Option 1, Week 4’s Burning Question: Can Tom Brady solve an elite defense?
The Buccaneers entered Week 4 with a lead in the NFC South, but the surprising fact was more of an indictment on the rest of the division (2-7 combined) than the supposed superteam in Tampa Bay. I’ve been bullish on the Buccaneers, even picking them to represent the NFC in the Super Bowl, and knew that the Chargers, who shut down Patrick Mahomes for 3 ½ quarters a couple weeks back, would pose the greatest test for Tom Brady yet.
The early returns were not promising for host Tampa Bay. An underthrown Brady pass was returned to the house for a pick-six and the Chargers jumped out to a shocking 24-7 lead. LA threatened to extend the lead just before halftime, but a fumble gave Brady an opportunity to close the gap. He connected with red zone target Mike Evans for a six-yard score, but the halftime deficit still stood at double-digits.
Second half Brady was electric. The Chargers pass rush, with elite ends Melvin Ingram and Joey Bosa, failed to sack Brady, while their secondary got exposed deep. Brady tossed a beautiful 28-yard touchdown pass to tight end O.J. Howard on a seam route on Tampa’s opening drive of the second half. His next time up — a jaw-dropping 44-yard deep throw to Scotty Miller, then another 19-yard dime to Miller to give the Buccaneers a lead. Charger rookie Justin Herbert played admirably, but Brady’s offense, which scored on the next two drives, put the game away.
Tampa Bay could not ask for a more encouraging performance from their team or their star. Brady had one of his finest games in recent memory, finishing with five touchdown throws. Pick-six aside, he proved his deep-ball accuracy and his chemistry with his receivers, including completing seven passes to Evans for 122 yards. Ronald Jones’s 111 rushing yards provided an excellent counterbalance and a late interception sealed the deal, but Brady was fantastic against a top-five NFL defense. Brady’s offense showed a new gear with four straight touchdown drives to open the second half. That’s a gear that most teams don’t have, and that virtually no team would be able to stop.
Option 2, Week 4’s Huge Performance: Odell Beckham Jr, Cleveland Browns
Back against the Dallas Cowboys, his opponent for his famous one-handed catch during his rookie year, Odell Beckham Jr. had quite a prolific day. Beckham is the first non-QB to win the “Huge Performance” honor. That’s what two receiving touchdowns and a 50-yard dagger of a reverse will do.
Cleveland scored 49 points in an upset win over the Dallas Cowboys on Sunday, and while they accumulated 307 yards on the ground, Beckham was as important as any player. He caught a 37-yard touchdown pass from fellow LSU product and fellow receiver Jarvis Landry on the Browns’ opening drive, then caught passes of 23, 16, and 4 yards (the last of which found the end zone) on the next drive to tie the score at 14. Fumbles on consecutive Cowboy offensive plays allowed the Browns to build off their solid start and take a 31-14 lead into halftime.
Dallas charged back in the fourth quarter, pulling within three points before Beckham made one last play to seal the game. Beckham came around the left side of the line on an end-around run, which Dallas rusher Aldon Smith read perfectly and very nearly blew up in the backfield. But Beckham skirted by Smith, then turned up field along the right sideline and couldn’t be touched. Beckham weaved through defenders until breaking away after the first down mark, with only Jaylon Smith in tight pursuit. The score put the Browns up by two possessions with just over three minutes left.
Odell Beckham Jr. broke onto the scene as a transcendent superstar as a rookie, but the bark has been greater than the bite the last couple years. Blame poor quarterback play or Beckham’s own antics, but the fact is that Beckham’s production has not been commensurate to his obvious and incomprehensible talent. It was a great thing for football to see the Beckham of old return, and the Browns, a bona fide playoff contender in 2020, surely hope he can continue his playmaking ways in weeks to come.
Option 3, Week 4’s Crucial Decision: Postponing the Titans-Steelers, Chiefs-Patriots games.
