Julian Edelman’s snaps were down. Mark Andrews’ were up. The Falcons were horrid on fourth down. Kicking was just horrid overall.
Week 1 of the 2020 NFL season is in the books, and unsurprisingly, what happened on Sunday (and even Thursday and Monday) can be a blur. Every week of the season goes by quickly and leads to information falling through the cracks, but that information is more meaningful in Week 1 for a couple of reasons. One is that we get to see what a team’s actual plans are after hearing them talk for months. The other is that there are still 20 more weeks of football to go, so getting ahead of the curve on what’s happening across the league has more value.
With that in mind, after digesting all of the action, I took a trip around the NFL to point out some interesting pieces of information that might have been buried underneath the big stories. Some of it might help your fantasy team. Others will, I hope, just make you a more informed fan. At least one of them is very silly. I found 14 nuggets, and let’s start with something that could make one of the league’s best offenses even better:
Jump to an interesting storyline:
The Falcons were putrid on fourth down
A star receiver’s role was unexpected
Could a young pass-rusher break out?
The kicking was abysmal, but don’t fret yet
A Cowboys replacement had a rough day
A rookie top-10 pick was picked on
If you watched any highlights of the weekend’s action, you probably saw the Ravens tight end’s spectacular touchdown catch to open the scoring of the early games on Sunday. Andrews was the second-most productive fantasy football tight end in 2019, racking up 852 yards and 10 touchdowns in 15 games.
The only thing holding him back from taking another step forward seemed to be his usage rate. Whether it was a tight end rotation, nagging injuries or concerns over his Type 1 diabetes, the Ravens seemed hesitant to use Andrews on a full-time basis. The 2018 third-rounder didn’t play more than 55% of the offensive snaps in any game across his first two seasons. Travis Kelce, for comparison, played 95% of the offensive snaps for the Chiefs in 2018 and 92% last season.
In Week 1, though, Baltimore finally unleashed Andrews. He played a career-high 71% of the offensive snaps against the Browns despite the fact that the game had turned into a blowout by halftime. If we take out the fourth quarter, when Andrews mostly sat as the Ravens held a huge lead, the 25-year-old set a career high for snaps (36) and tied the second-most routes (21) he has run as a pro. If Andrews is going to play this frequently, it dramatically raises his ceiling and allows him to compete with Kelce and George Kittle as the NFL’s most productive tight end.
The Vikings got away from play-action
Kirk Cousins had what was arguably the best season of his career in 2019, buoyed by a massive dose of play-action. More than 30% — 31.3%, to be exact — of Cousins’ pass attempts came off play-action, which was the fourth-highest rate in the league. The Minnesota quarterback was a different passer with a play fake attached, as he averaged 9.6 yards per attempt and posted a passer rating of 130.1 after play-action. Without it, he fell back to earth, averaging 7.5 yards per attempt while delivering a passer rating of 97.0.
Analytics-friendly offensive coordinator Kevin Stefanski left to become Browns coach over the offseason, leaving the playcalling job to longtime coach Gary Kubiak. Kubiak’s offenses in multiple stops have always been built around heavy doses of outside zone and play-action stemming from that core run concept, so I didn’t expect to see many schematic changes to the Minnesota offense in 2020.
Well, in Week 1 against the Packers, Cousins threw 25 passes. Just one of those passes — a 37-yard touchdown to Adam Thielen in the fourth quarter — incorporated play-action, which is a 4% play-action rate.
Now, it’s fair to note that the Vikings trailed for most of this game, and 20 of Cousins’ 25 pass attempts came in the second half. Last season, they mostly abandoned the play-action game once they got down by a significant margin; Cousins threw just four play-action passes while his team was down 10 or more points in the second half out of 68 total passes. You would figure that play-action passing would lose its effectiveness once there was little reason to run, but it doesn’t; quarterbacks in those situations in 2019 posted a passer rating of 97.2 with play-action and just 82.4 without.
We’ll get a better sense of Kubiak’s plans in Week 2, given that the Vikings are likely to throw the ball more than five times in the first half in their game against the Colts. If Cousins’ play-action rate was a one-season spike, though, expect his overall numbers to fall accordingly. And if you want another coach to pick on, just two of Jets quarterback Sam Darnold‘s 35 pass attempts in the Week 1 loss to the Bills incorporated play-action.
