In one of my early years covering the NFL, I remember Giants GM George Young telling me why free agency wouldn’t work in pro football. Chemistry in football is different than, say, in baseball. A guard or wide receiver changing teams would take a couple years to become familiar enough with an offense to play at his peak—as opposed to a second baseman or a right fielder, who could be plugged in and play at his normal level on day one.
Anquan Boldin didn’t arrive in San Francisco as a free agent, but it’s basically the same thing. He moved in a trade when the Ravens were on the verge of cutting him last spring, and the 49ers were the beneficiary of a cap crunch in Baltimore. After watching the coaches’ video of Boldin’s first game with San Francisco, I’m more amazed than I was Sunday night, when I’d been able to see only a few plays in the Niners’ win over Green Bay because of my NBC duties, and when I only knew the stat line: 12 catches, 208 yards, one touchdown. Impressive, I thought—especially considering it was Boldin’s first game in a new offense with a new quarterback.
But watching the tape, and getting the exact numbers from Pro Football Focus about where Boldin lined up, makes Seattle’s job more daunting Sunday night in the game of the weekend. I’d hoped to see Richard Sherman vs. Boldin for much of the game Sunday night, two guys at the top of their game. But that’s not the way it’s lining up.
“They line him up in different places,’’ Seahawks safety Kam Chancellor told me from the Seattle practice facility in suburban Renton, “to throw teams off. Overall, they do a great job of disguising the plays they run.’’
That was on display against Green Bay, Boldin played 64 snaps. Looking at the distribution of where he played, and where he caught the most throws from Colin Kaepernick:
This is San Francisco offensive coordinator Greg Roman’s specialty. He’s becoming the Bill Belichick of NFL offenses—no two gameplans ever look the same. After the Niners won the NFC title game in Atlanta with running threat Kaepernick limited to one designed run all game, Roman told me: “Sometimes as a play-caller, the intent is to deceive. We’re not very much into stats around here. We play reality football. We don’t play fantasy football.”
So expect to see lots of changeups from Boldin Sunday night against the aggressive Seattle secondary. Which is fine with Chancellor. He thinks Vernon Davis or Kyle Williams could be just as troublesome Sunday night, and he doesn’t much care. Chancellor said: “The way we play ball here, we don’t prepare for one guy. They play good as a team. As far as our gameplan, we plan for the whole offense, and everyone we’ve seen on tape there is capable of making plays. You have to remember they want to pound the ball and establish their running game. They’re a downhill running team. You have to wrap their legs up. They run a lot of cross routes, seams. We want to take care of the deep routes and get them to run the checkdowns.’’
On a play early in the third quarter against Green Bay, you could see the faith Kaepernick has in Boldin already. Boldin came out of a bunch formation in the right slot, and as he flowed up the right seam, he was bracketed in coverage by cornerback Sam Shields and safety Jerron McMillian. Kaepernick let it fly anyway—and coming over the top when the ball was in the air was another safety, M.D. Jennings. In the middle of this scrum, Boldin plucked the ball out of the air and took big hits but held on. Gain of 22. That’s the kind of throw Peyton Manning made to Marvin Harrison after they’d been together for six or eight years—when each knew exactly what the other was thinking. Kaepernick and Boldin, obviously, are comfortable enough now that the quarterback trusts that, at worst, Boldin will at least make sure the ball isn’t picked off.
“The guy’s a fierce competitor,’’ said Chancellor. “Physical receiver, good hands, and whether he’s covered or not, he’s still a threat to get the ball.”
I know what I’ll be watching Sunday night—and what I hope my NBC associates, Sunday night producer Fred Gaudelli and director Drew Esocoff, have lots of isolated shots on during the best game of Week 2.
About Last Night …
New England 13, N.Y. Jets 10. Possessions: 31. Punts: 20. The game: gruesome. There are 74 frustrating points to make, but one stuck out as the clock struck midnight and this game was put out of its misery. The Pats led 13-10 with three minutes to go, and had 3rd-and-5 at their 36-yard line. Everyone knew what was coming—a pass to Julian Edelman, the only receiver Tom Brady trusted at this point of a bizarre game. Edelman started wide left and went into motion toward the formation, and at the snap of the ball tried to rub off one of his receivers across the middle. And so who covered him? A linebacker, Demario Davis. A linebacker. I don’t care what the excuse is. Edelman should have been doubled wherever he went on the field, and at least one of the cover men should have been a cornerback. Instead, it was a gain of nine, and Brady was able to run the clock down to 56 seconds before the Jets got the ball back. What a waste. Not that Geno Smith would have been able to do anything with the ball, but it would have been much better for him to have the ball at his 20 with 2:35 to go, than at his 29 with 56 seconds to go.
