The seeds for some of Week 3’s biggest stories were planted this offseason, back when it was unclear if there would even be a season. In this week’s Debrief, I’m going to focus on some of the early decisions that got us here:
The Bills wouldn’t have won Sunday without the trade for Stefon Diggs. Diggs’ four catches for 49 yards and a score against the Rams don’t leap off the box score — three Bills had more receiving yards — but Buffalo would not have defeated Los Angeles without him. Sometimes, it’s not about the quantity of plays, just the quality.
Diggs beat Jalen Ramsey one-on-one for a touchdown on third and-goal from the 4-yard line, reading the field with the same eyes as Josh Allen, just before Allen got hit by Aaron Donald. Diggs and Allen’s chemistry has been remarkable for how quickly it has developed. Many of Allen’s best throws this season have come out-of-structure, with Diggs understanding where his quarterback needed him to be.
In the fourth quarter, Diggs slow-played Rams corner Darious Williams, waiting until the last moment to extend his hands on a beautiful 23-yard touch pass by Allen. On third-and-25 and with the Bills just 31 seconds away from officially gagging their biggest lead in franchise history, Diggs found a soft spot in the Rams’ zone to pick up 17 yards and set up a manageable fourth down.
Diggs’ ability to often draw defenders of Ramsey’s caliber is part of his value. On a day when John Brown left with an injury early, Diggs’ presence opened up the field for Gabriel Davis (four catches, 81 yards) and Cole Beasley (six catches for 100 yards). Unlike the rest of the Bills’ pass-catchers or runners, Diggs must be game-planned for by the opposition. Through three weeks, his numbers (20 catches for 288 yards and two TDs) scream true No. 1 receiver in a way they rarely did in Minnesota, despite his superlative play. Credit general manager Brandon Beane for understanding what this Bills’ offense needed — and credit offensive coordinator Brian Daboll for having the vision to use Diggs correctly.
In his deal with the Vikings, Beane gave up a first-rounder plus a fourth-, fifth-, and sixth-round pick in exchange for Diggs and a seventh, way back on March 16. It was a steep price, but the Bills didn’t need to draft another promising young player to develop. They have plenty. They needed a proven playmaker who could help their young quarterback reach his full potential now, for a playoff run. Those kinds of players are sometimes difficult to bring to Buffalo, and they are even harder to find in the draft. Allen and Daboll deserve the most credit for the 3-0 Bills’ fast start to the season, but Diggs was the missing piece to their attack. He’s certainly been missed in Minnesota.
Trent Williams is the NFC’s Cam Newton. Much has been written about how the entire NFL — including the Patriots — didn’t particularly want Cam Newton. If it’s a crime against football to let Bill Belichick snap up another franchise quarterback for the price of a Hoyer, how about the rest of the NFL allowing the most talented, toughest team in football acquire the baddest left tackle for peanuts?
The 49ers’ ability to win games handily without half of their starting lineup starts up front. Williams’ nasty run-blocking has made the highlights, but it’s his pass-blocking that could make him a candidate for Canton someday. Through three weeks, Pro Football Focus has Williams rated as the second best pass-blocking tackle in football, ahead of Monday night’s matchup between the Ravens and Chiefs. Williams helped protect Nick Mullens, starting in place of Jimmy Garoppolo, during a performance Sunday in which the Giants’ defense didn’t stop the 49ers’ offense one time.
High-quality left tackles are perhaps the hardest NFL asset to find, outside of a franchise quarterback. The 49ers upgraded from a retiring Joe Staley for the low, low price of a 2020 fifth-round pick and a 2021 third-round selection. The 32-year-old is a free agent after the season, but it’s worth remembering that 32 is not so old in legendary-left-tackle years.
There’s a larger debate to be had about the efficacy of trading picks for proven NFL talent. The Rams have taken this model to extremes, to mostly good effect. The 49ers have been on both sides of the equation, handing draft capital to Kansas City for Dee Ford while sending DeForest Buckner to Indianapolis. In the case of Williams, the juice is absolutely worth the squeeze when it didn’t even include a pick likely to be in the top 75 selections. Ten tackles have a higher cap figure than Williams this season, so he’s not even particularly expensive.
Don’t sleep on how remarkable these zombie 49ers have been. I don’t care how bad the New York Football Teams are; dominating two games by a combined score of 67-22 with mostly backups, as the Niners just did to the Jets and Giants, is an impressive show of organizational strength. Even with all the 49ers missing, they still have some dominant players left, like their tackle combination (Williams and 26-year-old right tackle Mike McGlinchey, a first-round pick in 2018) and 23-year-old middle linebacker Fred Warner, a third-rounder in 2018. John Lynch deserves credit for those draft picks and for his aggressive move to maximize this Super Bowl window. Kyle Shanahan also deserves credit for endorsing Lynch for the general manager job, in addition to cooking up an efficient offense led by Mullens, 2020 first-round pick Brandon Aiyuk and reclamation running back Jerick McKinnon.
Perhaps the 49ers never get healthy this season; I’ve never seen a team this decimated. But aside from Nick Bosa (out for the year with a torn ACL), most of the starters are slated to eventually return to the field. When the 49ers become the “team no one wants to face” in January, remember this early stretch where they managed their schedule despite having every reason to implode. Also remember the trade Lynch pulled off on NFL draft weekend, when one of the best left tackles in football was available for a song.
The Colts’ defense is deeper. It’s hard to evaluate the Colts after back-to-back walks in the dome against the Vikings and Jets. Their three opponents this season, including the Jaguars, have combined to go 0-6 in games not against the Colts. So let’s hold off on continuing to call them the league’s “No. 1 defense” just because they have allowed the fewest amount of yards per game thus far.
