The football was largely bad in Week 1. Like, really bad. A handful of games were ruined by rain, others by poor execution, and some by both, including Sunday’s ugliest contest: a 24-3 Cleveland Browns win over the Cincinnati Bengals in which Joe Burrow set career lows in just about every major passing statistic. But before we jump to any conclusions about the defending AFC North champions—or any of the other winners and losers from the first full Sunday of the season—let’s take a deep breath, consider all the facts, and try to figure out which surprising developments are real and signs of things to come, and which are just early-season flukes. The question in each case is simple: Is this real or fake?
The Dallas Cowboys’ Micah Parsons is the NFL’s best defender (on its best defense).
The numbers aren’t all that impressive: One sack, two QB hits, two hurries, and four total pressures. So instead of using stats to capture just how absurdly dominant Parsons was in the Cowboys’ 40-0 beatdown of the Giants on Sunday night, I’ll just use this clip of him walking through two blockers, clearing the way for his teammate to pick up a sack.
Micah Parsons was wrecking a double team so hard that the Giants literally couldn't block the guy beside himpic.twitter.com/7WKk44YzMG— Sam Monson (@PFF_Sam) September 11, 2023
Cowboys defensive coordinator Dan Quinn deployed Parsons all over the front on Sunday, and that unpredictability made it difficult for the Giants to send help to whichever poor lineman got tasked with blocking him. As you can see above, even when New York did get an extra body on Parsons, it didn’t make much of a difference.
Parsons is too strong for the league’s biggest blockers. He’s too quick for the nimblest ones. And it doesn’t matter whether he’s got his hand in the dirt in a three-point stance or he’s standing up: Parsons is equally effective. That puts him over the top for me in any discussion about the NFL’s best defensive players. He’s a defensive game plan all on his own. Quinn can simply point toward a threat posed by the opposing offense, and Parsons will handle it himself.
OK, that’s a bit of an exaggeration. Parsons gets plenty of help from the rest of a loaded Cowboys defense. The cornerback pair of Trevon Diggs and Stephon Gilmore is a perfect complement to Dallas’s havoc-wreaking pass rush and gives the defensive line a bit longer to get home. And Quinn doesn’t get enough credit for drawing up pressures that take advantage of his star pass rusher’s comprehensive skill set. But no defense centers its entire system around a singular talent like Dallas. Not Nick Bosa’s 49ers, which alternate their focal point between Bosa and middle linebacker Fred Warner. And while Aaron Donald is still an elite defender—and causes opposing quarterbacks to cry out for divine intervention—he’s on the tail end of his career. Donald’s down years are better than 99.9 percent of the league, but Parsons just happens to be in that 0.1 percent.
The Miami Dolphins and Los Angeles Chargers will never stop scoring.
An ugly day of football was salvaged by one of the most entertaining Week 1 games in recent memory. Miami ended up stealing a 36-34 road win thanks to some truly clutch play by Tua Tagovailoa, including maybe the best throw of his career: a vertical toss made on the move that hit Tyreek Hill in stride and set up the game-winning score. But while Tagovailoa saved his best for last, he was brilliant throughout the game in the same ways he was effective last season before multiple concussions ended his breakout campaign.
Before Tagovailoa went down last year, the Dolphins offense had hit a rough patch with back-to-back stinkers against the 49ers and the same Chargers defense it set fire to on Sunday. In the game last year, Los Angeles played press coverage and successfully handled Miami’s pre-snap motion. The early openings Tua had been exploiting with his quick release were jammed up, and his rhythm was thrown off. Chargers coach Brandon Staley also threw in some well-disguised coverages that made the Dolphins quarterback hesitate, and the 23-17 result was the worst outing for an otherwise dominant unit.
We didn’t see the same execution out of the Chargers defense in Sunday’s rematch, but Tagovailoa deserves the bulk of the credit for the fireworks display this passing game put on. He finished the game with 466 passing yards and three scores and made several plays under immense pressure after his first read had been taken away.
