There is a lot of football to talk about. It’s impossible for Stephen White and me to cover all the bases on the internet’s favorite NFL podcast, so we took it to the written word to cover a few more things that are on our minds this week.
Ryan Van Bibber: I know we've talked about Kelvin Benjamin in the past, specifically what a beast he was and how the Panthers could've been in trouble last season without him (whoops). Now he's back after missing last year and picked up EXACTLY where he left off, owning the shit out of cornerbacks.
We're you surprised that he picked it up again so quickly? Does his presence change the Panthers offense that was already pretty damn good last year?
Stephen White: I wasn't all that surprised to see Benjamin pick things up basically where they left off from his rookie season. I really thought had he not gotten hurt last year, he was about to have a monster season. Given the current timetable on recovery from ACLs being around nine months or so and the fact that he got hurt in camp last year, neither Benjamin nor the Panthers had to feel rushed for him to come back too soon. The knee had plenty of time to heal and it shows. He did have that scare in the first game when Broncos safety Darian Stewart hit him in the back of his knees, but he shook that off and came right back. If anything, that hit probably was a confidence builder because it showed him that he could take those kinds of hits and the knee would hold up.
You just don't see many guys Benjamin's size who also have enough speed to be a legitimate deep threat like he is. It’s the best of both worlds in that he is big enough to make those tough catches underneath and take big hits while still holding onto the ball, but also athletic enough to get you the big play as well. And, as we have already seen in the first two games, Cam Newton likes throwing him the football, so in most games he will have plenty of opportunities to make plays.
On the other hand, the loss of Benjamin last season kind of forced the Panthers to become somewhat of a different team in the passing game. They still had Jerricho Cotchery as a decent possession receiver, but with speedsters Ted Ginn and Philly Brown playing prominent roles, Carolina started to become more of a vertical passing team.
What will be interesting to me going forward is how/if they can integrate that downfield passing into the offense while still getting Benjamin his targets. As I said before, he is a legitimate deep threat too, but that is mostly because of his size. He isn't taking the top off of defenses in the same way that Ginn or Brown were last season. Having that element is important because when you force both safeties to stay deep for fear of giving up the big play, that can open up the running game. And we know how much Carolina loves to run the football.
In the first game against Denver I didn't think they did a good job of taking shots down the field to get the Broncos to back off a little. This past week against the 49ers we saw more of those shots, and I think they had a positive effect on the outcome for Carolina. But its going to be a balancing act every week, so it’s something to keep an eye on.
Buying the Vikings
SW: Now, speaking of injuries that had us thinking doom and gloom that haven't, at least so far, held a team back, what do you make of the Vikings and their hot 2-0 start after loosing Teddy Bridgewater late in the preseason? Yeah, they beat the Titans with Shaun Hill in a game where I think a lot of folks just figured, "hey, it’s the same old Titans," but beating the Packers on Sunday Night Football with Sam Bradford starting and losing Adrian Peterson during the game just felt a little different to me. That Minnesota defense, especially, has looked championship caliber.
Are you buying that the Vikings are still a championship contender this season even after the loss of Bridgewater late in the preseason, or do you think they might still fizzle before the year is over?
RVB: I think I might be buying the Vikings more than I did back in August, and I was pretty damn high on them back then. They've got talent all over the roster. It definitely hurts with Peterson out, if for no other reason that defenses don't have to account for his presence on the field. But that running game was pretty solid in 2014 with Matt Asiata and Jerick McKinnon doing double duty. Plus, they actually have some legit talent elsewhere on the offense, like the impressive Stefon Diggs, that they didn't have back then.
People overlook special teams all the time, but that's the kind of stuff that when it's humming, it just adds to the equation for a team. On average, their offensive drives are starting on the 33-yard line. Not many teams are better than that. It also helps that Blair Walsh seems to have exorcised whatever demon he was carrying around during the playoffs last year.
