NFL Week 4: What we learned from Sunday's games

Cleveland Browns 49, Dallas Cowboys 38

1) The Browns told the football world who they were two weeks ago when they rushed for 210 yards on Thursday Night Football. On Sunday, they peppered Football America’s inboxes with more messages of their plans for victory than either of the presidential campaigns. Each voicemail and text message shouted the same message: The Browns will run the ball down their opponents’ throats, and it will be up to their adversaries to attempt to stop them. Dallas couldn’t do it, allowing Cleveland to rush for 307 yards and performing so efficiently, the Browns were gaining 9 yards per carry at one point in the second half. The most remarkable detail: Cleveland did most of it without Nick Chubb, who carried the ball just six times before exiting with a knee injury. Kareem Hunt picked up the slack, rushing 11 times for 71 yards and two touchdowns and allowing the Browns’ offense to blossom with play-action passes. The result was a 41-point outburst that finished at a total of 49, with Odell Beckham icing the game with a 50-yard rushing touchdown. Cleveland’s stable is deep and its offensive line is blocking better than almost any other group in the league, helping the Browns to their first 3-1 start since 2001.

2) Sunday delivered the official order to all who are concerned with Beckham’s targets: Stand down. Beckham caught five passes for 81 yards and two touchdowns — his first two-score game as a Brown — and capped the day with a 50-yard rushing score late in the fourth quarter. It was Beckham’s first three-touchdown game since 2015, and emphatically quieted critics of Cleveland’s usage of the star receiver. The Browns are a run-first team, but when they get that part of their offense going, it allows Baker Mayfield to find his targets through the air with greater ease. His connection with Beckham is stronger than ever.

3) It’s only Week 4, but one must wonder about the job security of Mike Nolan. The Cowboys have allowed 38-plus points in three straight games for just the second time in franchise history and the first time since their inaugural season of 1960, in which they finished 0-11-1 (per NFL Research). Dallas is wearing a patch commemorating its 60th anniversary this season with the year 1960 on it, but if the Cowboys want to contend, they’ll have to stop performing like the 1960 team defensively, starting with Nolan. His unit allowed Cleveland to break 300 yards on the ground and rack up 49 points, including their most first-half points since the team returned to the NFL in 1999. Defensively, things are not great, Bob.

— Nick Shook

Tampa Bay Buccaneers 38, Los Angeles Chargers 31

1) Twenty-plus years separate quarterbacks Tom Brady and Justin Herbert, but it was the 43-year-old who walked away victorious after a shootout. Everything was dandy for Brady after an opening-drive touchdown, but his second pick-six of the season in the following drive aided a 24-point unanswered run by the Chargers (Remarkably, that makes it five consecutive games with a pick-six in the Bucs-Chargers series). Brady regrouped and rallied the Bucs from a 17-point first-half deficit and orchestrated a long fourth-quarter drive to help keep the Chargers scoreless in the final quarter. Brady finished the day 30-for-46 for 369 yards and five touchdowns, completing passes to 10 receivers. While Herbert’s day ended with an INT amid a two-minute drill down seven, the rookie played great, completing 20-of-25 passes for 290 yards and a career-high three TDs. With Herbert still searching for his first career win, Brady enjoyed his 222nd regular-season victory.

2) All four Chargers touchdowns were scored by an unlikely cast of undrafted free agents. Wide receiver Tyron Johnson caught a 53-yard TD in the first quarter, cornerback Michael Davis scored the 78-yard pick-six of Brady, tight end Donald Parham muscled a 50/50 ball to score in the second and WR Jalen Guyton used his speed to score a 75-yard TD as time expired in the third. According to NFL Research, it was the first time four undrafted players scored a TD in a game since the 2018 Saints did it in Week 12. Although Herbert spread the ball around to nine players, his rapport with star WR Keenan Allen is growing. Allen had a game-high eight catches for 62 yards. 

