Week 4 Storylines
I don’t know if Russell Wilson has a nickname yet, but I’m gonna go ahead and dub him The Magician. When watching him play, I routinely find myself feeling like I just witnessed a magic trick. A perfect example of this occurred late in this week’s game when the Seahawks were facing a critical 4th and 3 near the Texans’ goal line. The Seahawks ran a play-action bootleg, but LB Whitney Mercilus didn’t bite, and Wilson was forced to scramble. After running nearly 15 yards backwards to evade Mercilus, Wilson broke to the right sideline, where 4 Texan defenders were waiting for him.
With the sideline acting as an extra defender and Mercilus chasing him from behind, it looked like he would be stopped short, which would have effectively ended the game. Sure, the easy explanation as to how Wilson picked up the first down is that LB Daryl Sharpton took a horrible angle and created a hole in the defense. But this sort of thing has happens too much with Wilson to be written off as just a mistake by the defender.
The Seahawks’ came back from a 20-3 deficit, and it was Russell’s ability to make improbable plays that sparked their comeback. His battered offensive line was giving him extremely poor protection, but Texan defenders just couldn’t seem to get a hold of Wilson in the second half of this game. JJ Watt must have thought he was in a Harry Potter movie, as he busted through the line time and time again, only to have Wilson seemingly apparate away from him and make a big play.
Of course, the best magic trick Wilson ever pulled was his game-winning interception against the Packers on Monday Night Football last year. One way or another, Wilson finds ways to make plays when it seems there is no play to be made. Wilson is known for his practice of meditation and positive visualization, but how could he possibly be visualize some of these plays. Regardless, the words “it’s over” should never be uttered until the clock hits 00:00 when Russell Wilson is on the field. He has an incredible ability to stay calm under pressure, and seems to genuinely believe he can make even the most broken plays work. Take his week 1 game against the Panthers, when he somehow converted this 3rd down and 8.
I’ve seen quarterbacks throw up some prayers in my day, but this one takes the cake. Wilson was under immediate pressure from multiple defenders but somehow managed to square up and throw one in the direction of Doug Baldwin, who he couldn’t have possibly been able to see. Baldwin came back to the ball and made a miraculous grab on the sideline. And yes, he did he get his feet down, something he is remarkably good at.
Or take this touchdown throw to his fourth receiver, Jermaine Kearse, which turned out to be the winning score in the same game. Kearse was well covered and Charles Godfrey was giving help over the top, but Wilson figured he is capable of magic and threw it anyways. The throw was perfect, and Kearse made a miraculous grab, and the Seahawks notched a big road win to open the season.
Wilson is the type of person who believes in himself, and defying basic football logic is nothing new to him. He has been told his whole life that he was too small to play quarterback, but never let that deter him from striving for greatness. So when he is put in an impossible situation on the field that most would tell him he has no chance of overcoming, he doesn’t panic. Like a magician pulling a rabbit out of a hat, he leaves his audience wondering what just happened and how it happened. And no matter how many times I watch the replays, the only explanation I can come up with is magic.
Patriots Defense Takes a Blow
Just when things seemed to be coming together for the Patriots, they team was hit with a major setback. The Patriots’ offense has been struggling to adjust to new personnel, but their strong defensive play has carried the team to a 4-0 start. With chemistry improving between Brady and his young receivers, and Rob Gronkowski and Danny Amendola very close to returning to action, the Patriots’ offense seems primed to take off. They will probably need the offense to show some major improvement, because it’s hard to see the defense being the same without Vince Wilfork, who will miss the rest of the season with an achilles tear. Wilfork has been one of the game’s premier run-stuffers for the past decade, and was still playing at an elite level. The Patriots’ have shown great ability to adjust to and overcome injuries, but this loss should take a toll on the defense. Tommy Kelly has been having a decent season and is doing a good job pressuring the quarterback, but there’s no way he can effectively take on Wilfork’s role. Kelly is not a strong run defender, doesn’t play with good discipline, and lacks the stamina to fill Wilfork’s shoes. Depth is scarce, so the team will have to turn to undrafted rookie Joe Vellano, and waiver-wire-pickup Chris Jones to take on expanded roles in the defense. Bill Bellichick will make adjustments, and it will be interesting to see what he comes up with, but the bottom line is this defense just got a lot weaker up the middle. Wilfork is also the only remaining Patriot defender from their Super Bowl years, and he was an important leader on the field and in the locker room.
