NFL1000 Week 6 Notebook: Can Brett Hundley Be 'The Guy' in Green Bay?
The big news from Week 6 is the broken collarbone that could end Aaron Rodgers' season and the Green Bay Packers' postseason hopes with it. But there were many other stories to make this one of the more interesting game weeks in a while.
The Pittsburgh Steelers did what everyone's been begging them to do all year and put the game plan in the hands of running back Le'Veon Bell, taking it out of the hands of error-prone quarterback Ben Roethlisberger. With that, and a stellar defensive effort, the Steelers ended the Kansas City Chiefs' status as the league's only undefeated team.
The Patriots continued their woeful defensive performance in the first half against the New York Jets but managed to hold it together enough in the second half to win 24-17—a game that would have posed questions about New England's long-term viability if it had gone the other way.
The defending NFC champs had no such luck, allowing the Dolphins and their lackluster offense to overcome a 17-point deficit to come away with a 20-17 win. Atlanta has lost its spark on offense, and new coordinator Steve Sarkisian should probably open up the Kyle Shanahan playbook from last season.
And in perhaps the most unpredictable story of the year so far, the New Orleans Saints defense doesn't stink all of a sudden! A unit that has been improving over the last month scored three defensive touchdowns for the first time in franchise history (forcing five turnovers overall), as the Saints beat the Lions 52-38. That score wouldn't imply defensive excellence on either side, but the tape tells the story of a defense that has turned things around.
It was a fascinating Sunday, and B/R's NFL1000 scouts were all over the tape.
Lead Scout: Doug Farrar
Quarterbacks: Mark Schofield
Running backs/Fullbacks: Mark Bullock
Receivers/Tight Ends: Marcus Mosher
Offensive Line: Ethan Young
Defensive Line: Justis Mosqueda
Linebackers: Derrik Klassen
Secondary: Ian Wharton
Here's what stood out to our scouts during Sunday's Week 6 action.
Can Brett Hundley Be 'The Guy' in Green Bay?
There is no one player more crucial to the success of his team than Green Bay Packers quarterback Aaron Rodgers. The Pack came into Sunday's game against the Minnesota Vikings with a 4-1 record despite an inconsistent run game and receiver corps and an offensive line for whom "injury-plagued" would be an understatement. Still, Rodgers had played at his usual high level, handicapped as he has been for years by the limited route concepts in head coach Mike McCarthy's playbook. No other quarterback could consistently overcome so much average play around him to be consistently spectacular.
Which is why the broken collarbone Rodgers suffered in the first quarter of Green Bay's 23-10 loss to their divisional rival is an enormous hit to the team's postseason hopes. The official team Twitter account speculated that Rodgers may be out for the rest of the season, and McCarthy is apparently ready to go with backup Brett Hundley as the starter as long as Rodgers is out. Hundley completed 18 of 33 passes for 157 yards, one touchdown and three interceptions against Minnesota's stellar defense.
If the Packers are to succeed with Hundley as the starter (as opposed to someone like, say, Colin Kaepernick), he'll have to make a few adjustments. McCarthy doesn't often present Rodgers with a first open read because Rodgers doesn't need it. Hundley is a different story.
His interceptions showed that the 2015 fifth-round pick from UCLA struggles when he either has unclear reads downfield or is under pressure. His first pick was a bad read of a simple short crossing route, he missed safety Harrison Smith on the second, and the third came late in the game when he was hit as he threw. Young quarterbacks tend to regress and play too frantically when things speed up around them.
Hundley's lone touchdown pass came when receiver Davante Adams ran a drag route from the inside right slot across the left side and worked to keep himself open as Hundley was pressured to step up in the pocket. Hundley doesn't yet have the communication with his receivers to consistently succeed on random plays after things break down; it will be necessary for McCarthy to give Hundley the kinds of easy reads and throws you see in offenses prepared for the success of inexperienced quarterbacks—curl-flat combinations designed to beat tight coverages, dual slants like the Rams run—especially in the red zone— and switch releases to give Hundley the opportunity to air out his arm.
McCarthy has lived off the unique talents of his Hall of Fame quarterback for years; it's past time for him to use a full and modern playbook. The 2017 season will depend on it for the Packers.
