In The First Read, Jeffri Chadiha provides a snapshot of the hottest stories and trends heading into Week 5 of the 2021 NFL season, including:
But first, a closer look at one of the NFL's hottest defenses ...
We're going to know a lot more about the Buffalo Bills' defense this coming weekend. The unit has been ravaging opposing offenses on a weekly basis, creating the types of humiliating scores that are more commonly associated with the college game. That dominance should have people in Western New York thrilled about the potential of this particular team. We'll also see if the success can continue against an offense that has given this squad fits: the Kansas City Chiefs.
The Bills have been smoking opponents ever since their season-opening loss to the Pittsburgh Steelers. Their margin of victory in their last three games has been 118-21, with two of those being shutouts. Those numbers -- even against struggling offenses like Miami and Houston -- are hard to minimize. However, that's exactly what Bills head coach Sean McDermott has been trying to do lately.
"We've got work to do," McDermott told local reporters after his team's latest blowout, a 40-0 rout of the Texans. "It's Week 4. We've come out of the first quarter of the season 3-1. So it's how you improve every week ... The rankings don't matter."
That's a critical perspective to have as the Bills prepare for their Sunday Night Football matchup in Kansas City. Buffalo has made huge strides as a franchise over the past two years, earning a wild-card spot in 2019 and claiming the AFC East title in 2020. What they haven't been able to do is figure out the Chiefs. These teams played twice last year -- once in the regular season and again in the AFC title game -- and both contests ended in Buffalo defeats.
One of the major takeaways from last year was that the Chiefs had an answer for every option the Bills tried. Kansas City ran for 245 yards in the regular-season game, then passed for 325 in the playoff win. Both occasions revealed a disconcerting fact for Buffalo: that they simply weren't going to beat the Chiefs until they had the ability to slow them down. This could be the season when that happens, if the Bills' defense lives up to the hype.
The Bills have benefitted from new faces in their defensive front (like rookie defensive end Greg Rousseau) and familiar faces returning (like defensive tackle Star Lotulelei, who opted out of last season because of COVID-19). They also have a knack for creating more pressure and turnovers (heading into Monday Night Football, Buffalo led the league with 11 takeaways). Like Kansas City, the Bills have no problems generating points. The nice part about their defense -- which ranks first in the NFL in points and total yards allowed -- is that it's taking pressure off star quarterback Josh Allen.
"It gives us a lot of confidence that we can go out there and not try to force plays down the field," Allen said on Sunday. "We want to be us. That's continue to move the chains ... and at least we're trying to end every drive with a kick and know our defense has our backs. But we have to be there for them as well. They're playing lights out right now."
The Bills have to continue that trend inside Arrowhead Stadium. They admittedly melted down on a huge stage last January, when the Chiefs overwhelmed Allen, and nobody offered much help for the star quarterback. This time around, Buffalo is coming in with a more complete team. If they are as good as advertised, they could be leaving with far more confidence about how this year's AFC race will shake out.
Quick-hitting thoughts on storylines to track around the NFL.
1) Trevon Diggs is the early front-runner for Defensive Player of the Year: There is plenty to like about what's happening in Dallas, including the inspired play of quarterback Dak Prescott, the emergence of a two-headed monster at running back and a budding star in rookie linebacker Micah Parsons. The brilliance of Diggs, a second-year cornerback, should be right up there with all those positives. He finished September as the NFC Defensive Player of the Month, then elevated his game even more, with two interceptions in the Cowboys' 36-28 win over Carolina. Diggs now has five interceptions in four games. He's been one of the major reasons why the Dallas defense, a huge weakness in 2020, is becoming a strength of this team. The new system brought in by first-year defensive coordinator Dan Quinn fits Diggs perfectly. He's able to use his vision and ball-hawking skills in those zone schemes to be the difference-maker the Cowboys were hoping to find after drafting him in the second round of last year's draft. Right now, the only other defenders in the league playing at his level are Cleveland's Myles Garrett and Denver's Von Miller. Given that sacks and big names tend to matter more when it comes to awards, we'll see where Diggs lands in this conversation a few months down the road. However, it's hard to minimize what he's meant to a Dallas defense that will be even more dangerous once defensive end DeMarcus Lawrence gets healthy.
