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Saints' resilience, Steelers' struggles among trends defining '19

You know it's 2019 when the Saints win a rejuvenating road game because of special teams, fourth-down defense and an MVP-level performance from someone not named Drew Brees.

Running back Alvin Kamara is an alien sent to our land to test the boundaries of balance, power and resourcefulness in our most popular sport. His ability to stiff-arm, go limp and escape while running through the tackle attempts of defensive behemoths like Jadeveon Clowney keyed New Orleans' victory in Seattle on Sunday, with Kamara gaining 161 of the team's 265 total yards.

This was the first Saints win in a game started by someone other than Brees at quarterback since Aaron Brooks called the Alamo Dome and Tiger Stadium home for a season in 2005. New Orleans' offense admittedly looked a bit like those dark pre-Sean Payton years. Brees' backup, Teddy Bridgewater, has been at the helm for two of Payton's nine lowest offensive yardage totals ever -- in successive weeks. On Sunday, Bridgewater failed to throw a single pass that traveled more than 15 yards in the air. This road win against a Pete Carroll-coached Seahawks squad that hadn't lost a September home game in Carroll's 10-year Seattle tenure bought New Orleans time while Brees recovers from a thumb injury that required surgery. The 2-1 Saints lead the NFC South by a game, and Payton probably only needs to stay at .500 or above with Bridgewater to remain the favorite. If the Saints stay even, they are leaving in the NFC South race when Brees returns, buoyed by a running back unlike any I've seen before.

In this edition of the Debrief, I'll run through more Week 3 developments that are VERY 2019:

1) New starting quarterbacks are raising expectations.Giants rookie Daniel Jones and Panthers second-year quarterback Kyle Allen both ranked among the top four quarterbacks in QBR in Week 3. Allen, who was equally sharp in Carolina's win over the Cardinals on Sunday as he was against a Saints team in Week 17 last year that played its starters for a half, has now thrown six touchdowns with no picks in his two NFL starts, averaging over 9.2 yards per attempt. Whether you are undrafted out of Houston (Allen), taken sixth overall from Duke (Jones) or taken No. 178 out of Washington State, like Jaguars rookie Gardner Minshew (7.9 yards per attempt and a 5:1 TD-to-INT rate in three appearances this season), these quarterbacks are proving it's possible to find early success if their coaches meet them halfway.

Sundays look more like Saturdays than they ever have before when it comes to offensive concepts, playing out of shotgun and spreading out opponents. That is undeniably reducing the learning curve for young quarterbacks. The quick success also puts more of a target on teams like the Bears, Jets and Steelers, who can't seem to move the ball regardless of who is throwing it ...

2) The Steelers have no passing attack. While Pittsburgh's defense eventually caved in Santa Clara, the five turnovers the Steelers created should have been enough to pull off a road upset against the San Francisco 49ers. In his first NFL start at quarterback, Mason Rudolphonly completed two passes that traveled more than 1 yard downfield on Sunday, according The Associated Press, which counts as the fewest in any game since a gnarly week of Tebowmania. Both of those Rudolph passes went for touchdowns, but that's no way to survive a season without Ben Roethlisberger. It's not like the Steelers were much better with Big Ben, who was 30th in QBR and 26th in Football Outsiders' DVOA efficiency metric before suffering a season-ending elbow injury in Week 2.

Pittsburgh's offensive line hasn't been the same without position coach Mike Munchak, who is in Denver after five seasons working with the Steelers' O-line. The Steelers benched receivers Donte Moncrief and Ryan Switzer in favor of youngsters James Washington and Diontae Johnson on Sunday, but that didn't do the trick. James Conner isn't running with the same clarity he did as Le'Veon Bell's fill-in in 2018. One week into Mike Tomlin's biggest test as a head coach, the Steelers are still looking for answers. Then again, Rudolph had a tricky first matchup ...

3) The 49ers' defense is winning games by itself. Give general manager John Lynch and Kyle Shanahan credit for sticking with defensive coordinator Robert Saleh after a rough first two years on the job, and for building a defense that can dominate for stretches. The Niners have faced three lackluster offensive opponents (Tampa, Cincinnati and Pittsburgh) and they handled all three in a manner the San Francisco defenses of 2017-18 could never have dreamed of. They rank in the top five teams in yards-per-drive allowed and points-per-drive allowed, all while ranking second in turnovers forced, with seven.

Even with rookie Nick Bosa and offseason acquisition Dee Ford only combining for 55 defensive snaps on Sunday, the edge rushers have transformed the team. The linebacker group is anchored by frenzied free agent linebacker Kwon Alexander, who shows no ill effects from the torn ACL he suffered a year ago. Fourth-year defensive tackle Ronald Blair is in the process of making the leap. So is third-year cornerback Ahkello Witherspoon, despite suffering a foot sprain that's expected to sideline him for at least a month. Veteran cornerback Richard Sherman already ranks as one of the best free agent values of the last few years, which is remarkable, considering his pedigree. DeForest Buckner remains the best player on the defense. I don't expect the 49ers' defensive dominance to continue at this level when they face better teams, but they've improved from one of the league's worst units to one that turned two sloppy outings from the 49ers' offense (Weeks 1 and 3) into a pair of wins. Only the Packers' defense has improved more this year.

