Reporters Notebook  


Hopkins-Ramsey showdown; Gronk's drought; Seahawks' fate

  • By
More Columns >

As the 2018 NFL season rolls on into Week 7,'s network of reporters collects the hottest news and notes from across the league, including:

-- Adam Thielen's blazing start.

-- Rob Gronkowski's search for the end zone.

-- What comes next for the Seattle Seahawks.

NFL: Focus on football has owners riding high. The mood this week at the Fall League Meeting was decidedly more upbeat than it was a year ago, when the NFL was in the grip of the roiling debate about player protests and a national anthem policy, and Cowboys owner Jerry Jones was at war with Commissioner Roger Goodell over Goodell's handling of running back Ezekiel Elliott and Goodell's contract extension. (Jones concluded this meeting by lavishing praise on Goodell.) Why the lifted spirits? As new Carolina Panthers owner David Tepper put it at the end of the meeting: "It's all football."

And that, from the league's point of view, is all good. While Troy Vincent, the top league official overseeing football operations, expects a course correction, the scoring boom is undeniably popular with many fans. Through Week 6, 4,489 points, 504 touchdowns and 328 touchdown passes have been scored -- all historic highs at this point in the season. Fifty-four games have been decided by one score (eight points or fewer), tied for the most in NFL history through Week 6.

-- Judy Battista

* * * * *

CAROLINA PANTHERS: Patchwork front five getting the job done. Panthers left guard Greg Van Roten told me the Eagles probably have the best defensive front they've faced this season, setting up a supreme test on the road Sunday for a Carolina line that has acquitted itself well, overall, in front of Cam Newton, despite significant injury adversity.

With starting tackles Matt Kalil and Daryl Williams both on injured reserve because of knee injuries, the current starting five includes a journeyman left tackle signed off the street for the minimum (Chris Clark), a second-year right tackle who made his first NFL start in Week 1 (Taylor Moton) and a CFL alum (Van Roten). Yet, even after tough sledding last week at Washington, the Panthers still rank among the NFL's best in some categories that generally reflect on O-line play, including rushing yards (No. 4) and sacks allowed (tied for second-fewest) heading into Week 7.

"We gelled better than people expected us to. But it's just a product of the culture in our room and of our coaching staff that we have around us," Van Roten said. "We don't have time to feel sorry for ourselves. We need to perform. We've got to play. That's what we get paid to do, right? It doesn't matter that we're not all first- and second-round picks. A lot of us have played for a couple different teams, we have a lot of experience between us. We're not like a sexy group, but we get the job done."

-- Tom Pelissero

* * * * *

CHICAGO BEARS: Two offensive weapons receive praise from Belichick. Bill Belichick had high praise for Matt Nagy and Chicago's offense via conference call this week, especially when asked about two second-year players in quarterback Mitch Trubisky and multi-faceted running back Tarik Cohen.

"I think the most important thing for a quarterback is winning football games," Belichick said of Trubisky. "I don't think it's about about stats, I think it's about doing what it takes to help your team win. I think he's done a real good job of that.

"I think he's done a good job of getting the ball to the players who are open, who are in space and letting them be playmakers. ... He's a tough kid, which I respect."

In the last two games, in which the Bears went 1-1, Trubisky has thrown nine touchdowns to only one INT. One of those scores went to Cohen, who's recorded more than 120 scrimmage yards in each of the last two games.

"He's hard to find," Belichick said of Cohen. "He's a dynamic player that can run, catch, really threatens probably every yard on the football field from sideline to sideline, up the middle, deep. ... He's elusive with the ball, and he's elusive to be able to get open so that the quarterback can get him the ball.

"He's very hard to tackle, they do a great job of mixing him, not just putting him in the game, but who he's in the game with, what the combinations are, and then where they locate him. ... He's a special player that you gotta know where he is at all times."

-- Stacey Dales

* * * * *

HOUSTON TEXANS/JACKSONVILLE JAGUARS: Unstoppable WR vs. unrelenting CB. Can anyone cover DeAndre Hopkins? I asked Texans RB Lamar Miller that very question this week.

"No. Not at all," Miller told me.

Since 2017, Hopkins ranks first in the NFL in targets (237) and receiving touchdowns (16), second in receiving yards (2,035) and fifth in catches (140). And then there's what Miller pointed out, something everyone has seen the last few weeks: Hopkins is making his biggest plays when the Texans need them the most. He's winning them games.

Coming up on Sunday is something we're treated to twice a year: Hopkins lining up across from Jaguars All-Pro CB Jalen Ramsey.

"It's a fun matchup," Houston quarterback Deshaun Watson said this week. "It's a matchup that's been going on for the past two years. It's an opportunity for those guys to go at it again."

In their two meetings in 2016, Ramsey's rookie year, Hopkins had 10 catches on 20 targets with Ramsey in coverage, and he didn't find the end zone. In their two meetings last year, Hopkins was targeted 14 times, recording seven catches and a touchdown. In four games, Ramsey has yet to intercept a pass while covering Hopkins.

