NFL Week 6: What we learned from Sunday's games

Pittsburgh Steelers 38, Cleveland Browns 7

1) Pittsburgh’s defense has finally arrived in 2020. The Steelers (5-0) returned to their confusing, aggressive and swarming look that dominated the 2019 season, starting with Minkah Fitzpatrick’s easy pick-six in the first quarter. Bud Dupree and T.J. Watt were menaces off the edge, with Dupree sacking Baker Mayfield twice and holding him up to take another vicious shot from Cameron Heyward as part of a pass rush that pressured Mayfield on 50% of his 22 drop-backs (per Next Gen Stats). The Steelers sacked Mayfield five times and hit Browns quarterbacks a total of 13 times, doing exactly what they planned against a banged-up Mayfield in a key divisional game. That helped them force two turnovers and dominate Cleveland in every phase of the game for an emphatic win. It will be important to monitor the severity of Devin Bush’s apparent left knee injury (which coach Mike Tomlin said appears to be significant after the game), as he’s a key piece, but the Steelers can rest easily Sunday night knowing they didn’t leave their defense in the last decade.

2) The Steelers’ offense wasn’t quite humming until the game had gotten out of hand, but Chase Claypool’s involvement continues to be incredibly important. Claypool hauled in another long reception to set up a touchdown, and his impact as a runner saw him score a touchdown later and also allow Pittsburgh to find the end zone because of misdirection involving the rookie receiver. The nickname “Mapletron” is catching on, and for good reason. Though the Steelers aren’t an offensive powerhouse, they’re a dangerous one thanks to the contributions of Claypool.

3) The banged-up Browns (4-2) played as poorly as their injury report reflected coming into this one, especially on offense. Folks will view Mayfield’s stat line as proof he’s not the guy, and while his ownership of such a role isn’t yet certain, this one was a case of an injured quarterback trying to gut one out and failing miserably. Mayfield looked stiff from the beginning and Pittsburgh took full advantage, harassing and hitting him repeatedly while playing with a much higher level of intensity. Watt appeared to have a tip on Mayfield’s cadence tendencies, getting multiple perfectly timed jumps off the snap and pressuring the quarterback plenty. Mayfield tried to cover for his injuries by taking risks, but they only produced two ugly interceptions and a dreadful day offensively for the Browns. Though they’re a promising team, games like Sunday’s proved the Browns still aren’t a legitimate AFC contender. It’s fair to wonder how a healthy Browns team — you know, one with Nick Chubb available, a fully present secondary and Mayfield closer to 100% than the far cry that was Sunday’s status — might have fared, but for now, these Browns are undoubtedly still staring up at Pittsburgh and Baltimore in the AFC North. Their defense deserves credit for playing better than expected, but Sunday is one they’ll surely want to flush before they make it back to Cleveland.

— Nick Shook

Baltimore Ravens 30, Philadelphia Eagles 28

1) The Eagles (1-4-1) scraped their way back into a seemingly dull affair, scoring three fourth-quarter touchdowns and holding the Ravens (5-1) to field goals to turn a 17-0 deficit into a two-point game. Carson Wentz wove magic behind a makeshift O-line to plunge in for a TD at the two-minute warning to get within a two-point conversion from a tie. But the Ravens defense stepped up to snuff out the attempt. Matt Judon and L.J. Fort blew up the zone read, dragging Wentz to the ground. Ballgame. The defense sacked Wentz six times, stripped the QB, and earned a bevy of other pressures against an Eagles offensive line that was no match for Calais Campbell (three sacks) and Co. After a host of penalties helped get the Eagles back in the game, the defense made the big play they needed to in order to escape with the win.

2) The Ravens moved to 5-1, but John Harbaugh probably doesn’t feel great about the way his team played. Baltimore was called for 12 penalties accounting for 132 yards, many of them keeping the Eagles’ comeback bid alive. More concerning was an offense that struggled to consistently move the ball for the second straight week. Outside of capitalizing on short fields early, Lamar Jackson and the offense were stuck in the Philly mud. Jackson missed too many throws, completing just 59.3% of his passes for 186 yards and one early passing TD. With Mark Ingram banged up, the run game, outside of a few big Jackson rushes, was stymied. The inability to take advantage of good field position late gave Philadelphia life in the comeback. The passing game lacks explosive plays, and the run game can’t find consistent traction. When Jackson isn’t able to concoct his own enchantments, like his long TD scamper, the Ravens offense hasn’t been the prettiest. Great teams, however, find a way to win even in ugly circumstances.

