The Debrief  

 

The Debrief, Week 1: Low-scoring start sign of defensive trend?

Print

Week 1 of the 2017 NFL season was for your uncle who insists pro football was better in the 1970s. Rampaging defensive lines took center stage, leaving quarterbacks to play supporting roles.

Ben Roethlisberger was rusty. Cam Newton's throws were erratic. Joe Flacco looked like he missed most of training camp with a back injury. None of these QBs' teams topped 300 yards on offense, yet they all came out victorious because of dominant performances by their defenses.

Any swing toward defense is uncommon in today's NFL. Seven teams failed to score in double-digits, tying for the most of any week since 2011. When the Broncos blocked Chargers kicker Younghoe Koo's game-tying field goal attempt before midnight on Monday, the Chargers officially became the fourteenth offense -- or 46 percent of the league -- to be held under 300 yards in Week 1. That's a higher percentage than any week of the 2016 season. (For comparison, only 22 percent of teams were kept under 300 yards over the previous three Week 1s combined.)

To put it another way: Only one team averaged under 300 yards per game on offense a season ago. So roughly half the NFL in Week 1 resembled the 2016 Rams offense.

Good offensive linemen have been difficult to find over the last few years, whether in the draft or free agency. Meanwhile, powerful defensive fronts are forming like Voltron throughout the league. It's possible this phenomenon is reaching critical mass. (It's also possible this is a one-week speed bump on the road to exploding scoreboards, full of fantasy points and 5,000-yard seasons.)

Week 1 often plays tricks on the eyes, and more data is needed before calling any defensive uprising a trend. In the meantime, I can't help but believe that five of the defenses that impressed in Week 1 are here to stay:

Carolina Panthers: If the Panthers didn't have to play NFC South offenses six times a year, they would be my darkhorse pick to finish the season No. 1 overall in points allowed. 49ers quarterback Brian Hoyer didn't know where the pressure was coming from on Sunday because it was coming from everywhere. The Panthers have an incredible depth of defensive line talent that can win one-on-one matchups, and they often did it all at once in San Francisco. Coach Ron Rivera loves lining up five to six players on the line of scrimmage, all condensed in the middle, with the offense having no idea who will come forward.

The entire secondary, including second-year cornerbacks James Bradberry and Daryl Worley, loves to tackle and play physically. Third-year pro Shaq Thompson, still just 23, could round out the best linebacker corps in football if he continues to make plays as he did against the 49ers. It's enough to make me wonder whether deposed general manager Dave Gettleman is still eligible to win NFL Executive of the Year awards after being fired by the Panthers.

Philadelphia Eagles: I went into the season believing that Fletcher Cox, Brandon Graham and Tim Jernigan could rival any defensive line trio in the league. Their Week 1 totals: six tackles for loss, four sacks and two forced fumbles against the Redskins, including the one returned by Cox for a game-sealing score. (The group will have to be strong enough to hold the team together until No. 1 cornerback Ronald Darby returns from his dislocated ankle.)

Like the other teams on this list, the Eagles have the requisite depth to keep their stars fresh. Each member of the trio above played fewer than 70 percent of their team's defensive snaps.

Jacksonville Jaguars: Defensive end Calais Campbell looks like the free agency cherry on top of a young Jacksonville defense that was primed to explode this season. It's hard to imagine a better first game for a big-ticket free agent signing than setting the franchise record for sacks with four. The best development, however, for the Jaguars in their thrashing of the Texans came from two highly touted draft picks that fans started to worry would get left behind. 2015 No. 3 overall pick Dante Fowler and second-year linebacker Myles Jack, back on the weak side after struggling in the middle, each had the best games of their young careers.

Baltimore Ravens: Tasked with carrying the team because the offense is hurting, the Ravens delivered a shutout in the opener, replete with four interceptions of Bengals QB Andy Dalton. This is the best secondary the Ravens have had since the early 2000s, and general manager Ozzie Newsome was so confident in his defensive line depth that he traded Jernigan away in April. Second-year nose tackle Michael Pierce made that move look understandable with a stout game against the Bengals. This could be the toughest team to run against in football, with Pierce, Brandon Williams and Terrell Suggs up front.

Los Angeles Rams: Forget for a moment that the Rams were facing Scott Tolzien and a reconfigured Colts offensive line. Instead, watch Robert Quinn make good on those DeMarcus Ware comparisons that defensive coordinator Wade Phillips handed out. Watch the cornerback group, which Phillips told me was better than people think, make plays on the ball because they know blitz pressure will get to the quarterback fast. Watch the entire group when defensive tackle Aaron Donald gets back on the field this week to face the same Redskins line that struggled against Philadelphia.

The year of the rookie running back


Week 1 wasn't all about defense. Minnesota rookie running back Dalvin Cook's 127 rushing yards Monday night set a franchise rookie debut record while the previous record holder, Adrian Peterson, watched most of the game from the Saints sideline.

