The Race to Seven

Friday October 31st, 2014

There are two premier games this weekend featuring four six-win teams. In the AFC, it's 6-1 Denver at 6-2 New England, with superstars all over the field. In the NFC, it's 6-1 Arizona at 6-2 Dallas, with emerging players like John Brown and Jeremy Mincey helping win important games.

There's a third great game this week, 5-3 Baltimore at 5-3 Pittsburgh on Sunday night, which makes the day perfect in a three-window way … if you’re lucky enough to be able to see the three games. Cards-Cowboys in the 1 p.m. ET window, Broncos-Patriots at 4:25 p.m. ET, and Ravens-Steelers Sunday evening. Could be a classic tripleheader.

Below is a quick glance at the two day games, trying to look at important elements of the games that are under the radar. In other words, nothing on Manning-Brady-XVI or Tony Romo's back.

Cardinals at Cowboys 

Arizona’s deeper on both sides of the ball than we thought.

Larry Fitzgerald saw what you saw Monday night: Washington defensive coordinator Jim Haslett sent the house 11 times (rushing seven men) against Tony Romo, and it worked. Romo got beat up, flustered, never found a good rhythm with Dez Bryant (three catches, 30 yards) all night, and it helped Washington stun Dallas in overtime 20-17.

Midseason Report: 2014
 
 
Andy Benoit on the real stars in Dallas. FULL STORY
 
Greg Bishop on Seattle’s struggles. FULL STORY
 
A rookie’s eight-week learning curve. FULL STORY
 
The MMQB’s Midseason All-Pro Team. FULL STORY
 
OUR COMPLETE MIDSEASON COVERAGE
“That’s the cool thing about cover zero," Fitzgerald said from Arizona this week. “It’s do or die."

If there’s one coordinator in the game right now who will similarly send rushers from everywhere, it’s Arizona’s Todd Bowles. “You’d think when we lost Daryl Washington, Darnell Dockett and Karlos Dansby, we’d be in trouble," said Fitzgerald. But no—because Bowles began using a slew of young safeties to buttress the pass-rush. It’s a big reason why the Cards beat San Francisco in Week 3. They rushed Rashad Johnson, Tony Jefferson and Deone Bucannon, usually safeties; but by moving them down closer to the line as faux inside linebackers on occasions, Bowles added speed to the pass-rush that hadn’t been there. Now you can add Tyrann Mathieu, another tough safety, to that mix; he’s come back well from knee surgery to contribute through October.

Offensively, the addition of rookie John Brown at receiver has given Carson Palmer two things (now that he’s healthy): a fourth target in the receiving corps, and a deep threat Arizona hadn’t had. Arizona has five players who have been targeted between 19 and 31 times over the past four games, and Brown and Fitzgerald have been thrown to an identical 29 times. “A tremendous young man," said Fitzgerald, 31. Brown is 24. “I love watching him play, and prepare. He’s a tremendous student of the game—takes notes, asks questions, very smart. He’s really helped us."

Brown is important for Bruce Arians’ offense because the coach is going to urge his quarterback to throw downfield often, even in situations—such as on third-and-five, 93 seconds to play, trailing by four Sunday against the Eagles—that cry out to move the chains. In that situation, Palmer saw Brown beat an Eagles cornerback and get a step on a safety, and he cut it loose.

"On our pass plays," said Fitzgerald, “we have a call in there for a check down and a touchdown. If the play’s not there, Carson checks it down. If the play’s there, he knows he’s got to execute it. And he does.”

I’ve watched a lot of the Cardinals through seven games, and I’ve gone from thinking, They’ve lost too many good players to thinking, America needs to learn who John Brown and Tony Jefferson are, because they’re winning players on a really good team. Dallas will see that Sunday. The Cowboys might be good enough to win, but it’s not going to be easy. Against Arizona under Arians, it never is.

Broncos at Patriots 

Tim Wright is getting comfortable.

It’s been nine weeks since the Patriots acquired Wright, a tight end languishing as a third-stringer in Tampa, from the Bucs in the Logan Mankins trade. Throughout September, the Patriots were pointed about struggling to incorporate so many first-year Pats into prominent offensive roles, saying it still felt like the preseason for the offense. Once offensive coordinator Josh McDaniels could get the pieces all speaking the same languages, it’d be a different story, the Patriots implied. Looks like they were right. The Patriots averaged 20 points a game in their 2-2 start in September. In their four October games, the Patriots went 4-0, averaging 39.5 points a game. They’re starting to look like the 2011 and 2012 teams that both averaged in the thirties.

