The Daily Briefing Thursday, October 18, 2018
AROUND THE NFL
Striking gold in the free-agent market can accelerate — or even eliminate — the rebuilding process for NFL franchises.
The Chicago Bears stand atop the NFC North thanks not only to the Khalil Mack blockbuster trade, but also to an overhauled receiving corps featuring expensive acquisitions in Allen Robinson, Taylor Gabriel and Trey Burton.
The Baltimore Ravens are similarly perched atop the AFC North thanks to an offseason shopping spree that included a comprehensive makeover of their own receiver room.
As we look ahead to next year’s free agency, we know that superstars such as Pittsburgh’s Le’Veon Bell, Dallas’ DeMarcus Lawrence, Houston’s Jadeveon Clowney, New York’s Landon Collins and even Seattle’s injured Earl Thomas will break the bank with mega deals that’ll threaten to set the market for their respective positions.
Let’s examine some of the lesser-known players enjoying fortuitously timed breakout campaigns, pushing for new contracts while playing at a Pro Bowl level.
1) Melvin Gordon, running back, Los Angeles Chargers
A couple of weeks into the season, my NFL Game Pass notes referred to Gordon as a poor man’s Todd Gurley. A month later, that description seems to sell Gordon short. Equally adept as a tackle-breaking runner and smooth receiver, Gordon is on pace for 1,243 yards rushing and 744 receiving to go with 24 touchdowns — numbers that are eerily similar to Gurley’s Offensive Player of the Year campaign last season. Third in rushing behind Gurley and Cowboys Pro Bowler Ezekiel Elliott, Gordon has teamed with scatback Austin Ekeler to comprise the NFL’s most productive complementary backfield. The dual playmakers are averaging 200 yards and two touchdowns per week, video-game production that has them ahead of the historic 2017 campaign turned in by New Orleans’ Alvin Kamara and Mark Ingram.
When Gordon entered the league back in 2015, he was determined to save the endangered workhorse back. Along with Gurley, Elliott and Bell, he has accomplished that feat.
Now, the Chargers exercised the fifth-year option on Gordon’s rookie deal, so he’s not a free agent this coming offseason. But at the moment, he’s playing well enough to earn a hefty extension in the coming months, rendering that flex pact moot.
2) Frank Clark, defensive end, Seattle Seahawks
With a lightning-quick first step and the power to bull rush rookie left tackle Kolton Miller, Clark almost single-handedly shut down Derek Carr’s aerial attack in London. After losing a sack to a holding call on cornerback Shaquill Griffin earlier in the possession, Clark forced a Carr fumble on third down, setting up David Moore’s touchdown for a 14-0 Seattle lead in the first quarter. Carr managed to keep Clark at bay with a series of short drops and quick-trigger passing plays in the second quarter, but that’s no way to orchestrate a comeback from a double-digit deficit. Forced to drop back again in the third quarter, Carr was smothered by Clark and Quinton Jefferson on second down. One play later, Clark came through with his second strip-sack of the day, once again handing Russell Wilson the ball deep in Raiders territory. Jon Gruden waved the white flag, essentially refusing to put his quarterback in harm’s way for the game’s final 25 minutes.
Barring a major injury, Clark is going to finish the season with double-digit sacks and cash in as a top-tier pass rusher next offseason.
3) Dee Ford, outside linebacker, Kansas City Chiefs
Clark isn’t the only edge rusher taking full advantage of a contract year. Selected in the first round of the 2014 NFL Draft as Tamba Hali’s successor, Dee Ford recorded 10 sacks in a breakout 2016 campaign. Playing through hip and back injuries last season, however, he managed just two QB takedowns in six games before landing on IR in early December. Healthy again this year, he’s been the lone bright spot on a 32nd-ranked defense allowing 197 more yards per game than top-ranked Baltimore. No defensive star — not even Chicago’s Khalil Mack — has hit opposing quarterbacks more often through six weeks. Playing on the fifth-year option in his rookie contract, Ford will be a candidate for the franchise tag next offseason.
4) Za’Darius Smith, outside linebacker, Baltimore Ravens
Smith has been perhaps the most disruptive force on a front seven that includes potential Hall of Famer Terrell Suggs and three-time Pro Bowl selection C.J. Mosley. Even before his three-sack performance in Baltimore’s beatdown of Tennessee, the 2015 fourth-round pick was emerging as a force to be reckoned with as a rotational rusher behind Suggs and starter Matt Judon.
5) C.J. Mosley, middle linebacker, Baltimore Ravens
Speaking of Baltimore’s contract conundrums, DeCosta will have little choice but to open the checkbook for Mosley, a defensive leader touted by none other than Ray Lewis as the league’s best middle linebacker.
6) Sheldon Richardson, defensive tackle, Minnesota Vikings
Mike Zimmer’s defense has softened a bit with Pro Bowl pass rusher Everson Griffen sidelined, but it’s through no fault of Richardson or NFL sack leader Danielle Hunter. Forced to settle for a one-year, make-good contract after recording just one sack in a disappointing 2017 season with Seattle, Richardson has been reborn in Zimmer’s scheme.
