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Friday, September 13, 2013
What to make of early game plans?

By Christopher Harris
ESPN.com

We've come a long way in our evaluation of what a "nerd" is. Nerd culture now dominates a large quadrant of Hollywood, and in many quarters, it's flattering to be considered a nerd. But I absolutely agree not everything is about numbers. It's becoming increasingly, lamentably easy to fall back on statistical arguments to uphold a pre-existing opinion. And football isn't really a game of numbers. It's a game of moves and countermoves, a highly technical and interconnected dance where player quality frequently isn't reflected by stats.

Christopher Harris' Hard Count

And this is why I watch film. Do I sometimes make arguments based on statistics? Absolutely, though I have my favorites. (You'll see me talk "Air Yards" and "Yards at the Target" and "Yards after Contact" more than most.) But I think I live in a nether-land: not a former pro athlete, but not a numbers geek. I guess I'm a "film nerd," which gives me my own little ostracized paradise to roam around in. And that's where this column, and the Fantasy Underground podcast, mostly come from. For better or worse, I write what I see.

With that in mind, let's get to today's topics:

Three In Depth:

Andrew Luck
Andrew Luck didn't take as many downfield shots in Week 1. Hopefully, that's not the start of a trend.

1. What in the wide, wide world of sports was up with the Indianapolis Colts' game plan? Andrew Luck capped off Week 1 with a heroic comeback, including a winning TD run that saved his fantasy owners. But Pep Hamilton's first foray into NFL play-calling was a head scratcher. The Oakland Raiders look incredibly thin at corner, with Tracey Porter and Mike Jenkins starting, and Brandian Ross playing nickel, yet the Colts (who were in a struggle all day) had more run plays called (26) than pass plays (23). Not only that, but Luck also took very few downfield shots when he did throw. Only 10 of his 23 attempts traveled 10 or more yards in the air, and only three traveled 20 or more yards. This from the NFL QB who took the most shots of 20-plus yards in the entire league last year.

Now, the Raiders did seem to be in a Cover-2 shell an awful lot of the time; their safeties (Tyvon Branch and Charles Woodson) backed up 15 and 20 yards on a regular basis. No question, it seemed Luck audibled a good amount through the game, and I'm sure he saw that the defense was giving him shorter stuff. I'm not saying the Colts should've been flinging it way down deep into the hands of two good safeties when a simple dump-off would do. But there were also enough plays where Oakland went single-safety-high to have expected more shots taken.

I think this is a fascinating story in light of all the ink that was devoted to forecasting the changes in Luck and the Indy offense going from Bruce Arians to Hamilton as the primary play caller. The common narrative was Luck and his weapons would be somewhat less enticing because Hamilton is more of a West Coast devotee, and Hamilton spoke often this summer about "offensive balance." Take away Luck's rushing TD and he scored you 18 fantasy points in Week 1, which would've been almost exactly average for all QBs in Week 1. (Including Blaine Gabbert.) It's one week. But I (and T.Y. Hilton's fantasy owners) sure would like to see a happy medium in game-planning between Arians and the John Riggins-era Washington Redskins.

Cleveland's Trent Richardson
Trent Richardson needs to get the ball more, especially in the red zone.

2. Norv being Norv. Seriously, people. If I hear one more interview where Norv Turner asserts his desire to get his running back "x" number of carries, I'm going to do something drastic. LaDainian Tomlinson's rapid decline in San Diego was marked by Turner's regular pronouncements that he expected LDT to lead the NFL in carries, or break Eric Dickerson's record, or run so quickly and well it would create some kind of interdimensional rift in the space-time continuum. And now he's asserting his goal to make Trent Richardson the focus of the Cleveland Browns' Week 2 game plan.

That's great, Norv, but why the heck wasn't that the case in Week 1? My friend and colleague Keith Lipscomb was at the Browns opener against the Miami Dolphins last week, and he urged me to recheck a couple Cleveland red zone possessions, one at the end of the first half, and one in the third quarter. In the first, the Browns had a first-and-goal from the Miami 2. T-Rich was in the backfield (as he should be!) on first down and made a nice play-action fake. That's OK, you can't win 'em all. It turned out that there was an illegal formation, so there was no play anyway. Now it's first-and-goal from the 7. Who's in the backfield? Chris Ogbonnaya. C'mon! Second down? T-Rich is in there, but it's a pass to Jordan Cameron (for a nice TD). In the third quarter, once again, Richardson is in there on first down (he catches a dump pass), is in a two-back set on second down with Ogbonnaya (who gets the target) and rides pine on third down.

