Week 5 of the NFL season saw some hot teams fall — or continue falling — back to Earth. The Rams’ loss to the Buccaneers last week became the beginning of a possible trend when LA dropped its second straight game, this time a Thursday night thriller against the Seahawks. The Giants’ and Jaguars’ two-game winning streaks with rookie quarterbacks came to an end thanks to the Vikings and Panthers, respectively. The Bears’ dominant defense was cracked open by, of all teams, Jon Gruden’s bullying Raiders.
This week’s winners weren’t just the teams that broke out of box score to climb a rung in their divisional rankings, however. The first NFL football Sunday of October gave several individual stars — and, in the Raiders’ case, a whole galaxy of blockers — a chance to shine. Who were this week’s biggest winners?
It wasn’t ...
Not considered: former Washington head coach Jay Gruden
Gruden entered 2019 with the best odds to be the first coach fired this fall. It made sense; he’d only been to the postseason once in Washington and had never won 10 games in a single season.
He’s done nothing to justify his franchise’s decision to give him another year to turn things around in the nation’s capital. Washington is 0-5 to start the season after Sunday’s loss to the Patriots. The last three of those defeats have come by a combined 63 points. He’s put three different players behind center (Case Keenum, Dwayne Haskins, Colt McCoy, in that order) and his quarterbacks have combined for seven touchdown passes and eight interceptions in five games. His defense has given up 24 points every week and at least 30 in all but one.
So Gruden knew he was almost certainly done as Washington’s head coach after losing big to the Pats in Week 5. How’d he take it?
#Redskins coach Jay Gruden: “If the key works Monday I'll keep working."— Ian Rapoport (@RapSheet) October 6, 2019
General manager Bruce Allen didn’t like this attempt at self-deprecating humor, apparently. He called his head coach in for an extremely rude 5 am meeting just to fire him, which seems excessive. Hopefully Gruden got to head home and get a good nap in before sending out resumes and/or seeing if his brother needs an offensive consultant.
This week’s actual winners:
9. Steven Sims, the pride of ... the University of Kansas? That can’t be right
Sims didn’t give the Patriots many opportunities to review his game film coming into Week 5. The undrafted rookie free agent and former Jayhawk only played 21 offensive snaps in his first four games.
That explains why New England’s vaunted defense looked wholly unprepared for this:
Sims ripped off the biggest play the Patriots’ defense has given up so far in 2019, exploding for 65 yards out of the backfield to give Washington an early 7-0 lead over its undefeated opponent. The Pats were ready for him the next time he got the call out of the backfield. His follow-up touch, a shovel pass, was stopped for a loss of four yards in the second quarter. He’d add one more catch to wrap up 66 total yards against the defending champions, constituting 30 percent of the team’s net offensive yards and 85.7 percent of its points in a 33-7 loss.
8. The swagger-jacking 49ers defense
Back in 2017, Baker Mayfield faced Nick Bosa’s Ohio State team in Columbus and capped a 31-15 win by emphatically (and literally) planting an Oklahoma flag at the center of Ohio Stadium. Nick Bosa, then a sophomore with the Buckeyes, made a mental note of this.
When he hit the now-Browns quarterback to force an intentional grounding flag on Monday Night Football, he got to re-live the moment on an NFL stage:
Bosa finished his day with two sacks and five QB hits while San Francisco effectively threw the Cleveland offense into a wood chipper. He wasn’t the only Niner to turn a perceived lack of respect from Mayfield into motivation.
Cornerback Richard Sherman took Mayfield’s apocryphal refusal to shake his hand after the coin toss as a major slight. He rode that snub to his second interception of the year. Deforest Buckner, who also failed to extract a quick shake from the second-year Brown, had one sack and four tackles in the aftermath. Except that motivation may have been entirely manufactured, which it appears the Browns’ QB was moderately respectful for the pregame ceremony:
WHAT IS SHERM TALKING ABOUT HE LITERALLY SHOOK BAKER'S HAND— Cappin America (@FlammyMarciano) October 8, 2019
BAKER SHOOK EVERYONE'S HAND pic.twitter.com/Vl5AjYt5Jv
How did Mayfield respond on the field? Not well!
fun Baker Mayfield stats from his worst ever NFL start:— Christian D'Andrea (@TrainIsland) October 8, 2019
- Jamie Gillan punted for more than 3x as many yards as he had passing
- Odell Beckham finished the day with a QB rating 105.4 points higher
- his 0.45 adjusted yards/att was 166th lowest in a single 2019 game to date
7. Aaron Jones, who was either your fantasy league hero or villain in the late game
Jones tied a Packers franchise record with four rushing touchdowns Sunday, and he only needed 12 carries in the first three quarters to get there. The running back led his team in both rushing (19 carries, 107 yards) and receiving (seven catches, 75 yards) while doing something no other player has ever done against the Dallas Cowboys.
