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So much happens on any given Sunday in the NFL. It’s hard to keep track of it all. More importantly, it’s quite a lot to decide what we should value as signal and what we should just ignore as noise.
In this space, I’ll go through all that we learned this week and give you the five things I care about coming out of Week 7, along with five things I can’t muster up the emotional energy to care for. Good news for you: We’re going to do this exercise in emotional turmoil every Sunday of the regular season.
5 Things I care about
Kyler Murray, Cardinals get a signature win
It sure hasn’t always been pretty for the Arizona Cardinals in 2020. To be honest, it wasn’t even close to always pretty in Week 7’s win over the Seahawks alone.
Yet, the Cardinals sit at 5-2 as they stroll into their bye week, fresh off the best win of their season by toppling the previously undefeated Seahawks. Handing your division-rival an L when they’re on top is about as good as it gets. To do it with your hand-picked franchise quarterback on center stage is even better.
Kyler Murray, again, wasn’t perfect but the last few weeks have marked significant progress in his development. He’s continuing to show he can dig deep into his bag of tricks to make things happen in this offense.
The first few weeks of the season were defined by Murray and DeAndre Hopkins working to build chemistry, with Hopkins in a possession receiver role. That connection was on fire against Seattle with Hopkins delivering 103 yards and a score on 12 targets. But what’s been a treat to observe is Murray finally getting the best out of the rest of this roster. Christian Kirk looks right back at home in a complementary role. He’s scored four touchdowns in two weeks. On Sunday night, Murray used Chase Edmonds (7-87) and Larry Fitzgerald (8-62) as short-area outlet receivers over the middle of the field. Those didn’t always produce highlight plays but the easy, chain-moving completions helped keep the Cardinals passing game on schedule — something that hasn’t always been true in the first half of 2020.
Of course, it wouldn’t be a Murray moment in the sun without his trump-card trait on display. Simply put, Murray is one of the most dangerous players with the ball in his hands. His 67 yards on 14 rushes with yet another score shows that, but you really don’t get the full effect unless you watch those scampers within the flow of the game. The best way to describe Kyler Murray as a runner is that he routinely pulls off runs in the NFL that if people saw him do it in college football they'd say, “Well ... he’ll never be able to do that in the NFL.”
And yet, here we are.
We’ve been dying to see this Cardinals offense reach a new level because we could tell the unit we were getting the first few weeks, wins aside, was a glass-half-empty result. With stars like Murray and Hopkins still singing and the backup choir finally filing in around them, our wish has been granted.
Ben Roethlisberger thinks Diontae Johnson is his best WR
We can have fruitless debates about player talent but ultimately what matters is what the team thinks, at least when it comes to accruing production. Teams will play the guys they think are their best players more than others at their position. Quarterbacks will feed certain pass-catchers more opportunities than their peers.
By that logic, there is no question that Ben Roethlisberger thinks Diontae Johnson is his best wide receiver.
Johnson has struggled with multiple injuries all season. However, in the three games where he’s played mostly start to finish, he’s been the clear alpha. In Weeks 1 and 2, Johnson led the team with 23 targets, almost 10 more than JuJu Smith-Schuster in second place. Johnson left the next two games early and then sat out Week 6. Coming into Week 7 after finally getting a strong week of practice, Johnson once again got the WR1 treatment from Roethlisberger:
Perhaps most important: Johnson led the Pittsburgh wide receivers with four looks in the red zone. Coming out of Week 1, the common refrain was that while Johnson might get more raw volume, Smith-Schuster would remain Ben’s guy in the red zone. That wasn’t the case today.
Of course, Johnson has to stay healthy for all this potential to be realized. He even tweaked an ankle in the waning moments of their win over Tennessee but he said it was nothing concerning. All three of Johnson, JuJu, and Chase Claypool are good players and will have their moments in the sun, but it’s clear who has Roethlisberger’s eye.
Washington has the skeleton of a good offense
Washington has a litany of issues on offense. In the long-term, they appear to be facing yet another quest for a franchise quarterback this offseason. For the short-term, they play with a broken offensive line that kills drives and saw one of its few quality pieces in Morgan Moses suffer an injury on Sunday.
That being said, we can see in cakewalk spots like this Week 7 matchup against Dallas that there is a core to build on here.
Terry McLaurin scored his second touchdown of the season on a deep route where he roasted rookie corner, Trevon Diggs. He missed getting another one by inches on one of his three red-zone targets. Already leading the NFL in yards after the catch, McLaurin added another 4.43 YAC per reception on the day. McLaurin is a legitimate ascending star and by all accounts, an emerging leader for the team.
Rookie running back Antonio Gibson continues to show why he deserves more work. Gibson took this good matchup and ran with it to the bank. He turned his 20 carries into 128 yards and a touchdown. That was more yardage than any other running back in the early games of Week 7.
Even Logan Thomas popped back up for a good game, catching all four of his targets for 60 yards and a touchdown. He’s been volatile but in totality, he’s been a good find in his first year starting at tight end following a position change.
After that, again, it does get quite thin. However, those are some pieces to build around in 2021 and beyond. While they aren’t enough to take Washington anywhere this season, they’re all good enough to produce (in the order discussed) when Kyle Allen finds himself in favorable matchups.
Davante Adams goes HAM again
After another elite, game-changing type of wide receiver performance from Davante Adams, he now leads the NFL in receiving yards per game at 112.3.
It’s honestly a shame he missed the better part of two and a half games because Adams really could have put together an end-of-season stat line for the ages. Despite that missed time, Adams is still on pace to clear 160 targets (he’s averaging 11.5 per game).
It’s good news for the Packers that Aaron Rodgers has been able to dig deeper into his bag of tricks to prop up other players in Green Bay. When Allen Lazard has been healthy, he’s worked in lockstep with Rodgers. Robert Tonyan looks the part of a starting tight end. The running game has been firing on all cylinders, even on this Sunday without Aaron Jones.
Still, we’ve seen that when Rodgers wants to go into default mode and just lock onto his No. 1 receiver, that strategy can still be red-hot. We’ve seen Adams collect a combined 27 receptions in Weeks 1 and 7, and with the way Green Bay is rolling, we should expect a few more outings like those games.
The Titans almost pulled it off
If the Titans were truly just a “run the ball and play-action” attack, going down 24-7 against Pittsburgh would have been a death sentence. Not on this day. Tennessee didn’t pull off the comeback win but did get it to 27-24 and was one painful Stephen Gostkowski miss away from overtime.
The primary catalyst was No. 1 receiver A.J. Brown, who continues to establish himself as a top-of-the-line wideout. Brown totaled 153 yards and a score on six catches. The bulk of that came on a 73-yard vertical shot that put Tennessee back within striking distance.
Brown operating as the center of the offense’s universe just changes the equation here. He’s an every-week fantasy starter and a transformative talent.
Someone had to lose in this battle of AFC undefeated teams. Turns out it was Tennessee. Still, even in a loss, the Titans were able to pass something of a test.
5 Things I don’t care about
Folks who forgot Tyler Lockett is an elite receiver
The emergence of DK Metcalf as one of the game’s top receivers may have overshadowed the fact that Tyler Lockett should already be viewed as an elite playmaker in his own right. You shouldn’t have ever allowed that to happen.
From the very beginning, Sunday night was clearly Tyler Lockett’s night. The ultra-gifted technician won a deep route in tight coverage against Patrick Peterson for a 30-plus yard gain and it was all smooth sailing from there. Lockett scored three times and caught 15 of his 20 targets for 200 yards. It’s his second three-touchdown outing of 2020. Yes, we do call those elite-type dealings.
When I predicted the Seahawks duo of Lockett and Metcalf would be a top-five pair in the NFL by the end of the season, this was what I had in mind. The beauty of their play isn’t just in the times when they both go off, though that’s usually a sight to behold. What’s really special is, when you have a unit like this and the opposition is forced to pick their poison — slow one weapon down— the other can just do absolutely whatever they want.
Perhaps that was the case on Sunday night as the Cardinals held Metcalf to 2-23 on five targets. His best play of the night came on a sprint to tackle Cardinals defender Budda Baker and hold off a potential pick-six. As stunning as that was, we’re used to Metcalf highlights being moments of getting points, not preventing them. With Metcalf tied up, Lockett went to work ripping apart the rest of the Arizona secondary.
If you forgot that Tyler Lockett is the type of player capable of taking a game over, Sunday was an excellent reminder.
If you bench this guy in fantasy because every now and then he’ll have a 4-39 type of line, you risk missing out on nights like this one. And that’s on you.
Who Justin Herbert throws his touchdowns to
I’m sure it rankles fantasy managers depending on name-brand Chargers skill-position players, but I don’t care that Justin Herbert continues to find ways to throw touchdowns to guys you’ve never heard of. All I can focus on is how damn good he looks doing it.
Several weeks ago, I said I didn’t care one bit about trying to contain my optimism about Justin Herbert. It’s only getting more difficult to brace the floodgates:
Sunday marked the third-straight game with three-plus passing touchdowns for Justin Herbert. Not only did he uncork three through the air, but he also took one in on the ground. His three passing scores went to Jalen Guyton, Donald Parham, and Virgil Green. It’s not the first time Herbert has pumped the touchdown column for guys who are primarily backups.