The hot streak coincides with the Patriots getting great play out of Rob Gronkowski, who finally looks whole after January surgery to repair ACL and MCL tears, and Wright learning the myriad roles of the tight end in the New England scheme. New England always was best on offense with two offensive threats at tight ends, and they’d been missing that since Aaron Hernandez disappeared after being charged with murder before the 2013 season. And now, it’s fair to compare the production—if not the talent—of the Gronkowski/Hernandez pairing versus Gronk/Wright. Again: Wright absolutely is not the downfield threat Hernandez was, and he may never be. But he’s sure-handed, slithers off coverage consistently well, and is a willing blocker. He’s producing.

Let’s compare the per-game average of Gronkowski and Hernandez in their last year together when they played almost the entire season, 2011, against the Gronkowski and Wright combo during the Patriots’ 4-0 streak:

  Targets per game Rec. Yards TD
Gronkowski + Hernandez, Full Season, 2011 14.8 10.6 139.8 1.5
Gronkowski + Wright, 4 games, October 2014 13.0 10.0 138.5 1.8

 

I went back this week and watched a game McDaniels called in 2012, when Gronkowski and Hernandez combined for 11 catches and two touchdowns, and compared it to a game McDaniels called this season—last Sunday against the Bears. Gronkowski and Wright combined for 16 catches and four touchdowns (three by Gronkowski).

The Midseason All-Pro Team
 
Find out who made the cut as The MMQB's Andy Benoit chooses the best of the best at each position. FULL STORY
This is what I saw: Gronkowski’s role hasn’t changed much at all; the Patriots like him to get beyond the first line of coverage—on a linebacker or safety—and then have Tom Brady feed him the ball down the seam or the sideline to see how many people he can bounce off or stiff-arm. In the 2012 video, Hernandez ran a lot of out routes and not as many deep patterns; but clearly the athletic talent was there when the Patriot chose to send him deep. Often, McDaniels would twin both of them in the slot on opposite sides and see who would get the most attention. Once in this game I watched, McDaniels lined up three ends tight to the left of the formation (including Daniel Fells) and called a running play; on the next snap, Gronkowski got a step on a Jet safety and Brady threw him a perfect fade to the left corner of the end zone.

This year, Wright has been much more of a short target, for quick outs or quick incuts. The stats bear that out; he was targeted 13 times in October and caught 13 passes. On last week’s tape, the tight-end dominance was in full view on the first drive of the second half. On New England’s first three plays of the drive, Gronkowski and Wright lined up, respectively, in the right and left slot; then both in the left slot; then both in the right slot. He hit Wright on the second, third and fifth plays of the drive, all on short and safe routes where he got open quickly. On the sixth play, Wright was out of the game, but Gronkowski ran a short incut to the left on safety Chris Conte, and turned it into a 46-yard touchdown by playing pinball down the field.

Fair warning to the Broncos this week: Wright got 147 painless yards in October (only 20 less than rising-star Julius Thomas had in October for Denver), and Brady is beginning to trust him implicitly. It’s pretty advantageous to have a tight end who can get open and make it an easy second-and-three a few times a game, and who can open up some downfield routes for Gronkowski and another new guy, wideout Brandon LaFell. It sounds crazy to say, but Wright has become an important part of what the Patriots do. New England might need to get in a scoring contest with Denver to win, and if so, Wright will be a significant piece to the puzzle.

• JOAN NIESEN: DeMarcus Ware’s arrival and Von Miller’s return to form have given the Broncos the pass-rushing push they lacked last season. It may be the final piece in the championship puzzle

It also must be noted that Brady will be in the business of getting rid of the ball quickly Sunday, because he’ll face a rush the likes of one he faced in Kansas City five games ago, the last time New England lost. This time, he’ll have a better hot receiver, and a big target, in Wright. 

Dustin Vaughan, an undrafted rookie out of West Texas A&M, is the Cowboys' third-string quarterback. (Ronald Martinez/Getty Images) Dustin Vaughan, an undrafted rookie out of West Texas A&M, is the Cowboys' third-string quarterback. (Ronald Martinez/Getty Images)

Player You Need To Know This Weekend

Dustin Vaughan, backup quarterback, Dallas (number 10). I never heard of Dustin Vaughan till this week. Vaughan is on the practice squad today, and he is highly unlikely to play Sunday for Dallas against Arizona. But the point is this: If Tony Romo cannot go Sunday because of his back contusion, Vaughan will be the backup to Brandon Weeden. Vaughan, a physical 6-5 passer who played last fall at West Texas A&M, would be one snap away from playing in a game with huge NFC playoff implications. Just thought you’d like to know. 

Bose Sound Bite of the Week

Seattle linebackers coach Ken Norton Jr.'s spot-on assessment of the Seahawks-Panthers game, during the third quarter on Sunday:

"We have a lot of football left, it's 6-6. Y'know every time we come here it's always close, alright, and we always win. So keep it close, and we're gonna win just like we always do."

