4-Down Territory: Stroud vs. Young, Ravens at the top, coaches on the edge, Worst of the Week

With nine weeks of actual football in the books for the 2023 NFL season, it’s time for Doug Farrar of Touchdown Wire, and Kyle Madson of Niners Wire, to come to the table with their own unique brand of analysis in “4-Down Territory.”

This week, the guys have some serious questions to answer we pass the halfway point for a league that no longer has a halfway point:

  1. Should the Carolina Panthers have drafted C.J. Stroud instead of Bryce Young?

  2. Are the Baltimore Ravens the NFL’s best team?

  3. Which coach or coordinator might deserve an early exit from his current position?

  4. What was your Worst of the Week?

You can watch this week’s episode of “4-Down Territory” right here:

You can also listen and subscribe to the “4-Down Territory” podcast on Spotify…

…and on Apple Podcasts.

1. Should the Carolina Panthers have selected C.J. Stroud instead of Bryce Young?

(Bob Donnan-USA TODAY Sports)
(Bob Donnan-USA TODAY Sports)

On the same day that Houston Texans quarterback C.J. Stroud set an NFL rookie record with 470 passing yards and tied the rookie record with five touchdown passes against the Tampa Bay Buccaneers in a 39-37 last-second win, Carolina Panthers quarterback Bryce Young was throwing three interceptions, including two pick-sixes to Indianapolis Colts cornerback Kenny Moore, in a 27-13 loss. We generally want to avoid empirical statements about young quarterbacks, but is it too early to say that the Panthers made a mistake in trading up to the top pick in the 2023 NFL draft, and selecting Young instead of Stroud? 

Doug: I can only go with my own evaluation, and I evaluated both of these quarterbacks in depth pre-draft. It was my opinion then, and it is my opinion now, that Stroud is simply the better quarterback. Once you got past the cognitive test garage, and the ridiculous idea that he couldn’t throw on the move, you were left with what was on the tape. Stroud was better with ball placement, he had a higher floor with a potentially high ceiling, he was much better outside the pocket than he was given credit for, and he had a rough childhood – his father is serving a 38-years-to-life sentence in 2016 after pleading guilty in 2016 to charges of carjacking, kidnapping and robbery in a drug-related incident. So, he didn’t have the performance coaches and amazing academies a lot of young quarterbacks get. He didn’t have the usual Yellow Brick Road. That doesn’t show up on tape, but it matters. A lot. 

As for Young, the issue for me right now is that he’s making the same kinds of mistakes in game in what’s become three multi-interception games in his young career – he also had two picks in his debut against the Atlanta Falcons, and he had two against the Detroit Lions in Week 5. The two picks against the Falcons were both on intermediate in-cuts in which safety Jessie Bates III jumped them from the deep third. He threw a pick against the Lions where he was late with the throw on a design that worked to get his guys open to the backside – they had a stop/flat combo underneath, and an intermediate out route by receiver Jonathan Mingo, and Young threw it late out of a clean pocket without the juice needed to cut through the coverage. 

The two pick-sixes to Moore were each against quick release routes by the running back, and neither throw felt like it was timed right. When you’re missing the simple stuff like that, and making the same kinds of errors more than once in game and through multiple weeks… I don’t know. I’m hyper-focused on the negative plays in the context of this discussion, and Young has made some great plays, but right now, the Panthers have to be at least wondering a bit if they kept the receipt – especially when you see how Stroud is taking his college game to the NFL so seamlessly. 

Kyle: Yeah, the Panthers messed up. And they messed up in a couple of ways. There’s the obvious misfire on taking Young over Stroud when it was pretty clear that Stroud was the better prospect. Not that Young was bad, but his size limitations were clearly going to require some assistance with his playmakers, offensive line and scheme. That’s where the second layer of the screw up comes in.

Carolina, in the midst of a full rebuild, traded up to draft a QB who needs more help than they’re able to provide. Young is good from the pocket and is good creating out of structure, but the learning curve in the NFL was never going to allow him to thrive right away under the condition the Panthers put him in. The good news is Young is talented enough that one good offseason could change the trajectory of his career. The bad news is the Panthers might be doing more damage than anything by continuing to let him flail this season.

