The Undefeated 49ers and Their Juggernaut Defense Are Here to Stay

San Francisco’s early success this season isn’t a mirage. Kyle Shanahan and his team have been building towards this moment, and the team’s divisional win over Los Angeles is the latest proof that everything is unfolding as he planned. Also, Deshaun Watson’s continued growth, Sam Darnold’s path back to the field (which included lots of protein shakes), Jay Gruden’s week since his firing and much more after an action-packed Week 6.
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Sam Darnold, Deshaun Watson, Kyle Shanahan

49ers head coach Kyle Shanahan had been in this position against the Rams before. 

A few early bad signs and mistakes on Sunday in the Coliseum caused the Niners to fall behind against Sean McVay’s team. San Francisco appeared to be on the verge of repeating what happened last October (a 22-0 first-half deficit) and December (a 28-3 first-half deficit). 

First, the 49ers went three-and-out on their first possession, losing four yards in process, as a depleted offensive line yielded a third-down sack to Los Angeles’ best player, Aaron Donald.

Then the Rams marched right down the field, covering 56 yards on seven plays, all of them on the ground, with backup tailback Malcolm Brown getting 40 on five carries.

Shanahan was on the lookout for a third bad sign, but one never came.

“Anytime you see someone running seven plays in a row to start a game and scoring, and they don't face a third down, they don't have to throw once, that’s usually cause for some concern,” Shanahan said, while riding the bus back to LAX airport. “We knew we had a couple guys get out of their gaps, and when you do that, you are gonna get gashed.

“But to watch the guys not freaking out, not yelling at each other, just calming down and understanding what happened, and watching the coaches deal with them, very quickly, I realized I can go back and focus on the offense.”

Shanahan’s instincts were spot on. He didn’t have to worry about much.

In fact, that was the low point in a day without many of them. That one bad possession accounted for more than half of the Rams’ offense on the afternoon. They’d muster just 101 yards from scrimmage the rest of way, and couldn’t score another point, choked out completely by a Niners defense that announced itself to the nation six days earlier on Monday Night Football against the Browns.

How for real is that group? Well, consider that Shanahan, one of the league’s brightest offensive minds, trusts this particular defense so much now that he swallowed his pride and his playsheet against the defending division champs, because that was the best way to win a game that very well could wind up having January implications. What’s more, with a 20-7 win that didn’t feel remotely that close in the books, the San Francisco defense appears plenty good enough to buy its offense time to get healthy.

The Niners are here to stay and their best sure seems to be in front of them.

***

Here’s what’s coming in this week’s MMQB …

• Sam Darnold, who beat the Cowboys in Week 6, explains his bout with mono and the path back to the field.

• Deshaun Watson details the trust that Bill O’Brien put in him at the wire in Kansas City.

• The owners meet in Florida this week—could a new CBA be in their sights?

• Jay Gruden on his final days in Washington.

And much, much more. But we’re starting in California, with the NFC’s only unbeaten team and perhaps its newest juggernaut,

***

You might not look at the 49ers’ 99 rushing yards on 41 carries as much of a success story on an afternoon full of them for San Francisco, but that particular statistic says everything about how Shanahan decided to approach this. Yes, as a play-caller he did have the urge to cut it loose when the run game wasn’t getting untracked as he, run-game coordinator Mike McDaniel and line coach John Benton would’ve hoped.

“Always, as a play-caller, you usually want to attack the defense,” Shanahan said. ”When they load the box, you want to find a weakness and throw the ball. But when you sit there and watch the defense play as well as they are, you also want to make sure you don't turn it over, and especially if you have a lead. You take some of those elements into your decision-making, it makes it a lot easier for me to stick with it.”

That’s a product of knowing who his team was becoming and the circumstances it was facing.

On the former, Shanahan has known for a while what kind of defense he had—“We knew it in camp … It was frustrating for me, sometimes, going against them on offense, because we had a lot of rough days.” While the degree of excellence might be surprising, it’s not surprising that the group is performing on the field and shaping the team’s identity.

That ultimately helped with the latter. The Niners lost their third tackle, Shon Coleman for the season in camp; long-time left tackle Joe Staley for two months to a broken leg in September; and right tackle Mike McGlinchey last Monday night for at least a month after he had his knee scoped. That meant the team went into Sunday with their fourth and fifth tackles, problematic against an aggressive Rams defensive front.

So there was no better way to protect them, as Shanahan saw it, than to slow the game down. For that to work, the defense had to do its part, which, again, Shanahan knew it would, and the offense would have to play reasonably well on third down, which it did (8-of-17 vs. the Rams 0-for-9 in that category).

“It took pressure off guys,” Shanahan said. “When you get 41 runs called and you're getting two-something a carry that means you're converting some third downs and your defense is getting the ball back, the whole team is playing together. It allowed us to play situational football, take our shots when we had them. The guys have been real fun to coach this year."

At no time was it more fun for the Niners than in the fourth quarter, when the defense took a game over completely for the second time in six days. With 10:33 left, the Rams were in third-and-one from their own 44, and the Niners got two stops, stuffing Darrell Henderson on fourth down to force a turnover on down. On the next series, the Rams, coming off a turnover, got into third-and-two from the Niners 28, and didn’t even try running at the defense. Two incompletions later, the Niners had another turnover on downs.

The Rams wouldn’t cross midfield again, and San Francisco left the Coliseum with more affirmation for how Shanahan and GM John Lynch built the team, investing in the lines of scrimmage and pouring high-end capital on defense —rookie Nick Bosa is the fourth defensive linemen drafted in the top 10 by the team in five years, and Dee Ford and Kwon Alexander cost a lot to acquire on the veteran market, but have brought a big return.

