Jaguars’ Ramsey relishes All-Pro matchup vs Steelers’ Brown

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JACKSONVILLE, Fla. (AP) Blake Bortles remembers the first time Jalen Ramsey got under his skin.

Bortles was trying to get through a two-minute drill during the 2016 season. It was a weekly walkthrough routine in which players were supposed to go half-speed while practicing plays. Normally, there’s no contact and every pass is complete.

At least that had been the case until Ramsey arrived.

Bortles threw several passes in Ramsey’s direction. The rookie intercepted or knocked down each one.

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It happened week after week until Bortles finally stopped throwing Ramsey’s way.

“It was so annoying,” Bortles recalled Thursday.

It also set the tone for Ramsey’s career. The trash-talking cornerback has a flair for frustrating quarterbacks and receivers and the ability to essentially shut down one side of the field. After 33 games, Ramsey’s already considered among the best players in franchise history – a 23-year-old rising star who openly aspires to be as good as Hall of Famer Deion Sanders and often looks the part.

“The best I’ve ever seen in person,” Bortles said. “He’s freakish.”

Ramsey is a major piece of Jacksonville’s defensive turnaround, and he’ll take center stage Sunday when the Jaguars (11-6) play in the divisional round of the AFC playoffs at Pittsburgh (13-3).

Ramsey will shadow Antonio Brown , widely considered the best receiver in the NFL.

All-Pro vs. All-Pro, undoubtedly the most intriguing matchup of the postseason game.

“It’s not many receivers I’m going to come in here in front of y’all and say they’re one of the best in the league,” Ramsey said. “He is, though. That’s the truth about him.”

Brown caught 10 passes for 157 yards in the first meeting against Jacksonville, which won 30-9 in early October. Ben Roethlisberger targeted Brown a staggering 19 times, with three of those ending up as interceptions.

“He’s an elite player,” Ramsey said. “Highly regarded by everybody, honestly, around the nation or maybe internationally. So, yeah, it’s going to be a challenge. We’re going to have to be on our Ps and Qs and try to execute the game plan as best we can.”

Jacksonville’s game plan has changed slightly since the first meeting.

Ramsey and fellow Pro Bowl cornerback A.J. Bouye played sides to start the season, covering whatever receiver lined up in front of them. But Ramsey has since started following the top wideout for every opponent all over the field, and he’s had rousing success against Houston’s DeAndre Hopkins, Indianapolis’ T.Y. Hilton, Cincinnati’s A.J. Green, Arizona’s Larry Fitzgerald, Los Angeles Chargers’ Keenan Allen and San Francisco’s Marquise Goodwin.

Ramsey angered Green so much with his constant verbal jabs that the mild-mannered receiver grabbed the cocky cornerback in a headlock and tossed him to the ground. Both players were ejected.

“He’ll get in a guy’s head now,” linebacker Telvin Smith said.

Added Bouye: “Everything he’s accomplished, he’s worked for it. He’s capitalized. He’s learned from his mistakes and he keeps getting better week in and week out.”

According to Pro Football Focus, Ramsey has allowed 47 receptions for 586 yards and three touchdowns this season. He has five interceptions, including one to seal a 10-3 victory against Buffalo in a wild-card game.

It was about what the Jaguars have come to expect from the fifth overall pick in the 2016 draft. He has a rare combination of size, speed, instincts, ball skills and body control. And he’s no longer a rookie.

“You see the maturity in the meetings and you see the maturity on the grass,” defensive coordinator Todd Wash said. “We always knew he was a freak athlete and we always knew he could play. But that maturity level is getting better and better each day.”

His matchup against Brown will be his next – and maybe his best – challenge.

“It’s going to be an unbelievable thing,” Jaguars safety Barry Church said. “I’m just glad I’m on the field for it. Those guys, they both like to talk a bit of trash and they’re going to be matched up with each other the whole game. It’s going to be a great one. We’ll see who gets the better of the two, but my money’s on Jalen.”

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Watch Indianapolis Colts vs. Seattle Seahawks live on NBC

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The Seattle Seahawks host the Indianapolis Colts on Sunday Night Football as both teams look to get back to .500.

Russell Wilson will be the focal point of the Seahawks offense after throwing for a career-high 373 yards and four touchdowns in a losing effort vs. the Titans in Week 3. Wilson’s ability to avoid the rush and use his legs will be on full display as Seattle’s offensive line continues to struggle.

On the defensive side, the Seahawks’ “Legion of Boom” will look to get back on track at home in a raucous environment against Colts QB Jacoby Brissett who is filling in for an injured Andrew Luck.

If the Colts have any chance to pull off the upset on the road, Brissett will have to use his legs and connect on some deep throws to T.Y. Hilton.

