With Week 10 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 an emerging problem across the NFL landscape ...
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The week began with the Minnesota Vikings working out placekickers, the least surprising development of a season that has cast the loneliest position in football in an even harsher spotlight.
The struggles of Blair Walsh, the Vikings' veteran kicker, have been on display since he missed what would have been the game-winning 27-yard field goal against Seattle in the wild-card round of the NFC playoffs last season. In last weekend's overtime loss to the Lions, Walsh missed an extra point and had a field-goal try blocked, giving him a total of seven missed kicks (three extra points, four field goals) just halfway through the season. In his four previous regular seasons, he had never missed more than nine kicks in a season.
Walsh didn't lose his job this week, and while he appears to be struggling with the finer points of his mechanics, he is just the most visible example of a dramatic skid among kickers this season. Through Week 9, kickers have made just 83.3 percent of their field-goal attempts (the lowest mark since 2011) and 95.3 percent of their extra-point attempts (second-lowest since 2011). Strangely, according to NFL Network research, kickers are struggling with field goals both short (they have a 94.2 percent success rate from 20 to 29 yards, the lowest since 2002) and long (51.2 percent success rate from 50 yards or longer, lowest since 2007), while the percentage from 30 to 39 yards (93.7) is the best since 2011. The more high-pressure the situation, the worse kickers are performing. They have made just 50 percent of field goals in overtime this season, which would be the lowest percentage since 1991, and they have made just 25 percent of field-goal attempts from 35 yards and under in overtime, also the lowest figure since 1991.
Most discouraging of all: The weather hasn't even turned against kickers yet.
But the rules did.
Jay Feely, the former kicker, and Mike Westhoff, the former special teams coach who now consults for college teams, share the belief that the seemingly innocuous decision to lengthen the extra-point kick in 2015 has had a domino effect, discombobulating the routines and confidence levels of kickers so much that it is affecting every kick they take.
"My rationale, and it's backed up by current kickers I've talked to, is the change to the extra point is having a cumulative effect," Feely said. "Each kick you miss, the pressure builds. The extra point was basically in-game practice; you could get back in a groove kicking extra points, you could just focus on your form because you would never miss them. Now, you can miss them, and if you miss, it's an even bigger deal than if you miss a field goal. Now there's even more pressure. It has a big effect on your psyche and your ability to block out all the pressure."
Feely points to two kickers who have struggled this season after high-profile misses. The Patriots' normally-reliable Stephen Gostkowski, who missed an extra point in the AFC Championship Game last January, has missed three field goals and two extra points this season. And Buccaneers rookie Roberto Aguayo, for whom Tampa Bay moved up in the second round of the draft, has missed two extra points and five field goals amid scrutiny that was already elevated because of his lofty draft position.
The news is not all terrible. Detroit's Matt Prater, who has missed an extra point and three field goals this season, hit a 58-yard field goal at the end of regulation to force overtime against the Vikings last Sunday. But only two kickers have managed to entirely resist the pressure: Indianapolis' ageless Adam Vinatieri and Baltimore's Justin Tucker, who are both perfect on field-goal attempts and extra points this season. Matt Bryant, the Falcons' 41-year-old kicker, is 31 of 31 on extra points and 20 of 21 on field-goal tries. Bryant said he has always approached every kick the same. Even before the extra point was lengthened, Bryant imagined them as 50-yard field goals so the kick would feel the same way, no matter the length. He still uses extra points to prepare himself for field goals, although there have been games when the 33-yard extra point was his longest kick of the day. He does not want to speculate about what is bothering other kickers.
"Sometimes guys will, on shorter kicks, they may let up on it, treat it like a shorter kick," Bryant said. "For me, if I were to treat a shorter kick like a shorter kick, if I don't rip at it, I'm doing something I'm not used to doing. That's speaking for me. Did it make our jobs harder? Sure it did. Nobody wants to do anything harder. But once they did it, it's part of the game, it's part of your job description, so just go out there and do it."
