Very little excites me during Thursday Night Football. The lack of preparation time for both sides means that the quality of football is more often than not much worse than it is on Sundays. However, last week when the Kansas City Chiefs visited the Philadelphia Eagles, something caught my eye.
It wasn't something that could be seen, in fact, it was the opposite. It was the absence of Eagles wide receiver DeSean Jackson.
Jackson had 16 receptions for 297 yards and two touchdowns entering the game, but was held to just one short reception for the majority of this game. Considering it was Thursday Night Football, the lack of production itself wasn't intriguing, but because Jackson was going against Brandon Flowers, it was.
Flowers is a very, very good cornerback who played to an elite level last season. He hasn't replicated that form this season, but wasn't certain to play against the Eagles because he was dealing with a knee injury. In Week 2, Flowers was overwhelmed by Dez Bryant. Defensive Coordinator Bob Sutton asked Flowers to handle Bryant on an island, something that he simply couldn't do because of Bryan't size.
With Jackson being a smaller, faster type of receiver, it made more sense to think that Flowers could shut him down. Alas, this was something that couldn't be seen on the broadcast. Instead, the All-22 tape dispelled my notions about Flowers.
Flowers followed Jackson for much of the game before he went out injured late on. He faced Jackson 13 times and was beaten five times. Once he beat Flowers on a deep out with a beautiful route. On another occasion he ran a shorter out when Flowers started the play in off coverage. As the game wore on, Jackson grew stronger than Flowers.
Jackson caught a deep curl route before running a double move to come free in the end zone. Michael Vick overthrew him on that play, but soon after found him with a 40 yard throw on a sideline route.
Even though Flowers didn't shut Jackson down, he did contain him in relation to how impactful Jackson had been during previous weeks. A pivotal part of Jackson's play in Weeks 1 and 2 were short passes that drew the defense in and allowed Jackson to make plays with the ball in his hands.
Early on against the Chiefs, the Eagles looked to get the ball to Jackson on a play like that.
Jackson initially lines up in the backfield to the right of Vick. Flowers is the widest defender to the top of the screen, but he is close enough to the front seven to react to Jackson when he moves across the field behind Vick.
Flowers follows Jackson across the field, like any cornerback would, but he doesn't approach the play in the way most cornerbacks do.
All cornerbacks will look to close Jackson down, but not all cornerback will have the speed and body control to get there before Vick has a time to get the ball to Jackson. Vick looks at his receiver running down the left sideline before moving on to Jackson, by that time, Flowers is into the chest of Jackson.
From there, Vick loses his bearings and ultimately is sacked as he scrambles around in the pocket.
It was important that this play came early on in the game, because the Eagles ran a variety of plays like this one later in the game and Vick never even looked at his receiver. On this plays, Flowers didn't play it as well as he did here but he was in a good position.
Jake Locker's Promise
Two players have shocked me this season so far. Two quarterbacks who I didn't believe in prior to the season who have played some excellent football to this point. One is Terrelle Pryor, who has shown excellent poise and a much improved arm in the professional game that wasn't there in college.
The other is Jake Locker of the Tennessee Titans.
Locker was a running quarterback last season. He never looked comfortable in the pocket, his eyes dropped to the pass rush very quickly and he was always looking to make plays with his legs rather than find receivers down the field. Locker didn't stay in the pocket enough to prove himself as a pocket passer.
During the off-season, the Titans built a running offense around Locker that hinted they were going to limit what he did on the field. In Week 1 against the Pittsburgh Steelers, Locker fit into that role. He made some big throws in big moments, but he didn't carry the offense to great levels of success. In Week 2, he had more big moments and threw two very impressive touchdown passes, but was inconsistent throughout the game.
In Week 3, it all came together for Locker. He completed 23 of 37 passes for 299 yards, one touchdown and no turnovers. He also ran for a score, but it was his play as a passer that really stood out.
Locker isn't a player who is benefiting from the strength of his running game or running the read-option all the time to set up easier throws. He's making difficult throws at the right times and executing them as well as you can expect any quarterback to.
On multiple occasions, Locker broke out of the pocket and kept his eyes downfield to complete big throws, but even more often he made crisp throws from the pocket that allowed the Titans to continue driving down the field.
Statistically, Locker had a good day. Even though he benefited from some excellent running after the catch from Kendall Wright, some massive separation from Nate Washington on his comeback routes and that pass interference that wasn't called on Justin Hunter's game-winning touchdown, those statistics don't do his display justice.
Locker only threw four passes that had no chance of being completed. Nine times he gave his receiver a realistic chance to make a play and they either dropped the pass or couldn't make a difficult reception. Critically, a number of those throws came on deep passes down the field that would have bloated Locker's statistical output even more.
Two throws in particular stood out.
Although Hunter made that massive reception at the end of the game, he cost his team midway through the second quarter when he dropped a perfect pass in the end zone.
Hunter is the only receiver on the field, lined up to the bottom of the screen. Even though the Titans come out in a run-inclined formation at midfield, the Chargers still keep Eric Weddle in a deep safety position to give respect to Hunter's phenomenal athletic ability.
