5 Things I care about
The Eagles versatility
You don’t need me to tell you why the Eagles are one of the clear frontrunners in the NFC. Their record speaks for itself. However, it’s how they win games that makes them so impressive in both reality and fantasy. The Eagles are a classic example of a team that's capable of playing left-handed.
Take away their first move, they have a counterpunch ready to roll.
Philadelphia has won games as a pass-first operation this season. Following the A.J. Brown trade and DeVonta Smith making the second-year leap, you’d naturally want to show those toys off. Brown, specifically, may have single-handedly won games for this team on his own. You certainly didn’t forget that game against the Steelers.
Then there are nights like Week 12. The Eagles averaged 4.6 net yards per pass attempt. There were a few big plays through the air and Jalen Hurts had his share of heaters but it didn’t carry the day.
Instead, the running game was the dominant force for Philadelphia. The Eagles averaged 7.4 yards per carry as a team, almost three full yards more than their average pass. That does not happen often.
It was a clear-cut mismatch heading into the game. The Packers' run defense has been a problem area again this year despite the extra resources devoted to fixing it this offseason. And yet, the Eagles imposed their will from the jump. Hurts took off early and often, reaching a career-high 157 rushing yards. Miles Sanders and the running backs couldn’t be stopped either.
The threat of Hurts alone can make the Eagles a dangerous rushing team. The combination of Sanders and their stacked offensive line is certifiably unfair.
The best teams in the NFL are ones that don’t just win but dominate in multiple ways. The Eagles are one of those operations.
The Jets offense is alive
Robert Saleh offered up an extremely accurate evaluation of Mike White’s play following a decisive win over the Bears. The head coach said White “made easy look easy.” This resonated with me because it hits on a point I’ve been making on multiple shows over the last week.
For years we’ve marveled at how Jimmy Garoppolo consistently ranks among the game’s best quarterbacks in EPA per dropback. Even when Garoppolo has missed time, some of his backups have been quite efficient. That’s because this offensive, Shanahan-tree system is designed to prop up the quarterback and make his life easy.
The Jets hired Mike LaFleur (and that system) away from the 49ers. He’s designed a good offense the last two years and pitched some real heaters in 2022. Just about every quarterback the Jets have trotted out there the last couple of seasons has reaped the benefits … except the one they drafted No. 2 overall.
In addition to a great scheme, the Jets have big-time talent. Garrett Wilson looked like a star once again on Sunday and Elijah Moore — to no one’s surprise — found the end zone for the first time. There is plenty of depth behind them, too. You could argue they’re still operating without their best player, running back Breece Hall, but they’re still pretty stacked. White was able to take advantage of that pretty sweet setup against the Bears, an admittedly cakewalk opponent.
This might seem like overkill heat on Zach Wilson but it’s just the reality of where he is right now. Wilson is just way too behind from a fundamentals standpoint. His head coach basically admitted that when announcing Wilson's benching this week.
A normal NFL quarterback can execute this well-designed, talent-rich offense. Wilson just isn’t at that level right now.
That’s a troubling revelation for the Jets long-term and a massive shadow hanging over the franchise. But for the time being, as long as a normal NFL quarterback is under center, we can juice up expectations for this offense.
Trevor Lawrence’s signature moment
The 2021 No. 1 overall pick has gotten plenty of heat for some late-game mistakes in his second season — no one cares what happened in the joke that was his rookie season with Urban Meyer. So let’s give him a heaping helping of praise for a massive drive to topple the Ravens this week.
It appeared the Ravens had iced the game when Lamar Jackson threw a touchdown to Josh Oliver with 2:10 left on the clock. Lawrence has other plans. He led the team on a 10-play drive that took almost all the remaining time and capped it with a precise, high-degree-of-difficulty touchdown to Marvin Jones.
Doug Pederson was riding the high and elected to keep his young quarterback out there to win the game on a two-point conversion. Lawrence read the play beautifully and stuck the pass on the money to Zay Jones.
This win over an AFC contender in such epic late-game fashion will go down as Lawrence’s signature moment.
I don’t think Lawrence has been as disappointing as others this season. He does the little things well and he’s an overall precise player. The scales have just been a bit unbalanced when it comes to mistakes and big-play, highlight moments. A drive like the one he put together to win the game against Baltimore will go a long way to changing the narrative.
Marquise Brown’s deployment
I don’t often say nice things about the Arizona Cardinals' offense so I’ll take a moment: I like the way they’ve used Marquise Brown this year.
The Ravens often tried to make Brown a vertical receiver because of his speed. I think his speed is better used in the open field, especially given his frame. The Cardinals have figured that out, primarily using him underneath to get him against zone coverage.
Brown returned after a stint on IR to lead the team with 31 routes run. He also out-targeted DeAndre Hopkins, 8-to-6. It’s clear he was fully healthy and ready to roll.
The most interesting note was that Brown lined up in the slot on 58% of his snaps. He was a pure outside receiver during his successful early-season run. Brown’s zone-beating skills and speed can make him a deadly vertical slot receiver, the position Christian Kirk vacated this offseason.
Now, this could just be a blip with primary slots Rondale Moore and Greg Dortch out for this game. I, however, hope it continues. Brown has been awesome this year and would really do well in this role.
Rachaad White’s role
With Leonard Fournette on the shelf, rookie Rachaad White handled a high-equity fantasy football role in the Bucs backfield.
White was on the field for 61% of the snaps and ran a route on almost half of the dropbacks. He was targeted on 41% of those routes, good for a 21.4% team target share overall. Any running back with a pulse is going to be a factor in the passing game with Tom Brady under center. White had plenty of receiving skills coming into the league so this was an expected development.
