The Steelers Have Reloaded Their Defense and Now Stand Atop the NFL

The Steelers' franchise has always been known for defense, and a young core in that tradition now has them at 7–0. Plus, how Zac Taylor's trust in Joe Burrow is affecting the Bengals, Sean McDermott gets a big monkey off his back, Tua Time, an Antoine Winfield Jr. Q&A and much more.
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It’s one thing to make adjustments. It’s another to have the players to pull them off.

And so it was that Steelers coach Mike Tomlin and defensive coordinator Kevin Butler went into Ravens week, which is always different from other weeks in Pittsburgh, looking for a wrinkle and finding one in their unit’s depth. The idea would be, naturally, to muddy what Baltimore’s reigning league MVP, Lamar Jackson, was looking at, and do it by making it tough for the quarterback to know who was coming and who was going.

Veteran edge rushers Bud Dupree and T.J. Watt would be a part of the plan, of course, but to make it work they needed a third guy who could rush and cover competently—and that’s where third-round pick Alex Highsmith, a former walk-on at UNC-Charlotte came into the picture. The rookie had carved out a small role on defense early on, playing a total of 66 snaps over his first six NFL games, while contributing plenty on special teams.

So this was going to be a change, with all three guys set to be out there together for a good portion of the most important afternoon of the Steelers’ season to this point. And there was a lot of responsibility too, with part of the concept, in addition to the rush/cover dynamic, being that putting more athleticism in the box would give Pittsburgh a better shot at chasing Jackson around.

“It was just a balance of being able to stop the run and stop the pass as well,” Highsmith said. “It was just a balanced defense, and it worked well for us.”

Never more so than at the start of the second half.

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At the break, Pittsburgh was down 17–7 and had been outgained by the Ravens 254 to 64, and the Steelers’ offense sputtered again on its first possession of the second half. The team needed a spark, and it would wind up coming from that most unlikely place on the Ravens’ first offensive snap of the third quarter.

It was first-and-10 with 14:09 on the clock, and at the snap, Highsmith recognized the play from the second quarter—a play on which, by dropping off the line and covering the flat, he took fullback Patrick Ricard, and Jackson popped the ball over his head to Mark Andrews for an 11-yard gain. Having seen that, Highsmith deepened his drop the second time around and changed the Steelers’ season.

“Same package that we’d been running with me, T.J. and Bud, I went out there and they had the same formation pre-snap, then they motioned to it,” Highsmith explained. “Earlier in the game, in the first half, they ran the same exact play and the same exact call. I got up and I didn’t drop, and I was too far up on the guy running to the flat, and he threw it over my head deep to the curl.

“So I knew that play was coming, and they were hoping I’d do the same exact thing. I learned from the first half and ended up dropping right off of it, dropping kind of late so that he didn’t see me.”

Just as the coaches had hoped, not knowing where Highsmith would end up messed with Jackson’s read, and by the time he let go of the ball, the rookie linebacker was waiting.

“It kind of came in slow motion,” he said.

A split-second later, Highsmith had the biggest play of his young career, picking off Jackson at the Ravens’ 20. Two plays after that, Ben Roethlisberger found Eric Ebron for an 18-yard touchdown. An hour and a half after that, the Steelers were headed home with a 28–24 win and a two-game lead in the AFC North.

The Steelers now stand alone atop the NFL at 7–0, and they’re there largely because stories like Highsmith’s are no mistake.

***

We’re just about halfway through the NFL season, hard as that is to believe, and we have plenty to sort through this morning. And we’re starting with …

• Joe Burrow shining as a Bengal.

• The Dolphins making Sunday more than Tua Time.

• The Bills taking care of business at home.

But we’re starting with the biggest game of the day, and one of the sport’s best rivalries.

***

Pittsburgh’s always been known for defense, but it took a long time for the Steelers to rebuild the last great defense they fielded and replace franchise icons like Troy Polamalu, James Farrior, James Harrison, Casey Hampton, Brett Keisel, Aaron Smith and Ryan Clark. Drafting guys like Watt and Dupree in the first round was, obviously, the biggest piece of the puzzle, and trading for someone else’s first-rounder, Minkah Fitzpatrick, didn’t hurt either.

But it was always going to take more than a handful of guys—it’s not that the defenses Ben Roethlisberger & Co. carried in recent years were totally devoid of high-end talent.

So just as mainstays like Stephon Tuitt and Cam Heyward were stabilizing forces, and all those young guys were there to power the resurgence, getting another wave of talent was always going to be big in finishing the job. And Highsmith is just one of those guys.

Another is Robert Spillane. If you’d never heard of him before Monday, that would be understandable. He went undrafted out of Western Michigan two years ago, signed with the Titans, spent time on both their active roster and their practice squad, then signed with the Steelers 21 months ago. From there, he was cut out of camp in 2019, went on Pittsburgh’s practice squad, then back to the active roster and made the 53 out of camp this year.

His big chance came under worse circumstances than Highsmith’s. It happened when rising star Devin Bush tore his ACL against Cleveland on Oct. 18. Spillane took his spot and played well enough that Tomlin announced he’d start at the position the rest of the year.

And by the time we got to Highsmith’s big moment? Spillane was actually the reason the Steelers weren’t getting shut out, as his pick-six of Jackson came on the third play of the game, and was only the start of a day that included 11 tackles and a fumble recovery.

The standard is back to where it has been before on defense in Pittsburgh. Highsmith and Spillane made huge plays, in part, because of what was around them, both on game day and every day.

