NFL Nation: 2013 Week 13 Upon Further Review

Upon Further Review: Saints Week 13

December, 3, 2013
SEATTLE -- An examination of four hot issues from the New Orleans Saints' 34-7 loss to the Seattle Seahawks at CenturyLink Field.

Dome or doomed? Even after one of their ugliest losses of the Sean Payton-Drew Brees era, Brees steadfastly denied that the Saints struggle outside of the Mercedes-Benz Superdome. He again pointed out that they have the best road record in the NFL since 2009 and said, "If you just look at that, nobody's really done their research obviously." However, Brees didn't try to deny what had just played out on the field in Seattle.

"We certainly didn't prove anybody wrong who's saying that by tonight's performance," Brees said.

The truth lies somewhere in the middle. The Saints (9-3) aren't automatically doomed outside of the Superdome. They're just a lot more human. And that doesn't play well in matchups against teams like Seattle. The Saints only turned the ball over once (a costly fumble when Brees was sacked in the first quarter). But Seattle's defense was stifling, holding New Orleans to 188 yards (the Saints' lowest total since 2001). Whether it's the location or the opponent, the Saints will have to figure out how to deal with both if they want to get past the NFC Championship Game, because it will almost certainly be played in Seattle. But first they have to get past the Carolina Panthers in the NFC South.

Nowhere to throw: Brees threw for only 147 yards -- his lowest total since 2006. His streak of 43 consecutive games with 200 passing yards ended -- two shy of the NFL record held by Hall of Famer Dan Fouts. Brees was under duress a few times (such as when end Cliff Avril caught him from behind on the forced fumble). But mostly the Seahawks were blanketing all of his targets. Richard Sherman broke up two deep pass attempts. According to ESPN Stats & Information, Brees was 0-for-8 on throws 15 yards or more down the field.

Defenses that can get physical on the Saints' receivers and tight end Jimmy Graham have always caused the Saints the most problems. The Panthers might be able to do the same -- but the Saints will test them right back, especially in the Superdome.

Sleight of hand -- or feet: The Saints defense sold out to stop running back Marshawn Lynch -- and the Seahawks made them pay for it. While they held Lynch to 45 yards on 16 carries, everyone else seemed to burn them. Seattle quarterback Russell Wilson threw for 310 yards and three touchdowns and ran for 47 yards on eight carries. The Saints bit on play-action too often and got burned when they blitzed -- one time with their five-linebacker alignment. It wouldn't be a huge concern, because Seattle is built differently than most teams and simply won the chess match this time. But Carolina is built almost exactly the same way -- so the Saints need to be a lot more disciplined against the Panthers and quarterback Cam Newton.

Strief optimistic: Saints right tackle Zach Strief left Monday night's game with a left ankle injury, but said afterward that he's optimistic he can return sooner than later. "We'll see," Strief said. "I'm not a guy that has to be 100 percent; I'm a bad enough athlete. I think it scared me a good bit on the field, but it's not as bad as it could have been. So we'll see how it goes [Tuesday]."

Upon Further Review: Seahawks Week 13

December, 3, 2013
SEATTLE -- A review of four hot issues from the Seattle Seahawks' 34-7 victory against the New Orleans Saints:

Big plays galore: Monday night was a big-play extravaganza for the Seahawks. The biggest play probably was the 22-yard fumble recovery by defensive lineman Michael Bennett, grabbing the ball in the air after defensive end Cliff Avril knocked it out of Drew Brees’ hand. Other big plays included a 60-yard catch and run by tight end Zach Miller and a 52-yard deep throw to Doug Baldwin when Russell Wilson burned the New Orleans all-out blitz.

Happy homers: The Seahawks have won 14 consecutive homes games. They haven’t lost at CenturyLink Field since the end of the 2011 season. Over that span, Seattle has outscored its opponents by an average score of 31-13 and has a plus-21 turnover margin. Wilson, of course, is unbeaten at home, having thrown 29 TDs and only six interceptions at the CLink.

Brees-less: All you have to do to understand just how good the Seattle defense played Monday night was to look at some key stats involving Brees. After throwing for at least 200 yards in 43 consecutive games, Brees had only 147 yards passing. And here's the stat that seems impossible to believe: Brees did not complete a pass all night that was thrown more than 15 yards downfield. He was 0-for-8 on those throws. He had completed at least three passes downfield of more than 15 yards in every game this season before Monday night.

Unflappable Russell: Wilson was at his best Monday night when the Saints tried to attack and pressure him. When New Orleans sent five or more pass-rushers at him, Wilson completed 8 of 9 throws, including two for touchdowns and an 18.9-yard average per pass. Wilson is tied for the second-best quarterback rating against added pressure at 84.3. He has a 99.9 QBR against added pressure in each of his past three games. Wilson was a perfect 3-of-3 passing for 66 yards and a touchdown when the Saints blitzed a defensive back.