“When we got here our goal was to build a defense, build a defensive line,” Shanahan said. “Lots of teams have won the Super Bowl with a dominant defense and not a very good offense. But it's rare the other way around. I know how hard it is to go up against a really good d-line. I know they invested in the years before we got there. I know John and I, we’re looking to do it almost every year. It’s helped us out, especially getting Bosa this year, it makes a huge difference. ... That was definitely our first goal when we got here, to get to where we had a top-five defense.”

It looks like they’re there now. The Bosa/Ford/DeForest Buckner-led line has been fantastic, Alexander and second-year stud Fred Warner have been great fits for rising young coordinator Robert Saleh’s system, and Richard Sherman and Ahkello Weatherspoon have bounced back from a not-always-to-great 2018 at corner.

The hope is time will heal the offense’s wounds. Both Staley and McGlinchey should return to the lineup for the stretch run, and Jimmy Garoppolo can expect to become more comfortable with his still-growing group of skill players around him.

But for now, this one was big, and Shanahan wasn’t sidestepping that. At one point in our conversation, he asked the bus driver to honk at the Niners fans that filled the Coliseum on Sunday, acknowledging their presence and showing, at the same, that this was a little more than just a win in Week 6.

"Without a doubt,” he said. “We believe we're a good team. We believed that before the year started. We believe that going into every game. But one thing we do know is we hadn’t been taking care of our division. Even going into that game 4-0, it was our first divisional game, so whether it was against the Rams or Seattle or Arizona, we knew how important that would be. The goal to get to the playoffs, so you have a chance to do something else.

“The best way to do that is to win your division. … I was glad we went out and did what we thought we could."

Maybe everyone else will see now what they’re capable of, too. Over the last week, they’ve outgained the Browns and Rams, two teams considered preseason Super Bowl contenders, 777-337, and outscored them 51-10.

So maybe they have some more to prove. But what they’ve done the last two weeks, at least on the surface, sure seems to say plenty.

“It says that in all three phases, we're playing pretty good right now,” Shanahan said.

And he most certainly can say that again.

***

DESHAUN WATSON OUTPLAYS THE REIGNING NFL MVP

Two NFL MVP candidates entered Arrowhead Stadium in Week 6, and one left having asserted himself—and that player was not Patrick Mahomes.

It was the player drafted two spots behind him in 2017: Deshaun Watson.

The Texans beat the Chiefs 31-24 and, even if it didn’t quite jump out on the stat sheet, Watson positively outgunned the reigning MVP. While his line—30-of-42 for 280 yards and a pick—was fine, it doesn’t show three potential touchdown passes dropped by Will Fuller, and another by DeAndre Hopkins. Moreover, it doesn’t reflect how Bill O’Brien and his coaching staff put their faith in the 24-year-old when it mattered most.

Holding that seven-point lead, and in a fourth-and-three from the Chiefs 27, O’Brien could’ve kicked a field goal to make it a two-possession game, or even tried pooch punting the ball. Instead, he flipped the keys to Watson and asked him to take this one into the garage.

"He trusted me leading the offense out there on the field in that situation,” Watson told me from the locker room. “I'm glad he went for it. That's a good call for him, to come into an environment like this and win it.”

Even better, O’Brien trusted Watson to make the adjustment he needed to, based on the coverage he was getting.

Before the snap, Fuller motioned to left side of the formation to right—and Chiefs corner Charvarius Ward followed him, indicating that Kansas City was locked in man coverage. Fuller stopped in a stack behind Hopkins. At the snap, Watson holds the ball long enough to allow Hopkins to fake outside, buying time for Fuller to run up behind him and force the corners to make a choice. As Hopkins breaks in, and Fuller out, the ball is gone.

At that point, neither corner has nearly enough time to react. In fact, when Hopkins goes to the turf for the throw, low and away into a window inside safety Tyrann Mathieu, Ward and Bashaud Breeland are still tangled up—the route forced them to sort through the design of the play to figure out who had Hopkins and who had Fuller.

First down. Game over.

“We just called a playcall and adjusted to the right coverage they were in and we executed a play with the route runner,” Watson said.

And therein lies the growth that the Texans have seen from their young quarterback. He’s seeing the field better. He’s adjusting better. He knows the offense more thoroughly.

But also, he’s in a better situation. Last year, he got beat up so badly he had to take a 12-hour bus ride too and from a game in Jacksonville, because it was unsafe for a man as beat up as he was to travel above 10,000 feet in a metal tube. This year, he avoided getting sacked and was only hit twice in a pivotal AFC game that could factor into seeding in a couple months—and it showed.

Those on the Texans staff have seen a more relaxed quarterback in the pocket, one who trusts the guys blocking for him, and is better when pressure does come as a result.

"We got a group of guys that are very confident, with a lot of chemistry,” Watson said. “They just keep playing hard. I think that's the biggest thing. They keep pushing forward, keep fighting hard and keep doing what they do and being very encouraging.”

This is also where O’Brien can take a bow. He took a lot of crap for giving up what he did to get Laremy Tunsil over Labor Day weekend, but it worked. It allowed the team to move first-round pick Tytus Howard to what they believe will be his long-term position, right tackle, before he got hurt on Sunday in Kansas City, and keep second-round pick Max Scharping at guard. And those guys are now with two vets, Nick Martin and Zach Fulton, that the team already trusted.

In many ways, this isn’t totally unlike when the Cowboys decided Tony Romo couldn’t take the pounding, and invested back into the line by spending first-rounders in three of four drafts taking big men. Those three wound up being Tyron Smith, Zack Martin and Travis Frederick. Watson’s situation won’t be that, but the idea isn’t too far off.

Nor, now, is the concept of Watson winning the MVP. Even with the aforementioned missed opportunities, the Houston quarterback brought the Texans back from a 17-3 deficit, and led three touchdown drives of 10 or more plays and 75 or more yards, including an epic 12-play, 93-yard march in the fourth quarter to put Houston up for good.

