Wednesday Morning Quarterbacking
Watching the fallout from the end of the Monday Night game between the Hawks and the Broncos reminded me of the 2009 Patriots and Colts game. In that 2009 showdown, the Pats held a 6 point lead late in the 4th quarter when Belichick decided to go for it at their own 28 on a 4th & 2 play. He didn't want to give the ball back to Peyton Manning and watch the Colts drive down the field for a winning TD. The Pats had a pretty good play called, but failed to convert and the Colts went on to win the game, helped out by getting the ball deep inside Pats territory after the turnover on downs. The immediate reaction to Belichick's decision was generally shock, thinking that it was a crazy call and that the better choice would have been to punt it away and force Peyton to go the full length of the field. The following day, analytics minded nerds rallied to Belichick's defense, arguing that the statistical odds favored the decision to go for it on 4th down. At the time, I agreed that the general gist of the analytics based argument was correct, but the specific mathematical odds they used probably weren't exactly right (in other words, I think going for it on 4th down when you are trailing likely has a different chance of success compared to going for it on 4th down if you are leading.) Still, that play illustrates the concept that what you might initially think with your gut is the right thing to do in a certain situation might not actually be the optimal way to play it if you sat down and analyzed it using some type of mathematical model.
Watching the TV analysts in the post game shows as well as the morning talk shows the following day, they all buried the head coach for the Broncos, Nathaniel Hackett, saying that allowing the clock to run down then attempt a 64 yard FG was a terrible decision and coaching malpractice. I don't agree with that take. Yes, I was surprised by the choice, because as I was watching the game, I assumed the Broncos were going to go for it on 4th down and didn't understand why they let the time wind down and then sent the FG unit onto the field after the timeout. If we go through each potential scenario, however, I don't think Hackett's decision was as bad as everyone makes it out to be.
1. "The Broncos should have called timeout immediately, then attempted the FG, so that they could have gotten the ball back in case of a miss."
Noting that the Broncos had all their TOs, some people argued for this approach, stopping the clock with over 1 minute left, then trying a FG. In my view, this would have been the absolute worst decision the Broncos could have made. If you make the 64 yard attempt, now the Hawks would have gotten a chance to drive for their own winning FG with just over a minute left and one timeout. So, now you don't just have to make a low percentage long range FG, but even if you make it, then your defense has to hold, otherwise you still could lose the game. Secondly, trying to get the ball back after a missed FG doesn't give your team much hope. Even if you use your remaining 2 TOs to stop the clock (on 1st and 2nd down), the Hawks could bleed time off on 3rd down (really, all they have to do is take a knee on all 3 downs), leaving so little time left that you don't have enough seconds to do anything on offense, especially with no timeouts remaining and presumably starting at or inside your own 20.
2. "The Broncos should have gone for it on 4th down, because I trust Russell Wilson to make a play more than I trust the kicker."
What people forget when comparing Option A (attempting a desperately long FG with little time left) and Option B (going for the 4th down, then attempting a somewhat shorter, but still long FG to win) is that there are 2 parts to making plan B work. There is B1 (successfully converting the 4th down) and B2 (your kicker making the ensuing FG attempt).
News articles say the league wide rate of converting a 4th & 5 is 48.9%. For sake of discussion, let's round it up to 50%. McManus the kicker is 1 out of 5 on attempts of at least 60. For discussion, assume the coach thought the kicker had about a 20% chance of making the 64 yard attempt. Since 50% is much greater than 20%, you might jump to the conclusion that allowing Wilson to go for it would be clearly the better option.
What happens, however, if you gain the 1st down? Let's say you gain 7 to 9 yards in total. Now, instead of a 64 yard attempt, you are looking at a 55 to 57 yard attempt. Over his career, McManus (remember, he kicks at elevation in Denver) has made 51.6% of his kicks from at least 50 yards. For discussion, let's say the odds of him making the kick would be about 50%.
