Welcome to “Two QBs For Me and You,” a feature where I focus on and breakdown two notable quarterback performances from the week before. … I then go over what they mean moving forward.
The AFC North is perennially a tough-fought division. The Steelers, Ravens, and Bengals always seem to make playoff pushes, and even when out of the running, they don’t make life easy for their opponents.
This year, the North doesn’t seem as imposing as usual with the team at the top (Baltimore) currently holding a 5-4 record. The Steelers’ powerhouse offense hasn’t been clicking on all cylinders, and the John Harbaugh-led Ravens, who once touted a defense built around Ray Lewis and Ed Reed, don’t appear to have the same spark as their Super Bowl days.
Today, I consider whether the two top quarterbacks in the division (sorry, Andy Dalton fans) can make a playoff push this year.
30-of-41, 296 yards, 3 touchdowns, 2 interceptions
- The first half of this game was sloppy and thoroughly unenjoyable to watch. Flacco could have livened things up early on, but on a third down he missed Kamar Aiken who was wide open deep down the field. While Flacco has one of the strongest arms and best deep balls in the league, he was sloppy with his footwork and led Aiken outside, when the ball should have been thrown to the middle of the field for a long touchdown.
- A couple of drives later, Flacco this time threw an ill-advised pass to a covered Steve Smith. If he was intending to throw a touchdown to Browns’ defensive back Briean Boddy-Calhoun, it would have been a perfect strike, as the defender caught it in stride in the end zone. Whether it was overconfidence in Smith or himself, Flacco should not have thrown that ball.
- The Ravens’ next drive started at midfield, but they could only muster a field goal with a series of short throws and stifled runs. After a Cleveland touchdown, Baltimore once again stalled as Flacco held the ball too long and took a sack.
- With 1:39 to go until the half, Flacco showed some hustle and produced three third-down conversions on the way to a field goal. While he had one dangerous high throw and a dump to Dennis Pitta that he perhaps could have thrown away, the Ravens got some points and momentum back heading into the half.
- The first half showed the limitations of Flacco and the Ravens’ offense. He plays safe often, and there aren’t enough electric playmakers around him who can produce something special with the ball in their hands. While the whole group will need to improve, they did show promise in the second half of this game.
- Flacco came out firing and completed passes to Mike Wallace, Terrance West, Pitta, Smith, and finally Darren Waller for a four-yard strike. He showed off his arm throughout and executed a great pump fake on the final play to cap the drive.
- The combination of the next drive and the previous one seemed to summarize the inconsistency of Flacco’s season. After this game, he’s now 9:9 on the season in touchdown-to-interception ratio, and he went 1:1 on these two possessions. After starting in Cleveland territory and picking up a nice gain to Wallace for 23 yards, he gifted the ball back to Cleveland. This time it was Joe Haden with the takeaway, as Flacco did well to avoid a sack but threw on the run and across his body. There are a handful of quarterbacks who have the skill to maintain their velocity and accuracy while on the run, but Flacco is not one of them.
- The Ravens’ offense benefited hugely from the field position their defense and special teams (and Cleveland’s woeful offense) gave them. Starting at the Browns’ 43, Flacco hit sophomore Breshad Perriman, who was flying across the field with great speed. Two plays later, the savvy Steve Smith muscled the first defensive back he encountered out of the way then wisely found an open zone in front of the safety. After a successful two-point conversion from Flacco to fullback Kyle Juszczyk, the Ravens were up 21-7 and, against Cleveland, that signals game over.
- The running game started to pick up on the next drive, with both West and rookie Kenneth Dixon picking up first downs on the ground, but it was capped with an outstanding catch by Perriman. I wasn’t a huge fan of the former UCF receiver as a first-round receiver, but he came into his second year mostly free in redraft leagues and extremely cheap in dynasty. Plays like this show some of the potential, but he has a way to go.
It’s hard to decipher where the Ravens will go this year, but they sure as hell play tough. They are first in total defense (fifth against the pass and first against the run) but 25th in offense (20th in passing and 28th in rushing). Against the Browns, Flacco certainly spread the wealth, with eight different receivers catching two or more balls. While Perriman was the leading receiver with 64 yards, three players had 59 or more (Smith and Wallace were the other two).
A floundering running game was also revitalized with the combination of West and Dixon. In the previous two games combined, West had carried 23 times for 31 yards. In this game, he toted the rock 21 times for 65. Dixon totaled 80 yards on 11 touches (6-38 on the ground). For Flacco to have success, the team needs a strong running attack. They won’t want him throwing 40+ times against a non-Cleveland opponent.
