Is 2019 becoming the year that the ’18 offensive revolution has met its defensive match?
When I presented the idea to a number of high-profile defensive players on Sunday night, I faced the kind of response you’d expect from guys on that side of the ball—in a word, resistance. Because as these guys saw it, nothing in their world had changed.
“It’s always, ‘Defense wins championships.’ I don’t think that will ever leave our game,” 49ers corner Richard Sherman says, after his team’s 51–13 destruction of a Panthers team that had won four straight. “I think playing defense is the only way you can win a Super Bowl in this league. I mean great offenses have won, obviously it’s happened. But last year in the Super Bowl, it was a low-scoring game, it was a defensive game.”
“No matter what in this league, you can’t win consistently without playing good defense,” Patriots safety Devin McCourty says, a few hours after his team took out Cleveland 27–13. “And as the games get bigger and bigger, you have to be a good team overall—offense, defense and special teams.”
“You’re gonna say it was an offensive revolution last year. We still held Zeke Elliott under 100, we still held Saquon Barkley under 75,” Saints defensive Cam Jordan says after his team snapped Arizona’s three-game winning streak with a 31–9 win in which New Orleans limited the Cards to 40 yards on the ground. “Whatever it was last year, our defense was still holding guys under 100 yards. So I guess we didn’t know there was an offensive revolution going on.”
And all that’s fine. But even if Jordan and the rest of those guys didn’t hear it, offense really was all we were talking about as a football-watching country at this time last year.
Now? Well, if you look at the headlines coming from Week 8, it’s clear that the antithesis is unfolding right in front of our eyes, even if it’s not as easy a discussion to have as the one everyone reveled in last year.
• The 49ers’ top-ranked defense, sparked by 22-year-old terror Nick Bosa, keyed that blowout over the Panthers, moving San Francisco to 7–0 on the season.
• The Patriots’ second-ranked defense had its worst statistical day in a month, and that was still enough to bludgeon Baker Mayfield and hold the Browns to 13 points in Foxboro.
• The Saints got Drew Brees back, and made it look like that was just icing on the cake, keeping Kliff Kingsbury’s red-hot Cardinals out of the end zone.
Now, this doesn’t mean that in two or three weeks, we won’t all be marveling at some skill-position star’s mind-boggling numbers. But it does mean that while everyone was looking the other way, defenses found ways to fight back.
It’s not quite the halfway point of the season—if my math is correct, that actually comes sometime Wednesday—but half of the league’s teams are halfway through the 2019 season. And, as such, we have a lot to get to here in your Monday morning column. Including…
• The Saints’ post-Brees injury survival.
• The Patriots’ age-defying defense.
• The 49ers defense’s captain explaining the rise of its new star.
• Bill Belichick gets No. 300.
But we’re going to start with a quick synopsis of what I feel like has been an underlying, underrated storyline this fall.
Would you believe that both the 49ers and Patriots are pacing at historic levels on defense? It’s true. Let’s compare their numbers through eight weeks (the Niners have only played seven games) to units that are rightfully remembered with reverence in the 100-year history of the league.
1985 Bears: 305.6 yards per game, 13.13 points per game
2000 Ravens: 251.4 yards per game, 11.13 points per game
2002 Bucs: 237.9 yards per game, 8.75 points per game
2019 49ers: 224.4 yards per game, 11.0 points per game
2019 Patriots: 234.0 yards per game, 7.6 points per game
Yes, here’s a lot of football left to be played, but the relevance of these figures is proven out in the teams’ aggregate record of 15–0, a combined ledger that includes just two one-possession games (the Niners’ 24–20 Week 3 win in Pittsburgh, and the Patriots’ 16–10 Week 4 win in Buffalo). The Patriots and Niners aren’t just winning—they’re knocking the will out of their opponents.
There’s more here, too. Going into Week 9, there will be nine teams with two or fewer losses, and five of them rank in the top six in the NFL in total defense. By contrast, last year, seven teams at the same juncture last year had two or fewer losses, and just three of them were top 10 in total D.
So with all due respect to Jordan and McCourty and Sherman—who are certainly right that the importance of playing strong, sound defense heightens as temperatures drop—there has been a shift in the way the games have been won in 2019.
Will this trend have staying power? What’s more likely, I’d say, is that this will prove just to be more churn in the cyclical nature of pro football, which is what last year’s so-called revolution turned out to be. And as for what might be causing this most recent change, we did seek out answers to that one.
“Yeah, I know exactly what [defenses] have done,” Sherman says, laughing. “But I'm not going to give it away.”
NEW ORLEANS FINDS ANOTHER SUPER SUB
Latavius Murray and the rest of the Saints knew by early Saturday that Drew Brees would start against the Cardinals, so they had plenty of time to prepare mentally for the quarterback switch and all it entailed. But for a new member of the organization, as Murray is, there was a moment right before kickoff that got to him—even if he knew it was coming.
It came when Brees addressed the team.
“Those are the moments when you get those chills, where you know the man can make a grown man cry when he talks,” the seventh-year running back says. “I feel it more in those moments. Not so much on the field, because I want to make sure I keep my emotions together there, so I’m going out there performing. It's those other moments in the locker room or off on a break, when he may have something to say to the team or right before the huddle.
“Those are what's special about him.”
