NFL1000: Doug Farrar's Week 4 QB Rankings
Week 3 of the 2017 NFL season started out with atypical quarterback performances; a Thursday night shootout between Jared Goff and Brian Hoyer wasn't expected, nor was a Sunday morning game in London in which Blake Bortles torched Baltimore's excellent defense with four touchdown passes and Joe Flacco looked like a high-schooler. On Sunday night, the Pro Bowl version of Kirk Cousins returned, while Oakland's Derek Carr turned into a pumpkin against a Washington defense that is suddenly amazing.
Russell Wilson shook off his own inconsistencies and previous abysmal performances to start the year to set a career high in passing yards, and on Monday night, both Carson Palmer and Dak Prescott got back on good footing after disappointing Week 2 performances—Prescott with a return to the read-option and play-action plays that have made him so effective, and Palmer by running an offense he probably hasn't seen since his days in Cincinnati. Meanwhile, Houston's Deshaun Watson showed, even in a loss, that the Texans may just have their franchise quarterback.
Among the usually great performances by the likes of Tom Brady, Drew Brees and Aaron Rodgers, there were more than a few surprises in Week 3, and they all factored into this week's NFL1000 quarterback rankings. There's been movement from the Week 3 rankings, which you can see here.
Our weekly quarterback rankings are decided and written by NFL1000 Lead Scout Doug Farrar and Quarterbacks Scout Mark Schofield. Doug evaluates all NFC quarterbacks, and Mark does the same with all AFC quarterbacks.
Doug and Mark combine tape analysis and advanced metrics to give you a sense of which quarterbacks are trending up, which are trending down and which are better or worse than their reputations might imply.
The rankings are based on recent performance, of course, but we're also adjusting for opponent, factoring in the talent around the quarterback and considering the player's history over the last few years.
Good news for some, bad news for others. Here are the NFL1000 quarterback rankings in anticipation of Week 4 of the NFL season.
32. Mike Glennon, Chicago Bears
Last Week: 29
The Bears rushed 38 times for 220 yards and two touchdowns in a 23-17 win over the Steelers on Sunday. They did this in part because in Jordan Howard and Tarik Cohen, they have two of the NFL's most consistently explosive weapons in the ground game. They also did this because if the Bears want to win games at this point, they have to hide Mike Glennon as much as possible.
Glennon didn't have what you'd call an abysmal game—15 completions in 22 attempts for 101 yards, a touchdown and an interception—but once again, he showed that even at his best, he severely limits any offense. Glennon missed short passes throwing late into double coverage; he was wildly high on bailout throws under pressure because he didn't set his feet and throw from a comfortable base when he left the pocket; and he doesn't have the arm talent of an Aaron Rodgers or Matthew Stafford to overcome that.
As you may have read before in this space, Glennon's primary liability is that it takes him too long to do everything. He's a slow reader across the field, and that's something his coaches can scheme around. However, he's also slow to react to pressure and changing routes; even his body adjustments out of play action take too long, leading to more inaccuracies. And with the tight-window throws required of NFL quarterbacks, that's a big problem.
Bears coaches gave Glennon mostly short reads and throws so as not to muddy his overall picture, and the deep passes didn't really work. He just missed Markus Wheaton on a couple of deep balls, but in the NFL, missing repeatedly by a couple inches is the same as missing by a mile.
The Bears have a short week to prepare for the Packers defense on Thursday night, and they then face Minnesota, Baltimore and Carolina in their next three games. That's Mike Glennon against three of the league's best pass defenses. If he doesn't somehow ramp up his reaction time to…well, everything, John Fox and his coaching staff would be wise to consider giving rookie Mitchell Trubisky the starting job. The rematch against the Packers after a Week 9 bye would be an especially good time to give that a shot. Glennon is simply too limited to give his team a consistent chance to win.
31. DeShone Kizer, Cleveland Browns
Last Week: 27
It has begun. Can you hear it? The calls for changes out in Cleveland, whether regarding head coach Hue Jackson or quarterback DeShone Kizer. After the rookie quarterback threw three interceptions in the Browns' 31-28 loss to Indianapolis, some are wondering if the team should look to the next crop of QBs to address the position in the upcoming draft.
Kizer struggled at times on Sunday, completing 22 of 47 passes for 242 yards and a pair of touchdowns to go with those interceptions. All of the miscues came in the second half when Cleveland was clawing back into the game, with the first coming in the red zone when the Browns were in position to cut it to a one-score game, and the second coming on a shot play from midfield. On both passes, Kizer's throw was behind the receiver, leading to the turnover. The third and final INT came on a Hail Mary near midfield as time expired. But on the first, the placement issues were apparent, and Kizer will need to fix those going forward. He also dodged a bullet earlier in the game, when he was setting up a running back screen and flipped the ball directly to a defensive lineman, and thankfully for the Browns the ball was tipped around before it was secured by an offensive lineman to avoid the turnover.
Something else to consider about this offense is the pre-snap offensive structure. Jackson is known as an offensive genius, and on one of Kizer's biggest plays of the game the offense lined up in their spread, "Chaos" formation, and the rookie was able to hit a vertical route downfield for a big play, dropping a touch throw into the bucket. But on the overwhelming majority of his 47 passing attempts, the Browns did not use any pre-snap movement, shifting or motion. In some instances, such as hurry-up situations, that is understandable, given the need to conserve time. But with an inexperienced quarterback and a young group of receivers, using motion can help the QB identify coverage looks, and it can give the receivers some more advantageous situations at the snap. I am curious to watch Cleveland going forward to see if they incorporate motion into the offensive play structure more.
As for Kizer, we are seeing some of the rookie bumps that are to be expected given the inexperience on this roster. Now is certainly not the time to panic, but if this is going to be the norm from him and this offense, then perhaps panic will set in soon.
30. Brian Hoyer, San Francisco 49ers
Last Week: 32
When evaluating quarterbacks, the mysterious part of that evaluation is trying to discern the yards and plays and touchdowns certain signal-callers leave on the field through their own lack of upper-tier talent and the conservatism of their play-callers. This has been a primary issue with Brian Hoyer in San Francisco's offense this season.
Against the Rams on Thursday night in a 41-39 shootout, 49ers head coach Kyle Shanahan had no choice but to take off the training wheels to his passing game and let Hoyer push the ball downfield to a point. He completed two of three deep balls for 109 yards—part of his 23 completions in 37 attempts for 332 yards, two touchdowns and one interception.
Hoyer does have the capacity to throw downfield, and his 50-yard completion to Marquise Goodwin was a good example. Hoyer and Goodwin have been missing on deep completions this season, but this was a great play in design and execution. Shanahan revealed the coverage with pre-snap motion, as is his wont, and Goodwin flew through Los Angeles' zone coverage. It appeared that he was double-covered downfield, but Goodwin held up as the ball was coming down and beat his two defenders for the catch.