"To be honest with you, it's just like, hey, 'Corners, 20, you have 10,' " Jaguars DT Malik Jackson told me when I asked if their matchup has been a topic of conversation this week in the locker room. "That's all we've said about it. I think our corners are very prideful, like, being, 'Yo, nobody can get past us.' I think with this team, you don't really hype people up on the other side, because it only agitates the other guy."

-- James Palmer

* * * * *

MINNESOTA VIKINGS: Thielen's start one for the books. In talking about Adam Thielen on Wednesday, Vikings coach Mike Zimmer said, "He's a really good athlete. He does not get enough credit for the athlete he is."

Zimmer went on to laud Thielen's heart, brains and hands: "He thinks he can do anything on the field. He's made himself into a very good player."

You could say that.

On Sunday against the Jets, Thielen can tie Charley Hennigan (in 1961) for the most consecutive games with 100-plus receiving yards to start a season in NFL history (seven). With 58 catches, Thielen has the most receptions in his team's first six games of a season in NFL history. Thielen and Stefon Diggs are on pace for the third-most receiving yards by a teammate duo in a single season.

They will challenge a Jets secondary that is injury-riddled.

"These two guys do everything well," Jets coach Todd Bowles said. "Usually you get a speed guy, a deep guy or a short guy. Both of these guys can do everything."

-- Kimberly Jones

* * * * *

NEW ENGLAND PATRIOTS: Breaking down Gronk's scoring drought. Is it possible for an offense that's put up 38, 38 and 43 points in successive games to get better? Patriots quarterback Tom Brady thinks so.

"We played really well at certain times, and at other times, I thought there were a few things we could've done better to score even more points," Brady said earlier this week. "I think we're starting to feel confident in really what we can achieve."

Seven different Pats players have hit pay dirt during the team's three-game winning streak, and yet -- stunningly -- none of them go by the name of Rob Gronkowski. That's not normal for this offense, at least not since the tight end joined the club in 2010.

"It is what it is," said Gronkowski, who's been targeted only once on 28 passing attempts in the red zone this year. "First off, I've got to get open. I've got to get out there and run better routes, and then I'll start seeing more targets."

Easier said than done. While the Chiefs chose not to double-cover Gronk between the 20s last week, they did put the squeeze on him in the red area on more than one occasion, following the formula many others have employed -- though not always succeeded with -- over the years.

"He was getting punt-vised on some of his routes, and he's literally just running into two bodies," said Brady. "They're aware of him on every play."

Gronkowski has millions of dollars in incentives riding on his overall production, but he seems just fine with how the offense is playing out, even though the famed Gronk spike has been on hold.

"... We're scoring points, we're scoring down there. Whatever I have to do to help out the team, even if the ball's not going my way, I've just got to do it and just keep grinding," he said. "If I keep playing ball, keep doing what I need to do, keep playing better, I might start receiving the targets. That's what it comes down to, so just got to get better and get open."

-- Mike Giardi

First road victory this season won't come easy. The Patriots dropped their only two road games this season -- to Jacksonville in Week 2 and Detroit in Week 3, respectively. When they travel to Chicago to face the Bears on Sunday, they will be seeking their first road victory against what Bill Belichick considers a very good football team.

"The Bears have lost two games, one on a game (Green Bay) where they were in control of the game, and another one, they lost in overtime (to Miami). So, this really looks like a 5-0 team to me."

The Patriots are coming off a narrow 43-40 win over the hot-handed Chiefs and were able to escape that game with zero penalties and zero punts, to boot. As they get ready to travel to the Midwest, they know they will need another mistake-free game, especially facing the Bears' top-10 defense.

I spoke with wideout Chris Hogan about the challenges that Tom Brady and Co. face against a defense that enters Sunday's matchup with a banged-up Khalil Mack, officially questionable with a right ankle injury that caused him to miss practice most of the week.

Said Hogan, "I think their defense as a whole, they're a good football team ... they play a lot of zone coverage, but most of it is matched on the outside, so it really is kind of like a man-to-man. So, doing a good job of our route technique, running routes, being quarterback-friendly, coming back downhill to the ball, whatever it is, our timing has to be good."

Then he touched on Mack and the front seven.

"Up front they have a lot of good players. Khalil Mack is a good football player. He's been able to create some disruptions. ... For us as receivers, (it) ties into us being on point with our routes, and our timing of the football, all of that. ... It'll definitely be a challenge for us. On the road, it'll be a bigger challenge."

And therein lies the focus: This game is an even greater challenge as it falls away from Foxborough against a team that the Patriots have played just 12 times in the regular season -- New England leads the series 9-3 and won the last four.

If you're wondering what the message quarterback Tom Brady has been delivering to his offense and team all week in preparation?

