No division in football has been as ruthlessly competitive as the AFC West over the past few years. The Raiders were one of the feel-good stories of last season, pouncing on the rest of the league en route to going 12-4; they finished second in the division behind the 12-4 Chiefs. One year earlier Kansas City rode a 10-game winning streak to a 11-5 record; it finished second behind the eventual Super Bowl champion Broncos. The AFC West has recently resembled a jungle for its inhabitants, and things seem no different this time around. Through two weeks it’s again shaping up to be the NFL’s best division—and a season-long version of the Thunderdome.
The most impressive win of Week 2 belonged to the Broncos (2-0), who shellacked the visiting Cowboys, 42-17. Denver entered the season without much turnover from the roster it fielded in 2016. President of football operations and general manager John Elway used some offseason resources to boost his offensive line, spending on Ronald Leary and Menelik Watson in free agency and taking Utah left tackle Garett Bolles in the first round of the 2017 draft. Aside from that, though, the Broncos making a jump from a 9-7 campaign relied on the team seeing improvements from guys already in the building. After two games, it appears Denver is getting just that.
For starters, third-year quarterback (and 2015 seventh-round pick) Trevor Siemian has proved he’s the man for the job. Some saw Siemian holding off 2016 first-round passer Paxton Lynch in training camp as a negative for the franchise’s long-term trajectory, but the Northwestern product has impressed against both the Chargers and the Cowboys. He went 22-of-32 passing for 231 yards with four touchdowns against Dallas, throwing for a pair of scores to wideout Emmanuel Sanders. The Broncos kept Siemian’s workload manageable, electing to attack the Cowboys with an array of short, quick throws that allowed his receivers (and running back C.J. Anderson) to do damage after the catch.
With an entirely revamped staff led by first-time head coach Vance Joseph, the Broncos came into this season facing questions about their potential on both sides of the ball. Denver finished 2016 first in Football Outsiders’ defensive DVOA, the second straight year that it grabbed the top spot in a remarkable run of consistency under former coordinator Wade Phillips. With Phillips taking the same position for the Rams this January, the task of maintaining Denver’s dominant unit fell to first-year coordinator and former defensive backs coach Joe Woods. Thus far, Woods looks up to the challenge: The Broncos terrorized a Cowboys offense that rarely looks out of sync, limiting Ezekiel Elliott to just 8 yards on nine carries while picking off Dak Prescott twice and nearly snatching a couple of more. Von Miller, Aqib Talib (who punctuated Sunday’s victory with a 103-yard pick-six), and Co. haven’t missed a beat under new leadership.
The more surprising development, though, has been the play of Siemian and the offense. Coordinator Mike McCoy’s work with Peyton Manning and the 2012 Broncos got him a head-coaching opportunity in San Diego. Now back in his old role in Denver, he’s picked up right where he left off. The combination of a healthy Anderson (154 total yards with two scores Sunday), improved play up front, and a well-crafted scheme that’s tailored to Siemian’s strengths (and those of pass catchers Sanders and Demaryius Thomas) could make the Broncos more potent than many expected going into the fall. Losing Bolles to what appeared to be a serious leg injury in Week 2 is a tough blow. Still, if this defense continues to roll, Denver should have enough on offense to be a matchup nightmare every week.
It’ll have to be, considering what the Broncos’ divisional opponents have looked like through two weeks. Ten days after stunning the Patriots 42-27 in Week 1, the Chiefs (2-0) took care of the Eagles, 27-20, this weekend. Once again, they looked like a sharp, complete team that should give opponents fits all season. Kansas City’s defense tormented Philadelphia quarterback Carson Wentz, racking up six sacks. Three of those—and two forced fumbles—were generated by 2016 second-round pick Chris Jones, who has already built on a promising rookie season and become one of the more impactful interior rushers in all of football.
