When Fourth-Down Gambles Pay Off—and When They Don’t: Going For It In Week 4

When Fourth-Down Gambles Pay Off—and When They Don’t: Going For It In Week 4

Titans’ Mike Vrabel rolled the dice on his new team and came up a big winner over the Super Bowl champs, while Indy’s risk-taking might have saved the season—for the Texans. Plus what the difference is for the 3-1 Bengals, a Bears offensive explosion, how defensive coaches weigh up the body weight rule, impact rookies for the Chargers and Patriots, Gruden gets his win and much more
September 30, 2018

I saw it last week for the first time, and sure enough it was there again after the Titans beat the world champion Eagles at home in overtime. And it’s not like Mike Vrabel’s crew coined it. “For the Boys” was the name of a movie a couple decades ago, and part of a tweet that went viral and became a line of Barstool merchandise last year, and was worn out plenty in other ways in the years in between.

That said, for one reason or another, it really fits what Vrabel and his staff have been looking to build in Nashville over the last 10 months. So For the Boys it is.

“I’ve always talked about the team and putting the guy next to you in front of you, in your concerns and thoughts,” Vrabel said over his cell, a couple hours after that dramatic win over the Eagles. “And they’ve embraced that, and they’ve kind of put it a new spin on it—For the Boys. It’s whatever you gotta do for the team, whatever you need to do for the guy next to you, guys are willing to do it.

“They care more about the guy next to them than they do themselves.”

It might sound a little corny. But it sure is working.

The Titans opened the year with a twice-storm-delayed 27–20 loss in Miami that took almost seven hours to complete. Since then, they’ve been on a tear. First they took down Vrabel’s old team, the Texans. Then they went into Jacksonville—with the Jags flying high off a convincing win over New England—and knocked off the reigning division champs. This week it was the NFL’s kingpin feeling their wrath.

In that game was one of two big fourth-down decisions made during the 1 p.m. window on Sunday. The other one, in Indianapolis, didn’t work out for the coach pushing his chips in and betting on his offense. This one did. For the Boys.

The situation: Late in overtime, with the Titans trailing the Eagles 23-20, Marcus Mariota scrambles for 15 yards to turn third-and-17 into fourth-and-2 with 1:16 remaining in OT. Vrabel sends Ryan Succop out for a 50-yard field try to tie the game at 23. Then the rookie coach calls timeout. Succop returns to the field after the timeout, then the field goal unit comes off, and the offense goes back on. Eagles timeout. Vrabel puts the offense back out there a second time.

From there, Mariota dumps a little swing pass off to Dion Lewis in the right flat. A block from receiver Tajee Sharpe on Philly linebacker Jordan Hicks springs Lewis to get past the sticks, and Lewis beats Ronald Darby one-on-one, paving the way for a 17-yard gain. The game-winner is three plays away.

Mike Vrabel.

James Kenney/AP/REX/Shutterstock

When I asked Vrabel if he hoped his players took the gutsy call as a vote of confidence, he didn’t skip a beat.

“I don’t think I have to hope that, I know that,” Vrabel said. “They tell me that. I tell them we’re going to be aggressive. They’ve embraced that. And so they know I have confidence in them. I don’t have to hope about that. They’re excited about that.”

The For the Boys thing is just one example of how things in Tennessee are starting to fit together into one of the better stories of this NFL season at the quarter-pole. You might not have noticed the Titans much before yesterday. But you should probably start paying attention.


Week 4 is in the books, and we’re down to two unbeaten teams and one winless team left—meaning we go into October with 29 teams within two games of each other. That’s to say, we don’t know much yet, even if there is a lot to get to today, including:

• The fourth-down call that didn’t go quite as well for the offense in Indianapolis as it did for the Titans, and why that may have saved the Texans season, at least for now.

• Matt Nagy’s Bears offense finally catching up with its searing-hot defense in a blowout of the Buccaneers in Chicago.

• The resurgent Bengals outgunning the Falcons in Atlanta.

• The rookie running back who came to re-establish the Patriots’ identity.

• The Cowboys’ savior—or the man who’ll have to be one for the team to salvage a retooling offense in the short term—coming up huge against the Lions.