Murray saying that, of course, because he’s been trained to say that—and believe it, because it sure has worked for the Saints. In a certain way, he was a part of a similar situation Sunday, as Brees reentered the lineup and took his spot back from veteran Teddy Bridgewater. Murray saw his role grow, a la Bridgewater, with workhorse Alvin Kamara sitting out with an ankle injury.
And like Bridgewater before him, Murray answered the bell. He piled up an astounding 30 touches, logging 21 carries for 102 rushing yards, and nine catches for another 55 yards as Brees got his footing in his first action since Sept. 15.
“Teddy, I'm sure he took it personally and I definitely take it personally because you don't want to be the reason why we’re not able to go out there and be successful still,” Murray says. “You want to make sure you contribute and you want to make sure you’re being a solution and not a problem. And so I definitely take that personally and I definitely wanted to make sure I made my presence felt out there these past couple weeks, with Alvin being out.”
How did Brees play? Murray says he and his teammates expected a high level of play from their quarterback, because he’d impressed them with the work he did off to the side at practice for a few weeks now, and there was no reason to doubt it’d translate to the game field. But Murray and Cam Jordan and others were hesitant to single any single player out.
So we can do that for him. Brees was good in the first half (20 of 27, 197 yards), better in the second half (14 of 16, 176 yards, 3 TDs, INT), and showed no ill effects of his injured thumb.
And watching the Saints methodically pull apart the Cardinals on Sunday, it was hard not to see the silver lining we’d all imagined coming to life. Forced to play without their quarterback for five weeks, the hope in New Orleans was that the team would be have to become more well-rounded, and that the 40-year-old field general would hit the back half of the schedule rested and ready. There was no evidence there in the Superdome that that won’t happen.
“This team has possibilities,” says Jordan, the ninth-year two-time All-Pro. “We’re just trying to capitalize on each opportunity presented. When you talk about exactly what we have on our team, we feel like this is 2011, when we had playoff potential, we knew we could go deep in the playoffs. This is 2013, where we felt like if we had home field advantage we couldn’t lose to anybody. We feel like this is last year, where it was gonna take more than just 11 to beat us.
“We’re trying to grow each and every day.”
And they’ll do it from 7–1, having gone 5–0 without Brees, and won their first game with their star quarterback back in the saddle.
What they’re shooting for, though, is a place they still haven’t reached—one where the games aren’t close enough to be determined by things, like, oh, a Hail Mary or a missed call. What Jordan felt like was shaky officiating in the Carolina game Sunday only reinforced the idea.
“It created a bigger chip on the shoulder,” he says. “We know we can’t let anybody come close.”
For a while on Sunday, the Cardinals were. It was, after all, 10–6 at the half. And how’d that turn out? As Jordan points out, “We had enough points to win the game at halftime.”
THE LEGEND DISHES ON THE ROOKIE: RICHARD SHERMAN DISCUSSES NICK BOSA
49ers DE Nick Bosa’s stat line from the Panther rout reads like it must be a mistake: three sacks, four tackles, a pick and a pass defensed. And this is just the latest in a string of game-wrecking performances from the second overall pick out of Ohio State.
He’s now got seven sacks on the season, and has emerged not just as the clear front-runner for the Defensive Rookie of the Year award, but also a darkhorse to win Defensive Playerof the Year. So I figured we’d corral the most veteran of his defensive teammates, Rochard Sherman, to explain just how good Bosa’s been.
MMQB: Has Bosa’s start surprised you?
SHERMAN: No. We tried to explain it to you guys, honestly. That’s people not paying attention. I think him not having a preseason [due to an ankle injury], nobody got to see what we saw. ... But we saw it every day in practice. Joe Staley’s an All-Pro tackle and has been very consistent for the past 12, 13 years. And [Bosa] beat him pretty consistently when he’s on his stuff. Obviously, Joe is an All-Pro, he’s gonna get his—but nobody else on our team, and no one else since I’ve been here, has ever beat him as consistently as Bosa could. And I think he would say it too. [Bosa] is an immense talent and I think the world's finally getting to see it, man. I’ve never seen a rookie with this kind of poise, this kind of dominance—and just such a humble kid.
MMQB: Nick took a lot of crap before the draft. But I remember talking to you about going in without preconceived notions…
SHERMAN: None, I went in with none, and I don’t think anybody on our team had any. That’s the cool thing about a football locker room—and I say this about most, I can’t speak for every single one—but I think it’s one of the most open and forgiving places, because you take people as they are. When a guy comes in like he did, he’s a great guy, he’s a young kid, he always does his work hard, he loves all his teammates, he just does his job, gives no trouble, he’s fun-loving guy. You see a guy like that, he deserves everything he’s getting. He deserves all the credit, he deserves all the praise along with the rest of our D-line and our coaches.
MMQB: When did he win you over?
SHERMAN: I mean, day one. He doesn’t take himself too seriously, he doesn’t take anything too seriously. He’s not sitting there like, ‘Ah man, I gotta be like that’ He’s a fun-loving guy, he’s always joking, he’s always having a good time. He’s such a soft-spoken, quiet guy that you just … he’s the perfect teammate.
MMQB: What makes him different than any rookie you’ve seen at the position?
