What We Learned From Week 3 in the N.F.L.
Kansas City and Buffalo each lost heartbreakers (to the Colts and the Dolphins, respectively) that came down to their final drives, defeats that should temporarily shake up pundits’ power rankings. The Panthers shocked the Saints and the Titans upset the Raiders, though those are likely to have lingering impact on New Orleans and Las Vegas, franchises that had expected to contend but find themselves with one combined win.
Teams need their safeties for Tyreek Hill and Jaylen Waddle.
The worst news any N.F.L. defense could hear is that their starting safeties aren’t available against Tyreek Hill and Jaylen Waddle, the Dolphins’ speedy receiving duo. Defenses need their safeties to handle Miami. In the Dolphins’ fourth-quarter comeback against the Ravens last week, Hill and Waddle’s speed forced Baltimore’s safeties to either bust coverages or finally lose their breath from trying to run alongside them. They also excel in the middle of the field, and in a league that continues to live in two-high coverages, it often becomes the safety’s responsibility to nail down on those routes.
Heading into Sunday’s game, Buffalo found itself in the unenviable position of playing without both starting safeties: Micah Hyde was ruled out for the remainder of the season with a neck injury, while foot problems sidelined Jordan Poyer.
Jaquan Johnson (one career start) and the second-year defensive back Damar Hamlin stepped into the nightmare and surrendered a number of key plays for a Bills team riddled with injuries. The Dolphins’ offense started slowly, scoring only a touchdown through the first 23 minutes of play thanks to a Josh Allen fumble inside his own 10-yard line.
By the middle of the second quarter, though, Miami marched 83 yards for its second touchdown as Tua Tagovailoa drilled an inside-breaking route over the middle to River Cracraft to tie the game at 14, after the Dolphins converted the extra-point attempt.
Miami came out in a bunch set against what looked like a red zone variation of Cover 6 from the Bills. Two of the Dolphins’ receivers ran in-breaking routes, one behind the other. From that coverage, the safety is supposed to pin down on the second in-breaker to help the cornerback playing outside leverage.
Either of Buffalo’s starting safeties could have made a play on the ball from that position, but Johnson was just a step too slow, giving Tagovailoa just enough of a window for the score.
Midway through the fourth quarter, the Bills’ safeties finally allowed a deep shot on third-and-22. Waddle split the Cover 2 defense in half with a post route and hauled in the pass between both safeties. Johnson never had a chance at keeping pace, but Hamlin almost made a play on the ball coming over from the other half of the field.
However, as on Tagovailoa’s earlier touchdown throw, the safety was just a step behind the play. Running back Chase Edmonds punched in the go-ahead touchdown a few plays later.
Why Tagovailoa was in the game at that point will be a point of contention in the coming weeks. He left the field looking unstable at the end of the first quarter after Bills linebacker Matt Milano shoved him to the grass, causing him to hit his head on the ground (Milano drew a roughing the passer call.). The Dolphins cleared him to return in the second half, and the N.F.L. Players Association has said it will initiate an investigation of the team’s handling of the league’s concussion protocol.
The Bills almost mounted a comeback on two separate drives, the second of which came off the back of a punt that deflected off a Miami player for a safety. Miami’s defense held strong both times, helped out a little bit on the first drive when Allen missed an open receiver in the flat on fourth-and-goal.
The Saints’ offense is all out of sorts.
A surplus of pass catchers was supposed to float the Saints’ offense this season. The two-time All-Pro Michael Thomas returned from an injury that kept him out all of the 2021 season and was set to mentor Chris Olave, one of the team’s first-round draft picks this year. Signing the veteran Jarvis Landry in the off-season was supposed to bring a reliable option underneath for a healthy Jameis Winston, who has the longtime Sean Payton disciple, Pete Carmichael, calling plays as the offensive coordinator.
