By Bucky Brooks
FOX Sports NFL Analyst

As we near the quarter-mark of the season, coaches and executives are assessing their squads to determine how to best match their schemes with their personnel to enhance their chances of winning. Although a slow start does not immediately squash a team’s playoff chances, there is a heightened sense of urgency with four games in the books. Teams are out of preseason and rounding into form as we begin to see a little separation between the contenders and pretenders. After taking some time to watch a little tape and make a few notes on what took place this weekend, here are some observations from a former NFL scout… 

Three things I liked

1. The Eagles are for real 

If there was any doubt about the Eagles’ legitimacy as a title contender, Nick Sirianni’s crew silenced the skeptics with an impressive performance against the Jaguars. The Eagles rushed for 200-plus yards on an assortment of read-option plays and gap scheme runs (power and counter) that shredded the NFL’s top-ranked run defense. 

Miles Sanders led the way with 134 yards on 27 carries with two scores, but it was the threat of Jalen Hurts slipping out of the back door or attacking an interior crease that enabled Sanders to scoot around defenders on the perimeter. They combined a “hidden ball” trick with perfectly executed schemes but several Jaguars defenders in conflict at the point of attack. Without the ability to attack the line of scrimmage to blow up running plays at the line of scrimmage, the Eagles toyed with the Jaguars’ defense over the last three quarters of an impressive win.                                                                      

Defensively, the Eagles forced five turnovers and solved the quick-rhythm passing game riddle that helped Trevor Lawrence settle into a groove. The Eagles smothered Christian Kirk with tight coverage and forced the second-year pro to find another pass-catcher to target in key situations. As the Eagles gained control of the Jaguars’ passing game in the secondary, the pass rush took over the game, with Fletcher Cox and Hasson Reddick shining in the second half. 

2. The Cowboys have found a winning formula 

It might have taken Dak Prescott’s unfortunate injury to help the Cowboys discover the winning blueprint that worked for this roster. Without a star quarterback in the lineup, the Cowboys have relied on a combination of stingy defense and a punishing running game to control the action against top teams. 

Against the Commanders, the defensive plan worked to perfection, as they throttled Carson Wentz and Co. for most of the game. Although the Commanders totaled 300-plus yards of offense, much of that was a product of late-game garbage yards that did not have a significant impact. Wentz never found a rhythm against a ferocious defense that attacked from every angle, particularly with Micah Parsons netting a pair of sacks and * pressures/QB hurries as the unit’s designated blitz defender on passing downs. 

On offense, the Cowboys continue to rely on a blue-collar offensive plan that prioritizes getting the ball to Ezekiel Elliott and Tony Pollard on the ground. The Cowboys’ explosive running back tandem mixes finesse (Pollard) with power (Elliott) to control the tempo of the game. The team’s massive front line excels at moving defenders off of the ball to give Pollard and Elliott plenty of space to roam. As FOX Sports’ David Helman pointed out yesterday, the running game was diminished by Washington’s strong defensive line yesterday, but Dallas was able to adjust and beat the Commanders another way. 

With Cooper Rush making a handful of impressive throws, the Cowboys chalked up another win without a superstar attempting to put the entire team on his back. 

Cooper Rush does it again for Dallas Cowboys in Week 4

Everyone is waiting for Cooper Rush to slip up, but the back up quarterback continues to come through for the Dallas Cowboys, most recently in their win over the Washington Commanders.

3. Zach is back 

Maybe the No. 2 overall pick in the 2021 draft simply needed an opportunity to perform in the clutch to validate his status as the Jets‘ franchise quarterback. Zach Wilson not only cemented his spot as the Jets’ QB1 of the present and future, but he sent a message to the football world that he has the talent and clutch gene to get it done when a game is on the line. 

Against the Steelers, Wilson overcame a sluggish start to finish the game completing 10 of 12 pass attempts for 128 yards and a score in the fourth quarter. The second-year pro showed the poise of a longtime veteran while picking apart the Steelers’ defense in front of a hostile crowd. With Wilson delivering his best performance in the game’s most important moments, the Jets’ QB showcased the talent, guts, and competitive spirit that made him a coveted prospect at BYU. 

A one-game sample size is not enough to crown Zach Wilson as the King of New York, but the quarterback’s performance certainly makes the Jets feel better about their QB situation. 

Three things I did not like

1. The Ravens cannot finish 

It is rare for the Ravens to fall apart when holding a comfortable lead in the second half, but for the second time this season, John Harbaugh’s squad lost a game that was seemingly in the bag. 

Against the Bills, the Ravens squandered a 17-point lead through a series of blunders and questionable decisions by players and coaches. The Ravens gave up cheap points at the end of the first half, allowing the Bills to keep hope alive heading into halftime. In addition, the Ravens missed tackles and blew assignments on critical downs that kept drives alive in key moments. 

Offensively, the Ravens could not get on track in the second half after putting up 20 points in the game’s first 30 minutes. Lamar Jackson could not get going, with a pair of interceptions marring a solid offensive night (217 scrimmage yards and a score). He guided the Ravens on a lengthy drive that ended with a turnover after driving inside the five yard-line with four downs. 

To make matters worse, Harbaugh bypassed an easy field-goal attempt to go for the bonus points on fourth-and-2. While others would have opted for three points and the lead, Harbaugh’s analytically driven decision might have cost his team a win. 

Considering how hard it is to reach the playoffs, you have to wonder if these early-season collapses will come back to bite Baltimore. 

2. Baker Mayfield is broken 

It is time for everyone to finally admit that the 2018 No.1 overall pick is a fringe starter at this stage of his career. Mayfield has not added a spark or new dimension to an offense that has more than enough talent to consistently put points on the board. 

