Week 9 insider notes: Sorry, Browns, but it's already over, Bills' defense has a big problem, and more
Jason La Canfora says seasons were on the line in Week 9, and while the Steelers and Eagles responded, Cleveland did not
A handful of teams around the NFL were playing must-win games on Sunday. Whether they knew it or not. Whether they treated them like that or not. Whether they understood the magnitude of the task or not.
Most of them responded as much ... and a few did not.
But seasons were on the line. Week 9 was a critical juncture for teams in peril, where a loss would likely leave them with too deep a hole to climb out of. They were playing for their seasons, and the right to be considered a team with something to play for. The Steelers, Eagles and Bills responded as their fans would hope; the Browns did not.
Sorry Cleveland, but it's over. Forget about playing games that matter in December for once, let alone the prospect of a postseason game or, dare I even say it, a home playoff game. Sunday, against Brandon Allen, was an opportunity to show what the team is made of, how it will fight for its season and what it is capable of. And none of that was good enough.
They spotted the lowly Broncos an early lead, Baker Mayfield continued to look skittish and hurried in the pocket, the play-makers didn't see enough of the ball and the defense allowed itself to get carved up on the ground despite knowing that uber-conservative Denver head coach Vic Fangio really only wants to run the ball anyway, and especially so with Allen in his first-ever start behind a poor offensive line and with his best receiver, Emmanuel Sanders, now playing for the 49ers.
A wild Week 9 is almost in the books and there's a lot to go over. Fortunately, Will Brinson, John Breech, Ryan Wilson and Sean Wagner-McGough are here to break everything down on the latest episode of the Pick Six Podcast. Listen to the full show below and be sure to subscribe right here to get daily NFL news fired into your eardrums.
Yet, persist in ineptitude, the Browns did. They continued their horrible decision-making. Freddie Kitchens turned down three easy points on the road in a tough struggle that could have made it a field-goal game. They continued to play selfish ball, with undisciplined penalties crippling them again, as it has all season (they lead the NFL in all-things penalty related, going back to Week 1 when like five Browns were fined). This is who they are. And as much as the second-half schedule is easier on paper – no game is easy for this crew. At 2-6, with Baltimore and Pittsburgh ahead of them in the AFC North, it's over. See (some of you) in 2020; others have got to go.
Those Steelers had to find a way to win as well. Catching the surging Ravens may be too much with Mason Rudolph under center, and wild-card tiebreakers are everything. Like the Browns, the Steelers' remaining schedule has plenty of fat on it, and beating the Colts would get them back to .500 and greatly increase their odds of staying in the hunt. It wasn't pretty, but Rudolph did start unleashing the ball downfield a little more, they rode the screen game to keep it simple and close, and the Minkah Fitzpatrick trade – much panned, though praised in this space – has been a season-saver.
His pick six changed the game and kept Indy from pulling away. and that momentum surge may have saved all of 2019 for Pittsburgh. The defense is legit and the sacks are not going to stop. After hosting the Rams in a tough spot, the Steelers get the Browns, Bengals, Browns and Cardinals. They are very much alive.
And the Eagles had to take care of business against the sad Bears. Chicago cannot move the ball against anyone, Mitchell Trubisky, as I have been noting for weeks, needs to be benched (because you can't bench the GM who created this whole mess in the first place), and Philly had to smell blood in the water. The Eagles did and led 19-0 midway through; it should have been like 30, but whatever. They survived and turned it back on in the fourth quarter to win.
The Eagles' run game is finally clicking again, which is huge. DeSean Jackson should get better by the week. I like this team moving forward, but finding a way to drop one to this bunch at home would have been one too many missteps given all the games that got away in the first half of the season. They'll push Dallas and if they come out of the Week 10 bye and at least split with the Pats and Seahawks, then look out, because things ease up considerably after that.
Concern about Bills defense
The Bills' run defense is starting to give me some pause. It was one thing to get gashed by the Eagles last week, who unleashed a multitude of looks and personnel in the backfield and had a dominant day from that powerful offensive line. It's quite another to let Adrian Peterson and the woeful Skins line gut you over 100 yards in the first half alone, at home, on a day when Skins QB Dwayne Haskins was making his NFL debut and wasn't exactly going to be pressing your secondary deep. Let's just say I am a little concerned.
In the past two weeks the Bills – built on defense, let's be honest – have allowed 345 yards rushing (!) on 64 carries, for a scary average of 5.4 per carry. That's not going to get it done. The Bills are not catching the Patriots, and it's all about wild card positioning for them. This November schedule should be a time to make things happen, and it very well may still, with the Browns, Dolphins and Broncos up next. But two of those teams can move the ball on the ground pretty well, and this defense needs to remain stout because I don't see Josh Allen winning a lot of games coming from behind given where he is at this point.
The Steelers are going to have an interesting negotiation with Ju Ju Smith-Schuster this offseason. Clearly he has out-performed his rookie deal, but do you pay him as a great Robin (to Antonio Brown's Batman), or as a struggling Batman, without anyone else playing the Robin role (and without Ben Roethlisberger)? Here are his numbers this year, compared to a year ago after eight games:
Ju Ju has essentially the same TDs (3-2) and catches over 25 yards (6-5) as a year ago at this point, but the rest, ugh. Of course, the entire scope of the offense has changed this year and this is now a run-first team that plays defense and limits what Rudolph is allowed to do. It will make for an interesting negotiation.
More insider notes from Week 9
- Ryan Tannehill is making himself a nice chunk of change somewhere next season with his play. Might be he remains in Tennessee, but regardless, you compare his body of work to Marcus Mariota and there is a stark contrast in ability to push the ball downfield, feed outside receivers and generally make things happen. The Titans aren't going anywhere in 2019 – they had as many penalties as first downs at halftime Sunday – but Tannehill has a real chance to move up the pecking order of free agent QB options next season. ...
- I would not end Minshew Mania, but the Jags very well might. Tough spot for Gardner to have his first truly bad game, and you could tell he was pressing for the first time, without that poise in the pocket. But for a 4-5 team that is basically in a short-term arranged marriage with Nick Foles, I'd be real about where I am in my program and keep playing the kid. He entered Week 9 with the fourth-best TD/INT ratio in the NFL he's salvaged the season and he has serious upside. I'm not stunting his growth to play a career backup who tends to get hurt, but then again, I wouldn't have re-signed Blake Bortles and brought back essentially this same team and staff (with an OC change), either. ...
- Great stuff from Kyle Allen on Sunday. Made some big-time throws into tight windows, looked fearless after his first bad start in Week 8 and his receivers were selling out to try to make plays for him. The Panthers will be fine. ...
- Kudos to the Texans. They shook off the loss of JJ Watt and an unusual travel week going to London and beat the snot out of the Jags. I didn't see that coming. They showed some guts and moxie and Deshaun Watson seems healthier at the midpoint of the season (albeit one week after thinking for a second he has lost an eyeball!) than he has been in a long time. They get their starting tackles back after the bye and thrived in what could have been a very difficult spot. ...
- Gonna reserve any judgement on the Chargers until we see which team shows up Thursday for what is suddenly a huge game with the Raiders (Derek Carr is playing out of his mind these days). The winner of that game has a chance give the Chiefs a battle. ...
- And finally, props to Steve Spagnuolo and the K.C. defense. Three straight weeks they have gotten it together and allowed the team to rally around backup Matt Moore. Moore deserves a ton of credit, but if this defense had remained at its Week 1-6 level of play, the Chiefs would be below .500 right now.
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