Defenses, the Ground Game and the Powerhouse Patriots: On to Championship Week

Defenses, the Ground Game and the Powerhouse Patriots: On to Championship Week

In a year of offensive fireworks, the Saints and Chiefs did it with D, the Rams pounded their way past Dallas and—oh yeah—the creaky old Patriots are headed to the conference title game for the eighth straight year. Plus, the latest draft and coaching news and more as we head into the NFL final four.
January 14, 2019

The first three games of the NFL’s divisional weekend positively proved the value of winning a playoff bye—the Chiefs, Rams and Patriots burst from the postseason gate like Secretariat, American Pharoah and Justify. And then, in the last of what had been a relatively sleepy set of games, the pitfall of the bye week seemed to come just as clear.

The Saints hadn’t really put their foot on the gas since that slugfest with the Steelers two days before Christmas. Accordingly, that was showing.

“We just had to settle down and play how we play,” corner Marshon Lattimore said from the locker room postgame, in conceding that the bye had a temporarily negative effect on New Orleans. “We came out a little flat. And they made plays and we didn’t. And that was basically what happened.”

Simple enough. And it was just as simple how things turned.

There was 13:45 left in the second quarter. The Eagles had the ball, a 14-0 lead, and a second-and-8 at their own 48-yard line, with a chance to push the top seed closer to the cliff of elimination. That’d be the perfect place, you’d think, to go for the kill shot.

Which the Eagles did. At the snap, Zach Ertz was off the line to the left side of the formation, in an H-back position. With the Saints in Cover 2, Philly dialed up a wheel route for the Pro Bowl tight end, perfect to exploit the coverage hard down the sideline. And that might have happened, had Lattimore not recognized the route and followed Ertz down the field and out of his zone.

Jonathan Bachman/Getty Images

“I had to carry the wheel,” Lattimore continued. “So when I seen him throw the ball, I just went up and made the play. And that’s really it, you know. Basic Cover 2—I just went up and made the play for the team.”

Foles underthrew the ball a little, opening a door that the Saints would moonwalk through. From there, Lattimore said, the game “changed tremendously”, and he wasn’t kidding. Consider the before and after:

Pre-pick
Eagles 20 plays, 169 yards
Saints 10 plays, 21 yards
Eagles 14, Saints 0

Post-pick
Eagles 27 plays, 81 yards
Saints 61 plays 399 yards
Saints 20, Eagles 0

It’s not as if we haven’t seen the Saints impose their will on an opponent before. But this is different. It’s the defense that was the engine on Sunday. And that’s really what’s made the potential of this New Orleans team so tantalizing over the last two years.

After all, how often in the past you could get this deep into something on the Saints in this space without seeing the names Drew Brees or Sean Payton?


Four divisional round games down, and we have a 40-something all-time quarterback, a guy who’ll be a 40-something all-time quarterback tomorrow (happy birthday, Drew!), and their 24- and 23-year-old hotshot counterparts advancing through a weekend that really, almost stunningly, wasn’t about them. We’re going to review that like you’d expect we would, with a look at it:

• The Patriots looking like much more than the plucky aging prizefighter I portrayed them as earlier in the year. No, New England appeared to be a bona fide powerhouse in absolutely annihilating the Chargers—and so we’re going to go and get reaction from others around the league on a shockingly dominant performance.

• The Chiefs defense pitched a shutout—that’s right, the Kansas City D did that—for the first 54 minutes of their game against the formerly red-hot Colts, which gave us all a look at just how scary K.C. can be if it’s playing complete games around probable league MVP Patrick Mahomes.

• The Rams heard all week how tough the Cowboys had become. So guess who wound up playing the bully on the block at the Coliseum on Saturday night?

And we’ll also have GM Brian Gutekunst take us through the Packers hire, give you a look at a big hire Brian Flores could have coming in Miami, and peer over at Kyler Murray’s situation while hitting a bunch of draft-related topics. But we’re starting with a Saints team that look awful for a quarter, and awfully impressive the rest of the way in dethroning the Super Bowl champs.


The Saints flashed their ability on defense last year, and the growth of Lattimore and Marcus Williams, the return to health of Alex Anzalone, and additions of veteran Demario Davis and rookie Marcus Davenport in the spring and ex-first-rounder Eli Apple in October gave hope to the idea that the D could be among the best in football.

So too did the summer. For the first time since Brees arrived in 2006, a defense oft-pushed around in training camp played the offense to a standstill in that setting. Which seemed to signal the most complete team of the Brees/Payton Era.

