Welcome back to our new series, in which Shaun Blundell and Sean Tyler pick over half a dozen things from this week’s action. After Week 2, we’re unsure about the Broncos, impressed by Puka Nacua, entertained by the Bills and concerned about the QBs for the Bengals, Bears and Jets. So, without further ado, here’s our Pick Six…
Nacua looks pukka in Rams’ young offense
If you play fantasy football, then the name Puka Nacua was probably a hot commodity on the waiver wire last week. And if he’s still available in your league, he won’t be for very much longer. The fifth-round pick impressed on his debut with 10 catches for 119 yards in the Rams’ win over the Seattle Seahawks and his follow-up earned him a place in the NFL record books. Nacua hauled in 15 of his 20 targets from Matthew Stafford against the impressive 49ers defense on Sunday, totalling 147 yards. Those 15 receptions are the most by a rookie in a single game in NFL history.
Nacua is also the first rookie to have double-digit receptions in each of his first two NFL games, and his 25 receptions so far is a new record for a rookie in his first two games – a league high held by ex-49er Earl Cooper that had been in the books for over 40 years. Nacua is on pace for 212 receptions this year, which would smash the single-season reception record by 63. Let’s pump the brakes on that one, but it certainly highlights the exceptional start he has made.
When you lack draft capital and cap space, hitting on late-round draft picks is a necessity. The Rams have possibly unearthed a real gem here in the BYU man. Nacua’s emergence is especially timely with Cooper Kupp on injured reserve with a hamstring injury. Kupp’s absence left many questions about how the Rams would start the season. Nacua is not only filling that absence, he’s thriving because of it. The question on Rams fans’ lips now will be “what might this offense look like when both get on the field?” [SB]
Joe’s woes are a pain in the calf
Things are definitely not going to plan for the Bengals, whose second divisional loss – 27-24 to the Ravens – leaves them slumped at 0-2. With only two starters playing preseason games and franchise QB Joe Burrow easing back from injury, a slow start was inevitable. The team faced exactly the same circumstances last year and still made the AFC Championship decider so there’s no panic or overreaction… yet. Then again, only 9.6% of teams starting 0-2 since the 1970 merger have made the playoffs so it’s not ideal.
In 2022, Burrow’s issue was an appendectomy. This time, a calf strain that wiped out his training camp was clearly still a problem in the disastrous season opener (a 24-3 shellacking by Cleveland). And the Cincy offense stuttered yet again on Sunday: early in Q2, they’d gained 14 yards from six plays and had no first downs, and Burrow’s 35 passing yards at HT were actually down from last week. He did eventually find some sort of rhythm (27 of 41, 222 yards, 2 TDs) but with a red zone INT as well, it wasn’t enough.
Losing to an AFC North foe is one thing but having your franchise QB – and the league’s highest-paid player – unwilling to run in case of further injury is quite another. Despite the obvious caution, he still tweaked his calf late in the game and limped off. Even a couple of weeks out could totally scupper the season for Cincinnati, who only have Jake Browning and Will Grier as cover. Worryingly, in the post-game presser, Burrow could only muster “I don’t know”, “it’s tough to tell” and “we’ll see” answers when asked about his immediate and long-term fitness.
If the Bengals are going to dig themselves out of this hole again, they’ll need Burrow available and back at his best. But at the moment, neither of those things looks very likely. [ST]
Sean Payton can’t Hackett
Here’s a life lesson: if you have nothing nice to say, then don’t say anything at all.
“One of the worst coaching jobs in the history of the NFL” – these are the words of Sean Payton, who replaced Nathaniel Hackett as head coach of the Denver Broncos this offseason. Those words may come back to bite the new HC in the backside as the Broncos slipped to 0-2, unfathomably a worse start than the team made under Hackett’s stewardship last term.
It is still early days and there are some small glimpses from which to take some optimism. Russell Wilson looks better than he did a year ago. Admittedly, that’s a low bar to cross but in the first half in particular, Wilson and the offense looked good. Marvin Mims had a breakout game, getting on the end of two deep shots and also posting a long punt return. Jerry Jeudy and Courtland Sutton were back on the same field for what feels like the first time in forever, and Javonte Williams showed some nice bursts in the running game. A handsome lead grew, and optimism ensued. Maybe, finally, the Broncos had flipped the switch.
Unfortunately though, when up 21-3, a costly Wilson fumble changed the direction of the game. Washington would go on a 32-points-to-3 run with the Broncos defense gashed by Sam Howell through the air and Brian Robinson on the ground. The offense could not sustain drives and, despite a late field goal and Hail Mary almost getting Denver out of trouble, they fell short on the two-point attempt needed to tie the game.
