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The Starting 11: Don’t Board the Browns’ Panic Train Just Yet

Baker Mayfield and Co. had a nightmare start to the season, but this offense isn’t likely to stay down long. Plus: The new Vikings and Titans schemes got off to fast starts in Week 1, while the Cardinals’ and Jets’ returns aren’t quite so certain.

Getty Images/Ringer illustration

Welcome to the Starting 11. This NFL season, we’ll be collecting the biggest story lines, highlighting the standout players, and featuring the most jaw-dropping feats of the week. Let’s dive in.

1. The Browns’ first game under Freddie Kitchens was a mess, but don’t hit the panic button just yet. Losing to the Titans by 30 wasn’t exactly the start that Cleveland was looking for after an offseason filled with hype, but the game wasn’t nearly as ugly as the 43-13 final score might suggest. Baker Mayfield’s short touchdown pass to David Njoku with 2:10 left in the third quarter had cut the Titans’ lead to two. Then Derrick Henry took a screen pass 75 yards for a touchdown on the very next play, and the wheels really started to fall off. On the next Browns drive, Mayfield followed up Henry’s score with his first of three fourth-quarter interceptions, and Cleveland’s offense was left scrambling for the rest of the game.

That pick—hauled in by All-Pro safety Kevin Byard—came on a second-and-14 play that illustrated the sort of tough down-and-distance situations Cleveland faced all day. The Browns finished the game with 18 penalties for 182 yards. You read that right. Several of those penalties came on defense, but multiple offensive drives were torpedoed by early-down flags. One possible explanation for the penalties is that Kitchens didn’t have his team properly prepared, but it’s just as likely that this is a one-game aberration.

More concerning than the Browns’ penalties, though, was their pass protection. The offensive line got roasted a few times by a talented Titans front that deployed several creative pressure packages from underrated coordinator Dean Pees. Right tackle Chris Hubbard, in particular, had issues handling Cameron Wake coming off the edge, and losing left tackle Greg Robinson after he was ejected for kicking a Titans defender in the head late in the second quarter didn’t help matters. But it’s hard to put all the blame on the guys up front. Mayfield regularly held on to the ball too long in the pocket, including on the second-quarter sack that resulted in a safety. Until the All-22 tape becomes available later this week, it’ll be hard to know for certain what caused Mayfield’s hesitation throughout the day. But generally, it felt like a quarterback—and an entire offense—that was trying too hard to produce big plays down the field against a defense that was sending extra heat.

Mayfield still had his share of impressive throws, including a beautiful strike down the seam to Rashard Higgins in the first quarter that he placed away from the single high safety inside, and a deep shot to Jarvis Landry down the right sideline that set up the Njoku touchdown. Odell Beckham Jr. and Nick Chubb also looked like their normal, explosive selves, and overall this offense should be fine. But Sunday was a brutal start for Kitchens and Co.

2. In his play-calling debut, first-year Titans offensive coordinator Arthur Smith dialed up several chunk plays that helped swing the game—and provided a possible blueprint for Tennessee’s offense. The screen to Henry late in the third quarter was the perfect play call to follow an opposing offense’s score. Marcus Mariota used an outside-zone fake to the left, rolled out right, and tossed a throwback screen to Henry, who followed a caravan of blockers 75 yards to the end zone. Play-action screens are underused around the NFL, and they should be especially useful for a Tennessee offense that will likely incorporate a heavy amount of play fakes. Mariota averaged 8.8 yards per attempt when using play-action last season, and he and Smith deployed it on 43.3 percent of Mariota’s dropbacks on Sunday, which ranked sixth among qualified QBs. Aside from the touchdown to Henry, the QB’s two longest completions of the game came on play-action throws to rookie receiver A.J. Brown that featured seven-man protections to slow down the Browns’ pass rush. Brown was an after-the-catch force during his career at Ole Miss, and he looked like a legitimate weapon for the Titans offense on Sunday. Smith seems to understand that the best way for the Titans to manufacture big plays will be to use play-action.

3. Nick Foles’s broken collarbone sabotaged both his chance to prove himself as a starter and the Jags’ plan for 2019. When Jacksonville gave Foles a four-year, $88 million deal with $50.1 million guaranteed in March, the thinking was pretty straightforward. After years of languishing with Blake Bortles at quarterback, the Jaguars decided to pay a premium to upgrade at the position—and potentially land the final piece of their championship puzzle. Now, they’ll turn to sixth-round rookie Gardner Minshew II for at least the next two months as Foles rehabs the second broken collarbone of his NFL career.