Kansas City getting even marginal improvements from someone like Jones is crucial, because much like the Broncos, the Chiefs entered this fall banking on internal upgrades to drive their success. Outside of 2017 third-round pick Kareem Hunt, who appears to have been an absolute steal at running back, the Chiefs made no major roster additions this spring. So far, it hasn’t mattered in the least. Hunt has emerged as a weapon who can conjure yards at will, notching 81 on 13 carries with two touchdowns against Philly. Combine Hunt’s production with Alex Smith’s disappearing aversion to the deep ball and the presence of guys like Travis Kelce (eight catches for 103 yards with a score in Week 2) and Tyreek Hill, and the recalibrated Kansas City offense could ascend to a level that previous iterations failed to reach.
Among the AFC West contenders, the Raiders (2-0) had the least notable Week 2—only because routing lowly Jets 45-20 is nothing to write home about. Oakland’s offense carved through the New York secondary without much resistance, and receiver Michael Crabtree (six catches for 80 yards and three touchdowns) did the rest when the Raiders approached the goal line. With Crabtree and Amari Cooper on the outside and the newly signed Marshawn Lynch in the backfield, this team has a varied, complementary array of playmakers who can hurt defenses in a slew of ways. Even role players like Jalen Richard and Cordarrelle Patterson got in on the act, finishing Sunday with a combined 115 rushing yards on nine carries.
Quarterback Derek Carr and this unit were expected to make steady gains on the heels of Oakland’s breakout 2016 campaign, and this version of the offense looks as good as anyone could have hoped. Coming into the season, an incrementally improved Raiders squad figured to be the AFC West favorite; two weeks in, though, it looks as if Oakland will have to be every bit this good all fall to fend off the other teams in its division. The Chargers sit at 0-2 following a pair of heartbreaking, late-game losses, but with Philip Rivers at quarterback and a defense lined with young talent, they hardly have a traditional last-place roster. At this point, they just happen to be locked in a cage with three potential playoff contenders in what makes up the strongest division in football.
The Starting 11
A look at 11 big story lines, key developments, and interesting tidbits from this week in the NFL.
1. The Patriots are going to be just fine, but we can’t say the same for the Saints. New England rolled to a 36-20 victory over New Orleans on Sunday, getting 447 passing yards and three first-quarter touchdowns from Tom Brady. The Pats’ deep roster of pass catchers (nine guys finished with at least one reception) was on full display, and if Rob Gronkowski’s groin injury turns out to be minor, we should expect to see this version of the New England offense more often than not all season.
If the Patriots had struggled against the porous Saints defense, there would have been plenty of people throughout New England reaching for the panic button. Instead, it’s time to start mashing that thing in New Orleans. The Saints defense continues to be an absolute mess and has surrendered 793 combined passing yards and seven total touchdowns through its first two games. This offseason’s defensive overhaul—the latest in a recent string of them—sure doesn’t seem like the one to do the trick.
What’s more concerning for this team is the way the offense has puttered. Defensive woes are nothing new for New Orleans; since head coach Sean Payton and quarterback Drew Brees arrived in 2006, though, the Saints have had a top-five offense virtually every year. Outside of New England, it’s been the most consistent unit in the league for the past decade. So far this fall, that hasn’t been the case. New Orleans has put up 39 combined points in two games, and it struggled against a defense that the Chiefs dissected a week earlier. With Brees in the final year of his contract and Payton staring at the possibility of his fourth straight losing season, it’s time to wonder whether this is the end of an era in New Orleans.
2. Atlanta’s thumping of the Packers will go a long way toward slowing talk of a Super Bowl hangover. After stumbling in stretches during a win over Chicago in Week 1, the Falcons came out and trounced the shorthanded Packers 34-23 Sunday night. Green Bay entered the game without its two starting offensive tackles and then lost stud defensive tackle Mike Daniels and wide receiver Jordy Nelson to injury. Still, that doesn’t take away from the Falcons’ performance. Devonta Freeman (19 carries for 84 yards with two scores) and the Atlanta ground game rolled, and the defense that shined over the second half of last season largely silenced Aaron Rodgers and the Packers offense.
The Falcons’ run to the Super Bowl last winter happened without injured cornerback Desmond Trufant, who happens to be the team’s best defensive player. Now that he’s healthy and roaming the secondary and the rest of Atlanta’s young pieces are continuing to develop, head coach Dan Quinn’s squad has a ton of promise on that side of the ball.
