In this week’s “The Fabulous and the Flops,” we’ve got a lot of questions to answer about a tricky Week 8. Which team put up a dominant defensive performance and nearly lost? How many weeks can a fluke stick around before it’s no longer a fluke? And has Tebowmania really bitten the dust?
First, though, we begin with the biggest upset of Week 8.
St. Louis Rams 31, New Orleans Saints 21
Fabulous: Steven Jackson. For virtually his entire career, Steven Jackson has toiled in the backfields of some of the league’s worst teams. For all the hope that 2010 inspired, he appears to be on another one of those teams. Nobody would begrudge Jackson if he chose to simply play out the string this season without caring about winning or losing. But that’s exactly why it was so amazing to see Jackson screaming at the top of his lungs at his teammates on the sidelines and in the huddle during the fourth quarter on Sunday. The Rams were up 24-14 on the Saints with seven minutes to go, but they were coming off of a drive in which they gained 20 yards on offense and gave up 40 yards through penalties. Jackson insisted that they hold on to their lead and stop giving up field position with stupid mental mistakes, and that’s what happened. After the teams traded punts, the Rams picked off Drew Brees and returned it for a game-clinching touchdown. The Saints picked up an unsportsmanlike conduct penalty after the touchdown, but the Rams didn’t commit a single penalty the rest of the way. Jackson had great numbers on Sunday, but they don’t really matter. They won’t stick with us after a week or two has passed. Jackson screaming bloody murder at his teammates, though? That memory’s not going anywhere. When the Rams do turn things around and make the playoffs, we really hope that Steven Jackson is still part of that team.
Flop: The Saints running game, which combined for 56 yards on 20 carries. The Rams had the league’s 32nd-ranked run defense per DVOA heading into the week, but they simply shut down the combination of Pierre Thomas, Darren Sproles, and Chris Ivory. New Orleans had just two first downs on the ground all day, and couldn’t even get a single carry to 10 yards.
New York Giants 20, Miami Dolphins 17
Fabulous: Corey Webster. Webster is always going to be overshadowed by the other star cornerback who wears green and also plies his trade at MetLife Stadium. That’s not changing anytime soon. Quietly, though, Webster is having a fantastic season while almost always playing against the opposition’s top wideout. On Sunday, he had an interception, broke up two other pass attempts, and held Brandon Marshall to four catches and 55 yards on six targets. Part of the equation is that teams are desperate to go after opposite cornerback Aaron Ross, but a consistent level of play like Webster’s deserves more recognition.
Flop: Steve Slaton. With Daniel Thomas still unable to stay healthy, the Dolphins strangely turned to Slaton as their goal-line back. Slaton delivered a truly staggering fantasy football day: five carries for seven yards and one touchdown. Three of his carries went for no gain. He did have a 42-yard kickoff return, which makes for an interesting trivia question: Which other players in NFL history have simultaneously been used as a goal-line back and kickoff returner? There can’t have been very many.
Houston Texans 24, Jacksonville Jaguars 14
Fabulous: Brian Cushing, who is back playing at the Pro Bowl level he occupied in 2009. In what was truthfully a pretty stultifying football game, Cushing did a little bit of everything. He recorded seven tackles and recorded a tackle for a loss, a quarterback hit, an interception, and a pass defensed.
Flop: Blaine Gabbert. The rookie quarterback absolutely deserves plaudits for coming back in after suffering a rib injury, and he’s emerged as a pretty effective scrambler so far this season, which is valuable considering how bad his receivers are. But 10-of-30 for 97 yards has to be one of the worst performances in recent memory. There have only been 13 games since 1990 where a quarterback threw 30 or more attempts and had a completion percentage worse than what Gabbert did on Sunday. In case you’re wondering, the likely winner for worst start of the grunge era belongs to Stan Gelbaugh of the Seahawks, who went 9-of-31 (29.0 percent) for 66 yards with a touchdown and two interceptions against the Eagles in Week 15 of the 1992 season.
Baltimore Ravens 30, Arizona Cardinals 27
Fabulous: The Ravens defense. How can you be fabulous in a game where you give up 27 points? Well, remember that the Cardinals had a punt return for a touchdown. They also took over a Ravens fumble on the Baltimore two-yard line and picked off a pass that gave them the ball at the Ravens’ 25-yard line. Both those drives ended in touchdowns. Ignoring the pre-halftime possessions where the Cardinals picked up a meaningless 13 yards on their only play, the Cardinals had nine other drives against the Ravens defense on Sunday. Those drives produced two field goals and an average of just 18.5 yards. When Baltimore began their massive comeback in the third quarter, Ray Lewis & Co. held the Cardinals offense to a total of ten yards across three drives and nine plays. They had just six first downs to show for six second-half drives. The Ravens didn’t lead for the first 59 minutes and 57 seconds of this game, but that’s got nothing to do with the quality of their defense.
