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The Starting 11: The Patriots and 49ers Just Put on the Ultimate Defensive Showcases

In statement wins on Sunday, New England and San Francisco showed why they’re leading their respective conferences—and launched two Defensive Player of the Year candidacies in the process. Plus: Ryan Tannehill has found his footing in Tennessee, and Vita Vea is a force we can all appreciate.

Getty 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 Patriots defense put together another dominant performance in Sunday’s 13-9 win over the Cowboys, and Stephon Gilmore’s blanking of the previously red-hot Amari Cooper may give him the inside track for Defensive Player of the Year. Through Cooper’s first 11 games of the season, he had been among the most efficient and productive receivers in the league. For that stretch he totaled 56 catches for 886 yards and seven touchdowns, and only Tyreek Hill, Michael Thomas, and Stefon Diggs had averaged more yards per route run. But on Sunday, Gilmore completely shut him down. Gilmore, who was locked on Cooper in man coverage for most of the game, finished with more interceptions (one) than the Cowboys’ top receiver did receptions. Gilmore now has four interceptions and 13 passes defensed on the season, both of which rank second in the NFL.

It’s been quite difficult historically for cornerbacks to win Defensive Player of the Year. In the past 20 years, Charles Woodson is the only corner to win the award (in 2009), and he did so as a slot corner who played much closer to the ball than Gilmore. Woodson finished that season with nine picks, three defensive touchdowns, and four forced fumbles. Gilmore may not end up with those sorts of numbers, but he’s generally regarded as the league’s best man coverage corner. Considering the way New England’s defense has played this season, his DPOY chances seem very real, even given the long-time bias against the position.

It’s possible, though, that the Patriots’ defensive success could work against him. Fellow cornerback J.C. Jackson has also been one of the league’s best secondary players, and he could steal some votes at the end of the year. Safety Devin McCourty leads the NFL with five interceptions. And in Jamie Collins’s first year back with New England, he has been excellent both in coverage and at chasing down opposing QBs—he’s notched six sacks as the NFL’s most efficient pass-rushing inside linebacker. But at this point, Gilmore is the highest-profile player on the league’s best defense. And as these awards are still largely narrative-driven, Gilmore’s shutout on Sunday in what was essentially a nationally televised game should help his cause. His effectiveness is a key reason why the Patriots can play the attacking, man-heavy style they favor. If Gilmore does end up winning the award, it’ll partially be a nod to the way his skill set has unlocked New England’s defensive plans over the past three years.

2. After another strong showing in prime time, Nick Bosa looks like he could give Gilmore some serious DPOY competition down the stretch. Bosa recorded another sack and finished with five pressures in San Francisco’s blowout 37-8 win over the Packers on Sunday night. Green Bay starting right tackle Bryan Bulaga played only nine snaps before exiting the game with a knee injury, and backup Alex Light had little chance of handling Bosa one-on-one. Bosa’s sack and four of his pressures came off that side.

Bosa’s sack total (eight) isn’t eye-popping compared with some other DPOY candidates: He ranks 12th in the NFL and has 4.5 fewer than league leaders Shaquil Barrett and Chandler Jones. Even Niners teammate Arik Armstead has 10. But sack numbers can be misleading. Bosa has played 112 fewer pass-rush snaps than Jones, thanks to the Niners’ run-heavy ball-control offense, and if you look at his production on a per-snap basis, he’s arguably been the most disruptive pass rusher in the NFL. Bosa has racked up 54 disrupted dropbacks this season, which ties his brother for the eighth-highest mark in the league, 19 more than Armstead’s total. Bosa is affecting QBs more than any defensive lineman in football, and he’s doing it for the best defense in the NFC. He’ll get a long look for DPOY, and that consideration is justified.

3. The 49ers offense is a different beast when George Kittle is on the field. The Niners’ superstar tight end returned on Sunday after missing the past two games with a knee injury, and his presence gave San Francisco’s passing attack a considerable boost. Kittle hauled in all six of his targets for 129 yards as he diced up the Packers defense. Most of Kittle’s receiving load came on underneath throws, but his 61-yard touchdown late in the fourth quarter showed the extra gear he gives this offense.

