Lamar Jackson levels up, NFL power rankings, Chiefs can run and more
The Baltimore Ravens showed the world why they are scarier this season. It starts with Lamar Jackson’s improvement in the passing game.
The deep ball to Marquise Brown said it all. Poise, rhythm, timing and a perfectly-placed heave for 47 yards.
We all know Lamar Jackson can run. We know he can live off play-action. The question entering 2020 was whether he could take a straight drop, throw on time and fit football into tight windows.
In Week 1, Jackson answered thunderously in the affirmative.
The reigning MVP was 20-of-25 for 275 yards with three touchdowns and zero interceptions. Jackson only ran seven times, picking up 45 yards. His legs were there when he needed them, but more often than not, Baltimore showcased a balanced attack against an overwhelmed Cleveland Browns team in its 38-6 rout.
Last year, the Ravens went an NFL-best 14-2 before being rudely upended by the Tennessee Titans in the AFC Divisionals. Tennessee essentially stacked the box, played man coverage and dared Jackson to beat them on the outside. Despite his gaudy yardage that night, he failed to on most occasions, throwing two interceptions in a 28-12 defeat.
Against Cleveland, offensive coordinator Greg Roman allowed Jackson to use his athleticism on bootlegs and rolled pockets, but also had him set up and fire from a stationary position. The Ravens understand to win in January, they’ll need Jackson to do this. It’s a great first step.
Throughout the afternoon, Jackson made pinpoint throws to tight end Mark Andrews — who bailed out his worst throw with a one-handed touchdown snag — and Brown among others.
Jackson was sacked twice but didn’t begin dropping his eyes to bail from the pocket. It appeared the evolution of an already great player, understanding his weaknesses and working hard to fix them.
Coming into this season, the expectations among most is Baltimore and the Kansas City Chiefs would battle to represent the AFC in Super Bowl LV. Ironically, both answered perhaps the only question about themselves. Kansas City ran for 166 yards (more on that below) while Baltimore carved up Cleveland through the air.
Baltimore throwing prolifically and Kansas City running people over, with all their other abilities, is like Bill Gates winning the lottery. It’s the height of absurdity.
Back to Jackson. In 2019, the second-year starter threw for more than 250 yards three times, all coming in Weeks 1-3. Jackson will need to continue his eagerness to get chunk plays through the air past September this time around. Yet with another offseason of work behind him and a full year of experience, there’s reason to believe he’ll do so.
It’s early. Baltimore is 1-0. Jackson played well against a middling team. Everything is relative. There’s 15 games ahead and then some for the Ravens and their MVP.
Still, the early returns are promising for a player and a team desperate to bust narratives and vanquish ghosts.
Top 10 performances from Week 1
1. Aaron Rodgers, Green Bay Packers (32-of-44, 364 yards, 4 TDs)
2. Russell Wilson, Seattle Seahawks (31-of-35, 322 yards, 4 TDs)
3. Kyler Murray, Arizona Cardinals (26-of-40, 230 yards, TD; 100 rushing yards, TD)
4. Washington Football Team defense (8 sacks)
5. Davante Adams, Green Bay Packers (14 catches, 156 yards, 2 TDs)
6. Calvin Ridley, Atlanta Falcons (9 catches, 130 yards, 2 TDs)
7. Lamar Jackson, Baltimore Ravens (20-of-25, 275 yards, 3 TDs)
8. Josh Jacobs, Las Vegas Raiders (93 rushing yards, 46 receiving yards, 3 TDs)
9. DeAndre Hopkins, Arizona Cardinals (14 catches, 151 yards)
10. Clyde Edwards-Helaire, Kansas City Chiefs (138 rushing yards, TD)
“We definitely lost some momentum. We didn’t make the plays we needed to make. I got to be better. It starts with me, I’ve got to protect the ball.”
– Philadelphia Eagles quarterback Carson Wentz on his effort in a 27-17 loss to Washington
Wentz needs to be better. Yes, the Eagles’ line was atrocious in allowing eight sacks. Yes, Doug Pederson has to dial up more quick-hitters to the backs and tight ends. Sure, those things are true.
It’s also true that while Wentz is young, he’s a veteran. He needs to make the proper checks, slide the protection and get rid of the ball. Eight sacks is a ludicrous amount, as are the two interceptions with the lead. Can’t happen.
Philadelphia and Wentz have talent, but neither lived up to their internal and external, expectations on Sunday.
In his NFL debut, Cincinnati Bengals quarterback Joe Burrow threw for 193 yards in a 16-13 loss to the Los Angeles Chargers.
Of the 14 prior quarterbacks this century taken with the No. 1 overall pick, Burrow checks in ninth among them in their first pro starts. Plenty to be excited about. Plenty to work on.