“We got a legendary quarterback, and that’s going to make us better if we go at them everyday in practice,” Lattimore said. “So yeah, [playing them tough in practice] changes things.”

Or so they thought it would. New Orleans finished the regular seaosn ranked 14th in total defense and points allowed. And that’s fine, of course. But bumpy Sundays against teams like the Rams and Steelers left the Saints unit searching for the extra gear.

JONES: One 18-play drive showed the best of the Saints

They found it in the Superdome on Sunday. Right before Lattimore’s pick, during the break between the first and second quarters, as All-Pro Cam Jordan recounted to me via text, the players were telling one another how one play could change everything.

“We spoke of ‘one turnover,’” Jordan texted. “It starts with one turnover.”

It sure did. The Saints offense took the momentum the defense provided it with that Lattimore pick, and went 79 yards in 12 plays (including a first-down conversion by Taysom Hill on a fake punt, and a touchdown on fourth-and-2) to cut Philly’s edge to 14-7. From there New Orleans got two defensive stops and capped the half with a frentic six-play, 67-yard march to kick a field goal and draw to within four points.

After the half, New Orleans held the Eagles to a three-and-out, and that led to the biggest drive of the game—literally and figuratively. The defense had bought the offense some time to get its act together, and the offense repaid it with an 18-play, 92-yard drive that killed most of the third-quarter clock. The Saints took the lead at the end of that drive, 17-14, and wouldn’t trail again.

“We can’t win without the defense,” Lattimore said. “Even as good as Drew is, you know sometimes they struggle, sometimes we struggle. It can’t just be on the offense. We have to shut people down and play our part in everything too. It goes hand-in-hand. To win the Super Bowl, you need the whole team. And of course, we’re on that level with them, I feel like.

“We’re going to continue getting better so we can go in and win the Super Bowl.”

Getty Images

The Saints did need one more play down the stretch, though, to put the game away, and it was Lattimore again on the scene to make it.

After Will Lutz’s 52-yard field-goal attempt to put New Orleans up by nine drifted wide right, the Eagles quickly drove to the Saints’ 27, looking for the go-ahead touchdown. On second-and-10, Foles found Alshon Jeffrey just underneath the Saints’ zone coverage. But the ball bounced off the receiver’s hands as Anzalone closed on him, and Lattimore was there to make his second pick and seal the game with 1:52 left.

“We were in zone, and I just tried to attach to the route,” Lattimore said. “I was right there, so I knew something was going to happen. I don’t know who it was, but somebody drove the slant and the ball popped in the air. And that changed the game right there.”

One Alvin Kamara first down later, it was over. And for the time in forever the defense (along with a special teams group that pulled off that crucial fake punt) had paced a playoff win for Sean Payton’s crew.

Brees, by the way, was really good, and his No. 1 receiver, Mike Thomas (12 catches, 171 yards), was great, and that’s obviously awesome for Payton and his staff to see.

But the story of the day, really, was that they didn’t necessarily have to be.


THE PATRIOTS THROTTLE THE CHARGERS AND OPEN SOME EYES  

Based on what we’d seen from the Chargers through the season’s four months and wild-card weekend (including outmuscling the Steelers, Chiefs and Ravens on the road), and the talent they brought to Gillette Stadium on Sunday, I’m not sure what else we can say about how New England played in a 41-28 win that was 35-7 at the half. So let’s throw some facts your way:

Elsa/Getty Images

• After two quarters, the Patriots had almost as many touchdowns (five) as the Chargers had first downs (six), and 347 scrimmage yards to the Chargers’ 128, one of third of which came on Keenan Allen’s 43-yard touchdown.

 • First-round running back Sony Michel had 105 yards on 16 carries before the break, a major factor in the greater-than-2-to-1 edge in time of possession the Patriots had over the first 30 minutes (20:11-9:49).

• The Patriots have had Brady as their full-time starter for 16 of the last 17 seasons. They reached the AFC title game 13 times over that the period. The exceptions: 2002 (Brady was 25), 2009 (Brady’s post-ACL season), and 2010 (when Rex Ryan’s Jets upended the top-seeded Patriots in the divisional round).

• Tom Brady now has more playoff wins (28) than any other quarterback has playoff starts (Peyton Manning is 14-13 in his 27). That’s bananas.

VRENTAS: The Patriots look better than they have all season

And with that in mind, with the game out of hand at the half, I decided to canvass some executives and scouting directors to ask for their reaction to the eye-opening beatdown. The answers were interesting.

