N.F.L. Updates: Former Alabama Quarterbacks Face Off as Pros

  • by

After sharing one of the most talented quarterbacks rooms in recent college football history, the former Alabama teammates Mac Jones and Tua Tagovailoa will reunite on the field Sunday afternoon, as Tagovailoa’s Miami Dolphins face Jones’s New England Patriots in Foxborough, Mass.

With Jalen Hurts having taken over the starting job for the Philadelphia Eagles at the end of the 2020 season, Alabama’s last three quarterbacks will be under center for N.F.L. franchises in Week 1. That each made it onto Sunday’s N.F.L. schedule should validate the quarterback battles that occurred when they were there. After winning a national championship with the Crimson Tide at the end of the 2017 season, Hurts lost the starting spot to Tagovailoa in 2018. When Tagovailoa broke a hip in 2019, Jones supplanted him, starting two games to end that season.

Hurts led off the Alabama alumni reunion, throwing a 17-yard strike to rookie DeVonta Smith, the first pro score for the, natch, former Alabama receiver. Hurts finished with 264 yards and three touchdowns on 27-of-25 passing against the Falcons.

Jones led an undefeated Alabama team to a national championship in 2021 before being selected at No. 15 in the draft. His poise in training camp and preseason games so impressed Patriots Coach Bill Belichick that he crowned the rookie the No. 1 quarterback and cut last year’s starter, Cam Newton, who is now a free agent.

In one season in Miami, Tagovailoa has yet to cement himself as the Dolphins’ quarterback of the future. During the off-season, rumors swirled that the team might have been searching for other options, including the Texans’ Deshaun Watson, but Coach Brian Flores threw his support behind Tagovailoa as training camp ended.

Alabama head coach Nick Saban wished both of his former quarterbacks well in a news conference Wednesday. “I hope they both do extremely well in this game and in their career,” Saban said. “But somebody has to win and somebody has to lose.”

Credit…Bryan M. Bennett/Getty Images

Pittsburgh’s offense dragged through the first half of their season opener against the Bills with no points and just 54 yards of offense.

A blocked punt by Miles Killebrew and a scoop-and-score by linebacker Ulysees Gilbert III stunned the Bills and turned the Steelers’ fortune in the fourth quarter, leading to a 23-16 Pittsburgh victory at Highmark Stadium.

The special teams play was a huge momentum swing for the Steelers, who scored 20 straight points in the second half before the Bills responded. Pittsburgh’s first touchdown, a juggling catch by receiver Diontae Johnson in the back corner of the end zone, came in the fourth quarter.

Disrupted all day by a sweltering Steelers defensive front, Bills quarterback Josh Allen finished the game with 270 yards on 30 of 51 throwing. He was sacked three times, twice by Pittsburgh linebacker T.J. Watt. The Bills’ top receiving threat, Stefon Diggs, led all Buffalo receivers with 69 yards on nine catches, though he and newly acquired receiver Emmanuel Sanders drew heavy coverage throughout. Buffalo’s lone touchdown came from receiver Gabriel Davis in the first half.

Ben Roethlisberger went 18 for 32 with 188 passing yards. Pittsburgh didn’t seem to build much on a rushing attack that was virtually nonexistent last season. The team gained 75 yards on the ground against the Bills Sunday.

Credit…John Raoux/Associated Press

No, it’s not a misprint. Yes, the end zones at TIAA Bank Stadium, home of the Jacksonville Jaguars, really do say “SAINTS.”

The New Orleans Saints, displaced by the destruction of Hurricane Ida, will begin the season Sunday against the Green Bay Packers in the teal-tinged wilderness of Jacksonville, Fla., instead of the Superdome’s black-and-gold cacophony. The stadium was available because the Jaguars open on the road, but the site was hardly chosen at random.

After evacuating New Orleans on Aug. 28, the Saints settled in North Texas, practicing first at AT&T Stadium in Arlington before shifting to Texas Christian University, in Fort Worth. With AT&T unavailable Sunday because of a conflict, the Saints picked Jacksonville from among Florida’s three N.F.L. locales, according to the New Orleans Times-Picayune, because of its “relative inaccessibility and unattractiveness as a destination location.”

