The Colts are surging. Their win over Jacksonville makes three straight. The rookie class is glittering. Coach Frank Reich has hit his creative stride—tight end Eric Ebron scored a rushing touchdown on Sunday—as a play-caller. And guess what?
Andrew Luck is on fire. Check out the numbers …
• vs. Buffalo: 17-23 (73.9 percent), 156 yards, 4 TDs, 0 INTs, 131.5 rating
• at Oakland: 22-31 (71.0 percent), 239 yards, 3 TDs, 0 INTs, 125.6 rating
• vs. Jacksonville: 21-29 (72.4 percent), 285 yards, 3 TDs, INT, 123.5 rating
And if you don’t trust all those figures completely, then you can listen to the coach.
“He’s as good as they come,” Reich said over his cell, a few hours after the 29-26 win over division-rival Jacksonville. “I mean, there’s a handful of really elite quarterbacks out there, and I think he’s one of those guys. He’s one of however many are in that top category. That’s where I see him right now.”
Which is to say, we’re not projecting anymore?
“We’re not waiting for it,” Reich said. “It’s here.”
The future for the Colts, it appears, is here too, and that is about much more than a single win over a Jaguars team that suddenly appears to be broken. In fact, the vision that GM Chris Ballard had for the franchise—a big, tough, athletic team built through the trenches that would be able to win different ways, rather than just relying on its quarterbacking prodigy—is coming to life on a week-to-week basis.
So this week, for the second straight game, the offense played great. And the defense made a big play when it was needed to close a game out.
At the end of the team’s 42-28 win at Oakland two weeks ago, before Indy’s bye, it was rookie-of-the-year candidate/linebacker Darius Leonard forcing a fumble to put the Raiders’ hopes on ice. This week it was 23-year-old corner Kenny Moore prying the ball loose from Jags receiver Rashad Moore. Moore was initially called down at the Indy 23. That call was overturned on replay.
The result, as Reich saw it, was no mistake, nor was it by accident that this was happening two weeks in a row.
“I just know the amount of effort and time that we put into it, our defense puts into preaching about turnovers, about punching the ball out, putting our helmet on the ball, doing everything to get the ball out,” Reich said. “And you always say the same thing—you gotta keep after it. And even if you don’t see the results of it early, just keep doing it, because it’ll wear them down. And sooner or later, they’re going to make a mistake.”
The prospect of Luck having all this help growing around him is, of course, great news for everyone involved.
But the best news is the obvious news: Luck looks like he’s just about back.
We’re well into the second half of the regular season now—10 weeks down, seven to go—and there’s plenty to get to in the MMQB for this week. Including …
• A look at what a fairly stacked Bears team could be if Mitch Trubisky’s progress is real.
• The tactic Mike Vrabel used this week to drive home who the Titans are, which plenty of guys in his workplace needed no reminder of.
• Philip Rivers, at 36 years old, has been invigorated by the challenges his Chargers have had thrown in their way. And despite it all, his team will wake up this morning as, by record, the second best in the AFC.
• We’re less than 48 hours from the deadline for Le’Veon Bell to report to the Steelers, and we’re going to look how we got to this point—where a star could sit out an entire season on the franchise tag for the first time since Sean Gilbert did it 21 years ago.
• We’ll look at both ends of the Week 10 spectrum in the takeaways—on one side, the Rams working through some serious real-life circumstances to make it to 8-1; on the other, the flagging Jets taking on water.
But we’re starting with the new Colts, who are not your older brother’s Colts.
So we’ve covered the vision that Ballard, and now Reich joining him, set out—and we’re doing that with the acknowledgment that anyone can set a course for what they want to accomplish. Actually executing a plan is much more difficult. And to me, there are two reasons why this looks pretty real.
The first is Luck, because it always starts with the quarterback, and because this quarterback in particular is the closest thing the NFL has had to a LeBron James-type can’t-miss prospect since I started watching football at five years old. And yes, it’s been a long road back from injury for him. But at this point, there’s every reason to believe that the most recent rash of optimism coming from Colts HQ is legitimate.
