Five unbeaten NFL teams played Sunday. Only two picked up wins. The Bills, Buccaneers and Chiefs all fell in Week 3, losing their three games by a combined seven points. Each loss was meaningful. Winning saved the Colts’ season, put the Dolphins in the catbird seat in the AFC East and claimed what might be a crucial tiebreaker for the Packers in the NFC playoff picture down the line.
The three losing teams will be fine in the big picture, but these were the first signs of weakness for teams that had won their first six games by a combined score of 182-75. Let’s break down those three losses, try to make sense of what happened and get a sense of whether other teams will be able to attack those same weaknesses or soft spots in the weeks to come.
We’ll start with the battle in Miami, where the Dolphins outlasted their rivals to become the AFC’s only 3-0 team:
Jump to a matchup:
Dolphins 21, Bills 19
Colts 20, Chiefs 17
Packers 14, Bucs 12
If you could have showed the broader box score of this game to a Dolphins fan without any of the scoring information, they might have gone to the beach Sunday. The Bills outgained the Dolphins 497 yards to 212. They picked up 31 first downs to Miami’s 15. Buffalo had drives of 10, 14, 17, and 20 plays, converted more than 60% of its third downs and held the ball for nearly 41 minutes. None of that seemingly would add up to a Dolphins victory.
All true, and the Dolphins won anyway. Football is not about yardage or drive length or time of possession. It’s about points, and when the Dolphins got in position to score, they scored touchdowns. They created a short field with a Josh Allen strip sack and scored a touchdown. They had two drives of more than 21 yards and scored touchdowns on both of them, too. They went 3-for-3 in the red zone and needed every one of those points to win.
The Bills were not quite as efficient. Allen & Co. made four trips to the red zone but scored only two touchdowns. They added a field goal and turned the ball over on downs after failing on four plays inside the 2-yard line in the fourth quarter. They got another chance to win when Dolphins punter Thomas Morstead booted a punt directly into personal protector Trent Sherfield’s body for a safety, but their attempt to get into field goal range came up short.
First, an aside: As embarrassing as it is to assault your own teammate with a high-velocity football, Morstead’s subsequent free kick helped win the game for the Dolphins. Morstead’s 74-yard kick after the safety helped pin the Bills at their own 23-yard line, giving them less-than-exciting field position for the final drive of the game. The Bills eventually advanced as far as the Miami 43-yard line before committing a holding penalty and then running out the clock. If they started with 10 extra yards of field position and everything goes exactly the same, their drive ends up at the Miami 33-yard line, and they don’t have to run another meaningful play before attempting a game-winning field goal. Morstead helped make that happen.
The Bills managed to execute the rare, ignominious double of running out the clock on themselves at the end of both halves. At the end of the second half, with time winding down, Isaiah McKenzie wasn’t able to get out of bounds on a checkdown from Allen. Even if he had, Buffalo likely was staring at a 59-yard field goal, so while Tyler Bass is an excellent kicker, I’m not sure McKenzie staying in bounds cost it the game.
If anything, the way the Bills mishandled the end of the first half was more of a mess. After an Allen spike stopped the clock on the Miami 41-yard line with 15 seconds to go, he hit McKenzie for 7 yards. Another spike would have set up Bass for a 52-yard field goal, but he appeared to bobble the snap from backup center Greg Van Roten before throwing an ill-advised pass to Stefon Diggs in what amounted to a fake spike. The throw was nearly taken the other way for a pick-six, but Diggs instead ran upfield for a short gain to end the half.
Van Roten was one of many Bills backups playing meaningful roles. They were down an entire starting secondary and then lost one of their replacements, rookie sixth-round cornerback Christian Benford, who suffered a hand injury. Sean McDermott’s team also was down both starting defensive tackles heading into the game, as well as starting center Mitch Morse. Right tackle Spencer Brown left the contest with a heat illness and did not return, while Diggs was in and out during the second half with severe cramps.
