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NFL Week 3 Winners and Losers: A.J. Green Goes Supernova, Philbin’s Phins Continue to Flounder

Cincinnati’s star returns, offensive excitement finally arrives in Oakland, problems persist in Miami, and more from Week 3 in the NFL.

Winners

The Bengals

Cincinnati deserves plenty of credit for being 3-0, but the Bengals’ success has also come with some serious misfortune befalling the teams around them. Baltimore’s Terrell Suggs is already out for the year, and the same week Pittsburgh got back Le’Veon Bell, it lost Ben Roethlisberger to an MCL sprain. He may return for most of the second half of the season, but Pittsburgh is still looking at a month of Michael Vick. And if Roethlisberger hits the longer end of the four-to-six-week diagnosis, he’ll miss the Week 9 game against the Bengals.

Still, credit where credit’s due: For the first time since all the pieces were acquired, the amount of talent on the Bengals offense has finally come into focus. With Tyler Eifert, Marvin Jones, and A.J. Green healthy, this is a truly dangerous stable of receivers. Aside from Giovani Bernard’s big day against the Chargers, the running game hasn’t been quite as dominant as expected, but there’s a chance that that will come along in time. And for the most part, the offensive line has been excellent. Through three weeks, the Bengals are seventh in average yards before contact, and only the Giants and Eagles are getting pressured at a lowered rate. Unlike most of the teams at the top, though, Cincy’s offense isn’t relying on a diet of short throws to keep Andy Dalton clean. The Bengals are the only team in the top five in pressure rate that averages more than seven air yards per attempt, and at 8.37 yards, it’s clearing that comfortably.

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While Jones and Eifert are solid complementary pieces, for this offense to truly reach its peak, the Bengals need the version of Green they got yesterday. That doesn’t mean 227 yards a game, but it does mean the brand of dominant football he played during his first three seasons. Despite an injury-filled 2014, we still should’ve expected Green to return to that level. His all-time ranks for an NFL receiver’s first three years are as follows: eighth in touchdowns (29), second in yards (3,833; only Randy Moss had more), and first in receptions. This crew of talented, young receivers is deep, but before being banged up for almost all of last season, Green was the most productive of them all — by far.

Raiders Fans

Congratulations, Raiders fans. You deserved this.

For the past decade, the real black hole in Oakland has existed at wide receiver. The last 1,000-yard season for a Raiders wideout came a full decade ago, and considering that it was a pedestrian year in the otherwise unforgettable Randy Moss era, even that was depressing. Granted, a lot could go wrong for Amari Cooper before he manages another 710 yards, but so far, the fourth overall pick has looked even better than advertised. In helping the Raiders move to 2-1, Cooper chewed up Joe Haden for 134 yards on eight catches — the second of what I have to imagine is going to be a career filled with 100-yard games.

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Cooper’s off-the-bat dominance would be the best news coming out of Oakland by far if it weren’t for Derek Carr. Yesterday, the second-year quarterback hit the 300-yard mark for the second straight week. He added two touchdowns, one of which was a beautiful touch throw to the back corner of the end zone — the exact sort of pass I’d claimed he had trouble with, even after a nice game against Baltimore last week. Carr still has plenty of work to do improving his ability to feel the pocket and step into some available throws, but the progress he’s made from Year 1 to Year 2 is still encouraging. Considering the work the 24-year-old Khalil Mack is doing on the other side of the ball — he had two impressive sacks yesterday — Oakland might, finally, be on a run of draft success.

Atlanta’s Running Game

There’s really no need to talk about Julio Jones anymore. The only explanation is that he was designed by a scientist who wants to exact revenge on the world’s cornerbacks. Jones is on his way to a historic season, but the more encouraging sign for the Falcons is that, through three games, they’ve shown some signs of life on the ground.

Atlanta finished 22nd in rushing DVOA a season ago, and after some pop from Tevin Coleman in Week 1, Devonta Freeman stomped through the Cowboys defense all afternoon. He finished with 141 yards on his 30 carries yesterday, and not a single one of those went for more than 17 yards. Freeman was ripping off seven and eight yards consistently against a Dallas defense that had been solid against the run over its first two games. Ultimately, Atlanta’s going nowhere without Jones, Matt Ryan, and that passing game, but if Kyle Shanahan’s offense can move the ball behind that questionable offensive line, this offense could really do some damage.

