The Debrief  

 

The Debrief, Week 3: Winners and losers

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Gregg Rosenthal catches you up on everything you need to know as we turn from Week 3 to Week 4.

GLENDALE, Ariz -- Coming back to earth might not be all bad for the once-otherworldly Dallas Cowboys offense. On a sluggish Monday night in the desert where second-year superstars Dak Prescott and Ezekiel Elliott were bottled up for three quarters, this Cowboys team displayed a resourcefulness in a 28-17 victory over the Cardinals that will come in handy this season.

The Cowboys must find different ways to win because maintaining the extraordinary level of last season's bludgeoning attack was never realistic. On Monday, it was Prescott's ridiculous ability to throw deep and accurately on the run when a play breaks down. It was self-described "seventh option" receiver Brice Butler having the best night of his five-year career. It was a Cowboys defense, finally led by a premier pass rusher in Demarcus Lawrence, holding the fort until the offense got right.

After defensive tackle Maliek Collins recorded two of the team's six sacks, I asked him if he enjoyed the concept of a Cowboys team being known for more than its offense.

"Hell yeah I do. We don't want to be byproducts of nothing. We want to be the show," Collins said.

It's hard for any newcomers to steal the show more than Prescott and Elliott did a year ago, and they are undeniably going through some growing pains in Year 2. That's partly a product of the team's vaunted offensive line taking a downturn, with newly installed right tackle La'el Collins and left guard Chaz Green struggling. Even All-Pro left tackle Tyron Smith has looked mortal over the last two weeks. The Cowboys gained 152 yards entering the fourth quarter, with big plays few and far between all season until Prescott's pair of beautiful deep throws to Butler helped the Cowboys put the game away.

"It wasn't perfect offensively. It was a tough game," tight end Jason Witten said. "But I think it showed that grit and grind that our offense has. We talk about fight a lot but I don't think it was demonstrated any better than in this game tonight."

No one will ever call America's Team scrappy underdogs, but the theme of battling resonated on a night when Prescott literally flipped over defenders into the end zone and Dez Bryant performed his best Gronk impression while muscling through half of the Cardinals' defense to score.

"Dez Bryant is all about fight," said coach Jason Garrett, who clearly appreciated winning a game that didn't come easy. "He's all about scratch, claw, battle."

The Cowboys are accustomed to wearing down the opposition, but this was the second straight week that the script flipped. One week after the Broncos dominated time of possession, Witten admitted it was "frustrating" to see the Cardinals run 75 plays to only 45 for Dallas. Still, it was the Cowboys' running game that finally found a groove late. It was the Cowboys' defense, led by Lawrence, that stood tallest.

Lawrence's three-sack, six-quarterback hit game was no fluke. He has absolutely dominated all three weeks this season, becoming only the third player in NFL history to open a season with three straight multi-sack games. He shows up on film with an incredible array of next-level pass rush moves and has ended many drives with pressure that doesn't show up in the box score. For years since that other DeMarcus left town, the Cowboys have searched for a star pass rusher. They've found one in Lawrence, finally free of injury and suspension -- just in time to open owner Jerry Jones' checkbook in his contract year.

"There's a lot of stars on this team," Bryant said.

Butler was the most unlikely one Monday night, but he was ready for his postgame closeup with a permanent smile and some fresh curls. He finished with two catches for 90 yards and a wild improvised touchdown, although he couldn't help but miss the overturned touchdown that got away.

"Yeah man, c'mon. I need two touchdowns! Fantasy points!" Butler joked.

That comment got a swift retort from Bryant sitting at the neighboring locker, who cautioned about the dangers of being too focused on numbers. This Cowboys team must continue to find ways to win without necessarily lighting up the scoreboard. They'll need plenty of "seventh options" like Butler to step up along the way.

The Cowboys and Cardinals were only the finale to a historic week in the NFL. Here were some of the other winners and losers:

Moving up

The 2017 season: Week 3 will be remembered decades from now for players' social messages, for entire teams staying inside during the national anthem, for front-page stories of protest across the country, for Colin Kaepernick's message of racial inequity amplified in response to words from President Trump.

History will forget the quality of games played, although the increase of scoring and close games was significant, as was the response to far less ephemeral matters.

Scoring, at its lowest levels in 20 years through two weeks at 40.3 points per game, ballooned to 50 points per game. More importantly, the games were compelling. After two weeks with the second-highest margin of victory (12.9) through two weeks in 20 years, the number dropped dramatically below average to 10.6. Perhaps the five best games of this young season (Rams-49ers, Bengals-Packers, Giants-Eagles, Lions-Falcons and Texans-Patriots) were all played in Week 3. So few of us saw any of it coming.

