Despite the glimpses of greatness that it’s shown in recent years, the Steelers offense of this era has been more about promise than production. Injuries and suspensions have deprived fans of the chance to see this group’s full collection of firepower, but Sunday night served as a reminder that Ben Roethlisberger, Antonio Brown, and Le’Veon Bell are more than enough to strike fear into the rest of the league.
In a 38–16 rout of Washington in Week 1, Pittsburgh flashed signs that it could field this sort of unit — an offense that could burn opponents down in a single play. But in routing the Chiefs, 43–14, Roethlisberger’s crew revealed what it’s truly capable of. The Steelers had four completions of at least 30 yards against Kansas City. That’s as many as 21 teams had during the first three games of the 2016 season.
The Steelers’ first play from scrimmage was a play-action shot to Sammie Coates along the right sideline for 47 yards. It was an indicator of things to come. Whether they were to Coates, Brown, Markus Wheaton, or even Darrius Heyward-Bey, Roethlisberger spent the entire game looking for chunk plays down the field, and he had the time to make them against a defense that was without superstar pass rusher Justin Houston.
Any pessimism about the Steelers’ offensive ceiling coming into this fall was rooted in the idea that losing wide receiver Martavis Bryant, who made 50 catches for 765 yards with six touchdowns in the 2015 campaign, to a season-long suspension for violating the league’s substance-abuse policy would affect their ability to push the ball downfield. If Week 4 reinforced anything, though, it’s that it isn’t going to be a problem. The 6-foot-4 Bryant’s otherworldly combination of size and speed turned him into one of football’s more terrifying deep threats, but Pittsburgh’s ability to make the most of its deep shots goes far beyond Bryant outrunning and out-jumping cornerbacks. Searching for those all-or-nothing throws is in the DNA of coordinator Todd Haley’s offense; when it’s clicking, there’s nothing in the league quite like it.
A couple of Kansas City turnovers that gave the Steelers short fields certainly had a hand in turning what should have been Sunday’s best game into a blowout, but given the way that Pittsburgh’s offense looked, they might not have ultimately mattered. And while Roethlisberger — who finished 22-of-27 for 300 yards with five touchdowns and no interceptions — and the passing game may have piled up the gaudy numbers, the most promising sight for this unit was a healthy (and still very, very talented) Le’Veon Bell running all over the Chiefs.
DeAngelo Williams is about as talented as backup running backs come, and his standout play during the first three weeks of the season clouded the fact that Bell remains one of the most lethal weapons in the league. Bell returned in a big way in Week 4, averaging a ridiculous 8.0 yards per carry. The Steelers’ ground game gashed a solid Chiefs defense all night, with six of Bell’s 18 attempts going for at least 8 yards. His constant scampering into the Kansas City secondary provided a not-so-subtle nudge for anyone who forgot what he — and a (close to) fully loaded Steelers offense — can do.
Expectations for NFL teams are too often constructed around a few offensive stars, but tying the Steelers’ hopes to the trio of Bell, Brown, and Roethlisberger isn’t all that misguided. On Sunday, Pittsburgh faced a potential playoff team with a backup left guard and a backup right tackle taking more than half of its offensive snaps. It still looked as intimidating as any offense can.
That’s because when the Steelers are on and at something close to full strength, no offense in football is more intimidating. With Bell back, it might not even matter that Bryant is gone or that the offensive line is more dinged up than it’s been in recent years. No other team boasts an arsenal of weapons like Pittsburgh has with that trio, and it feels like Sunday was just its first act in reminding everyone of that all season long.
Julio Jones Exposes the Panthers’ Flaws
On Friday’s Ringer NFL Show, I told my colleague Danny Kelly that it sure seemed like Julio Jones, who was on the sideline for 17 of Atlanta’s 64 offensive plays and caught just one pass for 16 yards in a 45–32 loss at New Orleans in Week 3, was playing hurt. Well, following the Falcons’ 48–33 beatdown of the Panthers, I’d like to apologize to … everyone, really, but mostly to Jones, who could probably strike me down from where he’s standing right now if he so chooses.
With his manhandling of Carolina’s secondary on Sunday, Jones became just the sixth player ever to tally 300 receiving yards in a single game. He was unstoppable from the start, hauling in seven catches for 170 yards in the first half alone as he annihilated the Panthers in every way imaginable. Carolina simply had no answer for him, whether he was running crossing routes against man coverage or making chunk plays down the field. Week in and week out, the Steelers’ Brown remains the NFL’s top receiver, but few players — at any position — can approach the level that Jones reached against the Panthers.
Having a healthy, havoc-inducing Jones to pair with the ruthlessly efficient, run-centric offense that the Falcons have been executing during the first couple of weeks of this season would be enough cause for celebration in Atlanta, but getting monster performances from Jones and quarterback Matt Ryan (28-of-37 passing for 503 freaking yards) against Carolina made it all the sweeter. Now sitting at 3–1, the Falcons are two full games ahead of every other team in the NFC South, and the way that Atlanta attacked the Panthers defense turned the tiny cracks in Carolina’s hull into a massive hole.