7) Morris Claiborne, cornerback, New York Jets
While former Rams franchise player Trumaine Johnson landed a whopping five-year, $72.5 million mega deal with Gang Green, Claiborne was forced to go the Richardson route with another one-year rental contract. Johnson has been an injury-ravaged bust early in his Jets career, leaving Claiborne to put the clamps on top receivers.
8) Margus Hunt, defensive lineman, Indianapolis Colts
This one came out of left field. Before new coordinator Matt Eberflus landed in Indianapolis this past offseason, Hunt was known primarily for his colorful nickname (“The Eastern Block,” because he hails from Estonia and set SMU’s school record for blocked kicks in a season) and star turn on HBO’s “Hard Knocks” with the Bengals early in an otherwise-nondescript career. The behemoth defensive end is suddenly playing to his potential, hip-tossing blockers to hunt down quarterbacks and hog-tying running backs behind the line of scrimmage. Already 31 years old, his best bet is to re-sign with the Colts and continue to thrive as a sidekick to hotshot rookie linebacker Darius Leonard.
9) Jared Cook, tight end, Oakland Raiders
Now that Marshawn Lynch is nursing a groin injury, Cook might qualify as the lone bright spot in Jon Gruden’s offense.
10) Rodger Saffold, offensive guard, Los Angeles Rams
A second-round pick of the St. Louis Rams back in 2010, Saffold has spent the majority of his career mired in misery. He’s been given new life under Sean McVay, teaming with All-Pro left tackle Andrew Whitworth and veteran center John Sullivan to lead the league’s most consistently excellent blocking unit.
The Saints may be 4-1, but Mike Triplett of ESPN.com points out a tough road ahead.
Drew Brees smiled as soon as the question began.
Where would beating the Baltimore Ravens rank on his career bucket list alongside things such as that all-time passing yardage record he broke last week and the 500th career touchdown pass he is about to throw?
“Yeah, I mean, listen, I’d love to beat these guys,” Brees said.
As ESPN Ravens reporter Jamison Hensley broke down earlier this week, Baltimore is the one team Brees has never beaten in his 18-year NFL career. He is 0-3 as a member of the New Orleans Saints and went 0-1 against Baltimore early in his career with the San Diego Chargers.
If the fifth try is the charm on Sunday (4:05 p.m. ET, Fox), Brees will join Peyton Manning and Brett Favre as the only quarterbacks to beat all 32 NFL teams.
When asked how much it nags at him as a competitor that there is one team out there that he hasn’t checked off the list, Brees smiled again and said, “A little bit.”
But then he quickly said he needs to make Sunday’s trip to Baltimore like “any other game” — to “turn on the film and digest what you see.”
Unfortunately, what he sees when he turns on that film is a Ravens team that will be as tough to beat as any he has faced before.
The Ravens (4-2) have the NFL’s most dominant defense so far this season. They rank first in the NFL by a wide margin in yards allowed per game (270.8), points allowed per game (12.8) and sacks (26). They had 11 sacks last week in a 21-0 shutout of the Tennessee Titans.
“We’ve got our work cut out for us,” said Brees, who called 36-year-old edge rusher Terrell Suggs “the ageless wonder” with his 4.5 sacks this season and 130 in his career.
Takes one ageless wonder to know one, apparently.
“You always know it’s gonna be a slugfest,” Brees said of facing the Ravens. “Extremely talented defense across the board. Front, linebacker corps, back end in the secondary. They’ve built that defense to fit those pieces. So our execution has to be at a premium to beat these guys.”
The good news is the Saints (4-1) are no slouches themselves.
Their offense ranks first in the NFL with 36.0 points per game and third with 424 yards per game. Brees, 39, leads the league with a career-best passer rating of 122.3 and an astounding completion percentage of 77.9. He has thrown 11 touchdown passes with zero interceptions.
As Saints left tackle Terron Armstead said when asked about how much “moxie” the Ravens have on defense: “We feel like we have some moxie as well.”
The Saints are one of the hottest NFL teams, winners of four straight. But they are about to be tested in a huge way — and not just by the Ravens.
New Orleans has the league’s toughest remaining schedule, according to both opponents’ win percentage and ESPN’s Football Power Index.
According to ESPN Stats & Information, the Saints’ upcoming stretch of five games will be the toughest five-game stretch any team has faced so far this season: at Baltimore (No. 2 in FPI), at the Minnesota Vikings (No. 11), vs. the Los Angeles Rams (No. 1), at the Cincinnati Bengals (No. 15) and vs. the Philadelphia Eagles (No. 10).
Later this season, the Saints also host the No. 6 Pittsburgh Steelers and No. 14 Atlanta Falcons, travel to face the No. 10 Dallas Cowboys and No. 20 Tampa Bay Buccaneers and face the No. 16 Carolina Panthers twice, home and away.
All 11 of their remaining opponents rank in the FPI’s top 20. (The Saints rank fifth, by the way).