Luck looked pretty good at the beginning of the season and has only gotten better. Part of it, I’ve been told, has simply been a matter of being willing to consistently rip it, which was part of rebuilding his mechanics as came back from the shoulder surgeries.
In preseason and early in the year, Colts staffers quietly conceded that getting Luck’s confidence back in making more difficult and riskier throws was going to be a process, and that process was visible if you were looking for it. The throws were they—they just came in spots. Two months later he’s getting closer to where he needs to be, and part of that involves the coaches gaining faith in him too.
The progress showed on Sunday in Luck’s six completions of 20-plus yards, which included a 53-yard touchdown strike to Eric Ebron, and twin 35-yard completions to TY Hilton.
“His confidence and aggressiveness throwing the ball down the field and his accuracy—I’m not saying that wasn’t there, but it’s just coming out more and more,” Reich said. “He’s a he’s a playmaking machine, and he made a lot of plays today. Early on we were at times a little bit more conservative. I’m saying we, meaning all of us. Meaning I was in the play-calling. We were just trying to get a rhythm and establish our identity.”
They were also trying to protect Luck as best they could, and part of getting there was being sure that he and center Ryan Kelly have a handle on the protection calls.
Another factor in Luck’s protection, and his overall progress? That’s where we get to the draft class. Rookies Quenton Nelson and Braden Smith are two of four former top-40 picks (joining Kelly and left tackle Anthony Castonzo) starting on an offensive line that hasn’t allowed a sack since Oct. 4.
And that’s just the tip of the iceberg when it comes to Ballard’s second draft class. Leonard, as we mentioned, might be defensive rookie of the year. Kemoko Turay missed the Jags game with a neck injury but has shown promise as an edge rusher, with three sacks. Running backs Jordan Wilkins and Nyheim Hines have carved out roles.
The team also has high hopes for second-round defensive lineman Tyquan Lewis, a college end they see as a 3-technique tackle, who just came off IR. And former Clemson receiver Deon Cain—a sixth-rounder who was the outlier in this group, as a bit of a character-risk guy—was the star of train camp before he tore his ACL.
“This was a really good draft,” Reich said. “All the guys are playing good football, playing winning football. We got a long way to go, and we’re a little more than halfway through their rookie season. But things are looking really good for them. And most importantly, each one of those guys playing, they’re tough guys with high character who love football. That’s the kind of player we want to build our team around.”
Now, the Colts aren’t exactly in a position to compete at the highest level yet. They could use an edge rusher, and a true No. 1 receiver, and a top corner, and taking the step from promising operation to bona fide powerhouse is most certainly tough.
That said, there’s a pretty good vibe around that place right now. And yup, that starts with Luck getting back to health.
But if you think it ends there, you should probably pay closer attention.
MITCHELL TRUBISKY IS DEVELOPING, FAST
The Bears had just shredded the Bucs, and Mitchell Trubisky was damn near perfect. And a few hours following this hysteria on the last day of September, after he’d gotten home ahead of Chicago’s bye week, new coach Matt Nagy tempered his excitement to tell me that he was probably still two years out from having his 24-year-old quarterback just where he wanted him developmentally.
That wasn’t just on Trubisky. It was on Nagy too.
And if you really watched closely on Sunday, six weeks later, you could see exactly what he meant. It wasn’t just that the Bears rung up 34 points on the Lions, or that Trubisky lit up Detroit for 355 yards and three touchdowns on 23-of-30 passing. It was how comfortable he looked. It was that this wasn’t the result of a litany of coverage busts, a day ahead of the dysfunctional opponent firing its defensive coordinator.
The first touchdown throw was a good first sign. On the play, a third-and-15 at the Chicago 36, Trubisky looks to his left and holds the safety, before quickly turning his shoulders and dropping a teardrop over Detroit corner DeShawn Shead and into the midsection of Allen Robinson. In one fell swoop, Trubisky showed command of the offense, manipulation of the defense and playmaking ability.
