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Here is What Have We Learned from Week 7 of the 2017 NFL Season, thanks to the AP Pro 32 for photos & help in this article.
- Surging Saints cite growth in confidence, trust, poise-New Orleans defensive tackle Sheldon Rankins couldn’t resist the temptation to remind some of the Saints’ biggest critics how short-sighted they look now.
Rankins readily concedes that his team — and particularly the defense on which he starts — struggled mightily during two lopsided losses to open this season. But he also isn’t shy about expressing how much he has enjoyed seeing the Saints turn the corner during a four-game winning streak that has lifted New Orleans from worst to first in the NFC South Division.
“After the first two games, everybody and their mamas were calling for our (defensive) coordinator’s head and completely trying to say we need to abandon everything we’ve done,” Rankins said Monday. “We have confidence in what our coordinator and our coaches lay out for us to do. … We just weren’t able to execute in those first couple games, but we found a rhythm.
“Guys are playing with confidence,” Rankins continued. “Guys are having fun. Guys are flying around.”
Now in his second NFL season, Rankins hasn’t had to endure the entire stretch of three consecutive 7-9 campaigns that were defined primarily by lousy defense and an inability to climb above .500 even once between 2014 and 2016. Still, he senses a considerably different feeling in the locker room now compared to last year.
It’s understandable. Sunday’s nine-point road triumph over the Packers was the closest victory during a streak that includes three wins by two or more touchdowns.
Even in Green Bay, New Orleans was good enough pull comfortably ahead late after a sloppy first quarter in which the Saints gave up a long scoring run and turned the ball over twice on Drew Brees’ interceptions.
Rankins said he and running back Mark Ingram discussed the Saints’ poise during the flight home Sunday night.
“We had some tough times as far as turnovers on offense, allowing them to run the ball the way we did, but nobody batted an eye. Nobody started pointing fingers. Nobody panicked,” Rankins said. “We were able to execute more than they were at the end, and I think that’s a big difference from last year. Especially with the start we had this year, that can tend to divide a team, but it didn’t. We’re still a very close-knit group.”
Added Ingram, “Everybody’s confident in their teammates. … You just stay with that belief that no matter what happens throughout the game, that we’re going to get this done and I think that’s what we have as a team right now.”
As this Sunday’s home game against Chicago approaches, there seems to be little doubt that the 2017 Saints are a substantially improved product, particularly in the running game and on defense.
After allowing no fewer than 470 yards in its first two games, New Orleans’ defense has allowed no more than 347 yards in its past four, and less than 300 yards three times. Meanwhile, the Saints have rushed for 149 or more yards in three of their victories, with Ingram and rookie Alvin Kamara leading the way. That has reduced pressure on Brees, who isn’t piling up passing yards at his usual pace, but has been efficient and effective, completing better than 69 percent of his passes and throwing for 11 TDs.
The question now seems to be: How will the resurgent Saints handle success? The roster is full of young players or veterans acquired through free agency who weren’t with New Orleans during its last playoff season in 2013.
“We’ve only been in first place for a day,” Ingram said. “We’ve only played one division game (a victory at Carolina), so that doesn’t even matter.”
Saints coach Sean Payton, who has been known to warn his players not to “eat the cheese,” when compliments start rolling their way, is again emphasizing that now is no time to start looking down on the competition from their perch atop the division.
“I don’t think anyone’s paying attention to the horse at the quarter pole,” Payton said. “What we’re paying attention to most is the things that we have to clean up.”
The coach listed a blocked extra point among the mistakes that bothered him during the victory at Green Bay, saying it was one of a “number of things” his team is still doing “that championship teams are not doing, and we’re working to get better in those areas.”
- Sack-happy Jaguars on pace to break NFL’s single-season mark-Defensive end Calais Campbell might be the best free-agent acquisition in Jacksonville Jaguars history.
He’s certainly the NFL’s best in 2017.
The 31-year-old Campbell ended one of the franchise’s longest futility streaks Sunday when he notched his 10th sack of the season. He also helped the Jaguars (4-3) get on pace to break the NFL’s single-season record of 72 set by the 1984 Chicago Bears. Jacksonville has a league-leading 33 and is on track for 75.
