Welcome to the Starting 11. This NFL season, we’ll be collecting the biggest story lines, highlighting the standout players, and featuring the most jaw-dropping feats of the week. Let’s dive in:
Week 5 was rough for a host of teams that, to this point, had looked like legitimate playoff contenders. While the top team in each conference kept rolling, some squads that had been early-season surprises fell back to earth. So for this week’s Starting 11, let’s take a look at some of the weekend’s notable outcomes and discern what they mean moving forward:
1. In hanging 30 points on the Jaguars, the Chiefs proved they can move the ball against anyone. Kansas City’s point total was inflated a bit thanks to defensive lineman Chris Jones’s pick-six on a … let’s say “ill-advised” throw by Blake Bortles, but even with only 23 points from the team’s high-powered offense, Patrick Mahomes II and Co. looked impressive in their 30-14 win over the league’s best pass defense. Kansas City’s opening drive—which ended in a touchdown—was frighteningly easy, and the connection between Mahomes and tight end Travis Kelce (five catches for 100 yards) only seems to be getting stronger. If Andy Reid’s offense can look like that against the Jags, other defenses don’t stand much of a chance.
The Chiefs offense is so powerful that every drive from the opposing offense that doesn’t end with points feels back-breaking. Kansas City only needs its defense to make a few scattered plays and cause a turnover or two for this team to have breathing room every week. And on Sunday, with pass rusher Dee Ford consistently getting pressure on Bortles during an awful day for the Jags quarterback (33-for-61 passing with four interceptions), the Chiefs’ winning formula was on full display.
2. Performances like the one Bortles had on Sunday were the Jaguars’ worst nightmare heading into this season. Jacksonville’s decision to give Bortles a contract extension this offseason was understandable—Bortles likely wouldn’t have passed a physical in mid-March, and because fifth-year options are fully guaranteed in cases of injury, Jacksonville would’ve owed him $19 million—but it didn’t come without risk. To avoid having such a huge cap hit for a middling quarterback, Jacksonville gave Bortles an extension that dropped his 2018 cap figure to $10 million. Theoretically, this was supposed to help the Jags by giving them more wiggle room this season, which they could use to supplement other areas of the roster and keep their title window propped open a bit longer.
The issue, though, is that Jacksonville spent that extra money poorly. The Jags made Andrew Norwell the highest-paid guard in football with a five-year, $66.5 million deal. Adding Norwell was supposed to give the offensive line a jolt of physicality and boost the team’s run-heavy approach. Instead, former fourth overall pick Leonard Fournette has spent the majority of the season sidelined with a hamstring injury, and the more the Jaguars offense strays from the conservative tendencies it has with Fournette on the field, the better it looks. One of Jacksonville’s other free-agent splurges was a one-year, $9.6 million deal for wide receiver Donte Moncrief. In four years with the Colts, Moncrief never topped 733 yards in a season. Through five games in Jacksonville, he has 18 catches for 249 yards, which puts him on pace for about 797 yards over 16 games. Hey, at least that’s more than 733!
It’s fitting that Moncrief’s cap hit this season almost equals the amount of money Jacksonville saved by extending Bortles. Financial flexibility is important in the NFL, but it’s more important to use that flexibility in a prudent way. Lowering Bortles’s cap figure for 2018 also meant committing to him for 2019. If the Jags cut Bortles before next season, the move will cost them $16.5 million in dead money. Because $6.5 million of that comes with offsets, the dead money number would be lower if another team were to sign him, but at the very least, Jacksonville would be looking at a cap charge of $10 million if it was to move on. That’s a hefty hit for a team that’s already projected to be over the cap in 2019. Instead of signing Moncrief for $9.6 million (when the team already had Marqise Lee, Keelan Cole, and Dede Westbrook in the fold), maybe the Jags could have taken a run at Teddy Bridgewater. Or at least picked up the phone when it became clear that Bridgewater was available via trade in August. Instead, Jacksonville added no competition to its QB room and decided to roll with Bortles yet again. We’ll have to see whether that ruins their title chances yet again, but Sunday’s showing was a reminder of just how crippling Bad Blake can be.
