With Week 8 of the 2017 season upon us, NFL.com's network of reporters collects the hottest news and notes from across the league, including:
HOUSTON -- To understand the excitement surrounding Houston Texans quarterback Deshaun Watson, all you have to do is look at the rookie's approach to his Week 7 bye. Instead of finding a cool place to party or racing back to his old stomping grounds at Clemson, he spent a good chunk of his free time evaluating his performance. He assessed his decision making, his reads, the mistakes he needed to correct. Essentially, he was heeding the advice of his head coach Bill O'Brien: that the only thing that matters in the NFL is what you're about to do next.
As giddy as the Texans are about Watson's on-field play so far, this is the kind of stuff that makes his future seem so bright. Yes, the numbers are stunning, especially for a quarterback who started this season on the bench: Watson's 15 touchdown passes tie him with Mark Rypien and Kurt Warner for the most in a player's first six games. Those stats are also an indication of how prepared Watson was to capitalize on this opportunity. They tell us this is only the beginning of something special, that he will handle the growing buzz around him as adeptly as he does a zone blitz.
It used to be a given that Kansas City running back Kareem Hunt would run away with NFL Offensive Rookie of the Year honors. Suddenly, it's a two-man race.
"The best thing I've done is execute at a high level and operate this offense," Watson said. "When we get in the red zone, we have the mentality that we're trying to get points. We're not satisfied with three points. We're trying to get touchdowns each time we get in there. Each guy on the field understands that, and they're trying to get open to make a play. They understand that the ball can find anybody."
What those fellow Texans also realize is that this team finally has found an answer at quarterback. This franchise has tried to win for far too long with middling talents like Brock Osweiler, Brian Hoyer and Ryan Mallett. The Texanstraded up in this year's draft to take Watson 12th overall because they sensed greatness in a signal caller who led Clemson to a national championship. They knew any kid who could slay Alabama on college football's biggest stage had to be worth the investment.
Watson has yet to disappoint for a Texans team that is now 3-3. Once O'Brien decided to replace former starter Tom Savage -- a move that came midway througha season-opening loss to Jacksonville -- everybody wanted to see how Watson would fare. All he's done since is complete 61.5 percent of his attempts for 1,297 yards (with five interceptions) while rushing for another 202 yards and two scores. In his last three games alone, Watson has thrown 12 touchdown passes and just two interceptions.
Most importantly, Watson has energized an offense that has scored at least 30 points in each of its last four games. For perspective, consider that Houston didn't hit the 30-point mark once last season. As Texans wide receiver Bruce Ellington said, "The guy is a winner. He's been a winner since college. Coming in, he already had that confidence, so the guys around him have his back. We're out there to help him get better."
"Deshaun has a great way about him," O'Brien said. "He's smart. He's poised. He has a great memory, so when he makes a mistake, if the same situation comes up again in a practice or a game, he's not going to make the same mistake twice. He's going to remember what he did wrong and correct it. He's done some really good things, but he has to keep it going."
There is no mystery to Watson's early success. The man was built for stressful situations -- he started as a freshman in high school and in college. One fact about his college career that thoroughly impressed O'Brien was Watson's startling ability to avoid defeat. In 35 games as a starter at Clemson, Watson only lost three times.
That meant Watson had a pedigree that is pretty hard to find. He didn't just win, but he knew what it took to win. That knowledge showed up when he was working as a backup to Savage in training camp and at the start of the season. Even though Watson was Houston's quarterback of the future, he was patient enough to wait for his opportunity to arrive.
"He never complained, but you could tell he was chomping at the bit to get in there with the ones," O'Brien said. "He didn't get as many reps as Tom, but he got more than a rookie normally would. What stood out to me was that every time you asked him a question in meetings, nine times out of 10, he would have an answer that was right. That told me he was putting in the work on his own."
The benefits of that preparation have shown up with every passing week. Watson nearly led the Texans to an upset road win at New England in Week 3, until Patriots quarterback Tom Brady engineered a last-minute comeback. Watson also threw four touchdown passes in a 57-14 blowout of AFC South rival Tennessee and five more while trying to help his team rally against the Kansas City Chiefsin a 42-34 loss. Now come the Seattle Seahawks, possessors of the most decorated defense Watson will face to date.
