By Oliver Connolly, Editor-In-Chief
Well, what a return that was. Close games, blowouts, season defining injuries and actual real life football. Here’s some of my early notes and reactions from Sunday’s games and the headlines surrounding them. As the coaches tapes are released I will do a deeper dive into what some of the teams, coaches and players attempted to do this weekend.
The Ascension of Aaron Donald
Aaron Donald was a one man wrecking crew in the Rams remarkable win over the Seahawks. He is quickly ascending, in just his sophomore year, to be the second best interior lineman in the game. Draw up a fantasy draft of interior defensive lineman and I defy you not to take Donald with the second overall pick. Indeed, if you factor in contracts (which in reality we should) Donald would be the unanimous first overall pick.
At present, we have a cluster of defensive lineman who regularly set up shop in opposing backfields; Ndamunkong Suh, Gerald McCoy, Damon Harrison, Geno Atkins and Donald’s teammates; Nick Fairley and Michael Brockers. All are great athletes who can dominate the line of scrimmage.
Suh remains the king of interior lineman but Donald is closing in rapidly with his blend of size, speed, power, and first step explosion. He has a natural ability to destroy plays by demolishing the mesh point and flattening the backfield.
Donald is a quarterback head hunter. Here, he is double teamed in the pass game.
The tackle leaves his assignment and Donald rag dolls JR Sweezy, collapses the pocket, does not allow Russell Wilson to step up (feeling strong side pressure from Robert Quinn) and sacks the quarterback. He dominates at the point of attack, sticks his hands in Sweezy’s chest and throws him to the ground at will.
Now here’s Donald in the run game.
He is at his best when lined up as a three-technique, exploding off the snap and shooting gaps. He’s already beat the guard prior to the running back exchange and makes the play on Marshawn Lynch in the backfield for a loss. To explode off the snap as quickly as Donald does, at that size, is beyond rare.
Donald presents the ultimate problem. You cannot block him one-on-one and he plays on a team with a number of extremely talented lineman; Michael Brockers, Nick Fairley, Chris Long and Robert Quinn. You can’t double them all. That spells destruction for any offense based on timing and any offense who likes to spread a defense out. The domination of, in particular, Donald and Quinn forces you to leave either your tight end or running backs in to block. It takes away a receiver in the passing game and it often is still not enough.
There’s no better example of just what this line, and Donald, can do than the last play of the game vs the Seahawks.
Complete penetration, two lineman in the backfield (one of which is Donald) dragging Marshawn Lynch to the ground. Donald is two-gapping on the play. He controls Justin Britt, controls the line of scrimmage, sees the run and makes the play.
Here’s one just for fun.
On third and manageable the Rams drop Donald into coverage. Man-to-man vs Jimmy Graham. Russell Wilson did not anticipate it, did not reset the protection and thus the Rams got a free blitz at the quarterback. Wilson gets rid of the ball quickly, throws off his back foot and is picked. It was a sensational playcall (and not bad coverage). The Rams put their best defensive lineman on the Seahawks best pass catching threat in a third and four situation. The offensive line had no idea who to block. They were seeing Donald everywhere.
Individually, it was one of the best performances from a defensive lineman I have ever seen. The ability to stick your hand in the ground and shoot gaps or control lineman and two gap is extremely rare. To do it this well in just the first start of your second season is scary good.
Donald is on his way to a perennial Pro Bowl career, the Rams have a superstar and they’re 1-0 heading to Washington with a real shot at starting the new campaign 2-0.
Packers @ Bears
- The Bears ran a well-balanced attack; 33 run attempts, 36 pass attempts.
- Matt Forte was lined up all over the field. In the backfield, flexed out and in the slot. Adam Gase compared him to Wes Welker.
- Gase’s offensive gameplan was to move the Packers linebacking corps and defensive front laterally, sideline-to-sideline. The Bears regularly ran to the field side of the play and used multiple screens to get the Packers linebackers in space.
- Aaron Rodgers continued his domination of the Bears and the Red Zone. Here’s Rodgers career numbers in the Red Zone; 315/517, 60.9%, 148 TDs, 5 INTs.
- Yes, James Jones had been in the Green Bay offense for years. But they have innovated so much in the past two-years that it was remarkable how quickly he picked it up.
- Jay Cutler’s inability to scan the entire field was shown again. He did not even see Clay Matthews on the interception.