Hoyer also hit Pierre Garcon for 59 yards on a deep sideline route in the fourth quarter, and he showed the accuracy and velocity to get the ball past cornerback Trumaine Johnson and into Garcon's hands. Johnson is one of the better cornerbacks in the league, so this was no mean feat.
Hoyer probably isn't the 49ers' quarterback of the future, but when he's given a chance, he's shown that he can make the occasional big play within structure. It's time for his coaching staff to let him do it more often.
29. Josh McCown, New York Jets
Last Week: 28
In the words of Rodney Dangerfield, Josh McCown might be wondering what a guy has to do to get a little respect around here. After I spent time questioning the Jets offense the past two weeks—and whether McCown could push the ball downfield in the passing game—McCown completed 18 of 23 passes for 249 yards and a touchdown, with the scoring play coming on a 69-yard vertical strike to Robby Anderson. This was one of many plays that helped the Jets earn a victory in their home opener over the Miami Dolphins, 20-6.
On the day, McCown looked comfortable in the pocket and in the passing game. In addition to the pass to Anderson, McCown hit a number of big throws in the downfield attack, including two Bang 8 post routes on New York's first scoring drive. Those two throws displayed not just good velocity, but also a great deal of anticipation as McCown got the football out of his hands on time, in rhythm and with good placement. In addition, similar to last week, he showed the ability to keep some plays alive with his legs, as he slid around in the pocket on a few snaps and extended plays in the scramble drill.
We'll need to see more performances like this from McCown and the Jets before we start to buy in, but they were clearly the better team Sunday. Some of the offensive success against the Dolphins may have been because of their ability to stay on script, given that they never trailed in the game and therefore could run their entire playbook. If we start to see McCown making throws like these when the Jets are trailing, and everyone knows they need to pass? Well, then I'll really need to eat some crow.
28. Case Keenum, Minnesota Vikings
Last Week: 31
Last week against the Pittsburgh Steelers, Minnesota Vikings backup quarterback Case Keenum completed just two of seven deep passes he attempted for 48 yards in a 26-9 loss. As Keenum has never been known to have a great deep arm, you might expect a more conservative game plan against the Buccaneers with Sam Bradford still injured.
Offensive coordinator Pat Shurmur wasn't going to shy away from a full passing game, though, and the difference was apparent last Sunday. The Vikings beat the Bucs 34-17, and Keenum completed three of five deep balls for 109 yards and a touchdown. Keenum completed 25 of 33 passes for 369 yards, three touchdowns and no picks—a remarkable day for a journeyman—but it was the deep ball that really made the difference.
On Minnesota's first drive and with a ton of time in the pocket, Keenum caught Adam Thielen down the left side of the field with Tampa Bay cornerback Vernon Hargreaves III for a 45-yard gain. Hargreaves was actually closing in on Thielen at the end of the throw, which would tend to mean Keenum could have put more velocity on it, but Thielen gave it an extra boost and brought the ball in.
His play-action deep throw to Diggs over the middle with 2:45 left in the first half was even more impressive. Diggs ran a deep post with cornerback Ryan Smith covering. The safety to Smith's side came down to cover a crossing route, so Keenum had to put the ball where Diggs could get it, trusting that he'd run past Smith. Keenum put impressive touch on the ball, and the velocity was perfect.
If Keenum can keep this up—and he'll need the same types of impressive performances from his offensive line and receivers—the Vikings will have dodged a major bullet with the Bradford injury and his uncertain timeline.
27. Jacoby Brissett, Indianapolis Colts
Last Week: 26
In a battle of two young quarterbacks, second-year signal-caller Jacoby Brissett emerged victorious over rookie DeShone Kizer and the Cleveland Browns. After making a critical mistake in overtime that led directly to the Colts losing their home opener to the Arizona Cardinals, Brissett turned in an error-free afternoon, completing 17 of 24 passes for 259 yards and a touchdown while adding two more scores on the ground. That effort helped Indianapolis get out to a big lead early and salt it away down the stretch.
Brissett seemed to be operating with an expanded playbook and a more varied number of offensive concepts this week. What stood out was his ability in the pocket to keep plays alive, whether using play strength to shrug off would-be sacks or sliding around to extend plays. His first touchdown came on what looked like a designed quarterback draw, where he showed a pump fake to sell the second- and third-level defenders on the pass before he tucked the ball and attacked the line of scrimmage. The second scoring scamper was a more athletic play, and it came when the Browns had a free shot at him in the backfield. Using a spin move, Brissett was able to free himself, evade the sack and then accelerate into the end zone.
Brissett's first touchdown pass as a pro came later in the game and was a result of good velocity and placement when he hit T.Y. Hilton on a deep out route as part of a Sail concept. The good throw put Hilton in position to pick up yardage after the catch, and that's exactly what he did en route to the touchdown.
One thing that continues to impress is the timing and anticipation Brissett shows on many throws. A prime example of this came on a 3rd-and-7 play early in the 3rd quarter, when the Colts were backed up in their own end. Brissett threw a post route where the ball came out well before the break and was on the receiver as he turned and accelerated to the post. Throws like that will keep this offense on schedule and moving as it looks to stay afloat without its starting QB, while Brissett will also find himself climbing these rankings.
26. Joe Flacco, Baltimore Ravens
Last Week: 14
In true British fashion, Joe Flacco would be wise to keep a stiff upper lip and simply move on from the performance he and the Baltimore Ravens put on display on the other side of the pond.
Both quarterback and team truly struggled on Sunday against the Jacksonville Jaguars, losing in a blowout. Flacco completed only eight of 18 passes for a dismal 28 yards, and he threw two interceptions. His first completion did not come until early in the second quarter, which drew a rousing cheer from the crowd. The two interceptions were a mix of bad luck, poor decision-making and great defense. The first came on a vertical route to Jeremy Maclin that was actually placed well, but Maclin could not secure the pass as he was falling to the turf, and the football bounced around before it was intercepted. The second came on a backside post route that Flacco tried to fit into a narrow window between the cornerback and the safety, but the pass was behind Mike Wallace and Jalen Ramsey made an incredible diving interception for the turnover. What did not help matters on that play was Flacco staring down the route, leading everyone in Wembley Stadium to the eventual target. Soon, John Harbaugh had seen enough and the Ravens turned to Ryan Mallett.
The performance calls into question the state of Flacco and this Ravens offense. After Flacco played a minimal role in their Week 1 victory over the Bengals, the coaching staff seemed to involve him more in the game plan last week against the Browns. Now, it could be that the Jaguars defense is a much tougher unit than people give them credit for, and the pressure they can put on opposing passers is something to watch as the season progresses. However, Flacco seemed off the entire time he was in the game, and whether this was just a one-off or a sign of where we really are with the Ravens offense remains to be seen.
