Odell Beckham and the Legion of Vaporware WRs
Say, didn't you used to be Odell Beckham Jr.?
The Cleveland Browns have a numbers problem at wide receiver. Jarvis Landry just went on IR with an MCL injury, Donovan Peoples-Jones hasn't performed well so far, and rookie Anthony Schwartz isn't ready for much more than a bombs-and-reverses role. That leaves Rashard Higgins as their best wide receiver. But multiple reports indicate that Beckham is on track to make his triumphant return from a 2020 ACL tear on Sunday against the Chicago Bears.
Multiple reports indicated that Beckham was on track to make his triumphant return in Weeks 1 and 2. He even appeared during pregame warmups before getting scratched. The Browns are floating a retcon that Week 3 was always Beckham's target date, possibly to shield Beckham from the sort of criticism that comes from being Beckham.
Will Fuller returned to the Dolphins this week and is expected to play on Sunday against the Raiders. Fuller missed Week 1 with a PED suspension and Week 2 with what the team described as a "personal issue."NFL Network's Cameron Wolfe reported that Fuller "is in a better mind space now after recharging this weekend," and good for Fuller, I suppose. Walkthrough takes mental/emotional health seriously and hasn't walked a mile in anyone else's cleats, but Fuller's absence sounds more like a cough-cough sick day than some sort of unforeseen crisis to the Boomer in me. If Beckham spent a weekend recharging his mind space after a suspension, it would lead First Take all week. But if Brian Flores is comfortable with what's going on, so am I.
Curtis Samuel spent most of Washington's offseason a few days away from returning from a groin injury. He's still a few days away. Samuel tweaked the hammy before the season opener. Friend of Walkthrough Nicki Jhabvala of The Washington Post reported that Samuel was working on the side field with trainers early in the week but is not expected to return until after Week 3 against the Bills. Washington has replaced him on the roster with a blank space; they are only carrying 52 players right now.
Three dynamic playmakers, two of them new acquisitions. Three second-tier playoff contenders. Three fuzzy timetables.
Groin injuries are finicky, Beckham is useless if he cannot trust his knee, and Fuller wouldn't have made much difference in a 35-0 loss to the Bills anyway. Walkthrough isn't here to rip those flighty prima donnas, but to make sense of what we'll see from Cleveland, Washington, and Miami, and beyond.
- The Browns need Beckham with Landry out, even if he's doing little more than making Bears safeties line up in Lake Erie to open up space for the running backs and tight ends. The upcoming stretch of the Browns schedule (at Vikings, at Chargers, Cardinals, Broncos, Steelers) is pretty rough; they'll lose a few of those games without a receiver the defense must account for.
- Tua Tagovailoa has a rib injury, the Dolphins offensive line got pushed around by the Bills, and an at Raiders/Colts/at Buccaneers stretch could leave the Dolphins at 2-3 (or even 1-4) before their schedule eases a bit. Their best bet offensively might be to downshift into Steelers mode: flood the field with Fuller, DeVante Parker, Jaylen Waddle, and others; feast on quick hitters and YAC; hope their defense lives up to its half of the bargain. They'll need Fuller for that.
- Taylor Heinicke is targeting Adam Humphries and Dyami Brown a little too often, and "targeting" is used very loosely in Heineke's case. Humphries is averaging 6.0 yards per reception as the slot guy. A healthy Samuel can average 6.0 yards per reception in between making the first and second man miss. Washington gets the Falcons like the sherbet between courses after traveling to Buffalo next week, followed by Saints-Chiefs-at Packers. 'Nuff said.
The sooner Beckham, Fuller, and Samuel cease to be vaporware, the clearer the playoff picture will become, both for their teams and their rivals. (Also, for lots and lots of fantasy leagues). Let's hope that the wait is nearly over, both for the health of the players and because Sundays are more fun with Beckham, Fuller, and Samuel on the field for more than just warmups.
And once the Beckham Bunch is back, we can try to figure out just what the hell is up with Michael Thomas.
