NFL Nation: 2013 Week 1 Upon Further Review AFC

Upon Further Review: Chargers Week 1

September, 10, 2013
An examination of four hot issues from the San Diego Chargers' 31-28 loss to the Houston Texans:

Another collapse: Norv Turner is no longer the Chargers’ coach, but a similar thing happened. The Chargers blew a huge lead again in the first game of the Mike McCoy era. San Diego had a 28-7 lead with less than 11 minutes remaining in the third quarter Monday, only to be outscored 24-0 the rest of the game. Last October, on a Monday night, the Denver Broncos came back from a 24-0 halftime deficit to beat the Chargers 35-24. McCoy was Denver’s offensive coordinator in that game. Seeing such a promising start end a familiar way to begin the McCoy era is difficult for San Diego to digest.

[+] EnlargePhilip Rivers
Jeff Gross/Getty ImagesPhilip Rivers threw four touchdown passes, but struggled in the fourth quarter Monday night.
Rivers’ fourth-quarter failures: San Diego quarterback Philip Rivers was terrific for the first 34 minutes of the game as he threw four touchdown passes. But as the Texans came back, Rivers was unable to spark his team. Rivers was 1-for-7 in the fourth quarter, including an 18-yard interception return for a touchdown by Houston linebacker Brian Cushing to tie the game at 28-28. According to ESPN Stats & Information, since the start of last season Rivers has an NFL-worst 7.7 fourth-quarter Total QBR and a league-high 13 turnovers.

Great start: The Chargers squandered a dynamic start to the game. After a great stop on special teams, the San Diego defensive came on the field and forced Houston quarterback Matt Schaub into an interception on the first offensive play of the season. Defensive tackle Cam Thomas intercepted the ball at the Houston 14. On the next play, the San Diego offense punched in a touchdown on a pass from Rivers to Ryan Mathews. It was a stunning turn of events. In the end, it meant little.

Get better on third-down defense: The Chargers improved on third down defensively some last year after finishing dead last in the NFL in 2011. But the Texans came back fueled on third-down success Monday night. The Texans converted on third-and-18 and third-and-13 during the comeback. This is a good, solid defense. But destructing on third-and-long is no way to build a winner. There are many reasons Houston came back. But it all started on third down.

Upon Further Review: Texans Week 1

September, 10, 2013
A review of four hot issues from the Houston Texans' 31-28 win over the San Diego Chargers:

Mental toughness: Just how sure were the Texans that they were going to win last night's game?

Midway through the third quarter, safety Danieal Manning and inside linebacker Brian Cushing started chatting about another improbable comeback from years ago. That one was during Manning's rookie year in 2006, when he played for the Bears. You'll remember that as the game that led to then-Arizona Cardinals coach Dennis Green ranting that the Bears "are who we thought they were."

[+] EnlargeRandy Bullock
Robert Hanashiro/USA TODAY SportsHouston Texans kicker Randy Bullock and holder Shane Lechler celebrate Bullock's game-winning field goal as time ran out Monday night in San Diego.
Manning brought it up to Cushing as a reminder that these things happen. And because this game felt the same.

"Right in the middle of the third quarter, when it was about 28-14," Cushing said with a chuckle. "We just felt it. We felt that we could do it. Got it done."

With every player I spoke with after the game, I asked why this game was different than other times the Texans have faced big deficits. The answer most often was that this is a more mature team that has been through such adversity before. The Texans were accused of lacking mental toughness last season, and last night's game was a step toward proving that isn't true anymore.

While on the subject of accusations, the Texans turned another one on its head last night. I asked cornerback Johnathan Joseph if the Texans made a statement with the win: "Hopefully so, showing that we’re a resilient team, we can come back and play from behind."

Vintage Dre: Texans tight end Owen Daniels said he thinks Andre Johnson is actually getting better each year. Johnson had 146 yards on 12 catches, eight of which came in the second half as the Texans mounted their comeback. It wasn't easy on his body, but Johnson played like a kid again. He and quarterback Matt Schaub excelled when their team needed them the most.

About that first half: The start of the game was about as bad as it could have gone for the Texans, and they can't ignore that. Last night's win wasn't just a case of coming from behind, it was the biggest comeback in franchise history. That requires a big deficit first.

"If we're mature enough to hang in there and win tonight, we have to be mature enough to know we didn't play very good, too," Texans coach Gary Kubiak said.

Every phase of Houston's game struggled. The Texans' offensive and defensive lines got outplayed, they only made it to the red zone once, they allowed 100 percent red-zone efficiency on three trips, and their average drive started 11 yards shy of where the Chargers did. And, of course, the first three plays of the game were a bobbled kickoff return, a Schaub interception, and a 14-yard touchdown pass from Philip Rivers to Ryan Mathews. Rivers finished the half with a 122.6 passer rating.

Third-down efficiency was big: In the first half, the Chargers converted 63 percent of their third downs, often with big plays. In the first quarter, they converted a third-and-6 with a 17-yard pass to Eddie Royal, another third-and-6 with an 11-yard pass to Danny Woodhead and a third-and-7 with a 15-yard pass to Antonio Gates. In the second quarter, there was a 34-yard pass to Gates and a 10-yard touchdown pass -- both on third downs.

