- Also, the disturbing new version of Eli Manning; the Cowboys are ready for life after Sean Lee; the Falcons, the Steelers and their terrified defenses, and Thursday Night Farceball’s bad scheduling is being overlooked. Plus, musical guest: The Mountain Goats!
1a. You suffer through the drudgery of life, work until your hands bleed, absorb the taunts and barbs of family and so-called friends, resist the urge to punch everyone you meet in the face because they’re all such jerks. Sometimes you wonder whether it’s all worth it. But then you get your reward. The fates smile upon you and give you a gift, in the form of an entertaining regular-season NFL game. That gift arrives Sunday: Chiefs vs. Jaguars.
With each passing game, the fall of Patrick Mahomes seems less inevitable. Surely he’ll stop being good at football one day, around his 53rd birthday or so, but the first four games of the season have made it clear that this is not a puzzle opposing defenses will solve anytime soon. His physical talent is overwhelmingly good, ditto his supporting cast. The system Andy Reid built for him is creative and cutting-edge. Even when things go a little sour, as they did Monday night in Denver when the opposing defense was up to the task and Mahomes was a bit off, there was enough God-given talent and raw courage (left-handed pass is a terrible idea 98.4% of the time!) to save him.
The Jaguars, however, are a different kind of test, exacerbated by the short week to prepare. Jacksonville’s Cover-3 system is similar to ones Mahomes has already seen against the Chargers and 49ers, but the Jaguars have the one defense in football that can, athletically, match the Chiefs’ speed at the skill positions. Having Telvin Smith and Myles Jack on the field means Jacksonville has the equivalent of two extra defensive backs out there at all times; whether it’s man coverage where either of those guys can hang with Travis Kelce (with some help), or zone coverage, the windows will be tight.
None of this is to say Mahomes won’t be up to the task, it’s just that, as everyone comes to realize that he’s more than capable of handling the mental rigors of disguised coverages and exotic fronts, this will clearly be the toughest test he’s had. There’s virtually no margin for error.
1b. One more thing that should play a role on Sunday: All those interceptions Mahomes threw during training camp practices. Those surely will factor in at some point. Otherwise all that breathless coverage of training camp practice performances will have been completely meaningless, and that can’t be the case.
2. “I say we can dance, we can dance everything out control
“We can dance, we can dance we're doing it wall to wall
“We can dance, we can dance everybody look at your hands
“We can dance, we can dance everybody taking the chance
—Men Without Hats, in a poem later set to music about the importance of solidifying the back line of your defense
For the past six months we’ve been collectively baffled by the lack of interest in quality safeties on the open market, and the fact that the top two safeties in the draft (Minkah Fitzpatrick and Derwin James) both slid out of the top 10.
A month into the season, there are multiple teams in dire straits due to injuries and/or ineffectiveness at safety—Atlanta, Pittsburgh, Tampa Bay and Kansas City among them. Dallas has been in the same boat whenever Jeff Heath has been forced out of the lineup, and the early signs are bad for the Eagles after losing Rodney McLeod (if you can’t close out the Titans with a two-touchdown lead, there aren’t many teams you can close out).
Meanwhile, the Ravens are one of the last teams to make a significant investment in veteran safeties—Eric Weddle before the 2016 season, Tony Jefferson before the ’17 season. Those guys are now the foundation for their unit. Weddle and Jefferson give them not only security, but an element of deception in the middle of the field. The defense has shined in Baltimore’s three wins (31 points allowed combined in those games), the one blemish coming on a Thursday night when they lost C.J. Mosley in the first quarter and gave up a big first half in Cincinnati.
And the nice thing with Weddle is: The Ravens signed him to a four-year deal when he was 31 years old, and there’s no reason to think he won’t deliver quality value over all four years of that deal. The best safeties are the most instinctive safeties, and players with elite instincts age well. So hold on tight to your safeties. Or, if you’re not lucky enough to have good ones, go get ’em.
As for Sunday, Weddle and Jefferson pose a fascinating challenge for Baker Mayfield, who so far has faced a Jets defense that wasn’t expecting him on a short week, and then a Raiders defense that is rotating a lot of defensive players you’d normally only see on the field in August. Mayfield’s storage space and processing speed are outstanding, but the Ravens are going to show him some thing he’s probably never seen before. By mid-afternoon Sunday, we’ll either come away marveling at Mayfield’s football acumen/again mocking a franchise that would sit him behind Tyrod Taylor for any period of time, or shrugging our shoulders and commenting how Sunday was a teachable moment for the rookie.
