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Jets finally win a game, flipping NFL draft order for now – Sports Illustrated

You thought this year couldn’t get any weirder, but there we all were on Sunday night, at about 7 p.m. ET, locked in on a winless team and a result that would reverberate from North Jersey to North Florida to South Carolina, and all points in between.

This is where the Jets and Jaguars are—in a place where losing is winning.

Or at least that’s where you are if you’re a fan of one of those teams, or a casual observer of them, or just a logical person who can weigh the rewards of having the first pick in this particular year’s draft versus that of a single win in a lost season. It certainly is for Jacksonville owner Shad Khan, whose team had already gotten in the win column this year, and who has a job or two to sell prospective candidates on taking. It’s also where you are if you have a business interest in where either team will be the next 15 years.

But if you’re a player or a coach who’s lived through loss after loss, and have no idea where you’ll be working in 2021 anyway, the situation is a little (or a lot) different. So it was that as the Rams stumbled down the stretch, and the Jets took advantage and scored a dramatic 23–20 win—one that required a fourth-down stop, and a third-down conversion—the guys on the field weren’t going to have much empathy for fans who saw their triumph as, well, terrible.

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Kirby Lee/USA TODAY Sports; Troy Babbitt/USA TODAY Sports; Jasen Vinlove/USA TODAY Sports

“Our job is to try and go out and win every week,” was how coach Adam Gase plainly responded to a necessary question from ESPN’s Rich Cimini on fans being conflicted.

“It doesn’t affect us,” quarterback Sam Darnold added. “We’re focused on one job every week, and that’s winning a game.”

Under the avalanche of losses, that focus actually did show up, in spots at least, over the last two months. The Jets probably should’ve beaten the Patriots on the second Monday in November. They nearly did get the Chargers in their first trip to L.A. 13 days after that. Then, there was the Gregg Williams debacle that we don’t need to rehash, but absolutely should’ve been win No. 1.

Good for Gase, Darnold and everyone else who, after all that, finally broke through.

But there’s no denying the potential repercussions of a win that, to most Jets fans, felt like as bad a loss as you could take rooting for a team. That fan base has been here before. In 1997, they had Bill Parcells as coach and the first pick in the draft, with Tennessee junior Peyton Manning poised to go first overall. Then, Manning decided to go back to school and three years later a deal the team had with Bill Belichick to become head coach fell through at Belichick’s insistence.

And while we’ll never know if that one twist of fate going differently might’ve meant a Belichick/Manning dynasty in New Jersey, rather than the Belichick/Brady reality that tormented the franchise for two decades, we can say, 24 years later, that some of those bad memories were dredged back up as a day that served as a bright spot for players and coaches doubled as something with potential to loom as a dark day for those who follow the team.

Yup, this was a weird circumstance on a weird Sunday in the weirdest of years.

***

With two weeks left in that weird season, here’s a number that we shouldn’t lose sight of: The NFL has played game 223 games over 15 weeks, leaving the league just 33 games shy of its goal to play 256 in 17. That’s notable, and that the league has been able to get here without even having to pull the Week 18 lever is pretty impressive. And we’ll have more on that in the coming days and weeks.

For now, here’s what you’ll find in the Week 15 MMQB …

• Josh Allen’s ridiculous rate of growth.

• The Dolphins stamping out the Patriots’ dynasty.

• The Colts’ playmaking defense.

• Matt Nagy and Mitch Trubisky climb off the mat.

• The Cowboys’ sudden resurgence.

• A mock draft! (Just the top 10 for now.)

But we’re starting with the spot the Jets and their fans are in on this Monday morning.

***

You’ll hear a lot of people say this week that those who work for teams would never root for losses, and I think that’s mostly true—and especially true of players and coaches. But there are circumstances out there where, well, different kinds of feelings might come out, and I think this is one of those.

Which is why on Sunday night I asked about a dozen GMs and execs how they’d feel if they were in Jets GM Joe Douglas’s shoes as the clock hit zero at SoFi Stadium. Here’s a sampling of some of their answers …

Relieved that you aren’t going to finish 016 and live in infamy.

I don’t know, it’s hard to say. You play to win in this league. I don’t care what the record is at the time. He has a ton of draft capital to build a team. We don’t know what the future holds. Everyone thinks they do but they don’t.

Yeah, that’s tough. I’d be sick to my stomach.

It’s a gut-punch, for sure. I mean, you don’t go into a season thinking, ‘Maybe we’ll lose enough to get No. 1,’ but as the season goes on you have to at least think well at least that’s coming for us.

I would feel so motherf—— deflated. … It has potential to be so, so, so massive. It could potentially change his life which is just WILD to think about

Like s—.

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Kirby Lee/USA TODAY Sports

Another GM texted a similar previous experience he had with a team procuring a top pick, and attached a puking emoji to it. An NFC exec added, “You play to win. I get the Trevor [Lawrence] talk but anytime you go out and compete your mindset should be to win.” Then, I reminded him that I’m not a scout, and it’s obvious to even me what’s coming to April.

To that, he sent laughing emojis and texted, “I know.”

Everyone knows. And that I haven’t even had to type the name of Clemson QB Trevor Lawrence until now to explain why Sunday’s Rams-Jets game could mean so much says it all. This isn’t Baker Mayfield in 2018, Kyler Murray in 2019 or even Joe Burrow last year, when Burrow was a pretty clear-cut No. 1

This is the fourth quarterback prospect in my lifetime—joining John Elway (1983), Peyton Manning (1998) and Andrew Luck (2012)— to enter the NFL with this sort of can’t-miss advance billing, a player who, on his own, could create a decade and a half of stability for a woebegone franchise, like the two jockeying to pick him. The potential fallout? Well, you can put it in bright lights just by looking at the quarterbacks who went next in those respective draft classes (Todd Blackledge, Ryan Leaf and Robert Griffin, for the record).

Bottom line, Lawrence is close to a sure thing at a position where that rarely exists.

So you can excuse Jets fans if they cursed under their breath as Rams RB Cam Akers’s go-ahead 18-yard touchdown was called back with 7:36 left, ultimately leaving the hosts to kick a field goal instead to trim the deficit to 23–20. You could let them throw something at the TV when L.A. called shot throws to Akers and Gerald Everett on third-and-four and fourth-and-four with four minutes left. You could allow them to get really quiet when Darnold found the ageless Frank Gore over the middle for a game-clinching conversion on third-and-6.

You can, because, as those GMs and execs above explained, while what the Jets gained was real, what they lost (should the Jaguars lose two more games, and finish 1–15 with the strength of victory tiebreaker secure) figures to be much more real over time. All of which probably left most Jets fans with only one thing to say:

Go Jaguars.

(We’ll get to how massive this is for them in the Takeaways.)

***

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Troy Babbitt/USA TODAY Sports

JOSH ALLEN’S DEVELOPMENT

What did you say about me back then?