"Coming into halftime, that’s what we were saying, we’ve got to get off the field on third downs," cornerback Kareem Jackson said. "It definitely swung the game in our favor tremendously."

Indeed, in the second half, the Chargers converted only two.

Upon Further Review: Bills Week 1

September, 9, 2013
A review of four hot issues from the Buffalo Bills' 23-21 season-opening loss to the New England Patriots:

[+] Enlarge C.J. Spiller
Rick Stewart/Getty ImagesRunning back C.J. Spiller averaged just 2.4 yards per carry in Sunday's loss to New England.
Offense needs more than Spiller: The Patriots stymied Bills running back C.J. Spiller on Sunday, forcing Buffalo to look for other ways to move the ball. Spiller gained just 5 yards on his first five touches (four runs, one catch), fumbling on the second play of the Bills' first drive. Quarterback EJ Manuel seemed more comfortable going to Spiller, Fred Jackson and tight end Scott Chandler than to his wide receivers. Of Manuel's 27 passes, only 10 were thrown to wide receivers, and, of those, just five were caught. With Steve Johnson (98 percent of snaps), Robert Woods (97 percent) and T.J. Graham (95 percent) playing virtually the entire game, the Bills need more production out of that position.

"Chunk plays" hurt Bills' defense: There's little doubt that the Bills were able to come up with key stops at critical moments in the game. Both of Buffalo's sacks came on third downs, including Kyle Williams taking down Tom Brady in the red zone. But Patriots offensive coordinator Josh McDaniels pointed out Monday that the Patriots had a good amount of "chunk plays." The Patriots gained 19 yards or more nine times in the game. All but one of those plays occurred in Bills territory or pushed the Patriots across midfield. The Patriots were just 2-for-5 in the red zone, but the "chunk plays" kept the Bills' defense on the field.

Bills sputter on third down: Outside of their opening drive of the second half, an impressive 80-yard march that ended in a touchdown, the Bills' offense was just 2-for-11 on third down. Of course, one of those third-down misses came on Johnson's dropped pass in the fourth quarter, but the problems were larger than just that. "I think the biggest thing is getting the first one off the drive," tight end Scott Chandler said. "We had some short ones and some ones in key situations that we didn't convert."

Time of possession: Issue or overrated? The Bills managed to hold the ball for 22 minutes, 17 seconds, in contrast to the Patriots' 37:43 mark. The Bills want to maintain an up-tempo pace on offense, something that could limit their ability to maintain possession in games this season. "I don't think we're going to win any time-of-possession battles this year, and we're fine with that," center Eric Wood said. "We just need to run more plays. We would have liked to have their number of plays yesterday, and wear them down a little bit more. When we were able to put drives together, I felt like our tempo was great. But when we go three-and-out, our defense will be hung out to dry."

Upon Further Review: Jaguars Week 1

September, 9, 2013
JACKSONVILLE, Fla. -- An examination of four hot issues from the Jaguars’ 28-2 loss to the Chiefs:

Can Blaine Gabbert go this Sunday? Gabbert suffered a cut on the top of his right hand that required 15 stitches to close, and that puts his status for Sunday’s game at Oakland in doubt. Gabbert was able to play against the Chiefs despite still recovering from a fractured right thumb that he injured during the second preseason game. But this latest injury could be too much to overcome. Fifteen stitches is a significant number and means the cut was pretty substantial. Gabbert said the cut is near his pinkie finger, which means there shouldn’t be too much strain on the area when he throws the ball. However, there’s always a risk of tearing the cut open again. Gabbert said his thumb was not an issue against the Chiefs, but Sunday was by far the most pounding it took since it was injured. How it responds the next day or so will be telling.

[+] EnlargeBlaine Gabbert
David Eulitt/Kansas City Star/MCT via Getty ImagesBlaine Gabbert faced consistent pressure from the Kansas City defense on Sunday.
Joeckel’s poor debut: It was likely a case of nerves and the fact that he was facing one of the AFC’s best pass-rushers, but right tackle Luke Joeckel didn’t look anything like a No. 2 overall draft pick. He gave up two sacks to Justin Houston, allowing the Chiefs linebacker to blow by with hardly any resistance. He also failed to execute a cut block on linebacker Tamba Hali, who ended up in perfect position to intercept Gabbert’s screen pass and return it 10 yards for a touchdown. Hali was right in Gabbert’s sight line and Gabbert shouldn’t have thrown the ball, but it was still a poor cut block. Coach Gus Bradley said Joeckel at times didn’t follow his assignments and got away from fundamentals. That’s a mistake of youth.

Playmakers have to emerge: The offensive line struggled all day, which played a huge role in the offense’s struggle (only 178 total yards) and was the main reason the Jaguars had few explosive plays. However, the Jaguars’ top playmakers weren’t able to get loose and make big plays, either. Maurice Jones-Drew gained 45 yards on 15 carries, but he had 19 yards on two of those carries. That means he averaged 2.0 yards per carry on his remaining 13 carries. Cecil Shorts finished with three catches for 40 yards, but he didn’t have his first catch until midway through the fourth quarter. Not having tight end Marcedes Lewis (calf) was unfortunate because he would have helped as a blocker, and his presence as a receiver in the middle of the field would have given Gabbert a matchup the Jaguars could have exploited.

