Run and Shoot: NFL Week 1

After 7 months of hibernating, meaningful professional football returned this weekend. The week was marked by rust from players, coaches, officials, and broadcasters, but there were some very entertaining games and several excellent performances. What follows is my commentary on the games of which I saw at least a portion.

Thursday

Pittsburgh 13, Tennessee 10 (OT)

The 2008 Regular Season Champion against the 2009 Super Bowl Champion: Pittsburgh needed to redeem itself a bit in this game. Even though they won the Super Bowl last year, they were embarrassed at home by Tennessee in Week 15. In that game, Tennessee dominated on both sides of the ball, particularly when the Titans were running the ball. There were a few faces on both sides of the ball, but these teams are largely the same as they were last year with one 6’6”, 350 lb caveat: Albert Haynesworth traded the greener pastures for a thicker wallet in Washington.

This was definitely the best-played game of the week: both defenses played superbly. Tennessee completely shut down Pittsburgh’s run offense. They seem to have adequately replaced Haynesworth’s impact on opposing rushers, but they haven’t yet replaced his pass rushing abilities: Roethlisberger had more time to pass the ball than he did last year and Tennessee struggled to force incompletions.

Tennessee’s offense struggled for most of the contest. Kerry Collins completed 63% of his passes but only averaged 7 yards per attempt. Kenny Britt had a very nice NFL debut (4 catches, 85 yards) and Justin Gage had good statistics (7, 78, 1 touchdown) but also dropped some passes. Collins suffered from his characteristic struggles with accuracy and didn’t often have enough time to demonstrate his arm strength.

These are definitely going to be two of the best teams in the league this year and I expect that we’ll see a rematch of this game in the playoffs, very likely in the AFC Championship.

Sunday

Denver 12, Cincinnati 7

Whenever two bad teams play an exceptionally low-scoring affair (particularly in week 1), the question is whether the teams are displaying their improved defense or suffering from an acute lack of offense. The answer is likely a mixture of the two, but at this point I lean towards the bad offense angle: Denver’s offense is incredibly disjointed at this point given the a)new quarterback, b)new coaching staff, c)new running backs, and d)wide receiver situation. Cincinnati is experiencing transition in the wide receiving corps and Palmer was not at 100% yesterday. These teams will not be challenging for championships this year (and Cincinnati probably won’t challenge for the playoffs) but they should improve markedly over the next few weeks.

Credit Brandon Stokely with on of the luckiest plays in NFL history: you can say all you want about his awareness and the tip drill, but a significant factor in the play was that when the ball landed in Stokely’s arms, Cincinnati’s defense was quite busy with the business of tackling Brandon Marshall and conveniently ignoring the game saviour.

Minnesota 34, Cleveland 20

On Sunday in Cleveland, Vikings’ owner Zygmunt Wilf employed a recent hire at the rate of $750,000 (for the game). This hire was brought in under much fanfare from many media outlets (while being conspicuously ignored by others – SI, for one). His job: handing the ball to Adrian Peterson. Let’s just be honest: Favre has two roles this year. One, hand the ball to Peterson possible. Two, screw up as little as possible. On Sunday, he handed the ball to Peterson 25 times, threw it to Peterson once, and threw 7 incompletions and 0 interceptions. Job well done.

The right side of the Vikings’ offensive line needs significant improvement, but the left side looks likely to join the stud running back in the Pro Bowl next February.

Brady Quinn needs to improve his accuracy on deep balls in addition to his arm strength if he wants to be an effective NFL quarterback. Checking down to Robert Royal (or ‘Royal Roberts’ – as Brian Billick called him) is not going to get this team to the playoffs. Braylon Edwards had a nice game – he had a potential touchdown catch negated by a penalty and one of the more complicated challenges I’ve seen and also dropped a pass that he was lucky to get his mitts on. (Plus, he was playing Minnesota. You knew he wasn’t going to be seeing too much of the ball.)

Indianapolis 14, Jacksonville 12

Peyton Manning might miss Marvin Harrison, but in this game the bigger problem was the first quarter injury to Anthony Gonzalez. Without him, the Colt passing game will struggle.

Jacksonville started two rookie offensive tackles (Eugene Monroe and Eben Britton). If the two improve over the course of the season this should be a very formidable Jaguar offense. If they continue to struggle as they did yesterday, David Garrard will struggle mightily. I’d bet on some improvement: in their 15 remaining games only once more will they play against Dwight Freeney and Robert Mathis. Nonetheless, Jaguar receivers need to do a much better job of getting open downfield as well as avoiding drops.

Lucas Oil Stadium might be a nice stadium when the dome is closed, but when it is open on a sunny day it is very difficult to see the field well on television.

New Orleans 45, Detroit 27

Speaking positively: Drew Brees played as well as any quarterback has every played in the history of football, Mike Bell had a great day as the emergency starting running back (28 carries, 143 yards), and New Orleans secondary looked fantastic – if the pass defense plays this well all season they will in all likelihood win the Super Bowl.