I grant you, this doesn't sound entirely egregious until you realize ... it's Chris Ogbonnaya. There's no reason for Chris Ogbonnaya to be on the field in high-yield situations. Richardson does everything better. And in each case (and these were the only two drives where Cleveland got deep into Miami territory until a final, fruitless, fairly meaningless drive at the end of the fourth), Richardson got exactly zero red-zone carries. Combine this with the fact that he had six carries in the first quarter and seven thereafter, and the fact that T-Rich had zero third-down carries, and you have a mismanaged RB situation. Do I trust that somewhere deep down the Browns know that Richardson is their best offensive player? I guess so; I rated T-Rich No. 9 among RBs this week. But will I be able to believe it if Norv comes out and gets over-fancy and ignores Richardson for long stretches again Sunday against the Baltimore Ravens? I will not.

3. How will defenses try to stop the Philadelphia Eagles? By any measure, Chip Kelly had a spectacular NFL debut. His fast-paced, high-octane, relatively-low-risk offense ripped the Washington Redskins to shreds in the first half, and only really slowed down in the second because of a big lead. By my count, the Iggles called 24 pass plays in the first half and only seven in the second. Even as the Skins drew a bit closer in the fourth quarter, Kelly kept dialing up LeSean McCoy runs because Washington had no answer for them. As my podcast partner Field Yates noted, Philly didn't really even go razzle-dazzle with exotic formations; for instance, you didn't see any of the three-tight-end stuff they exhibited in the preseason. It was a bravura performance, and Michael Vick has a whole lot more appeal now than he did a week ago.

What kept running through my mind rewatching this game was how defenses are going to counter this offensive speed. My initial theory is that they'll try and test Vick via multiple fronts and added pressure. Here's how the Redskins changed their approach as Week 1 progressed:

As you can see, at halftime Washington defensive coordinator Jim Haslett decided his approach of rushing four, sitting back, and trying to cover (and assuming Vick would make a mistake) wasn't working. I admit that seven post-halftime plays isn't a great sample size, but given the fact that Haslett brought an extra rusher on six of those plays, I think we can conclude he decided to force the issue. Nor do I think the defense's relative success (26 points and 322 total yards in the first half, seven points and 121 yards in the second) is related entirely to blitzing, because Philly's foot was off the accelerator.

Still, given Vick's history of injury and mistakes, this is how I expect better defenses to attack: Put between six and eight men on the line to disguise who's actually coming, and send blitzers with frequency and an element of surprise. This isn't likely to be some kind of total neutralizer, but Vick has sometimes struggled with quick decision-making. It'll be fascinating to watch.

Six In Brief

4. Another rookie RB starts slow. Eddie Lacy averaged 2.9 yards per carry and lost a fumble. Montee Ball played 17 snaps. Le'Veon Bell's foot won't let him get on the field. As for Giovani Bernard? He just didn't seem to be a big part of the Cincinnati Bengals' game plan. The charismatic "Hard Knocks" star was on the field for 18 snaps in Week 1, while BenJarvus Green-Ellis played 37. On first downs, the Law Firm had 11 carries to Bernard's two. I'm not ready to blast the Bengals' run blocking for the season, because they're currently without a really good left tackle in Andrew Whitworth. And in general, the team's pass blocking was pretty solid. But against the Chicago Bears on Sunday, BJGE lost yardage on four of his carries and was met in the backfield at least a few times. You can't really pin those on him, which is my way of saying: I'm not assuming a major shift in workload in Week 2 in another rugged matchup, versus the Pittsburgh Steelers. I think Bernard will gradually earn more of the workload, but you probably can't start him even as a flex unless you're already in desperate straits. And the Law Firm is just as tough to put out there, because he's so TD-dependent.

5. Drinking the Chad Henne tonic? Blaine Gabbert flopped again in Week 1. Playing with a fractured thumb, Gabbert was awful (16-for-35, 121 yards, 0 TDs, 2 INTs), and if that doesn't seal his fate with the Jacksonville Jaguars, I don't know what will. Gabbert also suffered a gash on his throwing hand, which is the team's convenient excuse to bench him for Week 2 against the Oakland Raiders. Fantasy owners are looking at the backup, Chad Henne, and remembering a huge game in Week 10 last season, when Henne threw for 354 yards and four scores. Justin Blackmon came alive in that contest and was decent thereafter, and Cecil Shorts continued a strong skein of games, too. So surely, this is the tonic that the Jags (and their fantasy weapons) need, right? Not so fast, my friend. As bad as we remember Gabbert being in '12, his QBR was 39.7 (with a 58.3 percent completion rate, 9 TDs and 6 INTs). Henne's QBR was 26.1 (with a 53.9 percent completion rate, 11 TDs and 11 INTs). And those Henne numbers include his crazy Week 10 performance against the Houston Texans. I'll grant you that Henne was slightly better on throws that traveled at least 20 yards in the air (10-of-30 for 363 yards, compared to 8-of-27 for 242 yards for Gabbert), but he was still underwhelming. I think our memories and our disdain for Gabbert are distorting the situation here. Henne is terrible, too. I'm not biting on a sudden resurgence for these weapons.

