No, seriously. I have no idea. This week including another spate of surprising results, cementing the Titans, Bills and Cowboys as deeply flawed. That leaves… maybe the Cardinals? Their shellacking at the hands of the Panthers at least didn’t include their starting QB. Still, nobody has really set themselves apart as a clear favorite at this point.
Surprise Number 1: The Steelers and Chargers burnt down the barn
Heading into last night, the Steelers and Chargers were widely viewed as defensively sound teams with opportunistic offenses. Last night, these teams could have been logically deduced to be poor opportunities for the opposing offense. Yet there were very few stops in this game, as both teams repeatedly marched down the field. The Steelers at least had an excuse for this, as three of their best defensive players missed the game, TJ Watt, Joe Haden, and Minkah Fitzpatrick. Yet still, they never even thought about slowing down the Chargers. So what happened? Neither of these teams was willing to adjust their base scheme to account for their opponent. The Steelers weakness is Ben Roethlisberger’s struggles to throw down the field or to the hashes. It’s not that he can’t, it’s that he won’t. Yet, sure enough, the Chargers held both safeties deep the whole game to cover spaces on the field the Steelers had very little interest in exploring. Meanwhile, the Steelers were committed to using to man to man schemes (which work great with a strong pass rush or great cover DBs), despite their depleted secondary and rush, allowing Justin Herbert time to wait for his supremely talented skill options to get open over and over again. Part of the reason Bill Belichick has been such a good defensive coach for so long is that he refuses to rely on a scheme. He makes his defensive plans opponent specific. Failure to do that can render an incredibly talented defense like the Chargers useless, like last night.
Sauces Confirm @SaucesConfirm@houtz Has anyone seen a clip that follows Hollins the full play? I'm curious to see why he got turned around. The pocket is clearly collapsing so maybe he was getting ready to come back?
Surprise Number Two: The Dolphins are doing some things correctly
The very end of this clip is absolutely hilarious, when they show the reaction shot from the offensive coordinators box. They are completely stunned by the completion of a significant offensive play. The Dolphins have been going to great lengths all season to avoid letting Tua Tagovailoa make that exact throw. Why that is, is up for debate. Not trusting the offensive line, not trusting Tua’s arm, not trusting the receivers, or simply preferring a ball control style passing game are all possibilities, but whatever the reason, their genuine shock at seeing it work reveals all you need to know about the Dolphins season to this point. The Dolphins have won three straight, and all signs point to the team not being quite as bad as their 4-7 start. The problem is, where do they go from here? The season is lost, and it’s clear the team has major problems. They don’t have their draft pick, so tanking won’t help. If they turn the season around, they still aren’t going to the playoffs. Do you dump the coaches and GM anyway? Do you run back what was an awful mix in the first half of the year? Really, this success brings more questions than answers.
Surprise Number Three: The Bills struggle to contain elite running backs
Just like their game against the Titans earlier in the season, the Bills looked very vulnerable to a team with an elite ground game. Fortunately for the Bills, these teams are fairly uncommon in the NFL at this point. Looking at their schedule, the only two teams to meet the criteria of having a good offensive line and running back are the Titans and the Colts, and boy did they get crushed. Like a lot of modern defenses, it seems like the Bills are better designed to deal with pass happy teams like the Chiefs (win), or Washington (win). Recent games have seen teams work hard to take advantage of the Bills on the ground (like the Chiefs tried last year when they beat the Bills). The Jaguars, Titans, and Colts all ran the ball a ton, and it looks like this is the formula teams are going to go with against the Bills defense moving forward. To avoid that, the Bills offense needs to get back to getting a strong start (because it’s too late to change their entire defensive philosophy for a couple teams). That is going to mean more play-calling balance. When the Bills offense was at it’s peak (weeks 2-5), they ran the ball 23 times per game with running backs. In week 1 and weeks 6-11, they ran 13 times per game. Without a balanced attack, teams have figured out how to limit the Bills big plays, and curb Josh Allen’s effectiveness. They need to balance out the attack. It will pay dividends, even if the rushes themselves don’t.