The Saints went so far as to research flights to Miami, Tampa and Jacksonville, and discovered that Jacksonville was the hardest — and most expensive — option for Packers fans.

“We’re conscious of everything, I think, when it comes to preparing for an opponent,” Saints general manager Mickey Loomis told reporters last week. “The main thing is, hey, we’ve got to have an NFL-ready stadium. Look, there’s just so many variables. I don’t want to get into all the variables that exist, but the main thing is to have a suitable place to play that both teams have access to.”

This is expected to be the only home game the Saints play away from New Orleans. Mayor LaToya Cantrell said that the Superdome, which didn’t suffer any major damage, should be ready to host the team’s Week 4 game against the Giants.

Credit…Grant Halverson/Getty Images

All day, the Jets rookie quarterback Zach Wilson scrambled behind poor protection, hoping to find an open man outside the pocket. That strategy failed for most of the game against the Carolina Panthers until late in the third quarter. At the edge of red zone, he evaded the rush and escaped the pocket to the right, then lofted a 22-yard pass to receiver Corey Davis in the corner of the end zone. But the Jets could not fully celebrate Wilson’s first career touchdown pass because offensive tackle Mekhi Becton remained on the ground in pain after suffering a lower leg injury.

The Jets still trail 16-8 because their former quarterback, Sam Darnold, has thrown for 252 yards and a touchdown for the Panthers. Christian McCaffrey, the versatile running back returning from a host of injuries last season, has posted 152 all-purpose yards.

Credit…Aj Mast/Associated Press

In the Seahawks’ 2021 debut, Russell Wilson looked like, well, Russell Wilson.

The 32-year-old quarterback, a consistently prolific passer his entire nine-year N.F.L. career, tossed three touchdowns and passed for nearly 200 yards in three quarters against the Colts. The Seahawks lead, 21-10, heading into the fourth quarter.

Wilson’s first touchdown of the day was a 23-yard ball to deep threat Tyler Lockett, capping a nine-play, 81-yard opening drive for the Seahawks.

Wilson found Lockett again for a 69-yard bomb at the end of the first half.

Lockett led Seattle’s receivers with 96 yards and two touchdowns heading into the fourth. Tight end Gerald Everett, who caught the Seahawks’ third touchdown, had 20 yards on two receptions.

Credit…Christopher Hanewinckel/USA Today Sports, via Reuters

In theory, the Tennessee Titans’ offense should place defenses in unpleasant situations. With the addition of the All-Pro receiver Julio Jones, opponents should have to choose between stopping him, receiver A.J. Brown and running back Derrick Henry, who rushed for over 2,000 yards last season.

But this new experiment has failed, at least during the first half against the Arizona Cardinals, as the Titans trail 24-6 at halftime. The Titans generated only 116 yards of offense, with wide receiver Chester Rogers carrying the bulk of the production with 43. Henry has rushed for only 8 yards and Jones has caught only one pass for 9 yards on three targets.

The Cardinals’ defense evidently did not fear the Titans’ roster on paper. Outside linebacker Chandler Jones sacked quarterback Ryan Tannehill three times in the first half. While the Titans’ offense sputtered, Arizona’s excelled. Quarterback Kyler Murray has thrown for 201 yards and two touchdowns and also ran for a score.

Credit…Patrick Smith/Getty Images

The curse of FedEx Field continues.

Ryan Fitzpatrick on Sunday became the most recent quarterback to be added to the list of passers to sustain a potentially serious injury in that stadium.

Fitzpatrick, the journeyman who signed with Washington, his ninth N.F.L. team, in free agency this off-season, absorbed a hit from Los Angeles Chargers edge rusher Uchenna Nwosu in the second quarter. Fitzpatrick walked off the field flanked by team personnel and was officially ruled out with a hip injury. He completed 3 of 6 passes for 13 yards before his exit.