It’s a testament to McDermott and defensive coordinator Leslie Frazier that the Bills weren’t picked apart by big plays in the same way that the Ravens were a week ago. They preferred to play in a two-high shell and protect their young cornerbacks Sunday, and while they didn’t give up many big plays, Tua Tagovailoa picked them apart underneath. He went 8-of-11 for 100 yards and a touchdown against two-deep coverages, producing a passer rating of 130.9.
Thomas Morstead punts the ball off of his own teammate to put the Bills within 2 in final minutes.
Allen was not as effective against those same two-high looks. With the Dolphins looking to funnel everything underneath, he went 23-of-36 for 206 yards and a touchdown against two-high, averaging just under 6.0 yards per attempt and producing a passer rating of 88.4.
Unsurprisingly, given the leaguewide move toward two-high defensive shells and the success defenses had with slowing down the explosive Kansas City attack a year ago, we’re seeing defenses play two-deep more often against Allen. The Bills star saw two-deep looks on just under 51% of his dropbacks in 2021, but that mark has risen north of 63% this season. I don’t think that number is about to fall anytime soon, so whether it’s quick game, the rushing attack or through Allen’s ability as a scrambler, they will need to find solutions to keep their offense humming.
Another element we should have expected from the Dolphins? A heavy dose of blitzes. Miami sent six or more pass-rushers at the second-highest rate in the league last season, per Football Outsiders, and it sent as many as eight men at Allen during key moments. In the first half, Allen picked apart those blitzes, as he went 10-of-11 for 123 yards and two touchdowns. The only downside was his fumble on one of those blitzes, with the Dolphins recovering and setting up a short field for a touchdown.
When the Dolphins didn’t send pressure, Allen posted a 73.3 passer rating and averaged just 5.0 yards per attempt. I’m not sure other teams will have as much success, if only because they have a great secondary and more aggressive loading up big blitzes than just about any other team. Every team wants to win with four pass-rushers and drop seven into coverage, but I wonder if this game might encourage others to throw a wider array of pressure combinations toward Allen, even if he was generally very good when the Dolphins sent extra men his way.
Will teams want to emulate Miami’s formula? Of course. They would love to score on 100% of their trips to the red zone and take advantage of a weakened version of the Buffalo roster. It would help other teams if the Bills miss a 38-yard field goal and mismanage the clock on two drives in or near field goal range. I’m just not sure any opponent can count on that happening again.
Dave Toub has a well-earned reputation as one of the NFL’s best special teams coordinators. Since arriving in Kansas City in 2013, Toub’s Chiefs teams consistently have been among the league’s top units. By Football Outsiders’ special teams metrics, they have ranked in the top four in seven of Toub’s first nine seasons with the organization.
Sunday did not burnish Toub’s résumé, as Kansas City’s special teams figured heavily in its upset loss at Indianapolis. By special teams expected points added (EPA), the Chiefs produced their second-worst special teams performance of Toub’s 164-game tenure. Other things went wrong, but it’s difficult to remember a Chiefs team getting so much wrong in one single game on special teams.
It started with Indy’s first punt of the game, which was muffed by returner Skyy Moore and recovered by the Colts on Kansas City’s 4-yard line. Quarterback Matt Ryan and Indianapolis punched the ball in three plays later for one of their two touchdowns on the day. Moore, the team’s second-round pick, was indecisive about fielding a second punt in traffic and let it bounce over his head to the 1-yard line, where it was downed by the Colts.
The Chiefs normally can count on a steady kicker in Harrison Butker, who missed only two field goals and three extra points during the entire 2021 campaign. With Butker sidelined by a left ankle injury, they have been using Matt Ammendola, who went 13-of-19 in a stint with the Jets last season. In Week 2, he hit all five of his attempts, including three extra points and two short field goals.
