Five things I care about
The Steelers offense has not found answers
It was a lock that the Steelers offense would look somewhat better in Week 3. There is a significant dropoff in quality going from the 49ers and Browns defenses to what the Raiders present. But does anyone really feel dramatically better about this underperforming unit after Sunday night?
That would be a stretch in my eyes.
It starts with the run game for me. There are few more hopeless endeavors than Najee Harris operating behind the Steelers offensive line right now.
Harris has strangely become a pariah in the fantasy football community, as a growing number of analysts want to tap him as the next Melvin Gordon to Jaylen Warren’s Austin Ekeler … or worse, they’ll use the Ezekiel Elliott and Tony Pollard dynamic. To some degree, I get it. I don’t think Harris is the most explosive back out there. On the off chance that he breaks a run to the outside, he’s usually working hard to go five or six yards.
The trouble is, those chances are few and far between.
The Steelers’ offensive line is a massive anchor on this unit right now. Many folks, myself included, made the mistake of assuming that an above-average free-agent signing in Isaac Seumalo and a Round 1 rookie left tackle (who is not starting) in Broderick Jones would be enough to save a group that’s been a trouble spot for years. Nothing could be further from reality.
The Steelers were six of 15 on third down against the Raiders’ defense, who have a game-wrecker in Maxx Crosby but otherwise don’t offer many others to fear. That’s because they’re consistently in poor down-and-distance situations. We can argue about whether Harris, Matt Canada’s rudimentary run game concepts or the offensive line is the main villain in this regard but it almost doesn’t matter. The results are what they are and I can’t talk myself into it changing at any point.
The run game issues bleed into the passing attack because once they’re in those poor down-and-distance situations, teams can pin their ears back and blow by these offensive linemen in pass protection. You have one player even close to Crosby’s level, and you have an edge. Those moments send Kenny Pickett into creation mode where he has the mentality to win but not the tools required to do so. It’s why we see this offense produce an absurd amount of three-and-outs. They’re never ahead of the action.
I don’t know that I ever thought anyone from the Pittsburgh passing game was going to the moon this season, especially with Diontae Johnson out, but I hoped they could at least leave Earth’s atmosphere. Even with this win over the Raiders, I’m struggling to clear them for takeoff.
They’ll get matchups with Houston and Baltimore before their Week 6 bye. The Texans pass defense is quite underrated and while the Ravens are as banged up as ever, they’re still well-coached and can make life difficult. Those two games will provide more ideal tests.
The Dolphins’ running game
Seventy points. It’s just unspeakable. I can’t decide if it looks more like the first week of a college football mismatch or a Madden beatdown where you wanted to statpad for your Franchise Mode team.
As ridiculous as the final score was, it’s nothing compared to the production of the Dolphins running backs.
I’m not sure what’s more ridiculous: that Raheem Mostert and De’Von Achane averaged 8.8 yards per carry or that they accounted for eight total touchdowns.
Okay, it’s definitely the touchdowns. The Dolphins duo reached fantasy football heights we’ve simply never seen before.
I talked about the Dolphins’ emerging run game as a critical counterpunch this offense needed to find in last week’s version of this column. Obviously, I didn’t see THIS output coming. No human being could have dreamt up this result but I didn’t imagine the unit would go from counterpunch to true weapon in a matter of days.
The run game we saw on Sunday was nothing short of a game-changing instrument of destruction. The bones have always been there for a great running game in Miami; for as much as their pass game led the way last season, designing ground attacks were McDaniel’s bread and butter. Now that he has a fully integrated explosive rookie in Achane to complement the steady and capable Raheem Mostert, we’re seeing that history come to the forefront.
I know there will be readers screaming at their phones or laptops that this wasn’t a product of anything Miami did but that it was merely an all-time dreadful performance from the Broncos defense.
Trust me, I know. For whatever flowers we must throw to Miami, shame must be cast to Denver.
Vance Joseph called a defense like he’d never watched a second of film on this offense, leaving the middle of the field wide open. The only thing that was worse was the tackling and any attempt at recovery by defenders in the open field.
