’15 Midterm: Oakland Raiders

As the 2015 season has moved toward the midway point one thing has become evident. The Oakland Raiders are blossoming into an up and coming football team. Not only do they pass the eyeball test but you can see the game slowing down for a series of young players. Most notably 2nd year QB Derek Carr.

Carr looks like the real deal out in Oakland.

Carr looks like the real deal out in Oakland.

As you observe young quarterbacks in the NFL, many have the penchant for throwing rocket balls late relying on arm strength. They use this to compensate for reading the defense late thinking they can squeeze in passes, which leads to getting picked off by the underneath coverage. Carr has learned the touch to throw over linebackers into the space just before the secondary converges.

The only real late throw he had in a point of regression was the pick six against the Broncos in week 5. The Raiders lost 16-10 and easily could have won that game. However they sit at 4-3 and Carr is putting together a Pro Bowl year. Right now he is 150 of 229 (65.5%) for 1,793 yds 15 touchdowns to just 3 interceptions.  He’s on pace to throw for 34 TDs to 7 ints. Hmmmm… with the season Peyton Manning and Andrew Luck are having, show The Chancellor who should beat him out for a trip to Hawai’i if he continues playing at this pace. The growth he has shown just going back to last year is immense.

The Raiders are on pace to have a 1,000 yd rusher in Latavius Murray (534 yds / 3tds), 2 -1,000 yd receivers in rookie Amari Cooper (38 ec. / 553 yds / 3tds) & Michael Crrabtree (40 rec./ 483 yds / 3tds) & Carr passing for 4,000 himself. Add Marcell Reese’s 3 scores with the 2 to Andre Holmes last week, tell us where the focal point is to stop this attack. In short, this is giing to keep rolling.

Khalil Mack is the next Derrick Thomas.

Khalil Mack is the next Derrick Thomas.

As for the defense, the Raiders are 31st against the pass and 26th overall. Yet heady play by S Charles Woodson (5ints / 33 tackles) Khalil Mack (4 sacks ) and former Seahawk Malcolm Smith (3 sacks) have kept the defense above board. Going into the 2nd half of the season, if Aldon Smith can turn a corner and veteran Justin Tuck can step up their games, this unit can make it into the teens in terms of ranking. This will be enough to be a playoff contender this year.

When it comes to veteran leadership, Malcolm Smith, Justin Tuck, and Charles Woodson have Super Bowl rings won in the last 6 years. You don’t think what these vets can teach the young guys will go unheeded?

You better recognize what is happening in Oakland. This set of young bucks are learning their way up the ladder. Two of their three losses are to the undefeated Cincinnati Bengals and undefeated Denver Broncos. This team is just learning how to win. The Chancellor of Football  has a saying:  At some point you have to believe what your eyes are showing you. This team is growing week to week. With the Steelers losing LeVeon Bell, this team is going to grow and fly under the radar. They will be hell to deal with come playoff time. All you have to do is get there and take your shot….this team has enough leadership to teach the young pups what they need to know. Stay tuned….

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2013 San Francisco 49ers Preview – How Close Are They??

Frank Gore heads off the field after a Super Bowl XLVII defeat 34-31 to the Ravens.

Frank Gore heads off the field after a Super Bowl XLVII defeat 34-31 to the Ravens.

When the Super Bowl confetti was falling to the turf after Super Bowl XLVII, it rained purple and gold for the Baltimore Ravens. For the second year the 49ers were whisked off the field having lost to the NFL champions after just falling short in the NFC Championship the year before. With the ascension of Colin Kaepernick it looks like San Francisco should be a shoo-in for the NFC West and a return trip to the Super Bowl. Last week, they agreed in principle to trade Alex Smith to the Kansas City Chiefs for a second round draft pick this year and a conditional pick next year. With a stacked roster and draft picks to end the 1st round and the 1st of the second, are they ready for a return trip to the Super Bowl??