One player who didn’t get as much playing time in Week 1 as I might have expected was the veteran Patriots wide receiver. Virtually an every-down player when healthy going back through 2013, Edelman’s role as a primary weapon for the Pats seemed to be solidified when Bill Belichick cut Mohamed Sanu at the end of training camp.
Instead, on Sunday, Edelman played just 58% of the offensive snaps during New England’s 21-11 win over Miami. The 34-year-old was on the field when the Patriots lined up in 11 personnel alongside fellow wideouts Damiere Byrd and N’Keal Harry, but when they went with two wide receivers, Edelman was the one who typically gave way. They played 27 snaps with two wideouts on the field, but while Byrd took 25 snaps and Harry 24, Edelman took just five. From 2017 to ’19, Edelman was on the field about 41% of the time in two-wideout sets, not accounting for injuries.
He’s known best for his work as a slot receiver, but he did take about 38% of his snaps and 31% of his targets as an outside receiver a year ago, per NFL Next Gen Stats. Even given that Edelman can play outside, you can understand why the Pats might prefer Harry and Byrd given Harry’s size (6-foot-4) and range as a blocker and Byrd’s speed (4.28 40-yard dash at his pro day in 2015). Byrd wasn’t targeted on Sunday, but you would figure that Josh McDaniels & Co. will use the former Panthers wideout as a threat to occupy opposing safeties who might creep into the box to stop the running game. His speed also makes him a threat coming across the formation in motion before the snap.
If you have Edelman on your fantasy team, is this an argument to move on from the veteran wideout? I’m not sure. The Pats still worked out of their 11 personnel more frequently than any other grouping, which allowed him to lead the team in targets with seven. He caught five passes for 57 yards and dropped another would-be deep completion for 20 more yards. While the Patriots didn’t throw the ball much in Week 1, Edelman also had a higher share of his team’s air yards than anybody else in the league (60%). Edelman can still be valuable playing 55% of the offensive snaps, but it reduces both his ceiling and his margin for error. It’s something to monitor over the weeks to come.
If you want to see how much losing one player can impact things, consider what happened to the Cowboys in the loss to the Rams on Sunday night. With an offense rightfully regarded as one of the scariest in football on paper, they lost a starter for the year when tight end Blake Jarwin went down with a torn ACL. The job then turned to 2018 fourth-rounder Schultz, who played just 10% of the offensive snaps as Dallas’ third tight end a year ago. It didn’t go well.
It would be too aggressive to say that the backup tight end cost the Cowboys the game, but he badly hurt their chances. When they drove into the red zone trailing 20-17 early in the fourth quarter, they faced a second-and-6 from the Rams’ 14-yard line. Schultz ran a crossing route and settled against zone coverage, but Dak Prescott‘s pass bounced through his hands. It was a tough catch with the ball traveling away from his body, but it’s one he would expect to bring in.
What happened two plays later was more meaningful. If you’re wondering why CeeDee Lamb‘s route was short of the sticks on fourth-and-3, well, here’s why. The Cowboys ran what’s known as mesh, an Air Raid concept built around two crossing routes and a wheel route coming out of the backfield. The goal in running the two crossing routes is to get the receivers close enough to pick off man-to-man defenders; coaches literally teach their receivers to get close enough that they can high-five as they pass by each other.
The job of the deeper crossing route on mesh is to set the depth of the shorter route working underneath it. In a fourth-and-short situation like this, they wanted both crossing routes to be past the sticks so that their receivers could each run their routes and catch the ball at or past the first-down marker. Schultz, running the deeper crossing route, needed to run his route one yard past the sticks to leave Lamb enough space to run his crossing route at the sticks. Instead, as you can see from the NFL Next Gen Stats play animation below, Schultz ran his crossing route three yards deep, forcing Lamb to run his route two yards downfield, one yard short of the sticks:
Schultz finished up by dropping another pass on the game’s final drive. For all of those superstars the Cowboys have on offense, one injury played a key role in causing them to fall short against the Rams. Schultz will need to step up in his new role as the team’s starting tight end.
