The Debrief  

 

The Debrief, Week 11: Major revelations as 2017 season unfolds

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The great AFC rivals to Bill Belichick's New England Patriots over the years have fallen by the wayside, one by one, from Bill Cowher's Steelers to Peyton Manning's Colts to Rex Ryan's Jets and the Ed Reed Ravens. The John Elway-built Broncos felt different because of two wins over New England in the AFC Championship Game and because of the man in charge. But this 2017 season has revealed how fallible Elway looks as a general manager without Peyton Manning at quarterback.

Monday's firing of offensive coordinator Mike McCoy, days after Elway called the team "soft" at a team event, is the type of sequence that is only supposed to happen to other organizations, not one that won at least 12 games every season from 2012 to '15.

Elway's fingerprints are all over Denver's 3-7 record. His personnel choices on the offensive line, where he has invested plenty of money and draft picks, have held the organization back over the last three seasons. (Elway knew the line that won the Super Bowl after the 2015 season needed a total overhaul, and it has remained one of the league's worst units ever since.) The health-related retirement of former coach Gary Kubiak was tough luck for everyone involved, but Broncos coach Vance Joseph was Elway's hand-picked successor, and McCoy was a familiar face, having worked as a Broncos coordinator earlier in Elway's front-office tenure. The team showed no interest in retaining former defensive coordinator Wade Phillips, who has quickly turned around the Rams while the Broncos' defense took a step back.

More than anything, Elway's drafts have allowed the organization to turn soft. There isn't enough homegrown talent to mix in with Elway's excellent free-agent pickups. After many hits in his first draft classes, his best draft picks over the last five years are probably center Matt Paradis, cornerback Bradley Roby and safety Justin Simmons, three solid contributors who aren't exactly superstars. Only two rookies from the team's entire 2017 class were even active for Sunday's loss to the Bengals (first-round pick Garett Bolles and corner Brendan Langley). Elway's best offensive draft pick from the last three years, for lack of any other options, is probably 2015 seventh-round quarterback Trevor Siemian, who was also inactive Sunday. The last Pro Bowler Elway drafted was Von Miller in 2011.

Elway's recruiting skills bringing Peyton Manning to town as a free agent in 2012 should not be underestimated, but otherwise, the quarterback position has vexed the organization. Brock Osweiler, a second-round pick of Elway's in 2012, turned down the Broncos' big offer as a free agent in 2016 after the team's Super Bowl win, only to return 18 months, one trade and one release later, curiously chosen as a better option the last three weeks over Siemian and the team's 2016 first-round pick, Paxton Lynch.

Known as one of the most competitive guys ever to play the sport or run a franchise, Elway is too integral to the entire organization not to have his hands in all aspects of the team. NFL Network Insider Ian Rapoport foreshadowed McCoy's firing referring to Elway's frustrations with the offense, which were apparent in his comments about the team getting soft. Not every player took them kindly.

"Everybody in this organization is accountable for how we're playing right now. Ain't nothing soft in my bones," cornerback Chris Harris told ESPN's Jeff Legwold after the team's loss to Cincinnati.

That accountability starts at the top.

The collapse of the Broncos has been just one of the discoveries from this 2017 season that showed up again in Week 11. Here's a look at some other 2017 revelations:

Philadelphia's running game

Both teams in Sunday night's NFC East clash were missing All-Pro left tackles, but only the Cowboys (who were without Tyron Smith) crumbled because of it. Philadelphia's running game has been so extraordinary this season because it seemingly hasn't mattered who is running the ball or whether left tackle Jason Peters (out for the year after suffering ACL and MCL tears in October) was on the field. Injuries took away running backs Darren Sproles and rookie Donnel Pumphrey by the end of September, but LeGarrette Blount, Corey Clement, Wendell Smallwood and Kenjon Barner have keyed the league's No. 2 rushing attack. Each runner has his own set of strengths, and Philadelphia's voluminous playbook makes them difficult to defend, as the team's 215 rushing yards against Dallas showed.

The Eagles acquired Jay Ajayi from Miami not because they particularly needed him, but because he was a good value. Ajayi played only 13 snaps against Dallas, and there is no guarantee he'll became a primary back in Philly, despite his fantasy owners' wishes. He'd make them too predictable.

The Eagles create yardage in the running game through creative play-calling, the threat of quarterback Carson Wentz and an incredibly versatile offensive line. Guard Brandon Brooks, an underrated free-agent pickup last year, and right tackle Lane Johnson form the nastiest right side of an offensive line in football. Center Jason Kelce gets out to the second level to block linebackers as well as anyone at his position. Even without Peters in the mix, the Eagles' line executes plays just as coach Doug Pederson draws them up on the white board.

"We got a lot of good running backs and a lot of different run schemes," guard Stefen Wisniewski told the Philadelphia Inquirer on Sunday night. "We've got a lot of run plays. It's probably hard to prepare for all of them as a defense."

Grady Jarrett, DT, Atlanta Falcons

The most memorable play in Falcons vs. Seahawks on Monday night, one of the most memorable regular-season matchups for a second straight season, was provided on special teams by a special defensive player. Falcons defensive tackle Grady Jarrett rejected Seattle's bizarre fake field-goal attempt by tight end Luke Willson to end the first half in a thrilling 34-31 win.

