Five things I care about
A.J. Brown, and the margin for error with superstars
Let’s be real, the Eagles offense was not perfect on Sunday night. The unit has not looked completely cohesive in any game this season. Week 7 was more of the same, with flashes of brilliance and mind-boggling moments.
Jalen Hurts threw a pick-six that brought Miami one of their two touchdowns on the night. He was rocky on Sunday night. He’s been rocky all season. The offense appears to be trying to do too much and is too often neglectful of the easy layups they hit last season on RPOs, screens and other 2022 staples. DeVonta Smith hasn’t turned in a signature performance in many weeks. Hurts hasn’t made as many big plays on the ground. His fantasy rushing stats look great, mostly thanks to a little deodorant from the tush-push play.
And yet, through all that, Philadelphia brushes past one of the most dangerous offenses in the league and scores 31 points. All thanks to the efforts of a true superstar player in A.J. Brown.
“A tear” doesn’t even begin to describe the run that Brown has been on the last five games.
It’s been a truly dominant run for Brown. A reminder he’s one of the elite players at his position with a litany of trump-card skills. Burly size, physicality at the catch, ferocious ability after the catch and truly underrated route-running chops to earn separation. Brown is more than the whole package, he’s a collection of gifts you couldn’t have even put together in your more wistful dreams. The Eagles certainly know that after they spent years sifting through the draft for a player 80% of Brown’s worth, only to be blessed with the chance to acquire a proven superstar by the Tennessee Titans.
Players like Brown, those few true superstar players at premium positions are capable of making a team look right even when they’re lost at sea. A north star type of talent who can take over games. Brown’s long reception on fourth down in the second quarter set up Jalen Hurts’ one-yard plunge. His third-quarter touchdown was a marvel of strength and got the Eagles back in the lead after Hurts’ pick-six. The 42-yard haul in the fourth quarter was his final grab of the night and put them in position for Kenny Gainwell to pop in the score to put the game out of reach.
Having a superstar player doesn’t just make you a great team. They illuminate a path to victory when other lights start to flicker around them. Players like A.J. Brown afford you an enviable margin for error for the moments when your team isn’t at its best.
The Ravens offense finally cashes in
To me, it’s felt that a performance like the one we got out of Lamar Jackson and the Ravens passing offense was right around the corner for weeks. There was just one or two screws loose but the moment Baltimore could tighten them up, it’d dominate. That’s exactly what they did in Week 7.
Lamar Jackson had a near-perfect 155.8 passer rating with a beefy 13.2 yards per attempt. He scored four total touchdowns, three through the air and one on the ground. There have been mistakes but Jackson has played truly excellent football for stretches in 2023. Putting a performance like this into the box score will get the entire world to take notice.
Jackson distributed the ball to a variety of targets. Despite his high yardage total, no pass-catcher had more than 80 yards. The player who reached 80 was Gus Edwards, who scampered for 80 on his lone reception of the day. Nine Ravens caught a pass in Week 7. Just about all of them made a positive impact. How many seasons during Jackson’s career has Baltimore employed seven players worth considering for targets? Not many. This group isn’t perfect but when Jackson is paying outside of his mind like he was on Sunday, well, we see the results.
And let’s not get it twisted; let’s not revise history. The Detroit defense that Jackson cut up in Week 7 was a top-seven unit in EPA per play coming into the week. It was one of the stories of the season. Jackson made light work of their efforts.
We all want results right away. The discussion and enthusiasm over Todd Monken’s impact on taking over this offense was relentless during the offseason. If you were looking carefully so far this season, you could see the subtle signals it was working. In Week 7 it all came together. If Jackson continues to play at a high level and grows more comfortable with all Monken is asking of him, they’ll never look back.
The Colts have two starting fantasy WRs
The Colts suffered a crushing late loss in what felt like the longest game in NFL history. A few close penalty calls pushed the Browns to the goal line and they snagged the win in the end. That had to be a heartbreaking moment for Colts’ players and it’s worth noting that. While those of us on the outside can sit here and be excited about the silver linings, it doesn’t take away the real frustrations for the men on the field and the organization.