“I mean, there’s still so much of the season left,” Brees said when asked if he is aware of the gauntlet the Saints are about to face. “And we understand the importance of each game, each and every week. There’s just so much football left to be played.”
The 49ers are getting back WR MARQUISE GOODWIN who makes his share of big plays. Mike Florio of ProFootballTalk.com:
The 49ers have had serious injury issues this season. One player’s return from injury is providing a bright spot for the offense.
Receiver Marquise Goodwin is healthy, and it showed on Monday night against the Packers, with four catches for 126 yards and two touchdowns.
49ers coach Kyle Shanahan was asked by reporters to describe the impact that a healthy Goodwin has on the offense.
“Huge,” Shanahan said. “Quise is our number one receiver and has been. We really haven’t had him since that Minnesota game. He’s played a little bit here and there, but he hasn’t been healthy. Also, on top of that, our backup receiver at the X position has been out too in Dante Pettis. So it’s been tough without those guys the past few weeks, but getting Quise back in the Green Bay game, as you guys could see, it’s a huge difference. You always want your starter out there, but also the speed element that Quite brings to the game is very crucial to him getting points and if not, loosens stuff up for other people.”
Goodwin hadn’t done much this season before Monday night. He had catches in only two other games, totaling five receptions for 54 yards and a touchdown. With Goodwin healthy, his ability to produce — and to draw attention down the field so that others can produce — will help the 49ers get the most out of their offense, even with a backup quarterback running the show.
LOS ANGELES RAMS
The Broncos brought WR COOPER KUPP down with a horse collar tackle and he has a knee injury that will definitely keep him out of Sunday’s game at the 49ers.
Mike Florio of ProFootballTalk.com on the problems with the Broncos defense.
The Broncos had a championship-caliber defense. It’s impossible to continue to say “have” in that regard, given that Denver has surrendered nearly 600 rushing yards over the past two games, including a pair of 200-plus-yard rushers in Isaiah Crowell and Todd Gurley.
So what’s the problem with the Denver defense? Chris Simms explained on Thursday’s PFT Live that he noticed some issues with the scheme in the game against the Jets, including expecting a middle linebacker to simultaneously cover the tight end and plug the gap between the center and the guard. Simms thinks the Jets cracked the proverbial code of the Denver defense in running roughshod over the Broncos.
Coach Vance Joseph sees it a different way, nudging the blame away from the design of the defense and toward the players implementing it.
“Guys have to want to tackle, that’s all I’m going to say about that,” Joseph said earlier this week, via the Denver Post.
And then he said more.
“It’s a want-to thing,” Joseph added. “You can drill tackling all you want. If it’s you and I in an alley, [and] if I want to tackle you, I’m going to tackle you — that’s the bottom line.”
Here’s the bottom line: Joseph seems to be doubling down on his recent “coaches coach and players play” line, a not-so-subtle way of saying, essentially, “The coaches are doing their jobs but the players aren’t.”
But whose job is it to get the players to do their jobs? While it’s possible to blame G.M. John Elway for collecting a group of players who are, as Elway recently said, “very soft” against the run, Elway isn’t likely to acknowledge that he has put together a group of Stay-Puft Marshmallow Men. Especially Elway is also the guy who’ll decide whether or not the coach should stay or go.
The stats say that Jon Gruden dismantled his pass rush. Michael David Smith of ProFootballTalk.com:
This Raiders season seems destined to be defined by the Khalil Mack trade.
After coach Jon Gruden made the decision to send Mack to Chicago, Oakland has struggled to rush the passer. Right now, no team in the league is worse at pressuring the quarterback than the Raiders.
According to Chris Trapasso of the Buffalo News, using data compiled by Pro Football Focus, the Raiders are dead last in the NFL in pressure rate: Oakland has pressured the opposing quarterback on only 21.3 percent of passes, easily the worst rate in the league. No other defense is below 25 percent.
The Raiders are also tied for last in the league in sacks, with just seven this season. Bruce Irvin has three sacks, Maurice Hurst has two, Arden Key and Clinton McDonald have one apiece. That’s it.
Football Outsiders has a stat called Adjusted Sack Rate, which ranks teams on how frequently they get sacks (or force intentional grounding penalties) adjusted for down, distance, and opponent. On that score the Raiders rank 31st in the league, ahead of only the Giants.
So no matter how you slice it, the Raiders are one of the worst teams in the league at getting to the opposing quarterback. Gruden was playing the long game when he traded Mack and got the Bears’ next two first-round draft picks, but in the short term he crippled his defense.
