It’s All Coming Together for Rodgers, LaFleur and the Packers

All spring and summer we wondered what the relationship between Rodgers and LaFleur, the new head coach in Green Bay, would look like. And through the first five weeks of the NFL season, with the Packers at 4–1 atop the NFC North, we have a pretty good idea.
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With less than 4:30 left in the third quarter, Aaron Rodgers looked over to his right, where the Packers’ trips right set was lined up on first-and-goal. Jake Kumerow stood closest of his three receivers on that side to the boundary, and the quarterback gave him a look, seeing Dallas cornerback Chidobe Awuzie nine yards off the ball.

On the broadcast, when a FOX camera pulled tight on his head, the only thing noticeable during this time was Rodgers’s eyes glancing right. Otherwise, there really was nothing there. You wouldn’t know that Rodgers was changing the play sent in by first-year coach Matt LaFleur—a called screen set to the left for running back Aaron Jones. But that’s exactly what the quarterback was doing, with his unspoken communication with Kumerow.

Sure enough, Rodgers took the snap, two steps, planted on his right foot, and spun the ball to the sideline, hitting Kumerow hard by the one-yard line to exploit the soft coverage.

“The guy was playing way off and he took the gimme completion,” LaFleur says later in the night, as the team headed for the airport. “That's what I love about [Rodgers]—he sees gimmes out there and he takes them.”

LaFleur didn’t like that Rodgers changed the play—he loved it.

All spring and summer, we wondered about LaFleur and Rodgers—would the new coach have an issue with Rodgers changing plays on him? Would there be a struggle over control of the Packers offense, like there had been, to some degree, over the half-decade prior? Would Rodgers, a signal-caller used to operating with autonomy, be the same guy in an offense that’s built to take the mental burden off the quarterback?

All of those questions were fair before the season started. Five weeks in, with the Packers racing out of the gate at 4-1, getting a big win over the Cowboys under their belt and the offense improving by the week, the questions are melting away quickly.

“It is what it is,” LaFleur says, matter-of-factly. “We trust him to get us in and out of good plays and if he sees something then you know he's got the green light to do whatever he thinks is right to get us to the right play.”

If the results are any indication, he and LaFleur collectively got the Packers in the right plays plenty on Sunday afternoon at AT&T Stadium.

Rodgers left Texas with an efficient 238-yard effort on 22-of-34 passing. More importantly, the Packers left with a 34-24 win over the Cowboys that, again, hinted at potential still untapped for this to wind up being one of Rodgers’s best shots at returning to a stage he’s only visited once – nine years ago, in the same stadium he played in Sunday.

***

Week 5 showed some teams’ resilience and other teams’ growth, and we’re going to get to that in this week’s jam-packed MMQB. On deck for you guys …

• A look at Christian McCaffrey’s ridiculous workload, and how it’s helped the Panthers go 3-0 without Cam Newton.

• How the Saints, likewise, have gone 3-0 since Drew Brees went down, and what perhaps the best receiver in football is doing to get them there.

• The importance of offensive line play, as demonstrated in the AFC South.

• The education of Russell Wilson, under his second offensive coordinator.

And we’ll also have tidbits, as we always do, from all 32 teams, and a quick once-over of the college football weekend. But we’re starting with a Packers team coming off a big road win in Dallas that has a chance to be pretty scary, if a few things fall right.

***

This game wasn’t perfect for the guys wearing green and gold on the defensive side of the ball.

The Cowboys rolled up 563 yards, Dak Prescott threw for 463 and Dallas averaged 5.8 yards a pop on the ground. But all afternoon, the Packers defense was opportunistic, registering three interceptions then coming up with a stop when the team needed it most, despite losing star rookie safety Darnell Savage in game, and having to manage hobbled edge rusher Za’Darius Smith throughout.

That stop, in fact, served as a role reversal from earlier in the season. Against the Bears and Vikings, it was the defense sustaining the offense, and the offense getting just what it needed to get by. In this case, the defense got that when Prescott drove Dallas, down 34-24, 68 yards to a first-and-10 at the Green Bay 15, which is where the screws tightened.

First-and-10: Prescott flushed from the pocket to his right, throws it away.

Second-and-10: A collapsing pocket forces a high Prescott throw through the end zone.

Third-and-10: Edge pressure forces Prescott up, and he runs for a five-yard gain.

The Cowboys then took a penalty, missed a 33-yard field goal, and the game was over.

“It showed great resolve,” LaFleur says. “I think it speaks to the level of character that we have on this football team. These guys play hard and play for each other and it's a next man up mentality. It's not like the standards change [based on] who's in there. It doesn't matter who's in the game. The standards are going to stay the same.”

That, obviously, goes for the quarterback too, and admittedly it’s been a process for he and LaFleur to learn themselves, and create something that works best for everyone.

“I just think that everybody's a little bit more comfortable with hearing the play calls,” the coach continued. “On that first Thursday night, nobody had, the starters had never played together. They didn't play in the preseason, never make an excuse for that, that was my decision, but I just think they're more familiar with one another. And they're starting to come together. But again, there's a lot of room for improvement. … Not only from them but from myself as a play caller.”

