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Here is What Have We Learned from Week 7 of the 2015 NFL Season, thanks to the AP Pro 32 for photos & help in this article.
- Panthers Run Attack looking good with the Panthers being 6-0– The Panthers have their running game operating in high gear.Carolina ran for 204 yards in Sunday night’s 27-16 win over the Philadelphia Eagles, marking the 17th straight game they’ve eclipsed 100 yards rushing — the second-longest active streak in the NFL behind only the Seattle Seahawks with 18.
The Panthers are 6-0 for the first time ever behind the league’s No. 1-ranked rushing attack, averaging 144.7 yards per game on the ground.
They’ll look to carry that momentum into next Monday night’s game against the Indianapolis Colts. The struggling Colts surrendered 183 yards rushing and three TDs rushing in a 27-23 loss to the New Orleans Saints on Sunday.
The Panthers racked up big numbers against the Eagles despite Cam Newton only ran four times. He had been averaging 10 carries per game through the first five weeks of the season.
The reality is the Panthers didn’t need Newton’s legs all that much against Philadelphia (3-4).
The threat of having him run seemed enough to keep the Eagles off-balanced. Newton gained 20 yards and scored a touchdown, but the Panthers relied heavily on the play of their backs to win their 10th straight regular season game.
Running back Jonathan Stewart ran for 125 yards, full back Mike Tolbert scored twice and wide receiver Ted Ginn Jr. chipped in with a 43-yard run on a reverse.
Rivera said the biggest help the Panthers can give Newton is establishing the running game early — something they accomplished against the Eagles with Stewart gaining 45 yards on Carolina’s first two plays.
Rivera credits the finding stability on the offensive line midway through last season for his team’s streak of 100-yard rushing games. The Panthers have filled in nicely around Pro Bowl center Ryan Kalil after lacking proven blockers up front early last season.
“It’s one of those things where if we can run the ball effectively it will take pressure off the quarterback,” Rivera said. “Secondly, it gives your offensive linemen a chance to tee off. And third, it does wear people down a little.”
Said Newton: “Those guys might not necessarily get the recognition on that play but they are just doing their job.”
Despite releasing the team’s all-time leading rusher DeAngelo Williams this offseason, the Panthers haven’t missed a beat in the running game.
Stewart has developed a reputation for being one the toughest running backs to bring down on first contact. Tolbert has been the power back, showing his toughness by running through four Eagles defenders to get the end zone on a 2-yard reception to put Carolina up 21-6.
- Saints is turning things around– When Sean Payton reflects on the Saints’ recent resurgence, he recalls being struck by how many players earlier this year needed directions to the charter terminal at Louis Armstrong International Airport.Seven weeks into the season, the newest and youngest Saints know exactly where to go to catch flights for road games. They know where to park, as well as how long it takes to get there. That, Payton suggests, is analogous to how they’ve been functioning on the field during a string of three victories in the past four games.
“When you have a younger team, man, there are certain things that maybe you haven’t had to emphasize as much that you can’t take for granted. Things come up weekly, whether it’s a rule, whether it’s something outside of being on the field,” Payton said Monday. “Quickly getting up to speed and quickly improving each week — I think our younger players have done that. I like the enthusiasm they’re playing with. … That energy and enthusiasm can go a long way.”
Nearly half the Saints’ current players were not on the active roster last season. A number of those players are in the first few years of their pro careers and had little or no regular-season experience before last month.
As their mistakes become fewer and their production rises, the Saints are looking increasingly competitive.
As bleak as the season looked for New Orleans at 0-3 or 1-4, two straight wins have lifted the Saints to 3-4, 1½ games behind Minnesota (4-2) for the final NFC wild-card playoff spot.
Yet, with more than half the season remaining, safety Kenny Vaccaro said the Saints should avoid getting wrapped up in playoff scenarios.
“The best thing for us, since we got kind of put in a hole the first three games, is kind of put our head down and take this step by step, game by game. Because, at 3-4 right now, we don’t need to be thinking about playoffs,” he said.