With that said, the Colts’ defense is starting to show signs of being the kind that clamps down on bad opponents. That’s progress — after all, even just being OK would qualify a defense as a top-10 unit in this season’s overcharged NFL. DeForest Buckner has come as advertised, racking up 10 pressures in three weeks while ranking fourth among PFF’s qualifiers in interior defensive-line play. No defensive tackle has more “stops” — defined as tackles that constitute a failure for the offense — in 2020. As with the Bills’ acquisition of Diggs, the Colts’ trade of a first-round pick for Buckner was a no-brainer at this stage of GM Chris Ballard’s rebuilding process.
Indianapolis has accumulated enough depth, youth and cap space. The Colts need stars. Buckner has quickly provided that level of play for a defensive line that was previously good, not great. Between Buckner and young linebacker Darius Leonard, the Colts now have two defenders among the very best at their positions.
Cornerback Xavier Rhodes has given a more surprising boost. He’s not one of the top-50 paid cornerbacks this year, according to Over the Cap, but he had been playing credibly to start the season even before picking off two Sam Darnold passes on Sunday. He won’t remain PFF’s top-graded cornerback all season, but credit Ballard and defensive coordinator Matt Eberflus for recognizing Rhodes could fit in their style of defense for cheap when most everyone believed the 30-year-old ex-Viking was cooked.
The Steelers know how to find bargains. Eric Ebron tends to be an all-or-nothing type of player, and the Steelers are getting the good version during the team’s first 3-0 start since 2010. Ebron led the Steelers with 52 receiving yards on Sunday against Houston, and his 10-yard touchdown catch in the second quarter was a huge turning point. The Steelers, down 14-3 at the time, were one play away from blowing a first-and-goal opportunity from the 1-yard line before Ebron’s excellent leaping catch saved the series.
The Steelers are designing plays for Ebron each week, often lining him up wide on the other side of the formation from the team’s fearsome receivers. Signed for $12 million over two years in the offseason, Ebron is typical of GM Kevin Colbert’s recent cautious, cost-effective forays into free agency. On a team that is built primarily on homegrown talent, the contributions of cornerback Joe Haden, cornerback Steven Nelson and now Ebron can’t be overlooked.
Ben Roethlisberger has consistently talked about the big role Ebron will play in the Steelers’ offense as the season wears on, which makes sense. Defenses have so much to worry about when it comes to Pittsburgh’s wideouts that Ebron (and, to a lesser extent, Vance McDonald) is bound to keep getting favorable matchups, adding a different dimension to a loaded passing attack. While the Steelers have yet to play a complete game, they have the league’s best pass rush and an incredibly diverse passing game. That makes them very difficult to beat.
Mike Vrabel’s faith in Stephen Gostkowski has keyed the Titans‘ 3-0 start. It’s a stretch to call Gostowski the Titans’ MVP through Week 3, but he has hit a game-winner in all three games! Coach Mike Vrabel’s decision to stick with his man after an embarrassing opener in Denver has paid enormous dividends.
Gostkowski, signed just before the start of the season, went 6 for 6 on Sunday against the Vikings, making three kicks of 50-plus yards. He also hit a 51-yarder to end the first half last week vs. the Jaguars and a 49-yarder to take the lead with less than two minutes to go. Titans fans might feel uneasy taking a victory lap, but the ugly carousel of kickers that came through town last season appears to have stopped.
It’s made all the difference for a Titans team that still has a lot to prove. Tennessee has outscored its three lackluster opponents (Denver, Jacksonville and Minnesota) by a combined total of six points and has plenty of room to improve on defense. The team’s pass protection for Ryan Tannehill isn’t good enough. The 2019 Titans are proof positive that it often doesn’t matter how you play in September if you can round into form by playoff time, but it’s a whole lot better to improve after starting 3-0 than the alternative.
Jordan Love for MVP? I’m normally not into motivational mumbo jumbo. Aaron Rodgers is a Hall of Fame quarterback who has tried plenty hard to play football at his best the last five years while his production declined. Having a second year to master Matt LaFleur’s offense is likely a bigger factor than any added fire to the belly Rodgers received when the Packers drafted Love in the first round of April’s draft. Still, there is something to be said for great quarterbacks having to look football mortality in the eye.
Joe Montana played some of his best ball in San Francisco after he was essentially benched for Steve Young. Tom Brady had the best two-year stretch of his entire career at ages 39 and 40, just when the Patriots had supposedly found his painfully good-looking replacement. Brett Favre helped the Packers go 13-3, reaching the doorstep of the Super Bowl, in the very year when it started to feel ridiculous that Rodgers wasn’t yet playing.
Are all these examples a coincidence? I don’t care! I just want to watch Rodgers flick 50-yard bombs while rolling to the left for as long as humanly possible. If Rodgers’ sensational start to the season is partly the residue of Green Bay’s selection of Love, it’s beside the point.
The Packers should not be criticized for investing huge amounts of capital in the quarterback position, because its importance dwarfs that of other positions by orders of magnitude. I’ll take that over drafting another Mike Pettine defensive back. If anything, this start by the Packers’ offense — including its incredibly impressive 37-point showing without Davante Adams in New Orleans on Sunday night — shows that this season wasn’t going to be made or broken by whether the team drafted wide receiver Tee Higgins late in Round 1 or not. With one of the best offensive lines, one of the best running backs and one of the best wide receivers in football, Rodgers has enough help to stave off football mortality for a while.
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