5 Things I care about
The Steelers' young pieces are trending the right way
The Steelers have long odds to get to the postseason. FiveThirtyEight has them at a 15 percent chance to make the postseason. I don’t see them as a serious contender this year, they’re just merely alive and in the conversation.
It doesn’t really matter to me, however. What is a big deal, in my view, is those young players on the Steelers offense feel like they’re trending in the right direction.
Kenny Pickett has now put together back-to-back games with signature moments in comeback mode to secure late wins. That’s excellent resume boosting.
Pickett hasn’t been flawless as a rookie. No first-year passer ever is but he’s moving right along and is without question adding value to a drab scheme. Pickett’s mobility is a big difference-maker. He looks more comfortable as the weeks go on, sliding into creation mode. He made several plays on the move, including the game-winning touchdown in Week 17.
Najee Harris was the receiver on that play. He was excellent against Baltimore. Harris looked like he was going to go down as one of the worst picks in fantasy football earlier this year, as he struggled to get anything going on the ground. Harris credited the offensive line for turning the season around in a postgame NBC interview. He’s right but I also think he just looks better. We should never have glossed over his preseason foot injury. Harris looks like a first-round back right now.
The Steelers have also unearthed a formidable backfield sidekick in Jaylen Warren. The rookie brings his own level of pop to the backfield. His presence keeps the team from needing to play Harris an absurd amount of snaps, which might be best for his short- and long-term outlook.
The passing game is still a bit hit or miss. I hate the route concepts and overall deployment of both Diontae Johnson and George Pickens. I’ve said it all year but Matt Canada’s offense is the worst-designed unit in the game. I want to see all these promising young guys in a different offense next season.
As we leave 2022, I am feeling optimistic about the future of the Steelers offense. That’s all you can ask for in this reboot season and quite frankly, I didn’t think we’d get there a few months ago.
Mike Evans’ eruption game
Mike Evans had not scored since Week 4. He hadn’t cleared 100 yards since Week 8. Evans accomplished both feats and then some in a win-and-in Week 17 game against the Panthers.
A lot has been made of the Tom Brady-Mike Evans connection this year. A big part of the issue is that Brady has been too quick to get rid of the ball, as I wrote about this week. That’s made it difficult to let downfield routes develop.
Brady’s 2.36-second-time-to-throw on Sunday was only just a bit higher than his season average but he hung in there longer than normal on some of Evans’ big plays. All three of Evans’ scores came on go routes. Brady had a 2.6-second time to throw on the first and a whopping 3.4 on the second.
Those plays are what make Tampa Bay a dangerous offense. We need to see more of those if the Bucs are going to make anything resembling a run in the playoffs.
There’s nothing wrong with Evans as a player right now. Week 17 helped confirm that.
Cam Akers’ strong finish
Cam Akers ran for 123 yards on 19 carries against the Chargers to continue his strong run to the end of the season. Akers has now run for 408 yards and six scores at 4.9 yards per carry from Week 13 on. He’s been on fire ever since the calendar turned to December.
Akers has run through some soft defensive fronts of late but regardless, this is still such a welcome development in what’s been an utterly lost season for LA. Especially when you consider the Rams were at one point ready to move Akers off the roster.
The Rams have a ton of questions facing them this offseason. They have serious roster holes to address in an attempt to bounce back from this rough season. Not having to consider replacing Akers is great news for a team that already has its hands full.
The Jets need a QB
You already knew this, but with the Jets now officially eliminated from the playoff race, it’s never been more relevant. New York has to push all the chips in and laser-focus on identifying a solution behind center.
Mike White has had his moments. He looks like a really good long-term backup for the Jets but he has run out of gas.
White was 25th among quarterbacks in EPA per dropback on Sunday. The Seahawks put him in a blender and sucked all the air out of the offense. White averaged just 5.2 yards per attempt.
Zach Wilson needs a change of scenery. If it’s ever going to happen for him (I am not optimistic) it won’t be in New York. He has become too toxic of a figure with next to no margin for error. If he’s salvageable, the locker room and fanbase won’t give him the time to get there. He hasn’t really earned those chances, either.
The Jets will have to leave no stone unturned when it comes to solving their problem behind center. The veteran quarterback market could be pretty flush this offseason. There will be appealing free agents and guys available via trade. You’d imagine that’s the way they’ll go, as this team is simply far too good to try and break in another young quarterback. The skill position players and defense are good enough for this team to be an 11-win operation. The Jets can’t let another year of those guys go to waste.
Jarrett Stidham plays really well
Jarrett Stidham ranked second among quarterbacks this week with a 15.9 yards per completion average. I didn’t see that one coming.
I still think Derek Carr got a bit of a raw deal with his Raiders career ending on such a sour, “We don’t want to risk paying your guaranteed money” type of note but there’s no doubt he left some meat on the bone this year. I thought we wouldn’t see another passer shine a light on that reality until next year — but Stidham brought it out right away.
The Raiders offense has big-time talent. Davante Adams is still one of the very best receivers in the NFL and Darren Waller is a mismatch problem. Stidham kept pushing the ball to them right through the teeth of the best defenses the league has to offer.