—NFL1000 Lead Scout Doug Farrar
Bill O’Brien Deserves Credit for Deshaun Watson’s Big Rookie Year
On Sunday against the Cleveland Browns, Houston Texans quarterback Deshaun Watson became the first rookie in NFL history with at least three touchdown passes in three straight games. His total of 15 touchdown passes is the most for any rookie through any team's first six games, and Watson wasn't the Week 1 starter. Watson brings a ton to the game with his accuracy, velocity and mobility, but Texans head coach Bill O'Brien—who suffered through some ghastly quarterback play in his first three seasons as Houston's head coach—should be given a gold star for doing with Watson what all coaches should do—adjust your scheme for your talent.
O'Brien has never had a quarterback with Watson's ability to run—and specifically run to throw—and he's using that mobility to help Watson with the use of play action. Linebackers tend to cheat up when Watson fakes a handoff, not only because of the run threat, but also because of the run/pass options O'Brien has built into the playbook for Watson's comfort with them and ability to turn them into big plays. Through six games, Watson has thrown out of play action on 28.2 percent of Houston's passing plays, and he's completing 66.7 percent of his passes for 8.9 yards per attempt, eight touchdowns and just two interceptions. Compare that to a 59.2 percent completion rate and 6.8 yards per attempt with seven touchdowns and three picks without play action—not horrible numbers by any means, but the majority of shot plays in this offense have the specter of the run as a primary component.
Of course, it's on Watson to transcend O'Brien's schemes and put the offense on his shoulders, and he's doing that as well. He's made several tremendous throws downfield into tight windows, and he's shown the ability to beat pressure in the pocket by rolling out and making the tough throw. Five of Watson's touchdowns have come on throws of 20 or more air yards (five touchdowns, three interceptions), and he's completed 11 of 30 deep attempts.
As Watson grows in Houston's offense, he'll be even better when asked to make multiple reads and stick in the pocket under pressure. But given his experience, these are quibbles. Right now, Watson is playing as well as you could expect of any rookie quarterback, and his play designer is meeting him more than halfway.
—NFL1000 Lead Scout Doug Farrar
C.J. Beathard Looks Like Upgrade Over Brian Hoyer in NFL Debut
Midway through the second quarter Kyle Shanahan had seen enough. Brian Hoyer was ineffective at best, completing only four of 11 passes for 34 yards to go with one sack, and the San Francisco 49ers trailed 14-0. In came rookie C.J. Beathard to see his first NFL regular-season action on the road trailing by two scores.
While on the field, Beathard showed some of the usual rookie struggles. There were double-clutches on throws that allowed defenders to close on receivers. He was slow at times to get through his progressions, leading to sacks or missed opportunities in the passing game. He threw an interception on San Francisco’s final play on a Flood concept where he stared down his target, drawing a defender to the football with his eyes.
Even with those mistakes, Beathard was an upgrade over Hoyer. Shanahan must agree, as the first-year head coach announced postgame that he would stick with the rookie next week.
Beathard did provide a spark for the 49ers on Sunday. On a drive before the half that culminated in a touchdown, the rookie from Iowa showed good accuracy on vertical throws to both Marquise Goodwin and rookie tight end George Kittle, his college teammate.
He also showed the ability to extend plays, and his touchdown pass to Aldrick Robinson was a great example. Beathard was pressured in the pocket but bought time with his feet while keeping his eyes downfield. That allowed him to spot Robinson breaking free behind the coverage, and the rookie QB dropped in a well-placed throw for the score.
It was somewhat of a surprise when Shanahan made Beathard the sixth quarterback selected in the 2017 NFL draft. But that decision highlighted what the new head coach valued in a potential QB: anticipation, decision-making and accuracy. Those were three areas where Beathard was relatively strong in comparison to some of the other quarterbacks left on the board. He made some mistakes Sunday and will make more going forward, but right now his ability to extend plays, his accuracy on downfield throws such as those to Goodwin and Kittle, and his downfield vision make him a better option for San Francisco.
—NFL1000 QB Scout, Mark Schofield
Jay Ajayi Carries Dolphins Offense in Statement Win Over Falcons
The Miami Dolphins pulled off one of the upsets of the weekend as they overcame a 17-point deficit at the half to beat the Atlanta Falcons on the road. Jay Cutler and the Dolphins offense struggled to get into a rhythm until the second half, while their defense managed to keep them in the game by shutting out the Falcons in the third quarter as the Dolphins scored 14 unanswered points to make it a one-score game heading into the fourth.