AFC GM: “That the playoff bye is awesome!!! It’s their adaptability game-to-game, opponent-to-opponent. Evolve week-to-week depending on who they’re playing. QB is an all-timer, never underestimate that, but they execute the plan at such a high level, their preparation stands out because they play decisively,  and make in-game adjustments so well. Then it’s situations and in-game management to keep, secure and build on leads.”

AFC exec: “Biggest thing from the games so far is how big the bye week was in energy and health. New England has Brady, and they used time effectively to scheme pressure on defense.”

NFC pro scouting director:It’s NE! They find different ways to do it each year. They don’t have the playmakers at WR, and Gronk isn’t himself, so they beat you with their mismatch at RB.”

PIERCE: New England’s run game makes the Pats newly dangerous

AFC exec: “Patriots do the most common-sense things — the Chargers are soft up the middle, so pound it. You can’t play zone vs. Brady. And the Patriots are morphing fronts, causing confusion with Chargers protection.”

NFC exec: “Anyone writing off New England early in the season should be fired. Belichick admits it—each year is a new year. They learn their personnel and their style, and it continues to adapt throughout the course of the year until they find out who they are and what their strengths are. Their coaches adapt to their personnel strengths throughout the year, and by the end they are hitting their stride.”

As for what the Patriots are up against next week …


IT’S NOT ALL MAHOMES IN K.C.

Some statistics are hidden. Others are sitting there for us to find in plain sight.

Did you know that the Chiefs led the NFL in sacks this season?

It’s true. That Kansas City defense that everyone has (rightfully) taken shots at all year is, at least statistically, as good at getting to the quarerback as anyone in football. It makes sense, too, if you look at who’s playing up there for them—two guys on big second contracts (Justin Houston, Allen Bailey), a former first-rounder (Dee Ford) and a guy who went high in the second round (Chris Jones).

And just as easy is the explanation for why that, in most cases, didn’t add up to consistently great, or even good, defense in 2018.

“You look at every defense, there are certain things you can and can’t do,” Ford told me, right after Saturday’s victory over the Colts. “What we do best is when we have offense behind the sticks. It’s not always easy when you don’t play very good on first and second downs. Sometime we put ourselves in a bind on first and second down.”

David Eulitt/Getty Images

That’s why the very first play from scrimmage for the Chiefs’ defense on Saturday was so important—it set the tone for everything to come. On that one, before the snap, Ford saw Indy’s H-back, Mo Alie-Cox, motioning away from him and, at the snap, right tackle Braden Smith blocking down. That told Ford that Alie-Cox was coming back across the formation to get him. So Ford burst into the backfield before that could happen, and dropped Colts back Marlon Mack for a three-yard loss.

BISHOP: Mahomes unfazed by the magnitude of the Chiefs’ success

“It’s one of those plays that coaches tell you, if you’re going to do that, you gotta make it,” Ford said. “I took a gamble, and it worked out. I understood studying the tape what they wanted to do. The Colts, they don’t try to fool you. They’re so efficient in what they do, they don’t try to fool you. So if you can study tape and understand what they’re going to do, you can play a lot faster.”

That play set the tone. The defense started the game forcing four straight three-and-outs, and the Colts had a total of minus-three yards on the four first-down plays that kicked off those possessions. For the most part, that trend held up well into the fourth quarter, which set up more long yardage situations for Indianapolis that afforded K.C.’s horses up front plenty of chances to giddy-up to the quarterback.

Kansas City officially finished with three sacks and five hits on Andrew Luck. But even those numbers don’t fully convey the pressure Luck was under all game. And that gave the guys on defense a chance to crow about their improvement. Ford, for his part, says he hasn’t listened to the criticism—“first of all, you’re an immature player if you pay attention to those things. And two, it can bring your team down.”

BENOIT: Mahomes vs. Belichick, Round 2—what the Patriots should do differently

But he was willing to concede that he and his defensive teammates saw Saturday’s game as a chance to change some perceptions.

“We made a huge statement,” Ford said. “[Patrick] Mahomes, he does everything they say, he deserves that. He just needs the pieces around him. When we play well around him, he’s even more scary. So we understand the identity of our team. Once we knew we were on that field first as a defense, that’s the mindset. Get the ball back to our offense, period. We knew that out of the gate, we just wanted to start early.”

Of course, the Chargers looked good the week before they played the Patriots, too, and we saw how turned out. We’ll see if the Chiefs hold up better.


C.J. ANDERSON AND THE SOUL OF THE RAMS

If you told C.J. Anderson a month ago that he’d be tearing up divisional playoff weekend? Would he have believed you?

