It’s hard to determine what’s real during the first few weeks of the NFL season. There are always early September returns that seem inconceivable by late December. In Week 3 last season, the Patriots—ya know, the team that eventually won the Super Bowl—lost to the lowly Lions and fell to 1-2. The Colts, who’d go on to finish 10-6, also dropped to 1-2 after a loss to the Eagles. And the Bills embarrassed the Vikings in a 27-6 win that felt like a possible Josh Allen coming-out party. (Narrator: It wasn’t.)
Through three games this season, though, a few teams that had heavy preseason hype have gotten off to slow starts—and raised questions about their contender status. That group is headlined by the Cleveland Browns. After an ugly 20-13 loss to the Rams on Sunday night, they fell to 1-2—but more even more troubling than that result is the fact that Cleveland and its young quarterback seem to be regressing. Baker Mayfield’s sensational rookie season and the Browns’ offseason trade for Odell Beckham Jr. made Cleveland a chic playoff pick and arguably the most exciting team in the league coming into 2019. But three games in, Mayfield and head coach–play caller Freddie Kitchens have failed to find any flow offensively. And that goes beyond that inexplicable draw play on a fourth-and-9.
The Browns have holes along the offensive line, but their issues run far deeper than a pair of below-average tackles. Coming into Sunday’s game, Mayfield was taking an average time of 2.78 seconds to throw, the fifth-highest mark in the NFL. He’s looked unsettled in the pocket all season, and that issue persisted during another sloppy showing against the Rams. Mayfield finished 18-of-36 for just 195 yards and a touchdown while taking three sacks, bringing his season total to 11. Whether it’s holding onto the ball too long while looking for chunk gains downfield or bailing from clean pockets, the calibration on Mayfield’s internal clock just seems off. Aside from some quick-hitting RPOs against the Rams, Cleveland’s offense never got into a rhythm, and that’s starting to become a worrisome theme for this group.
On the Browns’ last-gasp attempt on fourth-and-goal near the end of the game, Mayfield—who had the option to step up in the pocket—rolled to the right shortly after taking the snap, cutting off half the field and running himself into pressure. His off-balance throw was intercepted in the end zone, and the comeback effort was over. Even if desperation partially explains the decision in that moment, mistakes like this have cropped up far too often for Cleveland this season. During Mayfield’s electric second half in 2018, a significant portion of his big throws came late in downs as he improvised and pushed the ball downfield. The Browns have failed to create those plays so far this season, and Mayfield’s tendency to try to push for them anyway has the entire unit looking out of sorts. Maybe the most frightening part of all this is that it won’t get any easier from here. Cleveland’s next four games are on the road against Baltimore, at the 49ers, home for the Seahawks, and at the Patriots. With the way this offense looks right now, it’s not difficult to imagine this team falling to 2-5 or 1-6 during that stretch.
Cleveland isn’t the only preseason darling that’s struggled through three games. The Eagles were also a popular playoff and Super Bowl pick coming into the year, but after a 27-24 loss to the Lions on Sunday, Philly is now 1-2 and two games behind the undefeated Cowboys in the NFC East. Injuries have already taken their toll on what some considered the deepest roster in the NFL at the start of the season. The Eagles were without both Alshon Jeffery and DeSean Jackson on Sunday, and a rash of mistakes by their reserve wide receivers—including a lost fumble by Nelson Agholor and a pair of offensive pass interference penalties by Mack Hollins—had a hand in the loss. Jason Peters was sick Sunday and forced out of action in the second quarter, but the 37-year-old left tackle was put back into the game after swing tackle Andre Dillard suffered a foot injury. There’s a distinct, “Our pets’ heads are falling off!” vibe to this team right now.
Outside of all the injuries, there are concerns about the healthy areas of this roster as well. The secondary was probably Philly’s weakest position group heading into the season, and it’s played out that way through three games. Cornerback Ronald Darby has struggled in coverage so far this season; the once-dominant front four—which is without defensive tackles Malik Jackson and Timmy Jernigan, who both went down with serious foot injuries—hasn’t been able to control games like in years past. Detroit was buoyed by a kick-return touchdown and a 44-yard gain on a jet sweep, but the Eagles defense is still far from the lock-down group it had the potential to be this season. When Jackson and Jeffery return, there’s a good chance the Eagles offense will open up and Carson Wentz will look more like the quarterback we saw in Week 1 against the Redskins. Over the last two weeks, Wentz has tried to carry the offense on his own and has occasionally held onto the ball far too long as he waits for a receiver to pop open down the field. With his top two targets back in the next couple of weeks, this offense should settle back into its normal timing. But the Eagles have already lost plenty of valuable ground in the NFC playoff picture.
