Lamar Jackson Is Evolving and Improving, Even If His Numbers Aren't As Eye-Popping As in 2019

Things haven't come as easily this year as they did during Lamar Jackson's MVP season. But a comeback win over the Colts shows how he is growing. Plus, what the Dolphins pulled off in Arizona, Joe Judge's culture is delivering, the Saints' defense shut down Tom Brady, COVID-19 at the season's midpoint and much more.
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You might have noticed Lamar Jackson’s name has been moved off the marquee in the fall of 2020. In the space he occupied last year, for overall performance, you have Russell Wilson. And for a young phenom, you might take Kyler Murray, Joe Burrow or Justin Herbert.

The it factor that Jackson overflowed with in 2019—the week-to-week feeling of What could he do next?—hasn’t run empty, but it’s not as full as it was. And the work of defensive coordinators has, indeed, dialed back the excitement that’s come from the Ravens’ innovative, high-wire act of an offense.

So what’s left for Jackson now?

Well, to grow and evolve, and keep it moving, a necessity now based on what he’s seeing in his second full season as a starting quarterback in the NFL, and what he saw in particular on Sunday against the Colts.

“A little bit of everything,” Jackson said, over the cell from the locker room postgame. “They had guys spying on me. One player was a linebacker, Darius Leonard, or it’ll be a nickel or a safety or something like that. That’s one thing that’s been going on. Defenses like to change up their coverages against us. Like I said, beating us to the punch, but on occasion stuff like that [mixing it up]. So Coach is going to do his thing, dial them up, just out-scheme them.”

As such, the Ravens’ 24–10 win over the Colts in Indy wasn’t the headline-grabber that most of Baltimore’s 14 victories were a year ago. And that’s O.K.

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For one, it was a big game. The teams entered with identical 5–2 records, each locked in a race for playoff position in the division and conference. For another, what we all saw on Sunday at Lucas Oil Stadium, in hushed tones, was Jackson starting to break down some walls in making his life as a top NFL quarterback more sustainable.

Maybe the 70-yard runs of last year are now seven-yarders. Maybe teams aren’t frozen by Jackson’s athleticism quite like they were, with coverages compromised as a result.

But this was always going to happen. NFL defenses and their coordinators are too good not to adapt, and thus there was always going to have to be a second adjustment from the 23-year-old. That second adjustment is happening now and, if you looked closely, Sunday gave you reason to believe Jackson’s growth is taking hold.

The Ravens, to be sure, are a pretty tough 6–2 team. And more equipped for what’s in front of them than last year’s group was, even if this edition isn’t winning quite as pretty as that one was.

***

We’re midway through the season, and we’ve got a review of everything coming for you over the next few days on the site, including in my GamePlan column on Thursday. Today? Well, today, we’re gonna see if we can focus (mostly) on the actual football from Sunday of Week 9. Inside this space, you’ll find …

• How the Dolphins’ revival persevered on Sunday.

• Why Joe Judge is hitting right notes with the Giants.

• The Raiders’ unlikely Sunday hero.

• The Saints defense’s historic effort.

• A detailed COVID-19 update—and good news with the bad!

But we’re starting where we often started these columns in 2019, and that’s with a check-in with Baltimore and its young star quarterback.

***

Here’s the twist on why Sunday was different for the Ravens—not everything went to plan right off the bat.

Last year, the Baltimore offense became accustomed to defenses scrambling to keep up, with easy money all over the field for the taking. It was fun to watch, for sure. It also was never going to last that way. OC Greg Roman was always going to have to keep evolving the scheme and Jackson, like any young quarterback, was going to have become a more sophisticated player.

One reason why was pretty elementary: In 2019, because they had defenses tripped up so often, the Ravens were almost always controlling the tempo and far more often than not holding a lead, and usually a big one. In that place, your playbook is completely open, and you’re naturally less predictable.

Sunday, as it turned out, was the antitheses of that. The Colts’ athletic, versatile defense had a bead on what the Ravens were trying to accomplish early on, were aggressive with Baltimore, and Jackson was stymied as a result. The Ravens punted on all five of their first-half possessions, and went into the break with 55 yards from scrimmage on 25 plays and just four first downs.

It was the first time in Jackson’s NFL career he’d been at the helm of an offense held out of the end zone through halftime, and the only reason the Ravens were even within three, down 10–7, was because Marcus Peters stripped Colts QB Philip Rivers in the second quarter and Chuck Clark ran the recovered fumble back 65 yards for six.

“I feel like their defense just beat us to the punch,” Jackson said. “All the stuff they dialed up that we watched film on, those guys were beating us to the punch.”

And with the shot to amend that in the second half, came another opportunity—the Ravens, with Jackson under center, had been 0–6 when trailing at the half.

“That was very important to me,” said Jackson. “That’s what a lot of people said during the offseason, that we’re not a comeback team.”

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Sure, it was only a three-point deficit. More than the margin, though, was how Baltimore would have to dig itself out. At the half, Jackson was 9-of-13 for 51 yards, pedestrian numbers at best. And despite that, it was still clear, based on how the Colts were playing Baltimore, that it’d be best if the Ravens could throw their way out of the rut.

Roman’s first three calls of the second half played out like this: a throw over the middle to Willie Snead for 14 yards, another over the middle to Hollywood Brown for 14 yards and then one to the right flat for Snead for eight yards. That got the Ravens going—and Baltimore covered 72 yards on that possession before Gus Edwards coughed the ball up at the Colts’ 3-yard line.

