B/R Staff NFL Week 9 Report Card: Dalvin Cook Gains Ground as NFL's RB1
They say absence makes the heart grow fonder. That's proved true for Carolina Panthers fans.
Christian McCaffrey returned to the lineup after suffering a high ankle sprain in Week 2 and was as productive as ever.
Meanwhile, running back Dalvin Cook continued to dominate opposing defenses in his second game back from a groin injury. And everyone has missed Alex Smith leading an offense, which he did Sunday against the New York Giants when Kyle Allen suffered a dislocated ankle.
The league entered the upside-down with so many unexpected outcomes.
- The Miami Dolphins continue to perform above expectations with Tua Tagovailoa now behind center.
- The Dallas Cowboys nearly pulled off the biggest upset of the season behind their talented backs.
- The New York Giants are still in the playoff picture.
B/R's panel of NFL writers—Brad Gagnon, Brent Sobleski, Gary Davenport and Matt Miller—graded these topics plus more after Sunday's day games came to a close.
Christian McCaffrey's Return
Carolina Panthers running back Christian McCaffrey hadn't played since he suffered a high ankle sprain during a Week 2 loss against the Tampa Bay Buccaneers.
Excitement ran through the ranks when the multipurpose weapon practiced this week before being cleared to play.
"He looked like Christian. He looked good, sharp. We'll see how his body responds," head coach Matt Rhule told reporters Wednesday.
Oh, his body responded rather well with 151 yards from scrimmage and two touchdowns in a 33-31 loss Sunday to the Kansas City Chiefs.
Unfortunately, McCaffrey left the contest in the fourth quarter with another injury. Rhule didn't provide an update afterward.
Brad Gagnon: A
He likely wasn't 100 percent and yet he put up 151 scrimmage yards and scored twice to keep his team competitive against the defending champs. It wasn't a dominant performance, but it deserves a top mark considering the circumstances.
Brent Sobleski: C
The Panthers would have felt much better if McCaffrey didn't add yet another injury by the end of the contest. Prior to that, his impact on both the ground and passing games made the Panthers dynamic and difficult for the Kansas City Chiefs to defend. He's the game's best two-way back, but he has to stay on the field to make a difference.
Gary Davenport: B
McCaffrey didn't show any ill effects against the Chiefs of the high ankle sprain that has sidelined him since Week 2, piling up 151 scrimmage yards and two scores. The Panthers also didn't ease him back in, giving McCaffrey 28 touches. The only reason his Week 9 performance doesn't rate as an A is a relatively pedestrian (by his standards at least) average of 3.8 yards per carry.
Matt Miller: B
You saw the glimpses that made McCaffrey the best running back in football, but it wasn't enough to secure a win over the Chiefs even with the Panthers defense playing very well. McCaffrey looked banged up throughout the game and winded at other stages, but that's to be expected. The positive news for Panthers fans is that he showed the trademark burst and dual-threat ability that has made him a superstar.
Alex Smith's Relief Appearance
Alex Smith experienced deja vu when Washington quarterback Kyle Allen left Sunday's 23-20 loss to the New York Giants with a dislocated ankle.
"Obviously a ton of emotions going on for me right then," Smith told reporters. " ... Then they bring out the aircast and the cart. I know that routine well."
With Allen's season almost certainly over, Smith took the reins of Washington's offense and nearly led the team to victory. The 36-year-old signal-caller, who missed all of last season after suffering a life-threatening leg injury during the 2018 campaign, threw for 325 yards and a touchdown.
He also completed three passes to the Giants, including a pair of crippling interceptions during Washington's final two drives.
Smith looked much better than his previous appearance in Week 5, but he still had issues. How does the group grade his performance against the Giants?
Brad Gagnon: B
You hate to get negative talking about Smith because his comeback was amazing, and it's great that he completed 24 of 32 passes for more than 300 yards Sunday. Still, those interceptions make it impossible to give him an A.
Brent Sobleski: C
Everyone is already rooting for Smith based on everything he's overcome. At the same time, the fact that he twice had an opportunity to lead his team to a victory and failed can't be overlooked just because his presence on the field is a great story. Smith appears to be rounding into shape, as he had a relatively efficient (only eight incompletions) and productive performance. He could help Washington down the stretch.
Gary Davenport: B-
Smith wasn't perfect by any stretch, throwing three picks against the Giants. But one of those interceptions wasn't Smith's fault, he topped 300 passing yards on the day and led Washington back from a 20-3 halftime deficit. In any event, after Allen's gruesome injury (which had to give Smith the worst kind of deja vu), it appears that Smith will be the guy in D.C. the rest of the way.
