The 49ers’ defense gets a lot of love, history sets bad precedents for Chris Johnson, and the Jets’ offense remains a failure with a hundred fathers. Time to open up the Tweet mail and dig deep into the game tape to answer your questions.
(Questions have been reformatted from Twitter-speak)
Q: Mark Sanchez has a ton of communication problems with his receivers. I'm starting to think it's Sanchez, not them. Am I right?
A: Aw, man, why are you making me break down Jets offensive film?
Let’s start with the throw that bounced off Jeff Cumberland’s back. That was clearly Cumberland’s fault: The Steelers were showing a heavy blitz, he was the hot receiver and it was his job to sit down in the wide-open space in the middle of the field and haul in a short, safe catch for a first down. The mistake is on Cumberland himself, though it also comes down to preparation by the coaching staff.
Santonio Holmes and Sanchez were clearly not on the same page, and there were at least two times when Holmes ran a route that Sanchez did not anticipate. The first time, Holmes ran a post behind his defender when Sanchez threw to the sideline. As a generalization (I have no idea how Jets option routes are designed and installed), Holmes should be running away from his defender and toward the sideline on that play. In the fourth quarter, Holmes got open inside the jam of a defender on a slant route, and Sanchez threw the ball into the Monongahela River. I tend to place the blame on Sanchez there.
But really, what we have is an adequate-at-best starting quarterback throwing to one of the least qualified “go-to receivers” in the NFL, in an offense that does not appear to have any built-in plan for dealing with a 10-point deficit. Finding fault on a play-by-play basis is nitpicking.
Q: Have other running backs with 2,000-yard seasons followed them with two or three awful ones in a row? Or is it just Chris Johnson?
A: It happened to Jamal Lewis, whose 2004 and 2005 seasons were worse than Johnson’s 2010 and 2011 years. Lewis spent the rest of his career as a low-gear grinder, getting to 1,000 yards because the Ravens and Browns kept feeding him the ball. Terrell Davis fell completely apart, but that was due to injuries, not a sudden inability to gain more than two yards per carry.
Barry Sanders had one more great season, then walked away from the game. Both O.J. Simpson and Eric Dickerson had a letdown year after reaching 2,000 yards, but then bounced back for a few more signature seasons. Go down the list a bit further, and Earl Campbell was never close to the same back after his 1,900-yard season, Ahman Green had a decent follow-up to his 1,883-yard season, but then started to get beaten up, and Shaun Alexander should have taken a bow and disappeared after his 1,800-yard season. On the other hand, Sanders had a 1,800-yard season in 1994, and the best was yet to come.
These are data pinpoints scattered across decades, so drawing conclusions is dangerous. What we can see is that a 2,000-yard season is the result of many things coming together: a talented back in his prime, a great offensive line, an offense both willing and able to emphasize the run and a little luck. Those things don’t stay together very long, and most NFL running backs do not have long primes.
Q: Why do the replacement refs allow more defensive-back holding?
A: Several reasons. First, the rules for downfield contact at lower levels of competition are much more lax. Watch a college game and you will see more downfield bumping, and one of the things rookie defensive backs always struggle with is learning how to cover with limited contact. If I spent a decade officiating Division III football, you could explain the NFL rules to me, and I could do my best, but there is no way I would adjust my expectations after just four preseason games and two regular ones.
Second, any new worker at any new job is going to struggle with the subtleties of the job. These guys are battling to get the basics right, and to make sure they don’t miss any helmet-to-helmet fouls or other dangerous plays. When in doubt, they leave defensive holding out, because they're not sure and it isn't something that's going to get them criticized on ESPN if they blow it. What is interesting is that pass-interference penalties are up after the first two games. My gut tells me that this is the result of defensive backs getting bolder and bolder until they do something flagrant and obvious.
Q: Is Kellen Winslow worth a waiver-wire pickup this week?
A: Winslow was signed this week to replace Aaron Hernandez for the Patriots. He has a chronic knee injury that scared many teams away, including the Patriots, after the Seahawks let him go late in camp.
There are many reasons to be skeptical of Winslow gaining a large role in the Patriots’ offense, including the complexity of the scheme, Winslow’s health and his reputation as a goofball. Many of us who drafted Hernandez in fantasy football were gambling that he might end up with a role in the running game, which has zero chance of happening in Winslow’s case. Considering how much tight-end talent is available in the NFL, there have to be better options in your league. There is no way Dennis Pitta, Ed Dickson, Todd Heap and Kyle Rudolph were all taken in most leagues. All of them are better short-term solutions for a Hernandez crunch than Winslow.
