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The Top 10: Week 16

Matt Waldman's weekly film notebook includes the Packers going tilt, Brandin Cooks' ceiling, L.A. dismantling Seattle, ill-advised calls, and Fresh Fish.

1. the Packers went tilt on Aaron Rodgers and paid the price

Green Bay went on a seven-week diet that emphasized regular servings of the ground game from run-centric alignments and its quarterback under center. While the Packers went 3-4 during that span, Brett Hundley's inexperience prevented the offense from capitalizing on easy opportunities that the ground game generated.

This is what many people misunderstand about good quarterbacking. It's less about the quarterback's ability to do something amazing as it is to find the simple solutions consistently enough so the difficult plays aren't necessary.

Hundley played some of his best football during the final two minutes of games, but often missed the quick reads and throws that would have set the offense up for easy down-and-distance plays. Some of this has to do with his lack of rapport with his receivers, but a lot of it had to do with him getting a feel for the road. 

Think of quarterbacking as driving. There are the rules of the road, the technical operation of the vehicle, weather conditions, and the behavior of other drivers. Young drivers learn all of these skills, but their knowledge is often "on paper" or developed in highly controlled practice settings. 

For example, it's difficult to explain to a young driver how they should handle routine scenarios that can't be separated into neat little categories, but require an integration of all these skills plus strong doses of wisdom: 

  • Why using the horn in the Caribbean is much different than the Midwestern and Southern regions of the U.S.
  • Which cities and countries require aggressive driving that might engender road rage in other places. 
  • Handling clueless drivers who attempt to give up their right of way at crowded intersections. 
Hundley's tenure as the Packers' starting quarterback was like a young driver with a good, but currently, limited skill set traveling to a new country where he had to learn the rules of the road and important details about the culture so he didn't get in any major accidents. At the same time, the Packers discovered that the GPS system and specialty tires that it acquired this summer (Jamaal Williams and Aaron Jones) were assets that made Hundley's job easier.
 
One would have thought that if Hundley had an easier time thanks to the ground game, that Green Bay would stay with it. After all, Rodgers said he wouldn't have returned if the Packers were out of the playoff hunt, and if Hundley didn't read specific developments that a good ground game gave him, Rodgers would. Why not continue relying on that ground game to set up easier opportunities for Rodgers, who could exploit that Hundley didn't? 
 
Back to the diet analogy with this offense, Green Bay was learning how to have a balanced diet with those healthy servings of the ground game. Add Rodgers' ability to create when plays break down but also find easy opportunities as a result of the ground game, and the Packers could use the run to set up the pass more often and generate balance we're seeing in New Orleans. 
 
Instead, the Packers saw Rodgers' return as an eagerly-awaited trip to the candy store that they were forbidden to visit for the past two months. Whether it was the staff losing its resolve or Aaron Rodgers forcing his will into the gameplan (or both), Green Bay binged on the candy and it ended like most parents would expect. 
 
 
The Packers offense began the game with the healthy habits it had grown accustomed to with Rodgers gone, running the ball with the quarterback under center and establishing a foundation for bigger plays if the offense remained committed to the run throughout the game. However, Rodgers and his teammates had a serious jonesing for the sugar, and the staff thought, "They've been eating well, why not have a taste...."

 

 

Kuechley overmatched v Cobb

A post shared by Matt Waldman (@mattwaldmanrsp) onDec 17, 2017 at 10:31am PST

And that rush was oh so good that even the parents — sorry, the coaches — got lost in the sugar high of its All-Pro quarterback's return. Next thing you know, the Packers decide to abandon the heavy sets, spread the field, and use the pass to set up the run.

 

A Jones benefits from nickel

A post shared by Matt Waldman (@mattwaldmanrsp) onDec 17, 2017 at 11:05am PST

Watching Jones burst through the line so easily thanks to these sets and Rodgers' presence, you could also hear Green Bay thinking, "Mmm, mmm, mmm! It's so sweet and tasty and we feel so good. We could eat the entire box!"

Like any mortal who has abstained from something for a long time, they can easily forget their limits when they return to it. Here's Rodgers attempting a sideline route with a lineman in his lap and his feet parallel. 