The Ravens’ defense responded by turning the ball right back over, with Peters picking off Philip Rivers on the next play (yes, the controversial one). Jackson went 3-for-3 for 36 yards on the drive that followed, which covered 54 yards in 10 plays and was capped with Edwards' giving Baltimore the lead on a one-yard run.

“We made it really simple on ourselves,” Jackson said. “Our guys were standing strong, blocking their tail off. Guys were just doing their thing. Everybody doing their job and we just came out successful.”

And the Ravens’ third possession of the half further proved how they’d created a problem for their opposing defense. With Jackson throwing the ball efficiently, some of the fail-safes the Colts had set up started breaking down, and the quarterback took advantage, running the ball four times, three on scrambles totaling 15 yards, on a 14-play, 75-yard drive to push the lead to 21–10.

“They started giving me lanes,” Jackson continued. “Our line also did a good job just standing in front of them, blocking their tail off like I said before. They gave me lanes and I just took advantage of it. Guys weren’t open downfield, just called my own number and moved the ball. Because we weren’t moving it in the first half.”

So all at once, Jackson grew in the passing game, which allowed him to reengage in the running game and gave him that elusive first come-from-behind win.

And sure, it was a modest comeback. But more than that, it was that he and the Ravens’ offense found answers on an afternoon during which they weren’t coming easy, and that marks a nice, significant step forward. “At that point in the game, when not everything’s going our way,” Jackson said, “we’ve got to focus and put it all on the line, get the ‘W,’ and that’s what we did today.”

When it was over, the Jackson had gone 10-for-10 for 119 yards over the final 30 minutes, there was one more milestone to touch on and contemplate. With the win, Jackson’s record as a starter improved to 25–5, which ties him with Dan Marino for the best 30-game start by a quarterback in modern NFL history. Over the last couple of years, Jackson has made a habit of shrugging at plaudits and honors, but this one was a little different for him, because this one isn’t just about him.

“That means a lot,” he said. “Still have a lot of room for improvement and keep winning. I don’t want to stop at 25.”

Safe to say, he probably won’t be waiting too long for No. 26. And, for sure, he’ll be a better quarterback when he gets there.

***

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DOLPHINS WIN SHORTHANDED

I was texting with Miami coach Brian Flores on Sunday night, after his team’s white-knuckler of a 34–31 win in Arizona, and I asked whether there’s anyone he wanted to give credit to. Normally when I ask a coach that question, I’ll get a handful of players’ names. Along those lines, the list Flores gave me as he prepared to travel cross-country back to Florida was very different.

• Head athletic trainer Kyle Johnston
• VP of football administration Brandon Shore
• Director of player development Kaleb Thornhill
• Assistant strength and conditioning coach Jimmy Mangiero

Why those names? Well, the Dolphins faced a most unusual circumstance over the weekend. On Friday, Flores learned that a member of his coaching staff had tested positive for COVID-19. The team immediately went into the NFL’s intensive protocols, made all Friday meetings virtual and turned that day’s practice into a walkthrough ahead of its scheduled afternoon flight to Arizona.

Over the weekend, the situation worsened, and on Sunday morning Flores was informed that, due to positive tests and contact tracing, he’d be without five assistant coaches—not just the one who’d tested positive and was left home in Florida (the full list: DB coach Gerald Alexander, QB coach Robby Brown, OLB coach Austin Clark, DL coach Marion Hobby and quality control coach Kolby Smith).

That’s five of Flores’s 20 assistants lost, and having to adjust wasn’t easy. Which makes it even more amazing how tight Miami’s operation was on Sunday.

• The Dolphins had no turnovers and a reasonable number of penalties (seven).
• The Dolphins won the fourth quarter, 10–0, over a hot Cardinals team coming off a bye.
• The Dolphins made a huge fourth-and-one stop in the fourth quarter on defense (credit Elandon Roberts with stonewalling Chase Edmonds).
• Tua Tagovailoa, making his second start, and without his position coach there, led a 10-play, 93-yard drive to tie the game at 31, then, minutes later, drove the offense for the game-winning field goal.

And it was obvious afterward how proud Flores was of all that, and why he thought the aforementioned staff were so important—Johnston and Shore spearheaded the effort to contain the virus and prevent further spread, and Thornhill and Mangiero took on coaching roles Sunday to fill the voids.

But even absent all that, it would’ve been a momentous win for the organization. Miami’s now 5–3 midway through Flores’s second year, in what was supposed to be a long and arduous rebuild. On top of that, the Dolphins have the 2–6 Texas’ first- and second-round picks as a result of the Laremy Tunsil trade, and a young quarterback who is starting to show why he went fifth in April’s draft.

Fact is, there’s a lot to be excited about in Miami right now.

***

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JUDGE SEES HIS CULTURE ON THE FIELD

No one’s clearing the Canyon of Heroes for a 2–7 Giants team, that’s for sure. But if you go back to Oct. 1, you’ll see the trend that’s emerged in Year 1 of the Joe Judge era.

The Giants lost at the wire to the Rams and Cowboys. They beat Washington. They lost at the wire to Eagles and Bucs. They beat Washington again. They’ve been in every single game, and while that’s not the end goal, it’s a whole lot better than where they were in 2019—when they lost seven games by double-digits.