“It’s been awesome,” Highsmith said. “Ever since I came here, I knew that this team, this defense is the real deal. All the guys are great on defense. The reason we’re so good is because we’re all together. I feel like this team is truly a family. But just coming in and being able to learn from two of the best in the game in T.J. and Bud, they’re two of the best at what they do. In my opinion, the best outside linebacker/pass-rusher duo in the league.

“It’s awesome to come in and learn from such great guys, expanding my knowledge and try to pick their brain on stuff like that. I’m just proud to be here for this team and be able to learn from these guys. Like you said, just carve out any role that I can when I’m on the field, be an impact player and make plays.”

Oh, and the plan for Jackson? It mostly worked. Jackson threw for just 208 yards, two scores and the two picks on 13-of-28 passing, and he was held to 65 yards on 16 carries.

So they didn’t stop Jackson altogether. But the plan wasn’t to do that—it was more to limit the damage he could do by taking legs out of the equation.

“It was just stopping the run, mainly,” Highsmith said. “Stopping him, I feel like we put in a good game plan to prevent him from getting the ball out in space. We really just didn’t want him to beat us, so I feel like we definitely made adjustments for him in the second half. That’s just our game plan, to come in and try to make them throw the ball more than they run it.”

The Ravens did, eventually, get the run game on track—and right when they needed it. J.K. Dobbins, Gus Edwards and Jackson covered 68 yards, entirely on the ground, inside the game’s final eight minutes, eventually getting to a fourth-and-3 on the Steelers’ 8.

A defense that carried the Steelers through big chunks of the afternoon was going to have to come through for the team. Which is just what that group did, with Fitzpatrick coming up like a missile to stonewall Jackson right in front of the marker and effectively end the game.

“It was an empty formation, empty set. Whenever they did that, it’s definitely a good chance of a QB draw, especially down in the red zone like that,” Highsmith said about a situation in which he was once again on the field. “We knew quarterback runs are a strong possibility. I just feel like we did a good job reacting. All the droppers did a good job pinning their chin and seeing Lamar whenever he scrambled, so that we all just rallied to the ball whenever he scrambled.

“It was just a good designed play for us, definitely the right play call, for sure.”

And it got the Steelers the right result and, now, a two-game edge in the AFC North with tiebreakers on the Browns and Ravens.

Which, of course, is because Pittsburgh has the right people to make plays on defense. Again.

***

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TRUST IN BURROW IS PAYING OFF

Joe Burrow led Athens (Ohio) High to the school’s first seven playoff wins during his three years as a starter there, then played at Ohio State and LSU. So to a 23-year-old who’s played since he was a kid, the son of a coach, the question seemed obvious to me, looking at where he is as a pro now and how he’s dealing with what’s ahead.

When was the last time you lost five games in a football season?

“Never,” he answered.

And how exactly are you processing it?

“It just doesn’t feel like we’re 2–5–1 right now, because we’re in every game and close to winning all those games,” Burrow responded. “So we talk about it all the time. All week in practice, I was like, ‘It doesn’t feel like 1–5. There’s energy in practice, everybody’s optimistic. We’re playing well in practice, moving the ball. And it just doesn’t feel like we’re a 1–5 football team.’”

They aren’t anymore, and even if that 2–5–1 mark is still pretty modest—and not where Burrow is looking to go—how they got there can bring important context on where the No. 1 overall pick is six months into his NFL career.

So too can the details.

One would be who the Bengals beat on Sunday: a Titans team that came in at 5–1.

Another would how it happened: fairly resoundingly, by a count of 31–20.

And then, there’s how the Bengals closed Tennessee out, with coach Zac Taylor exhibiting uncommon confidence in a quarterback who was still a month shy of winning the Heisman Trophy at this time last year.

With 2:08 left, the Bengals were facing a third-and-6 from their own 32. The score was already 31–20, and conventional wisdom would say to hand the ball off one more time, punt, and put the last piece of a big win on defense’s shoulders.

Instead, Taylor put Burrow in the shotgun and called for the quarterback to make a challenging throw to the sideline, and that was after he had to adjust to the coverage.

“We were going to take a double move, and we just got pressed,” Burrow said. “So we were just going to run a little fade. Auden [Tate] made a great play, unbelievable play, that really sealed the game.”

Indeed, Tate went up over Johnathan Joseph to snatch the ball, hard by the sideline to the Bengals’ left, and end any real hope Tennessee had of coming back in Cincinnati. But more than just a good call, nice throw and spectacular catch, it was a young coach putting a big situation on his rookie quarterback’s shoulders—because he knew Burrow could handle it.

“We knew we were going to have to do it to win the game,” Burrow said. “And we have the confidence in our guys that they’re going to make plays. I just have to be smart with the ball, and the rest will take care of itself.”

There is, of course, plenty more to it than that, just as there is a lot more to Burrow’s 249-yard, two-touchdown afternoon than the ex-LSU star having the moxie of a guy who just won every award a college player can.

And part of his growth showed up on that play, in how he reacted to the press coverage so quickly, and decisively got the ball out to his receiver.

“I’ve come lightyears,” Burrow said. “And really the biggest thing is just seeing NFL defenses. There’s a lot of, I don’t want to say unsound defense, but just people where you don’t expect them to be, and calls that are very surprising in certain spots. Like the one against Indianapolis at the end of the game, the interception on the two-minute drive, they were playing quarters with one guy underneath. And I just didn’t think defenses could really do that. But they do and they can.

“And it’s having those plays in the back of my mind of when I do see those looks, gashing these defenses and taking advantage of the opportunities when they present themselves. You just have to have the plays in the back of your mind and you can’t let defenses do that to you.”