Upon Further Review: Titans Week 13

December, 2, 2013
An examination of four hot issues from the Tennessee Titans' 22-14 loss to the Indianapolis Colts at Lucas Oil Stadium:

Streaky: When he was bad in relief of Jake Locker after Locker’s first injury, we talked about Ryan Fitzpatrick being a streaky quarterback. In his second relief stint, he was far better. Until this game against the Colts. He made several bad throws en route to three interceptions and also lost a fumble. Fitzpatrick made some bad decisions -- including one that didn’t result in an interception, but cost them a chance to score points. The Titans faced a third-and-10 from the Indianapolis 31 with 8:23 left in the game and trailing 15-14. Seven yards would have gotten them in range for a 51-yard field goal attempt by Rob Bironas that could have put the Titans ahead. Instead Fitzpatrick threw a hopeless deep ball for Justin Hunter that fell incomplete. Fitzpatrick said in hindsight that a shorter option like Kendall Wright would have been better.

Tight-end trouble: When they traded up in the fifth round in 2012 to draft him, the Titans thought Taylor Thompson was going to be a game-changing tight end. He played more defensive end than tight end at SMU. With Craig Stevens already out with a concussion and Delanie Walker knocked out with a first-half concussion, Thompson was the lone tight end for most of the game. Reserve tackle Mike Otto reported eligible often. Thompson was targeted three times and didn’t make a catch. He hardly looks the part of a confident target. He looks very much the part of a draft-day reach.

Not enough CJ: Chris Johnson finished the game with 18 carries for 69 yards. Ten carries for 48 yards came in the second half, when I thought Johnson and the Titans’ blocking were starting to wear the Colts down some and figuring out how to get places. But again, the Titans didn’t seem willing or able to stick with it as much as might have been possible. They got away from Johnson too quickly in their first loss to the Colts. In the second, they didn’t ride him enough late.

Low impact: There is a good deal of luck in recovering fumbles. The Colts fumbled three times, with Andrew Luck dropping two on sacks. The Titans couldn’t recover any of them. Meanwhile, Fitzpatrick fumbled once and lost it. The Colts grabbed all their interception opportunities, while George Wilson dropped a potential interception that was as easy as they get. “Why can’t we grab that ball that’s lying there three times?” Mike Munchak said. “We had an interception that hits us right in the chest, and that changes the game; we missed it. They didn’t miss one of theirs. They intercepted all of theirs thrown to them. We’ll keep drilling those things, and maybe we’ll get better at it.”

Upon Further Review: Cardinals Week 13

December, 2, 2013
A review of four hot issues from the Arizona Cardinals’ 24-21 loss to the Philadelphia Eagles.

Making progress: Cardinals coach Bruce Arians doesn't consider Sunday’s ugly performance a step back. It just means there’s different areas to work on.

“There is still a lot of progress,” Arians said. “We lost the game. Progress doesn't [stop] because you lost a game. We won four in a row, that’s a lot of progress, and like I said, we have a big game in the division next week [against the St. Louis Rams] and we’ll come back and hit the practice field.”

When will the Cardinals begin?

“Tomorrow,” Arians said after the game.

Return policy: Sunday wasn't the best day for Patrick Peterson. Of the Eagles’ eight punts, he returned just one for 3 yards, called three fair catches and let the Eagles down the other four. However, they didn't go as smoothly as it seems. One of the punts Peterson let Philly down bounced off Javier Arenas’ shoulder and was recovered by Antoine Cason, who then fumbled his return, which the Eagles recovered. But the Cardinals were reunited with the ball after it was ruled Cason was down. Peterson waved off another return after he claimed he heard the referee blow the play dead from behind him, but the Eagles were flagged for an illegal substitution.

Officially unhappy: Arians wouldn't use it as an excuse, but there was no denying the Cardinals’ unhappiness with the officiating.

“I’ll say this,” Arians said, unprompted. “Refereeing did not determine us losing the football game. We didn't make enough plays.”

But when prodded, Arians said he couldn't reflect on the officiating immediately after the game.

“I’ll watch the tape,” he said. “I don’t make any comments on officials until after I watch the tape. What I see on the JumboTron sometimes doesn't come out from what’s on tape.”

Slow motion: Throughout the week leading up to Sunday’s game, the hottest topic of conversation was about the Cardinals figuring out ways to combat the Eagles’ tempo. Arizona worked specifically on substitution patterns during practice, so it could get the right personnel on the field.

But after the game, the Cardinals weren't impressed with the Eagles’ supposed fast tempo.

“They were faster in practice,” Arians said. “They averaged 25 seconds to call a play. That’s not bad.”

The Eagles entered the game running plays at a league-fast clip of 23 seconds per play.

Upon Further Review: Redskins Week 13

December, 2, 2013
A review of four hot topics following the Washington Redskins' 24-17 loss to the New York Giants:

Running trouble: For the second week in a row, the Redskins faced a defense that, statistically at least, ranked among the top 11 in the NFL. For the second week in a row, the Redskins failed to generate a ground game. In the past two games, against two teams that have done well against the run, Redskins running back Alfred Morris has gained 78 yards on 25 carries. He was a bigger factor Sunday night in the first half in the pass game (27 yards) than in the run game (11). And he had two carries in the second half, gaining 15 yards. After that, Morris didn’t touch the ball, which is really difficult to believe. Nor should that happen in a close game. I know the Giants geared up to stop him, but I also think this game exposes more problems with the Redskins’ offense and its inability to adjust (or to make its adjustments work). It only works when it can play one way -- especially against the better defenses. The Redskins have played seven of the NFL’s worst nine defenses in terms of overall yards allowed; if they want to factor in who they have faced at quarterback to explain some defensive issues, you have to look at this when gauging the offensive success. They have played two defenses in the top 11: New York and San Francisco. And the Redskins failed to sustain anything against either.

[+] EnlargeBrian Orakpo
AP Photo/Nick WassBrian Orakpo can help Washington's pass defense improve by generating a consistent pass rush.
Orakpo’s resurgence: Linebacker Brian Orakpo continues to play well, and Sunday he was credited with two sacks and two hurries and again played the run well. On both sacks he was able to cut inside left tackle Will Beatty, something Orakpo hasn’t done a lot of -- he’s typically winning by driving his man back or going around him. Beatty even had outside help so he could play to the inside, but it didn’t matter. Orakpo said last week that he’s playing better now in part because the rust is gone, not to mention any fear about hurting his pectoral muscles again. He’s playing for his next contract, too, though let’s not look at this like he’s, say, Albert Haynesworth. Nobody ever questioned Orakpo’s effort. But it does make the next four weeks interesting for him. The Redskins need to find a way to keep him (Rob Jackson is just not the same player). But I wonder the pay level Orakpo is anticipating; he considers himself an elite pass-rusher.

Blocking woes: If the coaching staff does return, and there’s no scheme change, they’ll have to make changes along the offensive line. They drafted three linemen last year; someone needs to emerge. Though the right side has struggled, they are far from the lone culprits. In the past two weeks, every offensive lineman has had issues. But that was true last season, too. However, the blocking on the edge was much better than it’s been the past two games, with the tight ends and even the receivers. If Santana Moss, for example, holds his block on the bubble screen to Pierre Garcon early on the final drive, it has a chance to be an excellent gain. The big plays come when the blocking on the edges and downfield is good. That has not been the case.

Griffin’s performance: The reason why you don’t sit Robert Griffin III in the next four weeks is because of games like Sunday night. He needs to continue to be placed in all kinds of situations if he’s ever going to become a franchise quarterback. Some growth was evident in his game, with the first-half check-downs and freezing the safety with his eyes. Griffin needs to experience all of this over the next four weeks, because his development is crucial to the organization’s future. That’s true regardless of who is coaching here in 2014. It’s imperative that he get put in positions to win a game at the end -- and then go do it. You build off such scenarios. Thing is, Griffin did what he could on that final drive, and his teammates didn’t help with three drops and a stripped ball. Nor did the officiating crew with a botched down marker. (I'm not going over that again since it was covered in depth Sunday night; not much more needs to be said. A massive screw-up.) Still, there’s nothing to gain by sitting Griffin.

Upon Further Review: Patriots Week 13

December, 2, 2013
FOXBOROUGH, Mass. -- A review of four hot issues following the New England Patriots' 34-31 win over the Houston Texans:

[+] EnlargeJulian Edelman
Troy Taormina/USA TODAY SportsJulian Edelman has 18 catches for 211 yards and two touchdowns over the past two games.
Run defense springs leaks again: The Patriots are struggling to stop the run, as season-ending injuries to defensive tackles Vince Wilfork and Tommy Kelly, as well as linebacker Jerod Mayo, have cut deep. The struggles against the Texans seemed more fundamental, such as getting off blocks and tackling. The Texans rushed for four touchdowns in the game after entering the day with two rushing touchdowns on the season.

Ridley's uncertain future as the lead back: Lead running back Stevan Ridley was a healthy scratch after losing his third fumble in three games Nov. 24 against the Broncos. If Ridley doesn't dress for a game against the two-win Texans, it raises questions as to what type of role he might have down the stretch and in the playoffs. It seems fair to say that his time as the Patriots' lead back has officially reached a crossroads. Shane Vereen took the majority of running back snaps (41 of 70) against the Texans, playing in more traditional sets as he is now positioned to be the team's top option.

