NFL Week 10: Expert Takeaways from Sunday's Action
Week 10 of the 2013 NFL season brought with it more than a few surprises.
The stunner of the week happened in Indianapolis, where the AFC South-leading Colts were blown out by a 3-6 St. Louis Rams team.
The loss didn't hurt the Colts in the division, however, as the Tennessee Titans failed to capitalize in the most horrifying way possible, losing at home to the winless Jacksonville Jaguars.
Those were far from the only storylines this week, and we asked the NFL National Lead Writers and Division Lead Writers here at Bleacher Report to provide their biggest Week 10 takeaways.
Here's what they had to say.
Don’t Hand NFC North to Lions (Or Anyone) This Early
One of Week 10's biggest games took place in the Windy City, where the Detroit Lions and Chicago Bears played with first place in the NFC North on the line.
The Lions prevailed by two in a 21-19 nailbiter, but even with the Green Bay Packers and Chicago Bears facing significant injury concerns, NFL National Lead Writer Michael Schottey warns that it's too soon to crown the Lions the cream of the crop in the division:
The knee-jerk reaction after the Lions' win over the Bears is that they’re in the catbird seat in the NFC North and the division is theirs to lose. While, that’s probably statistically true—especially considering Lions’ sweep of the Bears and the tiebreaker aspect thereof—there’s a lot of football left, and anyone who’s followed this division can remember plenty of wild Novembers and Decembers.
The NFL backloaded divisional games into the NFL schedule for a reason. The same dynamic that creates plenty of intrigue in Weeks 16 and 17 means that it’s impossible to say anything definitive about the NFC North this early.
The healthiest team will win the NFC North, period.
Right now, that might be the Detroit Lions, but let’s not pretend this team isn’t one Calvin Johnson/Reggie Bush or Matthew Stafford injury away from being a complete mess. The defense isn’t good enough to carry things on their own, and the offense is completely predicated around having those three at full strength.
Aaron Rodgers likely plans on coming back by Thanksgiving (or shortly thereafter). Once he does, the Packers are still the same team that I called a Super Bowl contender in the preseason. With the New York Giants and Minnesota Vikings between now and that Turkey Day matchup with Detroit for Mike McCarthy's squad, we could be making the same “they’ve locked it up” statements about the winner of that game.
Frankly, Chicago is still in an awfully good position to win the division. Cutler is back (albeit dinged up) and they’ve got a very capable backup in Josh McCown. Yes, they’ll have to get a game ahead of the Lions, but they could end up doing that in Week 17 as they face the Packers.
Nothing is settled in the NFC North. In a division where every week is a grudge match and every victory seems somewhat pyrrhic, the next couple of months should be immensely fun to watch.
Marc Trestman Will Be Questioned for Sticking with an Injured Jay Cutler
The big story for the Chicago Bears entering Week 10 was the quick return of quarterback Jay Cutler from a significant groin injury.
Cutler completed 21 of 40 passes for 250 yards, a touchdown and an interception in the return, before departing with an ankle injury.
In the opinion of NFL National Lead Writer Matt Bowen, Cutler being on the field as long as he was may have hurt the Bears more than it helped them:
Pro ballplayers aren’t going to take themselves out with an injury they believe can be managed throughout the course of a game. Push through. Adapt the way you play. And find a way to produce.
Take Jay Cutler during Sunday's loss to the Lions at Soldier Field. The veteran quarterback was obviously hurting with groin and ankle ailments. And it consistently showed up with his inability to move in the pocket, step into throws or avoid the interior pressure from the Lions.
As a result, the Bears and Trestman were limited to a degree in their offensive play-calling.
The Bears didn’t show the boot game or get Cutler to the edge of the defense on sprint action. And when the pocket collapsed, Cutler couldn’t create, extend the play or allow his receivers time to convert routes down the field.
Sure, Cutler made some throws—no question about it. And that’s a credit to his ability to play with pain.
But when the Bears needed a drive (plus a two-point conversion) to try and extend this game, Trestman turned to Josh McCown. And the veteran backup responded by taking this offense down the field and putting the ball in the end zone before Nick Fairley shut the door on the Bears' two-point attempt.
