In The First Read, Jeffri Chadiha provides a snapshot of the hottest stories and trends heading into Week 2 of the 2022 NFL season, including:
But first, a look at how the Los Angeles Chargers must take hold of the AFC West on Thursday night.
COSTA MESA, Calif. -- There wasn't a head coach in the NFL who received more scrutiny for his aggressiveness last season than the Los Angeles Chargers' Brandon Staley. He wasn't afraid to go for it on fourth down -- even deep in his own territory at times -- and he didn't spend much time ruminating on the results of what happened when those risks failed. The public saw a cavalier coach relying too much on a combination of analytics and his gut. What they couldn't grasp was the way Staley wanted his players to grow as a result of all that ambition.
Staley is now in his second season in Los Angeles. His hope is that his team is ready to make good on all that promise that has seemingly followed this franchise for years. The Chargers opened their season with a 24-19 win over the Raiders and next up is a Thursday night meeting with the Chiefs. Since the Chargers are the only team in the stacked AFC West starting out with consecutive games against division opponents, this is their shot at instant credibility.
The Chargers came up just short of advancing to the playoffs last season, but Staley is hoping they gained something in his aggressive approach that will push them farther this year.
"What that does for your whole team in terms of playing that way, it has a real impact," said Staley during a conversation at the team facility last week. "It's not just about (fourth) down. People make such a big deal about that down but it's how you play the other three. That mindset affects everything -- how you call a game, how you play, how you set things up, what it's forcing the other side to prepare for. It was about bringing that mindset that I was going to trust my players. I was going to put the ball in their hands. That's the kind of team I wanted to coach."
The Chargers looked like a fearless team on Sunday. They outplayed the Raiders for most of three and a half quarters, then withstood a late rally to win by five points. It's not hard to imagine the Chargers losing that kind of game a year ago. That has been the knock on this franchise for years -- that it has a knack for finding a way to screw up a great opportunity sooner or later.
The Chargers spent most of this year doing everything possible to ensure that success doesn't evade them as it did last January, when a Week 18 loss to the Raiders kept them out of the playoffs. A defense that disappointed in Staley's first season received a major injection of veteran talent, including the arrival of cornerback J.C. Jackson and outside linebacker Khalil Mack. The cast surrounding star quarterback Justin Herbert has improved and the expectation is that the offense will be one of the most league's most dangerous. Staley has grown, as well.
The head coach acknowledges that some of his fourth-down strategies last year resulted from unforeseeable circumstances. There were issues with the kicking and punting, and injuries took a toll on the defense.
"There are a lot of things that might be different but the approach isn't going to change and it's important for the team to see that," Staley said. "Fifteen of our 17 games were (decided in the) fourth quarter. The two games that people will reference down the stretch (losses to Houston and Las Vegas), they didn't go our way but the way our guys played, you couldn't ask for anything more as a coach. There were five or six games that we won because of that. You have to have acceptance either way."
This is going to be the most significant season for the Chargers in well over a decade. The Chiefs have won the last six AFC West titles and the Broncos won five straight before that. The Chargers haven't claimed the division crown since 2009. They've only made the playoffs twice since that year and if that weren't frustrating enough, they currently share a city (and stadium) with the defending Super Bowl champion Rams.
So this can't be another year when the Chargers fade or fall apart or simply fail to live up to expectations. This has to be a year where they break through and start dispelling the notion that they don't know what to do with all that talent. Staley can see subtle indications of that evolution, saying, "There are little things. The way the guys are in stretch lines or meetings or at team functions. I can see it in the way our defense takes the field and sprints to the football. I have Khalil Mack and I saw what he brought to us in Chicago (when Staley was an assistant with the Bears). Now they're all trying to follow him to the football at the beginning of a drill -- because he's racing onto the field -- and Joey Bosa is chasing him with nine other guys."
Staley stressed that he hasn't put an emphasis on what two divisional wins to start the year could do for his team. He's trying to build the Chargers in a manner where they "can take anybody on" and be known more as "a team than a roster." The reality is that it would be impossible for the Chargers not to understand the gravity of this situation, especially with star wide receiver Keenan Allen nursing a hamstring injury heading into Thursday's game in Kansas City and Jackson having a 50-50 shot to play in the contest after missing Week 1 as he recovers from ankle surgery. Like the Buffalo Bills did in whipping the Rams last Thursday night, this is the Chargers' opportunity to tell the league what they're all about this year.
Staley knew the Raiders would be a difficult opener. The Chiefs -- who just watched star quarterback Patrick Mahomes throw five touchdown passes in a 44-21 win over Arizona -- present an even tougher challenge. However, these are the kinds of moments that will tell the second-year head coach precisely how far his team has come since last season. If he's fortunate, he'll come away with greater clarity about where his squad is heading in the not so distant future.
Quick-hitting thoughts on storylines to track around the NFL.
1) Big trouble in Big D: There wasn't a team in the NFL who posted more red flags in their debut than the Cowboys did in their 19-3 loss to Tampa Bay. Every lingering question about this squad felt worse as that game unfolded, including the absence of offensive tackle Tyron Smith, the lack of depth at wide receiver and the way penalty flags fly by the bundle every time the team takes the field. Yes, the Buccaneers have a talented defense and Tom Brady. But Dallas' offense didn't look like it really had a chance of attacking the Bucs consistently. To make matters worse, the Cowboys lost quarterback Dak Prescott to a right thumb injury that will require surgery and several weeks of recovery. So now imagine Cooper Rush under center with this mess all around him for nearly two months. Head coach Mike McCarthy had better buckle up for the foreseeable future. He's never received enough credit for the good things that happened in Dallas last year. He's about to take all the blame for the bad that's coming quickly.
