Cleat Geeks

A Much Needed Change

Photo from tampabay.com

After another embarrassing performance on defense, allowing 416 total yards of offense in a 34-29 loss to the Atlanta Falcons, the Buccaneers have fired defensive coordinator Mike Smith. The team will replace Smith with linebackers coach Mark Duffner. This was a much needed change for a historically bad defense through the first six weeks of the season, Smith’s defense ranks last in points per game allowed (34.6), last in passing yards given up (355.6), and second to last in yards allowed per game (439.8). This is a production business and we have to play better on defense. We have to play better as a football team, but we have to play better on defense” advised Koetter during Monday’s press conference. This move needed to be made to give a change to the players on defense and also to possibly save Koetter’s job.

Duffner’s defense will be on display Sunday when Tampa hosts the 2018 first overall draft pick Baker Mayfield and the Cleveland Browns. Cleveland comes to Tampa after a 38-14 loss against the Los Angeles Chargers. Tampa looks to get back to .500 and snap a three game losing streak behind another strong performance by Jameis Winston. Jameis ended any quarterback controversy in the Atlanta loss by throwing for 395 yards and 4 touchdowns. Jameis will need reduce his turnover though as he threw 2 interceptions including a costly redzone interception in the loss Sunday.

The Tampa Bay running game did show some life as Peyton Barber rushed for 82 yards on 13 carries which was a season high and also caught 4 passes for 24 yards and a touchdown. The Cleveland Browns rush defense was just gashed by Chargers running back Melvin Gordon for 132 yards and three rushing touchdowns which could bode well for Tampa Sunday.  Tampa needs this win to re-energize the fan base. Let’s fire those cannons.

Meet The Bucs

Photo from bucswire.com

This week’s Meet the Bucs segment focuses on Tampa Bay guard Ali Marpet. Ali, who played his college ball at Hobart College, was drafted in the second round of the 2015 NFL Draft. If you aren’t familiar with Hobart College don’t be embarrassed.  Hobart College is a small liberal arts College which makes them a Division III school. Marpet was the highest-drafted player in the history of NCAA Division III football. Tampa believed in Ali enough to trade up for him in the second round of the draft to make sure they obtained him. Ali has been a reliable and versatile starter for Tampa Bay. Last year, Tampa moved Ali to play center due to lack of depth on the offensive line. Ali was moved back to his normal guard position this year where he has excelled at making sure the Bucs quarterbacks stay upright. Tampa recently rewarded Ali for his hard work with a brand new five-year, $55 million contract extension

 

Mychal Warno

Follow me on Twitter @dynastydadmike for all things Tampa Bay and fantasy football advice. Also please follow @cleatgeeks for all things football.

Is Panthers’ D-Line To Blame For Shoddy Run Defense?

It seems like every year, the Panthers have one of these games. Last year it was the game at Chicago, in similarly dreary weather, where the Panthers looked like the better team, but just found a way to lose.  Sunday’s game at Washington was frustrating from a fan’s standpoint, not just because it was a game that the Panthers should have won, but also because it will help drive false narratives about the team. As we get into this one, let’s take a critical eye to some of those narratives and debunk them if we can.

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Let’s start with the popular scapegoat so far, the Defensive Line, and poor, poor Dontari Poe. There are multiple jokes in there somewhere, but I don’t feel like pulling them out right now. The Panthers let Star Lotulelei walk in free agency and then committed about the same dollar figure per year to Poe. I thought it would be an upgrade and give the team cap flexibility sooner. Fans on Panthers Twitter have hurled spears at the defensive line in general, and Poe in particular all season. But Poe is not a pass rusher, and we knew that coming into the season. Neither was Star. Poe’s job is to keep guards and centers off of Luke Kuechly in the run game and push guard and centers back into their QBs face so he has nowhere to escape the outside rush. Any tackles-for-loss or sacks are just gravy.

The Panthers now have 12 sacks on the season, and their adjusted sack rate is just over 6%. Those numbers put them in the bottom half of the league. While the Panthers’ sack numbers are not great, they again applied pressure to Alex Smith quite often on Sunday. Smith is a slippery veteran and gets away from pressure well. With that said, the Panthers rush got home three times, and forced at least three bad throws with pressure. Yes, they do need more sacks, but sometimes that is out of your control. As long as they continue to pressure QBs, the sacks will come.

The run defense has been shoddy at times–ok quite often, and that seems like it would fall squarely on the D Line’s shoulders. But entering Week 6, the Panthers were third in adjusted line yards, tenth in power run success against, and third in run stuff percentage per Football Outsiders. They were 27th in second-level yards allowed and 31st in open-field yards allowed. What that means is that the defensive line is doing its job–which is to keep the backers and DBs clean to make stops–but those guys aren’t making them.  Again on Sunday, the back seven let the Panthers down at least twice. Shaq Thompson was in beautiful position in his gap on an 8-yard run by Kapri Bibbs, but just whiffed the tackle, and then on the Skins’ final drive, Mike Adams had both hands on Peterson, only to see him get free and run for a first down in field goal range.  We remember some other brutal missed tackles from Rashaun Gaulden against the Giants and Donte Jackson against the Falcons that sprung big plays as well. The D Line definitely has work to do, but it is far from the lone scapegoat out there.

