Moving the Chains: Defense Still Matters, Mahomes Madness, and Seahawks Winning With Marty Ball

Time to move the chains on a 15-play drive, one NFL note at a time:

1. For all of the talk about the explosion of offense during the 2019 season, here’s the truth: Not much has changed.

— NFL teams are averaging 23.8 points per game. I 2013 teams averaged 23.4 points per game.

— Teams have scored on 37 percent of offensive possessions. Granted, that’s an increase from 2017 (33.8%), but as recently as 2016 league offenses scored on 35.6% of possessions.

— The net yards average per pass attempt is 6.5 yards … up a little from 2017 … but virtually unchanged from the 2014-15-16 average of 6.4 yards.

— NFL teams are averaging 243.6 yards passing per game, an increase of 19 yards from last season. But this year’s average is lower than that of 2015 (243.8.)

— NFL teams are averaging 5.7 yards per play … just a tick upward from 5.4 yards per play over the three previous seasons.

— Offenses are averaging 2.02 points per drive; that’s up by a healthy amount from last season (1.78) but not unusually high compared to the average of 1.92 points per drive in 2016.

— NFL offenses are turning the ball over on 11.8% of possessions, the highest rate since 2014.

— The sack rate by defenses (6.8 percent) is higher this season than at any point since the 6.8% rate in 2004.

2. Or to put it another way: Defense does exist in this league. Defense still matters in this league. The NFL is not the Big 12. It’s just that we tend to overreact to the most recent performance we’ve seen. When Drew Brees and the Saints go through a nine-game stretch of averaging just under 40 points, then we babble on about how much the NFL game has changed. When the Rams and Chiefs combine for 11 offensive touchdowns, 1,001 yards from scrimmage and 827 net passing yards in a 54-51 shootout won by LA — then it it means defense is dead! When wondrous Chiefs quarterback Patrick puts up 4,300 passing yards and 43 touchdown passes through his first 13 games this season, the reaction goes along these lines: it’s a whole new world, and the quarterbacks have taken over!  We watch as rookie QB Baker Mayfield energizes the Browns — and forget about the struggles of multiple rookie quarterbacks. When we At these moments we forget about the dreadful quarterback play that’s afflicting at least a dozen teams, and ignore the fact that 17 of the 32 NFL offenses are scoring points at a rate that’s below the league average rate.

3. No question, the offenses (as a whole) are getting more done in 2018. But the escalation has been overstated, overly dramatized, and overly hyped. The defenses are winning their share of the battles by getting more sacks, more pass-rush pressure, and creating more turnovers in comparison to 2017. Some post-Thanksgiving results offered a necessary dose of perspective: Dallas 13, New Orleans 10 … Chicago 15, LA Rams 6 … Arizona 20, Green Bay 17 … Jacksonville 6, Indianapolis 0… Seattle 21, Minnesota 7.

4. Ol’ friend Gregg Williams is 3-2 in his first five games as interim head coach of the Browns. Before Williams took over for the inept Hue Jackson, the inept Hue Jackson  needed 40 games as Cleveland to scratch out three wins.

5. Makes me sick to say this, but Cowboys owner/GM Jerry Jones made a brilliant move in acquiring wide receiver Amari Cooper from Oakland for a future first-round draft pick. Cooper leads the league in receiving yards in his six games with Dallas. On Sunday he exploited the battered Eagles for 10 catches, 217 yards and three TD catches in the Cowboys’ 29-23 overtime win. The Cowboys (8-5) have won their last five to take command of the NFC East. And in last three games Cooper is averaging 18 yards per catch, with five TD receptions. He’s made Dak Prescott a better quarterback. He’s primarily responsible for giving the Cowboys an improved offense that’s averaged 24.5 points per game during the five-game winning streak.

6. I’m a Drew Brees guy, but I cannot deny the obvious: Patrick Mahomes is passing the MVP test. Despite getting blitzed, sacked, chased and pounded all afternoon, Mahomes was the toughest guy on the field in leading the Chiefs to a 27-24 overtime win over the visiting Ravens on Sunday. And Mahomes came up with the play of the year. With the Chiefs down seven points and facing a fourth-and-9 at their own 40-yard line against the league’s No. 1 defense, Mahomes drifted to his right and fired a remarkable cross-body pass over the middle, connecting with star receiver Tyreek Hill for a 48-yard gain.  The Chiefs were down 24-17 at the time with only 1:30 left. If Mahomes doesn’t thread that pass to Hill, the game is over. Chiefs lose.

But Mahomes made the play against long odds.

This, according to the NFL’s Next Gen stats:

  • Mahomes was running 15.9 mph when he threw the pass.
  • He scrambled 31.7 yards before releasing the throw.
  • The pass traveled 43 yards through the air. Hill had only one yard of separation on the defender.
  • On the play, Mahomes had a completion probability of 15.8 percent.

Outrageous.

7. Yes, in a stupid 24-21 loss at Oakland the Steelers missed the injured running back James Conner … which means they also miss holdout running back Le’Veon Bell. The Steelers rushed for only 40 yards against a bad Oakland defense, the Steelers defense gave up two long touchdown drives in the final 5:20, and a third straight close loss dropped Pittsburgh to 7-5-1. Next up: a home game against the Patriots and a road game at New Orleans. Tough slate … the Steelers have had four games decided in the final 20 seconds this season; they’re 1-3 in those contests.

