What we learned from Week 11 in the NFL
By Tyler Dunne
This season, bludgeoning running attacks have paid off.
Defenses have turned to deploying two-deep safety looks to diffuse the big-play potential of the league’s most potent quarterbacks — Patrick Mahomes, Josh Allen, Kyler Murray. NFL front offices have also started drafting lighter, quicker defensive players capable of reacting to their improvisation.
So the smart offensive minds are countering with the run.
That pivot absolutely makes the Indianapolis Colts dangerous down the stretch. Sunday’s 41-15 win over the Buffalo Bills made this week’s biggest takeaway clear:
Jonathan Taylor has entered the MVP chat.
One year ago, he struggled to even stay on the field as a rookie. This season, it has taken a good two months for Jonathan Taylor to calibrate with the Colts’ powerful offensive line.
But Taylor’s full repertoire was on display at rainy, windy Highmark Stadium in western New York, and the Colts shoved the Bills’ top-ranked defense around behind the running game, as Taylor finished with 185 rushing yards on 32 carries with five total touchdowns.
Indianapolis fed Taylor from the start. He carried the ball on six of the 11 plays of the opening drive, scoring his first touchdown sliding behind a block by tight end Jack Doyle and carrying Buffalo cornerback Tre’Davious White on his back on a 3-yard run.
His second score, a 23-yard reception that put the Colts ahead, 14-0, had Taylor again toting White over the goal line.
His third touchdown came late in the first half, with Taylor going over the line to punch in a score.
But Taylor saved his best to put the Bills away. In the third quarter, Buffalo coach Sean McDermott’s bizarre decision to have Tyler Bass attempt a 49-yard field goal backfired with a miss.
On first-and-10 from midfield, Taylor had a dazzling 40-yard run in which he used a high-step hesitation to zoom past Bills safety Jordan Poyer. Then on the next play, he froze cornerback Levi Wallace with a shoulder dip and knifed inside for his fourth score to put the Colts up, 31-7.
For the heck of it, Taylor plunged ahead for a fifth touchdown shortly after.
Monday morning will be a physically painful one for every defensive player in Buffalo, and the No. 1 reason, of course, was Taylor.
He is a fascinating thinker, a philosophy major in college who thought about attending Harvard before choosing Wisconsin, because he dreamed of becoming an astrophysicist. Taylor’s mind operates at a different level. When he wasn’t blasting Big Ten Conference defenses, he was studying the works of the German metaphysician Immanuel Kant or tending to a 500-piece jigsaw puzzle without using the box as a guide.
Now, he’s driving NFL defenses mad and, with Tennessee Titans running back Derrick Henry out, working his way into the MVP race.
Kansas City’s defense needed a tweak, not an overhaul.
Kansas City’s juggernaut offense had short-circuited for stretches this season while trying to compensate for a defense that gave up 30 or more points in four of its first five games.
But against the league’s most high-powered offense, its defense stepped up to deliver a black-and-blue 19-9 win over the Dallas Cowboys that should recharge Kansas City’s Super Bowl expectations.
On a night when Patrick Mahomes wasn’t bad, but also wasn’t great, defensive coordinator Steve Spagnuolo managed to fluster Cowboys quarterback Dak Prescott with a pass rush that held Prescott to his second-lowest yardage total (216) of the season. In all, Kansas City hit Prescott eight times, sacked him five times and intercepted two of his passes and forced a fumble.
So what changed for Kansas City’s defense? It didn’t hurt that the Cowboys were without receiver Amari Cooper, who tested positive for coronavirus and who is not vaccinated against COVID-19, and that top receiver CeeDee Lamb left Sunday’s game with a concussion. Statistically, Prescott entered Sunday as the NFL’s best quarterback against the blitz and Spagnuolo unloaded exotic pressures on him anyway. It worked.
The biggest factor of all, though, was moving Chris Jones back inside to defensive tackle after he spent much of the season on the edge. He had more sacks Sunday (3 1/2) than he had all season (three), three quarterback hits and tipped the pass that ended up being intercepted by cornerback L’Jarius Sneed to end the Cowboys’ final drive.
In giving up only 276 total yards against an offense averaging an NFL-high 433.9 per game, it’s safe to declare this defense officially back.
On his third sack of the game, Jones busted out LeBron James’ chest-thumping celebration. On his final takedown, he easily discarded the Cowboys’ four-time All-Pro guard Zack Martin.
Since Kansas City’s Super Bowl triumph over San Francisco at the end of the 2019 season — when Jones declared immediately afterward that the Chiefs would be a dynasty — Jones has been this front seven’s energy force.
Cam Newton remains must-see TV.
This was a reunion of necessity, the Carolina Panthers rolling out the red carpet for Cam Newton once more.
A series of brutal decisions at the most important position in sports gave the Panthers no other choice but to call Newton, the 2015 MVP, who departed Carolina in 2019 after nine seasons with the team.
Carolina lost to the Washington Football Team on Sunday, 27-21, and now has a 5-6 record. But if nothing else, we know this out of Week 11:
The quarterback who tore through the league in 2015 for 45 touchdowns en route to the Super Bowl is no more, but it’s also true that Newton, 32, had no business waiting for a job until mid-November. After scoring two touchdowns in a limited role last week, Newton started at home Sunday and did not disappoint with three total touchdowns and 189 yards on 21 of 27 passing.
