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The Starting 11: The Colts and Ravens Are Carving out Room in the AFC Playoff Race

Indy took the AFC South lead on Sunday with its second-straight impressive win, and Lamar Jackson defied all football convention in Baltimore’s victory over Seattle. Plus: Kirk Cousins is trending up, and the Jalen Ramsey–Rams experiment needs more time.

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. The Colts’ 30-23 win over the Texans on Sunday was yet another impressive display in what’s been a masterful season for head coach Frank Reich and his team. When Andrew Luck blindsided the football world and announced his retirement two weeks before the start of the season, it seemed like Indy’s playoff hopes were headed out the door with him. But six games into their season, the Colts are 4-2 and sitting atop the AFC South. Without Luck under center, the Colts have relied on a run-heavy offensive approach, which has put the team’s normally dominant line and running back Marlon Mack front and center. But with the Texans selling out to stop the run on Sunday, Mack faced eight or more defenders in the box on 27.8 percent of his carries and finished with just 44 yards on 18 rushes. That left the game in Jacoby Brissett’s hands, and the fourth-year QB proved more than capable of carrying the load. Reich did an excellent job scheming open underneath throws throughout the game, and three of Brissett’s four touchdowns came on quick, short completions near the goal line. But the 26-year-old quarterback also did plenty of damage in the intermediate areas of the field, particularly with pinpoint throws to wide receiver Zach Pascal, who finished with six catches for 106 yards and two touchdowns.

Pascal’s performance was just one of the surprise contributions the Colts got from relatively unknown members of their roster on Sunday. With excellent slot cornerback Kenny Moore and star safety Malik Hooker both missing the game because of injury, the Colts were forced to play undrafted guys like George Odum and Rolan Milligan—and they still managed to hold the Texans’ high-powered offense to just a pair of touchdown drives. The injuries to Moore and Hooker continue a troubling trend for Indy this season. Star linebacker Darius Leonard, starting safety Clayton Geathers, and pass rusher Jabaal Sheard have all missed time already. Promising young defensive lineman Kemoko Turay is on injured reserve with an ankle injury. With injuries mounting and expectations cratering after Luck’s retirement, the Colts had every reason to fold. Instead, Reich and his staff have rolled with the punches and continued to pile up wins. The Saints’ Sean Payton is probably the early front-runner for Coach of the Year, but for the second straight season, Reich deserves serious consideration.

2. Lamar Jackson is capable of taking over games in a way no quarterback of this generation can. Jackson actually threw the ball well in Baltimore’s rain-soaked win over the Seahawks on Sunday, despite what his 9-of-20 passing line might indicate. Even so, the story of this game was the damage Jackson did with his legs. He was effective on both designed runs and scrambles, tallying 116 rushing yards on just 14 carries. And while Jackson’s plea to head coach John Harbaugh to go for it on fourth-and-2 late in the third quarter has gotten plenty of attention—as has the 8-yard touchdown that followed—that play was only possible because of the 13-yard scramble Jackson ripped off one play earlier.

Jackson is averaging a ridiculous 9.9 yards per scramble this season, and a league-leading 6.9 yards per rush. His improvement as a passer in his second season has been the most important development for the Ravens’ long-term outlook, but there’s a case to be made that Lamar Jackson—who is a quarterback—is the most dangerous runner in the NFL right now. Baltimore came into Week 7 with the no. 1 rushing attack in the league by Football Outsiders’ DVOA, and after Jackson’s huge day, they’re likely going to hold onto that spot. Jackson is currently on pace to finish the season with 3,770 passing yards and more than 1,300 rushing yards. No player in NFL history has ever cracked 3,000 passing yards and 1,000 rushing yards in a single season, let alone come close to the numbers that Jackson is putting up right now. He’s affecting the game in a way we’ve never seen before, and his ability to slice through defenses with his arm and his legs has given the Ravens a comfortable 2.5-game lead in the AFC North.

