HBT’s NFL Pulse Check – Week 2

NFL, Peter Curtin

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Injuries shake up the NFC East, Tom Brady is still much better at professional football than Tyrod Taylor, and trouble in the Pacific Northwest. Week 2 gave us all that and more. Let’s get to it.

 

Most Important Matchup: Seahawks 17 – Packers 27

The Packers avenged their heartbreaking NFC Championship game loss, beating the Seahawks at home to improve to 2-0.

The game was marked by exceptional play from both Quarterbacks. Aaron Rodgers was his typical, brilliant self, routinely using his legs to extend plays and attack the holes in Seattle’s defense (more on that later). Russell Wilson was second-best, but still finished the game with a QBR of 74.8 out of a possible 100, per ESPN.com, and led two scoring drives to give the Seahawks a 17-13 lead early in the 3rd Quarter. Wilson added to his contributions in the passing game with 78 rushing yards on 10 attempts, but it wasn’t enough.

Wilson looked terrific, but few others did for the still winless defending NFC champions. They simply haven’t been very good in a lot of aspects of the game where they previously were unparalleled. In an ever-increasingly pass happy league, the Seahawks were one of few teams to try to build an offense around power-running. They had a solid offensive line and a running back in Marshawn Lynch who runs with a mean streak.

From 2012-2014, Marshawn Lynch averaged 18.77 carries/game. In 2015, Lynch is averaging only 16.5 carries/game. A subtraction of two carries/game can indicate a slight philosophical shift, but it cannot explain the Seahawks’ offensive plunge from 5th in 2014 to 25th this year in offensive DVOA.

What may explain that dropoff, however, is what Lynch has done when he’s gotten the ball. From 2012-2014, Lynch averaged a robust 4.61 yards/carry. This season, that number has dropped more than a full yard/carry, all the way down to 3.5. That difference stands out in last evening’s box score, where Marshawn Lynch ran the ball 15 times for just 41 yards (2.7 yards/carry).

The Seahawks’ offensive line has been sneakily mediocre for a couple of years, but with the offseason trade of veteran Center Max Unger, the quality of Seattle’s offensive line is now a serious problem. A mobile, slippery QB like Wilson can help paper over the line’s holes in pass protection, but there’s not much he can do to help Beast Mode.

It would also certainly help the offense if Offensive Coordinator Darrell Bevell found a way to feature the Tight End they traded Max Unger to acquire more prominently. Jimmy Graham caught just one pass for 11 yards on Sunday night and was only targeted one other time.

But the Seahawks’ un-Seahawks-ness is not isolated to their offense. For years, the Seahawks have had the League’s best defense built around a dominant secondary. In the 2012, 2013, and 2014 seasons, the Seahawks ranked 2nd, 1st and 1st again in defensive DVOA, respectively. So far this season, they rank 23rd and just 26th against the pass. Aaron Rodgers going bonkers is less concerning than what the Seahawks showed in Week 1, when Nick Foles (yes, the Nick Foles who couldn’t move the ball against the Redskins, that Nick Foles) averaged more yards/attempt than Aaron Rodgers did Sunday night.

There will be those who attempt to explain all of the Seahawks’ defensive struggles away by pointing to the ongoing contract dispute between the Seahawks and Safety Kam Chancellor. Doing that is overly simplistic and lazy, but Chancellor’s presence in the center of the defense is sorely missed. The Rams targeted backup Dion Bailey in Week 1, and the Packers ruthlessly exploited the middle of the field Sunday night.

Long story short, this 0-2 start is what can happen when a team that is meant to dominate opponents by running the ball and stopping the pass isn’t good at doing either. Seattle’s defense doesn’t worry me. I have to presume that Chancellor will be back at some point. Even if he isn’t, a secondary with Richard Sherman and Earl Thomas, perhaps the best Cornerback and best Free Safety in the League respectively, will not continue to play this poorly. The offense is considerably more worrying. Seattle went out and got Jimmy Graham to give Russell Wilson more weapons in the passing game. It’s possible that in doing so, they stripped Wilson of the infrastructure he needs to use them.