3. It’s officially time to start worrying about Seattle’s offense. The Seahawks’ passing game was DOA for the second straight week in a 12-9 win over the 49ers. Russell Wilson averaged 5.08 yards per attempt on his 39 passes and was lucky that at least two of his throws weren’t intercepted. One week after left tackle Rees Odhiambo and left guard Luke Joeckel were cooked by the Packers’ defensive line, right guard Mark Glowinski was roasted by San Francisco’s duo of DeForest Buckner and Arik Armstead.
On the bright side, rookie Chris Carson—a seventh-round pick—already looks like the Seahawks’ best running back. But most of his production (20 carries for 93 yards) came after contact, with him creating all he could from small slivers of daylight. Seattle’s line was always going to be a concern, but the entire offense looks more haphazard than anyone could have imagined.
4. The injuries to Greg Olsen and Marshal Yanda are devastating to their respective teams and terribly timed for players nearing the tail end of their careers. The 2007 draft mates both went down Sunday: Yanda with a season-ending ankle injury in a 24-10 win over the Browns, and Olsen with a broken foot in a 9-3 win over the Bills. Carolina’s offense was already having a tough time establishing a rhythm with Olsen in the fold; now, Cam Newton will be without his favorite target for a period of about six games. Since Carolina traded for Olsen in 2011, only Jimmy Graham has amassed more targets among tight ends than Olsen’s 686. Last fall Olsen played a staggering 1,033 snaps, per Football Outsiders, a total that accounts for 93.1 percent of Carolina’s offensive plays. The 32-year-old is integral to the Panthers system, and they’re going to feel his absence.
The same goes for Yanda, the league’s best guard and the rock along Baltimore’s offensive line. Losing a Hall of Fame talent like Yanda is crushing no matter when it occurs; for the Ravens, though, he was the non-quarterback the team simply couldn’t afford to lose. Starting guard Alex Lewis is already on the IR with a shoulder injury, and rookie Nico Siragusa went down with a season-ending knee issue in training camp. Plus, John Urschel retired just before the 2017 season began. The middle of the offensive line was already the thinnest area of Baltimore’s roster, and now it’s without the best interior lineman in the NFL.
Yanda, a 33-year-old six-time Pro Bowler, has played through a steady stream of ailments in recent years, missing only five games since 2009. Baltimore’s offense doesn’t know life without its best player, and the Ravens’ locker room will have to adapt to losing an unquestioned leader. A potential candidate for Canton just lost nearly an entire season in the back half of his career. This is awful news in every way.
5. Well, that Sam Bradford knee injury sure escalated quickly. Some swelling in Bradford’s left knee (the one he’s had surgically repaired twice) prompted the quarterback to get an MRI last week, but most reports indicated that the issue wouldn’t keep the him off the field. But there he was Sunday, standing on the sideline in a black hoodie and a baseball cap while backup Case Keenum took the field with Minnesota’s offense.
Without Bradford, Minnesota’s passing game looked lost. Keenum went 20-of-37 passing for 167 yards, and the Steelers downed the Vikings 26-9. There’s no timetable for Bradford’s return, and an extended absence could sink this team. But there’s one other wrinkle here: Recent reports suggest that Teddy Bridgewater could be back from his gruesome 2016 knee injury by midseason.
6. There are no injury issues with Chicago’s quarterbacks, but the Bears should still turn to their backup. The Buccaneers dominated Chicago 29-7 Sunday, with the Bears’ lone score coming in mop-up time. Starting quarterback Mike Glennon went 31-of-45 passing for 301 yards, but nearly two-thirds of that output came after halftime with the result well in hand. He also threw two interceptions, the second of which was a brutal pick-six that put Tampa Bay ahead 23-0.
