Every week during the season, I will throw out some observations of the previous NFL week. With the invention of the DVR and Directv’s ”Quick Bits”, I am able to watch almost every snap of selected games and give you a lightning “blitz” war “krieg” to bring to your fantasy league for domination. Bring on the games!
I am starting with my beloved Steelers against the Bengals. The Bengals defense started off playing well as they held the Steelers to a three and out on the first and second series. The Bengals offense was aggressive to start. In the first big play of the day, Ike Taylor had blown coverage against AJ Green. Green glided across the field and Taylor couldn’t keep up which resulted in a 43 yard gain. The AJ Green (6 catches for 87 yards and a TD) vs. Taylor (6 tackles, 3 passes defended and an interception) battle ended up to be the most exciting part of the game. The Steelers front seven did not get any pressure on Andy Dalton early, but that changed in time. The Pittsburgh defense had a fantastic stand after the 43 yard AJ Green reception as they had a TD and a field goal nullified due to penalty, then blocked their 2nd field goal attempt. The Steelers had early issues with the Bengals offense spreading them out which always seems to be an issue with Lebeau’s aggressive defense. Lebeau’s base defense has four linebackers who are well-versed in stopping the run and rushing the passer. The weakness is that the LBs are not built to be in pass coverage for long amounts of time. Early on Rashard Mendenhall had problems finding creases on the line of scrimmage, so Isaac Redman did his best to soften the defense up. Antonio Brown created a big 40 yard pass play from Ben Roethlisberger to get the Steelers in the red zone. Mendenhall ended up taking the ball in from the 2 and on the next series it took three carries from the 20 yard line for him to get the ball in the end zone (finished with 16 carries for 60 yards, 2 TDs).
Momentum was rolling the Steelers way as Stevenson Sylvester stripped the ball from Brandon Tate during the ensuing kickoff return and soon after Ben connected with Mike Wallace for a 12 yard TD pass. His coverage, Kelly Jennings, was nowhere to be found as the Steelers took advantage of the Bengals core of 2nd/3rd string defensive backs (their top 2 corners were out due to injury). The Steelers defense, in particular, safety Ryan Clark played a bit too aggressive with Jermaine Gresham (3 catches for 37 yards) which helped Gresham make a few plays. The Bengals tried to offset the Steelers aggressive defense by running Cedric Benson (13 for 52 yards) despite being down by 21 points. The Bengals rallied back to 21-7 (the AJ Green TD), but Antonio Brown’s 60 yard punt return seemed to take the remaining fight out of the Bengals with the game 28-7. Andy Dalton sacked three times by James Harrison, got slower getting up after each hit. The Steelers continued to pound with Isaac Redman (8-51 yards) to slow the game down. Mike Wallace took a bubble screen 19 yards to pay dirt by getting through 6 tacklers and the life went out of the crowd. In the 4th quarter, both teams put in their backup QBs and other offensive skill positions to get them some playing time as the game was decided and there was no reason for either team to risk further injury to their starters.
The game of the week in my eyes was the Packers playing the Giants. This was a welcome back party for Jermichael Finley. Finley did a great job finding the soft spot in the zone and was benefitted that he was covered by linebackers and safeties. He finished the game with 6 receptions for 87 yards and a TD. I am not sure this use of Finley will continue as the Giants seemed ripe to be exposed in the middle of the field. The Packers struggled to establish a running game other than Aaron Rodgers (4 for 32 yards) as their four running backs finished with a total of 24 carries for 57 yards. The Giants front seven devoured any Green Bay runner that ran at them. I love it when people on twitter argue, like this week, that James Starks was going to have a breakout game. The Packers run to keep the defense from sending blitz after blitz at Rodgers, not because they have the blockers or the scheme to sustain a running game. Their running game worked well enough as the Giants only had two sacks, one was a big hit from Justin Tuck that was caused by Jason Pierre-Paul’s outside pressure. Rodgers did a great job moving around the pocket, for the most part, rolling out to make big completions down the field (28 for 46 for 369 yards, 4 TDs, and 1 interception). For most of the game, Jordy Nelson was the forgotten receiver, but Rodgers took advantage of the overactive rush and completed all 4 of his targets to Nelson for 94 yards. Nelson would lull the DBs to sleep when he got behind them and also came back to Rodgers for a crucial first down. Donald Driver had one of his best games in the last couple of years (4 receptions for 34 yards and 2 TDs). On his first TD catch, Driver was all alone in the end zone as his defensive back went up to double cover Finley. The second TD catch was a toe-tapping clinic that Driver made look like child’s play. He can still exploit zone coverage with the best of them. Greg Jennings caught half of his 14 targets to end the game with 94 yards and a hard fought 20 yard TD catch. Jennings had some concentration issue that resulted in bad drops, but he was more comfortable when Nelson and Finley got passing targets to pull coverage away from him.