3. The Vikings’ play-action offense is a football nerd’s dream come true, and this scheme has Kirk Cousins playing the best football of his career. Cousins completed 24 of his 34 passes for 337 yards and four touchdowns in Minnesota’s 42-30 win over the Lions on Sunday. It was the second straight game where Cousins’s completion rate topped 70 percent and he recorded 300 yards and four scores. And once again, the Vikings got a good chunk of their production from play-action throws. Cousins used a play fake on a staggering 52.9 percent of his dropbacks and finished 13-of-18 for 209 yards and three touchdowns when using play-action. Over his past two games, Cousins has used a play fake 47.7 percent of the time—the second highest rate in the league over that stretch, and more than 17 percentage points higher than his rate in Weeks 1 through 5. When I spoke with Vikings offensive coordinator Kevin Stefanski this summer about the team’s transition to Gary Kubiak’s scheme, he made it sound as though Minnesota would push the limits of how much a team can rely on play action. No quarterback finished with a play-action rate higher than 35.8 percent in 2018. If Minnesota continues to rely on these kinds of throws to the degree that it has in wins over Detroit and Philadelphia, Cousins will likely smash that number by season’s end.

Using play-action in the passing game is a smart strategy for any team, but over his career, Cousins has arguably gotten more of a boost from it than any quarterback in the league. Cousins has always been something of a streaky passer, so to get him going, the Vikings have been using play fakes to create large windows that lead to easy completions. Getting Cousins into a rhythm has allowed Minnesota to unleash one of the league’s most efficient deep-passing games. On throws that have traveled 20 yards or more in the air this season, Cousins is 14-of-28 for 505 yards, six touchdowns, and a league-leading 135.4 QB rating. When Cousins is on, he throws one of the most beautiful balls in the entire league, and over the past few games, Stefanski and this staff have found the right way to unlock their QB. Cousins lit up the Lions on Sunday without an injured Adam Thielen for much of the game. If he can put up these sorts of numbers with Irv Smith Jr. and Olabisi Johnson soaking up a significant target share, just imagine what this group will be capable of at full strength.

4. Matthew Stafford is also playing arguably the best football of his career, and it still hasn’t been enough for the Lions. Under former offensive coordinator Jim Bob Cooter, Stafford’s average air-yards-per-attempt figures were dismal. In 2018, the average Stafford pass traveled just 7 yards—the sixth lowest mark in the entire NFL. In 2016, he finished eighth from the bottom, with a paltry 8 air yards per attempt. This season, that number has jumped up all the way to 10.5. Only documented gunslingers Ryan Fitzpatrick and Jameis Winston have averaged more air yards per throw. Considering the cannon that Stafford has attached to his right shoulder, the transition to a more downfield passing attack under first-year coordinator Darrell Bevell makes a lot of sense. It’s allowed Stafford to put his incredible physical talent on full display, and he’s currently averaging a career-high 8 yards per pass attempt.

He finished 30-of-45 for 364 yards and four touchdowns against the Vikings, but the Lions’ leaky pass defense—and a ground game that went stagnant after an injury to Kerryon Johnson—cost the Lions another win. With both the Vikings and Packers surging and the Lions sitting at 2-3-1 after Sunday’s loss, Detroit is losing crucial ground in the NFC playoff race even as Stafford is putting together his most impressive season as a pro.

5. The Bears offense is a full-blown disaster right now. There’s really nothing else to call it. With two weeks to prepare and starter Mitchell Trubisky back in the lineup after missing two games with a dislocated non-throwing shoulder, Chicago’s offense got dismantled by the Saints on Sunday. Over the first three quarters of the game, Trubisky completed 14 of 27 passes for 84 yards. 84. Achieving that kind of futility in the modern NFL is nearly impossible. The hope was that in his second year under head coach Matt Nagy, Trubisky—and the offense as a whole—would take a step forward. But so far, he’s regressed. The accuracy and mechanics issues that plagued Trubisky last season seem to be getting worse. He missed a number of open throws in the first half of Sunday’s game, including one to Taylor Gabriel on a right-to-left crossing route that the QB has overthrown at least a half dozen times over the past two seasons.

Trubisky has only played four games this season, but it’s already starting to feel like Chicago has its answer to questions about his long-term viability. Considering his struggles last season, this result isn’t exactly surprising. The more disheartening development for the Bears offense, though, is the crumbling of the infrastructure that once seemed capable of keeping its quarterback afloat. The Bears ran the ball seven times on Sunday—their lowest total in the Super Bowl era—for just 17 yards. And two of those runs resulted in lost fumbles. Chicago came into Week 7 ranked 27th in rushing DVOA, and that ranking will likely fall even farther after the team’s no-show against New Orleans. All this comes after the Bears traded a 2019 fifth-round pick and a 2020 fourth-round pick to move up 14 spots in April’s draft to take Iowa State running back David Montgomery. Through six games, Montgomery is averaging 3.3 yards per carry. Every member of the Bears’ offensive line has taken a step back this season, and standout Kyle Long—who’s been struggling through multiple injuries for the past few seasons—was moved to injured reserve last week. If you were building a worst-case scenario for the 2019 Bears offense, this is exactly what it would look like. Nagy’s team is drowning, and there’s no obvious solution for how to save it.