3) Credit Wentz for a gritty performance late in the comeback. The QB never gave up, made some ridiculous throws all while being destroyed in and out of the pocket. It was the QB’s poor play early, however, that led to the big deficit. The Eagles didn’t have a single first down on their first six possessions, and Wentz fumbled, leading to a Baltimore TD. The signal-caller made several head-scratching tosses, consistently threw behind targets, and was lucky not to throw a pick. On those opening six possessions, Philly had negative-12 net yards. You’re not going to win with so many negative plays. Fittingly, a Jalen Hurts 20-yard run netted the Eagles’ first first down of the game. Finally engineering a good drive, however, ended in Wentz getting stuffed on fourth down. It was that kind of day. Even the good plays for the Eagles didn’t go off without a hitch. Miles Sanders bolted for 74 yards but had the ball punched out. Luckily, J.J. Arcega-Whiteside fell on the pigskin for a TD to get the Eagles on the board. Unluckily, Sanders was hurt on the play and didn’t return. The play epitomized the Eagles’ season: One step forward, four steps back.

— Kevin Patra

Denver Broncos 18, New England Patriots 12

1) A New England offense that hasn’t practiced much of late due to COVID-19 protocols and had to play with a makeshift offensive line, well, looked it. With guard Shaq Mason out with a calf injury and center James Ferentz on the reserve/COVID-19 list, New England couldn’t generate a running game and the passing windows Cam Newton had to fit his throws into were befitting of a dollhouse. End result: Newton’s 76 rushing yards not only led the team, but were more than any of his targets had in receiving yards. The Patriots (2-3) have their first losing record through Week 5 since 2001.

2) Broncos kicker Brandon McManus kicked as many field goals Sunday as he had all season entering the game — six — and carried a Broncos (2-3) offense that couldn’t crack the end zone once. He couldn’t have been more accurate — a couple of his kicks would’ve been good through a tuning fork — and knocked home a pair from 50-plus (52, 54). He’s now 12 for 13 on the season and has made 11 straight dating back to Week 2. Someone else needs to get hot for this Broncos offense, but this week, McManus was enough.

3) Broncos RB Phillip Lindsay’s return to the lineup came just in time for Denver. With RB Melvin Gordon unavailable, Lindsay shook off a month’s worth of rust to anchor the Broncos offense on a day when someone had to — QB Drew Lock, returning from injury himself, had a poor afternoon. Lindsay, who hadn’t played since Week 1 with a toe injury, ran 23 times for 101 yards and helped Denver move the chains, particularly in the first half. The Denver offense continues to look out of sync, but the backfield isn’t a worry.

— Chase Goodbread

Chicago Bears 23, Carolina Panthers 16

1) The Chicago Bears defense was the best unit on the field once again. That’s all that mattered. The group made its presence felt from the jump, nearly earning a safety on the first drive, and intercepted Teddy Bridgewater on the next play to set up a short TD, giving the Bears (5-1) a lead they’d never relinquish. The Bears defense battered Bridgewater, sacking the QB four times and gobbling up a cornucopia of other pressures. Akiem Hicks continued to make noise, crushing the pocket, and the rest of the front cleaned up the trash. The secondary did a great job blanketing the Panthers speed for much of the game, not giving Bridgewater his first read, leaving the QB to scramble repeatedly. The Bears D forced three turnovers on the day, and a plethora of third-and-longs. It was fitting the Bears started the game with an interception, and DeAndre Houston-Carson ended it with an INT to ice the tilt. In a league with few great defenses, the Bears’ unit can win games when the offense isn’t clicking.

2) Matt Rhule’s squad will be kicking itself for missed opportunities. Not only did Carolina (3-3) turn the ball over thrice, it kicked two short chip-shot field goals, going 1-of-3 in the red zone. The Panthers’ red-area offense was out of sync all game, with Bridgewater resorting to unproductive scrambles. It was an inconsistent day for Bridgewater. The normally accurate QB completed just 55.2% of his passes for 216 yards, two INTs and no TDs. Most of the Panthers’ passing yards came on YAC from D.J. Moore (5/93) and Robby Anderson (4/77). Mike Davis has been a solid stand-in for Christian McCaffrey, but Sunday showed that Carolina needs its best weapon back to beat good defenses.