From a three-tight-end formation on a first-and-10, the Niners executed a hard play fake to the right followed by a rollout by quarterback Jimmy Garoppolo. After initially sprinting down the seam, Kittle bent his route back to the right and put cornerback Kevin King in a blender. As an excellent blocker and explosive receiving option, Kittle is the perfect weapon in head coach Kyle Shanahan’s offense. Other tight ends can create chunk gains in play-action schemes that leave them wide open, but Kittle can turn those plays into 60-yard touchdowns. There’s no tight end in the NFL like him right now.

4. Ryan Tannehill has found a home—and possibly a future—in this Titans offense. The Tennessee quarterback finished 14-of-18 for 259 yards and two touchdowns in Sunday’s blowout win over the Jaguars, while also adding two rushing touchdowns. When the Titans decided to bench Marcus Mariota six games into the season and hand the offense over to Tannehill, it felt like a desperation move that wouldn’t make much of a difference. But it turns out that choice may have saved Tennessee’s season.

Tannehill is playing the best football of his career, and the Titans seem to have found a reliable formula with bruising back Derrick Henry demolishing teams on the ground and Tannehill generating big gains on complementary play-action throws. Tannehill used a play fake on nearly 64 percent of his dropbacks in Week 12 on Sunday; he completed all 10 of his attempts and averaged 21.8 (!) yards on those throws. Both of Tannehill’s rushing touchdowns also followed play fakes. Every time the Titans used play-action on Sunday, something positive happened. Tannehill’s numbers were aided by his receivers’ work after the catch, including a 65-yard catch and run by A.J. Brown, but yet again, Tannehill was in total command of this offense.

He’s averaged 9.2 yards per attempt on the season, and his completion percentage of 72.1 percent is actually 9.4 percentage points higher than his expected completion rate—the largest difference in the NFL. At this point, it seems like riding with Tannehill next season may be the Titans’ smartest move. And even if the Titans do end up going in a different direction, Tannehill at least represents a palatable post-Mariota option that didn’t seem to exist before the season. Tennessee is now 4-1 in his five starts, and at 6-5, this team is a real threat to steal a wild-card spot in the AFC.

5. Carson Wentz and the Eagles’ passing game reached the low point of their 2019 season on Sunday. Wentz averaged just 5.7 yards per attempt and threw a pair of interceptions in Philly’s 17-9 loss to the Seahawks. He also lost two fumbles, which brings his count up to five in the Eagles’ past five games. Wentz has had a tough year as Philadelphia has dealt with injuries to its offense, and those issues continued on Sunday. Both of Wentz’s fumbles were caused by pressure off the right side, where Halapoulivaati Vaitai was replacing an injured Lane Johnson. And with DeSean Jackson and Alshon Jeffery still out of action, Wentz saw several throws glanced off his young receivers’ hands as he and his pass catchers struggled to get on the same page.

But Wentz also had some truly baffling moments in this game. On a third-and-9 from the Seahawks’ 10-yard line midway through the first quarter, Wentz airmailed a wide-open Miles Sanders in the flat, ruining a possible touchdown. He sailed another pass over Sanders’s head later in the quarter, too, when he had plenty of room to work in the flat. And both of Wentz’s picks came on woefully underthrown balls. Philly’s QB has averaged only 6.5 yards per attempt this season, but for the most part, his play has been better than his numbers indicate. He actually ranks seventh in expected points added among quarterbacks. Sunday was a rough day for Wentz, though, even when accounting for the deficiencies in his supporting cast. Philly is now 5-6 and could still make the playoffs in the watered-down NFC East. But this is not the Eagles offense many expected to see before the season.

6. The Raiders’ blowout loss to the Jets was the strangest outcome on a strange day of football. Jon Gruden’s team was hammered 34-3 by a Jets group that entered the game with three wins, and Oakland’s typically productive offense was nowhere to be found. Quarterback Derek Carr finished with 127 yards on 15-of-27 passing and threw a back-breaking interception in the third quarter that was returned for a touchdown. Part of Carr’s anemic output was due to a handful of brutal drops by Raiders receivers in the first half, and even his pick came on a tipped pass. But Oakland’s offensive struggles came from more than a few scattered miscues.

The Raiders finished 5-of-16 on third and fourth down, including a failed fourth-and-1 conversion in the third quarter. Gruden’s unit just failed to find the rhythm it had established in some of the team’s previous games this season. The Jets had a three-score lead for most of the game, which forced Oakland to lean on its passing game more than it has previously this year, but it was still surprising to see Carr and Co. look so ineffective against a defense that had entered the week ranked 21st in passing DVOA. At 6-5, the Raiders are still in the thick of the AFC wild-card race, but with the Titans, Browns, and Steelers all picking up wins on Sunday, this loss could come back to haunt Oakland.