Here is the entire “QB Pressure Rate” as reported by Trapasso:
Here’s the updated team defensive pressure rate list:
Pressures Drop Backs faced Pressure Rate
Philadelphia Eagles 110 266 41.4%
Los Angeles Rams 91 224 40.6%
Carolina Panthers 79 199 39.7%
Green Bay Packers 84 219 38.4%
Buffalo Bills 91 241 37.8%
Jacksonville Jaguars 84 224 37.5%
Baltimore Ravens 92 247 37.2%
Minnesota Vikings 85 230 37.0%
Dallas Cowboys 82 227 36.1%
San Francisco 49ers 92 259 35.5%
Kansas City Chiefs 104 294 35.4%
Pittsburgh Steelers 98 284 34.5%
Los Angeles Chargers 82 240 34.2%
Cincinnati Bengals 92 271 33.9%
Chicago Bears 69 207 33.3%
New England Patriots 84 256 32.8%
New York Jets 86 266 32.3%
Washington Redskins 63 200 31.5%
Arizona Cardinals 75 239 31.4%
Seattle Seahawks 70 224 31.3%
Tennessee Titans 70 228 30.7%
New York Giants 66 221 29.9%
Denver Broncos 66 221 29.9%
Miami Dolphins 69 234 29.5%
Cleveland Browns 76 261 29.1%
Tampa Bay Buccaneers 61 210 29.0%
Indianapolis Colts 73 257 28.4%
Houston Texans 63 234 26.9%
Atlanta Falcons 69 261 26.4%
Detroit Lions 45 173 26.0%
New Orleans Saints 50 198 25.3%
Oakland Raiders 42 197 21.3%
LOS ANGELES CHARGERS
Should a team end up in London on a fulltime basis, the DB has thought the Chargers are the most likely. They have no fan base, their patriarch owner is recently deceased and the heirs might feel like selling…
The buzz from the fall meeting was what tough sledding they are facing in L.A. Seth Wickersham of ESPN.com:
It’s no secret that the Los Angeles Chargers have struggled to gain a foothold with fans since moving from San Diego last year, and the problems are hitting them on the bottom line.
Sources told ESPN’s Seth Wickersham that the viability of the Chargers in Los Angeles was a topic of discussion at the owners meetings here Tuesday and Wednesday. Multiple owners, who requested anonymity, said Wednesday that the topic was not brought up formally in the meetings but that there has been a lot of discussion on the side about the extent to which the Chargers are struggling to build a fan base in Los Angeles.
The Chargers are currently playing in the StubHub Center in Carson, California. The venue seats about 30,000 people, which makes it about half as big as even the smallest NFL stadiums. Their plan is to move into the new stadium the Rams are building in Inglewood in 2020 and to function as a sort of “tenant” of the Rams rather than an equal partner in the venture.
Sources told Wickersham, however, that the Chargers are expected to revise their initial Inglewood revenue goal from $400 million down to $150 million.
Part of the lowered revenue projection could be tied to lower ticket prices in the new stadium. The Chargers on Wednesday announced prices for about 75 percent of their tickets for the new stadium when it opens in 2020, and they are advertising “more than 26,000 seats priced between $50 and $90 per seat, per game with an associated Stadium Seat License payment of only $100 for each seat.”
“Each decision throughout this process has been made with the fan in mind, and we think the pricing announced today reflects this fact,” A.G. Spanos, the team’s president of business operations, said in the news release.
NFL commissioner Roger Goodell, when asked about what the league could do to help the Chargers, opened his response by singing the praises of the still-under-construction Inglewood project and said he expected the excitement over the new stadium to build as its opening gets closer.
“Lots of football, lots of building still to do,” Goodell said. “And frankly, we were out of the market for a long time, and we have to earn our way back with our fans. We have to build that relationship back with our fans and make sure that we do it right. Both teams are committed to that.
“It will be something that we have to work at over a period of time. They both have very exciting young teams, and I think that will be helpful also. But I think all of those things will come together over the next two years. That’s the work that needs to be done.”
London Chargers to the AFC East, Miami to the AFC South, Houston to the AFC West – you heard it here first.
Jamison Hensley of ESPN.com on a Ravens defense that would be good in any age, but seems otherworldly in 2018:
At a time when NFL offenses are putting up points as if it’s a Madden video game, the Baltimore Ravens are defiantly bucking the trend by demolishing quarterbacks, shredding running games and blockading the end zone.
The Ravens rank No. 1 in yards allowed, giving up 35.7 yards per game fewer than any other defense in the league. Baltimore is No. 1 in scoring defense, allowing 12.8 points per game while no one else is holding teams under 17 points.
The title of the NFL’s best defense through six games unquestionably goes to the Ravens. Statistically, Baltimore is in a class of its own.
The Ravens, though, have bigger goals in mind.
“We’re chasing history right now,” cornerback Brandon Carr said. “We’re not looking around at the other 31 teams. We’re looking at all the greats from when the league was first established until now.”
The Ravens have a ways to go before they get mentioned with the 1985 Chicago Bears or their own record-breaking 2000 defense, but this year’s defense already has begun rewriting the history books with these accomplishments:
* Setting a franchise record with 11 sacks in Tennessee. The Ravens fell one short of the NFL mark and produced more sacks than completions allowed (10). Baltimore produced more sacks in this game than what seven other teams have had through the first six weeks of the season.
* Establishing a modern-era mark by not giving up a second-half touchdown in the first six games. The last NFL team to do so was the 1934 Lions, who dominated the likes of the Boston Redskins, Brooklyn Dodgers, Cincinnati Reds and St. Louis Gunners 84 years ago.
