Quick Slants: When I Watch Kareem Hunt Run With the Football, I See Marshall Faulk

Quick Slants, Heading Into NFL Week 8…

Rookie Kansas City Chiefs running back Kareem Hunt reminds me of Marshall Faulk. Just so we understand each other, Hunt isn’t Fauk. Hunt has played in a grand total of seven NFL regular-season games. Faulk is a Pro Football Hall of Famer, and one of the greatest offensive players in NFL history.

I’m talking style here. The breakaway running ability that cranks out big plays. The elusiveness. The superb receiving skills. The prolific volume of total yards from scrimmage because of multiple talent at rushing the football, and catching the football. Making tacklers miss. Being faster than a defensive back in a sprinting contest to the end zone.

Style and body type.

Faulk was listed at 5-10, 211 pounds during his NFL career.

Hunt is 5-11,  216 pounds.

Seven weeks into the 2017  campaign, Hunt leads the NFL with 1,002 yards from scrimmage. That breaks down to 717 yards rushing and with four touchdowns on the ground, and 25 passes for 285 yards and two TD receptions.

Hunt already has four 100-yard rushing games. He leads the league in most rushing plays of 10+ yards (19) … and 20+ yards (8) … and 50+ yards (3).

Hunt has rushed for more yards after contact (325) than any NFL back so far.

According to the metrics at the superb Pro Football Focus site, Hunt has the NFL’s highest “elusive rating” for running backs, 112.5. The No. 2 back, Atlanta’s Devonta Freeman, has an elusive rating of 69.3. The gap between Hunt and Freeman is huge.

Hunt is also No. 1 in PFF’s “breakaway percentage,” with 46.4% of his yards coming on runs of 15+ yards.

Doing some research, I wasn’t surprised to discover that Kareem Hunt is off to the best start — based on total yards from scrimmage — for a rookie running back since the 1970 AFL-NFL merger.

In the modern NFL, no rookie back has produced 1,002 combined yards through his first seven weeks. If you include all running backs since 1970, Hunt would rank 16th for most scrimmage yards through the first seven games of a season. That’s impressive considering the names of the many Hall of Fame running backs that I spotted above Hunt on that list.

I also ran the numbers on Hunt and Faulk and their fast starts to a season. And only one time in his sensational career did Faulk top Hunt’s current total of 1,002 yards through the first seven weeks. And there wasn’t much difference; Faulk had 1,083 yards after seven weeks for the 2000 St. Louis Rams.

As a rookie for the Indianapolis Colts in 1994, Faulk averaged 119.7 rushing-receiving yards through seven weeks. And he averaged 4.8 yards per touch from scrimmage. Hunt is way ahead of Faulk’s rookie pace with averages of 143.1 scrimmage yards per game, and 6.7 yards per touch.

Kansas City fans probably would prefer that we compare Hunt to the do-it-all Chiefs running back Priest Holmes. But whether we cite Faulk or Holmes when discussing Hunt’s amazing talent it’s a helluva compliment either way. Let’s just hope Hunt stays healthy. He’s the most exciting player in a league that’s short on excitement these days.

Now, onto the slants:

1. Bad attendance for NFL games in Los Angeles. Wow, I’m shocked. Despite a blazing 5-2 start and an offense that leads the NFL with an average of 30.3 points per game, the Los Angeles Rams rank 27th among the 32 teams in average home attendance so far. Speaking to SI.com, Rams running back Todd Gurley presented a theory: heavy traffic.

“Definitely a basketball town,” Gurley told SI Now.  “Hasn’t been football over here in 20 years. So you just can’t expect someone to just start coming to football games all the time. And I heard the traffic for football games is probably the worst, so I’m pretty sure why people don’t come to the games as well.

“At the end of the day, it is what it is. We don’t play the game for fans to show up. At the end of the day, we have to go out there and play a game. If they show up, they show up, if they don’t they don’t. Obviously we would love to have the stadium filled every week for sure, and that’s the goal for us: To just keep winning. You have to win in order for fans to show up or want to come to a game. We understand that and want to just keep winning so we can get LA fans to come to the games.”