 

Rodgers INT

A post shared by Matt Waldman (@mattwaldmanrsp) onDec 17, 2017 at 10:57am PST

"Yeah, that piece of candy sent a shiver through my teeth, but tt was only one piece. My buddy Randall is waving for me to try the fudge sampler at the end of the aisle..."

 

Rodgers INT ll

A post shared by Matt Waldman (@mattwaldmanrsp) onDec 17, 2017 at 11:59am PST

Rodgers and Cobb both think that Colin Jones has shallow zone and neither anticipate Jones flipping his hips, getting underneath position, and continuing with Cobb's pattern. Feeling lightheaded from the sugar high, the Packers' eyes remain bigger than their stomachs. The ground game was nothing more than a glass of water to clear its collective palate for the next sweet treat. 

 

Rodgers Rant

A post shared by Matt Waldman (@mattwaldmanrsp) onDec 17, 2017 at 12:21pm PST

With their tolerance already low from the long layoff, it didn't take long for the side effects to show up. 

 

Rodgers undershoots 3rd down out and leads to FG

A post shared by Matt Waldman (@mattwaldmanrsp) onDec 17, 2017 at 12:29pm PST

While Rodgers threw three touchdowns in this game, he also threw three interceptions and forced the offense away from a ground game that it could have used to keep its struggling defense off the field and maintain a greater time of possession. You may argue that's part of having a great player like Aaron Rodgers. But why draft two running backs, learn that ground game works, and then dump it to the side of the road at the first sign of Rodgers' return? 

After watching this game, I'm pretty sure the entire offense pleaded the driver to stop the bus so they could run to the nearest open field and purge themselves of their candy binge. They'll likely have the entire month of January off to get better. 

If the Packers staff to act like most parents and let their kid have another sugar binge next week, which means fantasy owners should count on a pass-heavy scheme that raises the values of Jordy Nelson, Randall Cobb, and Aaron Jones. If they're more sensible, expect more Jamaal Williams against a Vikings defense that let the Panthers run over them two weeks ago. 

I'm betting on less sensible parents. We'll see.  

2. TEAMS ARE FIGURING OUT THAT BRANDIN COOKS STRUGGLES AGAINST MAN COVERAGE

Earlier this season, I wrote about Cooks' issues with man coverage. It's something I've noted about him since he was at Oregon State. Cooks is a good NFL receiver, but he's not a great one and the expectations that he'd deliver more than low-end fantasy WR1 production was one based on overvaluing athletic ability and undervaluing technical skill. 

The Dolphins exploited Cooks last Monday thanks to a fantastic game from cornerback Xavien Howard. Pittsburgh noted that performance and opted to switch its normal defensive gameplan from a zone-heavy scheme to a man-heavy approach.

Cooks still managed 60 yards and a touchdown, but there were notable targets where he struggled. Considering that Pittsburgh altered the core philosophy of its defense despite a group of cornerbacks he drafted to play more zone than man, kept the game close to the very end, and Cooks wasn't a significant factor in the second half of this game, I'd say the strategy was not only successful but a notable indication that Cooks' value is currently at its ceiling.

 

Cooks needs to reduce the shoulder

A post shared by Matt Waldman (@mattwaldmanrsp) onDec 18, 2017 at 8:31am PST

While the route below may be a fade, it doesn't mean the receiver should fade away from the target. Cooks not only fails with his attempt to release from the line of scrimmage, he doesn't have the right plan for addressing the target at the top of his stem. 

 

Two issues with Cooks on this fade.

A post shared by Matt Waldman (@mattwaldmanrsp) onDec 18, 2017 at 8:41am PST

These are longstanding issues with Cooks' game. Again, he's a good receiver and a fantasy asset. However, do not expect Cooks to become a top-five fantasy receiver in New England thanks to the magical thinking, "he'll have a full year in the offense and that acclimation will make him better." 

That kind of explanation is sportswriter fluff. Yes, Cooks should get sharper at reading coverage adjusting to it the way Brady wants him to, but for Cooks to ascend to a higher tier, he'll need to develop greater skill against tight man coverage. Until I see it, I won't believe the hype.    

Neither should you.

3. the rams pushed around the Seahawks in all three phases of football

Despite some disappointment over the outcome, I fully appreciated how well the Rams pushed around the Seahawks in every facet of the game. Here's Ethan Westbrooks shutting down the run before it could even begin.