3a. These are terrifying times for Giants fans, and not just because of that end-aisle display for the Hotel Transylvania 3 Blu-Ray at Target (what, no one else finds it terrifying that they’ve milked three installments out of that crushingly mediocre franchise?).
Four games into the season, with superior skill-position talent and a superior system to run, it’s time to wonder if Eli Manning is going the way of Sam Bradford. Bradford, who was still a top-15 starter when the 2017 season opened, dealt with a series of knee injuries last year then came back behind a shaky Cardinals offensive line this season and looked shell-shocked. Manning has a similar look at the quarter-point of the season, overly eager to check it down even when there is no pressure and deeper throws are available.
Eli’s darkest days used to stem from a willingness to take too many chances (and, well, generally erratic decision-making). He now has the kind of weapons that can make that over-aggressive quarterbacking work. He’s been different through the first month of the season though, far too conservative. Odell Beckham Jr. was right in his general criticism of this offense (and to air those grievances in the most constructive way imaginable: to the media).
In 2018, you can’t win with an overly conservative quarterback. This can go one of two ways: Manning will either go back to his old ways and we’ll look back and laugh at that time he went through his Brian Brohm phase for a month. Or, this is the new Eli Manning and the Giants will regret not having a succession plan in place.
3b. Because he only has one interception this season, Manning actually ranks 12th in passer rating currently (99.1), ahead of Aaron Rodgers, Tom Brady, Deshaun Watson, Andrew Luck, Matthew Stafford—you get the picture, a host of quarterbacks who have outplayed him by a wide margin. The current mark would also be a career-high for Eli. I guess my point is that passer rating is a really good stat and people should continue to cite it as an all-encompassing measure of quarterback play.
4. While the Giants have to be scratching their collective butts wondering how soon they’ll have to start a search for Manning’s heir apparent, John Elway’s inner monologue must be some mix of awkward silence and nervous laughter every time Case Keenum has dropped back this year.
Keenum is flat-out missing throw after throw so far. After scraping together just enough to beat two bad opponents at home to start the year (Seattle and Oakland), Keenum struggled badly against a good Ravens defense and then struggled moderately versus a bad Chiefs defense despite the ground game dominating. It’s 25% of the way into the season, but through four games Keenum looks a lot like the quarterback we thought he was before his surprise run with the Vikings in 2017: a backup.
Those who overreacted to Sam Darnold’s debut have been rightfully mocked—his future remains bright, but there was going to be a breaking in period with a quarterback who had, for instance, been overwhelmed by Ohio State’s 400-level class approach in Darnold’s final collegiate game. Any team that felt it was close had no use for Darnold (or Josh Allen, or Lamar Jackson for that matter). But then there’s Josh Rosen, who was 1A with Baker Mayfield as far as pro-readiness among the 2018 draft’s QB class. Rosen’s performance last week in his first start backed that up. He might have made sense for the Giants with the second pick, but he really would have made sense for Denver with the fifth pick.
5a. Eli Manning isn’t the only NFC East constant hurtling toward a sad end. For years, a Sean Lee injury spelled doom for the Cowboys defense. Last week against Detroit, with Leighton Vander Esch taking on a bigger role, there was virtually no drop-off with Lee sidelined.
Lee is 32, looks like he’s lost a step this year, and Dallas could save $7 million by moving on from him next offseason. If Lee sits again this week in the Sunday nighter against Houston, and things go as well as they did a week ago for this defense, it would seem to be closer to a foregone conclusion that this will be Lee’s last year in Dallas. Which was probably the plan when they drafted Vander Esch last spring anyway.
5b. The real storyline on Sunday night, however, is preseason revenge game! Surely you remember the Texans pulling away from the Cowboys on an August evening in Houston. Terry Swanson’s majestic 37-yard run for the clinching TD? Joe Webb’s efficient play under center to keep that ironclad grip on the lead? Ibraheim Campbell (now a Cowboy!) patrolling the middle of the field for that Texans secondary?! That must have meant something, otherwise all that breathless coverage of preseason football games…
6. The Steelers and Falcons come into Sunday’s matchup on the respective brinks, all because of unsolvable issues on defense.