2. New England Patriots quarterback Tom Brady, the greatest to play the position in NFL history, is onto something new this season at age 40. Despite not having favorite receiver Julian Edelman (knee surgery) available at all this season, Brady has turned to a different approach to lead the Patriots to an average of 27.9 points per game, which ranks sixth in the league. Brady has won five Super Bowls and seven AFC titles and doesn’t have much to prove. But he’s relentless in his desire to conquer defenses. And if Brady doesn’t have Edelman to flick those short, option-rout passes that have defenders running around in circles … no problem. Brady will use the sideline. Brady will beat you deep.  He’ll play long ball.

According to Pro Football Focus, Brady attempted only 49 passes that traveled 20+ yards in the air during the entire 2016 season. That put him down at 23rd on the list of QBs for deep passing attempts. This season Brady already has flung 40 deep passes,  the most in the NFL. And he’s connected 18 times (two others were dropped) with four touchdowns and only one interception for a PFF deep-pass rating of 114.6. Brady throws the ball a lot, and 15.3 percent of his passing attempts have flown 20 yards or longer this season.

Brady hasn’t gone deep this often often since the days when he had Randy Moss on the outside runway. Brady’s new Moss is Brandin Cooks, who was acquired from New Orleans last offseason. Through seven games, Cooks is PFF’s highest-rated wide receiver overall, and he’s also ranked No. 1 for deep-pass receiving. On passing attempts of 20+ yards, Brady and Cooks have hooked up for eight completions on 14 throws for 290 yards — 36.5 yards per catch — and two scores.

3. NFL Week 7 of the new season produced an average of 39.6 combined points per game (or 19.8 per team if you prefer and that was the lowest-scoring Week 7 in the NFL since 1990. OK, what about the average number of points scored in all of the games from Week 1 through Week 7? This year NFL teams averaged a combined 43.8 points per game over the first seven weeks, compared to 45.4 points in 2016 and 46.6 points in 2015. Over the last 10 seasons, that average of 43.8 combined points per game over the first seven weeks ranked eighth. The lowest over the last 10 seasons was 43.2 combined points per game through seven weeks, back in 2010.

4. New England’s defense, which had been improving, suffered a considerable  blow when linebacker Don’ta Hightower tore a pectoral muscle that will keep him out for the rest of the season. Hightower’s return from a previous injury provided a major boost for a struggling defense; with Hightower in the lineup the Pats were fourth in the league for fewest points allowed over a three-game stretch. It’s been a brutal week for injuries, with the 6-1 Philadelphia Eagles losing left offensive tackle Jason Peters, a nine-time Pro Bowl selection, for the rest of the season torn knee ligaments. In the same Monday night win over Washington the Eagles lost starting linebacker Jordan Hicks (ruptured Achilles tendon) for the year. The Arizona Cardinals lost QB Carson Palmer to a broken arm. The Cleveland Browns lost Joe Thomas, one of the greatest tackles in NFL history, to torn triceps … which ended his remarkable streak of playing 10,363 consecutive snaps over 11 seasons.

5. Praise for Minnesota Vikings head coach Mike Zimmer and offensive coordinator Pat Shurmur. The Vikings are 5-2 with journeyman Case Keenum at quarterback, filling in for Sam Bradford (knee.) the Vikes also lost splendid rookie running back Dalvin Cook to a season-ending knee injury, and top wide receiver Stefon Diggs, who is sidelined with a groin injury. Doesn’t matter; the Vikings keep winning with defense and with a methodical but effective offense. And that was the case in Sunday’s 26-14 win over Baltimore; the Ravens scrounged for only 208 yards. If Zimmer can go 5-2 without a big-time quarterback and so many injuries, then what’s every other coach’s excuse?

