Welcome to Footballguys' Weekly Top 10. Since Week 4, the Top 10 has been free to Footballguys Insiders. All you have to do is register with your email and you'll receive access to this in-depth film breakdown (with a fantasy bent) of the weekend's games.
Among this week's topics, we'll show how the Falcons and Chargers dominated with perimeter runs, how the Rams misuse Brandin Cooks, why Nick Mullens is promising and Derek Carr is troubling, and performance check-ins of three big YAC receivers — one of them playing running back. And of course, we'll finish with some fresh fish.
1. Atlanta's Offense Grounds And Pounds Washington's Vaunted Run Defense
Washington's defense entered the Atlanta game with a top-three unit against the run, limiting the Saints, Cowboys, Giants, and Panthers to sub-par totals. By 4 pm eastern time, Washington gave up 148 yards on a combined 23 carries to Tevin Coleman and Ito Smith. Include the outside screen game and that total is much closer to 200 yards.
Atlanta's offensive line and wide receivers out-played Washington's defensive front throughout the contest, generating big play after big play. Watch how easily Atlanta's line gets downfield to create a crease on this smoke screen to Julio Jones for Jones' first touch of the year.
Washington’s defense on the left side had been kissing the freight train from Atlanta all afternoon pic.twitter.com/i85jayfKZk— Matt Waldman (@MattWaldman) November 4, 2018
This is essentially a running play that stretches the defense and Jones is one of the best open field runners at the receiver position in the NFL. Jones at the Atlanta receivers also did their job as run blockers. Here's an excellent lead block from Jones to set up an Ito Smith touchdown run in the first half.
Here's another team effort from the Falcons' and line to spring Tevin Coleman on a receiver screen.
Nice work by the Falcons WRs and OL...3 OL way down field. Td pic.twitter.com/STfHPHZJ2f— Matt Waldman (@MattWaldman) November 4, 2018
Coleman also earned strong gains on toss plays to the left side of the line but it was the use of the screen game in conjunction with these tosses that blew the doors off the Washington run defense.
Other than a 47-yard go route intended for Jones that led to a Josh Norman pass interference penalty and a first and goal, Atlanta's most explosive plays began within five yards of the line of scrimmage. Calvin Ridley's big play was a short-zone rub route.
Eighth third down conversion for Atlanta off rub to Ridley for TD pic.twitter.com/MfUDWJThFG— Matt Waldman (@MattWaldman) November 4, 2018
The Browns, Ravens, and Packers have also been vulnerable to the perimeter run game and Atlanta faces them in Weeks 10, 13, and 14. Coleman, Smith, and all three of Atlanta's starting receivers warrant serious consideration for fantasy lineups.
2. Jared Goff And the Rams key Misuse of Brandin Cooks
Brandin Cooks is one of the better receivers in the NFL. However, he's not a tight-coverage rebounder who should be targeted on 50/50 routes like he's Steve Smith. It's this writer's opinion that the Patriots parted company with Cooks because Tom Brady lacks the consistent arm talent to throw the ball far enough for the speedy Cooks to run under the rainbow in stride with a defender to his back.
The Patriots recognized this and rather paying Cooks, eventually went shopping for a receiver who complements Brady's game...
Gordon knows how to use his frame to his advantage. Cooks has proven year after year that it's not his game. He's tough and can take a hit but he doesn't adjust and win in this area of the game and when a physical corner like Jaire Alexander or Xavien Howard ride him hard at the line of scrimmage, Cooks struggles.
It's why the Rams recent attempts to use Cooks like a rebounder in key moments of games is a source of consternation.
Whether it is Goff or the Rams staff, this choice of route to personnel needs to stop. Poor match of route to player. pic.twitter.com/lkNNrAWqBX— Matt Waldman (@MattWaldman) November 5, 2018
Cooper Kupp, Robert Woods, and, especially, Josh Reynolds are all more equipped for these targets and the decision to target Cooks in this manner is a rare blind spot for an offense that has done a fantastic job of matching the talents of its scheme to its personnel.
3. Nick Mullens and the 49ers outDuel Derek Carr And the Raiders
Mullens a former starter at Southern Mississippi, earned himself a second start for the 49ers after what might be the best starting debut the NFL has seen. According to ESPN, Mullens, Frank Tarkenton, and Jim Kelly are the only three quarterbacks to earn at least 250 yards and 3 touchdowns in their first games since 1950, and his passer rating of 151.9 is the best we've seen with at least 20 attempts since 1970.
The coolest part of the story is that Mullens has been preparing for his opportunity with solo practice sessions, running the playbook on an empty field with crowd noise pumped into his headphones. This is similar to what Chad Kelly did last year in Denver.
Mullens' played poised football, sniffing out the Raiders' blitz throughout the evening.
