Rob Ryan is loving his new toy.
For the first few weeks of the season I did not believe in the Saints' defense. They were still woeful against the run and they had a lot of injuries up front. That generally doesn't bode well for the long-term outlook of any defense over the march of a full season. As the year has gone on, however, I am becoming more and more of a believer, and it is mostly because of one guy. No, it's not Cameron Jordan, although he is definitely a man-beast on the defensive line. Instead, it is rookie safety Kenny Vaccaro, who has become a jack-of-all-trades for the Saints defensive coordinator.
I knew this kid could hit coming out of college, and that he was fast. But the way he has picked up the defenses and all the uses Ryan has for him has made him much more of a defensive weapon than I could have imagined in his rookie year. Maybe the most impressive thing I have seen him do is roll down to cover slot tight ends and/or wide receivers and just jam them up to the ground off the line. He did it twice against Buccaneers wide receiver Vincent Jackson, and neither time did Jackson look prepared for that kind of physicality. These days, with the rules about no contact after five yards, it's rare to see a cornerback fearless enough to go for the hard jam off the line, let alone a safety.
The GIF below show the Vaccaro sack on Cutler this week.
Vaccaro is just built differently, and it stands out on film. It is because he can do it all -- cover, play the run, blitz -- which allows Rob Ryan the confidence to call more blitz packages to both knock out the run and get after the quarterback. As the Saints get healthier and Vaccaro keeps making plays, expect his name to shoot to the top of the Defensive Rookie of the Year debates.
The unintended benefit of a suspension
Welcome back, Justin Blackmon and Daryl Washington. Both came back from suspensions to have huge games on Sunday. Blackmon (aided by some truly terrible displays of defense which I will speak on later) racked up 136 yards and a touchdown on just five receptions in a loss to the Rams, while Washington notched nine total tackles, two sacks and a crucial red-zone interception in the Cardinals' win over the Carolina Panthers. I don't condone the actions that led to either guy being suspended, but there is something to be said for having fresh legs in Week 5 of the season.
Scary Bears WR duo emerging
When Alshon Jeffery lasted until the second round last year, I said that the Bears were getting one of the steals of the draft. Now, maybe that was a bit of hyperbole, because the second round isn't all that bad, but from my perspective, he was as physically talented as any wide receiver in the draft and had also been productive in college when healthy.
In his rookie season, it was slow-going as he was injured again and only reeled in 24 catches. In this year's sophomore campaign, however, Jeffery is already starting to blossom. On Sunday against the Saints, he hauled in 10 catches for a whopping 218 yards receiving (a Bears team record) and a touchdown in the loss. While it was a breakout game for sure, Jeffery has seen his production rise in just about every game so far this season. He already has 28 catches for 429 yards on the season and has shown no signs of slowing down. At 6'3 and 218 pounds, this kid is going to be a dominant force for defenses to deal with for years to come.
While I know fellow Bears wide receiver Brandon Marshall is frustrated with his lack of touches, he should recognize that the more numbers Jeffery puts up, the less teams will be able to continue to double down the field. And once that happens? I would hate to be the defensive coordinator game planning against that Bears offense, that's for sure.
Loss of Wilfork makes impact already
From the "They Don't Miss You 'Til You're Gone" department: If you had any questions about whether the loss of Patriots perennial Pro Bowl defensive tackle Vince Wilfork would make a big impact or not, their opponent last Sunday, the Cincinnati Bengals, ran for a net of 162 yards on the ground, including 129 yards combined from their top two running backs.
The Patriots won't be able to replace everything that Wilfork brought to the table this season while he is out, but they had better find a way to play better run defense than that. Like a wise man once told me, the easiest thing in the world to do is turn around and hand the ball off for three yards or more.
Where's Sidney Rice? And why the Seahawks need to find him
Can somebody put out an APB for the old Sidney Rice? As I was watching the TV copy of the Colts win over the Seahawks, I kept seeing Doug Baldwin and Golden Tate making plays in the passing game for Seattle. I wasn't sure why, but the fact that this has become an every-week thing kept tugging at me. It wasn't the fact that they were making plays that was bothering me -- both are very good wide receivers -- it was that there was a guy who should be right there with them making plays in the passing game. And that's Sidney Rice.
