We made it. The NFL is back in our lives. For the next five months, we’ll have actual games to watch and argue about, which is a lot more fun than how we’ve spent the past seven—overanalyzing every roster move and speculating about how they’d work out in the 2021 season.
Now that football is back, we finally get to see how right or wrong we were. And though we’re not even officially a week into the season, it’s never too early to draw firm conclusions. So let’s check in on some of the teams and players that dominated the offseason discourse, and decide whether the hype surrounding them was warranted.
Sean McVay and Matthew Stafford
Three plays. That’s all Matthew Stafford needed to justify the steep price the Rams paid to get him from the Lions this offseason. On the third play of Los Angeles’s opening drive, Sean McVay dialed up a call that only a handful of quarterbacks can execute. After a quick play-fake, Stafford rolled to his left, planted his feet, and launched the ball 53 yards to an open Van Jefferson for a score.
McVay had been waiting all offseason to call that play. But dialing up deep shots has never been a problem for the Rams coach—not even with Jared Goff under center. The benefit of having Stafford, though, became more apparent as the game progressed. Without having to worry about holding his quarterback’s hand, McVay could call plays without fear of falling behind the chains and getting stuck in obvious passing situations. Those situations always gave Goff problems; on Sunday night, they elevated Stafford. The Rams’ new signal-caller averaged 0.76 expected points added on third down with a 60 percent first-down rate, per RBSDM.com. Both of those marks would have led the NFL last season.
Stafford wasn’t just good on third downs, though. He made it look easy throughout the game, completing 20 of his 26 attempts for 321 yards and three scores in the 34-14 win. It’s fitting that Stafford’s first game came against the Bears, the team that provided the NFL with a blueprint for how to slow the Goff-led Rams late in the 2018 season. That defense was coordinated by Vic Fangio, who’s now in Denver, but Chicago still runs the same scheme. And, as it had in past meetings, the Bears defense was able to slow the Rams’ run game on first and second down. That used to be enough to derail McVay’s offense. Not anymore.
McVay was able to call more dropback passes on early downs, knowing that Stafford would, at the very least, avoid disastrous mistakes—something the previous Rams quarterback couldn’t always be counted on to do. And Stafford did much more than that. His second deep touchdown of the night came on a play we rarely saw during the Goff era in Los Angeles. On a first-and-10 early in the third quarter, the Bears were playing a variation of the Cover 6 that had given Goff issues whenever he went up against Chicago. It’s a pattern-matching coverage that adapts based on the routes run by the receivers. Goff always had trouble figuring out what exactly he was looking at. But it didn’t trouble Stafford.
Looks like it was Cover 6 variant.— Nate Tice (@Nate_Tice) September 13, 2021
Stafford moved the Safety up top somehow and it got Kupp wide open over the top. pic.twitter.com/g9tBL14EOv
Stafford wanted to hit Cooper Kupp on the deep post, but he knew he had to look off the safety in order to open up a window for the throw. By the time the ball was in the air, the pass looked like one that any NFL starter could make—but Stafford created the easy play for himself. Goff isn’t making that throw, and I’m not sure McVay would’ve trusted him enough to call the play in that situation.
I’m not ready to declare the Rams legitimate Super Bowl contenders just yet. After the departure of defensive coordinator Brandon Staley, it remains to be seen how this defense—which was fourth in DVOA last season—will fare against teams not quarterbacked by Andy Dalton. But the offseason hype surrounding the McVay-Stafford partnership appears to be warranted. And if these two keep producing like this, it might not matter whether the defense takes a step back.
The Rookie Quarterbacks
Three rookie quarterbacks started for their teams in Week 1: Trevor Lawrence, Zach Wilson, and Mac Jones. But while Lawrence and Wilson were the ones who went nos. 1 and 2 in April’s draft, it was Jones who looked most comfortable in his debut.
The Patriots could not have asked for more from their young quarterback on Sunday against a tough Dolphins defense. Yes, a win would have been nice, but Jones played well enough in a 17-16 loss that if you squinted just hard enough, you may have thought you were watching a young Tom Brady out there. Jones was decisive with the football; he was accurate; and he stood up to Miami’s relentless pressure.