25. Deshaun Watson, Houston Texans
Last Week: 30
In the wake of the Houston Texans' victory over the Cincinnati Bengals last Thursday in Watson's first professional start, a lot of discussion centered upon the eyes of the rookie quarterback. Watson attempted a number of dangerous throws against the Bengals where he simply bird-dogged the routes, locking his eyes on his primary read and allowing defenders to react to his movements. This highlighted a concern many had with Watson predraft, and those worries seemed to be coming to fruition.
On Sunday in Foxboro, Watson's eyes were in contention for the best body part on the field: losing out to perhaps his legs, or the right arm of Tom Brady at the end.
While Watson did throw two interceptions (the second coming on a Hail Mary at the end of the game), his ability to extend plays and find receivers in scramble-drill situations was very apparent. On his first interception, Watson again stared down his primary read, allowing Stephon Gilmore to read those eyes and undercut the route for the turnover. But on a number of other throws, Watson was able to work full-field progressions and even influence second- and third-level defenders with his field of vision. Prime examples include a throw to D'Onta Foreman in the flat, where he opened to his right before coming back to the left and drilling in a throw with good velocity, as well as his second touchdown pass, where he started left to move the safety and then threw a seam to his tight end's back shoulder for the score. That throw got Dan Fouts' attention in the booth, and it certainly got mine.
Then there were the plays where Watson showed the magic in the pocket, such as the scramble-drill flip to Foreman in the fourth quarter where all four pass-rushers had a shot at the quarterback. Watson was able to stay upright, keep the play alive, find his running back in the flat and get him the ball for a big gain. Or the cross-body throw he made rolling to his left where he somehow found Ryan Griffin all the way on the opposite sideline for a big gain. Those types of plays are so difficult to contain and impossible to draw up a scheme to prevent.
In the end, Watson and the Texans lost. But we all learned something about the rookie quarterback on this day—something very good.
24. Jay Cutler, Miami Dolphins
Last Week: 15
Against the New York Jets, the Miami Dolphins looked like a collection of players already on the flight to London for next week's tilt against the New Orleans Saints. The offense struggled the entire game and did not get on the board until the final seconds with a garbage-time touchdown pass from Jay Cutler to DeVante Parker. The unit performed so poorly on Sunday that head coach Adam Gase suggested changes on that side of the ball were entirely possible Monday.
For his part, Cutler completed 26 of 44 passes for 220 yards and the late touchdown, with one interception as well. Like his teammates, the veteran quarterback seemed off the entire day. A prime example was on a four-play stretch early in the fourth quarter, when the Dolphins faced a 1st-and-10 at the Jets' 21-yard line. On first down Miami ran a four verticals concept, and the quarterback not only overthrew one of the outside vertical routes, he missed a wide-open seam route from a slot receiver that could have been six points. On second down, he tried to throw a stick route to the inside trips receiver, but the pass was behind his intended target and fell incomplete. Trailing by 20, the Dolphins turned the football over on downs and Cutler was a big reason why.
On Cutler's interception, he was pressured off the edges but initially did a good job of avoiding it and climbing the pocket to keep the play alive. From there, however, he tried a late throw down the middle to a well-covered receiver and threw right to Terrence Brooks, hitting the defensive back between the 2 and the 3 on his jersey.
Cutler and the Dolphins now get to travel across the pond to take on a Saints defense that seemed to settle down in Week 3 after two poor performances. On the other side of the Atlantic, we're going to get an answer to which unit's performance was more in line with their true self: The Saints defense or Jay Cutler and this offensive group.
23. Cam Newton, Carolina Panthers
Last Week: 17
Newton had one of the worst games of his NFL career in Sunday's 34-13 loss to the New Orleans Saints. Not only did he allow a usually porous defense to light him up for three interceptions, he also failed to throw a touchdown pass and had serious issues reading basic coverages. Carolina's coaching staff seemed to be hiding Newton's comparative lack of velocity with the game plan—against one of the worst pass defenses in the NFL, most of his passes were low-risk stuff underneath coverage to running back Christian McCaffrey. Newton threw three deep passes in the game, completing one for 37 yards to McCaffrey in the third quarter off a switch-release concept to the left side.
Two of his three interceptions were based on Newton's inability to read basic coverages and disguises, which is the most alarming part of the story. The first pick came when he tried to hit Devin Funchess on an in cut as part of a route combo, oblivious to cornerback P.J. Williams having the route sussed out. McCaffrey was at fault for the second interception, as he let a ball go right out of his hands to safety Marcus Williams.
The third pick came with the Saints in man coverage against Carolina's trips right formation, and safety Kenny Vaccaro did a brilliant job of disguising his robber coverage responsibility from the defensive left side out of a two-deep shell. Vaccaro delayed his jump to the ball until after Newton had committed to targeting Funchess and got the turnover.
Newton is without tight end Greg Olsen, and Kelvin Benjamin was nicked up late in the first quarter, but the picks weren't really the fault of a diminished receiver group. Carolina's offensive line is a serious problem, especially left tackle Matt Kalil, but none of Newton's picks came off serious pressure.
Mechanically, Newton is pushing the ball more than he should. He's falling away from throws when he should be maintaining a solid lower-body base, and that's why he keeps missing his receivers high on intermediate and deep throws. It's unknown to the general public just how much this all has to do with his recovery from offseason shoulder surgery, but right now, Cam Newton does not remotely resemble the 2015 NFL MVP. At this point, he's more a hindrance than a help to his own offense.
22. Jared Goff, Los Angeles Rams
Last Week: 21
We're only three weeks in, but so far, the coaching and play-design job Sean McVay has done with the Los Angeles Rams is the biggest story of the 2017 season. And the effect it's had on Jared Goff has been remarkable. We all know how bad Goff was last season in a system that gave him few easy openings and no protection, but the transformation is almost historical—I can't remember the last time I saw a quarterback progress this quickly between his first and second seasons.
Goff was highly effective against the 49ers last Thursday, completing 22 of 28 passes for 292 yards, three touchdowns and no interceptions against a pretty good secondary and an above-average pass rush in a 41-39 win. Usually, when a young quarterback has stats like that, you're expecting a lot of low-risk throws, but Goff wasn't afraid to test San Francisco deep. He attempted four passes of 20 or more air yards and completed three for 99 yards.
Goff made a 47-yard pass to Sammy Watkins early in the third quarter that was all air yards. Watkins went up the numbers to the left side against a cornerback and converging safety in San Francisco's single-high coverage, and though he had Robert Woods open underneath on an intermediate crosser, Goff stuck with the more difficult throw and got the ball past both defenders. Goff's touchdown to Watkins late in the third quarter came off a double-slant pattern that left Watkins open underneath. It was a great example of play-calling, but Goff still had to fit the ball in there. But the genius of McVay, and how he presents a clear picture to his quarterback, was exemplified on the previous play. Todd Gurley plunged into the line for no gain, but Watkins and fellow receiver Cooper Kupp ran the same slant combination to the same side so that Goff would know how the 49ers reacted.
You'll see few better examples of the truism that players need good coaching to help them succeed, and Goff's confidence and acuity grows every week.
