Gregg Rosenthal catches you up on everything you need to know as we turn from Week 4 to Week 5.
Quarterbacks aren’t defining this NFL campaign — because they’ve spent it on the ground. Welcome to the season of the sack.
In this first-quarter-awards edition of “The Debrief,” there are too many early Defensive Player of the Year candidates to name. I’d start with Justin Houston and Von Miller, but the surplus of pass rushers having dominant starts is overwhelming, Khalil Mack, Everson Griffen, Calais Campbell, Demarcus Lawrence, Chandler Jones and Melvin Ingram among them. With apologies to Mr. Newton, the best two Camerons this season have been Jordan and Heyward.
Newton’s volatile start to the season — before throwing for 316 yards and posting four total scores Sunday, Newton posted 189 yards per game and a 2:4 TD-to-INT ratio — is emblematic of the struggles of many big-name quarterbacks this season, which is one reason the way-too-early MVP race is so muddy. (Tom Brady, somehow playing better than ever on a flawed Patriots team, would get my vote over Chiefs running back Kareem Hunt.) While the league searches for stability and health in its star quarterbacks, the generational pass-rushing stars, including J.J. Watt, Aaron Donald and some of the names above, have proven more reliable and awe-inspiring. They have helped inflate sack totals to 5.05 per game this season, the second-most in 20 years, leaving quarterbacks to look up for a helping hand.
And now … on to the awards.
The Futile Delay of Progress Award: John Fox, Bears, Bill O’Brien, Texans
Fox and O’Brien spent the offseason minimizing expectations for their rookie quarterbacks, artificially boosting the potential staying power of the in-house veteran quarterback options.
Fox’s decision Monday to elevate No. 2 overall pick Mitchell Trubisky to the starting role with the Bears was a recognition of the rookie’s thrilling preseason, Mike Glennon‘s poor decision-making and perhaps Fox’s coaching mortality. In his 16th straight seasons as an NFL head coach, Fox likely needs a rookie quarterback savior to keep his streak going in Chicago. While the Bears‘ wideout group is the weakest in the NFC, Trubisky has a strong offensive line, a stronger running game and a promising defense to support him. Other rookie quarterbacks have survived with less.
One such rookie quarterback: Houston’s Deshaun Watson, who has transformed the Texans‘ organization and potentially the AFC playoff picture despite a thin receiver group and thinner offensive line. Coach Bill O’Brien’s decision to start Tom Savage in Week 1 before benching him at halftime looks even stranger after Watson’s sensational start (64.9 percent completion rate, 811 passing yards, a TD-to-INT ratio of 7:4 and a 2-1 record — to his NFL career. It’s a reminder for O’Brien that a quarterback’s performance after a week of game-planning can be dramatically different than a small sample size in a preseason game. It’s also a reminder for writers (ahem) that evaluating rookie quarterbacks from afar in August is as fruitless as teams starting the season with a veteran quarterback who is just killing time before the future arrives.
The Worst Injury Week of the Season: Week 4
Watching Marcus Mariota and Derek Carr suffer injuries on the same Sunday again was eerie, conjuring memories of an ugly Christmas Eve a season ago. It appears that Mariota’s hamstring injury may not even cost him a game, but Carr will be out at least a week and possibly longer with a transverse process fracture in his back. Tony Romo missed only one week with a similar injury in 2014, which is good news for a 2-2 Raiders team that is already falling behind in the AFC West race. The Titans and Raiders wouldn’t survive for long with Matt Cassel and EJ Manuel at quarterback, respectively.
Unfortunately, the injuries to Vikings running back Dalvin Cook (torn ACL) and his fellow rookie, Seahawks starting running back Chris Carson (leg fracture), will take longer to recover from. Seattle can turn to experienced backups Thomas Rawls and Eddie Lacy, but it’s a shame to see Carson’s crazy rise from seventh-round sleeper end so quickly. Cook was in the mix for Offensive Rookie of the Year and brought a big-play element to the Vikings offense that backup Latavius Murray can’t come close to matching.