Secondary was solid: There was a blown coverage on one touchdown pass, but overall, rookie cornerback Dwayne Gratz and rookie safety John Cyprien played pretty well in their professional debuts. Both had three tackles, and Cyprien had one of the Jaguars’ four quarterback hits. Certainly one of the day’s few bright spots.

Upon Further Review: Colts Week 1

September, 9, 2013
INDIANAPOLIS -- An examination of four hot issues from the Indianapolis Colts' 21-17 win against the Oakland Raiders:

[+] EnlargeVick Ballard
AP Photo/Doug McSchoolerThe Colts' running game, led by Vick Ballard, showed promise against Oakland.
Maybe the Colts can run after all: What was lost in the all the talk of the Colts' fourth-quarter comeback and Terrelle Pryor's creativity was Indianapolis' ability to run the ball, and I’m not talking about quarterback Andrew Luck's 19-yard touchdown run to win the game. The Colts, who talked about a balanced attack all preseason, rushed 26 times and attempted 23 passes. That likely won’t happen too many times this season. Vick Ballard gained 4.8 yards a carry on his 13 rushes. Ahmad Bradshaw added 26 yards on seven attempts. Don’t be alarmed by Bradshaw’s yards and attempts. The plan all along was for him to get a limited number of snaps because he sat out the entire preseason rehabbing his foot from offseason surgery. He’ll get better as the season progresses. “We blocked up some things and Vick hit some holes, and you saw what Ahmad can do in a limited amount of snaps and exposure,” coach Chuck Pagano said. “I know we probably left some yards out there and we had some times, some penetration that we’ve got to clean up, where we had some negative plays because of hits in the backfield.”

Luck throws under pressure: The Raiders were able to sack Luck four times. He faced five or more pass-rushers on 15 of his 31 drop backs -- the third-highest rate of his young career. Luck was on target when he was able to get the ball off. He was 11-of-12 for 99 yards and seven first downs when facing five pass-rushers. Luck completed only 50 percent of his attempts for seven touchdowns and five interceptions when facing at least five pass-rushers last season. Luck can expect more pressure this weekend against the Miami Dolphins; they had six sacks and three interceptions against the Cleveland Browns on Sunday.

Landry will make an impact: Some people made a big deal about Pryor giving Colts safety LaRon Landry a good stiff arm on his 26-yard run in the third quarter. That wasn’t a big deal. What was, though, was Landry having a presence all around the field. He had a game-high 15 tackles, including 10 unassisted. Landry’s best tackle came when he caught Raiders tight end Jeron Mastrud from behind on his 41-yard catch and run that could have put Oakland ahead in the final minutes of the game. The drive -- and any chance of the Raiders winning -- ended when Antoine Bethea intercepted Pryor with 31 seconds left.

Wayne still producing: As good as the offense could be this season -- and it should be really good with the weapons surrounding Luck -- one thing remains certain: Reggie Wayne will continue to be the primary target until he starts showing signs of slowing down. Wayne caught three passes on the Colts’ opening 10-play drive, which ended with his 12-yard touchdown catch on a perfectly thrown ball from Luck in the corner of the end zone. Wayne, who has caught at least one pass in 113 straight games, had five catches by the end of the Colts’ second drive, which put them ahead 14-0. He had only three more catches the rest of the game. One was a third-down grab on the Colts’ game-winning drive.

Upon Further Review: Bengals Week 1

September, 9, 2013
An examination of four hot issues from the Cincinnati Bengals' 24-21 loss to the Chicago Bears:

1. Where were the sacks? After signing two defensive linemen to extensions and franchising another in the offseason, the Bengals' front office entered the season hopeful the line would take another step toward asserting itself as one of the league's more dominant units. On paper, the group didn't appear to do its job Sunday. Anchored by newly re-signed $55 million tackle Geno Atkins, the defensive line didn't record a single sack on Bears quarterback Jay Cutler. With a Bears offensive line that featured a pair of rookies and two other newcomers, the matchup seemed to bode well for the Bengals. Despite the fact they didn't record a sack, the Bengals' D-linemen still pressured Cutler, who somehow avoided getting touched. Cutler was one of the NFL's worst quarterbacks last season when teams rushed more than five players at him. Against the Bengals, he completed 80 percent of his passes for 94 yards and a touchdown in similar situations.

[+] EnlargeAndy Dalton
AP Photo/Charles Rex ArbogastWith Chicago's pass rush mostly contained, Bengals QB Andy Dalton had a strong showing.
2. Offense will be fine. Speaking of sacks, where were the ones on Bengals QB Andy Dalton? Aside from one fourth-quarter sack on a delayed stunt past left guard Clint Boling, Cincinnati's offensive line turned in a rather admirable effort protecting its starting signal-caller. With an upright Dalton, the Bengals amassed more than 300 yards of total offense, had a pair of touchdown passes, and got into a rhythm that at one point made the overall offense appear unstoppable. On one third-quarter drive, the Bengals converted three straight third downs. It ended with BenJarvus Green-Ellis' 5-yard touchdown run. Yes, the Bengals had three turnovers, but those particular miscues are fixable.

