With Week 8 of the NFL season upon us, NFL.com's network of reporters gets you up to speed with the hottest news and notes from across the league, including:
But first, a look at the NFL's rising international profile ...
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The answer, depending on one's criteria, is yes.
"When we played the first game, they welcomed us, but nobody knew anybody and it was a mix of different fans and jerseys. Now when you go to a game, you see fans of the home team actually wearing the jerseys. They know when to cheer, they know when to boo, people know the players. The atmosphere is crazy."
While logistical problems -- such as travel, kickoff time of day, stadium availability and other concerns -- remain as prominent as ever and continue to serve as obstacles to having a full-time franchise here, the fact is, American football is growing among a young British fan base, the stadiums are full and London is asking for more. The city's mayor, Sadiq Khan, told the Evening Standard that the league is "on the cusp" of adding a fourth game to its London slate (which has featured three per year since 2014) in the near future.
That last part is a bit premature for now, but it surely fosters the belief that the league's attempt to grow the roots of a fan base has taken hold.
Umenyiora agrees. He and former Giants teammate Jason Bell serve as analysts for the BBC's weekly NFL show (titled, fittingly enough, "The NFL Show"). The program airs on Friday nights and serves as a preview of the weekend's "fixtures," as host Mark Chapman calls them. This year, the BBC added a Tuesday show to review the previous week's action.
NFL international chief Mark Waller says the shows bring in the youngest viewers of any BBC programs.
"That's a pretty nice stat," Waller said.
Here are some more stats: Waller said the percentage of local fans in the stands has remained consistent in recent years, depending on the matchup -- about 90 percent are from the U.K., 5 percent are American expats or those who traveled over for the game and 5 percent are from Germany and Scandinavia.
The knowledge of the game and its rules also appears to be on the rise. As someone who covered the Giants-Dolphins game in 2007, I recall many of the local media asking only general questions about playing in London. Nine years later, Giants defensive tackle Damon Harrison smiled when a British reporter had a specific inquiry about stopping Rams running back Todd Gurley.
Several of the Giants' beat reporters who traveled to London tweeted pictures of the local papers and noted the stories were tucked well inside. Waller acknowledged the print coverage is still largely dominated by soccer, but he said the league is more focused on its social and digital footprints.
This past Sunday, during the Giants-Rams game at Twickenham Stadium (a rugby venue that drew rave reviews from players and coaches for its playing surface and raucous atmosphere), Waller noted the game was No. 4 on the list of trending topics on Twitter in the U.K. -- and this was on a day when Manchester United was facing Chelsea while Manchester City was taking on Southampton.
With lofty goals of one day playing a game in China (which is a long shot right now) and with Mexico set to get back in on the international action with Texans-Raiders on Nov. 21, London is proving the game has a chance to take hold well beyond U.S. borders.
"Part of being an emerging sport is, how do you break through?" Waller said. "I kind of look at the U.S. and how much rugby coverage is in the U.S. Not a lot, right? They're trying to grow in their sport and break through. They're doing everything they can. Same for us here. That's the challenge."
Khan has added one more challenge by publicly calling for a fourth game to be added next year, saying, "I hope the commissioner (Roger Goodell) -- no pressure -- will have good news in the next 45 days."
No pressure. Sure.
"He's doing what he rightly should do -- putting pressure on us," Waller said. "Can we make that happen? We don't have a view on that at the moment. We'll have that probably in the next 30 or 60 days."
Even if the London series isn't expanded, Waller and other league officials are pleased with the progress here. They also were relieved to see the Colts beat the Bears in Indianapolis in Week 5 after playing the Jaguars overseas in Week 4. Indy became the first team since the series began to return to the U.S. without a bye week after its game in London.
"That was a good outcome," Waller said, adding: "We want to make sure every time a team comes out here, it goes home with a belief it had a great experience, was competitive and, when it goes back, will continue to be competitive. And that the experience of playing in London or Mexico did not disrupt their season."
