With Week 9 of the 2017 season upon us, NFL.com's network of reporters collects the hottest news and notes from across the league, including:
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"Those that embrace it and challenge themselves individually are going to get better. And those that don't, fall by the wayside and it sorts itself out."
-- Philadelphia Eagles head coach Doug Pederson on his competition-based culture.
In just his second NFL season, Eagles quarterback Carson Wentz is a legit MVP candidate. Tied for the NFL lead in touchdown passes, the 24-year-old has a lot to do with Philadelphia's league-best 7-1 record. The Eagles' dominant defensive front four has done more than its part, as Philly boasts the NFL's top-ranked run defense. But it appears the other key figure in his sophomore campaign with the Eagles should be getting a lot of the credit, too.
In his second season as a head man, Pederson has developed a scheme to maximizes his quarterback's skill set. But more importantly, it's the formula for success he's crafted within his locker room. Pederson has created a winning culture within the organization that differs in every way from the toxic environment that hung like a cloud over South Philadelphia during the Chip Kelly era.
"Doug's main thing is keeping us focused," Eagles star defensive tackle Fletcher Cox told me. "He's letting us be pros until he has to step in. With that being said, he's letting the players control that locker room, and when he has to step in, he steps in. He makes sure that we all focus on the little things because he doesn't let those type of things slip away."
"When you're a new coach and you're putting your touch or your culture in place, if you're winning, it helps to kind of spread the culture out because guys believe in it," Joseph told me. "Watching Doug win games, that helps. Having a good young quarterback who is having success and having a fiery defense helps. Players only buy cultures if it's working and they're winning. That's what helps your culture grow. If you're losing and not winning games, your culture kind of suffers because it speaks to us not working. I think winning games helps your culture grow."
Pederson watched Andy Reid win a lot of games. He played for Reid in Green Bay and Philadelphia, and then coached under him in Philly and Kansas City. Reid understood what it took to win in Philadelphia, and what it took to handle the criticism that comes when you don't. Pederson knows, too -- he was fired with Reid following the 2012 season.
Today, players who have played for both Reid and Pederson say you can see the influence from mentor to pupil. And Pederson even admitted this season that if he never crossed paths with Reid, he wouldn't be where he is today. It's those fires they've been in together that Pederson often draws from when he's successfully navigating them now on his own.
"It's just a culture, man," Cox told me. "Everybody believes in each other, respects each other and you know everybody in that locker room is competitive and nobody wants to lose in anything. No matter what we're doing, he's brought that competitiveness to that locker room this year. Where everyone is competitive in what we do. We all take it out on the practice field and look forward to it on Sunday."
Before the trade deadline, it was stressed that Eagles decision makers valued the chemistry within the locker room perhaps as much as -- or even more than -- they valued their star quarterback. The idea was, whoever came in had to not only be a special player, but a special person. There wasn't ever a thought of conducting a trade that would put that cohesiveness in jeopardy. So when Howie Roseman and Pederson decided to trade for Dolphins running back Jay Ajayi at the deadline, questions arose about the reports out of South Florida regarding Ajayi's character.
"I trust the guys on this team to handle players," Pederson said this week. "Everybody has a past. Everybody has a past and, as hard as it is probably for you all to sit here and believe that, I was in the situation where we brought in a player and there were reports of character issues and all kinds of things. And you know what? The guys rallied around him and there was not one issue with this player. And we went on to win a Super Bowl."
Immediately after Pederson finished speaking, he was asked, "So you're depending on the culture to take care of everything?"
He confidently replied, "Yes, I am."
I asked Cox this week how the team would handle Ajayi and if there was a chance for him to disrupt what they have going.
"They brought him in and we are going to rally behind him and we know he's a pro," Cox told me. "He's been around a while, and when he sees the way that we do things and handle things around here, it's contagious. That makes him want to do those types of things with us. We all keep everybody focused, not just Jay. We'll keep everybody focused and not let anything bad happen."
But why add Ajayi to an already-crowed running back room that ranks fifth in the league in rushing? Roseman stated this week that LeGarrette Blount is still the starter. Pederson said he's not going to speculate on how Ajayi will be used until the new RB knows the system. And with that uncertainty, it could show you how confident the Eagles are right now in what they have built.
It doesn't hurt that Pederson has a natural born leader at quarterback to be his second in command within the locker room. Wentz is the unquestioned captain of Pederson's team and he's currently the most beloved athlete in what many call the toughest sports town in America.
"Just his ability to kind of control everything and stay poised," Cox said. "I think Carson also does a great job when it comes to being a leader. Because we look at him as the leader of the team. He's in his second year, and we have a bunch of leaders, but when you look at the teams that are really good, their quarterback is the leader of their team."
This team has a leader in Wentz. And spearheading Wentz's army is the head coach, a former quarterback himself.