They haven’t been enough. Winston is playing with four fractured vertebrae and has been wildly inconsistent in hitting his targets — problems that may be related. They also may not be the primary culprit in assessing how bad the offense has been. New Orleans lost left tackle Terron Armstead via free agency and the five-man front that remains, as well as Carmichael’s pass protection plans, are putting a less-than-100 percent Winston in impossible positions far too often.
The Saints’ offensive line has looked overwhelmed against any kind of blitz look all season, starting in Week 1 against Dean Pees’s Falcons defense. The unit looked equally frazzled against the Bucs and worse at Carolina this week. On one third-quarter third-and-11 in the red zone, the Panthers showed eight players at the line of scrimmage, but the Saints kept only the running back in as an extra protector and didn’t give Winston a quick hot route to find over the middle, leaving a free rusher to take him down.
The same thing happened again on a second-and-10 early in the fourth quarter. With the Saints in 10 personnel (four wide receivers, one running back and no tight ends), the Panthers again loaded the line of scrimmage, knowing the only extra body the Saints could keep as an extra pass protector was the running back. Seven Panthers players came on the blitz, leaving a defensive back, blitzing away from the running back, free to get in Winston’s face and deflect a desperate pass attempt into the air for an interception.
Considering that the offense’s structure is more at fault than the talent, it’s possible the Saints’ struggles will sort themselves out. But Winston may not be able to take the clobbering that goes along with those growing pains.
The Raiders paid big to be 0-3.
Las Vegas went all out to be competitive in the A.F.C. West, which had been expected to be among the league’s toughest divisions this season. Trading for — and paying a $141 million extension to — receiver Davante Adams to reunite him with his college quarterback, Derek Carr, was the headlining move, but the Raiders also picked up Chandler Jones (three years, $51 million) to boost their pass-rush, added a handful of mid-tier defensive backs to bolster the secondary, and swapped out the defensive coordinator Gus Bradley for Patrick Graham (formerly of the Giants and Dolphins).
For all the big numbers, the one that counts most is the Raiders record: 0-3. Since 1979, only six teams have ever made the playoffs after starting with a 0-3 record, and this Las Vegas team may find itself needing a Week 18 heave to make the postseason — same as it did last season.
The Raiders aren’t effective on either side of the ball. A solid offense hasn’t launched even after adding one of the league’s top receivers to complement Darren Waller and Hunter Renfrow, and Las Vegas’s offensive line has been more of an issue than any of the team’s skill players.
The defense has also been a letdown. The Raiders’ defense ranked 26th in the league with largely the same talent last season, but were at least supposed to have an improved pass-rush with Jones and Maxx Crosby coming off the edge. Instead, Las Vegas has just two sacks in three games. Crosby brought down Ryan Tannehill once on Sunday in a 24-22 loss to the Titans, and could not generate consistent pressure.
The Raiders failed to get anything done when they brought simple four-man rushes, often needing to bring extra bodies to generate pressure while surrendering coverage help for their middling secondary.
Las Vegas has been competitive in all three losses, but this was supposed to be a playoff contender and now the Raiders have an excruciating uphill battle to salvage their postseason hopes.
Around the N.F.L.
Ravens 37, Patriots 26: Lamar Jackson’s contract campaign continues. Even with the Ravens on their fourth left tackle (Daniel Faalele), Jackson was stellar from the pocket, throwing for four touchdowns. He tacked on another 107 yards (on 11 carries) and a fifth touchdown on the ground, some runs coming as a scrambler and some as a designed runner. The Patriots’ offense made this one a shootout, but the Ravens’ volatile secondary finally hit some highs to match their lows, picking off Mac Jones three times despite surrendering 10 yards a pass.
Bears 23, Texans 20: The Bears continue to do everything they can to keep the game out of Justin Fields’s hands. Fields threw only 17 passes, completing eight, while eating five sacks and being intercepted twice. None of that mattered, at least this week, as the backup running back Khalil Herbert had a huge day, taking 20 carries for 157 yards and scoring the team’s only two touchdowns. With the game tied, 20-20, with less than two minutes to go, Bears linebacker Roquan Smith snagged an interception off Davis Mills to immediately put the Bears within range for Cairo Santos’s game-winning 30-yard field goal.