Questions about Tagovailoa’s capacity to stay healthy may never go away, but he’s slowly assuaging any concerns about his game. If the quarterback we saw on Sunday sticks around for the next 17 weeks, Miami’s offense will be at the top of the league’s scoring charts all season, and Tua might find himself in the MVP conversation once again.
As for the other team’s quarterback, Justin Herbert played a clean game in his first start in Kellen Moore’s offense. And while the result was a heartbreaking loss for a franchise that is all too familiar with the feeling, there are some positives to take away: For one, the Chargers won’t have to play Miami again for the rest of the regular season. And two, Moore’s offense scored almost every time it touched the ball. If Los Angeles averages over three points per drive for the rest of the season, it won’t be on the losing end of too many more games.
More important, the Chargers seemed to have discovered an early-down run game thanks to Moore’s creative usage of tempo and pre-snap motion, which helped gash a Miami defensive line that dominated this matchup last season. Herbert averaged just over seven air yards per attempt, which is still a low number for a quarterback with his arm, but the lack of downfield throws didn’t come at the offense’s expense. Miami was content to sit back in zone coverage for most of the game—before a late flurry of aggressiveness from Dolphins defensive coordinator Vic Fangio—and the shorter throws underneath often led to productive gains. That efficient, quick passing game combined with Moore’s souped-up running game made moving the ball much easier. If the biggest concern for the Chargers in 2023 was creating a productive system that would get the most out of Herbert and a solid group of skill players, the team has to be happy with the early results.
Los Angeles didn’t move the ball quite like Miami, but that’s a standard just about every team in the league will have a hard time meeting.
Joe Burrow and the Cincinnati Bengals passing game can’t handle a little rain?
How do you stop a quarterback worth $275 million who’s throwing to two top-10 receivers? Apparently, you just add a splash of rain—OK, a lot of rain—and a disruptive four-man pass rush, and that should do the trick. That formula certainly worked for Cleveland’s new-look defense, led by first-year coordinator Jim Schwartz, in a 24-3 win over a Bengals team that is expected to compete for the Super Bowl.
Before we get too excited about what could happen in Cleveland, let’s acknowledge that the quarterback the Browns have heavily invested in didn’t look sharp either. Deshaun Watson was inaccurate and indecisive and threw the ball into coverage on multiple occasions. The rain wasn’t affecting just Burrow, who managed only 82 passing yards before leaving the game in the fourth quarter when things got out of hand. Watson looked just as bad in the elements.
The rain offers up a convenient explanation for Burrow’s poor play. As does his track record of starting the season slow. But I think we’re all ignoring the most obvious answer here: the calf injury that kept Burrow out of most of the preseason. There were some significant differences between the way the Bengals called their plays during the game against the Browns on Sunday and how they operated last season. On Sunday, almost all of their offensive snaps were taken from the shotgun formation—98 percent with Burrow on the field! Although they started using this formation more often in the second half of the previous season, it was taken to an extreme in Sunday’s game. This suggests that it was a deliberate decision to limit the movement of their quarterback, especially since Burrow seemed hesitant to extend plays with his legs. Other teams have abandoned under-center formations in the recent past to protect an injured quarterback, such as Russell Wilson in 2021 and Aaron Rodgers in 2015. With Burrow already preferring to be in the shotgun, stripping all of the under-center calls from the call sheet wouldn’t be the most significant change.
Burrow’s limited mobility did significantly change the way he plays, however. On the rare but increasing occasions when defenses have figured out a way to cover both Ja’Marr Chase and Tee Higgins while also taking away any checkdown options, Burrow has used his legs to either run for yardage himself or draw the defense out of position. We didn’t see any of that creativity on display on Sunday. Burrow hung in the pocket until the Browns pass rush got home, waiting for one of his receivers to get open. As scrambling didn’t seem to be a viable option, Burrow had to rush throws into coverage to avoid taking even more hits than the 10 Cleveland landed.
The idea that Burrow’s a bad quarterback in the rain would be convenient for the hand-size truthers out there, but, per TruMedia, this was the first time in his career that he started a game with rain at kickoff. There’s just not enough evidence to back that up. The more plausible explanation—that what was supposed to be a four-week calf injury is lingering into the season—is much more worrying. But time will tell.