The longer extra point is certainly not going anywhere. Its failure rate has made the kick a must-see event, and even Feely, who initially opposed the change, now likes it because it has made the extra point more compelling. So it is incumbent on kickers to adapt and adjust. When Westhoff coached, he said, he did everything he could to prepare his kickers mentally for the challenge, including standing directly next to them when they were practicing kicks. And Westhoff wonders if the premium placed on scoring when more games are closer than ever -- there have been 99 games within one score in the fourth quarter through Week 9, the most such games in the first nine weeks of any season in NFL history -- only exacerbates the pressure on kickers.
"All of a sudden, that role is really crucial, more than I can ever remember," Westhoff said. "Now you throw additional pressure on there, you start to add all these things together, it makes for a little bit of trouble. There's ebbs and flows to this. It's not going to go away any time shortly."
And now, the rest of this week's notes from NFL.com's reporters:
"It's frustrating, because as a running back, fullback, it's my job to protect Cam and (running back) Jonathan (Stewart), and you can only do so much when he's getting hit like that, and it's not only my job to protect him, but it's also the NFL's job. They preach player safety, but stuff like this happens two, three weeks in a row, but no ramifications come from it. It's ridiculous, but Cam's a grown man; he's going to deal with the hits and everything the way he sees fit, and we'll do the same."
Tolbert says he didn't see an improvement in the situation last Sunday following Newton's conversation with Commissioner Roger Goodell last week about the hits -- "Nope. Not at all," -- and "absolutely" thinks Newton was right to address the situation publicly.
"He stated the way he felt, you know, and that's how he needed to do it. ... If you look at the guy, he's had a concussion this year already because he's taken a hit to the head; some people may say he's flamboyant and celebrates too much and that's what he gets, but you can't knock the guy for being the type of player he is. Everybody deserves protection, whether you like them or not."
"It's a touchy subject, just because Cam is a big guy," Johnson said. "I know Cam views himself as a quarterback. We view him as a quarterback, too, but he's the biggest quarterback and the fastest quarterback. He's bigger than linebackers and faster than linebackers, so to say that ... Are we more aggressive on him? Probably so, just because you have to put more energy into getting him down. And when he gets out of the pocket, then he can really hurt you with his feet. If you can affect him, you can have success on that team; if you can't affect Cam, then you can't have success beating that offense."
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DALLAS COWBOYS: The latest on Romo's return.Tony Romo has been cleared to practice, but he will not be the starter this Sunday in Pittsburgh. Dak Prescott is still getting the work in with the 1s, but Romo did do enough in practice Wednesday to be listed as a "full participant" on the team's official practice report.
Jason Garrett told me that Romo is "champing at the bit" to get back, but reminded us that it's been 50 weeks -- nearly a year -- since he started a regular-season game. Romo remains day to day and Garrett would not definitively say if Romo would be active this weekend should the team need him; the quarterback's status was listed as questionable for the game on Friday's practice report.
As for if the team has had any conversations with the incumbent quarterback, Garrett said they continue to take it day by day: "He's worked really hard in his rehab to get himself back to this point. He's had good days of practice over the last couple of weeks -- hopefully that continues this week."
Romo, by the way, returned to quarterback meetings last week, according to Garrett.
Sanchez embracing new role. Backup quarterback Mark Sanchez, now with his fourth team in eight years, had an interesting take on the quarterback situation in Dallas.
"It's a good problem to have, it's a good problem to have," Sanchez said of all the quarterbacks in the meeting room now. "The way things are going, we just keep our focus on the next opponent, everybody understands their role as the week plays out, and then we all have the same goal -- we want to go win. Whether you're on the field, whether you're taking reps in practice, doing scout team or breaking down film like Kellen [Moore] does for coaches for projects for the next couple weeks ... It doesn't matter. Winning is good for everybody. That's the goal.
"The best part I've seen is there hasn't been any cracks in that. There hasn't been anybody with that sour attitude or anything. Listen, we gotta go win. That's it. 'What's my role this week? Cool. Let's go.' This is definitely unique. There's a ton of experience in that room. I think that's really helping Dak (Prescott), and I think he's growing by the second. He's getting smarter and smarter. He's just growing by leaps and bounds every week."
