The NFL regular season features a number of weekly surprises, but I am amazed at the topsy-turvy nature of the league this season. From the upsets to the standout performances, I find myself shaking my head by the end of the night at what I witnessed throughout the day.
After taking some time to review my notes and compose my thoughts, here are my observations from a rollercoaster Week 9.
Three things I liked
1. Justin Fields is emerging as a young star
The Bears have lost five of their past six games, but they might have unlocked their franchise quarterback in the process. Fields has played lights-out football the past few weeks since the team has utilized him extensively as a runner.
The second-year pro has tallied 80 or more rushing yards in three of the Bears’ past four games, with the team implementing more designed quarterback runs and read-option plays. The transformation to a run-centric scheme with the quarterback directing a single-wing attack has helped the Bears rush for at least 225 rushing yards in four straight games.
Considering that the Bears joined the 1976 Steelers as the only teams to post that kind of production on the ground in NFL history, the unleashing of Fields has helped this offense find an identity while also unlocking the talent and potential of their franchise quarterback.
Over the past four games, Fields has accounted for 11 total touchdowns (eight passing, three rushing) with 250 total yards in three of those contests. The Bears have topped the 30-point mark in three straight games while showing more explosiveness as an offense with Fields thriving as a dual-threat playmaker.
Although traditionalists might cringe at the notion of the quarterback being utilized primarily as a runner, the production and performance of the offense has made it well worth the risk for the Bears.
2. The New York Sack Exchange is back
The Jets might want to consider bringing back the nickname that accompanied their famed defensive line of the 1980s. Although the team lacks the flamboyance of the group spearheaded by Mark Gastineau, Joe Klecko, Marty Lyons and Abdul Salaam, the effectiveness of the Jets’ front line has keyed the team’s surprising success this season.
The Jets have been whipping opponents with a straight four-man rush that has placed the onus on Quinnen Williams, Bryce Huff, Jermaine Johnson, Carl Lawson and John Franklin-Myers to generate consistent pressure without utilizing blitz tactics. The workmanlike approach has paid off, with the Jets leading the league in sacks (25) and interceptions (11) on four-man rushes.
Studying the tape, the combination of conservative pass rush schemes and maximum coverage have enabled the Jets to keep the ball in front of the defense while still harassing quarterbacks in the pocket. Although I would love to suggest that Robert Saleh and his coaching staff are utilizing creative schemes to befuddle their opponents, they are simply getting their players to outwork the blockers at the point of attack.
With the pass rush winning consistently at the line of scrimmage, the Jets are able to play a variety of soft zones to take away the deep ball while protecting their young cornerbacks. In addition, the utilization of zone scheme has enabled the Jets’ defenders to “clue” the quarterback and make quicker breaks on the ball. Considering most interceptions are derived on tipped or overthrown balls, the New York defense has been able to gobble up more picks due to keeping eyes on the quarterback.
In a league in which games are decided by turnovers, the Jets’ throwback approach has keyed the team’s resurgence this season.
3. The Colts make a puzzling change
It is not a surprise that the Colts made a coaching change following a slow start, but I am perplexed that the team named Jeff Saturday as the interim head coach.
Although I love Saturday as a former college teammate (University of North Carolina-Chapel Hill), and he certainly enjoyed a successful NFL career as an offensive lineman, it is hard to believe the team named him as Frank Reich’s temporary successor in the middle of a disappointing season. Although the former All-Pro has coached at the high school level, the move from TV analyst to NFL head coach is a monumental jump.
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From the organization and planning to the management of coaches and players, Saturday is stepping into a tough job with limited experience. He must determine how to tweak the team’s current scheme and tactics to maximize the talent on the roster. Whether that is leaning into a running game that features one of the best backs in the business in Jonathan Taylor or re-inserting veteran QB Matt Ryan into the lineup to orchestrate a passing game that needs to play “connect the dots” with the talent on the perimeter, Saturday could put an emphasis on playing a simplified version of football that worked well for the team under Tony Dungy.
Defensively, Saturday will rely on the experience and expertise of two former head coaches (John Fox and Gus Bradley) to improve a unit that has enough talent to carry the load until the offense finds its way. The defense has played well at times, but without a complementary running game to control the game and limit their overall snaps, it has been exposed late in games.
As Saturday attempts to fix the Colts’ biggest problems, he probably will lean into his experience as a Super Bowl winner for the franchise. That could mean a return to the simplified approach that prioritizes execution over trickery. Although it might take some time for Saturday to put his stamp on the program, the former standout player could bring a fresh perspective to the team that helps it rediscover its championship pedigree down the stretch.
Three things I did not like
1. Josh Allen‘s boredom is catching up with the Bills
The Bills have reemerged as perennial contenders due to the evolution of Allen as a blue-chip quarterback. But he has seven giveaways in the team’s past five games, with a handful of blunders and miscues on poor reads and failed “hero” plays.
Although the team has been able to chalk up wins despite the quarterback’s mistakes, it is time for Allen to reel in his gambling ways before he costs his team a top spot in the playoff field. As an ultra-athletic gunslinger with A-plus arm talent, Allen will always toe the line as a gambler due to his immense talent, but he must take care of the ball to keep his team on track as a heavyweight contender in the AFC.
Did Jets’ upset win vs. Bills show Josh Allen needs more help?
The Bills rushing game was lackluster once again, proving that the team has to win by knockout. Colin Cowherd compares Allen and the Bills to Luka Dončić and the Dallas Mavericks.
After losing a game to the division-rival Jets due to his poor performance, Allen might take the loss as a wake-up call and recommit to playing winning football by minimizing his risky plays. Although the high-risk, high-reward approach has helped him become one of the best players at his position, the stakes are higher heading down the stretch. The Bills need their QB1 to play the right way to maximize their potential as a title contender this season.
2. Rams‘ dysfunction
Maybe Jalen Ramsey was simply speaking to the media as a frustrated defender, but the star cornerback might have provided the football world with a behind-the-scenes look at the dysfunction plaguing the Rams.
“The defense should not have had to go back on the field. Simple,” Ramsey said bluntly. “Gotta have some dogs who are gonna go get it. We shouldn’t come to the sideline after a big stop like that and our coaches or the other side or whoever telling us, ‘We gonna to need y’all one more time. We gonna to need y’all one more time.’ Like, what the f—? We just made a big stop, turnover on downs, with a minute and some change left and no timeouts for nobody.
“Gotta have some dogs who are like, ‘Man, f— all that, we are going to end this game right now. Good stop. We are going to end the game for y’all.’ We gotta play off each other in that sense. You know what I mean? That’s what I mean by we should not have had to go out there. It is what it is. It ain’t the first time that this has happened. This has happened multiple times this year, really.”
Whoa! As much as I appreciate Ramsey’s keeping it real, the sentiments expressed speak to the lack of production from an offense directed by a so-called offensive genius. Sean McVay must figure out a way to get more production from his unit or he could lose the locker room as the losses continue to mount. Whether it requires a schematic change or a lineup adjustment, the Rams offense has been a disappointment and the lackluster play could tear apart the locker room in the coming weeks.
With the Rams’ 3-5 record and a 2022 résumé that features seven games in which the offense has been held to 24 or fewer points, including five games with fewer than 15 points, the pressure is mounting on McVay to fix a problem that is derailing the Super Bowl champs’ hopes of running it back.
3. Father Time is catching up with Aaron Rodgers
Tom Brady has spoiled us into thinking that older quarterbacks can play well into their late 30s and early 40s. Father Time has issued a correction with Rodgers’ play in a steep decline after claiming his fourth MVP award a season ago.
The Packers quarterback has lost his rhythm and touch as a magical playmaker. And it is showing up in key moments. Rodgers tossed a trio of costly interceptions in the red zone against Lions that raised concerns about his judgment and execution. The pick to Aidan Hutchinson, in particular, would have been a layup touchdown for the four-time MVP in most instances, but he has failed to make the routine throws with the same precision in 2022.
With Rodgers tossing two red-zone interceptions to Lions rookie safety Kerby Joseph on errant tosses that we have rarely seen from the veteran throughout his career, it is fair to wonder if the slippage is a sign of the sands running out of the hourglass.
Although there is still time for Rodgers to turn things around this season, the combination of his declining skills and the inept play from his receivers could make him look like a fading star by the end of the season.
My top 10
1. Philadelphia Eagles: The competitive stamina and emotional maturity of the unbeaten Eagles are as impressive as their collection of talent on each side of the ball. Jalen Hurts & Co. take care of business against inferior opponents with a championship-level focus that should serve them well as title contenders.
2. Kansas City Chiefs: Patrick Mahomes gives this team a chance to win the title despite its flaws and deficiencies. The former NFL and Super Bowl MVP can single-handedly win games against elite competition with magical performances that showcase his unique set of skills as an improvisational playmaker.
3. Minnesota Vikings: It is not always pretty with the Vikings, but this team continues to win close games. With six of their seven victories decided by eight points or fewer, Kevin O’Connell’s squad has already mastered the art of winning close games.
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4. Buffalo Bills: Sean McDermott’s team is capable of earning the No. 1 spot on this list, but complacency and the lack of a 60-minute focus makes Buffalo susceptible to upsets to inferior squads. Although the Bills remain the front-runner to represent the AFC in the Super Bowl, it is hard to ignore the silly mistakes and miscues that repeatedly show up in their games.