The NFL had the toughest task in sports in limiting the impact of the coronavirus pandemic. Active rosters for teams include 55 players, most of any major sport, and that doesn’t include the dozens in the coaching staff. The NFL also does not have the luxury of a bubble environment to further mitigate risk. That said, it is impressive that the NFL has made it to Week 4 without any major issues.
News broke this week about an outbreak among the Tennessee Titans after a staffer had tested positive the Saturday before the Titans’ bout against the Minnesota Vikings. No Vikings tested positive for the virus, but by mid-week, over a dozen Titans received positive test results. Understandably, the NFL changed its schedule to accommodate the outbreak, giving the Steelers and Titans bye weeks in Week 4 and rearranging matchups later in the season.
The Titans were not the only ones hit. New England Patriots quarterback Cam Newton tested positive just days before his nationally televised matchup against the Kansas City Chiefs, a huge loss given Newton’s hot start. The decision for the game was not as clear cut as the pandemic-stricken Titans’ game, but the NFL ultimately decided to postpone the Patriots-Chiefs to Monday afternoon. Backup Brian Hoyer is slated to start in place of Newton, the football equivalent of swapping out LeBron James for Alex Caruso. Was it a good decision? Additional time to test is a good idea to ensure that the virus is not spread, but the competitive disadvantage for the Patriots is sizeable (for the record, the Patriots agreed to play instead of pushing to postpone the game).
Most likely, Week 4 will not be the only weekend impacted by the coronavirus. And with the NFL’s strict 16-game schedule, matters will only complicate in future months. Football teams can’t play doubleheaders and even short weeks of preparation are a stretch, and enough goes into the formula for NFL scheduling to make rescheduling logistics a nightmare. Competitive disadvantage is the buzzword phrase at play here — I don’t think the Patriots should be content to play without their quarterback. I get the teams wanting to stay in the swing of the season, but where will the line be drawn down the road or, Rex Grossman forbid, in the playoffs?
Checkdown: The Beauty of Quarterback Runs
The New York Jets selected Sam Darnold with the third pick in the 2017 NFL Draft. The Baltimore Ravens selected Lamar Jackson with the 32nd pick in the 2017 NFL Draft. Sam Darnold has not won a lot of games and has not won an MVP. Lamar Jackson is 21-6 over the course of his short career and already won unanimous MVP honors. But in Week 4, the two quarterbacks, polar opposites in career trajectory and playing style, shared one distinction in common — a touchdown run of over 45 yards.
Darnold, a quarterback not feared for his rushing abilities, escaped a collapsing pocket and took his scramble 47 yards to the house against the Denver Broncos on Thursday night. You could tell that even Darnold was surprised, as he paused several times to slide to the ground before Jet blockers opened up lane after lane. It was impressive from the sheer fact that he made it all the way with such little speed and intent. The rush was the longest quarterback touchdown run since Deshaun Watson’s 49-yarder in 2017.
A couple days later, Jackson broke that record by scoring on a designed quarterback rush. By a couple steps past the line of scrimmage, he was in the open field and gone. According to NFL Next Gen Stats, Jackson reached 20.13 miles per hour on his rush — a veritable blur. He even showboated the last ten yards, before pulling the ball back in and spinning off a defender into the end zone in a blowout victory.
In my first years as an NFL fan, the game looked nothing like this. I thought the QB sneak was the coolest play around and was geeked when quarterbacks like Eli Manning would rush up the middle for a couple yards. A designed quarterback run? I couldn’t imagine. But now, a new generation of athletic quarterbacks have assumed the majority and it couldn’t be better for the game (or worse for opposing defenses). I will always love watching quarterbacks break off a long one with their legs, whether they’re bumbling or blazing to paydirt.
