Over the course of an NFL season, roughly 40 percent of the league will miss some time due to injury. Playoff spots and championships get decided, in part, by which teams stayed healthy and which teams best dealt with their losses. Beyond how cruel first-week injuries are — like a sprinter tripping and falling right after the start of the race of his life — they often force coaches to scrap all the preseason scheming that was designed around specific styles and skill sets of players who will no longer be available. Coaches who lose key players have to come up with a new plan on the fly, and a few teams already find themselves in that situation this week.
WR Keenan Allen, Chargers
San Diego already started the season as a long shot in a division that features the defending champion Broncos, a very solid Chiefs team that won 11 games last year, and everyone’s favorite playoff sleeper in Oakland. And now that the Chargers have lost Allen to a season-ending injury for the second straight season (he missed the final eight games last year with a lacerated kidney), their playoff hopes may have been erased after the first game.
The second half of San Diego’s Week 1 loss to Kansas City provided a look into its Allen-less future, and the verdict is: not very good.
Before Allen went down, the Chargers had scored a touchdown on each of their three possessions en route to a 21–3 lead. Philip Rivers had targeted Allen on 43.8 percent of his routes — a rate that would’ve finished best in the NFL this week if it had carried on over a full game — and the two connected on six of seven targets for 63 yards.
In the first half, Rivers completed 16 of 20 passes (80 percent) for 151 yards (7.6 yards per attempt) and a touchdown, but after the intermission, he connected on just nine of 16 passes (56 percent) for 92 yards (5.8 yards per attempt). San Diego squandered a huge lead and eventually lost in overtime.
The tale of two halves closely mirrors Rivers’s splits with and without Allen last season. Over the first eight games with Allen in 2015, Rivers averaged 344 yards passing a game as he completed 70 percent of his throws at 7.91 yards per attempt, connecting on 18 touchdowns and just seven picks. After Allen was lost to a lacerated kidney (he finished with 67 catches for 725 yards and four touchdowns in half a season), Rivers took a nosedive. Over the final eight games, he did this: 255 passing yards a game, 62 percent completion rate, 6.51 yards per attempt, and 11 touchdowns to go with six picks.
No other receiver on the Chargers roster has Allen’s combination of size and strength as a route runner on the outside — especially after San Diego lost Stevie Johnson for the season with a torn meniscus early in training camp. Few players are tougher to defend in man coverage than Allen, and part of the reason Rivers trusts him so much is that he catches pretty much everything thrown his way. The Chargers’ signal caller summed up the reality of replacing his favorite target after the game: “I don’t think there are too many guys like him that are just sitting, waiting for a phone call for a Tuesday workout, so we’ll have to do it by committee.”
Free-agent addition Travis Benjamin assumes some of the responsibility as the Chargers’ no. 1, but he’s only 5-foot-10, 175 pounds, and he managed five catches for just 16 yards after Allen went out. Dontrelle Inman has two years of experience catching passes from Rivers, and second-year pro Tyrell Williams, though raw, looks promising and has similar size to Allen at 6-foot-4, 205 pounds.
While San Diego’s receiver depth is sure to be tested, it’s likely that Rivers will be forced to lean even more on the ageless wonder at tight end, Antonio Gates — especially on third downs and in the red zone. Gates can’t match Allen’s speed, but he’s still savvy as a route runner, physical with the ball in the air, and has great hands.
QB Robert Griffin III, Browns
The Browns appear to be in full rebuild mode, so this probably doesn’t affect Cleveland’s playoff hopes one way or another, but losing Griffin to a fractured coracoid bone, suffered in the fourth quarter of Sunday’s matchup with the Eagles, is not great for the development of some of the team’s young skill players. Griffin had built a nice rapport with deep threats Terrelle Pryor and Corey Coleman through training camp and the preseason, and the thought of him reuniting with his college teammate Josh Gordon (after Gordon’s suspension ends and he returns in Week 5) was intriguing. He’d also emerged as the clear leader of the offense and was voted a captain by his teammates.
Instead, Griffin will hit the injured reserve (he could return after eight weeks, if healthy), and in his place, the most veteran-y of veteran journeyman quarterbacks, Josh McCown, steps in. In his 14th season and on his ninth team, he’s coming off the best season of his career: He started eight games for Cleveland, completed 63.7 percent of his passes for 2,109 yards (7.2 yards per attempt), and threw 12 touchdowns and just four picks. However, that stat line is an outlier for an otherwise forgettable career stat line: McCown has a sub-60 percent completion rate at 6.7 yards per attempt and has thrown 73 touchdown passes and 63 interceptions.
While the loss of Griffin erases the chemistry developed with Coleman and Pryor, look for McCown’s security blanket, tight end Gary Barnidge, to prosper, and running back Duke Johnson should figure heavily into the passing game again this year. The Browns may actually be slightly better off with McCown under center in the near-term — Griffin’s first outing (12-for-26 for 190 yards and a pick) didn’t exactly prove that he’d returned to form — but Griffin’s injury robs fans of the possibility of their offense being fun again. Replacement-level quarterback style returns, and while that’s possibly more efficient, it’s just not as entertaining.
ILB Brian Cushing, Texans
On a defense that includes a superstar in J.J. Watt, a former first-overall pick in Jadeveon Clowney, and one of the game’s best corners in Johnathan Joseph, middle linebacker Brian Cushing often gets overshadowed — despite plenty of effort not to go unheard. After spraining his MCL against the Bears, he’s expected to miss four to six weeks.