• The Raiders taking a big step against the Browns at home, and the difference a week of practice made in Oakland.

• One of the most unique players in the NFL is a Chargers rookie, and he made another game-changing play on Sunday.

• And we’ll also bring you plenty from a wild Saturday in college football, including the identity of a quarterback who’s making a serious run at going first overall next April, should he decide to declare for the draft.

But we’re starting with the Boys.


Before Sunday’s game, Vrabel told me, he went up to his quarterback and delivered a pretty simple message: “Man, I can’t wait to watch you play today.”

And that was as much about what Mariota went through to get to Sunday as anything else. In the opener, the fourth-year quarterback took a hit from Miami’s William Hayes that left him with a tingling feeling in his fingers. It’d be scary for any player, and made more so by the trouble Mariota had gripping the ball thereafter. He didn’t play the next week against Houston, and came off the bench in Jacksonville.

“He’s put the team first through this whole process,” Vrabel said. “He was honest with us, when he first got injured, about what he could do, about what he couldn’t do. He wanted to be out there, but he also felt like there were things he couldn’t do. That’s why we originally went with Blaine [Gabbert]. And he started to feel better, he was able to do more things, as was evident today.”

The fourth-down decision showed that the trust goes both ways, because putting the game on the line in that situation had as much to do with Mariota’s ability as anything else.

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There were other factors too, of course. One was offensive coordinator Matt LaFleur having confidence in the play he had dialed up for the situation, which he relayed to Vrabel in a convincing enough fashion to erase any doubt the head coach might have had. Another was that the team had played well enough in the second half to win—wiping out a 17-3 deficit in the process—which made the idea that they could punch it in after converting the fourth down seem likely.

The rest, as the former NFL linebacker in Vrabel saw it, was up to the 11 guys he and his staff were sending out onto the field. And based on what he’s seen this September, he had no reason to think they wouldn’t win the game. So he wasn’t playing for a tie.

“That’s why we were doing it, to score a touchdown,” Vrabel said. “I don’t want this to come across the wrong way, but I’ve said it before—making that decision is easy. What’s hard is executing it, and that’s what the players did. They got the call, and they executed it well, correctly. Making that call, man, that’s the easy part. It really is. The hard part is what the players have to do, execute it against a great defense.”

Mariota did. Sharpe did. Lewis did. And then, Mariota finished the job three plays later, less than three weeks after losing feeling in his throwing hand, delivering a strike into traffic in the end zone on third down, and giving big-bodied second-year receiver Corey Davis a chance to box his man out for the game-winning points.

In those plays, and plenty more, For the Boys kept showing up.

“It shows up when your quarterback makes a mistake, the offense makes a mistake and throws an interception before the end of the first half, and the defense doesn’t bitch. They run out, and hold them to a field goal,” Vrabel said. “And it shows up when we get the ball and we’re down two touchdowns, and we’re able go down there and score points and touchdowns.”

Vrabel also brought up how the defense mitigated damage at the end of regulation after a long punt return by Philly’s DeAndre Carter, with a red-zone stop forcing a field goal that sent the game into overtime. And how no one pointed fingers in any of these spots, instead picking each other up.

After the Titans’ converted on fourth down, Corey James hauled in the game-winning TD from Marcus Mariota.

Mark Zaleski/AP/REX/Shutterstock

All you have to do is listen to see how much this coach likes his team, and how much the guys on it like each other.

“Absolutely,” Vrabel said. “That’s the most important thing—they care about each other, they play hard for each other, they take the coaching. It’s not always perfect, never going to be a perfect game, never going to be 100 percent. But they fight. They compete. And I think it’s an easy group to coach, because they care about each other. I’m lucky to be able to coach them.”

It’s more than luck that has them here now. On Sunday it took guts. As a result the Titans are running neck-and-neck with those Jaguars at 3-1 atop the AFC South, with a win in Jacksonville already in their back pocket.


THE MONDAY MORNING NFL PODCAST: Gary Gramling and Andy Benoit analyze all of Week 4’s action. Subscribe on iTunes to get it in your inbox first thing Monday morning.