Peterson, who finished with nine snaps, knows well that running back is a position for the young after watching Saints rookie Alvin Kamara leading the team in snaps. Jacksonville's Leonard Fournette used all his fresh legs to top 100 yards despite facing more stacked defensive boxes than any runner in football. Kansas City's Kareem Hunt finished with 246 yards from scrimmage, the most in a rookie debut in NFL history. Chicago's 5-foot-6 dynamo Tarik Cohen was the team's leading rusher and leading receiver, so uncannily explosive that he almost played more snaps in his first game than the NFL's second-leading rusher from a season ago, Jordan Howard. You know it's a fun rookie running back class when Carolina's Christian McCaffrey, who led the Panthers in touches and yards from scrimmage, was an afterthought in his first game.

While the week lacked offensive punch overall, this group of young running backs provided a preview for good times ahead. They almost made up for the inevitable, yet depressing, spate of Week 1 injuries ...

A season already changed


The Cardinals' 2016 campaign went sideways in Week 1, sent spiraling by then-kicker Chandler Catanzaro's missed game-winning field-goal attempt against the Patriots. Coach Bruce Arians can only hope that Arizona's loss to the Lions on Sunday didn't include a similarly decisive moment.

With Arizona leading 17-9 in Detroit, running back David Johnson fumbled in his first carry after suffering a dislocated wrist. The turnover set up a short field for the Lions and started a 26-point surge for Detroit. And the injury set the Cardinals' season on a path Arians likely never saw coming. NFL Network's Mike Garafolo reported Tuesday that Johnson will miss two to three months, a cruel body blow delivered during the team's collapse at Ford Field.

Johnson was my pick for MVP this season -- his transcendence was the foundation to build a case for the Cardinals as an NFC contender. Now, Arians has to construct a backfield from Kerwynn Williams, Andre Ellington and D.J. Foster. (UPDATE: Veteran back Chris Johnson was signed Tuesday.) Arians must build the passing game around Carson Palmer, coming off a woeful Week 1 performance that included 5.6 yards per attempt and three interceptions. John Wetzel, who has eight career starts since going undrafted in 2013, will be protecting Palmer's blind side, with starter D.J. Humphries expected to miss a couple of weeks with an MCL sprain, according to Arians.

Perhaps the Cardinals can stay afloat long enough for Johnson to return late in the season and save them. But this is a dramatically different team after just one week, one that will need to win with defense and a 37-year-old quarterback who wasn't expected to carry his offense this season.

Johnson's wasn't the only devastating injury from Week 1 that will reshape how the rest of this season plays out:

1) Much like it's hard to overstate the importance of Johnson to the Cardinals' offense, the value of safety Eric Berry -- lost for the season on Thursday with a ruptured Achilles tendon -- to the Chiefs is incalculable. That was on full display in the opener on a fourth-down stop and his physical coverage of Patriots tight end Rob Gronkowski. Meanwhile, pass rusher Justin Houston is back in Defensive Player of the Year-candidate form and Chiefs stalwart Derrick Johnson is pulling off another remarkable comeback. It's a shame these Chiefs defensive stars never seem to be healthy at the same time.

2) The Philadelphia Eagles traded for Ronald Darby because the team's cornerback position was as thin as any around football. Following Darby's dislocated ankle, which will keep him out four to six weeks, according to Rapoport, coordinator Jim Schwartz will ask rookie Rasul Douglas to step up against dangerous passing attacks like the Chiefs and Chargers.

3) It was hard to watch Bears receiver Kevin White's latest injury, a fractured scapula that will put him on injured reserve. The No. 7 overall pick of the 2015 NFL Draft has rarely looked comfortable as a pro, in part because he's rarely stayed on the field for long. Sunday's loss was only his fifth career game.

"My heart goes out to him," Bears coach John Fox said Monday.

This Chicago team -- with strong line play on both sides of the ball -- has the makings of a frisky squad, if it could cobble together any semblance of a passing game. Fox has a running back tandem in Jordan Howard and Tarik Cohen that could remind the veteran coach of his days with "Double Trouble" -- Jonathan Stewart and DeAngelo Williams -- back in Carolina. But with No. 1 receiver Cameron Meredith and now White out, the team will count on slot receiver Kendall Wright, a solid group of tight ends and some journeymen wideouts to snap up targets. Perhaps a wide receiver-free offense is what Fox has been building to all these years.

4) Jacksonville coach Doug Marrone is cut from a similar cloth.

"I want to go back to the old way. I want to change the game," Marrone said back in June, relaying his dream of how many passes he'd like to see Blake Bortles throw in a game.

Following the torn ACL to No. 1 receiver Allen Robinson and the impressive debut of rookie running back Leonard Fournette, Marrone could be one step closer. Bortles no longer has a wideout he can trust to win at the point of attack on deep throws.

5) New defensive coordinator Gregg Williams has this Browns defense flying around. Watching the team hold the vaunted Pittsburgh offense to 290 yards, I couldn't help but imagine how fun this group will be to watch when No. 1 overall pick Myles Garrett returns from his high ankle sprain. It's amazing what a difference consistent tackling makes.

Follow Gregg Rosenthal on Twitter @greggrosenthal.

Print

Headlines

The previous element was an advertisement.

NFL Shop