It is unclear how serious Fitzpatrick’s injury is. Regardless, it follows a trend of passers who either limped or were carried off that field in pain. Robert Griffin III tore two ligaments in his knee there in 2013 during a playoff game against the Seattle Seahawks, and Alex Smith in 2018 suffered a compound fracture to his right tibia and fibula that required 17 surgeries and nearly needed to be amputated.

Meantime in the stands, fans in a lower bowl posted a video to social media with what looked to be sewage leaking onto their seats.

Credit…Adrian Kraus/Associated Press

Working against Steelers defensive back Cameron Sutton in the back of the end zone, Bills receiver Gabriel Davis hauled in a 3-yard touchdown pass from Josh Allen with less than 30 seconds left in the first half to put Buffalo up, 10-0.

The score capped a 91-yard Bills drive and punctuated a first half in which Buffalo, mostly struggling against the Steelers defense, gained just 42 yards on the ground. Josh Allen ended the half with 16 of 26 passing and 152 yards.

The Steelers trail at the half after managing only 54 yards of total first-half offense. Quarterback Ben Roethlisberger was 6 of 12 with 58 yards and was sacked twice. Rookie running back Najee Harris had seven carries for eight yards.

Credit…Gregory Shamus/Getty Images

First-year Detroit Lions Coach Dan Campbell made headlines this off-season for his comments on biting opponent’s kneecaps and disclosing that he drinks two venti-sized coffees with two additional espresso shots from Starbucks each morning.

Now, his team is making a good stand against a legitimate contender in the N.F.C.

The Lions trail the San Francisco 49ers, 28-10, a respectable score in a game that most predicted would be a lopsided win for the 49ers.

Jared Goff, the former franchise quarterback for the Los Angeles Rams, who was traded in the off-season to the Lions for Matthew Stafford, has played efficiently, completing 14 of 19 passing attempts for 76 yards and a touchdown. Goff had taken care of the ball for almost all of the first half, but threw an interception that 49ers linebacker Dre Greenlaw returned for a touchdown just after the two-minute warning.

San Francisco’s offense, meanwhile, has shared the ball among its playmakers. Five different players have recorded a catch, and five different players have a rushing attempt. Coach Kyle Shanahan elected to start the veteran Jimmy Garoppolo over the rookie Trey Lance, but both quarterbacks have played. Garoppolo has completed all of his passes for 104 yards, but Lance threw the team’s only passing touchdown, on his first career attempt — a five-yard dart to receiver Trent Sherfield.

Credit…Mark Konezny/USA Today Sports, via Reuters

After touting one of the league’s most dynamic offenses last season, the Bills’ first task of the 2021 season includes facing a stout T.J. Watt-led Steelers defense.

Pittsburgh’s defense took no time to show why it’s one of the best in the league, allowing the Bills to gain virtually nothing on the ground.

Quarterback Josh Allen had little time to get the ball out, and the Bills’ most cohesive first-half drive featured a single deep ball — a 16-yarder to receiver Emmanuel Sanders that put the team on near midfield with seven minutes remaining. The would-be third-down conversion pass was dropped by receiver Cole Beasley, which would have been negated by an offensive holding call against guard Jonathan Feliciano.

After kicker Tyler Bass put the Bills ahead, 3-0, on a 37-field goal, Buffalo’s next four possessions ended with punts. Allen was held to 6 of 12 throwing with just 42 yards.

On Buffalo’s second possession of the second quarter, Steelers end T.J. Watt sacked Allen at the Pittsburgh 45-yard line and forced a fumble that was recovered by Cam Heyward.

Credit…Jacob Kupferman/Associated Press

Zach Wilson’s first drive as the Jets’ starting quarterback included two pre-snap penalties, a sack and a drop by one of his receivers. In other words, it was sloppy.

Wilson attempted only two passes on the drive against the Carolina Panthers, completing one on a seven-yard flare route to tight end Ryan Griffin. But an illegal formation and a holding penalty killed any offensive momentum. He also absorbed a nine-yard sack from Panthers defensive end Brian Burns.

