What Have We Learned From Week 9 of the 2015 NFL Season

Demarus Dye| BKD TV Insiders

Sam Bradford, Tyrone Crawford

Philadelphia Eagles’ Sam Bradford (7) throws a pass as Dallas Cowboys defensive tackle Tyrone Crawford defends in the second half of an NFL football game Sunday, Nov. 8, 2015, in Arlington, Texas. (AP Photo/Michael Ainsworth)

Here is What Have We Learned from Week 9 of the 2015 NFL Season, thanks to the AP Pro 32 for photos & help in this article.

                                                                                 Ups

  • Eagles’ Bradford poised for a strong 2nd half of the season– Sam Bradford has caught up to the rest of his teammates.Bradford spent several months in the offseason and the first half learning Chip Kelly’s up-tempo offense. After some growing pains, he has it down.

    When the Philadelphia Eagles needed him most, Bradford delivered. He had his best game Sunday night at Dallas and his 41-yard touchdown pass to Jordan Matthews in overtime might have saved Philadelphia’s season.

    The Eagles (4-4) are a half-game behind the Giants in the NFC East standings and already beat New York handily last month.

    “Sam got here in year three so there’s a lot of catching up for him along with training his injury, so that’s why I think you’ll see him having a better second half,” offensive coordinator Pat Shurmur said Tuesday.

    Kelly compared Bradford’s progression to arriving halfway through a movie and trying to figure out what happened in the beginning while everyone in the audience already saw it.

    “He hasn’t been with us for the amount of time that some of the other guys have,” Kelly said.

    “It’s something you have to get through reps; it’s not something that can be forced. He works extremely hard at it. He’s in this building all the time, watching film, studying, working at it. We’ve seen constant improvement out of Sam. I hope it continues and he’ll continue to play even better as we move forward.”

    Bradford completed 25 of 36 passes for 295 yards and one TD with no interceptions against the Cowboys. His passer rating was 103.4. The only other time this season it was over 100 was in a loss at Washington when he had three TD passes and no picks.

    Overall, Bradford has 2,061 yards passing, a career-high 62.9 completion rate, 10 TDs and 10 interceptions. His passer rating (79.5) is fifth-worst in the NFL, though it’s higher than Peyton Manning (75.6) and Andrew Luck (74.9).

    But coaches say the poor stats are a product of him getting acclimated to a new offense while also recovering from two operations on his left ACL that sidelined him since October 2013.

    “I’ve seen Sam improve on a weekly basis here,” Kelly said. “We’re in game eight. He’s better in game eight than he was in game one. I think he’s more comfortable in terms of what we’re doing.”

    Bradford had the offense moving in the second half against the Cowboys. He led the Eagles to scores on four of their last five drives, including the TD pass to Matthews in OT.

    “We played fast, we played the way we wanted to play, and it made a difference,” Bradford said.

  • No Bell, Well DeAngelo Williams keep the Steelers run game going– DeAngelo Williams welcomes the criticism. The Pittsburgh Steelers running back feeds off it.He understands that backs on the wrong side of 30 are considered the football equivalent of a MySpace page: used up and outdated. Yet here he is at 32, coming off the most productive game of his decade-long career running with a fearless style that proves there is life for the Pittsburgh running game even with All-Pro Le’Veon Bell done for the year with a right knee injury.

    “I don’t think we can hide him anymore,” joked guard Ramon Foster.

    Blame it on Williams, whose effectiveness is as hard to ignore as the pink-tinted dreadlocks he wears in honor of his mother Sandra Hill, who died in May 2014 following a lengthy battle with breast cancer.

    Signed in the offseason following a long run at Carolina — where he is the franchise’s all-time leading rusher — Williams was only supposed to be a placeholder while Bell served a two-game suspension to start the season. Williams played brilliantly, running for 204 yards and scoring three touchdowns. Yet he receded into the background without complaint once Bell returned, well aware of the pecking order.

    Call it a byproduct of his time with the Panthers, where he spent years as either the one or the two in the one-two punch along with Jonathan Stewart. The system that worked for Carolina, even if it prevented Williams from ever really getting into a rhythm.