The Green Bay Packers offense is better off with Jordan Love.
What figures to be a season of change for the Packers got off to a familiar start on Sunday as Green Bay did what it has done for the last three decades: beat the Bears with superior quarterback play. Only this time, it wasn’t a Canton-bound quarterback picking Chicago’s defense apart. It was Love, a fourth-year pro who had just one previous NFL start to his name. Love threw for 245 yards and three touchdowns in the 38-20 win. And with just one game left in the Week 1 slate, Love leads the NFL in passer rating and touchdowns thrown. The Packers look like a contender in the NFC North, and their young quarterback looks like a star in the making.
The scoreboard and Love’s stat line flatter the offense’s performance, which included a few off-target throws, often the result of undisciplined footwork. But this was an encouraging start for the unit and its young quarterback. Love wasn’t asked to do too much—as the Bears largely made things easy on Green Bay with their mistakes. But the 24-year-old was at his best when he found himself in adverse situations. He converted on three third-and-long plays, and each one was more impressive than the last. During the first, which resulted in Love’s first touchdown pass of the day, he hung in the pocket and delivered a side-armed strike to the back of the end zone.
You need to watch this next play from the end zone angle to fully appreciate it. Love wants to hit Jayden Reed over the middle on third-and-10, but the Bears have flooded that area with defenders. He could check it down, something Rodgers did all too often last season, but he decides to create a throwing window himself using a no-look pass to draw the linebacker, Tremaine Edmunds, out of the way. Watch how Love’s eye pulls Edmunds out of the window.
The last third-and-long conversion didn’t require too much processing, but it did necessitate plenty of arm talent. Without much of a window to work with, Love fit the ball in between three zone defenders with an out-breaking throw from the far hash:
Love had some shaky moments as well. There were a few premature scrambles, and he sailed a couple of passes that required a bit more finesse. Those have been issues for Love in the past, and he may require time and experience to iron them out of his game.
But for now, Love’s skill set has allowed Matt LaFleur to get back to his roots as a play caller—a marked change from the past few seasons, when LaFleur had to meld his style with Rodgers’s preferences. That wasn’t necessarily a bad thing: The Packers won a lot of games, and Rodgers took home back-to-back MVP awards. But it didn’t work without Davante Adams, and it became clear last year that Green Bay needed to make some wholesale changes. We saw those changes on Sunday. The Packers lined up more under center—Rodgers has always preferred the gun—and used more play-action. There was less quick game with five receivers running routes, leaving only five blockers in protection. And by keeping blockers in, Green Bay had more time for downfield routes to develop. That led to a higher average depth of target for Love and a more ambitious passing game than we saw last season:
As washed up as Rodgers looked at times last year, it’s silly to expect Love to provide better QB play this season. But that doesn’t mean the offense can’t and won’t be improved.
NFL teams got the 2023 QB draft order backward.
Let’s get the obvious caveats out of the way: It’s just one game. Bryce Young, C.J. Stroud, and Anthony Richardson will likely play dozens to hundreds more throughout their careers. It would be foolish to draw any firm conclusion from a single start. But we’re going to do that anyway.
Young was the first off the board, so let’s start there. He had some brutal moments in a 24-10 loss to the Falcons on Sunday, including two identical picks to Jessie Bates, which set Atlanta up for two scores. More concerning than the picks, though, was the lack of playmaking we saw out of Young. He didn’t push the ball downfield, finishing with an aDOT of 6.3, per Next Gen Stats. His three scrambles produced only 17 yards and one first down. He just never posed much of a threat to an Atlanta defense that isn’t expected to be all that good. If any part of Young’s collegiate game was expected to translate quickly to the NFL, it was the out-of-structure stuff, but we didn’t see that on Sunday.
