Sometimes, football isn't as complicated as we make it out to be.
Sometimes, it's downright simple, with the elements established in Pop Warner days amounting to the difference in games played at the highest level. Sometimes, something as simple as luring a defensive lineman up field, aligning blocks in the flat and putting the ball into a nimble running back's hands on a screen play can keep a lesser team in a game and help spark an upset.
As I watched games around the NFL last week, the importance of the screen game was impossible to miss. It's a great way to frustrate and fatigue a defense, it's far too overlooked and it's an element that again could decide games this week.
Last week, with the San Diego Chargers spiraling, Darren Sproles gave them a boost and scored the winning touchdown against the Oakland Raiders. The Buffalo Bills nearly knocked off the vaunted New England Patriots due in large part to running back Fred Jackson's work with the ball in his hands. The Arizona Cardinals couldn't get their usual downfield game going in a tough slog against the San Francisco 49ers, but Tim Hightower had 12 receptions to help sustain drives.
All four players create unique matchup problems, as they are too shifty, explosive and small for most linebackers to handle. And once a quarterback successfully drops the ball over the top -- negating the big uglies chasing him down -- anything can happen. That rope-a-dope approach can minimize an overall talent imbalance.
If the Bears topple the Pittsburgh Steelers (I called for the upset earlier this week), or the St. Louis Rams give the Washington Redskins a scare, check out how many balls their running backs catch, how many first downs they pick up from those screen plays and the negative body language of those defensive ends and tackles that were drawn out into the abyss.
Even if the power game isn't there, or the vertical game is eliminated, a well-timed screen can take vital minutes off the clock and keep an underdog's hopes alive. Viva la screen!
No super-charged future
We've only played a week, so I don't want to get carried away about anything, but I saw some reasons for concern in San Diego.
Before Week 1, I wasn't high on Chargers running back LaDainian Tomlinson having a real bounce-back season, and following his pedestrian outing against the Raiders and his ankle injury, I'm highly skeptical. L.T. looks like a guy who has been beaten down by the workload. Similarly, Chargers linebacker Shawne Merriman seems to be struggling as he comes back from missing the 2008 season. That's natural, but for a team that isn't among the high spenders, and given the positions these guys play -- a guy as shrewd as Chargers general manager A.J. Smith knows he can pick up quality at running back and linebacker in the mid-rounds of the draft -- I can't help but wonder if we're seeing an era coming to a close in San Diego.
Again, it's awfully early in the season, but with quarterback Philip Rivers being paid big money and a bunch of other potential free agents on the team, a changing of the guard in Southern California wouldn't surprise me at all. The Chargers already drafted Larry English as an heir apparent to Merriman, and I don't see the team paying Sproles and Tomlinson deep into the future.
Brady's back, and so is Pats' swagger
From what I'm hearing, we'll see a very different Patriots team this week. Brady, for one, didn't really step through his throws and take deep shots as he felt his way back after missing virtually all of 2008. But we saw that swagger again in the fourth quarter, and I'd look for it to continue.
Joey Galloway was a non-factor, but look for more plays in which he and Randy Moss both run vertical routes, especially against Rex Ryan's gambling Jets defense this weekend. And, after Buffalo's Fred Jackson sliced the Patriots in the screen game, look for New England to double New York running back Leon Washington on critical downs and force someone else to beat them.
Jets rookie quarterback Mark Sanchez was phenomenal on third down against a Houston Texans defense that lacked bite. He looks like he could be very, very good, but you know Bill Belichick will scheme to take away Sanchez's security blankets and try to force him into throwing the ball into vulnerable spots.
Belichick went out and got big, physical cornerbacks Leigh Bodden and Shawn Springs, who can play press/man coverage, for a reason, and the Patriots won't use as much Cover 4 as they did in the past. I expect to see a lot more Cover 1 against Sanchez as they try to attack him and force the Jets' limited wide receivers to win individual battles.
What is Favre's effect on Peterson?
Conventional wisdom dictates that Favre's presence forces teams to take defenders out of the box and opens up the running game. And Peterson certainly went off against a woeful Cleveland Browns team last week, gaining 180 yards and scoring three touchdowns. But Favre also is someone who has to be managed. We know all about his shoulder problems, his age and how the Vikings must try to bring him along through a grueling season and keep him on a pitch count and all of that stuff.
