NFL1000 Week 13 Notebook: Is Jimmy Garoppolo the Answer for the 49ers?
Week 13 brought clarity to what at times has been a confusing 2017 NFL season.
The Minnesota Vikings and New Orleans Saints raised their records to 10-2 and 9-3, respectively, with convincing wins over the Atlanta Falcons and Carolina Panthers. Saints rookie running back Alvin Kamara proved once again that while the MVP award may go elsewhere, he may well be the best player in the NFL. A Saints offense that blew through Carolina's tough defense wouldn't be the same without him.
No matter what happens with the conference-leading Philadelphia Eagles over the next few weeks, the Vikings and Saints have proved they'll be tough outs. In fact, with Philly's Sunday night loss to the Seahawks, the Vikings have the NFC's No. 1 seed, which raises the possibility that a home team could win the Super Bowl this season.
In the AFC, it's basically death, taxes and the New England Patriots, who improved to 10-2 on the season after taking the Buffalo Bills to the woodshed. When you look at Jekyll-and-Hyde teams like the Bills and Kansas City Chiefs, who threw away a big opportunity to beat the New York Jets, New England's year-to-year consistency becomes all the more impressive.
In New York, Giants head coach Ben McAdoo proved with his benching of Eli Manning in favor of Geno Smith that he doesn't have a handle on team management. Smith was underwhelming as the Giants fell to 2-10 after a 24-17 loss to the Oakland Raiders, and the voices calling for McAdoo's removal are amplifying.
On a positive note, former Pats backup Jimmy Garoppolo fared well in his first start for the San Francisco 49ers. It's something to build on for a team that needs a lot of building.
It was an action-packed Week 13 in the NFL, and B/R's NFL1000 scouts were all over the tape in every game.
Lead scout: Doug Farrar
Quarterbacks: Mark Schofield
Running backs/fullbacks: Mark Bullock
Receivers/tight ends: Marcus Mosher
Offensive line: Ethan Young
Defensive line: Justis Mosqueda
Linebackers: Derrik Klassen
Secondary: Ian Wharton
Here's what our scouts found most fascinating during Sunday's Week 13 action.
Is Jimmy Garoppolo the Answer for the 49ers?
The San Francisco 49ers didn't come into the 2017 season with a long-term plan at quarterback.
After cutting ties with Colin Kaepernick, the team, now led by new head coach Kyle Shanahan and general manager John Lynch, signed journeymen Brian Hoyer and Matt Barkley and selected Iowa quarterback C.J. Beathard in the third round. The Niners benched Hoyer for poor performance in mid-October and subsequently released him. Beathard showed some interesting traits when he had a chance to start, but San Francisco needed more.
Thus, the Niners traded a 2018 second-round pick to the New England Patriots for quarterback Jimmy Garoppolo at the end of October. Tom Brady's backup had been the subject of several trade rumors over the years, but New England pulled the trigger this time when contract talks went south. Now, the 49ers ostensibly had their quarterback of the future.
Based on Garoppolo's body of work, it seemed like a perfect fit. Garoppolo reminds me a lot of Tony Romo with his ability to make things happen outside the pocket on boot-action throws and outside of structure. Shanahan requires a quarterback who's comfortable on the move, because he loves to create explosive plays out of boot-action.
It took a month for Garoppolo to get his first start with his new team, but he impressed in a 15-14 win over the Chicago Bears on Sunday. His stats weren't amazing—he finished 26-of-37 for 293 yards, no touchdowns and an interception—but his presence immediately made San Francisco's offense faster, more definitive and more diverse.
The interception wasn't Garoppolo's fault, either. With 4:50 left in the first quarter, Garoppolo threw over the middle to receiver Louis Murphy on a well-timed post, and cornerback Kyle Fuller ripped the ball out of Murphy's hands. Meanwhile, the play that got Garoppolo closest to a touchdown was impressive. With less than a minute left in the first half, Garoppolo scrambled to his right and directed tight end George Kittle to roll to his right. He then threw the ball over the heads of several Bears defenders on a play where Kittle missed coming down in bounds by about a foot.
