Five things I care about
The Josh Allen-to-Stefon Diggs connection
I wish every mega-talent quarterback had a wide receiver he could trust with complete, unspoken confidence in high-leverage situations. I wish every elite route runner had a quarterback who could rifle him the ball at every level of the field. If you know anything about my work, you know how much I mean that second part.
The fact that Josh Allen and Stefon Diggs were brought together at the perfect point in each of their respective careers is something beyond football perfection. It feels like destiny. They’ve been together for years now, but we should never stop appreciating it.
The Bills’ Week 6 all-too-close win over the New York Giants was just another reminder of why their connection is so immaculate.
Allen was off early. There is no getting around it. Bobby Okereke was flying around all night. Giants defensive coordinator Wink Martindale did a great job changing the picture on Allen post-snap. New York frequently showed blitz and Cover 1 looks at the snaps only to drop back off into heavy-coverage looks.
Ultimately what got them out of the bind is the foundation of their team: the Allen-to-Diggs connection.
Buffalo took “just throw to your good player” to the extreme; not that anyone could fault them. Allen threw to Diggs 16 times out of 30. More than half of his passes went to the All-Pro wideout. Diggs ultimately brought in 10 of them for 100 yards. Diggs is just always open and nearly unstoppable on stop, comeback and curl routes. No one tortures defensive backs in man coverage quite like Diggs. The fact that he has a quarterback with such a level of arm talent he can pin it on him at any point in a route’s break is simply unfair.
We often talk about a player’s ability to make a play call right. Allen and Diggs aren’t often wrong individually but paired together, they each have the potential to make each other look blameless on any given play.
On a night where many things went wrong for the Bills, it was their two star players that carried them out of the storm, one leading to a possible upset. The Bills face more questions as injuries mount on defense and some of their offensive personnel tweaks still need time to bear fruit. As long as they have these two in place, there is only so much concern that is warranted.
The 49ers battleship takes hits
The 49ers suffered their first defeat of the season, Brock Purdy’s first of his regular-season career, and the game wasn’t all they lost.
Christian McCaffrey and Deebo Samuel both left the game with injuries. McCaffrey tried to return but eventually left again; Samuel felt like a longshot to return from the moment he left. Losing one or both players would be a major blow to this offense. Even if the 49ers are as spoiled as any team in the NFL with their array of weapons, they put teams in a complete bind with the layers of unique talents they can throw at you. Start taking away pieces and they go from a juggernaut to simply a “great” unit.
Not the worst place to find yourself, but there’s a ceiling shaving effect.
We know in fantasy football that when one of the receivers misses, the other can dominate. We saw that take place when Brandon Aiyuk missed Week 3 and Samuel had easily his best game of the season. Aiyuk drew a team-high 10 targets against a difficult Browns defense and Purdy missed him for a handful more deep shots. His day could have been even bigger. Aiyuk was already creeping up the receiver ranks and any sort of consolidation of targets on his behalf would only improve his outlook.
As great a player as Samuel is, the McCaffrey injury is much more concerning for the overall health of the offense. We often point to Purdy’s ascension as the turning point for the Kyle Shanahan 49ers. And he did elevate the unit to greater heights than his predecessors. However, San Francisco’s offense took a leap the moment McCaffrey landed in town and was fully integrated into the team.
McCaffrey allows them to run more gap and power schemes on the ground. He runs choice routes that make Purdy more comfortable in the flow of the game. Describing him as a mere safety blanket cheapens his impact to the aerial attack.
I think we may be past the days of Elijah Mitchell as the clear-cut backup to McCaffrey. Fantasy managers may be looking at a split between Mitchell and Jordan Mason — who has run quite well this year and been available more often — if not an outright RB1 role for the latter. Make no mistake, neither of them will come close to affecting the game like McCaffrey, I don’t care how many fantasy points they’d theoretically collect.
The 49ers losing their first game isn’t great for the team. However, it allows a chance to reflect on the main goal. It’s a Super Bowl-or-bust season in San Francisco. McCaffrey missing time would ding the projections for this offense. However, if they indeed must endure that, Shanahan and co. would much rather take that ding now than in January.
Jalen Hurts is just off
It’s hard to pinpoint exactly what’s at play here. The Eagles have a new offensive coordinator and play-caller. But Brian Johnson was in the building last year and has known Hurts forever. It’s hard to say that’s the sole reason. Maybe it’s swinging back on the other side of variance.
