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2019-09-11T08:10:03-04:00)

NFL Panic Index 2019: The Texans are still doing Deshaun Watson dirty

Can the Texans stop squandering their QB? Is Baker Mayfield headed for a sophomore slump? Will the 49ers ever have healthy RBs? Let’s talk about it.

After the first week of every new NFL season, there are 16 fanbases with 19-0 dreams and 16 fanbases obsessively hitting the panic button over and over. The same is true this year. Well, mostly. The Cardinals and Lions are basically stuck in The Medium Place after their Week 1 tie.

The good news for the 15 1-0 teams is that Super Bowl winners are 43-9-1 in the first week of the season when they won their championship. The good news for the 15 0-1 teams is that more than half of last year’s playoff teams lost their first game. The good news for the 0-0-1 teams is that you have that VHS copy of Cannonball Run II.

Let’s put the overreactions aside for a few minutes and break down what is and isn’t worth dwelling on this week.

The Texans are squandering Deshaun Watson

Right before the season started, Houston swung for the fences by trading a huge draft haul for left tackle Laremy Tunsil. It was a desperate but necessary move to help give franchise quarterback Deshaun Watson, who has dealt with a torn ACL and a partially collapsed lung in his young career, the protection he needs.

The early results are ... well, the offensive line is still terrible. In the Texans’ 30-28 loss against the Saints on Monday, Watson was sacked six times, hit another 11 times, and ended up with a bruised butt.

Despite that, Watson never quit, making two huge throws to give the Texans a (temporary) lead with 50 seconds left on the road, in a very hostile (especially to the refs) environment. It was the type a gutsy performance that we’re used to Watson conjuring up, and one we should never take for granted.

And once again, those heroics were all for naught, thanks to the coaching and the defense.

Those are the same issues that have plagued the Texans since Watson was drafted in 2017. In Watson’s rookie season, Bill O’Brien got too conservative, against the Patriots and then the Seahawks, and the defense surrendered game-winning drives after Watson had given Houston a lead. A similar situation happened in 2018 against the Eagles.

On Monday night, the Texans’ soft defensive coverage on the final drive — which O’Brien still hasn’t really explained — allowed the Saints to set up a game-winning field goal.

Watson is a special quarterback, but it feels like the Texans are doing nothing but wasting his rookie deal. We can give Tunsil a mulligan for his up-and-down game against the Saints, considering he just joined the team a week ago. The poor performance from the rest of the offensive line was a bit concerning, though, as is the Texans’ baffling late-game decisions.

Panic index: With the way the Texans got rid of their future draft picks, they have to go all-in on this year to maximize their current talent. Unless they can clean some things up and stop making the same mistakes over and over, a deep playoff run might not be in the cards, even though they have the quarterback to get it done.

Poor, poor Deshaun.

Baker Mayfield could be in danger of a sophomore slump

Baker Mayfield is not shy, as we know. This offseason he took shots at teammates (yikes), another team’s rookie quarterback (eesh), a college quarterback who went to his rival school (oookaaaay), and Colin Cowherd (yeah, that’s understandable). On Sunday, Mayfield could finally let his play do the talking for him again.

It did not go well, at least not in Week 1. The Browns, a team people now believe in, added to their season-opening misery with a blowout loss to the Titans in front of a White Clawed up Cleveland crowd that probably knew better than to get its hopes up.

Mayfield looked hesitant behind a shaky offensive line that lost its left tackle to a face kick (he was kicker, not the kickee) and that let him get sacked a Deshaun Watson-esque five times — one of which came in the end zone for a safety. The second-year quarterback threw just one touchdown and was picked off three times, all in the fourth quarter. One of those was returned for a touchdown, too. In a 43-13 loss, Mayfield accounted for almost as many points for Tennessee as the Browns scored all game.

It was a surprisingly lifeless performance for a quarterback who set an NFL rookie record for touchdown passes last year and who thrived in now-head coach Freddie Kitchens’ offense.

So now we’re left wondering if Mayfield, like the Browns, can’t handle the pressure of high expectations.

Panic index: It’s hard to tell Browns fans not to despair when that’s been their default mode for most of the franchise’s existence. But it’s much too soon to think the worst about the team or Mayfield. While a three-interception game is very Jameis of him, Mayfield threw all of those late in the game when he was trying to make something happen, even though the Browns probably weren’t going to win anyway:

Plus, if there’s one thing we know about Baker — besides how much he likes to run his mouth — it’s that he’s got a big ol’ chip on his shoulder. We honestly wouldn’t be surprised if threw the Week 1 game just to bring out the doubters again.

