1. One of the finest traditions in professional sports is when a NFL defensive coach or front-office type metaphorically waves his private parts around and proclaims, “We did it, we figured out [Player X],” a message that is then relayed around the world by their a network of access journalists. We’ve now been treated to this phenomenon—twice!—regarding Lamar Jackson.
Here’s the thing: It doesn’t really matter if defenses have “figured out” Jackson. His first-step quickness—the ability to accelerate from a full stop—is incredible. Any 220- to 320-pound defender who leans even slightly in the wrong direction when closing in on Jackson is at risk of getting blown by. Teams “figured out” Adrian Peterson in 2014, they just couldn’t tackle him. Jackson is the same way. He is different stylistically, but like Peterson he is special with the ball in his hands.
As a passer, Jackson plays with exceptional poise in the pocket and is adept at mapping the moving bodies in the middle of the field; if he didn’t improve at all over last season’s performance, he’d still be very good. But this was supposed to be the season when his game expanded. His weakness has always been throwing outside the numbers, seemingly because he hasn’t done it much and has trouble calibrating those throws, but also likely because the Ravens haven’t had the outside weapons to help him in that area. So this past offseason, Baltimore drafted Rashod Bateman and signed Sammy Watkins to upgrade their perimeter weapons. Only, Bateman we down this summer and Watkins missed the bulk of training camp, meaning neither got much of the crucial preseason work they needed with Jackson.
On top of that, the Ravens’ offensive line is now in absolute shambles as they get set to host the Chiefs. Tyre Phillips, who moved to left guard, is out. The bigger issue is at tackle. The team was clearly caught off-guard by Orlando Brown Jr.’s trade demand last spring, and they didn’t find a solution to replace him at right tackle. Eventually they patched the hole with ex-Steeler Ali Villanueva—a stunner considering the Ravens play Pittsburgh twice a year and surely should have recognized how that Steelers offense schemed around the shortcomings of Villanueva, who had drawn no interest on the free-agent market. On Monday night, Villanueva made Maxx Crosby look like he had garnered some kind of god-like ability to manipulate time and space on his way to the offensive backfield (Crosby is a fine player, but c'mon). Now, left tackle Ronnie Stanley (who didn’t cover himself in glory on MNF either) is likely out, meaning Sunday night it will be Villanueva at left tackle and Patrick Mekari, who made eight starts on the interior last season, at right tackle.
Any plans of expanding the passing game now go out the window, as even if Jackson was comfortable with his outside receivers (Watkins is back, Bateman is not) the pocket will likely be non-existent for a while. In the likely event that the Chiefs beat Baltimore again there will be lots of bad takes off of what happens Sunday night. But the decimated supporting cast means it’s going to be a lost night, in what’s shaping up to be a lost season for Jackson from a development standpoint.
2. Last week was not much of a test for Jameis Winston in his first start for the Saints. The game got out of hand quick, his defense was utterly dominant, Winston’s most productive statistical throws were for the most part not of the traditional variety, and his one turnover (a deflected interception in the red zone) was erased by an absurd roughing-the-passer flag (though even if it wasn’t the game was likely out of reach anyway).
This week, there’s a good chance the Saints defense will again have its way, this time against Sam Darnold (who was better against the shorthanded Jets last week, but his track record suggests otherwise). Winston, though, will have a challenge against a Panthers defense that is quietly emerging as one of the NFL’s best. They’re exceptionally fast, particularly at the linebacker and safety spots, and Winston tends to most often struggle to see bodies at the second level. That's potentially a recipe for disaster.
3. I do not envy Todd Downing. Except for his accomplished career. And his wealth. And his likability. And that he has more friends. And that he probably doesn’t ask his neighbors to take down the scary clown decoration every Halloween claiming that it scares his kids when in fact it’s because it gives me nightmares. But aside from that, I do not envy Todd Downing.