Speaking of Donte Jackson, let’s talk for a minute about the rookie corner. He is turning into a fan favorite, and with good reason. His three interceptions have provided a spark to the Panthers’ secondary, and his fearless demeanor is reminiscent of Richard Sherman, Jalen Ramsey, and some other top DBs. He is the top graded rookie CB in the league right now per Pro Football Focus, and top 10 overall. He looks like a guy with future All-Pro potential. Here’s why that is so important.

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Drafting guys who can start and contribute while on their rookie deal is a necessity in the NFL. The salary cap just won’t allow teams to sign a roster full of studs the way the Dodgers or Yankees can in Major League Baseball.  If a team can get 3-4 guys out of every draft that contribute, they’re doing ok.  But when a team gets a guy who can come in and immediately upgrade some position of need, and eventually be among the best at his position, while still getting paid rookie contract money, it’s like the NFL cheat code.  It allows a team to keep its other free agents, or compete for the best free agents on the open market to strengthen its weak points, and it is really the basis for building elite units.  The Jaguars did this with their defense, except it took them multiple years of Top 5 picks before it all panned out.  The Panthers have Luke and KK Short locked in through 2020, Bradberry is still on his rookie deal through next season, and so is Shaq Thompson. The foundation is already laid for a very good defense for the next 3-4 years, and by landing Jackson, the Panthers will have the money to pursue an elite edge lineman in free agency or with a first round pick, and really take the defense to the next level.  Of course, there are misses in the first round and even with the big-money free agent deals, so nothing is guaranteed, but the Panthers checked a prerequisite with Jackson.

Up next for the Panthers is a tough, tough road game at the Linc against the Super Bowl Champion Eagles. Their top running back Jay Ajayi is out for the year with an ACL–continuing a season-long trend of dodging many top RBs–and All-Pro LT Jason Peters is out with a biceps injury. It should be a good time for a get-well game for the run defense. This is not only a huge test for Carolina, but it may have playoff implications down the road when head-to-head tie breaker rules start coming into play.  The Eagles are mean up front on defense, but have struggled in coverage a bit this year, so this may be the week for old Riverboat and Norv to start slinging the pigskin around the yard all willy-nilly.

Til next week, cheers!

Broncos Blast Cardinals

 

“I wouldn’t say it’s a must win, but we’re going to kick their ass, though.” -Von Miller

Von Miller is the Broncos’ best player. He’s an incredible talent and the heart that drives the engine on defense. That’s why he was the Super Bowl 50 MVP. But Broncos fans are used to him letting his play do the talking. That changed on Tuesday. In a press conference, following the team’s fourth loss and second straight game allowing more than 200 yards to a single rusher, Miller showed some fire. He offered a bold proclamation about Thursday’s tilt with the Cardinals.

And Thursday night his team backed it up. The Broncos came out with fire and more like the team that fans thought they’d see when the season began. The Cardinals (1-6), with dysfunction on offense and defense and a rookie quarterback still out of his depths, aren’t the class of the NFL. But a 45-10 win does plenty to boost confidence of Broncos nation and help embattled head coach Vance Joseph breathe a little easier, this weekend at least.

It’s been a season of record-setting, so it makes sense that the Broncos set marks again Thursday night. Todd Davis and Chris Harris, Jr., each had INTs returned for touchdowns. It’s the first time the Broncos have had two INT returns for touchdown in a game since 1989.

Offensively, Emmanuel Sanders continued his incredible season with two more touchdowns. The first was on an end around where he took the ball, rolled out and connected with Courtland Sutton on a 28-yard touchdown pass. He later caught a 64-yard touchdown pass from Case Keenum. With the passing TD, Sanders became the first Broncos’ receiver to score a touchdown rushing, receiving and passing in a season.

But everything began with Miller, and the game ended with Miller, who was a one-man wrecking crew. He hit Josh Rosen five times, sacked him twice, forced two fumbles and recovered one himself. He personally delivered on his promise to play better, and is starting to look like the defensive player of the year candidate that fans know and love. And his partner in crime, rookie Bradley Chubb, continues to shine, too. Chubb added two sacks of his own Thursday, with the team accounting for six. In short, Denver’s defense scored two touchdowns, grabbed five turnovers and kept Rosen under near constant pressure.

And about those rushing woes, David Johnson recorded 39 yards rushing on 14 carries, and the Cardinals amassed just 69 yards rushing on 21 carries as a team.

It was a big night, offensively and defensively, and now the Broncos have 10 days to prepare and show it wasn’t a one-time thing as they battle the red hot Kansas City Chiefs in Arrowhead on October 28.

