NFL Week 11 Preview: It Had to be Taysom Hill Over Jameis

 si.com  11/22/2020 05:03:52   Gary Gramling

1. Sean Payton might have been leaning Taysom Hill regardless of what happened after Drew Brees exited last week’s victory over the 49ers, but it was Jameis Winston who made Payton’s decision easy.

We all know New Orleans has made a major investment in Hill last offseason. Despite a reluctance to let him throw a football, the Saints awarded Hill with a two-year extension that will pay him $21 million and commissioned the three-step bronzing process for his Canton bust.

Payton has always had a passion for incorporating run concepts from around the NFL into his offense, and with Hill under center he gets to design a creative and expansive rushing attack. There is no evidence suggesting Hill will throw the ball well. But against Atlanta, the Saints can lean on an 11-man run game to replace the short throws. And they can go with a downfield passing game to replace not having a downfield passing game. Can it work? For one week, certainly. Will they win? If they score more points than they allow, it’s quite likely.

But back to the reason this was an easy decision for Payton: Winston managed to cram a benchable act into his 10 throws last week.

Winston’s biggest issue—going back to Florida State and somehow it’s become exacerbated at the NFL level*—is that he sees nothing at the second level. As in, it seems to be a literal blindspot when he’s reading defenses. Winston, of course, eschewed wearing contacts or glasses while in Tampa, because glasses are for nerds and jocks are supposed to give nerds a hard time** so why not squint, like George Costanza spotting raccoons instead. He got Lasik surgery this past offseason, and there was an optimistic line of thinking that maybe that would fix his issues.

Winston’s first eight throws against the 49ers were safe underneath dump-offs, with the exception of a nice touch pass on an Alvin Kamara wheel route. But here is Winston’s second-to-last throw of the game against the 49ers:

Jimmie Ward isn’t disguising his coverage here. He doesn’t follow the slot receiver when he motions to the other side of the formation. He maybe feigns that he’s coming down to cover the running back—who’s helping in pass protection—but considering the score, down and distance, Winston has to at least verify that before he lets this ball go. In the end, it’s clear that Ward is a free defender at the second level, and Winston puts this throw right into Ward’s chest. It’s classic Jameis, like his version of when Young Sheldon says “Wassup!” If that’s Young Sheldon’s catchphrase. I haven’t seen that show. But I’ve seen a lot of commercials for it so it feels like I’ve seen it.

I’m a big believer that, in the modern NFL, quarterbacks should err on the side of risk, that the rules and talent distribution are weighted too heavily in favor of the passing game not to, that the Geneva Convention should be amended to recognize forcing someone to watch the 2017 Chiefs-Bills game, in which Alex Smith and Tyrod Taylor took turns actively trying to avoid moving the ball forward, as inhumane treatment under international law. But every risk is calculated.

When Winston took this snap, it was second down and the Saints had a two-possession lead with less than 10 minutes left—a roughly 90% chance to win (95.23%, according to numberFire). Really, the only way the 49ers, without their starting quarterback and best offensive player, were going to get back into it would be a catastrophic turnover by the Saints. And Winston begged them to take that turnover.

The Saints’ next four opponents are currently 3-6 (Atlanta), 3-6 (Denver), 3-5-1 (Philadelphia) and 3-6 (Atlanta again). Considering how the Saints’ secondary is finally clicking, reigning offensive player of the year Michael Thomas is back and the non-QB portion of the roster is as good as any in football, they’ll likely be playing with the lead. Losing one of those games would surely involve some instance of shooting themselves in the butt, metaphorically speaking. Maybe Hill can’t throw the ball very well (he can’t), and maybe a revamped run-based offense will move in fits and starts once it’s on tape, but it took nine throws to remind Payton that Winston is prone to mind-numbing mistakes that can probably be avoided with Hill.

*—Actually, that’s not fair, while you’d expect he would have improved NFL defenses are already worlds better than the ones in college and they’re becoming more creative and complex every season. (Usually in this column the asterisks lead to some kind of joke. But sometimes you just need to pass along information.)

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2. With Lamar Jackson and Josh Allen now firmly entrenched in stardom, there’s a real void in the quarterback taeks market. Ever so briefly Daniel Jones filled that void for various folks looking to make their livelihood as shock jocks. Daniel Jones is the worst quarterback in football, now here’s a rock block of Trapt. And the “Trapt rock block” is actually just that one Trapt song, the one that isn’t very good, three times in a row. (Also, I don’t think there’s a radio format that blends Skip Bayless-esque taeks plus early-aughts corporate nu metal. At least not until my GoFundMe really picks up.)

