1. Patrick Mahomes’ magic continues
Kansas City Chiefs quarterback Patrick Mahomes is the hottest player in the NFL. Mahomes is completing 66.7 percent of his passes for 896 yards, 13 touchdowns and zero interceptions, and while the folks in Kansas City thought he’d be good, there’s no way they thought he’d be this good. He’s basically a funky mixture of Brett Favre, Fran Tarkenton and Aaron Rodgers — this quickly.
His best play from the Chiefs’ 38-27 win over the San Francisco 49ers on Sunday encompassed all his positive traits. The Chiefs started out in “11” personnel — three wideouts, one back — and receiver Sammy Watkins motioned to the right side of the formation. Mahomes initially looked that way, as Watkins and tight end Travis Kelce ran two slants while running back Spencer Ware executed a swing route.
The 49ers had this covered, and this should’ve ended in an incompletion or sack. But Mahomes channeled his inner playmaker and eluded the rush twice, using the Tarkenton Honorary Pirouette. But pay attention to receiver Chris Conley, who opened the play at the top of the screen but never stopped running, even when he appeared to be the last option on the play and Mahomes looked to be in trouble twice. Conley kept working to get open, and Mahomes hit him with a 62-mph laser for a 4-yard touchdown. So unfair.
The fact Conley kept running is an underrated aspect of having a true playmaker at quarterback. He excites receivers because they know he can get them the ball whenever they’re open, no matter what. The effect this has on an offense is contagious.
Another indication of Mahomes’ rare talent: Look at No. 25, 49ers cornerback Richard Sherman. After the play, he kind of throws his hands in the air like, “What are we supposed to do?” It’s the ultimate sign of respect, and it’s one that at least one player on all three NFL teams Mahomes has faced this season has made.
Mahomes is one of the most exciting players in football. He’s only 22, and there will eventually be some growing pains — perhaps starting Monday against a frisky Denver defense, Week 5 vs. Jacksonville or Week 6 at New England. For now, this guy is so much fun to watch, and he seems to be handling all the hype well. Let’s all enjoy it.
2. JuJu Smith-Schuster wrecking fools from the slot
Do you know who the Steelers’ leading receiver is through three games? It’s not Antonio Brown, whose season has basically been like a bad telenovela. It’s Smith-Schuster, the second-year pro from USC who leads the Steelers in both catches (27) and yards (356), with the latter being a comfortable 146 yards more than Brown’s total.
A smart bettor would probably forecast that Brown eventually surpasses Smith-Schuster. But that’s not a slight to the 6-foot-1, 215-pounder, who has earned Big Ben’s trust thanks to his competitive spirit, strong, natural hands and willingness to work the middle of the field.
All of this has led to him being a monster out of the slot. According to Pro Football Focus, Smith-Schuster is second in the NFL in slot receptions this season with 20, and first in slot yards with 280. His ability in that spot came in handy late in the Steelers’ Monday night win over Tampa Bay, when — on a crucial second-and-10 with a little over 2 minutes left — he wiggled free of Brent Grimes, still a good corner, and hauled in this back-breaking catch for a first down that helped the Steelers earn their first victory of the season:
Smith-Schuster, a second-round pick a year ago, has more than lived up to his draft status. I look forward to seeing him develop in the black and gold.
3. Christian McCaffrey’s R2 juke from ‘Madden 2002’
In this same space last week, I expounded upon the rather-obvious virtues of having a running back who can make the first man miss, either with power or elusiveness. Saquon Barkley fits that bill, and so does Carolina Panthers running back Christian McCaffrey.
After a rookie season in which he emerged as a solid receiving back (80 catches, 651 yards, five touchdowns) but failed to astound on the ground (435 yards on 117 carries), McCaffrey looks awesome as a runner right now.
He has rushed 46 times for 271 yards — an outstanding 5.9 yards per carry — while forcing 12 missed tackles as a runner (the second-most in football) according to Pro Football Focus. One of them made me cackle in delight this weekend, when he pressed the R2 button from “Madden 2002” and juked hard-hitting Bengals safety Shaun Williams — a personal favorite of mine — right out of his shoes on this dynamic 45-yard run:
When you add his improved production on the ground to his 22 receptions for 157 yards, McCaffrey looks like the complete back the Panthers imagined they were getting a year ago when they made him the eighth overall pick in the NFL draft.
4. Lane Johnson, Hollywood actor
I need to give my main man, former NFL offensive guard Geoff Schwartz, an assist on this. Schwartz pointed out the theatrics of Philadelphia Eagles right tackle Lane Johnson in the above video, and I gotta say, this is amazing. Indianapolis Colts end Jabaal Sheard got whistled for defensive holding, and a big reason for that is the way Johnson flailed his arms.
I’m generally against basketball-style behavior in football, a sport that’s popular in America because of its inherent #machismo.* But while I’ll turn into a raving lunatic when quarterbacks start turning to futbol-style “I just got shot” displays after sacks in hopes of inducing these flag-happy refs, I’m OK with it on the offensive line. Why? If you’ve ever played it before, on any level, you know how difficult it is to take a pass set against another large man who has the benefit of momentum on his side. I’m all for things that make playing offensive line easier, and as such, kudos to you, Lane Johnson.
(*If you didn’t get that reference, just listen to the latest Yahoo Sports NFL Podcast, which dropped Wednesday morning!)
5. Work on the ‘pin and pull’
Let’s stay on the o-line and close things out strong. I’m not for bullying of any kind. Except when it comes to offensive linemen-on-cornerback crime. Those corners have been gifted the blessing of great genes. They eat whatever they want and don’t gain weight, while linemen look at ice cream and gain 7 pounds.
So yeah, I’m gonna enjoy San Francisco’s rookie right tackle Mike McGlinchey helping the 49ers execute a textbook “pin and pull” run scheme for a 21-yard gain against the Chiefs.
First, a quick primer: “pin and pull” is an old concept that teams sometimes use when they want to throw the opposition a curveball when running the outside zone. This variation calls for the tight end (George Kittle) to block the play-side edge rusher (Justin Houston) while the guard (Mike Person) and tackle (McGlinchey) take bucket steps to the edge, where they look to massacre linebackers and overmatched defensive backs.
I really like this run scheme, especially if the play-side guard and tackle are mobile and the tight end can block (which is why I LOVE receiving tight ends who can block) because it theoretically gives the play-side players upfront either an angle or size advantage they need to correctly execute their assignments. The 49ers have the personnel to run this play, and watching McGlinchey punish a courageous Orlando Scandrick by tossing him like a ragdoll at the end is exactly what offensive linemen dream of.
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