If Week 1 brought surprisingly normal football give the circumstances, Week 2 brought the opposite. Wild finishes, surprise debuts, a lightning delay, and too many injuries. There’s a lot to take in this week, so let’s get to it.
1. Fates Reversed In Dallas
It didn’t take long to set a high bar for the wildest game of the 2020 NFL season. At the half, the Atlanta Falcons led the Dallas Cowboys 29-10. Per nflfastR data, the Falcons had about an 87% chance to win the game. With 1:49 left in the fourth quarter, the Falcons’ lead was down to 39-37 after the Cowboys had just scored a touchdown but still Atlanta had about an 83% chance to win the game.
Then came the onside kick. Dallas special teams had been disastrous with some wild swings and missed earlier in the game. During the offseason, the Cowboys hired John Fassel to fix a special teams unit that ranked 30th last season. Fassel had been a plus special team coordinator with the Los Angeles Rams and he had a bit of a signature with designing and calling fake punts.
But earlier in this game, the Cowboys went 0-for-2 in fake punt attempts. The first was an incomplete pass from punter Chris Jones and the second came in the fourth quarter on a failed direct snap to safety Darian Thompson. The two plays combined for -5.8 EPA and a 13% win probability loss.
Onside kicks have been harder to recover after the rule change prior to last season — no more overloading one side of the line and no run up to the kick. The kicker on the other team, Atlanta’s Younghoe Koo, has been one kicker to figure it out. Dallas, though, tried a new approach. Kicker Greg Zuerlein placed the ball flat on the ground — a strategy popularized by friend of the site Coach Kevin Kelley at the Pulaski Academy — and the ball slowly spun for the necessary 10 yards as the Falcons stood around waiting for the ball to stop like it was a punt.
Dan Quinn said his players should have made an aggressive move to get the ball on the onside kick.
— vaughn mcclure (@vxmcclure23) September 20, 2020
Dallas ran six plays, got into field goal range (while conservatively playing for a long field goal), and Zeurlin hit a 46-yarder for the win.
The finish alone was wild and completely flipped the narrative for both teams coming out of this game. After getting trounced by the Seahawks last week, the Falcons had redeemed themselves with a stellar offensive performance. Calvin Ridley was unrecoverable with seven receptions, 109 yards, and two touchdowns on 10 targets — good for 0.73 EPA per play, per nflfastR. But instead, this will go as another blown Atlanta lead in the Dan Quinn era. It’s a loss that potentially sinks the Falcons’ season just two weeks in with an 0-2 start.
For the Cowboys, it was the ability to overcome some sloppy mistakes, both by the players and coaches, to avoid an 0-2 start by a team with high expectations for the season. Dallas had an underwhelming opening week performance against the Rams on Sunday Night Football and for 59 minutes of this game it looked like the Cowboys would again be a team that failed to play up to the level of talent on the roster.
But even though the Cowboys had fallen into that big hole to start, they hadn’t played terribly on offense. The killers were three fumbles, all of which were lost. Dallas’s opening five drives ended in a three-and-out, lost fumble, failed fake punt, lost fumble, and lost fumble.
Obviously those fumbles are bad, but we shouldn’t expect Dallas to put the ball on the ground three times in a game, let alone lose all three, in the future. The offense continued to move the ball through the air and Dak Prescott ended the game with a QBR of 84.9, a 61% success rate, 9.6 yards per attempt on 47 passes with just one sack taken.
Rookie Ceedee Lamb had his first 100-yard receiving game. Amari Cooper also joined with 100 yards and Dalton Schultz, now the starting tight end with Blake Jarwin out for the year, finished with 88 yards and a touchdown.
The passing concepts and success are there for the Cowboys. The problem for the Dallas offense is how often it worked to hamstring itself with first down runs. One of the beliefs of the Mike McCarthy-Kellen Moore era is that the Cowboys would embrace early down passing. To some extent, that has been true. In Week 1, the Cowboys were 11th in early down pass rate at 55%. But on 1st and 10, that dropped to 46% which was below the league average.
A similar pattern held in Week 2. The Cowboys pass a lot on early downs, but it’s highly influenced by heavy second down passing following first down runs. It’s a potentially fatal flaw for this offense, but one that could easily be worked out. The difference can’t be ignored. Dallas averaged 0.30 EPA per play with a 61% success rate on early down passes and -0.14 EPA per play with a 43% success rate on early down runs against Atlanta.