3) Matt Nagy is going to give Bears fans a conniption. Once again leading late, Nagy elected to throw the ball instead of trying to earn a first down on the ground and at least make Carolina use its final timeout. Facing a third-and-two, Nagy called for a Nick Foles pass that fell incomplete behind Allen Robinson. The decision came a week after Nagy was questioned for a similar decision. Luckily the Bears won both games thanks to their defense. Foles once again took the Chicago offense on a roller coaster with some great tosses surrounded by far too many inaccurate plays. The Bears offense continues to shuffle in place. The Bears earned just 261 total yards on the day, and Foles tossed a brutally bad INT. With how the defense played, this game could have been a blowout early. In the end, a W is a W, and Nagy will take it as his offense continues to find itself with Foles at the helm.

– Kevin Patra

Tennessee Titans 42, Houston Texans 36 (overtime)

1) There’s no better place to turn for coaching decisions that go against “the book” than with an interim coach. Enter Texans interim coach Romeo Crennel, who made back-to-back gutsy calls near the end of the game, one working and one failing. On a fourth-down call near the Titans goal line with under two minutes to play, leading 30-29, Crennel opted to go for the touchdown rather than kick a chip-shot field goal that would’ve put his team up by four. It paid off as Deshaun Watson hit Brandin Cooks for a TD to put Houston (1-5) up, 36-29. However, needing only an extra point for an eight-point lead, the next call was for a two-point try that failed. As a result, when Tennessee marched for the game-tying score, it was able to force overtime with a PAT instead of a two-pointer of its own.

2) The interior of the Titans offensive line — center Ben Jones and guards Nate Davis and Rodger Saffold — mauled the Texans inside for RB Derrick Henry. Tennessee doesn’t do anything cute with its bruising defending NFL rushing king, and that makes the Titans somewhat predictable. But so was the outcome against a Texans run defense that has now allowed four 100-yard rushers this season, the most in the league. Henry delivered more punishment than he absorbed on a 22-for-212 rushing day. At 5-0, Tennessee is now halfway to the best start in franchise history (10-0 in 2008).

3) There are continued signs of life from the Texans’ pass protection. Watson, sacked just once by Jacksonville a week prior, got solid protection again. The Titans sacked Watson twice, but the Texans front gave him time to survey the field for the most part and he responded with a fantastic afternoon (335 yards, 4 TD, 0 INT). Nobody benefitted more than Houston’s deep threat, Will Fuller (six receptions for 123), who can stretch defenses over the top if Watson has time to find him.

— Chase Goodbread

Atlanta Falcons 40, Minnesota Vikings 23

1) Make that two teams that earned their first wins of 2020 after firing their head coaches. Atlanta joined Houston in that company Sunday, playing its most inspired football since the final month of last season, riding a productive air attack to a blowout win over the Vikings (1-5). The offensive story of the game belonged to Matt Ryan and Julio Jones, who finally rekindled their connection to the tune of eight completions for 137 yards and two touchdowns. The latter was frankly absurd, as Ryan scrambled left, stopped short of the line of scrimmage and floated a pass over the nearest defenders to Jones, who sprinted down the sideline for a 40-yard score than served as the dagger. One week after Twitter collectively suggested Atlanta explore trading Ryan, the quarterback put up a stellar line, completing 30 of 40 passes for 371 yards, four touchdowns and a 136.6 passer rating. They’re still just 1-5, but 1-5 feels a lot better than 0-6.

2) Raheem Morris took over for the fired Dan Quinn as interim head coach, and his defense responded emphatically. Atlanta forced three turnovers — all on interceptions of Kirk Cousins — helping the Falcons build an early lead and undercut any offensive momentum the Vikings were attempting to build. Their greatest display of pure effort and desire came with the Falcons owning a 10-0 lead but backed up on their goal line early in the second quarter. Atlanta promptly denied Minnesota on four attempts to reach the end zone, with Foye Oluokun stuffing Alexander Mattison for a loss of one on first and goal from Atlanta’s 2, Deion Jones diving to knock a would-be reception out of Irv Smith hands two plays later, and Atlanta combining to stonewall Mike Boone on fourth down from a yard out. The unit played inspired ball all afternoon and complemented Atlanta’s offense for the first time in 2020, producing the win.

3) The bright spots for the Vikings weren’t numerous, but most belonged to rookie receiver Justin Jefferson, who continues to improve with each week. Jefferson caught nine passes for 166 yards and two scores and made at least one difficult grab look easy. Unfortunately, he and Adam Thielen couldn’t do it alone. Minnesota had essentially nothing to offer on the ground without Dalvin Cook, rushing 13 times for 32 yards as a team, with 26 belonging to Cook’s replacement Mattison. The aforementioned goal line stand epitomized Minnesota’s Sunday, when Boone was stuffed on his lone carry, and Cousins’ three interceptions hampered Minnesota’s offense and helped dig the Vikings a 20-0 hole, forcing them to become one dimensional and making the ensuing climb all but impossible. A week after fighting to the end and nearly scoring a huge upset over Seattle, the Vikings fell back to earth in the ugliest of ways, allowing a previously winless team to secure its first victory.