Surprise Number Four: The Eagles can fly when they use both wings
The Eagles are not going to be a playoff team this year. That doesn’t mean that good things can’t happen for them though. In the last four games, the Eagles have exploded offensively. Looking at the chart above, one thing is VERY noticeable. They are number 1 in rush yards. Until week 8, they had been running the ball about 10 times per game. I joked in my week 11 preview column that all Miles Sanders fantasy owners know that, and the second he went down with an injury, their offense changed. It definitely did. Since then, they have had a whopping 30+ carries a week. That is tripling the amount of carries for your backs. They took the ball out of the hands of the limited (at passing) Jalen Hurts. This also takes advantage of Hurts by allowing them to run read option plays, or bootleg threats off of runs. It’s not a coincidence that they have had success by cutting back the worst part of their offense. I just said the Bills need to run more, and they would be wise to look at the Eagles transition as a road map for how they can have success.
Expected Thing Number One: The Browns offense didn’t get better by subtracting their most physically talented WR (even if he is a diva)
Outside of one game against the Bengals, where they scored an admittedly impressive 41 points, the Browns have been averaging 10 points per game without Odell (I am counting the Steelers game where Odell had one catch and pretty clearly checked out). Odell also missed two games at the start of the season where the Browns offense was ok, but they played the Chiefs without Tyrann Mathieu and the Texans. When they had Odell, the offense was up and down. There were a few big games, and a few small games. Does any of this matter. No. The amount of takes I saw that said that NOT having Odell was going to save the Browns season were pretty laughable though. His presence or absence simply doesn’t move the needle much for this team. They don’t/didn’t use him. Injuries to the offensive line, injuries to the quarterback, and defensive inconsistency are FAR more important. Right now, their offense is in a funk, and their defense simply can’t lock down anyone better than the Lions. The team as a whole has to improve, with or without Beckham, if they want to be a playoff team.
Expected Thing Number Two: Ryan Tannehill is not a good enough QB to win without his pieces.
Ryan Tannehill fell completely apart yesterday, in a game the Titans absolutely should have won. Just two weeks ago the Texans were beaten by the Miami Dolphins, who started Jacoby Brissett. Yet Ryan Tannehill’s 4 INTs and numerous additional blunders allowed the Texans to sneak away with a win. Ryan Tannehill is not a bad QB. But reports at the start of the season that were claiming him as a top 10 QB were absolutely ludicrous. He is good when he has an elite running game (gone) and elite options to throw to (gone at the moment). Without those things, he is just fancy Daniel Jones. The Titans are not a serious threat without Derrick Henry, and he is the reason why I simply refuse to take them seriously. Sunday, it felt like he was back with the Dolphins, and the results certainly looked Dolphinesque, although even the Dolphins managed to beat the Texans.
Expected Thing Number Three: The Seahawks should have fired Pete Carroll this offseason, but they didn’t. Now they are even worse. It’s time for him to go.
Pete Carroll is a really popular guy. He won a Super Bowl. He has a great personality. He has been a successful coach for most of his career. The Seahawks also desperately need a fresh start at head coach. All of these things can be true. They were true this offseason, and they are still true. Is it Pete Carroll’s fault Russell Wilson broke his hand and has been bad because of it since returning? No. But this team wasn’t going anywhere before that injury either. The reality is, the defense hasn’t been good since it lost Sherman, Thomas and Chancellor. On offense, the team hit their ceiling 5 years ago, and have been stuck in “pretty good” since. A fresh scheme is desperately needed on offense (they tried a new OC this year, but that just moved the deck chairs around the Titanic), and a whole new look is needed on defense, from scheme to players. Russell Wilson knew it this offseason, but when he realized the Seahawks weren’t going to trade him, he gave in and returned. I don’t see that happening this offseason, unless they can convince him the team is going in a new direction.
Expected Thing Number Four: The 49ers having all of their key offensive pieces healthy really seems to help.
For the first time in nearly 2 seasons, the 49ers have got the band back together again. Jimmy Garoppolo is healthy. George Kittle is healthy. Deebo Samuel is explosive, and Brandon Aiyuk is out of the doghouse. They have even had most of their running backs the last few weeks. Trent Williams is back (and nearly catching TDs! OK, maybe not). It’s amazing how good this offense can be with it’s full assortment of weapons. They pounded the Rams last week, and showed no mercy to the Jags this week. The problem is, they probably waited too long to get going/healthy. The loss to the Colt McCoy lead Cardinals looms large as the 49ers hold serve at 5-5. Next week’s matchup against the Vikings will be huge in determining who might get to go on the road in the wild card round, and who will stay home and lick their wounds.