So much happens on any given Sunday in the NFL. It’s hard to keep track of it all. More importantly, it’s quite a lot to decide what we should value as signal and what we should just ignore as noise.
In this space, I’ll go through all that we learned this week and give you the five things I care about coming out of Week 3, along with five things I can’t muster up the emotional energy to care for. Good news for you: We’re going to do this exercise in emotional turmoil every Sunday of the regular season.
5 Things I care about
The Saints defense isn't playing well enough to carry a compromised Drew Brees
The New Orleans Saints were a favorite of many in NFL media to represent the NFC in the Super Bowl. You could find them pushing for the top spot of plenty of power rankings heading into Week 1.
It became clear to anyone watching the first two weeks with a critical eye that their future Hall of Fame quarterback, Drew Brees, was not up to the task of being the central figure in that effort. The play calling has made it clear the team is aware. Sean Payton had the team running the ball on early downs at the fourth-highest rate heading into Week 3. Big plays could only be the product of screens with YAC or attempted gimmicks. Brees clung to the league’s basement when it came to average air yards per attempt. It was all obvious.
That being said, if the rest of the roster was up to the task, the Saints could carry what’s left of this all-time great to the postseason. The football hive mind believed they had that type of team.
The last two weeks, however, have revealed New Orleans has serious reason to worry the roster is, in fact, not at all in that position.
Alvin Kamara has done his job. He snared 13 passes in Sunday night’s loss, bringing his season total to 31. Kamara has already logged six end zone trips. With Michael Thomas on the shelf, he has quite literally been the Saints offense. When the duo is together, Brees has two of the NFL’s best players at running back and receiver to cover his flaws. That’s more than enough.
It’s the defense that’s the problem. A familiar refrain from the Brees/Payton years but one that was thought to be part of the past given the talent New Orleans has assembled. Marshon Lattimore and Janoris Jenkins are an enviable cornerback duo while Cam Jordan and Demario Davis are staples in the front seven. It’s been just about everything else that isn’t picking up the slack.
Middle-of-the-field coverage has been a huge hole for the Saints. Darren Waller took the team to the woodshed last week, victimizing slot corner P.J. Williams and safety Malcolm Jenkins the most. In Week 3, New Orleans let the tight end crew of Robert Tonyan, Jace Sternberger and Marcedes Lewis total over 100 yards and score two touchdowns. It looks like an area where New Orleans could get pushed around all season. With that as a major weakness, the Saints can’t afford slip-ups from their best defensive players, none of whom are having an elite start to the season.
This is not the first or last time you’ll get this comparison but we’ve seen a severely compromised — albeit elite — Hall of Fame quarterback win a Super Bowl in his final year when Peyton Manning did it in 2015. No matter what you think of Brees at this moment, there’s a universe where he could have that type of sendoff. The problem is, while Kamara is clearly keeping up his end of the bargain, the Saints defense doesn’t appear to have accessed that particular plane of reality.
The talent is there to shift the continuum at any moment in the season. But for now, in this current version of reality, the supposed NFC powerhouse is staring at a 1-2 start and should be asking just about every question in the book.
The Bills win after riding the roller coaster
The doubting horde screaming “They haven’t played anyone!” whenever you say anything positive about the Bills has been drowned out. Buffalo’s Week 3 win wasn’t as clean and easy as their victories over the Jets or Dolphins. That’s to be expected, they played a much better team. But they won.
The Rams have flaws and it wasn’t a squeaky clean effort from Josh Allen by any means but this new-look offense still got past their first big test with the NFL’s best defensive player standing in their way.
Perhaps even more important, Josh Allen was able to drop a three-touchdown hammer on the Rams in the first half without top receivers Stefon Diggs or John Brown showing up in the box score. Diggs had a score called back. Allen was able to get to his third and fourth options to thrive. He was tested once again when the Bills (with Allen playing a part) blew their 28-3 lead and let the Rams right back in the game. Buffalo showed resolve and, with the help of a questionable DPI call, they fought back for the win.
The Bills have not given us a reason to doubt Josh Allen or their offense. They just keep stacking reasons to believe that they’ve turned a corner. Stop trying to force the pessimism. Sure, there will be negative plays but at this stage, the good far outweighs the bad.
