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The Shadow Knows Week 14
THE SHADOW KNOWS: Week 14
For much of the 2023 season, DaRon Bland of the Dallas Cowboys has been the talk of the NFL at the cornerback position. In just his second season, Bland set a new NFL record by returning five interceptions for touchdowns. Bland has intercepted a whopping 13 passes in 29 career games.
Last week against the Seattle Seahawks, Bland again took center stage—for a different reason. Simply put, Bland was roasted by DK Metcalf, allowing 107 yards in the first quarter alone. It got bad enough that the Cowboys switched assignments, putting veteran Stephon Gilmore on Metcalf the rest of the game.
To his credit, Bland also recorded his eighth interception of the season in a 41-35 Cowboys win, and defensive coordinator Dan Quinn told reporters that he never would have made the switch if he didn’t think Bland could handle it mentally.
“I probably wouldn’t have done that,” Quinn said, “if I was worried about how somebody would react to it.”
Head coach Mike McCarthy said that occasionally getting cooked is just part of being a No. 1 cornerback in the NFL.
“I think it’s life in the NFL. It’s the reality of what these men compete in,” McCarthy said. “I don’t anticipate any change in the way he approaches it and the way he plays.”
Make no mistake, Bland has emerged as the Cowboys’ top cornerback after Trevon Diggs tore his ACL in practice earlier this year. And the Cowboys rank fifth in pass defense, allowing 181.1 yards per game. But despite getting shelled at home by the San Francisco 49ers last week, Eagles wide receiver A.J. Brown didn’t sound all that intimidated by the thought of facing Bland and Gilmore while addressing the media this week.
“I’m going to keep what we say in the locker room, but you gonna see,” Brown said. “You gonna see.”
We already saw this movie once this season—the Eagles beat the Cowboys 28-23 in Week 9. In that game, both Brown (7/66/1) and DeVonta Smith (3/51/1) found the end zone. It will be interesting to see if the Cowboys consider putting Gilmore on Brown as they did with Metcalf a week ago. But in any event, while both Eagles wideouts are weekly must-starts they are going to have to earn it in Week 14’s premiere game.
Tampa Bay Buccaneers at Atlanta Falcons (Mike Evans vs. A.J. Terrell)
Last week, Mike Evans did Mike Evans things—his seven catches for 162 yards and a score last week put him over 1,000 yards for the season. That marked the 10th time in as many years that Evans that surpassed 1,000 yards—a feat no other NFL receiver has accomplished. After Tampa’s win over Carolina, Buccaneers head coach Todd Bowles marveled at Evans’ performance and consistency.
"I don't know how much more you can say. He's been like this for 10 years now—60 catches 10 years in a row, 1,000 yards 10 years in a row," Bowles said. "You know he's getting the ball. Everybody's trying to stop him, and he makes plays over and over. It's a credit to him, his work ethic and the way he approaches the game."
As one would expect, over 10 years Evans has faced off against any number of elite cornerbacks (he has a long-running feud with Marshon Lattimore of the New Orleans Saints. And while Evans hasn’t won every battle, he’s won his fair share—including the last meeting with Terrell and the Falcons. In that game, Evans was targeted eight times, catching six passes for 82 yards and a touchdown.
Houston Texans at New York Jets (Nico Collins vs. Ahmad Gardner)
The Texans and Jets are two teams barreling in opposite directions—the Texans are 7-5 and one of the league’s more pleasant surprises, while the Jets are a reeling 4-8 mess. It’s been a hard season for players like second-year cornerback Ahmad “Sauce” Gardner, who told the team’s website he isn’t about to let the season’s adversity wear him down.
"I do get frustrated, at life in general," he said. "But it's never going to stop me from going out on the field and giving it everything I've got. No frustration that I have is going to carry on to the field or into the meeting room or the locker room. We have to make sure we take it one day at a time, one week at a time. We feel like anything's possible."
For all the things that have gone sideways in New York this year, the secondary has been outstanding—the Jets rank third in the league in pass defense at 176.6 yards per game and dead last in the league in fantasy points per game allowed to wide receivers. The injury to Nathaniel Dell leaves Nico Collins as Houston’s unquestioned No. 1 wide receiver. But it also all but guarantees he’ll see a ton of arguably the NFL’s best cornerback in Week 14.
