Editor’s note: On Saturday, Ringer senior staff writer Jonathan Tjarks passed away. You can find information about how to support Jonathan’s family here.
The football was just all right on Sunday. The opening weekend of the 2022 NFL season provided us with a few memorable endings, but none of the games will be remembered for the high quality of the play. The quarterbacks were sloppy, and the kickers were somehow worse. But it was football nonetheless, and after an offseason of unprecedented player movement, we no longer have to speculate about how things might play out on the field. Will the Bengals’ revamped offensive line provide Joe Burrow with a little more protection? Is Tyreek Hill the key to unlocking a more aggressive (and effective) Tua Tagovailoa? Can the Packers overcome the loss of Davante Adams with a more balanced team? And how will Adams’s reunion with Derek Carr change the Raiders offense?
With Week 1 nearly in the books, let’s check in on the players and teams that dominated the offseason discourse and decide whether the hype surrounding them was justified or misplaced optimism.
The Bengals’ New and Improved Offensive Line
If you just skimmed the box score of the Bengals’ 23-20 overtime loss to the Steelers and saw that Joe Burrow was sacked seven times, you might be thinking Oh no, the Bengals offensive line stinks again. And it’s true, the early returns don’t look great on the surface. But the line wasn’t actually all that bad on Sunday. Burrow was pressured on 29.2 percent of his dropbacks—only nine quarterbacks were pressured at a lower rate. And the three new signees—center Ted Karras, right guard Alex Cappa, and right tackle La’el Collins—gave up a combined four pressures. The left side of the line didn’t do so hot: Left tackle Jonah Williams, supposedly the best player of the group, got bullied by Alex Highsmith, who finished with three sacks; and a very real person named Cordell Volson, who the Bengals are starting at left guard, gave up five pressures on his own. But, overall, the new additions looked good against a dominant Steelers rush.
Burrow’s play was a far bigger issue on Sunday. He was responsible for a handful of sacks on his own, including one on the very first snap of the season. The play in question was designed for Burrow to get the ball out quickly, and he had Hayden Hurst open outside but instead looked to the backside and took the sack.
Cam Heyward gets the season started off on the right foot pic.twitter.com/HFMJ2qYLMt— PFF PIT Steelers (@PFF_Steelers) September 11, 2022
Another sack came on an RPO on which Burrow took the pass option but couldn’t get the throw off and was “sacked” for zero yards. And yet another when Burrow tried to spin out of a crumbling pocket rather than taking a checkdown option. If Evan McPherson wasn’t so damn good, that sack would have knocked the Bengals out of field goal range. But the Pro Bowl kicker nailed a 59-yarder to bail his quarterback out.
More concerning than the high slack total was the Bengals’ lack of explosive plays in the passing game. This offense was largely powered by perimeter deep balls last season, and Burrow attempted only two of them against a Steelers defense that played a lot of two-deep zone with the aim of taking away deep shots.
Pittsburgh’s goal seemingly was to force Burrow to make intermediate throws into tight windows, and he threw three interceptions trying to do just that. If there is one weakness to Burrow’s game, it’s his unremarkable arm strength, and it showed up on Sunday.
This was undoubtedly a worrying performance for the third-year pro, but I wouldn’t bet on it continuing. Burrow typically has a good sense for which throws he’s able to make and which he should pass up on. And the fact that Burrow was the biggest contributor to the loss is probably a good sign going forward. He’ll be better, and if the offensive line plays like this against more forgiving competition, it should at the very least look competent.
But after Tee Higgins went down with a concussion, and the deep passing game was largely shut out, a new concern could soon pop up if defenses are able to replicate Pittsburgh’s plan to take away the plays that were so integral to Cincinnati’s success in 2021.
The Tua-to-Tyreek Connection
It was a fine Sunday for the Tua Tagovailoa agenda. The Dolphins quarterback ran his record against Bill Belichick up to 4-0 after a 20-7 win, and his stat line looked pretty good! Tagovailoa finished 23-of-33 for 270 yards, a touchdown, and no interceptions. His 0.14 EPA per dropback was bested by only seven quarterbacks this week, according to TruMedia. He was efficient.
