1a. It’s hard to find two offenses that look so drastically different from their previous iterations than the Steelers ‘and the Browns’. Cleveland, under Kevin Stefanski, uses a run-first zone attack supplemented by play-action, unlike last year, when someone presumably spilled spaghetti sauce over the team’s one playbook, and then they just decided that everyone did anything.
On Sunday, they face a Steelers defense that has a reputation for being blitz-heavy, and that is partly true. Pittsburgh flashes a ton on the first and second downturns; We’ll see how it affects the Browns at an early stage – the Steelers’ approach is run efficiently and they are the league̵
Third down will be interesting though. Pittsburgh is one of those least blitz-happy teams on third downs when they typically rush four and play (often hidden) coverage. The formula has worked the last two seasons, but it did not last week. There are many No. 2 and 3 corners across the league that over the course of their careers have ranged from quality starters to direct responsibility, and Steven Nelson (now Pittsburgh’s second corner) is one of them. A week ago against the Eagles, his two interceptions looked good in the box, but one came with permission for an unnamed defensive pass disorder from Vince Williams and the other was on a Hail Mary. Otherwise, Nelson had a neon arrow pointing at him when Carson Wentz attacked Nelson and Travis Fulgham partyed. Thus went a Philly crime that ran out of a sleepwalking Zach Ertz and a bunch of late round rookies and (guys at least thought to be) street free-agent types, 10-for-14 on third downs.
At third downturns, play-action is often no longer a factor, and the Browns have to produce more straightforward means, though; Mayfield completes only 54.6% of its third throws. The Steelers will give him a lot to think about with their disguises in these situations, but last week showed some vulnerabilities in the back end. Mayfield have not had to win one yet as the Browns have taken a lead and kept it during their four-game winning streak, but on Sunday could present a scenario where he has to make some big throws on third downs.
1b. After years of stagnant adjustments and disrupted ISO routes relying on their superior talent to win, it looks like Steelers offensive coordinator Randy Fichtner was visited by the ghost of Sean McVay at some point this summer. Pittsburgh has used more presnap movement and misdirection concepts – attacks down the line – in four games than they did in Ben Roethlisberger’s first 16 seasons combined. It was Sean McVay’s ghost of the future; I’m not sure why you assume ghosts cannot travel with time.
For the Steelers offense to succeed on Sunday, neutralizing Myles Garrett is a must. Garrett is officially Defensive Player of the Year for five weeks – they have already sent him the gift card to Quiznos – in large part because he is forcing lots of revenue. Cleveland has 11 takeaways over this four-game winning streak. However, Garrett has so far celebrated some less than competent opponents. He has moved around to get favorable matchups; The Bengals and the football team may not have had three offensive-offensive linemen between them, the Cowboys decided they were fine with an unspecified rookie, single-blocking Garrett, and the Colts were without Anthony Castonzo last week, with Garrett choosing backup Le ‘ Raven Clark. Steelers right tackle Chukwuma Okorafor (in front of the injured Zach Banner) is likely to see a lot of Garrett on Sunday, which is bad news for Pittsburgh, especially given the fact that Roethlisberger is a statue at this point in his career. But the good news is that Roethlisberger is getting the ball out faster than any quarterback in football so far this year, which is a great way to alleviate the Garrett problem.
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2. Aaron Rodgers gets Davante Adams back for the trip to Tampa, and given how well he operates within the structure of Matt LaFleur’s offense this year, it’s a case of the rich getting richer. Meanwhile, there’s a good chance Tom Brady will get Chris Godwin back, boosting a receiving corps that featured a lame Mike Evans and not a whole lot of other things during their Thursday night loss in Chicago.
The point is, we might see Rodgers and Brady at their best. As much as you want to see the Fitzpatrick-Flacco IV in the late afternoon castle, I would recommend at least keeping an eye on the Packers-Bucs.
Is it Fitzpatrick-Flacco IV? Maybe. I do not know, and I suppose you do not either, so I’m just skipping the fact check.
