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The Starting 11: Who Really Wants to Win the NFC East?

With the Cowboys and Eagles both stumbling this week and their respective issues seeming far from resolved, what once looked like a juggernaut division is now wide open. Plus: The Niners are serious title contenders, and Sam Darnold (and his spleen) look just fine.

AP Images/Ringer illustration

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.

1. It’s time to worry about the Cowboys. Coming off consecutive losses to the Saints and Packers, Jason Garrett’s team was already reeling. But the Cowboys’ 24-22 loss to the Jets is an entirely new low. Dallas fell into a 21-3 hole before halftime against Adam Gase’s previously winless group, and it took a pair of fourth-quarter touchdowns to even keep the game close. During the first three weeks of the season, the Cowboys offense looked revamped and revitalized under first-year coordinator Kellen Moore, but that group has fallen back to earth. There’s no single explanation for the Cowboys’ recent issues. Quarterback Dak Prescott averaged less than 7 yards per attempt against the Jets and failed to throw a touchdown pass for the second time in the past three games. Starting tackles Tyron Smith and La’el Collins both missed Sunday’s game, and the Dallas line struggled to keep Prescott clean and get much push in the running game. Wide receiver Amari Cooper went down with a quad injury in the first half and didn’t return, and no. 2 wideout Michael Gallup dropped two well-thrown balls before letting a third (slightly high) throw glance off his fingertips. The Cowboys also failed to convert a fourth-and-goal in the second quarter, and the Jets followed up the stop with a 92-yard touchdown pass that created a devastating 14-point swing.

The Cowboys have fallen prey to the same “game of inches” moments that can haunt any offense, but Moore’s strange approach of late has also played a role in the offense’s struggles. Over the first three weeks of the season, Dallas used play-action on 39.4 percent of Prescott’s dropbacks—the second-highest mark in the NFL. That figure has dropped to 17.2 percent in the past three weeks, which is the third-lowest rate during that stretch. Play-action isn’t a cure-all, but it would seem like a useful tool for a team with the league’s highest-paid running back and a high-volume rushing attack. Against the Jets, Dallas used play-action on six of Prescott’s 42 dropbacks; he completed five of those passes for 41 yards.

The running game also hit a wall on Sunday. The Cowboys’ early-down plan seemed to revolve around running Ezekiel Elliott into a wall of bodies at the line of scrimmage over, and over, and over. If you take out a 12-yard run Elliott had late in the first quarter, his other 14 first-down carries went for a combined 35 yards. Playing behind the chains for most of the game, Dallas also became susceptible to the designer blitzes that Jets defensive coordinator Gregg Williams deploys in obvious passing situations. Those complex pressure schemes are a challenge for any offense, let alone one starting two backup tackles. Prescott faced pressure on 54.8 percent of his dropbacks—the highest rate in the league this week—and got hit eight times. He actually performed quite admirably despite all the heat, taking just one sack. But with Prescott’s process sped up in self-preservation mode, the offense looked unsettled the entire game.

If Dallas can get healthy and return to the formula that worked so well for the first three weeks, the offense should be fine in the long run. But that side of the ball isn’t the only problem. Sam Darnold and his enlarged spleen lit up the Cowboys secondary to the tune of 338 passing yards and two touchdowns. Robby Anderson’s double move against cornerback Chidobe Awuzie—which resulted in the 92-yard touchdown—was particularly embarrassing, but receivers were running open all game. The upgrade from Luke Falk to Darnold is impossible to overstate, but this offense was historically bad through five games, and Gase’s unit still torched the Cowboys.

