For the first time in weeks, the NFL was the only show in town on Sunday night. With the World Series matchup set and the three presidential debates mercifully a thing of the past, Sunday Night Football took center stage as the weekend wound to a close. What followed was a game that will likely be held up as a perfect example for why the league’s prime-time ratings have dipped all season.
The jokes were easy (and I made several), but the 6–6 slog between the Cardinals and the Seahawks wasn’t the smoldering, unwatchable trash fire that the internet purported it to be. Arizona — now 3–3–1 and likely sick about blowing a chance to be a half-game behind the Seahawks in the NFC West and back on the inside track for a wild-card spot — and Seattle boast two of the premier defenses in football, and until the game devolved into a field-goal-missing contest in overtime, the lack of points could be traced to Seattle linebacker Bobby Wagner being post-human or Cardinals pass rusher Markus Golden ruining Seahawks left tackle Bradley Sowell’s life.
More than spotlighting a league-wide watered-down product, this endless parade of hopeless drives was a sign of something else. In this year’s NFL, even the best teams have at least one massive weakness holding them back.
This realization set in about 11 hours before kicker Steven Hauschka turned Seattle head coach Pete Carroll into a kid who just found out his goldfish had died. The Vikings came into Week 7 as the NFL’s only unbeaten team, but were manhandled by the Eagles in a 21–10 loss. Philadelphia’s defense terrorized Sam Bradford for the entire game, using an array of blitzes that left Minnesota’s injured and overmatched offensive line without a prayer. Coordinator Jim Schwartz’s unit sacked Bradford six times, hit him 16 times, and forced him to fumble a ridiculous four times. The game was essentially a loop of Bradford’s right arm getting tomahawked as the ball flew away in comic fashion.
Minnesota’s struggles up front aren’t new. Even when the Vikings’ line was fully healthy — with tackles Matt Kalil and Andre Smith, both now on the IR — protection was a problem. But with a rotation of T.J. Clemmings, Jeremiah Sirles, and the husk of Jake Long on the edge, the Vikings don’t stand a chance of stopping any team with a decent pass rush. The Eagles are better than decent in that regard (Philly entered Week 7 with the fifth-best adjusted sack rate in football, according to Football Outsiders), and come January, that’s the type of test the Vikings are likely to see.
Both teams involved in Sunday night’s rock fight have similar offensive line issues. What Seahawks defensive end Cliff Avril — 2.5 sacks and an absurd six quarterback hits — did to Cardinals right tackle D.J. Humphries is borderline obscene, and Sowell fared no better against the combination of Golden and Chandler Jones on the other side. For Arizona, which has spent significant draft and free-agent capital assembling its five-man front, this is the reality. For Seattle, though, it may not have to be.
There are reports that Cleveland’s Joe Thomas might be available in a trade for a second-round pick, and it may be time for the Seahawks — who have the necessary cap room to trade for the Browns’ superstar left tackle without restructuring any other deals — to consider whether their inability to protect a hobbled Russell Wilson is enough to torpedo their chances in a very winnable NFC. Given how the rest of the conference looks, that may be the biggest obstacle standing in Seattle’s way.
Atlanta, given a chance to take a commanding lead in the NFC South and show that its strong Week 6 performance in a defeat in Seattle was no fluke, allowed San Diego to move the ball at will in a 33–30 overtime loss. The Chargers averaged 5.7 yards per play in storming back from a 17-point deficit. Seven weeks into the season, the Cowboys — a team with a rookie starting quarterback — have a real claim to being the conference’s best team. If that isn’t an indictment of the league’s supposed upper tier, I don’t know what is.
Like the supposed NFC elite, the class of the AFC showed its own flaws on Sunday. Pittsburgh had some offensive line mishaps, with backup right tackle Chris Hubbard drawing a second-quarter holding penalty that cost the offense 10 yards of field position and turned a touchdown into a field goal attempt, which Chris Boswell botched. At this point, though, the Steelers’ central concern is obvious. Landry Jones played fairly well in Ben Roethlisberger’s absence, but an interception in the end zone and problems at the end of drives left Pittsburgh with only 16 points despite 375 yards of total offense. Coming into the game, the Steelers ranked fourth in touchdowns per red zone drive; with its limitations on defense, Pittsburgh desperately could have used Roethlisberger’s ability to cash in when its drives stalled.
The ease with which the Steelers moved the ball all afternoon — including on possessions that featured a heavy dose of someone named Cobi Hamilton at wide receiver — was a sign of where the Patriots sit defensively. New England was 21st in defensive DVOA before Sunday’s 27–16 win, and Bill Belichick’s team looked the part of a struggling defense against Jones. Facing a backup QB and backup right tackle, the Patriots finished with no sacks and just two quarterback hits.
New England didn’t do much blitzing, content to give Jones more time if it meant it could load up its secondary with bodies. Against a quarterback on the exact opposite end of the spectrum, Pittsburgh deployed the same strategy. Reluctant to blitz through the first three quarters of the game, the Steelers dared New England’s receivers to beat them with a numbers disadvantage, and no one outside of tight end Rob Gronkowski was up to the task. The Pats’ passing game sputtered before a second-half Gronk explosion and some lumbering LeGarrette Blount runs put the contest away. Taking on Jones and a pass defense ranked 21st in DVOA, things never should have been that close.
