NFL Media's Albert Breer touches on multiple topics in his robust Inside the NFL Notebook, including (click on each link to take you directly to the topic):
» One of the most underappreciated winners in the league.
» An amazing hotbed for NFL quarterbacks.
» Why certain contenders could really separate themselves from the pack.
» And much more, beginning with the fallout from some controversial comments ...
Brandon Meriweather has been called a lot of things after speaking out Monday. Wrong shouldn't be one of them, according to some NFL players.
"He definitely had a point," Seattle Seahawks cornerback Richard Sherman said Tuesday night. "He may not have articulated it right. But he had a great point, a very valid point. It happened to (Randall) Cobb, it happened to Heath Miller. There are a ton of guys it's happened to, where (a defensive player) goes low, and it's not dirty by any means, but you do it because you don't want to cost your team."
Meriweather received a two-game suspension for his hits on Chicago Bears wide receivers Brandon Marshall and Alshon Jeffery, had that reduced to a one-game ban and, upon his return, launched into a tirade on the NFL's war on high hits. At one point, the seven-year veteran said, "You've got to tear people's ACLs."
It took roughly 75 seconds for that quote to be plastered on every sports website in the Lower 48.
Had Meriweather's word choice been a little different, maybe the basic message would've been taken a little more seriously. What's certain is that Meriweather's peers heard him loud and clear in the midst of a season in which, according to data compiled by Bleacher Report, 40 ACL injuries have been documented.
"I think the point is this: There's one way to ensure you won't hit somebody in the head, and that's if you aim so low that there's no possible way of it happening," Steelers safety Ryan Clark said. "That's what he was trying to say. And obviously, you're upset, you're emotional, because things are being thrown at you, people saying you should be suspended, people saying you shouldn't even be allowed to play in this league. It's tough to articulate it in that situation. But what he's saying is true."
As Clark sees it, a defensive player has three choices on a full-speed play down the middle. He can go high and take a 15-yard team risk and five-figure personal risk. He can aim for the midsection, an option that, against bigger players (i.e. tight ends), can be problematic because it isn't always enough to dislodge the ball. Or he can go low, where the risk is all on the offensive player.
Clark also raised a play from a 2012 game against the New York Giants when he struck Victor Cruz in the ribs on a bang-bang play and was flagged for it because, from the official's angle, it appeared to be a high hit. The Giants wound up with a touchdown as a result.
"Seeing that happen and knowing that's part of the game, I think guys just say, 'You know what? To take all the gray area out, make it black and white, I'm going to hit him in his knees,' " Clark said. " 'There's no way you can misunderstand that, misconstrue that. I'll just hit him low.' "
Then there are helmet hits where the defensive back breaks the rules -- but not with any malicious intent. Arizona Cardinals defensive coordinator Todd Bowles estimates that in every game, there are "maybe two or three" plays that he calls "bang-bang," where a simple football move ends in a shot to the head.
"Guys aren't trying to head hunt," said Bowles, who played eight NFL seasons as a safety. "Bang-bang plays are tough -- one guy ducks, the other guy doesn't. It's hard to imagine that as the glamour play, but years ago, that's what the league was made of. Now you have to be conscience, get in position to go lower, based on where the ball and receiver are. The league is doing a good job generally, but some are harsher than others. As a defensive player, there are a few times where you see a no-win situation."
Sherman cited situations during his rookie year when Seahawks teammate Kam Chancellor incurred pricey fines and the plays never came up in meetings. As Sherman put it: "They were such judgment calls, what can you tell a guy? There's nothing you can do."
Bowles and another NFL defensive coordinator contacted for this story said they really haven't had to adjust the way they coach because the proper way to tackle is to never lead with your head. Sherman said he hasn't had to change how he plays, but Clark said he has.
Coaches and players agree that football is such a fast, violent game that there aren't many occasions when things go perfectly to plan, and that's what leads to plenty of the more unsightly collisions. And that is why going low can be a tantalizing option for a defensive player.
Added Woodley: "Ask any receiver, any guy on offense in here, Would you rather have a guy hit you high or hit you low? I think the offensive player would say, Hit me high."
Said Bowles: "A knee injury for a skill-position player, that's his livelihood."
But the NFL's stance has been that the low hit is the lesser of two evils.
"The rules prohibit players from hitting an opponent in the head in certain situations," NFL spokesman Greg Aiello said in an email. "That does not limit a player's ability to tackle. And tackling low has always been part of the game."