Next Man Up: QB Ryan Fitzpatrick
The Titans are off to a great start this year. Their defense has been stifling its opposition, the offensive line has been much improved, and they have been getting great play from under center. QB Jake Locker entered the season as the team’s biggest question mark, but he seemed to be finally becoming the player the TItans envisioned when they drafted him 8th overall in 2011. So far this year, Locker has thrown for 6 touchdowns and 0 interceptions while posting a QB rating of 99, and ran for 98 yards and a TD, so watching him get carted off the field was obviously a disheartening sight for the Titans. The good news is that it is a hip sprain, and he could be back on the field in 4-6 weeks. Still, the Titans have the looks of a fringe playoff team, and a losing streak in the middle of the season could be too much to overcome. Suddenly, the Titans’ move to sign Ryan Fitzpatrick as their backup has turned into one of the more important signings of the offseason. FItzpatrick has been a servicable starter in this league for some time, but there is a reason the Bills decided to cut him loose and draft EJ Manuel. The Harvard graduate is a gutsy player and an accurate passer, but he is lacking in arm strength and athleticism, and he simply made too many costly mistakes in Buffalo. Perhaps Fitzpatrick, who stepped in and threw a 77-yard touchdown to Nate Washington in their blowout win against the Jets, needed a fresh start and will play inspired football. The Titans will need it, as their next 3 games will be against the Chiefs, Seahawks and 49ers. After that, they will get their bye, which is followed by winnable games against the Rams and Jaguars. Hopefully Locker will be back for week 11 when they have a showdown against the Colts, and hopefully Fitzpatrick can at least win 2 or 3 games before that and keep the team’s record in the positive.
Browns Back in the Mix
How quickly the tides can turn. Two weeks ago, it looked like the Browns were mailing it in for the season after two uninspiring losses. QB Brandon Weeden had went down with an injury and the team had traded away its highly-regarded playmaker, Trent Richardson, in what looked like a move by a team looking to the future. Rob Chudzinski inserted QB Brian Hoyer into the lineup, and he has flourished in the new role. Getting WR Josh Gordon back from suspension has had a positive effect on the offense, and the whole group is playing inspired football with Hoyer under center. The Browns came up with a big win against the presumed division champion Bengals this week, and are now in a 3-way tie for first place in the AFC North. The team’s defense is capable of keeping them in games and they can stay in the mix if they keep getting strong play from Hoyer.
Left Tackles on the Move
Two trades were made this week involving starting left tackles getting traded for late round draft picks. The first was the Ravens trading for Eugene Monroe to replace Bryant McKinnie. This trade makes plenty of sense, as the Jaguars know they are going nowhere this year and figured they might as well get something for Monroe while they can and move rookie Luke Joeckel to his eventual position. McKinnie played great in the playoffs last year, but he was also benched during the season for a reason, and the team needed a more reliable option at LT.
The other trade was between the Steelers and Cardinals, who decided they had had enough of LT Levi Brown. Mike Adams was struggling mightily at left tackle, so it makes sense that the Steelers jumped at the opportunity to bring in an upgrade, but the trade doesn’t make a lot of sense to me from the Cardinals’ point of view. The Cardinals’ offensive line struggled mightily when Brown got hurt last year, and will turn to Bradley Sowell, who has never started a game, to replace him. The Cardinals stand at 2-2 and have a talented enough roster to make some noise this year, so it’s surprising to see them dump one of their key players.
Stock Rising: WR Antonio Brown
The Steelers’ offense has been pretty ugly, but Antonio Bryant has been a major bright spot. There were concerns about who would become the team’s go-to receiver after the team let Mike Wallace walk in free agency, but Brown has answered the call. Brown was quiet but effective the first 2 weeks, catching 11 of 15 passes thrown his way, but receiving for just 128 yards and 0 touchdowns. In the past 2 weeks, Brown has caught 21 of 24 passes thrown his way for 284 yards and 2 touchdowns, including some sensational grabs you might have seen on Sportscenter. The Steelers are 0-4 and need to find a way to rebound, but Brown’s emergence and the returns of Heath Miller and Le’Veon Bell give reason for some optimism.
Stock Falling: RT Jordan Mills
Mills has been one of the good stories for the Bears this year. A rookie fourth-round pick, Mills impressed coaches and won himself the starting RT gig in Chicago. He started the season strong and Jay Cutler enjoyed the improved protection, but things came apart for the Bears against the Lions. Mills was beaten badly by DE Willie Young, and was responsible for nine QB hurries and two penalties. It’s no coincidence that Cutler had his worst game of the year and turned the ball over 4 times. The Bears’ offense has shown great improvement from last year, but they’ll need Mills to play for that to continue.
First Quarter Awards
MVP: QB Peyton Manning, Broncos
Manning has simply been masterful this year. No matter what defenses throw at him, he has an answer. The Broncos have run away with every game this season, and his ability to make second-half adjustments and put teams away has been pivotal in that.
Offensive Player: QB Peyton Manning, Broncos
No surprise here. Manning is on pace to break plenty of passing records. Here’s his eye-popping numbers through 4 games. 1470 yards, 16 touchdown, 0 interceptions, 75% completion rate, 9.4 yards per attempt, 138 QB rating.
Defensive Player: DT Ndamukong Suh, Lions
Suh has been a force of nature this year. He leads the league in QB hurries with 22, and has helped free things up for his teammates. The Lions’ defense has been one of the league’s most improved units, and Suh is the biggest reason behind that.
Offensive Rookie: WR DeAndre Hopkins, Texans
Hopkins simply hasn’t looked like a rookie thus far. He stepped into the number 2 receiver job seamlessly and has been a great complement to Andre Johnson. When Johnson went out with a concussion, Hopkins stepped up and made a number of big plays, including the game-winning touchdown, in a dramatic overtime win against the Titans.
Defensive Rookie: ILB Kiko Alonso, Bills
32 tackles, 4 interceptions, 1 sack, 1 FF, 1 FR. Not a bad first 4 games for the University of Oregon product. Alonso has been caught out of position some and has plenty to improve on, but he is an instinctive playmaker who has been a major difference-maker for the Bills.
Comeback Player: CB Darrelle Revis, Buccaneers
Revis has not made a complete return to form yet, but he started week 1 after tearing his ACL last year, and has been playing at a high level. 12 of 28 passes thrown his way this year have been completed for just 102 yards, and passers are posting a QB rating of 63 when they throw at him.
Most Improved: CB Alteraun Verner, Titans
There seems to be a defensive renaissance going on in Tennessee, and Verner is leading the charge. A 6th round pick in 2010, Verner quickly emerged as a solid starter, but he has taken his game to a new level this year. Only 8 of 23 passes thrown into his coverage have been completed, and he has intercepted 4 passes and broken up 4 more. Verner also has recovered 2 fumbles, giving him 6 takeaways on the season. Quarterbacks might want to stop testing him, as they are posting a lowly rating of 12 when throwing into his coverage.
COQ: Andy Reid, Chiefs
In four games, Andy Reid has doubled the Chiefs’ win total from last year. Reid did a great job of bringing in the right pieces in the off-season and things are coming together very nicely. The defense is much improved, and the offense has been functioning at a high level with Alex Smith under center. Reid has done a great job of working HB Jamaal Charles into his west coast offense and has radically changed the culture in Kansas City.
