As we turn to Week 5 of the 2017 season, NFL.com's network of reporters collects the hottest news and notes from across the league, including:
-- How a rash of injuries could actually benefit Green Bay.
THOUSAND OAKS, Calif. -- The feel-good 3-1 start to the Rams' second season after their return to Los Angeles is vastly different from the mirage of a 3-1 start last season that led to a 4-12 finish.
Players who've gone through both say what they've established to this point in 2017 feels real -- and also that they've established more of a foundation for better things to come.
"Last year, we won three early, but we escaped three games," defensive lineman Michael Brockers said this week, referring to wins that were secured by a combined margin of 15 points. "Now, we know if we keep tightening up little things, like giving up some big plays and a few other things, we can beat teams by 14 points."
The tone for L.A.'s hot start and, maybe more importantly, points henceforth has been set by first-year head coach Sean McVay, players say. He's been described as poised, but in maniacal mental motion -- calmly plotting while generating a buy-in from players that has created a belief in his methods and goals.
McVay's offensive play designs, which lead to multiple skill players touching the ball, have fostered unselfishness. That unselfishness, combined with upgrades in talent and the excitement of it all, has led players to willingly execute fine details and then some, guard Rodger Saffold said.
What broke down the barrier between Will this work? and We trust that it will is simple:
"Being able to score makes all the difference," Saffold said. "When you get on the board over and over, it gets you more excited. It makes you eager to see what's coming next, because you know you can prove it all over again."
Sounds cliché and basic, right? Through the first four weeks of the season, the Ramsled the NFL in scoring with 142 points. Last season, they scored 224 points in 16 games. That means they've scored just 82 fewer points in one quarter of this season than they did in the entirety of their first season back in Los Angeles.
Oh, and in going 3-1 to start last season, the Rams scored just 63 points. More than doubling last year's first-quarter total is another reason things with this team feel more legit.
But no one is jumping for joy, in large part due to McVay. He's managed to keep players in the moment, because he's not handing out mental participation trophies or offering high praise.
There is no denying that second-year quarterback Jared Goff, whom McVay was hired to make flourish, is flourishing. The first overall pick of the 2016 NFL Draft has completed 78 of 117 passes for 1,072 yards, seven touchdowns and just one interception. Compare that to Goff's totals last season: In seven appearances, he completed 112 of 205 passes for 1,089 yards, five touchdowns and seven interceptions.
Here's McVay on his prized pupil: "You look at the way [Goff] is just managing the game. I think that anytime you're able to take care of the football like he has in three out of the four games, get the ball to playmakers -- we're getting a lot of guys involved in the pass game, and we're not taking a lot of sacks, which I think is also a good credit to the quarterback."
Goff is a game manager? Normally, that's a back-handed condemnation of a quarterback. Yes, it's less severe than the criticism thrown at Goff coming into the season, like the talk that he was a bust, which counted as straight-forward condemnation. But to see a statement like "You look at the way he's just managing the game" as a positive?
Baby steps. Goff and the Rams are a work in progress, and McVay just made sure we all know that -- progress being the operative word.
Goff acknowledges that he's not close to being a finished product. He's still developing. So is the offense. But to not be impressed by what's happened and what could continue to blossom would be naïve.
The Rams have been able to run the ball, and Goff has gotten better going through passing-route progressions and reading defenses, McVay said. That means he's getting time to throw behind an offensive line that is vastly improved via personnel, scheme and highly respected position coach Aaron Kromer, according to players and general manager Les Snead.
There also is a fleet of receiving options now that Sammy Watkins (acquired via trade), Robert Woods (signed in free agency) and Cooper Kupp (drafted in Round 3) have replaced last season's entire wideout group. McVay also has started to figure out how to use confounding gadget weapon Tavon Austin, mainly as a runner, not receiver.
The most prolific pass-catching option, though, has been running back Todd Gurley, who leads the team in receptions (20), receiving yards (234) and receiving touchdowns (3). Gurley's also gashing opponents on the ground (86 carries, 362 yards, four touchdowns).
The offensive dots are connecting because L.A. now has receivers and a quarterback who are getting respect, meaning defenses can't stack the box against Gurley. That's opened up running lanes for him. When teams opt to stack the defensive front, Goff has taken advantage in the passing game.
"Having the confidence with him has helped a lot," Goff said of Gurley being a receiving option. "It's relieving when I get through my progression and see him wide open. It's like, Ahhh, here we go. It's an easy one. It's just trying to go through the progressions, continue to learn, continue to get better and learn defenses."
Snead said Gurley's acceleration as a receiver isn't just scheme-based. Early in the offseason, McVay told Gurley that life as a running back is a lot easier when you're matched up with a linebacker or defensive back in open space than it is trying to plow through eight defenders at the line of scrimmage. Snead said Gurley -- who struggled last season after winning the Offensive Rookie of the Year award in 2015 -- spent an inordinate amount of time working on route running and catching the ball, embracing the option that is now bearing production.
"Going through what we went through last season made Todd and all of us realize that we have to get better," Snead said. "Todd set out to prove it. Run better, run routes well, protect and wear down defenses. He's in his element now."
