It’s Week 1 of the NFL season and while we’re all ecstatic that football is back, the first taste of game action can lead to some wild overreactions. So for the first installment of 1st & 10 this season, we’ll dive into some of the takeaways from the first Sunday of football in 2020 and see how seriously those reactions should be taken.
1. The Chiefs Are Again Inevitable
Reaction level: Fair
Well, here we are again — starting this off the same way we did so many times during the 2020 season. We spent so much time last season wondering about the extra gear for the Kansas City Chiefs and how often they could rely on it after closer than expected starts to games.
More often than not, the Chiefs did have a little something extra they could whip out when it was needed. Kansas City again found itself in the need of some late-game magic when a 22-10 halftime deficit turned into a 33-29 win over the Cleveland Browns.
For the Browns, it’s hard to ask much more from a team competing against the Chiefs. It started on the opening when Cleveland showed an awareness of the opponent and went for it on a fourth-and-3 from the Kansas City 15-yard line. Field goals don’t beat the Chiefs and Kevin Stefanski was one of the best head coaches in going for it during the 2020 season. The Browns converted and scored a touchdown two plays later to cap off a 13-play, 75-yard drive that took up the first 7:07 of the game.
Cleveland was in control for much of the game. The Browns even finished with a significant yards per play advantage over the Chiefs — 8.2 to 6.5. The score that gave the Browns the 22-10 lead going into halftime was an 18-yard Nick Chubb run that opened up the entire left side of the field.
Cleveland set that up with motion before the snap. The Browns came out in a trips look to the left then motioned tight end Austin Hooper (81) and fullback Andy Janovich (31) to an offset-I on the other side of the formation that carried all three linebackers and a safety to the other side of the formation and brought the remaining corner on the left side tight to the line.
Through the air, Baker Mayfield was impressive through most of the game. Cleveland was able to rip off a few big plays during the game — gains of 44, 43, and 30 through the air — and Mayfield had a relatively high degree of difficulty throughout the game. Per Next Gen Stats, Mayfield tied for the highest Completion Percentage Over Expectation (14.8%), due in part to the third-lowest Expected Completion Percentage (60.2%).
Cleveland played a nearly flawless game, but against Kansas City, nearly doesn’t always cut it. An aborted punt in the fourth quarter led to the Chiefs’ go-ahead score and a poor interception from Mayfield on the final drive iced the game.
With the Chiefs, there’s always the looming splash play ready to come out. In professional wrestling terms, it’s the RKO out of nowhere. Kansas City can screw around with a delayed tunnel screen designed for offensive lineman Mike Remmers from the 3-yard line because if it fails (it did — a loss of two), the Chiefs still have another trick in the bag. In this specific case, it was a wild scramble touchdown from Patrick Mahomes.
A game against the Chiefs can turn on a dime. After the Browns scored a touchdown to make the game 29-20, it took the Chiefs one play to get back within a score. Kansas City connected on a 75-yard touchdown to Tyreek Hill that encapsulated so much of what this team does well.
A pre-snap motion that sent Clyde Edwards-Helarie from the backfield to an empty set out wide, shifted the coverage responsibilities of Cleveland’s defensive backs.
That left Hill matched up with safety John Johnson (43) once he cleared the second level. For as big of an addition as Johnson was to the defense, it’s an impossible ask for nearly any safety in his position to hang with Hill for as long as he did. The play also included Mahomes buying time way outside the pocket before heaving the throw about 50 yards in the air into a spot that allowed Hill to change direction and run in for the touchdown.
Last season, the Chiefs let some teams hang around in games that probably shouldn’t have been as close as the final score. On Sunday, the Browns earned their close game but the Chiefs just always seem to have that one deadly strike in them.
This shouldn’t be a repeatable skill. Good teams can be more defined by blowouts than by the close wins they scrape out, but the thing about Kansas City is that they’re never out of a game. Everything stays in striking distance and there’s always the chance that strike is on the way.
2. The Packers are doomed
Reaction level: Over
If we can tell good teams by how often they blow out bad ones, it’s not a great sign for the team that gets blown out. That’s especially the case when the team in question was viewed as good — one of the best — beforehand. Yet the Green Bay Packers were on the wrong end of a 38-3 destruction at the hands of the New Orleans Saints.