That last part had to encourage Bill Belichick. Brian Flores’s aggressive defense is tough even on veteran quarterbacks, and Jones had no problem finding answers to beat the Dolphins’ complex blitzes. Now, the Patriots didn’t make a lot of big plays in the passing game, but that falls largely on a receiver group that lacks field-stretching speed. Jones did his best to buy his receivers time to get open by deftly navigating the pocket to avoid the rush, but his teammates just couldn’t create separation. And even though there weren’t a lot of big plays through the air, Jones avoided costly mistakes, which is an easy way to earn Belichick’s trust.
The same cannot be said for Lawrence and Wilson. The top two picks combined for four interceptions: Lawrence threw three, including two ugly ones, and while Wilson threw only one, there could have been at least two more.
Lawrence’s stat line isn’t flattering: The former Clemson QB completed 54.9 percent of his passes and averaged only 6.5 yards per attempt to go along with those three turnovers. But he made four or five top-shelf throws that tested his limits and showed why he was the top pick in the draft. I won’t be surprised if Lawrence’s rookie season looks a lot like Peyton Manning’s back in 1998. That year, Manning set a rookie NFL record for interceptions thrown, but also made enough plays to alleviate any concerns about his future. I expect the same from Lawrence as he gets accustomed to the speed of NFL defenses. The Jaguars didn’t give their fans a lot to cheer for on Sunday in their 37-21 loss to the hapless Texans, but as long as Lawrence is making these throws, they’ll have a reason to keep coming back:
oh sweet jesus come on man, why does this look so easy pic.twitter.com/NRbAWHkk4d— Derrik Klassen (@QBKlass) September 13, 2021
Wilson made his fair share of splashy plays on Sunday as well, most of them coming in the second half after the Jets finally gave up on establishing the run and handed the offense over to the rookie. First-year coordinator Mike LaFleur didn’t scheme up easy throws for Wilson, so he was forced to create for himself by escaping the pocket and buying time for his receivers to get open downfield. His first touchdown fittingly came on a broken play:
The Jets will need to do a better job of keeping Wilson out of adverse situations and creating easy throws for him. The fact that the coaching staff failed to do so against a bad Panthers defense is a bit of a concern, especially with the Pats and Dolphins next up on the schedule.
We didn’t see much of the other two first-round QBs. Trey Lance and Justin Fields played only a handful of snaps, but both managed to find the end zone. Lance threw a touchdown on a play-action pass that pulled Detroit’s defense out of position:
And Fields scored on a zone read play that looked identical to the touchdown Lance scored in the 49ers’ final preseason game:
It appears Matt Nagy has been studying 49ers tape, and he should continue to do so. There are far worse strategies than stealing from Kyle Shanahan’s playbook.
Overall, Sunday marked a successful debut for all of the first-round rookie QBs. The three starters all lost, but managed to offer their new fan bases a reason to be hopeful. And while it might be a while before 49ers fans get to see Lance start a game, Bears fans shouldn’t have to wait much longer after Dalton failed to impress in the opener.
The Titans Offense
The Titans’ trade for Julio Jones saved their offseason. Before swinging the deal for the Falcons star, Tennessee seemed destined to fall out of the playoffs. It had lost both Corey Davis and Jonnu Smith to free agency, and offensive coordinator Arthur Smith left to take the Falcons head-coaching job. Outside of A.J. Brown, Ryan Tannehill wasn’t going to have a lot to work with in the passing game.
Then the Jones trade happened and it seemed like this offense would have too much talent to fail: Brown and Jones at receiver, plus Derrick Henry in the run game, and a QB who’d proved that his 2019 breakout wasn’t a fluke. Sure, Smith was no longer around to call the plays, but what defense would be able to stop those four?
Well, Sunday’s opener answered that question. The Cardinals bullied the Titans for 60 minutes en route to a 38-13 upset win over the defending AFC South champs. Seemingly every time Tannehill dropped back to pass, Chandler Jones was there to greet him. Henry had no room to run and finished with just 58 yards on 17 carries. Jones was shut out until the final two minutes of the first half and ended the game with 29 yards receiving. Brown was the only Titans star who played well in the loss, and even he finished with a modest 49 yards on four receptions.
