Observations and analysis from the wild-card round of the NFL postseason via Redskins glasses
Saturday: Tennessee won at Kansas City, 22-21
1. You are almost always better off making the playoff than not making the playoffs, no matter what happens to you in the playoffs. That said, if you ask a Chiefs fan if he or she would still take making the playoffs knowing what happened in this game, I’m not so sure the majority answer would be “yes.” The Chiefs, incredibly, now have lost an NFL-record six consecutive home playoff games. And the Chiefs, incredibly, now are responsible for two of the four times in the Super Bowl era that a team has lost a playoff game by blowing a halftime lead of 18 or more points. The Chiefs choked away a 31-10 halftime lead in a 45-44 loss at Indianapolis in a wild-card game in Jan. 2014.
2. And then there’s Andy Reid. He has made the playoffs in 13 of his 19 seasons as an NFL head coach, including four of five seasons with the Chiefs. He has a career regular-season winning percentage of .602. But he is just 11-13 in the playoffs with one conference championship. He is the first head coach in NFL history to lose two postseason games in which he led by at least 17 points at any point.
Some of the blame for this game has nothing to do with Reid. His Chiefs were guilty of a number of drops, the Jeff Triplette-led officiating in the game was terrible and the criticism of Reid for not getting Kareem Hunt more carries is overrated if you actually look at the context of the game. But it is hard not to feel like Reid is the new Marty Schottenheimer – a hall-of-fame caliber regular-season head coach who just can’t catch a break in the postseason.
3. It is always interesting to me to see what in the NFL actually correlates with winning. We all know that the Redskins’ running game was bad this season (no. 28 per the Football Outsiders DVOA metric). Well, in this season of the running game supposedly coming back to being en vogue, it is worth noting that eight of the top 12 rushing offenses per DVOA made the playoffs: New Orleans (no. 1), New England (3), Kansas City (5), Pittsburgh (6), Tennessee (8), Rams (9), Carolina (11) and Jacksonville (12). Last season, when the Redskins’ running game surprisingly was no. 4 in the NFL per DVOA, just four of the top 14 rushing offenses made the playoffs.
The key to this game ended up being the Titans’ potent rushing offense outperforming the Chiefs’ potent rushing offense.
Kareem Hunt, the 2017 third-round pick out of Toledo, led the NFL with 1.327 rushing yards and was fifth in the NFL with 4.88 yards per carry this season. Yes, his production dipped after the Chiefs’ 5-0 start (including 21- carries for 101 yards in the Redskins’ loss at the Chiefs on Monday Night Football in Week 4) , but he still had back-to-back monster games in December wins over Oakland and the Chargers (a combined 49 carries for 271 yards and two touchdowns and a receiving touchdown). And yet he had just 11 carries for 42 yards and a touchdown in this game. The Titans had the no. 7 run defense in the NFL this season per DVOA. Hunt had just five carries for 17 yards in a second half in which the Chiefs got out time-of-possessed by 8:08.
And the biggest reason for that was Derrick Henry. The 2016 second-round pick out of Alabama had 13 carries for 114 yards and a touchdown in just the second half. He averaged 3.74 yards after contact per attempt in this game per Pro Football Focus, feasting on a Chiefs run defense that was dead last in the NFL this season per DVOA. Henry was a fourth-quarter monster in the regular season, during which he had 353 rushing yards over the first three quarters of games and 390 rushing yards in the fourth quarters of games. A prevailing sentiment among Redskins fans is that the team needs to find an explosive back and stop with these bigger, plodding backs like Alfred Morris, Fat Rob Kelley and Samaje Perine. I totally get that sentiment. But Henry is a classic example of the value of the bigger, plodding back. He wears down defenses and punishes them into submission. I’m not saying that Kelley or Perine is Henry – he is at 6-3 and 247 pounds substantially taller and heavier than Kelley and Perine. What I am saying is that not every running back has to look like Hunt (5-10, 216). Effective backs come in a variety of shapes and sizes.