First Quarter All-Pro Team
QB: Peyton Manning, DEN
HB: Adrian Peterson, MIN
HB: LeSean McCoy, PHI
FB: Anthony Sherman, KC
WR: Julio Jones, ATL
WR: Demaryus Thomas, DEN
WR: Calvin Johnson, DET
TE: Jimmy Graham, NO
LT: Michael Roos, TEN
LG: Evan Mathis, PHI
C: Mike Pouncey, MIA
RG: Marshall Yanda, BAL
RT: Sebastian Vollmer, NE
DE: Robert Quinn, STL
DE: JJ Watt, HOU
DT: Ndamukong Suh, DET
DT: Jurrell Casey, TEN
OLB: Terrell Suggs, BAL
OLB: Justin Houston, KC
ILB: NaVorro Bowman, SF
CB: Alteraun Verner, TEN
CB: Richard Sherman, SEA
CB: Aqib Talib, NE
FS: Devin McCourty, NE
SS: Troy Polamalu, PIT
K: Matt Prater, DEN
P: Johnny Hekker, STL
RS: Trindon Holliday, DEN
Week 4 Game Balls
ILB NaVorro Bowman, 49ers
With Patrick Willis and Aldon Smith out, Bowman stepped up and set the tone defensively. Bowman was frequently used as a blitzer, and he spent the day terrorizing Sam Bradford and blowing plays up in the backfield. He finished the game with 2 sacks and 3 TFL, and his forced fumble in the fourth quarter led to 49er touchdown that put the game out of reach.
OLB Brian Orakpo, Redskins
The Redskins’ defense shut out the Raiders for the final 3 quarters of this game, and it had everything to do with their pass-rush. Matt Flynn was sacked 7 times in this game, and Orakpo registered two of them along with 3 hurries and 2 batted passes.
ILB Kiko Alonso, Bills
Alonso is off to a great start for the Bills, registering at least 1 takeaway in every game this year. The rookie played every defensive snap in this game, and picked off Joe Flacco twice. The Ravens were in the midst of a potential game-winning drive when Alonso ended the game with a diving interception. Alonso may have been scouted as in-the-box run defender, but he is showing excellent coverage instincts and appears to be an every-down linebacker.
TE Jordan Cameron, Browns
Cameron has become a key cog in the Browns’ offense. As a whole, the Browns’ offense is struggling, but they are having a lot of success working the deep middle with Cameron, who caught 10 of 12 passes directed his way and hauled in his 5th touchdown of the year. The Browns’ defense can keep games close, and having a tight end that can move the chains and make plays in the red zone is doing wonders for the offense.
DT Ndamukong Suh, Lions
The Lions’ win over the Bears was a statement win for the team, and Suh’s dominance in the trenches played a big role in it. The Bears’ offense had been playing great this year, but the Lions’ pressure was too much for Jay Cutler, who turned the ball over 4 times. Suh sacked Cutler twice, and made one of the biggest plays of the game by forcing a fumble that Nick Fairley returned for a touchdown to stretch the Lions lead to 37-16
WR/RS Dexter McCluster, Chiefs
The Chiefs and Giants were locked in a defensive battle for much of this game, with the Chiefs clinging to a 10-7 lead late in the third quarter. McCluster’s 89-yard punt return will be one of the most electrifying plays of the entire season, and it swung the momentum in the Chiefs’ favor. Suddenly, the Chiefs were up two scores and in complete control of the game, and they had no problem closing the game out. McCluster also caught all 5 passes thrown his way, totaling 48 yards.
HB Adrian Peterson, Vikings
The reigning MVP put on a show for NFL fans in London. More importantly, he carried his team to a much-needed win. Peterson forced 10 missed tackles, rushed for a season-high 140 yards, and made two trips to the endzone. Matt Cassell did a good job filling in at QB, but his job would have been a lot harder if not for Peterson setting the table.
