After that 25-0 drubbing laid down by the Patriots into the guts of the Falcons, I have some ranting and raving to do. It really is a tale of two cities (yes, we understand New England isn’t technically a city). Atlanta is reeling right now; they are skydiving without a parachute. Meanwhile, the Patriots can do no wrong and apparently won the rookie QB raffle this year with Mac Jones executing a steady offense every week.
Let’s commence with the ravings for this week’s need-to-knows!
1. Falcons, where do we go now?
The great Axl Rose of the band Guns N’ Roses hauntingly asked the question, “Where do we go?” in the breakdown of the song “Sweet Child O’ Mine.” Well, I’m spooked by the Falcons as of late. The team sports a 4-6 record but those four wins came against the Giants, Jets, Dolphins and Saints—not exactly Murderer’s Row. In their last two contests, the Falcons have been blown out by a combined 68-3 against the Cowboys and Patriots, respectively. While Atlanta is still within earshot of a playoff berth, something is clearly wrong here.
This team was bad last year (4-12) and it’s hard to see much improvement. Matt Ryan is 36 years old and is coming into the final two years of his contract, and it should be crystal clear they’re a year late into trying to find a replacement-in-waiting. Julio Jones, gone. Calvin Ridley, temporarily gone but hopefully he will return sooner rather than later. Your best offensive player, out indefinitely, is a big question mark. Cordarrelle Patterson has been a pleasant surprise, but is he a franchise back? Mike Davis, I’ll get to him below. LB Deion Jones isn’t playing up the standard he set earlier in his career and their best defensive player, CB A.J. Terrell, is the only guy coming close to Pro Bowl talent on that side of the ball.
Unfortunately, this team needs OL help and they need it badly. As noted by the Falcon Report’s Dave Holcomb in the linked article:
After years of neglecting the o-line in the draft, the Falcons have selected four blockers in the first three rounds over the last three years … Despite the draft capital spent on offensive linemen, the unit was a major question mark heading into the 2021 season. To see them struggle isn’t surprising or new … But the offensive line seems to be getting worse. The Falcons have allowed multiple sacks in every game the last four weeks. Also during that stretch, the opposition is averaging 8.5 quarterback hits against Matt Ryan.
So, now what? Well the running game isn’t doing them any favors either. Again as noted by Holcomb, “Among 48 eligible running backs, Davis is 45th in rushing yards before contact per carry. He’s one of 10 backs in the league that, on average, is getting hit before he reaches two yards beyond the line of scrimmage.”
Well, we’ll have to see the trail blazed by first-year general manager Terry Fontenot. Former GM Thomas Dimitroff was let go weeks into the 2020 season and Fontenot was made the GM in January of this year. Fontenot is still at the helm of a team with leftover parts and it shows. I just would feel better, if I had any stake in this team, if there was some silver lining here beyond Kyle Pitts, because I’m not seeing much to hang my hat on.
It’s easy to pile on a team that’s coming off back-to-back drubbings, but that’s kind of the point. Atlanta has three picks in the first two rounds of the 2022 NFL Draft, and it already feels like they’re on the clock.
Random Falcons fact: Over their last two games, the Falcons have had 23 possessions. They’ve resulted in a field goal, missed FG, three turnovers on downs, nine punts, eight INTs (one was a pick-six) and one punt block returned for a touchdown. Ouch.
2. Let the Mac Jones roll
While Cam Newton is stealing headlines with his return to the Panthers, Mac Jones has lived up to his “most NFL-ready” designation during the draft evaluation period. While Trevor Lawrence, Zach Wilson, Trey Lance and Justin Fields are ranging somewhere between not too bad to waiting for his turn, Jones has the Patriots on a five-game winning streak after a shaky 2-4 start. He’s not doing it with a bunch of superstars on offense, either. RB Damien Harris has been the most reliable starter when healthy. Rookie RB Rhamondre Stevenson has shown some flashes when called upon. The Pats’ top three receivers are Kendrick Bourne, Jakobi Meyers and Nelson Agholor. TE Hunter Henry has been dependable in the red zone with seven scores but he’s not burning down the field on seam routes and challenging defenses downfield. This team is just a classic case of a unit adding up to more than the sum of its parts and that’s something I feel always comes to coaching—something that isn’t a surprise with Bill Belichick and Co.