Watson acknowledged the challenge involved in this road trip, saying, "We understand that, and respect Seattle's environment and their defense. We have to go in there and focus on our job." What Watson didn't have to say is that this is a test he's hungry to face, that it's yet another challenge that'll help define him.
In many ways, Watson seems a lot like the quarterback who will oppose him in Seattle this week, Russell Wilson. They have the same mobility, dynamic play-making potential and tireless work ethic. The difference is that Wilson already has established himself as one of the league's top signal callers. However, with the way Watson is going, it might not be long before he reaches that level, as well.
NOTES FROM AROUND THE REST OF THE LEAGUE
ATLANTA FALCONS: Quinn getting to revisit New Jersey roots.Sunday's game between the Falcons and Jets features head coaches whose New Jersey hometowns are 24 miles apart. Atlanta coach Dan Quinn, 47, is from Morristown, about five miles from the Jets' facility. Jets coach Todd Bowles, who turns 54 next month, is from Elizabeth.
"Wow, 2015. I had an interview," Bowles said. "I mean, you're interested in them all when you don't have one, obviously."
"It's always kind of a cool spot for me, because it brings it back to where my love of ball began," Quinn said. "I always reminisce about why the game is so important to me and where it started, from playing youth football and all the coaches that were involved in my life at an early age."
Quinn enthusiastic about Neal, Adams. Quinn seemed to like a question this week about how Keanu Neal and Jamal Adams will impact the safety position. Neal was Atlanta's first-round pick in 2016 and was credited with 13 tackles in the Super Bowl. A rookie, Adams was the Jets' first-round pick and is an emerging leader.
"I think you nailed it when you talk about Neal and Adams and their physicality that they play with," Quinn said. "It's a special player that has the ability to play in space, in coverage and be a really good tackler, but then have the strength and the length to match up on tight ends when you want to play man-to-man. Fortunately, both teams have good ones, and I think they're just getting started in their careers, so I think those are two safeties we'll probably be talking about for a good while."
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CHICAGO BEARS: Cohen names his rookie role model.Tarik sounds a lot like Tyreek. That's what Bears rookie running back Tarik Cohen told NFL teams during the draft process this past spring. He also said the similarity between himself and Tyreek Hill, who broke onto the scene last season with 12 total touchdowns and 860 yards from scrimmage, goes beyond the sound of their first names: Cohen said he could do the same thing for teams that Hill did for the Chiefs last year.
"That's what I was doing," Cohen joked. "Same first name, ya know. Coming into the league, that's what I told scouts and GMs. That's the type of player I wanted to be coming into the league. And in the offseason, that's also what I wanted to show these guys."
The Bears -- who picked Cohen in the fourth round -- have been stretching the 5-foot-6, 181-pound speedster to the max mentally with all the different places they want him to line up offensively. He's second on the team in rushing and third in receiving, and he's thrown a touchdown pass, as well. Chicago also is having him handle punt and kickoff return duties.
It hasn't been too much for him, though. Cohen told me he's not too heavily placed anywhere -- he's simply sprinkled in all over, and that helps. Look for his load to continue to increase, as the Bears believe he is their best playmaker and think there's literally nothing he can't do for them offensively.
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LOS ANGELES CHARGERS: Defensive front standing strong. The Bolts are on a roll as they head to Foxborough on Sunday with some unfavorable defensive matchups (especially against Rob Gronkowski and the Pats' running game) but a wealth of confidence that they can affect quarterback Tom Brady. Bookend pass rushers Joey Bosa and Melvin Ingram have combined for 16 sacks, and now defensive coordinator Gus Bradley occasionally lines them up on the same side, with Bosa sliding to defensive tackle and Ingram rushing from the edge.
Pick that poison.
"Joey is a very polished pass rusher," Bradley said. "He's got moves, speed, uses the power in his hands well. He's only in his second year, and he's got traits you develop over the years. Melvin is coming from a 3-4 and was dropping [into coverage] some. Now, he's just rushing the passer, and him and Joey on the perimeter."
