Monday Morning Digest: Great Defenses, Indefensible Quarterbacks

Mike TanierNFL National Lead WriterSeptember 11, 2017

Monday Morning Digest: Great Defenses, Indefensible Quarterbacks

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    Michael Reaves/Getty Images

    You may have expected Scott Tolzien, Tom Savage and Josh McCown to stink in Week 1, though not quite as badly as they did. 

    But no one was expecting Andy Dalton and Carson Palmer to combine for seven interceptions, or Aaron Rodgers and Russell Wilson to spend the Packers-Seahawks showdown running around like squirrels in a dog park.

    Not all of the quarterbacking was terrible. Derek Carr looked great. So did Carson Wentz and Matthew Stafford. And Alex Smith on Thursday night. And...Jared Goff, maybe?

    Digest breaks down all of Sunday's action for you, from the defensive duels to the embarrassing blowouts.

    We kick things off by daring to state the obvious: In a league where the quarterback play is this bad, there's no reason why Colin Kaepernick is still unemployed. No football reason, anyway.

Bad QBs Prove "Football Reasons" for Kaepernick's Absence Completely Bogus

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    Alex Gallardo/Associated Press

    After Sunday's NFL action, you are free to say that Colin Kaepernick does not belong in the NFL because of his anthem protests, because he is bad for the NFL's ratings, bad for America or a bad human being if you feel that way.

    Lots of people (like me) will disagree with you, argue with you or tune you out. But no one can accuse you of being dishonest; at least you believe what you are saying.

    But after Sunday's NFL action, if you claim that Kaepernick does not belong in the NFL because he is not good enough, doesn't fit any offenses, has mechanical flaws or some other "football reasons," you are waist-deep in cow manure.

    NFL fans were forced to watch the following quarterbacks play Sunday:

       

    Scott Tolzien, Colts

    The Colts' interim Andrew Luck stand-in threw two pick-six interceptions that looked like they were  thrown by a high school sophomore before getting benched in favor of Jacoby Brissett, who has been with the organization just over a week.

       

    Josh McCown, Jets

    McCown spent the afternoon barely escaping free rushers and wobbling passes to Bills defenders until the fourth quarter, when the Jets just surrendered and started punting from midfield down by nine points.

       

    Tom Savage, Texans

    Savage drops to pass and enters a fugue state until the defense arrives. He was strip-sacked twice (nearly three, but his hand was going forward on what looked like a strip-six) before the Texans decided that rookie Deshaun Watson had magically matured in 30 minutes.

        

    Blake Bortles, Jaguars

    Bortles "led" the Jaguars to a win by handing off and watching the Texans' quarterback drama unfold. He completed 11 of 21 passes for 125 yards, overthrowing more than one short swing pass.

          

    Brian Hoyer, 49ers

    Kaepernick's replacement in San Francisco averaged 5.5 yards per pass attempt, threw no touchdowns and an interception, took four sacks, lost a fumble and didn't lead a scoring drive until the Panthers led 23-0.

        

    These quarterbacks stink. Their backups, Watson (and maybe Brissett) excepted, are worse. Kaepernick could have led a Jets or Texans victory, kept the Niners competitive and gave the Jaguars hope against an opponent that wasn't beating itself. He might have even made Chuck Pagano and the Colts look like they knew what they were doing.

    You can believe the anonymous coaches and executives with their steaming piles of "football reasons" if you like. Watch the tape: Tolzien has no NFL attributes whatsoever, Savage is a mannequin and McCown is going to get himself killed. Anyone who thinks Kaepernick could not help the teams mentioned above and others (the Browns and Bears as a starter, half the league as a backup) win games is either not watching football, not thinking for themselves or just lying because they don't want to "get political."

    Several teams played ugly, terrible football Sunday because their management wanted to make a political statement, or avoid one, or fears a boycott or a protest in the parking lot or just doesn't like that troublemaker who started all of this "anthem protest" business.

    Maybe you are fine with that. Maybe it really does make good business sense to stink to high heaven instead of ticking off some season-ticket holders or the local police union.

    But there is no good football reason for it. Zero. Zilch. And pretending there is just insults everyone's intelligence.

Week 1 Jump-to-Conclusions Specials

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    John Grieshop/Getty Images

    Everyone knows Week 1 results must be taken with a grain of salt. But since they are the only results we've got, it's human nature to get a little carried away and predict the end of the Patriots dynasty, an undefeated Jaguars season, 64 touchdowns for Matthew Stafford and other not-so-likely outcomes.