In a certain way, that speaks to Meriweather's position. Yes, he could've delivered the point better -- and the players' union discussed the issue with him -- but even as his words stand, plenty of guys have his back on this one.
"How is it protecting everyone to make it impossible to play defense?" Sherman asked. "They make it almost so it's in our best interests not to come out there -- you'd save money by not showing up. You can't touch the quarterback, you can barely sack or tackle a guy, every pass defensed is pass interference. ... I don't know how much more stringent it can get without becoming flag football."
Alex Smith, winner
You can say what you want about Alex Smith. But after he spent the first six years of his NFL career on struggling teams, it'd be hard now to say you can't win with him.
Since Jim Harbaugh got the San Francisco 49ers job in 2011 -- a turning point in Smith's career -- the quarterback has started 35 games (including playoffs). And he hasn't lost much. In fact, if you put his last 35 starts up against the game's greats, Smith hardly looks out of place. Check it out:
I presented Smith, now a Kansas City Chief, with the facts Thursday, and he shrugged it off, saying, "Quarterbacks get too much credit for wins." But what he said in his next breath certainly makes it seems like his record would be a big-time point of pride.
"For me, winning is the only statistic I put any real value in," he said after wrapping up practice. "No question, there's completion percentage and TD-INT ratio and (passer) rating and all that stuff. But ultimately, you're sacrificing so much, you put so much time in, it's all to win, it's all to somehow find a victory. For me, I don't think there are any style points, especially at the NFL level, at all. That's what I look at, and I've been very fortunate to be a part of some great teams."
Smith is on target to hit career highs in passing yards and touchdowns this season, though his completion percentage and passer rating are a little off what they were under Harbaugh in San Francisco. He concedes he's still finding his way in Andy Reid's Kansas City offense -- which goes for the other 10 guys in the huddle, too -- but most important is that he continues to find a way to win during that process.
Smith said he and his teammates have focused on three things: getting points any way they can, taking care of the ball and making the critical plays in each game. Kansas City is 13th in the NFL in points per game, first in turnover margin and has done enough when it matters most to get to 8-0.
And in a lot of ways, all this takes Smith back to two seasons ago in San Francisco.
"You had talented teams that no question underachieved, for whatever reason," Smith said. "The most obvious reason is it was kind of a dysfunctional situation (in K.C. last year), all over the building. That same chemistry between players and coaches, it wasn't happening. They weren't getting it done, they underachieved, and it was no different that year in San Francisco.
"You had a talented team that was, for the most part, the same as when we went 13-3 the next year, and underachieved that year, and then was able to get the chemistry right and make it a healthy situation. In both, I think you got to look at the coach. It starts with the head guy coming in."
Smith said Reid has been a steadying force in Kansas City, providing a football-centric, distraction-free environment for players who craved it, much like Harbaugh did in San Francisco. And that has brought out the best in the players, including Smith, who said he saw a team that could win before he arrived and, in turn, became a beacon for Reid to the rest of the organization that the Chiefs were in win-now mode.
"It's easy to use that as a crutch -- it's our first year in the offense," Smith said. "No one cares about that, especially in the middle of the season. For us, you got to find a way to score more points than the other team. That's the deal."
Smith has been pretty good at holding up his end.
Haley continues to foster relationship with Big Ben
Todd Haley's not happy with where the Steelers' offense is -- 23rd in yards and 28th in points -- but he now believes the most important hurdle in assimilating Pittsburgh to his system has been cleared.
The veteran coordinator is wholly comfortable with Ben Roethlisberger's grasp of his offense, and it's at least his sense that the quarterback is good with how he fits into the scheme.
"It's two people in important positions, the offensive coordinator and the quarterback, learning each other," Haley explained. "The relationship needs to jell, and you want to get to the point where you're working as one and thinking similarly. I knew when you get two different people with no background together, it's not going to happen overnight. You understand that, that there'd be some growing within the relationship. But he's helped me be the best I can be, and I've helped him get through the process."
Haley strives to make Pittsburgh a game plan-specific group, a departure from the do-what-we-do Steelers of the last few decades, and that means more on Roethlisberger's plate. To ease the load, Haley spent the spring working with Roethlisberger to change his terminology in areas where the language conflicted with the verbiage that former coordinator Bruce Arians had in place.
And from Haley's perspective, Roethlisberger has delivered, most notably as a leader and particularly after center Maurkice Pouncey went down with an injury. The trouble for now is that the pieces around Roethlisberger haven't come together as planned because of injuries and offensive line issues.