    That won’t be an issue now, with Bell done for the season and newcomers Jordan Todman and Isaiah Pead still getting comfortable with offensive coordinator Todd Haley’s playbook. Williams was on the field for 80 of Pittsburgh’s 85 offensive snaps, darting for 170 yards against a defense that began the day second in the league against the run.

    Williams was even effective when the ball wasn’t in his hands, putting together a GIF-worthy block on Oakland defensive end Aldon Smith in which Williams sent the 6-foot-5, 265-pound Smith flying. Not that Williams was in the mood to gloat. While others might consider his play a surprise, he does not.

    “I’m not saying this is my best game,” Williams said. “The sky’s the limit for this team and for myself and for this offense.”

    Even if the sky grew a little cloudy in the aftermath of his electric performance. Coach Mike Tomlin said Tuesday that Williams is dealing with foot pain and Williams’ availability to practice this week ahead of Sunday’s game against Cleveland is in doubt, the price of the back’s heaviest workload since lugging it 30 times against Tampa Bay in 2009. It seems unlikely a little swelling would keep him out.

    Williams certainly looked fresh on his 27th and final carry versus Oakland, a 9-yard sprint to the sideline that set up Chris Boswell’s winning 18-yard field goal. While Williams lacks Bell’s patience, he makes up for it with vision and tenacity. He’s a brilliant cutback artist who isn’t afraid to push the pile forward when he has to.

    The key to Williams’ success isn’t the years, it’s the lack of miles. Williams and Reggie Bush are the only backs taken in the 2006 draft — a group that includes Laurence Maroney, LenDale White and Joseph Addai — still in the league. And Williams’ 1,522 carries are fewer than LeSean McCoy, Chris Johnson, Marshawn Lynch and Matt Forte, all of whom began the season in their 20s.

    It’s why Steelers safety Mike Mitchell told anyone in the organization who would listen to take a shot at signing Williams after Carolina let him go in the spring. Williams signed the same afternoon Pittsburgh announced a lengthy extension with quarterback Ben Roethlisberger, the lack of fanfare just fine for a player who keeps a mental checklist of the slights against him.

    “It’s all about production,” Williams said. “I go in and try not to let people out work me … and it does help when guys like the media doubt me so thanks guys for the fuel.”

    Pittsburgh will need Williams’ tank to remain full for the Steelers to remain in contention for a wild-card spot.

  • NY Giants in Control of the NFC East– Heading into the final seven games of the regular season, things are looking up for the New York Giants.Forget that the Giants (5-4) have to play Tom Brady and the New England Patriots on Sunday in their final game before a bye. Even though they have played the Patriots well, few expect them to win.

    The exciting part for Tom Coughlin’s team is it has a legitimate shot to make the playoffs for the first time in four seasons. The Giants not only have a half-game lead on Philadelphia (4-4) in the NFC East, they seem to be improving.

    The offense is starting to click with Eli Manning and Odell Beckham Jr., leading the way. Two-time Pro Bowl defensive end Jason Pierre-Paul has returned after losing a finger in a July 4 fireworks accident. Cornerback Prince Amukamara is close to returning from a pectoral injury. Tackle Will Beatty might return from his offseason pectoral injury, and there is even an outside chance receiver Victor Cruz could play for the first time in more than a year.

    It’s very encouraging, a lot better than the past two seasons when New York was 3-6 with seven games to go and heading nowhere.

    The one negative is that the Giants lost defensive tackle Johnathan Hankins for the season to a pectoral injury in a 32-18 win over Tampa Bay on Sunday.

    “It’s a great thing to be in the hunt and be relevant,” Coughlin said Monday. “Each week is meaningful and the players are well aware of it.”

    The schedule does not favor New York. The upcoming opponents have a combined 37-19 record, with New England (8-0), Carolina (8-0) and Minnesota (6-2) all leading or tied for first place in their respective divisions. Also on the schedule are the Jets (5-3), Dolphins (3-5), Redskins (3-5) and Eagles, who will visit MetLife Stadium for the regular-season finale.

    Having Pierre-Paul back is going to help on defense. He could be the quick fix for a pass rush that has been missing all season. He didn’t have any sacks Sunday in 46 plays, but he got pressure on Jameis Winston.

    Coughlin said Pierre-Paul looked rusty, but he also was quick off the snap and played well late with the game on the line.

