What a post-trade deadline week huh? The Giants were blown out by a Raiders team that just cleaned house, and QB Daniel Jones returned only to leave with a torn ACL. Indianapolis embarrassed former HC Frank Reich, now the coach of Carolina. Dolphins WR Tyreek Hill had a big mouth during the week but then allowed the ball to be stripped from him and returned for a TD in Frankfurt. KC’s margin of victory was 7 points. I’m not even including our great finishes, which we’ll get to below. So buckle up: here are my week 9 takeaways for the 2023 NFL season!
TNF: Will Levis Comes up Short in Slugfest vs. Steelers
I can’t say I’m surprised that this game was a defensive struggle. One team started a rookie QB, and the other was Pittsburgh. But it didn’t start out that way! Pittsburgh looked good right away, marching down the field for a TD on the opening drive. Tennessee responded with a field goal on theirs, helped by 5 PIT penalties, and I thought we were off and running. Then, as we’ve seen so many times this year, the Steelers bogged down offensively. While QB Kenny Pickett was questionable to play with a rib injury, he looked fine physically. I also anticipated a boost from OC Matt Canada being on the sidelines instead of in the booth.
While Pittsburgh struggled, so did Tennessee’s offense. Offensive line injuries nearly derailed the entire operation. Tackles Nicholas Petit-Frere and Andre Dillard plus guards Daniel Brunskill and Peter Skoronski all left at different points with injuries. Fortunately, they all returned a short while later. With that situation stabilized, the Titans surged back to take a 13-10 halftime lead. The teams traded FGs in the third as neither QB could get anything going. In his second start, Will Levis (22/39, 262 yards, INT) did some good things, especially in terms of his poise. However, he missed some routine throws long and short.
Pickett (19/30, 160 yards, TD), who had done nothing for most of the game, led a late TD drive. He hit WR Diontae Johnson (7/90) for the score, and crucially, he did not commit a turnover the entire game. Leading 20-16 late in the 4th, Levis got one chance to score. Thanks to miscommunication in the Steelers’ secondary, the Titans made it to the 19 yard line. Levis got away with a couple poor throws (the potential INTs were dropped), but his last one landed in the arms of LB Kwon Alexander to end the game. Tennessee really isn’t a threat yet, but they have to be encouraged by what they’ve seen from their rookie QB thus far.
Pittsburgh is the more confusing case. The Steelers keep finding ways to win even though they can’t score too much. Their pass-rushing duo of TJ Watt (sack) and Alex Highsmith (2 sacks) continues to wreck opponents’ game plans. As much as fans want to attack Canada, you can’t blame him for the lack of offense this week. He schemed plenty of receivers open, but Pickett misfired on many of those throws. The running game (166 yards) also had life, especially when Jaylen Warren (11/87) touched the ball. Knowing Mike Tomlin, Pittsburgh will be in the thick of things until the end. They still need to find another gear to go further.
5th-Round Rookie QBs Get Their First Career Starts
One due to trade and one due to injury, two rookie QBs selected in the 5th round, Arizona’s Clayton Tune and Minnesota’s Jaren Hall, respectively, made their NFL starting debuts this week. Tune found himself in an awful situation, one I’d never thrust upon my rookie QB. He had the misfortune of facing the Browns’ #1 defense, and it went exactly as you might have anticipated. Tune completed just 11 of 20 passes for a mere 58 yards; he also threw 2 INTs and lost a fumble. The running game gave him no help, as it was Tune himself who led the Cardinals with 28 yards. The final score, a 27-0 shutout, came as a shock to no one.
Hall looked much more composed, but his debut was brief. Although he started off well, completing 5 of 6 passes for 78 yards and running for 11 yards, his second run cost him. As he tried to reach the goal line, he got hit hard by Falcons CB Jeff Okudah and LB Kaden Elliss. Hall was a bit slow to get up, and the independent neurologist flagged him for an evaluation. It wasn’t long before he was ruled out with a concussion. Joshua Dobbs replaced him, and it was a sad way for his day to end because after Dobbs was acquired, it appeared that week 9 might be Hall’s only chance to start this year. But speaking of Dobbs…
Joshua Dobbs Saves the Game After 5 Days with Vikings
Unlike Hall, Dobbs had a very rocky start. He was sacked in the end zone for a safety and was strip sacked on the next drive; that fumble was nearly returned for a TD, but the defense held Atlanta to a field goal. To be honest, what did you honestly expect from a guy who doesn’t even know half of his teammates’ names yet? If you know Joshua Dobbs, you expected one specific thing: heart. The man competes, and he gave everything he had in a great comeback. He started by leading a TD drive right after his fumble, cutting the deficit to 11-10. After fumbling again on a strip sack, Dobbs was lights out.