The Giants stood still
Another surprise from the Minnesota offense is how static the Vikings were before the snap. As ESPN sports analytics writer Seth Walder noted, the Vikings didn’t have a single instance of a player running in motion at the time of their snaps in Week 1, the only team in football without one.
If we expand the horizon to look at any sort of pre-snap motion, the isolated team is somebody different. Every offense in the league used some sort of motion between lining up at the line of scrimmage and snapping the ball at least 22.6% of the time … besides the Giants, who moved only 9.4% of the time before the snap in their first game under coach Joe Judge and offensive coordinator Jason Garrett. (The Jets, again, were second at 22.6%.)
Walder’s research found that offenses that use more motion at the snap are more successful than those that stay static. Those results actually weren’t better on a play-by-play basis in Week 1, but you might also note that the 12 teams that used motion most frequently during the debut weekend also won their games.
Motion for the sake of motion doesn’t mean anything, but offenses can gain edges by incorporating pre-snap motion into their schemes. The Ravens, who used motion more than any other team last season, used late motion before the snap to help create numbers advantages in the running game. Passing attacks can use it to identify coverages and to force teams into defensive checks they can then exploit. We’ll see what happens in the weeks to come for the Giants, but given what we saw against the Steelers on Monday night, they could use all the help Garrett and Judge can muster.
Holding disappeared, and TDs set a record
With the public expecting sloppy football after a preseason-less summer, the NFL seemingly responded by instructing officials to ignore a penalty fans love to hate. As ESPN reporter Kevin Seifert noted, officials flagged players for holding just 18 times in Week 1, which is down 78% from the opening week a year ago and the lowest number we’ve seen going back through 2001, which is as far as ESPN Stats & Information’s holding data extends. In all, this was the second-least penalized weekend since 2001.
Are there other factors that could explain at least some of the drop-off in calls? Maybe. Quarterbacks didn’t hold on to the ball quite as long in Week 1, as their average pass traveled just 7.39 yards in the air, with the ball coming out after an average of 2.65 seconds. Last season, the average pass traveled 7.96 yards and came 2.77 seconds after the snap. Those might not seem like big differences, but they can add up over the course of a game. With that being said, that alone isn’t enough to explain the massive decline in holding calls.
As you might expect when you take out a crucial penalty that hurts only the offense, scoring was up in Week 1. Teams scored a record 87 touchdowns in Week 1. While they racked up 85 touchdowns even amid the holding calls this time last season, a reduced rate of holding calls should help scoring until the league decides to reenforce its usual rules.
With the smarter teams in the league realizing that holding was called at a reduced rate in Week 1 around the league, it wouldn’t shock me if scoring went up leaguewide in Week 2. Any coach who is paying attention should be encouraging his offensive linemen to be aggressive holding star pass-rushers and run-stuffers until the league cracks down. It’s possible that the NFL does that after one week, but unless the league was giving teams a one-week respite, there is going to be an opportunity for offenses to take advantage of the relaxed rules this weekend.
The fake punt wasn’t the problem for the Browns
Just about everything went wrong for the Browns in the loss to the Ravens. Their much-vaunted new offense under coach Kevin Stefanski looked a lot like the flawed attack from last season, combining mental mistakes with sloppy football and erratic decision-making from quarterback Baker Mayfield while scoring just six points. Even worse is that they lost rookie left tackle Jedrick Wills Jr. to a shin injury during the game; both center JC Tretter and their top three tackles (Wills, Jack Conklin and Chris Hubbard) are questionable for Thursday night’s game against the Bengals.
One thing that should have gone right, though, was the decision to call for a fake punt in the second quarter. The Browns tried their fake on fourth-and-4 from their own 31-yard line in the first quarter, and while some would argue that it was too early in the game to try a fake punt, the best time to try one is when the other team least expects it. They were significant underdogs against a dominant offense; they desperately need to create opportunities to hold on to the football.