Banged-up receivers: Rookie receiver Aaron Dobson was inactive with a foot injury and then his replacement, Kenbrell Thompkins, left the game in the second quarter with a hip injury, and after attempting to play through it, he left the game for good after playing just 15 snaps. That thinned depth at receiver, leaving Julian Edelman and Danny Amendola as the top options, followed by rookie Josh Boyce and special teams captain Matthew Slater. The shortage at the position limits options in terms of personnel groupings and could be something to address if it's clear that Dobson and Thompkins will miss more time.

Edelman positioned for a lucrative payday: Edelman had a big day (nine catches, 101 yards) and upped his season total to 70 receptions, which earns him the maximum incentive in his contract of $250,000. There's good news and bad news for the Patriots in this area. The good news is that Edelman has become a key member of the passing attack, with Tom Brady joking that his nickname for him is "Minitron." The bad news? Edelman is scheduled for unrestricted free agency after the season, and the more he produces, the tougher it could be for the Patriots to retain him.

Upon Further Review: Texans Week 13

December, 2, 2013
A review of four hot issues from the Houston Texans' 34-31 loss to the New England Patriots:

Texans blitzing Brady: One of the difficulties for Texans quarterback Case Keenum as he learns to play in the NFL is dealing with blitzes. It's a mark of a young quarterback, and experience helps with that. Nothing better illustrated that than what Patriots quarterback Tom Brady did on Sunday. ESPN Stats & Info took a look at Brady against the Texans' blitzes. The Texans blitzed Brady on 21 percent of his dropbacks in the first half. He completed 2 of 7 passes and threw for 3.1 yards per attempt. In the second half the Texans ramped that up, blitzing Brady on 39 percent of his dropbacks. But by then he had figured it out. Brady completed 7 of 9 passes against blitzes in the second half and averaged 15.2 yards per attempt. His experience with figuring out defenses showed Sunday.

[+] EnlargeHouston's Andre Johnson
AP Photo/David J. PhillipAndre Johnson became the second-fastest player in NFL history to reach 900 catches.
Johnson's place in history: Texans receiver Andre Johnson became the second-fastest player in NFL history to reach 900 catches. Only Marvin Harrison did it faster than Johnson's 150 games. And Harrison only beat him by one. Asked about it, Johnson gave answers that matched his personality. "I don't think it's really hit me yet," Johnson said. "To hear that, in my mind, Jerry Rice is the greatest receiver to ever play. So to do something faster than he's done is a tremendous honor."

Gronk'd: Patriots tight end Rob Gronkowski had tremendous success against the Texans' defense. He caught six passes for 127 yards -- 44 yards in the first half and 83 yards in the second half. Gronkowski got open frequently (though we should mention that Texans safety Eddie Pleasant had some nice hits on him) and even when he wasn't open, he helped the Patriots' offense. One example was during a 9-yard touchdown pass to Shane Vereen in the third quarter. The score put the Patriots up 21-17. Vereen was left open with Gronkowski surrounded by Texans in the end zone.

Kubiak on the sideline: After spending two games coaching from the press box, Texans coach Gary Kubiak finally got to return to the sideline. He was relegated to the press box on doctor's orders after suffering a transient ischemic attack on Nov. 3 at halftime of the Texans' game against the Indianapolis Colts. "I think we were operating as an offense better, and that gave us energy," Keenum said. "I think combined with him being on the field calming people down, and coaching us up as we needed it. ... Instead of relaying a message, he can tell me what he wants to tell me, when he wants to tell me. ... It felt like normal again." The offense did click better against the Patriots than it had in a while.

Upon Further Review: Bengals Week 13

December, 2, 2013
SAN DIEGO -- An examination of four hot issues from the Cincinnati Bengals' 17-10 win over the Chargers:

Dalton's second half: Paced by a running game that rediscovered itself in the second half, Bengals quarterback Andy Dalton had his own resurgence of sorts in the final 30 minutes of Sunday's game. After stumbling to a 5-for-10, 41-yard, 21.2-passer rating performance through the first half, he bounced back in the second, completing nine of his final 13 passes and connecting with receivers for 149 yards. He also threw a key third-quarter touchdown and didn't turn the ball over, helping push his end-of-game passer rating to 83.6 -- his highest in five games. His 44.4 QBR also was his best since his career-high 98.9 that came in Cincinnati's 49-9 win over the New York Jets in Week 9. Part of what helped Dalton amass those final numbers was the Bengals' decision to recommit themselves to the run in the last two quarters. Cincinnati rushed for more than 150 yards (164) for the first time since its Week 7 win at Buffalo.

Huber's (healed) left leg: Wednesday, punter Kevin Huber sent a chill through the Bengals' fan base when he appeared on the injury report for the first time this season. He barely practiced the rest of the week after being limited for part of the week by an injury to his left ankle. He kicks with his left leg. Apparently it wasn't feeling too badly. Huber had four punts in the game and sent them an average of 55.5 yards from the line of scrimmage. The first two, 75- and 56-yard blasts, set the tone early. He routinely flipped field position in the game, even pushing the Chargers up against their own goal line with his first one. That subsequent series resulted in San Diego's own need to punt. With the ball in decent field position, the Bengals drove 67 yards for a touchdown on their following possession.