Things didn’t go quite as well in Week 3. Ammendola missed an extra point after Kansas City’s first touchdown, leading the Chiefs to (successfully) go for 2 on their subsequent score. In the fourth quarter, they attempted a fake field goal from the Indy 24-yard line with a four-point lead, and it never looked like it would succeed and was well-covered from the start. I suspect the Chiefs would have kicked the field goal with Butker in the fold. Ammendola wasn’t responsible for the failed fake, but he did pull a 34-yarder wide under little pressure on the team’s next possession.
Converting either of those kicks would have turned Indianapolis’ next possession from a game-winning drive to a game-tying drive. The Colts took the ball 76 yards and used more than eight minutes of clock before scoring with 29 seconds to go, but they got some help from the Chiefs along the way. On a third-and-8 from the Indy 39-yard line, linebacker Nick Bolton appeared to end the Colts’ drive by sacking Ryan. After the play, though, defensive tackle Chris Jones was flagged for unsportsmanlike conduct, extending the possession with an automatic first down.
After the game, referee Shawn Smith indicated to a pool reporter the penalty was for “abusive language toward an opponent.” I have my misgivings about penalties for language on the football field, and it’s disappointing to see such a pivotal moment in a game determined by a referee’s opinion of what might have hurt Ryan’s feelings. It also seems like a rule that should be easy to avoid invoking in a key situation. Jones is a great player but getting penalized in that moment was a disaster.
It’s a shame, too, because this was otherwise an incredible performance by the Chiefs. They allowed a touchdown on that 4-yard field in the first quarter and otherwise limited the Colts to 134 yards of offense through the first three quarters. Coordinator Steve Spagnuolo seemed to be a step ahead of Ryan and coach Frank Reich, as the Chiefs sacked Ryan five times, knocked him down 10 times and seemed to have a steady stream of unblocked blitzers running free at the quarterback. When a team allows one drive of more than 50 yards all game, its defense typically has done enough to win.
Chris Jones gets an unsportsmanlike conduct penalty after a third-down sack, leading to Matt Ryan finding Jelani Woods for the 12-yard game-winning touchdown.
The Chiefs didn’t win because of their special teams, but this was also a disappointing game for their offense. Patrick Mahomes left an early would-be touchdown pass to wideout Marquez Valdes-Scantling on the field with an overthrow, but the bigger problem Sunday came with the running game. As The Athletic’s Nate Tice noted on Twitter, Kansas City’s various halfbacks carried the ball 17 times and netted one first down. Just 11.8% of those rushes were considered successful by EPA, the worst mark for any team’s running backs in a single game this season. Clyde Edwards-Helaire finished with seven carries for a total of zero yards.
The Eagles were worse running the football by EPA this week and still won handily, so we know the running game alone wasn’t enough to sink the Chiefs. In terms of what to try to emulate when playing them, though, I wonder if the run is what opposing teams can hold onto as a possibility. Toub’s extensive track record tells us that what happened on special teams was a fluke. Jones won’t insult the opposing quarterback every week when Kansas City needs a first down. The Chiefs are generally well-coached and won’t beat themselves most weeks.
If a defense can stop the Chiefs from running the ball, though, it forces them to be one-dimensional. Being one-dimensional with Mahomes is likely the best possible single dimension in the NFL, but it limits what the offense can do and allows a defense to get its pass-rushers going against Kansas City’s tackles. Despite landing two great interior linemen in the 2021 draft — center Creed Humphrey and guard Trey Smith — and signing a Pro Bowl-caliber guard in Joe Thuney, the Chiefs didn’t seem to trust their running game in key situations a year ago, with the playoff loss to the Bengals an obvious example. If they can’t run the ball as this season goes along, it opens up more possibilities for teams to squeeze their passing attack on third-and-long.
What might have been the final game between future Hall of Fame quarterbacks Tom Brady and Aaron Rodgers won’t be remembered as an offensive battle. In a game defined more by the two defenses, Brady and Rodgers combined to average just over 6.8 yards per attempt. The Packers scored their touchdowns on their first two possessions, while the Bucs didn’t score a touchdown or advance into the red zone for the first 59 minutes. In between, there were a few turnovers and plenty of punts. If 49ers-Broncos was a game of bad offenses, this was a game of great defenses.
