The Notebook: Anquan Boldin, LeGarrette Blount, Greg Hardy poised for playoff dominance

Mark J. Rebilas-USA TODAY Sports

Week 17 said a lot about which players and which teams are ready to storm through the playoffs. Retired NFL defensive end Stephen White takes a closer look at some potential postseason stars in this week's Notebook. SB Nation 2014 NFL Playoff Coverage

Can someone remind me why the Ravens were so eager to allow Anquan Boldin to seek employment elsewhere?

The NFL is a business. I know this as well as anyone having been cut three times during my career. Ozzie Newsome is one of the best general managers I have ever seen. Still, I can't make heads or tails of the Boldin decision, especially after the last week of regular season games.

Boldin is no longer a No. 1 wide receiver, if he ever was one. However, one thing this guy still does at an elite level, something that seems to have been devalued by gaudy 40 times and vertical leap numbers, is key to the wide receiver position ... catch the football when it is thrown his way. With the 49ers, he didn't necessarily look like a world-beater with Michael Crabtree out. Now that Crabtree is back, Boldin is giving teams the business once again. You can't convince me he wouldn't have done the same this year in Baltimore with Torrey Smith taking the top off of defenses.

All told Boldin had a great year in a passing offense that ranked only above the New York Jets and Tampa Bay Buccaneers. Boldin finished the regular season with an outstanding game in a win over the Cardinals with nine catches for 149 yards and a touchdown. Several of those catches showed off not just his ability to make tough catches away from his body, but also his ability to run after the receptions and break tackles to turn a small gain into a big play.

That's exactly what he did in the first quarter on third-and-four when he took a short out route from the slot, broke a tackle, avoided two defenders and carried two other guys on his back all the way down to the Cardinals three-yard line. He made a five-yard catch into a 63-yard gain. While you won't see him catch a go route for 60+ yards very often, those kind of run after the catch plays are what he has been known for throughout his career. He doesn't appear to be slowing down in that department.

Sunday's brilliant performance brought his total numbers for the season up to 85 catches for 1,179 yards and seven touchdowns (that ranks him 16th, tied for 14th and tied for 23rd in the league, respectively). By the way, he had better numbers in each category that Torrey Smith did for the year. And he did this making relative peanuts at $6 million dollars for this season.

You can't tell me that the Ravens offense, which managed to score only 17 measly points in their loss to the Bengals on Sunday with a long shot at the playoffs on the line, couldn't have used that kind of production this year?

Hogwash!

Ozzie Newsome has done a lot of things right since being named general manager of the Ravens. Trading Boldin for a sixth-round pick counts as one of the few bad decisions he has made during his tenure. The 49ers will be reaping the benefits of that mind-boggling move in the playoffs.

Release the Kraken

Maybe he was just misquoted.

In early June, Panthers defensive end Greg Hardy, coming off a breakout 2012 season where he had 11 sacks, was reported to have said his that his goal this season was 50 sacks. Fifty. Sacks.

Not as a team. Hardy said he was going to get 50 all by his damn self.

In the last seven weeks alone, Hardy racked up 10 sacks

This elicited quite a few giggles from the peanut gallery, myself included. It's nice to have big goals, but this guy was talking about more than doubling the sack record for a season.

In hindsight maybe Hardy meant 15 not 50 sacks. If so, I am going to start asking that guy for stock advice!

Playing with an expiring contract that paid him $1.35 million dollars this year, Hardy did not miss an OTA or a preseason practice to hold out for a new deal. Instead, he earned a big pay raise on the field. He's been absolutely on fire the second half of the season. In the last seven weeks alone, Hardy racked up 10 sacks, including four against playoff bound teams and eight in the final three weeks of the season.

His four-sack day against the Falcons, in a game that the Panthers needed to win to take the NFC South title, brought him up to 15 sacks on the year, good enough for the third-best sack production of any player this season.

