Here we are, Week 1, things have happened. It’s ok to get excited, but maybe not too carried away. Last year in Week 1 the Steelers beat the Bills in Buffalo and the Packers were blown out by the Saints with a dud of a game from the eventual league MVP.
So while this column is about to spend a whole lot of words breaking down what happened in Week 1 of the 2022 NFL season, let’s try to remember it’s not all an indication of what’s going to happen for the rest of the season.
All stats listed are provided by TruMedia unless noted otherwise.
1. The New Chiefs Look Kinda Like the Old Chiefs
We wondered what the Kansas City Chiefs would look like as they entered the post-Tyreek Hill era. While it looked a bit different, the early results weren’t much different. In a 44-21 win over the Arizona Cardinals, the Chiefs had no problem getting the offense going.
The Chiefs led the league in yards per play, first downs per play, and success rate. 70% of the Chiefs’ drives ended in points and they averaged nearly a field goal in EPA per drive — 2.83.
Patrick Mahomes had no trouble throughout the game and by EPA per dropback, his performance (0.63) was bested only once by him in 2021 — a 0.69 EPA per dropback game against the Philadelphia Eagles in Week 4.
Mahomes was also helped out by the Arizona defense that decided to bring extra pass rushers at a remarkably high rate. Mahomes was the first quarterback put on the league-wide Do Not Blitz list, but with limited options to get pressure, the Cardinals brought a blitz on 46.3% of Mahomes’s dropbacks. Against five or more pass rushers in this game, Mahomes went 12-of-18, which included all five of his passing touchdowns. Last season, Mahomes was blitzed on more than 25% of his dropbacks just once and ended the season with the lowest blitz rate against at just 13.5%.
The Cardinals got super aggressive in the red zone, where they blitzed Mahomes on nine of his 12 dropbacks (75%). On those blitzes, Mahomes went 7-of-9 with all five touchdowns. Arizona’s blitzing left a weak secondary in a bind, like this Clyde Edwards-Helarie touchdown on a fourth-and-2 midway through the second quarter.
Some of the heavier looks we saw from the preseason made appearances with snaps in 12, 21, and 13, but the Chiefs still did their best work from 11 personnel (0.70 EPA per play), which they used 54.5% of the time. Travis Kelce took over the role as the lead receiver but the Chiefs were also able to spread the ball to the other options.
Kelce’s day was positive after there were times last season when it looked like defenses could play more physical against the tight end to slow him down. He finished the day with 3.9 yards per route run on a 23% target share. The Cardinals tried to use Isaiah Simmons on him in coverage, but that did not work out particularly well. On the opening drive of the game, Kelce ran right through a press attempt on his way to the end zone.
What could be the most interesting development out of this opening game is the Chiefs’ package of plays out of empty. Last season the Chiefs went empty with Mahomes on a league-average 15.9% of his dropbacks. Against the Cardinals, it was nearly a quarter of the time (24.4%) and the Chiefs had a number of different looks getting into and from the formation.
On a second-and-13, the Chiefs came out in empty with a bunch to the right. From the inside spot in the bunch, JuJu Smith-Schuster ran a crosser over mesh, which caught multiple defenders, including a dropping Markus Golden flat-footed and lost in coverage.
Later on a second-and-9 midway through the second quarter, the Chiefs motioned Isiah Pacheco from the backfield to the outside, opposite a bunch on the right. Marquez Valdes-Scantling ran from the outside of the bunch to an open area in the middle of the field with room to run after the catch.
In the third quarter, Mahomes just missed Mecole Hardman on a deep pass straight from the outside.
Overall, Mahomes had a 13.2-yard aDOT from empty. The deep shot to Hardman certainly played a factor in tipping that a bit, but even the above plays had the Chiefs working the middle of the field and pushing the ball a bit. 44% of his pass attempts from empty went to the intermediate part of the field from 11-19 air yards.
Last year, one of the biggest added elements for the Rams’ passing was the vertical threat from empty, taking advantage of the ability to spread opposing defenses both horizontally and vertically. There could be more shots to Hardman in the future to work one-on-ones on the outside, but those intermediate windows could be opened up while the defense has the account for the horizontal spread of the formation.
That’s another step in the evolution of creating big plays while defenses continue to sell out to stop them.
2. Justin Jefferson Ran Wild
After the Minnesota Vikings’ 23-7 win over the Green Bay Packers, Adam Thielen told Kevin Seifert of ESPN, “I’ve never been part of an offense that just was attacking, and attacking, and attacking.”