There are also other flaws on this roster. The defense continues to look lost, especially in a young and inexperienced secondary. But unlike the offense, defensive coordinator Mike Nolan doesn’t inspire a lot of confidence after his last coordinator job came in 2014, which ended with the Falcons as one of the league’s worst defenses.
Luckily for the Cowboys, they’ve been gifted some time to work some things out. They’re tied with the Washington Football Team at 1-1 with the Giants and Eagles 0-2 in the NFC East. Instant reprieve does not come, though. They travel to Seattle to face the red hot Seahawks next week. That’s a game where if the defense can’t step up, the offense has to without putting itself in a hole it can’t climb out of. Week 2 was insane, it can’t become a habit.
2. The Rams Still Got It
Heading into the season, the Rams were in a weird spot by public perception. The 2019 season that followed up a Super Bowl appearance was considered a disappointment, even though the team finished 9-7 and would have been the seventh playoff team had this year’s rules been in effect last season. But the Rams weren’t the 49ers, who went to the Super Bowl last season, or the Seahawks, who have consistently been among the league’s best teams, or the trendy Cardinals. The Rams were lost in the hype of their own division.
They came out with a clean and impressive performance against Dallas in Week 1 and then dropped a hammer on the Philadelphia Eagles in Week 2. It was clear somewhere in the 37-19 blowout of the Eagles that the Rams, and Sean McVay, are still quite good at this.
In Week 1, the Rams were one of many teams that came out with a safe game plan. Jared Goff relied on short passes and screens to get through the game. Per NFL Next Gen Stats, his average pass traveled a league-low 4.3 yards beyond the line of scrimmage. His average completion came at just 3.6 yards beyond the line and he got the ball out in 2.59 seconds.
All of that opened up in Week 2 against Philadelphia. His average pass traveled 8.6 yards beyond the line of scrimmage with an average completion at 7.6 yards. He also stayed in the pocket longer, averaging 2.72 seconds to throw. That was also helped by McVay scheming and good decision making. As a result, only 3.7% of Goff’s 27 attempts were thrown into tight windows. Receivers were getting open and Goff didn’t miss. He finished with three touchdown passes — all three to tight end Tyler Higbee.
The first touchdown came from the 4-yard line off a quick play-action boot. Higbee sprinted to the flat as the inside receiver in a tight trips bunch as the rest of the offense went the other way.
The second touchdown came from the 3-yard line on the same route concept from shotgun on the other side of the formation with the bunch positioned further outside.
Higbee’s third touchdown came early in the fourth quarter off a Leak concept, where the tight end snuck out to the left, opposite of the play-action bootleg and the flow of the rest of the offense.
Last year’s offense was derailed by an offensive line that couldn’t consistently block. For a passing scheme so reliant on play-action and making those plays look like the run concepts they’re based off. The Rams finished eighth in ESPN’s Pass Block Win Rate in Week 1 and Goff was hit just twice against the Eagles. If the offensive line can remain consistent and the offense doesn’t fall into the bad situations it found itself in last season, this team could find itself closer to the top of the NFC West than the bottom.
3. The Josh Allen Experience
Piece by piece the Buffalo Bills have built up a quarterback-proof supporting cast and little by little Josh Allen has stepped up to take advantage of his situation. 2019 saw a slight improvement. Allen was one of the most efficient quarterbacks to the intermediate part of the field but the deep ball still plagued him. He had one of the lowest on-target and completion rates in the league on passes that traveled at least 20 yards beyond the line. Buffalo management thought adding one of the league’s best deep ball separators and receivers in Stefon Diggs would help. So far, that has paid off.
In Week 1, Allen was 2-of-3 on deep passes for 49 yards. But in Week 2, Allen finished 4-of-5 for 140 yards and a touchdown.
Of course, the Bills aren’t completely out of the woods on the Josh Allen Experience. His one deep miss against the Dolphins was late in the fourth quarter with a four-point lead. Allen overthrew John Brown by so much, only Xavien Howard had a play on the ball.
It was a miss that could have been an interception that gave the ball back to the Dolphins in a one-score game. But then the next play, Allen hit an open Brown for a 49-yard touchdown that sealed the game.
Even in Week 1, Allen had two ugly fumbles that were later covered up by better play. Allen finished the Week 2 game with an impressive 0.59 EPA per play but a closer to average success rate of 56%, per nflfastR. That boom-or-bust play can work if the booms keep hitting hard — Diggs had an 8-153-1 line of his won — and the busts aren’t game-altering.
