The Debrief  

 

The Debrief, Week 7: Four situations nearing point of no return

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Gregg Rosenthal catches you up on everything you need to know as we turn from Week 7 to Week 8.

The Patriots defense that emerged out of Sunday night's fog at Gillette Stadium barely resembled the mistake-prone unit that was all too visible during the season's first month. New England's ho-hum handling of the Falcons was another reminder that so much of the early portion of a season is a mirage, even if the imagery provided by the Football Gods was a little too on-the-nose.

Bill Belichick tried to warn us. In a 791-word answer that could be neatly summarized as, "Teams evolve, dummy," the Patriots coach stressed last week how the squads that suit up early in the season barely resemble the ones that will be playing after Thanksgiving and into the playoffs.

The key during the first two months of the season is to get enough wins to stay in the mix while figuring out an identity. The Patriots, now 5-2, are masters at season-long adjustments, covering up flaws and escaping with victories when they are not at their best. But they are hardly the only team winning ugly in 2017.

The Steelers, coming off two of the most complete wins by any AFC team all season, led the league in criticism in September and now are tied for the conference lead in victories. Their weekly melodramas -- hello, Martavis! -- have overshadowed a young defense growing up together, a unit that has keyed a two-game lead in the AFC North and put Pittsburgh in excellent position for a postseason bye.

The Titans and Seahawks would make my list of Managing the Schedule Standouts because they have the winning records everyone expected them to have despite operating with a mediocre level of play few saw coming. The eye test and the advanced metrics, meanwhile, both show the Dolphins are the worst/luckiest/most-clutch/weirdest 4-2 team in football, but the strange path they took to that record may only fuel Miami's players.

"You gotta stop doubting us! This team, we've been through everything! We've been through hurricanes! We've been through 16,000 miles, man!" Dolphins receiver Jarvis Landry yelled at FOX Sports sideline reporter Peter Schrager (who also co-hosts "Good Morning Football") on Sunday after Miami's latest comeback win, finishing the interview with a literal forearm shiver to the national media.

Miami has won its last 12 one-score games. That kind of success feels unsustainable, unless the team can build a consistent passing attack -- but it's worth remembering Belichick's words before dismissing that "unless." The Dolphins are an unfinished product with the opportunity to play much better. And, like the Titans, Seahawks, Patriots and Steelers, they have a winning record to build from.

"Each year, you start all over again," Belichick said. "You start that process all over again. You build your team over the course of the year though practice repetitions, through preseason to regular-season games, through the evolving of your scheme, and that's why each year is different and unique."

Anyone who declares with certainty what's going to happen over the next two months is a hot-take charlatan, or a fool. September and October is about laying the groundwork for the games that matter while stealing a few wins along the way.

While teams have time to improve, the NFL lost a few legendary players to injury over the weekend...

A tip of the hat


Browns offensive tackle Joe Thomas might be known more for his consecutive snap streak, his attitude and his effort amidst relentless losing than for his incredible play. Placed on injured reserve Monday after tearing his triceps, Thomas didn't want to make any decisions about his future in football until the offseason, after the disappointment over this injury and his streak ending at 10,363 straight snaps subsided.

"I didn't feel like I was losing any of my physical skills, that's for sure," Thomas told Cleveland reporters Monday. "I felt like I was playing at the top of my game."

He was right. Thomas was the top-ranked tackle by ProFootball Focus through seven weeks this season, allowing just one quarterback hit and no sacks. Second on that list: Philadelphia's Jason Peters, who was carted off the field in an emotional scene Monday night against Washington.

Peters' impact on his team, the sport and his city could be felt as players paid respect and the fans chanted his name. Nearly three years older than Thomas, Peters turns 36 in January. NFL Network Insider Ian Rapoport reported Tuesday that Peters tore his ACL and MCL, ending his season, which Doug Pederson later confirmed. While the team could potentially move standout right tackle Lane Johnson to the left side, Peters' absence is a massive blow for an Eagles team that also lost linebacker Jordan Hicks on Monday for the season to a ruptured Achilles tendon.

As my friend Chris Wesseling pointed out, Thomas and Peters could be the picks at tackle when the Pro Football Hall of Fame announces its All-Decade team for the 2010s. This weekend provided a cruel twist to their seasons, but it should not be forgotten how both men were still performing at the top of their game.

Teams still have time to improve and evolve this season. But the pressing concerns below need to be fixed fast -- or they risk permanently damaging their teams' hopes.

SITUATIONS NEARING THE POINT OF NO RETURN

1) Tampa Bay's defensive disappearing act

I'm worried about Bucs defensive coordinator Mike Smith. The simmering intensity that he brought to the coach's booth during a lackluster preseason game during "Hard Knocks" haunts me every time Tampa has a defensive breakdown this season. Which is most of the time, lately.

