So much happens on any given Sunday in the NFL. It’s hard to keep track of it all. More importantly, it’s quite a lot to decide what we should value as signal and what we should just ignore as noise.
In this space, I’ll go through all that we learned this week and give you the five things I care about coming out of Week 2, along with five things I can’t muster up the emotional energy to care for. Good news for you: We’re going to do this exercise in emotional turmoil every Sunday of the regular season.
One of the biggest pressing questions heading into Week 2 was whether Seattle would continue to be the aerial team they were in Week 1 or revert to their conservative roots. We got an answer.
Seattle called 42 pass plays on early downs (1st and 2nd) to just 21 runs. They continued to let Russell Wilson run the show and it was easy to see why. Wilson threw heaters all night against one of the NFL’s premier secondaries, making use of his entire receiving corps. Notably, Wilson showed faith in DK Metcalf despite the second-year receiver drawing coverage from the reigning Defensive Player of the Year:
Week 1 saw Wilson complete a litany of throws with his receivers winning on their routes. According to Next Gen Stats, he didn’t throw a single pass into a tight window (less than a yard of separation) against Atlanta. Against New England, Wilson reminded us why his arm talent brings a layer of spoils few in the league can match. Again per Next Gen Stats, Wilson’s expected completion percentage on Sunday night was 60.8 percent based on a number of factors like depth of throw, receiver separation, and pass-rush location. Wilson way outkicked that with a 75 percent rate. His competition percentage over expectation is the highest among passers to finish the game in Week 2.
The Seahawks appear fully committed to this transformation. Sure, we can keep waiting for the rug to be ripped out from under us. It may well happen, but absolutely nothing we’ve seen through eight quarters of 2020 Seattle football has given us a bit of indication it’s coming.
All signs point to a special season coming from Russell Wilson, one filled with MVP votes, the padding of a Hall of Fame resume, fantasy football championships, and many, many devastated secondaries along the way.
These are just the opening chapters.
No one, not even Justin Herbert expected the rookie to make his starting debut in Week 2. However, with Tyrod Taylor dealing with a chest injury in the pre-game, Herbert got the nod.
By any account, he exceeded expectations. Herbert kept the Chargers competitive and the offense moving against a dangerous Chiefs pass defense. Herbert did make one hideous mistake as he rifled a ball deep down the field for an interception on third down when a few simple yards worth of a run could have secured the first. That was the exception, not the norm.
Overall, Herbert made great use of some of the Chargers’ premier offensive players. Austin Ekeler popped up with 4-55 after putting up a bagel in the receiving game with Taylor under center. Complementary rookie back Joshua Kelly also made noise as a dual-threat. Keenan Allen (7-96) and Hunter Henry (6-83) also enjoyed strong outings.
As much as we all like Tyrod Taylor and the value he clearly brings as a leader in the locker room, this was more of what we expect the Chargers offensive box score to look like at the end of a game.
Head coach Anthony Lynn might be the biggest Taylor fan in the NFL universe. He said after the game that as long as Taylor is 100 percent healthy, he will be the starter.
It would seem hard to turn back to the veteran after a dud in Week 1 when the future of your franchise just turned in an (on-balance) strong debut.
Aaron Rodgers does it again
The Aaron Rodgers angry revenge tour continues. After dropping a hammer on the Vikings in Week 1, he showed no mercy against the Detroit Lions on Sunday.
Through two weeks, Rodgers has thrown six touchdowns to zero interceptions, averaging nine yards per attempt. He’s completely on fire, putting up numbers we expected in the prime of his career — a prime that he might have extended for a few more seasons.
Perhaps more impressively, he did it in Week 2 with Davante Adams coming in and out of the lineup because of a hamstring injury. Rodgers hit big plays again to Marquez Valdes-Scantling and Allen Lazard while making pristine use of Aaron Jones’ chops as a receiver.
What we’re seeing isn’t a quarterback lifted by a strong supporting cast in the twilight years of his career. We’re watching a motivated, Hall of Fame quarterback elevating himself and kicking his own play into high gear.
It looks like the NFC North will have to deal with Rodgers at the height of his powers for one more year. Fantasy managers rejoice at their pain.