Nagy, meanwhile, showed a better understanding of the guys around him, and what they did well, which is what he was shooting for a month-and-a-half ago.
“That’s one of the bigger parts—me trying to figure out, not just for Mitch, but for the rest of our offense, ‘What’s our identity, where are we are?’ ” Nagy said over the phone late Sunday. “When you and I talked the first time, we had no idea really what our identity was, let alone how each guy was going to play. We still have a ways to go. But today he just played with so much confidence.
“When the play came in, his eyes were good, he knew where to go with the football, he threw with conviction, there was no second guessing. That trust he’s building with the receivers, with the O-line, with the play-calls, is getting better each week. We still have a ways to go, at least a full year—at least—until we start feeling really good, where we’re finding the best way possible with the concepts and the plays.”
As Nagy sees it, that’s coaching. In Kansas City he saw Alex Smith get there in Year 3 or so, where the coaches were calling the offense for Smith as if they were calling it for themselves. That’s where he and his staff are working to take Trubisky.
But for now? This was pretty damn good. And if this is what Trubisky’s going to be? On a roster with Allen Robinson, Tarik Cohen, Trey Burton, Khalil Mack, Akiem Hicks, Leonard Floyd, Kyle Fuller, Roquan Smith, Eddie Jackson, etc., etc.?
Well, then, the 6-3 Bears have plenty of reason to be excited. As it stands, the Packers and Vikings are looking up at Chicago in the NFC North, and Nagy’s crew has a chance to create separation next Sunday night when Minnesota comes to Soldier Field. And the prospect of an ascending quarterback piloting a pretty loaded roster has the potential to make the Bears a scary team to contend with.
Is that what we’ve got? Nagy’s trying to give Trubisky every shot to be that guy, and so how he’s bringing him along is no different from how he handled Smith, first as his position coach and then his coordinator, over the last five years, or Patrick Mahomes last fall. It’s not too complicated, either. Figure out what your quarterback is good at, and what he’s comfortable with, and build from there.
“For sure, there’s some concepts here or there, plays that we’re off base on, or we miss or he misses or I miss, or I’m not thinking the same way on,” Nagy says. “But in practice we always figure out, ‘Why was that? Is it a play you don’t like?’ If it is, let’s get it out of here—get the play out. If there’s a play you like that I’m not calling, tell me and let’s go, let’s get it in and I’ll call it. He’s really growing within the system.”
And Nagy’s growing with him, because, as he sees it, that’s the whole idea. As much as Trubisky has to know Nagy’s system, Nagy has to know Trubisky inside and out.
He has to know him, matter of fact, like he knew Smith. By the end of his time in Kansas City, the coach and quarterback had a list of five plays they could go to whenever they got stuck—and the OC and his boss, Andy Reid, would call those to get the group back in a rhythm on offense. Back in September, Nagy didn’t have that kind of call list for Trubisky yet. Now? They’re making progress on it.
“And some of them have nothing to do with whatever I’ve done over the last five years in Kansas City,” Nagy says. “They’re new concepts, something that we as a staff or Mitchell has brought up, and we’ve tried to roll with that. That’s where I’m learning as a play-caller, these are starting to become his comfortable plays.”
Those are changing from week to week, for now, as Nagy and Trubisky work to create a synergy between the former as a play-caller and the latter as a passer. And that’s led to plenty of growth along the way, too, where the coach now feels confident getting aggressive in how he’s deploying his quarterback.
There were three plays, all interrelated, where it showed up on Sunday.
1. Trubisky finds rookie Anthony Miller over the deep middle for 55 yards of catch-and-run on the Bears’ first offensive snap of the second half. That possession ended in kicker Cody Parkey clanging a 41-yard field goal attempt off the upright.
2. Trubisky strikes to Trey Burton, again, over the deep middle for 24 yards on a first-and-10 with 3:44 left in the third quarter. Chicago scored its last touchdown of the game, and Robinson scored his second, on the next play.
