All Smiles in Steel City
We’ve eclipsed the halfway mark, but nothing is quite set in stone. Only two teams maintain a three win advantage within their division (Saints and Patriots), while another four divisions have one win or less of separation.
One underlying story that’s beginning to take shape is the race for the #1 overall pick in the 2020 NFL draft. Also known as the “Tank for Tua” sweepstakes, whichever team winds up with the worst record will have a shot at drafting University of Alabama quarterback Tua Tagovailoa. The winless campaigns of Cincinnati and Miami continued on Sunday, and the two quarterback-needy teams may stay on this trajectory for the long run. Should that remain over the coming weeks, the drama will approach critical mass when they face off in week 16—what a treat.
Pittsburgh scrapped back to get a win over one of those winless teams, but it wasn’t without a bit of a scare on Halloween week.
It was the tale of two halves on Monday night against the Dolphins. After getting trampled in the first quarter, this game had all the makings of a massive letdown.
To say that Miami’s 14-point barrage caught the team off guard may be an understatement. This Steelers defense had only given up a total of 20 points in the 1st quarter all year, with 17 of those belonging to Baltimore and New England.
The problems didn’t belong to the defense exclusively. QB Mason Rudolph had an extremely hard time shaking off the cobwebs, as his first pass attempt of the game was promptly intercepted. There were major accuracy and timing issues for the entire 1st half. Rudolph held the ball for what seemed like ages; according to NFL Next Gen Stats, he took the longest time to throw of all QBs over the weekend. Credit the offensive line for keeping him upright, especially while center Maurkice Pouncey works through whatever ails his ankle. Rudolph took advantage of every single millisecond the line gave him.
Just as quickly as the game got out of hand, the momentum was recaptured. A nifty 45-yard catch-and-run by rookie Diontae Johnson in the waning seconds of the 1st half was all the Steelers needed to get back on track. The defense shut out the Dolphins the remaining three quarters, while Rudolph and company put up another 17 points of their own and avoided an embarrassing loss to a winless team in prime time.
Aside from one long drive by Dolphins QB Ryan Fitzpatrick, the Steelers defense stayed true to form once more. Minkah Fitzpatrick was out for revenge against his former team. His two interceptions match his total for all of 2018, and marks the third multi-interception performance between college and pros (he once terrorized the University of Arkansas in 2016 with three interceptions and a touchdown). Colbert won’t lose sleep over the first rounder price tag it cost to bring in the standout safety—Fitzpatrick is going to be a fixture of this secondary for the foreseeable future.
The crowd had a little fun on Monday night with the numerous appearances of big #72, Zach Banner. The 6’8, 360 pound lineman entered the game as a “receiver” on numerous occasions, prompting loud cheers from Heinz Field as the referees announced his eligibility. If you were wondering why the refs must announce this: the numbering of a player’s jersey designates their position (e.g. offensive lineman may only use jersey numbers 60–79). When a player who doesn’t typically occupy a position reports to a new position, the ref must communicate this to the defense and subsequently the crowd. An accompanying signal of the referee brushing both hands down the front of his uniform is meant to convey that the player’s number no longer represents what it normally does (in this case, Banner’s #72 no longer makes him a lineman but a receiver). The move is meant to add an advantage of an extra blocker by using a position that would normally be occupied by a receiver.
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The rule is a little confusing, but made for some light-hearted moments. The 26 snaps were Banner’s most in a Steeler uniform, and he seems to have embraced his role if his social media is any indication.
Heading into week nine, coach Mike Tomlin has to be hoping RB James Conner’s shoulder injury isn’t a serious one. With fullback Roosevelt Nix back, Conner was starting to get into a nice rhythm—his 145 rushing yards against Miami were one short of his career high. This will be a situation to monitor, as rookie Bennie Snell also suffered a knee injury late in their Monday win. Jaylen Samuels’ return will be welcome, but Conner is the critical cog in this offensive engine.
Winning three of the last four certainly feels better than the 0–3 start, but there are no delusions of grandeur in the ‘burgh. The Steelers’ three wins have come against teams with a combined 3–20 record thus far. Worse yet: fans will find themselves in the unenviable position this Sunday of rooting for Tom Brady and the Patriots to take down Baltimore. A Ravens loss and a Steelers win against the 5–2 Colts on Sunday pulls Pittsburgh to within a single game in the division – we’ll have a much clearer picture of our divisional outlook within the week.