“I thought [2018] was over,” the Rams running back said, just after midnight on Saturday, following L.A.’s 30-22 win over Dallas. “It was late in the year, teams had their backs that they’d been having all season, that’d been on their roster. I thought my résumé, just being a very productive back in 2017, would get me a fair deal and get me an opportunity to compete for a starting job next year, and I was going to bank on that.”

In fact, when the Rams called in mid-December, in the wake of an injury to Todd Gurley, Anderson was moving his stuff out of the house he’d rented in Charlotte (for his stint with the Panthers) and shipping it off to his permanent home in Texas, and planning to head to Florida to do some work for his foundation.

KLEMKO: The Rams hear the trash-talk, and respond

It’d be hard to blame him for taking that approach. An April cap casualty in Denver, where he’d rushed for 1,007 yards in ‘17, Anderson signed with Carolina in May. But by midseason in Carolina he was collecting cobwebs, as Christian McCaffrey piled up yards, and he was cut on Nov. 12. Anderson hooked on with Oakland on Dec. 5, didn’t play that week, and then was cut when the Raiders needed to go find an offensive lineman.

In nine games this year before signing with the Rams, Anderson had 24 carries for 104 yards, total. In three games since joining L.A.:

• 20 carries, 167 yards against the Cardinals.
• 23 carries, 132 yards against the Niners.
• 23 carries, 123 yards against the Cowboys.

What the Rams learned about Anderson from the first two of those games assured him his role for the third, even with Gurley back in the lineup. And so did this: From the jump, the coaches were impressed with how ready Anderson was for everything they threw at him.

Marcio Jose Sanchez/AP/REX/Shutterstock

“It’s the type of player of I am,” Anderson said. “I had a lot of amazing vets [as teammates]. One of those amazing vets is Peyton Manning, who was probably the best when it came to preparation and playing his game. And I got to learn from him in the first three years of my career. I got to learn from him as much as I possible could, and you know, I feel like it’s a disservice if you don’t take something from really Hall of Fame vets.”

On the Rams’ first three possessions on Saturday night, Anderson played the closer in spelling the returning Gurley. And his presence—remember, he was really brought in initially to be the equivalent of a temp—gave Sean McVay and his staff the artillery to keep jamming the ball down the throat of an aggressive Dallas front.

The Rams wound up controlling the game as a result, running 76 plays to Dallas’s 55, and piling up 30 first downs and 459 yards despite Jared Goff throwing for just 186 yards. Gurley had 115 yards on his 16 carries, to add to Anderson’s output. Which, of course, wound up being plenty to quiet a Dallas team that had been talking about snatching the Rams’ soul during the week.

MORNING HUDDLE: It’s McVay against the NFL’s old guard in the conference championship games

“I heard the ‘soul’ comment,” Anderson said. “I also heard the ‘Oh, C.J. Anderson, he had two games against the Niners and the Cardinals’ comment. You don’t look into that. I let my game speak for itself. Obviously the O-line took that personally. So we just let our game speak for itself. Every team is going to have a player, whoever that is, that’s gonna jawjack. And, of course, we have some jawjackers on our team too.”

Yeah. We’ll get to that in a moment.


WHAT MATT LAFLEUR BRINGS TO GREEN BAY

Here’s how well Matt LaFleur’s interview went with Green Bay—he showed up with three iPads (one for president Mark Murphy, one for GM Brian Gutekunst and one for EVP Russ Ball), planning to use them as a visual aids for a presentation he wanted to give. He never gave that presentation. And he got the job anyways.

“I can’t actually tell you what he was going to show us, becuase I never saw what it was,” Gutekunst told me over the phone on Friday. “But you could tell he’d done a lot of work on it. I’m sure he’s probably thinking to himself, I spent how many hours on these things?”

He doesn’t need to worry about it anymore, of course. The 39-year-old former Rams and Titans offensive coordinator won what was a wide-open process that really began in earnest with the Dec. 2 dismissal of Mike McCarthy. And in the middle of it was the 45-year-old Gutekunst, a first-year GM who came in with no experience in the way of searching for a head coach.

In fact, back when the Packers last hired coach (McCarthy, in 2006), Gutekunst was the team’s Southeast area scout, and far removed from the process. “I was grinding on the road, probably at the East-West game, when all that went down,” he says.

So I called Gutekunst to see what this experience was like for him. Here’s a piece of our conversation.

Was there an advantage to starting the search early?

“I think that allowed us time to really start vetting candidates, to narrow the list. And even though we actually ended up talking to quite a number of people, I just think it helped that. We wanted to start with a wide net, and I think we did that, shortly after Mark relieved Mike.

How did Matt’s name land on your radar?

“In personnel we’re taught, from the time we’re young scouts, to always keep an eye out. And it’s obviously players, which is our job, but any young coaches, good coaches you see along the way, keep your list, keep your information, talk to different people about them. So Matt’s been someone who’s been on my radar for a while, and as we started our process, he was part of that wide net.”

Do you remember how his name first came up?

“Kyle Shanahan and those guys were in Atlanta [where LaFleur was QBs coach in 2015 and ‘16 under Shanahan as OC], we played them a few times and really struggled with them, really struggled with their scheme and how they did things. I always really liked the way they attacked us and the way they called the game. I was impressed with how they went about their offensive stuff. So all those guys that came from that system, you were kind of keeping an eye on.”

Frank Mattia/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images

What jumped out during the interview?

“His vision—I thought he was really driven, and there was kind of a quiet confidence about him when he discussed those things. His vision and what he wanted to do with our football team was very much aligned with my vision for it. And it was pretty evident pretty quickly that we could work well together, and I thought he could work well with our players.”

Obviously, the relationship with the quarterback will be scrutinized. Was it important here?

“No doubt. I mean, it’s about the team, but Aaron [Rodgers] is a big part of our team. So that was certainly part of it, how he’s going to use Aaron. And how the partnership there with the offense was going to go. He’s a head coach, he’s responsible for all the decisions, he’s got to be the head coach first. But the relationship with our players and obviously Aaron is really important.”

KAHLER: Matt LaFleur’s Packers success will be tied to Aaron Rodgers

You see the reaching for Sean McVay’s assistants. You got one, so is there any concern of an overreach there?

“I think it’s always been that way. I go back to when I first started in this league, everybody who coached in San Francisco got a head-coaching job. And then Green Bay was really good in the late ‘90s, and all the guys that came through Green Bay got head coaching jobs because of that success. That’s just kind of the way this league is and always has been. It was certainly the success of the places he’s been that contributed to us being interested in him, but he was obviously part of that too. So it was maybe a small part to get you interested, but then it really comes down to substance of the guy.”


… OF THE WEEK

QUOTE

“He ain’t takin’ nobody’s [expletive] soul out here!”

“Have bleep that one. He’s right though. He’s right.”

—Rams CB Aqib Talib and QB Jared Goff.

There’s no close second to this one—and gotta give special mention here to old friend Chris Myers of Fox, who showed cagey mic-handling/crisis management skills in quickly pulling away from Talib with a not-too-serious warning to the corner that everyone on the scene was, in fact, on live television.

TWEET

Excellent timing and delivery on this one, 17 years after the fact, and in reaction to Colts K Adam Vinatieri, the Patriots hero/Raiders villain, missing a 23-yarder on the final play of the first half. Woodson, you may remember, was the blitzing corner who hit Brady on the fumble-turned-incomplete pass that will live forever as the Tuck Rule play. Woodson and Brady, who came up together as members of Michigan’s 1995 recruiting class, would both wind up with Super Bowl rings. But in the wake of that play, the former’s wait was much longer (nine years) than the latter’s (two weeks).

CLIP

I’m running out of adjectives. This one isn’t just about the freakish arm strength it takeS to get that kind of heat on the ball, sidearm and around a midsection of guard Andrew Wylie. It’s also the accuracy and anticipation with which the throw was made, to get the ball past linebacker Darius Leonard to a spot where only Travis Kelce could catch it. Just ridiculous.

Good to see that Patriots owner Robert Kraft carries about the same amount of rhythm as I do.

MEME

I’m not sure anyone could’ve been so accurate if they were trying. That, by the way, is from Goose Island’s Saturday challenge to Bears fans, to try to hit the 43-yarder that Cody Parkey couldn’t against the Eagles. Not a single person succeeded. And our own Kalyn Kahler was among them—giving it a shot after taking some kicking lessons. She’ll tell that story later this week on the site.

The Snake had his own take on the TB12 Method, evidently.

S/O to …

Broncos star Von Miller, who at one point was a young guy who had trouble keeping out of trouble, and has since grown into a great, great example for all his younger teammates. I came across his name combing through stuff for this week’s shoutout, and saw that he led a $200,000 commitment to SHIELD616, a program to improve the public’s relationship with local law enforcement, late last year. Then I popped over to the team’s Twitter, and saw the effort made there to raise $25,000 for Von’s Vision, his foundation to help Denver-area youth in need eye exams and eyewear. You get the idea—Miller really is working all over the place with this stuff. Good for him. He was always a good-hearted guy, and he’s come a long way over the last five or six years.