3. Security lessons. Of the Bengals' three turnovers, two resulted from receivers not immediately securing the ball. Pro Bowl receiver A.J. Green, who had nine catches for 162 yards and two touchdowns, bobbled away a pass that was perfectly thrown through multiple defenders. When the ball squirted free, Chicago cornerback Charles Tillman caught it for his second interception. His first came on the Bengals' second play of the afternoon, when he jumped a route that Green didn't completely sit down on. The final turnover was the product of a Mohamed Sanu fumble. Just after catching a 10-yard pass for a would-be first down, Sanu lost the handle on the ball when the Bears' Tim Jennings dislodged it with a hard hit to Sanu's hands. Immediately after that play, Cincinnati's momentum stalled. The Bears responded with their go-ahead touchdown.

4. Manage the clock. Cincinnati's late-game clock management left much to be desired. On one fourth-quarter Chicago drive alone, the Bengals used their last two timeouts because of defensive personnel issues. Coming with 8:06 left in the game, those timeouts proved critical. Cincinnati couldn't stop the clock in the final minute when it still had a chance to rally. Like the turnovers, this issue is a fixable one. It primarily was the product of having less than two weeks to tweak linebacker packages after Emmanuel Lamur went down with a season-ending injury in the final preseason game.

Upon Further Review: Browns Week 1

September, 9, 2013
A review of four hot issues from the Cleveland Browns' 23-10 loss to the Miami Dolphins:

Right is wrong: I'm not sure if I've ever seen one side of a line play so poorly as right guard Oniel Cousins and right tackle Mitchell Schwartz did Sunday. Cousins has an excuse because he's a third-stringer making his second career start at guard. Schwartz, a second-round pick from a year ago, does not. Sure, Schwartz had a tough assignment in Pro Bowl end Cameron Wake, but he looked like an overmatched rookie in what was the worst effort of his 17-game career. Schwartz allowed three sacks and countless quarterback hits. Cousins was flagged four times, including a fourth-quarter holding penalty that brought back a touchdown. Shawn Lauvao needs to get healthy quickly.

[+] EnlargeCleveland's Trent Richardson
AP Photo/David RichardTrent Richardson carried the ball just 13 times for 47 yards against the Dolphins.
Questionable play calling: Did offensive coordinator Norv Turner forget about Trent Richardson being a 300-carry running back? Richardson ran the ball on four of the game's first six plays. He then had nine carries in the last 66 plays. Instead of putting the ball in the hands of their best offensive player, the Browns chose to throw the ball 53 times in a game that the Browns were trailing by a field goal heading into the fourth quarter. In order for Richardson to be a 300-carry back, he needs to average 19 carries per game. He had a grand total of 13 in the season opener. Richardson had only four games with fewer carries last season.

Tale of third downs: Some will point to turnovers as the reason the Browns lost, but Miami got only one field goal out of Brandon Weeden's three interceptions. This game was decided on third downs. While the Browns' defense did a commendable job in stopping the run and getting pressure on quarterback Ryan Tannehill, Cleveland couldn't get the Dolphins off the field. Miami converted eight of 16 third downs, which is quite an improvement for a Dolphins offense that ranked 16th on third-down conversions last season (38 percent). Tannehill was 9-of-13 for 82 yards on third downs, an average of 9.1 yards per completion. The Browns, meanwhile, couldn't stay on the field. Cleveland was a woeful 1-for-14 on third downs.

Stumbling in season openers: The Browns are 1-14 in season openers since returning to the NFL in 1999. Eight of the losses, including Sunday, have been by double digits. The only season-opening victory was in 2004 against the Baltimore Ravens, and the Browns finished 4-12 that season. No coach in the expansion era Browns has won his first game. The six coaches -- Chris Palmer, Butch Davis, Romeo Crennel, Eric Mangini, Pat Shurmur and Rob Chudzinski -- have lost their first game by an average of 16.1 points. Surprisingly, Davis, Crennel and Shurmur all won their second game as Browns coach. Chudzinski draws the defending Super Bowl champion Ravens in Week 2.

Upon Further Review: Titans Week 1

September, 9, 2013
An examination of four hot issues from the Tennessee Titans' 16-9 win against the Pittsburgh Steelers:

The defensive mentality: As the 2012 season ended, the Titans were already talking about the need to be more aggressive. Then Mike Munchak brought in Gregg Williams as a senior assistant/defense.

[+] EnlargeBen Roethlisberger
AP Photo/Gene J. PuskarJurrell Casey and the Titans sacked Pittsburgh's Ben Roethlisberger five times in Week 1.
Munchak emphasized that defensive coordinator Jerry Gray called the Pittsburgh game. And the Titans didn’t go crazy with blitzing the way Williams’s defenses have in the past.

But the defense was well-prepared to keep Ben Roethlisberger hemmed in the pocket. The Titans sacked him five times. Though the Steelers found some plays to Emmanuel Sanders, Antonio Brown and Jericho Cotchery, the biggest pass play was 22 yards.

Williams' influence and the swagger he brings seemed to be at work, at least to a degree. As I’ve said before, Gray is in a no-win situation. We’ll look at improvements because of Williams, and if they are bad we’ll say it’s the same old stuff.

Jake Locker's poise: One of his biggest issues has been his desire to do too much. So one of the Titans' biggest goals has been to shape a team that can shape games where he doesn’t feel like he has to overreach. And he didn’t overreach in Pittsburgh.

He was calm and efficient. He misfired a few times. But we’ve said in the right sort of context he could be a bit like former Titans quarterback Steve McNair, where the numbers don’t always look as good as the quarterbacking.

