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.
We’ll find that these revelations will have a lasting impact on not just fantasy managers, but the league as a whole.
Will the 49ers running game be its dynamic self in Los Angeles?
The San Francisco 49ers put dynamism on film last Monday night. They didn’t do it with college-infused spread concepts or by throwing the ball all over the yard. The Niners unveiled just what a truly special rushing offense they are.
Matt Breida set the tone with an 83-yard touchdown scamper and the team never looked back. Tevin Coleman chimed in with strong play in his first game back from injury. Kyle Juszczyk had Booger McFarland ready to make him the damn league MVP. The offensive line was executing the inside/outside zone scheme to chef-kiss perfection. The battle station was fully operational.
Since then, the battle station has come under fire. Juszczyk suffered an injury that will keep him out four to six weeks. Right tackle Mike McGlinchey, perhaps the team’s best run-blocker, will join left tackle Joe Staley on the injury report, a surefire multi-week absence.
The armor is significantly chinked. However, there might be enough juice left to squeeze out of this rushing attack against the Rams in Week 6. While there is no question losing their special fullback and strong right tackle is problematic, it really is the infrastructure of this team and the Kyle Shanahan running scheme that brings this unit together. Daniel Jeremiah dropped a fascinating note on his podcast (below) that it's the 49ers head coach who has drawn the eyes of NFL universe for his rushing success, even before they became a winning team.
Interesting note from @MoveTheSticks on his pod:
“There are more people spending time in the league studying Kyle Shanahan on a weekly basis than Sean McVay.”
This was even true when they were losing, as teams especially wanted to study what they were doing in the run game.
— Matt Harmon (@MattHarmon_BYB) October 9, 2019
The scheme will have to win out over any talent loss here in Week 6. The Rams have been a much-improved rush defense, allowing just 3.8 yards per carry and ranking ninth in Football Outsiders DVOA. The loss of Clay Matthews to a broken jaw may cause issues. He ranked third on the team in run stops, per Pro Football Focus, behind Michael Brockers, Aaron Donald and Corey Littleton. Yet, all of those players are bigger difference-makers on the squad.
The 49ers do have an individual talent boost form their backfield rushers, as well. Matt Breida is providing an encore to a strong 2018. He leads the league in yards per carry and averages 3.1 yards after contact per attempts. He’s been a pristine lead rusher and Coleman is a more than enviable complement.
As Shanahan goes up against the Rams, he will need to pull all out all the stops to continue the rushing momentum. It’s hard to imagine any fantasy managers pulling the 49ers’ backs based on what we’ve seen so far, especially given how well the Niners defense has played this season. The stop unit could be the key to keeping the game close, and therefore, the running game more involved. I fully believe the team I am a life-long fan of will remain undefeated in this spot.
Which Buccaneers defense is the real one?
The beauty of the first month of the season lies in the number of surprises we receive. Unexpected players leap forward, teams assert new identities. Even more intriguing is when an entire team unit comes out to reveal itself as a remade outfit. A segment of a team or perhaps even a whole side of the ball looks entirely different from what we expected and what they offered in previous campaigns.
Through the first few weeks of the season, it looked like the Tampa Bay Buccaneers were one of those positively evolved units. The team was rock-solid against the run while throwing waves of sacks at offenses led by the stunning Shaquille Barrett. The secondary was playing well over its talent level, too. Weeks 1 and 2 were particularly impressive, as Tampa Bay collected three turnovers and limited both the 49ers and Panthers to fewer than 360 total yards.
Since then, they’ve looked like the same old miserable Bucs, especially as a pass defense. Daniel Jones ripped them up in his first NFL start to the tune of 336 yards and four total scores. Tampa Bay came away victorious against the LA Rams but the defense still gave up 517 yards to Jared Goff.
Week 5 was the worst of it, as they let Teddy Bridgewater manage a 76 percent completion rate and toss four touchdowns while registering just two quarterback hits.
Here in Week 6, they’ll draw a matchup with a Panthers team that hasn’t lost since these two squads last faced off in Week 2. Backup quarterback Kyle Allen has the Panthers 3-0 after taking over from a hobbled Cam Newton. Of course, it’s been Christian McCaffrey as the engine of the offense during that span. No player has handled more touches than the Panthers star this season.
