If we learned anything from yesterday’s games it’s that week one does not a season make. That’s why when the 49ers held off the Packers (and some questionable officiating) yesterday I had to check my enthusiasm a bit. The things you learn about NFL Teams in week one can often be a red herring. Just ask anyone who has ever played fantasy football for confirmation. Get the right matchup and your favorite team can come out of week one looking like conquering heroes, see Bears, Chicago; and the opposite can also be true, see Packers, Green Bay. That’s why the line to next week’s Bears/Packers game will get pushed at least a point in the Packers favor by a public that does not know how to process what they saw in week one.
So what did I watch last week?
I watched a Bears offense that looked completely competent against a Dwight Freeney-less Colts D. It was great to see Brandon Marshall and Jay Cutler start the season in sync. Cutler made a couple of great back shoulder passes to Marshall, which is a good sign for Chicago’s passing game. Matt Forte averaged 5 yards per carry and Michael Bush came in for goal line situations and scored two touchdowns. It’s nice to see that team often described as getting of the bus running actually be able to run the ball effectively. Bears fans also got to get a brief glimpse of the glory that is the play-action pass on a beautifully thrown deep ball from Cutler to rookie Alshon Jeffery. The problem here of course is that the Colts defense could very well end up being the worst in the league, so to it’s hard to take away much from this performance.
The same could be said for the Bears defence, that looked dominant at times against the Andrew Luck lead Colts. Julius Peppers looked a whole lot like vintage Julius Peppers, plantar fasciitis be damned. Luck spent most of the game running for his life, he was sacked three times, threw three picks, fumbled once and only looked good when Chicago started backing off. From all of the things I saw yesterday what I came away most concerned about is the the Colts ability to protect their number one pick and the future of that franchise. The last thing I want to see as a fan of the NFL is Andrew Luck get shell shocked to point where we start calling him the next David Carr.
The game I took in with the most interest yesterday was 9ers/Packers. It’s been tough having to read everyone and their mother talk about how the 49ers had to regress given their advanced team metrics last season. It seemed logical that team who outperformed their win total by 7-8 wins a year ago would come back down to Earth. But the 49ers kept all of their defenses starters, and if linebackers Navorro Bowman and Aldon Smith continue to improve thier defense will be even stronger than it was last year, which is a scary thought.
The 49ers played as close to a perfect game as I think they possibly could yesterday. They ran the ball effectively, stayed out of third-and-long situations, controlled the clock, and forced the Packers to play one dimensionally. It was interesting to see just how well San Fran has to play to beat an elite team though. Even though the 9ers played great, all it took was a punt return touchdown to make the game all-to-close. In a season where officiating could swing games seven or more points, I have a feeling San Francisco may fall victim to a loss due to bad officiating. I know it’s trendy to complain about the replacement refs right now, but when you rely on defense and a strong running game to win close games there is not a lot of margin for error when it comes to blown calls.
There’s something to be said about a team that says, fuck it, we are going to run the ball 30 times, what are going to do about it? It’s no secret what the 9ers are going to do on offense, and Green Bay had the entire preseason to gameplan for it, but San Fran was still able to average 5.8 yards per carry yesterday; including a 23 yard touchdown by Frank Gore that sealed the deal. The only new wrinkle the 49ers showed was a willingness to throw the ball to their wide receivers. San Francisco’s wideout caught a combined 15 balls for 152 yards and a touchdown, even if that touchdown was mostly due to a blown coverage. For a while there last year I was convinced that Alex Smith had some kind of ailment which rendered him unable to see anything that happened outside of the numbers, if he can continue to make accurate throws outside of the hashes Smith could put up some shocking numbers this year… and by shocking I mean above league average.
Randy Moss only played a handful of snaps, but when he was on the field the Packers corners played way off of him, which allowed him to catch a couple of passes on stop routes and also helped the running game by clearing out whatever edge of the field he was lined up on. Part of me wonders if Moss is getting limited plays because the 9ers want other teams to think he still has that breakaway speed when maybe he really doesn’t. I hope that’s not the case, but sooner or later teams are going to start giving Moss single coverage on Go routes, because keeping both safeties back is just playing into the hands of Jim Harbaugh and San Francisco’s running game.
It was surprising to see Green Bay play directly into the 9ers game plan by only running the ball first down. Sure their running game wasn’t effective, but you have to try running it more than nine times in a game! They could have ran some end arounds, or tried a different back, or ran some kind of read option with Randall Cobb, anything to throw the 9ers front seven off of their game. The closest thing Green Bay had to a running game yesterday was throwing dump passes to Cobb, which was effective to a point, but at no point did the the 49ers feel it necessary to play press coverage against any of the Packers receivers, they were more than content to play off of them and take away away the big play. The entire goal of the 49ers defense is to get their opponent into second-and-long and third-and-long situations where they can pin their ears back and attack the quarterback. Yesterday Aaron Rodgers must have looked like a ribeye steak to the 9ers front seven, all they needed was little A1 and a potato on the side to complete that feast.