The Cowboys offense is still a bit lost
From a bottom-line numbers perspective, everything was fine for Dallas against the Seahawks. Dak Prescott cleared 400 passing yards again, delivered touchdowns to multiple wide receivers and the team posted 30-plus points.
Of course, they didn't win the game, which isn’t what you want. Confusing play-calling continues to haunt this squad.
Dallas was wise to go pass-heavy on early downs, with a whopping 49 passing plays to 14 runs. However, they continued to try to work a screen game that just wasn’t happening at any point. Ezekiel Elliott’s miserable 4.0 yards per catch and 31 percent success rate as a receiver shows that clearly. Even during the waning moments of the game when Dallas needed to make a final push to win, they still deployed a screen of the same variety that had not worked all game.
Nitpicking play-calling can be a fruitless, hindsight-laden endeavor. Nevertheless, it doesn’t sit well that there has been something to critique with the Cowboys’ approach every week. As mentioned, the production is still there, but you can’t help wonder given all the talent in this offensive room, if Dallas is leaving just a little meat on the bone with the way Kellen Moore and Mike McCarthy are approaching offense.
Nick Foles’ arrival on the scene
It was a matter of when, not if, Nick Foles would take over the job in Chicago. All it took was Mitchell Trubisky being flummoxed by the vaunted Atlanta Falcons defense in Week 3.
A second-half benching of Trubisky as the Bears trailed by multiple scores saw the former Super Bowl MVP trot out onto the field. At first, when a 50/50 ball throw to Allen Robinson resulted in an interception, it looked like there wasn’t much juice to be gained by the quarterback change.
But the sea of change was soon to follow.
The fourth quarter saw Foles hit three different receivers in Robinson, Jimmy Graham, and Anthony Miller for touchdowns on the way to a comeback win over the unbelievably unclutch Falcons. The offense suddenly had life. Most importantly, keeping Foles in the picture led to a Bears win.
Make no mistake: Chicago has players. Foles unlocks a greater ceiling for those like Robinson, Miller and other ancillary entities. Credit Matt Nagy for making this move despite a fraudulent 2-0 record from Trubisky.
Now, let’s just keep it this way.
Justin Jefferson’s big day
At 0-3 the Minnesota Vikings don’t have much to be excited about. The defense remains a mammoth problem and despite not sporting a 0.0 passer rating for much of the afternoon (as he did in Week 2), Kirk Cousins is still playing below expectations. That said, the explosive emergence of Justin Jefferson in Week 3 could prove to be a consequential development.
Reports out of camp were, at best, mixed on the rookie out of LSU. Through two games, we didn’t hear too much from Jefferson.
You couldn’t drown out the noise he was making in Week 3. Jefferson was the highest-scoring fantasy wide receiver in the early slate with seven catches, 175 yards, and a score on a team-high nine targets.
If the Vikings are going to turn their season around, they’ll need their passing offense to carry more weight. No matter how much the antiquated coaching staff might want to drool over their yards per carry, Minnesota won’t win with old-school football as long as their defense is a bottom-15 unit. We’re heading that way.
Jefferson emerging as a legitimate threat will make Cousins’ life easier, give opponents something other than Adam Thielen to worry about, and just add a refined but explosive element to the Vikings receiver room.
5 Things I don’t care about
That the Packers didn’t “get Aaron Rodgers more help”
It’s fun to fantasize about what this Packers offense would look like with a talented Round 1 receiver brought in via the NFL Draft. Even a daydream of a Robby Anderson-type of free agency signing is enough to inspire a sweat.
What’s the point? It’s not happening. The Packers didn’t go down that road. Maybe it wasn’t the best process but the results demand we stay in the moment.
For whatever reason, Aaron Rodgers has kicked his game into high gear with this group of skill-position players. On a night when he was missing the one difference-maker (Davante Adams) he has in the receiver corps and while getting just a fine outing from running back Aaron Jones, Rodgers unfurled three touchdowns and averaged over 8.0 yards per attempt.
Rodgers clearly has immense trust with improving receiver Allen Lazard and has been smart to pick his spots with everyone else. In Week 1, he found MVS for big plays, in Week 2 he used Aaron Jones as a mismatch receiver, and Week 3 saw him pick through the middle of the Saints defense with his tight ends. As mentioned above, three players at that position accounted for nine catches, 104 yards, and two touchdowns against the Saints.
