Offseason work only pays off for one in 49ers-Packers; more Snaps
NEW ORLEANS -- Musings, observations and the occasional insight as we digest an NFL Week 1 that naturally shattered its share of preconceptions...
• San Francisco spent all offseason focusing like a laser on improving its passing game, and thus its offense. Green Bay had a similar goal on defense, spending most of its draft capital on that side of the ball and working feverishly to upgrade the unit that finished 32nd in the league last year in yards allowed.
They couldn't have equal bountiful Week 1 results in those renovation projects, given that the 49ers opened their schedule with Sunday's visit to Lambeau Field. Success for one meant failure for the other. And on this day, that translated to advantage San Francisco.
Both entered this game as powers in the NFC, and one result doesn't change that. Many still like these two to provide the NFC Championship Game matchup in January. But San Francisco's enhanced passing game took a step forward, and Green Bay's new-look defense did not.
The 49ers are still going to run the ball plenty with their muscular Frank Gore-led ground game, but San Francisco quarterback Alex Smith contributed mightily to the solid 30-22 upset with a 20 of 26 passing day, for 211 yards and a pair of touchdowns. That led to a very balanced San Francisco offensive showing, with Jim Harbaugh's club producing 377 yards, 186 of which came on the ground (32 rushes, 5.8 yard average).
San Francisco's rebuilt receiving corps wasn't spectacular, but the big three of Michael Crabtree (seven catches for 76 yards), Randy Moss (four for 47 with a 14-yard touchdown) and Mario Manningham (four for 29) combined for 15 receptions for 152 yards, and that's a cool 14 catches for 149 yards more than 49ers receivers totaled in that gut-wrenching NFC title-game overtime loss at home to the Giants last season.
As for the Packers defense, the four sacks Green Bay produced were a hopeful sign. Dom Capers' defense had just 29 sacks in 2011, ranking 27th in the league. But San Francisco's 377-yard day on offense, the 30 points the 49ers managed, and the return of some shoddy tackling (see Gore's game-clinching 23-yard fourth-quarter touchdown run) are sure to renew concerns that the defensive problems have not yet been fixed in Green Bay.
And don't look now, but the high-octane Bears offense is heading to town for a quick-turnaround Thursday night game at Lambeau. Chicago throttled the Colts 41-21 at Soldier Field, with quarterback Jay Cutler overcoming a slow start to throw for 333 yards and a pair of touchdowns, and the Bears hanging up 428 yards on offense.
There will be no deep run at a perfect season this year for the Packers. It's early, but the pressure is already on in Green Bay. And if there is a 49ers-Packers rematch in the NFC playoffs, thanks to Sunday's outcome, it might be played in Candlestick Park.
• Of all the preseason storylines that evaporated into thin air in Week 1, did anything amount to less reason for worry than the Jets' so-called offensive anemia? New York's 48-28 blowout of the Bills represented the highest-scoring season-opening effort in team history, and the Jets' beleaguered offense produced 34 of those points.
No, Tim Tebow (five carries, 11 yards rushing, yawn) wasn't much of a secret weapon (besides, it's been in all the papers that he's on the team this year). But that doesn't matter when Mark Sanchez is throwing for 266 yards and three touchdowns, and rookie receiver Stephen Hill (five catches for 89 yards) is hauling in his first two NFL scoring passes. The Jets cruised to a 41-7 lead and then lost interest against Buffalo. Even New York's defense and special teams got in on the scoring act, with cornerback Antonio Cromartie taking an interception to the house from 40 yards out, and punt returner Jeremy Kerley ripping off a 68-yard touchdown gallop.
Sometimes when we make the point that the preseason really doesn't matter, we really mean it. Just ask the Jets.
• But as for Buffalo, I'm through defending Bills quarterback Ryan Fitzpatrick for the time being. The former Harvard star came up very, very small in the Bills' opener, just as he did for most of the final nine games of 2011 -- eight of which were losses after Buffalo's hopeful 5-2 start.
