Point Blank – January 10, 2017
What a “Bettor Better Now” – NFL Wild Cards…Can Myles Davis become D’Artagnan…With a little culture shock involved, the Bucks stop here…
The NCAA season closed out in rather special form last night, what was a close but artistically disappointing game much of the way turning into a classic down the stretch. Much like the meeting between the teams last January it was a clash of wills in terms of pacing, and while Clemson won the battle of the pace, but not the scoreboard, in the first go-round, the Tigers had just enough time to win both in regulation last night.
DeShaun Watson’s performance against the Alabama defense in those two games will be remembered across the annals of college football lore, a remarkable 825 passing yards with seven TDs, and 116 rushing yards with another score. So we elevate today to stay on that them. With a lot of ground to cover today, moving across the NFL, NCAA hoops and NBA there is a particular tribute to greatness that comes into play, as the jukebox gets plugged in for some background to help you through. It is the return of Myles Davis to Xavier basketball tonight that creates the spark, so we go to the legendary Miles Davis, live from Paris a few months before his passing in 1991, joined by Kenny Garrett among others…
Now we will see if his name-sake on the basketball court is ready to play at a special level, but before getting to that it is time to sort through the Wild Card hand that was dealt, the focus on the victors as the storylines begin to emerge for this week’s games.
Item: The Texans didn’t solve any of their offensive issues
There weren’t many more inept offensive showings this season than Houston’s 27-0 loss at New England earlier, a game in which the Texans did not get into Patriot territory until the fourth quarter. Of course it was not totally out of character for an offense that struggled all season, in particular Brock Osweiler at the QB position. Osweiler’s play ultimately got him benched, before a concussion suffered by Tom Savage put him back on the field again.
So when the Texans opened the playoffs with a 13-point win over Oakland, and Osweiler issued the following afterwards – “In the end, just go out there and rip it and have fun. Believe in what you see and cut the ball loose. I think it just goes back to having confidence in my teammates and believing in what you see and cutting it loose. Don't have any hesitation. My teammates, I trust the guys. They're going to be where they're supposed to be and they're going to make me look good in the end" it is time to take notice, right? Except there may have been nothing to see.
Because the Oakland offense was so challenged with Connor Cook at the helm Osweiler and the Texans got a free ride in terms of game pressure. On their first three possessions they had 13 plays for 50 yards, but that was enough to be ahead 10-0, and it was mostly low-leverage the rest of the way, the offense not pressured because there was little fear of the Raiders countering from behind.
There was nothing from Osweiler that was any better than what we had seen during the regular season. The ground game behind a now-healthy Lamar Miller was actually a major disappointment – he only managed 73 yards on 31 carries, which included one burst for 19. On all other attempts it was just 1.8. Meanwhile only four Texans caught a pass.
Contrast the comments from Osweiler above with the rather stoic take from Bill O’Brien afterwards - "I thought he had a good game. He took care of the ball. He executed the game plan.” There just wasn’t much more than could be said than that. The Texans got a win, but did not turn any kind of corner on offense.
Perhaps Seattle did…
Item: Was the Seattle ground game good enough to earn respect (and it wasn’t just Thomas Rawls)
Most of you know the drill by now when it comes to stats from a particular RB – it isn’t just the numbers, but the ability of the runner to impact the mindset of the defense defense. A journeyman can get 4.0 per rush but negatively impact the passing game, because the defense does not respect him, while a better runner might only get 3.5 because of the added attention of the defense, yet opens up passing lanes by being there.
An issue for Seattle all season was the combination of both a struggling OL and an unsettled RB cast failing to both produce, and command the respect of opposing defenses. Hence why Russell Wilson sacked on 7.0 percent of all dropbacks, rating #28 across the NFL. But then came Thomas Rawls and those 161 yards and a TD vs. Detroit, which now begs the question as to whether a corner has been turned, or if that was merely one evening against a tired defense, the Lions being caught in an ugly schedule grinder down the stretch?
The answer may go beyond the numbers, and raises a genuine question about whether there was a real transformation of the Seahawks offense. You won’t notice much from FB Marcel Reece in the box score, just one carry for no gain, and one pass reception for five yards, but there was a lot more than that going on. Reece was on the field for 33 snaps vs. Detroit, after Seattle had only used a FB for 107 plays all season (52 of those by Reece). Was it a case of finally believing that Rawls was at full health that the Seahawks went to something they wanted to all along, but could not commit to in their schemes?
Let’s deal with the health of Rawls first, because while he was on the field a lot down the stretch he was not effective – over the final three games he managed just 56 yards on 37 carries. Was he a work in progress? Let’s go to Pete Carroll on that front -“His aggressiveness and attitude running the football is exactly what we want to stand for. … We’ve been patiently waiting for the opportunity for it to pop, and it finally did. This is when it matters. He’s healthy, although he got beat down a little tonight. This is the guy we fell in love with last year and haven’t seen a lot of. It just hasn’t happened. But who cares? We’ve got a game this week, and we’re still playing.”
