In The First Read, Jeffri Chadiha provides a snapshot of the hottest stories and trends heading into Week 10 of the 2021 NFL season, including:
But first, examining the necessity of fielding a strong defense in today's NFL ...
This was bound to be an intriguing year in the NFL for many reasons.
The league is playing a 17-game schedule for the first time. We didn't know if there would be that many challengers to the defending Super Bowl champion Tampa Bay Buccaneers in the NFC, largely because Green Bay was the only team that had any real appeal in that conversation.
Now that we've reached the midseason mark, we can add another variable that will make this season even more compelling as it plays out: The only way a team wins a championship this year is if it has a defense that is actually legit.
Take a look around the NFL. You'll see that the best teams either have established defenses, or they've done plenty to improve on that side of the football. The Tennessee Titans have become the best team in the AFC largely because their defense has arrived. The Los Angeles Rams just made a blockbuster trade for pass rusher Von Miller to bolster a unit that already was pretty good. Some teams have gotten improved play from talented defenses (Buffalo, Cleveland, Green Bay and Arizona), while others have benefitted from smart personnel and/or scheme changes (Dallas, New England and Cincinnati).
There was a time, not that long ago, when all the talk around the league centered on the franchise quarterback. That was the byproduct of the Kansas City Chiefs unleashing Patrick Mahomes on the world, the Baltimore Ravens developing Lamar Jackson and old gunslingers like Tom Brady and Aaron Rodgers playing at sublime levels. Of course, offense still matters plenty. It's just that defenses are finally catching up with some of the innovation we've seen in recent years.
The Buccaneers actually may have pushed the ball forward on this. As much as they owe last year's win in Super Bowl LV to the arrival of Brady, they also had a pretty good defense that destroyed Mahomes and his injury-depleted offensive line in that game. The Buccaneers had everything a modern defense needed -- a ferocious pass rush, a stiffing run defense and smart back-end players -- and it seemed like a savvy move for others to find their own dominant unit to pair with a high-scoring offense. In fact, a banged-up secondary might be the only thing that keeps Tampa Bay from returning to the Super Bowl this year.
The point to be made here is that the league is more balanced at the quarterback position than it's ever been. Mahomes was a generational talent when he arrived. Now the gap is much narrower between him and somebody like Jackson, Buffalo's Josh Allen, Arizona's Kyler Murray or Dallas' Dak Prescott. That means a lot of teams can score points in bunches these days. The ones who will challenge for the Lombardi Trophy are the ones who are best equipped to stop that from happening.
Quick-hitting thoughts on storylines to track around the NFL.
1) Mike Vrabel for Coach of the Year? The Tennessee Titans are one of those teams that will never impress anybody coming out of the gate. They play old-school football, their brightest star is an oversized running back in a league that devalues the position and their defense isn't blessed with much star power. Then, inevitably, we look up around midseason, and there they are -- defying odds, rebuffing critics and reminding us that they're led by a hell of a head coach in Vrabel. This year's race for Coach of the Year gets more interesting by the week. You've got Mike McCarthy helming a resurgent Dallas Cowboys team. The Baltimore Ravens are leading the AFC North despite a slew of severe injuries because John Harbaugh knows a thing or two about coaching. There are the young bucks who are blowing up, guys like Arizona's Kliff Kingsbury, Cincinnati's Zac Taylor and the Chargers' Brandon Staley. None of them has been doing what Vrabel has accomplished in recent weeks. His Titans beat the Bills in a 34-31 shootout that came down to a goal-line stand in the final minute. They routed the Chiefs, 27-3, with a defensive secondary that was decimated by injuries. And on Sunday night, they went to Los Angeles -- after learning last week that All-Pro running back Derrick Henry will be out for 6-10 weeks with a broken foot -- and blasted the Rams in front of a national television audience. Props to Vrabel. The Titans keep facing all sorts of obstacles, and those issues seem to only drive this team to perform at an even higher level. They aren't the sexiest team in the league. They're just led by a coach who clearly knows how to make the most of what he's working with each week.
2) The Patrick Mahomes slump is real: We've moved past the point of wondering when the Kansas City Chiefs star quarterback is going to return to his typical form and dominate the NFL again. There is something legitimately off about Mahomes, and it's a source of concern for those within the Chiefs organization. He's thrown two touchdown passes and two interceptions in his last three games. He's averaged 215.7 passing yards in those contests and accounted for all of 166 passing yards in Sunday's 13-7 win over Green Bay. Overall, the Chiefs have scored just 36 points in their last three outings. The upside is, they've won two of those (against the Giants and Packers). The downside is, those victories came against teams led by quarterbacks named Daniel Jones and Jordan Love. There have been so many issues with the Chiefs' offense -- from shaky offensive tackles to defenses containing Tyreek Hill and Travis Kelce to a league-high 19 turnovers -- that it's been easy to assume this unit has been dragging Mahomes down. That isn't the case anymore. He's literally playing the worst football of his career. He's missing open receivers, failing to take opportunities for checkdowns when they arise and, most importantly, looking as joyless as he's ever appeared on a football field at this level. The Chiefs have been good enough to survive lately with him slumping. The reality is, they aren't going to beat the best teams in the league unless their quarterback starts performing at a high level again.