The only consistent player throughout the game was running back Jay Ajayi. He ran for 130 yards on 26 carries at five yards per carry on average. He regulated an offense that couldn't find any consistency, and in the fourth quarter, he put together back-to-back 18-yard runs to set up what turned out to be the game-winning field goal.
The first of those two runs came on 2nd-and-10 from the Dolphins' own 34. Ajayi took the handoff on an outside zone play to the left. He pressed the hole but found a cutback lane opening on the back side of the run and opted to take it. Ajayi burst through the line of scrimmage, where he was then met by multiple Falcons defenders. He broke through Keanu Neal's initial tackle attempt before lowering his shoulder and running over Ricardo Allen to secure the first down and more.
On the next play, the Dolphins gave it straight back to him on an outside zone play to the right. Ajayi found a crease to cut into and went untouched as he burst through the line of scrimmage and into the second level of the defense. He got linebacker Deion Jones turned around and was only brought down by Allen working up from his deep safety spot.
Those two carries completely flipped the field position and the shape of the game. Ajayi took the Dolphins from their own 34 to the Falcons' 30 in two plays, putting them in position to try to run out the clock and kick a game-winning field goal. They weren't able to run out as much clock as they would have liked, but Reshad Jones made a key interception to secure the win anyway.
—NFL1000 RB Scout, Mark Bullock
Adrian Peterson Impresses in Cardinals Debut
Going into their game against the Tampa Bay Buccaneers, the Arizona Cardinals were the worst running team in the NFL. They averaged just 51.8 rushing yards per game, 23 yards fewer than anyone else. Adrian Peterson was out of place in New Orleans. The Saints rarely used him, and even when they did, Peterson could only muster three yards per carry. So it seemed unlikely Peterson would be able to provide the spark the Cardinals offense needed.
But surprisingly, Peterson managed to do just that. Peterson carried the ball 26 times, amassing 134 yards and two touchdowns while doing so. He managed to provide the Cardinals with some much-needed balance on offense, taking pressure off quarterback Carson Palmer. With that pressure taken off his shoulders, Palmer, and the entire Cardinals offense, performed far better than they had in recent weeks.
On the Cardinals' opening drive, Peterson carried the ball four of the six total plays for 54 yards and a touchdown. He ran a variety of plays and executed all of them effectively. The first carry was an inside zone play where he cut back behind the sifting tight end toward the back side of the run and bulldozed his way through a safety and a defensive lineman for eight yards. On his second carry, the Cardinals ran an inside gap play. Peterson approached the line of scrimmage but had nowhere to go. He patiently side-stepped across each gap working toward the back side before finding an open gap to burst through for another eight-yard gain.
Peterson followed that up with a power play to the left. The Cardinals blocked the play well up front, allowing Peterson to bounce his run outside. Peterson then encountered cornerback Vernon Hargreaves but slipped past him easily with a quick stutter-step fake inside before continuing to the edge for 11 more yards.
He capped off the drive with a 27-yard touchdown on another inside gap play. Like before, he initially had no lane to work with as he approached the line of scrimmage. But he remained patient, allowing his blocks to develop. As soon as a small lane opened up, Peterson skipped through it and ran away from the Buccaneers defense.
Peterson looked motivated and ran with intent throughout the game. He took full advantage when the offensive line provided lanes for him and managed to make up for a few missed blocks here and there too. His performance was a huge boost to a Cardinals offense that looked stale in recent weeks. Peterson provided balance, and his threat as a runner allowed the Cardinals to use some more play-action concepts too. It will be interesting to see if Peterson and the Cardinals can reproduce this type of performance against the 4-2 Los Angeles Rams in London next week.
—NFL1000 RB Scout, Mark Bullock
Giants Survive Without Their Top 4 WRs
In shocking fashion, the New York Giants were able to move the ball against one of the stingiest defenses in the NFL on Sunday night when they faced the Denver Broncos. Without their top four options at receiver, the Giants pulled off one of the biggest upsets of the season.
Odell Beckham Jr, Brandon Marshall, Sterling Shepard and Dwayne Harris all were forced to miss Week 6 because of injuries. This made the Giants to drastically alter their game plan on offense in just one week. Despite all of the missing talent, the Giants put up 23 points (seven on defense) on the road.