That’s the thing with Miami’s offense. You make a mistake with this speed on the other side of the field, you’re not just getting burned … you’re getting embarrassed. Odds are, you’re giving up six points.
Now we have talented running backs with tangible upside infused with this dynamic passing attack. It will never look like this again from a box score perspective but the fact that this is even a real, possible outcome is truly unnatural.
The most impossible offense to stop just got better.
Signature Justin Herbert game
The game felt like a haunted house, as both the Chargers and Vikings felt like they needed to exorcise some late-game demons with a win. In the end, it was the Chargers who avoided fumbling the bag, even if Brandon Staley did his best with a late-game fourth-down decision that didn’t go his way.
Let’s not allow that to overlook what was a signature Justin Herbert game.
The Vikings defense under Brian Flores has played a bit more passive than expectations through the first couple of games. That was not the case in Week 3. Flores sent the dogs after Herbert and the Chargers passer didn’t flinch. Herbert had a consistent plan to defeat the blitz and never let it phase him. His 14.7 completion rate over expectation ranked third among Week 3 quarterbacks.
The Chargers are in a familiar place. It’s Herbert or bust for this team.
Staley’s defense remains on the ropes, making once-prized free agent addition J.C. Jackson a healthy scratch before the game. The offense is banged up as ever. Austin Ekeler remains out with an ankle injury and Mike Williams is set to have an MRI after being carted out of the stadium. An offense under Kellen Moore that seemed to have some answers in the first few weeks is now forced to look under the couch cushions to locate a few more as guys are taken off the board.
In real life, the Chargers can count on Herbert to do his part to save them. However, we’ve seen this story in fantasy football before. If Williams is out for a while and first-round pick Quentin Johnston is still not ready to play, this offense gets a roof put over its head just like it did last year.
Keenan Allen — my lord, do I have to happily take an L on fading him in drafts this season — is the only one who scares defenses.
As usual, it looks like a Chargers offense that got most fantasy drafters all hot and bothered in the preseason is headed toward another “what if” campaign.
Derek Carr’s injury
When Derek Carr went down in the second half of the Saints and Packers game, it certainly looked like a devastating season-altering injury. Turns out the worst-case scenario was avoided and while Carr may miss some time, his season isn’t over. That’s a huge dodged bullet for the Saints.
People love to talk about Jameis Winston — he is a fun, living, breathing meme — but he’s ill-equipped to lead this particular team. Don’t get me wrong, it’s not that Winston isn’t a quality backup quarterback. It’s just where the Saints are right now.
New Orleans has some quality offensive pieces. Chris Olave, who made a highlight-reel catch against Green Bay, is a superstar talent. Michael Thomas has looked like a reliable possession target and Rashid Shaheed turns in at least one big play per week. These are just some of the quality supporting players on offense.
However, the best part of this team is the defense. Dennis Allen has the whole stop unit playing at a high level but the secondary is particularly impressive. The guys back there play as a hive-mind and have stomped out every opponent so far. They haven’t faced a murderer’s row or anything — today was their biggest challenge by far — but no one has scored 20 points on the Saints through three weeks.
That defense has the chance to be the type of unit that can propel the Saints into the playoffs, especially with an easy schedule up ahead. Carr isn’t a special quarterback but I feel slightly better with him as the caretaker than I do Winston.
The Lions’ complete win
Detroit’s offense was a strong unit and Amon-Ra St. Brown was their leading receiver with over 100 yards in Week 3. That seems like about the norm but that belies some of the key indicators from this game. Multiple areas show why Detroit has evolved as an operation.
I talked a ton this offseason about Detroit’s need for a running mate alongside St. Brown with Jameson Williams an overall question mark and a lock to miss six games. Josh Reynolds has had big moments as the outside receiver but the light turned to Detroit’s rookie tight end in Week 3.
Sam LaPorta drew 11 targets, one behind St. Brown for the team lead, and turned them into 84 yards. He ripped the defense open for a 45-yard score. This wasn’t a flash in the pan for LaPorta, either. He had five catches in each of the first two games. Rookie tight ends typically don’t do much but LaPorta has emerged now as both a security blanket and dangerous weapon up the seam. That type of development is exactly what this offense needed. Defenses now have something else to think about.
