Game balls – NFL Week 8

Happy Hallowe’en! With only two teams on byes (Raiders and Ravens), there’s plenty of action to pick through this week. We had running backs ghosting through defences, monster throws, the now 0-8 Detroit Lions still looking like zombies and a few errors that will haunt the perpetrators for some time to come.   

So let’s go through all the tricks and treats…

Offensive player of the week

Mike White, QB, New York Jets

Sarah Stier – Getty Images

There were only two 100-yard rushers this week – the Niners’ Elijah Mitchell and Chicago QB Justin Fields – and the handful of receivers who recorded three-figure totals were led by another 49er, Deebo Samuel, with 171 yards. The Jets’ Michael Carter also had a day, leading his team in both rushing (77 yards and a TD) and receiving (95 yards).

But I’m going quarterback for this week’s offensive star. No, it’s not Tom Brady, despite yet another four-touchdown performance in Tampa Bay’s 26-37 loss to New Orleans. Mucho respect also goes to a guy at the other end of the spectrum: Dallas backup QB Cooper Rush. In for the crocked Dak Prescott on Sunday night, he led America’s Team to a primetime road win in Minnesota in his first career start. Before this weekend, he’d only attempted three passes – all in his rookie year back in 2017 – but in his first career start, Rush went for 325 passing yards and two passing TDs.

And yet, the game ball this week goes to another stand-in QB making his first career start: the New York Jets’ MIKE WHITE. White came in midway through the Jets’ heavy defeat to the Patriots last week after Zach Wilson left the field with a knackered knee, and made his first start against the 5-2 Bengals on Sunday. Defying all expectations, he completed his first 11 passes, and eventually went 37 of 45 (82.2% completion rate) for a league-high 405 yards in a 34-31 win for the 11-point underdogs.

As his highlights reel shows, he relied on short, underneath passes (none went more than 10 yards through the air) and plenty of YAC to slice up a tackle-shy Cincinnati defence. He ended with three touchdowns (he actually threw four, if you count one that was overturned) and also caught a two-point conversion chucked his way by Jamison Crowder on a trick play. He did have two first-half interceptions but otherwise, the newbie looked in his element. White became the franchise’s first QB since Vinny Testaverde in 2000 to throw for 400 yards and only the second debutant in the modern era to do so (after Cam Newton in 2011). He also set a new league record for most completions in a debut start – no wonder the MetLife crowd were chanting his name!

White has already been confirmed as the starter for Thursday’s clash with the Colts, despite Joe Flacco being added to the roster during the week. Robert Saleh may have a long-term decision to make once Wilson returns but for now, the 2018 draft pick who’s been cut five times is Gang Green’s QB1 – and he’s there on merit.

Defensive player of the week

Adrian Phillips, S, New England Patriots

John McCoy – AP Photo

We had several players logging a pair of sacks this week and Denver safety Justin Simmons bagged two interceptions. But I’m handing the game ball to another defensive back with 2 INTs – and no, it isn’t Trevon Diggs for once…   

Everyone likes to stick it to their former team so New England safety ADRIAN PHILLIPS would’ve thoroughly enjoyed the Patriots’ 27-24 victory over the LA Chargers. Phillips played six seasons for the Chargers before signing with the Pats in 2020, but it wasn’t just the win he’ll have relished.

He snagged two interceptions for a total of 38 yards: one was a fingertip grab in midfield and one was returned for the go-ahead touchdown. Phillips’ first pick-six of his career with 10 minutes remaining occurred on a Chargers 3rd-and-10. Justin Herbert threw a pass intended for tight end Jared Cook, who wasn’t looking. Phillips dived in for the grab, rolled over and got up untouched, before going 26 yards up the sideline to give his team a lead they didn’t relinquish

“Just to be able to go out there and end up having the game that I had was sweet,” Phillips declared afterwards. “I loved it.” And I hope you love your game ball too, Mr Phillips.

