This week's edition of the Notebook highlights the Chiefs enhanced defense, spots some issues with Chip Kelly's offensive pace in the NFL, examines what Josh Freeman has left, and has last week's questions about RG3 answered.
How the Chiefs stopped the Eagles
After the Chiefs beat the Eagles on Thursday night, pretty resoundingly I might add, I couldn't wait to see coach's film of the game to break down how the KC defense was so effective at shutting down Chip Kelly's offense.
What I found surprised me to a certain extent. I was sure that the Chiefs had to have kept a safety over DeSean Jackson all night to prevent him from getting loose down the field. I also thought they must have blitzed a ton as well to help shut down the Eagles' running game. Turns out, neither was true.
First, on DeSean Jackson: The only person holding back Jackson on Thursday night was Chip Kelly. For whatever reason, Jackson was relegated to running shorter routes like crossers and comebacks for the overwhelming majority of the night, while his teammates Riley Cooper and Jason Avant ran the longer routes. The Chiefs played man-to-man on almost every play, so for DeSean to only run a handful of deep routes still confuses me almost a week later.
Second, the Chiefs' gameplan for most of the night was surprisingly simple yet very effective. The key here is the Chiefs are one of the few teams that could get away with this plan because of their personnel on defense. It should come with some kind of warning that not every other team should try it because it might be hazardous to their health.
The first and maybe biggest key was that they had their Pro Bowl middle linebacker Derrick Johnson line up to LeSean McCoy about every single play. Now if you understand read option running plays, you know that most times the running back is going to run a zone-type play in the opposite direction of where they line up.
With the Eagles' offense, however, there are multiple options built in to their running plays, including some pass options at times that force the backside linebacker to decide whether to go play the run or play, for instance, a tight end to the same side going up the seam. We all saw how devastating this could be in the first game of the year when Philly had Washington's defense as confused as I have ever seen an NFL defense in my adult life.
With Johnson effectively used as a backside linebacker, most plays he was coached to chop his feet in place and play the run late if McCoy ran to the other side of the formation at the snap of the football. The Chiefs were obviously more concerned with that pop pass up the seam back side so they built in a way for Johnson to stay in position to play it if Vick didn't hand the ball off. In many ways, they were daring the Eagles to keep handing the ball off to McCoy. He did end up running for 158 yards, but that was mostly on a handful of big plays. On most of his 20 carries, McCoy gained five yards or less.
On the other hand, if McCoy ran outside to his side, Johnson then had him man-to-man in coverage. In that case, the safety would take the tight end if there was one to that side as well.
One additional note on this is that Johnson, being a smart player, recognized that if there was no tight end or close slot wide receiver to McCoy's side, then he need not wait to play the run if McCoy went across the formation at the snap because there was no threat of a pop pass up the seam. On those plays, he was about to shoot the gap and tackle McCoy with relative ease.
I have to reiterate and emphasize just how much the Chiefs played man to man -- like a ton of it. And they have the secondary to handle it, unlike most teams in the NFL. Specifically, they matched up Sean Smith on Cooper a lot on the outside. If this had been a prize fight, Cooper's corner would have thrown in the towel somewhere around the middle of the second quarter. Smith owned him right up until the end of the game when he started cramping up. Cooper just couldn't shake him, especially on those aforementioned deep routes Kelly had him running all game.
Another reason for the Chiefs defensive success goes by the name of Dontari Poe. When the Chiefs drafted Poe, I thought he was a really bad fit for their 3-4 defense because last year they played a lot of classic 3-4 with the nose head up on the center. Now that the Chiefs play with their nose shaded to either side of the center on most plays, Poe is just about a perfect fit for what they want to do.
Poe is an absolute load. If you try to single block him, which is a hallmark of most zone blocking schemes, he is either going to take that one guy and press him up the field or push him directly into the hole the running back wants to run in -- or both -- on just about every play.
Poe was such a disruptive force that he dictated where McCoy made his cut most of the time rather than McCoy being able to pick and choose when he wanted to cut. Again, not every team has a nose tackle like Poe, and so playing the same kind of defense against Philly may not yield the same results.