    Let Digest tell you which conclusions you should jump to and when to look before you leap in this level-headed examination of some Week 1 surprises and close calls.

    Lions 35, Cardinals 23

    The Cardinals looked like stealth contenders in the preseason. After Carson Palmer's three-interception (one of them tipped by his receiver, but still a bad throw) disaster, it looks like Palmer may be about to repeat Peyton Manning's final season. The Broncos won the Super Bowl in Manning's final season, of course, but the Cardinals won't even sniff the playoffs if their much-ballyhooed defense keeps getting picked apart the way they were Sunday.

    The Lions were sloppy all afternoon: a Stafford pick-six, 10 penalties for 100 yards, three botched two-point conversions. This is one of those wins that looks impressive in the box score but more troubling when you dive into the particulars.

    Ravens 20, Bengals 0

    The Ravens defense is as great as advertised, and Joe Flacco's return means the offense can score some points if it gets the ball on the 2-yard line every now and then.

    While the Ravens are who they always are, the Bengals are still trying to climb through a window of opportunity that closed two years ago. The Bengals may be a veteran team past its prime, but at least they are spending big bucks to keep their veteran core intact.

    Falcons 23, Bears 17

    This was immersion therapy for the Falcons, who recreated the conditions of the Super Bowl (fourth-quarter collapse) with the dangerous elements removed (Mike Glennon instead of Tom Brady) so they could face and overcome their fears. Barely.

    New Falcons coordinators Steve Sarkisian (offense) and Marquand Manuel (defense) must prove that they are not downgrades from their predecessors. Too often Sunday, the Falcons played like they knew the individual notes but couldn't hear the music.

    The Bears will be a tough out all year, but still an out.

    Steelers 21, Browns 18

    The Steelers appeared genuinely surprised that the Browns didn't surrender after a blocked-punt touchdown in the first quarter. Everyone but Antonio Brown (11 catches, 182 yards) and T.J. Watt (two sacks, one pick) played like they thought it was the fifth preseason game.

    DeShone Kizer looked like he did in the preseason: a handful of slick throws for the highlight reel, seven sacks, a few dropped passes to remind everyone that the Browns are still the Browns on even their best day. Kizer will keep the Browns pesky, but after this close call opponents won't sleep on them the way the Steelers did.

Game Spotlight: Cowboys 19, Giants 3

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    Michael Ainsworth/Associated Press

    What Happened

    • The Giants offensive line blocked like they just met on Thursday, lifted weights for the first time Friday and developed a personal grudge against Eli Manning on Saturday evening.
    • Manning was in typical Bad Eli mode: lots of off-target throws delivered with I totally meant to do that confidence.
    • Brandon Marshall (one 10-yard garbage-time catch on four targets) disappeared behind a wall and could only be communicated with via blinking Christmas lights.
    • The Cowboys' vaunted offensive line had its hands full with the Giants front four, but one Jason Witten play-action touchdown and lots of Ezekiel Elliott clock-munching was all it needed.
    • Cole Beasley caught a sideline pass by pinning the ball against the back of his neck with one hand as the Cowboys gobbled clock late in the game. It looked like Beasley was using the football as a loofah.
         

    What It Means

    Even adjusting for the Giants' marshmallow pass protection, the Cowboys have a stronger pass rush than anticipated, with DeMarcus Lawrence registering two sacks and rookie Taco Charlton making his presence felt.

    Elliott (24 carries, 104 yards) is invaluable when the Cowboys face an opponent their line cannot maul. Elliott's six-game suspension appears to be off the table for this season as Roger Goodell plans his next scorched-earth legal strategy. His availability will make a huge difference for the Cowboys during a tough early slate of opponents.

    With Odell Beckham sidelined, the Giants look like a less-organized version of the team that lost to the Packers in last season's playoffs. At least we know party boats have nothing to do with it: The Giants cannot block, cannot run the ball, cannot throw straight with consistency and cannot design a game plan that makes any sense without Beckham. Yet they are billed as conference title contenders in some quarters of the sports world.

       

    What's Next

    The Cowboys travel to Denver and Arizona in the next two weeks. The Giants have much to iron out as they host the Lions—who proved adept at exploiting their opponent's mistakes against the Cardinals on Sundaynext Monday night.

Player Spotlight: Carson Wentz

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    Alex Brandon/Associated Press

    What He Did

    The Eagles' second-year quarterback mixed outstanding throws (like his deep touchdown pass on the run to Nelson Agholor) with a few regrettable ones (mainly Ryan Kerrigan's pick-six off a tipped pass, which looked like it was thrown by Brock Osweiler impersonating 2013 Matt Schaub). 

    Overall, Wentz (26-of-39 for 307 yards, 2 TDs, 1 INT) looked much more poised, polished and dynamic than the turnover-prone dink-and-dunk specialist we saw last year. Wentz moved the Eagles offense well enough to hold off the Redskins until Fletcher Cox returned a Brandon Graham strip-sack of Kirk Cousins for a late touchdown, allowing the Eagles to pull away with a 30-17 victory.

       

    What It Means

    Everything you need to know can be found in parentheses in that first paragraph: deep touchdown, on the move, to Nelson Agholor. Wentz is moving around the pocket much more smoothly than last year, throws deep with much more confidence and can count on his receiverseven Agholor, who entered the offseason teetering on the draft-bust precipice—to do more than get 50-50 balls ripped from their hands.

    Wentz still hasn't perfected his deep timing: He both overthrew and underthrew an open Torrey Smith on Sunday. He will still scurry out of the pocket and intentionally ground a pass now and then. But he also runs the no-huddle authoritatively, finds open receivers on 3rd-and-medium and does more of the little things that separate big-armed prospects from quality NFL starters.

    Sunday's game wasn't perfection. But it was the kind of development that bodes well for both Wentz and the Eagles.

       

    What Happens Next

    Eagles coach Doug Pederson will be eager to show off Wentz to Andy Reid, his coaching mentor. "Hey Andy, look what I've done with Wentz!" he'll say. "Hey Doug, look what I did to the Patriots last week!" Reid will reply, because that's how Big Red rolls.

Game Spotlight: Packers 17, Seahawks 9

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    Jeffrey Phelps/Associated Press

    What Happened

    The first half was all the worst a Packers-Seahawks game has to offer. Aaron Rodgers ran for his life because the Seahawks defense is amazing and Mike McCarthy has been calling the same six pass plays since 2012. Russell Wilson ran for his life because the Seahawks line still consists of barely coached nightclub bouncers. At halftime, the two teams combined for three points, five sacks and one highlight: a pick-six by 300-pound rookie Nazair Jones that was nullified by a penalty.

    A Mike Daniels sack of Wilson near his own goal line led to a short Ty Montgomery touchdown run in the third quarter. Rodgers later fired a 32-yard touchdown to Jordy Nelson and manufactured a field-goal drive.

    Wilson's early comeback attempts ended with field goals. He was denied an opportunity for late-game heroics by a string of defensive penalties that extended the Packers' final drive.

       

    What It Means

    Same old Packers and Seahawks.

    The Seahawks are almost unwilling to protect Wilson and appear headed toward another of those offensive-defensive fissures that they swear are just media creations. Nothing on Sunday suggested they are breaking the cycle of slowly diminishing returns they have been in for four years.

    The Packers, meanwhile, are still over-reliant on Rodgers and his main weapons to do all the heavy lifting. This win is almost certain to loom large when we are analyzing playoff tiebreakers three months from now. Until then, the Packers appear destined for another Packers season: lots of wins, but lots of frustration anytime Rodgers is any less than perfect.

       

    What Happens Next

    The Seahawks host a 49ers team that barely put up an offensive fight against the Panthers. The Packers head to Atlanta's giant hubcap of a new stadium to avenge their NFC title game loss to the Falcons. 

Player Spotlight: Derek Carr

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    Wesley Hitt/Getty Images

    What He Did

    Carr's 22-of-32, 262-yard, two-touchdown performance wasn't flashy, but it got the job done.

    Carr delivered some strikes, including a needle-threading 19-yard touchdown to Seth Roberts to give the Raiders control of an eventual 26-16 win over the Tennessee Titans. Carr also overcame several dropped passes by Amari Cooper that both kept the Titans in the game and took some of the sizzle out of his stat line.

       

    What It Means

    Carr's numbers were fine, but his performance was much better than the numbers suggest. He was ultimately able to count on his defense, running game and kicker to maintain separation from the Titans. Carr has become an excellent game manager.