He led another TD drive where he ran 18 yards for the score, and he converted the 2-point try to tie the game at 21. Down 28-24 with 2:08 to go, Dobbs guided Minnesota past midfield. Facing a 4th and 7, he evaded rushers and scrambled 22 yards to the red zone. With 27 seconds remaining, he fired a 6-yard TD to WR Brandon Powell for the game-winning score. The numbers weren’t incredible (20/30, 158 yards, 2 TDs), but he did lead the Vikings in rushing (7/66/1), and can you ask for anything more? A journeyman QB came in and plucked a 31-28 victory out of nowhere. The Vikings have life now at 5-4, and they love their new QB.
CJ Stroud Lifts Houston Over Bucs, Kicking (Mis?)Adventures
We may have just witnessed one of the best performances by a rookie QB in NFL history. On a day when the Texans’ defense allowed a season-high 37 points to the offensively challenged Buccaneers, CJ Stroud had to be pretty much flawless. Somehow, he was. The scoring was fairly normal in the first half, with Tampa taking a 17-10 lead. At some point near the end of the half, Houston kicker Ka’imi Fairbairn hurt his quad and was ruled out at halftime. That made backup RB Dare Ogunbowale, the emergency kicker, the man for kickoffs. Houston would make a concerted effort not to utilize place kicking.
The two teams engaged in a shootout, but after each TD, the Texans went for 2. They failed on the first two such attempts, so they still trailed 23-22 despite Stroud hitting WR Noah Brown (6/153/1) for a 75-yard TD and fellow WR Tank Dell (6/114/2) for a 29-yard score. Ogunbowale’s kickoffs were actually pretty good, but he wasn’t yet allowed to attempt a PAT. The team didn’t want him to kick a field goal either. Houston drove to 4th and goal at the 9, but they went for it rather than kicking. Stroud hit TE Dalton Schultz (10/130/1) for a 9-yard TD, and this time the Texans converted the 2-point try.
After TB drove down to tie the game at 30, Houston’s next drive presented a dilemma. They faced 4th and goal at the 11, too far to try for a touchdown. Ogunbowale got his chance to kick…and his 29-yard FG was good! It was pretty standard actually, which is a high compliment for an RB. Two punts ensued, but then Tampa took a 37-33 lead with just 46 seconds left. Thus, the legend of Stroud began. The 2nd overall pick completed every pass on his final drive except when spiked the ball to stop the clock. He hit Dell for a beautiful sideline strike that picked up 26 yards and stopped the clock.
The very next play, Stroud threw a similarly great pass to Dell for a 15-yard TD with just 6 seconds left, willing his way to a 39-37 win (Houston kneeled on the PAT so nothing crazy could happen). The young QB was surgical and poised, going 30/42 for a rookie record 470 yards and 5 TDs with 0 turnovers. As those keeping track of the stats above might have seen, three different Texans had 100-yard receiving games. Coming off his worst game against Carolina, Stroud overcorrected in the best way possible. While it’s still too early to declare him a star, he’s trending in that direction. If he keeps this up, Houston has its franchise QB for sure.
Every Team Wins in AFC North, NFL’s Best Division
With the last-place team (the Bengals) in this division at 5-3, I think we can declare the AFC North as the league’s premier division. This week, each of the 4 teams won their games. I already discussed the Steelers in my TNF recap above, and although I touched on the Browns, I’ll elaborate a bit more on them here. QB Deshaun Watson returned (again) from his shoulder injury and had a nice day (19/30, 219 yards, 2 TDs). Their defense traumatized a poor rookie QB and is still an elite unit. I’m most concerned about the Nick Chubb-less running game. Watson will have to be very good for this team to consistently score.
Baltimore is staking its cast as one of the best teams in the league, not just this division. The Ravens already whipped Detroit 38-6, and now they can claim another thumping of an NFC contender, demolishing Seattle 37-3. We know about Baltimore’s elite rushing attack, but we’re not used to the guys doing it. Gus Edwards has 6 TDs in his last 3 games, and Keaton Mitchell played for the first time as a pro and led the team with 138 yards and a TD on just 9 carries. Defensively, the Ravens have the #1 unit in certain categories (the Browns have the others). This complete team can win in different ways, making them ultra dangerous.
For Cincinnati fans, I’ve got great news: QB Joe Burrow is back. Hobbled early in the season with a calf injury, the league’s highest-paid player has been rounding into form. Since the bye, he has been his exceptional self, and he’s 4-0 with a 75% completion rate in his past 4 games. Perhaps as importantly, the Bengals seem to have Buffalo’s number. Burrow went 31/44 for 348 yards, 2 TDs, and no turnovers, and WR Tee Higgins (8/110) finally got involved. Finally, Lou Anarumo‘s defense is back in form. Suddenly surging, Cincy is the team nobody wants to face. To win a Super Bowl, you just might have to go through them.