For Seattle and New England — the gold standard in their respective conferences over the past five years — Sunday should have been a chance to show that they remain a cut above. Instead, it served as a reminder that a league comprised mostly of middling teams is also quite ordinary at the top. For those searching for a reason the NFL is less intriguing than usual in 2016, that’s a good place to start. Each team with legitimate Super Bowl aspirations has at least one flaw that could prove fatal.
The Starting 11
A look at 11 big story lines, key developments, and interesting tidbits from this week in the NFL.
1. Week 7 was awful for offensive line injuries. Sunday provided a steady stream of players leaving on carts or getting helped off the field by trainers. With Ravens guard Marshal Yanda ruled out before Sunday’s 24–16 loss to the Jets with a shoulder injury, two of the other top guards in the league — Washington’s Brandon Scherff and Oakland’s Kelechi Osemele — both went down temporarily as well. For Washington, Scherff was able to shake off a shoulder injury and return to action against the Lions, but that good news was overshadowed by left tackle Trent Williams limping off the field with a knee sprain in the fourth quarter.
Williams is set to have an MRI on Monday, and head coach Jay Gruden should await the results with bated breath. For Washington and Oakland, health and great play up front have been the foundation of their offensive success this season. Oakland leads the NFL in adjusted sack rate allowed, while Washington ranks seventh in that metric. Those teams, along with Dallas and Atlanta, have furthered the trend of offenses that are enjoying injury luck up front producing some of the best numbers in football.
2. During the two drives that Scherff missed Sunday, Detroit took full advantage. Kirk Cousins was sacked on the first play after Scherff left the game, and four snaps later the Lions ran a stunt with defensive end Ziggy Ansah specifically designed to exploit communication issues that might arise with backup right guard Arie Kouandjio.
Pressure was the most significant factor in Detroit’s defense — which had looked awful in recent weeks — managing to slow Washington. Cousins was hurried 12 times, with a lot of that coming from Ansah and 2016 breakout star Kerry Hyder.
3. San Diego’s past two games make its early-season misery even more depressing. A week after handling the Broncos on Thursday Night Football, the Chargers turned in another excellent performance during a 33–30 win in Atlanta. What Philip Rivers has been able to do in the passing game without Keenan Allen, Danny Woodhead, and Stevie Johnson continues to make no sense. San Diego was sixth in passing DVOA before Rivers’s 371-yard outing against the Falcons.
Injuries have decimated the Chargers roster this fall, but unlike last season, the injuries have not come up front. Over the past few campaigns, San Diego’s offensive line has taken the brunt of the punishment, and when that group has crumbled, so has the offense. Save for a few scattered starts, the line has stayed mostly intact in 2016; that front has been adequate enough (though it allowed four sacks on Sunday) to let Rivers show why he’s among the best quarterbacks in the NFL.
Combine the offense with a defense that boasts a growing number of young playmakers, like Denzel Perryman (who had a game-changing fourth-down stop in Week 7) and Joey Bosa (four sacks in three games), and the Chargers are somehow still hanging around.
4. We’ve never seen this version of T.Y. Hilton. Hilton signed a five-year, $65 million deal in August 2015 (as part of the great wide receiver rush that summer) that included the fifth-highest guaranteed figure of any player at his position in the league. Even given Hilton’s numbers — he finished the 2014 season with 1,345 yards and seven touchdowns — that seemed like a steep price to pay for a 5-foot-9 wideout whose best trait was the ability to run very fast.
This fall, Hilton, who finished the Colts’ 34–26 victory over Tennessee with seven catches for 133 yards and a touchdown, has looked every bit the part of a top-five receiver. He caught his requisite deep shot on Sunday, a 37-yard bomb on which he ran by cornerback Jason McCourty in the second quarter, but Hilton also exploited the Titans defense in quieter ways. On a first-and-10 from the Indianapolis 42-yard line in the third quarter, Andrew Luck hit Hilton on a perfectly timed comeback route down the right sideline for 20 yards. Two plays later, the duo connected on a quick 11-yard slant.
Through seven games, Hilton is on pace for a career-best 1,575 yards with nine touchdowns. At this point, he and Luck make up the basis of the Colts offense, and every so often, they’re going to be enough to win.
5. Michael Crabtree’s second act remains fascinating. It seems impossible that seven years have passed since the 49ers took Crabtree with the no. 10 pick in the 2009 draft, but I guess we’re all getting old. I attended a fellow Big 12 school during Crabtree’s time at Texas Tech, when he was less a college receiver than he was a pass-catching phenomenon.
Crabtree caught 41 touchdown passes in 2007 and ’08 with the Red Raiders. Think about that for a second. Mike Leach’s pass-now, pass-later, pass-some-more offensive approach inflated those totals, but I’m not sure inflation should matter when a guy is averaging 20 touchdowns per season.