No team in the NFL got deflated in Week 1 faster than the Bills, thanks largely to Fitzpatrick throwing for just 195 yards and three interceptions in the debacle. In the first half, when it was still a game, Fitzpatrick passed for just 80 yards, with two picks. That won't ever get it done.
The Bills have teased us before and always fall flat later in the season, but maybe this year there won't be any teasing. Buffalo didn't look remotely ready to play on Sunday, and after the Bills invested so heavily in their defense this offseason, there's plenty of blame to spread around on that side of the ball as well.
Maybe this starting quarterback stuff is tougher than it looks.
• If you don't think Washington defensive coordinator Jim Haslett reveled in revenge at being able to knock off the Saints in the Superdome -- where he was once the team's playoff-qualifying head coach -- you don't know him very well. Haslett wanted this one very, very badly, and got it.
The Saints-Redskins matchup had all kinds of storylines to consider, and not just the obvious ones. In the "Gregg Williams Used To Be Our Defensive Coordinator Bowl,'' give Washington the nod over New Orleans, and who knows how Williams feels about that outcome? Perhaps he was somewhere Sunday focused on the St. Louis Rams team that he was set to work for, until the Saints bounty saga intervened.
• I might have underestimated the impact of Sean Payton's absence in New Orleans. And Gregg Williams' for that matter. Don't snicker. The Saints came out flat against the Redskins, and they had every reason in the world to have an emotional, fired-up edge to them on this day. Without Payton and Williams, who are both demonstrative, in-your-face-type of presences on the sideline, maybe there was no one around who could give New Orleans players a little juice when they needed it.
The intensity was clearly lacking, and Drew Brees did not look like his usual sharp, confident self. Could it be that missing the team's offseason program with his contract situation up in the air mattered more than anyone realized?
• There are two ways to look at the controversy regarding the Seahawks being erroneously given a fourth timeout late in their loss at Arizona: The NFL clearly dodged a bullet with that blown call, because had the Seahawks scored late to win, the howls of protest about the replacement refs would have reached a fevered pitch.
But in some ways it might have been worth putting up with all the backlash, because then the league and their regular officials would have been that much closer to striking a deal and putting this year's labor stand-off behind them. From that vantage point, it's an opportunity missed of sorts.
On the whole, though, I didn't see too many obvious errors by the replacement officials in Week 1. They're not as confident or quick in their judgments, and the Redskins-Saints game I was at went well past three and a half hours, but it wasn't the worst-case scenario that some predicted.
• That's the thing about the Arizona quarterback situation in the post-Kurt Warner era: The only constant has been change. So now it's probably Kevin Kolb's turn again after the Cardinals' former No. 1 came off the bench to replace the injured John Skelton and lead his team to a comeback 20-16 win over Seattle. Skelton went down with a fourth-quarter ankle injury that did not look like a short-term problem, and Kolb responded by going 6 of 8 for 66 yards the rest of the way, including a go-ahead, 6-yard scoring pass to receiver Andre Roberts.
You knew both Skelton and Kolb would wind up playing this year in Arizona, but I didn't necessarily think the revolving door would start turning on opening day.
• I don't know quite what's more impressive to me about the 63-yard field goal that 49ers kicker David Akers nailed in San Francisco's win at Green Bay: The record-tying length of his kick, or his accomplishing the feat at the tender age of 37, when most kickers are starting to lose a bit of distance. And this wasn't in a dome, and it wasn't in mile-high Denver, where the altitude is a kicker's best friend. Last I checked, Green Bay isn't all that much above sea level.
• There was no uglier win in the league this week than Philadelphia's 17-16 stinker at Cleveland. The Eagles turned it over five times, with four of those coming via Michael Vick's interceptions. Vick had a career-worst 14 interceptions last season, but he's well on his way to topping that number, even though Andy Reid has repeatedly said Vick doesn't have a history of turnover problems.
If the Browns weren't horrible themselves they would have beaten the Eagles and put Reid and Co. under immediate pressure, especially since a tough visit from Baltimore looms next week in Philadelphia's home opener. Vick was all over the map against the Browns, and his 29 of 56 passing for 317 yards, with two touchdowns and those four picks isn't the blueprint that will lead to victory too many times this year.