Again, Mullens sniffs out the blitz... pic.twitter.com/R6HSMbBhbZ— Matt Waldman (@MattWaldman) November 2, 2018
Mullens also displayed excellent timing in the red zone, balancing quick decision-making with the patience to move defenders away from the intended throwing window. This is something that Baker Mayfield has been struggling to do as a rookie.
In contrast, veteran Derek Carr struggled to make good decisions throughout the night. Although pressure reached Carr faster and more often than it did Mullens, there were enough plays on Thursday (and other weeks for the past four years) that reveal a consistent and negative theme with Carr's game that Mullens didn't show at all.
Where I have questions about D Carr... pic.twitter.com/JogZjeQltA— Matt Waldman (@MattWaldman) November 2, 2018
Another example pic.twitter.com/5PxPuRSAPU— Matt Waldman (@MattWaldman) November 2, 2018
When Mullens felt pressure and was looking to one side of the field, he didn't automatically throw the ball without peeking at the coverage to make sure the route on the other side of the field was open. Knowing where the route is breaking and knowing that the route is open are two different things and Mullens did the better job of making sure of the latter despite knowing the former.
Mullens throw wasn’t great but the decision was an excellent contrast to D Carr example earlier on thread... pic.twitter.com/dfCC8MqcnT— Matt Waldman (@MattWaldman) November 2, 2018
Is Mullens a future stud or even a long-term NFL starter? I didn't study Mullens in 2017 but he authored a lot of big plays to receiver prospects with intriguing potential. His arm and off-platform skill aren't exceptional like many NFL prospects so we'll see if he can continue making good decisions when defenses can force him into difficult situations that most good quarterbacks can use their arm to work through.
What he'll offer to fantasy players is a smart, prepared, and tough player. As long as he plays within his athletic talents, he should continue delivering above average quarterback production — and good fantasy production worthy of starting him — against the likes of the Giants and Buccaneers in Weeks 10 and 12.
If he somehow carves up Seattle (twice), Denver, and Chicago during the fantasy playoffs, his emergence will be a top storyline. For at least this week and next, Mullens' emergence also makes a player like Richie James a bye-week, flex-play consideration because he's not unduly connected to Marquise Goodwin and Pierre Garcon.
4. Patriots Running BAck Cordarrelle Patterson...Will the title stick?
I've been saying since 2013 that Patterson is the best open field runner I've ever studied as an NFL prospect — including running backs. Patterson earned some carries as a runner at the University of Tennessee, but he's been a wide receiver since high school.
Patterson asked the Vikings if he could play running back earlier in his career but Minnesota declined the request. With Sony Michel hurt, Bill Belichick — who used Mike Vrabel as a tight end, Dan Klecko as a fullback, Doug Flutie to drop-kick, and Troy Brown as a defensive back — had no problem figuring out how Patterson's immense ball-carrying talents could help the offense.
Belichick has used Patterson almost exclusively behind a fullback, limiting Patterson's decision-making to follow the fullback and set up any change of direction off that lead block.
Patterson's size, acceleration, and strength to pull through wraps make him a good fit as a runner in this blocking scheme because he doesn't have to make the kind of diagnosis of gaps that require high-level decision-making and footwork of zone runners. This run from Doug Martin on Thursday night is a good example of what Belichick isn't asking Patterson to do.
However, if we're going to see Cordarrelle Patterson transition to a full-time running back, one of two things will have to happen for it to last:
- Patterson will have to develop the footwork, decision-making, and understanding of zone blocking to execute a wide variety of run plays.
- The Patriots exclusively use him on gap and man plays where he's not asked to set up gaps two and three spaces away from the original gap.
Although I couldn't find where I've called for a team to experiment with Patterson as a running back during the past two years, I know I've broached this topic at various times. Is it possible that he becomes part of a three-headed backfield in New England?
This year, yes. However, if Michel is healthy enough to return to form, Patterson's usage won't be significant enough to hurt Michel because he lacks the versatility for the Patriots to run a wide variety of running plays. If Michel is clearly still limited, Patterson could remain a significant factor.
5. Courtland Sutton's Game
Big, strong, fast, and capable of rebounding the ball over coverage, Sutton is the most exciting rookie receiver for many fans of the game. Now that Demaryius Thomas is a Texan, there are expectations for Sutton to wow fantasy players and deliver a Kenny Golladay stretch run.
While possible, Golladay worked with one of the three best tight-coverage receivers in football last year (Marvin Jones Jr) and a great slot receiver. He also has a quarterback with a big arm and tight-window aggressiveness.
Sutton only has a Jones-like talent (Emmanuel Sanders) as a teammate and the rest are unproven options who won't automatically draw the top defensive personnel, and Case Keenum plays a different game than Matthew Stafford. Sutton will be a priority for opponents at a level Golladay was not.
