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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 6, 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
Even in a loss, Darrell Henderson proves himself the difference-maker Rams offense needs
Fantasy football managers have been desperate for clarity in the Rams backfield long before the season began. Sean McVay promised no such thing and has delivered no such thing. No matter who is coming off a good game or even the status of the injury report, the information has been exactly zero percent helpful in projecting the team’s workload split in the weeks to come.
That said, as the Rams fell to their NFC West rivals on Sunday Night Football, it was all too clear that the team needs a true difference-maker to be a down-in, down-out staple of the offense.
If McVay can alter his committee-featuring plans, he already has the player they need in running back Darrell Henderson.
When thrown off their script, Jared Goff and the passing game just don’t have the juice to be the engine of the offense. It’s been that way for seasons now. If the Rams can play with a lead and work their screen game and play-action packages, Goff and the pass-catchers can go up and down the field. If they fall behind, get punched in the mouth, and have to play left-handed, that goes out the window.
The Rams are already one of the most run-heavy teams in the league and clearly view that as their pathway to victory. Why not keep that plan and just feature the guy who has been far and away their best back? Henderson runs with burst, hits holes with authority, and breaks tackles to keep rushes alive. He’s sandwiched between Alvin Kamara and Aaron Jones in Next Gen Stats’ rushing yards over expectation per attempt. That’s good company when we’re talking about getting more than just what’s blocked for you.
It may be fruitless to hope that Sean McVay suddenly reverses course and makes Henderson his new version of Todd Gurley. However, can anyone argue that not only would the Rams clearly be better off if he did but that Henderson’s play has warranted it? One can dream but failing to bring those night-time visions into this plane of consciousness could prove costly for Los Angeles in a competitive NFC playoff picture.
Texans offense exorcise BoB demons — but the defense has NOT
The Texans couldn’t pull out an overtime win over their undefeated division rivals from Tennessee but it was not their offense’s fault. So far, it looks like the scoring unit has exorcised their demons with Bill O’Brien out of the picture. The Texans have scored a combined 66 points in Weeks 5 and 6, after averaging 20 during their 0-4 state under O’Brien. Deshaun Watson is balling and he’s bringing his two top vertical receivers in Brandin Cooks and Will Fuller — and a handful of role players — along with him.
The defense, on the other hand, appears too far gone to save. Houston gave up three first-half touchdowns to Ryan Tannehill and the Titans’ underrated passing attack. Even as their offense climbed back into the game, the Texans defense was destined to let them down. They let Derrick Henry barrel through them in the fourth quarter and overtime. Henry ripped off an absurd 94-yard score and popped in the game-winning touchdown. Sandwiched between those scores was an A.J. Brown red-zone score.
Whatever the Titans wanted to do, the Texans were more than happy to oblige.
The defense just can’t get up to the level where Houston can hope to compete in the AFC. Especially not when they’re operating from a 1-5 hole. That said, they are so giving they’ll allow other offenses to run up the score through the air and on the ground. That will keep Watson and the offense dealing on their side. Expect plenty of high-scoring affairs.
Buccaneers blitz Aaron Rodgers to oblivion
The date between two future Hall of Fame quarterbacks provided one of the day’s most surprising results. Tampa Bay’s stop unit put on a clinic and took it to the Packers offense.
Aaron Rodgers was harassed all afternoon as Green Bay had no answer for Todd Bowles’ defense and their blitz package. He took three of his four sacks and posted a ghastly 2.3 yards per attempt when blitzed.
The Buccaneers blitz limited Aaron Rodgers today, with just 3 completions for 28 yards on 12 attempts and 3 sacks (-26.0 EPA, lowest by any QB in a game vs blitz this season).
Buccaneers Defense on Blitzes (2020):
➤ 15 sacks (1st)
➤ 6 INT (1st)#GBvsTB | #GoBucs pic.twitter.com/30gAcY91Xb
— Next Gen Stats (@NextGenStats) October 19, 2020
There are maybe four to five good defenses in the NFL and Tampa Bay is certainly among them, if not the very best.
The Bucs stop unit provided the Packers offense its toughest, and perhaps only true test, to date. Yet, no one should be shocked if we view this letdown effort as just a fluke a few weeks from now. Rodgers had been openly braggadocious in his media appearances of late, and deservedly so, but after this game, he said, "I think we needed a kick in the ass a little bit to stop feeling ourselves so much."
Perhaps that is the key.
In the end, we should probably put our faith in an offense that’s still getting healthy and has a superstar group of triplets in Rodgers, Aaron Jones, and Davante Adams. This is a unit that was leading the NFL in points and yards per drive coming off their bye. They just ran into a truly underrated defense.