3) Chargers running back Austin Ekeler left the game in the first quarter with an apparent hamstring injury and it proved costly. While Joshua Kelley has played well so far this season, the rookie coughed up an untimely fumble as the Chargers looked to run out the first-half clock with a 24-7 lead. Bucs defensive tackle Ndamukong Suh forced the turnover which led to great field position and a TD catch by Mike Evans (seven receptions for 122 yards) with just 22 seconds left to play in the half. In Ekeler’s absence, the Chargers couldn’t run the ball and became predictable in the second half. Herbert led the Chargers in rushing with fourteen yards.

— Michael Baca

Baltimore Ravens 31, Washington Football Team 17

1) The Baltimore offense rebounded from a rough outing last week, when the Kansas City Chiefs held the Ravens to just 228 yards, their lowest total since drafting QB Lamar Jackson. It took some creativity (punter Sam Koch moved the chains on a TD drive with a 15-yard completion on a fake punt; he’s now 7-for-7 in his career as passer), and the longest rush of Jackson’s career on a 50-yard TD, but in the end, the Ravens logged 31 points with a balanced attack. They also pulled it off without OL Ronnie Stanley, which forced Orlando Brown to left tackle and guard D.J. Fluker to right tackle. Jackson also became the fastest to reach 5,000 passing yards and 2,000 rushing yards in NFL history, doing so in his 35th career game.

2) How close was Washington QB Dwayne Haskins to being pulled in favor of Kyle Allen? We might never know, but after reports surfaced that the team was giving thought to a QB change, Haskins’ first four drives ended, in order, thusly: Punt, turnover, punt, missed FG. On his fifth possession, with under five minutes left in the first half, Haskins directed a 10-play, 75-yard TD drive to cut a 14-0 lead in half, and Washington coach Ron Rivera stuck with the former first-round pick the rest of the way. Haskins appeared to find some chemistry with WR Terry McLaurin in the second half and finished with 314 passing yards, but too much of Washington’s offense came with Baltimore holding a comfortable lead.

3) Ravens CB Marlon Humphrey wasted no time providing some ROI (return on investment) for the $98.75 million contract he signed this week. In the first quarter, Humphrey stripped Washington RB J.D. McKissic for his second forced fumble of the season, and Baltimore cashed in two plays later on a one-yard TD plunge by Mark Ingram for a 7-0 lead that Baltimore never relinquished. The Ravens’ lockdown cover man ended up with nine tackles, eight of them solo.

Chase Goodbread

New Orleans Saints 35, Detroit Lions 29

1) Drew Brees threw a tipped interception on the Saints’ first offensive play, leading to a 14-0 deficit less than five minutes into the game. Then New Orleans rolled over a limp Lions defense, scoring on five straight possessions, for 35 unanswered points at one point. A combination of a plowing run game led by Alvin Kamara (19/83/1) and Latavius Murray (14/54/2) and pinpoint passes from Brees whitewashed a Detroit defense that had zero answers. It wasn’t fluke short-fields that led to the big turnaround either, as four of the Saints’ five TD drives went for 75-plus yards. New Orleans generated 29 first downs for a chain-moving offense. When Detroit clawed back in the game, the Saints leaned on Kamara, who broke tackles with ease, knifing through the Lions defense for clock-churning first downs to close the game. We knew heading into the season that depth would be key this year. Sean Payton’s crew missing six total starters, including Michael Thomas and Jared Cook on offense and both starting corners on D, proved it has depth in a get-right game against a lifeless opponent. Now it needs the stars back to withstand better opponents.

2) The complaints about Brees’ arm can be put to bed for at least a week. The future Hall of Famer dropped dimes all over a Lions secondary that couldn’t stick with Tre'Quan Smith on crossers and watched Emmanuel Sanders find soft cushions in zones. After playing in a phonebooth to open the season, the Saints stretched the field with aplomb Sunday. Brees attempted nine passes of 15-plus air yards, completing six, per NextGen Stats. It helped that Brees had time against a pass-rush deficient defense to take shots. Brees’ chemistry with Sanders is improving, evidenced by a nice back-shoulder completion early in the first quarter and several anticipatory throws where the QB trusted the veteran to be in the right spot. Smith made several big catches, including two TDs, and closed out the game with a massive first down that helped ice the clock. If Smith and Sanders can remain productive when Thomas and Cook return, it will make Brees’ life easier as the games become tougher.

