NFL Week 3: AFC West disappoints, quarterbacks are mortal, and kick returns are back

The wonderful, confounding NFL was back at it in Week 3, proving again that we don't know what we don't know. See: The AFC West.

The wonderful thing about the NFL is that it makes idiots of us all. Week 1 was a fantastic return to football, while NFL Week 3 — featuring marquee matchups people had circled on their calendars — returned a dud.

The three remaining undefeated teams, which could be two teams after the conclusion of Monday Night Football, are the Miami Dolphins, Philadelphia Eagles, and New York Giants — no one’s preseason picks for elite-tier football.

Meanwhile, quarterbacks people nearly universally agreed were elite turned up losses in favored games or, in the case of Aaron Rodgers and Tom Brady, played each other in low-scoring affairs. What we learned in Week 3 was that we can’t trust ourselves to learn too much from week to week when it comes to football.

AFC West continues to fall flat in Week 3

It was easy to buy into the narrative that the AFC West would be a super-division after Davante Adams was traded to the Las Vegas Raiders and Russell Wilson found himself in a Denver Broncos uniform.

Adding in the two elite quarterbacks for the Los Angeles Chargers and Kansas City Chiefs — along with all the attendant playoff success the Chiefs have had — it seemed inevitable that we’d be talking about this division like we did the AFC North half a decade ago.

The possibility of all four teams making the playoffs, possible but improbable, had been floated given the relatively new playoff system that allows three wild cards.

But after three weeks, we might be left asking if the division can send two teams instead of all four. An awful week for the division resulted in those teams going 1-3 collectively, with only the Broncos eking out a one-point win against the San Francisco 49ers and their backup quarterback.

While the Chargers and Chiefs were the most surprising losses, the Raiders’ defeat at the hands of the Titans uniquely stands out. Derek Carr can’t seem to find the aggressiveness that Jon Gruden forced out of him, and he’s back to his conservative playstyle, wasting an offense with Davante Adams and Darren Waller.

Already, a Raiders loss to a Tennessee Titans team that benched their starting quarterback a week ago has led to an owner’s meeting with the new head coach.

The Raiders are 0-3 after trading for and extending Davante Adams to supercharge the offense, while the defense was supposed to benefit from signing Chandler Jones. They entered their game against the Titans ranked 24th in point differential ready to take on the team ranked last in point differential and still pulled out a loss.

The troubles following the Raiders are larger than the rest of the division, but the flaws from the other three teams were on display this week as well. While it would be folly to underestimate the Trevor Lawrence-led Jaguars, the drubbing the Chargers received from that group tells us that even the brightest stars of the division can’t consistently produce greatness.

An injured Justin Herbert lining up behind his backup center, working without his star left tackle, and throwing to second-string receivers wasn’t going to be a recipe for success, but the Chargers couldn’t get close to competing with a Jacksonville team so out of sorts last year that their coach was on the hot seat by Week 4.

The Chiefs’ loss was even worse, even though it was by a smaller margin. The Chargers can take heart in the fact that Jacksonville is better than people thought they were, but Chiefs fans don’t quite have the same solace when it comes to the Indianapolis Colts.

It’s already difficult losing to an ailing Colts team that can’t get out of its own way. It’s not as if their MVP quarterback played poorly or that the defense faltered too often. Mahomes did well enough but was held back by a missed field goal, a poorly executed fake field goal, a muffed punt, and some crucial drops.

While we’ve seen Mahomes reach higher heights in play fairly regularly, it would be tough to pin this loss on anything but bizarre flukes and special teams.

The Broncos have been so beleaguered by their own game management decisions that they made the unusual move of hiring a game management consultant three weeks into the season. And though the Broncos received praise for basic timeout trigger discipline at the end of the half, they still made terrible fourth-down decisions that could have ended the game outright for them.