Two things really came together to create the balanced offense that ran off 24 straight points to start Sunday’s game in Dallas. And the first, without question has been the emergence of the run game, behind the legs of bellcow tailback Aaron Jones.

Be it Sean McVay or Kyle Shanahan or any of the others from the coaching tree of which LaFleur is a part, one key foundational point you’ll always hear is the need to “marry the run game to the pass game.” The whole idea of the offense is to run different plays out of the same looks, allowing the offense to play fast and making the defense question what it’s looking at.

Of course, that doesn’t work if the run game’s not working, and the run game in Green Bay under LaFleur’s been a work in progress. The Packers were held to fewer than 100 yards on the grounds three times in the first four weeks of this season. And the coach says now that a part of that is, “it’s just taking time to get those repetitions” to get the concepts down, between he linemen and backs. So Jones ripping off 107 rushing yards is significant, and even more so because of who it came against.

“They’re tough to run against, because they're going to be in single-high [one safety deep, the other in the box] most of the game,” LaFleur says. “And it's just harder to run it versus single-high defenses, but especially when they have three linebackers that can run like they can run. But we were able to get the inside-zone game going a little bit today, with some of the crosses, misdirection and those motions. Really, it's a credit to our offensive line and our backs and Aaron and just reading it one gap at a time and hitting those holes.”

And the second part is how that made Rodgers more comfortable, which not only allowed for him to execute the on-schedule stuff, but also toggle back-and-forth between that and his lethal off-schedule game.

That showed up late in the first quarter when, on a second-and-eight, DeMarcus Lawrence and Tyrone Crawford forced him up in the pocket, and he somehow, off balance, hit tight end Robert Tonyan streaking down the sideline, right over the head of safety Xavier Woods, on the kind of throw that maybe a handful of people on planet earth could hit.

“I mean the guy can create off-schedule, he's always been able to,” LaFleur says. “So we're fortunate that he's able to do that. If the play’s not there in rhythm, then a lot of times he can make it happen.”

Matt LaFleur and Aaron Rodgers

For both the new coaches and the quarterback, it’s always going to be about striking balances between the playcalls prescribed and going with what Rodgers sees, and finding the right time for the routine and the right time for the spectacular. And in a way, that one ho-hum red-zone completion to Kumerow was an explainer for the give and take.

On one hand, Rodgers was improvising, in going with what he saw—that corner playing off—and changing the call. On the other, he was choosing some very routine, an easy-money completion that the defense had presented for him, with that change. Rodgers is growing—he’s not adhering strictly by the book, nor is he freelancing all over the place.

That’s also the kind of growth that has LaFleur chomping at the bit to see what’s next.

The Packers’ potential is there. The offense is ascending. The defense has flashed its potential. That doesn’t assure anything, of course.

But it does show how the ceiling is pretty high on this team. As it should be, when Rodgers is your quarterback.

***

CHRISTIAN MCCAFFREY ON A RECORD PACE

When I talked to Christian McCaffrey at about 5:45 p.m. ET, prep for Week 6 was already revving up for the Panthers’ phenom. He was planning to get in the pool to do a movement cycle, contrast that with a massage, maybe get an IV, then eat and sleep ahead of the Monday workday.

On Sunday McCaffrey tallied 25 touches (which is actually his second fewest in five games this year) for 237 yards from scrimmage and three touchdowns in Carolina’s 34-27 win over Jacksonville, moving the team to 3-2—and 3-0 since Newton went down.

And all of this extra work after the game helps him do it again next week.

The coaches who refer to him as a “cyborg” will tell you he doesn’t want to have—to borrow a phrase from the NBA—his load managed. He’s played 100% of the Panthers’ offensive snaps in three of the team’s five games thus far, which is unheard of for a tailback, and because of all that extra stuff he’s doing, he’s got faith he can keep this up.

“I feel great right now,” McCaffrey says, just after the game Sunday. “Obviously, I'm sore here and there, but I take pride in taking care of myself and my body to make sure that I'm 100% ready to go.”

Great as he’s been, if he wants to stay in the game, it’s pretty easy to see why it’d be hard for any of his coaches to tell him no.

McCaffrey leads the NFL with 587 yards rushing on 105 carries. He’s second in the league in rushing touchdowns (6), and catches (31) and receiving yards (279) for a running back. He’s on pace for 435 touches, which would be the second most this decade (DeMarco Murray had 449 in 2014), and 2,771 scrimmage yards, which would break the NFL’s all-time mark by a healthy margin (Chris Johnson is the current record-holder, 2,509).

He’s also listed at just 205 pounds, considerably smaller than the Ezekiel Elliotts and Saquon Barkleys of the world, which only makes this more remarkable.

But if you ask McCaffrey, he thinks he’s figured out how to make his heavy load work, where so many other backs have found themselves breaking down.

“I think it’s just understanding your body,” he says. “I’ve pretty much got every single day where I’m getting treatment by chiropractors, soft tissue specialists, all that stuff. I take pride in that and take pride in trying to be 100% healthy at all times. So it's a constant process, a constant battle. But it pays off.”