The question from Bills QB Josh Allen took me aback a little, but it was a very fair one after the show he put on Saturday night—throwing for 359 yards and two scores on 28-of-40 passing, as Buffalo blasted Denver 48–19 to clinch its first AFC East title in a generation.

That you were raw, I replied. Was that fair?

“Yeah, I can say that was,” Allen responded. “I’m just glad I was drafted to this organization. They’ve given me the tools to be as successful as I can be, and I feel like I’m still learning, still getting better. I love my teammates, I love how hard they work, how hard we work together. And the hard work is paying dividends.”

And this isn’t just about winning the division for the first time in a quarter-century, though that part probably felt pretty good for the head coach, Sean McDermott, and GM, Brandon Beane, who believed so deeply in Allen in 2018, and have been building toward this for four years now.

More so, this all feels, like Allen alluded to, like the Bills just starting to realize their considerable potential—with a roster young and loaded that only figures to keep improving, as long as Beane and McDermott can keep the core of young stars together, something that they started working on earlier this year with extensions for left tackle Dion Dawkins and corner Tre’Davious White. Allen, of course, will be among the first guys they approach on that front this season.

And that we’re at that point, with Allen likely to be the first of the 2018 draft’s quarterbacks to get his big second contract after this breakout season of his concludes, brings us back to how all his development from that raw prospect out of Wyoming was put on display (again) on Saturday in Denver. Two hours or so from that campus, three years later, Allen was nails.

That he’s here, of course, isn’t an accident. It’s the result of a team looking at the talent, and the person, and believing that he would do everything he could to harvest the former, which is exactly how this happened—how a scattershot passer became accurate, how a guy who played with a frantic pace got calm and how a coachable player found himself with the right people to show him the way.

“Well, I don’t mean to pat myself on the back, but I work extremely hard, whether it be in practice or the offseason, trying to find ways to get better,” Allen told me. “This offseason obviously was different with coronavirus, but it really gave me a chance to take a step back and see things from a different type of perspective, work on my mechanics, get more consistent. And the ball’s feeling good off my hand right now.

“When I’m on the field, I don’t think there’s a throw I can’t make, and being in the system for three years with coach [Brian] Daboll, him trusting me to go out there, give him suggestions on plays, and us calling those plays and having success, there’s just this trust factor that this team has. The guys around us, the quarterback room, Coach Dorsey, it involves everybody. And it took a small army to get where I am.”

Through our conversation, I was able to pick up a couple of moments that reflected the work of that small army—from the coordinator (Daboll) to the position coach (Dorsey) to his teammates—and illustrated how it’s coming to life in Allen’s talent manifesting.

The first: Second-and-goal, Denver 22, 1:54 left in the second quarter.

At the two-minute warning, with the Bills facing first-and-goal from the 30 (thanks to three consecutive penalties), Allen went to Dorsey with an idea for a play. Dorsey relayed it to Daboll, and after a throw to Isaiah McKenzie picked up eight yards on first down, second-and-goal from the 22 was the right time to lean on what the young quarterback was seeing out on the field.

“We had a timeout right before, and I said [to Dorsey], I really like this play—let’s call this,” Allen said. “And I know it’s first-and-goal from the 30, but I was telling the guys, ‘We’re still gonna score, let’s not freak out.’ Coach Daboll trusted me with the play-call, I followed the quarter safety, he was trying to push over, but right at the snap, I saw him stop his feet and we had enough time, and [Jake] Kumerow ran the right route and made a heck of a catch.”

If you watched the game, you’ll remember the throw to Kumerow, of course—an absolute bullet to pierce the thin air of Denver, and one right down Main Street, between that safety Allen referenced, Justin Simmons, and a second safety, Kareem Jackson, and into a small window to his receiver, running a post into the end zone out of the slot. But what went into it, more so than the act of getting it there, is what matters, for our purposes.

In one fell swoop, Allen showed he had the voice to speak up to the coaches, the stature for them to listen and the ability to take things he noticed earlier in the game and project them into strategy later on. So no, this scenario wouldn’t have played out a couple years ago.

The second: Third-and-6, Denver 34, 4:09 left in the third quarter.

Denver showed pressure and brought five at the snap—and on the play both A.J. Johnson and Malik Reed shook free to Allen’s right and bore down on the quarterback, taking away his vision to that side of the field. Allen was left to throw to a spot and had to trust Stefon Diggs would be there.

Lucky for the Bills, Allen has that sort of trust in Diggs, and Diggs can justify it. So Allen threw into the face of the rush, and Diggs dove on the other end to get to the ball well past the sticks, then got to his feet before being dragged down after a 16-yard gain. Buffalo wasn’t able to cash that one in with a touchdown (that was the drive on which the Bills had two touchdowns nullified, and when Allen was caught on camera saying, “How many times do we need to score?”), but the sequence showed, for sure, just where he is with his receivers.

And with Diggs, specifically.

“It’s that trust factor,” Allen said. “He does his job. He works extremely hard in practice. The communication shared between us all, the receiver group as a whole, it’s unbelievable, and it’s different than anything else I’ve been a part of. To have that trust, you see it over and over, the juice that he brings, every time the ball’s in the air, he’s attacking it and trying to go get it for me, it instills that faith that I have in him.

“I definitely think he is the best receiver in the game for what he does, how he creates separation, the juice that he brings, the run after the catch, you name it, he’s top-tier in every single thing that he does.”

With every game, it sure feels like Allen’s getting closer to that level too, and that makes the Bills, going into Christmas week, the top threat to the Chiefs’ juggernaut in the AFC.

I don’t know if they, or anyone else can beat K.C. at Arrowhead in January. What I do know is it’ll take a team with a certain self-assuredness to do it—and, after talking to Allen on Saturday night, it’s crystal clear to me that he and his team have it, both in themselves individually and what they’ve built collectively.

“Personally, there’s a lot of people that said there’s no way in hell that I’d be able to do this coming out of college,” Allen said. “I don’t play to prove other people wrong, I play to prove myself right, my family right and my teammates right. Obviously, the first time in 25 years, we’re [winning the division], it’s something special. But the work’s not done.”

So yeah, this weekend was just a step toward where they want to go. But based on where the franchise has been, and who they dethroned in the process, it was a pretty big one.

Speaking of that …

***

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Jasen Vinlove/USA TODAY Sports

DOLPHINS’ REVENGE

So it turns out all the former Patriots in Miami aren’t above reaching into the old Patriot playbook of looking for motivation wherever they can find it—and they did it this week, taking something from an earlier meeting with a rival team personally, and using it as fuel.

That rival team? New England itself. And the slights came from the Dolphins’ 21–11 season-opening loss in Foxboro. Here’s the explanation, courtesy of one of those guys.