Those silver linings are still real and today it was the performance of their emerging wide receivers, Michael Pittman Jr. and Josh Downs.
Usually short-area threats, Pittman and Downs turned in chunk plays against the best defense in the NFL. Downs averaged 14 air yards per target, per Next Gen Stats and scored on a 59-yard catch and run play. Pittman checked in with 11.6 air yards per target and housed a 75-yard crossing route on a fourth-quarter reception. Gardner Minshew was far from perfect in Week 7 but he showed admirable aggressiveness we had not seen yet this season while pushing the ball against this fearsome Browns defense.
I’ve maintained that Pittman is the most underrated true No. 1 wide receiver in the NFL. We haven’t often seen it in the box score because quarterback play has been a mess but Pittman is a great player. He’s capable of handling immense volume and moves well for someone his size. The Colts can revolve their passing game around him and an accurate, functional quarterback can help show off his skills as a separator and big play threat down the field.
Downs has looked exactly as I expected him to in the NFL. He was one of “my guys” in the draft.
I am a HUGE fan of new Colts WR Josh Downs. Small receiver but has all the skills to play above that frame. Hit him with a Sterling Shepard comp and y’all long-time RP folks know that is big praise from me. pic.twitter.com/LCp064EAAA
— Matt Harmon (@MattHarmon_BYB) April 29, 2023
Downs is an easy separator and is not just some popgun slot receiver. He has legitimate juice, beats press coverage and wins contested catches. That’s more along the Tyler Lockett line of small wide receivers, not some of the other comparisons I see assigned for Downs. There’s a lot more upside with him. Somehow, Downs is available in 65% of Yahoo leagues. Those folks are just asleep at the wheel.
Everything about this season is off-kilter considering Anthony Richardson is not involved in the proceedings. All things Colts will be analyzed in a forward-looking angle with an eye toward next season. As long as they can retain Pittman, Indy can feel good about its wide receiver duo.
Diontae Johnson returns
Diontae Johnson’s stat line of five catches for 79 yards won’t blow you away. He mixed in a little slowly off the IR stint for a hamstring, running fewer routes than we’d normally expect:
However, his impact was immediately felt. The Steelers offense has had and likely will continue to have a litany of issues. One of the bigger problems to start the season was the lack of a player like Johnson who can win on every route, at every level of the field and create a layup target for a beleaguered quarterback.
There were several times during the game when Johnson ran a picture-perfect, right-out-of-the-textbook route to keep a drive alive. Kenny Pickett having a guy like that affords him more confidence and makes his life easier. It also allows George Pickens to do what he does best; thump defenses over and over on high-leverage vertical routes for difficult catches. These two together can be the engine of the Steelers offense. They were just that in Week 7 and it gets them to at least some level of competency on offense.
Jaxon Smith-Njigba arrives
Rookie Jaxon Smith-Njigba found the end zone for the first time in his NFL career and it looks like his play has officially stabilized after a rocky start. Nothing about his paltry yards per catch or minuscule aDOT from his first four games made a lot of sense. The Seahawks certainly didn’t draft this guy to be a suped-up gadget receiver and his game was far more expansive in college. Since coming off his Week 4 bye, we’ve seen JSN quietly spread his wings.
JSN’s 10.3 aDOT is much more indicative of the player he can be for this team. He’s a menace against zone coverage over the middle and is at his best in the intermediate area of the field. We need him running his routes there and since the Seahawks have come off their bye, we’ve seen that more often.
When the Seahawks took JSN in Round 1, it certainly felt like a luxury add. Seattle already employed one of the best wide receiver duos in the NFL in Tyler Lockett and DK Metcalf. There was a steep dropoff to the WR3 but making their Round 1 selection a receiver was still a big statement. It was a clear signal they wanted their wide receiver room to be a strength and create mismatches in all areas of the field.
We’re seeing signs that Smith-Njigba is ready to be that level of contributor. I had extremely high hopes for this passing game. Perhaps I was over my skis with those predictions. However, we haven’t seen this wide receiver trio operating at the height of their powers yet, but we could be getting close. They’re the true advantage of this offense.
