On this week’s episode of Weekly Pulse, Mackenzie Salmon sits down with USA TODAY Sports reporter Mike Jones to take a close look at how the NFL season has played out thus far.
A quick glance at items of interest as Week 5 rolls on in the NFL:
Myles Garrett. After his 2019 season was abruptly ended by his well-deserved, six-game suspension for dangerously clubbing Steelers QB Mason Rudolph with his helmet, the Browns defensive end is making noise for all the right reasons as the premier playmaker he was supposed to be when drafted No. 1 overall in 2017. Garrett is tied for NFL lead with five sacks and heads into an intriguing matchup against the Colts (both teams are 3-1) with a streak of three consecutive games with a sack and forced fumble. And his unit leads the NFL with 10 takeaways. Rightfully, there will be much focus on whether Cleveland’s offense, sans injured star running back Nick Chubb, can continue rolling against a stingy Colts defense. But Garrett has shown that he’s as big of a game-changer as anyone, emerging as arguably the NFL’s most lethal defensive playmaker. The swing factor on Sunday could hinge on whether Colts left tackle Anthony Costanzo, with added layer of difficulty in nursing a rib injury, can keep Garrett away from Philip Rivers.
The Two Mikes. One disastrous month into his debut season as Cowboys coach, Mike McCarthy is already forced to defend his decision to enlist his former boss, Mike Nolan, as defensive coordinator. Dallas, allowing 36.5 points per game, is on pace to allow 584 points and shatter the franchise record (436, in 2010). One dubious distinction was set in the embarrassing showing last weekend, when the Browns rushed for 307 yards – more than any opponent has in the 60-year life of the Dallas franchise. This contrasts with the No.1 offense armed by Dak Prescott, rolling on his own pace to break the NFL’s single-season passing mark and the first in league history to throw for 450 yards in three consecutive seasons. The rub? When McCarthy was hired to replace Jason Garrett (who incidentally returns to Jerry World on Sunday, coordinating the struggling Giants offense), Jerry Jones stipulated that rising star O-coordinator Kellen Moore remain to keep the continuity flowing with a top-ranked offense. Perhaps they should have kept the defensive system intact, too? Defensive players are grumbling about issues in picking up Nolan’s scheme after on-field work during the offseason was wiped out by the pandemic. Maybe so, but it’s not like Nolan’s system is a can’t-miss answer. The Cowboys are the eighth team to hire Nolan to coordinate their defense. Eight. That’s a lot of chances without consistently stellar results.
Carson Wentz vs. Pittsburgh’s Front 7. Of course, the Eagles quarterback doesn’t have to take on the ferocious Steelers front all by himself. But with a depleted O-line (struggling left tackle Jason Peters just joined all-pro guard Brandon Brooks on IR, while stud right tackle Lane Johnson has been slowed by injuries), it might feel like Wentz is a lonely contestant on Survivor Island at Heinz Field on Sunday. Steelers defensive end Cameron Heyward used a “blood in the water” analogy when projecting the matchup. Pittsburgh, with Heyward flanked by the likes of TJ Watt and Bud Dupree, has racked up 15 sacks in three games. Not the best omen for Philly’s chances to spring an upset for the second week in a row.
Next man up
Joe Flacco. The onetime Super Bowl MVP steps back onto center stage for the winless Jets, filling in for injured quarterback Sam Darnold against the Cardinals. It wasn’t too long ago when Flacco was rehabbing an injury his own. He’s been severely limited for much of the past two months because of a neck injury. Now he’s the plan for an offense tied with the Giants for dead-last in the NFL for yardage and had severe problems providing protection for Darnold (12 sacks). Not pretty.
Justin Jefferson. With back-to-back 100-yard games, Minnesota’s first-rounder (22nd overall) has shown the promise of his purpose to fill the void created with the departure of big-play artist Stefon Diggs. And Jefferson has quickly demonstrated how his game can expand on the pro level. The highest-drafted LSU receiver since Odell Beckham, Jr. in 2014, Jefferson set the school’s single-season record in 2019 with 111 catches while playing primarily in the slot. But the Vikings have hardly pigeon-holed Jefferson in the slot; the variety is perhaps what’s most impressive about his early NFL growth. He’s made plays inside and outside, versus man coverage and zone schemes, and at various depths. He also leads all rookie receivers – including the four drafted before him — with 348 yards.
Stomach for an upset
Dolphins at 49ers. After getting upset last Sunday night by the then-winless Eagles, the injury-stung 49ers (favored by a whopping 9 points) seem vulnerable again. Sure, there’s the expectation that Jimmy Garoppolo will return after missing two games with a sprained ankle. So, no added drama of a C.J. Bethard/Nick Mullens dilemma. Plus, there’s the added boost of wideout Deebo Samuel getting back into the flow. But this is still a different San Francisco unit than the Super Bowl entrant because the D-line depth that was such a strength last season is no longer. Nick Bosa, Dee Ford and Solomon Thomas are on injured reserve, while DeForest Buckner was traded during the offseason. That’s four first-round picks. Plus, the back end is still without its crafty heart-and-soul leader as cornerback Richard Sherman recovers on IR with a calf injury. The 49ers aren’t the first team to lose a Super Bowl and have chances of returning hampered by injuries, but we’re seeing in real time the challenge of repeating the success from the previous year because of changed circumstances. Another factor for Sunday at Levi’s Stadium would be the presence of Ryan Fitzpatrick, the veteran quarterback who typically allows Miami with a puncher’s chance.
If the playoffs were today…
The matchup between unbeatens Buffalo (4-0) and Tennessee (3-0) would be a clash of division champs. Now it has the added intrigue of just getting to kickoff, pushed to Tuesday night as the Titans’ COVID-19 outbreak continues to wreak havoc on the NFL’s schedule. As it stands now, Tennessee will have 16 days since its last game. Sudden X-factors include the disruption in chemistry and timing, and the impact of scrapped practices and emergency roster moves with players coming up from the practice squad to fill roles. Also, given uncertainties now enveloping the NFL’s schedule because of the coronavirus, it’s also possible that if these teams meet in the playoffs as division champs they could qualify for the postseason after playing an uneven number of games.
Did you notice?
In this season that has begun with offensive fireworks (a record pace for points and yards, again), Kansas City’s defense is the only unit in the league not to allow more than 20 points in any game. Of course, it’s easy to overlook D-coordinator Steve Spagnuolo’s continually-improving unit when Patrick Mahomes is slinging it with his bevy of supporting actors in tow. But of the eight teams that averaged at least 30 points through four weeks (also, a record pace), Kansas City wasn’t among them. Make no mistake. The Chiefs identity is still wrapped with explosive offense. Yet balance could be the ticket to a repeat crown.
Stat’s the fact
Three quarterbacks head into Week 5 as their team’s leading rusher. It’s not a huge shock that Lamar Jackson and Kyler Murray are in that group. The other one? Daniel Jones, whose 137 yards underscores the dire straits of the New York Giants’ rushing attack with Saquon Barkley lost for the season with a torn ACL.