4. This is an old Redskins topic by now, but the Titans’ offense is yet another example of how the read-option is alive and well in the NFL. The dummy sentiment that what Mike and Kyle Shanahan did with Robert Griffin III during the Redskins’ 2012 season was unsustainable or Johnny College amateur hour or anything of the like has been so disproven by now. This season was at least Year 6 of the read-option being a notable component of NFL offense (I say “at least” because you could argue that the read-option movement in the NFL actually started in 2011 with Carolina’s Cam Newton and Denver’s Tim Tebow).
Most teams in the league make usage of the read-option in some form or fashion. The Titans are among the more read-option-heavy teams. Consider the following big plays in just this game:
And it’s not just those read-option plays. Every time Mariota is in the shotgun with a running back near him, the threat of the read-option is there and weighing on the defense’s mind. That’s a huge part of the value of this.
And now we’re seeing the next level, which is the run-pass option (an innovation that, like the read-option, gained steam at the college level long before coming to the NFL. In this game, Alex Smith had a first-quarter first-and-10 26-yard completion to Tyreek Hill on a run-pass option.
I wondered what RGIII must have been thinking watching Mariota and the Titans’ offense do as it did with so many read-option plays in this epic come-from-behind road playoff win. What if RGIII had remained more open to running the read-option after that 2012 season? Yeah, I know, he was probably too injury prone to ever last as an NFL quarterback no matter what offense he ran. But how do you – and how can’t he – not at least wonder what might have been? How do you – and how can’t he – not at least ponder if he could be doing what Mariota, Smith Russell Wilson, Cam Newton and others have been doing in the NFL for years now?
5. Did you notice who had 1.5 sacks for the Titans in this game? Former Redskin Brian Orakpo. The Redskins, I thought correctly so, allowed Orakpo to leave via free agency after the 2014 season, during which he played in just seven games and totaled one half of one sack off being slapped with an $11.455 million franchise tag in March 2014. He signed a four-year, $31 million deal with $8 million guaranteed at signing and $13.5 million in total guarantees with the Titans in March 2015.
And do you know that Orakpo has never missed a game with the Titans? The same guy who played in just 24 of 49 regular-season and postseason games over his final three seasons with the Redskins has played in all 49 of the Titans’ regular-season and postseason games over the last three seasons. And while he hasn’t been a dominant force, he has started all 49 of those games and totaled 26 sacks. Titans linebackers had an NFL-best 28 sacks this season. The Titans have had a top-10 run defense per the Football Outsiders DVOA metric each of the last two seasons.
I’m still okay with the Redskins not re-signing Orakpo after that 2014 season. They ended up spending their 2015 second-round pick on Preston Smith, who has provided 20.5 sacks and three picks (Orakpo has one career pick) in never missing a game over the last three seasons at a fraction of the Orakpo cost. But it is worth noting that Orakpo has been far from a bust for the Titans.
It’s also worth noting that the Redskins chose to pay Ryan Kerrigan over Orakpo, and that has proven to be the right decision. The Redskins took Orakpo with the no. 13 overall pick in the 2009 draft and Kerrigan with the no. 16 overall pick in the 2011 draft. They signed Kerrigan to a contract extension in July 2015, four months after allowing Orakpo to leave via free agency. And while Kerrigan’s contract (five years, $57.5 million) is more lucrative than Orakpo’s deal (four years, $31 million) with the Titans, consider the difference in production for each guy in his career:
6. Alex Smith was not willing to discuss his future after this game, during which he threw for 154 yards in the first quarter but just 110 the rest of the game. He is under contract through next season but could be cut or traded with the Chiefs having spent the no. 10 overall pick in the 2017 draft on Patrick Mahomes II.
The Redskins, if they part ways with Kirk Cousins this offseason and believe they will not get a quarterback of immediate consequence in the 2018 draft, should consider going after Smith. But there are some definite concerns.
On the one hand, Smith is coming off the best season of his career. He had a career-best 8.00 yards per pass attempt, career-best touchdown-to-interception ratio (26 to 5) and career-best 4,042 passing yards. His 63.4 Raw QBR was the second best of his career. His 67.5 completion percentage was the second best of his career. He is mobile. He is durable, having played in at least 15 games in each of the last five regular seasons.