Ronald Jones changes Tampa Bay’s offense
As noted above, the Buccaneers defense was awesome on Sunday. Hopefully, the national audience is caught up after they were made to choose between watching Packers vs. Bucs or a game featuring the Adam Gase-coached Jets. On balance, Tampa Bay’s unit has been by far their best unit.
With that in mind, it’s past time we change the way we view their offense. And it has nothing to do with Tom Brady’s play, as he doesn’t look washed at all. But if this is going to be a defense-first team, more weeks than not, they’ll be in a position to lean on a guy who needs more respect: Running back Ronald Jones.
Coming out of Sunday Night Football, Ronald Jones ranks third in the NFL with 472 rushing yards. Over 46 percent of his yards on the year have come after contact and he’s run 84 pass routes. It’s been a balanced approach for Jones. He’s been on fire of late with Leonard Fournette out of the picture. He added 113 yards and two scores on 23 carries to his 2020 resume against Green Bay.
Of course, that begs the question: What incentive do Bruce Arians and the Tampa Bay Buccaneers have to get Fournette back in the mix when he’s healthy?
Fournette was just a preseason waiver add. Jones has done nothing to lose the job. He’s running well and handling the duties of a feature back for a team that will be in run-friendly game scripts going forward.
The coaching staff could always shake things up just for the sake of it. However, given what we’ve seen lately, it just wouldn’t make much sense.
D’Andre Swift gets involved
In an alternate universe, the Detroit Lions of 2020 have deployed an electric dual-threat running back slashing through opposing defenses to complement a strong vertical passing game for 16 games. The vision was thwarted in this version of reality by rookie D’Andre Swift’s offseason knee injury. If Swift never gets hurt in camp, the team probably never signs Adrian Peterson.
It’s just a pet theory but it appears like Peterson’s presence on a roster just incentivizes bad coaches to skew conservative with their offense. He can’t play in the passing game and when he’s your primary back, you’re forced to adjust to him. And that’s never good. It has certainly been the case with the real 2020 Lions. The run game is maybe three yards and a cloud of dust while Matthew Stafford has dropped to 22nd in completed air yards (coming into Week 6) after leading the NFL in his starts last year. It’s just ultra stale.
We got a look into that alternate universe on Sunday as Swift led the Lions’ running backs in snaps (28), touched the ball 18 times, and ran for 116 yards at an 8.3-yard clip with two touchdowns. Peterson was still involved, including a goal-line slam that resulted in the first score of the game. But it was clear the backfield was more explosive with Swift leading the way.
You wonder, though, if the Lions looked in the mirror and came to some of the above realizations over their bye week, and whether we witnessed a sea change here in Week 6.
5 Things I don’t care about
The 49ers when they get off their script
It was hard not to let your mind wander from Sunday Night Football onto the next primetime showing coming up tomorrow. As entertaining as some of the line play was on both sides of the ball for each NFC West squad, I couldn’t have been the only one thinking just how riveting of a contest it would have been had Patrick Mahomes and Josh Allen suddenly been dropped onto the Rams or 49ers rosters.
Both of those teams play within a clear lane. Any deviating from it can cause chaos for the offense.
Sunday night was a reminder of just how dangerous San Francisco can be when they stay on schedule and take the fight to the defense as the initial aggressor. It was easy to forget that, given how San Francisco played last we saw them.
With Raheem Mostert back and saddled up with 17 carries before getting injured, this looked like the 49ers run game we know and love. More to the point, we got an even better reminder when rookie JaMycal Hasty came in to help run out the clock looking like he was shot out of a cannon.
In the passing game, Kyle Shanahan sculpted the perfect cocoon to wrap around his struggling starting quarterback. Jimmy Garoppolo got the ball out of his hands after just 2.38 seconds on average and piled up most of his yards after the catch. He had the highest expected completion percentage of the week among quarterbacks at 77.5 percent. Talk about layups.
Jimmy Garoppolo favored quick, short passes in tonight's win over the Rams, with a significant percentage of his yards coming after the catch.
➤ 2.38 seconds (time to throw)
➤ 4.4 air yards/attempt
➤ 226 YAC out of 268 pass yards#LARvsSF | #FTTB pic.twitter.com/K1PtZSmr3c
— Next Gen Stats (@NextGenStats) October 19, 2020
That approach also assisted a beleaguered offensive line. Garoppolo was never sacked, hit just three times against Los Angeles. Leave it to Shanahan to plug up what had been a pretty significant leak.
The 49ers are a difficult team to face and have plenty of fantasy gold to mine when they’re playing on their schedule. Kyle Shanahan is a good enough coach to keep them on the tracks more often than not. His job is just a good bit harder this year with the defense banged up on the other side.
