What to care/not care about from Week 14: Sean McVay's mid-season o-line shuffling has stabilized Rams offense

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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 14, 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

Jared Goff takes zero sacks 

The Rams starting quarterback is far from perfect. Both of his interceptions tonight were purely nightmarish. However, they didn’t turn into sins the Rams had to pay for, as they still cruised to a relatively easy win over the Seahawks. 

Outside of the two picks, Goff was largely clean on Sunday night. His 9.5 yards per attempt was a sterling figure. A 71 percent completion rate exemplifies the efficiency he played with. The most important metric of the night was the zero sacks he took against Seattle. 

We’ve noted over the last month how the Rams switching from a smaller zone-blocking line to a heavier power group has boosted the running game. Todd Gurley has been excellent all throughout that stretch and put it in the box score in three of the four games. However, we haven’t examined the positive effect it’s had on the pass protection enough. 

Goff has been sacked just three times over his last four games. That’s huge for his stock because, as Cris Collinsworth noted on the NBC broadcast, his play deteriorates when defenses get heat on him. Heading into Week 14, Goff had a miserable 56.9 passer rating with more picks than touchdowns and 5.7 yards per attempt when under pressure, per Sports Info Solutions. With the offensive line at least getting to league-average form, we’re not just getting the best play from Gurley we’ve seen all year. Goff is starting to get comfortable once again. 

The Rams are far from back to glory form. Los Angeles will still need a good amount of help to get to the playoffs. Either way, in a season that was going to test Sean McVay’s ability to develop a counterpunch, the remaking of this offensive line on the fly has been a raging success. 

Just a few months ago, it looked like we needed to cash in all our Rams chips. Now, the waters are starting to settle. Tyler Higbee is coming through in plus matchups. Todd Gurley is pushing for 100 total yards on a near-weekly basis. There isn’t enough juice for all three of the receivers to go off in a given week but we can at least get one and a half to come through. For where we thought we were heading with the 2019 Rams not long ago, this is enough of a welcome change. 

Jared Goff continues to stabilize behind an offensive line thriving following some mid-year shuffling. (Photo by Harry How/Getty Images)
Jared Goff continues to stabilize behind an offensive line thriving following some mid-year shuffling. (Photo by Harry How/Getty Images)

The Bucs keep pushing

Bruce Arians took a pass on any flowery guarantees when it came to Jameis Winston’s future with the team. The veteran head coach signaled to his team that even if they weren’t ticketed for the playoffs, the rest of the regular season does mean something. Just like their quarterback, the entire Buccaneers operation is still under Arians’ microscope.

In the middle of this evaluation period, the long-time Bucs passer had the most Jameis Winston game of all time. He racked up 456 yards and chucked four touchdowns at a sterling 10.1 yards per attempt but still made sure to tack on three interceptions. He suffered a minor injury and ceded four throws to Ryan Griffin but eventually found his way back into the game. Winston was exactly who we always expect him to be here in the 14th week of a largely lost season. 

The players on Tampa Bay’s roster still have something to play for. Their quarterback, who doesn’t have a contract after this season, is chief among them. We’re at the time of the year when that matters. Just look at how lifeless their fellow Florida team, the Jacksonville Jaguars, turned up today. If you’re analyzing the league or making fantasy roster decisions here at the close of a regular season, how teams react as the hourglass runs out on their campaign is of critical importance. 

The Saints offense shows a ceiling

Maybe they just needed to be at home. Perhaps Drew Brees just needed to get back into a rhythm after a lengthy absence this season. Either way, I was certainly not expecting the Saints offense to finally erupt against the 49ers vaunted defense this week. 

Brees enjoyed his most prolific passing day of the season, dropping a 349-yard hammer on the 49ers with 8.7 yards per attempt and six total touchdowns. His 138.4 passer rating was a season-high. All that came against the No. 1 ranked pass defense in Football Outsiders’ DVOA coming into Week 14.

It’s not as if the Saints passing game had been bad this year, but it would be disingenuous to say that all was well for Brees and company. He had cleared 6.5 yards per attempt just once since October. There was just a small lack of juice that had you wondering, even as they continued to win, if they were slipping just a bit from one of the top spots in the NFC. It’s odd that in a loss to the 49ers, we’re feeling a bit better about their scoring attack. This defeat came in a highly competitive back-and-forth, albeit unexpected, high-scoring affair. 