The man they call Abracadaniel was the subject of all kinds of uninformed, half-baked takes, especially after two bad turnovers against the Bucs on a Monday night. But the takes have dried up along with Jones’s turnovers—he hasn’t had any the past two games and now a playoff spot is very much within reach for the Giants.

You could have filled a warehouse with bad “Jones is Jameis” taeks, but their turnover issues were due to completely different flaws. Winston’s inability to read the bodies at a defense’s second level, as mentioned above, is likely not correctable six years into his career. Jones’s sluggish internal clock, allowing him to extend plays but to the point where he was impervious to impending danger, was very much correctable, as we’re seeing now. Charting Jones’s nine interceptions this season:

• Four were a result of working too late into the down and getting hit as he threw.• One was an on-target quick-strike throw that went through an open Evan Engram’s hands and right to a defender.• Two were bad decisions, where he either stared down a target and/or underestimated a defender’s ability to undercut a throw.• One was an exceptional play by a pass rusher who dropped into a short zone and made a great catch (T.J. Watt).

• One was either an off-target throw, poorly run route or miscommunication with Engram—it’s impossible to know.

The difference in Jones the past two weeks is he’s simply getting the ball out. That is probably how he needs to play right now, working behind one of football’s worst offensive lines, with his best weapon out and his second-best weapon struggling to catch the ball. But the tradeoff of getting the ball out quickly is that one of Jones’s potential best attributes—the ability to extend plays within the pocket—is gone; he did leave a potential touchdown on the field last week because he had to get the ball out quickly against the blitz, although some pocket movement to avoid the rush might have resulted in finding the touchdown.

But, overall, he has played objectively well in 2020. So, yes, Jones will be the Giants’ quarterback in 2021—it’s not really debatable at this point, as the Giants are unlikely to have a shot at Justin Fields or Trey Lance, let alone Trevor Lawrence.

But do you want to know who will be participating in this offseason’s quarterback market? Tune in next week, for the exciting conclusion of “The Ballad of Abracadaniel.”

2b. A Football Things cliffhanger. These things happen when it’s late on Saturday night after a full day of raking leaves and you’re ready to mail it in but don’t want to make it look like you’re mailing it in. The perfect crime as long as no one reads this paragraph in which I reveal my inner monologue.

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3a. It’s no fun to say, but Jon Gruden and his staff have done a phenomenal job the past two seasons. The roster is middling, and they have what should be a fatal flaw defensively with that lack of a pass rush. They haven’t had any of the “good bounces” stats falling in their favor this season: They’re -1 in turnover margin (and have only one game with multiple takeaways) and rank 13th in red zone performance above expected (+1.2 in total point differential on the season). Their opposing kicker points vs. expected ranks high—seventh in the NFL—but the benefit has been minimal (-2.0 total points allowed on the season).

And yet, here we are, with the Raiders winning games, and more importantly winning games on their terms. In winning four of five, they’ve averaged 158.4 rushing yards—fourth in the league behind the Ravens, Cardinals, and Titans, teams who get statistical boosts from mobile quarterbacks and Derrick Henry, during that span. They’ve topped 35 minutes of possession in three of those games, keeping that suspect defense from getting exposed.

However, the concept of a division opponent sweeping the Andy Reid-Patrick Mahomes Chiefs would seem to be a statistical impossibility. Since 2015, Kansas City is 29-4 against the rest of the NFC West, and three of those losses came in the final minute of a Thursday night game. The fourth loss was Week 5 against the Raiders at Arrowhead, the Chiefs’ only loss to any team over the past calendar year.

Patrick Mahomes was uncharacteristically off-target in that game, but it was also a dominant performance by the Raiders’ offense. They had sustained drives (three of 10 plays or more) and big plays (passing touchdowns of 72 and 59 yards, plus an additional 42-yard pass and a 43-yard run).

Ultimately, it will be difficult for the Raiders to repeat that offensive performance, just like it will be difficult to force Mahomes into another subpar performance considering their middling pass rush (even with Mitchell Schwartz sidelined).

K.C. is at least feigning some outrage at the fact that the Raiders took a victory lap at Arrowhead six weeks ago. Now, as they make their first visit to the Raiders’ new stadium, the one Jon Gruden nicknamed after the iconic movie vehicle—“the boat from Jaws”—the Chiefs have a chance to return the favor.

3b. If you’re not into overthinking that causation/correlation thing, Vegas had possession for 35 minutes, 18 seconds in the Week 5 victory, and in the Mahomes era the Chiefs are 2-6 when they have less than 25 minutes of possession.

