Five things I care about
Joshua Dobbs is not a caretaker
I had a feeling Joshua Dobbs playing in an island game on Sunday Night Football might wake up the national audience to exactly how the Vikings offense had been running of late. Dobbs has been a fantastic feel-good story and a godsend to the Vikings after Kirk Cousins’ injury. Still, this unit had more fits and starts than the NFL RedZone channel highlights would lead you to believe.
Some of that is to be expected given that Dobbs is still relatively new to this situation and wasn’t even supposed to see the field two weeks ago. It has to do with who Dobbs is as a player.
All credit to Dobbs, where so many backup quarterbacks get onto the field, pucker up and play afraid to make a mistake, he couldn’t be further from that. Dobbs has tried to push the ball down the field and take chances with both the Cardinals and the Vikings all season.
He’s been rewarded with those RedZone highlights plays and clutch moments, but he’s also put the ball in harm’s way. You saw that consistently on Sunday night.
Dobbs fumbled and threw a pick. Frankly, he was lucky to escape the night with just a single interception. He plays in a fashion that permits the defense to get their opportunities to make plays on the ball. The Broncos certainly had their chances to take the ball from Minnesota. I'm fascinated to see where services that chart "turnover-worthy plays" come down on Dobbs this weekend. It felt like the rate was high.
Joshua Dobbs isn’t a caretaker. That’s fine. A guy who doesn’t just keep the train on the tracks can be good for this offense; we’ve seen the evidence. It should be noted this quarterback who plays with his hair on fire will be all the more incentivized to take those chances when Justin Jefferson returns to the proceedings. That could be as soon as Week 12, on Monday Night Football against the Bears.
Just know that a player of this style can win you a fantasy matchup with his fearless rushing. He can elevate some playmakers to big stat lines in the right environment. Shoot, Dobbs himself may well help the Vikings secure a playoff berth in a watered-down NFC. Yet, we were reminded on Sunday night that a quarterback playing like this can also go on the road to a difficult place to play against a defense that’s leaps and bounds better than they were to start the season ... and drop a game.
All of that is within the range of outcomes for Dobbs and I think the national audience might now be more aware just how vast that divide is.
Tank Dell (even more) with Nico Collins back
Tank Dell has been one of the best rookie wide receivers this season. He’s been ripping off massive games as the top vertical receiver in C.J. Stroud’s offense. Given his size (sub-170 lbs.) and play style, Dell is a difficult receiver to find a comparison for because he wins in such a unique fashion. In the last two weeks, we've seen why having him in the right position is critical to his success.
Dell's end-of-game fantasy finish was solid last week but he only caught six of his 14 targets. There were some issues in tight coverage and close quarters. Dell is a bit of a journey at the catch point, which isn't surprising when you consider his stature.
He’s best used off the line of scrimmage as a flanker receiver who has the flexibility to move into the slot to rip up nickel defenders. Dell is a straight-up matchup nightmare as a slot man who is good enough as an explosive route runner to beat man coverage outside. You don’t really want him taking a ton of reps on the line as a true X-receiver. It’s not the best way to maximize him, but that’s what the Texans had to do in Week 10.
The Texans got away with that because they have good players. C.J. Stroud is already a teammate elevator and Dell is more than capable of performing out of position. Good ecosystems can pull this off. Houston is a good ecosystem, shocking as it may be.
With Collins back as the X-receiver in Week 11, Dell could go back to that flanker, pre-snap motion option — and the results were epic. He shredded the Cardinals on downfield receptions, totaling eight catches on 10 targets for 149 yards and a score. He’s been one of the most impressive receivers on out-breaking routes and working the sideline, aka “big boy routes.”
This is where Collins comes into play. Collins had a solid game in his own right with 65 yards on seven catches and a handful of grabs in close quarters. Collins dominates on those in-breakers from the X-receiver spot against man coverage so his routes essentially cross with Dell’s and that puts defenses into a huge bind.
Stroud has brought the best out of these two wideouts and they’ve formed a perfectly complementary duo. Houston has so many bright spots and building blocks on offense.
