What Have We Learned From Week 8 of the 2016 NFL Season

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Drew Brees, Tim Lelito

New Orleans Saints quarterback Drew Brees (9) celebrates his touchdown with offensive guard Tim Lelito (68) in the first half of an NFL football game against the Seattle Seahawks in New Orleans, Sunday, Oct. 30, 2016. (AP Photo/Bill Feig)

Here is What Have We Learned from Week 8 of the 2016 NFL Season, thanks to the AP Pro 32 for photos & help in this article.

Ups

  • Saints showing signs of digging out of early season hole– New Orleans Saints fans have seen this act before, and previously it hasn’t ended well for them.The Saints are once again on the verge of climbing back to .500 and into the NFC playoff picture after opening the season with three straight losses.

    Similar stories played out in 2007, 2012, 2014 and last season after starts of 1-3 or worse. Each time, New Orleans got back to .500 and played well enough to keep its games meaningful into December, but missed the playoffs.

    Time will tell if this season will be different; coach Sean Payton and his players certainly would like to think it will be. There are some good reasons for optimism based on the way they’ve played in their past four games, going 3-1 with the lone loss a close, competitive game at Kansas City.

    New Orleans has played better defense during that span, and on Sunday in the Superdome, the Saints found balance for their prolific passing offense from an unlikely source in a 25-20 victory against Seattle.

    Reserve running back Tim Hightower had the first 100-yard rushing game by a New Orleans player this season, finishing with 102 yards on 26 carries.

    Hightower, who missed the 2012 to 2014 seasons because of injuries, said his experience in resurrecting his career was helpful as he watched the Saints’ resurgence after the slow start this season.

    “I keep going back to those three years that I was away from football,” Hightower said Monday. “There was light at the end of the tunnel. We had high hopes going into the season but we didn’t start off well. We got on a roll then we got knocked down. When you go through tough times you use some of those parallels.”

    The Saints’ defense had one of its best performances of the season against Seattle, allowing just one offensive touchdown and withstanding a final drive that ended with an incomplete pass in the end zone on the game’s final play.

    “At the end of the game we stood up and made plays when we had to,” said linebacker Nate Stupar, whose second-quarter interception led to the Saints’ first touchdown.

    Seattle had taken an early 7-0 lead when safety Earl Thomas picked up Mark Ingram’s fumble and ran 34 yards for a touchdown. It was the second critical fumble by Ingram in two weeks and came on what wound up being his final play in the game.

    Ingram’s benching was meant to be more temporary than it was, but lasted the whole game, coach Sean Payton said, because “the way Tim was running, he was getting into a pretty good groove.”

    The Seahawks’ offense never got into a good groove against a New Orleans defense that has methodically improved from No. 31 to No. 28 in the NFL. And that was without key defensive players who could return as early as Sunday when the Saints visit struggling San Francisco. Cornerback Delvin Breaux and defensive tackle Sheldon Rankins, the team’s rookie No. 1 draft choice, both have practiced recently and Rankins is eligible to come off of injured reserve this week.

    “His progress has been good,” Payton said. “We’ll see how practice is day to day and go from there.”

    The defense has allowed fewer than 400 yards in three of the last four games after allowing more than 400 in each of the first three losses.

    “We struggled a little bit against the run at first, but we’ve really started to jell,” Stupar said. “We’ve really been playing good up front.”

    With Drew Brees continuing to operate one of the perennially elite passing games in the NFL, the improved running game and defense have New Orleans making the kind of comprehensive progress they hoped to see heading into the second half of the season.

    “On offense, we’ve had pretty good time of possession and done pretty well on third downs and that’s helped us,” Payton said of the three victories. “Conversely, defensively, our numbers in those wins have been good. Our ability up front to hurry the quarterback or apply some pressure to the quarterback has helped as well.”

 

  • Texans defense remains solid despite loss of superstar JJ Watt– Houston’s defense hasn’t fallen apart without star defensive end J.J. Watt.In fact, it has been the strength of a team that enters its bye week 5-3 despite inconsistent play by new quarterback Brock Osweiler.

    “There’s always room for improvement, but I think overall guys have stepped up their play across the board whether it’s the d-line, the linebackers, secondary,” veteran cornerback Johnathan Joseph said. “It’s hard to replace the production (Watt) brings to the table, but I think we’re more than capable with the guys we have on defense and that just has to be our mentality.”