If the offense that showed up in Week 14 reappears on a weekly basis for New Orleans, they can make it all the way to Miami for the Super Bowl. At the very least, they’ll be in another gorgeous smash spot at home next week against the Colts’ withering defense. 

Realistic Patriots analysis

The New England offense is bad. They are not the “Same ol’ Patriots.” Nevertheless, they’re still capable of getting hot and making the Super Bowl in February. Both things can be true. 

You don’t have to immediately jump to declare the Patriots are finished. However, not admitting that there is a major problem with this team as it’s currently constructed and dismissing all of us who are sane enough to say it as doubters or haters is just as ridiculous. The analysis just shouldn’t be this hard.

The Chiefs defeated the Patriots in their building but it was far from clean. A banged-up Patrick Mahomes did enough but was far from lighting up the New England defense. The Chiefs made enough mistakes to keep their opponent hanging around and even came close to handing them an entryway back into the driver’s seat. Yet, even with the caveat of unbearable officiating noted, never once did it feel like the Patriots offense had the juice to capitalize on those miscues. 

Even in a matchup with the Bengals next week, it will be hard to advise messing around with anyone other than the core plays for New England. As it stands now, that’s really just Julian Edelman and perhaps, just given the matchup and likely game script, Sony Michel. The offense just doesn’t do anything well right now. You don’t look for help from ancillary players on those kinds of units. 

A.J. Brown

If you’re buying stock in a young wide receiver to have a breakout 2020 ... A.J. Brown might not even qualify anymore. His rookie year may well count as a breakout campaign. 

After he came into Week 14 already leading his team in receiving yards, the rookie wideout dropped an absolute hammer on the Raiders to increase the gap. Brown handled a team-high seven targets and turned in a stunning 153 yards and two scores on just five catches. Just like his college game, Brown brought everything to the table against Oakland. He got vertical on them, made huge plays after the catch and bullied defenders not used to a receiver with his toughness. You know a guy is a hit when he’s playing the exact same way he did as a collegiate player the moment he hits the NFL field despite the obvious jump in competition.

Brown’s fall to the late second round was strange when it happened in April but the Titans reaped all the benefits. Even with the obvious caveat of the malaise behind center, this team lacked difference-makers in the receiver room for years, despite spending a top-five pick on Corey Davis. Brown is already showing us he’s capable of being that player. 

5 Things I don’t care about 

Any other MVP candidate

Russell Wilson came out hopelessly flat against the Los Angeles Rams Sunday night and never recovered. His 69.8 passer rating was his second-lowest mark of the season. With a far from heroic effort out of their quarterback, Seattle had to give the top spot in their division back to the 49ers. 

The Seahawks’ slip came against a Rams team that the Baltimore Ravens made look like a high school squad a couple of weeks ago. That only makes the point more clear. The MVP race is over. Barring an epic collapse, Lamar Jackson has this trophy in the bag.

Jackson isn’t doing what he did to the Rams on Monday night in Week 12 every week, but he’s still playing outside of our normal expectations for quarterbacks. Wilson, meanwhile, is playing well but still somewhere on the traditional human scale. Jackson’s Ravens continue to look like the best team in the NFL and they get their identity from him. It’s to the point we expect so much greatness from him that a three-touchdown game against a Bills unit fielding a top-five pass defense in Football Outsiders’ metrics just feels like another day at the office.

You can’t tell the story of the 2019 NFL season without Lamar Jackson. Hell, he is the story of the 2019 NFL season. MVP awards were made for players like that. Unless Baltimore falls completely flat to close this year, it’s his trophy. 

The Browns

Enough. Send this team rocketing into the offseason. We’ve seen all we need to here in 2019. 

A few weeks ago, the Browns had some life. It looked like they had simplified things to the point that Baker Mayfield could rely on his top-two receivers while working off play-action to complement a strong running game. Nick Chubb and Kareem Hunt were putting it on teams with authority. And yet, maybe playing the Dolphins was just their cure-all for one week.