Sanchez did admit that, while he's competitive and wants the ball as much as anyone would, he has tried to mentor Prescott the same way Mark Brunell mentored him in New York with the Jets.
"There's a professionalism, there's a respect in this locker room. What would I want to hear? What did I capitalize on? What did I miss?" said Sanchez, who was also a rookie starter when he played for the Jets. " 'I don't want to cloud your head, but from my experience, I can't tell you what to do, but I can tell you what happened to me.' "
Sanchez said Brunell was big on body language and footwork, while also helping him appreciate the milestone moments in a young career. Brunell made sure Sanchez soaked in his win, in overtime, on the road against Detroit his second year in the league. He said he made sure Prescott did the same after the overtime win at home over the Eagles.
"You better take a few minutes after every game," Sanchez said. "Just relax, soak it all in, enjoy it. I made sure to tell Dak that the other night (after the comeback overtime win over Philadelphia): 'Bro, you don't understand what you just did; you have no clue yet. It won't even register with you until years down the line. And you need to enjoy this and then forget about it and move on and have a good week next week.' "
Rookie Ezekiel Elliott also weighed in on the idea of multiple quarterbacks in Dallas, comparing it to his sophomore year at Ohio State, when the team won a national championship in a year that saw three different starters at the position.
"Whenever you have multiple guys that compete at a high level, that's nothing but a plus," Elliott said.
"He's fantastic, he's a great player ... big and strong, hard to get down," Prescott said. "Definitely one of my favorite quarterbacks, I guess you could say, in the league."
Roethlisberger and Prescott have the two highest rookie winning percentages in NFL history (with a minimum of eight starts). Roethlisberger went 13-0 in 2004. Prescott is 7-1.
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KANSAS CITY CHIEFS: Looking back on an epic turnaround. After starting 1-5, Carolina has won two in a row. As the Panthers work to turn their season around, they need only look at the team across the field from them Sunday for inspiration. Last year's Kansas City Chiefs began the season 1-5 before reeling off 10 straight wins en route to securing a playoff berth.
"It's an example of starting slow and still having a chance, because you have the resiliency and high-character guys and high-caliber guys that can get the job done," Johnson said. "It's an example that when you lose early like that to not lose your confidence.
"When we came out of the storm, it was hard for the sun not to shine, really. After we got going, it was pretty cool."
"That's a great example of what Carolina needs to do. Hopefully not this week," Johnson said with a laugh, "but next week."
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MINNESOTA VIKINGS: Vowing to make the most of chances. After ripping off five straight wins to start the season, Minnesota has lost three in a row while making an unexpected change at offensive coordinator (with Pat Shurmur stepping in following Norv Turner's resignation heading into Week 9). And with the team mustering just 12 points per game during the losing streak, the Vikings don't believe they've capitalized on enough opportunities on either side of the ball -- particularly when it comes to producing points.
"We moved the ball, we were good in the run game, we were really good in protection, we were balanced, we got the ball out of Sam's (Bradford) hands, then we would just shoot ourselves in the foot when we had an opportunity to get points ... and I think that's the biggest thing that Pat (Shurmur) has stressed this week -- yards are great, but the bottom line is points."
On the other side of the ball, where the Vikings feature the NFL's No. 1 scoring unit, defensive end Brian Robison echoed similar sentiments, telling me, "the main thing that really sticks out is we're just not capitalizing on our opportunities, like we did in the first five games. When we get turnovers, we've definitely gotta put up some touchdowns." And it's certainly not for lack of effort, with Robison also telling me, "this is one of the hardest working defenses that I've ever been a part of."
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NEW ENGLAND PATRIOTS: Pats get backfield boost. With running back Dion Lewis seemingly set to return for the Patriots this weekend, let's not forget what kind of an offensive weapon he was for the team last year. Through six games (prior to tearing his ACL in his seventh game of the season), Lewis had 569 total yards from scrimmage. Over a full season, that projects to 1,517 yards, which would have been the most since Wes Welker's 1,599 in 2011 and the sixth most in a season for a Patriot ever.