Falcons passing game growing fantasy gold
The Falcons are just the perfect team for fake football. The miserable defense will continue to put them in positions where they need to throw, even in spots like Sunday when their opponent fumbles the ball four times in the first 11 minutes of the game.
Right now, you really can’t go wrong with any Falcons pass-catcher. Of course, we all know about Julio Jones. However, Calvin Ridley was tied with Stefon Diggs for the NFL lead in receiving yards coming into Sunday Night Football and has scored two touchdowns in back-to-back games. He’s becoming a clear 1B receiver. Behind them, Russell Gage has stacked two solid lines while averaging 10.5 targets per game. Tight end Hayden Hurst is running plenty of routes from the slot and averaging 8.9 yards after catch.
The passing tree in Atlanta is rather shallow, as well. Todd Gurley had not been a factor in the passing game with just a single receiving yard in two weeks. No one else has made an impact in the wide receiver room.
The Falcons are not a good football operation — they’re just about perfect for fantasy football.
The Titans passing game gets deeper
With young star receiver A.J. Brown in the fold, the Titans passing game enjoyed a strong outing against their division-rival. Ryan Tannehill hit the Jaguars with four touchdown passes while averaging 10 yards per attempt. Even as they pumped Derrick Henry with 25 carries, this was the story of Tennessee.
Corey Davis followed up his 100-yard debut to 2020 with an end-zone trip on Sunday. While Adam Humphries also made it into the box, the center of the universe was tight end Jonnu Smith. The breakout tight end scored twice with a long catch of 63 yards. He is a playmaker.
When Brown gets back, this can still be good news for the young receiver. The Titans offense and therefore its top receiver was never going to be the most voluminous passing attack. We know that’s just not their approach. You’re counting on efficiency here. More players emerging as viable ballers around Tannehill only makes high efficiency more likely.
Anyone still doubting Cam Newton’s arm
If you are at any level familiar with Carolina Panthers football since 2011, there has to be a strange twinge of emotion watching Cam Newton fully thrive with the New England Patriots. On the one hand, you have to be a complete lunatic to not enjoy Newton making the most of his career’s second act. However, there has to be a small part inside a Carolina fan who can’t help but be irritated by the way this is playing out.
The Panthers spent the vast majority of Newton’s time in Carolina without putting a suitable ecosystem in place to maximize his unreal arm talent. Now in New England, Cam Newton has a strong offensive line and forward-thinking play-caller. The results speak for themselves.
Week 1 saw Newton put up solid periphery metrics as a passer even as his rushing work stole the headlines. In Week 2 against Seattle, Cam dueled one of the best quarterbacks in the NFL to come up just a few yards short of a win. Newton passed for 397 yards at 9.0 yards per toss with a 68 percent completion rating. He lifted Julian Edelman to an unheard of 22 yards per reception with a career-high 179 yards. Newton fit-in laser after laser in high-leverage situations.
Again, it’s amazing what a good ecosystem can do for a gifted passer. Make no mistake, we’re witnessing a Cam Newton who doesn’t look the least bit diminished. He looks like a player operating somewhere near his peak.
How the rest of the NFL, especially several teams with clear problems in their quarterback spot, just let the Patriots have this version of Cam Newton when he was available for anyone to offer a contract is beyond reason. Bad for them, good for Cam. Newton belongs here with the Patriots.
Cam is back. And we’re lucky to be here watching it.
The ‘Bills haven’t played anyone’ narrative
We did this same exact thing with the Ravens last year. While Lamar Jackson was dusting up cupcakes like the Dolphins and Bengals, the dork corner of the NFL universe just kept crying, “Who cares — they haven’t played anyone yet.” Thank you, you’ve added so much to the conversation.
You can only judge teams for the product they’re putting out on the field. By simply focusing on who the Ravens were beating, you ignored a clear philosophy shift taking place, transforming a unit into an offensive juggernaut thanks to a boost in personnel and intelligent coaching around Jackson. The same deal is taking place in Buffalo this year.