Player You Need To Know This Weekend
Bront Bird, ILB, San Diego (No. 97). It’s been 36 days since the man drafted to be the quarterback of the San Diego defense, inside ‘backer Manti Te’o, last played in a football game. Te’o suffered a foot sprain in the first preseason game, and has been unavailable since, and his absence has been shrouded in a Belichickian-injury mystery. Bird, the backup to Te’o, is a liability in coverage and hurt San Diego in the second half there Monday night in the loss to Houston. But Bird—a Texan himself, having gone to Odessa Permian High and Texas Tech—played very well against the run and in pursuit, leading the Chargers with 14 tackles in the 31-28 loss. This week, assuming it’s not Te’o who faces off against the offbeat stylings of new Philadelphia coach Chip Kelly, you’ll see Bird and Donald Butler try to stop Mike Vick and LeSean McCoy from tearing up the intermediate area of the field as they did in Washington Monday night.
Sound Bite of the Week
“I tell him every day, I come for his spot every day.”
—Houston running back Ben Tate, about his friendly (I think) competition with Arian Foster for carries in the Texans’ backfield. Foster, who missed most of the offseason and camp with calf and back issues, insists he’s fully healthy, and chafed at getting the ball for only 18 carries in the opener Monday night at San Diego. Tate ran it nine times for 55 yards Monday.
Expect coach Gary Kubiak to gradually increase Foster’s workload, but Tate has proven with his breakaway speed he can, and will, be an asset for the Houston offense.
Ten Things I’ll Be Watching For This Weekend
1. RG3 trying to come back in a very touchy setting. Aaron Rodgers is 19-1 in his last 20 games at Lambeau Field; he’s a 69-percent passer with 54 touchdowns and 12 picks in those 20 games. So Griffin, coming off a game where he looked shaky and poor mechanically, figures to have to score in the 30s for Washington to have a chance on the road.
2. Josh Freeman trying to salvage his honor, and his job. Firestorm week for the Bucs, with the accusations of Greg Schiano rigging the captain’s vote and then Schiano publicizing the fact that Freeman overslept and missed the team photo (how does the starting quarterback miss the team photo?!), with Freeman admitting it. Heck of a good time for all that, given the fact you’ve got the Saints back on their game coming to town for the home opener Sunday.
3. Cameron Squared. Miami’s Cameron Wake is the hottest pass rusher in football, and he’s on the fast turf Sunday in Indy. New Orleans’ Cameron Jordan is a 3-4 end coming of age and coming off a top-notch first game against Atlanta. The Bucs better find him Sunday, or he’ll torment Freeman for four quarters.
4. Steven Jackson versus his past. Rams at Falcons. Steven Jackson has nothing against the Rams; this isn’t a case of a guy leaving one team and hating the place he left. He could have made $7 million in 2013 by staying in St. Louis, then becoming a free agent. But he chose to elect free agency after the 2012 season, and sign for $5.25 million in Atlanta. Now, in his second game for the Falcons he plays his old friends.
5. The Ravens to get off the schneid. Cleveland travels to Baltimore. Cleveland’s lost 10 in a row to Baltimore. Baltimore’s mad that it had to open on the road instead of at home, which has been the privilege of Super Bowl winners for a decade. Baltimore got embarrassed and played poorly in losing Week 1 at Denver. Moral of the story: I wouldn’t want to be Cleveland Sunday at 1.
6. Adrian Peterson in a friendly spot. Peterson’s career average at Soldier Field: 107 rushing yards, 1.2 rushing TDs in six games. It’s not fabulous; it’s simply good, particularly when you consider all the good run defenses he’s faced in that park. That was boosted, if you recall, by the first mega-game of his NFL career, a 224-yarder as a rookie. This will be the first time Peterson faces an Urlacher-less Bear defense. Hope he’s ready for a rising-star defensive tackle to say hello in the run game: Stephen Paea.
7. Ndamukong Suh’s approach. The man played a superb game against Minnesota in Week 1—49 snaps, eight quarterback hits or knockdowns, according to Pro Football Focus—and got fined $100,000 for his cheap hit on Minnesota center John Sullivan. Will it affect how he plays at Arizona Sunday? Doubt it, but it’s a point to follow in this game.
8. The encore of Terrelle Pryor. There is a reason to watch Jacksonville at Oakland, people. I liked the field presence of Pryor last week in Indianapolis, and even though he didn’t look for his secondary options enough, 66-percent completions on the road against a 2012 playoff team is proof enough he deserved the game-one trial and deserves a legitimate shot to keep the job for the year.
9. Manning Bowl III. Historically, probably the biggest game of the weekend, Peyton versus Eli, and most likely for the last time, because AFC and NFC teams face off only once every four years. “Special,’’ Eli told me for my podcast last week. “I think I’ll remember the moments, whether it’s before the game when I get to see him, or afterwards when I get to see him, maybe in a hallway. Or as the National Anthem is playing and you look over and see your big brother and just kind of give him a nod. Those are special moments that I’ll take on forever. It’s not so much the plays that happen during the game. I’d love to get a win, more so because it’s an important game, not because it’s against my brother. You know, we’re playing a good team; it’s going to be a big one for us. But the moments kind of around him and being with him on a game day in Giants Stadium will be special moments that I will remember forever.’’ Pretty cool.
10. Chip II. What can you do for an encore, Chip Kelly, in a home opener where you’ll be feted like a conquering hero?