The offensive line was mostly to blame for the poor showing. Tannehill was sacked six times, with Jones picking up five of them, including a strip sack that set up the game’s first touchdown. After the game, Taylor Lewan, who gave up three sacks in the first half alone, took to Twitter to thank Jones for “exposing” him. Some of the blame for Lewan’s rough day should fall on first-year offensive coordinator Todd Downing. The Titans left tackle stunk it up, but it was clear from the outset he wasn’t capable of blocking Jones on his own. So what did Downing do? Nothing at all. He offered Lewan no help, and Jones capitalized.
Downing also seemed to forget how integral play-action had been to Tennessee’s past offensive success. Tannehill was first among starters in play-action usage in 2020 with a 36.4 percent rate, per Pro Football Focus. Against the Cardinals, he used play-action on just 7.3 percent of his dropbacks, according to Next Gen Stats. That’s Tannehill’s lowest single-game rate in the Next Gen database, which dates back to 2016. Tennessee didn’t call a single play-action pass in the second half.
The hype surrounding this Titans offense was based on what we had seen from Tennessee under Smith. But with Downing now calling plays, the scheme isn’t nearly as intimidating. Throw in a bad offensive line, and it’s hard to see this unit reaching its ceiling, much less living up to the hype that followed the trade for Jones.
The Browns Defense
Offense wasn’t the problem for Cleveland in 2020. The only thing keeping last year’s Browns from contending for a Super Bowl was a porous defense that had trouble getting after the passer and stopping big plays through the air. So this offseason, the front office focused its efforts on addressing those issues. Cleveland brought John Johnson III and Troy Hill over from the Rams to help shore up the secondary, and it signed Malik Jackson and Jadeveon Clowney to bolster the defensive line.
Those additions, along with improved injury luck, were supposed to turn what was a mediocre unit last season into one of the better defenses in 2021—and specifically, one that would be able to match up with the Chiefs. After all, any AFC contender will have to go through Kansas City to make it to the Super Bowl. And as the Bucs’ dominant Super Bowl win taught us in February, the best way to stop Patrick Mahomes is to pressure him with a four-man rush and not give up any explosive plays in the passing game.
With a Chiefs-Browns matchup scheduled for Week 1, the Browns had an early chance to show that their offseason moves had closed the gap to the AFC champs. And for about three quarters, it looked as if they had.
Midway through the third, the Browns had held the Chiefs to a measly 10 points. Mahomes was mostly relying on shorter throws, as the Cleveland secondary took away the deeper parts of the field and the pass rush consistently squeezed the pocket. But this Chiefs offense is inevitable. The Browns pass rush seemed to wear down in the second half, and with the secondary forced to hold up a bit longer in coverage, Mahomes found his deep ball. The play that changed the game came midway through the fourth quarter after Cleveland had just extended its lead to nine. The first play of the ensuing drive, Mahomes escaped the pocket and saw Tyreek Hill one-on-one with Johnson, the centerpiece of the Browns’ offseason additions, about 45 yards downfield. Johnson couldn’t find the ball in the air, and Hill was able to haul it in before scoring a momentum-swinging touchdown.
That’s the type of play Johnson was brought in to prevent, as he did for the Rams last season. But if Cleveland was trying to replicate the defensive success Los Angeles enjoyed in 2020, it did not get off to a good start. Those Rams gave up just 11 passes of 20-plus air yards during the entire season. On Sunday, Mahomes completed three.
The Chiefs scored 23 points over the last 22 minutes of the game and managed to escape with a 33-29 win. Mahomes pulled off some minor miracles in rallying Kansas City, and the Browns defense will surely look better against lesser offenses. But if the offseason goal was to close the gap on the Chiefs, then this Cleveland defense might not be ready just yet.
At this time last year, Brandon Staley was still an unknown. He was just starting his first season as Rams defensive coordinator after taking over for the legendary Wade Phillips, and many questioned McVay’s decision to hire someone who had been at the Division III level just four years earlier. By November, though, Staley’s state-of-the-art defense was the talk of the NFL. The 38-year-old was employing college-style fronts to help the Rams defend the run with minimal numbers, and that in turn allowed them to allocate more resources toward stopping the pass. The new-age approach propelled the unit to the top of the statistical leaderboards.