3c. The boat from Jaws is the Orca, right?

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4. One consequence of the directive to officials to stop calling ticky-tack (or imaginary) penalties is that Broncos left tackle Garett Bolles is having a breakout season just before he hits the open market.

Bolles was much maligned over his first three seasons because of the approximately 12,000 holding penalties he was flagged for, but in reality he was doing solid work. Unfortunately, once you gain a reputation for holding among officials, it becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy. Remember two seasons ago when there was that directive to call holding more often, and officials proceeded to just pepper then-Jaguars guard Ereck Flowers with flags? It was like they had a quota for holding calls, and to meet it they just rapid-fired them at Flowers. Flags on Flowers for four quarters, flags as soon as he emerged from the tunnel pregame, flags on his drive home, flags on his way to and from the supermarket. That Flag Day ceremony he attended at his niece’s school? You better believe there were flags.

Anyway, Bolles got similarly unfair treatment, but this season, with the rules relaxed a bit and Bolles raising his—again, already decent—play, he’s indisputably one of the best offensive tackles in football. Because of that, the Broncos are in a bit of a bind. Like the Titans with Jack Conklin a year ago, Denver declined the fifth-year option on Bolles’s rookie contract, meaning he’ll hit free agency a year early, and do so in a year where the OT market is otherwise barren.

Last offseason the Titans had to also get Ryan Tannehill and Derrick Henry signed, and as a result couldn’t use the free-agency cancelation tag on Conklin and lost him to Cleveland. The Broncos, though, will have the tag available for Bolles. And assuming they don’t put the equivalent of the gross domestic product of Moldova in front of Dak Prescott this offseason, they won’t be paying market value for a starting quarterback (whether it’s Drew Lock or first-round pick TBA—it should be the latter). Thus, locking up their left tackle should be an expensive but doable proposition.

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5. Especially after watching that disjointed mess of a Thursday night game (yes, redundant), there’s little doubt the Rams are the class of the NFC West. But this week is a reminder that they—and the Giants—got awfully unlucky with the 2020 schedule.

The Rams’ third-place schedule—after coming a Greg Zuerlein TNF shank away from beating out Seattle for second place and a Wild-Card spot last year—meant drawing the Bucs instead of the Falcons as their lone NFC South opponent (ditto for the Giants in the East). Tampa is obviously a much different team than they were a year ago. Not to mention, with now 10 games under their belt, the Bucs are a much different team than they were two months ago.

The Rams are 2-3 on the road this season, and Monday night is the toughest game on their slate. It will be an especially challenging matchup for a Brandon Staley defense that hasn’t been challenged the past three weeks: There was Chicago’s ineptitude on a Week 7 Monday nighter, then they drew Tua Tagovailoa’s debut but Miami’s offense didn’t have to do anything as Jared Goff turned it over four times and the Dolphins got a punt return TD in the first half. They dominated the Seahawks last week, but Seattle’s offense had become one-dimensional and predictable due to their shortage of running backs.

In that win over the Seahawks, Staley outright dared Seattle to run the ball, going with only three down linemen and extra defensive backs on some first-down plays. L.A. won’t have that option against a Bucs offense with plenty of weapons in the passing game but also a competent rushing attack to complement it. Run defense—rightfully a lower priority in the modern era—has been an achilles heel at times for the Rams during the Aaron Donald era, and it will likely be tested on Monday night.

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6. As you’ve probably seen, there’s been all kinds of good news on the COVID vaccine front over the past week, but distribution likely is not going to come in time to help the NFL season. Cases are piling up, more star players are being forced to sit, and there’s a realistic chance that we won’t get a 256-game regular season when it’s all said and done. Thus while I, like many, enjoy schedule-gazing around Thanksgiving, there’s no guarantee all those games will get in. And thus, having the inside track in the playoff race—in the form of wins so far—is huge this season.

Are the Browns and Cardinals lucky to be sitting on six wins already when signs are pointing toward regression? Sure (and, by the way, the Browns are scheduled to get Pittsburgh in Week 17 while Arizona is set to travel to L.A. to play the Rams). Are the Bears fortunate to be sitting at 5-5 with a playoff spot within reach despite an offense that makes you want to claw your eyes out? Yup (and they have the Packers in Week 17). Getting to January becomes so much easier for those teams if a game or two gets lopped off the schedule, especially if those games include regular-season finales.

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7. Ladies and gentlemen . . . Elliott Smith!

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