— Nick Shook

Detroit Lions 34, Jacksonville Jaguars 16

1) Coming into the game, Detroit (2-3) was averaging 101.8 rush YPG (4.1 YPC), and recorded less than 95 total yards in each of the last three games. Apparently, D'Andre Swift took that as challenge because the dynamic rookie ended the day with more rushing yards than his first four games combined (42). Swift — and the Lions O-line — took advantage of an ailing Jaguars D-line missing two starters en route to a 14-carry, 116-yard, two-score stat line. Swift’s career day steadied a season-best 180-yard rushing effort for the team. Matthew Stafford (223/TD/INT) even got in on the action with a 17-yard scramble to set up the Lions’ first of four TDs. His thriving connection with Kenny Golladay (four receptions for 105 yards) complimented what was a balanced offensive showing.

2) Unlike their opponent, the Jaguars (1-5) found little to no success on the ground. Productive rookie James Robinson (12/29) was surprisingly kept in check by the NFL’s worst run defense, forcing Gardner Minshew to shoulder more weight. The second-year QB turned in another high-volume outing — 25 of 44 for 243 yards — but the team struggled to gain momentum. Minshew was responsible for two turnovers in the second quarter, a pick at the start of the period and a strip-sack near the end. A missed FG was sandwiched in between. Minshew did turn in a TD pass and run in the second half, but the earlier mistakes, combined with Detroit’s D outplaying Jacksonville’s for the duration, proved too much to overcome. 

3) In addition to a smothering showing in the trenches, Detroit’s pass defense excelled, flying around to receivers and laying hits that reverberated on the mics. Rookie Jeff Okudah led the team with eight tackles, while Jamie Collins (seven tackles, PBU), Tracy Walker (six tackles, PBU) and Tre Flowers (five tackles, strip-sack) brought plenty of energy and effort, as well. Cornerback Amani Oruwariye played a key role in making D.J. Chark’s day miserable. His most impressive play came on a PBU on a near 44-yard completion to Chark midway through the third; Minshew’s go-to target caught just seven of 14 targets for 45 yards. Detroit also held Jacksonville to 2-of-5 in the red zone. Whatever the Lions did during their bye worked, because once they got the lead, they made sure not to squander it as they’ve been known to do.

— Jelani Scott

New York Giants 20, Washington Football Team 19

1) Call this one the Tank for Trevor Tryout. Late last December these teams squared off in what was affectionately billed as the Chase Young Bowl, where the loser would be in prime position to claim the Ohio State star. The Giants won a shootout in overtime and Young accordingly ended up in D.C. Sunday’s meeting had both fan bases deliberating on possibly drafting Clemson QB Trevor Lawrence. It also produced the first win of this not-so-young season for the Giants (1-5). The silver lining for the Washington Football Team (1-5): It currently owns the draft tiebreaker over its division foes in the upcoming Lawrence sweepstakes.

2) Is the Giants’ defense good? It’s entirely possible. It certainly has been some weeks, and it was again in Week 6. The defense deserves the game ball after producing a go-ahead touchdown and last-second stop against Washington. With the game tied late in the fourth, Kyler Fackrell strip-sacked Kyle Allen at midfield. Tae Crowder, the last pick of the 2020 draft, recovered and ran it back 43 yards for a touchdown. Mr. Irrelevant, he is not. After Allen drove WFT to a TD, Ron Rivera rekindled his riverboat ways and elected to go for two. Big Blue covered the pass play perfectly and hurried Allen into an errant, incomplete throw. It’s the third time this season the Giants, who collected two takeaways and six sacks Sunday, have held their opponent under 20 points.

3) All the hand-wringing over Washington’s QB carousel proved to be a moot point by Sunday, as Dwayne Haskins was inactive with an illness. You wonder what Rivera’s long-term plan is nonetheless. It can’t be Allen, whose second start for Washington looked like many of his for Carolina — also under Rivera. He made a handful of plays that give you confidence in him being your backup, and many more that scream he’s not a starter. Losing to the previous winless Giants speaks to that. Alex Smith didn’t inspire much confidence last week either, his remarkable return aside. A healthy Haskins is hardly a drop-off, and his room for growth is reason enough to play him in what looks to be a lost season regardless.

— Adam Maya

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