It has been difficult to avoid pangs of sympathy in recent years for Aaron Rodgers, a transcendent quarterback held back by franchise complacency, injuries to his favorite targets and undermanned protection. Now, "the old man," as his coach lovingly referred to him Sunday, is nearing 36 years old and enmeshed in an organizational refresh designed to maximize whatever time he has left at the top of his game.
So it was notable, and no doubt welcome, to see how much help Rodgers got from coaches and teammates in producing one of the best statistical games of the season during the Packers' 42-24 victory over the Raiders.
Rodgers, of course, threw for 429 yards and accounted for six touchdowns, good for a Week 7-best 95.3 Total QBR and the first perfect passer rating (158.3, minimum 10 attempts) in Packers history. But as we've seen in recent years, no one -- not even Rodgers -- can do it alone. Below, we dig deeper into ESPN's Week 7 QB Awards, our Tuesday assessment of highs and lows using unique data culled from ESPN Stats & Information and NFL Next Gen Stats.
Top QB of the Week: Aaron Rodgers, Green Bay Packers
None of what I'm about to tell you should take anything away from Rodgers' individual performance. He was dealing Sunday against the Raiders. One data point helps support that assertion: He was off-target on just 10% of his passes, not including throwaways or spikes, the third-lowest percentage in Week 7. Simply put, Rodgers took full advantage of a good scheme against a bad defense, with receivers who helped him double his air yards over the course of his game.
Nearly two-thirds (64.5%) of Rodgers' receivers were open by at least 3 yards, according to NFL Next Gen Stats. He tried to squeeze passes into a tight window (less than 1 yard from the nearest defender) only 6.5% of the time, third-lowest in the NFL in Week 7. More than half (55%) of his yardage total came after the catch, and in this game, he rarely found himself needing to avoid pressure in the pocket.
When he had at least 2.5 seconds to throw, Rodgers completed 15 of 18 passes for three touchdowns. In his previous six games, Rodgers had completed only 55% of those passes. The difference Sunday? Rodgers was pressured on only 14.7% of his dropbacks, his second-lowest pressure rate in the past three seasons. Instead of darting around the pocket to buy more time, Rodgers received it organically from his pass protection. And still, 29% of his passes were targeted to a receiver at or behind the line of scrimmage, the fourth-highest rate in Week 7.
Packers fans should be encouraged by this analysis. It means that, for the first time in a while, the Packers substantively enhanced the performance of their future Hall of Fame quarterback. It might have come against an inferior defense -- the Raiders entered the game ranked No. 30 in the NFL in opposing QBR (65.5) -- but it also coincided with the Packers' third consecutive game without leading receiver Davante Adams. Quarterbacks are the most important players on the team, but they can't do it alone.
Happy Trails Award: Andy Dalton, Cincinnati Bengals
After Week 6, I wondered if the end was nearing for Marcus Mariota in Tennessee and Jameis Winston in Tampa. Now it's time to ask the same question about Dalton, who threw three interceptions in the course of four attempts as a 10-9 Bengals lead slipped away against the Jaguars.
In the fourth quarter, Dalton threw 13 passes that traveled fewer than 15 yards past the line of scrimmage. He only completed six of them, and all three interceptions came on what should have been relatively easy throws. In total, Dalton completed 9.8% less passes than expectation, according to NFL Next Gen Stats data -- a higher percentage than all but one Week 7 starter.
It's true Dalton has been playing without injured receiver A.J. Green, who has bailed him out of many inaccurate passes over the years. And as we just said, quarterbacks can't do it by themselves. But Dalton's performance without Green -- call it Andy Dalton without a safety net -- might be enough for new coach Zac Taylor to move on after the season, if not before. The Bengals have rookie 2019 fourth-rounder Ryan Finley waiting on the bench and are in line for a top pick in the 2020 draft, a class that will be loaded with quarterbacks.
Seeing Ghosts Award: Sam Darnold, New York Jets
Simply put, the Patriots dismantled Darnold. He played Monday night as though he had never seen the types of coverages and pressure schemes the Patriots were using. At one point, he threw 10 consecutive incompletions -- nine of which were judged to be off-target by ESPN video charters. In total, he had 15 off-target incompletions in the game, tied for the most in a game by any NFL quarterback this season.
Overall, Darnold threw 32 times but managed only 11 completions for 86 yards with four interceptions and a fumble. According to the Pro Football Reference database, it was one of only six games since 1950 in which a quarterback had been held to 86 or fewer passing yards after throwing at least 32 passes.
At one point, an ESPN microphone recorded him saying, "I'm seeing ghosts." He was pressured on 45% of his dropbacks, including on three of his interceptions. But even when the ghosts scattered back into the closet, he still didn't fare much better. Darnold completed just three of 17 passes when he had at least 2.5 seconds to throw.
Scrambling Award: Lamar Jackson, Baltimore Ravens
There is no doubt that Jackson is a better passer this season than he was as a rookie. He has nearly tripled his passing expected points added (EPA) from all of 2018 (6.6) during the first seven games of 2019 (17.7). But the public obsession with measuring his growth as a passer shouldn't overshadow that he remains absolutely lethal as a scrambler.
Jackson rushed for 116 yards in Sunday's 30-16 victory over the Seahawks, 86 of which came via scrambles after he initially dropped back to pass. He converted four first downs in that manner and now has an NFL-high 262 scramble yards, the third-most that a quarterback has had through seven games since ESPN Stats & Information began tracking such plays in 2006.
Jackson's formidable two-way threat also undoubtedly gives the Ravens more confidence on fourth downs. Coach John Harbaugh has spoken about the influence of analytics on his game-management decisions, but it sure helps to have a quarterback who can turn a busted pass play into an unscripted first-down scramble. Overall this season, the Ravens have converted seven of 10 fourth-down plays, second most in the NFL.
Dime of the Week: Deshaun Watson, Houston Texans
As he tried to bring back the Texans from a double-digit deficit against the Colts, Watson unleashed a throw of incredible touch and accuracy.
To get an idea of the touch Watson put on the ball, consider that it spent 2.57 seconds in the air, the fourth-longest time of any pass thrown in Week 7. Given the time in the air, the lack of separation and the distance of the throw -- the ball traveled 47.7 yards from Watson's hands to Stills' -- the pass carried an expected completion percentage of only 15.9%.
The play moved the Texans to the Colts' 38-yard line, and they pulled to within five points just five plays later. It was yet another example of Watson's fast-developing skills as a pocket passer.
Sneaky Awesome Award: Jacoby Brissett, Indianapolis Colts
In his sixth start since Andrew Luck's retirement, Brissett broke out against a defense that seemed to invite him to throw the ball often and, more specifically, to his wide receivers.
The Colts had dropped back on only 56% of their plays entering the game, clearly attempting to give Brissett a balanced play sheet. But the Texans used man-to-man defense on 79% of their defensive snaps Sunday, according to ESPN pass coverage metrics powered by NFL Next Gen Stats, and blitzed on 52% of his dropbacks.
Indianapolis clearly liked the matchups it created, so Brissett dropped back on 64% of its plays and threw a career-high four touchdown passes. Overall, he completed 14 of 20 passes with three touchdowns to his wide receivers. Zach Pascal was particularly effective, hauling in six of seven targets for 106 yards and two scores.