And if you’re into this kind of thing, it also may have opened an argument that Watson could get, sooner or later, into the stratosphere Mahomes ascended to last year—even if Watson himself says that neither he nor his counterpart see it as a competition.

“Nah, we don't focus on comparisons or things like that,” he said. “We just focus on trying to be the best quarterback we can be for our organizations.”

Watson definitely was that on Sunday. In fact, you could argue that, at least on this day, it was the best quarterback in either organization.

***

Sam Darnold

Sam Darnold started his first game for the Jets since Week 1 of this season.

DARNOLD’S BACK IN THE NEW YORK GROOVE

Sam Darnold wasn’t just dealing with mononucleosis these past few weeks. Allow the Jets’ 22-year-old quarterback to explain.

“The tricky part about it is I had mono and strep throat at the same time,” Darnold said early Sunday evening. “I had to get over the strep and the mono over four or five days. So I really couldn't eat much. I was trying to force down protein shakes as much as I could. And throughout those three or four days where I had to do that, my throat was basically closed. So I was forcing down those protein shakes and having a lot of people calling me, texting me, making sure I was doing that even though I didn't feel like it.”

It was annoying, wolfing down all those shakes, with everyone up his behind about it. One minute, it would be the trainers, and the next, his agent. Then later, his parents. Or a doctor. It also made a difference—“That really helped me recover.”

On Sunday, the payoff came. From start (a 17-yard pickup on a money deep out to Demaryius Thomas) to finish (two big completions on a fourth-quarter field goal drive), Darnold looked every bit the player that the Jets hoped he’d be in Year 2, the guy who buoyed the hopes of so many that he’d have the kind of sophomore-season arrival that Mahomes did last year or Carson Wentz did the year before.

It didn’t take long for Darnold to feel it coming, either. That was actually right away, on the throw to Thomas, off a play fake to Le’Veon Bell.

“That was the play that did it for me,” he said “Just being able to drop back, play action, throw it to him the way I did, I think that was the key moment for me. That gave me the confidence to go out there and play well."

If the first couple throws weren’t enough, the Jets’ second possession lasted for 14 plays and covered 83 yards, 43 of which came on six-for-eight passing from Darnold. The Jets’ next scored came quicker—Darnold stood in against the rush, and uncorked a downfield dime for Robby Anderson that ended in a 92-yard touchdown late in the second quarter.

But maybe the most telling sign of how first-year Jets coach Adam Gase feels about his new quarterback came late in the fourth quarter. On a possession that started with 6:21 left, up 21-16, the Jets didn’t close up shop. In fact, on its first play, Darnold struck downfield to Jamison Crowder for 30 yards and, two plays later, Darnold hit Anderson on a deep back-shoulder fade for another 18 yards.

The aggression and faith in Darnold paid off for Gase in a field goal that the Jets wound up needing to hold on in the end.

“That's the thing with Gase—he has to call the right play and he can't worry about who's at quarterback,” Darnold said. “He's got to worry about calling plays and that's it. He shouldn't have to worry about limitations nor what I can and cannot do. For me, I just have to go out there and execute.”

Darnold finished 23-of-32 for 338 yards, two touchdowns, a pick and a lot of people to thank for helping him through it. Among those he named: His parents, his coaches (Gase, OC Dowell Loggains, etc.), trainers John Mellody, Ezron Bryson and Dave Zuffelato, and team physician Dr. Damion Martins.

They helped in keeping his weight loss to just three or four pounds. They also helped in making sure he was updated where he needed to be on the football stuff—Darnold said getting the first-team reps during Eagles week “no doubt” helped ready him to play like he did on Sunday. And they were all good in helping him mentally deal with feeling like he was good to go the last three weeks or so, when his spleen simply wouldn’t allow it.

“The last three weeks I felt really good, but I just couldn't play,” Darnold said. “My energy was up, all that. I think that was the hardest part about the whole thing."

That part’s officially over now. And by the looks of it, the Jets are going to be a pretty different because of that.

***

WHAT TO EXPECT FROM THE NFL FALL MEETINGS

The NFL’s Fall meeting is next Tuesday and Wednesday in Fort Lauderdale, and according to the agenda, the CBA will be discussed. The Management Council Executive Committee (which includes the influential owners who steer labor talks) will provide an update. But reading the black-and-white of the memo, which we’ve obtained here, and you’ll be missing greater context hidden in the cover page from Roger Goodell.

The commissioner writes that “at this time, we expect that most of the meeting will be conducted in Executive Session (three per club), with certain portions of the meeting designated as privileged sessions.” Privileged sessions are restricted to owners and their kin, so in a way, this is a warning that the majority of the proceedings in Fort Lauderdale will be exclusive and held on a need-to-know basis.

Most people believe that the CBA strategy session will take place as a privileged session.

Is it a critical time? Not exactly, but there’s a clear push from certain owners to get a deal done between now and Thanksgiving so talks on new broadcast deals can get started before the end of the calendar year, which will allow the NFL to strategize further in macro areas like gambling and international.

Dallas’ Jerry Jones and New England’s Robert Kraft are among those who’d like to fast-track the labor talks, believing there’s bigger business to be done, if a new CBA can be reached. Conversely, some old-guard owners, like the Giants’ John Mara and Kansas City’s Clark Hunt, are advocating a more conservative approach, and emphasizing getting the right sort of new CBA.

The last meeting took place on Oct. 1, with just five men present (Goodell, Mara, Hunt, NFLPA executive director DeMaurice Smith and PA president Eric Winston) and, in general terms, not much progress was made. The main issue is that the league wants more games and the same revenue split, the players want the same amount of games and a more favorable percentage of the league’s revenue.

But there are silver linings there. One, the talks are much more amicable than they were at this point in 2011. Two, neither side sees peripheral topics as roadblocks. In other words, if they can solve the divide on the revenue split and the number of games, both would be motivated and, they believe, able to work the rest out.