One week after Cardinals receivers found wide swaths of green in the Buccaneers' secondary, Tampa gave up 30 points and 434 yards to a Bills offense featuring wide receiver Deonte Thompson (who was cut earlier this month by the Bears) and tight end Nick O'Leary as its top two receiving weapons. The Bucs have given up 68 points the last two weeks to two offenses that are statistically well below average.

Handed a one-touchdown lead with over three minutes left in Buffalo, Smith's group gave up a 75-yard touchdown drive on three plays in less than a minute. When the Bucs' offense coughed the ball up, the defense allowed gadget player Taiwan Jones to convert a third-and-9 and essentially seal the win for Buffalo. (It was Jones' first touch of the season. Credit the Bills' coaching staff for having some guts there.)

Two key Bucs free agent pickups, safety T.J. Ward and defensive tackle Chris Baker, have openly complained about playing time. The numbers show that Tampa's defense could be the worst in football, giving up huge performances to otherwise stagnant attacks like those of the Cardinals, Bills and Vikings, who ripped Tampa for 34 points and nearly 500 yards in Week 3.

Coach Dirk Koetter told Jameis Winston during a sitdown on "Hard Knocks" that the Bucs have "by far the best team" of Winston's career. This was in early August, before a preseason snap was even taken.

2) Carolina's struggles running the ball

The Panthers undertook an identity change on offense this season, unfortunately leaving the best part of their old offense behind.

The team's ground game tried to run north-south more often in Chicago on Sunday, with Jonathan Stewart and Christian McCaffrey's combined 58 yards on 21 carries marking improvement from the two weeks prior, when they averaged less than a yard per carry combined. There are questions about McCaffrey's ability to run inside the tackles, and those are fair, but the biggest problem comes down to the scheme and the linemen. Stewart does not look any less explosive than he did a year ago, and he's struggling almost as much as McCaffrey.

The identity change the Panthers sought -- to give Cam Newton easier throws and limit his rushing -- has only been partially realized. Newton led the team in rushing the last two weeks by necessity, yet Carolina still only scored three points against the Bears. Injuries to center Ryan Kalil and guard Trai Turner make it hard to envision a quick turnaround. Then again, the Panthers face the Bucs in Week 8.

3) Arizona's quarterback problem

Carson's Palmer's broken arm in London may all but end this Cardinals season and, quite possibly, the entertaining five-year run in the desert of Palmer, coach Bruce Arians and receiver Larry Fitzgerald. Even with Arians saying Monday that Palmer hopes to be back in four to six weeks (the initial estimate was eight weeks), and even with Arizona heading into its bye week, this Cardinals team is unlikely to hold up without its quarterback.

It's worth remembering that the Cardinals trailed 13-0 against the Rams before Drew Stanton hit the field. The Cardinals are fortunate to have three wins and aren't playing at the level of Seattle or Los Angeles this season. Arians' undying trust in his backup quarterback and blocking scheme will be tested. Palmer was playing better than he was being given credit for, asked to complete most passes just before getting hit. The team has the worst collection of pass-blockers by far this season, according to Pro Football Focus, with Palmer's injury happening on a Rams blitz where the Cardinals' communication broke down.

Stanton dropped back to pass 16 times against Los Angeles, with the Cardinals gaining a total of 54 yards on those plays. Stanton was sacked twice, threw an interception, fumbled once and was generally scattershot with his accuracy, as he has been for most of his career. It's hard to imagine this team being in contention by the time Palmer returns to the field.

The upcoming period of prolonged absence is reminiscent of the time Palmer missed with a torn ACL in 2014 season. I'll always wonder what that team, which finished 11-5 before bowing out to the Panthers in the playoffs, could have accomplished if not for Palmer's injury -- they didn't lose any of the six games he started that season -- but that shouldn't diminish what this group did do in Arians' first three years. The Super Bowl window appears to have shut, but they should be remembered fondly -- like the Kurt Warner-era Cardinals -- as one of the most badass teams of their time.

4) Denver's leaky O-line play

Arizona ranks last in pass protection, according to PFF. But the Broncos are No. 29 and sinking. This annual trouble spot for Broncos general manager John Elway remains a major issue if, as in the past two weeks, the team isn't running the ball well. First-round pick Garett Bolles has had his struggles at left tackle. But right tackle on the Broncos might be the leakiest position in football, whether it's being manned by Menelik Watson or Allen Barbre. Barbre simply didn't allow Denver to compete Sunday against the Chargers, with Joey Bosa (two sacks) running amok. Quarterback Trevor Siemian needs to play better, but it's unlikely to happen unless he gets more help around him.

Follow Gregg Rosenthal on Twitter @greggrosenthal.

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