Whether Hardy actually meant it when he said he was shooting for 50 sacks or not, two things are for sure in my mind:

1. The Panthers have to feel stupid for not signing him to a new deal before now.

2. No one is giggling any more.

Hardyhogwarts_medium

(via)

Blount force trauma

The Buffalo Bills were on the wrong end of an old fashioned ass kicking on Sunday. While it was a team victory for the Patriots, there was one man throwing the haymakers: Legarrette Blount.

Blount started the game for the Patriots at running back in rare form. He kept pounding the Bills both up the gut and with a few bounces outside for extra yards. On every single run, even those that did not go for big yardage, Blount was constantly moving the pile and falling forward. In the second quarter, Blount broke off his first big run of the day, a 35-yard touchdown on a counter that went right after he saw cut back lane and outran Bills safety Jim Leonhard to the goal line.

It would not be the last time Blount beat Leonhard to get into the end zone.

Before we get to that, I want to point out that Blount also had two huge kickoff returns in the game, both of which lead to points. After the 83-yarder in the third quarter, the Patriots scored a touchdown. After the 62-yarder in the fourth, they managed to get a field goal. Keep that in the back of your mind, Blount was at least partially responsible for those 10 more points. And averaging 72 yards on your only two kickoff returns ... at 250+ pounds! ... who does that?

Back to the damage Blount did on the ground. What the stat sheet won't show you is that he sat out most of the third quarter after fumbling at the end of the second. Even though the Patriots recovered the ball and eventually scored a field goal to go up 16-3 at halftime, we all know how Bill Belichick is, and homie don't play that.

Stevan Ridley went in the game instead of Blount when the Patriots got the ball on their first drive of the second half. Blount was reduced to only three consecutive carries for a total of nine yards in the third quarter. The problem for the Bills is that they scored a touchdown in the third quarter to keep it close. That meant Blount would get more opportunities in the fourth quarter, and he wasn't about to squander them.

With the score 27-20 and 2:40 left in a game nobody on the Patriots' sideline wanted to see go into overtime, Blount delivered the coup de grace of his virtuoso performance. From the Bills 35-yard line, the Patriots were facing seven defenders on the line of scrimmage and a total of 10 men in the box. Seriously.

Bills_10_medium

None of that mattered as Blount patiently followed his fullback's lead on an isolation play to the left, made it through the line, and bounced out to the sideline. Who did he see there? His old pal Jim Leonhard whom he affectionately punched in the face with a stiff arm.

To Leonhard's credit, he kept fighting and made one last effort to get Blount on the ground by diving at his legs, but it just wasn't meant to be. Blount simply was not going to be denied on that run and he managed to keep himself upright long enough to dive across the goal line and put an end to the Bills' season.

Blount's final tally on the stat sheet was 24 rushes for a whopping 189 yards and two touchdowns to go along with his big day returning kickoffs. Not too bad for a former undrafted free agent who was effectively given away in April by the Buccaneers in exchange for a seventh-round pick and a guy they weren't even sure would ever play football.

Not too bad indeed.

Schiano's damage

Somewhat related ... After being fired on Monday, former Bucs coach Greg Schiano decided to hold a press conference away from the team facility. Kinda weird, but ok. As he has done many times this season, Schiano talked like he was living on a different world from the rest of us. It had the tone of a man who had been fired after winning 10 games or something. One of the most interesting comments he made was this:

"I think we’re leaving behind a football team better than when we got here."

A dubious statement, at best. Yes, some players acquired over the last two years have certainly helped to raise the talent level of a team whose ownership refused to spend money during the three years preceding Schiano's tenure. Still, the Bucs went 4-12 this year, the very same record Raheem Morris' Bucs had in 2011. Go through the list of former Buccaneers who Schiano et al let walk or showed the door in the last two years:

1. Michael Bennett, Seattle Seahawks - After nine sacks with the Bucs last year, he had 8.5 this year.

2. Blount and cornerback Aqib Talib, New England Patriots - Four interceptions, Pro Bowl selection.

3. Wallace Gilberry, Cincinnati Bengals - 7.5 sacks

4. George Selvie, Dallas Cowboys - 7 sacks

Seeing as how the Bucs struggled to get a pass rush from their defensive ends, couldn't find a third corner who wouldn't get lit up like a Christmas tree each Sunday, and were down to technically a fourth string starting running back who wasn't even on the team when the season started, I'm thinking they could have used any or all of these guys this season.

