What Have We Learned From Week 14 of the 2014 NFL Season

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Colt McCoy, James Laurinaitis, Robert Quinn

Washington Redskins quarterback Colt McCoy (16) is sacked by St. Louis Rams middle linebacker James Laurinaitis (55) and defensive end Robert Quinn (94) during the second half of an NFL football game in Landover, Md., Sunday, Dec. 7, 2014. The Rams defeated the Redskins 24-0. (AP Photo/Nick Wass)

 

Here is What Have We Learned from Week 14 of the 2014 NFL Season, thanks to the AP Pro 32 for photos & help in this article.

Ups

  • ST. LOUIS (AP) — The St. Louis Rams have been waiting all year for this Gregg Williams-led defense to step up. Suddenly, it’s making an indelible mark.

    No matter that consecutive shutouts have come against tail-enders Oakland and Washington, it’s quite an accomplishment to ride into the season-ending stretch.

    “Guys are playing lights-out right now,” defensive end Robert Quinn said. “Hopefully, we just keep it going.”

    The Rams (6-7) have beaten the Redskins and Raiders by a combined score of 76-0. The surge had them close to their goal of ranking in the top 10 in overall defense, checking in at 11th on Monday with one NFL game remaining. They were 27th on offense.

    St. Louis was 10th against the run, a huge jump after ranking 31st six weeks ago.

    “I want to see it again,” coach Jeff Fisher said. “We need to keep playing, keep preparing the way we are. When you’re getting the turnovers, when you’re getting the third-down stops, that gives you a chance.”

    Fisher’s confidence — some might call it arrogance — no doubt helps. Fisher sent six players the Rams acquired in the Robert Griffin III trade out for the coin toss against the Redskins, rubbing it in their noses just a bit before whipping them 24-0 Sunday.

    “It made too much sense to us to go ahead and recognize the guys that probably would not have been here had it not been for that trade,” Fisher said. “We wanted to do it before the game because it was a memory that will last them for a lifetime.”

    Fisher said in the past he’s “sent other people out for different reasons,” and added, “I think they’ve got more issues than the coin toss.”

    The last time the Rams posted consecutive shutouts was 1945, two franchise moves ago, in their final season in Cleveland before leaving for Los Angeles. They blanked the Chicago Cardinals 21-0 and Chicago Bears 17-0. No NFL team had done it since Dallas in 2009.

    The Redskins were limited to 206 yards and were 3 for 15 combined on third down and fourth down. The Rams had seven sacks and two interceptions, never permitted a snap inside the 20 and allowed a season-low 27 yards rushing.

    A week earlier, the Rams put the hammer down early on the Raiders, taking a 38-0 halftime lead and forcing five turnovers in a 52-0 rout.

    St. Louis has allowed 222 points on defense, second-fewest in the NFL and just one point more than Seattle. The overall numbers are skewed by seven defensive touchdowns and two more on special teams, which Fisher made a point to note.

    “We’ve been locked in and just getting better and tightening up on all the little plays that were hurting us,” safety Rodney McLeod said. “If you go back and look at our games before, it was just one play here, a couple plays here that were changing the game.”

    A healthy secondary is one reason for the stingy play of late. Cornerbacks Janoris Jenkins and Trumaine Johnson are back in form, and midseason pickup Mark Barron is making solid contributions at safety.

    The Rams have won two straight for the first time all season entering a short work week, with the NFC West-leading Arizona Cardinals up next on Thursday night. The team reviewed the game on the flight home, and players participated in a walkthrough and meetings Monday, forcing the coach’s news conference to be moved to the media room.

  • PITTSBURGH (AP) — Ben Roethlisberger waited for the call in his helmet, but the Pittsburgh Steelers offensive line already knew what was coming. Then again, they should. They did request it after all.

    Le’Veon Bell to the left. Heath Miller, David DeCastro and Will Johnson leading the way. Again. And again. And again. At least, until the Cincinnati Bengals found out a way to stop the blossoming second-year running back.

    “The offensive line was like, ‘Man, we feel good about it,'” Bell said. “As a runner, I’m running whatever the offensive linemen want to run.”

    It showed. Time and again Bell dashed and darted through increasingly large holes late in Sunday’s 42-21 victory over the tired, lethargic Bengals. When he was done, 26 carries, 185 yards and two touchdowns later, so was Cincinnati.

    “We ran the same play two, three, four times in a row, consecutively,” Bell said. “Those guys just couldn’t stop it. So we continued to run with it.”