Quiet secondary: It was easy to praise Bengals linebacker Vontaze Burfict for his strong 13-tackle, play-through-an-injury performance, but he wasn't the only one on the back end of Cincinnati's defense who had a big day. Linebacker Rey Maualuga, who was returning from his own lengthy knee injury, finished with 10 tackles, including a sack. Although he was beaten a couple of times on passes across the middle, he was a run-stopper much of the day, helping plug his share of holes. Along with their linebacker play, the Bengals also had quietly good performances from defensive backs George Iloka and Reggie Nelson, who each forced fumbles. Iloka's ended up preceding the Bengals' final possession of the game -- a nearly five-minute drive that included four first downs and ended with back-to-back kneel-downs.

Winning without Gresham: For the first time this year, the Bengals won a game in which tight end Jermaine Gresham didn't catch a pass. The only other time they even had a game in which Gresham went reception-less, they lost to the Baltimore Ravens. It wasn't as if Cincinnati was trying to completely avoid Gresham, though. He was targeted twice. Since a clear emphasis was being placed on the running game, Gresham ended up factoring in that department instead, helping open holes along the edges for running backs BenJarvus Green-Ellis and Giovani Bernard to run right through.

Upon Further Review: Falcons Week 13

December, 2, 2013
A review of four hot issues from the Atlanta Falcons' 34-31 overtime win over the Buffalo Bills on Sunday at Toronto's Rogers Centre:

In the running: The Falcons were able to balance things on offense with a solid rushing attack. Steven Jackson led the way with 84 yards on 23 carries as the Falcons rushed for 151 yards, 1 yard shy of their season high. Jackson credited offensive coordinator Dirk Koetter. "I'm definitely in my rhythm now,'' Jackson said. "[Koetter] is allowing me to get multiple touches. He's allowing me to stay in the rhythm of the game. And that's when I feel at home. That's when I feel that I'm at my best. And the offensive line is doing a good job of getting me some push, giving me some options.'' Not to mention Jackson got help from small wonder Antone Smith, who turned his one carry into a 38-yard touchdown. "I'm very happy for him,'' Jackson said of Smith. "He comes in there and makes it look easy.''

Stumbling and bumbling: Matt Ryan completed 28 of 47 passes for 311 yards and a touchdown. Plus he connected with Harry Douglas for a 20-yard gain in overtime to set up Matt Bryant's game-winning 36-yard field goal. But Ryan also had a few uncharacteristic missteps, like when he stumbled dropping back while at the goal line and when he had a fumbled exchange with center Joe Hawley. The latter was recovered by Bills linebacker Kiko Alonso, setting up a Buffalo touchdown. Ryan was asked what happened on the exchange. "We just weren't on the same page, for whatever reason,'' Ryan said without going into detail.

On the line: As Jackson noted, the offensive line did a nice job clearing some holes in the run game. But once again, there was too much pressure on Ryan, who was sacked a season-high six times. One of those, of course, was when he stumbled. Some of the others, however, could have been avoided with better protection up front. On one play, the Bills ran a stunt that seemed to confuse left tackle Lamar Holmes and left guard Justin Blalock. When Ryan got sacked by Mario Williams early in the fourth quarter, it knocked the Falcons out of field goal range. The coaches made some tweaks along the line, like giving rookie Ryan Schraeder more playing time as the extra tackle and allowing him to spell Jeremy Trueblood at right tackle. More tinkering obviously is needed or else Ryan might not finish the season.

Hit list: William Moore got flagged for another illegal hit, this time for what the official called a high hit on Bills wide receiver Robert Woods. Moore already has been fined $74,550 for four illegal hits this season, according to NFL records. Considering how Titans safety Michael Griffin recently was suspended one game for repeated illegal hits, one has to wonder if Moore could face the same punishment now. As for the latest violation, Moore really had no explanation. "As every other hit, I don't know until I watch it on film,'' Moore said. "Y'all seen it better than I did. I didn't watch replay. It's just happened so quick. And I guess I got to go appeal it, as every other one.'' The hit didn't take away from Moore's late-game heroics, as his forced fumble in overtime paved the way for the Falcons' first road win of the season.
CHARLOTTE, N.C. -- A review of four hot issues from the Tampa Bay Buccaneers' 27-6 loss to the Carolina Panthers on Sunday:

The Schiano Watch: During a three-game winning streak, it appeared as if coach Greg Schiano's grip on his job security was getting stronger. But an ugly loss to Carolina put Schiano firmly onto the hot seat. The reality is he's won only three games, and that's not enough. With just four games left, Schiano needs to finish strong to have any chance of keeping his job in 2014.

