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Reporters' Notebook

Mayfield's upturn; Brady's frustration; Daniel Jones' biggest flaw

As we turn toward Week 12 of the 2019 NFL season,'s network of reporters provides the hottest news and notes from across the league, including:

-- Why Freddie Kitchens thinks Baker Mayfield is playing better.

-- Tom Brady's frustrations with the Patriots' offense.

-- Saquon Barkley's determination to "just ball and have fun."

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BALTIMORE RAVENS: Harbaugh dazzled by Jackson's continued improvement.Baltimore Ravens quarterback Lamar Jackson has mesmerized people all year with a multitude of highlight-reel runs. However, the second-year pro is currently a leading candidate to win the league's Most Valuable Player award because of his all-around game, including his evolution as a passer. Jackson ranked fourth in the NFL in passer rating (106.3) heading into Week 12, but it's his most recent work that has turned heads.

He's completed at least 70 percent of his passes over the Ravens' last three wins while throwing eight touchdown passes and no interceptions. One of those wins came over the previously undefeated New England Patriots, while the other was a 41-7 rout of the Houston Texans, another team that is contending for a playoff spot.

"I just think he's definitely improving," Ravens head coach John Harbaugh said. "Yes, sure, from one season to the next, but from game to game and even practice to practice, he's so locked in. He's so focused on the details. He has a great mind for it. He sees the field really well. He understands those concepts we're putting in, and he just continues to improve. He's not a guy who repeats mistakes."

Ravens-Rams showdown completely above board. Nobody with the Rams or Ravens will be getting stitches, at least before kickoff Monday night, because "Ain't nobody snitching," according to Ravens linebacker Matt Judon.

Rams safety Eric Weddle, who spent the previous three seasons with Baltimore, and Ravens cornerback Marcus Peters, who played with the Rams in 2018 and during the first half of this season before being traded, aren't sharing much information about their old teams with their new ones.

"Come on, man," Weddle told me. "That's not what I do or who I am. Plus, they've changed so much that, even if I were to hear some of the calls and checks that they have (on defense), I'd probably be wrong."

Said Judon of Weddle: "That's the guy he is. He's not going to go into the offensive coaching rooms and tell them things. If they need to figure things out, he'll say, 'Go watch some more film.' "

As for Peters spilling to his new teammates?

"He hasn't snitched," Judon said. "Guys change teams all the time, but to be successful through a game, it's about the preparation. Marcus knows a lot about the Rams, but our defense and our defensive staff has put the time in. Ain't nobody snitching. This is going to be a straight-up game."

Weddle did say he could point out certain things to teammates about certain players on the Ravens' defense, but there isn't anything he can reveal that isn't on film. As for what he knows about the Ravens' offense and QB Lamar Jackson, he said that he would be little-to-no service because the Ravens have changed so much.

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CLEVELAND BROWNS: Kitchens sees supporting cast providing Mayfield with more help. Asked about Baker Mayfield's recent improved play, coach Freddie Kitchens pointed to the Browns getting better performance from the players around the quarterback.

"I think the receivers have done a much better job of controlling what they can control," Kitchens said. "When a quarterback does well, it means the people around him are doing their job, better and at a higher rate, also. I think that is the main thing that has happened."

Mayfield, though, accepted responsibility for the earlier subpar play.

"Obviously, it starts with not turning the ball over -- knock on wood with that," the second-year signal-caller said. "Just taking care of the ball, putting our guys in the best position to win. Getting the ball out quicker. ... We are all doing our job better because we are more focused on doing the little details right. It starts with me. We need to continue to improve each week."

Mayfield threw 12 interceptions (against six touchdown passes) in the first seven games, while he completed 57.6 percent of his passes and logged a passer rating of 67.8. In his past three games, Mayfield has thrown zero picks, with five touchdown passes, a 62.5 percent completion rate and a passer rating of 95.2. And the Browns have won their lasttwo games.

Hunt's addition going smoothly. Not much has been easy for the Browns this season. But integrating Kareem Hunt into the offense -- and into the same backfield as Nick Chubb -- is the exception. It's been easy. Even Kitchens agrees.