An ugly-looking trip across the country to the red-hot and explosive Dolphins is next on the schedule as the Broncos stare into an 0-3 hole. The progression between Wilson and Payton will determine whether this season is a success or not but the early returns are not encouraging in Mile High. [SB]
Cool your jets on Zach
After a dramatic Week 1 win against the Bills, New York Jets quarterback Zach Wilson came back down to earth with Sunday’s 30-10 loss to Dallas. Sure, the highlight reel includes a 68-yard touchdown pass to namesake Garrett (much of which was YAC) in the first half and he kept things close for a while. But as the game began to unravel, so did he.
As we discussed last week, the Cowboys defense is rock solid, having allowed just one TD so far this season (the aforementioned Garrett Wilson catch-and-run). In particular, DOPY-in-waiting Micah Parsons is on fire. He wreaked havoc all day and got two of his team’s three sacks this weekend. The backup QB buckled under the pressure, completing just 12 of 27 (44.4%) for 170 yards and throwing three INTs in the fourth quarter, killing any faint hopes of a comeback.
To be fair, they weren’t the reason the Jets lost. His second and third turnovers came from blind-faith throws when the game was all but over anyway. But with no run game to share the load (Breece Hall, Dalvin Cook and Michael Carter combined for a paltry 24 yards, 12 less than Wilson himself), New York had little to offer without a mercurial QB able to weave some magic.
I don’t know what a healthy Aaron Rodgers would’ve done against this Dallas team but I’m guessing his second-half drives would’ve delivered more than one fumble, two three-and-outs and three interceptions. I also don’t know what the long-term answer at QB is but if this outing is anything to go by, it’s not Zach Wilson. Even if he isn’t terrible, he needs too much help around him to be good and yet HC Robert Saleh remains adamant that he’s rolling with the 24-year-old.
With the Patriots and Chiefs next up, let’s see how far they roll… and in which direction. [ST]
Anything but a Fields day
The Chicago Bears felt they hit the jackpot in the draft. Number 1 overall pick in hand and their own quarterback of the future on the roster. Or so they thought…
Fields made improvements in Year 2, developing as a passer and adding an extra dimension with his ability in his legs. He rushed for over 1,100 yards a season ago but whether by choice or by coincidence, he doesn’t seem intent on rushing this campaign. Fields took six sacks against the Buccaneers on Sunday. On several of those sacks, the protection up front was solid for long enough for Fields to either try to escape or throw the ball away. However, Fields repeatedly held onto the ball too long, which allowed the defense to converge on him.
Fields was fortunate to only commit two turnovers. He fumbled the ball twice, both of which the Bears managed to recover. He did, however, throw two interceptions with the game on the line. The ugliest-ever pick six might go to Shaq Barrett who was the recipient of the first gift. After a bit of pinball, the linebacker came down with the ball and was pushed into the end zone by the rest of the defense from the 4-yard line. (Barrett has dedicated this season to his late daughter Arrayah, who drowned in April aged two, and marked his first NFL TD by blowing a kiss to the sky so maybe it was also the most beautiful pick-six ever.) With the Bears now in desperation mode, 10 points behind, the next drive would lead to another interception on 3rd and 19 following a crippling 11-yard sack on 2nd down.
Fields has the ability to make some amazing throws to all levels of the field but he lacks any sort of consistency. Yesterday, he missed some wide-open targets that kept points off the board for the Bears. Fields is now almost 30 starts into his career so his lack of field vision is a huge concern for Chicago. The only silver lining would be that if Fields continues to be this bad, the team might have a chance to put it right at the next draft. Well, maybe. [SB]
Normal service resumes in Buffalo
Forget Week 1’s poor showing against the Jets. The Bills are back in business and all is well in upstate New York.
In a blowout 38-10 win on Sunday evening, Buffalo absolutely suffocated the Las Vegas Raiders. A 75-yard TD drive on the opening possession was as good as it got for the Silver and Black, before it all became too easy for the Bills. They barely needed to get out of second gear all night.
Josh Allen went from four turnovers last week to completing his first 13 passes of the game this week, not missing a target till three minutes before half-time. He ended up with 31 of 37 (83.8%) for 274 yards and three TDs (and crucially, no INTs this time). His touchdown pass to Khalil Shakir was a great piece of improvisation after an abandoned scramble forced him to retreat, while the others – a gentle lob to Dawson Knox and an impressive cross-body throw to Gabe Davis – were both made on the run.
Offensive coordinator Ken Dorsey mixed in plenty of ground game and for once, it wasn’t all left to Allen to carry the load. The rushing attack contributed 183 yards, with James Cook’s career-high of 17 carries for 123 rushing yards complemented by Damien Harris (33 yards) and Latavius Murray (22 yards), both of whom trundled in for touchdowns. Even the run defense held firm, limiting the Raiders’ Josh Jacobs to -2 yards on nine carries (the lowest total by a reigning rushing champion in the Super Bowl era).
So it’s as you were, people. The Buffalo Bills are fine and should be right up there in the AFC title race come the end of the season. [ST]