“They kind of schemed us up the first time,” Patriot-turned-Dolphin linebacker Kyle Van Noy said from the Miami locker room postgame. “I’m going to keep it real, they thought everything was good … if that makes sense. They were all laughing and joking. We remembered that, and we’re in a different situation than they were. They were basically already eliminated. We just needed to basically finish it, and we did that today.

“I think the honeymoon’s over. We got the job done.”

When I asked again about Miami being upset with how the Patriots carried themselves late in that win, Cam Newton’s Week 1 debut in New England, Van Noy didn’t skip a beat.

“I think it’s been 99 days,” Van Noy said.

By my count, it’s actually been 98, but the point here was made—these Dolphins were well past backing down to a Patriot dynasty that, truth be told, is probably no more at this point. And man did that ever show on Sunday afternoon. Miami didn’t just return the favor for the opener, winning by an almost identical score (22–12). The Dolphins did it their way, which will lead into a big reason Van Noy cited for the team’s resurgence overall.

It was in what sparked Miami’s second-half comeback (a long, methodical drive on offense, followed by the defense forcing a turnover). It was in how the Dolphins pulled out all the stops (a funky hook-and-ladder play to convert a two-pointer, and a fake punt that was completed but negated because the receiver didn’t report as eligible). And it was in how the Dolphins, with three rookie offensive linemen starting, drove a stake through New England’s heart.

The Dolphins got the ball at their own 25 with 9:03 left. They covered the remaining 75 yards in 11 plays, with this play selection—run, pass, pass, run, run, run, run, pass, run, run, run. When it was over, there was just 3:17 showing on the clock, and Miami had taken its lead from 15–12 to 22–12, effectively finishing the Patriots’ 2020 season in the process.

“I think [that drive] shows we can win in every single way,” Van Noy said. “Some games we’ve been run-dominant, other games we’ve won through the air. And some games, we’re doing both. But this game was back and forth, smashmouth football, who’s going to break? And they ended up breaking before we did. We knew we weren’t going to break, and they just broke.

“We knew that was going to happen, that’s what we practice all week, all year. That’s the mentality our coach has. We ain’t backing down from nobody.”

To be sure, Sunday proved that (Miami needed just 145 yards from rookie QB Tua Tagovailoa to score a convincing win), just like the rest of the season has.

And now, the Dolphins are 9–5, and in the thick of the AFC playoff hunt just 21 months or so after coach Brian Flores and GM Chris Grier got their teardown in Miami going in earnest. There’s no question they’ve built it back up faster than most (myself included) thought was possible—and the cool part, as the veteran Vay Noy sees it, is that this isn’t just Patriots South.

Yes, some markings are there. But it’s not an adaptation of Foxboro. It’s Flores’s show, truly.

“He’s not trying to be anybody else. He’s trying to be himself,” Van Noy said. “And I think that’s what you want. He’s going to give you love when you deserve it, but he’s also going to get after you when you deserve it as well. I feel like he’s doing a great job. I respect him. One thing that I’ve noticed is the way he handles himself from the top-down. The way he takes care of the trainers, the training staff, the janitors, everybody to the owner. It’s nothing but first-class. He’s doing a great job, and he’s having a mentality you can’t teach.

“He’s got it.”

And what he did to his old boss Sunday, right down to motivational methods that’d make Belichick blush, seems to be proof positive of it.

***

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Trevor Ruszkowski/USA TODAY Sports

COLTS’ BALLHAWKS

Indy’s defense isn’t exactly where it was earlier in the season statistically—when it ranked first in almost every major category—but that doesn’t mean what got the Colts there in the first place is gone. In fact, as star linebacker Darius Leonard looks at it, the most important piece to the puzzle is still there, and apparent, in spades.

“Just look at our defense, then look at everybody else’s defense,” he said postgame. “There is not one guy that doesn’t run to the ball. Look at DeForest Buckner. He’s our big-time D-lineman. And he’s making plays down the field. And now you watch any other defense. I’ll tell you what, watch any other big-time defensive linemen, and when the ball’s downfield, watch what they do. That’s what makes our defense better, we’re selfless.

“And we’re going to get to the ball, no matter what. We’ve got guys going to the ball each time. If it’s a run, 11 of us at the ball and everybody’s going to have a strip attempt.”

When it mattered most on Sunday, that showed up.

To set the scene, the Titans were rolling past the Lions in Nashville and set to move to 10–4, putting the onus on the 9–4 Colts to keep pace. Fourth-quarter heroics from Philip Rivers—namely, a 41-yard strike to T.Y. Hilton that set up a five-yard TD pass to Zach Pascal—put the Colts in front 27–20 with less than two minutes left, and in position to stay in that first-place tie in the AFC South.

But to get there, the Colts needed to stop Deshaun Watson one more time, which is always easier said than done. And indeed, Watson didn’t make it easy—driving the Texans 60 yards to a fourth-and-five from the Colts’ 15. On the next play, Watson took the shotgun snap, and quickly unloaded the ball over middle to slot-receiver Keke Coutee, who collected the ball just past the sticks and darted for the goal line.

Just as Coutee got there, though, Leonard asserted his own idea on how this one would end.

“My man was actually the back,” he told me. “Luckily—I mean, we were just having this conversation with the safeties—the back actually looked like he was running a wheel, but he came back inside so I was actually out of position. But the quarterback threw it to the short-side receiver, and once I saw the ball in his left arm, I knew I had an opportunity to kind of make a play there. Every time I try to tackle, I kind of try to punch at the ball.

“It was just a perfect opportunity there. That’s what happened. Just winning the ballgame, that’s the most important thing. Going out there, trying to make a play for your teammates.”

Sure enough, as Coutee approach the goal line, Leonard rushed up behind him and hit the ball so hard that it looked like a JUGS machine shot it into the end zone. Kenny Moore dove at it, which kept it away from Texans TE Jordan Akins (who also lunged at the ball), and ricocheted it back to another young linebacking star, Bobby Okereke.

And all this didn’t exactly come out of nowhere either. In fact, it’s the third time in five games that a late turnover basically delivered the Colts a victory—it happened in Indy’s Week 13 win over Houston too, as well as in the Week 11 thriller over Green Bay.

“It’s all about practice. The way we practice, our last drives in practice, everybody says ‘Let’s finish practice,’“ Leonard continued. “Because you finish practice, you finish the game. My biggest thing is I always say pressure does two things: It busts pipes and makes diamonds. In big-time situations, you’ve got to want to make a play. You’ve got to want to say, ‘You know what, the ball’s coming to me, I’m going to be the one to make the play.’

“That’s the main thing I was saying the whole entire time. I say it every week when it’s crunch time. Luckily this week, it was my opportunity to step up to make a play.”

And in doing so, he kept he Colts in position to stick with Tennessee in first place with just two games left. The Titans have the Packers and Texans left, while Indy has the Steelers and Jaguars, which leaves both keeping an eye on each other.