Per Next Gen Stats, on 4th & inches, trailing 10-5 early in the 4th quarter, the Broncos elected to punt when the numbers said go (by 4.8%). The Broncos have gotten only 1 of 7 calls correctly when the numbers said to go by +2% this season (-31.5% win probability lost).

On top of that, Russell Wilson hasn’t been in sync with his talented receiving corps and is making one of the best pass-protecting offensive lines he’s ever had look worse than ever.

Heading into the final moments of the fourth quarter, the offense had scored all of three points, with the other two coming from a safety — a product of a great defense and incredible punting. A good fourth quarter from Wilson doesn’t put any concerns about his level of play to bed.

Finishing with 11 points — two of them scored on defense — is not going to be enough to maintain a hold over the division, and a performance against the Garoppolo-led 49ers isn’t going to provide much confidence that this is an elite defense. The best teams in the AFC West will get better. But this certainly doesn’t look like the super-division we thought it would be.

Tua Tagovailoa
Sep 25, 2022; Miami Gardens, Florida, USA; Miami Dolphins quarterback Tua Tagovailoa (1) runs onto the field against the Buffalo Bills at Hard Rock Stadium. Mandatory Credit: Rich Storry-USA TODAY Sports

Quarterbacks (don’t?) matter

This week has given NFL fans a reason to care about supporting casts. The Kansas City example has already been covered, but we’ve seen so many more. Elite quarterbacks like Tom Brady struggled without their offensive line and receivers, while Rodgers was able to return to some semblance of his elite form as his offensive line returned to health.

Missing Sammy Watkins and Christian Watson likely didn’t help him, but getting players like David Bakhtiari, Elgton Jenkins, and Allen Lazard meant the world, even if he didn’t light up the box score.

Josh Allen saw that as well. He played extremely well, but with multiple players leaving over the course of the game — many because of the heat — we saw the team falter and eventually lose.

As quarterback salaries increase and teams move mountains to find their preferred passer, there still needs to be some consideration given to who they play with. Nothing will change their impact on the game, but even the best quarterbacks can’t do their work when playing with backups.

Jalen Hurts deserves praise for what he’s done, but it shouldn’t be ignored that he’s playing with the league’s best offensive line and a great group of receivers. That doesn’t just apply to how quarterbacks work with the other players on the field.

Trevor Lawrence did see upgrades at receiver, but it’s important to note how much better he looks when out from under the shadow of Urban Meyer. So too with Tua Tagovailoa, who is working with a top five receiver corps, and Mike McDaniel, who has been active in play design and innovating ways to make Tagovailoa’s skill set work with the rest of the offense.

That last point is key — fit matters. Tagovailoa was billed by many, including me, as a player who could work not well with talents like Tyreek Hill and Jaylen Waddle. And without the skill of McDaniel, that could otherwise be the case.

We’re seeing the other side of that with Michael Thomas, Chris Olave, Jarvis Landry, and Jameis Winston. Winston plays a deep-ball passing game that relies on contested catches. It’s high-risk, high-reward, and can yield a fruitful offense.

That style not only requires receivers capable of that style of play — basketball player types who get to the rim or those who can rip the ball away from opponents — but also an offensive line capable of protecting the quarterback.

The quarterback’s body itself seems to be a poor fit, too, with four broken vertebrae in his back limiting his torque and affecting his willingness to stand tall in a pocket and take a hit as he heaves it.

While Olave can get deep and Landry can win contested catches, neither do both at the same time particularly well. Thomas himself is a remarkable asset to have, but he thrives in a short passing game that relies on timing. It’s a bad fit, and Pete Carmichael can’t seem to make the pieces work together.

If I were to pick six MVP candidates among the quarterback group based entirely on the three weeks of football played this year, I’d probably select Lamar Jackson, Tua Tagovailoa, Jalen Hurts, Josh Allen, Patrick Mahomes, and perhaps Trevor Lawrence.

