Historic matchups and historic plays. A memorable week for more reasons than one. There were some great games this weekend, but the biggest story of all was the tragic loss of Chris Henry. Gone too soon.
Here’s the scoop on the week that was:
New York Giants 45, Washington Redskins 12. I had a feeling about this game midway through the first drive. The Giants held on the ball forever in the first quarter and completely dominated the action from start to finish. This game dramatized how brutal the game of football can be for quarterbacks when they play short-handed. Jason Campbell was lucky to walk off the field. Without Chris Samuels at left tackle, without Clinton Portis or Ladell Betts, without Chris Cooley and a true safety valve at wide receiver, Campbell took a pounding. The Redskins still throw too many short routes. Against a division rival with a high level of familiarity, Washington was simply overmatched. To his credit, Campbell and the offense fought until the end.
Quick Pewter Note on Bruce Allen: Allen’s last job as an NFL general manager was with the Tampa Bay Buccaneers from 2004-2008. Allen rejoined John Gruden, with whom he had worked in Oakland, following a fight for control which resulted in the firing of Rich McKay. During Allen’s tenure, the Buccaneers did not draft a single player selected to a Pro Bowl. (Davin Joseph participated in one Pro Bowl as an alternate to an injured player.) McKay’s picks (including Derrick Brooks, Warren Sapp, Mike Alstott, Ronde Barber and Warrick Dunn) appeared in 37 Pro Bowls and grabbed 15 All Pro selections. Bruce Allen is what he is…the son of George Allen. That means a lot in DC, but it may not mean a damn thing to the Cowboys, Eagles or Giants. Daniel Snyder will continue to get what he pays for.
Indianapolis 35, Jacksonville 31. In his last six games, Peyton Manning has thrown 10 interceptions. The Colts are still undefeated and Reggie Wayne is still open when the game is on the line. Jacksonville played Indianapolis like a true division rival. Too bad they played the Seahawks like the Little Sisters of the Poor earlier this season. If Jacksonville misses the playoffs, everyone should point to that 41-0 drubbing. Up next for the Dancing Del Rio’s: New England. Nothing dashes playoff hopes like December games in Foxboro.
Dallas 24, New Orleans 17. Don’t look now, but the team with the BEST scoring defense in the NFC is the Dallas Cowboys. The Cowboys did all the things you have to do to beat the Saints. They got pressure from their down linemen without blitzing. They forced the Saints to throw the ball. They converted third downs by running the ball and working the clock. They stopped the Saints from running and played solid 3rd down defense. They forced turnovers and benefited from some dropped passes. And, they made Devery Henderson beat them. Henderson may be fast, but he is not a reliable pass catcher. He dropped a sure score in the 4th quarter. The Saints defense looked the way they always do when Sedrick Ellis is out. Marion Barber blasted Jonathan Vilma. The Saints have some work to do.
Here I am.
Game, set, match!
Thankfully, Saints MLB Jonathan Vilma was able to continue after this play. Helmet to helmet contact is still the most dangerous part of the game.
New England 17, Buffalo 10. Nothing to see here. Brady and company are still in the midst of redefining themselves. The Buffalo Bills have to be kicking themselves after two close losses to the Patriots. They don’t have Dick Jauron to kick around anymore. “Boots are made for walkin’…”
Cleveland 41, Kansas City 34. Since both of these teams have recently beaten the Steelers, I have absolutely nothing to say.
Atlanta 10, New York Jets 7. Two weeks ago, I was sitting in a bar watching the Steelers get humiliated by the Cleveland Browns. Toward the end of the game, an idotic Jets fan began an incoherent smack-talking rant. He asked me if I’d be back at the bar this week when the Jets made the playoffs. Boy am I sorry I missed this one. Not really. I’m as used to the Jets losing games as he must be. Any Jet fan worth his salt knew that the Jets were going to find a way to lose that game. They have a dominant defense, but can’t seem to get the ball out of the infield. Baseball? Mets – Jets…same difference. The team has a mathematical chance to make this year’s playoffs and they have the best cornerback I’ve seen in years…but they don’t have much else.