2) Baker Mayfield had better find his groove: It's officially time to wonder why the Cleveland Browns quarterback plays better when Odell Beckham Jr. isn't on the field. Mayfield played horribly in his team's 14-7 win over Minnesota. He completed only 15 of 33 passes for 155 yards and missed a wide-open Beckham on what would've been the game-clinching touchdown late in the fourth quarter. Now consider these numbers: Mayfield completed 81.6 percent of his passes in his first two games (when Beckham was still preparing for his return from last season's torn ACL) and only 53.1 percent in the two games Beckham has played since that point. Just for the record -- this isn't meant to be a slight toward Beckham. It's merely that it's baffling to see a quarterback who's been maturing dramatically since the second half of last season (when Beckham was sidelined with that knee injury) to struggle like this. All reports indicated that Mayfield spent a lot of time during the offseason trying to build chemistry with all of his receivers, including Beckham, and that work was paying off in the first two weeks of this year. To be fair, Mayfield and Beckham did connect on five of nine targets (for 77 yards) in Week 3's win over the Bears. Maybe this is simply one of those lulls. Maybe the absence of wide receiver Jarvis Landry, who's on injured reserve with a knee injury, is playing a role in the problems. Whatever the issue, the Browns need their quarterback to get back on the right track. They have all the ingredients of a championship-caliber team, as that defense is rounding into form, and their run game remains dominant. Mayfield doesn't have to be a superstar for Cleveland to contend for the AFC title. However, he does need to be better than what we've seen lately.
3) Let's pray for a Broncos-Ravens rematch in the playoffs: It's rare that the aftermath of a game is better than the game itself, but that's what we have going on with the impromptu feud between Baltimore head coach John Harbaugh and Denver head coach Vic Fangio. The Ravens beat the formerly undefeated Broncos, 23-7, on Sunday. Fangio was deflated after the game, but he didn't spew any vitriol toward his opponent. He seemingly planned on moving forward, at least until he had a chance to stand in front of a microphone again. Here's the short version of what happened: The Ravens ran quarterback Lamar Jackson on the game's final play -- in an attempt to tie the Pittsburgh Steelers' league record of 43 straight games with at least 100 yards rushing -- and Fangio lost his poop, apparently after hearing the rationale behind the play. Harbaugh admitted that he wanted the record, saying, "It's one of those things that is meaningful." Fangio, on the other hand, said, "I thought it was bulls---, but I expected that from them. In 37 years of pro ball, I've never seen anything like that. But it was to be expected, and we expected it." The rub in all this is that Fangio and Harbaugh go way back. Fangio worked on Harbaugh's staff in 2008 and 2009 -- which probably explains Fangio's familiarity with the franchise -- and Harbaugh thought the two were cool. Harbaugh also didn't back down, saying he wouldn't respond to the comment but found it interesting that Fangio was throwing the ball into the end zone when the game was out of reach. In this case, we'll side with Harbaugh. If the Broncos didn't like the decision, they should've tackled Jackson instead of being gracious. Since Fangio also was irked about a couple other borderline shots the Ravens took at his players, it's a good bet fireworks will erupt whenever these teams meet again.
Say what you will about how they've gotten here, but the Cincinnati Bengals have the look of an early playoff contender. Yes, Taylor's bunch hasn't beaten a team that currently has a winning record yet. What they have done is make the most of their opportunities. The Bengals' head coach has a talented, young quarterback who's coming into his own (Joe Burrow), a feisty defense that ranks in the top 10 in points and yards allowed, and a 3-1 record. We'll learn a lot more about the Bengals when they face Green Bay this week, but they're definitely growing up in a hurry under Taylor's leadership.