The list of the most stunning developments from Week 3 begins with the Rams and 49ers engaging in a high-flying shootout, heads across the pond to Blake Bortles making the Ravens defense look like amateurs and ends with the Raiders offense manhandled in the nation's capital. When stories like Vikings backup quarterback Case Keenum playing like Dan Fouts or the Giants scoring 24 fourth-quarter points in a loss or the Jets nearly pitching a 20-0 shutout aren't the most shocking, you know it's truly been a strange, memorable week on the field -- and a meaningful one off it.

Vikings receivers: The list of wideout duos better than the Vikings' Stefon Diggs and Adam Thielen is either short or non-existent. Both players are just hitting their prime, taking their understanding and ball skills to another level this season. (Thielen ranks second and Diggs ranks third in receiving yards thus far.) Keenum deserves credit for some pretty passes Sunday on his way to 369 yards, but Diggs and Thielen deserve even more love for making aggressive plays at the point of attack.

Marcus Peters, Chiefs cornerback: Don't make Chiefs cornerback Marcus Peters mad. Ever since wideout Keenan Allen called Peters a "bum" last year, Peters has played the Chargers with a little extra juice. In Sunday's win over Los Angeles, Peters gave up only 20 yards receiving on seven targets thrown his way, with one interception and another pass defensed, according to Pro Football Focus. (Last season against the Chargers in Week 17, Peters allowed only 8 yards in coverage on five targets with an interception.) On days like Sunday, it's easy to believe that Peters' best is better than that of any cornerback in the league. Between Peters and outside linebacker Justin Houston, who had another big day Sunday, Kansas City has two of the elite defensive players in football.

The Sean McDermott formula: The new Bills coach seems to have an unusual amount of personnel power in Buffalo, and he used it well this offseason. He re-made the team's secondary in one offseason with mostly spare parts, just like the Panthers used to do at his old job as defensive coordinator in Carolina. The Bills' secondary has been difficult to throw against for three straight weeks, with rookie Tre'Davious White and safety pickup Jordan Poyer standing out. It's a fundamentally sound defense that tackles and makes opponents earn yards. Combine that defense with a strong start from perennially underrated quarterback Tyrod Taylor, and the Bills were able to take out the Broncos on Sunday to improve to 2-1. The preseason talk of tanking is a memory. Bills ownership fired Rex Ryan because it believed this was a playoff roster. McDermott is doing his best thus far to prove ownership right.

FoxBall: Run the ball and stop the run. Bears coach John Fox is an old-school coach with an old-school philosophy that is mostly out of step in today's NFL. Like Jeff Fisher with the Los Angeles Rams last year, Fox could be in the final season of a long career with a rookie quarterback and a potentially awkward relationship with a young general manager. Unlike Fisher last season, Fox might be able to show tangible progress with his team on the field.

The Bears have a Fox-y front seven. In two home games, the team has slowed down the Falcons' and Steelers' offenses. Even more impressively, the Bears had eight runs of 13 yards or more against a previously stout Steelers defense, while only giving up a long of 13 yards to Le'Veon Bell. They executed FoxBall against two NFL powers. Jordan Howard and Tarik Cohen now rival the best backfield duos in football. The Bears are a Howard drop away from being 2-1 while getting very little from veteran quarterback Mike Glennon. To save his own job and make a real run at a winning record, Fox may have to deviate from the principles of Foxball and start rookie quarterback Mitchell Trubisky. Old habits die hard.

Other teams avoiding the 0-3 hole: There is a cold chill to an 0-3 start that is difficult to shake, even when teams warm up later in the season. Only three of 132 teams since 1990 that have started 0-3 have made the playoffs entering this season, a daunting figure for fans of the Giants, Bengals, Chargers, Browns and 49ers. That's partly why Sunday was so massive for the Saints, a team hardly building for the future with a 38-year-old quarterback playing at a top-five level.

New Orleans' win in Carolina offers hope because of how complete it was. The Panthers' powerful front seven was neutralized. The Saints' running game kept the clock moving and set up manageable third downs for Drew Brees. New Orleans' young secondary made great plays on the ball, and defensive end Cameron Jordan continued his boffo start to the season. It was one of those games where coach Sean Payton was a step ahead of his counterpart. If he has another one of those games in London against the Dolphins, the Saints can reset this season at 2-2.