On the play, as you can see from NFL Next Gen Stats animation below, Cleveland got the look it wanted. The problem is that it had two players to block Ravens linebacker L.J. Fort (58), and neither Andrew Sendejo (23) or D’Ernest Johnson (30) was up to the task:
To be fair, you could argue that it’s a bad idea to try to block the 230-pound Fort with the 204-pound Johnson or the 200-pound Sendejo. Johnson never really got his hands on Fort, and the linebacker simply shoved Sendejo aside. In terms of the look, though, if either player is able to engage with Fort, the Browns pick up the first down. Instead, Fort laid out punter Jamie Gillan, who fumbled and handed the ball back to the Ravens.
The Falcons couldn’t do anything on fourth down
Atlanta looked outmatched in its matchup against Seattle. Defensive coordinator Raheem Morris apologized after the game for not taking the Seahawks’ passing offense seriously enough in preparing the Falcons’ game plan. Quarterback Russell Wilson responded with one of the best — and most pass-happy — games of his career.
The Atlanta offense chipped in with a couple of late touchdowns to make the final score look more presentable, and quarterback Matt Ryan finished with a week-high 450 passing yards, but the Falcons scored just 12 points through the first three quarters of Sunday’s loss. One of the reasons? They went 0-for-4 on their fourth-down attempts. Since 2001, no team has failed more than four times in a single game on fourth-down conversion tries. It brings back memories of their 24-2 loss to the Giants in the 2011 playoffs, when Ryan & Co. went 0-for-3 on crucial fourth-down tries.
I have absolutely no issue with any of Atlanta’s decisions to go for it. None of the plays came on fourth-and-1, when it’s almost always a gimme to try to keep possession by going for it, but teams are almost always too conservative in fourth-down situations. Given the strength of its offense and how little its defense seemed to be doing to stop the Seattle offense, it made total sense to be aggressive on fourth-and-short.
The plays themselves also deserved better. On the first fourth-down attempt, Todd Gurley was wide open in the flat for a first down, only for Ryan’s pass attempt to be knocked down at the line. The next try was a fake punt on which Sharrod Neasman actually got to the first-down marker, only for Marquise Blair to force a fumble the Seahawks recovered. Ryan was sacked on the third attempt and threw the fourth attempt just ahead of an open Calvin Ridley.
After the game, offensive coordinator Dirk Koetter surprisingly said the right thing, suggesting that the numbers supported Atlanta’s decisions and that they would lead to better outcomes in the long run. (I say surprisingly because Koetter was not as open-minded about the numbers during his time as Buccaneers coach.) The Falcons were worse off for going 0-for-4, but going for it in those situations gave them their best chance of overcoming what was a dominant Seahawks offense.
I’ll be interested to see what happens in the weeks to come. They went for it a lot on fourth down in 2019, in part because they were often trailing in the second half and needed to hold on to the football to get back into games. What happens the next time they find themselves in a fourth-and-short situation when the numbers say it’s smart to go for it? Will they be as aggressive as they were on Sunday? Or, after a four-play run, will they ignore the numbers and play conservative football?
The kicking was awful
Another leaguewide trend that could be a product of the offseason is the disastrous week we saw from kickers, which was punctuated by Stephen Gostkowski‘s four missed attempts during the late game Monday night against the Broncos. Gostkowski missed an extra point, had one field goal blocked and pushed two others; in the thin air of Denver, no team had failed on three field goal attempts in one game since 1987 before the Titans did it. (Here’s where I note that we highlighted Tennessee’s kicking as its Achilles’ heel heading into the season, although that was before the Titans guaranteed Gostkowski $2.5 million.)
Overall, kickers leaguewide hit on just 71.6% of their field goal attempts in Week 1. This was the lowest success rate in the opening week of the season since at least 2001 and the 11th-worst mark for any individual week over that time frame. Nine of those seasons came in the first three years of our sample; since the start of 2005, just one week (Week 11 of the 2019 season) has failed to top a success rate of 72%.
Thinking about this one critically, I’m not sure I chalk it up to much more than randomness. Were kickers really rusty? It’s possible, but they should have gotten plenty of action during practices in camp. They didn’t get to try any attempts during the preseason with the summer spectacle canceled, but for most veterans, that amounts to somewhere between six and 10 kicks over four weeks. Could those kicks really mean all that much? Inexperienced kickers might have felt the pressure of taking their shots in meaningful games, but Gostkowski has kicked in 28 playoff games and six Super Bowls. Was he really feeling the strain of kicking under the bright lights in Week 1?
