• After strong start in Week 1, the Rams get ready for a Week 2 challenge that will look very familiar to their young head coach
  • Also in Albert Breer’s notebook: the Bucs’ difficult logistics, the Jags’ physical strategy, Jaylon Smith’s progress and much more
By Albert Breer
September 14, 2017

Sean McVay’s work as offensive coordinator in D.C. was done, and he was headed to Los Angeles to become the youngest head coach in NFL history. But before he left, Redskins quarterback Kirk Cousins stopped by to give him something.

It was a jersey Cousins had signed, with a message inscribed inside the ‘8.’

“It was cool, man,” McVay said late Wednesday night. “It’s as special as anything I’ve ever gotten from a player. It says, ‘I owe you my career.’ Which … Certainly, I can say the same thing to him. There’s a mutual respect there, and an appreciation for the relationship we had, and I think it was unique that both of us got the chances we got.

“You get a chance as a coordinator to start calling plays and then he gets the shot to start full-time. That coincided those two years, and I think there was a special bond created with one another because of that.”

Eight months later, McVay is trying to recreate that in southern California. So far, so good, based on what we saw in the opener. Jared Goff finished his first game under the Rams’ 31-year-old coach with 306 yards, a touchdown and no picks on 21-of-29 passing in a 46-9 rout of the Colts.

It was all smiles on the Rams sideline during the team’s Week 1 rout of the Colts.
Jeff Gross/Getty Images

And yet this weekend, with Cousins and the 0-1 Redskins coming to the Coliseum, and all the memories rushing back, McVay gets a reminder of how far he and Goff have to go.

"It’s the fact that we just haven’t worked together long enough," McVay said. "We’re trying to figure it out ourselves as we get comfortable with one another. That’s the biggest thing.”

In this week’s Game Plan, we’ll check in with Deshaun Watson; the Ravens new and improved defense; the Cardinals’ strategy with David Johnson down; the Bucs’ difficult logistics; Cam Newton’s progress; Jaylon Smith; and we’ll explain why Calais Cambell thinks the Jaguars’ season-opening rout could be just the beginning.

But we’ll start in L.A., and with something that finally should give football fans a reason to show up and be excited.

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After an uneven rookie year, Goff looked every bit the part of the first pick in the draft in his sophomore debut. And the biggest difference, with all due respect to Andrew Whitworth and Sammy Watkins and Robert Woods, is the people teaching him.

McVay, of course, will get the credit and the blame as a head coach does. But he insists that coordinator Matt LeFleur and quarterbacks coach Greg Olsen have been just as big a part of getting Goff right. First, it was about fixing the pieces around him. So in came Whitworth, Watkins, Woods and rookie Gerald Everett. From there, the focus turned to getting Goff to operate with confidence.

“Everything we do has the quarterback in mind first, because I think that’s the most difficult position, so you want to make it as easy as possible for those guys,” McVay said. “The things that we'll accentuate with Jared vs. Kirk, while there’s a similar approach, there are some different things that they each feel comfortable with that we might call. Because ultimately it’s about them feeling good about it, not me.

“I mean, I’ve got a handful of plays that I like but I don’t ever want to run plays that our players aren’t comfortable going and executing. It’s an ongoing thing as I get to know [Jared]. Working with Kirk a little bit longer, you knew what he liked and we were able to grow in a system together.”

To begin with, though, McVay and the coaches tried to lay a foundation that any quarterback would like. He wanted a run/pass balance, and the Rams ran it (33 times) more than they threw it (31) against Indy. McVay wanted to stay out of long yardage, and Los Angeles faced just eight third downs with more than 5 yards to gain all afternoon.

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From there, the staff wanted to use that balance to generate play-action opportunities and let Goff throw on rhythm. Three big plays illustrate how that worked:

• Early in the second quarter, the Rams faked an end around to Tavon Austin, and as soon as Goff’s right foot planted, the ball was on its way out to Cooper Kupp for an easy 24-yard gain.

