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The Six Plays That Explain Week 6

The Cowboys flash some of that 2016 magic, Frank Clark reinvigorates Seattle’s defense, and Todd Gurley makes the Rams offense weatherproof

Getty Images/Ringer illustration

The NFL Week 6 Sunday slate was equal parts fun and weird. Ben Roethlisberger and the Steelers dispatched the Bengals thanks to a seven-play, 77-yard game-winning drive punctuated by a 31-yard touchdown catch-and-run by Antonio Brown with 15 seconds left. The Brock Osweiler–led Dolphins shocked the Bears in overtime. The Chargers’ red-hot offense bulldozed the Browns in a 38-14 win. The Cowboys dropped a 40-burger on the Jaguars in a blowout win. The Rams stayed perfect, the Redskins beat the Panthers, Adam Thielen went off to help the Vikings overpower the Cardinals, and three teams got to .500—with the Texans beating the Bills, the Seahawks blowing out the Raiders, and the Jets knocking off the Colts.

Sunday delivered nonstop action, but a few moments stand out as more pivotal or illuminating than the rest. Here’s a handful of the biggest game-changing plays, along with what they can tell us about both the teams involved and the season at large.

Dak Prescott Finds Cole Beasley for a 17-Yard Touchdown

The Jacksonville defense looked to have the clear advantage coming into this game as it pit its swarming pass-rush group and lockdown cornerback duo against a Dak Prescott–led Dallas offense that ranked 30th in scoring and lacked a true go-to pass catcher on the outside. But Cowboys offensive coordinator Scott Linehan devised a smart, long-overdue game plan that made up for the team’s obvious talent deficit. For starters, he unleashed Dak as a runner, dialing up designed QB runs and plenty of read-option plays that kept Jacksonville’s defense guessing: Prescott bobbed and weaved through defenders en route to career highs in carries (11) and yards (82), including this 17-yard zone-read keeper that put Dallas up 10-0.

More encouraging, though, was Prescott’s efficient 183-yard, two-touchdown performance passing against the stingy Jags pass defense. He mostly avoided challenging Jalen Ramsey and A.J. Bouye and instead looked frequently to the slot, leaning on Cole Beasley (nine catches, 101 yards, two touchdowns) to move the chains and score points. With 9:34 to go in the second quarter, Prescott calmly stepped up on a first-and-10 from the Jacksonville 17-yard line and dumped the ball off to Beasley, who caught it on a simple slant route out of the left slot at the 10-yard line and sliced in for the score.

That capped a seven-play, 84-yard drive, gave the Cowboys a commanding 17-0 lead, and pushed their win probability to 82 percent. After the Dallas defense forced a three-and-out on the Jags’ ensuing drive, Prescott and Co. kept the pedal to the floor and mounted a 16-play, 78-yard drive that ended with another Beasley touchdown catch with 47 seconds left in the second quarter. That all but sealed the deal going into the half, and the Cowboys coasted to a 40-7 win.

The performance conjured images of the Cowboys’ dominant offensive formula from 2016, when Dallas controlled matchups with an efficient passing attack and unstoppable ground game that forced defenses to account for both Prescott and Ezekiel Elliott as runners. Dallas got 188 yards and two scores on the ground from that duo against the Jags but must prove that Sunday was more than just a flash in the pan. If the Cowboys rediscovered their long-lost identity on offense, they’ll be contenders in a wide-open NFC East.

Za’Darius Smith Sacks Marcus Mariota

It was apparent early on that Mariota was in for a long, long game. After moving the ball into Baltimore territory on the team’s first possession, the Titans stalled. Ravens nose tackle Chris Wormley sacked Mariota at the 43-yard line, setting up third-and-12. Then Smith finished the job, sacking the Tennessee signal-caller for a second straight time to push the Titans back to midfield.

That play forced a punt, the first of nine for the Titans, whose offense would get back over midfield just once on its next eight drives. It was a dominant performance by the Ravens defense that—combined with Jacksonville’s and Chicago’s defensive struggles Sunday—staked their claim as the league’s top unit. They shut out Tennessee—dropping their league-best scoring defense to just 12.8 points per game allowed—and sacked Mariota a ridiculous, franchise-record 11 times on 28 dropbacks (Mariota completed just 10 passes, by the way). It’s not like Tennessee has a terrible line either; it’d given up just nine sacks in the previous five games.

