Here we are. We made it. Week 1 in the books. Well, kind of. We still need to get through a Monday Night Football doubleheader but we just got through our first full Sunday of football. There was a lot to take in during Week 1 and it hit all at the same time since we did not get to view any of these teams in the preseason. That led to some surprises and more things to watch for the rest of the season. Let’s get to Week 1’s action.
1. RUSS COOKED
Few things were more infuriating for football viewers than watching Russell Wilson hand the ball off on 1st and 10 for three quarters then need to go into Savior Mode and bring the Seattle Seahawks back into a game with his arm. The question was consistently raised asking why the Seahawks wouldn’t just Let Russ Cook? It’s even a t-shirt.
Well, the Seahawks listened in Week 1. Russ cooked and the Seahawks cruised to a 38-25 win over the Atlanta Falcons. Wilson went 31-of-35 for 322 yards (9.2 yards per attempt) with four touchdowns and no interceptions. That was good for a QBR of 87.6 (meaning a team with Wilson’s performance at quarterback would be expected to win 87.6% of the time). Per nflfastR data, Wilson was worth 0.56 EPA per drop back with a 55% success rate.
It wasn’t just that Wilson was allowed to throw. It was how and when. The Seahawks had a 64% pass rate on early downs in the game against Atlanta. It’s one game, but that would have tied the Falcons for the highest rate in the league last season. It would also be a complete 180 from how the Seahawks have played in recent years. In 2019, Seattle finished the season with a 49% pass rate on early downs, which ranked 27th in the league. Seattle’s 41% early down pass rate in 2018 was the league’s lowest.
Seattle didn’t even let up once they had a big lead. Wilson hit D.K. Metcalf on a 37-yard pass on a 2nd-and-9 with 6:02 left in the fourth quarter when the score was already 31-17. Seattle scored a touchdown five plays later.
While Wilson was free to throw, it wasn’t a full blitzkrieg through the air. His average pass traveled just 5.3 yards beyond the line of scrimmage, which was only deeper than four other quarterbacks in Week 1 per NFL Next Gen Stats. But with that, Wilson made the smartest throws presented to him. None of his 35 attempts were thrown into tight windows. Wilson was the only quarterback to accomplish that feat in Week 1 and his 35 attempts were the most without a tight window throw since Next Gen Stats started tracking in 2016.
Part of this came from a concerted effort to get Chris Carson involved in the passing game early. Seattle got its running back in space and Carson had an impressive receiving day on routes that got him into space. He finished with six catches on six targets (he only had six carries) that included two touchdowns and 0.75 EPA per target.
Wilson wasn’t just taking what was given or relying on overly easy throws. His expected completion percentage of 74.9% was the third-highest of the week but his 88.6% actual completion percentage was second-highest. That left him with a 13.7% completion percentage above expectation, which was was the fifth-highest among quarterbacks in Week 1.
Seattle’s pass-happy game is a welcome revelation, especially if it hints at a foundational change in the structure of the offense. There is certainly a chance that’s the case. Perhaps no better play demonstrates the hope for a breakthrough than the 36-yard touchdown to Metcalf midway through the third quarter. With the score still just 14-12, the Seahawks kept the offense on the field for a 4th-and-5 from the Atlanta 36-yard line after a run for a two-yard loss on third down.
Last season, the Seahawks were the second-least aggressive team on fourth downs. Not only did Seattle keep the offense on the field, but the play call also had a designed shot to the end zone. That’s a showing of aggressiveness that has not been common with Pete Carroll as Seattle’s head coach.
Another positive to come from Seattle’s game plan was Wilson’s involvement in the run game. He only had three official carries for 29 yards and 28 of them came from one run, but that run mattered. Wilson kept a zone read that also featured a trailing orbit motion from Tyler Lockett, which helped open the hole for the keeper when the cornerback charged Lockett in anticipation of an option pitch,
The volume of designed runs for Wilson has decreased over the past few seasons and cratered in 2019. Per Sports Info Solutions, Wilson had 34 designed runs in 2015, which includes option keepers. That dropped to 18 in 2016 then up to 20 in 2017 and back down to 18 in 2018. That number was just 11 in 2019.
