Five things I care about
Chargers’ targets show an offensive identity
I was determined not to buy into any Chargers hype this season because I thought the roster wasn’t nearly as strong as many others. Any injuries, so often an issue for Los Angeles, would likely derail multiple parts of the outfit. So far this season, I feel pretty good about that train of thought. A win over the Chicago Bears is not going to move me off that prediction but, if you squint at it, I do think the Week 8 result does paint a path forward for the Chargers offense.
Austin Ekeler and Keenan Allen combined for 18 targets and 15 receptions against the Bears. Justin Herbert enjoyed his best passing date in well over a month as a passer. That’s not a fluke.
The air yards police won’t like it that Herbert ranks dead last among quarterbacks in Week 8 with 4.9 air yards per target, per Next Gen Stats, but this is the world the Chargers must live in right now. There isn’t a reliable vertical threat in the stable, especially with Joshua Palmer dealing with multiple injuries. Quentin Johnston had a couple of solid grabs in a layup matchup but we’re still in the developmental phase with the rookie receiver.
We so often slam coaches for not using their best players, for not being “players over plays” (more on that below). We cannot hold true to those creeds and crush the Chargers offense for their current approach. Their two best receiving options are their running back and their veteran slot receiver. Trying to push the ball for verticality’s sake is needless and misguided.
I don’t know that this formula will produce a playoff product for the Chargers. There will certainly need to be more fear-inducing plays at the helm against tougher opponents down the stretch. However, it is where the Chargers are right now. Unless the light turns on for Johnston in rapid fashion, an Allen- and Ekeler-centric passing offense is simply the only path forward for Los Angeles.
Like it or not, this is the identity of the Chargers under Justin Herbert once again.
The Cowboys offense revolved around CeeDee Lamb
We can definitely over-simplify the “just throw to your good player” concept on the outside. I don’t think that’s the case with the Dallas Cowboys.
The Cowboys offense had not offered many signature moments to start the season. One of the clearest issues was CeeDee Lamb’s role. He was being used like a cog in the machine, not a true featured receiver. That made no sense because we all know he’s that caliber of player. The Cowboys know that too, as they used him like one in 2022.
CeeDee Lamb’s first-read target rate is down from 34% in 2022 to 24% in 2023, according to the @FantasyPtsData Suite.
His target share is down from 28.6% to 22.0%.
And still, Lamb’s yard per route run rate is up from 2.38 to 2.44.
— Jacob Gibbs (@jagibbs_23) October 25, 2023
It was no coincidence that Lamb’s best game of the season to date — Week 6 against the Chargers — happened to overlap with the team’s biggest win. It was great to see that not only continue in Week 8 but take yet another step forward.
Lamb was darn near the only show in town. He inhaled 14 targets against the Los Angeles Rams, catching 12 for 158 yards and two scores. It honestly felt like more, watching this game wire to wire. That was likely due to the huge gap between himself and any other Cowboys pass-catcher.
Lamb was the offensive engine for the Cowboys in a blowout win. Certainly, he was not alone in propelling the team to win as the defense and special teams were excellent against LA. However, Lamb’s huge performance and the end result lining up is not a coincidence. He took over this game and he’s capable of doing that every single week.
I’ve been critical of the constant “The Texas Coast offense” talk around the Cowboys. I don’t really see what type of identity has brought this team to this point of this season. The running game has been a huge letdown. That can’t be the guiding point of the operation.
Lamb has been begging to be THE guy all season long and Week 8 confirmed that is how it should be. Players over plays. And the Cowboys have an elite player to build the team around in CeeDee Lamb.
Will Levis’ debut
The Titans are a fascinating team. I can’t quite decide whether they are on the precipice of a rebuild or if they have an overall quality roster they can build on. Most of their moves also speak to a similar sense of conflicted aura inside the building. After seeing their rookie quarterback play in his first career start, I have a feeling that the same conflict will hang over the team for the Titans brass. I know I am still confused.
Will Levis was excellent in his debut. He was far from some wilting flower, either. Levis pushed the ball down the field from the moment the game began. The poise and aggression were notable.