The Browns defeated their hideous division-rival Bengals on Sunday but as they have all year, they made it way too hard on themselves. During the first half, it looked like the Browns coaching staff wasn’t aware of who they were playing. The Bengals have been demolished by rushing attacks all season. Still, Cleveland looked like it was more concerned with style than substance. It’s hard to imagine why the team would dole out just 24 carries to Kareem Hunt and Nick Chubb, who they couldn’t get going until the second half.

It pains me to think we will once again have to consider Mayfield and Odell Beckham Jr. as fantasy fliers in Week 15. That’s what playing the Cardinals will do for you. Frankly, I just want to see this team get to the offseason, hit reset, and try again in 2020.  

The Steelers before Duck Hodges

It’s wild that simply sending in an undrafted rookie free agent quarterback can change the dynamic of a team so drastically. Yet, that’s been the case for the Pittsburgh Steelers.

Devlin “Duck” Hodges has made the Steelers light-years more compelling and watchable since replacing Mason Rudolph. He’s hardly a perfect player. The team won’t ask him to push it or fill the air with footballs. However, Hodges just gives them life. He keeps the offense moving efficiently and on schedule with a little sizzle, as evidenced by his 84% completion rate at 8.0 yards per attempt. 

The situation hasn’t evolved to the point where multiple Steelers pass-catchers are now in fantasy consideration. You can really only project one guy to go off per week. Heading into Week 14, it looked like his hunting pal James Washington had emerged as the guy. It flipped.

On Sunday, Washington didn’t turn his four looks into any big plays but gave way to Diontae Johnson. The ultra-crispy rookie scored on a punt return, dazzled on a 16-yard run and turned a team-high eight targets into 6-60 with a score. Choosing between the two the next couple of weeks will be tough. 

Again, that’s not a wild ceiling for the whole passing game but there is life here now. There were several times against the Cardinals where Hodges escaped pressure, reset and kept his eyes downfield to keep the play in motion. When those moments came, I thought to myself, “No way Rudolph would do anything but wilt in that spot and bring the play to a harsh halt.” Hodges has already done us a service by bringing an identity to the Steelers talent-poor offense.

The Texans embarrassing themselves 

In this space last week, we rightfully gushed over the Texans win. In their takedown of the Patriots, they showed they have the type of ceiling a team needs to win in a one-game sample and advance beyond Round 1 of the postseason. The same thing remains true despite their humiliating loss to the Drew Lock-led Broncos. 

A loss here is right on the script for the 2019 Texans. The team has not won three games in a row at any point this season. Houston followed up its road win over the Chiefs in Week 6 with a letdown loss to the Colts the following game. Naturally, they do the same after their win over New England. 

The Texans do not have a floor as a team. They are one of the most volatile operations in the NFL. The defense has withered to the point they are completely Deshaun Watson or bust. Fantasy managers were all ready to rush Will Fuller out in a matchup against the Broncos secondary but he was surprisingly ruled out just before kickoff. Missing Fuller tilt the scales ever so slightly to likely “bust” for Watson. While Stills is a nice deep threat, he’s not the coverage dictator that Fuller is. 

Despite what happened today, you should not change your view of the Texans. They are a flawed team. And they’re capable of a letdown loss every few weeks. However, don’t forget the ceiling they possess when Watson gets hot behind center. One of those moments could easily come in January. 

My former Drew Lock negativity

It feels like a lifetime since a young quarterback has taken the field for the Denver Broncos and inspired hope. That’s what Drew Lock did in his first start with a largely clean game against the Chargers in Week 13. Despite a win, he had a solid but unspectacular game with just 4.8 yards per attempt. 

In Week 14, Lock took the field and did the unthinkable: He inspired enthusiasm. The rookie quarterback took it to the Texans right away. He got his team a 14-point lead in the fourth quarter and never looked back. According to ESPN’s QBR, it was one of the best-quarterbacked games of the season. 

Houston’s defense is a sieve; that’s certainly true. However, if Lock keeps the Broncos competitive, he should walk into 2020 as the clear starter. Denver has something to build on. With that possibility on the table, it suddenly seems like a disappointing season was all worth it. The team only has hope — no answers right now — but hope can go a long way to close an NFL season. 

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