If there’s a silver lining here, it’s that Minshew looked remarkably competent in the Jags’ 40-26 loss to the Chiefs, his first action as a pro. Operating in first-year coordinator John DeFilippo’s offense, the Washington State product completed 22 of 25 passes for 275 yards and two scores, and several of those completions required well-placed tosses down the field. Minshew’s 88 percent completion rate was 16.2 percentage points higher than his expected completion percentage, according to NFL Next Gen Stats. Only Lamar Jackson had a larger gap between those numbers on Sunday. Receivers Chris Conley and DJ Chark both had productive outings for a passing game that looked much more explosive than many expected coming into the season.

But even after Minshew’s promising debut, the prospect of starting a sixth-round pick for eight weeks is worrisome. After going up against the Chiefs’ suspect secondary, four of Minshew’s next five starts will come against solid pass defenses in the Titans (fresh off a stellar outing against the Browns), the Vic Fangio–led Broncos, the Panthers, and the Saints. Jacksonville’s offense is unlikely to reach the heights the team was hoping for when it signed Foles, and that’s particularly troubling as questions about the defense mount. Struggling against Patrick Mahomes and the Chiefs shouldn’t damn any secondary, but the Jaguars consistently looked out of sorts as Kansas City carved them up after the catch. It could be another long year in Jacksonville.

4. The Vikings stuck to the run against Atlanta and rode a huge day from Dalvin Cook to a blowout win. Minnesota retained offensive coordinator Kevin Stefanski this offseason in part because he was willing to acquiesce to head coach Mike Zimmer’s run-first vision, and the 37-year-old play-caller stuck to that plan against the Falcons. The Vikings ran the ball 38 times, compared to just 10 passes. Cook handled a majority of that workload with 21 carries for 111 yards and two scores—and he looked dominant. He ended his second carry of the day by plowing through Pro Bowl linebacker Deion Jones at the end of a 21-yard run, which set the tone for what was to come. Cook and the Vikings’ banged-up offensive line had a tough time moving the ball consistently in 2018—Cook’s first season back after tearing his ACL—but he showed off plenty of burst on Sunday. He has the chance for a monster season in this offense.

Part of the reason Minnesota was able to lean so heavily on the run game is that Zimmer’s defense gave Stefanski short fields. That group profiled as one of the stoutest units in football coming into the season, and it did not disappoint against a dangerous Falcons attack. Safety Anthony Harris, who’s beginning his first season as a full-time starter, picked off Matt Ryan twice and was among the most impressive defensive players of the weekend. Defensive end Danielle Hunter was a nightmare coming off the right side, and asking Falcons rookie right tackle Kaleb McGary to block Hunter in his first career start was just plain mean. Pro Football Focus credited Hunter with 10 disrupted dropbacks, tied for the highest total among edge defenders in Week 1. Cornerback Xavier Rhodes helped limit Julio Jones, who finished with only six catches for 31 yards during a disappointing outing. Minnesota used safety help over the top against Jones (which any smart team would), but after a rough 2018 season, seeing Rhodes look like his old self against one of the better receivers in the league should make Zimmer breathe a little easier. The Vikings’ ideal formula this season was to combine a strong running game with a tenacious defense, and that recipe was on full display against Atlanta.

Buffalo Bills v New York Jets
Sam Darnold tries to elude Ed Oliver
Photo by Jeff Zelevansky/Getty Images

5. It’s hard to draw many conclusions about the new-look Jets offense from a frustrating 17-16 loss to the Bills. In their first game under head coach Adam Gase, the Jets drew the unenviable task of facing Sean McDermott and Co. The Bills finished second in defensive DVOA last season, and they dialed up a host of creative pressures on Sunday that stifled Sam Darnold and the Jets’ passing game. Buffalo consistently lined up with five or six players at the line of scrimmage only to rush four and flood the defensive backfield. That presented a tough challenge for a second-year quarterback and a center who signed with the team only five weeks ago. Darnold was pressured on 38.3 percent of his dropbacks, according to Pro Football Focus, and he actually dealt with the heat quite well for most of the game. But several crucial throws came through traffic, including two on the Jets’ final drive that resulted in incompletions and stifled their comeback efforts. Still, there are some positives to glean from Sunday: Darnold’s immediate rapport with offseason addition Jamison Crowder (14 catches on 17 targets) is a good sign, and there should be better days ahead against weaker pass defenses.

6. Kyler Murray’s Cardinals debut looked like a disaster for the first three quarters, but a late surge to force overtime helped salvage his first game as a pro. Murray went just 6-of-16 for 41 yards in a nightmarish first half against the Lions, but the rookie QB seemed to settle in as the game went along. He showed excellent accuracy to all levels of the field in the fourth quarter and overtime, including some tight-window throws outside the numbers. Some quarterbacks just have a knack for throwing a good-looking ball, and Murray already belongs in that group.