As they left it in Jacksonville, the plan was to set up the next meeting after the owners had their chance to discuss all this in Fort Lauderdale. So more news should be coming soon.

A few other things on the docket for those meetings …

• Votes on Steelers ownership transactions (minority shares, of course), and an investment back into the Hall of Fame.

• Updates on the Roc Nation partnership, the league’s social-justice efforts and, believe it or not, pyrotechnics (the league banned them temporarily after a fire broke out in Nashville in September).

• Discussion on league sports betting spanning the fan engagement, commercial and government affairs sides of it.

• A competition committee report on points of emphasis for 2019, the focus for ’20, and officiating.

• Progress reports on the Los Angeles and Las Vegas stadiums.

• Reports on the International Series, Health and Safety (Injury rate updates, etc.), and Workplace Diversity (The Fritz Pollard Alliance will present an update).

***

Jay Gruden

Jay Gruden was fired as Washington’s head coach last Monday.

JAY GRUDEN’S FINAL DAYS IN WASHINGTON

Jay Gruden had a feeling he’d be getting bad news last Monday, and it was confirmed when he arrived at Redskins Park at 5 a.m. and saw owner Dan Snyder and president Bruce Allen at the facilities rather early for work.

“No, I was not surprised at all,” Gruden told me, after finishing a round of golf on Saturday afternoon. “With all the rumors going around before the season, and during the season even, I kind of knew it was coming, because no one really gave me a vote of confidence anyway. Like, ‘hey, don’t worry about the rumors’ or ‘you’re good here’, there was never that. I knew that if we didn’t win early, there was a good chance that I’d be gone.”

Gruden’s record during his 85-game run in Washington at 35-49-1, which requires some context. In 2014, the head coach inherited a circus of a situation, at quarterback and elsewhere, and finished 4-12. The next two years, the team remained competitive even amid Kirk Cousins’s contract situation, and the Redskins went 9–7 (reaching the playoffs) and 8-7-1, respectively.

Cousins finally bolted after 2017, and the Redskins played well in ’18 before his replacement, Alex Smith, went down with a horrific and potentially career-ending leg injury. Injuries multiplied from there—Jordan Reed, Brandon Schreff, Derrius Guice and Chase Roullier all missed significant time early this year.

“What hurt our team was the lack of people we had on offense,” Gruden said. “Your starting quarterback, your starting left tackle, your starting right guard, your starting center, your starting running back... that’s a lot of key ingredients to your cake that you’re losing. It’s not easy to overcome that. … Had we had Alex Smith and drafted Dwayne Haskins, I think life would’ve been a lot easier. Trent Williams in the building, and Derrius Guice healthy, things would’ve been different. Jordan Reed, Vernon Davis, those were weapons where you just don’t say, ‘OK, let’s just put this guy in here and it’ll be the same.’”

It, of course, wasn’t. Some more from my conversation with Gruden …

Managing the rumors. The players knew that Gruden was on the hot seat at the start of the season. But while Gruden conceded he couldn’t ignore that, he didn’t feel like they were a big factor. “Guys read the paper, they know the rumors that are out there, they know it’s a situation where we probably gotta win early or the coach will be gone. But that shouldn’t change the way they prepare, that shouldn’t change the way they play, what effort they play with, their attention to detail. It should not change. It shouldn’t put added pressure on you, there’s enough pressure to go beat Philadelphia in Week 1.”

The quarterback situation. Losing Smith was tough for everyone. Gruden was aware, too, of the narrative out there that there was disagreement internally over Dwayne Haskins. “We needed a quarterback, for sure,” he said. “Whether everybody was on the same page or not, the decision was made to take Haskins. He’s a great prospect, just wasn’t quite ready Weeks 1 through 5 Now, I don’t know if he’ll be ready next or the week after. But while I was there, he wasn’t quite ready.”

Regrets. Gruden has plenty of regrets, but when asked what, specifically, he answered, “it really doesn’t matter now.” But he mentioned how coaches without final say over the roster have to manage different staff and roster dynamics—“That’s the hardest part of coaching in the National Football League, in my opinion.”

The video. A video of Gruden smoking circulated the weekend of Gruden’s last game, a 33-7 loss to the Patriots. “I don’t know how that got out there, what that was,” he said. “That was from three years ago. I remember the guy took the video, have no idea why it came out now. It came out and I figured it’d come out eventually.”

What’s next? Gruden played golf on Saturday and spent time with his grandkids afterwards—for the time being, that will occupy his time. And no, he wasn’t planning to go help his brother. “I’ll enjoy myself until I got crazy with boredom,” he said. “Then I’ll figure out some things to do. I’d really just like to do that, just take some time off, then I’ll make some notes and get my preparation ready.”

Gruden managed the constant circus around that franchise as well as any coach I’ve seen there. He was honest, and matter-of-fact, and I think both the people who covered him and worked for him appreciated that about him. I also think he’s a really good offensive mind, with a strong background in coaching quarterbacks. So I don’t think we’ve seen the last of him as a head coach.

***

THE ALL-32

The 49ers coaching staff is full of sharp, young coaches, and many of them will likely be plucked . We already saw one example, with last year’s DBs coach, Jeff Hafley, now at Ohio State turning the Buckeyes’ defense around. Robert Saleh and Mike McDaniel could certainly be next to find opportunities for advancement in other places. Saleh’s next move would as a head coach somewhere else. Theoretically, McDaniel’s would be a playcaller, but Shanahan values him at a level where I don’t think he’d easily let him go.

The Bears’ offensive line situation is worth watching. Veteran guard Kyle Long, who struggled early this year, is heading to IR, and left tackle Charles Leno is off to an up-and-down start. So long as the team has to continue managing its quarterback situation, that’s going to be a concern.