If we multiply the 50% chance of converting the 4th by the 50% chance of making the slightly shorter FG, we get about 25%. This is slightly better than the 20% odds of just attempting the 64 yarder, but not by very much. Moreover, both options were not likely to work, so no matter what Hackett did, the Broncos probably were going to lose the game.
In my opinion, the bottom line was Broncos were faced with 2 approximately equally bad options, so there isn't any point to criticizing the coach for choosing either one of them.
On the OL for the Broncos, I'm concerned about their interior. I really liked Dalton Risner in his draft, but he's struggled with injuries and I thought he looked slow and stiff against Seattle, plus had some issues with awareness, reacting late to defenders. Quinn Meinerz suffered a hamstring injury and was replaced by Graham Glasgow, who also has been struggling and could be on the decline. On a key play in the late 4th quarter drive by the Broncos, Risner got rag dolled and thrown to the side by the DT. I projected Risner to have Pro Bowl potential, but he doesn't seem like more than just an average starter at this point in his career.
Let Stafford Breathe
Overreactions abound across the NFL after Week 1, not just in Broncos country. In the Ramily, I'm surprised by how much criticism has been put at the feet of Matthew Stafford. After winning the SB, some fans acted as if he could do no wrong. One game into the following season, some people are nitpicking every little thing that went wrong against the Bills and every perceived mistake made by Stafford. It's only one game! Seriously? Are we going to jump on and off the Rams' bandwagon after every single W and L?
Stafford is who is he is. True, he has some loose throws and decisions that have the potential to result in turnovers and sacks. How is that any different compared with how he played in 2021 with the Rams or how he played in Detroit? Yes, has a habit of locking in on Cooper Kupp too much, which causes him not to see opportunities to throw to other receivers. Can you blame him? If I had Jerry Rice or Cooper Kupp on my team and I were the QB, I'd be constantly trying to throw them the ball too, especially if we were in a big game or in a tight situation where we had to score a TD.
A team's QB tends to get too much of the credit when the team wins and too much of the blame when they lose. After the 11th game of last season, both the Bills and the Rams were 7-4. The Rams were given only a 2% chance of winning the SB. The Bills were sitting in only the 6th seed spot in the AFC playoff standings and Josh Allen was in the middle of a poor 5 game stretch were he was throwing a bunch of picks and statistically was the same as Davis Mills of the Texans. By the end of the playoffs, that picture looked very different for both the Rams and the Bills.
The big picture is more important than what happened in any one game or any one play. Plus, the Rams could go 0-17 this season and they'd still be defending Super Bowl champions.
PFF says... what?!
After Stafford was sacked 7 times and the Rams struggled to get anything going with the run game, the storyline was the the Rams have problems on their offensive line. Personally, I have substantial concerns about how the OL will perform this season and I think it could hinder our title aspirations if the OL struggles. Surprisingly, PFF didn't think the Rams OL was that bad.
If you add up the grades for the Rams OL and compare them to the aggregate grades for the Bills OL, the team that graded better was... the Rams! According to PFF, Brian Allen is a top 10 center and Coleman Shelton is a top 20 guard.
I spent much of the game watching Mitch Morse and Brian Allen. PFF gave Allen a slightly better grade than Morse. To my eye, Morse is the better center. Allen is smaller and is susceptible to getting pushed backwards in pass pro, which condenses the available space in the front of the pocket. Allen isn't explosive climbing to the 2nd level and doesn't have great length, which hinders his ability to lock up the defender. Morse went up quite a bit against Gaines and while Gaines (50.1 PFF) got him once, Morse did a good job grabbing him inside on the shoulder pad or jersey and controlling blocks. Morse is bigger than Allen, standing nearly 6'6'' tall, and I prefer that additional size and play strength. Regardless of what the PFF numbers say, my eye test says that Morse is better than Allen.