Should Trestman have pulled Cutler earlier? That’s a tough call when your guy says he can get the job done.
But when the game plan is impacted, and the results aren’t there, it’s time to make the change in-game.
Riley Cooper’s Emergence Could Be Long-Term Boon for Philadelphia Eagles
The Philadelphia Eagles downed a shorthanded Green Bay Packers team 27-13, Philly's second straight win with Nick Foles under center.
The road win at Lambeau Field also marked the second straight big outing from Eagles wideout Riley Cooper.
As NFC East Lead Writer Brad Gagnon posits, Cooper has put aside a disastrous preseason to emerge as a big part of the Eagles offense:
In Philadelphia, Nick Foles is the talk of the town, and deservedly so. Foles is the NFL’s highest-rated passer and has thrown 16 touchdown passes to zero interceptions while leading the Eagles back to .500 and back to the playoff track.
But Foles’ emergence has, not coincidentally, corresponded with the emergence of red-hot wide receiver Riley Cooper, who has become Foles’ favorite target.
Remember all of that panic in July when Philly lost Jeremy Maclin for the season? And then Arrelious Benn also went down and Cooper’s future was greatly jeopardized by an ugly racial slur controversy. At that point, it looked like this was going to be one of the most shallow receiving groups in the NFL.
But DeSean Jackson entered Week 10 with the second-highest receiving yardage total in the league, and now Cooper’s lighting it up. The former fifth-round pick out of Florida has scored five touchdowns in his last two games, nearly doubling his career total up to that point.
When throwing to Cooper, Foles has completed 71 percent of his 21 passes for 383 yards (18.2 yards per attempt) and six touchdowns. Vick, on the other hand, completed just 44 percent of his 18 passes to Cooper, amassing 103 yards (5.7 per attempt) and one touchdown.
Cooper’s 26, Foles is 24. Jackson is 26, LeSean McCoy is 25. And 23-year-old rookie Lane Johnson should be the long-term answer at left tackle. In the meantime, Jason Peters is quite a solid piece, and they’ve got a good group of tight ends already in place.
Foles might be the long-term answer at quarterback, while Cooper might be the final piece to the puzzle.
Packers Defense Fails to Carry Its Weight in Overcoming Aaron Rodgers Injury
Of course, there's a flipside to the Eagles' win in Week 10. That flip side is the back end of a horrific seven-day stretch for the Green Bay Packers.
A week ago, the Packers were 5-2 and in first place. Now, Aaron Rodgers is hurt and the Pack is 5-4.
According to NFC North Lead Writer Zach Kruse, the Green Bay defense bears more than a little blame:
In the NFL, overcoming the loss of an elite quarterback requires performance heightening across the board from the rest of the roster. The Green Bay Packers—minus Aaron Rodgers for all but one series the last two games—are finding out how difficult it is to win when all the moving parts don't play their part.
Admittedly, the backup quarterbacks haven't been great. Seneca Wallace finished last Monday night's loss to the Chicago Bears with under 100 net passing yards, and Scott Tolzien threw two picks and finished 0-for-4 on touchdowns in the red zone against the Philadelphia Eagles.
However, the regression of the defense during the last two games has played a bigger part in Green Bay going from 5-2 and NFC North leaders to 5-4 and third place.
The Bears scored 27 points and approached 450 total yards, including 171 rushing. Up four points in the fourth quarter, Chicago mounted a nearly 10-minute drive that sealed the win. A week later, the Eagles averaged 7.2 yards per play, rushed for 204 yards and also scored 27 points. Nick Foles threw for three scores and a 149.3 passer rating.
Missed tackles, blown coverages and struggles on third down have plagued the past two weeks. The Packers defense has also managed just one takeaway during the difficult two-game stretch and transition.
The Packers are good enough to win without Rodgers, but only if the other members do their part. In back-to-back losses, Green Bay's struggling defense has been the bigger issue.
The San Francisco 49ers Can Officially Worry About Colin Kaepernick
One of the more surprising outcomes of Week 10 came in San Francisco, where the 49ers managed only 151 yards of total offense in a 10-9 loss to the Carolina Panthers.
