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Panthers Need Defensive Identity, Sam Darnold Almost Started, Joey Bosa on Rehab, NFL Notes

Also, something to keep in mind as Ravens decide between starting Lamar Jackson and Joe Flacco, a connection between Packers GM Brian Gutekunst and Josh McDaniels, Jaylen Smith’s star power is rising and more.

Wrapping up Week 13 with one game left on the slate…

1. Panthers coach Ron Rivera’s decision to strip defensive coordinator Eric Washington of play-calling is significant. Rivera has always believed in giving his DC power, despite his own experience in running defenses. It was afforded to Sean McDermott over his six years in Charlotte, and Steve Wilks in his year succeeding McDermott before going to Arizona.

“For the most part, I try to give these guys autonomy to coach it and call it the way they see it,” Rivera told me after the Panthers’ season-opening win. “I did work with Sean very closely, and Sean and I had a relationship, we worked together in Philadelphia. And then bringing Steve in and having Steve around, Steve and I worked in Chicago and San Diego together. Eric was actually my intern the year we went to the Super Bowl in 2006, when I was with the Bears. So I had tremendous background with Eric, and he’s been with us through the whole program.”

Rivera veering from that should tell you that, beyond just the dip in production, Carolina is struggling to find itself defensively. The lack of an edge rush or much depth at corner hasn’t helped, either.

2. I’m told Jets QB Sam Darnold campaigned to play on Sunday in Nashville, and even showed himself to be healthy during early warmups. And when I say that, I mean 100%. Coach Todd Bowles made the call, in the end, to start Josh McCown and not dress Darnold.

3. I had a good conversation with Joey Bosa last night after he and the Chargers roared back from a two-touchdown deficit to win in Pittsburgh, and we did wind up getting to his brother Nick, who’s now living with him in Los Angeles and training for the 2019 draft. And I asked if having his brother battling back from his own injury alongside him helped with his rehab. “I think Nicky’s situation, he had, it was really tough for him, dealing with [leaving] school and all the negativity pointed towards him with the decision he was making,” Bosa said. “But his injury was much more cut and dried, like we knew exactly what to expect. Obviously it was great [having him], he’s in L.A. with me now. So it’s just great to have him here, we're both training with the same guy right now. And it’s just a dream really.”

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4. One thing that needs to be considered as the Ravens decide who will start at quarterback this week is that the coaches have taken note of Lamar Jackson’s direct and indirect effect on their running game. Through Joe Flacco’s nine starts, the Ravens were averaging 3.6 yards per carry as a team. In Jackson’s three starts, they’ve basically become the Naval Academy, plowing for 716 yards on 145 rushes, good for 4.9 yards per carry, a huge hike over the previous number. Jackson has accounted for 265 of those yards on 54 carries (4.9 yards per). Everyone else? They’ve gone for 451 yards on 91 carries (5.0 yards per), thanks largely to simple threat Jackson poses. And that’s bought Jackson time to improve as a passer.

5. One connection to draw with the Packers’ coaching search starting—and it involves first-year GM Brian Gutekunst. During the divisional playoff week in January 2017, Patriots OC Josh McDaniels emerged as the favorite for the 49ers head coaching job, and there was discussion about New England exec Nick Caserio joining him as GM. Failing that option? Well, the Niners were running a parallel GM search, and a young Packer personnel chief had moved to the top of their list. That was Gutekunst, and both guys were aware of the potential they’d be paired by Niners ownership. So they’ve done some homework on one another.

6. It’ll be interesting to see how Vikings coach Mike Zimmer and offensive coordinator John DeFilippo bridge their philosophical divide down the stretch, in the wake of Zimmer’s repeated comments on wanting more out of the run game, and with DeFilippo considered a prime candidate for coming job openings. Remember, Zimmer blocked well-regarded quarterbacks coach Kevin Stefanski from joining Pat Shurmur in New York last winter, and the feeling then was that Stefanski was being held as DeFilippo’s successor, with the expectation that DeFilippo could get a head coaching shot in 2019.

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7. You may have noticed No. 54 on Dallas flashing on Thursday night, and sure enough Jaylon Smith graded out well for his performance against the Saints. The really great news: At this point, as the team sees it, Smith is basically the player he was physically before he got hurt in his final game at Notre Dame. That’s a great outcome for everyone, of course, and the Saints game wasn’t the only one where he got really high marks—he was very efficient in games against Jacksonville and Philly, and played great against Houston too, with the physicality, speed, violence and competitiveness hope they’d get when they took him in the second round in 2016. The Cowboys may have a star on their hands here.

8. The Seahawks run game is really impressive, and OC Brian Schottenheimer and line coach Mike Solari have to rank among the best assistant coach hires of 2018—Schottenheimer for reestablishing the offensive identity Pete Carroll craves and Solari for fixing the long-broken offensive line. Seattle ran right through the Niners for 168 yards on 29 carries on Sunday, and the Seahawks rang up 43 points (although the last touchdown was a pick-six), with quatterback Russell Wilson completing just 11 passes.

9. Raiders QB Derek Carr was quietly very, very solid against the Chiefs—going 29-of-38 for 285 yards and three scores, and a 123.2 rating, despite from behind for 56 of the game’s 60 minutes. And that’s a continuation of what’s really been going on over the last month for Carr. He’s become more comfortable and has a better understanding of what Jon Gruden’s staff is asking of him. And as a result of that comfort level, and better protection, he’s become more and more aggressive of late. What makes that part impressive is that even with that willingness to take more risk, he hasn’t thrown a pick since Week 5. Gruden’s been tough on him, of course, and that’s why the coaches knew all along there’d be ups and downs. But as this year reaches its fourth quarter, the 27-year-old actually looks like an ascending player again.

10. Yes, Baker Mayfield threw three picks in the first half in Houston. But he came back to go 24-of-30 for 351 yards (two of his incompletions were drops) and a touchdown in the second half, and got some valuable lessons to go forward with from his coaches—namely, to take completions early in the game because they’ll result in big plays later on.