In The First Read, Jeffri Chadiha provides a snapshot of the hottest stories and trends heading into Week 8 of the 2022 NFL season, including:
But first, the defensive leader at the center of one of the NFL's biggest surprises ...
FLORHAM PARK, N.J. -- If the New York Jets are really going to make their first playoff appearance in over a decade, defensive tackle Quinnen Williams literally will have to be at the center of that ascension. He came into his fourth pro season looking to find a seat among the NFL's greats. He's become a one-man wrecking crew who helped this defense feast on quarterbacks over the first seven games. More than anything, Williams is in the perfect position to be that tone-setter for a young team still learning how to thrive every week in this league.
Williams has been a holy terror since Week 1. He's been living in opposing backfields, crashing through interior blockers and even playing so intensely that he blocked a field-goal attempt in a win over the Green Bay Packers. Williams will still give you that sheepish look and that trademark quick grin when he's off the field and relaxing at his locker. Put him in shoulder pads and give him a helmet, and he'll morph into the kind of relentless disrupter that makes it hard for offensive coordinators to sleep at night.
It would be nice if Jets second-year quarterback Zach Wilson (173.3 passing yards per game with a 1:2 TD-to-INT ratio in four games) was playing at a level that scared opponents. It would be even better if rookie running back Breece Hall and second-year tackle Alijah Vera-Tucker hadn't suffered season-ending injuries (a torn ACL in the left knee for Hall and a torn triceps for Vera-Tucker) in Sunday's 16-9 win over Denver. The biggest reason the Jets should still feel so good about their prospects after a 5-2 start is the presence of Williams. He's the anchor of a vastly improved defense, and it's his determination that could help drive that unit to great heights.
Williams brought tremendous promise into the league in the 2019 NFL Draft, when the Jets picked the former Alabama star third overall. This is what the franchise envisioned once he arrived.
"He'd been part of a championship program at the highest level, and he came to a place that has struggled mightily, especially from the time he got here," Jets defensive coordinator Jeff Ulbrich said last Thursday. "I think that's another reason he's here -- to show us what that looks like. I know that's at a collegiate level, but being a champion is being a champion. He's seen what greatness looks like, and he's putting that on tape now. He's showing all of our guys what that's supposed to look like."
Williams always has been talented. He had seven sacks in his second season, but a fractured foot sidelined him for a significant part of training camp in 2021 -- the same year head coach Robert Saleh arrived and installed a new 4-3 defense. It took a little time for Williams to find a comfort level within that scheme after starting his career as a 3-4 defensive end. It was just as important for Williams to demand more of himself.
The biggest difference in Williams this season is the way he approaches the game. He spent the offseason training in Miami with Kansas City Chiefs defensive tackle Chris Jones and picking the brains of other Pro Bowlers like Philadelphia's Fletcher Cox and Indianapolis' DeForest Buckner.
"I wanted to get a real view of how the elite pass rushers and defensive linemen go about their careers," said Williams on Thursday.
The 24-year-old already has five sacks and 13 quarterback hits this season -- putting him in the lead among interior defensive linemen in both categories through Sunday of Week 7.
"I'm still young," he said. "After my third year, I wanted to grow more in the offseason so I could continue being the player I wanted to become in my second year in this defense. When I talked to Chris and Buck and Fletcher Cox, I just wrote down different things they told me and applied it so I could get on their level."
Though Williams was focused on elevating his own game, the impact that approach can have on the other members of a young team can't be minimized. The Jets haven't made the playoffs since 2010. They only won 13 games combined in the first three seasons that Williams played in the league. This locker room is filled with players who were drafted in Round 1 who never learned how to win at this level.
The first thing it takes for a franchise to start winning is talent. The second is attitude. The Cincinnati Bengals returned to contention when players like Joe Burrow and Ja'Marr Chase arrived. The same thing happened in Buffalo when Josh Allen and Stefon Diggs joined forces and an assortment of young players on defense matured.
