Like Bud Grant sounding the Gjallarhorn to open U.S. Bank Stadium, the Vikings’ trade for Sam Bradford functioned as a blaring declaration of intent to the rest of the league. Minnesota’s decision to give up first- and fourth-round draft picks was proof of general manager Rick Spielman’s belief that, even without Teddy Bridgewater, the Vikings could still contend if they had a better option under center than Shaun Hill. Sunday night’s 17–14 win over the Packers was vindication for Spielman and that plan. Well … sort of.
Minnesota’s map to a repeat NFC North title was always going to start with its defense, and for the second consecutive week it looked like not only the best unit in its division, but also in the entire NFC. Aaron Rodgers and the Packers offense managed just 263 total yards — averaging a paltry 4.1 per play — and 14 points, and even those numbers were boosted by plenty of bounces that went in Green Bay’s favor. The Packers recovered two of Rodgers’s three fumbles and benefited from Minnesota cornerback Terence Newman dropping a would-be interception at the goal line. The Vikings were also penalized an astonishing 13 times for 137 yards.
Second-year corner Trae Waynes — who was dinged twice for pass interference and once for holding, and couldn’t seem to locate the ball or stop himself from grabbing Green Bay’s receivers — was this group’s primary weak link, but his presence also served as a reminder of just how impressive a shorthanded Minnesota defense has been. Ideally Waynes, the no. 11 pick in the 2015 draft, would have beaten out the 38-year-old Newman for the starting job opposite 2013 first-rounder Xavier Rhodes, but that was never a foregone conclusion.
Rhodes, the Vikings’ best cornerback, has yet to play this season due to a knee injury. The same goes for defensive tackle Sharrif Floyd, a fellow 2013 first-rounder. Minnesota’s defensive strength — on top of boasting superstars like safety Harrison Smith and linebacker Anthony Barr — is its depth, and on Sunday that was on full display. When defensive end Danielle Hunter went to the sideline for a stretch to have his knee examined, Brian Robison stepped in to roast Bryan Bulaga and dislodge the ball from Rodgers’s hands, sabotaging a fourth-quarter Packers drive in Vikings territory. Floyd’s replacement, Tom Johnson, added a sack of his own. And even Waynes, who was picked on for most of the night, was there to intercept Rodgers and seal Green Bay’s fate late in the fourth quarter.
The other part of Minnesota’s 2016 equation included the quarterback (whoever he happened to be) turning around and handing the ball to Adrian Peterson a lot. But that part of the plan was falling flat. On his first seven carries against the Packers, Peterson managed 0.9 yards per rush — even lower than the 1.6 figure he posted in a Week 1 win against the Titans.
Green Bay’s front four thrashed the Vikings’ offensive line, including defensive tackle Mike Daniels (two tackles for loss, including a sack) repeatedly discarding right guard Brandon Fusco 2 yards deep in the backfield. Then, with less than five minutes remaining in the third quarter, the Vikings’ worst nightmare seemed like it was realized. After a 5-yard gain, Peterson had to be helped off the field and couldn’t put any weight on his right knee. (He famously tore the ACL in his left knee in 2011.) A cruel hop through a fan-filled concourse followed, and even though the scene appeared grim, the Vikings are reportedly optimistic that Peterson — who left the stadium on crutches and with a brace on his knee — avoided major damage.
If Minnesota were to be without Peterson for an extended period, its hopes would start with this: For the past two weeks, the team has survived without him playing anything like the Adrian Peterson of old. Bradford was better in his debut that anyone could have imagined. His accuracy was remarkable, and even his line — 22-of-31 for 286 yards with two touchdowns — doesn’t do justice to his performance on two weeks’ notice. The Vikings have also found a new star and dimension in second-year wide receiver Stefon Diggs, who finished Sunday night with nine catches for 182 yards, including three grabs of at least 25 yards. The Vikings had 26 of those in all of 2015.
This type of post-Peterson reasoning is short-sighted, though. A good portion of Bradford’s damage came on play-action — made all the more effective by having Peterson as a threat to carry the ball. And even with its star running back in the game, Minnesota could do nothing to slow the Packers’ pass rush. Green Bay sacked Bradford four times and hit him six more as Minnesota’s line struggled to deal with Nick Perry and Julius Peppers. Asking Bradford (whose track record for staying healthy is … not the best) to endure a weekly pounding like that is just asking for trouble.
For now the Vikings wait, but this much is already clear: The thinking by Spielman and head coach Mike Zimmer in the days directly following Bridgewater’s injury was justified. So much of the Minnesota roster looks primed to make another run at a division title. If Bradford can string together a few more starts like Sunday’s and the Vikings can ever field a fully healthy squad, this team’s future could be very bright.
Something Has to Change for Seattle’s Offense
As bad as the Rams looked in their 28–0 loss to San Francisco in Week 1, it wasn’t enough to dispel Seahawks fans’ fears. No matter how inept the Rams can be against the dregs of the league, they remain the scourge of Russell Wilson’s world, and Sunday was no exception.