The Giants were led by Eli Manning’s 58% passing completion rate, 347 yards, 3 TDs and 1 interception. Clay Matthews was the only Packer to harrass Manning as he finished with a 40 yard interception for a touchdown and was the only Packers defender to register a sack against him. The Packers failed to apply constant pressure to the Giants passing game which kept them in the game. In fact, Victor Cruz’s effort (7 catches for 119 yards) kept the Green Bay secondary on their heels. Even all-pro Charles Woodson had issues containing Cruz, who had an early 42 yard bomb. The Giants put Ahmad Bradshaw right out there to start the game. He wasn’t as effective as he has been prior to his foot injury, but he did account for 47 total yards. Brandon Jacobs had 59 yards on 8 carries and on one of those carries he scored on a leap over the Green Bay defensive line seemed to give up. It was good seeing the thunder and lightning style back in action after the long drought. The Giants got a flash of what TE Travis Beckum could be with his 67 yard TD reception, but went back to Jake Ballard (3 catches for 47 yards). Ballard missed a TD catch as he couldn’t get his feet planted while trying to haul in a high Manning lob. Hakeem Nicks had a quiet first half and then exploded with two second half TD receptions (7 receptions for 88 yards) to keep pace with the Packers. Nicks was knocked around constantly and at times appeared to be ready to break in half. Cruz seemed to be stinging the Packers defense like a series of quick gabs while Nicks style was connnecting with painful bodyblows. This style kept the score close with Rodgers putting the Packers in position for a time expiring filed goal by Mason Crosby for the win.
The big Sunday Night in America had a predictable outcome with the Saints topping the Lions. Both teams tried to establish the run early in order to slow down the other’s passing offense. Robert Meachem had a comeback game, after I just dropped him in a league, with 3 catches for 119 yards. He did a great job stretching the field as he got the Saints out of thier 10 yard line and exploited Eric Wright a few times. On his 67 yard TD reception, Meachem made Wright look foolish as the DB couldn’t track the ball. Meachem looked like he was on the same page with Drew Brees which hasn’t happened for the past few weeks. Mark Ingram took a sweep 14 yards to the right for a touchdown; the Saints offensive line did a great job of sealing the defense off and Ingram went in untouched. Ingram did a better job of reading his block despite his pedestrian 16 carries for 54 yards as the Lions defensive line did a great job holding the line. Lance Moore had a small stat line of 2 catches for 23 yards; however, he held onto an acrobatic 20 yard TD reception while being spun by two defenders. Darren Sproles had 74 combined yards with a 6 yard TD reception. On that reception, Sproles got free in the flat and used his quickness to make DeAndre Levy look like a high school player. Drew Brees (72% completion rate, 342 yards, 3 TDs) was calm and poised in the pocket and dictated the pace and style of the game throwing for over 250 yards in the first half to get a lead. In the second half, Brees slowed down the game and exploited Jimmy Graham’s mismatch vs. the Lions defense. Graham caught 6 of his 8 receptions in the second half to finish the game with 89 yards. The truth is Graham makes almost every catch look easy as his hands and body control are better than 90% of the league.
On the other side of the ball, the Lions were self-destructing from almost the very start of the game. Penalites were in the fabric of everything the Lions did as they taunted Saints players, even shoved players and referrees alike. Kevin Smith made another start for the Lions, but once again did not finish the game as he re-aggrevated his ankle injury. He finished with 12 touches for 80 yards and scored a short yardage TD. Smith did his best when he got the ball in space (out in the flat, sweeps, on screens) and appeared to be avoiding contact when he could. After Smith went down, Maurice Morris much like last week came in and played well. Morris had 75 yards on 17 touches and caught Matt Stafford’s only TD pass of the day. Calvin Johnson was kept in check with short passes for most of the day (6 catches for 69 yards) and seemed to be drawing triple coverage for the majority of the time. This set up rookie Titus Young and Nate Burleson to have bigger nights. Despite Titus Young having a big yardage night (2 receptions for 60 yards) and Nate Burleson (5 catches for 93 yards) having the most productive receiving night, each of these players imploded as Young had a costly personal foul and Burleson was called 4 times for offensive pass interference. Matt Stafford had an average first half with 16 pass attempts for under 150 yards, but exploded in the second half to end with 408 yards by completing 70% of his passes. I’m not sure if the Lions came overcome their injuries, suspensions, and sloppy play to get their heads back in the playoff hunt.