    Oh no, not the dreaded "game manager" title. It's not an insult, Raiders fans. Carr took care of the ball and made the plays he had to make in a road game against a quality opponent that looked like a shootout on paper. We all know Carr can sling it (and Cooper is more likely to reliably catch it) when those high-scoring quarterback duels inevitably arrive. For now, both Carr and the Raiders will gladly trade accolades and fantasy stats for relatively stress-free victories.

       

    What Happens Next

    The Raiders travel to Washington on September 24. Whoops, sorry, they host the Jets next week. "Jets" and "bye" are starting to look almost identical on the schedule.

Quick Hitters

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    Tom Szczerbowski/Getty Images

    Some Week 1 thoughts that didn't fit anywhere else:

    • Scott Tolzien took a lot of grief in addressing the Colin Kaepernick situation earlier. But really, the entire Colts team played like they have already lost faith in their coaches and each other. It's almost as if the organization lying for eight months about its quarterback situation negatively impacted morale.
    • Jared Goff (21-of-29, 306 yards, 1 TD) had an encouraging game. If you want to increase a young quarterback's confidence, give him a lead to play with like the Rams defense did. Playing against defenders that wouldn't see the field in the fourth quarter of a Patriots preseason game also doesn't hurt.
    • Christian McCaffrey's numbers (13-47-0 on the ground, 5-38-0 as a receiver, one lost fumble) don't leap off the page in a week when fellow rookie Kareem Hunt made cole slaw out of the Patriots defense. But McCaffrey converted two 3rd-and-long situations for the Panthers, one on a quick flare pass and run, another by escaping his defender during a Cam Newton scramble and leaping for a first down. Newton has not had that kind of playmaker in the backfield since DeAngelo Williams left the Panthers.
    • Speaking of high-impact rookies, Taco Charlton threw Giants right tackle Bobby Hart to the turf so teammate DeMarcus Lawrence could gobble up Orleans Darkwa for a loss of one on a second-quarter screen pass. Charlton's effort would be even more impressive if the Giants offensive line could block even a lick.
    • Weird Bills stat: Former Panthers fullback Mike Tolbert rushed 12 times for 42 yards and one touchdown. Seven rushes came in the first half, so this wasn't garbage-time usage. Maybe the 31-year-old who ran like he was wearing cinder-block cleats last year has been reborn as the perfect complement to LeSean McCoy. Or maybe Sean McDermott is a little too attached to veterans he liked at his last stop, and the Tolbert experiment will look really silly when the Bills are facing an NFL opponent.
    • Kirk Cousins (23-of-40, 240 yards, 1 TD, 1 INT) had the typical bad Kirk Cousins game: wild under pressure, with a baffling interception in the red zone. It didn't help that Terrelle Pryor dropped several potential big-play passes. It's hard to be too critical of Cousins on a weekend when Andy Dalton threw four picks and Tom Savage nearly got strip-sacked by the water boys, but early indicators are that neither Cousins nor the Redskins have found a way out of their Groundhog Day loop.

Behind the Numbers: The Lineup

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    Nam Y. Huh/Associated Press

    Your weekly rundown of exciting, surprising, frustrating and catastrophic numbers and what they mean, with a nod to fantasy implications of those stats:

       

    Quarterback: Matthew Stafford, Lions (292 yards, four TDs, one INT)

    Pay the man! Oh wait, the one thing Stafford has always been is exceptionally well paid. Start the man, fantasy owners! Stafford is as sharp as ever, has a fine old-and-new receiver combo in Golden Tate and Kenny Golladay, and the Lions still have no idea who their running back is.

       

    Running Back: Tarik Cohen, Bears (66 rushing yards, 47 receiving yards, one receiving TD)

    Jordan Howard (13-52-1, three receptions) remains the Bears' go-to back. But Cohen, The Human Joystick (the nickname is derived from a video gaming device that went obsolete nearly 30 years ago), is a dynamic, nifty-shifty all-purpose back. Cohen will get lots of short catches when the Bears are playing from behind and keeping things close. Which will be most of the season.

       

    Running Back: Mike Gillislee, Patriots (45 rushing yards, three TDs)

    Three touchdowns for the Patriots during one of their semiannual bad games converts to (crunches numbers) breaking your fantasy league when the Patriots face the Jets.