But the Tua we saw on Sunday looked an awful lot like the one we saw in 2021. The bulk of his production came on quick, short passes. He got the ball out on time (with a 2.74-second average time to throw) and was accurate for the most part. The consummate distributor. But we already knew Tua was capable of playing that role. We questioned whether he could make the tough throws downfield—whether he could make good use of his new receiver, Tyreek Hill. And we didn’t really get an answer in Week 1.
Tua’s longest throw of the day traveled only 25 yards through the air, and he targeted fullback Alec Ingold on that one. He did connect with Hill on two passes over 20 yards, but one of them looked like this:
Tyreek Hill just ripped an INT away from a Patriots defender and plucked it away. pic.twitter.com/Bggqr50Jq7— Ari Meirov (@MySportsUpdate) September 11, 2022
The other was a wide open throw after Hill smoked his defender with a slick comeback route. Tua still had to make the throw, but the degree of difficulty wasn’t very high.
Hill ended the day with 94 receiving yards but needed eight catches to get there. And overall it wasn’t the most explosive day for the speedy receiver. There was a missed connection on Tua’s first dropback of the season: Following a bad snap, the Dolphins quarterback skipped a throw about 10 yards short of Hill, who was standing open 20 yards downfield.
Hill’s average depth of target ended up at 9.1 yards—his previous career low, set in 2021, was 10.6—and most of his production came on early-down plays that were designed to get the ball to him. His three third-down targets lost 2.6 EPA and produced just 4 yards.
The Tua-Hill connection is on pace for about 1,600 yards after one game. The Dolphins would probably be happy with that return. But you don’t pay Hill $30 million a year to catch shallow crossers. If this Dolphins offense is going to take the next step, we’ll need to see first-year coach Mike McDaniel and Tua provide him with more opportunities to really earn that money.
The Chiefs’ Deep Passing Game
Meanwhile, Hill’s former team had no problem moving the ball through the air Sunday. The Chiefs ran the Cardinals off the field in a 44-21 romp that wasn’t even as close as that score might imply. Patrick Mahomes averaged 9.2 yards per attempt, tossed five touchdowns, and made a dozen or so plays that made me mutter this fucking guy. I mean, look at this nonsense:
One of the unfair qualities Mahomes has at QB is how quickly he can read, reset and trigger after turning his back to the defense pic.twitter.com/MnXliSRtfV— Ron Kopp Jr. (@Ron_Kopp) September 12, 2022
Looking just at his numbers, you’d think Mahomes was chucking the ball downfield all game, right? That wasn’t really the case, though. His aDOT was a modest 7.8 yards, which was around league average for the week, and he attempted only three passes that traveled more than 25 yards in the air, according to TruMedia. This wasn’t the deep-ball-slinging Mahomes we saw over his first three seasons in the NFL. Nor was it the checkdown-taking version we saw over the second half of 2021. Instead, we got our first look at Midrange Mahomes, and it was brutally effective.
Mahomes was firing darts over the middle of the field and doing so in a hurry to counter Arizona’s blitz-heavy defense. His 2.33-second average time to throw was the fifth-fastest of the week, according to TruMedia. Cardinals defensive coordinator Vance Joseph was criticized for his aggressive game plan—blitzing Mahomes is typically a futile endeavor—but it was the only tactic that sort of worked. The Chiefs star averaged nearly 12 yards per dropback when Arizona didn’t send an extra rusher.
Mahomes vs. Arizona, Week 1
|Blitz?||Dropbacks||Yards per Dropback||EPA per Dropback||Success Rate|
|Blitz?||Dropbacks||Yards per Dropback||EPA per Dropback||Success Rate|
There’s just no defending Mahomes when he’s tapped into the matrix, and this was one of those times. But even on a day when the Chiefs could have put up 50 if they wanted to, the lack of deep passes stands out. Marquez Valdes-Scantling and JuJu Smith-Schuster, the two big offseason additions to the receiving corps, combined for 123 receiving yards but neither earned a deep target. Mecole Hardman was able to get free downfield on two occasions, but Mahomes narrowly missed the throws.
Even with those misses, Mahomes leads the league in EPA this week by a wide margin. This was a virtuoso performance from no. 15—and our first bit of evidence that the Chiefs offense will be just fine without Hill supercharging the deep passing game.