    The Texans ranked fifth in the NFL through Sunday’s games in allowing 316.2 yards a game . Coach Bill O’Brien has been impressed with the way his defense has responded without Watt.

    “Injuries do happen, but look we have lost the three-time Defense Player of the Year and those are hard injuries to overcome for some teams,” O’Brien said. “But not for this team so far because we have a resilient locker room and we have a bunch of guys in there that play hard.”

    Their pass defense is allowing the second-fewest yards in the NFL with 190.5. The Texans have done this despite playing several games without a variety of starters in the secondary. Joseph sat out large portions of two games, cornerback Kareem Jackson missed two games and safety Quintin Demps has sat out the past three.

    Joseph shared why he thinks Houston has been so good against the pass this season.

    “Players playing the right technique, (defensive coordinator) Romeo (Crennel) making great calls in great situations, guys challenging throws, the pass rush getting there and harassing the quarterback all day,” he said.

    The emergence of cornerback A.J. Bouye has helped Houston’s secondary remain solid despite the injuries. Bouye, who was signed to the team as an undrafted free agent in 2013, has 33 tackles along with nine pass break-ups and a sack.

    Watt was placed on the injured reserve after three games and had season-ending back surgery a few days later. Without Watt, who led the NFL in sacks with 17 1/2 last year, the Texans asked Jadeveon Clowney to expand his role. And for the first time in his injured-plagued career, the top overall pick in the 2014 draft has responded.

    Clowney moved from outside linebacker to defensive end to fill in for Watt and has thrived. He has 30 tackles, three sacks and leads the team with nine tackles for losses .

    He’s started all eight games after not starting more than four in a row in his first two years in the NFL. That, O’Brien said, is a big reason why he’s finally playing to his potential.

    “The fact that he’s out there every day at practice, getting all the reps in practice and then having all the reps in the games. There’s no substitute for that,” he said. “When you’re young and you’re injured and you’re in and out of the lineup or you’re not in the lineup for a long time, it’s hard. It’s hard to make up that lost ground and I think he’s done a really good job of being out there every day and he’s been one of our most productive players. No doubt about it.”

    While the Texans have been great against the pass, they’re hoping to improve against the run when they return to play on Nov. 13 at Jacksonville after their bye. Houston is allowing 125.8 yards rushing per game, which is unacceptable to Crennel.

    “I put all the pressure on myself … they need to play better (and) I need to coach better,” Crennel said.

 

  • Coach Dan Quinn has Falcons buying in to his message– Falcons coach Dan Quinn got just the finish he was looking for in a last-minute win over Green Bay.With a short turnaround this week before Thursday’s divisional showdown at Tampa Bay, Atlanta (5-3) earned the kind of tight victory Quinn relishes.

    “When you come through in those, for sure it gives you something,” Quinn said Monday. “To get the job done yesterday was significant.”

    Quinn likes that it’s not just quarterback Matt Ryan, receiver Julio Jones and cornerback Desmond Trufant, the team’s most talented defender, making plays this year.

    After starting last year 6-1 and missing the playoffs in Quinn’s first season, Atlanta is getting contributions from unexpected sources like receiver Taylor Gabriel, tight end Austin Hooper and veteran safety Kemal Ishmael.

    Two veterans, receiver Mohamed Sanu and defensive end Adrian Clayborn, stepped up in Sunday’s 33-32 win over Green Bay to fill big roles.

    Sanu, whom the Falcons signed early in the free agency, caught the winning touchdown pass as the Packers double-teamed Jones, the NFL’s leading receiver at kickoff, on seemingly every snap.

    Jones tweaked his knee early in the game and was targeted just five times, catching three passes for 29 yards, but he freed up Sanu, Gabriel, Hooper and others to get free in man-to-man matchups.

    Sanu was targeted 10 times and finished with a team-high nine catches, five on the winning drive, for 84 yards.

    “For a guy with his size to have that kind of catching radius — Matt can put it away from a defender — he’ll go get it,” Quinn said. “That totally shows up. We’ve thrown some screens to him where he has to lower his shoulder and become a runner to earn some extra yards after contact. I like that part of his game as well.”

    Clayborn had a third-down sack in the third quarter and another early in the fourth. The Packers had to punt from midfield both times.