3) It’s getting late already for Matt Patricia. His team has blown double-digit leads for the third time in four weeks this season to fall to 1-3. The former Patriots defensive coordinator leads a D that couldn’t stop a grade-school pillow fight. It didn’t help the coach that his best player, Matthew Stafford, continues his up-and-down play, missing too many throws, taking bad sacks and threw a terrible interception. The INT summed up Stafford’s day. Falling away in the pocket, Stafford badly underthrew T.J. Hockenson in the end zone for a Patrick Robinson pick. The QB had his TE open if he’d put the ball deeper into the end zone. Stafford completed just 54.8% of his passes with the INT and three TDs. Detroit needs the signal-caller to play perfectly to win right now. Sunday, Stafford was off the mark. Heading into the bye week, things aren’t looking good for Patricia and Bob Quinn’s future. In a playoffs-or-bust year, Detroit keeps crapping out after getting up big early.

— Kevin Patra

Seattle Seahawks 31, Miami Dolphins 23

1) The emergence of Seahawks WR DK Metcalf as one of the league’s top receivers this year continued, and it didn’t matter which Dolphins defensive back was on him. His size and strength is such that he doesn’t need much in the way of technique against bump coverage. On a couple of early receptions, he simply bullied his way off the line of scrimmage and got a nice release with overpowering physicality. On his last catch, he bulled his way to the Miami 1 on a 32-yard catch, setting up the score that put the game away. The second-year pro finished with 106 yards, maintaining a 100-yard average for the season.

2) Explosive passing plays from Russell Wilson were the order of the day for a Seattle offense that is looking unstoppable. Metcalf, Tyler Lockett and David Moore had long receptions of 37, 30 and 57 yards, respectively, and in combination, they averaged 26.67 yards per catch (nine for 240). Wilson’s long-respected ability to extend plays and buy more time to throw is enough to break down any secondary, and certainly one of the NFL’s worst pass defenses in Miami. The Dolphins entered ranked 25th in the league in pass defense, and looked it as Wilson piled up 360 yards on just 24 completions.

3) CB Xavien Howard’s return from a knee injury has been a welcomed sight for the Dolphins defense. He notched his second interception in as many weeks at a crucial moment Sunday, cutting in front of Metcalf in the Miami end zone to pick off a red-zone throw from Wilson. In the end, the better team pulled away, but Howard’s play kept the score at 17-9 in the third quarter and was as big a reason as any that Miami had something to fight for in the fourth.

Chase Goodbread

Cincinnati Bengals 33, Jacksonville Jaguars 25

1) As the Bengals fought and crawled their way to 0-3, there were a few constants: Cincinnati let Joe Burrow take far too many hits, came painfully close to victory but couldn’t quite achieve it, and inexplicably ignored Joe Mixon. The latter changed Sunday, finally. Mixon rushed 25 times for 151 yards and two scores — all season highs for him — and brought much-needed balance to Cincinnati’s offense. The shift took pressure off Burrow and helped the Bengals reverse their red-zone woes, scoring 23 points in the second half and earning Burrow’s first win of his career.

2) If you just watched cut-ups of Burrow’s attempts outside of the red zone, you’d think these Bengals had scored 33 in the first half, not the entire game. Burrow finished with a line of 25-of-36 passing for 300 yards, becoming the first rookie quarterback to break 300 yards passing in each of his first three starts in NFL history. He was again sharp, spreading the ball among nine targets, with Tyler Boyd (seven catches, 90 yards) and fellow rookie Tee Higgins (four catches, 77 yards) being the most frequent targets. If Cincinnati had better success in the first half in the red zone, we might be raving about another impressive outing from Burrow, but we again learned in Week 4 what we also saw in Weeks 1-3: Burrow is the real deal.