Ryan is no deep-ball master, but he seemed to connect on any throw he attempted down the field. The Falcons got whatever they wanted; it didn’t matter if Ryan targeted Jones, Mohamed Sanu, Aldrick Robinson, or Austin Hooper. Cornerback Josh Norman, who signed with Washington this offseason after Carolina let him go, wouldn’t have solved everything by blanking the Atlanta offense, but he likely would have done something to limit the damage. The Falcons’ 48-point outburst was the first sign that the Panthers’ young group of corners, which includes Bené Benwikere, James Bradberry, and Daryl Worley, may have trouble slowing quality passing games.
After seeing Blaine Gabbert, Trevor Siemian, and Sam Bradford to open this season, Carolina faced a rude awakening against Ryan and Jones. Based on what both teams showed Sunday, the Falcons are very much a factor in the NFC playoff picture.
The NFL Is in a Golden Age of Punting
For most fans, punting is boring. It’s just hard to muster excitement over a play that is a concession of failure. That said, Week 4 was the latest showing of what’s already been an amazing season for NFL punters.
Through four games, all 32 teams are averaging at least 40 yards per punt. That type of distance isn’t new (the 2014 Buccaneers were the last team not to hit that mark), but the consistency of the league’s best punters is. Five teams — the Giants, Saints, Panthers, Cowboys, and Raiders — are averaging at least 50 yards per punt. Only two hit that figure five years ago; going back 10 years, none did. And distance is only part of the equation.
Last season, the Chiefs landed the highest percentage (49.3) of their punts inside the opposing 20-yard line by a comfortable margin. This fall, eight teams are at or above 50 percent, and the Raiders sit just shy (11 of 23) of that. Oakland’s Marquette King is one of the handful of guys averaging at least 50 yards per punt, and he was his defense’s best friend in a 28–27 win over Baltimore on Sunday.
Four of King’s eight punts resulted in the Ravens beginning a possession inside their own 20, and two — both of which led to scoreless Baltimore drives — landed inside the 10. That type of performance sounds exceptional, but through the first month of this season, dominant days like King’s have almost been commonplace. In Week 3, the Patriots’ Ryan Allen controlled a 27–0 shutout of the Texans by pinning Houston inside its own 20 on all of his seven punts. The Vikings’ Jeff Locke put the Panthers inside their own 10 three separate times in Minnesota’s 22–10 win over Carolina a few days later.
Special teams aren’t the showiest route to victory, but booming and pinpoint punts can create significant advantages. As punters have gotten better, they’ve only become more valuable, and the increased ability to swing field position has made a real impact during the first four weeks of this season.
The Starting Lineup
A quick-hitting look at 11 big story lines, key developments, and interesting tidbits from this week in the NFL.
1. I guess Russell Wilson doesn’t need two good knees. Playing with a sprained left knee and wearing a customized brace, Wilson was brilliant in a 27–17 win over the Jets. He went 23-of-32 for 309 yards with three touchdowns, and his signature drive came at the start of the second quarter, when he completed all four of his attempts. One was a beautiful, 27-yard, over-the-shoulder toss to Jimmy Graham up the seam; another was a 38-yard strike to Doug Baldwin that Wilson threw on the run after escaping trouble.
It was just the sixth 300-yard regular-season game of Wilson’s career, which seems impossible, but reiterates just how heavily Seattle has leaned on its running game in recent years. This year it’s Wilson’s show, and when he plays like he did on Sunday, that approach will work out just fine for the Seahawks.
2. So there is a limit to the Patriots’ black magic. For the first time this season, New England’s offense looked like a unit piloted by a novice QB in a 16–0 loss to the Bills. Buffalo had a plan to get after Jacoby Brissett, and the Patriots offense sputtered when it did. Even with New England using both Martellus Bennett and Rob Gronkowski as extra blockers for much of the game, Brissett was pressured on 10 of his 33 dropbacks, according to Pro Football Focus, and completed just a third of his passes on those plays.
Bills coach Rex Ryan has never been afraid to bring extra heat, and Buffalo’s best chance to piece together a formidable pass rush without a stable of star rushers is to send extra bodies after the quarterback. Against a rookie, there isn’t much downside to leaving cornerbacks Stephon Gilmore and Ronald Darby to fend for themselves on the outside.
3. Welcome to Aaron Donald’s universe. During the first weekend since the Texans announced that J.J. Watt would miss the rest of the 2016 season with a back injury, Donald made a convincing case for assuming the throne as the NFL’s preeminent defensive player. Donald terrorized Arizona’s offensive line on his way to 1.5 sacks and four quarterback hits — bringing him to a league-leading 11 on the year — in a 17–13 win. The Cardinals had driven to the Los Angeles 26-yard line when Donald eviscerated right tackle D.J. Humphries and strip-sacked Carson Palmer early in the third quarter. The following is intended for mature audiences. Viewer discretion is advised.