Raiders’ ancillary offensive threats
The Raiders have something going on. They play a physical brand of football and their defense is a much better unit here in 2020. For as well as Cam Newton played against the Seahawks last Sunday night, he was far from that player against Las Vegas.
The Raiders problem was on offense. With Las Vegas trailing for most of the day, Josh Jacobs was only able to register 16 carries. It seems Darren Waller was the one to draw the eye of Bill Belichick’s defensive game planning. Waller came into Week 3 leading all players in team target share at over 38 percent. Against New England, he was held to nine yards on two catches.
With the two primary players on the Raiders offense being held in check, the team didn’t have anyone else step up when the game was in doubt. Hunter Renfrow turned in 84 yards and Derek Carr put up some numbers in the final quarter but it wasn’t close to enough. Jacobs and Waller are foundational pieces you can build around. If Las Vegas wants to be any more than a team that sneaks into the AFC playoffs and gets dropped by the Chiefs or Ravens, they need guys like Henry Ruggs or Bryan Edwards to get healthy and be weekly contributors.
Preseason evaluations for Keenan Allen and Austin Ekeler
The Chargers’ two best offensive players were expected to take a backseat in a slow, run-first offense that Anthony Lynn theoretically wanted to install in Los Angeles. The last two weeks, with Justin Herbert under center, has seen that dream ripped to pieces.
The rookie passer threw to Keenan Allen and Austin Ekeler a combined 30 times against the Carolina Panthers. It was a losing effort but that wasn’t much the fault of the target distribution. Herbert is still a work in progress and he’s made a few ill-timed mistakes. While the defense tightened up in the red zone, they still gave the Panthers too many opportunities to put points on the board.
The rushing volume was always going to be strong for Austin Ekeler; the passing game just boosts his weekly outlook. Allen might be the real winner here. If Herbert continues to lean on his top receiver this way (and why wouldn’t he) Allen can get back into the clear fantasy WR1 territory.
Figuring out the Giants
If it wasn’t for the clown show Jets sharing the same zip code, the Giants might be the most embarrassing operation in the NFL on Sunday. It’s hard to come with a more demoralizing loss.
The Giants got taken to the woodshed in their own building by the San Francisco 49ers’ literal C-Team.
That is not an exaggeration.
San Francisco beat New York 34-9 while rolling out an offense featuring Nick Mullens at quarterback, Jeff Wilson at running back, and rookie Brandon Aiyuk and Kendrick Bourne at wide receiver. If that crew was out there during the third quarter of a hypothetical 2020 preseason game, you wouldn’t blink.
On the other side of the ball, San Francisco was also missing frontline talent like Nick Bosa and Richard Sherman. And yet, the Giants made zero trips into the end zone. You’re missing Saquon Barkley and Sterling Shepard but there should be enough talent here not to get embarrassed by a crew of backups in your own building.
Maybe it’s an overreaction but we might want to consider punting on this team’s offensive players for a while. Let’s not bother trying to split hairs between Dion Lewis or Devonta Freeman. Attempting to decide if this is a Darius Slayton week. And certainly, let’s pass on considering mistake-machine Daniel Jones a quarterback streamer.
The Giants are in timeout. Run some laps.
Anyone disappointed in Odell Beckham Jr.’s stat line
If Odell Beckham Jr. himself can come out publicly and come to terms with the fact he probably won’t have big numbers this year, you ought to be able to do it too. Seriously, you didn’t draft him as a WR1 in fantasy football, so don’t think you’re getting that kind of weekly output.
Beckham is still one of the best wide receivers in football. Nothing in the stat sheet changes that. However, based on what we know about the Browns, they aren’t going to play the style of football that brings him big games on a weekly basis. Whenever Cleveland is able to keep a game close, like their Week 2 and 3 matchups against Cincinnati or Washington, they’re going to lean on their rushing attack.
It makes all the sense in the world. The Browns legitimately have two of the NFL’s 10 best running backs on their team, neither of which has a true hole in their game. It could be a run or a pass, an outside carry or a tote up the gut; anything can help when Nick Chubb or Kareem Hunt is on the field. Better yet, the team controls the script and keeps the training wheels on their oft erratic young quarterback by playing this way.
It’s good for the Browns. It’s not great for Beckham’s fantasy production. He doesn’t seem to care because he gets it. You probably should come around to that reality, as well.