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Ten Things I Liked About Week Six

Derrick Henry cutbacks, Jason Kelce still standing, Carolina’s defensive core, the return of OUR Josh Allen, and SIX other things I liked about Week 6 of the 2020 NFL season.

NFL: Houston Texans at Tennessee Titans Christopher Hanewinckel-USA TODAY Sports

1. KING REMEMBERED IN TIME

In 2018 the Houston Texans had an all-time great run defense. Since then, they have failed to develop any internal key contributors, front seven stalwarts are older and slower with wrinkles reaching across their brow, general manager Bill O’Brien ignored this sign of the ball so he could build an average offense, and talent had been pillaged from this unit: Jadeveon Clowney, D.J. Reader, Kareem Jackson, they’re all gone. In the span of two seasons the bone splintering, negative play creating, impossibility, is now not even stolid, it’s a meek little lamb. Houston is last in yards allowed per attempt a game at 5.4, and 28th in run defense DVOA at 6.9%.

These numbers are after Derrick Henry’s 22 carry 212 yard game, where Henry averaged more yards per carry with 9.63 than Ryan Tannehill and Deshaun Watson averaged per attempt. Additionally, with the inclusion of third string running back Jeremy McNichols, who averaged 10.2 yards a carry, the Titans running behind their third string tight end Anthony Firkser, fourth string tight end Geoff Swaim, and back up left tackle Ty Sambrailo for most of the game, chewed Houston up for 263 yards on 27 carries.

Tennessee did this by running that great resounding run play, the outside zone. Time and time again the Titans ran this play along with motion and pulls to create cutback lanes against Houston’s front.

It’s first and ten. The Titans are running outside zone right. Simple enough. The tweak here is the movement back across the play. Tennessee is having Anthony Firkser (#87) seal the inside gap in case of a quick slant, and then peel out to the flat. Jonnu Smith (#81) is pulling against the grain to seal Brennan Scarlett (#57). The rest of the line of scrimmage is blocking outside zone right. This leads to three reach blocks from center Ben Jones (#60) on, and a strong ‘2’ scoop block between Taylor Lewan (#77) and Rodger Saffold (#76) up to inside linebacker Tyrell Adams (#50).

The Titans make each one of their blocks. The Texans defensive line hasn’t kicked enough ass. It’s as simple as that. Brandon Dunn (#92) especially, was lacquered by Jones throughout the entire game. Not only that, but the motion pulls the front away from the play. Both Zach Cunningham and Justin Reid follow Swaim and Smith, pulling both out of the play, and leads to Adam Humphries at 5’11” 195 pounds, blocking both Vernon Hargreaves III and Cunningham on the same play. This creates the cutback. Henry sees Adams’s fill, who’s blocked by Saffold, so he plants, takes two slide steps left, then gets vertical. Out into the open field. It’s 18 easy yards.

It’s the same play, same formation, except this time the wide receivers are split out wide. It’s split outside zone left, with Smith (#81) pulling to seal the back side once again. This time Houston calls the run blitz. Adams (#50) shows blitz early. Tannehill kills the play and resets. This leads to Smith pulling to Adams, instead of to J.J. Watt (#99), Nate Davis (#64) blocking to Cunningham (#41) instead of to Adams, and Lewan and Saffold doubling up Watkins (#91).

This redesign works because of how wide Watt is. As a ‘9’, it’s a good chance he can’t scrape down and tackle Henry with Smith pulling. Smith gets his head on Adams’s outside shoulder, but he arrives with enough tenacity to make up for the technique mistake. Adams is still seeing singing birds. He can’t take this contact and play the ball. Smith’s momentum carries him into Watt as well.

Houston runs a stunt in front of Adams. Both Dunn (#92) and Charles Omenihu (#94) slant to the inside gap, a play call that plays right into the outside zone. They get washed inside. Davis peels up and slathers Cunningham. Henry has an easy cutback lane around Adams’s blitz.