SHERMAN: You can tell he’s been so well-coached, obviously from a young age. He can beat you with just about every move, he’s so strong in both his upper and lower body that he can walk through an inside move, he can beat you double-swipe on the outside, he can spin back inside, or he can just overpower you and put the tackle in the quarterback’s lap. That’s incredibly tough to deal with, and I’ve never seen a rookie come in here and give every tackle that he’s seen problems. He’s gone against some good ones, you know. [Pittsburgh’s Alejandro] Villanueva is a good one, [Rams’ Andrew] Whitworth is a good one, these are legends, these are guys that have been playing 10-plus years and been doing a great job. And he puts them in the quarterback’s lap and has folded them up like folding chairs—and you don’t see that. He’s like, ‘I’m dominating these guys.’ He just lines up and gets to the next play.
MMQB: How has he impacted the defense?
SHERMAN: He's made a huge impact, and I don't want to single him out because our entire D-line has made a huge impact. [Defensive-line coach] Kris Kocurek made a huge impact on all those guys, I'm sure Arik Armstead is gonna have one of the richest contracts for a D-lineman in NFL history after this year is over, and he’s just doing his job. He’s so versatile, and Bosa is the same way. He’s just come in and fit in like a perfect puzzle piece to this defense. And so has Dee Ford and obviously everybody else is benefitting as well—Ronnie Blair, and Solomon Thomas is having his best year. So you’ve got to give everybody the credit. But this guy, he deserves to be in the defensive MVP conversation and we’ll be rooting him on.
ALLOWING 13 POINTS CONSTITUTES AN OFF DAY FOR NEW ENGLAND’S DEFENSE
If you’re waiting for the Patriots’ defense to slow down, it already happened. At least to a degree.
Starting at the kickoff of Super Bowl LIII and rolling into halftime of the team’s Week 4 game in Buffalo, the Patriots had held opposing offenses out of the end zone for 18 straight quarters. Since then, they’ve allowed offensive touchdowns to the Bills, Redskins, Giants and, on Sunday, the Browns, which is—forget about context for a second—a step back.
And yes, the schedule is about to stiffen, given the quarterbacks the Patriots will face when they play the Ravens, Eagles, Cowboys, Texans and Chiefs in their next five games. But that should give you an idea of the standard to which this group is operating now. The bar is almost unreasonably high. And to me, how it was set there was demonstrated most plainly on a couple snaps of the team’s somewhat sleepy 27–13 win over the Browns.
The first came with 5:55 left in the first quarter. With so many Patriots seemingly knowing exactly what Cleveland was throwing at them—a simple zone-read handoff to Nick Chubb—when the ball came loose, Dont’a Hightower was not only there to scoop it up, but he had a motorcade of teammates with him to get him to the end zone and make it 10–0.
The second came on a shovel pass to Jarvis Landry, which was blocked like a counter play. Cleveland used it to great affect last year against Carolina and again this year against Baltimore, but it wasn’t going to work against this group from New England. This time around, when Freddie Kitchens called it, Belichick had a behemoth D-lineman, Lawrence Guy, waiting in its path. And Guy picked it off at point-blank range, setting the Patriots up at the Browns’ 11.
Two plays later, it was 17–0, effectively closing the curtains for a Cleveland team that couldn’t get out of its own way on a very messy afternoon.
Those two big defensive plays may not seem like much, but both show what the Patriots have become on defense. Eight of the team’s 11 starters are 29 or older, and linebacker Kyle Van Noy is 28. That’s ancient by NFL standards. But in a certain way, it sure does look it’s working—especially when New England looks like it knows what’s coming.
“We don’t have guys that are playing like they are old,” McCourty texted Sunday night. “But we have a great mix of football smarts and athleticism. You put that together with the ability to communicate with each other and play together, and we’ve been able to get ourselves in the best situations. I think since we’re older we know our strengths and we play to them.
“There’s no egos.”
And as such, the routine stuff (knowing the above plays were coming) winds up getting the defense in position to make the spectacular (well-timed turnovers) happen.
“That wasn’t super complex,” McCourty says. “Just the realization that it would come back up and understanding how we had to play it.”
Through half the season (the Patriots’ bye is still to come in Week 10), that defense has played just about everything right, and in today’s NFL that’s hard for a defense to do.
L.A. FLIPS THE SCRIPT AND CAPITALIZES ON ANOTHER TEAM’S LAST-SECOND MISERY
Losing the way the Chargers did in Week 7 to the Titans was about as bad as it gets, and coach Anthony Lynn isn’t afraid to concede it. In fact, because of that psychological impact, Melvin Gordon’s fumble inside the one in Nashville qualified as the kind of dagger that threatened to stab the team more than once.
“That’s about as tough of a way to lose a game as there is,” Lynn told me, leaving the stadium Sunday night. “I know in my 27 years [in the NFL], I’ve never felt that one before. That one yard that we did not get at that point in time, it can break a team up or it can bring a team together. And I just feel like I knew what this team was going to do. They came back on Monday, I saw the look in their eyes. They came back ready to go to work.”
And the work did, eventually, pay off at Soldier Field on Sunday. But it wasn’t easy on anyone at the end.
The Chargers actually needed the other team’s demons—the Bears have had kicking issues, in case you hadn’t heard—to show up and scare off their own. So it was that Chicago kicker Eddy Pineiro hooked a 41-yard kick to preserve a 17–16 L.A. win, delivering Lynn’s crew their first victory in October.
“Took two years off my life, that’s all,” Lynn says afterwards. “I'm thinking, ‘Block it.’ I can’t control if he misses or not, but I sure can block it. I was just thinking about the things I can control."