Kaepernick's 4th quarter scramble for a touchdown to bring the 49ers within 2 points of the Ravens in the Super Bowl 31-29.

Kaepernick’s 4th quarter scramble for a touchdown to bring the 49ers within 2 points of the Ravens in the Super Bowl 31-29.

Quarterback: Now that Alex Smith has been dealt to the Kansas City Chiefs, Colin Kaepernick is fully entrenched as the starter for the 49ers. Right now they have teams in a vice defending the Pistol “read option” which has a lot of built in deception that is getting the best of NFL defenses right now. That split second of indecision allowed Kaepernick to completely scald the Packers for an NFL postseason record 181 yards rushing in the NFC Divisonal round.

It’s this burst of spontaneity that keeps this offense productive. Kaepernick’s ability to take a broken play for a 15 yard run along with the called runs has turned football back into an 11 on 11 game. The upside is the  illusion that the 49ers don’t have drives that bog down. In the playoffs alone Kaepernick was 49 of 80 for 798 yards 4TDs and 2 interceptions. He only completed passes at a 61% rate, yet when you factor in his 25 carries for 264 yards and 3 touchdowns he more than made up for the offense missed by the incomplete passes. Projecting his playoff stats over a full season would look like this: 245 of 400 for 3,990 yards 20TDs and 10 interceptions while rushing 125 times for 1,300 yards and 15TDs. Now of course the rushing total is distorted because of the monster game against Green Bay until you realize he had 63 carries for 415 yards and 5 TDs in the regular season. He only started 7 games…. you do the math.

Going into his 3rd year, it’s a given Kaepernick will improve on his passing. He also showed he can make all the throws whether it was drilling the late breaking in route in a zone or touch passes beyond the linebackers. We saw this in his late breaking development with TE Vernon Davis during the playoffs. What we saw during the 2012 playoffs was a dress rehearsal of things to come however there will be a sophomore slump this year. This is the NFL and the studying of tendencies will bring about new defensive tactics against him. To that he and the 49ers have to stay ahead of the bell curve with offensive wrinkles. Right now San Francisco is playoff calibur at the quarterback position.

Offensive Backfield: One huge beneficiary of the new Pistol offense is Frank Gore. There are still running plays where the 49ers line up in power formations but in large part Gore isn’t facing downhill charging linebackers. The Pistol forces teams into 4-2-5 or 3-3-5 nickel variations where the linebackers are a step behind on the front side of the read option. They are not attacking the run lanes like they do in a traditional sense and this will lesson the wear and tear on a running back entering his ninth year. For the first time in many years, Gore looked fresh the entire season. He started all 16 games while rushing for 1,214 yards 8 TDs while averaging 4.7 yards per rush.

Frank Gore running a sweep during Super Bowl XLVII. He will have to abide by the new rule that mandates thigh and knee pads this year.

Frank Gore running a sweep during Super Bowl XLVII. He will have to abide by the new rule that mandates thigh and knee pads this year.

The player that will make a move this year is LaMichael James. As the team opts for even more speed to line up next to Kaepernick on 3rd downs and spot duty as a change of pace back. We saw evidence of this in last year’s NFC Championship Game in Atlanta. The team needed a jump-start and James was the guy.  He’s a space running back and the Niners use him to get out on the edge and on short screens. He’ll see more playing time this year.

Rounding out one of the best backfields in the NFL is Kendall Hunter. This is Frank Gore’s heir apparent and should split time again this season. One of the reasons James was able to see the field was due to Hunter getting injured in week 12. He led all San Francisco running backs with 5.2 yards per carry average last year rushing for 371 yards and 2 scores on 72 carries. He’s only entering his 3rd season and we have to see how effective he is coming back from injury. If everything is a go, he and Gore will share the duties on 70% of the time while sprinkling in James every now and again. By mid-season we’ll here the corporate speak of playing all backs to keep them healthy for the playoffs. Which is true but they will phase Gore out after 2013 because of salary. Stating the workload doesn’t match the compensatory structure of his contract. That is just over the horizon but for now San Francisco is Super Bowl quality at the running back position.