 

D Westbrooks powers through for loss of two

A post shared by Matt Waldman (@mattwaldmanrsp) onDec 17, 2017 at 7:19pm PST

Los Angeles recently moved Westbrooks to the nose so it could get some size in the middle of its defense and generated a push up the middle to stop the run and while he won't be a consistent IDP value (despite two sacks in Week 13), he's freeing up Aaron Donald and the rest of this front. 

Here's Donald and Connor Barwin running an excellent twist. Barwin patiently gets depth towards the right tackle and forces the tackle off his double-team of Donald, leading to one of seven sacks of Russell Wilson

 

Excellent twist with Donald and Barwin leads to sack of Wilson

A post shared by Matt Waldman (@mattwaldmanrsp) onDec 17, 2017 at 7:24pm PST

Several of these sacks came courtesy of guard Luke Joeckel. The former top pick of the Jaguars switched from left tackle to guard during his final season with Jacksonville and arrived in Seattle to the usual Pete Carroll welcome of rainbows and unicorns. When Joeckel has been healthy enough to see the field, he hasn't been good. 

Whether it's injury or is baseline level of play, Joeckel illustrated that he overextends to his opponent at the point of attack. This leaves him vulnerable to a variety of moves from a savvy defensive tackle — and calling the masterful Donald "savvy" would be an insulting understatement. 

 

Joeckel overextends v Donald

A post shared by Matt Waldman (@mattwaldmanrsp) onDec 17, 2017 at 7:54pm PST

 

 

Joeckel overextended again. Donald exploits him...

A post shared by Matt Waldman (@mattwaldmanrsp) onDec 17, 2017 at 8:28pm PST

 

 

Donald-Joeckel ... you know the drill

A post shared by Matt Waldman (@mattwaldmanrsp) onDec 17, 2017 at 8:47pm PST

Los Angeles also spent the entire day pushing around Seattle's defense like they didn't even belong in the same league. 

 

Rams score on 3rd and 20 and it epitomizes the way they’ve been pushing Seattle around all day in all three phases.

A post shared by Matt Waldman (@mattwaldmanrsp) onDec 17, 2017 at 8:37pm PST

The Rams' skill players were also peeling back to throw shots. Here's Tyler Higbee coming off the ropes to deliver a hard shoulder into Earl Thomas for the three-count. Higbee dished out two of these blocks on Sunday.

 

T Higbee decleats E Thomas

A post shared by Matt Waldman (@mattwaldmanrsp) onDec 17, 2017 at 7:30pm PST

The Rams' punt coverage team even got into the act. Second-year wide receiver Mike Thomas lost his shot to compete for significant playing time this summer due to PED-related suspension but he's been an asset as the first man downfield on returns. 

 

Good setup by Rams blocker M Thomas to knock out two Seahawks and open field for PR

A post shared by Matt Waldman (@mattwaldmanrsp) onDec 17, 2017 at 7:44pm PST

Even if he's not a player worth adding to rosters in most leagues at this time, Thomas is worth monitoring if there are injuries at the top of the depth chart. He's endeared himself to the coaching staff for his special teams play. Already capable of some of the most impressive aerial displays of pass-catching that I've seen from rookie prospects since Odell Beckham Jr, Jr. and Paul Richardson Jr, Thomas showed signs of development as a receiver in camp before his suspension.

The Rams still have a shot at hosting a home playoff game so look for its starters to dismantle the Tennessee Titans in Week 16. If you have a share of the Rams passing game, I'd be excited — especially if you have Robert Woods.  

4. Robert Woods Report card

I didn't see any rust from Woods or major rapport issues between him and Jared Goff. Woods didn't have any problems taking contact and making plays after the catch. 

 

R Woods wr throw out

A post shared by Matt Waldman (@mattwaldmanrsp) onDec 17, 2017 at 7:15pm PST

 

 

Woods ll

A post shared by Matt Waldman (@mattwaldmanrsp) onDec 17, 2017 at 7:28pm PST

Woods also displayed the strong route running skills that the Rams coveted this offseason. This release against Byron Maxwell is a great illustration of varying the rhythm and pattern of footwork to test the patience of cornerbacks who've studied the film and expected something else.  