SIX FROM SATURDAY

The latest on the 2019 draft and more from college football.

1. Decisions are coming down from big-name college players on declaring for the draft, and the record set last year for early entrants (106) has already been broken. At last check, before Saturday’s games, there were 116, and kids still have until later today to put their names in. That’s not necessarily a great development considering that, depending on compensatory picks, there are only around 255 players drafted each year. “There’ll probably be 40 of those guys undrafted, if you have 120 or more declaring,” said one AFC exec. “There is going to be a ton of guys sitting at home after the draft undrafted.” So what’s the problem? First, a lot of kids arrive on campus with it set in their head that they’re going to be there for three years, then go to the NFL, and it can be hard for them to shake that. Second, there are agents and runners telling them they’re better off just getting into the league, and getting to free agency [a year earlier], without the acknowledgement that a second- or third-rounder is going to be afforded way more patience than a late-round pick or college free agent.”

2. Examples of guys who considered leaving college early but benefited from staying? One is Bills second-year corner Tre’Davious White, who went back to school in 2016 and was a first-rounder in ‘18. Another is Baker Mayfield. And this year, Kentucky LB Josh Allen is a great one to point to—he’d probably have been a second- or third-rounder in 2018, and he’s played his way into the Top 15 or so picks this year, and maybe higher.

3. And I’ll leave this here, which is what I remember ex-Ohio State coach Jim Tressel used to tell his players: If you’re going to go in the first three rounds, you should think about going; if you’re going in the first round, you probably should go; if you’re going in the Top 10, you almost have to go. Why the three-round cutoff? Because guys drafted in the first three rounds generally will be given time to develop. After that, it can be a crapshoot.

KAHLER: What NFL scouts saw from Trevor Lawrence in the championship game

4. I love Kyler Murray. But the majority of the feedback I’ve gotten on him from scouts has been he’s seen as a Friday pick (rounds 2-3). So does that mean he shouldn’t play football? No. As a quarterback, being seen as a Friday pick often means you wind up going on Thursday. Over the last eight drafts, 25 quarterbacks have gone in the first round, eight in the second and 11 in the third. Over the last four, you’ve had 13 in the first round, two in the second and seven in the third. Why the disparity? Simple. Often, if a team likes a quarterback enough to take him in the second round, they don’t want to risk it, and so they just take him in the first. So let’s look at the reports that Murray’s asking the Oakland A’s for $15 million to play baseball rather than football (and we’re just using that number as an example; it sounds like it might not be correct). On paper, that would basically amount to a bet by Murray that he’d be taken 12th or higher in the NFL draft. (Vita Vea got $14.8 million guaranteed as the 12th pick last year, and there’s annual inflation to account for.) It seems a little unlikely to me that he’d go that high, but you just never know with quarterbacks.

5. Everyone I’ve talked to sees Clemson freshman QB Trevor Lawrence as a generational talent. But the caveat here is that the NFL hasn’t studied him yet, and that time, for quarterbacks, means other teams getting a bead on you. We were talking about Penn State’s Christian Hackenberg in first-round terms in 2013 and UCLA’s Josh Rosen as an outsized prospect in 2015, and neither went as high as we figured they would a couple years later.

6. As for the rule itself that’s keeping Lawrence in school, don’t hold your breath waiting for changes. Back in 2004, the courts ruled, in the cases of Ohio State’s Maurice Clarett and USC’s Mike Williams, that the NFL’s early-entrant rules were a labor issue, not a legal issue. That means that it would be up to the NFLPA to fight for change. And why would the union do that? Creating jobs for 19- and 20-year-olds would just take jobs away from older players who might be looking to extend their careers another year or two. I can’t imagine such a change would be high on the list for the Players Association when it goes to the table for CBA negotiations the next couple years.


TEN TAKEAWAYS

1. As long as this column has been here—going back to when Peter King started it in the late 1990s—Ozzie Newsome has been in charge of the Ravens’ football operation. This morning he is not. On Friday Newsome passed the torch, as has long been planned, to new general manager Eric DeCosta, a highly-regarded 47-year-old who worked his way up through the organization, starting in 1996, the franchise’s first year in Baltimore after moving from Cleveland. DeCosta addressed the scouting department Friday morning to outline his vision for where the organization is going. And Newsome was in the office, as he plans to be going forward. Awkward? Maybe it would be in some places, but as one scout told me later that day, “We’re family here.” And that’s one place where that’s actually believable. Newsome, DeCosta, SVP of football administration Pat Moriarty, college director Joe Hortiz and pro director Vince Newsom have all been with the organization continuously since the late ‘90s. And senior personnel assistant George Kokinis, save for two years in Cleveland with Eric Mangini, has been too. That’s staggering stability by NFL standards, and it gives DeCosta a strong infrastructure as he moves into his new role. As for Newsome, his impact on the NFL is pretty hard to measure. He was an all-time great as a player. And he was a trailblazer as an African-American football executive, and an all-time great GM. I think there’s a very compelling case to be made that he should be the first person ever inducted into the Pro Football Hall of Fame a second time. And I don’t think you’d get much argument from anyone who’s gone through Baltimore the last 23 years.

FROM THE VAULT: Ozzie Newsome through the eyes of those who know him

2. While we’re on the Ravens, I mentioned in my Sunday Rundown that there was interest from other teams in Greg Roman as an offensive coordinator candidate. And while that’s true, I did want to make this much clear—his promotion to OC in Baltimore was not about concerns that he’d leave. As I understand it, this was about Roman being the best guy for the offense that the Ravens are building around 22-year-old quarterback Lamar Jackson. Roman, as assistant head coach/tight ends coach, was a driving force in helping John Harbaugh put together a plan last spring for an offense that would work for both incumbent Joe Flacco and Jackson, which they presented to Newsome and company ahead of the draft to give the scouts a comfort level with the idea of drafting the former Heisman winner. Roman, of course, also built an offense for Colin Kaepernick to great success in San Francisco.

3. One team that was interested in Roman was Miami, with New England defensive coordinator Brian Flores expected to be hired as head coach whenever the Patriots’ postseason ends. Another name on Flores’ list, as we said Sunday, was Kliff Kingsbury, who’s since taken the Arizona head job. Want a third name? Ex-Colts and Lions coach Jim Caldwell. I expect him to be a part of the staff, but maybe not as OC. Even if Flores had landed Roman or Kingsbury, my understanding is that Caldwell likely still would have been in the mix in an associate head coach-type role. It’s unclear whether missing on a couple OC targets would mean Flores would just make Caldwell the coordinator. But my feeling is the door is still open in Miami on the idea of bringing in a younger coordinator, in addition to Caldwell.

ROHAN: How Mike Westhoff turned Taysom Hill into the perfect weapon

4. Freddie Kitchens deserves credit for moving aggressively to fill out his staff in Cleveland. Landing coordinators Todd Monken and Steve Wilks reflects how the Browns are suddenly operating from a position of strength. Wilks, of course, comes from a pretty good lineage of defensive coaches, having worked all those years with Carolina’s Ron Rivera and Buffalo’s Sean McDermott. And Monken blew away the Jets and Packers in his head coach interview. In fact, he had strong support to get the job in New York. That’s great for Cleveland on one hand (in that he’s really good), and problematic on another (he may become a head coach soon, which would mean having to replace him). For now, it should be pretty good for Baker Mayfield.

5. I asked C.J. Anderson about #McVayMania on the coaching carousel, and what’s impressed him to this point about his new head coach. His answer will make Jets fans feel pretty good: “What people miss is him at 4:30 in the morning. When I pull up and I see his car already parked—and I’m there at 5:30—you know the preparation that Sean goes through. Super cerebral. Smart. Understands the game. I think the biggest thing he does, he listens to the players. He listens to myself and [Andrew] Whitworth and what we say. And Jared [Goff], even though he is the ultimate play-caller. I think that’s what people want and what people are trying to grab. There’s only one other coach that’s been like that for me, and that was Adam Gase. [McVay] and Adam Gase are probably the two smartest coaches I’ve been around when it comes to planning and preparation and trying to put their matchups together and their team in the best position.”

ROSENBERG: Todd Marinovich, the “test-tube QB,” and the struggle to be human

6. While I had Washington State’s Mike Leach on the phone the other day, it made sense to ask if he has any NFL interest now—after all, he’s one of the godfathers of the Air Raid offense that we’re now seeing at all levels of the game, including the NFL. “I wouldn’t rule it out,” Leach said. “I’m in a great situation here. So it’s not like I’m chasing or running. But at the end of season I watch NFL film to just sort of stay up-to-date and make sure I’m not missing anything.” Then I asked Leach if he takes pride in seeing his stuff cribbed on that NFL tape, and, per usual, he was hilarious. “A little bit,” he answered. “And if they imitate it poorly, it kind of pisses me off. Like, if you’re going to run this at the highest level, at least do it right. One thing about coaching, it kind of haunts you. If you can see somebody lined up wrong, and it doesn’t really matter who’s doing it, boy it pisses me off.  How can you not even line up? You can’t line up? So if some guy has bad effort or doesn’t finish a play, even though I’m not coaching the guy, shoot, I wanna strangle a couple people.” Leach remains the best.