My guess is that the kicking will bounce back to form in Week 2. We’ve had early-season panics about kickers in the past, and they lasted two or three weeks before things got back to normal. Nearly 18% of the attempts in Week 1 were also greater than 50 yards away, which is on the high end and makes successful attempts less likely. If they are still struggling to hit 75% of their field goals by the time we hit October, I’ll be more concerned.
One highlight for the Falcons on Sunday was the play of their former first-round pass-rusher, who appeared to be losing backers in Atlanta after the organization decided to decline his fifth-year option this spring. Atlanta didn’t get much going on Sunday in the loss to Seattle, but it was probably McKinley’s best game as a pro. The UCLA product sacked Russell Wilson once, but he knocked down the superstar quarterback on six occasions, leading all players in Week 1. The total represents nearly half of the 13 knockdowns he racked up across 14 games last season.
Defensive linemen can occasionally get extra hits on Wilson because the star quarterback extends plays for so long and lets defensive linemen chase him down before hitting an open receiver, but that wasn’t really the case on Sunday. McKinley’s sack and three of his knockdowns came against Wilson in the pocket. (In fact, the sack was the easiest of the bunch, with Wilson seemingly on a different page from his offensive line and not realizing McKinley would come unblocked off the edge.) McKinley did have two hits on a scrambling Wilson, but one forced a throw short of the sticks on third down, giving the Falcons’ defense a rare stop in the first half.
ESPN’s pass rush win rate metric agrees with the knockdown totals, as it suggests McKinley won 31.3% of his battles against Seattle’s tackles on Sunday, the 11th-best rate in the league. The only players who won more battles are mostly stars, including Falcons teammate Grady Jarrett, Khalil Mack, Joey Bosa, Myles Garrett and Steelers edge rushers Bud Dupree and T.J. Watt. It’s just one game, but if McKinley keeps this up, he’s going to have a breakout campaign.
I haven’t seen an NFL player who was wearing less on the field than the Raiders rookie cornerback did on Sunday. Is this a common thing I haven’t noticed before?
While his teammates are wearing knee pads, pants and football socks/stockings pulled up to their knees, Arnette decidedly is not. In a quick search, it appears that he didn’t typically wear long pants or knee pads at Ohio State, although he did wear football socks some of the time. NFL players are obligated by the rulebook to wear pants, knee pads and stockings, although players typically reduce their pads to be as small and light as possible. Kickers and punters aren’t subject to the same rules, but I can’t recall a player wearing what amounted to shorts and calf-high socks the way Arnette did on Sunday.
Personally, if Arnette thinks he’ll play his best football without any of that protective gear, he should be allowed to give it a shot. In his pro debut, though, it didn’t help. The No. 19 overall pick was having a solid game until he was torched by Panthers wideout Robby Anderson on a double move for a 75-yard touchdown.
It was Myles Gaskin, who played a team-high 63% of the snaps in the Week 1 loss to New England. The Dolphins, who signed Howard to a two-year, $10 million deal this offseason, announced that he was dealing with a hamstring injury during the game before retracting the statement as a mistake, but the veteran finished with just 7 yards on eight carries. Breida, for whom the Dolphins traded a fifth-round pick to acquire from San Francisco, had just five carries for 22 yards. Gaskin took nine carries for 40 yards and handled the bulk of the receiving work, adding four catches for 26 yards.
The Dolphins insinuated afterward that they might be playing something in the way of a hot-hand approach, but their decisions might be dictated by game script. Howard isn’t much of a receiver, so if the they find themselves trailing in the second half, the carries might end up getting split between Breida and Gaskin. Breida posted gaudy yards-per-carry figures in San Francisco, but a closer look at the numbers suggests he was a home run hitter. Removed from the Kyle Shanahan scheme, every week he doesn’t hit a home run might push more of the workload Gaskin’s way.
The Bills lost both of their star linebackers
Just about everything went right for the Bills on Sunday, as 27-17 fails to tell the story of just how completely they dominated the Jets on both sides of the ball. It took a pair of fumbles from Josh Allen, two missed field goals from rookie kicker Tyler Bass and a touchdown by the Jets with 54 seconds left to make the score look presentable. New York isn’t stiff competition, but great teams blow out bad teams, and the Bills did that in Week 1.