The Vikings didn’t attack in the ways you might think would be aggressive. Minnesota actually had a 46.8% pass rate on early downs in the game — though that was 55.6% in the first half. When the Vikings didn’t throw, it wasn’t overly aggressive. Kirk Cousins only had a 5.13-yard aDOT on the day, which was the third-lowest of the week.
But the Vikings had all the right answers. Everything was open and everything worked. Nowhere was that more evident than in the way Justin Jefferson was used en route to nine receptions, 184 yards, and 5.58 yards per route run.
Jefferson had one of the most efficient receiving games we’ve seen. Just six times last season did a player have at least five yards per route run on 30 or more routes. Jefferson’s Week 1 would have ranked as the second-best game in 2021.
One of the big pieces of the shift in offense for the Vikings was the potential Jefferson had from the slot. Against the Packers, Jefferson only lined up in the slot on a quarter of his routes — he caught all four targets for 96 yards and 8.0 yards per route run, but more than that, he was always on the move, taking advantage of Green Bay’s zone coverage.
The Packers used zone coverage on 88.5% of their defensive snaps in this game and so many of the Vikings’ big plays came from toying with the coverage rules and responsibilities.
On the first touchdown of the game, the Vikings came out in 11 personnel with three receivers to the left. Thielen was sent in motion before the snap to the right. Jefferson was then sent in motion and the ball was snapped as he crossed the field. None of Green Bay’s defenders ran with Jefferson, who was wide open for an easy score.
Minnesota killed on crossers throughout the game and used crossing routes from the opposite side of the formation to free up Jefferson. For Jefferson’s 36-yard touchdown late in the second quarter, he was the isolated receiver to the left. On the other side, Thielen motioned from the outside in and ran a crosser. Rasul Douglas (29) followed Thielein the whole way and once the receiver crossed the field, the corner to that side, Jaire Alexander (23) dropped off to take Thielen’s route, too. That allowed Jefferson to run his crosser underneath Thielen with a wide-open half of the field.
On a third-and-7 in the fourth quarter, the Vikings ran a spear concept (dueling deep crossers) with Jefferson again running under a Thielen crosser. On this play, Jefferson had too much leverage against the safety charging in, which led to a gain of 21 yards.
Cousins only threw five passes 11 or more yards past the line of scrimmage. He completed all five for 163 yards. Four of those throws went to Jefferson.
We’ve seen Jefferson dominate on his own, but this concerted effort to use the scheme to create advantages for him and the offense could make the Vikings incredibly dangerous throughout the season.
3. How the Steelers Tamed Joe Burrow and the Bengals
Throughout the Pittsburgh Steelers’ eventual 23-20 overtime win over the Cincinnati Bengals, the Pittsburgh defense consistently had Joe Burrow under duress. Burrow was sacked seven times and threw four interceptions.
One of those interceptions was a great play at the line of scrimmage by T.J. Watt, who was also likely lost for the season in this game. But the other picks were mainly Burrow not seeing a lurking defender ready to close on the ball.
As was expected for Bengals opponents, the Steelers used a healthy dose of Cover-2 in the matchup. Pittsburgh used Cover-2 on 28.7% of Burrow’s dropbacks, the second-highest rate in Week 1, after using it just 13.7% throughout 2021. Against Cover-2, Burrow threw three of his interceptions (including the one to Watt) and took three sacks for -0.29 EPA per dropback.
On the first interception, Burrow didn’t see Minkah Fitzpatrick, who jumped in front of the pass intended for Tyler Boyd. Fitzpatrick returned it 31 yards for a touchdown.
For Burrow’s fourth quarter interception, he didn’t see Ahkello Witherspoon come off Mike Thomas to jump in front of another pass intended for Boyd.
Burrow’s third interception just didn’t have enough arm to get over Cam Sutton, who undercut a post route from Boyd.
Pittsburgh used the two-deep looks to stop the deep pass — Burrow went just 1-of-5 on throws of 20-plus air yards — and then kept more defenders sitting in the intermediate area for those passes. Without a clear place to go, Burrow had some hesitations after the snap.
The Bengals spent a ton of resources in the offseason to improve the offensive line and while they probably accomplished that, it remains to be seen if the upgrade was to “good” or was just an upgrade over bad. Burrow was blitzed on just 12.3% of his dropbacks (though the Steelers did time a few of those well and came away with two sacks) but he was hit 12 times.
