That’s more like it.
Through four games, the Dolphins were a mess. A team that finished second in rushing DVOA last season was ranked 21st, with preseason favorite Lamar Miller averaging a paltry 3.54 yards per carry. Breakout candidate Ryan Tannehill ranked 32nd in QBR, three spots lower than turnover machine Jameis Winston. The monster pass rush that Miami was supposed to have with Ndamukong Suh and Cameron Wake was nowhere to be found, ranking last in sack percentage through Week 4.
All of this was enough to get head coach Joe Philbin and defensive coordinator Kevin Coyle fired. Supporters of the move spun it as a way to salvage a season for a roster with a significant amount of talent, and one game in, that group has plenty of ammunition. Miami stomped Tennessee yesterday, but more importantly, it did so by looking like the team many expected to see this season.
Miller shredded the Titans defense to the tune of 19 carries for 113 yards, and he did it without the benefit of a long run. Gains of 22, 20, 14, 11, and 7 helped pace a Miami offense that was hampered by a couple of Tannehill interceptions. Where the Dolphins truly dominated, though, was the other side of the ball.
The carnage that Cameron Wake caused in Nashville rivaled any game he’s ever had. The 33-year-old defensive end abused rookie right tackle Jeremiah Poutasi for four sacks in the first half before the Tennessee offensive staff had seen enough. Jamon Meredith didn’t let Wake yank down Marcus Mariota again, but he did get caught for two holding penalties while trying to slow Wake down.
After the win, Wake tried to downplay what was different about the Dolphins. “We’re still the same team from Week 1,” he said, according to David J. Neal of the Miami Herald. “Same players with the same abilities. It’s playing consistently, playing together. Having enthusiasm and fun. That’s probably the difference. It’s not that the me today isn’t the me from two weeks ago. Other than the hamstring issue.”
The truth about Miami is neatly packed into that quote. After the bye week, the hamstring issue that hampered Wake early in the season wasn’t a factor, and one of the game’s best pass-rushers was allowed to wreak his vintage form of havoc against a pair of overmatched tackles. But that somersault after Wake’s first sack was telling. So was the way everyone on the sideline had a hug or high five for interim head coach Dan Campbell. The Dolphins clearly weren’t responding to Philbin and Coyle any longer, but yesterday — whether it was because of a week off, a new voice, or some combination of the two — they looked like a team with renewed life.
How long that lasts is a different story. This is still a flawed team with serious issues in the secondary, a banged-up offensive line, and a quarterback who must reach a different plane if Miami is serious about contending. But if the motivation for firing Philbin was allowing the Dolphins to salvage a season in which the AFC’s second wild-card spot looks up for grabs, then one game in, that plan is undeniably a success. Wake is right. The Dolphins are probably the same team from Week 1, but yesterday, they looked just different enough.
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Nuk Hopkins and Julio Jones have been the most dominant receivers in football this year, but their brands of “Ha ha, you think you can stop me — that’s cute” are decidedly different. Jones is a matchup nightmare, a physical marvel who lines up anywhere and everywhere and can alternate between speed and strength depending on which type of defender you want to offer as sacrifice.
That’s not Hopkins. He wasn’t billed as a burner coming out of Clemson, and he isn’t one now. His flavor of unstoppable is the result of being open even when he’s not. Hopkins has reached the rare “Throw it. No, seriously, just throw it” plateau for a receiver. His catch radius is seemingly endless, and any ball he can scrape even with a fingertip ends up caught. In the fourth quarter yesterday, when Hopkins squeezed the rock against his helmet as he slid out of bounds, I couldn’t blame Jaguars coach Gus Bradley for throwing the challenge flag: There’s no way that play happened based on our understanding of science, the Jags were up four points, and an incompletion would have left Houston with third-and-13.