One of the few things to worry about after the game involves the Buffalo defense. It has a pair of excellent linebackers in Tremaine Edmunds and Matt Milano, but neither player finished the game. Milano left after 21 snaps with a hamstring issue, while Edmunds exited with a shoulder injury after 36 snaps. Neither player practiced Wednesday, and their status is unclear for Sunday’s game against the Dolphins.
While the Bills were able to deal with Milano missing three games in 2018, injuries haven’t really been a problem for the defense under coach Sean McDermott. They have ranked eighth, sixth and third in defensive adjusted games lost from 2017 to 2019. They’re already down cornerback Josh Norman, who would have been in a battle with Levi Wallace for one starting job, while defensive tackle Vernon Butler missed the Jets game with a hamstring injury.
The Bills are incredibly deep up front, and they supplemented their linebackers group by replacing the retiring Lorenzo Alexander with former Panthers and Saints linebacker A.J. Klein. Klein can fill in at one spot, but backup linebacker Tyrel Dodson also left the Jets game with a neck injury and was limited in practice. Klein and Dodson are likely to be the starters on Sunday if Edmunds and Milano can’t go. It might not matter all that much against the Dolphins, but the Bills will want their star linebackers in the lineup for the Week 3 matchup against the Rams. Their roster is stocked, but they can’t afford to lose many more stars before expecting a noticeable drop-off against better offenses.
Isaiah Simmons didn’t have the most auspicious NFL debut
The Cardinals drafted Clemson hybrid defender Simmons with the No. 8 overall pick in April in the hopes of adding a versatile chess piece to their defense. His mix of size, speed, athleticism and football intelligence flummoxed opposing offenses in college, but he was the one who was overmatched in Week 1.
The Cardinals played Simmons on only 18 defensive snaps in the win over the 49ers, and when you take a closer look at his performance, you can understand why. On his very first defensive snap, he allowed a 5-yard out to George Kittle. There’s nothing wrong with that, of course, but Simmons horse-collared Kittle at the end of the play to add 15 yards on his total. On the next snap, Kittle blocked him seven yards upfield on a stretch play. Three Simmons snaps later, this happened:
49ers coach Kyle Shanahan is going right after Simmons on this play. He brings Kittle across the formation before the snap and then uses the reduced split of Dante Pettis to help set natural picks on Simmons as he chases after Raheem Mostert. Simmons thinks the route is going to go outside and begins to sell out to get there, but when Mostert reveals that he’s on what’s known as a Texas route and cuts toward the middle of the field, the rookie is toast. Mostert runs right by Chris Banjo for a 76-yard score.
Simmons would play only 13 defensive snaps between that touchdown and San Francisco’s other score, which also came at his expense. Shanahan again manufactured a concept designed to take advantage of Simmons’ inexperience by stacking receivers near the goal line. You can see it clearly from the animation from NFL Next Gen Stats:
The Cardinals defend these stacks of receivers with what’s known as banjo coverage, where each defender is given a rule to take a certain receiver depending on where and when they break out of their route. This is also the name of the Cardinals safety wearing No. 31, and Banjo taps Simmons on the shoulder as he comes over to let Simmons know that he’s going outside of him and taking the first receiver to break in that direction.
Banjo successfully defends Kittle (85), but this is really a pick play on Simmons (48), who is supposed to take Jerick McKinnon (28). As it turns out, the pick by Ross Dwelley (82) wasn’t even necessary, as Simmons just stays inside and ends up doubling the tight end with Jordan Hicks (58). McKinnon is left wide open for an easy score. The Cardinals left Simmons on the bench for the 49ers’ 12-play drive at the end of the game.
Linebacker is a tough position to play, and I don’t think this game tells us much about what kind of pro Simmons will or won’t become. It’s just a reminder of how quickly a college star like him can become a target in the NFL. Things get a little easier over the next few weeks with the Jets, Giants, Eagles and Dolphins on the schedule, but expect those teams to test Simmons when he’s on the field.