Receivers: Michael Crabtree finally emerged from the shadow cast by TE Vernon Davis in 2012. His play was the only consistent at receiver for the full season as the team changed quarterbacks. With 85 receptions for 1,105 yards and 9 touchdowns he became the go to guy. Going into his fifth season and third under Coach Harbaugh, he’s in his prime and should catch even more passes thanks to Kaepernick. When he scrambles to keep the play alive, Crabtree can work to get open even if he was initially covered. He could have a 100 catch season.

Crabtree emerged as the big play receiver team execs envisioned when they drafted him out of Texas Tech.

Crabtree emerged as the big play receiver team execs envisioned when they drafted him out of Texas Tech.

Our thoughts on the Randy Moss experiment in San Francisco are mixed. On one hand he helped some young players as a good locker room presence, and that veteran leadership may be most evident in Crabtree’s improvement. On the other hand it slowed the growth of last year’s major free agent acquisition in Mario Manningham. He never looked 100% last year and then was put on IR for the playoffs. Manningham in his second year in Harbaugh’s system should be thinking less and playing better. He and Crabtree could be twin 1,000 yard receivers depending upon Kaepernick’s continued development with TE Vernon Davis.

It was Davis’ play that was most affected by the quarterback change from Alex Smith. In Smith you had the 3 to 5 step drop of a traditional passer and the tight end was the first outlet. Once Kaepernick and the Pistol became the team’s new staple, Davis was no longer that first option. Opposing linebackers don’t bite so fast on a fake hand-off from the Pistol and that made Davis need another step to get past them. If Kaepernick didn’t throw on time, Davis would then be covered by a safety. Evidence?? He only had 6 receptions in the final 6 games of the regular season. You can see the team worked hard on getting him back into the offense in the playoffs. He had 12 receptions in the postseason. A sign of good coaching. He should have a Pro Bowl year in 2013 and helps the 49ers receiving corps achieve a playoff grade.

Offensive Line: This is a good offensive line and a look at their play down the stretch shows you how good they are. They can block in the phone booth of power running formations and out in space. The product of three #1 draft picks in LT Joe Staley, LG Mike Iupati, who were both Pro Bowl players, and young RT Anthony Davis to go with C Jonathon Goodwin and RG Alex Boone, this team is ready as a line. Aside from Goodwin the average age is 25.5 years of age yet they are improving. Understand they powered the way to 2,491 yards as a team as 5 players topped a 4.0 average and the team a 5.1 avg. That’s getting some push.

With the removal of QB Smith they won’t give up 41 sacks again. Sometimes Smith held the ball from a pocket position and had to take the sack. With Kaepernick, there is a moving pocket with the Pistol offense and the running plays are designed to get the line in position to make initial blocks while the defense tries to figure out if the ball has been handed off to Gore, if Kaepernick kept the ball, or if it was a play-fake to pass the football.

Pro Bowl Tackle Joe Staley should be around the 49er facility for a long time.

Pro Bowl Tackle Joe Staley should be around the 49er facility for a long time.

Expect to see the 41 sacks and 68 quarterback hits of a year ago to be diminished in 2013. Only 8 of those came during Kaepernick’s 7 regular season starts. Maybe Coach Harbaugh knew what he was doing. In 2012 in power rushing play scenarios up the middle or to the strong-side, they powered for the first down or touchdown 78% of the time and 64% on the weak-side. They can run it in either direction and if you noticed during the Super Bowl, most of their 2nd half rushing yards came from running toward the weak-side. Including Kaepernick’s touchdown to narrow the score to 31-29 in the Super Bowl. This line will be Super Bowl calibur with the improved sack totals in regards to the quarterback evading sacks.