2. Are the Baltimore Ravens the NFL's best team?

(Jessica Rapfogel-USA TODAY Sports)
(Jessica Rapfogel-USA TODAY Sports)

The Baltimore Ravens came into Sunday ranked No. 1 in both Offensive and Defensive DVOA, and they celebrated that by taking it to a very good Seattle Seahawks team, 37-3.  Now, Baltimore is the third-best team in overall DVOA, which goes back to 1981, in the history of the metric through the first nine weeks of a season. There are still a lot of quality teams in the league, but is there any reason not to crown John Harbaugh’s squad as the NFL’s best? Does any other team have a case? 

Doug: I think the Ravens are the best team in football, and here’s why: Nobody right now can beat you in more different ways, and there are no real holes. On offense, they remind me of last year’s Eagles, because they perfectly tie their pass game and their run game together with the QB run game, and that’s something the Eagles aren’t doing as much anymore with Jalen Hurts. The Ravens ran for 298 yards and three touchdowns on 41 carries against Seattle, and undrafted rookie Keaton Mitchell (who I loved at East Carolina) ran for 138 yards and a touchdown… on just nine carries. But they can just as easily beat you with Lamar Jackson and the passing game now with new OC Todd Monken. As we’ll get to later, sometimes you really need to get a new guy calling concepts on that side of the ball. 

On defense, the Ravens are even more ridiculous. They lead the league in sacks with 35, and they only blitz 22.8% of the time, which is middle of the pack. Moreover, they don’t have an alpha-dog pass-rusher – just a bunch of guys perfectly attuned to their skill sets by defensive coordinator Mike Macdonald. Safety Geno Stone leads the NFL with six interceptions, which would have tied for the league lead in the entire 2022 season. This isn’t recency bias, either – these Ravens demolished the Detroit Lions, 38-6 in Week 7, and they exposed what looked like a historically great Cleveland Browns defense in Week 4. It is the Ravens’ world right now, and everybody else is just paying rent.  

Kyle: So, I think the Ravens are the best team through nine weeks and it’s hard to argue given what Doug laid out above. However, for the sake of the bit, let me throw a couple other teams in this pile.

Philadelphia has to be in the mix still. They’re so good in the trenches, Hurts is an MVP-caliber player and AJ Brown is putting together an all-time wide receiver season. Not to mention their ability to extend drives with their short-yardage dominance. The Ravens have a better resumé at this point, but in a one-game matchup it’s easy to envision Philadelphia grabbing a victory.

Kansas City is also here for me because their defense has been so good. Steve Spagnuolo has done an outstanding job with an unproven group and it’s buoying the Chiefs while Patrick Mahomes and Andy Reid figure out what’s happening offensively. The body of work this season hasn’t been super impressive, but I’ll happily bet on the Chiefs figuring out enough offense to win games with a top-five defense. 

The final team I want to place here is the Bengals. They look all the way back after their bye week with convincing wins over the 49ers and Bills. Joe Burrow looks like an MVP candidate again after working through his calf injury and Lou Anarumo has Cincinnati’s defense playing like one of the league’s top units. The fun part about this is the Bengals and Ravens square off in prime time in Week 11. The not fun part is it’s a Thursday night game so we may not learn as much as we’d hope. 

3. Which coach or coordinator needs an early vacation from his current position?

Now that the Las Vegas Raiders have mercifully fired head coach Josh McDaniels, taking general manager Dave Zeigler with him, is there another coach or coordinator that needs to go to save the team that currently employs him? 

Doug: Bills offensive coordinator Ken Dorsey. It could be said at this point that the decision by the New York Giants to hire former Bills OC Brian Daboll hasn’t worked for anybody. The Giants are the worst team in football, and the Bills seem to have amputated about half of the offense that worked before. There seems to be no calculated concepts to get the run game going, and that’s especially true in the QB run game. The route concepts aren’t really concepts – a lot of random stuff that doesn’t set anything up for anything else.