Right now, Allen and the Bills have gotten away with that in games against the Jets and Dolphins, though it should be noted Miami held a 20-17 lead early in the fourth quarter — but the Bills face the Rams next week and that won’t be a team that allows for many mistakes to be erased.
4. You Come At The King…
We were all surprised when Justin Herbert took the first snap at quarterback for the Los Angeles Chargers. Apparently Herbert was just as surprised. Tyrod Taylor suffered a chest injury that forced him to be sent to the hospital just at the coin toss. Herbert, the sixth overall pick in the 2020 NFL Draft, stepped in and looked like be belonged and looked like he was the better quarterback.
Herbert made a number of impressive throws and helped move the ball significantly better than the Chargers did in Week 1 against the Cincinnati Bengals (a defense the Cleveland Browns torched on Thursday night). Herbert showed touch and accuracy that was lacking at times when he was at Oregon, but he had connections with Keenan Allen, Hunter Henry, and Austin Ekeler. A bad deep interception aside, Herbert had an impressive first outing.
Herbert finished his debut with a 75.7 QBR, which means a team with that level of quarterback performance would be expected to win 75% of its games. Unfortunately for the Chargers, this fell in the other 25% because the Chiefs and Patrick Mahomes were on the other side.
For much of the afternoon, this looked like it might be Mahomes’s first bad game of his career. In Week 1, the Houston Texans sold out to stop the big play. Kansas City countered by scheming up quick and short throws that took advantage of the cushion given on the deep coverage. The Chargers tried to do the same and into the second half, Mahomes had a sub-6.0 aDOT and sub-4-yard average completion. He was spending more time in the pocket, though, which suggests the Chiefs were looking for bigger plays but couldn’t find them.
Eventually, Mahomes and the big plays showed up. Down 17-9 early in the fourth quarter, Mahomes rolled to his right and fired a strike to Tyreek Hill for a 54-yard touchdown to cap a six-play, 95-yard drive.
The Chargers got another field goal and the Chiefs had to kick a game-tying field goal as time expired after going 63 yards in 12 plays and 2:27. In overtime, the Chargers lost the game when they decided to punt on a 4th and 1 from their own 34-yard line. That cost them about 6% win probability per EdjSpports.
.@tonyromo is exactly right!
— EdjSports (@edjsports) September 20, 2020
Kansas City took the ball and drove down the field for what ended up being a game-winning 58-yard field goal from Harrison Butker.
Mahomes rallied to finish with a QBR of 84.7 and the Chiefs got an important win to stay undefeated. Next week, the Chiefs travel to Baltimore to play the Ravens on Monday Night Football. With just one playoff bye now with the current formatting, this game could be important for tiebreakers early in the season. An unexpected loss to the Chargers could have already ceded ground to the Ravens, but now that matchup keeps its prestige with the two best teams in the conference meeting in a primetime game that could have massive consequences down the line.
5. The Kyler Murray Rocket Is About To Launch
Arizona was expected to be a breakout team and they might have already exceeded expectations through Week 2. A surprise win over the San Francisco 49ers was a fun opening statement and that was followed with a comfortable 30-15 win over Washington.
Kyler Murray stood out in just about every way for Arizona in Week 2, especially for his 67 yards on the ground with two highlight touchdowns. The first came on an option play that Murray took himself straight into the end zone from 14 yards out. The second came on a 2nd and 19 draw which included the quarterback embarrassing Washington safety Troy Apke in the process.
As a passer, Murray was effective but not overwhelmingly efficient. He finished with 0.03 EPA per play and a success rate of just 43% per nflfastR. The deep passing in the offense still needs some work. Murray just wen 2-of-6 on throws of more than 20 air yards, but after a game plan against the 49ers that didn’t lend itself to pushing the ball down the field, the fact six attempts were made is a positive sign. Murray is also able to get out of any jams — like the 2nd and 19 — with his legs.
Murray’s star might only burn brighter over the next few weeks. Unlike Josh Allen who will see his competition get harder, Murray and the Cardinals have a nice stretch of games coming up that includes the Lions, Panthers, and Jets before a Week 6 Monday Night Football meeting with the Cowboys in Dallas. Arizona could conceivably be 5-0 heading into that game. If that’s the case, there won’t be much to slow down the hype train on Murray or the Cardinals.
6. Is Brady Back?
The Tom Brady in Week 1 was not particularly impressive. The offense moved enough but the precision and timing of Brady’s Patriots offenses clearly were not there. That was to be expected given the new team and the difficulties of this offseason. This was an offense that, more than most, was probably going to take time to clock.
Brady and the Buccaneers got the gift of the Carolina Panthers defense to help get right in Week 2. The 31-17 bout was never in question and Tampa Bay got to work out a few things along the way.
Tampa was without Chris Godwin due to a concussion but Mike Evans was healthy and after two targets with a miscommunication that led to an interception in Week 1, Brady and Evans looked to be on the same page — again with the help of Carolina’s defense. Evans had seven receptions for 104 yards and a touchdown on 10 targets.
The problem came when Brady threw to anyone else. He finished the game with just 6.2 yards per attempt and a QBR of 54.9, just slightly above average. Scotty Miller, who was projected to have a breakout day in Godwin’s absence had just two receptions for 11 yards on three targets.
It was a better day than the Week 1 outing against the Saints, but still slightly underwhelming given the quality of defense faced. But since this is an offense more likely to click later in the season, any improvement, especially one without the top receiver, is a positive.
7. The 0-2 Club
In the old playoff format, an 0-2 start was basically a death sentence on a season. This year, there is a little more wiggle room with that extra playoff team, but still teams with an 0-2 record would have just an 11% playoff probability using the 2009 to 2019 seasons.
NFL records 2009-2019 matched with the percentage of the time a team would have made the NFL’s new 14-team playoff. Tossed out ties. Enjoy. pic.twitter.com/24qPwqVheN
— Virtual Bubble Justo (Day 192) (@JuMosq) September 15, 2020
This can be said about teams that lose two games in a row at any point in the season, mostly because good playoff-caliber teams just don’t lose consecutive games, but even later in the season there can be some wins baked in to help. For 0-2 teams, it’s just an uphill battle from here.
Some teams are expected. No one expected the likes of the Jets, Dolphins, Bengals, Giants, Broncos (some of you did, shame on you), or Panthers to be playoff contenders. But a few teams have surprisingly dug themselves a hole. The Eagles and Carson Wentz look disjointed. The Lions were expected to improve but there might not be enough statistical regression in the world to overcome Matt Patricia. Kirk Cousins had a 9.3 QBR against the Colts and the Vikings can’t stop mich in the secondary.
Then there are the Houston Texans, who got the inevitable draw of starting the year against the Chiefs and Ravens. After looking competitive against Kansas City, Houston was completely blown out by Baltimore and the Texans have looked overmatched and outcoached. That’s not a good look for the general manager or head coach, who happen to be the same person.
8. Play of the day
There are a number of plays we could take from the Patriots-Seahawks Sunday night football matchup. Russell Wilson was again incredible with five touchdown passes and 10.3 yards per attempt. But Wilson and the #LetRussCook movement got the top treatment last week (and the defense got its own articles) so we’ll stick with the Patriots here and the Cam Newton touchdown pass early in the fourth quarter.
The Patriots have taken advantage of Newton’s ability to not just run, but be a power runner. That’s especially been the case in the red zone and closer to the goal line. He already has four rushing touchdowns on the season. And they’ve come on designed runs. On this play, the Patriots line up as if it’s going to be another power run with the same personnel they scored with earlier in the game: seven offensive linemen, two tight ends, and fullback Jakob Johnson.
But on this play, Newton faked the power and stepped back to throw to an uncovered Johnson in the end zone.
Bill Belichick and Josh McDaniels have enjoyed their short time drawing up the new red zone offense. Expect more of this to come.
9. Chart of the day – Jerick McKinnon
Does this chart say more about Kyle Shanahan or the 2020 New York Jets? One of these runs was a 55-yard gain on a 3rd and 31.
10. A bad injury day
Most teams made it out of Week 1 unscathed by major injury. That was not the case in Week 2, which saw a number of high profile players go down, potentially for the season. Saquon Barkley is believed to have torn his ACL. That’s also the case for 2019 Defensive Rookie of the Year Nick Bosa. It’s also possible for teammate Solomon Thomas. Raheem Mostert sprained his MCL and his timeline is TBD. Malik Hooker tore his Achilles and he’ll be out for the year. Parris Campbell was carted off the field with a knee injury. Tavon Young was again lost for the season.
Jimmy Garoppolo suffered an ankle sprain. Drew Lock sprained his AC joint and could miss between 2-6 weeks, per Adam Schefter.
Then there are more players who left games but might not be as serious: Cam Akers, Jerry Jeudy, Sterling Shepard, Anthony Barr, the list goes on.
It’s a loss for everyone when players of this caliber are taken off the field. The hope is this is a one-week blip and there is a speedy recovery for those who need it.