At 6-3, the 49ers are still safely in playoff contention. But, in the opinion of NFL National Lead Writer Matt Miller, there is still plenty of room for worry.
Especially where quarterback Colin Kaepernick is concerned:
ESPN's Ron Jaworski made waves this summer when he said Colin Kaepernick could be the best quarterback of all time. Right now, the San Francisco 49ers just need him to be the best quarterback in California.
Kaepernick has had many apologists this season—myself included—as he continues to assimilate to the NFL. This is Kaepernick’s first full season as a starter, after all. But the excuses are wearing thin. Now is the time for Kaep to produce. The 45 total yards the 49ers put on the board in the second half against the Carolina Panthers is not producing.
We all know that the Niners were playing without Michael Crabtree and Mario Manningham for much of the year, but Manningham was back Sunday. Yes, Vernon Davis was hurt, but great quarterbacks learn to overcome. Kaepernick is supposed to be this dual-threat monster who can beat you with his legs when the pass breaks down, and vice versa, but that’s been missing.
The 49ers won five straight games on the back of Frank Gore and a damn good defense. They came to play Sunday. For the 49ers to live up to expectations, Kaepernick needs to start showing up too.
Steelers Coordinator Dick LeBeau Knows How to Get into the Heads of Young QBs
Even after a resounding win over the Buffalo Bills Sunday, the 3-6 Pittsburgh Steelers are still suffering through a miserable 2013.
However, as AFC North Lead Writer Andrea Hangst points out, even in a season where not a lot has gone right, defensive coordinator Dick LeBeau continues to rattle young quarterbacks:
Last week, the bulk of critics’ ire at the Pittsburgh Steelers' defensive performance in their 24-point loss to the New England Patriots was directed at longtime coordinator Dick LeBeau. The Steelers gave up 610 yards and 55 points—both franchise-worsts. Did it mean LeBeau’s vaunted defense, known for its crazy blitz packages and unpredictability, had finally worn out its welcome in the NFL?
Though experienced quarterbacks like Tom Brady may have LeBeau figured out, one area in which LeBeau really excels is against young passers. No matter how much film they study in preparation, and no matter the defenses they faced in college, a rookie quarterback trying to figure out the Steelers defense is generally in over his head.
That was certainly the case on Sunday, when the Steelers notched their third win of the season over the EJ Manuel-led Buffalo Bills, 23-10. Manuel, making his return from a knee injury, was rusty, but that was simply just a part of his struggles.
The Steelers sacked Manuel three times and picked him off once. Most importantly, they managed to make the Bills offense one-dimensional. Going into this week, the Bills were a top-10 rushing team, averaging 145.8 rushing yardage per game. At the same time, the Steelers had been struggling against the run, allowing a 31st-ranked 131.2 rushing yards per game. Stopping the run and forcing Manuel to throw was the only option for the Steelers, and they managed to do so better than imagined.
The Bills had just 95 rushing yards on the day, with running back Fred Jackson leading the way with 55 yards on his 12 carries. In total, the Bills ran just 22 times compared to 39 pass attempts. Some of that was owing to the Bills playing from behind for much of the game, but mostly it was because the Steelers defense was able to make Manuel and Buffalo’s offense play right into their hands. Manuel managed just 155 yards on those 39 attempts.
Just going back to 2011, it’s clear the Steelers defense has a major advantage over young quarterbacks. This year, they got their first win of the season over the Geno Smith-led New York Jets, who threw for just 184 yards and two picks. Last year, they defeated Washington, 27-12, by containing dangerous dual-threat quarterback Robert Griffin III.
They did the same to the Brandon Weeden-led Browns in Week 17 of last season, to then-rookie Andy Dalton in two straight wins over the Cincinnati Bengals in 2011, and to the Blaine Gabbert Jacksonville Jaguars in 2011.
Perhaps the Tom Bradys of the NFL have LeBeau’s number—something that should be cause for some concern in Pittsburgh. But for young quarterbacks, there’s no more intimidating defense than Pittsburgh’s.