The downer of a week for injuries was fittingly capped Monday night when Redskins cornerback Josh Norman suffered a fractured rib. Norman is undergoing evaluation, coach Jay Gruden said, and it’s not clear how much time he’ll miss.
The Jekyll and Hyde Award: Jaguars defense, Raiders offense
Jacksonville gave up 7 points to the Texans, then 37 to the Titans. The Jaguars held Baltimore to just 186 yards in London, then somehow gave up 471 yards to the fighting Elijah McGuires — also known as the Jets — in MetLife Stadium. From the team’s boffo cornerback duo to the emergence of linebacker Myles Jack, there’s a lot to love about this Jaguars defense. But a true shutdown unit would show up every week.
Two weeks is a trend for the struggling Oakland offense, which was dominated up front by the Broncos long before Carr was injured. No. 1 receiver Amari Cooper continued his nightmare season with only 9 yards on eight targets, complete with his weekly drop. Denver had three sacks and five tackles for loss and held the Raiders to 24 rushing yards. That’s not good enough for the highest-paid offensive line in the league, and it’s twice in a row they were pushed around. Speaking of which …
Identity Change Award: Broncos
After ranking 28th against the run last season, the Broncos have given up a total of 95 rushing yards combined on 50 carries to Melvin Gordon, Ezekiel Elliott, LeSean McCoy and Marshawn Lynch. Broncos executive John Elway’s strong offseason starts with the team’s coaching choices and extends to key additions like nose tackle Domata Peko. Releasing safety T.J. Ward to free up playing time for ultra-athletic safety Justin Simmons, who sealed Sunday’s win over Oakland with a Tecmo Bowl-like leaping interception, is the type of unsentimental decision that keeps teams ahead of the curve.
While the Broncos‘ run defense grows stout, the running attack on offense has flourished. The Broncos have jumped from 27th to third in rushing because of new pieces like rookie left tackle Garett Bolles and free-agent pickups Ronald Leary (guard) and Jamaal Charles (running back). This is a transformed team with a tougher foundation, built better than it was a year ago to withstand the rigors of an NFL season.
The Up-For-Grabs Division Award: NFC South
The best division in football for quarterbacks is bidding to be the best division overall, with a 9-4 record against non-division opponents. The Falcons, Panthers and Bucs all have some warts, but they also all have enough firepower to win in any given week. In the AFC South, a 2-2 record is good enough for first place, with the Jaguars, Texans and Titans all sitting at .500. In the NFC South, having a 2-2 record puts the Saints alone in the cellar.
The New Balance Award: Steelers
Much attention has been paid to the relatively sluggish start of the Steelers offense. More attention should be paid to the team’s second-ranked scoring defense. Defensive end Cameron Hayward is playing the best football of his excellent career, and the return of fellow end Stephon Tuitt from injury made a huge difference in Baltimore on Sunday. Rookie outside linebacker T.J. Watt was a steal late in the first round and the team is more talented at cornerback than it has been in a decade. It’s worth noting Pittsburgh has faced a soft slate of opposing offenses, but this is a mostly young, primed group of Mike Tomlin devotees that should only improve throughout the season. Perhaps Ben Roethlisberger and friends don’t need to be that explosive if the defense remains at this level.
The Preseason Means Nothing Award: Tyrod Taylor, Bills
No NFL team was dragged more in the preseason than the Buffalo Bills, a squad that couldn’t move the ball on offense and inspired talk of tanking after trading away wideout Sammy Watkins, cornerback Ronald Darby and linebacker Reggie Ragland in August. Now they are 3-1 with the top scoring defense in football.