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In explaining the Giants' overall improvement on defense in 2016 (more on that just below), Collins -- who has missed just five defensive snaps this season -- could have been talking about himself: "Everybody knows what they're doing. We're playing fast and we are not thinking."
In his second NFL season, Collins is the only player in the league to lead his team in tackles (69), sacks (3) and interceptions (3). Not only is Collins playing faster, he is faster this season.
At the 2015 NFL Scouting Combine, weighing in at 228, he ran a 4.53-second 40-yard dash. He claims he ran a 4.31 40 at Alabama when he weighed 215 pounds. These days? Collins is holding steady at 216 after giving up Oreos and fried foods and even forgoing Halloween candy.
Significantly, he is also emerging as a leader. After rookie first-round draft pick Eli Apple was benched Sunday, Collins said he understood his struggles and encouraged Apple to use him as a resource. Collins added: "Just keep your head up and keep pushing. We love you, regardless. You are our brother, regardless of what anyone says about you or people [criticizing] you, we will always protect you."
Free agency binge paying off. The Giants' $200 million free-agency investment in their defense is paying off. They have improved in every major category from 2015. Most significantly, New York is giving up 20.5 points per game compared to 27.6 last season. That difference, 7.1 points per game, ranks second in the NFL (to the Eagles' 8.8) in improvement from last season.
At critical moments last Sunday, New York got pressure on Carson Wentz, particularly with Jason Pierre-Paul and Olivier Vernon. Certainly, Wentz saw a lot of that duo; every Giants opponent does. Pierre-Paul (95.8 percent) and Vernon (91.2) own the highest defensive snap-count percentages among all defensive ends this season.
As for JPP, his 577 snaps lead all defensive ends. "I feel good, though," he told me. "If it was a problem, I would have stopped."
Still, the duo has combined for just 3.5 sacks in 2016.
Coaches eager for safety's return in 2017. Two games don't make for much of a sample size with which to analyze a rookie season, so the jury is still out on what kind of a player Giants safety Darian Thompson will be. But the Giants coaches are giddy about the kind of field coverage he displayed before suffering a foot injury that landed him on injured reserve and eventually the operating table.
One coach compared Thompson's field coverage to that of the Seahawks' Earl Thomas, who is able to go sideline to sideline from his center-field position as well as any safety in recent history. The Giants, then, will be eager to see how well Thompson can come back from Lisfranc surgery when the third-round pick returns next year.
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League studies have lent more attractiveness to the Bay Area because of market size and long-term financial stability, per a source. The issue is to come up with the funding for a new stadium in Oakland. Davis and city leaders seem at an impasse, but a person I have spoken with said the NFL is still trying to find ways to figure out how to keep the Raiders in Oakland. There are far more ways to monetize the NFL in the super-wealthy Bay Area than in Vegas, the source said.
But is there any way to get it done? From what I have been told -- and again, this plays to the Chargers' situation being prioritized -- the NFL is going to take its time figuring out what to do with the Raiders. If the Chargers do get a stadium in San Diego and the Raiders can't get anything done in Oakland, then the Raiders have an option to move to Los Angeles. I have been told owners really don't want that to happen and would then be far more accepting of a move to Las Vegas.
One source I spoke with made this very clear: The NFL does not want teams to move now that the Rams are in Los Angeles. Instead, it wants four stadiums in California (Oakland, San Diego, Los Angeles and Santa Clara).
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"Are you just practicing today? Or are you getting better?" Bell has asked teammates, both older and younger. The running back is in his fourth year in the NFL, but the 4-4 Steelers are underachieving by anyone's account, and as he said, "This is the time we have to turn it on."
Veteran left guard Ramon Foster said Bell -- who was suspended the first three games of the season for a violation of the league's substance abuse policy, and who dropped a rap song earlier this year -- has truly "put his money where his mouth is."