This was supposed to be the Aaron Rodgers Revenge Tour. Unless Rodgers is playing the long game to tank the trade return Green Bay could get back when the two sides potentially part ways after the season, this didn’t go as planned.
Rodgers didn’t look particularly good at any point during the game. He completed just 15-of-28 passes (53.6%) and averaged 4.8 yards per attempt. His average completion came just 3.9 yards past the line of scrimmage, the fourth-lowest for any quarterback this week, despite an 8.0 average depth of target, per Next Gen Stats. He was just 2-of-7 on passes 10 or more yards past the line of scrimmage against the Saints.
There were two bad interceptions. One was a terribly overthrown deep pass that never had a chance. The first was a pick inside the red zone, Rodgers’s first since Week 6 of the 2019 season. He had thrown 45 red zone touchdowns without an interception since then, including a 35/0 rate in 2020.
If there is some good news for the Packers, it’s that this isn’t much worse than Rodgers’s worst game of the 2020 season — a year in which he won MVP. In Week 6 against the Tampa Bay Buccaneers, Rodgers had a similarly poor performance.
Aaron Rodgers Week 1 2021 vs Worst Game Of 2020
|Week 9 2020 vs TB||16/35||160 (4.6)||0/2/4||9.5||-0.32|
|Week 1 2021 vs NO||15/28||133 (4.8)||0/2/1||13.5||-0.43|
Rodgers wasn’t the only Green Bay player to underperform and none of that should overshadow how well the Saints played in the season opener. Jameis Winston had quite a day at quarterback. Winston threw five touchdowns but needed just 20 attempts and 148 yards to do so.
Including this game, there have been 135 five-touchdown pass games from quarterbacks since the merger. Winston’s Week 1 had the fewest passing yards and was just the third to be completed with under 200 passing yards, according to Stathead.
The Saints were able to keep the ball moving on the ground. Explosive plays weren’t exactly there (and all Saints runners except for Winston ended with negative rushing EPA) but gains were made when needed. New Orleans had 11 rushing first downs and put up 171 rushing yards.
All New Orleans needed to do was get into the red zone, where they went a perfect 5-for-5 against the Packers. The red zone has been a Sean Payton calling card. New Orleans hasn’t ranked outside the top-10 in points per red zone trip since 2015. They’ve been top-five three times in that span, including second last season.
New Orleans had an impressive defensive showing. The unit was able to disrupt the timing and flow of what Rodgers and the Packers wanted to do. Despite the short completions, Rodgers held the ball for nearly three seconds (2.93) and did try to push the ball down the field. The Saints were able to work through a weakened offensive line and though Rodgers was only sacked once, New Orleans had seven quarterback hits on the day.
The Packers shouldn’t be this bad going forward, but we also shouldn’t rule out the Saints surprising as a quality team throughout the season.
3. Justin Herbert is regression-proof
Reaction level: It’s the Chargers, so be ready to get hurt or let down at any moment
Justin Herbert had a stellar rookie season. His high-level play already looked like enough to launch him into the upper echelon of quarterback play. One of the biggest questions for the 2021 season was how Herbert would develop in Year 2. What made that question so interesting is how Herbert thrived during his rookie year, There were a lot of splash plays with great performance on third down and under pressure. Those are areas that tend to regress from year to year.
Herbert started Year 2 with a 20-16 win over the Washington Football team. His raw numbers — 31-of-47 for 337 yards (7.4 YPA) with a touchdown and an interception — undersell how well he played under the circumstances.
Last season, Herbert had the second-most pass attempts on third down in the league, mostly due to a failed run-heavy attack on early downs. Against Washington, Herbert had some struggles himself on early downs — the Chargers averaged -0.31 EPA per play on early-down passes per rbsdm.com — but the third down offense was out of this world. Herbert went 13-of-16 for 160 yards and a touchdown on third down. He averaged 1.20 EPA per play on third and fourth down pass attempts with an insane 82% success rate.
Many of Herbert’s big-time throws last season involved some kind of hero ball. Herbert had to make a ridiculous play. That type of performance was never going to be sustained. And while 1.8 EPA per play on late downs (Herbert averaged 0.13 EPA per attempt in those situations last season, which ranked 13th), the new offense set the quarterback with situations where he could thrive.
