Welcome to the first article of a weekly series, in which @Full10Yards dishes out game balls to a few deserving recipients from the slate of matches we’ve just enjoyed. There’ll be plaudits for the offensive and defensive players of the week, the head coach who’s caught our eye and those responsible for the play of the week.
So let’s get down to it and hand out our first game balls of the 2021 NFL season.
Offensive player of the week
Kyler Murray, QB, Arizona Cardinals
I was half-expecting to give this one to my initial front-runner, Dak Prescott. In the barnstorming season opener between Dallas and Tampa Bay on Thursday night, he and Tom Brady (another worthy contender for the game ball) combined for a total of 782 yards and seven touchdowns. After a devastating injury that required two ankle surgeries last year, Prescott returned big-time by logging his eighth 400-yard game of his career. His final stat line read 42-of-58 for 403 yards and three TDs.
Then I toyed with Jamies Winston (five TD passes), Russell Wilson (four TDs) and Tyreek Hill (197 yards receiving) but in the end, I opted for the Cardinals’ gunslinger, KYLER MURRAY. The diminutive quarterback threw it all over the shop in an unexpectedly comfortable 38-13 win over the lacklustre Tennessee Titans.
Maybe 21 completions for 289 yards doesn’t sound all that great but Murray still managed to find two receivers – Christian Kirk and new weapon DeAndre Hopkins – for two TDs each (a first in franchise history). He also notched another score on the ground with one of his five rushes, triumphantly waving the ball aloft as he ran in from a couple of yards out.
Murray’s highlights included a scampering rollout to the right followed by an inch-perfect lob that found Hopkins at the back of the end zone, and a rainbow from about 35 yards that just plopped over Kirk’s shoulder and almost into his lap. But arguably Kyler’s top moment wasn’t a scoring play. Midway through the second quarter on a 3rd-and-10 on his own 25-yard line, he was forced to scramble back, left and right to evade four rushing Titans, then checked back a second time before nailing a pass down the sideline to Rondale Moore. Twelve seconds of classic Kyler.
Defensive player of the week
Chandler Jones, OLB, Arizona Cardinals
It feels odd to award our Week 1 offensive and defensive accolades to players on the same team but the Cardinals were that good on both sides of the ball.
The league’s sack leaders after one game are indeed Arizona, who got Ryan Tannehill on his backside six times. Michael Dogbe got one but outside linebacker CHANDLER JONES snagged the other five. In a totally dominant performance, he also recorded four tackles for loss and forced two fumbles, both recovered by AZ, making him this week’s defensive MVP by some distance.
His first sack – when afforded a free lane after a play-action fake – was scooped up and taken to the house by nose tackle Corey Peters (gotta love a big man TD!) and the next two came when he left Titans left tackle Taylor Lewan for dead. Bless him, poor old Lewan fessed up to his shortcomings afterwards.
Belying the fact that Jones was in a bit of a contract dispute during the offseason and skipped mandatory minicamp, his five sacks in one game equals a franchise record. The 31-year-old also becomes the only player in the last 20 years to have twice recorded 4+ sacks and 2+ forced fumbles. Well played, sir.
Coach of the week
Sean Payton, HC, New Orleans Saints
OK, hands up who predicted an absolute shellacking of Green Bay by the Jameis Winston-led Saints? Me neither. So kudos to Head Coach SEAN PAYTON for orchestrating a damn-near-flawless display of complementary football in one of the shocks of the week. We mustn’t forget that the Saints were forced to play this ‘home’ game in Jacksonville, Florida, due to the ongoing impact of Hurricane Ida in their home state, which makes their 38-3 win even more impressive.
The Saints dominated the Packers in both trenches. The O-line created holes for Alvin Kamara and kept Jameis protected, giving him plenty of time in the pocket. The offence also bossed the possession in the first half by 21:10 to 8:50, leaving the Packers time for only three drives before the break.
Knowing his well-documented penchant for turnovers, Winston wasn’t asked to take risks in tight windows. He only threw the rock 20 times, and completed just 14 passes for 148 yards (plus 36 yards on the ground). Yet there were enough wide-open targets for him to connect for five passing TDs, the best of which was a 55-yard TD corker up the middle to Deonte Harris. Yes, Winston actually threw a touchdown with one of every four attempts(!) but just as importantly, there were no INTs. On first showing, Jameis is in good hands with Payton. He made smart choices and executed what was asked of him to perfection.
Meanwhile, the defensive front were in Aaron Rodgers’ grille all night (just 133 passing yards, no successful third downs and a 53.6% completion rate). Rodgers sustained six QB hits and two sacks, and the Packers eventually waved the white flag, replacing him with Jordan Love in the fourth quarter. Further illustrating the Saints’ defensive strength, Aaron Jones was held to just 9 yards while Davante Adams (56 yards) was the only receiver to reel in more than three catches.
So hats off to you Mr Payton, for making Jameis look like Aaron, and vice versa. That’s quite the magic trick.
Play of the week
Joe Burrow, QB, Cincinnati Bengals
In his first game back since having his knee destroyed in Week 10 last season, JOE BURROW was (understandably and wisely) given a limited repertoire by HC Zac Taylor. Admittedly, he did connect downfield with ol’ LSU buddy Ja’Marr Chase for a peachy 50-yard TD, but Burrow’s game against the Vikings was dominated by short passes and handoffs to Joe Mixon.
With Cincy and Minnesota edging towards a 24-24 tie deep into OT, the Bengals faced a tricky 4th-and-an-inch in midfield. Having run the ball in a similar position earlier in the game, another burst from the backfield from Mixon was the most likely play. But Burrow, who had apparently been allowed to call the shots out in the huddle, had other ideas. He faked the run play, checked back and threw a delightfully lofted ball to tight end CJ Uzomah for a 32-yard gain. That put the team within range for rookie Evan McPherson to kick the game-winning field goal.
OK, so it wasn’t the most spectacular play of the week. For that, you can take your pick from down-the-field bombs (Russell Wilson to Tyler Lockett for 69 yards, Matt Stafford to Van Jefferson for 67 yards and Cooper Kupp for 57), spectacular catches (Pharaoh Brown’s one-handed claim for the Texans) or the TD connection between a scrambling Teddy Bridgewater and a diving Albert Okwuegbunam for Denver. But Burrow’s was arguably the gutsiest call. It showed that with the game on the line, Burrow still had faith in his own abilities and his much-maligned O-line. That belief brought the reward it deserved: a W.
Featured image: AP Photo – Phelan M. Ebenhack