Wilson likely won’t get back to his rushing numbers from the early years in his career, but the designed quarterback runs are safer and more valuable than the other types of runs this offense usually tries to create. If Russ is going to keep cooking, that run threat is a nice garnish.
2. New(ton) Designs
One of the talking points as we tried to figure out what this season would look like centered around the idea that consistency would matter more than it would in a typical season. Teams needing to install new schemes were at a disadvantage because of the lack of in-person practice time to work everything out. In true New England Patriots fashion, that didn’t apply to them.
New England came out against the Miami Dolphins with a run-heavy offense that centered around the legs of Cam Newton. In our season preview, we noted that after Lamar Jackson’s past two seasons, Newton had the next four individual seasons with the highest number of designed quarterback runs and a key to New England’s offense could be how quickly, often, and effectively the Patriots could include those in 2020. It didn’t take long to find out the answers were immediately, very often, and quite well.
Newton ran 15 times for 75 yards and two touchdowns in the 21-11 win. Newton was worth 0.43 EPA per attempt on the ground per nflfastR with a 54% success rate. 13 of Newton’s runs were designed, which already would have ranked eighth among quarterbacks for the entire 2019 season.
His first touchdown run came on a QB sweep designed to open up the right side of the field. New England came out in a 3×1 set with the three receivers to the left. James White motioned to the left, which cleared the middle of the field safety and froze the linebackers. At the snap, Newton was able to take the ball and had a clear path to the end zone.
The rushing threat of the quarterback opened other things up for the running game. New England rotated all of its backs into the game and all but one finished with positive EPA on the ground. The Patriots had a 59.6% run rate on early downs, but that still worked out to 0.23 EPA per play and a 58% success rate. At that clip, running is a fine choice.
Newton’s effectiveness on the ground also helped cover up a passing game that didn’t quite click, especially early on. It wasn’t until the second half when the Patriots got into a better rhythm and worked Julian Edelman in the short middle of the field. Newton actually had negative EPA throwing the ball but more than made up for it from the positive EPA on the ground.
15 rushing attempts is not going to be a sustainable weekly output for Newton, but if he’s healthy enough to be productive on the ground, it raises the floor for the offense — especially if that passing game isn’t working (as was the case against Miami). This is a dynamic the Patriots have never had (save for Jacoby Brissett’s first option-heavy start) and New England has leaned right into this newfound element.
3. Oh, just Lamar Jackson here to remind you he’s really good at football
It’s rare that a league MVP comes into the following season with some questions about his game but that was the case for Lamar Jackson. Jackson’s 2019 was centered around his ability to run and some questioned whether he could be a good enough traditional quarterback who could drop back to pass consistently when the game called for it.
Granted, that might have been a dumb question anyway (Jackson led all quarterbacks in passing EPA last season) but he did all he could in a Week 1 38-6 blowout of the Cleveland Browns to show he has few limitations throwing the ball.
Jackson finished the game 20-for-25 with 275 yards, three touchdowns, and a QBR of 94.1. He only ran the ball seven times. For a quarterback, this was a dominant performance as a passer. That high completion percentage wasn’t just from gimmie short passes, either. Per NFL Next Gen Stats, Jackson’s average pass traveled 11.1 yards beyond the line of scrimmage, which was the third-highest mark of Week 1. His average completion was 10.3 yards beyond the line of scrimmage, which tied for the highest among quarterbacks. All of that resulted in 0.54 EPA per dropback.
Cleveland’s defense was injury-riddled coming into the games, but one of the best signs we have for good teams or players is their ability to dominate in their plus matchups. Jackson was able to take advantage of whatever he wanted against the Browns. He had pinpoint accuracy down the field, as he showed on this early 47-yard pass to Marquise Brown.
