NFL Winners and Losers: The Steelers Light It Up, the Eagles Fall to PiecesJared Wickerham/Getty Images Sport
The Steelers’ Passing Game
Pittsburgh might have had the misfortune of being Gronk food in its opener, but the Steelers did the chomping yesterday. Ben Roethlisberger feasted on the same Niners defense that had made Teddy Bridgewater miserable in Week 1, averaging 13.7 yards per attempt.
There was the typical output from Antonio Brown — who might actually be unstoppable at this point. He had another nine catches for 195 yards, and was about a foot shy of finishing with two touchdowns. The way Pittsburgh deploys Brown is part of the problem for opposing defenses. He’s given four or five chances a game to take the ball near the line of scrimmage and go to work, but he’s also a potent deep threat, as evidenced by his 59-yard grab that involved him corkscrewing a 49er into the ground.
Roethlisberger’s two most impressive throws actually went to his other receivers: a 41-yard missile to Darrius Heyward-Bey down the middle of the field for a touchdown and a 48-yarder to Markus Wheaton on the right sideline, a throw that Roethlisberger somehow launched without setting his feet as he hustled out of the pocket.
This team will be paced by its offense. Lines like Roethlisberger’s against the Niners — 21-of-27 for 369 yards and three touchdowns — have a chance to pop up often with Todd Haley dialing up plays for the weapons they have. It’s more frightening to imagine what they’ll be like when they get back the weapons they don’t have. They’re still without two of the most potent forces that anyone in the league can deploy. Le’Veon Bell is back this week, and Martavis Bryant joins him two weeks later. Yesterday won’t be the last time this team lights it up.
Here’s what I could dredge up about Travis Benjamin:
- He was a fourth-round pick by the Browns in 2012 out of Miami
- Before the season started, Benjamin had 41 career receptions for a kind of ridiculous 717 yards, a 17.48-yard average
- Benjamin is small for an outside receiver — 5-foot-10, 175 pounds at the combine — but according to Mock Draftable, his best physical comp is maybe the most encouraging one any undersize deep-ball receiver could ask for: Steve freaking Smith
Through two games, Benjamin’s six catches have gone for an insane 204 yards. That’s 34 yards per reception, for anyone scoring at home. And that doesn’t include the 78-yard punt return he brought back yesterday.
Cleveland’s passing offense may never be a study in efficiency with Johnny Manziel at the helm, but in a way, Johnny Football fits Benjamin perfectly. He’s a quarterback with no conscience, who won’t think twice about uncorking it down the sideline a few times a game to see if Benjamin can track it down. It’s a match made in big-play heaven, and it’s turned Benjamin into the most exciting player in football through two weeks.
The moment New England’s defensive plan came into focus this spring, the pressure started to build for Chandler Jones. Letting Darrelle Revis walk left the Patriots with Devin McCourty and a shaky group of corners on the back end. This shifted the burden for slowing down opposing passing games more on Jones and the pass rush than it had been in recent years. The thought was that with Jones, a healthy Dominique Easley, Malcom Brown, and Jamie Collins, the Patriots would be able to fluster opposing quarterbacks.
They certainly didn’t have much trouble against Buffalo.1 Tyrod Taylor was dumped behind the line of scrimmage eight times. Left tackle Cordy Glenn has been the Bills’ best pass-blocking lineman for a couple of years, but he will be quietly muttering Jones’s name for a while after this one. Jones had three sacks of his own and another quarterback hit as the Pats D terrorized Taylor all day. New England’s pass rush wasn’t the same when Jones missed a chunk of last season, and he was blanked in the opener by underrated Steelers tackle Kelvin Beachum. But if Jones can roast Glenn like he did, the lesser tackles on New England’s schedule are in a lot of trouble.
Odell Beckham Jr.’s Hair
It would have been tough — impossible, really — for Odell Beckham Jr. to be better this year than he was as a rookie, but the same can’t be said about his hair. The haircut has taken the leap. I don’t even know how to describe it. There’s a slight Mohawk situation going on back there, but that’s about all I’ve got. Whatever. Beckham is allowed to do what he wants at this point, especially after what he did to Robert Alford on Sunday.
Football is just better when Geno Atkins is Geno Atkins. The Bengals defensive tackle was ready by Week 1 last year after tearing his ACL the previous November, but anyone familiar with his particular brand of pass-rushing destruction knew they weren’t looking at the same player.
Atkins finished the season with just three sacks after putting up 12.5 when healthy in 2012. He was among the most dominant interior linemen in the league then, right alongside Gerald McCoy and Ndamukong Suh. Without Atkins at full strength, the Cincinnati pass rush took a nosedive. The Bengals were last in sack percentage last season (3.1 percent of dropbacks) after finishing third the last time Atkins played a full season. Through two weeks, they’re back to ninth, and with two sacks already, Atkins is already close to his total from last year. But when Atkins is on, sack totals don’t fully explain the impact he makes. He picked up three quarterback hits while manhandling the San Diego guards all afternoon.
Predicting what might happen in Week 2 is always a perilous task. Teams that looked great in Week 1 (the Titans) inevitably falter, and teams that looked hapless (the Raiders) may not be that bad after all. Four of the weekend’s five biggest underdogs (Jacksonville, Oakland, Tampa Bay, and Dallas) won outright yesterday, with the Bucs, Raiders, and Jags ruining survivor pools nationwide.
