Welcome to our new Tuesday in-season NFL column, ever so creatively named “X Things to Know After Week X.” Some weeks there might be only one development that matters; other weeks, like this one, a lot has taken place that we’ll do our best to decipher. And because the feedback from our wonderful listeners on The MMQB podcast has been so great, feel free to keep sending in questions, thoughts and Conor Orr burns to email@example.com that we may be able to answer and discuss in this space. Now, on to the eight things to know after the league’s opening week …
1. The Saints' defense is really good. Of course the QB stat lines stole the headlines in New Orleans’s 38–3 win over the Packers, because the QB in this game with five touchdowns and no turnovers was Jameis Winston, not Aaron Rodgers. But while it would be imprudent based on this sample size to say that Winston has been fixed and Rodgers should be traded, what we can say with confidence is that the Saints' defense is really, really good. And that its performance, as was the case against Green Bay, will certainly ease the post–Drew Brees transition. The unit had the reigning MVP frustrated from the Packers’ first possession, stuffing their first run play for a loss, then getting to Rodgers on third down with a four-man rush. The game got out of hand after two interceptions on the normally turnover-averse Rodgers, the first after pressure from Cam Jordan forced a throw from Rodgers that was behind Davante Adams, and the second on instinctive play from Marcus Williams, who was assigned to help on Adams but saw Rodgers was trying a deep shot to Marquez Valdes-Scantling on the other half of the field. And the game was essentially over after Green Bay's desperation fourth-and-2 in their own territory failed, thanks to pressure from Jordan and a PBU from Marshon Lattimore. NFL Network reported that Marcus Davenport, who also had a tremendous performance Sunday, may miss some time with a pectoral strain. But in a year when the defense may have to carry more of the load, it certainly looked primed to do so based on its performance against last season’s top seed in the NFC.
2. The Raiders found a pass rush. It does not quite feel possible to reduce the madness of Monday night to a salient takeaway, but this needs to be acknowledged. It’s been a running joke since the Raiders traded away Khalil Mack, compounded by Jon Gruden’s public grousing about how hard it is to find good rushers, but their ability to keep the heat on Lamar Jackson was a real difference-maker in the 33–27 win over the Ravens. Former first-round pick Clelin Ferrell was out, and both Gerald McCoy and Yannick Ngakoue left the game with injuries, but 2019 fourth-round pick Maxx Crosby was a force to be reckoned with. Crosby gave Alejandro Villaneuva fits all night off the offensive right side, and on the decisive play of the game, Baltimore devoted two blockers to Crosby while Carl Nassib rushed behind him, barely chipped by the running back with a clear shot at Jackson to jar the ball loose. Las Vegas needed only a field goal to win from there, but ended the absurd overtime period with a 31-yard TD pass.
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An alternate version of this item: The Ravens need to fix their offensive line. Because while we now know Lamar Jackson can run 27 yards in order to throw a 10-yard TD pass (per Next Gen Stats), his having to do so will not be a recipe for success. In addition to the tackles’ struggles, left guard Tyre Phillips was carted off the field with an injury. Baltimore will need to find some answers, whether internally or externally.
3. Mac Jones looks up to the task. Not the task of “replacing” Tom Brady, because no one is asking him to do that. Rather, the task of playing quarterback for the Patriots. While his first game was not a win, what Jones did Sunday affirmed the Patriots’ decision to draft him and name him the opening-day starter. We (semi)joked on the podcast that he threw a beautiful wheel route to James White, which is the first criterion to playing QB in Foxboro. But in all seriousness, aside from that ugly first play, Jones was capable and in command against a Dolphins defense that knows the Patriots about as well as the Patriots know themselves. He knew where to go with the football, as attested to by his completing nearly 75% of his passes and the team going 11-for-16 on third downs. He completed eight passes to new tight ends Jonnu Smith and Hunter Henry. Those numbers are improvements in all these areas from last season. Miami’s forcing a late Damien Harris fumble with the Pats in position for the go-ahead field goal was what decided this game, but the wide-lens view here is that the Patriots, without tanking or sacrificing draft capital to trade up, got a QB.
4. Rookie receivers are hitting the ground running. When I first started covering the NFL more than a decade ago, coaches would often describe how receiver was one of the more difficult positions for rookies to be able to contribute immediately. Not only does it take time to earn the trust of your QB and be as precise with your route-running as is required with the tighter windows in the NFL, but young receivers also have to learn how to convert routes based on the coverage they are facing and master techniques to get open against elite DBs. But last season, the Vikings' Justin Jefferson set a new rookie receiving yards record, and Sunday, the top three WRs in this year’s draft class all had strong debuts. Ja’Marr Chase, Jaylen Waddle and DeVonta Smith all scored TDs, and Chase put to rest the minicontroversy over his honesty about the differences between catching an NFL and college football by breaking 100 yards in his debut. The trickle-up of college-style offenses to the NFL, which also encourages rather than obfuscates coaches incorporating concepts their players excelled at in college, may have helped accelerate the transition. Or, maybe this year’s WR draft class is as good as advertised.