 

Woods winning with an off rhythm release pattern that disrupts Maxwell

A post shared by Matt Waldman (@mattwaldmanrsp) onDec 17, 2017 at 8:07pm PST

The Titans gave up some huge plays in the middle of the field to Kendrick Bourne and Garrett Celek yesterday. Look for Woods and Cooper Kupp to have a strong outing thanks to these linebackers reacting hard to the play-action game that Todd Gurley's running generates. 

5. jimmy garoppolo and separating the dark from the dark

When it comes to Garoppolo's trio of starts, I am already among the converted even I still have a minor reservation. In 2014, a team executive asked me to share additional thoughts on Garoppolo before the draft.

I liked a lot of Garoppolo's individual skills but worried that his overall game might not equal the sum of his parts. I saw potential issues with his reactions to pressure and had concerns that if he didn't land in a supportive situation, it could develop into a knockout factor that would stunt his future development.

The team's scouts liked Garoppolo but it turned out that he wasn't the front office's top choice at the position. Now that I've seen Garoppolo's first three starts, I'm looking forward to revisiting his work at Eastern Illinois during the offseason.

I want to see if misinterpreted a facet of Garoppolo's technique as a thrower. If so, it should be easily apparent when I revisit the tape. If not, I'll be waiting for more starts in 2018 to determine two things:

  1. Did his time in New England significantly enhance his work from the pocket?
  2. Will 2018 opponents continue blitzing Garoppolo and will it magnify small things I'm still seeing from him right now? 

If I were to predict an answer right now, I'd say that it's a combination of both factors. Garoppolo's tendency to lean away from the line of scrimmage during his release often appeared as if he was perceiving pressure — even when it wasn't remotely near him. However, it may also be a by-product of his footwork and release technique, which is highly efficient. 

 

Garoppolo mechanics

A post shared by Matt Waldman (@mattwaldmanrsp) onDec 18, 2017 at 10:41am PST

This skill for snapping the hips into the release process helps him slingshot the ball. It's something that most top NFL quarterbacks do well. Matt Ryan does this well but I'll argue that Garoppolo's footwork is lighter and smoother. 

The fact that Garoppolo is making a half a dozen of these throws weekly is a great indication of his technical development, which started well before he was in New England. If you don't read this link, then you will be one of the millions of people who think that Garoppolo learned to throw like Tom Brady in New England and you'll be wrong.

 

There are a half-dozen of these throws every week from Garoppolo

A post shared by Matt Waldman (@mattwaldmanrsp) onDec 18, 2017 at 9:45am PST

You'll also see a lot of breathless 49ers fans making Montana and Young comparisons. While there's no basis for these comparisons in most areas that matter most, where this actually has merit is Garoppolo's quiet feet. While I highlighted this facet of his game last week, it's worth revisiting.  

 

More quiet feet by Garoppolo for 42 yds with pocket collapsing on him

A post shared by Matt Waldman (@mattwaldmanrsp) onDec 18, 2017 at 10:22am PST

As impressed as I am with Garoppolo — and I really am — there are some facets of his game that still have me in "wait-and-see" mode. One of them is a tendency to react to pressure too early.

This target could be easily interpreted as an anticipatory throw. However, the Garoppolo reads the blitz and delivers the ball off his back foot a little more than he needs to. Yes, he wants to loft the ball, but his mechanics result in him underthrowing a target that should have led the receiver to the back of the end zone. 

 

Garoppolo: Nitpicking, but something I still want to keep an eye on because there were similar, more prominent instances at Easteen Illinois of this behavior.

A post shared by Matt Waldman (@mattwaldmanrsp) onDec 18, 2017 at 10:50am PST

I'm already anticipating that Garoppolo will not be around as a low-end QB1 in August 2018 drafts. It's a steep price that I won't pay unless there are significant upgrades to the offense around him. Even so, I understand the excitement. 

I can't wait to watch this weekend's matchup with the Jaguars because Jacksonville should be a Garoppolo's stiffest test to date. If you're thinking about starting him this weekend, I'd project him for close to 300 yards, a touchdown, and at least one interception — he got away with a few throws that I don't think Jacksonville will allow.   

6. The Vikings exploited a decimated Bengals LB corps 

Depending on your various levels of "need," it would be worth your while to consider Eric Ebron, Golden Tate, Theo Riddick, Amir Abdullah, and Tion Green this weekend. They face a depleted Cincinnati linebacking corps that looked lost against the Vikings running backs, tight ends, and receivers working the flats and the middle of the field. 