• On the first play of the Rams’ next possession Goff sold a play-fake to Todd Gurley, turned and, working off five-step-drop timing, found Sammy Watkins on an in-cut for 24 yards through a dead spot in the Colts’ zone.

• On the Rams’ third offensive snap of the third quarter, Goff set up off jet-sweep action to Austin, and threaded a high-cross to Robert Woods between three defenders for 27 yards.

Each play was what the Rams qualify as “explosives” (20-yards plus). Each helped build Goff’s comfort level within a new offense, which is similar to how it was done for Cousins in Washington.

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“The first thing you’ll notice, you want plays that start out looking the same that are different—your run actions, whether it’s play-action, or some of your movements, where you’re bootlegging him,” McVay said. “Those are the things he’s really done a good job with, especially when you take into account the stuff in the preseason where early-down plays, you’re running play-actions and movements.

“He’s good at it, he’s gotten really comfortable with it. And that’s where there’s a good chance to open up some things down the field.”

This week, the challenge changes, of course, with an opponent that knows McVay and his scheme exceedingly well, because it’s their scheme, too. And so, as the coach is quick to point out, they’ll have to keep what he calls “the progression going.”

But the fact is, Goff’s in a much better spot than he was even a few months ago. McVay’s proud of Goff for completing 70 percent of his passes last week, and even prouder that he stayed out of the turnover column. On the other hand, Cousins’ presence on Sunday will serve as a reminder on how far they have to go.

“Hopefully, you’re an extension of one another where they can anticipate what’s going on because you’re so in tune with the game plan,” said McVay. “That evolves over time. With my relationship with Kirk and really Colt McCoy over the last couple years, they had a really good feel for what we were trying to get done offensively as a coaching staff and that allowed them to anticipate the play calls coming in.

“Things take time. (Goff) is in a really good place, it’s not one or the other. It’s the fact that we just haven’t worked together long enough. We’re trying to figure it out.”

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As for that Cousins jersey, it found a home in McVay’s upstairs theater room at his house just Southeast of the facility. “I’ve got a couple nice things up there,” he said, “but it’s probably the most special thing.”

In case you were wondering, yes, there’s room up there for more.

After a season-opening loss, the Texans turn to rookie Deshaun Watson to get them pointed in the right direction.
Bob Levey/Getty Images

1. The two keys the Texans set for Deshaun Watson in getting ready to play this summer: 1) learn to run the offense efficiently; 2) avoid turnovers. We’ll see how he performs in a less than ideal environment—on the road, on a short week and playing behind an undermanned offensive line, without holdout Duane Brown.

2. The criticism of Tom Savage going back to college was that he was a “t-shirt-and-shorts guy”, which is to say his impressive physical traits didn’t carry over when the stadium lights turned on. After Sunday, those knocks seem to be fair, even when you account for Houston’s problems protecting him.

3. On the other sideline Thursday night, the Bengals have been concerned internally about how young tackles Cedric Ogbuehi and Jake Fisher would hold up. Their worries looked pretty warranted in Cincy’s shutout loss in Baltimore. The offensive line play will have to be better against J.J. Watt, Jadeveon Clowney and Whitney Mercilus.

4. Speaking of offensive line play, any coincidence that the teams that have their you-know-what together in that area—like Dallas and Pittsburgh and Oakland—held serve on opening day?

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5. The hope in Baltimore was that two years of investing in getting younger and faster on defense would pay off in 2017. It did last Sunday. Linebackers Matt Judon and Patrick Onwuasor, corner Marlon Humphrey and tackle Michael Pierce were among the young guys who graded out well. Established centerpieces C.J. Mosley and Terrell Suggs also did their part.

6. Give the Dolphins credit for sweating the details in making Oxnard, Calif., feel like home this week. The coaches have raved about how their work environment has been replicated, right down to how the practice fields were painted just like they are in Florida to accommodate certain drills.