Houston 16, St. Louis 13. The Texans are always a step away from something. This game says as much about the Rams and Steven Jackson as it does about the Texans. The Rams are going to be a trendy pick to reverse their fortunes next year. If they can keep Laurent Robinson healthy and figure out a way to get the ball to Donny Avery, they could do some things. The Texans look to be headed for 8-8 again. It is time to officially dub the Texans as the “Seattle Seahawks of the AFC.” Gary Kubiak’s replacement is waiting. Jim Zorn, that phone is for you.
Arizona 31, Detroit 24. I wonder if the Cardinals think they can turn it on and off and back on again at will. I don’t believe they can. They have to turn it on and leave it on. Now is the time to focus on recapturing the same intensity that lead to the blowout of the Vikings and guided their stretch run in 2008. The Cardinals are 9-5 and finish the season with St. Louis and Green Bay (both at home). Arizona could win both games and make an impressive statement by finishing at 11-5. St. Louis has proven they won’t just roll over and the Packers will still be fighting for a playoff spot. (Oddly enough, if the season ended today, the Cardinals would be hosting the Packers in the wild card game.)
Oakland 20, Denver 19. Kudos to JaMarcus Russell for getting it together for a quality win vs. a quality opponent. The Raiders play some of the ugliest games you’ll ever see — but they’ve managed to beat the Eagles, Bengals, Steelers and Broncos this season. They should have beaten the Chargers in Week 1. The Raiders are ALL or NOTHING. In six games vs. Denver, Houston, the Giants, the Jets, Dallas and Washington, the Raiders have lost by a combined score of 192-36 or an average of 32-6. Three other losses (San Diego, twice; Kansas City once) have come by a total of 18 points. At this rate, the Raiders are a LOCK to show up and beat the Ravens in Week 17. I said it when they were 6-0 and I’ll say it again now — the Denver Broncos will NOT be going to the playoffs. Quick Silver and Black Note on Winning Close Games: The Raiders beat the Eagles by 4, the Bengals by 3, the Steelers by 3 and the Broncos by 1. When you can win close games against quality opponents, you’re SUPPOSED TO BE A PLAYOFF TEAM!!!!
Baltimore 31, Chicago 7. Ewww!!!
Tampa Bay 24, Seattle 7. I know the people in Tampa who thought Josh Freeman was a sort of “racial feel good pick” by head coach Raheem Morris. They pooh-poohed the pick far and wide…and yet, after only a few starts, Freeman is the guy who is sporting wins over quarterbacks like Aaron Rodgers and Matt Hasselbeck. The Seahawks are done and not even Mike Holmgren wants to be bothered, but Freeman and the Bucs deserve some credit for battling.
Philadelphia 27, San Francisco 13. The highlight of this game was Leonard Weaver’s drive killing conversation with Ahmad Brooks. Weaver has been the Eagles MVP this season. He has introduced an element of physicality and versatility into the Eagle offense that was sorely needed. I knew this was a great acquisition when it was made. I remember that spectacular 2 touchdown game Weaver had last season with Seattle. The Eagles are getting the most out of this deal. Fullbacks are notorious for fumbling in short yardage running situations (think Mike Alstott!). If Weaver can be trusted to tote the rock in playoff games at Minnesota or New Orleans, the Eagles are going to be in the Super Bowl. Book it!! The 49ers are a year or two away. I wouldn’t be surprised if they made the leap next year — but I won’t be surprised if they fall back. I like what I’ve seen out of Michael Crabtree. Alex Smith has potential, but his time to shine will be 2010. If not then, then when.
Carolina 26, Minnesota 7. I said in the beginning of the season that Jake Delhomme was arguably the worst QB in the league. With him on the bench, the Panthers have a chance to win. Delhomme pissed away the team’s greatest threat with his steadfast refusal to execute basic play action fakes. His half-assed efforts allowed defenses to sit back and sweat Steve Smith to death. Matt Moore gives Carolina options — and he makes DeAngelo Williams and Jonathan Stewart tougher to defend. And, then there’s that Julius Peppers guy. Quick Toothless Panther Note: The Carolina Panthers are winless vs. the AFC East. That’s hard to do, but they managed to go 0-4.
