Can a defensive player be the NFL's MVP? Several are trying
Confetti from Week 2.
The Steelers played the Browns in Pittsburgh Monday night, which should have prompted this announcement: “Gentlemen, start your carts.”
Sure enough, they hauled off Nick Chubb, Cleveland’s deluxe running back, in the second quarter, just as he was bearing down on the end zone and finding Pittsburgh’s Minkah Fitzpatrick instead. The knee injury was so grotesque that the ABC crew made the battlefield decision not to show a replay.
Otherwise, you spent the evening watching quarterbacks DeShaun Watson and Kenny Pickett running like Bambi on the first day of the hunting season. The Steelers finally won, 26-22, which meant the Browns still have not won the first two games of any year since 1993, when Bill Belichick was their coach and they were a completely different franchise altogether.
Running backs are a somewhat endangered species in the NFL because the flight time of the footballs continues to rise. They’re also endangered because it’s football. J.K. Dobbins of the Colts has already gone down, the Giants’ Saquon Barkley suffered an ankle injury that turned out to be less serious than it appeared, and Green Bay’s Aaron Jones didn’t play on Sunday. Now it’s Chubb.
But without a legitimate runner, quarterbacks become victims of the game’s other prevailing trend. The defensive lines are better than the offensive lines, and therefore the entire defenses are also getting better, and those gaps are getting wider.
The Associated Press has given a Most Valuable Player award since 1957. Two defensive players have won it: Minnesota’s Alan Page in 1971, the Giants’ Lawrence Taylor in 1986. That means defenders have outnumbered kickers, 2-1, since Washington’s Mark Moseley square-toed his way to the MVP in 1982. Since 2007, Minnesota runner Adrian Peterson is the only recipient who didn’t play quarterback.
This might, just might, be changing. In the first two weeks, no one has been more dominant than Dallas’ defensive end/linebacker Micah Parsons. Cleveland’s Myles Garrett is slowly being recognized as a premier QB hunter. The Rams’ Aaron Donald has probably done his thing better than anyone else in the NFL has done his for half a decade now.
And in Pittsburgh, Trent Jordan Watt broke James Harrison’s club sack record, and on Monday he scooped up a fumble and ran it in for the winning touchdown, which was his first as a pro.
The Steelers’ defense is as foundational a part of Pittsburgh as its bridges, and has been since Chuck Noll showed up in 1970, yet T.J Watt, of the Pewaukee, Wis. Watts, fully deserves to share the pedestal with Harrison, Joe Greene, Jack Ham, Jack Lambert, Mel Blount and Troy Polamalu.
For one thing, the Steelers are 70-26-2 when Watt plays. That’s a .685 winning percentage. It’s much easier for Alex Highsmith and Cole Holcomb and the other young aspirants to walk tall when Watt is backing them up. Highsmith began Monday’s game by grabbing a deflected pass and running it into the end zone; he and Watt scored nearly half the Steelers’ points.
Watt did win the NFL’s Defensive Player of the Year award in 2021. That trophy is a tacit admission that defenders can forget winning the real MVP. But, these days, defensive coordinators are dropping their safeties into the end zone luxury suites, and forcing quarterbacks to face the drudgery of five-yard passes and 15-play drives. It’s hard for Patrick Mahomes and Josh Allen to make the highlights, doing that. And Joe Burrow has a calf injury, brought on by too many bovine performances by his so-called pass protectors.
So, despite all the rules changes that are designed to promote end zone dancing, this might turn out to be the year of the defender, especially when they’re so quick to take offense.
Meanwhile, here’s some confetti from Week 2:
Dallas 30, N.Y. Jets 10
— In nine months or so, expect a spike in baby boys named “Micah” in the Cowboysphere. Parsons had three tackles for loss, four hits on Zach Wilson, two sacks, a forced fumble, a fumble recovery, a pass defensed, and a couple of goat-roping gold medals in another runaway win for Dallas, which has beaten the New York teams by a total of 70-10.