* Becoming the first team to shut out the Titans in Nashville. The last time that franchise was shut out at home was 1976, when the Houston Oilers were held scoreless at the Astrodome.
* Holding the Pittsburgh Steelers to 19 yards rushing. That was the Steelers’ fewest rushing yards at home since 1952, when Pittsburgh played at Forbes Field.
All of the Ravens’ milestones should be underscored because they have come during an age when the rules favor the offense. This is the fantasy football era that’s geared to Patrick Mahomes and Todd Gurley — and not shutouts. As a result, teams have racked up the most points (4,489) and touchdowns (504) through six weeks in NFL history.
“The game has changed over the years, but good players, good coaching and sound defense can always make things tough on offense,” safety Eric Weddle said. “Baltimore is known for defense. It shouldn’t be that surprising that we play that well on defense.”
The Ravens return all of their starters from a defense that ranked No. 12 in the league last season. What has made this defense go from very good to great is new coordinator Don “Wink” Martindale’s aggressive game plans and improved depth.
This season, Baltimore has blitzed 35 percent of the time, which is the third-highest rate in the NFL, according to ESPN Stats & Information. This pressure has led to the lowest completion percentage against the blitz (48.6 percent).
The Ravens have capitalized on the maturity of their young players, which allows them to show multiple looks and wear down teams. Baltimore has had 13 players record at least one sack and 14 players make at least one pass deflection.
“There’s really no weakness,” said New Orleans Saints quarterback Drew Brees, who faces the Ravens on Sunday. “I really have a ton of respect for these guys. Whether it’s defending the run or the pass or getting pressure on the quarterback — they’re just good in every facet of the game.”
The Ravens believe the Saints represent their measuring stick. The Saints are the NFL’s highest-scoring offense, averaging 36 points per game. Brees is coming off a game in which he became the league’s all-time leader in passing yards.
This is the 10th matchup since the 1970 merger that features a team averaging over 35 points per game against a team that allows 15 points or fewer per game at least five games into the season, according to the Elias Sports Bureau. The top offense has won seven of the previous nine meetings.
Sarah Barshop of ESPN.com on the possible return of S ANDRE HAL.
Houston Texans safety Andre Hal practiced Wednesday, less than a month after he announced that his Hodgkin lymphoma is in remission.
Hal has been on the non-football illness list since the team announced his cancer diagnosis in June. The Texans now have 21 days to add him to the active roster or he will stay on the list and will not be able to play again this year.
“We activated the 21-day window on him, so he’ll be able to practice with the team,” Texans head coach Bill O’Brien said. “At any point in time over the 21-day window we can decide to activate him to the 53-man roster, so we’ll see where he’s at and go from there. That’s great news for [Hal] and for us.”
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QB DESHAUN WATSON says he is good to go as the Texans prepare for a showdown in Jacksonville. Herbie Teope of NFL.com:
Don’t question Houston Texans quarterback Deshaun Watson’s toughness.
Watson, who is officially listed on the injury report with a chest injury, had the opportunity Wednesday to respond to a report of him playing with a partially collapsed lung and a broken rib against the Dallas Cowboys in Week 5.
While the second-year quarterback didn’t confirm or deny the report, Watson made it clear whatever ailed him wouldn’t keep him off the field.
“For sure, I wouldn’t be out there if it would’ve caused any more problems,” Watson told reporters, via the Texans’ official website. “I talked it over with my family [and] doctors and everything, and everything was fine. That’s the only reason why I was out there.”
The Texans designated Watson as limited in practice throughout Week 6, and he played against the Buffalo Bills while enduring another physical pounding.
Buffalo sacked Watson seven times and recorded 12 quarterback hits, and Watson has now been sacked 25 times and hit 66 times on the season.
Still, Watson continues to prove he is able to take punishment and said he played against the Bills with no extra protective padding. He also said playing with his past and current injuries doesn’t affect his dual-threat skillset on the field.
“Really nothing, honestly,” Watson said. “Just kind of switched up the game plan a little bit, but outside of that, just played a little conservative as far as running the ball, but outside of that, it didn’t really bother me.
“I didn’t worry about the injury or anything during the Cowboys game because I didn’t know what was going on. No one did, and then last week I was fine. I was cleared to play and I was healthy.”
Watson, who put in a full practice Wednesday, emphasized he feels “great” and is healthy. More important, the quarterback said he is cleared to do everything as the Texans prepare to face the Jacksonville Jaguars.
Nevertheless, his ability to rebound from injuries is remarkable when considering the rough treatment from opponents that he has absorbed on a weekly basis through six games. And Watson ultimately credits his experience of playing through injuries going back to his prep playing days.
“I’ve always had that mentality,” Watson said. “I’ve played through a lot of injuries before, as a young kid through high school. Never missed a game until I got to college where the ACL was the issue and then last year, same, ACL was the issue that kept me out. Outside of that, I was always on the field just playing. Once the game was over, kind of regroup and recover.”