7. What’s devastating about the loss of David Johnson (he’ll miss 2-3 months with a dislocated wrist) for the Cardinals is what it means for Carson Palmer, with plans to build the offense around Johnson now out the window. Arizona felt, coming into the season, that it’s strength had shifted to defense, and the ability to pair a strong ground game with that unit would take the burden off Palmer.

8. Don’t be surprised if the Patriots shop for front-seven pieces between now and the trade deadline. Seattle castoff Cassius Marsh played full-time in the second half of the loss to Kansas City, just six days after the Pats traded for him, a clear sign of how much the team needs help in front of a star-studded secondary.

9. The secret seems to finally be out on Mike Daniels. It seems bananas that after five NFL seasons, and the signing of a four-year, $42 million contract two years ago, he still doesn’t have a Pro Bowl selection to his name. Performances like Week 1, when the Seahawks had no answer for Daniels in Green Bay’s 17-9 win, should help change that.

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10. When will we see Andrew Luck? Given the Colts’ state of transition, the plan is not to activate him until his shoulder is absolutely 100 percent. I’m told, as I write this, that Luck is working through a strength and throwing program, as part of his effort to get back.

Jameis Winston and the Bucs will make their season debut Sunday against the Bears in Tampa.
Don Juan Moore/Getty Images

1. Buccaneers rode out the storm just fine. On Tuesday, when Dirk Koetter convened his team at 6 p.m. ET, 63 of the Bucs’ 64 players (53 on the active roster, 11 on the practice squad) followed along as their head coach delivered a direct message: No one would be feeling sorry for the Bucs. What was left unsaid was that it was a borderline miracle that practically the whole team made it (the one tardy player had a drive that wound up taking 16 hours) there in time to hear it.

How crazy was it getting everyone back? Well, All-Pro defensive tackle Gerald McCoy spent so much time in line at a gas station driving back from Atlanta that he got worried he’d run out, and called GM Jason Licht—about an hour behind McCoy on the way back—to see if Licht could help him with a contingency. Licht then went looking for a hose so he could siphon gas from his car to McCoy’s. McCoy did wind up making it to the pump OK, but what would normally be a 7-hour drive took about 13 hours. So even though Irma didn’t hit Tampa as hard as many had predicted it would, it did make it a monumental challenge for the Bucs to return to the area.

“Our team ops, our player engagement, our COO, they all did such an amazing job of handling the logistical nightmare,” GM Jason Licht said over the phone Wednesday night. “To orchestrate all of this, get everyone out, get everyone safe, then get everyone back, it was incredible. … You go through something like this and to know the resources are in place, with your ownership, it makes you feel good. I know everyone says that about their owners, but (the Glazers) were truly awesome. All the players are saying it today.”

The Glazers chartered five small planes to take those among the staff and players who wanted to go to Charlotte on Saturday, and arranged for all of them to return to Tampa. The Glazers also have put up in hotels the team personnel and families still without power. Meanwhile, much of the legwork fell to COO Brian Ford, senior manager of team operations Tim Jarocki and director of player engagement Duke Preston. They’d come up with contingency plans for practice this week in Minneapolis, Dallas and at the Greenbrier in West Virginia; worked with people like team nutritionist Kevin Luhrs on making sure players were getting what they needed; and then assisted in making sure everyone got back as fast as possible. 

And they were scattered. Players had to get back from Georgia, both Carolinas, Tennessee, West Virginia, Pennsylvania, Wisconsin, Texas, California, Wyoming, Louisiana, Ohio and Alabama. And tight end Anthony Auclair was in Canada. The Glazers set up charters on Tuesday from a pair of hubs to Tampa, asking players to get to those hubs, to circumvent the effects of the crush of people trying to return to the area. In the end, they somehow got it done in time for Koetter to address the team Tuesday night, which allowed for a relatively normal week ahead of the Bears game on Sunday.


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2. Cam making strides, but not there yet. It’s sometimes said that, after a player goes through ACL surgery, he has to relearn his knee. It’s a way of explaining the process he’ll go through in getting comfortable with a new ligament. That’s not exactly what Cam Newton’s going through right now, but it’s not wholly different either.

