Cowboys have firepower to win without Dak

In this space, I’ll go through all that we learned from the Week 8 action and give you five things I care about along with five things I can’t muster up the emotional energy to care for.

Good news for you: We’re going to do this exercise in emotional turmoil every Sunday of the regular season.

5 Things I care about

Dallas’ championship ecosystem

It wasn’t always smoothing sailing for Cooper Rush on Sunday night but the end result showed Dallas coming away from Dak Prescott’s absence unscathed.

Rush threw 40 times to just 23 carries from the combination of Ezekiel Elliott and Tony Pollard. That took me by surprise. Instead of staying conservative and just pushing the ball into Zeke’s belly over and over again, the Cowboys left Rush to his devices.

It makes sense because even when they aren’t at full strength, Dallas has a championship ecosystem — especially in the passing game.

Rush was able to push Amari Cooper and CeeDee Lamb over 100 yards on the night. The duo combined for 21 targets. You love when a backup comes in and know exactly where his bread is buttered. Rush was not passive either; he played aggressive ball. Rush averaged the third-highest air yards per attempt (9.5) among all passers in Week 8. You should absolutely have the confidence to air it out with receivers like Cooper and Lamb.

CeeDee Lamb #88 of the Dallas Cowboys and Amari Cooper #19 of the Dallas Cowboys
CeeDee Lamb and Amari Cooper put on a show in Week 8. (Photo by Richard Rodriguez/Getty Images)

Rush played his best ball late in the game and eventually secured the comeback win with less than two minutes remaining. He did it via a gorgeous, high-degree of difficulty catch from Cooper.

When you can drop a backup quarterback with such little experience right into the eye of the storm with late notice and get this kind of performance, you have something special. You have an ecosystem that’s built to last. Prescott will eventually be back and this Cooper Rush game will eventually fade from memory. But the lesson we learned tonight remains.

The realization that Dallas has a championship ecosystem, one that can withstand the absence of its elite quarterback, was a crucial discovery.

Saints outlook goes awry

Jameis Winston was early into a strong outing against his former team when he crumbled trying to walk off a knee injury. He wouldn’t return to the game and it appears he’s going to miss the rest of the season with a torn ACL.

As much as it was clear the Saints didn’t want Jameis Winston carrying the team or handling much volume early in the year, this really throws the offense into the wilderness. Winston was at least efficient, averaging a career-high adjusted yards per attempt and sat among the top quarterbacks in touchdown rate. It’ll be tough to project anything like that without him.

Trevor Siemian made a handful of plays in relief of Winston but averaged just 5.5 yards per pass. One would imagine Taysom Hill takes this starting gig once he’s healthy. We’ve seen Hill starting before and frankly, it was a similar low-volume, run-heavy offense to what we’ve gotten with Winston. The efficiency is still likely to take a hit.

If you’ve been stashing Michael Thomas on IR waiting to see him matched up with a vertical passer in Winston, that’s not happening. He was productive in starts with Hill last year but it’s still not the best-case scenario. If Alvin Kamara is to keep up his fantasy production he’ll have to hold up to the beefy workload he’s received on the ground. We know Hill won’t check down like Brees did, or even Winston, so far in 2021.

Make no mistake, even if Winston wasn’t perfect, his absence changes the course of this offense.

Mike White’s performance

The Jets pulled off a huge upset over the Bengals in New York as 11.5-point underdogs. It wasn’t by the hands of the No. 2 overall pick or the Super Bowl champion veteran they just traded a fifth-round pick to acquire.

Today belonged to Mike White.

The Jets’ unknown backup threw for a whopping 405 yards and completed 82 percent of his throws with three touchdowns. He was able to recover from two troubling early interceptions to take down a Bengals team that sported the best record in the AFC. Robert Saleh has already declared him the starter for Thursday night. No shock, as this was easily the best version of the Jets’ offense we’ve seen all season.

I have a theory on this. So much of the passing game in a Shanahan-style offense is based on timing, rhythm and taking what the defense presents and/or the offense designs for you. The structure of the offense is the key. He might get there at some point but it was well-known coming into this year that Zach Wilson’s best work came while improvising out of structure.

Much of what White did on Sunday came from passes to running backs and slot receivers. But that’s the key. White was willing to take what was there or what was designed by the offense. Wilson has been quick to bail on plays, boot out of the pocket and point downfield, trying to make something come open. That worked at BYU but not so far at the NFL level.

Justin Fields gets mobile

Strangely enough, getting the athletic quarterback with a whip for an arm on the move is a good thing for your offense!

Week 8 was the first time all season the Bears seemed to design plays around Justin Fields’ legs.

Fields ran 10 times for over 100 yards and a score. Most of that came on scrambles but he was booted out of the pocket quite often. This allows Fields to get away from an oft-collapsing pocket and cut the field in half to easily make reads.

The fact that this came during a game where head coach Matt Nagy was not present due to COVID protocols will be a talking point. Either way, let’s hope this trend continues. The rest of 2021 just needs to be about evaluating Fields and building his resume for the future. There is no doubt this is the best way to call plays to facilitate his success right now.

Washington splits RB touches

Washington’s leading ball-carrier on Sunday was rookie Jarret Patterson with 11 carries for 46 yards. J.D. McKissic had three carries for 10 yards but caught all eight of his targets for 83 yards. Starter Antonio Gibson took his eight carries for 34 yards and caught three passes for 20 yards.

It was the first time all season the backfield was split three ways.