That was the case here. Locker did his part.

I think his confidence grew through a preseason where he showed steady improvement. And I am sure it will grow some more from helping engineer a tough win in a tough place against a tough defense.

Three tight ends: The Titans used a three-tight-end formation quite a bit, mostly with Damian Williams on the field as the lone receiver and a running back behind Locker.

It was pretty effective, but going forward the Titans will have to do more to show they can be balanced when Delanie Walker, Craig Stevens and Taylor Thompson are on the field together.

By the count of Terry McCormick of Titan Insider, the Titans gave up a sack and threw just twice in 17 snaps with three tight ends, some of which was with Williams and a back, and some of which was with two backs. Locker threw incomplete once and connected on a 13-yard pass to wide receiver Nate Washington.

Williams said it won’t be too predictable.

“Sometime in that formation, you’ve got three tight ends and a receiver, that’s four eligible receivers that are capable of catching the ball,” he said. “You do have to throw out of it to keep them honest.”

Third-down defense: The Titans gave up some third-and-long conversions in their preseason game in Cincinnati that were of particular concern. The Steelers converted third-and-8, third-and-9 and third-and-8, respectively, on their opening possession.

That left me thinking the Titans were going to have some serious issues. But they settled down and played really well on third down the rest of the way, allowing the Steelers to convert just one of 10 the rest of the game.

“We knew those weren’t good on our part and those third downs were long, we weren’t happy,” cornerback Alterraun Verner said. “We came back to the sideline and said, ‘We can’t have that happen.’ We were able to respond.”

Upon Further Review: Dolphins Week 1

September, 9, 2013
An examination of four hot issues from the Miami Dolphins' 23-10 win over the Cleveland Browns:

Miami's defense has a chance to be special. Cleveland's offense looked completely befuddled and off its game because of the Dolphins’ combination of speed and physicality on defense. First, Miami was stout enough to stuff physical running back Trent Richardson (47 yards on 13 carries). Then, once the Dolphins got a lead, their defense was fast enough to rush the quarterback and register six sacks from four different players. Barring injury, I do not see any reason the Dolphins defense can’t finish in the top 10 this season. That would be a significant jump from No. 21 last season. The front seven is very strong. Perhaps the biggest weakness is depth behind the starters in the secondary and linebackers.

[+] EnlargeMiami's Brian Hartline
Ken Blaze/USA TODAY SportsBrian Hartline benefited from the extra attention Mike Wallace received. Hartline had nine catches for 114 yards and this touchdown.
Expect a lot of chatter this week to center around Mike Wallace being unhappy after catching one pass for 15 yards in his regular-season debut with the Dolphins. The Browns did everything they could, including constant double-teams, to make sure Wallace didn’t make big plays. But Wallace should take solace in that he impacted the game in other ways by opening things up for teammates. Fellow Miami receivers Brian Hartline (nine receptions, 114 yards) and Brandon Gibson (seven receptions, 77 yards) had big second halves because Wallace drew most of Cleveland’s attention. Different teams will choose different strategies against the Dolphins. Wallace must stay ready for when he's single covered.

The Dolphins cannot win many games averaging 0.9 yards per carry. Miami rushed for 20 yards on 23 carries against Cleveland, and it was an awful performance by both the running backs and offensive line simultaneously. There were no running lanes, and the tailbacks didn't help themselves by breaking tackles. The Dolphins must change this trend quickly. Miami's offense will become very predictable this season if it cannot get running backs Lamar Miller and Daniel Thomas involved.

I’ve said constantly that Miami must finish at least 2-3 in their first five games to have a chance for the playoffs. Sunday's win over Cleveland puts Miami in a good position to match or surpass that record before the bye week. The Dolphins will face the Indianapolis Colts (1-0) on the road, the Atlanta Falcons (0-1) at home, the New Orleans Saints (1-0) on the road and the defending Super Bowl champion Baltimore Ravens (0-1) at home. If the Dolphins can win at least one of these games, they will be in decent position. A split by Miami or better during this four-game slate, and the Dolphins will be in excellent shape by October.

Upon Further Review: Steelers Week 1

September, 9, 2013
A review of four hot issues from the Pittsburgh Steelers' 16-9 loss to the Tennessee Titans.

[+] EnlargeMaurkice Pouncey
AP Photo/Gene J. PuskarThe injury to center Maurkice Pouncey made the Steelers adjust their game plan against the Titans.
Ripple effect: The knee injury that knocked Pro Bowler Maurkice Pouncey out of the game in the first quarter had a domino effect as it pressed Kelvin Beachum into duty at center. The Steelers experimented with the ultra-versatile Beachum in the preseason, using the second-year man as a sixth lineman/eligible receiver. They had planned to use him extensively in that role to help a running game that spun its wheels against the Titans. "We had a lot of plays with Beachum at tight end, and him not being able to play tight end we had to change our scheme of what we wanted to do in certain situations," running back Isaac Redman said. "But we’ve still got to go out and be able to execute." The Steelers averaged a paltry 2.1 yards on 15 rushes.

