Eyes On: NFL UK 2017 – Saints @ Dolphins

Game 2 of the 2017 NFL International Series is in the books. Drew Brees brought his 1-2 New Orleans Saints to Wembley and came away with a 20-0 victory over Jay Cutler’s Miami Dolphins, who were 1-1 having started the season a week late due to the impact of Hurricane Irma. This was not the most exciting of games, with the first half especially disjointed due to frequent penalty flags, which left the fans booing at times. However a field goal from Saints kicker Will Lutz with the last play of the half avoided the first 0-0 halftime score since Tim Tebow and Caleb Hanie faced off in December 2011.


Coming home

For many people, the big talking point ahead of the game was the return of Dolphins running back Jay Ajayi, who moved to the USA from London when he was 7. Ajayi showed some real flashes of the talent that led to him becoming only the fourth player in NFL history to rush for over 200 yards in consecutive games last season. However, the Saints defense were clearly aware of the danger he could be and made a concerted effort to stop him as the game went on – especially in the second half – and he was eventually limited to just 46 yards from 12 rushes. The Dolphins were forced to rely on Jay Cutler and the passing game and as a result could not stay on the field when on offence, putting the Saints in the driving seat.

A costly loss

Jay Ajayi and the Dolphins offense has been massively hurt by the preseason injury to quarterback Ryan Tannehill, which has ended his season before it even began. Under the guidance of Adam Gase, Tannehill clearly improved last year and if this game is anything to go by, he will be sorely missed in 2017. Jay Cutler was due to be in the commentary booth this season, but Tannehill’s injury and his previous history with Adam Gase pulled him back onto the field.

On the opening drive, Cutler looked effective running down the clock while moving the chains, but then threw a poor pass that was intercepted in the end zone. Tight end Julius Thomas has taken some flack for his play, but while I agree he had such a physical advantage on the quarterback that he should have been able to do more to help Cutler, but Thomas’s positioning suggests the pass was due to go to his back shoulder (where the cornerback would have no chance of intervening) rather than to the side it did. From that point on, things went downhill for the offence, with Cutler finishing the game with 20 completions from 28 attempts for just 164 yards. While the completion percentage looks good, the yardage shows how much Cutler struggled. Looking at the stats on NFL.com, the longest passing play of the game was a 23 yard reception by Julius Thomas. Cutler was also sacked 4 times in the game for a total loss of 36 yards, meaning that the average gain per passing play was 4 yards. Short passes and screens may be high percentage plays, but against a defense that is well organised it will be difficult to make the big plays, especially if the running game is being well marshalled too. Sometimes you have to take the shot downfield, even if it is just to keep the defense guessing.

This is not a piece to bash Jay Cutler: I can’t imagine how hard it is to come out of retirement and get back into running an NFL offense, especially considering it is a new team so a new playbook for him. What doesn’t help though is that he is not a like-for-like replacement for Tannehill. Tannehill is a much more mobile quarterback, capable of making big plays with his legs. This means that when Tannehill is playing, a defense must always take into account his ability to scramble on pass plays or the possibility of the read option on rushing plays, which gives that extra bit of space for receivers and running backs to exploit. Matt Moore is not a mobile QB either, so if Cutler continues to struggle, it will be interesting to see if Colin Kaepernick is given another chance in the NFL, especially considering the current NFL solidarity with the protests he started.

3 into 2 doesn’t go

He’s had a few down years with injuries and suspensions, but Adrian Peterson has always been a star running back and an bell-cow for the Vikings. Having moved to the Saints this season, it was clear his role would be reduced due to splitting time with Mark Ingram, who has been the main man at his position for the Saints in recent years. However, the Saints are very much a pass-first team, which is no surprise considering Drew Brees has been responsible for 5 of the NFL’s 5,000 yard passing season, so rushes will be limited. At Wembley, Ingram rushed for 45 yards off 14 carries, whereas Peterson was limited to just 4 carries for 4 yards. What must worry Peterson is that, judging by this game, he is not even number 2 on the depth chart, as versatile rookie Alvin Kamara totalled 5 rushes for 25 yards and 10 catches for 71 yards and a touchdown. Kamara looked very impressive against Miami so I wouldn’t be surprised to see him get a few more rushes as the season goes on, if Peterson wants to continue living up to the nickname ‘All Day’, it looks like he’ll have to move elsewhere.

Pro14 Rugby Ramble

The Lion King

Now I may not be the smartest guy in England, but I’d like to think I still know better than to pet a lion, especially when they are the other side of a fence. Unfortunately for the Ospreys, hooker Scott Baldwin decided that this would be a good idea when visiting Weltevrede Game Lodge ahead of the team’s match against the Cheetahs. The Welsh international missed the game as he required stitches to his hand, which will leave him out of action while he recovers.