Defensive Line: Contrary to popular belief this is where the 49ers need to make a move to upgrade. Last year we challenged they need to get more defensive line help to take the pressure and wear and tear off of DE Justin Smith. You saw him hampered by that huge elbow brace toward the end of the year despite his missing two games. Ray McDonald was solid with 38 tackles and 2 1/2 sacks but he needs help. They have to get Justin Smith some help since he’ll turn 34 this year despite the 65 tackles and 3 sacks. He’s at the point where he can get old on the 49ers in a hurry. The 49ers should spend a bulk of their draft on young defensive linemen. At least two selections. Right now the defensive line is average.

Aldon Smith is more than a pass rusher...

Aldon Smith is more than a pass rusher…

Linebackers: This is where the defense gets it’s fangs from. It’s not even an argument the 49ers field the best set of linebackers in all of pro football. Starting with the reigning Taylor Blitz Times Defensive Player of the Year in Navorro Bowman. https://taylorblitztimes.com/2013/02/02/taylor-blitz-times-defensive-player-of-the-year-navorro-bowman/ He led the Niners in tackles for a second straight year with 144 tackles while posting 2 sacks, 1 interception, and defensed 6 passes. He was all over the place as was Patrick Willis (120 tackles / 2ints /1/2 a sack). Whether you think Willis is better than Bowman is irrelevant they are both young, in their primes and deadly.

By the time we add Ahmad Brooks (47 tackles /6.5 sacks) and Aldon Smith (55 tackles /19.5 sacks) and you have the most active linebackers in football. Funny thing is everyone treats Smith as a pass rusher only, yet he was fourth on the team in tackles. Between Smith and Brooks they also contributed with an interception each and five forced fumbles. This is the best 3-4 set of linebackers  since the mid 1990’s Blitzburgh unit. Definitely Super Bowl quality.

They had better sign Dashon or they could have a glaring hole in the secondary if he signs elsewhere.

They had better sign Dashon or they could have a glaring hole in the secondary if he signs elsewhere.

Secondary: Now that Dashon Goldson hasn’t been franchised both sides are hoping to work out a long term deal. The problem is free agency is about to start and you don’t want him talking to anyone. If someone blows him away with an offer a Pro Bowl safety tandem could be broken up.  Goldson is among the best safeties in football. He defensed 10 passes, intercepted 3 and made 67 tackles. Many of which were of the bell-ringing variety.

Donte Whitner is a prototypical SS who comes up to support the run and mug tight ends. He had 82 tackles, forced 2 fumbles and took his only interception back for a touchdown. It was on the corner where this team could improve. For a team that finished 4th overall allowing 294.4 yards per game, it’s now allowing 406 to go with the 35.6 points given up in those final 3 games before the finale. Now there is talk of bringing in Darelle Revis.

We’ll see how that plays out but Carlos Rogers, Tarell Brown, and Chris Culliver had 5 interceptions between the 3 of them. Culliver was victimized in the Super Bowl and had a costly penalty to boot. A draft pick could be used here even if they get Revis. The corner situation drops this group down to average. This is the defense’s Achille’s heal.

Overall: This team has to prepare to stay ahead of the curve of what they think defenses will throw at Kaepernick. The dark cloud that looms is the Seattle team up north that throttled them 43-12 late last season. There was a collective sigh of relief when Atlanta beat them in the divisional round. This team will face  the most adversity within their division, which has become the toughest in football. Don’t forget the Rams were 1-0-1 against them last year.

This team is very close but the emotional highs and lows of the season will see them have some tough division losses. Everyone is gunning for the Niners as though they are champions having been among the league’s elite for the last few years. Again there will be a sophomore slump for Kaepernick with Ram Coach Jeff Fisher and Seahawk Coach Pete Carroll studying how to play him this season. The Niners were 1-2-1 against these two in a year they went to the Super Bowl. The Chancellor sees a slide to 10-6 and a wild card this time around. They won’t make it back to the NFC Championship Game in 2013. They’ll lose in the NFC Divisional round. Teams are gunning for them and the weight will take it’s toll…

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Taylor Blitz Times new logo!!

