Monday Morning Digest: Upsets Turn the NFL Upside Down
The Patriots defense is a shambles. The Falcons are no longer undefeated. The Cowboys can't defend Big D like they used to. Derek Carr is injured.
On the other hand, the Rams have new life, the Bills are in first place and the Texans have finally found a quarterback.
Does it feel like the whole NFL is topsy-turvy? Don't worry: Digest is here to recap all the action and restore your equilibrium.
How Will Powerhouses Respond to Sunday's Upsets?
Three games, three home upsets: The Patriots shocked by the Panthers in Foxborough, the Cowboys pecked to death by Rams field goals in Jerry World, and the Falcons outhustled and outmuscled by the Bills in their shiny, giant, chrome pinwheel.
The upsets caused havoc in the standings—the Bills are in first place in October, people—and may be the first rumblings of an NFL power shift. Or this may just have been any given Sunday, and the upsets were just a reminder that NFL parity makes anything possible.
Let's take a closer look at the three powerhouses that stumbled on Sunday, figure out where they are weak and determine if any solutions are on the horizon.
New England Patriots (lost 33-30 to Panthers)
Area of vulnerability: The entire defense.
The Patriots pass rush has produced just eight sacks in four games. The run defense has allowed 5.1 yards per rush. Opposing quarterbacks have a 116.5 rating against them.
The Patriots have faced a rookie quarterback and a battered, slumping Cam Newton over the last two weeks, yet they appeared to be surprised by play action and designed quarterback runs, and their defensive backs routinely lose physical matchups against bigger receivers.
Possible solutions: Tasking Tom Brady with winning weekly shootouts may not work because of his depleted corps of weapons. The schedule is also typically the Patriots' ally, but upcoming opponents (Buccaneers in Tampa, Falcons, even the Jets) no longer look like easy outs.
The Patriots are in desperate need of an impact pass-rusher, but offseason project Kony Ealy did not work out and both Shea McClellin and rookie Derek Rivers are on the IR. Bill Belichick is great at manufacturing edge players, but he may be fresh out of raw materials.
There is no reason to fire up the End of an Empire sirens yet, fun though it is to hear them wail. But it's hard to picture the Patriots winning a road playoff game right now.
Dallas Cowboys (lost 35-30 to Rams)
Areas of vulnerability: Defensive experience and the ability to play from behind.
The Cowboys are built to run the ball down your esophagus, generate big plays via play action and then sit back in Cover 2 on defense and wait for you to make mistakes. All was going according to plan on Sunday, until the Rams found all the squishy spots in the defense and chipped away at a 24-13 lead.
When opponents get the lead, Jason Garrett abandons the run too quickly and Dak Prescott starts pressing and loses accuracy. It happened in Denver two weeks ago, and the Broncos loss spiraled out of control. It happened again on Sunday, and the Cowboys discovered they didn't quite have an eight-point comeback in them.
Possible solutions: Experience on both sides of the ball can still be the Cowboys' best friend. Garrett may also want to re-evaluate the roles of players like Brice Butler (two catches for 90 yards on Monday night, just two targets on Sunday) who can help in comeback and 3rd-and-long situations. Someone other than DeMarcus "Tank" Lawrence also needs to get to the quarterback now and then.
Losses happen after short weeks. But now that the 2016 magic has worn off, the Cowboys need a better counter-strategy when things aren't going their way.
Atlanta Falcons (lost 23-17 to Bills)
Areas of vulnerability: The banged-up receiver corps. The fourth-quarter yips.
Injuries to Julio Jones (hip) and Mohamed Sanu (hamstring) left Matt Ryan throwing to Justin Hardy, Nick Williams, the backs and the tight ends against the Bills. The backs did their jobs, but Hardy's hands are like greased ball bearings, and the mighty Falcons offense became a series of short drives ending in punts or turnovers.
Not to harp on the Super Bowl flashbacks angle, but once the Falcons faced a little adversity on Sunday (a fluky fumble-return touchdown that looked like an incomplete pass), their unforced errors came in bunches.
Possible solutions: Keep an eye on the Jones and Sanu injuries; Jones jogged off the field, so he might be back after the bye.
Speaking of the bye, the Falcons are in pretty good shape, at 3-1 with some playoff tiebreaker wins (Packers, Lions) on their resume. If they focus on the positive, they should be able to even put "putting the Super Bowl behind them" behind them.