Adams has to make this play. He doesn’t. Henry rampages past, steps over Justin Reid’s flailing limbs, turns Hargreaves III into a moshpit, and picks up 34 yards.

It’s the same play. Split outside zone left with Smith pulling right to seal Watt on the backside.

No one on the play side wins their blocks, but there isn’t room to run. This is just the way outside zone goes sometimes. On the back side, Omenihu doesn’t maintain his gap. He flows too far inside, and doesn’t have athleticism to plant, swim, and play the ball. Henry cuts back and runs around him. Because of how far Omenihu flows inside, Cunningham and him should switch gaps. Cunningham makes the same mistake, further opening up the cutback. Then, on top of that, Humphries blocks Hargreaves III and Reid, who follows Firsker into the flat. 14 more yards on first down.

It’s outside zone right, but this time the Titans don’t pull to the back side. They’re running a different outside zone specialty. Running this play to the weak side of the formation. The Titans create a pseudo trips formation on the left with Swaim (#87), Firkser (#86), and Nick Westbrook-Ikhine (#15). Except this time, there’s additional witchcraft involved.

The weak side of the formation has Kelly kick out Watt (#99) and Davis kick out Scarlett (#57). Ho-hum. The voodoo comes from Ben Jones. He isn’t merely taking a zone step right to drive Dunn’s outside shoulder. Instead, Jones takes a slide step left. Dunn reading his keys, gets pulled into the other ‘A’ gap, thinking it’s outside zone left to the strong side of the formation. What he fails to see is this is a slide step, not a zone step. Cunningham is reading the center and Dunn. He flows left to defend outside zone in this direction. Henry sweetens this by showing the run in this direction.

Cunningham has vacated his gap. He’s blocked without being blocked. With Davis and Watt locked out, Henry has an entire cutback lane with A.J. Brown stalking Bradley Roby (#21). Now it’s Henry in the open field with a tackle breaking attempt against Eric Murray. He stiff arms him, lifts his leg over Eric Murray (#23), and then runs faster than a man his size should ever run.

On the final play of the game, offensive coordinator Arthur Smith, after bludgeoning Houston with split outside zone, and the occasional funky variation, brought out the Valiant Titan formation on 3rd and 5, in Houston’s redzone, where a touchdown would end the game.

Tennessee is blocking duo to the left. It’s similar to inside zone. Except it’s blocked away from the tight end as a way to create as many strong double teams as possible. By blocking away from the tight end, the Titans create a strong ‘ACE’ between Jones (#60) and Saffold (#76) from Dunn (#92) to Cunningham (#41), and a strong ‘DUECE’ between Davis (#64) and Kelly (#71) from P.J. Hall (#96) to Adams (#50). Swaim kicks out on Watt. Anthony Firsker pulls behind the formation, around Sambrailo (#70), and up to Scarlett (#57).

Cunningham once again gets caught in the wrong gap. He’s reading Henry, instead of the blocks in front of him. Henry sells duo, before planting, and cutting wide around the play and following formation. He’s able to take his time because Houston’s defensive line provides zero penetration. The defensive line gets their ass kicked: Hall, Dunn, and Watkins are negatives, Watt is able to long arm Swaim, but the play design makes his extension meaningless. Scarlett, like Cunningham, is watching Henry instead of the blocks, gets sucked in by the duo action and Henry’s steps, and allows Firkser to hit him head on. From there Henry, bounces the run outside of Firkser, and goes through Roby to score.

Henry is an unfathomable creation, a horrific splaying of biology, man’s evolution going to a place it should never have gone, an absurd conglomeration of bones, sinew, blood, and mushy organs. No man should be 6’3” 247 pounds and run as fast he does. He can carry a rushing attack with putrid blocking, and banal play design. He doesn’t need Arthur Smith’s black magik, or Nate Davis careening the second level, or Cunningham lurching into the wrong gap play after play to open the cutback, or defensive backs trembling when grasping at his legs. But when he has this, and is going up an opponent as wretched as Houston’s front seven, an all-time classic 200+ yard game with more than 9 yards an attempt over 20 carries becomes the end result.