A Semi-Classic: Tennessee 27, Miami 24 (OT). The two teams that no one wanted to play got a chance to play one another. All I can say about the Titans season is, “Ewww!!!! That’s nasty baby!!!” If this game was played in Miami, the Dolphins probably win. If they played on a neutral field, these two teams are probably still playing. These are two of the most physical teams in the NFL. Hard hats are a must versus the Titans and Dolphins. Chad Henne (349 yards) threw three interceptions, including the decisive pick to Michael Griffin — but he gives Miami the capacity to go long. Back in October, I thought his insertion into the lineup would pay dividends — if he could figure out his touch and placement issues. Henne still has some learning to do.
A Memorial Classic: San Diego 27, Cincinnati 24. Sunday marked the first game for the Cincinnati Bengals since the death of wide receiver Chris Henry. The team played with heavy hearts and commemorative helmet stickers. After the game, San Diego receiver Vincent Jackson spoke from the heart about how the Chargers, too, had lost a member of their family in Henry. The game was a display of elite athletic ability and rugged competition. Smooth Operator Note: Bengal WR Chad Ochocinco is simply the best route runner in the game. If you like his antics, don’t forget to watch the detailed, artistic approach he brings to the game. If you don’t like his entertainment package, just watch his weekly instructional videos on how to get off the line of scrimmage, how to get in and out of breaks, how to vary speeds to create separation from defenders, how to position your hands at the last instant to keep defenders at bay, and how to make devastating jump cuts that leave defenders sprawled aimlessly all over the turf.
Exhibit X: Trailing 24-13 in the 4th quarter, the Bengals have the ball at the Charger 33-yard line (courtesy of Keith Rivers, see below). The call a flare pass on an end around to Chad. He gets the ball off a lateral pass from Carson Palmer at the 45. He makes his break downfield and five Chargers are headed his way. Evasive maneuvers mean ankle breaks. He reversed his field and took the ball inside the 10-yard line. The Bengals then scored to bring the game within a field goal.
I like the Bengals. It certainly is not because the beat the Steelers twice. Cincinnati showed a great deal of toughness on Sunday. You knew this was a big game when starting CB Leon Hall tackled Darren Sproles on the opening kickoff. I think Cincinnati needs another receiver to step up, but in the interim, it must be nice to have Cedric Benson AND Larry Johnson.
If you don’t think the Bengals are going to be a worthy playoff opponent, all you need to know about this next image is that ball wound up in the hands of Cincinnati linebacker Keith Rivers.
San Diego benefited from Zebra Aid, but they’re still a tough group. A few interference and defensive holding calls were not made. Perhaps it was merely a prelude to playoff football. Perhaps it was just good old fashioned home cooking.
A Shotgun Classic: Pittsburgh 37, Green Bay 36. When you play in a shootout and your final score is the first of its kind in the history of the NFL, you know the game was a classic. Steel Curtain Scoring Note: Last season’s 11-10 Steeler victory over the Chargers was the first game ever with that final score. Steeler fans will recall that is the game which should have ended 18-10 on a Troy Polamalu interception return TD at the end of the game. The Steelers entered Sunday’s game desperately hoping to avoid a sixth consecutive loss. The Packers were hoping to avoid getting locked in a battle to the death with the titans of the NFC East: Philadelphia, Dallas and New York. The Packers at 9-5 can reasonably expect to beat the Seattle Seahawks down to a fine mist next week, but no one knows what to expect when they travel to the desert in Week 17.
This game has been the most widely recounted of all the contests this week. I will simply say that Bruce Arians and Mike Tomlin have made some interesting admissions about the passing game lately. I’m beginning to wonder if Bruce Arians is actually going to get fired at the end of the season. Roethlisberger likes him. Tomlin does not have a discernible dislike for him. It is possible that the Steelers would have run considerably more throughout the season if 1) Rashard Mendenhall was reliable, and 2) Willie Parker was healthy. Arians admitted the team should have run more against Cleveland. I don’t know if he gets it.