And he was able to adjust to pressure in the pocket, reset his feet, and deliver a strike to Mark Andrews…
Next week, the Ravens play a Texans secondary that went all out to stop the deep pass against the Chiefs in Week 1. They’ll have to make the same effort in Week 2 but Jackson will not hesitate to take advantage of empty space in the middle of the field with his legs if the secondary insists on staying back, especially in man coverage.
It doesn’t matter how much film opposing defenses get on Jackson, there remain few correct answers in defending the most dynamic quarterback in the league.
4. New Orleans’s All-in Roster Pays Off
No team in the NFL is more invested in the 2020 season than the New Orleans Saints. After years of pushing cap hits into the future to free up money for the present, the 2020-2021 offseason might be the breaking point, especially if the salary cap stays flat or decreases. Over The Cap currently projects the Saints to be $75 million over the $176 million cap next season. Even for the Saints, it’s going to be impressive to see them get out of that hole by reworking contracts and pushing more money into the future.
Everything in New Orleans revolves around this season and getting one more shot for Drew Brees to compete for a Super Bowl. A result of using all that money is that the Saints might have the deepest and most well-rounded roster in the league. That’s important because it gives the Saints multiple ways to win games and that was already proven to be true in their 34-23 win over the Tampa Bay Buccaneers.
Brees has started out the past few seasons strong but has faded a bit down the stretch. It’s slightly concerning then that Brees looked like he was in midseason form during the season opener and not in the good meaning of that phrase. Brees went just 18-of-30 for 160 yards. Two passing touchdowns helped and the end result was a 71.9 QBR but it wasn’t pretty on the way there.
Last year, Brees had the second-highest completion percentage over expectation in the league but he had the third-worst in Week 1, ahead of only Carson Wentz and Dwayne Haskins. Brees found success targeting tight end Jared Cook (5-80) and running back Alvin Kamara (5-50-1) but didn’t have great success to his wide receivers. Michael Thomas and Emmanuel Sanders combined for 10 targets, six catches, and 32 yards.
The New Orleans defense stepped up and shut down most of what Tampa Bay wanted to do when the Buccaneers had the ball. C.J. Gardner-Johnson was all over the field with 10 tackles and a pass defensed. The entire defense combined for five passes defenses, including a pick-6 from Janoris Jenkins.
New Orleans was able to keep the game in hand and showed they’re willing to keep a foot on the pedal — a late fourth-quarter double pass from Taysom Hill was aggressive — but the play of Brees is something to monitor in the coming weeks.
5. Week 1 PANIC METER
The time after Week 1 has been dubbed National Jump To Conclusions Week by Aaron Schatz of Football Outsiders. So in that spirit, let’s review some of the ups and downs from Week 1 and judge the level of panic warranted for each.
Brady had a rough debut in Tampa Bay. There were some miscommunications with receivers, one with Mike Evans ended up with Brady’s first pick, and some outright bad throws (the pick-6 to Jenkins). Brady’s QBR was just 34.6 in the game, which ranked 23rd in Week 1. But there were some bright spots. There was a clear connection with Chris Godwin and Scotty Miller was able to fit right into the highly-targeted underneath slot role. Much of Brady’s success comes from impeccable timing and that wasn’t there yet. Evans also wasn’t 100% and was only targeted twice. It’s still early and all of that could be fixed within a few weeks. The Patriots typically started off slow with timing over the past few seasons, too.
Verdict: Don’t panic yet
Kevin Stefanski’s hiring was supposed to be the key to a more settled Mayfield at quarterback. The heavy play-action offense would allow Mayfield to have clean pockets and designed rollouts would squash his tendency to drift outside of the pocket. With Baltimore’s beatdown, the Browns rarely had a chance to be in a position to take advantage of the play-action game and Cleveland had to ask Mayfield to pass often.
That did not go well. Mayfield looked a lot like he did throughout the 2019 season. He was rushed, he fled the pocket, and his timing with receivers was questionable at best. There is still little chemistry between Mayfield and Odell Beckham who had just three catches for 22 yards on 10 targets (however, Beckham’s day also including drawing DPI and holding penalties).