AT INDY, THE OTHER SIDE OF GOING FOR IT

Last year, those Eagles made their money, and won a championship, by riding risks, and their offensive coordinator then was Frank Reich. So maybe it shouldn’t surprise any of us that, in just his fourth game as Colts head coach, Reich would roll the dice in a very major way.

Andrew Luck was 40-of-61 for 464 yards and four touchdowns, and had just hit tight end Mo Alie-Cox for 17 yards to turn third-and-21 into fourth-and-four. The problem? Indy was at its own 43 with just 24 seconds left, and a turnover on downs would leave the door wide open for the Texans to get in position to kick a game-winning field goal.

Another thing to consider: A prideful but winless Houston team was being challenged.

With their season on the line, the Texans rose to that challenge. Houston had gotten after Luck, and so Reich dialed up a quick hitter at the sticks to receiver Chester Rogers. The ball was out almost instantly, and low, and veteran corner Johnathan Joseph, defending Rogers, did just enough to disrupt the play.

“It was a massive play,” J.J. Watt said over the phone as he leaving Lucas Oil Stadium. “There’s no question about it. It was a massive play. And I’m very happy with the result. We should’ve put it away earlier than we did, obviously, but that’s the situation we were in, and we had to find a way to get it done. And we did, so just very happy with that. There’s no question, it was a huge, huge play.”

On the next snap, Deshaun Watson hit a crosser to DeAndre Hopkins on, and Hopkins took it 24 yards into chip-shot field goal range. Watson hustled to the line, spiked the ball, and then Ka’imi Fairburn knocked through the game-winner from 37 yards out.

For Watt personally, just being part of something like this win—a tooth-and-nail battle to the end—is worth appreciating, after he missed most of the last two seasons, spending much of last year sidelined with cornerstone teammates like Watson and Whitney Mercilus. So even the thought of being out there for that fourth down, forget the result, brought a smile to his face.

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“When the game’s taken away from you, and you’re taken out of the competition and everything you love is taken away from you, you definitely appreciate being back in situations where it matters and where there’s wins on the line and you’re out there battling with your brothers,” Watt said. “These last couple weeks have been tough, obviously, for us as a team. But even just being out there is a lot of fun for me.”

He’s playing pretty well too. Watt went into last week’s loss to the Giants without having registered a sack in more than two years (which is obviously heavily injury-related). He’s had five in the 120 minutes of football since, and on Sunday hit 80 career sacks, getting there faster than any player in the NFL history other than Reggie White.

Watt will tell you now that the switch really flipped for him in the second half of the opener at New England. But having the stats to back up how he’s playing, and he’s gotten them against the Giants and Colts, isn’t totally insignificant.

“Today’s world is very much a what-have-you-done-for-me-lately world,” Watt said. “Whatever I accomplished a few years ago, people forget very quickly. So it’s nice to prove to myself I can do it, and prove to people out there that I can still do it. Now I have to keep it going, but it’s definitely nice to be able to go out there and play the way I know I’m capable of playing.”

Oh, and by the way, Watt said he wasn’t surprised by Reich’s decision. “You play this game to win, you don’t play to tie. And I respect their decision.”

Reich, for his part, was just as resolute as Vrabel after the game that he’d do the same thing again, if the opportunity arose.



A BEARS OFFENSE THAT CAN MATCH THAT D?

Good news and bad news on the Bears offense. The bad news is that coach Matt Nagy expects it could take more than two seasons to get the offensive operation to where he wants it around Mitchell Trubisky. The good news is if what the football world saw Sunday is a sign of how Chicago will grow in the interim, then the process in getting there might not be so painful after all.

Trubisky was nails on Sunday—shredding the Bucs for 354 yards and six touchdowns on 19-of-26 passing, beating the Tampa Bay defense every which way en route to a 38–3 halftime edge and 48–10 win. And really, as Nagy sees it, this represented just the beginning of how he and his offensive staff are starting to learn to call plays and build an offense around the 24-year-old, something he went through with Alex Smith during his years as Chiefs quarterbacks coach, then offensive coordinator.

“You saw it in Kansas City, it was a good two-and-a-half years before you start really, truly feeling good not only as a player in the system, but as a coach too,” Nagy said late Sunday night, after getting home as his team’s bye begins. “I have to retrain my brain on how to call plays for Mitch, which is totally fine, but it’s something I have to do because he’s totally different than Alex. And that’s the fun part.

