PICK SIX – Week 7

Week 7 of the 2023 NFL season didn’t disappoint when it came to talking points. So much so that our regular scribes, Shaun Blundell and Sean Tyler, were hard pressed to pick just six of them to unpack. But after some deliberation and cogitation, they settled on this little lot for your reading pleasure. Enjoy.

National Tight Ends Day

There are many awareness-raising and promotional days in the calendar and some are odder than others: National Talk Like a Pirate Day. National Men Make Dinner Day. Kiss A Ginger Day. National Cheese Toastie Day. And of course, National Tight Ends Day.

Yes, the fourth Sunday in October has been designated National Tight Ends Day by the NFL since 2o19, when a mic’d-up George Kittle joked that TEs should have their own holiday. This year, Kittle made a music video – featuring some Niners’ teammates, cameos from various TEs around the league and some historic footage of former greats – to celebrate the importance of the position.

So it was almost written in the stars that tight ends were going to play a big role in Week 7. Inevitably, the Chiefs’ Travis Kelce led the league in receiving (12 catches for 179 yards and a TD), as he and Patrick Mahomes celebrated their 50th scoring connection. And with his fifth game of 150-plus yards, Mr Taylor Swift is now only one behind the all-time leader, Hall of Famer Shannon Sharpe.

Not to be outdone, a tight end also led the league in receiving touchdowns. A drumroll for the Ravens’ Mark Andrews, please. Baltimore (more about them shortly, Ravens fans) destroyed the previously 5-1 Detroit Lions 38-6, thanks to an MVP-level performance from Lamar Jackson and a solid outing from Andrews. No.89 corralled four targets for 63 yards but two of them went for TDs: an 11-yarder and an 8-yarder either side of halftime.

We can’t move on without acknowledging that funny little dance that Mike Gesicki does when he scores. The Patriots tight end was entitled to his celebratory not-quite-a-griddy as he snagged the game-winning score against the Bills with just 12 seconds left on the clock – a tight end to a game if ever there was one (other dad jokes are available). The catch at the back of the end zone secured an unexpected 29-25 victory against their divisional rivals and keeps the AFC cauldron bubbling away nicely. [ST]

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Signs of life at Mile High?

It was only four short weeks ago that the Denver Broncos were on the wrong end of a 70-point drubbing at the hands of the Miami Dolphins. Fast forward a month and back-to-back decent defensive displays have allowed some small chunks of positivity to be found in the floundering franchise. After completing a 19-17 victory over the Packers, they have now kept their opponent under 20 points in consecutive games. Yes, Green Bay have their own issues but the other opponent in this mini revival was the Kansas City Chiefs.

Let’s not get carried away here though. Yes, the defense has improved but it is still not playing anywhere near Broncos units of years gone by. Too many penalties, not enough men on the field at times, missed tackles… you get the drill. Kareem Jackson was ejected for the second time this campaign after a vicious hit early in the fourth quarter. For those keeping score, he has already had four unnecessary roughness penalties with fines now close to $100,000. It’s hard to imagine that a suspension is not going to be forthcoming. It is systematic of the lack of discipline in the side.

Editor’s note: Jackson has indeed been suspended for four games for his consistent infringements of the unnecessary roughness rules.

Where the defense may offer some signs of life, the offense is really struggling badly. Russell Wilson was improved from last Thursday’s horror show, he couldn’t be much worse. However, it was another game with under 200 yards passing and only two receivers, Cortland Sutton and Jerry Jeudy, registered catches. There is a lack of commitment to the running game, even though individually Javonte Williams is running pretty well. A reverse play that netted the only stat of the day for rookie Marvin Mims Jr. went for minus 11 yards.

Sean Payton was brought in to turn around the franchise and “save” the Russell Wilson trade. As we approach the halfway point of the year, it’s fair to question if it’s a forlorn hope. [SB]

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D-fence!

Many of our favourite players make the highlight reel catches and the spectacular touchdowns. After all, that’s the aim of the game. But I do love a last-gasp defensive play that somehow prevents an all-but-guaranteed score. As they say, the guys on the other side of the ball get paid too and this weekend, two of them definitely earned their corn. As it was, neither play affected the final result but that shouldn’t take anything away from their efforts.

The first one was in the Falcons game in Tampa Bay. With six minutes left and the score nicely poised at 13-10, Atlanta had the ball at the Buccaneers’ 12-yard line on a 1st-and-goal. After a faked handoff, QB Desmond Ridder went left and took a direct line to the pylon, looking to run in his second score of the day. Holding the ball in his right hand, he was almost level with the line when Antoine Winfield Jr. swooped in from behind and punched the ball down, out of Ridder’s hands. The Atlanta players still celebrated, as the initial ruling on the field was that their guy had crossed the plane before losing the ball, but on review, that decision was overturned. In the end, the Falcons held on to win 16-13 but that amazing play from Winfield nearly cost them.

The other piece of phenomenal defending came in the Browns’ 39-38 win over the Colts in Indianapolis. In a thoroughly entertaining end-to-end game, every drive seemed to matter. With half a minute remaining, it looked like Cleveland – trailing 38-33 at the time – had got a vital go-ahead TD on a 1st-and-goal. PJ Walker, deputising for an injured Deshaun Watson, dinked an absolute dime to David Njoku, as he made his way to the front-left corner of the end zone. The 6’4” tight end jumped up, arms aloft, and literally had the ball between his hands when his blue-clad shadow, Rodney Thomas, reached in between his mitts and somehow knocked the ball away. Alas for Indy, Kareem Hunt managed to run in the crucial game-winner 15 seconds later but it was a hell of a play by Thomas nonetheless. [ST]

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Ravens offense joins the party

The Baltimore Ravens have been a tricky team to get a read on. A very good defense, certainly. The offense? Despite a 4-2 record heading into Sunday, it hadn’t been much to write home about. Then Sunday happened.