Around the NFL
No one has the gall to question the legitimacy of the undefeated Patriots at this juncture, but what about the 49ers? They made a mockery of Carolina—the score was 27 – 3 at halftime on their way to a 51 – 13 route. The offense only got better in their deadline acquisition of Emmanuel Sanders, and their defense has allowed a stingy 6.7 points per contest over their last three. They get the Cardinals two of their next three games before a murderer’s row of opponents; the Packers, Ravens, and Saints will be a much better gauge for how good this team truly is.
Speaking of the Saints: Drew Brees is back, and the rest of the NFC South did virtually nothing to take advantage of his absence. While he was away, the Falcons effectively eliminated themselves, the Bucs strung together a three-game losing streak, and the Panthers got demolished by San Francisco. Carolina still has a puncher’s chance, but the quarterback controversy is lurking—when Will Cam Newton return, and will he be effective?
Some signs of life from Philadelphia has the NFC East abuzz. After hemorrhaging 75 points over their last two games to Dallas and Minnesota, the Eagles went into a tough environment and torched the Bills 31–13. Much of the public perception has been focused on the Cowboys as the team to beat, but Philly has managed to stay relevant despite bad losses. With the Giants and Redskins fading in the rearview, it looks like this will be a two-horse race at the halfway mark.
Meanwhile, it’s looking as if it may come down to the last man standing in the AFC South. All four teams are within a game of one another, the Colts being the hottest of the bunch winning 4 of the last 5. It’s not sustainable in Tennessee, but the benching of QB Marcus Mariota for Ryan Tannehill has brought about two consecutive wins. I’ll take “Things I Thought I’d Never Say” for $500, Alex.
Don’t look now, but the once unstoppable Chiefs have lost three of their last four. The absence of QB Patrick Mahomes hasn’t helped, but this isn’t the same team that opened the year as the top scoring offense in the league. In the meantime, the Raiders have missed out on an immense opportunity to gain some ground on Kansas City. The last second 27–24 loss to the Texans will be a tough one to swallow, as it would have closed them into within a game of Kansas City. Fortunately for head coach Jon Gruden, the Chiefs are the only remaining opponent on the schedule with a winning record.
Slim pickings on the waiver wire, folks.
Not a ton of surprises at the top of the week eight food chain from either the running backs or wideouts. The big dogs ate on Sunday, as WRs DeAndre Hopkins, Julio Jones, Mike Evans and Michael Thomas dominated the target share. The obligatory high-volume Bengal wideout also made an appearance atop the list this week (Auden Tate this week), while Lions receiver Danny Amendola continues to cash in on a heavy peppering of targets (that’s 19 through two weeks).
The play this week may simply be to capitalize on the uncertainty of some backfield situations:
- We discussed James Conner and Benny Snell above; a healthy Jaylen Samuels is a nice add in leagues he was dropped.
- The Rams’ Todd Gurley and his knee issues have been widely publicized throughout the year, and the team has clearly limited his usage compared to previous seasons. Take it with a grain of salt considering the opponent (the Bengals), but rookie Darrell Henderson has started to close the gap on Gurley. Each was on the field for about half the offensive snaps; keep an eye on Henderson should that trend continue.
- 34-year-old RB Adrian Peterson continues to juke father time in Washington, but you may give second-year RB Derrius Guice a shot. The former third-round pick is coming off September meniscus surgery, and this makeshift coaching staff will be anxious to see what he has to offer.
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At wide receiver, the health of Rams’ Brandin Cooks is a hot topic in LA. Cooks is visiting Pittsburgh this week to see a concussion specialist, as he’s suffered the second in as many months. Third-year Josh Reynolds will take over that target share, and any starting wideout in that offense is usable in fantasy football.
Finally, this is your last chance to get aboard the Kareem Hunt train. Yes, the Cleveland offense has been a massive disappointment to date. Regardless, Hunt is a Pro Bowl caliber back who will be trying to do a lot with his touches in a limited 2020 audition period. He’s probably usable regardless of incumbent Nick Chubb’s health; he becomes indispensable should Chubb miss time, which is not far-fetched considering the heavy usage so far.