As we do every Monday here at the 33rd Team, here are my key takeaways from this week’s NFL action:
John Harbaugh – Coach of the Year Thus Far
The Ravens have been impacted by injuries as much as any team this season. Gus Edwards, J.K. Dobbins, Marcus Peters, Derek Wolfe, Nick Boyle, and Ben Cleveland are all on Injured Reserve. In addition, Ronnie Stanley, Sammy Watkins, and Rashod Bateman (who played his first game of the season in week 6) have all missed time. But the Ravens keep on going. It’s truly remarkable that they are 5-1; it’s a testament to how good of a job John Harbaugh has done. We’re one-third of the way through the 18-week NFL Season, and Harbaugh would be the Coach of the Year as of now.
The Ravens adaptability has been impressive. Over the last two seasons, they were 31st in early down pass rate at 44.5%. Only the Titans and Derrick Henry ran the ball more on early downs. Yet, through the first 5 weeks of the 2021 season, Baltimore passed 57.1% of the time on early downs, good for 10th in the NFL. In week 6, however, they recognized the Chargers’ weakness being their run defense and proceeded to pass on just 44.4% of early downs. This was the third lowest percentage of all teams in Week 6.
It is a testament to the Ravens’ adaptability that they have been able to run and pass effectively while dealing with significant injuries. Another hallmark of Harbaugh’s excellent coaching has been player development. Lamar Jackson is playing at a really high level and has taken a step forward passing the ball. He is averaging 8.5 yards per passing attempt, which is a full yard better than his previous best in 2019. Likewise, after a down year in 2020, Mark Andrews looks to have rebounded. Through six weeks, he is PFF’s highest graded TE with an offensive grade of 91.3. Andrews already has 14 explosive pass plays this season (15+ yards); he had 16 all of last season.
Baker Mayfield is Tough, but Not Elite
This is an important few days for the Browns. Arizona came in and beat them without key players ED Chandler Jones and C Rodney Hudson, along with their Head Coach, Kliff Kingsbury, missing the game. This is the first time the Browns have lost consecutive games under Kevin Stefanski. Now, they must avoid a third straight loss as they turn around and face Denver on Thursday.
This issue for the Browns is that, like Baltimore, they are dealing with significant injuries. This list includes Nick Chubb (calf), Kareem Hunt (calf), Jarvis Landry (knee), Jedrick Wills (ankle), Jack Conklin (knee), Jeremiah Owusu-Koramoah (ankle), and Baker Mayfield (non-throwing shoulder). Unlike Baltimore, however, the Browns have not been able to overcome these injuries through elite QB play.
While Lamar Jackson is playing at an MVP level, Baker Mayfield’s performance in Week 6 demonstrates why he’s a good QB who is tough but not elite. His lack of foot speed and quickness leads to him getting hit a lot which, in turn, leads to injuries. If I was Cleveland, I would proceed carefully on an extension for him.
Dak Prescott’s Comeback Shows Why He’s Elite
Unlike Baker Mayfield, Dak Prescott is an elite QB who can avoid hits and make plays on the run. The fact that Dallas turned it over twice in NE’s endzone and still won says a lot about how talented they are as a team. Prescott made two of the best throws of the year in the 4th quarter, leading to the game-tying Field Goal. On 4th and 4, he connected with Cedric Wilson for 13 yards to extend the game. Then, on 3rd and 25, he threw a 24 yard pass to CeeDee Lamb, which gave Greg Zurlein a manageable 49-yard FG.
On the defensive side, Randy Gregory is one of the most improved players in the league; he had two sacks on Sunday, bringing his total to four in just three games. Trevon Diggs also continues to amaze. He has been the best defensive player in the NFL through the first third of the season. On Sunday, he became the second player in the Super Bowl era to record at least one INT in each of his team’s first six games (Brian Russell also did it in 2003).
NFC is absolutely loaded
You can make an argument that the Buccaneers, Rams, Cardinals, or Cowboys are the best team in the conference, and you might not be wrong. Green Bay is likely the 5th best in the NFC, but defensively they’re not as strong as the other four.
Because of how good the NFC is, home field advantage may be more consequential than usual. Having to win two games instead of three to get to the Super Bowl could prove to be the difference. Likewise, either the Rams or Cardinals will be a Wild Card team and probably the fifth seed. As important as it is to win your division, it will also be crucial to avoid being the 4th seed. You don’t want to play the second-place team from the NFC West in the first round.