That, in fact, was his message to the whole team over the last week, that despite having two touchdowns called back against the Titans, and despite the heartbreaking finish, there was plenty the team could’ve done to avoid being in that position in the first place. As Lynn saw it, though, his guys didn’t really need it.
This, of course, is the same group that endured an 0–4 start amid a franchise relocation in 2017, and went from 1–2 to 7–2 to 12–4 last year.
“We have a lot of players on this team that have been in this situation before and overcame,” Lynn says. “This is a new team. You have different players on this team. Until we all come together and pull in the same direction, you just don't know what you’re going to get. What this team proves to be, you’ll see. We have a lot of football left. And I think this team, when it's all said and done, will prove to be resilient, just like the ones in the past.”
The opening is there for them now. Thanks to the Chiefs’ loss to the Packers on Sunday night, the Chargers will wake up Monday morning just two games out of first in the AFC West.
MINNESOTA’S TWIN WEAPONS: THE RIGHT SYSTEM AND THE RIGHT PLAYERS
Vikings offensive coordinator Kevin Stefanski tries to remind himself that even though he’s the playcaller, it’s not about him; it’s about the 11 guys in the huddle and what they can do. So two weeks ago, he put an NFC North showdown against the Lions in the hands of the people wearing the helmets and shoulder pads.
The Vikings were nursing a 35–30 lead with three minutes left. It was second-and-six, and the Lions were loading up the box—on this play, they had put eight defenders within two yards of the line of scrimmage, and all 11 within seven yards of it. Football logic might tell a coach to run it anyway, and force Detroit to burn a timeout. But football logic doesn’t wear a uniform.
“We’re in four-minute and they’re selling out for the run, and I know the big pass is there,” Stefanski says, driving home from the facility on Friday. “And all you gotta do is look in the huddle and see Kirk [Cousins] and Stefon Diggs. And you say, ‘This is the right call because it’s the right people to execute the plan.’”
Sixty-six yards later, Minnesota was inside the Detroit six, and the game was effectively over.
You want to know how that Cousins renaissance, one that continued on Thursday night with a near-perfect outing against his former team in a 19–9 win over the Redskins that improved Minnesota to 6–2, has happened? That’s how.
“One of the best lessons I learned, from [former Vikings offensive coordinator] Pat Shurmur was, think players and not plays,” Stefanski says. “We’re fortunate to have real good players at a bunch of different positions. For me, calling plays is always just thinking about players. Wherever your finger lands, and you call that play, you have great conviction in it because you trust your players. And that’s a lesson that I’ve learned having been around some really good coordinators.”
And it’s clear—based on more than that one call to Diggs—that Stefanski trusts Cousins, which didn’t always seem to be the case the first month of the season but has been wholly validated in the month since. The numbers are pretty crazy.
First four games: 64 of 99 (64.6%), 735 yards, 3 TDs, 2 INTs, 88.6 rating.
Last four games: 91 of 116 (78.4%), 1,262 yards, 10 TDs, 1 INT, 137.1 rating.
Now, there are a bunch of external factors here. In two of the Vikings’ first four games (against Atlanta and Oakland), Minnesota leaned heavy on the run game. In another (Green Bay), he, and the team, had one bad quarter. In the fourth (Chicago) everything came to a head and the Vikings got outplayed. Mix in a couple offensive line injuries, and Cousins’ up-and-down start is explainable.
And what’s happened since is at least partly attributable to the schedule softening a little.
But Cousins could be doing this against Kent State and Miami (Ohio), and those numbers would be impressive. It’s, at the very least, progress, and as Stefanski sees it, it’s a matter of the quarterback getting a little more comfortable in a system the coaches tried to build for him. The fact that the simple things, like finding the open man, are starting to look easy is a pretty good sign that it’s working.
That’s why, while Stefanski says it’s hard to compare the Vikings’ first four games to the last four, he’s not denying the obvious difference in appearance. “I can answer that by saying you watch Kirk [Thursday] night, and he’s 23-for-26, with two throwaways and a drop,” Stefanski says. “So obviously he’s had a lot of conviction in what he’s doing, and he’s as accurate a guy as I’ve been around. He’s playing at a high level, it’s plain to see.
“Simple as it gets, he’s putting the ball where it needs to be.”
Which goes back to Stefanski’s philosophy, one built to have the players, and not the plays, dictate what the offense is going to be.
Cousins is good right now, so the Vikings are too.
And it doesn’t hurt, by the way, that assistants Gary Kubiak and Rick Dennison have brought a Mike Shanahan influence into the mix, since Cousins has roots in that system (he’s played for Mike and Kyle Shanahan and Sean McVay). That part of this was actually born of Stefanski studying Kubiak’s Texans teams, back when he was a quality-control assistant about a decade ago. We’ll have more on that in the Monday Afternoon Quarterback.
What else does a great defense do? In the 49ers’ case, it buys your quarterback time to build confidence coming off a torn ACL with an injury-riddled group around him. And Jimmy Garoppolo is quietly getting better. He was an efficient 18 of 22 for 175 yards, two touchdowns and a pick against a really good Panthers defense.
Forget the Bears’ missed field goal at the end of Sunday’s loss to the Chargers. Chicago is now 3–4, and has just one opponent left that’s under .500 (the Giants in late November. Meanwhile, this was the week that Chicago found its footing in the run game (162 yards), and hit its level on defense (201 total yards from scrimmage allowed)—and Mitchell Trubisky still couldn’t put together enough to get the Bears to their fourth win. Not a great sign.