That play was an interesting replication of the "Sprint Right Option" play that the 49ers ran against the Dallas Cowboys in the 1981 NFC Championship Game to head to the franchise's first Super Bowl. Kittle's catch wasn't quite "The Catch," and we're a long ways away from comparing this young 49ers team to that one, but in Garoppolo, the modern version of this team does have the kind of quarterback with the field vision, mobility, arm and knack for controlled improvisation to succeed over time.
— NFL1000 Lead Scout Doug Farrar
Andy Reid Giving Up Play-Calling Sparks Chiefs' Offensive Explosion
Through their first five games, all victories, the Kansas City Chiefs averaged 414.2 yards in total offense per game and looked like the toast of the NFL. In their subsequent six games, in which they won just one, they averaged 312.3 yards per game.
An offense that had once riddled defenses with vertical routes off play action, a versatile run game led by rookie Kareem Hunt and several different option principles had become staid and static. Hunt wasn't getting his carries, quarterback Alex Smith was tasked to throw deep without the route diversity required to create openings, and the multitiered option plays were reduced to a shovel pass here and a simple run-pass option there.
The news came down Sunday morning that head coach Andy Reid had handed play-calling duties over to offensive coordinator Matt Nagy. This is common for head coaches to do when things aren't working well and the duties become too much.
Whatever Nagy did, it worked against the New York Jets on Sunday. The Chiefs lost 38-31 as their defense continued to regress, but Smith was on fire. He completed 19 of 33 passes for 366 yards and four touchdowns, including two deep scores to receiver Tyreek Hill, who caught six passes for 185 yards.
Both of those touchdowns came on play-action concepts in which Hunt released into the flat after the fake handoff, thus forcing the Jets to commit a man to him underneath and creating one-on-one matchups for Hunt.
Smith also added a 70-yard run off a scramble out of the pocket late in the fourth quarter. That was the longest run of the day for the Chiefs, as Hunt gained just 40 yards on nine carries. But Hunt was valuable in play-action.
Though the Chiefs were not quite as variable in their option concepts as they had been earlier in the season, stressing opponents with Hunt's versatility was a big step forward. Once again, we got to see what this offense can be at its best.
Now, about that defense...
— NFL1000 Lead Scout Doug Farrar
How the Titans Used the Zone Read Game to Get Mariota and the Offense on Track
Over the last week or so, things in Tennessee were not well. Marcus Mariota was struggling, the offense was underperforming, and "Why Has Marcus Mariota Regressed?" was a popular column topic.
On Sunday against the Houston Texans, an emphasis on the zone read game helped the Titans and their young quarterback get on track.
Mariota completed 15 of 23 passes for 150 yards and a touchdown without an interception. He also chipped in three carries for 23 yards and a touchdown. The zone read game helped the Titans establish the run early.
Late in the first quarter, Mariota met DeMarco Murray at the mesh point, and Murray ripped off a big gain of 16 yards. Facing a 2nd-and-8 in the third quarter, the Titans used the same design for another big gain from Murray. On both of these plays, Jadeveon Clowney was the read defender, left unblocked on the edge. That worked to hold Clowney on the outside and keep him away from the running back inside.
Mariota's touchdown came on another zone read design. Only this time, Clowney was lined up on the other side of the formation, and Ufomba Kamalu was the unblocked defender to read on the play. Mariota met Derrick Henry at the mesh point, and Kamalu slid inside in response, allowing Mariota to pull the ball and cut upfield for the touchdown.
These designs helped the Titans establish the run, which enabled their play-action passing game to be successful. Mariota's lone touchdown pass came on a play-action design to Delanie Walker, with Mariota coming out of the fake and hitting Walker on the post route. Tennessee's tight end was open thanks to the linebackers respecting the run fake, allowing a window to open for the post route.
The numbers were not spectacular, but Mariota and Co. were effective enough. The zone read game allowed Tennessee to get the ground attack going, operate away from Clowney and set up play-action.