Either way, there’s just no getting around it: Jalen Hurts isn’t playing his best football so far this year.
That’s not to say he’s been truly poor. Hurts ranks 16th in adjusted net yards per attempt among quarterbacks with 60-plus passes. He’s been as dynamic in the ground game as ever but he’s thrown seven touchdowns to seven picks. Hurts has been somewhere from average to slightly below.
It stings harder this week because, in my opinion, this loss to the Jets was Hurts’ worst day of the season. He was consistently off the mark downfield and threw open receivers into contested situations by being late to deliver the ball. His three picks were brutal, especially the last one which the Jets took back into scoring territory and ultimately cost the Eagles the game.
The Eagles have consistently been able to get A.J. Brown the ball and he’s as dominant as any receiver in the game. The rest has not fully gone to rot but is lagging behind the torrid pace they maintained last season.
Again, I’m not saying it’s all on Hurts and I don’t have a good explanation for what’s up nor a remedy for what ails. That doesn’t change the results and, in the wake of the Eagles’ first loss, it’s a harsh reminder what’s happened so far isn’t good enough for a Super Bowl-hopeful operation.
Amon-Ra St. Brown
The mark of a great team is when you take away their first punch, they can hit you back with something even better.
David Montgomery and the power run game have been the identity of Lions to start 2023. So it was concerning when Montgomery left the game in the first half after a mere six carries for 14 yards. In the wake of his absence, the Lions didn’t just keep trying to make the run game work — Craig Reynolds subbed in and carried the ball 10 times for 15 yards — instead they took to the air and ran the offense through their best player.
Amon-Ra St. Brown returned from missing last week and handled a whopping 34% target share. He had more than double the yards of anyone else on the team. He made plays deep downfield and was his usual elite self after the catch.
St. Brown is such a fantastic player. He’s capable of being the central gravitational force for this offense. We’ve seen it before. While he’s taken a small back seat to the spotlight shining bright on Montgomery and the ground game, there’s no mistaking who is the most dynamic player on this offense. Jared Goff knows his top receiver is a top-tier zone coverage dominator and seems to get better every week at defeating man coverage in tight spaces.
The Lions continue to get good play out of other pass-catchers on this roster. Even the enigmatic Jameson Williams popped up for a 45-yard touchdown. More of that will be great. However, St. Brown remains the straw that stirs the drink.
We were all rightly disappointed with the news of rookie De'Von Achane going on IR earlier this week. He brought an explosive element to this offense that didn’t need any extra pop.
Week 6 served as a reminder to not forget about the man who started this running game revival down there in Miami.
After scoring three times against the hapless Panthers — once through the air and twice on the ground — Raheem Mostert now has an absurd 11 total touchdowns on the season. He’s now the RB2 overall on the season, trailing only the great Christian McCaffrey.
You really can’t say enough good things about Mostert right now. It’s just so unfair for this offense to be able to hand off to a back and get 6.8 yards per carry. That comes on a day when Miami was a touch slow to get out of the gate. Mostert has been a source of steadiness and consistency for a team that has higher booms than any unit in the NFL. He’s also adding to the big plays and has legitimately been a matchup weapon down in the red zone as a receiver.
Mostert is a lesson for fantasy drafters to always take shots at running backs in great ecosystems. Mostert was an extremely late riser in the summer when we got news that Jeff Wilson Jr. was going on IR. Prior to that though, he was almost completely free in drafts. Few managers are getting a bigger bang for their buck than those who took the plunge with Mostert late.
Five things I don’t care about
Taking anything away from Tyrod Taylor
I drafted a lot of Daniel Jones in fantasy football. Don’t feel bad for me, he was a 10th- or 11th-round pick I’ve long since moved on from at this stage. Those picks don’t make or break you; they’re replaceable guys in this fake game.
I didn’t even make the pick with much conviction on Jones the player. Sure, he’s a proven fantasy scorer because he can run but it was more that I believed the Giants offense could take another step from the unit it was in 2022 after adding a few pass-catchers to the mix.
The “good bones” offense from last year never truly had a chance to grow as the offensive line fell apart on Jones to an almost non-functional degree. I get that. Still, I’m not sure what to make of the fact that it was backup quarterback Tyrod Taylor who provided the closest thing we’ve seen to the most actualized version of what I thought we’d see in 2023.
To be clear, I’ve always been a huge fan of Taylor. I remember predicting he’d start for the Bills way back in 2015 as I’d been familiar with his game since Virginia Tech. He’s not a special talent but he’s performed admirably in tough spots throughout his career. I thought there was even a chance he’d start games for them in 2022 when he signed in free agency, but Jones asserted himself as the starter quickly.
So I’m not that surprised Taylor played well but you have to admit it’s striking to see anything close to competent offense in a Giants uniform this season. It forces me to ask questions, at least.
Taylor was far from perfect. He deserves a good share — not 100% — of the blame for a disastrous play at the goal line to end the second quarter. Still, he stood confident in crumbling pockets and pushed the ball downfield when it made sense, and checked down out of harm’s way when it didn’t. You can throw “game manager” on him but it’s felt like someone needed to manage the game for New York all season long.
Clearly, I’m a Tyrod Taylor fan. So I just want to give him his due in this spot. More than likely, Jones will start for the Giants as soon as possible and this night of “almost” for Taylor will be forgotten. At the very least, let’s hope some sort of positive can be drawn from what Taylor did in this offense and can be transmitted over to when Jones returns to his QB1 spot.
'The 49ers lost the game, the Browns didn’t win it'
I’m sure you’ll see this logic floated around NFL spaces in the next 24 hours. As I said above, it does merit frustration when a head coach plays conservatively for the field goal in a late-game situation and tempts fate like Kyle Shanahan did. That said, the Browns earned this win and no one should attempt to assign an asterisk in the wake of the 49ers' injuries.
For starters, the Browns themselves are pretty banged up. They’re missing their best player on offense in Nick Chubb and multiple starting offensive linemen, and most importantly, they were starting their third quarterback of the season.
P.J. Walker was somehow even more of an issue for the Browns than his 45.2 passer rating would indicate. He was a disaster on first down, going 5-of-13 for 36 yards. His 38.5% completion rate and 2.77 yards per attempt on first down were comfortably the worst among quarterbacks in the early window. Walker saved some of his most troubling play for the final drive where he missed a wide-open Elijah Moore multiple times for chunk gains and threw a senseless pass in the red zone that was nearly picked but stopped the clock for the 49ers either way.
I’m not saying all this to bag on Walker, but it helps illustrate the point that the Browns were just as, if not far more, hampered than the 49ers and still won this game. They are a tough team.
Cleveland’s defense hawked Brock Purdy in the passing game all afternoon and made his life difficult. He was under pressure and that rattled him into some misses downfield to Brandon Aiyuk. Purdy threw 18.5% of his passes into tight windows, per Next Gen Stats. For context, he was at 12.5% during his dynamic Sunday night win over Dallas last week. He came away with the second-worst completion percentage over expected among Week 6 quarterbacks. Only Russell Wilson on Thursday night finished lower than Purdy’s -11.6%.
There’s so much potential with this Browns team. The defense is realizing that and helped them win this game. Even without Chubb, the offense can be a plus unit if Deshaun Watson can return and recapture something close to his old form.
The Vikings' win
The Vikings got the win over the division rival Bears, but I’m not sure they can feel great about their offensive performance. Their biggest play came on a defensive scoop-and-score when Bears backup quarterback Tyson Bagent lost a fumble on a sack in relief duty for an injured Justin Fields.
The offense’s 4.0 yards per play were not too inspiring.
Head coach Kevin O’Connell shared similar frustrations after the game. He felt fine about quarterback Kirk Cousins' performance despite 5.3 yards per pass attempt, but was underwhelmed by what was around him. Understandable. Without Justin Jefferson, there’s just a real lack of explosive elements in the attack.
T.J. Hockenson led the team in targets with eight but he’s never been a downfield threat for this team. Rookie Jordan Addison found the end zone but didn’t show he’s ready to be an NFL WR1 just yet, even against a soft secondary. The Vikings haven’t received big plays out of the ground game at any point this season, and there was no reason to expect that to change when a game plan-dictating presence in Jefferson is wiped off the board.
Jefferson isn’t just another player. He’s a transformative talent. When you lose a player like that, you can’t just successfully, seamlessly move everyone else up a peg unless you have special talents behind that guy. Despite the numbers this team was putting up through the air earlier this season and the capital to acquire some of the complementary pieces, the Vikings don’t have anyone ready to assume that mantle just yet.
Ravens' passing game hype
The Titans are one of the biggest pass-funnel defenses in the NFL. They clamp down on rushing attacks and have major issues covering receivers on the back end.
With that in mind, I didn’t have the Ravens handing off to their rag-tag group of running backs 24 times and Lamar Jackson handling a season-high seven designed runs on my bingo card. The oft-aggressive John Harbaugh opted to take the points when in field goal situations and played it safe on fourth-down decisions. It was an altogether conservative operation.
But the more you think about it, the more that makes sense. For all the digital ink spilled on the Baltimore Ravens' passing game, this is a league-average unit at best right now.
The coaching upgrade has been tangible on the offensive staff. Todd Monken has installed smart motion and they’re spreading the field. That’s actually brought dividends in the run game, as Jackson has found much more favorable rushing lanes when he scrambles or has a designed run than the condensed formations of the Greg Roman offense. The problem in the passing game is the lack of consistency in the receiving department.
Zay Flowers has been a nice option as a rookie, even if his usage is a bit all over the map. He’s either used on pure vertical targets or underneath targets and designed looks in the screen game. There hasn’t been enough in the intermediate area. Mark Andrews has been his usual solid self, even if he’s leaving a play or two on the field every game. It falls off after that.
The signing of Odell Beckham Jr. and the rehab of Rashod Bateman were big offseason storylines. So far, neither player has been able to string together positive moments and they are actually splitting reps at the X-receiver spot.
Ravens halftime WR snap count
Zay Flowers 32
Rashod Bateman 20 (Drives 1, 3, 5)
Nelson Agholor 19 (1 or 3 WR sets)
Odell Beckham Jr. 14 (Drives 2, 4)
Devin Duvernay 8 (1 or 3 WR sets)
Out of 39 plays
— Nathan Jahnke (@PFF_NateJahnke) October 15, 2023
Bateman has been on the wrong end of some disaster plays the last two weeks and hasn’t been able to get open downfield. Beckham remains an excellent technician but there is a visible lack of juice in his legs. Both of those things make sense when you consider the long-term and recent injury history for both men. Beckham may never recapture the explosive element in his game, and any momentum Bateman built earlier in his career has been thrown asunder more often than we can count. It’s left the Ravens in a position where they need to count on Nelson Agholor, who was signed to be a depth piece.
I’m not saying Jackson has been perfect. Nor do I want to be greedy and rush results from a passing game that is breaking in a ton of new layers and has plenty of legitimate reasons for not lighting up the scoreboard. I just think it’s past time we accept the reality of this team’s aerial attack and where it stands right now. I still believe there is a ceiling present for this offense but we are in “need to see it to believe it” territory.
Non-Garrett Wilson, Breece Hall Jets
I don’t care, you don’t have to care, because thankfully, it appears the folks at the controls care about them the appropriate amount.
That is to say, Zach Wilson views the non-Garrett Wilson pass-catchers as deep fall-back options to his main man in No. 17. And the coaching staff meant what they said a few weeks ago about the leash being fully off Breece Hall.
Garrett Wilson drew a target on 12 of Zach Wilson’s 33 throws. No other tight end or running back was targeted more than four times. Interestingly, Wilson threw the ball to 10 Jets players in total. It was just extremely spread out behind Wilson. That shows that the quarterback isn’t just locking onto his top target, even if he’s throwing it at him at an extremely high rate. There isn’t another target commander, but when Wilson isn’t open on the first read, Zach Wilson got off him to someone else.
Garrett Wilson made acrobatic catches and won in tight coverage, even if he ran some blistering routes. It was a reminder that even if his stats will not show it at the end of the year, he’s one of the best young wideouts in the game.
In the backfield, Breece Hall followed up his layup smash performance against the hapless Broncos with another outing as the workhorse. Hall touched the ball 17 times. Dalvin Cook and Michael Carter combined for five. That’s the right distribution. Hall punched in the game-winning score — the Eagles looked like they let that one happen — while making a big impact as a receiver (10.8 yards per catch). Looking forward, the next stretch for the Jets looks like a screaming green light for Hall:
Breece Hall’s upcoming schedule after the bye 😳
— Yahoo Fantasy Sports (@YahooFantasy) October 15, 2023
Hall and Wilson are the future of this team. We know that the ceiling we once imagined has been out the window since four plays into the season. But something is coming together in the wake of what’s left behind. The young guys on offense, Wilson and Hall, along with a still-stout defense will be what carries the day. They’re all that matters.