From the defensive perspective, the Packers thrived (and then flailed) against what the Buccaneers do best. Through the first two weeks of the season, the Bucs were allowing opposing offenses to convert 26.4% of their third and fourth down attempts, the best mark in football. The Packers didn’t attempt to convert a fourth down Sunday, but they faced 15 third downs. Let’s split this as simply as possible:
On the first five conversions, the Packers typically had quick answers for Tampa’s pressure packages, and their receivers made defenders miss to get first downs. The one exception was the fifth conversion, when they ran a leak to backup tight end Tyler Davis for a 23-yard completion. In a game in which Green Bay had just one deep completion and no runs longer than 10 yards, the only path it had to threatening the Bucs was by staying on the field and extending drives.
The Packers nearly converted their sixth third down on what was about to be their third touchdown, but Vita Vea dropped into coverage and waylaid Aaron Jones, forcing a fumble the Buccaneers recovered. Green Bay converted only one third down the rest of the way. Going 5-for-5 on those first couple of drives was just enough to win the game.
The offense wasn’t quite as quick on those later third-down attempts, leading to more pass-rushing success for the Bucs. They tackled better than they had on the first five attempts in open space. Rodgers was intercepted on one pass and sacked on another dropback, while an unblocked Joe Tryon-Shoyinka blew up a third-and-2 run by AJ Dillon. These weren’t even third-and-long dropbacks; the Bucs simply were stifling and uncompromising in shutting down Green Bay’s drives.
Unfortunately for the Bucs, they looked for most of the game like that Packers offense from the final 10 drives. They went just 2-for-11 on third down, with the resulting 18.2% conversion rate their second-worst performance on third downs since Brady joined the organization in 2020. Their average play came with 9.3 yards to go for a conversion, the third-longest conversion rate of the Brady-in-Tampa era. The Bucs lost both of the games with longer average conversions, to the Bears in 2020 and the Saints a year ago.
Brady was stuck in third-and-long for most of the day because the Bucs couldn’t run the ball. Leonard Fournette’s 12 carries gained 35 yards. His longest run went for 6 yards. This came against a Packers team that just allowed the Bears to run for 180 yards on 27 carries. Admittedly, the threat of Chicago quarterback Justin Fields as a runner is far different from the less mobile Brady, but the Bears don’t have an excellent line and still managed to run the ball effectively against Green Bay in Week 2.
What’s concerning is these aren’t one-week problems. The Packers did a great job on defense Sunday, but the Bucs rank 27th in third-down conversion rate on offense through three games. They’ve made just five trips to the red zone, which ranks last among the 30 teams that have played three games. The only team with fewer red zone touchdowns is the Broncos.
The running game, likewise, has been bottom of the barrel. The Bucs have generated minus-0.3 EPA per rush attempt this season, which ranks last. Their 33.8% success rate on rush attempts is 29th. Fournette & Co. rank 29th in yards per carry and have been stuffed for no gain or a loss on 28.6% of their attempts, which also ranks 29th.
Perhaps unsurprisingly, the NFL’s Next Gen Stats model pins this more on the offensive line than it does on Fournette. It projects an average back behind the same blocking would have gained only 4 more yards than Tampa’s runners have across 70 tracked carries so far. Based on the blocking and defensive placement alone, the average Bucs run is expected to gain only 3.7 yards per carry, the third-worst mark in the league and ahead of only the 49ers and Ravens.
That line, of course, has been decimated by injuries. The only player from Brady’s 2020-21 run who lined up in his original spot for the Packers game is right tackle Tristan Wirfs. Injuries and departures have them starting Patriots import Shaq Mason and inexperienced players Brandon Walton, Luke Goedeke and Robert Hainsey. Walton, an undrafted free agent out of Florida Atlantic, made his NFL debut last week after backup left tackle Josh Wells went down injured. This week, he made his first start while protecting the blind side of the greatest player in league history.
