This is the Hot Read. In this column, you’ll find everything and anything I found interesting from the NFL Week 11 Sunday action. There’s the stuff that everyone’s talking about, and the stuff that nobody’s talking about; the stuff that makes football incredible, and the stuff that makes football fun. I hope you enjoy it and learn something cool—and if you do, I hope you’re back next week, when we do it all again.
The Big Thing: The Race to the Bottom
A lot happened this past NFL Sunday. If there’s one thing you need to know, it’s this.
I don’t think I’ve ever been more interested in the first pick in November than I am this season.
The interest is twofold. The first layer is the team that will make the pick. Before this week of football, the race for the first selection was between two horses: the New York Giants and Chicago Bears, the latter by proxy of the Carolina Panthers, whose first-rounder belongs to the Bears.
Updated No. 1 overall pick probabilities from ESPN Analytics. pic.twitter.com/Zkgqqzn3MN— Seth Walder (@SethWalder) November 13, 2023
But the Giants did something weird on Sunday. Something that nobody would have expected a Tommy DeVito–led, Leonard Williams–trading team to do: They won. In convincing fashion! By double digits!
How do you win as a nine-point underdog on the road with a former third-string undrafted free agent at quarterback? Well, a 6-0 turnover differential will certainly help. Commanders-Giants was the first game with at least a 6-0 turnover disparity since 2017, and teams with a turnover differential of negative six or worse are, in league history, 5-241-1. (Better than I thought, to be frank.)
The Giants won’t keep winning games because, well, they won’t keep getting six takeaways—but since they’ve won a game, the top of the NFL draft order has been shaken up. The two-win Cardinals (who lost a tight one on Sunday to the Texans) and the two-win Patriots (on their bye week) have leapfrogged the Giants, who are tied with the Chicago Bears at 3-8. Here are the updated standings, according to Tankathon.
Arizona is unlikely to go the rest of the way winless; the team is 1-1 in Kyler Murray’s two starts, and they look plenty competent. But they aren’t the only ones.
The Bears enjoyed the return of quarterback Justin Fields on Sunday, who picked up where he left off before his thumb injury: with quality play. Against the Lions, Fields threw for 169 yards and a score on 23 attempts and ran for 104 yards on 18 carries, including a third-and-14 scamper (and subsequent dance) that should have iced the game for the Bears late. Critically, Fields showed big-play potential while avoiding mistakes—he threw no picks and took only two sacks—for most of the game.
But of course, because the Bears are the Bears, they surrendered 15 points in the last 4:15 of the fourth quarter to give the Lions a late lead, and Fields finished the game with a sack/fumble/safety. A blemish on an otherwise impressive day—by success rate, the fourth-best start of his entire career.
Fields’s improved play is not yet enough to move the Bears off of a quarterback should they land the first pick—not nearly enough. But it is enough to make the future of Fields intriguing. The market for Fields, who will turn 25 after this season, would be far more robust than the market for other young quarterbacks who may be unseated by rookie passers next offseason, like Mac Jones or Sam Howell or Desmond Ridder.
Fields’s peaks are among the highest in the NFL, and he is settling into more mature play this season with the addition of DJ Moore and an improved offensive line. If the Bears do end up with the first pick (or even the second), Fields’s play over the remainder of the season could dramatically dictate how they address the quarterback class—and what they get in return for Fields, should they move on from him.
And who would that pick be for the Bears or any other team with the top selection? That’s the second layer to my interest in the no. 1 pick. The immediate thought is USC’s Caleb Williams, who was ordained the first selection long before this college season began. But I think we’re in for a much tighter race than many expect. This tweet from NFL Network’s Ian Rapoport caught my eye this morning.
Joe Burrow learned his season was over on Friday, understood his responsibility, and went out and held a news conference. The job of a QB and face of the franchise. https://t.co/Xh0S6LpfUT— Ian Rapoport (@RapSheet) November 19, 2023
Rap doesn’t tweet like you and I do; he’s not just trying to get a take off. There’s an agenda here. Rap could be echoing the sentiment of an NFL executive or coach who took umbrage with Williams’s apparent lack of leadership following a loss to UCLA. Rap could be doing a favor for the agents of North Carolina’s Drake Maye, an extremely impressive passer who is generally considered to be the second-best quarterback in this year’s draft class. It could also be from folks at USC who are frustrated with Caleb.
I don’t know the agenda, but I know this: The NFL draft season doesn’t really start until December. Being the presumed first pick in November means next to nothing. Ask Sam Darnold or Aidan Hutchinson. College prospects don’t receive a truly critical eye from key decision-makers like general managers and coaches until the playoffs roll around and these cellar-dwelling teams are actually eliminated from contention. I don’t think Williams is remotely a lock to be the first pick.