The Jaguars offense explodes
We have a similar wide receiver situation brewing for a different AFC South team. It’s been noted that Calvin Ridley’s best games have come with Zay Jones in the lineup and the trend continued in Week 11.
Now, some of these splits could just be a coincidence. That possibility always exists with on/off splits. But there’s at least a good football reason this one exists.
The Jaguars have a good receiving duo in Ridley and Christian Kirk but it’s not a deep group when Jones isn’t on the field. Most critically, Jones is the only other non-Ridley receiver who can win outside consistently. Kirk is a vertical slot receiver and fourth receiver Jamal Agnew is a converted cornerback and gadget player.
So when Jones is out of the mix, Ridley has to run out as the X-receiver. This puts him against a ton of press coverage — allowing the defense to disrupt the routes and timing for a quarterback behind a troubling pass protection unit — and get forced into a go-and-curl/comeback-heavy route tree. Ridley can win in all these assignments, but it is just a thin margin for error. With Jones back against the Titans, the Jaguars could do more with Ridley to get him in better position to rip some huge catches and vary up the route tree.
It was easy to panic about the Jaguars' offense after their blowout loss to the 49ers coming out of their bye. They certainly deserved all the criticism that came their way. But I stand by what I've said about this team most of the season. They are just a few ticks away from being a very good operation. If they can continue to find ways to maximize Ridley, that will go a long way.
Brock Purdy’s perfect passer rating
Look, I know passer rating isn’t a perfect metric — I challenge you to find one traditional football metric that doesn’t have its share of flaws — however, passer rating can at least get us in the neighborhood of telling a story. Brock Purdy’s 158.3 perfect rating in Week 11 shows just how well he was executing the 49ers offense against the Bucs.
The discourse around Purdy in the last month-plus has been so nauseating. When he was hot, you were admonished for not ranking him as a top-five quarterback. As soon as some turnovers hit and losses happened, we had to entertain suggestions that Sam Darnold might see time soon. I mean, come on! As is often the case, the truth is in the middle. The middle ground Purdy gets to live in is the best centrist case in the NFL because of how awesome this offense can be at its peak.
Purdy’s deep throw to Brandon Aiyuk is just the consummate example of how his aggressiveness has breathed life into an offense that sometimes went stale amid frustrations in prior seasons. That’s saying something for one of the best-designed units that’s littered with playmakers to have that vibe. It doesn’t now.
Purdy uncorked a heater outside the numbers and put it in a perfect position for elite-level route runner Brandon Aiyuk to make a play on it. From there, Aiyuk did the rest. That’s why they have a newfound ceiling. Purdy plays in a fashion that lets others shine. The best example is his connection with Aiyuk and how the 49ers wideout has become a true WR1 in fantasy.
Maybe Purdy isn't actually perfect but he more than gets the job done on Kyle Shanahan's offense.
The Lions' run game
I can’t say enough about the Lions and the clarity of identity that flows through everything this team does. It was never more apparent than on the game-winning drive in Week 11.
So often, we see coordinators afraid to mix in even a single run in scatterbrained, frenetic and often failed possible game-winning drives. Ben Johnson just so happens to be pretty good at this playcalling thing.
Johnson mixed in four runs on their 11-play game-winning drive. It featured both of their backs in David Montgomery and Jahmyr Gibbs. The runs came on high-leverage short-yardage and goal-line situations. It was an inspired move, not just because their running backs and the run game are one of the clear strengths of the team, but because Jared Goff had been a bit frantic and turnover-prone on the day.
Ben Johnson will be a head coach next season. He will have earned that job many times over. Just don’t forget Sunday’s result as a resume-builder. At a time when other coaches forget the run game for the sake of the clock, Johnson wasn’t afraid to go unconventional. That’s because his backfield duo is a rare needle-mover in the ground game. Smart coaches design their approach to the talent at their disposal. The Lions have some real talent for Johnson to lean into in the backfield.