Head coach Kliff Kingsbury admitted that his play-calling might have been “too cute” early on, which was part of the reason Arizona was behind 24-6 early in the fourth quarter. But he also seemed to find a rhythm late in the game as the Cardinals started to string together completions. The most important takeaway from the Kingsbury-Kyler debut, though, is how the first-year head coach deployed his personnel. Arizona used 10 personnel (four WRs and one RB) on a majority of its offensive plays and routinely used David Johnson as a receiver. Murray’s first touchdown came on a deep shot to Johnson up the seam after the running back released out of the backfield. Johnson lined up as a receiver just 16 times last season, and on Sunday alone he did it 15 times. Kingsbury recognizes that Johnson is far too talented to deploy him just one way, and it looks like the fourth-year back will be used advantageously in this system.

Detroit Lions v Arizona Cardinals
T.J. Hockenson makes a catch against Chris Jones
Photo by Norm Hall/Getty Images

7. The Lions offense was a mixed bag in coordinator Darrell Bevell’s first game—a 27-27 tie with Arizona—but there are reasons for optimism. My colleague Kevin Clark and I discussed head coach Matt Patricia’s baffling series of late-game decisions on Sunday night’s Ringer NFL Show, so rather than rehash those here, let’s focus on some of the things Detroit did well. Play-action throws weren’t a big part of the Lions’ system under previous offensive coordinator Jim Bob Cooter, but Matthew Stafford’s numbers when using a play fake (including a 3.1 percent uptick in completion rate) indicated that he could be effective with more opportunities. That was borne out against the Cardinals. Stafford completed nine of his 10 play-action throws for a ridiculous 193 yards and a touchdown. Rookie tight end T.J. Hockenson also benefited from that approach, as his day included a 39-yard catch-and-run on a crossing route about midway through the second quarter. The no. 8 pick looked like a star in his NFL debut.

Yet for all the encouraging signs from the Lions on Sunday, there were also causes for concern. Left tackle Taylor Decker had a brutal day against Cardinals edge rusher Terrell Suggs, and as a whole the Lions failed to protect Stafford. He was pressured on 47.1 percent of his dropbacks, the highest rate in the NFL among qualified QBs in Week 1. That resulted in only three sacks, but Stafford was hit nine times and finished with a 63.9 passer rating when rushed. If Detroit can’t clean up its protection issues, that potentially exciting Stafford-Hockenson connection may not matter.

8. After throwing three back-breaking interceptions in his first game under head coach Bruce Arians and offensive coordinator Byron Leftwich, it’s fair to wonder whether Jameis Winston’s days as the Bucs’ starter are numbered. Stop me if you’ve heard this before. With Tampa Bay locked into a tight game in the second half, Winston made a horrendous throw that led to a pick-six and created a deep hole for his offense. Only this time, he did it twice. The first pick-six Winston threw against the 49ers went to Richard Sherman along the right sideline, and it was the result of an off-target throw to running back Peyton Barber. Those happen. But the second was inexcusable. With 2:03 remaining in the fourth quarter and the Bucs down 23-17, Winston threw a risky pass on first-and-10 that was returned 25 yards for a score by Ahkello Witherspoon. That just cannot happen in that situation. And I’m sure Tampa Bay’s front office is tired of muttering that exact thought to themselves.

NFL: Pittsburgh Steelers at New England Patriots
Josh Gordon scores a touchdown against the Steelers
Greg M. Cooper-USA TODAY Sports

9. Josh Gordon’s performance on Sunday night was a reminder of just how dominant he can be. Gordon finished with only three catches for 73 yards in the Patriots’ 33-3 thrashing of the Steelers, but two of those receptions featured the 225-pound wideout crunching hapless Steelers defensive backs. On his 20-yard touchdown catch in the first quarter, Gordon ripped through an arm tackle by cornerback Joe Haden before shrugging off a hit by 255-pound linebacker Anthony Chickillo as he strolled into the end zone. Gordon followed that up two quarters later by hauling in a 44-yard bomb despite taking a huge shot from Steelers safety Terrell Edmunds. I still cannot believe the Patriots are adding Antonio Brown to this group.

10. This week’s line-play moment that made me hit rewind: Chandler Jones will haunt your dreams. The Cardinals outside linebacker has recorded a league-leading 53.5 sacks over the past four seasons, and plays like this are why. Combining this change-of-direction ability, understanding of leverage, and quick hand usage just shouldn’t be possible.

11. This week in NFL players, they’re absolutely nothing like us: Vernon Davis turned 35 in January and can still do this. I turned 32 two weeks ago, and I hurt my back getting out of bed this morning.