It shouldn’t be that surprising to see Todd Gurley put the Rams on his back in the fourth quarter of a road win. Yet, after a playoff run and offseason full of questions about Gurley’s knee, it must have felt deeply satisfying for the 25-year-old to rip off four straight quality runs during a decisive touchdown drive in Carolina.
Gurley compiled 64 of his 97 rushing yards on eight carries in the final frame, shedding tacklers, picking the right hole and decisively getting past Panthers linebacker Luke Kuechly a few times. On a day where quarterback Jared Goff didn’t play well and the Rams‘ vaunted special teams played worse, the option for coach Sean McVay was clear when he needed one first down to seal the game. Let Goff hand the ball off twice and escape with a hard-fought victory that could loom large in the NFC playoff race.
As was true of most Week 1 contests, the action in Carolina was often spotty. Gurley only had 8 yards on five carries after a first half that felt like an extended preseason for both teams, Twitter vultures circling to note how Gurley had been outplayed by backup Malcolm Brown (29 yards and a score on five first-half carries). That only made the closing act sweeter, with Gurley upending expectations behind his rebuilt offensive line.
This week’s Debrief will examine the other developments from Week 1 that defied expectations for good reasons and bad.
NOTE: All snap counts and stats are provided by Pro Football Focus unless otherwise stated.
1) Rams linebacker Cory Littleton was the best defensive player on the field in Rams-Panthers, a game that also included Luke Kuechly and Aaron Donald. Littleton forced two turnovers on sensational plays and finished with 14 tackles. In a league where coverage skills from inside linebackers are at a premium, he’s evolving into one of the best at his position.
2) Being healthy for training camp and the preseason can be overrated. The 147-yard, two-touchdown effort by Ravens receiver Marquise “Hollywood” Brown, who missed time this offseason after undergoing Lisfranc surgery, was one of many standout showings by rookies who were banged up for much of the offseason. 49ers defensive end Nick Bosa had three quarterback hits and a sack in 39 snaps against the Bucs after hurting his ankle in August. Titans wideout A.J. Brown had 100 yards against the Browns after missing most of camp, while Seahawks walking mismatch D.K. Metcalf bounced back from his August knee surgery to lead the team with 89 yards on four catches against the Bengals.
The trend extends to veterans. Pass rusher DeMarcus Lawrence (shoulder surgery), cornerback Byron Jones (hip surgery), guard Zack Martin (back) and receiver Amari Cooper (heel) all returned to the field looking mostly like their usual selves for the Cowboys vs. the Giants. Patriots receivers Josh Gordon (suspension) and Julian Edelman (broken thumb), all but absent in August practices, led a wideout crew that dominated the Steelers’ secondary. Training camp and the preseason are necessary, but the storylines that dominate July and August so often feel disconnected from the games that matter.
3) Sometimes camp hype does play out, though. Bills rookie running back Devin Singletary‘s shortest run on four carries Sunday was for 12 yards. In a Jets-Bills game with little offense, Singletary finished with 98 yards from scrimmage on nine touches. It’s safe to say he’ll get more work most weeks.
4) This should be a fun Jets offense to watch, perhaps as soon as next Monday against the Browns. For one week, however, it was Adam Gase and Sam Darnold‘s passing attack that let New York down. The Jets averaged 3.4 yards per pass on 45 dropbacks, with Darnold relying more on dinks and dunks than any other quarterback in Week 1. This is one way to lose a game in which you finish plus-3 in turnover margin.
5) Expectations can be a burden, too. The Browns were an undisciplined and possibly overeager mess for much of their 43-13 loss to Tennessee. By the fourth quarter, Cleveland caved in on itself. It’s not a surprise that the Browns‘ offensive line played so poorly, given that what was a questionable unit to begin with lost tackle Greg Robinson to ejection and Robinson’s backup, Kendall Lamm, to injury. But the loss of composure (the Browns committed 18 penalties for 182 yards) reflected poorly on the re-formed coaching staff.
6) Titans outside linebacker Cameron Wake could prove to be one of the signings of the offseason. In only 23 snaps against the Browns, Wake racked up 2.5 sacks, a QB hit and a hurry. That put him over 100 sacks for his career and won him a game ball. The Titans‘ well-built defense has talent at every level, and Wake, now 37 years old, is building a sneaky Hall of Fame case, which should include his two CFL seasons filled with hardware.
7) No team has had a better couple of weeks than the Titans. Colts quarterback Andrew Luck has retired, Jaguars quarterback Nick Foles is on injured reserve and Mike Vrabel’s team already owns a decisive road victory against a presumptive AFC playoff hopeful.