The Ospreys went on to lose 44-25 which is not leaving them in a good position. They have now lost their last 4 games – including a 16-6 defeat away to Benetton – despite having a squad containing a number of internationals. They need an uplift in their fortunes soon, but to lose their first choice hooker will certainly not help.

They’re called the King of the Jungle for a reason – Picture from Flikr – Mathias Appel

We all make mistakes, hopefully Scott Baldwin will remember this moment – and how lucky he is to have not been hurt worse! – and learn from his mistake. Meanwhile, I’m sure Ospreys fans will be hoping for a swift recovery.

The Italian Job

How great is it to see the Italian teams being competitive in the Pro14! It wasn’t that long ago people were discussing whether they still even deserved a place in the league, now Benetton have beaten Ospreys at home and Edinburgh away, while Zebre have picked up wins in South Africa against the Kings and most recently at home to Ulster, who were unbeaten until then. To put into perspective how well they are doing, Benetton (9 points) and Zebre (10 points) have both earned more points than more respected opponents Cardiff Blues and Ospreys (both on 5 points) and 2015/16 Pro12 Champions Connacht (8 points).

It may still be early days, but it looks like the Italians could finally be improving and making an impact on the league. I really hope this continues for the rest of the season and begins to benefit Conor O’Shea and the national team.

An African Adventure

People who know me will know that I have been very sceptical about the addition of the Toyota Cheetahs and the Southern Kings to the competition, partially because I’m not sure that they belong there and also because I feel that the whole organisation of this has been rushed.

Leinster were forced to alter their squad after Isa Nacewa and Jamison Gibson-Park were unable to enter South Africa due to visa issues arising from a change in regulations relating to New Zealand nationals from January this year. Leinster have admitted that this was an administrative error, but considering how close it was to the season before the league and fixtures were announced, my gut feeling is that the competition organisers should have been informing all clubs of any visa regulations to ensure there were no issues.

The big arguments towards including the 2 South African sides was that it would bring extra revenue to the league through TV deals and an increased fan base, but is that really working so far? In their 3 home games so far, the Cheetahs have attendances of 13,982 against Zebre, 6,980 against Leinster and 4,589 against the Ospreys. The Kings have fared even worse with 4,062 against Zebre and 3,011 against Leinster. These attendances are on the whole shocking, and are made worse when you remember that the Cheetahs play at the 46,000-seater Free State Stadium and the Kings play in the Nelson Mandela Bay Stadium (48,000 capacity), leaving us with stadiums that look pretty much empty. We have also seen Friday’s game between the Cheetahs and Ospreys kick off at 4pm UK time, which is not at all sociable for UK rugby fans who work for a living and as a result can’t even watch the match live.

Finally, and most importantly, the rugby itself:

Week 1: Ulster 42-19 Cheetahs   –   Scarlets 57-10 Kings

Week 2: Munster 51-18 Cheetahs   –   Connacht 32-10 Kings

Week 3: Cheetahs 54-39 Zebre   –   Kings 10-31 Leinster

Week 4: Cheetahs 38-19 Leinster   –   Kings 17-43 Zebre

Week 5: Cheetahs 44-25 Ospreys   –   Dragons 29-13 Kings

To be fair to both teams, starting a season in foreign conditions with games against 3 of the Irish provinces and the reigning champions was always going to be a difficult task. In the last 3 rounds, though, the Cheetahs have used the favourable conditions in Bloemfontein to amass a 100% record at home, whereas the Kings have continued to struggle (they are the only team without a win or even a point to their name) and this weekend allowed the Dragons their first 4-try bonus point since March 2015.

It will take a while for both teams to get used to the different conditions and style of play in the Northern Hemisphere Rugby. Both of these teams are used to the much more flowing style of Super Rugby, so I am not too surprised to see them having conceded the most points over the first 5 weeks (192 allowed by the Kings, 176 by the Cheetahs). I think that if the Cheetahs can tighten up a bit defensively and continue to take advantage of playing their home matches at altitude, they could push for a spot in the playoffs, but the Kings need to find a way to improve quickly or they could find themselves at the foot of the table come May.

The Great Divide

I completely understand why the Pro14 was split into 2 conferences, a 26-game regular season and then playoffs would be far too long. However, we are already beginning to see the big issue with a conference system: the inequality.

The conferences were organised according to the finishing positions of teams last year, this does not mean the teams will be of a similar quality this year. After 5 weeks of competition last season’s weakest Welsh team, the Dragons, are currently on 9 points, whereas the Cardiff Blues and the Ospreys’ talented squad both find themselves on just 5 points. Benetton’s 9 points sees them above only the Kings in Conference B, but in a combined table they would actually just be in the top 10 right now.

Hopefully the Conferences will balance out by the end of the season, I would hate for a team to miss out on the playoffs or the Champions Cup due to being in the stronger Conference.