The Eagles’ 2-0 start to this season was impressive in stretches, but it was far from unassailable. Philadelphia’s first two opponents — the Browns and Bears — appeared to be the worst teams in the NFL. Coming into Week 3, any definitive judgments about the Eagles or Carson Wentz would have seemed premature.
Well, after their 34–3 shellacking of the Steelers on Sunday, qualifiers are no longer necessary. The Eagles don’t just look good in the funhouse mirrors that are wins over Cleveland and Chicago, and their quarterback doesn’t just look good for a rookie. The Eagles can play, and that goes far beyond Wentz.
Most weeks, Steelers quarterback Ben Roethlisberger is capable of unleashing a godly firestorm on defenses. We’re talking scorched earth. Against first-year Philly coordinator Jim Schwartz’s defense, though, he looked like a kid with a suction-cup bow and arrow. Antonio Brown got his (because that’s what he does) to the tune of 12 catches for 140 yards, but Roethlisberger finished just 12-of-26 for 117 yards on passes to the rest of his receivers. He was fortunate to throw only one interception.
Aside from a requisite bomb to Sammie Coates, a 41-yarder on a third-and-4 in the second quarter, the Steelers had nothing working down the field all game. (Markus Wheaton could have helped, but a first-quarter toss to the end zone hit him in the chest and fell incomplete.) Schwartz’s unit played a combination of zone and man coverage that kept Pittsburgh guessing at the line of scrimmage, and by taking away Roethlisberger’s instant options, it forced him to hold the ball. That’s when the front four took over.
Among 37 qualified quarterbacks in the 2015 season, Roethlisberger finished 36th in pressure rate. On Sunday, he was under siege. Philly’s final numbers — four sacks and eight QB hits — don’t come close to conveying how menacing its pass rush truly was. Fletcher Cox and Brandon Graham tormented the right side of the Steelers offensive line. Roethlisberger was chased quickly from his spot all game, and because the Eagles were able to consistently generate pressure rushing only four, a flooded defensive backfield gave the QB fewer opportunities to improvise. All-Pro right guard David DeCastro and right tackle Marcus Gilbert were flagged for three combined holding penalties; with Philly’s secondary smothering the Steelers receivers, the Eagles were able to decline them all.
This version of the Eagles defense was always possible under Schwartz. Cox and Graham are built for his version of the 4–3, and the team’s ability to toss guys like Connor Barwin and Vinny Curry into the mix gives it a pass rush that rivals any in the league. That group looked dominant in Week 3. So did the Eagles’ big boys on the other side of the ball.
Pittsburgh’s pass rush was a problem before 2015 first-round pick Bud Dupree was lost to an abdominal injury during preseason camp. Now, it’s completely defanged. The Steelers went without a sack for the second time in three weeks. They hit Wentz — who was a glutton for punishment in his first two NFL games — just three times. I’m pretty sure I saw right tackle Lane Johnson yawn during one play.
With Johnson, center Jason Kelce, left tackle Jason Peters, and right guard Brandon Brooks up front, the Eagles’ line is immensely talented, and first-year head coach Doug Pederson does plenty to give that group — and the rest of this offense — tiny advantages via play design. Rookie running back Wendell Smallwood (seriously) gashed a solid Steelers run defense late in the second half, and nearly every 12-, 13-, 14-yard carry involved a pulling guard or a tight end crashing across the formation to open up natural running lanes.
Philly’s passing game also thrives on its approach. Whether through fake reverses, throwback screens, or designed rollouts, Pederson is constantly creating movement to give Wentz simple throws to the outer edges of the field. That isn’t meant as a knock on what Wentz has accomplished so far; more play callers should ease the burden on their quarterbacks, no matter their level of experience. During the Eagles’ 3–0 start, Pederson has done that about as well as any coach can.
Of course, there were plenty of moments on Sunday when Wentz didn’t need help. His 73-yard, third-quarter touchdown pass to Darren Sproles, which saw Wentz sidestep Pittsburgh defensive end Stephon Tuitt, sprint to his right — all while keeping his eyes downfield — and drop the ball to his speedy back along the sideline is the signature play of his career to date. Wentz finished 23-of-31 for 301 yards with two scores.
A depleted Steelers linebacking corps (Lawrence Timmons was taken to the hospital with a shin injury; Ryan Shazier was hobbled with a bad knee) made things easier on Pederson’s group, but Philly would have looked great regardless of who was playing on defense. After handing Pittsburgh its worst loss since 1989, there is no longer a Yeah, but attached to what the Eagles have done. Based on what we’ve seen over the past three weeks, Philly’s rookie head coach and quarterback are better than anyone could have dreamed, and this team has emerged as the clear favorite in the NFC East. Pederson and Wentz will be treated like Philadelphia royalty this week. At this point, they damn well should be.
