NFL1000 Week 9 Notebook: These Ain't Your Daddy's Saints

NFL1000 ScoutsFeatured ColumnistNovember 6, 2017

NFL1000 Week 9 Notebook: These Ain't Your Daddy's Saints

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    In every NFL season, the league becomes a war of attrition as the year wears on. Going into Week 9 of the 2017 campaign, several teams are dealing with major quarterback issues without any clear solution. 

    The Houston Texans failed to recover from Deshaun Watson's season-ending knee injury, throwing backup Tom Savage to the wolves (or in this case, the Colts) in a 20-14 loss. The Denver Broncos have been playing quarterback roulette since Peyton Manning retired, and Brock Osweiler's performance against the Eagles on Sunday may have been the worst personification of that phenomenon to date. And would you guess that Cam Newton has the NFL's worst passer rating over the last four weeks?

    On the other side of the equation, two NFC teams have devised perfect game plans for their second-year quarterbacks, and both teams are reaping the rewards. The Los Angeles Rams now lead the league in points scored per game with quarterback Jared Goff and a series of route concepts designed by first-year head coach Sean McVay. With their 51-17 thrashing of the New York Giants, the Rams were one of two teams to hit their opponents with a 50-burger in Week 9. After Seattle's loss to Washington, the Rams now hold first place in the NFC West with a 6-2 record.

    But no team has been more successful with its young quarterback than the Philadelphia Eagles, who beat the daylights out of a usually stout Broncos defense, 51-23. Carson Wentz threw four touchdowns in this game, bringing his season total to 23. Wentz is on pace for 41 touchdowns this season. Dan Marino and Kurt Warner are the only two signal-callers in NFL history to throw 40 or more in their second seasons, according to Joe Giglio of NJ Advance Media. Wentz is one of the primary reasons why the Eagles have the NFL's best record at 8-1 and look like the league's finest team.

    It was a fascinating Sunday—both good and badand 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 else stood out to our scouts during Week 9 action.

These Ain’t Your Daddy's Saints

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    According to ESPN Stats & Info, three teams in the Super Bowl era have gone on six-game winning streaks after 0-2 starts. The first two teams, the 1993 Dallas Cowboys and 2007 New York Giants, won the Super Bowl in those seasons.

    It's still too early to put the 2017 New Orleans Saints into that Super Bowl-winner category, but they otherwise just joined the '93 Cowboys and '07 Giants by sealing their sixth straight win after an 0-2 start.

    Surprisingly, the Saints are winning as much with their running game and defense as the efforts of Drew Brees. Over the last half-decade, the Saints have wasted marvelous seasons from Brees as their rushing attacks were inconsistent, and the franchise's defenses were consistently among the league's worst.

    This season, the defense has been lights-out for the first time in years. Defensive coordinator Dennis Allen and secondary coach Aaron Glenn have New Orleans' defensive backs playing with great awareness in zone and tremendous tenacity in man coverage. The ability to pattern-read and gauge the depth of routes has been fantastic, and it all starts with rookie cornerback Marshon Lattimore.

    The Ohio State alum, who New Orleans selected with the 11th overall pick in the 2017 draft, has been a natural in coverage from the start. Many rookies are aggressive when trailing receivers, but few young cornerbacks have Lattimore's ability to peel off and not only run routes with his receivers, but jump those routes for interceptions and deflections. Through the first nine weeks of the season, no cornerback has allowed a lower opponent passer rating that Lattimore's 34.0. To put that into perspective, the base passer rating for a quarterback with one attempt and no completions is 39.6. Every quarterback who throws in Lattimore's area is basically begging for a negative rating.

    Between Lattimore and third-round running back Alvin Kamara from Tennessee, has any team gotten more out of its rookie class than the Saints? Kamara has shown the ability to run a full route tree, and he has jaw-dropping speed to and through the hole.

    It's been a long time since the Saints didn't have to rely on Brees to get everything done. Perhaps a return to the Super Bowl, the team's first since 2009, will be the result.

    — NFL1000 Lead Scout, Doug Farrar

What’s Wrong with Cam Newton?

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    Over the past four weeks of the 2017 season, no quarterback has a worse passer rating than Cam Newton.

    Not Denver's Trevor Siemian, who was benched Sunday for Brock Osweiler. Not 49ers rookie quarterback C.J. Beathard, who's been thrown into the fire behind an abysmal offensive line. Nope. It's the 2015 NFL MVP who has fallen short as a passer more than anyone else in the NFL over the last month. Over that span, Newton has completed 80 of 142 passes for 741 yards, two touchdowns and six interceptions.