Chicago’s plan coming into the season was to keep Glennon—whom the front office gave $18.5 million guaranteed this offseason—installed as the starter despite the team’s decision to draft Mitchell Trubisky second overall in April. The reasons for sticking with that approach are starting to fall away. Part of Chicago’s offensive inefficiency stems from the roster’s lack of receiving talent. Without any semblance of a downfield passing game, the rest of the group is struggling to function. After averaging 5.2 yards per rush as a rookie, running back Jordan Howard has just 59 yards on 22 carries through two games in 2017.
The Bears’ problems were exacerbated when both starting guards (Josh Sitton and Tom Compton) went down with injuries against the Bucs, joining Kyle Long on the list of injured Chicago offensive linemen. Assuming Sitton and Compton return in short order, it’s time to give Trubisky a shot. Playing with Deonte Thompson and Josh Bellamy as outside receivers is a tough situation for any quarterback to be in, but there isn’t much risk of early playing time stunting Trubisky’s long-term development.
7. Head coach Anthony Lynn’s arrival hasn’t done much to spark the Chargers’ running game. Lynn was hired in January in large part because of the work he did as Buffalo’s running backs coach and offensive coordinator, but the Chargers have struggled to get anything going on the ground through two games. After carrying 18 times for 54 yards against the Broncos in Week 1, Melvin Gordon carried only nine times for 13 yards in a 19-17 loss to Miami on Sunday.
One of the key questions surrounding the Chargers offense this offseason was whether Lynn could replicate his ground game success with Philip Rivers at quarterback instead of the speedy Tyrod Taylor. Lynn took full advantage of Taylor’s abilities as a runner, using a considerable amount of option and misdirection looks. Both of those elements are missing in Los Angeles, and it’s contributed to the Chargers’ disappointing start.
8. The Titans prioritized upgrading their skill-position talent during the offseason, and we saw the returns in Sunday’s win over the Jaguars. A week after Jacksonville dismantled the Texans offense, Tennessee torched the Jags in a 37-16 victory. The Titans’ hope in assembling a deep stable of offensive weapons was that they’d be able to attack opponents in a variety of ways. That’s exactly what happened in Week 2. Nominal backup running back Derrick Henry carried 14 times for 92 yards with a score, while rookies Taywan Taylor and Jonnu Smith both hauled in long receptions from Marcus Mariota. A year removed from not having enough on offense, the Titans are now overflowing with options.
9. This week’s line-play moment that made me hit rewind: Chandler Jones’s sneaky late-game sack. The Colts gained possession with a little over a minute remaining in a tie game against Arizona, with one last shot to put the Cardinals away in regulation. Instead, Jones roasted Colts left tackle Anthony Castonzo on a second-and-2, knocking the ball out of Jacoby Brissett’s hands to short-circuit the drive and ensure that this matchup was headed to overtime. The Cards went on to win, 16-13.
The play above was all about Jones using tempo as a pass rusher. By changing speeds and forcing Castonzo to be the aggressor, Jones lured the left tackle into leaning forward, thus allowing Jones to rip back outside, bend his way to the quarterback, and make a game-altering sack.
10. This week in tales of the tape: Tennessee is so creative as the field becomes smaller in the red zone. The Titans finished last season ranked first in both points per red zone drive and touchdowns per red zone drive. While red zone success rates typically vary from season to season, Tennessee has devised an approach that should allow it to consistently beat defenses in shorter fields. Mariota is at his most dangerous as a runner near the goal line, and the threat of his legs gives the Titans a chance to send an extra blocker onto the field. That’s what we saw in Week 1, when Mariota ran a read-option play to the left side and rushed for an easy touchdown.
On Sunday, another non-running back ballcarrier—tight end Delanie Walker—gave the Titans a small but meaningful advantage near the goal line. By sending Walker in motion from left to right at the snap, Tennessee was able to quickly get the ball to the edge and manipulate the horizontal areas of the field. Horizontal spacing becomes a huge factor inside the red zone, and, by handing the ball to Walker, the Titans were able to combine deception with play-design ingenuity.
11. This week in NFL players, they’re absolutely nothing like us: Travis Kelce, who weighs 260 pounds, manages to levitate for a full 3 yards on his way into the end zone.