It’s tough to completely buy or sell an NFL team based on its product in Week 1. There are still 17 weeks to go in the regular season, after all. But after watching the Green Bay Packers and Tennessee Titans — both playoff teams from last season — lay an egg on opening weekend, I had to take a closer look.
Behind an MVP season from Aaron Rodgers in 2020, the Packers were the league’s top-ranked team in scoring and red-zone offense, while a Titans offense that featured a historic 2,000-yard rushing performance from Derrick Henry ranked fourth in scoring and second in red-zone offense. These two units looked nothing of the sort on Sunday, when the Packers fell to the New Orleans Saints 38-3 and the Titans lost 38-13 to the Arizona Cardinals.
To kick off this season’s weekly Offensive Player Rankings, let’s get into the nuts and bolts of it and examine whether the Packers and Titans’ offensive issues are ominous or simply a fluke.
- The First Read, Week 2: What Browns can learn from loss to Chiefs; plus, stock up/down, more
- NFL Power Rankings, Week 2: Steelers, Saints soar; Packers, Titans plummet
- 2021 NFL season, Week 1: What we learned from Sunday's games
- How the Deshaun Watson situation is playing out at Houston Texans practices
I expected a lot more in Week 1 from a team that’s coming off back-to-back NFC Championship Game appearances and 13-3 records. On Sunday, we witnessed a team that looked incredibly out of sync. The Packers had just 229 yards of total offense, they committed three turnovers and converted only one of their 10 third-down tries. Rodgers registered zero touchdowns, two picks and a 36.8 passer rating (the fourth-lowest of his career) before backup Jordan Love entered the game with 11 minutes to play. The 35-point margin of defeat is Rodgers’ largest ever as a starter.
Maybe we set the bar too high for Green Bay, but I don’t think that’s the case. What feels closer to the truth, rather, is that heading into Week 1, many of us overlooked the one thing that was discussed more than any other during the offseason: Rodgers’ absence from the team. It’s easy to get caught up in the mystique of Rodgers, an all-time great. The fact is, he’s just like any other player who needs to put in the time, and the lack of time Rodgers spent with his team until training camp showed up in a big way on Sunday.
Now, the Saints’ defense deserves credit for executing a great game plan. New Orleans tested (and bested) the Packers’ offense by playing tight man coverage, challenging Rodgers to make precise throws on time. That’s usually not an issue for Rodgers, but he struggled to connect with his pass catchers all day, often throwing behind them. The red-zone interception (Rodgers’ first since 2019) when trailing 17-3 in the third quarter comes to mind. Facing pressure on second-and-7 from the Saints’ 9-yard line, Rodgers threw behind Davante Adams on a crosser, and rookie corner Paulson Adebo made him pay for the mistake.
Said Rodgers after the game: “It’s just one game. We played bad. I played bad. Offensively, we didn’t execute very well. One game. We’ve got 16 to go.”
Sure, it’s one game, and I realize Green Bay’s offensive line is not operating at full strength. However, there are hundreds of missed offseason reps that Rodgers can’t make up for now, which is why I believe much of the blame falls on the QB. I don’t think this lackluster performance will be a fluke. The Packers are talented enough and play in a weak enough division to string together 10 wins, but the lack of chemistry and lingering drama that surrounds the veteran passer is likely to leave Green Bay on the losing side against the league’s top teams.
While the quarterback is my main concern in Green Bay, there are several issues that give me pause in Tennessee. First, let’s look at two key offseason losses in former offensive coordinator Arthur Smith and tight end Jonnu Smith.
Arthur Smith, now head coach of the Falcons, elevated the Titans’ offense in every way, routinely getting the most out of quarterback Ryan Tannehill. In Smith’s first year as Titans OC in 2019, Tannehill led the league in passing yards per attempt (9.6) and passer rating (117.5), before posting another 100-plus rating and a career-high 33 passing TDs in 2020. Tannehill never finished a season with a passer rating higher than 93.5 during six years in Miami. As for Jonnu Smith (now with the Patriots), he was an essential part of the Titans’ success in the run game and play-action last season. His absence was certainly felt on Sunday, as the Titans accumulated a measly 86 rushing yards and used play-action on just 7.3 percent of dropbacks against the Cardinals, per Next Gen Stats, after utilizing it on an NFL-high 34.4 percent of dropbacks in 2020.
There are some concerns about first-year coordinator Todd Downing’s system and the entire unit looking slow. It’s very old-school and more traditional now — Smith’s system was old-school but had more creative flare in the passing game with play-action — with a bruising running back and a one-two punch at wide receiver in A.J. Brown and Julio Jones. You’d expect defenses to load the box against Derrick Henry and leave either Brown or Jones in a one-on-one situation downfield, which feels like an extremely promising situation for the Titans. This is the approach the Cardinals took Sunday, but their defensive front absolutely wrecked Tennessee’s O-line. They won at the line of scrimmage and completely took away Henry, who had 58 yards on 17 carries. In the passing game, they pressured Tannehill on 41.5 percent of dropbacks, with Chandler Jones torching Taylor Lewan all game long, racking up five sacks and two forced fumbles by game’s end. And when Titans receivers were in favorable matchups, they didn’t often win them. Julio Jones showed us what the Falcons most likely already knew before trading him this offseason — he’s lost a step in his 11th season.
