You Got Served - Championship Weekend

Happy Tuesday, friends!  Step up to the buffet for a serving.  This is going to be shorter than in some weeks, because I’m putting more effort than normal into the next edition of Fat Camp.  That’s going to be about NFL economics and how they affect the CBA negotiations, and as you can imagine that’s not a topic that can be covered in any value-adding way without writing a lot of words, and doing a lot of research about it.  I could have included it here, but I wanted to publish it under separate cover for a few reasons.  Honestly, I'd already started working on it over the weekend, but I’m tabling it for the time being so I can bring you YGS as regularly scheduled.  Let’s get right to it.  Ready…. BEGIN!

1.  Sunday’s games were both excellent in the end after having started off in lopsided fashion.  I think what that tells us is that each of the four teams was worthy of being there.  Here are some thoughts from the Packers-Bears game:

a.   I’m such a smart analyst that I thought the Bears would be a 4-12 team this year, but they played much better than I'd expected them to.  When I said that, after their lucky/undeserved win against Detroit in Week 1, their offensive line looked so atrocious that I couldn’t imagine them having a good season.  A lot of credit goes to offensive line coach Mike Tice for shuffling his group and putting them in the best position to be successful.  A key was realizing that Chris Williams is much better at Left Guard than he is at Left Tackle - just like Oakland experienced with Robert Gallery. Yeah, you used a first-rounder on the guy - but if he can be solid in a new spot, and he’s lousy in the one you drafted him for, you move him to where he’s solid, and get the most you can out of the guy.  It still makes me chuckle that when I was a newish rank-and-file poster at MHR in the spring of 2008, I was getting hit HARD for publicly preferring Ryan Clady over Chris Williams.  I was the guy who didn’t know what I was talking about.  Everybody LOVED Chris Williams and Earl Bennett, and Denver was going to become Vanderbilt West, and the winning tradition of the Commodores would be transplanted into the Broncos.  Or something.

b.  I guess I should get more excited about zone defense, since the Broncos are likely to play a ton of it soon, but I always tend to underappreciate the defenses of Cover-2 teams.  I always default to feeling like offenses could do a much better job attacking them if they’d just run the ball better and more frequently - and I’m correct.  Why can’t everybody just see this, and hit this 7-in-the-box crap in the mouth?  I’m right, and being right feels good, right?  Right.  But then, you always have to reconcile that with the fact that the best way to win in the NFL is to throw the ball downfield for large chunks of yardage, and you have to wonder if that boring Cover-2 stuff isn’t a better idea than you naturally want to think it is.

The Bears do an excellent job of playing together on defense and making it really hard for QBs to consistently make the throws they need to make.  Yeah, you can complete a 9-yard throw, but are you going to be able to do it 25 times in the game without making a mistake?  Good zone defense is about angles and cooperation, and creating small windows.  Once a pass is completed, it’s about making a sure tackle, and then lining up and playing it the same way on the next snap.  The Bears should be proud of how well they did all of those things on Sunday - because save for the first series of the game, they played championship-caliber defense.

c.  I guess I should weigh in on the Jay Cutler thing, because not doing so would be ignoring the 900-pound gorilla in the room.  He played poorly on Sunday and didn’t do the things he needed to do in order to give his team a chance to win the game.  I don’t know how bad his knee injury actually is, but I’m pretty sure it isn’t going to show up as something major on his MRI.  I have a friend at work, Courtney, who was a college basketball player, and she told me Monday morning that she tore her right ACL three times, and that she now actually has a cadaver’s ACL.  She’s also torn her meniscus.  Interesting notes from the department of Know Your Co-workers.  She went on to say that there’s no way Cutler would be standing on the sidelines or pedaling (not peddling, PK) a stationary bike in cold weather if there was a major tear in there.

A lot was made of Philip Rivers playing on a torn ACL in the 2007 AFC Championship game, and people will say, "Yeah it’s possible to stand, and even play, see?"  Rivers hurt the knee the previous week, though, and he wore the type of brace that many offensive linemen wear, which prevents the knee from bending from side to side.  (It’s my understanding, as a professional accountant, that the ACL primarily provides lateral stabilization of the knee joint.  I may not be entirely correct about that, though, like a doctor may get something wrong about debits and credits.)  I’m sure that Rivers also was shot up with cortisone.  My point is, the fact that they had a week to prepare for him to play probably made a huge difference.  I can’t see any player blowing out an ACL halfway through a game, and then being made ready to play within a series or two.

