Big one tonight! Until then …
• It was pretty eye-opening how wide open the hook-and-ladder was at the end of Sunday’s Chargers/Panthers game—had Keenan Allen gotten the ball to Austin Ekeler, Ekeler probably jogs in and L.A. wins. But lost in that was what it took to get the ball to Allen in the first place, and that was another display of the prodigious talent Justin Herbert’s bringing to the table. At the snap, Stephen Weatherly came screaming off the edge to the QB’s right, and Brian Burns worked the left side of the line back into Herbert’s lap. Herbert subtly back-pedaled to avoid the rush, then, almost falling away, delivered a strike that hit Allen between the 1 and 3. It was an example of what Herbert can be physically, but also the poise with which he handled a situation with the game on the line. And it was also an example of what the Chargers staff has seen a lot of through two starts—Herbert’s making off-platform throws, standing tall in the pocket with a ton of traffic around him, and checking the ball down when the situation calls for it. It’s fair to say he’s exceeded expectations, even if there have been a fair amount of young-guy hiccups, particularly in the situational football department. If I were the Chargers, I’d have a hard time justifying going back to Tyrod Taylor now, after what Herbert’s shown.
• Bears coach Matt Nagy did what most expected him to, after sleeping on it and watching the tape again this morning, in naming Nick Foles as Chicago’s new starter. In the MMQB, we went over some reasons for the move. But I do think there’s one that’s a little simpler here: Foles is just more proficient running the offense than Mitchell Trubisky is, and eventually the staff reached the conclusion that Foles playing on time and seeing it better was enough to merit considering, and then making a change. And maybe the best example of this is in two identical play calls. With a minute left in the first half, the Bears called a shot play out a 1x3 look. The two inside receivers to Trubisky’s left went vertical, and Anthony Miller got on top of the defense. Trubisky hesitated, clutched the ball, and threw it over Miller’s head. Two quarters later, the Bears called a similar concept dressed up a little different, with the outside receivers to Foles’s left getting vertical—and Miller again coming open deep. This time, the rush got home faster, and Foles reacted faster, getting rid of the ball on time and as he was taking a hit. Miller walked into the end zone for the game’s winning points. Anyway, if you look at the two plays, you can see the difference in how fast the quarterback is playing, and how the offense is operating. And so we’ll see what it looks like next week with Foles in there after a week to prepare.
• Most of the guys who’ve built the Bills over the last few years—GM Brandon Beane and coach Sean McDermott being primary among them—have the context of having been in Carolina for Cam Newton’s development as an NFL quarterback as they’ve brought Josh Allen along. And in talking to those guys over the last few years, beyond just the obvious physical and athletic comparisons between the two, there’s another commonality that’s pretty consistently come up when I’ve asked about ties between Newton and Allen: how their teammates respond to them. A big part of that for Newton in Carolina was how he is more than just a quarterback; he’s a football player and puts his body on the line like players at every other position must do. Yesterday, you got to see a lot of that with Allen, too—he even got called for a facemask in fighting a defender off. And so it was interesting how McDermott answered when I asked if he learned anything about Allen in the Rams game that he didn’t already know. I’ve offered that question up enough times to the Bills coach that he’ll give me crap about it now, because his answer is always similar. But he did allow for this after Allen and his teammates gutted out the win over L.A.: “I don’t want to sound non-dramatic, but yeah, we've had this conversation before, Albert. And if you polled anyone in our locker room, they’d say, ‘Yeah, that’s Josh. Totally expected.’” Fact is, a quarterback having the confidence of his locker room is way more important than what anyone on the outside thinks. And Allen sure has it in Buffalo, like Newton did in Carolina, and for the same very simple reasons. “I mean, this is the NFL. Josh, you don't want your quarterback taking too many hits. Josh is a competitor, though,” McDermott said. “Just like the rest of our team.” Add that to strides he’s taken with his vision, decision-making, base mechanics, and you’re seeing a quarterback whose game is starting to take off.
• On the flip side, Carson Wentz is really struggling, and opponents that I’ve talked to see a different player than they did a couple years ago. Some of the issues aren’t his alone—the offensive line in Philly certainly has had its injury woes—but Wentz isn’t helping matters, and defenses are starting to take advantage of a quarterback who appears to be pressing, isn’t trusting what he’s seeing, is trying too hard not to make mistakes and is holding the ball too long as a result. One coach I talked to Monday mentioned the amount of “worm burners” Wentz is throwing now—throws that go into the ground as a result of a quarterback squeezing the ball too hard. In fact, there were cases of those on Sunday on plays when Wentz had guys open. I’m not sure what the fix is for the Eagles here. But I do know that what we’re all seeing isn’t a mirage. There are real problems.
• Really interesting idea by the Lions the last couple years that they implemented again on Sunday night—the team stayed in Arizona as a way to maximize the rest that players and coaches get. Generally, teams get on a plane right after the game and go home, regardless of when the flight might be. But Matt Patricia looked into this when doing a sleep study with some military people, and his first year he broached the idea of staying in San Francisco after a game against the Niners, rather than red-eye home, to maximize the amount of work the staff and players could get in ahead of the next week’s game against New England. The idea was that going red-eye back didn’t help anyone get good sleep, and generally that would screw up everyone’s Monday too. The San Francisco trip worked out—the Lions beat the Patriots the next week—and now it’s routine for Detroit on longer trips. This week, this meant the team got back to the hotel postgame, had dinner, and the coaches had time to grade film. Then, the staff had a meeting Monday morning at 6 a.m., and the players came in after that, with the team flying home during the day. It all makes sense, too. A lot of work gets done, the team gets rest, and everyone’s ready to go, rather than run down, when they get home.
• The Seahawks defense isn’t reminding anyone of 2013 right now, but say this for the team’s ability to get by with what they have: They’re resourceful. Fifth-round pick Alton Robinson, making his NFL debut, had a crucial sack that put Dallas in third-and-14 on the Cowboys’ final possession. And Ryan Neal, promoted from the practice squad on Saturday, put the game away with a pick on the next play. Add Shaquem Griffin, just recalled from the practice squad himself, to those two, with how he flew around late in the Seattle win, and you have a bunch of dudes who came out of nowhere to finish off a really good Cowboy offense. Of course, this isn’t how you drew it up. But it is a sign of a place that can make things work when everything is going sideways. And I got Russell Wilson going on that when we talked on Sunday night, “I was talking with the other guys in the locker room, because a guy like Alton, he came in ready to play. He made so many plays in training camp and was just so impressive. I just kept telling our offensive staff, that guy's really good. Obviously, that was a big-time play, that was huge. His first game. And then Ryan Neal, who I get to go against every day. There’s that competitive nature back-and-forth. He’s a guy who’s worked so hard to just get that opportunity. He makes the play in that opportunity, and that’s so cool, man. I relate to that, to be honest with you. I relate to that. Because I came in in the same situation. I started, though, but the difference was, the reality is, when your name’s called, your name’s called. And you either ring the bell and you step up to the occasion or you don’t. You know? You either want to swing the bat or you don’t. And those guys wanted to swing the bat tonight, and they did. They made some plays. I think about a guy like Shaquem, obviously been on our team, done so many great things. Was on practice squad this year, unfortunately. He comes in and chases down play after play after play. That’s the kind of passion, just team effort. It’s not just about me or anything else. It’s really about all those guys and all the things they’ve done. It’s a testament to just the work ethic, the culture and who we are as a team."
• Playtime percentages tell you a lot on how coaches feel about players. And yes, Bruce Arians was critical of Rob Gronkowski last week. But guess what happened on gameday? Gronkowski played 93% of the team’s 68 offensive snaps—the highest number of any Tampa skill player. O.J. Howard, by contrast, played 49% of the team’s offensive snaps (third receiver Scotty Miller was right there too, at 43% of the snaps), and Cam Brate played 7% of the snaps. So Arians must think Gronk has something left.
• The Titans’ COVID-19-related-loss of outside linebackers coach Shane Bowen was notable on Sunday—and may have revealed a little on his value on Mike Vrabel’s staff. While Vrabel didn’t hand him the defensive coordinator title after Dean Pees retired in December, Bowen was clearly the next in line to handle the duties, as a bright young assistant who worked with Vrabel at Ohio State on Urban Meyer’s first staff, then joined him in Houston in 2016 and ’17 and followed him to Tennessee. Probably not a coincidence that the Titans didn’t have their best defensive showing in Bowen’s absence.
• Probably worth mentioning that the Colts defense has aced the eye test the last two weeks. And yes, it was against an up-and-down Vikings offense, and then the Jets. But they look fast and aggressive, and you can see the investment Chris Ballard has made the last two years in big, long athletes (Darius Leonard, DeForest Buckner, Bobby Okereke, etc.) paying off in the creation of a pretty menacing group. Should be fun to see where they take it from here, with the Bears up next.
• Can’t wait for 8:20. And I know you can’t either (otherwise, you wouldn’t have made it to the bottom of the column).