The one player that impressed me on the Packers was Clay Matthews, who made Joe Staley look like a damn fool on just about every passing situation the 49ers were in. Staley is no slouch of a left tackle, and if Matthews could be so dominant against the 9ers this week, I shudder to think about what he is going to do against whoever the Bears decide to throw at him. I don’t think Jay Cutler is going to sleep very well this week. Green Bay’s secondary looked mighty soft yesterday, but I’m not sure how much that had to do with their front seven’s inability to stop the run. There were a couple of times Vernon Davis had clean released down the field due to play action.
As poorly as the Packers played yesterday they still kept the game close. On the one possession where the 49ers only rushed three Rodgers was able to pick the secondary apart. Getting a pass rush on number eight and making him throw short is crucial to stopping the Packers passing attack, if you can do so you have a good chance at winning the game, if not – well – you’ve seen the highlight reel. There are only a handful of teams that can put pressure on a quarterback like the 49ers, and I don’t expect to see too many games from Green Bay like yesterday’s. It was a gritty win for San Francisco, but a fun one nonetheless.
The last game on yesterday’s docket for me was Broncos/Steelers. You know the saying, you never fully appreciate something until it’s gone? That definitely applies to watching Peyton Manning orchestrate a sustained drive that is done so expertly the defense (in this case a great one) looks defeated mid drive. There was a drive Denver started with 7:50 left in the fourth quarter where Manning would literally check to a run every time Troy Polamalu played deep, which he had to due a lot because the Steelers starting Free Safety Earl Clark was out. The one time Polamalu crept into the box Manning past it to Jacob Tamme for a 19 yard gain. The drive took five minutes and led to a field goal which put Denver up six points. On the next drive Big Ben threw a pick six and the game was over.
In the third quarter Denver only had the ball for 26 seconds, and in that time Manning threw a 71 yard touchdown to Demaryius Thomas! It was as if Manning said to Mike Tomlin, “alright man, you want to keep the ball all game, that’s cool, I can help you out with that. I’ll just score here quick and you can have the ball back all you want.” People are going to pick apart Manning’s game all year. Every throw is going to be dissected, especially throws to the right sideline, which seems to be his major weakness right now. Every time he gets hit people are going to hold their breath and hope he gets up. America loves Peyton Manning, and we know that we’re watching someone play the position in a way that no other player will ever be able to duplicate. We need to enjoy the master at work while we can, because as we were all shown last year, it could all be over at any moment.
It was cute to see Pittsburgh try to establish a running game that clearly wasn’t there. Despite their run blocking wows they did what Green Bay refused to do against the 49ers – keep running! Which is smart when you have to deal with Von Miller and Elvis Dumervil every time you drop back to pass. Rushing the ball 26 times for a 2.9 yard average is not going to convince a whole lot of teams to bring eight people into the box, but you can clearly see even by the packages that the Steelers were lining up in that they are committed to running the football.
Big Ben was sacked five times last night, and hurried on almost every drop back. Normally I’d blame the offensive line for that, but it’s hard to blame what isn’t there. Pittsburgh was down to five offensive linemen on their entire roster and if one of those guys got hurt they would have had to play a TE in one of those slots. If they don’t get healthy or find some people to bolster that line soon they are going to need to look for a different quarterback because Roethlisberger is going to get killed.
The games this weekend, and those to be played tonight, show only a glimpse of a team’s potential, both good and bad, for the rest of the year. It’s a very small sample size, and while every game in an NFL Season is meaningful, it’s tough to get meaningful insight out of the first week. Next week’s Bears/Packers game will say a whole lot more about how each respective team’s season will shape up than week one. It’s a conference game in which the Packers will be playing with more to lose, but the Bears will get their chance to prove that they are one of the league’s elite teams. I fully expect Green Bay to play with great vengeance and FURIOUS anger, but I’ll let you know on Friday who I think will win the game.
Which reminds me…
From now until the end of the season you can expect an NFL preview post from me every friday and a recap on sometime the following Monday. Once it gets closer to the NBA season (can’t believe it’s only a month away) I’m going to write a weekly post on Wednesday which will be mostly hoops related. Outside of the that I’ll be updating the blog from time to time. So if you you’re looking for a quick read every couple of days, you’ll have one on this site.
It’s been awhile since I’ve done any sports writing, so bear with me as I shake off the rust.
It’s good to be back.