For many fans, the low point of Christmas was Derek Carr’s injury. Even if you’re not a Raiders loyalist, it’s disappointing to see the young star of a Super Bowl contender go down.
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There’s a perception that I don’t like Carr. That comes from an article in early November in which I wrote that he’s a bright young talent but not an MVP candidate because he wasn’t playing on time, seeing the field with consistent clarity or throwing with precision accuracy as often as he could have.
All of those things were evident on film, and I stand by the article. Also evident on film has been Carr’s improvement since then. His footwork, and therefore accuracy, stabilized significantly. He became better throwing from movement, particularly within the pocket. His timing and field vision sharpened. You didn’t see him leave opportunities on the field like he did early this year.
Twitter trolls will say this refreshed analysis is too little too late. Which of course, is nonsensical; I didn’t change, Carr did.
Now the Raiders face life without their third-year star. The offense will undoubtedly look different under Matt McGloin. He’s a below-average arm talent replacing one of the NFL’s snappiest velocity throwers. The good news is the Raiders are well-schemed. McGloin can benefit just like Carr did. He’ll play behind a lot of six-offensive lineman fronts, ensuring steadier pass protection plus a strong ground attack, and he’ll have his reads defined in the underneath passing game.
The question lies in what he can do at the deep-intermediate levels. His only significant pass against the Colts came on one of these. It was a third down rope to Amari Cooper on a straight vertical route. Cooper made the contested catch, securing the win. The play was more about the receiver than quarterback. The Raiders can live with this. Counting on Cooper to bounce back from a quiet last few weeks and relying on Michael Crabtree to get himself open and/or make the tough play. This, plus a nice scheme and strong O-line? Oakland’s situation is difficult but not untenable.
Broncos: The loss of C.J. Anderson and, a few weeks later, fullback Andy Janovich ultimately did this team in. The running game vanished and this offense wasn’t equipped to be as pass-heavy as it had to be.
Packers: Mike McCarthy did a superb job with three-receiver route combinations to attack the Vikings’ two-high safety coverages last week. He’ll have similar opportunities against the Lions Sunday night.
Lions: I’m among the legion of those who really respect defensive coordinator Teryl Austin. But on Ezekiel Elliott’s 55-yard touchdown Monday night, Austin’s D employed one of the worst front seven structures I’ve seen all year. It was actually a front six (the Cowboys were in three-receiver personnel), and all six defenders were on the line of scrimmage. The call was a slot blitz. Which makes you wonder: did Austin think it was third-and-3 instead of second-and-3? By blitzing off the slot, you’re counting on making the running back stay inside. But by putting your linebackers up on the line against a possible run play, they’re positioned to be blocked immediately at the snap. Which is what happened. Elliott instantly got into space and the only defender left, free safety Glover Quin, had no chance.
Chiefs: A few months ago in an All-32 column I highlighted Travis Kelce’s improved blocking. That ascension has continued. Kelce’s blocking, in fact, has become a focal point in many of Kansas City’s run designs.
Chargers: Firing Mike McCoy would be foolish. His offense is one of the best-constructed in football. Injuries have been this team’s biggest problem.
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Buffalo at N.Y. Jets
Bills: Two things have stood out offensively: the necessary simplicity of the passing game, and Tyrod Taylor’s tendency to break himself down in the pocket, which often leaves wide open receivers untargeted. Until quarterback gets straightened out, it won’t matter who coaches this team.
Jets: It’s been a bad few weeks for Sheldon Richardson from a PR standpoint, but not a playing standpoint. Richardson was sensational against the Patriots, particularly as an athletic anchor in run defense.
Giants: Three of their players have been the NFL’s best run defenders at their respective positions: Olivier Vernon at defensive end, Damon Harrison at nose shade tackle and Landon Collins at strong safety.
Washington: Kirk Cousins made a big-time play in the win over Chicago last week. On Vernon Davis’s 13-yard reception to convert third-and-5, Cousins extended the action and, after quickly collecting himself, threw a laser knowing that multiple defenders would drill him after the release. That’s the kind of difference-making quarterback play that can’t be taught.
Patriots: Fullback James Develin has been a huge factor down the stretch. He’s outstanding on iso-lead blocks in New England’s power running game, and he can also split out wide in spread sets. He’s not a threat out wide, per se, but the team’s comfort with having him at least line up here allows for the spread game to take place out of 2-back personnel groupings. That’s an avenue toward getting wide receivers matched against zone linebackers inside.
Dolphins: Perhaps no coach is fonder of 3×1 formations than Adam Gase. And get this: in 2016 the Dolphins, at least when Ryan Tannehill has been in, have thrown to the “1” receiver side just once. All season. So heads up, defenses: When the Dolphins are in a 3×1, the ball is going to the trips side.
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Seattle at San Francisco
Seahawks: Few route runners have better patience than Doug Baldwin. He is tremendous at setting up his moves, particularly in short areas.
49ers: Twice this season, Colin Kaepernick has played extremely well in late fourth quarter scenarios when the offense had to operate as quickly as Chip Kelly’s system is designed for. One was the Miami game (the Niners came up just a few yards short), the other was last week at Los Angeles (a comeback win capped by a go-ahead two-point conversion).
