Five weeks might seem like enough of a sample to start making conclusions about the 2018 NFL season, but just go back and look at the coverage from this time last year. In October 2017, Ben McAdoo was not on the hot seat. In various power rankings, the Denver Broncos were considered a contender by almost every outlet, the Falcons were still supposed to be better than the Eagles, and the Chiefs, led by Alex Smith, looked like they would run away with the Super Bowl. I browsed through the archives, and I couldn’t find anyone who thought the Rams were a top 10 team. Hell, most people thought they were worse than the Cowboys.
The first five weeks of football lie to us more than they ever have before. In the current era of limited training camp practices and an increasing number of younger, inexperienced players, especially at quarterback, teams just take longer to find their final forms. It’s not just this year; every season now feels like a “weird season” in early October. So, with that in mind, let’s take a look at this week’s best matchups:
Antonio Brown vs. William Jackson III
I don’t like it when someone in the media complains that a certain player doesn’t get enough attention. After all, we are the attention merchants. If you’re complaining about this, it’s your fault: We decide who should and shouldn’t get attention. It’s like Jon Gruden complaining about a lack of pass rush.
So, uh, allow me to make an exception to my rule: Bengals cornerback William Jackson III did not get enough attention last year. Pro Football Focus called his season “historically great.” The catch rate he allowed (34.9 percent) was the lowest on record—better than anything the great Darrelle Revis, who has three of the five lowest marks in history, has done. Before Jackson, Revis held the previous record of 36.9 percent, which he set with the Jets in 2009.
In 2017, Jackson’s most notable matchups came against Antonio Brown, who he held catchless on eight targets over two games. Here are seven of those:
going through some CBs & one that doesn't get near as much love as he should is Cincy's William Jackson. Using @NFLFilmStudy's #'s he was targeted 40 times and gave up 9 catches. Didn't surrender a single TD, either.— KP (@KP_Show) May 29, 2018
Here are 7 targets vs Antonio Brown. 0 completions. 4 PBU's pic.twitter.com/CHT9u6kgNM
Jackson, who was a first-round pick in 2016 but missed all of that season due to injury, is not yet at 2017 levels this season. In fact, he’s already given up more receptions this year (18) than he did in all of last year (he was not the full-time starter for the whole season). But Jackson gets his first matchup with Brown and the Steelers this season on Sunday. “I got a lot of great buzz because he’s a great receiver,” Jackson told me. “I don’t expect anyone to catch the ball on me, not just him. It was fun to get that buzz.”
Before the season, I spoke with Jackson about the art of shutting down great receivers—he also blanketed T.Y. Hilton and Davante Adams, among others. I told him that I thought that football hadn’t caught up to other sports in terms of quantifying how good a defensive player can be. He wasn’t getting the credit he deserved.
“Guys get notoriety when their team is good or they talk trash,” Jackson said of cornerbacks. “I’m not here to say, ‘Oh, he’s sorry.’”
This is not to say Jackson doesn’t have massive amounts of confidence. When he spoke nonchalantly of dominating Brown last season, I asked him if he truly thought he was better than the best receiver in the league.
“Of course. I think I’m the best player on the planet,” he said. “You cannot play this game if you think you’re not.”
Kansas City Chiefs general manager Brett Veach told me that Brown is the best receiver he’s ever seen at improvising in the middle of the field. Guarding Brown is not dissimilar to trying to guard, say, LeBron James when he’s cutting to the basket. There’s a lot of space, there’s a lot of athleticism, and so anything is on the table.
How do you prepare for that? You don’t study him in the open field at all. Jackson claimed that Brown’s improvisation is so good that he never does the same thing twice.
“I don’t actually study him [in the open field]. I go out there and play,” he said. “When you study, what you see won’t be what it is. When I watch film I’m looking at things off the line, how he releases his press, what he does to release inside or outside.”
Jackson was limited in practice on Thursday, so here’s hoping that he’s healthy enough to not only start but to get another chance to prove himself against the best in the game.
Bill Belichick vs. Patrick Mahomes II
Bill Belichick did not name a defensive coordinator to replace Matt Patricia, even if the guy with those responsibilities is now Brian Flores, officially the team’s linebackers coach. It doesn’t matter who the defensive coordinator is in New England because in most big spots, the person designing the defense is Belichick himself. You know, the guy who took out Marshall Faulk to win the Pats’ first Super Bowl 17 years ago—the one who has taken away what teams do best on offense for a full three decades now. So, here’s the latest problem: The Chiefs, uh, do everything well.