    Funny how often Pittsburgh victories follow suit. The Steelers (8-5) are 5-1 when the NFL’s second leading rusher runs the ball at least 20 times a game. Considering his production spike in recent weeks, due in large part to the cohesive play in front of him, don’t expect Bell’s workload to lessen anytime soon.

    Pressed on if he ever saw Bell winded on a day he had 32 touches in all — including six receptions for 50 yards and a score — and left tackle Kelvin Beachum just smiled.

    “Not at all, not at all, not at all,” Beachum said.

    Consider it a testament to Bell’s growing reputation as one of the league’s most durable backs and the fact he’s not taking a lot of abuse. It helps that he’s often past the really big guys on the defensive line before getting hit.

    “The offensive line has done a great job of opening holes for me,” Bell said. “On check downs, Ben (Roethlisberger) is doing a good job of getting me the ball and allowing me to run with some space. So you’ve got to give a lot of credit to the offense and the offensive coaching staff.”

    One that is committing to the run even with Roethlisberger in the midst of the best season of his career, even with no tested depth behind Bell after the team cut LeGarrette Blount last month. Needing a victory against the Bengals to have any chance of tracking them down in the AFC North, offensive coordinator Todd Haley put the bulk of the load on Bell’s increasingly broad shoulders.

    It was also a vote of confidence for a talented but erratic line that has taken its share of criticism over the last three seasons amid injuries and inconsistent play. Those issues have largely disappeared. The Steelers have only started three different line combinations this season, giving the group littered with high draft picks time to gel.

    “Those guys physically and mentally are in the prime of their career,” coach Mike Tomlin said. “A lot of three, four, five-year guys. Guys have grown and grown up together.”

    And they will be tested together as a three-game stretch looms that will define Pittsburgh’s season. As potent as the Steelers have looked at times, they’ve also had trouble finishing off weaker teams. Pittsburgh squeaked out victories against Jacksonville and Tennessee and fell to Tampa Bay and the New York Jets. It can’t happen again, not with the four teams in the AFC North separated by 1.5 games.

    The Steelers are hoping to return to the playoffs for the first time in three years.

    Beachum understands the line doesn’t have to be great all the time, just good enough to give Bell the sliver of light he needs to turn an ordinary run into something else entirely.

    “We know what’s at stake,” Beachum said. “It’s that time of the year, its AFC North football and we got playoff hopes on the line so I think everybody sucking it up and just trying to find a way to push through.”

  • ALLEN PARK, Mich. (AP) — The Detroit Lions won a game in December for the first time since 2011. They’re also on track for their first playoff appearance since that season.

    “We’re focusing on this week and this week only and not worrying about anything else,” center Dominic Raiola said. “That’s a good thing around here, it really is. It’s a new day.”

    The Lions beat Tampa Bay 34-17 on Sunday. If they win out — beating Minnesota, Chicago and Green Bay to close the regular season — they’ll win the NFC North, although a victory at Lambeau Field in the finale certainly won’t come easy.

    If Detroit beats just the struggling Vikings and Bears in the next two weeks, it could earn a wild-card spot.

    There are a few causes for concern, though, especially since coach Jim Caldwell has a reputation for running a disciplined team.

    During his first stint as an NFL head coach, with Indianapolis from 2009-11, all three of his teams finished among the least penalized in the league, each averaging 4.7 penalties or fewer per game.

    This year, Caldwell’s Lions rank 24th, averaging 7.4 penalties per game. That’s the Lions’ highest mark since 2011, when they committed nearly eight per game.

    “That is an area we have to improve, plain and simple,” Caldwell said. “I am more interested in winning. But I know one thing: If you have too many (penalties), they lead to problems, they lead to deficiencies, they lead to losses. That is an area we have to get straightened away.”

    In Sunday’s win over Tampa Bay, the Lions had nine penalties for 122 yards. Caldwell mentioned that some teams have had great success while posting high penalty rates, such as the 2013 Seattle Seahawks, who led the league in flags and still won the Super Bowl.

    But that is not Caldwell’s philosophy.

    “We talk about being somewhere in the top five in fewest penalties,” Caldwell said. “We’re not there. We’re working to get there. When we’re not there, I’m not satisfied. … We won’t get there overnight. It takes time. It takes an understanding and development. It’s not just training, but educating as well.”

    Caldwell pointed to Detroit’s 34-17 win over Chicago on Thanksgiving, in which the team had five penalties for 38 yards, as a sign of improvement.