Are the Patriots back? I wouldn’t go that far. The defense is playing outstanding and the offense is able to flourish with a conservative style of play. This is a team that wants to play with a lead and lean on you against the ropes, wear you down with body shots. More impressively, New England is now 5-0 on the road, matching the Cardinals, who are also 5-0 in away games. Again, I think this speaks to the team playing as a cohesive unit.
I feel the larger takeaway here is the Pats have really put the kid gloves on Jones. Almost all of his completions last night were within a few yards of the line of scrimmage: Throws in the flat and short crossing routes. The offense wants the ball out of his hands quickly and New England finds creative ways to keep teams off-balance within this structure. The media narrative will want to highlight how Jones completed 85% of his passes last night, but that’s not hard to do when you never throw the ball downfield because the play-calling doesn’t give you more than a couple opportunities per game to take shots downfield. In the first half, he had one completed pass thrown beyond the first down line and it came during a two-minute drill with the Falcons playing man defense on a first-and-10 around midfield.
So what’s the point here? I will give the rookie credit for playing within himself and the offensive coaches credit for really handcrafting game plans that minimizes risk. But this offense and Jones along with it go right out the window if they get down early. Eventually they’ll play a team that scores a touchdown to start the game and watch the wheels fall off. As the late Dennis Green said, “If you wanna crown ‘em,” then go ahead and crown ‘em. Mac Jones is who we thought he was, an NFL-ready rookie QB, and I’m not willing yet to give him a word more praise than that. And this gamified approach for Jones is brought to every single player on the team. Nobody is asked to do more than they are realistically capable of doing and that’s why a team full of slightly-above-average players can perform like a very good team when things go as planned.
Random Mac Jones fact: From ESPN, Jones is the first rookie QB in NFL history to complete 80% of his passes in back-to-back games.
3. Away we go with Deebo
Averaging a ludicrous 11.4 yards per target, Deebo Samuel is having a career year. Only Ja’Marr Chase is close to that number among receivers with 60 or more targets. Samuel has posted at least 90 receiving yards in six of the 49ers’ nine contests. His 108.8 yards per game trails only Cooper Kupp (114.1 ypg). His 979 yards is the second-most through nine games in 49ers history (1,006, Jerry Rice, 1990) and his 517 yards after catch through nine games is most for any player since Percy Harvin back in 2012.
Samuel credits Emmanuel Sanders for his work ethic and commitment to the game. In a recent press conference, Samuel praised his former teammate, who was only with the franchise for the second-half of the 2019 season, the year San Francisco made a Super Bowl appearance.
[I talk to him] every week. Once a week. I actually talked to him after the game [against the Rams], and he was just excited. He was like, ‘Hey, man, you’re becoming the guy that I know you was going to be,’ and just congratulated me … For me, it was just like his work ethic. Just coming into meetings, he came in at 6:30 [a.m.] when you’re supposed to be here at like 7:30, just getting ahead of the playbook, and the way he carried himself at practice, and just the leader he was, and the energy that he brought.
To Sanders’ credit, he’s had a great career, and although he may not quite be held in high regard among the game’s greats, he had some special years after moving over to the Broncos in the mid-2010s. Sanders being a glue guy and a player to lead by example for Samuel and others just furthers my appreciation for him.
Speaking of special, all this leads me to Samuel’s most impressive stat. He’s averaging 16.0 scrimmage yards per touch—far away more than the next-best in that category (Justin Jefferson, 13.7 yards/touch). Previous leaders in that stat (Tyreek Hill in 2020 & 2018, Julio Jones in 2019 and Antonio Brown in 2017) are all thought of among the fantasy elite of their day, yet that distinction hasn’t yet sunk in for Samuel. I believe it’s time to acknowledge what he’s blossomed into because he appears to have made the leap.
4. Week 11 SI Fantasy Must-Reads
Before setting your lineups, make sure you check out some of the world-class fantasy lowdown from our SI Fantasy analysts: