NFL: Week 16 Observations

Justin Smith: Defensive MVP?

Justin Smith

He may be only the third or fourth biggest name on his defense, but its hard to imagine a player’s absence having a more catastrophic impact than Justin Smith with the 49ers. The burly defensive tackle left the Niners Sunday Night game with New England last week in the third quarter due to an elbow injury, an injury significant enough to snap his streak of 185 consecutive starts last night. The Niners top-ranked defense has been a shell of its former self in the five full quarters played without Smith, giving up 24 fourth quarter points to New England before getting shellacked 42-13 last night by division rival Seattle.

The eyeball test is just as alarming as the numbers. Seattle moved the ball at ease all night against the 49er defense. Russell Wilson was a remarkably efficient 15/21 for 171 yards and four touchdowns. He kept plays alive with his feet and routinely found wide-open receivers, spreading the ball around to eight receivers, none of whom had more than Doug Baldwin’s four catches for 53 yards.

Even more troubling was the normally stout Niner run defense. Marshawn Lynch carved them up, tallying 111 yards and a “beast mode” worthy touchdown on his 26 carries. The Seahawks offensive line regularly opened massive holes for Lynch, who was often able to get a whole head of steam going by the time he reached the secondary. Look at Lynch’s first quarter touchdown for evidence. Lynch isn’t even touched until cornerback Tarell Brown’s half-hearted tackle attempt at the 1 yard line; he has enough time to pause and decide which way to cut not once but twice during the play. Lynch is a pro-bowler, but that is horrendous defense.

Losing Smith has had a major domino effect on the Niners Xs and Os-wise. Simply put, it is inconceivable to block him one-on-one; he will wreck your play if you don’t double team him. His replacement, Ricky Jean-Francois, is a decent player, but Francois isn’t capable of being close to as disruptive as Smith. Smith’s ability to eat up multiple blockers was a catalyst for the Niners defense. It takes additional attention away from Aldon Smith, giving him the kind of matchups that lead to 19.5 sacks. The explosive pass-rusher had an incredible 10 sacks in the four games prior to the Patriots matchup; he has none in his past two and was particularly invisible against the Seahawks.

Smith’s ability to tie up blockers dramatically helps star linebackers Patrick Willis and Navarro Bowman as well. Willis and Bowman are both at their best when they are free to use their rare speed to run down plays from sideline to sideline. Without Smith holding up double teams, the Seattle offensive line was routinely able to get to the second level, where Willis and Bowman struggled to defeat blocks. This was what happened on the aforementioned Lynch touchdown and it continued to happen throughout the game.

The Niners problems last night went further than the absence of Smith; the offense only put 13 points on the board, couldn’t establish the running game, and had protection issues that made Kaepernick look like a deer in the headlights. However, the Niners are not an elite defense without their “Cowboy” in the middle. The Niners are in danger of going from a legitimate NFC favorite to upset victim on Wild-Card weekend if Smith is unable to return in time for the postseason.

Malcontent Tebow(!)

tim-tebow-holding-crying-baby

Mom, he’s going to forcibly circumcise me!

It’s no secret that the Jets have, ahem, “mishandled” their quarterback situation this year. The latest and most surprising development in the circle of suck comes from a report that Tim Tebow asked to not be used in the Jets Wildcat package due to frustration to the team passing over him to start Greg McElroy against the Chargers. Tebow’s cult following has quickly jumped to defend their fallen hero, blaming the Jets organization for its poor treatment of the almighty Tebow.

I personally believe the Jets are dumb for blatantly going out of their way to avoid starting Tebow. Reports say that Rex Ryan has been reluctant (to say the least) to play Tebow because he has looked terrible in practice. This reasoning completely ignores the fact that Tebow is a notoriously bad practice player, dating back to his Heisman days at Florida, for whom the light switches on when the live bullets begin flying.

Furthermore, what do you have to lose? You know that Sanchez is terrible and McElroy has shown little, both in college and the pros, that suggests he even has the potential to be an NFL starter. The Jets are the kind of bad offensive team that could actually benefit from the kind of “junk offense” that Tebow excels in. Hell, the offense can’t get any worse than that Tennessee loss. The Jets have correctly (in my opinion) discerned that Tebow isn’t a viable long-term starting quarterback; however, he is probably a better short-term option right now than McElroy or Sanchez.

The Jets have undeniably done a horrible job of handling their quarterbacks but, as usual, error comes in when Tebow fans attempt to attach some sort of moral judgment to the situation. Tim Tebow is an NFL player and no NFL player is “owed” playing time. The coaches’ job is to play the guys whom he believes will give the team the best chance to win. Plenty of guys are signed to every team, every year, with the intent of playing a prominent role; whether they do or not depends on their performance. They don’t “owe” Tebow anything but his salary for this year.

It will be fascinating to see how fans and the media react to Tebow effectively taking his ball and going home. The “Saint Tebow” narrative has become so ingrained that it’s difficult to see his image take too serious of a hit; despite the fact that an overhyped, overpaid athlete essentially quitting on his team would usually get someone labeled a “cancer”, fans will likely still consider Tebow to be a good teammate and even better person. It truly is amazing how difficult it is to sway public perception once a label has stuck.

