Five observations: Weren’t Cowboys offense, Patriots defense good once?

October 2, 2017

Here are five observations from Sunday’s early Week 4 games:

1. Rams find answers defensively — When the Rams trailed 24-13 in the final minutes of the first half against the Dallas Cowboys, it would have been reasonable to assume how this game would be heading — and how Wade Phillips’ defense was not doing its job. The Cowboys were running the ball down the Rams’ throats and Dak Prescott was dazzling with his big-play ability.

But this Rams team is so far from anything we saw from it last year. There might be no more improved quarterback in the NFL from last year to this year than Jared Goff. The improvement from Jeff Fisher’s staff to Sean McVay’s group cannot be understated. And the difference between the defense the Rams played in the first half versus the second was the reason why the Rams are 3-1 — and suddenly one of the great stories in the NFL this season.

Mission No. 1 was shutting down the run. They did that in the second half, and after a 16-yard run on his first carry of the third quarter, Ezekiel Elliott was held to 13 yards on six carries. The Cowboys’ first four possessions of the second half: five plays, five plays, three plays, interception.

Then the Rams finally pressured Prescott and got the key turnover they needed early in the fourth quarter when Michael Brockers notched the strip-sack at the Dallas 29-yard line. The Rams settled for a field goal but managed to control the ball for the first 10 minutes, 30 seconds of the fourth quarter prior to the two-minute warning.

Goff also delivered a gem of a game, throwing a gorgeous dime to Todd Gurley on a 53-yard slant for a touchdown to open the scoring in the second half. That was a confident throw by a quarterback who looks nothing like the skittish rookie who was roundly branded a bust before he had logged half a season’s worth of starts in his NFL career.

Also credit a resurgent Gurley, who has been an absolute horse this season — leading the NFL in touches — and who accumulated 215 yards from scrimmage against the Cowboys on 30 combined runs and receptions. He, not Elliott, was the best offensive player on the field on Sunday, and that’s not meant at all as a knock on the Cowboys’ terrific runner.

But also give a tip of the cap to Phillips’ defense for pulling it together late as best they could. It wasn’t perfect, but the Rams’ defense made just enough plays to win its biggest game in recent memory.

2. Cowboys’ offense (yes, offense) to blame — The offense has been inconsistent to start the season, and Sunday’s loss was no different. They were hot in the first half, doing almost whatever they wanted, and ice cold for stretches in the third and early fourth quarters. They drove for 75 yards in a lickety-split five plays for what could have been the game-tying drive, had they not botched the two-point attempt. (Actually, there were three two-point attempts, but you get the idea.)

It’s fair to point the finger at this side of the ball first because this is what the team’s assumed strength is. This is the supposed best offensive line in the biz. Prescott, Elliott and Dez Bryant are as tough a trio to defend as there is in the NFL. But this unit is just too hot and cold so far this season, too intermittently different from their elite 2016 form.

The defense was always going to be the unit we were most concerned with, of course. With Sean Lee out and Demarcus Lawrence banged up later in the game, they were dealing from a short deck anyway. And when Jeff Heath takes a terrible angle to the ball, Tyrone Crawford can’t fall on a gift fumble and Anthony Brown drops what should have been an interception, the formula to win is just not easy.

The Cowboys scored on their first four drives. But then they stalled and watched the Rams allow scoring drives on five straight possessions to open the second half. And in between, the special teams were to blame. Pharoh Cooper took a kickoff back 66 yards to help set up a field goal, and the Cowboys’ Ryan Switzer coughed up a fumble on a second-quarter punt that led to a Rams touchdown. Those were hidden momentum changers in a 10-point second-quarter swing.

Oh, and who comes to town next week? Only the team, the Green Bay Packers, that knocked them out of the playoffs last season — one that has had extra time to prepare for a key Week 5 game. And Cowboys fans don’t need this reminder: There’s a possibility that Elliott’s suspension kicks back in, depending on what happens in the courts this week.

3. Matt Patricia, the new Dean Pees? The New England Patriots’ defense is officially a problem. We’re all for clutch plays when they count most, and yards allowed can be a horribly misleading statistic. But there’s no sugarcoating what is happening with Matt Patricia’s unit.

They’re disorganized. They’re not particularly fast. They have not shown that clutch gene we’ve come to know with this team.

At 2-2, the Patriots are in no way in trouble. But they can’t ask Tom Brady to bail them out every week. Brady was magnificent again Sunday, leading two TD drives in the final nine minutes. He has yet to throw a pick this season despite missing his favorite target, Julian Edelman.