6. Larry Fitzgerald is ... a slot machine? Seeing how pass-heavy Bruce Arians went in his first game with the Arizona Cardinals is heartening: 40 pass attempts compared to 26 runs. And seeing Fitz score twice after finding the end zone only four times last year is a ringing endorsement of the Carson Palmer effect. But I found it interesting how frequently big No. 11 lined up in the slot Sunday. According to ProFootballFocus, Fitzgerald ran a whopping 17 routes from the slot against the St. Louis Rams. For one frame of reference, Andre Roberts (the nominal slot receiver) ran 19 such routes. For another frame of reference, all last year, the most routes Fitz ran from the slot in a single game was 12, and he averaged 6.5 such routes per game. Now, to be fair, on those 17 routes in Week 1, Fitzgerald only had three targets (compared to nine slot targets for Roberts). So this isn't necessarily something that yielded immediate benefits. But it does indicate a commitment to moving Fitz around in the Arizona formation, looking both for mismatches and to shake over-the-top help.

7. The San Francisco 49ers get aggressive. I've already written and said plenty about Colin Kaepernick. You don't need any more analysis of this player from me, nor do I plan on taking a victory lap after a single (terrific) outing. By now you've heard many pundits marvel at the fact that Kaepernick beat the Green Bay Packers almost exclusively with his arm in Week 1, after having crushed them with his legs in last year's playoffs. Reviewing film of this game, the thing that sticks out like a flashing neon light is the aggressiveness of the Niners' passing plan. Several times late last year, I lamented the fact that Jim Harbaugh seemed to be sticking with Alex Smith-style game plans despite the presence of rifle-armed, swashbuckling Kaep. That was not the case in Week 1. Holy cow. Shot after shot down the field! I counted 11 attempts that traveled more than 20 yards in the air (out of Kaepernick's 39 total attempts); according to ESPN Stats & Info, in Week 1 no other QB had more than eight such shots. Last year, Kaepernick took only 30 shots that long out of his 218 regular-season attempts! It's possible this was game-plan specific, and the 49ers will go back to the short stuff in Seattle this week. But I hope not. It's a total blast watching this kid wing it down the field, despite his lack of a traditional deep threat.

8. Alfred Morris' flaw rears its head early. Why did I consistently rank Alfred Morris No. 10 among running backs this summer, despite the fact that he finished second in both rushing yards (1,613) and rushing TDs (13) last season? We got a big clue Monday night. When the Redskins fell behind, Morris was scarce; in catch-up, spread or hurry-up mode, Roy Helu will usually be on the field for Washington. Indeed, Helu played 36 Week 1 snaps compared to 34 for Morris. Helu isn't much of a fantasy option himself except as a handcuff: He had one carry, two targets, and one reception. But apparently he's the man the Shanahans trust most in pass protection, plus he ran 18 pass routes compared to nine for Morris. Morris saved his fantasy bacon with a third-quarter 5-yard TD run that represented his vintage self: a savvy, powerful "waiter" whose reaction time when he sees a seam is terrific. But he doesn't do you much good if he's carrying the ball six times in each half for scoreboard-related reasons.

9. Be afraid, Tom Brady. Be afraid. This article is not looking like the smartest thing I ever wrote. It's fair to say our collective faith in Tom Brady has been shaken. Blame the second-half rain Thursday night if you like, but it wasn't raining in the first when Brady went 11-of-23 for 134 yards. Aaron Dobson scored an early TD but was a drop machine thereafter, while fellow rookie Kenbrell Thompkins almost made a beautiful TD catch on a deep ball but also made mental mistakes. It isn't good. Brady's fantasy owners (and we player rankers) have some legit soul searching to do. Obviously, you're not dropping him, nor are you trading him away at the nadir of his value. The hope has to be that Rob Gronkowski will ride in on his Brobdingnagian horse and save the day. But if you have a quality backup QB on your fantasy roster, do you consider benching Brady until he notches a good game? Yikes, I hate to even contemplate it, but there's one fact from my preseason Brady article that bears repeating: Deion Branch was the most successful first-year wideout Brady ever had, and in '02 he caught 43 passes for 489 yards and two TDs. I'll say it again: Yikes.