 

Bengals LBs under siege: Murray for 28

A post shared by Matt Waldman (@mattwaldmanrsp) onDec 17, 2017 at 3:35pm PST

 

 

McKinnon for 41

A post shared by Matt Waldman (@mattwaldmanrsp) onDec 17, 2017 at 3:47pm PST

 

 

Bengals LBs crossed up and big play for Mckinnon

A post shared by Matt Waldman (@mattwaldmanrsp) onDec 17, 2017 at 3:59pm PST

 

 

Rudolph loses Bengals LB corps

A post shared by Matt Waldman (@mattwaldmanrsp) onDec 17, 2017 at 4:11pm PST

I have to think Riddick will be the best play among the backs and Ebron could remain a solid start, despite the years of disappointment preceding his recent productive stretch. 

7. The calls for Marlon mack earlier this year were ill-advised

I appreciate Marlon Mack's potential. I think he has a good shot at becoming a productive every-down fantasy option within the next two years. However, he was lower in my pre-draft rankings than most because I knew that he was a raw running back in the areas that matter most: ball security, pass protection and running between the tackles. 

Landing with the Colts was a huge blessing that I hope he's taking advantage of because Frank Gore is a master craftsman as a decision maker between the tackles. I've written in the past that NFL position coaches share Gore's tape with young backs for this very reason. 

Thursday night's game gave us two of the same play design — one from each back — that reveals the differences in savvy between the two players between the tackles. The play is a windback run. Mack doesn't press the run close enough to the line of scrimmage and it prevents him from earning any significant cutback lane. 

 

‪The value of pressing the line a little deeper than Mack does...‬

A post shared by Matt Waldman (@mattwaldmanrsp) onDec 14, 2017 at 5:50pm PST

Soon after, the Colts ran the same play with Gore. Watch how deep Gore gets to the line and the way it manipulates the first and second level of the defense. It's this press that opens a crease for Gore on the backside. 

 

‪Gore pressing the wind back deep into the line‬

A post shared by Matt Waldman (@mattwaldmanrsp) onDec 14, 2017 at 6:21pm PST

As long as Gore still has short-area quickness and the strength and balance to cut like he does, he'll remain in the NFL. I'd like to see him hold off Mack another year and shock fantasy analysts with another season of RB2 play at age 35. The fact he's playing this well at this stage of his career is a treat for discerning fans. 

8. Fantasy flash alert: Jets WR Chad Hansen

The Jets picked two rookie receivers I liked, Hansen and ArDarius Stewart. I'm a bigger fan of Stewart's potential as an all-around receiver, but Hansen is a smooth operator with quickness and excellent ball-tracking skill. While both rookies have earned playing time in recent weeks, Hansen popped on a play against the Saints that is worth showcasing. 

 

C Hanson flashes on third down

A post shared by Matt Waldman (@mattwaldmanrsp) onDec 17, 2017 at 3:26pm PST

Remember when the fantasy community was saying this summer that it was a waste of time to draft the Rams passing game because of Jared Goff? The same might be said of the Jets if Josh McCown doesn't return. It pays to monitor player development with an open mind.

 

9. A State of the Browns

I'm not talking to any Cleveland fans in this segment because unfortunately, most of you have been through the emotional ringer one too many dozen times. Your sense of perspective about what's good or not good is completely distorted beyond normal bounds. 

(Sorry, I know some of you are still normal, but you're growing more exceptional by the year.) 

Like the Rams, who had a lot of good defensive personnel for years but couldn't put together an offense until now, the Browns have built a promising unit. 

 

Browns goal line stand 3rd down

A post shared by Matt Waldman (@mattwaldmanrsp) onDec 17, 2017 at 5:34pm PST

 

 

Browns stop Ravens at the 1 on 4th down

A post shared by Matt Waldman (@mattwaldmanrsp) onDec 17, 2017 at 5:36pm PST

The problem with Cleveland hasn't been the defense. The Browns' offense has a horrific turnover ratio and this weekend included two fumbles and two interceptions. Duke Johnson Jr accounted for one and Kizer the other three — including a fumble that his own goal line that resulted in a Ravens touchdown and an interception in the Ravens' end zone that ended a promising drive.  