    “That’s closer to where we’d like it,” he said. “It’s still two too high. We want one on offense, one on defense, one in the kicking game, maximum. That’s what we’re looking for.”

    Caldwell also addressed the absence of running back Theo Riddick from the Tampa Bay game.

    “(Reggie Bush) is back,” Caldwell said. “When Reggie is out, Theo takes on a number of the same roles. When Reggie is back, there’s only one spot for one guy. We have talked about (wide receiver) Ryan Broyles. The same thing holds true there. There is only so many spots for guys to occupy. … We try to spread it around as much as possible, but you can’t use everybody.”

Downs

  • CINCINNATI (AP) — From third overall in the NFL to among the worst in Bengals’ history, Cincinnati’s defense has taken a great fall this season. And there’s little time left to put it all back together again.

    The Bengals are tottering atop the AFC North following a 42-21 loss to Pittsburgh at Paul Brown Stadium. Cincinnati (8-4-1) has a half-game lead over Pittsburgh and Baltimore with three to play. The Bengals finish the season in Pittsburgh.

    The Steelers piled up 543 yards on Sunday. It’s the third time this season that Cincinnati has given up 500 yards in a game, a franchise record, according to STATS. Only twice before had the Bengals allowed a pair of 500-yard games in a season, and those were in 1968 and 1969, when they were an expansion team.

    It gets worse.

    Linebacker Vontaze Burfict went on the injured reserve list on Tuesday, ending his season. The Bengals have severely missed their best defensive player, who was limited to only five starts because of a pair of concussions and knee surgery.

    The defense has played very well at times, looking like the unit that ranked in the top seven during each of the last three playoff seasons. When things go badly, it has a tendency to implode.

    “One of the messages I am going to give the guys, that I have been telling them, is we have to be better when the odds are against us a little bit,” coordinator Paul Guenther said. “When things aren’t going quite as smoothly as we want them to go, we have to go out there and buckle up and play good defense.”

    The defense has been pushed around in all four of Cincinnati’s losses. The Bengals play at Cleveland (7-6) on Sunday.

    The Bengals retained the core of a defense that finished third overall in yards allowed last season. The only significant loss to free agency was defensive end Michael Johnson. Their linebackers have been hurt and tackle Geno Atkins has been slow in recovering from knee surgery.

    The Steelers piled up 25 points and 229 yards in the fourth quarter alone on Sunday. Ben Roethlisberger’s 94-yard touchdown pass was the decisive play.

    “I think that’s the first time (since the season opener) that we gave up a deep ball, and that’s not like us,” safety George Iloka said. “We’ll work on that as a secondary. That’s not how we play championship defense.”

    Right now, it ranks among the league’s worst defenses.

    The Bengals are on pace to give up 6,000 yards overall for only the second time in franchise history. After Sunday’s blowout loss, they’re in danger of failing to make the playoffs.

    “So you go and you say, ‘Hey, these are the things we need to correct,'” Guenther said. “But we need to move forward.”

  • METAIRIE, La. (AP) — New Orleans Saints coach Sean Payton has put his players on notice.

    Some could be looking for jobs sooner than later.

    “I don’t rule out any changes with regard to who we’re asking to do what we’re asking them to do,” Payton said Monday after reviewing video of Sunday’s 41-10 loss to Carolina.

    “Guys understand, hey, this is serious. It’s their profession. It’s our profession. It’s going to be our job and the leaders of this team to lead. This is exactly when you find out who your guys are,” Payton added. “If it’s not happening … then we’re going to look at other options.”

    Thanks to the overall struggles of all four teams in the NFC South, the Saints have had an unusually large margin for error this season. But with only three games left, that margin is thinning.

    Despite falling to 5-8, the Saints returned to work Monday eliminated from NFC wild card contention but very much alive in the NFC South race, just a half-game behind first-place Atlanta before the Falcons played at Green Bay on Monday night.

    Yet Payton seemed to be judging his team’s postseason chances more by what he’s seen on the field than in the standings when he said, “The only reason we’re sitting here still with that small sliver of hope is just because the way the division has unfolded this year.”

    The Saints, who return to action next Monday night in Chicago, have lost four of five games, with two of those losses by three or more scores. Sunday’s beating was the season’s worst, not only on the scoreboard but also in the context of who the opponent was and what was at stake.

    New Orleans entered the game tied for first in the division, preparing to play at home against a Carolina squad that had not only lost six straight, including a 28-10 loss to New Orleans on Oct. 30.

    Odds makers had forecast a 10-point Saints victory.

