Let’s See What Those Defenses Have in Chiefs-Patriots, Protecting Deshaun Watson Starts With a New Plan in the Red Zone

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1. Regardless of what happens Sunday night, both the Patriots and Chiefs are likely going to wake up Monday morning as legitimate Super Bowl contenders. Apparently they’re going to play the game anyway.

You’ve seen what the Chiefs can do offensively, and Patrick Mahomes makes them more expansive than they were a year ago when they pulled down the Partiots’ collective pants in the season opener. Meanwhile, Tom Brady got Julian Edelman back last week and is getting Josh Gordon up to speed; there’s every reason to think they’re going to be one of football’s two or three best offenses over the rest of the season. They can take on a lot of different identities (spread quick-strike, deep ball, grind it out with two running backs) and New England always treats the season as a process. They get better as the year goes on, as evidenced by their .801 post-September winning percentage over the last 10 seasons.

So is there any reason to watch Sunday night aside from two elite teams, one led by a historically great quarter back and the other led by the most exciting young star in the NFL, in a proverbial head-on collision? How about the defenses. The Chiefs continue to struggle with the basics of tackling, and you wonder if the Patriots—if Sony Michel is in the lineup—will put the rookie behind James Develin and try to overpower this K.C. front seven. Of course, the Chiefs are also having issues on the back end, so airing it out isn’t a bad approach either. The Chiefs could get an otherworldly performance from Dee Ford (who is having a career year), Chris Jones and the Justin Houston-less pass rush. More likely, the path to success will be the defense as a whole playing much better than it has.

As for the Patriots, they don’t have the kind of explosive front-seven players to dominate, but they’ve looked much better than the plodding group we saw three weeks ago in a Sunday night loss at Detroit. The returns of Patrick Chung and Trey Flowers certainly helped their bend-not-break defense. One week after a shaky performance against Andrew Luck and 10 guys Luck gathered in the parking lot before the game, Mahomes presents an interesting bench mark for this unit.

Both these teams will contend due to their offenses, but the defensive units could tip the scales in January (just ask Pittsburgh). For each unit, Sunday night could serve as a good jumping off point, or it could serve as another bright and garish warning sign.

2. My New Year’s resolution last year was to drink more Shasta-brand cola. And also to stop treating red-zone efficiency numbers as predictive. The sample sizes are too small, and the scenarios, frankly, too fluky to draw any real conclusions.

For example, in terms of touchdown rate, the Seahawks are leading the NFL in red-zone efficiency right now; last year they were 13th, in 2016 they were 27th and in 2015 they were 31st. The Steelers are second this year, they were 22nd each of the last two years. The Cowboys are 29th this year, they were sixth in 2017 and third in 2016. Jacksonville is 30th this year, they were second last year. Oakland is 24th this year, they were seventh last year, and they were 24th in 2016. Even the blue bloods: New England was top-seven four of the past five years, except for in 2015, when they were 29th. The Saints are seventh this year, eighth last year, third in 2015 and dead last in 2014. You get the point.

That brings us to the Texans, who, anecdotally, need to find a different approach in the red zone. They don’t trust the offensive line to create any kind of push, nor do they trust the protection enough to send all their options out into routes. We’ve been wondering all season why Houston is scoring so few points when their offensive is generally performing well, and the problem is almost entirely due to their horrific work in the red zone (31st right now). But more importantly, a better approach in the red zone will keep Deshaun Watson from being pummeled unmercifully as he was last Sunday night against Dallas.

Watson’s ability to extend plays within and outside the pocket is what makes him great, though it seems the Texans are genuinely interested in keeping him from taking so many hits. They’ve moved away from the misdirection stuff they used (with a lot of success) last year. The only reason to do so is to discourage their quarterback from putting himself in danger.

That’s most problematic in the red zone, where the temptation to lower a shoulder and try to get into the end zone is too much. Watson took a couple of monster hits near the goal line last Sunday night. It’s too much to ask a competitive and gifted talent like him to put his health first when he gets near the goal line—it’s up to the coaching staff to do it for him. A rushing attack would make things easier, but since they don’t have one available, Bill O’Brien and Co. are going to have to come up with something different.

3. The Rams offense is really good for a combination of reasons, so don’t consider this as a “well, actually…” kind of take. They’re well schemed, well taught, and loaded with talent. But, as we’re seeing with, say, the New York Giants right now, a well-designed offense doesn’t mean much if the offensive line can’t execute at a baseline level of competency. And, as far as the Rams are concerned, a lot of these brilliant designs are being executed because the protection is holding up and then some, allowing plays to fully develop.

Which brings us, specifically, to left tackle Andrew Whitworth, the best of a very good group up front. His pass protection remains excellent, and because he doesn’t need help often it allows the Rams to send that help to the other side, or send all five eligible receivers out into the world. Whitworth is one of the best in football on screen plays, a staple of Sean McVay’s offense. There’s enough of an age difference between him and his head coach that it would be socially acceptable for Whitworth to carry McVay around in a baby bjorn, and the veteran has delivered and then some on the leadership front. But if you’ll allow me to add some heat to this take—and I don’t see how you can stop me since the only company in my basement at 2 a.m. on a Sunday morning are these delectable cool mint Clif Bars—I think the question is worth asking: Is Andrew Whitworth the greatest free-agent signing in NFL history among non-quarterbacks?

