Shorts and Shells: Week One

Posted Sept. 10, 2012 @ 2:55 a.m.
Posted By Eric Edholm

Quick hits on some of the biggest stories from Sunday’s action:

Happy Overreaction Sunday, everyone.

The Giants suck and the Jets are amazing. The Cowboys and Redskins are the best teams in the NFC East. Robert Griffin III is much better than Andrew Luck. The Saints don’t have a chance against the Bucs in the NFC South this season.

Nothing is sacred, right?

Well, let’s start with the smell test. What just felt the worst? (And of course we’re going with the negative — it fits the theme this week.)

I’d nominate the Saints and Bills. Just lacking something.

With the Bills it’s a consistent quarterback. Ryan Fitzpatrick might well turn in respectable numbers this season — as he sort of did, cosmetically, in this game: 18-of-32 passing, three TDs, three INTs. But anyone watching knew how bad it was from the start of the game.

The low moment was the pick-six by Jets CB Antonio Cromartie. At that point, it was still kind of a game (really) with the Jets only up 27-7 in the third. It wasn’t a tough throw — front side, easy read — and Fitzpatrick just airmailed it to the defender, which put a nail in the game early in the second half. The fact that the Bills finished with 28 points in garbage time mattered little when they allowed 48. To the Jets. Who scored just one TD in the preseason.

The Bills might have averted total disaster with the early news that RB Fred Jackson’s knee injury didn’t appear very serious, but a lot of bad came out of this one.

It might be nice if whisper-quiet DE Mario Williams (one tackle, on the fourth play of the game) wakes up the pass rush. There was none. Rookie CB Stephon Gilmore was picked on by the Jets. It was just a humbling afternoon for the Bills, who came in with high expectations and the feeling it was their time to fight back against the big-brother Jets, who instead picked on them one more time.

Less sure were the Saints’ hopes coming in, but they had the pedigree of success coming off a 13-win season. Still, we saw just how much Sean Payton’s absence could mean at various points in the loss to the Redskins.

Like the Bills game, the Saints’ eight-point loss was deceiving. They were mostly thrashed by the Redskins, who were the aggressors on both sides of the ball. Even with a massive momentum shift that should have tilted things back their way at the Superdome, a pre-halftime punt block for a TD that cut a 13-point lead to a six-point edge, the Saints couldn’t capitalize.

We remarked how seamlessly they performed offensively last season with Payton not calling plays, but his absence was felt at the Dome today. It was not Aaron Kromer’s fault, but the Saints looked out of sorts all day.

It’s a good thing defensive coordinator Steve Spagnuolo was not named interim because he has his hands full with getting the defense in line, and offensive coordinator Pete Carmichael and Drew Brees need to stay on direct hookup with each other. The Saints picked the right guy these first six games most likely, but Kromer has a lot to iron out.

Those are the two biggest overreactions we can feel good about from the early games on Sunday.

Handicapping RG3’s debut

Oh, the Saints were plenty bad on defense. But Robert Griffin III was mucho good. Boffo good. The Redskins held back plenty in the preseason. They kept a lot in the can, and Mike Shanahan still must know what he’s doing. He’s 1-0 and the world-champ Giants are not, so there’s that.

Shanahan spent the offseason — and really, before he got Griffin officially in the draft — coming up with what Griffin does best offensively. Instead of spending every waking moment ironing out his little weaknesses and trying to make him something he’s not, the Redskins played to his strengths and drew from the Baylor offense to help sculpt the playbook.

The Redskins started this game with a lot of short, high-percentage passes, and when he aced those, they let Griffin rip it. He responded with several sharp, precise, definitive throws. He escaped pressure when it was there and either ran or got free and made big conversions with his arm. He even blocked downfield on one play.

The final line was a thing of beauty, and the play on the field matched the numbers. Griffin completed 19-of-26 for 320 yards and two TDs, outplaying Drew Brees, too, in his house.

The Redskins scored 40 points, their highest road total since 2001. They ran up 22 first downs and played turnover-free ball. Rookie RB Alfred Morris (96 yards, two TDs) ran with confidence. The offensive line — a major question coming in — held up well with only one sack allowed, three other negative plays and three penalties (two by Kory Lichtensteiger in his first action since last season).

All of it seemed to channel around Griffin’s demeanor. They leaned on him every time they needed him and he responded. Anything this kid can’t do?

Then afterwards, Griffin told the media, “We could have scored a few more points.”

Out of the mouths of babes.

Patriots rookies rise up

Early in the second quarter, it was only 7-3 Patriots when DE Chandler Jones — working against one of the best left tackles in football — had his “welcome to the NFL” moment. It was a good one.

Jones flashed a mean club move, completely whipping Titans OLT Michael Roos, and strip-sacked QB Jake Locker near the endzone. It was picked up by fellow Patriots first-rounder, LB Dont’a Hightower, for the momentum-shifting score.

