NFL

Week 2 NFL underdogs: Zach Wilson, Packers' mindset, Titans' offense on radar

Itching to watch an underdog try to overcome the odds or triumph against adversity? Simply looking to pass the time reading another NFL.com article while stuck in your cube? Marc Sessler offers a bead on seven intriguing scenarios to track as we tumble toward Week 2:

1) Saquon Barkley

We’ll see him before anyone else on this list when New York’s centerpiece rumbler matches wits with Washington’s gnarly defensive front on Thursday Night Football. He flatlined in Big Blue’s debut loss to the Broncos, squeezing out a career-low 27 scrimmage yards off a meager 11 offensive touches. Barkley shrugged off concerns over his knee, though, telling reporters this week: “I’m not gonna use that as a crutch. The gig is up. I’m back on the field.”

It’s TBD what “back on the field” means to this Giants coaching staff, which might continue to apply Saquon in limited fashion as he returns from surgery to repair a torn ACL. The quick week provides a rough-and-tumble setting as New York’s suspect O-line tangles with a surging Washington unit set to unleash Chase Young, Montez Sweat, Jonathan Allen and Daron Payne — four immense humans determined to punish.

The Giants decided to build their offense around a runner whom The Fates tapped to miss 17 tilts over the past two campaigns. A healthy Barkley has cracked 100 rushing yards in 11 career outings, but he’s posted sub-50 in another 13 contests. There’s a boom-or-bust nature to his play, but none of that matters when he’s unavailable or reined in. We don’t know what version of this player will arrive on Thursday. Do the Giants even know?

Related Links

  • Seven players who need to be more involved after Week 1 of NFL season
  • The First Read, Week 2: What Browns can learn from loss to Chiefs; plus, stock up/down, more
  • Offensive Player Rankings, Week 2: Why offensive woes could linger for Packers, Titans
  • NFL Power Rankings, Week 2: Steelers, Saints soar; Packers, Titans plummet
  • Week 1's biggest fourth-down decisions: Lions get bold, Cowboys play it safe
  • Offseason quarterback carousel yields mixed results in Week 1

2) Zach Wilson

The fresh-faced kid took a bashing. Six sacks behind a banged-up, underwater line that couldn’t contain Carolina’s fury. Wilson was impressive in his postgame comments, though, acknowledging the brutal nature of it all with a veteran’s sense of calm. 

I worry about rookie passers who spend autumn-into-winter tossed around like Raggedy Ann. I don’t fret over Wilson’s skill set, though, not after seeing him rise to his feet after a string of brutal hits to display the accuracy and outside-the-pocket flair that wooed Jets brass last April. The path grows more dangerous with Bill Belichick’s Patriots up next, but this latest chapter in Gang Green lore feels unlike previous horrors. There’s genuine hope for tomorrow because of Wilson’s innate gifts, rich enough to evoke this from Tony Romo: “It’s rare for me to say someone has the ability to get in the stratosphere of a (Patrick) Mahomes, but I think this kid actually has that ability.”

3) Green Bay’s mental state

“We probably felt like we were going to go up and down the field on whoever they had out there.” — Aaron Rodgers, on the heels of the Packers having their bottoms whipped by a Saints team thought to be mired in deep transition.

The Packers were force-fed dense slices of humble pie after Sunday’s 38-3 wipeout, but Aa-Rod’s words suggest something uglier: a gang of players who rolled into September thinking they were kings. The Athletic’s Matt Schneidman joined Tuesday’s Around the NFL Podcast and recalled coach Matt LaFleur telling scribes that a whopping 27 players received captain votes. This prompted leadership to iron “C”s onto the jerseys of seven veterans, an unusually high number. 

Where was that leadership on Sunday? 

Here’s the hope for nail-biting Cheeseheads: It’s one game. It’s sports. And Week 1 is a psychotic harlot. Just a blip on the radar for a Packers team set to right the ship on Monday Night Football against the punching-bag Lions … right? Just imagine our world if they don’t.