Speaking negatively: 18 straight losses…the Lions’ secondary doesn’t appear to have improved and the front 7 is still very porous. Detroit’s offensive line only allowed one sack but that had more to do with Stafford scrambling and throwing the ball before the Saints could accost him. Kevin Smith couldn’t find his way past the line of scrimmage (15 carries, 20 yards). If this team expects to win a game this year they need significant improvement from every position. Stafford completed only 3 passes to Megatron while completing 7 to Smith (checkdowns and screens). This offense has no ability to generate on it’s own and isn’t very good at taking advantage of mistakes.

Jersey A 23, Washington 17

This game wasn’t nearly as close as the score suggests: Washington’s touchdowns came on a fake field goal and a comeback drive that ended with 1:37 to go in the game. Daniel Snyder’s off-season overtures to Denver regarding Jay Cutler seem justified at this point: Jason Campbell has not shown that he can consistently succeed as an NFL quarterback. He doesn’t make a whole lot of mistakes but he makes almost no big plays and he doesn’t keep teams from stacking against the run on a regular basis.

San Francisco 20, Arizona 16

I only caught the tail end of the game, but I have one fairly significant comment: the announcers were discussing the way in which Mike Singletary has changed the culture in San Francisco while I was watching. At this point, it is far too early for that assessment: Arizona was without Steve Breaston and would have been without Anquan Boldin if Breaston had played. As a result, Arizona’s passing game was significantly hamstrung and the Cardinal running game is almost nonexistent: Wells and Hightower combined for 15 carries, 44 yards. Meanwhile, Hightower caught 12 catches for 121 yards. The only reason these guys are on the team is to catch passes out of the backfield.

Green Bay 21, Chicago 15

I saw the first half of this game and bit of the third quarter.

In the first half Jay Cutler looked like he had never participated in a Chicago practice: his performance reminded me of a neighborhood pickup game.

Danieal Manning made a spectacular play to sack Rodgers in the end zone for the safety, but Rodgers has to do a better job of throwing the ball away when he sees an unblocked speedster coming at him near his own goal line. An incomplete pass is a far better result than a safety.

The Packer offense played well, particularly young superstar Greg Jennings (6 catches, 106 yards, 1 touchdown, 1 2-pt conversion), but the offensive line will have to play substantially better as the season goes on. Right tackle Allen Barbre looked incompetent and Center Jason Spitz had an uncharacteristically poor outing.

Green Bay’s defense had a very good game but could have done better: at least two dropped interceptions that should have been caught easily in addition to a massive blown assignment on the Hester touchdown in the second quarter.

New England 25, Buffalo 24

I flipped back and forth between this game, the US Open Final (great win for Del Potro), and the Tigers-Blue Jays game (Tigers come from behind extra inning win on a Blue Jay error), but I saw most of the Pats-Bills game.

It’s good to see Patriot Pat on those helmets again (and the Red Bill on the white helmet is pretty sweet too) but those red jerseys are a disaster. Some things should have been left in the 60’s.

It’s also good to see Tom Brady on the field again. No matter what you think of him he has one of the best resumes in NFL history and you never want to see a great player sidelined by injury. The Pats as a whole were just good enough in this game – the score pretty accurately describes how the two teams played: Brady struggled throughout the game, as did the Patriot defense, but both made just enough plays down the stretch to win the game. Brady was very one-dimensional in this game. He couldn’t throw the ball accurately downfield and he struggled to throw the ball accurately at all early in the game. His timing was off and he was clearly only looking at half of the field on most of the team’s pass plays. Meanwhile, the Patriot running backs and offensive line had a solid but not spectacular performance – the type of play that will likely mark the season for this team. If New England intends to make the playoffs and make a run Brady will need to improve significantly as the season progresses. He needs to find a way to throw the ball accurately at distances of more than 25 yards.

The no-huddle offense is a nice piece for the Bills but the real problem for this team is the receiving corps: too many dropped passes and a lot of poor timing on both ends of the ball. Trent Edwards made some good decisions as the game progressed but he didn’t get enough help from his teammates.

One of the biggest differences in the game was in total plays: the Patriots ran 77 to the Bills 48. New England notched 28 first downs – 10 of those being converted on third down – compared with 17 and 4 for the Bills (plus 1 4th down).

The officials for the game came dressed in AFL referee costumes, the NFL might want to make sure that these Halloween party-crashers don’t make any future appearances at NFL games: two ludicrous roughing the passer calls against the Patriots in addition to numerous missed holding and pass interference calls against Buffalo brought back memories of watching the NBA Playoffs over the past several years. Officiating is a problem across major sports; if the NFL wants its product to be taken seriously it needs to fix the problem – a lot of very poor officiating decisions this weekend.

Final Thoughts

Its good to have football back again! There were some exciting games this weekend, definitely a lot of room for teams, coaches, officials, and broadcasters to improve. Kudos to Pittsburgh Defensive Coordinator Dick LeBeau for stopping LenDale White/Chris Johnson, Drew Brees for his 6 TDs, Adrian Peterson for his 180 yards and 3 touchdowns, new Denver Head Coach Josh McDaniel for a much-needed first win, and CBS Broadcaster Gus Johnson for his fantastic call of the final moments of the Denver-Cincinnati game!

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