"I think it's going on the road, being prepared to play and to start fast," Hogan said. "We have had some slow starts on the road this year. I think that's a huge key for us, to go out there, be prepared to play from the starting whistle to the end of the whistle. Always be ready to play 60 minutes, and try to continue to build off of the good football we've been playing."

-- Stacey Dales

* * * * *

NEW YORK JETS: Safety first for Sam? The Jets don't want Sam Darnold to make a tackle again anytime soon. In making a stop after throwing an interception against the Colts on Sunday, Darnold tweaked his right elbow. He has been on the injury report this week but also has practiced fully.

"Quarterbacks don't usually make tackles, so that might be part of it," Darnold told reporters on Wednesday. "It's nothing crazy. I felt fine throwing."

Darnold, who did play linebacker in his younger years, had an idea: "Hopefully try to not throw as many interceptions, so I can stay away from making tackles." And this: "I should probably tackle without using my right arm as much."

One note on the rookie and his shouldering the load: The Jets are 0-3 when Darnold has 31 or more pass attempts and 3-0 when he has 30 or fewer pass attempts.

-- Kimberly Jones

* * * * *

OAKLAND RAIDERS: Searching for a temporary home. Commissioner Roger Goodell confirmed that the Oakland Raiders do not yet have a lease agreement for next season, meaning that nearly halfway through the 2018 season, the Raiders don't know where they will play in 2019. The Raiders are scheduled to move to Las Vegas in 2020, but they need a home for 2019 and perhaps for 2020 if stadium construction runs into a delay. But after months of negotiations with the governing body that oversees Oakland-Alameda County Coliseum, where they are playing their home games this season, the Raiders still do not have a deal for next season. Owner Mark Davis did not attend this week's Fall League Meeting.

"We didn't get an update on that," Goodell said. "We did get an update on the Las Vegas stadium from the Raiders, and the Rams and Chargers in Los Angeles. We did not have any discussion on that, but we know they are negotiating, and we hope that will get resolved soon."

-- Judy Battista

* * * * *

SAN FRANCISCO 49ERS: Rams-Niners game reunites coaches. After a heartbreaking loss in Green Bay on "Monday Night Football," Niners head coach Kyle Shanahan says it's all about defending the home turf against the Rams and their top-ranked offense on Sunday.

Shanahan will be across the field from his old pal, Rams head coach Sean McVay. Shanahan noted his strong relationship with McVay stems back to their time together on the Redskins' coaching staff, where they worked together from 2010 to 2013 -- Shanahan as the offensive coordinator and McVay as a tight ends coach.

Shanahan told reporters his former position coach is "a good coach and a real good friend." McVay, via conference call, said he's forever indebted to Shanahan for all he's taught him.

Sunday's game is shaping up to be an offensive battle. Rams RB Todd Gurley leads the league in rushing yards (623) and rushing touchdowns (nine). But don't count the Niners out. San Francisco's rushing attack, carried by Matt Breida, is ranked third in the NFL this season, headed into Week 7. The 49ers will try to pull off an upset against the Rams, the league's only undefeated team.

-- MJ Acosta

* * * * *

SEATTLE SEAHAWKS: What comes next after Allen's passing? The death of Seattle Seahawks owner Paul Allen this week created a question about the future of the team. The future, whatever it is, will be in Seattle -- of that, nobody at this week's meeting of owners had any doubt, because Seattle is a highly desirable market. But while the league said it would be inappropriate to talk about a succession plan at this point, owners and league officials quietly acknowledged this week that they expect the Seahawks to eventually be put up for sale.

They would immediately become one of the most enticing franchises to hit the market in years, with state-of-the-art facilities in the center of the tech universe, a championship-winning football operation, a passionate fan base and a stranglehold on the professional sports market that offers few competitors in the Pacific Northwest. Plus, they would be the first NFL franchise sold since the Supreme Court allowed states to legalize sports gambling. The Carolina Panthers were sold earlier this year for $2.2. billion under less-than-desirable circumstances -- Jerry Richardson sold in a hurry after being investigated for workplace misconduct by the NFL. The Seahawks, with no time pressure to sell, would be expected to easily exceed that, and perhaps to hit the $3 billion mark.

Helping to boost the market: the NFL finally struck down its cross-ownership policy, which prohibited owners of NFL teams from also owning professional baseball, basketball or hockey teams in other NFL markets. The NFL did not want its owners to possibly be pitted against each other and competing for fan attention. (Allen was allowed to own the Seahawks and the NBA's Portland Trail Blazers because the NFL considered that part of one market.) Given the small pool of people with both the wherewithal and interest in owning an NFL team, the end of the decades-old rule likely widens the number of potential bidders for NFL franchises. That will be closely watched, because there was disappointment in some parts of the league about how few bidders emerged and the final price for the Panthers.

-- Judy Battista



The previous element was an advertisement.

NFL Shop