That’s incredible — and yet the defense has been bad in pretty much every game this season. Aside from a few plays against the New Orleans Saints, the Patriots’ defense has looked like the worst unit in the NFL. And the statistics back it up.

This is a stunning development, even with a few injuries on that side of the ball. They didn’t force the Carolina Panthers to punt in the first 52-plus minutes of the game and let Cam Newton — who had been mostly bad this season — light it up after his early interception. That pick, by the way, was just a bad overthrow. It was a gift to the Patriots defense.

One of the stranger problems has been the communication issues in the Patriots secondary. There have been blown coverages in all four games, and many of them can be attributed to crossed signals.

Cornerback Stephon Gilmore, he of the $13 million salary this season, has been pretty awful since arriving. He was called for a crucial illegal use of hands with just over two minutes remaining that wiped out a sack. The Panthers would have been facing a 4th-and-18 from their own 16-yard line. Instead, the first down gave them new life in a game they would go on to win on that drive.

Safety Devin McCourty has not helped police this unit and hasn’t made big plays. It’s truly puzzling to see a Patricia- and Bill Belichick-coached unit look so unprepared. Malcolm Butler has rebounded since a tough start to the season, but there are too many plays allowed all over this secondary.

There’s precious little time to iron this stuff out, too. They head to Tampa Bay for a road game this coming Thursday to try to stop Mike Evans and DeSean Jackson. Otherwise, they could be facing a 2-3 record.

4. Cam comes up big — Cam Newton missed a few “layups” — the term he used a few weeks back — and threw that bad pick early on. But this was the best Newton has looked all season and really maybe the best we’ve seen from him since a Week 2 blowout of the San Francisco in the 2016 season.

Is he back? Hard to know, but he was throwing with confidence and moving well, too. A surprising development was Newton keeping the ball on a read-option run and barreling through the Patriots’ defense for the Panthers’ final TD of the game in the 33-30 victory.

After the pick, Newton settled down. He played like a great point guard who can score when needed, as opposed to a lead guard whose shot isn’t falling. Christian McCaffrey, Fozzy Whittaker and Ed Dickson made big plays in this game. Kelvin Benjamin and Devin Funchess made big conversions and stressed the Patriots defense repeatedly.

Newton looked composed on his final drive of the first half that led to a big touchdown. And he took advantage of the Patriots’ mistakes on the game-winning drive. The Panthers will take it. They’re 3-1 and suddenly back in good spirits after a demoralizing home loss to the New Orleans Saints. It wasn’t a perfect game, but Newton’s revival might have started on Sunday in Foxboro.

5. Ding! Steelers offense shows signs — All you needed was the first drive of the game in Week 4 to see what the Pittsburgh Steelers’ offensive game plan would look like for the remaining three-plus quarters. They gave the ball to Le’Veon Bell nine times — including the first five touches of the game. The opening drive might have ended in a field goal, and this might not have been the Steelers’ finest offensive output by their lofty standards, but it was an indication of what they are and what they want to be.

Bell had his best game of the season. He ran 35 times for 144 yards and two touchdowns. That was the second-most rush attempts he’s ever had in a game, playoffs included. Bell also caught four of the six passes thrown his way. This was the kind of workload he usually sees in December or January.

But the Steelers are not messing around anymore. They’re going to ride their horse to hell or high water. The reasoning seems clear: Ben Roethlisberger and the passing game have been inconsistent when the ball is not directed at Antonio Brown most of the time. And with Brown held in check nicely by the Baltimore Ravens on Sunday, Bell was going to be the meal ticket.

If the Steelers move on from Bell this offseason, why not grind him into the ground? He’s their most versatile weapon, and it appears he’s now up to midseason form after sitting out all of July and August as an expression of his desire for a new deal.

Plus, this was Steelers-Ravens — always a slobberknocker of a game — and Mike Tomlin was not about to get cute. Now his Steelers are in the driver’s seat for the division crown following the bizarre hiccup of a loss at Chicago and can focus on bigger goals.

The Steelers’ defense largely has been very good this season, even if this has not been a murderer’s row of quarterbacks they’ve faced thus far. The luck continues next week with Blake Bortles and the Jacksonville Jaguars, losers to the New York Jets, coming to town next week. But outside of the run defense against the Bears (a defense that didn’t have Stephon Tuitt or T.J. Watt, by the way), the early results have been good.

And now they seem to have Bell cranked up and ready to beat up on teams. That’s a pretty good development for a team that has yet to show its full potential offensively to this point. They have yet this season to score 27 points, a mark they reached in half their games last season. But you can feel more scoring coming as this thing comes together.

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