Missing in action: Heath Miller can’t come back soon enough from reconstructive knee surgery. Steelers tight ends managed only one catch for 11 yards against the Titans. David Paulson, the best receiver among the three tight ends who are healthy, didn’t have a catch in the Steelers’ opener. Miller, the Steelers’ MVP in 2012, is one of the best all-around tight ends in the NFL. His return would help the running game. It also would take pressure off starting wide receivers Antonio Brown and Emmanuel Sanders, and provide quarterback Ben Roethlisberger with one of his favorite targets. Miller appears to be closer to returning as he practiced last week on a limited basis.

Numbers game: Mike Tomlin made some puzzling decisions even before kickoff Sunday. The seventh-year coach dressed only seven offensive linemen, and the Steelers were left with one healthy reserve after Pouncey went down. The Steelers went with five wide receivers even though first-year man Derek Moye didn’t play many snaps. Starting fullback Will Johnson played only on special teams after returning to action from a hamstring injury. Tomlin said the Steelers did not use Johnson on offense because they did not know if he would be able to play against the Titans until after the game plan had been installed. It did not help Johnson either that the Steelers ran the ball only 15 times. “He was there if we needed him,” Tomlin said. “Obviously, due to game circumstances, we did not get a chance to use him much.”

Solid but not spectacular: A defense that allowed an NFL-best 275.8 yards per game last season limited the Titans to 229 total yards. It also yielded only one touchdown and three field goals. “Our goal is to hold teams to 17 points or less,” defensive end Brett Keisel said. What left the defensive players disappointed is they didn’t help the Steelers win the turnover battle or put more pressure on Titans quarterback Jake Locker. The Steelers were -10 in turnover differential last season. They didn’t have any takeaways Sunday and committed two.

Upon Further Review: Raiders Week 1

September, 9, 2013
An examination of four hot issues from the Oakland Raiders21-17 loss at the Indianapolis Colts:

[+] EnlargeTerrelle Pryor
Andy Lyons/Getty ImagesTerrelle Pryor joined some elite company with his dual-threat performance on Sunday.
It’s TP2 Time: Even if Terrelle Pryor is not Mr. Right for the Raiders, it’s obvious he’s Mr. Right Now. Pryor’s playmaking ability and his knack for extending plays and, thus, hiding some deficiencies in the offensive line gave the Raiders a shot at upsetting the host Colts. He became just the seventh QB to pass for at least 200 yards (217) and rush for 100 (112) in a regular-season game, joining the likes of Michael Vick, who did it twice, Randall Cunningham, Cam Newton, Aaron Brooks, Steve Young and Donovan McNabb. “I wanted to dice 'em up,” Pryor said, reflecting upon his fateful final drive, on which he led the Raiders to the Colts' 8-yard line but suffered a 16-yard sack before throwing an interception at the 6-yard line.

King’s issues: Punter Marquette King was anything but proud of his first-ever NFL game. “I just have to watch film,” he lamented, “and take notes.” And he needs to regain his confidence going forward. Sure, he averaged 50.5 yards on two punts, but his net was only 29 yards after his first punt -- which he mis-hit and which was fielded off the ground and returned 23 yards by T.Y. Hilton -- and his second just missed being downed inside the 5-yard line and instead rolled into the end zone for a touchback. Plus, King was the holder on Sebastian Janikowski’s missed 48-yard field goal attempt to end the first half, the first time SeaBass missed from inside 50 yards since 2011. "It’s my fault," King said. "It’s me." Of course, there was also his getting "blasted" covering on his first punt. "I got kind of dizzy getting up," King said. "But I’m tough. I’m a football player at the end of the day, so I took it."

East side problems: The last time the Raiders won a game in the Eastern time zone? Try Dec. 6, 2009, when Bruce Gradkowski led a comeback in Pittsburgh. Since then, Oakland is 0-11 playing three time zones away, being outscored by a combined 353-178 and losing by an average score of 32-16. Since Dec. 15, 2002, when the Raiders lost at Miami, Oakland is 5-28 in the Eastern time zone. The Raiders have two more games on the East Coast this season, playing at both the New York Giants (Nov. 10) and New York Jets (Dec. 8).

Of explosive plays: Coach Dennis Allen made a point last season to make “explosive plays” -- plays that gain at least 16 yards through the air or 12 yards on the ground -- a point of emphasis. Limit the opponents' while maximizing your own, and your chances for victory increase. So how did the Raiders do against the Colts? Oakland had nine explosive plays -- six passes and three runs -- all by Pryor. Indianapolis had eight explosive plays, five through the air and three on the ground. None of the Raiders’ plays, though, ended as scores, while a 20-yard Andrew Luck pass and a 19-yard Luck run were TDs.

Upon Further Review: Patriots Week 1

September, 9, 2013
A review of four hot issues from the New England Patriots' 23-21 season-opening win over the Buffalo Bills:

[+] EnlargeStevan Ridley
Bill Wippert/AP PhotoPatriots running back Stevan Ridley did not get off to the stellar start he'd hoped for in Week 1.
Ridley’s place on running back depth chart: In 2012, Stevan Ridley played a team-high 45 percent of the Patriots’ running back snaps, and he appeared poised to reach a similar number this year based on the preseason and Sunday’s game in which he started. But a near-fumble in the first quarter (he was ruled down by officials), then a lost fumble in the second quarter that was returned 74 yards for a touchdown landed him a seat on the bench for the rest of the game. Does Ridley assume the No. 1 duties again Thursday night against the Jets? If not, it’s LeGarrette Blount or Shane Vereen.

