Tuesday, September 15, 2015

NFL Week 1 Wrap: Patriots beat Steelers and Niners Defense Impresses With a Bunch of Other Stuff In Between

It was an exciting first weekend in the NFL with some upsets, some key injuries, some standout performances and a rookie quarterback that went a long way toward silencing the critics who thought he would be a flop (at least for one week). The Jets won a game convincingly 31-10, though only over the lowly Browns, the Cowboys snuck past a Giants team that blundered time management in astounding ways 27-26 (with veterans Coughlin and Manning competing for the highest score on the “boneheaded plays of the week” barometer), Seattle was beaten 34-31 after a questionable OT decision of their own, Denver won without a single Peyton Manning touchdown throw (19-13) and New England started things off with a tight win over the Steelers (27-20). The Titans crushed the hapless Bucs (42-14), the Chargers came from behind to score 30 straight points on the way to a 33-28 win over the Lions, the Dolphins snuck past the Redskins (17-10), Buffalo literally pummeled the highflying Colts offense in a 27-14 win led by 26 blitzes, the Panthers beat the Jags on the road 20-9, the Chiefs held off Houston 27-20 after building a huge early lead, the Cardinals beat the Saints 31-19 in Carson Palmer’s return and the Bengals impressed in beating the Raiders 33-13.

Monday night saw the Falcons jump out to a 20-3 lead on the Eagles, before falling behind 24-23 as the Eagles dominated the second half with some strong defending and an impressive offensive display by Sam Bradford and his panoply of weapons. Then, after a Falcons field goal, the Eagles next drive stalled to a fourth and one coach Chip Kelly seriously considered going for. Instead he sent out the field goal unit and saw the kick wide right. Atlanta was able to run time off the clock and ultimately win the game. Then the Niners and Vikings played one of the ugliest first halves you will ever see in the NFL, with one mistake after another, before the Niners finally put the ball in the end zone with less than a minute left in the first half.  The Vikings didn’t score until the fourth quarter, making their second field goal attempt to draw to 10-3 down before the Niners offense really started to click and they went on to win 20-3.

Some thoughts on Week 1:

Time Is (Not) On Your Side
Everyone has, of course, been writing and talking about the Giants blowing a game by
failing to manage the clock effectively near the end of a game the Cowboys won with a mere seven seconds on the clock. It was an extraordinary final 5:08, with the Giants converting on several third downs just when the Cowboys looked set to get the ball back before one of the most bizarre set of decisions in recent memory (of course it is only week one). At one point, Manning snapped the ball with 18 seconds left on a running play clock on a third down they did convert. Beyond those 18 seconds, there was the inexcusable contention by Giants running back Andre Williams that he was told by Manning to “not score,” even as a touchdown would have given them a 10-point lead with less than two minutes and the Cowboys without a timeout needing two scores. The two runs from in close were each met by a Cowboy timeout until the now infamous third down decision to throw the ball. This was not implicitly a bad decision, though the formation the Giants lined up with seemed to leave a smaller chance of scoring a touchdown. The big mistake though came when Eli decided to throw the ball away, rather than take the sack and run an additional 40 seconds or so off the clock. Then on fourth and 1, the Giants went for a field goal, when even a failed conversion would have burned seconds off the clock and left the Cowboys having to go at least 70 yards for what would be a tying field goal and extra time. Coughlin has been behind some great comebacks and great upsets over the years, but this was a game they should have won – even as the Cowboys dominated them but for three costly turnovers.

Timing also went against the Seahawks, though in a different way. First they had used the remaining time in the fourth quarter to come back and tie the Rams. Then, winning the toss in extra time, Pete Carroll appeared to lose his mind, allowing his kicker to try a failed onside kick (though he later claimed it was a mistake by the special teams). The Rams scored a field goal and then kicked the ball off to the Seahawks. Facing a second game deciding fourth and one in their last two official game, though this time at midfield, Carroll refused to again be criticized for throwing the ball and instead gave it to Marshall Lynch, who was caught behind the line, costing Seattle the game.

Lack of time was the essential problem for Luck and the Colts, as the constantly blitzing Bills left the quarterback without the time to find open receivers. It was a brilliant strategy by Ryan, who blitzed to the inside around the center while counting on his defensive ends to keep Luck contained and then on his cornerbacks and safeties to shut off the outside channels. Luck started to figure things out in the second half, but it was too late. And time played a part in the Philly loss as well, as they forgot to actually start playing the game until close to halftime. They then dominated the second half and took the lead, only to see a missed field goal and missed reception (that was ultimately intercepted) cost them a game they really should have won. Time is certainly at a premium early in the NFL season, and will continue to be throughout the remaining 16 weeks. In fact, after losing far too many games early in his career through poor time management, Cowboys coach Garrison has overseen a team that tends to win games late either through comebacks or holding on for victory.