    “He will assume whatever roles we need to design in order for us to maximize his ability,” Coughlin said.

    Naturally, Pierre-Paul wants to improve next week.

    “It takes time you know, like I said, I’m not perfect, nobody is in this world, but I’m going to take care of that and get better,” he said.

    Linebacker Jonathan Casillas thought Pierre-Paul played well.

    “He still has to get his feet underneath him just like anybody else would their first game back after a while,” Casillas said Monday. “I’m just happy for a guy like him who suffered a very traumatic injury and to be back, to be playing, and doing the thing he loves to do.”

    The Giants will have to play better to beat the defending Super Bowl champions.

    The offense has stepped up the past two weeks, scoring six touchdowns in the 52-49 loss to New Orleans, and then controlling the ball for 35 minutes against the Bucs.

Middle

  • Key injuries could determine playoff races in 2nd half– Just as important as filling a roster with skilled players is keeping that talent healthy.In no place is that more apparent than the AFC North, which pretty much already has been decided by who has avoided sick bay.

    The Bengals are 8-0 on merit, but other than linebacker Vontaze Burfict, they’ve stayed away from impactful injuries. The rest of the division has been an M.A.S.H. unit.

    Baltimore is languishing at 2-6 in part because of an epidemic that has cost the Ravens their top defensive player, linebacker Terrell Suggs, and their one elite receiver, Steve Smith. Baltimore has 12 players on injured reserve and, shockingly considering its history for nearly two decades, is in the running for the top overall draft pick.

    “You move on, That’s what you have to do,” coach John Harbaugh says. “It never changes. We’re never going to use excuses, we’re never going to say that we don’t have enough firepower or enough ammunition. We’re never going to say that because we don’t believe it. We always believe that we’ve got players in the pipeline that can get the job done.”

    Cleveland also has been ravaged. Quarterback Josh McCown’s gutsy display on the field despite a shoulder problem was admirable, if somewhat counterproductive. Star cornerback Joe Haden is battling concussion issues, as is safety Donte Whitner. Coach Mike Pettine is fortunate if he can find 11 supposedly healthy players to start on defense.

    Then there’s Pittsburgh, which saw Le’Veon Bell, its 2014 All-Pro running back, go out with a torn-up knee in Week 8. Now, it’s QB Ben Roethlisberger, who already missed four games with a knee issue and hurt his left foot on Sunday. He’s gone for at least one game, and with the Steelers at 5-4, that’s a huge deal for their playoff chances.

    Pittsburgh has remained competitive because of an improved defense, the magnificence of receiver Antonio Brown, and the timely signing in the offseason of DeAngelo Williams as a backup to Bell. But such major injuries eventually catch up to teams, and the Steelers still have Seattle, Indianapolis, Cincinnati and Denver on the schedule.

    Of course, injuries have not been limited to that division, and several presumed contenders have flopped in great part because of them.

    Dallas (2-6) is Exhibit A, with Tony Romo’s collarbone following Dez Bryant’s broken foot. Bryant is back, Romo will be by the end of the month, but not linebacker Sean Lee, the defensive leader, who is dealing with concussion issues. Even before Bryant and Romo went down, top cornerback Orlando Scandrick was lost for the season with a torn ACL.

    Another prime example is Buffalo, which is at .500 despite a slew of problems, mostly to the offense. QB Tyrod Taylor (knee), receivers Sammy Watkins (ankle/hamstring), Percy Harvin (knee and hip and now done for 2015) and Marquise Goodwin (ribs), and RBs LeSean McCoy (hamstring) and rookie Karlos Williams (concussion) have been sidelined at various times.

    That puts an extra burden on the defense, which is missing tackle Kyle Williams (knee) and safety Aaron Williams.

    Some teams have the good fortune of getting back some key performers. Giants DE Jason Pierre-Paul, who blew off a finger and damaged his right hand in a July 4 fireworks accident, made his regular-season debut Sunday.

    As we move into the stretch drive, here’s a look at other injuries that could have the biggest effect on the playoff races.

    LB DEMARCUS WARE, BRONCOS — A balky back could plague one of the leaders of Denver’s staunch defense, and disrupt the pass rush.

    DE CHARLES JOHNSON, PANTHERS — He’s on short-term IR and could bolster an already solid, big-play defense on the NFC’s only unbeaten team.

