Tony Romo was only a couple of feet away, pulling on a sock with his one good arm, but the tone in Jason Witten’s voice made it sound like the Cowboys quarterback was nowhere to be found. Witten was fielding the most popular question in the Dallas locker room last night — the one that asked how he and the rest of the still-standing Cowboys would be able to improve upon a 2-2 start as the injuries mount. “We don’t look at it that way,” Witten said. “Ultimately, when you lose your two franchise players like Tony and Dez, it’s tough, but that’s what happens in this league.”
It rarely happens like this, though. Star quarterbacks across the league — Ben Roethlisberger, Andrew Luck, and even Drew Brees — are either playing hurt or missing time, but at least the Steelers still have Antonio Brown. Luck should be back on Thursday. And when the Saints needed a game-winning drive in overtime, even a hampered Brees was better than not having him at all. Even Jerry Jones, speaking in a hushed tone just outside the Cowboys locker room about Brandon Weeden’s game-tying drive, was able to admit that his team and the Saints were in different hands last night. “It’s not quite apples and oranges when the guy on the other side of the deal is Brees and you’re dealing with a guy as limited as Weeden,” Jones said. “And we were.”
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Trying to scrape together points without one of the league’s best quarterbacks and possibly its most physically dominant receiver was already a difficult road for the Cowboys, and it didn’t get any easier after Dallas lost two more parts of its makeshift offense. After picking up 54 yards on his three carries, Lance Dunbar was spun to the ground on a kickoff and fell back awkwardly on his knee. Jason Garrett said Dunbar will undergo further tests today, but Jones said it best about a play that made everyone watching wince with a simple “I don’t like it.”
The Dunbar injury came after Brice Butler had to leave the game with a pulled hamstring. The Dallas receiving corps was down to Terrance Williams, fifth-round pick Devin Street, Cole Beasley, and a hobbled Witten, all fielding passes from Weeden. You’d think the Cowboys might be able to compensate by turning to the running game, which made them such a dominant unit a year ago, but it’s never that easy. Dallas finished fourth on offensive DVOA last season precisely because of the harmony between its running game and Romo and Bryant’s ability to break a defense’s will by extending drives.
The Cowboys finished 3-of-12 on third down against one of the worst defenses in football last night. Moving the ball on the ground is always going to be a challenge for an offense without a viable deep threat. Joseph Randle finished with just 26 yards on his 11 carries after heading to the bench following his risky goal-line move, and Darren McFadden wasn’t much better. The Saints had safeties lurking around the line of scrimmage throughout the game, and even an offensive line as good as Dallas’s will struggle when losing the numbers game.
At 2-2, the Cowboys are still tied for the lead in the NFC East, but anyone watching the Dallas offense for the past seven quarters knows how steep the climb is going to be without Romo and Bryant.
“The good thing is that the guys who were out there, the ones we’re asking to step up — they shouldn’t be as good as the ones they’re replacing — but they’re playing hard,” Jones said. “And I’m really proud of them.” That’s a hollow victory for a team that came into the year dreaming of another playoff run. And with the Patriots and Seahawks looming, that might be the only type of win Dallas has for a while.
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The game plan that Wade Phillips deployed yesterday — which I believe is called “unleash hell” — toed the line between effective and cruel. With DeMarcus Ware and Von Miller, Denver boasts maybe the best pass-rushers in football, but against a shaky, shorthanded Vikings offensive line, Phillips wasn’t going to let those guys have all the fun. The Broncos blitzed on exactly half of Minnesota’s dropbacks — the fourth-highest rate in the league so far this week — and the result was absolute havoc. Teddy Bridgewater was sacked seven times and hit 11 times overall, and a good portion of the damage was done by players in the back seven.
Safety T.J. Ward, who had two sacks last season, had two yesterday. Four games in, Denver now has 11 players with at least one. Only six other teams have at least 11 sacks total. Phillips’s unit is creating pressure on 37 percent of dropbacks, the third-best rate in football, and it’s finishing plays when it gets the chance.
The Broncos are 4-0, and they’ve done it by leaning on what might be the best defense in football. Bruising Bridgewater is one thing, but Denver also made Adrian Peterson’s life miserable. Being Adrian Peterson, he managed a 48-yard score that helped keep Minnesota alive, but outside of that carry, he had just 33 yards the other 15 times he ran the ball. Right now, the Broncos are comfortably the best defense in the league by DVOA, and they look like a group without any noticeable holes at any position. Denver’s struggles on offense are very real, but this defense might just be good enough to overcome them.
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J.J. Watt picked the right word yesterday when he told ESPN.com’s Tania Ganguli that the Texans’ performance in Atlanta was “pitiful.” Houston was a mess in almost every way on Sunday. Ryan Mallett was bad enough that Bill O’Brien eventually went back to Brian Hoyer, who put together some reasonable numbers during some of the filthiest garbage time you will see in an NFL game. Mallett couldn’t do much of anything against an improved but hardly intimidating Falcons defense. For the second time in three starts, he completed less than 50 percent of his passes, and for the third time in as many games, he failed to top six yards per attempt.
Hoyer will be the answer in the short term, but there’s a reason it took this much time for O’Brien to send Mallett to the bench. Neither is an attractive option, and with Arian Foster still not ready to take on a full workload, Houston’s offense is going to struggle. And that’s not even the disheartening part of the Texans’ Sunday outing: The defense didn’t look much better. By the time Atlanta’s Terron Ward rumbled into the end zone to make it 42-0, the effort was all but gone. When you have an offense that can’t move the ball playing against a team that’s clicking in every way, games can understandably get out of hand, but it was hard to watch the Texans yesterday without thinking they’re in trouble.