Five things I don't care about
Courtland Sutton’s touchdown regression
I’m not so sure how to describe the Broncos right now as they come off their fourth straight win. I’m settling somewhere in the neighborhood of “tastefully boring,” which may sound like an insult. But I bet Sean Payton and many others in the building would take that description, as long as it comes with wins, after the way their season was trending a month and a half ago.
One Broncos player who lifts you out of your seat at least once per game and isn’t so boring? Courtland Sutton.
The Regression Police have had Sutton on their “Most Wanted” posters for weeks. Sutton secured his eighth touchdown of the season on Sunday night. He’s cleared 80 yards just once all season and has earned more than six targets just twice. I understand there is something off about the math in this equation. However, we can admit that the fantasy industry does struggle to weigh player performance in regression talks.
Some guys just make the math bend with their own play.
All you have to do is watch Sutton’s touchdown catches over the last two weeks to see these scores are no flukes. He’s creating opportunity and efficiency where it shouldn't exist with skills in the contested catch game, like his body control and comfort in tight coverage.
Sutton was largely left for dead in fantasy drafts, a “Well, I have to take someone here and he is a starter” type of pick past the seventh round. Meanwhile, his teammate Jerry Jeudy rocketed up boards for reasons I always found beyond flimsy. He was punished in an overly harsh fashion for being the overrated one in 2021 — excuse my back-patting but that was another prediction I was on the right side of history — which can create opportunity for sharp drafters.
On an individual basis, Sutton wasn’t as good as the post-Russell Wilson trade hype in 2021. Also, he was never as bad as people viewed him amid the extreme gap between his and Jeudy’s summer ADP. This year, Sutton has settled into a zone befitting of his proper resume on tape. He’s a solid starting NFL X-receiver, who doesn’t separate cleanly at all levels enough to earn a dominant target share, but wins on in-breaking routes crucial to this offense and is a plus-player on contested catches.
While the Regression Police are building their case against Sutton, I’d argue he is now finally dropping into a sensible range for the first time in years — shoutout to him for a really nice season.
The current state of the Chargers
The Chargers had a golden opportunity to make some headway in the AFC playoff race in the wake of chaos hitting the Bengals (Joe Burrow’s injury) and Bills (offensive coordinator firing) with a win in Week 11. They were set to play a team they are theoretically more talented than.
So it was all perfectly aligned for a crushing Chargers late-game loss — the Chargers, as they so often do, delivered and found a way to lose.
There is intense pressure inside the building. It’s starting to boil over into the public. Coming from the head coach, this is not the most inspiring vibe:
That defense Brandon Staley is clinging to? It’s a mess. The Packers have had fits and starts all season but enjoyed one of their best days against the Chargers. Jordan Love cleared 300 yards, averaged 8.1 yards per attempt and completed 67.5% of his passes. The ultra-young Packers offense even lost its lone veteran presence in Aaron Jones during the game. The Chargers remained generous.
There has never even been a stretch during the Staley era where his side of the ball looked like an above-average unit. The further we get through the season, the worse it looks.
The offense is the better side of the ball but that’s not saying much. There are major holes on that side, too, especially at the receiver spot.
Injuries have ravaged the receiver room. That's provided a clear runway for Round 1 receiver Quentin Johnston to earn targets with Mike Williams and Josh Palmer out of the mix. Even Jalen Guyton missed Week 11. And yet, Johnston finished the game with two catches for 21 yards and an all-time lowlight on the last third down of the final drive:
He doesn’t get open, cannot win contested catches and even when he gets a clean look, well, it’s not the first time he’s had a brutal drop like this one. The Chargers are essentially playing with 10 guys on offense when Johnston is out there. That’s harsh but that’s how bad this has gotten for the rookie receiver.
Making matters worse, he’s not their only player making mistakes in big moments. Austin Ekeler lost a fumble and Keenan Allen dropped a pass in the end zone. Absolutely nothing is working consistently for the Chargers offense.
Injuries are a convenient excuse but when your best players make mistakes and the Round 1 rookie that should have helped put you over the top can't make a single play, it's a sign of a deeper rot. The season is not over, but we are at the end of the Staley era of Chargers football. It's just a matter of getting to the point when ownership makes it official.