LaPorta wasn’t the only rookie that flashed on the Lions offense. David Montgomery was never really an option to play in this game, so the Lions had all week to craft a new-look run game with their starter out. Instead of defaulting to holdover Craig Reynolds, they turned the load over to rookie Jahmyr Gibbs.
He handled 17 carries, Reynolds had four and Zonovan Knight had three. The insiders reported this would happen and it was the case. The Lions offensive line blew open some massive holes across a Falcons front that had played well early in the season and Gibbs clearly followed those lanes. He still has so much more untapped potential for this offense to mine. This could have been the start of something big.
Lastly, and perhaps most critically, the Lions shut down the vaunted Falcons run game on the other side of the ball. Bijan Robinson and Tyler Allgeier took their 17 carries for a mere 45 yards. Robinson has been tearing through social media with highlight runs in each of the last two weeks but managed a long run of just 11 yards. Detroit’s run defense has been a mess for seasons — this is development.
Five things I don’t care about
The Raiders’ lack of consistency on offense
Chris Collinsworth and Mike Tirico bemoaned the Raiders’ lack of consistency as an offense in the fourth quarter. They’re not wrong. At times they look like a unit that can put points on you in a hurry, capable of running through a great defense like the one Pittsburgh employs. What I don’t agree with is the mystifying nature of why they are this way.
The Raiders are top-heavy. There’s your answer.
Davante Adams is a truly special player. He was nothing short of fantastic on Sunday night. Adams is always open wherever you want him. He’s the embodiment of quarterback proof because he makes every thing easier on anyone who throws him the ball; a reliable underneath separator and a menacing big-play merchant.
Jakobi Meyers has been a huge win of a free-agency signing. He has long been one of the most underrated wide receivers in the league. He’s an excellent route runner with the juice to get off of man coverage and the savvy to sit down against zone coverage. He’s the consummate, perfect No. 2 receiver across from an elite wideout like Adams.
The problem is, those two are the only ones who are playing consistently great football on offense right now.
Josh Jacobs is a great player but for whatever reason (maybe he’s still just a bit rusty after missing training camp) he’s not playing at a great level. Jacobs is getting what’s blocked for him — which isn’t often much, another issue for this squad — but when it comes to adding yards on top of that, it hasn’t been there for Jacobs. And that is usually his calling card, which makes me think he’s just not back up to speed yet.
As much as people bring him up, Hunter Renfrow is a replacement-level slot receiver. Maybe he’d be a better fit on another team but he’s just a solid role player. The current tight ends, right now, don’t even miss that mark.
With all that in mind, it’s no wonder they look splashy sometimes and rocky at others.
By the way, that description is basically the story of Jimmy Garoppolo’s career.
He got labeled as a game manager because Kyle Shanahan wanted him to act as a caretaker but anyone who has really watched him play knows that’s nonsense. Sunday night was a perfect encapsulation of that reality. When he’s in rhythm and on time, he can run an offense with some flare and feed Adams and Meyers at all levels. The second chaos is presented, the mistakes creep in and the consistency bleeds out of the unit.
An inconsistent quarterback begets an inconsistent offense. This one makes all the sense in the world.
The Jaguars’ preseason expectations
There are plenty of candidates for this honor but right now, to me, the Jacksonville Jaguars are the most disappointing team in the NFL.
The Texans are dealing with cluster injuries along the offensive line and in the secondary. With that in mind, it’s beyond inexcusable for Jacksonville to not sack C.J. Stroud once and for Trevor Lawrence to come out of this game with an 85.3 passer rating. I realize I’m oversimplifying the analysis using those two stats, but the fact that they don’t even pass the entry-level exam is extremely troubling.
When you can’t rush the passer and you can’t protect your own, it’s pretty straightforward. You’re not a good team.
I’m really not sure what the Jaguars are right now. The connection between Lawrence and Calvin Ridley looked like it was ready for the big screen early in Week 1. That’s dried out to an extreme degree.