Now for the importance. It isn’t just running better, which naturally opens up key elements in the playbook, but if the Seahawks are going to make I-formation power a part of their plan, consider what that means in terms of pace. On Saturday night they snapped it at 31.0 SPS, 3.5 seconds below their regular-season count of 27.5, and more than a full second slower than the pace any team in the league played at this season (Miami at 29.8). What does an offense want to do against Atlanta in front of the Georgia Dome crowd? Slow the game down to limit Matt Ryan’s opportunities, and keep that crowd out of the game by limiting forced passes through down and distance management (the old notion of crowd noise enhancing a pass rush).
There may be something to go to work with here, the opening total of 49.5 getting bet up to 51.5, because the Atlanta defense can be vulnerable against this tactic – the Falcons allowed 4.5 per carry overland this season, and were #29 on the Football Outsiders adjusted rush defense. This is one storyline I will be delving deeper into.
Now for another one in which the shrewd handicapper has some work to do…
Item: How good is the Steeler defense now
One of the storylines presented during the summer trip across the NFL camps was Is it time for those Steeler LBs to emerge. That may be happening now, but it is a delicate handicapping read that requires a lot of breaking down those nice comfy databases that a full season of NFL results brings.
The Steelers got off to a 4-5 start, and the season was teetering on the brink when they lost four straight. A poor showing by the defense was a big part of that, including a particularly ugly 30-15 loss at Miami when Jay Ajayi had his way with them, a rare case of a Mike Tomlin defense being physically man-handled. Now it is an eight-game win streak, with much better defensive numbers, albeit not easy to fully accept because the difficulty of opposition has dropped way down. But there is a separation point that may well matter –
Number of starts in Pittsburgh’s 4-5 opening:
James Harrison 0
Bud DuPree 0
Dupree was injured and Harrison was limited to being a role player, which is what had been envisioned for him when the season began. The Steelers wanted to let those younger guys run around and make plays, and then use Harrison for specific situations. Those rotations did not work.
Harrison got his first start in Game #10 vs. Cleveland, and Dupree was healthy enough to start a couple of weeks later. Hence the difficulty in gauging whether this defense has been much more effective because that LB corps is now available, or whether it has been because of the competition being reduced. But isn’t this the essence of handicapping?
Harrison was particularly dynamic against Miami on Sunday, with 10 tackles, 1.5 sacks, two hurries and a forced fumble. It was the Harrison of old, creating quite a presence. And that performance from him individually, and naturally the defense collectively, also leads to something that gets discussed here often – what a team believes about themselves can be critical to their performances.
In this instance we can go one-by-one across that LB corps in the aftermath of the Miami win, and it starts with Harrison - “It's executing your job, guys making plays when they get their opportunity. We did a better job of executing the defense, shoring up tackles and just beating the man in front of you.”
Now for Lawrence Timmons, talking about Harrison - “He's a former defensive player of the year. Nothing surprises me. He's been doing it a long time for us. He shows everyone the Steeler Way, and you saw that out there.”
And then on to the younger guys, first Dupree - “We’re getting better each week; guys are startin’ to feel the energy. … I feel like we’re more confident. Everybody wants to be that person to make a play.” And from Ryan Shazier - “We’re definitely really confident in one another. A lot of us understand what each other can do and when opportunities come our way, we have to make plays and a lot of guys are doing it. It was a different defense that we put out there [from the first Dolphins game Oct. 16]. A lot of guys are a lot healthier. A lot of guys are just better at their responsibility.”
This is naturally a much better defense with that LB corps intact; now the trick becomes properly weighing the numbers. They may get a little too much credit for facing the Browns twice, and the Colts without Andrew Luck, in the “healthy” cycle, but there is also the fact that there may be too much statistical punishment for having had to face the Cowboys and Patriots when Harrison and Dupree weren’t out there.
Item: From half Nelson to full Nelson to no Nelson?
Discussions of Jordy Nelson and the Packers will not be new to regular readers – beginning here there began what ended up being a lot of back-and-forth on his individual performance, and how it was woven into the fabric of the Packer offense. They were running plays for the Nelson of old early, which did not work, but when he became more of a slot receiver, showing his professionalism and work ethic, the offense jelled down the stretch. Green Bay is on a run of five straight games of 30+ points, with only the Chicago defense being a weak link through that stretch.
Having adjusted once, now the Packers will likely have to adjust again. The reports are that Nelson has multiple broken ribs, and the following from Mike McCarthy is likely all there will be on the subject until late in the week - "Talking with the medical staff, he's going to be in the rehab group through Friday. And then Saturday, if he can practice, then he may have a chance. But we're not going to do anything until Saturday. I'll probably know more about where Jordy stands come Friday."
The question now becomes just how much the offense can tweak again with the pieces that are on hand. There is the plus of getting Randall Cobb back from both hamstring and ankle injuries, and Cobb put up big numbers vs. the Giants, although there is an * involved on the Hail Mary pass (most handicappers know to lower the weighting on those places for offenses and QBs, but some still let them slip through the cracks for WRs). But Nelson had become such a weapon over the second half of the season that it does bring some chemistry issues into play. The fact that he won’t be on the practice field at all means that the others will get time to re-work the playbook, but that Is not something that any offense wishes to be doing at this time.
More on this to come as the week progresses, in particular some of the matchup issues the Cowboys have to face because their strength has been in keeping guys like Aaron Rodgers off the field via ball control, rather than going out and dtopping them.
Now time to turn the focus to the college hardwoods...
Item: Can Myles Davis become D’Artagnan
One of the most interesting case studies of this NCAA season begins tonight when Xavier takes on Villanova. It is a challenge for Chris Mack and his Musketeers, a team with the talent to seriously be thinking Sweet 16 if all goes well (if…), and it will be a major challenge for folks on both sides of the counter in the betting industry. Tonight in Philadelphia, Davis will be back in a Xavier uniform.
Davis was expected to be the catalyst for the Musketeers, coming back for his senior season after averaging 10.9 points, 4.1 assists and 3.6 rebounds as a junior. But an off-court incident led to his being suspended indefinitely, and now Chris Mack re-instating him after 15 games, the timing coinciding with the new semester beginning. From Mack - "He’s obviously had a long road to this point and his role on our basketball team will be no different than the other 14 guys in our locker room. He will earn anything he gets from this point forward, so he’s got a lot of work to do and I think he recognizes that and understands that and so we now move forward with Myles as part of our team.”
Getting a major talent back could naturally be a plus, but is that an automatic? At issue is that with Davis not available, Xavier got off to a 13-2 start, and it really was about “Three Musketeers” coming together to develop a strong chemistry -
PPG RPG APG
Trevon Blueitt 17.7 5.9 2.2
Edmond Sumner 15.6 4.5 4.9
J.P. Macura 14.7 4.5 2.6
Is there a risk of that chemistry losing something with Davis back in the mix? Or can he become the D'Artagnan of a fourth Musketeer? And just how much is he going to play tonight anyway? Those are major considerations, and what makes it even more intriguing is the opponent being a focused Wildcat team. The last time the programs met was in Cincinnati last February, when Villanova was rated #1, but Xavier got the win to knock Jay Wright’s team from the mantle.
Hence why there is so much pressure on Mack in setting his rotation tonight. The Wildcats are good both in terms of talent and teamwork, and their execution on both ends of the court can exploit any flaws. It is about as tough of a setting as there could be for the return of Davis, and there may be a lot to see here; not necessarily anything to invest in before tipoff, but in terms of doing the game grading afterwards. As for investing, it is the NBA that brings a setting I will be in play with tonight…
In the Sights, Tuesday NBA…
The Spurs are playing basketball at a very high level right now, better than the markets are appreciating. Meanwhile Milwaukee looks like a prototype for a team that could get caught up in some culture shock in this setting. So with -9.5 available in the Tuesday morning trading it will be #510 San Antonio (8:35 Eastern) going into pocket, and note that some of that -9.5 is available at low vig (I see as low as -102 out there, call it good to -10).
It is easy to see how well the Spurs are executing in one of the most obvious of ways – eight straight wins and covers at home. But what keeps this price reasonable is how those game flows have been – Gregg Popovich has been in the mode of pacing his team throughout the campaign, and some moments of basketball brilliance have not been fully registered on the scoreboard because he has backed off with big leads. Let’s take a closer look at those last eight home games, looking at the biggest margin, and the final score -
Brooklyn 38 29
Boston 15 7
New Orleans 24 13
Chicago 20 19
Phoenix 22 21
Portland 26 20
Toronto 34 28
Charlotte 22 17
Is there a fear of Pops backing off again tonight? Yes, to a degree, but the setting is awfully good – the Spurs have had multiple days off to prepare, and there is no distraction at all on deck, a home game vs. the Lakers on Thursday, a one-game road trip to Phoenix on Saturday, then two more days off. This lays out as a game for San Antonio to go hard, and note just how precise the recent execution has been – back-to-back games of just seven turnovers each in routing the Bobcats and Nuggets by 45 points.
I think the Bucks run into a culture shock against that level of basketball precision. Although we are nearing mid-January they have only had three road games all season against winning teams (of 16 trips), going 0-3 SU and ATS, and they have only faced one winning team over their last nine games. I look for them to be frustrated on both ends of the court against a team that plays several levels above them in terms of basketball savvy, and for this final margin to be in double figures.
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