The Steelers are 2-1, but it’s a hard to be excited about this 2-1 start.
They barely beat the Browns to open the season, and suffered a stupefying road loss to the Bears last week. The most surprising thing about it is that two of the team’s most reliable offensive stars, Ben Roethlisberger and Le’Veon Bell, are struggling.
Bell’s off to his slowest start ever, averaging 3.5 yards per carry and just 79 yards from scrimmage per game so far this season.
Roethlisberger is averaging just 6.7 yards per attempt, his lowest rate since 2009. He was 8-for-23 on passes thrown 10 or more yards downfield, and he overthrew what would have been a 75-yard touchdown to Martavis Bryant to start the game.
According the NFL’s Next Gen Stats, his completed passes are traveling an average of 6.1 yards past the line of scrimmage, while the average for all of his attempts is 10.8 yards through the air. The differential of -4.7 yards is the highest in the NFL. He’s just not hitting the downfield throws like the Steelers and their fans are used to seeing.
It hasn’t slowed Antonio Brown’s production at all. He leads the league with 354 receiving yards, and is averaging 118 yards per game, a career best.
Maybe that’s the problem. Brown accounts for 33 percent of all Roethlisberger’s passing targets so far this season, with Bryant and Bell both available to him. After the Bears game, Roethlisberger talked about being too dependent on Brown.
“There were some details I wasn’t on, making the right reads and throwing, maybe trying to force it to AB [...] I just need to be better at taking what the defense gives us and making the right throw.”
Panic index: The offense will come together. Bell had a much better game in Chicago, scoring his first touchdown and averaging over four yards per carry. He’s headed for a rebound, and when that happens, the field will open up and give more opportunities to Bryant and the other receivers.
The Browns are still the same old Browns
All offseason, we heard about how the Cleveland Browns would no longer be the punchline to every NFL joke. The Bears and Jets were supposed to take on that mantle, while the Browns weren’t expected to be good necessarily, but at least noticeably better than the team that finished last season 1-15.
They went into Week 3 still looking for their first win, but something was different. For the first time since 2015, the Browns were actually favored in a game. And for the first time since 2012, they were favored on the road. And it felt ... right. Their opponent, the Colts, were also 0-2 but looked less impressive.
Then Sunday rolled around and — siiiiigh — the Browns still looked the Browns:
With the Bengals' touchdown, there's only one team left that has yet to lead this season ... the Browns.— ESPN Stats & Info (@ESPNStatsInfo) September 24, 2017
There was the rookie quarterback who threw three picks, a no-name wide receiver corps that dropped eight passes, 113 yards worth of penalties, and a defense that couldn’t contain a quarterback who had been with his new team for three weeks.
You wouldn’t blame any Browns fans who felt like they were living in a sports version of Groundhog Day.
Panic index: Don’t get out those brown paper bags just yet. Even after another deja vu loss, the plan hasn’t changed: show some improvement this year, build on it for next year, and the year after, etc.
On Sunday, there were hints that the rebuild is coming along. DeShone Kizer was much sharper in the second half and led two touchdown drives late in the game. Meanwhile, the Browns were missing a few key players — Jamie Collins, top pick Myles Garrett, wide receiver Corey Coleman — who should all be back eventually this season. Not having playmakers is hurting their chances of getting in the win column right now. But it will come at some point this season, and yes, probably more than once.
And hey, at the very least, the Browns did something they hadn’t done in quite some time: lose to an underdog.
Texans wasted a golden opportunity and it could haunt them
The AFC South is on the upswing. After years of futility, the Titans and Jaguars are both sitting at 2-1. The division is actually competitive, and that may be bad news for the Texans.
The Texans had an opportunity be 2-1 right now, too. They lost a wild one to Tom Brady and the Patriots. And while there’s no shame in losing to New England — especially considering that no rookie quarterback had ever beaten the Patriots at home in the Bill Belichick era — the loss still has to sting, because the Texans very nearly had it. And they blew the chance to win.
Rookie quarterback Deshaun Watson showed off his potential against New England. He completed 22 of 33 passes for 301 yards, two touchdowns, and two interceptions. And Houston’s defense made it a very long day for Tom Brady, who was sacked five times. One sack forced a fumble, which Jadeveon Clowney beautifully ran in for a score.
If there’s one thing you don’t want to do with a lead against the Patriots, it’s give the ball right back to Tom Brady with enough time to execute a two-minute drill. But that’s just what Bill O’Brien did when he opted to not go for it on fourth-and-inches in the fourth quarter. The Texans kicked a field goal instead, and then it was Brady’s time to shine.