Of those, Jackson seems to be doing the most with the least. While Allen’s “usage rate” is the highest, it’s Jackson’s incredible passing that seems to be driving the Ravens’ success.

He’s one of the most efficient passers through three weeks in the NFL (first in adjusted net yards per attempt, first in passer rating, third in yards per attempt, and fourth in EPA per passing dropback) without a star receiving group and an injured offensive line.

Meanwhile, Jackson ranks fourth among all rushers in rushing yards, second in first downs per rushing attempt, and first in yards per rushing attempt.

NFL Kickoff Return | Extra Point Week 3
Minnesota Vikings kicker Greg Joseph kicks off during a game. Photo Credit: Minnesota Vikings.

The return of the return

The 25-yard touchback rule instituted in 2016 was designed to reduce the number of returns teams saw on kickoffs, as returners would generally see it as a losing play to take the ball out of the end zone just to get tackled at the 23-yard line.

That worked. In the three years before the rule was instituted, 49% of kickoffs were returned without a touchback. The three years following the rule saw that percentage decline by ten points, to 39%.

At the same time, field position for offenses has improved coming off of kickoffs, from 22.8 yards following kickoffs to 25.6. Some kicking teams are attempting to correct for that.

While the percentage of kicks returned has declined every year — it’s at 32% this year — the number of high-pop kicks designed to induce returns has increased. Hangtimes have increased by one-tenth of a second in 2022 over the previous three years — enough to allow kickoff coverage players another yard and a half downfield — while the distance they have to run has decreased.

The league leader in opponent field position following a kickoff, the Minnesota Vikings, have been intentional about dropping the ball ahead of the end zone to force a return. Because kickoffs are live and can be recovered by either team, returners would be better off fielding it and attempting to gain yards than letting it bounce. On returned kicks, the Vikings have kicked the ball an average of 61.5 yards downfield.

The league average across all kicks is 67 yards (65 reaches the end zone) and on returned kicks is 63 yards. Though risky, this has resulted in the Vikings stealing seven yards from the offense on average, an advantage that can build up over time.

That kind of advantage will be noticed by the league’s special team coaches. While we haven’t hit that point yet, it’s worth thinking about the possibility that the NFL’s kickoff return rule, successfully designed to reduce the impact that comes with kick returns, may increase the number of kick returns in the long run.

In that case, they would do well to emulate the XFL kick return rule, which lines up the kickoff coverage players and the kickoff return blockers five yards across from each other to reduce high-impact collisions while increasing the number of kicks returned.

Dan Campbell | Detroit Lions
Sep 25, 2022; Minneapolis, Minnesota, USA; Detroit Lions head coach Dan Campbell looks on during the fourth quarter against the Minnesota Vikings at U.S. Bank Stadium. Mandatory Credit: Jeffrey Becker-USA TODAY Sports

Notable coaching decisions in Week 3

Every week, the NFL features unique approaches by their lead management figures: the coaches. Most of the time, they stand out because they don’t make sense. Sometimes, they stand out because they’re incredible. I’ll try to isolate some of the ones most notable to me for whatever reason.

Notable 1: The decision to play Herbert through painkillers. I understand that it’s going to be a tight race in the AFC and the AFC West in particular, but it’s an 18-week season and, hopefully, another five-week postseason. Protect your young star. Football players will almost always try to play through pain, so it’s up to coaches to manage those players and prevent further injury.

Notable 2: The decision to return Tagovailoa through his “back injury”. It could very well be the case that Tagovailoa actually suffered a back injury that “loosened” his back up and made him wobble dangerously after a big hit partway through the game.

If so, it makes sense that the concussion protocol — which was performed by an independent practitioner and not by a team official — cleared Tagovailoa to play. But it doesn’t smell right, and I’m glad the NFLPA is investigating. Even so, back injuries are nothing to screw around with.

Tagovailoa was cooking, it makes sense to want him in throughout the game while it was tied against a division rival. But again, it’s an 18-week season.

