Welcome to the Hot Read. In this column, you’ll find everything and anything that I found interesting from this Sunday of NFL action. There’s the stuff that everyone’s talking about, and the stuff that nobody’s talking about; the stuff that makes football incredible, and the stuff that makes football fun. I hope you enjoy it and learn something cool—and if you do, I hope you’re back next week, when we do it all again.
The Big Thing: Tua Is Back
A lot happened this past NFL Sunday. If there’s one thing you need to know, it’s this.
The emergence of Tua Tagovailoa and the Miami Dolphins offense was one of the coolest things that happened last season. Tua entered the year a banged-up, undersized, weak-armed RPO merchant. He finished the season as the league’s most prolific deep passer, Tua the Accurate, Tua the Fearless, the perfect quarterback for Mike McDaniel’s whizbang of an offense.
The whole thing was uproarious fun. Tua was doing things no other quarterback in the league was doing—not even Patrick Mahomes. In Week 2, he dropped 469 yards and six touchdowns on the Ravens, four of which came in the fourth quarter to execute a 21-point comeback. In Weeks 8 through 10, Tua completed 76.5 percent of his passes for 969 yards and nine touchdowns with no interceptions. These were the flashes, the stretches, in which it looked like Tua and the Dolphins would simply never be stopped.
But they were stopped. First by Tua’s injuries. He almost surely suffered a concussion in Week 3 against the Bills that the team called a back injury; another concussion in Week 4 against the Bengals brought the cart out to the field. A third concussion suffered in Week 16 kept Tua out of the playoffs.
But they were also stopped by a couple of shrewd defenses. First the 49ers, who held Tua to 18 completions on 33 attempts and picked him off twice, then the Chargers, who held him to just 10 of 28. The latter was the worst game of Tua’s season under McDaniel—a defensive performance so remarkable that Steven Ruiz wrote about it for us in-season. It felt, at the time, like the cops busting up the party. The end to which all good things must come.
So the first game of the 2023 season was going to be an important one for Tua and the Dolphins, no matter who they played. Tua had spent the offseason gaining weight and learning how to fall, to stave off another injury-riddled campaign. McDaniel’s offseason was spent in the film room, considering counterpunches. This was their chance to reintroduce themselves to the league, not just as the shiny new thing, the sensation, the leap-takers. To show they could be sustainers. That they could do this all day.
It was just our good fortune that they drew the Chargers defense in Week 1. And they ran them around the yard.
The final score was 36-34. Tua threw for 466 yards, making him the 26th quarterback to throw for over 450 yards in multiple games. (At about 25 and a half years old, he is the third-youngest quarterback to do so, behind only Mahomes and Jared Goff.) He threw for three touchdowns, including the game-winner to Tyreek Hill, who had his best day as a Dolphin: 11 catches, 215 yards, and two scores.
While the counting stats are simply bananas, I don’t care too much about them. They’re incredible, but they are indicative not of Tua in a vacuum, but Tua as part of a whole. He plays in an offense catered better to his skill set than any other in the league is to its respective passer, with receivers in Hill and Jaylen Waddle who can do things no other receivers can do. Plays like this one are as much about the receiver as they are about the quarterback.
But Tua also deserves plenty of credit. On third-and-10, down by four, with less than four minutes on the clock, Tua did this.
This is the sickest throw I’ve seen Tua make. Pressure behind him from Khalil Mack, his platform not set, 47 yards down the field, into the breadbasket. Tua often underthrows his speedy receivers on deep throws like these—he had no room for such an error on this play, and he nailed it. This is not the play of a pure system quarterback—it’s the play of a quarterback who can bring more.
Tua also impressed when pressured. On such plays he went 5-for-8, with a 62.5 percent success rate (i.e., 62.5 percent of his plays generated positive expected points added). That would have been his best mark against pressure last season. The Chargers logged just two QB hits in this game—that’s not just a testament to the Dolphins offensive line, but also to the changes that Tua and McDaniel made during their respective offseasons. It’s not just about this game for the Dolphins—it’s about the game that follows. It’s one thing to dominate on the score sheet; it’s doubly impressive when Tua escapes mostly unscathed, healthy, and ready for the next game on the schedule.