21. Andy Dalton, Cincinnati Bengals
Last Week: 25
Storm clouds were circling Cincinnati last week. In the wake of the Bengals' embarrassing 13-9 loss to the Houston Texans on Thursday night, and the offense's failure to get the ball in the end zone for the second-straight week, those clouds opened up over offensive coordinator Ken Zampese. Quarterbacks coach Bill Lazor took over the position after Zampese was let go, and early in Cincinnati's tilt against the Green Bay Packers it seemed like Lazor had the offense back on track. Andy Dalton and the rest of the unit looked on point and notched their first offensive touchdown of 2017 on a 10-play, 79-yard drive that culminated with Dalton drilling a post route into A.J. Green.
They added their second offensive touchdown later in the game on a well-designed crossing/drive concept that confused the second- and third-level defenders and freed up running back Giovani Bernard on a shallow crossing route. Dalton hit him in stride, and the Bengals were up 21-0 early.
But from there, the offense began to sputter. On their final seven drives, including their only overtime possession, five ended in punts and two culminated in field-goal attempts, with one missed (a kneeldown at the end of regulation is not counted in those seven drives). After his hot start, Dalton cooled slightly and finished the day completing 21 of 27 passes for 212 yards and the two scores, but the offense could not put up enough points to hold off the Packers in OT. Potentially the biggest play of the game came late in the fourth quarter on a 1st-and-10 at the Green Bay 36-yard line. The Bengals tried a play-action pass, and Brandon LaFell was running free on a vertical route with a few steps on the nearest defender. Dalton took a shot but overthrew his target, and the Bengals would eventually settle for three points on the drive to set up Aaron Rodgers' heroics.
So while there were early signs of life, Cincinnati remains winless and tied with the Cleveland Browns at the bottom of the division. Perhaps Dalton and the offense took a few steps forward this week, but they'll need to turn those steps into victories quickly before the window closes on their 2017 season.
20. Dak Prescott, Dallas Cowboys
Last Week: 18
Dallas' offense was atypically muted in the team's 42-17 loss to the Broncos in Week 2, and with a subpar effort from his offensive line and a disappearing act from Ezekiel Elliot, Dak Prescott was left without the two things that make his passing game go. Prescott is at his best when defenses are forced to choose between his passing and Elliott's running in the play-action game, and between his and Elliott's running in the read-option plays that pepper Dallas' offensive playbooks.
It took a while for the Cowboys offense to get going, but when it did, Prescott looked like his old self. His numbers weren't amazing—he completed 13-of-18 passes for 183 yards—but he did throw two touchdown passes, and he did not turn the ball over after throwing two picks against Denver last season. He also ran for Dallas' first touchdown after faking the handoff to Elliott out of the Pistol formation, and the Cardinals defense bit on that enough for Prescott to motor outside for the 10-yard score.
As a passer, Prescott was on the move with a lot of Scott Linehan's boot-action concepts, and he's always been very accurate when on the move. He rolled right out of pressure and threaded the needle on a beautiful 37-yard pass to Brice Butler in the end zone, and according to NFL NextGen Stats, he went three of three for 112 yards and a touchdown to the deep right parts of the field.
This wasn't an epic performance or a statistical marvel, but it got Prescott and the Cowboys back on track in the ways they're used to playing. As long as they lead with the run to set up the pass, and keep the pocket moving from their quarterback, they should be in good shape.
19. Carson Wentz, Philadelphia Eagles
Last Week: 16
Wentz helped his team to a 27-24 Week 3 win over the Giants by being efficient and mistake-proof, but he wasn't responsible for any explosive plays, either. Head coach Doug Pederson was content to let his newly effective run game take the day, as the Eagles amassed 193 rushing yards and two touchdowns on 39 carries. This left Wentz to manage the game, to use the cliche, which he did—21 completions in 31 attempts for 176 yards and a touchdown. In truth, this balance between run and pass was always Pederson's plan for Wentz in his second season.
His lone touchdown pass was to tight end Zach Ertz, a three-yarder in which Ertz did most of the work, motioning from left to right and working his way through New York's coverage. Wentz did try a deep pass to Alshon Jeffery in the third quarter out of play action—he had to wait for the route to develop, ran to his right to get out of pressure and threw a floater up in the air that cornerback Eli Apple should have intercepted. Instead, Apple was busted for pass interference, and the result was a 41-yard penalty.
The Eagles moved to 2-1 with the win, and that Wentz spent most of his day throwing shorter passes to his receivers as the run game took over shouldn't bother anybody. Wentz has proven that he can handle a disproportionate workload pretty well. The hope for the Eagles is that now he'll be able to ply his trade in a more balanced and effective offense.
18. Carson Palmer, Arizona Cardinals
Last Week: 22
Through the first two weeks of the season, Arizona Cardinals head coach Brice Arians tried to employ his usual vertical passing concepts. But with Carson Palmer's declining arm strength and an offensive line that couldn't protect him long enough for those routes to develop, the result was a stilted and inconsistent passing game that benefited nobody, especially when running back David Johnson was injured.
Arizona's game plan was very different against the Dallas Cowboys on Monday night. Instead of Air Coryell, Arians went with more of a West Coast offense plan—short passes to the backs, route concepts designed for easier openings to Palmer's front side and getting Palmer on the move as much as possible to avoid pressure.
It worked like a charm to start the game—Palmer completed his first 11 passes, and receiver Jaron Brown scored a touchdown on a nice vertical route. But the Cowboys had their own adjustments; defensive coordinator Rod Marinelli employed more base nickel and dime defenses to cover the field, and because end DeMarcus Lawrence was eating the right side of Arizona's offensive line alive, Marinelli didn't have to use extra defenders to blitz. Palmer got muddier pictures and more pressure, and the offense started to sputter.
Palmer missed several deep sideline throws because the balls were thrown to spots that forced the receivers out of bounds, and were it not for a couple of seriously impressive catches by the ageless Larry Fitzgerald, the score would not have been as close as the 28-17 final indicated.
Still, Arians should endeavor to stick with the short passing game. The Cardinals don't have a coherent rushing attack without Johnson, and Palmer isn't mobile enough to evade pressure on a consistent basis to make those deep throws on time and on target. Palmer did complete 29 of 48 passes for 325 yards, two touchdowns and no interceptions, so the risk-averse plan can work over time. Arians is fond of saying "No risk-it, no biscuit" when it comes to his passing game, but his quarterback isn't quite up to that strategy.
17. Trevor Siemian, Denver Broncos
Last Week: 12
After a promising 2-0 start to the season, Trevor Siemian and the Denver Broncos came back a bit to earth on Sunday, falling on the road 26-16 to the Buffalo Bills. For his part, Siemian completed 24 of 40 passes for 259 yards and made some decent throws on the afternoon, but he threw two critical interceptions that turned the course of the game and highlighted some concerns about him and the offense going forward.