A pivotal sequence in the Bills game happened after a fumble gave the Rams the ball at the Bills 36 yard line, but 2 plays later Stafford throws an interception. On the play right before the pick, Hendo gets stuffed for little gain and when I saw the play the first time, I thought that Coleman Shelton got manhandled by Ed Oliver. After studying the play in more detail, I changed my mind. On this snap, the Rams use ghost jet sweep action by Cooper Kupp, but the nickel DB, Taron Johnson, passes it off instead of following CK across the field. Skowronek is coming across the formation to make a wind back block and decides to take on Johnson. Meanwhile, Brian Allen initially is on a double team with Shelton, but shows good recognition in seeing Edmunds coming on a LB blitz and adjusts to pick off the LB.
In my view, the mistake is made by Hendo, because I felt that he misread the play and ran into the wrong hole. He seems to overreact to the blitzing LB and tries to cut into the backside B gap outside of Shelton. I think the better decision would have been to trust the blocking more and cut inside of Shelton into the A gap. It might not seem like a big deal to get 2 to 3 more yards on a first down run, but that can be the difference between in a medium 2nd down or facing a long 2nd down and it impacts McVay's playcalling on 2nd down. Maybe Stafford doesn't throw the pick on 2nd down if the Rams gain more yardage with that 1st down run.
With Allen out due to injury, Shelton slides over to his more natural center spot and Tremayne Anchrum takes his place at RG. Noteboom also is hampered with a knee injury. Those injuries don't help an already shaky OL situation, especially since the interior of the OL has to deal with Grady Jarrett (89.8 PFF), who victimized Cesar Ruiz in week 1. The Falcons defense is missing a couple of key pieces due to injury, so the Rams are catching a bit of a break by facing them early in the season, but they have a number of other talented young players (e.g. Richie Grant) and veteran Casey Hayward. Arnold Ebiketie, a rookie edge rusher out of Penn State, is a young player I like.
On the Falcons OL, Drew Dalman (4th round 2021), somewhat surprisingly beat out Matt Hennessy (3rd round 2020) for the starting center job. Both Dalman and Hennessy are athletic, but underpowered centers built for zone blocking. Chris Lindstrom (79.4 PFF) is very good, but there is a question mark at the other guard spot. Former 3rd round pick, Jalen Mayfield, was supposed to be the starter, but he's had back problems and is on IR. The replacement is Elijah Wilkinson, a former UDFA, who is on a dirt cheap 1 year contract. Steady, but not spectacular Jake Matthews is the LT, known as being a good pass blocker, but not as good of a run blocker.
The RT is Kaleb McGary, a former 1st round pick the Falcons got by trading up into a spot held by the Rams. I wanted the Rams to draft Risner or a couple different DBs at that spot, none of those players working out very well in the NFL. Other fans wanted Erik McCoy (trying to have a bounce back season), but instead the Rams traded down multiple times and got Taylor Rapp. The Falcons declined the 5th year option on McGary. While McGary at least has held onto a starting spot, he hasn't played up to a level expected from a 1st round pick, so this year could be his final chance to show the Falcons that he deserves a 2nd contract.
The Falcons sometimes use a fullback, Keith Smith. They have a former Rams WR, KhaDarel Hodge. Drake London, their rookie WR, had a knee injury in the preseason, so I don't know if he's 100%. Both London and Pitts should be difficult to stop and Marcus Mariota has to be accounted for due to his mobility and running ability.
Around the NFL
1. Breece Hall dropped a pass and also fumbled after a catch in his debut for the Jets, but also flashed his ability to create yards. The problem was he was let down by some really lousy blocking on some of his runs, both by the TEs and by the OL for the Jets. After 1 game, the Jets ranked 29th in the NFL in run block win rate.
