Tuesday, December 6, 2011

WEEK 13 T&R (thoughts and revelations)

This might not just be the year of the quarterback, but more appropriately titled the year of the IMPROBABLE quarterback.  Not only have the stars aligned for Tim Tebow during this five game streak, but T.J. Yates now takes the reins of a 9-3 Houston team after an unlikely first start victory against Atlanta. Caleb Hanie hopes to find a fast learning curve to keep the Bears playoff bound, though hopes are slipping quickly, and Andy Dalton finds his team now looking up in the AFC North with only one huge division game remaining against the Ravens in the final week of the season.  There is the possibility of four playoff teams sporting second or third string starters/rookies making this year's run toward the post-season very unique.

For the first quarter it was close, and Jacksonville actually had a lead.  Then all heck broke loose in the final two minutes of the second quarter, and the Jaguars 14-10 lead became a 24-14 deficit.  I hadn’t had as much opportunity to watch the Jaguars this year, but tuning in Monday night it became clear why Blaine Gabbert hasn’t developed as quickly as Jacksonville wants.  He’s shell-shocked.  Any time the rush got near him he flinched his body, often falling backward away from the rush and losing any power he had behind his throw.  This flinch is happening more often than it should for a young quarterback, and my thought is if they don’t address it soon, Gabbert may never get out of the habit…. assuming it is just a habit.  It’s possible, as Jon Gruden and Ron Jaworski discussed on Monday night, that Gabbert just doesn’t have the willingness or competitiveness to stand in the pocket and throw when he knows he’s going to get plowed.  It seemed that if Monday night was any indication, Gabbert would much rather tuck the ball and run when anyone made their defensive presence felt, and he has little ability to step up in the pocket and throw. 

Detroit did it again.  They got down 17 points but this time it was to the type of team that doesn’t let other teams come back.  Lance Moore made a pivotal touchdown catch with 22 seconds left in the first half, keeping the Saints edge at 21, and New Orleans put away Detroit 31-17.  I have always been a Moore believer, though Scott Engel and I always used to always debate his abilities.  He’s not very tall, but has true leaping ability, quickness and maybe the best hands on the team.  It was Detroit runner Kevin Smith that impressed me the most though.  Smith had never shown any downfield vision or decisiveness, and never seemed the ability to kick in any gears of speed that represented true starting potential.  Against the Saints, he not only made some nifty lateral cuts but then was able to accelerate through them to gain piles of yards.  He also did this while playing with a gimpy ankle.  High ankle sprains can take even longer to heal than broken ankles, and he probably should have stayed off it.  But the grittiness and determination he showed, paired with a new level of speed makes me a believer in him for the rest of the year.  The Lions biggest problem isn’t their running game or their defense.  It’s their stupidity.  This time it was Titus Young throwing a punch to the face of a Saints player while being held back by the referee.  It cost the Lions a possible touchdown, and instead they settled for a 24-10 deficit.  If I’m Jim Schwartz, I’m benching him a game and fining him within the organization.  Rookie, smookie – you’ve played enough football to not be that stupid, especially when you have Ndamukong Suh on your team.  But it didn’t stop there!  Stefan Logan and Brandon Pettigrew both lost their cool and cost their team 15-yard penalties.  It boggles the imagination.

How much time is too much time to leave Aaron Rodgers on the clock?  In the Giant’s case 58 seconds was too long.  Three pass plays down the field and the Packers were in Mason Crosby’s range.  The Giants also learned that if you give Rodgers seven seconds inside the red zone, he’ll find even someone as ancient as Donald Driver.  Naturally, as I wrote that Driver was no longer truly the second wide receiver on the club, Driver scored twice doubling his tally for the year.  You still don’t want him on your fantasy team.  Greg Jennings continues to make things happen, and Jermichael Finley gave fantasy owners a big sigh of relief as he found the end zone for the first time in four games.  Victor Cruz had another 100 yards receiving, and Hakeem Nicks added two touchdowns.  Sure enough. Brandon Jacobs gave you little more than his one-yard touchdown plunge in the first half.  It’s scary when you write it and it happens.  Also, give props to Chase Blackburn.  He was signed right off the street and stepped back into the Giants starting lineup for Sunday's game.  His name didn't even make it into the program.  All he did was finished third on the team with seven tackles, had two passes defensed and intercepted Aaron Rodgers for only the fifth time this year.