CB Patrick Peterson, Cardinals
Rookie QB Mike Glennon has a lot of lessons to learn, and he learned an important one in his first start: Don’t challenge Patrick Peterson. Glennon threw to his top receiver, Vincent Jackson, 11 times. Peterson ended up catching just as many of those passes as Jackson, who finished the game with just 27 yards. Peterson’s first interception set up the Cardinals’ game tying touchdown with 3 minutes to play, and his second interception sealed a 13-10 win for the Cardinals.
OLB Robert Mathis, Colts
The Jaguars selected Luke Joeckel with the number 2 pick in the draft with the expectation that he could step in and give them strong play at right tackle. Mathis took Joeckel to school in this game, and spent the day in the Jaguars’ backfield. Mathis recorded 3 sacks and was a disruptive presence all game long as the Jaguars struggled to get anything going offensively.
CB Richard Sherman, Seahawks
Andre Johnson got the best of Sherman on a few plays early on, but Sherman and the Seattle defense stepped their game up and shut the Texans out in the second half. However, that didn’t seem to be enough, as the Texans were playing good defense themselves and were clinging to a 7-point lead with under 3 minutes to play. Driving down the field, the Texans were a couple a first downs away from sealing the victory. As the saying goes, big-time players make big-time plays in big-time situations. Sherman recognized a play he had seen on film, jumped Owen Daniels’ flat route and made Matt Schaub pay for a lazy throw with a 58-yard interception return that sent the game to overtime. Schaub got 3 more opportunities to end the game with a scoring drive, but was unable to get anything going against the Seahawks’ energized defense.
CB Alterraun Verner, Titans
The Jets actually outgained the Titans in this game, but lost 38-13 in large part because they lost the turnover battle 4-0. Verner picked off Geno Smith’s first pass of the game, which allowed the Titans to jump out to a 7-0 lead, and his fumble recovery in the second quarter allowed the Titans to build a 17-3 lead. Verner finished the game with 3 takeaways, and didn’t allow a single pass thrown in his direction to be completed.
QB Phillip Rivers, Chargers
If you rewind your memory to a few years ago, you’ll remember Phillip Rivers being considered one of the league’s best quarterbacks and the Chargers being looked at as Super Bowl contender. Rivers went through a couple of miserable years, but he is suddenly playing at an elite level again. The coaching staff seems to have empowered Rivers, who completed 35 of 42 passes for 401 yards and a touchdown in the Chargers’ rousing victory over the Cowboys. Sean Lee made Rivers pay for his one mistake by returning an interception 52 yards to establish a 21-10 Cowboy lead, but Rivers responded well and helped the Chargers outscore the Cowboys 20-0 for the remainder of the game.
QB Peyton Manning, Broncos
Manning’s mastery continued this week against the Eagles as he put together another near-perfect performance. Manning is off to a historically good start this season, and he’s making it look easy. The Eagles looked absolutely helpless trying to stop the Broncos’ attack, and Manning finished the game 28-of-34 for 327 yards, 4 touchdowns, and 0 interceptions.
CB Aqib Talib, Patriots
Talib drew the difficult assignment of covering Julio Jones, the NFL’s leading receiver. Jones was a complete non-factor for most the game, and the Falcons struggled to get their offense going. Down 27-13, Ryan tried to throw deep to Jones, but Talib picked it off and set up a Stephen Gostkowski field goal that made it a three-score game in the fourth quarter. The Falcons made a valiant comeback effort that included a converted onside kick and a stop on 4th and inches, and the game came down to a 4th-down play from the Patriots’ 10-yard line. Ryan tried to hit Roddy White on a route to the corner of the endzone, but Talib was there to knock it away and seal the win. Ryan threw at Talib 7 times in the game and didn’t complete a single one of those passes.
HB Darren Sproles, Saints
The Saints shredded the Dolphins defense and coasted to an easy win, and getting the ball in Sproles’ hands was integral to that. Sproles led the team in receiving and finished the game with 222 all-purpose yards and 2 touchdowns. Sproles is one of the league’s most versatile playmakers, and the Saints do a good job of finding ways to get the ball in his hands.