Every NFL franchise strives for perfection. Front offices and coaching staffs attempt to build well-oiled machines, with all 53 players on the roster firing on all cylinders. But in the ultimate team sport, with moving parts across three different game phases (offense, defense and special teams), there are inevitably imperfections. And if these defects aren't properly tended to, they can snowball and bring down the entire operation.
Not to fret, though: Mr. Fix-It is here!
Each week, 12-year NFL veteran and noted tape junkie Brian Baldinger will spotlight specific shortcomings and offer solutions for the affected teams. All free of charge! Here is his advice for three teams heading into Week 7:
1) DALLAS COWBOYS: Make a concerted effort to create turnovers.
Oh, how the mighty have fallen. In a little more than a fortnight, the Dallas Cowboys have gone from looking like a Super Bowl contender to a .500 team that has to hope it can win the NFC East and get a home playoff game. First place in the division will be decided Sunday when the equally troubled Eagles, who are also 3-3, come to town. After carefully examining Dallas' three-game skid, here's a solution to stop the slide.
The Cowboys rank 28th in the league with just five takeaways in six games -- three fumble recoveries and two interceptions -- but eighth in scoring defense. In talking with coaches around the league for over three decades, I know they covet takeaways more than any other defensive stat. So it's troubling that the Cowboys haven't forced one fumble in the last three games. They haven't poked the ball out once in 181 total snaps during their three straight losses. When examining Dallas' narrow 24-22 loss to the New York Jets in Week 6, there were numerous times when defenders could have worked to strip the ball from an offensive player's grasp or punch the ball out. During the second Robert Quinn sack, Sam Darnold held the ball briefly over his head with two hands trying to protect it from getting punched out. It was alarming that no one from Dallas went for the ball.
During practice this week, I hope that Rod Marinelli and Kris Richard drilled every technique known to man about punching the ball out from the Eagles' ball carriers. It starts with the mentality that they must expect to take the ball away. If there is ever a loose ball, even after a whistle, go pick it up, and chase after the ball every chance you get. Take a page out of Marshon Lattimore's book, as he stripped the ball out of D.J. Chark's hands five yards after the receiver was out of bounds last week. Lattimore also had his first INT of the season in that game. Like I said, creating takeaways is a mentality and something that defenders must constantly think about and work for.
In Dallas' loss to the Saints in Week 4 -- the loss that started the streak -- cornerback Chidobe Awuzie picked off Teddy Bridgewater in front of the Cowboys sideline. The entire sideline went berserk and instant energy was created. There are always opportunities for takeaways, and forcing a turnover is one way to jump-start the Cowboys on Sunday night in an effort to retake control of the division, which looked like it might be Dallas' to lose less than a month ago.
2) WASHINGTON REDSKINS: Give rookie Terry McLaurin more targets.
The Washington Redskins are 1-0 with Bill Callahan as interim head coach after a thrilling 17-16 victory over Miami. The game may have been the butt of cynical jokes in the Twitterverse, but I don't listen to the commotion when I'm inside the film room. What I am focused on is a star player within the Redskins ranks who isn't being widely discussed. Former Ohio State wide receiver Terry McLaurin was drafted with the 76th overall pick in April, and although he was the 12th receiver taken in the draft, he looks to be the best of his class just six weeks into the season. I remember one scouting report on him saying McLaurin had a "smooth glide and instant gas." After studying the rookie, I don't think anyone could write a better player report. In Week 1, McLaurin ran right by Eagles cornerback Rasul Douglas for a 69-yard bomb. I've studied McLaurin, who has 22 receptions for 408 yards and five TDs in five games (missed one game with a hamstring injury), every week since.
