Week 8 NFL insider notes: Seahawks quietly contenders with new-look offense, Steelers can't bench Conner

The Seattle Seahawks were supposed to be dead, remember? Half of the football pundits, it seems, had already written them off before the season began. The other half had no use for them after they lost Earl Thomas for the season and sat at 0-2 to start the season.

But guess what? Tale a look at the standings right now. Go ahead. I'll give you a minute. Yeah, your eyes are not deceiving you. The Seahawks are now 4-3. And that uber-physical win at Detroit Sunday was something of a statement game, a potentially key NFC wild-card tiebreaker. And, perhaps more surprising of all is the fact that Seattle has quickly found a new identity, with Thomas's injury the final blow to the Legion of Boom. They are now ... Russell and the Road-Graders? Suddenly the Seahawks are scoring points in bunches and beating people up in the run game.

Seattle's run game had been more or less in disarray since Marshawn Lynch retired, leaving Wilson to fend for himself and without much balance or creativity in how they attacked other teams. But if Pete Carroll's offseason purge of assistant coaches did anything -- and the new blood and new ideas seem to paying off big time -- it unlocked the ability to run the ball and shed old tendencies that had become tired and predictable under former offensive line coach Tom Cable.

Yeas Seattle actually, finally, has a functioning offensive line, and a balanced attack, which is helping Wilson perform at an MVP level again. The Seahawks in their last five games have scored: 24 (Dallas), 20 (Arizona), 31 (Rams), 27 (Oakland) and 28 points (Detroit). That's an average of 26 a game, which is a huge lift from a year ago. No longer are they unable to move the ball at all until around midway through the third quarter of games. No longer does Wilson have to buy time with street ball and improvise to concoct a few big plays that substituted for an actual, functioning offense.

During their 4-1 tear, the Seahawks have run the ball at least 32 times a game, showing intent, conviction and persistence with the ground game. In those five games they have 184 rushes for 805 yards, for an average of 4.2 per carry with five rushing touchdowns. It isn't super-gaudy, but it is well-above the league average. Sunday, against a Lions front seven that has been less-than-stout against the rush, they ran it 43 times. After not even being able to get a running back to 50 yards a game a year ago, and with Wilson having to lead the team in carries and rushing yards every week, it's a drastic improvement and more than enough to allow the quarterback to flourish.

On Sunday, Wilson was essentially perfect statistically with a 158.3 rating, going 14 for 17 for 248 yards with three touchdowns and no interceptions. During this five-game stretch, Wilson has 11 touchdown passes and just one pick. He has not thrown for even 250 yards in any game and hasn't attempted as many as 27 passes, and it is working out expertly. Wilson is completing 70 percent of his passes (79 of 133) with a sterling rating of 128.6

Couple that with a young and hungry defense that is starting to make plays and force turnovers, and one of the best home field environments in the NFL -- one that will get its chance to flex in the second half of the year with Seattle having hosted only two games to date -- and you have the makings of a formidable ball club. This is a team that nearly knocked off the Rams juggernaut in L.A. a few weeks back, so they won't flinch when the Rams come to Seattle in Week 10, while games next month against the Panthers and Packers could serve as vital playoff tiebreakers as well.

So don't sleep on the Seahawks. They have quietly become one of the hottest teams in the NFL. And they already have as many win as Pete Prisco predicted they would reach for the entire season. (Sorry, Pete, couldn't help myself!)

Steelers have their running back

Le'Veon Bell will return to the Steelers this week if he isn't traded, though he should be feeling awful conflicted about that. He's become a bit of a pariah in that locker room, and what James Conner has done in his absence is nothing short of spectacular.

Conner came out of the bye on Sunday and dominated the Browns. He was a one-man army in the running and passing game. A running back who always oozes power and effort, he seemed even more motivated in this game, perhaps knowing in the back of his mind the All Pro running back was on his way back to Pittsburgh. Conner rolled up 212 combined yards, including nearly 150 on the ground, and continued to display his nose for the end zone. He is setting a physical tone, providing energy and lift to his teammates, and the Steelers would be silly to disrupt this now.

Keep Bell on the exempt list through all of Week 9. Don't have him active on Sunday and disrupt a huge week preparing for the Ravens. Don't make Conner look over his shoulder and make the announcement early in the week that Bell needs two weeks of practice before he can play in a game come Week 10. There is nothing he can do -- especially this deep into the season having not played a game or been through a practice since January -- that Conner isn't doing.

