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New on SI: Week 6 Preview: Baker’s Big Test, Big Ben’s Quick Game, the Dalton Cowboys
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Plus, Rodgers and Brady could be at full throttle in Tampa, and Dan Quinn’s real problem in Atlanta.
1a. It’s hard to find two offenses that look as drastically different from their past iterations than the Steelers’ and the Browns’. Cleveland, under Kevin Stefanski, is using a run-first zone attack complemented by play-action, as opposed to last year when someone presumably spilled spaghetti sauce all over the team’s one playbook and so they just decided everyone do whatever.
On Sunday, they’ll be facing a Steelers defense that has a reputation for being blitz-heavy, and that’s partially true. Pittsburgh blitzes a ton on first and second downs; we’ll see how that affects the Browns on early-down run—the Steelers' approach is effectively run blitzing, and they're the league's best run defense—and the play-action game Cleveland uses.
Third down will be interesting though. Pittsburgh is one of the least blitz-happy teams on third downs, when they typically rush four and play (often-disguised) coverage. The formula has worked the past two seasons, but it didn’t last week. There are a lot of No. 2 and 3 corners across the league who, over the course of their careers, have ranged from quality starter to outright liability, and Steven Nelson (now Pittsburgh’s second corner) is one of them. A week ago against the Eagles his two interceptions looked good in the box score, however one came courtesy of an uncalled defensive pass interference penalty by Vince Williams, and the other was on a Hail Mary. Otherwise, Nelson had a neon arrow pointing to him, as Carson Wentz attacked Nelson and Travis Fulgham feasted. Thus, a Philly passing offense running out a sleepwalking Zach Ertz and a bunch of late-round rookies and (guys at least thought to be) street free-agent types went 10-for-14 on third downs.
On third downs, play-action is often no longer a factor and the Browns have to produce though more straightforward means; Mayfield is completing only 54.6% of his third-down throws. The Steelers will give him a lot to think about with their disguises in those situations, but last week showed some vulnerabilities on the back end. Mayfield hasn’t had to win one yet, as the Browns have grabbed a lead and held it during their four-game win streak, but Sunday could present a scenario where he has to make some big throws on third downs.
1b. After years of stagnant alignments and disconnected iso-routes that leaned on their superior talent to win, it seems Steelers offensive coordinator Randy Fichtner was visited by the ghost of Sean McVay at some point this summer. Pittsburgh has used more presnap motion and misdirection concepts—attacking underneath—in four games than they did in Ben Roethlisberger’s first 16 seasons combined. It was Sean McVay’s ghost from the future; I’m not sure why you assume ghosts can’t time-travel.
For the Steelers offense to succeed on Sunday, neutralizing Myles Garrett is a must. Garrett is officially the Defensive Player of the Year through five weeks—they already sent him the gift card to Quiznos—in large part because he is forcing a ton of turnovers. Cleveland has 11 takeaways over this four-game winning streak. However, Garrett has been feasting on some less-than-competent opponents so far. He’s been moving around to get favorable matchups; the Bengals and Football Team might not have three starting-caliber offensive linemen between them, the Cowboys decided they were fine with an undrafted rookie single-blocking Garrett, and the Colts were without Anthony Castonzo last week, with Garrett picking on backup Le’Raven Clark. Steelers right tackle Chukwuma Okorafor (in for the injured Zach Banner) will likely see a lot of Garrett on Sunday, which is bad news for Pittsburgh, especially in light of the fact that Roethlisberger is a statue at this point in his career. But the good news is that Roethlisberger is getting the ball out faster than any quarterback in football so far this year, which is a great way to mitigate the Garrett problem.
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2. Aaron Rodgers gets Davante Adams back for the trip to Tampa, and considering how well he’s operating within the structure of Matt LaFleur’s offense this year that’s a case of the rich getting richer. Meanwhile, there’s a good chance Tom Brady gets Chris Godwin back, which boosts a receiving corps that featured a limping Mike Evans and not a whole lot else during their Thursday night loss in Chicago.
The point is, we might be seeing Rodgers and Brady at their best. As much as you want to watch Fitzpatrick-Flacco IV in that late-afternoon slot, I’d recommend at least keeping an eye on Packers-Bucs.