[+] EnlargeMike Glennon
Bob Donnan/USA TODAY SportsThe Panthers sacked Mike Glennon five times, the most for the rookie quarterback in his young career.
Glennon's rough day: The knock on quarterback Mike Glennon coming out of college was that he wasn't mobile enough to play in the NFL. Glennon had done a reasonable job of dispelling that thought -- until Sunday. He was sacked five times and intercepted once. Put some of the blame on the offensive line and give Carolina's pass rush some credit. But it's also worth pondering if Glennon is mobile enough to be truly successful.

No running game: Schiano prides himself on a basic formula that starts with running the ball well on offense. But the Bucs didn't come close to doing that against Carolina. With the Panthers daring Glennon to beat them, they devoted most of their attention to stopping the running game. That worked nicely for Carolina. The Bucs netted only 16 rushing yards in the first half. Bobby Rainey had some success in the second half, finishing with 63 yards on 17 carries. But the Bucs need to run the ball consistently well for their formula to work.

Revis' injury: For the second week in a row, cornerback Darrelle Revis went down with an injury. Revis, who was listed as questionable for the game with a groin injury, had to leave the game in the third quarter. Revis injured his shoulder and chest attempting to intercept a pass intended for Steve Smith. After the game, Schiano didn't have any update or details on Revis' condition.

Upon Further Review: Broncos Week 13

December, 2, 2013
ENGLEWOOD, Colo. – An examination of four hot issues from the Denver Broncos35-28 win over the Kansas City Chiefs.

[+] EnlargeMontee Ball
John Rieger/USA TODAY SportsMontee Ball's Denver teammates say that they were impressed with the running back's development in 2013.
Double dip: The Broncos had hoped the light would go on for rookie running back Montee Ball sooner rather than later, and he would hang on to the ball and show the instincts in traffic that pushed him up their draft board in April. Sunday may have well been that game, as Ball rushed for 117 yards on 13 carries against the Chiefs' aggressive front seven for his first career 100-yard game. The Broncos want to use more of a rotational system, with Knowshon Moreno as the No. 1 option, but they needed a second running back to step forward. Ball may have just done that.

Man up: Quarterback Peyton Manning sent a message, again, to those who might hope to lock up the Broncos' offense with a heavy dose of man coverage to go with pressure packages up front. With the Chiefs largely double-teaming Wes Welker -- because injured tight end Julius Thomas was not in the lineup -- Manning feasted on one-on-one matchups elsewhere in the formation. Eric Decker finished with 174 receiving yards and four touchdowns and Demaryius Thomas, who suffered a shoulder injury on his first catch of the game and at times was playing almost one-handed, had 106 yards on three receptions. Manning had four completions of at least 40 yards.

Level-headed: In a noisy environment that has rattled more than one visiting team this season, the Broncos' offensive line kept its composure, even as Manning went through his usual presnap work at the line of scrimmage. The Broncos’ front did not have a false-start penalty. The team's one false start came courtesy of Moreno, with four minutes left in the game. Left tackle Chris Clark did have an illegal-shift penalty on that same drive, but overall it was a disciplined performance from the offensive line, which did not surrender a sack to the Chiefs. It was the fifth game this season in which Manning had not been sacked.

More special-ness: Returner Trindon Holliday left Sunday’s game with a right shoulder injury, and some of the team's potential in the return game left with him. But it's clear the Broncos have some other special teams issues to clean up. Knile Davis’ 108-yard kickoff return for a touchdown in the second quarter was the longest in Chiefs history and was the longest kickoff return surrendered by the Broncos in their history. The Broncos opened the season strong on special teams, with two blocked punts and two return scores in the first four games. But injuries have eroded the rotation on those units somewhat, and the returners, including Holliday, haven’t had nearly the impact over the last eight games. Couple that with the gaffe in overtime against New England that led to the Patriots' game-winning field goal and Davis’ return Sunday, and it’s clear the Broncos need a little more from their special teamers all around.
A review of four hot issues from the Chicago Bears' 23-20 loss to the Minnesota Vikings:

Cutler’s return: Backup quarterback Josh McCown performed well in relief of Jay Cutler, completing 23 of 36 passes for 355 yards and two touchdowns. And while the team will gladly welcome back Cutler, there’s still got to be at least some concern about the potential for the starter returning to the lineup rusty next Monday night against the Dallas Cowboys. Cutler has played in just one game in the past five weeks, and hasn’t played an entire contest since Oct. 10. So in addition to the rust factor, there’s also got to be a little trepidation about the quarterback’s conditioning level. So if the plan for Cutler is to bring him back for the Dec. 9 game, the Bears need to work overtime repping the quarterback to knock off some of the rust while making sure he’s in condition to go all four quarters without any drop off, because fatigue causes mistakes. At this point, the Bears can’t afford many more.