These two plays below exemplify what Sutton is, isn't, and what he could become with additional work.
Sutton will produce against off coverage and occasional press-man when he's running slants, screens, crossing routes, and over routes. He'll make some big plays on go routes, fades, posts, and corners. However, he won't be as consistent until his technical skills match his promising athletic ability.
There's no doubt, Sutton is worth a roster spot and starting in leagues with three- and four-receiver sets. However, he'll be a match-up play for the rest of the year because he needs an off-season to work on his technique. The 49ers, Browns, and Raiders in Weeks 14-16 should be his strongest games.
6. CLEVELAND'S USE OF DUKE JOHNSON VERSUS THE RAMS AND PANTHERS OFFENSES
One of the most anticipated outcomes of the Carlos Hyde trade was the increased usage of Browns running back Duke Johnson Jr. So far, Johnson's production has been as steady as the on-field leadership of the team — a pair of games with at least 70 yards receiver book-ending a pair of games with a total of 39 receiving yards combined.
The good news with the promotion of running back coach Freddie Kitchens to offensive coordinator is that he used Johnson extensively against the Chiefs, targeting him nine times — 33 percent more than his highest total this year. Johnson earned a variety of targets this weekend worth noting as a positive and possibly a negative in future weeks.
Nice play to Duke a johnson for TD2. Note how different every look is when Johnson targeted today. In a way that’s easier to predict than if he was targeted five different ways from very similar looks. pic.twitter.com/yyX9frPnUQ— Matt Waldman (@MattWaldman) November 4, 2018
The diversity of plays is a good thing for Johnson in terms of volume but the fact that each play is so unique with its pre-snap look that they're memorable enough for a defense to diagnose the second time it's used can become a weakness. The Rams and Panthers offenses offer good examples of how to craft looks that are less predictable to defenses.
The Rams use a lot of the same alignments to run different plays. This drive alone is an instructive example.
Even this play-action pass tells an intricate story that forces the opponent to consider a lot of false leads in different directions while buying Goff and Cooks time to hit one of those deep rainbows.
In contrast, the Panthers aren't a great passing offense but its ability to interchange its receivers and runners creates a lot of assignment confusion and misdirection for the defense. When Carolina uses these option plays, the recipient of the ball isn't predictable and the offense loves to run its most unpredictable plays from conventional looks while running conventional plays from less predictable alignments.
If the Browns can show signs of integrating a variety of plays into alignments that look the same (like the Rams) or use Nick Chubb, Antonio Callaway, Jarvis Landry, and Damion Ratley with greater imagination so defenses can't solely key on Johnson as the constraint player (like the Panthers use its skill talent), Johnson could become a top fantasy option down the stretch.
Right now, he's not near that tier. However, he is worth your consideration as a weekly option with a boom-bust element because of his quarterback, struggling offensive tackles who factor into good outside running, and a coaching staff trying to adjust on the go.
He should thrive against the Bengals in Weeks 12 and 16 and Denver's weak linebacking corps in Week 15. However, the Panthers and Texans in Weeks 13 and 14 could be more difficult unless the Browns catch these aggressive units out of position for a big play.
7. DEMARYIUS THOMAS' GAME
He's no longer great, but he's still good — and good enough for fantasy teams as a starter. These two plays illustrate a lot about his game — and fit in this Texans' offense — that's worth taking note.
Demaryius Thimas for 18...taking the back of the defender to turn him around pic.twitter.com/AQyjB1ec89— Matt Waldman (@MattWaldman) November 5, 2018
Thomas can still accelerate to top speed quick enough to do damage on the ground. He may (and "may" is the best qualifier because, with greater comfort with his surroundings, he could player quicker in subsequent weeks) no longer have a top speed to pull away from opponents, but he remains a rugged, tackle-breaking option with the vision to generate gains of 25-40 yards on quick-hitting plays.
Because Thomas graduated from the Peyton Manning School of Receivers, he also understands how to run precise routes. The dig route is an excellent display of turning around an off-coverage defender and still being at the right place at the right time.
Quarterbacks don't target new receivers on this timing route with confidence unless that receiver is an excellent route technician. Thomas' work with Manning taught him about the importance of proper depth and timing and how to communicate where he likes the ball to arrive.
Expect a smooth enough transition for Thomas that it keeps Deshaun Watson and DeAndre Hopkins' production stable. Thomas should have fewer down weeks than he did in Denver, which will mean stabilized production in the realm of 50-70 yards on a weekly basis with the same ceiling of 100-yard potential ahead.
8. The Chargers' Perimeter Run Game is Beautiful And Devastating
The Seahawks aren't a great run defense. It has had some statistically strong outings thanks to early starts for the Seattle offense and rough beginnings for opponents that tossed any run scripts into File 13.