Buffalo Bills Defense Showing Flashes of Potential
After falling to 3-7, it appears that the Buffalo Bills will miss the playoffs for the 14th consecutive year.
However, as depressing as that streak is, AFC East Lead Writer Erik Frenz sees cause for optimism in the Bills' young defense:
The results have not always shown up on the scoreboard; the Bills have given up 23 or more points in eight out of 10 games this year (tied for second-most in the league).
Within the course of games, though, the Bills are showing flashes of big-play ability on defense. If they can sustain that play for 60 minutes, they could develop into one of the better defenses in the league.
The Bills defense gave their offense two opportunities with the ball inside the Steelers’ 50-yard line to start the game, and the third possession started at the Bills 44-yard line. Those three drives produced 35 yards, two first downs and three points. Given any higher level of production from the offense, the Bills had their hands around the Steeler throats early.
Safety Jairus Byrd gifted the offense their best field position of the season on the first drive of the game, when he returned a Ben Roethlisberger interception to the Steelers 25-yard line. His closing speed and playmaking on the ball are hard attributes to come by at safety, and the Bills would be wise to find a way to keep him around long term.
Because of Byrd’s uncertain future, and the struggles of Stephon Gilmore, Leodis McKelvin and Justin Rogers, there are questions about the Buffalo secondary. But overall, there are far more positives than negatives.
Kiko Alonso has been a revelation. His athleticism at the linebacker position is rare, as evidenced by his ability to get off a block from a 300-pound offensive linemen on a screen to make a tackle on running back Jonathan Dwyer for a three-yard loss. Alonso is developing into a leader for his ability, his fire and for his status as the defensive signal-caller. His presence alone gives the Bills a building block for the future. But that’s just one of the pieces they can count on.
The defensive line made plays over the course of the game as well, registering four sacks of Roethlisberger—two from defensive end Jerry Hughes, acquired in a trade that has proven to be a coup for his six sacks on the season. Fitting, too, that defensive tackles Kyle Williams and Marcell Dareus were in on the other two sacks Sunday. Hughes and Dareus are under contract through the 2014 season, and Williams through 2016.
This group is in place for at least the next 22 games. Hopefully, the Bills can find consistency on offense in time to capitalize on the window of those talented defensive players.
Who Are the St. Louis Rams?
As was mentioned in the intro slide, the biggest shocker of Week 10 had to be the 38-8 pasting laid on Indianapolis Colts by St. Louis.
NFL National Lead Writer Ty Schalter believes the biggest win in Kellen Clemens' career is just the latest in a contradiction-filled 2013 campaign for the Rams:
It’s Week 10 in the NFL, and by now we know the story on almost every team in the NFL. Somehow, though, exactly who these St. Louis Rams are is anybody’s guess.
Are the St. Louis Rams the offensively explosive, defensively smothering team that housed the AFC South-leading Indianapolis Colts 38-8? Are they the hapless, helpless squad that was shredded 31-7 by the Dallas Cowboys?
Before the season, the Rams boldly announced their intention to challenge the Seattle Seahawks and San Francisco 49ers for the NFC West title. They did it not with a press release, but with a draft-day trade up to No. 8 overall and the selection of receiver/returner Tavon Austin.
Austin, thought to be the missing piece to the Rams offensive puzzle, finally had his coming-out party this week against the Colts. He not only returned a punt 98 yards for a score, but took his only two receptions 138 yards for two touchdowns.
Two prior Rams first-round picks—defensive ends Chris Long and Robert Quinn—also had banner days Sunday. Judging just by their Week 10 success, anyone would think these Rams are a young team ready to contend for years to come.
Yet, this win improves the Rams to just 4-6, and the top objective of this season—find out if quarterback Sam Bradford is the answer—remains unfulfilled.
That the Rams can seemingly blow out or be blown out by any team brings up another set of questions, many of which circle around the coaching staff’s work preparing and teaching this talented young Rams squad.
Tavon Austin’s 3-Touchdown Day Signals His Arrival
It's Rams fever! Catch the excitement!
Given the big surprise, it's not a shock that more than one member of our panel turned to Lucas Oil Stadium for their takeaway this week.