Of course, the numbers alone never do Newton justice. His arrival itself injected the Panthers with hope out of nowhere. When he was introduced Sunday, the team blared “Coming Home” by Dirty Money featuring Skylar Grey over the loudspeakers. As smoke clouded the tunnel, Newton took a moment to bask in this improbable return before screaming at the top of his lungs and sprinting onto the field.
Since he was drafted No. 1 overall in 2011, Newton’s energy has been contagious and his unique swagger, on and off the field, gave the entire franchise an identity. But as he accrued injuries in Carolina, it looked as if Newton’s arm was officially shot.
He spent the 2020 season in New England struggling to throw the football, with only eight touchdowns in 15 starts. And after losing a training camp battle to the rookie Mac Jones this past summer, he was released.
Carolina’s post-Newton quarterback plans simultaneously crumbled.
After one season with Teddy Bridgewater as their quarterback, the Panthers traded for Sam Darnold, who stormed out to a 3-0 start this season then regressed each week before landing on injured reserve with a shoulder injury. On Nov. 11, the Panthers essentially said, “Why not?” and signed the most beloved player in franchise history.
The team’s margin for error is now minuscule, but Newton’s presence alone will bring a glimmer of hope and, bare minimum, a ton of excitement.
His touchdowns Sunday were vintage Newton. Punctuating the game’s first drive, he stepped up as if he would run upfield, stopped and jumped to throw a 10-yard touchdown pass to receiver D.J. Moore.
Late in the second quarter, off a play fake, Newton raced to the left edge of the Washington defense and outran multiple defensive backs to the pylon, putting the Panthers up, 14-7. Newton then sprinted to midfield to perform his trademark “Superman” celebration.
In the end, Carolina’s leaky defense spoiled his return.
Taylor Heinicke threw for three touchdowns and Washington ran for 190 yards on 40 attempts. For the Panthers, the game was a crash to reality in a cluttered NFC, but given that Newton prepared as a starter for all of one week in a completely new, complex offensive scheme run by coordinator Joe Brady, Newton was impressive.
Carolina will keep opening that playbook for Newton and hope he still has some pixie dust.
One thing’s for certain: The NFL is a lot more fun with Newton in it.
Around the NFL
Cardinals 23, Seahawks 13: Long live Colt McCoy. The journeyman quarterback has been a godsend with Kyler Murray out, and he outplayed Russell Wilson with 328 yards and two touchdowns. No DeAndre Hopkins, no problem: Five different Cardinals had at least four receptions.
Bengals 32, Raiders 13: A bye week served Cincinnati well. Possibly no team is as healthy as the Bengals, and that could ultimately be what separates them in a crowded AFC North. After struggling defensively, Cincinnati held the Raiders to 13 first downs, 278 total yards and a 1-of-7 conversion rate on third down.
Texans 22, Titans 13: Houston, 10 1/2-point underdogs, shocked Tennessee on the road behind quarterback Tyrod Taylor’s two touchdown runs and a defense that forced four Ryan Tannehill interceptions. Three of those picks came in the fourth quarter. Injuries are piling up for the Titans, who lost top receiver A.J. Brown in the third quarter with an injured chest.
Vikings 34, Packers 31: Minnesota’s Kirk Cousins finished 24 of 35 passing for 341 yards and three touchdowns, with no interceptions and a 128.4 passer rating, to beat Green Bay, which played without running back Aaron Jones and tight end Robert Tonyan, two of Aaron Rodgers’ favorite targets.
49ers 30, Jaguars 10: A trendy Super Bowl pick in August, the 49ers seemed dead by October. But as they get healthier, they’re rediscovering their bruising identity and are now right in the thick of the playoff race at 5-5. A string of winnable games is lined up and, each week, it seems like coach Kyle Shanahan dusts off a new play for do-it-all receiver Deebo Samuel. He rushed eight times for 79 yards and a touchdown.
Ravens 16, Bears 13: MVP candidate Lamar Jackson was a late scratch with an illness, and it wasn’t pretty offensively with Tyler Huntley at quarterback. However, Devonta Freeman bashed ahead for a 3-yard touchdown with 22 seconds left to improve Baltimore’s record to 7-3.
Eagles 40, Saints 29: Trevor Siemian has struggled mightily through three straight losses for New Orleans. He threw 18 incompletions and two picks Sunday, while Eagles coach Nick Sirianni’s decision to lean on the rushing attack continues to pay off. Philadelphia blasted the Saints for 242 yards on 50 attempts with three touchdowns.
Dolphins 24, Jets 17: Miami needs to see as much of quarterback Tua Tagovailoa as it possibly can the rest of the season to make a franchise-defining decision heading into 2022. He was solid against a bad Jets defense, completing 27 of 33 passes for 273 yards with two touchdowns.
Browns 13, Lions 10: Nothing like a date with Tim Boyle to get your defense back on track. The Browns’ passing game wasn’t sharp, but the Lions’ was worse, as Boyle threw for all of 77 yards on 23 attempts in place of an injured Jared Goff. As long as the Browns can feed Nick Chubb (130 yards), they’ll have a shot against anyone.