A day after the Rams’ season ended, the Chargers hired Staley as their coach. And as the offseason hype continued to grow, Staley became the betting favorite to win Coach of the Year. There were skeptics, though, who said Staley merely benefitted from the Rams’ loaded roster. In Aaron Donald, Staley had a one-man pass rush to build his scheme around. And with Jalen Ramsey, he could essentially erase any receiving threat the Rams came up against. Having the two best defensive players in football sure does make coaching a lot easier.
But Ramsey and Donald weren’t around to help Staley in his Chargers debut on Sunday, and it didn’t make much of a difference. The rookie head coach employed a lot of the same tactics he used a year ago, and the result was a 20-16 win over Washington in which the Football Team averaged negative-0.5 expected points added per play with a 41.8 percent success rate, per RBSDM.com. Both were bottom-10 marks for the week. Washington did lose starting quarterback Ryan Fitzpatrick to a hip injury early on, which certainly made things easier for Staley’s defense. But the Football Team hadn’t done much before he exited the game, either.
The Chargers will face better offenses in the future—they have a date with the Chiefs in Week 3—but the defense passed its first test and looked a lot like last year’s Rams in doing so. Whether the Staley hype is warranted remains to be determined, but he’s still the favorite to win Coach of the Year headed into Week 2.
The Packers Defense
Things didn’t go so well for former Staley assistant Joe Barry in his debut as the Packers defensive coordinator. Green Bay poached Barry from the Rams this offseason in hopes that Staley’s scheme would elevate a defense that underachieved under Mike Pettine. Matt LaFleur had done his part and rejuvenated Aaron Rodgers’s career. Now, it seemed, if they could just solidify things on the other side of the ball, the Packers would become serious contenders. Barry, having coached in the NFL’s most innovative defensive scheme, was considered a slam dunk hire.
In Week 1, though, the Saints offense did all the dunking. Nothing went right for Green Bay in the 38-3 loss. The offense looked disjointed all game. Aaron Jones was ineffective and eventually gave way to AJ Dillon, who wasn’t much better. Rodgers fell back into some of the bad habits that contributed to his dip in production before LaFleur was hired. It was a lackluster performance all around, but we’ve seen this unit bounce back from worse games, including last year’s regular-season loss to the Buccaneers.
Barry’s defense, however, hasn’t earned that benefit of the doubt. As we covered in the previous section, the idea behind Staley’s system is to focus on limiting big plays in the passing game while combating the run with fewer defenders. Well, the Packers did do a decent job against the run, but it came at the expense of the pass defense, which gave up five passing touchdowns and forced zero turnovers. Turning the ball over is kind of Jameis Winston’s thing, and yet he took care of it on Sunday like, well, Rodgers typically does.
Maybe we shouldn’t be surprised that Barry’s defense doesn’t look like last year’s Rams’. This is his fifth time being an NFL defensive coordinator, and he’s yet to produce a unit that’s finished higher than 28th in yards allowed, per Pro Football Reference. Barry’s next good defense will be his first.
If you look only at the box score from the Bills’ 23-16 loss on Sunday, you might think 2019 Josh Allen had been under center. The Bills quarterback finished 30-of-51 for 270 yards, was stripped twice in the ugly loss to Pittsburgh, and just looked inconsistent. He missed a handful of throws, including this overthrow to a wide open Emmanuel Sanders that would have resulted in a touchdown:
There were a few more ugly plays, but for the most part, Allen looked a lot like the QB we saw in 2020—only with a worse supporting cast. His pass protection was particularly ineffective, as the Steelers overwhelmed Buffalo’s offensive line and put Allen under constant pressure. As a result, he wasn’t able to push the ball downfield and had to settle for underneath throws. The mistakes came when Allen grew impatient.
Luckily for him, he won’t have to play against T.J. Watt and the Steelers every week. But if Buffalo’s offense is going to get back to its 2020 form, the line must be better. It’s still too early to declare it a major issue for the Bills because this was one of the league’s better units a season ago. I’ll give the line the benefit of the doubt … for now. The same goes for Allen.
The Dolphins will offer a nice test for Allen and the Bills offense next week. Not only does Miami have a good defense, but this was a matchup Allen dominated last season. If Buffalo’s offense puts up another dud, we may have to start asking some tough questions.