    What has Newton in such a funk? You can start with the efforts of Carolina's coaching staff to tie him to the pocket moresomething head coach Ron Rivera said in January would be a priority. Rivera said he wanted to move beyond the zone-read offense, but one would hope he was aware that a ton of Newton's big plays are predicated on the threat of him as a designed runner. When you take that threat out of the equation and force Newton to win with pinpoint, snap-after-snap mechanics, it's a problem. His reads aren't always accurate when he tries to make tight-window throws against more complex coverages, which exacerbates the problem.

    Newton thrives as a passer in the free space vacated by confused and reactive defenders. When he is tethered to a pocket that frequently falls apart due to poor blocking, his mechanical issues will show up. Newton will throw with his upper body too often, falling away from the target, which affects his accuracy as it would any quarterback.

    Moreover, Newton's targets aren't catching enough of the one-on-one boundary routes he is throwing, and since tight end Greg Olsen's foot injury has deprived Newton of his most reliable receiver on intermediate timing routes, everything he throws is either a quick dump-off or has too much of an element of risk to it.

    Newton has been his team's leading rusher in each of those last four games, which is part of the problem. These are not designed runs; they're mostly scrambles in which Newton is moving to get away from pressure caused by bad blocking and routes that take too long to develop.

    The solution? If there is one, it's to take the shackles off rookie running back Christian McCaffrey. Offensive coordinator Mike Shula has struggled to use McCaffrey as the truly versatile receiver and outside runner he was at Stanford, instead preferring to run the 200-pound back up the gut far too often.

    Newton can be a franchise-defining player when he's allowed to play his game and use his mobility as an asset as opposed to a last resort. A return to that concept, and the full integration of McCaffrey into the passing game, would seem to be the two most obvious solutions to Newton's recent stint as the NFL's lowest-rated quarterback.

    — NFL1000 Lead Scout, Doug Farrar

Blake Bortles Is Playing Confidently

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    After two straight decent games, we can make the argument that Blake Bortles is OK right now. But more importantly for him and the Jacksonville Jaguars, Bortles is a confident quarterback right now. That is critical to Jacksonville turning its hot start into a playoff-type season.

    On Sunday, Bortles completed 24 of 38 passes for 259 yards and a touchdown in Jacksonville's 23-7 victory over the Cincinnati Bengals. The confidence from the quarterback is more apparent every week, and with good reason, because Jacksonville has assembled a top-notch defense and a potentially elite offense to help him.

    Entering Week 9, the Jaguars led the NFL in rushing yards per game with 169 and their defense was among the league's best, particularly against the pass. According to Football Outsiders, the Jacksonville pass defense was the best in the league through eight weeks, and the Jaguars had the top defense overall.

    That confidence translated into two big moments captured on video Sunday. First was Bortles' touchdown pass to Marqise Lee. That came on a little fade/slant combination route in the end zone on third down. Bortles anticipated the play well and the ball was coming out of his hands just as Lee made his break. The quarterback showed absolutely no hesitation—the sign of a confident quarterback.

    The other moment came late in the game, as Bortles and his head coach Doug Marrone got into a heated discussion along the sideline. It seemed to many that the quarterback wanted to punch the football into the end zone one more time. That's also the sign of confidence.

    There were some missed opportunities Sunday in the passing game, such as plays when Bortles failed to connect with Marcedes Lewis and Keelan Cole. So we can't truly elevate Bortles above "decent" at this point. However, he is surely confident, and with this running game and the Jaguars defense, that is enough right now.

    — NFL1000 QB Scout, Mark Schofield

Jay Ajayi Is Fitting in Nicely with Eagles Offense

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    The Eagles made a shrewd move at the trade deadline by nabbing running back Jay Ajayi from the Dolphins for just a fourth-round pick. The Eagles were already one of the best running teams in the NFL behind a good offensive line, but adding a dynamic back like Ajayi gives their offense another piece to work with and take pressure off of Carson Wentz.

    Ajayi fits in perfectly with the Eagles' running schemes. He's been a fantastic zone runner in Miami, and Philadelphia has plenty of zone schemes incorporated into its offense. While some backs struggle with the different angles and less vision running from the shotgun, Ajayi is perfectly capable, which gives the Eagles the option to use Wentz's mobility in some read-option packages, too.

    Ajayi's first touchdown with the Eagles came on an outside zone from the shotgun. Many teams don't run outside zone from the shotgun, because it's a long distance for the back to make up. But the Eagles have the offensive line that can block that type of run effectively. Ajayi took the handoff to the left and burst through the hole and down the sideline before diving into the end zone for a 46-yard touchdown.

    He only had eight carries against the Broncos, but as Ajayi gets acclimatized to his new team, expect those carries to increase dramatically. With LeGarrette Blount having a strong season, there's no rush for Ajayi to be great straight away. But he's a better runner than Blount and should take over the bulk of the carries once he's up to speed with the Eagles' terminology. That, in turn, will keep Blount fresh for short-yard and goal-line duties when the Eagles need a back to pick up a crucial yard or two.

