First Down/Fourth Down: Phins line, run game lay foundation for upset
Miami's 33-20 win over New England can be classified as a minor upset. How it happened was a major surprise.
Really beginning in the third quarter, the Dolphins took control in the trenches en route to erasing a 20-10 deficit. While the Patriots' struggle to protect Tom Brady may have had them rethinking that Logan Mankins trade, their inability to provide any resistance up front on defense had to be a jolt. Miami's completely rebuilt offensive line kept Ryan Tannehill upright and, more important to the outcome, cleared room for RBs Knowhson Moreno and Lamar Miller.
It was Moreno who stole the show. Making his Miami regular-season debut, the ex-Bronco showed no signs of his preseason knee injury. He finished with 134 yards on 26 carries, including a four-yard TD run in the fourth quarter to put Miami ahead by 10.
“It always starts up front,” Moreno said via the Dolphins' website. “The guys were doing a great job getting push up front and we did a god job as backs just reading the holes and just hitting it as hard as we can. Sometimes it wasn’t there, sometimes it was, but they did a great job up front.”
This is a New England defense that on paper had the look of a potential top-five unit. The front seven, led by the likes of Chandler Jones and Rob Ninkovich, played a large part in those high expectations.
But the Patriots were not up to the challenge Sunday, perhaps feeling the effects of run-stuffing linebacker Brandon Spikes leaving this offseason for Buffalo. Wherever the blame may fall in New England, the praise should be spread around in Miami, with a heaping portion of it landing on Moreno's plate.
More of the best and worst from the first Sunday of the NFL season ...
First Down: Todd Bowles
The Cardinals' defensive coordinator was something of a revelation last season, his first in that position. (SI's Doug Farrar took a closer look last November at how Bowles got the job done.) The question was: Could he coax a repeat of Arizona's defensive dominance without the likes of Darnell Dockett, Karlos Dansby, Daryl Washington and, in the short term, Tyrann Mathieu?
Chalk Week 1 up as a yes. Save for the Chargers' seven-play, 80-yard TD drive to open the third quarter, Bowles' defense put the clamps on the Philip Rivers-led attack. Even after John Abraham was forced from the lineup with an injury, Bowles kept San Diego's talented run game in check with an ever-changing series of blitzes -- not to mention a turn-back-the-clock showing by veteran linebacker Larry Foote, who led the Cardinals with nine tackles.
Rivers also found very little room downfield against Patrick Peterson and Antonio Cromartie; he finished 21-of-36 for 238 yards, a touchdown and INT.
Fourth Down: The Giants' passing attack.
So much for the new and improved Eli Manning. Miscommunications and offensive line blunders did not help Manning's cause in a Monday night loss to Detroit, but a matchup with the Lions' suspect secondary still ought to have been a better one for the visitors.
Instead, Manning threw for a mere 163 yards with a pair of INTs. Worse yet, the Giants failed to get either Victor Cruz or Rueben Randle really involved -- Randle somehow had two catches for one yard; Cruz posted just 24 yards on two catches, in spite of being covered by rookie backup CB Nevin Lawson for much of the evening.
First Down: The Carolina Panthers
A loss by the Panthers Sunday -- without Cam Newton, on the road against a media-darling sleeper team in Tampa Bay -- would have been forgivable, even understandable. Instead, the defending NFC South champs served notice that they plan to defend their crown, in spite of a difficult offseason that left the Panthers thin on the O-line and at wide receiver.
They got the job done in Week 1 thanks to an impressive relief appearance by QB Derek Anderson, who threw for 230 yards and two touchdowns. The second of those scores came on a dazzling 26-yard grab by rookie Kelvin Benjamin, part of a brilliant career debut by the first-round pick. The Panthers defense more than carried its load, too, as has become the norm. Carolina shut out Tampa Bay for the first 53 minutes, then iced the victory on a forced fumble by Defensive Player of the Year Luke Kuechly.
Fourth Down: Tony Romo
Not a whole lot to add here, as most of the country saw Romo's nightmarish first half against San Francisco. Perhaps still rusty on account of offseason back surgery, Romo made mistakes that were quite unbecoming of an NFL starter. When the dust settled at halftime, Romo had thrown three INTs and the 49ers led 28-3. He and his team settled down in the second half to make the final score respectable (28-17), but for the Cowboys to have any shot at competing this season Romo must be far better.
First Down: J.J. Watt
Watt lost his Defensive Player of the Year crown to Kuechly last season. Early indications are that he wants it back.
The Texans' $100 million man (among boys) was utterly dominant in a 17-6 win over the Redskins on Sunday. He registered a sack of Robert Griffin III; he broke up a pass, one of his trademark moves at the line; he recovered a fumble; and Watt also blocked an extra point early on, following Washington's only touchdown. No. 1 overall pick Jadeveon Clowney left the game early with a knee injury that could cost him several weeks. Watt more than picked up any slack in Clowney's absence.
Fourth Down: Injuries
Speaking of injuries ... what a brutal Week 1. More on all the carnage can be found here, courtesy of SI colleague Doug Farrar. Suffice it to say, the list of those who had to leave Sunday's action was extensive: Clowney, Evan Mathis, Jake Matthews, all of Miami's starting linebacking corps, Derrick Johnson, Shaun Hill and so on. More than a few teams will be scrambling for replacements in the coming days.
Just about everything went right for the Vikings in Mike Zimmer's head coaching debut, a 34-6 shellacking of St. Louis -- up to and including a combined 221 yards from Patterson and Peterson. We've been seeing signs all summer that Patterson might be on the verge of stardom, and the momentum kept moving forward Sunday as he piled up 128 total yards and a touchdown.
His breakthrough play came late in the third quarter when he broke loose for a 67-yard touchdown run, one of three rushing attempts the Vikings gave Patterson.
"We always want to get our playmakers the football," Zimmer said. "However we can do that -- throwing it, catching it, handing it off, doesn't matter."
Fourth Down: Kansas City's playcalling
Eleven touches for Jamaal Charles. Eleven. Any way you slice it, that's an inexcusable amount of work for one of the NFL's premier talents. To put that in some perspective, QB Alex Smith targeted receiver Donnie Avery 13 times alone. Smith also wound up with six rushing attempts; Charles had just seven.
The Chiefs trailed for much of the second half, but did not fall behind in the first place until the 3:31 mark of the second quarter. Charles should have seen the ball far more than he did, regardless of the circumstances.
First Down: Julius Thomas
Touched more extensively on Thomas in our "Three Thoughts" off Sunday night's Denver win. The talented tight end kicked off his contract year with a three-touchdown performance that proved almost beyond a shadow of a doubt that Thomas is at least nearing the Jimmy Graham class at his position. Indianapolis had no answer for him.
Fourth Down: Philadelphia in the first half/Jacksonville in the second half
One of several wild Week 1 games. For the first 30 minutes, this contest had all the makings of a stunning upset, with undrafted rookie receiver Allen Hurns pacing the Jaguars to a 17-0 lead on the road over an Eagles team tapped as favorites in the NFC East.
The good times did not last for Jacksonville, which then allowed 34 unanswered points after halftime. The first seven came courtesy of new Eagle Darren Sproles, who sprinted through the line on a 4th-and-1 to crank out a 46-yard touchdown. Nick Foles hit Zach Ertz for a 25-yard score moments later, putting the Jaguars firmly on their heels. Philadelphia capped the comeback by outscoring Jacksonville 20-0 in the fourth quarter.
The Eagles will have to be better moving forward if they are to repeat as NFC East champs. They proved late Sunday what they are capable of when they put their foot on the gas.
The 2014 season could be make-or-break for these AFC East signal-callers -- Manuel in Buffalo, where Kyle Orton now resides as backup with a $5 million contract; Smith with the Jets, who signed Michael Vick a few months back. Both guys are off to solid starts ... and 1-0 records.
Manuel's victory in Chicago caught just about everyone off-guard, perhaps including the Bears themselves. After scuffling all preseason, Buffalo's offense found success Sunday running the ball against the Bears' porous front. By doing so successfully, Buffalo was then able to let Manuel operate a measured passing attack. Manuel hit 16-of-22 passes for 173 yards, one TD and one INT.
The approach was similar with Smith: 23-for-28 for 221 yards, one TD, one INT, while the Jets offense delivered 212 yards rushing against Oakland.
We'll have to wait and see if either Manuel or Smith can carry their respective teams to victory should the run games falter. For now, a little pressure is off in Buffalo and New York.
Fourth Down: The Saints defense
As was the case with the Patriots, New Orleans entered the 2014 regular season boasting a defense that appeared fierce. And just like New England's defense did in Miami, the Saints D faceplanted in Atlanta on Sunday. How bad was it? The Falcons finished with 568 yards of offense (445 yards passing, 123 rushing) and rallied three times in the second half before capturing an OT win.
The Saints failed to do much of anything along the line, even matched up against a suspect Atlanta line that lost rookie Jake Matthews early. Junior Galette summed it all up:
Defense Lost This Game You'll Never See us Play Like That Again‼️‼️ #BACKTOWORK #GodIsGood — SACKMAN (@JuniorG93) September 8, 2014