8. Indianapolis head coach Frank Reich did a fantastic job of adjusting to lead his team to a 24-21 comeback win at Houston on Sunday. With his offense snagged by Houston’s disruptive defense, Reich switched to an up-tempo atack, going without a huddle most of the time — and quarterback Andrew Luck found a rhythm that the Texans couldn’t halt. Indy scored 17 unanswered points and Luck finished with 399 yards passing and two TD throws. The Colts are among four AFC teams clogged at 7-6 and trying to break through for a wild-card playoff spot. Indianapolis had that hideous clunker in the 6-0 loss at Jacksonville but it was their only misstep during a 6-1 streak.

9. Earlier we mentioned that KC is 11-2 and looking good in the race for the No. 1 seed in the AFC playoffs. We’ll know a lot more after Thursday night’s game between the Chiefs and LA Chargers at Arrowhead Stadium. The Chargers are marching in with a 10-3 record — and nine wins on their last 10 games. But this will be a reality check for Philip Rivers and the Chargers; they’re 0-9 against the Chiefs since the end of the 2013 season. The Chargers’ chances will get a boost from the return of injured RB Melvin Gordon.

10. Miami quarterback Ryan Tannehill is 9-0 in his last nine starts at home. Of course it helped when New England coach Bill Belichick donated a win with an epic coaching mistake on the “Miami Miracle” final-play TD. If you don’t know what I’m talking about, then Google it.

11. When the Bears shut down the Rams’ frazzled offense on Sunday night, the Rams failed to score an offensive touchdown for the first time in Sean McVay’s 29 games as head coach.  The Rams are 11-2, but they’re vulnerable for a very obvious reason: QB Jared Goff performs terribly when encountering a pass rush. And yeah, this could be a real problem for the Rams, who likely will take on a defense with a good pass rush in their first playoff game.

According to Pro Football Focus, Goff has completed only 39.7 percent of his passes (50 of 126) with five touchdowns and eight interceptions when under pressure this season. His passer rating of 53.1 when under pressure is among the worst in the league. When Goff has a clean pocket, he’s completed 73.8% with 23 touchdowns, six picks, and a passer rating of 119.5. The Bears absolutely intimidated Goff on Sunday night. He wasn’t cold. He was scared.

12.  I love watching Baltimore rookie quarterback Lamar Jackson, who is 3-1 as the starter after that wrenching loss at Kansas City. But a few things to keep in mind: According to Pro Football Focus, Jackson ranks 36th among 37 quarterbacks (minimum 100 passing attempts) in adjusted completion percentage. Second, Jackson had to leave Sunday’s game at KC in overtime after getting shaken up; the same thing happened in his previous start. And that’s inevitable when a QB runs around as much as Jackson. Finally, Jackson has fumbled eight times this season including six in his four starts.

13. Atlanta’s Julio Jones is the first player in NFL history to generate five consecutive seasons of at least 1,400 yards receiving. Hall of Famer.

14. Who says that an offense has to be fancy and filled with genius creativity to be successful and entertaining in the modern NFL? The Seattle Seahawks (8-5) have gone 8-3 in their last 11 games on the strength of a brute-force rushing attack that’s fun to watch. One-time STL Rams offensive coordinator Brian Schottenheimer has always been an effective run-game coordinator, but he’s taken it to a new level this season.

The Seahawks lead the NFL in rushing attempts and rushing yards. They lead the NFL (by far) in the percentage of designed plays that are runs (45 percent.) They have four players with 300 yards rushing or more: Chris Carson (794), Mike Davis (418), rookie Rashaad Penny (413) and quarterback Russell Wilson (306.)

During the 8-3 stretch the Seahawks are averaging 169 yards rushing per game, and 4.8 yards per rush attempt. In the last 11 games they’ve averaged 35 rushing attempts — and only 25 passing attempts.

Schottenheimer is paying tribute to his father, retired head coach Marty Schottenheimer, with a retro blast of the “Marty Ball” offense. And the Seahawks are stomping their way into the NFC playoffs.

15. Kirk Cousins, the $84 million (guaranteed) quarterback, is flopping in his first season with Minnesota. The Vikings stalled again Monday night, losing 21-7 at Seattle. They’re 6-6-1. And they’ve gone 0-5-1 in games against winning teams. Four of Cousins’ turnovers have been returned for touchdowns by the defense. Has he made a big play all season?

ESPN’s Booger McFarland sacked Cousins after Monday’s stinker.

“Your quarterback, you guaranteed him $84 million,” Booger said. “Can he win you some ballgames? The biggest knock on Kirk Cousins in D.C. [was] in the biggest moments, in the moments where his team needed him the most, he came up small. I think we saw that again tonight. He came up small in a big moment where his team desperately needed a win.”

And:

“I think when you paint a picture of Kirk Cousins, you have to understand where he came from,” McFarland said. “How many times have teams allowed franchise quarterbacks to just walk out the door? And Washington was willing to allow Kirk Cousins to just walk out the door, and they didn’t care. And I think that sent shock waves through the NFL and Minnesota said, ‘You know what? If that’s your trash, he’s gonna be our treasure.’ And he’s gotten here and he hasn’t made game-changing plays.”

Thanks for reading …

-Bernie