It remains to be seen how much of the Saints’ recent success can be attributed to a youth improvement, or simply a relatively soft portion of the schedule. Two of New Orleans’ three victories have come against Dallas and Indianapolis, teams which are both below .500. But New Orleans also is responsible for rival Atlanta’s only loss this season.
This Sunday, the Saints have an opportunity to climb back to .500 when they host the New York Giants, who improved to 4-3 with a win over Dallas on Sunday.
The Giants will face an offense which includes two starting receivers, Brandon Coleman and Willie Snead, who were on the practice squad last season and are only in their second seasons out of college.
On defense, New Orleans rotates in several rookie linemen: starter Bobby Richardson, as well as reserves Tyeler Davison and Tavaris Barnes. Starting linebackers Stephone Anthony and Hau’oli Kikaha are rookies. Delvin Breaux, who has been starting at cornerback all season because Keenan Lewis has been hobbled, also is a first-year NFL player who came from the CFL.
New Orleans’ defense ranked last after Week 5 and is 30th now, giving up 404.9 yards per game. But the unit is increasingly producing momentum-changing sacks, turnovers or clutch third-down stops.
Defensive end Cameron Jordan has five sacks in the past two victories.
“I can’t be more proud of the D-line and the way we’re playing right now,” Jordan said. “We’re dealing with a lot of growing pains, but at the same time we’re overcoming a lot of different things.”
Meanwhile, after creating three turnovers in Sunday’s 27-21 victory at Indianapolis, the Saints now have four interceptions and seven fumble recoveries, tying them for eighth in the NFL in total takeaways with 11.
- The endangered running back not so endangered-The numbers were superb this week, with more RBs surpassing the century mark than in any other week this season.
Considering the emphasis on the air game and how 300-yard passing outings are commonplace, those runs to daylight become even more impressive.
Miami’s Lamar Miller led the way with an astounding 12.5-yard average, gaining 175 yards on 14 carries in a romp past Houston. Miller broke free for an 85-yard TD that was the longest run in the league this season.
Miller also had 61 yards receiving, including a 54-yard TD reception.
Darren McFadden, apparently back from career doldrums that have lasted since 2010, gave Dallas a boost with 152 yards on 29 carries in a loss to the Giants.
Dallas has been one of the true run-first teams in the league going all the way back to Emmitt Smith, and prospered last season with DeMarco Murray running away with Offensive Player of the Year honors. When he left as a free agent for Philadelphia, the Cowboys claimed they could plug in anyone behind that solid offensive line and still ram the ball through and past opponents.
With Tony Romo and Dez Bryant injured, that’s about the only choice Dallas has, and it worked pretty well Sunday.
“I thought we ran the ball really well,” coach Jason Garrett said. “(Joseph) Randle went out with a back sprain and Darren went in and I thought he did an outstanding job. We controlled the line of scrimmage, ran the ball a lot of different ways. We controlled the game for the most part because of that.”
Control generally is what the running game is all about. Not for the Patriots, perhaps — their short passing game, unstoppable at times, can substitute for ground and pound, which is also something they can occasionally do. But for many other teams, particularly those with suspect defenses or inconsistent quarterbacks, it’s a good way to run down the clock and keep things close.
The exception is Seattle, which looked like, well, Seattle last Thursday night at San Francisco in great part because Marshawn Lynch was healthy enough to power for 122 yards and a TD.
But Kansas City and Pittsburgh were smart enough to recognize that staying on the ground was prudent with the Steelers starting third-stringer Landry Jones at quarterback and the Chiefs, on a five-game slide, desperate to find a replacement for injured star Jamaal Charles. So Le’Veon Bell rushed for 121 yards, and the Chiefs’ Charcandrick West had 110 and a TD.
Chiefs coach Andy Reid knows all too well his team must have a semblance of a running attack to succeed.