Chuck Pagano

When the Titans kicked a field goal to go up 13 points late in the third quarter, the Colts’ disaster season was about 18 minutes from becoming reality. The history for 0-3 teams and the playoffs is miserable. And although Indianapolis’s chances in the paper-thin AFC South are never that bad, had it fallen to Tennessee, the rumbling around the Colts might have been too much for Chuck Pagano to outlast.

chuck-pagano-coltsAndy Lyons/Getty Images

After coming back to knock off the Titans, Pagano told his players, “That’s as big of a win that I’ve ever been a part of in my life. I’ll cherish that for the rest of my life.” Can you blame him? The issues for the Colts are no less real simply because the Titans didn’t hold on to their lead, but now the Colts get to face those issues at 1-2 instead of 0-3. Pagano hasn’t shied away from intensifying the pressure he’s facing as the coach of a team with Andrew Luck and Super Bowl aspirations, either. He turned down a one-year extension this offseason, and amid rumors of discord between the coaching staff and the front office, Pagano didn’t mind taking a few shots at the Colts’ roster construction after falling to the Jets last week.

Those shots are probably warranted. Every move the Colts made in free agency — and in most of the other offseasons of the Luck era — has gone nowhere. That doesn’t lie at Pagano’s feet, but if his team had fallen yesterday, it would be him — and not general manager Ryan Grigson — facing reporters all week. It’s going to take more than last-second wins over teams in the AFC South for Pagano to stick around in Indianapolis, and although yesterday may not have been enough to save the Colts’ season, it may have been enough to save Pagano’s.

Losers

Joe Philbin

It’s been only three weeks, but this year’s “Offseason Champions” banner is ready for the trash. The Dolphins made the biggest waves of the spring by handing Ndamukong Suh his $114 million franchise-altering deal, but that was hardly all the work they did in free agency. Miami dealt Dannell Ellerbe and a third-round pick to New Orleans for Kenny Stills, shipped Mike Wallace to Minnesota for a seventh-rounder, and gave buy-low candidate Jordan Cameron just $5 million guaranteed to replace Charles Clay.

Although the Dolphins finished .500 last season, they clearly believed they had a talent base for something more, and with every notable move, the temperature under Joe Philbin’s seat cranked up just a bit higher. After what happened yesterday, he’s going to have a hard time even sitting down: Miami didn’t just lose to Buffalo, it was pummeled. And that beatdown comes just one week after giving the Jaguars their first non-Browns, out-of-division AFC win in four seasons.

joe-philbin-dolphinsRob Foldy/Getty Images

The Dolphins are plagued with problems right now, but the most troubling part of these first three weeks is that they don’t do anything well. As soon as the Bills started handing the ball to a lithe Karlos Williams in favor of a banged-up LeSean McCoy, Buffalo had its way on the ground. And seven days after Allen Robinson’s career outing, Tyrod Taylor lit up Miami’s secondary for 277 yards and three scores. The Dolphins pass rush, a group that’s led by Suh and Cameron Wake and was supposed to define Miami’s defense, didn’t lay a hand on Taylor, who was sacked eight times against the Patriots last week. The offense wasn’t much better: Miami finally managed to surpass four yards per carry on the ground after looking awful for the first two games, but Ryan Tannehill spent most of the first half completing passes to Bills.

Philbin’s current plight isn’t all that different from where he was at the same time last year. The Dolphins were also 1-2 heading into their pre-bye trip to London in 2014, but there are a few key differences between then and now. Instead of a hapless Raiders defense, it’ll be the Jets waiting for them at Wembley, and while last year’s first three games featured contests with the Patriots, Bills, and Chiefs, the Dolphins’ opening stretch of Washington, Jacksonville, and Buffalo at home is actually one of the more forgiving periods of their season.