7. Sam Darnold’s improvement in the past two games has transformed the Jets’ season from unmitigated disaster to merely disappointing. For a team that entered the season with a revamped, expensive roster and playoff aspirations, a 4-7 start isn’t ideal. But after an awful stretch of play in October, Darnold has looked notably better during the Jets’ two-game win streak. He completed 20 of his 29 passes for 315 yards and two touchdowns against the Raiders and generally looked sharp all game. Darnold’s most impressive trait is his ability to extend plays within the pocket and deliver accurate throws to the intermediate areas of the field, and that skill was on full display on Sunday. Maybe even more important is that Darnold didn’t turn the ball over, which has been a serious issue for him this season. Putting up big numbers against the Redskins (28th in defensive DVOA) and Raiders (29th) may not be all that impressive, but even seeing some progress from Darnold after his nightmare showings against the Patriots and Jaguars has to be somewhat comforting for Jets fans. A month ago, it seemed like everything that could be going wrong for the Jets was, but Darnold’s recent play is an encouraging sign for this team.

8. The Lions’ 19-16 loss to the Redskins is the nadir of Matt Patricia’s tenure in Detroit. Patricia’s team probably deserves some slack because Matthew Stafford is still sidelined with a back injury, but it’s not as if Detroit were playing against Drew Brees here. Dwayne Haskins finished 13-of-29 passing with 156 yards and an interception, and Jeff Driskel’s struggles at quarterback have nothing to do with Detroit allowing a 91-yard kickoff return for a touchdown. When Stafford has been in the lineup, the Lions’ downfield passing game has been more effective and exciting than I predicted heading into the season. But the areas where Patricia’s influence is supposed to matter most just haven’t improved.

Detroit spent considerable money this offseason to bring in free agents like Trey Flowers and Justin Coleman, but Patricia’s defense still entered Week 12 ranked 26th in DVOA. Detroit isn’t a rebuilding team anymore; the Lions are projected to only have about $40 million in cap space next season, and they’ve given out a number of sizable free-agent deals and extensions in the past couple years. Which makes it all the more puzzling that Detroit would trade a player like safety Quandre Diggs to the Seahawks last month in exchange for just a 2020 fifth-round pick. Diggs signed an extension before last season. He’s under contract for the next three years, and his largest base salary over that time ($5.3 million in 2021) is only $2.3 million more than the dead money he’s currently taking up on the Lions’ cap. All Diggs has done since arriving in Seattle is help transform Seattle’s pass defense, while costing that team just $1.6 million in 2019. Whatever Detroit’s plan is, it doesn’t seem to make a whole lot of sense in either the short or long term.

9. Vita Vea’s touchdown reception may be the best big-man score ever. At 347 pounds, the Buccaneers defensive tackle became the heaviest player in league history to score a touchdown on Sunday. I know we live in divisive times, but I think that’s something everyone can rally behind.

Vea’s short touchdown catch was undeniably awesome, but he’s been more than a novelty for the Bucs in his second season. He has rare explosiveness for a man his size, and he’s really started to put it all together for Tampa Bay this season—as both a run defender and pass rusher. When the Bucs drafted Vea with the 12th overall pick in 2018—while players like Derwin James, Jaire Alexander, and Leighton Vander Esch were all still on the board—there were concerns that his limited upside as a pass rusher would cap his long-term value. But Vea has played a staggering 314 pass-rush snaps this season and racked up 37 total pressures, which ranks eighth among all interior rushers. Only Calais Campbell, Aaron Donald, Fletcher Cox, Cam Heyward, Kenny Clark, Geno Atkins, and Maliek Collins have more. That’s incredible company, and a group that I never thought Vea would join. But he’s shown that he can do things at his size that most players could never dream of.

10. This week’s line-play moment that made me hit rewind: Khalil Mack was everywhere against the Giants. Mack finished with a sack, a forced fumble, and eight pressures in the Bears’ 19-14 win over the Giants on Sunday, but my favorite play of his was when he turned into a one-man wrecking crew and bowled over three offensive linemen to force Daniel Jones from the pocket. After a few quiet weeks, it was good to see Mack back to his old self on Sunday.

11. This week in NFL players, they’re absolutely nothing like us: I’m still not sure how Kelvin Harmon caught this.