Mayfield only threw one interception, but Baltimore had seven passes defensed as a defense. Even when the quarterback wasn’t necessarily forcing a throw, the ball ended up in a dangerous spot.
Week 1 of a new regime isn’t the time to call it a failure, but it is a concern that a lot of Mayfield’s faults in the opening game mirrored those from last season. That will need to be something that gets cleaned up as the season goes on.
Verdict: Don’t panic, but you can worry
The Lions were a trendy pick in analytics circles to be the favorite in the NFC North. That was based on how Detroit fared in one-score games, which usually regresses to the mean the following year, and how good of an offense they had with a healthy Matthew Stafford last season. Stafford didn’t quite look like the early 2019 version (though Kenny Golladay was out) and the Lions blew a late lead by allowing a Mitchell Trubisky laser for a 27-23 Chicago win.
Patricia might just be what is holding this team back and keeping them in these close game situations. It should be noted the Lions could have won the game if D’Andre Swift didn’t drop a late would-be touchdown pass from Stafford on the Lions’ final drive.
Verdict: Deep sigh, that’s all you can do
New York Jets
6. Revenge for Rodgers
Some narratives are more fun when they’re true. After a few years of public discussion of declining performance and a quarterback selected in the first round by the Green Bay Packers, the thought was Aaron Rodgers was going to be pissed off and it would be a net positive for his play.
We can’t say for sure if that’s true, but the old Rodgers was certainly back en route to a 43-34 Packers win over the Minnesota Vikings. Rodgers went 32-of-44 for 364 yards with four touchdowns and a QBR of 93. In 2019, Rodgers had a QBR over 90 just once and over 80 two other times. He had a QBR below 40 eight times.
That’s been part of the conundrum with Rodgers over the past few seasons. Even when the overall performance has suffered, Rodgers’s highlights have still looked like peak Rodgers and that was still the case on Sunday. Per Next Gen Stats, Rodgers had three of the top-6 least likely completions of Week 1, including the top two.
Those three plays were a 40-yard pass to Davante Adams in the fourth quarter (14.3% completion probability), a 24-yard touchdown pass to Adams in the first quarter (16.2%), and a 45-yard touchdown pass to Marquez Valdes-Scantling (23.2%).
It’s a positive sign that those all came on deep balls, which struggles to connect last season. In 2019, Rodgers had the second-most attempts of 20 or more air yards (88) but completed just 31.8% of them despite a high on-target rate, per Sports Info Solutions charting.
A better sign for Rodgers and the 2020 Packers is that the highlights were surrounded by consistency throughout the game. If that can continue, we’ll see a version of Rodgers that we haven’t seen for an extended period since the 2015 season.
7. Gardner Minshew & The Fight For The Fallen
The act of tanking is misunderstood in the NFL. There have been teams in the past that have focused on gaining assets for the future over assets for the present. That’s a good process. But it’s really hard to actually tank. No team, especially the coaches and players involved, actively tries to lose games. Last year’s Miami Dolphins were supposed to be the tankers but even with one of the worst defenses Football Outsiders ever tracked by DVOA, they won five games and came in with the fifth overall pick in the draft.
Jacksonville might be in that same position for 2020. They’re set up well with assets for the future, especially the 2021 NFL Draft, but no one on the team is trying to lose. The Jaguars pulled through with a surprising 27-20 win over the Indianapolis Colts. Gardner Minshew was a huge reason.
There wasn’t a lot on Minshew’s plate in this game, his average pass traveled just 4.5 yards beyond the line of scrimmage, the second-shortest of Week 1. But he completed 19 of his 20 pass attempts for a week-leading 16.4% CPOE.
Minshew isn’t the type of player who is going to blow away anyone with spectacular plays but he does a lot of little things really well. He’s a smart and effective scrambler (he led the league in scrambles last season) and he’s an effective deep thrower when given the opportunity. He also has the nuances of the game down. On a touchdown throw to D.J. Chark on Sunday, Laviska Shenault ran jet motion and continued that into a fake bubble screen. Minshew sold the pump fake on the screen, which froze two Colts defenders. He was then able to rest and find Chark in the back of the end zone for the score.
