NFL Week 9 Preview: Saints offense vs. Rams defense
1. At some point, whether it’s because of great defense or just one of those days, every offense has a dud game. We spent the first seven weeks of the season wondering if the Rams would have anything even resembling a dud on the offensive side of the ball. And then they did!
On Sunday against the Packers, Jared Goff played arguably his worst half of football since he was being schooled in the ways of Jeff Fisher as a rookie. He followed it up by leading L.A. to 27 points over the team’s final seven drives against Green Bay, and (with a little help from Ty Montgomery and the Rams’ own stellar special teams unit) the storm had passed. An opponent finally got a shot at this Rams offense, and the moment slipped away.
Last week showed one way the Rams can be beaten—an off day for Goff—but it isn’t the only way: L.A. can be outscored, largely because their roster-building on the defensive side of the ball seems less than optimal considering what the offense has become.
Let’s back up and look at the way the Patriots have been built during Tom Brady’s run as the best quarterback of all time. Before Brady was Brady, New England featured an aggressive, exotic, blitz-heavy defense that took an aggressive posture. Now, with Brady able to go punch-for-punch with any offense in the NFL, they’ve gone to a conservative, bend-don’t-break approach. Similarly, the Chiefs are making a similar midseason transition to a conservative defense now that Patrick Mahomes has exceeded Andy Reid’s wildest dreams. Which usually involve cronuts. (Aw, that was cheap.)
The Rams, meanwhile, can name their number as far as scoring goes most days. They should also have a defense designed to force opponents to put together 14- and 15-play drives to keep pace—the kind of drives that are easily derailed by one offensive lineman’s mistake, as in a holding penalty or a sack allowed. Instead, this summer L.A. put together an aggressive, ball-hawking unit on the back end, a talented group to be sure. But when combined with the lack of an edge-rushing presence (though perhaps the arrival of Dante Fowler helps there), it has presented a vulnerability for opponents to attack.
Collecting talent isn’t necessarily a bad thing. Marcus Peters, in particular, is on an exceedingly affordable contract and was available for cheap (for reasons beyond his talent). But Peters is a risk/reward player—if he had six interceptions right now that would be better than a conservative, more consistent player in his spot. But this isn’t a situation where the offense needs help in the form of turnovers, and it certainly isn’t worth the risk most weeks. Peters has been targeted any time an opponent looks for a big play, and he’s been set ablaze more often than not. His five touchdowns allowed (according to Stats Inc.) has him tied with Robert Alford, P.J. Williams and Ahkello Witherspoon among cornerbacks. The Rams have allowed three or more passing plays of 25-plus yards in six of their eight games, the exceptions being when they faced a Cardinals team still led by a pants-pooping Sam Bradford back in Week 2, and at San Francisco against C.J. Beathard two weeks ago. Allowing big plays will be a problem in January, when the Bradfords and Beathards of the world are on their rumpus-room futons eating pretzeled bread.
That’s why the trip to the Superdome Sunday afternoon will be especially telling. The Rams survived Aaron Rodgers (again, with some help from Ty Montgomery). They allowed 31 points apiece to Kirk Cousins (on a short week) and Russell Wilson. The defense’s most impressive performance against a quality QB came against Philip Rivers, when they beat the Chargers 35-23 back in Week 3. Drew Brees and the Saints have averaged 31.3 points per game at home over the past two seasons, and Brees is one of the best of all time at manipulating defensive backs. When these teams met in L.A. last season, a different-look Rams defense held Brees in check, and the offense helped keep Brees off the field in a (relative) defensive struggle. Last year’s defense is the kind of unit that would have meshed better with this year’s all-world offense. Marcus Peters is a talent, but he seems to be the wrong kind of talent if you want to complement an offense like this.