News and Notes:

  • Phillip Lindsay continues to look like one of the best among a group of fantastic Broncos’ rookies. He rushed for 90 yards and a touchdown on 14 carries, starting with a 22 yards scamper on his first carry and adding a 28-yard TD run.
  • Sanders threw that touchdown to Sutton, but also caught six balls of his own for 102 yards and a touchdown. He’s looking like one of the best receivers in the NFL in 2018.
  • Brandon McManus made his lone field goal attempt Thursday, a 41-yard kick. He also made all six of his extra points. Quietly, McManus has been one of the best Broncos this season, a perfect 11-for-11 on field goals and 18-for-18 on extra points.

Win, Lose or Draw Tonight, McCoy Should Be Relieved of Duties

Whether the Cardinals win, lose or draw against the Denver Broncos (2-4) this evening, Mike McCoy needs to be relieved of his duties as Arizona’s offensive coordinator. The writing is on the wall, and has been for some time now already.

In their loss to the Minnesota Vikings last Sunday, the Arizona Cardinals converted of their third down opportunities. They were 0 for 10 in that regard. Not only does the Cardinal offense rank last in most offensive categories, including, but not limited to, plays, 3rd down conversions, rush yards, they are also second to last in points, pass yards, & pass TD. The worst part about it is that they haven’t shown any growth at all from Wk-1 to Wk-6. As evidenced by the lack of converting even one third down last Sunday. We are six weeks into the season and the Cardinals are one of two teams (Buffalo) that have yet to have a 300-yard passer, 100-yard rusher or 100-yard receiver.

The 21.9% third down conversion rate is the worst in the NFL since 2010. The 1,323 yards by the Cardinals through six games is the lowest amount through the first six games of a season in the NFL since 2009. Arizona has yet to even break 300 total yards as an offense. Last week in Minnesota, they put up a season best 268 total yards. That’s not going to cut it in any league.

One could argue that there would be no better time to make a move at replacing the OC than tomorrow morning.

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AZCentral.com

After tonight’s game, the Red Birds have 11 days off before the 49ers come to town. After that, they have another 14 days to prepare before heading to Arrowhead to take on Patrick Maholmes and the Kansas City Chiefs, thanks to the Bye week. That would give QB coach Byron Leftwich – or whoever else they would promote or hire to take over the OC gig – nearly a full month before taking on one of, if not the most, high-octane offenses in the NFL. If the Cardinals have any chance in that game they’re going to need to put up points (and probably a lot of them) to try and keep up with Chiefs head coach Andy Reid and his prolific offense. In between those 25 days from the Bronco to the Chief game, AZ will take on SF, which would be a good opponent for the new OC to start with.

Ironically enough, the Broncos are the same team that fired Mike McCoy as their OC after Week-11 last season. That was less than a full calendar year after the Chargers fired him as their head coach.

There’s no other way to put it, the 2018 Arizona Cardinals, especially the offense, have been a dumpster fire up to this point in the season. While the Broncos are the only team that has given up more rush yards on defense than the Cardinals, it wouldn’t be surprising if they can’t find a way to exploit it tonight. The fact remains, Arizona currently ranks 29th in the league in rushing attempts, yet they rank first in runs right up the middle in between the guards.

Unless McCoy can pull a rabbit out of his hat against Denver tonight and set season highs in nearly every offensive category – don’t hold your breath – it’s time for the Arizona Cardinals to move in a different direction. And no, that does not mean trading away key players like recent reports have suggested the may do. First and foremost, before even considering moving a Patrick Peterson, David Johnson, etc., they need to move on from Mike McCoy and his antiquated playbook/playcalling. The fans, players, organization and most importantly, rookie franchise QB Josh Rosen deserves better.

Broncos Seek To Halt Skid

 

Four in a row. That’s what the Broncos have done. After starting 2-0 for the sixth straight season, the Broncos have lost four games in a row. Last season, a historic eight-game losing streak tanked the season. At 2-4, having dropped four in a row, the Broncos are in danger of heading that way again. And now they get to face the Arizona Cardinals on a short week.

It hasn’t been a great season for the Cardinals, either. They have new coaches and rookie Josh Rosen is still learning the NFL game. Aside from a win in San Francisco in Week 5, the Cardinals have stumbled. They come into Thursday’s home tilt 1-5, among the worse records in the NFL. But they still have David Johnson, and that might be enough.

The Broncos, in addition to losing four straight, have been historically bad against the run the past two games. They allowed Isaiah Crowell to run for 219 yards, a career high and Jets franchise record, on just 15 carries in Week 5. In Week 6 at home, while they held the Rams’ passing game in check, the Broncos allowed Todd Gurley to run for a career high 208 yards. And with only three days between games, there wasn’t much time to work on a good fix.

The Cardinals haven’t been good this season, but Johnson is an all world running back who’s starting to find his form. He got into the end zone for the Cardinals in Week 6 and now returns home against a reeling rush defense in Denver. If they can’t contain him, Johnson could make it a long night for the Broncos.

Meanwhile, the Cardinals’ defense allowed Latavius Murray to go for 155 yards on Sunday. The Broncos are averaging 5.3 yards per carry through six weeks, so if the coaches can commit to the run, it could be a good night for rookie Phillip Lindsay and Royce Freeman. But given the recent splits, that could be a big if. And if the Broncos’ losing streak extends to five games, it’s going to be a long 10 days before the Broncos head to Kansas City to face the red hot Chiefs.