2. The OL for Detroit was supposed to be good this year, but it was a very uneven start for them. Halapoulivaati Vaitai went on IR and his replacement, Logan Stenberg (4th round 2020) graded out in last place, the worst guard in the NFL in week 1 at 25.9. One of the plays where Stenberg was beaten was Goff's pick 6. The return of Frank Ragnow should be a big boost, but Ragnow graded out as one of the worst centers 48.0 (30th out of 33 centers) in week 1. The Lions were dead last, 32nd, in the NFL in pass block win rate in Week 1.
3. The Raiders used a 7 man rotation on their OL. Dylan Parham played about half the snaps at RG and had a great 82.3 grade. Not even a full game of action, but still a promising start to his pro career.
4. Connor Williams has moved to center this season for Miami. In Dallas, he struggled through the early part of his NFL career as a guard after playing tackle at Texas. I always thought that if he wasn't used at OT in the pros that his 2nd best position would be at center. Williams struggled snapping the ball during training camp, leading to questions about whether he would be able to handle the new job duties at pivot. It is only 1 game, but Williams graded as the best center in the NFL at 82.3. It would be a surprise if he stayed at the top for the entire season, ahead of players like Creed Humphrey, but it is something to monitor.
5. Success running the ball isn't all about great OL blocking, sometimes play design and calling and critical. Jonathan Taylor had 161 rushing yards against the Jags in an OT time that resulted in a tie. Some of his runs showed great blocking (e.g. Quenton Nelson 81.8 PFF) and running by the RB, but he also got some big gains on runs where the OL didn't have to do much of anything. One snap, the Colts make it look like an outside zone run in one direction, but nifty ball handling by Matt Ryan holds the disguise and it is a counter run back towards the opposite side. The defense loses edge containment and there is plenty of space for Taylor. On another play, it is 3rd&1 and the defense bunches up, anticipating a plunge up the middle. Instead, the Colts flip it out wide and Taylor breaks it for another big gainer. The Colts were down by 17 points in the 4th, but could have won the game in OT. Blankenship their kicker missed a chip shot. Looks like the Colts blew it by not choosing Gay over him to be their K.
6. I wondered how Austin Blythe would perform as the starting center for Seattle and after 1 game he graded as the 31st best center in the NFL (46.9), and was particularly bad in run blocking per PFF. His highlight came when he hustled nearly 30 yards downfield and recovered a fumble by the RB.
7. Too early to glean much from ESPN's pass block and run block win rate metrics. All of the leaders on the PBWR boards are at 100%. Aaron Donald is the 2nd best DT in pass rush win rate, but I'm not sure how to interpret that, because their metric is based on a 2.5 second standard and since the Bills had so many passes where the ball came out of Allen's hand quickly and didn't give AD and the Rams much time to pass rush, AD's number might be skewed by a small sample size effect. Of course, the main reason the Bills used that strategy is because of the respect they had for AD's ability, but I don't know if either ESPN or PFF have figured out a good way to adjust for that type of "gameplan" impact in their metrics and models.
8. The longsnapper for the Rams, Orzech, is expected to play, despite an injury. As insurance, the Rams added a 2nd LS to the PS. Ask the Bengals about whether having a LS available is important. All they needed was an XP to complete a dramatic comeback victory against the Steelers, but using a backup LS due to injury, the ball didn't get back to the holder as quickly and the attempt was blocked.
9. Dameon Pierce got plenty of hype in the preseason, but he and Rex Burkhead both found little space to run against the Colts, combining for an anemic 2.92 yards per carry on 25 attempts. On a critical short 3rd down in OT, center Justin Britt (44.6 PFF) whiffed on his block.
10. Last week, I asked whether David Edwards was an elite player. I'm guessing the answer to that question is definitively not, as Edwards had a rough night. He was roasted on multiple snaps and received a 39.4 grade, ranking 63rd out of 68 guards, easily the worst lineman for the Rams. I would expect Edwards to bounce back as the season goes on, but if he doesn't, it will make you wonder if losing Whitworth to retirement had some type of intangible aspect that impacted the rest of the OL and not just the LT position.