NFL Week 5: Mike McCarthy explains why he loves the Cowboys’ roster – Sports Illustrated

Mike McCarthy has 100% answered the bell in Dallas. And I really liked his answer when I asked a global question about the roster that has helped him to do that—and what he likes about its makeup.

“I love the locker room,” McCarthy said over his cell on the way to LAX for the team flight home Sunday. “I’ve been saying that for the last two years. We’ve got a great blend of talent, people and experience. The older guys are bringing the young guys along. Our young guys contributed today. We had a couple mistakes, penalties, but other than that, it’s an excellent blend of experience and youth and these guys’ work, Albert. We had a hell of a week of practice, and it’s rewarding as a coach when you see it show up on Sunday.”

Coming into Sunday, there’d been a lot of focus on what’s wrong with the Rams.

That it wasn’t a story line attached to the Cowboys, before or after the team dispatched the world champions, 22–10, at SoFi Stadium, is a tribute to a lot of people, McCarthy included, in Dallas. And, yes, the Rams have the offensive line issue and still lack edge rush to complement Aaron Donald, and Allen Robinson hasn’t really worked out as Cooper Kupp’s Robin to this point.

Pollard carried eight times for 86 yards and a touchdown in the Cowboys’ win over the Rams.

That said, the Cowboys weren’t exactly dealing from a full deck Sunday, either. Cooper Rush made his fourth start this season in Dak Prescott’s place. Rookie Tyler Smith’s now settled in as future Hall of Fame candidate Tyron Smith’s replacement at left tackle. Michael Gallup’s still getting his feet wet coming off ACL surgery, and James Washington is still out at receiver.

Despite all that, Dallas methodically wore out and then knocked out the Rams on Sunday.

We can start with Rush, who’s not lighting the world on fire but has never looked, over the past month, like he’s over his skis. On the season, he has a 93.9 passer rating, 839 yards passing, four touchdowns and as many picks as he has losses (zero). And maybe the most impressive thing to me is how none of this was remotely surprising to McCarthy.

“Oh, not at all,” the coach said about Rush, who is 5–0 as the starter, including an impressive win last year over the Vikings. “What Cooper gives you, as a person, he’s extremely, extremely consistent. Very intelligent. Very professional. When you get into team-building and developing a roster, those individual players are so important, because that’s obviously what you’re trying to build around. As a professional, as far as how he plays the position, he has a very high IQ. He’s been playing quarterback his whole life, and I think he does a really good job of getting into the game plan and playing within himself and within the scheme.”

What helped him Sunday was a run game that put him in position to win and throwing the ball just 16 times. Even better, it was a run game capable of closing out a proud Rams defense, even though they knew what was coming.

The pivot point came with 11:09 left, with the Cowboys taking possession at their own 48. Zeke Elliott got the first crack at being the four-minute-offense bell cow and ground out 15 yards on three carries to move the chains. Then Tony Pollard took the next two carries for 11 yards to move them again. And when it was over, Dallas had logged seven consecutive runs, taken almost six minutes off the clock and set up Brett Maher for a 36-yard field goal that made it 22–10.

“That was the plan going in, and our players executed it,” McCarthy said. “The play-callers stayed true to the plan. The players made plays.”

And Dan Quinn’s defense closed it out, with Defensive Player of the Year candidate Micah Parsons, who was fighting through a groin injury, blasting Matthew Stafford on a second-and-7 with 1:39 left to jar the ball loose, generate a turnover and finish off the Rams.

“That’s when you really find out about your guys,” McCarthy said. “Micah’s an elite player. He’s established that in a very short time in this league, and he’s been making impact plays. But to see him go out and perform and fight through that groin injury today was super, super impressive.”

So now the Cowboys are a game back of the Eagles and heading to Philadelphia next Sunday to take on the unbeaten team with first place in the NFC East on the line.

Just as we all guessed they would be when Dak Prescott went down on opening night.

I noticed, in the fourth quarter of Jets-Dolphins, that San Francisco’s Robert Saleh was back. You probably remember him—the wild-man defensive coordinator who’d celebrate big plays with his players like he was still playing tight end at Northern Michigan. You first became acquainted with him in 2019, with the fast-rising 49ers on a Super Bowl run. And while seeing such an enthusiastic Saleh hardly ensures similar results for this year’s Jets, it looks like the arrow is pointing up on Saleh’s new group like it was with his old one.

“There was a lot to cheer for,” Saleh said when I mentioned it to him. “Some big-time freaking plays were made. Fourth-down stop from Kwon [Alexander]. The takeaways. In that fourth quarter, I just felt like the defense just kept making play after play after play.”