Haley said "right now, it's frustrating, because quarterbacks are judged by wins and losses." But he added that Roethlisberger "has made marked improvements. He's always been very good, but he did a lot of work in the offseason to make all of us more comfortable."
And the belief is that soon enough, with Le'Veon Bell getting healthy and the O-line having nowhere to go but up, the quarterback's work will pay off. For now, it's a matter of young guys -- and Bell's classmate, receiver Markus Wheaton, eventually should be part of that equation -- growing up as the Steelers try to rebound from a 2-5 start.
"No doubt, if we can run the ball efficiently, and there's evidence of that out there, I know we can throw it with anyone," Haley said. "We've got a young group at receiver, and without Heath (Miller) at 100 percent, and the other moving pieces, I know we can't drop back 45 times and expect to have a chance. That doesn't give us the best chance. But if we can run the ball, with the way Ben's playing, we can throw it as well as anyone can."
1) Lone Star domination. I'm probably not the only one who's been stunned after counting 'em up. When Josh McCown takes the first snap for the Bears on Monday night, he'll be the 11th Texas high school quarterback to start in an NFL game this season. Drew Brees, Matthew Stafford, Andrew Luck, Robert Griffin III, Ryan Tannehill and Andy Dalton are entrenched as their respective teams' starters. Nick Foles, Christian Ponder and Case Keenum will start this week. And Matt Flynn started in Week 4. Stafford gave me two reasons for the obscene number. First, he said, "was just playing in front of a big crowd, having high expectations, all that ... but helped you go to the next level. You're used to, 'Hey, you got to go out there and win, everyone's expecting it' kind of thing. Dealing with that at a young age and getting used to it, it becomes second nature." And second, Stafford told me, "I had almost as many coaches on my high school team as on my college team. I talk to guys, (Kris) Durham's from Georgia, he said, 'I had an offensive coordinator, defensive coordinator, head coach.' I had a tight end coach and we were a four-wide team. We had coaches we didn't even need. We had a video coordinator. Families, they put money into it." The payoff is apparent.
2) Andy Dalton's emergence. Coming into 2012, the Bengals fit into a group of a handful of teams that seemed to be an elite quarterback away from becoming a powerhouse, and there was uncertainty as to whether Dalton could take the steps to be that guy. That uncertainty came internally, too -- and as recently as a month ago. The doubt's not gone all together, but Dalton's October has done plenty to turn heads inside Paul Brown Stadium, the same way it has outside the walls. "It's the whole unit protecting him," one team source said. "The receivers, tight ends and running backs have developed, so he has more options to throw to. It's his supporting cast that is affording him the opportunity to do his thing. And he's risen to the challenge." In particular, the Bengals are looking at a quarterback who's seeing the field better, trusting his receivers more, protecting the ball better and playing with faster tempo. No doubt, Thursday night's loss at Miami was a step back. But enough steps forward have been taken to give him the ol' playing-on-the-road-on-a-Thursday mulligan -- and the Bengals can be optimistic about Dalton's progress.
3) Trade deficit. I understand why we all talk about trades in the days leading up to the deadline. And I'm sure network executives (including my bosses) see the robust attention that baseball and basketball draw from the activity around their deadlines and salivate at the idea of having similar activity in football. But it'd be nice if we didn't all take the cheese. On Tuesday night, after the deadline passed, I talked to a couple decision-makers who shot down the idea that any of the big names floated out there were anywhere near being dealt. We all know the reasons why: The amount of variables (salary cap, scheme issues, draft-pick value) in football make finding the right fit exceedingly difficult. And we all explain those every year as we get closer to 4 p.m. ET on that Tuesday. Unfortunately, no one seems to listen.
4. Dez's desire. We all know what kind of player Dez Bryant is capable of being. The larger question is if the other pieces will remain in place, which always is a question because of the problematic past he carries with him. What I can say for Bryant is that, based on what those who've been around him say, it'd be a shock if any of what happened Sunday was mean-spirited or calculated. One Cowboys source said Bryant "wants to win and he's really passionate. Immature, no filter, but I'd take that passion over a guy collecting a check and not caring." Part of Bryant's problem is that, in some of these cases, he simply doesn't know any better, so he has to learn as he goes. The good news is that he's generally well-meaning and wants to do right. So my guess is he probably didn't figure his outburst would lead to the commotion it did, and he'll try to fix that, which is what you'd hope any player in that circumstance would do.
