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 4, 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
Accepting the Eagles for what they are
Midway through the Sunday Night Football game, it dawned on me just how difficult everything is for the 2020 Philadelphia Eagles offense. Carson Wentz has to buy ample time in the pocket for someone to break open. When he decides to take off running, he needs to barrel over or run through several defenders to fight for a first down, making it seem all the more strenuous. Five-yard gains by wide receivers or tight ends on short routes appear like they took the effort of a deep, perfectly designed play-action shot pass.
It just all feels so hard.
And then it dawned on me once more: I’ve felt this way about the Eagles offense for at least certain portions of each of the last two seasons. This isn’t all that new.
We’ve seen the Eagles operate in a compromised fashion such as this where the offensive line has sprung leaks and the skill position group resembles a practice squad unit. In those moments, the play-calling typically stays steady with what Doug Pederson wants to do and just relying on Carson Wentz to produce out of structure. Wentz has done some of that with 15 carries and rushing scores in back-to-back games but it’s not enough to make this a consistently dangerous offense. You would think with the passing game banged-up and lost at sea, the Eagles would feature Miles Sanders more after two strong rushing outings in a row. Sanders drew just 13 carries against San Francisco.
The fact is that the Eagles just are who they are. The team isn’t changing until they get players like DeSean Jackson, Jalen Reagor, Dallas Goedert, and perhaps even Alshon Jeffery back healthy. For Philadelphia, it’s just about weathering the storm. In no way is that going to be a pleasant watch or will it restore the long-gone fantasy ceilings of former stars like Wentz or Zach Ertz, but it’s just enough to have them in first place within their hideous division.
Odell Beckham Jr. is playing at his peak
In what looked like a vintage Odell Beckham Jr. outing, the Browns wideout hauled in five of his eight targets for 81 yards and a pair of scores and tacked on 73 yards as a rusher, including a game-sealing 50-yard scamper in the fourth quarter.
The Cowboys’ defense is a mess. There’s no denying that. And we certainly can’t expect Beckham to produce long rushing touchdowns or catch them from fellow wide receiver Jarvis Landry. But let’s not miss the forest for the trees here.
The crucial development from the first few weeks of the season is that physically, Beckham is healthy and back to his peak form. As an individual player, Beckham has been awesome. When his number has been called, he’s answered. He’s getting separation like he’s used to it. He’s been hitting the smallest of creases and the perfect angles to produce big plays. That’s exactly what happened on his rushing touchdown to secure the Browns win. Let’s not act like that was anything more than a spectacular, completely improbable play. In fact, NextGen Stats quantifies that:
Odell Beckham Jr. reached a top speed of 20.64 MPH on this 50-yard run, his fastest speed this season and 2nd-fastest as a member of the Browns.— Next Gen Stats (@NextGenStats) October 4, 2020
OBJ was only expected to gain 2 yards according to our Expected Rushing Yards model.
➤ TD Probability: < 1%#CLEvsDAL | #Browns pic.twitter.com/AwNUYgeT2s
No one expects Beckham to do these kinds of things on a weekly basis; tricky plays won’t always be in the cards. He won’t always be playing Dallas. And most importantly, Cleveland will always prefer to dominate with the ground game, as they did in Week 4. However, Beckham playing at his own peak as an individual player just boosts the high end of his range of outcomes. That type of outing just wasn’t possible in 2019 when he was physically compromised.
You know the other end of the range of outcomes. We saw it just last week with a modest outing against Washington as the run game was the focus. Just keep this high-end ceiling in mind as a possibility when the conditions are right.
Drew Brees plays well against a bad defense
There are no lollipops for beating up on Matt Patricia’s hapless Detroit Lions defense. Nevertheless, we would have been in a full-blown meltdown if Drew Brees was taken to task by this unit. We can avoid that talking point coming out of Sunday.
“Air yards” will certainly be a banned phrase in New Orleans by the time the 2020 season comes to an end, but we still must update the tracker.
