Analysis Notebook: Week 14
Josh Gordon is busy re-writing the NFL record books this season. He has already broken the Cleveland Browns franchise record for receiving yards in a season with three games still to play. This is a franchise that has been around since the 1940s, and though much of that time is dead-space when it comes to receiving and passing records, we’re talking about a guy who has 1,400 yards after 13 games, only 11 of which he played in due to being suspended for the opening two. He is averaging 127 yards a game this season which is 2,036 yards extrapolated over 16-games, a full 80 more than Calvin Johnson’s record on 32 fewer targets. He also became the first receiver in NFL history to have consecutive 200-yard games, and the 774 yards he has amassed over the past four games is an all-time NFL high.
Oh, and he’s done that with Brandon Weeden, Brian Hoyer and Jason Campbell throwing him the ball. Not one of those quarterbacks can boast respectable statistics despite throwing at Gordon and their passer rating throwing to him is nearly double what it is throwing to any other wide receiver with more than a single target (120.2 to Gordon and 66.3 to Davone Bess, the nest best mark.)
The point I’m making? Josh Gordon is seriously freaking good, and on a complete tear right now.
What struck me watching tape of him this week against the Patriots was that he looks like a completely different physical specimen to the rookie Josh Gordon. He seems to have transformed his physique in his first full year in the NFL and now looks as physically imposing as any receiver outside of maybe Megatron.
Aqib Talib is a big cornerback. At 6’1 and over 200lbs, there aren’t many receivers that can dominate him physically, but Gordon did exactly that, terrorizing Talib with his combination of size, strength and speed all game, and actually making him look small on the field. Talib was in man coverage against Gordon most of the game and by the end of it wanted nothing much to do with a battle he was on the losing end of. Of Gordon’s 151 receiving yards, 141 of them came against Talib. He was thrown at five times covered by New England’s best corner and caught all five, with Talib also drawing three holding penalties as he tried desperately to live with Gordon. To be fair to Talib one of those calls was extremely harsh, with both players grabbing hold of each other and wrestling to the floor with only Talib drawing the flag against him, but that particular penalty was the least of his worries overall.
The signature play of the game between the two was Talib being hung out to dry by a suicidal New England defensive call and getting roasted to the tune of an 80-yard touchdown run and catch. This was a lot like the playoff game between Pittsburgh and Denver back in 2011 when the Steelers gambled that Tim Tebow couldn’t hit Demaryius Thomas covered by Ike Taylor on an island if they sent the house at him. He did and Thomas took it all the way for a score, eviscerating Taylor along the way in much the same manner that Gordon did to Talib here. The Steelers were roundly slaughtered for that inept call on defense, chiefly because it resulted in them losing the game, but the Patriots should be equally criticized for this call that falls under the category of ‘how did that even look right on the chalkboard?’
The Patriots aligned in what would look like Cover-1 or Man-Free at the snap. This is already a good looking coverage for Campbell to exploit with Gordon matched up one on one with Talib, but it gets even sweeter as the Patriots elect to send the house – rushing everybody in the front seven – and picking up the three receivers on the near side of the formation with the other three members of the secondary. This was a Cover-0 blitz – called zero because there is no help over the top. None.
When Talib gets roasted here he is on his own, there is nothing stopping Gordon from turning a slant route into an 80-yard score except the corner in front of him.
By this point in the game Talib was clearly concerned with Gordon’s speed, and he plays this pretty terribly.
From his alignment head up over Gordon he quickly bailed at the snap, opening his hips to the outside in anticipation of Gordon running by him down the sideline. He knows he is on an island, so he was desperate to avoid being beaten over the top down the sideline. The logic makes sense, except in his desire not to give up that big play he gives up another, opening up too far to the outside and never taking away the slant with his positioning. Gordon simply waits for Talib to overextend himself the wrong way and then breaks underneath into the space. From this point Talib is already beaten, the only question is how bad will it get.
He has no hope of recovering from being turned the wrong way in time to prevent the catch, but he does have a chance to catch up to Gordon and make a tackle limiting the damage to around a 15-yard gain. He caught up to him at the 30-yard line but then gets stiff-armed by the bigger receiver, gaining the separation needed for him to streak to the end zone. The defeat is so complete and demoralizing for Talib that he gives up the chase a full 30-yards out from the end zone knowing he is never making up ground on a guy as fast as Gordon.
Much like that Tebow pass the defensive call asked too much of the cornerback. Neither Ike Taylor nor Aqib Talib is Darrelle Revis and neither man is capable of living with one of the league’s most physically talented receivers on an island with no help at all. Both players however compounded the issue by playing it poorly, giving up the initial reception and then failing to execute damage limitation by making the tackle.
On Gordon’s part, as impressive as this play was, we’ve admitted he was helped hugely by the defense. There were other plays in the game though that show the kind of ability he has. He is not simply an impressive list of measurables, but he has receiving talent as well.
Take this play on a crossing pattern that comes to him badly underthrown by Jason Campbell. Most receivers fail to bring this catch in and we probably don’t even call it a dropped pass, but Gordon is able to drop his weight, extend and pluck the ball off his shoes despite running perpendicular to the path of the ball at the time. I can’t emphasize enough how hard this is to do, as any of you former receivers will no doubt agree with. And yes, for the record, that is Aqib Talib trailing in his wake as he does it.
Josh Gordon has officially moved into the category of scary, and at this stage only Gordon is capable of holding himself back. If he can avoid trouble and the impending one-year suspension should he run into it again, the Browns have themselves one of the league’s most dominant and irrepressible weapons.
Follow Sam on Twitter: @PFF_Sam