“That’s the ultimate goal. The first thing is winning your division, and right now we’re tied up,” Leonard said. “You don’t watch the scoreboard. That’s the one thing you’ve got to do, you’ve got to make sure you’re taking care of business. You can’t focus on anybody else. You’ve got to make sure you control all of your controllables. That’s playing great ball as the Indianapolis Colts.”

Which, at 10–4, it’s safe to say they’re doing.

***

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Brace Hemmelgarn/USA TODAY Sports

BEARS STAY ALIVE

If you stopped paying attention to the Bears after six straight losses, that’s understandable. If you resisted buying into any sort of hype that Mitch Trubisky would make Chicago look any less wrong for trading up for him with Patrick Mahomes and Watson available, then you were correct to do it.

But the Bears’ season didn’t end three weeks ago, nor did Trubisky’s career in their colors.

And as I took a closer look Sunday at how exactly Chicago turned it around, it became impossible to ignore the truth: Trubisky’s actually playing very, very well, and I say that even after an unsightly pick that could’ve cost his Bears Sunday’s game against the Vikings.

Over his last three games, all starts, Trubisky’s connected on 65-of-88 throws (73.9%) for 736 yards, five touchdowns and a pick, and he’s doing it, his coach thinks, at least in part because of how he got here. Trubisky had his fifth-year option for 2021 declined, watched his team trade for former Super Bowl MVP Nick Foles and then was benched after an uneven start to this year.

At some point, a player in that sort of spot might say, screw it, and start playing like a man with house money, which, I think, is where Trubisky is right now. So I don’t think he’d sign up to go through all those negative situations again. But they have probably turned into a positive, if almost inadvertently

“I really believe, for different reasons, it put him in a position to step back and realize where he’s at,” coach Matt Nagy told me from the team bus. “And now, he’s using what happened to him as a positive.

“We tried like hell, and he tried like hell, to have this happen the last couple years. We were trying different ways to get it out of him. But I really believe that that has done it. He’s just in a good place, and that’s a credit to him for having resiliency.”

The Bears needed him there, too, on Sunday, because that one in Minnesota basically amounted to being an elimination game, with both teams coming 6–7 and chasing the Cardinals (now 8–6) for the NFC’s final playoff spot. And for the most part, Trubisky did the job, going a workmanlike 13-of-18 for 160 yards and a touchdown to complement mail-carrier David Montgomery (32 carries, 146 yards, two TDs).

As they had the last few weeks, he and Montgomery also responded to the job a reworked offensive line—now starting former Notre Dame undrafted products Sam Mustipher and Alex Bars, and having moved Cody Whitehair to left guard—has done. That’s a positive, as is Trubisky’s new outlook, which is less cluttered now with concern over what everyone else thinks of him.

“He had a lot of different people trying to tell him different ways to handle how to be a leader and how to be successful at that position, because people care,” Nagy said. “We all care about him. You have a lot of different people, whoever it is, I can go on and on about the different people, but you have people trying to tell him and he’s a satisfier. He wants to satisfy everybody. And I think it just became hard. When this happens to you and you have it taken away, you go into a mindset where it can be really bad or it can be really good.

“It depends what you want to do with it. And as of right now, he’s chosen the good path.”

But he did take one quick turn in the wrong direction Saturday. After having driven the Bears from their own 29 to the Vikings’ 6, and with 3:02 left, he threw one up in the direction of J.P. Holtz, and was picked clean by Cam Dantzler—with that pick breathing life back into a Vikings team that would’ve been put away by a touchdown. But what Nagy called the “beauty” of that play was that the coach finally had a strong feel for how Trubisky would rebound from it (the Bears’ defense made that a moot point anyway).

“I mean, I absolutely love the kid,” Nagy said. “The conversation that I had with him when we ended up going with Nick was, ‘I know it sucks and I know it’s hard right now. But this could end up being one of the greatest things that’s ever happened to you. And I know that’s hard to understand.’

“There’s a lot of other people that would go in the tank and they’d be done. Not Mitchell. He’s used this as a positive. He’s making himself a better player, and he’s making us a better team, because he handled it the right way.”

And now, faint as it might be, hope is actually still alive for the Bears, who’ve snapped a six-game losing streak with a two-game win streak, and sit one Arizona loss away from being back in the NFC playoff picture. Which is wild considering everywhere these Bears have been.

***

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Tim Heitman/USA TODAY Sports

DALTON CHASING A PLAYOFF RETURN

Don’t look now, but Dallas is just a game back of Washington in the NFC East. And while the Football Team’s sweep of the Cowboys will make actually winning the division more complicated, that America’s Team is even in this position was, well, not expected, given very questionable efforts against Washington and Baltimore just a few weeks back.

But here’s Dallas, with Andy Dalton at the helm, and so many guys still out, hanging onto the fringes of the playoff race. The 41–33 win over the Niners Sunday certainly helps their cause, and after the game I got in touch with Dalton to get more on how the Cowboys have circled the wagons so late in the year.

MMQB: So if I told you back in January that in December you’d be starting, 5–9 and in the playoff hunt, what would you have said?

AD I wouldn’t have believed you. How this division’s been, how crazy it’s been. But for us, we understand that, two games left, if we handle our business, who knows what can happen? For us, we know the position we’re in, we’re just trying to make the most of these last couple games and we want to finish strong.

MMQB: Was there a turning point for you guys in practice, at home or wherever?

AD: I wouldn’t say there’s a turning point. We played better in the Pittsburgh game. I think that was kind of the game. We were close, we didn’t get the win, but I felt like we were playing better. Then we had the bye, then after that came back and we’ve just been playing better. I think that’s what it comes down to. For us, this one [beating San Francisco on Sunday] was big. To build off what we did last week, to kind of carry that momentum into this week. First time getting back-to-back wins this year. Our goal is to win these last two and we’ll see how this whole thing shakes out.

MMQB: What has Mike McCarthy done to put you in this position?

AD: I think there’s been a lot of just good communication with me and [offensive coordinator Kellen Moore], me and Mike, Mike and Kellen. Just from an offensive standpoint, just making sure that everybody’s on the same page, we’re doing things that we like. I think the communication all around with everybody has been really good.

MMQB: How have you guys better managed the O-line injuries of late?

AD: We’ve had, obviously, all those guys out and different things. A lot of our starting unit. But for us, I think we’ve had some consistency up front the last several weeks, had the same group out there. I think just building that trust and building that communication with everything. It’s always fortunate to have Joe Looney and Connor Williams. Joe, who’s been around for a long time, does a great job communicating up front. That’s what you’ve got to have at that center position. We’ve been fortunate to have some guys that’ve been around a little bit and played in a lot of games.

MMQB: Has this year, without as much expectation, been more fun for you?

AD: I view myself as a starter. Yes, I was a backup to start the year, but I didn’t expect there to be any kind of drop-off once I came in. It has been fun. It’s been a fun year. Just to be back in Dallas, be back home. Already having a house in Dallas, all that stuff, it all kind of worked out. I was ready for the opportunity if it did happen, if something happened to Dak [Prescott]. Unfortunately, injuries happen in this game, and that’s how I got my opportunity. I’m just trying to make the most of it right now and do everything I can to help the team win.

MMQB: How much has Dak been around?

AB: Dak’s been getting treatment, all that kind of stuff. I talk to Dak all the time. It’s just been good to have him around. I was telling him just a couple weeks ago, ‘Man, I miss having you around as much as you were at the beginning.’ It is a lot of fun for me to sit and watch him work, see how he sees things, how he sees the game. That’s one thing I miss about having him around.

***

trevor-lawrence-acc-championship

Bob Donnan/USA TODAY Sports

OUR FIRST MOCK TOP 10

College football’s regular season and conference title games are in the books, the playoffs are set and that means it’s a good time to take a look ahead at the 2021 draft. And so as we have the last couple years, we’re setting the table with a very early mock top 10.

First, the framework. I did the initial work based on the draft order coming out of Week 14, so I could properly vet it with people who are paid to know about this stuff—from GMs to scouting directors to area scouts—and then adjusted the order based on Sunday’s games (sorry, Jets fans). Also, I did try to match players with team needs, but the main thing here was just to identify players worthy of going that high.

One thing that stuck out: Half the top 10 were opt-outs (though one, to be fair, is opting out of a spring season, not the fall season). Which means, if this holds, those guys opting out didn’t do much to damage their draft stock, and that could give impetus in the future for some of the truly elite guys to leave their college programs earlier than we’ve seen in the past.

Anyway, that’s looking forward. As for right now …

1) Jaguars: Clemson QB Trevor Lawrence. I’d wager my mortgage that Lawrence will go first. Whether that’s to the Jets or Jags, the only two teams still alive for that pick, I don’t think it takes Ron Wolf to see how the first pick will go.

2) Jets: Ohio State QB Justin Fields. The Buckeye junior has been uneven over the last month, which might open the door for another QB to give him a fight to be the second quarterback taken (I know some people like BYU’s Zach Wilson more). But Fields will have a shot in the playoffs to silence any doubts. Physically, Fields has everything. The one thing you do hear is he just needs more game reps. This sets up, again, as an interesting call in New York.

3) Bengals: Oregon OT Penei Sewell. Job No. 1 for the Bengals this spring: Find a way to protect Joe Burrow better. Getting Sewell—a tackle some consider one of the best to come out in a decade—would be a good way to do it. Then, they can flip Jonah Williams to the right side, and they’ll have their bookends for a long time to come.

4) Panthers: BYU QB Zach Wilson. Wilson’s polarizing—some wonder about his raw arm strength, some about his size. The best comp I’ve gotten on him is that he’s a taller, leaner version of Baker Mayfield, and his arm strength may be a little better than the Browns QB’s. Which puts Wilson in the top-10 conversation, even if some teams don’t necessarily see him that way.

5) Falcons: North Dakota State QB Trey Lance. Lance’s name has cooled off, and part of that is probably because he only played one game this fall, thanks to FCS schools punting their season to the spring, and that one game might’ve been his worst as a collegian. No doubt, there’s some projection here. But there’s also a lot of physical ability and really good 2019 tape.

6) Dolphins (via Texans): Penn State LB Micah Parsons. Brian Flores loves versatile linebackers, and that’s 100% what Parsons is—a position-less player who can do anything you ask athletically. There will be some character questions that bubble up with teams. Pending where those go, I think the Nittany Lion opt-out belongs in the running to go in the top five. This puts him right outside of it.

7) Eagles: LSU WR Ja’Marr Chase. Chase was a better player for LSU’s 2019 title team than Justin Jefferson was, and you’ve seen what Jefferson has already become as a pro. I don’t think Chase is a lock to be the first receiver taken—he’s not a burner, so he won’t be for everyone (this high, at least). But Philly got its big-play guy last year, in Jalen Raegor, and Chase would be a perfect complement to him.

8) Cowboys: Alabama CB Patrick Surtain II. NFL fans of my age will recognize the name. That’s his son, FYI, and he’s a heck of a player by his own right. The big question that’ll follow him is whether or not he has truly elite high-end speed, which will make whether he runs in Indy a pertinent question. But Surtain has everything else, and Dallas will likely have a corner need.

9) Chargers: Florida TE Kyle Pitts. The Chargers have themselves a quarterback and now it’s incumbent on them to do all they can to maximize his time on a rookie contract. Pairing Pitts with Hunter Henry at tight end, and lining those guys up with wideouts Keenan Allen and Mike Williams? Seems like it’d be a problem for just about everyone else.

10)Giants: Miami DE Gregory Rousseau. Let me first say I got a lot of pushback on Rousseau here, with plenty of scouts feeling like there are too many lingering questions after just one year of collegiate production. But he’s an edge rusher, and one with a sky-high ceiling, and those generally don’t last too long. And I’d bet Joe Judge, Patrick Graham & Co. would see an athlete they could develop in Rousseau.

So there’s your starting point. And again, this is just an early list. With that in mind, I do think Alabama’s Jaylen Waddle (if the medicals check out) and DeVonta Smith have a shot to pass Chase in the pecking order; Bama’s Mac Jones could pass Lance; Virginia Tech CB Caleb Farley, if his medicals check out, could sneak into the top 10; Georgia’s Azeez Ojulari has a chance to leapfrog Rousseau among edge rushers; and tackles like Northwestern’s Rashawn Slater (who some project at guard) and Virginia Tech’s Christian Darrisaw could end up in the top-10 mix down the line.

Which is to say the fun’s just starting in this department.

***

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TEN TAKEAWAYS

I’ve run out of nice things to say about the Chiefs. Kansas City has won 22 of its last 23 game, dating back to Veterans Day 2019, and Andy Reid’s crew has progressively become more and more well-rounded with time. The defense held the Saints under 300 yards, kept the New Orleans run game to 3.5 yards a carry and limited Drew Brees in his return to a pretty inefficient 15-of-34 passing. Meanwhile, the Chiefs ran for 179 yards, and you’ll realize we haven’t even gotten to where they had to pull the Patrick Mahomes Superman lever yet. One such occasion came on a second-and-goal midway through the third quarter, where Mahomes rolled left and was cornered by the New Orleans rush—he kept back-pedaling and back-pedaling and somehow saw Mecole Hardman in the back corner of the end zone and got the ball to him, despite there seeming to be about 10 football players crowding the 15 yards between them. That five-yard touchdown toss put the Chiefs back up 21–15, and ahead for good. Then, with the Saints in position to get one final possession, down 32–29, the Chiefs went for the throat—which has become Andy Reid’s custom of late. On second-and-eight from the Chiefs’ 27, right after the two-minute warning, Reid booted Mahomes to his left and Mahomes popped the ball over a defender to Travis Kelce, who raced past the sticks to lock up the win. Just another day at the office for Mahomes. Just another win for the Chiefs, who are now closing in on home-field advantage through the AFC playoffs. It would be tough to bet against a repeat at this point.