The Bengals are yet another example of how a bad offensive line can nuke any team’s best-laid plans. With first-round pick Jonah Williams out for the year, and his replacement at left tackle, Cordy Glenn (who’d been moved from a guard spot), staying away in dispute with the team, Cincinnati really only had one guy with a long-term future in Cincinnati starting up front on Sunday, and that player, Billy Price, has struggled too. Related: Andy Dalton was sacked five times and had no chance against the Rams front.
How to take the Bills’ convincing loss to the Eagles? I’d still say Buffalo is a year off, and I bet the people there (if they were under truth serum) would agree with that. The Bills deserve credit for being consistent in getting past teams at or below their level. But every so often they’re going to see a team that’s just ahead of them and firing on all cylinders. That was Philly on Sunday.
This qualifies as a wow quote from Broncos QB Joe Flacco: "Once again, we're a 2–6 football team and it just feels like we're kind of afraid to lose a game. It's third-and-five at the end of a game, who cares if they have a timeout at the end or not? Getting in field goal range isn’t that tough, you’re just putting your defense in these bad situations and I just felt like what do we have to lose? Why can’t we be aggressive in some of these situations? That’s kind of how I feel a lot about the game today.” I’ll be interested to hear how Vic Fangio addresses that Monday, and how OC Rich Scangarello deals with it later in the week.
There’s no good excuse for the Browns to have 13 penalties in Foxboro, nor do they give themselves any chance when they’re turning the ball over three times in that particular stadium. And the head-scratching decision to take a false start penalty to go for it on fourth-and-16, instead of fourth-and-11 (the down-and-distance had they been more prepared going into the play), wasn’t a good look either. Cleveland’s schedule softens from here. Lots of people in that building need to take advantage of it.
In case you missed it, the Buccaneers have every right to be upset at the officiating against the Titans on Sunday.
The Cardinals made Kyler Murray comfortable the last few weeks by leaning on the run game, logging 38, 29 and 38 rushing attempts in the three games leading into Sunday’s matchup in the Superdome. Against the Saints, they ran the ball just 11 times, and Chase Edmonds finished with eight yards on seven carries. That led to more negative plays for Murray—and what the Cardinals hope is just a hiccup in what had been a pretty strong run for Kingsbury’s crew.
Chargers backup RB Austin Ekeler brought it again on Sunday, scoring the game-winning 11-yard touchdown—he took a little swing pass in the flat and made Danny Trevathan miss to hit paydirt—against the Bears. And after the game, Anthony Lynn told me one of the biggest differences that Melvin Gordon’s return has made for the Chargers has been in freeing up Ekeler to do those sorts of things in the passing game.
I know the Chiefs lost. But boy can Andy Reid coach up those backup quarterbacks.
Colts kicker Adam Vinatieri is unbelievable. Despite all his issues this year, he nails a 51-yarder in the last minute to lift Indy past Denver—and this was on an afternoon during which he’d already missed a 45-yarder and an extra point. Vinatieri’s not just the greatest clutch kicker in NFL history. He’s one of the greatest clutch players in league history. And good scrap by the Colts to fight their way to a win on a day when their A game just wasn’t there.
The Cowboys’ trade for DE Michael Bennett this week acknowledges what they believed was the one big hole on the roster, left when Tyrone Crawford went on IR. Crawford played outside at end on early downs, and mostly inside (with versatility to play outside) on passing downs. Take that job description, and it pretty much fits exactly what Bennett has been when he’s at his best. And as for who he is personally, Dallas pass-game coordinator Kris Richard spent five years with Bennett in Seattle, the Cowboys staff had Bennett in the Pro Bowl, and the team had his twin brother, Martellus, on its roster for four years. So the Cowboys know what they’re signing up for.
Being on Monday Night Football for the Dolphins will mean a full day of analysis on how their season has been plotted out.
That was an encouraging a performance for the Eagles amid a very uneven year to this point—and it’s not just that they responded to last week’s Sunday night loss to the Cowboys with a statement win. It’s how they pulled it off, running for 218 yards on 41 carries and rediscovering the offense’s identity, which has always run behind its well-pedigreed offensive line.
The Falcons’ 1–7 start is as hard to explain as any team’s record since I’ve been covering the league. So now the ball is in Arthur Blank’s court. The team’s bye is here and if he’s going to make a move in-season, now would be the time. I still think Dan Quinn’s a really good coach, and his players fought for him Sunday after falling behind 24–0. But based on Blank’s temperament, I wouldn’t rule anything out.
Forget the numbers (they were good, not great), Giants RB Saquon Barkley is ridiculous. We’ll show you why down in the Best of the Internet sectino. For now, know that Barkley gives the team hope, and it showed up in how New York kept fighting back, even if it was in vain, in Detroit.
One of the things that Jaguars coaches will tell you about Gardner Minshew is how unaffected he is by everything that goes along with NFL quarterbacking. Naturally he didn’t seem like he was under much pressure yesterday, not even with Nick Foles back at practice and priming to get his job back. Minshew riddled the Jets for 279 yards and three touchdowns on 22-of-34 passing.
