It takes only one week to shake the optimism fans might have held about their NFL teams heading into the 2021 season. The Bills, Packers and Titans all came into the campaign with hopes of riding their dominant offenses to Super Bowl LVI. As three of the league’s top four scoring offenses a season ago, they combined to average nearly 94 points per week in 2020. Those three teams scored a combined 32 points across their Week 1 losses. This wasn’t supposed to be in the cards.
What happened in Week 1 is in the books. Every team deals with blips, and if those three offenses just had a bad day, nobody will remember it a couple of weeks from now. If it wasn’t just a bad day, though, our preseason expectations for these former playoff teams might have to change.
Let’s look into what happened to these three teams in their first games of the season to get a sense of whether there should be any worries after their rough start. It’s way too early to fundamentally change your expectations about what they can do in 2021, but it’s not too early to have things to look out for as possible concerns in the weeks to come. I’ll begin with the team I’m most concerned about and work my way down to the one that seemed least worrisome:
Jump to a team:
Bills | Packers | Titans
Week 1 result: Lost 38-13 to Arizona Cardinals
This was supposed to be a celebration! In their home opener, the Titans were welcoming back franchise left tackle Taylor Lewan after he missed most of 2020 with a torn right ACL. Even more excitingly, the Titans finally got to show off offseason addition Julio Jones, who was playing without a Falcons jersey for the first time since 2010. Facing a Cardinals team with one of the league’s least imposing cornerback depth charts, just about everyone expected to see a shootout in Nashville.
Well, the Cardinals held up their end of the bargain. The Titans were a disaster on offense, and their big names were partly to blame. Lewan was unable to keep Chandler Jones from racking up a few of his five sacks. Lewan was booed upon returning to the field in the second half, and he tweeted, “I let the team and the fans down,” after the game ended. Jones finished with 29 receiving yards on six targets; his most notable contribution was an unnecessary roughness penalty that turned a third-and-1 into a third-and-16. Tennessee’s only first down in the opening quarter came on a fake punt.
My biggest concern, though, might be the third key debutant for this offense: new coordinator Todd Downing, who spent the past two seasons as Tennessee’s tight ends coach and was promoted to the job after Arthur Smith left for Atlanta. Downing previously served for one year as the Raiders’ offensive coordinator in a 2017 season that was disappointing for everybody involved. Notably, he avoided play-action during his run as the Raiders’ playcaller. The league as a whole ran play-action on 20.8% of its dropbacks in 2017. Downing’s Raiders used play-action just 7.8% of the time, which was the lowest rate in the league that season.
As you might know, the Titans turned around their passing attack and coaxed career-best numbers out of Ryan Tannehill by heading in the opposite direction. Over the past two seasons with Smith as their offensive coordinator, they used play-action on 32.8% of their dropbacks, the highest rate in football. Tannehill thrived with play fakes, leading the league in yards per attempt (11.0) and QBR (84.6) off play-action between 2019 and 2020. He was 11th in the league in both categories without a play fake attached.
You can probably guess where this is going! In Week 1, Tannehill dropped back 43 times. Just five of those 43 attempts included any sort of play-action, good for a rate of 11.6%. Owing in part to the play-action rate and perhaps more to the fact that he was wearing Chandler Jones on his back for most of the day, Tannehill posted a 19.1 QBR in the loss to Arizona, the third-worst QBR of the week.
Now, traditionalists could point out that the Titans might not have gone to play-action because their running game was an issue. It’s true that Derrick Henry wasn’t his usual self, as the bruising back turned his 17 carries into just 58 rushing yards and two first downs. Studies have shown, though, that teams don’t need to establish the run or succeed in running the football to get play-action working.
Even if it were true, the Titans “established” that Henry is a devastating threat with the ball in his hands two years ago. No linebacker is going to ignore his run key because Henry wasn’t averaging 6.0 yards per carry. Take last season, when the Bills held Henry to 57 yards on 19 rush attempts. Tannehill still went 7-of-10 passing for 75 yards with a touchdown off play-action in a blowout Tennessee victory.
A more reasonable argument might involve Chandler Jones. If the Titans weren’t able to protect Tannehill, it would make sense to keep him out of play-action and the five- and seven-step drops needed to give receivers a chance to work downfield. If I were Tannehill, I would have wanted to work a quick game and get the ball out of my hands before I helped Jones make history too.
Of course, there’s a solution there, as well: max protect! The Titans don’t have to block Jones and J.J. Watt with five linemen. If anything, max protecting off play-action would have focused the passing game on the mismatch of Jones and A.J. Brown against Byron Murphy, Robert Alford and Marco Wilson. The Titans protected with seven or more blockers all of three times. One produced an incomplete pass that was tipped at the line, but the other two included a 10-yard completion and a 39-yard catch by Chester Rogers on a flea-flicker play for which a slightly better Tannehill pass would have produced a long touchdown.