Tyrod Taylor takes home the hardware after averaging 3.4 yards per attempt and compiling a 27.9 passer rating in a preseason that inspired Bills fans to pine for rookie fifth-round pick Nathan Peterman as a Week 1 starter. Four weeks later, now that the games that matter have started, Taylor is averaging 7.5 yards per attempt with a 100.7 passer rating and at least two or three jaw-dropping throws a week.
(Deshaun Watson gets honorable mention for this award after he looked the least ready of the “Big Four” rookie quarterbacks in August.)
OK, the Preseason Sometimes Matters Award: Joe Flacco, Ravens
It turns out Flacco, who missed the preseason with a back injury, could have used some practice time in August behind a makeshift offensive line and a rotating gang of running backs. After back-to-back down seasons, Flacco has literally hit bottom. No quarterback has a lower net-yards-per-attempt mark this season. There are no easy solutions for Flacco or coordinator Marty Mornhinweg, and there’s only so many times head coach John Harbaugh can fire a coordinator in the middle of the season.
Comeback Players of the Year: Todd Gurley, Jared Goff, Rams
It’s amazing what a scheme change can do. Only Chiefs rookie Kareem Hunt has gained more yards from scrimmage than Gurley, with the third-year Ram’s receiving ability unlocked by coach Sean McVay. Gurley is undeniably running with greater energy, fighting through tackles in a way that didn’t happen a year ago. He has been given more space, more talented teammates to distract attention and more confidence in the scheme around him.
The amazing part of Goff’s turnaround is how little he’s asked to do some weeks. Playing carefully against Dallas in Week 4 and barely using his wideouts, Goff made smart decisions throwing up the seams. He kept the Cowboys off balance with a varying use of tempo that indicates he’s comfortable in the offense. McVay has helped him do the rest, setting him up with the third-lowest percentage of “tight-window throws,” according to Next Gen Stats (through its top evangelist, Matt Harmon). Compare that to a year ago, when Goff threw into tight coverage at the third-highest rate in the league.
Comeback Players Within the First Quarter: Saints defense
In one short month, the Saints‘ defense has already been praised, filleted and written off. But a funny thing happened after all those “Same ol’ Saints” articles from two weeks ago. New Orleans has given up 13 points over the last two weeks combined, including a shutout of the Dolphins in London. Yes, the opponents have issues. But this was a Saints defense that couldn’t slow down the weakest of opponents in the past.
New Orleans defensive coordinator Dennis Allen has experimented with a four-safety lineup on key third downs, which resulted in a pair of sacks of Jay Cutler. Cornerback Marshon Lattimore has the makings of a star, and the secondary depth overall is enviable. All Drew Brees ever needed was an average defense, and this group has a chance.
The Numbers Don’t Lie Award: Patriots defense
I wish the NFL Films cameras wired Bill Belichick around this season like it did for all of 2009. Behind closed doors, Belichick has to be saltier than a bag of pretzels in the ocean. Fixing this defense is perhaps his greatest challenge since Matt Cassel was his Week 2 starting quarterback.
The Patriots are giving up 60 more yards per game than any other NFL defense. After ranking No. 1 in points allowed last season, New England has surrendered more points than every team but the Colts. A lack of pass-rush talent up front and consistent breakdowns in communication in the secondary have plagued the defense four straight weeks. I expect Belichick to make improvements, but the exodus of talent the last few seasons is hard to ignore, with Chandler Jones, Logan Ryan, Jamie Collins, Akiem Hicks and Rob Ninkovich among the departed.
The Trendy Team Curse Award: Chargers, Giants
I was among those banging the drum for the Los Angeles Chargers as a playoff team, seduced by all that offensive talent on paper for one final time. I apologize. A similarly popular pick: the New York Giants, ticketed by four out of 15 NFL.com analysts for the Super Bowl. The two teams will face off in MetLife Stadium on Sunday with a combined record of 0-8.
The lesson, as always: No one knows anything in the NFL ahead of time. Here’s to whatever stunners the second quarter of this season brings.
Follow Gregg Rosenthal on Twitter @greggrosenthal.