Taylor Blitz Times new logo!!

Super Bowl XLVII Recap: Ravens 34 – 49ers 31

Super Bowl XLVII

Super Bowl XLVII

Finally Super Sunday dawned like Christmas day for football fans and of course the Baltimore Ravens and San Francisco 49ers. However once the game kicked off the 49ers inexperience immediately hampered early success. After forcing a 3rd and nine where the Ravens didn’t convert, Ahmad Brooks jumped offsides giving the Ravens new life. The Ravens converted and scored with Flacco hitting Anquan Boldin from 13 yards out to make it 7-0 Baltimore.

As expected the 49ers came out in the Pistol offense and moved the ball for the next couple of drives but went 1 of 3 on their first third downs and kicked the ball several times to the Ravens. They did have Ray Lewis and the Ravens befuddled as they drove the football and kicked a field goal to cut it to 7-3 before inexperience hit San Francisco again. On a quick outside play, LeMichael James instead of going down, fought for more yards and had the football knocked loose and the Ravens recovered.

The subsequent drive had one of the highlights in Flacco’s career. While holding a pensive 7-3 lead Joe was flushed by a blitzing Aldon Smith and scrambled to his right. Where it seemed like a perfect time to throw it away, the new Joe Flacco heaved it for 30 yards where Anquan came up with the football. A huge first down that allowed the Ravens to keep the momentum and take a 14-3 lead. Even if you go back to the first play of the game, Kaepernick hit Vernon Davis with a 20 yard gain. It was called back with an illegal formation and they stayed a step behind Baltimore ever since.

Torrey Smith and the prettiest Ravens in the building.

Torrey Smith and the prettiest Ravens in the building.

Then the quarterback that swore he was never nervous about the Super Bowl, showed his nerves as he overthrew his receiver and S Ed Reed picked it off on the San Francisco end of the field. Frustration boiled over as a fight ensued. The 49ers have played on the edge being a defensive bully on the NFC block and they were getting beaten by a team that has been an NFL bully for 13 years. The 49ers thought they were the more physcial team and found out they had run smack into a buzzsaw. They were down 14-3 and were starting to sweat. After a botched fake field goal gave the Niners the ball back Kaepernick was jittery and nearly threw a second interception to a diving Cary Williams. Then the Jacoby Jones highlight reel started.

First Flacco hits him with a 56 yard bomb to put the Ravens up 21-3 and he totally had blown by the secondary for the catch. He then got up and raced into the end-zone and the Ravens were up 21-3 and it looked like they were headed to hoist the trophy. After a field goal by the 49ers to cut the lead to 21-6, the momentum was clearly Baltimore’s as the teams left the field.

Coming from halftime, the first thoughts were for the 49ers to stop the Ravens who were going to get the ball after the kick. Get the Ravens to  go 3 and…..ooops!! Jacoby Jones sets a league record by bringing the second half kick 109 yards for a touchdown to make it 28-6 and the ballon of confidence popped on the San Francisco sideline!!  A few plays later the lights went out…literally! We had a 36 minute play stoppage but the Niners were about to be blown out of the stadium.  Or so it appeared… It was eery watching the players try to keep warmed up in a semi-dark Super Dome. The only delay that was close to this was the “Fan-Man” incident during a Riddick Bowe v. Evander Holyfield championship match in 1993.

Ravens Brass holding the hardware.

Ravens Owner Steve Biscotti and Head Coach Jim Harbaugh hoisting the Vince Lombardi Trophy while CBS’ Jim Nantz looks on.

After the outage, the Ravens came out flat and the 49ers seized the momentum, outscoring the Ravens 17-0. First a touchdown throw from Kaepernick to Crabtree for 31 yards to first cut the lead to 28-13. On the next series Flacco is swallowed by Ahmad Brooks on third down forcing a punt. Then the game swung big time! First Ted Ginn Jr took the punt around midfield and ran it back to the Raven 20 yard line. Couple plays later Frank Gore took a handoff around right end on a counter and the 49ers had cut the game to 28-20. Over the next few minutes the 49ers had all the momentum and it looked like the Ravens were hanging on for dear life.