McCaffrey’s biggest play of the win over Jacksonville came in the third quarter, on a familiar playcall that influences the linebackers to flow fast to one side in order to create a cutback lane for the back—“We had that run before. Just kind of put my foot in the ground, didn't see anybody on the second level. After that, it was off to the races.”

Eighty-four yards later, the Panthers’ ironman had dusted a Jaguars’ defense stocked with top-end athletes. McCaffrey’s work wasn’t done for the afternoon—that was his first of 14 second-half touches—but late in the game, the team did work in backup Reggie Bonnafon some more, and eventually Bonnafon broke off a long touchdown run, the capper on a day the run game lifted up Kyle Allen and carried Carolina through another week.

But if it’s up to McCaffrey, he won’t come out much more than he did on Sunday going forward. For one, he doesn’t think he needs that. For another, he wants to be there for his teammates as they work through the Newton absence, an effort that, again, according to the standings, is going swimmingly.

“It's just been a big team rally,” McCaffrey says. “We got a lot of guys who are very bought in and understand each other's dynamic and I think that's the biggest thing. We've got a lot of guys on this team who are fighters too. When we were 0-2 everybody was kind of counting us out, we knew our backs were against the wall.”

Less so now, largely thanks to McCaffrey.

***

Michael Thomas, Teddy Bridgewater

THOMAS AND BRIDGEWATER MAKING IT HAPPEN WITHOUT BREES

Lest you think Michael Thomas was a creation of the Drew Brees, the Saints’ $100 million receiver caught 11 catches for 182 yards and two touchdowns with Teddy Bridgewater throwing him the ball in a 31-24 win over Tampa Bay. And even then, when I asked if he’s playing his best ball, he scoffed at the idea.

“No sir,” he answered. “The sky's still the limit and I'm always trying to improve. And honestly, I still should've caught those two passes, those two targets (he was down for 11 catches on 13 targets) that were considered targets to me, no matter what. I just have to find ways to support this offense and support the quarterbacks, the guys behind center and make him right every time. That's my goal every day.”

Thomas wasn’t done—“When I start catching every target that comes to me and complementing my teammates and just making every play that comes to me, then that's when we'll say I'm hitting my prime. But I'm still a work in progress.”

If that’s where Thomas is, it’s fair to say a lot of Saints are there with him.

Bridgewater’s a fantastic story, and was very efficient on Sunday when he had to be, connecting on 26-of-34 throws for 314 yards and four touchdowns. But the Saints getting here is as much about the infrastructure around the quarterback as it is the quarterback himself. It’s Thomas’ 2016 draft class, of which Sheldon Ranks is a part. It’s the 2017 bumper crop, stocked with Marshon Lattimore, Ryan Ramcyzk, Marcus Williams, and Alvin Kamara. It’s a promising 2018 headed up by the fast improving Marcus Davenport.

Five or six years ago, the Saints needed their quarterback to play like a superstar because of the way the team was built—and Brees did. Things have changed since, which is a big reason why the team was so ready to support Bridgewater as he returned to life as an NFL starter.

“Yeah, overall credit to the whole organization from the training staff to the coaching staff to my teammates, we're just dialed in,” Thomas says. “And we're focusing on ourselves and every week, we're trying to get better and better. And like I always mentioned, coach gives us our keys to victory for every team at the opening of the week and we prepare on those and we just stay completely honest with ourselves and we correct our mistakes.”

Now, Thomas wasn’t going to make any proclamations about where the team is going—my contention that the Saints could be better for having gone through this, with a fresh Brees expected in November was met with a simple, “we’re not really worried about anything down the road.” But he, of course, knows better than anyone how this is setting up, and he’s playing with attendant intensity.

On both his touchdowns, Thomas tore through a defender going into the end zone—“watch Alvin Kamara every day break tackles, you just try turn into him on some of those plays, try to emulate him”—and helped the Saints control the game throughout.

This might not be how a lot of people saw this going three weeks ago.

***

COLTS AND TEXANS STEPPING UP THEIR OFFENSIVE LINE PLAY

Two teams really seem to have gotten their offensive line play right so far this season. The Colts are one—they fixed long-term line problems (the ones that got Andrew Luck smoked), really, in one offseason, by taking Quenton Nelson and Braden Smith within the first 40 picks in 2018, and pairing them with holdovers Ryan Kelly and Anthony Castonzo.

The results of that work were clear on Sunday night against the Chiefs. Indianapolis rushed for 180 yards on 45 carries, controlling the ball for 37:15 of an impressive 19-13 win at Arrowhead. Jacoby Brissett was fine (18-29, 151 yds, INT) too, but the fact that he didn’t need to be much more than that tells you what you need to know.

And the Texans, believe it or not, are another. This offseason, they drafted Tytus Howard in the first round, Max Schraping in the second, and traded two first-rounders and a second (with other picks mixed in) for Miami’s franchise left tackle, Laremy Tunsil. The idea was to settle Howard in long-term at right tackle, and Scharping at guard, and Houston got those guys starting in those spots collectively for the first time in Week 3.