In the eyes of NFC West Lead Writer Tyson Langland, the biggest story from the day's biggest upset is the delayed arrival of a former top-10 pick under the spotlight:
Even though it took 10 long weeks, rookie wide receiver Tavon Austin finally rewarded the St. Louis Rams after they served him with his highest snap count of the season. In the 30-point trouncing of the Colts, the No. 8 overall pick tallied two receptions on three targets for 138 yards and two touchdowns.
The breakout performance was hard to believe based on the fact St. Louis was playing a 6-2 team on the road. However, it was a performance both Austin and the Rams needed.
Fortunately for St. Louis, the 176-pound wideout not only impressed as a pass-catcher. Early on in the second quarter, Austin fielded a punt at his own 2-yard line and took it 98 yards the other way. The end result was a return that demonstrated his speed, agility, lateral quickness and game-changing ability.
The return also broke the game wide open as the Rams jumped on top of the Colts 21-0. From that point on, Austin and the Rams set the cruise control and never looked back in their rearview mirror.
The year may be lost for St. Louis with franchise quarterback Sam Bradford on the bench, but there are plenty of positives this team can build on over the final seven weeks. Austin can continue building on his standout performance, running back Zac Stacy can solidify himself as the Rams' No. 1 back of the future, and the defense can make it a point to live up to expectations week in and week out.
Many pundits may have already labeled the Austin pick as a bust, but there’s no question his most recent performance has those same pundits reconsidering their thoughts.
Red-Zone Woes Holding the Chargers Back
It's been an up-and-down 2013 for the San Diego Chargers.
Sunday's 28-20 loss to the Denver Broncos dropped the Bolts to 4-5, and while San Diego made a game of it in the second half, AFC West Lead Writer Christopher Hansen sees an issue that continues to plague the team:
The difference between the good teams and the bad teams usually comes down to the red zone. The only way for a team to make up for poor performance in the red zone is explosive plays for scores.
The San Diego Chargers have struggled over the past few weeks both offensively and defensively in the last 20 yards. When the Chargers are performing in the red zone, they win. When they don't, they lose.
If and when the Chargers can get that part of their game together, they might be a good team. Offenses that routinely convert opportunities in the red zone into touchdowns and defenses that routinely hold opponents to field goals in the zone win a lot of games.
For about three quarters Sunday, red-zone efficiency and two explosive plays gave the Broncos a 28-6 lead.
Last week, the Chargers failed to convert a goal-line situation into a touchdown with two minutes to play. Their defense then couldn’t keep Washington out of the end zone in overtime to give their offense another opportunity.
The Chargers had an opportunity to be in the playoff picture, but they are on the outside looking in. With a tough second-half schedule, the Chargers can point to their performance in the red zone as the reason 2013 was a "rebuilding" year.
Saints Not Ready to Share NFC South Lead
Coming off last week's loss in New York, the New Orleans Saints were in danger of losing their division lead.
All week leading up to the New Orleans Saints’ matchup against the Dallas Cowboys, we heard the storylines involving defensive coordinator Rob Ryan coaching against his former team.
While there surely was a little pride and one-upmanship involved in the 49-17 beatdown New Orleans laid in Sunday's prime-time matchup, there were definitely bigger aspects at play.
About 90 minutes prior to kickoff in New Orleans, the Carolina Panthers upset the San Francisco 49ers to pull to 6-3 and only a half game behind the Saints. A loss for New Orleans would've meant a tie atop the NFC South. New Orleans knew what needed to be done and the players responded accordingly.
Drew Brees completed 34 of 41 passes (82.9 percent) for 392 yards and four touchdowns. Mark Ingram emerged from a funk and gained 145 yards on 14 carries and crossed the goal line for the first time this season.
The Saints defense showed up big, too.
Dallas only matriculated nine first downs all night (compared to an NFL single-game record 40 for New Orleans) and didn’t convert a single third down, gaining just 193 total yards in the game.
The battle for NFC South supremacy between the Saints and Panthers will be heated down the stretch. But, as of Week 10, New Orleans is still top dog.