This fits with Levis’ collegiate profile. He ran a ton of pro-style concepts at Kentucky, so it made sense that he could fill in as a starter this early into his first season. He has a cannon for an arm that allows him to hit tight-window vertical throws. We saw that on display this Sunday. Levis will stand in the pocket and has the bravado to keep his eyes off pass rushers and deliver heaters.
If we’re being honest, Ryan Tannehill used to have several of those traits but they have not been apparent in his age-35 season. The veteran has thrown two touchdowns this season.
Levis doubled that up in just one start.
Tannehill’s declining physical skill set was leaving meat on the bone and exacerbating issues with the offensive line. It was causing some to ask questions about how much Derrick Henry and especially DeAndre Hopkins had left. While neither veteran is at the height of their powers at this point in their careers, they are still more than viable top dogs. Both cleared 100 yards in Week 8 and Hopkins scored three times, all on downfield shots. Hopkins just needs an aggressive and competent quarterback to show off what he can do. While there are major questions about the younger guys in Tennessee’s pass-catching corps, Hopkins isn’t a question mark. He’s a certainty.
With the chatter leaning toward both Henry and Hopkins staying in Tennessee at the trade deadline, Levis’ performance is going to matter down the stretch. We got a ton of great signs in his first start against a solid Falcons defense.
It feels like, after every Seahawks game, I’m left wanting more. Which I know is likely unfair after Geno Smith led the team down the field inside the two-minute warning on a game-winning drive in Week 8. Taking down the best defense in the league and escaping with 24 points is no light work.
The Seahawks have so much talent but have stalled out in the red zone consistently all season. It’s hard to wave off whiffs in the most critical area of the field. And yet, there has been so much good between the twenties that I want to chase.
In Week 8’s win, it was turnovers and some missed opportunities that kept the Seahawks from scraping their ceiling. Even still, you saw the potential in the passing game.
Despite coming in highly questionable, Tyler Lockett enjoyed one of his best games on the season with eight catches for 81 yards and a score. The chemistry between Lockett and Smith is palpable. DK Metcalf had a long 43-yard catch that set up a score. Rookie Jaxon Smith-Njigba hauled in the game-winning catch-and-run touchdown. Undrafted rookie Jake Bobo continues to play a big and unexpected role.
These receivers make up a really nice group. The problem is, unless this offense can get out of its own way, all of these guys will siphon production from each other to the point that no one will hit the preconceived ceiling we once believed in. These are all nice players and it’s an overall good unit. It just needs to be more than “good” for the fantasy football ceiling to be realized.
I believe it can be, we just haven’t seen it yet.
Get-right receivers in Philadelphia vs. Washington
One of the lessons of 2023 has been that No. 2 receivers, no matter how talented they are, will be susceptible to offensive chaos hindering their production. Both DeVonta Smith and Jahan Dotson have taken backseats for much of this season as their overall offenses — to extremely different degrees — have tried to problem-solve in real time. However, that doesn’t mean they will remain in the dark forever. To the contrary, most of these guys are simply too good to not get going at some point.
A.J. Brown enjoyed another dominant outing, catching all eight of his targets for 130 yards and a pair of highlight-reel touchdowns. He’s just having a special season. The attention he’s getting finally opened up chances for Smith on the other side and unlike other games this year, Smith converted. He soared into the end zone on a busted coverage look for his 38-yard score and overall caught all seven of his targets for 99 yards.
Smith is one of the young star receivers in this league. A cold stretch this season doesn’t change that.
For Washington, Sam Howell was able to stay upright for most of the game. He only took one sack against the vaunted Eagles front, a stunner considering he was on pace for 97 sacks coming into Week 8.
Howell keeping drives alive and not destroying them with sacks created a trickle-down impact for the whole unit. Jahan Dotson came off the milk carton to lead the team in targets (10), recording 108 yards and a score on eight grabs. Other complementary players also stepped up after Terry McLaurin hauled in this first touchdown of the game. When Howell is able to play on schedule, this offense has so much talent to show off.