Five to Watch
The Week 3 edition of Five to Watch leans heavily, but not exclusively, upon guys who came up big as injury replacements in Week 2.
Ja'Whaun Bentley, Linebacker, New England Patriots
Bentley was all over the field in Week 2 against the Jets, making plays as a pass-rusher and run defender and in coverage. "He's flying around," Patriots linebacker coach Jerod Mayo told reports this week (quotes via Oliver Thomas at Pats Pulpit). "He looks like he's more athletic this year. He has really taken the offseason seriously, and that's translating to the field. And I would also say he has a better understanding of the defense. He has been here for quite some time now, really understands the front, really understands the total package."
"Flying around" can be a bit of a backhanded coaching compliment; Bentley has whiffed on a few tackles and can appear a little out-of-control at times. He'll spend a lot of time chasing Alvin Kamara in the running and passing game this week. Let's see how it goes.
A.J. Epenesa, Edge Rusher, Buffalo Bills
Epenesa is yet to record a sack this season, but he has been applying constant pressure, setting up opportunities for teammates and recording several quarterback hits (including the one that injured Tua Tagovailoa).
The Bills asked Epenesa to cut weight last year, which is why he was a non-factor for most of the season. "We wanted to see more speed," defensive coordinator Leslie Frazier said this week (per Nick Wojton of Bills Wire). "It's exactly what we were hoping for and there's a lot more good to come."
If you love defensive line play, you're gonna absolutely adore the Washington-Bills game.
Jayron Kearse, Safety, Dallas Cowboys
The Cowboys signed Kearse to be a core special teamer and heavy-nickel package safety. But with Donovan Wilson out, Kearse has been one of the best players on their defense. He earned a game ball last week for six total defensive tackles, one tackle for a loss, one pass breakup, two special teams tackles, and a would-be interception nullified by a debatable pass interference call while covering Jared Cook.
"He has always had a history of being able to guard tight ends," defensive coordinator Dan Quinn said, per the Cowboys website. "But I think you saw the physicality in the blitzing and the tackling. I thought that was a really impactful part of our game."
The Eagles will try to get the ball to Dallas Goedert and Zach Ertz this week after growing too reliant on deep sideline shots to wide receivers against the 49ers. Even if Wilson returns, Kearse could have a busy evening on Monday night.
Sony Michel, Running Back, Los Angeles Rams
Darrell Henderson looked exceptional against the Colts but suffered a rib injury late in the game. Michel arrived and did what Michel does: he hammered out 46 yards on 10 carries, including some important runs on the game-winning Rams field goal drive, despite his apparent lack of exceptional speed, quickness, or power.
Michel is likely to get the bulk of the carries against the Buccaneers on Sunday. They need more of his "That '70s Back" routine to keep their offense balanced so the Bucs pass rush cannot go into attack-kill-destroy mode.
Ty Sambrailo, Offensive Tackle, Tennessee Titans
Taylor Lewan got "exposed" (his terminology) by Chandler Jones in Lewan's first game back from an ACL tear in Week 1. Lewan then tweaked his knee in pregame warmups in Week 2, forcing Sambrailo into the lineup at left tackle. Sambrailo had a better-than-sturdy game, and the Titans offense looked like its old self again (i.e., Derrick Henry rushed for eight billion yards).
Lewan's status was up in the air at press time for Sunday's matchup with the Colts. Here's some Walkthrough advice for Mike Vrabel: Lewan is obviously nowhere near 100%. Sambrailo is the better option. You're welcome.
Leaderboard of the Week
Every Thursday, Walkthrough will examine a random (and usually obscure) leaderboard from Football Outsiders, Sports Info Solutions, or elsewhere on the analytics Interwebs in search of deep truths and wisdom.
Our friends at Sports Info Solutions added a new gizmo to their database this year: a "First Contact Selector" slider! So if you want to discover, say, how often a running back was hit in the backfield (whether he was stuffed or Beast Mode'd his way to a positive play), just set the sliders down to "-20 to -1" and presto!