"I think any time you can put a good football player on the field, it is kind of easy," Kitchens said Wednesday. "It makes you look good at times as a play-caller and as a coach."


According to Next Gen Stats, the Browns averaged 7.0 yards per play on the 20 offensive plays with both Chubb and Hunt on the field in last week's win over Pittsburgh. In his two games this season, Hunt has 132 yards from scrimmage. Chubb became the league's first running back to eclipse 1,000 rushing yards this season, getting to 1,011 on *Thursday Night Football* last week, three days before Christian McCaffrey (who now has 1,059) and Dalvin Cook (who has 1,017) also reached the 1K mark.

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LOS ANGELES RAMS: Cooks eager to spark offense again. Wide receiver Brandin Cooks will return to action on Monday after missing the past two games while in concussion protocol. Cooks had two concussions in less than a month and has had five diagnosed concussions in his career. While he was in concussion protocol, he made multiple visits Dr. Micky Collins, a neurologist in Pittsburgh, to try and find out if he has suffered any debilitating damage and to find out if there was something other than contact that exacerbated him being concussed.

"One of the biggest things I learned is that concussions are a case-by-case thing," Cooks said after practice Thursday.

Cooks said that he has never considered retiring because of his multiple concussions -- and that doctors, family and friends have never encouraged him to do so.

He did say that he will wear a "new" helmet, but would not specify if it would be a modified version of the one he has previously worn.

Cooks' return opens up the Rams' offense schematically because of his danger as a vertical threat. Some opposing defenses I spoke to early in the season said part of their game plan is to try to deny Cooks' big-play ability, because if he can get deep, then the Rams will take advantage.

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NEW ENGLAND PATRIOTS: Brady still waiting on a breakout. The Patriots are 9-1. They have the best record in the AFC and are tied with the 49ers for the best record in the NFL. Yet, all is not right in Tom Brady's world. The venerable signal-caller could barely muster a smile following Sunday's 17-10 win in Philadelphia. His mood didn't improve much as he made his way through his weekly radio spots. And then Brady called an audible, moving his usual Friday press conference to Wednesday. So I wanted to know -- and asked -- did he feel like there was a great burden on him this year?

"Yeah, is that a trick question?" he wondered.

I assured him it was not. But Brady has repeatedly remarked that the offense he quarterbacks isn't where it needs to be, and the numbers back that up. The Patriots have regressed in total yards per game, red-zone TD percentage and big plays per game from last year to this one. And Brady himself has struggled versus the blitz and has seen a slow-and-steady decline of his efficiency on the shorter passes that, for him, have long been considered layups.

"I feel like, you know, the quarterback's job is to do whatever you can do to help the team win the game and score some points," he responded. "So, however you end up doing it -- running the ball, throwing it 50 times, throwing to the receivers, throwing to tight ends, backs, whatever we got to do to win. I think, over 20 years, we've done a lot of different things, and we'll try to find some different things this year."

Looking for little victories. Brady stated that from game to game, you never truly know how the opposition is going to defend you, that "sometimes you have a great plan and they change everything." In those moments, it's incumbent on the offense to change, to adjust, and that's been a calling card of a Brady-led group for as long as I can remember. But can this group, with its youth and a decided lack of experience among key players in the system, adapt week to week and game to game to meet the quarterback's lofty standards?

"This year is really this year, it's in and of itself," he said when I asked. "There's nuances to things at different positions. Like I said, after the game, we have a great defense, we have to understand as an offense, our special teams are playing well. Us doing what we have to do on our side of the ball, like at the end of the last game, getting off the goal line was really important for our team. And if we don't do a good job of that, we kick the ball from the 5-yard line, it gives them a great opportunity, but we got it out to a decent point in the field, even though we didn't score points. There's other times when we get the ball on a short field where we have to take advantage of it, we've got to get the ball into the end zone and score points. ... There's definitely a lot of things we can improve on that we're working to improve on and that guys are committed to."

Brady projected more confidence in those answers than he did earlier in the week. But he knows the clock is ticking on this offense's chance to develop into a championship-caliber unit.