Credit…Noah K. Murray/Associated Press

Coming into Week 1, most teams’ optimism hinges on the health of their rosters. A few star players whose status had been murky this week, including Giants running back Saquon Barkley, Chargers running back Austin Ekeler, and Colts guard Quenton Nelson, are good to go.

Elsewhere, the absence of injured players will temper their teams’ game plans.

Jets receiver Jamison Crowder (reserve/Covid-19) will miss Sunday’s season opener, while receiver Keelan Cole (knee) will be a game-time decision. And the Panthers will be without receiver Shi Smith, who missed practice this week with a shoulder injury.

The Washington Football Team placed receiver Curtis Samuel on the injured reserve list earlier this week, so he will miss at least three weeks to nurse a groin injury.

The Titans will be without kicker Sam Ficken, who is on the injured reserve list with a groin injury.

The Colts’ veteran cornerback Xavier Rhodes (calf) will miss Sunday’s opener, along with receiver T.Y. Hilton, who re-aggravated a lingering neck injury during a practice last month. Hilton, the Colts’ top receiver, is expected to miss the start of the regular season.

Texans quarterback Deshaun Watson is out for their season opener against the Jaguars. Watson, who has 22 civil suits alleging sexual misconduct filed against him, isn’t expected to suit up for Houston this season. (He has denied the accusations.) Tyrod Taylor will start in his place. Houston will also miss kicker Ka’imi Fairbairn (leg), as well as defensive back Lonnie Johnson Jr. (thigh).

The Jaguars will be without cornerback Tre Herndon, who’s out with a knee injury.

Bills running back Zack Moss was not on the team’s injury report leading up to Sunday’s game against the Steelers, but he will miss the team’s opener.

Browns receiver Odell Beckham Jr., who tore the anterior cruciate ligament in his left knee last season, will not play against the Chiefs. Beckham had been a game-time decision but was scratched about an hour before kickoff after taking the field for warm-ups. Chiefs safety Tyrann Mathieu will also miss the game despite being activated from the team’s injured reserve/Covid-19 list on Saturday.

Dolphins receiver Preston Williams, who’s been nursing a foot injury, is reportedly not expected to play against the Patriots.

The New Orleans Saints will be without receiver Michael Thomas for the start of the season after he underwent ankle surgery in June. They’ll also miss receiver Tre’Quan Smith (hamstring).

Giants tight end Evan Engram (calf) is out.

Credit…Matt Freed/Pittsburgh Post-Gazette, via Associated Press

T.J. Watt might have grown up in Wisconsin, and he might play for the Steelers, but according to Coach Mike Tomlin, he is just “visiting from another planet.” Tomlin said this toward the end of last season, which Watt finished with a league-leading 15 sacks.

The team’s front office acknowledged Watt’s otherworldly talent with a four-year extension worth $80 million guaranteed, according to multiple reports. Fresh off that signing, Watt beams into Highmark Stadium in Orchard Park, N.Y., on Sunday to lead a Steelers defense that represents an immediate, and stern, test for the Buffalo Bills and their superlative quarterback, Josh Allen.

Last season, Pittsburgh allowed the third-fewest points in the league and they are again stacked at every level, from secondary (Minkah Fitzpatrick) to linebacker (Devin Bush) to defensive line (Cam Heyward). Watt, though, is the best of them all, a supreme edge rusher who bypasses double-teams to torment quarterbacks, usually from the left side. Only Shaquil Barrett of Tampa Bay (76) recorded more pressures than Watt (73) during the 2020 season, according to Pro Football Focus.

As he waited for his contract negotiation to get resolved, Watt abstained from practicing with his teammates during most of training camp. He finally joined them on Wednesday, and no doubt he figures to be ready to play. The Bills better be, too.

Credit…Carolyn Kaster/Associated Press

In the span of just 12 days, the Baltimore Ravens lost their top three rushers on the depth chart to season-ending injuries.