My biggest concern with the Jets right now is Sam Darnold’s turnover problem. They come in bunches, and the issue dates back to his final year at USC. Know who had a similar story? Jameis Winston. The ex-Florida State star really started turning the ball over in his second season as a starter in Tallahassee and hasn’t stopped since. The turnover bug can be tough for young quarterbacks to shake.
Lions QB Matthew Stafford is playing really good ball. It feels like Detroit’s not far off from breaking through under second-year head coach Matt Patricia. And if it happens this year, Stafford will be central to the whole thing. Every week I do TV with Matt Cassel, who played with Stafford last year, and he has immense respect for Stafford’s game.
So Packers QB Aaron Rodgers is doing this… without Davante Adams?
Clock striking midnight on Panthers QB Kyle Allen? I’m not willing to go that far yet. But a young-quarterback moment like Allen had Sunday certainly would make it easier for Ron Rivera to turn back to Cam Newton.
I’ll say this about Patriots offensive personnel changes: It finally looks like they’ve got the receiver position stocked with guys who fit a certain mold they like. Julian Edelman and Philip Dorsett have proven to be New England guys. Mohamed Sanu was always one, regardless of whether or not he was wearing their jersey. And rookie Jakobi Meyers is, too.
Raiders rookies: Josh Jacobs (15 carries, 66 yards); Hunter Renfrow (four catches, 88 yards); Foster Moreau (one catch, 10 yards); Clelin Ferrell (one tackle, PBU); Maxx Crosby (six tackles, two TFLs, one QB hurry); Trayvon Mullen (four tackles). And that’s with first-round safety Johnathan Abram, and fourth-round corner Isaiah Johnson on IR. GM Mike Mayock, who assembled this group, is showing some promise.
Maybe we all underestimated the difference that Rams slot receiver Cooper Kupp makes in that offense. Jared Goff’s trust in him is implicit—and important in critical situations. Oh, and he went for 220 yards against the Bengals on Sunday in London, too.
The Ravens have bounced back from that bad loss to Cleveland with three straight wins and, with all due respect to Lamar Jackson, the biggest difference has been on defense. Baltimore held both Pittsburgh and Cincinnati under 300 yards, then, last week, went into Seattle and held the Russell Wilson–led Seahawks to 16 points. The difference? Veteran linebacker Josh Bynes, signed on Oct. 3, has done a lot to calm down the middle of the defense, getting his teammates to play more disciplined. And Michael Pierce and Brandon Williams have been anvils in the middle of the defense, bringing an element of toughness back to the group.
The Redskins should be sellers on Tuesday. And they’ve been shopping some of their overpriced roster pieces (Josh Norman is one). Unfortunately for the rest of the league, and probably the long-term health of the Redskins themselves, Trent Williams doesn’t fall on that list.
Love the spot the Saints are in right now. And they’ve been shopping around for another receiver, so it’ll be interesting to see where that goes.
Seahawks RB Rashaad Penny hasn’t lived up to expectations, which is why you hear his name in trade rumors. But if you watch Seattle, you can see it’s as much about starter Chris Carson holding him off as anything.
Tonight might not be the most exciting Steelers game to watch, but I promise if you just watch Devin Bush fly around, you won’t be disappointed you turned the game on.
The rumblings on the Texans listening to offers on DeAndre Hopkins—as reported by Fox’s Jay Glazer—shouldn’t be totally dismissed. It’s fair to wonder if Houston might look at that sort of move as a way to recoup all the draft capital it lost in the Laremy Tunsil trade, a deal that actually has worked out great for the team.
One more time: With the burden of carrying a franchise off him, Ryan Tannehill is not doing much more than running the Titans offense as it’s been drawn up. As several Tennessee staffers explained to me last week, it really is just finding—and hitting—the open guy, and the result of that is consecutive triple-digit passer ratings.
So I’d say Vikings DE Danielle Hunter, with eight sacks on the season, has played his way into the Defensive Player of the Year race, in a year where no one is running away with it. (Maybe Nick Bosa will.)
1. Belichick gets win No. 300. This is a ridiculous accomplishment, of course, so to commemorate it, I asked a few of his ex-players via text on Sunday night for their reaction.
LB Tedy Bruschi (2000–08): “Complacency does not exist with him. He’s relentless. No amount of winning can change him. How many people can you say that about? None that I know. On to 301.”
QB Matt Cassel (2005–08): “I would go one step further and say he is the best coach of all-time. Everything the Patriot organization has accomplished starts with his approach, his leadership, and his unmatched attention to detail. In addition, his ability to see things in players that others can’t and getting the most out of those players in terms of production.”
S Rodney Harrison (2003–08): “In this day and age, dealing with free agency and so many young, old and different personalities shows me how much he’s loved and respected. When I came to the Pats, I thought I knew football. He took that to the tenth power. He’s a big part of the reason I’ve been on Sunday Night Football for past 11 years, I learned so much from him. I couldn’t be happier for him. He’s the best.”
LB Ted Johnson (2000–04): “Three-hundred wins means he’s the best modern-day coach of all-time. It’s harder to win games in today’s NFL and he’s better at game-planning, scouting, developing and game managing than anyone I ever played for.”