When a team hits the skids, it’s tempting to overanalyze every interaction and moment in an effort to glean some insight. Most of the time those conclusions are presumptuous. But after a group of Cowboys defenders walked off the field and refused to high-five Garrett late in the fourth quarter on Sunday, it seemed fair to wonder where the Cowboys stand with him in charge. This is Year 9 of Garrett’s tenure in Dallas. It’s difficult to know how much influence he has over the offense and to what degree he’s pushing the Cowboys’ run-heavy approach. But even if the schematic decision-making process is a bit murky, there’s nothing complicated about Garrett’s role in creating the franchise’s culture. Moore may have brought some intriguing ideas to the Cowboys offense early in the season, but if the same overarching attitude still pervades those meeting rooms and the facility as a whole, it seems silly to expect different results.

2. One silver lining about the Cowboys’ losing streak is that at 3-3, they’re still tied with the Eagles for the best record in the NFC East. And if Philly’s performance in its 38-20 loss to the Vikings is any indication, this division is still up for grabs. Philadelphia’s secondary has struggled all season, but getting roasted by a previously dormant Minnesota passing game is particularly troubling. It’s easy to pick on cornerback Rasul Douglas, who was in coverage on two of Stefon Diggs’s three touchdown receptions on Sunday, but the blame for Diggs’s and quarterback Kirk Cousins’s monster games goes way beyond Douglas. An excellent route combination on the pair’s 62-yard second-quarter touchdown caused safety Rodney McLeod to bite hard on a deep over route and vacate the middle of the field. On Diggs’s third touchdown of the day, he shook cornerback Craig James in the red zone. Sidney Jones was also victimized by Adam Thielen on a 6-yard touchdown reception in the first quarter. Nearly every member of the secondary had a moment on Sunday that he’d like to forget.

The Eagles were a popular candidate to swing a trade for Jaguars cornerback Jalen Ramsey a couple of weeks ago, but with Jacksonville hanging around in the AFC South, it’d likely take a king’s ransom to pry him away at this point. Cardinals cornerback Patrick Peterson is another possible trade target; ESPN’s Adam Schefter reported on Sunday that three teams have made calls to Arizona about a deal for the three-time All-Pro. Eagles general manager Howie Roseman is among the most aggressive, resourceful personnel executives in the league, but at this point, he may have to go searching for help in a different tier of available corners.

Philly’s secondary always projected to be the weakest part of this roster, but some of the team’s other issues weren’t quite as easy to see coming. The Eagles’ receiving corps, paired with a healthy Carson Wentz, was supposed to be an area of strength and depth, but that group has struggled as DeSean Jackson remains sidelined with an abdominal injury. Outside of last week’s sack party against the Jets, the pass rush has failed to create much havoc without Malik Jackson, who is on injured reserve. And 2019 first-round pick Andre Dillard, who figured to give the offense plenty of flexibility as the team’s swing tackle, took over for the injured Jason Peters on Sunday and had his hands full with Everson Griffen. I’m still inclined to bet on the Eagles’ roster talent, but this team has been more susceptible to injuries than anyone could have foreseen coming into the season. Next Sunday night’s clash with the Cowboys looms large for both these teams.

3. The Vikings offense finally looks like the one Minnesota envisioned this offseason. In June, I went to Minnesota to talk with Cousins and first-year offensive coordinator Kevin Stefanski about the new scheme the Vikings planned to implement. With Cousins’s history as an effective play-action passer, the hope was that shifting to Gary Kubiak’s outside-zone, play-fake-heavy system would allow Minnesota to get the most from its $84 million QB. The returns in the first month of the season were mostly disappointing, but the offense’s performance on Sunday points to why head coach Mike Zimmer and general manager Rick Spielman believed in this plan from the start.