And now, the rest of this week's notes from NFL.com's reporters:
ATLANTA FALCONS: Can Atlanta keep from falling off again? The Falcons are already facing questions about whether they are in the middle of their second consecutive swoon after a fast start. In the last two seasons, the Falcons are a combined 9-1 in their first five games of the season and 3-10 in all the games thereafter. With Green Bay coming to town, this does not seem like the best time for the Falcons to be swooning (even if the Packers' offense has been uneven thus far), especially after Atlanta blew a 17-point lead at home to San Diego last week.
Before the season began, the expectation inside the Falcons' building was that things would be different, and one of the reasons given is being tested now. The defense, the thinking went, is considerably faster and tougher this season than it was last season, with the additions of rookies Keanu Neal, Deion Jones and De'Vondre Campbell. That might be true, although the results have not supported the hope that a faster defense alone would be enough.
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So I asked Lions head coach Jim Caldwell what makes Stafford thrive late in games, when the pressure is the greatest on a quarterback. Here are the five attributes Caldwell came up with to describe the reason Stafford is so good when down late in games:
1) "He has talent."
2) "He's very smart."
3) "Situationally, he has a real good understanding of what to anticipate and expect."
4) "He's a very fine leader and also can bring a group along with him."
And No. 5 is extremely well put ...
5) "He's not afraid. He has no fear in those situations. He doesn't have a fear of losing the game, which, often times, you find guys who get in there and they just try and do whatever they can to be very, very careful -- 'Don't want it to be my fault' and that kind of thing. He wants to be that guy that takes that ball down the field and gets that thing in the end zone. And I think that makes him special. You'll find a lot of individuals, some individuals, shrink in that moment. He doesn't; he plays bigger."
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LOS ANGELES RAMS: Goff getting ready to go.Rams coach Jeff Fisher has planned for a while to get rookie quarterback Jared Goff more reps during the Week 8 bye. Publicly, he's said that this was a great opportunity to get him more work for a day or two because starter Case Keenum has a handle on the offense and doesn't need the extra time.
From everything that I have been told, Goff has made progress in terms of learning the offense. As for executing it? That is still unknown.
I've also been told by people with the Rams that they would have felt fine putting him on the field should Keenum have been injured. Of course, they really had no choice. If coaches were to opt for Sean Mannion instead of Goff to step in for Keenum, that would show they might have missed on Goff with the No. 1 overall pick -- at least in the short term.
Yes, the Rams play three of their next five on the road, but whatever the scenario, they have to get Goff going. If he struggles, will the team be that much worse? If he succeeds, it can be better.
Johnson could be back soon. Cornerback Trumaine Johnson has missed the past two games with a high ankle sprain. He might be back after the Week 8 bye. The franchise-tagged veteran was playing pretty well before he got hurt. He told me after a practice in London, before the Giants game, that he expected to be back "soon."
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Brady's ability to sense pressure and slide away from it has always been superb. But he's never going to be confused with Cam Newton. Brady's own dad, Tom Sr., has joked that his son used to be clocked with a sundial. (Apparently, Brady's mom doesn't agree with Dad. Brady revealed she believes he is the fastest player on the team.)
But on Sunday, Brady repeatedly extended plays with his legs and even converted on third-and-2 with a 5-yard run in the first quarter. His mobility certainly appears better than it has in the past -- Brady demurred when asked if perhaps his four-game suspension has had the unintended benefit of leaving him fresher now -- and let's remember: He's 39.
The truth, though, is that this is not entirely new, because Brady, who takes meticulous care of his body and skills in the offseason, has been working on his escapability for a few years. That we are noticing it more might have something to do with Brady's age, but also that the two quarterbacks who filled in for him, Jimmy Garoppolo and Jacoby Brissett, used their legs, creating problems for opposing defenses that most don't consider when Brady is under center. Perhaps they should.
"If there are two or three plays a game that you can make just moving the pocket, or sliding, or buying your receivers more time, or scrambling on third-and-2, it's just one more thing they have to defend," Brady said this week. "It's nice to be able to do that, because I think it's a little discouraging for a defense when they feel like they've got you covered or they've got the right call on it and all of a sudden -- I mean, I don't think they're preparing for me scrambling for first downs. I know they're not working on that. That's not one of their top 10 things on their hit list, so I think it's pretty discouraging when it happens, and hopefully we can keep it going."
