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Around the NFL: What We Learned in Week 1

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Eight games were decided by four points or less, for a total margin of victory of 16 points. Meanwhile, the Steelers beat a 2015 playoff team by 22. But, it’s week one, so that tells us precisely nothing. Let’s kick of the 2016 season with the first edition of What We Learned.

NFL: Pittsburgh Steelers at Washington Redskins Geoff Burke-USA TODAY Sports

At the time of this writing, there were eleven games in the first week of the 2016 NFL season decided by seven points or less (the Rams and 49ers are scoreless in the first quarter).

Despite the lack of marquee matchups for a season-opening week, one fact stands above all the rest: the barns have been burned, ladies and gentlemen.

Denver won in part because of the arm of Trevor Siemian (believe it or not, you read that right). Oakland won by going for two instead of tying late (more on that in a minute). The Bengals kicked the game-winning field goal with 54 seconds remaining. The Giants’ win was in doubt until the Cowboys were unable to spike the ball in time in field-goal range.

And those are just the games decided by one point. A crazy week, it certainly was. Here is what we learned.

Jack Del Rio has cajones of steel.
Often, NFL coaches play not to lose, rather than to win. The difference? Being willing to take a chance. Outside of Pittsburgh and one or two other NFL cities, teams are more than willing to cut a coach loose after one — maaaaaybe two — rough seasons. Of course, “rough” in Pittsburgh means .500, so it’s a relative concept, but I digress. Del Rio, though, pulled off the football equivalent of walking a greased tight rope. With no net. Drunk. On a windy day. He went for two to win the game. Not to go up by a point midway through the third quarter. Not to tie the game late. He went for two, when simply kicking the extra point would have been both logical and correct, if you ask the pundits. The odds weren’t exactly in his favor, either: in 2015, the Raiders converted just one of their three two-point attempts. In a world where the difference between genius and idiot is the slim line of success, this one lucked out and fell solidly under genius.

Jack Del Rio, we salute you.

Dak Prescott and Ezekiel Elliott will be good for a long, long time.
If you watched the Cowboys-Giants game on Sunday, this could almost be seen as a no-brainer. The stats weren’t jump-off-the-screen good, especially for Elliott (20 carries, 50 yards, 1 touchdown) but he had some good runs once he worked out the jitters. You could see his confidence growing as the game wore on.

Prescott, though, looks like he will be something very special in Dallas. It’s just one game, and he’s technically still the backup, but a few more games like this and he could end up playing Tom Brady to Tony Romo’s Drew Bledsoe.

The Bengals’ offensive line is going to be their weakness in 2016.
Seven.

That’s how many times Bengals quarterback Andy Dalton was sacked on Sunday. Rare is the day when you give up seven sacks and still win, but that was due far more to the Jets’ ineptitude on both sides of the ball. The secondary gave up four passes of more than 40 yards in one game. The only thing that worked well for the Jets was their pass rush, and did it ever work. Whether it was former Steeler Steve McLendon’s brutal bull rush or perfectly executed stunts, they were getting into the Cincy backfield — and, consequently, Dalton’s head — play after play.

Bruce Arians just can’t resist trying to be “cute” with his offense in crunch time. And it cost him a game.
Ask any Steelers fan why they maintain disdain for Cardinals coach Bruce Arians to this day, and they will tell you it’s because his offense in Pittsburgh consisted primarily of two things: “gadget” plays and deep balls. After marching down the field to the edge of field goal range in the final two minutes against the Patriots on Sunday, almost exclusively through the spectacular connection of quarterback Carson Palmer to receiver Larry Fitzgerald in the middle of the field, Arians just couldn’t help himself. Old habits die hard.

First, it was a jump ball down the sidelines to not-Larry Fitzgerald. The ball would have been intercepted if it had been thrown a little better, and the play resulted in a holding penalty, too. On the next play, it was a fake throw to a runner in the left flat, then a quick 180-degree turn and a short flip to running back Andre Ellington — eight full yards behind the line of scrimmage. Those two plays resulted in a net loss of 14 yards. An 18-yard gain on the next play got them back into field-goal range, but the 47-yard kick was doomed by a low snap and the Cardinals went on to lose.

Despite an epic comeback, the Chiefs won’t go far if they keep playing timid.
I am speaking of a single play, here. With the game tied and eight seconds remaining, the Chargers punted. In a case of playing not to lose, Andy Reid elected to forego attempting to block the punt and have a shot at a game-winning field goal with a second or two on the clock, instead going for the safe play of trying to return the punt. Twelve yards later, time expired and the game went to overtime. The Chiefs would go on to win despite themselves.

Why go for the block? Because they had virtually nothing to lose. A block gets you the ball inside the San Diego 20 and, probably, two to four seconds on the clock. That’s a chip-shot field goal, maybe 33 yards or so. If you rough the kicker instead, the ball moves to the 50 and gives the Chargers a first down with time for one play. Hail Marys don’t exactly have a stellar track record of succes, so the odds are heavily in Kansas City’s favor, even in the worst-case scenario. And if they can’t get to the kicker at all, it’s a fair catch or a downed punt at worst, and the game still goes to overtime.

Moral of the story: go for the block on a punt with less than 10 seconds to go from behind the opponents’ 40 yard line.

College Football Bonus: Oklahoma State-Central Michigan is a perfect example of how rule books are out of control in football today.
Don’t blame the officials, here. The fact that a rule exists to cover the exact situation that occurred in the Saturday afternoon game screams of a need to pare down the rules so officials aren’t so overburdened. For those who don’t know the situation, here goes: OSU had the ball with four seconds remaining. The quarterback drops back and throws a high, arcing pass to...no one. There wasn’t a receiver in the same zip code, which resulted in an intentional grounding call. The key was that the play was on fourth down, so possession flipped. Time had expired, but Central Michigan was then given an untimed down. They proceeded to perform one of the most miraculous Hail Marys ever (yes, they do succeed sometimes) to win the game.

BUT...a rule actually exists that states (paraphrasing here): if time expires during the commission of a foul, but that infraction is one that also carries a loss of down as part of the penalty, the play does not result in an untimed down being added. Yes, this is a rule. Yes, the officials messed up by giving CMU a free play. No, don’t blame the officials. Much like a certified public accountant, they are expected to be able to recall and apply more rules than any human can fathom in a few seconds.

And finally...DeAngelo Williams may be the most valuable player in the NFL at this moment.
Le’Veon Bell is a friggin’ stud. But he has played just one full season in his admittedly short career. His three-game suspension this year could have been the undoing of this team, had they not signed Williams prior to 2015 after learning from their depth issues following the LeGarrette Blount incident. Williams and Bell are remarkably similar runners, and it was Williams who provided the late-game spark the team needed in their 38-16 win Monday night when the Redskins were stealing the momentum. At 33 years old, Williams is playing like a kid in his prime, and is going to be the absolute difference in one of the first three games for the Steelers this year.