If the Bucs can’t run the ball and can’t convert third downs, they’re limited to picking up big plays through the air. That strategy might work great when they have a full complement of receivers, but again, the Buccaneers are simply down to bare bones there. Mike Evans was suspended after his brawl with the Saints, while Chris Godwin and Julio Jones were both out injured. Russell Gage and Breshad Perriman played through injuries, while the Buccaneers activated Kyle Rudolph and signed Cole Beasley, who came in off the street to run choice routes for six snaps.
As a result, the Bucs were stuck living in quick game. Brady was 24-of-31 for 160 yards on plays in which he held the ball for 2.5 seconds or less, which was good for an 83.3 QBR but generated only 5.2 yards per attempt. He attempted just three deep passes, going 1-of-3 for 24 yards, with the completion to Perriman. Facing a stout Packers pass rush, it seemed clear the Bucs (or Brady himself) didn’t trust the pass blocking to hold up. This was probably wise, but it didn’t help their chances in Week 3.
All of this inexperience cost the Bucs on the final drive of the game. They nearly took a delay of game on their final series, only for Brady to hit Gage for a 1-yard touchdown. On the ensuing 2-point try, there was no escape. With no timeouts, they struggled to line up correctly. Brady changed the play with three seconds on the play clock, but the snap didn’t come on time; while it looked like Fournette would have waltzed into the end zone on the handoff he took, the play was whistled dead. Forced to throw the ball from the 7-yard line, Brady’s final pass of the game was knocked away by De’Vondre Campbell to curtail Tampa’s comeback.
Let’s get this out of the way before he gets mad: There’s no issue here with Brady, who physically looks fine. His touchdown pass to Perriman against the Saints was a thing of beauty, a 51.2-yard throw dropped into a bucket from outside the left hash to the opposite corner of the end zone. There are no issues that would lead me to believe Brady is the problem with this offense.
Tom Brady’s pass attempt for the two-point conversion is broken up in the end zone as the Packers hang on to win 14-12.
This looks a lot more like the 2019 version of Brady than the one who excelled in 2020 and 2021, though, and that’s because the players around him are a lot more like the guys who were lining up during his final season in New England. His playmakers during the second half of that run were either playing through injuries (Julian Edelman, Mohamed Sanu) or at the very beginning (Jakobi Meyers, N’Keal Harry) or end (Benjamin Watson) of their careers. His line was much better than the one Tampa has rolled out so far this season, but Brady has at least been able to enjoy Evans for most of the first two games of the season.
Unless Brady can somehow coax Rob Gronkowski out of retirement in time for Week 4, he’s going to be faced with many of the same problems. Evans will return, which should help the receiving attack immensely, but his offensive line is in shambles. With Ali Marpet retired, Alex Cappa in Cincinnati, Wells on injured reserve and both Ryan Jensen and Aaron Stinnie expected to miss the entire season, the only lineman the Bucs can count on getting back soon is left tackle Donovan Smith.
The good news for the Buccaneers, at least in the short term, is that it might not matter. The NFC South doesn’t appear to be a competitive division. The Falcons and Panthers got their first wins this week, but the Saints looked hopeless on offense for stretches against Carolina. They’re a frantic comeback against the Falcons away from starting 0-3. Every other team in the division is 1-2, and the Buccaneers already have a divisional win. After the Chiefs game next Sunday, they get three straight against the Falcons, Steelers and Panthers, so they should be able to right the ship.
For a team with Super Bowl aspirations, though, winning the division isn’t enough. The dramatic advantage given to the top seed in this 14-team playoff structure as the only team to get a bye makes finishing with the league’s best record even more important than it was during Brady’s Patriots days. Slipping up against the Packers won’t sink Tampa Bay, but it could cost it a tiebreaker against another one of those teams everyone expects to be in the running come January.
I’m sure the Bucs want to bank as many wins as possible right now, but until they get some of their missing offensive personnel back on the field, this is a team relying on its defense to win games.