The issues along the offensive line, an aging Julio and a system that looked stale leads me to think these offensive woes could linger deep into the season.
Top 15 Offensive Players
Each week of the 2021 NFL season, former No. 1 overall pick and NFL Network analyst David Carr will take a look at all offensive players and rank his top 15. For the first quarter of the season, the rankings are based on a combination of:
1) Player accomplishments from the 2020 season.
2) Weekly performances, factoring in strength of opponent.
Rankings will be solely judged on this season’s efforts following Week 4. Heading into Week 2, here is Carr’s list:
There were no signs of a Super Bowl hangover for the Chiefs and their superstar quarterback, who was last seen running for his life in Super Bowl LV. On Sunday, down by 12 at halftime against the Browns, Mahomes did what he does best: keep his cool and find his dynamic pass-catching duo of Tyreek Hill and Travis Kelce for three second-half touchdowns. After leading the Chiefs to a close victory over the Browns, Mahomes remained undefeated in September as he improved to 11-0 as a starter.
Back in June, Wilson gave The News Tribune some insight about new offensive coordinator Shane Waldron’s system: “It’s super complex. We are going to be able to move people around. We are going to do everything that we want to.” I saw just that in Week 1. Wilson finally has an offensive system worthy of his ability. We can slot Russ at the center of the MVP conversation, based on what I saw against the Colts.
Another day, another huge performance for Hill. His 11-catch, 197-yard effort against the Browns was highlighted by a 75-yard touchdown heave from Mahomes in the fourth quarter. The Cheetah is the ultimate scoring threat from anywhere on the field against even the league’s best defenders.
Honestly, was there even the slightest doubt that Brady and the Bucs would rally with 1:24 left on the clock? If you answered “yes,” you’re kidding yourself! This guy is the greatest of all time. He wasn’t perfect against the Cowboys (32-of-50, four TDs, two INTs, 97.0 passer rating), but the 44-year-old seven-time Super Bowl champion reminded everyone with that last drive, which set up a game-winning, 36-yard field goal by Ryan Succop, why his team is still the best in the league.
McCaffrey is back to being the guy we saw in 2019 — his last fully healthy season — as he recorded 187 scrimmage yards on 30 touches against the Jets. The Panthers have a new quarterback and members in the supporting cast, but they’ll follow a winning formula by going through the same star running back.
With a pair of touchdowns in Arizona’s season-opening romp of the Titans, Hopkins continues to be one of the best wide receivers in the NFL. His body control is off the charts, and he wants the ball, which might be his best qualities. Hopkins shows no signs of slowing down in Year 9.
Rodgers had one of the worst games of his career, but considering he was the league MVP a year ago, he keeps his place in the top 10.
Green Bay’s poor Week 1 performance wasn’t Adams’ fault. Finishing with five catches for 56 yards in the loss, Adams is still one of the league’s best at the position. Luckily, he’ll have an extra game this fall to catch last year’s touchdown mark (18), but he shouldn’t wait too long to get started.
Coming off his best career campaign in 2020, Allen forced the issue too much against a Steelers defense that was every bit the top-five unit it was last year. Instead of trying to cement MVP status in Week 1, Allen should’ve taken what was given to him.
Kamara’s workload will look different this season, as he’ll get a majority of the carries out of the backfield. He had 20 carries in Sunday’s win after averaging no more than 13 carries per game in a season for his career. And though his use in the passing game might decrease, he was still effective, with a TD on four targets.
Kelce is as good as he’s ever been, evidenced by his two second-half touchdown catches against the Browns. The veteran tight end gives the Chiefs’ offense a much-needed element of consistency, because as good as Mahomes and Hill are, they can be somewhat loose cannons, due to their explosive play-making abilities. Kelce reins the unpredictability in a bit.
The Cardinals stopped Henry in his tracks — something football fans forgot was possible after watching him string together a 2,000-yard rushing season in 2020. Hopefully, the Titans quickly right their wrongs and get the two-time rushing champion back to his dominant ways.
Jon Gruden said everything we need to know about Waller following Monday’s overtime win: “We threw it 60 times. If you throw 60 times, you’d probably target him 29. He’s the best player I’ve ever coached, so I’m going to continue to look for him.” Waller was targeted a career-high 19 times vs. the Ravens, hauling in 10 of those targets for 105 yards and a TD.
The 2020 receiving yards leader was relatively quiet in the Bills’ Week 1 loss, due to a pesky Steelers defense that pressured Josh Allen all game long. Still, Diggs finished with nine catches for 69 yards (both game highs).
Jon Gruden felt like he “died and woke up and died again” during the course of the Raiders’ roller coaster win over the Ravens. I felt the same way watching my brother, Derek, battle until the very end. After lofting a 31-year game-winning TD pass to Zay Jones, Derek is now 4-1 in overtime games in his career. There’s something special brewing in Las Vegas.
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