Last week, we discussed the coaches’ need to see Newton get out there and really let it rip. Carolina’s 23-3 win over San Francisco proved to the staff that while Newton might not be there yet, he’s well on his way. Newton’s decision-making was good, even if he was late on a couple throws, and missed a couple more. But there were good signs, and maybe the first one actually came on Newton’s second-quarter interception. With Niners defensive end DeForest Buckner coming free and bearing down on him, Newton uncorked one from midfield into the end zone, where Jaquiski Tartt leapt over Kelvin Benjamin for the ball. Newton was late in seeing and throwing that one, but showed confidence in his rehabilitated shoulder in letting it go off his back foot faced with a rusher. Then, in the third quarter, there was a second-and-7 where Newton stood tall in the pocket with the rush closing down and, flat-footed, sent a low frozen-rope into a small window that tight end Greg Olsen found in the deep middle, good for 17 yards. It again showed confidence in his ability to drive the ball.

On the flip side, there were moments where hesitancy cropped up in how he aimed the ball too much, most notably on a second-quarter overthrow to Ed Dickson in the end zone. But given the fact that Newton only threw two passes in the preseason, this was a pretty good start. “Overall,” said one team staffer, “it was very solid.”

3. Jaylon Smith is not all the way back. Or close to it. But the fact that the Dallas linebacker—let’s call him a redshirt freshman—was back out there at all, let alone playing 36 of the team’s 53 defensive snaps last Sunday in a rotation with Justin Durant, is absolutely worth your attention. “His spirit to come back and push through it to play, I think everyone has taken notice of it,” said one club source.

It’s important to remember the kind of player Smith was before suffering nerve damage in his final game at Notre Dame: a linebacker who could rush off the edge and from the middle, cover, play the middle and weakside spots, and seemed borderline unblockable at the end of his career. Smith is not that now. He’s still a ways from getting there, with no guarantee he ever will. But the fact that he can play as he did on Sunday night, making seven tackles and forcing a fumble in a 19-3 win over the Giants, at a fraction of his full capacity as athlete is a pretty good indication of how special a prospect he once was.

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So how did Smith play after the tape was graded? Smith’s instincts are there, and he flashed good straight-line speed and an ability to find the ball, close on the ballcarrier, and arrive at him violently, which is sort of Linebacking 101. He forced the fumble on Giants receiver Sterling Shepard, and made a nice play in pursuit to snuff out a reverse to Shepard later in the game. There was some rust, but some hustle too. After Smith overran New York back Orleans Darkwa in the second quarter, which led to a 12-yard gain, Smith was the one who finally tracked down Darkwa.

Smith’s change of direction and reactionary athleticism aren’t where they once were. As a result, this game he was strictly an off-ball linebacker, which protects him to some degree. But he played the position, and played it well. Given the doubts that Smith could make it this far (I’ll raise my hand there), that much is certainly worth applauding.

4. Offensive line issues persist. You guys want hear me go on about the problems with offensive line play in the NFL again? It didn’t take much to see it coming, after all. Middling linemen were breaking the bank in March (Riley Reiff, Matt Kalil, and Russell Okung all got more than $11 million per year), because teams knew there wasn’t much help coming in the draft; the 2017 draft wound being the first one ever to go without a lineman in the Top 15 picks. Then, high-end linemen (Donald Penn, Duane Brown) saw their value rising and held out. And here we are.

How many potential contenders count their offensive line as a major swing factor in their season? Let’s add them up: Giants, Seahawks, Saints, Broncos, Chargers, Bengals, Cardinals, Lions, Panthers, Vikings … That’s 10, and that’s without counting the rebuilding teams (Jets, Colts) that have their own problems up front. And it’s pretty easy to understand why this is happening.