Matt Miller: D
Alex Smith should be the NFL's Comeback Player of the Year, but his performance against the New York Giants won't do him any favors as a candidate. His three interceptions were backbreakers in a close game. The story is amazing, and Smith deserves credit for getting his first NFL touchdown pass since his gruesome leg injury, but Sunday was far from his best outing.
Dalvin Cook’s Status as NFL’s Top RB
Dalvin Cook is the closest thing to unstoppable in professional football.
The Minnesota Vikings running back returned from a groin injury last week and posted 226 yards from scrimmage in a 28-22 victory over the Green Bay Packers, becoming the first player in NFL history to score a touchdown in his team's first four offensive series, according to ESPN Stats & Info.
Cook topped that performance during Sunday's 34-20 win over the Detroit Lions. The ball-carrier ran for 206 yards and provided 252 yards from scrimmage. He's completely changed the direction of Minnesota's season.
"When you can run the ball like we have, it tightens everything up," head coach Mike Zimmer told reporters. "They had a whole bunch of zero blitzes and extra rushes to stop the run. Once that happens, you have some opportunities to create some plays down the field."
Thanks to Cook, the Vikings have improved to 3-5 with a two-game winning streak. Where does the Minnesota ball-carrier rank among the league's best running backs?
Brad Gagnon: C
I don't think it's fair to move him ahead of Alvin Kamara until Kamara hits a speed bump or two, and I want to see him prove he can be more durable first. For now, it's a tight battle between Cook, Kamara, Derrick Henry and Christian McCaffrey. But this is always a moving target.
Brent Sobleski: B
Obviously, a strong argument can be made in Cook's favor over the last two weeks, but context is needed to better understand the entire picture. Right now, the NFL is loaded with excellent running back talent. Henry is the most intimidating with the best overall numbers in the last two seasons. Kamara and McCaffrey add so much more in the passing game. Plus, no one should forget about Nick Chubb, who is expected back next week after nursing an MCL sprain.
Gary Davenport: B
Cook's status as the No. 1 running back in the NFL certainly isn't unquestioned—there are runners in Carolina and New Orleans who have legitimate claims of their own to the throne. But after piling up approximately all the yards ever over the past two games, there's little question that he's the hottest ball-carrier in the league. He is, as the cool kids say, "en fuego."
Matt Miller: A
If it's not Cook this year, who is it? Cook is owning the NFC North and the rest of the league with back-to-back performances that seem to put a period on his status as the game's best back this year. The Vikings' rejuvenation is all on Cook, who might be a legitimate Most Valuable Player candidate as well.
Giants' Chances of Winning the NFC East
The NFC East is such an awful division that each week a different team with a losing record looks like it could be the squad to turn it around and finally stake its claim as the front-runner.
The roulette wheel landed on the New York Giants this week after their 23-20 victory over the Washington Football Team. With the win, the Giants own a 2-7 record. They're only one game in the win column behind the division-leading Philadelphia Eagles.
"Throw the record away," head coach Joe Judge told reporters. "It's irrelevant."
He's not wrong. Everyone can make fun of professional football's worst division. At the same time, all four teams still have an opportunity to claim a division crown and host a playoff game.
Are the Giants that team? Right now, what are the odds New York will be the squad to emerge from the NFC East as its postseason representative?
Brad Gagnon: D
They can't beat anyone except Washington. Seriously, they have just one win against a team other than WFT in their last 22 games. And now they're done with Washington for the remainder of 2020. They're unlikely to hang with the Eagles.
Brent Sobleski: D
The Giants are far closer to obtaining a top-five draft selection than becoming a playoff squad. To be fair, the team continues to play hard for Judge, and none of the players have given up on the season (so far). But New York isn't good. The Eagles are more likely to overcome the obstacles in front of them than anyone else in the division.
Gary Davenport: F
To quote the folks on ESPN's Monday Night Football pregame show, come on, man. The Giants would need to play Washington 16 times to have a chance of winning the division. It says something about just how putrid the NFC (L)East is in 2020 that this is even a question. The Giants stink. Maybe not as badly as Washington. But still—stinky poo.
Matt Miller: D
The Giants got a much-needed win on Sunday, but does anyone think this is sustainable? Four of their last seven games are against teams with winning records. The Giants can celebrate tonight, but this is still a roster in serious trouble and a franchise that would be better off starting over at general manager.
