NFLTR Review: Week 1 Overreactions

The first game for every team is in the books, which means there’s loads to dive into this week in NFLTR Review:

  • What the dickens happened to the Packers, Bills and Titans?
  • Are the Jaguars actually the NFL’s biggest train wreck? 
  • Did the Saints find another franchise quarterback? 

Five Takeaways From A Wild Week 1

The first week of the NFL season is always a bit like drinking out of a firehose. After what’s comparatively a trickle of information during the preseason, Week 1 arrives with a deluge of 16 games and our first look at whether our expectations for each of the league’s 32 teams were calibrated correctly. 

Every year, it’s a challenge to sort out what’s the beginning of a trend and what’s just a fluke. For example: 

In this space last year, we were pumping the brakes on writing obituaries for the Buccaneers and Browns. But we also were fooled by the hot start the Jaguars and the Patriots with QB Cam Newton had to the year.

For the sake of fun and posterity, here’s another stab at figuring out what’s real and what’s a mirage from 2021’s Week 1 results:

The Bills should be fine, the Packers and Titans should be worried

The Bills, Packers and Titans all entered Sunday as the betting favorites to win their division. All three stumbled, and in the case of Green Bay and Tennessee, belly-flopped might be a more apt description. The Bills lost 23-16 to the Steelers at home, the Packers lost 38-3 to the Saints at a neutral site in Jacksonville, and the Titans were blown out 38-13 by the Cardinals in Nashville. 

In the case of the Bills, it’s easier not to push the panic button. Pittsburgh entered this season with questions about how good they could be after turning the page to a lot of younger players, especially on offense. But the defense still looks ferocious and they kept the Steelers in the game long enough for a special teams touchdown to turn the tide. 

Things are more dire in Green Bay and Tennessee. In addition to the defense getting shredded again after being a weak point last year, the Titans offense was almost completely shut down. Many assumed going into the season that the trifecta of WR Julio Jones, WR A.J. Brown and RB Derrick Henry would pose an unsolvable quandary for defenses. But we didn’t talk enough about the switch at offensive coordinator from Arthur Smith to Todd Downing, or about LT Taylor Lewan coming back after a torn ACL. 

Both doomed the Titans in the loss to the Cardinals. Lewan was victimized repeatedly by various Cardinals edge rushers, including Chandler Jones who finished his day with five sacks. Smith resurrected QB Ryan Tannehill’s career largely off the back of play-action passing, but in Downing’s first game, Tannehill attempted just two passes after play-action. 

It’s worth mentioning that doesn’t include at least two sacks and potentially a touchdown run in “attempts” but it is still a notable dropoff after how reliant the Titans were on play-action the past couple of seasons. The Titans also were down big early, which impacted the game plan. Downing did show some of the same creative flair as his predecessor with a flea flicker and a halfback jump pass to convert on fourth down. Caveats aside, it’s still a concerning outcome for Tennessee. 

You can tell a similar story when trying to figure out what happened to the Packers, who run a similar offense. The Packers also went down 17-0 early and got away from their game plan. There were execution issues and turnovers that we’re not accustomed to seeing from the finely tuned Green Bay offense. The Packers have been good for one clanker of a game the past couple of seasons, so perhaps they just got it out of the way early. 

But while QB Aaron Rodgers is telling everyone to “R – E – L – A – X,” there might be more cause for concern on the defensive side of the football. The Packers hired Joe Barry away from the Rams to replace Mike Pettine at defensive coordinator this offseason, hoping he would bring a bit of what made the Rams the No. 1 defense in 2020. But Barry has been awful in each of his previous stints calling a defense and Sunday didn’t buck what’s been a career trend. 

The Saints ran the ball almost at will, blowing the Packers’ defensive line off the ball. There were a number of breakdowns in the secondary and the Saints became the second opponent in as many games to victimize CB Kevin King, going back to last season’s NFC championship loss.

Based on history, it would be a shock if the Packers offense doesn’t resume its place as one of the best in the NFL. The same can’t be said for the defense, and that could end up hurting the Packers considerably in what might be the final year of their Super Bowl window for some time. 

The Jaguars might be the NFL’s worst team

The result that shocked me the most from Sunday’s slate of games was the Texans absolutely thumping the Jaguars 37-21. I thought Houston had a good chance to become the first 0-17 team in NFL history but they put that to bed pretty quickly. Starting QB Tyrod Taylor had one of his best games as a professional and the Texans looked shockingly competent. 

On the other side of the field, though, it was a complete disaster. The Jaguars did not look at all prepared to play a football game. There were penalties, turnovers, blown coverages and just an overall avalanche of bad football. No one expected the Jaguars to be world-beaters in 2021 but they are a more talented team than the Texans. Clearly, they’re not as well-coached, though. 