The fourth quarter had an avalanche of them for the reinvigorated Jets. Which is how, in the blink of an eye, a game that was 19–17 turned into a 40–17 blowout over Miami.

After Dolphins kicker Jason Sanders missed a 54-yarder that would’ve given Miami the lead, the Jets forced a turnover (Quinnen Williams recovered the ball off a Carl Lawson strip sack) and a three-and-out, with those possessions sandwiched by Jets touchdown drives to turn the game into a laugher.

For Saleh, it was about making in-game adjustments with the help of defensive coordinator Jeff Ulbrich.

There was also something that aided in the process—Saleh and Dolphins coach Mike McDaniel are very close, having coached with each other for four years in San Francisco (and three more in Houston) and against each other for all that time on the practice field. That background gave Saleh a leg up in dealing with perhaps football’s most dangerous run game as Sunday’s matchup wore on.

It just didn’t happen right away.

“They lost their quarterback [Teddy Bridgewater], but what they did a really, really good job of is running the football and keeping it third-and-manageable and creating explosive plays out of the run game,” Saleh said. “We felt like if we could just get them to third down— where it was third-and-6-plus—and get them into a dropback game, we could turn the corner.”

It happened with the coaches and players recognizing what the Dolphins were doing with their personnel groupings, and what the groupings could tell the Jets. From there, it was on the coaches and players to keep communication at a high level, which (now) it is.

What followed was a run game that had churned out 136 yards on 23 carries through three quarters being held to three carries and a single yard in the fourth. That, in turn, led to short offensive possessions for the Dolphins, and put a tired Miami defense back on the field, which contributed to short fields for all three Jets touchdowns in the fourth (they scored on drives of 56, five and 30 yards).

“It was just constant conversation, making some changes to our calls and then obviously the players playing things a little bit differently than we had,” Saleh said about the difference in the fourth quarter.

The result was the defense carrying the day like the offense had the week before. And suddenly, the Jets are 3–2, and a game out of first and looking frisky.

Which also, by the way, means the Jets are 3–0 since Saleh made his comment on keeping receipts on who was denigrating the team for its 0–2 start. When I brought it up, Saleh laughed—and he wasn’t yet ready to claim victory.

“No, the reality is we’re still a long way from even being able to talk about cashing in on those,” he said. “We gotta win a lot of games. There’s a lot of things we have to accomplish, this organization. And today’s win was great. We’re so young and we still have a long way to go, but at the same time, I’m just excited about our group and the way they respond week-to-week. I do think we’ve got a group that plays for one another; I think we’ve got a coaching staff that loves its players.

“And as long as you’ve got a locker room that appreciates the way each other works, you’ve got a chance to be pretty good. But as I mentioned before, there are people who live in faith and people who live in a world of belief. And I know a lot of people have to see things before they think it’s possible. I just know this group is moving in the right direction and eventually people will see what we see.”

Which, Saleh would tell you, is something to be excited about.

Stevenson ran over the Lions for 161 yards on 25 carries as the Patriots won, 29-0.

The Patriots’ much-maligned offensive staff can take a bow. A lot of things could’ve gone wrong the past couple of weeks, with Mac Jones out, veteran backup Brian Hoyer shelved with a concussion 16 plays into the Green Bay game last week and fourth-round rookie Bailey Zappe pressed into action as a result. They haven’t. And that Zappe was so ready to go in a fire-drill situation in that game at Lambeau—against Aaron Rodgers—then showed strong in this week’s 29–0 rout of the Lions is, indeed, a credit to Matt Patricia and Joe Judge.

The Lions, of course, were really bad (coach Dan Campbell called this one “rock bottom” for his team afterward). But even with that taken into account, Zappe’s poise was impressive, especially considering he’s just two years removed from playing at a school (Houston Baptist) that has a stadium with stands splitting land on that side of the field with the local CVS.

“When Bailey Zappe came in, everyone kinda knew, like he had that kinda … I don’t even know how to say it, that kind of itch to get better and just to learn,” second-year tailback Rhamondre Stevenson said. “And so, yeah, we all saw it, we all knew he had it in him, and this week, he prepared very well this week in practice. And I think it showed.”

Zappe finished 17-of-21 for 188 yards, a touchdown, a pick and a 100.0 rating and, as the numbers would illustrate, the Patriots did plenty to make him comfortable with the offense.