It’s happening less and less now, as evidenced by how Burrow played against the Titans, and, as he sees it, the feel around the team is starting to change. Sunday’s win may have been Cincinnati’s first in a month, but the Bengals have only lost one game by more than five points, which is another reason why the decision by Taylor to go for the throat in the fourth quarter carried some meaning.

That, as Burrow sees it, is where the culture change happens.

“Yeah. I think a couple weeks ago we probably lose the game today,” he said. “We don’t make the plays on offense that we needed to at the end of the game that we did make today to score a couple more touchdowns, get a few more points and close it out. … [That’s why] I’m really excited to continue this season and continue the momentum we have right now. I think we have a good shot to finish the season out strong.

“I know we have guys within the locker room who are made of the right stuff. Toughness, leadership, resiliency, that they’re never going to quit. We’ve got the right makeup.”

And it’s pretty evident that Burrow does too. Moreover, he’s accepting what comes with that.

In my conversations with Taylor over the last couple months, the coach has continued to say to me, “He’s not a rookie.” When I brought that up to Burrow himself, he was fine with the idea, as you might expect.

“I don’t think I’m a rookie anymore either,” he said. “I’ve got eight games under my belt. And everybody always says this guy’s going to make rookie mistakes or this guy plays like a rookie. I don’t want people to say that about me. I’ve had some turnovers in the last few games that I wish I could take back, but I think for the most part I’ve prepared well, played well and done what I’ve needed to do. So it does give me confidence.

“And I just need to continue that.”

Up next after the Bengals’ bye: a late afternoon game in Pittsburgh.

***

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TUA TIME

We’ve seen Burrow. We’ve seen Justin Herbert.

On Sunday, finally, we got to see the other quarterback taken in the top 10 seven months ago. Dolphins rookie Tua Tagovailoa made his first start, taking on a very solid Rams team at home. And if you just looked at his stat line, and ignored everything else, you probably wouldn’t take a whole lot from it.

The former fifth pick finished 12-of-22 for 93 yards and a touchdown.

Not horrible, but not terribly exciting either.

And then, you get to the why of it, and maybe the reasoning Brian Flores and GM Chris Grier took to this whole idea—replacing the quarterback, Ryan Fitzpatrick, who led a team catching fire to wins in Weeks 5 and 6—becomes clear.

Usually, first-round quarterbacks who don’t start from Day 1 get thrown in when their teams fall apart, and naturally are pushed into bad situations as a result (i.e. Let’s just throw him in there and see what we’ve got). This was the opposite of that. Flores and Grier saw a good situation, and put Tagovailoa in a position to benefit from it—and he most certainly did, in playing bus driver as the Dolphins ran the Rams out of Hard Rock Stadium, 28–17.

“He’s a rookie at the end of the day,” veteran linebacker Kyle Van Noy told me postgame. “Obviously, we all want it to just happen overnight, but it’s a process. And he knows that, defense knows that, special teams know that. And we’re there for him. It’s a situation where we feel like whoever’s there, we’re going to have a good chance to win. Fitz is really good. Tua’s really good. We know we’ve just got to take it one game at a time.

“We did that today. Clearly, we showed it by scoring in every single phase. Obviously, we can’t rely on that each and every week. They know that [on offense], and they’re going to get better and better and better. And we’re going to get better and better ourselves. We’re going to take it one week at a time. We got a W.”

Van Noy then laughed and said, “So let’s keep it moving. It’s Tua Time, let’s go.”

It was Tua Time on Sunday. But it was also Van Noy Time. And Andrew Van Ginkel Time. And Christian Wilkins Time And Jakeem Grant Time. And you get the picture.

Like Van Noy said, everyone had a hand in this one. Wilkins’s pick set up Tagovailoa’s first touchdown pass as a pro, a three-yarder to DeVante Parker to even the score at 7. Less than five minutes later, Emmanuel Ogbah strip-sacked Jared Goff, and Van Ginkel ran it back 78 yards to make it 14–7. A Ram three-and-out followed, and Grant took the resulting punt back 88 yards for another touchdown to push the lead to 21–7. And later in the second quarter, Shaq Lawson strip-sacked Goff and Van Noy ran it 28 yards back to Rams’ 1.

Myles Gaskin cashed that one in on the next play. (When I asked Van Noy if he was pissed he didn’t score, and had to leave that up to Gaskin, he responded, “Hell yeah I’m pissed, I need to get back to work and get my body right so I can run faster.”) And just like that, the lead was 28–10 at the half, a lead that required all of 34 passing yards from Tagovailoa to build.

“I think it just shows this team is not built one way,” Van Noy said. “We know every side of the ball needs to step up and do their part. And today was a clear example, with all of us scoring. And it just shows you what kind of team we are. We don’t want to be just an offensive team or a defensive team or rely on special teams to make a big play. We want to continue to grind out each and every game, and I think if we keep stringing them together, hopefully we can put it together each week and become the team we know we can be.”

So a day that was supposed to be about Tagovailoa wound up becoming about just about everyone—it was about Flores too, for dusting off the old, hyper-aggressive Super LIII game plan that he used as a Patriots assistant against Sean McVay, Goff & Co. two years ago—and, of course, that’s no accident.

And the Patriot feel didn’t stop at the X’s and O’s. There’s also that idea of complimentary football, and treating each game as its own entity that can tie the Dolphins to what Flores experienced coming up the ranks. But there’s a line there, too, according to Van Noy, who Flores imported from Foxboro—and the veteran will be sure to let you know that the Dolphins of 2020 are no Patriots knockoff.