6. Baltimore quarterback Joe Flacco is having such a bad season, only one QB has been worse this season according to the Pro Football Focus passer rating. That would be the awful Cleveland rookie DeShone Kizer, who has been intercepted 11 times with only three TD passes.

7. By the way, according to PFF’s adjusted passer rating, the five worst quarterbacks in the league so far, and a couple of names may surprise you, are in order: Kizer, Flacco, Jacksonville’s Blake Bortles, Carolina’s Cam Newton, and Pittsburgh’s Ben Roethlisberger. And Tennessee’s Marcus Mariota and Detroit’s Matthew Stafford are 8th and 9th, respectively, on the worst-rated list.

8. Looking forward to seeing the league’s best rookie QB, Houston’s thrilling Deshaun Watson, take on the Seahawks defense in Seattle on Sunday. That’s the most difficult venue in the NFL for visiting quarterbacks. Since the start of the 2012 season visiting teams are 6-36 in Seattle during the regular season. The Seahawks have outscored victims — I mean, visitors — by an insane margin of 1,179 to 646 … average score 28-13 … visiting quarterbacks have thrown 51 interceptions, lost 19 fumbles, been sacked 102 times, and have an ugly passer rating of 70.7.  This is something to look out for … Pro Football Focus grades Houston’s offensive line as the worst in the league in pass-blocking efficiency, and Watson is rated 29th among NFL quarterbacks in passer rating when under pressure.

Good luck Deshaun.

9. There are a bunch of reasons why the defending NFC Champion Atlanta Falcons are malfunctioning on offense, and trending downward despite a manageable 3-3 record. Offensive coordinator Steve Sarkasian is a terrible play caller, and no match in creative terms to former OC Kyle Shanahan, who left to become the San Francisco 49ers’ head coach this season. The Falcons don’t utilize their strong rushing attack enough. The team has an odd pattern off starting out well, then fizzling out in the second half. The Falcons have a +27 point differential in the first half, which ranks 8th. In the second half, they’re a minus 31, which ranks 28th. And we know that quarterback Matt Ryan’s TD-INT ratio (7-6) is a mess compared to last year’s 38 touchdowns and only 7 interceptions.

Here’s the other thing about Ryan and the Atlanta offense: the deep-passing game has all but disappeared. It’s a liability. It’s not working. And that is in stark contrast to last season.

In 2016, Ryan was PFF’s No. 1 rated passer on deep throws. He completed 32 of 63 for 11 touchdowns and no interceptions and had a superb 136.1 passer rating.

What about the first six games of 2017? Oh,my. Ryan is at the bottom of the PFF rankings for deep passing. He’s completed only 4 of 23, with 2 touchdowns and an interception, and his 74.4 passer rating is 32nd (last) in the NFL.

That’s right … Ryan has gone from being No. 1 in deep passing to being No. 32.

First to worst.

And put that on the roundup of reasons why the Falcons — who averaged 31.5 offensive points per game in 2016 — are averaging only 20.1 offensive points in the first seven weeks of 2017. The Falcons have wheezed to 41 total points in their last three games, all losses.

10. Earlier we told you about Houston’s weakness in protecting its rookie quarterback. But in Denver, quarterback Trevor Siemian is having a brutal time in handling the opponents’ pass rush. Denver’s pass blocking is ranked 25th by PFF, and Siemian’s performance is suffering. Siemian has been under pressure on 35.7 percent of his dropbacks, and he’s completed 22 of 60 when pressured (36.6%), and has been picked off 5 times (with 2 touchdowns) under pressure. His passer rating under pressure is 29.5, which ranks 30th among 32 quarterbacks. Over the last two games Siemian has 1 TD pass, 3 INTs, has been dropped for 9 sacks and the Broncos have scored 10 total points.

Please pardon by typos. It’s 2:40 p.m. as I finish writing these Quick Slants, which means I’ve been working for almost 12 hours straight after rising (as usual) at 3 a.m.

Thanks for reading …

–Bernie

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