Things have started off so poorly for new Jaguars HC Urban Meyer that he had to shoot down speculation this week that he would bolt back to college and take the open head coaching job at USC. Meyer’s own history of not handling losing well and stepping away from past head coaching jobs works against him, but it would still be the biggest coaching flameout in NFL history if he were to leave for USC. The fact that it can’t be discounted as a possibility speaks to how badly things have started in Jacksonville. 

All is obviously not lost. No. 1 overall pick Trevor Lawrence had some bad interceptions but also showed glimpses of just his outrageous talent level. The coaching staff has its work cut out for it, though, to fix a host of issues and avoid getting the No. 1 pick for the second straight year. 

The Saints might have found a successor to Drew Brees

Saints QB Jameis Winston made his debut this past Sunday as the first Week 1 starter of the next era of New Orleans football. And it was sensational. 

Winston only completed 14-20 passing attempts for 148 yards but five of those went for touchdowns. Most importantly, he didn’t turn it over and looked much better with his pocket management and reactions to pressure, scooting for a couple of first downs and even throwing it away. 

Winston did all of this throwing to a cast of pass catchers that included Juwan Johnson, Deonte Harris, Marquez Callaway and Adam Trautman, none of whom are household names. Johnson, Harris and Callaway were all undrafted free agents in fact. The Saints leaned heavily on the ground game with nearly two times as many rushing attempts as pass attempts, but Winston’s bomb of a touchdown pass to Harris shows Sean Payton hasn’t turned him into a toothless game manager. 

Will Winston’s newfound good habits last? The Panthers should offer a much stiffer defensive challenge if their performance against the Jets is any indication, but it feels like Winston is capable of an encore. 

Wow first games for Murray, Herbert and Hurts

A trio of young quarterbacks entered the season under a fair amount of pressure. All three had dynamic opening performances in Week 1. Chargers QB Justin Herbert maybe had the least amount of pressure of the three as the reigning offensive rookie of the year. Still, there were questions about whether he could avoid the regression that’s struck other top picks in the past. 

Herbert answered those questions resoundingly against Washington. Against a tough defense on the road in an early body clock game, Herbert was surgical. He was 31-47 for 337 yards, one touchdown and one interception in the win. The pick was a bad decision but Herbert was regularly dealing to remote pockets of the field, showing off his elite arm and ball placement ability. 

That was on display most at the end of the game. Pinned deep on their side of the field, Herbert led the Chargers on a 15-play, 72-yard drive that ate up the final 6:43 on the clock. It included four big-time third-down conversions he converted with his arm, including a 3rd-and-16 to kickstart the drive. 

Cardinals QB Kyler Murray and Eagles QB Jalen Hurts entered 2021 under a lot of pressure as well. Murray shouldered some of the burden of an Arizona team that collapsed under high expectations last year, while Hurts is auditioning for a job in 2022 and beyond. Both were brilliant piloting their teams to blowout wins. 

Murray seemed to pick right where he left off before being hurt in 2020, running literal circles around the Titans defense. His combination of pure speed and arm talent is a hard puzzle for defenses to solve and Sunday was a good illustration. He finished with five total touchdowns, four in the air and one on the ground. 

As for Hurts, the Eagles had an emphasis on getting him easy completions to start the game, with a heavy dose of screens, swing passes and RPOs. But Hurts also was on top of his game, especially throwing on the move. As a rookie, Hurts completed just 52 percent of his passes. On Sunday, Hurts’ completion percentage was all the way up above 77 percent — which would be a Josh Allen-level unprecedented improvement if he can maintain that or anything close to it really. 

Accuracy was the biggest knock on Hurts coming into this season. His intangibles and athleticism are both major pluses, so if he’s really become a more efficient player, it’s time to re-evaluate how high Hurts’ ceiling might be. The Falcons won’t be scaring many teams defensively this year but it’s hard to ignore 27-35 for 264 yards, three touchdowns, no interceptions and another 62 yards on the ground. If Hurts is a legit franchise quarterback, that’s huge for Philadelphia. 

Both West divisions looking stacked

After one week of action, two divisions finished undefeated. All four teams in both the NFC and the AFC West sit at 1-0 and all four looked pretty good. 

  • The Chiefs were down 22-10 to the Browns and it didn’t matter, as Patrick Mahomes did Patrick Mahomes things and Kansas City turned out a win. 
  • In a week heavy on upsets, the Seahawks dominated the Colts and were never really in danger in the first game under new OC Shane Waldron.
  • The Rams offense also hit the ground running Sunday night, dominating the Bears. 
  • The Chargers gutted out a win on the road against Washington and Arizona dominated the Titans. 
  • The Broncos throttled the Giants on the road. The defense predictably looked outstanding but new QB Teddy Bridgewater had some solid moments. If Denver makes the playoffs, Bridgewater will be a crucial part of that. 
  • In a wild, wild game, the Raiders offense came to life and outlasted the Ravens in a Monday night thriller. The best development might have been DE Maxx Crosby’s two-sack breakout, as Las Vegas has been trying to find a consistent pass rush for years. 
  • The 49ers had to hold off a late rally by the Lions and have a bunch of injuries to overcome exiting Week 1. But for most the game, they looked like a dominant outfit. 