It’s even sweeter that this performance came against a defense that flat-out embarrassed them last season. The first act last season was incredible, but this season’s opening performance was as impressive of a game as I’ve seen from Tua, McDaniel, and this Dolphins offense.
I have to remind myself that I felt this way last year after that Week 2 explosion against the Ravens—that the Dolphins offense was unstoppable, that they’d score 40 every game. They ran into speed bumps then, and they probably will this season, too.
But man, are they a sight to see when they’re grooving. All I want is 17 healthy games of Tua, so we can see what records they can erase from the books.
The Little Things
It’s the little things in football that matter the most—zany plays, small victories, and some laughs. Here’s where you can find them.
1. The Falcons’ decision to draft Bijan Robinson was hotly debated. I’m sure that the fact that incumbent running back Tyler Allgeier carried the ball more than Robinson on Sunday (with 15 carries to Robinson’s 10), and scored two rushing touchdowns to Robinson’s zero, will only further frustrate those who questioned the pick.
Of course, Robinson also had six catches (which led the team) for 27 yards and a score—but I don’t want to use his receiving production as a justification for the pick. I just want you to watch Robinson move.
Here’s the touchdown.
Bijan Robinson’s first NFL touchdown: pic.twitter.com/uKbSplNzCc— Adam Schefter (@AdamSchefter) September 10, 2023
Now, obviously, that cut is sick as heck. On the long list of ways to break a tackle, the small step back that sends a defender careening into the sideline is one of the gnarliest.
But there’s also this run.
I can’t stop watching the way he made Panthers safety Jeremy Chinn miss at the 10-yard line, in a phone booth, moving at full speed. Let’s watch it again.
I have no comment on positional value and economic uses of draft picks. I’m sure the Falcons would have been better served from a strict team-building perspective by drafting a quarterback or a corner or a tackle. But goodness gracious this young man is talented. I just want to keep watching him play.
2. On paper, a 25-9 loss doesn’t indicate a positive performance for the Texans. But I’d argue that the start for DeMeco Ryans’s defense in Houston was a strong one. They held the Ravens’ new-look offense to a negative expected points added per dropback and a success rate of only 39 percent.
Ryans’s San Francisco defenses were known for their aggressiveness—they played fast, they blitzed, they created takeaways. They’d light you up. One game in, and Houston’s new head coach seems to have brought that philosophy with him to Texas. The Texans pressured Lamar Jackson on 39 percent of his dropbacks and sacked him on 15 percent (!), an enormous number. They generated two takeaways, including one in the red zone that came as the result of—you guessed it—pressure.
The Texans’ lack of talent is gonna keep them from actually competing—especially if safety Jalen Pitre, a star in the making, misses extended time after a bruised lung took him out of the game. This year is about culture, fit, philosophy, buy-in. And I thought Week 1 was an encouraging sign.
3. The best play of the day came in Jaguars-Colts. It was a strip sack by DeForest Buckner turned scoop-and-score by DeForest Buckner. Only, there was a little something that happened in between. Watch:
Coachable moment for rookie running back Tank Bigsby, who thinks he’s snagging a bouncing ball, but is really recovering a fumble. Listen for the whistle, young man.
And kudos to the refs for not blowing the whistle! How often do plays like this die on the vine when an overenthusiastic ref whistles the play dead?
4. While we are on Jaguars-Colts: Running back Jonathan Taylor is on the PUP list as he rehabs from an ankle injury. Given the trade discussions and staredown with ownership this offseason, it’s tough to gauge exactly how healthy Taylor actually is. It was reported Sunday that Taylor “could pass [his physical] today.”
But I think the Colts would have beaten the Jaguars on Sunday had Taylor been healthy and active. Their non–Anthony Richardson runners accounted for 25 yards on 16 carries. On non-scrambles, the Colts averaged a league-worst minus-0.67 EPA per rush—more than twice as bad as the next-worst team. Deon Jackson, the starting back, fumbled a checkdown when the Colts were in field goal range, then fumbled again on a fourth-and-1.
Put Taylor in the backfield, and so much of that goes away. I can’t guarantee a win, but Richardson looked more ready than I thought he’d be, and the defense got some key stops. Taylor’s absence was apparent and painful.
5. I’m super into the way that Packers linebacker Quay Walker picked off Justin Fields, started to return it, saw Bears running back Roschon Johnson waiting to tackle him, ran directly at him, bounced off him like it was absolutely nothing, and scored.
6. I don’t have much to say on 49ers-Steelers, a game that was 17-0 before I finished my sausage, egg, and cheese (on a havarti dill bagel, because I’m a swanky boy). I did, however, enjoy this screengrab.
The Zag: Joe Burrow Wasn’t Ready to Play
I tend to be a little contrarian. It’s not so much a personal choice as it is an occupational hazard. Here’s where I’ll plant my flag.
The NFL world held its collective breath in late July when Bengals quarterback Joe Burrow pulled up on a scramble during training camp, unable to put weight on his right leg. A calf strain, the report came. Out for “several weeks.”
Six weeks later (is six several?), Burrow was practicing for Week 1. “I’m ready to go,” he said on Wednesday. He really was not. The Bengals scored three points against the Browns on Sunday, and Burrow and the Bengals offense looked dreadful.
Let’s start with the obvious: Burrow is gonna be fine. I remember when Burrow threw four interceptions to the Steelers in Week 1 last season and took 13 sacks over his first two games as the Bengals started 0-2. I wrote about it at the time, saying that it required experimentation, schematic evolution, a philosophy shift—but it was fixable. And the Bengals got it fixed, and were very, very good for many, many games. There is no reason to freak out about a poor Week 1 performance.
Let’s continue with the even more obvious: Burrow played in some pretty serious rain on Sunday. Both Burrow and Browns QB Deshaun Watson had some seriously inaccurate throws as they battled the elements. After four series, Burrow put a glove on his throwing hand—something I cannot remember him ever doing before—after a couple of passes clearly slipped out of his hands. This weather alone should encourage us to mute all overreactions to Burrow’s day.
Now, with the necessary caveats in place: This was the worst game of Burrow’s career. He completed 14 of 31 pass attempts for a gruesome 82 yards. That’s a measly 2.6 yards per attempt, barely more than half of the previous worst single-game mark in his career (5.1). Only 21 percent of Burrow’s dropbacks in this game generated positive expected points—again, dead last in his career game log.
That Burrow had a dreadful day is less interesting to me than why he had one. Cincinnati’s offense was … weird. The Bengals took 52 out of their 54 plays against the Browns from the gun—a whopping 96 percent, matching the highest mark Burrow’s seen in his career. Teams that align in the gun on over 90 percent of their dropbacks are typically teams with mobile quarterbacks and option running games—but that’s not the Bengals.
From the gun, Burrow got the ball out fast, logging the ninth-fastest time to throw of his career. I watched his dropbacks and counted one drop longer than a three-step drop. Everything was about staying in the pocket and getting the ball out quickly. The Bengals passing game was riddled with swings and screens to Joe Mixon, RPO quick-breakers to Ja’Marr Chase, 50-50 go balls to Tee Higgins. This was a game plan appropriate for Sam Howell or Gardner Minshew—not Joe Burrow.
Of course, as the game got further out of hand, the Bengals needed to push the ball—and they did. Burrow attempted 11 passes that traveled more than 10 yards downfield—about an average amount for him. But again, they were uncharacteristically early in the down, taking 2.1 seconds per pass attempt. (The league-average time to throw on passes 10-plus yards downfield last season was 3.04; Burrow’s was 2.64.) And they were also uncharacteristically unsuccessful—Burrow went 1-for-11 on his attempts. His one completion was exactly 10 yards downfield.
If you wanted to, you could really try to jerry-rig a logic for this game plan that excludes Burrow’s injured calf. There’s no reason quick passes should be any better in the rain when you’re still going to throw downfield into 50-50 situations, but let’s say it was the rain. And the Browns pass rush isn’t that fierce just yet, even with the offseason additions of defensive coordinator Jim Schwartz and pass rusher Za’Darius Smith. I don’t think a shotgun, get-the-ball-out passing game was required for an offense like the Bengals. You retooled your offensive line all last offseason—why not use it? Your quarterback is one of the best in the league under pressure—why waste that?