3. Trubisky finds Miller for 15 yards right in that same area, down the middle of the field, with 3:31 left in the game to convert a third-and-5.
There was tangible improvement here—the call on the Burton throw was one Trubisky actually overthrew for a pick last week against Buffalo. But maybe more important, there was a confidence that Nagy showed in his quarterback’s ability to process what was in front of him.
“We call those a 3-level vertical,” the coach said. “And really, there’s a progression involved. It’s not where you’d pick out one guy and be like, ‘If I’m not throwing it to one, I’m throwing it to two.’ It’s more a progression of how the defense plays it. Whether it’s a certain concept. Whether it’s a certain coverage. Whether it’s how a safety plays it with leverage.
“And then within that, he has to go No. 1 in the progression, No. 2 in the progression, No. 3 in the progression, No. 4 to the checkdown. He was just seeing the field really well today and the guys were running great routes and the ball was out on time.”
One thing that Nagy emphasized here—he’s not just learning Trubisky, he’s learning everyone. And as such, how he builds the offense will be based on the 11 guys out there, rather than just the one with the trigger.
When it’s really humming? We got some glimpses of what it could look like on Sunday.
“They’re all rookies in this offense, and we’ve thrown a lot at them, maybe thrown too much at them,” Nagy said. “But they’re doing a good job adjusting it and handling it. They’re seeing that when you do it the right way, it’s hard to stop. And they are great players, and there were a lot of plays today where the ball is out on three-step timing, and it’s a catch and run. That’s great to see, it’s the players making the plays.”
And if Trubisky can make them at the rate he was against Detroit, look out.
The Le’Veon Bell Clock Is Ticking
The Steelers are still in wait-and-see mode with Le’Veon Bell, not having heard from his camp on his plans for Tuesday amid a host of rumblings (ESPN’s Adam Schefter reported on Sunday that Bell is unlikely to show) that the two-time All-Pro is prepared to let the Tuesday deadline to report come and go. Should he follow through, as most of you know by now, he’d be ineligible to play the rest of the year.
So in an effort to assess Bell’s actions here, I took a look at the offers the Steelers made to him. I’m told he did get advice, in both cases, to take what was on the table. Here are the numbers:
2017 offer: Five-year deal worth in excess of $60 million, with roughly $42 million in its first three years.
2018 offer: Five-year deal worth in excess of $70 million, with roughly $47 million in its first three years.
2017 franchise tag: $12.12 million.
2018 franchise tag: $14.455 million.
So here’s what’s crazy: If Bell sits out the season, he’d need to make around $30 million next year alone in order to pull even with where he’d have been in signing Pittsburgh’s 2017 offer. And he’ll need to do really well on the market next year, as a player with injury and suspension history, to match what he’d have taken home last summer.
Now, those Steelers offers weren’t perfect. The team, as a policy, doesn’t fully guarantee money in future years, so there’d certainly have been risk in signing a deal, and the cash flow, I understand, wasn’t as Bell’s camp would’ve liked, to make up for that.
But it’s tough to make money at running back, and all you have to do is look at the guy running the ball right now for Pittsburgh to figure out why. James Conner was a third-round pick in a draft in which Kansas City’s Kareem Hunt and New Orleans’ Alvin Kamara went in the third round.
It’s not that Bell isn’t a great player. He most certainly is one. It’s that it’s too easy to find someone else to do his job.
The Chargers Are Winning Games They Used to Lose
Sunday wasn’t perfect for the Chargers, but really, nothing about the last two years has been. And so their rockfight of a 20-6 win in Oakland was perfect in its own way.
Philip Rivers was picked for the first time in three weeks, and the offense was held to a season-low 335 yards. It wasn’t until there were 28 seconds left before halftime that the Chargers reached the end zone. All of which meant that the team had to find another way to win, which it did, with the defense seizing control in the second half.