As we’ve mentioned a couple of times before in this space, it’s now mathematically possible for all four teams from a single division to make the playoffs with the addition of the seventh playoff team. A lot of things have to fall right for that to happen, but it appears we have two legitimate candidates in the AFC West and NFC West divisions. 

This Week In Football

  • Football is back, which we’re all thrilled about. Unfortunately, it also means the return of injuries, which are an unfortunate but unavoidable part of life in the NFL. 
  • I’m going to try not to do a weekly update on Texans QB Deshaun Watson, as realistically there’s not much that has changed with his status for some time now. But it’s worth going over where things stand now. The criminal inquiry into Watson does not look like it will be resolved before the NFL trade deadline. The civil case will drag on even longer. Without some kind of resolution, it’s hard to see teams trading the huge package it will take to land Watson. Especially because Houston isn’t budging off its asking price — reportedly a combo of six players and picks. That said, there are teams who remain interested and things could stir up again around the trade deadline
  • Shifting to other big names who could be available around the trade deadline, Patriots CB Stephon Gilmore remains an option given how many teams need cornerback help. However, reading between the lines, it appears a trade is unlikely for a number of factors. Gilmore’s age, New England’s asking price and the fact that Gilmore has to stay on the PUP list until Week 7 all are significant obstacles to a deal. 
  • Week 1 marked a trio of extensions. Saints CB Marshon Lattimore secured the bag, getting a five-year, $97.6 million extension that works out to $19.5 million per year and makes him the third-highest paid corner in the league. The Colts extended underrated passing-down RB Nyheim Hines last Friday, adding three years and $18.6 million to his existing deal. And the Eagles handed an absolutely massive extension to OT Jordan Mailata after he won the starting left tackle job in camp, giving him four years and $64 million. Mailata, a former rugby player, is a bit light in experience for a deal that size, but he played well in 10 starts last year and had a good first game on Sunday. 

Nickels & Dimes

Quick-hit thoughts and observations from around the NFL…

Going through the rest of the Week 1 slate, Dallas’ defense isn’t going to be one of the league’s top units. But the Cowboys showed an ability to force turnovers on defense which combined with that offense could go a long way…

I didn’t see anything last Thursday to make me less bullish on the Bucs. If they don’t beat themselves, it’ll be real hard for anyone else to…

Russell Wilson was cooking and not even Pete Carroll could deny it…

Hate to rain on the parade for the Texans, but I still don’t see them having much success this year. They benefited from some good but hard to repeat plays on Sunday, plus obviously a horrendous opponent…

The final score doesn’t show it, but the Falcons actually did an okay job of moving the ball on the Eagles. They came up short in the red zone in the first half and their offensive line really cracked in the fourth quarter when the score started getting out of hand…

Ben Roethlisberger just chucked the ball up to his receivers half the time and they made him look good with terrific catches. Pittsburgh still makes me nervous the rest of the season…

It was good to see the Bengals lean so much on Joe Mixon and take pressure off of Joe Burrow after relying so much on empty sets with him as a rookie. You figure that’ll come back later in the year as Burrow gets healthier, but Cincinnati is paying Mixon big bucks exactly for situations like this…

I’m not sure the Panthers defense is going to consistently lock teams down like they did the Jets on Sunday but I think they could be a thorny unit to play. There’s a lot of speed on that side of the ball and DC Phil Snow does a lot to take advantage of it…

Zach Wilson shoulders some of the blame for how often he got hit even if the Jets’ offensive line was bad, but Wilson’s talent was evident even if he wasn’t able to connect on some throws downfield. Expect that to change soon…

Mac Jones looked fine in his Patriots debut. The offense is constricted right now but that’s how they want to play, with an emphasis on quick, short passes and the running game. It plays to Jones’ strengths — advanced mental acumen for a young quarterback, short accuracy — while minimizing his relative lack of arm strength. It’ll be interesting to see if Jones turns it loose more as the season goes on…

Gross…

Back in camp, there was a mini-controversy about Raiders WR Hunter Renfrow beating Jalen Ramsey in joint practices with the Rams. Turns out, Renfrow might actually be kinda good…

Listen at about 15 minutes or so in here for why the NFL is never, ever, ever going to “figure out” Lamar Jackson

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