After it became a big talking point coming out the first three weeks of the season and especially last Sunday night, it was refreshing to see Brees check in with 9.5 air yards per attempt and 8.4 on his completions. According to NextGen Stats, Brees completed 12.3 percent of his passes over expectations against Detroit. From an efficiency perspective, this was vintage Drew Brees.
Again, it was against some of the softest competition possible. The Lions defense ranked dead last in pressure rate coming into Week 4. It’s still good to see, however, that when conditions are ideal, Brees can navigate the ship.
The Cowboys defense will hold them back
For all the problematic stop units in the NFL, none inspire more dread than the Cowboys defense. Perhaps most troubling is that they seem to get worse and the lowlights more plentiful week after week.
Dallas allowed three rushing and three passing scores to the Browns. The Cleveland offense picked up 14 first downs through the air and 16 on the ground. Perhaps most damning of them all, the Cowboys ceded 7.7 yards per carry. Yes, that number is somewhat juiced by Odell Beckham’s game-sealing run but Kareem Hunt (6.5), D'Ernest Johnson (7.3), and even Nick Chubb before his injury (7.2) all smoked Dallas on the ground.
The 307 rushing yards racked up by Cleveland were the most Dallas has ever allowed in franchise history.
Despite some names up front, the pass rush has largely been hit or miss. Amid a scheme change from what Rod Marinelli/Kris Richard had been doing in Dallas for years to what Mike Nolan brought to the table here in 2020, it felt like the secondary blows multiple times per game. Cleveland just exposed that they’re just as bad of a run stop group as they are on the back-end.
The constant need for Dak Prescott to push the ball downfield just to keep Dallas within striking distance will create a perfect situation for fantasy football.
Terry McLaurin looks matchup-proof
Coming in questionable, playing with a quarterback under heavy scrutiny, and having to run against a star-studded Ravens secondary, there was every reason to believe Terry McLaurin would’ve had a slow day. That’s not how it went down.
McLaurin, who was already off to a strong start, turned in his best game of the season, going for 10 catches for 118 yards on a career-high 14 targets. In context, it was a special performance. This is what superstar players do. Regardless of the conditions, they ball out. When you look at the company he keeps to start his career, it’s easy to see McLaurin is indeed on a superstar trajectory:
Let's make this a running feature (scheduled duration: from now until I inevitably forget about it again).— Adam Harstad (@AdamHarstad) October 4, 2020
Leaders in receiving yards through 18 games (active players):
1794 - OBJ
1368 - AJG
1358 - Michael Thomas
1333 - JuJu
1306 - McLaurin
1278 - Amari
1272 - Julio
1255 - ARob https://t.co/6FwWRtmkiI
McLaurin can do it all. He’s a pristine separator, routinely wins at the catch point and this year he’s shown even more chops after the catch. There really isn’t a hole in his game. You don’t get a more difficult set of conditions than what McLaurin faced in Week 4.
He aced the test.
5 Things I don’t care about
Any QB controversy faux drama for the 49ers
The old Twitter jokes of #MullensMania and the impressive efficiency metrics from Nick Mullens’ stint as a rookie starter in 2018 felt like four lifetimes ago as he was rage-benched by Kyle Shanahan in the fourth quarter of Sunday night’s loss. After one of the stone-worst interceptions you’ll ever see (Mullens’ second of the evening) Shanahan pulled the beleaguered passer and inserted 2017 third-round pick, C.J. Beathard.
Beathard was solid in relief duty. He completed 14 of 19 throws and, with a major assist from the dominant George Kittle, almost orchestrated a game-winning effort in the Niners’ final series. It wasn’t meant to be, but he did enough to spark questions about why it wasn’t Beathard serving as Jimmy Garoppolo’s backup all along.
None of it really matters. We all know that being the quarterback in Kyle Shanahan’s offense is like playing on rookie mode. No one gives their quarterback more layup throws and open throwing windows quite like Shanahan. That’s a good thing. The smart teams make life easy on their quarterback.
Mullens’ production as a rookie and what he did against the Giants last week is mostly a mirage. You could argue that some of Garoppolo’s efficiency metrics are also a Shanahan-induced mirage. What you can’t deny is that, for at least the rest of this season, there won’t be any rumors of a quarterback controversy once Garoppolo gets healthy.