The Ravens brought pressure from just about everywhere: Smith collected three sacks, Patrick Onwuasor grabbed two, and Matt Judon, Terrell Suggs, Kenny Young, Tony Jefferson, Wormley, and Anthony Levine each grabbed one. And Baltimore held Tennessee to just 1-of-11 on third downs, boosting a third-down defense (a 26.5 percent opponent conversion rate) that ranks second in the NFL. The Titans never had a shot.

The Ravens offense under Joe Flacco looks more efficient this season than it did during most of 2017, but it remains uneven. The team’s defense, though, looks good enough to make Baltimore a factor in the wide-open AFC playoff race. Right now, is there any other defense strong enough to slow down the buzz-saw offenses of the Chiefs, Patriots, and Chargers?

Frank Clark Sacks Derek Carr, Forces Fumble (Twice)

The Seahawks defense is in the midst of a near-complete makeover, and the departures of Michael Bennett (trade), Sheldon Richardson (free agency), and Cliff Avril (retirement) over the offseason left the team’s pass-rush group alarmingly thin. All that change, though, opened the door for defensive end Clark to not just carry a group of relative no-namers up front, but to emerge as one of the league’s top pass rushers. Through six weeks, Clark’s well on his way to Pro Bowl honors, and his performance Sunday against the Raiders in London illustrated why.

Clark consistently got through a young Oakland offensive line, notching his first sack of the game when he burst past rookie left tackle Kolton Miller late in the first quarter to strip the ball from Derek Carr.

Seattle’s offense capitalized, jumping out to a 14-0 three plays later when Russell Wilson found David Moore in the back of the end zone to push the team’s early-game win probability to a comfortable 85.2 percent.

Clark forced another crucial fumble early in the third quarter, rushing right through Miller again.

Seattle recovered deep in Raiders territory, and Sebastian Janikowski kicked a field goal four plays later to give Seattle a 20-0 lead. At that point, it was all but over.

Clark is playing the best ball of his career at the right time for the Seahawks—providing his defense a much-needed boost while giving himself the chance for a big-money, long-term deal. Clark has 5.5 sacks, three forced fumbles, and an interception in six games for Seattle, and has emerged as the centerpiece for the team’s defensive rebuild. The Seahawks’ surprisingly stout defense dominated Oakland with a combination of pressure up front and blanket coverage in the back end. It left Carr with no other option but to dump the ball off and hope his pass catchers could pick up yards afterward.

That’s exactly what Pete Carroll wants his defense to do. Seattle rallied to the ball, tackled well, and mostly erased the Raiders’ top playmakers. Oakland gained just 185 total yards on 56 plays—a paltry 3.3 yards per play—and didn’t get onto the scoreboard until the fourth quarter, when the game was already well out of reach. With Clark providing pressure up front, Bobby Wagner running and tackling in the middle, and a young, aggressive secondary laying hits in back, Seattle’s new blueprint is starting to take shape. It’s no longer the feared Legion of Boom, but the Seahawks defense has looked better than expected.

Tyrell Williams Steals a Touchdown From Three Browns Defenders

The Browns-Chargers tilt could’ve been billed as a battle between one of the league’s top offenses (L.A. ranked third in offensive DVOA coming in) and top defenses (Cleveland ranked second in defensive DVOA). Like in most of the games so far this season, offense won the day. L.A.’s high-scoring group overwhelmed an overmatched Browns unit in the 38-14 win, picking up 449 yards and averaging 7.7 yards per play.

The Chargers offense has seemed to pick up steam with each passing week, and in just about every game, the team’s offensive depth shows up, with a new role player or two emerging to make a big play. In L.A.’s Week 2 win over the Bills, it was running back Austin Ekeler (11 rushes, 77 yards, three catches, 21 yards); in the Week 3 loss to the Rams, it was second-year receiver Mike Williams (four catches, 81 yards, two touchdowns); in the Week 4 win over the 49ers, the venerable Antonio Gates caught a touchdown; then last week, backup tight end Virgil Green scored another. Sunday, it was time for fourth-year pass catcher Tyrell Williams to make his mark, and the 26-year-old reeled in three catches for 118 yards and two scores.

