Denver's no-fear plan for K.C.; Jags' identity search; Pats surging

As the 2018 NFL season rolls on into Week 8,’s network of reporters collects the hottest news and notes from across the league, including:

— Jags still searching for defensive identity.

— Tyreek Hill’s improved route running.

— The reason for New England’s recent surge.

DENVER BRONCOS: A defensive plan for stopping Patrick Mahomes. Back in Week 4, the Broncos, even though they lost, perhaps were the only team in the NFL that found an answer for Patrick Mahomes. Kansas City ran a season-high 72 offensive plays and Mahomes put up a season low in points and yards per attempt. All-Pro cornerback Chris Harris Jr. thinks the Broncos are the only team that didn’t play as if they were afraid of Mahomes and this high-powered Chiefs’ offense.

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      ▶ NO-MIN rematch: Diggs talks ‘Minneapolis Miracle’

"I’ve been watching film on everybody else," Harris said Wednesday. "Everybody else playing these guys are [playing] scared. They’re not challenging them. No. 10 (WR Tyreek Hill) is just running around free. That’s not how we play. When we play them, we get up, we challenge them, put hands on them and that’s how we come to play. We’re not coming to be scared and let guys run for free all day."

What Harris said publically is what the Broncos have been saying to one another all week and is how they plan to approach Sunday’s game at Arrowhead Stadium. Harris and fellow cornerback Bradley Roby played well in Week 4 against K.C. According to Pro Football Focus, the two gave up just nine catches on 16 targets for 71 yards without allowing a touchdown. Mahomes had a passer rating of 67.4 when targeting them.

— James Palmer

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JACKSONVILLE JAGUARS: Where has the defense gone? Over the last three games, the Jaguars are giving up 30 points per game. That’s unbelievable considering they gave up an NFL-best 14 points per game through the first four games. The Jaguars are tied for 30th in turnovers and 20th in sacks. Last season, they finished just one shy of the league lead in both categories.

"There are guys with a lot of accolades in the past, and they don’t have the stats this year they want," Malik Jackson told me of the issues with a defense that sent six players to the Pro Bowl last season. "They’re out there trying to do too much and are stressing other guys out at other positions."

We saw the frustration boil over after the Jaguars lost to the Texans last Sunday, when players had to be held back from one another in the locker room. Sunday in London, they’ll face Carson Wentz and the Eagles. Not exactly the quarterback you want to face when you’re trying to find yourself as a unit.

— James Palmer

Jags losing the chip on their shoulder? The Jaguars are looking to snap a three-game losing streak in London, but there’s a cloud over this team ahead of the trip across the pond. Head coach Doug Marrone is trying to temper the drama around his squad. Now that Blake Bortles was confirmed as the starting quarterback once again, the team is trying to self-correct before they fly across the pond.

The Jaguars did get a new weapon to bolster their rushing attack, with running back Carlos Hyde having his first practice with the team Wednesday. He told me after that practice his first day was solid and added that it is a lot to come into a new locker room and immediately take a trip overseas. The former Cleveland Brown continued to say he’s comfortable with this offense and knows he can help the Jaguars win now, while keeping pressure off of Bortles.

Also during the team’s open locker room period Wednesday, safety Tashaun Gipson spoke about the team’s mentality, saying the Jags have played "bad football" the last three weeks. Gipson noted they played with a chip on their shoulder last year, but that it wasn’t the case this season and other teams were starting to see that.

— MJ Acosta

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KANSAS CITY CHIEFS: Improved route running spurs Tyreek’s career year. Chiefs wide receiver Tyreek Hill is on pace for a career-high in receiving yards (1,451), and he’s already matched his career-best with seven receiving touchdowns to lead this explosive offense. More of it comes down to the work Hill has put into becoming a sharper route runner in his third season.

"He understands what it takes to play that position," said Chiefs head coach Andy Reid. "Remember, he was a running back at one point in his career, in college. This was a new world for him. To be able to do it every day, we are not asking him just to run one day of the week. That’s not what he’s doing. He’s running every day and you have to run fast on these plays. Even if you know it’s a play to the other side, you have to run fast. You have to be in a certain condition to do that. He’s done that."