In the team’s first regular-season game in its temporary new home at the Coliseum, Los Angeles’s front four eviscerated the Seahawks’ offensive line as part of a 9–3 victory. Already hobbled with an ankle sprain suffered on a sack from the Dolphins’ Ndamukong Suh in Week 1, Wilson was sacked twice more (Robert Quinn got to Wilson a third time, but the play was negated by offsetting penalties) and hit nine times in total. Aaron Donald laid waste to Seattle’s guards; Quinn, meanwhile, will likely haunt the dreams of Seahawks left tackle Bradley Sowell for a while.
There were elements of Seattle’s offense that actually looked better against L.A. than they did in the Seahawks’ Week 1 squeaker over Miami. This unit at least tried to push the ball down the field to receiver Tyler Lockett (two catches of at least 35 yards), and part of its issue on Sunday was a rash of (questionable) offensive pass interference penalties called against Lockett and Jermaine Kearse.
This offense, which has scored just one touchdown in two games, is lucky to be 1–1, a far cry from last year’s unit, which finished first in Football Outsiders’ DVOA. Wilson has been hit nine times in each contest, and even if most teams don’t boast pass rushes as formidable as those of the Dolphins and the Seahawks, that total puts the QB on pace to be hit 144 times on the year. By comparison, Tampa Bay’s Jameis Winston led all quarterbacks last season in taking 96 hits.
Seattle’s protection problems aren’t tenable, and whether through internal shuffling (such as first-round pick Germain Ifedi returning from injury or third-round pick Rees Odhiambo getting a chance to play guard) or other means, something has to change in order to preserve the Seahawks’ chances and Wilson’s poor bones.
The Texans’ Pass Rush Is a Different Sort of Beast
The Texans’ pass rush wreaked havoc against an opposing offense for the second straight game on Sunday. Two weeks into the 2016 season, J.J. Watt and friends look like one of the best defenses in all of football.
Knocking around Jay Cutler and the Bears’ offense is one thing; doing it to a team like the Chiefs in a 19–12 win is another. Watt, still recovering from offseason back surgery, had 1.5 sacks and looked much better against Kansas City than he did in Week 1. But the most promising sight for Houston’s young season has been the play — and versatility — of Jadeveon Clowney.
The first overall pick in the 2014 draft was an oft-injured nonfactor for most of his first two seasons in the NFL, but his play and the way Houston has deployed him in 2016 have turned an already terrifying defensive front into a different sort of beast. Clowney didn’t contribute any of Houston’s four sacks on Sunday afternoon, but he was responsible for two of the nine hits put on Chiefs quarterback Alex Smith.
Above is a pre-snap shot of a second-and-10 with 23 seconds remaining in the first half. This type of look, with Clowney (no. 90) bumped down over the guard, was a frequent move by defensive coordinator Romeo Crennel. By moving Clowney inside, the Texans get their best four pass rushers — Watt, Clowney, and outside linebackers John Simon and Whitney Mercilus — on the field together. They also simplify Clowney’s approach.
His explosiveness remains his best trait, and on the interior it’s all that he needs. Clowney will get no credit for the play above, but in tearing past backup left guard Zach Fulton, he flushed Smith from the pocket, and Simon cleaned up with a sack and a forced fumble. Combined with the talent that Houston has on the back end (six pass breakups among the secondary on Sunday), the rotating cast of rushers this team has developed is going to be a problem for almost any offense.
The Starting Lineup
A quick-hitting look at 11 big story lines, key developments, and interesting tidbits from this week in the NFL.
1. The initial reports on Patriots quarterback Jimmy Garoppolo are that he sprained the AC joint in his throwing shoulder after being driven to the turf by Dolphins linebacker Kiko Alonso late in the second quarter of New England’s 31–24 win.
To that point, Garoppolo was 18-of-27 for 234 yards with three touchdowns and was absolutely shredding the Miami defense. His second touchdown throw to Danny Amendola — moving around in the pocket, delivering beautifully up the seam — was particularly impressive. Early reports say that he isn’t expected to play on Thursday when the Patriots host the Texans, which means that 2016 third-round pick Jacoby Brissett will get the nod against a defense that’s looked ferocious in a 2–0 start.
Brissett was basically invisible in spot duty on Sunday, the product of the New England coaching staff’s approach after the team had built a huge lead. LeGarrette Blount got 15 second-half carries (for 92 yards) as the Pats tried to hold off the Dolphins’ fourth-quarter comeback. And even though Bill Belichick let Garoppolo open up the offense in his second start (9.6 air yards per target), the plan with Brissett was to minimize his impact as much as possible. He finished the game averaging only 1.1 air yards per target on only nine throws, and it wouldn’t be a surprise to see Belichick lean on his running game again when the Patriots line up against Watt and Clowney in four days.