As hard as Conner runs, the Steelers may need Bell soon enough due to injury or him slowing down. But it wouldn't be fair to him or his teammates to take the ball out of his hands now.

Trouble in Tampa at QB

The Tampa Bay Bucs can't go right back to Jameis Winston after his debacle on Sunday and the expert way Ryan Fitzpatrick rallied them when he came in to bail the starter out. Winston looked lethargic and uninspired throughout, opening the game with a brutal red zone pick and then throwing another, and then a third INT and finally a pick-six that appeared to put the game out of reach.

That loss falls squarely on the embattled quarterback, and for someone who one could argue has been coddled, babied and allowed to get away with too much, seems to me some tough love is in order. Fitzmagic isn't the long-term answer, but Winston just might not be either. If I'm fighting for my coaching life and fighting for my season, I'll take my chances with Fitzpatrick, who had reached highs this season that Winston simply has not

Is Ravens defense elite?

Plenty of hype and kudos this season for the Ravens defense, but they have been exposed some the past two weeks. The Saints and Panthers have shredded them with passes to tight ends and running backs as well as seam routes out of the slot. Linebacker C.J. Mosley and safety Tony Jefferson have been exposed in coverage, especially in the red zone, and the pass rush has been mitigated as well.

Troubling signs for them with Pittsburgh, a team equipped to attack those areas, up next looking at what now may be a must-win for Baltimore. The Saints completed 10 of 11 passes to backs and tight ends for 99 yards and a touchdown, and the Panthers completed 9 of 11 passes to them for 82 yards and two TDs.

Panthers offense firing on all cylinders

Look out for the Panthers in the second half. Loved the pairing of Norv Turner and Cam Newton when it was announced, and it's really starting to click now. With the best protection they have had in Carolina in a long time, Newton is having his most accurate season ever. Now, after figuring out how to fully fold Christian McCaffrey into the offense, Turner has unleashed first-round pick D.J. Moore.

Moore, who played college ball in Maryland and had an abundant vocal fan support in the area pushing Baltimore to take him with its first pick -- destroyed the Ravens on end-around and pitch plays on the ground and downfield in the passing game as well. He was a matchup nightmare, touching the ball seven times for 129 combined yards (18.4 yards per touch!) after entering the game with just 13 catches for 191 yards all season and four carries for 46 yards. 

More notes

  • Fun to watch rookie running back Phillip Lindsay run each week for the Broncos. He's quickly become one of my favorite players to watch, and the Broncos would be stupid not to run their offense through him in the second half of the season. He's one of few bright spots there while the death watch for head coach Vance Joseph plays out. The team, which has lost five of its last six, faces the Texans (on a five-game winning streak) next week and then the Chargers, Steelers and Bengals up after their bye.
  • The Browns still have not won a road game since before Hue Jackson was hired. Let that sink in. There is loyalty, and there is suspending reality. Things are going to come to a head in Cleveland soon enough.
  • The Rams, after all of the money they have already spent and all the moves they have already made, should bolster that secondary before Tuesday. Bring back Janoris Jenkins for a third- or fourth-round pick. They know him well, and though he's slowed down, he could be very useful insurance with Aqib Talib out and Marcus Peters banged up and getting picked on.
  • Wouldn't Raiders stud lineman Kelechi Osemele make perfect sense for the Eagles? Especially with Lane Johnson now out indefinitely, and Jason Peters so hobbled, too? Might be even more pressing need than corner, receiver and running back.
  • I was dead wrong on Adrian Peterson -- as wrong as possible about what I thought Washington would get out of him. He is carrying a heavy load at an advanced age while Alex Smith soft-tosses passes five yards downfield. That's a tough way to win, and there isn't much hope of expanding that offense. I think the Eagles can catch them if they make a few deadline moves.
  • Mitch Trubisky, since his big six-touchdown game against the hapless Tampa defense, has done the following in the first half of games: 5 of 13 for 116 yards (Sunday); 8 of 20 for 89 yards; 9 of 14 for 89 yards. We'll see how sustainable that is if it continues.
  • That 49ers-Cardinals game set pro football back about 35 years. Woof.
  • Marlon Mack looks the part for the Colts. Too bad he missed so much time in the first half of the season, but he could be a real boost from here on out.
CBS Sports Insider

Before joining CBS Sports, Jason La Canfora was the Washington Redskins beat writer for The Washington Post for six years and served as NFL Network's insider. The Baltimore native can be seen every Sunday... Full Bio

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