Football Night in America

Start time: 7:00 p.m. ET

TV channel: NBC

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Colts vs. Seahawks

Start time: 8:30 p.m. ET

TV channel: NBC

Live stream: NBCSports.com, NBC Sports app

Beckham From Right to Left

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Odell Beckham exploded onto the scene last season. His spectacular catch on Sunday Night Football against the Dallas Cowboys was his biggest highlight, but he was one of the best receivers in the NFL. Over the last nine games, he had 81 catches for 1199 yards. If he kept that up pace for an entire season, he would have set NFL records in both categories.

Heading into his second year, Beckham looked like he should be one of the most productive receivers in the NFL. Nothing fundamental changed in New York, with Ben McAdoo still calling plays and Eli Manning still throwing passes. Yet Beckham’s numbers are down, with just 24 catches for 307 yards in the first four weeks of the season. If he keeps that up for all 16 games, he would have just 29 more yards than he had in his nine-game hot streak. What has changed, and will it continue?

Fewer Opportunities Means Fewer Numbers

One thing that stands out about Beckham’s 2014 season was just how involved he was. Despite missing four games, he was targeted 130 times. That right in line with stars like Dez Bryant and Randall Cobb, who played every game.

During his hot streak, Beckham was the single most targeted receiver in the league. He was thrown 117 passes, six more than second-place Demaryius Thomas and 21 more than third-place Antonio Brown. Brown led the league in passes over the whole season, to give an idea of how extreme Beckham’s split was. His 2015 numbers were never likely to match his 2014 pace, simply because it was unlikely he would be thrown that many passes.

And through four weeks, his targets have returned to normal for a top receiver. He has 42 targets, a healthy number that ties him for 11th, in line with T.Y. Hilton, Emmanuel Sanders, and Julian Edelman. This gets to some of the decline in his numbers.

Beckham in 2015 v. 2014 Through the Prism of Advanced Stats

Fine, so Beckham’s raw numbers are down. By Football Outsiders’ cumulative DYAR statistic, Beckham was the sixth-most valuable receiver in the league last year. During his hot stretch when he was targeted so often, he was the most valuable receiver in the league by DYAR, ahead of Bryant, Brown, Jordy Nelson and everybody else. Without the targets, he would not have matched that ranking this year. But he could come close if he was doing the same thing on a per play basis.

He is not. His decline in his raw counting stats is mirrored by a decline in his advanced statistics. He currently ranks just 28th in DYAR. That puts him second even on his own team, behind Rueben Randle. Football Outsiders’ per-play metric DVOA put him ninth last year. This year, he is 34th among the 70 ranked receivers. What accounts for this efficiency difference?

Completions Are Good, Incompletions Are Bad

Beckham excellent last year because he caught most passes thrown his way. By Football Outsiders’ +/- statistic, which accounts for pass distance, he ranked sixth, catching 11.1 passes more than expected.

His catch rate in 2015 has fallen from 70% to just 59%. The table shows his catch percentage by pass distance for the past two seasons.

Table. Beckham Catch Percentage by Pass Distance, 2014 v. 2015

2014 Pass Yards 2015
85% <5 92%
78% 6-15 50%
47% 15+ 30%

What role change has produced this?

Moving From Right to Left

In 2014, Beckham primarily played on the right side of the field. Of his passes, 72 were marked in the play by play as either short right or deep right, versus just 36 to short left or deep left.

In 2015, those numbers have reversed. He has just 13 passes to the right side of the field, compared to 24 on the left.

This change in Beckham’s location is part of an overall shift in New York’s passing game. The Giants were right-handed in 2014. The average NFL team threw 1.05 passes to the right for every pass they threw to the left. New York threw 1.15.

Part of that was Beckham’s presence and effectiveness. As Manning’s trust in Beckham grew, the Giants became ever more right-handed. The final four weeks of the season, Manning threw 1.29 passes to the right for every pass to the left.

Beckham’s Shift in the Context of the Offense

It is easy to surmise McAdoo noticed this tendency in the offseason and was worried opposing coaches would respond by tilting their coverages to the right. Thus, he likely requested Beckham to switch sides, to create a more even-handed passing game. From that perspective, the move has worked. The Giants are actually left-handed this year, throwing 1.05 passes to the left for every to the right.

McAdoo’s move of Beckham was likely premised on having Victor Cruz to complement him. Cruz’s work tilted to the right in 2013 and again in 2014 before he was injured, creating the opening Beckham exploited. Cruz is not yet healthy, and the time frame for when he will be is still uncertain. That will take time, the same sort of time that it will likely take Beckham to become as comfortable on the left as he was on the right. When both those happen, the Giants should have a powerful and efficient passing game. Until at least one of them does, Beckham’s sophomore struggle seems likely to continue.