I wouldn’t feel terrible if I was a Saints fan. No, that wasn’t perfect from Brees. But I don’t think he looked bad, and that was without Michael Thomas and, for most of the game, Tre’Quan Smith. In a way, we saw exactly why New Orleans needed to get him out there—there’s rust to knock off before the playoffs. If the Saints are going to have a shot, it’s going to be with No. 9. And with a top-shelf defense that, despite some of Mahomes’s heroics, acquitted itself really well against Kansas City. (I also can’t help but think what must’ve been running through Sean Payton’s mind watching Mahomes—I’ve been told he was one of two quarterbacks in recent drafts that Payton coveted, which is why the Chiefs, correctly, identified New Orleans as a team it had to get past in a trade-up in 2018. The other quarterback, interestingly, was Baker Mayfield.)

Philly’s in a weird spot. Jalen Hurts looked poised and competent in Arizona, and here’s the play that encapsulates it for me.

There were 35 seconds left. The Eagles were down seven. Arizona’s red-hot pass-rusher Haason Reddick got past the protection and to Hurts almost right away, then jarred the ball loose. And despite all that, and being in this spot as a 22-year-old rookie, Hurts had the presence of mind to collect the ball, roll right and away from the rush and then the field awareness to know where Dallas Goedert was going to be, and the arm to get the ball to him without having his feet set to make the throw. Just a big-time play that picked up 14 yards, and at least put the Eagles in position to heave a couple into the end zone to try and tie it. In the end, Hurts wound up with 338 yards and three touchdowns on 24-of-44 passing, and another 63 rushing yards on 11 carries. But it’s stuff like that fourth-quarter play that jump out most to me. Maybe it’s obvious that a guy who started for Nick Saban at quarterback as a true freshman wouldn’t cower at the NFL stage. Still, the way Hurts carries himself is impressive, and this isn’t great for Carson Wentz’s future in Philly, because it means one of two things. Either the offense wasn’t as broken as we thought, and Hurts is proving it, which would indicate Wentz was the problem. Or Hurts is a real revelation, which would put Wentz on notice in a different way. Either way, Hurts is going to be the quarterback the rest of the way. And if he keeps playing this way, things will get really interesting after the season.

The Patriots’ problems go well beyond the quarterback. So before we even touch Cam Newton … New England’s front seven was run over by the Dolphins’ young line on Sunday, to the tune of 250 yards rushing. The Patriots had two wideouts with multiple catches, and the tight end position, as a whole, had one catch for two yards. There’s no delicate way to put this: The reason for all that is New England’s roster is a mess. A few years of mortgaging contracts and whiffing on draft picks has put New England in a bizarre mix of young and old. The secondary is full of thirtysomethings (Stephon Gilmore, Devin McCourty, Jason McCourty and opt-out Patrick Chung), which leaves New England in a spot where it has to determine if it can fix its front fast enough to get any more real value out of that group of DBs. Ditto on offense, where two key linemen—guard Joe Thuney and center David Andrews—are scheduled to hit free agency, just as the team has to address perhaps the worst receiver room in the league and the worst tight end room in the league. And then there’s the fact that the team’s 2021 quarterback might not be on the roster. This problem, by the way, has been brewing for a while. The team’s long been bereft of any 25-and-under cornerstones (injury-prone left tackle Isaiah Wynn could be one, and tailback Damien Harris and safety Kyle Dugger have some promise as well), and now it’s being laid bare with attrition elsewhere on the roster. On the surface, it sure looks like it’ll take more than a single offseason to fix everything. Bill Belichick, by the way, turns 69 in April. I don’t think he wants to leave this sort of mess behind for whoever’s next. He has a lot of work to do.

The Jaguars’ GM job is the most attractive in the NFL, by far. The head coaching job will be up there too, should it come open, as most in the industry expect it to. Just consider the resources that will be there for the new Jacksonville regime:

• Multiple picks in the first, second, fourth, fifth and seventh rounds.

• The second-lowest cap commitment number league-wide for 2021.

• Promising young players like Josh Allen, C.J. Henderson and Laviska Shenault.

And now, the next Jags coach and GM could get Lawrence too. Suffice it to say, this is setting up to be a pretty fast and effective rebuild—and under an owner, in Shad Khan, who’s known for being patient and measured with his employees. (Credit to outgoing GM Dave Caldwell and sitting head coach Doug Marrone for setting up this sort of situation to rebuild in. It obviously didn’t do them much good, but is an impressive bit of table-setting nonetheless.)

The Ravens got a good, encouraging effort from Lamar Jackson on Sunday. Yes, it was against the Jaguars. But the reigning MVP was efficient in throwing for 243 yards and three touchdowns, completing 17-of-22 throws, and the Ravens were good on third down (8-of-12) and perfect in the red zone (5-for-5). It’s a good sign that Jackson and a young group around him (Hollywood Brown, J.K. Dobbins, Mark Andrews) are growing an identity offensively. Obviously, the big questions can’t really be answered until January. But the way John Harbaugh’s group has emerged from its Thanksgiving COVID-19 mess—they’ve blown out the Cowboys and Jags, and scored a hard-fought win in Cleveland over a 3–0 stretch—is impressive. “You always just hammer home what’s at stake and looking straight ahead, having your eyes neither wander to the left or to the right, but keeping focused on what’s in front of you,” John Harbaugh told reporters over Zoom postgame. “I think it just goes back to guys who are character guys and understand perspective and understand what’s at stake. I’m proud of our guys for being able to do that over the years. This bunch just did.”

I don’t want to ho-hum Tom Brady’s big comeback in Atlanta. It’s a big deal. And it means more, as I see it, than just winning a single game. It’s a belief that Brady brings to a place—the sort of thing that makes a 24–7 deficit, like the one the Bucs faced in the third quarter, seem like nothing. I remember talking to Scotty Miller about this back in October, after Tampa came back from another 24–7 deficit, against the Chargers. “His fire and his willingness to compete, means he doesn’t want to lose at anything he does, especially not a football game, and you really see that at halftime when you’re down 20-whatever, however much we were down,” Miller said. “It’s really awesome to just follow his lead and try and make plays for him.” To back up Miller’s point, here are Brady’s numbers, after Hayden Hurst scored for the Falcons to make it 24–7 with 7:34 left in the third quarter: 18-of-24 for 254 yards, two touchdowns, and a passer rating of 136.5. At 43 years old. Fourteen games into his 21st season. I don’t know if the Bucs are good enough to be a real factor in the NFC playoffs yet. But I do know what we’re watching from the great quarterback ever shouldn’t be taken for granted.