7. We mentioned Darrell Bevell as a potential OC for Bengals coach-to-be Zac Taylor on Twitter the other day. The connection is simple—Bevell coached under Taylor’s father-in-law, Mike Sherman, in Green Bay from 2000 to ’05. And to that end, there’s speculation out there that Sherman could join Taylor in a senior assistant role. Having that sort of resource could help the 35-year-old Taylor, much like having Caldwell would help Flores in Miami.

WILDER: Jeff Fisher is more than your 7-9 jokes

8. From the Timing Is Everything Dept.: The Falcons were blocked from talking to Denver’s Gary Kubiak earlier this month about their offensive coordinator opening. Atlanta has had an eye on Kubiak since losing Kyle Shanahan to the Niners two years ago, and my sense is he’d have been a strong favorite for the job if he was available a couple weeks ago. At that point, Denver still believed Kubiak would be its OC, so they weren’t going to let him go. And that’s too bad, because Kubiak would have been perfect in Atlanta. Dan Quinn has insisted on keeping Shanahan’s system in place because of the roaring success the Falcons had with it. And Kubiak is, of course, a mentor of Kyle Shanahan’s, having helped teach him that system.

9. Remember this name: Sean Kugler. The new Cardinals offensive line coach promises to be a big key to whatever success Kliff Kingsbury has running his brand of the Air Raid in the desert. Talking to scouts who’ve studied Texas Tech and been through Lubbock, Kingsbury should be able to seamlessly import his innovative passing game to the NFL. Where he’ll need to adjust is having more diversity in his protections, and more creativity in his run game. And since the line coach is often the run-game coordinator, Kugler figures to be very involved in both areas. Credit, too, to Kingsbury for getting a guy in that spot with more than a decade of NFL experience, plus five years of collegiate head coaching experience. Kugler is very well thought of.

10. Speaking of the run game, in a year when the passing game numbers exploded, the tale of divisional playoff weekend could be told on the ground. The Chiefs outrushed the Colts 180-87; the Rams outrushed the Cowboys 273-50; the Patriots outrushed the Chargers 155-19, and the Saints outrushed the Eagles 137-49. And while we’re here, and since #McVayMania is boiling over, it’s worth mentioning that the foundation of all that McVay does (and Kyle Shanahan too, for that matter) on offense is in marrying the run game to the pass game. Their offenses are hard to defend largely because so many of their run concepts and pass concepts look the same, which of course requires being effective running the ball. Which the Rams are.


FIVE-DAY FORECAST

It’s championship week, so I’m going to give you one storyline to watch in each of the games to kick things off.

Who can get a stop? When the Rams and Saints met in Week 9, there was a grand total of three punts—two by New Orleans and one from L.A. Along the way, the teams combined for almost 1,000 yards of offense, and Brees and Goff accounted for 737 of those through the air. The difference in the end? The Saints forced the one Rams punt with 4:58 left and got a turnover on downs after that, while New Orleans scored on two of its final three possessions, and got into victory formation on the other. So Saints DC Dennis Allen vs. Rams DC Wade Phillips is a real factor.

Mahomes vs. Belichick. Patrick Mahomes didn’t have his best game back in October against the Patriots. But he was damn impressive for a very simple reason—in a spot where a lot of young quarterbacks might crumble, Mahomes kept on swinging. The second-year Chief was 14-of-23 for 164 yards and two picks, with his team down 24-9 at the half. After the break, he was 9-of-13 for 188 yards and four touchdowns. And he left the field for the final time having tied the game at 40 with 3:03 left. Brady and company subsequently drove the field, sapped the clock, and Stephen Gostkowski kicked the game-winner at the gun for New England.

We’ll see you all later this afternoon for the Monday Afternoon Quarterback.

Question or comment? Email us at talkback@themmqb.com.

HOLE YARDS PAR R1 R2 R3 R4
OUT
HOLE YARDS PAR R1 R2 R3 R4
IN
Eagle (-2)
Birdie (-1)
Bogey (+1)
Double Bogey (+2)