3. Following their 23-21 loss to the Vikings, the Eagles are 2-3, and it looks like Carson Wentz may need some time to find his old form. Wentz threw for more than 300 yards on the day, but a huge chunk of that production came late in the game with Philadelphia trailing. In the first half, the Eagles gained a total of 81 yards on six drives and failed to sustain much offense. Wentz still looked a bit off in his third game back after returning from a brutal knee injury, and even though the Eagles receivers had a couple of critical drops on Sunday, that wasn’t an epidemic like it was against Tennessee last week. The slow start on offense even led running back Jay Ajayi to openly question head coach Doug Pederson’s first-half play-calling after the game. My, how quickly things can change.
On the other side of the ball, the Eagles showed how quickly their defense can get into trouble when the front four doesn’t control the game. Even with Brandon Graham and Fletcher Cox collapsing pockets and getting after Vikings quarterback Kirk Cousins, Minnesota’s receivers (combined with another excellent outing from Cousins) were enough to produce consistent offense. Philadelphia’s cornerbacks continue to struggle, and the gap between them and the Vikings’ pair of star receivers was apparent on Sunday. It’s possible that with more time, Wentz turns into the player he was during his MVP-caliber campaign in 2017, but that may not happen this season.
4. Every time I try to get excited about the Titans, they give me another reason to doubt them. One week after Tennessee’s offense had a breakout performance in the team’s 26-23 OT win over the Eagles, the Titans laid an egg in a 13-12 loss to the Bills. A fourth-quarter drop by wide receiver Nick Williams was devastating to the Titans, but Marcus Mariota and the offense did not look crisp for much of the game. Tennessee lost a pair of fumbles and Mariota was intercepted on a throw over the middle of the field in the second quarter, but the team’s turnovers weren’t just a result of poor ball security. On a third-and-3 from the Bills 7-yard line late in the first quarter, Mariota chucked a ball up for grabs near the right sideline and was nearly picked off. That throw was just one of many moments in which Tennessee’s third-down offense looked horrendous in Buffalo territory. Mariota took two third-down sacks on the edge of field goal range, forcing kicker Ryan Succop to drill 54- and 50-yard field goals to keep the game close. So while the drop from Williams may have ultimately swung the result, this game actually could have gone much worse for Tennessee.
5. The Ravens offense had been a pleasant surprise for the first four weeks of the season, but it fell flat in a 12-9 loss to the Browns on Sunday. A couple of costly turnovers ended up sabotaging the Ravens’ chances, but even when they weren’t turning the ball over, Joe Flacco and the offense looked out of sync. Browns rookie cornerback Denzel Ward was everywhere—he jarred the ball loose from Michael Crabtree on third-and-7 to end Baltimore’s first drive, recorded multiple pass breakups, and picked off Flacco near the goal line to prevent a touchdown in the second quarter. Baltimore’s defense played well enough to win, but uneven play on offense could limit this team’s ceiling.
6. Both the Bengals and the Steelers turned in strong outings on Sunday, and with the frisky Browns in the mix, the AFC North looks like it might be the best division in football. Cincinnati’s offense continues to impress in big moments, as it did in Sunday’s 27-17 win over the Dolphins. Andy Dalton’s final stat line might not be eye-popping (20-of-30 passing, 248 yards, a touchdown, and an interception), but he made a number of impressive throws under duress. His 18-yard touchdown pass to Joe Mixon came with a defensive lineman draped all over him, and he made a few accurate third-down throws to A.J. Green while avoiding pressure. The Dalton-Green connection has never looked better than it does this year. Green is currently on pace for 1,309 yards and 16 touchdown receptions, and the strength of that pairing has fueled a unit that currently ranks fifth in offensive DVOA. Even after a slow start, the Bengals’ late-game flurry of points, combined with a huge performance from their defensive front, was enough to topple the Dolphins. Watching Geno Atkins and Carl Lawson rush the passer is a treat for anyone who loves the nuances of defensive line play.