Gus Edwards tore his anterior cruciate ligament in his knee during practice this week, the second such injury for a Ravens running back after starter J.K. Dobbins did so in the Aug. 28 preseason finale against Washington. They joined Justice Hill, who tore his Achilles’ tendon in practice, on injury reserve. Cornerback Marcus Peters also tore his A.C.L. at the same practice as Edwards.

“I think you mourn for a day, and we fight today,” Coach John Harbaugh told reporters Friday. “We can move forward.” He said he did not think the playing surface contributed to the rash of non-contact injuries.

To respond to the carnage, the Ravens signed Latavius Murray, the former New Orleans Saints backup, after he was released for declining to take a pay cut. Baltimore also added two players who previously had 1,000-yard rushing seasons, Le’Veon Bell and Devonta Freeman, to the practice squad with the intention of elevating them to the active roster.

Bell, a three-time Pro Bowl selection during his five seasons with the Pittsburgh Steelers, was released by the Jets midway through last season for his lack of production. He briefly signed with Kansas City, splitting carries in a reserve role, and later criticized Coach Andy Reid on social media this off-season.

Freeman, an elusive runner and pass catcher, rushed for 1,000 yards twice early in his six seasons with the Atlanta Falcons, but his production slipped after his groin injury in 2018, which kept him out of all but two games. He signed a one-year deal with the Giants last season, appearing in only five games and rushing for 172 yards. The Saints released him during training camp after he signed a one-year contract this off-season.

Credit…Jae C. Hong/Associated Press

If Los Angeles quarterback Justin Herbert plans to make a leap in Year 2, facing the Washington Football Team’s dominant defensive end Chase Young is probably one of the most difficult ways to start. Young, the 2020 defensive rookie of the year, will meet Herbert’s Chargers Sunday afternoon. It will be the second straight season where the reigning offensive and defensive rookies of the year will meet in their season opener: Arizona Cardinals quarterback Kyler Murray faced Nick Bosa’s San Francisco 49ers in Week 1 last season.

In 2020, Young anchored one of the league’s best defenses, which allowed just over 300 yards per game, second fewest in the N.F.L. Herbert finished the season with the most passing touchdowns (31) and completions (396) of any rookie in league history.

Credit…Rich Schultz/Associated Press

In Thursday night’s season opener, players stood on the field at Raymond James Stadium with their arms intertwined as Alicia Keys and the Florida A&M choir performed “Lift Every Voice and Sing” before the game’s start.

The N.F.L. began airing the song, also known as the Black national anthem, as part of its TV broadcasts before games following the worldwide racial justice protests held after the police killings of George Floyd and Breonna Taylor. It also included a performance of the song before the draft in April.

The league will continue to include the song’s performance in its pregame ceremonies as part of its continued social justice efforts.

“Lift Every Voice and Sing,” written over 120 years ago by N.A.A.C.P. leader James Weldon Johnson, captures in its lyrics the solemn hope for the liberty of African Americans, which read in part:

Sing a song full of the faith that the dark past has taught us.

Sing a song full of the hope that the present has brought us.

Facing the rising sun of our new day begun,

Let us march on ’til victory is won.”

Along with playing the song before its games, the N.F.L. will also allow players to wear helmet decals with one of six approved social justice messages. The league will again display the slogans “It Takes All of Us” and “End Racism” on end zones in solidarity with social justice movements against racism and police brutality.

Credit…Grant Halverson/Getty Images

Jets rookie quarterback Zach Wilson showed glimpses of why the team drafted him second overall this spring, but it was his predecessor, Sam Darnold, who showed his old team what could have been, in a 19-14 Panthers win.

Darnold, who the Jets traded to Carolina before the draft, threw for 279 yards and a touchdown, completing 24 of 35 passes. Wilson scored two touchdowns — on a 22-yard pass to Corey Davis and an eight-yard pass to Davis — and also scrambled for a two-point conversion. But sloppy protection forced Wilson to improvise for most of the day, and he absorbed six (!) sacks. The rookie from Brigham Young finished with 258 yards, completing 20 of 37 passes, with one interception.