Colts @ Bills
- Rex Ryan was at his absolute best. He pulled out everything in his defensive trick bag. Take a look at the play below. A seven man box, man coverage, safety blitz, with an end and linebacker dropping into coverage. It is not featured at all in Ryan’s huge New York Jets playbook. I’ll have a deeper writeup later in the week once the coaches tape it out.
- Kyle Williams dominated the interior of the defensive line, without Marcell Dareus. When Dareus returns from suspension next week vs the Patriots it will be frightening.
- Ryan said all week that they were not afraid to put rookie Ronald Darby on an island, one-on-one, with no safety help. They did just that and he rewarded them with an outstanding game. Darby played 47 of the Bills 77 defensive snaps. He had a pass breakup, an interception and played solid coverage all day.
- Greg Roman did a fantastic job with Tyrod Taylor and the offense. They were unpredictable and did not take too many risks. At half time Taylor was 9/11, with 147 yards and a touchdown. He finished 14/19, 195 YDs, TD.
- The Colts could get nothing on the ground and Andrew Luck took far too many risks through the air. Clearly, the Colts were forcing it downfield as they were getting beaten up inside. Their inability as an organization to upgrade their offensive line or their run defense is damning.
- However, this was more about the ability of the Bills than the inability of the Colts. Though I’m sure it will be framed that way this week. The Colts will bounce back, they have too much talent.
- Though Jim Irsay said Chuck Pagano is not coaching for his job it certainly feels like he is. ANY coach not named Belichick or McCarthy will be interested in the Colts job were it available. That includes a guy named Gruden and a guy named Harbaugh.
Chiefs @ Texans
- The Chiefs offense did a very good job. They continued the rhythm they had in the preseason, had a ground game and their line held up extremely well inside. That allowed Alex Smith, regularly, to step up and avoid the pressure JJ Watt was applying on the pocket.
- The Chiefs routinely chipped Watt. It didn’t matter as he was as dominant as ever.
- I though Marcus Peters held up very well in his first game. He played 66/77 defensive snaps and consistently took on DeAndre Hopkins one-on-one.
- DeAndre Hopkins is becoming a fully fledged star.
- Brian Hoyer had a very poor day. Chiefs defensive coordinator, Bob Sutton, did a fantastic job of disguising blitzes and bringing pressure from all angles. Hoyer could not cope.
- Ryan Mallett was much, much better.
- Hoyer finished; 18/34, 236 YDs, TD, INT
- Mallett finished; 8/13, 98 YDs, TD
Panthers @ Jaguars
- It was an embarrassing display from the Panthers receiving corps. Tedd Ginn dropped two touchdown throws from Cam Newton. One was in traffic but the other was wide open.
- Michael Oher was abused all game by Chris Clemons and the Jaguars defensive front. Cam Newton was pressured on 10 of his 35 drop backs. He completed 68% of his throws under pressure.
- Blake Bortles showed signs of progress. He got the ball out much quicker and really ripped it with a more fine tuned action taking the loop out of his motion. However, he has a nasty habit of throwing the ball to the other team. I need to see the coaches film before crushing him for any of the turnovers.
- Bortles completed zero passes on pressured drop backs. He was pressured on ten drop backs.
Browns @ Jets
- A game I need to take a closer look at (though should I really?)
- Manziel came in for McCown and looked much quicker than a year. He showed the ability to escape pressure and buy time. Though he made poor decisions and turned the ball over.
- The ball came out of Manziel’s hand quicker and he displayed his true arm talent.
- Joe Haden looked sluggish. He was slow getting out of his breaks and did not close on the ball with any speed. Did not move well at all and could be struggling with a minor injury.
Saints @ Cardinals
- The Saints made more additions than anyone this offseason and did pretty well to assimilate them all so quickly. They were in this game well into the fourth quarter.
- Brandin Cooks is showing he’s impossible to cover. You cannot press him at the line, you can’t play soft off him, you have to commit two defenders in order to stop him. An extraordinary talent who can effect the game in many different dimensions. He’ll have a huge year if healthy.
- Stephone Anthony (the first round pick in the Jimmy Graham trade) played fairly well. He showed the ability to shoot gaps and get into the backfield from the middle linebacking spot. He played 98.4% of the Saints defensive snaps.
- Carson Palmer looked very good in his first start since his torn ACL. He was 16/25, 187 YDs, TD when not blitzed. On the seven drop backs he was blitzed he threw two touchdowns.
- Sean Payton was tentative with his play calling.
- The Cardinals defense mustered just six quarterback hurries against a new Saints offensive line.
- The Saints ‘new’ power run scheme was non existent. They had just 20 rush attempts and Mark Ingram lead the way with just 24 yards.