Neither the Falcons nor the Chargers had the same preseason buzz as the Eagles and Browns, but both teams were still considered playoff contenders. Now, after the Falcons fell 27-24 against the Colts on Sunday and the Chargers dropped a 27-20 nailbiter to the Texans, both sit at 1-2 as well. But while the Falcons may still have a chance in their division, the Chargers’ outlook seems much more grim.
The story of the Chargers season so far is a familiar one. Injuries have torpedoed several of the team’s talented rosters in the past few years, and that’s happened again in 2019. Superstar safety Derwin James was already on injured reserve with a foot injury when the Chargers lost safety Adrian Phillips to a potentially season-ending broken forearm last week. With James and Phillips on the shelf, L.A. has turned to 2017 fourth-round pick Rayshawn Jenkins and undrafted rookie Roderic Teamer at safety—and it’s no surprise that the secondary gave up plenty of big gains through the air to Deshaun Watson and the Texans. The hope against Houston’s vertical passing game was that the Chargers’ front four—led by Joey Bosa and Melvin Ingram—would be enough to overwhelm a suspect offensive line and mask some of the issues on the back end. The defense managed six quarterback hits and a pair of sacks, but the pressure still wasn’t consistent enough to slow down Watson, who finished with 351 passing yards and three touchdowns on just 34 attempts. Some of that production—like the second-and-10 play in the fourth quarter when Watson wiggled away from Ingram and lofted a short pass to Jordan Akins that he took for a 53-yard touchdown—was the result of the quarterback’s brilliance, but there were also plenty of coverage miscues. Plays like Watson’s 15-yard touchdown strike to Akins on a simple seam route in the third quarter are just too easy.
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The injury bug has also hit key areas on the Chargers offense. Starting left tackle Russell Okung is still out as he deals with blood clots, and his absence has made an already shaky offensive line even worse. J.J. Watt and the Texans’ front set up shop in the Chargers’ backfield. Watt finished with two of Houston’s five sacks and terrorized overmatched right tackle Sam Tevi all afternoon.
Even with their issues up front, though, the Chargers still have plenty of talent on offense—which makes this latest plague of injuries so tragic. Philip Rivers and Keenan Allen were both magnificent against the Texans. Rivers finished with 318 yards passing, and Allen hauled in an absurd 13 receptions for 183 yards and both of Rivers’s touchdowns. By the end of the game, it seemed as if Rivers was trying to will his team to a win. He placed a perfectly thrown 40-yard bomb to Travis Benjamin that would have been the game-winning touchdown, but it slipped out of Benjamin’s hands after a late challenge by safety Tashaun Gipson. The Chargers’ roster is formidable, but right now, it seems like the injuries to two key position groups will make it next to impossible for them to keep pace with the Chiefs in the AFC West.
Fortunately for the Falcons, they don’t have to deal with a juggernaut in their own division. Atlanta’s road loss to the Colts may have given the team a losing record, but the Falcons are still only a game behind the Saints in a division where both the Panthers and Bucs are reeling.
Since getting decimated by the Vikings in Week 1, Atlanta’s offense has found a bit more of a groove, and Matt Ryan’s group really got rolling in the second half on Sunday. Ryan threw another head-scratching interception early in the second quarter to bring his season total to six, but this group has shown that when Ryan, Julio Jones, and Atlanta’s other offensive weapons are clicking, they can put up points in a hurry. Ultimately, the offense should be fine under new coordinator Dirk Koetter.
The defense is another story. This offseason, head coach Dan Quinn took over as the team’s de facto defensive coordinator, putting the burden on himself to resurrect a unit that finished 31st in DVOA last season. The hope was that Quinn’s new role and better injury luck would help Atlanta finally solve a problem that’s perplexed the franchise during Quinn’s entire five-year tenure. So far, that hasn’t happened. This scheme is constructed to prevent big plays while often conceding shorter throws in the middle of the field, and the Colts exploited that plan all game. Quarterback Jacoby Brissett picked away at the underneath areas of the defense as Indianapolis efficiently marched up and down the field. A week after racking up five hurries and three quarterback hits against the Eagles, Takk McKinley was held largely in check, and the Falcons’ pass rush did little to bother Brissett. To make matters worse, Atlanta also lost starting safety Keanu Neal to an Achilles injury—his second season-ending injury in as many years. The Falcons may have believed this season would be different, but three games in, it seems that once again, the team’s best hope is to lean on Ryan and the offense.
With Drew Brees injured and the muddled NFC South up for grabs, the Falcons are in a much better position than the Eagles, Browns, and Chargers—all of whom have ready-made Super Bowl contenders in their own divisions. It also seems like Falcons’ early-season stumbles—especially on offense—can be corrected as the season goes on. The same goes for the Eagles, who desperately need to get players like Jackson and Jeffery back on the field. The Browns’ and Chargers’ issues, though, seem tougher to fix. Both teams are trending in the wrong direction, and unless they correct course fast, they’ll continue to lose ground that may be impossible to make up.