The Titans do fake the run, but the Chargers don't bite at all. Weddle works even deeper at the snap, while the two cornerbacks charged with covering the only two players who run routes for the Titans are in good position.
At the top of his drop, Locker keeps his eyes downfield and sees that Weddle is in position to cover Hunter. At this point of the play last year, Locker would have taken the running lane to his right and tried to use his speed to outrun the defenders around him.
Instead of taking the the running lane available to him, Locker steps up into the pocket and sets himself up perfectly in relation to how his blocking set itself up. At this point, Locker lets the ball go when it looks like Hunter is covered by Weddle and the cornerback to that side of the field.
It initially appears that Locker is going to force the ball to Hunter running towards the sideline, an ill-advised throw, but instead he places it somewhere that gives his receiver a chance to react to it.
Locker doesn't force the throw towards the sideline, instead he throws the ball inside of Weddle. Weddle's momentum is carrying him away from the ball, while Hunter, a freak athlete, is in better position to come inside to catch the ball.
Hunter reacts well to the pass and gets to it in time, but even though he is slightly ahead of Weddle, he drops the ball. That would have been a 45 yard touchdown for Hunter from a pass that travelled close to 60 yards in the air from Locker.
You could argue that Locker just got lucky on that play. That argument would be viable if it weren't for the context that came with the rest of the game. Locker was repeatedly making smart decisions and accurate throws like this. We can't know for sure, but with the context we can give him the benefit of the doubt.
In the fourth quarter, he made a similar throw that showed off an excellent understanding of the defense and even more impressive physical ability.
Before the snap, the Chargers appear to be showing some form of Cover-2 defense, but the depth of the safety to the top of the screen suggests otherwise. Locker is in the shotgun with Chris Johnson to his side, while Kenny Britt is the lone receiver to the bottom of the screen.
Britt had really struggled before this point in the game. Penalties and dropped passes highlighted how he wasn't on the same page as his quarterback. Locker had previously looked to him in the end zone with a slightly underthrown pass that the receiver could have won, but he couldn't make a difficult reception over a defensive back.
In spite of that, Locker understands that Britt is a phenomenally talented player and a matchup nightmare for the Chargers' cornerbacks in single coverage. Trusting him to beat single coverage is a good decision in spite of his struggles on the day.
At the snap, a lot happens. The defense drops one safety closer to the line of scrimmage and pushes the other into a deeper position on the field. Britt fights off his defender to release into a sideline route. Locker is standing in a clean pocket, but there is a defender breaking through the line of scrimmage directly in his line of sight.
Locker very quickly diagnoses the play as he looks directly at the safety coming towards the line of scrimmage. Almost immediately after that, he lets the ball go. There is no hesitation in his thought process during this play.
Britt is running into open space against the cornerback covering him, but the throw is made difficult for Locker because he is forced to let the ball go off his back foot.
Locker puts the ball in a position that Britt should go up and get it. It's a play that Britt has made before, a play that he would likely have made prior to suffering that torn ACL that has seemingly derailed his career.
Even with Britt in full meltdown mode and Hunter playing inconsistent football, the ability of Washington and Wright, with Delanie Walker impressing also, should allow Locker to continue to put up respectable numbers as the regular season develops.
He needs to stay consistent, but for the first time in his career, Locker has shown off an ability to play four quarters of very high quality football.
Breaking Down Lamar Miller's Big Play
Lamar Miller was a big talking point for the Miami Dolphins this off-season. With Reggie Bush departing, Miller and Daniel Thomas were expected to pick up the slack. Miller is the more talented player, so most gravitated towards him in fantasy drafts.
To this point, he has been an underwhelming player in terms of overall production, but he has shown flashes. His biggest play so far this season came in Week 3 against the Atlanta Falcons.
Early in the second quarter, Miller broke off a 49 yard run up the middle of the Falcons defense.
The Dolphins come out with a balanced formation. Having one tight end at either side of the line of scrimmage gives them seven blockers for Miller. The two wide receivers outside the numbers keep the Falcons' safeties deep.
There are two key players that allow this big run to happen. One of those players is Falcons linebacker Stephen Nicholas. Nicholas initially lined up as the right sided linebacker.
Mike Wallace running behind the formation and the play-fake initially appeared to drag Nicholas out of position, but Nicholas took himself out of the play before the Dolphins had even carried out the fake.
As the run develops, this will become very important.
The other key player on this run is Dolphins center Mike Pouncey. Pouncey initially lined up with defensive lineman Corey Peters directly over his head. In order to create a hole for Miller to get into the secondary, Pouncey needed to move Peters out of the hole without any help or leverage at the snap.
Had Peters lined up to either side of Pouncey, it would have been easier for him to clamp down on him to create a hole, like it was for the Dolphins' left guard. However, Pouncey had to initially fight Peters for leverage, before using his power and technique to completely take him out of the running lane.
This was a fantastic play from a player who is arguably the best center in the league.