Is it Fitzpatrick-Flacco IV? Maybe. I don’t know, and I assume you don’t either, so I’m just skipping the fact-check.
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3. Three ways you’ll be able to tell that Andy Dalton is not Dak Prescott: (1) They spell and pronounce their names differently, (2) Dalton has traditionally struggled in a muddy pocket—something he’ll be dealing with often since both starting tackles are out—while Prescott was excellent despite the protection woes this year, and (3) Prescott was enough of a running threat to keep the backside of defenses honest. Dalton’s mobility is above average, but not in Prescott’s class.
All that said, Dalton got to ease in last week against a Giants defense that has no pass-rush presence off the edge. And on Sunday, he’ll face a Cardinals defense that just lost all-world edge rusher Chandler Jones. Ultimately, Dalton should be pretty OK on Sunday (especially if the Cardinals offense continues its outright refusal to attack downfield).
In the long run though, the Cowboys might be going back to a run-heavy identity, which would, to an extent, hide the quarterback and the defense. Ezekiel Elliott will have to deliver behind a scotch-taped offensive line, and take some of the heat off a front office that paid the running back and the linebacker that runs hot and cold, while failing to make a deal with the quarterback or the No. 1 cornerback.
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4a. Two more things about Dan Quinn’s firing, five days after the last time anyone thought about Dan Quinn’s firing. First, the narrative that the Falcons never recovered from Super Bowl LI isn’t entirely accurate. They won a playoff game the next year and had a goal-to-go shot to win it in the final seconds against Philly, the eventual Super Bowl champs, in the conference semifinals. The NFC has been absolutely brutal over the last two decades. In the 32-team era, the only NFC team to go to back-to-back Super Bowls was the 2013 and ’14 Seahawks, and the only other team to make it back with largely the same nucleus was the Giants (2008 and ’12).
As far as Quinn’s coaching bona fides, the Falcons are still loosely a “Seattle-style” defense, and that scheme is predicated on your fast, good players playing fast and well. Deion Jones missed 10 games in 2018, Ricardo Allen missed 13 in ’18, and Keanu Neal missed 28 between ’18 and ’19. When the Seahawks made their five straight playoff appearances during the Legion of Boom years (2012-16), Bobby Wagner missed a total of eight games over five years, Earl Thomas missed five, and Kam Chancellor missed eight. They were never without all three at the same time.
That’s not to say Jones-Neal-Allen is Wagner-Chancellor-Thomas, but the Falcons trio is a poor man’s version of the Seahawks that played up the middle, and when they’ve been out, it’s been massive downgrades on that defense. Part of the problem is that Quinn’s scheme isn’t built to overcome injuries. But a bigger part of the problem is that his best players have missed a lot of games the past two seasons.
4b. It also likely sticks in Arthur Blank’s craw that Kyle Shanahan and Matt LaFleur, two former offensive staffers under Quinn, are having success as head coaches. Particularly LaFleur, who was passed over in favor of Steve Sarkisian for the offensive coordinator job after Shanahan left. Though, to be fair, who knows how much LaFleur’s year under Sean McVay or two years running the Titans offense (to mixed reviews) molded him into the coach he became. LaFleur might just not have been ready in 2017—you’re not going to get on the Falcons for not hiring a 14-year-old Bill Belichick for their inaugural season. (Or maybe we are; gotta feed the content beast.)
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5. Kareem Hunt has proclaimed that “this one is for Myles Garrett.” As in, the Browns will draw motivation from the time the Steelers’ backup quarterback’s skull got in the way of the helmet Garrett was swinging. Elsewhere in the NFL, Ryan Tannehill is proclaiming the Titans are drawing motivation from the criticism levied against them for largely ignoring the COVID protocols put in place to allow football to be played without people dying. The lesson: Everything is motivation. For instance, last weekend I got sick at a family event. Some criticized me, saying it was my insistence on “pre-gaming” before my niece’s baptism, consuming copious amounts of candy corn and bourbon throughout the morning, that ruined the day for everyone. I will take that criticism and use it as motivation to fuel my performance in family Trivial Pursuit competitions during the holidays. Motivation to memorize all the Trivial Pursuit cards.
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6. Ladies and gentlemen . . . Talking Heads!
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