It’s still too early to consider the line 100% fixed, but this is a good sign—Deshaun Watson wasn’t sacked and was hit just once in Sunday’s win over Atlanta, and the Texans rushed for 166 yards on 34 carries. Remember, as recently as six weeks ago, the Houston line was considered a potential season-breaking problem.

Even if the public has yet to take notice, that’s not really the case anymore, and that’s reflected in what we saw from the quarterback Sunday. Watson finished with a perfect passer rating and became the first players to throw for 400 yards and five touchdowns with five or fewer incompletions (he was 28-of-32) in NFL history.

This area has quickly turned around for these AFC South rivals, maybe giving hope to the teams that have had so many problems solving their issues up front.

***

Russell Wilson

Russell Wilson and the Seahawks held on for a 30-29 victory over the Rams on Thursday night.

RUSSELL WILSON OFF TO QUITE THE START

Russell Wilson’s game-winning touchdown pass on Thursday Night Football, on fourth-and-goal from the Rams five-yard line, looked so routine—and that says everything you need to know about where he’s at as a quarterback in Year 8.

At the snap, he recognized the double-team on the player on his left, tight end Will Dissly, and that Los Angeles was playing a triangle (three defensive backs) over Chris Carson and D.K. Metcalf to his right. The rush came fast but left an opening through the middle of the line, through which Wilson shuffled. And with his shoulders square and fundamentals intact, he attacked the line of scrimmage, forcing Aqib Talib to make a choice—stay with Carson or go at Wilson.

Talib went with the latter, so Wilson calmly let him come, popped the ball over his head and turned to celebrate even before seeing that Carson had collected the ball after initially bobbling it. Russell was that confident it was going to be six points.

“The No. 1 thing it shows—his ability to improvise, and this does remind me of Brett [Favre],” Seahawks OC Brian Schottenheimer says, during his off-day Saturday. “I was only around Brett for the one year, but people call it improvisation, I call it off-script plays. That result is what we wanted but it certainly wasn’t designed that way. We just called a very core play, one that he’s run a hundred thousand times that he’s very comfortable with.

“But when he’s able to step up, he’s such a threat.”

Schottenheimer saw that play as a perfect illustration of the work they’d done in two key areas over the last year and a half. The first is in how they had built the offense for the quarterback to master. Schottenheimer kept 65% of Darrell Bevell’s offense the same—not a very difficult task since he’d worked in West Coast schemes under Paul Hackett, Jimmy Raye and Mike McCarthy earlier in his career—which allowed for Wilson to learn Schottenheimer’s new elements much faster.

The second is in his fundamentals. Wilson and Schottenheimer have drilled down details on the quarterback’s base, which makes him more efficient in the pocket and able to work through these situations faster. There’s a lot that Wilson does that can’t be taught, which explains why Schottenheimer was motivated to keep 65% of the old offense intact. And Wilson’s desire to learn proved key to this process.

“[Wilson is] such a great competitor. He was like, ‘teach me anything and everything you want—push me, drive me, I want to be the greatest, I want to be the best that’s ever done it, so help me do what I can do,’” Schottenheimer says.

This brings me to the question I really wanted to ask Schottenheimer: Whether or not Wilson was trying to throw the ball away on the first touchdown pass, to Tyler Lockett.

“No!” Schottenheimer says. “He was throwing it to [Lockett].”

Was Wilson trying to put it in a spot where only Lockett could get it?

“It’s third down, you’re trying to make a play, again off-scripted,” Scottenheimer says. “The catch is unbelievable. The throw is just as good. He’s running to his left, [Dante] Fowler’s closing in on him, he drops it in a perfect spot. And it’s exactly what you said. In those situations, you throw it normally, No. 1, to a guy that you trust, and they’ve got a great chemistry. … And then you put it in a spot where your guy can get it or nobody can get it. But the throw was just amazing.”

Wilson’s season thus far has been too. Through five games, the Seahawks are 4-1, and Wilson’s thrown for 1,409 yards and 12 touchdowns without a single pick. And it looks like he’s only getting better, which should make Seattle interesting to watch in a suddenly hyper-competitive NFC West.

***

THE ALL-32

The Bears’ struggles on defense on Sunday in London—Oakland controlled the game with 169 rushing yards on 39 carries—only underscore how difficult it to maintain the kind of standard that was set by Chicago in 2018 on that side of the ball. Most of the personnel is the same, and there’s a more than suitable replacement for Vic Fangio there too, with Chuck Pagano in as coordinator. Yet, Oakland marched 97 yards in 13 plays for the game-winning points in London. Playing defense like the Bears did last year is hard.

Give Zac Taylor’s Bengals this—they keep fighting. Cincinnati battled back from a two-touchdown deficit against Buffalo two weeks ago, and a two-touchdown deficit against Arizona this week. They aren’t finishing quite yet (having the offensive line problem they do makes everything hard) but they aren’t quitting on Taylor either.