If I were the Bengals, I’d consider dealing A.J. Green. He’s in a walk year, and if someone’s willing to fork over a serious return (like a first-round pick), given his injury history and age, I think Cincinnati should consider. And I’m saying that with the knowledge that doing it runs counter to long-held organizational norms.

One big area of growth for the Bills has come on the offensive line. The team is satisfied with 2019 veteran additions Mitch Morse and Jon Feliciano at center and guard, respectively. Add that to the production of guys like Jordan Phillips, and the obvious skill position additions (Frank Gore, Cole Beasley and John Brown), and the Bills’ pro scouting department has done some good work.

Don’t look now, but the Broncos are just two games out of first. All five of the Denver skill players who had multiple touches on Sunday (Philip Lindsay, Royce Freeman, Courtland Sutton, DaeSean Hamilton, Noah Fant) were in the team’s last two draft classes.

I think Browns QB Baker Mayfield will be fine, but maybe not until they do something about an offensive line that was shaky again against Seattle.

There’s no reason for the Buccaneers not to ride out the season with Jameis Winston (it’s not like Gardner Minshew is waiting on the bench). Winston made significant progress prior to this week, but the turnover issue popping up again in that fashion is nothing if not troubling.

I think we saw the play-calling acumen of Cardinals coach Kliff Kingsbury on display on Sunday, as Arizona pulled to 2-3-1. The throwback call leading to a 20-yard touchdown throw from Kyler Murray to Maxx Williams looked like it was straight out of our wing-T playbook at Lincoln-Sudbury Regional, but man, did it work. The Falcons overpursued, and no one was in Williams’s zip code.

I think it’s fair to ask if the Chargers have reached a bit of a breaking point. They’ve been through a lot the last three years—an annual injury epidemic, a nomadic existence and a home stadium that often doesn’t feel much like home. If any coach is equipped to have his team fight through this, it’s Anthony Lynn. We’ll see if he can pull a rabbit from his hat, like he did the last two years.

The Chiefs defense has to be much better—and that’s with the acknowledgment that losing star DT Chris Jones was huge. The Texans grinded out 35 first downs, held the ball for nearly 40 minutes and averaged 4.7 yards on 41 carries. The way Houston won, it might as well have been January again. This was exactly how the Patriots warded off the high-flying Chiefs offense then, and it sure looks like the formula still works now.

One of the most encouraging things about how the Colts have played is the number of young guys that continue to emerge. Of late, RB Marlon Mack, DBs Khari Willis and George Odum, and LB Bobby Okereke have made a difference, and added to the depth of the team’s core. Lots of people focus on Jacoby Brissett, and he’s been really good. But the strength of Indy, increasingly, is in the balance of its roster.

It’s hard to pinpoint the specific issue the Cowboys have had. The slow starts in the last few weeks weren’t about talent—and that’s why Jason Garrett will remain in the crosshairs of the team’s fan base. I imagine it won’t be long before talk about Lincoln Riley, who the Jones family has legit affection for, coming to Dallas revs up.

An A for effort for Dolphins coach Brian Flores’s crew, and I say that without a hint of sarcasm. To come back in that lifeless stadium, playing against another team in a weird spot, says something about the players in the Miami locker room and Flores’s staff.

The Eagles’ weakness at cornerback was exposed against the Vikings as Kirk Cousins and Stefon Diggs rediscovered their connection. It’ll be interesting to see if Howie Roseman makes a hard run at Jalen Ramsey. Because they have Carson Wentz on a second contract, I know Philly wants to be a little more conservative about dealing away picks (and the cost-controlled players that come with them). But this situation might dire enough to merit selling out for a star.

Another week, another tough-to-understand loss for a Falcons team which I’ve thought all along was well-stocked with talent. The Rams and Seahawks visit Atlanta the next two Sundays, and the bye follows that. If Atlanta’s 1-7 at that point, you have to wonder what owner Arthur Blank might do, assuming something doesn’t happen sooner.

Give Giants QB Daniel Jones credit for battling in Foxboro on Thursday night. No Saquon Barkley. No Evan Engram. No Sterling Shepard. And no, the numbers weren’t good (35.2 passer rating). But Jones hung in there, and showed a lot of what the Giants liked about him at Duke – and how he constantly had to fight upstream against opponents with superior rosters in the ACC.

Has the clock struck midnight on the Jaguars and our hero Gardner Minshew? For the first time, the rookie looked a little out of his depth on Sunday against the Saints.

Ex-Jets GM Mike Maccagnan made plenty of mistakes over four-plus years in charge in Florham Park. One was not drafting Jamal Adams sixth overall. What a force that guy is. Adams had nine tackles, a pass breakup and a tackle for a loss, and he pressured Dallas QB Dak Prescott into an off-target throw on a two-point try to tie the game late in the fourth quarter. And somehow, it feels like I’m underselling how he played.

A Lions player to watch tonight: LB Devon Kennard. Detroit GM Bob Quinn and coach Matt Patricia got him for $17.25 million over three years two offseasons ago, and this has been as New England a signing as you can imagine. Kennard was a little overlooked because he didn’t star for the Giants, but can do a little bit of everything within a defense. Which has been enough to make him a star in Detroit. More on him in the Monday spotlight section.

I’m excited to watch the Packers on Monday night in that it felt like last week Aaron Rodgers was reaching a comfort level in Matt LaFleur’s offense. And LaFleur agreed when I asked him if it felt that way to him. And the Packers could become pretty interesting over the next couple months if that’s the case.

My understanding on the Panthers quarterback situation going into the bye: The coaches have resolved to leave it alone until Cam Newton is fully healthy again. That said, Kyle Allen’s made an interesting case for himself, going 80-of-122 for 901 yards, seven touchdowns an no picks in four starts, all wins. When I texted with coach Ron Rivera about it, as he left London, he said, “We will address the issue when we have to. Need everyone focused on the now. Not on speculation.”