First, the rise of the spread offense in college has made it so the sure-thing left tackle prospect—one of the safest bets in the draft as recently as a decade ago (Jonathan Ogden, Joe Thomas, etc.)—is borderline extinct, with busts like ex-Ram Greg Robinson and ex-Jaguar Luke Joeckel proof of it. Second, the practice rules have wreaked havoc on the ability of coaches to raise the players once they’re pros, and the issue is particularly glaring with backups, who can’t hit much during the season (only 14 in-season full-pad practices are allowed) and aren’t getting any game action because offensive linemen don’t rotate like defensive linemen do. So in general, it’s become harder to draft them, and harder to develop them, and that led to a whole mess of ugly offensive football on Sunday.

I wouldn’t expect this area to improve a ton as the year goes on, either. In March, we wrote about the group of coaches who made their case at the league meeting for changing the work rules to allow for better player development. Offensive line play should be Exhibit A for their argument.

Leonard Fournette and the Jags played with physicality in their Week 1 win over the Texans.
Eric Christian Smith/AP

You may have noticed my affection for up-downs last month. So it’s my distinct pleasure to tell you: They worked!

Alright, I’m exaggerating. But the truth is the up-downs—a required part of new coach Doug Marrone’s program in Jacksonville—were a micro piece of a macro camp theme to get tougher and more physical. That’s exactly what the Jaguars were last Sunday.

They blew up the Texans offense for a staggering 10 sacks, and rushed for 155 yards on 39 carries. Blake Bortles threw it just 21 times. Which is pretty much how Marrone and vice president Tom Coughlin drew it up when that whistle blew and all those professional football players had to hit the deck and pop back up like they were 14 again.

“It was a punishment in college,” 31-year-old defensive Calais Campbell said with a laugh over the phone Wednesday night. “In high school, we did them to get in shape and stuff, so I guess it was high school the last time it was a workout. Yeah, the first time the up-downs came about here, I was shocked. It was definitely a surprise, I thought they were joking.

“But we do up-downs every day and now I’ve come to appreciate them a little bit more. They’re still not fun to do. But I do believe the message they’re trying to send us is we’re going to be tougher than everybody else.”

So here’s our lesson heading into Week 2: September is too early to declare success, but not for judging philosophical change. After the Jags pasted the Texans 29-7, it’s clear that Jacksonville has taken on the personality of its coach, which is a good sign to show at this early juncture.

“I think it was pretty obvious pretty quick. [The coaches] wanted us to control the line of scrimmage and be the most physical team out there,” Campbell said. “And it’s been proven whoever wins the line of scrimmage usually wins games. We went over all the statistics, how they relate to winning and losing, just going off pure facts and history.”

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And there’s little question over who won the line of scrimmage in Week 1. But that wasn’t the only benefit the Jaguars reaped as a result of what Campbell called “my toughest offseason, for sure.”

Another showed up when the Texans went no-huddle early, thinking they could wear out the Jaguars. The opposite wound up happening. Jacksonville’s relentless pass rush and pounding run game wound up pushing Houston to its limit.

In the process, Campbell wound up with a career-high four sacks, which he attributes to Malik Jackson, Dante Fowler, Yannick Ngakoue and rest of the rushers around him.

“I think it was being in the right place at the right time,” he said. “The funny thing is, the way we rushed the passer, pushed the pocket and collapsed it, it really just depended on where the quarterback stepped, on who was gonna make the play. I have a feeling everyone’s going to have a turn at a monster game. And I’m eager to celebrate with the guys when theirs comes.”

The win sets up a chance for the Jags to start 2-0 in the division, with the Titans looming Sunday. It’s just one game at this point, and even a victory over Tennessee wouldn’t assure Jacksonville anything.

But the way it looked against Houston is enough to at least makes these guys think about what could be next.

“I think it’s huge for the confidence of the team, and I think it’s also huge for the coaching staff,” Campbell said. “Even though you’re required to do all that stuff that we’re required to do through camp, and all the meetings, the studying, it was tough, it was challenging. But when you watch us perform the way we did, it’s like, ‘OK, it’s worth something, we get something for it.’ And that allows you to go even harder.”

And that is all Marrone and Coughlin have been asking them to do.