Chris Simms' Superstars of NFL Week 6
The term "superstar" gets thrown around an awful lot, but let me tell you, I know a real superstar when I see one.
When I entered my first NFL training camp with the Tampa Bay Buccaneers, I met Warren Sapp. My first thought was that he didn't look all that impressive, and I wondered what the hype was about.
Then we put pads on.
I'll say this. If the coaching staff didn't tell Sapp to take it easy in practice, we wouldn't have been able to practice. The guy was a force of nature on the football field, and he'd wreck whomever he was going up against. There were times I wasn't sure if the center would be able to get me the ball and get his hands up to attempt blocking Sapp. He was that explosive. Even if someone did get their hands on him, Sapp would win more often than not. Simply put, he was a superstar.
Now, not every player can be a future Hall of Famer the way Sapp was, but they can dominate the way Sapp often did—at least for one game.
In my superstar series, I'll be recognizing the most dominant performances of the NFL week. I won't be looking for the big names or necessarily the guys with the best statistics. Instead, I'll be looking at the guys who put superstar performances on film.
Marcus Mariota, Tennessee Titans
It might seem strange to say this about a guy who's had a lot of his success predicated on his mobility and ability to make plays with his legs, but Marcus Mariota's hamstring injury may have been a blessing in disguise. It forced the Tennessee Titans quarterback to play exclusively from the pocket in Week 6, and I believe the result was the best game of Mariota's pro career.
A big question for the Titans all season has been whether the passing game can win when the running game isn't dominating. We got our answer Monday night. It can.
Mariota was the sharpest throwing the football he's ever been. He flashed accuracy on throws like the post-corner route to Taywan Taylor for a touchdown. He showed anticipation by releasing the ball before receivers came out of their breaks—in part because he couldn't buy that extra split second with his legs. He also made quick decisions delivering the ball off play action.
Yes, Mariota threw a pick-six, but this is the NFL. Great players will make great plays. Mariota didn't make a bad decision or a bad throw. John Simon just made the right break on the ball. What's impressive is that Mariota was able to come back after the interception and still put the team on his shoulders with aggressive play.
Evan Engram, New York Giants
Tight end Evan Engram is special. With so many receivers out with injuries, the New York Giants restructured their passing game. They played more two-tight end sets against the Denver Broncos than they did at any point before. Because of Engram, the Giants were able to stretch the field out of these looks.
The Broncos really didn't have an answer for Engram, who finished with 82 yards and a touchdown. His athleticism was apparent throughout the game. He would take a shallow cross, turn up the field and use his speed to outrun linebackers and defensive backs. There aren't many tight ends capable of doing that.
Engram isn't a great run-blocker, but he isn't scared to mix it up a bit. This is important because it gives New York flexibility with him on the field.
When I watch Engram on film, he reminds me of a more talented Jordan Reed. He was the centerpiece of the Giants passing attack because of his skills, and this should be a trend moving forward. With the injuries at the receiver position, it has to.
Leonard Fournette, Jacksonville Jaguars
We'd better appreciate Jacksonville Jaguars running back Leonard Fournette while we can. With the way he runs—a brutal, punishing stye—I don't know that he's going to have a long career. The fact the Jaguars can't throw the football is only going to make it tougher on him moving forward.
Right now, though, the rookie is the best between-the-tackles running back in football.
The stats probably won't do Fournette justice this season. However, folks have to realize Fournette is consistently facing eight- and nine-man boxes. Nobody respects Blake Bortles and the Jacksonville passing game. There have been several plays where the Jaguars have had two receivers wide and defenses have still put nine men in the box and haven't even bothered to play a safety over the top.
This means Fournette's yards-per-carry average won't represent how good he is. Defenders bounce off him, he can spin away from tackles and make guys miss, and he's faster than people realize.
According to the NFL's Next Gen Stats, Fournette has had the two fastest plays in the NFL this season. The fastest was clocked at over 22 mph. That's a 228-pound running back doing it with the ball in his hand.
What we're seeing is a special, Bo Jackson-type superstar.
David DeCastro, Pittsburgh Steelers
If you're wondering why Pittsburgh Steelers running back Le'Veon Bell was able to go off on the Kansas City Chiefs, look no further than guard David DeCastro.
Not only did DeCastro dominate at the point of attack against guys like Bennie Logan and Chris Jones, but he also got out in space and punished defenders. DeCastro is the best pulling guard in the NFL. Whether he pulled to the right or the left, he was phenomenal all game long.
DeCastro's ability to adjust to guys trying to avoid blocks in space was also impressive. When Bell found room on the edge, it was often because DeCastro was kicking a defensive end or linebacker out of the play.
Pittsburgh's running game has success largely because of DeCastro. He's powerful, athletic, and he can do most things better than almost any other guard in football.
Interior offensive linemen don't often get the accolades they deserve. DeCastro should.
Fletcher Cox, Philadelphia Eagles
I'm ready to declare Philadelphia Eagles defensive tackle Fletcher Cox the best defender in football.
When Cox is healthy, he is the most unblockable, overpowering force in the game. He was a huge reason why the Carolina Panthers running backs weren't able to run the ball in Week 6. Cam Newton was Carolina's leading rusher because running up the middle against Cox was basically impossible.
More importantly, Cox heavily impacted the passing game. He dominated right guard Trai Turner and center Tyler Larsen all game. He pushed them back into Newton's face—maybe not every time he dropped back to pass, but three out of every four. Newton was errant on throws, was hurried or wasn't able to step into throws frequently. Every time was because of Cox.
Cox only ended up with a half sack, but he was responsible for other guys getting sacks and pressures by commanding so much attention. He's one of the biggest reasons why the Eagles stole a win in Carolina.