But on the other hand, Smith has been a Checkdown Charlie for much of his career. He is in fact what some people have accused Kirk Cousins of being. Football Outsiders actually has a stat named after Smith called ALEX – Air Less EXpected. ALEX measures the average difference between how far a quarterback threw a pass (air yards) and how many yards he needed for a first down. So if a quarterback throws a pass five yards behind the line of scrimmage on third-and-15, that is good for a minus-20 ALEX. A high ALEX would be indicative of a quarterback who aggressively attacks the sticks, while a low ALEX is indicative of a conservative quarterback more likely to check down and/or rely on YAC. And, yes, Alex Smith frequently has had one of the lowest ALEX averages in the NFL.
Now, in fairness to Smith, some of his air-yardage stats were better this season. Per NFL Next Gen Stats, Smith went from 5.6 average air yards per completion in 2016 to 6.3 in 2017. Kirk, for comparison’s sake, went from 7.6 in 2016 to 6.1 in 2017.
But Smith still is a guy who has benefited greatly from his playmakers. It’s no coincidence that Smith’s career-best 2017 season included three Chiefs (Tyreek Hill, Travis Kelce and Kareem Hunt) finishing in the top 20 in the NFL in YAC per ESPN. Heck, look at what happened to Smith and the Chiefs’ offense once Kelce left the game in the second quarter with a concussion.
Saturday night: Atlanta won at the Rams, 26-13
1. I give Falcons head coach Dan Quinn a lot of credit. A chic hot take going into this season was that Atlanta wouldn’t make the playoffs, having still not gotten over the sting of blowing a 28-3 third-quarter lead in the 34-28 overtime loss to New England in Super Bowl 51. Instead, the Falcons went 10-6, made the playoffs as the NFC’s second wild-card team and now have advanced to the divisional round thanks to an impressive win at the team that led the NFL with 478 points scored this season.
2. The condition of the Los Angeles Memorial Coliseum field was a problem. While not as brown as FedEx Field was in the Redskins’ win over the Giants at Thanksgiving night, players losing their footing was a major issue. Matt Ryan’s right foot dangerously slid back on a late-second-quarter second-and-six sack by Robert Quinn for a 10-yard loss. Ryan got crunched from behind by Quinn and could have suffered a concussion or torn groin on the losing of the footing. As it was Ryan suffered a laceration behind his right ear. Then in the fourth quarter, Ryan’s right foot again slid, but the result of the play was an impressive second-and-goal eight-yard shot play-action touchdown pass to Julio Jones despite Connor Barwin coming right at and hitting Ryan.
Give former Redskins offensive coordinator Sean McVay credit. He not only engineered a spectacular one-season turnaround of the Rams in his first season as head coach, he did so despite playing in an antiquated stadium with little fan support. The Rams went just 4-5 at home this season (including a Week 2 loss to the Redskins) versus 7-1 on the road.
3. The man who McVay succeeded as Redskins offensive coordinator, Kyle Shanahan, of course, gets a lot of the blame for that Falcons choke job to the Patriots in Super Bowl 51 in no small part for not calling more running plays (I remember taking calls with that complaint ad nauseam on The Official Redskins Postgame Show during Kyle’s tenure as Redskins OC).
And so boy was it interesting to see how Falcons offensive coordinator Steve Sarkisian handled the second half, which they entered with a 13-10 lead. The Falcons began the third quarter with a 16-play drive that resulted in a Matt Bryant 25-yard field goal. 12 of the 16 offensive snaps on that series were run calls. Later in the third quarter came a 10-play drive that resulted in a Bryant 54-yard field goal. Matt Ryan did throw on five of the plays, but they were all short passes. Ryan, in fact, averaged a career-low 3.8 air yards per attempt according to ESPN.
The Falcons won the time-of-possession battle for the game by 15:10. Not a bad way to hold one of the best offenses in the NFL this season to just 13 points.
4. The Redskins clearly need to upgrade their receiving corps this offseason. A potential target could be the Rams’ Sammy Watkins, though he was not at his best in this game. Watkins had just one reception for 23 yards on four targets. And you could argue that he was guilty of a drop on Jared Goff’s fourth-quarter fourth-and-goal-at-the-5 shotgun incompletion in the end zone, though Watkins was seemed to have been interfered with by Deion Jones.