"He's been incredible this week, from his attention to detail in things like pass protection and the way he's demanding things of younger guys," Foster said. "I love it."
Bell has never been accused of loafing in practice, or working less than fully, but he said he hasn't played as well as he'd expect or his team needs. And therefore, he said this week, he's made a point to be even more exacting, both with himself and his teammates.
"There's nothing magical a coach can say [to turn a team]," he said. "It takes players to reach out to their teammates and help them get the urgency we need."
Pouncey's thumb dislocation won't keep him off the field.Steelers center Maurkice Pouncey dislocated his thumb on the hand he snaps and grips the ball with on Sunday. He had surgery Monday, and he fully expects to play this weekend against the Cowboys. In fact, in his words, he's "100 percent" playing.
"People are making it a bigger deal than it is," he said Thursday. "Let's just go play, man. We've got a football game."
Tight end finally healthy. Nothing will likely be official until 4 p.m. Saturday, but as Pittsburgh coach Mike Tomlin likes to say: The arrow is pointing upwards for Ladarius Green.
"I sure hope so," Green said Thursday, after his eighth official practice as a Pittsburgh Steeler. Green was signed to a four-year, $20 million contract in March, but he was held out of all organized team activities, minicamps and training camp and then opened the season on the PUP list --recovering from January ankle surgery and because of reoccurring headaches.
He's healthy now, and Tomlin said Green "had a really good week last week," and that "he's proven himself."
Thursday, offensive coordinator Todd Haley said he was impressed with Green's facility with the Steelers' playbook, especially since he hasn't actually gotten the practice reps until just now.
Still, Green was more measured, saying, "It's going to take more than practice for Ben to trust me."
Perhaps. And perhaps Sunday, he'll get the chance for "more."
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SAN DIEGO CHARGERS: What's next for the Bolts? The failure by voters to pass a measure in San Diego that would have helped publicly fund a new downtown stadium wasn't a surprise to anyone, since a two-thirds vote was needed -- and that is almost always impossible to attain. I was told by a source close to the situation pre-vote that if voters came close to a majority -- anywhere between 45-55 percent -- that would be a good sign that local politicians, the Chargers and NFL owners could find a way to figure out a stadium solution in San Diego.
Only 43 percent of voters signed off on using public funds for a downtown stadium.
Team owner Dean Spanos said the Chargers will wait until after the season to announce their future plans, which could include relocating to Los Angeles -- though that is something the Chargers, Rams and NFL owners do not want, according to multiple sources. During that lull, the Chargers and local politicians could try again to figure something out. The NFL very much will be involved, as well, doing what it can to get a stadium built in San Diego, a market it feels is quite viable and desirable.
If there can be no sign of hope to get something done in San Diego, then a move to L.A. could happen in the next few years. This will take time, which is why there isn't the panic that there was this time last year when a move to the L.A. suburb of Carson, California (which failed because owners opted to move the Rams from St. Louis to Inglewood) was on the table. Something could get done in San Diego. The Inglewood stadium that will house the Rams and possibly the Chargers won't open until at least 2019 -- and work has yet to seriously begin in constructing that project.
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WASHINGTON REDSKINS: Ready for a fight. The last time we saw the Redskins in action was in Week 8 across the pond, where they amassed 546 yards of total offense against the Bengals and still wound up tying. Washington received a chance to get its legs back with a much-needed bye in Week 9 after returning from that unsettling outcome in London.
The Redskins are not overlooking the reeling Vikings ahead of Sunday's matchup. Linebacker Will Compton expressed great respect for the incoming NFC foe. "The numbers we look at, is they were undefeated for a while at the beginning of the season -- they've dropped a few now -- so I know that have a huge sense of urgency in that building -- a huge chip on their shoulder trying to prove they're still who everybody thought they were in the beginning of the year," he said. "So we're gonna get their best effort this weekend."
Redskins coach Jay Gruden has had one simple, overriding message for his football team in preparation this week: Come out swinging. Compton relayed that message, saying, "we'll come out ready to play, come Sunday."