The Raiders will still be looking outside the building for their post-Carr solution at quarterback. Stidham having the day he did in Week 17 was a reminder that this is a desirable ecosystem with a ton of players to build around.
5 Things I don’t care about
The Ravens' pass offense without Lamar Jackson
It was pretty predictable that this was going to be the “don’t care” section of the Sunday Night Football recap.
Baltimore’s offense just doesn’t have close to enough in the passing game even when Lamar Jackson plays. When he’s not out there, this just isn’t anything that resembles a playoff-caliber unit.
For the first time in almost two years, the running game feels like it’s on track. J.K. Dobbins has been running really well, even if he claims he’s not 100% right. He cleared 90 yards with ease in another strong night. Gus Edwards didn’t have a big impact in this game but he has given this team good reps over the last month-plus.
The running back rotation is a far cry from the crew of declining veterans that floundered for much of 2021. It’s just not enough.
Mark Andrews had a dominant night, catching nine passes for 100 yards. He made up 77% of Tyler Huntley’s total passing yards. No one else had more than 12 yards. Wide receivers caught just two passes. That is not a serious NFL operation.
Did anyone outside of Baltimore bias have any faith that Huntley was about to drive the length of the field to even get Justin Tucker in position for a game-tying field goal in the final minute? Did anyone with those biases even think it?
Jackson might not even be enough to save this team. They just don’t look like a real contender with this offensive setup and receiver personnel. One thing is for sure, though: If he’s not a part of this team they are going absolutely nowhere.
The Packers’ early miscues
A Week 18 where Green Bay was in control of its own playoff destiny felt like a distant fantasy at many points this year. And yet, that’s exactly the reality we’re walking into next week.
The Packers have cured most of what ailed them earlier this season.
The passing game has leveled out with rookies Christian Watson and Romeo Doubs playing key roles down the stretch. Even more important, they play quite different roles. Aaron Jones and A.J. Dillon are seemingly alternating big weeks at this point and forming the backfield duo we thought we’d get all year.
Most critical of all, the defense has finally rounded into form.
A once-cupcake unit, the Packers defense ranks ninth in EPA per play allowed and eighth in defensive success rate since Week 13.
I no longer care about some of the Packers' struggles from early in the season. They are no longer instructive. This team has evolved and found itself. As long as they make it into the playoff dance, they’ll be a formidable team capable of playing in adverse conditions or putting up points in a dome.
The coverage again Justin Jefferson
Unlike Justin Jefferson’s Week 1 eruption, the Packers didn’t let the star receiver run scott-free through their secondary. Jaire Alexander chirped a ton coming into the game and he backed it up. Alexander did more shadowing on Jefferson than normal and got some safety help in high-leverage situations. It was a fantastic defensive game by Alexander.
The Packers were going to make it difficult for Jefferson to be the one to beat them. Unfortunately, Kirk Cousins was all too willing to oblige.
I don’t care what the coverage looks like — you cannot leave a critical division game and target your elite wideout on just 15% of his routes run. Get him a screen. Target him on a slant when Alexander is in off coverage. Just throw it up to him even when the coverage look isn’t ideal; do we need to revisit the fourth down catch against the Bills?
I mean, just do … something.
Cousins needed to take more chances and trust one of the best receivers in the game. Period. The Vikings offense only fires on all cylinders because of No. 18. They’ve now lost control of the second seed in the NFC by getting too far away from him.
Daniel Jones’ past
I’ll admit to being a huge Daniel Jones skeptic this year. I rolled my eyes at every “Look at what Brian Daboll did with Josh Allen” comparison when it came to Jones. And laughably, I even thought Tyrod Taylor might start some games for this Giants team.
I don’t think Jones is about to become the next Allen or jump to that level of player but he’s absolutely taken a leap nonetheless.
Jones ranks 11th in EPA per dropback this year despite working with a rotating cast of receivers often inhabited by bottom-of-the-roster guys. His legs have been a legitimate difference-maker. He’s added 429 yards and a 5.8% touchdown rate on scrambles.
The Giants are in the playoffs, a result just about no one would have expected out of this team in Daboll’s first season.
I don’t feel like Jones has been dragged along for the ride, either. He’s a big part of the reason they’re in this position.
I admit to being way wrong about Jones. He’s a changed player with Daboll in town. New York has every incentive in the world to ensure he’s a part of this team in 2023. They’ll work to find a solution that works for all parties as his contract is set to expire in March.
Eagles offensive stats
The box score doesn’t look too bad for the Eagles offense. DeVonta Smith had another monster game, A.J. Brown went for 97 yards and a score and Miles Sanders averaged 5.1 yards per carry.
That paints a false picture that this unit has been the same without Jalen Hurts. It has not been great; it’s just been fine.
Gardner Minshew has been also been just fine. The receivers have been fine in fantasy. But the Eagles have lost two games and it’s clear the offense lacks teeth without Hurts. Minshew is a bit more mistake-prone than Hurts. He doesn’t have the big-play ability or athleticism to make up for it.
The Eagles might get Hurts back next week. It’s unclear how much he’d play, if at all. However, it’s so plain to see how much they need him.