“I want to get as far away as I can from that place, because I want my own credit,” Van Noy said, laughing. “I want people to think I can play ball in any type of system. Flo, I’m sure, wants to get as far away as he can from that system as well. Because this is his own system. It’s Miami, he’s bringing his own culture, his own coaching style. It’s different.

“There’s not many similarities in anything. He’s his own coach, we’re all our own players. He’s at the helm, we know that, we trust him. Guys are bought in. Obviously, you can tell by the way we play.”

And by we, Van Noy clearly means all of them.

***

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BILLS FINALLY KNOCK OFF THE PATS

As Bills coach Sean McDermott talked, from his office an hour after his first win over the Patriots since arriving in Buffalo almost four years ago, he expressed a lot of gratitude, a little relief and just one regret.

“It’s a great win for our fan base,” he said. “Honestly I wish they were in the building to experience it. I’m sure at the end of that game when the turnover happened, they would’ve been going crazy. So it’s kind of bittersweet without that, that we couldn’t experience that together. Just thankful for their support. I’ve been to some other cities before, certainly thankful that this fan base really connects with the team and the team really connects with the fan base. I think that makes us a true community, which is pretty cool.”

Justin Zimmer forcing the fumble to kill the Patriots’, and Cam Newton’s, final comeback bid in the Bills’ 24–21 win was a long time coming for a whole lot of people in Western New York. Dating back to Bill Belichick’s first year in New England, the Bills were 4–35 in their last 39 games against the Patriots dynasty, and none of those wins wound up amounting to much.

In fact, the last time the Bills beat the Patriots and made the playoffs in the same season was in 1998, with Wade Phillips and Doug Flutie getting by Pete Carroll and Drew Bledsoe.

So yeah, there was a lot of meaning in this one for McDermott, whose team now sits atop the AFC East at 6–2. And how Buffalo did it, as McDermott saw things, meant something too—mostly because it wasn’t perfect, or close to how he’d have drawn it up, but his players, top to bottom, found a way.

Josh Allen, for one, didn’t have his best afternoon. But he was able to cobble together a 10-play, 63-yard drive in the fourth quarter to set up what would stand up as Tyler Bass’s game-winning field goal, going 3-for-4 for 38 yards along the way. Likewise, the run defense had its issues, but found an unlikely hero in Justin Zimmer in the end.

Zimmer started his pro career in Buffalo before McDermott arrived, in 2016, was cut out of camp, and then bounced around, from the Saints to the Montreal Alouettes to the Falcons then to the Browns. Waived by Cleveland on July 31, Zimmer spent two weeks looking for a job before landing back in Buffalo. He quickly made an impression, but didn’t get a roster spot—and started the year on the practice squad, going up and down twice since then.

McDermott stuck with Zimmer because he saw something there.

“Well when we got him, I honestly didn’t really know him that well, so give [GM] Brandon [Beane] and his staff credit,” he said. “I think it’s a combination of two things. We’ve got a guy, like many of these guys that come to us, and they become the best version of themselves here in Buffalo. That’s one special piece of this. The other special piece of this is we’ve got some injuries and other guys have stepped up. That’s a key piece of it as well.”

And Zimmer’s moment to step up came when it mattered most. After Bass’s kick, the Patriots tore down the field, covering 60 yards in eight plays over nearly three minutes to set up first-and-10 at the Bills’ 19. The snap after that one (a Newton throwaway), Patriots OC Josh McDaniels called Newton’s number, and he ran off left tackle with a convoy in front of him. But just as he picked up a head of steam, Zimmer, unbeknownst to Newton, hustled in right behind him to pop the ball loose.

Safety Dean Marlowe recovered it. Ballgame.

“I’ll give you a one-liner, man: Flat-out effort,” McDermott said. “We coach it, but at the same time, there’s a lot of people around the league that coach it. I don’t know if we do it better or not, I’m not going to say that. I think the point is this guy comes to us like many of these players, that are cast off from other teams. He finds a home here in Buffalo with his family, it’s just great to see him play the way he’s playing.

“Wasn’t good enough maybe for other teams, but he’s just right for us.”

And the Bills team McDermott has, evidently, was right for the moment here.

These haven’t been the Bills of September. They took it on the chin in Tennessee, lost a slugfest to Kansas City and let the Jets hang around just a little too long. But they’ve come out of the second quarter of the season with a 2–2 split and a 6–2 record overall.

“Every year you’re trying to figure out who your team is, right? You know that,” McDermott said. “Usually, most teams go through some injuries. And in this case some opt-outs. Every team has them. Coach Belichick, I know, referenced that the other day. We’ve got them too. I think the teams that can try to patch those holes the best they can, stay steady and put in the work every week to earn the right to win, I think that’s a big part of it. “

The Bills had to earn that one, for sure. But there were issues on Sunday too—Buffalo had chances early to pull away, and didn’t, and that’s been an issue for the Bills—and, given the schedule ahead (their next five games: Seattle, at Arizona, Chargers, at San Francisco, Pittsburgh), there’s plenty to clean up.

So, yes, putting the mighty Patriots three and a half games back in the division, and beating them when it counts, matters. But so too does what’s next.

“Bill Belichick is Bill Belichick for a reason,” McDermott said. “And those players that are playing for them, they play hard. I thought they gave great effort today. It was a good football game, back and forth. I’m disappointed that we couldn’t pull away, but I’m respectful of the situation. That’s honestly what we’ve got to go back and look at—why couldn’t we pull away further than what we did? That’ll be part of the gap that we’ve got to close this week.”

It was going to be, that is, after McDermott gave himself a couple hours to enjoy this one.

It is a win over the Patriots, after all.