Sending Some Love to the Winners
Don't you just hate how all the stories after a big win are about the team that lost? Especially when the Patriots and Cowboys lose, and we all poke at the neuroses of their huge fanbases while pretending they were squaring off against CGI orcs instead of opponents with their own dreams, ambitions and fans.
Well, let's give some credit where it's due to the teams that staged Sunday's three biggest upsets, all of which are 3-1 and deserve some real recognition. Their fanbases may be small, but their hearts are big:
The Bills front seven generates consistent pass pressure and plays the run well. Their secondary has allowed just one touchdown and intercepted six passes this season. Their offense still consists mostly of LeSean McCoy slapping the highlight stick while Tyrod Taylor runs around in circles, but at least it produces a big play or two per game. And when all else fails, Steven Hauschka nails 50-plus-yard field goals (two last week, two more this week).
The Panthers front seven generates consistent pass pressure and plays the run well. Their secondary has mostly held its own against a Drew Brees-Tom Brady assault over the last two weeks. Their offense still consists mostly of Cam Newton trying to do everything while offensive coordinator Mike Shula scratches his head about how to deploy rookie running back Christian McCaffrey, but at least it produces a big play or two per game. And when all else fails, Graham Gano is 10-of-10 on field goals.
Los Angeles Rams
The Rams are the football equivalent of a pharmaceutical commercial where everyone is strolling around a sunny park full of balloons and happiness. After suffering from Fisher's Disease for years (symptoms include lethargy, offensive constipation and goofy facial hair), they are happy to feel some relief. Maybe it's just a rush caused by beating the 49ers and Colts, but it let them peck away at the Cowboys, and there is no telling what they are capable of now that they finally have a reason to show up at the stadium.
Separation Sunday Digest
Sixteen teams entered Week 3 with 2-1 records. Ten of those teams faced each other on Sunday. We covered two of the games (Panthers over Patriots, Rams over Cowboys) already. Let's take a closer look at three other games that helped us sort out the contenders from the contenders from the Ravens.
Steelers 26, Ravens 9 (Steelers 3-1, Ravens 2-2)
What we learned about the Steelers: They are a talented but sloppy team that has had trouble putting weakling opponents away all season due to an unreliable run defense, poor special teams and a frustratingly predictable offense. But Le'Veon Bell (35-144-2) is back after using the first three games of the year as his own personal preseason, so the Steelers may be on the upswing.
What we learned about the Ravens: Their offense is the football equivalent of food poisoning.
Lions 14, Vikings 7 (Lions 3-1, Vikings 2-2)
What we learned about the Lions: They are NFC North wild-card fodder hoping that the Packers either stumble or are engulfed by injuries.
What we learned about the Vikings: They are NFC North wild-card fodder hoping that the Packers either stumble or are engulfed by injuries.
Seriously, that Lions-Vikings game was a tree falling in the woods. The Lions excel at manufacturing dreary wins, but we already knew that. With running back Dalvin Cook injured, the Vikings are in serious danger of being engulfed by injuries themselves.
Broncos 16, Raiders 10 (Broncos 3-1, Raiders 2-2)
What we learned about the Broncos: If they don't turn the ball over, they can beat you. If you cannot protect your quarterback, they will beat you. If it's a close game at Mile High, they'll beat you. If they need their offense to produce lots of big plays to beat you...well, they had better hope that they didn't turn the ball over, generated plenty of sacks or were playing a close game at home.
What we learned about the Raiders: The Raiders had some problems before Derek Carr injured his back against the Broncos. Namely, terrible play in the secondary and Amari Cooper's case of the megadropsies. If Carr misses any significant time (early reports of back spasms offer hope of a quick return), those are the least of their problems.
Player Spotlight: Jay Cutler, Dolphins
What he did
Cutler threw for 70 yards in the Dolphins' opening drive before lofting an easy interception into the corner of the end zone. He then threw for 94 yards for the remainder of the 20-0 shutout by the Saints.
By halftime, the Sunday morning London game was so listless that it looked like 106 Jay Cutlers playing football against one another, with eight more Cutlers officiating (flags and challenges were constant and random). But while the Saints woke up in the second half, Cutler and the Dolphins played like they were waiting for a lorry to take them back to Heathrow.
Also of note: Cutler stood at wide receiver during a Wildcat play with his hands on his hips like a wife hearing an explanation for all those Vegas massage parlor expenses on the credit card statement. Few NFL players are as committed as Cutler at demonstrating their lack of commitment.