    — NFL1000 RB Scout, Mark Bullock

Adrian Peterson Is Back to Being a Legit Workhorse

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    Sunday's win over the 49ers was Adrian Peterson's second 100-yard game for the Cardinals and also his second game with 25-plus carries.

    In three games since being traded to Arizona, Peterson has carried the ball 74 times for 314 yards at 4.2 yards per carry. His workload has increased drastically since leaving the Saints and he's responded well, running about as efficiently as he was in 2015, his last 1,000-yard season.

    His latest effort, 37 carries for 159 yards, isn't something seen by many running backs in today's NFL. With the evolution of the passing game, most backs don't carry the ball 20 times per game, let alone more than 30. Peterson displayed incredible stamina, especially for a 32-year-old who has missed significant time the past few seasons with various injuries and a suspension.

    What's more impressive is that he finished just as strong as he started. He regularly broke off big runs throughout the game, but he had 12 carries in the fourth quarter alone for 52 yards. He ran with his familiar jump-cutting ability, worked from gap to gap to find holes and then burst through it and powered over the first tackler to pick up extra yards.

    While Carson Palmer is sidelined with a broken arm, the Cardinals' slim hopes of staying in the playoff hunt rest upon the shoulders of Peterson. He's not quite the Adrian Peterson of old, but he's far from washed up and still capable of a significant workload going forward.  

    — NFL1000 RB Scout, Mark Bullock

Terrance Williams Saved the Cowboys Offense

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    Heading into Week 9, Dallas Cowboys wide receiver Terrance Williams have a game with 90-plus receiving yards in his previous 23 contests. He had struggled of late, catching just eight passes for 84 yards in the team's last four games. To make matters worse, his drop against the Green Bay Packers that resulted in an interception touchdown, changed the game.

    For most of the season, his impact was minimal.

    But with Dez Bryant banged up and the Cowboys playing one of the best teams in the AFC in the Kansas Chiefs, Williams had one of the best games of his career. He had nine receptions on nine targets for 141 yards on Sunday. Dak Prescott's passer rating when targeting Williams on Sunday was a ridiculous 118.9, per Pro Football Focus.    

    Williams' biggest play of the game came right before halftime, when he opened up down the field on a go-route. He hauld in a 56-yard bomb that set up a 10-yard Prescott touchdown run three plays later. Somehow, he was able to tightrope his way down the field on an impressive catch-and-run. Throughout the game, Williams made big play after big play and helped the Cowboys pull off the win, despite their rushing attack being slowed down.  

    Dallas doesn't always ask Williams to be a big part of its offense, but more often than not, he makes plays when his number is called. Williams is a limited receiver who doesn't fit every team's offense, but he makes enough plays in both the passing and running games to stay on the field. On Sunday, Williams' surprising performance helped Dallas get a big win and move to 5-3, right in the thick of things in the NFC.

    — NFL1000 WR Scout, Marcus Mosher

Bills Offensive Line Has Lost Its Top-Tier Status

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    One year after looking like one of the premier offensive lines in the league, the Bills front has struggled to make the same impact it did last season in new offensive coordinator Rick Dennison's zone scheme. And for a Bills team trying to stay in control of a playoff spot in the volatile AFC, Buffalo will need its front to play up to expectations and set the tone for the offense if it wants to hang on.

    Buffalo has gotten away from some of the gap concepts that its physical front has thrived on in the past, and the zone0based looks it deploys in the run game don't fit the current group quite as well from a stylistic perspective. That said, it seems like this was intended to be a gap year in Buffalo, and given it's the first year for this staff, the Bills haven't had a great chance to revamp the OL to better fit the scheme yet. And the fault shouldn't entirely be placed on the scheme, as the players themselves have had some lapses in performance this year.

    Positionally, the biggest year-over-year drop-offs for the Bills have both been in RAM A-Gap. Injuries have caught up with center Eric Wood, who has not been the same player this year, and after a promising sophomore year last season, right guard John Miller has been so bad he's been benched for Vlad Ducasse, who has been a liability as well.

    If the Bills want to solve their woes up front, and feel it's too late to change things up schematically, they should consider playing rookie Dion Dawkins at right guard. Not only should he fit in with what the Bills want to do better, but his play at tackle in relief of Cordy Glenn this year was encouraging enough that he deserves more reps going forward.

    — NFL1000 OL Scout, Ethan Young

Stellar Defensive Front Is Keeping Jets Alive

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    If you caught Thursday Night Football this week, you might have been shocked to learn that the New York Jets, who started the season off 0-2 and were discussed as a potential winless team, finished the night with a 4-5 record. In fact, the team is the first of this season to eclipse the season win total set by our friends in Vegas.

