So much happens on any given Sunday in the NFL. It’s hard to keep track of it all. More importantly, it’s quite a lot to decide what we should value as signal and what we should just ignore as noise.
In this space, I’ll go through all that we learned this week and give you the five things I care about coming out of Week 10, along with five things I can’t muster up the emotional energy to care for. Good news for you: We’re going to do this exercise in emotional turmoil every Sunday of the regular season.
5 Things I care about
The Ravens can’t figure it out
Remember the 2019 Ravens? They were fun. That team was so fun, in fact, that it’s seemingly clouded our vision in setting expectations for the 2020 iteration.
The Baltimore offense we got so excited about last year has yet to walk through that door and no matter how favorable the upcoming schedule is, I’m losing hope it ever will.
Week 10 provided such an ideal get-right spot for the Ravens. The Patriots are on the mend after their dreadful post-COVID Cam Newton stretch but they’re hardly a team to fear on offense. Defensively, New England ranked 31st in Football Outsiders metrics thanks to an overall lack of speed and pass rush. And still, Lamar Jackson and this scoring unit failed to impress. Jackson himself eked out a QB7 weekly finish but if you think that was a reflection of where this attack is right now, you’re delusional.
I pondered in my Friday pressing question column whether it was time to be worried about Greg Roman’s history as an offensive coordinator. Roman overseeing a dynamic run-based offense in Year 1 only to watch it fall to pieces in the following season isn’t a new thing in league history.
I’m past pondering. I’m all the way convinced that Roman has failed to steward this offense on its next evolutionary step. That should have been his primary goal heading into 2020 and he’s missed the mark entirely. If we hadn’t seen this exact same story play out in his other stops, I wouldn’t feel so convicted as to where the faults lie.
The Ravens look like the exoskeleton of the same team they were last year, just without a top-five offensive line and a power rushing game enjoying the spoils of that blocking. Translation: They don’t look very good.
With Lamar Jackson at quarterback, the Ravens will also possess an otherworldly athlete to keep them in games. Their defense will also help keep contests close. Baltimore isn’t about to become a bad team. It just appears they aren’t going to be the operation we hoped they would have grown into by now.
This is how the Bucs offense should look
Coming off a disastrous showing last Monday night, it was easy to see a bounce-back coming for the Buccaneers offense against Carolina. The ultra-young Panthers can’t get the same kind of pressure with their front four that New Orleans tormented Tom Brady with last week, and their run defense isn’t nearly as stout. 46 points and a comfortable win later, it looks like that all went to plan.
In an ideal world, this is exactly what the Bucs offense as they’ve chosen to construct it should look like on a weekly basis.
There are simply too many skilled pass-catchers on this team to funnel targets to one player or, frankly, even just two. Distributing targets rather economically between their top three wideouts in Antonio Brown, Chris Godwin, and Mike Evans along with their tight ends is about what you can expect. Evans owned an absurd 50 percent share of the team red-zone targets, while Rob Gronkowski and Cameron Brate also hauled in scores inside the 10-yard line. That’s been the rotation for months now.
Also of note: when the passing game is on schedule and the team is playing with the lead, they can keep Ronald Jones on the field. The team might not trust Jones as a receiver or blocker in the passing game but as the Jaguars found out, you might be able to rely on Leonard Fournette to catch the ball but you can’t count on any juice to come afterward. The Bucs are just better when Jones is on the field because that probably means the offense is on schedule.
Even on a day when they put up 46 points, no one truly went wild in the passing game from a fantasy football perspective. It was just a bunch of guys who put up solid lines and a running game that controlled the action. With the way this team is built around Brady, that’s what you should expect from them when they’re winning games.
Alex Smith is able to open it up
After a solid passing stat line last week and the news he’d likely start for Washington the rest of the way, Alex Smith became a part of the every-week discussion, and not just one of the best feel-good stories in league history.
His team wasn’t able to pull out the win but Smith helped Washington battle back against Detroit to lose 27-30 after starting 3-24. With J.D. McKissic inexplicably absorbing 11 targets in the first half, it looked like Smith might be stuck in his old check-down ways. However, the veteran passer was able to open things up and finished with a career-high 390 passing yards. Smith’s economical performance got Terry McLaurin to 122 yards on eight touches and allowed Antonio Gibson to cap-off two drives with goal-line touchdowns. That’s about all we care about in fantasy football.