3) Jacksonville did a 180 on Thursday Night Football, and while we could’ve chalked it up to an excellent defensive game plan from Miami’s defense mixed with just the right amount of FitzMagic, Sunday provided us with fresh evidence that this might be the norm, not the exception. The Jaguars converted just two of 10 third-down attempts, their defense allowed over 500 yards of total offense and forced just one punt from the Bengals Sunday. For as rough as Jacksonville’s offense looks right now, its defense isn’t helping, and they’re combining to produce losing football.

— Nick Shook

Carolina Panthers 31, Arizona Cardinals 21

1) Kudos to Carolina (2-2) for ensuring that Teddy Bridgewater’s best game as a Panther – and the first with limited fans — didn’t go to waste. Bridgewater (276/2/INT; 70.3%) commanded a balanced attack and looked comfortable in the pocket. After going 1-for-6 in the red zone last week, the Panthers scored TDs on four of their five trips. The seventh-year QB even pulled of his best Kyler Murray impression on an 18-yard scamper for his first rush TD since December 2015. Robby Anderson (game-high 8/99) again did his job setting the table while Mike Davis, with a big boost from the O-line, gashed Arizona for 84 yards and a score on 16 carries. Carolina also controlled the clock (37:08 to ARI’s 22:52) and nearly doubled Arizona in total yards (444 to 262).

2) Save for a Patrick Peterson pick early in the second quarter, this was a forgettable effort from the Cardinals defense. It was evident that the secondary was lost without Pro Bowler Budda Baker, as well as starter Chris Banjo. Arizona (2-2) allowed a season-high 276 passing yards as eight Panthers recorded a reception. Carolina also recorded 17 of its 30 first downs through the air. The defensive line’s struggle to get to the QB also put more pressure on them in coverage. After recording 11 combined sacks the previous three weeks, the Cards failed to record one against an O-line missing two starters.

3) The youth and speed of Carolina’s D was on full display against Murray, who was held to a season-low 133 pass yards. Second-year edge defender Brian Burns (three QB hits), and rookies Yetur Gross-Matos (three tackles, strip-sack) and Derrick Brown did a great job applying pressure and bottling up the run. The D-line’s efforts, aided by a solid coverage on the backend, forced Murray into several check downs which Shaq Thompson and rookie Jeremy Chinn, who combined for 13 combined tackles, contained well. A career-long Murray run for 48 yards was a lowlight, but that’s a play you can live with amid a great day.    

— Jelani Scott

Minnesota Vikings 31, Houston Texans 23

1) Mike Zimmer and Bill O’Brien were each coaching their 100th games as a head coach. Such a milestone had to be a complete afterthought Sunday as they entered with identical 0-3 records. Only Zimmer’s Vikings arrived at NRG Stadium with the requisite energy, establishing the run early and controlling the clock throughout (36:31-23.29). Dalvin Cook followed up a career-best rushing performance with 130 yards and a pair of touchdowns. That opened up play-action for Kirk Cousins, who proved again to be more efficient as a manager rather than playmaker (16-of-22, 260 yards, 1 TD). Another loss this early in the year might have buried Minnesota in the deeper NFC.

2) The Texans made a valiant comeback attempt, coming five yards from possibly erasing a 15-point deficit in the fourth quarter. But their offense continued to be messy. Deshaun Watson wasn’t especially sharp despite not facing a strong pass rush. The loss of DeAndre Hopkins seems to be having a compounding effect on this unit, as Houston is averaging nearly a full yard less per carry from 2019. Will Fuller was a bright spot (6-108-1). His incredible effort on the overturned TD in the final minute was his lone uncaught target. The Texans desperately need offseason acquisitions Brandin Cooks (zero catches) and David Johnson (16-63) to at least produce like starters if they’re going to turn around their season.

3) There was plenty to question about O’Brien the general manager in an offseason in which he unloaded one of the NFL’s top receivers for cents on the dollar. Now that the games have begun, questions abound about O’Brien the coach. The Texans, despite boasting one of the best young QBs in the game, are 0-4. That’s a first since 2008. Only one team in NFL history has opened the season with four losses and made the playoffs (1992 Chargers). Reaching the postseason was thought to be the bar for Houston, which has won two straight AFC South titles and four of the past five. BOB can’t be happy with his GM or HC right now.

— Adam Maya

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