Falcons’ offensive results without Julio Jones
It would appear that having an All-World talent at wide receiver in the form of Julio Jones has a dramatically positive effect on the Falcons passing offense.
Pretty crazy theory, I know.
The Falcons scoring unit had hit a major speed bump in the last three weeks. After bad defense and blown games were the main culprits of the first two games, Matt Ryan and the offense became part of the problem. The consistent theme from Weeks 3 to 5? Julio Jones played all of 15 snaps.
Yes, the Falcons have some other threats. Calvin Ridley looks every bit the part of a No. 1 receiver and Todd Gurley has exceeded expectations in Atlanta but there’s no denying that the offense becomes dramatically more difficult to defend with Jones in the mix. Even if you conceded that the dropoff from Jones to Ridley isn’t that large anymore, the dropoff from them to the rest of the receiver corps is steep.
Jones dropped a hammer on the Vikings on Sunday, going for 137 yards and two touchdowns on a team-high 10 targets. The offense scored 40 points. They’d averaged 19.3 points in their prior three outings. With Jones in the fold, we can get back to having the Falcons offensive players closer to where we had them ranked going into 2020.
Baker Mayfield’s benching
Baker Mayfield’s benching mid-way through Week 6 looked a lot like Jimmy Garoppolo’s Week 5 exit. The coach would later defend him, blame the injury he was nursing and despite all the snark tweets spent, we’d probably just keep it moving a couple of days after the game. So far, we’re heading in that direction.
It’s a little puzzling that the Browns would put Mayfield out there if he was indeed that compromised. Mayfield said “It didn’t,” when asked in his post-game presser if his injury affected his play. Stefanski says he pulled him “strictly for health reasons.” Either way, the result of the game just wasn’t that surprising.
Kevin Stefanski’s offense has been really fun to watch thus far. He’s mixing a variety of concepts and is getting players in a position to thrive. The design is pristine and perfectly suited for the modern NFL. The problem is that eventually, you’re going to be forced to take the training wheels off your quarterback against a great pass rush, and in those spots, he can’t go completely off the fritz.
We’ll see if Mayfield can get another shot at proving he can handle it when he has a clean bill of health.
The September Jacksonville Jaguars
The fun version of the Jaguars offense that looked frisky in the opening weeks of 2020 feels galaxies away. The Jaguars have absorbed five-straight losses since Week 1 and have gone under 17 points in three of the five, including Week 6’s loss to Detroit.
Those of us in the fantasy football community spilled many words heading into Week 6 about Laviska Shenault as a possible breakout pick against Detroit and Gardner Minshew filling in as a quarterback streamer. James Robinson was a consensus top-10 back.
Perhaps we all need to chill out with this version of the Jacksonville Jaguars.
Forgive me for thinking the Lions defense didn’t suddenly “figure it out” over their bye week. It’s more likely this Jaguars offense just isn’t dependable.
Sure, the process of a Jaguars wide receiver thriving in catch-up mode was right. But it was Keelan Cole (143 yards) and not Shenault (11 total yards) who thrived as the second fiddle to D.J. Chark. That’s going to happen in a passing game manned by a maybe average quarterback; again, that’s where we’re at with the Jaguars. Robinson wasn’t a total flop but with just 12 carries at 2.4 yards per rush, he’s showing what happens when a back runs in a failing offense. This looks more like the Jaguars offense we expected to see here in 2020 and what we should expect going forward as they march toward a top-five pick.
The Ravens score 30-plus points
To be honest, I’m not sure how I feel about the Baltimore Ravens.
Despite a 30-point effort against the Eagles, it’s clear the record-breaking unit from 2019 is not walking through that door. At least, they aren’t yet.
We know the talent is there in Baltimore. The results have just been fleeting.
None of the running backs can get into a rhythm because the split between the top-three guys is so dramatic. Marquise Brown and Mark Andrews, the supposed stars of the pass-catching corps, are hit or miss each week. Lamar Jackson continues to put the rushing game on his back but has been woefully off as a vertical passer. Jackson averaged just 5.9 air yards per completion on Sunday.
If you want to point to a silver lining, perhaps this is just a team that’s trying to experiment and find itself as they clearly have their eyes on January. After being the best regular-season team in 2019 only to get bounced from the playoffs after one game for the second straight year, they don’t really have anything to prove from Weeks 1 to 17. And as long as they keep winning while they’re trying to find themselves, the Ravens certainly don’t care.
All this to say, don’t be surprised if it takes until late November or December to see the best of Baltimore.