(Un)Special Teams
Special teams troubles were an issue across the NFL this weekend, beyond Seattle’s failed onside kick and the Eagles missing what would have probably been a game winning field goal. The problems were perhaps best captured in the first half of the Vikings Niners game. The matchup started with a great drive by the 49ers, ultimately undone by a holding penalty inside the 20-yard line. They then lined up for what should have been an easy field goal, but a Viking defender made it into their backfield and blocked it. The Vikings bumbled the ball around a bit before finally picking it up and running it back to the Niners 25. Their drive stalled as well, before they missed a field goal wide right. After exchanging possessions, a sack of Bridgewater left the Vikings punting from the back of the end zone. The Niners were all but guaranteed good field possession, until the feel-good story of the preseason, the rugby player turned NFLer Jarryd Hayne, fumbled the ball and gave it right back to the Vikes. Not surprisingly, the first quarter ended 0-0, with several penalties thrown in for fun. More mistakes followed in the second quarter, including a five-yard running into the kicker penalty by the Niners and a very short punt with the wind at his back by Vikings punter Jeff Locke. After the running into the kicker, the Niners ran the ball back for a touchdown, called all the way back by not one, but two blocks in the back. The Niners, after finally scoring with about a minute left in the first half, had a defensive holding call on the last play of the first half (a failed hail mary from Bridgewater), which almost led the Vikings to try a 63-yard field goal. Special teams errors are expected early in the season, but there appeared to be more missed field goals, more missed extra points (see below) and more mistakes on punts, kickoffs and onside kicks than one is used to seeing.

The Frontrunners
New England looked impressive in their 28-21 Week 1 win over Pittsburgh, with Tom Brady extending his NFL record to 161 wins with one team, after most thought he would miss the first four games of the new season, jumpstarting their attempt at a fifth ring. Dion Lewis, who had 312 total regular-season yards before Belichick picked him up in the offseason, accrued 120 yards on 19 touches in the absence of Blount. Pittsburgh weren’t too bad themselves and should be an offensive force to be reckoned with this year. Green Bay were efficient in beating the lowly Bears, starting their season on a positive note after losing star receiver Jordy Nelson and might still be the cream of the NFC. Dallas might have something to say about that, though, with their impressive come from behind win over the Giants. Philadelphia, even in losing, showed that they will be a team to reckon with on the offensive end and look improved on the defensive end as well. 

On the flip side, two early favorites to get to the Super Bowl looked suspect with Seattle losing to St. Louis in OT 34-31 and Indianapolis stiffled by the new Rex Ryan defense that was complemented by a decent offensive showing in their 27-14 win (hoping Tyrod Taylor can mellow their quarterback woes). Bubble teams Miami (17-10 winners over the lowly Redskins), Arizona (31-19 over the Saints) and Cincinnati (33-13 over the ever more lowly Raiders) all impressed, to varying degrees, with Carson Palmer winning his seventh straight start after coming back from the injury that ended his first season with the Cards prematurely (he was 19 of 32 for 307 yards with 3 TDs and no interceptions).

The Also Rans
It looks like Oakland will be abject again, after losing their opener 33-13, with all of their points coming in a meaningless stretch of the fourth quarter. A couple of years ago, people thought the young team might be on the road to a playoff run. With Carr potentially injured and the team below par on both sides of the ball, it is hard to see their years of woe ending anytime soon. The same can be said of the Redskins, the team that set the world aflame a mere three years ago in 2012 when RGIII beat the Cowboys in the final game of the season to get into the playoffs, before losing the Wild Card game to the Seahawks. Since that 10-6 season, the Redskins have gone 3-13 and 4-12 and don’t look likely to do much better as they attempt to move on from the failed RGIII Revolution to the equally unsettling Cousins Reinvention. Finally are the Giants, who many thought might challenge for the NFC title this year. It is still possible, but Eli Manning appears to be past his “prime,” if he ever had one, and the Giants likely to stretch their playoff barren period to six of the past seven years. Coughlin and Manning have snuck into the playoffs twice on the way to Super Bowl upsets, but that magic appears to have waned over the last several years and shows few signs of abating with a defense that is susceptible to long, sustained drives and giving up large chunks of yardage quickly together with an offense that sputters as often as it shines.