5. Dallas Cowboys: The emergence of Tony Pollard as a legitimate RB1 has given the Cowboys one of the NFL’s most dynamic backfields. The combination of Pollard and Ezekiel Elliott has enabled the Cowboys to adopt a ground-and-pound philosophy that perfectly complements a stingy defense. With Mike McCarthy electing to play “team” ball instead of ringing up meaningless stats, the Cowboys look like a legitimate contender in the NFC.
6. Tennessee Titans: The Titans’ old-school tactics make them a tough out when they are able to control the flow of the game. The combination of a stout running game and hard-hitting defense can carry this team far in the postseason.
7. Seattle Seahawks: The Seahawks have reemerged as playoff contenders due to the steady play of QB Geno Smith and a rapidly improving defense. Pete Carroll has his squad believing in the same formula (defense + strong run game + solid QB play = victories) that helped the team dominate the early 2010s.
8. New York Jets: With an upset of the Bills, Gang Green deserves serious consideration as a legitimate playoff contender in the AFC. Utilizing a straightforward, no-nonsense approach on defense, the Jets are whipping opponents with their superior talent at the line of scrimmage and on the perimeter. With James Robinson and Michael Carter adding enough pop in the running game, the Jets have relied on an old-school recipe that still produces wins in today’s game.
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9. Miami Dolphins: The ultra-explosive Dolphins can light up scoreboards with a dynamic offense that features speedsters on the perimeter and a dart thrower at quarterback. Although the defense needs to tighten up a little bit for the Dolphins to make a deep postseason run, Mike McDaniel’s offense forces opponents to engage in shootouts whether they like it or not.
10. New York Giants: The G-Men lack top-10 talent, but their unorthodox playing style makes it hard for opponents to knock them out. If the Giants are able to play the game on their terms, they will continue to mask their flaws and stay in the playoff hunt until the end of the season.
Week 9 Game Balls
Most Valuable Player of the Week: Patrick Mahomes, Kansas City Chiefs
Mahomes showed the football world why he is considered “one of one” with a spectacular performance against the Titans in primetime. Although the staggering number of pass attempts on the Mahomes’ stat line (43-of-68 for 446 yards with one touchdown and one interception; 63 rush yards on eight attempts) leads to concerns about the workload, the big plays produced due to his improvisation makes it a worthwhile gamble. With Mahomes capable of winning games against elite squads on his own, the Chiefs cannot be dismissed as a title contender in any circumstance.
Offensive Player of the Week: Justin Fields, Chicago Bears
It is rare for a player to get a game ball in a loss, but Fields deserves recognition for his remarkable performance in Week 9. The second-year pro ran for 178 yards, the most by an NFL quarterback in a regular-season game, and threw for three scores. As the first player since at least 1950 to rush for at least 150 yards and throw three touchdowns, Fields showed the football world he has the potential to evolve into an elite dual-threat playmaker at the position. Despite the loss, the spectacular showing by the Bears’ QB1 should encourage the franchise to build around his special talents.
Defensive Players of the Week: Matthew Judon, Josh Uche, New England Patriots
The Patriots’ edge rushing duo was so impressive that I will hand out co-awards for the first time in this column’s history. Judon and Uche combined for 12 tackles and six sacks (three sacks each) in a stellar defensive effort that sparked the Patriots’ 26-3 win over the Colts. As dynamic athletes with versatile skills and a variety of pass-rush maneuvers, Judon and Uche dominated the Colts’ edge blockers with their speed, quickness and explosiveness. With inexperienced quarterback Sam Ehlinger overwhelmed by the persistent pressure, New England controlled the action from the start behind an impressive defensive effort.
Unsung Hero of the Week: Joe Mixon, Cincinnati Bengals
It is hard to call a star running back with a five-touchdown day an unsung hero, but Mixon’s electric performance in Week 9 has seemingly flown under the radar. If you missed it, Mixon amassed 211 scrimmage yards and five scores on 26 touches (22 rushes, four catches) as the focal point of the offensive game plan. Mixon’s ability to deliver big plays as a runner and receiver enabled the offense to put up 40-plus points without Ja’Marr Chase in the lineup. Given the production and performance of the offense with the RB1 leading the way, the Bengals might want to make Mixon the centerpiece of future game plans as they make a playoff push.
Bucky Brooks is an NFL analyst for FOX Sports. He regularly appears on “Speak For Yourself” and also breaks down the game for NFL Network and as a cohost of the “Moving the Sticks” podcast. Follow him on Twitter @BuckyBrooks.
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