Titans @ Buccaneers
- What a disastrous day for Jameis Winston. I must point out the obligatory ‘RGIII/Andrew Luck’ week one comparison. Marcus Mariota clearly looked much better in week one but we have to let this thing play out over a number of years.
- Winston made the most basic rookie mistake; if it’s not your first read DO NOT throw the ball into the flat.
- The Bucs were extremely ill disciplined. They finished with twelve penalties costing them 97 yards.
- Mariota was sensational. This offseason I called him Aaron Rodgers lite. It sounds unreasonable but the characteristics are just the same; The timing, the footwork, the lightning quick release, the ability to move and extend plays and not turn the ball over. He’s special.
- All credit to Ken Whisenhunt for tailoring the offense to Mariota with a number of run-pass-option (RPO) plays, while working in some more pro style elements.
- The Titans feasted over the middle of the field with a number of yards after the catch.
- As predicted the Buccaneers line was a disaster. They gave up 11 total quarterback hurries and four sacks.
- The Bucs were 3/14 on third downs.
Ravens @ Broncos
- The most shocking takeaway from this game was Peyton Manning’s inability to drive the football. He just cannot do it anymore. It clear to see in the preseason but even more jarring in regular season action. This does not mean he cannot throw or win games. But driving the ball to the field side on quick outs are going to be a major problem.
- Manning’s Broncos have averaged 30 points a game since his arrival. That will not be the case anymore.
- The Broncos defense under Wade Phillips looks outrageous. I tipped them to be the number one defense in pro football this year and they looked fantastic in week one. The DeMarcus Ware, Von Miller and Shane Ray sub packages are extremely fun.
- Chris Harris and Aqib Talib is as good a one-two cornerback tandem anywhere in the league. Particularly, in press-man coverage.
- Marc Trestman and Joe Flacco have to figure out this offense ASAP. Trestman wants Flacco in the shotgun more than former OC Gary Kubiak ever did.
- Flacco attempted just one pass of twenty yards are more. They have no deep threat and could not manufacture anything to take advantage of Flacco’s arm talent.
Lions @ Chargers
- The Chargers moved DJ Fluker from tackle to guard and had a lot more line movement in their offense. They were pulling, trapping and used more screen plays. Unfortunately, Fluker suffered an ankle injury and had to leave the game, but it was a better look for the Chargers ground game.
- Philip Rivers made a number of uncharacteristic mistakes in the first half but was terrific in the second half.
- San Diego ran a consistent no-huddle offense. The Lions were lacking depth along their defensive front and the Chargers sought to tire them out by using tempo and not allowing Detroit to substitute. It worked perfectly and the Lions defense wore down as the game went on. Very smart coaching.
- Danny Woodhead’s return was outstanding. He’s a major third down and red zone threat.
- Melvin Ingram returned from injury and was immediate pass rushing threat.
- Ameer Abdullah is a special, dynamic, game changer.
- The Lions started out very well but did not adjust in the second half. Matthew Stafford suffered a blow to his throwing arm and had a noticeable dip in velocity.
- I’ll take a deeper look at their offensive gameplan this week.
Giants @ Cowboys
- The Giants no-huddle offense was effective and entertaining. Eli Manning was getting the ball out quickly to his playmakers and not allowing the Cowboys to substitute.
- Conversely, the Cowboys drained the play clock on each play and marched down the field methodically. They dominated the first half in terms of yards but mistakes and quality defensive plays from the Giants gave New York the lead at the half.
- Randy Gregory looked outstanding but suffered an injury.
- Manning attempted only one pass of twenty yards are more. The quick, no-huddle, west coast, timing offense reminded me of the McDaniels/Brady offense with the Patriots.
- Manning was pressured on 12 of his 38 drop backs.
- Tony Romo was pressured on 11 of his 45 drop backs. he completed 81% of those passes.
- Romo now has 24 4th quarter comebacks in his career. That’s more than any active quarterback.
Seahawks @ Rams
- Tyler Lockett is an unbelievable weapon for the Seahawks to have.
- Tavon Austin is equally as deadly. He scored a touchdown as a running back and as a return man.
- Nick Foles showed he can make every throw, he takes risks, has a very nice delivery and is not afraid to pull the trigger.
- Russell Wilson threw the ball extremely well from the pocket against an insane Rams defensive front. Wilson was pressured on 19 of his 53 drop backs, completed 66% of those passes and was sacked six times.