There were a number of third downs in the game where the route combinations opened up an opportunity but Herbert had to place the ball perfectly to convert.
There was a third-and-3 pass to Jalen Guyton in the second quarter that helped set up a field goal. The Chargers used a tight trips bunch to the right with Guyton as the No. 2. Guyton ran a slot fade underneath the release of Mike Williams and Herbert released the ball in perfect rhythm with back shoulder placement for a 22-yard gain.
On a third down later in the game, the Chargers picked up a Washington blitz and the numbers advantage in coverage left tight end Jared Cook wide open for a 23-yard gain.
Few of those opportunities existed in the 2020 Chargers offense. There are still things to clean up. On Herbert’s late-game interception on a first down from the Washington 20-yard line, the quarterback thought he had a hole to hit tight end Stephen Anderson and didn’t anticipate a break from William Jackson. Of course, the Chargers benefited from a Washington fumble and scored the go-ahead touchdown just a few plays later.
There is still a similar book on Herbert. The highs are among the highest in the league. There are some consistencies to be worked out, but given the state of the new offense and the ways Herbert can create on his own, this could be another special season for the second-year passer.
4. Josh Allen and Ben Roethlisberger Showed Their True Colors
Reaction level: Over for Allen, Wait-and-See for Roethlisberger
A defensive battle broke out in an ugly 23-16 Pittsburgh Steelers win over the Buffalo Bills. Both of these defenses were among the best in the league last season — Pittsburgh ranked first in defensive DVOA and Buffalo ranked 12th — so it was no surprise that defense could lead the way, but the way in which the game unfolded left some questions about the quarterback play.
After the Josh Allen Year 3 Breakout, the expectation was that Allen could continue on his upward trajectory. Obviously, there were some concerns given Allen’s 2020 season was his first good year of football in quite some time with well below-average seasons during his first two years in the league.
A slow start against the league’s best defense should not be cause to hit the panic button, but it may be enough to pump the brakes and realize Allen might not be destined for the type of play he showed throughout 2020. Per Next Gen Stats, Allen had the fifth-worst CPOE of Week 1 (-7.1%) and he averaged -0.12 EPA per dropback, per rbsdm.com.
Allen looked a bit shaky through much of the game and some of his misses were just missed. For as good as the Steelers defense played, they weren’t forcing a lot of tight throws. Per Next Gen Stats, just 11.8% of Allen’s throws against the Steelers were in tight coverage (defined as a yard or fewer of separation from the defender).
Last season, Allen had the eighth-lowest rate of tight window throws in the league at 13.1%. The offense is designed to create separation and limit those types of throws. That was still the case on Sunday, but Allen didn’t connect as often on his downfield throws. He was just 1-of-7 for 37 yards on throws that traveled over 20 air yards. Allen should be able to hit more of those going forward and even if he’s not as efficient as he was last season, this might not be more than a one-game blip.
Meanwhile, Ben Roethlisberger showed a lot of the same that led to many concerns throughout the 2020 season. A new offense that had the promise of more play-action and motion to open things up didn’t quite get in that groove. The Steelers worked through it and Roethlisberger averaged a respectable 0.08 EPA per dropback.
It’s hard to say a lack of deep passing showed because, well, it just wasn’t there. Roethlisberger did not attempt a pass that traveled over 20 air yards in the game. He was, however, 7-for-10 on throws between 11-19 yards past the line of scrimmage.
Still, the Bills dared the Steelers to beat them deep but they couldn’t. Buffalo was hyper-aggressive in this meeting last season and just sat on the short stuff from the Pittsburgh offense — that did lead to a pick-6. The Bills had a similar defensive game plan in the season opener. Roethlisberger’s average depth of target was just 5.7 yards but he threw into a tight window on 31.1% of his attempts, which was the second-highest rate among Week 1 quarterbacks.
Shorter throws tend to be more open, but the Bills sitting on short passes were able to come up with six passes defensed. They also had six quarterback hits despite Roethlisberger’s 2.3 average seconds to throw, which was the fastest time among quarterbacks.
The Steelers could be in trouble if more teams don’t respect the deep ball. Roethlisberger didn’t give opponents any reason to respect it with no attempts in the game.