Credit…Andy Lyons/Getty Images

Favored San Francisco started the fourth quarter with a 21-point lead over Detroit, looking well in line to cruise to a first regular-season win.

Not so fast.

By the game’s final minute, the 49ers’ lead was down to 8 and the team had to defend a potential game-tying drive by the Lions, before exhaling with a 41-33 win.

It was one of two down-to-the-wire finishes of the early window on Sunday, with Minnesota kicker Greg Joseph’s 53-yard field goal at the end of regulation, forcing overtime in Cincinnati after the Vikings erased a 10-point fourth-quarter deficit. The Bengals pulled off the 27-24 upset at home.

Late fumbles factored into both endings.

On the first play after the two-minute warning of overtime, with neither the Bengals or Vikings having scored, Minnesota running back Dalvin Cook’s fumble was recovered by Cincinnati at their own 39-yard line. The Bengals moved into field goal range on a 32-yard pass from Joe Burrow to C.J. Uzomah on fourth-and-1, and Evan McPherson kicked a game-winning field goal as time expired for the Bengals win.

In Detroit, the Lions had scored on a touchdown run and converted a 2-point try with less than two minutes left, but still trailed by 19. Then they recovered an onside kick of a ball that bounced off San Francisco tight end George Kittle’s helmet.

Detroit took advantage, scoring another touchdown and 2-point conversion, both on receptions by Quintez Cephus, to close the gap to an 8-point deficit.

It was San Francisco’s turn to recover an onside kick, though, and instead of running out the clock, receiver Deebo Samuel lost a fumble to give Detroit one last chance. Lions quarterback Jared Goff drove the offense to the San Francisco 24-yard line, but the Lions ran out of magic.

Evan Easterling

Credit…Andrew Nelles/USA Today Sports, via Reuters

When you think of potential Defensive Player of the Year Award winners, the usual candidates come to mind: Aaron Donald of the Rams; T.J. Watt of the Steelers; Myles Garrett of the Browns.

But in the first game of the season, Arizona Cardinals linebacker Chandler Jones added his name to the way-too-early discussion. Jones, a three-time Pro Bowl selection, posted five sacks and forced two fumbles in a 38-13 win against the Tennessee Titans. His constant pressure contributed to an abysmal performance by the new-look Titans offense, which hoped adding receiver Julio Jones would force defenses in a no-win situation of defending the pass while accounting for running back Derrick Henry, who rushed for over 2,000 yards last season.

Jones did not participate in the Cardinals’ off-season program amid a contract dispute, but he reported to training camp on time. If he continues playing the way he did Sunday, another team will pay him handsomely if the Cardinals don’t. His performances drew praises on social media, including from Titans tackle Taylor Lewan, who thanked Jones on Twitter for “exposing” him and said that it would motivate him to improve.

Credit…James Gilbert/Getty Images

New Orleans had a number of potential excuses for why they could play badly in the first game of the season.

Saints players and staff relocated from Louisiana to Texas amid Hurricane Ida’s destruction, and they are now temporary borrowers of the Jacksonville Jaguars’ TIAA Bank Field as the designated home team.

Sean Payton for the first time since 2005 is coaching a quarterback not named Drew Brees in a regular season game. And he is doing so against Green Bay, a team that easily could have made the Super Bowl last year and is determined to do so this year in perhaps quarterback Aaron Rodgers’s last season with the Packers.

But at halftime, the Saints lead the Packers, 17-3, because of the responsible play of quarterback Jameis Winston and because their defense is containing one of the league’s most talented offenses. Winston, who replaced Brees after he retired in the off-season, has completed 9 of 12 passes for 65 yards and two touchdowns. More important, though, is that he has not turned the ball over, a vice that caused the Tampa Bay Buccaneers, his former team, to part ways with him in 2019. Running back Alvin Kamara also added 64 yards rushing and a receiving touchdown.

The Packers have struggled to establish the run, generating only 12 rushing yards. Rodgers is 7 of 12 on passing attempts for 69 yards, and he has also absorbed a sack.