Despite concerns about his top-end speed, I was convinced Crabtree would emerge as an NFL superstar. Yet despite showing some flashes throughout his first six years in the league, he was relatively unspectacular during his stint in San Francisco. When Crabtree hit free agency in 2015, teams were so unenthused about his prospects that the Raiders were able to snag him on a one-year, $3.2 million deal. That proved to be a bargain, and after signing a multiyear extension in December, the wideout has been a vital part of a Raiders offense that keeps rolling.
With Jaguars rookie Jalen Ramsey sticking to Amari Cooper for most of Oakland’s 33–16 win on Sunday, quarterback Derek Carr looked to Crabtree to carry the passing game. Crabtree was happy to oblige, finishing with eight catches for 96 yards and a touchdown. When the Raiders took Cooper no. 4 overall in the 2015 draft, the thought was that he could solve their passing woes and jump-start Carr’s development. But what both Week 7 and the past 23 games have proved is that any dangerous air attack involves at least two reliable targets.
In Cooper and Crabtree, Oakland has two wideouts who were considered rare talents coming out of college. It just took one of them a few years to remind everyone why.
6. The Bengals got back to the ground game in Week 7, and they should stick to it. Cincinnati finished last season ranked no. 1 in passing DVOA, but what made the Bengals so potent was their offensive balance. Former coordinator Hue Jackson’s unit ran the ball 46.6 percent of the time, among the highest rates in the NFL. This year, under Ken Zampese, that figure has dropped to 40.7 percent. Game flow has played a role in that (Cincinnati’s early 28–0 deficit against the Cowboys made for one of the most pass-happy scripts of the season), yet it also seems like the Bengals have been content to put games in Andy Dalton’s hands.
Dalton had another decent outing against the Browns (albeit aided by A.J. Green being an alien), but the Bengals did their real damage on the ground. Jeremy Hill gashed Cleveland for 168 yards on nine carries. Gio Bernard added another 80 yards.
Hill’s 74-yard touchdown scamper was a thing of beauty, using pre-snap motion to get the defense to move before the snap and using two pulling linemen coming across the formation as things unfolded. Cincinnati has the ability to succeed in the run game with both scheme and personnel; the Bengals leaning on this aspect of their offense more often would be a welcome sight.
7. Minnesota’s seven-man front is the scariest sight in football for a QB.
This double A-gap look has been the basis of the Vikings’ dominance all season. With linebackers Anthony Barr and Eric Kendricks on the inside and safety Harrison Smith walked down over the right side of the offensive line, Minnesota has an endless array of pass-rushing options in this formation. Sometimes, both Barr and Kendricks will blitz, an approach that’s not shocking given the look. Other times only one will, a choice that’s usually determined by which way the center blocks. There are certain looks that involve defensive end Everson Griffen dropping back after the snap and Smith chasing down the quarterback around the opposite edge. Until the pressure happens, there’s almost no way to know where it will come from.
On the above play against the Eagles, Minnesota brings seven rushers. More than the pressure, though, the key for the Vikings is the confusion they cause with their coverage. As Smith bails out and takes the receiver at the top of the screen, cornerback Terence Newman retreats to the back end and offers over-the-top help to fellow corner Xavier Rhodes. Without having to worry about Nelson Agholor beating Minnesota down the field, Rhodes is able to get underneath the route and make an interception.
8. The Dolphins and Falcons should wear throwback uniforms every week.
This shouldn’t be complicated. Miami’s darker teal uniforms — and the extra orange accents that go with them — are 10 times better than the weird aqua number the team typically wears. Atlanta’s black top obliterates the futuristic awfulness of its standard red option at home. I get that jersey choices are all made in service of selling as many different uniforms as possible. But please, one time, can we eschew squeezing every cent out of a fan base and do the right thing?
9. Jarvis Landry’s spinning-ball celebration had me worried that Marion Cotillard might come after him with a knife.
After hauling in a 26-yard catch late in the first quarter, Landry torqued the football so hard that the refs were able to toss a flag for taunting (because priorities) before the ball had a chance to stop spinning. About 10 seconds in, I began to wonder if I was about to be incepted or if the Dolphins were actually moving the ball in a 28–25 win over Buffalo.
10. The Cardinals finally realized that their game plan should revolve around David Johnson, but they may have overcorrected. Arizona’s struggles with its deep passing game had plenty of people wondering if it was time to take the ball out of Carson Palmer’s hands and put it into Johnson’s. Well, it looks like we’re there.
Johnson finished Sunday night’s game with 33 carries and 13 (!) targets for 171 total yards from scrimmage. Since 1992 (when target data became available), only one other NFL player has cracked at least 30 carries and 13 targets: LaDainian Tomlinson. And he did it twice! There’s a chance that Johnson is an indestructible android sent to Earth as part of a grand plot to save the planet, and with the way the Cardinals seem intent on using him, we’ll know soon enough whether that’s true.
11. This week in NFL players, they’re absolutely nothing like us: A.J. Green telling the laws of physics to go to hell.