— But Dak Prescott was just as influential with 31 for 38 passing, two touchdowns, 255 yards, and 143 yards to CeeDee Lamb, who caught 11 of the 13 balls intended for him. Prescott had no turnovers, and Dallas is plus-7 in turnover margin after two weeks.
— The Jets (1-1) got only nine yards from Breece Hall, who wasn’t happy with his four carries, and Wilson’s QB rating was 38.1. That still beats the 36.8 that the Giants’ Daniel Jones managed vs. the ‘Boys.
Pittsburgh 26, Cleveland 22
— Nick Chubb’s knee injury is a body blow to Cleveland’s playoff hopes, and the Steelers fans showed their appreciation by applauding him when he left the field on a cart. (Well, it’s somewhat possible that a few of them were just glad he was gone.) But Jerome Ford, a second-year man from Cincinnati, did all he could in relief for the Browns (1-1), gaining 106 yards in 16 carries.
— If not for big plays Pittsburgh (1-1) would have had none at all. Two of the touchdowns were Watt’s fumble recovery, prompted by Highsmith’s big hit, and Highsmith’s interception return on the first Cleveland snap. Then Kenny Pickett hooked up with George Pickens on a 71-yard touchdown.
— Pickett was hit nine times, DeShaun Watson 11, but Pittsburgh had six sacks to Cleveland’s two. Watt had four of those Pittsburgh hits, and the Steelers forced three fumbles and recovered them all.
Baltimore 27, Cincinnati 24
— Baltimore (2-0) began the game with a punishing, 75-yard TD drive to demonstrate it could run without Dobbins. Then, after gaining a 13-10 halftime lead, the Ravens got pushed down the field by Joe Burrow until Geno Stone intercepted him on the Baltimore two. On the next play, Lamar Jackson hit rookie Zay Flowers for 52 yards, and found Mark Andrews for a 3-yard touchdown.
— Burrow aggravated a calf injury and only got 31 yards out of receiver Ja’Marr Chase. He had 222 yards on 41 pass attempts overall, and the Bengals had only two offensive touchdowns.
— New offensive coordinator Todd Monken has given more variety to the Ravens, who only punted twice in the game. Flowers has 13 catches for 140 yards.
Seattle 38, Detroit 31 (OT)
— It’s still true and still infuriating. You can lose a game in overtime without ever getting the ball. The Seahawks took the kickoff and drove 75 yards to Geno Smith’s six-yard flip to Tyler Lockett. That was it, after a feast that featured 53 first downs and 811 yards.
— Tre Brown, fourth-round pick in 2021 from Oklahoma, has been Seattle’s most influential defensive player, maybe the only one. He sacked Jared Goff, then intercepted him on the next play and scored a 40-yard touhcdown. That happened with eight minutes left and created a 31-21 lead. Another key was a comeback game by Smith, who hit 32 of 41 passes for 328 yards and two scores.
— The Lions (1-1) did what they could. They cut it to 31-28, got the ball back after Alex Anzalone’s sack, and tied it after Goff found Jahmir Gibbs for 20 yards on third-and-six. But there were no other sacks of Smith, and no takeaways.
San Francisco 30, L.A. Rams 23
— The surprising Rams led the 49ers 17-10 late in the second quarter after the second of Kyren Williams’ touchdowns. But with 1:45 left, it was time for Brock Purdy to show why the 49ers (2-0) traded a fourth-overall pick (Trey Lance) to accommodate the final guy drafted in 2022. Purdy hit three quick passes and then tried to find Deebo Samuel, who drew an interference call from Derion Kendrick. Purdy sneaked for the TD and a 17-17 halftime tie, and the 49ers picked Matthew Stafford twice in the second half to stay ahead.
— Paca Nacua became the first rookie in NFL history to catch 15 passes in a game, although they went only 147 yards, and the longest went 20. Nacua is also the first NFL player to catch 25 balls in the first two games of the season, which helps the Rams survive without Cooper Kupp.
— Only five current coaches have been in charge of their teams longer than Sean McVay has coached the Rams (1-1). Despite that, he is still the youngest head man in the NFL.
Kansas City 17, Jacksonville 9
— Chris Jones hasn’t made any State Farm ads yet, but the Chiefs (1-1) leaned on him for insurance Sunday. He had one-and-a-half sacks and two hits on Trevor Lawrence in his first game since he ended his holdout. Jones teamed with Felix Anudike-Uzomah to sack Trevor Lawrence and force a fumble on the Chiefs’ 14 with 4:23 left.
— Travis Kelce also played his first game of the season and caught a TD pass, although some wanted to know why his crossing patterns are suddenly crossing paths with Taylor Swift.
— Lawrence was sacked four times and hit only 22 of 41 passes. Calvin Ridley was also muffled, with two catches for 32 yards, although you can bet he’ll be better next game.
Buffalo 38, Las Vegas 10
— The Bills (1-1) aren’t perfect, but few teams can make you look worse when they’re rolling. They blanked Vegas (1-1) for the last 36 minutes and opened the second half with a 15-play, nine-minute touchdown drive. After the Raiders scored on their first possession, they gained 156 yards.
— Buffalo’s running game hasn’t been worth a nickel, but on Sunday James Cook provided 123 yards in 17 carries. In what must be a relief to the coaching staff, Josh Allen wasn’t a part of the ground game, with only three carries for seven yards.
— On the other side, Josh Jacobs lost two yards on nine carries, and Jimmy Garoppolo was picked off twice.
N.Y. Giants 31, Arizona 28
— The Giants (1-1) waited until the third play of the seventh quarter of the season before they scored. Daniel Jones opened the second half with a 58-yard bomb to rookie Jalin Hyatt, then ran for a 14-yard touchdown. But then Joshua Dobbs boosted Arizona’s lead to 28-7 after the Giants’ Bobby Okereke had nullified Jason Pinnock’s interception with an interference call.
— But it only took a couple of defensive stops to get the Giants back into it. A 31-yard pass to Hyatt set up a TD pass to Isaiah Hodgins that tied it with 4:25 left, and then Arizona’s next drive collapsed under the weight of flags. Graham Gano’s field goal won it with :29 left.
— Dobbs, filling in for Kyler Murray, was excellent. He had a 23-yard TD run and completed 21 of 31 with no interceptions. The Cardinals (0-2) still look at James Conner (106 rushing yards in 23 carries) as their best option.
Philadelphia 34, Minnesota 28
— The Eagles (0-2) hit Kirk Cousins 10 times and sacked him twice, which is not bad considering Minnesota had only 55 snaps.
— The Vikings (1-1) thought they could kick Dalvin Cook to the curb and be fine offensively, but in two games their longest rushing play has gone nine yards.
— Danelo Cavalcante, the prisoner who escaped from the Chester County jail, was apprehended Wednesday. He was wearing somebody’s Eagles sweatshirt at the time. Cousins could have used some of his escapability. But maybe Cavalcante can explain how the Eagles could win by only six despite four takeaways (Minnesota has lost seven turnovers already) and despite big games from DeAndre Swift (175 yards rushing) and Davonta Smith (two touchdown catches, 131 receiving yards).
Tennessee 27, LA Chargers 24 OT
— The Chargers drove to a tying field goal and then got the ball to start overtime, but Justin Herbert went 0-for-3. Tennessee (1-1) took over on its own 39 and oozed to Nick Folk’s 41-yard game-winner, with Derrick Henry converting a third-and-two to keep it moving. A 14-yarder to DeAndre Hopkins put Folk in position.
— Tannehill became the latest quarterback to receive career CPR from the Chargers’ overhyped defense. He had a 28.8 QB rating in the loss to New Orleans, but turned in a 123.3 against the Chargers.
— With Austin Ekeler out, the Chargers struggled to rush for 61 yards on 21 carries. They led 11-0 in the first period, with tackle Trey Pipkins catching a 2-point conversion, but they wound up losing their fifth game after getting a double-digit lead since Brandon Staley became coach in 2021. They’ve scored 58 points, haven’t lost a turnover, and are 0-2. How many more of these can Staley survive? It’s anyone’s guess.
Atlanta 25, Green Bay 24
— The Falcons (2-0) were down 24-12 in the third quarter when they showed why they drafted a running back. Bijan Robinson took a pass 29 yards to set up the field goal that cut it to 24-22, converted a fourth down that led to the game-winning field goal, and Atlanta permitted Jordan Love no first downs in the fourth quarter.
— Second-year quarterback Desmond Ridder threw the first interception of his career, to Rasul Douglas, but also scored on a four-yard, fourth-down run, and won his fourth consecutive game as a starter.
— The Packers (1-1) were missing all-purpose back Aaron Jones and tackle David Bakhtiari. Love had three touchdown passes and no turnovers, but third-down failures limited Green Bay’s possession time to 23 minutes.
Washington 33, Denver 31
— With Russell Wilson reeling back the years, the Broncos (0-2) were ahead 21-3 at home. Then Wilson tried to run to the edge and fumbled after a hit from Jamin Davis. That’s all it took. Washington (2-0) got a fourth-down TD pass from Sam Howell and didn’t stop pounding until Wilson found Brandon Johnson on a 50-yard, last-second prayer.
— However, Wilson’s 2-point pass to Courtland Sutton was broken up by Benjamin St. Juste and that was that. And if you’re thinking that the defensive backs are getting away with a little more than frisking on some of these long passes this season, you’re not alone.
— Chase Young, formerly a second-overall pick, is playing healthier these days, and Montez Sweat continues to be hard to block for Washington. But Howell, the second-year man from North Carolina, shook off four sacks and led the comeback, with two scoring passes and no picks.
Tampa Bay 27, Chicago 17
— The Bears (0-2) had the first pick of the draft and, instead of getting a quarterback, they committed to Justin Fields and traded it. That is being questioned these days. The Bears were within 20-17 when Fields, throwing from his end zone, got pick-sixed by Shaq Barrett. He was intercepted twice and sacked six times.
— Baker Mayfield’s world tour may settle down for a while. Not only is Tampa Bay 2-0 with no turnovers, but Mayfield has connected quickly with Mike Evans, who now has 12 catches for 237 yards and two touchdowns.
— Christian Izien, a 5-foot-8 undrafted free agent from Rutgers, got his second interception of the season.
Indianapolis 31, Houston 20
— Anthony Richardson teased the Indy crowd by running for two early touchdowns, but then he went into concussion protocol. Gardner Minshew took it from there, as the Colts (1-1) got touchdowns on all four red zone trips.
— Houston’s QB of the future, C.J. Stroud, looks like a sound investment as long as he can eat without a straw. He is stuck with little running game and a jerry-rigged offensive line, and he fumbled while being sacked in the first quarter and let Indy take a 14-0 lead. After that, Stroud was solid. He wound up going 30 for 47 while suffering six sacks and nine hits.
— With Richardson learning on the job, the Colts were smart to pick up Minshew. He was 19 for 23 against Houston.
New Orleans 20, Carolina 17
— After he’d played for Mater Dei High in Orange County and then Alabama, and losing maybe once in every two years, Bryce Young is being introduced to the shallow end of the talent pool. Chased constantly and sacked four times, Young was 22 for 33 for 153 yards, but he did drive the Panthers to a touchdown with 1:16 left.
— The Saints’ offense didn’t light it up either, but Michael Thomas piqued some memories with a seven-catch day, good for 55 yards. The most effective offensive player might have been specialty QB Taysom Hill, who ran nine times for 75.
— Young’s pass to Adam Thielen was the only TD New Orleans has permitted this year. Saints’ opponents are 6 for 26 on third down.
— The Colts still don’t have Jonathan Taylor, but Zack Moss came on to provide 88 yards on 18 carries and a touchdown. Minshew completed 19 of 23 passes in his familiar role as a reliever.