“Our guys expect to play for it at the end of every game, to be honest with you,” Judge told me after getting back to Jersey on Sunday night. “They know we have the opportunity to be a good team. We see improvements as coaches. It’s important to highlight them and show them: Here’s what we did good and then here’s the stuff we have to fix. And show it to them, so the entire team can see what each side of the ball is doing well and individually. Because what they rely on a lot of times is reading articles and what the outside world’s saying.

“So to me, it’s important to let them understand, Look, this is the improvement you made. We’ve seen this on tape week in and week out. You guys have seen all three sides of a play. Here’s what you’re doing well. And again, we’re not perfect. We’ve got a lot to improve on.”

But on this day, the Giants got their second win, 23–20 over the Washington Football Team, and after the week they had—one in which Judge was tested again—it had to feel pretty good.

The reason why centers on drama involving Golden Tate last week. If you missed it, Tate screamed into the ESPN cameras that he wanted the ball more during last Monday’s loss to the Buccaneers, then liked two tweets critical of the Giants after that. His wife also joined in the criticism of the team on Instagram. Judge reacted by sitting Tate down for Wednesday practice and serving him a de facto suspension for Sunday’s game.

Now, I can tell you that Judge actually really likes Tate as a player and a person. But since he arrived in New York, he’s drawn lines about what is and isn’t O.K.—you may remember the laps run over the summer—and emphasized that that those boundaries will be enforced.

“To me, it’s got to be independent of who the person is or what the experience level is,” Judge said. “It’s got to be focused on what the standard is. And to me, it’s critically important that there’s consequences to what you do. There are consequences for either not playing productively or practicing with the right effort and attitude. And then there’s consequences for off the field. To me, I just wasn’t going to condone some of the stuff that’s been going on by acting like it didn’t happen. So it was an opportunity to send a message.

“But I would say this: He responded the right way. Came into practice, practiced two days this week. And he had two great practices. I told him, That’s what I expect to see. I expect to see that guy.

Judge got the response he wanted from his team, too.

He told me he’s been proud of how the team’s run the ball of late; they went for 166 yards on 35 carries on Sunday. He was looking for improvement in the kick return game, and he got that too. And maybe most impactful, he was looking for more turnovers forced on defense, and when the team was clinging to that three-point lead in the fourth quarter, he got two—first an interception from Jabrill Peppers, then another from Logan Ryan to salt away the win.

“It shows me what we emphasize in practice is carrying over to the game,” Judge said. “One thing we made a very big emphasis on in practice, on both sides of the ball, has been two-minute drives. We’ve given up a lot of points on two-minute drives early in the year. And we’ve got to improve on that. We’ve been working on that every single day in practice.

“And we closed out the first half with an interception, then we closed out the game with two interceptions. To me, between Blake [Martinez], Peppers, Logan, and then the other thing on the other side, offensively, is we’ve been able in those situations in two-minute drills, to move the ball and get into position. There’s a lot of times we say we’ve got to finish it, but we’re putting ourselves in position. We’re moving it down.”

All this adds up to what looks like a pretty solid foundation being laid in New York.

Again, there’s a long way to go for the Giants. They are 2–7. But if you can be 2–7 with a bullet, that’s what they are now, and it was proved again with how the captains were on board with Judge’s decision about Tate. Everyone, for now at least, seems to believe that breakthroughs are on their way.

“I’m really happy with the culture that’s getting built here,” Judge said. “I’m really happy with the group of guys and how they work. To me, that’s huge. I told the captains last week, one of the things I look at is how we practice. And that’s something that we have to learn how to do. And earlier in the year, they didn’t quite understand why we did the little things the way we do them. What the purpose of certain things is or why we might have longer days on the field. Whatever it may be.

“I look at it now, we’re practicing the way we need to practice. I look out there and I see everyone on the field doing it the way it’s supposed to look. And the fact that we’re improving on the field as a team, that’s not a coincidence. It’s all tied together. In how we practice, how we prepare. Physicality, being a tough team, being a resilient team, being able to make adjustments on the fly, that’s all getting built in.”

And win or lose, it’s starting to show up every Sunday.

***

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SAINTS’ DEFENSE LEADS THE WAY

I envisioned this item being much higher up in the column, and ordinarily a game in which Drew Brees posts a 135.2 passer rating would merit a certain level of focus on the quarterback. But the truth? Saints–Bucs was too much of a blowout, and the story wasn’t Brees or the offense in general.

No, the people who made the Tampa–New Orleans showdown as non-competitive as it was were on the other side of the ball. The final from Florida wound up being 38–3 and, if you really watched, you know the Bucs were lucky to even come away with the 3 in this scenario. The Bucs’ seven first-half possessions are proof of that.

• Three-and-out, 7 yards gained, punt.
• Three-and-out, 9 yards gained, punt.
• Three-and-out, 2 yards gained, punt.
• Three-and-out, 7 yards gained, punt.
• Two plays, 11 yards, interception.
• Eight plays, 37 yards, turnover on downs.
• Three plays, 32 yards, interception

Add it up, and New Orleans went into the locker room for halftime with a 31–0 lead, a 283 to 105 edge in scrimmage yards and assurances of a sweep of Tom Brady in his first year in the NFC South. Brady, by the way, has never been swept by a division rival in his 21 years.

Until now, that is.

And because these numbers are all kind of mind-blowing, I asked fourth-year pass-rusher Trey Hendrickson, who had two sacks Sunday, if even the Saints were surprised by this performance.

“No,” he answered quickly. “We came in with that kind of mindset, we executed on third downs, all game, really. All phases of the game. End result showed up on the scoreboard.”