Digging deeper on numbers behind the struggles. A glance at some statistics gives a better look at what is bothering Tom Brady about the state of the Patriots' offense.

For one, the Patriots are 25th in red zone offense, and their struggles inside the 20-yard line were obvious against the Philadelphia Eagles last week. The Patriots settled for three first-half field goals after three drives stalled at the Eagles' 17-, 4- and 21-yard lines.

Brady and the offense have trailed off dramatically after the first three games of the season. His completion percentage has dropped from 67.9 to 62.2 in that time. He has three games this season without a touchdown pass, the most since 2009, the year he returned from a torn knee ligament that caused him to miss almost all of the 2008 season. And his completion percentage against the blitz has dropped from 65.5 last year to 52.4 percent this year. His completion percentage when under pressure is just 32.9 percent, the second lowest in the NFL, ahead of only rookie Kyler Murray.

Perhaps most alarming is that the Patriots are averaging just 21.5 points per game in four games against teams that are .500 or above, 12 points fewer than they score against teams below .500. The NFC East-leading Dallas Cowboys -- the Pats' opponents this weekend -- are 6-4. The enforcements are arriving just in time, with left tackle Isaiah Wynn being activated from injured reserve this week, although new receiver Mohamed Sanu suffered an ankle injury against the Eagles, and his availability is in doubt.

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NEW YORK GIANTS: Jones determined to stop coughing up the ball.Daniel Jones lost his first NFL fumble five plays into his professional career, on a scramble after replacing Eli Manning late in the Giants' 35-17 loss at the Cowboys in the season opener.

Now, nine games into his rookie season, Jones has 17 giveaways, second most in the league behind Jameis Winston (22). Jones leads the league with nine fumbles lost, the most by any player since 2003, according to NFL Research.

"It's something that I need to be mindful of constantly," Jones said Wednesday. "There's certainly a number of things that I need to work on, but that's definitely one of them. It probably is the most critical thing that I need to correct."

This has been a recurring storyline this season because it has become a recurring problem. That's one reason Giants offensive coordinator Mike Shula began answering a question about ball security by saying, "We've talked about this before."

He then noted that Jones has to keep two hands on the ball until he throws it. Better offensive-line play and receivers getting open quicker would also help.

But there is a bottom line.

"The most important thing we do is protect that football," Shula said. "That has to be our mindset."

Shula draws on father's example for coaching tactic. Mike Shula is the son of Hall of Fame coach Don Shula. In his two years with the Giants, I can't remember him ever mentioning his father. I canvassed the media room Thursday, and other reporters couldn't, either.

So it was interesting to hear Mike's answer when asked if it was important to allow Daniel Jones to "unplug" for a few days during the bye week.

"Oh yeah," Mike said. "I learned that from my dad. When we're off, we're off. Give those guys time to clear their minds, get away and come back refreshed."

Barkley scoffs at suggestions he be shut down.Saquon Barkley stood in front of his locker Thursday and said he will be more himself in the last six games of the season.

"I'm going to go out there and just ball and have fun and go out there with my brothers and whatever happens happens," he said. "There is a reason why I got drafted here. There is a reason why I'm one of the best running backs in the league. And I'm just going to go out there and do what I do."

Barkley is sensitive to criticism of his running style; that same running style elevated him to last year's Offensive Rookie of the Year honors.

Barkley missed three games this season with a high ankle sprain. My understanding is that while Barkley still occasionally feels soreness in the ankle, he would tell you that he couldn't cut like he does if the ankle were still injured.

Perhaps what most spurred his introspection was the Week 10 loss to the Jets, when he rushed for 1 yard on 13 carries. (He would also admit that he missed a couple critical pass blocks in that game, during which Daniel Jones was sacked six times.)

Barkley has heard others suggest that he should be shut down in this 2-8 Giants season.

"That's absurd to me," he said. "That doesn't even make any sense." he said.

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PHILADELPHIA EAGLES: Still in position to follow a familiar script. Though the Eagles fell to 5-5 last week, coach Doug Pederson is reminding his players this week of their remarkable climb down the back stretch just a season ago. They were 4-6 through 10 games in 2018, but won five of their last six, made the playoffs and got within a game of a second consecutive appearance on Championship Sunday, one season after winning the Super Bowl.