Finding the silver lining for the Cardinals offense
You could certainly locate some positives about the Cardinals offense through the first three weeks of the season. Quarterback Kyler Murray made a litany of unreal plays as a scrambler, often looking like one of the best pure runners in the NFL. The connection between Murray and new receiver DeAndre Hopkins was straight-up on fire. Hopkins led all pass-catchers in target share and cleared 130 yards in two of three games.
While that was all very real and very good, it served to mask real problems with Arizona’s offense.
Coming into Week 4, Arizona ranked 23rd in passing success rate and no receiver outside of Hopkins was a consistent factor. For all his plays as a rusher, Murray was plainly leaving some yards on the field through the air. Kenyan Drake didn’t look like the stone-cold stud who finished 2019 with the Cardinals, coming in under 90 yards rushing in all three games despite being 10th in the NFL in carries.
In a perfect get-right spot against a young Panthers defense that was steamrolled in Weeks 1-3, Arizona’s offense fell flat. The team went 3 for 9 on third down, Murray averaged a hideous 4.3 yards per pass attempt and Drake rushed 13 times for 35 with a zero in the target column.
It’s going to be hard to go away from guys like Murray and Hopkins in fantasy football but it’s hard to imagine anyone playing Drake with confidence at any point. The Cardinals get the laughable Jets defense in Week 5, so we’ll be tempted to do the rebound storyline again. But we ought to be realistic about where we’re at with the Cardinals offense. At this point, they aren’t playing well enough to hit 100 percent of the layups.
Marquise Brown hasn’t erupted yet
It’s coming for Marquise Brown. It’s just so obvious.
Coming into Week 4, Brown owned 36.7 percent of Baltimore’s air yards which ranked ninth among all pass-catchers. Against Washington, he checked in with a whopping 62 percent share, the highest mark in the league. He snagged four catches for 86 yards. If the Ravens had needed to do more, he could have delivered. However, up 20-plus points in the second half, Baltimore sent out human victory cigar, Robert Griffin III, to wrap things up.
Brown has two more great matchups coming up against the Bengals and the Eagles. Bigger days are right around the corner. As efficient as they’ve been, it’s scary to consider that Baltimore’s passing game hasn’t quite found its stride yet.
The Rams backfield was predictably unpredictable
All summer I said that the Rams backfield was going to be a committee because I believed Sean McVay when he told us that was what he wanted. That said, I still bought into Darrell Henderson Jr.’s momentum over the last two weeks.
He balled out in Weeks 2 and 3, but I should have listened to myself. It didn’t matter.
Malcolm Brown took 35 snaps to 22 for Henderson, handling 14 touches to Henderson’s nine. The elder back was the clear preference in the passing game as he ran 21 routes while Henderson went out for just five. Nothing could have tipped us off to be prepared for this switch. Well, nothing except everything the team said all offseason. I admit I got caught up in the moment.
In reality, we can’t care too much about this unpredictability because it was perfectly predictable. What we should care about is the Rams offense overall looking a bit stuck in the mud. Coming into Week 4, the Rams led the NFL in both passing and rushing success rate. Against a Giants team that was embarrassed by the 49ers JV team last week, they managed just 17 points. Perhaps that will lead to McVay making even more tweaks when the team takes on Washington in Week 5.
The Seahawks didn’t roll over Miami for four quarters
It wasn’t the most exciting chapter of the “Let Russ Cook” novel but ... oh well. Seattle mostly played things close with Miami for the bulk of the afternoon but when they wanted to roll, they pulled away with 14 points in the last six minutes of the game to seal the deal.
Sure, the game didn’t turn into the thrilling back-and-forth scoring affair that many fantasy enthusiasts hoped for. However, this was still a reminder of just how far we’ve come with this Seattle team.
The 2020 Seahawks have the ability to catch fire in a matter of moments. A team can be neck-and-neck with this squad for the majority of the game but the second Russell Wilson and Co. hit the gas pedal, they’ll be miles ahead before you know what happened.
No lead is safe.