Cousins destroyed the Eagles defense with play-action. He used a play fake on a league-high 41.9 percent of his dropbacks and ripped Philly for 230 yards and three touchdowns on 10-of-13 passing. For you fellow math-challenged folks, that comes out to 17.7 (!) yards per attempt. The best play design of the day came on Diggs’s 62-yard touchdown reception in the second quarter. Facing a first-and-10 at their own 38-yard line, the Vikings lined up in an I-formation with Diggs as the lone receiver to the left side. At the snap, Cousins executes a half-hearted play fake to running back Alexander Mattison, and that along with the formation and the down-distance situation are enough to bring the Eagles linebackers two steps forward. From there, Minnesota sends Adam Thielen on a deep over route—a popular play-action route that brings a receiver on the right side across the field at a depth of 12 to 14 yards. That concept takes advantage of the space linebackers create while reacting to a play fake. Knowing this, Eagles free safety Rodney McLeod bit hard on Thielen, and with no help over the top, cornerback Rasul Douglas couldn’t contain Diggs as he hauled in a perfectly thrown bomb.

When Cousins was at his best in Washington, he led a well-designed offense filled with quality pass catchers. He found himself in a similar situation on Sunday, and his ability to take advantage should encourage Vikings fans. Thielen and Diggs are still stars when given enough opportunities. Combined with Zimmer’s defense, the formula on display against Philly could turn the Vikings into a viable wild-card contender.

4. Sam Darnold didn’t look the slightest bit rusty in Sunday’s win over the Cowboys. After he missed the Jets’ past three games with mono, it wouldn’t have been surprising to see Darnold stumble a bit against Dallas. But he was absolutely brilliant. The most impressive part of his game is how he subtly navigates the pocket and gets throws off without much room to work. He consistently manages to stay balanced with his eyes downfield, and he’s able to deliver the ball quickly and accurately even as pressure closes in. If playing without him for much of this season wasn’t evidence enough of how much Darnold means to this offense, Sunday’s performance provided definitive proof. After a rough Week 1 showing against a tough Bills defense, it looks like Darnold might be ready to pick up where he left off following an excellent finish to his rookie season.

5. The 49ers and Rams are heading in opposite directions as they vie for the NFC West title. Jared Goff had another awful outing in Sunday’s 20-7 loss to San Francisco. But while his 78 passing yards will garner plenty of attention, we should be talking about the continued dominance of the Niners defense. San Francisco’s front four has been tormenting opposing offensive lines this season, and everyone got in on the fun against the Rams. Dee Ford was unblockable off the edge, picking up two sacks and five total pressures. Solomon Thomas beat center Brian Allen for a quick sack late in the third quarter. Arik Armstead cooked left guard Austin Blythe for a sack in the fourth. Goff was hit only five times, but he was pressured on 46.4 percent of his dropbacks, the fifth-highest rate in the league. As the Rams offensive line continues to falter in pass protection, the Niners’ front has emerged as one of the most dominant units in the league. Nearly every member of that group is enjoying a career year, and second overall pick Nick Bosa has been one of the more disruptive players in football.

Defensive coordinator Robert Saleh has provided the best pumped-up sideline shots of any NFL coach through six weeks, and this unit has clearly channeled the energy that he brings. But the offseason additions of passing game coordinator/defensive backs coach Joe Woods and defensive line coach Kris Kocurek shouldn’t go overlooked either. This entire defense looks transformed, and it’s turned the Niners into serious title contenders.

6. Sunday’s results do not bode well for the futures of Jameis Winston and Marcus Mariota. This season was a crucial one for the top two picks from the 2015 draft. Both Winston and Mariota are in the final year of their rookie deals. Neither has performed that well so far in their careers, and middling results in 2019 would probably be enough for both the Bucs and Titans to consider moving on next offseason. In Tennessee, it looks like that deliberation may already have started. After going 7-of-18 for 63 yards passing and an interception, Mariota was yanked in the third quarter of Sunday’s 16-0 loss to the Broncos. He was replaced by offseason addition Ryan Tannehill, who finished 13-of-16 for 144 yards. Titans head coach Mike Vrabel said on Monday that he hasn’t decided who’ll start the team’s upcoming game against the Chargers, but the notion that there’s any question is worrisome for Mariota. Long-term franchise QBs don’t usually get benched midgame, let alone in a contract year. The Titans’ offensive system isn’t exactly quarterback-friendly, but Mariota’s forgettable showing to this point likely has Tennessee general manager Jon Robinson weighing his options.