DE Ty Warren (2003–10): “Bill has showed up, prepared better and executed each game plan more thoroughly than most. Bill has seen more weekly action plans through to the end successfully on every level more consistently than the field, in an era with so many variables. It is mind-blowing for anyone to sustain this level of consistency. Bill has done the best job of anyone I know in bottling up each experience he ever encounters in football, good and bad. Forming a system from those experiences, then facilitating his system at every level in the building. He has set the Football Standard in ways unimaginable. I am honored and privileged to be a small piece of his legacy in the 2000s. Nobody works harder than that man, he is a football machine.”
2. J.J. Watt is out for the year. And that’s a damn shame. He’s got a torn pec, which means barring some surprise in his imaging testing, he’s out for the year. It’s pretty amazing that a guy could win Defensive Player of the Year three times, and you’d still wonder what might’ve been with him. But that’s in play now. Injuries cost him 13 games in 2016, 11 games in ’17, and will likely cost him 10 games this year. Watt, who turns 31 in March, conceded to me that he considered his football mortality with the back injury he suffered in 2016, and did less of that the next year when he broke his leg. I can’t imagine he wouldn’t at least think about that.
3. Quinn’s seat has warmed up. Here’s how Falcons owner Arthur Blank responded on Sunday night to rampant speculation about fifth-year coach Dan Quinn’s job security:
“It’s a very fair question. I would say, much like the coaches said, I am extraordinarily disappointed in the season. Nobody would have anticipated 1–7 and the lack of consistency. Today was a prime example of that. Down 24–0, if we could’ve just played the second half, we would’ve won the game, but it doesn’t work that way.… We’ll take the next couple of weeks and during this bye period of time and evaluate where we are. Whatever decision we have to make, it will be made for the right reasons for the long term. We certainly have a lot of intelligence on this coaching staff. Besides Dan, we have three other head coaches and we’ve got three general managers in the building beyond Thomas [Dimitroff], so actually four in the building with Rich McKay.”
If you’re befuddled at what’s gone wrong with a talented Falcons roster, join the club. There are people in the building there who feel the same way. And maybe that costs Quinn his job because, ultimately, someone has to pay. But say this for the coach while you’re there: Down 24–0 with a backup quarterback in the lineup, that team kept fighting for the guy who’s now fighting for his job.
4. Patrick Mahomes is eyeing a Week 10 return. That’s according to NFL Network’s Ian Rapoport, and it’s one week ahead of the Chiefs’ original timeline. On one hand, if I were Kansas City, I’d err so far on the side of caution with this one that you’d need binoculars to see the merits of taking any kind of risk. On the other, I know the type of training staff that Andy Reid brought to Kansas City with him in 2013, and I’d be positively stunned if that staff were to advise anything even remotely irresponsible.
5. Trade deadline. We’re going dive deeper into this in the MAQB. For now, a hot list of names to watch could legitimately be moved, for the right price over the next 36 hours: Jets WR Robby Anderson, Falcons DE Vic Beasley, Browns CB TJ Carrie, Falcons LB DeVondre Campbell, Bengals TE Tyler Eifert, Broncos CB Chris Harris, Browns WR Rashard Higgins, Redskins CB Josh Norman, Eagles OT Halapoulivaati Vaitai, Jets DL Leonard Williams, Colts DB Quincy Wilson.
I’d mention, too, that the market for tight ends has been fairly hot, so I’d bank of the Falcons getting calls on Austin Hooper, the Bucs on O.J. Howard and the Ravens on Hayden Hurst. I just think the price might wind up being too high for any suitor to bite.
BEST OF THE NFL INTERNET
I can’t tell if I like Travis Kelce or not.
Pretty cool seeing Teddy Bridgewater happy for Brees in this situation.
That’s the old Ron Wolf principle, which worked out pretty well for the Packers, and the quarterbacks who got to learn there under Mike Holmgren.
This was not great.
Right under their noses.
Ohio State DL coach Larry Johnson is a monster in developing young defensive linemen. And has been for a long time. Two of his own were blowing up offensive gameplans on Sunday. Another is coming to do that next year, and he might be better than the other two.
This, from Nick Bosa, totally reminds me of what J.J. Watt was like when he was younger.
Even though he’s just a third-year pro, what Jamal Adams says carries weight in the Jets building. I’d say it’s a fair bet that the owner’s listening.
This ghost thing’s gonna follow Darnold around for a while, huh?
That’s a 15-yard penalty, I believe.
Most excited anyone’s ever been for Indiana/Northwestern, in any sport.
SIX FROM SATURDAY
1. I don’t want to sound like a homer here, but if Ohio State DE Chase Young isn’t at or near the top of every Heisman voter’s list at this point, then it says more about the award than it does him. This feels to me a lot like JJ Watt as an NFL MVP candidate in 2014, when he was clearly the game’s best player, but didn’t win the award (he got 13 votes, second to Aaron Rodgers’ 31). Oh, and for more on Young as a prospect, check this week’s GamePlan, where he had a full scouting report—before he blew up Wisconsin’s well-regarded offensive line.
2. Christian McCaffrey’s little brothers, Dylan and Luke, threw touchdown passes for Michigan and Nebraska, respectively, yesterday. Dylan’s a redshirt sophomore and Luke is a true freshman, and both are expected to eventually compete for the starting position at their schools.
3. It might feel early, but let’s put LSU true freshman CB Derek Stingley Jr. on your radar, who is already a rising star. Ranked No. 1 in the country among high school cornerbacks last year, he has NFL bloodlines (he’s the grandson of former Patriots WR Daryl Stingley), and the staff in Baton Rouge loves him. “They think he’s the best player on the team,” one AFC scouting director said. “Real deal. He’ll go super high in a couple years.”