Fantasy Impact:

  • It’s hard to feel great about the Broncos’ passing game, however Emmanuel Sanders has been a solid WR2 and Demaryius Thomas, especially given bye weeks, has been a decent flex of late. Case Keenum, while not being a great NFL quarterback, has been decent for fantasy the past two weeks, and the Cardinals’ defense isn’t what it once was. He might be a streaming consideration in deep 2 QB leagues.
  • I like both Lindsay and Freeman as starts this week. I know Freeman disappointed last week, but this should be a better match-up and he should be relatively fresh after getting less than 10 carries Sunday. If the Broncos can keep it close, or build a lead, they can keep it on the ground. And Lindsay provides explosive burst in the rushing and receiving game, showing he doesn’t need a lot of touches to return flex-worthy value.
  • If you are in a deep league and desperate, Courtland Sutton remains an interesting dart throw. He had a long gain on Sunday, and had a TD catch in Week 5. He’s getting plenty of snaps, and only needs one or two to salvage an OK deep league flex day.

Broncos Drop Fourth Straight

 

There was a moment near the end of the first half, with the Broncos trailing 13-3 and just a few seconds left, when the crowd let out a roar. Chad Kelly, backup quarterback, stepped on the field. All he did was kneel down to take the game to the locker room, and it was only because starter Case Keenum was being evaluated for a concussion. But on a cold, snowy Sunday in Denver, it was a sign of hope to fans desperate to see a spark.

The Broncos showed some spark in the second half. Emmanuel Sanders, Demaryius Thomas and Courtland Sutton all had 40-plus yard receptions. Bradley Chubb, the No. 5 overall pick in April, had three sacks, and Von Miller added 1.5 sacks. And the Broncos hung tough, closing the lead to 23-20 with just under 1:30 left in the game. But in the end it wasn’t enough. The Rams moved to 6-0, and the Broncos dropped to 2-4, losers of four straight games.

And for a team that was once 2-0, and had entered the team with playoff hopes, there are more questions than answers. And not much time to get things fixed before their next contest, a Thursday night game in Arizona.

It was a game of highs and lows, as has been the case for much of the season for Denver. The offense kept it close, and Keenum tossed two touchdowns and threw for more than 300 yards. But he also threw an interception for the sixth straight game, and neither rookie Royce Freeman nor rookie Phillip Lindsay was able to do much on the ground.

On defense, the Broncos held the high-scoring Rams to 23 points, and recorded five sacks. Jared Goff was held without a touchdown pass, and to barely 200 yards. But the Broncos allowed a 200 yard rusher for the second week in a row, as Todd Gurley went for a career high 208 yards and two touchdowns.

Now the Broncos have a short week to lick their wounds, both physically and metaphorically, before trying to halt their skid in Arizona.

News and Notes:

  • Emmanuel Sanders needed three receptions to record his 500th career catch heading into Sunday, and he got it. He finished with seven receptions for 115 yards and a touchdown.
  • The Broncos played the hottest home game in team history on September 16, and less than a month later Sunday’s game was the coldest home game in October since 1969. It’s been a wild weather season for the Broncos and the season is only six weeks old.
  • The Broncos’ rushing attack cooled Sunday, as Royce Freeman and Phillip Lindsay combined for just 40 rushing yards on 13 carries. Lindsay did add 48 yards on six receptions to salvage his fantasy day.

Brees Passes Manning As All-Time NFL Career Passing Yards Leader

It was a special night for Drew Brees and the New Orleans Saints on Monday Night Football when they took down the Washington Redskins with a 43-19 score. Quarterback Drew Brees officially crossed into NFL history as Brees became the NFL’s leader in career passing yards with a total of 72,103 passing yards accounted for. Last Monday, Brees passed Peyton Manning’s career passing yards of 71,940 with a 62-yard touchdown pass to rookie Wide Receiver Tre’Quan Smith.

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The sports world all celebrated Brees’ incredible milestone on Twitter bringing into the discussion as one of the greatest Quarterbacks of all-time. In 18 seasons in the NFL (13 with the New Orleans Saints), Brees has completed 6,344 passes (1st all-time) from 9,455 passes (2nd all-time, 1st actively) for 72,103 yards with a 67.1 completion percentage (1st all-time) for 499 touchdowns (4th all-time), 228 interceptions (16th all-time), a 283.56 passing yards per game (1st all-time) and a 97.1 passer rating (4th all-time).

This amount of accomplishment as a Quarterback in a highly competitive is due to Brees’ consistency as a passer, strong arm, incredible accuracy, and poise in his progressions as a passer. So far in his career, Brees has accounted for five seasons where he has accounted for 5,000 yards passing season. There have been other Quarterbacks in the league, both past and present, that have only passed for 5,000 yards once. Brees is an 11-time Pro Bowler, 3-time 1st team All-Pro, a 2nd-team All-Pro in the 2011 season, a Walter Peyton Man of the year in 2006, the NFL comeback player of the year in 2004, a 7-time NFL season leader in passing yards, and a 4-time NFL season leader in touchdown passes. He also has the NFL single-season record for the highest completion percentage of 72%, which he accomplished last season for the Saints. Brees help led the Saints to their only Super Bowl with a 31-17 victory over Peyton Manning and the Indianapolis Colts in Super Bowl XLIV in February of 2010.