8) The next Patriots revolution won’t include many tight ends, at least not until Ben Watson’s suspension is over. Next Gen Stats notes that the Patriots used 20 personnel (2 RB, 0 TE, 3 WR) on 23 plays Sunday night, the most of any team since 2016. The Patriots used that grouping for eight plays in all of last season. The Patriots ran more plays without a tight end Sunday night than they did all last season, showing again how shape-shifting the Patriots‘ system is.
Having two running backs on the field keyed the team’s game-winning Super Bowl drive, and it could become a staple of the team’s approach because of its deep backfield and the flexibility of Rex Burkhead, James White, Sony Michael and fullback James Develin. Those four players split snaps almost equally in New England’s 33-3 destruction of the Steelers.
9) The expectations for the Patriots‘ defense should be higher than they were in any season since 2004, in part because of their depth. New England was without key linebacker Kyle Van Noy on Sunday — and 19 different players played at least 15 defensive snaps. That’s one way to overcome the type of Week 1 fatigue that appeared to plague the defenses of teams like the Lions, Rams, Panthers, Browns, Jets and Chargers late in their games.
10) I didn’t expect the Colts to move the ball so easily against a talented Chargers defense, even if Los Angeles was missing safety Derwin James. Frank Reich’s Luckless wanderers scored 24 points on only nine drives despite kicker Adam Vinatieri missing three kicks (two field-goal tries and an extra point). One of those misses came from 29 yards after tight end Eric Ebron couldn’t hang on to a frozen rope from Jacoby Brissett in the end zone on third-and-long, one of many moments where Brissett’s steady, heady play impressed. Combine Brissett’s play with 174 yards rushing from Marlon Mack behind guard Quenton Nelson‘s heroic blocking, and the Colts‘ offense did more than its share to win in Los Angeles. Their defense, on the other hand …
11) Perhaps I was too pessimistic about the Chargers‘ offense heading into the year. Even on a day where Philip Rivers‘ untested tackles played to low expectations, the Chargers averaged 7.4 yards per play! It felt like Rivers could find a 15-yard throw on any play for which he stayed upright. The offense missed holdout running back Melvin Gordon about as much as Raiders general manager Mike Mayock will miss Antonio Brown. Gordon’s backups, Austin Ekeler and Justin Jackson, combined for 215 yards from scrimmage, with Ekeler proving to be a nuisance in the passing game.
12) UNSTOPPABLE PERFORMER: Lamar Jackson, Ravens QB. Even Jackson’s biggest fans couldn’t have expected an opening performance like Sunday’s effort against Miami. The Ravens‘ ridiculous running game forced the Dolphins to drop a safety near the line of scrimmage, and Jackson exposed that strategy with some beautiful deep passes over the top of the defense.
Yes, it was against the Dolphins. But Jackson was extremely accurate on short, intermediate and — most importantly — vertical throws. The second-year quarterback’s 83-yarder to Marquise Brown, 39-yarder to Mark Andrews and 33-yarder to Willie Snead were all precision throws dropped into a bucket that would have been impressive in 7-on-7 drills, much less during an NFL game. Jackson had more passing touchdowns (5) than incompletions (3) or rushing attempts (3), a trend that can’t continue but which points to the ceiling of one of the sport’s most fascinating players.
13) It should not be lost amid the Jackson fire-show that Baltimore’s first three runs went for 49, 11 and 13 yards before Miami managed to limit the Ravens to single digits in rushing yards on a play (4 yards on a direct snap to Mark Ingram). Baltimore’s running game is a lot to handle. The Ravens finished last season running with historic success on the ground, and it might take the league a few more minutes to catch up. Their 643 total yards on Sunday were the sixth-most in a game in the Super Bowl era. With Arizona and Kansas City’s defenses coming in the next two weeks, the good times should continue.
14) Nick Foles‘ broken collarbone isn’t why the Jaguars lost. Jacksonville grand poobah Tom Coughlin could not have drawn a more shocking opener, because Foles’ backup, rookie sixth-rounder Gardner Minshew, played quite well — and still the Jags were out-classed by the Chiefs. An optimist would note that running back Leonard Fournette looked far better than he did a year ago, and the winners of Jacksonville’s offseason receiver battle royale (D.J. Chark and Chris Conley) combined for 243 yards and two scores. A realist would note the Jaguars started their season with a home loss, and Foles’ placement on injured reserve may all but end their playoff hopes. The team traded for Steelers backup Josh Dobbs to have another option behind Minshew, but the Jags won’t be relevant when Foles is potentially eligible to return unless the defense reverts to 2017 form.