Winning a game on defense was a good step for the Seahawks. A very scrappy Football Team had gotten itself in position to upend the Seahawks on Sunday afternoon—and had a first-and-10 from the Seattle 23 with 1:18 left, having driven all the way from its own 14 to get there, facing a 20–15 deficit. From there …

First down: Dwayne Haskins takes a shot to the end zone to tight Logan Thomas, who’s tightly covered by first-round pick Jordyn Brooks and veteran safety Quandre Diggs.

Second down: L.J. Collier turnstiles Washington left tackle Cornelius Lucas for a five-yard sack.

Third down: Carlos Dunlap manhandles right tackle Morgan Moses on a bull rush, driving him on to his back, then quickly dumping Haskins for a nine-yard sack.

Fourth down: Benson Mayowa races past Lucas and immediately flushes Haskins from the pocket, and Rasheem Green bears down on him as he heaves the ball downfield. It harmlessly hits the turf, the Seahawks decline a holding penalty, the game’s over.

Obviously, we haven’t seen a ton of this sort of vintage Seattle defense at all this year, and that’s why I think this is a development that shouldn’t be shoved under the rug. An excited Pete Carroll said postgame that, “They answered the finishing challenge. They cranked it. We didn’t have to do anything special, we didn’t pressure, we just cut them loose, and it just all of the sudden took life.” Sure did.

I don’t need to throw any more dirt on the Cardinals. They got enough—and aren’t being buried. They’ve had an impressive two-win turn after losing three straight and going through a five-game stretch where their only win came on the Kyler Murray Hail Mary to DeAndre Hopkins. Both Hopkins and Fitzgerald made ridiculous touchdown catches, and Hopkins (nine catches, 169 yards) and Murray (27-of-36, 406 yards, 3 TDs, 1 INT) put up video game numbers, and maybe the best part that I heard out of the crew there was the dissatisfaction with where they are as a team. “I feel like we can still do a lot of work,” Hopkins told the local media. “I hate close games … as a team we’ve got a lot to improve and work on, as an offense, especially. I hold Kyler to a high standard. He holds me to a high standard. He shouldn’t have thrown that interception down there, knowing where we were. And I shouldn’t have fumbled the ball. He’ll probably say the same. We hold each other to a high standard around here.” The Cards get the Niners on Saturday, then close at the Rams. And if they can take those two, they’d be a fun team to watch in the playoffs.

Some final quick-hitters …

• The sense I get is Dwayne Haskins hasn’t done enough to guarantee himself a spot on the 2021 Football Team. I do hope that the staff there gives him a shot to earn that the next two weeks. But with the division hanging in the balance, that might be unlikely.

• Derrick Henry really does deserve MVP consideration. Sunday’s 147-yard effort was his ninth 100-yard game of the season. The Titans are 7–2 in those games. And his 1,679 yards are more than 600 clear of third place on the rushing list (Dalvin Cook is second at 1,484).

• The Niners’ struggles with Nick Mullens and C.J. Beathard should be enough for people to reassess the value of Jimmy Garoppolo in San Francisco. Is he a superstar? No. But he’s a lot better than what they’ve been rolling out there since he got hurt.

• Justin Herbert looked like a superstar again on Saturday night and I’m really excited to see what the Chargers do to maximize him in the offseason.

• Marcus Mariota looked great on Thursday night, and I can say now that the Raiders are going to have issues trying to keep both him and Derek Carr next year. The former’s on the books for $22.125 million for 2021, the latter’s at $10.1 million next year. It’ll be interesting to see how this is managed come March.

• I have to wonder if, for the new Falcons GM and coach, Calvin Ridley’s emergence makes Julio Jones more expendable. Ridley’s got 77 catches for 1,192 yards and nine touchdowns and turned 26 on Sunday. Julio Jones has 51 catches for 771 yards and three touchdowns, and turns 32 in February.

• Trey Hendrickson is up to 12.5 sacks for the Saints, and is another member of that New Orleans 2017 draft class (Marshon Lattimore, Ryan Ramczyk, Marcus Williams, Alvin Kamara) that changed everything for the franchise.

• Travis Kelce has an awfully interesting OPOY case. What he’s doing is unprecedented. Just as important, he’s where Mahomes looks when he’s in a tight spot.

• Baker Mayfield’s last four games: 99-of-141, 1,232 yards, 10 TDs, 1 INT, 117.69 rating.

• Lincoln Riley can take a bow. In consecutive years, he put Mayfield, Murray and Hurts into the NFL. Which means maybe we need to take Spencer Rattler seriously, when he becomes draft-eligible?

***

Ohio State running back Trey Sermon

Aaron Doster/USA TODAY Sports

SIX FROM SATURDAY

1) Ohio State’s Trey Sermon broke Eddie George’s school single-game rushing record by tearing through Northwestern’s stout run defense for 331 yards on 29 carries. Sermon will be interesting for NFL teams, seeing as though the Oklahoma transfer played for the two preeminent offensive coaches at the college level (Lincoln Riley and Ryan Day), which has prepared him to play the position in a very 21st-centruy way.

2) Northwestern’s Pat Fitzgerald has done an absolutely incredible job, and Saturday was another example of it—and why NFL teams will be sniffing around again come January (he’s gotten NFL interest annually for almost a decade now). Will he jump this time? My guess would be, unless it’s the Bears, probably not, and even if it was the Bears I’m not sure. I’m told he feels like he has the Northwestern program in a place he and his staff have been building toward for a long time, both from a facilities standpoint and in the on-field product, and might want to see things through a bit longer in Evanston. Eventually, I do think we’ll see him in the NFL. Maybe not yet.

3) I think, along those lines, NFL teams have a better shot at Iowa State’s Matt Campbell. And Campbell acquitted himself really well again Saturday, with the Cyclones coming maybe a bad interception away from sweeping Big 12 powerhouse Oklahoma and taking home the conference title.

4) Another Alabama player who’s really helping himself: Najee Harris. The senior tailback has always had the physical traits. And the NFL knew he could run. But his continued development as a receiver—he had five catches for 67 yards and three scores—at 6′ 2″and 230 pounds could put him in the first-round conversation in a running back class that looks pretty solid (Clemson’s Travis Etienne, Oklahoma State’s Chuba Hubbard, et al).

5) Cincinnati QB Desmond Ridder has played his way into having a very real decision to make on whether he should go pro or not. His Bearcats finished the regular season 9–0, and Ridder threw for 269 yards in a driving rainstorm to help beat Tulsa for the AAC title. Ridder’s got the measureables, but needs some polish.

6) Clemson has an incredible record with receivers, so that E.J. Williams, who you saw make this one-handed catch against Notre Dame? Keep an eye on him. He’s a 6’ 4”, 190-pound true freshman the Tigers poached out of Phenix City, Alabama. If, that is, you’re tracking 2023 draft prospects.