In any case, the reaction that Cutler faced serves to clearly demonstrate the low regard in which he is held around the NFL.  I’ve been thinking about what I would do if I found out that everybody thought I was a punk who didn’t deserve any respect.  Really, is there a worse label to have than that?

It came out on Monday that Cutler’s injury was a sprain of the Medial Collateral Ligament, which resists forces which would allow the knee to bend medially, or toward the inside of the leg.  It’s plausible that a sprain of that nature would cause some pain, especially as a QB tried to plant his front foot and throw off of it.  I don’t want to be tough with somebody else’s body, but I think there’s a reason that none of the players who hit Cutler on Sunday were in any hurry to walk back their comments on Monday.

d.  The Packers did a really good job defensively, and they stuck with a lot of nickel, like I talked about last week.  An interesting thing that they did this time was using a lot more 2-4 sets than the 3-3 stuff that they often favor.  The reason why was pretty clearly that they weren’t worried in the least about the Bears running the ball on them.

Matt Forte ran 17 times for 70 yards, but it was pretty empty yardage, and it never affected Green Bay’s defensive tactics.  I’ve always thought that Forte is much more dangerous as a receiver than a handoff runner, and he really did show well in that aspect of the game.  For some reason, it led Peter King to gripe about an overemphasis on Forte.  Heaven forbid the Bears do the only thing that worked for them.

Evidently, Peter would have had the Bears throw the ball outside to the WRs, which accounted for exactly three successful plays; a 24-yard pass from Cutler to Johnny Knox, a 32-yard pass from Caleb Hanie to Knox which set up the Bears’ first TD, and the 35-yard TD pass from Hanie to Earl Bennett.  The rest of the 15 throws to the outside players either went for minimal yardage (2 for 10 yards to Bennett), were incomplete (8), or were intercepted (2).  That’s really bad work.

e.  I don’t usually like to say I told you so, but on Sam Shields, I pretty much did.  He was outstanding throughout the game, except for one misstep on the aforementioned 24-yard completion to Knox.  I was particularly impressed with how he followed Devin Hester across the field through traffic on a couple of shallow crossing routes.  It was also pretty impressive how he caught the football on his two interceptions.

f.  Another Packer I was really impressed with was ILB Desmond Bishop.  He’s yet another example of how you can find good linebackers later in the draft.  I suspect that Nick Barnett may not be back in 2011 for the Packers, because Bishop looked better than Barnett has in years.

g.  You know who amazes me?  Joe Buck.  I mean, here’s this guy who gets a lot of credit for being a knowledgeable play-by-play guy in baseball, but he knows NOTHING about football.  It’s shocking how bad he is, and yet, he’s somehow FOX’s number one guy.  When BJ Raji made his interception and returned it for a TD, Buck actually asked Troy Aikman how a NT could even be in a position to make that play.  Without even skipping a beat, Aikman says, "That’s a Zone Blitz."  Duh.  The Packers do it all the time, and so do the Steelers.  Of course, these two fools are calling the Super Bowl, so that’s the opposite of fantastic.

h.  Both teams tried to give away the game by stupidly punting on 4th-and-short from plus territory, arguably in field goal range.  I thought this was one of the most poorly coach-managed games that I’ve seen in a long time, overall.

2. Continuing on, I made some notes about the Jets-Steelers game as well:

a.  First and foremost, I hereby announce that I’m done worrying about what Mark Sanchez doesn’t do well.  He always seems to make key plays in big moments, and he throws the ball with accuracy in the middle of the field.  As imperfect as he is, he’s proven to me that he’s a guy who you can win a Super Bowl with, if you have the right team around him.

b.  How bad did LaDainian Tomlinson look on Sunday?  Not only did he play ineffectively, but he did his sourface act when he got stuffed on 4th and goal.  How about playing better, and if you can’t, at least not act like a crybaby about it?  For as good a player as he’s been, I’ve never liked the guy.  The real LT may chase prostitutes and have a really checkered personal history, but I’d take him any day on a football field over the imposter.