— Jeffri Chadiha

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LOS ANGELES RAMS: McVay keeping tabs on player pressers. Head coach Sean McVay, during a news conference Thursday, referred to a reporter’s question by saying, "I saw what you asked Jared [Goff] yesterday." Well, McVay wasn’t in the room during Goff’s media availability, which meant McVay watched video of Goff’s interview session.

That prompted a follow-up question in which McVay was asked if he watches player interviews. McVay admitted that he did.

"I want to know what’s going on," he said, smiling.

— Steve Wyche

Saffold gets "elite level" praise from McVay. There has been high praise of left guard Rodger Saffold this week, first from offensive line coach Aaron Kromer, then from McVay.

Saffold, who has been a major reason for the Rams’ offensive success the past two seasons, has not only used his athleticism to pull and excel on perimeter runs and short passes, but he has been strong in one-on-one blocking matchups at the line of scrimmage and on the second level, according to McVay.

Saffold also has been stout in individual pass protection "on long-developing plays," McVay said.

What’s really allowed Saffold to shine, McVay added, is that he is settled at left guard. Saffold had been moved around on the line before because of his athleticism, but in finding his home between left tackle Andrew Whitworth and center John Sullivan, Saffold has "shown he can compete at an elite level," McVay said.

"It was always tough getting adjusted playing multiple positions," Saffold said. "I’m glad my versatility was appreciated but I couldn’t get settled. When [McVay] got here, I asked him, ‘I don’t care where you put me, just keep me there."

"It’s allowed me to really play and be aggressive and comfortable. Having two vets beside me (LT Andrew Whitworth) and (C John Sullivan) has also helped out a bunch because the trust factor is tremendous. We don’t have to even communicate that much anymore because we know what we are going to do. It’s a feel thing. It’s really allowed me to be ferocious."

— Steve Wyche

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MIAMI DOLPHINS: Ryan Tannehill’s recovery progressing. The Miami Dolphins played their third straight game with Brock Osweiler as their starting quarterback against the Texans on Thursday. I asked Adam Gase on Tuesday about Ryan Tannehill’s health and he said Tannehill was "in a good spot." Gase added he felt this week was too short to get a clear picture on the starter’s recovery status, but Tannehill did throw during Tuesday’s walkthrough.

Gase said it would take the entire week to gather a comprehensive assessment of Tannehill’s recovery and expects to have a better understanding by the weekend.

The injury bug continues to plague the Fins’ offense. Wide Receivers Kenny Stills (groin) and Albert Wilson (hip), who is expected to be placed on IR, did not travel with the team to Houston. Without them, the Dolphins’ offense showed flashes vs. the Texans on Thursday night but could not keep up with DeShaun Watson’s impressive night, when he threw for five touchdowns.

— MJ Acosta

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MINNESOTA VIKINGS: Thielen says no truth to "sticky fingers" commercial. Stefon Diggs has gotten love from everyone about his GEICO "sticky fingers" commercial except the one person you’d expect it from: fellow Vikings starting wideout Adam Thielen, who likes to joke that there’s no truth in the advertisement because Diggs often uses his chest when catching passes.

"We take it so seriously in our receivers room about catching the ball with your hands, but I call this ‘the backboard,’ " Diggs says, running a hand over his chest. "If the ball is in the gray area, put it on the backboard and you’ll be alright. Adam doesn’t like that. He says instead of calling me old sticky fingers, they should call me old sticky chest. I’ll be like, ‘I catch it how I have to catch it. It all goes down as a reception.’ "

Diggs is currently eighth in the league with 48 receptions. Thielen is first with 67.

— Jim Trotter

Miracle play solely a learning tool ahead of Saints clash. For all the talk about the "Minneapolis Miracle" in advance of Sunday night’s rematch with the Saints, Vikings safety Harrison Smith told me players haven’t seen the play in a team meeting since the offseason, when coaches raised it during a discussion about end-of-game situations.

"Not to like celebrate the play, just to learn from — OK, if we’re on offense here, this is what we do, and if we’re a defense in a similar situation, what would we do," Smith said Friday of teammate Stefon Diggs’ improbable, 61-yard touchdown catch-and-run in January’s divisional playoff win. "And that just happened to be one of the plays. We went over a bunch.

"That play — it was obviously awesome, but definitely been blown up outside this building. … No plays last year matter. No plays are going to help us from last year."