2. THE LAST ONE LEFT

In August the Philadelphia Eagles were preparing for the 2020 NFL season with Andre Dillard at left tackle, Isaac Seumalo at left guard, Jason Kelce at center, Jason Peters at right tackle, and Lane Johnson at right tackle. Everyone is gone. Bandaged and in slings. Braces on knees. Crutches tucked under armpits. There’s no one left. Well, almost no one. Jason Kelce is still here, and now he’s surrounded by Jordan Mailata at left tackle, Nate Herbig at left guard, Jamon Brown at right guard, and Jack Driscoll at right tackle.

The Eagles offensive line is a mess. Carson Wentz is playing quarterback in the battle at Helm’s Deep, while throwing to offensive cornerstones Richard Rogers, John Hightower, Boston Scott, Greg Ward, Travis Fulgam. We’re at the point of the season where Jason Croom is catching touchdown passes.

Last week I made a tremendous discovery. Watching the Eagles is fun. It’s possible to have a good time aside for rooting for Carson Wentz interceptions so he can break Jameis Winston’s record and join the 30 club. All you have to do is watch Jason Kelce.

Kelce (#62) has starting using a pass set I’ve never seen before, that I love with the entirety of my heart. When matched against ‘0’ techniques (head up with the center) he’ll strike the defensive linemen with his off hand as he snaps the football. It’s sword fighting, not pass protection. From there, once he’s stunned the defensive lineman, he’ll readjust his hands to get on the chest, and mirror the defender.

It’s the same pass set, but this time it’s chopped and screwed.

Kelce is one of the rare centers in the game who can control both ‘A gaps in pass protection. Against four man rushes, with no one in his gap, he’ll pin ball from both ‘A’ gaps to help out his guards.

He’s a savant in pass protection. He knows where the blitz is coming from. There’s not a thick enough blanket than can be pulled over his eyes. Even against Baltimore, who has scrambled offensive linemen’s brains around this year, he wasn’t tricked. On this pass set he has the right ‘A’ gap. He slides over, punches the blitzing Chuck Clark (#36) and quickly moves over once he drops right back into coverage.

And here he picks up an interior loop. He spoon feeds Herbig, and sits and waits for Matthew Judon (#99) to replace Calais Campbell (#93).

If you see interior pressure when the Eagles are playing it isn’t because of Kelce. He has the left ‘A’ gap. Right guard Jamon Brown (#66) sticks to the slant, instead of passing him over to right tackle Jack Driscoll (#63). This creates a free rush, and ends with a brain dead Carson Wentz pass attempt.

This pass rep between Campbell and Kelce is NFL erotic fan fiction. Campbell at 6’8” is stuck in the gut by Kelce, who gets under his pads, rides the swinging bull, and maintains the integrity of the pocket.

In the run game, even at 6’3” 282 pounds, he can move players that have 70 pounds on him. On the goal line, the Eagles are running outside zone right. Kelce is blocking Shaun Ellis (#71) who weighs a svelte 350. Kelce, with pad level and determination, is to get underneath him, stone wall his run defense, and get him down on his knees.

This outside zone block is the block of the year. The Eagles are running split outside zone left. Herbig has a ‘3’ technique on his outside shoulder. Typically with a shade this wide, centers never impact this block. They take their zone step. They feel inside to ensure the defender isn’t slanting, then they scurry to the second level. Instead Kelce runs the line of scrimmage horizontally, strikes the outside shoulder to move the defensive tackle, then bends back around to crush Clark (#36), and seal the cutback. Miles Sanders takes off and eventually fumbles into the endzone for a 74 yard touchdown run.