“Any time you can get production, it usually comes from other people,” Campbell said Monday, a day after the Jaguars beat Indianapolis 27-0 . “I happened to fall into some good stuff, but it really is because of our secondary. They make the quarterback hold the ball for four seconds. If they hold the ball longer than 2.5, we’re supposed to be there, so when they’re holding it for four, you’re going to see a lot of guys making a lot of plays.”
Campbell is leading the way.
He’s the first Jacksonville player since Bobby McCray in 2006 to record double-digit sacks. It had been the second-longest drought in the league. Only Tampa Bay, which hasn’t had a player with 10 or more sacks since Simeon Rice in 2005, had gone longer without anyone reaching the benchmark.
Campbell set a career high for sacks — his previous mark was nine in 2013 — and is two sacks shy of the team’s single-season record set by Tony Brackens in 1999.
He could end up with company in the sack club since Yannick Ngakoue (6 1/2) and Dante Fowler Jr . (5 1/2) are closing in on double digits.
Together, they helped Jacksonville enjoy its second 10-sack performancein seven games and proved the season opener at Houston was no fluke.
“If we want to be in that conversation, then we’ve got to stay on pace,” Campbell said.
The Jaguars also are in the playoff conversation. They are over .500 after seven games for the first time since 2007 — the team’s last postseason appearance — and head into a bye week tied with Tennessee atop the AFC South. They follow a little downtime with consecutive home games against Cincinnati and the Los Angeles Chargers.
Jacksonville’s defense is a big reason for the resurgence.
Cornerbacks Jalen Ramsey and A.J. Bouye have not given up a touchdown all season. Linebackers Telvin Smith and Myles Jack both rank in the league’s top 10 in tackles and have increased the unit’s speed significantly. And the line is doing the rest, thanks mostly to Campbell.
The former Arizona Cardinals standout signed a four-year, $60 million contract in March that included $30 million guaranteed. He’s been equal parts menace and mentor, wreaking havoc on opposing linemen and providing guidance for Nkagoue and Fowler. He’s among the best free agents in team history, right up there with receiver Keenan McCardell, offensive tackle Leon Searcy and linebacker Paul Posluszny.
Campbell had two sacks Sunday in the team’s first shutout since 2006.
“I’ve never seen a lot of sacks with a team that can’t cover well,” first-year Jaguars coach Doug Marrone said. “I really haven’t.”
No doubt, Ramsey and Bouye are one of the top tandems in the league. But there’s also no question that Campbell and Co. are equally talented — maybe even a record-breaking combination.
“We’ve got a good team, good people around us,” Campbell said. “Linebacker corps, our secondary, they make our job easy. Then we have so many guys who can make plays on the D-line that we take turns and that makes us very special.”
- Clutch plays fuel no-name Bills in getting off to 4-2 start-If safety Micah Hyde and the rest of the Buffalo defensive backs want to proudly refer to themselves as misfits, Sean McDermott’s on board.
It’s a label that might well apply to the first-year coach’s entire team, given how a mostly no-name roster has defied the skeptics by getting off to a better than expected 4-2 start.“I think the key part is they don’t really put much stock in what is said about them outside of this building,” McDermott said Monday, a day after the Bills scored 10 points in the final 2:28 to beat Tampa Bay 30-27 .McDermott said his players refused to buy into the tank-talk narrative during an offseason roster purge that led to Buffalo opening the season with 29 newcomers.
“We’re building a team. We’re not tanking. I think guys embrace that underdog mentality,” he said. “There’s guys that have been told they’re not good enough by other teams. I know this: I’ll take them on my team any day of the week.”
The Bills, who host Oakland (3-4) on Sunday, don’t resemble the pushovers of the past.
Rather than wilt at the first sign of trouble, Buffalo has relied on clutch plays from all three phases in each of its four victories, something that was particularly evident against the Bucs.
Tyrod Taylor had 268 yards passing, his second most in a victory, by relying on a patchwork group of receivers, including Deonte Thompson, who led Buffalo with 107 yards receiving five days after signing with Buffalo. Taylor won a game for just the third time when trailing in the fourth quarter.
Rookie cornerback Tre’Davious White bounced back after allowing Tampa Bay to pull ahead 27-20 on Mike Evans’ 12-yard touchdown catch with 3:14 left. On the first play of the Bucs’ next possession, and with the game tied at 27, White forced a fumble by punching the ball out of receiver Adam Humphries’ hands.