Then I remembered that DeAndre Hopkins is not beholden to the laws of nature. The play was upheld, and five plays later, Nuk put on another show in the back corner of the end zone to give the Texans a 17-14 lead. After forcing a three-and-out, the next Houston drive lasted only four plays, because that’s all Hopkins needed to burn Davon House on a beautiful double move down the left sideline to give the Texans a 10-point lead they wouldn’t relinquish.
In the fourth quarter alone, Hopkins had five catches for 91 yards and two touchdowns. He was the deciding factor in a game that was hardly in hand before he let loose. Through six games, Hopkins is on pace for a ridiculous 139 receptions and 1,936 yards. His league-leading 89 targets (14 more than anyone else) help those numbers, but he’s dropped just two of those throws. Hopkins is a special sort of force these days. Just imagine what he could be with a little more stability at quarterback.
Landry Jones and Martavis Bryant
With the Steelers defense doing its part against the Cardinals, the burden weirdly fell on the Pittsburgh offense to scrape together enough points to pull off one of the more impressive wins of the year. For a while, that didn’t look promising with Michael Vick at the helm. Vick was 3-of-8 for 6 yards — six! — before leaving the game with a hamstring injury, which actually turned into a blessing for the Steelers.
Landry Jones’s postgame attire easily pegs him as a guy who didn’t expect to play yesterday, but the former Oklahoma quarterback made the most of his chance. Jones was 8-of-12 for 168 yards and two scores, including the 88-yard dagger to Martavis Bryant to put the Cardinals away for good. Before that jaunt came a soaring catch in the back of the end zone.
For the second straight week, the Steelers barely squeaked out a win, but with the NFL’s current leader in QBR still wearing a headset on the sideline, that’s all anyone can really ask. After Ben Roethlisberger injured his knee, the Steelers have held on against a dangerous Rams team, lost to the Ravens on a Thursday night (which barely counts), beaten the Chargers in San Diego, and knocked off the Cardinals. This is a team that’s now 4-2 with one of the league’s best quarterbacks injured for most of the year. With Roethlisberger possibly coming back next week against Kansas City, the Steelers are entrenched on the inside track for a wild-card spot.
Bill Barnwell wrote this morning about how this surprising Steelers defense has kept them alive during this stretch, but yesterday was just another reminder of where the offense’s ceiling exists if the pieces are intact. With Roethlisberger, Antonio Brown, and Le’Veon Bell, Pittsburgh already had the makings of a lethal passing attack (just ask the Niners), and now Bryant is back in the picture. Losing wildly overlooked left tackle Kelvin Beachum to a torn ACL is a major blow, but with a full arsenal of skill-position players, this still has a chance to be one of the more potent offenses around. The moment Roethlisberger hit the turf in St. Louis, it felt like the Steelers’ season could be over, but somehow, they look ready to make a run.
The Bills’ Front Four
Coming into the season, there were some people (including this guy) who thought the various quarterbacks of the AFC were in for a world of trouble against the Buffalo defense. Rex Ryan had consistently trotted out top-10 units as the Jets head coach, and with Kyle Williams, Jerry Hughes, Mario Williams, and Marcell Dareus, there was a chance this was his most talented group to date.
Through five weeks, the Buffalo defense was solid — 10th in DVOA, ninth against the pass — but not nearly the unit many envisioned before the season. A tough schedule is part of that. According to Football Outsiders, the Bills faced the sixth-toughest slate in the league in their first five games, and that was before they played the second-ranked Bengals.
Still, a team with that much talent up front ranked a disappointing 24th in run-defense DVOA, and the terrifying pass rush we expected just hasn’t been there. Before yesterday, the Bills ranked 29th in pressure rate. Only the Cowboys, Eagles, and Falcons had gotten after opposing quarterbacks less often. The Bengals added to those struggles when Andy Dalton came away with a clean sheet — no sacks, no hits — while throwing for 243 yards and three touchdowns. Buffalo’s run defense wasn’t much better. The Cincinnati running backs gained 106 yards on their 24 carries for an average of 4.4 yards a pop, and Jeremy Hill seemed to have a little more burst than he’s had most of the season.