Front four: What a difference a couple of players make on the defensive line. Recent addition Jeremiah Ratliff made his Bears debut, and the team also welcomed the return of defensive tackle Stephen Paea. The Bears started Sunday’s game with Paea and Corey Wootton inside at the tackles with Julius Peppers and Shea McClellin on the outside before bringing in Ratliff with 10:57 left in the first quarter. The addition of Ratliff allowed for some creativity with the lineup. At times, the Bears kicked Peppers inside to play alongside Ratliff with Wootton and McClellin outside at the ends. The Bears scored sacks on each of Minnesota’s first three drives, with two coming from Peppers and another one split behind Paea and nickel corner Isaiah Frey. Peppers finished the game with 2.5 sacks.

Run D: The Bears applied pressure to Christian Ponder on passing downs, but the defense’s futility in stopping the run emerged once again with Adrian Peterson and Cordarrelle Patterson shredding the unit. Peterson gained 60 yards on his first eight carries. With a 33-yard score on his first carry, Patterson became the second receiver to line up in the backfield against the Bears in two weeks and bust a long touchdown run. (St. Louis’ Tavon Austin scored on a 65-yard run on his first attempt of the game last week.) The coaching staff places the blame mostly on missed run fits, but in some cases, players are just being beaten physically by the opponent.

In addition, the staff constantly discusses the need to stop teams from hitting the Bears for large chunks of yardage, yet the defense hasn’t responded. In addition to Patterson’s 33-yard run, Peterson broke a 23-yard gain in the first quarter and finished with 211 yards, averaging 6 yards per attempt.

Jeffery a major factor: Second-year receiver Alshon Jeffery produced his fifth 100-yard outing of the season, hauling in 11 passes for 245 yards, including an 80-yard touchdown that made him the club’s first 1,000-yard receiver of the season. Jeffery finished with two touchdowns on the day.

The Bears fantasized in the past about owning a true pick-your-poison scenario with their receiving corps, and it appears they’ve finally made that a reality with Jeffery and Brandon Marshall. This should be an exciting duo for at least the next couple of years; especially if rookie Marquess Wilson blossoms the way the club expects he will, and provides a threat in the slot.

Upon Further Review: Vikings Week 13

December, 2, 2013
A review of four hot issues after the Minnesota Vikings' 23-20 win over the Chicago Bears:

Peterson wills his way past Bears: Adrian Peterson might not have all of his breakaway speed as he plays with a strained groin, but the performance he turned in on Sunday was the kind of tour de force he churned out so often in the second half of his MVP season a year ago. Peterson ran for 211 yards against a steady diet of eight- and nine-man fronts; he faced at least eight defenders in the box on 24 of his 35 carries, according to ESPN Stats and Information, and averaged more yards per carry with eight or more in the box (6.1) than he did against seven defenders or fewer (5.8).

[+] EnlargeRhett Ellison
Bruce Kluckhohn/USA TODAY SportsRhett Ellison's tipped ball for an interception was one of his two crucial plays that could have cost Minnesota the game.
QB decision looming: The Vikings will wait to see how Christian Ponder recovers from a concussion as they try to make a decision on their quarterback for Sunday's game in Baltimore, but Matt Cassel once again had the Vikings' offense running smoother than Ponder has at many points this year. Cassel threw for 243 yards, and handled extra pressure better than either Ponder or Josh Freeman has this season. He hit 11 of his 17 throws for 148 yards and a touchdown against five or more pass-rushers, according to ESPN Stats & Information. His completion percentage against such fronts (65.9 percent this season) is better than Ponder's (61.9 percent) or Freeman's (33.3 percent). Cassel could be competing with either Ponder and Freeman, or just Freeman, to play next week against the Ravens, but he did enough to possibly get another start.

Special teams confusion: The end of Sunday's game brought a number of odd special teams situations that seemed to confuse the Vikings. First, after Blair Walsh tied the game in regulation, the Vikings kicked deep to Devin Hester, who returned the ball 57 yards and might have scored if Walsh hadn't angled him out of bounds. Coach Leslie Frazier admitted after the game the Vikings shouldn't have kicked to Hester, adding they expected him to down the ball in the end zone like he had with Walsh's other deep picks. When the Bears tried a 67-yard field goal on the final play of regulation, the Vikings hurried Cordarrelle Patterson out to return the kick, barely getting him on the field in time. And then, after Rhett Ellison's face mask penalty wiped out Walsh's would-be game-winning field goal in overtime, the Vikings' field goal unit stayed on the field before the offense came back out to try to get Walsh closer than 54 yards on third down. Frazier said the Vikings wanted to get 4 more yards for Walsh, but Peterson lost three and Walsh missed from 57.