Daboll was brilliant at providing Josh Allen with simple coverage-beaters when he was on, and simplifying things when he wasn’t. It seems to me that Dorsey has a “one size fits all” playbook, he’ll adjust when he absolutely needs to, and then, he’ll revert and regress. One example: The Bills finally got their sequential passing game together in Week 8 against the Buccaneers by using speed no-huddle, and they barely used it against the Bengals on Sunday night. Head coach Sean McDermott was was asked about it after the loss to the Bengals, and he said, “I don’t have a good answer for you right now. I’ve got to look into that.”

Ouch. I’m sure Dorsey is capable in some instances, but since he was elevated from quarterbacks coach to OC in 2022, the differences are clear. The Bills are now 5-4, fighting for postseason relevance, and I don’t see an easy way out with the current staff. 

Kyle: I’m not here yet, but it feels like Steve Wilks is trending that direction in San Francisco. The 49ers are built with its defense as the tip of the spear, and the sharpest piece of that tip is supposed to be the defensive line. The 49ers are struggling to cover early in plays and in turn the defensive line has struggled to get quarterbacks on the ground. The pressure numbers and QB hit numbers are all fine, but they’ve been unable to get to QBs and impact their throws enough to affect games.

It’s not a talent problem. The 49ers are largely the same defense personnel-wise that led the NFL in points and yards allowed last season. Now they’ve added DE Chase Young to the mix. If they’re still unable to get stops with Young on the field and a bye week to make adjustments, it’s hard to imagine San Francisco continuing to roll with Wilks calling the defensive plays. 

4. What was your Worst of the Week?

(Chuck Cook-USA TODAY Sports)

What was your Worst of the Week?

Doug: The intentional grounding penalty against Josh Allen. At the end of the first half of that Bills-Bengals game, Allen was flagged for intentional grounding after he threw a pass to Gabe Davis after Davis cut back to the quarterback against aggressive man coverage from cornerback Chidobie Awuzie. That’s a standard option route against that kind of coverage – come back out of man and get open quickly. It was clear that Allen thought Davis was expecting Davis to go through Awuzie, because he threw the ball 10 yards over Davis’ head – he probably thought the play was a fade. 

Referee Alex Kemp called grounding, and this prompted an interesting discussion between NBC commentator Cris Collinsworth – a former NFL receiver, and NBC rules analyst Terry McAulay, a former Super Bowl referee.

I like McAulay, and I think he does a good job, but his insistence that Kemp was in the right because the route doesn’t matter, it’s where the ball lands seems… disingenuous. Another factor here is that the intentional grounding rule is intended to punish quarterbacks who throw the ball away wildly to avoid pressure. Allen was under no such pressure on that play.

Kemp had a similarly dodgy grounding call against Geno Smith of the Seahawks in Week 2. Smith threw the front-side fade to Tyler Lockett, but Lockett had cut the route short – probably because cornerback Jerry Jacobs had outside leverage – and Kemp didn’t understand what happened. Smith was also not under pressure when he made the throw.

Smith argued with Kemp while Kemp’s mic was live, and that’s where we get his “I’m talking to America” quote. Not your job, man. Your job is to understand what’s going on out there. 

I would really like officials to use common sense on plays like this, but we’ve been saying that all season long. And I would like the league to train them in certain aspects of football that would better allow them to use that common sense, such as it may be. 

Kyle: The NFC West. I’ll keep this brief. The Cardinals, Rams and Seahawks all lost and were outscored 84-6 in their three games. Arizona started rookie QB Clayton Tune in his NFL debut against the Browns on the road. They gained 58 yards on 48 plays and got shut out. The Rams started Brett Rypien and managed only 187 yards and three points on 55 plays. Then there were the Seahawks who lost 37-3 and were outgained 515 yards to 151. In total the NFC West scored 6 points and racked up 396 yards of total offense while averaging a miniscule 2.6 yards per play.

NFC West? More like NFC WORST! (Doug, please don’t fire me).

Doug: You’re on Double Secret Probation, Kyle. 

Story originally appeared on Touchdown Wire