***

Eagles' T.J. Edwards forces the fumble as he brings down Dallas quarterback Ben DiNucci (7) Sunday, Nov. 1, 2020, at Lincoln Financial Field

TEN TAKEAWAYS

The NFC East is what we thought it was. And what a mess it is! In Philly’s 23 –9 win over Dallas on Sunday night, Carson Wentz threw two picks, one of which looked like a punt, to bring his league-leading total to 12. He continues to look like he’s regressed badly (his lack of awareness on strip-sacks by Donovan Wilson in the first quarter and Leighton Vander Esch in the second quarter was glaring). Dallas rookie Ben DiNucci was worse, because, well, he probably didn’t belong in an NFL game in the first place—the seventh-round pick was pressed into action because of Andy Dalton’s concussion last week. The weird thing is that Philly’s already been acting like a seller on the trade market, and now they’re in sole possession of first place in the NFC East. So their approach over the next couple days will be interesting, with my sense being that GM Howie Roseman knows there are parts of the roster that need to be reworked, particularly with next year’s cap crunch looming. As for the Cowboys, they’re in the awkward spot of being in a playoff race with a new coach and a team that has seemed listless at some points, and lifeless at others. They were the former on Sunday, which is actually better than the latter.

We saw why the Vikings have been good for a while in their upset of Green Bay. This, clearly, isn’t Minnesota’s year. They’re 2–5. They disengaged from their big summer acquisition, Yannick Ngakoue, 11 days ago in an acknowledgment that this just isn’t their year. It would surprise no one if they offloaded a few more vets between now and Tuesday’s deadline. Maybe you could even say, with the core in Minnesota aging, it’s overdue. But amid all that, I think we’re seeing why the Vikings have been such a consistent contender (three playoff trips, two NFC North titles and no losing seasons in the last five years). And we saw it again this week and on Sunday in Green Bay. They’re being honest with themselves about where they stand roster-wise, on one hand. On the other, in the game, they showed signs that their next chapter should be O.K. Proof positive came with a look at the team’s situation in the secondary, against Aaron Rodgers and the Packers. The Vikings came into Sunday without starters Mike Hughes and Holton Hill. Cam Dantzler missed the whole week of practice on the COVID-19 list, then got hurt early in the game. By the third quarter, fill-ins Kris Boyd and Mark Fields had gone down too, and that left the team relying heavily on rookies. First-rounder Jeff Gladney and fifth-rounder Harrison Hand were the corners, and with Anthony Harris moving to play nickel, sixth-rounder Josh Metellus took his place at safety. And Minnesota was able to hold off a rally from Rodgers & Co. with that crew late. The headliner Sunday for the Vikings was, as it should be, Dalvin Cook (32 touches, 226 scrimmage yards and four touchdowns). But if you really want to be optimistic that Minnesota will be able to transition from its aging stars, how the Vikings made it work in the secondary should do it for you. In all, Minnesota started five rookies and played eight on Sunday, and a whole bunch of them look like they can play.

The Colts defense came to play. And you might look at Matthew Stafford’s 336 yards, or big games from T.J, Hockenson and Marvin Hall, and doubt that. It sure doesn’t look, at least statistically, like it did earlier in the year when the Indy defense was choking everyone out. But with Philip Rivers rolling, the defense gave the team exactly what it needed—timely turnovers that changed the game in a hurry. All-planet linebacker Darius Leonard’s strip-sack of Stafford came with the Lions at the Colts’ 25, and Detroit down just 20–14 late in the third quarter. And that set the stage for Rivers to lead an 8-play, 60-yard drive to push the lead to 28–14. On the next play from scrimmage? Safety Kenny Moore picked Stafford off and covered the 29 yards left on the field to paydirt, which made the score 35–14. And just like that, things went from game on to game over. Indy came into the game tied for seventh in the NFL with 12 takeaways on the year, so it’s not like today was out of left field. But being able to pull off what they did definitely showed a different gear in the Colts unit—loaded with high-end young talent—that should take pressure off Rivers and the offense. (Also: That Indy’s been this competent in the season and a half following Andrew Luck’s sudden retirement speaks to the job coach Frank Reich and GM Chris Ballard have done there.)

The Patriots should be sellers. I say this while also applauding their effort on Sunday in Buffalo—they showed the heart of a champion in trading blows with the Bills on a blustery November afternoon. It’s just that at this point, that champion looks like the proud old punch-drunk tough guy who’s probably a couple fights past his expiration date. The Patriots reincorporated Cam Newton’s running ability (nine carries, 54 yards) after calling just two runs for him last week against the Niners. That helped buoy a ground game that churned out 188 yards on 34 carries, which helped Cam as a passer (15-for-25, 174 yards) immensely. The defense, for the most part, played well. And the Patriots still lost. What does it mean? Well, it means that the team is playing without near the margin for error that it used to have, and that’s not just about the quarterback. It’s about the state of the roster. This year was always going to be about turning the page—the Patriots are carrying nearly $30 million in dead money on their cap this year, and have held onto their draft picks for a reason. They needed to clean up their financials. They still need to get younger. Sure, when Newton signed, the idea of what this year would be was clouded a little bit. But they’ve needed to clear the decks for a while. And now that they’re 2–5, and we know getting a win is going to be a fight every time going forward, it makes sense for the team to see what they can get for pricey, well-heeled vets like Stephon Gilmore, Joe Thuney, David Andrews and Lawrence Guy. Which, I’m told, they’ve already made an effort to do—telling teams they’ll listen to trade offers on almost everyone on the roster.