The first piece was Patricia and Judge building a game plan, and then Patricia calling plays, in a way that would get Zappe going early. That’s where the differences between Jones and Zappe would come into play—while the two have similar stylistic skill sets, Zappe’s background, going back to high school, was in spread offenses, whereas Jones had more experience in pro-style attacks. So the coaches worked to highlight spread elements of the Patriots’ offense and highlighted those against the Lions in passing situations.

The second is a run game that accounted for 176 yards on 35 carries, which worked to ground a previously potent Lions offense and created consistently favorable down-and-distance situations. And that part of the offense coming together has been a process, in trying to create the right type of run scheme for a big offensive line, and a hard-charging, downhill-running duo of backs between Stevenson and Damien Harris.

“We ran a lot of gap scheme,” said Stevenson of the hat-on-hat blocking looks the Patriots are working with now. “And I just love running downhill behind those big boys. That’s what we did.”

And so this all works for Zappe and should work for Jones when he gets back, especially if Matthew Judon (who was a monster Sunday with two sacks) and the defense keep playing as they have.

That, of course, doesn’t mean it’s time to declare coach Bill Belichick’s offensive coordinator experiment a success, but it certainly feels like it’s on the right track.

Mike Vrabel’s team isn’t quitting. And it’s not that the Titans were overly impressive in edging the Commanders at FedExField on Sunday (it wasn’t a Picasso, that’s for sure). To me, it’s how player-driven Vrabel’s teams always are, and in this case I think that’s a big reason for Tennessee pulling itself out of an 0–2 hole, and back to 3–2 and first place in the AFC South.

“That’s exactly what it is,” linebacker David Long told me after the Titans’ win. “He comes in and he gives us the keys. He gives us the keys for us to win a game, and we harp on it all week. He reminds us to make sure that we know it, and that just comes with how much belief and faith we have in him as a coach. He gives us keys to go out there and win. When we have those keys, we usually end up winning the game.”

Long and the defense very literally took the keys to win the game on Sunday on Washington’s final two offensive snaps.

The first was second-and-goal from the two-yard line. Seeing passing-down back J.D. McKissic in the game rather than Antonio Gibson or Brian Robinson, and, given the situation (19 seconds left, Commanders out of timeouts), the Titans made an adjustment to essentially drop their entire defensive line into the shallow area right in front of Carson Wentz. So when the ball was snapped, there were defenders everywhere underneath, and defensive tackle Teair Tart knocked away a ball intended for McKissic.

“That shows what type of team we have,” Long said. “Whatever we need guys to do, even if it’s a big guy dropping in coverage, everybody’s hungry trying to make a play on the ball.”

Then, on third down, Long took matters into his own hands. Through the week, and into the game, the plan had been for Long to be aggressive at the line with Washington’s receivers. So on third-and-goal, Long followed that tendency—shoving receiver Terry McLaurin, while keeping his eyes on Wentz. He peeled off McLaurin, saw McKissic coming his way and, having baited Wentz into thinking his area would be vacated, easily stepped in front of the ball for the game-sealing pick.

“They made some plays earlier; that was kind of a test for me,” he said. “It’s just never panicking. It’s gonna come back. So this time I was more patient, eyes on the quarterback, and the play was there for me to make.”

Long and the Titans have made plays the past three weeks in responding to a heartbreaking season-opening loss to the Giants and a rout in Buffalo. And all of this started, Long said, with a players-only meeting after the Bills loss affirmed the Titans were still who they’ve been for years, and that the faith in the locker room and coaches shouldn’t waver.

It didn’t. And now the Titans are all alone in first place.

It has happened with Derrick Henry averaging under four yards per carry, Taylor Lewan and Harold Landry out for the year, and receiver A.J. Brown traded to the Eagles. It’s also happened with a familiar formula even with all those guys who were central to creating it—the Titans think they’re tougher than most teams they’ll face. And for the most part, over the past few years, they’ve been right, with the final moments Sunday providing more evidence.

“Yessir, just never panicking,” Long said. “Like, Kristian [Fulton] had that penalty, O.K., don’t bring him down. Make sure he knows. He’s able to know it’s not the end of the day. I’m looking at him like, Don’t worry about it. Go make another play. Go make another play. So that’s just the type of team we have.”

And have had for a while now.

I don’t think the Colts are going to go away in the South, though. And it’s because of the one positive that coach Frank Reich told me the other day that he’s taking from a very weird game against the Broncos—that the idea he and GM Chris Ballard had in bringing in vets such as Matt Ryan, Stephon Gilmore and Yannick Ngakoue, who’d been on big stages with winning programs, was starting to show up.