I’ve been hoping Washington would sit Gibson for a couple of games to let him get healthy. This is perhaps a half measure toward that goal. Washington has a Week 9 bye so the team may have been hoping to limit his touches in this game and then give him a long stretch to rest his body.

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On the other hand, maybe this is something close to what we’ll see going forward. Washington is now 2-6. The deeper we get into the season as Washington falls farther away from relevancy, the odds get higher that the banged-up Gibson gets shut down. We’re not going to get the best of the talented Gibson until 2022; that’s been clear for weeks. If Patterson’s usage holds up in Week 10 after the bye, we might be seeing him even less than expected the rest of this season.

5 Things I don’t care about

The Vikings pass-defense metrics

On paper, this Minnesota pass defense is a high-caliber unit. You’d have thought coming into this week that the Cowboys would struggle to move the ball with a backup quarterback against a defense that ranked sixth in pass defense DVOA.

Whether they could do that against a strong cast of wideouts and without Patrick Peterson was worth a question.

We got the answer on Sunday night and it was a clear-cut “No.”

Both Amari Cooper and CeeDee Lamb cleared 100 yards and even Cedrick Wilson caught three targets for 84 yards and a score.

Breshaud Breeland and Cameron Dantzler took over on the outside with Peterson out of the mix. Breeland had been bleeding production through six games. He’d allowed a 115.5 passer rating and four scores in coverage. Dantzler had his moments in 2020 but had been playing as the fourth corner this year. He proceeded to give up the game-winning touchdown to Amari Cooper.

Coming out of the bye, the Vikings now have a sizable question in their defensive backfield, coupled with the fact that pass rusher Danielle Hunter also missed time in this loss.

The Vikings' defense appeared to have turned the corner back into a usually strong Mike Zimmer-coached defense. Now, a decline might be in order.

Looking for consistency out of Tennessee

The Titans appear to be a tough team to figure out. They’ll play like an AFC juggernaut some weeks and then flounder in others. Tennessee showed both sides of its face in a Week 8 overtime win against the Colts.

This actually makes complete sense when you think about the construction of the team.

The Titans are a top-heavy team on both sides of the ball — especially on offense. With Julio Jones not much of a factor and no ancillary players really stepping up, they’re a star-driven, boom-or-bust attack. With A.J. Brown and Derrick Henry in the fold, they have two of the best and most explosive players at their respective positions.

Tennessee Titans Running Back Derrick Henry (22) celebrates a touchdown with Tennessee Titans Wide Receiver A.J. Brown (11)
Derrick Henry and A.J. Brown are elite, but the Titans have no other big threats beyond them. (Photo by David Rosenblum/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images)

When one or both of those guys goes off ... the Titans can look like one of the most dangerous scoring units. If either slows up, they’re counting on one to carry the day but that can lead to slow stretches on offense. Luckily for them, A.J. Brown is all the way back to carry his weight in this equation. Brown was sitting on just one target for a long stretch of the action on Sunday but finished with 10 catches for 155 yards.

When you realize this about the Titans, they don’t feel too difficult to figure out.

The Browns passing game

A matchup with the Steelers’ defense is never going to be smooth. But nothing is ever going to come easy when your quarterback is sporting some kind of harness to purposefully restrict his movement.

I get why Baker Mayfield wants to play. He’s tough and a gamer. It also matters a great deal that 2021 was always set up to be a statement year for Mayfield in terms of his future contract in Cleveland. I’m just skeptical that he’ll be able to offer the best output possible while dealing with this shoulder injury.

The Browns are already a low-volume passing game by design. You’re banking on efficiency if you’re selecting their players in fantasy. That worked in the first few weeks when Mayfield led all players in completion rate over expectation. He's been slipping since the injury. It makes this a troubling passing game to invest in at any level.

Cleveland gets the Bengals, Patriots, Lions and Ravens over their next four games. Only one of those looks like a matchup we’ll be tempted to click on Browns’ passing game players given the context of Mayfield’s condition.

Kyle Pitts’ slow game

After two truly special performances out of Kyle Pitts, we were treated to a two-catch, 13-yard dud against the Panthers. Don’t sweat it.

The rookie made a couple of mistakes and whiffed on some plays this week. That’s going to happen in your first year. We should have faith that the good will far outweigh the bad over the remainder of this season. Pitts showed way too much goodness in the vertical game in Weeks 5 and 7 to freak out about one bad day at the office.

Kyle Pitts is going to have to be the center of the Falcons’ offense going forward with Calvin Ridley stepping away from football to deal with his mental well-being. Pitts has shown us he’s capable of being that guy even if there are small bumps in the road. There’s no reason to have Pitts any lower than TE3 in your rest-of-season rankings.

Jalen Hurts’ bad fantasy game

Hear me out: I am less worried about Jalen Hurts than ever despite having objectively his worst fantasy performance of the season.

There were whispers starting up that the Eagles might be reaching a point where they’d consider benching Hurts to get a look at Gardner Minshew. It’s no secret that the Eagles aren’t fully committed to the idea that Hurts is their future at the position. If the Eagles had lost to the Lions or even kept this thing too close, those whispers might have just gotten a bit louder.

An uber-convincing 44-6 win over Detroit where the Eagles ran the ball with authority is a far better outcome for Hurts keeping his job longer into the season.

Imagine if this game had actually been close? You’ll take the short-term pain for the hope Hurts is available deeper toward your playoff run.

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