Jake Luton’s NFL Debut
Move over Minshew Mania because Luton Lunacy is about to take over the Jacksonville Jaguars.
Stepping in for an injured Gardner Minshew II in his first professional start, Jake Luton excelled. The sixth-round rookie threw for 304 yards and recorded a passing touchdown and a rushing score. He became the first quarterback since 1950 with 300 passing yards, 25 completions and a rushing touchdown in his first career start, per NFL Research.
More importantly, Luton had his team in a position to tie the game and force overtime, but the Jaguars didn't convert on a two-point attempt.
Still, Luton clearly outperformed expectations.
Head coach Doug Marrone told reporters his quarterback "checked a lot of marks," though "he knows [Luton] wishes he had some throws back."
How well did the Jaguars' latest revelation play in his debut?
Brad Gagnon: A
He completed three deep passes to top receiver DJ Chark Jr., which is a very good sign. He also limited his mistakes and sacks taken, and that 13-yard touchdown run looked like Minshew Magic. The Jags could have a competition on their hands between two 24-year-old sixth-round picks.
Brent Sobleski: C
Luton looked good and deserves credit for playing above his head. In the end, so what? He's not the solution any more than Minshew was. The Jaguars are trending in the same direction they were before the season began. The team will almost certainly select its next franchise quarterback at or near the top of the 2021 draft.
Gary Davenport: B-
Remember when Minshew was a thing? Well, that's over. Shave the mustache. Minshew Mania is dead. Long live Luton Lunacy. Hyperbole aside, Luton played well in his debut with 304 passing yards, a passing touchdown and a 90.2 passer rating. The bigger question is whether that speaks to how good he is or how bad the Texans are. At least he didn't mess around and win the game. You don't want to screw up draft position.
Matt Miller: C
Let me be the voice of reason. It's cool that Luton got an NFL start and made an above-average run for a touchdown, but people are overreacting to the rookie quarterback's game and seriously overreacting to a team that still lost Sunday. We all love underdog stories, but the Minshew Mania in Jacksonville should be a reminder to everyone to calm down.
Tua Tagovailoa's 2nd Start
A week ago, two crucial aspects of the Miami Dolphins' potential long-term plans came into focus.
First, the organization decided to start this year's fifth overall draft pick, Tua Tagovailoa, and a report by ESPN's Adam Schefter surfaced explaining the choice to bench Ryan Fitzpatrick in favor of the rookie was due, in part, to the desire for an extensive audition.
Then Tagovailoa put together a solid, albeit unspectacular, performance in his first start against the Los Angeles Rams.
A week later, Miami needed more from the position when facing the potent Arizona Cardinals. Tagovailoa obliged with 248 yards and a pair of touchdown passes. Through two starts, he's yet to throw an interception.
"I think it's just taking it a play at a time," Tagovailoa told reporters. "The plays that were given to us by our offensive coordinator, Chan [Gailey], gave us a great chance to be successful."
Now that we're two games into the Tua era, how did the first-year signal-caller look in his second start?
Brad Gagnon: B
There's little doubt that was a tremendous improvement after he was hardly a factor in Week 8. He hit on a few deep attempts and made a positive impact with his legs while committing zero turnovers. He's not carrying the Dolphins, but it might only be a matter of time. And maybe most importantly, it doesn't look like the hip injury has changed him as a player.
Brent Sobleski: A
Last week, we saw the calm, cool and collected version of Tua. The moment wasn't too big for him. This week, we started to see his role expand when the Dolphins capitalized on the young quarterback's skill set. As Pro Football Focus noted, he went 8-of-11 passing when driving the ball beyond 10 yards downfield. The Dolphins don't need to worry about their future draft picks since they have their guy.
Gary Davenport: A
After he passed for less than 100 yards in his debut as a starter, the Dolphins took Tua's training wheels off a bit more in Game 2. He thrived, passing for 248 yards and two scores with a 122.3 passer rating. The success first-year passers like Tagovailoa, Joe Burrow and Justin Herbert have had over the front half of their rookie seasons has been genuinely astounding.
Matt Miller: A+
Anyone questioning the ability of the No. 5 overall pick in the 2020 NFL draft is licking their wounds after another really good start. This one saw Tua going head-to-head against the NFL's No. 1-ranked offense in the Arizona Cardinals, and he executed beautifully on the ground and through the air in a shootout that saw Miami advance to 5-3 and remain very much alive in the AFC playoff race.