Their receivers didn’t contribute much in this game, catching just two passes for 22 yards on six targets. Starters Roger Lewis and Tavarres King were held in check all night, but neither were disasters for the Giants. It wasn’t pretty, but the offense made enough plays through the air to keep the Denver defense from stacking the line of scrimmage to stop the run.
Rookie tight end Evan Engram did the heavy lifting for the Giants in the passing game. Engram saw seven targets on Sunday night, catching five for 82 yards and a score. His ability to win quickly off the line of scrimmage and after the catch allowed the Giants to stay in the game despite their leaky offensive line and new receiver corps.
In this matchup, the Giants lined up Engram anywhere on the field to get the mismatch they wanted. His size gives him the chance to win inside and outside, but his athleticism makes him a tough assignment for any defensive back.
As the Giants head into the next 10 games without Beckham and Marshall, Engram’s versatility will become even more valuable. They should be getting Shepard back in the near future, but for now and likely the rest of the season, they will heavily lean on their rushing attack and Engram’s explosiveness to lead their offense. It’s not going to be the flashiest offense in the league, but it showed that it can be effective enough to win games, even when playing one of the better defenses in the NFL.
—NFL1000 WR/TE Scout, Marcus Mosher
Panthers OL Needs to Right the Ship to Save This Offense
The Panthers had to be excited about their offensive line coming into the year. Trai Turner and Ryan Kalil were finally healthy after struggling through injuries in 2016, stud guard Andrew Norwell was back and they signed left tackle Matt Kalil in free agency to bring some stability to the blind side.
That optimism is long gone. Matt Kalil has struggled, while Ryan Kalil went out with an injury in Week 1 and has yet to return.
At its core, Carolina's offense is designed to play physically imposing football, with a heavy emphasis on the ground game. But the running game is where this front has struggled the most so far this year. Whether it's between the tackles with Jonathan Stewart or in space with Christian McCaffrey, this offensive line hasn't been able to keep ball-carriers clean this year, especially in Ryan Kalil's absence. Opponents are consistently closing in on their backs several yards behind the line of scrimmage. That has forced Cam Newton to be a volume passer, which only magnifies his high-variance style of play.
In their matchup with the Eagles on Thursday, the Panthers introduced more screens and designed short passes to their backs to take the place of their inefficient run game. They should continue to do that going forward, as not only does it put McCaffrey in beneficial situations, but it will help spread opposing defenses sideline to sideline and force teams to put some lighter personnel on the field on early downs.
The good news? Ryan Kalil should be back soon, and both Norwell and Turner play much better with him in the lineup. And while there isn't enough tape out there yet to say if Matt Kalil plays better with his brother on the field, the only way for him to go is up. The question mark of the Panthers offensive line coming into the year, young right tackle Daryl Williams, has not been an issue so far. In fact, he has occasionally flashed the top-level physicality the Panthers crave up front.
If the Panthers can continue using their backs and spacing players more creatively and can get healthier up front, they should be able to dig themselves out of this offensive rut and get back to their balanced style of play.
—NFL1000 OL Scout, Ethan Young
It's Not All About Wentz, Buzzsaw D-Line a Vital Part of Resurgent Eagles
While Philadelphia quarterback Carson Wentz is the face of the soaring Eagles, the team's defense has allowed only 122 points through six games. Among NFC teams who have played six games, the Minnesota Vikings (103 points allowed) are the lone team who can beat Philadelphia's mark.
While Wentz's improvement should not go unnoticed, the evolution of Philadelphia's defensive line should also be mentioned on every studio show this week. This offseason, the Eagles traded for former Baltimore Ravens defensive tackle Timmy Jernigan (1.5 sacks, seven run tackles of less than a yard) to pair with their other star tackle, Fletcher Cox (2.5 sacks in four games). They also added first-round rookie Derek Barnett (0.5 sacks, three run tackles of less than a yard) and free agent Chris Long (two sacks, three run tackles of less than a yard) at defensive end.
Barnett and Long are currently working in a rotation behind Brandon Graham (4.5 sacks, five run tackles of less than a yard) and Vinny Curry (one sack, five run tackles of less than a yard), both of whom might be having their best professional seasons in 2017. In just six games, these six linemen have combined for 13 sacks and 23 run tackles of less than a yard, making them one of the most disruptive backfield penetrators in the NFL.