Winston earned the full-throated support of his head coach after the Bucs’ 37-26 loss to the Panthers, but his five-interception, six-turnover performance is the type of awful showing that’s become far too common in his tenure in Tampa Bay. It’s difficult to sustain a great offense when your quarterback has such blatant ball-security issues. And though the Bucs’ well-designed passing attack, with Chris Godwin and Mike Evans, will likely lead to some scattered monster performances for the rest of the season, it’s becoming fair to wonder what another quarterback could accomplish in these circumstances.

7. Watching Luke Kuechly pilot the Panthers defense is an absolute delight. Carolina’s unit dismantled Winston and the Bucs on Sunday. The pass rush picked up seven sacks and hit Winston an additional five times, the secondary hauled in five interceptions, and head coach Ron Rivera’s group looked generally dominant as the Panthers picked up their fourth straight win. Even with all of Carolina’s roster talent on defense, though, it’s impossible to watch this unit and not fixate on Kuechly in the middle. His ability to pick up on small tendencies and tells from an offense, before and after the snap, constantly puts both him and his teammates in the right spot. On Kuechly’s interception midway through the third quarter, he started near the line of scrimmage on the left side. He quickly bailed backward at the snap, redirected linebacker Shaq Thompson to the shallow crosser, and picked off a deep throw in intended for Mike Evans. Two quarters earlier, on the Bucs’ first play from scrimmage, Kuechly widened his drop just enough to force Winston to send a pass intended for Evans farther outside than he wanted to. The result was a pick by James Bradberry. The stuff Kuechly does may not always show up in the box score, but he’s the heartbeat of a Panthers defense that’s kept the team afloat in the NFC South while Cam Newton remains out.

8. Shockingly, when the Texans’ scheme prevents Deshaun Watson from getting hit, their offense becomes dangerous in a hurry. Houston’s pass-protection issues have stemmed from a variety of things. Part of the problem has been Watson’s tendency to hang on to the ball; another part was the Texans’ lack of check-down and hot-route options in their offense. Those weren’t issues in Sunday’s win over the Chiefs, though. Watson’s average release time on Sunday was 2.28 seconds—the third-fastest mark of the week—and he consistently utilized his hot options against the blitz, namely wide receiver DeAndre Hopkins. Holding on to a 31-24 lead and facing a fourth-and-3 with two minutes left in the game, Houston lined up in an empty set at the Chiefs’ 27-yard line. Kansas City responded by sending six rushers and playing man coverage. That look might have spelled disaster for Houston in previous weeks, but after handling the snap, Watson found Hopkins hot over the middle of the field for an 8-yard, game-sealing gain. Against the blitz, Watson finished 11-of-14 for 122 yards, with an 8.7 yards per attempt average. If Houston can continue to solve complex blitz packages in this way, the rest of the league should be very afraid.

9. This week in tales of the tape: They packaged it in different formations, but the Chiefs and Eagles ran a similar running back wheel concept on Sunday, reminding everyone that many of these coaches think alike. It’s always fun to see coaches from the same tree use the concepts in similar situations. Doug Pederson has put his own spin on Andy Reid’s scheme since leaving Kansas City for the Eagles head coaching job in 2016, but they still share many of the same principles. As Philly struggled to get much going in the vertical passing game on Sunday, Pederson turned to running back Miles Sanders for multiple deep shots against the Vikings.

10. This week’s line-play moment that made me hit rewind: Dee Ford’s burst off the edge is just unfair.

11. This week in NFL players, they’re absolutely nothing like us: I’m still not convinced the video of Kyler Murray wasn’t doctored. There’s no way this was real.

An earlier version of this piece misidentified Chidobe Awuzie as Jourdan Lewis.