“I have to kick my brain back to year one in K.C. and not be in year five with a 13-year vet quarterback who was the No. 1 pick. It’s different. We’re talking about a quarterback who played 13 games in college, 12 games [as a rookie], 25 games as a starting quarterback, and now here we are in Week 5. It’s going to take time.”

But what happened Sunday wasn’t totally out of nowhere. Nagy says he actually saw it in Friday’s practice, which was focused on red-zone work—“I’m not sure a ball touched the ground, he was on fire”—and so did offensive coordinator Mark Helfrich, quarterbacks coach Dave Ragone and backup Chase Daniel. In fact, those whispered about what they were watching as it was going on.

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As you might imagine, the Bears couldn’t wait to get in the red zone on Sunday, and Trubisky didn’t disappoint, throwing touchdown passes on all four of Chicago’s trips inside the 20. The second one, to big-ticket free-agent acquisition Allen Robinson, was the one that best signified where Trubisky is headed, according to Nagy. On the play, Trubisky threw ahead of Robinson’s break on a corner route, which flashed the anticipation he’d shown in practice against a coverage Nagy and company knew they could draw.

“That’s a big-time throw, that was not an easy throw,” the coach said. “So when you see those throws, you know he’s feeling good about the situation.”

Going into the bye, the Bears have to be feeling good about their situation too. At 3-1, they’re sitting alone in first place in the NFC North. Khalil Mack and the defense have been off the charts through four weeks. And that’s led to the offense trying to stake its own claim, which it did against Tampa.

Trubisky tossed six TDs in a blowout of the Bucs.

David Banks/AP/REX/Shutterstock

“Our defense has been carrying us the first three games,” Nagy said. “Other than two quarters against Green Bay, they played basically 10 quarters of lights-out defense, I mean on another level. They’ve been carrying our team, and everyone understands that.

“In team meetings, we discuss how easy it’d be for a side of the ball to be complaining and bitching and moaning—‘We’re doing our job, you’re not doing your job.’ That [the Bears D doesn’t do that] speaks volumes about who they are.”

Right now they’re a first-place team. And when they play again, in Miami in two weeks, they’ll have a quarterback coming back with something pretty significant to build off of, which, as Nagy intimated, has been a long time coming in those parts.


WHAT’S NEW, AND MAKING A DIFFERENCE, WITH THE BENGALS

If you were following along last December, you might consider it an upset that as we sit here, on October 1, Marvin Lewis is still coaching the Bengals. And if you remember all that was going on regarding this team, it might be an even bigger surprise that they’re 3–1 and tied with Baltimore atop the AFC North.

But here we are, and the Bengals are looking a lot more like the Cincinnati playoff teams of 2011 to ’15, rather than those that went 13-18-1 the last two years.

What gives? Well, when Lewis decided to stay, he committed to change. And yes, yesterday, it was a couple old faces—QB Andy Dalton and receiver A.J. Green—making the game-winning play to outgun the Falcons 37–36 in what looked like a Big 12 game at Mercedes-Benz Stadium. Plenty around them, though, has changed, which is part of what’s enabled those two veterans, and a lot of others, to get back to where they were.

“I’m not going to say there is one thing, but a couple of changes have made [a difference],” Dalton said on the team bus to Hartsfield. “We have some new players, we have some new staff, it feels different than it has felt the last couple years. It's been a good thing for us. And for us to be where we are at right now, 3–1 to start the year, it’s a good way to start it, and we've got to keep it going.”

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So where have the changes come?

1. Lewis has new coordinators on both sides of the ball—Bill Lazor on offense and Teryl Austin on defense—which is significant, because his staff went through a pretty serious period of attrition, losing respected assistants Jay Gruden, Mike Zimmer, Hue Jackson, Vance Joseph and Matt Burke, among others, over a three-year period, that may have made a reset necessary.

2. Green finally has threats around him to replace the long-since departed Mohamed Sanu and Marvin Jones. Former first-round pick John Ross has emerged (though he got hurt Sunday), as has former second-round pick Tyler Boyd.