We’ll never stop talking about Smith’s amazing comeback and resilience but now we need to start taking him seriously as a quality starting option in the year 2020.
Is he about to take this Washington team on a run or put up bulky stats every week? Almost certainly not. But Smith looks exactly like we’d expect him to look like at this stage of his career in an alternate universe where he never missed 700-plus days following a catastrophic knee injury. That player is more than enough to keep Washington’s offense and its small collection of playmakers on schedule.
Wayne Gallman maintains big workload, scores again
This is what the running back position has come to — we care about Wayne Gallman.
Shoutout to the Giants’ back for playing so well that we can’t ignore him. And in fairness to us, we weren’t the only ones to let him go overlooked.
The Giants seemingly overturned countless stones while searching for their Saquon Barkley replacement. New York brought in Dion Lewis this offseason after a poor finish to his Tennessee run. The team added Devonta Freeman off the scrapheap after Barkley’s injury. They even brought Alfred Morris (one carry in 2019) off the couch.
Yet, it seems the answer, or at least a partial solution, was on the roster all along in Wayne Gallman. The fourth-year back has now scored five touchdowns in his last four games. He drew his biggest workload of 2020 in Week 10 with 19 touches.
Gallman isn’t flashy and he’s not tethered to the league’s steadiest offense, but he’s grinding out production and providing clarity in NY’s running back room. That’s more than you can say about a number of backfields across the league.
James Conner’s disappearance
We could easily explain James Conner’s poor game last week with game script. Pittsburgh surprisingly fell behind to the Dallas Cowboys and they needed to keep throwing the ball to survive. In Week 10 against the Bengals, in a game they controlled, we find no such simple excuses.
Conner has just 58 yards on 22 carries the last two weeks. He’s recorded just four catches for 10 yards. That’s wildly disappointing for a guy who had cleared 100 total yards and/or scored a touchdown in each of his previous six games.
You can galaxy brain a take here that the Steelers are trying to conserve Conner. He’s been an injury-plagued player who took time to get into a strong rhythm this year. If the Steelers have noticed any hiccup in Conner’s juice, maybe they decided to let up off the gas since they’re going to moonwalk to a postseason birth.
A more likely explanation is that with the current version of Ben Roethlisberger the Steelers are mostly a timing, rhythm-based short-passing game. Conner is a fine receiver but he’s hardly Alvin Kamara. He’s more of a grinding back and that’s a little bit redundant to this passing style. It’s not as if any other back has emerged with Conner giving some ground in the rotation.
One of these takes can give you hope that Conner will turn things around and be more of a fixture down the stretch. Unfortunately, that’s the galaxy-brain one.
5 Things I don’t care about
The Weeks 4-6 Patriots offense
We’ll look back on the Patriots’ month of October as one of the strangest tales in an already exceptionally odd 2020 NFL season. The team lost all practice rhythm and then had a quarterback dealing with COVID and perhaps even the after-effects of that absence when he returned. It was a lot to manage for a team that already didn’t have a wide margin for error.
When you look at their season in totality, the team of October looks like the clear outlier while the teams of November and September fit alongside each other.
That doesn’t mean the Patriots are about to make a run to the Super Bowl or that they’re even a top-half team in the NFL. It does mean they’re competent, though, something you wouldn’t have called the squad that took the field against Denver or San Francisco. This version of the Patriots can give a team like Baltimore that’s off its A-game some trouble and at least won’t get embarrassed. As long as those are your expectations, you should find peace with this version of Bill Belichick’s team.
If the November version of the Patriots has evolved slightly from the group that took the field in September, it’s in the skill position spots. With Damien Harris in place as the feature back and Jakobi Myers leading the way in the receiver room, Cam Newton finally has some players with some juice.
Who knows what will happen the rest of the way in New England but Harris looks like he should be the answer at running back. He set the tone all night for the offense with a 121-yard game on 25 carries. Other guys like Rex Burkhead and James White can sprinkle in as receivers but there is no reason to take Harris out of the top spot in the ground game.
Similarly, Myers shouldn’t cede any ground in the target distribution. His encore to a 12-catch outing in Week 9 mostly featured Cris Collinsworth pointing out Myers was once a quarterback following the receiver’s scoring toss to Burkhead but he also led the team with seven targets, catching five for 60 yards. He’s been the only consistent presence for Newton all year.
