Cover 7 | [Sunday] A daily NFL destination that provides in-depth analysis of football’s biggest stories. Each Sunday, three of The Athletic’s NFL writers react to the biggest news, plays and performances from the day’s games.
The NFL’s full Week 1 slate got underway Sunday with surprising results, offenses that were slow to take flight and San Francisco 49ers quarterback Brock Purdy showing no struggles in his return from the UCL injury he suffered in January’s NFC Championship Game.
The Athletic NFL writers Tim Graham, Mike Jones and Dan Pompei weigh in with their takeaways to the day’s top storylines. (This file will be updated after the end of the late-afternoon games.)
How concerned should the Cincinnati Bengals be about their offensive struggles in a 24-3 loss to the Cleveland Browns? Are Joe Burrow and company just slow to get things going after the QB’s training camp calf strain, or is something bigger at play?
Graham: We were having a similar discussion a few weeks into last season because of the Bengals’ feeble offensive line, and they recovered brilliantly. But I think Sunday’s loss is directly related to the simple fact that Cleveland has Cincinnati’s number. Joshua Dobbs had a better day than Burrow, for goodness sake. Burrow passed for 82 measly yards and failed to complete a pass to Tee Higgins on eight targets. Browns defensive coordinator Jim Schwartz dialed up yet another scintillating game plan, with Myles Garrett and Za’Darius Smith combining to hit Burrow eight times, and now the Bengals have failed to beat their in-state rival nine of their past 11 meetings. The thing is, other opponents have failed miserably to duplicate the Browns’ success. The Bengals and their quarter-billion-dollar quarterback will be fine.
The Browns continue to dominate the battle of Ohio 🐶
Cleveland has beaten Cincinnati nine times in the last 11 matchups. pic.twitter.com/jWgpahN8CD
— The Athletic (@TheAthletic) September 10, 2023
Jones: I wouldn’t panic. Burrow is rusty. The timing and chemistry will take a couple of weeks to regain. This is basically the Bengals’ preseason. Years ago, two-time Super Bowl-winning head coach Mike Shanahan told me you can’t draw many conclusions from the first couple weeks of the season, because it really takes four weeks for teams to truly define themselves. And that was before teams started blowing off preseason games. I have found that wisdom to be true, and especially on point in this NFL. The Bengals are extremely talented. They’ll be OK.
Pompei: Funny things happen in the first week of the season. Offensive sputters were part of a bigger trend that affected many teams. Burrow has had a lot going on. When this season is in the books, we may be calling him the best quarterback in football. The Bengals won’t panic. And they shouldn’t.
Are Brock Purdy and the San Francisco 49ers just this good, or do the Pittsburgh Steelers have unexpected weaknesses to address after a humbling 30-7 loss?
Graham: A combination of both. Purdy, for lack of pedigree, has a comprehensively solid team around him. The Steelers, meanwhile, still are learning what Kenny Pickett can be. Many optimists assume Pickett will surge in his sophomore season, and they might very well be proven correct. But against a skilled and experienced defense, Pickett struggled. There’s no shame in that. Not in Week 1, not in his 13th career start. My favorite players in this game were Christian McCaffrey and T.J. Watt, who turned in sublime performances commensurate with their Player of Year calibers. Watt registered five QB hits, two forced fumbles and a recovery. Maybe Mike Tomlin should let him take some snaps. Watt does everything else.
Jones: The 49ers are good. We know this. I didn’t know if Purdy would be rusty in his first significant action since coming back from surgery, but he was the same solid quarterback we saw last year, and he’s surrounded by such a talented supporting cast. What did concern me about Pittsburgh was its overall lifelessness out of the gate. If you’re the Steelers, you really wanted to see strong play from Pickett, but that interception early hurt. The other concerning element was how helpless the defense looked. Watt had three sacks. But as a whole, this was not what Tomlin likes to see out of his defense. You can’t give up 188 rushing yards (152 to McCaffrey) and allow your opponent to convert six of 13 third downs and expect to win.