— NFL1000 QB Scout Mark Schofield
Patriots' Running Backs Key to Dynamic Offense
Going into the season, many wondered just how the Patriots' backfield situation would play out. With four versatile and talented backs in Dion Lewis, James White, Rex Burkhead and Mike Gillislee, the Patriots had a running back for every situation.
It's taken a while for each player to establish his role within the offense, and it's still a fluid situation each week. But as things stand, Lewis is the main back, while Burkhead and White will spell him and play on third downs and other obvious passing situations.
Lewis is beginning to prove himself as a between-the-tackles runner with good vision and great contact balance. Despite his 5'8", 195-pound frame, Lewis is tough to bring down and is rarely brought down by the first tackle.
Having a lower center of gravity allows Lewis to maintain balance through contact and keep his legs churning to pick up extra yards when defenders attempt to bring him down. He has 264 yards on 40 carries over his last three games, averaging 6.6 yards per carry.
After Lewis, Burkhead has been given more of a role recently. He's a versatile player who can run up the middle, and he also can line up in the slot and run routes. On Sunday, Burkhead had his most productive game of the season. He took 12 carries for 78 yards and two touchdowns and added three catches for another 25 yards.
White has recently seen his role reduced. But he is still one of the Patriots' leading receivers and regularly moves around, lining up outside, in the slot or in the backfield. He has 51 catches on the season, more than slot receiver Danny Amendola.
The Patriots love to move players around to create favorable matchups. Much has been made about Rob Gronkowski's ability to line up outside as a receiver, but having a back who can line up in the slot or motion outside is similarly valuable, especially when Gronkowski lines up outside too.
That forces the defense to show its intentions pre-snap and often results in either the back or Gronkowski getting matched up against a linebacker—a matchup that both Burkhead and White are more than capable of winning regularly.
The Patriots backfield is one of the key elements of the offense. They're all reliable runners and able to run multiple schemes from week to week depending on the opposition's weaknesses. And if the defense gives Tom Brady a look he likes, he can easily call an audible and find a quick pass to one of his vast arsenal of running backs out of the backfield to keep the chains moving.
— NFL1000 RB Scout Mark Bullock
With Hundley Struggling, Green Bay Needs to Run the Damn Ball
When Aaron Rodgers went down injured versus Minnesota, the Packers' playoff hopes appeared all but over. However, since the injury, they've done just enough to stay in contention for a wild-card spot.
Brett Hundley has had his share of ups and downs, as any young quarterback playing in his first extended action as a starter tends to go through, but the Packers haven't always done everything possible to help him out.
Aaron Jones has emerged as a running threat, although he's been injured the past few weeks. Meanwhile, the light appears to be coming on for fellow rookie Jamaal Williams. On Sunday, Williams ran for his first career 100-yard game, carrying the ball 21 times for 113 yards and a touchdown.
It's taken some time for Williams to acclimate to the NFL, but he's starting to show signs of the runner who was so productive in college. He looks more confident in his tracks and making the correct read more regularly. Confidence in those aspects leads to playing more natural with a better, more timely burst.
That burst was evident on his longest carry of the game, a 25-yard run early in the second quarter. Williams initially took the handoff inside but didn't like his options. He instinctively bounced his run outside and then displayed his burst to the edge, nearly managing to run away from the Buccaneers' defenders. He finished the run well with a nice stiff arm on a defensive back to buy himself a few extra yards before being forced out of bounds.
Williams had 11 carries for 61 yards and a touchdown in the first half as the Packers led by a touchdown going into the break. But despite having plenty of success in the first half, the Packers only ran the ball once in the third quarter.
It wasn't until midway through the fourth quarter that they started to hand the ball off again consistently, which was unsurprisingly successful. In overtime, it was a 20-yard touchdown run by Jones that sealed it.
Hundley only had 84 passing yards. As long as Rodgers remains on the sidelines, the Packers need to commit to running the ball as their primary source of offense. Hundley can help in that aspect too, with the threat of read-option keepers and bootlegs off outside zone.
The Packers offense is far more functional when they commit to the run and don't put too much on the young arm of Brett Hundley.
— NFL1000 RB Scout Mark Bullock
Robby Anderson Blossoming into Bona Fide No. 1 Wide Receiver
Heading into the season, most NFL experts would have agreed the New York Jets had the worst skill-position players in the league. When examining their Week 1 depth chart, that was understandable.
In one offseason, the Jets lost Brandon Marshall and Eric Decker to free agency and Quincy Enunwa to a neck injury. The team spent few resources to replenish the position, but that has not stopped Robby Anderson from breaking out.
Anderson is one of the league's best-kept secrets, and Sunday against the Kansas City Chiefs he showed again why he's a No. 1 receiver. Anderson was able to make numerous plays against Marcus Peters and Darrelle Revis as his team put up 38 points in an impressive win. His game is built off speed (he ran a 4.36 40-yard dash at his pro day), and he has the size at 6'3" that makes him a nightmare to cover.
He's one of the premier deep threats in the NFL, as he now has 17 receptions over 20 yards and seven receptions over 30 yards. Now that he's starting to get comfortable with quarterback Josh McCown, his development is accelerating. His ability to track the ball in the air and use his speed allows him to win downfield consistently.
Over his last six games, Anderson has scored six touchdowns to go along with 525 yards on 31 receptions. On the season, he has already eclipsed 800 receiving to go along with seven touchdowns—numbers that seemed unattainable for any receiver on the roster for the entire season.
Anderson is just 24 years old, and you would have to believe he's only going to improve. He is an explosive player who is learning how to win against some of the top cornerbacks in the league each week.
The Jets are surprising a lot of people this season, and a big reason why is because of Anderson's play.
— NFL1000 WR Scout Marcus Mosher
Ravens' Offensive Line Is Holding Team's Offense Together
As the year kicked off, things looked bleak for the Ravens' offensive line unit.
Baltimore cut its presumed starter at center in Jeremy Zuttah, had John Urschel retire, lost left guard Alex Lewis to injury for the season, and then saw right guard Marshal Yanda (the best interior offensive lineman in the league when healthy) go down for the year as well in Week 2.
Still, the Ravens' offensive line has quietly put up some solid performances. What's held it together?
Ronnie Stanley has been the lynchpin for the unit and has come into his own this season. It has not just been in one area, either. Stanley's biggest impact has been his ability to get out and clear the way in space for Alex Collins in the Ravens' stretch- and outside zone-heavy run game. He's fixed a lot of the inconsistency in his pass protection sets this year, as well.
The erosion at guard has forced James Hurst and Matt Skura to take most of the reps there, and they have done about as well as you can expect third- and fourth-stringers to do.
Little-known center Ryan Jensen has galvanized this interior and made this whole thing work. This year his play has reached another level, and between his impressive play strength and ability to hold leverage outside his frame, he's become a top-10 center and created time for the Ravens' runners to find creases on long-developing runs.
While Stanley and Jensen have led the way, Marty Mornhinweg has also done a good job supporting this unit from an offensive design standpoint by using a lot of 12 personnel. That has allowed guys such as Nick Boyle and Ben Watson to make some key chips in the run game and helped them keep opposing pass-rushers on their heels with all the misdirection and play-action fakes they deploy out of these packages.
It may not be sexy or explosive football, but with the issues the Ravens have faced, this offensive line has been finding a way to hold down the fort. That has been a big part of Baltimore's ability to grind out games and maintain its winning formula.
— NFL1000 OL Scout Ethan Young
Chiefs' Front Seven Has Spearheaded Defensive Collapse
The Kansas City Chiefs took the NFL by storm in September with their option-heavy offense, starting 5-0. Now 1-6 over their last seven, the narrative has been "the league figured out their college offense."
In a 38-31 loss to the New York Jets, the Chiefs posted their third-highest scoring total of the season. Coming into this week, teams were a collective 62-9 on the season when they scored 31 or more points. It's hard to say this one wasn't on the defense.
In games six through 11 this season, defenses recorded a sack on 6.23 percent of dropbacks. The Chiefs have only recorded sacks on 3.21 percent of passing plays over that span.
In games six through 11 this season, defenses recorded a tackle at or behind the line of scrimmage on 21.74 percent of run plays. The Chiefs only recorded a tackle at or behind the line on 19.02 percent of runs.