Hell, maybe Schiano would still have a job!

But sure Greg, the Bucs are a better football team now. Sure.

Sack race

Just when you thought Robert Quinn had the sack game sewn up, the OG Robert, he of the clan of Mathis, shows up at the end to take his lunch money.

Quinn, who had one last sack Sunday in the Rams' loss to the Seahawks, just about doubled his sack output of ten last year, ending the season with a total of 19. After trailing Robert Mathis in sacks for most of the season, Quinn's six over the last three games put him in prime position to come away with the sack crown for 2013.

Not so fast!

Mathis, closing out his 11th season in the NFL, had two sacks on Sunday in a win over the Jaguars to give him 19.5.

By the slimmest of margins, Mathis takes the sack crown for the first time in his career. After being overshadowed by former teammate Dwight Freeney in Indy, Mathis is now shining like a diamond on his own.

Yes, I'm going to remind you that four weeks ago, I predicted Mathis could still get to 20 sacks. Almost, bro, almost.

Where's the sack?

NFL.com which is normally pretty official, does not show Pro Bowl defensive tackle Gerald McCoy as being credited with a sack against the New Orleans Saints which would leave him one sack shy of the first Buccaneer to get to double digits since Simeon Rice did so in 2003. Or to put it simply, he would have been the first guy to do it in a long ass time.

But wait, WHAT?!

Mccoy_sack_medium

'SPLAIN YOURSELVES NFL SCORE KEEPERS. WE NEED SOME ANSWERS!!! *Kanye voice*

Aaron Rodgers will make you pay

There was a lot to like and a lot to dislike about the Packers/Bears slugfest with both teams fighting for the NFC North title and a playoff berth. The running game and big plays on offense and defense were all very entertaining. The weird Packers touchdown after the Bears assumed an Aaron Rodgers fumble was an incomplete pass, not so much.

I would like to turn your attention to the Bears' last two plays on defense, aside from the two point conversion tries by the Packers. Yes, I said last TWO plays on defense.

Don't look at me with that crazy face, trust me you will want to see this.

Allow me to break down the last play first, the desperation, game winning, division sealing, playoff clutching 48-yard touchdown pass from Rodgers to Randall Cobb.

This is the end zone shot of the play which shows how the Bears blitzed the Packers on this play. I am sure some of you out there are wondering why I am not illustrating the coverage break down instead. Well, these pictures tell you all you need to know about the play.

Packers_td_medium

Lets go through my illustration. The four Bears defenders to the left (black arrows) are all making what will be essentially straight rushes. From the left:

No. 99 Shea McClellin will rush outside Packers right tackle Don Barclay.

No. 55 Lance Briggs will rush outside Packers right guard T.J. Lang.

No. 98 Corey Wootton will rush outside to his left of Packers center Evan Dietrich-Smith.

No. 50 James Anderson will rush to his right of Packers center Dietrich-Smith.

This is where it starts to get hinky. (I said hinky, not kinky, perv).

When I watched this play several times from the TV copy, I could see that the Bears sent seven rushers after Rodgers. As I always say, I'm no math major, but with only the offensive line and one running back blocking that should've left six Packers to block seven rushers.

Advantage, Bears.

However, I did not see a Bears defender come in unblocked which upends every math theory I've ever learned. The answer was in the coaches' film.

Dietrich-Smith slid to block Wooten, which means Packers left guard Josh Sitton has to block Anderson. That would have left Packers left tackle David Bakhtiari and running back John Kuhn (blue circle) to block three Bears players, No. 96 Jay Ratliff, backup cornerback No. 31 Isaiah Frey and No. 90 Julius Peppers.