And Saints defensive coordinator Dennis Allen can take a bow for it—he put the emphasis from the start on getting to, and hitting, Tom Brady, having found that, in Hendrickson’s words, “Teams that do that, they won. That was the game plan and we got after him.”

From there, really, as Hendrickson explained it, the emphasis was on winning 1-on-1s, which the Saints most certainly did, ringing up three sacks and nine quarterback hits. That gave the offense favorable situation. The Saints’ average drive start (their own 37) was 10 yards better than the Bucs’, and it showed in how masterfully Brees spread the ball around, hitting a dozen different receivers over the course of the night.

The other thing here is a little less complicated. The Saints, to be sure, heard all the hype around the Bucs coming into this one. They wanted to silence it, and that’s one reason why Tampa kicking a garbage time field goal upset them. “As a competitor, of course it did,” Hendrickson said. It’s also why, in the end, this one meant a little extra for the visiting team.

“Every Sunday we want to come out there and put a statement out there. But we did a great job executing, there was a lot of hype on them and taking it to them felt a little special.”

***

THE BATTLE TO CONTAIN COVID-19

Dr. Allen Sills, the NFL’s chief medical officer, was on the phone Saturday with one of the league’s 32 head athletic trainers, and the trainer had an idea for a new application for the proximity tracking devices all players, coaches and staff have to wear. It was innovative. It would simplify the process of identifying high-risk close contacts. It would be relatively easy to implement.

“And you know what his first comment was to me about that?” Sills said. “He said, We gotta get this out and share it with everybody, because I think this is something that will benefit everybody. That’s the spirit that’s permeated this. Our clubs obviously spend a tremendous amount of time competing against each other and look for any advantage, studying and looking for tendencies and weaknesses. But when it’s come to this pandemic, and looking to exist and coexist with the virus, the collaboration, the cooperation has just been phenomenal. And I think that illustration I just gave you is perfect for that.

“If a team discovered some new play or formation, I don’t think they’d want to be sharing it with everyone in the league, right? But this guy’s first thought was, I want to get this out to everybody so we can all learn from it and be safer. That, to me, is what’s incredibly gratifying.”

Sills told that story to me at the end of what was a pretty tough week for the league on the COVID-19 front. The Raiders were fined $500,000 and docked a sixth-round pick, and coach Jon Gruden was personally fined $150,000 for protocol violations (Vegas is appealing the penalties). The Steelers and coach Mike Tomlin were fined $250,000 and $100,000, respectively, for mask violations. Meanwhile, the 49ers fielded a skeleton crew to play the Packers (who also lost players) on Thursday. And those were just the headline grabbers.

I checked in with my buddy Tom Pelissero of NFL Network—who’s done a great job covering this stuff—and his tally had 13 teams putting at least one player on the COVID-19 list from Monday to Friday, and at least two other teams impacted (Chiefs and Dolphins). Browns QB Baker Mayfield (as a close contact) and a Pittsburgh staffer added to the damage done, meaning around half the league got hit the last seven days.

So the time seemed to be right to check in with Sills on where the league is now, and where all this is going. And over about a half hour late Saturday, we covered a lot of ground. Here are five main points we covered.

Games aren’t spreading the virus. And that’s games, believe it or not, in just about any sport. I’ve been saying for a while that I couldn’t think of a single example of the virus being transmitted on the field, and Sills confirmed that for me.

“We have seen zero evidence of transmission player-to-player on the field, either during games or practices, which I think is an important and powerful statement,” Sills said. “And it also confirms what other sports leagues have found around the world. We regularly communicate with World Rugby, Australian rules football, European soccer leagues. To date, no one has documented a case of player-to-player transmission in a field sporting environment.

“Obviously, I don’t think we’re at the point where we’d say it cannot occur, but none of us have seen yet, and that’s certainly encouraging.”

Conversely, three areas have been nailed down as problems. The first thing Sills pointed out is that, as he sees it, the great majority of NFL cases of late have been a result of, well, the fact that the players live in the same country as the rest of us, and things have gotten worse in some communities. But he did acknowledge a few trouble spots.

“As far as when you do have a positive individual in the team environment, there are three things that create high-risk contact, and that’s meeting, eating and greeting,” Sills said. “Meeting, being the team meetings that happen. Eating together, that’s obvious, because people are unmasked and if you’re sitting together with someone eating that can create a high risk. And when I say greeting, what I mean by that is social activity outside the building, people hanging out together doing things.

“I do think clubs are really focused, and we’ve been focused as well, on how we reduce that number of high-risk contacts. And reducing meetings is certainly a good strategy to doing that—in-person meetings, I should say.”

(That explains why, lately, some teams, out of caution, have practiced while making meetings virtual on days where there’s risk. The Colts, for example, did that this week.)

The definition of high-risk has evolved. That much came up organically, and then again when I asked Sills what he and the league have learned over the last 15 weeks, since training camp began.

“We have learned a great deal about testing and how to interpret the results. And we realize that not every positive test represents a new infection,” Sills said. “I think we realize daily testing really gives us a lot of advantages in being able to understand how to best interpret those results. When you only take one test, a once-a-week test, it’s really hard to interpret that without having those tests that lead up to that or after that. And so we’re better able to determine what’s a true positive test and a true negative. …

“And I think we’ve learned that the high-risk contacts are really where we should focus our tracing efforts, that when we do have a positive case, not every contact is the same. And it’s not really all about just 15 minutes and six feet. I think at the start, people were pretty rigid in their thinking that it was time and distance. But as I mentioned to you before, it’s really a mixture of those factors, plus the ventilation, plus the mask use or lack thereof, and the social contacts that can really impact transmission.”