“My hat goes off to Charcandrick and the job that he did,” Reid said. “We’ve known what he can do, it was just a matter of getting enough opportunities. I mentioned that after last game that he needed a few more opportunities. He got those today. You saw what he did with it
Adding to the noteworthiness of the rushing numbers this week: Green Bay, ranked fifth in that department, was off. Matt Forte, Chicago’s brilliant halfback and the NFL’s leading rusher, was off. So was Cincinnati’s Gio Bernard, who was eighth in the NFL in rushing, and the Jets’ Chris Ivory, the AFC leader, was hobbled by a hamstring problem in a loss at New England.
And when the cold/nasty weather hits, running the ball can pay extra dividends. Who knows, maybe Fisher will have plenty of converts to his way of thinking.
Jeff Fisher hasn’t lasted so long as an NFL coach without being a risk taker. He likes aggressive defenses, and when he was a coordinator, he loved the blitz.Fisher also builds his offenses around the running game, which goes against current NFL philosophies — at the club and league level — that passing is the most effective way to keep fans intrigued. And, oh yeah, the surest way to win.
Fisher put the Rams’ first-round draft choice where his mouth is in May, taking Todd Gurley of Georgia 10th overall.
Sounds like heresy in an era when running backs sometimes don’t go anywhere in the opening 32 picks, especially ones coming off knee surgery and with uncertain prospects for when they might make their NFL debut.
Week 7 of the schedule showed the validity of Fisher’s thinking. Gurley was one of 11 runners to gain at least 110 yards. Two others, Adrian Peterson (98) and Ryan Mathews (97) came close.
Gurley has rushed for 442 yards in his three starts, which brings back some memories for Fisher of his days as the Oilers/Titans coach.
- The tall & short of elite receivers– They are the tall and short of it among elite receivers in the NFL.At 6-foot-3, with the surest hands in the game, Arizona’s Larry Fitzgerald is on the upper rungs of the NFL’s career statistical ladders. So is Steve Smith, a rugged, 5-foot-9 dynamo for Baltimore.
Smith laughed when asked if he had taken anything from watching Fitzgerald over the years.
“He catches the ball well. He runs across the middle. We run the same routes,” Smith said. “I just think our games are two separate games. Obviously, he’s a lot taller than me. Larry is, what, 6-2? If I tried to big-boy and box somebody out at 5-9, that just isn’t happening.”
Smith finds many other ways to catch the ball and make life miserable on defenders.
“Steve has been doing it for a very long time at a high level,” Fitzgerald said. “He’s got broken bones in his back and he went out for 140 (yards) last week and brought back the ‘Pee Wee Herman’ dance. You’ve got to know what kind of game you’re going to get into with Steve Smith. He’s as fiery as they come and I love watching him.”
Smith is in his 15th season and says it will be his last.
His back injury kept him out of only one game, then he returned to catch seven passes for 137 yards, including a 34-yard touchdown reception, in last week’s loss at San Francisco. He has 36 catches for 510 yards.
The losses are mounting up for Smith. It’s not a triumphant way to end such a marvelous career, although he said late last week that he has no interest in being traded to a contender.
“If they traded me, I’d quit today,” Smith said. “I like to finish what we started.”
After a long career in Carolina, Smith is in his second season with the Ravens, a team that was 1-5 going into its game against Arizona on Monday night.
Coach John Harbaugh loves the way the receiver plays.
“I’ve never coached a tougher one,” Harbaugh said. “I’ve never coached a tougher one than him, physically and competitively. He’s a Hall of Fame tough guy.”
At 32, four years younger than Smith, with a new contract and in his 12th NFL season, Fitzgerald finds himself on an Arizona team that expects to contend. And he’s off to his best start in years, catching 43 passes for 583 yards and five touchdowns.
After all those years as a wideout, memorably out-jumping defenders for Kurt Warner’s long passes, Fitzgerald is in the slot now under coach Bruce Arians, and that means more blocking and some crushing hits. Fitzgerald just gets up and flips the ball to the official. If it’s a big first-down play, these days he might even let some of his pent-up emotion show.