His debut as the Titans’ offensive coordinator did not go well, and that’s made the task of following up Arthur Smith even more difficult. Smith was an unknown when Mike Vrabel promoted him to OC before the 2019 season. (He had been an assistant in Nashville for so long that Vrabel was the fourth head he’d worked under.) Tapping him to replace Matt LaFleur seemed like an uninspired choice. Smith, of course, went on to design one of the NFL’s most unique and efficient offenses, and beyond that his feel for play-calling helped make Derrick Henry into a star and Ryan Tannehill into an effective game manager–plus QB. Following Smith's act was always going to be tough, and the fact that the Titans added a headlining receiver in Julio Jones meant that Downing would essentially be looking at two possibilities: (a) Keep things going and get little credit because of the foundation already laid, or (b) oversee an offensive regression—which was likely coming to some degree—and get an oversized amount of the blame.
More than that, we’d seen Downing as a play-caller before, and it didn’t go well. He replaced Bill Musgrave as the Raiders’ OC before the 2017 season, after two years as Oakland’s QBs coach and when it looked like Derek Carr was on the verge of stardom. Instead, Carr regressed with Downing calling the plays. While Sean McVay was bringing his twist on the classic Shanahan offense to L.A., masterfully melding the run and pass games, Downing’s offense was disjointed—they’d get in spread and go quick-strike, or they’d go big and run it. It was limited and predictable.
Likely because of that history, and despite the fact that Downing just coached for two seasons under Smith and surely was going to emphasize continuity when it comes to the scheme, Titans fans are already wringing their hands over the offense’s Week 1 performance. In reality though, we didn’t learn much about this Titans offense.
They started slow. Henry lost three yards on the first play of the season, the first series ending in a three-and-out. He lost a yard on the first play of the second series, and on the second play Tannehill went to run a boot and turned to find Chandler Jones in his face, resulting in a turnover inside the Tennessee 5. Downing called for another two Henry runs to start the third drive, but complementary football may have had something to do with that—at that point, less than seven minutes had come off the game clock and the Titans’ shorthanded defense had already been on the field for 10 plays despite the Tennessee getting the opening kick. And anyway, Henry had set them up for a third-and-1 but things were derailed by a Julio Jones personal foul after the play that turned it into a third-and-16.
Falling behind the sticks is particularly damaging for this offense—that was the case under Smith as well. The biggest reason for the Titans' success, and Tannehill’s emergence, over the past two seasons is that, because of Henry’s unique set of traits, the best way for defenses to contain him is to get to him as early in the down as possible and not let him build a head of steam. That means linebackers will commit hard to play-action, opening up huge swathes of space at the intermediate and deep-intermediate levels. The fact that they were often in second- or third-and-manageable meant that play-action remained a particularly effective device.
Tannehill is perfect for the system and outstanding in the red zone, one of the key factors that separate game managers from true franchise QBs. But another key factor when separating good from great quarterbacks is third-and-long performance, when the scheme can no longer lift a quarterback in the same way. The Titans were 24th in the league in third-and-6+ efficiency over the 2019 and ’20 seasons.
Any criticism that Downing didn’t run enough play-action in Week 1 is completely misguided. Indeed, you don’t need to “establish the run” in a game—linebackers will react to play-action regardless of your statistical output to that point—but down, distance and score all factor into just how hard a linebacker will bite, and therefore how large those intermediate and deep-intermediate windows will grow. (In short: Defensive players and coaches can count numbers just the same as you and me.) Consistently facing second- and third-and-long early, and later calling plays from a three-score deficit, is going to diminish the effectiveness of that play-action.
The fourth Titans series started with play-action and resulted in another sack by Jones, who under Tennessee law now has power of attorney over Taylor Lewan. A fake punt kept that drive alive, and Downing went back to a Henry first-down run immediately after. Every possession the Titans had after the first quarter was while facing a three-score deficit, at which point any predetermined plans or goals or hopes for a playcaller go out the window.