It was an underrated and under-discussed storyline in the preseason that Doug Pederson passed off play-calling duties to offensive coordinator Press Taylor. Eagles fans will tell you that Pederson has already made this mistake in his last stop and it looks like he may be on the verge of taking his hands off the wheel in Jacksonville. He is one of their biggest edges and that should be at the forefront of this operation.
Maybe if we fast-forward a few weeks and we have headlines that celebrate a Jaguars win streak as Pederson takes back play-calling duties. But I no longer I expect that nor anticipate the Jaguars as I knew them in preseason to suddenly return. For now, they are on notice.
The Cardinals’ alleged “tank job”
If the Arizona Cardinals are supposed to be tanking, no one told the players and coaching staff. You know, the people actually responsible for the product on the field.
Everyone will be talking about the Cowboys coming out of this game. They’ll be the focal point. That should not be the case.
The Cowboys lost because they played a team that, despite the on-paper talent advantage, played much better than them. Simple as that.
Arizona doesn’t beat itself. They make life difficult for opponents on defense and Josh Dobbs is a more than capable placeholder at quarterback. Everyone on social media is ready to make fun of Jonathan Gannon and turn him into a meme but you cannot watch this Cardinals team and tell me they don’t compete hard like a bunch of guys who have bought in. They have fire in their gut.
No one wants to talk about it but there remains a strong chance Kyler Murray returns to play at some point this season. From a fantasy perspective, that can take an offense that’s been better than expected under Dobbs’ watch and potentially kick it up a notch. Marquise Brown cut up Stephon Gilmore on Sunday. He can reach another level with a healthy Murray.
Kyler is a talented quarterback and I grew weary of him playing in Kliff Kingsbury’s cookie-cutter attack. Dobbs has played so well in this more traditional attack that I’m much more fascinated to see what the Murray/Drew Petzing marriage will look like. For now, let’s show some respect for the Cardinals and drop the use of “the T word” when discussing their season.
Over-diagnosing the Browns offense
I’ve been hard on Deshaun Watson’s play and I don’t think there is a single soul out there who could blame me. You have to give him credit here though; it was a layup matchup but he hit all the shots. He enjoyed his best performance as the Browns quarterback. Not close. On the flip side, the fantasy streets can’t overanalyze the run game in the post-Nick Chubb world because Tennessee is such a funnel defense.
However, all I want to talk about and think about is this Browns defense. What a joy of a unit!
If you have fantasy football players going against Cleveland, lower your expectations. This unit is going to put offenses into the blender on a weekly basis.
No one will mistake the Tennessee Titans for a powerhouse offense but you rarely see a team with some quality players get stomped out like this. Tennessee had a mere six first downs and 94 total yards of offense. They averaged 2.1 yards per play and went two of 12 on first downs.
Great offenses will struggle against this Cleveland unit, as well. Jim Schwartz has these guys playing an aggressive, physical brand of football and they have talent at all three levels. And when they draw a middling to poor offense like they did in Week 3, you don’t want exposure to anyone.
The Jets’ offensive time machine
Every NFL week feels so unique, so unpredictable and shrouded in mystery.
Well, everything except the New York Jets.
The Jets have somehow fallen into a black hole in the universe that has forced them to slip back in time where they must relive the 2022 season. It’s as if the last seven months never happened. The courting of Aaron Rodgers, the hype of training camp and all the magic of the offseason was fake. The Jets are back fielding the same questions about Zach Wilson they spent almost every week answering last season.
How must Robert Saleh feel? He must know that his roster is simply too good to waste precious time on this exercise again.
Wilson is not the Jets’ only problem. An offensive line that looked like the clear weak point for this roster has been taking on water from before the season even began. But Wilson is just so far from being a positive. New York’s front office seemingly talked themselves into a fantasy where Rodgers would mentor Wilson and have him ready to take the wheel when the veteran was ready to retire.
That was a hideous process to begin with but it’s not in the cards now. Wilson is who he is. And that’s just not good enough for New York. I’m not sure what other path there is for the Jets to go down but anything is better for them than their current recurring nightmare.