The Bills defense is real—they haven’t allowed an opponent into the 20s all year, and they’re doing it with high draft picks like Ed Oliver, Tremaine Edmunds and Tre’Davious White that are only going to get better. Josh Allen still has a ways to go, but there’s a lot of good momentum otherwise building in Western New York.—which you’d expect at 4-1

Nice gesture by Broncos coach Vic Fangio who, upon being awarded the game ball, turned around and gave it to linebacker AJ Johnson. Johnson was accused of rape in 2014, and the then-All-SEC linebacker was suspended by the Univ. of Tennessee as a result. Nearly four years later, in July 2018, he was acquitted. He signed with the Broncos a few weeks later, and started his first game Sunday against the Chargers, registering a key pick in Fangio’s first win as Denver’s coach.

The Browns’ offensive line problem is well-established. So it’s worth mentioning that the return of right tackle Chris Hubbard last week made a legitimate difference. He’s not exactly the second coming of Lane Johnson out there, but he brings a level of competency that was lacking at the position.

No, the Buccaneers didn’t go into New Orleans and win today, but Chris Godwin was fantastic, going for 125 yards and two touchdowns on seven catches. By the numbers, he’s been better than Tampa’s No. 1, Mike Evans, through give games.

The Cardinals’ rush yards the first four weeks of the season : 112, 20, 121, 115. And in Week 5: 266. And just like that, Kliff Kingsbury’s got his first win. Kyler Murray did have his scramble yards as part of that, but David Johnson and Chase Edmonds ran for a combined 159 yards on 25 carries in a more conventional way. If Arizona can keep running like that out its four-wide sets, this won’t be their last win.

Is the injury bug finally catching up to the Chargers? It’s hard to win in the NFL when your offensive line is a mess, and losing Russell Okung has had its effect on the team there, just as the loss of safety Derwin James has made the defense less flexible. Anthony Lynn has his work cut out for him.

That Chiefs QB Patrick Mahomes’ ankle injury Sunday was an aggrevation of the one he suffered in Week 1 isn’t a great result for anyone.

Credit to the Colts roster-builders and coaches, again, for the depth the defense flashed on Sunday night at Arrowhead. No Malik Hooker. No Darius Leonard. No Clayton Geathers. And the Chiefs, albeit with a hobbled Mahomes, could only muster 10 points.

For now, I’m willing to allow that Sunday was a blip for a talented, young Cowboys defense. Especially since they held that Saints team to 12 points just seven days earlier.

The Dolphins play the Redskins on Sunday. The lowest price for a ticket on StubHub is $20, and I’m honestly surprised it’s that high.

Based on what the Eagles were up against Sunday, I’m not sure we learned much we didn’t already know. But that the corners were able to stay out of trouble—Philly’s been hurting there—is a positive, with Craig James (the ex-practice squad star of the Green Bay win) and Rasul Douglas this week’s starters at the position.

I believe the Falcons’ roster has talent across the board, which makes the team’s 1-4 start perplexing. Last week, it was a sputtering offense mustering just 10 points. This week, it was the defense allowing 53 (not all of those were on the defense, but Watson’s perfect passer rating and Fuller’s career day aren’t irrelevant). It’s just, well, weird.

I’m not expecting to you to spend Monday night watching 49ers center Weston Richburg. But I can tell you that, internally, they believe he’s been a difference-maker for the San Francisco through its fast start. He wasn’t himself last year, so banged up that he needed knee and quadriceps surgery after the season. He’s getting back to being the guy that earned a five-year, $47.5 million deal from the Niners. And that center spot has always been one well-valued by Kyle Shanahan. He puts the protection calls and checks on the center, where others give that stuff to the quarterback, and his teams have invested in the position in the past (he even brought Alex Mack from Cleveland to Atlanta with him a few years back).

Giants rookie Daniel Jones continues to be up and down, but be sure to check out his 38-yard strike to Darius Slayton. First-round throw, for sure.

The Jaguars are going to have a hell of a time taking Gardner Minshew out of the lineup. One reason why—the staff has continued to be impressed by how quickly he’s picked up different elements of the offense, and the command and feel he has between the white lines. Usually, those are the sorts of things that keep a veteran, like Nick Foles, on the field. Plus, if Tom Coughlin and Doug Marrone are fighting for their jobs, it probably behooves them to ride the hot hand, and someone who the owner could eventually view as the future.

If I’m Jets GM Joe Douglas, I’m starting to look at my options, and deciding who is and who’s not long for the place ahead of the trade deadline. Leonard Williams and Robbie Anderson are two guys who, if they aren’t in the plans, could have some value. It makes sense to at least figure out how much.

Quietly, Lions QB Matthew Stafford is off to a hot start, and I’d say there are two factors that have helped. One, OL coach Jeff Davidson has his group working to block specifically for Stafford, rather than generically. What does that mean? Stafford’s a little shorter, so there’s an emphasis on clean throwing lanes, and getting him vision on his targets. And two, the addition of tight ends Jessie James and T.J. Hockenson has been immense. Stafford prefers bigger, longer targets, and these guys are absolutely that.