Donald may be from another planet, but the Rams’ victory was a collective effort by the entire defense. Trumaine Johnson came up with a pivotal red zone interception in what was his best game of the season, and fellow cornerback E.J. Gaines also did his part in slowing Arizona’s potent receiving corps. The L.A. offense was hapless yet again, but at this point the Rams are starting to look like one of those teams (last season’s Broncos; this season’s Vikings) that can string together wins solely on the back of its defense.
For the Cardinals, it’s officially time to be concerned. Palmer left with a concussion, and he turned in another regrettable outing in the time he was on the field. A combination of shoddy quarterback play and a lack of protection is more than enough to sabotage Arizona’s high-wire act on offense, and it did in the Cards for a second straight week.
4. The Lions’ red zone proficiency is becoming a distant memory. No quarterback who had at least 10 passing attempts inside the opposing 10-yard line posted a better completion percentage than Matthew Stafford (75 percent on 36 throws) in the 2015 season. Through four games in 2016, those numbers have cratered. Stafford has completed just 42.9 percent of his passes inside the 10. In a 17–14 loss to the Bears on Sunday, Detroit’s running game failed to finish drives, too.
On top of throwing two interceptions deep in Chicago territory, the Lions were stuffed twice on the 1-yard line by a defense that no one would confuse with the 2000 Ravens. The first month of the NFL season is about finding out why certain units look certain ways; it seems like Detroit’s Week 1 explosion had more to do with a leaky Colts defense than anything else.
5. The flight back from London could have been a whole lot worse for Jaguars head coach Gus Bradley. Jacksonville receiver Allen Hurns exploited the Colts defense to take a short throw 42 yards to the house and put Indianapolis away with just over five minutes left in Sunday’s fourth quarter. It was enough to keep the Jags from falling to 0–4, and for Bradley, it might have been enough to save his job. Trips to London and the bye week that follows have been convenient times for teams to make coaching changes in the past. With Jacksonville clawing its way to a 30–27 win, Bradley may have clawed his way to another 12 games.
6. It didn’t take long for “Who is Trevor Siemian?” to become, “Oh no, Trevor Siemian is hurt!” A shoulder injury knocked the Broncos quarterback out of action in the second quarter at Tampa Bay, forcing rookie Paxton Lynch into spot duty long before Denver would’ve preferred. Lynch acquitted himself well in relief — he went 14-of-24 for 170 yards with a touchdown — but overall, the Broncos’ 27–7 stomping of the Bucs was just more of the same. With Denver’s defense playing like it is, it doesn’t seem to matter who is under center for the defending champs.
7. For the second time this year, a bold decision by head coach Jack Del Rio paid off for the Raiders. With Oakland leading the Ravens 14–12 early in Sunday’s fourth quarter, right guard Gabe Jackson was flagged for an unnecessary roughness penalty that gave the Raiders a third-and-17 from the Baltimore 36-yard line. Amari Cooper reeled in an absurd 16-yard catch to set up a fourth-and-1, and rather than call for a field goal to take a five-point lead, Del Rio sent his offense back onto the field.
There’s no way to know if Oakland’s plan was to actually snap the ball, because as quarterback Derek Carr barked the cadence, Baltimore defensive tackle Brandon Williams jumped offside, giving the Raiders a first down. Three plays later, Carr hit Michael Crabtree in the end zone. After a 28–27 victory, Oakland is 3–1.
8. Having James McAvoy play wide receiver for the Seahawks as one of his multiple personalities is a pretty aggressive bit of marketing for that new M. Night Shyamalan movie, but I respect the effort.
9. The Chargers are turning misery into an art form. At this point, San Diego fumbling deep in its own territory while up six points with less than five minutes left in the fourth quarter shouldn’t be surprising. After losing 35–34 to the Saints, the Chargers have now given up a game-tying or game-winning touchdown in the final two minutes of regulation three times in four weeks. I didn’t know that was even possible, and I also don’t know what Philip Rivers did to deserve this.
10. That’s the Cowboys run game we all expected to see coming into the season.
Ezekiel Elliott was excellent in Dallas’s 24–17 win at San Francisco, ripping off 138 yards on 23 carries and piling up seven rushes of at least 7 yards. The Cowboys remain a half game behind the Eagles in the NFC East, but they sit at 3–1 through one month of the season. That’s better than they ever could have hoped for after Tony Romo’s injury.
11. This week in NFL players, they’re absolutely nothing like us: Julio Jones being an actual cyborg.
There’s no way a human being — with, ya know, human legs — has that second gear. Julio Jones is not real.