The Detroit Lions, full of praise and expectation after their own start to the campaign, were put to the sword by a first half offensive masterclass by the Ravens. They took their opening four drives for touchdowns as they opened up a 28-point cushion by the interval. Lamar Jackson rushed for one, threw for two more and Gus “The Bus” Edwards also crossed over. A four-play, 94-yard drive to open up the second half (after turning the Lions over on downs) was the final nail in an already pretty tightly sealed coffin.

The red zone, which had proved problematic recently for Baltimore, was also a big success this weekend. Those opening four touchdown drives all ended through a trip into the red zone. They would end the day with a five out of six touchdown conversion rate against such trips by the end of the day. The reliable Justin Tucker kicked a field goal on the other occasion. 

It was Jackson’s best performance of the season by some distance. He was decisive with his legs and more than efficient with his arm. His 357 passing yards were his most since way back in October of 2021. He has seemingly found himself a new favourite target alongside Mark Andrews in rookie Zay Flowers. With Odell Beckham Jr. and Rashod Bateman also getting back up to full fitness, it suddenly seems as though Baltimore has a slew of options with which to attack teams with. 

On their day, the Ravens are a match for anyone and must surely be considered in the Super Bowl conversation if the offensive output stays at this level. [SB]

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Maher culpa

Though it pains me to admit it (as a Bengals fan), there were plenty of positives on show as Pittsburgh travelled west and beat the LA Rams on their own patch. We should’ve seen it coming, as HC Mike Tomlin rarely loses when he’s given a bye week to prepare for his next opponents.

The highlights include an impressive return from IR for wide receiver Diontae Johnson, who gave his sleep-walking teammates – they’d only scored three points in the first half – a much-needed jolt with five catches for 79 yards. Kenny Pickett and George Pickens (107 receiving yards) seemed to click and Najee Harris caught the eye with some nifty hurdling down the sideline. On the other side of the ball, an interception from TJ Watt saw him become only the second player since 1982 with 70-plus sacks and seven-plus interceptions in their first seven seasons.

The Rams weren’t without notable moments of their own, not least a 154-yard performance from Puka Nacua, the backfield committee of Royce Freeman and Darrell Henderson gaining 127 yards between them and two sacks by Michael Hoecht. But on a night when Cooper Kupp was restricted to just two catches for a paltry 29 yards, they needed to lean on kicker Brett Maher. 

Alas, Maher – who signed just before the season started – got a case of the yips, much like he did last postseason for the Cowboys when he couldn’t kick an extra point for love nor money (he missed four of five in the Wild Card game against the Bucs). The wheels seem to come off again on Sunday, despite playing in the controlled conditions of SoFi Stadium. He doinked a 53-yard FG attempt off the left upright, missed a PAT and then missed another field goal, veering left again from 51. Maher did make a 41-yard kick but you don’t need to be a mathematics professor to calculate the importance of those seven missed points in a game that ended 24-17.

The failed extra point was his first such miss of the season but he’s now missed six of his 23 FG attempts. Sunday was his third game this season with multiple misses, leaving him ranked 29th out of 33 kickers. No wonder HC Sean McVay said “We’ll look at it and we’ll see, but he’s got to be better.” Maher himself coughed up a bit of post-match mea culpa, saying: “I’m just a little disappointed for the team. I feel like I could have made a very positive impact on that game and didn’t do my part today.” [ST]

Editor’s note: Maher was released by Rams HC Sean McVay on Tuesday. With no other kicker on the roster, the search for a replacement begins.

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Al Michaels, it’s time to go

I appreciate commentary is a matter of personal choice and opinion. For me, hearing the likes of Kevin Harlan on the play-by-play or the analysis of a recent player such as Greg Olsen doing the colour commentary job improves my enjoyment of the game. Put simply, a commentator should enhance your experience and not ruin it. You only have to look at the reported $165 million that ESPN paid out to bring Joe Buck and Troy Aikman to Monday Night Football for the broadcasters understanding of this too. Which leads me to Al Michaels.

It must have been quite the coup for Amazon when they were announced as the exclusive broadcaster for Thursday Night Football. Michaels had been the voice of Sunday Night Football for many years and, as such, had built himself a reputation for being the man for the big occasion. There have been signs of decline in his output over the past 18 months with the lack of enthusiasm in his voice being the real noticeable difference. Thursday Night saw a new low point.

With the Jaguars and Saints tied at 24 points each and time winding down, Michaels completely botched what turned out to be the game-winning play. Trevor Lawrence dropped back and found Christian Kirk, who ran an excellent whip route against Tyrann Mathieu. Kirk managed to sprint past and in-between multiple Saints defenders on his way to a 44-yard touchdown reception. 

“Christian Kirk, inside the 20, and he goes… and Christian Kirk takes the ball all the way… to about the 1-yard line,” the 78-year-old said while pausing during the play. Then, while Kirk celebrated the touchdown with his teammates, Michaels said: “They’re gonna spot it as [Kirk] thinks he scored the touchdown… And they’re gonna call it a touchdown now.”

He was nowhere near the sideline so I have no idea what Michaels was watching. In terms of enthusiasm, you would be forgiven for thinking Michaels was commentating on a chess game as opposed to an NFL contest. It’s no doubt hard to walk away from something that you love but I’m sorry Al, it’s time to go. [SB]

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