Most everyone saw Kuhn go across and block Peppers low. Peppers falls down trying to beat that block and tackle Rodgers, who is rolling to his left at the same time. The first problem comes in when ... wait, let me back up.

See that red circle around No. 31?  Well if you have read my earlier stuff you know that probably isn't a good thing. Also, the fact that I pointed out he is a backup ... doesn't that give you the feel of "Yeoman Johnson" from the original Star Trek?

I can't be sure, but I believe Frey is supposed to be in coverage, not blitzing here. I will explain why later, but just keep that in the back of your mind.

Back to the play, the SECOND problem is Ratliff goes inside of Sitton (yellow line) instead of outside of him (red line) which allows him to essentially block Ratliff and Anderson at the same time. Bakhtiari locks up Frey and that's how they legally blocked seven with only si ... oh wait one damn minute.

Crap, I almost forgot the second picture.

Packers_hold_medium

Yeah, that's what we call a hold around these here parts, folks.

So, to sum it up: Ratliff going inside, Peppers falling down and Dietrich-Smith getting away with a massive hold on Wooten is how Rodgers was able to escape to his left and deliver the pass down the field to a wide open Cobb for a touchdown.

Yep.

Why didn't you need to see the coverage on this play? Am I just being lazy?

That's a trick question.

I LOVE being lazy on the holidays, but that ain't why I'm not breaking down the coverage.

The answer to that is in my breakdown of the coverage in the preceding play, the incomplete pass to Jordy Nelson on third-and-seven that set up Rodgers for his hero moment in the first place.

The Bears also blitzed on that play (pictured below). The difference is on third down they only brought six and kept one safety deep (red circle). Guess what, though? They still had busted coverage on that play, and had Rodgers seen it, he could have thrown a much easier touchdown to James Jones on third down than he did to Cobb on fourth down.

Don't believe me, just watch.

Bears_bust_1_medium

The first picture shows the Bears right corner getting a cover 2 jam on Jones (yellow circle). The problem is there aren't two safeties deep, only one. And that safety is actually dropping closer to the hash away from Jones rather than in his direction. So ...

Bears_bust_2_medium

When the corner hands off Jones to a safety that isn't there and Jones is running a go route with the only safety standing pretty much flat footed in the middle of the field ... yeah, that one could've been real ugly.

Once again, this is just an informed guess, but with the Bears making that kind of coverage bust on third down with the game on the line, I just highly doubt they meant to send even more guys on fourth down.

Last thing, and not to be an ass about it, but so many people try to use "Tampa 2" as some sort of pejorative these days when the truth is it would have been a helluva lot better call on both those plays than what the Bears ended up going with.

I'm just saying.

He still missed

I tried to be outraged about the missed call at the end of regulation in the Chiefs and Chargers game where the Chargers illegally overloaded one side trying to block the Chiefs field goal attempt, but they didn't block the kick.

It's been a long time since I played, so I know times have changed. This is a brand spanking new rule instituted this year. For literally decades kickers have done just fine making field goals while the opposing team was doing all kinds of overload rushes. Chiefs kicker Ryan Succop simply missed that field goal, however. Hey man, shit happens.

The Bucs team I played on in 1999 might have gone to the Super Bowl after holding the "Greatest Show on Turf" Rams to 12 points in the NFC Championship game had the refs not ruled Bert Emmanuel's catch incomplete. This was not that.

So, while by letter of the law the Chiefs were probably entitled to another kick, a kick which may have sent the Chargers home for the playoffs, all I can say to the Steelers fans complaining about it now is cry me a river while the world's tiniest violin plays the saddest song ever in the background.

Get over it.

Kansas City's depth

The one thing I do want to point out about the Chiefs/Chargers game is how good the Chiefs looked even playing mostly backups. That speaks to some serious quality depth which can be a key element to a team trying to make it to the Super Bowl. Between now and February there will be injuries to players in the playoffs, such is the nature of football. After Sunday the Chiefs know they have some guys who can step up and play well if they need someone to fill in for any starter that might go down.

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