3. The offensive line has been rebuilt around new left tackle Cordy Glenn and center Billy Price (who sat Sunday with an ankle injury), re-establishing a longtime team strength hurt by the defections of Andrew Whitworth and Kevin Zeitler, and the failure of high picks Cedric Ogbuehi and Jake Fisher.

All of those factors played into the game-winning touchdown on Sunday. Dalton had time to throw, and even with Tyler Eifert (who suffered about as ugly an injury as I’ve seen) and Ross down, the Falcons couldn’t overdo it to cover Green. Moreover, Lazor has been emphasizing playing matchup ball and was able to generate one for his superstar, which made the whole thing academic for Dalton.

“He had a corner route, and with the coverage they were playing, they didn't think far enough into the end zone for them to take it away,” Dalton said. “You just give A.J. a chance to go make a play on it. And with him, you just gotta get it around him, for him to make a play. It's one of those things at the end of the game—you got a shot to throw it to your best player and he is going to come down with it.”

A.J. Green slides in with the game-winner for the Bengals.

John Amis/AP/REX/Shutterstock

At that point, there were seven seconds showing on the clock, and a 16-play, 75-yard drive in the rear-view mirror giving the Bengals the lead, and soon the win, in a shootout in which neither team ever led by more than seven.

“It shows what we can do,” Dalton said. “There are different ways to win games. If we have to drive down at the end of the game to win it, we can do it. Sixteen plays. Our guys were gassed at the end, and they fought through it. When we needed to make a play we did. There were a couple fourth downs in there that were huge that brought us down to have the opportunity to score at the end. It shows a lot.”

And it’s showing up in the standings too.


WEIGHING UP THE BODY WEIGHT RULE

The competition committee had a call last week and put out an instructional video that was telling in two ways. First, the initial clip in the video was of an Anthony Barr’s collarbone-breaking hit on Aaron Rodgers last fall, which was impetus for the new roughing-the-passer emphasis in the first place. Second, neither Clay Matthews’ hit against the Vikings from Week 2 nor his hit in Washington in Week 3 made the cut for the instructional video.

Which leaves us … still asking a lot of questions. I’m told, in fact, that when this rule was discussed in officials’ meetings with teams over the summer, the officials had difficulty answering when coaches asked them what they’re supposed to teach the players to do to avoid penalty. And that’s the crux of the matter: Can the change be taught?

In an effort to find out, I did a quick text poll of defensive coaches across the league last week about the rule and teaching to it. Here’s some of what I heard:

NFC defensive coordinator: “We’ve worked on it some in terms of tackling drills, but really haven’t spent a ton of time on it. I think it’s a terrible rule and it needs to be changed. … I’m OK to call a foul if they pick the quarterback up and pile-drive him. But on a normal tackle I think it’s B.S.”

AFC linebackers coach: “I’m just really about educating them on it. Team meetings, we show clips. Players get pissed off, but they are calling it so they need to understand it. Therein lies the issue. I think players understand the rule but it’s sometimes physically impossible—if your momentum is going forward—how you do you not land on the QB? What do you tell Clay Matthews to do different? These calls are changing games. I’m all for safety and helping the future of game, but it’s football—you’re going to land on a player. That’s different to me than driving a player into the ground.”

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AFC defensive coordinator: “‘Dropping weight’ on a QB was a term used by every staff on every defense at every level. … It’s a tough rule, but we’re telling guys to roll tackle and try to get to a side on the quarterback. Not an easy thing to do when you’re running full speed trying to make a play.”

NFC linebackers coach: “I think in general over the last few years people have really had to pay attention to how they’re teaching tackling. Shoulder leverage, keeping your helmet out of it, legally tackling defenseless receivers. … The quarterback thing is something we show examples of, we talk about, we preach safety and how the QB is protected. But at the end of the day it’s grown men playing incredibly fast, and it’s a judgment call by the referee.”

AFC secondary coach: “Everyone is teaching the same things. Head to side, strike zone, no head shots, don’t lift. They have been teaching same thing from day one. … [But preventing these hits], you can’t do it. Not possible.”

AFC defensive coordinator: We’re trying. We have to drill it like a rodeo gator tackle. It’s hard with bigger QBs.”