The only satisfactory explanation for why Zac Taylor and the Bengals deployed an offense like this is that Burrow’s calf is not fully healed. I really can’t get my head around anything else. The quick game from the gun limited how much he had to move around and how much he got hit. Whenever he did have to escape pressure, he got rid of the ball as quickly as he could. It feels like they were protecting him.
It’s OK if they were. Players play hurt all the time—welcome to the NFL. Now that I know the scoreboard, I wonder whether the Bengals should have sat Burrow, taken the L, and given him another week to actually reach 100 percent—but that’s with the benefit of hindsight. After the game, Burrow said his calf felt “good enough”—and maybe it did. But the Bengals ran their offense like they were terrified of asking Burrow to do anything, and that worries me.
This, like the Bengals’ poor start to 2022, is also fixable. But unlike 2022, which was all about scheme and creativity, this is about health. It’s about actually feeling like you can call your whole offense with Burrow out there; that he can play the way he typically plays. Until then, expect the Bengals offense to continue looking funky.
(Mostly Real) Awards
I’ll hand out some awards. Most of them will be real. Some of them won’t be.
Offensive Player of the Year (of the Week): Jacksonville Jaguars Receiver Calvin Ridley
Other receivers were more productive on Sunday than Ridley, who logged 101 yards and a score on eight catches. But it was our first time seeing Ridley play NFL ball in over a year, and it was great to see him feeling his usual self. It is also clear that Trevor Lawrence immediately trusts Ridley, given the tight windows into which Lawrence was rifling that football. Ridley looks every part the WR1 the Jaguars hoped they were getting, and the offense has every piece it needs to hum this year.
Defensive Player of the Year (of the Week): Atlanta Falcons Safety Jessie Bates III
Perhaps the most impactful player on any field this week was Bates, who generated three turnovers in his first game as a Falcon after signing a four-year, $64 million free agent deal this offseason. Bates’s two-interception, one-forced-fumble day is only the 39th such day in NFL history. One of his picks got the Falcons the ball inside Carolina’s 20, leading to the first points of the game; his forced fumble came while the game was tied and the Panthers were driving. What a debut.
The Regression Award: The Minnesota Vikings and New York Giants
Every football analyst knew two things last season: that the Giants’ season was pretty fake, and that the Vikings’ season was somehow faker. To begin 2023, the Vikings lost to the Baker Mayfield Bucs during the early slate, and the Giants got all of their fans out in the torrential rain to watch them get mollywhopped by the Cowboys. Thank you, data, for being right over large(r) samples.
The “This Young Man Can Play” Award: Jordan Love
The Ben Solak Scouting Corporation (me and my dog) are happy to award Jordan Love the 2023 Week 1 “This Young Man Can Play” Award. Love is a three-time winner of this award, making him one of the most prolific Young Men who Can Play of recent years. Love previously won this award for Not Looking Terrible against the Chiefs in a 2021 start, as well as for his Nine Solid Passing Attempts against the Eagles last season. After a 245-yard, three-touchdown, turnover-less performance in Week 1 against the Bears, the Ben Solak Scouting Corporation is pleased to announce: This young man can play.
Offensive Rookie of the Year (of the Week): Los Angeles Rams Receiver Puka Nacua
Puka Nacua (whose name must always be said in full, because of its musical qualities) was a darling of the NFL draft deep-divers. But as a fifth-round rookie, he wasn’t expected to contribute much—and then Cooper Kupp went down. With so many targets available for the Rams, someone had to step up. Puka Nacua answered the call, with 10 catches for 119 yards on 15 targets—that’s 40 percent of the total passes Matthew Stafford attempted on Sunday. Nobody can replace Kupp, but Puka Nacua is doing his part.
Defensive Rookie of the Year (of the Week): Houston Texans Defensive End Will Anderson Jr.
I wrote a little about DeMeco Ryans’s Texans defense above, but I didn’t mention Anderson, an easily forgotten top-five pick because the Texans made another top-five selection (and it was a quarterback). Anderson’s debut was stunning.
Watch Anderson’s first career sack here. Do you understand how hard it is to take that corner with an entire offensive tackle leaning on you, keep your balance, and close on Lamar Jackson? Those are premium traits. I’m loving what I’m seeing.