This week, Kyle Shanahan and his undefeated 49ers come to Washington, a place where the coach cut his teeth drawing up masterful game plans and calling plays with an adroit touch under his father's leadership. No doubt Shanahan will come in with a crafty game plan, but his defense is playing a fairly inexperienced player opposite Richard Sherman in cornerback Emmanuel Moseley. He had been playing in sub packages early in the season. But when the Niners lost Ahkello Witherspoon in Week 3 and his fill-in, Jason Verrett, was quickly torched by Steelers rooke Diontae Johnson, Verrett (now on injured reserve) was quickly replaced by Moseley. Oddly enough, the 49ers' last two opponents -- the Browns and Rams -- didn't even try to attack him. Against the Browns, Moseley defended one pass against Demetrius Harris in the end zone, and the Rams were ghastly when trying to throw against the 49ers the following week, so very little action was tossed Moseley's way.
I don't know if Moseley is a strength or weakness after just two starts for the 5-0 49ers, but McLaurin largely lines up on the left side, which would put him against Moseley. The best way for Callahan to extend his win streak -- and quite frankly, shock the league -- would be to build a large chunk of the game plan around this matchup. I realize the 49ers play a lot of zone defense, but there's man coverage often taking place within the zones. I would use McLaurin on hitch screens, jet screens, go routes and come-back routes. In fact, run the entire route tree at Moseley with the "smooth glide and instant gas" of McLaurin. Maybe Moseley turns out to be Deion Sanders, but I surely wouldn't treat the youngster like Prime Time without testing him.
As for the pass-rush prowess of the 49ers against an undermanned Redskins offensive line, I defer to Callahan, who has spent three decades in the business building O-lines and hiding weaknesses. He will know when to max protect to take a shot downfield and will have a variety of protections ready to give Case Keenum a chance for success. If Washington wants to keep trending in the right direction, it should target the rookie receiver 15 times in this game and give him opportunities to make explosive plays with his talented hands and feet.
3) HOUSTON TEXANS: Don't stray from using Hopkins on critical downs.
The last time the Indianapolis Colts faced the Houston Texans was in last year's wild-card game, and the Texans laid an egg. In fact, they had a big goose egg on the scoreboard for a while as the Colts jumped out to a 21-0 lead. It's interesting how things change from season to season, isn't it? Last season, the Colts dug themselves out of an early-season crypt to win nine of their final 10 games. Along the way, Indy led the league in third-down conversions by converting more than 50 percent of its opportunities, and in a business where stats can be made to convince you of anything, third-down conversions allow teams to sustain offense, continue the pursuit to score touchdowns, rest the defense and use more of the initial game plan.
One year later, it's the Texans who are No. 1 in the NFL on third down, converting more than 51 percent of their third-down opportunities and 80 percent of fourth-down tries. In their impressive road win over the Chiefs last week, the Texans possessed the ball for nearly 40 minutes with a wicked run game led by Carlos Hyde and some adroit QB play from Deshaun Watson.
In a league that has seen many teams fail to gain a yard on crucial third or fourth downs with the run game, the Texans have found success but with a different tactic. It's come by way of a two-man game between Watson and DeAndre Hopkins. In the fantasy football world, Hopkins' day of nine receptions for 55 yards and a TD drop against the Chiefs might have made him a dud. But if you were next to me calling that game on national radio, you would realize just how valuable Hopkins is and what he can do in the short passing game. On five third- or fourth-down occasions, Watson found Hopkins for short gains to extend the drives. Bill O'Brien did a good job of getting Watson on the move, and the franchise QB threw short, quick, high-percentage passes to Hopkins, who has a very dependable set of hands and undying trust in his rapidly developing QB. Their final conversion -- a fourth-and-3 with 2 minutes remaining in the fourth quarter -- took a bit of strategy because they couldn't risk punting the ball to Patrick Mahomes and the Chiefs. Instead, the Texans opted to stack Will Fuller and Hopkins to the right side and let Hopkins go to work. With pinpoint accuracy, Watson put the ball in his star receiver's hands for eight yards and a first down. Then came the victory formation.
While many teams are struggling to find their identities and ways to win, the Texans know their go-to guy in the most critical situations -- like the many that arose Sunday at Arrowhead Stadium. With first place on the line at Lucas Oil Stadium this weekend, the Texans must lean on the Watson-Hopkins combination in the big moments.