Of course, the real story here is the defense. It's a damn turnover machine. Four forced fumbles last week -- three against Aaron Rodgers -- they recovered two and picked off Rodgers another time.
Five sacks last week too. FIVE! I know we've talked about their front seven (their defensive line specifically) on the podcast before, but this is even better than I thought they'd be. They don't have that guy like Von Miller or J.J. Watt who can just take over a game on the reg by himself, but they don't seem to be hurting for talent. Which of those guys is really standing out to you? What is it that makes their defense so good?
SW: I have to say that of all the players who are balling on that Vikings defense -- and there are several -- the guy who continues to impress the hell out of me is defensive lineman Linval Joseph.
Joseph is not your average nose tackle, even though his listed weight is almost 330 pounds. Not only is he hard to move at the point of attack, but he also has excellent technique and uncommon quickness for a man his size, which helps him stay in his gap even on zone plays and the like. He just destroys centers who try to single block him on the regular and he has already notched two sacks this season, even though he isn't usually on the field on passing downs and distances. While he doesn't always end up being the guy who gets the tackle on running plays, so often he is definitely the player who forced the running back to go where he didn't want to go in the first place. If he can stay healthy and continue this level of play, the Vikings are going to be in a ton of favorable third-down situations because of the grunt work he does so well on first and second down.
Big Blue back from beyond
SW: Since we are talking about defenses I have to say that Giants' retooled defense has impressed me as well. The thing about the success the Giants are having on defense is that it’s not coming from some exotic blitzes or crazy coverages, but mostly just from sound, fundamental play across the board. It’s a novel concept, but when you have really good players you can afford to keep things relatively simple, and the Giants definitely aren't trying to reinvent the wheel so far this season.
The have those two big tackles inside in Damon "Snacks" Harrison and Johnathan Hankins, who make it really hard to run the ball, and both JPP and Olivier Vernon have been getting pressure on the quarterback the first two games, even if the sacks don't show it just yet. The defensive line play has allowed their secondary with DRC, Janoris Jenkins, Landon Collins, and Nat Berhe to really lock in on coverage for the most part and there haven't been many places to throw the ball through the first two games even though, once again, they are just using basic coverages for the most part. Where they do a great job is with their disguises, however, so they make everything look kinda the same before the snap and then adjust on the fly as the receivers get into their routes. Its been impressive to watch.
Of course they do still blitz on occasion. Collins in particular has been outstanding in that area so far. I will be honest and say I didn't have high hopes for the Giants this season, but if their defense continues playing the way they have been and they stay relatively healthy I wouldn't be at all surprised if they end up winning the division.
What do you think of the 2-0 Giants so far?
RVB: I did not think the Giants defense would be as good as it is, particularly the secondary. Then again, their defensive coordinator, Steve Spagnuolo, built his reputation on a foundation of being a pretty good defensive backs coach. Hell, he made some garbage-ass cornerbacks look perfectly mediocre during his brief time as the Rams head coach.
Seeing what they've done with Jenkins is impressive. With the Rams, Jenkins was a "big play or bust" kind of corner. He'd play the ball over his man, and there would be times where he'd still be looking at the quarterback while a receiver went running on past him. So I was kind of dubious when the Giants signed him to such a big deal, but through two games, he looks like a much more complete corner than he did over the first four years of his career. (Imagine that, a player not getting great coaching under Jeff Fisher ... hey, I gotta take my shots when I can).
What's even more impressive about the Giants' 2-0 start is that they beat decent teams doing it, not the Browns and Bears and those teams with a World League roster. The other team that jumps out at me from the undefeated crowd so far is the Ravens. I guess that shouldn't be a huge surprise. When your best players get healthy again after a season where they were all injured (Flacco, Steve Smith, Suggs, etc.), you're going to win some games. Those two wins have come against the Bills and Browns, so I'll hold off before crowing them as an #Elite team, but it sets them for the rest of the season.