The team hasn’t lost by more than eight points, and this was only the fourth game with Marty Mornhinweg as offensive coordinator after Marc Trestman was fired, so they are still learning. While they have room for improvement on offense, they are also coming up to a serious part of the schedule and will need to see it sooner rather than later. This week they head to Dallas to face the best team in the league, and in the six games after, they face the Bengals twice, Dolphins, Patriots, Eagles, and Steelers. There are no easy games there, so the Ravens are essentially in playoff mode.
As for Flacco, he’s unfortunately not a very valuable fantasy asset right now (except when he faces the Browns). He only has two multi-touchdown games this season, and they’ve both come against Cleveland. His floor has been solid, but don’t expect any heroics late this season.
Now, onto “the Battle of the Backs” in Pittsburgh.
37-of-46, 408 yards, 3 touchdowns, 0 interceptions
- The offense struck first after an early Dallas turnover, and the first play was a staple of the Steeler offense. Roethlisberger faked a screen outside to Le’Veon Bell, then turned his hips back upfield and hit an open tight end in Jesse James just shy of the first down marker. I’m almost tempted to still chant “Heeaattthhhh” every time they call this play, as the now-retired Steeler made his name with it. Today, James and finally-healthy Ladarius Green were used in the same way. After Bell took a screen pass for a first down, the Steelers were at the goal line, and they converted on third down. Bell was split out wide one-on-one and simply beat the defender with a perfectly-run slant. Roethlisberger hit him in stride. As they’ve done multiple times this year, the Steelers went for two after their first score. They didn’t make it, and they would now be playing catch up.
- Bell is, in my opinion, the best all-around back in the game. Not to be confused with the best pure runner, who was on the other side of the ball and ultimately won the game (Ezekiel Elliott). It was a joy to watch two of the best in action.
- After a Dallas field goal, Pittsburgh scored again on a drive that started with three straight passes from Roethlisberger to Antonio Brown, Eli Rogers, and James. One play in particular showed off Big Ben’s veteran presence – a Cowboy defender was clearly offside, and Ben had no hesitation in launching the ball to the end zone in an obvious “what the heck” play. While it fell incomplete and they took the penalty, not all quarterbacks have a quick-thinking brain to read the situation. After a great run by Bell, Roethlisberger again converted on a 3rd-and-goal; this time to Eli Rogers. The two-point play failed again, so they sat at 12-3.
- Seriously, Ezekiel Elliott is amazing. Amazing. Everything about his 83-yard score was stunning – the tiptoes behind his offensive line, the timing of flaring out to the right, the smoothness with which he caught the ball in stride and turned his head, and the outstanding burst, vision and acceleration to take the ball all the way. We are witnessing greatness.
- There were two Brown-heavy drives next for Pittsburgh, and on the first, one play stood out. It was only a nine-yard gain, but Roethlisberger literally launched the ball at Brown who was covered, and Brown simply wrestled it away from the defender. It was a show of both the trust the quarterback has in his receiver and the pure skill of the wideout. On the second possession, they moved the ball well with great variety in the screen game but ultimately fell short and settled for three points.
- In what could have helped a lot towards a better outcome in the game, the Steelers had two possessions close to half time that reached the Dallas 40- and 37-yard lines, respectively. On the first possession, they punted, and on the second, they missed a long field goal. A 15-13 lead at half time was good, but it could, and perhaps should, have been much more significant.
- Pittsburgh wasted no time in the second quarter, coming out firing with a deep shot to Cobi Hamilton for 39 yards. After a defensive pass interference call took them all the way to the Dallas seven-yard line, Roethlisberger fired three straight incompletions. Again, they settled for three, and I’m sure Big Ben was kicking himself that they couldn’t extend a lead further when they had three chances to do so.
- After another failed possession, the Cowboys scored a long touchdown and, just like that, Pittsburgh was trailing again (18-23). They attempted some trickery with an end-around to Brown, but it lost ten yards and they were forced to punt.
- With just under ten minutes to go, the game heated up. Both offenses scored on their next two possessions and couldn’t be stopped. The Steelers kicked off the explosion with a great punt return by Antonio Brown to the Dallas 45-yard line. Big Ben then hit Brown on three straight throws for 12, 2, and 20 yards; found James down the seam; and handed to Bell, who took it in from a yard. Up 24-23, this time it was smart to go for two points, but again they couldn’t convert.
- By the time Dallas had scored (29-24), the Steelers had left only 1:55 on the clock. It was more than enough for Roethlisberger. He completed all five of his passes as they raced down the field and scored with a potential play of the year with a fake spike and 15-yard lob to Brown. It was outstanding, and nine times out of ten we’d be going crazy for a play like this if it was a game-winner, but 42 seconds was too much time for the Cowboys. Elliott strolled in for a 32-yard score with nine seconds left to close out the game (although two last-ditch passes from Roethlisberger to Brown added 55 yards on to the totals for the duo).
