Every NFL franchise strives for perfection. Front offices and coaching staffs attempt to build well-oiled machines, with all 53 players on the roster firing on all cylinders. But in the ultimate team sport, with moving parts across three different game phases (offense, defense and special teams), there are inevitably imperfections. And if these defects aren’t properly tended to, they can snowball and bring down the entire operation.
Not to fret, though: Mr. Fix-It is here!
Each week, 12-year NFL veteran and noted tape junkie Brian Baldinger will spotlight specific shortcomings and offer solutions for the affected teams. All free of charge! Here is his advice for four teams heading into Week 2.
1) BUFFALO BILLS: Unleash your rookie running back early.
Trailing 16-0 in the third quarter on Sunday, things looked bleak for the Bills. The offense was going nowhere. Josh Allen had turned the ball over four times in the first half, including a pick-six to Jets newcomer C.J. Mosley, and the Jets‘ defense had just tackled Frank Gore for a safety on the Bills‘ first drive of the second half. Like I said, it wasn’t good. On the next possession, the Bills inserted Devin Singletary, the third-round rookie running back from Florida Atlantic, into the backfield. Singletary, who had one reception for four yards in the first half, darted around the left end for 20 yards on his first NFL carry. The play gave the Bills the spark they so desperately needed.
Ironically, Singletary didn’t get another touch the entire third quarter but made several big plays in the fourth, including a 23-yard scamper over the left guard and a number of important catches that helped fuel an improbable comeback. Of the Bills‘ 25 rushing attempts, Singletary had four carries, Gore logged 11 and Allen finished with 10 (only two were designed run plays, per Pro Football Focus). Singletary was in the backfield for 68.3% of the team’s offensive snaps but touched the ball on less than a fourth of those plays, while Gore recorded a touch on 61 percent of his 18 offensive snaps. Singletary ended up with nine touches for 98 yards; that’s 10.9 yards per touch in his NFL debut.
Pretty good for a guy who a lot of people wrote off in the draft process. At the NFL Scouting Combine, Singletary ran a 4.66-second 40-yard-dash, and some in the scouting community said, “too slow.” Additionally, he only caught six passes all season in Lane Kiffin’s offense last season. There were reasons for concern, but I watched Singletary make defenders miss at FAU. And again during the NFL preseason. When Buffalo released LeSean McCoy, I figured the Bills saw promise in the rookie.
This week, the Bills travel back to Metlife Stadium — where they just strung together a 17-point comeback win — to face the New York Giants. The bout will feature Gore, who’s fourth all-time in rushing yards, and 2018 rookie sensation Saquon Barkley. But perhaps a fairly unheralded rookie may just upstage them all … if Buffalo doesn’t wait until the third quarter to unleash him.
2) CLEVELAND BROWNS: Play disciplined football.
The Browns need to get out of their own way. In their highly anticipated home opener, their greatest enemy was the 18 penalties they committed. Good grief. And some of the violations were straight up egregious. Look no further than the pair of personal fouls called against Greg Robinson and Myles Garrett. Robinson was ejected in the second quarter for kicking Kenny Vaccaro in the head. His backup, Kendall Lamm, exited with an injury not long after, and it caused the restructuring of the entire offensive line, which helped lead to a safety on a sack of Baker Mayfield before halftime. Garrett should have been ejected for throwing a retaliatory punch at Delanie Walker early in the second quarter but was only penalized. This behavior by these two starters showed a lack of poise and discipline. It was completely uncalled for and the kind of conduct you won’t see from winning teams. Hopefully the Browns learned their lesson after the 30-point defeat.
The good news — yes, there was some — is that the jury is still out on the Browns‘ offense. There were only two drives that resulted in touchdowns, including an effortless opening drive. Penalties prevented the Browns from ever getting in a rhythm, as they were a miserable 1 of 10 on third down, in part, because the offense constantly faced third-and-forevers. The thing is, penalties do not just disappear. Getting this team to play disciplined football falls squarely on the broad shoulders of Freddie Kitchens. This must be addressed before taking the field Monday night against the New York Jets. I’m looking for eight or fewer Cleveland penalties in Week 2.
3) BALTIMORE RAVENS: Limit Lamar Jackson’s carries.
The Ravens, led by Lamar Jackson‘s league-best five touchdown passes, put up 59 points in Miami, which was the most surprising score we saw in Week 1. But there was an even bigger statement made by the Ravens. They put up a 50-burger with Jackson rushing a total of two times — the third official run was a kneeldown. That was a far cry from his first start as a rookie, when he carried the ball 26 times versus Cincinnati in Week 11. No one thought that was sustainable, and it isn’t. Yet, during training camp, Ravens head coach John Harbaugh showed no hesitation when he responded to a question about Jackson’s potential pitch count on runs and how it compared to Cam Newton‘s career-high 139 rushing attempts in a season.
“I’d bet the over on that one. I’d bet the over for sure,” Harbaugh said.
Interesting then that Baltimore’s opening drive of the 2019 season featured a punishing ground attack that featured the skill sets of Mark Ingram, Gus Edwards and talented rookie Justice Hill. It was a statement designed by new offensive coordinator Greg Roman that should have been noted by the entire league. Yes, the Ravens can indeed move the ball and win without exposing their QB in the run game. Certainly there will be times when Jackson scrambles when pressured and read-option plays will prompt him to pull the ball and take off. But the regular season is a marathon and the fewer hits he’s exposed to, the better the chance he can arrive healthy to the finish line.
Baltimore led the league in rushing a year ago with a revolving door of running backs and Jackson, who had a team-leading 147 carries. The threat of Jackson’s ability to take off on a dime will always be there, but there is no need to lean on him to run. That’s why the Ravens went out and signed Ingram this offseason. With Ingram, Edwards and Hill rotating in the backfield, Baltimore is set up to thrive on the ground without relying heavily on its young QB.
4) LOS ANGELES RAMS: Lean more on Malcolm Brown, and less on Gurley.
The NFC Championship Game rematch between the Rams and the Saints is the game everyone is talking about heading into Week 2. There are a lot of storylines to watch, and one that always seems to garner attention is Todd Gurley‘s performance. Against the Panthers in Week 1, I saw the player who was a strong MVP candidate for most of last season explode off the right guard for 25 yards on the game’s first play from scrimmage. But I didn’t see it enough. However, I did see backup Malcolm Brown consistently make defenders miss and bounce off contact for steady positive gains, forcing five missed tackles on his 11 touches, according to Next Gen Stats. Gurley forced three missed tackles on his 15 touches. While I’m not suggesting a shakeup in the Rams‘ pecking order at RB, Brown deserves more carries.
Gurley played 70.8 percent of the Rams‘ offensive snaps, while Brown saw 26.4 percent of the snaps. Although Gurley was the lead back based on snap count and touches, Brown had five of the team’s six red-zone carries, while Gurley didn’t have one. Brown hit paydirt on two of those red-zone totes.
The Brown that took the field Sunday is much different than the player I’ve watched the last four seasons. His bruising running style and knack for finding the end zone should make Sean McVay consider giving Brown more snaps and touches.
Follow Brian Baldinger on Twitter @BaldyNFL.