The first came with just over five minutes remaining in the third quarter and the Broncos facing a 2nd-and-23 trailing by four. Siemian dropped into the pocket and looked to throw to a two-man spot concept on the right side of the field. With the routes covered and pressure coming off the left side, he slid to his right to buy some time. But as the right edge started to collapse, rather than throwing it away and living for third down, he slid back to his left and looked to a Mills concept, with a post/dig combination. Siemian tried a risky throw late over the middle in the direction of the post route, but he couldn't get enough on the throw and E.J. Gaines undercut it.
Later in the game, Siemian made another critical mistake. Facing a 1st-and-10 at the Buffalo 24 and trailing by seven, Siemian tried a play-action rollout to the right. Facing quick pressure off the edge, he retreated to nearly the 40-yard line and floated a pass toward the right sideline that was intercepted. This mirrored a play from the first half on the same design, when Siemian also backed up and held onto the ball. On that occasion, Siemian was able to get the ball to the sideline for the throw away, but his failure to do so later cost the Broncos dearly.
These mistakes bring into focus a concern about the Broncos: Is Siemian a quarterback they can win with, or win because of? For the first two weeks, it seemed like it was the latter, but on this Sunday the former became more of an enticing option.
16. Eli Manning, New York Giants
Last Week: 24
In the first half of the Giants' Week 3 game against the Eagles, it looked as if it would be more of the same for Eli Manning—bad protection, reductive route concepts and receivers who weren't in sync with their quarterback. New York's offense has been disastrous under head coach Ben McAdoo all season, and there was talk McAdoo might give up play-calling responsibilities. That didn't happen, and in the second half, Manning and Odell Beckham Jr. pulled their coach out of the fire.
Manning completed 15 of 20 passes for 115 yards and an interception in the game's first 30 minutes, and wound up with 35 completions in 42 attempts for 366 yards, three second-half touchdowns and another pick. Beckham was his primary read on two touchdowns—on the first, Beckham abused Eagles cornerback Rasul Douglas on a quick angle route, and on the second, he got past cornerback Jalen Mills to the left side of the end zone.
Beckham is probably the toughest receiver in the NFL to cover consistently, but he can't make up for the rest of the offense, nor can he camouflage Manning's limitations. The 36-year-old's first pick of the day came on a deep ball thrown down the left side to Brandon Marshall where Douglas got inside position, and Marshall didn't really fight for it. The second pick came on a telegraphed read to Beckham on a curl/flat route combination with Sterling Shepard. Beckham ran the curl, but linebacker Mychal Kendricks tipped the ball, and cornerback Patrick Robinson came down with it.
Despite Manning's second-half stats, the Giants lost a close game to the Eagles and now stand at 0-3. It's hard to imagine their offense being any more dynamic than it is at this point, and that's as much on Manning as it is on anyone else.
15. Jameis Winston, Tampa Bay Buccaneers
Last Week: 10
Throughout Jameis Winston's career, his obvious talent has been blocked at times by a rogue gene that will have him throwing into impossibly tight windows because he thinks he can make those throws, while bad reads that lead to bizarre turnovers are an occasional issue. This was the case on Sunday, as the Buccaneers suffered a 34-17 loss to the Vikings in which Winston threw three interceptions.
Not that everything was his fault. On the first, it appeared receiver DeSean Jackson had cornerback Trae Waynes beat on a vertical drive route, but Waynes made an impressive recovery. This was where Winston could have helped his receiver by putting more on the ball, but the timing was off.
The second pick was odd and an obvious miscommunication—Winston was expecting Jackson to run a full shallow cross from left to right, but Jackson cut the route upfield, and Winston threw where he expected his receiver to be. That was an easy pick for safety Andrew Sendejo. Then, he tried to hit Mike Evans as he was running half-speed into triple coverage, and safety Harrison Smith had the advantage on that one.
Winston did throw a deep touchdown to Jackson in the right side of the end zone as Jackson jumped up for the ball, and he hit tight end Cameron Brate on a little circle route for another touchdown. But Brate had to make an amazing catch earlier in the game when Winston was being taken down for a sack and decided to throw the ball up anyway.
Yes, Winston is talented, but that rogue gene is still there, and it might not go away anytime soon.
14. Blake Bortles, Jacksonville Jaguars
Last Week: 23
Around 11 a.m. ET on Sunday morning, Twitter timelines were full of the same joke: "Man, maybe the Jaguars really should move to London." They came with good reason. Jacksonville blew out the Baltimore Ravens 44-7, and the Blake Bortles roller coaster hit an unprecedented high in Wembley, as he completed 20 of 31 passes for 244 yards and four touchdowns.
Jacksonville was able to take advantage of some mistakes by Baltimore, but we saw a much more confident and decisive passer than we have at any point in this young season. Bortles hit veteran tight end Marcedes Lewis four times for 62 yards and three touchdowns, and those scoring plays were a mix of clever design (the tight end wheel route for the first scoring play) or great execution (the seam route to Lewis in the third quarter that was placed well and adjusted to perfectly by the tight end). But the throw that truly stood out was the touchdown to Allen Hurns, a pass drilled into a smaller throwing lane with good velocity and anticipation. If you were worried about the wonky mechanics, they certainly were not a factor on that throw.
Coming into this contest, many—myself included—wondered if the Ravens were putting together another strong defense. But given how Jacksonville dismantled that group (they added another 166 yards of rushing offense to the numbers from Bortles), we might have learned more about the Baltimore defense than we did the Jacksonville offense. But Bortles' performance was impressive regardless, and he sees a boost up the rankings this week. There are still concerns, and we'll need to see more from him to keep moving him up, but on one afternoon in London, he put on a jolly good show indeed.
13. Philip Rivers, Los Angeles Chargers
Last Week: 11
Last week I posited that given how the Chargers lost their first two games, Philip Rivers might try to find a way to contribute on the field-goal team. Perhaps he took my advice to heart and spent time away from offensive practice this week…
Rivers threw three interceptions against the Kansas City Chiefs on Sunday afternoon, two of them coming on Los Angeles' opening two possessions. The Chiefs capitalized on both miscues with touchdowns, and the home team was down 14-0 with fans still settling into their seats.
The veteran was a bit sharper on L.A.'s third drive of the game, and on a 3rd-and-12 play he showed good velocity and ball placement on a deep out route to convert the third down. Later in the drive he took a deep shot to Travis Benjamin, and while he slightly under threw the route, he put the pass in a spot where the receiver could make the adjustment around the defender and secure the pass for a huge gain. That big play set the Chargers up for their first score of the day to cut the Chiefs' lead in half. But after his defense forced a three-and-out, giving the Chargers a chance to erase the damage from the first two interceptions, Rivers threw a third, and the Chiefs turned that miscue into three more points.
When you throw three interceptions that lead to 17 points for the opposition, it is a bad day at the office.