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So far this season in 5 games, Brees has passed for 148 completions out of 190 attempts (a completion percentage of 77.9%) for 1,658 yards, 11 touchdowns, and 0 interceptions. Brees and 3rd year Wide Receiver Michael Thomas already set an NFL record this season for most completions through 3 games in a season with 38 completions. Brees is a Quarterback who generally shares the ball to multiple Receivers. This season WR Michael Thomas, WR Ted Ginn Jr., RB Alvin Kamara, and now rookie WR Tre’Quan are now the playmakers for the Saints that can get open so easily in Head Coach Sean Payton’s offense. Brees is also accuracy with the ball because of the way he analyzes the field and where the destination of his passes will be.

Drew Brees has thrown to many talented and elite Wide Receivers, Tight Ends, and Running Backs in his 18 years in the league. In his time with the San Diego Chargers, Brees has thrown to RB LaDainian Tomlinson (254 receptions for 1,750 yard and 6 touchdowns), WR Kennan McCardell (97 receptions for 1,255 yards and 9 touchdowns), and TE Antonio Brown (180 receptions for 2,279 yards and 23 touchdowns). Brees has played with many great players who have either played their conclusive seasons with the Saints or they were drafted and groomed by the Saints. As a Saint, Brees has thrown to RB Reggie Bush (294 receptions for 2,142 yards and 12 touchdowns), WR Pierre Thomas (327 receptions for 2,608 yards and 12 touchdowns), TE Jimmy Graham (383 receptions for 4,725 yards and 51 touchdowns), and WR Marques Colston (706 receptions for 9,709 yards and 72 touchdowns). In the past few seasons, Brees has created a special connection to WR Michael Thomas (242 receptions for 2,901 yards and 17 touchdowns), who is 5th leading Receiver in yards thrown by Brees and RB Alvin Kamara (119 receptions for 1,179 yards and 6 touchdowns).Image result for drew brees

What is amazing is how Brees fully recovered from a torn labrum he suffered at the end of the regular season in 2005 with the Chargers. After major reconstructing surgery in the offseason including additional work on his rotator cuff, the Chargers were hesitant to give Brees the money he felt he deserved as a top-5 franchise Quarterback. After he went into free agency, the Miami Dolphins passed on him for Dante Culpepper thus giving the Saints the chance and money Brees deserved. The Saints were rewarded with the amazing, consistent playmaking ability of Brees followed a few NFC Championship appearance and a Super Bowl title. Brees has brought the Saints organization out from the below-average teams in the league and made them a consistent Super Bowl contending team with an outstanding young cast.

There is one major record that Brees can accomplish soon with this season or next season. The NFL passing touchdown record is currently held by Peyton Manning with 539. Brett Favre is next in line with 508 passing touchdowns and current New England Patriots QB Tom Brady has 500 passing touchdowns. Brees has 499 passing touchdowns and needs this game against the Baltimore Ravens this weekend to be over 500 touchdowns. With two full years left on Brees contract with the Saints, Brees can pass Manning with some competition with Brady as well.

The Saints are consistent threats this year to many NFC teams and are currently on top of the NFC South division with a 4-1 record. The Saints are serious contenders to reach for the Super Bowl this season after they played very well in the NFC Divisional Round against the Minnesota Vikings last season. New Orleans will be on a bye week this weekend fir for week 6 of the NFL after their Monday Night Football victory over the Washington Redskins. The following Sunday, they must travel to face the Baltimore Ravens (3-2), who are still fresh off their embarrassing loss to the Cleveland Browns in overtime. The Ravens are considered favorites according to ESPN’s Power Football Index but the Saints are ultimately the most consistent, thanks to the consistent and high-power arm of Drew Brees.

 

Broncos Host Rams

 

The 2-3 Broncos return home, fresh off a 34-16 pounding at the hands of the New York Jets, riding a three game losing streak and hosting the best team in the NFL, the 5-0 Los Angeles Rams. Normally that would be cause for major alarm, and while the Broncos are still likely to drop their fourth straight, there is reason for optimism.

That optimism comes in one word: snow! The forecast for Sunday calls for temperatures in the 20s and snowfall on Sunday afternoon. That combined with the altitude gives the Broncos somewhat of a chance to cool off the red hot Rams offense. It might be a stretch, but for those who saw the Broncos give up long play after long play to Sam Darnold and the Jets on Sunday, hope is all we have left.

The Broncos also need to be better on offense. The weather might force the coaches to give more carries to Royce Freeman and Phillip Lindsay, which isn’t a bad thing. If the Broncos can use the elements and put up a defensive show similar to what they did against the Chiefs, while maximizing potential on offense, they have a chance.

Stranger things have happened in the NFL in 2018, just ask the Vikings about that home game against the Buffalo Bills.