The Chiefs' second-year running back is starting to perform like the difference-maker this team sorely needs him to become. He ran for 102 yards on 14 carries in Sunday's win against Philadelphia, which gives him two straight 100-yard efforts. More importantly, Edwards-Helaire didn't fumble. He coughed up the ball in each of Kansas City's previous two losses, including a devastating fourth-quarter miscue in what could've been the game-winning drive for the Chiefs in their Week 2 loss to Baltimore. We're still waiting to see more of Edwards-Helaire in the passing game, but he does have two touchdown receptions over the last two games. As long as teams stay focused on Tyreek Hill and Travis Kelce, he'll have to continue delivering this kind of production.
The smartest thing Chicago Bears head coach Matt Nagy did this past week was return play-calling duties to his offensive coordinator. One week after running a horrid game plan in the first start for rookie quarterback Justin Fields, the Bears actually had a practical strategy for their first-year signal-caller. Lazor gave David Montgomery more than twice as many carries as he had the previous week -- Montgomery finished with 106 yards on 23 attempts before sustaining a knee injury -- and Fields displayed far more efficiency throwing the football than he did in Week 3. It's amazing what can happen when a team makes a young quarterback comfortable. Even if the Bears go back to Andy Dalton, as Nagy has said will be the case if the veteran is healthy, Lazor impressed.
It's hard to make this list twice in four weeks. However, the Jaguars head coach is right back here. Not because his team is 0-4, mind you. It's that decision he made to stay in Ohio after his team's loss to Cincinnati last Thursday, and then attend an event where photos and videos of him went viral, including one in which he appeared to be dancing with a young woman. Meyer spent part of his Monday press conference explaining how he apologized to the team for being "a distraction." This is once again a reminder of how coaching in the NFL is way different than coaching in college.
UPDATE: Jaguars owner Shad Khan said in a statement on Tuesday that Meyer "must regain our trust and respect," and that he is "confident [Meyer] will deliver."
We're still waiting to see that vicious defense that was supposed to carry the Football Team this season. The same unit that buckled down to lead this squad to an NFC East title in 2020 is now giving up 30.5 points a game. The craziest stat of all? Heading into Monday Night Football, they were allowing a league-worst 59.7 percent conversion rate on third-down opportunities. Head coach Ron Rivera was irked when his defense had a couple bad afternoons in training camp. His head must be ready to explode at this point.
The 49ers quarterback sustained a calf injury in Sunday's loss to Seattle that threatened to put San Francisco in a precarious situation. This team had been hoping to give first-round pick Trey Lance small portions of the offense in limited playing time over the course of the season. Lance made a few nice plays in the second half in relief of Garoppolo, but he also is likely to face far more struggles with extended duty. The 49ers are no strangers to dealing with Garoppolo being hurt. For now, they appear to have escaped a serious scare, with coach Kyle Shanahan saying Monday that Garoppolo could play against Indianapolis this week. Garoppolo will be reevaluated Wednesday -- and if he were to miss any length of time, more challenges would certainly follow.
One question answered by an unnamed front office source.
PERSONNEL DIRECTOR FOR AN NFC TEAM (asked before Sunday's game): "They need all the warm bodies they can get over there. They're clearly hurting at cornerback (and the Bucs lost Carlton Davis on Sunday to a quad injury that potentially could sideline him long-term). I still think Sherm can bring a lot to a defense, because he's such a great leader. You go through what they're going through in that DB room, and he'll be somebody who keeps people focused. He's basically a defensive coordinator playing corner now. He'll bring up the football IQ in that room, just because of his smarts and his experience. The only thing that would make you a little uneasy is that they play more man there than what he's used to. Sherm hasn't been great in man the last few years and hasn't really been asked to do much of it. I can see teams attacking him, but he still brings a lot of positives to that defense."
A simple ranking of the top five candidates, which will be updated weekly, depending on performance. Here is how it stands heading into Week 4 (arrows reflect movement from last week's edition):
My slowly evolving Super Bowl pick, which also will be updated each week, depending on performances: Tampa Bay over Cleveland.