I have to say Poe reminded me a lot of Albert Haynesworth after watching him play last Thursday night -- the young disruptive Haynesworth before he went off to Washington. Maybe it was just the 92 he is sporting these days, but that was what I kept seeing from play to play.
Spotting issues with Chip Kelly's approach in the NFL
This brings me to a point where a few reasons for the Eagles offensive struggles finally made sense to me watching the film. The one thing I noticed in the first game against the Redskins is that the Eagles' offense could play at a high tempo except when there was an incomplete pass. In hindsight, it makes perfect sense. On a good run or a completed pass, the offense, and specifically the wide receivers, don't have far to go to get back to the line of scrimmage. But on an incomplete pass, those guys have to run all the way back to the same line of scrimmage they just came from.
That obvious fact also contributes to another flaw I started to see in the first game as well, and that is the offense, just like the opposing defense, starts to look weary by the fourth quarter. This is where the limit on active players on gameday hurts the Eagles, in my opinion.
In college, Kelly could just shuffle a bunch of wide receivers in and out during the game to keep them fresh and keep the offense running at an insanely high tempo. With the NFL's gameday roster limitations, the Eagles only have so many wide receivers for the whole game. In fact, Cooper was getting worn down so much trying to beat Smith's man coverage that it appears on film that he is too exhausted trying to run yet another deep route with about 6:28 to go in the second quarter and doesn't have enough energy to prevent Smith from intercepting a pass. This will be something to keep an eye on for the rest of the season.
Quick strikes still there
To be sure, the Eagles' offense did have some flash plays throughout the game, but they couldn't seem to string them together. The interesting thing to me is that most of their big plays came when the Chiefs, for whatever reason, deviated from their simple game plan and tried to blitz or show a different front.
That was the case when Vick had a long run when they went read option off of the defensive tackle rather than the defensive end. It was also the case when McCoy had a long run and Johnson guessed it would be a pass. The linebacker was concerned about being in coverage on that play because the Chiefs were sending safety Eric Berry on a blitz so he wouldn't have any help over the top of the tight end. Instead, McCoy took the hand off and rather than Johnson making the stop after four or five yards like he had for most of the game, making him late reacting to the run. That gave the center an angle to wall him off from making the tackle.
Audible abilities and getting DeSean free
Now back to DeSean Jackson -- the lack of opportunities he saw in this game also gave me clarity about what I don't like about Chip Kelly's offense so far.
For most of the game, as I said before, Jackson ran routes of the shorter variety. In addition to that, he spent quite a bit of time lined up inside running routes from the slot rather than being lined up out wide. The few times he was out wide, Brandon Flowers declined to go bump and run on him and instead played off-man coverage lining up between five and seven yards from him so as to not let Jackson get behind him easily. There were a handful of times, especially in the redzone, where Flowers did play bump-and-run on Jackson.
On one of those instances, Vick overthrew a wide open Jackson in the endzone and even though Flowers played him in bump-and-run on the ensuing plays on that drive, the Eagles never went back to it. Another occasion was when Vick was about to hit Jackson up the sideline for 40 yards in the second half. When Flowers went out with an injury, Dunta Robinson also went bump-and-run a few times but the Eagles didn't attempt to get Jackson up the sideline again.
And that's my biggest problem with Kelly's offense. While many of the plays have multiple options built into them that put a lot of strain on most defenses, what I haven't seen is the ability for Vick to audible into a different, better play to take advantage of something the defense is giving him.
Because most teams will have to play a lot of man defense against the Eagles, every time I see a corner in bump-and-run on Desean Jackson, I would want to be able to check to a deep ball because he is going to win the overwhelming majority of those matchups. In turn, I would also like to be able to set the protection to max protect so that Vick has time to get that pass off.
Lastly, I can't understand why the Eagles didn't recognize that Johnson had McCoy man-to-man whenever he flared out to the side of the quarterback where he initially lined up. Philly could have tried some screens with the wide receivers or tight ends blocking Johnson's path, while the Chiefs defenders playing man-to-man followed them inside to give McCoy virtually the whole sideline to play with. There may be a way for the Eagles to make adjustments like these, but so far I haven't seen them in action.