Anthony Lynn’s fighting for his job, and he knows it. I love Lynn as a head coach, and believe he’s done a phenomenal job dealing with all the unique circumstances he’s been dealt—spending three years in a soccer stadium, and in a new city with no built-in fan base. But I also know how these things work, and I know he does too. The Chargers gave Lynn a one-year extension in the offseason, through 2021, off the original four-year deal he signed in 2017, so he wouldn’t have to coach in a contract year. Which means that when we get to January, the Chargers will be right back where they were again, with a decision to make on Lynn’s future. Could they do another Band-Aid deal? Sure, they could. But it seems more likely that, in two months, it would be time for the team to make the decision on whether to truly renew vows or move in a different direction, especially with a young quarterback on a rookie deal now in the fold. Asked if he thinks he’s on the hot seat, Lynn responded after Sunday’s loss in Denver: “When you’re not winning, you should be.” The Chargers blew a 17–6 lead to the Chiefs, a 24–7 lead to the Bucs, a 20–3 lead to the Saints and, on Sunday, a 24–3 lead to the Browns (they also blew a 16–0 lead over the Jaguars too, before coming back to win). The Chargers are 2–5. There’ll be, pandemic pending, a gleaming new stadium to fill next fall. The schedule is manageable down the stretch. I’m super interested to see how this one plays out.

I still think the Saints can take it to another level. I liked their creativity on offense Sunday in Chicago. The defense, for the most part, was fine. And even if the Saints often look a little … let’s call it edgy out there, the talent remains. The next step will be reintroducing Mike Thomas to the mix, which will be interesting with all the water under the bridge over the last few weeks. Thomas, you’ll remember, threw a punch at Chauncey Gardner-Johnson (who got another punch thrown at him Sunday, which we’ll get to below) at practice a few weeks back, was suspended over his unwillingness to apologize and has been nursing a hamstring injury of late on top of that. How will he reassimilate? Well, the Saints have done more with Tre’Quan Smith, Jared Cook and Deonte Harris with Thomas and Emmanuel Sanders down, and so you could reason they’ll be more well-rounded when he comes back. What remains to be seen is whether any scars from the last few weeks surface. If they don’t, New Orleans should be in good shape going into the second half of the schedule, starting with Sunday’s showdown with Tampa.

Russell Wilson is my tentative midseason MVP. My plan is to go deeper into this over the next few days and have a midseason report for everyone in the GamePlan on Thursday. But for now, I’m sticking with the Seahawks’ QB, even if does feel like it’s in part because no one’s really asserted themselves as a challenger since Wilson’s hot start. The other reasons are far more football-centric …

1) Wilson has carried the Seahawks. Going into this weekend, Seattle ranked dead last in total defense, and just 12th in rushing offense, which leads to the truth: There’s never been more on Wilson’s plate than there is now. He has to carry the team in a way he hasn’t before.

2) Wilson’s been clutch. Wins over the Patriots, Cowboys and Vikings required him to be at his best when it mattered most, and he was.

3) The offense runs through Wilson. Wilson and coordinator Brian Schottenheimer have worked tirelessly to learn one another over the last three years, and the result is Wilson having full command of the offense—and the full green light to change things as he sees fit. I’ll always give a quarterback bonus points for having that power, because a big part of it is making your teammates more effective, which Wilson has.

Now, on the surface, Sunday’s win over San Francisco, for Wilson and the Seahawks, was relatively ho-hum. But there were subtle things to see underneath it there—targets that Seattle had coming in that Wilson helped the team hit. One was on third down, an area where the offense has had its issues this year. Against the Niners, Seattle converted 60% of its third downs (9-of-15), a huge improvement. Second, there’s the continued goal of engaging different guys week-to-week. Last week, it was Tyler Lockett (15 catches, 200 yards). This week, it was D.K. Metcalf (six catches, 102 yards). All of this is aimed at tightening up the unit’s efficiency and versatility down the stretch. And as Wilson and the group around him keep growing, the shot he’s got at his first MVP award keeps getting better.

The Raiders’ situation involving Trent Brown is a scary one. And my understanding of it—my wife happens to be a cardiac nurse—is that it could well have been life-threatening. Brown had an air embolism, which basically means that air entered his bloodstream via an IV he took pregame. Something as simple as the person who puts the IV in pumping too quickly can cause this. As a result, Brown was rushed to a hospital in Cleveland, and couldn’t make his return to the lineup. Which was unfortunate, since he’d just come off the COVID-19 reserve list after testing positive a couple weeks ago. The good news: Vegas was O.K. without its star right tackle. As a team, the Raiders rushed for 208 yards, and Derek Carr was only sacked twice in a breezy 16–6 win over a feisty Browns team, playing its first game without Odell Beckham Jr.

I really hope we aren’t taking Patrick Mahomes for granted. Yes, it was against the Jets. But his stat line was bananas (again): 31-of-42 for 416 yards and five touchdowns to four different receivers. Mahomes also hit seven different guys at least three times, and all this happened with the reigning Super Bowl MVP taking a seat with 10 minutes to go and his team up 35–9. I hope we appreciate what we’re seeing here, and I almost feel bad I didn’t mention him with Wilson, because he is back at an MVP level (last year, he slipped a little thanks to the injury). The downside for K.C. on Sunday? The defense struggled early against a pretty lackluster offense, and the run game was largely contained (20 carries for 50 yards). But Mahomes playing like he did has a way of erasing that bad stuff.