Things are only going to get harder from here. This week was, as the NFL sees it, sort of the tip of the iceberg—as cold and flu season arrives, things figure to get dicey nationwide, and football players and coaches won’t be exempt.

“We’ve said consistently we expect it to get harder, for a couple of reasons,” Sills said. “One, I think disease levels are spiking, so we’ve got more cases, which means people are more exposed away from the facility. As you mentioned, cold and flu season will get ramped up in earnest. And that will obviously create symptoms that are impossible to distinguish from COVID. We’ve said that during this season, it’s always COVID until proven otherwise.

“So I think you will see some players who will miss games because they had symptoms that we simply couldn’t distinguish, whether it was COVID or other viral illnesses. And in some cases, it may turn out not to be COVID, and yet they miss games anyway, just because you have to be so cautious. I do think it’s gonna get harder.”

That said, Sills thinks the NFL’s set a good course to follow. There’ve been 140 to 150 cases, all told (players and otherwise), thus far over the last 15 weeks. That’s an average of around 10 per week across the NFL, with thousands of people getting tested. And the NFL’s protocols have enabled the league to catch and isolate cases quickly. Per Sills, over 100 of said cases didn’t lead to any spread at all.

So is the rest of the way going to continue to be weird? Sure. Will coaches have to adjust? Absolutely, and Sills lauded their efforts to do that (“Coaches are certainly creatures of routine, they like to have a routine and structure, and everything about this season is very unpredictable”). But getting the season played, even after this week, still feels realistic to the NFL’s CMO.

“I’m incredibly proud of the collaboration, and I mean that across the board,” Sills said. “Both the NFL Players Association, the league and the teams together, we’ve never worked more closely together. I mean, I talk on a daily basis not only with the medical staffs, but I’m also talking with coaches, and general managers and team owners, and those conversations are only in one direction: What can we do to be safe, and what are we learning, and how can we pull together?

And let’s call this what it is—a group of owners who want to make money, and players who want to get to paid, having their eyes wide open to the risks, while being backed by a league with the means to mitigate those. We’ll see where this goes from here. But for now, the train’s still on the tracks, and the effort to keep it there has been intense. Given all the money on the line, it’s fair to assume it’ll remain that way.

***

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TEN TAKEAWAYS

I see Sunday as a sign of growth for the Steelers. Clearly, they didn’t have their ‘A’ game in Dallas. It happens, and can especially happen after teams beat rivals, like Pittsburgh did last week in Baltimore. Mike Tomlin’s Steelers certainly haven’t been immune to next-week letdowns, which makes the way they pulled this one out significant. In the past, maybe they might have lost Sunday’s game in Dallas. This year’s team did not. They fell behind 13–0, then 19–9 to a Cowboys team starting Garrett Gilbert at quarterback, and went on consecutive drives of 75, 75 and 79 yards to rack up 15 unanswered points (two touchdowns and a field goal, with a blocked extra point and a failed conversation), and take control of what would become a 24–19 win. “We’ve got a group that sticks together and a group that’s mentally tough and is able to persevere,” Mike Tomlin said postgame. “I’m thankful for that. But obviously we can’t keep having these conversations every week, because one of these weeks, we’re going to be doing it with an ‘L’ if we’re not careful. But we’re thankful to win today.” Instead, this week, they’re 8–0, the NFL’s only unbeaten. And maybe they’re a little tougher than previous Steelers teams too.

You might’ve missed it, but the Falcons are coming on. In fact, were it not for a wild finish in a Week 7 loss to Detroit, Raheem Morris would be 4–0 as the team’s interim head coach. As it is, the ex-Bucs coach is 3–1, the Falcons are 3–6, and while it’s not really likely that they’re going to be a factor in the NFC playoff race (even with the expanded field), the idea of Morris coaching his way into consideration for the full-time gig, or the core of the team itself making a case to be kept together (regardless of who the new coach or GM is) doesn’t seem nearly as far-fetched as it would’ve a month ago. Whoever is in charge come January, in fact, could inherit a group with a little momentum, and on Sunday that went well beyond the Matt Ryans and Julio Joneses of the roster. When I hit up Morris postgame, there were two guys he wanted to give credit to in particular, one on each side of the ball, and neither a household name. On defense, it was free safety Ricardo Allen, who ended consecutive Denver possessions in the fourth quarter—the first with a pick, and the second with a pass breakup on a deep throw from Drew Lock to K.J. Hamler, which effectively ended the game. On offense, it was Olamide Zaccheaus, a second-year pro who made the Falcons as an undrafted free agent last year, and had 17 career catches going into the Denver game. Zaccheaus took advantage of a hike in snaps with Calvin Ridley out, and went for 103 yards and a touchdown on four catches. And again, in all likelihood, owner Arthur Blank will probably go through with his full-on makeover of the Atlanta football operation. But Morris has at least given him something to think about.