In a wild second half Colin Kaepernick found his groove. He eventually completed 16 of 28 for 302 yards and 1TD to Michael Crabtree. He also rushed 6 times for 62 yards and the touchdown to cut the Ravens lead to 31-29 with just over 7 minutes to go in the game. Kaepernick’s game was transcendent and elevated this Super Bowl into one of the greatest ever. He completed all the throws and shook off his second quarter jitters and being down 34-29 after a Ravens field goal, everyone held their breath as the Niners raced downfield.  With just over two minutes to go, Frank Gore burst around left end and gave the Niners a first and goal from inside the 10 yard line. San Francisco was on the brink of the greatest comeback in Super Bowl history. They just needed 8 yards…

The last play of Ray Lewis career. A 4th down incompletion in Super Bowl XLVII.

The last play of Ray Lewis career. A 4th down incompletion in Super Bowl XLVII.

That’s when the heart of a champion showed up in the form of the Baltimore Ravens defense. They stuffed one running play and played discipline football in stringing out two passes to the sideline. There were no openings for Kaepernick to throw the football. Then as it had on a two point attempt earlier, the Ravens blitzed on 4th down, Kaepernick lofted the ball for Michael Crabtree but the throw was errant thanks to the pressure. Baltimore escaped with a World Title thanks to a goal line stand to end Ray Lewis’ story career.

The MVP of the game was Joe Flacco and it could be argued that he almost played his way out of it. In the first half he was brilliant throwing for 192 yards with 3TDs on 13 of 20 passes. Once he was sacked by Brooks during the 49ers furious 3rd quarter rally he stopped throwing downfield and started to look like “the old Joe Flacco”. Yet once the Niners cut the lead to 31-29, Joe drove the Ravens on a 10 play 59 yard drive and gave the Ravens defense 5:29 of possession time to rest. On the drive he hit Anquan Boldin with three passes, one a critical third down that kept the chains moving. The subsequent 38 yard field goal by Tucker put the Ravens up by 5, 34-29 and no one was safe.

Ray Lewis, from The [[_]] hoists the Lombardi Trophy for the second time in his last NFL game.

Ray Lewis, from The [[_]] hoists the Lombardi Trophy for the second time in his last NFL game.

In the end, the Ravens gutted it out in that goal line stand and the difference could have been borne from the rest Flacco and the offense gave them from the previous drive. After three plays the Ravens took a ceremonious safety that gave them a 34-31 lead while effectively running out the clock.

World Champion Baltimore Ravens! The victors in one of the most exciting Super Bowls ever. The vanquished 49ers had to exit the field as the purple and gold confetti fell on one of the most unlikely NFL champions ever. In one of our Super Bowl articles, our CEO said to “never underestimate what it means for a man to motivate other men.” Inside the 10 with just 1 minute to go, Ray got his guys to focus on those 4 plays. This team was flat coming down the stretch losing 4 of 5 to finish the season and it looked like another mid playoff exit was brewing.

Ray announces this would be his last go ’round and everything changed for the Baltimore Ravens. Cell phones were left out of meetings and players focused that much more on the game. The miracle double overtime win was one of the greatest in NFL history and one Flacco had to throw a 70 yard touchdown with less than a minute to go to tie it. In a year where former Owner Art Modell passes earlier in the season, OJ Brigance fighting ALS while working in the Ravens front office, Torrey Smith losing his brother and coming back to play for the Ravens with a heavy heart, they drew inspiration from within. Once Lewis admission to retire at the end of these playoffs and they were playing for something bigger than themselves. They needed every bit of spirit and motivation to upset the favored San Francisco 49ers by 8 yards.

The game won’t be the same without Ray Lewis but he leaves with another championship ring.

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