Not everything has to be sublime. It’s beautiful to just sit next to a local creek and listen to the water bubble. He consistently hits his landmarks, and makes his blocks. Against ‘1’ techniques, with the outside zone in this direction, he’s able to reach and turn nose tackles easily. Here he does this to Justin Madubuike (#92).

Kelce is all that remains standing along the Eagles’ offensive line. Like a door frame after a home made fertilizer bomb goes off, or a charred rib bone in the embers, or a strange glowing rock in a desert wash, Kelce is the last member left from the Eagles summertime plans. Not only has he survived, but he’s answered the call, and has elevated his game this year to help out the fillins surrounding him, and ensure Carson Wentz has 999 things to worry about, instead of 1,000.

Football is good even when it’s bad. The Eagles are atrocious. Kelce isn’t. I implore you, I beg of you, if you ever find yourself watching the Eagles, don’t watch the football, watch the man who snaps the football instead.

3. THE KIDS ARE MORE THAN ALRIGHT

Last week on 1st & 10 with 10:13 left, and Chicago in Carolina’s redzone, the Panthers created a turnover with a trinity of Derrick Brown (#95), Brian Burns (#53) and Jeremy Chinn (#21). The Panthers ran cover 3 cloud, where Chinn, the nickle defender is playing the flat. He punched the flat route, sat, and stared into the fire broiling within Nick Foles’s eyes. He sees the deep corner, and peels backwards to run under the corner route. Foles under pressure attempted an absolutely stupid pass, a pass he has attempted all season, but hasn’t been punished enough for.

Foles was under pressure because of Brown and Burns. Brown is the right defensive tackle lined up as a ‘1’, and Burns is a fairly wide ‘5’ as the right defensive end. Brown uses his outside arm to sling the guard inside, and then rips underneath his outside shoulder to clear out his path. Burns tortured Charles Leno Jr. for the entirety of this game. Here, using a wide rush, and a slight long arm, he’s able to run around Leno’s block because Brown sends Foles scampering backwards. Foles attempts this pass off his back foot with his four horsemen around him.

I don’t know when the Panthers will have a great defense again, but I do know when they do, it will be built around Derrick Brown, Brian Burns, Jeremy Chinn, and Yetur Gros-Matos.

Brown is the F-250 version of the F-450 Fletcher Cox. He’s like if Cox had a bowling ball for a belly instead of a cannon ball, or rotisserie chickens for arms instead of smoked turkeys. He’s the best interior defender from this draft class, yes, he’s better than Javon Kinlaw, and he’s already supplanting himself as one of the most disruptive interior defenders in the league.

He can play everything from nose tackle to ‘4i’. Against Arizona earlier this year he’s (#95) playing a shade on the center’s outside shoulder. He takes on the outside half. He punches the outside shoulder and sits. He peeps the backfield, slings the center, and makes the tackle. Not only that, but he makes this tackle and devours Kenyan Drake while still engaged with the block. This is football. This is a social studies class.

It all starts with his punch. His upper body strength is insane. Routinely he pops, and extends 300 pound men, walking the line of scrimmage back. He’s in the ‘B’ gap. The Cardinals are running a zone read play. After extending he runs the line of scrimmage to make a tackle along with Yetur Gros-Matos.

Left defensive tackle. ‘3’ technique. Punch, extend, shed, find the ball carrier.

Not only that, but his motor is always burning. I’ve never seen a ‘2i’ run around a down block on power, bend the interior like a rounder Aaron Donald and make a tackle, but here we are.

And on this rep, he’s defending outside zone from the backside. Interior defenders rarely chase down outside zone plays like this. Brown is one of the rare players who can pull this off.

He can rush the passer on the interior as well. He isn’t merely a run stuffer. As seen before, and as seen on this rush against Atlanta, where as a nose tackle, on a three man rush, he’s able to split both the guard and center and send Matt Ryan running away.