Quarterback Triumphs and Quandaries
Looking across the league, some teams can be happy with their starters while others will be wondering if they’re in for a long season, including the Redskins with Cousins doing his best to look worse than RGIII. I’ll start with the Cowboys and the long beleaguered Tony Romo, who put up the best quarterback rating in the league last season, while leading in completion percentage and yards per attempt as well. His numbers last night were marred by the two interceptions (though neither was completely his fault), but he still hit 36 of 45 passes (80 percent, with at least three dropped), threw three touchdowns, averaged 7.91 yards per attempt and led his team on a game winning drive in the fourth quarter or OT for the 24th time in his career (29 if you count all of the fourth quarter). He looked completely in control of the offense throughout, was cool in the clutch with no time outs and was switching up plays at the line of scrimmage with the frequency of Peyton Manning in his prime. It was an impressive performance for a player that has a real shot at his first Super Bowl this year, even with Dez Bryant sidelined for 4 to 6 weeks.

Aaron Rodgers was efficient without being spectacular in his debut (he had the second highest QBR on 18 of 23 passes for 189 yards with 3 TDS), leading the Packers to a comeback win over Chicago. Drew Brees, on the other hand, might be in for a long season, his team’s defensive woes too much for the veteran to overcome, particularly when he only threw for one TD, to go with an interception. Brady and Roethlisberger also had good opening weekends, though obviously it was better for Brady – who didn’t think he was going to even play a few weeks ago. The real surprise of the weekend was rookie Marcus Mariota, who had the top QBR of 95.7, throwing four touchdowns and no interceptions while completing 13 of 16 passes for 209 yards. He was obviously kept to fewer passes, but shined in his debut. That was not the case for the quarterback on the other side of the field in the 42-14 win as Jameis Winston earned the worst QBR of any starter, a measly 6.7 (16 of 33 for 209 yards with two TDs and two INTs). Brian Hoyer (12.3) and Joe Flacco (13.1) weren’t much better in losses, but the real surprise was Peyton Manning at 25.4 in a win. He only completed 24 of 40 passes for 175 yards and had no touchdown passes to offset his interception. Given how he finished last season, I would be very concerned if I were the Broncos, even with the 19-13 win, assisted by Flacco throwing an interception in the end zone to end a final drive. Finally, is Johnny Manziel, who could have been worse (his QBR of 52.2 was 13th this week), but could have been better as well. He had some nice throws and runs, including a 54-yard touchdown pass, but threw an interception and lost the ball on a fumble, ending up completing 13 of 24 passes for 182 yards.

Key Injuries Early
Every week brings injuries, but you hope to avoid anything too serious in Week 1. A few teams were unable to do so, with the Cowboys losing receiver Dez Bryant for four to eight weeks one game into his new monster contract (and DE Randy Gregory for up to four weeks), the Baltimore Ravens losing outside linebacker Terrell Suggs for the season, maybe along with their hopes of getting back to the playoffs, the Cardinals running back Andre Ellington for 2-3 weeks and the Jets in jeopardy of playing without Cromartie as he is week to week after a sprained knee (though this is much better news than first feared). A few others appeared to avoid long-term layoffs including Raiders QB Derek Carr, who left with a hand injury and could start next weekend, the Colt’s T.Y. Hilton with a bruised knee (out a few weeks) and DeSean Jackson of the Redskins with a hamstring injury (also out for about three weeks). The Niners are waiting to hear on the oft-injured Reggie Bush, after he hurt his calf in the first quarter.

In a season where the NFL will continue to deal with concerns that their sport is threatening the health and lives of their players, several went off with concussions as well including Browns quarterback Josh McCown, Ravens left tackle Eugene Monroe, Dolphins tight end Dion Sims and Carolina Panthers linebacker Luke Kuechly, who himself just signed a huge new contract. The Jets rookie linebacker Lorenzo Mauldin was rushed to the hospital after a long injury break for a suspected neck injury and was later released in the evening after being diagnosed with a concussion himself.

New Rules

Extending the extra point from the 2 to the 15-yard line appears to have had the intended effect with four missed on Sunday alone. All last season, kickers only missed eight, so we are halfway to that total already. The extra point kick was a foregone conclusion over the past several years, missed so rarely it was statistically improbable it could have any impact on a game. In the Browns loss to the Jets, a series of penalties meant Cleveland kicked their first extra point from 48 yards. They made it, but that is the dynamic the new rule could have on the game. It might push more coaches to go for two a few more times in the game and could lead to heartbreaking losses by one point. One might remember one of the most infamous missed extra points in NFL history, when the 2003 Saints missed out on extra time and a potential playoff spot after John Carney fluffed the extra point after a last second touchdown appeared to have tied it up. Other rule changes include clarifying the catch rule, to address the infamous Bryant “drop” last season by making it clearer what constitutes a catch (one must have the ball, both feet down and make a running move (or fall down) while holding the ball throughout even if reaching forward), adding some protection to address potential injuries, extending the “no push” rule from field goal attempts and extra points to punts (on the defensive side) and, as we saw in the Giants-Cowboys game, penalizing teams 15 yards if a players pulls an opponent out of a pileup.   

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