Did the 49ers step up, or did Prescott fail when needed most? Dallas ranked third in the defensive passer rating category with a mark of 76.6, and Jimmy G. finished at 67.4—thus for the game overall, the Cowboy secondary did their job. 
Jimmy Garoppolo
Before the game, if you asked Kyle Shanahan if he would be happy with his two leading ball carriers gaining 168 yards on 37 carries, believe you would have heard a resounding yes, and possibly a smile stretched across his face. The pain all Cowboy fans are feeling today results from not only the loss on Sunday afternoon but from a playoff record of 3-10 for their last thirteen post-season games. Ouch! 

Finally, the Ram victory last night. Murray completed 7 of 17 for just 28 yards with no touchdowns, and two interceptions in the first half....for a rating of 9.3. In the second half he improved to 12 of 17 for 109 yards, but nary a touchdown, but no interceptions either. 

Mr. Stafford on the other hand finished with a mark of 154.5....as he shredded the 19th ranked secondary. Josh Weinfuss at the Eternally Stupid Putrid Network predicted a Cardinal victory; what did he base that on?  
Matthew Stafford
Would relish knowing. Going back to Dallas for a brief moment—how come no one is talking about Zeke these days? First five games this year he gains 452 yards on 85 carries and looked to be his old self. The rest of the year, a pedestrian 550 yards on 152 carries. Just not sure how much gas is left in his tank? 

Divisional round is chock full of fascinating games for all the reasons why we watch football this time of the year. So many questions can be asked, and we will hear the pundits, and so-called experts talk about quarterbacks and overall defense this week, but how many will talk about the defensive passer rating? 

Would relish the opportunity to discuss defensive backfield play with Mr. Riddick, but we all know that is just not going to happen. The eight teams left ranked 1st, 5th, 8th, 9th, 10th, 16th, 18th, and 25th in the defensive passer rating category for the regular season. Oh, you wanted teams attached to these rankings? Do some research folks. 
Kurt Warner
The Rams in 1999 grabbed the attention of the entire football nation with their spirited and impressive play. On January 16th, 2000 the Vikings took the field in St. Louis and were completely outplayed. Just for fun let's say a quarterback completed 23 of 29 for 236 yards with 3 going for touchdowns and just one interception; no doubt we all would say a rock-solid performance. 

Those are the passing stats for Kurt Warner after he began by going 4 for 4 for 155 yards, and two impressive scores! Bruce is split left and runs a post to the middle of the field, as the Rams pass blockers pick up the blitz. Warner is right on the money for 77 yards and his first touchdown. His second is a flat pass to Faulk on the left side, and the shifty back weaves his way through the Minnesota defense for 41 yards. 
Recently went and saw "American Underdog", and enjoyed the movie. Rather than critique all aspects of how the movie was made and was it accurate—just gonna say that Ms. Anna Paquin did a whale of a job portraying Brenda Warner. Hope you all go see it.