Q: How is Chris Culliver playing for the 49ers? Is he the real deal?
A: Chris Culliver is a big, physical cornerback who is listed as the 49ers’ nickel defender but often matches up with outside receivers. He has drawn some tough assignments in the first two games, matching up with Calvin Johnson and Jordy Nelson a few times, but also drawing speedster Titus Young and deep threat James Jones. So far, he has been solid.
Culliver got called for pass interference against Young early in the Lions game. It was very ticky-tack, but it was a call that the real refs might have made. I think he can avoid fouls like that when he a) learns to be a little subtler with his hand checks, and b) gets a better reputation and more benefit of the doubt. Apart from the hand check, it was excellent coverage. In Week 1, Culliver forced Jones to push off to get separation on a long pass up the sideline, drawing a foul against the Packers. When not drawing contact fouls, he has done a fine job of staying with receivers deep, has made some plays in run support and has allowed a few short passes in off coverage and held the receivers to short gains.
Contact fouls will keep happening for Culliver because he is a big cornerback covering some big receivers, and because the 49ers’ scheme is going to leave him challenged along the sideline at times. He has been impressive so far, giving the 49ers one more positive on defense.
Q: The 49ers use a variety of schemes on their front seven, but their secondary plays a lot of basic Man-2 coverage: two deep safeties and man coverage underneath. Moving forward, how do you expect 49ers opponents will try to exploit this?
A: With Culliver playing so well that the 49ers can go three deep at cornerback and still feel safe in man coverage, it will be tough. Here’s the question that answers that question: Which team has an offensive line good enough to get five receivers into the formation consistently, forcing potential bad matchups with tight ends, backs or fourth wideouts? I don’t know, either. If there is a team that can block the 49ers without constant extra protection, they should be able to find some “wins” in man coverage.
Q: What are the Cards doing on defense that's working so well?
A: The Cardinals’ defense was a well-kept secret last year, and it picked up where it left off this year. It uses a 2-4-5 defense a lot, and that works because Darnell Dockett and Calais Campbell can get penetration even when they are the only down linemen. There is talent all across the defense: Dockett and Adrian Wilson are the old guard, and they are still effective; Patrick Peterson is a rising star; Campbell, Sam Acho, Daryl Washington, Paris Lenon and others form the kind of nucleus that would get more attention if the Cardinals played in a different market or, you know, had an offense.
One thing I took away from the Patriots game is how hard the Cardinals are to attack laterally. They have great speed and aggressiveness at linebacker, Peterson tackles well and the linemen can blow the play up from behind. They are not a team I want to attack with a lot of screens and outside runs.
Q: Green Bay running a fake field goal on fourth-and-26. Good idea? Is that ever a good idea?
A: It was a great idea on Thursday night!
To drop a little mathematics here: You will probably find analysts who researched the last 200 fake field goals (going back to 1963 or whatever) and drew conclusions based on the success rate of those plays. That analysis misses the point. Teams attempt fakes like the one the Packers used based on what they see on the opponent’s game film. If they catch opponents napping on special teams, or selling out completely to block a kick, then they take the shot. That’s why non-emergency onside kicks are so often successful: They are run when coaches determine that the other team is not maintaining discipline, not because of some probabilistic model.
So if you see that the opponent has gotten sloppy or inattentive, if the attempt is kind of long, and your whole team needs a jolt, take the calculated risk.
Q: How far down will the Redskins’ defense bottom out without Brian Orakpo and Adam Carriker?
A: Oh, I don’t want to dump on the Redskins any more than I always dump on them, which is an awful, awful lot. The losses, particularly of Orakpo, are huge, and any team would suffer as a result.
The point I have spent a decade trying to make about the Redskins is that their entire roster-management plan is set up so losses to key players are especially devastating to them. They give away too many mid-round draft picks, the kinds of players who become rank-and-file starters or quality depth. They cram too many veterans onto the preseason roster, so the young players they do draft are always fighting for reps with old guys who have maxed out and should not be part of a rebuilding program.
These mistakes have not been as big a problem this year as in years past, and they have not been as big a deal on the front seven as they are at other positions, so maybe newcomers step up. Or there could be a silver lining, with expectations lower and the Redskins finishing with a record that will allow them to draft an impact player in the fir … oh, right.