What it means
Cutler is supposed to give the Dolphins a playoff-caliber offense. Instead, he has led the team to three first-half points through three games. Any rookie can throw red-zone interceptions, get strip-sacked in the fourth quarter and check down on 3rd-and-25. Cutler is providing rookie-level quarterbacking at veteran prices with big-name expectations.
What's most troubling is that the whole Dolphins team now plays as if the adrenaline wore off just after the coin toss. The lethargy spread from the offense to the defense in the second half on Sunday. Maybe Cutleritis is contagious. Maybe Cutler is some sort of enthusiasm vampire. Or maybe the whole "veteran who knows the system" concept is a load of hooey when dealing with a player who squandered Aaron Rodgers talent due to stock-boy-at-the-vape-shop intangibles.
The Dolphins face the Titans and Falcons over the next two weeks. So everybody gets to do a little soul searching.
Game Spotlight: Buccaneers 25, Giants 23
The Buccaneers took an early 13-0 lead on a swampy day in Tampa on big plays by Jacquizz Rodgers and O.J. Howard. They were assisted by typically horrendous Giants offensive play (including a signature fourth-down failure).
The Giants then roared back in a reprise of their narrow loss to the Eagles last week. Odell Beckham Jr. made some glorious receptions and after-catch spin moves, while Eli Manning took advantage of the fact that no one expects him to run by rumbling for a touchdown once the overeager Bucs pass rush raced past him. The Bucs kept things interesting by missing extra points and field goals.
Alas, the poor overworked Giants defense buckled while nursing a 23-22 lead in the final three minutes. Jameis Winston connected with Cameron Brate for 26 yards to put the Bucs in field-goal range, and Nick Folk handed the Giants their second straight loss on a walk-off field goal.
What it means
Winston bounced back from a three-interception performance against the Vikings to throw three touchdown passes and do a fine job managing the offense in rainy, muddy conditions.
The Buccaneers are now 2-1 despite some major flaws, including Folk's erratic kicking and a pass rush that has notched just one sack in three games. They're a hard team to get a feel for right now, but the schedule is about to provide a little clarity.
The Giants are trapped in a Groundhog Day nightmare of horrendous first quarters, shanked late-game punts and doomed comebacks. They are what they are. And what they are ain't pretty. Or well-coached, for that matter.
The Buccaneers host the Patriots next week in a game that will provide someone with a reality check. Meanwhile, the Giants face the Chargers in a battle of winless teams. Something's gotta give. With the Giants tackles squaring off against Joey Bosa and Melvin Ingram, let's hope it's not Manning's spine.
Player Spotlight: Deshaun Watson, Texans
What he did
Watson threw for 283 yards, four touchdowns and one interception. He also had 24 rushing yards and a touchdown in a 57-14 demolition of the Titans.
Watson zipped some tight-window passes and displayed touch on others, making plays in the pocket and on the run to DeAndre Hopkins (10-107-1) and just-back-from-injury speedster Will Fuller V (4-25-2). In the last two weeks, he has completely rejuvenated an offense that was little more than a sack dispensary when Tom Savage was the early-season starter.
What it means
Dear NFL coaches,
When you draft a rookie quarterback in the first round, groom him as a starter, then start him. Adjust your system to accommodate him.
Don't play favorites with your long-term pet project on the bench. Don't wave experience around like a magic wand, especially if the guy with the experience has never accomplished anything. Don't waste the start of the season on some glorified warm-body quarterback.
Players of Watson's skills and pedigree can and should start right away. Their playmaking ability is more valuable than Tommy Plain-and-Tall's ability to identify the third read in his progression on a whiteboard on Wednesday morning.
Bill O'Brien may have figured this out finally. Are you listening, John Fox?
Watson faces the ultimate test against in the undefeated juggernaut known as the Kansas City Chiefs.
Game Spotlight: Seahawks 46, Colts 18
If you saw Colts-Seahawks on the schedule and thought, Ooh, that sounds like a hallucinogenic football nightmare, you weren't far off.
Russell Wilson kicked off the madness by dropping to pass in his own end zone and daring the Safety Gods to punish him for his impudence. The Colts rushed four defenders, three more than the Seahawks offensive line can typically handle, and Wilson's knee hit the turf for a safety while he tried to throw.
Jacoby Brissett answered by lobbing the slowest out-route pass in history, resulting in a Justin Coleman pick-six.
The two teams continued trading lapses in coverage, protection and judgment. Brissett scrambled to set up a touchdown. Wilson scrambled to score one. Blair Walsh missed a field goal. Colts rookie safety Malik Hooker snatched a one-handed interception that bounced off Jimmy Graham's hands. It was hypnotically horrifying, like a subliminal message-laden recording you cannot look away from that reprograms your brain.