Four runs and one pass over five first downs before the game got out of hand is not a great sign, but it’s also just five drives. Downing might not have the same play-calling feel as Smith, which is cause for concern, but we don't know that yet.
The bigger concern for Tennessee is that the Titans' secondary, a strength for the past few seasons, is shaping up to be a liability (even if they were a particularly bad matchup for a receiver-rich offense like Arizona’s, and will have similar issues against the Seahawks on Sunday). That puts Tennessee at risk of falling behind in any given week, and makes the already slim margin for error with this offense even slimmer. Whether it was Smith or Downing running the offense, the Titans were going to be walking a tightrope in 2021. Week 1 went as poorly as it could have, but it will take more than five series to make a judgment on Downing.
4. A quick note regarding the “third-and-long” measure as a litmus test for the franchise-iness of a quarterback: In 2019, the Cowboys led the NFL in third-and-6+ conversion rate (34.5%). In 2020, with Dak Prescott missing two thirds of the season, they fell to dead last (18.8%). In last Thursday’s opener, they went a respectable 2-for-6 (33.3%) against the Bucs.
The Chargers, Dallas’s opponent on Sunday, ranked fourth behind Justin Herbert last season (32.6%) and went 4-for-7 in Washington last week, joining the Rams as the only teams to convert more than have their third-and-long attempts in Week 1. (Matthew Stafford, by the way, regularly had Detroit among the league leaders in third-and-long conversion rate, but he also didn’t do much as a pass rusher so you can see how the Lions’ shortcomings were his fault.)
5a. One week after overseeing the most poorly prepared team to participate in an NFL game in recent memory, the second game of the Urban Meyer era in Jacksonville should be fascinating.
After months of red flags—from the hiring and subsequent resignation of strength coach Chris Doyle, whispers of turmoil at training camp, a contrived quarterback competition modeled after some kind of hackneyed motivational tactic, and a series of underwhelming preseason performances—Meyer’s team was outclassed by Houston’s XFL-caliber roster in his debut. Specifically, you could argue that there was no way to know what Texans offensive coordinator Tim Kelly was going to draw up for Tyrod Taylor, and therefore the Jaguars’ defense was ripe to be picked apart by a heavy dose of man-beater concepts. More broadly, you could argue that Bill Belichick started slow too, taking over a franchise that had gone four seasons without a losing record, with a $100 million quarterback already in place, and proceeding to drop 13 of his first 18 games as the Patriots’ head coach.
But what transpired with the Jaguars in Week 1 was undeniably ugly, and it’s easy to draw the line from the atrocious offseason to the opening-day scoreboard. They don’t necessarily have to beat the Broncos at home on Sunday, but they have to look like a professional football operation.
5b. I realize I’ve written about the absurdity of this summer’s Trevor Lawrence-Gardner Minshew QB "competition" multiple times already. I’m sorry, I just can’t get over it. But I promise this is the last time it will come up until next time I write about it. (Plus, I can work in a Simpsons clip.)
Lawrence arriving in Jacksonville was pretty much the same thing as Darryl Strawberry signing up for the Springfield Nuclear Power Plant softball team (with Homer playing the role of Gardner Minshew, and work-league softball playing the role of NFL football).
When we write the book on Lawrence’s career 20 years from now, the fact that he lost half his rookie-season training camp snaps to Minshew probably won’t be a chapter unto itself. However, the lack of reps very much showed up in two of the three interceptions Lawrence threw in his NFL debut.
The first pick was a ball that just got away from him while rolling left. The second, though, was an incredibly ill-advised hole shot against a Cover-2 look on second-and-long. The ball never should have been thrown. One of the most important parts of a rookie’s summer is learning what throws he might have tried on the college level he can’t make in the NFL. This is a perfect example of one of them, and it’s the kind of mistake that should have been coached out of Lawrence in August. (And, also, were the Jaguars caught off-guard that a Lovie Smith defense played a lot of Cover-2?):
The third interception—which came after the game had been decided—was a flat-out miscommunication between quarterback and receiver. Which happens in the NFL, but the chances diminish when that quarterback and receiver work together with the first team during practice.