Williams is proving that it doesn't always need to be a quarterback that sets that foundation. The Jets have him, along with a group of promising young players that includes Hall, Vera-Tucker, rookie cornerback Ahmad "Sauce" Gardner and rookie wide receiver Garrett Wilson. It's already apparent that defense is where this team needs to build its identity for now, as the Jets rank 10th in the league in points allowed heading into Monday Night Football after ranking last in that category in 2021. Williams loves the way this unit attacks, because it allows him to use his blend of size, strength and quickness.
That combination was on full display in the Jets' 27-10 win over Green Bay, when Williams had two sacks, two tackles for loss, a forced fumble and that blocked field goal.
"Playing in this system was a little different at first, especially after playing in a read front in Alabama and when I first got into the NFL," Williams said. "The first year I had the chance to get off (the ball), I really enjoyed it. I didn't really know much about what I was doing. I just know I loved to do it. When this second season came around, I really just focused on the details of the scheme."
Jets linebacker Quincy Williams -- Quinnen's older brother, a third-round pick by the Jags in 2019 who joined New York in 2021 -- said that shift in focus was unmistakable this offseason. "He was more locked in," Quincy said Thursday. "He has a schedule every offseason, but I felt like he stuck to it this past offseason and invested more time. Instead of getting a couple workouts in, he was trying to bring added value to it. Instead of staying in shape, it was all about how to get better."
The Jets have the feel of a team that realizes it's on the brink of something exciting. They can look around the AFC and see that they're legitimately in contention for a postseason spot. There are two big games within the AFC East still to come against the Super Bowl-favorite Buffalo Bills, and they've already whipped the Miami Dolphins by 23 points. It's been a good ride so far around this franchise, even with the deflating losses of Hall and Vera-Tucker. (NFL Network Insider Ian Rapoport reported Monday that the Jets are acquiring running back James Robinson from the Jaguars.)
Williams is planning on keeping that momentum going.
"I'm just trying to be part of a culture change here, something that hasn't been here in the last 10 years," Williams said. "The biggest thing we talk about is consistency. You have to be consistent, week in and week out. I won a lot of games in college, but you got everybody's best each and every week. We're having success now, but you can get complacent. We've got some amazing guys in our room -- guys like C.J. Mosley and Kwon Alexander -- who've won before and been to the Pro Bowl. They help us understand that the things we do well, we have to do better. And the things we do bad, we have to get right."
Williams is humble enough to defer to those veteran defenders because he wants everybody to get their just due. It's that part of his personality that makes him so likeable, the desire to be one of the guys. The reality is that the Jets need Williams to be more than just another talented player who's good at doing his job. They need him to be exactly what he's turning into: a rising star with the ability to make everyone else around him better.
Quick-hitting thoughts on storylines to track around the NFL.
1) The Packers' pickle: It's time to stop granting the Green Bay Packers the benefit of the doubt. It's time to give up on the thought that quarterback Aaron Rodgers can fix anything -- that, as one NFC scout told NFL.com this week, "As long as they have No. 12, they can turn this around." After Week 1, it felt like the Packers' issues at wide receiver were going to be problematic throughout the year. Nobody could've imagined that would be only one of the major question marks impacting this team as it heads toward the midseason point. Rodgers is still scary good. He's also proof of what happens when even the best quarterbacks don't have enough help around them. The Packers are currently averaging 17 offensive points through seven games, which is their worst output in the first seven games of a season in Rodgers' time under center in Green Bay. They've lost three straight games now -- which has never happened since Matt LaFleur became head coach in 2019 -- and the latest defeat was at the hands of a Washington Commanders team that had only one win and was starting backup quarterback Taylor Heinicke. The Packers can't run effectively, can't protect Rodgers consistently and can't get stops when they most need them. At 3-4, they're also falling farther behind the 5-1 Minnesota Vikings in the NFC North. Now here's the crusher: A trip to play the Buffalo Bills is up next on Sunday Night Football. Rodgers spent his postgame press conference on Sunday telling reporters that the Packers can most definitely dig out of this hole, and that it might be a good thing for them to face the Bills at a time when skeptics are counting Green Bay out. That's also what he's supposed to say at this juncture. The reality is that the Packers have entered the same dark place that Todd Bowles has suddenly found himself in with the Buccaneers. At least Tampa Bay can point to early-season injuries and off-field drama swirling around Tom Brady as possible explanations for its 3-4 start (and the Bucs are also still tied for first place in a weak NFC South). The Packers, on the other hand, appear to be simply a more flawed team than anybody ever thought.