Given his ability to quickly recuperate, perhaps the signal-caller possesses Wolverine, mutant-like healing powers.
Doug Marrone is coaching up the Jaguars this week.
Jacksonville Jaguars coach Doug Marrone didn’t mince words about the state of his football team after a two-game losing streak in which they were outscored 70-21.
The Jaguars may have been a Super Bowl contender when the season began, but now they’re struggling with basic football fundamentals.
“We have to do a lot of things better,” Marrone said. “I’m more focused on what we have to get done in practice and do those things before we can even go the next step and get out there on the field Sunday.
“We have a lot of time between now and Sunday to correct a lot of bad football that we have been playing.”
The Jaguars (3-3) host streaking Houston (3-3) in a critical AFC South game at TIAA Bank Field. The Jaguars are coming off blowout losses to Kansas City and Dallas, with the supposed elite defense having given up 63 points, 49 first downs, and 802 yards in the two games.
The offense has been even worse. Quarterback Blake Bortles has committed six turnovers — five interceptions — and the offensive line has struggled because four starters are banged up and the fifth is the third-string left tackle. In addition, the team’s wide receivers are having a hard time getting open.
Also not helping is that the team’s best offensive player — running back Leonard Fournette — is out indefinitely with a right hamstring injury.
That’s why Marrone said the team is going back to stressing basic football fundamentals rather than worrying about injuries, scheme and playcalling. The Jaguars can’t just assume the defensive front will have success against a Texans offensive line that has given up the second-most sacks in the NFL (25).
“Well if you think of it like that, I think that’s a pretty good path to probably get your ass kicked,” Marrone said. “Fundamentally, we have gotten away from some things and that is on us as coaches. What I have challenged the coaches and I challenged myself with this week is, ‘Hey listen, we have to get back to fundamentals. We have to stick with something that we can sink our teeth in and this way we can go out there and just perform.’
“This may just be my philosophy that anytime you see football being played as poorly as we have been playing, then that is what it comes down to [fundamentals]. That is my philosophy. You guys may differ, but you have to do things well fundamentally. Usually when you do that, you have a chance to play better.”
The Patriots haven’t been able to find TE ROB GRONKOWSKI in the Red Zone in 2018. Herbie Teope of NFL.com:
New England Patriots tight end Rob Gronkowski is on a scoreless drought entering Sunday’s game against the Chicago Bears.
Gronkowski hasn’t caught a touchdown pass since Week 1, a span of five games to mark the longest scoreless streak in a single season for the four-time All-Pro.
One of the biggest factors keeping Gronk from scoring is a lack of red-zone targets, as Kevin Duffy of the Boston Herald wrote.
Gronkowski, who entered the 2018 season with 76 career touchdowns, said he won’t be getting frustrated over his lack of opportunities near the goal line any time soon.
“It is what it is,” Gronkowski told reporters Wednesday, via the Patriots’ official website. “First off, I’ve got to get open. I’ve got to get out there and run better routes, and then I’ll start seeing more targets. But whatever play is called, we’re scoring points, we’re scoring down there.
NEW YORK JETS
The Jets may just be cautious here, but QB SAM DARNOLD is on the injury report. Al Iannazzone of Newsday:
Sam Darnold plans to make all of his tackles with his left arm from now on, but he hopes he won’t have to make many.
Darnold appeared on the Jets’ long injury report Wednesday with a right elbow issue. He fully participated in practice, so he doesn’t think it’s a big deal. Darnold had a huge smile when he was asked about it. He said he hurt it making it a tackle after an interception in Sunday’s win over the Colts. Darnold also was hit on the elbow on the throw.
“It’s nothing crazy. I felt fine throwing the ball today,” Darnold said. “I’ll try to not throw as many interceptions, so I can stay away from making tackles. At the same time, I should probably tackle without using my right arm as much.”
Though Darnold practiced Wednesday, the Jets had nine players who didn’t. Coach Todd Bowles already ruled out receiver Quincy Enunwa, who has a high ankle sprain, and safety Marcus Maye (broken thumb) for Sunday’s game against the Vikings when the Jets go for their third straight victory.
THIS AND THAT
The Commish is in love with sloppy tackling and other defensive failures boosting offensive totals, but Jenny Vrentas of TheMMQB.com looks at those who make their living coaching defense.
There are certainly plenty of reasons for the current offensive explosion, which The MMQB’s Albert Breer detailed earlier this month, among them QB talent, rules that give the advantage to offensive players and college-style offensive concepts that scheme players wide open in space. But, as the well-worn NFL cliché goes, the guys on the other side of the ball get paid, too. Why have so few teams been able to match good offense with good defense?
It sounds boring, but several coaches point to a decline in fundamentals, which often shows up in the form of a busted coverage and a big play for the opponent. There’s less teaching and practice time under the current CBA than in decades past, yes. But interestingly, a few coaches also identified a strain by defensive coordinators to do too much or get too cute with their schemes, perhaps in an effort to match wits with evolving offenses. That can come at the expense, they said, of putting the emphasis on teaching techniques like how to split a double team, or defending a pass without drawing a flag for PI or defensive holding.