After I finished watching the TV copy, I went back to look up Rice's stats for the year, to see if my suspicions were warranted. Sure enough, it turns out he only has 10 catches for the season, and has only caught more than two balls in one out of their first five games (and that was against the Jaguars). He didn't necessarily set the world on fire last season with 50 catches and seven touchdowns, but that was a far cry better than this. Maybe it wouldn't have been so obvious on Sunday if it weren't for the fact that the Seahawks really needed at least one more guy in the passing game to step up against the Colts if they wanted to have any chance of winning. Instead, Rice only had one catch for 8 yards by the end of the game.
I realize that Rice has had some injuries and probably will never recapture the magic of that 2009 season with Brett Favre, when he caught 83 passes for over 1,300 yards. But if the best he can do is 10 catches after five games, maybe it's time for the Seahawks to move on. Russell Wilson definitely needs another legitimate weapon on the field in the passing game.
Stop messing around, Lions
The Lions defensive line is getting too cute.
Maybe I am being a bit overly critical here, but I am sick and tired of seeing the Detroit defensive line doing all this cute crap with guys standing up and moving around before the snap. No, it's not every third down, or close to it, but every time I see it my skin starts itching.
You have two of the premier defensive tackles in the NFL along with a pretty damn good rookie at right defensive end -- cut the crap, get in a stance and go!
Cute stuff is for teams that lack talent. There isn't any reason for Nick Fairley to be standing up pass rushing. None. And I don't give a damn if he is "good at it." He is a helluva lot better at putting his hand in the dirt and running through or around people to get to the quarterback, and so is Ndamukong Suh and the rest of their defensive linemen.
On another note, rookie defensive end (and Lurch look alike) Devin Taylor keeps flashing on film with limited reps. I wouldn't be surprised that at some point this season, the Lions might have a dynamic starting rookie defensive end duo (Taylor working opposite No. 5 overall pick Ziggy Ansah).
Vick-less Eagles should be OK
Before people start writing off the Eagles because Michael Vick is hurt, you better recognize that Nick Foles came in and threw two touchdown passes in the fourth quarter Sunday in relief. Those two touchdowns were critical to put the Giants away for the win and stomp out any hope of a comeback.
There is also the fact that this week the Eagles are facing the winless Bucs, a team that, as a rookie last year, Foles beat on a last minute touchdown drive. If I were a betting man, I would wager that after Sunday, the Eagles will still be right in the middle of the NFC East hunt -- Vick or no Vick.
Changing it up in Houston
At this point, I am not sure many people still believe in Texans quarterback Matt Schaub as the starter Houston. He broke a record by throwing a pick-six in his fourth-straight game with the one he gave away on Sunday. It also appeared for most of that loss to the 49ers that his confidence was totally shot.
I am not defending Schaub by any means, but I do wonder how much of his performance can be attributed to the Texans' offense becoming fairly predictable. Don't get me wrong, one of the most impressive things about the Texans offense the last few years is that they haven't tried to fool people much. They just line up and run zone plays with Arian Foster and Ben Tate and try to get the ball to Owen Daniels and Andre Johnson in the passing game. Even with a game plan as simple as that, they still were mauling people, at least until the playoffs. But maybe that approach isn't enough anymore.
As unforgivable as the pick-six Schaub threw against the Seahawks two weeks ago was, the truth is the Texans had tried to run that exact same play several times previously in that game, and every single time the Seahawks were ready for it and defensed it well. The 49ers also seemed to be sitting on many route combinations that have become the Texans' bread and butter.
All teams have tendencies, of course, but is it time for the Texans to open up more of their playbook? I would have to say yes, emphatically.
How to challenge the Chiefs
Speaking of predictable, it seems that the Chiefs' opponents have finally started to notice that their quarterback Alex Smith doesn't take many shots down the field.