Game Notes: Three guys stand out as future head coaches, some of whom I knew going into the season while others have bloomed. Eric Bienemy and Byron Leftwich are the two coordinators for the best two offensive attacks in the league — enough said. Buffalo’s Brian Daboll has worked wonders with Josh Allen and has the Bills’ offense as an elite unit, a very surprising development. I’d be shocked if any of those three don’t have job offers this winter…I’m not a Gregg Williams fan and never really understood why the NFL didn’t take the opportunity to boot him out of football after the Bountygate scandal. His Jets defense was inflicting dangerous unsportsmanlike conduct penalties after the Jets-Broncos outcome was decided…Buffalo is watchable for the first time in my lifetime. I give a lion’s share of credit to Daboll, who is for the Bills what Greg Roman is for the Ravens…I don’t know where to start with the Cowboys. Tony Pollard is the worst returner I’ve ever seen, and backfield mate Zeke Elliott looks juiceless in the run and pass games. I also can’t understand Mike McCarthy’s carefree demeanor. Did Jerry Jones want somebody who was going to lead a talented, underperforming team to the promised land, or a buddy to have a drink with? Kellen Moore’s not the problem, and I doubt any significant coaching changes will happen this season…SNF was a battle of two elite names, Cre’Von LeBlanc vs Jacquiski Tartt. The Eagles won, but I’m not willing to force Tartt to surrender the title for best name in the NFL…The Lions continue to do Detroit Lions things. I feel for their fanbase, which must be absolutely numb after five decades of this. At least they got some Barry Sanders in the 90s and Calvin Johnson in the mid-2000s/early-2010s. If I had to rank the most miserable fan bases, 1) Cleveland 2) Detroit 3) Atlanta would be my first instinct…Washington’s front seven is legit. They held the Ravens in check on the ground aside from Jackson’s 50-yard touchdown, and that was without Chase Young. Coach Ron Rivera has to be an amplifier of that unit’s success…I am really intrigued by Carolina. They’re worse than New Orleans and Tampa Bay within their division, but they’re a couple plays away from 3-1 in what was expected to be a rebuilding year. In a coronavirus-impacted offseason, Matt Rhule has had perhaps the most seamless transition of any first-year coach. Teddy Bridgewater has also performed admirably and shouldn’t be written off as just a lame-duck quarterback. At the rate the Panthers are playing, they’ll soon be out of the Trevor Lawrence sweepstakes…Justin Herbert should win Rookie of the Year. His deep passes against a talented Tampa Bay defense were jaw-dropping, and there were points of the game he showed up Tom Brady with a much less loaded supporting cast…The Colts and Bears are who we thought they were. The Bears were a 3-0 fraud with multiple mediocre quarterbacks while the Colts just do enough to win each week and could run away with the AFC South. I’ll always have Super Bowl XLI flashbacks when these teams play, not because I watched the game but for all of those years of reading about Rex Grossman and Devin Hester in books and magazines…Somebody had to win the battle of 0-3 teams, and the Vikings finally got of the schneid with a dub over Houston. Time to fire Bill O’Brien, as if there hasn’t been enough time already. The roster is depleted and I feel so awful for Deshaun Watson seeing his team self-destruct their playoff hopes after they led the Chiefs by three scores in the playoffs last January. At least the guy is getting paid.
Lamar Jackson Watch
Stat Line: 14-21, 193 yards, 2 touchdowns, 1 interception, 107.8 passer rating, 53 yards rushing, 1 rushing touchdown
The Skinny: The Ravens traveled to Landover for Week 4. So should we have expected anything less than an RG3 Game in Robert Griffin III’s old stomping grounds? The no. 2 pick in the 2012 Draft even completed a pass to Washington (an interception), something he didn’t do nearly enough in his time with the team.
Back to Baltimore’s starter, who did just enough to blow the Football Team out by a comfortable margin and take him out of the game during regulation (let’s be real, any RG3 game is impressive). The highlight of the day was Lamar Jackson’s 50-yard rush touchdown, the longest of his career. Jackson seemed ready to break off one of those, and it helped break the Ravens out of a somewhat sluggish start and break the game open.
The Football Team has an underrated front seven, and early on, the unit found success in slowing the potent Raven offense. Baltimore’s vaunted rushing attack only tallied 144 yards (50 of which came on Jackson’s sprint) and Washington stayed in the game for the first quarter and a half despite a slow start from quarterback Dwayne Haskins.