4. While we’re here, both Stingley and LSU star safety Grant Delpit got hurt late in the 23–20 win over Auburn. Delpit is also worth watching. Some inside the program believe he’s a better prospect than Jamal Adams, who was drafted sixth overall in 2017, so his health merits monitoring from an NFL perspective. (Delpit is a different kind of safety than Adams was, by the way. He’s much more of a centerfielder type.)
5. Both Nebraska’s Scott Frost and Purdue’s Jeff Brohm had the NFL’s attention last fall as potential coaching candidates. This year, they’re a combined 3–7 in Big 10 play in the far weaker West Division, which is probably more of a reflection of how far those programs had to go all along than anything.
6. This summer when I was trying to find which defensive coach at the college level had come up with creative counterpunches to the offensive innovations in college (and therefore could be a resource to NFL coaches), a name I heard was Kansas State defensive coordinator Scott Hazelton. After watching the Kansas State defense slow Oklahoma—and the offensive mind, Lincoln Riley, who’s most fascinated NFL coaches—on Saturday was interesting. Hazelton was on the Jaguars’ staff from 2014–16, and could merit a look as a DC from NFL teams soon.
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, we talk with tailback James Conner, whose Steelers have started three different quarterbacks on their way to a 2–4 start...
MMQB: You’re down about a yard-and-a-half per carry, so I was wondering, how has the quarterback issue effected the run game?
JC: I think just early on we weren’t able to convert on third down, so we couldn’t get the running game going. That really doesn’t have much to do with the change at quarterback. It’s just the fact that on our third-and-mediums—third-and-4, third-and-6—we were getting off the field, we weren’t converting. When you’re in those positions, it’s kind of tough to get the run game going, we ended up having to pass. In those games when we’ve converted our third downs, I think our running game has been significantly better. So going forward, we’ve got to convert on third downs, and the run game will be there.
MMQB: What needs to change on third down?
JC: It’s not gonna be perfect every game. We just have to stay at it, stay consistent. Teams have good defenses, I don’t want to make excuses. We just have to execute better going forward.
MMQB: For you personally has it been frustrating?
JC: No, I just want to win. I’m not worried about my yards per carry, or how many rushing yards or touchdowns I have. We were in some close games we should’ve won. That’s the part that’s frustrating. But you have to put it behind you quick and get ready for the new opportunity head.
MMQB: Do you feel like you guys have grown as a team, having had to go through the quarterback situation?
JC: You just have to adapt. Obviously when Ben [Roethlisberger] went down, he was a huge part of our team. But we can’t just throw our season away because he went down. Guys have to step up, other playmakers around the quarterback position have to step up as well, rally together that way.
MMQB: Did you feel like you guys turned a corner in your last game against the Chargers in Week 6?
JC: I just think our defense played great, giving us short fields, turning it over. The start was with a defensive touchdown, [Devin] Bush took it back after the fumble. And then there was the interception [by Bush on the next series], and we got a lot of momentum. So it’s not necessarily turning the corner, it’s just both sides playing well off each other, using the momentum from the defense creating turnovers and stops, and us just executing and converting on third down. Our first drive, we had third down three or four times and we converted those. As long as we execute, we’re a good football team.
MMQB: It’s been a long time since the Steelers have had a losing season. Does the 2–4 record create a different urgency coming out of the bye?
JC: Yeah, there definitely is. We have to take it a game at a time, but obviously the intensity needs to be picked up, and we have to continue to try and put wins together. We had the bye week, so we’re rested up. Just have to go win now. We’ll take it week-by-week, try and go 1–0 every week, instead of worrying about our long-term record. We’re worried about going 1–0 on Monday night.
MMQB: How’d you use your bye week?
JC: Just a lot of rest and recovery. A lot of rehab stuff.
MMQB: Did you get away?
JC: Yeah, I got away. I got away.
MMQB: Watching the Dolphins on tape, what do you see?
JC: They’re a good team. They lost some close ones. And they’re professional football players. It’s gonna be a great opportunity for us, a nice challenge for us. They’ve got talented guys on offense and defense. Their quarterback is known to make things happen. Their defense is pretty fast and solid. We just have to come and execute—everyone, it starts from the o-line, on the offensive side they set the tone. And we just have to follow them.
MMQB: Do you have to ignore the Dolphins’ record?
JC: Yeah, like I said, they’re professional football players. No matter what their record shows, we’re going to war. We’re not worried about what their record shows. They’re a team thirsty for a win, just like we’re thirsty for a win. So we just have to go execute.
MMQB: There have been a lot of questions about the value of the running game. Given that you’re eligible for a contract after the year, how closely are you paying attention to situations like Ezekiel Elliott’s and Melvin Gordon’s, especially since you had an up-close look at it with Le’Veon Bell?
JC: I see some things. I see guys get paid, guys coming up. I’m all for it, I think a lot of running backs are valuable. So I’m all for them to get their money. I’m glad, but that’s something you can’t think about during the season. Just have to go play. But, yeah, I’m definitely Team Running Back.
WHAT YOU NEED TO KNOW
I’m gonna come clean. It’s 5:17 a.m., and I need let my editor, Mark Bechtel, get to work on this. So I’m calling it a night. I’ll see you guys in the morning, with trade deadline stuff in the MAQB.
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