Will Anderson generated 6 pressures in his NFL debut, the most by a rookie in Week 1 since Nick Bosa and Josh Allen in 2019.— Next Gen Stats (@NextGenStats) September 10, 2023
Anderson generated 6 defensive stops, tied for the most by a rookie EDGE in Week 1 in the NGS era (since 2016).#HOUvsBAL | #WeAreTexans pic.twitter.com/mU28zguqcL
Runner-Up for Most Famous Butt-Related Fumble Play: Brock Purdy
On the cosmic scales of the universe, every Butt Fumble must be balanced by a Butt Recovery. An arc that began with Mark Sanchez on November 22, 2012, was finally closed today by Brock Purdy, who recovered his own fumble with his tuchus.
How did Brock Purdy recover this football? pic.twitter.com/ogZE7Uvnvr— Ben Brown (@BenBrownPL) September 10, 2023
The Honesty Award: Ja’Marr Chase
The only thing I respect more than a big talker is a big talker who owns it when his chickens come home to roost.
Ja'Marr Chase postgame in Cleveland:— Joe Danneman (@FOX19Joe) September 10, 2023
"It's frustrating because I called they ass elves and we just lost to some elves, so I'm pissed on my part." pic.twitter.com/WEvw2Fw50y
Next Ben Stats
What it sounds like: Next Gen Stats, but I get to make them up.
100: The number of muffed snaps we had this Sunday
Man, Week 1 is sloppy. I know it’s easy to blame limited practice time and diminishing preseason participation—and there is some truth to that for sure—but the fact is, Week 1 will always be sloppy. With that said, I feel like the QB-center exchange has got to be something we can nail down under the current practice rules.
Almost every game on Sunday had a muffed or aborted snap. I started keeping track during the afternoon games as I saw them or remembered them. Here are my notes.
- Eagles Q1
- Dolphins two on first drive fumble in the red zone brother you can’t do this
- Ravens had one
- Commanders had one i think
- Panthers or Falcons did
- Jordan Love had one on leak and still completed it lmao
- Giants first quarter (rain)
1 million: The amount of dollars Brian Burns would like to have added to Nick Bosa’s contract, before it is presented to him to be signed
At this time last week, there were three potential holdouts for Week 1: Chris Jones, Nick Bosa, and Brian Burns. Jones did indeed hold out; Bosa got his extension; Burns is left in the middle, playing without a long-term deal.
The best way to punish the Panthers for not getting the job done? Produce. Burns played like a man on a mission against the Falcons, ending the day with 1.5 sacks, a TFL, and a forced fumble. He did that work against a good right tackle in Kaleb McGary; next week, he gets Trevor Penning, who gave up two sacks in Week 1; the week after, he gets Seattle, who lost both of its tackles to injury on Sunday.
The Burns “You Shoulda Paid Me” tour is well underway.
6: The number of pressures that Eagles rookie Jalen Carter had against the Patriots
Technically, a Next Gen Stat. But I love it, so it’s also mine.
Jalen Carter recorded 6 pressures and a sack on 32 pass rushes in his NFL debut, tied for the most pressures by any rookie defensive tackle in a game over the last five seasons.#PHIvsNE | #FlyEaglesFly— Next Gen Stats (@NextGenStats) September 11, 2023
Winners and Losers
Thanks for getting to the end of the column here. I hope you enjoyed it. It’s my first Sunday night/Monday morning column for The Ringer, and it is occupying very large shoes.
For the last six years, Rodger Sherman’s Winners and Losers lived in this space. It was an excellent piece every time—it loved football and it loved showing it, in all of its quirks and miracles. It could not have possibly been written by anyone besides Rodger Sherman, a singular journalist in his voice and enthusiasm, as well as his willingness to help—he spent 90 minutes on the phone with me last month, giving me advice on how to best execute this column (while also extolling the virtues of pigeons and lamenting the fact that he had never visited Fargo, North Dakota).
Rodger is currently on an epic road trip, attending as many college football games as he can this season. I encourage you to follow Rodger’s journey—Road Rodge—here. There’s nobody who does the job quite like Rodge.