Five things I don’t care about
The Miami Dolphins offense against bad teams
I think the Miami Dolphins are a great team. They’re a contender in the AFC and their offense is capable of putting up points at a pace and a fashion 95% of the league can’t even dream of matching. They’ve smoked teams this year.
However, the deeper we get into the season, the less I care about those scoreboard-pumping wins and the more I fixate on what they can do against other true contenders.
The Dolphins outgunned the Chargers in Week 1, survived the Patriots in Week 2 24-17 and then blew the Broncos off the face of the Earth in the infamous 70-point outing. They also smoked laughable operations in the New York Giants and Carolina Panthers by a combined score of 73-37 in back-to-back weeks.
Their two losses have come against the best two defenses they’ve faced so far. The Bills back in Week 4 prior to a rash of injuries — they were a good defense back then even if they are not now — took them to task in a blowout win. The Eagles stifled out their once-great running game, allowing only 10 points to the offense on Sunday Night Football. In each of those losses, a strong stop unit removed one of their advantages — the Bills closed the middle of the field, the Eagles snuffed out the run game — and an offense that’s capable of 70 points got stuck in the mud.
The Dolphins are mortal. A great offense? No question. One that can’t be pushed off their script and forced to play with one hand tied behind their back? Nope, they aren’t that type of operation.
That alone wouldn’t be such a problem if it weren’t for their defense’s issues on the outside. When the going gets tough for Miami’s offense for a couple of drives, they too often find themselves returning to a deficit they have to play off-script to cover. No offense does their best work in those point-chasing moments, including this one. The Dolphins do have reinforcements coming, notably in the form of Jalen Ramsey. At his peak, he was the type of player who could turn the tide nearly all on his own for a defense.
Is the 2023 version of Ramsey still up to that task? We’re about to find out soon.
The Dolphins will have games this year where they spread and shred bad-to-average teams. They’ll make all these words, if you read them at the shallowest level possible, look stupid in those contests. This team’s identity and its ceiling will not be defined by those moments. It will be decided in Week 9 when they take on the Chiefs’ underrated defense in Germany, how they fare against the matchups with the Jets or a Week 16-17 stretch against the Cowboys and Ravens.
Miami has all the superstar talent on the field and in the coaching staff to graduate to the next level. Those folks deserve the benefit of the doubt that at some point they can be that team. We can just be honest about the fact that we haven’t seen it yet.
Jared Goff’s home games
The Lions getting absolutely demolished in Week 7 was one of the biggest stunners of the entire season. Detroit has looked like a top-level operation wire-to-wire so far this season. They never got a second’s worth of momentum against the Ravens.
When they were down multiple scores early in the game and the FOX broadcast was focusing in on a flag in the Ravens stadium harshly blowing in the wind, I knew what time it was. We had arrived at the “splits for Jared Goff in outdoor road games in non-perfect weather” portion of the season.
Honestly, it’s a conversation we have to go through after the result of today’s game. History dictates it. The result of Week 7 did nothing to beat the narrative back.
From a pure fantasy perspective, almost everyone got home. Jahmyr Gibbs got a late score and generally ran well in relief of David Montgomery. Amon-Ra St. Brown got a wild 19 targets and Sam LaPorta got his catches in. Jameson Williams didn’t record a catch, which is a reminder to everyone that we are not close to a point where he’s a fantasy starter. He is still far too much of an unknown, doesn’t have a set role and isn’t consistent enough as a player.
The floor-achieving statistical success is meaningless in the grand scheme for this team. We shouldn’t care about it. Nor should we care when they inevitably go on a great run over their next three games against the Raiders at home, the Chargers in LA and the Bears in Detroit. When they shellac those squads, it will tell us nothing about where the Lions can go this season.
Unfortunately, it’s how they perform in games that look more like Sunday’s loss that’ll be the key to unlocking the answers. This loss doesn’t define Detroit, not even close, but the defeat will haunt it until it can exorcise this demon.
The Chargers’ ceiling
While most of the fantasy world expected a top-five passing game out in Los Angeles, I had concerns about the Chargers’ offensive ceiling. The first few weeks started to ease my worries but then Mike Williams was lost for the season. My concerns were reborn. It was just so difficult to imagine this team keeping the same teeth in the passing game with their best vertical threat removed.