But the Texans still had a shot. The defense hit Brady and forced a fumble, but New England recovered. Texans safety Corey Moore nearly picked Brady off, but dropped the potential interception. Then Brady did what Brady does and threw a dime to Brandin Cooks for the win.
For the past two seasons, the Texans have managed to win the division despite a glaring weakness at quarterback. The strength of the defense made up for deficiencies on the other side of the ball, and the fact that the rest of the division wasn’t very good helped. That’s not the case anymore, and it may leave the Texans on the outside looking in when the postseason rolls around.
Panic index: There’s a lot of season left, but it’s reasonable to be a little concerned. Losing to the Patriots is something many teams, including the Texans, do on a regular basis. But that loss hurts a little more because Houston should have won. And sitting at 1-2 when the Titans and Jaguars look improved is far from an ideal position.
The Jets and Bills might regret being suddenly competent
The Bills and Jets seemingly had one mission for 2017; with the Patriots a near-lock to secure their ninth straight AFC East title, the two teams would sit this one out and launch their 2018 seasons with a premier draft pick.
The tank was on from Day 1 in New York, where the Jets went into 2017 with Josh McCown, Bryce Petty, and Christian Hackenberg as their quarterbacks. It took a little longer for the plan to come together in Buffalo. New head coach Sean McDermott waited until the end of the preseason to make his intentions clear, but by trading away Sammy Watkins and Ronald Darby, it appeared the Bills were waiting to rebuild behind a top-three pick in the 2018 NFL Draft.
On Sunday, each team’s tanking strategy took a step in the wrong direction. The Bills, coming off a loss in which they scored three points against the Panthers, found a way to hang 26 on Denver’s vaunted defense — with partial credit to the world’s weakest taunting penalty. With two wins, they’re already in a position where they would have been phased out of the running for Myles Garrett. The Jets, behind a competent day from McCown, recorded a dominant 20-6 win over Miami to earn their first win of the season.
Both were solid wins — especially in Buffalo’s case — that run counter to the unspoken strategy of this year’s race to the bottom. With a solid crop of quarterback prospects on the brink of an NFL career, these two franchises entered 2017 with an opportunity to jump-start their rebuilds by playing abjectly awful football. Unless the Bills and Jets can best a suddenly-vulnerable New England team, their wins in Week 3 could wind up ultimately costing them.
Aaron Rodgers has thrown more picks than Blake Bortles ... and just as many touchdowns
He’s thrown and completed more passes than any QB in the league so far this season. He’s second in passing yards. But it’s hard not to look at Aaron Rodgers and the Packers as struggling just a little bit right now given that he’s on pace for a career high in picks.
This Sunday he threw his first pick-six since 2009, and only the second one of his career. Compare Rodgers’ start this season with his last three seasons.
Aaron Rodgers’ first three games
Three interceptions to start the year isn’t really anything to worry about, even for Rodgers. Any doubts you had about his season, should’ve been put to rest with the comeback he engineered, especially the touchdown to Jordy Nelson and the throw to Geronimo Allison that set up the game-winning field goal.
Panic index: R-E-L-A-X. There’s nothing wrong with Rodgers; he’s still great. What you should be worried about instead is the fact that he’s been sacked 13 times already this season. The good news is that left tackle David Bakhtiari was listed as limited on Monday with short week, and could be ready to make his season debut. However, Bryan Bulaga, who returned to play last week, sat out.
Joe Flacco is the opposite of elite now
His 8-for-18, 28 yards, and two interceptions might be the worst performance of any quarterback this season, and there have been A LOT of terrible quarterback performances already this year.
Upon further reviews, yes, it was the worst outing by a QB this year.
Joe Flacco recorded a Total QBR of 0.8 today. That's the worst single-game Total QBR of his career and the worst by any QB this season. pic.twitter.com/5EuDrRanqo— ESPN Stats & Info (@ESPNStatsInfo) September 24, 2017
He’s averaging a career-worst 5.3 yards per attempt, despite a competent group of receivers and a productive running game. His offensive line isn’t doing him any favors, but this level of performance is too terrible to blame just on the protection.
It’s fair to wonder if his back isn’t all the way healthy.
Panic index: A game against the Steelers next week doesn’t bode well, and after starting the season with two wins, the Ravens will probably be back to .500 after this Sunday. Flacco isn’t just part of the problem; he is the problem. Worse, the Ravens might be stuck with him for a while too.
If only there was another quarterback available who could have helped this team ...