NOTES FROM AROUND THE REST OF THE LEAGUE
"This was a big character win for us," Aaron Rodgers said after his team beat the Bears with guards playing tackle on the offensive line and, eventually, with third-string running back Aaron Jones getting the first carries of his NFL career. "I'm really proud of those guys, the way that they battled. ... It's been a no-excuses policy. Next guy up's got to play and play well, and they've been doing it."
If the Packers can get healthy later in the year, the feeling is that they'll have championship-caliber depth developed with actual and successful playing experience, something they say will benefit them in December and January when they expect to be playing in their ninth straight postseason.
* * * * *
HOUSTON TEXANS: How Watson and Fuller got in sync. Quarterback Deshaun Watson was named AFC Offensive Player of the Week last week after a five-touchdown performance (four passing, one rushing) in Houston's trouncing of the Titans. Watson's five touchdowns tied for the second-most TDs scored by a rookie in NFL history (behind Gale Sayers' six in 1965) and tied for the most touchdowns in a game by a rookie quarterback.
One would assume it would be difficult for Watson, who wasn't getting starter reps during camp, and Fuller, who had missed so much time, to get on the same page. Coach Bill O'Brien explained how the two found a way:
"I give our training staff credit. [Fuller's] been able to do some drills behind the scenes. He wasn't cleared to practice or anything, but he could run routes, and Deshaun would be there with him, right here in the stadium after hours, so to speak, and throwing routes with him. So, it wasn't like the first time that they had ever thrown, and Deshaun threw with him quite a bit before he got injured in OTAs and obviously the beginning of training camp."
* * * * *
JACKSONVILLE JAGUARS: Figuring out Fournette. Jacksonville coach Doug Marrone was extremely frank in the aftermath of last Sunday's overtime loss to the Jets, when his rookie dynamo, Leonard Fournette, did not touch the ball on any of three plays after the Jaguars found themselves with a first-and-goal from the Jets' 6-yard line. It was close to the end of regulation, Fournette had just had a would-be go-ahead touchdown negated by a flag, and he'd opened the game with a 10-yard touchdown reception.
"It's not an exact science, but one we keep working on," Marrone said.
Fournette had 28 touches in the game, finishing with 24 rushes (for 86 yards) and four receptions (for 59 yards). He logged just 39 offensive plays, though, and 33-year-old veteran Marcedes Lewis -- who called Fournette "a small tank" -- said there shouldn't be any worry about wearing out the 22-year-old.
"I'd like to get the ball to him more," Lewis said. "He's ridiculous, a little beast."
* * * * *
"Obviously, he has that ability to make the big play in the run game, which is difficult to do, but he also is methodical throughout the game," Texans defensive lineman J.J. Watt said this week. "He's consistent throughout the entire game. He has a lot of yards in the second half, which is impressive, as well."
Watt is right. Hunt gets better as games go on. The third-round pick has more rushing yards in the second halves of games this season (372) than any other player has total. Hunt averages 8.3 yards per carry in the second half compared to 5.7 in the first half through four games. He also averages more yards per carry as each quarter passes, and in the fourth quarter, he's averaging 9.2 yards per carry. Combine that with the fact that Hunt has more carries in the fourth quarter (26) than in any other quarter this season, and it's easy to see what a closer he is.
* * * * *
Bell had 186 total yards Sunday in Baltimore: 144 rushing and 42 receiving on 39 total touches. From the first snap, the Steelers were committed to the ground game, unlike in any of their other three games so far, carrying the ball on 10 of the 15 plays before their opening field goal, one that would set a lead they would not relinquish.
Coach Mike Tomlin said afterward Bell's touches -- 17 more than Bell averaged in his three previous games -- were by a very conscious design. The Ravens boast an opportunistic defense, one that had eight interceptions in its first two games, and Steelers quarterback Ben Roethlisberger has struggled with sharpness in Baltimore recently (before Sunday, he hadn't won there since 2010).
Still, the Steelers have had success when Bell is near the ball a significant percentage of the time. If he has 30 or more touches, the Steelers are 9-1. If he has 24 or less, the Steelers are 14-13. And that is not simply a function of him running out big leads into wins (and padded stats); Bell has been Roethlisberger's No. 2 target for well over a year now.
Center Maurkice Pouncey thinks Bell "hit the hole harder" this past weekend, and Bell didn't disagree. He said there may indeed have been a bit more decisiveness, as well as forcefulness, in his approach this past Sunday. Tomlin shut down talk of his game readiness three weeks ago (after his long offseason holdout), but Bell this week had no trouble acknowledging that he's "more ready now."
* * * * *
SEATTLE SEAHAWKS: Baldwin on backing protest with action. When I spoke to Seahawks receiver Doug Baldwin in the preseason -- shortly after Michael Bennett announced he'd be protesting during the national anthem the rest of the year to continue the dialogue about racial injustice and inequality -- he said that, while he and his teammates supported Bennett, the team remained focused on taking action to back the meaning of protest demonstrations. And last week, when the Seahawks players announced they'd launched an Equality and Justice for All Action Fund, we saw the vision of that focus realized.
And what was the response in the first 48 hours or so since the announcement?
"The support has been unbelievable," he said. "I don't know if I'm allowed to officially announce numbers, but it's a very significant amount right now, so we're extremely excited about that."