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Reporters' Notebook

Kelvin Benjamin in Buffalo, Denver's run D, Rams' tunnel vision

With Week 10 of the 2017 season upon us,'s network of reporters collects the hottest news and notes from across the league, including:

-- The secret to Denver's improved run defense.

-- The Rams' tunnel vision.

-- What sets Carson Wentz apart as a quarterback.

But first, Kimberly Jones documents the excitement in Buffalo over a recent arrival ...

ORCHARD PARK, N.Y. -- Guard Richie Incognito was mid-conversation in the Bills locker room Thursday when his newest teammate walked by.

"Big dog!" Incognito said. "I was just talking about you! Do you even need shoulder pads?"

Still in his practice gear, receiver Kelvin Benjamin smiled, shook his head and took a seat at his locker. In his fresh surroundings, Benjamin has made quite an early impression.

"The first thing I noticed when he got here was how big he is," running back LeSean McCoy told me Thursday. "I asked him, 'Do you block?' He laughed."

Incognito said his first conversation with Benjamin occurred in the sauna and went something like this: "How tall are you, how much do you weigh and what did you run in the 40?"

(The answers: 6-foot-5, 245 pounds and, at the 2014 NFL Scouting Combine, Benjamin ran a deceptive 4.61-second 40-yard dash.)

"I was like, 'OK, you're a certified freak,' " Incognito said. "Adding a guy like that, who's a legit deep threat and who's going to take some attention, I hope that will open up things in our passing game and that will open up things in our running game, and vice versa."

McCoy, who ranks seventh in the NFL with 546 rushing yards this season, paces the Bills in receptions (38) and targets (47). Benjamin's arrival figures to impact that.

"Yeah, he's a big help," McCoy said. "[If he sees] a lot of one-on-one coverage [as] guys are trying to stack the box, we'll take that matchup."

Benjamin said a goal is to "open it up for [McCoy]."

"I'm pretty sure he's chasing 10K," Benjamin said, a nod to McCoy's quest for 10,000 career rushing yards. (He's 500 away.)

Over the past 10 days, since the Billsmade a trade with Carolina to bring him aboard (giving up a third- and seventh-round draft pick in 2018), Benjamin has been in crash-course mode, learning the playbook, learning about his teammates and learning -- quickly, he said -- how much he enjoys catching passes from Buffalo quarterback Tyrod Taylor.

At his locker Thursday, Taylor said he's watched all 314 of Benjamin's career targets in Carolina. The goal? To know when the receiver is most comfortable and which routes are his strongest. One, from his rookie season in 2014, remains a highlight: He leaped to make a 51-yard reception while sandwiched between Seahawks defensive backs Richard Sherman and Earl Thomas. Benjamin acknowledges the special memory; Taylor, too, took note.

"On contested balls, he becomes almost like a basketball player," Taylor said. "He's boxing the defender out."

Benjamin's arrival sent a deeper signal to the Bills' locker room. According to Incognito, coach Sean McDermott has in his first season "wanted us to embrace not just one another and the weirdness of one another, [but also] the weirdness of the Bills' playoff drought. Embrace all of that." The franchise has not reached the postseason since the 1999 campaign; theirs is the longest playoff drought in the NFL.

"[Ownership and the front office] making a move, as far as going and getting Benjamin, helping out our offense, helping out the wide receiver room, and just adding another playmaker to this team, definitely shows that they're serious about winning," Taylor said, "and we are as a team."

Benjamin spent his first game with his new team inactive; he watched from the sidelines as the Jets dismantled the Bills, 34-21, on "Thursday Night Football."

While they were tempted to put him on the field in limited fashion, the Bills decided against it. They acquired him for the long haul and wanted him to be set up to succeed.

Though his teammates had last weekend off, Benjamin elected to work, spending the time with wide receivers coach Phil McGeoghan, and Bills coaches say they are pleased with his progress in learning the system.

"I kind of just wanted to be a better person, be [a] better player, better teammate," Benjamin said. "Hold myself to a higher standard."

"He wants to be able to play free," Taylor said. "The best way to do that is to know the playbook."

Even McDermott seems buoyed, saying: "If you want to go one-on-one [against Benjamin], that's on you."

The plan is for Benjamin to make his Bills debut Sunday, at home against the Saints. He smiled easily at the thought.

"I can't wait," he said. "Sunday can't come fast enough for me."

He's been embraced by Buffalo before he takes a snap.

"I'm loving it here," Benjamin said. "There aren't words to explain how much."