2) Falcons face a chemistry test: The bad news for Atlanta is that defensive injuries derailed any hope this team had of hanging with Cincinnati in a 35-17 loss on Sunday. The good news is that this team has more character than people realize and is better suited to bounce back from that game. It helps that Atlanta is reaching the easiest part of its schedule -- the next six games include matchups with Carolina (twice), Chicago, Washington and Pittsburgh -- but it means even more that the Falcons have veteran leaders like linebacker Rashaan Evans in their locker room. Evans has quickly emerged as the complement to quarterback Marcus Mariota on the offense: a savvy presence who experienced early success in the league in Tennessee, then lost his job and finally resurfaced in Atlanta looking for a rebirth. "Once you've been the guy and then you're not, you care a lot more about the next opportunity," Evans told me in an interview before the Bengals game. "Once you stop worrying about the noise or people trying to create a narrative about you that isn't true, you know it's about preparing for the next opportunity. I think Marcus and I are similar in that we've shown that it's not just about talent. It's about the kind of people we are." Evans added that the Falcons, now 3-4 and tied for first in the NFC South, aren't backing down from anybody. As he said: "We've proven we're better than advertised, but we're also not looking for validation. (Alabama) coach (Nick) Saban told me in college that you're only as good as your last play, and that's how we're looking at this." The Falcons' lost game wasn't something they want to remember. The rest of their season might prove to be a lot different if they can make the most of winnable matchups and a division that has been surprisingly underwhelming.
3) Passing-game push: It shouldn't be surprising that wide receiver is easily the most intriguing position when it comes to potential moves prior to the Nov. 1 trade deadline. Scoring is down, quarterbacks are struggling and a number of teams that were supposed to be non-factors are suddenly smack in the middle of playoff contention. The Arizona Cardinals acquired wide receiver Robbie Anderson from Carolina last week. NFL Network Insider Ian Rapoport also has reported there are some other big names drawing interest, including Houston's Brandin Cooks, Denver's Jerry Jeudy and Pittsburgh's Chase Claypool. We already know one team that should be thinking about making a move in this area: The Packers. The Falcons have the same record as Green Bay (3-4), but they're leading their division and could use some receiver depth for a run at a playoff spot. Injuries to key receivers for both the Chargers (Mike Williams will miss "multiple weeks" with a high ankle sprain) and Seahawks (DK Metcalf suffered a knee injury) might also influence these decisions, and the New York Giants could definitely upgrade, with more high-profile wideouts like Kenny Golladay and Kadarius Toney sidelined. Just know this much: It's still a long wait to see what happens with free agent receiver Odell Beckham Jr., who's recovering from the ACL tear he suffered in the Super Bowl. There are plenty of safer options that could be had much earlier, and they might just have a greater impact on what happens in the coming months.
Jacobs has quietly been the hottest running back in football over the past three weeks. He’s produced three straight games with more than 140 rushing yards, scored six touchdowns and averaged 6.4 yards per carry during that stretch. The Texans became the latest team that couldn’t handle Jacobs, as he ran for 143 yards and three scores in a 38-20 win. Jacobs said he didn’t get down on himself when the Raiders declined his fifth-year option. He’s just taken it as a reason to show them what he can do when healthy and given plenty of touches.
The Titans are winning ugly again, and their star running back is at the center of their success once more. Henry has three straight 100-yard games, with 128 coming on a season-high 30 carries in Sunday’s win over Indianapolis, and it feels like Tennessee -- riding a four-game win streak -- is making its usual midseason push to take control of the AFC South. It gets better for Henry next week as well. He’ll face a Texans defense that has allowed at least 136 rushing yards to all but one opponent this season.