Sure, it has not been ideal circumstances for the veteran to join the team on the eve of training camp, but there is not any excuses for his poor play at the position. Mayfield has completed just 54.7% of his passes this season with four touchdowns and three interceptions and entered the game with one of the worst efficiency ratings in the league. He has also had 11 passes batted down at the line of scrimmage—the most of any quarterback in the league.

Considering Mayfield’s numbers are on par with the pedestrian production that he has produced throughout his career, it is time to judge him on his performance as a low-level starter. Although he has shown a capacity to win games when surrounded by premier playmakers, it is hard to rely on a quarterback who needs the perfect personnel, scheme, and coaches to perform at a high level. 

3. There is no “D” in Detroit 

It is a shame that Dan Campbell does not have more wins on his resume to justify his methods. The Lions are a hustle-hard team who plays with great energy and effort, but they are unable to turn their sweat equity into wins due to a porous defense. 

Defensive coordinator Aaron Glenn passionately implores his team to play with discipline and attention to detail. But against the Seahawks, the Lions surrendered 555 yards of total offense, including 235 on the ground. The Seahawks were able to do whatever they wanted.

Rashaad Penny (17 carries, 151 rushing yards and two scores) and Geno Smith (320 passing yards, two touchdowns) took full advantage of the overmatched defense with spectacular performances that will make their personal highlight reels. With the Lions unable to contain or slow down any of the Seahawks’ primary players, the grizzled coach was forced to engage in a shootout that looked more like an Arena Football game. 

Until Glenn and Campbell can come up with a solution to resolve the team’s defensive woes, the defense will continue to see opponents throw all over the yard and run up the gut until the Lions tap out or surrender in the middle of the game. 

My Top 10 teams: 

1. Eagles: The most complete team in football knocked off a gritty Jaguars squad utilizing an old-school formula that still works. With a punishing offense led by Jalen Hurts and Miles Sanders complementing a defense spearheaded by Fletcher Cox and a great defensive line, this team can go toe-to-toe with anyone.

2. Bills: Do not let the Bills’ propensity for playing close games detract from a rock-solid roster that includes players with the potential to take over games. Josh Allen has delivered MVP-caliber performances and that is more than enough to give the Bills a chance to emerge as the last team standing at the end of the season. 

3. Chiefs: It is not always pretty with the Chiefs, but they find a way to chalk up wins behind an offense that is more balanced than previous versions, but still very effective. 

4. Dolphins: The Tua Tagovailoa controversy will overshadow the solid work done by Mike McDaniel to get the ‘Fins off to a good start. The Dolphins are one of the few teams with an explosive offense and opportunistic defense, with the potential to create scoring opportunities anywhere on the field. 

5. Cowboys: Credit Mike McCarthy for discovering a winning formula that works for this team with or without a star quarterback. The combination of a stingy defense and powerful running game has always worked with this team and continues to be the best path to wins in Dallas. 

6. Packers: It is not pretty, but the Packers’ blueprint for winning games might help them make a deeper run in the playoffs. The defense is loaded with enough blue-chip talent to carry this team to the NFC Championship Game and beyond. 

Are Packers legit contenders with 3-1 start after OT win vs. Patriots?

Are the Packers officially contenders? Colin Cowherd says ‘not so fast.’

7. Vikings: Kevin O’Connell’s offensive wizardry makes the Vikings a difficult team to face. The rookie head coach has Kirk Cousins playing at a high level with Justin Jefferson flourishing as the team’s No.1 receiver. 

8. Rams: The defending champs are lurking in the bushes waiting to make a run at a back-to-back title. 

9. Jaguars: The Jaguars have gone toe-to-toe with some of the league’s heavyweights without flinching. If Doug Pederson can get his young team to eliminate its self-inflicted errors, the Jaguars could emerge as a surprise contender by the end of the season. 

10. Giants: Brian Daboll keeps finding ways to win games despite overseeing a flawed roster. The Giants lack explosive weapons on the perimeter and a stout offensive line, but Daniel Jones and Saquon Barkley do enough on the ground each week to set the table for scoring chances. 

MVP of the Week:

Saquon Barkley has been a one-man show for the Giants as the primary offensive weapon for a team that lacks impact players on the perimeter. The fifth-year pro amassed 146 rushing yards against the Bears while playing a little “Wildcat” quarterback to help the team overcome some injury issues at quarterback.

Offensive Player of the Week:

It is time to give Geno Smith his flowers for his outstanding work as the Seahawks’ QB1. Smith leads the NFL with a 77.3% completion rate while posting a 108.0 passer rating. The journeyman has not only surprised the football world with his performance, but he has played at a level that could encourage the Seahawks to keep him around as a short-term starter until they find their next franchise quarterback.

Defensive Player of the Week:

Rashan Gary is evolving into one of the NFL’s most disruptive defenders. The Packers’ defensive playmaker tallied a pair of sacks and a forced fumble against the Patriots to help his team to an overtime win. 

Unsung Hero of the Week:

Miles Sanders keyed a stellar offensive performance from the Eagles with 134 rushing yards on 27 carries. The crafty runner added a couple of touchdowns to his stat line while displaying the explosive stop-start quickness and burst that makes him a nightmare to defend in the Eagles’ version of an option offense. 

Bucky Brooks is an NFL analyst for FOX Sports. He regularly appears on “Speak For Yourself” and also breaks down the game for NFL Network and as a cohost of the “Moving the Sticks” podcast. Follow him on Twitter @BuckyBrooks.

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