 

What Everyone is Talking About: Cowboys 20 – Eagles 10

There was no shortage of drama in the NFC East this week, as if there ever is. The Dallas Cowboys have done as I predicted and jumped out to a 2-0 record and an early NFC East division lead. However, as I also mentioned in my season preview, one big reason the Cowboys were so effective on offense in 2014 was because of an atypical run of good health from the top-down. There were no major injuries to anyone on their league-best offensive line. An aging Tony Romo only missed one game. DeMarco Murray, injury-prone his entire career, stayed healthy even during his heaviest-workload season.

It seems that the Gods of statistical regression are back with a vengeance this year. The Cowboys offense has gone from lighting up opposing defenses to lighting up the trainer’s table. Star wide receiver Dez Bryant will reportedly miss 10-12 weeks after undergoing bone graft surgery to repair a Jones fracture. More importantly, Tony Romo will likely miss 6-8 weeks after fracturing his left clavicle on a sack by linebacker Jordan Hicks.

The outcome of this game is not as important as the ripple effect Romo and Bryant’s injuries will have on the NFC East division race. The Cowboys will now be relying on backup Brandon Weeden to keep them in contention for half a season or more until Romo returns. The Cowboys opted to move on from DeMarco Murray and place their bets on Romo, Bryant and an elite offensive line. In order for Weeden and Randle to keep Dallas in first place, that line will have to be better than even the Cowboys imagined.

As for Philadelphia, as bad as they have looked on their way to 0-2, the Cowboys’ injury woes have left the NFC East door wide open. Can Head Coach Chip Kelly save the Eagles from General Manager Chip Kelly? Time will tell. Redskins and Giants fans, this division championship suddenly looks very much available. Don’t give up your seasons yet.

 

What Everyone Probably Should Be Talking About: Patriots 40 – Bills 32

A much-hyped affair that proved to be all sizzle, no sausage as a furious 4th-quarter comeback attempt by the Bills falls short.

Tom Brady torched a great Buffalo defense for 466 passing yards and three Touchdowns. The Patriots got big weeks in the passing game from tight end and destroyer-of-worlds Rob Gronkowski (7 catches, 113 yards), wide receiver Julian Edelman (11 catches, 97 yards), and running back Dion Lewis (6 catches, 98 yards), who is the latest bit of evidence in the mounting case that Bill Belichick makes coaching decisions based on what will piss fantasy football players off the most. This is the NFL’s best offense and will continue to be so as long as Brady and Gronk are on the field.

After the most impressive win of NFL’s Week 1, the Bills admitted postgame that they made this game a bigger deal than it needed to be to their detriment. They spent the last week basking in the afterglow of 1-0 and enjoying their status as the surprise team de jour. The Patriots reminded them that there is still a clear pecking order in the AFC East.

One week removed from a blissfully adequate performance against Indy, Tyrod Taylor reminded everyone that he’s still Tyrod Taylor, with a pair of garbage time Touchdown passes making his stat line for the game look more impressive than his actual performance.

The Bills’ defense has already faced two of the NFL’s best offenses with mixed results. I expect that they will be among the League’s best the rest of the season and resemble their Week 1 performance much more frequently than what they showed Sunday. That game reminded fans that sometimes there are problems without easy solutions: the New England Patriots are infuriatingly good at football.

 

“Football is the Best” Moment of the Week

Larry Fitzgerald’s big day was a great reminder of just how good #11 was in his peak. I have a soft spot in my heart for great players who spend their careers on teams that don’t deserve them. Good for you, Fitz.

 

“Football is the Worst” Moment of the Week

Marcus Mariota followed up his near-perfect debut with a poor game that featured this very painful-looking learning moment. Can Marcus Mariota please have a good, healthy career? Can he please not be Robert Griffin 2.0?

 

Quick Hits

Broncos 31 – Chiefs 24: See here.