Flop: Joe Flacco. Flacco played better during the second half, too, but he’s off to a staggeringly bad start to his season. He’s been routinely missing open receivers downfield, and while he’s always had issues handling a good pass rush, even mediocre pass rushes like those of the Jaguars and Cardinals have been giving him fits. The two most important rate statistics for a quarterback are his completion percentage and yards per attempt, and Flacco’s way down in both. After averaging 7.4 yards per attempt last year, Flacco is down to 6.7 YPA this year, which would be the lowest total of his career. Even more scary is the drop in his completion percentage. After finishing on the right side of 60 percent during each of his first three professional seasons, Flacco is down to 53.8 percent this year. Curtis Painter, Rex Grossman, and Kevin Kolb have all been completing passes more frequently than Flacco.
Minnesota Vikings 24, Carolina Panthers 21
Fabulous: Christian Ponder. Last week, we told you that Christian Ponder had been unsustainably effective on third down and that he wouldn’t be able to repeat that each week. On Sunday, what does Ponder do? Why, he faces 13 third downs and picks up seven first downs. He threw just one incompletion on third down all day. These weren’t exactly short fields, either; Ponder faced just one third down with less than eight yards to go before the fourth quarter.
After two and a half games, Ponder’s splits are absolutely incredible.
On first and second down, he is 19-of-48 for 298 yards. He’s completing 39.5 percent of his passes and averaging 6.2 yards per attempt. On third and fourth down, meanwhile, Ponder is 21-of-29 for 256 yards. His completion percentage nearly doubles; it hits 72.4 percent, and he averages 8.8 yards per attempt. On first and second down so far in his pro career, Christian Ponder has been Tim Tebow. On third and fourth down, he’s been Aaron Rodgers. The Vikings started three possessions inside the Carolina 39-yard line after starting just three possessions altogether inside opposition territory during their 0-4 start. They turned those possessions into 14 points. You want to bet on these things continuing to happen? Be our guest. Ponder’s performance on Sunday was valuable. Just not sustainable.
Flop: DeAngathan Stewiams. Carolina’s running backs have been able to dominate opposing teams at times this year, but the Vikings proved on Sunday that their run defense is still among the league’s stoutest. Jonathan Stewart and DeAngelo Williams combined for just 75 yards on 20 carries, with nothing longer than 12 yards.
Tennessee Titans 27, Indianapolis Colts 10
Fabulous: Damian Williams. One of the reasons the Titans offense hasn’t collapsed with Kenny Britt sidelined and Chris Johnson struggling has been the play of Williams, the burner the Titans took in the third round out of USC last year. On Sunday, he had the most efficient game of any player, catching four of the five passes thrown to him, picking up 60 yards and three first downs. That included completions for 26 and 27 yards.
Flop: Chris Johnson. The human manifestation of buyer’s remorse had another poor game on Sunday; at one point, he had just one yard on five carries. That’s not five carries that each went for a yard. It’s five carries that, combined, went for a total of one yard. He finished with just 34 yards on 14 carries, and he could only muster 17 yards across his five targets as a receiver. 51 yards from scrimmage on 19 opportunities against what might be the league’s worst defense? The Titans say that they’re moving to a system with Johnson and Javon Ringer that will reward the “hot” back. Not exactly a resounding endorsement for Johnson.
Detroit Lions 45, Denver Broncos 10
Fabulous: Calvin Johnson. Calvin got a job! It’s catching passes against overmatched secondaries, which he did with aplomb in Denver. Only seven of Matt Stafford’s 30 passes went to Johnson, but he caught six of them and turned them into 125 yards and a touchdown. We know. Calvin Johnson’s great! You’re shocked.
Flop: Tim Tebow. Tebow isn’t the worst quarterback in football, even if the third Google AutoFill for his name is “Tim Tebow can’t throw.” He didn’t even have the worst start of the weekend; Gabbert was almost surely worse. There sure are a lot of problems that need to be fixed, but one stands out: Tebow needs to get the ball out quicker. A lot quicker. He’s been sacked 13 times in 89 dropbacks, a rate of 14.6 percent. That’s exactly the rate at which David Carr was sacked during his famously terrifying rookie season in Houston. Tebow is tough, but it’s hard to get hit as a quarterback that frequently and stay healthy. Unless he starts getting his passes out quicker or the Broncos start simplifying the offense around him, they may not need to make a decision on Tebow. The decision might be made for them.