I feel good for all the Packers fans this morning that have been screaming for three years to get Jones the ball. I think we’ve all always seen the talent there. Great to see how he’s worked his way into being a bellcow.

The Panthers’ trust in Kyle Allen is growing. Here’s an example: on a third-and-one from their own 34, with 4:29 left, OC Norv Turner dialed up a pass play from the ’gun. Allen rewarded that faith with a seven-yard strike to D.J. Moore, setting the stage for Reggie Bonnafon’s 59-yard touchdown on the play to follow. It was an example of how fast Allen’s picked up the offense which, I’m told, allows Turner to keep everything he’d have for Cam Newton in the playbook.

Pay attention to the three catches for 32 yards that Patriots tailback Sony Michel hauled in on Sunday. He had seven catches all year as a rookie, and came off the field for the game-winning drive in the Super Bowl because New England didn’t trust him in that phase of the game. That they’re trying to get him involved there now is a pretty strong sign that they want to start to re-center the offense around him, like they did late last year.

I think someone should give Raiders coach Jon Gruden some credit. He navigated the Antonio Brown mess (of course, acquiring him in the first place makes this a self-constructed obstacle), and through a couple spirit-breaking losses. And now his young team is 3-2, alone in second in the AFC West, with consecutive wins over divisional-playoff teams from 2018. Raiders at Packers in two weeks should be fun.

I was a little tough on Rams corner Marcus Peters the other day – the 40-yard touchdown DK Metcalf scored over him actually wasn’t on him, per his coaches. Still, I don’t think there’s much question that Peters and Aqib Talib have been spotty through five games.

I’ve always been impressed with the Ravens’ fight and it was on display again Sunday in sneaking past the rival Steelers. But I’d be a little concerned about a game in which Lamar Jackson threw three picks and had to run the ball 14 times.

Early news coming out of Washington on Monday morning is that Jay Gruden, coach of the winless Redskins, is out after their 33-7 loss against the Patriots. The team announced that OL coach / assistant HC Bill Callahan will be the interim. 

Don’t look now, but the guy the Saints dealt up to get in 2018—burning their ’19 first-rounder in the process—is turning the corner. Marcus Davenport registered two sacks against the Bucs, and that was after a few weeks with good pressure numbers that just hadn’t manifested in that category. Best part is the freakishly athletic Davenport still has a lot of room to grow.

The Seahawks are starting to use Jadeveon Clowney and Ziggy Ansah more, and more creatively (both played more than 60% of the snaps against the Rams), and that means the return of Jarran Reed loom even larger in two weeks, when the Ravens come to town. Pete Carroll’s scheme is predicated on getting after the quarterback with four rushers, and he’ll soon have three guys on that front very capable of getting home on their own.

Is the Steelers defense becoming a real Steelers defense? They’ve held consecutive opponents under 300 yards and created multiple turnovers on both occasions. And there’s talent there.

Texans WR Will Fuller put on a show Sunday—14 catches, 217 yards, three touchdowns. Fuller’s coming back from an ACL tear, and in August told me he was still battling discomfort in the knee. So that he’s gutted through the rehab, and gotten back to this level this quickly is really cool.

The Titans have invested too much in the offensive line to get pushed around like they did Sunday by the Bills’ defensive front.

I do really like how the Vikings offense looked Sunday, and I like the run game and Kevin Stefanski as a coordinator. But to be sold that Kirk Cousins has honest-to-goodness turned a corner—and he was good (22-27, 306 yards, two TDs)—I’ll need to see against a better pass rush than whatever it is the Giants are bringing right now.

***

TOP FIVE

1. The hit on Mason Rudolph, which our Conor Orr wrote about, was crazy, and I hope it’s not lost in the wash over the next few days. One person who worked on the concussion case mentioned that it looked as if Rudolph was in the fencing posture, which is a sign that a blow has affected the brainstem. On top of that, there’s the issue with the lack a working cart in Pittsburgh. It’s fair to say the union is relatively furious over it.

2. Some teams have been closely monitoring the Broncos’ approach with their older players—looking for a potential opportunity to pick off a Chris Harris or Emmanuel Sanders, or even acquire a Von Miller. I don’t think those things happen quite yet. Fangio is 61, Elway turns 60 in June, and Denver has basically been a year-to-year, win-now operation since Elway got the reins in 2011. So detaching from veterans and staging a fire sale would have to be difficult for him.

3. If there’s a mistake the NFL made with London this year it was not making this week’s International Series game—between the Raiders and Bears—a 9:30 a.m. ET kickoff to showcase the new Tottenham Stadium. The league’s nine-figure investment in the place absolutely jumped off the screen, in that it felt like an actual NFL stadium, and not a soccer stadium jury-rigged for a couple American football games. Do yourself a favor and check out the morning game next week between the Panthers and Bucs. Then, report back here and try to tell me the NFL’s not gonna try like hell to put a team that place soon.