The NFL deserves credit for its voting effort. Our old colleague/buddy Robert Klemko, now of the Washington Post, wrote a story for The MMQB three years ago, basically running a census of the Broncos’ locker room. Some results were as to be expected. But truthfully, I didn’t know what would come back regarding guys’ voting habits—and it didn’t look awesome for the league. Two-thirds of the team didn’t vote in the last presidential election, with 22 of the 29 Black players in the locker room among those non-voters. This time around, it’s different. Some stats the NFL and NFLPA threw at us this week …

• As of last Wednesday, 90% of all players were registered to vote, with some teams reporting 100% results on player registration, a huge improvement over where the league believed it was four years ago. Some teams, like the Colts, spent training camp time getting everyone registered.

• Half of the 32 teams are using their stadiums and/or facilities for early voting or as polling sites on Election Day—a crucial contribution in this of all years, given the COVID-19 guidelines nationwide.

• Every player and club/league employee got comprehensive voter education ahead of the Nov. 3 election.

And there have been more public efforts—the PSAs featuring Pete Carroll and Deshaun Watson have seemed be omnipresent the last couple weeks—too. All of this, of course, is great in a lot of different ways. Good for the NFL and good for the union for doing it.

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devonta-smith-alabama

SIX FROM SATURDAY

1) We’ve mentioned Alabama senior WR DeVonta Smith a few times in this space, and that I’ve talked to scouts who liked him more than Jerry Jeudy and Henry Ruggs last year. But there were legit concerns about his size and strength, so opinions on him have been a bit split. Until now. Smith’s start to this year, and how he’s kept going even after the Tide lost Jaylen Waddle, is converting skeptics. “The production is just impossible to ignore,” texted one AFC scouting director, who had his question. “He’s made another leap, and he’s doing it without Waddle/Jeudy/Ruggs.” Saturday was Bama’s first game without Waddle (out for the year with a broken ankle), and all Smith did was catch 11 balls for 203 yards and four touchdowns.

2) New quarterback to watch: Cincinnati redshirt junior Desmond Ridder. I had an evaluator put his NFL prospects on my radar Sunday. Ridder’s athletic, throws a nice ball, and has good size and a ton of experience. How high could he be drafted? I don’t know. But I’m going to start paying closer attention to him and the unbeaten Bearcats.

3) Speaking of quarterbacks in Ohio, Ohio State junior Justin Fields laid waste to another defense on Saturday night in State College. Through two games, against Penn State and Nebraska, Fields has completed 48-of-55 throws (87.3%) for 594 yards, six touchdowns and no picks. “Playing at a really high level,” texted one NFC exec on Sunday morning. “Ball placement and accuracy look excellent, making quick decisions and looks completely in control. You get to see him do stuff pre-snap too, which is big.” At this point, Fields is probably the favorite to go second overall in April.

4) Jim Harbaugh may be on the ropes at Michigan—that wasn’t a good loss on Saturday to Michigan State, and 2021 is a contract year for the embattled coach—but I don’t think he’d have much trouble getting another shot in the NFL. His specialty, proven at all four of his stops as a head coach, is coming in and shaking a program up, provoking immediate results in the process. That’s why I’ve always felt like the best comp for him as a coach was Bill Parcells. And like Parcells, his way can wear thin a few years in. I don’t know if he’s at that point or nor at Michigan yet. What I do know is there’d be teams out there that would be willing to accept that if it meant getting the kind of quick turnaround that he pulled off with Stanford, the Niners and Michigan.

5) I think Clemson’s Travis Etienne helped himself on Saturday, playing without Trevor Lawrence for the first time in more than two years. Having to be a lifeline for a true freshman quarterback, and in a game in which the Tigers went down 28–10, the senior tailback didn’t go bananas in the run game, grinding out 84 yards on 20 carries. But he was a huge factor in the passing game, leading the team with another 140 yards and a touchdown on seven catches. Proving he could thrive amid changing circumstances will help him with NFL teams in the spring, when they get to evaluating him fully.

6) The Pac-12 starts Saturday, and I think it’s at least interesting that we haven’t seen high-end players opt back in at the rate we did in the Big Ten. The conference’s top NFL prospect by a long shot, Oregon LT Penei Sewell, is one of the opt-outs. And this week, as his Ducks ready for Stanford (whose own top-shelf left tackle, Walker Little, opted out), Sewell will be in Orange County prepping for the draft rather than Eugene for the game. Now, it’s not like the Pac-12 didn’t have guys opt back in. USC OL Alijah Vera-Tucker was one who did. It’s just that the high-profile guys didn’t. In the Big Ten a lot of the biggest names, though not all, opted back in, with Ohio State CB Shaun Wade and G Wyatt Davis, Minnesota WR Rashod Bateman, Michigan OT Jalen Mayfield and Purdue WR Rondale Moore all returning to their teams, despite being regarded as top-50 or so picks. Why the difference? I asked a few reporter friends of mine, who work at that level, and some coaches. Their most common answer: The Pac-12 is having a shorter season. And as such, there might be less to play for, since plenty of people are skeptical the conference will get one of the CFP’s four playoff spots.

***

BEST OF THE NFL INTERNET

That’s where we are, eight weeks in.

If you’re my age, this is the perfect description of that fight.

Always remember to never—never—cap for the Gram.

… Except, maybe, if you’re from Florida, like my buddy Kevin. Here.

And I consider that, from Evan, the definitive take of the fracas.

Not really sure what’s going on here but I kinda like it.

Ouch.

The Steelers’ rookie receiver earned a follow from me, through his talent for pounding his chest postgame on social media.

So that’s what it looks like in 2020, which is still really weird.

Glad the Bengals are having fun with all this.

… And PFT Commenter is having his fun with that.

Congrats, Mitch. The octopus keeps trending up.