This is Burns’s second season in the league. Last year he had 7.5 sacks, 16 quarterback hits, and 5 tackles for a loss. This year he’s up to 2 sacks, 7 quarterback hits, and 3 tackles for a loss. So far, he’s been a lite beer version of Von Miller.

He’s the right defensive end lined up against Charles Leno Jr. (#72). As a wide rusher, he bursts off the ball, uses his inside arm to shield himself from Leno’s punch, and then proceeds to dip underneath it. After this, somehow, he’s able to bend the edge enough to get himself flat with Foles. This forces a crappy throw into the flat, and a Chicago field goal, in a game where every point was precious.

He’s in the same position again, and has the same match up. He goes inside-out on Leno Jr., uses his inside arm to create extension, and with this same arm he rips under the block. It’s easy after this. Bending the astral plane. Leaping into Foles, blocking his view, and nearly causing an interception. He’s a tabby cat running across the road and sending a car into someone’s living room.

Quarterbacks have to be cognizant of their dropbacks against Burns. If they go too deep he’ll simply run around offensive tackles without making a true pass rush move at all. Here Justin Herbert is guilty of this. Burns runs around the tackle, bends, and picks his pocket, sending the ball into the air.

Sacking the quarterback isn’t enough. Giving the ball back to the offense is his end goal. Atlanta had the audacity to run play action split zone against him, and have the tight end pull behind the formation block him. The tight end doesn’t get deep enough. Ears chopped off. He chases Matt Ryan from the get go. The only thing he touches is the football.

Chinn is a great alley defender. He can play an extensive number of roles. He can defend cute screen passes and jet sweeps.

He can play the flat, mainly because he’s such a great open field tackler, like here, when he chases down and lassos Henry Ruggs III.

Or here, when he has inside leverage, and is still able to chase down a play action pass to Josh Jacobs into the flat.

He can even play slot corner, and play man coverage against wide receivers lined up in spread sets. On this rep he isn’t beat by Jimmy Graham’s body, and is able to defend the pass attempt.

Currently, Chinn is more of a third safety. Carolina likes to get him in the box, and out on the edge to defend the alley. They want him to make plays, instead of stand back in two high or single high shells. It will be interesting to see how his role transforms as Carolina continues to fill out their defense.

Yetur-Gros Matos has been the worst player of this group so far. But the flashes are outlandish, he has rain forest arms, arms like Arik Armstead.

He’s a tree out on the field. Wearing long sleeves he stands out among behemoths. He’s the right defensive end matched up against D.J. Humphries (#74). He places his hands on the tackle’s chest, sells the punch, takes them back, and rips under the outside shoulder. It’s a perfect ghost-rip. Immediately, he plants, bends, and is able to strip Kyler Murray from behind.

This is Burns first year in the league. The other three are rookies. Aside from Shaq Thompson, and maybe Deonte Jackson, everyone else on this defense is expendable. The Panthers have the offense to compete right now, and they’ll eventually have the defense to do so. This year’s Panthers team feels really .500ish. Hopefully Joe Brady stays another year, they continue to invest in their defense next offseason and build around this young core, and give this team a fair shot. The cornerstone talent is here. They just need to fill in the rest.

4. THE 1990s WERE BACK ON MONDAY NIGHT

The Arizona Cardinals and Dallas Cowboys used to share the same division. It was an actual rivalry when these two teams played each other twice a year. This was back when the Cardinals played outdoors, 112 degrees, metal bleachers, back when men were men, and Jake the Snake was cursing and rolling right and rolling left.

This is the football I was born into. I have dozens of these Cowboys-Cardinals games tucked away into some dark part of my brain I can never access, deep in the troves of the subconsciousness. I don’t remember games or plays specifically. I can see the Cardinals white helmets. A plastic Cowboys miniature helmet from a gumball machine. Empty bleachers in August. The peeled sticker on a N64 cartridge. Clunky quarterback club animations. Disgusting clayfighting. I can hear my Father’s voice.