I don’t know where the Bears offense goes next. Here’s what I do know: The offensive line isn’t good enough, and Nick Foles isn’t good enough to mitigate that issue. That’s how you wind up with 105 yards on 29 plays (3.6 yards per play) at halftime against a Titans defense that had its problems coming in. And forget Jim McMahon, even Mitch Trubisky isn’t walking through that door (he’s injured). As a result, the Bears have lost three straight, proving out suspicions that the fortunate bounces Chicago got in getting to 5–1 would come back around. And the shame of it is the defense they’ve built there has lasted longer than most great defensive groups do. If things (continue to) go south from here? Well, Akiem Hicks will be 31, Khalil Mack will be 30 and Kyle Fuller will be 29 when next season kicks off. Which sure makes the future there uncertain, if this group of Bears can’t turn it around.

The Bills started to look like the Bills of September again against the Seahawks. Sure, the defense could’ve done more late, and the offense could’ve landed a haymaker earlier. But for a team that really had a tough second quarter of its schedule—with losses to the Titans and Chiefs, and tooth-and-nail wins over the Jets and Patriots—any sort of win by a comfortable margin would be enough. And in getting one, I think we saw another step forward from Josh Allen, who was playing after losing his grandmother 24 hours or so before kickoff. Allen’s first half played out like a heck of a tribute, with the third-year pro throwing for 282 yards, three touchdowns and not a single pick on 24-of-28 passing. In the process, it again became apparent, as it has been pretty consistently, how Allen’s teammates feel about him. “Josh is a soldier,” offensive tackle Dion Dawkins told reporters. “He’s a battler. And he has the will of a champion. Every time Josh touches that field, he lays it all on the line every play. He’s a leader. He’s our leader. And he went out there and showed his butt. I can’t be happier to protect a kid, a man, named Josh Allen.” Bottom line, when Allen plays like he did Sunday, you see how good the Bills can be, and it’s not hard to see how confident his teammates are in his ability to play at that level. Now it’s on him to be more consistent.

It’s bizarre to see a Pete Carroll defense in Seattle and recognize that it’s giving another team a “get well” spot on the schedule. But that was the situation on Sunday in Buffalo, with Josh Allen returning to form and the Bills scoring in the 40s, and none of that being even remotely surprising. Halfway through the season, these are the eight yardage totals from Seahawks opponents: 506, 464, 522, 415, 449, 519, 351 and, this week, 420. “So out of character across the board,” Carroll told reporters postgame. “I don’t even recognize us.” Indeed, Russell Wilson may be the MVP of the league, and part of why he’s a frontrunner to win the award is that he’s had to be. The Seahawks have scored 34 points in both their losses. Seattle infused Carlos Dunlap into the lineup in Buffalo, and brought Jamal Adams back into it, and the Seahawks allowed more point than they have all year. I don’t know how fixable this is. The talent isn’t what it once was on that side of the ball, but it isn’t this bad. And they’ve had injuries (Marquise Blair and Bruce Irvin are out for the year, Adams and Shaquill Griffin missed time), but it’s not like that’s enough to account for Seattle being 32nd in total defense. So for now, it’s on Wilson to win games for them, and buy time for the defense to find itself. And if it doesn’t find itself? History tells us that would probably mean a quick end to the season in January.

I thought it was really interesting to see how candid Will Fuller was about the trade deadline. After the Texans’ 27–25 win over the Jaguars, the fifth-year receiver conceded “it really sucked” to be “shopped around like that.” The truth? Well, the truth is that Houston didn’t want to eat salary and the Texans couldn’t agree on draft-pick compensation with the Packers anyway, so it never came that close to happening. And Fuller wound up rewarding the Texans’ insistence on not giving him away, with a five-catch, 100-yard showing in Jacksonville, highlighted by a 77-yard third-quarter touchdown that gave Houston the cushion it would need. So what did this one mean for Houston amid a broken season? Well, it showed Deshaun Watson is still capable of dressing in a phone booth when need be—his legs bailed the Texans out a few times, picking up key first downs and avoiding sacks. And it also gave everyone a small glimpse, with the Fuller touchdown and a 57-yard score from Brandin Cooks, of what the offense was intended to be from the start, a hard-running group with weapons to stretch the field and keep defenses honest. And the truth is, looking at the schedule, Houston could make things somewhat interesting. Wins over the Browns and Patriots would have the Texans at 4–6 heading into Detroit on Thanksgiving.

Speaking of the trade deadline, one thing I sort of bumped into last week in reporting on it was what next March could look like. And it connects to one exec’s under-the-radar reason for a rather quiet Monday and Tuesday on the transactions front ahead of that deadline. His theory was that one routine benefit to trading for contract-year players—getting a comp-pick back if you let them walk—had been compromised. Comp picks, in case you don’t know, are rewarded based on a formula that accounts for, among other things, how a departing player gets paid. Essentially, the more a player gets, the better the comp-pick going to the team he’s leaving is. This year, though? Well, this exec felt like because the free-agent market is going to be a mess, it’d be tough to count on anything. His feeling was the falling salary cap, added to a raft of veteran players cut so teams can comply to that cap, would saturate the market and keep prices low. So that’s interesting in the way our exec explained it affecting the 2020 deadline, and it’s also interesting to think about what it could mean later. This might not be the best time to hit the market, and guys doing deals early, like Baltimore’s Marlon Humphrey and now-injured Ronnie Stanley did, might wind up looking smarter for it.