5. The Panthers saved Sam Darnold
Reaction level: Over
The Carolina Panthers got Sam Darnold a 19-14 revenge game win over the New York Jets. Darnold had an impressive stat line against his old team — 24-of-35 for 279 yards, 8.0 yards per attempt, with a touchdown and no interceptions. The underlying play was not nearly as impressive.
It appears the Panthers have Darnold on The Jared Goff Plan, which structures the offense around easy short throws to take advantage of a good receiving corp that can run after the catch. Darnold had some highlight deep throws, like a 57-yard touchdown to Robby Anderson, but even those were wide open and should have been completed against a Jets secondary that lacks top-end talent. His best throw of the game came in the second quarter on a well-covered back-shoulder sideline pass to D.J. Moore that went for 27 yards.
An area of concern came on intermediate throws, where Darnold went 0-for-7. Last season, Darnold was the only quarterback with at least 50 attempts between 11-19 air yards to have negative EPA to that area of the field. The weakness showed up again against the Jets.
So much of the offense was built around Darnold getting the ball to Christian McCaffrey in space. McCaffrey had nine catches on nine targets for 89 yards. Only 5.7% of Darnold throws were into tight windows, the lowest for any quarterback in Week 1.
Still, Darnold finished the game with negative EPA (-0.01 per play) and a QBR of 47.2. Single-game QBR is best viewed as a win probability metric, which translates to a team with Sam Darnold’s performance at quarterback would be expected to win just 47% of the time.
The most impressive part of Carolina’s win was a young and aggressive defense. The Panthers recorded 10 quarterback hits, six sacks, and eight passes defensed. The Jets’ offensive line could not hold up for Zach Wilson, who saw more pressure and more tight coverage than he did at BYU. All of Carolina’s young stars showed out a bit but Shaq Thompson was everywhere with 10 total tackles, three passes defensed, a sack, and an interception.
Carolina was a team that sprinkled in a lot of the successful modern defensive strategies that worked for some of the league’s best defenses last year, but just didn’t have the talent to pull it off well in 2020. With more developing talent, this could be one of the emerging defenses in the league and a unit that can carry what might be shaky quarterback play throughout the season.
6. There are no bad teams in the NFC West
Reaction level: Moderate
All four teams in the NFC West won in Week 1. What was expected to be the best and toughest division in the league did not disappoint. A quick rundown of how each team in that division fared in the opener.
- Arizona Cardinals
The Cardinals ran through the Tennessee Titans in a 38-13 win. There were sprinkles of some offensive development — DeAndre Hopkins caught a slant for a touchdown from the slot — but there wasn’t much necessary against a Tennessee defense that could be among the league’s worst this season. Kyler Murray averaged 9.0 yards per attempt and threw four touchdowns with another score on the ground.
On the other side of the ball, Arizona’s defense dominated an overwhelmed Tennessee offense. The Cardinals had six sacks, five from Chandler Jones. The defensive front held Derrick Henry to 3.4 yards per carry on 17 rushes with a 24% success rate. A secondary that was decimated before the season began was continually in a position to make plays against one of the league’s best receiving duos. The Cardinals had eight passes defensed, three by Byron Murphy.
It’s unclear how much of this Cardinals performance is for real, but with the Minnesota Vikings and Jacksonville Jaguars over the next two weeks, we might not fiend out until a Week 4 meeting with the Rams.
- San Francisco 49ers
The Lions made the end close and exciting, but the 49ers had a handle throughout the 41-33 win. Despite injuries to Raheem Mostert and a reportedly banged-up Brandon Aiuyk, the offense rolled through a bad Detroit defense. Jimmy Garoppolo averaged 12.6 yards per attempt (0.52 EPA per play), rookie running back Elijah Mitchell ran for 104 yards, Deebo Samuel had 189 yards on 12 targets, and Trey Lance threw a touchdown on his first pass.