NOTES FROM AROUND THE REST OF THE LEAGUE
BALTIMORE RAVENS: Ground game -- on offense and defense -- key to salvaging season. As the Ravens prepare to face Tennessee and its running back tandem of DeMarco Murray and Derrick Henry, they picked a good time to rediscover their rush defense. Baltimore entered Week 8 ranked last in that category -- defensive tackle Brandon Williams had described it to me as hitting "rock bottom." That was before the Ravens' 40-0 dismantling of the Dolphins, in which they limited Miami's ground game to 45 yards. Heading into Week 9, Baltimore ranked 30th against the run.
"We definitely needed this performance to show the doubters we ain't going nowhere, we're still here," Williams told me after the game. "We had a little slump, things happen, but the Baltimore Ravens' defense, and the Baltimore Ravens, period, are still here. We're still fighting, pursuing our goals, and that's the playoffs."
Getting consistent play will be key for Baltimore, which exhibited a Jekyll-and-Hyde quality during its 4-4 first half of the season, with the team's performances in wins and loss being vastly different. Running back Alex Collins, who was signed just before the season after being cut by Seattle, has shown consistency -- his yards-per-carry mark of 6.0 led the league (among those with a minimum of 80 carries) heading into Week 9. After rushing for more than 100 yards for the first time in his career last week, Collins is now showing confidence as he becomes more familiar with this offense.
"Working with the quarterbacks and the other running backs, they do a great job bringing me along, helping me learn a new scheme," he told me in his postgame press conference. "I feel like if you know what you're doing out there, you can play fast and confident ... Sky's definitely the limit for us."
Despite a rash of injuries -- though injured running back Danny Woodheadis on his way to returning to the field -- the Ravens hope to make up ground in the AFC playoff picture. They've found a blueprint for the rest of their season, and it revolves around running and defending the run with consistency and confidence.
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KANSAS CITY CHIEFS: Life getting harder for Hunt? Rookie running back Kareem Hunt is starting to learn a tough reality in his first NFL campaign. He started this season on fire, gaining at least 100 rushing yards in four of his first five games -- but success has been much harder to come by lately. Hunt has totaled just 154 yards on the ground over the last three weeks.
"He has more of a bull's-eye on him, because every game that you go into the season, you have more and more tape, so you can see some more habits and some tendencies," Chiefs offensive coordinator Matt Nagy said. "But I don't think it's necessarily anything to do with what they're doing more or trying to take him away. I think they're playing him the same way. It just so happened that we faced a pretty good rush defense last week [in the Denver Broncos]."
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MINNESOTA VIKINGS: Why this year's hot start is different from last year's. Minnesota is on a bye this week, but general manager Rick Spielman told me that this 6-2 team is better equipped to sustain its fast start than it was last season, when it crashed to an 8-8 finish after beginning on a surprising 5-0 tear.
Spielman said the talent is better, especially on offense, where the players on the O-line are an ideal fit for what coordinator Pat Shurmur wants, and running backs Latavius Murray and Jerick McKinnon have stepped in nicely for injured rookie Dalvin Cook (who's out the rest of the season with a torn ACL).
The mental wherewithal seems to be in place team-wide, Spielman said. Defensively, there's no question Minnesota's unit is one of the best in the NFL. More than anything, though, Spielman said two things that have factored into the hot start should continue through the season: The Vikings are unselfish and very disciplined, and coach Mike Zimmer has changed some of the way he's handled this team after last season's tumultuous ride, which included starting quarterback Teddy Bridgewater suffering a season-ending knee injury in August and offensive coordinator Norv Turner resigning.
"I'm not going to get into all of the details of that," Spielman said of what Zimmer has changed. However, he did offer this:
"He doesn't just say, 'Run this play,' but he's explained that you run it for a reason and why, and that's helped," Spielman said. "The point of emphasis has been that this is a team. You play within the system, you do your job and do your responsibilities, and things will work."
Potentially the biggest factor as to Minnesota's quest to win the NFC North: Who will finish at quarterback? Case Keenum has filled in nicely for Sam Bradford, whose banged-up knee is still not healed. Bridgewater recently resumed practicing and could return to the active roster next week if he is medically cleared.
With Bradford still an unknown, the bigger decision seems to be whether it will continue to be Keenum under center or if the Vikings feel Bridgewater, who hasn't played in more than a year, is the anchor-leg QB for the back stretch.
"We will never put a player on the field unless he is completely healthy," Spielman said. "Teddy continues to progress. We'll keep watching him in practice and make that determination next Wednesday."
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NEW ORLEANS SAINTS: Ingram, Kamara providing steady backfield production. The best thing about the Saints' improved running game isn't just the balance it's created for the league's second-ranked offense. It's the fact that running backs Mark Ingram and Alvin Kamara offer so many options for head coach Sean Payton. They're both adept at running, catching and pass blocking. As a result, the Saints have averaged 138 rushing yards per game during their current five-game winning streak.
"They both have their own unique abilities, but we're not afraid of -- regardless of what play is called -- using one guy or the other," Saints offensive coordinator Pete Carmichael said. "If we're calling a game, we just say, 'Let's call the play and see who's rolling with it this series.' "