5. Patrick Mahomes’s ability to change a game on one throw is why teams make bold QB moves. Like the Rams moving on from Jared Goff and getting Matthew Stafford. And the 49ers bartering three first-round picks to move up to pick No. 3, where they selected Trey Lance. The Browns outplayed the Chiefs in Kansas City, and took a nine-point lead in the fourth quarter. But it took Mahomes all of 14 seconds to change the game with a 75-yard TD pass to Tyreek Hill, outrunning a defender as the pocket collapsed and heaving the ball nearly 50 yards in the air. This was followed by the gaffe by Browns punter Jamie Gillan, which gave the ball back to K.C. on the Browns' 15-yard line, one of those gut-wrenching mistakes you tell yourself there’s no way will happen again the next time you play. But you can’t tell yourself that about Mahomes; Even on a day when the remade offensive line wasn’t in sync and the defense was without Tyrann Mathieu, he was able to seize upon any available sliver of vulnerability by the opponent to turn the game on its head.
6. It’s possible Cam Newton will not be on a roster this season. Washington, led by Newton’s former coach Ron Rivera, made only one QB transaction after Ryan Fitzpatrick went on IR with a hip injury: adding Kyle Shurmur to the practice squad. The team will move ahead with Taylor Heinicke as its starter and Kyle Allen as the backup. It’s a long (now longer) season, but Newton may only be in consideration if a team is in need of a starter due to injuries. In a YouTube conversation with his father last week, discussing his release from the Patriots, Newton said he would have been willing to be Mac Jones’s backup, but added, “I was going to be a distraction, without being the starter. Just my aura. That's my gift and my curse. When you bring Cam Newton to your facility, your franchise, people are interested.”
7. Tom Brady was right about the new numbers. These single digits on defenders are incredibly disorienting! Just as a viewer, and even with advance knowledge that someone like Matthew Judon would be wearing No. 9 this season, I still found myself distracted during Tua Tagovailoa’s fourth-quarter INT by why a punter was rushing the QB. You do wonder, though, whether Brady’s expressed exasperation at the change, on the grounds that it can confuse offensive players who have to know who to block, played a role in two Panthers linebackers announcing their new numbers shortly before kickoff against the Jets. Soon thereafter, Shaq Thompson got his first interception in five years—though Jets QB Zach Wilson shouldn’t have thrown that ball whether Thompson was wearing No. 7 or 54.
8. The Antonio Brown discourse hasn’t become any more responsible. Brown had an impressive football performance in the Bucs’ opening night win against the Cowboys. He led the team with five catches for 121 yards, including a 47-yard touchdown. He looked like one of the best receivers in the game. These are all factual observations to be part of a television broadcast. But after Brown’s first big play of the game—a well-executed sluggo route—NBC used that as a segue to what was apparently a preplanned segment about Brown finding a home in Tampa Bay and with Brady. Al Michaels summarized his career path, calling Brown “the NFL’s wayward son for a while” with “all kinds of issues,” then mentioned that he was suspended last season, without specifying what for: an altercation with a moving-company employee (Brown pleaded no contest), and his sending threatening texts to an artist, including messages about her children, after she made an allegation of sexual misconduct against him. The NBC booth then cut to sideline reporter Michele Tafoya, who had a quote from Brown ready about the support he’s received from Brady, saying, “You don’t have a lot of true friends in life. He is one of mine.” Later in the game, while commenting that Brown’s career statistics are unbelievable, Cris Collinsworth noted, “And yet, because of some off-the-field stuff, he’s sort of faded to the background until last year.” Again, with no specific mention of the allegations against Brown, which also included a former trainer who sued him for multiple counts of sexual assault, including rape (Brown denied the allegations; they settled out of court this offseason, and the NFL has not imposed any discipline under the personal conduct policy as a result of her allegations). Certainly, there are restrictions during a live broadcast, and anytime Brown makes a good play, it’s not going to be possible to detail the allegations of misconduct against him and how they have been adjudicated. But NBC made a conscious decision to use Brown’s first big play as a jumping-off point into this preplanned segment about his resurgence with the Bucs. And they also made a choice to gloss over, in front of a national TV audience, how Brown’s own actions put his playing career in jeopardy. You can read Sports Illustrated’s detailed reporting here, as well as the subsequent actions that led to Brown’s release from the Patriots days later, the first time he and Brady were teammates. This is important context that should not be omitted from any discussion about “some off-the-field stuff” or why Brown “faded to the background.”
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