NFL Surprises Halfway Through the Season


Dillon Monroe, Staff Writer

Week eight of the 2020 NFL season came to a close with the Tampa Bay Buccaneers’ narrow Monday Night Football win over the New York Giants, thus marking the end of the first half of the season. From disappointing teams to rookies that splashed onto the scene, this eventful first half has been full of surprises.

The San Francisco 49ers

San Francisco falls to 4-5 with a 34-17 loss to the Green Bay Packers in Week 9. (AP)

Last season, the San Francisco 49ers shocked the entire league by winning 13 games in the regular season as they went on to face the Kansas City Chiefs in the Super Bowl. Though the 49ers were not victorious in the big game, it was clear that the San Francisco based team was going to contend in the league for years to come. Going into the 2020 NFL season, the 49ers were believed to be the favorites to come out on top of the NFC West, despite the fact that they were playing in the most talented division in football. With the Seattle Seahawks acquiring star safety Jamal Adams from the Jets and the Arizona Cardinals acquiring star wide receiver DeAndre Hopkins from Houston, it seemed like every team in the division was making key moves while the 49ers planned to just run it back with the same unit they had last season. San Francisco’s very well constructed defense, led by defensive coordinator Robert Saleh, invoked fear in opposing offenses in 2019, and most believed that the defense alone would be enough to get them to the playoffs in 2020. With an elite run game and solid play from quarterback Jimmy Garoppolo, the 2019 San Francisco 49ers were able to impress on both sides of the ball. After a relatively quiet offseason for the team, the 49ers were ready to run it back and try to make it back to the Super Bowl.

Week one did not go as planned, and San Francisco started off the season on a bad note. As previously mentioned, the Arizona Cardinals traded for star wide receiver DeAndre Hopkins in the offseason. This addition, along with the development of star young quarterback Kyler Murray, has made the Cardinals’ offense very lethal. San Francisco’s defense struggled to keep up with the speedy quarterback, allowing him to rush for 91 yards and a touchdown en route to a 24 to 20 win over the defending NFC champions.

Week two, though the 49ers emerged victorious, was debatably worse than week one was. Injuries came into play. Starting quarterback Jimmy Garoppolo suffered a high grade ankle sprain that could keep him sidelined for the following two weeks. Starting running back Raheem Mostert suffered an ankle injury that would keep him sidelined for the following two weeks as well. Defensive ends Nick Bosa and Solomon Thomas both suffered season ending injuries. Despite injuries, San Francisco managed to cruise to wins against the New York Jets and New York Giants. Week five saw Jimmy Garoppolo, Raheem Mostert, and second year wide receiver Deebo Samuel return to the lineup. After winning two straight at Metlife Stadium, the 49ers lost back-to-back games against the Philadelphia Eagles and the Miami Dolphins. San Francisco pulled themselves together enough to win their matchups in weeks six and seven against the Los Angeles Rams and the New England Patriots; however Mostert was pulled at halftime in the game against Los Angeles and was then sent to the injured reserve for an undetermined amount of time. Just when it didn’t seem like San Francisco’s luck could have gotten any worse, it was announced that the 49ers would have to play the remainder of their season without superstar tight end George Kittle and quarterback Jimmy Garoppolo. Kittle suffered a foot injury in their week eight loss against their division rival, the Seattle Seahawks, while Garoppolo reaggravated his ankle injury in the same game. San Francisco’s week nine Thursday Night Football matchup against the Green Bay Packers did not go as planned. Aaron Rodgers tossed for 305 yards and four touchdowns as the Packers got revenge on the 49ers for the 2019 NFC Championship Game.
Through nine games, the San Francisco 49ers sit at the bottom of the NFC West with a record of 4-5. With an injured roster and a tough schedule ahead of them, it is not likely that the reigning NFC champions will be able to turn their season around and make a playoff push.

Justin Herbert

Rookie quarterback Justin Herbert impresses in Week 4 match up against the Tampa Bay Buccaneers.

