Week 5 NFL Takeaways

We are heading into what I classify as the best sports time of the year. the NFL season is in full swing, college football starts to produce interesting matchups in conference play, the MLB playoffs are starting, and the NHL and NBA seasons are set to begin. I call that heaven (but my girlfriend calls it torture). And maybe I’m a bit distracted with the NFL right now because my Seattle Mariners are playing playoff baseball for the first time since I was in diapers, but that doesn’t stop me from being able to take in a glorious Sunday full of action. So, here are my takeaways from that day of action.

Tennessee is Back on Track in the AFC South Race

It was far from pretty, but the Titans earned a 21-17 win over the Commanders on Sunday. It ended up taking a Carson Wentz goal-line interception to finally seal the deal, which luckily isn’t that hard to come by. With that win, they have firmly entrenched themselves in the driver’s seat of the AFC South. For the first few weeks, it didn’t look good for Tennessee. They were struggling in multiple facets of the game and getting destroyed by the Bills in a primetime slot didn’t help matters.

But they have turned it around since that week two loss, winning three in a row. Unsurprisingly, that stretch of wins has coincided with the success of Derrick Henry. He’s rushed for 301 yards and four touchdowns in those three games and looks like he is regaining his dominant form. The Titans are returning to the brand of football that helped them earn the number one seed in the AFC last year. They are pounding the ball on the ground and playing good defense. the overall defensive numbers don’t look all that great, but they are skewed by that horrible Buffalo game. Outside of that loss to the Bills, the Titans have given up just 76 points in four games.

This doesn’t necessarily look like the same team that won the division last year, but it isn’t out of the question that they can repeat. A lot of people (myself included), weren’t believers of Tennessee this year. The Colts were supposed to be much improved with Matt Ryan. The Jaguars were a trendy division-winner pick after their hot start. The Texans, well they never really stood a chance. The Titans were the team that lost a very important player (A.J. Brown) and had Henry, their best player, coming off an injury. But taking stock of that division after five games, it seems like they should be the favorites. They sit atop the division with a 3-2 record, not to mention the fact that they scored more touchdowns this week (three) than the rest of the division combined (one). Whoever wins this division probably won’t be the most intimidating team in the postseason, but somebody has to come out on top, and right now the Titans are as good of a bet as anyone.

Dameon Pierce is the OROY Frontrunner

The 2022 Offensive Rookie of the Year race was one of the most interesting in recent memories heading into the season. There are no highly-drafted quarterbacks or first-round running backs to dominate the conversation but the wide receiver class is absolutely loaded. That led to players such as George Pickens, Drake London, and Chris Olave being among the favorites for the award. And while plenty of those receivers, especially Olave and London, have played well so far, none of them are leading the rookie of the year discussion.

That would be Texans’ running back Dameon Pierce. If you weren’t already aware of Pierce I don’t blame you, he does play for the Texans. But whether or not you have been paying attention to him, Pierce has been playing very well. He gained a ton of hype during the preseason when it seemed like he had all but locked up the starting spot in Houston. But he got out to a slow start in the regular season. It seemed like we all may have been wrong about his role, as Rex Burkhead appeared to be the lead back. But that quickly changed. Since week three, Pierce has rushed for 310 yards and three touchdowns. That includes an impressive 14-carry, 131-yard performance against the Chargers in week four, which was really his coming-out party.

Now, part of the reason Pierce is the favorite for the award right now is the lack of competition, especially from the other running backs. The Jets’ Breece Hall, who was the first back drafted, is second to Pierce’s 412 rushing yards with 275, although he does have another 213 receiving yards. The Seahawks’ Kenneth Walker will not get a chance to be the lead back in Seattle after Rashaad Penny’s season-ending injury, so he could provide some competition. There will also be plenty of competition from the receivers, but if Pierce keeps playing at the level he is right now, then he has a clear shot to win the award.

It’s Time to Panic in Tampa Bay, Again

A few weeks ago I said that there were reasons to be concerned about the Buccaneers despite the fact that they were 2-0. Well, they have gone 1-2 since, although both losses were to good teams in the Chiefs and the Packers, and it is time for panic again. Oddly enough, it is actually the win that has me the most concerned about this team. I can excuse the previous losses. The Bucs were without basically all their wide receivers in the loss to Green Bay, yet were a two-point conversion away from tying the game. The Chiefs loss is a bit more concerning because the defense looked vulnerable, but Kansas City is one of the best teams in the league and Tampa Bay was dealing with a hurricane, so I’ll give them a pass.

But I can’t give them the benefit of the doubt for this most recent game, despite being a Tampa Bay victory. The Bucs beat the Falcons 21-15, but there is so much more to this game than the final score. For one, the Bucs were up 21-0 halfway through the third quarter, yet let the Falcons back into the game. A good team like Tampa Bay is supposed to slam the door closed with that type of lead against a bad team, not nearly have a huge collapse. Secondly, the Falcons orchestrated that comeback despite being one of the most one-sided teams in the league. Atlanta at times refuses to pass the ball, which makes sense considering Marcus Mariota is the quarterback. The Falcons also entered this game without Cordarrelle Patterson, who had been their most effective offensive weapon, and Kyle Pitts, who is their most talented player. But Tampa Bay’s defense, which was once thought to be one of the best in the league, let the Falcons and their no-name offense back into the game. They gave up touchdowns to Avery Williams and Olamide Zaccheus. I pride myself on my knowledge of the NFL and its players but even I have no idea who the hell Avery Williams is.