And that meant that for the sixth straight time, the Chargers had enough to win, which puts them at 7-2 and, just as interestingly, 4-0 since they played their last home game more than a month ago. It’s been a weird month, to say the least. They were in Northeast Ohio to play the Browns and then practice, from Oct. 12-18, then they spent Oct. 19-22 in London, where they faced the Titans. Then came their bye, before a trip to Seattle last week, and the one to Oakland this week. The results …
Oct. 14: Chargers 38, Browns 14
Oct. 21: Chargers 20, Titans 19
Nov. 4: Chargers 25, Seahawks 17
Nov. 11: Chargers 20, Raiders 6
“We got a good group, and it’s kind of a group that in a weird way relishes the opportunity to have some odds stacked against us,” Rivers told me, from the team plane Sunday. “We dealt with the move last year and much has been made of how many opposing fans are at our home games—certainly we appreciate our fans who are there—and then here we go on this road trip.
“We go to Cleveland, we’re gonna stay there a week, then we’re gonna go to London, come back and have a bye, then we’re gonna go to Seattle and go to Oakland. There’s something about that that makes our guys go, ‘Let’s go, let’s go do it, let’s find a way to get it done.’”
This was a team, remember, that spent its 2017 offseason program in San Diego as lame ducks following the announcement of the move, and didn’t have a home facility in L.A. until just before that season started. And when it started, they rolled off four straight losses, yet somehow found themselves in the playoff race into December.
As Rivers, a decade older than most of his teammates, sees it, the players saw opportunity rather than excuses in that 2017 turmoil. And through these times, they’ve learned how to make the most of periods like the week in Ohio they had in October. The veteran QB thinks that attitude is showing up in how one unit picks another (remember, the defense picked up the offense Sunday), and how everyone battles in the clutch.
“We’ve won games coming down to the last play, we’ve had great offensive days, and we’ve struggled a little bit too. We weren’t great today,” Rivers said. “And there have been a lot of truly team wins. That does a lot for a team too. No question, it’s been good that we had so many down to the wire. We lost so many down to the wire there in 2015 and ’16—we lost every one. Every one-score game, where we could find a way to lose, we lost. And now we’re winning them.”
Even better, their quarterback, according to those there, might be having his best year—he’s on pace for career bests in passer rating and touchdown passes, and a career low in picks.
“I think I’m playing my most consistent,” Rivers said. “Obviously it’s a week-to-week league, but I’m playing my most consistent and staying away from the big mistakes. I’m making some good plays. Today it’s about winning, I’m fired up, I’m excited, I didn’t have a great game today, but I stayed away from the big mistakes. We made the plays that were there. We didn’t mess it up.”
And provided they don’t mess it up the next two weeks, against Denver and Arizona, they’ll by 9-2 headed into a Pittsburgh-Cincinnati-Kansas City gauntlet to open December. Which, if you’re following here, probably won’t faze them much.
Episodes 1 through 4 available now: An exclusive True Crime podcast series from SI, re-examining the murder of Titans great Steve McNair. Subscribe on iTunes, or wherever you download your podcasts. And visit the podcast homepage for additional materials and updates.
Mike Vrabel Knows How to Beat the Patriots
At the end of the Tennessee work week, first-year Titans coach Mike Vrabel brought back bad memories to drill home a message he wanted his defensive players to heed. He showed them last January’s divisional playoff loss to the Patriots. That game included a series of mental mistakes and knucklehead moments, which took the uphill battle the Titans faced at Gillette Stadium that night and made it an impossible climb.
His point wasn’t complicated.
“It was a friendly reminder, of what happens there if you’re not being ready to go, handing them too many plays, both offensively and defensively, and even on special teams with a penalty that converted a first down that led to a touchdown,” Vrabel said Sunday night. “So I think they really appreciated that after seeing it, understanding that they can’t do anything that just gives them free plays.
“You can’t give them an inch—whatever they get they have to earn. Too many times you just give them something, a turnover, you hand it to him, you don’t cover somebody, can’t get lined up, and they take advantage of you.”