Jacksonville’s passing game, replete with its crop of receivers from last year’s draft, looked as potent as it ever has since (Blake) Bortles service began, and the Bucs managed to show some life against Drew Brees in a place he’s historically torched inferior teams. The most impressive win of the weekend, though, goes to the Raiders. Derek Carr lit up a talented Ravens D; with ample press protection all day, he was free to show off his arm in a way he hasn’t been with Oakland’s typical dink-and-dunk approach.
The Bears were not embarrassing against Green Bay in Week 1. In fact, they almost looked respectable. When you’re a Bears fan, you take hope where you can find it. The Packers didn’t move the ball at will, and even though Aaron Rodgers still fired three touchdown passes and hung 31 points on the board, the Bears appeared, for the most part, to be an NFL team. It was a nice surprise, and one that lasted for all of one week.
There’s no good place to start in describing how much of a mess Chicago was against the Cardinals. David Johnson brought back the opening kickoff for a touchdown. Jay Cutler got hurt — again — while futilely trying to prevent a pick-six. The Bears managed only 59 yards on Jimmy Clausen’s first eight drives. Larry Fitzgerald caught eight passes and three touchdowns. And to top it off, the Bears were penalized 14 times for a franchise-record-tying 170 yards. Losing Cutler was bad news, but even without their starting quarterback, this was the sort of debacle that was supposed to be a memory with John Fox in charge. Oh well, at least the Cubs are good.
Please come back, Arian Foster. Only you can save us from this. Hell, even when Foster does return, the Texans will still have to choose between Ryan Mallett and Brian Hoyer at quarterback, and through two games, neither of them is all that appealing. After relieving Hoyer last week, Mallett had his own rough outing yesterday. His 244 yards came on 58 (!) passes, many of which were launched to no one in particular.
That much throwing is a significant departure from Bill O’Brien’s 2014 offense, which ran the ball more often than any team in the league except Dallas. In O’Brien’s defense, it’s hard to keep running when your team is averaging 2.7 yards per carry. And even that number is inflated after a 6-yard run from Mallett. Foster’s absence is apparent, but injuries up front are also dooming Houston’s running game before it can even get started. Already without star left tackle Duane Brown and starting left guard Xavier Su’a-Filo, the Texans lost backup guard Jeff Adams midway through their Week 2 game against the Panthers. For the Houston offense to have any chance this season, without Foster and with either of these quarterbacks, it all needed to break right along the line, and so far, it’s gone about as badly as it could have.
This Eagles season was always going to rest at Chip Kelly’s feet. When owner Jeffrey Lurie handed Kelly control of Philadelphia’s roster, he empowered a coach who firmly believes in his own vision of how a team should look. We know what happened next. Jeremy Maclin was allowed to walk, LeSean McCoy was traded to Buffalo, Nick Foles was swapped for Sam Bradford, and both starting guards were cut loose. Most of the major elements from an offense that finished 13th in DVOA last season were switched out in favor of pieces Kelly thought better suited his scheme.
Kelly’s approach to his ground attack this offseason was simple. He’d make up for cutting his two starting guards and trading his star running back by bringing on a pair of backs that better fit his offense. The decision to run $22 million guaranteed of running backs behind $1.1 million of guards seems to be backfiring. Kelly hoped the decisiveness of Murray would be enough to close the gap between Evan Mathis and Allen Barbre. But so far, even Murray hasn’t had enough time to make decisions behind the Eagles’ line.
Last season, the Eagles averaged 2.88 yards before contact per rush, the seventh-best rate in football. This year, that’s plummeted to 1.39. Only the Saints have been worse. Yesterday, the Eagles couldn’t even get their backs past the line of scrimmage before they were getting whacked. They managed minus-0.29 yards per carry before contact against a Cowboys run defense that finished 22nd in run defense DVOA last season. Having Sean Lee back helps, but Dallas isn’t exactly the steel curtain.
Blaming the Eagles’ running woes on the losses of Mathis and Todd Herremans is perhaps too simple. Philadelphia dealt with a rash of offensive line injuries last year, and although the Eagles didn’t have the same dominant running game they did in Kelly’s first season, they still had more to offer on the ground than this. So what’s the problem? With Foles under center, the deep ball was a central part of the Eagles offense. They averaged 9.49 air yards per attempt in 2013, the most in football, and even with Foles missing a chunk of last season, the Eagles still finished eighth.
This year, they’ve fallen to 29th, averaging just 5.35 air yards per throw. If teams don’t fear Bradford’s ability to push the ball downfield, they’re able to commit more resources to slowing down the running game. If the running game can’t get going, the play-action throws that define Kelly’s scheme aren’t as effective. A destructive cycle emerges.
There’s also the possibility that teams have started to catch on to how Kelly naturally creates running lanes within his offense. The Dolphins have run into similar trouble on the ground. After finishing last year with the second-best per-carry average in the league, Miami is 26th through two games, averaging just 3.41 yards per carry. That’s still better than the 32nd-ranked Eagles and their 2.12 average, but it’s a drastic drop-off from where Miami was a season ago. The connection? Former Eagles assistant Bill Lazor runs the Dolphins offense, and the Dolphins offense most resembles Philadelphia’s.
Two weeks isn’t enough to close the book on any unit (last year’s Packers, anyone?), but so far, the returns on Kelly’s experiment haven’t been promising. We’re months away from being able to label the plan a failure, but if we get there, there aren’t many ways to place the blame.