Aaron Jones is the first player to rush for 4 TD in a single game against the Cowboys. pic.twitter.com/Fxk6pAE6g5— ESPN Stats & Info (@ESPNStatsInfo) October 6, 2019
That was enough to carry Green Bay to a 34-24 road win in Dallas. It was also probably enough to sway plenty of fantasy football matchups across the fake sports landscape. Let’s say you’re in a point-per-reception fantasy league. With a standard scoring setup, Jones just sprang for 49.2 points. That’s enough to either entirely humiliate your opponent or enough to find yourself on the depressing end of a loss that once looked like a surefire win after the 1 p.m. ET games had finished.
Oakland’s blocking faced its biggest test of 2019 against the league’s No. 2 scoring defense in London. The Bears came into their international game matchup with the Raiders averaging a sack in roughly one out of 10 opponent dropbacks as Khalil Mack, Danny Trevathan, Akiem Hicks, and Roquan Smith have presented a dominant front.
That unit was surprisingly quiet in the United Kingdom as they were snuffed out by an unheralded group of Raider linemen.
the Bears might have to bring more than 4 guys if they're gonna stop the Raiders offense today pic.twitter.com/iWkWGxOLG3— Christian D'Andrea (@TrainIsland) October 6, 2019
Chicago lost Akiem Hicks to an elbow injury early in the game and seemed to suffer without its wrecking ball defensive tackle eating up blockers. The Bears had at least two sacks in each game this fall — including six without Hicks last week — and were averaging 4.25 per game coming into their showdown with Mack’s old team. On Sunday, they dropped Derek Carr behind the line of scrimmage zero times and only hit him once.
More importantly, the Bears’ big men were moved off the line with relative ease as the Josh Jacobs became the first player to rush for 100+ yards against Chicago this fall. Oakland was able to create space early and often up front, which led to two different touchdown dives from inside the 3-yard line. The latter of which — Jacobs’ second touchdown of the game — turned out to be the game-winning points.
The Raiders’ defensive line was pretty good, too. Oakland sacked Chase Daniel four times in an impressive all-around effort. Khalil Mack’s revenge on the team that traded him away will have to wait.
5. Jordan Phillips, who looks like he weighs 350 pounds but does not move that way
Ed Oliver was tagged to be Kyle Williams’ replacement as the Bills’ middle-of-the-line force this season. While he’s been as good as expected, he might not be the most disruptive defensive tackle on his own depth chart this season.
Instead, that honor may belong to Phillips. Phillips, who has come off the bench in each of his five games to start the season, tore through the Titans’ offensive line like tissue paper en route to a career-high three sacks ... in the first half alone.
Phillips teamed up with Shaq Lawson to expose All-Pro tackle Taylor Lewan in his first game back from a season-opening PED suspension, a matchup that did not go unnoticed by the fifth-year tackle:
The Buffalo front seven beat the crap out of the Tennessee, hitting Marcus Mariota seven times in the first two quarters alone. That held an offense that had scored 24 points the week before to just a single touchdown in a 14-7 win.
Josh Allen’s return (both to the field after suffering a head injury last week as well as to competency in a 219-yard, two-touchdown performance) was a key component behind Buffalo’s fourth win of the season. Even so, the Bills might be starting up at .500 if not for a smothering defensive effort across the board. The emergence of a havoc-creating monster like Phillips is just endemic of that.
4. Justin Tucker, who is bored enough with kicking that he’s moved into the trick shot stage of his career
Tucker has been one of the league’s top three placekickers — and occasionally its best overall — for most of his eight-year career. So it makes sense a guy who has made more than 90 percent of his field goal attempts, including one that sent Sunday’s game against arch-rival Pittsburgh to overtime, would try to find new ways to make things interesting. Like by draining a game-winning kick with a fancy double-break trajectory.