[audio mp3="http://www.si.com/sites/default/files/audio/mmqb/2014/10/ken-norton-seahawks.mp3"][/audio]

 

• GREG BISHOP: If they’re going to have any chance to defend their Super Bowl title, the Seahawks have to figure out who they are—and who is going to make plays—on offense

Regular Old Quote of the Week

"This really isn’t a friend week."

—Denver receiver Wes Welker, saying he wouldn’t be reaching out to buddy Tom Brady before the Broncos-Patriots game Sunday. 

Ten Things I’ll Be Watching For This Weekend

The Real Stars in Dallas
 
Credit the Cowboys’ coaching staff for getting the most out of their roster and turning the team into the season’s biggest surprise. But will it last? FULL STORY
1. The RGIII Watch. He’s back from a dislocated ankle after missing six games, and will be under center Sunday in Minnesota. There’s going to be pressure on him to be good right out of the box, seeing that Colt McCoy was 25-of-30 and led Washington to the overtime stunner at Dallas on Monday night. Washington coach Jay Gruden could have rested Griffin until after the bye and given him two more solid weeks to get healthy for the seven-game stretch drive.

2. Bengal Alumni Weekend. Jay Gruden at Mike Zimmer in Minneapolis. Quite a chess match between coaches who gameplanned against each in practice every day for three seasons while Cincinnati coordinators.

3. Tony Romo. Did you see what Romo told The MMQB the other day? I asked him about DeMarco Murray getting worked to death in the first half of the season, and Romo told me, basically, what do you expect? We’re fighting for our lives here. His words: “You say you want to minimize the hits, the carries, but every single week feels like a playoff game. Every game feels like the most important game of the year, and to not give yourself every chance to try to win, it just goes against the grain." Which is why I would be surprised if he doesn’t talk his way into the lineup Sunday against Arizona.

4. Ahmad Bradshaw, with vengeance on his mind. Colts at Giants on Monday night, and the G-Men have given up 180 yards rushing, on average, in the last two games. Bradshaw, the Giants’ Super Bowl back three years ago, will get the bulk of the carries. He smells a 100-yard night, and so do I.

5. Mike Vick at Andy Reid. It’s an interesting little headline, Vick getting his first start for the Jets against the coach who brought him back from Leavenworth. But that’s the most interesting part of this. Won’t be much of a game. Kansas City should have a very comfortable win.

6. Brian Hoyer keeping Johnny Manziel nailed to the bench. This is no marquee game—Cleveland welcoming the Bucs in a game the Browns have to win to have realistic playoff chance—but the Hoyer angle continues to be interesting. Here, he’s facing one of the worst secondaries in the league. The Bucs surrender 69-percent completions and have but four interceptions. So look for Hoyer not only to be a decent fantasy option if your better quarterback has a bye, but also to solidify a job that appears to be in no danger for the rest of the year.

Ten on the Teeter-Totter
 
Will their teams rise up or fall down during the final two months of the regular season? Greg Bedard identifies 10 players whose play could determine the playoff picture. FULL STORY
7. A sort of homecoming. DeMeco Ryans, whose defensive leadership was huge in the formative years of the Houston Texans, is an Eagle now, and he and his Philly mates play the Texans in Houston on Sunday. Chip Kelly holds Ryans out to his young players as an example of what pro football players should be like.

8. The Steelers retiring their second number—and first in 50 years—this weekend. Former defensive tackle Ernie Stautner had his number, 70, retired in 1964. Since then, nothing. The Steelers are the anti-Yankees. The Yankees have retired so many that they no longer have any single digits left. The Steelers retire their second number Sunday night—Joe Greene’s 75. (Read a superb excerpt on The MMQB today by Gary Pomerantz on Greene and his linemates, from his book “Their Life’s Work.” Extremely insightful.) It’ll be interesting now to see where the Steelers go from here, because so many players from the dynasty teams of the seventies are worthy. But club president Art Rooney II has cold-watered the idea of massive retirements of jerseys, saying, “Where do you draw the line?”

9. The continued emergence of Plaxico II in Pittsburgh for Ben Roethlisberger. In his first two games as Roethlisberger’s big target, the 6-4 Martavis Bryant has three touchdowns. With the Baltimore secondary pretty beat up, look for the Steelers to throw some deep jump-balls to Bryant against the Ravens corners. In two games, Bryant's been targeted 12 times and found the end zone three times. The Steelers will take that ratio forever.

10. The awkward postgame handshake between Brady and Manning. These two guys genuinely like each other. So why does the on-field greeting always look so forced and unhappy? It’s because the loser is always so ticked off/disappointed; he can’t muster up a smile (and good for him; who cares, really?), so they just shake briefly, say something quick, and they’re on their way. “I consider Tom obviously a great competitor on the field but a good friend off the field," Manning said.

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