The forced fumble led to Stephen Hauschka winning the game with a 30-yard field goal with 14 seconds left.
McDermott acknowledged having his doubts when Buffalo fell behind.
“There were moments when you’re saying, ‘Hey, this one could be slipping away,'” he said. “The great part about it was these guys stayed after it and they remained mentally tough.”
An opportunistic defense and efficient offense has Buffalo leading the NFL with a plus-10 turnover differential (13 takeaways versus three giveaways). As for Hauschka, the offseason free-agent addition has hit 14 of 16 field-goal attempts, including all five from beyond 50 yards.
The Bills have won twice when tied or trailing in the fourth quarter this season, something they managed just three times the previous two seasons. And they’re 2-2 in games decided by seven points or less after going 5-9 in their previous two years under former coach Rex Ryan.
McDermott noted Buffalo might have difficulty sustaining such a blueprint for victory that features little room for error. What encourages him is the resolve the players have shown.
“We went through adversity all the way back from when we first got here,” McDermott said. “And they continued to persevere.”
The Bills have deficiencies.
A roster thin of experienced depth could be challenged further with starting safety Jordan Poyer (right knee) and starting cornerback E.J. Gaines (hamstring) getting hurt Sunday. McDermott said both are considered day to day. Buffalo added depth by claiming cornerback Tony McRae off waivers.
The pass defense has suddenly sprung leaks in allowing a combined 712 yards the past two games.
Then there’s an inconsistent offense that went four straight games without topping 300 yards before managing 434 against the Bucs.
A 4-2 mark is hardly a barometer for success during the team’s 17-year playoff drought. Since 2000, the Bills have finished no better than 7-9 the three previous times they’ve had a winning record through six games.
Defensive end Jerry Hughes is impressed by how the Bills have come together under McDermott.
“We’re going to be resilient. We’re going to fight for four quarters,” Hughes said. “I think that’s what everybody has instilled in them. And it’s showing up.”
- Even amid latest Bryant drama, Steelers control AFC North-The Pittsburgh Steelers laughed along with Martavis Bryant a week ago as the talented but erratic wide receiver downplayed reports he requested a trade.
It’s not quite so funny anymore.
Bryant stayed home on Monday with an illness. The timing looked considerably curious after Bryant defended himself on social media and took a shot at rookie teammate JuJu Smith-Schuster following another ineffective performance in an otherwise dominant victory over Cincinnati.
Bryant was limited to one carry for 2 yards and one reception for 3 yards while splitting snaps with Smith-Schuster in Pittsburgh’s 29-14 victory. Seven games into his return from a yearlong suspension for violating the league’s substance abuse policy, Bryant has 18 receptions for 234 yards and a score, well off the numbers he posted while becoming one of the NFL’s premier big-play threats in 2014 and 2015.
After an Instagram user claimed Bryant was being ignored by Steelers quarterback Ben Roethlisberger, Bryant posted — and then promptly deleted — from his verified account a comment in which he claimed Smith-Schuster is “no where near better than me.”
Bryant amended it later to call Smith-Schuster a “great talent” while adding “I just wants mine period point blank.”
Smith-Schuster, who scored his third touchdown of the season on a 31-yard catch-and-run in the second quarter against the Bengals, said he spoke to Bryant and didn’t take Bryant’s frustrations personally.
“I understand where he’s coming from,” Smith-Schuster said. “If I was in his shoes, I put myself in his shoes. There’s only one ball and so many athletes on the field. It’s tough.”
At 20, Smith-Schuster is the youngest player in the league. Yet he’s played long enough to understand the careful balance of egos involved, particularly on an offense as loaded as the Steelers (5-2), who are in firm control of the AFC North as the season nears the midway point.
“Hopefully we do get him the ball more, we do feed him,” Smith-Schuster said. “He’s a great athlete. I would like him to be on our team and moving forward I think he’s going to be big for us.”
Bryant was in 2014 and 2015, when he caught 14 touchdowns over 21 games while helping the Steelers to consecutive playoff berths.
Then the suspension hit in March 2016 and Bryant spent a year on his own, getting his life in order while living in Nevada. Bryant has said and done all the right things in his return, yet at this point his frustration appears to be bubbling over.