The Second-Year Quarterbacks
With no rookie quarterbacks starting in Week 1, the 2021 class remains in the spotlight—and that may not be for the best. Justin Fields was the only second-year starter who led his team to victory, and he managed just 121 passing yards on a sloppy, rain-soaked field in Chicago. That 19-10 win over the 49ers hardly resembled a real NFL game, so we’ll give Fields and San Francisco QB Trey Lance a pass for their shaky performances. Both passers made good plays and threw woefully bad interceptions, but this was hardly the environment to properly evaluate their passing ability. There were, however, ideal conditions for elite celebrations.
Patriots quarterback Mac Jones did not have to deal with adverse weather in sunny Miami, but having Matt Patricia and Joe Judge “coordinate” your offense is arguably a worse fate. In a 20-7 loss to the Dolphins, the Pats offense was everything you’d expect it to be with that brain trust leading the way. It was a disjointed mess on early downs, which led to too many third-and-long situations that Jones just wasn’t capable of converting. With Josh McDaniels no longer around to draw up coverage beaters on key passing downs, the pressure is on Jones to make plays. And through one week, he looks out of his depth and without enough surrounding talent—or competent coaching—to give him a boost.
Going by the traditional stat line, Davis Mills was the best of the sophomore starters: The 2021 third-round pick completed 62 percent of his passes for 240 yards and a pair of touchdowns with no interceptions. But if you want to remain optimistic about his prospects, do not watch the film of Houston’s 20-20 tie with the Colts. Mills’s accuracy was wildly erratic, and his best plays came on wide-open throws into Gus Bradley’s defense. The ball placement on Mills’s longest completion of the day probably cost Houston four points, as he badly underthew a wide-open Brandin Cooks, wasting a perfectly good flea-flicker.
Mills finished the day with 98.9 passer rating, but his minus-0.09 EPA per dropback ranked 20th among Week 1 starters, according to TruMedia. And he was especially bad without the help of play-action, averaging minus-0.16 EPA per play on standard dropbacks. That kind of performance may have been passable when Mills was seen as an overachieving rookie, but with heightened expectations, Houston will need more from the 23-year-old in order to make a long-term commitment to him.
Of the second-year passers, Trevor Lawrence unsurprisingly looked the best in the Jaguars’ 28-22 loss to the Commanders. But that won’t be reflected in the box score. The 2021 top pick was hardly perfect—he missed a wide-open Travis Etienne for a touchdown in the first quarter, and his late fourth-quarter interception was one of the worst picks of the week—but he made a number of strong throws from the pocket while dealing with constant pressure. Only Daniel Jones was pressured at a higher clip in Week 1, according to TruMedia. But that didn’t stop Lawrence from pushing the ball downfield. His aDOT of 8.7 yards ranked eighth this week, and he managed to get those deeper passes out in a hurry, averaging just 2.64 seconds per throw. Getting the ball out quicker was an offseason point of emphasis for the Jags and Lawrence, and on Sunday, he was able to speed things up while still maintaining his aggressiveness.
Trevor Lawrence, 2021 vs. 2022
|Year||Time to Throw||Average Depth of Throw|
|Year||Time to Throw||Average Depth of Throw|
Lawrence’s stat line would’ve looked much better if not for a pair of drops in the red zone that cost Jacksonville a touchdown. But while it may not have been the breakout day the Jaguars were hoping for, even in defeat, this looked like a real football team with a functioning offense. That’s a start.
The Raiders’ Stacked Offense
It’s hard to get overly excited about a 19-point output from an offense that has Davante Adams, Darren Waller, Hunter Renfrow, and Josh Jacobs, but the Raiders have to be encouraged with what they saw in Josh McDaniels’s first game as head coach. If you just ignore the three interceptions and five sacks on Derek Carr’s ledger, Las Vegas was awfully productive. Carr averaged 7.9 yards per attempt and linked up with Adams 10 times for 141 yards. Waller celebrated his new deal with a four-catch, 79-yard performance. And Jacobs shook off a slow start to finish with 5.7 yards per carry.
Turnovers ultimately sunk the Raiders, but the offense had no problem moving the ball on the upgraded Chargers defense. Plus, Las Vegas stuck with one of the NFL’s most stacked rosters—even if it was missing star corner J.C. Jackson and Keenan Allen for most of the game. If Carr stops throwing picks, and his track record suggests that he will, this team will score enough points to keep it competitive all season.