My Comeback Player of the Year vote is in, and the winner is Alex Smith. We don’t need to rehash his story, chapter and verse, again. What you need to know is he went through an injury that would’ve ended a lot of other careers two years ago, got back on Washington’s active roster and, on Sunday, threw for 325 yards and a touchdown (and three picks, but let’s not let that ruin this) in WFT’s three-point loss. What an amazing accomplishment, and how Smith must love football to put himself through what he did to come back, even while having enough money in that bank to never have to work another day in his life. I plan to tell my kids his story eventually—in hopes they’ll find something they love to do as much as Smith loves to play football. Here’s hoping he gets a few big moments to take with him out of this remarkable year of his.

I love the Josh McCown story. So here’s how it goes: McCown was signed, after cutdowns, to the Eagles’ practice squad, with the allowance that, as the quarantine quarterback, he’d live back home in Rusk, Texas. He has two sons playing high school football down there, one’s a quarterback and the other’s a safety, and he really wanted to be around them and the rest of his family during the season, something he hadn’t done since 2009. Philly OK’d the arrangement because McCown’s background in the offense made him perfect as a reserve QB to keep outside the facility, and because starter Carson Wentz loves him and values having him as a resource. That agreement, by all accounts, worked swimmingly the last two months. McCown helped Wentz and the Eagles, just the same as he watched film with his boys every week to get them ready for their Friday nights. But he did have the tug to get closer—he missed the locker room, and the guys and being on a team. He just didn’t want to move to get that back. So when the Texans came along with an offer, he simply couldn’t walk away from it. Houston’s less than two hours from his house, and could offer him the best of both, allowing him to keep spending time with his kids, while also getting back into the mix with other players. The Eagles wanted to keep him, but GM Howie Roseman and the rest of the organization were gracious and understood once the situation was explained to them. And this could well be a nice way for McCown to wrap up his career. The next question? It’ll be when McCown is going to jump into coaching.

There’s still a lot to cover from Week 9. So here are a few one-liners on stuff I missed.

• Feels like a critical time for the Bob Quinn/Matt Patricia regime in Detroit. The Lions need to make hay the next three weeks, with the schedule uncompromising come December.

• I’ve thought way too much about just how impactful the Jaguars’ missed two-point conversion at the end of their loss to the Texans will be, come April. The Jets remain winless, and Jacksonville is now the only team with exactly one win.

• It’s hard not to watch the Colts defense these days and think of what might have been had Andrew Luck stuck around. I know people in the building entertain that thought too.

• Patrick Mahomes threw for 372 yards and four touchdowns in a 33–31 win over a feisty Panthers team, and no one appeared to care. It really is amazing how ho-hum we are over the Chiefs. (But did you see where Andy Reid motioned Mahomes and had him throw?!?)

• Quietly, Joe Brady and the Panthers’ offensive staff is doing a nice job. Teddy Bridgewater’s playing well (36-for-49, 310 yards and two TDs on Sunday), and Curtis Samuel’s usage is a good example of the creativity those coaches are employing.

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SIX FROM SATURDAY

1) Man, that Clemson freshman QB, D.J. Uiagalelei (I have at least two years to learn his name), is impressive, and I say that even in defeat. It’s obviously way too early to say where things will go for him, after Trevor Lawrence is gone and he’s the Tigers’ starter. But he’s got NFL size, NFL athleticism and an NFL arm, for sure.

2) A player I’ve had fun watching who was in that game: Notre Dame DE Daelin Hayes. The fifth-year senior suffered a serious shoulder injury last year, came back to school as a result and is all over the field for the Irish. “One of the most versatile players in this draft,” said one veteran evaluator. Both he and his senior bookend Adetokunbo Ogundeji look like they’ll go in the first three rounds or so.

3) April’s quarterback class keeps looking better. Of course, you’ve got Lawrence, Ohio State’s Justin Fields and North Dakota State’s Trey Lance. BYU’s Zach Wilson has come on. And I’d keep an eye on Florida’s Kyle Trask, who carved up Georgia’s defense on Saturday and has been putting up video-game numbers all year. “He’s worked his way into the second or third round,” said one area scout assigned to Florida. “As long as he keeps playing this way, you see an accurate passer, a good decision-maker, and a big kid with incredible production in his first full year as starter.”

4) That scout also advised me not to sleep on Alabama’s Mac Jones, a fourth-year junior who could come out and is probably, as it stands now, right in the same range as Trask. Jones’s accuracy will probably be his defining trait as an NFL prospect, whenever he comes out. Bama plays LSU on Saturday.

5) It’s hard not to note the fight from an overmatched Rutgers team against third-ranked Ohio State. It was Greg Schiano’s return to Columbus, where he worked from 2016 to ‘18, and the Scarlet Knights outplayed a loaded Buckeyes team in the second half—which, to be fair, was in part due to the fact that OSU was up 35–3 at the half. You may remember Schiano got run out of an opportunity to go to Tennessee three years ago. It’s fair to wonder if the Vols may regret going with Jeremy Pruitt, whose Vols fell to 2–4 yesterday.

6) Maybe it’s just me, but it’s been really weird seeing college players wearing No. 0 this year. The NCAA, in case you missed it, passed a rule allowing the number on jerseys earlier this year.

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BEST OF THE NFL INTERNET

Saints didn’t hold back postgame.

And neither did former Saints.

And neither did my buddy, Larry.

Or my editor, Mitch.

Claypool’s fourth-quarter slide did wind up getting the ball back to Dallas. And I would encourage Claypool to keep tweeting like he has been—he’s already First-Team All-Pro in the social media realm.

Ouch.

Loved CeeDee Lamb in college. Love CeeDee Lamb in the pros.

