The Pupil is Prospering
Early this fall, when Jameis Winston threw seven interceptions in his first four games and the Buccaneers started 1-3, the rookie passer called his old coach to solicit advice and, honestly, to vent.
“Jameis was kind of amazed at the speed of the linebackers and how well they could cover,” says Jimbo Fisher, the Florida State coach who helped Winston win a Heisman trophy and a national championship in 2013. “With how much more athletic the linebackers are, the underneath windows become really condensed. Throwing the vertical inside seams, you’ve really got to drive it and be good with your eyes.
“Early on, that’s where he really had to concentrate.”
NFL fans saw last Sunday the results of all that fretting and reevaluation—Winston identifying the vulnerable side of the field and throwing darts down the hashmarks in a five-touchdown performance while humiliating the Eagles, 45-17. Winston’s stat line through 10 games: 2,405 yards passing, 58.3 completion percentage, 15 touchdowns, nine INTs.
Fisher has been keeping an eye on Winston, and the Bucs and staying in constant touch with his former pupil while manning the helm for the 14th-ranked Seminoles. Fisher watched Sunday’s game intermittently while preparing for Florida and caught glimpses of a breakout game for the No. 1 overall pick. Winston went 19 for 29 for 256 yards and five scores. In the past six games, he’s turned the ball over just twice, both interceptions coming two weeks ago in a 10-6 win at Dallas.
Fisher was able to spare some time at 7 a.m. Tuesday morning to discuss the NFL education of Jameis.
The MMQB: How do you explain how quickly things seem to make sense for Jameis right now?
Fisher: What I don’t think people understand is, his learning curve is off the charts. At the same time, he is an ambitious guy. He’s not scared to push the ball down the field. He’s gonna test his boundaries and learn what that receiver can go get. The thing about this guy is, he’s the ultimate competitor. He respects the game so much, from a competitive standpoint. From a history standpoint, he truly understands why he does things, when it’s good and bad. His ability to process this information is incredible.
The MMQB: When you watch his head movement over the past month, it seems as though he’s only diagnosing one half of the field, inside to out. The offense seems to be all three-step drops.
Fisher: Pre-snap he's going whole field; post-snap, half. The issue is they can't protect that well. You can't do all that (5-step and 7-step drops) when you're giving up pressure. I understand that as a play caller, and I think [Bucs offensive coordinator Dirk Koetter] does too. Jameis may be able to do it, but we can’t protect him. That’s very smart by Dirk; he's a heck of a football coach. I don’t care what kind of quarterback you are, you can draw it up seven ways to Philly, but at the end of the day, you’ve got to protect.
I think Jameis is personally capable of doing a lot. Our co-coordinator, Randy Sanders, spent a lot of time with Peyton Manning at Tennessee, and he says Jameis is very similar in that he’s a football junkie. Peyton was constantly thinking about ball, and that’s what Jameis is like.
The MMQB: Did you have conversations with Dirk Koetter about the best way to integrate him into an NFL offense?
Fisher: We sat down and talked two or three different times. Dirk was very thorough in terms of the emotional issues. What kind of person is he? Is he coachable? Because you saw these moments of us arguing on the sidelines. Half the time we argued, Jameis was right. People say, Jimbo, you always protect him. But there are a lot of bogus things that were being said about this guy. When Dirk wanted to talk football and Jameis, I told him, ball-wise, this is going to be a very short conversation. This is the best learner and processor you will see.
We went over the offense with Dirk and all of the pre-snap decisions Jameis was required to make, and Dirk said, Daggum, y’all do more stuff than we do!
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It would be easy to jump to the conclusion that Winston has arrived, but those five touchdowns came on a day when Doug Martin rushed for 235 yards against a reeling Eagles team that has lost its past two games by a combined score of 90-31. Tampa’s Week 12 opponent, Indianapolis, is a different animal, having narrowly won its past two games after starting the season 3-5. The presence of Vontae Davis at cornerback presents a new obstacle for a rookie quarterback who has relied on quick-developing route combinations out of three-step drops. Still, the likelihood Winston will throw fewer picks as a rookie than he did in his last season at FSU (18) is something worth celebrating in Tampa.