When the Steelers were upset at home by Jacksonville earlier this month, Bryant pointed out he was getting open but the ball was going elsewhere. Then the reports of a trade surfaced following a potentially season-turning road victory in Kansas City — a game in which Bryant caught two passes for 27 yards and earned praise from coach Mike Tomlin for his role as a blocker in the running game.
Pittsburgh offensive coordinator Todd Haley called an end-around for Bryant on the first snap against the Bengals in what looked like a peace offering of sorts. Bryant jogged to the sideline after the play while Smith-Schuster ran on, a pattern that repeated throughout the game.
When Roethlisberger did look deep for Bryant down the left sideline in the third quarter, Bryant appeared unaware the ball was on its way until it was out of reach.
It ultimately didn’t matter on an afternoon in which the Steelers held Cincinnati to all of 19 yards in the second half to win going away.
Yet, with Bryant’s gear hanging neatly in his locker, his teammates were left trying to explain how another Monday arrived with another off-the-field dust-up.
“That’d be too easy (if there was no drama),” defensive end Cam Heyward said. “We have a good group of guys that’s not going to get deterred going over stuff like this.”
The NFL trade deadline is next Tuesday and moving Bryant doesn’t make much sense for the Steelers even if Bryant’s production dips.
If he runs afoul of the substance abuse policy one more time, the ensuing discipline could effectively end his NFL career. That’s a significant risk for any team that would consider acquiring him in a trade.
Besides, the Steelers still believe Bryant can make an impact even if he’s not catching the ball. He still draws extra attention when he runs deep, opening things for others. It may not be the path Bryant envisioned, but it is one Pittsburgh would be just fine with him following.
“There’s only one ball,” Smith-Schuster said. “It’s hard to spread it around. At the end of the day, we all got to focus on the bigger picture.”
- Cardinals preparing for life without Carson Palmer– The Arizona Cardinals went to London hoping to put an uneven start to the season behind them and pull into a tie for the NFC West lead.
The trip abroad did not go as planned.
The Cardinals (3-4) were not only overmatched by the Los Angeles Rams in a 33-0 beatdown on Sunday, they may have lost quarterback Carson Palmer for the season.
Palmer broke his left arm in the first half Sunday and is expected to have surgery. He is projected to be out eight weeks, which would put him in danger of missing the rest of the season.
Palmer is the fourth Cardinals player to go down with a broken left arm, joining running backs David Johnson and T.J. Logan, and long snapper Aaron Brewer.
“It sucks because you know you’ve got a good football team that you’re excited about,” Cardinals coach Bruce Arians said Monday. “We went through a really tough camp injury-free and now we’ve got four broken left arms. It’s kind of crazy. But nobody’s going to throw a pity party for Green Bay and no one’s going to throw one for us.”
Palmer was injured late in the second quarter when he was hit by Rams linebacker Alec Ogletree on a deep ball attempt. Palmer was intercepted on the play and walked off the field holding his left arm.
Arians said Palmer will get a second opinion and is hoping to return sooner than the initial prognosis, possibly in the four-to-six week range.
Palmer is 37 and contemplated retirement last year before deciding to return for a 14th NFL season — fifth with the Cardinals — so there’s a possibility Sunday’s game could have been his last if he doesn’t return this season.
“That’s a real gut punch to lose your best offensive player, your quarterback,” receiver Larry Fitzgerald said. “There’s no really positive way to sum it up, honestly. You say you have to go forward and you have to do things, but we all know that’s a tough pill to swallow for us.”
Regardless if there is an expedited timetable for Palmer’s return, the Cardinals will be without him for more than a month, leaving them in the hands of veteran backup Drew Stanton.
Stanton is 6-3 as a starter since being signed as Palmer’s backup in 2013, though he’s had some uneven performances. He threw an interception late in the first half against the Rams to set up a field goal and finished the game 5 for 14 for 62 yards.
Stanton has a career completion percentage of 52.7 percent and has 20 interceptions with 14 touchdowns.
“Drew will bounce back, get a whole lot better when he has more practice time,” Arians said. “It’s nice to have an extra day’s work. He literally had no reps last week with our offense, so we will get that straightened out.”
Stanton was good enough in preseason camp to hold off 28-year-old Blaine Gabbert, who was signed during the offseason.
Gabbert is athletic, younger than Stanton and good enough in camp that Arians decided to keep three quarterbacks for the first time during his tenure in the desert. Arians reiterated his statement Sunday that Stanton is the next man up.
“I saw a really good athlete who has a tremendous arm,” Arians said of Gabbert’s fall camp. “It’s just a matter of continuing to learn this system.”
Palmer’s injury put the Cardinals in a bind, but it was not the only issue on Sunday.
A week earlier, Arizona’s offense was rejuvenated by the arrival of Adrian Peterson in a trade with New Orleans. Running hard through big holes provided by the offensive line, Peterson ran for 134 yards and a pair of touchdowns in a victory over Tampa Bay.
The Rams sealed him up in London, clogging lanes and preventing him from breaking off big runs. Peterson finished with 21 yards on 11 carries, becoming mostly an afterthought as the Rams continued to build on the lead.
“It was hit or miss,” Arians said. “It was Adrian a little bit, a guy here or there and that’s a good front.”
Now Palmer is gone, at least for the foreseeable future, and the Cardinals will need to find a way to adjust.
- Banged-up Redskins face short week before game vs Cowboys-The Washington Redskins’ injury situation is so bad that coach Jay Gruden would rather give players an extra day off than practice and possibly make it worse.
With another pivotal NFC East matchup against the Dallas Cowboys on Sunday, the Redskins won’t practice again until Thursday because their injured players could use the rest. Just along the starting offensive line, tackles Trent Williams and Morgan Moses, right guard Brandon Scherff and center Spencer Long are battling injuries that will at the very least limit their effectiveness if they’re even able to get on the field.
Williams continues to play with a severe right knee injury that will likely require surgery, Scherff sprained the MCL in his left knee and hurt his lower back, Long has knee and quadriceps tendinitis and Moses sprained both ankles. All of those injuries except Williams’ occurred in a 34-24 lossat the division-leading Philadelphia Eagles on Monday night, and backup offensive tackle Ty Nsekhe remains out after surgery to repair a core muscle injury.
Gruden said on a conference call Tuesday there’s a chance Scherff can play with a brace on Sunday against Dallas but knows the injuries up and down the roster will affect his team’s preparations for the Cowboys.
“I don’t have any linemen, so there will have to be some changes made,” Gruden said. “The majority of these guys will run through a brick wall for the Washington Redskins, that’s for sure, that’s why I love this group. But I also have to be smart and make sure I understand that this is a long year and I’ve got to make sure that these guys are healthy.”
Injury concerns also include linebacker Preston Smith’s groin, safety Stefan McClure’s hamstring and rookie cornerback Fabian Moreau’s hamstring, while cornerback Bashaud Breeland (knee), running back Rob Kelley (ankle) and linebacker Mason Foster (shoulder) all played through some pain Monday night. Cornerback Josh Norman (rib), safety Deshazor Everett (hamstring) and backup offensive lineman Tyler Catalina (concussion) are expected to return to practice later in the week.
With so many injuries mounting, Gruden will focus on walkthroughs, meetings and some more 7-on-7 drills to allow players to get up to speed but not endure more physical pounding.
“We’ll get our work in,” Gruden said. “Right now it’s most important to let them know who we’re playing, obviously, let them know what they’re doing defensively, what our plan of attack is on both sides of the ball and then trying to get the reps the best way we can with the amount of bodies we have available.”
Operating behind a patchwork offensive line, quarterback Kirk Cousins was sacked four times by the Eagles. That challenge isn’t getting any easier; Dallas ranks seventh in the NFL in sacks per pass attempt.
“It’s an expectation throughout the season that you’re going to be having to reach into your depth — maybe not as much as we have had to at tackle and some of the positions — but you do expect it to happen at some point,” Cousins said after the game. “I was proud of the way our offensive line continued to battle. Several of them came back out and kept playing and showed a lot of toughness and grit against a very good defensive line that was rotating in a lot of players and keeping guys very fresh and that certainly made it tough on our guys.”
While Gruden said an MRI exam gave Washington some good news on Scherff, he acknowledged there’s some concern about Williams playing through a significant injury. Williams is known for playing hurt, but there’s a line where it affects his play and could hurt one of the game’s best left tackles in the long term.