Well done by McDermott.

Double ouch.

Guess the hat was just lying around the house before he left for work.

You knew I was gonna mention it somewhere in the column.

Watt was one of four Houston players (joining Watson and the offensive tackles) deemed untouchable before the trade deadline. We’ll see if the McNairs change their mind on that.

This was not a good reversal.

Pioli and Judge, of course, are part of the same football family tree.

That’s me running in the dark on three hours sleep.

Can’t expect anything less from the Tweet King.

I can’t imagine Clemson fans are rooting for Lawrence to be a Jet.

Very logical approach by my Jets fan buddy, Rich.

I miss having Friday night football in our state.

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rex-burkhead-new-england-patriots

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, Patriots RB Rex Burkhead …

MMQB: What was this week like in the building, and how much did you guys discuss what was happening in the country in the locker room?

RB: Yeah, I mean, we’re not just football players, we know what’s going on in the country. So you keep track of the election and everything going on. As far as conversations go, anything that happens on that side stays behind closed doors. But there are times where we do have those open conversations and try to get a better understanding overall, because we are people, we’re not just football players, we’re citizens of this country. We are interested in what’s going on.

MMQB: Is it fair to say this is one of the more educated groups on these sorts of things that you’ve been around?

RB: I don’t know. I feel like every team definitely has guys who are educated or interested in what’s going on, and want to voice their opinions. I do feel like we have a strong leadership in guys who are definitely vocal about it and want to express their opinions or talk about it with other guys. And it’s not only to express their opinions, but maybe to get a better understanding of one side or the other.

MMQB: What’s it been like playing with Cam Newton, and how has the perception met the reality?

RB: Cam, he’s been great—he’s been coming to work every single day and working his tail off. He’s been a leader for us, understanding if we make mistakes in a game, we’ve gotta do our best to move forward. He does that, and just his mentality every single day, and of course his versatility—he’s been a great player in this league for a long time, he’s been the MVP, it’s definitely fun to learn from him, and the plays and systems he’s been in, as we’ve tried to implement that with our team.

MMQB: How does it change the dynamic in the run game for a running back, going from Tom Brady to Cam?

RB: It gives you another threat. It gives you another focus for the defense, that they have to look at. At times, it opens up the run game for us as running backs quite a bit. It’s nice to have that versatility and another dimension to have to scheme up against a defense. And of course our offensive line has done a tremendous job opening up holes for us, and helping us play physical and get going from the jump.

MMQB: It’s been a long time since the Patriots have lost four in a row, so what was it like in the building this week from that standpoint?

RB: Just a lot of urgency to come to work every single day and get better, learn from our mistakes in the Bills game, and move forward and understand we have a great challenge with another division game against an opponent that’s gonna be hungry, Monday night at their place. We’re trying to take that big leap forward, get better and get back on the right track.

MMQB: Is there anything specific you feel like you guys need to do better to turn it around?

RB: Yeah, I mean, I can’t pick just one thing. I mean, there are many things we can improve upon, just little details, little things for sure. We’re just trying to do that to the best of our ability, whether that’s within a position, or a certain group, or offense, defense, special teams, whatever it is. If we can collectively each get better in those specific areas, then we’ll improve.

MMQB: What’s the biggest challenge facing a Gregg Williams defense?

RB: They do a tremendous job scheming things up, for sure, and being multiple on that side, giving you different looks. Of course, they’ve always had a really good defensive front—big guys, physical guys, and linebackers that can get on the line of scrimmage or play off, and play in the passing game. They do a great job being multiple so we’re gonna have to be ready from the get-go, and make sure we have our eyes in the right spots.

MMQB: You’re on pace to have more carries than you ever have—and it’s your eighth year in the league. It feels like that’s the opposite of the way things go for backs. What do you think the key’s been for you, getting to a point where you’re more involved than ever before?

RB: I mean, just trying to do my job, my role, whatever Coach [Josh] McDaniels asks me every single day. Of course, early on in my career, I played a lot on special teams and I wasn’t necessarily playing a lot of offense. So to come on later in my career, I feel great. I feel like I have plenty of years left to play. And of course McDaniels does a great job just putting us in position to win and be successful on a weekly basis. And that’s what I try to do every time my number gets called.

MMQB: So it sounds like you think New England’s a pretty good fit, four years in?

RB: Oh yeah, definitely. I enjoy it here. We have a great offensive scheme. Our coaches are great at using our versatility, putting us in great positions to be successful.

MMQB: Fair to say every game’s a must-win now, based on your record?

RB: We’re just trying to be a better football team. Of course, we understand, we put ourselves in this tough position, and the only way to fix it is to pull ourselves out of it and go forward, and start winning more games. If we don’t do that, we’re not gonna be in the position we want to be in. So understanding that starts with the challenge this Monday night, and taking that leap forward.

MMQB: Anything different or special for you about playing on the Monday Night Football stage?

RB: Yeah, growing up, my brother and I, we’d go one-on-one in the living room whenever the song would come on pregame. That’s just a memory that always sticks in my head. We would always be in front of the TV on Monday, making sure we were watching it. It was a routine, a ritual for our family. So it’s definitely special for me playing on Monday night. I just love the atmosphere of it, going out there in front of everyone and trying to perform to the best of your abilities.

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WHAT YOU NEED KNOW

The election is over, and that’s probably a good thing for all of us.

That’s all I’ve got for this week. See you all in a few hours for the MAQB.