Week 1 of the 2018 NFL season is in the books, and it felt like the football gods were out on a mission to remind everyone why they fell in love with football in the first place.
We had epic comebacks (Green Bay over Chicago) and epic disappointments (Cleveland netting a tie despite winning the turnover battle 6-1). We had epic blowouts (as Buffalo and Detroit fans can attest) and so many big plays that the New Orleans-Tampa Bay game essentially morphed into a track meet in the second quarter.
Oh yes, it was a great weekend for the NFL, which means the league will surely do something this week to annoy everyone again. Maybe it’ll enact another ill-fated policy that will alienate half its fanbase, or it’ll institute a new rule that is roundly hated. When times are good in the NFL, you just know something wicked this way comes.
But until then, we should absolutely enjoy this moment. So, let’s jump into my first “5 Things I Enjoyed” column, which I plan to write after every week of NFL action. The goal here is to bring attention to the most interesting things I saw during my review of the week’s action, most of which is informed by the hours I spend watching the all-22 coaches tape, all in hopes of being a more informed football writer, so I can then inform you.
Over the next several months, I hope to keep stuffing this thing with deep football analysis and amusing observations, all in my never-ending quest to be the dorkiest football writer in America (if the shoe fits, wear it, right?).
Without further ado, let’s go:
1. Andy Reid’s ridiculous (but amazing!) goal-line play calls
Yes, I spent five years covering the Kansas City Chiefs. But I’m not leading this weekly feature off with a Chiefs play for that reason; I’m doing it because their coach, Andy Reid, is a mad genius when given months to prepare for a single game.
And Reid, for the uninitiated, loves running gadget plays in the red zone. Can’t get enough of it. I used to think he did things like pass the ball to 340-pound nose tackle Dontari Poe — which he did a few years ago — near the goal line because the offensive line couldn’t be trusted to get the tough yards, but I now believe he calls plays like this one solely because it’s fun:
This is just … beautiful. By now, fans (and defenses) are so used to seeing running backs receive handoffs out of shotgun, they almost get lulled to sleep by it, even with a receiver — like Tyreek Hill did here — sprinting to create a little misdirection at the mesh point. But I’ve never seen it executed this way, with quarterback Patrick Mahomes flipping the ball to Hill shortly before executing the fake to Kareem Hunt, the running back. You can tell the Chargers haven’t either because everyone was fooled.
This isn’t the last time we’ll see this type of action on this zone-read play. Teams have long looked at Reid’s Chiefs for inspiration when it comes to spread-game concepts, and given the trickery involved — and the effectiveness of it — it won’t be long before you see a team steal this.
2. This throw — wow
Let’s stay with the Chiefs for a minute, and let’s do it because second-year pro Patrick Mahomes is worthy of our attention. While Mahomes will have some growing pains this year, his four-touchdown effort on Sunday was outstanding, and his first TD pass, a 58-yard laser to Tyreek Hill, is going to give defensive coordinators nightmares.
Here’s why: While a big reason for the score was Hill’s blazing speed, an underrated portion of what made that play go was the way Mahomes saved time on a timing route by using his elite arm strength to deliver the ball on a rope without needing to waste time stepping into the throw. People don’t understand how rare or important that is. By getting the ball out a tick of a second faster, it decreases the time defensive players have to react to the throw, giving Hill — an ultimate, “If we’re even, I’m leavin’” guy if there ever was one — even more of a running start.
It will be interesting to see how the Chiefs’ next opponent, the Pittsburgh Steelers — a team with a recent history for beating the Chiefs up in the trenches and on the scoreboard — handle Mahomes. Their fire zone blitzes confuse even the most veteran of quarterbacks, and it’s safe to say Mahomes hasn’t seen anything like this before. It’s also safe to say, however, that the Steelers will have to account for throws like the one above, which most quarterbacks cannot make. It should make for an interesting showdown Sunday.
And hey, speaking of the Steelers …
3. Leaner, meaner James Conner
Conner, the Steelers’ second-year running back, won’t tell anyone how much weight he lost this offseason. But there’s no way the 6-foot-1 Conner weighs the 233 pounds he’s listed at. The former third-round pick looks so much quicker and fluid than he used to be, but what’s really encouraging is how much better he has gotten at catching the rock.
During Conner’s senior year at Pitt in 2016, he caught 21 passes, and in the three years before that, he caught a grand total of eight. His NFL.com draft profile even stated that his hands are “a little stiff as a pass catcher and will fight the ball at times.”
Well, you saw none of that in the Steelers’ 21-21 tie with the Browns on Sunday, as Conner hauled in five passes for 57 yards, including the nifty (one-handed!) catch in the clip below.
Aside from a fumble late in the fourth, Conner looked awesome. As long as the fumbling doesn’t become a thing, he showed he’s capable of handling a bigger workload while the Steelers wait on Le’Veon Bell.
4. Gruden’s tight formations
By the time Oakland coach Jon Gruden’s first game back on the sideline was over, the Rams led 33-13 and people couldn’t wait to start mocking Chucky and the Raiders. Sign of the times, man.
But by halftime, Gruden, who hadn’t coached a regular-season NFL game in 10 years, was looking pretty smart, as his Raiders outgained the Rams 254 yards to 88. A big reason for that, several Rams players told me after the game, was his effective use of “22” — or two tight end, two running back — personnel to set up the run in the first half.
But upon further review, the Raiders weren’t really using “22” personnel at all — they were using lots of “12” (one back, two tight ends) and “21” (two backs, one tight end) personnel that simply looked like “22” because one of their two receivers would either line up or motion tight to the line of scrimmage and help the Raiders get numbers to block up front for “Beast Mode.”
Sort of like this:
Notice how, on this play, by motioning Amari Cooper next to left tackle Kolton Miller, the Raiders had five men on the right side of the formation to block the Rams’ five on that side of the box? That’s an even-count box, and any offense worth its salt will take those odds.
Again, the Rams figured this out in the second half, and much of their ability to shut down the Raiders had lots to do with their superior talent. But these “tight” formations were still a nice wrinkle to get a numbers advantage and cause confusion, so much so that multiple Rams apparently didn’t realize what these personnel packages were, even once the game was over.
Based on the Raiders’ performance Monday night, Gruden will need to pull out more stuff like this to coax more than the six wins the Raiders netted last season.
5. Aaron Donald’s strong hands
If you watched the Rams-Raiders game, you probably saw this play and noticed Donald’s quickness and the swim move. Most impressive were Donald’s hands. Look at the way he shoots them right into the breastplate of Kelechi Osemele — a very, very strong man — and latches on before performing a picture-perfect pull and swim.
That is how Donald dominates at defensive tackle in the NFL, despite being only 6-foot-1.
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