- After being behind the Seahawks scored 18 points in eight minutes.
- The final play of the game, in overtime, was bizarre. Obvisouly, running Marshawn Lynch is the play but I hated the call from the offset shotgun. Pete Carroll’s response “we ran that play a lot and it worked. They got penetration on that one, I don’t know how. We’ll take a look.” Is that not the definition of insanity? Doing the same thing over and over again and expecting the same results. The call did work numerous times. But the Rams teed of on that one call and had two players in the Seahawks backfield during the running back exchange. The call had to be made with Wilson under center or on a rollout.
Games that need a deeper watch: Dolphins/Washington, Bengals/Raiders, Browns/Jets
Tough Blows; Week One Injuries
Terrell Suggs: This one stinks. Suggs is one of the most entertaining players in the league. He’ll miss the entire season after suffering another torn Achilles. It’s a massive blow for the Ravens who finished 5th in pass rushing DVOA in 2014 and brought back, largely, the same group for this year. The combination of Suggs and elite edge rusher, Elvis Dummervil, meant that teams could not double team them both. Offenses would either have to chip one with their tight ends, leave a tight end in to block, leave a running back in to block or get rid of the ball quickly. With Suggs down that’s no longer the case. The Ravens will be hoping rookie Za’Darius Smith can step in and be an immediate contributor. Replacing Suggs’ production will be difficult enough (double-digit sack seasons in four of his past five years) but replacing Suggs as the Ravens emotional leader will be impossible.
Dez Bryant: Why must the football gods take our fun things? Can’t we just have one year with a clean bill of health for the games most exciting players. Bryant is set to have surgery on a broken foot and could miss anywhere up to six weeks. Sunday night was a demonstration of what the Cowboys offense will look like sans Bryant. They’ll work the underneath more with Witten and Beasley, run more two tight ends sets and pound the running game in the hopes that it opens up play-action shots downfield.
DeSean Jackson: Jackson injured his hamstring during the Washington/Miami game. At this point it’s unclear if he will miss any significant time.
Lorenzo Mauldin: The Jets rookie suffered a scary looking injury to his neck. It’s reported that it’s not overly serious and Mauldin has feelings in all his extremities.
Antonio Cromartie: Cromartie seemingly suffered ligament damage in his knee. It could cost him the whole season. A major blow to the Jets who were sporting one of the best one-two cornerback punches in the league.
D.J. Fluker: Fluker sustained an ankle injury that will keep him out for up to six weeks. A big blow for the Chargers who were featuring Fluker’s movement skills heavily in their offense on Sunday.
What you will hear this week
Here’s a collection of the things you will hear this week from commentators, people who played this game, fans and folks who shout “NATIONAL FOOTBALL LEAGUE” down the TV screen.
- “THE SEAHAWKS HAVE NOT RECOVERED FROM THE SUPER BOWL” – National Football League guy.
- “I don’t know Mike, the Eagles are doing some things I’ve never seen before” – Jon Gruden during tonight’s national broadcast of his Chip Kellygasm.
- “We’re taking it one week at a time. This was just the first game of a long season and journey” – every coach and every player from every team.
- “I DONT THINK THE BRONCOS CAN WIN WITH PEYTON MANNING” – Former National Football League guy II.
- “Marcus Mariota is great and Jameis Winston is terrible” – every football fan who wears a football jersey.
- “A great defense, winning with the kicking game and the quarterback throwing wobbly passes. What is this the Tebow era?” – Hacky joke guy.
- “The Patriots and Cowboys lost in week one last year” – every sports radio guy and columnist of a team who lost this week.
- “Starting quarterbacks are better looking people and therefore are starting quarterbacks” – Colin Cowherd. (He actually said that in a full NFL on FOX pregame piece this week, really he did)
- “WAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAA” – Jim Irsay.
Text of the day
These are actual texts I send and receive from my actual friends and colleagues on gameday.
Start adding them up and it’s not crazy. Let’s end with Bennett putting a clown suit on 2014 second overall pick Greg Robinson and sacking Nick Foles.
Next Monday I will be in Singapore for the Grand Prix so it’s unlikely the column will be out Monday but more likely it will be Tuesday.
Until next time.
Oliver Connolly is the editor-in-chief of UKEndZone and a football columnist. He’s a former recruiting advisor for Western Michigan University, a contributor to SI Draft research and a member of the Pro Football Writers of America. You can find him on Twitter @OllieUKEZ, listen to his podcast here, or join in the conversation@UKEndZone, in the comment section below or on our Facebook Page.