Coach of the week

Matt LaFleur, HC, Green Bay Packers

Joe Camporeale – USA TODAY Sports

I read an article the other day entitled “Three reasons why the Bengals will dismantle the Jets in Week 8.” Ha, that aged well, huh?! Joking aside, much kudos goes to New York Jets HC Robert Saleh for knitting together a plan that shredded Cincinnati’s defence to the tune of 511 total yards. Sure, he was aided by some shocking attempts at tackling by the Cincy D and an egregious helmet-to-helmet call (a potential gaffe of the week in my books) against Mike Hilton that essentially killed off any chance of a late comeback. But let’s give credit where it’s due: Saleh drew up a scheme that let debutant QB Mike White dink and dunk his way up and down the field, and it worked to perfection.

But my game ball this week is heading to Wisconsin and the HC of the Packers, MATT LaFLEUR. He was without his DC Joe Berry (COVID-19), while the likes of Davante Adams, Allen Lazard, Marquez Valdes-Scantling, Za’Darius Smith, David Bakhtiari, Josh Myers and Jaire Alexander were all missing from the field (TE Robert Tonyan also left mid-game with a knee injury). Yet LaFleur still oversaw what might be the best of his 33 wins as an NFL head coach on Thursday night, overcoming the 7-0 Cardinals 24-21.

Confidence in his already-depleted Packers took a hit during the week when Adams and Lazard were placed on the reserve/COVID-19 list, leaving the team without their top three receivers. And while they weren’t perfect by any means, they were still good enough to go into Arizona on a short week and handle business against the league’s last unbeaten team.

Their patched-up O-line kept Aaron Rodgers safe (just the one sack), allowing him to use Aaron Jones out of the backfield and Randall Cobb for pay-dirt (two second-half touchdowns). But with their weakened receiving corps, the game plan wasn’t built around Rodgers as usual. Instead, they turned to smash-mouth football, with running backs Jones and AJ Dillon breaking tackles and eating up the turf (137 yards on 32 carries). They also ate up the clock, with Green Bay enjoying a full 15 minutes more possession.

As for the defence, Green Bay held Arizona to just 21 points, only the second time they’ve scored fewer than 30, and won the takeaway battle 3-0. In short, LaFleur mitigated the gaps in his roster and called plays that allowed the stand-ins to keep the chains moving. Afterwards, his QB said, “I love the aggressiveness and I’m really happy with the way the game was called. We executed well in a lot of phases.”

LaFleur will know only too well that two drives stalled at the goal-line, and the first was his fault. The drive began at the Cards’ 3-yard line after a muffed punt return by Rondale Moore, yet the HC called three passing plays rather than rely on a ground game that was clearly working. That aside, LaFleur did his best with what little he had at his disposal and that was enough for their seventh straight win. That also takes him to 33-7, the best 40-game record in the Super Bowl era.

Play of the week

Justin Fields, QB, Chicago Bears

Jonathan Daniel – Getty Images

There were some great interceptions and pick-sixes on show this week (particularly PJ Williams sealing a great win for the Saints against Tampa Bay) as well as some smart snags (Tee Higgins, Braxton Berrios, Pat Freiermuth) and great runs (Deebo Samuel, Cedric Wilson). Amari Cooper also showed us some neat juggling skills with a catch off the chest and arm of the Vikings’ Bashaud Breeland. But in the end, I had to plump for a stunning rushing TD by JUSTIN FIELDS in the Bears’ 33-22 loss to the San Francisco 49ers for this one.

In the first half, with the score tied at 3-3, the young QB sealed an 11-play drive on a 2nd-and-7 with the go-ahead TD. He faked a handoff and rolled out to the left, did a little hop thing before delivering the ball across his body in mid-air. His low, zipped ball was caught in the end zone by TE Jesse James diving at full stretch.

However, that wasn’t the play that won him our game ball for play of the week. With the Bears trailing by seven and facing a 4th-and-1 on the Niners’ 22-yard line in the fourth quarter, Fields looked to run to the right but found a gaggle of defenders in his way. After stumbling, it looked like he might get sacked but he shed the tackle, turned on a sixpence and cut a couple more times to evade the clutches of other opponents, before looping all the way round to the left and into the end zone, aided by some fine blocking ahead of him. What looked like a potential turnover on downs ended up going for six points, and Fields’ run contributed to his first 100-yard rushing game. So despite the defeat, there was much for Bears fans to be hopeful about in their QB’s performance.