4) The Ravens have no pass-rush juice. Matthew Judon is that dude in Baltimore who blows up during a contract year before finding riches elsewhere. Pernell McPhee was once that dude, and he's now back as a starter, with the Ravens unable to identify anyone besides Judon who can get to the pass rusher. Every defense looks bad against the Chiefs, but on Sunday, this group missed offseason departures Terrell Suggs and Za'Darius Smith, in addition to former linebacker C.J. Mosley. The lack of pressure has exposed a few coverage busts in the Ravens' secondary, and the generally lackluster play defending the slot. Safety Earl Thomas appeared to be victimized by Chiefs play-caller Andy Reid on rookie receiver Mecole Hardman's 83-yard touchdown. Even without left tackle Eric Fisher, the Chiefs' offensive line gave Patrick Mahomes all the time he needed against a defense that has a long way to go to live up to the organization's standards.

5) Patrick Mahomes is yelling a lot. CBS broadcaster Dan Fouts recounted a story during Sunday's Chiefs-Ravens telecast in which he jokingly told Mahomes' mom that her son was "too nice." That may be growing into a stale take, because the Chiefs' quarterback's comfort level is allowing him to take charge of the offense in new ways coming off his MVP-winning first season as the starter. He spent early portions of Sunday's game directing his line and forcibly trying to correct their protection mistakes. He (correctly) got on coach Andy Reid for indecision during a two-minute drill.

This is the next step in Mahomes' bullet train-like maturation process. He knows where his hot receivers are faster than he did a year ago. He goes through his progressions faster. He throws with better anticipation and directs his teammates more. In terms of physical skills and sustained success, he's playing quarterback at a higher level than I've seen since I started covering the sport in 2003. This is really not that hot a take.

6) Deshaun Watson received great pass protection. This is a Week 3 development more than a sustained 2019 trend, but the performance of the Texans' offensive line against the Chargers on Sunday is understandably the talk of Houston. By some metrics, Watson faced the lowest rate of pressure of any game in his entire three-year career. The Texans moved Tytus Howard to right tackle, Max Scharping to left guard and added Roderick Johnson as an extra blocking tight end at times. They communicated better, and Watson generally got rid of the ball faster, without sacrificing his improvisational ability.

This is the tao of Deshaun. He's always going to hold the ball longer -- not unlike Seahawks quarterback Russell Wilson -- because that's so often when he does his best work, like on the crucial touchdown to Jordan Akins in Sunday's win. This approach results in more sacks and more big plays, a trade-off the Texans will gladly take, if Watson protects the ball and his body. Watson and his offensive line lived in that harmonious sweet spot throughout the second half Sunday.

7) Vic Fangio hasn't maximized Von Miller and Bradley Chubb in Denver. The disappearance of the Broncos' pass rush in their first year with defensive maestro Vic Fangio at head coach is one of the most mystifying elements of the season. So far in 2019, Denver has a total of three quarterback hits, no sacks and no turnovers. Meanwhile, Von Miller and Bradley Chubb's former backup, Shaquil Barrett, has eight sacks on his own in Tampa under coordinator Todd Bowles. Miller may be the best run-defending outside linebacker in football, but that's not why he's going to the Hall of Fame someday. The excuse through two games centered around opposing quarterbacks getting rid of the ball quickly. That wasn't the case against Green Bay in Week 3's loss to the Packers. Perhaps the Broncos coach is better when he calls plays from the booth. Maybe there's a good reason so few head coaches have called defensive plays in recent years. It may be too hard to do it all.


Kamara is the logical winner of this most excellent weekly honor after showing off his unique brilliance Sunday:

Kamara also generated more yards per touch (6.6) than nine different quarterbacks managed per pass attempt in Week 3.

HONORABLE MENTIONS: It feels like the entire Chargers' passing attack consists of Philip Rivers making a play with pressure in his face to Keenan Allen, and yet, they still keep getting it done. Allen finished with 13 catches for 183 yards and two scores against Houston and now leads the NFL with 29 catches and 404 yards. No other receiver is within 93 yards. Another performance I loved in Week 3 came from Panthers rookie pass rusher Brian Burns, who recorded a sack, two QB hits, a tackle for loss and three hurries against Arizona. Burns looked like he belonged in Week 1 and gets better every week.

Unstoppable Performance is presented by Courtyard by Marriott, the Official Hotel of the NFL.

Follow Gregg Rosenthal on Twitter @greggrosenthal

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