4. Get ready, folks. As seats get warmer in certain cities, you’ll 100% start hearing Lincoln Riley’s name. The NFL’s White Whale is out there, but the Oklahoma coach won’t come cheap. That is, if he comes to the league at all.

5. The pass-interference review system is … not as I expected it. If the idea is to get it right, then get it right. At this point, it seems like you’d have to do something that would merit criminal charges to get a non-call turned into a call, and walk on water to have a call wiped out. I, for the record, was a big advocate of a PI review system. Now, I hope we just go straight to adding a sky judge, to be done with most of this.

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SIX FROM SATURDAY

1. We featured Auburn’s Derrick Brown in Thursday’s Game Plan. And maybe it’s the all-white uniform with a single digit on a big dude, but he looked like a man among boys on his strip sack of Florida QB Kyle Trask.

And he looked pretty freakish on his fumble recovery/return too.

I followed up with an evaluator I spoke to last week about Brown. The response: “I f---ing told you!”

2. The California Fair Pay to Play act, signed by Governor Gavin Newsome last week, highlights the mess the NCAA is in. The governing body of intercollegiate athletics has had every chance to institute reform, and this particular common-sense measure—allowing athletes to benefit financially off their likeness—has been floated in the past. They only have themselves to blame here.

3. Rutgers fired Chris Ash as its head coach a week ago, and Greg Schiano has emerged as a top candidate to replace him. Looking back on what’s happened at Rutgers in the last eight seasons since Schiano left Rutgers for the Buccaneers only emphasizes how Schiano turned the program around in the 2000s. In many ways, this would be just like Kansas State bringing Bill Snyder back for a second tour.

4. When I made my quarterback watch list for the 2020 NFL draft this summer, evaluators didn’t think Michigan QB Shea Patterson had any special traits, and saw him as a good-not-great college player—so I left him off that list. Since then he seems to have regressed, and at this point he’ll likely have to fight to be drafted.

5. Per a couple of scouts, it sure looks like LSU’s Joe Burrow has played his way into the second or third round over the first half of this season. And the Tigers’ next four games could give him a chance to take it a step further: vs. Florida, at Mississippi State, vs. Auburn, at Alabama. He’ll have plenty of NFL eyeballs on him. One exec I hit up Sunday summarized: “Gamer. Tough. Competitive. Underrated passer. Top two rounds.” Conversely, another personnel director said Burrow’s ceiling, in his mind, would be the second round.

6. I’m not saying Justin Herbert is slipping. But Saturday night’s game against Cal wasn’t his best, and while he’s a really good athlete, there are concerns about how natural he is moving around in the pocket.

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BEST OF THE NFL INTERNET

I think we all just want common sense on these.

I have three kids under five years old, so I look like Jason here a lot.

I’m sucker for these, I’ll admit it.

That’s NFLPA exec George Atallah on the lack of a cart for Mason Rudolph in Pittsburgh. And yes, I saw the NFL’s statement. Sometimes, a simple apology works better.

Again, just a chilling scene in Pittsburgh.

Cowboys did push back.

Just a terrible scene at FedEx Field on Sunday. My NBC Sports Boston colleague Phil Perry was on the ground there, and he reported back to us that Redskins fans were asking Patriots fans in the parking lots to help them with “Sell The Team” chants during the game, since those Washington fans knew they’d be outnumbered in the stadium by New Englanders. What a mess.

This was when the Patriots’ offensive line was struggling. I do believe those issues are real, but against the Redskins, they last for about an hour in real time.

That’s the throw to Tonyan I referenced earlier.

This has been a fun one to follow, no lie.

And that’s it for this week!

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MONDAY NIGHT SPOTLIGHT

Each week, we’ll hit a player set to climb atop the Monday Night Football stage to get answers to a few questions. This week, 49ers DL DeForest Buckner …

MMQB: What has the hire of Kris Kocurek as defensive line coach done for you guys?

DeForest Buckner: He’s made a big difference. He’s changed our technique. The past couple years, in this 4-3, we wanted to penetrate more, but we were still kind of reading blocks and staying in our gaps. With Kris, he just wants us to attack. He’s changed this on the defense, where really have the linebackers playing off of us. And they’re playing faster because we’re declaring faster, and that trickles down to everyone else.

MMQB: I’d think that makes the game more fun.

DB: Definitely. He loves to say “take your seatbelt off.” It allows us to play faster. We not really reacting, we’re bringing it to o-linemen. It’s a lot of fun.

MMQB: So how did you walking with his wife at the Crucial Catch fashion show come together?

DB: It was the third annual crucial catch fashion show that the Niners put together, and I did it last year and I had a great, decided to do it again this year. Obviously people know about Coach Kocurek and his wife Amy, and how she got diagnosed with Stage 3 breast cancer. It kind of worked out, she was walking in the fashion show, she was one of the warriors, and I was lucky enough to be paired up with her and walk down the runway with her.

MMQB: What kind of difference have Dee Ford and Nick Bosa made?

DB: It’s made a big difference. Having that presence not just on one side, but on both edges, causing the quarterback to step up, helping the guys in the middle—and also having that presence in the middle and him not being able to step, actually having those guys coming off the edge has been a big, big difference this year. It was obviously, definitely a need the last couple years. Having all that come together, it makes our jobs easier.