I’m a sucker for these—even if they’re sort of inconsequential (the Raiders won by 10).

Great call here from Scooter.

SNF, in one tweet.

***

nfl-antoine-winfield-junior-rookie-monday-night-football-spotlight

MONDAY NIGHT SPOTLIGHT

Each week, we’ll connect with a player set to climb atop the Monday Night Football stage to get answers to a few questions. This week, Tampa’s rookie revelation of a second-round pick, Antoine Winfield Jr. …

MMQB: After you got drafted by Tampa, how many stories did you hear from your dad about playing against Tom Brady? And here’s a question: Do you know when they played each other first?

AW: I’m not sure when they played against each other for the first time. All I really know is I remember him telling me that he picked him off in one of those games. That’s all I really know.

MMQB: They actually played in 1998, when Brady was the quarterback at Michigan.

AW: Oh yeah, I didn’t even think about that—he hasn’t told me anything about them playing in college. I’m gonna have to ask him.

MMQB: How crazy is it for you, having that connection where your dad played against him?

AW: It’s super crazy. It’s weird that my dad played against him and now we’re teammates. It’s just a weird connection, that he played on the same field with two generations of Winfields. It’s ridiculous.

MMQB: Is there anything you’ve learned watching him and how he handles his business?

AW: Yeah, I was about to say—it’s just how he goes about his business. He comes in, he works hard every day, he’s super passionate. You see him on the sidelines getting everybody riled up. That’s one thing, just being around him, you can see how passionate he is and how hard he works. So that’s something I’ll definitely cherish getting to see.

MMQB: You didn’t wait that long on draft day, but you were a second-rounder and you’re making as big an impact as almost any rookie. What do you think teams missed on you?

AW: I’d say more teams nowadays are looking for the prototypical safety—6' 1", 6' 2", 215 pounds. That’s what most teams are looking for, so I feel like that’s probably the only reason I was overlooked a little bit. [Winfield measured 5' 9" and 203 pounds at the combine.]

MMQB: So how do you make up for that?

AW: Just by doing my job, making plays on the field. You can have those requirements, and be 6' 1", 210, but if you can’t play football, you can’t play football. And I feel like my ability to play football and my love for the game is what takes me over the top. It makes up for being not being 6' 3", 215 pounds.

MMQB: They moved you around a lot in college, and some in the NFL. So do you see yourself as more of just a DB than a safety?

AW: I’d say, yeah, I’m more a defensive back, because I feel like I can play anywhere in the back end of the defense.

MMQB: What’s the biggest thing that’s allowed you to make an impact right away—in what’s obviously been a weird year for everyone.

AW: My work ethic, being able to pick up all the information that was given to me in a short period of time. We didn’t have OTAs. We didn’t come in early. And as soon as we got here, we were just kind of thrown in the fire. So I feel like my ability to pick up all the new schemes and defenses very fast, and make the coaches trust what I’m doing, that was the biggest thing to getting out on the field right away.

MMQB: I remember, when I was in Tampa for camp, a coach telling me, ‘He’s making a play every day.’ Based on that, was the transition easier than you thought it’d be?

AW: I mean, I always felt like I was prepared. I would ask my dad what it was like for him his first year coming in. He’d always tell me, the game’s a little faster, you’re going against better people, so I always had it in my mind that I knew the game was gonna be faster, I knew the people were gonna be better. So it was mental for me. I knew once I got here, I had to work hard and earn a starting spot. But since I was already prepared that way, it made that transition easier.

MMQB: What’s the biggest advantage having an NFL dad gave you coming up?

AW: I would definitely say his knowledge. He played for 14 years in the league, so he has so much knowledge of the game. He has a lot of advice. I can literally ask him anything about football and he’ll spin a story to me right off the top of his head. That’s the biggest thing. He taught me young, we were outside doing back pedal drills, going over and watching film. His experiences, his ability to teach me those things at a young age, I feel like that had the biggest impact.

MMQB: So at this age, how often do you go to him for football advice?

AW: Shoot, pretty much every day, or every other day. We still watch film together and all that, so it’s at least every other day.

MMQB: What’s the best advice he’s given you?

AW: He always tells me, enjoy the process because it goes by fast. I know it’s cliché, but he’s always telling me—enjoy it.

MMQB: How good a fit is Todd Bowles’s defense for you? It seems like the scheme worked for players you’ve been comped to, like a Tyrann Mathieu or Budda Baker.

AW: Yeah, especially with the way they use the safeties around here. I felt like it was a great fit for me, he’s a great D-coordinator, very smart. He’s always putting us in the right positions. So I feel like this was the best possible position.

MMQB: When you say how he uses the safeties, what specifically do you mean?

AW: He uses us in those versatile roles—we’re blitzing, we’re in coverage, we’re down disguised as linebackers, it’s all different things like that. His ability to uses his safeties anywhere on the field is something that I really like.

MMQB: How closely have you paid attention to the Giants’ COVID-19 issue this week, and how much are you paying attention to that stuff in general?

AW: We haven’t really been paying too much attention, we come in here and work as if we’re going to play, because that’s our mindset. Haven’t really been paying too much attention.

MMQB: A little extra juice for you in your first Monday night game?

AW: Oh, for sure, yeah. Prime time football, I’m always juiced up for that one, so yeah, I can’t wait.

***

WHAT YOU NEED TO KNOW

The trade deadline is 36 hours away. And I didn’t address it too much here—just because we’ve written a lot about it lately.

But if you do want more fodder? We’re going to get you some for the MAQB, and then wrap all of this up with a special post-deadline mailbag first thing Wednesday morning.

See you then!