But they couldn’t stop Lamar and Co. forever. Jackson threw touchdown tosses to tight end Mark Andrews on either side of halftime to extend the Raven lead to 18, and at that point the Ravens just needed to coast the rest of the way. The start wasn’t Jackson’s flashiest from a statistical perspective and did not prove much other than Jackson’s jets, but after a humbling loss to the Kansas City Chiefs, the Ravens and Jackson will take all the momentum they can get.
Gardner Minshew II Watch
Stat Line: 27-40, 351 yards, 2 touchdowns, 1 interception, 101.1 passer rating
The Skinny: In the first two games, the Jaguars opened up as major underdogs and nearly won both games against divisional opponents. In their next two, Jacksonville assumed the role of the favorite and lost both.
Gardner Minshew cracked 350 passing yards for just the second time in his career, but the yardage didn’t add up to points. On the Jags’ opening drive, Minshew tried to beat the pass rush with an off-target dump-off to his tight end Tyler Eifert, but safety Jessie Bates charged in and the Bengals caught an interception off a freak bounce. Minshew, primarily working the short and intermediate areas and working off the success of rookie running back James Robinson, pieced together two scoring drives to put the Jaguars up just before halftime, 13-10.
Young gun counterpart Joe Burrow marched the Bengals to 17 unanswered points to open the second half and Minshew’s attack, helped by the return of D.J. Chark, managed just two yards combined over that stretch. Despite the passing numbers, Minshew’s mediocre QBR of 40.9 ranked in the latter half of his 20 career starts. Wins aren’t going to come much easier than against Cincinnati, and the Jaguars’ slate will only get harder going forward. Maybe that’s a good thing for Minshew, who always seems up for a challenge.
Tom Brady Watch
Stat Line: 30-46, 369 yards, 5 touchdowns, 1 interception, 117.0 passer rating
The Skinny: See above.
Dak Prescott Watch
Stat Line: 41-58, 502 yards, 4 touchdowns, 1 interception, 112.9 passer rating, 1 fumble
The Skinny: If I had to send in my MVP ballot today, Russell Wilson and Patrick Mahomes would be my primary considerations. The next name up would be Dak Prescott, who has thrown for 450 yards in three consecutive weeks, this time topping the 500-yard mark in Sunday’s home loss to the Cleveland Browns. His greatness hasn’t led to many wins (the Cowboys remain tied for the NFC East lead at 1-3) and his receiving corps is the NFL’s best, but he’s had to overcome a makeshift offensive line, a running game that will not start, and perhaps the NFL’s worst defense.
Everything Prescott touched turned to gold in the first quarter. Prescott threw two touchdowns and accumulated over 170 passing yards in the first frame alone. A sure interception was hauled in by CeeDee Lamb, while a fourth-down bullet found a hole between two Cleveland defenders and into the arms of Amari Cooper. The rushing attack wasn’t cooking and center Joe Looney went down two plays into regulation, but the way the Cowboys looked, a blowout looked imminent.
The apparent blowout went the other way. The next two Cowboy offensive plays were fumbles, one a blindside strip of Prescott (not his fault) and the other careless ball-handling by the underperforming Zeke Elliott (totally his fault). By halftime, the score was 31-14 in visiting Cleveland’s favor, which was then extended to 38-14 after the Browns’ opening drive of the second half. I switched the channel to Bucs-Chargers.
Then, Dak Prescott put together a furious, Prescott-esque comeback. Down 41-14, Prescott led three straight touchdown drives, each with a 2-point conversion tacked on the end, to close the gap to three points. On those drives, he was meticulous and accurate: 6 for 8 on the first touchdown drive, then 5 for 6, 6 for 9, and 6 for 9 on the last three drives. The final drive culminated in an interception that was not Prescott’s fault (Cooper, who had a prolific day, stopped short on a slant route in which anticipation is everything). The end result was familiar: a ton of passing yards and a heartbreaking loss for Dak.