Cushing is the “heart and soul” of the Texans defense, as head coach Bill O’Brien put it Sunday night. He started all 16 games for the Texans in 2015 and racked up 86.5 tackles, and as anyone who watched last summer’s edition of Hard Knocks knows, Cushing brings a special kind of intensity to the Houston defense. (Seriously, he’s insane).
The responsibility of replacing Cushing’s vocal presence falls on Max Bullough, an undrafted third-year player with 19 NFL tackles to his name. As the middle linebacker, he’ll be responsible for making the majority of the defensive calls and getting his teammates lined up in the right place. It’s a tall order for such an inexperienced player, and because of that, the ramifications of Cushing’s injury could go further than Bullough’s individual play: He’ll not only need to take good angles, fit into the correct gaps in run defense, and tackle with authority, he’ll also need to quickly diagnose offensive sets and make sure the linemen in front of him and the linebackers beside him are all on the same page. Bullough played fast in relief of Cushing, something you don’t often see from young players thrust into the lineup, who end up thinking rather than reacting. With the former Michigan State Spartan calling the shots in the middle, the Texans kept the Bears at bay: Chicago passed midfield only one time on seven drives in the second half and was held scoreless.
The early returns with Bullough in the middle were good. The Texans’ dominant defense is the reason they’re the defending AFC South champions, after all, and it’s a deep and talented group from front to back. But adjusting to play without Cushing the next six weeks or so won’t be easy, as opposing teams have an opportunity to game plan for the new man in the middle of Houston’s D.
DB Delvin Breaux, Saints
The Saints’ already inexperienced secondary lost one of its only veterans on Sunday, when Breaux, their no. 1 cornerback, broke his fibula in the third quarter. While he’s expected back in six weeks or so, the loss leaves New Orleans scrambling to add depth to a dangerously thin position group. As the roster stands now, sixth-year backup Sterling Moore is the only healthy player in the cornerback room with more than one start to his name.
This isn’t an ideal situation for a defense that gave up 486 total yards to the Raiders and surrendered more passing touchdowns than any other squad in 2015.
But there probably isn’t an easy solution for New Orleans: There aren’t a lot of high-quality cornerbacks hanging around on the open market. They have two choices: (1) run with the group they’ve currently got on their roster and risk a multitude of rookie mistakes, or (2) sign a sub-replacement-level corner and risk that player simply being bad.
The Saints might decide that a little experience and veteran savvy outweighs the upside that their young group of corners possesses when it comes to addressing Breaux’s loss, because as Sunday’s loss proved, not even Drew Brees’s ridiculousness as a passer (423 yards and four touchdowns) will be enough for New Orleans if the defense can’t make a stop. The next two weeks don’t get any easier, either, as they’ll be matched up against a collection of Odell Beckham Jr., Sterling Shepard, Victor Cruz, Julio Jones, and Mohamed Sanu.
Others to Watch
There were a few other, more minor (but potentially impactful) injuries worth monitoring this week.
• WR Sammy Watkins, Bills: While Rex Ryan was originally coy about whether we’ll see Watkins this week against the Jets, the Bills receiver told the media that he’s planning on playing through pain in his surgically repaired foot. The Bills don’t have a true no. 1 receiver behind Watkins: Robert Woods and Marquise Goodwin are complementary deep threats, so tight end Charles Clay would likely see his target-share go up in the event of Watkins missing time.
• QB Russell Wilson, Seahawks: Ndamukong Suh accidentally stepped on and rolled Wilson’s ankle in Seattle’s win over the Dolphins, and while Wilson stayed in the game, he was severely limited. Wilson was in a walking boot Sunday night, but he was out of it by Monday, and Pete Carroll downplayed any fears the QB might not play this week against the Rams. Wilson’s never missed a game — or practice, for that matter — but Seattle may add a veteran backup just in case.
• OL Menelik Watson, Raiders: The Raiders’ starter at right tackle left Sunday’s game against the Saints with a groin injury, and his backup, Matt McCants, wasn’t far behind, leaving with a knee injury. With Austin Howard already dealing with an ankle injury as well, Oakland’s tackle depth is razor thin, and if Watson, Howard, or McCants can’t go this week, the Raiders may need to make a move for a free agent.
• TE Zach Ertz, Eagles: Ertz suffered a displaced rib in the first quarter of Sunday’s win over the Browns. He finished the game, but his status for this week’s game against the Bears is up in the air. If Ertz, who signed a five-year, $42.5 million contract extension in the offseason, can’t go, Trey Burton, who missed the opener with a calf injury, is the next man up.
• DB T.J. Green, Colts: Indy’s rookie safety went down with a mild MCL injury Sunday, and his status for this week is up in the air. The Colts need another injury like they need a hole in the head; coming into Sunday’s loss to the Lions, they were already down cornerbacks Vontae Davis and Darius Butler, and safety Clayton Geathers.
• OL Cordy Glenn, Bills: Glenn left Buffalo’s loss to Baltimore with an ankle injury — the same one that kept him out of all of Buffalo’s preseason action — so expect the Bills to run with disappointing former second-rounder Cyrus Kouandjio in his spot this week.
• OL Evan Mathis, Cardinals: Mathis was carted off the field in Arizona’s loss to the Patriots, and he’s awaiting the results of an MRI on his foot to determine the severity of the injury. In his place, Earl Watford struggled, so Arizona could shuffle things around on its line heading into its Week 2 game against Tampa Bay.
• DB Leodis McKelvin, Eagles: McKelvin has a hamstring strain and is listed as week-to-week. Rookie seventh-rounder Jalen Mills likely would be McKelvin’s replacement if he can’t play this week, but Philadelphia will have only three corners on the active roster without McKelvin.