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NEW YORK GIANTS: Cruz defying odds in his rebirth. Before Giants players departed the locker room Tuesday for their bye week, Victor Cruz told me he feels great physically and is back to 100 percent. Which is remarkable, considering he missed the past season and a half with injuries and was no lock to make it to this year's season opener when a groin injury cost him two weeks in training camp.
Cruz (24 receptions, 331 yards, one TD) is part of a Giants offense that has underperformed -- their scoring average is down a touchdown per game compared to 2015 -- but he has made clutch catches and is a valuable leader on what is otherwise a young receiving corps.
"I can't help but smile, just thinking about how far I've come," Cruz said, "and to be at this point now is just a beautiful thing."
There is vindication.
"I feel like every week I line up and suit up, I'm proving the doubters wrong. And every time I line up or make a play or catch a football, whatever the case may be, I feel like I'm proving people wrong. And I just want to continue that."
Revamped defense proving clutch. Last year, the Giants' defense was a disaster. As you've probably heard, they lost five games they led in the final two minutes of the fourth quarter.
This year, the Giants' defense -- supplemented by a $200 million investment in free agency -- has been, in a word, clutch. Six of the Giants' seven games have been decided by no more than seven points; their margin of victory in their wins is a combined 18 points. In three of their four wins, the defense made plays -- including Dominique Rodgers-Cromartie's interception of Case Keenum last Sunday in London -- to end, or effectively end, the game.
"We're definitely starting to click and play a lot better," DRC said. "We still have a lot of mistakes that we have to get corrected. Once we do that, it's going to be special."
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The question is, for how long?
If social media and sports talk radio are any indication, there is some sentiment among fans that the Jets should see what they have at quarterback if this is, indeed, a lost season.
Fitzpatrick is playing on what is essentially a one-year contract -- the second year will void days after the Super Bowl -- and he has yet to find the magic he had last year in setting a franchise record with 31 touchdown passes. This year? His passer rating is 32nd (66.4) and he has yet to throw a TD in the second half of a game. (Think about that.)
His entire response: "Big picture? No."
Bowles went on to say he is "trying to win some ball games and get in the playoffs."
As for playing for the future, "We're not at that point. We're not even close to that point."
It's only October and the season is not yet lost. But unless the Jets put together a significant winning streak, Bowles knows those questions aren't likely to end.
"You see it all of time in college, but on this level, you don't see it in the pro game," Bowles said. "For him to do that ... is pretty impressive."
Pryor leads Cleveland in targets (63), receptions (35), receiving yards (431) and receiving TDs (3). His 63 targets are 23 more than any other Browns player (tight end Gary Barnidge is second with 40).
"He's tough because he's all over the place," Bowles said. "Obviously, he's a great receiver, but he's still a good quarterback, as well, and he can play running back if they wanted him to. You've got to know where he is on the field."
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PITTSBURGH STEELERS: Green making progress.Steelers quarterback Ben Roethlisberger wasn't the only notable name to return to practice Tuesday before the Steelers broke for their Week 8 bye. Even more intriguing was the appearance by Ladarius Green, the tight end who signed with the Steelers as a free agent this offseason and practiced for the first time since joining the team in March.
The circumstances of the protracted absence by Green, who was to replace the retired Heath Miller, have been a bit murky. His initial absence from offseason training and minicamp was no surprise, given that he had ankle surgery before he signed his contract. But Green was put on the PUP list when training camp began while he dealt with recurring headaches, as NFL.com's Aditi Kinkhabwala reported in August. He was then put on the regular-season PUP list.
Green said after the practice he felt rusty, although he participated through the entire practice and said he caught passes from all three Steelers quarterbacks -- Roethlisberger, Landry Jones and Zach Mettenberger. He remains on the PUP list, but now that he has practiced, the team's 21-day window to decide whether to activate him or leave him on the PUP for the season has begun.