Pompei: Yes and yes. The 49ers played the way they were playing last season until Purdy was injured. We should not be surprised at their dominance on opening day. The Steelers would be foolish — and Tomlin is not foolish — to think they don’t have numerous issues to improve on after that performance. If they want to be able to beat the Bengals, Browns and Baltimore Ravens in the AFC North, and the rest of their conference’s best teams, they need to perform significantly better in a number of areas — especially in run defense.
Which result is more surprising to you? The Tampa Bay Buccaneers (with new starting QB Baker Mayfield) beating the Minnesota Vikings or the New Orleans Saints (with new starting QB Derek Carr) beating the Tennessee Titans? And why?
Graham: How about that Mayfield? Picking up right where Tom Brady left off. If you squint, it’s really hard to see the difference.
In all seriousness, Tampa Bay’s victory was more impressive simply because Tennessee bores me. If you were to declare the Titans will go 5-12 this year, I wouldn’t care enough to argue. So to see the Saints hold them off, especially in the Superdome, is perfectly reasonable. Mayfield winning in Minneapolis has some significance. The Buccaneers entered 2023 with chips on their shoulders, and knocking off reigning division champs — NFC rivals who won five more games than the Bucs did last year — with a reclamation QB is validation. And fun.
Jones: Tampa Bay’s win is more surprising, with a defense that gave Kirk Cousins and the Vikings fits (two fumbles and an interception). I thought Minnesota would get off to a good start because of continuity on offense, and I expected Brian Flores to cook up something for his defense that would fluster Mayfield and company. But instead, Tampa Bay’s offense was as impressive as its defense. No, the Bucs weren’t perfect. They started off a little rough, but Mayfield is a gritty quarterback, and his unit followed his lead. He delivered two touchdown passes and tucked the ball and ran for tough yards when his team needed a fourth-quarter first down to continue milking the clock.
Pompei: Both were mildly surprising, but maybe they shouldn’t be. The Bucs won 32 games over the last three years. Many of those wins were attributed to Brady, as they should have been. But he was not a one-man team. Carr gets unfairly maligned. His performance wasn’t outstanding, but it was better than Ryan Tannehill’s. He also had more help from his wide receivers — three of them looked like playmakers — and his pass protectors.
How should rookie quarterback Anthony Richardson and the Indianapolis Colts feel about their Week 1 performance? They took the Jacksonville Jaguars, a playoff team last season, deep into the fourth quarter before losing 31-21.
Graham: Richardson needs to learn how to slide. He resorted to hero ball down the stretch, and while he can change any game’s dynamic with his legs, he took too much abuse. He watched Gardner Minshew finish the game because Richardson absorbed a head hit in the closing minute. Even so, Richardson was dangerous enough to make Jacksonville kvetch. Granted, DeForest Buckner’s freak fumble return for a touchdown put Indy — 3.5-point underdogs at home and considered among the NFL’s dregs — ahead of the biggest division favorite late in the third quarter, but the lead stood until 5:14 remained.
NFL rookie debuts: Colts’ Richardson, Falcons’ Robinson shine
Jones: Richardson is raw, but there were positives to build on, and that’s all you can ask from a rookie with only one full season of college experience. He made plays with his legs and his arm (40 yards and a touchdown on 10 carries, plus 24-of-37 passing for 223 yards, a TD and interception). He looked like Cam Newton at times. But he needs to get better at not staring down receivers, and, as Tim noted, he needs to learn how to slide. He can’t continue to take the hits we saw him sustain Sunday. But overall, the Colts can feel encouraged about the way they competed from start to finish.
Pompei: There are two kinds of performances in the NFL: good enough and not good enough. Richardson and the Colts weren’t good enough. Most games aren’t decided until well into the fourth quarter. For the Colts and their young QB, there were things to build on, certainly. And there are things to clean up. Everyone knows Richardson is a green prospect. It is expected he will take time. It would have been nice to see how the game would have played out if Jonathan Taylor had been the Colts’ leading runner instead of Richardson.
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