Freeman's not done
I know the prevailing wisdom nationally is that Buccaneers quarterback Josh Freeman can't hit a bear in the ass with a two-by-four at the present time. To be sure, his completion percentage is absolutely abysmal. However, watching the Week 3 tape, Freeman probably had his best game throwing the ball since Greg Schiano was named head coach.
Freeman was plagued by at least five drops from his skill position players, including three probable touchdowns. I am not going to sit here and make excuses for Freeman, but the fact remains that he did about all he could to get the Bucs into the endzone against the Patriots (he can't throw and catch the ball).
With the Bucs sitting at 0-3, it's apparent that Freeman likely isn't in the Buccaneers' plans past this season. So if I were a team that was a decent quarterback away from making a playoff run (see Vikings, Minnesota), I would be burning up the phone lines to try to trade for him. He is just 25 and he showed before Schiano arrived that he could complete more than 60 percent of his passes when put in favorable circumstances. I can't imagine someone won't pull the trigger on such a trade soon.
Get the ball to the Bengals rookie
It's time for the Bengals to name Giovani Bernard their starting running back. This kid moves at a different speed than anyone else when he is on the field and he has shown he can make some fantastic plays in both the running and the passing game. I am still in awe of his touchdown lunge from this past Sunday over the Packers. I just don't see how he was able to get the ball across the goalline from where he jumped. But it happened and will continue to happen as they continue to feed him the ball.
RGIII is back.
No, not the running RGIII and I know that is who everyone wants to see. But throwing RGIII was on full display against the Lions.
I said last week that the most important thing to look at when evaluating RGIII in the next few weeks is if he started to trust his knee enough to push off it when he set up to throw the ball. He did just that on Sunday for the whole game, and while he wasn't perfect, he threw for over 300 yards and had a 64 percent completion rate.
In particular, Griffin consistently had the same old zip from last year when throwing to routes run outside of the numbers. He also threw just a beautiful deep ball in the third quarter that may have helped win the game had the receiver not bobbled it. That throw covered over 55 yards in the air. So yes, the throwing RGIII is back. Don't let anybody tell you different.
Cam shows up
Sticking with quarterbacks: While everyone is lamenting the butt kicking the Giants suffered through in Carolina on Sunday and wondering what is up with the New York offense giving up seven sacks, my focus was on the leap forward Cam Newton took during the game.
The Panthers came into the game 0-2 and yet again everyone was talking about Newton getting off to a slow start. Newton silenced his critics -- at least for one week -- with a dominating performance that saw him throw three touchdowns. Most impressive is none of them went to Steve Smith, his number one wide receiver. He also racked up 45 yards on the ground and another rushing touchdown. If he can put together a string of performances like that, the Panthers should be in good shape the rest of the season now that their defense is playing pretty lights-out football.
Dolphins the favorites in AFC East
Miami may be surprising a lot of people but I am not among them. Since last year, they have been quickly building a very strong team on both sides of the ball. Their spending spree this offseason to pick up big play wide receiver Mike Wallace, linebackers Dannell Ellerbe and Phillip Wheeler, and cornerback Brent Grimes along with the talent they already had has paid immediate dividends and propelled them to a 3-0 start. Don't expect them to cool off anytime soon unless they suffer a major injury. In fact, they are my pick to win the AFC East with the Pats still trying to break in some young wide receivers.
Selvie steps in for Spencer
Defensive end George Selvie was cut this offseason by two teams that are both 0-3 -- the Jaguars and Buccaneers. All George has done in the interim is earned the starting defensive end job opposite DeMarcus Ware in Dallas. With Anthony Spencer injured, Selvie came home with two sacks in the first three games, a career high for him.
The Cowboys are currently 2-1 and Spencer will be forced to have season-ending surgery so Selvie should be counted on even more heavily than was previously thought this season. I coached him as a true freshman at the University of South Florida and his current coach is my old defensive line coach Rod Marinelli. There is no doubt in my mind that he will be up to the task. Selvie is yet another example of what happens when preparation meets opportunity and that is what the NFL, and really all sports, is about.