Through two weeks, the Bills feature one of the most productive and dangerous passing attacks in the league. Brian Daboll is rolling out a brilliantly designed offense featuring play action, spread concepts, and deception to create high-percentage throws for a volatile quarterback. And of course, that follows Buffalo gifting Allen with one of the best wide receiver corps in the NFL:
Through two games…
Josh Allen – 729 yards, 6 TDs, 70.4% completion percentage, 9.0 Y/A.
Stefon Diggs – 16 catches, 239 yards, 1 TD on 22 targets.
John Brown – 10 catches, 152 yards, 2 TDs on 16 targets.
You absolutely LOVE to see it.
— Matt Harmon (@MattHarmon_BYB) September 20, 2020
Of course, we won’t expect these numbers against superior teams. However, good teams and strong offenses don’t just beat bad teams. They do exactly what the Bills have done. They take bad teams out to the woodshed and completely dismantle them. You literally cannot ask more of Josh Allen and the Bills. This is a new unit and it’s not because of the numbers they’ve amassed against the dregs of the NFL, it’s the process they took to get there that matters.
Mike Evans/Tom Brady chemistry analysis
Much was made of Tom Brady’s and Mike Evans’ theoretical fit with each other this offseason. Some thought there may be an oil-and-water effect given that Brady has thrived more with slot-based targets over the middle while Evans has been a downfield outside receiver.
It was a disservice to both players’ skill sets. Hopefully, after Week 2, it’s a narrative we can put to bed.
With Chris Godwin out of the mix and Rob Gronkowski still looking like he should have stayed retired, Brady leaned on Evans to shred a young Panthers secondary. Brady threw to Evans 10 times out of his 35 passes. The second-most targeted player was veteran running back LeSean McCoy. Evans came through with 104 yards and Brady’s lone score.
The Tom Brady Bucs offense got off to a slow start in Week 1 and still left some yards on the field in the pass game against Carolina. However, this relationship is looking like it’ll be quite all right. It helps to not be facing the Saints defense, which may well be one of the top units in the NFL.
Trying to find a Rams bell-cow
Coaches lie to us a lot. Sometimes they don’t.
Sean McVay basically said all offseason that the team would use a committee approach to replace Todd Gurley in the backfield. Fantasy managers still drafted Cam Akers aggressively while letting Darrell Henderson fall to the double-digit rounds and Malcolm Brown all the way to the wavier wire. So far, McVay has been true to his word.
One week after Malcolm Brown’s big two-touchdown game, Darrell Henderson went for 121 total yards with one goal-line TD in the 4th quarter against the Eagles. Cam Akers missed most of the game with an injury.
The rushing workload wasn’t that different, with Henderson seeing 12 carries and Brown 11. The difference was that Brown wasn’t involved in the passing game at all and was stuffed three times for a total of -3 yards.
Week 1 was Brown’s moment in the sun. Week 2 brought us Henderson’s breakout game. At some point, Akers will shine. Don’t expect this to change. That said, with this offense looking like its back to the height of its efficiency, you’re going to have to take stabs at solving this puzzle. McVay is an early, and maybe the only, winner of 2020.
Jaguars tanking takes
If the Jacksonville Jaguars are supposed to be tanking for a top draft pick, no one bothered to let the young offensive players know. Gardner Minshew has dropped three touchdown passes on each of the Jaguars’ first two opponents. He’s been quite efficient with almost 8.0 yards per attempt and a 75.4 percent completion rate.
He looks better than he did as a rookie. He looks like a guy who is getting better with reps. If he was a Round 1 or 2 pick, no one would be talking about replacing him based on how he’s playing right now.
Minshew hasn’t been alone. James Robinson has been an excellent find. Jaguars running backs have carried the ball 34 times through two weeks — Robinson has 32 of those carries. Even better, he’s only been tackled behind the line of scrimmage on two of those yards. He’s earned that volume.
The young receivers have played well, too. D.J. Chark has caught all seven of his targets, Keelan Cole has scored in back-to-back games and Laviska Shenault has emerged early in his rookie season as a dual-threat with 72 yards through the air and 47 on the ground.
The Jaguars have plenty to watch on offense this year. Their fans don’t just have to look to next season.