The five most pressing NFL questions in Week 5: Will 49ers stifle Baker Mayfield and surging Browns?

We’re five weeks into the NFL season. A few plots have played out to our expectations. Far more has gone far off the chain of our projected storyboard.

Each week of the season brings with it a new set of questions. Here we’ll attempt to lay out five of the most pressing in the NFL that week. The answers to those will reveal deeper truths about how the rest of the story of the 2019 NFL season will unfold.

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We’ll find that these revelations will have a lasting impact on not just fantasy managers, but the league as a whole.

Are the 49ers truly good enough to stand alone?

I expected the 49ers offense to be what they are in 2019: An efficient offensive unit manned creatively by one of the best minds on his side of the ball. San Francisco is the 10th ranked passing offense and seventh-ranked rushing team by Football Outsiders’ metrics. That’s been a portion of their undefeated start but it hasn’t been the story.

Far less expected out of San Francisco is the sudden rise of their defense. Along with a handful of others, this Niners stop unit looks like one of the truly remade collections in the game. Tampa Bay is getting all of the earned credit but the 49ers have been just as impressive.

A remade front seven has revamped the entire unit. Despite little offseason prep, Nick Bosa has been as advertised, ranking third among all defenders in pressure rate so far. His addition, as well as Dee Ford’s presence, have afforded DeForest Buckner more one-on-one looks. All that havoc up front has suddenly closed holes that were once left wide open in the secondary. The defense ranks fourth in adjusted yards per attempt allowed (5.3), trailing only New England, Buffalo, and Carolina.

Pressure has flummoxed Baker Mayfield thus far in 2019. He’s developed a poor habit of drifting back out of the pocket, therefore making the vertical shots in this offense lower-percentage throws. The 49ers have the potential to throw a wrench into Cleveland’s surge.

The Browns are coming off a legitimately good win in Baltimore. Cleveland controlled the action throughout and their rushing success was off the charts. It looked like a head coach lost at sea had finally remapped his wayward team’s course. If the 49ers defense steps up once again as they welcome the Browns, we need to start taking this team that much more seriously. Not only would fantasy players have to adjust their expectations for offensive assets facing this team, but it would be past time to consider them well in the hunt for an NFC Wildcard spot.

Being the only undefeated team in the conference would speak volumes. For all of Cleveland’s woes to start the year, this is still a talented team. Taking them down would serve as San Francisco’s best win to date.

Will the Packers vs. Cowboys matchup reveal a pretender?

To be clear, these are still two of the best teams in NFC. The results of Sunday’s matchup is unlikely to change that reality.

However, through three weeks, it looked like the Packers defense and the Cowboys offense were two of the truly transformed units in the league. After their respective Week 4 losses, there should be a small creeping of doubt.

After wreaking havoc on the Bears, Vikings and Broncos passing games, the Packers gave up much more ground to the Eagles. Jordan Howard found the same sneaky wide lanes other backs have had against Green Bay. Carson Wentz dropped three scores on them. For Dallas, the Kellen Moore offense debuted to rave reviews by thrashing three of the worst defenses in the league in the Giants, Dolphins, and Washington. When they traveled to New Orleans, the offense suddenly looked way too much like the 2017-2018 Cowboys.

The two teams will meet in Dallas on Sunday in what should be a joy of a game. There are several outcomes in the full range of this game where we could walk away feeling like one of these two units is a complete fraud. It’s more likely we come away with a takeaway somewhere in the middle. Two areas have my particular interest in deciding the matchup when these two ships cross paths in the night.

Breakout receiver Michael Gallup will return for Dallas this week. That’s a huge win. Gallup looked like a strong 1B option across from Amari Cooper through two weeks. Not only will Dallas get his strong individual efforts once again, but his return allows everyone to slide back into a comfortable role. Devin Smith, for instance, was offering a needed vertical presence through the first two weeks but didn’t offer much (3-29) in the two games Gallup missed. Consider that Smith is a deep route runner who covers a lot of ground and is playing after a long battle with knee injuries. He shouldn’t be out there running on 80-plus percent of the snaps. The less he has to gas his legs, the better.

Michael Gallup makes his return this week, which should pay dividends in fantasy and reality. (Photo by Andrew Dieb/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images)
Michael Gallup makes his return this week, which should pay dividends in fantasy and reality. (Photo by Andrew Dieb/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images)

Closer to the line, the Packers have a chance to wreck this game with their pass rush. The Za'Darius and Preston Smith duo has elevated the play of the rest of this front seven while Kenny Clark is having a breakout season. Green Bay leads all teams with a 37% pressure rate, per Sports Info Solutions. Dak Prescott already struggled under the waves of heat the Saints sent last week with a 33.0 passer rating under pressure. Now he will play the entire game this week without star left tackle Tyron Smith. Not great.

In order to avoid that becoming a liability for the team, Dallas should look to establish Ezekiel Elliott early in this game. Run defense has been a problem for Green Bay thus far, as they allow 5.3 yards per carry to running backs. That will slow down the pace and keep the action on Dallas’ terms.

We will learn a lot about these two teams as we walk away from this game with an outcome etched in stone. One thing is for sure: This seems like a tilt set to come in under any high-scoring hopes. The over/under is already on the way down slightly from 47 to 46.5 — even that could be high.

Could Stefon Diggs get the squeaky wheel treatment?

The biggest story in the NFL landscape this week was the mysterious Wednesday practice absence of Stefon Diggs and the subsequent trade gossip. Diggs himself delivered a non-denial answer when pressed on the rumors Thursday morning.