The Bengals quarterback is a long way from his slow start to the season. He lit up an injury-riddled Falcons defense for 481 yards and three touchdowns in a 35-17 win. He’s also completed 78.5 percent of his passes and thrown six touchdown passes with no interceptions over his last two games. Opponents had success taking away the big plays in Cincinnati’s offense earlier this year. They’re finding it much harder to do that these days, as Burrow has learned to not press so much and to capitalize when the right opportunities arise.
That was fast. The veteran was supposed to be the best quarterback this franchise added since Andrew Luck was under center. He's now been benched by head coach Frank Reich, who's turning over his offense to second-year quarterback Sam Ehlinger. Reich even made it clear that Ryan's recent shoulder injury wasn't the sole development prompting this move after seven games. This appears to be all about who gives the Colts the best chance to win moving forward. Since Ryan, 37, already has thrown nine interceptions and fumbled 11 times this season, this feels like a move that had to happen eventually.
The Chargers had two key players hurt in Sunday's loss to Seattle -- wide receiver Mike Williams hobbled off with a high ankle sprain -- but it was the sight of Jackson being carted off with a ruptured patellar tendon that was most disconcerting. Jackson already was struggling so much in his first year in Los Angeles that he was benched in a Week 6 win over Denver. Then came this season-ending setback, which occurred as he was surrendering a 23-yard touchdown reception to Marquise Goodwin. The Chargers gave Jackson a five-year, $82.5 million deal in the offseason to bolster their pass coverage -- and after five games and two passes defensed, he's done for the regular season.
The Detroit Lions head coach has watched his team drop four straight games. These last two certainly had to sting the most. The Lions followed a 29-0 loss to New England in Week 5 with a 24-6 defeat to Dallas, which featured five turnovers, including a fumble by running back Jamaal Williams at the Cowboys' 1-yard line when Detroit had a chance to take a fourth-quarter lead. The Lions unraveled after that point, and the question today is whether they can recover from a 1-5 start. This team has shown more promise this season. The problem is that isn't translating into more winning.
One question answered by an unnamed front office source.
NFC scout: "He already fits that scheme. He just makes their playmaking potential more dynamic. That system pretty much utilizes a back with his strengths the way you want, both in the run game and the pass game. That they could get him on the field and doing a few productive things in [Sunday's] game -- just a few days after that trade -- speaks to his potential in that scheme. But he also has the same issues as the other guys they've had there lately -- staying healthy. To me, the bigger question is how his addition affects how they use Deebo Samuel. Deebo's excellence comes in large part from his versatility out of the backfield. If you reduce that aspect of his game, then it changes what he is. Deebo is still a good pure receiver, but he's not as lethal as somebody like (Buffalo's) Stefon Diggs or (Minnesota's) Justin Jefferson, or as difficult to game plan. It might narrow the scope of what Deebo does because even when both players are on the field, you still have just one ball. But (head coach) Kyle (Shanahan) is as good as anybody at figuring these things out. He'll make it work for everybody."
A simple ranking of the top five candidates as I see them, which will be updated weekly, depending on performance. Here is how it stands heading into Week 8 (odds courtesy of FanDuel are current as of 10 a.m. ET on Oct. 25):
Weeks in Top 5: 7
Next game: vs. Packers | Sunday, Oct. 30
Weeks in Top 5: 7
Next game: vs. Titans | Sunday, Nov. 6 (Week 9)
Weeks in Top 5: 5
Next game: vs. Steelers | Sunday, Oct. 30
Weeks in Top 5: 1
Next game: at Browns | Monday, Oct. 31
Weeks in Top 5: 1
Next game: at Seahawks | Sunday, Oct. 30
My slowly evolving Super Bowl pick, which also will be updated each week, depending on performances: Bills over Eagles.
Previous picks ...
- Week 7: Bills over Eagles
- Week 6: Bills over Eagles
- Week 5: Bills over Eagles
- Week 4: Bills over Eagles
- Week 3: Bills over 49ers
- Week 2: Bills over Buccaneers
- Week 1: Bills over Packers