AFC defensive coordinator: “We have to try to give our guys answers. It's a hard rule to coach. We are trying to teach them to grab and roll. Which is fine until someone snaps a QB’s leg doing it.”

NFC defensive coordinator: “I think the rule is making it very difficult for the players more so than it is the coaches. As coaches we preach tackle the ball. The quarterback is the worst ball-handler on the team.  It's easy to teach and drill a perfect tackle.  But when the bullets are flying and every millisecond counts, the player is trying to do one thing—get the guy down.  They aren't worried about how they land. My point is that it’s leading to indecision in the heat of battle. There's tons of gray area in the rule for live situations, and it’s slowing down defensive players. When defensive players have to think about something that is supposed to be very natural, injuries will happen. Just like it did to the kid in Miami.”


... OF THE WEEK

TWEET

Give the Bills’ social media people credit for making fun of themselves—last week, they had one of these flight maps landing them somewhere in Wisconsin to play the Vikings. This time around, they got the location of Green Bay right on the map, but that “W” might as well have stood for “without points”, which is how they left Lambeau following a 22–0 loss to the Packers.

MEME

Thanks to the NFL Memes account for tying this together (no offense, Dak, I just had to find a way to get this in) with a football theme so I could use it. Also, what an incredible throw!

QUOTE

“I think it’s really disrespectful. The game’s already over. They already have the game in the bag. All they could have done is run the clock out at that point. At the same time, I think it’s up to us to gain that respect from other teams. If teams are disrespecting us, it must say something about us. I took it really personal. And I didn’t like it at all.”

Jets DL Leonard Williams on Jaguars coach Doug Marrone going for two with 25 seconds left in a 31–12 game in Jacksonville. And this felt an awful lot like Marrone twisting the knife on a Jets’ franchise that he thought would hire him after he opted out of his contract in Buffalo, following the 2014 season. It’s pro football, but I can understand where the Jets would be ticked off over this. I probably would be too.

VIDEO

The broken leg suffered by Seahawks S Earl Thomas on Sunday in Arizona will almost certainly be the end of the five-time All-Pro’s time in Seattle, and it’s a shame he went out like this. As someone who’s made these kinds of mistakes before, I’d bet he’ll regret doing it—and not necessarily because he’d change his mind on Pete Carroll and John Schneider, or any other Seahawks shot-caller. I think he’ll come to regret it because of how it might affect the people on the periphery, to whom he didn’t mean any harm—particularly because that may have been the moment the curtain dropped for good on the great Legion of Boom.

S/O to …

The Philadelphia Flyers’ new mascot, Gritty, for general awesomeness. I don’t know why they needed him, or where the idea came from, but somehow it was a total home run. And if you don’t believe me, just ask the Eagles.


SIX FROM SATURDAY

1. The buzz around Oregon QB Justin Herbert is building big-time in scouting circles. Everyone who’s been through Eugene leaves with a strong impression, and the last couple weeks those have been backed with strong performances against Stanford and Cal. “Herbert’s a badass,” said one AFC exec. “He’s gonna be special.” This exec sees the 6' 6", 233-pound 20-year-old as a real contender to go first overall in 2019, should he declare after his true junior season: “I see no reason why the discussion wouldn’t have him in there with a handful of other guys.”

2. Another exec who hit me with Herbert as a name from this week, gave me another quarterback too: West Virginia senior Will Grier. The 6' 2", 223-pounder threw for 370 yards and three touchdowns on 27-of-41 passing to help beat back a late rally from Texas Tech and keep the Mountaineers unbeaten. Where Herbert’s ability to push the ball downfield has wowed scouts, Grier’s accuracy and proficiency running Dana Holgorsen’s offense have jumped off the page too.

3. Did anyone think Kentucky would be in position to play in one of the SEC’s biggest games when the calendar turned to October? Well, guess what? If the Wildcats can win at Texas A&M this week, they’ve got a good shot to get to their Nov. 3 home game against second-ranked Georgia unbeaten, with that one potentially determining the SEC East champion. And they’re not without prospects: Both running back Benny Snell and pass-rusher Josh Allen are on the NFL radar.