ATLANTA FALCONS: Trying to stop the tailspin. With four losses in their last five games, the Falcons are searching for ways to reclaim their identity while preparing for the Cowboys this week.

"We wanted to make sure that our identity was really coming through," coach Dan Quinn said. "That's the way we run the ball. That's the great play-action that goes off with it. That's the run-and-hit factor on defense, creating the takeaways, and the speed on special teams."

He emphatically added, "I wanted to make sure every time we play that identity is always coming across."

"It's not at the level that we want it to be. That is what we talked about," Quinn said.

Receiver Julio Jones told me, "It's so hard to really figure out what we need to get back on track and things like that, because it's so fine. It's the small things that we're missing, and it's just one play here and there every week. You know, it's not the entirety, we're not going out there playing bad ball. We're doing a lot of great things, offensively, defensively, special teams, things like that ... It's just those one or two plays, it's just like we know we're not capitalizing on. We just got to keep working on it."

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BUFFALO BILLS: Respect for Brees.Tyrod Taylor and LeSean McCoy raved about New Orleans Saints quarterback Drew Brees this week.

"Drew's dope, he really is," McCoy said. "I don't really watch a lot of offense while the defense is on the field. Certain players, I'll watch."

McCoy said he'll watch Brees on Sunday when the Bills and Saints square off. McCoy remembered a Pro Bowl where he and other players were hanging out and having fun at the pool while Brees was studying plays.

"I'm a big fan of his, I appreciate his work," McCoy sad. "We got to win, but I appreciate his work."

Meanwhile, Taylor called Brees "one of my favorite quarterbacks of all time."

"Just from a size factor, [he is] somebody that I can compare myself to, as far as moving in the pocket and finding throwing lanes and actually playing the game from the pocket."

Their games are polar opposites. Among the 32 QBs with 20-plus starts since 2015, Brees ranks first in passing yards per game (315.2) and last in rushing yards per game (0.9) as a starter. Among the same group, Taylor ranks last in passing yards per game (208.1) and first in rushing yards per game (36.6).

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DENVER BRONCOS: Peko powering better run defense. The Broncos finished last season ranked 28th against the run. This season, Denver ranks fifth. Notably, the Broncos were second heading into Week 9, before the Eaglesput up 197 yards on the ground against them.

And really, the only difference in Denver between this season and last -- other than a few things schematically, with a change in defensive coordinators -- is the free-agent pick-up of veteran nose tackle Domata Peko from Cincinnati.

"First and foremost, I don't think he gets enough credit for what he does in the run defense," Broncos defensive standout Von Miller said earlier this season. Miller went on and credited their success against the run "mainly because of how beastly Peko is."

Side note: Peko, now in his 12th NFL season, was a fourth-round draft pick by the Bengals in 2006. From that 2006 NFL Draft class, Cincinnati selected Johnathan Joseph in Round 1, Andrew Whitworth in Round 2, Frostee Rucker in Round 3 and Domata Peko in Round 4. All four are all still playing in the NFL today. Pretty remarkable.

I've heard multiple offensive linemen this year rave about the way Peko is performing. Chiefs tackle Mitchell Schwartz told me Peko has played "pretty incredible" this season. Eagles center Jason Kelce made a point on the field postgame of telling Peko he's the most difficult nose he's gone against.

"If you watch the coach's film, he's got two guys on him and he just throws them off and tackles for no gain," Miller said. "That allows [DE Derek] Wolfe to be the type of player that we all know he can be."

Von a trash-talker?Von Miller doesn't talk much, at least not on the field. Miller is known to have one of the larger personalities not just in football, but maybe in pro sports.

Sunday he'll go against Tom Brady once again, when the Patriots travel to Denver for "Sunday Night Football." Miller was asked if he talks to Brady at all during games, because Brady has a tendency to talk trash to defensive players on the field.

"No, I'm not really a trash guy," Miller said on a conference call. "I'm not really a trash-talking guy. I like to get my play call. I like to look at the defense. I barely even listen to my defensive guys on the field. My focus is all on the play and the person that I'm going against. So I really don't talk trash. That's just not me. If I get in a trash-talking game, I'm losing focus as far as my individual battle."

To show even further, we were speaking with Eagles tackle Lane Johnson after their Week 9 win over Miller and the Broncos, and he too was asked if Miller was talkative on the field.

"Not really," Johnson said. "He's pretty quiet."

Reporter: "You talk to him?"