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Dallas at Philadelphia
Cowboys: There are two crucial aspects of Dak Prescott’s game that the Cowboys feature very well. One is his ball-handling on play-fakes, which aids the misdirection and rollout concepts. The other is his mobility, which becomes more of a factor in O-coordinator Scott Linehan’s play-calling near the red zone.
Eagles: Three-tight end sets have become a defining piece of Doug Pederson’s offense down the stretch. The Eagles have run extremely well out of these, plus Zach Ertz and Trey Burton are just flexible enough as receivers to lend some aerial dimension.
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Baltimore at Cincinnati
Ravens: They’re not going to the playoffs because their greatest strength, their run defense, fell apart in December. After allowing 73.8 yards a game through Week 13 (best in the NFL), they’ve given up 130.3 a game since (23rd in the NFL). And there was no discernible explanation from the film. The Ravens simply stopped being dominant here.
Bengals: The pass rush was noisy against the Texans on Christmas Eve, but it’s been wildly inconsistent for much of the last two years. That must change if this defense is to continue playing as much two-high zone as it does. Finding a dynamic right defensive end to replace the tantalizing but often-invisible Michael Johnson would be wise.
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Jacksonville at Indianapolis
Jaguars: After blowing a few coverages in September and October, Jalen Ramsey was much stronger in the second half of his rookie season. With his unmatched combination of size and athleticism, Ramsey has a chance to be a top-five corner by this time next year.
Colts: Inside linebackers Antonio Morrison and Edwin Jackson were sensational on the first few series against Oakland. They attacked double-teams in the run game, consistently exploding to the ball. Then the Raiders went with more sweeps. Those were well-blocked, the ground game got going and Morrison and Jackson went back to being mostly invisible. The Colts should take a hard look at the inside linebacker position over the offseason. Even if D’Qwell Jackson comes back (he’ll count $5.75 million against the cap and can be cut for just $250,000 in dead money). They could use a forceful three-down player.
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Chicago at Minnesota
Bears: Defensive coordinator Vic Fangio doesn’t like to blitz. Last Saturday against Washington, we saw why. The Bears called three blitzes that amounted to Cover 0 (that is solo man coverage across the board). The first resulted in a DeSean Jackson 57-yarder. The second was Chris Thompson’s 17-yard touchdown. On the third, cornerback Tracy Porter (who had a miserable game) was flagged for pass interference 28 yards downfield.
Vikings: Speaking of blitzing, linebacker Eric Kendricks has been very good on green dogs this season. A green dog is where you’re in man coverage, the guy you’re guarding stays in to block, and so you rush the quarterback. It’s a staple in Mike Zimmer’s system.
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Cleveland at Pittsburgh
Browns: Positions to address this offseason, in order of significance: quarterback, pass rusher, safety.
Steelers: Keith Butler deserves serious consideration for Assistant Coach of the Year honors. His lineup was very callow in places, so he adjusted his scheme early on. As the season progressed, Butler found roles for all of the young players, figured out his front seven personnel rotations and gradually expanded his disguises and pressure concepts. In the end, the Steelers D was the top-ranked in terms of yards over the final six weeks of the season and now enters January playing its best football.
Panthers: Kelvin Benjamin will be scrutinized heading into next season. He was a plodding route runner this year. The question is whether his surgically repaired knee was a factor. If it wasn’t, and this is just the way Benjamin plays, then the question becomes whether his unique size and catching radius can carry him. He’d essentially be a more extreme version of Plaxico Burress, which, despite Burress’s success, is not a great thing.
Bucs: I can assure you that Dirk Koetter will spend time this offseason thinking up ways to use Cameron Brate. Lanky and supple, Brate was the most improved tight end in football this year.
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Houston at Tennessee
Texans: Tom Savage is 1-for-2 in terms of pretty performance, but he’s 2-for-2 in terms of wins. And sometimes your ugly wins are the most uplifting. Savage and the offense did not play well on Christmas Eve against Cincinnati, but in a handful of crucial moments, he willingly stepped up against oncoming pressure and fit balls through tight windows. That’s a crucial trait that often separates good QBs from average ones.
Titans: DeMarco Murray had a fine season—very fine, in fact—but there’s a debate on the horizon in Nashville. Look closely and you’ll notice Derrick Henry is a more dynamic runner.
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New Orleans at Atlanta
Saints: The final report on Drew Brees’s two new targets, Michael Thomas and Coby Fleener: Thomas is a good mechanical route runner who can prosper in a precisely schemed system like New Orleans’. Fleener is what he was in Indianapolis: iffy as a blocker and hit or miss as a receiver, particularly when it comes to contested balls.
Falcons: It was a quiet day for this pass rush at Carolina last week, despite facing a rickety Panthers O-line. The Falcons got away with it then (Cam Newton was erratic), but they won’t in the postseason. The front four must make plays.
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Arizona at Los Angeles
Cardinals: Linebacker Sio Moore filled in for the injured Deone Bucannon in Seattle and was better against the read-option than any defender in the NFL this season. Moore has superb downhill speed when attacking at an angle. (He was that way in Oakland, as well.) It’s bizarre he hasn’t landed as a starter somewhere. (Are there issues behind the scenes?)
Rams: As the season wore on Todd Gurley’s vision and decisiveness became worse. That’s the cumulative effect of playing behind a poor offensive line.