Russell Wilson’s now-empty kitchen
In September and October, Russell Wilson was cooking in a fully loaded luxury kitchen that rolled out flavor-packed dishes to five-star restaurants. In November, though, Wilson has been reduced to pouring cereal, microwaving, and using a hot plate in the corner of a studio apartment.
I’d be lying to you if I had a good reason for Russell Wilson and this passing attack not just regressing to the mean after an uber-efficient start, but careening all the way to the other side of variance. But we are fully here. Over the last two weeks, Wilson’s 76.8 passer rating ranks 32nd among quarterbacks. That’s not what you want.
To be fair to Wilson, his connection with both Tyler Lockett and DK Metcalf is legitimately the only thing good about the Seahawks right now. The defense is still a massive problem and that’s not changing. The offensive line has started to look like some of the leaky units of old and the running game has been a net negative with Chris Carson and Carlos Hyde out of the mix.
So Wilson and this passing game have to walk a tightrope to keep this team competitive. All that said, they’ve bulldozed right through that line the last two weeks like they were Marshawn Lynch on a goal-line run.
Straight up, Wilson has to not make mistakes and just play better. We have a long history to work off of with Wilson and can confidently project he will work out those kinks. Wilson’s 13 turnovers in 2020 are the most he’s ever had in the first 10 games of a season. The smart bet is this gets figured out. Don’t freak out.
Getting excited about Jameis Winston
It’s hard to tell with Twitter but I can’t decide whether people are legitimately curious about what Jamies Winston would look like in this Saints (or any) offense because he’s good or just for the chaos factor. If it’s for the latter, I get it. If it’s the former ... you can count me out.
With Drew Brees suffering a potentially serious rib injury in Week 10, we might see a stretch of Winston starts in New Orleans. Although, Mike Florio of ProFootballTalk left open the possibility of Taysom Hill getting the nod when speaking during the Sunday Night Football halftime.
We remember Winston for juicing the stats of Mike Evans and Chris Godwin last year in Tampa Bay thanks to his wild “live by the sword, die by the sword” style of play. He throws interceptions to get himself in negative game scripts and rifles the ball around the field when he’s in those spots.
That style of play just doesn’t seem to fit with this version of the Saints. The offense plays with tempo and precision-based, over-the-middle underneath passing. Alvin Kamara as a runner and outlet receiver is the foundation piece of the offense. Maybe Winston has undergone some sort of magical transformation since signing with the Saints but we should not come close to projecting that as a reality.
Any excuses for trading elite talent in their prime
The folly of the Texans and Vikings was on full display as the wide receivers they sent packing in the offseason faced off on Sunday. We don’t need to rehash the lunacy of the DeAndre Hopkins trade; you know the deal. The other deal is a bit more complicated. The Stefon Diggs trade netted the Vikings a bevy of draft capital and they’re certainly pleased with Justin Jefferson.
However, it should send at the very least a twinge of regret through both teams watching Diggs essentially win the game for the Bills — only to see Hopkins snatch it away in a miracle catch.
Diggs and Hopkins have legitimately transformed the two offenses they joined. We’re not having MVP debates that include Josh Allen and Kyler Murray as dark horses if it wasn’t for these two wideouts. No chance.
Us selfish fantasy managers ought to be grateful for these whiffs. We’re probably not getting a top-five season out of Diggs if he was still playing in Minnesota. Hopkins might still be producing in Houston but he’s just cemented his legacy by changing teams and not missing a beat.
Miles Sanders was “vultured” twice
To be fair, I have the luxury of not caring because Miles Sanders is on exactly zero of my fantasy teams (not on purpose). So, if you don’t want to hate-read the next few paragraphs, that’s fine. I get it.
There will be much weeping and gnashing of teeth after Boston Scott and Corey Clement both popped in rushing touchdowns while Sanders was left out in the cold. But despite that disappointment, there wasn’t a single negative note in Sanders’ return to action.
Even if he went scoreless, Sanders still totaled 95 yards from scrimmage on 17 touches. He posted an early down success rate of nearly 79 percent, led the backfield in routes run (16), and registered a red-zone look. It’s certainly easy to get irritated by the bottom line but overall, this was a good signal for Sanders.
At this point, we should give up hopes that the Eagles will ever “just be normal.” They still can’t help it; they just make everything look so much harder than it needs to be. But we should still have hope that Sanders is a difference-making back down the stretch.