2. We did a bunch of coverage on Tom Brady vs. Aaron Rodgers this week: Jenny Vrentas on their incredible, parallel rises through the eyes of their earliest believers (in the summer of 2001, Brady was backing up a newly minted $100 million quarterback and Aaron Rodgers couldn’t get a single scholarship offer); my podcast co-host and metal detector enthusiast (“coinshooter,” if you know the lingo) Andy Benoit on their unique and divergent styles, and Conor Orr talked to Antrel Rolle about how the 2011 Giants managed to beat both quarterbacks in a three-week span in that year’s playoffs.
I have only one thing to add: In brainstorming G.O.A.T.-related headlines for Jenny’s piece (which appeared in the magazine, without a G.O.A.T-related hed), executive editor Mark Mravic put us on to goats who climb trees in Morocco. Look at these guys!
3. The truth about the quarterback situation in Tampa is that, if you threw out the fact that Jameis Winston was a No. 1 overall pick in whom the organization has invested a lot of time and effort (not to mention the aforementioned draft capital), there’s no doubt that Ryan Fitzpatrick would be viewed as the better option. That’s because he has been the better quarterback, especially in a Dirk Koetter offense that emphasizes downfield shots.
It was tough to wrap your head around at first, since Fitzpatrick’s past success came as a spread guy in Chan Gailey’s offense, and he can’t match Winston’s arm talent. But this is about downfield accuracy, and Fitzpatrick holds a big edge over Winston. It seems that Winston just has a tough time calibrating receivers running away from him. I think the same thing every time I see Mitchell Trubisky sail a throw 12 yards over the head of a wide-open receiver running a crosser—in other words, I think about it a lot. Ultimately, this Bucs offense just isn’t a good fit for Winston. And when you consider an off-field history that would be most charitably described as unacceptable, Tampa should move on. Considering Koetter is a good coach, they should keep him. They should hold on to Fitzpatrick as a bridge guy, find their next QB in April, and spend the next 18 months rebuilding this defense and prepping for a 2020 run. As for Winston, even with a flawed skill set (a wind-up thrower with deep-ball issues), he’ll have a chance to hit the reset button and have a successful second act elsewhere.
4. If you’re a fan of symmetry—and I know you are—root for a one-point Steelers win in Baltimore on Sunday. Since 2007, Mike Tomlin’s first year in Pittsburgh, the aggregate score of the 23 Steelers-Ravens regular-season matchups is Baltimore 472, Pittsburgh 471.
The series is 12-11 in favor of Baltimore, with the Steelers averaging 318.3 yards of offense and the Ravens 313.3, the Steelers averaging 18.7 first downs per game while the Ravens average 18.2, and Baltimore holding a time-of-possession advantage over Pittsburgh, 30:23 to 29:37, during that span. That’s very even!
5a. Derek Anderson has led zero touchdown drives in his 22 drives as Buffalo’s starter. The fact that the Bills were so desperate to get him back onto the field this week that they were, presumably, willing to use some kind of mad-scientist brain-swap technology that has had mixed results even in the cartoons, tells you all you need to know about Nathan Peterman’s standing.
It’s easy to make fun of Peterman, what with all the really bad quarterbacking over the last two seasons. But let’s squint as hard as we can and try to be optimistic about Peterman’s upcoming start against the Bears on Sunday. (1) Before he blew it in Houston in Week 6, Peterman had thrown a go-ahead touchdown (the kind of throw Bills quarterbacks of the past four seasons have not made) that appeared to be the game-winner for a while. If the Bills had fallen on a Jerry Hughes strip-sack on what became Houston’s late, game-tying field-goal drive, Peterman would be hailed a hero, a modest statue raised in his honor somewhere on Dick Road in Depew. And (2) Coming out of Pitt, Peterman was drawing a lot of poor man’s Kirk Cousins comps. And remember, early in his career, Cousins was a middling physical talent who was making a ton of crushing mistakes because of his penchant for taking risks. In nine starts over his first three seasons, Cousins was 2-7 as a starter with a 14-to-15 TD/INT ratio, and that was with a respectable supporting cast, which Buffalo does not have. Of course, Cousins had an interception rate of 4.4%, whereas Peterman has an INT rate of 11.1%. So, in that respect, Peterman kind of been “extreme young Kirk Cousins” to this point.