Info learned this week
1. Brady, Brees looked their ages in sloppy Saints win over Buccaneers
All told, 399 passing yards for Tom Brady and Drew Brees. Not a banner day.
Brees bettered Brady, but not by much. The six-time Super Bowl champ made his Tampa Bay debut and stumbled, throwing a pick-six and another interception in the 34-23 loss. Brees, potentially in his final season, produced 160 yards and two touchdowns on 5.3 yards per attempt.
Looking at the long view, both teams should be concerned. Both Brady and Brees have been slowly trending downward as their ages extend further away from 40. On Sunday, it’s fair to surmise both were rusty. In Brady’s case, this is his first go-round with the Bucs and his new receivers.
Still, the film doesn’t lie. Brees seldom tried to go downfield or fit a ball into a shrinking window. Brady struggled to throw outside the numbers with any zip. Dating back to last year, Brady has now thrown pick-sixes in three straight games.
Ultimately, it’s Week 1. The Saints got a big win, while Tampa Bay took an acceptable loss. Only a fool makes concrete conclusions off 60 minutes.
However, Brady and Brees made you wonder. Were their respective duds a minor blip, or foreshadowing?
2. Chiefs showcase new way to beat teams against Houston
Patrick Mahomes threw three passes more than 15 yards in the air on Thursday night against the Houston Texans. The Kansas City Chiefs scored 34 points and essentially tried to run out the fourth quarter.
With everyone expecting an aerial attack on the NFL’s opening night, Kansas City pounded the Texans behind rookie running back Clyde Edwards-Helaire. The former LSU went for 138 rushing yards and a touchdown, breaking tackles and ankles repeatedly. Meanwhile, Mahomes completed 75 percent of his attempts on an efficient night, notching 211 passing yards and three scores.
The Chiefs scoring 34 points isn’t noteworthy. The manner in which they did it, though, is.
Kansas City’s 166 rushing yards would have ranked tops for it in any game of 2019. The Chiefs also gained it all without Mahomes running for a single yard, something which has only happened twice in his career.
If Kansas City has a real ground attack — and the addition of veteran left guard Kelechi Osemele looks good so far — the Chiefs will be even tougher to stop in 2020.
3. Aaron Rodgers proved his point against Vikings
Looks like Jordan Love ought to get comfortable.
Aaron Rodgers had the performance of Sunday, throwing for 364 yards and four touchdowns despite a multitude of drops by his Packers’ teammates. Green Bay beat the Minnesota Vikings 43-34 in a high-octane affair.
Rodgers was in complete command throughout, throwing one strike after the next against a beleaguered Vikings’ secondary. The future first-ballot Hall of Famer was taking deep shots throughout, eschewing the more conservative style he’s shown in recent years. It was an opening weekend tour-de-force and a much-needed one after a turbulent offseason.
If Rodgers can continually rediscover this form, the Packers being a regression candidate is going to look silly.
4. Rivers, Newton have far different debuts in new uniforms
Cam Newton and Philip Rivers both made their first starts in new laundry. The results were polar opposite.
Newton wasn’t great, but he was efficient for the New England Patriots in a 21-11 win over the Miami Dolphins at Gillette Stadium. The 31-year-old threw for 155 yards and ran for 75 yards and two touchdowns on 15 carries, leading a limited offense to victory.
It’s evident Patriots head coach Bill Belichick wants to pound the ball in a way New England couldn’t do last season. New England ran the ball 42 times for 217 yards (5.2 YPC) while throwing 19 times. Without a quality receiving corps, Belichick is betting on a punishing ground attack and suffocating defense to win. For one week, it was plenty good enough.
As for Philip Rivers and his Indianapolis Colts, the colors were different, but the quarterback was the same.
Rivers threw for 363 yards and Indianapolis never punted against Jacksonville but lost 27-20 due in large part to a pair of back-breaking interceptions. For years, Chargers’ fans watched this movie, and now Colts backers are getting a viewing.
From a positive perspective, Rivers’ arm looked live. His protection held up, with the Jaguars failing to record a sack. If the interceptions dissipate, Indianapolis should be in a good spot.
Of course, this has been the tune sung about Rivers for almost two decades.
5. McCarthy got aggressive and lost big bet against Rams
The Dallas Cowboys were down three points on the road to the Los Angle Rams with 4th and 3 from the Los Angeles 10-yard line. Logic says kick the game-tying field goal. Analytics say go for it.
McCarthy tried to be new age. The Cowboys gambled, threw a pass short of the line to gain, got tackled and gave the ball up. They ended up losing by three, 20-17.
Dallas is now 0-1, although somewhat cushioned by Philadelphia’s inexcusable loss to Washington earlier in the day. Yet, the Cowboys have grand dreams for this season, with many locally and nationally sharing the vision. To only score 17 points in the opener while making confounding coaching moves is not an ideal way to start.