Tampa Bay is the only team to slow down McCaffrey so far, holding him to 53 total yards and stuffing him for a possible goal-line touchdown in their first meeting. This remains the strength of their defense, as they allowed the fewest yards per carry (3.1) and are the No. 1 run defense in Football Outsiders DVOA. If the Bucs do limit a banged-up McCaffrey in this spot, they have to prove the backend can hold up their end of the bargain. Kyle Allen has been what you’d expect of a “hold down the fort” backup in the two games following his explosive debut against the Cardinals. He’s totaled just 413 yards, thrown one touchdown and averaged 6.5 yards per attempt the last two weeks. Should Allen throw up big numbers vs. Tampa, we can confirm that their early season showing was a mirage.
One last note: Yes, it’s a tough matchup but no one is telling you to downgrade McCaffrey because of it. We have a ton of things to cover this week. Let’s not blow time waxing idiotic about whether this matchup makes him RB4 of 5 instead of RB1. Keep it moving.
Have the Vikings turned a corner?
The Kubiak Contingent in Minnesota gave up the ghost on the great mission to establish the run for at least one week. After some chirping from the wide receiver room, the Vikings had their best passing day of the year. Kirk Cousins completed over 80% of his passes, cleared 300 yards and managed a 138.6 passer rating.
Unlike many showings of his career, these weren’t some hideous, garbage-time-induced stats. Cousins played well. It’ll make Mike Zimmer’s ears turn bright red with fury but it’s possible to throw the ball well and win, no matter what they did back in the good old days of 1995.
It’s worth noting that this performance came against the milquetoast Giants defense. New York didn’t have the pass rush to rattle Cousins. There are far too few secondary members for the Giants who could hold their coverage for longer than 2.5 seconds, not that their pass rushers could get there in that kind of time anyway.
The Eagles will provide a more formidable opponent. Drones who only cite sack totals were worried Philadelphia’s defense couldn’t rush the passer. Yet, coming into Week 5, two Eagles players ranked inside the top-10 in pressures. Coming out of Week 6, they rank second in quarterback knockdowns per dropback.
It’s clear they have talented players on the defensive line, to the extent that they could wreck another potentially positive passing outing for Minnesota. We all know the Vikings don’t have a perfect pass protection group and Cousins struggles under defensive heat. He has completed just 50% of his passes with a 73.1 passer rating under pressure, per Sports Info Solutions.
If Cousins finds some protection in front of him, he could enjoy another highly efficient day. The Eagles have been thrown on at the third-highest rate in the NFL. Before they met up with the tragic Jets — starring Luke Falk — they were bleeding passing production to opposing teams. Cousins and Adam Thielen showed their connection can still be unleashed when desired. While Stefon Diggs didn’t get the squeaky wheel treatment last week, he’s thrashed this same Eagles defense in the past. He could easily find his way to a big game against this fractured secondary.
If the Vikings passing can show itself in fully functional design against an NFC contender, it would be a huge step forward. Minnesota has the defense and physical presence to mash in postseason football. They also have to show the ceiling that will vault them over highly touted rosters. The Cousins/Thielen/Diggs trio can be that and it’s time for this unit to evolve into its final form.
How much of a difference does Sam Darnold make?
Would wager a guess that this is the first time I’ve been interested in watching something around the Jets this season. Nothing about them has been interesting through the first five weeks. Well, other than making memes about their starting quarterback’s unfortunate illness or their head coach’s propensity for displaying his, let’s call it, quirky personality.
Watch out Mono. Sam Darnold is coming for you. pic.twitter.com/augc9B1xre
— Yahoo Fantasy Sports (@YahooFantasy) September 17, 2019
The Jets have been a thoroughly uninteresting mess. As I often say, if you’re going to be bad, that’s fine; it would be unfair to expect all 32 of these beautiful babies to be good teams. If that’s the case, then the least you can do is be interesting. The Luke Falk-led Jets didn’t even come close. Watching an undrafted Eastern Washington product (weird that Mike Leach hasn’t embraced Falk like he has Gardner Minshew) run a sub-NFL offense doesn’t do it for me.