Vrabel knows pretty well, of course, because he used to be one of the guys taking advantage of these poor teams’ mistakes. And now, a decade after he last wore a New England uniform, such understanding helped him lead a 34-10 beatdown of his old team and his old coach in Nashville.
Think the message was received? The Titans didn’t turn the ball over and only had four penalties (versus 10 in that playoff game). They controlled both lines of scrimmage. They held a 150-40 edge in rushing yards, and a 23-16 advantage in first downs.
It was right from the jump too. Darius Jennings took the opening kick back to the Patriots 40; Marcus Mariota hit Corey Davis for 24 yards on the game’s first offensive play; the Titans ground out another first down on three straight runs, and the march was capped with a four-yard touchdown pass from Mariota to Jonnu Smith on a scramble play on third-and-goal.
There was more of this sort of thing throughout. In fact, the Titans’ final touchdown was scored with a series of five consecutive runs covering the final 35 yards to paydirt, which was proof of another theme of the week coming home to roost.
“I think they believed me when I said that they’d be ready to go by Sunday to play a physical game,” Vrabel said. “I think they also believe me when I try to tell them that you can’t hand them anything. This is a team that historically has feasted on bad football, teams just hand them yards or make mistakes defensively or offensively, and they feast on that. So I think they bought into that.”
And the buy-in’s pretty evident in how Vrabel’s group bounced back from an October swoon—consecutive losses to the Bills, Ravens and Chargers leading into its bye. After a slow start last Monday night in Dallas, the Titans took over and ran the Cowboys off the field, and carried that right through a short week and into Sunday against the Patriots.
Vrabel will concede now that with so many Patriots alumni on his staff and his roster—guys like defensive coordinator Dean Pees, GM Jon Robinson, corners Malcolm Butler and Logan Ryan, and running back Dion Lewis—the radar was probably up a little higher this week. His hope now is that the results will give the players reinforcement on the work they’re putting in.
“This can be a lesson,” Vrabel said. “On Wednesday we worked, and Thursday you build up. And I felt like as we worked at the end of the week things got progressively better with our preparation and our understanding as a team, and as special teams, defense and offense. So maybe because it’s the Patriots. I don’t know. But hopefully we can learn from this.”
… OF THE WEEK
Yes, that’s right … The crawl on the Bobby Petrino Show is reading that the show’s namesake probably won’t be taping another episode—since he’s not Louisville’s coach anymore. More on the ex-Falcons coach in a second.
“Hell yeah, it’s personal. That’s what happens when you go cheap. You get your ass kicked.”
That’s the Patriot-turned-Titan tailback Dion Lewis after carrying the ball 20 times for 57 hard yards and catching two passes for 11 yards. Lewis, who signed a four-year, $19.8 million deal with Tennessee in March, wasn’t done, either. “I didn’t have to prove anything,” he said. “I know I can play. I just had to let our team know that these guys are beatable. I know those guys. I know that [if you are] physical with them and let them have it, they’ll fold.” And in case you missed all that in postgame, he left a couple landmines on Twitter too.
It got easy to forget what a healthy Khalil Mack looks like. That’s why the Bears gave him three weeks to get his ankle right. And by the looks of it, that’s just what he’s done—he sacked Matthew Stafford twice in Sunday’s convincing win over Detroit. And this seemed like an easy choice for video of the week, until Kansas City’s Tyreek Hill celebrated a touchdown by commandeering one of the CBS end zone camera, and filming the ref throwing a flag on him …
I don’t know if this qualifies as a meme. I don’t know why Colts rookie Quenton Nelson is yelling. I don’t care. It’s flat-out incredible for everyone except Jaguars safety Barry Church.
S/O TO …
The Rams for their handling of the last five days. Their Thousand Oaks, Calif., facility is located just five miles from Borderline Bar and Grill, where 12 people were shot and killed last Wednesday, and is in close proximity to the wildfires that are wreaking havoc on Southern California.
After they outpunched the Seahawks on Sunday, coach Sean McVay gave operations staffers Sophie Luoto, Kristen Lee, Kate Cost and Bruce Warwick game balls for their work, and it was deserved. But there are plenty of others who deserve credit.