I forgot about these things. Then I saw a commercial for Cowboys-Cardinals Monday Night. I saw these things. I heard these things. It only takes a glance to bring back the dead.

5. OVERLOADED DEFENSIVE LINES

Both Carolina and Indianapolis used an overloaded defensive line to create individual match ups for their best best player on an obvious pass rushing down. This was cool. It worked. This is how Indy did it.

The Colts have three defensive linemen lined up on the right side of the Bengals’ offensive line. The Bengals have a ‘Ringo’ call, meaning the right side of offensive line slides over one gap right. The opposite side blocks man on man. Giovani Bernard (#25) looks inside out, and ends up chipping the defensive end before seeping out. This means Michael Jordan (#60) has no one to block.

At the snap, Denico Autry (#96) slants into the opposite ‘A’ gap, drawing him to Trey Hopkins (#66). Typically, Hopkins should send him to Jordan, but Jordan isn’t looking this direction, and Autry sits, before crossing back the other direction to replace DeForest Buckner (#99). By doing this, it ensures Buckner has a one v. one match up against Alex Redmond (#62). Buckner rushes the outside gap, plants, chops Redmond’s inside shoulder, and swims over the top like death’s scythe. Then he bends the pocket and takes down Joe Burrow, with Autry right behind him.

Even defensive coaches can get their best players in a spot to make plays. Matt Eberflus has consistently done this since taking over as the defensive coordinator in Indianapolis in 2018. I still don’t fully buy the Colts having a top three defense, because of the opponents they’ve played, but so far, statistically, they have one of the best defenses in the league.

6. HMMMMMMM

The Packers scored 43, 42, 37, and 30 points to start the year. These outputs came against Minnesota, Detroit, New Orleans, and Atlanta. There have been substantial offensive changes from last year for Green Bay. They no longer play run-run-pass, they’ve used more pre-snap motion to create match up advantages, they run off tackle really well, Aaron Rodgers has a better relationship with his pass catchers and they can do more than just throw to Devante Adams, their play action pass game has been incredible, and so has Rodgers.

Yet, they hadn’t played a great defense. That changed this week. The Buccaneers plundered them. A Rodgers pick six, and an interception immediately following that one took them out of this game. The Bucs had the secondary speed needed to chase their deep pass attempts off play action. The Packers couldn’t run off tackle against Devin White and Lavonte David. And Todd Bowles utilized more of his zany blitzes.

I still think Matt LaFleur has learned from his mistakes the previous two seasons as a playcaller. The Packers, with the same players, look entirely different. But after this game against Tampa, the Packers having a dominant offense is no longer a sure thing. Luckily for them, they get Houston, Minnesota, San Francisco, and Jacksonville. They won’t play another great defense until Indianapolis and Chicago in weeks 11 and 12. And then, only then, can we revisit this idea again.

7. 2019 DETROIT MEETS 2020

The 2019 Lions had a legitimate offense in 2019. Who knew it would take Darrel Bevell to create a vertical passing offense for Matthew Stafford. With Stafford’s return from a broken back, it seemed reasonable to expect more of the same in 2020. This didn’t happen.

Instead the Lions offense has been running the ball too much. There has been way too much Adrian Peterson. There’s also been too many crossing routes, focusing on the intermediate, and when they did go vertical, they rarely hit. Entering this week Stafford had only completed 4 passes over 20 yards, and Peterson had 54 carries. That changed last week. Stafford completed 2 whole passes over 20 yards, and D’Andre Swift almost had as many carries as Peterson with 14 to his 15, but had 76 more rushing yards thanks to a long rush of 54.

The biggest difference is Kenny Golladay played his third game of the season since returning from injury. Sidney Jones was no match for him when the Lions stretched the field vertically. Hopefully they continue to do this as the season continues and climb out of the pit of run establishing physical football. Stafford is incredible at throwing the deep ball. Golladay is incredible at leaping over defenders. This is good. Keep doing it.