What I called a scare game for the Cowboys became a disaster.  Beanie Wells shook off past failure against the Cowboys to add 67 yards and a touchdown.  He continues to show that he is indeed worthy of being an NFL starting running back, but also a solid RB2 for your fantasy team.  Keep in mind that he’s just in his third year, and he’s played through a knee injury, showing mental toughness at a time when the Cardinals’ record made it easy to mail it in.  Dallas continues to have what appears to be either a massive offense line problem, or a coordination problem.  The Cowboys wasted twenty seconds at the end of the game spiking the football instead of using their second timeout to shorten Dan Bailey’s final field goal attempt.  As if that wasn’t bad enough, Jason Garrett’s time out when Dan Bailey had split the uprights from 50 yards out forced a second kick which Bailey failed to convert.  And thus, the game went to overtime.  Also to note, Larry Fitzgerald had just four catches, no scores and wasn’t targeted once in Arizona’s two trips in the red zone.  Andre Roberts hauled in all six of his targets for 111 yards. 

As it turned out, Joe Flacco didn’t make any costly mistakes, and he wasn’t necessary.  Ray Rice took control of this game and carried 29 times for 204 yards and a touchdown.  Ricky Williams added a one yard score, and the Ravens special teams did the rest.  Tight end Ed Dickson tied for the team lead in targets (4) and had the most receptions (3).  Now, the Browns do have a good pass defense, but the disparity the Ravens have had in their passing game on the road versus at home should make Ravens’ fans hope they land home field advantage.  It was clear again Sunday.  The Browns undoing was a three-for-14 third down conversion rate.  Peyton Hillis, who ESPN (and thus likely the Browns injury report) listed as doubtful, played and split the difference between his two games last year, giving you 97 yards of total offense, which wasn’t shabby against the Ravens.  However, none of the Browns receivers gave you better than a forty percent catch rate unless they averaged under 10 yards per catch. 

Frank Gore had a decent game, but it was indeed Michael Crabtree who found the end zone, as well as second-year man Kyle Williams, giving Alex Smith his fifth multi-touchdown game for the year.  In his best year of 2009, Smith had six such games, but never with the kind of overall completion percentage, QB rating and touchdown-to-interception ratio that he’s posting this year.  He isn’t being asked to carry the team, but he’s stepping up when he the 49ers need him.  For the Rams, Brandon Lloyd was held to just a single catch, and backup A. J. Feeley had about as much success as starter Sam Bradford.  He committed two turnovers and was sacked four times.  Perhaps the highlight for the Rams came in the form of safety Craig Dahl, who after having a career high 98 tackles last year, has struggled to come near those totals this year.  According to ESPN, Sunday he had a team high 13 tackles, 11 of them solo stops. 

Matt Ryan came up against a strong Houston secondary, and his numbers took a huge U-turn.  Though he did place his final attempt in Julio Jones’ hands and should have been rewarded with the tying score, his overall performance against solid teams has shattered my faith in him as a fantasy quarterback.  Ryan averaged just 5.8 yards per attempt against the Texans armed with an array of weapons that rivals most playoff bound teams in the NFL.  He completed just 43 percent of his passes.  The Falcons have beaten just two teams with a record better than .500, and one of those teams is the Tennessee Titans, a team unlikely to make the playoffs.  While Ryan’s numbers aren’t terrible, a lot of them came against suspect secondaries like that of the Colts, the Vikings, and Philly, though the Eagles at the time was thought to be strong.  We have since learned differently.  Thirteen of his 18 touchdown passes came against those teams.  Julio Jones is a rookie, and I’m certain he’s taken longer to grow accustomed to the professional game, and has had injury setbacks to boot.  But there’s no doubt he’s a tremendous talent upgrade from Michael Jenkins.  Tony Gonzalez, who joined the Falcons three years ago, replaced Justin Peelle.  Can any comparison even be made between those two?  Enough said.  Texans WR Andre Johnson pulled his other hamstring now, meaning it’s possible he’s Miles Austin’s long lost brother.  Honestly, Houston may be 9-3 and but they can’t get a break. T.J. Yates actually outplayed Ryan, and made Johnson worth playing until he got hurt.  He’ll be tested next week against Cincinnati without Johnson.