In perhaps the best game of the season at the time (shortly to be replaced by the later Seahawks-Patriots game), Roethlisberger did more than enough to deserve the victory, only to be let down by his porous defense. This should have been a Steelers’ win, but the Cowboys had the talent, confidence, and drive to play 60 minutes and grab their eighth straight win.
Big Ben is averaging the highest fantasy points per game of his career this season, despite once again missing a chunk of the action. For those of you who were able to cope without him or acquire him while hurt, excitement levels should be high. The Steelers face the Browns this week, followed by Indianapolis, New York (Giants), and Buffalo, followed by Cincinnati and Baltimore in your fantasy playoffs.
While they have lost four straight and the defense has been abominable, they somehow still have a chance to win their division and would be a formidable opponent with an offense so potent. Right now, I’d probably lean towards the Ravens, but a lot will be on the line when they face off in Week 16.
Other Week 10 Quarterback Performances of Note
There hasn’t been a week like this one in a while. With the Steelers-Cowboys game, the Broncos-Saints thrilling finish, and another outstanding heavyweight bout between New England and Seattle, this week will go down in footballing history. The most recent week like this that comes to mind is Week 14 of 2013, where we saw Tom Brady and the Patriots scoring two touchdowns with 61 seconds left in a stunning comeback, an outrageous blizzard in Philadelphia, a miracle last second score by Antonio Brown not too dissimilar to a certain play in New Orleans this week (but in this case, Brown did step out of bounds), and finally a game in which there were five touchdowns (and lead changes) in the final 2:05 between the Vikings and Ravens.
I’m not playing a Cleveland or New York Jets quarterback unless I absolutely have to, and neither will I be playing Jared Goff until we’ve seen him out on the field. Of course, the only time you should be playing any of them is out of pure desperation. Speaking of desperation; Jay Cutler is still Jay Cutler.
If Le’Veon Bell versus Ezekiel Elliott was the Battle of the Backs, then Brock Osweiler versus Blake Bortles really was the Battle of the Bads. I can’t believe the Texans are 6-3. They might just prove to have the greatest defense of our modern era. Osweiler came up with the QB win despite throwing all of 99 yards and having a 51.5 completion percentage. He’s now up to a whopping 74.1 quarterback rating on the year. At least Bortles makes his fantasy owners happy, even if the Jaguars aren’t.
Marcus Mariota is officially on a tear, having thrown 17 touchdowns to 3 interceptions since a Week 4 loss in Houston. He’s added two scores on the ground and is simply killing it. He’s a must-start, a must-draft next year, and a dynasty stud. I was thinking he would be this year’s Russell Wilson from last year, but after his performance against New England, I think maybe Russell Wilson will be this year’s Russell Wilson from last year. Either way, both have the potential to take your teams from good to great heading into the playoffs. Aaron Rodgers also, despite his team’s bad results, is coming into his own as a high-end QB1 once again.
While Ezekiel Elliott stole the show, Dak Prescott is really, really good. He might be a tad underrated, as I’m sure there’s a large majority who think the running game and offensive line do it all. He has a 14:2 touchdown to interception ratio and, with four rushing touchdowns, is the fantasy QB6 on the year, and I’m certain he could step up his game if a team happened to stifle Elliott. I’m sure we will see as we come to the real crunch-time games (like a game against the top-ranked defense of Baltimore), but he’s going to be good for a long time. Andy Dalton has been good for a long time, but not good enough. It’s a shame to have so much success over a long period of time and nothing to show for it.
I mentioned an Eli Manning resurgence last week, and he came good against the Bengals on Monday night. He could work his way up from QB18 over the next few weeks. This week, his opponent is Chicago. A Cam Newton rushing touchdown always ends in a good fantasy day. Playing Alex Smith doesn’t.
The two biggest quarterback matchups I’m looking at this week are Drew Brees against Cam Newton and the aforementioned Marcus Mariota facing off against Andrew Luck. The Titans seemingly have the best chance of the four to make the playoffs, but a Saints win with a Falcons bye would certainly put the pressure on Matt Ryan and Atlanta. It’s the business end of the year, folks. Enjoy!
Quarterbacks covered so far:
- Week 1 – Trevor Siemian and Carson Wentz
- Week 2 – Philip Rivers and Sam Bradford
- Week 3 – Aaron Rodgers and Carson Palmer
- Week 4 – Blake Bortles and Andrew Luck
- Week 5 – Marcus Mariota and Ryan Tannehill
- Week 6 – Tom Brady and Case Keenum
- Week 7 – Alex Smith and Drew Brees
- Week 8 – Derek Carr and Jameis Winston
- Week 9 – Matt Ryan and Dak Prescott