    Gabriel, a second-year veteran originally signed as a college free agent by Cleveland, caught a stunning 47-yard touchdown pass late in the first quarter.

    Hooper, a third-round pick, took charge after starting tight end Jacob Tamme went down with a shoulder injury on the first possession. He caught all five of his targeted passes for 51 yards.

    Ishmael, with a team-leading 50 tackles, filled in earlier this year for starting rookie safety Keanu Neal and played a couple of games at linebacker when Atlanta had injuries to De’Vondre Campbell, Deion Jones and Sean Weatherspoon.

    Sanu said the players have bought in to Quinn’s message of resiliency.

    “We were going back-and-forth, back-and-forth and once we had the ball with four minutes left, I was like, ‘We got to go down and score,'” Sanu said. “It was me and Julio on one side, and so I motioned out to where we were. But Julio ran outside and drew two guys and left me one-on-one with the linebacker.”

Middle

  • Tied Bengals, Redskins both leave London feeling like losers– The Bengals and Redskins both leave London feeling like losers after a strange shootout of a tie that satisfies nobody.Washington (4-3-1) needed to gain ground vs. Dallas and Philadelphia above it in the competitive NFC East, while Cincinnati (3-4-1) simply hoped to get back to .500 in the weaker AFC North. Instead, both head into their bye weeks with that unlikely No. 1 tacked on to their records like an irritating footnote.

    The Bengals let their victory slip away in regulation, permitting a 10-play, 45-yard drive that ended in a 40-yard field goal by Dustin Hopkins with barely a minute left to knot the score 27-27.

    Washington got a double dose of regret in overtime, cheering as Hopkins’ 34-yard kick with barely two minutes remaining cleared the uprights — only to be whistled dead on a Bengals timeout. His second kick hooked wide left.

    Yet the Redskins got the ball back at midfield after forcing an Andy Dalton fumble . Kirk Cousins hit Pierre Garcon to the Bengals 33-yard line, into potential winning field-goal range again — only for the play to be reversed on a dubious pass interference call on Garcon.

    “It’s weird,” said Bengals defensive end Michael Johnson. “On one hand, you’re mad, because there’s a couple plays that if we make, we can win. But at the same time, we didn’t lose. It’s bittersweet, you know? I’m glad we didn’t take the ‘L,’ but I’m upset we didn’t win.”

    Redskins linebacker Ryan Kerrigan said he’d been thinking to himself, after watching the Seahawks and Cardinals struggle to a 6-6 tie last weekend, how weird it would be to experience an NFL tie himself.

    “Then lo and behold, here we are,” he said. “It definitely feels more like a loss than a win.”

    “I just feel bad,” said Redskins cornerback Josh Norman. “Tie? Whatever. I just feel like we lost.”

Downs

  • Flawed, flailing Jaguars among NFL’s biggest disappointments– This was supposed to be Jacksonville’s year. Promise would become production.A lengthy rebuild would evolve into the cornerstone for sustained success.

    Coach Gus Bradley’s always-upbeat approach would pay dividends with a drastically improved roster.

    Owner Shad Khan set the tone, saying a winning record was “everybody’s reasonable expectation.”

    Reasonable? Maybe. Realistic? Not anymore.

    The Jaguars (2-5) are among the NFL’s biggest disappointments, failing to take the step many believed they would in Bradley’s fourth year.

    They have offensive woes, defensive issues, coaching concerns, discipline problems — and seemingly no clear means of fixing them in the second half of the season.

    Bradley has received the brunt of the criticism. His career record (14-41) has become as integral to the state of the franchise as Blake Bortles’ turnovers, sacks and flawed mechanics.

    But it’s hard to pin all the team’s shortcomings on coaching even though Bradley fired offensive coordinator Greg Olson after an embarrassing loss at Tennessee last week.

    “Just because there has been a move made or a switch has happened, it doesn’t mean we are all of a sudden going to start putting up numbers offensively and winning games,” Bortles said.

    Especially when the team has as many deficiencies as Jacksonville.

    Here are some key ones:

    —Identity. Even after an entire offseason, four exhibition games and seven regular-season outings, the Jaguars are still trying to “find out who we are and what we do well,” Bortles said. New offensive coordinator Nate Hackett will try to figure it out beginning Sunday at Kansas City (5-2).