“Very few DBs know how to play the ball in the air without reaching, grabbing, tackling or holding a receiver,” one coach says. “They never turn and look for the football.”
Coaches have to teach players how to play both physically and mentally, and that includes adjusting to rule changes. It’s certainly true that recently added rules, from the defenseless player protections to the roughing-the-passer restrictions (including the now-infamous body-weight emphasis) have restricted the ways in which defensive players can use their bodies to stop offensive players from making a play. One pivotal moment Sunday night was when Chiefs linebacker Breeland Speaks had Tom Brady wrapped up then let him go, resulting in Brady scrambling into the end zone for a four-yard touchdown. Speaks said afterward, per the Kansas City Star, that he thought Brady had released the ball and let him go because he didn’t want to get penalized for roughing the passer.
But it’s also true that these rules aren’t going to be changed back, and this is where teaching good fundamentals becomes even more important. The Rams, as one example, do drills with tackling dummies where they practice wrapping up the QB and spinning around so that they wouldn’t land with their body weight on top of him.
Another question is why offenses seem to benefit from speed more than defenses do. Sure, there might not be another person in the NFL faster than Hill, who has been clocked in the 4.2 range in his 40-yard dash. But there are plenty of good athletes on both sides of the ball. Two of Hill’s three TDs on Sunday night came on deep crossing routes on which defenders never had a chance.
How do you stop these? Deep crossers are designed to be man coverage beaters, giving an advantage to the offense by negating a defender’s speed, because he’s put in a position where he’s chasing the receiver across the formation. On Hill’s 14-yard TD in the third quarter, Patriots safety Devin McCourty was left in this unenviable position. On Hill’s 75-yard score, safety Duron Harmon was turned the opposite direction as Hill streaked across the field to make the wide-open catch and then turned on his jets.
But anticipation and good positioning can give the defense an advantage. A key component of former Ravens safety Ed Reed’s Hall of Fame career was the way he’d defend what they called these Speedo deep crossers. Alerted to a certain guy playing a certain spot—in this case, Hill lined up as the second or third receiver in from the outside of the formation—Reed would switch responsibilities with the cornerback from his deep middle safety spot, leaving him in prime position to jump the route. The idea is that if a receiver is running away from one defender and toward another, it only makes sense to pass him off.
No doubt, offensive explosions are crowd-pleasers. But for those who love defense, much of the 2018 season has been hard to watch. “So disgusted by defenses in the league I can’t stand it,” ESPN analyst Louis Riddick, who played under Belichick in Cleveland, tweeted during the game. And grumbled one longtime defensive coach, “Some of the worst football I’ve ever seen.” Sentiments that pair perfectly with the look on Belichick’s face.
EACH DIVISION’S BEST QB
Interesting idea for a column from Gil Brandt of NFL.com:
League-wide rankings can be fun and even instructive, but at the end of the day, making the playoffs is about playing well in your division. So while it is obviously good to have a quarterback who is better than most of his peers, it can be even more important to have the best signal-caller in your particular football neighborhood.
Of course, this is also no guarantee of success — just ask the Colts. But it should offer a leg up in the annual chase for postseason glory.
Below, I’ve listed the best quarterback in each division, in no particular order, along with the heir apparent or runner-up.
AFC EAST: Tom Brady, New England Patriots. The other three teams in the division will throw a party the day Brady retires. His collective career record against them is 76-21 (22-10 against Miami, 26-8 against New York and 28-3 against Buffalo), which makes for an absurdly dominant winning percentage of .784. He’s directed the Patriots to an NFL-record 10 straight division crowns, and that streak might be even longer had he not been hurt for most of the 2008 season.
Next in line: Sam Darnold, New York Jets. Darnold is still just a rookie, but I think he’s got a chance to be a pretty good quarterback and could step up as the division’s alpha when (if?) Brady hangs ’em up.
AFC NORTH: Ben Roethlisberger, Pittsburgh Steelers. It’s hard to imagine now, but people once feared Big Ben would have a relatively short career, given the beating he was taking under center. From 2004 (his rookie year) to 2009 (when he was sacked a league-high 50 times), he absorbed 242 sacks, easily more than anyone else in the NFL in that span. Since then, Big Ben has benefitted from steady line play and an offensive philosophy that emphasizes getting the ball out of his hand quickly. Consider that from 2013 to now, he’s taken just 142 sacks, seventh-least among QBs with 50-plus starts in that time frame. He currently leads the NFL in passing yards (2,033) at age 36, and his presence — combined with the lackluster quarterbacking elsewhere in the division — is why Pittsburgh has won three of the past four division titles.
Next in line: Baker Mayfield, Cleveland Browns. He’s got everything you want in a quarterback: intangibles, arm strength, athletic ability and — more than anything — tremendous competitiveness.