Kizer's decision-making remains a beat too slow. He'll make the correct read but wait too long to act on it. 

 

Kizer once again a beat too long cycling through reads. At right read; waited too long.

A post shared by Matt Waldman (@mattwaldmanrsp) onDec 17, 2017 at 6:34pm PST

Despite Kizer's mistakes, I wish Cleveland would give him a chance to develop. The Browns drafted a young, talented quarterback without giving him the support that rookie quarterbacks typically get. According to the broadcast team, Kizer reached out to several veteran quarterbacks and when he described his situation in Cleveland, all of them said it was unheard of. 

What I'm referring to is the lack of a veteran quarterback on the depth chart. Having a veteran who understands how to study, practice, and lead an offense at this level is important. It doesn't matter if the quarterback hasn't had sustained success as a starter. 

Deshaun Watson had T.J. Yates. Mitchell Trubisky has Mike Glennon. Russell Wilson had Matt Flynn and Tarvaris Jackson. Kizer has two second-year players. 

Kizer's on-field issues aren't insurmountable and he displays a lot of promising traits. However, it seems the new regime is ready to throw Kizer out with the old regime. As much as I like some of the quarterbacks in 2018's class, I'm skeptical that any of them will perform much better than Kizer as rookies if they're placed in similar circumstances.

Josh Allen loses his poise way too easily and his footwork is worse than Kizer's at the same stage of their careers. Sam Darnold's decision-making and technical discipline need a lot of refinement. He'd be much better spending another year at USC. Josh Rosen has smart as a whip but he also needs a mature veteran to help curb his worst tendencies — and they are stubborn ones with some hard lessons on the horizon.

Lamar Jackson? That's a longer conversation for another time. 

10. FRESH FISH

Fantasy football is a cruel place. We're always searching for that weakest link. While we don't want anyone facing the wrath of Hadley, we'd love nothing more than having our players face an opponent whose game has come unglued on the field.   

In the spirit of "The Shawshank Redemption," I provide my weekly short list of players and/or units that could have you chanting "fresh fish" when your roster draws the match-up.

  • Guard Luke Joeckel and the Seahawks Offensive Line: (See above) Once considered a top left tackle prospect, he's had a rocky adjustment to playing guard. However, the Seahawks offensive line has struggled for three years. Pete Carroll's latest proclamation of confidence in this unit before the Rams game was a freezing-cold assessment after Los Angeles dismantled the Seahawks offense with its pass rush. 
  • Bengals decimated linebacking corps: See above.
  • Raiders defense versus opposing tight ends: Don't look too hard at the Cowboys' box score, pay attention to the timely big plays this unit allowed Jason Witten and James Hanna
  • Saints wide receiver Brandon ColemanColeman fumbled away two receptions in this game in Jets territory, including once in the red zone. A big and strong receiver from Rutgers, Coleman entered the league as a raw prospect who remains unrefined in the details that a precision offense like New Orleans demands. One fascinating aspect of studying pro prospects for a living is observing year after year how certain teams choose players whose weaknesses strike a dissonant chord with what one would think is most important to the coaching staff. Michael Thomas is a details guy and is a perfect fit with the Saints. Coleman reminds me of former NFL receiver Robert Meachem in the sense that there are too many plays where they make football look like a math problem. Where Meachem appeared to be calculating the trajectory of the ball approaching his body and doing a pros and cons list on the merits of trapping the ball to his body or using his hands, Coleman looks more like the guy who knows how to derive the right answer but forgets a detail that throws off the entire process. 
  • Packers safety Josh JonesHe gave up to touchdown receptions in this game. He got caught in the wash of his linebacker who had the inside position on Greg Olsen's route and Jones' difficulty working the correct angle upfield allowed Christian McCaffrey a clean break on an angle route for an easy score. Later in the game, he completely blew an assignment and left the receiver wide open. 
  • Packers defensive front: Green Bay earned at least three neutral zone infractions in this game, and Cam Newton didn't even use a hard count on these plays.    
  • Chargers defense: The Chiefs offensive line deserves credit for opening creases for Kareem Hunt after a seven-week layoff, but the Chargers also missed a lot of tackles on Hunt at the line of scrimmage that we've seen other teams make. 
The film tells a compelling, insightful, and useful story, especially for fantasy owners. I'll be off next week, but back the following week to recap the 2017 season.