O’Brien did what he could to put the blame on himself. “I’m disappointed in me as a head coach,” O’Brien said. “That’s what I’m disappointed in, because I don’t think I did a good job today. It starts with me. To go out there and perform like that? That’s on the head coach.” Maybe, but the problems in Houston go far deeper than being unprepared. Until the quarterback situation is resolved, there’s a chance it’s enough to short-circuit the rest of Houston’s season.
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There were stretches during their first three games when the Rams looked like one of the worst offenses in football. They managed just 259 yards and six points at home in an ugly loss to a Steelers team missing Ben Roethlisberger, and weren’t much better the week before at Washington.
Even after acquiring Nick Foles, the Rams offense was geared toward the run game. Part of that involved collecting two starting offensive linemen in the first three rounds of this spring’s draft, but most of it had to do with Todd Gurley.
After looking notably human for most of the first half against Arizona — four carries for 2 yards — Gurley became a force of nature in the second. What made him the 10th overall pick, despite a torn ACL suffered last fall, was a combination of speed and power that doesn’t come along often — an ability to run by defenders just as easily as he could run them over. That showed up throughout the third and fourth quarters, with the former Georgia back ripping off runs of 23, 12, 52, 20, and 30 yards.
The new-look offensive line played its part in creating plenty of creases, but it was up to Gurley to find and take advantage of them. He made arm tackles disappear and turned any sliver of an opening into a backbreaking play for Arizona. We’ve seen glimpses from rookie running backs in the past that never turned into anything else, but it’s worth mentioning that Gurley had twice as many runs of 20 or more yards yesterday (four) as Trent Richardson had his entire rookie season, and he did it playing against a Cardinals defense that came into the game ranked seventh in run-defense DVOA.
All Les Snead had to do yesterday was sit back, take in what he’d built, and smile. Finally. Coming into the year, St. Louis’s blueprint was easy to decipher. The Rams planned to field a terrorizing defense and an offense that lived on big plays through the air while churning out yards on the ground. That all came together against a team that had looked as dominant as any in the league, and it highlighted nearly every high-profile move Snead and his regime have made: two scores from Tavon Austin, including a beautiful throw by Foles on what would turn into the game winner; nine quarterback hits on Carson Palmer from that high-priced defensive line; and, finally, Gurley salting the game away and looking like a superstar in the making as he did it.
Atlanta has yet to take apart a great defense, but dismantling a decent one shouldn’t be ignored. The Falcons started the day ranked seventh in offensive DVOA, and even if a fourth quarter of Terron Ward carries affected their per-play efficiency, Atlanta’s ability to score at will for most of the game should have it near the top of the league this week.
Julio Jones has been playing every game like a superhero, but what should really scare defenses about the Falcons’ bludgeoning of the Texans is that they barely needed Jones to get out of the phone booth Sunday. Leonard Hankerson continued to enjoy life with Matt Ryan to the tune of 103 yards and a touchdown, and Devonta Freeman just picked up where he left off against Dallas a week ago.
Ryan was excellent yesterday — 19-of-27 for 256 yards — but what stood out again for the Falcons was how Kyle Shanahan and the offensive staff are putting Atlanta in spots to thrive before the ball is even snapped. On both of Freeman’s longer touchdown runs, the space was created by getting linemen moving, and the left-sideline, 44-yard wheel route in the second quarter was one of the more beautifully designed plays you’ll see.
For years, Shanahan has shown an ability to instantly get an offense cranking — Robert Griffin’s rookie year in Washington, the first half of last season in Cleveland — and the same appears to be happening in Atlanta. This situation is Shanahan’s most promising and sustainable yet because, for the first time, he has elite talent in Ryan and Jones.
With Luke Kuechly out, the Panthers have been forced to look elsewhere for their game-changing plays on defense, and Josh Norman has been providing them. Norman added two more picks yesterday, giving him a league-leading four on the year, as the Panthers moved to 4-0.
Norman walked the first interception in for a score and made the second look just as easy, feasting on an underthrown ball from Jameis Winston. He was far from perfect on the day — Vincent Jackson, his primary assignment, still managed 10 catches as he found a few holes in the Carolina defense — but Norman added another pass breakup on a deep throw up the left sideline to go along with his pair of picks. At some point, quarterbacks may learn that 34-year-old Charles Tillman is a better target.
Kerry Wynn and Devon Kennard
The Giants defense gave Tyrod Taylor fits, and the previously explosive Karlos Williams managed just 40 yards on 18 carries. Kerry Wynn and Devon Kennard made plays that leaped off the screen. On an interception of a throw that Taylor tried fitting into a tight space for Charles Clay, Kennard went step-for-step with Clay up the sideline before snatching the ball away. And Wynn spent a good chunk of the day in the Buffalo backfield, as he somehow collected a team-leading eight tackles from his left defensive end spot.
Tackle numbers can occasionally serve as a poor metric, but most of Wynn’s ended with the Bills’ running game going backward. He was a part of the action on run plays that went for no gain, minus-1, 1, minus-7, minus-3, and 1, and that doesn’t even include a pressure on Taylor that resulted in an incompletion. The Giants run defense has been the surprise of their season. Bottling up Matt Jones and the Washington running game last week put them sixth in run-defense DVOA, and that number should only be getting better after slowing down Williams. Players like Johnathan Hankins were already on their way toward being stars coming into the year, but Wynn — a 2014 undrafted free agent out of Richmond — has been an unlikely factor in the Giants’ stout run defense.