1) One name you'd be surprised to hear Terrelle Pryor credit for his success: Jim Tressel. Despite all that's happened, the two text weekly. It's interesting, too, that Tressel's relationship with another of his Ohio State problem children, Maurice Clarett, will be the subject of an ESPN documentary in December.
2) The Mike Pouncey episode in Foxborough was a good illustration of how the Aaron Hernandez saga will linger over New England and the NFL. It's simple. Many of those associated with Hernandez were football people. So this probably won't be the last time we see something like that.
3) The ax dropped on Lovie Smith after a 10-6 season for a few reasons. One was obvious: A new GM wanted his own guy. It's a useful example to recall when figuring the fate of Ron Rivera and Rex Ryan in Carolina and New York, respectively. Both coaches have done good work this season.
Two college players to watch Saturday
Miami QB Stephen Morris (at Florida State, 8 p.m. ET, ABC): All eyes will be on FSU freshman phenom Jameis Winston, but this might be an even bigger game for the future of the draft-eligible quarterback set to take the grand stage. Even with Miami unbeaten, Morris hasn't quite lived up to expectations, and the senior's lackluster effort in the Hurricanes' squeaker of a win over North Carolina and uneven effort last week against Wake Forest have raised serious questions about his accuracy. Some NFL teams now view Morris as a mid-round-type prospect. He needs a bounceback effort, and this is the week when it'd be best. "He can (prove he's capable) of a good showing against an elite team loaded with talent," one AFC college scouting director said. "They've barely won the last two weeks against perceived inferior teams. This is a great stage to deliver against a very, very talented team." That Winston guy? Yeah, take a look at him, too, if only for future reference.
Oklahoma State CB Justin Gilbert (at Texas Tech, 7 p.m. ET, Fox): Playing against the wide-open Red Raiders, Gilbert will have a good forum to keep proving that he's all the way back from a down 2012. After a stellar 2011 -- he intercepted passes thrown by Andrew Luck, Robert Griffin III and Ryan Tannehill -- most assumed Gilbert would keep rolling and wind up in the 2013 draft class. Apparently he bought in, too, because the perception of scouts is that a false sense of confidence bit Gilbert last fall. Now, having rebounded, he's a wild card of a prospect, a 6-foot, 200-pound cover man with 4.3 speed who could go anywhere from Round 1 to Round 4. "He physically looks like a pro cornerback, very talented with speed and quickness, all the tools we look for," an AFC area scout said. "He had a horrible 2012 season, otherwise he'd have come out. He's been very inconsistent until this year. But he's beginning to show signs of being the player everyone know he's capable of being."
Like every other media outlet that covers the NFL, we do all the cookie-cutter midseason stuff -- re-doing our division, conference and Super Bowl picks, and handing out awards for a second time. And I'm sure we do it because you love to read it.
So what made doing the same old thing this year more interesting? The fact that with so many teams there are so many variables in play, with significant players on contending teams expected to either a) come back from injury or b) round into pre-injury form if they've already come back.
For example ...
Denver (7-1): Von Miller should get more and more comfortable, and the hope is Champ Bailey will get healthier. Then we will get to see if the Broncos' defense can be more than just a sidecar to Peyton Manning and Co.
Green Bay (5-2): They're counting on Randall Cobb to be ready for the stretch drive, giving Aaron Rodgers back his valuable Swiss Army knife of a weapon.
New England (6-2): Shane Vereen should be back on the field in the coming weeks, and they should progressively get more from a recovering Rob Gronkowski.
Seattle (7-1): They should be able to expect continued improvement from Chris Clemons, along with the looming addition of Percy Harvin and the reboot of Russell Okung's season.
San Francisco (6-2): Michael Crabtree and Mario Manningham are working their way back and could play significant roles for a struggling receiving corps. And we'll see on Aldon Smith, who was reinstated this week.
One other thing that should be mentioned: The IR-recall rule's impact is being felt. The Patriots used their designation on Vereen and the Packers on Cobb, while the Seahawks chose not to burn theirs on Harvin (who came back ahead of schedule), which left the door open for them to have it for Okung, whose comeback should be huge for a struggling offensive line.
By the way, I did go ahead and make my midseason pick for the New York/New Jersey Super Bowl, sticking with my preseason projection of the 49ers and Bengals. But all of the above made it a lot harder to predict what exactly will happen over the next few months.
And that's part of what should make the rest of this season so interesting.
Follow Albert Breer on Twitter @AlbertBreer.