This creates even more intrigue at the top. Owning the first pick in a year with neck and neck quarterbacks at the top gives you the power of the decision, as it did in 2023 (Bryce Young over C.J. Stroud—woof!) and 2016 (Jared Goff over Carson Wentz—solid). But solving the Williams-Maye riddle is far from easy, and plenty of the teams with angles on that top selection—the Bears, the Cardinals, and even the Giants with Daniel Jones—have incumbent quarterbacks that present viable options to continue building around, should a whale of a trade package become available for that top-two selection.
There are some key games approaching. The Giants play the Patriots next week in a game that will likely decide who gets a Williams/Maye pick and who doesn’t. The Cardinals play the Bears in Week 16, when the picture will be more clear. And the one-win Carolina Panthers—living proof that the first pick won’t magically solve all your problems—have the Titans, Buccaneers, Falcons, and Buccaneers again on their remaining schedule. All teams currently in the bottom 10 for draft positioning.
The race to the bottom is on, and it might be tighter than the race to the top. What a home stretch we are in for this NFL season.
The Little Things
It’s the little things in football that matter the most—zany plays, small victories, and some laughs. Here’s where you can find them.
1. THE METAPHOR
Here are the two biggest highlights from Zach Wilson’s day at quarterback.
We have tripping over your own feet …
… and we have taking your own coach down with you.
Zach Wilson and Robert Saleh just hit the deck together. pic.twitter.com/4Q6IVgC0OZ— NFL on CBS (@NFLonCBS) November 19, 2023
I don’t need to explain the imagery to you. All I ask is this: Does Robert Saleh grab Wilson’s chest plate to help secure him as he falls and protect him? Or is there just a touch of suppressed rage expressed in that takedown?
Anyway, Tim Boyle entered this game in the third quarter. That sentence is the first sign of the rapture.
2. THE RED ZONE CONCEPT that the kids love these days with SOME COOL MOTION
Here’s a cool little story about stealing stuff.
The 49ers love to run Christian McCaffrey on option routes from the backfield. One of the things they’re doing this year is motioning him out of the backfield and into this weird CFL-looking alignment to change the angle and timing of the option route. I wrote about it a little bit in Week 5, but here’s an example against Cincinnati.
Now, one thing that Shane Waldron—a branch off the ol’ Shanahan tree, via his Sean McVay connection—is doing in Seattle is taking that motion and slingshotting the running back into the formation on a little return. You can see a thread on it here.
Seahawks spammed this little RB return motion w/ the back to the bunch.— Derrik Klassen (@QBKlass) November 13, 2023
First play of the game they WR screen off of it pic.twitter.com/4Hm4OVE0UK
So we have the motion. We also have a common red zone play: mesh, with the running back going to the flat through the core of the formation. The Giants scored on this concept earlier on Sunday with Saquon Barkley.
Tommy Devito to Saquon Barkley for his 2nd receiving touchdown of the game! pic.twitter.com/a4ZEFXYuFg— Bobby Skinner (@BobbySkinner_) November 19, 2023
See how all the shallow crossers create a ton of traffic in the middle of the field, giving Barkley free access to the flat before the coverage defender can get connected? Pretty nifty.
Add it all together—the McCaffrey motion, the little return to the backfield, and the running back’s release through the line to the flat with all that junk in the middle—and you get this touchdown against the Buccaneers. Watch Devin White in coverage overreact to the threat outside, then fail to get through the obstacles before it’s far too late.
A 12-play 80-yard drive ends with a Brock Purdy to Christian McCaffrey touchdown… 7-0 good guys pic.twitter.com/eT9aRmZKNv— Coach Yac (@Coach_Yac) November 19, 2023
Kyle Shanahan: good at his job.
3. THE SHOT in the arm
The Bills are desperate. I’d call it the worst-kept secret in the league, but I don’t think they’re trying to keep it a secret. They had a players-only meeting and a midseason firing of their offensive coordinator, Ken Dorsey, even though Dorsey wasn’t really the problem.
But this offensive performance against the Jets is exactly why you make those midseason desperation heaves during an underwhelming season. In the first game under interim offensive coordinator Joe Brady, the Bills did exactly what they did under Dorsey: run the ball a bit, do a little RPO, dress a window or two, and then wait for Josh Allen to just dominate the other guys. It all added up to 32 points—the most the Jets defense has allowed since 2021.
But because you made the desperation change before the game, you can credit the offensive coordinator change as the impetus of the improvement. After it, therefore because of it.
So congrats to Brady, the “reason” that the Bills are better on offense now, and that all of their demons are exorcized, and that they will win every game from here on out (including the Super Bowl).
4. LEANING into the bit
Against the Commanders, Tommy DeVito had the best game that a quarterback wearing a Giants jersey has had this year (very concerning sentence!). But his best play wasn’t a Darius Slayton deep bomb or Saquon Barkley touchdown toss. It was the celebration.