Gaffe of the week

AJ Green, WR, Arizona Cardinals

Christian Petersen – Getty Images

For our final category, I could have gone back to the aforementioned helmet-to-helmet call in the Bengals/Jets game, a truly atrocious call by the officials that effectively iced the game (albeit won fairly and squarely by the Jets by then). I also considered the Colts’ Carson Wentz, in fear of getting sacked in the end zone, getting a rush to the head and lobbing the ball up for Tennessee’s Elijah Molden to step across the goalline for a simple pick-six.

Then we had the Steelers playing the entire second half against Cleveland without their kicker. After throwing a fake-field goal pass, Chris Boswell was pancaked by Browns DT Jordan Elliott while heading out of bounds and diagnosed with concussion over the half-time break. “I take responsibility for it,” HC Mike Tomlin said. “I shouldn’t have called it unless we were ready to run it with detailed execution. It’s obvious that we weren’t, and that’s on me.”

And we have to give Mike Zimmer a mention for trying to call two timeouts at once. In the Vikings’ 20-16 loss to Dallas, he called a timeout after his defence forced a 3rd-and-16 with a minute left and his team up 16-13. But he somehow forgot and tried to call another, earning a five-yard penalty for delay of game and loss of their final timeout. The play became 3rd-and-11, which Zeke Elliott made, and one play later, Amari Cooper snagged the game-winning TD. The Vikings were left with 51 seconds to go 75 yards with no timeouts, which inevitably they couldn’t manage. “Yeah, I screwed up,” Zimmer admitted.

Talking of which, in their primetime 24-21 loss on TNF, the Cardinals committed three costly turnovers but, with 15 seconds remaining and a stunning comeback victory within reach, the last one will haunt them the most.

They trailed by 10 in the fourth quarter but had cut the deficit to three with 3:23 remaining. After an epic goal-line stand, QB Kyler Murray then led Arizona on an impressive 94-yard drive that started on his own 1-yard line. At the Packers’ 5, they could’ve easily taken a simple chip-shot FG to force overtime but they risked going for the go-ahead touchdown on 2nd-and-goal.

Murray dropped back, AJ GREEN ran diagonally into the end zone and then just seemed to stop. He didn’t turn around, he just stood there, facing away from the play, as cornerback Rasul Douglas gratefully snatched the game-ending interception right before his eyes. Adding a dash of extra spice to the takeaway, Douglas was plucked from the practice squad of the Cardinals just three weeks ago.

The loss ended the Cards’ run as the league’s last unbeaten team, leaving them level with Green Bay at 7-1. TV coverage showed Douglas celebrating with Packers supporters while a single Arizona fan slumped over the front wall, head in hands, in sheer disbelief. And it didn’t take long before the former Bengal took some heat on social media.

Allegedly, HC Kliff Kingsbury called a pass play to the left but Murray spotted a better matchup on the right, where Green was one-on-one with Douglas. Green didn’t clock the change in plan and failed to turn around, clearly believing the pass was going elsewhere… until it was in Douglas’ hands.

When asked what had gone wrong, Murray diplomatically said “I honestly don’t know – miscommunication. I couldn’t tell you, but we’ve just got to be better. We weren’t on the same page.” Kingsbury added: “It was miscommunication, obviously. I mean, we feel like it’s a safe throw if he knew the route to run. It was the right place to go with the ball. Just didn’t communicate on some level.”

I’m not sure that counts as totally hanging Green out to dry but it’s also not defending him to the hilt either. But it would appear that the seven-time Pro Bowler just didn’t execute the agreed play. But while he didn’t catch the game-winning pass, we’ll make sure he has at least one ball in his hands this week – a Full 10 Yards game ball!

Agree with our Hallowe’en selections? Spooky! Watch out for our Twitter polls and listen to our NFL review pod to see if the guys concur with my selections. 

Feature image: Getty Images

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