       

    Wide Receiver: Amari Cooper, Raiders (five catches for 62 yards and one TD on 13 targets)

    Cooper's numbers should have been much better. Not only did he drop several passes, but Derek Carr targeted him three times on one drive all from the 2-yard line and only got a drop, mishandled 50-50 fade ball and a tipped pass for his efforts. Cooper should get better, Carr will remain excellent and Marshawn Lynch will continue to wonder why he doesn't get goal-line carries anymore.

       

    Tight End: Jesse James, Steelers (six catches for 41 yards and two TDs)

    James will continue to get leftover touchdowns when opponents octuple-team Antonio Brown and Le'Veon Bell is working his way back into shape/out of the doghouse. James got open in the end zone Sunday by finding spots in the Browns defense vacated by players who were cut over the last two weeks.

       

    Kicker: Giorgio Tavecchio, Raiders (4 FGs, two 52-yarders)

    The Italian-born lefty went from Sebastian Janikowski's temporary replacement to Sebastian Janikowski's permanent replacement Sunday.

Awards Digest

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    Justin K. Aller/Getty Images

    Defensive Player of the Week

    There are many qualified nominees this week, from T.J. Watt to half of the Baltimore Ravens. But the award goes to Mike Daniels of the Packers: one-and-a-half sacks, four hits on Russell Wilson, seven combined tackles and, most important, the forced fumble in the shadow of the Seahawks goal post that woke the Packers up and got them on the board.

       

    Offensive Line of the Week

    It's not easy to protect Blake Bortles, the NFL's most likely quarterback to suddenly dart into oncoming traffic. The Jaguars line not only held J.J. Watt and Co. without a sack but helped Leonard Fournette and others grind out 155 rushing yards. Cam Robinson, Patrick Omameh, Brandon Linder, A. J. Cann and Jermey Parnell gave Tom Coughlin a rare reason to smile.

       

    Special Teamers of the Week

    Tyler Matakevich flew straight through the Browns line to block Britton Colquitt's punt. Anthony Chickillo grabbed the ball in the end zone and gave the Steelers a 7-0 lead before either team even broke a sweat. It looked like Steelers-Browns business as usual when it happened, but Matakevich and Chickillo gave the Steelers a much-needed score on a day when their offense sputtered and the Browns wouldn't go away.

       

    Mystery Touch of the Week

    There's nothing unusual about Jordan Howard scoring a Bears touchdown...unless it comes on a Wildcat play in which rookie Tarik Cohen took the snap from center. A Wildcat revival? Maybe. Or maybe old-school John Fox is nine years behind the trend. Either way, it worked.

All Quiet on the Protest Front

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    Jeffrey Phelps/Associated Press

    If you expected political protests to dominate the NFL news Sunday, you were either delighted, disappointed, relieved or just surprised that not much happened.

    Michael Bennett (whose allegations against the Las Vegas Police Department made midweek waves) and other protest "regulars" continued their symbolic rituals during the national anthem. Some Colin Kaepernick rallies took place in parking lots. Browns players linked arms with Cleveland police officers in a powerful expression of unity. But otherwise, the protest scene was relatively quiet.

    Here's what happened:

    • The television networks chose to ignore the protesting players and outdoor rallies. CBS focused on J.J. Watt and the Houston relief efforts during the 1 p.m. anthem telecast, even in other regions. Even the Browns' solidarity gesture was not televised. Fox was, well, Fox about it and focused on the flag.
    • Regularly scheduled protests by players like Bennett have lost their novelty, which means they no longer attract attention, blunting their power as protests. I wrote about this phenomenon last year.
    • Hurricane Irma's arrival and Hurricane Harvey cleanup have left the football world a little weary of breaking into camps for our usual sociopolitical arguments. We don't have a lot of extra attention right now.
    • Bennett's allegations changed the venue of the NFL's police brutality debate. It's hard to get hot and bothered about symbolic gestures when players are accusing cops of excessive force and the police union is responding with flame mails

    So that's why Sunday's protests were easily ignored.

    But here's what did not happen: No societal problems went away. None of the regular protesters stopped being passionate about police reform or related causes, just as no one in the protesters hate America and should leave crowd became any less entrenched.

    To borrow a phrase that has gotten far too much literal use lately, we're just in the eye of this storm. Enjoy the break while you can. This forecast predicts much more choppy sailing ahead.