Nothing that’s happened in the last two games has done anything to change my mind about where this team is heading.
The running game couldn’t get off the runway in Week 7, as Austin Ekeler took his 14 carries for 45 yards with a long run of six yards. He suffered some kind of in-game injury but returned to action. We know what kind of player he is when healthy but that Week 1 eruption from the ground game is beginning to feel like a distant memory.
These last two weeks have easily been the two worst showings from Justin Herbert I can remember. And a lot of that is just on him. No excuses to be made. The problem for the Chargers is, when Herbert is anything less than perfect, they’re beyond in trouble.
Keenan Allen is still an excellent player but was held to just 55 yards. Joshua Palmer is a solid player and had some big catches in this game. There is just nothing of any note beyond them and no one to make an impact in the deep game. It continues to be a painfully slow start for Round 1 rookie receiver Quentin Johnston. Maybe that changes by the end of the season but everything about how he’s playing right now indicates the light is not moments away from flipping on.
Perhaps I am overreacting to two games where the Chargers put up 17 points against strong defenses. Dallas is no slouch and, even though they blew some plays in Week 7, the Chiefs have been an excellent stop unit this season. But it looks rough for Los Angeles and I’m struggling to identify a lot of on-the-fly fixes. The season is slipping away and that ceiling imagined by so many this season is starting to look like a fairytale.
Fixating on the Chiefs’ WR room
I’m about past the point where I want to hear a ton about the Chiefs’ wide receiver room every single week. It’s not going to be one of the best units in the league but this offense is still in a good spot.
When Travis Kelce is healthy, he’s still more than good enough to be the engine of this pass-catching corps. Kelce was one of the best players that ran on any field this week. He caught 12 of his 13 targets for over 170 yards and scored. It’s wild that Brandon Staley’s defense allowed such a thing to happen when he’s clearly the most threatening player on the field, but alas. Kelce just makes it that difficult to stop him given his baked-in chemistry with Patrick Mahomes.
Rashee Rice continues to ascend. He’s not a full-time player and that may continue to be the case throughout the season.
That’s just not a big concern for me. At this point, he has a critical role as an underneath receiver who wins after the catch and in the scoring area. His breakout has been the key. I expect his role to only grow going forward. He’s now on the weekly WR3 radar in fantasy football at a bare minimum.
The consistency of Kelce and the pops from Rice, along with a solid passing game role for Isiah Pacheco, is all more than enough for the Chiefs offense to be a high-end predictable unit under Mahomes. When they get a big game from one of the other guys — today it was Marques Valdez-Scantling on scramble drill plays — that’s just gravy.
I realize the Chargers defense is completely unserious but I still leave this week feeling like this KC passing game is in a good place. It doesn’t need to be a big talking point at this point.
Sam Howell’s positive flashes
We are at a theater-of-the-absurd stage with Sam Howell’s sack problem. Howell is now on pace to take 97 sacks this season after taking six in a loss against the New York Giants.
Yes, the same Giants who were dead last in the NFL heading into Week 7 with a mere five sacks.
We can’t emphasize this enough. Sacks are drive killers. That’s at least five drives per game in jeopardy of being dead on arrival for the Commanders.
It’s just impossible to fully buy into this quite talented offense with this problem hanging over their head. You can’t hope for consistency. There’s no sustainability. Promising moments are wiped away as Howell gets driven into the dirt.
There are flashes with Howell. He has a good arm and he can layer throws into tight windows. None of that really matters, though, with this cloud hanging over their head. The upside will always just be so hyper-limited in what you can actually accomplish with so much volatility brought on by the sack epidemic facing Washington’s offense. The floor is frighteningly low.
Howell’s pocket presence is a problem, there is no question about that. He plays exceedingly fast and twitched but also seems to never feel edge pressure or know how to navigate moving about rushers in his face. Howell is a young player but this is trending toward a fatal flaw in his pursuit of proving himself as a starting NFL quarterback.
He isn’t the only problem, however. The blame must also fall on Eric Bieniemy for the lack of easy buttons in this offense and the overall protection plan. The quarterback has a huge problem but he’s also not getting the help he so clearly needs.