The Eagles know full well what they're capable of, and they understand the magnitude of their Week 12 clash against Seattle. It's a seismic opportunity to get on the other side of .500, with the Eagles, who are just one game behind the Cowboys in the NFC East, facing the second-easiest remaining schedule in the NFL. A win Sunday could be the kind of signature moment that jump-starts a classic Eagles liftoff after an injury-ravaged start to the season.

"It will definitely give us tremendous motivation," middle linebacker Nigel Bradham -- who returns this week after missing the past four games with an ankle injury -- told me. "We know this is a playoff game. And when you take that into consideration, whether we see them in the playoffs, or however it goes, right now, this is a playoff game. Definitely for us ... because we need this win so much."

Center Jason Kelce echoed Bradham's comments, saying, "I mean it's huge. Obviously, every game's important right now for us, but especially against a team like this, coming into Philly, against Seattle, would be a really big win for us."

As for the team's potential? Cornerback Jalen Mills summed it up best to me: "I think the great thing about our team right now, is we've faced adversity the past two or three years. I mean, we're used to it. We're used to everybody doubting us. We're used to the injuries and this 'next guy up' mentality. So I think that's the biggest thing for our team. We've faced adversity before, so it's really nothing to us right now."

Preparing to stop an MVP candidate.Eagles defensive coordinator Jim Schwartz nearly ran out of ways to describe Seahawks quarterback Russell Wilson, who is playing at an extraordinary level in 2019, as Schwartz continues to put together a game-plan for his defense heading into Sunday: "There are scrambling quarterbacks. There are running quarterbacks. There are dropback quarterbacks. There are quarterbacks that are good from the pocket. There are quarterbacks that are good outside the pocket. There are quarterbacks that can throw on schedule. There are quarterbacks that can create on their own. He's all of the above."

"You layer all those things together, and it makes it a tough challenge." Schwartz continued. "You have to defend perimeter plays like boots and play-actions. You have to defend RPOs (run/pass options) and zone reads. You have to defend off-schedule plays, but he can also be as good as anybody in the league when it comes to just dropping back and throwing it; he's very talented that way. And he can scramble, not just for first downs, but he can scramble for big plays down the field. Just an excellent competitor. It's a great challenge this week for us."

Pro Bowl defensive tackle Fletcher Cox, who is now in his eighth NFL season, said Wilson is "playing probably his best ball I've seen him play in a while." Nigel Bradham provided a detailed breakdown on the array of threats and challenges that No. 3 poses: "You can't let him sit back there and not put pressure on him, because he's so good inside the pocket. As well, his arm is really good. He also has this ability to be elusive, so you can't just rush four, because he can find a lane, and your defensive backs have to cover for extra time -- for eight or nine seconds during the play because he can scramble. And then if nothing's there, he can just use his speed to take off."

Trying to stop Wilson is, Bradham explained, all about mind games: "You have to play chess with him. And try to catch him off guard when he's not expecting that. You gotta have a good disguise -- he's an extremely smart guy."

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PITTSBURGH STEELERS: Pouncey's impact in locker room runs deep. The Steelers won't only miss center Maurkice Pouncey on the field during his two-game suspension (reduced from three on appeal) for his actions during the fight between Cleveland's Myles Garrett and Pittsburgh QB Mason Rudolph, during which Garrett swung Rudolph's helmet at Rudolph's head. Pouncey is also a three-time team captain who holds teammates accountable.

"His philosophy and his attitude has been contagious and always a reference for our players as they're trying to establish their careers and find out the values that matter in football and not get distracted by the media and outside noise," left tackle Alejandro Villanueva told me this week. "His teachings have been established for a very long time, and so hopefully we can carry them on without his presence. Obviously, we're going to miss him, because he's a really funny guy and keeps everything very entertaining, but also because he brings a lot of drive and energy that is going to be needed as we try to turn this offense around."

The Steelers ranked 28th in yards and 24th in scoring entering Week 12, when they'll face the winless Bengals.

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