He’s at least somewhere among Reggie White, Charles Woodson, Simeon Rice, though while those guys were big-money acquisition, Whitworth got more of an upper-middle-class deal—three years, $33.75 million, $15 million guaranteed, a fraction of what would have been earmarked for Greg Robinson had he panned out as the No. 2 overall pick. You’d be hard-pressed to find a franchise player on the open market with that kind of price tag.

Ndamukong Suh has been good, Brandin Cooks and Robert Woods have been quality weapons, Aqib Talib was solid before getting hurt, Marcus Peters having a nice start to the year before BMing in his pants a little last week. But the Rams would be fine with any of those guys getting injured or underachieving. Probably not so with Whitworth, who’s the rare combination of affordable and unexpendable.

4a. I’m as excited about Tre’Quan Smith’s potential as the next guy, but sending his first career touchdown to ball to Canton seems like a bit much.

4b. That’s a good joke. Family-friendly. My mom will appreciate it. I mean, I’ll probably have to explain to her who Drew Brees is. I’ll certainly have to explain to her who Tre’Quan Smith is. I’ll have to tell her why the career passing yardage record is significant. And why accumulating yards over the course of a football game is important. And what a “yard” is—mom was always fiercely loyal to the metric system. Rap me across the knuckles if I put more than 15 milliliters of Bosco into my milk, she would.

Anyway, once all that context was in place, I think mom will like that joke.

5a. Though as memorable as Monday night was, my favorite Drew Brees memory was the time he substitute-taught chemistry my sophomore year of high school. He put in a movie about photosynthesis, and when I asked him what the atomic weight of wolfram was he knew it! Well, he answered it. When I went to the computer lab later to Ask Jeeves the same question, I had forgotten what Mr. Brees had said. Anyway, here’s the photographic proof that all of that happened:

5b. I don’t know what the above photo is either, but I was doing some Brees photo research in the SI archives I found it and it made me smile. So I’m starting a new regular segment in this column: “Photos That I Found That I Also Like and the True Stories Behind Them.” And by “regular,” I mean that was the first of three photos I have lined up, and I’m not sure if there will be more after that.

5c. I know, you’re pretty upset that I just wrote a couple hundred words of complete nonsense on Drew Brees, but Jenny Vrentas, Tim Layden and Ben Baskin all wrote killer pieces on him, and not only is there little-to-nothing left to say, but I’m not following any of those acts. So go read those three pieces, and I’ll be here when you get back.

6. Julius Peppers is an absolute gift, due a combination of his work in the community and his incredible longevity.

On the latter: Peppers is still a valuable piece of the Panthers’ D-line rotation, playing 20-30 snaps per week (37 last week, actually), 16 years after they drafted him second overall. Peppers is one of only two players from the 2002 NFL draft still active—the other being Josh McCown—and the only non-QB and non-specialist drafted 2002 or earlier who’s still going in the league.

Peppers, of course, also played college basketball at North Carolina, and he’s outlasted 57 of the 58 players selected in the 2002 NBA draft. Even Dan Dickau!* I’d do the same exercise with the NHL, but Peppers didn’t play college hockey (as far as I know) and the NHL lost all relevance and abandoned any claim to legitimacy as a major sports league the moment the Hartford Whalers relocated. But the point is, Peppers, even if he’s no longer as exceptionally good as he was for a time, has been good for an exceptionally long time.

*—Nenê is the guy who’s still active, by the way, but that was the Dan Dickau draft. Also, Dan Dickau looks a lot like Paul Rudd. I’m also working on an independent film based on the events of the 2002 NBA draft, and if anyone knows Paul Rudd please let him know I’d love to show him a script. It’s the perfect part—Dan Dickau’s twin brother Dick Danau. Yeah… yeah, I guess they would have the same last name if they were twin brothers.

7. As those of you who were here a couple weeks ago know, in honor of the beer fridges in Cleveland for their first win a couple weeks back, I had three loose cans of Genesee, plus one Busch, from two summers ago locked in the trunk of my Saturn. They were only to be released when Jamar Taylor broke his personal losing streak, which had stretched to 21 games after a run with the Browns and now the Cardinals. (If you didn’t read it here, you likely saw #VictoryWarmBeersInTrunkOfMySaturnParkedAcrossTheStreetFromDunkingDonuts trending on social media.)

Well, Taylor played two snaps last week in San Francisco as the Cardinals got their first win of 2018, and Taylor’s first win since Christmas Eve 2016. Things got a little complicated after I backed the Saturn into the pole of the dunk hoop and put a pretty good dent in the trunk lid, but with a little help from my buddy Jeff down at the Dunking Donuts (we’re good again!) we pried open the trunk and started the celebration! Jeff was kind enough to give me a discount on some lightly burnt croissants that would have otherwise been thrown out, and while Taylor wasn’t able to make the cross-country trip due to an unforeseen scheduling conflict I presume, he missed out. A good time was had by all of us. By both of us. Until we got terrible diarrhea.

8. Ladies and gentlemen . . . INXS!

• Question or comment? Email us at talkback@themmqb.com.

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