Contrary to whatever you may have read on their predraft scouting reports, Stroud looked better outside of the pocket than Young. That had been the big question about his game going into the draft, and while scrambling will never be his primary skill set, Stroud proved on Sunday that he can run away from an NFL pass rusher. There were no such questions about his ability to work from the pocket, and that’s still true after his team’s 25-9 loss to the Ravens. Stroud rarely blinked in the face of pressure. And though the Texans offense failed to close out a drive until the game was already decided, they did move the ball well through the air at times. Stroud’s 242 yards are the eighth-highest mark of Week 1 thus far, and those yards were well earned. A lot of that production came on tight-window throws over the middle on obvious passing downs. That’s where Stroud will have to win if he’s going to make it as a longtime starter. Sunday was a good first step.
Still, it was Richardson, widely viewed as the least NFL-ready of the three quarterbacks taken in the first round this year, who had the most productive debut. He threw for 233 yards and added another 40 on the ground. He threw for a touchdown and also ran one in himself. And yes, he made a few rookie mistakes: Richardson was sacked on nearly 10 percent of his dropbacks and missed high on several throws, which had been an issue for him at Florida. His interception came on a poorly placed pass.
But how quickly the rookie can clean up those mistakes will determine how far he can take the Colts offense. As we saw against a playoff-caliber opponent in Jacksonville, Richardson’s size and athleticism should be enough to keep him productive while he seeks out consistency as a passer. Young and Stroud don’t have that crutch. Stroud is a decent but underdeveloped pocket passer. A strong supporting cast is needed to make that work. Young is a playmaker who looks overwhelmed by NFL size and speed. It’s going to take time and reps for Young to get used to this new level of competition.
Before the draft, Richardson looked like the quarterback prospect with the highest ceiling thanks to a record-setting athletic profile. After one week, that athleticism has him looking like the rookie with the highest floor. That sounds like QB1 to me.
Preseason results are a lie and Kenny Pickett is doomed to fail in the Pittsburgh Steelers offense.
The Steelers’ first-team offense was on the field for five preseason drives. It scored a touchdown on each of them. By the end of their fifth drive in a lopsided Week 1 loss to the 49ers, that same unit had totaled negative-9 yards. Pickett did lead his team down for a touchdown on their sixth possession, but that was the only time the Steelers found the end zone all day. In the end, Pickett averaged 5.0 yards per attempt, threw two picks, and finished with the third-worst EPA of Week 1 through Sunday’s games.
As a longtime Pickett skeptic, I’d love to take a victory lap here, but it’s probably too early for that—even if we can all laugh off the preseason hype that surrounded this team. This was always going to be a building block year for Pittsburgh as it continues to craft an offense that’s suitable for Pickett’s unique skill set. And San Francisco’s defense is perfectly suited to give this particular quarterback hell. Pickett is a scrambler who relies on a good pre-snap read or a clean pocket to play in a rhythm. He wasn’t going to get either of those matching up against a 49ers defense that led the NFL in basically every efficiency metric last season.
I can’t fairly judge Pickett’s performance, as rocky as it was, when he’s dealing with circumstances that no young quarterback would succeed in. We’ve seen him play better than this—not just last month but also down the stretch of the previous regular season in competitive games. One 60-minute performance doesn’t negate all that progress. It does, however, offer up more proof that Matt Canada is not the offensive coordinator who is going to give Pickett the schematic help he needs.
We’re now in year three of Canada’s time in Pittsburgh and his second year working with Pickett. There’s been no marked improvement, and all of the problems that were left over when Ben Roethlisberger finally retired still persist. Maybe this won’t be the breakout year Steelers fans had envisioned for Pickett, but if it leads to an eventual change at offensive coordinator, it could be remembered as the year when his development got knocked back on track.
Verdict: It’s too early to say “Real,” but I’m not ready to say “Fake” either
Kyle Shanahan and Jimmy Garoppolo are better off without each other.