— Tom Pelissero

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NEW ENGLAND PATRIOTS: Pats morphing into best team in AFC … AGAIN. No Gronk (back spasms) in a Week 7 win at Chicago? No problem. No Sony Michel (knee) to run the football in Week 8 at Buffalo? No problem.

New England always seems to find a way to win. Perhaps no team better embodies the terms "next man up" or "do your job" than the Patriots.

When players and coaches learned that Rob Gronkowski — who helps the Patriots average over 60 more yards per game since 2017, when he’s on the field — wouldn’t be able to play against the Bears, it was business as usual, one coach telling me it’s "like an injury in the first quarter."

I spoke with wideout Julian Edelman after that game, and while he recognized the importance of missing a player of Gronk’s caliber, he also fell back on the "Patriot Way," which means a lot of guys got involved and did their jobs.

"He (Gronk) can’t play, and after that, you gotta turn your switch on and instantly go into preparation mode of what you could potentially have to do to replace a guy like that," Edelman said. "We had a lot of guys step up: Dwayne Allen, James Develin, Kenjon (Barner) — a lot of guys came in and made plays. Got Josh (Gordon) making plays — it was a big day — Hoges (Chris Hogan), CP (Cordarrelle Patterson) in the kicking game, that’s what you gotta do."

Don’t get me wrong, Tom Brady loves his playmakers. Edelman returned from his four-game suspension in Week 5 and since then, Brady and the Patriots are 3-0, averaging nearly 40 points and 440 yards per game, 314 of which are coming in the passing game. And let’s not forget, Gordon was added to the mix, playing his first game in Week 4. Since that time, according to Next Gen Stats provided by our NFL Research team, the Patriots have used 11 personnel (1 RB, 1 TE, 3 WR) on nearly 57 percent of their plays, an increase from on 36 percent of their plays in Weeks 1-3.

Bottom line, Brady and the Patriots find a way to win and they don’t care who gets the glory — even if it goes to their future first-ballot Hall of Fame quarterback. Coach Bill Belichick sees the QB position and that role as simply as this: "I think the most important thing for a quarterback is winning football games. I don’t think it’s about about stats. I think it’s about doing what it takes to help your team win. … The quarterback’s job: to deliver the ball to the playmakers and let ’em go."

Brady has a career record of 201-57-0 — surely, he’s doing his job.

As far as the Patriots evolving into the best team in the AFC after their applause-worthy, seven-point win over the Bears at Soldier Field?

"We’re just continually trying to improve," said Edelman. "That’s showing that the improvement’s going on in practice. Everything starts with a good week of practice. Last few weeks we’ve had some really good practices. That’s where your confidence is built to go into a hostile environment and be the team."

Gronk was back at practice Thursday ahead of Monday’s clash with the Bills, a team he’s had a ton of success against. Per NFL Research, the Bills are the only team that Gronk has 1,000-plus receiving yards against. Specifically, Gronk has been targeted 100 times, amassing 66 receptions, 1,027 receiving yards and a whopping 12 touchdowns.

— Stacey Dales

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PITTSBURGH STEELERS: Conner still holding it down in Le’Veon Bell’s absence. The Steelers finished practice on a raw Friday afternoon preparing for Sunday’s game against the Cleveland Browns with the NFL’s strangest waiting game still alive.

Nobody here has heard from running back Le’Veon Bell and nobody can say for certain when he will return to the team. With the trade deadline Tuesday afternoon, people in the building assumed Friday that Bell won’t show up until after the deadline passes — at the earliest. And that is just a guess.

JuJu Smith-Schuster joked this week that he bought lottery tickets in the hopes that if he landed the billion-dollar jackpot, he could use the windfall to lure Bell back into the fold. No such luck on either count.

In the meantime, the Steelers come out of the bye in first place in the AFC North with an emerging savior: James Connor, who is averaging 21.5 touches and 118.3 scrimmage yards per game and has scored seven touchdowns, including two in each of the last two games. The Steelers are ranked 26th in rushing in the NFL, but through six games last season — as he was still shaking off the rust from a training camp holdout — Bell was averaging six more touches per game, but a half-yard less from scrimmage and three fewer touchdowns.

— Judy Battista

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