c.  I’ve criticized Braylon Edwards in the past, and he’s hated here in Cleveland, but I think the Jets need to re-sign both Edwards and Santonio Holmes in the offseason.  If I had a cost constraint and had to choose, I’d actually take the more talented Edwards.  Holmes is more skilled, but I have always like Edwards’ ability to challenge the deep outside of the field.  Of course on Sunday, it was Holmes who got open deep once, but he was helped a lot by Ike Taylor slipping on the play.

d.  It’s really underplayed, but a huge reason for the Jets’ defensive success is the play of its defensive line.  Every team can use a tough guy like Mike DeVito up front.  As a Broncos fan, I’d love to see them find one or two undrafted guys just like him.

e.  Speaking of underrated guys on the Jets' defense, CB Drew Coleman is another guy I like.  Remember when the Jets drafted Kyle Wilson 29th overall, and all the draftniks said that they were the big winners?  At least for this year, that looks like a pretty Mark Halperin-ish bit of punditry.  Wilson has been a complete nonfactor since Week 4 of the season, and he looked really overmatched when he did play, much like Alphonso Smith the year before for Denver.  Meanwhile, Coleman stepped up and took more snaps than ever before, and played well.  Winning teams always seem to have guys who step up when needed.  Eric Smith did really well filling in for YGS Favorite Jim Leonhard too, for that matter.

f.  If the Steelers don’t have Maurkice Pouncey available for the Super Bowl, it’ll be an enormous loss for them, especially considering that he’d often be matched head-to-head against the excellent BJ Raji.  I said before the 2010 Draft that Pouncey would be the best Center in the NFL by season’s end, and it’s come true. He’s quicker than the power guys, and stronger than the quick guys, so it wasn’t that big of a leap of the imagination to get to that prediction.  I somehow came to follow a website called ProFootballFocus.com, which has been loudly claiming that Pouncey had a bad year, but I’m here to tell you they’re all wet. 

g.  The Jets lost on Sunday primarily because they got undisciplined in their pass rush a couple times.  (Stop me if you’ve heard this one before.)  You have to rush Ben Roethlisberger like you’re covering a kickoff, because he’s much more dangerous outside the pocket than he is inside it.  Sacking him is nice, but it’s better to contain him.  The Steelers' game-winning first down was a classic example of this, when Roethlisberger broke contain to the right, found a couple seconds and made a throw to WR Antonio Brown, who had worked himself open.  If the Jets had just kept Roethlisberger contained and pushed in toward him, he never would have found that receiver.

h.  Has anybody else noticed how little impact Troy Polamalu has been having during this postseason?  I know he was banged up at the end of the regular season, but he’s been a shell of himself lately, which normally portends for Steelers losses.  I can only hope that in the interest of the best possible Super Bowl, he gets healthier in the next two weeks.

i.  You can still beat the Steelers’ CBs, and do big things against them.  Ike Taylor is their best, but even he is only average.  Bryant McFadden and William Gay are both below average.  The deep outside is where you need to attack the Steelers, and with Aaron Rodgers, the Packers are a team which can hit them there consistently.

j.  I said I thought Rashard Mendenhall is average last week, and my mind wasn’t changed - but he ran really hard on Sunday, and I was impressed.  I don’t know about the whole Violating-The-QB thing, though.

3. Heading into Senior Bowl week, here are 10 players from each side of whom I have a good impression from their college playing days, along with one sentence for each.  (I’m running out of time for the evening.)

a.  RT Gabe Carimi – #68 Wisconsin/North - A high-effort masher who played LT in college, but should be really good on the right side in the NFL.

b.  OLB Mark Herzlich – #44 Boston College/North - A very good football player who lost some pro love due to his battle with cancer in 2009.

c.  OLB Ross Homan - #51 Ohio State/North - I normally don’t like Big Ten LBs, but Homan projects as a solid nickel LB, ala the Ravens’ Dannell Ellerbe.

d.  DE Cameron Jordan - #97 California/North - Some people think he’s a 30-front guy, but not me; I see him as an excellent power-side DE in a 4-3.