With defensive tackles Brandon Mebane and Corey Liuget having meshed with Bosa and Ingram, the Chargers have one of the top front fours in the game. It's not just that, though. The blossoming standout in the rotation has been Chris McCain, an outside linebacker who has 15 tackles, five sacks and two forced fumbles.
After entering the NFL as an undrafted rookie and spending time in Miami and New Orleans, McCain has emerged as the classic "Leo" 'backer in Bradley's system. McCain is being molded into the same role Chris Clemons and Cliff Avril had under Bradley when Bradley was in Seattle and Jacksonville.
"We were really intrigued by him in training camp, and he's gotten better and better," Bradley said. "He's still developing, but he's really been good for us."
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"I think Tom has good pocket presence always. Always has had a good feel in the pocket," Patriots coach Bill Belichick said. "That's one of the many qualities that make him the player that he is."
Belichick acknowledged recent improvement, saying the blocking was "pretty clean" against the Falcons but "not in the classic cup-shaped pocket."
In other words, Brady had to move up or to the side in order to find space created by the offensive line. Brady leads the league in passing yards (2,208) and has 15 touchdowns against two interceptions.
The New England offense ranks 15th in sacks and quarterback hits. For context, Brady has been sacked 18 times (once more than Eli Manning) and has been hit 22 times (as has Cam Newton).
Cooks turning the right heads. It's hard to think of a player who has received more praise from Belichick and Brady in his first season as a Patriot than receiver Brandin Cooks. On the nifty touch-pass for New England's first touchdown against Atlanta, Cooks followed his blocker closely. Very closely. He literally grabbed the back of Rob Gronkowski's jersey on his way to the end zone.
"I thought he did a good job of using the blocking," Belichick said, adding that runners can get impatient and run past their blocking, only to run into defenders.
"I thought Cooks had a good awareness of where he was. ... He had good patience, let the blocks develop, [and] he was able to cut it up inside and get into the end zone."
Brady has lauded Cooks' work ethic and attitude, and said he'd like to get Cooks the ball more often.
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"I'm responsible for everybody on the roster, and I'll take ownership of where we are right now with this 1-6 start," senior vice president and general manager Jerry Reese said, at his annual bye-week press conference. "I do believe that we still have good players on this roster. I do believe that. I do believe we have to play better, though."
None of it has been a good look for Reese, who joined the Giants as a scout in 1994 and was named GM in 2007, or for coach Ben McAdoo, in his second season as head coach.
With a respectable finish, the Giants -- eventually -- could make the case that this season was a learning experience, albeit a very painful one.
Based on Week 7 53-man rosters, the Giants had the third-youngest roster in the league (average age: 25 years, 344 days), according to NFL Media Research. That doesn't include Odell Beckham Jr., who turns 25 next month, and Brandon Marshall, 33, both of whom are on injured reserve. It does include Eli Manning, the 36-year-old veteran quarterback.
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Bowles said the Jets talk "every day" about penalties. Asked if he is "hopeful" it can be fixed, Bowles said: "Not hopeful. It needs to get fixed."
No wonder that, when Bowles was asked about his message to his team this week, he said: "Just finish and play mistake-free football."
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PITTSBURGH STEELERS: Ground game running at full speed. Coaches and players are over speaking about the Martavis Bryant situation, which we all know stemmed from him asking for a trade and grousing about wanting to be a bigger part of the offense. (Bryant had five targets and three catches over the past two games; this week, he'll be inactive.) But let's look at some reasons why he hasn't been much of a factor lately:
First, there's the emergence of rookie wide out JuJu Smith-Schuster, who has three touchdowns and 231 yards on 17 catches. There's also the fact that Pittsburgh is running the ball a ton, especially in the past four games, with incredible success.
One coach pointed out something -- better yet, someone -- who has been overlooked in this surge: right tackle Chris Hubbard. Hubbard is a backup who has started four of the past five games at right tackle (in place of the injured Marcus Gilbert) and been excellent in the run game. He's a versatile player who occasionally plays blocking tight end in heavy packages, but he's really helped this offensive line mash opponents in the running game, which has resulted in Pittsburgh staying with the ground attack.