The Ravens’ Passing Game
Lamar Jackson started the 2022 season the same way he started 2021: by chucking the ball downfield. His aDOT of 12.0 yards led the league in Week 1, and he threw three touchdowns that traveled over 20 yards through the air, according to TruMedia.
One of those touchdowns was a 55-yard heave to Rashod Bateman, who might be the most important player on the team outside of Lamar this season. The Ravens need the second-year receiver to emerge as a true WR1 if they’re going to hang with the high-powered passing games at the top of the AFC. He didn’t look the part on Sunday: Outside of the big play, Bateman caught just one pass for 4 yards on four targets. But the passing game didn’t look all that different from what we’ve seen in the past, even after offensive coordinator Greg Roman hinted at changes throughout the offseason. Roman, as he’s wont to do, mostly used heavier personnel and condensed formations to try to set up those deep passes off play-action. It was effective in that the Ravens scored enough points to beat the Jets comfortably on Sunday, but Baltimore will need more from its passing game—and Bateman specifically—in order to compete with Kansas City and Buffalo.
The Packers’ Loaded Defense
Say the line, Aaron.
I know that’s not what Packers fans want to hear after an ugly 23-7 loss to the Vikings, but this team will be just fine. The reigning MVP won’t play that poorly going forward. Allen Lazard and David Bakhtiari should be back in the lineup soon. And if we learned anything from last season, it’s that a disastrous opening week loss will not sink the Packers.
Besides, it could have been a lot worse given that the Packers defense forgot how zone coverage is supposed to work for the first 30 minutes of the game. Whether it was the lack of preseason reps or just bad communication, Green Bay’s defense—which coming into the season looked like one of the NFL’s best on paper after the return of lockdown corner Jaire Alexander and the additions of Georgia standouts Quay Walker and Devonte Wyatt—had no answer for Kirk Cousins and Justin Jefferson in the first half. By the break, those two had linked up for 158 yards and two scores, including this one, where the Packers just decided to ignore Jefferson completely.
Kirk Cousins & Justin Jefferson (36-yd TD)— Next Gen Stats (@NextGenStats) September 11, 2022
Through the first half, Jefferson has accounted for 90.9% of the offense's air yards, which would rank as the 2nd-highest in a game in the NGS era.
Jefferson led the NFL in AY share in 2021 (45.2%).#GBvsMIN | Powered by @awscloud pic.twitter.com/zWafCmPbje
That play gave the Vikings a 17-0 lead, and while Matt LaFleur’s offense never found its footing, Joe Barry’s defense figured things out in the second half, holding Minnesota to six points over the last 30 minutes of regulation. Jefferson caught three passes for 26 yards in the last two quarters.
The Packers didn’t really change their approach in coverage. They continued to play their matchup zone concepts, but they just executed better. After the game, star corner Alexander lamented the fact that he didn’t get to shadow Jefferson, as he had apparently lobbied for throughout the week, but that’s hard to do when you’re not playing man coverage, as LaFleur pointed out in his postgame presser.
“If you just commit to playing man coverage the whole game, sure, you can [keep Alexander on Jefferson],” LaFleur said, via The Athletic. “But they do a nice job of putting him in different positions, whether it’s in the slot, whether it’s motioning. … It seemed like he was in motion quite a bit, just moving him all over the place, and you’ve got to give them credit. They put him in premier spots and attacked our coverage well.”
Green Bay opted to play more zone, so it would not have made much sense to have Alexander travel with Jefferson if he was just going to drop off into zone coverage anyway. When the Packers stopped busting coverages, the zone-heavy approach was far more effective and the pass rush was given more time to get home.
Kirk Cousins vs. GB’s Zone Coverage
|Half||EPA per Dropback||Success Rate||Pressure Rate|
|Half||EPA per Dropback||Success Rate||Pressure Rate|
In 2021, Green Bay’s defense needed a few weeks to figure things out before it started playing at a top-10 level. It won’t enjoy that same margin for error this time around—not after the offense lost the focal point of its passing game and will almost certainly regress. How much of that gap the defense is able to make up will determine the ceiling on this team. Sunday’s results were mixed but encouraging on at least one side of the ball.