Tucker’s kick moved like Axl Rose dances, sliding side to side before slicing inside the goalpost and sending Steelers fans back to Primanti Bros. disappointed. Oh, and because kickers are weirdoes, he waited approximately one hour for Heinz Field to empty out in order to double-celebrate.
3. Will Fuller, who Atlanta forgot existed and then paid dearly for it
DeAndre Hopkins is an All-Pro wide receiver. Keeping him covered is very important. Not so important that you can’t forget about all the other former first-round picks on the Houston depth chart. Namely, Fuller:
The entire Atlanta secondary decided to move with DeAndre Hopkins on Fuller's second touchdown. pic.twitter.com/czUspxVdaP— Rivers McCown (@riversmccown) October 6, 2019
That impressive breakdown from the Falcons’ secondary produced Fuller’s second touchdown of the first half. He’d draw a little more coverage — read, one man — for his third touchdown later on, though it would be no less embarrassing for Atlanta’s cornerbacks.
The biggest beneficiary of Fuller’s ability to torch defensive backs with elite straight-line speed was Deshaun Watson, who’s connected with his fourth-year wideout for 14 touchdowns in 16 games together. Watson put together one of his most explosive performances in a career filled with them. Week 5 marked his third NFL game with five passing touchdowns, and his 426 passing yards were the most he’s had in a single Sunday to date. Fuller was responsible for more than half those yards (217) in a 53-32 win that only solidified the Falcons’ claim as the NFC South’s saddest team.
2. Marshon Lattimore, who shut down one of the game’s most deadly wide receivers
Mike Evans had been Bruce Arians’ offensive enabler through four weeks in Tampa. The big, rangy wideout was able to demolish defenses in single coverage and take away enough defensive focus to allow other skill players like Chris Godwin or Ronald Jones to flourish. Through four games, he helped Jameis Winston get out to a career-high pace in both touchdown rate and passer rating while hauling in 18 catches for 368 yards and four touchdowns.
The Saints didn’t have much of a plan to stop him. They didn’t need one. They just stuck former defensive rookie of the year Lattimore on him and watched Evans set season lows in both targets (three) and catches (zero).
Marshon Lattimore shut down Mike Evans in the @Saints win, allowing 0 receptions on 2 targets as the nearest defender.— Next Gen Stats (@NextGenStats) October 6, 2019
Lattimore shadowed Evans all over the field, lining up across from him on 43 of Evans' 53 snaps (81%). #NOvsTB | #Saints pic.twitter.com/kSsyRAMJu9
This wasn’t the first time this has paid off for New Orleans. Lattimore drew primary coverage duties on Pro Bowler Amari Cooper in Week 4’s win over over the Cowboys. Cooper had five catches that night, but for only 48 yards as Dallas’ offense sputtered in a 12-10 defeat.
Lattimore’s coverage had a similar chilling effect in Week 5. Although Winston was still able to glean a monster performance from Chris Godwin (seven catches, 125 yards, two touchdowns), he got only eight catches on 17 targets to the rest of his teammates for just 79 yards. Tampa Bay really needed that extra firepower, too; the Bucs lost 31-24 in a game where it was soundly outplayed by Teddy Bridgewater.
1. Christian McCaffrey, who stole the souls of Jacksonville’s linebacking corps
McCaffrey is making a legitimate case to be the league’s first non-quarterback MVP since 2012. The Panthers’ do-it-all tailback turned the Jaguars’ linebackers tasked with covering him into a teal-tinted mist en route to 237 total yards and three touchdowns in a 34-27 win. Most importantly — and extremely embarrassingly for the Jags — he did it all while running pretty much the same running play over and over again.
“I don’t know if I’ve ever in my career heard the same play call so many times,” tight end Greg Olsen said.
“It’s kind of like this: Defenses call blitzes until you pick them up and we ran the same play until they could stop it,” left guard Greg Van Roten said. “And they didn’t.
Sometimes he did it running through holes roughly the size of a children’s choir:
And sometimes he did it be juking defenders into oblivion:
But no matter how he did it, he utterly demoralized Jacksonville’s defense. By the end of the game, the Jaguars were so shook Reggie Bonnafon (two career carries for 5 yards) was able to do this:
You may see that as the kind of play that devalues McCaffrey’s early dominance. I say it only makes it more important. The starter chipped away at the Jags’ foundation until even the most gentle wind could knock it over — like, say, an undrafted free agent who’d only had two carries coming into Sunday.
That’s the kind of impact ol’ Run CMC’s had in 2019.