So is that really all great for Peterson? What if nursing Favre along forces the Vikings to become too run heavy? Favre took four sacks last week, and I remain convinced that he won't make it through the season. If Peterson's load increases to the point where he's dinged up or slows down in the second half, is that really the best option for the Vikings to make a Super Bowl push?
Using backup running back Chester Taylor in the screen game (there it is again) might be a perfect solution to protecting both Favre and Peterson. I'd suggest upping Taylor's touches, the sooner the better. As one person scouting the Vikings suggested to me, with Favre looking so immobile, "I'm actually going to play more eight-man fronts against them, and I'm blitzing more. He couldn't get out of the way. At least (Tarvaris) Jackson gave them a different look and something for you to worry about. I bet they face even more eight-man fronts."
And if that ends up being the case, wouldn't that be ironic?
Goodell's StarCaps decision fair, balanced
I applaud the NFL for its decision in this never-ending StarCaps case. The recent federal court ruling put the league in a bind, and Commissioner Roger Goodell again showed his willingness to look at all sides of an issue.
The NFL is adamant about upholding the sanctity of its drug-testing policy and the importance of uniformity in its application. Thus, allowing any player to continue to play this long in the face of a suspension originally handed down during the 2008 season doesn't sit well.
However, Goodell faced the prospect, based on the outcomes of several court cases thus far, of having two Minnesota Vikings players still able to play while a state court considered their appeal of their suspensions while two New Orleans Saints players were forced to sit for taking the same banned diuretic. Thus geography alone -- and some legal options available in Minnesota but not Louisiana -- would have played a major role in deciding the outcomes of games, given how important these players are to their teams. It would have created a competitive imbalance for teams fighting, possibly, for the same NFC wild-card spot, for instance.
So now, Kevin Williams and Pat Williams of the Vikings and Charles Grant and Will Smith of the Saints are likely to play all season as we await a ruling from a Minnesota state court about the Williamses' case. Maybe all four will end up serving four-game suspensions at the start of the 2010 season, but in the interim, Goodell made the most just decision he could amid a case that continues to take strange twists and turns.
Matchup of the week
Anyone who watched the Chargers on Monday night saw an offensive line that struggled, particularly in the interior, with center Nick Hardwick (ankle) and right guard Louis Vasquez (knee) being hurt in the game. Now San Diego will face what might be the NFL's best defensive line -- and certainly among the deepest -- with the prospect of both linemen possibly out.
Baltimore boasts defensive tackle Haloti Ngata, who I believe is the least appreciated player in the league. Ngata is a physical demon who holds up over all four quarters and makes incredibly athletic plays. Baltimore also has Kelly Gregg back and can line up Trevor Pryce in the middle if it wants, and we're not even talking about the edge players. Then, of course, there's Pro Bowl linebacker Ray Lewis running around behind those behemoths. Add in the fact that Tomlinson has a bad ankle, so if he does play, it's hard to imagine him being explosive. That's not a good combination.
The Chargers signed free agent Dennis Norman on Wednesday to bolster the interior of their line, and he might end up taking snaps at center or guard … against these linemen. There could be some exchange issues, to say nothing of protection problems. I don't think that bodes well for San Diego (and, to help out the line, look for a bunch of dumpoffs to Sproles, in lieu of having a productive run game).
I look for the Ravens to attack the A gap, get the linebackers involved on an interior push and try to collapse things from the middle, with Terrell Suggs and Jarret Johnson picking up the scraps coming in off the corner. It seems like a tough matchup for the Chargers' offensive line, especially in a short week.
Week 2 picks
If you were to make me pick winners this week (and I should have last week, I figure, but I went an unofficial 13-3 -- you'll have to trust me on that one), I'd go with the following: Atlanta, Minnesota (big), Green Bay, Jacksonville, Oakland, New England, Tennessee (big), Washington, Tampa Bay (don't have a great feel for this game against Buffalo), Seattle, Chicago, Baltimore, Giants, Indianapolis and, I suppose, Denver (though a tie with Cleveland might well be in order here).
So, with all of that said, I'll probably go 3-13 this week.