    Payton wasn’t bothered much by the physical effort his players put forth, saying he “didn’t see a ton of loafs.”

    Rather, his film review revealed myriad mental mistakes.

    “Man, I saw alignment problems. I saw execution problems. I saw guys not aligned with leverage the way they’re supposed to be. I saw poor tackling, dropped balls, turnovers, fumbles,” Payton said. “Now, if you’re on your guy and he makes a play, that’s one thing.”

    But too often, Payton said, that wasn’t the case.

    Saints right tackle Zach Strief described himself as “angry,” adding that too many players seemed unaware of the mental intensity required on game days. He said he was also angry at himself, as a team captain, for not doing more to counter that.

    In practice, Strief said, the Saints consistently work hard, but too often show up for games looking too relaxed.

    “I know what it looks like when a team is ready,” Strief said, adding that he didn’t see that Sunday. “I don’t think it’s guys walking in like, ‘I don’t care.’ … I think it’s not realizing how up you have to be for every game to be successful.”

    NFL players sometimes talk about learning to channel a sort of adrenaline-infused, temporary insanity in order to attain the requisite ferociousness to perform against equally powerful, talented and motivated athletes in a violent game.

    As an example, Strief described how former Saints fullback Jed Collins, now with Detroit, unleashes a primordial roar after the national anthem.

    “For Jed, that was like a trigger” transforming Collins from his laid-back, usual self to his hyped-up, game-day persona, Strief said. “We don’t have enough guys that have that trigger.”

    Second-year safety Kenny Vaccaro said he’d read comments by Saints veterans including quarterback Drew Brees about the need for greater maturity and professionalism across the roster. He said young players, himself included, need to take that message to heart and not be offended by it.

    “They laid the foundation, those guys that were here before us,” Vaccaro said. “I wasn’t here when they won the whole thing, and that’s the standard. So whatever I’ve got to do to get to that, I’ll do it.”

  • METAIRIE, La. (AP) — New Orleans Saints coach Sean Payton has put his players on notice.

    Some could be looking for jobs sooner than later.

    “I don’t rule out any changes with regard to who we’re asking to do what we’re asking them to do,” Payton said Monday after reviewing video of Sunday’s 41-10 loss to Carolina.

    “Guys understand, hey, this is serious. It’s their profession. It’s our profession. It’s going to be our job and the leaders of this team to lead. This is exactly when you find out who your guys are,” Payton added. “If it’s not happening … then we’re going to look at other options.”

    Thanks to the overall struggles of all four teams in the NFC South, the Saints have had an unusually large margin for error this season. But with only three games left, that margin is thinning.

    Despite falling to 5-8, the Saints returned to work Monday eliminated from NFC wild card contention but very much alive in the NFC South race, just a half-game behind first-place Atlanta before the Falcons played at Green Bay on Monday night.

    Yet Payton seemed to be judging his team’s postseason chances more by what he’s seen on the field than in the standings when he said, “The only reason we’re sitting here still with that small sliver of hope is just because the way the division has unfolded this year.”

    The Saints, who return to action next Monday night in Chicago, have lost four of five games, with two of those losses by three or more scores. Sunday’s beating was the season’s worst, not only on the scoreboard but also in the context of who the opponent was and what was at stake.

    New Orleans entered the game tied for first in the division, preparing to play at home against a Carolina squad that had not only lost six straight, including a 28-10 loss to New Orleans on Oct. 30.

    Odds makers had forecast a 10-point Saints victory.

    Payton wasn’t bothered much by the physical effort his players put forth, saying he “didn’t see a ton of loafs.”

    Rather, his film review revealed myriad mental mistakes.

    “Man, I saw alignment problems. I saw execution problems. I saw guys not aligned with leverage the way they’re supposed to be. I saw poor tackling, dropped balls, turnovers, fumbles,” Payton said. “Now, if you’re on your guy and he makes a play, that’s one thing.”

    But too often, Payton said, that wasn’t the case.

    Saints right tackle Zach Strief described himself as “angry,” adding that too many players seemed unaware of the mental intensity required on game days. He said he was also angry at himself, as a team captain, for not doing more to counter that.

    In practice, Strief said, the Saints consistently work hard, but too often show up for games looking too relaxed.

    “I know what it looks like when a team is ready,” Strief said, adding that he didn’t see that Sunday. “I don’t think it’s guys walking in like, ‘I don’t care.’ … I think it’s not realizing how up you have to be for every game to be successful.”

    NFL players sometimes talk about learning to channel a sort of adrenaline-infused, temporary insanity in order to attain the requisite ferociousness to perform against equally powerful, talented and motivated athletes in a violent game.