The Patriots’ deployment of Sony Michel warrants watching. In Week 3, his playing time plummeted—he played just 17 snaps against the Jets, while fellow tailback Rex Burkhead was in for 56. And at the time, the presumed reason was Burkhead’s proficiency in the passing game. Yet, over the last two weeks, the script has been flipped, with Michel getting 16 carries against the Redskins and 22 against the Giants. What’s more, he had five receptions in those two games, which is a two-game career high, and maybe an indication they’re trying to force-feed him into that phase of the game. Why do this? Well, last year, when Bill Belichick and Josh McDaniels decided to saddle up behind the run game, it was Michel they chose to ride. If they’re gonna do that again, it’d make sense to get Michel prepared to do some different things, so they don’t lose their versatility when he gets on the field.

Worth mentioning that in Year 2 under Jon Gruden, Raiders QB Derek Carr is pacing towards career highs in passer rating and completion percentage, and that’s despite losing his No. 1 receiver at the start of the season?

Maybe we underrated the Rams’ offensive-line losses this offseason – center John Sullivan and guard Rodger Saffold took a lot of experience and institutional knowledge out the door with them. And Joe Noteboom and Brian Allen are young, and have a lot of learning to do, which was evident in watching the Niners work them on Sunday.

I don’t know how sustainable the Ravens playing Lamar Jackson this way is, but I’m going to enjoy it while we have it. The guy runs like Randy Moss, with that easy way of gliding past players, and has shown he can throw it to a reasonable degree, too. Over 200 yards passing and 150 rushing, all these years after defenses have caught up with option concepts, is something else, no matter how you slice it.

The Redskins have a player in Terry McLaurin. And a win now, too.

The Saints defense should get more credit than it has for the 4-0 run the team is on without Drew Brees. After a tough afternoon dealing Russell Wilson in Seattle in Week 3, New Orleans has been pretty air-tight. They allowed 257 yards to the Cowboys, 252 to the Bucs, and 226 to the Jaguars. There’s talent there, of course—Marshon Lattimore, Cam Jordan, Marcus Davenport and Sheldon Rankins are blue-chippers. And DC Dennis Allen deserves credit, too. His second shot at becoming a head coach should come soon.

As it stands now, Seahawks QB Russell Wilson would probably get the edge for me over Watson for MVP. And one reason why is that 20-6 deficit in Cleveland today felt like nothing for an offense that doesn’t really have another skill player who’ll keep the defensive coordinator up on Saturday night. So much of it is Wilson himself, and how he rubs off on his teammates. “He truly believes that no matter what’s happened, or what’s happening, we’re gonna find a way to win the football game,” OC Brian Schottenheimer told me. “And he is the most calm in the craziest situations” How he handled Seattle’s last two possessions Sunday—one a drive to take the lead, another to salt the win away—was a pretty good example of it.

If you aren’t paying attention to Steelers rookie LB Devin Bush, start now. The kid is going to be a superstar, and has the potential to bring the proud defensive tradition in that franchise back.

Don’t look now, but ex-Seahawk hybrid Jake Martin, shipped to the Texans in the Jadeveon Clowney, is starting to make plays. He had a big one on third down against the Chiefs. Maybe was more than a throw-in.

Franchise-altering decision coming for Titans coach Mike Vrabel. If he benches Marcus Mariota, it’ll be tough for Mariota to recover from it. And if going to Ryan Tannehill, in that case, doesn’t work, things get a little harder on everyone. Tough call for Vrabel.

It’s telling that Vikings QB Kirk Cousins’ four touchdown passes all came on first or second down (two on first, two on second). Much easier for a quarterback like Cousins to play on rhythm and within structure in those early-down situations – and smart of Minnesota OC Kevin Stefanski for get him going that way.

***

Chase Winovich

TOP FIVE

1. Patriots’ defense is on a historic pace. And to think, we were making a big deal out of the fact that Bill Belichick came into the season without a defensive coordinator. Matt Patricia left after 2017 and Brian Flores after last year, and all the head coach has done is roll out, in their absence, a group’s that producing on an absurd level. Here’s some context to what’s happening here:

• The Patriots defense has allowed 234.7 yards per game, and three touchdowns through six weeks. Over the same time frame, by comparison, the 2000 Ravens allowed 262.3 yards and six touchdowns, the 1985 Bears allowed 315.0 yards per game and 11 touchdowns.

• Of those three touchdowns, one was a 65-yarder on a reverse from Redskins WR Steven Sims, and another was a 64-yard strike from Daniel Jones to Golden Tate on Thursday night, on which Jonathan Jones’s coverage was tight. That means there’s been just one sustained touchdown drive on the Patriots—a nine-play, 75-yard drive piloted by Buffalo QB Josh Allen in Week 3—since the AFC title game.

• Add in the Super Bowl, and that means this group has allowed three touchdowns, and one sustained touchdown drive, in its last seven games.

• Eight of the defense’s 11 starters (Happy birthday, John Simon) are 29 or older, with a ninth starter (Kyle Van Noy) at 28. Those nine guys, between them, have 77 seasons of NFL experience; people in New England will say that has had a way of unlocking Belichick as a strategist.

It’s hard to imagine they’ll keep this up forever, especially since the schedule stiffens after next Monday’s game at the Jets. But even if they’re a tick off this pace? They’d still be historic. It should be fun watching where this goes as the team approaches a six-game stretch that includes the Browns, Ravens, Eagles, Cowboys, Texans and Chiefs.