Notable 3: Dan Campbell is aggressive on fourth downs, and that makes for fun football. Sure, it so happens that fourth-down aggressiveness is analytically better — and Campbell was right throughout the game when he decided to go for it, according to the data — but it primarily is a lot more fun to have so much more on the line on fourth down.

It also makes for a wider menu of options available to offenses on third down and forces defenses to do more than just abandon all gap discipline and send rushers through gaps on those third downs.

Notable 4: Campbell’s decision to kick the field goal late in the fourth quarter instead of going for it to ice out the win. Some of the beauty of Campbell’s league-leading fourth-down aggressiveness is that it’s rooted in his identity as a football coach and his preferred identity to create an aggressive physical fourth-down team — and not a nerd’s model.

But it does mean that his instincts are driving the decisions more than completely solid football backing, and it can lead to mistakes like kicking a field goal to turn a one-score game into a slightly different one-score game.

He regretted the decision after the game, so it’s at least something he’s aware of, but man, was that rough.

Tennesse Titans Defense
Sep 25, 2022; Nashville, Tennessee, USA; Tennessee Titans safety Kevin Byard (31) is congratulated after an interception against the Las Vegas Raiders during the fourth quarter at Nissan Stadium. Mandatory Credit: Andrew Nelles-USA TODAY Sports

NFL trend watch

The usage of Cover-2 throughout the NFL has increased ever-so-slightly since the Cover-3 revolution took over the NFL following the success of the Legion of Boom. With that, teams are running more Cover-4 and Cover-6 — also split-safety alignments, like Cover-2 — in order to limit the playing styles of the best quarterbacks in the NFL.

Allen and Mahomes live off of deep shots, and having a deeper safety to limit those plays has been a change that NFL teams have felt the need to make. At the same time, the type of rangy free-safety necessary for some Cover-3 schemes simply doesn’t exist on most teams, and the implementation of that type of playing style is difficult.

That doesn’t mean teams have abandoned it — Cover-3 is still useful for zone blitzes and making sure there are enough bodies against the run — but teams are more willing to drop safeties or other players deep.

In 2019, the rate of two-high coverages was at an even 33% across all passing downs. It has since then risen every single year, and three weeks in 2022 is at its highest usage, 40.3%.

One thing to keep in mind, however, is that it can be a self-inflicted death against players like Allen, Jackson, Hurts, and Kyler Murray, who can punish two-high teams with designed runs that are incredibly effective.

Butt punt

Butt punt. That’s all.

Final thoughts from Week 3

  • We’re only 13 starts into Justin Fields’ career, so we should be incredibly cautious. But it’s beginning to feel like he doesn’t have it.
  • I’m still waiting for the bottom to fall out for Tagovailoa and Hurts, but they should be given the benefit of the doubt at this point.
  • I never doubted Trevor Lawrence, and I’m not surprised he’s doing much better.
  • The New York Jets have had a reasonable pass rush, so to see Joe Burrow do well despite that might mean that there’s an opportunity to buy back all the embarrassing losses the Cincinnati Bengals had to start the season. Their game vs. the Miami Dolphins on Thursday night should be fascinating.
  • Rodgers, Brady, and Wilson really might be in the final moments of their careers — we still haven’t seen any of the sustained explosiveness that made them perennial MVP candidates. Brady might have the longest leash here given the receiver and offensive line injuries, but you’d like to see more.
  • It’s OK to ask questions like, “is this the worst 2-0 team of all time?” That’s the conversation surrounding the Giants as they head into Monday Night Football. Part of the fun of sports is speculating about how various teams would match up against historical counterparts or who happens to be the best — or worst — within an arbitrarily defined group. It also allows us to separate accomplishment (past wins) from quality (predicting future wins). If your favorite team is in the “worst X” or “best X” conversation, that’s fine. If you don’t like that the conversation is happening, don’t engage. If you enjoy the conversation and disagree, all the better.

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