For a half of a football game, the Washington Redskins reminded everyone why the New York Jets, besides the Philadelphia Eagles, was one of the most overhyped units at the start of this season.  Then for the next 30 minutes, they reminded us why the Jets can be great.  After Roy Helu sliced and diced the Jets early on, the defense responded and held him to just 28 rushing yards in the second half and forced a fumble from his hands.  It can’t be stated how devastating a loss to the Redskins would have been.  Instead of being 6-6, the Jets are 7-5 and substantially better situated to make the playoffs.  Santonio Holmes finally put up a big play touchdown of 30 yards, though still managed only 58 total yards.  Bigger deal still might be that Shonn Greene was trusted with two red zone touchdown carries and delivered his longest run of the season, a 25-yard scamper at the end of the fourth quarter.  Keep in mind he still delivered only four yards per touch, and this is as much an offensive line issue as a Greene one.  As for the Redskins, kudos to Mike Shanahan for actually sticking to one running back (though he really had little choice).  However, it was surprising that Helu didn't get even  more screen opportunities considering how well he handled being part of the passing game last week, and Rex Grossman’s tendency to throw to the other team.

The Steelers did stick to their word that they were going to emphasize the ground game more against Cincinnati.  Rashard Mendenhall added two more touchdowns, making the Bengals his favorite team.  Of the eight rushing scores Mendenhall has, four have come against the Cincinnati defense.  He's averaging 3.8 yards per carry for the year, and thus why he has just 634 rushing yards.  It seems to me this is more representative of the Steelers continual offensive line problems rather than a reflection in Mendenhall's ability.  Mike Wallace reappeared for two scores, reminding the Cleveland Browns that they have a tough group of receivers to cover this Thursday.  Meanwhile, A. J. Green continued to display incredible maturity for a rookie, proving that it doesn't really matter who is matching up against him, he's going to have an impact.  He's a player to target for next year. 

Josh Freeman was a late scratch and if there was any doubt of the choice between him and Josh Johnson, this game may have solved that problem for you.  The team settled for field goals while Carolina scored touchdowns and the Buccaneers bowed out for a sixth straight loss. Oklahoma RB Mossis Madu was called up from the practice squad and may get a solid look after LeGarrette Blount failed to gain more than 20 yards on 11 carries.  Madu may bring an “Ahmad Bradshaw”-esque pairing to Blount’s “Brandon Jacobs”-style of running.  Cam Newton became the record holder for most rushing touchdowns by a quarterback, but be warned, this is a sign that he is just exhausted in my mind.  The last four games have seen his pass attempts drop from forty attempts to 21 attempts Sunday.  Instead of passing the ball into the end zone, Ron Rivera is using Cam for his legs.  It’s a sound strategy, but we all know Cam can run.  I believe his arm fatigue is real, and as much as I don’t want to see what I’m about to suggest happen, I can’t understand why if you’re Ron Rivera you simply don’t rest him.  You’re 4-8 and have nothing to play for really except the fans.  The last thing you want to have happen is that your prized quarterback goes down with some kind of knee injury.  Rushing Newton to rest his arm is simply setting this up to happen.  In addition, there’s going to come a time where Newton gets hurt.  You’re going to need to continue to develop Jimmy Clausen.  Why?  You invested a first round pick in him that’s why.  I own Newton on a fantasy team and he has been nothing short of amazing.  And that’s why if I’m Ron Rivera, Newton sees maybe a half per game the rest of the way.  I appease my home fan base and at the same time continue getting real reps to the guy that’s likely my backup for years to come. 

It’s Spiller time.  C. J. Spiller turned in a solid performance, and could have had a second touchdown if it wasn’t for a ridiculously awful holding penalty.  This was against the seventh best rushing defense in terms of yards allowed per contest.  However, it was Chris Johnson who put up 153 yards and two scores, and showed more of the kind of acceleration we’ve been accustomed to.  Johnson has three fair to middling defenses to face the next three weeks, so unless you’re championship runs into Week 17, you’ve got Johnson peaking at the right time.  With Johnson leading the way, life was a whole lot easier for Matt Hasselbeck, who completed 16-of-25 passes.  Nate Washington suffered an ankle injury, and that means that Hasselbeck will seek out Damian Williams even more.  That’s not saying much most games, but he does have three touchdown receptions in the last five games.