2. Struggling teams catching the eye of contenders. As they always are this time of year, trade calls are happening, and there are a few teams that have failed to hit expectations that have fielded or will be fielding calls from contenders looking to pluck parts from the wreckage. One is the Bengals, who have A.J. Green, Geno Atkins, Tyler Eifert and Carlos Dunlap among the older players with value on the roster. Another is the Broncos, with Von Miller in the “it doesn’t hurt to ask” category, and Emmanuel Sanders, Chris Harris and Adam Gostis in contract years. A third is Atlanta, which has Vic Beasley, DeVondre Campbell and Austin Hooper in the final year of their rookie deals. I’d say Green and Miller are unlikely to be moved. And the Bengals’ history is not to move anyone in these situations. But if the teams are further out of contention before the Oct. 29 deadline, all are worth watching.

3. Teams going fishing for stars coming up empty. Two skill guys with numbers thus far that don’t befit their ability—Vikings WR Stefon Diggs and Bucs TE OJ Howard—have been the subject of consideration for contending teams, and rumors for the general public. Unless something changes, or a Godfather offer comes, I don’t see them moved. 

I’ve been told three times over the last two weeks that Diggs is unavailable. And teams that have called the Bucs about Howard (Tampa also has Cameron Brate at the position) have been met with a flat “no.” Both guys are under contract for multiple years beyond this one. Diggs is 25 and Howard is 24. It makes sense for the teams to ride out whatever issues they’re facing with those guys.

4. Tomlin to the Redskins unrealistic. There are reasons to connect Mike Tomlin to the Redskins. He’s from Virginia. His son Dino is a freshman receiver on the Maryland football team, and Maryland’s campus is short drive both from the Redskins’ facility and stadium. Tomlin’s 13 years in Pittsburgh, is two seasons short of how long Bill Cowher lasted.

But I’d still be surprised if the team decided to move on. For one, Tomlin’s seen and experienced the advantage true organizational stability gives a coach, and the Redskins can’t offer any history of that. For another, the roster has significant issues, which would make it a tough sell for a coach who’s never had a losing season (this might wind up being his first). And then, there’s discussion I had with owner Art Rooney a couple months back on Tomlin’s future. 

“He certainly hasn’t put any sticker date on himself, and neither have we,” Rooney told me. “He’s still a relatively young guy in the coaching profession and has certainly as much energy and enthusiasm as he’s ever had. So I don’t that there’s any particular window that he’s gonna coach through. He hasn’t given me any indication that he’s got any date in mind. Obviously, things change with people. As his life evolves, kids are grown, maybe that impacts him at some point. But we haven’t had that conversation.” 

Maybe the Redskins offer him a boatload of money and full control, and give the Steelers picks. I just don’t see this all coming together as very likely at all.

5. You’re still watching football. Some numbers from the NFL that are pretty staggering on how America is consuming its game …

• NFL games are averaging 16.4 million views in 2019, up 6%.

• By comparison, the most watched MLB playoff game had been Game 5 of the NLDS between the National and Dodgers. It drew 5.86 million viewers.

• Meanwhile, Thursday night’s Patriots/Giants game drew 16.0 million viewers, a bigger audience than the average 2019 NBA Finals game got (15.14 million) and more than four times the viewership of the Rays/Astros ALDS game it was up against (3.67 million viewers).

It goes with saying—football remains king.

***

CeeDee Lamb

SIX FROM SATURDAY

1. Jalen Hurts will draw the headlines, but Oklahoma WR CeeDee Lamb was as high impact a player as Lincoln Riley had in Dallas on Saturday. Big and physical, Lamb fought through traffic on both his long touchdowns, which were difference-makers for the Sooners. Scouts think that kind of effort could take the second-round type into the bottom of the first round. Still a factor: How he runs in the spring. A good 40 would really help his cause.

2. It’s officially time to start to consider whether LSU QB Joe Burrow could sneak into the first round, as well. He went 21-of-24 for 293 yards and three touchdowns on Saturday, on a very big stage against a very good defense.

“He was ripping it, played really well,” an AFC exec texted. “He won’t get out of the second (round). Just playing too well. … And UF has NFL corners. He made some tight window throws, some downfield throws, etc.”

3. What Matt Rhule is doing at Baylor is now analogous to what Bill O’Brien did in two years at Penn State—taking a program in crisis, and guiding it out to a new era. After a sexual assault scandal rocked the school and the athletic department, the Bears went 1-11 in 2017—Rhule’s first season. The team improved to 7-6 last year, and they’re 6-0 now.

NFL teams, as you might imagine, are paying attention. The Jets were close to hiring Rhule last year, but his choice of offensive coordinator (now-Lions QBs coach Sean Ryan) didn’t line up with theirs (now-Browns OC Todd Monken), and Rhule wasn’t going to relent on staff. If Baylor keeps this going, it won’t be the last NFL job that Rhule has to consider.

4. Tua Tagovailoa finally threw his first pick of the year on Saturday. Last year, he threw 24 touchdown passes. This year? He threw 26 touchdown passes before being picked. On the play itself, Tagovailoa simply didn’t see Texas A&M safety Demani Richardson flashing in front of Jerry Jeudy. It happens. It just doesn’t happen very often to him.

5. Per NBC Sports Northwest’s Bri Amaranthus, 17 NFL teams were in attendance for Oregon-Colorado on Friday night. Six had multiple evaluators there, according to her report: Tennessee, Philadelphia, Buffalo, Jacksonville, Miami and, with a whopping four scouts in attendance, Atlanta. The main attraction, of course, was Justin Herbert, who acquitted himself fine (if the Ducks QB didn’t answer all questions) in the Oregon win. Also of note is that a few teams with aging quarterbacks (New England, New Orleans, Pittsburgh) made the trip.

6. Oregon has a freaky freshman pass-rusher in Kayvon Thibodeaux. Want another true frosh at that position to watch? Georgia’s Nolan Smith looks like he’s going to be an absolute terror. Which means the 2022 draft class already has real promise in guys coming off the edge.