The more interesting development was his 70% team rushing share. The Bucs didn’t see fit to spell the rookie much or really put him into any true committee.
The results were just okay from a rushing perspective but the overall fantasy production was there for White. We’ll have to see what the rotation looks like when Fournette returns but it’s clear White has earned a big role on a team still searching for answers.
5 Things I don’t care about
The holes in Christian Watson's game
Let's be clear, there are some holes in the rookie receiver's game. Christian Watson has dropped some ghastly passes and doesn't run a full route tree at a high level. But I don't care about that — and I'm the routes guy!
Watson enjoyed another strong outing with 110 yards on four catches with a score. He got most of that on one 63-yard scamper after getting open on a crossing route. His speed is legitimately freaky in the open field.
My pre-draft comparison for Watson was Martavis Bryant. The one-time Steelers receiver was nicknamed The Alien for his freaky exploits down the field and in space. That's exactly how Watson is thriving right now.
The MVS comparisons, however, were ... so bad.
Watson doesn't have a complete game right now. However, he's so physically gifted he can still glide open on go, deep over and crossing routes. That's more than enough to build big games. We're seeing it live in action.
It looks likely that Jordan Love Is going to make some starts this year after Aaron Rodgers left the game in some significant pain. You could argue Love might be more willing to just fling it to Watson than Rodgers, given the latter's emphasis on timing and trust.
Watson might not be a complete player but it doesn't matter right now. What he does well he does so well to the point it's worth chasing. Watson is as freaky as any receiver in the NFL.
Geno Smith regression
Geno Smith’s stat line looked fine. He went over 300 yards and only threw one pick. He tried to throw a few more and will not look good in the “turnover-worthy play” metrics.
Smith played worse than his box score and I’ll admit, the concern about him turning back into a pumpkin popped into my brain. Then it hit me: I don’t care whether it happens or not.
At different points of the season, Smith has been ranked as a top-five quarterback in metrics like completion percentage over expected and EPA per dropback. Smith was never going to keep up that level of play.
Odds are he regresses. But if he does, he’ll likely land himself in the Derek Carr, Kirk Cousins and Ryan Tannehill bucket of quarterbacks. Guys you can win with even if they aren’t the center of your team’s universe.
If Smith does land there in the quarterback rankings by the end of the season, that’s still a huge win based on expectations.
Perhaps this is the start of a small regression for Smith. Maybe it’s not. I don’t really care either way because he’s proven he’s a starting quarterback and deserves the benefit of the doubt to this point.
If he falls, it won’t be too far.
Jimmy Garoppolo’s stats
I’ll also add Jimmy Garoppolo to the group of guys who played a little worse than the box score indicated. Of course, he’d have that kind of game right after I say, “You know, I think Jimmy is playing the best ball of his career,” at just about every holiday gathering.
It was clear Garoppolo was leaving plays on the field. He was missing open receivers and getting a bit too frenetic in the pocket, sinking plays earlier than he should. Those are pretty much trademarks of the typically Garoppolo-led 49ers offense.
Garoppolo has been playing quite well this season. A big part of his recent hot streak was based on how stacked this 49er skill-position room is. Deebo Samuel, Elijah Mitchell and Christian McCaffrey suffered in-game injuries or aggravations. It’s reasonable to wonder if any absences in this pass-catching corps will spring some leaks in the quarterback’s play.
The McCaffrey one is particularly interesting. My theory is that Garoppolo has been willing to hang in the pocket half a beat longer because he knows his checkdown is someone as good as CMC. We could see him revert to some old bad habits if McCaffrey misses any serious time. But we aren’t in that scary territory quite yet.
Overall, Garoppolo deserves the benefit of the doubt based on how he’s played this year and the quality of the 49ers' ecosystem. This is just a situation to monitor.
The Houston Texans running game
Dameon Pierce has 16 yards on 15 carries over the last two weeks. That is hideous.
The rookie back is consistently playing in negative game scripts and teams are hip to how good he is. Pierce is averaging -0.4 yards before first contact. No running back could succeed in this situation.
My worry is that Pierce and the Texans are going to be in this situation more often than not to close the season.
Houston gets a matchup with the Browns next week. Cleveland’s defense is historically bad against the run but you know Cleveland’s returning quarterback will be itching to build a big lead. Then the team gets Dallas, Kansas City, Tennessee and Jacksonville. There are a lot of potential blowouts in that stretch.
My analysis for most of this season was that it didn’t matter how bad the Texans were, Pierce would still be awesome. It looks like the Texans have reached a new low and will take Pierce’s rushing efficiency down with them.
DJ Moore stats with Baker Mayfield
It’s pretty incredible, but not at all a coincidence, that DJ Moore comes to life whenever “not Baker Mayfield” starts at quarterback for the Panthers.
Sam Darnold hit Moore for the team’s first touchdown after reading out the play in the red zone. He got him on a long go route late in the game. Moore went over 100 yards for just the second time this season. Darnold gave him chances right from the jump.
This isn’t new. Mayfield’s inability to get the ball to his top wide receiver caused us to have “Can Odell Beckham still get open” discourse. Yes, that Odell; one of the best separators of the last decade.
Mayfield just can’t hit difficult, timing-based throws. Those are the exact type of patterns every team asks their top outside receiver to run in an NFL offense. Darnold and certainly P.J. Walker aren’t perfect players but they know where their bread is buttered. They don’t shy away from those high-leverage throws. When any of those guys are out there, we can hike expectations back to a normal level for the rock-solid Panthers receiver.