Ellison gets "elephant off my back:" Had the Vikings lost, Ellison likely would have worn much of the blame; he couldn't control what might have been a touchdown pass from Cassel with less than five minutes to play. He wound up tipping the ball toward the Bears' defense, where Khaseem Greene wound up intercepting it and running it back to midfield. Then, Ellison's face mask penalty negated Walsh's field goal, setting off a bizarre scene in which referees sorted things out amid postgame fireworks. Wide receiver Greg Jennings had to be pulled back from the tunnel up to the Vikings' locker room. Asked what he was thinking after the mistakes, Ellison replied, "That I really screwed the team over and that I made a big mistake." And when Walsh hit the game-winning field goal, Ellison said it was "like an elephant off my back. I don't know. It was just a miracle, I guess."

Upon Further Review: 49ers Week 13

December, 2, 2013
SANTA CLARA, Calif. – A review of four hot issues from the San Francisco 49ers' 23-13 win over the St. Louis Rams:

Crabtree effect: The 49ers were waiting all season for standout receiver Michael Crabtree to return from a torn Achilles he suffered in May. When he came back Sunday, the 49ers were not disappointed. He caught two passes, including one that went for 60 yards, and his presence opened up routes for Anquan Boldin and Vernon Davis and made quarterback Colin Kaepernick a more productive player. This bodes well for the stretch run.

Defense dominates: The San Francisco defense has been playing at a championship level essentially all season. In recent weeks, though, it has upped its game. Spanning the final half of last week’s win at Washington and the first half against the Rams, the 49ers’ defense allowed 103 yards and three points.

Austin not a factor: St. Louis rookie star Tavon Austin averaged fewer than 17 yards per kick return and had one punt return for 10 yards. He added 35 yards combined on four catches and one carry. Austin has been explosive in recent weeks. Keeping him from making big plays was a focal point for the 49ers, and they did their job.

Run game stumbles: San Francisco's run game has faltered in recent weeks. Frank Gore had 42 yards on 15 carries Sunday and lost his third fumble of the season. In the past three games, Gore has 121 yards on 41 carries. I wouldn’t say it’s a problem, but the 49ers definitely would like to see Gore regain his normal pace of production. For the season he has 821 rushing yards and is averaging four yards a carry.

Upon Further Review: Rams Week 13

December, 2, 2013
SAN FRANCISCO -- A review of four hot issues from the St. Louis Rams' 23-13 loss to the San Francisco 49ers:

All but eliminated: In a purely mathematical sense, the Rams remain in the NFC playoff picture at 5-7, but for all intents and purposes, Sunday's loss wiped out any remaining hope the Rams had of making the postseason. To get in the mix, the Rams would need to win out to finish 9-7 and then top it off with an incredible amount of help from about a half dozen teams.

Instead, the Rams will play their final four games with a focus on making more improvements with an eye toward 2014. Rams brass has quietly viewed 2014 as the team's possible breakthrough year, but for that to happen they need their young team to continue taking positive steps in that direction in the season's final month.

[+] EnlargeSt. Louis' Matt Giordano
AP Photo/Marcio Jose SanchezMatt Giordano is tackled for a loss by Anthony Dixon on a fake punt.
Rough day for offense: There weren't many good things to take away from Sunday's game for the Rams as a whole, but especially for the offense. Quarterback Kellen Clemens was under siege for most of the day, and when he was able to throw it, he missed on some passes he should have hit. When Clemens did throw an accurate ball, he was victimized by about six drops from his pass catchers.

The run game, which had been so successful in recent weeks, also wasn't able to get rolling. The final rushing numbers (114 yards, 4.4 yards per carry) didn't look bad, but much of that success came when the game was already lost. The Rams ran six plays and did not pick up a first down in the first quarter.

Line dancing: The Rams have had their share of injuries along the offensive line this season, but they hadn't reached a point where they almost ran out of healthy options until Sunday, when center Scott Wells left with an ankle injury just before the half and did not return. Later, left tackle Jake Long suffered a concussion and also did not return.

That left the Rams scrambling for help with Tim Barnes getting his first extended look in the middle in a regular-season game. Shelley Smith jumped in at right guard with Rodger Saffold kicking back out to left tackle. It remains to be seen how much time Wells and Long will miss, but the Rams' line appears poised to do even more shuffling with those injuries and the impending return of guard Harvey Dahl.

Second guessing: With his team trailing 16-6 early in the fourth quarter, Rams coach Jeff Fisher called for a fake punt deep in Rams territory. The trickery backfired when safety Matt Giordano was unable to get the pitch to receiver Stedman Bailey on a reverse and the Niners tackled him for a loss of 5. The Niners took over at the Rams' 17 and scored on the next play to make it 23-6 and seal the win.

Fisher took the blame for the call after the game, acknowledging that he was trying to give his team a spark given the aforementioned offensive struggles, but also said that it may not have been the best time or location for the call.


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