Ironically, Tebow’s image is saved by the Jets while his career continues to be hurt by the intensity of his fans. The narrative surrounding this latest incident is likely to become “the Jets were such incompetent jerks that they even pushed Tebow to his breaking point” (not to mention a collective “who cares” as even ESPN seems weary from its oversaturation of Jets coverage). At the same time, the pressure of 10,000 Tebowmaniacs reportedly had the Jets “petrified” to do anything that might draw the ire of the cultish following, leading them to ultimately do nothing.

Any team that takes on Tebow will face relentless pressure to start him and continue playing him, despite the fact that he is currently better at circumcising Philippine children than throwing a five yard sideline out. Tebow’s inability to run any sort of conventional offense effectively forces any team that plays him to dramatically alter their scheme to mask his weaknesses; a monster commitment for a player with a career 47.9% passer, even one that is 8-6 as a starter. The Jets messed up, badly, but Tebow needs to take some accountability and recognize that he needs to become a more consistent and accurate passer. A better quarterback wouldn’t have had any trouble beating out Mr. Buttfumble for a starting job.

Finally, because this is the Jets, Tebow’s power play hilariously backfired. Receiver Jeremy Kerley was used in the Wildcat package instead and prompted completed a 42 yard pass, exceeding Tebow’s total passing yardage for the season. Only the Jets.

Divisional Showdown

rg3Dez-Bryant-stiff-arming-on-his-way-to-the-end-zone-Getty

Two hated divisional rivals, duking it out for the NFC East title and a playoff spot. Winner is in, loser will almost certainly be watching the playoffs from home. Does it get any better than that?

Week 16 is in the books and its results wound up setting the table for a doozy of a matchup. The red-hot Washington Redskins, winners of six straight, will take on the nearly as hot Dallas Cowboys, who have won five of their last seven, on Sunday Night.

Washington will likely be favored, due to their winning the first matchup between these teams 38-31 on Thanksgiving. They will also have the benefit of playing at home; you can expect a playoff atmosphere from a Washington crowd that hasn’t seen this big of a game in quite some time.

Is Washington the better team though? They’ve definitely received more attention over the course of the season, although the presence of a certain rookie phenom has a lot to do with that. Despite this, I would venture to say that Dallas at their best is capable of more than Washington currently.

The reason for that has a lot to do with aforementioned rookie quarterback Robert Griffin III. RG3’s athleticism alone makes Washington incredibly difficult to defend. In fact, it’s impossible to scheme for a quarterback doing this.

However, that RG3 won’t be taking the field this Sunday. RG3 returned to action after missing only one game with a MCL sprain and simply was not nearly as much of a dynamic threat as he was pre-injury. Griffin was still an effective quarterback, going 16-24 for 198 yards in the victory, but ran for a season low 4 yards on his only two rushes. His relative lack of explosiveness was particularly visible on an early scramble, which made the normally freakish Griffin look like an average quarterback trying to get a cheap couple of yards before getting out of bounds. This slowed-down, less dynamic version of RG3 was enough to beat the lowly Eagles; will it be enough against a Dallas team fighting to prolong their season?

“Of course it will be; Dallas always finds a way to muck it up at the end”. I’m sure plenty of people will be saying that throughout the week. However, years of teasing but ultimately coming up short have finally allowed Dallas to operate under the radar (or at least under the radar compared to past seasons). This also has made people generally unaware that this is Dallas team that has been flipping the script of past seasons. Like all Cowboys teams, this years had a bad stretch of football that put their season in jeopardy; however, unlike past seasons this 1-4 stretch came between Weeks 4 and 9, leaving enough time to dig themselves out of the hole. This stretch also came when the loss of DeMarco Murray, a player who brings desperately needed balance to the Dallas offense, unluckily coincided with the toughest part of their schedule. Three of those four losses were narrow defeats to Atlanta, Baltimore and the New York Giants; all of which were decided by less than a touchdown.

The Cowboys are also bucking the well-earned label of “December Chokers”. Those Cowboys went 1-3 in December last year. These Cowboys are 3-1 in December, with the only loss coming in overtime after the unlucky bounce of a forced fumble set the Saints up for a game-winning field goal. With their backs to the wall, these Cowboys have buckled down and simply started to win.

Another factor in Dallas’ favor is the recent play of Dez Bryant. The enigmatic receiver has always flashed the talent to be a dominant player, but this had just made the inconsistency of his first two years even more frustrating. Bryant seems to have flipped the switch down the stretch and the results have been eye-popping. Bryant has scored at least once in every one of the past seven games, accumulating an astonishing 10 of his 12 touchdowns during the stretch. He has also averaged 115 yards a game. He has at least one play a game on which he simply looks like a grown man playing football against a bunch of first graders; look at this play for evidence.

No one wants to tackle him! Truly impressive, even before considering he’s making this play with painful torn ligaments in his finger. Now lets take into consideration the fact that he’ll be going against a Redskins secondary that has been the team’s weak link all season.

NFL football is notoriously unpredictable. But I can’t shake the feeling that the RG3’s injury-related limitations will combine with Bryant’s recent Herculean play to send Dallas to a surprising playoff berth. Effort and focus have always been more of a question with Dallas than talent. They have the look of a team that is sick of constantly hearing the criticism and “how long will the window be open” questions. They know stringing a few more wins in a row will change everything. Look for Dallas to stun the football world and complete an improbable run to a playoff spot on Sunday Night.

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