- Seattle Seahawks
Russell Wilson found the middle of the field. Wilson was 5-for-5 on middle of the field passes beyond the line of scrimmage. That included two deep touchdowns to Tyler Lockett. Lockett’s two catches were unbelievable and DK Metcalf had a short touchdown but what might be the most fun to watch is how this offense develops. After the Seahawks stopped the Colts on a fourth-and-1 in the fourth quarter, they ran a play-action shot on the next play that had Metcalf break off a deep route that hand the corner expecting the route to continue vertically. Metcalf was wide open for a 30-yard gain. Those types of changeups can be massive for an offense looking to sustain production through a full season.
The offense picked up the big plays and the defense rocked the Indianapolis offense in the 28-16 win. Seattle had 10 quarterback hits against Carson Wentz and a depleted offensive line. We’ll see if that can continue as the Seahawks get a Titans team the Cardinals beat up next week.
- Los Angeles Rams
McVay taking the training wheels off the offense pic.twitter.com/Wy0P4V4xkE
— Dan Pizzuta (@DanPizzuta) September 13, 2021
7. The Texans Are Greatest Team in Football
Reaction level: The Jaguars might be really bad, but the Texans could be slightly better than we think
The Texans scored 37 points. That alone is worth noting. In the 37-21 win over the Jacksonville Jaguars, the Texans showed one thing we might have overlooked. The roster has legitimate NFL players. They’re all old (mostly) and that doesn’t really help a team that should be rebuilding but the players on the roster are at least fine. Houston spent the entire offseason acquiring every fine player in the NFL. This doesn’t mean anything for the long-term hope of the franchise, but maybe they’re a bit friskier than expected in some games this season.
Tyrod Taylor’s performance might have been the most surprising. Taylor always had an arm and he unleashed it against the Jaguars. Taylor had the fifth-highest average depth of target and third-highest average depth of completion in Week 1, per Next Gen Stats. Taylor unleashed some throws in this game. He connected with Brandin Cooks on gains of 40, 24, and 52 yards. He averaged 0.44 EPA per play and 8.8 yards per attempt. Taylor’s last full game with at least 8.8 yards per attempt came in Week 4 of 2017 (9.1).
It’s possible the Jaguars are just bad, especially on defense. Trevor Lawrence did some nice things on offense but the structure was not in place to help him out and no quarterback was further below his expected completion percentage than Lawrence in Week 1 (-12.9%).
8. Play of the Day
On a fourth-and-1 near midfield in overtime, the Cincinnati Bengals called Leak. It worked for a 32-yard gain and the Bengals kicked a field goal to defeat the Minnesota Vikings, 27-24.
9. Chart of the Day
There’s a lot to take in here. Jalen Hurts still didn’t throw much to the middle of the field and so many of his passes were short after Hurts had one of the highest depths of target in the league last season. In the Eagles’ 32-6 win over the Falcons, Hurts had the lowest aDOT (3.7) and lowest average depth of completion (3.4) in Week 1.
The offense looked designed to help the quarterback out and a few throws, like the touchdown pass to DeVonta Smith stood out. And even despite the lowest aDOT by a significant margin, Hurts finished the week with the fifth-highest CPOE. The Eagles didn’t have to do much against the Falcons but there are some encouraging things to build on going forward.
10. The AFC East Might Be Wide Open
Reaction level: This could be interesting
One of the most entertaining games of the day came in New England where the Dolphins squeezed out a 17-16 victory. It was a game where both teams looked fairly good and could be expected to improve throughout the year.
Tua Tagovailoa still had some rough spots — his 0.02 EPA per play and 39.9 QBR don’t paint a great picture — but he held up behind a weak offensive line while he was hit nine times and did what was necessary. One takeaway was how the offense still remained one that relied on tight coverage throws to DeVante Parker and others. 25.9% of Tagovailoa’s throws came into tight windows. The additions of Jaylen Waddle and Will Fuller were intended to eliminate those dangerous throws. Waddle made an impact and Fuller will return from his one-game suspension next week, so perhaps the offense will open up.
The Patriots kept Mac Jones in a rookie-friendly offense. Much of Jones’s throws were short and safe, but he showed off accuracy and a willingness to stand in the pocket to make some good plays. Despite a lower YPA average than Tagovailoa, Jones finished with a 75.1 QBR because he limited mistakes. The Patriots should hope for some more explosive plays — an element that was missing for much of the preseason — but the Pats were just a late-game Damien Harris fumble away from potentially pulling this out in Jones’s debut.