With how much the Pittsburgh defense dominated, this should have been an easy win but the Steelers offense couldn’t get anything going. The Steelers’ offense averaged 3.74 yards per play in regulation.
That lack of offense allowed the Bengals to get back in the game, despite the turnovers. Ja’Marr Chase remained mostly unrecoverable, bouncing between shorter passes with yards after the catch and working the intermediate area. Chase had 129 receiving yards on 16 targets and none of those targets were deep (20+ air yards).
Chase also likely had the game-winning touchdown with about three minutes remaining in regulation that was ruled short of the goal line and not challenged by Zac Taylor. That was followed by a terrible sequence that included a run for a loss and a bad outside fade on the next two plays.
The Bengals can recover from this with an offense that isn’t likely to make the same mistakes over the course of the season. For the Steelers, the offensive issues could be a problem, especially when they waste stellar defensive performances like this one and especially if they’ll be without Watt for the rest of the season.
4. Justin Herbert Can Do It All
On a second-and-2 with 40 seconds remaining in the first half, the Chargers came out in 10 personnel with a 2×2 look. De’Andre Carter was the slot receiver to the left. At the snap, Carter streaked down the field and Justin Herbert rocketed a pass between the safety and the dropping linebacker for a 30-yard touchdown.
Two plays earlier, Derek Carr had attempted a similar throw to Darren Waller from empty. Without the same arm strength, the pass floated and linebacker Drue Tranquill was able to come down with the interception.
That’s the difference between Herbert and most other quarterbacks. It also highlighted the difference in a 24-19 Chargers win over the Raiders.
The Chargers mostly stuck to the model from 2021, which featured shorter and safer throws on early downs. Herber’s aDOT was just 6.12 on early downs in this game, which ranked 21st among passers in Week 1.
While that could be a letdown for the quarterback who has the bullseye-accurate rocket launcher arm, these plays were quite effective. Herbert averaged 9.15 yards per attempt and had the highest EPA per dropback (0.56) on early downs.
Against the Raiders, the Chargers went heavy with both under center and play-action. Herbert only had one game under center more often than his 49% rate in Week 1 (51% Week 1 last season) and there was no game last year with a higher play-action rate than the 47.1% used.
Herbert went 10-of-13 off play-action and again had a decent split between a low aDOT (5.31) and good yards per attempt (8.06).
With Herbert and the Chargers last season, the problem was the early down play calls weren’t efficient and Herbert had to play hero on third down. Here, though, while the offense wasn’t exactly opened up on those early downs, it offense was efficient.
In the same way Josh Allen suddenly picking apart defenses underneath became a dangerous reality, Herbert making the most of those shorter early-down throws could be a massive swing in sustaining drives.
We could still see a more open version of this offense (and that might have to be the case against the Chiefs on Thursday) but if Herbert can master the ability to make those shorter throws work, we could see an even higher floor for an offense that already had little downside.
5. Miami Shows Some Flashes
The proof of concept appeared to be there for the Miami Dolphins in a 20-7 win over the New England Patriots. No part of Mike McDaniel’s offense completely stood out, but everything worked the way one would have hoped.
Tyreek Hill only had 96 receiving yards, but still managed 3.03 yards per route run. Hill was constantly in motion and often used like a CFL receiver using forward momentum from the motion at the snap. He also carried a 38.7% target share, which was the third-highest among players in Week 1.
Tua Tagovailoa finished Week 1 with the eighth-highest EPA per dropback, pending Monday Night Football. The offense opened up a bit and allowed Tagovailoa to hang in the pocket and push the ball down the field.
Tagovailoa finished with an 8.33-yard aDOT, which was higher than all but four games last season. One of the questions surrounding this offense is how Tua would use the intermediate area and middle of the field. 24% of Tagovailoa’s passes went between 11-19 air yards and 75% of those were between the numbers.
The highlight of the day was a 42-yard touchdown to Jaylen Waddle that came on a fourth-and-7. Waddle ran a post from the right slot and Tagovailoa hit him in a window between three defenders before Waddle turned on the jets for the touchdown.
There weren’t many tight window throws in this game, which is a positive after Tagovailoa led the league in throws into tight coverage last season. Just 12% of Tagovailoa’s attempts against the Patriots came with a defender within a yard of the intended target, per Next Gen Stats.
Only 43.7% of Tagovailoa’s passing yards came after the catch, which seems like a low number for the type of offense we’ve imagined. But the Dolphins didn’t have to pull out all the tricks with the game mostly in hand from the start.
6. So, Are The Giants Good?
Thanks to a two-point conversion on a late touchdown, the New York Giants upset the Tennessee Titans 21-20. In Brian Daboll’s first game as head coach, the Giants had one of the stranger offensive performances.
In Week 1, only the Chiefs and Bills averaged more yards per play than the Giants (6.79) but the Giants had negative EPA on the day with just a 36.1% success rate. The disconnect there came from the differences in play between Daniel Jones and Saquon Barkley.
Jones averaged -0.29 EPA per dropback, better than only Dak Prescott’s Sunday night performance. He was sacked five times (a 19.2% rate), including a strip sack. As a passer, he wasn’t all that impressive, either. He completed 81% of his passes but only 29.4% of his completions went for 10 or more yards, the fourth-lowest rate of the week.
Even on the game-winning drive, the Giants mostly took the ball out of Jones’s hands but did have him run a few times. The run game was strong overall as Barkley looked the healthiest he’s been since early in his rookie season. Barkley had a week-high 164 rushing yards and 22% of his carries went for 10 or more yards. Barkley was also a significant receiving threat with a 33% target share, though that resulted in just 30 receiving yards.
The Giants could be a team that pushes some of the right buttons during the year and it’s clear they’re a better coached team than they’ve been for the last half-decade. The win came off a mostly poor performance and this team is going to have to figure out how to sustain a passing game should it continue to make an impact in Year 1 with this staff.
7. Inconsistent 49ers
At points early in San Francisco’s 19-10 loss to the Chicago Bears, it looked like the 49ers could run a few good plays, set the game on cruise control, and wait for non-monsoon conditions. That looked like it was going to work until the Bears took a late lead and the 49ers couldn’t turn the switch back on.
With the weather and field conditions certainly in play, San Francisco got a full look at the range of Trey Lance. Lance struggled to make some easy throws, but early in the game, all the throws he did hit became explosive plays. But as the game went on, the inconsistencies piled on and the San Francisco offense couldn’t sustain drives. Only 18.2% of 49ers drives resulted in a three and out but they were one of five teams to average under a point per drive in Week 1.
Lance completed just 46.4% of his passes in the game. The elements were not friendly and Justin Fields only completed 47% of his passes, but Fields had an aDOT nearly two yards higher and managed positive EPA (0.08) against Lance’s -0.23.
This might not be anything to panic about, but the 49ers showed a lower floor than many had assumed they had given the talent on offense.
8. Chart of the day
A.J. Brown made his Eagles debut, received 44.8% of the Philadelphia targets, and averaged 3.97 yards per route run. Brown won in a number of ways with the Eagles. He still worked the middle of the field, but also had a deep reception down the sideline.
Jalen Hurts only threw 23% of his passes between the numbers in the 38-35 win over the Detroit Lions, so while he’s not going to completely shift his game, he’s more than capable of hitting Brown on those in-breakers when needed.
The Eagles’ defense has some questions, but with Brown leading the offense, Philadelphia could continue to score enough points to give the defense some breathing room and time to figure things out.
9. Play of the day
Lamar Jackson didn’t have a great day, but he did have a 12-yard aDOT. He only completed 2-of-7 deep passes but this 55-yard touchdown to Rashod Bateman was everything we could have wanted from the offense.
10. The Falcons and Texans punt wins away
Late in the 20-20 tie with the Indianapolis Colts, the Houston Texans faced a fourth-and-3 from the Indianapolis 49-yard line. Just 20 seconds remained in overtime and the Texans decided to punt the ball away, afraid of giving the Colts a chance to complete a quick pass and kick the field goal for the win.
ESPN’s fourth down model narrowly favored the punt, but come on. It’s 20 seconds and you’re the Texans. Your entire offseason was set up to not lose in the same way the franchise has over the past few seasons. If Brian Daboll won the Giants locker room over with his two-point call at the end of the game, Lovie Smith could have done the same here. If it’s all about culture for the Texans, what better way to set it?
The more egregious punt came from Arthur Smith and the Atlanta Falcons in their 27-26 loss to the New Orleans Saints. With a two-point lead, facing a fourth-and-1 on the New Orleans 42-yard line, Atlanta took an intentional delay of game and then punted. The Ben Baldwin fourth down model had the win probably swing of going for it at 15.5%.
After the punt, the Saints drove down the field and kicked the game-winning 51-yard field goal with 19 seconds left.