Malcom Brown, New England Patriots
New England Patriots defensive tackle Malcom Brown got a sack against the New York Jets, which is great. However, I was more impressed by his overall performance in a tough position. Brown is playing as a nose tackle for the Patriots.
Brown was asked to two-gap on almost every play, which is difficult—especially for a guy who doesn't have a ton of experience playing nose. He hasn't been asked to play the position a lot because New England usually relies on Alan Branch. However, Branch hasn't been as good this year, and the Patriots have put Brown there.
The biggest reason the Jets weren't able to get their running game off the ground was Brown. He had his way with center Wesley Johnson, and he didn't allow any running room in the interior. While Brown only finished with four tackles, he put a stop to several additional running plays by forcing the back to reroute.
Brown made a mess of things all game. He consistently threw away blockers and jumped into running lanes before the New York backs could get there. Because of this, New England was able to force the Jets to go pass-heavy, which led to some critical mistakes.
Damon Harrison, New York Giants
Giants defensive tackle Damon Harrison put a stop to the Denver Broncos running game, which has been good all year. Denver has pushed around everyone it's played in the running game this season—that is until it faced New York.
The Broncos couldn't run the ball a lick against the Giants, and it was because Harrison ruined Denver's game plan. The Broncos couldn't move him. He was throwing people off him left and right and erasing running lanes that would have been there against any other defensive line.
Harrison also got a sack. It was a bit of a coverage sack, but he still ran over his blocker in order to get to Trevor Siemian and bring him down.
Guys like Harrison aren't always sexy, but they can certainly change the course of a game. That's exactly what Harrison did in Week 6.
Vince Williams, Pittsburgh Steelers
Steelers linebacker Vince Williams is the overshadowed guy on the defense, but he's a tremendous player. He was awesome against the Chiefs in Week 6.
Williams finished the game with four tackles, but his two sacks were difference-makers. He dominated Kareem Hunt in pass protection, actually running him over on one sack.
Williams and Ryan Shazier are the stars in the middle of the Pittsburgh defense. If you follow me at all, you know I love Shazier's game and what he brings to the table. Williams isn't far behind him, though, with his ability to play sideline to sideline and not let guys like Hunt cut upfield.
When Alex Smith tried to scramble, he often found Williams waiting in his path. Getting Hunt or Smith to the outside on runs is a big part of what the Chiefs want to do on offense. Williams often took that option away.
In addition, Williams did a great job of taking on lead blockers and plugging interior lanes. This was one of his best games all season.
Darron Lee, New York Jets
Jets linebacker Darron Lee does a lot of things that go underappreciated. He's an athletic defender who is great from sideline to sideline.
Against the Patriots, Lee did a hell of a job taking away underneath passes to guys like James White and Danny Amendola. He was often there to ensure they weren't able to break big plays after the catch.
More importantly, though, Lee matched up with tight end Rob Gronkowski one-on-one and limited him. The ability to cover Gronk was one of the reasons why New York drafted Lee in the first place.
Now, Gronkowski still had a huge day, but he only beat Lee on one reception. Lee was all over Gronkowski on a seam route, but Tom Brady gave his guy a chance. Gronk went over Lee and made a terrific catch. That's going to happen. He's the greatest tight end we've ever seen.
Most of the time, though, Lee was winning his one-on-one battles with Gronkowski. He broke up a pass in the end zone when targeted in man coverage, and he forced Brady to throw the ball into the ground on one critical third down. Gronk ran an out route early in the game, but Lee was in position to make a play. Had Brady thrown an on-target ball, it would have been picked off.
One of the biggest plays of the day came when Lee forced a fumble by Mike Gillislee. The Patriots were driving early, but Lee put a stop to it. The Jets answered with a scoring drive to take a 14-0 lead.
Cameron Jordan, New Orleans Saints
Defensive end Cameron Jordan was too much of a vital part of the New Orleans Saints' defensive performance to ignore in Week 6. He was a major reason why the Saints beat the Detroit Lions.
Yes, he had two sacks. You know what else he did? He did a tremendous job of batting a pass out of the air and grabbing it for an interception and pick-sick. Yeah. A defensive end pick-six. That happened.
Jordan was also responsible for another interception later in the game that was snagged by safety Kenny Vaccaro. With the Lions nearing the red zone, Matthew Stafford tried to find Theo Riddick coming across the middle. Jordan was sitting there waiting for him. Riddick saw him, got scared and bobbled the ball when it came to him. The ball went off Jordan's helmet and into the waiting arms of Vaccaro.
Jordan could be on this list a lot of weeks because he's one of the best—and most underrated—defenders in football. I can't possibly keep you off when you have two sacks, get a pick-six and force another interception because of your ability to drop out and play zone coverage.
Jay Ajayi, Miami Dolphins
As is the case with Fournette, I'm not sure how lengthy of a career Miami Dolphins running back Jay Ajayi can have. He's another violent, physical runner who initiates a ton of contact.
Ajayi was the reason why the Dolphins beat the Atlanta Falcons. Even though Miami got down early, it stayed patient with the ground game because Ajayi ran like an absolute wild man.
He finished the game with 130 yards on 26 carries. His long was 18, which should tell you the kind of running he was doing. This wasn't a game full of breakaway runs. It was a game in which Ajayi consistently punished the defense with five- and six-yard bursts.
One thing that often gets overlooked with Ajayi is his speed. Yes, he's running through decent holes, but he has the quickness to hit the hole before it closes. There are multiple times each and every week where a similar hole is open but closes before a lesser back can get through it. Remember, the Falcons have one of the fastest defenses in football, so those holes closed quickly.
With an offense that often struggles to move the ball through the air, the Dolphins need Ajayi to continue to carry the load like he did in Atlanta.