Some thoughts after Week 1 of the NFL season…
Baltimore should have concerns
Toward the end of training camp, the focus on Baltimore was really the rash of injuries they suffered — J.K. Dobbins, Justice Hill, Marcus Peters, Gus Edwards and Rashod Bateman being the headliners. The real concern for me is this: Outside of Peters, a lot of their struggles in the Monday night loss to Las Vegas had nothing to do with the players that were out. It seems their offensive and defensive lines are much weaker than in the past, and they lacked the aggressiveness we have previously seen.
On defense, they looked lost at times. They could not slow down the tight end, even though he was Derek Carr’s only target for a while. Up front, they were not getting the pressure they have in the past, and I worry that they might not have a replacement for Matt Judon, who left for New England this offseason, off the edge. What is really surprising to me, though, is that they were not nearly as aggressive up front as we have seen in the past. They did lose their defensive line coach, Joe Cullen, who became the defensive coordinator in Jacksonville. I have said in the past that he is the best defensive line coach in the NFL, so I think this is a substantial loss that has gone largely unnoticed. I am still surprised by their regression Monday night. If there is a silver lining for Baltimore on defense, Patrick Queen had a huge game with 9 tackles and 1 sack. He looks like he has the potential to be a really special player.
On the offensive line, they are not nearly as strong either. Ronnie Stanley was playing in his first game back since a serious ankle injury last November. He struggled with the speed of Yannick Ngakoue, and according to PFF, allowed 9 QB pressures. Alejandro Villanueva, who was signed after Baltimore traded Orlando Brown, was no better on the other side. He was no match for the speed of Maxx Crosby, who was beating him all night. According to PFF, Villanueva allowed 10 QB pressures and 2 sacks. This is not what we are used to seeing from them at all, and it really hampered them in the second half. After halftime, Jackson was just 8 of 15 for 107 yards. He was also sacked two times and lost two fumbles, which is a huge problem he needs to clean up.
For Vegas, once they let Carr start to sling it around, Baltimore had a lot of trouble staying fresh and keeping up. In the second half, they were not concerned about balance and really started to move the ball consistently against the Ravens. This is going to become the recipe to beat Baltimore if they cannot start to generate more consistent pressure and give Lamar Jackson more time in the pocket. Baltimore was already in a division with two other very good teams (Cleveland and Pittsburgh), and if they do not turn it around, they will very quickly fall a tier below those two teams. It gets no easier for Baltimore, which has Kansas City this week, before playing Denver, Indianapolis and the Chargers in October.
A look around from Sunday’s action…
Cincinnati 27, Minnesota 24 (OT)
At the end of regulation, Joe Burrow was 17 of 21 and was averaging over 10 yards a pass attempt, and Cincinnati was still running the ball a decent amount more than they were passing it. For the game, Joe Mixon had 29 carries for 127 yards but was only averaging 4.4 yards a carry. There was even more of a distinction on first down. Mixon had 15 carries for 72 yards (4.80 YPA) on first down in the game. Meanwhile, Burrow was perfect on first downs. He was 9-for-9 for 140 yards (15.6 YPA). These are decisions that almost cost them a game that they were largely in control of.
The Bengals were able to hold on to win in overtime, but this is not a recipe they want to continue. Mixon cannot continue to get 30 carries a game, and they did it at a disservice to the offense. Cincinnati did not address their offensive line issues in the offseason and that is still an issue, but Burrow is proving that he is good enough to keep them in the majority of their games, regardless of their division.
Seattle 28, Indianapolis 16
Indianapolis fell behind early and did something similar to what Cincinnati did to almost lost their game. In the first half, Carson Wentz was 12 of 16 for 114 yards with a touchdown. Despite that, the Colts’ backfield still had 12 first-half rushes for only 36 yards. This was tied to a clear first half momentum swing. After Seattle scored at the end of the first quarter to take a 7-3 lead, Indianapolis went three-and-out. On the drive, they rushed Jonathan Taylor on first and second down for five yards total. On third down, Wentz was sacked, giving the ball right back to Seattle. Seattle scored on their next drive and held a two score lead for most of the game.
I do not know if Wentz’s injuries played a role in the Colts’ play calling, but this is essentially how they lost the game. Usually, if you come out running, you are going to fall behind. Once you fall behind by two scores in the first half against a quarterback as good as Russell Wilson, it becomes really hard to win. From this point on, they essentially played Seattle even, but they had already dug their hole. In his first half of the season, Wilson did not miss a beat, going 9-for-11 for 166 yards and 3 TDs.
Kansas City 33, Cleveland 29
The key to beating Baker Mayfield is getting him under pressure. A lot of teams are afraid to blitz a team with a lot of weapons because they do not want to be exposed. The reality is this: Guys are going to get open either way, so your best chance is to bring pressure to slow it down or create turnovers. For the game, Mayfield was only sacked twice and did not face many quarterback hurries. This played a huge role in Mayfield completing 75% of his passes and averaging 11.5 yards an attempt. I worked with Chiefs defensive coordinator Steve Spagnuolo for years, and I was really surprised by how unaggressive they were in trying to get after him. They did not even run a lot of stunts. It just felt like they were trying to beat their man one-on-one. With that offensive line, that is not going to be successful often, just trying to rush with four.
Los Angeles 34, Chicago 14
If the Rams throw the ball as much as they did on Sunday night, they are going to be really tough. Sean McVay has historically been conscious of run/pass balance in some of their bigger games, and I think it has hurt them. In the first half, Matthew Stafford was 10 of 13 for 151 yards. On first downs for the game, he was 9 of 11 for 208 yards and 2 TDs. Even in one of the toughest divisions in football, if they are able to jump out to early leads, they are going to be tough to beat. You do not want to be forced into throwing situations against them, allowing Aaron Donald and Leonard Floyd to play downhill.
For the Bears, their defense is not nearly as talented as it was a few years ago. They were forced to cut Kyle Fuller because of his contract and moved on from Buster Skrine. Up front, Eddie Goldman is banged up and missed Week 1, and Akiem Hicks looks older. Khalil Mack is still an excellent player, but he looks like he has lost a step on the edge. He only had one tackle in this game, and I am unsure if he is still a top five pass rusher in the NFL.
The Bears are not a very good football team, so it does not matter about Justin Fields. They are not going anywhere. He should sit the first eight games or 10 games, if that is what it takes for him to get a little more comfortable mentally, and for their offensive line to get a little more comfortable together. They drafted this guy to be the quarterback for 10-plus years, not to see what he could do his rookie season. I watched Andy Reid sit Donovan McNabb for most of his rookie season. From the first day of training camp, everyone knew McNabb was the best quarterback, but Andy knew it was in the best interest of McNabb and the franchise not to rush him because we knew we were not that good. We saw Reid do the same thing with Mahomes. We saw it with Aaron Rodgers. This is how the Bears franchise needs to be thinking. Fields development is much more important than the wins and losses this year.
Jack Wolov contributed to this story