Burning half of Lawrence’s summer was an objectively inefficient move by the coaching staff, and especially stunning since ownership does stuff like use the franchise tag to hold former employees hostage in order to milk every last efficiency.
5c. I couldn’t help but notice the absolutely brutal Week 1 for the Ravens defensive coaching tree. I lack the brainpower to grasp the complexities of that defense so I'm not going to diagnose why it went so wrong, but Don “Bob Barker” Martindale (Baltimore), Dean Pees (Atlanta) and Joe Cullen (Jacksonville) all took losses last week, and the latter two oversaw units that got it handed to them by rebuilding offenses (Philly and Houston).
5d. One last Jaguars coaching note: This week my colleague and accomplished distance runner Conor Orr profiled Nathaniel Hackett, the Packers offensive coordinator likely to be among the hottest coaching carousel names this winter.
I’ve always been a big fan of Hackett’s. He was excellent at Syracuse, overachieved with a shorthanded offense in Buffalo, and—those of you who used to listen to the podcast when I co-hosted with Andy Benoit might remember this take—I thought his firing in Jacksonville was a complete farce. Hackett figured out a way to turn Blake Bortles into a competent starting quarterback and within one quarter of making him a Super Bowl starting quarterback. There are cities in the southern U.S. that have raised statues to people who accomplished less than that. If you haven’t already, carve out time daily to watch the masterpiece Hackett composed in Jacksonville’s divisional round shootout win at Pittsburgh (my personal favorite is the fourth quarter touchdown to fullback Tommy Bohanon on a vertical route out of the backfield—positively Juszczyk-ian before Juszczyk was really Juszczyk-ing for Kyle Shanahan).
What I didn’t know before I read Conor's piece was how fascinating Hackett’s backstory is. But to the folks clumsily grasping at the narrative that he struggled in Buffalo and Jacksonville… get a grip.
5e. Also, for anyone thinking Matt LaFleur and Hackett are simply riding Aaron Rodgers’s coattails, go back and watch some Rodgers film from 2018, in the offense he insisted on running for years. Then watch his progression from ’19 to ’20. Then go spend some time with loved ones, because you just watched way too much film at the behest of some goober on the internet.
6a. If you’re interested in interesting things—and I know you are—this story should interest you.
6b. Also, you should subscribe to both SI.com and the website of the writer of the story mentioned above. It’s only fair. You should also subscribe to your local newspaper but I don’t know where you live so I won’t link to anything.
7. Looking back, I’m a bit embarrassed about a take I shared on the opening night special episode of The MMQB Podcast nine days ago, and if you’ll indulge me (and this is already written, so you don’t have a choice) I’d like to amend it.
As you know, Baker Mayfield’s performance in last year’s series of Progressive ads was arguably the finest ever by an athlete endorser—the undercurrent of frustration and angst he brought to the role, the ability to communicate through the subtlest gestures and sounds, I truly believed he had taken up residence at FirstEnergy Stadium.
I did not, however, feel the same about his performances in the two ads unveiled on opening weekend, one in which he eagerly oversees a yard sale and another which features him gossiping with neighbors. I did not think the characters landed in the same way. However, after some retrospection, it is I, the seasoned theater critic, who was off the mark.
There’s something to be said for an actor challenging himself, forgoing a tendency to return to the well a la Vince Vaughn playing Vince Vaughn in every movie for two decades. So, after some introspection, I applaud Baker for putting himself out there in these new roles. Even if the payoff isn’t there yet, we’ll be thankful in five years when he’s starring in a series of insurance spots directed by David Lynch. (At that point I figure insurance ads will take on more of an existential horror kind of feel.)
8. Ladies and gentlemen . . . Dinosaur Jr.!
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