6. After three straight disappointing outings, the Cowboys offense found its groove in Sunday’s win over the Eagles. Considering how well Dallas played under first-year offensive coordinator Kellen Moore at the beginning of the season, the Cowboys’ struggles in recent losses to the Saints, Packers, and Jets were somewhat surprising. But Sunday’s performance against Philadelphia marked a return to the smart, creative decision-making that Moore used over the first few weeks of the season. Dallas did an especially good job scheming up short-yardage plays in high-leverage situations. Rather than running Ezekiel Elliott into a stacked box on a fourth-and-1 early in the second quarter, the Cowboys used a play fake and rollout to get Dak Prescott to the edge. There, he tossed an easy flip to Elliott in the flat for a 9-yard gain. Moore finished off that drive with a similar design for a 1-yard touchdown pass to Blake Jarwin.

Dallas also did a great job of using Prescott’s mobility—or the threat of it—to the team’s advantage in short-yardage and red zone situations. The triple option that Moore called on a 20-yard touchdown run by Tavon Austin in the first quarter was inspired, and Prescott also got into the end zone on an 8-yard scramble midway through the fourth quarter. Following three frustrating losses, the Cowboys offense finally stopped beating its head against the wall and consistently created advantageous situations for its players.

7. The Cardinals have built one of the most efficient running games in the NFL—and they’ve done it in a counterintuitive way. When most people think of great ground games in professional football, they think of big bruising linemen, fullbacks, and tons of heavy formations. But in recent years, it’s become clear that the best way to manufacture a quality running game is to spread teams out with multiple receivers and force defenses to play with fewer players in the box. This season, the Cardinals have run the ball in 10 personnel (four WRs, one TE, one RB) 46 times. That’s six more than the rest of the league combined. They’re currently averaging 5.5 yards per carry on those plays, and they entered Week 7 ranked no. 4 in rushing DVOA. With David Johnson missing most of this week’s game against the Giants because of an ankle injury, backup running back Chase Edmonds got 27 carries and finished with 126 yards and three touchdowns in Arizona’s 27-21 win. Despite that heavy workload, Edmonds didn’t face eight or more defenders in the box on a single one of his carries. On his touchdown run midway through the first quarter, no Giants defender even laid a hand on him. As too many teams around the league line up with multiple tight ends and try to pound the ball into loaded boxes, Kliff Kingsbury has realized that playing smart is oftentimes more important than playing tough.

8. Jalen Ramsey had a mixed day in his first game since being traded to the Rams. The 24-year-old All Pro cornerback played 36 snaps in his Rams debut, and most of those were spent matched up against Julio Jones. Ramsey was physical with Jones at the line of scrimmage throughout the day, and he notched some wins, but Jones also beat Ramsey down the right sideline for a 39-yard reception in the second quarter and finished with six catches for 93 yards on nine targets. Only one of those incompletions was actually forced by Ramsey, as Matt Ryan badly underthrew a wide-open Jones on a comeback route in the second quarter and just missed Jones for another big gain up the right sideline on a third-and-6 in the second. Jones is a challenge for any corner to handle one on one, and Ramsey is sure to improve as he settles into the Rams defense. But he certainly didn’t throw a shutout in his first game for L.A.

9. This week’s line-play moment that made me hit rewind: There’s a reason the Cowboys handed Demarcus Lawrence a $105 million deal this offseason. The defensive end was relatively quiet through his first six games this season, tallying just 19 disrupted dropbacks and only 2.5 sacks. But he was a menace against the Eagles on Sunday night. This cross-chop move is a thing of beauty, and a reminder that Lawrence remains one of the most disruptive pass rushers in the NFL.

10. This week in NFL players, they’re absolutely nothing like us, Part 1: Lamar Jackson is a cheat code.

11. This week in NFL players, they’re absolutely nothing like us, Part 2: Eric Ebron with an early contender for catch of the year.