Eventually, the Seahawks broke open an 18-18 tie with the ultimate Seahawks double-whammy: a touchdown by someone you have never heard of (11th-string running back J.D. McKissic) followed by yet another defensive touchdown (a strip-six by Marcus Smith and Bobby Wagner). Then everything just got silly. By the end, even the Seahawks offensive line looked good.
What it means
At home, the Seahawks can pull away from a bad opponent whose quarterback who just celebrated his one-month anniversary on the roster. Hooray. Don't let the final score fool you: They looked more like the Jeff Fisher Rams than the Legion of Boom version of themselves for most of Sunday night. Other than a trip to San Francisco in late November, that was the last gimme on the schedule.
The Colts are a poorly coached team that stinks. But Andrew Luck is about to start preparing to begin commencing to proceed with initial efforts to take the preliminary steps toward moving closer to returning, so the team has something to look forward to.
The Seahawks visit the Rams, who look like the much better team right now. The Colts face the 49ers in a true odyssey of human consciousness.
Offensive Line of the Week
On a muddy day in Tampa, the Buccaneers offensive line of Donovan Smith, Kevin Pamphile, Ali Marpet, J.R. Sweezy and Demar Dotson held the Giants pass rush to one sack, helped Jameis Winston throw three touchdowns and paved the way for the no-name Bucs backfield to churn out 111 rushing yards.
Defender of the Week
Bills defensive back Micah Hyde outjumped Taylor Gabriel for a third-quarter interception of Matt Ryan and then went low to scoop a second Ryan interception in the fourth quarter.
Special Teamer of the Week
Rams kicker Greg Zuerlein sparked an upset with field goals of (take a deep breath) 49, 44, 44, 30, 28, 43 and 33 yards. Steven Hauschka kicked a pair of 50-plus-yarders for the Bills for the second straight week, but he cannot get a break around here.
Mystery Touch of the Week
Jets punter Lachlan Edwards stunned the Jaguars with a fake punt pass to Marcus Williams on 4th-and-21. The play stunned teammates, too. Teammate Rontez Miles slammed into Williams while he was weaving his way to a first down. Williams' pass was a wobbler that only worked because no one expects a fake punt on 4th-and-21. But...nah, an "Edwards is the Jets' best quarterback" gag would be hacky. Let the Jets enjoy their winning streak.
Fantasy Leech of the Week
Chargers undrafted rookie Austin Ekeler, whose name sounds like someone who yells insults during indie rock festivals, ran 35 yards for a touchdown on the first carry of his career, dashing the hopes of fantasy owners who needed a big day from Melvin Gordon.
Wildcat Fail of the Week
Vikings running back Jerick McKinnon took a direct snap early in the third quarter and botched the exchange with Dalvin Cook. Anthony Zettel pounced on the ball for the Lions, who converted the good field position into a field goal. The Wildcat can be fun, kids, but if you only run it once per month, fumbled exchanges are gonna happen.
Downfield Block of the Week
Rams wide receiver Josh Reynolds gets a special citation this week for crushing Cowboys defender Jourdan Lewis on Todd Gurley's 53-yard touchdown reception. Open-field blocks on long runs often make the difference between touchdowns and field goals. And lord knows the Rams got all they could from field goals this week.
Inside the Numbers: Unsolved Running Back Mysteries Edition
This week's edition of Inside the Numbers tries to figure out just what the heck is going on with some of the league's most incomprehensible running back committees.
Is Paul Perkins Ben McAdoo's nephew or something?
Perkins, the Giants running back on what appeared to be perma-scholarship, carried eight times for 11 yards in the first half. Perkins had one 14-yard run, which means he netted minus-three yards on his other seven carries, including two carries for a loss on the first two plays of the game.
Rookie Wayne Gallman replaced Perkins in the second half and carried 11 times for a respectable 42 yards, including a four-yard touchdown. Sturdy super-sub Orleans Darkwa should be back from injury soon, and Shane Vereen is around for third-down duties. So the Giants may finally move on from Perkins as a featured runner. Now if only they would move on from McAdoo's fourth-down play chart.
Why doesn't LeGarrette Blount get more touches?
Blount finished the Eagles' 26-24 win with 16 carries for 136 yards. But six of those 16 carries came in the fourth quarter, after Blount guilted Doug Pederson into giving him more opportunities with a 68-yard rumble.