Since the Chiefs' record began to slip, their defense has come up short on about 11.64 tackles, relative to the NFL average, at or behind the line of scrimmage. Those are the plays that get offensive drives off pace. Those are the plays that lead to punts. Those are plays that usually are made by line-of-scrimmage defenders. After the first five games of each team's season, only the Cincinnati Bengals fared worse.
In 36 dropbacks against Kansas City on Sunday, Jets quarterback Josh McCown wasn't brought down for a sack. He averaged 9.2 yards per pass, with no picks, and finished the day with a 109.8 passer rating. He was also one of four Jets with a run of 12 or more yards to go along with his two rushing touchdowns.
Don't be tricked by those who just want to point at quarterback Alex Smith as the problem. The Chiefs need more from their defensive front, aside from Justin Houston, if they want to make a playoff push.
— NFL1000 DL Scout Justis Mosqueda
Paul Posluszny's Veteran Presence Aiding Young Jaguars Defense
Young talent is the core of Jacksonville's defense.
Jalen Ramsey, A.J. Bouye, Telvin Smith, Myles Jack, Yannick Ngakoue and Dante Fowler Jr. are all 26 years or younger this season. That handful of players has become the identity of the Jaguars and pushed along the idea that this is a new Jaguars team, not the disaster of old.
One familiar face has remained through it all, though.
Once upon a time, Paul Posluszny was a lone bright spot for lackluster Jaguars defenses. His presence at the heart of the defense helped maintain some semblance of continuity throughout the turmoil. Now, with all the fresh faces around him, Posluszny's job has been reduced to a strong-side role in base formations, the same role Jack had to play last season.
However, Telvin Smith was sidelined with injury this week, thrusting Posluszny back into the lineup.
Posluszny looked like the Pro Bowl-caliber player he once was. In the run game, he was surprisingly active and involved. He led the team with 10 solo tackles, including two tackles for loss. Being in a strong-side role, Posluszny was hardly allowed to show this level of aggression and range this season.
More impressive than looking alive and well as a run defender was how effective Posluszny was as a blitz piece. He still is not a coverage connoisseur, and never was, but he flashed ability as a downhill blitzer this week.
He captured one sack on his own and split another with Blair Brown. As an added bonus, Posluszny also racked up a quarterback hit. He did his part to ensure Jacoby Brissett could not play in a comfortable pocket.
If Posluszny can still have games like this as the third-best linebacker on the team, the Jaguars are in good hands at the position. They should hope Smith gets back as soon as possible, but it is encouraging that Posluszny could play like this in his absence.
— NFL1000 LB Scout Derrik Klassen
Lions Secondary Struggles in Brutal Defensive Performance
The Week 13 matchup between the Baltimore Ravens and Detroit Lions featured two 6-5 teams battling for wild-card positioning.
Despite being the same record, the Lions faltered in a 44-20 blowout. The Ravens picked apart the Lions secondary for an efficient 269 passing yards and two touchdowns on 23 completions from quarterback Joe Flacco.
The secondary had been a positive for the Lions defense as they've stayed relevant in the playoff chase. But when the Lions needed a game-changing play in the first half, no one stepped to the challenge. Star defensive backs Darius Slay and Glover Quin failed to provide the impact the defense needed from its few playmakers.
Instead, the secondary allowed an easy 66-yard gain to receiver Mike Wallace. The Lions' heavy zone approach can be effective for stretches, as neither Nevin Lawson nor D.J. Hayden are consistent enough in man coverage for the Lions to rely on the position to make crucial stops.
Flacco took advantage of the underneath holes throughout the afternoon, leading to an offensive explosion from the league's 18th-ranked unit. That's an unacceptable performance.
With a limited pass rush and group of linebackers in front of them, the Lions secondary has to be sharper than what it showed this week.
The Lions offense coughed up three turnovers, putting the defense into difficult situations with a short field. That can't be pinned on the secondary, but responding with zero forced turnovers is what allowed this game to be put out of reach.
— NFL1000 DB Scout Ian Wharton