4) Tennessee’s milquetoast offense

Where to begin? Traded-for megastar Julio Jones managed a mere 29 receiving yards, his second-lowest output in a game since 2019. Refusing to be outdone, front-door-sized runner Derrick Henry produced his second-fewest ground yards (58) since 2020. Quarterback Ryan Tannehill coughed up two ugly fumbles and looked out of sorts with new play-caller Todd Downing at the motherboard. Not a shocker, considering Cardinals heavy Chandler Jones wreaked otherworldly havoc with five sacks, leaving Taylor Lewan, the typically stalwart Titans bookend, to humbly tell the Twitterverse: “I got my ass kicked today.”

It gets no easier Sunday against a deep Seahawks pass rush in a clash laced with Titans-themed questions: Is Downing a naif compared to previous play-caller Arthur Smith? Has the bill finally come due on Henry’s 718 touches over the past two campaigns? Is Tannehill in for a slide? If the answer to any is YES, Tennessee rests in boiling hot water.

5) Arthur Smith

Let’s stay on Mr. Smith. Tennessee misses the man because he morphed everything mentioned above into a magnificent soup oozing with identity. The Titans under Smith were an outlaw riding into town ready to take names and steal your girl. The Falcons under Smith, on Sunday, were the town that got ridden into by a bunch of meanies from Philly.

There’s no way to spin a 32-6 flattening into something pretty, but I’d ask you to watch Atlanta’s first two drives. Both ended in field goals after the Falcons were halted at the 3- and 9-yard lines, respectively. Still, those marches offered high energy. Calvin Ridley looked glorious. Mike Davis ran hard. Hayden Hurst and Cordarrelle Patterson were employed creatively. Matt Ryan looked at home in this new attack — and then he didn’t. Everything fell to pieces, leaving Smith to apologize to the fans for a crummy debut.

The unforgiving nature of the NFL has Smith and Co. battling next with the high-flying Bucs. A manageable goal for Atlanta? Turn those two drives from Week 1 into a longer look at Arthur’s vision. Give Falcons fans something to believe in — against the champs — before winnable upcoming fights with the G-Men, Washington and J-E-T-S.

6) Buffalo’s offense

There’s too much consistency here to tap the panic button.

Football is matchups. Pittsburgh’s defense has caused trouble for Buffalo two years running. Cam Heyward and T.J. Watt — along with free-agent pickup Melvin Ingram — unspooled ultra-violence on the Bills. Veteran left guard Jon Feliciano played the culprit, allowing 34.7 percent of Pittsburgh’s pressures in a star-crossed (and hopefully atypical) outing.

Creative play-caller Brian Daboll also veered away from play-action, which helped starry passer Josh Allen turn the Bills into a treasure one year ago. After using it a whopping 40.3 percent of the time in 2020 (fifth-most in football), Buffalo’s usage dipped to 18.4 percent on Sunday (fourth lowest league-wide), per The Athletic’s Joe Buscaglia.

Miami offers another acid test in Week 2. Dolphins coach Brian Flores specializes in making life difficult for opposing passers, but the Bills know their rivals well. I’m fading all “Josh Allen Regression” chatter until eyeing another dose of an attack that’s earned our trust.

7) Ezekiel Elliott

Fantasy Heads were undone by the opening act of Elliott’s journey into 2021. In the Kickoff Game, the Cowboys runner sputtered for 33 yards off 11 carries with a measly 6 receiving yards. It raises soft questions about his place in a pass-happy Dallas offense, but play-caller Kellen Moore also noted the ‘Boys called 28 run plays against Tampa Bay. Dak Prescott checked out of 12 based on what he saw. Elliott was never going to be a central focus against a super-beefy Bucs D-front.

Is it fair to question if Zeke is still at the height of his powers? Unless you remain drunk on Hard Knocks juice, it’s a situation to monitor. Still, the Cowboys aren’t about to hide Elliott away on a weekly basis — at least not yet.

Follow Marc Sessler on Twitter.

Source: Read Full Article