e.  QB Colin Kaepernick - #10 Nevada/North - A better football player than anybody is giving him credit for, Kaepernick is going to someday compete to start in the NFL.

f.  DE/OLB Ryan Kerrigan  - #91  Purdue/North - I really like Kerrigan’s quickness and motor, and I wish he’d be available at the beginning of Round 2, which is unlikely.

g.  RB DeMarco Murray  - #7  Oklahoma/North - Murray is a lot like Matt Forte, to me; solid runner, advanced receiver, and a good weapon in tandem with another back.

h.  ILB  Casey Matthews - #55  Oregon/North - Nowhere near as talented as his brother Clay, but I’d take a flier on him for his effort in the 3rd or 4th round.

i.  OLB Lawrence Wilson - #48  Connecticut/North - Not the biggest guy, but a productive run-and-hit LB, best for a zone-heavy scheme.

j.  WR Titus Young  - #2  Boise State/North - A total speedster, and I like the way he lays out for the deep ball; he’s going to be a good pro, and get drafted too late.

k. DE/OLB Sam Acho - #81  Texas/South - Acho has good natural pass rush skills, and a short build that indicates he’d be a good fit as a 3-4 OLB.

l.  FS Ahmad Black - #35  Florida/South - Black has always been undersized, but he’s tremendously productive and will be the best NFL football player at the S position in this draft.

m.  CB Zac Etheridge - #4  Auburn/South - I love this guy; he isn’t going to run a great 40, but he's going to compete to be an NFL starter as a zone CB or FS if he can get into the right situation.

n.  QB Andy Dalton  - #14  TCU/South - Probably not ever going to be an NFL starter, but will be a longtime reliable backup.

o.  RB Noel Devine  - #27  West Virginia/South - Tiny but electrifying running who can add a serious home-run threat to any NFL offense, in part-time duty.

p.  P Chas Henry - #17  Florida/South - Henry is going to compete to punt in Pro Bowls for a long time; a team with a need should look for him in round 4 or 5.

q.  OLB Von Miller  -  #40  Texas A&M/South - This guy is going to be a terror off the edge in the NFL, and if I was running a 3-4, he’d be at the top of my list.

r.  OT  Derek Sherrod  - #79  Mississippi State - I think Sherrod is the only Tackle in this draft class who has good enough feet to be a solid starting LT in the NFL.

s.  NT Phil Taylor  - #98  Baylor/South - Taylor is about the only highly-ranked NT in this class; he's more stout than dynamic, but will be a good pro.

t.  RT Lee Ziemba  - #73  Auburn/South - Ziemba was a great college player and a 4-year starter, and he’s going to be good enough to start at RT (one of the most talent-poor positions) immediately in the NFL.

4. Salon.com recently did something that I thought was pretty cool, in naming the Hack Thirty, which is their reckoning of the worst national political commentators in the written space.  It’s nonpartisan-ish, in that they hit some liberal writers for sucking, although since it’s Salon, they tend to count things like warmongering against writers, so the list is a bit heavier with right-leaning writers. 

Really, though, it’s all about who sucks, and lousiness knows no political party.  Just look at David Broder, who thinks everything would just be great if both parties would meet exactly in the middle on everything.  Some will agree with that sentiment, most won’t, but his writing and thinking are garbage all the same, and you wonder how he’s had a job all these years.

Well, I decided that it would be fun to borrow Salon’s concept and apply it to professional football.  I decided to announce this in advance because I’m looking for nominations.  I’ll consider any writer or TV talking head who gives their opinion on football.  If your nominee is selected for this honor, I’ll credit you with the nomination in my writeup.  There’s a whole comments section below; let’s use it, folks.

5. The Thinning Man : I’m down to 243 pounds this week, which was a loss of only 2.  I didn’t run at all in the last week, as my schedule got a little discombobulated with starting school again.  I had a nice rotation going during winter break, and I have to figure out where to fit it in again.  Updates to follow next week.

Have a great rest of your Tuesday, friends, and I hope you’ll check out my piece on NFL economics on Friday.  As always, thanks for reading.

1.  I’m not in the arguing business, I’m in the saying what I think business.
2.  I get my information from my eyes.

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