The frustration is real and let’s not forget it was fellow Vikings receiver Adam Thielen who expressed it publicly with his actual words, while we all brought Diggs’ to the forefront via a damn emoji. Wonder why one, and the much more innocuous one at that, drew more public attention than the other ... we’ll dig into that another time. At least if you’re going to say and be something, make sure to actually own it.

Despite Diggs’ seemingly sincere desires to take his talents elsewhere, the Vikings are not inclined to ship him off. Which makes sense. Diggs is just 25 years old and as Reception Perception shows us, one of the premier route-runners in the game:

He just signed a hulking extension. Parting ways with him simply because your coaching staff has decided to fetishize the establishment of the run would be a nonsensical move by the franchise. Calling it short-sighted would be kind.

Thielen was right in his criticism of the Vikings new approach. It’s an overcorrection. The Vikings have 100 fewer dropbacks in 2019 than they did at this point last year and rank 30th in the NFL. Should they maintain this approach, they’ll become predictable and only able to succeed in the most ideal circumstances. The condition they’ve built is hardly a long term model, especially when they’ve sunk major capital into these two elite wide receivers.

The Vikings have the perfect chance to extend an olive branch to their disgruntled star receiver. Minnesota travels to New York to take on the Giants who have been shaky on defense. The pass rush should afford the jilted Kirk Cousins enough time to take shots into their secondary. New York’s starting rookie corner DeAndre Baker has allowed a 137.5 passer rating in coverage, per Sports Info Solutions, third-highest among cornerbacks who have been targeted 10-plus times in coverage. Janoris Jenkins made plays on the ball in Week 4 against Washington but was dog-walked by Mike Evans the game prior. His 276 yards allowed is the third-highest in the league.

Fantasy gamers are certainly wary of trusting Diggs but we have the collision of a sensible narrative and plus matchup lining up for this elite talent here in Week 5. The Vikings have all the incentive in the world to soothe the tension. It would also help them win this week and beyond. Maybe leave the 1980s offense behind for one week, Minnesota.

Will Gardner Minshew climb his highest mountain?

With all the questions floating in the wind regarding quarterback Cam Newton, it seems to be lost in the weeds just how dominant the Panthers defense has been. Over the last two weeks, no team has racked up more sacks than the 14 amassed by Carolina. As it stands heading into Week 5, the Panthers rank second in the NFL in yards per attempt allowed (5.2). The Panthers successfully hit the reset button on a stop unit that had gone stale in recent seasons.

A road trip into Carolina will provide Gardner Minshew with perhaps his toughest test yet. The rookie seems to infect the national landscape with his own brand of fever more and more with each passing week. Minshew’s comfort in the eye of the storm has been the defining quality of his surprising early season run. He put a defining moment on tape last week by ducking several Broncos defenders hot on his trail before threading in a touchdown to backup running back Ryquell Armstead.

Composure of that level will be required against this Panthers front that is somehow elevating its game even without the presence of star interior penetrator Kawann Short. Shaq Thompson is having a transformative season at linebacker while playing alongside one of the best in the game in Luke Kuechly. Brian Burns looks like a home-run first-round pick already. His 15.1 percent pressure rate ranks ninth among defenders with 80-plus pass-rush attempts.

The Panthers kept their season afloat on the back of this front-seven last week. We could see them put the brakes on Minshew Mania here in Week 5. If not, and Minshew once again perseveres in chaos, it will be just another defining moment in his chase to remain Jacksonville’s answer at quarterback.

Can the Texans offensive rebound?

Get the Atlanta Falcons all the way out of my life. The team has essentially been the exact same mediocre outfit since their heartbreaking Super Bowl loss.

Think about it; the story has remained unchanged from 2017 to now. The passing offense is highly efficient but seems to lack the last bit of bite that a unit stocked with strong weapons should carry. Their rushing offense has ranged from fine to poor. Worst of all ... that defense.

A collection of intriguing talents, like Grady Jarrett and Deion Jones, still somehow produces cavernous holes for offenses to find. Without a pass rush to speak of, quarterbacks are free to write novellas with the amount of pocket time provided. For some reason, the team has consistently allowed the opposition to funnel production to receiving running backs, steadily dying by mounting paper cuts. The issues of Vic Beasley and company upfront serve to leave a middling secondary hopelessly chasing the backs of wideouts streaking by them.

Last week provided a breakpoint as the Falcons moribund defense allowed Marcus Mariota to drop three touchdowns on them. Read that again: Marcus Mariota. The Titans quarterback had time to light and smoke a whole cigar with the lack of a pass rush. There were several snaps where the defense played so far off the line that a Tennessee receiver just had to hit a quick slant and Mariota gained an easy seven-plus yard gain. How is that your plan against a passer who only throws 20-plus yards down the field on 10 percent of his passes? Come on.

So clearly, I’m done with this current iteration of the Falcons. Get them out of here. Let’s move to their opponent. In Week 5 they’ll take on a 2-2 Texans team that could use a get-right outing. Atlanta’s defense should provide.

The Texans offense has an embarrassing collection of weaponry. Dropping Kenny Stills’ versatile skill-set as a deep threat/slot hybrid into a receiver corps that already boasted DeAndre Hopkins and Will Fuller is just unfair. Duke Johnson adding another short-area threat to work in the same zones as Keke Coutee is just another win. The extra additions made in the preseason have served to thin out the target distribution. It raises the ceiling of the entire offense, as we saw in Weeks 1 and 3, but shaves off the top of Hopkins and Fuller’s market share.

The Falcons defense could be a spot for both of these two currently slumping receivers to get rolling. Fuller, in particular, could be set for a rebound. He ranks 12th on the season in total air yards and he has an average depth of target north of 17. Nevertheless, he has yet to clear 70 yards in any game. That could change against this toothless defense — and Fuller is just $14 in Yahoo DFS.

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