Fantasy Advice:

The Broncos have been rough for fantasy. I’m staying away from Case Keenum, though it might be an OK match-up. He hasn’t been consistent, and the elements won’t be great. I’m not high on starting any Broncos’ receivers, but if pressed I still think Sanders has the most potential. He’s more of a flex range for this game. I do like the Broncos backs given the conditions. I think Freeman might finally get more carries, and could have a chance to get a TD. But that might also be some wishful thinking.

Eye of the Panther: Carolina Escapes With Lucky Win Over Giants

When Graham Gano’s record-tying 63-yard bomb went through the uprights late Sunday afternoon and gave the Panthers a 33-31 win over the New York Giants, it took the edge off what was nearly a disastrous loss. Despite outplaying the Giants for most of the game, the Panthers found themselves in that old familiar position–holding on for dear life in a game that they had once controlled.  Of course, this is the NFL, and wins are almost never easy. But Sunday’s game was different from many of the past games that followed this script. The Panthers were truly lucky, and won in spite of themselves.

Coming into the game, the biggest storyline was the Odell Beckham interview that aired on ESPN Sunday morning. ESPNs Josina Anderson did a fantastic job in this interview, and her rapport with NFL players is really interesting to watch. I didn’t feel like OBJ was completely comfortable saying the things he said about his teammates and about being happy in New York. Anderson definitely put him on the spot for an answer, and coaxed out a really big story. She was doing her job and I don’t fault her one bit.  But I got the vibe that OBJ felt pressured to say something provocative because of the bizarre presence of Lil’ Wayne.  What ended up happening was OBJ came off as passive-aggressive and it was not a good look.  Either way, the Giants looked determined to get OBJ the ball on Sunday, which is what they should be doing, and it worked.

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Beckham and Saquon Barkley is the most lethal combinations the Panthers have faced this year, and it was clear that they were very concerned about stopping them.  The defensive line disrupted that Giants’ running game all day, holding Barkley to 48 yards on 15 carries.  Looking deeper, Barkley had carries of 30 and 20yards, the former being an amazing individual effort by Barkley to spin free of Wes Horton in the backfield and accelerate through a completely different gap than the one for which the play was designed (it was the gap vacated by Horton, who had blown up the play in the backfield).  The latter of those long runs was a busted contain by rookie Rashaan Gaulden. Aside from those two plays, Barkley carried 13 times for minus-two yards.  Ron Rivera promised to fix the run defense, and he certainly delivered on that promise.

Beckham showed why he is one of the game’s best receivers, working the Panthers for 131 yards receiving and a beautiful TD catch in the fourth (the throw by Eli Manning was also beautiful). James Bradberry did a good job on Beckham, but when the Panthers went into zone looks, Beckham was able to find space.  The Giants made really nice use of play action once it became clear that Carolina was focused on stopping the run, and used the Panthers’ aggression against them on the double pass from OBJ to Barkley.  OBJ is incredibly dangerous in the open field, and it’s not a surprise that the Panthers were selling out to get to the football right there.  You have to just tip your cap to Shurmur and Shula for calling the play, and Beckham for making a tough throw. All the Giants’ TDs were either Barkley or Beckham, and when you’re facing a team with these types of weapons, they’re liable to put some points on you. The Panthers’ defense really wasn’t terrible, and outside of Donte Jackson letting Russell Shepard of all people run right by him (I don’t think I can emphasize enough how bad that was), they held up pretty well.

I saw a few Twitter posts about the Panthers’ lack of pass rush yesterday, citing only one sack of Eli Manning, so I took another look at the game to see if indeed the pass rush was as bad as the numbers said it was. While it is true that the Panthers did not sack Eli Manning or knock him down often, there were plenty of times when the Panthers pressured Manning, particularly in the first half.  Luke Kuechly got home on an A-gap blitz on a Giants fourth-down try from inside Carolina territory and although he did not get the sack, he clearly forced Eli to make a back foot throw before he was ready.  Just before the half with the Giants moving the ball near midfield, Kawann Short collapsed the pocket immediately after the snap and forced Eli to make a bad throw well short of the first down line-to-gain, and the Panthers were able to keep their 20-13 lead.  The Giants went to more quick passes in the second half and Eli did a good job of feeling the rush and moving around in the pocket for most of the day.  The Panthers pass rush will be just fine, especially if Efe Obada continues to improve.

Speaking of continuing to improve, DJ Moore and Curtis Samuel were the big playmakers in the passing game.  It feels inevitable that Norv Turner will give the bulk of the snaps to these guys by the end of the season.  They both ran hard after the catch yesterday, and played with an attitude.  I think Panthers Twitter has beaten this horse to death by now, and it seems to be trending in the right direction with Moore getting 29 snaps and Samuel 12 in his first game back from injury/illness.  If the Panthers can keep these guys healthy and get Greg Olsen back on the field, the offense could be very, very good later in the year when the schedule gets tougher.

That tough late-season run that includes the Saints twice in three weeks makes this win not just important, but critical.  The Giants came into this game at 1-3, with obvious internal issues, and if the Panthers had lost this one (at home no less), it would have been inexcusable.  Although the Panthers controlled this one in the fourth quarter, they very nearly let it get away, and probably got luckier than Panther fans would like to admit.