Hope there are more free chicken parm sandwiches in your future, Tommy.
The Zag: The Steelers Need a New Quarterback in 2024
I tend to be a little contrarian. It’s not so much a personal choice as it is an occupational hazard. Here’s where I’ll plant my flag.
Before metropolitan Pittsburgh and all of western Pennsylvania come for me: Matt Canada is a problem. He’s a huge problem. The Steelers offense would be much better if they replaced Canada with a league-average play caller.
Divorcing the effects of a team’s play caller from its starting quarterback is hard, just as separating the play of a quarterback from his supporting cast is hard. An NFL offense is like a Jenga tower—it needs all its pieces in the right places.
But we can evaluate players on the quality of their individual play, even if they’re stuck in a tough environment. And the Kenny Pickett evaluation is dire. Pickett, more than any other individual on the Steelers offense—player or play caller—was the reason the team performed poorly against the Browns, the reason they lost.
Here is every single pass attempt Pickett had against the Browns that went beyond the sticks. You will notice that only one of them came in the first half.
Every single Kenny Pickett pass attempt that went beyond the sticks today pic.twitter.com/srmjDt4aj2— Benjamin Solak (@BenjaminSolak) November 20, 2023
This level of performance is unplayable. Almost all of these balls are flat-out uncatchable, and not a single one of them is accurate. Multiple times, Pickett was not on the same page as Diontae Johnson, his WR1, on reads on vertical routes. You can’t beat man coverage in the NFL without this!
Now, he was hurried on a couple of these throws, but welcome to the league. Sometimes, the other guys have a good pass rush. You don’t have to play the Browns every week—but this was Pickett’s 22nd start. We have a large sample of data on Pickett now, and it isn’t good.
Among 41 passers with at least 300 attempts since the start of last season, here is where Pickett ranks in a series of important metrics.
Kenny Pickett’s Relative Stats
|Player||EPA per Dropback||Success Rate||ANY/A||Explosive Play Rate||Time to Throw||Air Yards per Attempt||Inaccurate Rate|
|Player||EPA per Dropback||Success Rate||ANY/A||Explosive Play Rate||Time to Throw||Air Yards per Attempt||Inaccurate Rate|
Let’s talk Pickett’s company. The only passers worse than Pickett by adjusted net yards per attempt are Zach Wilson and Bryce Young. By expected points added per dropback, he’s sandwiched between Matt Ryan and Desmond Ridder; by success rate, it’s Mac Jones and Russell Wilson.
The numbers that are descriptive of play style, like air yards per attempt and time to throw, are also important to note with Pickett. His time to throw is above average—he takes a long time in the pocket—but he doesn’t pay that off with anything. His air yards per attempt are below average (and his inaccurate pass rate is above average, which is the opposite of how it’s supposed to work). His explosive play rate is way below average.
He isn’t … doing anything. He isn’t a creator. He isn’t a big-play hunter. He isn’t a surgeon. He’s barely even a game manager. There is no doubt that playing under Canada’s tutelage, and largely behind a below-average offensive line, has affected his development. But here we are now: This is how the Steelers developed him. The proof of the pudding is in the eating, and the eating is extremely rough.
When is it OK to quit Kenny Pickett? pic.twitter.com/tadiZLndp6— Austin Gayle (@austingayle_) November 15, 2023
Funnily enough, while Pickett’s developmental environment has largely been poor, the Steelers offense is better now than it has been in a while. It has two solid wide receivers in Johnson and George Pickens and a solid backfield option in Jaylen Warren, who has had over 100 scrimmage yards in three consecutive games. The offensive line has improved over the course of the season, and as rookie tackle Broderick Jones settles into the right side, it really doesn’t have liabilities anywhere.
The Canada considerations aside, this Steelers offense is ready for a veteran quarterback. With a Kirk Cousins at the helm, they’d be totally acceptable. Or, heck, with a new offensive coordinator, they’d have a nice environment to develop a rookie.
Why not can Canada and develop Pickett instead? You certainly can try that. It’s a nice idea: that an offensive coordinator switch would wipe Pickett clean of all his bad habits and concerning film. But Pickett is a 25-year-old passer with two years of NFL experience—all of it bad. When this season is over, he’ll have two cheap years remaining on his deal before the (relatively) expensive fifth-year option kicks in. I wouldn’t want to walk that route if a more reliable veteran was available and my defense was ready to compete now.
There’s no easy solution for the Steelers, and the path forward is all the more muddled by the expected offensive coordinator change. But I’ve seen enough from Pickett to know that I don’t trust him to captain a truly dangerous NFL offense anywhere in the near future—not in Pittsburgh with Canada, not in Pittsburgh without Canada, and not anywhere else, either.
(Mostly Real) Awards
I’ll hand out some awards. Most of them will be real. Some of them won’t be.