Amendola’s groin injury and his availability: Receiver Danny Amendola left Sunday’s game at the end of the second quarter with a groin injury before returning in the third quarter. His gutsy, clutch performance drew raves. But after the game, Amendola was guarded about his condition and whether it might affect his availability for Thursday's game. “Right now, I just feel good about the win; that’s all that really matters to me,” he said. “We’ll figure everything else out later.”

Brady and the inconsistent passing game: For those used to seeing an explosive Tom Brady-led passing game, Sunday’s struggle was a bit of a culture shock. The inexperience of undrafted rookies Kenbrell Thompkins and Zach Sudfeld showed up at times, and when Amendola wasn’t on the field, Brady didn’t look as comfortable as Amendola has quickly developed into his Wes Welker-type security blanket. On a related note, second-round draft choice Aaron Dobson (hamstring) didn’t dress for the game, and given some of the struggles in the passing game, his status on the injury report figures to be watched closely.

Can never have enough pass rush: Part of it might have been the Patriots’ willingness to concede extra rushers to keep running back C.J. Spiller and the scrambling ability of quarterback EJ Manuel in check, but the pressure with the standard four rushers didn’t seem to disrupt Manuel enough when he was in the pocket surveying the field. The starting defensive line of left end Rob Ninkovich, defensive tackles Tommy Kelly and Vince Wilfork and right end Chandler Jones can’t be thrilled with the zero in the sack column on Sunday.

Upon Further Review: Chiefs Week 1

September, 9, 2013
An examination of four hot issues from the Chiefs’ 28-2 win over the Jaguars:
    [+] EnlargeJustin Houston
    AP Photo/Phelan M. EbenhackThe Chiefs' Justin Houston consistently hounded Jaguars QB Blaine Gabbert on Sunday.

  • The Chiefs unveiled the pressure scheme of new defensive coordinator Bob Sutton and showed they have the personnel to make it work. The Chiefs had six sacks, at times overwhelming the Jaguars not with numbers but plain force. Outside linebacker Justin Houston, who brought down Jacksonville quarterback Blaine Gabbert three times, served notice that he will be among the league leaders in sacks this season. The Chiefs also received considerable push up the middle, much of it from nose tackle Dontari Poe. On the back end, coverage held up nicely. A bigger challenge awaits Sunday when the Chiefs play against Tony Romo and the Cowboys in Kansas City.
  • The Chiefs were last in the NFL in turnover differential last season at minus-24 but got off to a good start in Jacksonville, where they were plus-2. The Chiefs not only scored a defensive touchdown on linebacker Tamba Hali’s 10-yard interception return, but also set up the offense with favorable field position after a Brandon Flowers' interception. Such help will be key for an offense that doesn’t figure to get a lot of big plays and will struggle if it has to go 80 yards each time it takes possession. The Chiefs committed zero turnovers, no small factor in the victory. The Chiefs led 21-2 at halftime, and it was evident at that point the only way the Jaguars would rally was if Kansas City provided some help. While the offense didn’t score in the second half, it also didn’t make any mistakes that would have given Jacksonville a chance to get back into the game.
  • The running game was sluggish in the preseason, but Jamaal Charles found plenty of running room in Jacksonville. Charles averaged a healthy 4.8 yards on his 16 carries. Run blocking was far superior to that in the preseason, when the Chiefs were occasionally overwhelmed at the point of attack. Backup right guard Geoff Schwartz, subbing for injured starter Jon Asamoah, was one of Kansas City’s best linemen. Charles left the game in the second half with a quad injury but should be ready to play against Dallas.
  • The Chiefs were outstanding in the kicking game in the preseason, but special teams allowed Jacksonville to score its only points when assignments were missed on the first punt of the game. The kick was blocked and went out of the end zone for a safety. The special teams recovered nicely. Dexter McCluster returned a punt 36 yards to set up the Chiefs’ first touchdown, which came after a drive of just 24 yards. The offense will succeed if it consistently gets help like that from the return game.

Upon Further Review: Jets Week 1

September, 9, 2013
An examination of four hot issues from the Jets' 18-17 win over the Bucs:

[+] EnlargeGeno Smith
Rich Schultz /Getty ImagesGeno Smith helped lead the Jets to a victory in his first NFL start.
1. Geno wins quarterback competition: Rex Ryan might not say it publicly, but rookie Geno Smith has locked up the charade that was billed as a quarterback competition. Smith's winning performance, coupled with media reports that Mark Sanchez's shoulder injury is worse than the team was letting on (gee, what a shock), makes this a no-brainer. They will ride Smith indefinitely, hoping the rest of the team can play well enough to overcome his growing pains. He got off to a shaky start, committing two turnovers and taking an unnecessary sack in the first half, but the kid kept it together and played well in the fourth quarter. In fact, he completed 7 of 11 passes for 83 yards in the fourth, plus his 10-yard scramble that ended with a late-hit penalty on the Bucs, which set up the Jets' game-winning field goal. Smith became the first quarterback drafted in the second round or later to throw for 250-plus yards in a Week 1 victory since the 1970 merger.