“That’s something that I have to rely on the trainers to make that call and Trent to make that call,” Gruden said. “First off, we have to do right by Trent. And then the big thing is finding out from a longevity standpoint, how much this could affect him if it does or not. That’s something we have to take into account and then make a good decision.”
- Jets need to learn how to close games before season spirals-The New York Jets have had solid starts undermined by awful endings in their past two games.
Both of their big leads ended up becoming frustrating losses, leaving Todd Bowles’ bunch searching for a killer instinct. And the Jets need to figure that out fast before the season begins to spiral.
New York is 3-4 and on a two-game losing streak with games against Atlanta and Buffalo in a five-day stretch, starting Sunday.
“WE ARE GOING TO BOUNCE BACK!” tight end Austin Seferian-Jenkins declared on Twitter . “Too many dogs on this squad.”
The Jets appeared to be cruising to their second victory this season over Miami on Sunday, scoring 21 points in the first half and carrying a 28-14 lead into the fourth quarter. But against backup quarterback Matt Moore, New York collapsed down the stretch and fell 31-28.
“It’s hard, especially knowing we had a lead like that in the fourth quarter,” defensive end Leonard Williams said Monday during a conference call.
“But we have a 24-hour rule that we live by at the Jets. Whether it’s a win or loss, we have to watch film on Monday and get over it and by Tuesday be ready for the next opponent.”
That loss to the Dolphins came a week after the Jets built a 14-0 lead in the first half against New England, only to see Tom Brady and the Patriots storm back and win 24-17 .
Both games were there for the taking, but the Jets couldn’t close them out — mainly because of bad mistakes and costly penalties.
“Obviously, when we’re playing a rival game like them, it’s tough,” guard Brian Winters said. “When you have the lead, we can’t be complacent. You’ve got to be able to fight to the end of the game. There are things we obviously need to work on to finish a game.”
The Jets were called for seven penalties in the fourth quarter at Miami, including five on the offense.
“We just kept getting behind the sticks, so we had ourselves in some third-and-longs there and we didn’t convert,” quarterback Josh McCown said. “We weren’t able to really flip the field and give them a longer field to work with.”
With the game tied with 47 seconds left, the Jets were aggressive and tried to win the game. It took one play to ruin those chances as McCown’s pass intended for Jermaine Kearse floated right to Bobby McCain for an interception that led to Cody Parkey’s 39-yard field goal that gave Miami a 31-28 lead with 22 seconds remaining.
“It was just a bad feeling,” McCown said. “It’s something that I’ll learn from and move on and know that I want to be better in that situation. I plan to be better in that situation and that’s what it is.
“I hate it for our team in that moment. I hate it for everybody, because we obviously all want to win, and to have played as well as we had as an offense for most of the game and to move the football the way we had, and then to kind of stall in the fourth (quarter) and then finish it like that, it’s just a bad taste.”
The Jets got the ball back at the Dolphins 16 after Parkey’s field goal, hoping to set themselves up for a tying kick of their own. But McCown’s deep pass was incomplete to Seferian-Jenkins — and New York was called for two penalties on the play: holding by tackle Brent Qvale, which was declined, and unsportsmanlike conduct on receiver Robby Anderson, who angrily tossed his helmet to the turf in frustration.
The call on Anderson put the ball on the 8, and sealed the loss. It also cast a bad look on the young receiver, in his second season, for a team that has been preaching unity since training camp.
Bowles said he spoke to Anderson on Monday, and the two are “on the same page” about the situation.
“We don’t condone anything like that,” Bowles said, “and we don’t tolerate anything like that. It won’t happen again.”
The Jets insisted the team remains unified despite Anderson’s actions and the two tough losses.
“We win together, we lose together,” Williams said. “The No. 1 thing we have to do is stick together and be a family. That’s the one thing I can say: This team is a family.”
New York has already surpassed the dismal preseason expectations by many outsiders and was one of the NFL’s early season surprises.
But the Jets also know that 3-4 could easily become 3-6 next week — and, again, potentially ruin a good start.
“We’re going to continue to fight,” linebacker Demario Davis said. “There are a couple of things we can do better. We’re going to do those things, and come back stronger this week.”