Rivers did a good job late in the first half, leading a drive to get the Chargers into field-goal position before the half and cut the Kansas City lead to 17-10 at the break. But that would be as close as the home team got on the day as the offense completely stalled in the second half, punting on five of their six second-half drives. With the loss, the Chargers drop to 0-3 and find themselves in the basement of the AFC West.
12. Kirk Cousins, Washington Redskins
Last Week: 20
Through the first two games of the 2017 season, Kirk Cousins looked like you'd expect a physically limited quarterback to look with his two best receivers lost in free agency and his hyper-gifted play-caller (Sean McVay) off to Los Angeles to coach the Rams—tentative, overmatched and prone to bad decisions. It was the Cousins we saw more often than not before his 2016 Pro Bowl season in which everything came together.
But against the Raiders defense on Sunday, Cousins looked very much like the best version of the quarterback we saw last season. Yes, Oakland's defense is a clear impediment to that franchise's Super Bowl chances, but Cousins deserves credit for adding his own talents to a rejuvenated running game and a defense that has become sneaky great. Cousins completed 25 of 30 passes for 365 yards, three touchdowns and no interceptions and was near-perfect in every facet of the game.
Cousins' 18-yard touchdown pass to tight Vernon Davis was a great example of timing and rhythm; Davis got the ball just as coverage was coming in. And his 52-yard touchdown to Josh Doctson was probably Cousins' best deep pass of the season—he got the ball out on time and with nice velocity so that Doctson could jump and get the catch over Raiders cornerback David Amerson, a former Redskins second-round pick.
Perhaps most importantly, Cousins was refined and poised under pressure. Quick passes helped, but he had a great sense of the pocket and completed five of six passes for 38 yards when he was hurried.
Match an improved Cousins with Washington's run game and a defense that will challenge every opponent it faces (it blew Oakland's offense apart, allowing 128 total yards), and the conversation about who will take the NFC East gets a lot more interesting.
11. Tyrod Taylor, Buffalo Bills
Last Week: 19
The Buffalo Bills and Tyrod Taylor improved their record to 2-1 with a 26-16 victory over the Denver Broncos on Sunday, staying atop the division along with the New England Patriots. After their offense failed to put the ball in the end zone in Week 2, that unit looked much more cohesive and crisp. It began with improved play from Taylor and some better execution of offensive coordinator Rick Dennison's schemes.
Taylor completed 20 of 26 passes for 213 yards and a pair of touchdowns and did not throw an interception during the contest. During the past two weeks, the offense seemed to have spacing problems, with receivers seeming compressed on a number of route concepts and making the job easier for the defense. But on Sunday, the play-calling was varied, the route concepts were well executed and Taylor thrived. A prime example was Buffalo's drive that closed out the first quarter and continued into the second. The Bills attempted five passes on the drive and used five different route concepts over the course of the sequence. The touchdown came on a throw to Zay Jones that Taylor put on the money but deflected through the rookie's hands and into the waiting arms of Andre Holmes. Taylor completed four of five passes on the drive for 64 yards and added two more with his legs. The incompletion was a drop by Mike Tolbert at the goal line that might have been a touchdown.
Taylor led another impressive drive later in the half, when the Bills took over with under a minute remaining and got into field-goal position before the half. On that drive, Taylor complete all four of his passes for 38 yards, setting up a 55-yard field goal from Stephen Hauschka that sent the teams to the locker rooms with the score knotted at 13.
The winning touchdown, which came in the third quarter on a short pass to Charles Clay in the red zone, highlighted how Taylor can be so effective in Dennison's offense. On a play-action boot concept, Taylor peeled out of the run fake and rolled to his right, which stressed the Denver defense on the edge given the quarterback's ability to run. But as Taylor approached the line of scrimmage, Clay leaked into the end zone from the left side of the formation and was wide open. More designs and execution like this, and Buffalo might keep pace with those Patriots for the foreseeable future.
10. Derek Carr, Oakland Raiders
Last Week: 4
Derek Carr started Sunday night's game at Washington with an interception and followed up with back-to-back sacks. Those first three passing attempts told the story of Oakland's offense in a game they lost, 27-10.
Carr completed 19 of 31 passes for only 118 yards, with a touchdown and the two interceptions. The first turnover came on his first attempt of the game, when the quarterback tried to throw a vertical route along the boundary against a Cover 2 coverage look. His receiver had an opening in the soft area of the coverage to the outside, but Carr seemed to put too much air under the throw, which allowed the playside safety to rotate over and snare the interception.
The second interception came on a four verticals concept, when the Raiders caught Washington in a single-high, Cover 1 coverage scheme. That is an ideal situation to run this play, as the quarterback can use his eyes to manipulate the free safety to one of the inside vertical routes and then throw to the other one, picking the best matchup. Here, Carr tried to hit slot receiver Seth Roberts, working against cornerback Kendall Fuller, in the seam. But the throw was too far to the inside and allowed Fuller to make the pick.
Carr was also pressured throughout the night, and when the score got away from Oakland and they were forced into becoming one-dimensional, Washington was able to rush only four and drop seven into coverage and constrict throwing lanes. Even then, however, they were able to pressure the QB and added to their sack total. In addition, there were some plays that Carr did execute well, but he was not helped out on the other end. Amari Cooper and Jared Cook had some throws in their hands that they could not secure. But as a quarterback, losses like this are going to be laid in your lap, especially when you throw two picks. With the Chiefs playing the way they are, Carr and the Raiders cannot afford many more outings like this as they try to keep pace.
9. Matthew Stafford, Detroit Lions
Last Week: 8
Lions offensive coordinator Jim Bob Cooter had a clear plan in place for his quarterback against the Falcons on Sunday: use the short pass to backs and receivers to extend drives and form a reasonable substitute for a run game that has been inconsistent at best. Most of Stafford's throws through the first quarter and into the second came off three-step drops in which he located his first open read quickly and got the ball out in a hurry.
When the Falcons started cheating up in coverage on those short passes and were more aggressive in response—linebacker Deion Jones blowing up running back Theo Riddick on an incompletion with 10:36 left in the second quarter made that clear—the Lions started their next drive with Stafford hitting running back Ameer Abdullah on a 22-yard up-and-out. Stafford showed excellent touch on this pass, putting it right over Jones' head. He tried to hit Marvin Jones on a bomb two minutes later, but cornerback Robert Alford had great one-on-one coverage downfield. Late in the first half, Kenny Golladay was open downfield at the right boundary but threw the ball away. On that play, Stafford showed outstanding mobility in the pocket (one of the most underrated aspects of his game) and Golladay had safety Keanu Neal beaten to the edge.
Down 20-13 at halftime and with the only touchdown coming off a Glover Quin interception return for a touchdown, Stafford stuck mostly to the short stuff, connecting with Golden Tate on a shallow cross in the third quarter for his only passing touchdown of the day. He went to Tate on a deep throw from the left slot, but cornerback Brian Poole broke it up, and there were two deep passes broken up too aggressively by Atlanta's defense on Detroit's final drives that led to penalties. Stafford hit Tate on a one-yard pass that was originally ruled a touchdown to end the game, but it was reversed on review.