Green also was available to practice last week, but coach Mike Tomlin opted to wait to start the window. There is a chance Green could be activated in time to face the Ravens in Week 9, which would give Green just six practices before his first game action. He thought that was plenty of time.
If Green is able to face the Ravens, Roethlisberger hopes he can join him. His practice Tuesday came just eight days after he had arthroscopic surgery to clean up a torn meniscus in his left knee. He spent Sunday's game against the Patriots on the bench tutoring Jones between series, and he appeared to be walking well after the game. Roethlisberger participated in individual drills and threw passes on Tuesday.
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"It's competitive in nature," Orakpo said earlier in the week. "It really brings out the best in everybody. It's going to bring out the best in all three of us if we just have some type of way to get the most sacks. So if I see Casey or Morgan with a sack already, it's going to put more pressure on me to get one and kind of make everybody more competitive."
One wonders if Casey and Morgan knew that Orakpo had led his team or tied for the team lead in sacks in five of his seven seasons entering 2016. Orakpo is on pace for a career-best 16.0 sacks. Meanwhile, Morgan has 5.5 (after adding one in Thursday night's blowout win over the Jaguars) and Casey has 3.0.
"Things are clicking," Orakpo said. "We're just clicking. The chemistry is huge -- the camaraderie, guys playing for one another, for their brother next to them -- is huge. I think that pays dividends, when you can really trust the guy next to you in the front end, the back end; everybody is just playing together and playing as one."
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"I like America," the 24-year-old said, with a smile and a shrug both, unaware how lucky he was to not have to stand in a State Department Passport Agency (the team facilitated the passport application process for roughly half its players in advance of this Sunday's game in London, against the Bengals) -- and how much he might end up liking Great Britain. Because for Kelley, an undrafted free agent out of Tulane, this could potentially be his first NFL start.
Kelley has been Washington's third back, but starter Matt Jones didn't practice Wednesday or Thursday after showing up to team headquarters with some soreness in his knee. (UPDATE: After publishing, Jones was officially ruled out of Sunday's game.) Head coach Jay Gruden said Kelley -- with his 6-foot, 228-pound frame -- is better suited to being an every-down back than third-down specialist Chris Thompson, who has a slighter build (5-8, 195). He also said the team needs Thompson in the role he currently fills.
Kelley said he can handle a 30-carry day "if that's what's asked of me." And really, even if Jones is healthy, Kelley might be in line for more carries. He's averaging better than 7 yards per rush in limited action over the last three games, and Jones, a second-year pro out of Florida, has again been struggling with ball security. Jones coughed up a costly fumble in the loss to Detroit on Sunday, and he's had eight (with six lost) in his 20-game career. Gruden, however, did not speak as if Jones were in line for a benching, and left tackle Trent Williams said neither the team nor Jones himself has any reason to doubt the back.
"He's a football player. Everybody goes through tough times," Williams said. "A lot of people perform better when faced with adversity."
Whitner fitting in just fine. Sometimes answering the questions are just plain easy.
Wednesday, as Washington head coach Jay Gruden stood at a podium for his daily remarks, he was first told veteran safety Donte Whitner played every defensive snap in Sunday's loss. Then he was asked if that meant Whitner was his starter.
"If he played every snap, I guess," Gruden said to laughs. Then, laughing himself, he said, "Hard for me to say no."
All about the ring. Washington quarterback Kirk Cousins had the opportunity to extoll the virtues of marriage -- and earn some brownie points from his wife -- after being asked about the rubber wedding band he's been sporting this season. He fielded a full four questions on the accessory ("Do your teammates have them, too?" "What about your wife?"), talked in more detail about the bands than any other topic ("They make a good product," he said) and put together a very good audition to become a pitchman for the company that manufactures the rings ("Qalo makes them ... I've worn them in black, white, camo -- they've got them all. So check them out online," he said). At the end of it all, he proved why he is regularly described as a very heady and intelligent quarterback.
"Happy wife, happy life," Cousins said. "It makes her happy, so I'm going to keep wearing it."