Football is a game of high emotion. It requires a unique focus and, as the saying goes, is the ultimate team sport, where interdependence and cohesion are always at a premium. Thinking back on what was a wild and unpredictable Week 3 – one where the quality of offensive play around the league finally rose to a level we've come to expect from the NFL – four of the most shocking outcomes may have had at least something to do with circumstance.
I'm not out to make excuses for what the Steelers, Dolphins, Bucs and Ravens put on film on Sunday, and this not an attempt to minimize how poorly those teams performed. It's also not in any way a knock on what the Bears, Jets, Vikings and Jaguars accomplished in overrunning their respective opponents. But after reflecting on all four outcomes and talking to some execs around the league and scouts who reviewed the film of some of these teams, I do believe that all four were impacted at least to some degree by issues outside of the scope of football itself and fell prey to ancillary factors – in some cases outside of their own control and in others very much of their own making.
All are now in a position where they need to shake off those dismal showings and get back to the matter of establishing themselves as a quality football team, and time will tell if in fact these were blips for these clubs or if they were a portal into deeper, football-related shortcomings that will continue to get exposed as the season goes on. For now, I'm inclined to give them the benefit of the doubt.
I wrote at length on Sunday about how out of sorts the Steelers were, how their botched attempt to manage the ongoing Anthem protests backfired badly and actually led to them appearing to be a team divided, with just four coaches on the sidelines, the rest of the coaches in the tunnel with most of the players, but with the player most, unfairly, caught up in the pre-game controversy, decorated Army veteran Alejandro Villanueva, somehow finding himself all alone at the end of the tunnel from the visitor's locker room to the field at Solider Stadium.
And they played like a team that had spent too much time over-thinking how to devise a response, rather than letting grown men opt to kneel or sit or stand on a sideline for 90 seconds while "The Star Spangled Banner," was sung. And now, with this situation festering throughout the locker room and team headquarters and players and coaches still trying to address and explain those poor optics from Sunday, the Steelers will go into this week's game, at rival Baltimore, with another awkward subplot at play. I'm not saying the Bears dictated that game and grabbed an early lead and led most of the day and ran the ball down Pittsburgh's throat and bottled up that offense because of the way the Steelers handled the pre-game stuff … but I am saying clearly these players had lots on their minds and many were miffed about the way the Anthem played out in Chicago.
The Ravens had never dealt with the protest situation much before and, playing in London in the earliest kickoff possible, they too seem thrown off about how to handle it. Waiting until Thursday night to fly to London was a mistake in hindsight, their weekend quickly got away from them needing to meet league responsibilities in London and then having to sort out the aftermath of Donald Trump's diatribe against NFL players. Already in a time crunch, Baltimore looked evert but un-prepared to play against Jacksonville, which makes an annual trip to London and took everything in stride. None of this in any way lets the Ravens off the hook for what might be the worst showing in franchise history – a 44-7 defeat that actually somehow looked even more lopsided than that – but I also assert that logistics and planning and being unaccustomed to their surroundings played a role in it. Should it have at this level? Probably not. But their minds, like the Steelers' seemed elsewhere and now both of these teams have something to prove this Sunday.
The Dolphins and Buccaneers were dealing with a much more visceral and physical challenge. Their seasons were disrupted by the hurricanes that ripped through Florida in Week 1. They lost their bye weeks and had last-minute, Week 1 byes foisted upon them, and scrambled to find safety for their families in Carolina or California. They lost precious practice time and had real concerns to tend to outside of football, and then both came out with a purpose in Week 2, winning convincingly …
But then there was more travel in Week 3 – especially for Miami – and that lost practice time can catch up with you, and there is less adrenaline after the opener and these players returned home the week before to try to sort out property damage and help in their communities. So, I don't think it's a total coincidence that both lacked that same fire and crispness in Week 3 and were run off the field. Tampa faced a tough chore all along in going to Minnesota, where the Vikings can play some defense, but to get carved up like they did by back-up QB Case Keenum was a surprise. And the Dolphins came this close to getting shutout in New Jersey by a Jets team some had picked to go 0-16.
"You could see right away the Dolphins didn't have their legs," said one veteran scout. "It all caught up with them. The storm, the travel. They haven't had a real home game since last season. You could tell they weren't right. You can't just throw that game out, but you can understand it. Same thing with Tampa. It isn't always just about football."