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About Last Night
Lions 45, Eagles 14. Welcome to superstar status, Ziggy Ansah. The guy who played three years of football before the Lions selected him fifth overall in 2013 is now tied for the NFL lead in sacks with J.J. Watt after a 3.5-sack day puts him at 11.5 on the season. The Eagles struggled in many phases, but were utterly hapless against Ansah. Eagles left tackle Jason Peters going down in the first half played a role, but Ansah was the best player on the field on a day when Calvin Johnson caught eight balls for 93 yards and three touchdowns. The clinic performed by Ansah on Lane Johnson included everything from bull rushes to inside cuts to speed rushes off the edge. And then there’s this detail from Kyle Meinke’s postgame coverage: At 279 pounds, Ansah has the second-lowest body fat percentage on the team. Too bad the Lions started the season losing seven of eight, because this team could be damn fun to watch down the stretch.
Oh, and Philly? There’s not much to say about the Eagles that hasn’t already been said about the 76ers.
Panthers 33, Cowboys 14. The Cowboys were favored in this game? I get that Carolina doesn’t have the feel of an 11-0 football team, what with Tedd Ginn Jr. as Cam Newton’s No. 1 receiver, but come on. Carolina’s defense is so dominant, the first defensive end off the bench, Kony Ealy, now has a sack in five consecutive games. Putting Tony Romo and his fragile clavicle in front of that kind of pass rush without the benefit of a dynamic running back was trouble from the start. Then you consider Romo’s lone safety valve, wide receiver Dez Bryant, being nullified by Carolina corner Josh Norman for much of the game, and the season-ending injury suffered by Romo looks like an inevitability in retrospect.
Bears 17, Packers 13. What a way to end a full day of Thanksgiving football. After a couple of snoozers, the night game comes down to the wire, with the Packers down by four and driving with less than two minutes left.
Fourth down, empty set, Aaron Rodgers scrambles left and whips a wet football to a well-covered Randall Cobb. The ball comes as Bears rookie defensive tackle Eddie Goldman is bearing down on Rodgers, and Cobb is jockeying for position in the end zone with rookie corner Bryce Callahan in his hip pocket. The ball came too hard, and Cobb was under too much duress. Turnover on downs. The Bears win in Lambeau on Brett Favre night.
Here’s what gives me hope if I’m a Bears fan, whether or not they pull off a playoff appearance: In Jay Cutler’s first win at Lambeau, it was the youngest defensive players who shined brightest. Goldman and Callahan continued to contribute big, in addition to young defensive backs Adrian Amos and Kyle Fuller. Aaron Rodgers completed just 22 of 43 passes, and struggled to move the ball within the design of the offense late in the game, instead relying on his scrambling ability until the very end, when Chicago’s suddenly stout secondary blanketed his options one last time.
At 5-6, Chicago has now won three of its past four games and will face a team with a winning record just once in its remaining five games (Dec. 20 at Minnesota).
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Player You Need To Know This Week
Owen Daniels, Broncos tight end
It’s strange to say a guy with 461 catches and 10 seasons under his belt is a guy you need to know, but if you've been watching the Broncos this season, it's likely the 33-year-old slipped under the radar. Daniels played plenty but wasn't a focal point for Peyton Manning in what's been a frustrating season for the veteran quarterback.
With Brock Osweiler now throwing for the Broncos for at least the next two weeks while Manning heals from a foot injury, we're getting a glimpse of what coach Gary Kubiak would like to see in an offense, and perhaps, what the Broncos will look like in 2016 and beyond. From the jump, it's clear that tight ends will play a major role; Owen Daniels and Vernon Davis last Sunday combined for 10 catches and 137 yards in a 17-15 win against the Bears.
“I think that’s something we’ve been trying to get to. One of the reasons we brought Vernon in was to get more two- and three-tight end sets,” Daniels explained. “We did that a lot in Houston with success with Kubiak—that’s the way this offense was built. We think it creates great matchups whether it’s run or pass.”
On several occasions, the Broncos were able to catch the Bears in nickel packages with multiple tight ends on the field, which helped Denver amass 170 yards on the ground, more than the past two games combined (losses to Indianapolis and Kansas City) and its highest single-game total of the season.
“We always want to run the ball as much as we throw it, and it just so happened that we got down early in the two losses and didn’t have the opportunity,” Daniels said.
This burgeoning offensive identity meets a major obstacle Sunday vs. New England, where coordinator Matt Patricia’s defenses have allowed tight ends a combined 11 catches for 122 yards over the past four games and have held offenses to fewer than 100 yards rushing in five straight games.
• Q&A WITH TIM GREEN, DEFENSIVE END-TURNED-AUTHOR: Why he’s working to get more kids reading, how he balanced interests outside football during his playing career, and the effects he has felt after a career filled with concussions.