He downplays all talk of a resurgent career.
“When I had success at 20 and 21, it didn’t feel any different than having success at 32,” he said. “It’s all the same.”
When it comes to their career success, the numbers don’t lie.
Entering Monday night, Smith was 12th in career yards receiving at 13,760, closing in on Henry Ellard and Cris Carter. Fitzgerald has 12,734, in 19th place, running neck-and-neck with good friend Anquan Boldin.
Fitzgerald is 14th in career receptions with 952, one more than Smith. And in receiving touchdowns, Fitzgerald is 11th with 95, Smith is tied for 27th with 76.
Asked about a common denominator between these two very different receivers, Arians said, “a great, great passion for the game. I love the way both guys play. They’re the ultimate pros and the ultimate warriors.”
Fitzgerald had a simpler one.
- The AFC South, the worse Division in the NFL– The AFC South is the NFL’s doormat.The Colts (3-4) can’t beat any team outside the division. Houston (2-5), Jacksonville (2-5) and Tennessee (1-5) are 5-15 combined.
Instead of fighting for first place, they’ll be battling for the first pick in the draft.Andrew Luck is struggling after missing the first two games of his career and Indianapolis has several issues. The Colts fell behind New Orleans 27-0 at home before scoring 21 unanswered points to make the loss a little closer Sunday.
They’re 0-4 outside the division and have three tough games coming up against Carolina (6-0), Denver (6-0) and Atlanta (6-1).
By the time they play the Jaguars in Week 14 and get a chance to win their 17th straight game against a division opponent, they could be 3-9 or 4-8. And, they’d probably still be in first place.
At least one South team will get a win this week because the Texans play the Titans.
- More AFC South, Can the Titans get it right– Frustration is building for the Tennessee Titans, and tight end Delanie Walker says it’s starting to feel like this franchise is stuck in a circle.Losing five straight games and 15 of the last 16 has that effect.
“It keeps happening, and over and over,” Walker said Monday. “Y’all ask the same questions over and over and it’s like, ‘What do you want me to say?’ The fans every time I answer a question from you, the fans say, ‘Duh, we know that!’ What do you want me to say? Basically, we got to turn it around.”
The Titans now are 1-5 after losing their first game without rookie quarterback Marcus Mariota 10-7 to the Atlanta Falcons. The Titans held the NFL’s third-best scoring offense to a season-low in points, forced Atlanta to turn it over twice on fourth down and intercepted two passes — and still came up short.
Statistically, it seems the Titans should be winning. They currently rank fourth in the NFL in yards allowed and 16th in points allowed per game. But numbers aren’t translating into victories with a trip to Houston (2-5) up next.
“For us, we just got to win a game,” cornerback Jason McCourty said. “That’s the most important thing.”
Tennessee has been very close with three of the past four losses by a combined six points, and the common refrain from the Titans has been just how close they are to that elusive victory.
“It’s time for us to quit talking about it and get a win,” coach Ken Whisenhunt said Monday.
Tennessee has regressed offensively, scoring fewer points in each of the past three losses. They rank 28th in yards per game, and only St. Louis and San Francisco score fewer points than Tennessee’s 19.8 points per game.
Whisenhunt said he hasn’t thought of having someone else on his coaching staff call plays, and he defended his play-calling.
Only three coaches have had worse starts in their first 22 NFL games all-time than Whisenhunt who now is 3-19 since taking over Tennessee, according to STATS. John McKay was 0-22 with the inaugural Tampa Bay Buccaneers in 1976-1977, Harvey Johnson was 1-20-1 with Buffalo between 1968-1971 and Phil Handler was 2-20 with Chicago between 1943 and 1949.
The Titans coach is tied with five other coaches, including Rich Kotite who started 3-19 with the 1995-96 New York Jets.