2. Running on empty: If the Jets don't rediscover their once-formidable ground game, Smith doesn't stand a chance. Smith was the leading rusher (47 yards), and that should tell you everything you need to know. But we'll tell you more, of course. Bilal Powell and Chris Ivory combined for 44 yards on 22 carries, a 2.0-yard average. The Bucs owned the league's top-ranked rush defense last season, but that's no excuse for a 2.0 average. The Jets tried to mix it up, using their Wildcat package. That was a bust, too, as they managed only 13 yards on five Wildcat plays -- shades of last season with Tim Tebow. Ivory looked positively ordinary in his Jets debut, although he didn't get much help from the line. Clearly, they need Mike Goodson (suspended), who has the speed to threaten the perimeter. Coordinator Marty Mornhinweg actually ran a toss sweep to WR Jeremy Kerley on a third-and-1, showing a lack of confidence in his backs.

3. Special K: GM John Idzik took some heat for letting TE Dustin Keller bolt as a free agent. Come to think of it, he let pretty much everyone bolt. For now, anyway, the Jets can feel good about the tight end position, thanks to a strong debut by Kellen Winslow. He's 30 years old and playing on a bad knee, but he looked frisky against one of his former teams, leading the Jets with seven catches for 79 yards. Clearly, he and Smith already have developed some chemistry. They connected seven times on eight targets, and that's important because a young quarterback's best friend is a crafty tight end who can get open in the middle of the field. Winslow ran a nice pivot route on his 7-yard touchdown catch, outfoxing the Bucs' secondary. The question with Winslow is durability. He played 63 percent of the offensive snaps, so it'll be interesting to see how his body responds on a short week.

4. Sharpening the edges: The Bucs' Doug Martin is the kind of running back who has caused problems for the Jets in recent years, especially as their defense grew older in 2011 and 2012. He's the type of dual threat who can wreak havoc in space, but he was held to 67 yards from scrimmage. The Jets made changes in the front seven, integrating LB DeMario Davis and drafting DT Sheldon Richardson -- two players with above-average speed for their positions. The improved athleticism was evident Sunday, as the Jets swarmed the line of scrimmage. DE Muhammad Wilkerson, fast becoming one of the top defensive linemen in the league, also played well. They were helped by the Bucs' coaching staff, whose play calling showed no creativity whatsoever.

Upon Further Review: Ravens Week 1

September, 6, 2013
An examination of four hot issues from the Baltimore Ravens' 49-27 loss at the Denver Broncos:

[+] EnlargeMichael Oher
Doug Pensinger/Getty ImagesAfter right tackle Michael Oher left the game, the Ravens' passing attack suffered.
The Oher effect: There's a new appreciation for right tackle Michael Oher. After he left the game in the middle of the second quarter with a sprained ankle, quarterback Joe Flacco and the passing attack weren't the same. Rookie fifth-round pick Rick Wagner couldn't keep the right side from collapsing against a Denver defense that was without its best pass-rusher in Von Miller. With Oher in the lineup, Flacco started the game strong, completing 12 of 19 passes (63 percent) with only three off-target passes. Without Oher, Flacco connected on 22 of 43 passes (51 percent) with eight off-target passes, all of which were overthrown. Late in the third quarter, wide receiver Torrey Smith was uncovered on the right side of the field, but Flacco couldn't find him because he was pressured on that side.

Poor tackling and pursuit: It was more than Peyton Manning's passes that hurt the Ravens. Baltimore's secondary, namely safety Michael Huff and cornerback Jimmy Smith, took bad pursuit angles when the Broncos caught the ball and failed to bring them down once they got there. It played a factor in the Broncos' three longest plays of the game. On Demaryius Thomas' 78-yard touchdown, Huff and Smith were the only Ravens in front of Thomas but couldn't shed blocks. On Julius Thomas' 44-yard catch, Huff missed the tackle. And on Demaryius Thomas' 34-yard catch, Smith took the wrong angle and ran into linebacker Josh Bynes instead of getting to Thomas. The Ravens defense allowed 259 yards after the catch (120 of which came from Demaryius Thomas), more than any defense had allowed in a game during the previous two seasons, according to ESPN Stats & Information. That accounted for 56 percent of Manning's 462 passing yards.

Youth got served on special teams: Pro Bowl returner Jacoby Jones left the game with a sprained right knee because undrafted rookie Brynden Trawick didn't look to see where Jones was on the field. Trawick's eyes were on his blocking assignment, Mike Adams, and he plowed into Jones, who was looking up as he signaled for a fair catch. The Ravens then had their first punt blocked in four seasons because rookie second-round pick Arthur Brown couldn't block David Bruton. The Ravens no longer have veteran special-teams players like Brendon Ayanbadejo, Sean Considine and David Reed. Baltimore's inexperience surfaced at two critical times.

Undisciplined play: Penalties were a problem last season for the Ravens, who finished with a league-high 70.4 penalty yards per game. Judging by the season opener, not much has changed for Baltimore. The Ravens committed seven penalties for 53 yards in Denver, and nearly half of those flags were personal fouls. Jimmy Smith, Albert McClellan and Gino Gradkowski were all flagged for unnecessary roughness. McClellan hit punt returner Trindon Holliday when he was clearly out of bounds, and Smith shoved Andre Caldwell right in front of punt returner Lardarius Webb, who had just caught the ball. The Ravens have to play smarter, especially against the better teams in the NFL.