COO Kevin Demoff empowered those in the organization with resources to make sure everyone was OK. McVay called off Friday’s practice, arranged for players to stay that at the hotel the team uses for the night before home games and moved Saturday’s practice to USC. Dozens of others have helped one another within the building, as 75 to 80 staffers, players and coaches were evacuated from their homes.
And by now, I’m sure you’ve heard of the bigger projects. Shoutout to Andrew Whitworth for giving his game check to the shooting victims’ families, and also the team for organizing auctions for game-worn jerseys from Sunday—the last bids I saw for the Todd Gurley and Jared Goff ones topped $3,000—with the money going to wildfire relief.
You’d like to think we’d all react this way in a similar situation. Good on the Rams for stepping up.
SIX FROM SATURDAY
The college football weekend through NFL eyes:
1. It’s definitely notable that the Giants had no fewer than three staffers (GM Dave Gettleman, assistant GM Kevin Abrams, regional scout Jeremy Breit) on hand in Salt Lake City on Saturday to watch Oregon QB Justin Herbert face a Utah defense that ranks in the top 20 nationally. And they saw the Herbert who’s struggled a bit with accuracy the last few weeks, according to evaluators, after starting the season red-hot.
2. Another quarterback to watch: Duke’s Daniel Jones is someone we mentioned back in the summer as a guy about whom scouts were quietly optimistic. Those in attendance at Duke-Carolina were again impressed with Jones physically (he threw for 361 yards and three touchdowns), and he has the advantage of coming from a David Cutcliffe school of quarterbacking that counts the Manning brothers as graduates—which is to say he should be very pro-ready.
3. And one more—Georgia’s true sophomore, Jake Fromm, has been remarkably efficient as the Bulldogs pick up some steam. In wins over Florida, Kentucky and Auburn, he’s completed 44 of 64 passes for 546 yards, six touchdowns and a pick. It was interesting to hear about Fromm potentially being benched before the Florida game, mostly because I’d heard NFL scouts buzzing about him as a true freshman. Shows how fickle all this can be.
4. OK, actually, here’s another one on quarterbacks (we’re going heavy on them this week): Take a look at my buddy Pete Thamel’s postgame column on this year’s freshman phenom, Trevor Lawrence of Clemson.
5. It’s rare that you see such clear examples of a program losing its way as you got from Petrino’s Louisville Cardinals eight days ago and then again on Friday night. I’m guessing Petrino’s old Atlanta staffmate Mike Zimmer is less than surprised at how this ended.
6. Mississippi State showed the formula, at least on one side of the ball, to standing up to Bama: Match them up front. The Tide’s offense had issues because the Bulldogs boast prospective first-round picks Montez Sweat and Jeffery Simmons on the defensive line, and those guys were able to keep the run in (relative) check and put heat on Tua Tagovailoa. If you can’t do that, you probably won’t get very far against Alabama. What makes things at least a little interesting? Clemson, Michigan and Ohio State all have first-round talent along their defensive lines.
1. I’m told that the Jets brass had an eye on the contrast in intensity between their own team and the Bills during Sunday’s 41–10 blowout. That doesn’t mean Todd Bowles will be fired immediately—I think it would take another egg like this game being laid to get there. But seeing another rebuilding team, under Sean McDermott, come with the fight, it did make something apparent to those upstairs at MetLife Stadium. The key for Bowles all along in 2018 was going to be the development of the young players. And right now, this looks like a team in regression, which obviously puts Bowles in a battle to keep his job.
2. One area of focus for Baker Mayfield since the Browns staff shakeup has been on his eyes—the coaches want him to better use them to manipulate the defense. And the feeling coming out of Sunday’s win over the Falcons was that the rookie took a big step forward in that regard. It showed up most, as it was explained to me, in the space Mayfield was able to create for his backs in the flat. Duke Johnson and Nick Chubb combined for seven catches for 64 yards and two touchdowns.