5b. “Extreme young Kirk Cousins” could be an especially turnover-prone young player. Though I like to think of it as Kirk Cousins with a flowing mullet, who rides a Razor scooter indoors and is, like, always eating pizza bagels.
6. Considering the TNF slate so far this season, Nick Mullens was the most entertaining non-cartoon FOX has broadcast on a Thursday night since Herman’s Head. It was a swell performance and a nice moment for the young QB. It was also a reminder of how much the NFL has become—and will presumably continue to be—a scheme-driven league. As we saw with Nick Foles in January and Mullens Thursday night, if you have the right scheme and a quarterback who trusts it (and whom you trust), you can put up plenty of points and win games. Also, maybe all your backup QBs should be named Nick.
7. Trade deadline grades:
Golden Tate to Philadelphia for a third-rounder: It’s a hefty price to pay for a presumed rental, but Philly needed a playmaker, and if they believe Tate and Nelson Agholor aren’t redundant, who am I to say it’s a bad idea?
Grades: B- for the Eagles, weird deal for the Lions though, who were buyers before going turnover-mad (why are you letting Ameer Abdullah return kicks?!) against Seattle. Why not just hang onto Tate and take the 2020 comp pick? So a weird letter, like a ‘Q,’ for the Lions.
Demaryius Thomas to Houston for a fourth-rounder, swap of seventh-rounders: Thomas obviously doesn’t replace the speed element that Houston lost when Will Fuller went down, but I’ll be curious to see if he can help cure the Texans’ red-zone woes. Houston can’t get any push up front, and they seem to be done putting Deshaun Watson’s internal organs at risk around the goal line, so adding another big, contested-catch threat opposite DeAndre Hopkins makes some sense, in theory.
Grades: Texans get an incomplete, depending on Thomas’s red-zone impact. Broncos… whatever. Let’s say B.
Ha Ha Clinton-Dix to Washington for a fourth-rounder: This one I really liked for Washington, especially if the weirdly depressed safety market allows them to retain Clinton-Dix at a reasonable price. He and D.J. Swearinger should fit nicely together for a defense that doesn’t have a superstar, but suddenly looks very good on every level. As for the Packers, Mike Pettine better know what he’s doing with all those young guys on the back end. Moving the rock of that secondary seems like a thoroughly unnecessary risk considering they could have waited for the comp pick impact in 2020, rather than jumping on the fourth for 2019.
Grades: A- for Washington, F+ for Green Bay.
Dante Fowler to L.A. Rams for a 2019 third-rounder, 2020 fifth-rounder: A high price to pay, but Fowler has the raw, ege-rushing talent that you don’t find on the open market and generally isn’t available after the first half of the first round. And he had clearly warn out his welcome in Jacksonville, so there’s a whole needed-change-of-scenery thing happening here.
Grades: Check-plus for both sides.
Ty Montgomery to Baltimore for not much. I think the Ravens are lending Brian Gutenkunst their DVD of The Wire Season 4: It was over for Montgomery in Green Bay after last week. He has a unique skillset though, so it’s will be interesting to see what Baltimore has in mind for him as they continue to get creative on offense.
Grades: Sure, thumbs up for everyone.
Amari Cooper to Dallas for a first-rounder: A fable for the Jones family, based on real-life events. Earlier this week, my son told my wife he wanted a ghost dog for Christmas. My son is a very good boy who doesn’t ask for much and should be rewarded with the few things he does ask for. There are problems, however, in acquiring a ghost dog. I would either have to go to a pet cemetery and conjure the spirit of a deceased canine, a skill I do not have. I found a gentleman on Craigslist who said he could acquire the desired ghost dog, but it would ultimately cost us an emormous chunk of our savings and I’m skeptical that firstname.lastname@example.org would be able to deliver the ghost dog without causing harm to a living dog. The moral of the story: Whether it’s a ghost dog for your son or a starting-caliber receiver for your quarterback, sometime the price is simply too high.