Denver Displays Its Offensive Upside
Denver’s defense continued its reign of terror by racking up four more sacks in a 29–17 win over the Bengals, but by now that unit’s performance is a given. The more encouraging sight for the Broncos was the play of quarterback Trevor Siemian and the offense, especially against a stout Bengals defense.
During the Broncos’ 2–0 start, Siemian acted as the operator sitting behind the wheel of a self-driving car; Denver’s offense is built on the running game and simple play-action passes, and it isn’t a surprise to see Siemian ranked dead last in average length per throw (6.1 yards) through three games. The first-year starter had plenty of easy, short tosses against Cincinnati (his 1-yard touchdown to tight end John Phillips in the fourth quarter is a perfect example), but he also shouldered way more of the offensive load with his ground game sputtering. Siemian’s Week 3 wasn’t quite as dazzling as his final line — 23-of-35 for 312 yards with four scores — would suggest, yet he made several throws that indicate Denver’s offensive ceiling is higher than most expected before the season.
Even if both of Siemian’s strikes down the field — a 55-yard touchdown to Demaryius Thomas and a 41-yard score to Emmanuel Sanders — were a touch underthrown, the fact he was willing to take those shots at all is a step in the right direction. His most impressive connection with Sanders, by far, was the pair’s second touchdown, on a 7-yard hookup just before the half.
On a first-and-goal from the Cincy 7-yard line, Siemian took a shotgun snap and unleashed a bullet to Sanders near the front right pylon. Siemian telegraphed where he was going with the throw, but his ball placement — just inches from the outstretched hand of Bengals safety Derron Smith — was so perfect that it didn’t matter. Sanders (nine catches for 117 yards with two touchdowns) shredded Cincinnati’s secondary in every way imaginable, and his ability to destroy a defense both down the field and after the catch served as another reminder that Denver’s offense boasts its share of playmakers. With Sanders, Thomas, and that running game, Siemian has a low bar to clear in order to succeed. So far, he’s hopped over it with ease.
The Cardinals Have Cause for Concern
It sounds strange to say that a game that featured zero passing touchdowns and four interceptions could have gone worse for Arizona’s offense, but I promise: Sunday’s loss to the Bills could have been uglier.
A week after making the Jets’ Ryan Fitzpatrick look like Dan Marino, Buffalo’s defense dismantled the Cardinals en route to a 33–18 drubbing. Carson Palmer threw all four of his equally awful interceptions in the fourth quarter, but his picks weren’t simply a product of late-game desperation. Bills safety Corey Graham, responsible for one of those four, dropped what should have been another interception when Palmer tried to wedge a deep pass between two defenders to Michael Floyd in the first quarter. Stephon Gilmore, who looked more like the star we knew in 2015 than he did against the Jets, recorded two picks but easily could’ve had a couple more.
Even worse for head coach Bruce Arians’s team was the thrashing that the Bills’ front seven handed the Cards offensive line. Defensive tackle Kyle Williams now owns a condo in the Arizona backfield — nothing lavish, but a nice, modern space that should be perfect for weekend winter getaways.
Williams roasted center A.Q. Shipley and backup guard Earl Watford for most of the game, and Buffalo peppered the right side of the Cardinals line with a series of stunts and blitzes. Palmer was sacked five times and hit four more as Watford and right tackle D.J. Humphries (making his third career start) struggled to handle all of the moving pieces on the Bills defense.
Arizona’s deep-strike offense is doomed if those leaks up front continue, but its concerns go beyond the line. Defenses are daring Arizona to beat them underneath, and so far this season Palmer hasn’t proven that he can. Credit Buffalo coach Rex Ryan for recognizing what’s worked against the Cardinals and deploying more of the same. Arizona is too talented to stay down for long, but the seams of its offense — a rigidity in approach and weak points along the line — are beginning to show.
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’ve always taken Palmer for a big Emily Post fan, so I assume that he broke out the stationery Sunday night and penned a quick but thoughtful thank-you note to Ryan Fitzpatrick for making even worse decisions in Week 3. The Jets quarterback threw six interceptions in a 24–3 loss to the Chiefs, displaying a level of disregard for possessing the football that was incredible even by his standards.
Several of these interceptions were particularly brutal, but this throw — no. 5 of six — was the defining flourish of Fitzpatrick’s masterpiece, the type of decision that makes him the Picasso of picks. Even Kansas City’s Derrick Johnson can’t believe that the ball was thrown. When it hits him, he’s barely even looking. That’s the level of innovation Fitzpatrick brings to the turnover game. He’s always finding new ways to surprise.