Still, the Redskins should consider going after Watkins. He is young, as 2018 will be just his age-25 season. He led the Rams with eight touchdown receptions this season. He finished no. 15 in the NFL this season with 15.21 yards per reception. He is listed as being 6-1.
Watkins’ catch percentages have been below 56 percent in three of his four seasons, and it is extremely troubling that Buffalo did not pick up his fifth-year option and then traded him to the Rams last August despite having spent the fourth overall pick on him in the 2014 draft.
Miami’s Jarvis Landry is a free-agent-to-be who some Redskins fans very much want. But he figures to cost the most of any of the receivers in the 2018 free-agent class. If the Redskins are looking for a receiver with major potential who shouldn’t cost a ton, Watkins is a guy worth examining.
5. Did you notice what the Falcons did on a fourth-and-one in the third quarter? A Matt Ryan quarterback sneak for one yard. Why the Redskins didn’t go quarterback sneak more often this season in short-yardage situations is beyond me. The Redskins ran on 20 third- or fourth-down plays with two or fewer yards to go in 2017 and got just 11 first downs or touchdowns. That’s a success rate of 55 percent. The league average was 68.6 percent. Nothing was worse than the play that could have prevented the overtime loss at New Orleans in Week 11. The Redskins held a 31-23 lead with 2:38 left in the fourth quarter. The Saints were out of timeouts. All that was needed was a run for a yard or more on which the ball carrier stayed in-bounds, and the game would essentially be over. And yet Samaje Perine, off a timeout due to the team not lining up properly, got stuffed by linebacker Manti Te’o, who maneuvered through a hole and, along with safety Vonn Bell, tackle Perine on a third-and-one I-formation-handoff run for minus-one yard thanks in part to Chase Roullier and Niles Paul faltering in blocking.
Jay Gruden said on his coach’s show on NBC4 at one point this season that Kirk Cousins wasn’t big enough to consistently come through on quarterback sneaks. I don’t buy that. Kirk is listed as being 6-3. Ryan is listed as being 6-4. That’s a minimal difference if the height of the quarterback even matters.
Sunday afternoon: Jacksonville beat Buffalo, 10-3
1. I wondered last week on The Morning Blitz with Al Galdi whether we could remove the Jaguars as a potential contender for Kirk Cousins this offseason given the comments of Jags owner Shad Khan. Well, not so fast on that. While a playoff win figures to do Bortles some favors, how can anyone objectively feel good about where this guy is at? Yes, I know, the Jags have suffered a number of injuries at receiver this season. But Bortles threw for just 83 yards in this game. He averaged – he averaged – 3.78 yards per pass attempt. The Jags won despite going 2-for-12 on third downs and totaling 230 total net yards of offense.
Bortles played well during the Jags’ three-game winning streak that began December. He did finish no. 12 in the NFL in Total QBR and had 21 touchdown passes versus 13 picks during the regular season. It would seem as if he’s still the Jags’ long-term plan at quarterback, but as I like to say in the #ChaChaCha, the only thing that’s for sure is that nothing is for sure.
2. The biggest reason for the Jags winning this game, obviously, was their defense. Jacksonville had the no. 1 defense in the NFL this season per the Football Outsiders DVOA metric. The rise for the Jags’ defense: no. 26 in 2015, no. 12 in 2016, no. 1 in 2017.
What’s interesting from a Redskins perspective about this is how the Jags’ defense has gotten good. Jacksonville has made extensive use of free agency. Two of the Jags’ starting defensive linemen, Calais Campbell and Malik Jackson, were acquired via free agency. The Jags’ starting middle linebacker, Paul Posluszny, was acquired via free agency. Three of the Jags’ starting defensive backs – A.J. Bouye, Barry Church and Tashaun Gipson – were acquired via free agency.
Three of the best defenses in the NFL the last three seasons – Denver in 2015 and 2016, the Giants in 2016 and the Jags in 2017 – were all fortified big time by free agency. The idea that free agency is some four-letter word is just wrong. What happened with the Redskins in free agency way too often last decade was a result of bad decision making and not the avenue of free agency itself. For the Redskins’ defense to get really good, free agency has to be used. The key, of course, is making the right decisions (Zach Brown) as opposed to the wrong ones.
3. Boy was it interesting seeing former Redskin Lorenzo Alexander have such a good game: team-high 10 tackles, including a sack.
Alexander went undrafted out of Cal in 2005 and eventually landed with the Redskins, for whom he played defensive lineman, offensive lineman and tight end before finally switching to outside linebacker when the team converted to a 3-4 base defense in Mike Shanahan’s first season as head coach in 2010. Alexander did all of this while being a special-teams ace and one of the most liked guys in the Redskins’ locker room.
Alexander was with the Redskins in some form for seven seasons (2006-2012) and then went to Arizona and Oakland before spending the last two seasons with the Bills. He had an incredible 2016, during which he produced 12.5 sacks and six pass defenses, including a pick. His sack production came back down to earth this season, but he still had a career-high four forced fumbles and a career-high five stuffs per ESPN. Alexander, in fact, has seven forced fumbles over the last two seasons.
4. So should the Redskins at all consider Tyrod Taylor as their quarterback for 2018 if they part ways with Kirk Cousins this offseason and believe they will not get a quarterback of immediate consequence in the 2018 draft? I say yes, but Taylor, like Alex Smith, offers a lot of cause for concern.
First off, what an unceremonious likely end to Taylor’s time as a Buffalo quarterback. He suffered a concussion late in the fourth quarter in what seems like was likely his final game with the Bills. Taylor went just 17-for-37, averaged just 3.62 yards per pass attempt and threw a pick in this game.
Taylor signed one of those Andy Dalton-like and Ryan Tannehill-like pay-as-you-go quarterback contract extensions with the Bills in Aug. 2016. Buffalo seems to have had a love-hate relationship with Taylor, who was bizarrely benched for Nathan Peterman in November.
Taylor is a classic example of a quarterback whose stats are better than what the team thinks of him (not unlike Kirk with the Redskins). Here are Taylor’s rankings in Total QBR over the last three seasons: no. 7 in 2015, no. 9 in 2016 and no. 14 in 2017. Here is Taylor’s touchdown-to-interception ratio over the last three seasons: 51 to 16. Here are Taylor’s rushing stats over the last three seasons: 1,575 yards, 5.57 yards per carry, 14 touchdowns.
And yet still the Bills have been unwilling to truly commit to him. The word on him has been that he misses things – i.e., doesn’t always throw to open guys down the field because he doesn’t see them. That’s a huge issue, obviously. Look, Taylor is definitely flawed. We saw that in this loss at Jacksonville. But those aforementioned numbers are hard to ignore.
Sunday: New Orleans beat Carolina, 31-26
1. Drew Brees was terrific in this game. In a game in which the Alvin Kamara and Mark Ingram combined for just 45 yards on 19 carries (the Saints had the no. 1 rushing offense in the NFL this season per the Football Outsiders DVOA metric), Brees carried the Saints by throwing for 376 yards and averaging 11.39 yards per pass attempt on 33 pass attempts. We all remember what Brees did in the Redskins’ overtime loss at the Saints in Week 11: 11-for-11 for 164 yards and two touchdowns on the Saints’ final two drives in the fourth quarter, during which the Redskins blew a 31-16 lead.
What’s especially interesting about Brees is how he had success this season. His 4,334 passing yards were his least since 2005, which was his final season with the Chargers. But Brees’ 8.09 yards per pass attempt were his most since 2011. And Brees averaged just 5.8 air yards per completion according to NFL Next Gen Stats, down from 6.6 in 2016. He threw shorter and less often but was incredibly efficient, including posting an NFL single-season record 72.01 completion percentage (though the record for that gets broken practically every season these days).
2. Former Redskin Graham Gano connected on a 58-yard field goal on the final play of the first half, tying for the longest made field goal in NFL postseason history. He had missed a 25-yard field-goal attempt in the first quarter, but Gano, believe it or not, led the NFL in field-goal percentage this season at 96.7 (29-for-30 on field-goal attempts). Gano was the Redskins’ kicker from Dec. 2009 until being waived in Aug. 2012. He went 59-for-80 (73.75 percent) on field goals with the Redskins. Gano has been the Panthers’ kicker since Nov. 2012 and has gone 151-for-177 on field goals for Carolina (85.31 percent).