Jarrett also had a sack of Russell Wilson and two more quarterback hits in the game, continuing his breakout season after his breakout three-sack game in the Super Bowl. Only five defensive lineman have more combined sacks and tackles for loss this season than Jarrett, an incredible stat for a run-stuffer. Jarrett's rise and the individual play by cornerback Desmond Trufant, linebacker Deion Jones and pass rusher Adrian Clayborn provides hope that the underachieving Falcons defense can improve down the stretch like it did a year ago.

Pat Shurmur, offensive coordinator, Minnesota Vikings

This spot could also go to the Vikings' offensive line, which has transformed from ciphers to standouts after the addition of rookie center Pat Elflein (third-round pick) and free agent tackles Riley Reiff and Mike Remmers. It could go to quarterback Case Keenum after he vanquished his ex-Rams teammates on Sunday with one of his best games in a dream season. It could also go to receiver Adam Thielen, who has made the leap from excellent starter to All-Pro candidate, one of the most valuable non-quarterbacks at any position in the entire league.

I wanted to highlight Pat Shurmur for putting it all together, for surviving the losses of running back Dalvin Cook and quarterback Sam Bradford and for scheming advantageous matchups week after week. It started with the best performance of Bradford's career in Week 1 and continued through Sunday's second-half demolition of the Rams, where the Vikings eventually overwhelmed Los Angeles' front seven with power football.

Shurmur had some dark seasons in the NFL as coordinator of the St. Louis Rams and coach of the Cleveland Browns, but he's seemingly a different coach after his time with Chip Kelly in Philadelphia. Pat Shurmur's offense is one of the most fun to watch in football, and he's doing it with a lot of players other teams didn't want.

Yannick Ngakoue and the other guys on the Jaguars' defense

Jacksonville's defense is so good that I could highlight a different player every week and not run out of worthy subjects before the end of the season. Free-agent pickup Calais Campbell and star cornerback Jalen Ramsey are both worthy Defensive Player of the Year candidates, and the world at large has finally caught up to how good linebacker Telvin Smith is. But Sunday's performance against the Browns by underrated second-year pass rusher Yannick Ngakoue was a reminder that Jacksonville has so many different players capable of taking over a game.

Ngakoue finished with 2.5 sacks and was officially credited with two forced fumbles, although he was involved in three, including back-to-back fourth-quarter plays to seal the game. He has incredible burst off the line for a defensive end and swoops in to knock fumbles out like a power forward blocking an opponent on a fast break. On most defenses, he'd be a breakout star, having amassed 45 total pressures on the season, according to Pro Football Focus -- that's only two fewer than Campbell. On the Jaguars, he's probably not among the five most valuable defensive players.

Guys like Ngakoue, linebacker Myles Jack and safeties Barry Church and Tashaun Gipson have all quietly done their jobs well this season for a Jaguars defense as deep in talent as any in recent memory. It's a defense good enough to make tackles Malik Jackson and Marcell Dareus, two of the highest-paid players at their position, into quality role players. Every week is a chance for a new player to take his star turn.

Alvin Kamara, RB, New Orleans Saints

One of my favorite moments every NFL weekend is when Alvin Kamara decides to go on any given play. His sudden speed-button burst is rare, even by NFL standards. He also has a way of hopping through tackles as if he's slalom-skiing toward the goal line. While I've always believed that Mark Ingram's career could have been even greater if he'd been drafted by another team, Kamara has found his ideal home in New Orleans with Sean Payton. At this pace, Kamara and Saints cornerback Marshon Lattimore could both win Rookie of the Year awards on their respective sides of the ball.

Jimmy Smith, CB and Alex Collins, RB, Baltimore Ravens

I am especially grateful to tremendous players on otherwise unsightly teams. Ravens cornerback Jimmy Smith and running back Alex Collins have consistently redeemed hours of NFL Game Pass footage that would have otherwise been dour.

Smith's Super Bowl-winning play against Michael Crabtree has strangely been forgotten outside of Baltimore over the last five years, perhaps because his solid career has never quite gone to another level. That's changed this season.

Smith's interception of Brett Hundley in Sunday's win over the Packers helped Smith build his lead in passer rating allowed, giving up only 50 percent of passes and a 25.7 rating on balls thrown at him this season. This has all come despite playing through an Achilles injury for most of the season.

"He can be the best corner in football," coach John Harbaugh said earlier this month. "I think I said that three weeks ago. Now everyone is getting onboard. It's good that you guys saw the light."

Smith plays with a toughness typical of the Ravens. That describes Collins well, too. The breakout second-year running back couldn't make the Seahawks out of training camp, yet he's now fourth among NFL running backs in yards per carry (5.0), zigging and zagging through opposing defenses with uncommon footwork for a man his size.

I've yet to find the run this season on which Collins wasn't going hard, and he's earned his primary back status just two months after being activated from the practice squad. He's exactly the kind of back the Seahawks could use right about now, one that may just save this Ravens offense. And he's a little more fun to watch because no one saw him coming.

Follow Gregg Rosenthal on Twitter @greggrosenthal.

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