3) Russell Wilson returns at the right time: The Seahawks are lucky. Their season could've capsized when their star quarterback landed on injured reserve in Week 5 because of surgery to repair a damaged right middle finger. Instead, Wilson -- who received clearance to play from his doctor on Monday -- is returning in time to push Seattle right back into the thick of the NFC playoff race. The Seahawks, coming out of a Week 9 bye, have gone 1-3 since Wilson injured his finger in a Thursday Night Football loss to the Rams (including the result of that game). What they didn't do was lose too much ground with Geno Smith filling in at quarterback for Wilson. At 3-5, Seattle would be just one game behind Atlanta for the final wild-card spot in the conference if the postseason started today. That gives Wilson ample time to collect some valuable wins in the coming weeks. There will be a couple tough games to start, with Green Bay this weekend and NFC West leader Arizona after that. However, the Seahawks have plenty of winnable games on the horizon, including matchups with Washington, San Francisco, Houston, Chicago and Detroit. Wilson has missed the playoffs only once in his previous nine NFL seasons. Don't be surprised if he wills this team back into the postseason.
Taylor is second in the league in rushing and a strong contender to be in the top spot at year's end, now that Henry is down in Tennessee. The second-year back has surpassed the 100-yard mark in three of his last four games, and he put 172 on the Jets in Thursday night's win. The Colts clearly will have a hard time catching Tennessee in the AFC South race, but the wild-card picture is getting more muddled with each passing week. If Taylor stays hot -- and eases the pressure on quarterback Carson Wentz -- then Indianapolis has a good chance of finding a way in.
The Falcons are a baffling team, but you can't argue with three wins in four weeks, including a 27-25 triumph over the Saints on Sunday. Ryan has been a huge part of that success while leading an offense that is without star receiver Calvin Ridley (who took a leave from the team for personal reasons). Ryan has thrown six touchdown passes and only one interception in those last three victories. He also just torched New Orleans -- the same defense that forced three turnovers in a Week 8 win over Tampa Bay -- for 343 yards and two touchdowns. Atlanta still has plenty prove, especially with upcoming games against the Cowboys and Patriots, but the Falcons are officially in the thick of the wild-card race at 4-4.
There's been enough Josh Allen vs. Josh Allen jokes flying around already, so this isn't the place for another one. It is a good spot to give some love to a defender who went off against Buffalo. Allen finished with eight tackles, an interception, a sack and a fumble recovery in a 9-6 upset win. A huge effort by a 2019 first-round pick who's looking more like the player who had 10.5 sacks as a rookie and less like the one who disappointed in Year 2.
Something troubling is happening to that vaunted Bills offense that was running through teams earlier this year. Aside from struggling to run the football more consistently -- they've failed to reach the 100-yard mark as a team in two of their last three games, both defeats -- this unit also is fading in critical moments. There was the failed fourth-down attempt in the loss to Tennessee. Quarterback Josh Allen had three turnovers in Sunday's 9-6 loss to Jacksonville and faced constant pressure (he was without two key offensive linemen for that game). Keep in mind, the Jaguars are currently allowing 26 points per contest. The Bills have another easy opponent this coming week -- the lowly Jets -- but they had better get things figured out fast.
The Bengals were the best story in the AFC two weeks ago. Now they're coming off an upset loss to the Jets and a 41-16 blowout defeat at the hands of the Browns. If routing the Ravens in Baltimore in Week 7 was Cincinnati's coming-out party, then the last two games have officially become its wake-up call. Taylor led his team into playoff contention. He now has to keep it from imploding under the weight of rising expectations.
It's hard to explain how a vastly improved defense can fall apart against an offense as feeble as Denver's, as was the case in Dallas' 30-16 loss on Sunday. The Broncos hadn't scored 30 points all season -- in fact, they'd only scored 31 points combined in their previous two games. You don't want to make too big a deal out of one loss, which happened to be just the Cowboys' second defeat of the year, but this could be our first indication of what Dallas looks like when the offense isn't on fire.
One question answered by an unnamed front office source.
GENERAL MANAGER OF AN AFC TEAM: "He's still very talented, but it's a mistake to bet on him as a No. 1 receiver at this stage. His injury history is too much of a concern. He's just masquerading as a No. 1 now, and he hasn't been dependable in that role in a long time. You literally can't build your passing game around him, because he gets hurt too much. He's really no different than Julio Jones in Atlanta the last couple years he spent there. Odell can definitely play a big-time role on another team if he commits to the team and culture mentally, but that's a big if. He's at a point now where he needs to be in an offense where he'll have games where the looks may come his way in volume. You can't expect to game-plan him as an unguardable WR1 who demands that coverages tilt to him consistently so other players get open looks. You can tell by how much man coverage he's been getting the last couple years that defensive coordinators don't view him as an elite threat anymore. Odell's future success all depends on who the head coach is and whether that person has a history of managing big personalities. This isn't like college, where guys change because they're still growing up. Once you have money, you are what you are after a couple years at this level."
A simple ranking of the top five candidates, which will be updated weekly, depending on performance. Here is how it stands heading into Week 10 (arrows reflect movement from last week's edition):
My slowly evolving Super Bowl pick, which also will be updated each week, depending on performances: Buccaneers over Titans.