Most Valuable Player (of the Week): San Francisco 49ers QB Brock Purdy
I’m glad that the “Brock Purdy is the league MVP” discourse has largely abated so that we can consume Purdy’s best games without all of the accompanying hullabaloo.
Purdy shredded on Sunday! He had four incompletions and three touchdowns, which is always a good day—exactly 333 yards, too, which I find very appealing. The throw he made to Brandon Aiyuk down the sideline is the exact type of play that shows how Purdy is far better for this offense than Jimmy Garoppolo ever was.
After a brief, injury-riddled October of panic, the Niners are unquestionably back.
Most Tormented Player (of the Week) (and probably the rest of his life): Los Angeles Chargers QB Justin Herbert
I don’t know what Herbert did to deserve this. All he does is throw very fast, very accurate footballs at receivers who drop them. In a three-point loss to the Packers, I only need to show you a compilation of the Chargers’ drops—be sure to check when in the game they happened, and where on the field—for you to understand how much Herbert deserved to win this game.
Four drops for Chargers receivers today. (Could be five depending on how you read an earlier Quentin Johnston shot).— Benjamin Solak (@BenjaminSolak) November 20, 2023
Each one in a crippling down/distance/area of the field. pic.twitter.com/fj6znGLk0y
This has been the past few weeks for Herbert. After some shaky play in October, Herbert has looked like his typical cybertronic seek-and-destroy Terminator self over the past couple of weeks: a three-point loss to the Lions and a three-point loss to the Packers. Both games in which Herbert drove his team downfield to tie or take the lead in the fourth quarter; both games in which his defense gave up an eventual game-winning score.
All of this, of course, with two of his top three receivers, Mike Williams and Josh Palmer, out with injuries.
I just feel so bad for the guy.
Offensive Rookie of the Year (of the Week): The Green Bay Packers
The Packers have the youngest offense in the league. Their youth is the primary reason for their wildly volatile play. But when they draw well, it sure looks like a rosy future in Green Bay. Second-round rookie wide receiver Jayden Reed had 92 yards on seven touches—four catches, three carries—including an explosive score on a reverse. Dontayvion Wicks, a fifth-rounder, had three catches for 91 yards—he has done more this season as a big-play merchant than Christian Watson ever has. And third-round tight end Tucker Kraft would have had a touchdown—if not for big clumsy Kraft feet.
Offensive Player of the Year (of the Week): Houston Texans RB Devin Singletary
Nobody cares about the Texans running game when C.J. Stroud is making an MVP push. But I do, because I care about the Texans as a legit playoff team, and legit playoff teams are balanced. The Texans didn’t have much of a running game to speak of for most of the season—their surprising loss to the Panthers in Week 8 was a great example of that weakness—but the injury to Dameon Pierce has made way for backup Singletary to take on the lion’s share of the work. Over the past two weeks, Singletary has 52 carries for 262 yards and two scores.
Houston continues to round into form. This team feels like last year’s Jags team, in terms of how they’re figuring themselves out as they go. Don’t be surprised when they win a wild-card game.
Next Ben Stats
What it sounds like: Next Gen Stats, but I get to make them up.
305: That’s how many pounds of man scored a touchdown for the Titans
Look at the route running! The shimmy to slide by the defender! The catch through contact!
We love a big man touchdown, and it will always make it in this column (unless I forget).
3: That’s how many yards beyond the line of scrimmage Jerry Jeudy was when he pump-faked
At least, according to him.
As he told my colleague Lindsay Jones after the game: “Bro, when I caught it, the first thing I see was Court [Sutton], and all I was thinking about was, ‘What if I coulda threw it?’ But I just pump-faked. I don’t know what happened, I just did it, to be honest.”
“I got him [Vikings safety Josh Metellus]. I don’t know why he fell for it; I was 3 yards past the line of scrimmage.”
He did get him. Look at the point after the tackle. That’s the good stuff.
With a last-second win over the Vikings, the Broncos are winners of four straight. They’re 5-5, in the playoff hunt, with a defense that is creating turnovers and an offense that is having fun. Are the vibes … good?
6: That’s how many Drew Lock pass attempts is enough
I always appreciate Lock as performance art. There isn’t a quarterback more vibe-y. “I kinda feel like a deep throw now.” “Ooh, a scramble sounds nice.” That sorta thing.
On Thanksgiving, when I’m entering a state of blissful, tryptophan-induced hibernation on my couch at 8:30 p.m.? I want some actual, functional quarterback play. Geno Smith, the starter for the Seahawks who had to miss a couple of series, isn’t guaranteed to play on Thursday due to a triceps injury. But the 6-4 Seahawks are facing the 7-3, division-leading Niners for the first time this season—and it’s at home. If they want to stay in the race for the division, they need this game. And that means they need Geno.