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4. Florida State snuck by Louisville this week, but its problems remain, and what the scouts are saying is that the Seminoles’ issues stem mostly from FSU’s inability to put together a competent offensive line, which is on ex-coach Jimbo Fisher, probably more so (at this point, at least) than it is on new coach Willie Taggart.

5. Clemson slot Hunter Renfrow made another highlight reel catch during the Tigers’ comeback win over Syracuse, and it’s worth mentioning him here because while he may not be Julio Jones, he looks like the kind of player who’ll find a way to stick in pro football for a long time. He’s a great route-runner with top-end skill to catch the ball, and great history of showing up in the clutch. Add to that the increasing importance of slot receivers, with the spread everywhere in the NFL, and Renfrow will be intriguing to track.

6. Tried to tell you guys about Chase Young in last week’s Game Plan. Hope you watched his statement performance in the win against Penn State—and saw why the Ohio State pass-rusher is likely a very high pick in 2020.


TEN TAKEAWAYS

1. Credit to the Raiders for finally closing out an opponent. Jon Gruden and his staff went out of their way to deliver their message on finishing games this week by challenging players during the final periods of practice. And whether or not that really made a difference, the results did change. Oakland outscored Cleveland 31–25 after halftime, after being outscored 64–17 in the second halves of its first three games.

2. Another week, another game-changing play for Derwin James. The Niners, down 29–27, had one more chance to upend the home-standing Chargers, and faced a second-and-six from with 2:38 left. Which, as it turns out, was the right time for James to wreck it all. The first-round pick came absolutely screaming off the right edge and blew up San Francisco quarterback C.J. Beathard, popping the ball into the air and into the waiting arms of defensive tackle Isaac Rochell to seal the win, and illustrate James’s mind-blowing versatility. What the Chargers have marveled at is how quickly he’s been able to contribute, and excel, at all three levels of the defense—as a centerfielder, box safety and edge rusher. There aren’t many players who can do that, and James is only four games in, showing the freakish athletic potential he showed as a true freshman at Florida State in 2015, before suffering a devastating knee injury his sophomore year that hampered him a bit as a junior. I’d heard the Kam Chancellor comp for him before, which made sense since he’s playing for Gus Bradley. I think he can be better than that. And I’m not sure there is a good comp for him (Sean Taylor?)—which says it all about how unique he is.

Derwin James has been a game-changer for the Chargers.

Marcio Sanchez/AP/REX/Shutterstock

3. So as it turns out, RB Sony Michel is suddenly a key figure in New England. During this week, Patriots special teams captain Matthew Slater let the press in on how Bill Belichick says he can see toughness in a team—saying it’s measured in how a team runs the ball, stops the run and covers kicks. New England wasn’t good in those areas against Detroit last week, which is why it was a relevant talking point, and one that came to life on Sunday. At halftime of the Patriots’ 38–7 rout of Miami, the hosts had 118 yards on 21 carries, to the Dolphins seven yards on seven carries, and the visitors’ average drive start was at their own 30-yard line. And Michel was a key in setting the tone, with Jeremy Hill and Rex Burkhead on IR, carrying 15 times in the first half for 80 yards. His knee issues in college were significant, so his durability merits watching, but this was a big improvement over how he looked in Jacksonville and Detroit in Weeks 2 and 3.

4. Speaking of improvement, Dak Prescott was a lot better this week, in large part because the offensive line and Zeke Elliott were on their game. That’s what the identity of the offense was built to be, and while Elliott was a monster on the ground (25 carries, 152 yards), he flashed the pass-game ability that made him a value in the upper reaches of the 2016 draft. Elliott looked like a receiver in hauling in a 34-yard dime over Lions linebacker Jarrad Davis to set up the game-winning points in a have-to-have-it win for the Cowboys.

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Jared Goff for NFL MVP? The QB Makes His Case as Rams Top Vikings on Thursday Night Football

5. Don’t look now, but the Packers are developing ways to win around Aaron Rodgers that should serve them long-term. Green Bay finished a 22-0 shutout of the Bills with 141 yards on 32 carries, and new defensive coordinator Mike Pettine held Josh Allen and the Buffalo offense to just 145 yards from scrimmage. Green Bay’s looked for incremental improvement in Rodgers’ bone bruise, knowing it’ll take time to heal, and they’ve gotten that. And if there’s a positive to draw, it’s the same one the guys who were around last year to play with Brett Hundley took from the experience—having to develop team strengths other than “let 12 go to work.”