First of all, the Panthers’ luck with fumbles was through the roof.  The special teams should get credit for playing hard through the whistle, but the punt return fumble that hit Beckham, caromed off a Giant’s foot, and ultimately ended up as Colin Jones’ first career TD was just pure good luck.  If that ball took a different bounce anywhere in that sequence, the Giants easily could have recovered it, it could have gone out-of-bounds, or it could have just harmlessly bounced into the end zone before it hit OBJ.  Later on, Cam made a really nice run to gain a first down, failed to secure the football on the hit by Eli Apple, and fumbled it right to about three Giant defenders, but by pure luck, Curtis Riley’s toe was out of bounds when he recovered the ball for New York.  The Panthers ended up getting a field goal later in that drive, and when you win by two, that’s a pretty important break.

The Panthers also benefitted from a couple of calls that, at best, could have gone either way.  The first was the 3rd-and-13 play early in the fourth quarter, where a questionable helmet-to-helmet call negated an incomplete pass to Devin Funchess.  Although there was contact to the helmet and Funchess looked shaken up, it seemed to me like both defenders were going for the ball and the contact was incidental to the play, not an attempt to make a hit.  The resulting first down kept alive the drive that produced the CMC touchdown catch that made the score 27-16.  Then, on the game’s final drive, McCaffrey was very close to a first down, and it was difficult to tell if he had made it, but the officials awarded the first down without a measurement or review, allowing the Panthers to clock the ball and ultimately give Gano a chance to set up for the game-winning kick.  There is a lot to unpack from this sequence, so I’ll start with the officiating.  The Panthers were out of timeouts, and so were the Giants, so the officials understandably probably wanted to remove themselves from the outcome by spotting the ball quickly and decisively.  A measurement would have amounted to a free timeout for Carolina, and at that point it looked like they had run themselves out of time by going above and beyond their usually poor end-of-half/game clock management.  So I applaud the officials for what I perceived as their attempt to let nature run its course.  A LOT of Giants fans on Twitter were extremely upset about this sequence, and given the outcome, I understand that frustration.  I looked back at the play in slow-motion about ten times before I realized that Fox had the “unofficial yellow line” graphic displayed about a half-yard long of where the real line-to-gain should have been (see below).  Note the nose of the football in the first picture is a foot or so short of the Carolina 45, meaning the line-to-gain would have been a foot or so short of the NY 45.  Fox had the graphic displayed on the wrong side of the NY 45, and that made it look like the play was much closer than it was.  The second picture shows McCaffrey holding the ball in his right arm, clearly across the NY 45.  So I think the officials got this one right, although I’m sure less than 0.00001% of Giants fans would entertain my argument.  I understand completely.

What this controversy and the Gano rocket masked somewhat is that the call to run CMC on third-and-one was highly questionable.  In retrospect, I think I see what Riverboat and Norv were doing, but it makes me cringe.  Gano’s previous career long was 59 yards, and his kick Sunday would have been good from near 70.  So he obviously has the leg to justify trying from that range.  I’m guessing that Ron didn’t want to risk an outside run that might lose a couple of yards since they were at the edge of sanity with respect to trying a field goal there.  He also wanted the first down so they could clock the ball on the next play, and he felt like he could rely on the offensive line and CMC to get him two or three yards to make the try more in line with Gano’s previous career long.  Here is why that logic is terrible.  If CMC fails to get the first down, you have no choice but to run the field goal unit out there and set up for a hasty try as time winds down.  That seems like it would diminish the already fairly low chance of making a 63-yarder under pressure.  Also, remember that Ryan Kalil had left the game due to an injury a few plays before, and the Panthers had their backup center, Tyler Larsen in the game.  Larsen is a decent backup, but the Giants interior defensive line had given the Panthers fits for most of the second half, so running up the middle had a lower than normal chance of success there.  If the Panthers were worried about being able to stop the clock, it seems like a short pass over the middle would do the same thing as they were trying to do with the run up the middle, but with an extra chance at a positive result if the pass failed in that the clock stops.  If the pass is complete, you run up and clock the ball and trot out the field goal unit.  What ended up happening is the Panthers got extremely lucky that the officials were decisive in their actions to spot the ball, and Gano hit a FG that we will all remember for a very long time, but probably goes in less than half the time.  Riverboat Ron comes out a winner, but like the guy who outdraws you in poker game, over time, his strategy is poor.

This has been a problem for the Panthers for some time, and I heard recently that Sean McVay hired a guy whose job it is to help him manage the clock in the endgame.  Maybe it’s something Riverboat ought to consider.

Moving on to next week, the Panthers face a tough test in Washington.  I’ll take a better look at that matchup later in the week after I get a chance to look at Washington a little better.  For now, let’s enjoy this win, and hope the breaks continue to go our way.