No one is complaining if they deployed Keenan Allen, who had 10 catches on 13 targets for 125 yards. But those with high hopes for Hunter Henry and Mike Williams (27 yards on 10 combined targets) weren’t thrilled with that touchdown production.
Too bad, no one cares. The reality is that this ability is actually the mark of a special trait in Herbert.
The superstar quarterbacks don’t just unlock the best from their top-end players like Herbert is with Allen. They also elevate players to quality play at all levels of the depth chart. That is exactly what Herbert has demonstrated multiple times in 2020. To me, that’s a much more significant development.
I’m obsessed with this quarterback.
The Cowboys wide receiver corps
Coming out of a humiliating Monday night loss to Arizona last week in their first game without Dak Prescott, it felt like things couldn’t get worse for Dallas.
Wrong. There was indeed a deeper depth to fall into.
The Cowboys were thoroughly embarrassed by the division-rival Washington Football Team in Week 7. The 25-3 loss was such a mess for Dallas, Washington felt it perfectly reasonable to meme them into oblivion on Twitter:
Even as the defense fell apart and the 2020 version of the franchise circled the drain, we were supposed to be able to count on the passing game — specifically, the wide receivers — to continue to make plays. Also wrong.
In Week 7, Michael Gallup and CeeDee Lamb put up zero catches on seven targets against Washington. Amari Cooper put up his biggest catch of the day (32 yards) on a heave from third-string passer Ben DiNucci late in the third quarter.
A completely ravaged offensive line is tearing the entire offense apart. There is zero ability to establish the run with this crew in conjunction with their defense, so you can take that old talking and toss it right into the dumpster. It’s all bad.
Andy Dalton is a strong quarterback but only when the conditions are right. At this point ... what conditions in Dallas are right? The line puts him consistently under pressure. The defense consistently puts him in a negative game script. The running game isn’t good and consistently puts him in bad down-and-distance situations. All that bad equals a bad Andy Dalton.
So, yes, the wide receiver core is extremely talented and one of the few good things Dalton has going for him. But who cares? It’s not even close to enough for this to be a functional operation.
The Browns/Bengals records
The Bengals are definitely not a quality team and the Browns might be, at best, on the fringes of AFC playoff contention. However, to this point in 2020, we don’t really need to care what their records are when they meet. These Browns vs. Bengals games this season have been instant classics.
Joe Burrow and Baker Mayfield combined for an absurd 703 passing yards and nine total touchdowns between the two in Week 7. After showcasing run-game artistry in their first meeting, the two young quarterbacks turned in a Big-12 type of script this time.
Burrow is certainly standing on more solid ground between these two passers right now. He must be frustrated after another tough-fought close loss but this is the sort of distributing, high-level point-guard performance the Bengals were hoping for when they took him No. 1 overall. Six players for Cincinnati cleared 50 receiving yards, with Tyler Boyd topping out at 101. This offense is fun when everyone is getting involved.
For Mayfield, after entering this week with his back a bit against the wall, he quickly recovered from an early mistake to deliver perhaps his best game of the season. We can spend the week exploring if his sudden ascension was just correlation or causation with Odell Beckham Jr. leaving with a serious knee injury. For now, it was excellent to see Mayfield hold up his end of the bargain in a suddenly fun rivalry game.
Cam Newton’s Week 2
Doesn’t Cam Newton’s precise passing performance and complete dicing of the Seahawks defense from Sunday Night Football in Week 2 feel like a lifetime ago?
So much has happened for this Patriots team since then. Obviously, most of it was negative COVID-19-related storylines, one of which was the quarterback himself testing positive. The team has dropped three straight games to Kansas City, Denver, and now San Francisco.
Cam returning in the last two games has been anything but the boost the team needed. There’s no way of getting around it: He’s been a net negative for the Patriots in each of the last two games. Newton’s complete lack of feel for the game and turnovers against the 49ers resulted in a second-half benching in favor of Jarrett Stidham. Bill Belichick said after the game Newton is the starter going forward but this situation is getting dire.
You can theorize all you want about why Newton has played so badly as an individual player the last two weeks. Perhaps he got hurt early during the Broncos game; perhaps this is due to coming back from a COVID positive test; perhaps he was thrown out of his own biorhythm; perhaps he’s just going through one of his own valleys; perhaps it’s a little bit of everything. You can pick your poison here.
What’s really been made clear the last two weeks is that the margin for error with this New England team is just so razor-thin. The defense is well off its standards from 2019 following an avalanche of opt-outs. The skill-position group Newton is playing with is the same one that made Tom Brady — who is flourishing in Tampa Bay — look washed last year. And now, one of the team strengths in the offensive line is dealing with mounting injuries. Rather quietly, the Patriots’ success in the first three weeks of 2020 was mostly a “Cam, go do something and save us,” approach.
Now that this player is seemingly lost, all bets are off in New England.