Blount is a poor receiver, of course. But the Eagles still give goal-line and kill-the-clock carries to Wendell Smallwood and undrafted rookie Corey Clement (a combined 20-64-1 on Sunday). If they feature Blount more on first and second downs, maybe they can avoid third-down must-pass situations altogether.
Who the heck is Elijah McGuire?
McGuire is the Jets' 2017 sixth-round pick, your basic nifty-shifty change-up back. A 69-yard run and 22-yard reception punctuated a 12-touch, 131-yard afternoon for McGuire in the Jets' 23-20 overtime win against the Jaguars.
It's too early to anoint McGuire the second coming of Darren Sproles, or even Tarik Cohen. But he's exactly the kind of player a rebuilding team should be giving opportunities to instead of poor old Matt Forte.
OK then, who is J.D. McKissic?
McKissic is a former Arkansas State wide receiver who spent last year on the Falcons practice squad. The Seahawks moved him to running back at the end of training camp and activated him in place of always-injured C.J. Prosise against the Colts. McKissic ripped off a 30-yard touchdown to break the Sunday night game open once the Seahawks were done trying to make Eddie Lacy happen, then added a 27-yard garbage-time touchdown catch.
McKissic is probably not the next Ty Montgomery. But with Chris Carson carted off the field late in the Seahawks win (because the feature back was still getting carries in a blowout, despite the presence of Lacy and McKissic...it's a Seahawks thing), anything is possible.
Did Adrian Peterson offer to help Sean Payton move and then cancel at the last minute?
Peterson carried four times for four yards on Sunday. He has no role in the Saints offense with both Mark Ingram and Alvin Kamara playing well. And Dalvin Cook just got hurt for the Vikings. C'mon, Saints: Do the right thing and send Peterson home.
End Zone Improv Studio Digest
When the NFL relaxed the rules against end-zone celebrations, we expected a post-touchdown dance revolution. Instead, NFL scorers have channeled their inner mimes and turned the end zone into an improv workshop.
We've already seen what happens when Odell Beckham Jr. performs an Andy Serkis mocap-worthy reenactment of what the neighbor's Rottweiler does to my maple tree every morning (a few laughs, a penalty, a fine, a week of near hysteria on Big Apple sports talk). So most NFL players opted for something a little less earthy on Sunday. Here's a roundup of the most interesting interpretive post-touchdown routines:
Jordan Matthews: Ready Player One
The highlight of Matthews' celebration, a reimagining of a kid sitting down to mash buttons on his favorite video game, was that Zay Jones did not know whether to join in. C'mon, rookie: the first rule of improv is to never deny the premise!
JuJu Smith-Schuster: Anime Mash-Up
The internet is torn as to whether Schuster performed a Street Fighter Hadouken move or the Kamehameha wave from Dragon Ball Z. So I fetched my 11-year-old and showed him the video. He assured me that it was either the Street Fighter Hadouken move or the Kamehameha wave from Dragon Ball Z. Thanks, Lil Mike.
As far as I can tell, no one asked Smith-Schuster to clarify the celebration after the game, because no sportswriter on a deadline wants to try to spell "Kamehameha."
Dalvin Cook: Kickin' It Up a Notch
Before getting injured, Cook celebrated a touchdown by pouring imaginary ingredients into, and then stirring, a make-believe stew pot. Fun! All NFL players should incorporate the meanings of their last names into their celebrations when appropriate. Bakers should bake, Taylors should sew, Coby Fleener should fleen, and Deshaun Watson should pantomime watching someone else solve a Victorian mystery.
Donte Moncrief: No Idea
Moncrief appeared to type a code into a make-believe keypad (ATM machine?) and a whole group of Colts then began stuffing something (money?) into something (sacks?). Maybe Chuck Pagano has been making the Colts practice to be in the chorus of "Guys and Dolls." It's better than asking him to coach football.
Danny Amendola: Flying the Flag
Amendola scored and grabbed a banner from a fan in the front row. Oh no. It's a flag. What's happening? Red alert! Prepare the presidential tweet storm bunkers! Oh, it's a Julian Edelman flag. Phew. Wait, Julian Edelman has a flag? Is he his own country? Does he...gasp...have an anthem? Dang it, we almost got through Digest with no politics, and now we have to worry about the People's Republic of Edelmania.
Ezekiel Elliott: Kissing His Mother in the Stands
Aw, that's sweet. That's (quintuple checks to make sure that was, in fact, his mother) really, really sweet.