2. Both the Jaguars and Raiders spent the GDP of small countries to bolster their defenses this offseason, and so far the returns have been wanting. Already without star receiver Keenan Allen, the Chargers lost running back Danny Woodhead to a knee injury on Sunday, and Philip Rivers still had no trouble carving up Jacksonville’s defense to the tune of 17-of-24 for 220 yards with four scores in a 38–14 win. Oakland didn’t fare much better against the Falcons, who scored 35 points and racked up 528 yards of total offense after sputtering against Tampa Bay in Week 1.
3. Games like Sunday’s 27–23 loss to the Cowboys are why Washington was reluctant to hand Kirk Cousins the long-term deal he was seeking this offseason. The quarterback underthrew wideout Josh Doctson by about 5 yards on a 57-yard gain that should have been a touchdown, and, to make matters worse, Cousins finished that fourth-quarter drive by tossing a pick squarely to Dallas safety Barry Church’s chest on a third-and-goal from the Cowboys’ 6-yard line.
4. It turns out that Von Miller and the rest of the Broncos’ defense is still pretty good. Miller had a ridiculous day in Denver’s 34–20 win over the Colts: He had three sacks, including a game-sealing strip-sack that led to a Shane Ray touchdown and looked nearly identical to the play he made against Cam Newton in last season’s Super Bowl. Danny Trevathan and Malik Jackson left Denver in free agency, so the Broncos lack the depth they had on last year’s historically great unit. If Miller continues to play like the superhero we saw against Carolina last February, that may not matter.
5. When Larry Fitzgerald retires, it’s going to be a sad day for humanity. The 33-year-old national treasure made a handful of absurd catches Sunday as the Cardinals righted the ship and stomped Tampa Bay, 40–7. He kicked off the scoring by hauling in a Carson Palmer pass while Buccaneers cornerback Brent Grimes attempted to climb him, reminding us that touchdowns that come with a pass-interference flag are the NFL’s version of a basketball and-1.
This catch, though — a 13-yard gain that involved Fitzgerald fully laying out near the left sideline — may have been even better. Soak up all the Fitz while you can, folks. You’ll be glad that you did.
6. Lions backup defensive end Kerry Hyder seems to make a play every time I look up. A 2014 undrafted free agent who was waived by the Jets and signed to Detroit’s practice squad last fall, Hyder has three sacks in just 71 snaps this year. At 290 pounds, he gives the Lions some flexibility in their front four.
7. Hyder saw a huge uptick in playing time in Week 2 after the Lions lost defensive end Ziggy Ansah to an ankle injury on the second play of a 16–15 defeat to the Titans. It was just the start to a brutal day for Detroit on that front. Running back Ameer Abdullah suffered a foot injury late in the first half, but the real damage was done to the rest of the Lions’ defense.
Already without starting linebacker DeAndre Levy, Detroit lost both Antwione Williams (thigh) and Kyle Van Noy (calf). By the fourth quarter, the Lions were playing backup defensive end Brandon Copeland at linebacker, and Marcus Mariota took advantage. The three most crucial throws of the game for Tennessee’s quarterback — a 30-yard, fourth-quarter touchdown to Delanie Walker; a 22-yard strike to DeMarco Murray with 3:05 left in regulation; and the game-winning touchdown toss to Andre Johnson — all came on throws up the seam that exploited Detroit’s problems in the middle of the field.
8. Pittsburgh’s 24–16 win over the Bengals was both sloppy and sopping wet, but a three-play stretch in the third quarter was a reminder of what the Steelers’ offense can do even on the days when it isn’t humming. After throwing a near interception to safety George Iloka on second-and-1 from his own 32-yard line, Ben Roethlisberger managed to find tight end Xavier Grimble on third down as nose tackle Domata Peko hung from his left shoulder. Roethlisberger followed that with a perfect play-action throw to Sammie Coates for 53 yards down the right hash mark and then a rifle shot to tight end Jesse James for a 9-yard touchdown. The entire sequence took 1:40 of game action; for a moment, all that rain falling in Pittsburgh turned into fire.
9. A week after torching the Falcons’ secondary and looking poised to enter a new phase in his career, Jameis Winston reverted to his rookie form against the Cardinals. Winston threw two picks to cornerback Marcus Cooper — who didn’t play a defensive snap in Arizona’s Week 1 loss to the Patriots — and turned the ball over four times against a Cards defense that was on a mission after falling to Jimmy Garoppolo. Running back Doug Martin also tweaked his hamstring in a rough day for the entire Bucs’ offense, but the injury isn’t expected to be serious.
10. This week in, NFL players, they’re absolutely nothing like us: Mark Barron, a 213-pound man with a 35-inch vertical leap, jumped so high to deflect a Russell Wilson pass that he knocked the ball down with his head:
11. I think Cassius Marsh speaks for all Seahawks fans today: