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Week 1 Takeaways: More Mahomes Magic, Saints Dismantle Pack, Meyer’s Jags Melt Down

Plus, the Steelers gut one out, Chandler Jones's unstoppable return, Jalen Hurts shines, Seattle finds a new star, Kyle Shanahan’s offense runs wild, Ja’Marr Chase catches just fine, and much more from the first Sunday of the 2021 season.

Welcome to the season-opening edition of the Sunday FreakOut, where we react and overreact to everything that happens in the Sunday afternoon games. And for the full Sunday roundup podcast-style, be sure to subscribe to The MMQB Podcast, in your feed every Monday morning...

Things That Made Me Giddy

Chiefs Always Find a Way: The Browns threw as good a punch as you can throw against the Chiefs in Arrowhead. Cleveland had a double-digit lead at halftime, were winning at the line of scrimmage and preventing big plays. Then Mahomes escaped right and launched a 75-yard touchdown, and then the punter dropped a snap to set up another Chiefs touchdown, and that was... it.

Chandler Jones’s Pent-Up Energy: Things started with a tackle-for-loss on Derrick Henry on the first play from scrimmage, and by the end of the first quarter Jones had three sacks in his first game back from a ruptured Achilles. That included a perfectly-played defense of a Ryan Tannehill play-action boot, turning it into a strip-sack that set up the Arizona offense on the 1-yard line. Jones finished the day with five sacks, two forced fumbles (both recovered by Arizona), and as big a Defensive Player of the Year opening statement as you can make.

Xavien Howard Saves Christmas: Well, more accurately, saves Tua Tagovailoa from being burdened with one of the worst game-losing interceptions imaginable. Instead, the game-losing turnover falls on Damien Harris as the Dolphins outlast the Patriots in Foxboro.

The Saints Defense Makes the Saints QB Situation Moot: Bobby Hebert could have gone under center in Jacksonville and the game still wouldn’t have been competitive. The New Orleans defense absolutely steamrolled the Packers on Sunday, dominating the line of scrimmage and making Aaron Rodgers look more uncomfortable than he has in years.

Jalen Hurts Proving the People Who Drafted Him Wrong: It’s been the weirdest developmental track ever set up for a young quarterback. First, the Eagles spent a second-round pick on Hurts with the idea of making him a long-term backup. Then, after an encouraging (if flawed) stint after Carson Wentz’s meltdown last season, the Eagles front office spent most of the offseason looking to replace Hurts. He wasn’t asked to do a ton in Atlanta, but Nick Sirianni had a plan with his legs and arm, and Hurts sprinkled in a couple of spectacular improvisational plays in what added up to an outstanding performance.

Steelers Do It Their Way: I could still stand to see them open the offense up a little more (the offensive line won’t be any worse than last year’s edition), but they won on their terms in Buffalo, dominating defensively and hanging around until they could string together a couple of drives and get a couple of turnovers. After just 53 yards of offense in the first half, they had 201 yards of offense and 16 points on their first four drives of the second half, and their lone touchdown drive featured a 26-yard defensive pass interference penalty when they finally started to test the Bills downfield. Sleep on this team at your own risk.

T.J. Watt Chase-Down Sacks: Those always help too. He had two of them, including a strip-sack turnover of Josh Allen.

Kyle Shanahan’s Offense: Sure, it got a little too interesting in the end. But through their first seven drives—including a turnover on a QB-center exchange on the season’s first snap—the 49ers scored 38 points while averaging 10.3 yards per play. Yes, grain of salt considering the opponent (it will take years to undo the damage done to the Lions’ roster by the previous regime), but you rarely see that level of dominance in a game featuring two NFL teams.

Hey, I Remember Joe Burrow!: The Bengals didn’t exactly open things up in his first game back, relying heavily on the run game and play-action (and a strong performance by a defense that is probably deserving of more credit). But Burrow generally looked calm and collected in the pocket, and was efficient overall.

Nick Sirianni and David Culley Are on the Board!: Both faced fellow first-year head coaches (Atlanta’s Arthur Smith and Jacksonville’s Urban Meyer, respectively) and both coaches equipped themselves well. Sirianni got sufficiently creative with Jalen Hurts and then watched his veteran defense have its way with the Falcons. As for Culley, he and coordinators Tim Kelly and Lovie Smith have an undermanned team that played hard on Sunday, completely outclassing the more talented Jaguars.

Teddy Bridgewater Leaves No Doubt: He sprinkled in a few impressive improvisational plays, but mostly there was just a level of competence at quarterback that the Broncos haven’t had post-Peyton Manning. He’s probably not Denver’s quarterback of the future, but he’s clearly their quarterback of the present.

Chargers Gut One Out: Let’s not lose track of the fact that this is a really talented team, with a stud quarterback, who was facing a Washington Football Team playing their backup quarterback most of the way. But this game was played on Washington's terms—ugly—and the Chargers went on the road and came away with a victory. That’s a very good sign for a team with a recent history of creative losses.

The Russell Wilson-Shane Waldron Marriage: They took their foot off the gas a bit while they defended a two-possession lead in the second half, but this edition of the Seahawks offense looked like a really nice mesh of run and pass game, along with some clever route designs at the intermediate level. When combined with a couple of Wilson moonball TDs to Tyler Lockett, this looked like the beginning of something special.

Zac Taylor Puts It in Joe Burrow’s Hands: Facing a fourth-and-1 at midfield with less than a minute to go in overtime, Taylor called play-action, with Burrow hitting C.J. Uzomah for a 32-yard play, setting up the game-winning field goal.

Melvin Gordon as Kyra Sedgwick in The Closer: With a big assist from the offensive line on the game-clinching TD run.

DeAndre Hopkins, Still a Difference Maker: His two first-half touchdowns were both tremendous individual efforts, the first a late-down improv session (with an incredible throw by Kyler Murray to the back of the end zone) and the second a quick-strike run-and-catch that required him to slip a Kevin Byard tackle.

Bridgewater, Okwuegbunam, Effort: This is a game-changing fourth-down play, literally the difference between seven points and a turnover (and, for that reason, Blake Martinez has to make that tackle).

Whoa, Seattle Might Have Something in Darrell Taylor: And that’s a defense in desperate need of an edge-rushing presence. After missing his rookie year with a broken leg, Taylor was a force in his NFL debut, absolutely owning his matchup against Braden Smith. The Seahawks’ front-four won the day against a Colts O-line that was supposed to push them around.

Ja’Marr Chase Catches Everything: Almost everything. The rookie was targeted seven times and caught five of them, for 101 yards, including a 50-yard touchdown down the right sideline. And so we bid farewell to “Ja’Marr Chase can’t catch an NFL football,” one of the dumbest preseason storylines of recent years.

Good to See Saquon Barkley Back: Even if he didn’t do much. And even if the Giants don’t use him in very imaginative ways.

And Good on Sam Darnold: He was solid enough in a win over his old team, though it’s that Panthers defense that is going to make the difference if they sneak into playoff contention.

Evan McPherson vs. Greg Joseph Kicker Duel: New kickers forever in Cin City, as Joseph (who kicks for the Vikings) hit from 53 as time expired in regulation to force overtime, after which McPherson (who kicks for the Bengals, and who also hit from 53 earlier) ending it with a game-winning kick from 38.

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Matt Ammendola Pinch Punting: The Jets placekicker didn’t have a field goal or PAT attempt in his NFL debut, but he was forced into punting duty after Braden Mann was injured. Ammendola delivered a 65-yard directional punt that landed on the sideline on his second kick, and over six punts finished with a respectable 42.8 net average. That’s the stuff that Week 1 legends are made of. At least in my book.


Regrets

Urban Meyer and the Summer of Our Discontent: If you’re going to mount a defense of Meyer at this moment, it would be that Bill Belichick lost 13 of his first 18 games with the Patriots. However, Meyer took over a team adding the best quarterback prospect of the past decade, with ownership agreeing to every demand in regards to infrastructure. There were rumblings all summer of unhappiness with Meyer’s demeanor and approach—really, not one thing has gone right for this team since training camp opened. And what happened Sunday was, simply, one of the worst head-coaching debuts in recent memory: 11 penalties, three turnovers, a number of defensive miscommunications, and a quarterback who seemed completely uncomfortable with what he was seeing. To show up looking this utterly unprepared for a professional football game—one against an opponent you absolutely have outmanned—seems like a bright and garish warning sign.

Trevor Lawrence’s Rocky Debut: The first interception was just a misfire trying to create while moving left, the second he misread the coverage, and the third was a miscommunication with his receiver. To have the No. 1 pick look so unprepared in the season debut is on the coaching staff. But in Urban Meyer’s defense, we’ve yet to see exactly how giving half the training camp reps to Gardner Minshew will pay off in the long run. As for the short-term, this Texans defense plays hard, but that was likely the most undermanned unit the Jaguars will see this year.