Buffalo Bills 23, Washington Redskins 0
Fabulous: Marcell Dareus. With star defensive tackle Kyle Williams injured, the Bills decided to move Dareus into the role of a more traditional nose tackle. That usually means occupying blockers and creating space for the linebackers behind you. Not the case with Dareus. Buffalo’s first-round pick finished the day with 2.5 sacks, an impressive total for any player, let alone a nose tackle. Dareus will never get Rookie of the Year attention with Cam Newton around, but he’s been the best defensive rookie this season by a pretty fair margin.
Flop: Redskins offensive line. Washington lost left tackle Trent Williams and left guard Kory Lichtensteiger in recent weeks, but this was one of the worst games you’ll ever see an offensive line play. Running back Ryan Torain got no push up front, and he ended up with just 14 yards on eight carries. As for John Beck? The inexperienced veteran was sacked nine times on just 42 dropbacks. Before the game, Buffalo had just four sacks all season. Seems safe to pin this one on the offensive line.
Cincinnati Bengals 34, Seattle Seahawks 12
Fabulous: Bengals return game. Adam Jones made his return to the NFL with a 63-yard punt return early on; unfortunately, he also hurt his hamstring on the play and had to leave. He was replaced by Brandon Tate, who took a punt to the house in the fourth quarter to seal up the game for Cincinnati. Tate also averaged 28.3 yards on his four kickoff returns, including a 45-yarder that set up a field goal in the fourth.
Flop: Marshawn Lynch, who had the biggest gap between his actual value to the team and his fantasy value. Lynch finished the day with six fantasy points. What did he do to earn those points? He fell forward from two yards out. Very impressive; it’s about a coin flip for a running back to score in that situation. What else did Lynch do? Well, he ran the ball 16 times and could only muster 24 yards. He actually had a nine-yard run; take that and the two-yard touchdown out, and Lynch’s other 14 carries gained 13 yards. That’s embarrassing. And on one of his six carries for no gain or a loss, Lynch fumbled the ball away. Lynch had one amazing run in the playoffs. That doesn’t mean he’s a good running back. He shouldn’t be ahead of Leon Washington or Justin Forsett in the queue for carries.
San Francisco 49ers 20, Cleveland Browns 10
Fabulous: D’Qwell Jackson. The Browns aren’t known for having playmakers these days — on offense or on defense — but their linebacker had a very nice game against what can be a very effective offensive line. Having 10 tackles is one thing, but Jackson had five plays behind the line of scrimmage for a loss. That included three consecutive stuffs at the goal line, including the final tackle to force a turnover on fourth-and-1.
Flop: Greg Little. The Browns’ second-round pick was moved into the starting lineup to provide an explosive threat for Colt McCoy. With Mohamed Massaquoi injured, Little had the opportunity to get the sort of target load every receiver wishes for. What did he do with his workload? He caught four of the 11 passes thrown to him and gained 28 yards. You would certainly hope for more.
Pittsburgh Steelers 25, New England Patriots 17
Fabulous: Heath Miller. We penciled Miller in here after the opening drive, during which he picked up 55 yards and four first downs en route to a Steelers touchdown. He finished the game with seven catches and 85 yards on nine targets. Miller doesn’t get the sort of attention that players with more receptions or touchdowns do, but he has an incredibly reliable set of hands who has spent most of the past two seasons as a pass blocker due to the Steelers’ offensive line issues. He could be a 90-catch receiver in the right offense.
Flop: BenJarvus Green-Ellis. This was a very well-played game, so it’s hard to find someone to pick who truly had a bad game. Green-Ellis is limited by a nagging toe injury, but for a guy who is never really relied upon to receive or pass block, five carries for nine yards is a pretty disappointing showing. Then again, two of those five carries picked up first downs. What do you want us to say? Both teams played hard.
Philadelphia Eagles 34, Dallas Cowboys 7
Fabulous: LeSean McCoy, who finally flashed the MVP form he had been exhibiting at the beginning of the year. Does anyone make quicker cuts than Shady? He finished with exactly 200 yards from scrimmage amid his 32 touches, producing 11 first downs and two touchdowns. One interesting note: McCoy had 30 carries in this game; before the bye, he had 28 carries in Philly’s win over the Redskins. Before those two games, Andy Reid had only given his starting running back 28 carries or more five times in 12 seasons as Eagles head coach. We’re not arguing cause and effect here — the Eagles aren’t winning because McCoy’s getting all those carries — but we’re surprised that the Eagles would give their young running back such a heavy workload.
Flop: Jason Witten. The game plan for the Cowboys before Sunday night seemed pretty simple: Get their star tight end out against the disappointing Eagles linebackers and enjoy the jogging-up-the-field practice. The Cowboys got the first part down, as they threw Witten the ball 12 times. They just couldn’t figure out the second part; Witten caught just four of those passes and gained 28 yards in the process.
Bill Barnwell is a staff writer for Grantland.
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