    —Run game. The Jaguars rank 31st in the league in rushing, averaging 72.6 yards a game. They signed Chris Ivory to a five-year, $32 million contract in free agency to provide a 1-2 punch alongside T.J. Yeldon, but the offensive line hasn’t had enough consistent push to create holes.

    —Line play. General manager Dave Caldwell didn’t do enough to improve the O-line in the offseason. He gambled on injured left tackle Kelvin Beachum in free agency, but counting on guard Luke Joeckel (out for season), second-year pro A.J. Cann and right tackle Jermey Parnell appears to be the major misstep.

    —Bortles. The third-year pro is playing like a run-of-the-mill rookie. He’s blaming footwork and fundamentals for his inaccuracy and an elongated throwing motion that’s allowing defensive backs to break on passes and defensive linemen to knock down balls. In a last-ditch effort to fix the flaw, Bortles brought in his offseason mechanics coach this week for a two-day refresher course.

    —Pass rush. Of Jacksonville’s 13 sacks, six of them came in London against Indianapolis’ woeful line. Rookie Yannick Ngakoue has been a bright spot with four sacks and three forced fumbles, but the Jags clearly need more consistent pressure from Dante Fowler, Malik Jackson, Jared Odrick and others.

    —Turnovers. Compounding their defensive dilemma, the Jaguars haven’t gotten a turnover in three games. And that’s against Chicago, Oakland and Tennessee.

    —Discipline. Jacksonville leads the NFL in penalty yards a game (91.3), a big burden for a team with a small margin for error. Fowler has been Bradley’s most egregious violator. He has been flagged seven times already, including four for lining up offside and two for personal fouls.

    “When I’m out there, I’m just out for blood and everybody,” said Fowler, who missed his rookie season because of a knee injury. “I have to tame that and control that.”

    Jacksonville’s season appears to be spiraling out of control.

    Khan hired Caldwell and Bradley in January 2013 and cautioned that the roster overhaul would take time. They took a huge swing the past two seasons by signing 10 starters in free agency and entered this season with playoff expectations.

    But now, after nearly four years of buildup and two months of letdown, it’s understandable to question whether Caldwell missed on three first-round draft picks (Joeckel, Bortles and Fowler) and whether Bradley’s player-friendly process has produced more pitfalls than progress.

    “It is a challenging time right now,” Bradley said. “(Khan’s) unbelievable. What do I say? He wants results. … Both Dave and him feel that we can get this done. Whether other people believe it, I don’t know. But I know that is his belief.”

 

  • Seahawks continuing to get little help from their offense– To little surprise, Pete Carroll is giving the Seattle Seahawks an extra day of rest this week with a Monday night game coming up.Seattle’s defense has certainly earned the bonus day off. The same can’t be said of the Seahawks’ offense.

    Over the past two weeks, Seattle’s been pushed to the limits defensively. After being on the field for 95 plays and more than 46 minutes a week ago against Arizona, the Seahawks defense was on the field for another 76 plays and more than 36 minutes in Sunday’s 25-20 loss to New Orleans.

    While the opponents are doing their part in exhausting Seattle’s defense, one of the major culprits is a struggling Seahawks offense that has one offensive touchdown in the past nine quarters.

    “We need to get out of what we’ve been in here the last two weeks. This is not the way we’re going to play football. We’re going to fix this,” Carroll said Monday. “It just happened back to back to us in very similar fashion and I can’t wait to get back on the practice field. We all feel the same. There will be some things that will look different.”

    Seattle’s lackluster offensive performance against the Saints came on the heels of last week’s overtime tie with Arizona where the Seahawks failed to find the end zone for the second time this season.

    The struggles against the Cardinals were chalked up to a divisional opponent that knows Seattle well and has given the Seahawks trouble in the past. But that was expected to be solved by a New Orleans defense that entered the week ranked 29th in the NFL.

    Instead, the Seahawks ran just 19 plays and had 3 yards rushing in the first half; finished with 74 yards rushing; and for the second straight week left their defense on the field for far too long.

    The core of Seattle’s problem continues to be inconsistency in the run game. There were flashes against New Orleans, including a strong drive to start the second half where Christine Michael had runs of nine, seven and eight yards. But the drive eventually stalled and Seattle had to settle for a field goal. It was the only drive of the game where Seattle had at least three running plays of more than five yards.