2) Packers' pass game problems: The Packers' unsightly offensive performance on Sunday is something that can't be dismissed by the notion that Green Bay looked ugly in Week 1 last season, too, and still wound up winning its third consecutive NFC North title. That unit looked like something that -- dare we say it -- might be beyond the abilities of Aaron Rodgers to fix. Green Bay simply can't survive unless its wide receivers play better. The Vikings dominated against the Packers' offense in a 23-7 win, as they limited Rodgers to 195 passing yards and didn't allow any wide receiver to generate more than 37 receiving yards. More frightening than those numbers were the looks of consternation on Rodgers' face after rookie wide receiver Christian Watson dropped a potential 75-yard touchdown pass in the first quarter. Those expressions told the world that the issues had little to do with Rodgers not playing any snaps in the preseason. The frustration indicated that it might very well be a long year with this bunch. Rodgers did acknowledge after the game that there would be growing pains with the group. He also admitted his patience will grow thinner if these problems don't go away in a hurry.
3) Steelers' defense takes big hit: The Steelers' defense inspired all sorts of thoughts about Pittsburgh being more dangerous than expected in 2022 ... right up until All-Pro outside linebacker T.J. Watt sustained a pectoral injury late in the team's Week 1 win over Cincinnati. The Steelers did a ton of good things in that victory, including forcing five turnovers and blocking what would have been the game-winning extra point at the end of regulation. Losing Watt -- who's still awaiting word on the severity of the injury -- dampened those good vibes. What the Steelers revealed in that contest was that their defense can dominate, especially when safety Minkah Fitzpatrick plays as spectacularly as he did against the Bengals. However, Watt is the player they can least afford to lose. He's the reigning Defensive Player of the Year, a man who had 22.5 sacks and five forced fumbles in 2021. The Steelers can't replace that if he's sidelined for significant time. And when you consider that the Bengals still had a chance to win that game in regulation, you can see Pittsburgh doesn't have enough offense to make life easier on that defense moving forward.
UPDATE: The belief is Watt could return from his injury in six weeks or so, per NFL Network Insiders Ian Rapoport and Tom Pelissero.
The Giants kept talking about how good Barkley looked in training camp. Now we know what they meant. He accounted for 194 total yards (164 rushing), one touchdown and the game-winning two-point conversion in a 21-20 comeback victory over Tennessee. He hasn’t been this breathtaking in years, primarily because injuries hobbled him over the last two seasons. It’s always a risky proposition to put too much stock in Week 1, but it was great to see him return to form.
The Vikings’ star receiver said back in July that he wanted to be considered the best at his position after this year. He’s certainly on the right track. There were plenty of dominant performances by receivers in Week 1, but Jefferson delivered the most impressive showing of them all. Of his career-high 184 receiving yards in a win over Green Bay, a team-record 158 came in the first half. Jefferson had nine receptions and two touchdowns against one of the best defenses in the league. This dude is going to be a problem all year.
Miller received plenty of love after his Buffalo debut in the Bills’ 31-10 win over the Rams on Thursday night. There’s more coming in this space. It wasn’t merely his two sacks that night or the way he’s playing at age 33. It’s that Miller justified everything that Buffalo hoped it would get by investing in him. He’s made a talented defense more ornery and a Super Bowl favorite more confident. If Miller stays healthy, Buffalo will have the league’s best defense.
This wasn’t the same quarterback who led the Bengals to the Super Bowl last season. He forced too many passes, turned the ball over five times (four interceptions, one fumble lost), including a pick-six on his team’s first possession in an overtime loss to Pittsburgh. Burrow nearly pulled off a comeback, but he has to play better for Cincinnati to repeat as AFC North champs.
The hope in San Francisco was that Lance, their second-year quarterback, would thrive with a Super Bowl-caliber roster. Somebody forgot to tell the Bears how that narrative was supposed to go. Lance completed only 46.4 percent of his passes against Chicago and couldn’t rally his team after it fell behind in the second half of a 19-10 defeat. Blame the torrential rain and the absence of Pro Bowl tight end George Kittle, who was sidelined with a groin injury, all you like. Lance looked overwhelmed once it became clear the Bears weren’t going to implode. That’s not a good sign.
When you promise to inflict pain on your former team, you better deliver. That didn’t happen for Mayfield when the Panthers quarterback faced and lost to Cleveland on Sunday. Oh, he did what he could, but the Browns ultimately won on a last-second field goal. Now it’s time for Mayfield to focus on more important goals, like getting his career moving back in the right direction.
One question answered by an unnamed front office source.
Are the problems we saw with the Los Angeles Rams in their season-opening loss to Buffalo correctable?
NFC PERSONNEL DIRECTOR: "Absolutely. They've got too many good players and a great coach to not figure it out. The bottom line is that Buffalo is a going to be a problem for anybody they play, especially when their defense is playing like they did that night and their quarterback is arguably the most dangerous player at that position to scheme against. The offensive line obviously needs work, but that's typical of a lot of teams at this stage of the season. They made a lot of uncharacteristic mistakes but they haven't had a ton of individual talent on that unit in prior years, either. They just draft really smart, efficient guys who play in a great scheme that tends to not have them isolated too often. They will still be hard to deal with when they get that running game going. It just didn't happen against a Bills team that is very talented up front. A lot of teams struggle in the first week of the season. They'll bounce back."
A simple ranking of the top five candidates, which will be updated weekly, depending on performance. Here is how it stands heading into Week 2:
My slowly evolving Super Bowl pick, which also will be updated each week, depending on performances: Bills over Buccaneers.