Going into the 2020 NFL Draft, all of the quarterback hype was surrounding Joe Burrow out of LSU. Burrow was drafted first overall to the Cincinnati Bengals, and was expected to completely flip the script for the struggling franchise. What was not expected however, was the instant impact that rookie quarterback Justin Herbert would have on the Los Angeles Chargers. With the sixth pick in the 2020 NFL draft, the Los Angeles Chargers drafted Justin Herbert so he could be their franchise quarterback following the departure of Phillip Rivers. Herbert was not named the week one starter, but was given a chance to run the offense in the second game of the season.
In his first career start, Herbert faced off against reigning Super Bowl MVP Patrick Mahomes and the Kansas City Chiefs. The rookie did not disappoint, tossing for 311 yards and a touchdown in an overtime loss to the reigning champions. Herbert was named the Chargers’ starting quarterback going forward. Fast forward two weeks to the Chargers’ week four matchup against the Tampa Bay Buccaneers, a game in which the rookie quarterback faced off against the most accomplished quarterback of all time, Tom Brady. Herbert racked up 290 passing yards, three touchdown passes, and a quarterback rating of 137.9. Unfortunately for the Chargers, they were not victorious and fell to 1-3 on the season, but the promising play of their young quarterback should be very reassuring. Through seven games, Herbert has accumulated 1,820 passing yards, 15 passing touchdowns, and a passer rating of 104.5.
As a rookie, Justin Herbert has gone head-to-head and held his own against some of the best quarterbacks in the league, such as Drew Brees, Patrick Mahomes, and Tom Brady. Despite not starting in the first game of the season, the Los Angeles Chargers’ quarterback has already made a compelling case for the Offensive Rookie of the Year award. Even if he does not win this award, Los Angeles drafted a gem with the sixth pick of the 2020 NFL Draft.

The Pittsburgh Steelers

Rookie receiver Chase Claypool has himself a day for the Pittsburgh Steelers with 116 total yards and four touchdowns in Week 5 win over the Philadelphia Eagles. (AP)

Possibly the biggest surprise in the NFL this season has been the Pittsburgh Steelers. 2019 was not kind to the Steelers, as their three stars from the 2018 season were either injured or no longer on the team. Star wide receiver Antonio Brown forced his way out of Pittsburgh, star running back Le’Veon Bell signed with the New York Jets in free agency, and legendary franchise quarterback Ben Roethlisberger was sidelined for the majority of the season after suffering a season ending elbow injury. Pittsburgh finished the 2019 season with a record of 8-8, but their record did not tell the whole story. Rookie wide receiver Diontae Johnson had a solid season in 2019, joining JuJu Smith-Schuster on the list of promising young wide receivers on the Pittsburgh Steelers. The most noticeable bright spot from the Steelers’ 2019 season was their impressive defensive unit. Players such as Devin Bush, Cameron Heyward, T.J. Watt, Bud Dupree, and Minkah Fitzpatrick all had great seasons.

Though the defense was expected to continue being great, it was unknown how well the offense would play in the 2020 season. A 38 year old Ben Roethlisberger was making his return to the field after undergoing a surgical procedure on his elbow which kept him out for the final 15 weeks of the 2019 season. Young receiver JuJu Smith-Schuster had a disappointing season in 2019 after putting up almost 1,500 receiving yards in 2018. It seemed as if neither player skipped a beat, since in week one of the 2020 season, Roethlisberger threw for 229 yards and three touchdowns in a win over the New York Giants as Smith-Schuster caught six receptions for 69 yards and a touchdown. The defense played their part, holding star running back Saquon Barkley to six rushing yards on fifteen attempts. Pittsburgh also accumulated three sacks along with two interceptions. Since week one, the Steelers have not taken their feet off the gas, and they now own the best record in the league at 7-0. The surprising production coming from rookie wide receiver Chase Claypool has played a large part in Pittsburgh’s success. Claypool has 375 receiving yards along with five receiving touchdowns on the season. With 1,628 passing yards and 15 passing touchdowns, Roethlisberger is doing his part in keeping the Steelers’ win streak alive. Pittsburgh’s defense has not disappointed, as it has currently allowed the fifth least amount of yards on the season and the sixth least amount of points. Outside linebackers T.J. Watt and Bud Depree have been wreaking havoc on quarterbacks all season, with a combined total of 12.5 sacks.

The Pittsburgh Steelers are the only currently undefeated team in the NFL as of the end of week eight. Pittsburgh has proven that they can hang with the big boys, having beaten both the Baltimore Ravens and the Tennessee Titans. With an easy schedule coming up, Pittsburgh has a good shot at making the playoffs as they continue their quest for what would be the seventh Lombardi Trophy in franchise history.

With week nine now underway, football fans across the country buckle up as they hope to enjoy the second half of the NFL season. It will be very interesting to see how certain teams and players finish the season after a surprising first eight weeks. Will the San Francisco 49ers make a playoff push? Will Justin Herbert win the Offensive Rookie of the Year award? Will the Pittsburgh Steelers maintain their perfect record and win the Super Bowl? Fans will have to wait and see.