Unfortunately for Miami, their trek only gets more daunting, turning around to have to "host" the Saints in London is no small order, then it has to go to Nashville to play the stout Titans before finally playing at home in Week 5. Tampa hosts a desperate Giants team still looking for its first win. I suspect we see better football from this group overall, and I imagine at least one or two end up in the postseason despite those Week 3 showings, but they can't let things snowball, either.
Sacks are in, blocking is out
Next to the protests, the grotesque state of many offensive lines has been a prevalent running theme this season. And the natural corollary to that could be a record number of players topping 20 sacks. Your eyes are not deceiving you, a quarterback really is being crushed, somewhere in America, on like every other play.
Here are the NFL sack totals, through three weeks, each of the last four seasons:
2017: 239 – 4.98 per game
2016: 206 – 4.29 per game
2015: 195 – 4.06 per game
2014: 192 – 4.0 per game.
That's kind of staggering to me. Sacks are up 1 per game since 2014. They are up 80 percent in a four-year span. Now, I'll grant you that in 2013, we'd absorbed 258 sacks already through Week 3, so it could always be worse. But I also went back 10 seasons as well, and in 2007 there had been 209 sacks through three weeks across the NFL. Go back to 1997, and it's 220 sacks through three weeks.
So clearly, we're not in a great space for quarterbacks. And sacks, obviously, is hardly a perfect metric as it doesn't account for pressures and QB hits and disruptions that take a toll on a passer and disrupt an offensive flow but don't result in a sack. In 1997, no one in the NFL has topped 4.5 sacks through three games. In 2007, only Trent Cole had. This season, three men already have 4.5 or more (Calais Campbell, Melvin Ingram and Demarcus Lawrence) and 15 players are already averaging a sack or more per game. Four years ago, the Bengals were the only team in the league that had yet to give up a sack at this point in the season; in 2017 Andy Dalton has been sacked 11 times already; that isn't the only reason they've gone from perennial division power to 0-3, but it's surely one of them.
Could be more pain in store for quarterbacks. Some of these units are going to have to gel and gel quickly.
Rivers' play should be alarming to Chargers
Had more than one evaluator whisper in my ear how bad and beat up Philip Rivers looks. Now, he's started slowly before and turned it on, but that team has talent and they should be finding ways to win games and not lose them. It's early, but that's a team that better be ready to go deep into the 2018 quarterback class if this trend continues. The turnovers have just come at a staggering rate. Since the start of the 2015 season, Rivers has tossed an NFL-high 38 picks (Blake Bortles and Jameis Winston are next with 36) in 35 games. He's thrown multiple interceptions in the same game 10 times in those 36 starts and he's tossed a ridiculous 21 picks in his last 12 games. Rivers has thrown two interceptions or more in six of those 12 outings. "Some of these interceptions are a joke," said one evaluator who has watched the Chargers closely this season. "The turnovers are what's killing the Chargers."
More notes from around the NFL:
If the Ravens receivers cannot separate in two-man routes – because they're going to need to keep guys in to help the ravaged OL – then that offense is doomed. Jeremy Maclin had some bad drops, Mike Wallace has just three catches for 21 yards all season, and Breshad Perriman continued to be an utter non-factor. The former first-round pick has 1 catch for 5 yards all season, no receptions the past two weeks and is prone to drops. Given that Joe Flacco's favorite target, TE Dennis Pitta, has a career-ending injury, Steve Smith is happily retired and running back Danny Woodhead, signed to be a security blanket in the passing game, is out long-term and possibly for the entire season, this could be a super long season for that offense.
Kansas City Chiefs
Plenty of guys playing like studs on KC defense, but scouts seem to think lineman Chris Jones is the guy who stirs the drink. He could be one of the true breakout stars of this season.
New England Patriots
I'm bracing for the Patriots to shake up their defense via a trade or two. The front seven may be beyond repair, even for Bill Belichick who thrives at developing talent on the fly, and we've seen no shortage of brash in-season moves from him before. New England has looked particularly vulnerable to read option looks – the Chiefs are doing a lot of it with Alex Smith, who carved New England in Week 1; and the Texans are incorporating many of these elements with rookie QB Deshaun Watson, who had a monster game against the Patriots last week. Copycat league. Bills do plenty of that with Tyrod Taylor. Keep a look out.
New York Jets
Jets first-round pick Jamal Adams is already turning heads and earning accolades. The first-round pick is making an immediate impact and is going to quickly become one of the leaders on that defense. "He's already a great player," said one scout gushing over his film. "I don't say that lightly. A great player."