    There continues to be little threat of quarterback Russell Wilson running even as his health improves. Wilson ran three times for 11 yards against the Saints.

    “We still feel like the potential is there to run. We feel like we’re more equipped than we were a year ago,” Carroll said. “We feel like we can be better. We feel like we can be more aggressive but there are some elements that are different in the run game this year than last year at this time. Part of it is we have not allowed Russell to take off and run very much and he has been very effective for us over the years. We’ve had to take care of him and that’s just part of the way this season has been.”

    The Saints noticed Seattle’s lack of possession and were more than willing to stay patient with their run game in trying to wear down the Seahawks defense. The Saints had a season-high 35 carries for 123 yards rushing.

    “We knew, coming into this game, that they had played a long game last week,” said Saints running back Tim Hightower, who had 26 carries for 102 yards. “They played a lot of plays in that overtime game, and they still were tired from that game and making that trip all the way across the country. All those things factor into a win like this.”

 

  • Inconsistency plaguing Rex Ryan’s prized Bills defense– Bills coach Rex Ryan is having difficulty assessing why his prized defense is playing so inconsistently.One week, Miami’s Jay Ajayi gained 214 yards rushing against Buffalo. The next, New England quarterback Tom Brady piled up 315 yards and four touchdowns passing.

    “We know we have to play better, and especially against an opponent like that,” Ryan said Monday, a day after Buffalo gave up five touchdowns in a 41-25 loss to New England . “What was really disappointing to me is that we played poorly, it’s as simple as that.”

    This isn’t what Ryan expected from a unit he vowed would be much improved over last season’s high-priced defense, which finished 19th in the NFL in yards allowed. It was the worst end-of-season ranking in Ryan’s 11 seasons as a coach or coordinator.

    The numbers don’t look much more promising halfway through this season with the Bills (4-4) preparing to travel to Seattle for a prime-time showdown on Nov. 7. Buffalo is 16th in yards allowed per game at 360.3, including 25th in rushing yards allowed per game with 118.4.

    In losing the past two games, Buffalo has surrendered a combined 811 yards offense and eight touchdowns without managing a takeaway.

    That’s a departure from how productive the defense played during a four-game winning streak that ended with a 28-25 loss to Miami on Oct. 23.

    In those four wins, Buffalo combined to allow four touchdowns, force 10 takeaways (four fumbles and six interceptions) and limit opponents to converting 13 of 52 third-down chances.

    In four losses, Buffalo has given up 13 touchdowns, forced just two takeaways (both fumbles) and had opponents convert 28 of 53 third-down chances.

    It was the Bills inability to stop the Patriots on third down that stung Ryan most.

    Brady converted New England’s first five third-down opportunities and nine of 12 overall before giving way to backup Jimmy Garoppolo in the fourth quarter.

    In the first half alone, Brady completed 6 of 6 attempts for 111 yards with two touchdowns and was sacked twice on third down. One of his touchdowns was a 53-yarder up the left sideline to Chris Hogan on third-and-13.

    “That’s inexcusable,” Ryan said.

    Things didn’t get much better in the second half, when the Patriots converted three third-down opportunities because of penalties, including Buffalo being flagged for having 12 men on the field.

    “We can’t win like that. There’s no way. We’ve got to be smart,” Ryan said. “If we get beat physically, that’s one thing. But when you contribute to some of the mistakes or some of their big plays, we have to get better.”

    The coach took some of the blame.

    Without being specific, Ryan made what he called “a tactical mistake” in departing from his game plan once Buffalo’s top pass-rushing threat, linebacker Lorenzo Alexander, was sidelined by a hamstring injury during a punt return early in the second quarter.

    “I know I can do better,” he said.

    Ryan also regretted the decision to continue having Alexander play a dual role on defense and special teams.

    The 33-year-old Alexander entered the game with an NFL-leading nine sacks, doubling the number he had in his first nine seasons.

    Ryan didn’t have an update on Alexander’s status.

    If he can’t play, rookie first-round pick Shaq Lawson will have to fill in. Lawson has played limited time the past two games and had been out since having surgery to repair a shoulder injury in May.

    Against New England, Lawson had his first career sack but was also flagged for roughing the passer on a third-and-7.

    Ryan also didn’t provide updates on running back LeSean McCoy, who did not play against New England because of a left hamstring injury, or backup Reggie Bush, who hurt his groin on Sunday.

 

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