Pittsburgh’s 41-17 win over Atlanta, meanwhile, showed how potent this team can be despite its deficiencies. The Steelers’ pass rush tormented Matt Ryan on Sunday. T.J. Watt led the way with three sacks, but everyone was getting in on the action. Ryan was hit 11 times in all, and the constant barrage kept the Falcons from finding any rhythm on offense. The opposite was true for Atlanta’s pass rush going up against the Steelers offensive line. Pittsburgh stonewalled a lagging Falcons front four, and it allowed the offense to go to work on the ground and through the air. Running back James Conner had a huge day (21 carries for 110 yards and two scores) and Antonio Brown reminded everyone just how ridiculous he really is. When Ben Roethlisberger is given time in the pocket, this offense simply has too much talent to be contained.
7. After losing to the Steelers, the Falcons are now 1-4, and it’s time to start thinking about Atlanta’s offseason plan. The Falcons defense didn’t stand much of a chance this year after linebacker Deion Jones and starting safeties Keanu Neal and Ricardo Allen all went down with long-term or season-ending injuries. The burden that the Falcons scheme puts on Jones makes him as valuable as any inside linebacker in the league, and this group has looked like a mess without him in the middle. All three should return healthy next season, but even that won’t be enough to fix Atlanta’s defensive woes. The secondary should be set with 2018 second-round pick Isaiah Oliver getting into the mix with entrenched starters Desmond Trufant and Robert Alford, but this team needs to address its issues up front. Through five games, edge rusher Vic Beasley has one sack and two quarterback hits ... total (according to Pro Football Focus). Second-year pass rusher Takkarist McKinley has been more effective in getting to the quarterback (five sacks), but Atlanta has to be upset about its lack of dominance up front, considering how many high-end assets the team has used to kick-start the pass rush. Despite having two first-round picks at defensive end, the Falcons currently rank 27th in adjusted sack rate.
Atlanta picked up Beasley’s fifth-year option this spring, so he’ll likely be around in 2019 at the unfortunate price of $12.8 million, but I wouldn’t be surprised if next year were his last in Atlanta. Despite the talent level the Falcons have on offense, their defense is porous enough to give them a chance at a top-5 pick in next year’s draft. If Atlanta can land a game-changing defensive talent that way, the team could be back in contention as early as next season. The offense continues to move the ball effectively (despite the line’s off day against Pittsburgh), and nearly every major piece of that unit is under team control for years to come. Running back Tevin Coleman may walk in free agency (you can’t keep everybody), but with the right offseason, there’s still enough time for Atlanta to take advantage of its young, cheap defense. Next season is the final year of Jones’s rookie contract, and the Falcons better make it count.
8. I’m just going to start reserving a weekly spot here for Kenny Golladay. I mean … holy shit.
9. This week in tales of the tape: I yelped when I saw this Travis Kelce catch live. Telvin Smith is one of the best linebackers in football. Kelce roasts him on this route. Watch how the Chiefs couple a pair of vertical routes out of an empty formation on either side of him so Kelce can work underneath. Andy Reid does a fantastic job of scheming Kelce into space, and when he’s able to attack a linebacker with that much room, it doesn’t matter who that linebacker is.
10. This week’s line-play moment that made me hit rewind: T.J. Watt had himself a day against the Falcons on Sunday. Watt tends to rely on his explosiveness and change-of-direction ability to clean up sacks late in plays, but his final sack of the day—one that led to a defensive touchdown—required a nice inside-out move that Watt finished off with a great rip move to bend the corner.
11. This week in NFL players, they’re absolutely nothing like us: Saquon Barkley cannot be from this planet.