    OT JASON PETERS, EAGLES — No one wants to lose their blind-side quarterback protector.

    OT NATE SOLDER, and RB DION LEWIS, PATRIOTS — Ditto for the Patriots, except they find ways to plug in linemen. Running backs, too, but replacing the versatility shown by Lewis could be difficult.

    C NICK MANGOLD, JETS — The most efficient Jets blocker has been slowed by neck issues. Not good on a run-oriented team.

    LB ALEC OGLETREE, RAMS — St. Louis’ most versatile defender should return by the end of the season. Will the Rams still be in the wild-card race?

    DT HARRY ANDERSON and DE ARTHUR JONES, COLTS — Anderson was a revelation as a rookie, and Jones will continue being missed in the trenches.

    RB ARIAN FOSTER, TEXANS — A team with uncertain quarterbacking can’t afford to lose its top runner.

    QB TEDDY BRIDGEWATER, VIKINGS — Minnesota’s turnaround could be short-circuited if Bridgewater’s concussion sidelines him for a while.

    RB JAMAAL CHARLES, CHIEFS — Kansas City is on the periphery of the wild-card chase, but not likely to stay there minus its best playmaker.

    DE CAMERON WAKE, DOLPHINS — Miami also is a long shot for the postseason, and Wake’s injury really lengthens the odds.

Downs

  • Saints got marched on mainly on defense– Coming off a frustrating overtime loss to Tennessee, the New Orleans Saints remained calm on Monday.They understood the potential ramifications of having their three-game winning streak stopped by a struggling team that ended its own six-game skid. They also felt it was too soon to panic, with almost half the season left, giving them enough time to correct the errors that plagued them against the Titans.

    “The sky’s not falling today,” coach Sean Payton insisted. “It’s one game, and it’s disappointing.”

    Just as in 2014 against San Francisco, the Saints (4-5) lost in overtime at home after recovering from a slow start to get to 4-4. But the similarity ended there, they insisted.

    A year ago, offensive tackle Zach Strief openly questioned some of his teammates’ focus, and New Orleans never climbed above .500.

    After Sunday’s 34-28 disappointment, Strief said the only issue was execution as the Saints began preparing for a trip to Washington (3-5).

    “The energy, the effort and the desire were right,” he said. “I don’t think you can watch that game and say there was an emotional letdown. At the end of the day, we made too many mistakes.”

    Every unit contributed to the defeat for the Saints, who led by 11 twice in the first half and never trailed until the Titans scored in overtime.

    The defense allowed 487 yards and now ranks last in the NFL in yards allowed per play (6.5). New Orleans also fell to the bottom of the league in pass efficiency defense as Titans rookie Marcus Mariota threw for a season-best 371 yards.

    Tennessee’s 34 points almost matched its total of 36 for the previous four games.

    The Saints, who scored touchdowns on their first three possessions, managed only seven more points in their final seven series. Drew Brees threw for 389 yards, but New Orleans averaged only 2.3 yards rushing on 26 carries. Brees was sacked four times, and a fifth sack was nullified by a roughing the passer penalty.

    Late in regulation, Brian Orakpo blitzed untouched to sack Brees when New Orleans had a first down at the Tennessee 33. That breakdown forced the Saints to scramble to get back in field goal range, and they did not pick up a first down, settling for a 46-yard field attempt.

    “If we don’t make that mistake, there’s no doubt in my mind we end up closer to the 5 worrying about scoring a touchdown,” Strief said. “Instead, we’re in a situation where we’re putting it on our kickers again.”

    Kai Forbath, whose 50-yarder as time ran out beat the New York Giants a week earlier, never had a chance on this one. Coty Sensabaugh tipped it while rushing from the right side.

    “It was a low snap and the protection was poor,” Payton said. “We put ourselves in position to win the game. Honestly, we have to be able to function there.”

    Tennessee scored its first points on a field goal after Marcus Murphy fumbled on a punt return for the second straight week.

    “Turnovers lead to negative results,” Murphy said. “You have to protect the ball or you’re out of the league.”

    Payton pointed to the fluky 61-yard touchdown Tennessee scored off a deflection in the first half as something out of the Saints’ control. Defensive backs Keenan Lewis and Jarius Byrd collided trying to make an interception, and the ball went right into tight end Delanie Walker’s hands.