On Thursday Night Football, the Carolina Panthers learned this the hard way. In the Panthers' back-to-back wins against the New England Patriots and the Detroit Lions, the best defensive lineman Carolina's offensive line faced may have been Detroit's Anthony Zettel. While he's had a fine year, Zettel would have to fight for playing time in Philadelphia.
That defensive buzzsaw, which included Cox returning from a two-game absence, was as much of a difference in the Eagles' 28-23 Week 6 win as Wentz was. Here were the results of Carolina's first carries on each drive by a running back: one yard, minus-three yards, minus-six yards, zero yards, minus-two yards, no run, minus-two yards, no run, minus-two yards, no run, four yards, three yards and no run.
When you can efficiently get an offense off pace and force them into one-sided passing situations with Graham, Cox, Jernigan, Curry, Barnett and Long pinning their ears back, that can be the death of most offenses. If you measure football positions by NFL contracts, it's clear the league values quarterbacks and pass-rushers more than any other. The Eagles managed to improve at both of those spots this season.
With that in mind, their 5-1 start is no less surprising than it is sustainable.
—NFL1000 DL Scout, Justis Mosqueda
Telvin Smith Bridges the Gap for Jaguars' Elite Defense
The Jacksonville Jaguars have elite talent at every level of their defense. Calais Campbell is damn near unstoppable along the interior defensive line. Yannick Ngakoue and Dante Fowler are a nice one-two pass-rushing combination. Jalen Ramsey anchors a secondary that may be the best in the NFL. And linebacker Telvin Smith bridges the gap between the two units.
Smith has been quietly developing for years. After a roller-coaster rookie season in 2014, he settled into his weak-side linebacker role for the Jaguars. He is an expert gap-shooter who has gotten better each year at picking his battles and knowing how to finish plays. He has likewise developed his instincts in coverage and become more aware of his role in the structure of certain coverages. Few players develop to their fullest potential, but Smith has.
This year is the pinnacle of Smith's game. He is as good as he's ever been, which has helped unlock the Jaguars defense. Through six games this season, Smith has five tackles for loss, a sack, a forced fumble, two interceptions, three passes defended and a touchdown off of a fumble recovery. More so than any year before, Smith is dominant in every facet of his game and is playing with the hyperspeed that this Jaguars defense is now known for.
Smith notched his first sack and first forced fumble Sunday against the Los Angeles Rams. He did his part throughout the game and made critical plays when he needed to. The Jaguars ultimately lost 27-17, but Smith doesn't deserve the blame for that.
—NFL1000 LB Scout, Derrik Klassen
Browns Are Misusing Jabrill Peppers as a Defensive Chess Piece
When the Cleveland Browns traded down from the 12th overall pick to the 25th, they not only passed on quarterback Deshaun Watson but also a true ball-hawk free safety in Malik Hooker. The decision to select safety Jabrill Peppers 25th overall was sound based on his athleticism and ability to impact a defense as a downhill playmaker who attacks the line of scrimmage. It's the role he starred in at Michigan after moving around to several positions.
Defensive coordinator Greg Williams has put together a respectable defense considering he's had to work without his two best players in Myles Garrett and Jamie Collins for the majority of the season. But his decision to play Peppers mostly as a deep safety has been costly on the back end. Peppers has struggled to make a clean transition to a role he rarely played at Michigan, and his instincts are much stronger in the box than up high.
Peppers has seen more time closer to the line of scrimmage over the past two games, with corner Briean Boddy-Calhoun rotating back to safety, but the Browns have essentially wasted the first third of the season by putting Peppers into a position to fail. He has 26 tackles, zero sacks and zero interceptions on the year, so far confirming concerns that he lacked ball skills and the natural feel for playing a ball-hawk role as a rookie.
Williams and the Browns are to blame for this failure, not Peppers. If the team had this role in mind, then adding Hooker or another true free safety would've made more sense. With a roster full of similar skill sets, including Derrick Kindred and Ibraheim Campbell, Peppers gives an overlapping set of strengths.
The Browns put a lot of stress on their corners and Peppers by playing so much Cover 3, which has led to more breakdowns than turnovers. To get the most out of their investment in Peppers, the Browns have to utilize more nickel packages to give deep help responsibilities to another defensive back. Unfortunately, the flawed roster construction has left the team without a more complete solution, but wasting Peppers also isn't the answer for the short or long term.
—NFL1000 DB Scout, Ian Wharton