One play earlier, Hightower had put the Titans in a throwing situation by stuffing RB Chris Johnson (11-4-0 rushing for the game) for a three-yard loss back to the Titans’ 7. And on the possession before, the Patriots’ third draft pick this year, S Tavon Wilson, had an interception in the endzone after the Titans had moved the ball into Patriots territory.

We don’t yet know how much the Patriots’ rookies have helped make the defense, but it’s clear the “D” has improved by some measure.

The top three rookies combined for those plays mentioned, plus 14 tackles, in a fairly full afternoon in their first games.

Eagles' problems not just with Vick

Michael Vick played like a problem today. But the offensive line is a big one, too, if Sunday’s action against the Browns was any lingering indication.

OLT King Dunlap struggled to get push in the run game, was flagged for holding and whiffed on a few pass-pro blocks, despite getting chip help often. Vick faced lots of pressure and was hit 11 times. The only OL starter who was not flagged for holding (including one on Danny Watkins that was declined) was ORT Todd Herremans, and OLG Evan Mathis added a false start late in the game.

Vick can’t have days like this going forward.

The note I hate to make, but have to

Sorry to pile on, Browns, but you could have had Robert Griffin III and Julio Jones (6-108-2 receiving) in the draft. Instead, they end up with Brandon Weeden (four INTs, 12-of-35 passing) and Greg Little (four targets, zero catches, one huge, inexcusable drop near the goal line that ended up being a pick).

That’s essentially how it has played out for the Browns the past two drafts. Today was a major reminder of that. We’re not going to draw conclusions based on one week’s worth of action. But I think I know how it should have gone.

Does age matter?

Weeden is old for a rookie (28), but his Browns team is among the youngest in the NFL, listed by STATS LLC as of Sept. 5 as the second-youngest in the NFL. It showed today. The Eagles — who are third-youngest, by the way — basically gave them the game. More than once. Somehow, the Eagles won. They didn’t deserve to. Neither did the rebuilding Dolphins, who hung tough for a half but made too many mistakes in a loss at Houston.

Meanwhile, the graybeards did OK in Week One. STATS’s oldest team, the Lions, overcame a horrible first three quarters to rally and fend off the pesky Rams, the league's youngest team. The Falcons, the third-oldest roster, dismantled the Chiefs (23rd oldest) after an early battle. The 49ers (fifth-oldest) marched into Lambeau and made a statement against the Packers (27th).

Are we drawing conclusions here? Not yet, but it’s something to watch — and so will be how these older teams hold up over the long haul.

But while we’re honoring the elder statesmen, hats off to 42-year-old Lions PK Jason Hanson (2-for-2 on field goals), 36-year-old Falcons TE Tony Gonzalez (a touchdown against his old Chiefs team in his only visit ever as an opponent) and 37-year-old Redskins LB London Fletcher (a great pass defended near the endzone to keep it a two-score game late).

They’re the oldest players at their respective positions in the NFL, but they looked like three of the best Sunday.

Manning's debut a stirring success

First John Fox pulled a Dean Smith on Peyton Manning. Then the Steelers played a 1985 Villanova defense against Manning.

Even so, that couldn’t keep Manning completely down — with a big assist early on from Demaryius Thomas, maybe the biggest Steelers killer now with Terrell Suggs laid out, and later from Fox, who finally let his star quarterback loose.

Manning took awhile to preheat, but he warmed into vintage form by the end of the night, nearly error-free in guiding his new team to victory. And that’s what Manning would mention first if you asked him about his return from four neck surgeries and all that. He talked post-game about wanting to do something for his new teammates, players he did not want to let down, and you know there was fear of doing so as he took the field Sunday night.

The Steelers did their best to keep the ball away, and QB Ben Roethlisberger was incredible on third downs. Manning’s sixth possession in the game (not including a kneeldown to end the first half) was not until the fourth quarter — think about that.

“Obviously, it was frustrating,” Manning said. “Roethlisberger was awesome on third down. You think you’re going to get back out there, he converts a (third and long), and you go back and sit down.”

Once Manning and the Broncos went up-tempo, it was on. Manning said the plan coming in was to use the no huddle as a "change-up," but it ended up being a game-changer.

There were several throws that made you think that Manning still had it at the Indianapolis level — such as that far-hash throw for 14 yards to Matt Willis late in the fourth quarter on what would end up being the game-winning drive. And the same vintage ken that never left his brain — that was on display with Manning hurrying to the line later that possession after WR Eric Decker’s catch (and possible fumble; the challenge was upheld, but Manning didn’t know if it was out), followed by a smart audible on the next throw to TE Jacob Tamme for the score.

Manning polished off the game in the four-minute offense. It wasn’t perfect, as Manning was called for a delay of game (impressive gusto, replacement refs!) and the Broncos settled for a field goal, but I don’t know how you aren’t tickled with this overall performance by Manning and the Broncos.

First one down for Maestro Manning, and plenty of games left. The Broncos’ brutal barnstorming tour has just begun.