The scarier part about all of this is that it came on a day in which Tennessee had all of its stars together! My big concern for a top-heavy team like this is dealing with injuries. If the offense struggled this much with Lewan, Henry and Julio Jones all available and active, what happens if one or two of the key contributors go down? The answer could be something similar to the 2020 Cowboys, whose title ambitions were quickly sank by a porous secondary and injuries to the offense.
Football is not as simple as spamming concepts that have a track record of quantitative success, such as play-action and heavy doses of motion. Everything has to work in the context of a playbook. At the same time, though, Downing’s track record heading into the season with one of the key tenets of the Smith offense was worrisome. Now, after an ugly loss, it’s even more concerning.
Week 1 result: Lost 23-16 to Pittsburgh Steelers
Unlike the Titans, there’s no smoking gun to point to with Buffalo’s disappointing performance. The Bills were more effective on offense and faced a much tougher defense in the Steelers, who were excellent throughout their comeback victory. The comforting thing for the Bills is that they won’t have to face the Steelers again before a possible rematch in the postseason. The only place Buffalo fans will be seeing T.J. Watt over the next few months is in their nightmares.
Watt and the rest of Pittsburgh’s pass rush had an excellent day. Crucially, the Steelers changed their game plan from last year’s loss in Buffalo and had more success doing so. In 2020, the Steelers used their blitz to pressure Josh Allen, sending an extra rusher more than 54% of the time. The pressure showed up, with Allen ending up under duress nearly 43% of the time, but the Bills did enough downfield as the game went on to overcome the pressure.
This time around, the Steelers blitzed Allen once across 55 dropbacks. As you might suspect, this is the lowest blitz rate they have posted in a single game since Mike Tomlin took over as coach in 2007. Despite keeping defenders at home, Pittsburgh was still able to get pressure on Allen nearly 31% of the time, a remarkable rate for a team that wasn’t sending extra rushers. This was just the sixth game since 2009 in which a team blitzed no more than 3% of the time and still managed to hit a 30% pressure rate.
Its pass-rushers made that happen. Watt and Cameron Heyward were arguably the two best players on the field. I’d also suggest that Buffalo’s linemen would think they should have had a better day. Both tackles struggled, with right tackle Daryl Williams having a particularly painful day against Watt. The Steelers moved Watt around the formation for a few snaps, but he typically took advantage of the right side. Watt forced a fumble on an Allen scramble and added a sack, as he spent most of the day in the Buffalo backfield. His Week 1 performance should be the NFL Players Association’s primary argument whenever the league suggests that players need training camp and the preseason to prepare for real football.
The Steelers also changed how they used one of their other young stars. Minkah Fitzpatrick was typically a slot corner with the Dolphins; but after Pittsburgh traded a 2020 first-round pick to Miami to acquire him in 2019, the Steelers moved him to free safety, where he has excelled. Fitzpatrick lined up deep against the Bills for most of his snaps in 2020, but look how that changed in his pass snaps from Sunday’s contest, via graphics from the NFL’s Next Gen Stats:
Minkah Fitzpatrick’s pre-snap location on pass plays against the Bills in the 2020 loss (left) and the Week 1 victory in 2021 (right) pic.twitter.com/YrCON0DJKm
— Bill Barnwell (@billbarnwell) September 15, 2021
Fitzpatrick moved all around the field to try to confuse Allen, who often saw different pre- and post-snap looks. From the Bills’ perspective, their solution to these changes was to try to spread Pittsburgh out with receivers. Buffalo used four or more wide receivers more than 44% of the time. It worked out of an empty backfield 22 times — eight times more than any other team in Week 1 — but that didn’t solve things. The league as a whole averaged 7.2 yards per attempt out of empty in Week 1, but Allen was 11-of-19 passing for 86 yards, an average of just 5.1 yards per attempt.
If you’re looking for some grand statement about how this game proved Allen is about to fall back into the player he was in 2019, it’s not coming here. He wasn’t the problem for the Bills on Sunday. He had some early issues with ball location that might have cost the team a completion or two and/or some yards after catch, but every quarterback is going to do that over the course of a 51-attempt game against a great defense. Allen’s touchdown pass to Gabriel Davis was a perfectly thrown ball. If anything, the Bills were relying on Allen too much; through designed runs, read concepts and run-pass options, he had eight carries between the tackles on Sunday. This was a close game against a conference rival, but it’s also a long season for a player the franchise just gave $258 million.
Instead, the Bills just weren’t able to sustain drives the same way they did a year ago. They were the league’s best offense on third and fourth down then, converting 49.7% of their third-down attempts and going 8-for-10 on fourth down. They were 8-of-19 (42.1%) on third down on Sunday, but five of those eight conversions came on just two of their possessions. Last season, the Bills were the eighth-best team in generating expected points per play on third down; they were 19th in the same category on Sunday.