Tony Pollard vs. Ezekiel Elliott This Season
Despite everything that has gone wrong in Dallas this season, the Cowboys claim a talented backfield with three-time Pro Bowl runner Ezekiel Elliott serving as the lead back and 2019 fourth-round draft pick Tony Pollard coming in as the change of pace.
However, their roles could be shifting slightly considering the issues found along the Dallas front and the need for slightly different utilization within the scheme.
During Sunday's 24-19 loss to the Pittsburgh Steelers, Pollard led the Cowboys with 57 rushing yards on only nine carries. Elliott managed 51 with double the totes.
Both are capable options, though Pollard certainly impressed with limited opportunities against one of the NFL's finest defenses.
How has each running back performed this season?
Brad Gagnon: Elliott, C; Pollard, B
They were both averaging 3.9 yards per carry entering Week 9 before Pollard put up more yards on half as many carries against Pittsburgh. Pollard doesn't do as much through the air, and Elliott still has a higher ceiling, but you have to consider how much more expensive he is. It's ridiculous that he's gained more than 12 yards on just two carries this season.
Brent Sobleski: Elliott, C; Pollard, C
Sure, Pollard posted a healthy 6.3 yards per carry Sunday, whereas Elliott managed only 2.8. But they both entered the contest averaging 3.9 yards per carry. Besides, defenses will key on Elliott whenever he is in the game. Let's not forget he's been nursing a sore hamstring, as well.
Gary Davenport: Elliott, C-; Pollard, C-
Pollard and Elliott have both been less than impressive this season, averaging fewer than four yards per carry and about 6.5 yards per catch. Elliott is the bigger name and, as such, arguably the bigger disappointment. But just about any running back would have trouble getting yardage playing behind a patchwork offensive line with a fourth-string quarterback no one is afraid of.
Matt Miller: Elliott, B-; Pollard, B
It's easy to overreact to the pedestrian numbers from the Dallas run game, but this is more about the fact that the offensive line is banged up and defenses can tee off on the running backs with Dak Prescott out and the passing game limited. This was evident in how easy it was for Garrett Gilbert to tuck and run as the defense was selling out on Elliott all game long. It's fun to overreact and think stars like Zeke aren't good, but he is and will be. This is about the talent around him.
Pittsburgh Steelers' Standing as AFC's Best Team
The Pittsburgh Steelers' undefeated season seemed to be slipping away thanks to a surprise effort from the beleaguered Dallas Cowboys. The Steelers trailed 19-9 as the fourth quarter opened. A pair of Ben Roethlisberger touchdown passes and a Chris Boswell field goal in the final frame secured a 24-19 victory and an 8-0 start.
"Every time we face adversity, we fight," tight end Eric Ebron, who scored Sunday's game-winning touchdown, told reporters. "That's the only thing I can tell you. In the end, man, I wouldn't bet against us."
Pittsburgh is the NFL's only undefeated squad, yet Sunday's performance has to be somewhat unsettling considering the Steelers faced a quarterback Dallas plucked off the Cleveland Browns practice squad last month, in addition to the numerous injuries and deficiencies throughout the Cowboys roster.
Despite the record, are the Steelers the best the AFC currently has to offer?
Brad Gagnon: C
I've made it clear in our power rankings all season that I'm still giving the AFC edge to the Kansas City Chiefs. They may have one more loss than Pittsburgh, but the defending champions have cut it a lot less close. Ultimately, Kansas City has too much of an edge on offense.
Brent Sobleski: A
As previously stated in these weekly grades, a win is a win is a win. Unexpected outcomes occur pretty much every weekend. The Steelers responded when they needed to do so. The concern coming out of this contest isn't about how the team played, but rather about Roethlisberger's health after he went to the locker room with a knee issue. Though he returned to the contest, it's something to watch in the coming weeks.
Gary Davenport: C-
Pittsburgh did what it needed to do to get a win Sunday in Dallas and move to 8-0 for the first time in franchise history. But getting an ugly victory against a bad Cowboys team doesn't increase my confidence in Pittsburgh's ability to beat Kansas City in January.
Matt Miller: A
To be the best in the NFL, you have to win ugly. The Steelers did that Sunday with halftime adjustments and big plays from the defense before Roethlisberger heated up late. And while the Kansas City Chiefs are closing in on the Steelers' record at 8-1, it's not like the Chiefs are dominating in all three phases of the game right now.