    As an example, Strief described how former Saints fullback Jed Collins, now with Detroit, unleashes a primordial roar after the national anthem.

    “For Jed, that was like a trigger” transforming Collins from his laid-back, usual self to his hyped-up, game-day persona, Strief said. “We don’t have enough guys that have that trigger.”

    Second-year safety Kenny Vaccaro said he’d read comments by Saints veterans including quarterback Drew Brees about the need for greater maturity and professionalism across the roster. He said young players, himself included, need to take that message to heart and not be offended by it.

    “They laid the foundation, those guys that were here before us,” Vaccaro said. “I wasn’t here when they won the whole thing, and that’s the standard. So whatever I’ve got to do to get to that, I’ll do it.”

  • BEREA, Ohio (AP) — The switch at quarterback for the Browns appears inevitable this week.

    Johnny Football may be about to take over Cleveland’s offense.

    After Brian Hoyer played poorly again in Sunday’s loss to Indianapolis, Browns coach Mike Pettine seemed to be on the verge of giving rookie Johnny Manziel his first NFL start against Cincinnati.

    “I think it’s natural to lean the other way, given the results,” Pettine said Monday. “I still want to make sure we do our due diligence and talk to everybody involved.”

    Pettine was unclear on if he had already decided to make the change and promote Manziel, the high-profile backup who came off the bench and replaced a struggling Hoyer in the fourth quarter two weeks ago in Buffalo. Pettine, who stuck with Hoyer last week because he had the Browns in the playoff mix, said he wants to meet with his coaching staff and general manager Ray Farmer before telling both quarterbacks and announcing who will face the Bengals.

    Pettine said the offensive problems in Sunday’s game were deeper than the quarterback, but he called the Browns’ passing attack “sub-standard.” Pettine cited dropped passes, receivers running wrong routes and execution as factors but that Hoyer has to play better.

    “There are clearly some throws that he missed, but I think it was also exaggerated by how poorly we were in the pass game around him,” Pettine said. “We always say it, ‘A quarterback is only as good as his supporting cast.’ When the guys around him play well, Brian will play well. It’s rare that there’s a quarterback that can transcend his supporting cast.

    “We’re in a results business. We’ve lost two in a row. We all know what the numbers have been in the pass game. For us to be successful, they need to improve.”

    The Browns (7-6) blew a 14-point lead in the third quarter, when Hoyer and Cleveland’s offense failed to get a first down in three straight series.

    Pettine said Manziel would “absolutely” be ready if called upon to make his first start. Pettine said nothing is giving him pause to go with the first-round pick.

    “I’ll fall back on what I’ve said all along. We pull together the circumstances that we have, just like we did last week. Who gives us the best chance to win?” Pettine said. “That’s the decision we go with. To this point, it’s been Brian.”

    Pettine was peppered with questions about Manziel’s dedication and if he worked hard enough to warrant the promotion. Since he was drafted, there have been questions about Manziel’s commitment, with much of the scrutiny stemming from off-the-field behavior. Manziel’s penchant for partying and late nights became an issue a few weeks ago when he was involved in a 2:30 a.m. scuffle at a downtown hotel where he lives.

    On Sunday, Manziel didn’t arrive at the stadium until shortly before 11 a.m. for a 1 p.m. kickoff. However, Pettine said Manziel was “on time” and he had no issues with Manziel attending a Cavaliers game last week when some felt he needed to have his nose in the playbook.

    Hoyer’s freefall has been striking. He has thrown just one touchdown pass and eight interceptions in the past four games, a slide that has damaged the Browns’ hopes of making the playoffs for the first time since 2002.

    “It’s crazy how fast things change,” said Hoyer, who is in the final year of his contract. “I feel like four or five weeks ago we’re talking about contract talks and now we’re talking about if I’m even going to be staying here. It’s the furthest thing from my mind right now.”

    Hoyer doesn’t think he’s playing any differently. He bemoaned missed opportunities against the Colts, especially on long passes in which he overthrew receivers Josh Gordon and Taylor Gabriel. Hoyer, too, says others need to play better around him.

    “Everybody’s got to be able to step up and when you’re not being perfect you need one guy to step up and make a big play and we didn’t have that yesterday,” he said. “We didn’t have one play that just changed it all for us and when you’re having a game where there’s some inconsistencies, and not everybody’s doing their job on every play, you need that one play or that one player to make a play and we didn’t have it yesterday.”

 

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