The Lions finally broke the 30 point barrier against the slump busting Jaguars. The Jaguars know their role now. It’s to be the worst defense in the league, so opposing offenses can get the malodorous parts of themselves out, and get their life back on track. Good. Great. Grand. I don’t think I could take much more Adrian Peterson.

8. PROGRESSION ISN’T ALWAYS LINEAR

As Josh Allen has stepped up, everything else has fallen apart. The Bills have gone from having a great defense and run offense, to having a bad defense, mainly thanks to injuries to Matt Milano and others, and the worst run offense in the league, while being carried by Josh Allen. What a world. The expectation was for Josh Allen to morph to just good, good enough to combine forces with a complete football team that would win their division and be in the tier below Buffalo and Kansas City. Instead, Allen is living in a triplex with Aaron Rodgers and Patrick Mahomes as the best quarterbacks in the league, and every other aspect of this team is searching for answers.

Life is funny. Progression isn’t always linear. Allen had the worst game of his 2020 season, in the slick rain, he threw one bad pass, missing a wide open Cole Beasley crosser that should have converted a vital third down, and threw a one handed game ending interception while down by 9, because the defense couldn’t corral Mahomes’s scrambling ability. He wasn’t bad though. He was still really good. He drew multiple coverage penalties pushing the ball downfield, completed an absurd roll out touchdown, had a brusing game on the ground, and was a few great Kansas City Chiefs deep pass plays away from the spectcular. Don’t let the liars get in your ears. Our God was a good God this week.

Here are OUR highlights:

9. BREAK OUT THE JUICE BOXES AND FRUIT SLICES

New York (G) and Atlanta finally won a game. Daniel Jones hit one pass, and continued to prove he’s the best running back the Giants have. The Falcons finally held onto a large lead with Dan Quinn gone, even though they’d be better off losing games now at this point in time.

With these two teams winning games it means every team has finally won a game. This is good. No one should go winless. I’ve played on plenty of terrible teams before. I’ve stomped on bleachers. I’ve cried in the backseat of cars. I’ve hated everything. No one should feel like that. Well everyone except for Bill O’Brien.

And yes, I know the Jets are 0-6, but no, the Jets don’t count. Joe Flacco threw 44 passes last week. That isn’t a professional football team. It’s a psyche ward, an amalgamation of two headed dogs riding bearded ladies and eating hot dogs with chopped off fingers snuggled in between the bun, this isn’t a football team, it’s a holocaust.

10. THE MISSING LINK

If you read this article every week, and if you read the AFC South Preview going back to this summer, then you already know Philip Rivers likes to throw four routes. Swing routes into the flat. Corner routes to tight ends and slot receivers. Cheap and easy crossing routes. And go up and get it vertical routes.

It looked like the Colts had this set up for him. Then Parris Campbell got hurt. Then Michael Pittman Jr. got hurt. And then the Colts were left without the crossing routes and contested deep catches Rivers likes to throw. Frank Reich has been able to scheme the crossing stuff open well. Have you heard of De’Michael Harris? He caught a few of them this week, and it’s usually pretty easy to find someone who can run across the middle of the field.

What they really have been missing is someone who can stretch the field. T.Y. Hilton seemed like the obvious candidate, but Rivers and him haven’t been able to connect in this manner. The Colts may have found what they were missing in Marcus Johnson. He caught a great deep middle pass over Anderson Sendejo last week.

Against the Bengals this week, he ran a couple of smooth corner routes, and was able to catch two of them.

And he feigned the same deep corner, and turned it up the seam. Wide open. Rivers just barely overthrew him, which is an impossible sentence.

Rivers knows the limitations of his body. He’s an old dude. He knows what he likes. Maybe, just maybe, if Marcus Johnson is the real deal, we can see the entirety of Rivers’s skill set, instead of just 4/5 of it.