AFC SOUTH: Andrew Luck, Indianapolis Colts. I would say Luck hit the ground running in his return to game action after losing all of 2017 to shoulder issues. He’s thrown a league-high 288 passes through six games, putting him on pace to breeze past the current regular-season record (727, set by Matthew Stafford in 2012) with 768 attempts. The 1-5 Colts are floundering, but Luck is clearly benefitting from the offensive system installed by new head coach Frank Reich. General manager Chris Ballard has shown he can draft talent, and I think Indy will put the pieces in place for Luck to resume winning at a prolific clip (don’t forget, his record in his first three seasons was 33-15) by 2019.
Next in line: Deshaun Watson, Houston Texans. He’s played pretty well in his return from a torn ACL that abbreviated his rookie season, completing 64.5 percent of his passes and compiling a passer rating of 90.8. But he’s also been sacked 25 times, most in the league, underscoring my one concern with him: his ability to stay healthy long-term.
AFC WEST: Philip Rivers, Los Angeles Chargers. As (understandably) eager as some are to anoint Patrick Mahomes, Rivers remains the king of the division — for now. The 36-year-old has thrown 15 touchdown passes in his first six games, tying a career best for his first six games in a season, and he has 76 scoring throws since 2016, more than any other quarterback in the NFL. The Chargers’ system is taking full advantage of what Rivers can do. If tight end Hunter Henry manages to return from injured reserve this year, Rivers — who loves throwing to tight ends — will elevate his play even further.
Next in line: Patrick Mahomes, Kansas City Chiefs. Mahomes’ promise is obvious, but I think he needs a full season under his belt before he can push Rivers aside. There were times on Sunday when he was fooled by the Pats’ D — tactics that Rivers’ veteran experience would have probably helped him see through.
NFC EAST: Carson Wentz, Philadelphia Eagles. Based on what we saw on “Thursday Night Football,” — 26 of 36 passing for 278 yards, three touchdowns and a passer rating of 122.2 — Wentz is really starting to regain the form that made him a frontrunner for MVP before suffering a knee injury last December. In fact, Wentz is currently on pace to finish with 4,172 passing yards, easily more than what he had in 2017 (3,296), and he’s maintaining a healthy touchdown percentage of 5.1 while bringing his interception percentage down to a minuscule 0.6. I expect Wentz to continue to improve. The concern (if any) stems from the loss of running back Jay Ajayi to injured reserve.
Next in line: Dak Prescott, Dallas Cowboys. Wentz, like Prescott, is just 25, so it’s easy to foresee Wentz continuing to be the man in this division for a generation. Should something happen to Wentz, however, Prescott could step into the void, provided he can rediscover the 2016 version of himself — which would require the Cowboys to find him some receivers.
NFC NORTH: Aaron Rodgers, Green Bay Packers. Hands down, Rodgers is the choice here. Though it’s been true for nearly a decade, Monday’s incredible comeback win over the Niners further reinforced the idea that as Rodgers goes, so go the Packers. Injuries have been a bit of an issue lately, with a knee issue lingering this season. But the 34-year-old is still on pace to record his first 5,000-yard season, and I still expect him to play at a very high level well beyond his 40th birthday.
Next in line: Matthew Stafford, Detroit Lions. It’s unfortunate for Stafford that he’s in the same division as Rodgers, because Stafford is very good in his own right. He’s only 30 years old now and has a long career still ahead of him; if Rodgers should slow down, Stafford will be there to take up the mantle.
NFC SOUTH: Drew Brees, New Orleans Saints. The NFL’s all-time leading passer has a good chance to secure his second Super Bowl title with the Saints. If you’ve become inured to praise of Brees’ quarterback play, perhaps you’d like to view his otherworldly performance through this lens: He’s got Michael Thomas on pace to finish with 147 catches, which, in addition to setting a new single-season NFL record, would give him 343 on his career — obliterating the mark for a player’s first three NFL seasons (288, set by Odell Beckham and Jarvis Landry).
Next in line: Cam Newton, Carolina Panthers. Like Rodgers, it’s hard to imagine when Brees will begin to backslide — it appears right now that he could keep playing this way forever. That said, the 29-year-old Newton (who gets the edge here over the 33-year-old Matt Ryan because of age difference) is positioned to play at a high level for years to come.
NFC WEST: Russell Wilson, Seattle Seahawks. Wilson has still not missed a single NFL start in his career, and he continues to position himself to own every major franchise passing record. He also has the most victories (65) for a quarterback in his first six seasons, and he needs just five more wins this season to claim the mark for his first seven. It’s hard to believe Wilson was the sixth quarterback taken in the 2012 NFL Draft. Wilson’s career winning percentage is .667 — of the five quarterbacks selected ahead of him (Andrew Luck, Robert Griffin III, Ryan Tannehill, Brandon Weeden and Brock Osweiler), only one (Luck) has started more than 30 games while maintaining a career winning percentage above .500.
Next in line: Jared Goff, Los Angeles Rams. Goff is good — and Sean McVay has made him better. Yes, the man who once failed to clear 160 yards per game as a rookie is on pace to break the 5,000-yard mark in his second season under McVay.
Future Hall of Famer MATT RYAN can’t make the top two in his own division.