Time will tell if the Colts' win over Cleveland truly matters. This Indianapolis team could be fighting for the AFC South title or for the No. 1 overall draft pick, depending on when Andrew Luck gets back from offseason shoulder surgery. If Luck returns in a few weeks, any victory without him will count double and give the franchise quarterback a shot to keep his team relevant. Interim starter Jacoby Brissett, offensive coordinator Rob Chudzinski and general manager Chris Ballard all deserve kudos for making the best of a bad situation at quarterback. Brissett plays like a far more mature player than when he was a rookie who started (and won) for the Patriots last season.

Titans offensive efficiency: Tennessee is wearing out some of the best defenses in football. During one stretch against Seattle, the Titans scored 27 points on five straight possessions and scored on seven of eight possessions overall. Coach Mike Mularkey's crew had a similar stretch of six straight scores for 34 points against a loaded Jaguars defense.

It's likely not a coincidence that the Titans' production picks up after halftime, when the team's physical offensive line begins to slowly grind down the opposition. Quarterback Marcus Mariota throws one of the prettiest passes in football up the seams, and the addition of rookie tight end Jonnu Smith makes Tennessee exceedingly difficult to defend when he's on the field with Delanie Walker.

Redskins defensive coordinator Greg Manusky's meetings with broadcasters: In a Week 2 meeting with Fox Sports/NFL Network/man about town multi-hyphenate Peter Schrager, Manusky expressed irritation about the amount of praise directed toward former Redskins coordinator/man about town Sean McVay. The Redskins slowed down McVay's offense, sealing a win in Los Angeles with an interception of Jared Goff.

In Week 3, NBC's Cris Collinsworth relayed a story of Manusky taking great umbrage when it was mentioned that he had a tough matchup against Oakland's offense. The Redskins held the Raiders to 128 yards, including only four first downs in the first 55 minutes. Washington's defense is starting to play with a nasty edge, and it apparently starts with Manusky. Hopefully, he stays cranky before talking to Jon Gruden in Week 4.

The Eagles' running game: Lost in all the delicious fourth-quarter drama in Philadelphia on Sunday was the Eagles' surprisingly effective game plan against the Giants defense: Run right at them. LeGarrette Blount, Wendell Smallwood and Corey Clement helped the Eagles rush for 193 yards against an exceptional collection of run-stoppers. Despite the heartbreaking loss of Darren Sproles, who will miss the rest of the season with a torn ACL, the Eagles' run-first approach comes at a perfect time, with extensive injuries on defense and quarterback Carson Wentz playing without rhythm.

Moving down

The Buccaneers' defense: The team's lack of secondary depth was exposed with starting cornerback Brent Grimes out of the lineup. The Vikings picked on second-year starter Vernon Hargreaves and former safety Ryan Smith. Allowing 494 yards to a Case Keenum-led offense, however, is not just about two players. Tampa was without linebacker Kwon Alexander and then lost linebacker Lavonte David and pass rusher Noah Spence during the game. The team doesn't have enough of a pass rush with Spence on the sideline. (Spence has a dislocated shoulder and might try to play through it. David is out for about a month.)

The Ravens' defense: Were we all wrong about the Ravens' defense, or was the performance in London against the offensively challenged Jaguars a blip on the radar?

Baltimore has too much depth and young talent to go away on defense, but it can't be so reliant on turnovers. This was, after all, a team that gave up a lot of big plays (and 386 yards) to a Browns offense led by quarterbacks DeShone Kizer and Kevin Hogan. After not facing an above-average quarterback in the first three weeks, Baltimore gets Ben Roethlisberger and Derek Carr over the next two weeks. Then again ...

Pittsburgh's offense: Something isn't clicking. Roethlisberger is not seeing the field as well this season and is struggling to get any receiver not named Antonio Brown consistently involved. Le'Veon Bell is not finding the same room at the second level of defenses. Through three weeks, the Steelers are 16th in points and 22nd in yards on offense.

The Chargers' optimism: It's never just one thing when it comes to getting Chargers predictions wrong before the season. After two solid weeks of play, it was Philip Rivers' turn to wear the goat horns on Sunday. His three interceptions set up 17 Chiefs points. Melvin Ingram, who is playing as well as any defender in football, helped get the ball back to Rivers five straight times in a one-score game during the second half with a chance to tie. The Chargers punted all five times, including once from the 35-yard line. If coach Anthony Lynn trusts rookie kicker Younghoe Koo enough to keep him on the roster, he should trust him to attempt a 52-yard field goal in a tight game. But confidence has apparently been lacking throughout the Chargers, and Rivers is already playing catch-up for yet another season.

Follow Gregg Rosenthal on Twitter @greggrosenthal.

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