Titans 24, Raiders 22: The Raiders’ defense did the Titans’ offense a solid by giving Derrick Henry a “get right” game. Through Week 2, Tennessee had perhaps the worst rushing offense in the league because of faulty offensive line play and Henry’s looking less explosive than he did in his peak years from 2018 to 2020. Henry ripped off a number of rushes of 10 or more yards through the first half, barreling over linebackers on a few occasions just like old times. Getting an effective running game back allowed Ryan Tannehill to do everything he is good at in the play-action passing game, including slowing down the pass rush off the edge.
Colts 20, Kansas City 17: Andy Reid and Patrick Mahomes should have teed off against Gus Bradley and Indianapolis’s vanilla defense. But Kansas City’s running game was shut out entirely, sticking with too many shotgun formations and with the Colts’ interior duo of DeForest Buckner and Grover Stewart dominating the trenches. The Colts’ offense wasn’t much of a force, either, but it mustered a 16-play, 76-yard touchdown drive in the fourth quarter to finish things off. Indianapolis squeezed 8 minutes 14 seconds off the clock, leaving just 24 seconds for Mahomes to respond. That is usually more than enough, just not with Kansas City stuck in the mud this season.
Dolphins 21, Bills 19: Tua Tagovailoa and the Miami receivers’ speed finally wore down the Bills’ defense by the fourth quarter, and the Dolphins went ahead on a third-and-22 connection to Jaylen Waddle. The Bills played a wild sequence of football over the game’s final minutes, but failed on a potential game-winning drive that stalled inside the 5-yard line. Then, working from the end zone, Thomas Morstead’s punt bounced off the rear end of his teammate Trent Sherfield, giving Buffalo a 2-point safety. On Buffalo’s last drive, time expired as Josh Allen tried to spike the ball to set up a last-chance field-goal attempt.
Vikings 28, Lions 24: Make it two consecutive weeks in which the Lions have collapsed in the second half after starting games with a big lead. Kirk Cousins found K.J. Osborn on a crossing route for a 28-yard touchdown pass to take the lead with less than a minute to go. Jared Goff and the Lions tried to get down the field with 45 seconds remaining and no timeouts, but Goff eventually had no choice but to throw up a prayer that was answered by Vikings safety Josh Metellus’s interception.
Bengals 27, Jets 12: It looks like all the Bengals needed was a game against a shaky Jets defense to get back on track. Joe Burrow was sacked twice (an improvement) and wideout Tyler Boyd surprised as the team’s leading receiver, earning nearly half of his yards on a smooth 56-yard catch-and-run touchdown down the middle of the Jets’ defense. All may not be right with Cincinnati, but the team got its first win of the season.
Eagles 24, Commanders 8: Carson Wentz took six sacks in the first half alone (while completing only three passes) before going down three more times in the second half against his former team, which counted on him to hold the ball for too long. The current Eagles quarterback, Jalen Hurts, on the other hand, was 22 of 35 with 340 yards and three passing touchdowns. DeVonta Smith had his first breakout game of the season for Philadelphia, catching eight of 12 targets for 169 yards and a touchdown. Smith’s performance was highlighted by a Willie Mays-esque over-the-shoulder catch on a sideline go ball and a high-point snag between two defenders.
Panthers 22, Saints 14: The Saints’ offense was shut out for three quarters, missing two field-goal attempts, before sprinkling in a few explosive plays and two interceptions in the fourth. Matt Rhule’s Panthers did not have much of a day on offense, but should feel good about finally getting receiver Laviska Shenault involved. Shenault took a quick pass in the flat 67 yards for a touchdown, breaking two tackles before winning the foot race against the rest of the Saints’ defense.