Smith and Dotson have been disappointing producers to start 2023. While they’ve left some plays on the field, it has mostly been through no fault of their own. It’s just been a matter of conditions. So don’t rule out them finishing the season strong if the winds blow in a different direction the rest of the way.
Five things I don’t care about
Making too much of Tyson Bagent
Brock Purdy’s emergence last season only served as an accelerant for football media’s obsession with the hidden-gem quarterback. The way some folks talked about Tyson Bagent this week only confirmed that.
Chicago won Week 7 on the back of a punishing run game and the generosity of the Raiders quarterbacks. Bagent kept the train on the tracks and went along for the ride. But an awful lot was made of a quarterback performance that included a sub-3.0 air yards per attempt average last week.
Everything in Week 8 set up for a crash-back-to-earth moment and it did just that. Bagent uncorked a 41-yard pass to Darnell Mooney to start this game but that would be the final time he made a play that scared the Chargers defense.
At one point, Cris Collinsworth opined that some of Bagent’s game would provide teaching tape for Justin Fields. I see the direction he’s driving; I’m just not sure I can totally keep up with the speed of the trip.
There’s no question Fields needs to play with better timing and speed up his internal clock. I don’t think Bagent is going to provide some kind of crystal-clear example for Fields to follow. Frankly, if Bagent’s film was really all that stood in the way of Fields “figuring it out,” then it was probably never going to happen for him.
Look, I do not want to come off even remotely disrespectful to Bagent. Considering where he came from, he’s already beaten all the odds. I won’t even rule out that he has a future in the league as a guy who can hang onto a roster. His story is just beginning and it’s already a success. We can say all that and still be real about what we’re seeing. Bagent is an inexperienced quarterback who looks besieged in a rough offensive environment.
That’s all. We don’t have to make something out of everything.
Efforts to “Yada-Yada-Yada” Desmond Ridder’s turnovers
Arthur Smith was already dealing with heat after the mysterious handling of Bijan Robinson’s injury status last week. Then he made more waves in his use of “toxic groupthink” in an attempt to defend his quarterback:
the most egregious moment of the Arthur Smith presser was Smith claiming that public criticism of Desmond Ridder is due to toxic group think from people who aren’t watching the film pic.twitter.com/Fwmodthbsr
— The Coachspeak Index (@CoachspeakIndex) October 26, 2023
I’ll say this for Smith — I get the point he’s trying to make. Desmond Ridder had shown legitimate signs of improvement over his previous three games. He had cut back dramatically on his sacks, which were back-breakers earlier in 2023, and had improved his ability to move defenses with his eyes on play-action throws. He was showing real signs of promise but you have to look past his consistent and devastating turnover issues to see them.
The problem with a quarterback’s propensity to give the ball to the other team is that you’re really omitting key information. Despite all the positive signs, Ridder has been extremely careless with the football, including some inexcusable fumbles against the Bucs last week:
Desmond Ridder has 7 fumbles and 6 INTs in 8 games this season
— Josh Norris (@JoshNorris) October 29, 2023
Ridder lost another fumble against the Titans and even worse, his sack issue came back to the forefront. He took five in the first half and was a huge reason Atlanta was in a hole all day. He started the second half in the concussion protocol and despite being cleared, he never returned to the game. Taylor Heinicke played the rest of the day and helped throw the Falcons back into the game.
Heinicke is not perfect but plays with some controlled aggression. He averaged 11.2 air yards per attempt and threw into tight windows on 19% of his passes, per Next Gen Stats. You saw him rifle contested throws into closing windows throughout the day.
Smith said after the game that Atlanta didn’t bench Ridder for performance reasons. I’m not sure what the other explanation would be if Ridder did indeed clear concussion protocol. Obviously, Smith has a decent bit invested in his guy succeeding but after getting a look at his viable alternative and Ridder unable to shake his turnover demons, it’s worth wondering if Heinicke could or should get starts going forward.