  • Falcons not looking good going into their Bye Week– Dan Quinn dismissed Atlanta Falcons players for their bye week on Monday with instructions to rest, heal and come back ready to “let it rip.”There are plenty of signs, especially on offense, that the team needs the open week.

    The Falcons have lost three of their last four games, including the first two-game losing streak under Quinn, the first-year coach. A 5-0 start provided a cushion that leaves the Falcons (6-3) in the chase for a wild-card playoff spot, but only if they can reverse their sudden downturn.

    Atlanta has averaged only 16.75 points in its last four games, including Sunday’s 17-16 loss at San Francisco. Their only win in that span was a low-scoring 10-7 decision at Tennessee.

    Quinn fielded several questions on Monday about his decision to kick a field goal when trailing by four points with the ball inside the 49ers 2-yard line and 3 minutes remaining.

    “I don’t regret the decision,” he said. “I certainly regret the outcome. I always want to be decisive in terms of the way we go about it. At the time, I thought that was the best decision for us to go and win the game.”

    Quinn said his plan was for Atlanta’s defense to force a punt and give the ball back to the offense with an opportunity to win the game. Instead, the 49ers ran out the clock, thanks to a key third-down run by quarterback Blaine Gabbert.

    Quinn insisted his decision to call for the field goal and put the game on his defense did not reflect a lack of confidence in his offense. The Falcons have struggled to move the ball in the red zone in recent weeks.

    Devonta Freeman, who leads the NFL with 11 touchdowns, did not have a carry in the final possession. He had a 17-yard touchdown catch but was held to 12 yards rushing on 12 carries, easily his least productive day as a starter.

    “Much credit goes out to that defense,” Freeman said, adding he supported Quinn’s fourth-down call.

    “It was one of those things when coach thought we were going to get the ball back,” Freeman said. “We believe in him. I believe in him.”

    The bye week will provide time to look back with regret at the losses to the 49ers and Tampa Bay the last two weeks.

    “We have such high expectations for ourselves,” said linebacker O’Brien Schofield. “We’re not looking at the 6-3. We’re looking at games we allow to slip away from us because we weren’t executing as well as we can.”

    Perhaps most surprising was the Falcons’ offense was contained even though Atlanta had no turnovers and only six penalties. The Falcons had 12 turnovers in their previous four games.

    “It is a step back for us because the last couple of weeks we haven’t been scoring,” said wide receiver Roddy White. “We thought that we would get off the slide this week and score a few touchdowns but that wasn’t the case. So, we have to go back to the drawing board.”

  • Denver’s dominant defense not so deep now- The Denver Broncos will face the Kansas City Chiefs this weekend with a depleted defense.The Broncos (7-1) still sport the league’s top defense after being knocked from the ranks of the unbeaten Sunday at Indianapolis. But they lost Pro Bowl linebacker DeMarcus Ware to a recurrent back injury and Pro Bowl cornerback Aqib Talib to a one-game suspension for poking a player in the eye.

    Add those to first-round draft pick Shane Ray’s absence with a knee injury and suddenly, Denver’s defense isn’t so deep.

    Coach Gary Kubiak said he was concerned about Ware’s latest injury, which is expected to sideline him at least two weeks and possibly into December.

    Ware, who has a history of back and neck problems, missed a game earlier this season with a similar injury, although he almost certainly would have missed another had the Broncos not had a bye week during that span.

    He left Sunday’s loss at Indy just before halftime after recording a sack in the second quarter to tie John Abraham for 10th place on the NFL’s all-time sack list with 133 1-2 career QB takedowns.

    On Monday, Kubiak said, “I’ll be honest with you, there is concern. I know he wasn’t feeling very good after the game at all. I talked to him via text kind of bus-to-bus when we were coming from the airport back home (Sunday) night. He told me he was feeling better.”

    The Broncos lead the league with 30 sacks and Ware leads the team with 6 1-2 sacks, including one against the Chiefs in Week 2, when Talib had a key interception.

    Ware teams with Von Miller to give the Broncos the best edge-rushing tandem in the NFL. With Ware out, Shaq Barrett will start opposite Miller.

     

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