New York ranks dead last in passing success rate so far this season and are merely three spots better as a rushing offense. No matter what you think about Sam Darnold there is almost no way he doesn’t make them better upon his return. The question is just how much better.
It’s unlikely that Darnold, in just his second season, is at the point where he can elevate a team with holes out of the basement all the way into the top 10 of the league. New York still has a problematic offensive line and a play-caller who looks unable, or unwilling, to adjust and adapt his listless system. However, if Darnold comes back and offers the sort of play he flashed late last year, he could certainly get them into the mid-teens. The Eagles are the 14th team in passing success rate despite some shaky moments due to injuries. That’s a fine target for the Darnold-led Jets offense to aspire to.
Suddenly becoming a solid offense would be a good boon to some of the withering players in this attack. Robby Anderson has cleared 25 yards just once all season and Le’Veon Bell is averaging just 2.9 yards per carry. Tight end Chris Herndon looked like a promising player in Year 1 and will be ready to be unlocked when he’s healthy. There’s talent here. As long as Darnold doesn’t come back and immediately slide into the popgun artist role he operated in Week 1 by throwing 17 meaningless passes to Jamison Crowder, these players should become much more interesting in both fantasy and reality.
Can Deshaun Watson out-duel a mortal Patrick Mahomes?
One of the most common refrains you heard around football media this past week had to do with Patrick Mahomes’ standing while nursing an ankle injury.
It’s hard to debate that, when he’s healthy, Mahomes is the greatest transformative figure at quarterback in the NFL here in 2019. He makes everyone around him better; he routinely does the unthinkable.
Patrick Mahomes is the best quarterback in the NFL right. Spare me your history lesson. We’re talking about the present and the foreseeable future. If you had to take a quarterback to win one game in subpar conditions — hell, if you needed one to start a franchise from the ground up — the answer is Mahomes and it’s not even close.
The question for Week 6 is: Just how close to that player is he at this moment? It was clear during the closing quarters of the Chiefs’ loss to the Colts that he was several percentage points off 100. After taking yet another shot to his already damaged ankle, the titanic passer was hobbling around, left without the final juice of his great improvisational powers that take him to another stratosphere as a player.
When he’s at his peak, Mahomes takes every other piece in the offense around him and makes them fantasy starters. The backfield is always on our radar, even when it’s led by someone like Darrel Williams. Every receiver on the roster, from Demarcus Robinson to Mecole Hardman to damn Byron Pringle has shined in the absence of Tyreek Hill.
So that brings us back to the aforementioned refrain. It always ends with an analyst offering up the question: “A banged-up Mahomes might not be the best quarterback in the NFL anymore but is he still the fifth or sixth best quarterback without his mobility?”
I said it in the Yahoo Fantasy Football Podcast this week. Others said it before and will say it after. No one wants to face Patrick Mahomes, the pocket passer. He can drop back and rifle the ball into spots other quarterbacks can only dream of simply with his arm talent. Yet, it’s his ability on the move that makes him Quarterback God, as he’s known around my house.
It’s unlikely we get the deity form of Mahomes this week, based on what we saw last Sunday night. The version we’ll get is still good enough to beat anyone, but it is a mere mortal.
That brings us to Deshaun Watson. The Texans will travel to Arrowhead Stadium this week. He’ll be the one to take on the powerful but human version of Mahomes. If Mahomes is “merely” rendered the fifth-best quarterback in the league without the gifts brought on by his legs, does Watson have enough in his arsenal to be considered in spots one-to-four? We saw last week that when the conditions are right, he can offer that type of performance.
The Texans are stocked to the brim with top-of-the-line playmakers. The fact that they acquired legitimate explosive threats like Duke Johnson and Kenny Stills mere weeks before the season started and only have bit roles for them now shows their power on offense.
Watson at the helm of a Texans offense firing on all cylinders can be one of the five best quarterbacks in the NFL on any given week. Yet, whether by the conditions he plays in or by his own doing, there is a streamline to his game that his counterpart in red does not have. What version of Watson shows in Arrowhead on Sunday — one of the most difficult places to play — will be what decides this crucial AFC matchup.