The Cowboys aren’t winning and could very easily be 0-4 at this point, but Dak Prescott has had an impressive year. This isn’t the Dak Prescott we saw in 2016 or 2017 or even 2018 — he has so completely abolished the notion of game manager. His confidence even down four scores in the fourth is unmatched, and it should say a lot that Prescott is able to get the offense going when it was built in the first place as an establish-the-run unit. Is there any more that Prescott can do for this team?
Kyler Murray Watch
Stat Line: 24-31, 133 yards, 3 touchdowns, 116.7 passer rating, 6 carries, 78 rushing yards, 1 fumble
The Skinny: Last week, the Cardinals’ perfect record was blemished in a loss to underdog Detroit and I wrote that it was an expected lump for a rising team. But a loss to the Panthers, expected to lurk in the cellar of the NFC? Arizona’s playoff berth may not be written in the stars.
Murray put together a respectable stat line against Carolina, throwing for three touchdowns and no interceptions while also adding a trademark 48-yard scamper. He also completed just three passes for over 10 yards and had four fruitless drives of five plays or fewer, including three to start the game.
Give credit to the Panthers’ new look defense under former Baylor coach Matt Rhule. But this was by no means an MVP-type performance, and Murray was outplayed by Teddy Bridgewater. Murray threw for just 54 yards in the first half as underdog Carolina took a 21-7 lead (although his touchdown throw to tight end Jordan Thomas was a brilliant red zone read), and by the third quarter it was a three-possession game. Coach Kliff Kingsbury has the weapons in Murray’s arm and receiver DeAndre Hopkins’s hands to challenge defenses downfield and go beyond just the intermediate game — the Cards averaged just 4.2 yards per completion and even less per attempt. A gimme game against the Jets could be just what the doctor ordered, but bouts versus the Cowboys, Seahawks and Bills could differentiate Murray and Arizona as pretenders or contenders.
Josh Allen Watch
Stat Line: 24-34, 288 yards, 2 touchdowns, 115.9 passer rating
The Skinny: I saved the best for last. As I detailed in my player of the week award last week, Allen is must-watch television, not because he is necessarily the best player but because he is so entertaining in trying to improvise and overcome the problems he gets himself into. And again, he delivered.
Allen’s opening drive was the stuff of legend, setting the tone for Buffalo’s rout of host Las Vegas. Allen found his top target, Stefon Diggs, a couple times before burning the inexperienced Raider secondary deep with a deep touchdown to Gabriel Davis in stride. But let’s talk about the wow throws that may not have made the highlight reel. Like the first play of the next drive, when Allen whipped a sidearm pass to Cole Beasley and retracted his hand immediately to avoid the pass rush. The next drive Allen unleashed a tennis-esque backhanded throw as he was being dragged to the ground and the pass ended up as a completion to Stefon Diggs.
In the third quarter, his brilliant play was a deftly executed jet sweep handoff-fake pitch combo that helped the Bills break open a long running play on fourth-and-one. Just outside the red zone with a couple ticks left in the third quarter, Allen, feet totally set in the ground, zinged a difficult out route to John Brown with picture perfect placement, just barely missing out on the end zone. And, to ice the game once the Bills built a touchdown lead, he completed a 45-yard jump ball loft to Diggs deep, the dagger of the game.
After four weeks, Allen ranks second in the NFL in touchdown passes, second in yards, second in yards per attempt, third in ESPN QBR and second in passer rating. Oh, and he’s completed over 70 percent of his passes, good enough for top ten in the league. The scariest part about Allen’s third-year rise is Buffalo’s blueprint — they’re a run-first offense with back Devin Singletary and built around a dominant defense. If Allen keeps this up, the Bills are definite AFC East favorites and contenders in January. Of course, Josh Allen wouldn’t be Josh Allen if he didn’t mix brilliance and stupidity, so he’ll likely keep us guessing until the end.