At first glance, these two didn’t seem to need each other on Sunday. Shanahan’s 49ers dropped 30 points on a Steelers defense that’s expected to finish in the top 10 this season, and Brock Purdy continues to look like the quarterback the notoriously picky coach never knew he needed. Purdy cooled down after a near-perfect start to the game but still finished with the highest QBR (91.3) of the week so far, per ESPN. Christian McCaffrey handled most of the heavy lifting for San Francisco’s offense, rushing for more than 150 and saying to hell with your positional value arguments. The 49ers still haven’t lost a regular-season game started by both Purdy and McCaffrey. Another way of saying that: San Francisco hasn’t lost a regular-season game since Garoppolo’s last start in red and gold.
After leading the Raiders to a 17-16 win over Denver in Mile High Stadium and moving to 1-0 with his new team, Garoppolo can say the same. But while the 49ers offense looks a lot different now that Garoppolo is no longer at the helm, the veteran quarterback is still the Jimmy G we all remember from San Francisco—even without Shanahan’s schematic guardrails keeping him on track. We saw the confident throws over the middle of the field; the ball came out quickly and accurately; and he even made some of his trademark mistakes, including a red zone interception that kept Denver in the game. But Garoppolo overcame those mistakes to post the ninth-highest EPA average of the week, per TruMedia. It’s like he never left Shanahan’s offense.
But while I have no doubts that Shanahan and the 49ers will be able to keep this going beyond Week 1, I’m not so sure about the sustainability of Garoppolo’s success—mostly because he’ll need Josh McDaniels to stay ahead of defensive coordinators as consistently as Shanahan has been able to throughout his career. McDaniels’s recent track record has been spotty in that regard: His offenses have regressed in the second halves of the last four seasons, including his final seasons coaching Tom Brady in New England. When things start going bad and you have a more limited quarterback, there are fewer buttons for an offensive coordinator to push. I’ll believe McDaniels can find those buttons when I see it.
Verdict: Fake … at least for Jimmy G
Sean McVay, Matthew Stafford, and the Los Angeles Rams offense are back.
If you ignored the unrecognizable names and just focused on the football being played, you might have thought you were watching an old version of McVay’s offense. The Rams put up 30 in a surprisingly easy win over the Seahawks, with a resurgent Stafford leading the passing game and little recognizable talent around him. Puka Nacua and Tutu Atwell tied for the team lead with 119 receiving yards each. And together they did an adequate impression of Cooper Kupp, who missed the first of at least four games after landing on short-term IR this weekend.
In the meantime, the Rams will have no choice but to ride Stafford’s arm until it falls off. I doubt that was McVay’s vision for Sunday, but that waswhat the game turned into after L.A.’s initial attempts to establish a run game failed. The Rams averaged just over 3 yards per play on first downs with a success rate of 33.3 percent, per TruMedia. The magic happened on third downs, and it all emanated from Stafford. He averaged over 10 yards per dropback and was second among all passers on Sunday with an EPA average of 0.67 per play on those money downs. Only Garoppolo topped Stafford’s 58 percent success rate, per TruMedia.
We got some pure, uncut Matthew Stafford today. pic.twitter.com/nb16aQdDvl— Robert Mays (@robertmays) September 11, 2023
If there were any concerns about the quarterback’s mounting health problems and how they might affect his throwing ability, just turn on the tape from Sunday, sit back, and enjoy the show. This was vintage Stafford. I’d compare the performance to what we saw out of the Rams passer during his initial season in Los Angeles, but this version may have been even better. He’s slimmed down, which has given his mobility a nice little boost. The 35-year-old even took off for a first-down scramble at one point. But most of the damage was done with his arm. Stafford attacked the middle of the field without mercy, finding openings in Seattle zone coverage or creating them himself with shoulder feints, look-offs, and side-armed throws.
Stafford has the ability to make those plays a handful of times per week, but the Rams relied on his dropback prowess to keep the offense viable against a Seattle unit that wasn’t exactly a world-beater a season ago. That’s not a sustainable business model for an offense that’s short on talent around the quarterback position. Until we see this version of the passing game remain productive over a few games—or some improvement to a running game that’s been dormant for going on two years now—we should keep our expectations for this Rams offense relatively low. We can revisit the discussion when Kupp returns.