15) Tyreek Hill‘s expected absence for a “few weeks” (according to NFL Network Insider Ian Rapoport) because of a shoulder injury doesn’t feel like a huge story. That says a lot about the Chiefs, who can survive an injury to one player, even Hill. Andy Reid and Patrick Mahomes pilot football’s best offense until proven otherwise.
It also says a lot about the state of the NFL that Hill’s contract extension flew under the radar over the weekend. Following Hill’s summer — which included him reportedly losing custody of his child and an investigation of possible child abuse — the deal reflected the business of the NFL like few others. The total value of the deal (four years, $56 million) included $18.34 million guaranteed, according to the MMQB’s Albert Breer. That means Hill is making less per season than teammate Sammy Watkins and barely got more than half of Jarvis Landry‘s $34 million fully guaranteed at signing. Hill’s off-field issues created a relative discount the Chiefs chose to jump on. Considering the breadth of Hill’s past, what was the hurry?
16) Adrian Peterson‘s game-day scratch against the Eagles wasn’t a huge surprise, but Washington coach Jay Gruden’s postgame explanation for the move was a treasure trove for those folks who (ahem) love a coach who provides plenty of space to read between the lines.
“He’s a first- and second-down back,” Gruden said. “So is Derrius (Guice). So, really, what do we have? About 20 first downs a game. Probably eight of those are passes, 12 of those might be runs, and Derrius can handle those 12. So if we have a game where we think we can run the ball 55 times in a game in an I-formation, then sure, I’ll get him up.”
Translation: Guice is my running back. Peterson is not.
It seems reasonable to assume Peterson might not even be on the team if Gruden had control of the 53-man roster. The I-formation line sounded like a weakly coded message to the Redskins front office from a coach who is going to run his offense, his way, until he’s not allowed to run it anymore.
Now, of course, Gruden doesn’t have much choice but to use Peterson next week. Guice was held to 18 yards on 10 carries on a day the Redskins offense put up 398 yards in Philadelphia, and now he’s expected to miss time with a knee injury, according to NFL Network Insider Ian Rapoport. The Redskins played about as well as a team can play in a game that included them giving up 25 straight second-half points, but Gruden has some strong winds blowing against him this season.
17) In a possible regime-defining set of decisions, the Falcons drafted two offensive linemen in the first round of the 2019 NFL Draft as part of an effort to address their biggest offensive shortcoming. The No. 14 overall pick, guard Chris Lindstrom, is headed to injured reserve with what NFL Network’s Tom Pelissero reported is a broken foot. The No. 31 overall pick, right tackle Kaleb McGary, is coming back from a heart procedure he underwent in July and struggled with the Vikings‘ front while playing 43 snaps on Sunday. Matt Ryan was sacked four times by Minnesota in the 28-12 loss. If the Falcons‘ season goes as their rebuilt line goes, they are off to a troubling start.
18) I can’t tell if the Bengals had the most painful or most encouraging loss of the week. The Seahawks were unprepared for most of what Cincinnati coach Zac Taylor’s staff threw at them on both sides of the ball. Anyone watching these two teams for the first time would think the Seahawks were a plucky band of overachievers who scrapped out a win despite being dramatically out-played by a more talented Bengals team that finished with 429 total yards to Seattle’s 233. You have my attention, Mr. Taylor and Lou Anarumo!
19) Wil Lutz let the Saints‘ defense off the hook. The city of New Orleans narrowly avoided adding another week to its eight-month-long jazz funeral when the Saints‘ kicker hit a 58-yarder in the final seconds Monday night to edge the Texans in the most entertaining game of the week. That will take attention away from the Minneapolis Miracle-like collapse in the New Orleans secondary, in which it allowed Deshaun Watson to connect on back-to-back dimes for a 75-yard touchdown drive in only 13 seconds without the safety net of a single timeout late in the fourth quarter. Instead, it will be Texans defensive coordinator Romeo Crennel made to answer for his prevent defense.
While the Saints‘ defense has work to do, Drew Brees‘ vintage 27-point second-half performance should quell worries about his sluggish finish to last season. He was ultimately the NFL’s second-best quarterback last season and his 370 passing yards Monday night looked like so many other prime-time nights over the last 13 seasons in New Orleans.
Follow Gregg Rosenthal on Twitter @greggrosenthal.