For a decade, the Cowboys were done in by Jason Garrett being miserably conservative at all times. Finally, Dallas fans have a coach who was ultra-aggressive. Somehow, it’s likely not going to be seen in a favorable light come Monday morning talk radio.
Green Bay is favored by 5.5 points over the Detroit Lions at Lambeau Field for Sunday’s tilt. Experienced gamblers, smart gamblers, would say to be leery of a favorite.
Luckily, I’m neither. There’s no way the Packers aren’t the heavy play here. Rodgers just lit up Minnesota on the road and now comes home to play a demoralized Detroit team which allowed a ridiculous comeback to the Bears (more below).
Rodgers and the Pack are the STB pick this week.
The New York Jets look an early favorite for the NFL’s worst team, but the Detroit Lions had the most pathetic showing of the opening weekend.
Yes, Sam Darnold and the Jets are rancid. They won’t compete for anything other than Trevor Lawrence this year. Adam Gase should consider himself fortunate if he’s employed come Thanksgiving.
Still, what Detroit — a far more talented team than the Jets — managed to do against the Chicago Bears in Week 1 was a new low, even for Motown.
The Lions led 23-6 and gave up 21 fourth-quarter points to a listless Chicago offense helmed by Mitchell Trubisky, who should be replaced by Nick Foles yesterday. Matt Patricia, a former defensive coordinator before taking over in Detroit, has won nine games over his tenure. With new ownership, maybe he finally gets held accountable.
What a miserable, miserable start for a franchise used to the feeling.
Inside the league
Who says running backs don’t matter?
Despite the popular analytics refrain, general managers have shown they don’t agree if the back can catch.
This offseason, four-star runners were paid major money, including two on Saturday. Over the weekend, it was Alvin Kamara (five years, $75 million) and Dalvin Cook (five years, $63 million) getting extensions from the Saints and Vikings, respectively. In July, the Titans inked Derrick Henry to an extension (four years, $50 million) while Christian McCaffrey reset the market in April, getting four years and $64 million.
The common theme? Save for Henry — who got the least of the quartet in guarantees, annual value and overall money — they all catch like receivers.
In 2019, Cook caught 53-of-63 targets for 519 yards. Kamara has brought in 81 receptions each of his first three NFL seasons, totaling 2,068 yards and 10 touchdowns. McCaffrey is the best of all, averaging 101 catches over his first three years in Carolina, including a 1,000-yard campaign in ’19.
In speaking with two general managers, they both believed the aforementioned deals are about the irreplaceability of the stars. In reference specifically to Cook and Kamara, one source cited them a consummate team players as well, making the decision to pay them easier.
While one noted the nature of modern football will always mean more money for receivers, backs are still valuable provided they serve as essential functions of their offensive systems. This, of course, more than covers Henry in Nashville, who is the epicenter of the Tennessee attack.
Running backs aren’t as valuable as they once were, but they certainly matter.
The Pittsburgh Steelers won Super Bowls in 1974, ’75, ’78 and ’79. Yet the1976 team featured the best version of the Steel Curtain.
In a season when Terry Bradshaw made only eight starts, the Steelers’ famed defense almost single-handedly dug Pittsburgh out of a 1-4 hole. Over the season’s final nine weeks, the Steelers posted five shutouts including three straight.
Spanning the win streak, Pittsburgh permitted 28 points. Total.
We talk about the 1985 Chicago Bears and 2000 Baltimore Ravens as the greatest defenses of all time, and rightfully so. But the ’76 Steelers are in the conversation, even without a ring for their efforts.
The injuries are already piling up. This isn’t surprising, and something I wrote about over the summer.
The AFC West saw a trio of stars gone for the season before a single game was played. Denver Broncos edge rusher Von Miller (ankle), Los Angeles Chargers safety Derwin James (knee) and Las Vegas Raiders receiver Tyrell Williams (shoulder) are all sidelined.
On Sunday, the Chargers lost another on Sunday, with linebacker Drue Tranquill breaking his leg. Las Vegas also watched right tackle Trent Brown (calf) and linebacker Nick Kwaitkoski (pec) leave early.
Elsewhere, Indianapolis drafted running back Jonathan Taylor to accompany Nyheim Hines and Marlon Mack but may see action early after Mack is suspected to have torn his Achilles tendon.
In San Francisco, the 49ers’ receiving corps are without Deebo Samuel (foot) for at least three weeks, while Jalen Hurd (ACL) is gone for the duration. It showed up in their loss to Arizona.
Finally, Dallas lost star linebacker, Leighton Vander Esch, in the first quarter against the Rams to a collarbone injury. Here’s to hoping he can return soon. Additionally, tight end Blake Jarwin is believed to be done for the year with a torn ACL.
It’s a long season, and some of the above will play once more in 2020. However, considering the lack of OTAs, minicamp and preseason games, this year is promising to be a battle of attrition.