Roger Goodell puts safety first in the NFL, but opening the season with three safeties was a little bizarre.
The first Sunday was filled with close games, big hits and strange plays. Nothing was stranger than three safeties happening in the first few minutes of the early games. The three safeties tied an NFL record set in 1970, 1993 and 1999.
Tennessee Titans kick returner Darius Reynaud didn't realize he was at the goal line when touched the ball on the opening kickoff against the Pittsburgh Steelers. By moving back in the end zone, he gave the Steelers an early 2-0 lead. The Tampa Bay Buccaneers surrendered a safety when quarterback Josh Freeman got a bad snap in the end zone and subsequently kicked the ball out of play. A Dustin Colquitt blocked punt from his 25-yard line rolled to the back of the end zone, costing the Kansas City Chiefs two points in their victory over the Jacksonville Jaguars.
As for the safety issue, expect a lot of fines. Tampa Bay Buccaneers safety Dashon Goldson leveled two potentially fineable hits that injured New York Jets pass-catchers Jeff Cumberland and Jeremy Kerley. There were late hits and scuffles in the Aaron Rodgers-Colin Kaepernick showdown. New Orleans Saints rookie Kenny Vaccaro leveled a late hit on a sliding Matt Ryan.
Nevertheless, the opening Sunday was quite competitive. The only blowout was Jacksonville's poor performance against Kansas City.
Here's what we learned in Week 1:
1. Falcons caught off guard: Atlanta Falcons coach Mike Smith summed up his team's 23-17 loss to the New Orleans Saints on Sunday by saying, "There is always the unknown in Week 1." In a rivalry as close as Saints-Falcons, better words couldn't have been spoken. The logical assumption going into the game was the Falcons had a significant advantage. They added Steven Jackson to one of the most talented offenses in football. The Saints have known for years they have to double cover Roddy White, Julio Jones and Tony Gonzalez. Add Jackson's 77 yards rushing and 45 receiving you would assume the Falcons would win, particularly with the strange state of the Saints' defense. As it turned out, the unknown of the Saints' defense defeated the Falcons.
Atlanta knew the Saints were in their first game in a 3-4 and were doing it with only two outside linebackers on their 46-man roster. Martez Wilson was inactive because of an elbow injury. Parys Haralson, acquired last week in a trade, and Junior Galette, who missed most of the preseason with injuries, were the only available outside linebackers. New defensive coordinator Rob Ryan outcoached the Falcons by using a three-safety defense featuring Roman Harper, Malcolm Jenkins and first-round pick Kenny Vaccaro.
"In the first game, you see a lot of unscouted looks," Smith said. As it turned out, the Saints baffled the Falcons with plenty of different looks and fronts. The Saints pressured from the right, left and middle. Matt Ryan still completed 25 of 38 passes for 304 yards and two touchdowns, but he was pressured enough to convert only three of 11 third downs and had only four drives longer than five plays. According to ESPN Stats & Information, the Saints rushed at least five defenders 13 times and recorded three sacks with those rushes.
One concern of the Falcons is their offensive line. It looks as though it can be physically beaten. The Bengals showed a little of that weakness in a dual practice in Atlanta last month. Matt Ryan and Smith each said some of the problems will be fixed in the weeks ahead with execution.
Still, in the end, these games come down to one play. You can criticize the Falcons' blocking or praise the Saints' defensive coaching, but Matt Ryan was at the Falcons' 3 on third down with a chance to tie. The Saints covered the next two passes and won, continuing an amazing rivalry. Eight of the past 11 games between these teams have been decided in the final possession.
2. Concerns for Pittsburgh: Is the curtain closing on the Steelers as a playoff favorite? Their 16-9 loss to the Tennessee Titans was a bad one. They lost center Maurkice Pouncey (ACL and MCL) and linebacker Larry Foote (biceps) likely for the season. Cornerback Cortez Allen and backup halfback LaRod Stephens-Howling were also injured. Worse, as a franchise, the Steelers look as though they have lost their swagger and some of their home-field advantage. Last year, the organization admitted it was an average team; Pittsburgh finished 8-8 and out of the playoffs.
To keep a playoff-caliber roster together, the team has to make calculated decisions about older players knowing it doesn't have a lot of cap room to sign veterans as either starters or backups. To win, the Steelers need to hit on their draft choices, and that is where luck is going against them. Last year, they drafted David DeCastro and Mike Adams with the idea of having one of the better young O-lines in football. That hasn't happened, as the line broke down in the preseason.
Against the Titans, Ben Roethlisberger was sacked five times and hit six others times, according to press box stats. For the game, the Steelers generated only 195 total yards and were held without a touchdown until the final 83 seconds. But here's another problem: It has been awhile since Roethlisberger carried the team like he did several years ago when the Steelers were Super Bowl contenders.
Understandably, the offense isn't the same. Deep threat Mike Wallace left for Miami in free agency. The backfield is a committee of castoffs until Le'Veon Bell recovers from a foot injury. Tight end Heath Miller is still recovering from last year's ACL injury. It's too early to write off any team, particularly a great organization such as the Steelers. The thing that drove Steelers fans crazy last year was how the team struggled against teams with losing records. The Titans spent a lot of money to improve, but this was a game a playoff-caliber Steelers should win.
3. Tannehill over Weeden: Winning in the NFL comes down to the quarterback. Although Brandon Weeden still has a chance to become a decent NFL starter, Ryan Tannehill is better. That became pretty clear Sunday. The Tannehill-led Dolphins traveled to the Dog Pound and beat the Browns, 23-10. Or you can say the Browns beat themselves. Weeden threw three interceptions and had a fumble. He was sacked six times. Tannehill might not be great, but there is a better future with him than there is with Weeden, who turns 30 on Oct. 14. Tannehill is 25.