Fourth down was a bigger problem. Buffalo came up short on two of its three fourth-down tries, meaning it has now failed as many times on fourth down in 2021 as it did in 2020. The backward pass to Matt Breida for one of those failures is not fit for viewing on a Disney website. Bills coach Sean McDermott also elected to punt on fourth-and-short twice in Steelers territory during the first half, while a third drive on the edge of field goal range failed when Allen was strip-sacked. I would imagine McDermott might be more amenable to going for it in those situations against a less imposing defense, and I suspect the Bills would have more success with their tries.
So, did the Steelers reveal a blueprint for shutting down one of 2020’s most explosive offenses? If you have Watt and Heyward, the answer is yes. Otherwise, I don’t think there’s some new solution here. Every team that watched Super Bowl LV saw the Bucs shut down the Chiefs with their front four, but even a Browns team with Myles Garrett and Jadeveon Clowney didn’t have enough for a similar showing on Sunday. There are little things requiring attention here and there for the Bills, but their biggest problem in Week 1 was facing a dominant defense.
Week 1 result: Lost 38-3 to New Orleans Saints
The most shocking result of the week was the Packers getting blown out by Jameis Winston and the Saints in Jacksonville by 35 points. I’ll leave aside the possibility of an Aaron Rodgers Florida curse and just mention that this was one of the worst games of Rodgers’ career. The 13.4 QBR he posted was the fifth worst of his 191 regular-season starts, and it could fall even farther as opponent adjustments change the way we view the Saints’ defense. He threw two interceptions after throwing five in all of last season.
I’m not too concerned about Rodgers’ subpar game, because we don’t have to go back very far to find a similar performance. The worst start of his career came just about 11 months ago, when he posted a 9.5 QBR in a loss to the Buccaneers. After going up 10-0, Rodgers threw a pick-six to Jamel Dean and then another interception on the subsequent drive. The Bucs, coming off a game in which they lost to the Bears as Tom Brady ran out of downs, ran off 38 consecutive points to rout the Packers. Of course, Rodgers was so flummoxed by the bad game that he went on to win league MVP.
Matthew Berry expects Aaron Rodgers will put up big numbers vs. the Lions.
I don’t see anything concerning in how Rodgers played Sunday. One interception came on mesh, a concept the Packers run every single week, where he was hit as he threw and didn’t get anything on a short-armed pass attempt. The other was an arm punt on third down in which he chucked the ball 52 yards in the air. Neither throw was the one he wanted to make, but it wasn’t as if he couldn’t complete passes or get the ball where he wanted at other times. It wasn’t his most accurate game, as 33.3% of his passes were graded as off-target, which tied for the third-most in his career, but I would want to see a bigger sample before I had meaningful concerns about his accuracy.
The offensive line is something to worry about given that left tackle David Bakhtiari is on injured reserve, but it wasn’t as if Rodgers was bothered regularly Sunday. The Saints pressured him on 13.3% of his dropbacks, which was one of the lowest rates of Week 1. The future Hall of Famer was sacked once and knocked down four times on 30 dropbacks, so he wasn’t getting bounced around in the pocket. The Saints did an excellent job of covering the Green Bay receivers, but these were the same players who had no trouble getting open a year ago, and I don’t believe they suddenly all collectively lost their ability to separate. The guys on the other side of the field were there for a reason.
The Saints’ offense also deserves credit for shutting down its counterparts. Rodgers & Co. simply weren’t on the field for most of the first half in a way that other teams will struggle to repeat. The Packers ran just 17 plays in the first half, the fewest of any team in Week 1. That would have been the second fewest for any team in any first half in 2020, and the fewest they’ve run in the first half of a Rodgers start since 2012. There were only eight drives consisting of 15 or more plays in Week 1, and the Saints had two of them in the second quarter, back-to-back.
Rodgers can’t score if he’s not on the field, but while the Packers might not have a world-class defense, I don’t have many reasons to think this will continue to be a problem. The Saints converted 50% of their third downs and went 2-for-2 on fourth down, including a fourth-and-7 conversion. A terrible roughing the passer call on Za’Darius Smith cost the defense an interception at the end of the third quarter. Green Bay finished the game with nine possessions, but backup quarterback Jordan Love came in for the final two drives of the day. Rodgers won’t have another game all season with just seven opportunities to score.
In so many ways, the formula for what drove the 2020 Packers just broke down in Week 1. The same team that turned the ball over a league-low 11 times last season had three giveaways in its season opener. The best red zone offense in modern history went scoreless on its two trips inside the 20. (The Love-led second unit was responsible for one of the giveaways and the second red zone whiff.) After converting 49.4% of their third downs a year ago, the Packers went 0-for-7 on third downs while Rodgers was in the game.
While it’s fair to expect some regression toward the mean on third down and in the red zone for these Packers, the game against the Saints warped past the mean and made the league’s most devastating offense in 2020 look like the league’s worst offense for the first week of 2021. They aren’t “due” to be terrible, and they didn’t suddenly forget how to play football. My suspicion is that they’ll look a lot different Monday night against the Lions. If they’re equally bad in Week 2 against one of the league’s worst defenses, it’ll be time to stop relaxing and start worrying.