The Scottish Hammer’s Hands Let Him Down: In Kansas City, a brutal time for Browns punter Jamie Gillan to mishandle a snap, with Cleveland clinging to a two-point lead midway through the fourth quarter. The Browns offense did have two more opportunities to put points up, but that turnover set up Patrick Mahomes with a short field for the game-winning touchdown.

Carson Wentz, Better But Not Great: It’s tough to say anything definitive without seeing what was happening downfield, but Wentz was too often patting the ball when it was clearly supposed to come out quick. There were no 2020-style meltdowns—a step in the right direction—but even after his preseason was erased, you would’ve hoped for better in a home matchup against a fairly soft defense.

The Fall of Fitzpatrick: Hip injuries are never a good thing for a 38-year-old quarterback.

Titans Knocked Off-Schedule: A big early deficit is especially problematic when you rely so heavily on that highly-schemed wide-zone offense, and in Tennessee it’s going to be an issue some weeks due to their shaky group of cornerbacks. But Sunday was a nightmare scenario, with a three-yard loss on their first play from scrimmage setting up a three-and-out on the opening drive, then a turnover inside their own five on their second possession, then a Julio Jones personal foul turned a third-and-1 into a third-and-16 and subsequent three-and-out on their third possession. They were never in it against the Cardinals.

Orlando Brown Jr.’s Dicey Debut on Mahomes’s Blindside: There’s some question as to how he’ll hold up in a more traditional offense after coming over from Baltimore. It didn’t go well on Sunday, in part because he was facing Myles Garrett and in part due to some miscommunications up front.

A Gift for Mac Jones: There’s a “Tom Brady edition of the rulebook” joke to be made here, but I don’t have the energy for it.

And This Is Just Absurd: Not that it would have mattered in what was already a Saints blowout, but the evidence that the NFL desperately needs sky judge was, for the 712th consecutive week, on full display.

Jason Garrett Is Overseeing One Meek Offense: O.K., the offensive line is still not in great shape, the Broncos are really good defensively, and the two new receivers missed most of the summer. But at some point you have to go score some points, right? Daniel Jones has never been shy about taking some risks, it’s time to open things up.

This Is an Absolutely Unacceptable Decision by an NFL Quarterback: Protecting a fourth-quarter lead with the Miami defense playing well against a rookie quarterback, Tua Tagovailoa can’t chuck a prayer at midfield. Even if Mike Gesicki had held on to the deflection, it’s just an unforgiveable play.

Arthur Smith’s New Red Zone Reality: He oversaw one of the most efficient red zone offenses in football the past two seasons in Tennessee, but Smith’s first two Falcons drives stalled inside the Eagles’ 10. It was the beginning of a long day for Smith’s offense.

Uniform Number Shenanigans: Fine, me and my octogenarian friends will learn to deal with all these single-digit numbers (even if front-seven defensive players are absolutely embarrassing themselves with that look). But I think we can all agree that Shaq Thompson changing his number an hour before the game is far too shenanigany.


Moments We’ll Tell Our Grandkids About

Trey Lance’s First Everything: First NFL pass attempt, first NFL pass completion, first NFL touchdown pass, first time bumming out Lions fans, probably a bunch of other firsts.

Miles Killebrew to Ulysees Gilbert III for Six: A couple of tremendous names pair up for the special teams touchdown.

Just Kyler Murray Executing One of Those Wonderful Air Raid Designs:

Another Mahomes Thing: Whatever.


What We’ll Be Talking About This Week

The Saints and Steelers Aren’t Going Away: And it probably has a lot to do with defensive continuity and really good coaches.

The Rookie Starting Quarterbacks Were Generally... Fine: If a tad underwhelming. Mac Jones was pretty much exactly as expected in a game-manager role, though New England kicked too many field goals. Zach Wilson was a mix of good and bad against a really good Panthers defense. Trevor Lawrence was a disappointment despite some flashes, and is clearly going to have to overcome a mess in Jacksonville.

Homefield Advantage Fails to Show Up: One year after the first season ever with home teams posting a combined losing record, it was supposed to be different with fans back in stadiums. Through the 1:00 games, home teams were 4–6.

Urban Meyer Should Be Looking at the Man in the Mirror: I’ve watched the end of the Lego Batman movie with my kids enough times to know that.

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