Texans 17 – Panthers 24: Carolina’s status of 4th in defensive DVOA is almost certainly unsustainable statistical noise and Cam Newton has absolutely nothing to work with on offense. All the same, it’s fun to watch him try to do everything himself. For a guy who keeps winning despite the obvious and continued deficiencies of his team, Newton has lots of detractors. I won’t claim to understand it. Panthers go 2-0.

49ers 18 – Steelers 43: This is more like who we thought both of these teams would be. Ben Roethlisberger was nearly perfect, scoring a QBR of 99.4 out of 100, per ESPN.com. The 49ers had a lot of trouble running the ball, with Carlos Hyde only averaging 3.3 yards/carry after his Week 1 explosion.

Buccaneers 26 – Saints 19: The end may be near for the Drew Brees’ Saints as a competitive force. Brees was outplayed by rookie Jameis Winston, who led the Bucs to victory with a very nice bounceback week after an embarrassing loss to the Titans.

Lions 16 – Vikings 26: Vikings learn their lesson from last week’s loss: Adrian Peterson wants his touches. Adrian Peterson needs his touches. Adrian Peterson is getting his touches.

Cardinals 48 – Bears 23: The Arizona Cardinals – the statistical outlier that will not regress to the mean – just keep on winning. It’s a shame, because Jay Cutler has spent much of the last year being heavily criticized and he was having a really strong performance before his second-quarter injury. Start preparing yourself for the Jimmy Clausen experience now, sports fans. (My condolences Chicago).

Rams 10 – Redskins 24: Redskins ride a dominant run game and solid defensive performance to their first win. Why did I think the Rams might actually be good at professional football again? I could have saved everyone a lot of time by just writing: “The Rams just beat the Seahawks. And to suggest that they are anything other than about to go 7-9 again is flatly wrong.”

Chargers 19 – Bengals 24: Why, hello, Giovani Bernard! After taking over RB1 duty from a disappointing, underperforming Jeremy Hill (10 carries, 39 yards), Bernard had himself a game, gashing the Chargers’ defense for 123 yards on 20 carries for a tidy 6.2 yards/carry average. The Bengals just won’t stop going 10-6.

Titans 14 – Browns 28: Johnny Manziel wasn’t asked to do much yesterday, throwing only 15 passes, but he made those passes count (172 yards, 2 touchdowns). It’s amazing the difference that one year has made for the Browns QB. When given playing time last year, the rookie looked completely out of his depth in the pro ranks. Now he looks something resembling viable. Baby steps, folks.

Falcons 24 – Giants 20: New York fans need to hope that the Giants’ rethink their apparent goal to spend this season finding new and creative ways to lose winnable games. Falcons overcome a 20-10 4th-quarter deficit to improve to 2-0. Giants become the first team in NFL history to start the season 0-2 when leading by 10+ points in the fourth quarter.

Dolphins 20 – Jaguars 23: Observers, writers, and fans have been expected big things from Lamar Miller this year, and so far he has been completely ineffective in his first two games (23 carries, 67 yards, 2.9 yards/carry). Whether or not that’s his fault is another matter, but the stat line remains. The Dolphins fancy themselves contenders this season, but they certainly don’t look the part so far.

Ravens 33 – Raiders 37: How did Derek Carr make the Ravens’ defense look this bad?

Jets 20 – Colts 7: That Jets defense looks horrifying. Horrifying enough to make the AFC East a contest? Let’s not get ahead of ourselves. This is the second week in a row for the Colts where a great defense has made Andrew Luck look ordinary. Games in the next three weeks against Tennessee, Jacksonville, and Houston look much more inviting for the big offensive totals we expected from them this season. And, you know, #AFCSouth. The Colts are fine.

Author

Peter Curtin

Peter Curtin is a working professional based in Washington, DC. A life-long sports fan, he has previously written as a contributor for Philadelphia-based sports site, thewoodercooler.com. Follow him on Twitter @Pete_Curtin.

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