    In New York's last seven games, the it has finished 4-3 with a plus-18 point differential. That's with help from the Jets' 13-point Week 9 win against the AFC East rival Buffalo Bills. And one of the biggest reasons for their turnaround is their defensive front.

    Over the last two weeks against the Atlanta Falcons and Bills, the team has recorded eight sacks, not including 14 other tackles at or behind the line of scrimmage (excluding kneels). In the Jets' first six games of the season, they only managed to record ten sacks combined.

    Outside of one 52-yard run, the New York front held the Falcons' running game to 31 carries for 88 yards, an incredible number. Against Buffalo, the front held Bills running back LeSean McCoy to 12 carries for 25 yards. No defensive front is trending upward like the Jets' at the moment.

    Three players have separated themselves from the pack over the last couple weeks:

    • Star defensive lineman Muhammad Wilkerson, who went from recording just three tackles at or behind the line of scrimmage in the first six weeks of the season to four in the last two weeks.

    • Emerging star defensive lineman Leonard Williams, who had 2.5 tackles at or behind the line of scrimmage in Week 9.

    • Second-year outside linebacker Jordan Jenkins, who recorded two sacks against the Bills.

    While the odds aren't great for a 4-5 team to make the playoffs, Todd Bowles' Jets are already beating expectations and could be a frisky team down the road. They could at least derail the playoff hopes of others, like the Bills. Since starting 0-2, New York hasn't been beaten by more than a single score. Even facing a challenging second half of their schedule, this isn't the last we've heard of the Jets or their defensive line.

    — NFL1000 DL Scout, Justis Mosqueda

Mychal Kendricks Is Re-Establishing Himself as a Force for Eagles Defense

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    Players do not always take to coaching changes well. Sometimes it's personality differences. Other times, it's an issue with schematic fit. Football is such a fickle sport that previously valuable players can fade away. Such was the case with Mychal Kendricks last season.

    Kendricks was a developing young linebacker for the Philadelphia Eagles. He was a fast, energetic and versatile player. In 2016, however, the new regime of head coach Doug Pederson and defensive coordinator Jim Schwartz completely halted Kendricks' development. That is not necessarily their fault, nor is it Kendricks'. The fit just was not there and Kendricks' role in the defense dwindled.

    After another full offseason in Schwartz's scheme, Kendricks has come alive again. He plays as the third linebacker in base packages. His ability to blitz and play in coverage make him a nice piece and helps maintain good pass defense despite the team lacking a fifth defensive back on the field. Kendricks flashed his versatility and value this week versus the Denver Broncos.

    He has come on strong in coverage this season. In previous years, even at his peak, Kendricks was inconsistent in coverage. But he did a great job this week of walling off inside routes, breaking on the ball in zone coverage and maintaining his leverage to force the play elsewhere. When Broncos quarterback Brock Osweiler tried to target Kendricks, he had little success. He batted away two of Osweiler's passes Sunday and got in a QB hit on a blitz as well..

    Kendricks was all over the place on passing downs and held his own in the run game. Kendricks is not a season-changer, but for him to have reasserted himself as a functional and valuable player is great for the Eagles.

    — NFL1000 LB Scout, Derrik Klassen

What Happened to the Giants Secondary?

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    The 2016 version of the New York Giants secondary was one of the top stories of the year. The unit was as dominant as any across the league. The returning core of Janoris Jenkins, second-year corner Eli Apple, versatile Dominique Rodgers-Cromartie entering Year 2 in the slot and safety Landon Collins was augmented with Ross Cockrell as the fourth corner. Yet eight games into 2017, the unit has been disappointing, despite the immense talent.

    Jared Goff shredded the unit for a career-high 311 yards and four touchdowns on just 14 completions. That included a 67-yard wide-open bomb to Sammy Watkins, a 52-yard screen on 3rd-and-33 that went for a touchdown and 44-yard completions for both Todd Gurley and Gerald Everett. While Los Angeles Rams head coach Sean McVay has been stellar designing plays, the Giants offered no resistance as receivers ran freely.

    Unlike last season, the secondary hasn't been aided by an elite pass-rush. The Giants created 35 sacks last year and are on pace for just 26 this season. But that doesn't fully explain the mess. Jenkins and Rodgers-Cromartie have been disciplined for off-field reasons, and that lack of discipline and focus has bled onto the field.

    There was no better example of that than Watkins' deep post for a touchdown. The Giants played a Cover 4 look where Collins should have continued to carry Watkins deep as he saw Watkins take the vertical, upfield release. Rodgers-Cromartie correctly took the deep cross pattern by Cooper Kupp, but Collins was left behind as Watkins sprinted by him. These communication breakdowns have been far more frequent for the unit. They shouldn't continue, considering the four most talented players in the group played so well together last year, but they probably will. 

    — NFL1000 DB Scout, Ian Wharton