Houston Texans at New York Jets (Derek Stingley vs. Garrett Wilson)
So far in his brief NFL career, Derek Stingley hasn’t enjoyed the accolades that Gardner has despite being drafted one pick earlier. He hasn’t been a Pro Bowler. Wasn’t named Defensive Rookie of the Year. But in his second season, Stingley is coming into his own—and Texans head coach DeMeco Ryans told ESPN’s DJ Bien-Aime that he’s not surprised even a little.
"Just watching his film from LSU, I remember watching him as a freshman and the plays that he made," Ryans said. "It sticks out because you didn't see many corners just playing man-to-man coverage with the elite balls. There's a reason why the kid was drafted in the top five picks in the draft because of his athletic ability and the things he put on tape. The guys he had to practice against at LSU in Ja'Marr Chase and Justin Jefferson. He's worked against the best. And the spotlight isn't too big for him. The moment isn't too big for him. He's been there. He's done that. He continues to shine."
Stingley has piled up four interceptions in his past three games, but his coverage statistics might be even more impressive—just half the passes thrown in his direction have been completed, and his passer rating against is a miniscule 46.0. Not that Garrett Wilson needed any more problems given the waking nightmare that is the quarterback situation in New York (Aaron Rodgers in a wheelchair would have been significantly better the past three months), but Stingley is playing as well (if not better) than any corner in the NFL right now.
Buffalo Bills at Kansas City Chiefs (Stefon Diggs vs. L’Larius Sneed)
Playing on a team with Patrick Mahomes and Travis Kelce, the play of Sneed gets overshadowed at times, But the 26-year-old has become one better young press corners in the game. Sneed is aggressive in coverage, and that aggressiveness sometimes leads to penalties. But Chiefs defensive coordinator Steve Spagnuolo said he’s not about to ask Sneed to dial it back even a little.
"There's some 'cost of doing business' penalties when you're a press team, you're doing against a really good wideout and you're trying to be aggressive and try to take that guy out of the game," Spagnuolo said. "Now, LJ will tell you he knows he can be a little bit better. Sometimes the hands get a little bit too high — we get hands to the face — or we get a little grabby. We can avoid those. But I really don't want LJ to become less aggressive, so he'll probably maintain that and hopefully not get as many penalties."
Sneed has already shadowed a number of big-name wide receivers this season, including Calvin Ridley, DJ Moore, Garrett Wilson, Justin Jefferson, Jerry Jeudy, Courtland Sutton, Tyreek Hill, A.J. Brown, Davante Adams and Romeo Doubs. And for the most part, Sneed at the very least held his own. Stefon Diggs will avoid Sneed when he kicks to the slot, but that only happens about a third of the time. A pretty compelling argument can be made that this matchup is a legitimate downgrade for the Bills wideout.
Philadelphia Eagles at Dallas Cowboys (Darius Slay vs. Brandin Cooks)
Many expected Brandin Cooks would be a big part of the Dallas offense in his first year with the team, but the veteran wideout spent most of the first half of the season on a milk carton. That has changed in a big way over the past month or so, and ESPN’s Todd Archer wrote that Cooks’ recent hot streak is more likely than not a sign of things to come.
“The Cowboys know Cooks can produce,” he said. “Why he hadn't been more involved is mysterious because he was so good during training camp. With the way CeeDee Lamb is rolling, defenses will have to adjust their coverage plans, and Cooks still has the speed to create separation and make big plays. With difficult games down the stretch, the Cowboys need Cooks to be a big part of their offense.”
In Week 10, Cooks exploded against the New York Giants to the tune of nine catches for 173 yards and a touchdown. Since that game, the 30-year-old has been a top-10 fantasy receiver in terms of PPR points, and at the risk of sounding mean, the Eagles pass defense has been hot garbage. No team in the league has surrendered more PPR points per game to wide receivers this season than the Eagles, and Dallas should have little trouble moving the ball through the air against them.
Gary Davenport has been a Contributing Author and Associate Editor at Football Diehards since 2010. Follow him on Twitter @IDPSharks