JuJu Smith-Schuster as the Steelers’ No. 1 receiver is off to a rough start

Pittsburgh had to eat a huge amount of dead money when it traded Antonio Brown, but it got a couple draft picks in return and felt pretty good about JuJu Smith-Schuster filling Brown’s shoes.

After all, Smith-Schuster was a Pro Bowler in 2018, finishing the season with 111 receptions for 1,426 yards and seven touchdowns. It’s possible some of that production was thanks to Brown, though.

As the Steelers’ new No. 1 wideout, Smith-Schuster was lined up against New England’s top cornerback, Stephon Gilmore, for most of their Week 1. While he caught six passes for 78 yards, Smith-Schuster was mostly ineffective, and the Steelers’ offense couldn’t get any momentum in an embarrassing 33-3 loss to the Patriots.

If Smith-Schuster can’t find success against secondaries focused on stopping him first and foremost, the Steelers’ passing game may be stuck in the mud all season.

Panic index: Gilmore was a first-team All-Pro last season and Smith-Schuster is far from the first receiver to be shut down by the Patriots. Hell, Brown’s career average against New England is essentially the same exact output his replacement had Sunday night.

Smith-Schuster is still just 22 and may need to get his footing as the top dog in Pittsburgh. It’s way too early to think he’s nothing more than a No. 2 receiver.

49ers running backs are dropping like flies

When Kyle Shanahan took over the 49ers, he brought with him a different offense that required some fairly specific personnel to make it function. Acquiring “Shanahan guys” became a priority, and that included serious changes to the running back position. Jerick McKinnon was supposed to be the lead back who could make Shanahan’s offense work, but a torn ACL wiped out his 2018 season.

Then he suffered a complication that caused him to start this season on injured reserve. Matt Breida has dealt with multiple injuries as well. No matter, because Shanahan also added Tevin Coleman this past offseason. Coleman spent time with Shanahan on the Atlanta Falcons, and 49ers fans were happy to have him, even as a lead back.

Week 1 brought some twists, however. Coleman is now injured — a high ankle sprain that will keep him out several games — and Breida is essentially always a little banged up at this point. That leaves Breida and Raheem Mostert as the top running backs for the 49ers.

Panic index: Here’s the thing: It wouldn’t be surprising if Breida came out and played well. He has all the makings of a lead running back, and has the confidence to do it. But the top two guys the 49ers were planning around are now injured, and that’s going to disrupt Shanahan’s offense. Jimmy Garoppolo is already hurting for offensive playmakers outside of George Kittle, so if this running back situation gets ANY worse, the 49ers could be in for some tough times.

The Bears currently have the rookie version of Mitchell Trubisky

Trubisky was the first quarterback off the board in the 2017 draft. He hasn’t played like it.

Sure, his 2018 emergence saw him guide the Bears to a NFC North title in a Pro Bowl season, but he still had plenty of questions to answer in 2019. Was he more than a caretaker QB? Could he live up to the lofty standard set by fellow first-round picks Patrick Mahomes and Deshaun Watson? Would his six-touchdown performance against the Buccaneers be one of 2018’s biggest outlier performances?

Based on Week 1’s performance against the Packers, the answers are no, no, and yes.

Trubisky looked entirely overwhelmed against Green Bay’s new-look defense, needing 45 passes to throw for just 228 yards. He was flustered by the Packers’ pass rush all night, getting hit 11 times on top of five sacks. And when his team needed him to level up and lead the Bears back from a seven-point deficit late in the fourth quarter, the third-year pro responded by throwing an awful interception in the end zone, then got bullied into a rare four-and-out that ended with a sack at his own 5-yard line.

As a result, a game in which Chicago held Aaron Rodgers to just 10 points resulted in an 0-1 start. Trubisky wasn’t amazing last year, but he did enough of the little things right to make the Bears a contender. He abandoned that progress in the first game of 2019, and a major step back could turn last year’s division champs into the 2018 Buffalo Bills.

Panic index: Matt Nagy isn’t worried. He’s too busy reliving last year’s double-doink and eschewing 51-yard field goals in order to go for it on fourth-and-10 to focus much on Trubisky right now.

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