“When you find ways to win these kinds of games, there is a toughness and a grit that develops, and it gives you a confidence that even though it’s ugly, somebody’s gonna make plays at the end of the game,” he said. “I think if you look back to the last year or two, that’s one of the things that we weren’t getting consistently enough. We got some of it, but we weren’t getting that consistently enough. And there’s some early indications that we’re getting that more already five games into the season.

“That’s one of the reasons for the confidence that we have going forward.”

Now Reich did say that after telling me, flat out, of the Denver game, “It’s like you don’t know how to feel after a game like that. You’re happy you won, but you know you have to get better.” And the Colts, Reich was sure to tell me, are well aware that’s where they are.

It starts, as Reich explained it to me, with the offense continually putting itself in long-yardage situations, be it through incompletions, penalties or negative plays (sacks, tackles for loss, etc.), and having to constantly dig out. And that’s a strange place to be for a Colts team that’s consistently been strong on the ground, and even more than just that last year with NFL rushing champion Jonathan Taylor on the roster.

“It’s been a strength every year,” Reich said.

But it’s not right now, and so Reich spent the minibye with his coaches trying to solve that.

One thing that should help is getting Ryan more time with his receivers and backs. Another would be having Taylor healthy. And another would be settling on five linemen, which it looks like Reich might’ve done with how he shuffled the deck against the Broncos, putting rookie Bernhard Raimann at left tackle, moving Matt Pryor to right tackle and shifting Braden Smith inside to guard in an effort to get the best five on the field.

“The thought process was, we think Bernhard’s our long-term left tackle,” Reich said. “We think he’s shown enough to show that he was ready to go in. He had recovered from his injury. Even though he had probably only played about 30 plays before that, we thought we saw enough that he could get in there and hold his own. And, then, we thought about moving Braden back down to right guard—that was originally his natural position. He played there in college. He’s an A-plus run blocker.

“That would give us Quenton Nelson, Ryan Kelly and Braden Smith inside the run game, which would help get the run game going.”

The flip side of all that uncertainty is the Colts were able to get through it while winning a game, and seeing Ryan will the team down the field in overtime, including getting the ball out in impossible spots, Gilmore making a crucial pass breakup at the end of regulation, plus the game-sealing pick in OT, and Ngakoue having a big night as a rusher.

“You gotta have playmakers that make plays in the crunch,” Reich said. “What I’m maybe more encouraged about than anything is that I know it’s only five games in and we’re only 2-2-1 and we were hoping to be better than that, but the reality is there’s some really good signs.”

That said, the time for those signs to become more than that would probably have to be now.

Fourth downs are continually going to be a story—and Sunday Night Football gave us another example to harp on. The Bengals had the ball on the Ravens’ two-yard line with 2:48 left, it’s fourth-and-goal, and a field goal ties the game at 13. Rather than kick the field goal, Bengals coach Zac Taylor puts the ball in Joe Burrow’s hands and calls a shovel pass for Stanley Morgan. Baltimore snuffs it out, and the Ravens maintain their three-point lead.

Did it cost the Bengals the game? Hard to say.

Yes, the Ravens’ margin of victory was two in a 19–17 win, but there’s no telling how either team would’ve handled a number of situations down the stretch had the score been different (Baltimore had time to burn before Justin Tucker lined up to kick the game-winning 43-yarder, and obviously would’ve been trying to get in the end zone had the score been 20-16 rather than 19–16.

Still, between what Taylor did, what Brandon Staley did against the Browns, and how Lions coach Dan Campbell went 0-for-6 on fourth downs Sunday, this topic isn’t dying anytime soon. And it almost feels like, at this point, as far as catching criticism goes, the safe thing to do now is what used to be the risky thing—because coaches take a lot more lip for being conservative than they do for rolling the dice.

Bridgewater suffered head and elbow injuries and was kept out of the game with symptoms of ataxia.

The NFL and NFLPA still aren’t really on the same page. So the league and union agreed to updated protocols and language in a joint statement to announce the protocols and the findings of the Tua Tagovailoa investigation. But there are still major areas of disagreement between the sides on this subject. Here are the two main ones …

Meanwhile, on Sunday, the Dolphins had a similar situation with Teddy Bridgewater, where he had a head injury and an elbow injury, and showed symptoms of ataxia (lack of coordination) despite passing the field concussion test. Bridgewater was ruled out quickly after showing those symptoms, which, again, the NFL says will be the case for any player in the sort of situation Tagovailoa was in moving forward.