"No," Johnson said shaking his head. "He's the guy there. You start talking s*, he'll put a spin move on you and you'll wind up on Sportscenter. Against good guys like that, I've noticed you can't get too happy with how you're doing early because it can all change pretty quick."

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LOS ANGELES RAMS: Staying grounded as season heats up. The Rams are hosting a weakened Texans team on Sunday, and there are so many reasons why L.A. should take them apart: Houston's QB situation (starting Tom Savage for the injured Deshaun Watson), its spotty defense and the Texans' plethora of injuries.

When I asked a Rams assistant coach about Houston's deficiencies, he smiled, looked at me and said this team is 6-2 and playing well "because we worry about us. We handle what we handle and the chips fall where they may."

Good theory. Sticking to that tunnel vision -- in football vernacular, coaches like to say seeing the world through a straw -- won't be a problem, several coaches and GM Les Snead said. Sean McVay did such a great job conveying that message early on that players don't need to be reminded.

What the Ramsdo plan to remind folks about in the back half of the season -- and they've actually already started -- is the fact that this defense is the real deal. In their past three games, the Rams have allowed a grand total of 34 points.

Middle linebacker Alec Ogletree told me that they are finally rounding into form after transitioning to a 3-4 front under new defensive coordinator Wade Phillips. Defensive tackle Aaron Donald, who was a late arrival this fall after a holdout, is completely dominant again, some of his teammates said.

Also, having the offense score and keep the defense off the field has been a huge bonus for a club that was reliant on the defense for years, Ogletree said.

"They've been a little salty these past few weeks," Snead said, referring to the defense.

Though the Rams are taking things "day by day," players said, they also are fully aware that the schedule is about to get very tough. After the Texans, three of the next four foes lead their respective divisions. That said, the Rams' mindset has transitioned from that of a team seeking its identity to that of one that has found it: "Detailed and unselfish," quarterback Jared Goff said.

As a team official told me, "There is a great confidence there."

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PHILADELPHIA EAGLES: Digging into Wentz's prowess at the line.Carson Wentz showed up last Sunday and shredded one of the best defenses in football for 51 points. There was some unjustified backlash after the game when Broncos cornerback Chris Harris Jr. called the Eagles' offense a "college offense."

Being in the locker room when Harris said it, I knew it wasn't a dig, but rather a description of what Wentz and head coach Doug Pederson have created offensively in Philadelphia.

"They run this college offense," Harris said. "They run kind of what the Chiefs do. They got an option to run, an option to pass. They run the read option, the real option. He's checking to a lot of things. It's a college offense and he's just executing it very good."

But Wentz is more than checking to a lot of things, as Harris said. Eagles center Jason Kelce told me Wentz changed plays at the line of scrimmage a large amount on Sunday. This shows you A) how this offense operates just as Harris said, and B) that Wentz has a very good understanding of how it runs and, more importantly, what to change to when he gets to the line and reads the defense.

That's probably why Harris said in the locker room that it felt like the Eagles knew everything they were doing on defense and that they're the best offense Denver has seen. As soon as Wentz had a chance to read the defense, he knew exactly what to change to beat it.

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PITTSBURGH STEELERS: Red-zone woes irk. The touchdown-conversion rate on its own is ugly. The ranking, even uglier.

"It's definitely not good," Le'Veon Bell said, not bothering to pretty up one of the ugliest anomalies of the season. The Steelerssit atop the AFC at 6-2 and have the NFL's top receiver (Antonio Brown) and third-leading rusher (Bell). But in the red zone, they've been all kinds of inefficient.

In 29 trips inside the 20, Pittsburgh has managed just 12 touchdowns. The Steelers have dropped balls, they've been whistled for penalties, they've turned to odd plays and, 12 times, they've settled for field goals. Their touchdown-conversion rate in the red zone ranks 31st of 32 teams -- and yet, with a bye week to examine his team's struggles, head coach Mike Tomlin didn't seem to identify this as one.

"We're not going to spend a lot of time analyzing the minutiae, to be quite honest with you," Tomlin said. "We trust our plan. We trust the people that we're doing it with. We just need to do it a little better on a more consistent basis."

The field is smaller in the red zone and, as Tomlin put it, the Steelers can't "stretch" opponents vertically as they might elsewhere. And to be fair, five of the eight teams they've faced rank in the top 10 in red-zone defense. But Bell said the 3-for-14 mark the Steelers have put up in their last four games is unacceptable, no matter how stout the opponent.

"We've got to make it happen when we get the opportunity," he said. "Teams will eventually make you pay if you don't. It's something we have to work on."

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