A team with a defense as old as the Steelers; with a defense that has played as many tough physical games as the Steelers have played over the past few seasons really needs an offense to run the ball so that they can REST!! Arians doesn’t allow the defense to rest when he dials it up and calls for 40 passes in a game. Roethlisberger doesn’t allow the defense to rest when he takes sacks instead of taking check downs. It is Week 15 and for a team of stalwarts operating without Aaron Smith and without Troy Polamalu, stops are simply harder and harder to come by in the 4th quarter of games. The Steelers have lost to so many upstarts because they have been chasing fresh legs. Jamaal Charles – fresh legs. Jerome Harrison – fresh legs. Greg Jennings – fresh legs. Percy Harvin – fresh legs.
You don’t see gray beards like Carson Palmer and Brett Favre slinging touchdowns all over the yard vs. Pittsburgh. Youth is being served this year. Arians seems to think the passing game is really being showcased, but he has no idea. The New Orleans Saints, possessed of the league’s most dominant offense, rank 12th in the NFL in passing attempts. The Saints are 6th in rushing attempts. The Steelers are 20th.
So, the game was a brilliant showcase for the offense, as constructed by the brilliant Bruce Arians. (I don’t really believe that.) And it was an epitaph for a defense as constructed by the brilliant Dick LeBeau. If the Steelers hope to beat Baltimore and Miami, that defense is going to have to get some rest because the Ravens and Dolphins are playing “chin check” football and it is still December.
It is worth saying that I don’t consider myself to be a Luddite when it comes to the passing game. Hardly. My reasons are clear. Dominant passing is not as valuable to me as balance. Balance means the ability to effectively pass or run, as needed. There is no magic formula for carries or yards (except in the post-season). I say that because Bruce Arians absolutely addressed one of the areas of weakness I noted in my substantive critique of the Steeler offense last week. During the final scoring drive, the Steelers threw the ball to Heath Miller from somewhere on the field other than the Red Zone or deep in their own end. As the Packers played a 3-deep zone with Charles Woodson in the middle, Miller’s success set the table for Mike Wallace’s touchdown moments later.
The Packers put their best defensive player in an area where the bulk of the traffic was directed. Look at the route combinations with :18 seconds left. Miller makes a little move and he’s wide open. Bam! Green Bay keeps everything in front of them, but makes sure they have tacklers who can prevent a run into the end zone or a deeper pass down the seam. This underutilized pass to Miller has been the forgotten key to opening up the Red Zone for the Steelers all season long.
Here it is again. The Packers with a 3 deep look, Woodson is in the middle of the field and the pass, intended for Mike Wallace is broken up.
The player who is tangled up with Mike Wallace on this play is Atari Bigby #20 (facing out). He is a 4th year strong safety out of Central Florida. He began the play along the back line with Woodson. On the pass, he came up and aggressively broke up the play. Wallace wanted interference. That’s Heath Miller on the bottom of the screen locked in man coverage. Bigby had a two-way go on the release of the ball. His job was simply to make sure that neither Wallace, Miller nor Mendenhall (at the 9-yard line) make it across the goal line. Well done.
Hines Ward has run a route down the back line of the end zone. Ben Roethlisberger is looking for him — but someone shows up to take away the pass. Roethlisberger hurls the ball about 10 feet over Ward’s head and out of bounds. Who shows up?? It’s not Charles Woodson.
So far, Atari Bigby has made two huge plays in the Red Zone — one by delivering a blow and the other by remaining disciplined in his zone.
On the final play, the Steelers targeted CB Josh Bell. With 5 receivers in the pattern and 8 defenders in coverage, it is obvious that not everyone would be double covered. The Packers should have rushed lineman and daring Ben to run it in. With a 20 yard head start, he probably makes it — by a nose. The Packers were committed to keeping the Steelers from scoring in the middle of the field and put their best defender in the middle. Atari Bigby made a stop on the previous play by defending the back line — and that’s where he was on this play. He was helping out on Hines Ward who was coming across the back.
Only Josh Bell could have made this play — and only a throw to the sideline could have beaten the defense the Packers played. Everything else was covered. With everything on the line for the Packers, Charles Woodson was the nearest defender on —– Heath Miller. Touchdown.
Interesting Stat Note: With :25 remaining, the Steelers had 503 total yards of offense. At the end of the game, Ben Roethlisberger had 503 passing yards.
Finally, I would be remiss if I didn’t say, “Wow, what a throw!!!!!!!”