At this point in time, Stafford is showing most of the technical and mechanical attributes you'd want in a quarterback, but the focus on a short passing game may have him playing too reductively, and it might be time for Cooter to open up the playbook with deep passes when the Lions aren't playing from behind.
8. Matt Ryan, Atlanta Falcons
Last Week: 7
Ryan threw two touchdown passes against the Lions in a 30-26 win that put the Falcons at 3-0, but not everything will be hunky-dory for Atlanta's quarterback when it's time to review the tape. Ryan threw three picks against an underrated Detroit defense, something he hadn't done in a game since 2015 against the Indianapolis Colts. While he was under duress and made some questionable throws, not all the picks were all his fault.
Safety Glover Quin did a great job cutting the route on an intermediate pass to Julio Jones and returned Ryan's first pick 37 yards for a touchdown. The second saw Ryan scrambling around in the pocket and trying to dump a pass off to running back Tevin Coleman. Coleman wasn't ready for the throw, it bounced off his hands and cornerback Darius Slay came down with it. Then, Ryan tried to connect with receiver Mohamed Sanu on an intermediate throw while climbing the pocket. Sanu couldn't hold on, and Slay had his second pick of the day.
Throughout the game, Ryan seemed to be less sure in the pocket than he usually is, even when he wasn't experiencing obvious pressure. On the first offensive play of the day for the Falcons, Ryan threw an incompletion to Jones on a deep pass into double coverage after he was too jumpy to set his base. According to Pro Football Focus, Ryan was really under pressure on 10 of his 37 dropbacks, completing five of eight passes for 59 yards. Even when he had a clean pocket, Ryan would adjust his body placement, at times forgetting to set his feet and drive the throw.
Though new offensive coordinator Steve Sarkisian has opened up his own playbook since Week 1, the Falcons still aren't using the same percentage of presnap motion concepts to give Ryan the advantage as they did under Kyle Shanahan last season. And part of Ryan's balkiness in the pocket comes down to having to wait longer for routes to release. This could affect his internal clock. Either Sarkisian is going to have to scheme more guys easily open in the short to intermediate areas, or Ryan is going to have to adapt to a different picture.
7. Russell Wilson, Seattle Seahawks
Last Week: 13
Through the first half of Seattle's Sunday game against the Tennessee Titans, we saw the Russell Wilson we've been used to in the young season: balky under near-constant pressure, flipping the ball with an elongated release and having his receivers drop passes.
He completed seven passes in 16 attempts for 110 yards and a touchdown, and had he not completed a 36-yard pass to Doug Baldwin and a 46-yarder to running back C.J. Prosise late in the second quarter, his numbers would have been awful.
Both of the big completions came with a better pocket and serviceable pass protection, and on both throws, Wilson went across his body with excellent touch and velocity. That's the quarterback he can be when given half a chance.
Armed with adequate blocking and more of a hurry-up offense in the second half, Wilson started to get into a groove, finishing his day with 29 completions in 49 attempts for a career-high 373 yards, four touchdowns and no interceptions. The distribution of the touchdowns—one to running back Chris Carson, one to tight end Luke Willson, one to speed receiver Paul Richardson and one to Baldwin—showed that if there's a structure to Seattle's protection, the passing game can be multifaceted.
The touchdown to Baldwin was a low throw that forced Baldwin to make an impressive effort to bring it in with coverage all over him. Carson got a 10-yard scoring pass on a release route up the middle off play action. The touchdown to Willson was a nice anticipation throw into triple zone coverage that hadn't quite converged, and Richardson caught a quick slant for his score.
Russell Wilson will be as good as his line and the structure of the passing game will let him be, and in this game, he was quite good. Defensive breakdowns led to Seattle's loss, but there were a lot of offensive positives.
6. Ben Roethlisberger, Pittsburgh Steelers
Last Week: 2
On Pittsburgh's first offensive play, the Steelers got exactly the look they wanted from the Chicago Bears defense. They had wide receiver Martavis Bryant split wide to the right matched up against cornerback Marcus Cooper in a Cover 4 look, and sent the speedy receiver deep in a route scheme that would draw the playside safety to the outside. With no safety help, Bryant got behind Cooper and was wide open for six.
Roethlisberger overthrew him.
It was that kind of afternoon for the Steelers, who found themselves down 7-0 early and then trailed 17-7 at the half. It would have been worse had Cooper not channeled his inner Leon Lett. But while the visitors did enough to force overtime, they could not crawl all the way back and lost in the extra frame.
Roethlisberger did complete 22 of 39 passes for 235 yards and a score, with the touchdown coming on a smoke screen to Antonio Brown. But he was off with many passes on the afternoon, leaving a number of throws high and outside of his target. He also had a turnover on a strip-sack early in the game when he was caught by a corner blitz while waiting for a route to break open downfield. On a critical late 3rd-and-6 with the Steelers out near midfield and trying to get in position for a go-ahead score, he slightly underthrew a corner route along the right sideline, and the underneath defender nearly got to it for an interception.
Finally, he was forced to watch as the Bears scored on their opening drive of overtime to seal the victory.
Pittsburgh gets a chance to bounce back next week on the road against the Ravens. A win would put either team in the driver's seat for the division and would likely see Big Ben moving back up these rankings after slipping this week on the road.
5. Marcus Mariota, Tennessee Titans
Last Week: 9
In a game that began slowly for both offenses and got rather chippy, Marcus Mariota and the Tennessee Titans were able to emerge victorious with a convincing 33-27 victory over the visiting Seattle Seahawks. After missing some throws early in the game, the third-year QB settled into the offense and finished the day completing 20 of 32 passes for 225 yards and a pair of touchdowns without turning the football over.
Those are pretty good numbers against one of the league's more talented defenses. Mariota continued to show his development at the position as well as the problems he can create for an opposing defensive coordinator. The first strike came on a well-executed tunnel screen to Rishard Matthews, and the second came on a beautifully designed wheel route to rookie tight end Jonnu Smith, marking the second straight week with a touchdown for the TE.
But a throw Mariota made earlier in the game is a sign of what he's becoming as a passer. Facing a 3rd-and-15 late in the first quarter, Mariota drilled in a deep out route to Eric Decker with precision placement and velocity to move the sticks, and the throw came against Richard Sherman to boot.
Another great sign of Mariota's development was the drive he led just before halftime to get the Titans into field-goal range. Tennessee had just given up a touchdown to go down on the scoreboard by one, but the QB moved the Titans down the field and managed the clock effectively, including on a pivotal 3rd-and-5 where he was able to get the ball to DeMarco Murray on a running back smoke screen for just enough yardage to move the sticks—and get out of bounds—to set up the field-goal attempt for three critical points.