Grades: Kudos for the Cowboys for going for it. But Golden Tate was available for a third. And Tate, while he’s six years older than Cooper, has been—objectively—a far better player over the past two seasons. He’s a better short-term asset and, depending on what the Cowboys ultimately have to give Cooper, potentially a better long-value if, say, Cooper requires a Sammy Watkins-type deal while Tate gets more of a reasonable two-year pact due to his age. So… let’s say C- for Dallas and, whatever you think of Jon Gruden’s soulless rebuild, A+ for Oakland.
Hue Jackson unable to acquire AJ McCarron for a second straight year: My gut feeling is that Hue was 24 hours away from finally getting his QB. He already had a draft saved in his Hotmail account—Myles Garrett and two firsts to Oakland probably sounds about right.
Grades: A sad-face emoji for a love that never was and, now, never will be.
***This is not really a football thing, so feel free to move on. But the next thing is the weekly pump-up song, which also isn’t really a football thing, so… you know…***
8. A variation of a common (and often rhetorical) question posed over the last couple years is, Why do sportswriters always weigh in on politics? The answer is simple: The current mindless, brain-dead tribalism of politics mimics the mindless, brain-dead tribalism of sports fandom, making it quite familiar to any sportswriter. Of course, there are real-life consequences to whom you choose to support in the political realm, as opposed to which sports teams you root for, but that no longer seems to matter.
As you might have heard, there’s an election here on Tuesday. (“Here,” being the United States. Sorry to be so self-centered, overseas readers—know that I still love you.) Yes, you are encouraged to go out and vote. But I also encourage you to inform yourself before voting. If you’re lucky, you have a robust local media in your area, which includes reporters who can tell you about the policy positions of candidates, as well as the potential consequences of those policy positions. That’s especially important in local elections, for which people seem to have less information than ever even though those are the elected officials who will most directly affect voters’ lives.
As a personal favor to me: Don’t base your vote on something you saw on Facebook, or that time a candidate quote-tweeted and totally burned the President, or a mailer, or a TV ad, or a slogan, or the guy on the radio or the cable “news” channel telling you to be afraid of things no rational human being should fear. Don’t listen to trolls or someone who claims to be trolling the trolls (which is, y’know, also trolling). The guy resorting to childish name-calling probably doesn’t have a wealth of policy solutions. Don’t vote for symbolism or solely based on the letter next to a candidate’s name. Don’t be a one-issue voter, and for the love of God don’t support a candidate running on a one-issue platform—elected officials are supposed to be problem-solvers. They’re also supposed to be public servants, so perhaps be skeptical of the CEO who has never taken the public good into consideration but now wants to be rewarded with enormous power in the public sector (after all, we can probably all agree that gouging and exploiting the vulnerable for profit—often a path to success in the private sector—doesn’t make for very good public policy).
Elections are, more than ever, the chase for low-information voters because the electorate is now made up almost entirely of low-information voters. If you want to break the churn of candidates ranging from corporate ghouls to vapid celebrities to clinically insane conspiracy theorists to incompetent dunces to the variety of career politicians looking to extend their political careers by shrinking the electorate because their accomplishments are so few and their political stances so repulsive, none of whom are willing to discuss solutions with any level of specificity while campaigning, do so by becoming informed. Stop reading football columns. Except for this one. And the other ones on The MMQB. And be sure to listen to Andy Benoit and me on The Monday Morning NFL Podcast. But aside from that, go research the candidates you’ll be deciding on, then go cast an informed vote, and get this democracy working again. That’s it. Here’s a song…
9. Ladies and gentlemen . . . R.E.M.!
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Article written by Gary Gramling #SportsIllustrated