3. The investment in the Rams defensive line came to life in the fourth quarter against Seattle, in a similar way to how Brandon Graham’s strip-sack stole the show in Super Bowl LII. First, with 10:38 left and the Seahawks down five at the Rams eight-yard line, facing third-and-five, defensive tackles Aaron Donald and Ndamukong Suh came off their blocks and basically raced one another to Russell Wilson. The result? Three points instead of seven. On Seattle’s next possession, the Seahawks sealed up the middle, which left Dante Fowler one-on-one on left tackle Duane Brown. He beat Brown around the corner and slapped the ball out of Wilson’s hand to set up a touchdown that served as the de facto clincher. The Rams, as we saw last week, aren’t dominant on defense. What they have done, though, is stock up on players capable of making a game-changing play. And as Graham showed us, that can make a huge difference.
4. While we’re there, the Seahawks deserve credit—from John Schneider to Pete Carroll and on down. Sure, their record is only 4–5, but they’ve been tooth-and-nail twice with the mighty Rams now, and were right there against a 7–2 Chargers team as well. And that’s after showing Kam Chancellor, Cliff Avril, Richard Sherman and Michael Bennett the door, and losing Earl Thomas for the year.
5. It was probably the least aesthetically pleasing win of their season, but a 26–14 final over the Cardinals should do the Chiefs some good—since they may need their defense to play in one of those types of games in January. Kansas City sacked Josh Rosen five times (albeit against a shaky line) and picked him off twice, while holding Arizona under 100 yards rushing.
6. As one Cowboys staffer said of Ezekiel Elliott on Sunday night after the big win in Philly, “It goes as he goes.” There’s been a lot of focus on Dak Prescott lately, but the truth is, Elliott is the straw that stirs the drink for the Dallas offense. And when he goes for 151 yards and a touchdown on 19 carries, as he did against the Eagles, the Cowboys look like a totally different operation.
7. That the Redskins could allow just three sacks of Alex Smith (who posted a 100.5 passer rating), and rush for 116 yards on 25 carries playing without their left tackle during the week when they lost both starting guards for the season is pretty crazy. And a gigantic credit to Bill Callahan, who’s a ninja of an offensive line coach.
8. Count me as impressed with the focus and resolve of the Saints, who came off maybe the biggest win any team’s had this season—dealing the Rams their first loss—with a thorough and complete trashing of the Bengals on the road in the sort of cold environment that normally would have “letdown” written all over it. "We just found our swag, we found our stride," Alvin Kamara, said via ESPN’s Mike Triplett. “This team is persistent, consistent, we take advantage of opportunity. The schemes that Sean [Payton] and those guys upstairs, the offensive coordinator [Pete Carmichael Jr.] put in place, we execute. We execute and we make sure we handle our business, from top to bottom, no matter who’s in. Everybody knows their role and plays their role. Nobody’s trying to one-up each other." As a result, they collectively up-upped the league again.
9. The fervor for Packers running back Aaron Jones to get more touches probably won’t get quieter this week. He took a season-high 15 carries for 145 yards and two touchdowns in Green Bay’s breezy 31-12 win over the Dolphins. By comparison, his 2017 draft classmate Jamaal Williams finished Sunday with three yards on three carries.
10. Happy Veteran’s Day to all of our servicemen and women. And I hope you all got to see over the last couple days how much all of us who aren’t in uniform appreciate everything that you do for us.
As I said earlier, Giants personnel are out at Oregon games in force scouting Justin Herbert—that’s where their season has gone. And the Niners’ season went with Jimmy Garoppolo’s ACL.
So that leaves us with Nick Mullens tonight, and we get to see Kyle Shanahan call a game. Am I watching? Of course I am.
Your score will be Niners 31, Giants 13.
And if you want something to look forward to, the Thursday nighter isn’t bad at all—a couple of proud old playoffs mainstays, the Packers and Seahawks, half a game apart in the NFC standings, going at it in Seattle.
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