On Sunday, the Titans appeared to really emphasize their underneath coverage while daring Smith to throw the deep ball. Smith did indeed go downtown to Donnie Avery a few times, hooking up with the veteran receiver for 91 yards on just three catches. However, it did seem to bother Smith when the Titans compressed their coverage. It took about a half of football the previous week but the Giants eventually did the same and slowed Smith down a bit as well (but the damage was already done against lowly New York).
I suspect that the Chiefs will now see this kind of thing from opposing defenses for the rest of the season. I'm kind of surprised it took so long, really. The question will be how willing Smith will be to take those shots down the field and whether or not he can continue to have the kind of success hooking up with Avery ... or maybe even Dwayne Bowe on some of those throws. If so, then the Chiefs should keep rolling. If not, let's just say it will get a lot harder for them to win some of these games.
Blame Brady, too
Perception versus reality: There is no doubt that Tom Brady and the Patriots offense has been hamstrung by the lack of availability of several of their playmakers for ... various reasons. But Brady also has not always been sharp this year throwing the ball.
I know that it's en vogue to blame his "young receivers" for everything, but yes, even Tom Brady throws bad passes at times. That's not to absolve the drops from those receivers; that's just me simply stating that everyone get their fair share of the blame. I don't think it's OK to just assume it's all the receivers fault when things are going bad but then turn around and give Brady all the credit when things are going well.
Oh, and by the way, after the loss on Sunday to the Bengals, Brady has now completed less than 50 percent of his passes in two out of five games in 2013. That is the reality; deal with it.
The ghost of Julius Peppers: I have always been a fan of Julius Peppers -- the guy has just been a freak of nature rushing the quarterback. He has had double digit sacks in four of the last five seasons, and the one year he didn't in 2010, he had 8.
This year, however, I just don't see the same guy on film. It's not just that he only has one sack after five games, although it doesn't help. It's also that the constant pressure he used to put on the opposing offensive line just doesn't seem to be there anymore. You used to have to know where Peppers was at all times to make sure he would not make a play. On Sunday, it didn't seem like the Saints were particularly concerned with Peppers at all, and as it turned out, they didn't have much reason to be.
The Bears were already without the services of Pro Bowl defensive tackle Henry Melton, lost for the year to injury. They lost another defensive tackle, Nate Collins, against the Saints as well. This is the perfect time for Peppers to stand up, make plays and take up the slack, if for no other reason than the Bears are in dire need of his help. There's a lot of season left, and he can still turn it around, but I just wonder, after his extended run of excellent production, if maybe the best days of Peppers are simply behind him.
A game full of Football Follies: Listen, people rag on the Jaguars every week, and so I probably couldn't come up with a new joke if I tried. I don't need to try anyway, though, because their film on offense is usually hilarious. The Jags outdid themselves this week, and to be honest, the Rams weren't all that much better.
Let's talk about the first third down of the game, where Blaine Gabbert drops back to pass and looks like a legitimate NFL quarterback moving around in the pocket. He steps up to avoid pressure, winds up to throw and...tosses it right into the dirt. At first glance, I almost thought he tried to pass it to himself. Like, maybe he fumbled it on purpose and then was going to pick it up and run for the first down ... because he kept running after the ball after he threw it right into the turf at the 19-yard line.
Maybe it was all some ingenious ploy!
Not so much.
Then later on the Rams decided that nobody should cover Justin Blackmon in the slot and everybody should go cover the wide receiver outside of him. That resulted in a 67-yard touchdown, of course.
I swear, much of the rest of the game should have had "Yakety Sax" playing in the background, because there were more shenanigans than good football plays. When the final seconds ticked off the clock, the Rams had earned a 34-20 victory, but really anybody forced to watch that game were the losers.
Nothing wrong with being bad but the Jaguars are simply embarrassing at this point.
Sidenote: Rams rookie wide receiver Tavon Austin would likely be leading the league in punt returns if they didn't always come back for holding or blocks in the backs or whatever other dumb things his blockers do. Damn shame, too.