Why it didn’t work out for Matt Rhule. I’ll repeat what I’ve said before—I really don’t think the Panthers’ players quit on their coach, who was fired Monday after posting an 11-27 record. That said, that game in Charlotte on Sunday had an ominous feel to it like others have as coaches reach the end, with the lopsided score (a 37–15 loss to the 49ers) and stadium overrun by opposing fans.

Owner David Tepper gave Rhule every chance to hit after giving him a seven-year, $63 million contract. But it was getting harder and harder to see this one working out, with the hole that remains at quarterback and a defense that isn’t playing to its talent level. 

Steve Wilks, who is the team’s defensive pass-game coordinator and secondary coach, was named interim head coach. This is Wilks’ second opportunity to be a head coach after he was fired after a 3-13 season with the Cardinals in 2018.

Now Rhule can turn his attention to the college hiring cycle, with that carousel likely spinning at full bore by Thanksgiving. If he gets a job in November and December, it could save Tepper millions via contract offsets.

I think the Rams are in trouble. Sure, they’re 2–3 in a down conference, and the playoffs are still in sight. Maybe they’ll make it. Maybe they won’t. I just know that it’s going to be really hard given the state of that offensive line—outside of quarterback, it’s probably the most difficult position in pro football to upgrade on the fly.

And so it is that Sean McVay’s got a tall task in front of him.

“This is some adversity that we’re facing right now as a football team,” McVay told reporters. “You find out a lot about people when you do go through that. I’m going to continue to stand up here and do the best I can for this team. It’s not good enough right now. I’ll never pretend that it is. This is a challenging time right now, but I can assure you one thing—we’re going to keep swinging, we’re going to keep fighting.

“This is when you learn about people. I’m excited about the opportunity to be able to grind through some challenging times, to see if we can come out on the right end of this, because I know I’m not going to fold. I know these coaches aren’t. I know a lot of these players aren’t.”

I wholeheartedly believe him on that. I’m just not sure what they have right now is enough. And, hey, if the stretched resources, both in the draft and against the cap, you incurred to load the roster the past couple of years wind up preventing you from getting the immediate upgrades you need … well, it’s definitely worth it to go through this for the championship you won last year, and a pair of Super Bowls you’ve been to over the past four years.

A controversial roughing-the-passer call allowed Brady and the Buccaneers to kneel out the game.

I’ve got quick-hitting thoughts before I go to bed. And you’re getting them now …

• That roughing-the-passer call in the Falcons-Buccaneers game was as bad as it gets, and I really wish officials such as Jerome Boger could just be honest and admit their mistakes after these things. If that wasn’t called, the Falcons would’ve gotten the ball back with 2:56 left in the game, down six, with a chance to win. Atlanta had run for 64 yards on 15 carries on its past three possessions and had Tampa on its heels. A win there, by the way, would have moved Arthur Smith’s crew into a first-place tie in the NFC South.

• While we’re there, the Deion Jones trade (he and a 2024 seventh-round pick are going to Cleveland for a ’24 sixth-round pick) is another example of how the Falcons are basically taking on all the financial water this year. Their offseason could wind up being a fun one, with a full complement of picks and a good amount of cap space waiting.

• The NFC is wide open. Through five weeks, I’d say the Eagles and 49ers look like the best teams. I also think the Packers are going to come around as young receiver Christian Watson and Romeo Doubs gain experience.

• Kyler Murray has to have better situational awareness than he showed at the end of the Cardinals-Eagles game, regardless of what the scoreboard might’ve read, and regardless of whether kicker Matt Ammendola should’ve hit the field goal.

• The Bills are so dominant that a five-touchdown win over the Steelers is listed down here in the quick-hitters. (And it could’ve been way worse than five touchdowns).

• Justin Tucker’s an alien.

• Justin Jefferson, too.

• The 49ers have to have their fingers crossed on Nick Bosa’s health—Bosa’s groin tightened up in the blowout win over the Panthers. Losing Emmanuel Moseley for the season to a torn ACL is bad enough.

• Fair or not, Thursday-night games have become quarterback referendums, and we have another one coming this week with Wentz and Justin Fields squaring off. It’s probably too early to mention that the Commanders really liked what they saw in Sam Howell during training camp, right?

• All the best to Washington RB Brian Robinson Jr. What an amazing story.

Editors’ note, Oct. 10 at 9:57 a.m. ET: An earlier version of the story incorrectly stated the Jets’ record to start the season. They began it 1–1, not 0–2.

This content was originally published here.

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