The first came at the 6:43 mark of the second quarter: With the Chargers leading 7-3, Rivers drifted left off play-action and delivered what would have normally been an ill-advised pass into triple coverage. But Williams reached over and through defender Damarious Randall to secure the pass. Here’s the play call in Spanish:

And here’s another angle (with some commentary in German):

Williams thrives at the catch point, where he’s shown a knack for going up and over defenders to reel in contested passes. In fact, according to NFL Next Gen Stats, Williams has caught all five of his tight-window targets this season for 144 yards and two touchdowns—the only player with a 100 percent catch rate on those throws.

Week in and week out, the Chargers depend on their offensive triumvirate of quarterback Philip Rivers (11-of-20 for 207 yards, two touchdowns, one pick), running back Melvin Gordon (132 yards, three touchdowns), and receiver Keenan Allen (four catches, 62 yards). But what makes L.A. so incredibly difficult to defend is the breadth and versatility of the rest of its offensive group. Even with star tight end Hunter Henry on the shelf, the Chargers can get big plays from just about anyone on the field.

Todd Gurley’s 3-Yard Rushing Touchdown

For most of the season, the Rams’ passing game under wunderkind play-caller Sean McVay has been nothing short of astounding. Mixing heavy doses of pre-snap sweep motion, play-action, screens, and deep bombs downfield, McVay’s had little trouble scheming receivers open all over the field, an advantage that quarterback Jared Goff’s taken advantage of to devastating effect. Coming into this week, Goff ranked first in the NFL in passing yards (345.4 per game), third in touchdown passes (12), second in yards per attempt (10.4), and second in passer rating (119.7). And with all that downfield passing brilliance, the third-year quarterback had almost managed to upstage teammate Todd Gurley in L.A.’s juggernaut offense.

Sunday, though, Goff struggled to get much going through the cold Denver air, finishing 14-of-28 for 201 yards, no touchdowns, and a pick. So Gurley took over, slicing through the Broncos defense like a hot knife through butter en route to a career-high 208 yards and two touchdowns on 28 carries. The fourth-year pro got on the board for the first time early in the second quarter with this 10-yard scamper into the end zone to put the Rams up 13-3 ...

... and then, from the 3-yard line, punched it in again midway through the third quarter to give the Rams a commanding 20-3 lead and a 96.3 percent win probability.

The Broncos managed to make it a game, adding a late touchdown, but Gurley was just too much to handle. And while Goff struggled, this latest Rams win was a reminder that McVay’s brilliance isn’t limited to creating a high-flying passing game: His ability to design schemes out of predominantly three-receiver sets stretches opposing defenses thin and gives the run game a distinct advantage. Gurley and the Rams’ ground game took advantage of light defensive boxes Sunday, when Gurley faced just three Denver looks with eight-plus defenders in the box. That’s been consistent throughout the season.

It was a gutty, ugly win for L.A., which had previously overwhelmed its opponents with a devastating aerial assault. In victory, the Rams stayed perfect on the year, moving to 6-0, and made a small, but important statement as the weather gets colder and the season goes on: Even if that elite passing game falters, they can still dominate with their Gurley-led rushing attack.

Adam Thielen Posts His Sixth Straight 100-Yard Game

We can’t end this column without mentioning Vikings receiver Adam Thielen, who notched his sixth straight game of 100-plus yards—just the second player in NFL history to do that in his team’s first six games. The 28-year-old pass catcher has 58 receptions on the year, the most ever through six weeks, and is on pace for 155 catches, 1,899 receiving yards, and 11 touchdowns. Not shabby for a guy who played D-II and didn’t get a combine invite.

It seems like we’re already running out of ways to describe just how good Thielen’s been this season, but the Vikings aren’t running out of ways to deploy their go-to pass catcher. In Sunday’s 27-17 win over the Cardinals, this play from early in the third quarter stood out: Thielen lined up with a very tight split—inside tight end Kyle Rudolph—a tweak that got him matched up in coverage against Arizona linebacker Josh Bynes. You can probably guess how that went.

That touchdown capped a 10-play, 75-yard drive, put the Vikings up 20-10, and pushed their win probability to 87 percent. Minnesota never looked back.

The Vikings have been up and down in almost every respect over the first six weeks, with wild performance swings from just about every unit, whether that’s the pass rush, the secondary, or the run game. But Thielen’s been a constant for Minnesota: a dependable playmaker who’s posted elite production every single week regardless of opponent or weather. And there’s no sign that he’s slowing down.