Well, as covered in this space in the past, the Falcons had multiple chances to solve their issues on defense, by signing Eric Reid and/or trading for Earl Thomas, in recognition of the fact that their Super Bowl window is wide-open. With safeties Keanu Neal and Ricardo Allen out, they’ve tweaked the defensive backfield with Damontae Kazee moving from strong safety to free safety, and Brian Poole moving from cornerback to play some strong safety along with Jordan Richards. Moving Kazee to free safety weakened that spot and the strong safety spot he vacated, and moving Poole forced rookie cornerback Isaiah Oliver onto the field last week, where he blew the coverage on the Bengals’ last-second, game-winning TD. In short, the Falcons can’t trust anyone in the middle of the defensive backfield right now, and those issues are bleeding over to the cornerback spots.
As for the Steelers, we all wondered whether they’d be able to make up for the loss of Ryan Shazier, but meanwhile, in an undisclosed location miles beneath the earth’s crust (I presume), their cornerbacks spent the offseason forgetting how to cover anyone. Joe Haden shouldn’t be struggling like this. Neither should Artie Burns. The potential return of underrated slot corner Mike Hilton helps. But between shaky cornerback play and less-than-reliable young safeties in Sean Davis and Terrell Edmunds, they’ll likely have to sit back and play it overly conservative again.
In fact, it wouldn’t be surprising to see both defenses stay back and try to hold on for dear life on Sunday, in a game that should see a lot of yards piled up but will likely come down to who finishes those drives with touchdowns instead of field goals.
Not that red-zone stats are typically predictive, but if you’re curious: The Steelers have seven TDs on nine red-zone drives while the Falcons have 11 TDs on their last 13 RZ drives since a disastrous 1-for-5 in the season opener. Defensively, the Steelers are middle-of-the-pack allowing nine TDs on 17 opponent red-zone possessions, while the Falcons have been bad there defensively, allowing 13 TDs on 16 opponent RZ trips, 28th in the league in red-zone defense.
7. Thoughtful of the NFL to cram so many absurdities into the most recent Thursday Night Football game to remind us all of just how poorly conceived this TNF concept has been.
First and foremost, the Colts’ injury issues made it impossible for them to field an NFL-caliber roster in a four-day turnaround, which continues to be the biggest issue with the TNF money grab: It too often results in semi-pro caliber games (even if we don’t notice sometimes because the score ends up being close). As MMQB Gambling Podcast co-host and former roommate Scott Gramling pointed out after attending the game: Patriots offense vs. Colts defense looked like varsity vs. JV. If not for three almost unbelievable drops by Patriots receivers—two of which turned into interceptions—that game would have been something in the neighborhood of 55-17, even with Andrew Luck playing out of his mind.
Then we had the glancing blow to Tom Brady’s facemask, (rightfully) flagged as roughing the passer, followed immediately by Sony Michel lowering his helmet and slamming it into Clayton Geathers’ neck, knocking out one of the few fully intact warm bodies the Colts had on defense that game. (Don’t worry though, Geathers cleared concussion protocol. It was only his feelings that were hurt on the play. His feelings and his spine.) No flag for Michel, presumably because the NFL has no record of a defensive player ever getting injured over the course of a game.
But an overlooked aspect of the weekly exercise in off-brand football: The scheduling isn’t taking into account how much of an advantage it is to get to play Thursday night at home, a fact recognized long ago by the handicapping community and currently recognized by anyone with even the most base level cognitive faculties. Teams should alternate home/road every year for their TNF game, and no team should get to play TNF at home coming off a home game—it’s too much of an advantage. Yet, the Patriots have played TNF at home (excluding season openers) five of the past six years, and they’ve had a TNF home game coming off a home game in three of the past four. It’s not just a Patriots conspiracy theory thing; the Bengals have played five straight TNF home games, three of them home off a home game. Baltimore has played five of their seven all time TNF games at home, including four of those coming off a home game. It’s just sloppy scheduling.
I’d like to wrap things up with this zinger, which came to me in the shower the other morning: Thursday Night Football? More like Thursday Night Farceball! (Too spicy? Well too late, I said it.)
8. Ladies and gentlemen . . . The Mountain Goats!
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