Mariota is a dangerous player, given his elusiveness in the pocket and ability to stress a defense with his feet. Sometimes the little things matter most. Whether it's perfectly placing an out route to move the chains on third down or a crucial drive late in the first half to get three points, those things matter in the end and point to Mariota slowly growing into the QB Titans fans hope he can become.
4. Alex Smith, Kansas City Chiefs
Last Week: 3
After a hot start in Los Angeles, Alex Smith and the Kansas City Chiefs offense cooled a bit in the middle quarters. But Smith and Co. had enough to pull out a solid road victory against a divisional opponent.
It was not a flawless day for the quarterback, and the offense certainly stalled for a portion of the game. But similar to last week, Smith was up against a defense dialing up a number of different pressure schemes and frustrating him at various points throughout the contest. The pressure package of Joey Bosa and Melvin Ingram on a Tackle-End Exchange stunt is something to worry about for opponents. Smith was sacked five times on the day, but on the bulk of those, he did not have much time to get through his reads and get the football out.
Smith completed 16 of 21 passes for 155 yards and two touchdowns, with the first coming on a perfectly placed corner route to Tyreek Hill that gave the visitors an early lead. His second touchdown was on a shovel pass to Albert Wilson that again showed not only the creative design from Andy Reid but also the sheer number of weapons at Smith's disposal.
A prime example of how dangerous this offense can be came on Kansas City's opening drive of the second half. On a 2nd-and-5 play, the Chiefs aligned both Hill and Travis Kelce on the right of the formation and ran a run/pass option design with Smith putting the football in rookie Kareem Hunt's belly and then reading the play and deciding whether to hand the ball off or pull it and throw to either Kelce or Hill. Those two players were running a slant/flat combination with the tight end in the flat and Hill coming inside on the slant.
Pick your poison, defensive coordinators.
Here, Smith pulled the ball and ripped a strike into Hill for the quick gain. Designs and execution like that will make the Chiefs a tough matchup for any defense.
3. Drew Brees, New Orleans Saints
Last Week: 6
When I wrote up Brees' performance against the Patriots last week in a 36-20 loss, it was clear to me that despite his age and years in the league, he had as good a command of the deep ball as ever. Brees riddled New England's secondary with intermediate and deep throws that were right on target, and it was only New Orleans' awful defense—not to mention some guy named Tom Brady—that put the Saints in a hole not even Brees could dig them out of.
In a 34-13 win against the Panthers in Week 3, it was Cam Newton putting Carolina in a hole with his three interceptions, which left Brees free to do his thing against the Panthers' excellent defense. Brees at his best is mercilessly efficient, and that's what he was here, completing 22 of 29 passes for 220 yards, three touchdowns and no interceptions.
Brees didn't haul off and throw the deep ball that often, but he didn't have to with Newton imploding on the other side. He did hit former Panthers receiver Ted Ginn, Jr. on a 40-yard bomb late in the game, which surely added to the pain for Carolina fans. But against this defense, it was all about Sean Payton's play design and Brees' execution of it.
His first-quarter touchdown pass to Michael Thomas was a perfect example. Payton forced Carolina's defense to play to its right with a diamond left formation—four receivers clustered together. But when Brees saw safety Kurt Coleman cheat to the multiple-receiver side, he knew he'd have Thomas one-on-one with Daryl Worley, a second-year cornerback who was outmatched against Thomas' talent. Worley interfered with Thomas' end-zone route and fell down. By then, Brees had read the entire field and decided Thomas was his man.
2. Aaron Rodgers, Green Bay Packers
Last Week: 5
Green Bay's offensive line has been in flux over the last couple of weeks due to injuries, and Rodgers has faced a ton of pressure as a result. Against Cincinnati's impressive defensive front, he was pressured on 27 of his 51 dropbacks. No other quarterback had that many pressures in Week 3. That Rodgers was able to complete 10 of 18 passes for 84 yards and a touchdown with that much going on to disrupt his pocket speaks to his greatness.
Rodgers threw an amazing pass to Jordy Nelson on an intermediate curl route with 8:36 left in the first quarter. The ball went right between two Bengals defenders where only Nelson could get it. Two plays later, he hit tight end Lance Kendricks for a one-yard touchdown with a play-fake so convincing that Kendricks' defender pulled off coverage to read the run, leaving Kendricks was wide open.
The Packers employed a few different strategies to counter Cincinnati's pressure and Green Bay's own iffy blocking. Rodgers would scramble a lot and throw short. The play design that had Rodgers throwing deep to Davante Adams with 12:29 left in the second quarter was impressive. Rodgers has a peerless sense of field awareness, and he used the Bengals' aggression against them at times.
Rodgers' lone interception of the day came with 10:20 left in the second quarter, when he tried to throw across his body to Nelson as the outside man in a bunch left formation. Rodgers short-armed it a bit, and Jackson ran the pick back 75 yards for a touchdown. Cincinnati led 21-7 at that point. But Rodgers got Nelson on a simple one-yard touchdown in the third quarter, and tied the game late with a gorgeous throw to Nelson with 17 seconds left. Rodgers was scrambling right and somehow fired the ball past cornerback Dre Kirkpatrick with perfect timing and velocity.
In overtime, Rodgers caught the Bengals offsides and threw down the left boundary to receiver Geronimo Allison, past cornerback Adam Jones, to set up Mason Crosby's game-winning field goal. He finished the day with 28 completions in 42 attempts for 313 yards, three touchdowns and one pick. Given the pressure he was under, it was an incredible performance.
1. Tom Brady, New England Patriots
Last Week: 1
Perhaps it was not the way Tom Brady and Bill Belichick envisioned it, but the New England Patriots moved to 2-1 with a victory over the Houston Texans that surprisingly came down to the final play. On an afternoon when the veteran quarterback was harassed by a speed package that gave him trouble in last year's divisional round game, Brady still managed to complete 25 of 35 passes for 378 yards and five touchdowns without an interception. He did lose a fumble on a strip sack that was returned for a touchdown by Jadeveon Clowney, and he was sacked five times in total, but he came through in the end for the victory.
The game-winning drive was a microcosm of the new Patriots offense. Brady looked for tight end Rob Gronkowski on a shallow crossing route that New England was using all day, finding him for a big play when he was matched up in coverage against rookie linebacker Zach Cunningham.
But the quarterback also looked downfield. He found Danny Amendola on a deep out pattern after sliding in the pocket, keeping the play alive and giving the route concept time to come open. On the game's pivotal play, he aggressively attacked a Cover 2 scheme by throwing a vertical route to Brandin Cooks, putting the ball along the boundary to the outside and allowing Cooks to place himself between the safety and the football. To the receiver's credit, Cooks executed the play flawlessly, right down to a toe-tap along the sideline that would garner a smile from Baryshnikov.
Deshaun Watson might have provided a glimpse of the future, but Brady reminded the football world that we still live in the present, and he is very much on top of his game right now.