Miller is sprung clean into the secondary, not solely because of Pouncey's block, but also because Nicholas, circled in red, is looking the other direction and chasing a wide receiver down the field. That receiver is looking to block on the second level, while Miller runs through the gap that Nicholas would have filled if he had kept his discipline after the snap.
Once in space, Miller shows good speed, but he is aided by Thomas Decoud. Decoud is the first safety who has a shot at taking Miller down, but he takes a terrible angle to let the back through easily. From there, Miller makes a nice swerving move to get past Willliam Moore, before continuing down the field.
Miller doesn't have the speed left in the tank to finish the run, as he is taken down from behind by Osi Umenyiora.
On Daniel Thomas' touchdown run a few plays later, the same lack of discipline on the second level allowed Thomas to easily get into the endzone. Hartline's run into the opposite flat from a fullback position held three defenders who could have tackled Thomas after the defensive line initially held him up.
Instead, Thomas cut back and was able to fall into the endzone with no defender in position to stop him.
Quick Thoughts From the Tape
Last season, BenJarvus Green-Ellis hurt the Cincinnati Bengals' running game more than he helped it. Green-Ellis' longest runs came when he didn't beat a single defender and couldn't extend runs when put into space in the secondary. That is why the Bengals drafted Giovani Bernard this season. Bernard isn't unlike Green-Ellis as he won't break many tackles either and is an all-around talent, but he is significantly faster and quicker. Behind the Bengals' line, that will allow him to prosper for years to come.
We can't give Santonio Holmes too much credit for going off on a weak Buffalo Bills' secondary, but many of the catches he made this weekend were reminiscent of Holmes at his best. Entering the season, he was one of the most intriguing players because his health was unclear, but the offense around him appeared to be better than it had been in some time. Over the first three weeks of the season, it appears that Holmes is on track to be return to his spot as one of the better receivers in the NFL even though he'll never be on the elite level.
I touched on it when talking about Locker, but Titans receiver Kendall Wright has played very well this season. He and Santonio Holmes are very similar receivers as both excel after the catch and can make very athletic receptions. Wright is an important piece of the Titans' offense because of his ability underneath and on screen passes.
Arian Foster and Ben Tate are sharing touches, but that may not last. Tate hasn't looked bad by any measure, but Foster looks to be recapturing the form that made him one of the best backs in the league. The production may not be there yet because of the situations the Texans have been in and the defenses they have faced, but Foster has a spring in his step and is making reads as well as he ever has. In Week 3, the gap widened.
Felix Jones appeared to be taking over the primary spot atop the Pittsburgh Steelers depth chart in Week 3, but then he fumbled. Although Jonathan Dwyer had a moment or two in the game, the likelihood is that Le'Veon Bell immediately takes over a large role for the Steelers when he comes back healthy. Mike Tomlin has a habit of abandoning backs after they fumble, but everyone on the roster outside of Bell has already suffered that punishment, so Jones can't be counted out yet.
Much of the talk after the Trent Richardson trade was about how he was landing in a much better situation with Andrew Luck as his quarterback. It's true that Richardson is in a better spot, but don't expect him to be a feature back. Ahmad Bradshaw looked healthy and effective against the 49ers this weekend. He has reacted very well to the arrival of Richardson and the duo complement each other very well. Bradshaw is running well enough that you can be sure the New York Giants wished they still had him.
Randall Cobb had only five receptions for 54 yards against the Bengals, but don't worry. Cobb was facing a truly elite cornerback in Leon Hall and clearly the best cover slot cornerback in the NFL. Combine that with the Bengals' defensive line being a complete mismatch for the Packers' offensive line, and that should be Cobb's worst situation of the season.
The Baltimore Ravens blew out the Houston Texans by a score of 30 to 9. However, there wasn't much for the Ravens to be excited about from that game. Much of their offensive success was a result of Andre Johnson's injury, a terrible display from Matt Schaub and the fact that the Texans offense is an excellent matchup for the Ravens defense. The defense is still good, but the offense looked terrible against the Texans. The offense accounted for 16 points, scoring just one touchdown on the day.
It's clear that the Ravens can't replace the skill position players they have lost to injury—Ray Rice, Dennis Pitta, Jacoby Jones—or Anquan Boldin, but maybe most significant is the poor quality of the team's offensive line. Bryant McKinnie solidified the line ahead of the team's Super Bowl run last season, but he looks more like the player who couldn't get on the field during the regular season this year.
The St. Louis Rams were terrible in all facets of the game against the Dallas Cowboys. The Cowboys are a good team, and Tony Romo has quietly been outstanding this year, but this game was more about the Rams. Jeff Fisher's unit entered this season with a lot of optimism. They were right to be optimistic, but this franchise is still very much reliant on a young/inexperienced roster, so these kinds of days will come. Don't read into the result thinking that the Rams are awful, they have their flaws, but this game was more a result of a team that is still developing.
In Washington, Robert Griffin III III is on the right track, but still some distance away from where he needs to be. The real worry for Mike Shanahan is the state of the rest of the roster. Even if Griffin returns to the standard he established last season, the lack of defensive prowess and offensive consistency may haunt the franchise all season long.