***

BEST OF THE NFL INTERNET

… From a former Eagles offensive lineman.

Why teammates love Lamar.

Good illustration, from the locker room, of what Sunday felt like for Jets players.

This is an incredible stat, especially when you consider Rodgers went through a coaching change in the midst of all that.

Love Talib. Could listen to him talk all day.

Lots of Jets fans feel this way Monday morning …

… including my buddy Rich.

Sean McVay wasn’t enthused with the result either.

Nice back-reference, MDS.

Early on …

… And later.

Lots of people wanted Josh Allen out of that game. Then again, it’s semifinal weekend in fantasy, so many others did not want him out of the game.

So does this mean the “Rose Bowl” in Arlington’s gonna pack them in, too?

Weird time to be Carson Wentz.

***

mike-hilton-pittsburgh-steelers-interception

Rich Barnes/USA TODAY Sports

MONDAY NIGHT SPOTLIGHT

Each week, we’ll connect with a player set to climb atop the Monday Night Football stage to get answers to a few questions. This week, Steelers corner and emerging star Mike Hilton.

MMQB: What went right over the first 11 games that went wrong the last two?

MH: Just being able to finish games, close out on teams. Everybody says around this time, late in the season, you gotta be able to close those games out. And these last two we haven’t been able to, we took some tough losses.

MMQB: So is that something you can work on? How do you address it?

MH: It’s really just to refocus. After winning 11 straight, you might have a little sense of complacency. Just having that loss really wakes you up, and refocuses you on what you’re trying to accomplish. And we know we’re trying to get to the Super Bowl. So we know we have to lock in and take it game-by-game.

MMQB: Is there anything specific you can take from the Buffalo and Washington games?

MH: These last two games, we’ve been struggling on third down. That’s something we pride ourselves on, getting off the field on third down, especially in third-and-long situations. Our last couple games, we’ve given up a lot of third-and-longs and it’s continued drives. We feel like if we get off the field more and give our offense more possessions, we’ll be successful.

MMQB: Has losing a pass-rusher the caliber of Bud Dupree played into that?

MH: Yeah, for sure, man. Bud’s been having a fantastic year, we know how he and T.J. [Watt] work hand-in-hand. So losing a guy that brings that much value to your defense, it’s rough. But it’s kind of been like that the whole season. I went down, Cam [Sutton] stepped up. Devin [Bush] went down, [Rob] Spillane stepped up. And now Alex [Highsmith] is stepping in for Bud. A lot of guys are really taking this opportunity and running with it, and that’s just our next-man-up mentality.

MMQB: So how do you make up for the losses at one spot, with the linebackers going down?

MH: For them, it starts up front with our front four. If they’re able to able to keep our linebackers clean, those guys will be able to run sideline-to-sideline and make plays. And for the linebackers, it’s just getting reps, man. Especially a guy like Marcus Allen, who just made his first career start, and Avery [Williamson], first start for us since we traded for him. Just getting those guys a lot more reps, making them a lot more comfortable, it’ll make things easier.

MMQB: It also felt like the Steeler defense was getting back to what you guys have historically been. With the guys going down, do you still think you guys can get there?

MH: Yeah, I believe so. We still have a group of guys that can really dominate up front, and we’ve got guys on the back end that can take the ball away. We feel like even with the absence of our linebackers, it’s a whole team effort—we all do our job, we’ll all be successful.

MMQB: How did Mike Tomlin address the losing streak with you guys?

MH: Man, you know how he is. Hey, we took a loss, it’s not the end of the world, it’s not the end of the season. People outside our building might panic a little bit. But we know inside our locker room we’re fine. We just have to refocus up, and try to get back on the right track.

MMQB: It’s not like you were a bad player in college, but what do you think the pros missed on you? Or was it a matter of you needing to get better than you were?

MH: I’d definitely say a little bit of both. As far as others, number one, I’d say they saw my size, and the NFL is known as a big man’s game. You see a guy 5′ 8″, 5′ 9″, 180 pounds, you wouldn’t expect him to be as aggressive as I am. And I feel like teams overlooked that. My tape speaks for itself. But it’s a big man’s game. For myself, it just comes with time, coming from college to the pros, it’s the best of the best, it’s the little things you have to work on that you think are going to put you in better position to make plays. And I feel like I’ve done that since I got into the league.

MMQB: You did bounce from the Patriots to the Jaguars, then to the Steelers practice squads that first year, why was Pittsburgh the right place?

MH: Oh man, I ask myself that all the time. I know, of course, how historic the organization is. It just felt like a perfect fit for me, with what they like to do. When I first got here, of course, everyone knows about Blitzburgh and how much they like to pressure the quarterback. I already knew that blitzing was one of my strengths, I just needed somewhere to put it on display. And over these last couple years, like I said, the tape speaks for itself.

MMQB: What’s your best piece of advice for other guys who come in undrafted?

MH: I know it’s cliché, but don’t quit. You aren’t the first person to go through it and you won’t be the last. You gotta make the best of your opportunities, no matter who it’s with. And don’t get focused on one team—there are 31 other teams that might have an eye on you. Just wherever you are, go in locked in and focused and be yourself.

MMQB: Have you thought at all about what’s on the line personally for you, with free agency coming?

MH: Of course, it crosses my mind. But it’s not my main focus. My main focus is going out and doing what I can to help us win. Everything in the offseason will take care of itself. My goal is to win a championship and go from there.

MMQB: Obviously the Bengals are different without Joe Burrow and Joe Mixon. What’s the challenge in facing their offense for you guys?

MH: We know, it’s the guys on the outside. They’ve got A.J. Green, Tyler Boyd, Tee Higgins, they have a nice trio of wideouts. No matter who’s at quarterback, when you got three guys that can really make plays for you, it makes your job easy as a quarterback. We know, especially on the back end, we gotta stick to those guys tight, make the quarterback hold the ball, and let our front go to work.

MMQB: Do you have to ignore their record?

MH: Oh yeah, definitely. It’s a division game. We know what’s on the line, and they want to keep us from winning the division. We know they’re gonna come out ready to play, and we have to match their energy.

MMQB: Anything extra for you playing Monday night?

MH: Yeah, man, it’s the best time. Prime time games are the best games. Everybody’s watching. Your peers are watching, your family’s watching. It’s an opportunity to showcase what type of player you are. Being under them bright lights is an exciting feeling.

***

WHAT YOU NEED TO KNOW

The Steelers’ offense needs to get its act together Monday night, and it’ll be interesting to see what that means for a talented group of young wideouts—Juju Smith Schuster, Diontae Johnson, Chase Claypool and James Washington. Mike Tomlin and his staff have already shown some frustration with that crew of late (Johnson got the brunt last week), and this is a have-to-have-it situation.

How these guys are deployed should be telling.

And before you tune in to find out, be sure to roll back here for this afternoon’s MAQB!

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