But none of that is the cause for the most concern. The reason to truly panic is that the Buccaneers absolutely should have lost that game. With Tampa Bay facing a third-and-five with around three minutes left in the game, Atlanta’s Grady Jarrett sacked Tom Brady, seemingly forcing a punt and giving the Falcons the ball back after scoring 15 unanswered points. But referee Jerome Bogar (it’s never a good thing when a ref is being mentioned by name) made one of the most egregious roughing-the-passer calls in league history. All Jarrett did was sack Brady. He got the quarterback onto the ground, which is how you register a sack, with not even a sliver of unnecessary force. Yet, Brady and the Bucs were bailed out and ran out the rest of the clock. Yes, Tampa Bay was able to escape with a win, but it is a win that is very deserving of an asterisk. I firmly believe that Atlanta should have, and would have, won that game if not for that penalty. And if the Bucs lost that game we would be treating them differently. So, I am acting as if they did lose the game and am showing some legit concerns for this team.

The Rams O-line May be Bad Enough to Hold Them Back

When you look at the Rams roster there really doesn’t seem to be anything wrong with it. They still have Cooper Kupp, Aaron Donald, and Jalen Ramsey, all three of whom are the among some of the best players in the entire league. The offense also has Matthew Stafford, Allen Robinson, Tyler Higbee, Cam Akers, and Darrell Henderson. While the defense has Bobby Wagner, Leonard Floyd, Ernest Jones, Troy Hill, and A’Shawn Robinson. Yet, for some reason, this team is off to a 2-3 start.

Well, I’ll tell you what that reason is. It is the offensive line. That unit was thought to be taking a step back this year after the retirement of Andrew Whitworth, but nobody expected them to be this bad. Los Angeles has started nine players on the offensive line in just five games. Three players are already on the injured reserved list. Only two players, tackles Joseph Noteboom and Rob Havenstein, have started all five games, but they have given up a combined eight sacks according to PFF, which has both players graded in the 60s. Noteboom was the team’s choice to replace Whitworth and was given a big contract to do so, so his play has been especially disappointing.

The ineffectiveness of the line was on full display in the Rams’ 22-10 loss to the Cowboys on Sunday. The Cowboys racked up five sacks but were much more disruptive than even that number indicates. Stafford rarely ever had adequate time to throw the ball. Dallas also recorded 11 quarterback hits. Granted, Micah Parsons is one of the best pass-rushers in the league, but this was nothing new for the Rams. They have a sack rate allowed of 9.8 percent, which is third-worst in the league. The two teams they are ahead of, the Bears and the Giants, have been dealing with poor offensive lines for years so their places make sense. But the Rams are the defending Super Bowl champs, they shouldn’t be fielding one of the worst lines in the NFL.

That group also stops Los Angeles from having any sort of running game. A decent ground attack would at least give the team some way of moving the ball that doesn’t require Stafford to drop back and immediately have defenders in his face, but that has not been the case. The Rams have rushed for 312 yards this year, which is unsurprisingly the fewest in the league. Frankly, the regression of the offensive line for Los Angeles has been insane and completely unexpected. It’s not the only reason the Rams have struggled this year, there are plenty of other areas that aren’t living up to expectations, but it has been the most impactful. With the way the line is playing right now, the Rams are not even threats to make the playoffs, let alone actually contend. There is still time to turn it around and fix that glaring issue, but if they don’t do it fact the Rams might have one of the worst seasons for a reigning Super Bowl champ ever.

Justin Tucker is GOATed

The level of uncertainty when Tucker lines up to kick a field goal is undersold. The fact that everyone just assumes it’s going to go in and then it does, is remarkable. We are living in a time where it seems like field goal kicking is just getting worse. Every week, some kicker misses a clutch kick. Heck, we even see kickers regularly missing extra points. But Tucker is not like the rest of those kickers.

When the Ravens got the ball back down one with 1:58 left to play, the game already felt over. Not only does Baltimore have Lamar Jackson, who was unstoppable on the ground on that drive, but they also have the best late-game weapon there is. The Ravens have the greatest kicker of all time. Tucker nailed the 43-yarder to win the game 19-17 and it just seemed like another day at the office for him. But it kind of was, considering that kick doesn’t even come anywhere close to the best moments of his career. Let’s not forget that he made an NFL-record 66-yard field goal to win a game against Detroit last year.

So yeah, everybody watching that Sunday Night Football game was fully expecting that kick to go in, which they fully should have been. Ok, stick with me because here is where I’m going to unload a ton of stats. First, he is the all-time leader in field goal percentage at 91.281 percent. The top of that list is loaded with current players but you have to go all the way down to number nine (Stephen Gostkowski at 86.344 percent) to find a player with as many seasons under their belt as Tucker. Also, Tucker had made 74 straight field goals in games after halftime, including 60 in the fourth quarter or later, before that kick. Even when he does miss, which is rarely, he does it in far less meaningful situations. That kick now makes Tucker 25-for-26 on lead-changing field goals in the last two minutes of the fourth quarter or overtime. That is the definition of clutch and is something we rarely see from kickers nowadays. And if you still have any reservations about Tucker being the best kicker let me leave you with this, courtesy of Twitter user @StatsbyLopez, “. . . Justin Tucker’s game winning field goal crossed the upright with a y-coordinate (width of the field) of 26.52. The exact middle of the field is y=26.67. That is, if the uprights were half a yard wide, the kick would have still been good.” Wow. Just wow.