Whisenhunt already has the worst home record since 1970 among coaches with a minimum of 10 home games coached at 1-11 (.083 percent) according to STATS, though Tampa Bay coach Lovie Smith is 1-10 (.091).
The Titans will check Mariota out on the field Tuesday to see if the rookie can practice Wednesday or if the sprained MCL in his left knee will keep him out Sunday. They also were missing three other starters against Atlanta and lost two more to injuries during the game.
Snapping this skid won’t be easy with the Titans now playing three of four on the road in November. Six of the final 10 games will be away from Nashville, though luckily five are in the woeful AFC South starting with the Houston Texans. Safety Michael Griffin says the Titans are blessed to only be 1 ½ games behind first-place Indianapolis (3-4) in this division.
- The Bills, who are they Bullies or more Pushovers– For all his bold vows, coach Rex Ryan doesn’t sound as self-assured in assessing the Buffalo Bills entering their bye week as he did before the season opened.”We expect better results right now. We haven’t gotten them quite honestly,” Ryan said. “I know our fans deserve better than 3-4, there’s no question. But this team deserves our fan base to stay by them, which they will.”
Those were among Ryan’s parting comments before the Bills flew home from London after bumbling through a 34-31 loss to the Jacksonville Jaguars (2-5) at Wembley Stadium on Sunday.
Rather than delivering on his promise to build a bully upon taking over in January, Ryan’s team more closely resembles the Bills’ past pushovers, who haven’t made the playoffs in 15 seasons — the NFL’s longest active playoff drought.
And Buffalo’s schedule isn’t getting any easier. Once the Bills return, they face a three-game stretch of playing AFC East rivals, starting with a home game against Miami on Nov. 8, and play five of their next seven on the road.
Ryan gave his players the entire week off after returning to Buffalo early Monday.
They could use a break.
The Bills are depleted by injuries. Their offense is sputtering as a result of familiar longstanding questions at quarterback. They lack discipline in being the NFL’s most-penalized team. And, most concerning, Ryan’s prized defense has yet to play anywhere close to its high-priced expectations.
All four issues contributed to how Buffalo unraveled against the Jaguars.
At quarterback, EJ Manuel showed once again why he’s too erratic to be considered a reliable option. He made his second straight start filling in for Tyrod Taylor, who’s out with a sprained left knee.
Though Manuel helped rally the Bills to score 28 consecutive points and take a 31-27 lead, he was also the reason Buffalo found itself in a 27-3 hole to begin with.
In the span of six snaps, Manuel turned the ball over three times — a fumble and two interceptions — which led directly to the Jaguars scoring 20 points in just under five minutes.
“Just bad football,” said Manuel, who had two turnovers returned for touchdowns.
The Bills placed their faith in Manuel to be the primary backup after trading veteran journeyman Matt Cassel to Dallas in Week 3.
Instead, Buffalo’s 2013 first-round draft pick has lost four straight starts dating to last season. It’s a stretch in which Manuel has combined to throw six touchdowns and committed six turnovers (five interceptions and a lost fumble), three of which have been returned for scores.
Injuries have been a season-long concern, though Taylor is expected to return following the bye week.
What’s more cloudy is the status of other players, including receivers Sammy Watkins (left ankle) and Percy Harvin (hip), defensive tackle Kyle Williams (knee) and backup running back Karlos Williams (concussion).
Then there’s Buffalo’s defense.
The Bills have just 11 sacks, well off last year’s pace in which they had a league-leading 54. And Buffalo has allowed three or more offensive touchdowns four times already, one more than last year’s total.
Though Manuel’s turnovers played a factor Sunday, the Bills still gave up a season-high 120 yards rushing and allowed Blake Bortles to secure the win by capping a seven-play, 84-yard drive with a 31-yard touchdown pass to Allen Hurns.
The Jaguars did a get a break on the drive by converting a third-and-15 because of a questionable pass interference call against cornerback Nickell Robey. Replays showed Robey barely touched receiver Bryan Walters, and both had their arms outstretched attempting to snag an errant pass.