***

BEST OF THE NFL INTERNET

Obviously, an amazing display of the Steeler brand, and a pretty sad sight for the Chargers. I don’t know how they will make it in Los Angeles.

So this is what Johnny Manziel has been doing...

I’m convinced everyone just wants to go viral these days. The crazier, the better.

This is what you’d say during a preseason game. Only this one counted. And big-time, in the context of next April.

Truer words have not been spoken.

Ex-NFL star Chad Johnson shows his appreciation for a new kid who people at Ohio State were pumping up to teams all March and April, explaining how his NFL production would wind up dwarfing what he did in college. Good for the Redskins for listening.

True for a while, then the Texans took it into a phone booth, which was brilliant.

The airplane message is never a great sign of things to come.

I guess it really did take an act of God to slow Gardner Minshew’s roll.

You basically need to do something befitting a restraining order to get a PI call overturned now. Wonder if that’s a little bit of the officials pushing back against the changes that were forced on them in the spring.

Not quite yet! (I don’t think)

Four hours is a long time to say hyped, in his defense.

Don’t knock it until you try it. Gator actually tastes really good.

Even though it’s not an NFL story, just watch it. It’s worth your 3:01.

***

MONDAY NIGHT SPOTLIGHT

Each week, we’ll ask a guy playing on Monday Night Football a few questions. This week, an emerging star from the Lions defense, LB Devon Kennard …

MMQB: Has going to Detroit changed your career?

Kennard: Most definitely. I came here as a free agent, they gave me an opportunity to do some things that I feel like I’m good at, like playing in a scheme that’s very versatile and has [players] doing a lot of different things. It’s been exciting. And I’m just trying to take what I learned last year to the next level this year.

MMQB: How does the scheme highlight what you do well?

Kennard: Just the versatility. I’m a player who, I think, can do a multitude of things, and it allows me to do that. We move around a lot in our linebacker room, playing different roles, playing in different positions, moving all over the field. And that’s what I feel is a strong suit of mine. It’s put me in a position to make plays and rush the passer a little bit more than I did in New York. It’s been good for me.

MMQB: Along those lines, how has Matt [Patricia] worked for you as a coach?

Kennard: He’s just somebody I’ve learned a ton from. We have a great relationship, I’ve been able to ask him a ton of questions about the nuances of the defense and the position. And just having him as part of the defense in game-planning and how we play certain things, it’s just helped me learn a ton over the last year. And I’m using it to do and get better in the defense every day.

MMQB: Anything surprise you with the team’s start?

Kennard: No, I wasn’t surprised. I know the guys we have in this locker room. And I believe in myself and my teammates. I knew we were capable of it. I actually think we left some plays out there in the first quarter of the season. We should be in an even better situation than we are. But you can only control what you can control. And we have a great opportunity on Monday night this week.

MMQB: Was there a point last year where you thought ‘We’re going to be alright‘?

Kennard: I felt that all the way through. There was never a question for me. But as we started to jell and get closer and closer as a team, the overall work ethic of the team was really good, and I’m just really confident in the guy.

MMQB: A lot was made out of you guys running laps, and Patricia building the running hill. Where has that shown up for you guys?

Kennard: I think we’re a well-conditioned team, we’re willing to face any kind of adversity, and it’s made us closer in the locker room. We feel like we work just as hard if not harder than any other team in the league. I think it just builds that kind of resiliency as a team, and that pays dividends through the year.

MMQB: What do you take from the Chiefs lost? I’m sure you’re not big on moral victories...

Kennard: I feel like we should’ve won that game. We made some mistakes. And the Chiefs are a great team. But I feel like we did some things that could’ve changed the outcome of the game. But like you said, there’s no moral victories. I know some people are excited because, ‘Oh, you played them tough.’ There are no moral victories for me. I feel like we could’ve and should’ve beat them. But all you can do is take that and move forward, and try to play better this week. We had our first real loss of the season, going into a bye week, we had to let that one sting a little longer. And hopefully we can change things moving forward.

MMQB: Is playing on Monday night a good chance to show everyone how far you’ve come, both personally and a team?

Kennard: From a personal standpoint, all I’m about is winning. I want to help my team win. Whatever plays I can make, whatever I can do that’s going to push us more towards winning, I’m going to go out there and do whatever’s asked of me. I don’t really worry about all that other stuff. And it’s the same message as a team overall—it’s just another game. We can’t hold one game over another. It just happens to be on Monday night. We have to go out there and play our best ball, and it’s the most important game because it’s the next game. I’m gonna say the exact same thing next week and the week after. I take this game one week at a time and see where the chips fall when it’s all over..

MMQB: Biggest rule for a defensive player playing against Aaron Rodgers?

Kennard: Just in general, you want to make him feel as uncomfortable as you can. That goes from stopping the run to putting pressure on him to covering the receivers tight. There are so many different things, he’s just such a talented player that can beat you in a multitude of ways. You want to play as well as you can and limit what he can do against us. That’s what makes it tough—he can beat you multiple ways.

***

WHAT YOU NEED TO KNOW

Eight of the Chiefs’ top 10 tacklers on Sunday weren’t on the roster at the end of last season. The other two were, but were elsewhere in 2017.

In a league where change is the norm, that’s a staggering amount of turnover. Add in a new coordinator on that side of the ball, in Steve Spagnuolo, and a reworked staff, and I think it’s fair to wait to pass final judgment on just who Kansas City is defensively for now.

The reason I bring it up now? On Thursday night, they get the Broncos. If they look as bad then as they did Sunday, maybe we revisit this.

But for now, I’d still hold out hope in that there are talented guys on that side of the ball in Kansas City, and that Spagnuolo knows what he’s doing. If he can make this even a top-15 unit, and the offense gets healthy, look out.

Until then, we may see more afternoons like the one we got yesterday.

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