Unless Weeden can make the Browns a contender in the tough AFC North in the next two years, the chances of the Browns re-signing him when he's a free agent in 2016 aren't good. He'll be too old. Mike Holmgren and Tom Heckert had a unique philosophy in 2012. They wanted to get younger and more athletic on offense and they did so by acquiring Trent Richardson, Josh Gordon, Travis Benjamin and Mitchell Schwartz. However, they wanted a safer choice at quarterback and felt an older quarterback was better than one (Tannehill) who had only 18 college starts.
Tannehill entered Texas A&M as a wide receiver. If you look at it closely, the Browns look a lot like the Dolphins of last year. They have a good front seven on defense. The Dolphins had and have a stout front seven. It wasn't until this year that the Dolphins made moves to acquire weapons. They signed Wallace and Brandon Gibson to go with Brian Hartline at wide receiver.
Sunday's game in Cleveland was a test to judge the rebuilding project. Miami won. Tannehill doesn't have Richardson or anything close at running back but he was efficient enough to compete 24 of 38 passes for 272 yards and 23 points. Weeden generated only one TD drive.
4. Young guns firing away: The big winners among the young quarterbacks were Terrelle Pryor and EJ Manuel. Geno Smith got a "C" grade in the Jets' 18-17 upset win over the Tampa Bay Buccaneers. The loser, once again, was Blaine Gabbert, considered by many to be No. 32 among the 32 starting quarterbacks in the NFL. Not only did Gabbert look lost and horrible in the Jaguars' 28-2 loss to the Kansas City Chiefs, but he needed 15 stitches to repair a cut on his hand. He entered the game with small fracture of his right thumb and was the worst quarterback in the league Sunday. He completed 16 of 35 passes for 121 yards and generated only 71 yards of net passing offense. His 10-yard pick-six to Chiefs linebacker Tamba Hali capped the end of a bad day.
Pryor looked like a competitive quarterback. Sure, he did more with his feet than his arm, but that's his game. He had 112 of the Raiders' 171 rushing yards. More than anything else, he kept the Raiders in the game and put them in position to win it in the final seconds. The Raiders may have lost at Indianapolis, 21-17, but they may have a pulse at quarterback. Pryor completed enough downfield throws to keep the Colts' defense off balance all day. He forced Andrew Luck to come up with another fourth-quarter victory. Pryor worked on his footwork and throwing during the offseason and he does look better.
And then there is Geno Smith. He wasn't bad. He was 24-of-38 for 256 yards. He was inconsistent, but the Bucs kept the Jets and Smith around long enough for Smith to get the win. ESPN Stats & Information noted Smith had only four errant throws in 38 attempts, which is much better than Mark Sanchez.
The amazing part about Manuel's performance in the Buffalo Bills' 23-21 loss to the New England Patriots was how he was able to compete against Tom Brady. Manuel threw for only 150 yards but he looked the part of a quarterback who can make big plays. "Make no mistake, we have high expectations for him," Bills coach Doug Marrone said. "I was very happy with his demeanor." The Bills may have hit on a quarterback. Brady was able to get off 89 plays, but the Patriots had to win the game in the final seconds.
5. Maybe Jaws was right about Kaepernick: ESPN's Ron Jaworski said this summer that Colin Kaepernick could be one of the best quarterbacks in NFL history. Based on his start against the Green Bay Packers, Jaws may be right. Kaepernick was unstoppable. He completed 27 of 39 passes for 412 yard and three touchdowns in a 34-28 victory.
Since the Super Bowl, the 49ers' entire receiving corps changed. To Kaepernick, it didn't matter, He changed his priorities and hit big throws. Anquan Boldin and Vernon Davis were targeted 26 times. Kaepernick completed 19 passes for 306 yards to them. Incredible. This is the guy whom I watched in Super Bowl practices. He completed passes long as if they are short, easy throws.
But you can see a problem brewing. Officials don't know how to handle him. The Bill Leavy crew tried to protect him by calling a late hit penalty against Clay Matthews and then flagged Joe Staley for retaliating. Former official supervisor Mike Pereira said the play should have stood, which would have set up a fourth-and-2. Instead, Kaepernick was given the third down and hit a touchdown pass. That may have cost the Packers a game.
Here is the difference between the Seattle Seahawks and the Carolina Panthers. Russell Wilson directed a late fourth-quarter drive to put Seattle ahead. The Panthers followed by driving to the Seahawks' 24 and then DeAngelo Williams fumbled. Wilson closes out games. That's what good team do. … The Colts are a different offense. Instead of throwing deep passes like crazy, the Colts had 26 running plays and had Andrew Luck drop back to pass 27 times. … Marc Trestman couldn't have gotten off to a better start in Chicago. He made a bold fourth-and-1 call at the Bengals' 27 with 8:32 left. Matt Forte converted it into a first down and Jay Cutler fired a 19-yard touchdown pass to Brandon Marshall. The Bears won 24-21. "A lot goes into those decisions,'' Trestman said. "It was the best play at the time. It was a game-defining moment.'' … The addition of Reggie Bush enabled the Detroit Lions to beat the Minnesota Vikings, 34-24. Bush totaled 191 yards rushing and receiving and came up with big play after big play. According to ESPN Stats & Information, Matthew Stafford completed six of eight screen passes to Bush that went for 133 yards and a touchdown. … The Bucs showed a lack of discipline in the loss to the Jets. Linebacker Lavonte David committed a dumb personal foul against Geno Smith that gave the Jets the chance to get a game-winning field goal. You have to wonder about the Bucs' leadership. Josh Freeman struggled and his captaincy of the team was voted away.