Joe Burrow’s first half of 2023 season
Coming out of the bye, we saw a version of Joe Burrow we haven’t really been treated to yet this season. Burrow had not cleared 7.0 yards per attempt in any game this season prior to Week 8. On Sunday, he posted 8.8 YPA along with three touchdowns and an 87.5% completion rate. Perhaps most critically, he rushed six times for 43 yards. All of this came against a formidable defense.
That’s a man who is fully healthy.
Burrow is back. The Bengals are doing a better job of protecting him and it appeared the coaching staff had done a better job over the bye week working to blend their run and pass game together. Hats off to a Bengals operation that was able to weather the storm and emerge with a winning record.
All of the analysis that spelled out concern for Burrow earlier this season was correct. In the moment, we were all right to be worried and raise the alarm about his play and how that would trickle down to his teammates. But that’s in the past. Those days are gone and our view of the Bengals can officially shift back to the team we’ve known. The good history well outweighs the recent troublesome past.
We no longer have to care about the version of Joe Burrow we watched in Weeks 1-6. That guy is gone and he’s (hopefully) never coming back.
Too much 49ers panic
The 49ers have now dropped three straight after winning five straight to begin 2023. It’s hard to turn your nose up at a 5-3 record overall, though the timeline of how they arrived at that record is troubling.
I’m not sure I’m quite at panic time yet with this team as they head into their bye week.
Brock Purdy has thrown five picks over his last three games. I know so many fans hate talking about “interceptable passes” or “turnover-worthy throws” because it attempts to look beyond just the bottom line. But those charting metrics help paint the story of variance. We can be honest that Purdy was living on the right side of variance to start this season and so much of last season and has since run into the less desirable part of the coin. We can assume at some point we will get Purdy living closer to the median range of outcomes.
The defense has been a mixed bag, at best, of late. The pass rush let Joe Burrow run clean for most of the game. That’s the first time we have said that about a Bengals opponent all year. That has to get fixed in a hurry but overall there can’t be too much concern about this star-laden team.
The reality is that the 49ers were probably not as good as their 5-0 record once had us believe and aren’t nearly as bad as an 0-3 mark. They’re likely somewhere in between which, in the NFC, puts them near the top of the heap with plenty of time to get the train back on the tracks.
The Vikings’ hopes without Kirk Cousins
If you’ve been following this column all season, you know I’ve been highly skeptical that the Vikings offense would remain viable without Justin Jefferson. I was quite wrong about that. Minnesota went 3-0 the last three games without Jefferson, got excellent performances from Kirk Cousins and enjoyed a breakout from their rookie wideout Jordan Addison.
Week 8 brought them another win but it came with a cost too much to bear.
Cousins will likely out for the rest of the season if his Achilles injury is confirmed. It’s a truly brutal blow for Cousins who was enjoying a fine season before a free-agency bid in 2024. I can’t label it as anything other than a fatal impact for a Vikings offense that has been one of the more productive units in the NFL this season.
Head coach Kevin O’Connell was beyond bummed after the game. You can feel the connection between play-caller and quarterback in Minnesota. Cousins has had two excellent campaigns under O’Connell, who may be one of the most under-appreciated offensive coaches in the game. Now, we find the Vikings coach in a spot postgame where he didn’t want to commit to fifth-round rookie Jaren Hall, the man who replaced Cousins in Week 8.
Hall is far from a perfect solution. Sean Mannion is on the practice squad and has made the rounds in this system over the years. Nick Mullens has had bright moments in the NFL before under Kyle Shanahan and he’s on the Vikings IR list. Even typing this out is bleak.
Minnesota’s offense was a source of highlight moments and fantasy goodness in the first half of this season. It’s tough for me to imagine either is true without Cousins. We once viewed Cousins as some sort of a game-manager and product of his environment. Maybe that second part was fair at one point but he’s done an awful lot to make this environment in O’Connell’s offense what it has been the last two seasons. Much of that goes out the window with his exit. And it’s hard for me to imagine what’s left behind will create conditions that Jefferson wants to rush back to later this season.