To make matters worse, Bills mainstay Kyle Williams had to be helped off the field in the second half, and his knee injury is bad enough that he’s already been ruled out for Buffalo’s game against the Jags in London next week. The Bills are still better than most of the defenses throughout the league, but with so much uncertainty on offense — EJ Manuel started yesterday, so even the occasionally spectacular play from Tyrod Taylor wasn’t available — this is a team that needed to stonewall opponents on a weekly basis to make a push for the playoffs. That just hasn’t happened, and as injuries like the ones to safety Aaron Williams1 and Kyle Williams continue to mount, their postseason chances are getting even slimmer.
He was placed on short-term injured reserve after hurting his neck in Week 2.
We should start a petition that forces the Ravens to release Steve Smith Sr. and prevent any team but the Panthers from signing him. Right now, Baltimore doesn’t deserve him. The 36-year-old Smith, playing with broken bones in his back, finished yesterday’s loss to the 49ers with seven catches for 137 yards, including an obscene 34-yard touchdown that shouldn’t be possible at this point in his career.
Apart from Smith, the Ravens are a mess. Even behind that offensive line, Baltimore is still having trouble moving the ball on the ground (77 yards on 22 carries). Colin Kaepernick, who has looked lost for much of the season, needed just 16 completions to get his 340 yards.
Saying the 1-5 Ravens could be winless is true, but with all six of their games being decided by six points or fewer, it’s just as valid to say they could be 3-3 or 4-2. The issue with Baltimore is that in very few of those games did it appear as if it did anything well. The pass rush has disappeared for long stretches without Terrell Suggs and a banged-up Elvis Dumervil, the secondary is still prone to massive miscues, and the offense doesn’t appear capable of much unless it’s playing the Raiders or Browns. The Ravens are in trouble, and there’s no reason to believe they will get much better.
Rivers earns inclusion here only because yesterday was another installment of his career as a tragic figure. It’s been a long time since Aaron Rodgers was the lesser quarterback in a game at Lambeau Field, but he was Sunday. Rivers was simply magnificent against the Packers — his 503 passing yards were the 15th-highest single-game total in NFL history — and he did it all as part of a makeshift offense.
For the third straight week, 60 percent of the Chargers’ offensive line consisted of backups. Rivers was hit 13 times, and although his 68 dropbacks contribute to that number, it’s safe to say that Rivers spent most of the day with the pocket crumbling around him. And yet again, the Chargers ended the game without their two best receivers: Keenan Allen was a force before spending the fourth quarter bundled up on the sideline, and with Stevie Johnson already hurt, that left Rivers with Dontrelle Inman, Malcom Floyd, and his two tight ends. Turning to the run wasn’t much of an option, either — not after Melvin Gordon put the ball on the ground twice and was sent to the bench.
Picking a favorite throw from the bunch isn’t easy. In a second half in which Rivers was 21-of-33 for 292 yards and a score, there are a dozen to choose from. But I think I’ve landed on this one, a 17-yard gain on second-and-18 that sees Rivers have to pull the ball down, escape two rushers, and somehow float the ball to Floyd.
The drive ended in a Chargers field goal after Rivers tossed a back-shoulder throw to Inman that was never close. Those are plays that require both timing and familiarity, neither of which Rivers has with his third-string receiver. Rodgers won’t be tossing Rivers sympathy anytime soon, not with Jeff Janis as his no. 1 target yesterday. But for the second straight season, Rodgers is playing with the majority of his offensive line intact. Year in and year out, it feels like Rivers is forced to perform with an offense held together with safety pins and duct tape. But every so often, that doesn’t matter. He’s still good enough to put together extraordinary performances like the one we saw at Lambeau yesterday. And when that potential game-tying throw to Danny Woodhead fell incomplete, no one could blame Rivers for his reaction.
Go ahead, Phil. Take a minute. You earned it this time.