On Fridays during each week of the NFL season, Tiebreaker.com will take a look at what we believe to be the five most interesting storylines for that weekend’s games.
It could be about a player, a team, maybe a trend that’s developed over time that might impact a matchup. In other words, we’ll be fluid, reacting to what has happened in the league and what might be coming next.
Battle of the ballers
They say the NFL is now a vertical league, one that accentuates cannon arms and athletic receivers. But that’s just a small portion of the changing offensive dynamic.
There is a new emphasis on the RPO – run, pass option – and quarterbacks whose talents are so interchangeable that defenses have to respect both.
And that’s why this weekend’s matchup between Ravens’ quarterback Lamar Jackson and Houston’s Deshaun Watson might be the most interesting of the season.
We have the numbers to prove it.
Consider this: Watson and Jackson are the first two players with at least 15 passing touchdowns, five rushing touchdowns and a passer rating of 100 or higher through their team’s first nine games of a season in NFL history.
What’s more, with two additional passing touchdowns, Watson would become just the fifth player in league history with at least 20 passing scores and five rushing scores through his first 10 games of the season in league history.
Last week against the Bengals, Jackson rang up his second game this season with a perfect (158.3) passer rating. In doing so, he joined Ben Roethlisberer (2007) as the only other QB in league history to ever do so. In the process, he also added a career-long 47-yard touchdown run.
Watson was also perfect in Week 5 when he became the first player ever to pass from at least 400 yards and five TDs with five or less incompletions in the same game.
According to the NFL, Watson comes into the week ranked fourth in the league with a 107.1 passer rating; Jackson is ninth with a 101.7 mark. So this will be only the second time in league history that two starting QBs under the age of 25 with a passer rating of 100-better will matchup in a game in Week 11 or later.
“I’m a proud quarterback, proud friend,” Watson said earlier this week when asked about Jackson. “All the criticism he was getting when he was coming out, he’s definitely a guy that I’ve always encouraged and talked to in the offseason. I’ve always been — since college days, when we played against each other, I’ve always been friends with him. He’s a guy that’s been doing everything that all the naysayers have said he couldn’t do, and even more. His career is very, very bright and he’s going to continue to do great things.”
By the way, Baltimore leads the NFL with an average of 197.2 rushing yards per game. Jackson leads all quarterbacks with 702 rushing yards, the most rushing yards by a quarterback through his team’s first nine games of a season in league history.
Minshew takes a seat
It’s been fun while it lasted, hasn’t it, Jaguars fans? From the depression of quarterback Nick Foles breaking his collarbone 10 snaps into the first half of this first game with the team, Gardner Minshew Mania sprouted.
But that’s all over now. Foles is ready to return this week against the Colts, which means Minshew is back to the bench. Fun fact: Colts coach Frank Reich was the Eagles offensive coordinator when Foles led them to their Super Bowl championship two years ago.
“I think I proved I can be a guy in this league for a long, long time,” Minshew told ESPN this week. “I think they (the Jaguars) believe that. And there’s other things we’re going to get better at so the next time I do get this opportunity, I’ll be ready and I’ll be better and we’re all going to progress together.”
Jacksonville won four of the eight games Minshew started. He completed 58.9 percent for 251 yards per game, 11 touchdowns, three interceptions and an 89.4 passer rating. And he has a damn, nice moustache.
“He’s done a great job,” Jags coach Doug Marrone said. “I feel a whole lot different about him now than I did prior to him playing, in a very positive way. We took some things and had some discussions on things that we’re going to work on going forward which will give him the ability to be a player in this league for a long time.”
Time for a Saints rebound
There hasn’t been a more absurd game in the league this season than last week’s loss by the Saints – at home – to the lowly Falcons. It was counter-intuitive in every respect.
The Saints didn’t score a touchdown for the first time ever at home on Drew Brees’ watch. And their offensive line allowed the Falcons to sack Brees six times after Atlanta had collected only seven in all of their previous games combined.
“Unacceptable,” Brees told the New Orleans Times-Picayune. “We were extremely disappointed in our performance. I think we know we’re a lot better than that and understand that, especially at this point in the season, this is a time when we really want to start separating ourselves from the pack in a positive way and continuing to position ourselves to achieve the goals that we have set for this team.”
The Saints have their chance for a big bounce back on Sunday against Tampa Bay, which has the league’s 32nd-ranked pass defense.
“We understand that every game you’ve got to show up and you have to play your best and what comes with that is great attention to detail, great execution, great focus and intensity,” Brees said. “And unfortunately our execution just was not up to standard across the board. That needs to get cleaned up and it will get cleaned up and as a result, we’ll play a lot better.”
Brees is 6-0 with 15 passing TDs in his last six games following a game in which he didn’t throw for a score. And he’ll face a defense which has allowed 309.8 yards, 22 touchdowns with just six interceptions to starting QBs this season.
Is Vinatieri done?
The history of sports has featured many examples of Hall of Fame athletes playing one more year than they likely should have. Really, did we really need to see Johnny Unitas in a Chargers uniform?
That might be the case this season in Indianapolis where Adam Vinatieri, the greatest kicker in the history of the league, is suffering through a horrible season. What to do with Vinatieri has been a constant source of debate within the front office this season.
“Adam is our kicker,” Reich told The Athletic. “Chris (Ballard, the Colts’ GM) and I have talked about the situation. Obviously, there have been other kickers in here. … When you take a look, we believe Adam is the answer.”
Vinatieri, 46, has missed an NFL-most 11 kicks. He is 14-of-19 on field-goal attempts and 14-of-20 on extra-point tries. His 71.8 kick percent (FG and PATs) is lowest in the NFL (min. 10 kicks), per NFL Research.
In Week 1, Vinatieri he missed two field goals and an extra point in a six-point loss to the Chargers. In Week 9, he botched a field goal and an extra point in a two-point loss in Pittsburgh.
On Tuesday, the Colts had brought in four kickers — Mike Nugent, Elliott Fry, Nick Rose and Greg Joseph — for a workout. But they again decided to stick with him.
More about McCaffrey
With four catches against the Falcons on Sunday, Christian McCaffrey of the Panthers will pass Hall of Famer LaDainian Tomlinson (238 receptions) for the most catches by a running back in their first three seasons. In nine games this season, McCaffrey, leads the NFL with 153.9 scrimmage yards per game, ranks second with 989 rushing yards and ranks fourth among running backs with 396 receiving yards. He needs 104 receiving yards and 11 rushing yards to become the first player with at least 1,000 rushing yards and 500 receiving yards in the first 10 games of an NFL season. …Coming off their bye week – road loss to the Ravens – Patriots can clinch their 19th straight winning season this weekend against the Eagles by going 9-1. Only the Dallas Cowboys (20 from 1966-85) have a longer run of success in league history.