How the Bills beat the Jets
All that matters is that Buffalo got it done.
The Jets are in complete chaos as their déjà vu nightmare of a season continues. Zach Wilson was finally benched only for Tim Boyle to come in and offer a suspiciously similar stat line. The Bills won with ease and that’s really what matters for this team at this stage.
No style points; just stack wins to try and make the postseason in the end.
We did get some signal out of the offense to project forward, however. Buffalo saddled up James Cook and Latavius Murray for 27 carries and successfully ran the ball. Cook totaled 73 yards with a long run of 12. He was a steady force and scored a touchdown through the air. Reserve running back Ty Johnson also got involved with some big plays as a receiver. The running backs giving the Bills some positive down and distance chances and keeping the offense on schedule can help assuage the turnover issues.
While Gabe Davis didn’t get a single target and Stefon Diggs was quiet, Dalton Kincaid continued to provide short-area outlets. Slot receiver Khalil Shakir was the one who ripped a big play down the field. He’s been a positive since being inserted into the lineup.
This is all positive. The offense can’t have a bunch of low-percentage shots to the volatile Davis and other guys have to step up behind Diggs. Separators like Shakir and Kincaid continuing to play significant roles are non-negotiables for the offense to reach the potential we all know exists.
The Bills' season is far from over. A coaching change may not have been the elixir to fix all woes. But we got a preview of some of the answers Joe Brady and co. can devise as the team races to the finish.
The 2023 Commanders
Minority owner Magic Johnson had the most matter-of-fact recap of the Commanders' loss to the New York Giants in Week 11. Yes, the Tommy DeVito-led Giants:
That’s the general attitude I have toward this team right now. I’m not sure anything that takes place in its games really matters to the future of this team. Losing to the Giants at home is the ultimate permission slip from this team to not take them seriously any longer.
Some have gone out of their way to praise the performance of this offense. I’m not there. Sam Howell has been just good enough to be frustrating. He is sometimes aggressive to a fault and leaves plays on the field. I can see him operating as a passable starter but unless there is significant development I can’t imagine the next front office and coaching staff walks into 2024 with him as the unquestioned starter.
And make no mistake, there will be a regime change coming. I can't say I'll miss this offense. When you have high-quality wideouts with serious investment, a phonebook-long target tree makes no sense. And forget about fantasy for a second. I like all of these wideouts; I don't have them on every fantasy team or anything close to that. Good coaches design offenses that fit the talent on their roster.
If you think Eric Bieniemy has done that in Washington this season, we must be watching different teams.
New Commanders ownership initiated the sale of defensive assets at the trade deadline. It won’t be the last major sweep. We can only hope this operation's next phase is better than we’ve seen in 2023. This coaching staff had a chance and plenty of talent available to make the most of its audition. If fate wasn’t already decided, losing to the current version of the Giants is as damning a bit of evidence as can be.
We can mentally move on to 2024.
Tony Pollard’s touchdown
Few wanted to talk about it (understandable) but Tony Pollard was in a good spot for Week 11. The upside came through. Pollard found his way to the end zone on a ferocious run that may have helped him exorcise some frustrations. You were rewarded if you had the guts to play him in fantasy football.
But the results of Week 11 don’t do much to move the needle going forward.
Besides the score, his 12 carries for 61 yards with a sprinkling of receiving work look an awful lot like most of his other recent games since Mike McCarthy has fully leaned this team into a pass-first offense. And that’s not exactly a bad result, either. This probably tells you that Pollard wasn’t playing as poorly as his fantasy football results would tell you but also that his season isn’t going to suddenly reverse course now.
As I’ve said multiple times of late, Tony Pollard is in “it is what it is” territory for fantasy right now. He’s a solid back but not the engine of this offense. Dak Prescott and co. didn’t have to lift much weight this week, but they are in control of this scoring unit’s destiny. Pollard will just be a bit of seasoning on the top as a rusher. Some weeks he will make it into the end zone as a result, sometimes he won’t. That sounds boring and overly simple but that’s the reality of this situation.