2. Somehow, a Kirk Cousins draw near the goal line wasn’t among the five worst decisions from the final 15 minutes of Sunday’s kerfuffle between Washington and New York. All five of those belonged to Giants QB Eli Manning, who tried to toss half a dozen interceptions in the final frame of a 29–27 loss. He managed only two, including a brutal attempt to tight end Will Tye that was snagged by cornerback Quinton Dunbar at the goal line. When Manning is in a mode like he was in Week 3, he doesn’t care if the opposition is actively trying to lose. He will not be denied.
3. The Vikings defense is officially a terror-inducing group of bandits happy to ransack any offense that crosses its path. Minnesota annihilated the Panthers offensive line to the tune of eight sacks and 12 quarterback hits in a 22–10 victory, with just about every member of the front seven joining in on the act. Coach Mike Zimmer’s group has reached the next level, and boy, is it fun to watch.
4. End-arounds should be expunged from play-calling sheets everywhere. When offenses were less efficient and defenses less sophisticated, a trick play based entirely on the idea of tossing the ball to a receiver running against the grain was probably smart. Those days are long gone. Seemingly every time that a team tried a play in the end-around or reverse family in Week 3 — whether it was an 8-yard loss by Golden Tate or a worthless handoff to Brandon LaFell — the result was a wasted down. Be better, offensive coordinators.
5. While we’re getting rid of useless ideas, let’s also launch all throwaway end-of-half offensive plays into the sun. Too many coaches to count have been guilty of calling these, but Mike Mularkey was the worst culprit on Sunday.
With eight seconds left in the second quarter and Tennessee at its own 33-yard line, Mularkey signaled in a pass play with the Titans trailing the Raiders 17–3. Marcus Mariota’s throw was intercepted by Oakland safety Reggie Nelson, who ran to the Titans’ 34 before eventually (and incorrectly) being ruled out of bounds with no time left on the clock. A few inches here or there nearly made the difference between Oakland attempting a last-second field goal or even stealing a touchdown. For the sake of decision-making cosmic justice, I was rooting for Nelson to bring that ball back to the end zone more than I was rooting for anything else in Week 3.
6. Few guys in the league are more enjoyable to watch than a healthy LeSean McCoy, and the Bills’ 28-year-old tailback looked like his old self while racking up 110 yards and two touchdowns on just 17 carries against the Cardinals. The 5-yards-directly-to-the-side jump cuts that only McCoy can pull off were on full display, and for a Buffalo offense that finished second in rushing DVOA in the 2015 season, they were a welcome sign.
7. It looks like the Seahawks escaped potential disaster (relatively) unscathed for the second time in three weeks. After 49ers linebacker Eli Harold hit QB Russell Wilson early in the third quarter of Seattle’s 37–18 win, Wilson’s left leg bent in a way that limbs are not supposed to move. He came back briefly after missing just one snap, then coach Pete Carroll thought better of it and yanked him for good.
Initial reports are that Wilson only has a sprained MCL in his left knee, which is excellent news for the Seahawks. With receiver Doug Baldwin on fire and tight end Jimmy Graham making plays all over the field, Seattle’s passing game showed real signs of life in Week 3. None of that would matter if Wilson were seriously injured.
8. Up until this point in his career, Packers outside linebacker Nick Perry has been an afterthought. The 2012 first-round pick had his fifth-year team option denied in April 2015, making him a free agent in 2016. Green Bay re-signed him to a one-year, $5 million deal this spring. So far, that looks like a steal.
After failing to top 28 pressures in any of his first four seasons, the 26-year-old Perry has 16 in the Packers’ first three 2016 games. He tortured the Lions’ offensive line on Sunday, finishing with four tackles for loss, including two sacks. If Green Bay can get this version of Perry all season, it adds another dimension to an already deep stable of options along the defensive front.
9. Jarvis Landry was forced to witness the entirety of Browns-Dolphins. He must have known how brutal the game was for everyone watching at home, so the receiver momentarily tried to bring a spark to an otherwise joyless affair.
His reward for providing all of us with a much-needed moment of levity was a flag. The NFL — and the Dolphins’ franchise — does not deserve Landry.
10. This week in NFL players, they’re absolutely nothing like us: this absurd one-handed Patrick Peterson interception. My first response upon watching it live was, “Damn, he only got one foot down. That would have been incredible.”
It turns out, he got both feet down, including his left foot twice. I will never question Patrick Peterson again.
Bonus entry: Thanks to Mike Renner of Pro Football Focus for posting this:
To clarify, that is Aaron Rodgers, who threw four first-half touchdowns on Sunday against the Lions, moving to his left and launching a ball 70-plus yards without setting his feet. It’s hard to see on tape, but this is a close-up of Rodgers during that throw:
11. You know it’s not your day when you get three cracks at a fumble recovery and come up empty. At some point, we’ve all been Tyrann Mathieu at the end of this play — exasperated, hands on hips, wondering how it all went wrong.