In the NFL, there are a few virtually unstoppable forces that give teams big advantages over the rest of the league. In Dallas, Ezekiel Elliott running behind an all-time great offensive line alongside a mobile quarterback is something for which no defense in the league would have an easy answer. Whatever the situation with its defense and receivers, Dallas is going to be competitive with this weapon at its disposal.
The Broncos' pass defense is similarly valuable. The Falcons schemed intelligently to beat it, and the Chargers got big plays from tight end Hunter Henry, but you're not going to beat them out wide for big plays. That puts a ceiling on the opponent's offensive output and lowers the bar considerably for Denver's offense. It's how they won a Super Bowl with some of the worst quarterbacking in the league last year.
An under-the-radar one this year might be the Tyrod Taylor-LeSean McCoy combination in Buffalo. McCoy's best years were in Philadelphia with Michael Vick and to some extent Nick Foles (who was mobile in Chip Kelly's system), and Buffalo's running game is now among the best in the league.
Game-breaking receivers with competent quarterbacking pose similar problems, but teams have to be committed to getting them the ball. As a Giants fan, I hated seeing peak Terrell Owens (on both the Eagles and Cowboys) as it seemed like there was no way to prevent him from burning you for at least one big play. You want your team to leverage these advantages maximally, i.e., Ben McAdoo should not be dink and dunking to Larry Donnell and Bobby Rainey just because the safeties are deep.
I don't want to exaggerate their impact, but when you have a unit functioning that well, it's like having Kareem Abdul Jabbar's hook shot, or Karl Malone and John Stockton's pick and roll - a go-to edge around which teams have to game plan and for which they often overcompensate.
The Cowboys in particular are interesting because if Dak Prescott is as good as he seems, and Dez Bryant ever returns to something approaching his 2012-2014 form, they would have two unstoppable forces, making them arguably the best offense in the league. Unfortunately, I'm not sure whether we'll ever see peak Bryant again. (I hope we do, and I say that even as a Giants fan because players like Bryant, Beckham and sober Josh Gordon are what make the NFL worth watching in spite of its management and media coverage.)
Small Ball Part 2
A couple weeks ago I wrote about the "small ball" approach to offense whereby your only goal is to maximize your chances for a first down on every series, at the expense of taking chances down the field.
After watching the first half of the Giants-Ravens game, I want to take this concept even further. The Giants were down 10-0 in the first half and unable to generate any offense whatsoever. They were running ineffectively on 1st-and-10 and throwing short passes to their backs and receivers apparently in the hopes of getting to "third-and-manageable." The Ravens defense seemed to be aware of it, and when on one third-and-five, the Giants threw a one-yard pass to Sterling Shepard, the DB was right on him, stopped him short of the first down,
forcing them to punt and the Giants punted.
If you take only what's given to you, running and throwing underneath to get first downs, the defense will offer even less. If on 3rd-and-6, you're hoping for seven yards, why shouldn't it get right up in your face and concede nothing? What does it have to lose? Conversely if the defense knows on 3rd-and-6 you might try for seven, or you might try for a 50-yard touchdown, it has to worry about defending so much more of the field. It can try to give you nothing, but by doing so it risks giving everything.
There are exceptions. If you're the Cowboys, you can run for five yards every play, and your mobile quarterback can scramble on passing downs if needed. If you're the Patriots, Tom Brady gets rid of the ball so quickly and accurately to his receivers, and the pace of play often prevents the defense from getting set. But even the Cowboys and Patriots have attacked down the field this year, too. Small ball is so rarely an effective way to score points in the modern NFL, especially when, like the Giants, you have an ineffective running game and a receiver who can break the game open on any play.
Thankfully, the Giants discovered this in the second half, going over top to Odell Beckham for a 75-yard TD on a 1st-and-10 play, and boldly calling a slant for him on 4th-and-1 that went for a 66-yard score.
Ideal Draft vs. Worst Possible Draft
Both of these are plausible paths you might have taken through a 12-team NFFC draft:
Team A: (pick 5): 1. David Johnson 2. T.Y. Hilton 3. LeSean McCoy 4. Marvin Jones 5. DeMarco Murray 6. Emmanuel Sanders 7. Michael Crabtree, 8. Christine Michael 9. Jay Ajayi 10. Jimmy Graham
Team B: (pick 12): 1. Adrian Peterson, 2. Keenan Allen, 3. Sammy Watkins, 4. Donte Moncrief, 5. Thomas Rawls, 6. Danny Woodhead, 7. Ameer Abdullah 8. Josh Gordon, 9. Charles Sims, 10. Kevin White
And honestly, I might have preferred Team B (minus the Peterson pick) if you asked me in late August.
Week 6 Observations
• If I were drafting today for the rest of the year, David Johnson would be my No. 1 overall pick, even in an NFFC 3-WR/FLEX PPR. While Odell Beckham or Julio Jones makes more sense structurally in that kind of league, Johnson's consistent production, skill set and upside are too much to pass up.
• Larry Fitzgerald saw nine targets, John Brown seven and Michael Floyd only two, though he did catch a TD. The game flow did none of them any favors, but with five targets over the last two games Floyd is droppable if you need to make tough choices during the bye weeks.
• We ranked Ben Roethlisberger and Carson Palmer lower than the consensus this preseason because we couldn't give either of them 16 games. Sure enough, both have missed time already, and now Palmer has a hamstring injury, one week after returning from a concussion. Between those two and Tony Romo it's hard to say who's taken the worst beating over their long careers.
• The Jets have to be in the discussion for worst team in the NFL. It's time to pull the plug on Ryan Fitzpatrick and let Geno Smith have more than eight minutes in a blowout. Or Christian Hackenberg/Bryce Petty.
• Matt Forte got nine ineffective carries and three ineffective targets. The Jets should be trying to deal him for anything to a contender in need of RB depth.
• Credit where it's due. McAdoo went on 4th-and-3 in the second half rather than attempting a 54-yard field goal. He did briefly go into a shell with a four-point lead that nearly cost them the game when Dominique Rodgers-Cromartie was flagged for a terrible PI penalty which the Ravens converted into a score, but the Giants got the ball back into Beckham's hands when it mattered, and, as I mentioned, did so on 4th-and-1 when they could have called a running play.
• Hopefully this puts an end to the sub-moronic "Beckham is a distraction" pieces, but because he got a celebration penalty, it probably won't. Of Beckham's 222 yards, 175 were after the catch, meaning he did most of the work, out-running and outmaneuvering the entire defense on his two long TDs.
• Eli Manning also played better once the Giants got out of their "let's hope to get a first down on three plays" mode and attacked the defense. Manning needs to get the ball out quickly, and he needs to target his outside receivers.
• Paul Perkins looks quicker and more explosive than the team's other backs, but apparently he's bad in pass protection. I'd still stash him if I had room.
• Terrance West ran hard for his 3.8 YPC and caught four passes on six targets. He's a three-down back right now.
• Torrey Smith made one big play on an underthrown pass, and there will be more so long as Colin Kaepernick is the quarterback. But his ceiling is erratic, unpredictable big play scoring and as such is best-ball only for now.
• Kaepernick didn't play well, but his eight carries for 66 yards might be bankable in this offense, making him a plausible bye-week starter in good matchups.
• Brian Hoyer is Mr. 300-Yards Passing. He failed to throw a TD, and the team scored only 16 points, but Hoyer gets there every week.
• KaDeem Carey outrushed Jordan Howard on six fewer carries. It's probably still Howard's job, but what was once crystal clear has a bit of murk to it.
• Allen Hurns saw 11 targets, Allen Robinson and Marqise Lee six apiece. Robinson's still the No. 1, but his great preseason seems like a lifetime ago.
• Cameron Meredith, Alshon Jeffery and Zach Miller were targeted on 38 of Hoyer's 49 throws. Add in Eddie Royal's six, and you're at 44. It is a narrow tree. Meredith had another 113 yards on 15 targets, showing his usage last week was no fluke.
• It's amazing Arrelious Benn is still in the league. I remember drafting him in the 18th round five years ago. I just looked up his stats, and sure enough, he hadn't had a catch since 2012.
• Case Keenum actually got 10.1 YPA and 321 yards. But this Lions defense made even Aaron Rodgers look good a few weeks ago.
• Amazingly, Kenny Britt just turned 28 in September. Britt averaged more than nine yards per target over 156 looks from 2014-15, i.e., this probably isn't a fluke.
• They said Marvin Jones and Golden Tate were (1) and (1a) during the preseason. Unfortunately, they didn't say when. Tate blew up on people's benches for 165 and a score, while Jones went just two for 10, but at least he scored a TD.
• The big game from Todd Gurley is on its way. Teams are making the Rams throw, and the Rams are doing it more successfully now. Gurley is supplementing his income with a few receptions too.
• Zach Zenner had a passable game, Justin Forsett did not. In case you're desperate.
• I'd like to congratulate the city of Cleveland on the Browns' backdoor cover. It was a thing of beauty, and while a win would have helped me in Survivor, I'll take what I can get. I was a sorely needed 10-4-1 ATS.
• Cody Kessler is an NFL quarterback, and Terrelle Pryor will get his looks even if he's not playing under center or running much.
• Marcus Mariota had a big fantasy day against a bad Browns defense, but he was lucky a wide open Kendall Wright laid out completely to catch a deep pass that could have been punted to him. Tajae Square, the team's ostensible No. 1 WR in August, had three targets and no catches.
• The Steelers are a big home/road split team thanks to their QB who's now out indefinitely with a torn meniscus. As such the Dolphins were my best bet, though I did not have them winning outright, let alone by 15.
• Le'Veon Bell might have disappointed expectations, but in a game where no one did anything for the Steelers (their TDs were a 61-yard end around to Darrius Heyward-Bey an a toss to someone named Cobi Hamilton in garbage time), he had 53 yards rushing (on only 10 carries) and six catches for 55 more yards. But even Bell's productivity will be tested with Ben Roethlisberger likely out for a while.
• Jay Ajayi already had a huge day, but a 62-yard TD while running out the clock was shades of Emmitt Smith and Terrell Davis in the late 90s. Arian Foster should see some third-down work, but it has to be Ajayi's job now.
• Jarvis Landry isn't a particularly efficient receiver, but he's the man you want on the hands team during an onside kick.
• With Tom Brady back, Rob Gronkowski is rapidly making up for lost time. He's easily the No. 1 TE again and a top-15 overall player. Brady is also the No. 1 QB, and with Ben Roethlisberger out, and Cam Newton not running much Sunday, it's an easy call.
• Julian Edelman hasn't done much since Brady came back. I wonder if at 30, and after some foot problems, he's just a guy now.
• Gio Bernard is a better runner and receiver than Jeremy Hill. Hill will score more TDs, but that's about all he's got going for him.
• Cam Newton had only 6.9 YPA at New Orleans, and while he threw for 322 yards and rushed for a short TD, he had only two carries. I'll chalk this up to his returning from a concussion, but if he doesn't have designed runs, he's a fringe top-five QB.
• Jonathan Stewart scored twice, thanks to Newton's pass-only role, but he has virtually no upside should Newton resume his duties as the goal-line back. Greg Olsen is one of the steadiest producers in the league.
• As a Mark Ingram owner, I wave the white flag. They gave tight end Coby Fleener the goal-line carry, and even though Drew Brees threw 49 times for 465 yards, Ingram saw only three targets for nine yards. Meanwhile Travaris Cadet had five targets and four catches. Unlike last year when Ingram caught 50 passes in 12 games, he's not a big part of the passing attack, i.e., he's basically Jonathan Stewart.
• Brandin Cooks had a huge day, but it could have been Beckham-esque had Brees not missed him on a would-be wide open 80-plus-yard TD. Even so, Cooks at home against a mediocre defense is nearly as good as it gets.
• Michael Thomas caught all five of his targets for 78 yards and a score, outproducing Willie Snead who had two more targets. Fleener, in addition to the rushing TD, caught six of his seven targets for 74 yards and another score. It seems like a narrower tree in New Orleans this year with three receivers and a tight end getting the vast majority of Brees' production.
• Brees at home against a weak defense is automatic. We'll see how he does when Denver and Seattle come to town later in the year.
• The Redskins should have blown out the Eagles but for a pick six and a special teams TD. Still, Carson Wentz managed 8.1 YPA and no interceptions, albeit on only 11 completions.
• With Jordan Reed out, Pierre Garcon and DeSean Jackson combined for 20 targets, but only modest output. Matt Jones ran well and closed out the game with a long first down scamper.
• Alex Smith had a weak fantasy day, but could not have been more efficient with 19 completions on 22 attempts and 10.2 YPA. His only blemish was one sack.
• Spencer Ware retained the lion's share of the workload with Jamaal Charles (3.7 YPC) back, and despite the heavy volume (24 carries) was the more efficient (5.5 YPC) of the two. Ware also did more as a receiver (32 yards to 16) on the same number of targets (2). Around halftime, I set the line at even money between the two for rest-of-season production, but now I'd say Ware is a 60/40 favorite to outscore him from Weeks 7-17. And unlike Melvin Gordon about whom I wrote on Thursday, Ware is a closer.
• Amari Cooper (13 targets) had another big day, while Michael Crabtree, largely checked by Marcus Peters, saw only four targets. Derek Carr managed only 6.6 YPA, threw a pick, lost a fumble and took two sacks.
• DeAndre Washington ran well, seeing 10 carries to Jalen Richard's three before Richard left the game late after getting destroyed by linebacker Derrick Johnson. But even though the Raiders were trailing all game, Washington had only one target and no catches.
• Tony Romo is never getting his job back. We know this because even Troy Aikman was suggesting the possibility, and by the time the mainstream sports media comes around to an idea it's already obvious.
• Not that Dak Prescott hasn't earned it – he did throw his first pick, and he's lost a couple fumbles, but another three TDs without Dez Bryant and 9.1 YPA on the road is awfully impressive. The obvious comp is Russell Wilson.
• Another 28 for 157 for Elliott, i.e., going to work in the morning. Cole Weasley scored two TDs though.
• The Packers offense has been a shell of its 2010-2014 self for 22 games now. It's time to grieve and move on.
• I've never seen Aaron Rodgers play that poorly. He threw a terrible pick, missed a wide open Richard Rodgers and overthrew a wide open Randall Cobb. And I probably missed a few others. Jordy Nelson doesn't look like himself, and the rest of the targets are just okay.
• Ty Montgomery led the Packers in targets and yards, but his longest catch went for 15. Eddie Lacy gutted it out on a bad ankle, but the game flow did him no favors. Oddly, the Packers didn't dress a backup running back despite Lacy's condition. The did trade for Knile Davis on Tuesday, however.
• The Falcons are awfully impressive. I doubt any team's come back from a 14-point deficit in Seattle in the second half over the last five years.
• If Matt Ryan is getting 335 yards, three TDs and 8.0 YPA in Seattle, he's matchup proof and must be considered a top-five QB. Moreover, his only pick was a pass off Julio Jones' hands. Over his last two games in Denver and in Seattle, Ryan has 602 yards, four TDs and one pick that wasn't his fault. Ryan might have put up even bigger numbers had the fourth-down pass interference penalty on Richard Sherman been called, too.
• Russell Wilson still doesn't look as mobile as usual.
• Julio Jones won the matchup with the Seattle corners and would have had an even bigger day but for the uncalled Sherman PI. The production has been especially erratic this year, but he's healthy, and there's no reason not to consider him a co-No. 1 with Beckham now that Roethlisberger's injury torpedoes Antonio Brown.
• Kyle Shanahan is doing an amazing job with the game planning. One week after torching the Broncos with their speedy running backs, they burned the Seahawks with their wideouts.
• Christine Michael had a modest day, but scored twice, and it might have been three times, but for a vulture TD by Alex Collins.
• Jimmy Graham is doing his best Greg Olsen impression with another solid game.
• Andrew Luck looks great, but he's working with so little, given the weak offensive line and lack of a red-zone receiver.
• Brock Osweiler made a nice throw to C.J. Fiedorowicz, who has now had two big games in a row. Maybe he's worth a look, though this is a run-first team with a bad QB and two good receivers.
• Lamar Miller finally broke out. It looked to me like he mostly got what was blocked (a lot) except on the TD catch where he deftly reversed field and outran/broke several tackles for the score.
• DeAndre Hopkins saw 15 targets for 71 yards. He's a good, but not great receiver.
• I hate to admit it because I dogged him all preseason, but Frank Gore still looks pretty good. His streak of 82 straight games as a RB from ages 28-33 is on par with Tony Gonzalez' and Brett Favre's uncanny feats of durability. To put it in perspective, Miller, who has played 47 straight games, has the second longest active streak among backs.