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Big Ugly Matchup of the Week
Bills LT Cordy Glenn vs. Chiefs ROLB Tamba Hali
Tamba Hali, who just flat-out abused Chargers left tackle King Dunlap last week to the tune of two sacks, meets Buffalo’s breakout pass-blocking rock, Cordy Glenn, who gave up one sack this season all the way back in Week 2. If it’s EJ Manuel on the field for the Bills and not Tyrod Taylor, Manuel will need a showing from Glenn on par with his recent stonewalling of Chandler Jones in New England.
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Stat of the Week
Forty-yard dash times for the four receivers drafted in Arizona since 2013, the year Bruce Arians took over as head coach:
• Ryan Swope 4.34 (combine)
• John Brown 4.34 (combine)
• Walt Powell 4.44 (pro day)
• J.J. Nelson 4.28 (combine)
Brown is the team’s second-leading receiver with 40 catches, 605 yards and four touchdowns. Nelson, the rookie, a relative unknown until last weekend, caught four passes for 142 yards, a touchdown and a 64-yard bomb from Carson Palmer for a third-quarter touchdown against the Bengals.
“I like speed,” Arians said after the 34-31 Cards win. “I like speed that comes in any kind of package.”
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Quote of the Week
“I don't remember that. ...I must be going crazy. I don't remember.”
—Washington defensive end Jason Hatcher, asked to expound on his Sunday evening assertion that the backlash over the team name was creating bias against the team among referees.
I would’ve preferred he said simply, We’re on to New York, or, you know, owned up to his words.
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Ten Things I’ll Be Watching For This Weekend
1. The Big Ugly Matchup of the Week runner-up: Saints LT Terron Armstead vs. Texans ROLB Jadaveon Clowney. I hesitated to feature this one, because the teams aren’t in a playoff hunt, and while Clowney is big, he’s not quite ugly enough. Still, I’m excited to see an emerging rush end who thrives on finesse vs. one of the best run blocking tackles in football.
2. The Bengals’ rebounding ability. Two narrow losses in as many weeks has taken some shine off the Bengals. Are we still confident they win the AFC North? After watching Cincy surrender more than 30 points in a game for the first time this season, it’s becoming clear cornerback Dre Kirkpatrick is a true liability. Playoff hopes are directly linked to his improvement.
3. Ronnie Hillman vs. the Patriots. The Broncos posted their best rushing performance of the season (170 yards, 4.7 per carry) last week against a Bears defense which hadn’t allowed more than 100 rushing yards in the two previous weeks. It would seem Hillman operates better with Osweiler under center than out of a pistol with the less-mobile Manning.
4. Todd Gurley, slump-buster. After rushing for 566 yards and 6.4 yards per carry in his first four starts, Gurley has rushed for 200 and 3.2 in his past three games. On Sunday, he faces a Cincy defense allowing 100.4 rushing yards per game, which ranks 13th in the NFL.
5. Berry’s big day. Chiefs safety Eric Berry—cancer survivor and shoo-in for the Pro Bowl and the Comeback Player of the Year award—should feast on a Bills team that could be without Tyrod Taylor at quarterback.
6. A division rematch of Joe Philbin’s last game as an NFL coach. The last time the Jets and Dolphins met, the Dolphins walked away 1-3 after giving up 425 yards of offense and promptly moved on from their coach of 3.5 years. Entering the rematch, Dan Campbell’s Dolphins also have lost three of their past four.
7. The heavyweight matchup between Adrian Peterson and Atlanta’s defense. No team has given up fewer yards rushing than the Falcons, and no running back is better at creating the big play than Peterson, the first back to top 1,000 yards in 2015.
8. Blaine Gabbert, in his second start, against the second-best turnover producing defense in football. Gabbert attempted seven passes longer than 20 yards in the air in his solid debut in a loss at Seattle. Expect that number to go down some against a Cardinals defense that is every bit as good as the Seahawks used to be.
9. Antonio Brown and Martavis Bryant vs. the Seattle secondary. Last time we saw the Steelers, Brown and Bryant combined for 16 catches, 317 yards and three touchdowns. Expect Ben Roethlisberger to pick on Seattle’s Cary Williams—quarterbacks have a 120.6 passer rating this season when attacking Richard Sherman’s opposite, per Pro Football Focus. That’s if Cary even gets the starting nod after being benched in the second half versus San Francisco.
10. The NFC East is wide open as the Giants visit Washington with first place on the line. I’m looking for Washington to establish the running game early after totaling 10 yards on 11 rushing attempts against Carolina.
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