Kansas City and New England played last year in the season opener, and Andy Reid unleashed a spread-offense-influenced attack en route to a huge win. Belichick then proceeded to straight-up steal Reid’s plays because they were so good.
Whatever may happen on Sunday will have little bearing on what may happen should these two teams play in January. When New England played Peyton Manning during the regular season in 2003, it allowed him to throw four touchdowns and complete 60 percent of his passes. The teams played two months later, and New England unleashed a defense that was so dominant it not only forced four interceptions but got the league to change the rules on what defenses could do to wide receivers. It is foolish to say an NFL game between two contenders does not matter. This could, for instance, eventually decide home-field advantage. But what you see Belichick do to the Kansas City offense will not necessarily be what you see him do in January. That doesn’t mean it won’t damn fun to see what Belichick comes up with to stop Mahomes. Meanwhile:
No team has ever given up more than three 400-yard passing games in a season.— Raymond Summerlin (@RMSummerlin) October 11, 2018
The Chiefs have given up three in just five games. https://t.co/lDmouNnS5U
Make sure you start Tom Brady in fantasy.
The Cowboys vs. the Jaguars Secondary
You know the meme where the guy points to his head, as if to say he’s thinking five steps ahead of you? Here’s the football version of that: How do you counteract the best pair of cornerbacks in the NFL? You don’t have any receivers.
We’ll see if that works when the Dallas Cowboys, who have basically no pass-catching weapons, take on the Jacksonville Jaguars, who have A.J. Bouye and Jalen Ramsey. Since Bouye and Ramsey are the most talented pairing in the league, it should not come as a shock that neither cornerback has allowed a touchdown this year. (Ramsey, however, is currently sporting a passer rating allowed of 81, which is worse than either of his previous two seasons as a pro.) Meanwhile, in Dallas, Allen Hurns has one receiving touchdown, Tavon Austin has two, and that’s it—none of their other receivers have caught a touchdown. Overall, the Cowboys are tied for 29th in the NFL in points scored. The Jaguars do not need any help holding the average NFL team to very few points, but it appears the Cowboys are willing to do whatever they can to aid in the effort. The offense is a mess. Just look at this damn thing:
No idea what #Cowboys QB Dak Prescott was thinking here. HOU is in a 2-high shell so Dak should get eyes toward the 2 vertical routes that are applying a horizontal on the deep safety, especially with Swaim's deep dig route occupying the other deep safety.— John Owning (@JohnOwning) October 10, 2018
Should have been a TD pic.twitter.com/UyJAzsI9F6
That’s what we could see on Sunday—except nobody will be open.
The Chargers and Browns vs. Playoff Contention
Barring a tie—and with Cleveland you never know—one of these teams is about to get wildly hyped up, by me and many others. These two have more in common than it may seem: The Browns have spent years losing right away, quickly extinguishing any hope en route to their inevitable disappointment, while the Chargers have spent years offering just enough flickers of hope throughout each season to keep fans hooked right until the end, when they also reach their own inevitable disappointment.
The Browns are 2-2-1 and the Chargers are 3-2, both probably better than most observers would have anticipated before the season. The Browns have the best turnover differential in the NFL. Young players like Myles Garrett and Denzel Ward are true defensive difference-makers. On offense, Baker Mayfield has been steady enough and makes enough throws to get you genuinely excited about the future:
Mayfield with an absolute rope over the 'hook' zone's head and in front of the safety. pic.twitter.com/65fhBXhlCK— BrownsFilmBreakdown (@BrownsFilmBDN) October 11, 2018
Oh and there’s this:
John Dorsey drafted Travis Kelce, Tyreek Hill, Kareem Hunt. Traded up for Patrick Mahomes. Drafted Baker Mayfield, Denzel Ward, Antonio Callaway. Traded for Jarvis Landry. Browns fans should be feeling pretty good about the future.— ProFootballTalk (@ProFootballTalk) October 11, 2018
Meanwhile, the Chargers look like a playoff team despite an injury that’s kept Joey Bosa off the field all season, in addition to a handful of other injuries that will keep contributors like cornerback Jason Verrett out all season. Philip Rivers, who is by far the NFL’s best player under pressure, looks like a dark-horse MVP candidate, but then again, Rivers always looks like a dark-horse MVP candidate. It’s just everything around him that is constantly collapsing. At 36 years old, he has a 116 QB rating—a mark that only five players have bettered in a full season.
So here we are, with two teams on the brink of relevance. One constantly saddens its fans, and the other has no fans. What could go wrong?