MMQB: I saw this stat that you guys have more guys break 20 MPH in games on the tracking system, the best in the league—does it feel like you’re part of a fast team right now?

DB: Yeah, and honestly in all three phases. I feel like all three phases are playing fast, especially on defense. When I’m out there, I feel like we’re all flying to the ball. We’ve made it a big emphasis this year, running to the ball, and up front on the d-line, Kocurek’s really big on running to the ball. Good things happen when you run to the ball. It kind of intimidates offenses, too, when you see all 11 guys swarming to the ball, playing as one, and playing fast, it has an effect on offenses too.

MMQB: Do you feel like the defense, around Robert Saleh as coordinator, is getting an identity?

DB: Most definitely. You can feel an identity being created on the defense. All the guys, honestly, I feel like everybody’s playing with a little more confidence this year, a little more swagger, and it’s really just the trust in one another, knowing that we’re going to get our jobs done and feeding off each other’s energy. And another guy we brought in over the offseason was Kwon and he’s one of those guys—brings energy every single day and every single play.

MMQB: Biggest rule for d-linemen playing against Baker [Mayfield]?

DB: Your rush lanes, really, just not rushing blind. I see guys on film, they’re getting back there, they’re rushing, but they’re creating lanes for him to run through. And that’s when defenses start to get hurt, because he’s one of these guys who’s an off-schedule quarterback, who can make plays with his feet, getting loose, scrambling out of the pocket. So the defensive line, we have to rush as a unit, and keep him in the pocket.

MMQB: In a way, is Monday Night Football a chance to announce yourselves to the league with everyone watching?

DB: Yeah, most definitely. It’s definitely a great opportunity to show everyone the growth and the type of players we have, and the team that we have this year, and show them we’re not pretenders, I guess. It’s definitely an opportunity we have to take advantage of. We’re playing really well right now. It’s still early in the season, but we got off to the start we wanted to.

MMQB: Best thing Kyle Shanahan has done to get you there as a head coach?

DB: Kyle’s a player’s coach. He’s always looking in the best interest of his players, he knows when to push the team. He can really read the guys, he asks guys for feedback if we need to let up on certain things, any of that kind of stuff. He’s very approachable as a head coach and that’s what you want from your head coach, to be approachable and listen to you. He’s a player’s coach, he listens to the feedback and he’ll apply those things. It’s really good to have that relationship with your head coach.

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WHAT YOU NEED TO KNOW

This week has been anything but normal at Sports Illustrated, given the layoffs. In our corner of the office, it cost us our executive editor Mark Mravic—the guy who, I’d say, has held us together through a lot of change over the last six-plus years. Peter King hand-picked Mravic to run the site with him in 2013, and Mravic was also a big part of bringing me aboard in ’16. Mravic has this way about him where he knows when to push and when to pull back, and he took care of so many behind-the-scenes things so that all of us with bylines didn’t have to.

When it came to dealing with this column every week, especially as I had to fill some pretty big shoes last year, Mravic was incredibly patient and the discussions about what would work and what wouldn’t were always respectful, direct and to the point. I’ll miss seeing him in the office and bugging him about whatever soccer game he was watching. I owe him a lot for the last three years.

The layoffs also cost us Andy Benoit, who is quirky and different, and knows the ins and out of NFL football as good as anyone who’s not working for a team. And he’s that way because he’s not just some dude with a GamePass subscription and a Twitter—he talks to the coaches and the scouts, and he has a stronger network across the league than the great majority of people in the media have.

I also really respect Benoit for his opinions. One of the worst things about social media is how certain takes that might seem edgy become safe (see: Daniel Jones on draft weekend), and people pile on to try and make themselves look tough. That wasn’t Benoit. He got crushed for a few of the things he said, a lot of times by people who had no clue. But he believed what he was saying because it was founded on work, and he wasn’t afraid of what people thought.

One more—that’s John DePetro. I was initially hired at The MMQB to do mostly video projects, because of my TV background. Long story short, we got to do a few, but things changed quickly after my hire, as they often do in this business, and everyone had to adjust. At that point, John and I had had some aggressive back-and-forths on certain pieces we did, and there was certainly pushing and pulling.

But we worked through all that, and John became the producer when we launched MMQB TV last year. His creativity and passion for the work always showed, but especially with the different stuff we did for the show. We also did a season of MMQB TV for the pre-draft period. Combine that with the draft night shows we did with Andy Staples, Jonathan Jones and a rotating cast the last few years, and there’s a lot of work I’m proud of.

I know John will be doing that sort of good work somewhere else soon.

So for us at The MMQB, it sucks losing these guys. It was a very, very difficult week for the SI family in general, and I think it goes without saying that we’re wishing for the best for everyone who was laid off.

As for those of us still here at The MMQB, I can promise you this—we’re going to bust our ass and do everything we can to give you best NFL coverage anywhere. During a week where a lot of changed, that’s one thing that shouldn’t.

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