Coaches, Receivers & Keim Among Those That Let Rosen Down In First Start

3 straight runs, 5 dropped passes, and another week that goes by without wide receiver reinforcements. The Cardinals beat themselves in rookie Josh Rosen’s first career start against Seattle last Sunday, as they let their first victory of the season slip through their grasps and right into the Seahawks arms.

Down seven midway through the fourth quarter, Rosen fired a 22-yard strike to 2nd-year-WR Chad Williams to knot the game up at 17. The touchdown was a career first for both Rosen and Williams. The defense made Seattle immediately punt back to Arizona after the TD, setting up a possible game winning drive by the rookie in his first career start.

Starting inside his own 25-yard-line with about seven minutes to go, the UCLA product drove the Cardinals down the field by going 4 for 5 and converting three first downs through the air. With over three minutes left in the tie game, the Cardinals had 1st and 10 at Seattle’s 32 yard-line, thanks in large part to their rookie franchise-QB throwing dart-like dimes all over the field. That’s where things go haywire for Cardinal fans.

Image result for Mike McCoy, Steve Wilks

Photo by; Clutchpoints

Instead of putting trust in their new face of the franchise, OC Mike McCoy and HC Steve Wilks chose to run on the next three downs to set up a 45-yard field goal for Phil Dawson, who already missed once on the afternoon. Dawson’s kick had no chance as he pushed it well right of his intended mark.

The miss gave Russell Wilson and the Seahawks offense just under two minutes to move the ball about 30 yards to set themselves up for a game winning field goal. That’s exactly what happened, as Sebastian Janikowski drilled a 52-yard field goal to seal the deal as time expired.

Even if Dawson hit the mid-range field, Wilson would’ve still received the ball with over 1:30 on the clock just needing to get in field goal range to extend the game to OT. As expected, many fans and people covering the team questioned why the coaching staff decided to take the ball out of Rosen’s hands and seem to settle for a non-chip shot field goal while leaving a decent chunk of time on the clock for the 4X pro-bowler, Russell Wilson.

“The Rosen One,” which Chad Williams called the impressive first-round pick earlier this week, finished 15 for 27 for 180 yards, to go along with 1 TD and 0 INT. Not necessarily impressive, but considering the wide receivers accounted for five drops and left roughly 100 yards (and two possible TDs) on the field due to passes they failed to haul in, Rosen did more than enough to lead his team to their first win of the season.

Coming into the game, Larry Fitzgerald was nursing a sore hamstring, leaving the door open for another WR to step up and have a big game. That wasn’t the case. It wasn’t just one or two guys, rather the group as a whole that let down Rosen, even Larry, as he had one of his worst games of his career.

Fitz finished with 3 catches for 28 yards and two, yes, TWO drops on the day. Larry has 9 full seasons of two drops or less in his illlustrous career. After his 7 catch, 76 yard performance to open the season, ‘Larry Legend’ has 8 catches for 65 yards his last three games. He has also yet to haul in a TD this season. Larry did return to practice Thursday but is still listed on the injury report as questionable with a hamstring and now a back issue. He’s fully expected to play today though.

J.J. Nelson, Christian Kirk and Ricky Seals-Jones all had bad drops to go along with Larry, leading to Rosen’s 56% completion percentage. His adjusted completion percentage (accounts for drops) was 74%, a reason why he was the highest graded player for the Cardinals on Sunday, via Pro Football Focus.

But Could The Cardinals Have Helped Rosen More?

A month ago, GM Steve Keim and the Cardinals brought wide receiver Braxton Miller – 34 receptions for 261 yards and two touchdowns in 21 career games for the Texans – for a workout. Three weeks ago, they brought in Kendall Wright – 339 catches, 3,858 yards, 11.4yds/catch, 19 TDs in 82 career games; 59 catches and 614 yards in 2017 – to do the same.

Neither player signed, but admission that the receivers room needed help was more than implied.

Image result for larry fitzgerald christian kirk

Photo by; CBS Sports

Even with Larry Fitzgerald’s slow start to the season (15 catches), he and Kirk have combined for 31 catches on 44 targets. The problem is, the three receivers behind those two have combined for well less than a catch a game. Through four games, the fifth WR on the depth chart, Trent Sherfield, has yet to even yield a target, let alone a reception. While Chad Williams hauled in his first career touchdown last week (and almost had another), that was his lone catch of the day. He and J.J. Nelson have combined for 34 yards on 3 catches so far this season.

That’s not going to cut it. And Keim knows it.

Just yesterday, Adam Schefter reported that newly released WR Rishard Matthews will visit Cleveland on Monday and the Cardinals on Tuesday. Matthews was cut by the Titans on September 27th after he demanded they drop him due to a lack of playing time. While Matthews had only three catches in three games prior to his release, he did have a combined 118 receptions and 1,740 yards (14.7 yds/catch) over the course of his two previous seasons. It’ll be interesting to see if the Browns let him leave the building without a contract on Monday.

Even though Steve Keim seems to understand just how poor the receivers room is, it’s somewhat baffling the lack of urgency he has shown to help upgrade it up to this point of the season. For at least one more week, it’ll be the same five guys that have combined for a measly 34 catches through the first quarter of the 2018 season.

 

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