No unit on this team, on either side of the ball, has made significant strides from where it was at this point last year, and although injuries are partly to blame for exposing some of the Dolphins’ depth issues, they still aren’t enough to explain why certain aspects have actually gotten worse. The move for Suh was a clear sign — even if it does prove to be shortsighted — that Miami saw its chance to take the next step. So far, Philbin’s group has moved only in the opposite direction.

Quarterbacks

Watching 11 early games at once makes for a dizzying experience. There’s so much going on that, occasionally, a barrage of outlier plays can disguise itself as a standard NFL Sunday. But sometimes, the anecdotal and the actual line up, and yesterday it happened with quarterbacks throwing the ball to players on the other team.

If you felt like passes were getting picked and taken the other direction every 30 seconds, it’s probably because they were. Quarterbacks have thrown 32 interceptions so far in Week 3, equaling last season’s high, which came in Week 16. Some offenders — e.g., Colin Kaepernick — were worse than others, but in the ongoing case against the sorry state of quarterback play in the NFL, Sunday’s display should be Exhibit A.

Philip Rivers’s Internal Organs

It didn’t seem like it could get any worse than San Diego having to use (approximately) 17 centers last year, but the Chargers O-line was essentially one four-quarter game of musical chairs yesterday. Exactly one lineman played every snap for the San Diego offense, which lost Orlando Franklin, King Dunlap, and Chris Watt for at least some portion of this game. The result was Philip Rivers getting so battered that we eventually needed a brief Kellen Clemens appearance with the game out of reach.

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The Vikings notched only four sacks, but they hit Rivers eight more times. For the second week in a row, Minnesota did physical damage to the opposing quarterback, and although that’s never the goal, putting the heat on him is.

Vikings general manager Rick Spielman has thrown more resources into his pass rush than anywhere else on the roster. It’s now a group that includes two first-round picks (Sharrif Floyd and Anthony Barr) and two notable signings (Linval Joseph and Everson Griffen).1 There was always a question of whether Griffen’s per-snap production would translate to a full-time role, but after piling up 12 sacks as a starter last year, he already has three in 2015. And five — yeah, five — of those hits yesterday were his handiwork. Meanwhile, Barr’s role in Mike Zimmer’s defense probably means his raw pass-rushing totals will never hit the heights they could in a scheme that asks him to repeatedly get after the passer, but he’s done more for Minnesota than you could ever ask from the no. 9 pick.


1.

Griffen was drafted by the Vikings and then re-signed with the team last year.

Overall, it’s a young group — Griffen, the elder statesman, is just 27 — so there’s reason to believe this is just the start. Rivers will likely be just another name on a long list of Vikings-fearing quarterbacks come the end of the season.

The Aura Around Baltimore’s Defense

We see this with individual players a lot, but it can also happen with position groups and even entire sides of the ball: a reputation exists for so long and with such little questioning that it sticks around for a year or two more than is deserved. It’s been only three weeks, but we might already be there with the once-vaunted Ravens defense.

Dealing with a Broncos offense desperately in search of its footing, Baltimore looked pretty formidable in Week 1, but since then it’s been sliced apart by … Derek Carr and Andy Dalton. The Ravens secondary was an injured mess by the end of last season, but with Jimmy Smith and Lardarius Webb back, the hope was that Baltimore’s defensive backs would be good enough to take advantage of a very good pass rush. Yet, with Terrell Suggs hurt and Pernell McPhee in Chicago, that pass rush has gone missing. The Ravens sacked Dalton twice, but the majority of Baltimore’s pressure was a product of sending extra bodies at the quarterback.

That’s fine when it works — back-seven players Will Hill, C.J. Mosley, and Terrence Brooks all had hits yesterday — but if the pressure doesn’t break through, it allows A.J. Green to ruin your day. Smith, Baltimore’s first-round pick in 2011, was having the best season of his career before getting hurt last season, but in two consecutive weeks, he’s struggled with Green and Amari Cooper. For a team with the current (read: bad) version of Lardarius Webb on the other side, that just isn’t an option. There’s a chance that yesterday was the worst game Smith will play all season. The same goes for Hill, who labored when he wasn’t getting to Dalton. But we’re a few games away from this reduced version of the Baltimore pass defense being the new reality.