6. While we’re on Allen, the four rookies QBs drafted in the Top 10 lost on Sunday. And I know the temptation will be to pass referendums on each of them each week going forward. I’d resist that. Lots of people were down on Jared Goff coming out of the 2016 season, based on his demeanor on Hard Knocks and his play in a disjointed situation in the midst of a coach losing his job. Goff came out of that situation OK, I’d say. He just needed time. It’s fair to afford Allen, Sam Darnold, Baker Mayfield and Josh Rosen the same.

7. The Ravens have been waiting for a youth movement on defense to take, and it seems to finally be happening after three drafts of stocking the cupboard on that side of the ball. Baltimore held Pittsburgh to 47 yards after halftime, and ESPN’s Jamison Hensley had a pretty crazy stat in his story: The Ravens are the first team since 2006 to his the quarter mark of the season without having allowed a second-half touchdown.

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Are We Witnessing a Regression in Pittsburgh?

8. I thought this was kind of a strange quote from Bucs coach Dirk Koetter postgame, on whether or not Jameis Winston had earned his job back by playing OK (save for the two picks) in the second half of the team’s blowout loss to Chicago: “Probably, but we'll worry about that on another day. Ryan Fitzpatrick didn’t lose this game for us, either. Don’t anybody think—if this is on any one person, it’s gotta be on me, OK? So if you’re gonna put one person on there, put it on me.” I don’t think anyone was blaming Fitzpatrick (it was the Bucs defense), but the quarterback didn’t play great, which Koetter has already told us would open the door.

9. Credit to the Seahawks for climbing back to .500 after a brutal start to the year. The team has been staving off a rebuild, and Pete Carroll felt good about his young guys—replacing some of the Seattle mainstays—for a while now. Digging out of an 0-2 hole with a team so accustomed to contending, but without many of the big names of its past, is nothing to sneeze at.

10. Finally someone slowed down Michael Thomas—the Saints star had just 47 yards on four catches against the Giants at the Meadowlands. Unfortunately for the hosts, that only worked to help spring Alvin Kamara for 134 yards on 19 carries, and 47 yards on five catches. And the Saints showed a pretty good quality in this one: The ability to win in different ways. Drew Brees was just 18-of-32 for 217 yards, and didn’t throw a touchdown pass. And New Orleans still won by 15.


FIVE-DAY FORECAST

It’ll be interesting to see how being in national spotlight challenges Patrick Mahomes tonight, with a trip to Denver on tap for the Chiefs. And it’ll be interesting too to see how the Broncos attack him.

Denver is Mahomes’ first division opponent since the opener and will be the first defense to play him a second time (the Broncos saw him in Week 17 last year), giving Von Miller and company perspective that, to this point, other defenses have lacked. For his part, Mahomes knows that adjustments are coming.

“As teams get more and more tape, they’re going to try different stuff,” Mahomes told me a few weeks back. “They’re going to try to confuse me, to have success as a defense. But at the same time, coach [Andy Reid] prepares me for every situation, we make adjustments through the whole game, and that’s something that I’m going to keep working on, keep getting better at, being able to make adjustments quick on the fly, and then get the ball into the hands of all these playmakers I have and let them make the plays.”

That sounds good. Making it happen is tougher. But it should be a fun environment to see Mahomes in.

And ultimately I think he’s up to the challenge. So give me the Chiefs, 27–21.

Oh, and one other thing to look for this week: a slew of players coming back from suspension, including Patriots WR Julian Edelman, Saints RB Mark Ingram, Ravens CB Jimmy Smith and Bengals LB Vontaze Burfict.

Question or comment? Email us at talkback@themmqb.com.

HOLE YARDS PAR R1 R2 R3 R4
OUT
HOLE YARDS PAR R1 R2 R3 R4
IN
Eagle (-2)
Birdie (-1)
Bogey (+1)
Double Bogey (+2)