The best rushing performances against Seattle have come from teams that run well to the perimeter: Denver's Philip Lindsay, Dallas' Ezekiel Elliott, and L.A.'s Todd Gurley delivered strong production (Gurley's yardage doesn't look impressive but he scored three touchdowns, so consider situational attempts and not raw yardage). Melvin Gordon III III followed suit on Sunday and it was only part of the Chargers' plan to widen the Seahawks defense and then pound them into submission.
The operation began with the Jet Sweep — a common tool in offensive arsenals for the past year — but the Chargers executed it with a twist that makes it less predictable.
Of the four Jet Sweeps the Chargers ran on Sunday, three of them incorporated this wrinkle where the receiver stopped and aligned on the wing rather than slowing his pace of motion. The one play where the offense had the receiver slow his pace, the Seahawks sniffed out for a loss.
These plays slow down defensive linemen and linebackers in two ways: It can make the defense run sideline-to-sideline at it tires the unit out over the course of the game and it can force them to diagnose an extra element that slows its reaction time. The Chargers' success forcing the Seahawks to run east-west with repeated success, the full arsenal of an I-formation sweep became the offenses' clean-up play.
The Seahawks may be a vulnerable unit against the run but don't let it detract from the praise the Chargers run offense deserves. The Chargers may not trash top run defenses but they're not a paper champion in this arena. Pittsburgh in Week 13 is the only defense that poses a real threat to Melvin Gordon III III's prospects for an excellent stretch run.
9. Matthew Stafford is going to miss Golden Tate
Matthew Stafford and the Lions offensive line gave up 10 sacks to the Vikings on Sunday — a team record for Minnesota, whose storied history once fielded the Purple People Eaters. Although the offensive line earns his share of responsibility — especially the right side's inability to contain Danielle Hunter — Stafford had at least five sacks where he could have gotten rid of the ball.
This sack (6th) is clearly on Matt Stafford. If he reads CB’s leverage earlier, he targets the honey hole up the sideline. Looks shallow first and he eliminates any shot at a second read. pic.twitter.com/pwJO5NOazc— Matt Waldman (@MattWaldman) November 5, 2018
Without Golden Tate in the slot, Stafford is relying on younger and inexperienced players to break make the best decisions against zone defenses. Tate and Stafford had a rapport with when and how to break off a route based on the drops of linebackers. While not certain this play below qualifies as a legitimate example, you still get an idea of what Stafford is missing with Tate in Philadelphia.
Where I wonder if Golden Tate breaks off this route and creates a quicker target.— Matt Waldman (@MattWaldman) November 5, 2018
Perhaps not, but the look of the situation leading to another sack of Stafford has me wondering. pic.twitter.com/AqS9tdormp
If Michael Roberts or T.J. Jones can't fill Tate's void in this area — and there's good reason to believe they won't — then it may require greater use of Theo Riddick in the slot or the backfield. We'll see how imaginative the Lions' solution is because if they use Riddick solely as a back — and more often, Kerryon Johnson's tribe of fantasy folks will be disappointed.
10. Fresh Fish
Fantasy football is a cruel place. We're always searching for that weakest link. While we don't want anyone facing the wrath of Hadley, we'd love nothing more than having our players face an opponent whose game has come unglued on the field.
In the spirit of "The Shawshank Redemption," here is my short list of players and/or units that could have you chanting "fresh fish" when your roster draws the match-up.
Catch of the Week: Stafford and the Detroit offensive line
Allowing 10 sacks to the Vikings easily places Stafford and the Lions atop this list. The Bears (twice), Rams, Cardinals, and Bills won't be much easier. Then the Lions meet the Vikings once again in Week 16. This could get rough.
Onto the fish case:
- Miami's linebackers: After the Lions removed the mothballs from Michael Roberts' red-zone game (and put them back in this weekend), the Texans found rookie tight end Jordan Thomas twice for red-zone scores last week. This weekend, the Dolphins gave up 62 yards on 4 grabs to rookie Chris Herndon.
- Washington's Offensive Line: Trent Williams didn't play and the unit lost three starters during the contest — only one returned. Adrian Peterson's stretch run could be in jeopardy considering that Washington almost had to use defensive tackle Matt Ioannidis as a substitute.
- Tampa Bay's Defense: The Buccaneers gave up 35 points in the first half to the Panthers.
- Marcus Peters: Last week's statement still applies: The Rams cornerback isn't nearly as effective when L.A. is forced to play zone. He's too reactive and undisciplined, giving up massive plays repeatedly. We can also add that he struggled manning-up, Michael Thomas.
- Washington's Defensive Front: The linebackers were slow to reach the perimeter and the Falcons authored several big plays on Sunday en route to an explosive day.
Good luck to your teams next week and may your players stay away from the fishmonger.