In fact, let's do just that: here are the NFL leaders in the number of carries in which the rusher was hit in the backfield through two games.
|Most Times Hit in the Backfield, Weeks 1-2, 2021|
Henry led the NFL in this category with 76 hit-in-backfield carries in 2020, netting 96 yards. "Run it when they know you're running it" tactics are generally dumb but make slightly more sense in Henry's case. That said, all eyes are on Todd Downing, the new Titans coordinator. The Titans have rushed on 52% of first downs this season despite never having taken an offensive snap with the lead. Many of Henry's hammer-the-line carries came with the Titans leading over the last two seasons. Plowing into a stacked box in the fourth quarter with the clock ticking is fine. Doing it 13 times per game (Henry has faced 26 eight-plus-man boxes this year, per Sports Info Solutions) because the coordinator doesn't have any better ideas is a recipe for all sorts of disappointments.
Damien Harris hasn't faced many stacked boxes, but defenders do appear to be firing into the backfield against the Patriots' arch-conservative offense. Also, Christian McCaffrey's presence on this list indicates that stopping the run is one of the few things the Jets do pretty well. Najee Harris is stuck in a dysfunctional offense behind an awful offensive line. Cook remains Henry Lite for the Vikings, who are the Titans Lite.
You gotta love Chris Carson's ability to avoid stuffs and turn negative plays into positive ones (or at least less negative ones). All those hits in the backfield spell trouble for a Seahawks offense that's supposed to be less predictable and more dynamic this year. Mark Ingram has gotten a lot of battering ram duty this year near the goal line, when the Texans were munching clock against the Jaguars, and when they were trying to hide Davis Mills. It's the Texans, so whatever.
McCaffrey got tripped up for a loss of 6 against the Jets, which makes his numbers look worse in a tiny sample. The Panthers love to run him between the tackles in short-yardage and goal-line situations this year, which is a great way to overwork him while asking him to do something he's not terrific at. But let's not criticize Matt Rhule while the Panthers are having a moment.
I sifted through past hit-in-backfield leaderboards and found predictable results. It's basically a list of workhorse runners who are: A) often protecting leads; B) trapped in bad offensive situations; or C) both. Henry and Cook finished one-two last season. Carson, Adrian Peterson, and Joe Mixon are frequent flyers among the top five. Melvin Gordon was hit behind the line of scrimmage a spectacular 91 times in 2017, netting 58 yards in a unique confluence of a plodding rusher getting force-fed in an uninspiring offense.
In summary, if your running back is getting hit in the backfield four or more times in a game, your team was either squatting on a lead, he's Henry, or there could be a serious problem with your offense. And it's possible for more than one of those things to be true simultaneously.
Thursday Night Action: Carolina Panthers (-8) at Houston Texans
Davis Mills is horrible, folks. Walkthrough usually loves the old "bet on the kid in his first start" adage, because the public overreacts in the other direction and the rookie gets a never-before-seen custom game plan. But Mills was only a third-round pick because the Vikings drafted Kellen Mond with the previous pick and the Texans are run by the type of people who spent the start of summer filling trash bags with gasoline.
Mills is a lot like Luke Falk, and while Falk wasn't a rookie when he started two games for the Jets in 2019, the Texans will find themselves in a similar situation on Thursday night. To refresh your memory: the Jets lost 30-14 to the Patriots and 31-6 to the Eagles, and their offense was so bad that their opponents started multiple scoring drives near midfield. That's the sort of scenario that erases any hope of a keep-it-close backdoor cover.
The Panthers are currently No. 1 in DVOA and should stay there until the opponent adjustments arrive and turn this game and their Jets wins into bone broth. Walkthrough is laying the points and taking the Panthers, but I'm adding a pair of props out of wariness of their habit of settling for field goals: Texans UNDER 16.5 points (+100), and the Panthers defense +350 to score a touchdown.