• One week in and the NFC East is already confounding us. The Cowboys, Eagles and Redskins all won on the road in Week 1, while the division favorite Giants lost at home to Dallas, which became the first visiting team to get out of the NFL's season-kickoff game with a victory against a defending Super Bowl champ.
The NFC East might be fun this year.
• I didn't find it shocking that Tampa Bay beat visiting Carolina 16-10 in a smashmouth type of game at Raymond James Stadium. But the most surprising statistic of Week 1 in my estimation was the Panthers rushing just 13 times for 10 yards, tying a franchise-low. Even if Jonathan Stewart was out with an ankle injury, where was DeAngelo Williams and Mike Tolbert in the game plan?
Williams carried six times for minus-1 yards, and Tolbert got just one rush for 2 yards. What were the Panthers doing during practice in Florida all last week? Filling the skies with footballs? That's really not who they are.
It was a very nice first win for the Bucs and new head coach Greg Schiano, whose Tampa Bay defense was physical and intimidating, just the way the ex-Rutgers coach likes it.
• The Patriots didn't really look like they had to break much of a sweat in winning 34-13 at Tennessee, but there was one very promising development on defense in the second quarter. That's when New England rookie defensive end Chandler Jones separated Titans quarterback Jake Locker from the ball near the Tennessee goal line, with Patriots rookie linebacker Dont'a Hightower returning the fumble six yards for a touchdown and a 14-3 lead.
Just the kind of big-play impact New England was hoping to see from its pair of rookie first-round defenders.
• Smart move of Houston to lock up quarterback Matt Schaub before the season opener. The Texans have Super Bowl potential this year, and in that situation I wouldn't want my No. 1 passer to even have the temptation of giving into the distraction of his contract-year performance. Schaub is one of the league's 10 best quarterbacks when he has stayed healthy, so that's the risk the Texans are taking with his injury history.
When I visited Texans camp this summer, general manager Rick Smith told me there was at least a slight chance to get something done with Schaub before Week 1, and he barely beat the deadline. Schaub got a reported four-year deal for $62 million, with $24.75 million guaranteed. His 266-yard passing day with a touchdown wasn't epic, but it was plenty good enough for Houston to dispatch the struggling Dolphins 30-10.
• The Rams are 0-1 after their last-second, 27-23 loss in Detroit, but it probably felt a little like a win in St. Louis. The Rams at least have two quality cornerbacks this season in rookie Janoris Jenkins and Cortland Finnegan (both had interceptions of Matthew Stafford), and quarterback Sam Bradford (17 of 25 for 198 yards and one touchdown) looked more like his 2010 self than his 2011 version.
As for the Lions, they've come far enough as a team that they can overcome three Stafford interceptions in the first half and still find a way to win. Detroit can play much better than it did against St. Louis, but the Lions pass rush was strong, and Jim Schwartz's team showed resiliency when the Rams took a three-point lead just inside of two minutes.
• Speaking of comebacks and a little fortitude, the Lions weren't the only NFC North team to flash a little gumption. The Vikings beat Jacksonville at home in overtime, largely because all-world running back Adrian Peterson refused to adhere to someone else's timetable for his rehabilitation from major knee surgery. Peterson looked like his old self as the game wore on against the Jaguars, and wound up with 17 carries for 84 yards, with two touchdowns. Peterson's 20-yard run in overtime helped set up the game-winning 38-yard Blair Walsh field goal.
• There were only two punts in that Falcons win at Kansas City, which reminds me of the 2003 divisional playoff game I covered at Arrowhead where the Colts and Chiefs went all game without either one punting. This time, each team punted once, but Atlanta got the best of it, looking like an early season juggernaut with its 40-24 win.
If Matt Ryan plays all year with the sense of urgency he displayed in Week 1, the Falcons are going to take care of that playoff winless streak. Ryan was 23 of 31 for 299 yards and three touchdowns, and added a fourth score on the ground. All the talk about new Falcons offensive coordinator Dirk Koetter being the best thing to ever happen to Ryan's game looks like anything but idle chatter so far.