It’s rare when you get to see a player develop before your very eyes.  For those of you who have seen the Dolphins late-season victory spurt, you may have noticed something about running back Reggie Bush.  Bush is no longer just a PPR maven or simply a finesse style runner who will split carries for the game to change the pace of things.  What I’m seeing is a totally different type of runner, a guy who isn’t dancing and trying to make people miss, but someone who is running hard between the tackles and rarely going down on first contact.  He carried 22 times for 100 yards, averaging 4.5 yards per carry. What’s even more ironic is the two times that Bush carried the ball close to that many times for the Saints (his 19 and 20 carry performances) he averaged over five yards per carry.  Has Bush been overlooked as a true first stringer?  It would appear the more Bush carries the ball, the better he is, and the Dolphins seem to be utilizing him more and more.  What I’m seeing is Reggie Bush in a whole new role.  Matt Morris certainly is playing at a whole new level himself.  The Dolphins were eight for 14 on third down conversions, and Anthony Fasano played his role in a share of those.  For Oakland, this loss did not come at a fortuitous time as they next head to Green Bay to face the Green Bay Packers.

Tom Brady is going to do more than buy Rob Gronkowski a pair of Isotoner gloves (there’s my age for those of you who don’t remember the Dan Marino commercials) because Gronkowski hauled in two Brady touchdown passes and then decided to play full back and run one in for good measure. BenJarvus Green-Ellis was only given six carries but managed a touchdown plunge.  Surprising to me was that New England only ran the ball 24 times, and managed just 73 yards total.   More interesting however, was Dan Orlovsky, who doesn’t win ball games but simply makes them close.  The 24 points the Orlovsky-run offense put up on New England tied for the most points the Indianapolis Colts have scored in a game all season.  It certainly doesn’t bode well for the idea that New England pass defense is improving, as it took Dan Orlovsky less than three minutes to put up two big touchdowns after three quarters of futility.  He’s got tough matchups the rest of the way, starting next week with Baltimore, but he could make some of those Colts receivers still worth having.  I’m speaking to you Pierre Garcon owners.

Talk about a game that was all about futility – does it get any worse that the only touchdown was scored on a Hail Mary pass that was batted into the hands of Dexter McCluster?  Having seen Caleb Hanie play before, I don’t think anyone expected the kind of horrific numbers he put up.  However, it’s being said that Mike Martz’s offense is so complex, that Hanie shouldn’t be faulted for not picking it up so quickly.  It’s one of the reasons Chicago hasn’t put in a claim for Donovan McNabb.  As Devin Hester put it, and I’m paraphrasing, there’s just no way someone from outside the system can just come in and function in it.  However, the offense is going to have to change as Matt Forte is out a minimum of two weeks.  Marion Barber appears to be running with the same reckless abandon he had when healthy in Dallas, but the question is how long he can stay healthy doing so and will Mike Martz rely on him.  Tyler Palko isn’t in much better of a situation.  He’s now three games in and the signs of improvement were so encouraging to Todd Haley that he was willing to put Kyle Orton behind center in the midst of the game, and Orton’s been with the team all of two weeks.  The Chiefs don’t have much of a running game to speak of, and Haley and his offensive group have been unwilling to commit to any of their three backs, leaving them and all of us guessing who they have confidence in.  The answer really seems to be none of them.

Even without Von Miller at linebacker, the Denver Broncos hung in there, and Tim Tebow performed admirably in the second half, matching the Minnesota offense point-for-point.  While Tebow was completing 10-of-15 passes for a 13.5 yards per pass attempt average, there was Christian Ponder, left without Adrian Peterson, and all but guaranteed to target Percy Harvin, something Denver knew, and all he did is put up 381 yards and three touchdowns.  Sure, that last interception was terrible, but the Vikings have to feel good about their future if they can get this guy a complimentary receiver for Harvin.  Ponder’s got Detroit, New Orleans and Washington the next three weeks, with New Orleans being the weakest of the three.  However, if Peterson misses the Detroit game, you can bet that Ponder will again have to make 30 or more passing attempts to keep his team in the game.  That could make him a decent play in two QB leagues or if your starting QB went down with an injury like Josh Freeman.  Toby Gerhart actually did a yeoman’s job filling in, and Willis McGahee continued his incredible season against a strong if not banged up Minnesota team.  McGahee owners don’t have particularly good matchups until Week 16, when Denver faces the Bills in Buffalo.