In our review of the second-year quarterbacks, Minshew impressed as the second-best rookie passer in 2019. He might not be the type of quarterback that makes you pass on a potential franchise changer at the top of the draft if the opportunity is there, but he might be just good enough to keep his current team from being in that position.
8. Play of the Day
Just your standard play-action touchdown pass from an inverted wishbone. The play-fake and the crossing route from the backfield by Dan Arnold and Chase Edmonds completely freeze the linebackers and they can’t react to Edmonds turning the corner until it’s way too late.
9. Chart of the Day – DeAndre Hopkins
There was no bigger trade in the offseason than the one that sent DeAndre Hopkins to the Arizona Cardinals for David Johnson and a second-round pick. Arizona struggled with talent at wide receiver and Hopkins was expected to be the No. 1 receiver who could change an entire passing game. That’s somewhat true.
For much of the season opener against the San Francisco 49ers, the Cardinals offense looked like it did throughout 2019 but with a Hopkins role added on. Arizona relied heavily on screens and short passes for much of the game, then eventually got some deeper routes to Hopkins going.
The best of which might have been on a 3rd-and-6 in the fourth quarter with the Cardinals trailing 20-17. Hopkins motioned from the outside to a stacked alignment with Larry Fitzgerald inside the numbers. Arizona ran mesh-wheel, an Air Raid staple, and the linebacker in the middle of the field moved to cover the wheel, which left Hopkins all alone for a 33-yard catch and run initially called a touchdown but was then ruled down a yard shy of the goal line.
Hopkins did a lot of his work from the left side of the offense to avoid Richard Sherman, though Sherman followed Hopkins to that side more often than usual, with more snaps on that side of the field than Sherman had in all of 2019, per Next Gen Stats.
It’s already clear on a 14-catch day that Hopkins will be a big part of the offense and once the rest of the passing game falls into place, the Cardinals could be much closer to that leap they’re looking to take.
10. Early season training wheels
With a virtual offseason, limited practices, and no preseason games, there was a lot of concern about what the actual football product would look like on the field. For the most part, it looked like football. Sure, there were some mistakes and missed tackles, but the quality of play was never egregious.
If there was one noticeable trend in Week 1 it was offenses structured to take advantage of short passes. It started on Thursday night when the Chiefs had Patrick Mahomes throw shorter and quicker than he ever had in his career. It continued on Sunday. Cam Newton’s offense was centered around those runs and his aDOT when throwing was just 5.4 yards beyond the line of scrimmage. Minshew’s aDOT was just 4.5 yards. Kyler Murray’s was 5.5. Russell Wilson finally cooked and his aDOT was only 5.3 yards.
This was especially apparent in the Sunday Night Football game between the Dallas Cowboys and Los Angeles Rams. Neither offense was fully opened up for downfield passing. Jared Goff was on a steady diet of screens to start the game and at one point his aDOT was behind the line of scrimmage. He ended with a week-low 4.3-yard aDOT and his average completion was just 3.6 yards beyond the line. Sean McVay was not putting a lot in the quarterback’s hands.
Dak Prescott finished with a more respectable, yet still below average, 7.1-yard aDOT but that was heavily influenced by some deeper passes late in the game when the Cowboys were trailing. It was just 5.0 through the third quarter. Dallas curiously used play-action on a 3rd-and-10 with just 31 seconds left in the game (the play that resulted in the OPI call on Michael Gallup) but that might have been the best play in the game plan that featured a deep shot.
It’s possible this is just a one week blip for most of these offenses and they could be ready to roll into a fully formed game plan for Week 2 but this could also be an early-season trend some teams rely on as they continue to work their way into the season. Either way, it stood out in Week 1 and it could be something to keep an eye on as teams continue to adjust to the season.