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3. Three ways you can tell Andy Dalton is not Dak Prescott: (1) They spell and pronounce their names differently, (2) Dalton has traditionally struggled in a muddy pocket – something he will often deal with as both start tackles is out – while Prescott was excellent despite protection misery this year, and (3) Prescott was enough of an ongoing threat to keep the back of the defense honest. Dalton’s mobility is above average, but not in Prescott’s class.
All that said, Dalton had to ease last week against a Giants defense that has no pass-rush presence off the edge. And on Sunday, he faces a Cardinals defense that just lost world champion rusher Chandler Jones. In the end, Dalton should be pretty OK on Sunday (especially if the Cardinals offense continues his direct refusal to attack down the field).
In the long run, however, the Cowboys may go back to a run-heavy identity that to some extent hides the quarterback and defense. Ezekiel Elliott will have to deliver behind a scotch-taped offensive line and take some of the heat from a front office that paid for the career and the linebacker running hot and cold, without making a deal with the quarterback or not. 1 cornerback.
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4a. Two more things about Dan Quinn’s firing, five days after the last time anyone thought of Dan Quinn’s firing. First, the story that the Falcons never recovered from Super Bowl LI is not entirely accurate. They won a playoff game next year and had a goal-to-go shot to win it in the final seconds against Philly, the eventual Super Bowl champion, in the semifinals of the conference. The NFC has been absolutely brutal for the last two decades. In the 32-team era, the only NFC team to go to the back-to-back Super Bowls, 2013 and ’14 Seahawks, and the only other team to make it back with pretty much the same core, was the Giants ( 2008 and ‘) 12).
As far as Quinn’s coaching bona fides, the Falcons are still loose a “Seattle-style” defense, and this scheme is based on your fast, good players who play fast and well. Deion Jones missed 10 games in 2018, Ricardo Allen missed 13 in ’18, and Keanu Neal missed 28 between ’18 and ’19. When the Seahawks made their five straight playoff appearances during the Legion of Boom years (2012-16), Bobby Wagner missed a total of eight games over five years, Earl Thomas missed five, and Kam Chancellor missed eight . They were never without all three at the same time.
This is not to say that Jones-Neal-Allen is Wagner-Chancellor-Thomas, but the Falcons trio is a bad man version of the Seahawks who played up in the middle, and once they’ve been out, there have been massive downgrades defense. Part of the problem is that Quinn’s plan is not built to overcome damage. But a bigger part of the problem is that his best players have missed a lot of games the last two seasons.
4b. It probably also holds true in Arthur Blank’s review that Kyle Shanahan and Matt LaFleur, two former offensive staffers under Quinn, are successful as head coaches. Especially LaFleur, who was transferred in favor of Steve Sarkisian to the offensive coordinator job after Shanahan left. But to be fair, who knows how much LaFleur’s years under Sean McVay or two years running the Titans offense (to mixed reviews) shaped him into the coach he became. LaFleur may just not be ready in 2017 – you are not coming to the Falcons for not hiring a 14-year-old Bill Belichick for their opening season. (Or maybe we are; need to feed the contents with the beast.)
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5. Kareem Hunt has proclaimed that “this is for Myles Garrett.” As in, the Browns will draw motivation from the time the Steelers’ backup quarterback skull got in the way of the helmet that Garrett swung. Elsewhere in the NFL, Ryan Tannehill proclaims that the Titans draw motivation from the criticism imposed on them for largely ignoring the COVID protocols put in place to allow football to be played without people dying. The lesson: Everything is motivation. For example, last weekend I got sick at a family event. Some criticized me, saying it was my insistence on “pre-gaming” before my niece’s baptism that consumed large amounts of candy corn and bourbon all morning that ruined the day for everyone. I will take this critique and use it as motivation to give my performance in the family Trivial Pursuit competitions during the holidays. Motivation to remember all the Trivial Pursuit cards.
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6. Ladies and gentlemen . . . Speaking heads!
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