Steelers' confidence, Sammy Watkins' revival, Rams' rustiness

As we turn toward Week 2 of the 2019 NFL season,’s network of reporters provides the hottest news and notes from across the league, including:

— Why Freddie Kitchens isn’t worried about the Browns.

— The re-emergence of Sammy Watkins.

— Rust for the Rams coming off the preseason.

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NFL: Coaches getting into groove with new challenge rule. Troy Vincent, the NFL’s top football operations executive, predicted the league would have a much better idea of how the pass interference challenge rule is working out by about Week 3.

The early returns from the first week indicate it will be far less intrusive than initially feared.

In the first 16 games of the regular season, there were just seven stoppages to review pass interference. The on-field ruling was overturned just twice. That’s an average of less than one stoppage for every two games, compared to a rate of nearly one per game in the preseason (54 reviews in 65 games). That’s as the NFL expected it to be, because coaches used the preseason as a chance to test the boundaries of the rule.

The two overturns in the first week represent an overturn rate of 29 percent. That is a far higher rate than during the preseason, when there were seven reversals in 54 reviews (13 percent), a likely indication that because coaches will be more judicious with their challenges in the regular season, we will see more calls overturned when they do challenge.

–Judy Battista

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BUFFALO BILLS: Allen figuring it out? Say this for Josh Allen: He’s a man of his word. The 23-year-old quarterback told me a few days before he began his second pro season that he was going to manage drives differently this season — take what the defense gives him, methodically march downfield, not rely on the home-run ball. In Buffalo’s Week 1 win over the Jets, he did so.

Consider: As a rookie, Allen averaged 11 air yards per attempt, the largest number in the NFL in 2018. He threw deep (passes of 20-plus air yards) 18.1 percent of the time, the highest rate in a season since 2016.

Against the Jets, Allen averaged 8.2 yards per attempt and threw deep 13.5 percent of the time.

It helped, of course, that the Bills acquired Cole Beasley (who makes the slot more viable) and John Brown (a speedy, dependable outside threat) in the offseason. Beasley had nine targets against the Jets. Brown caught the 38-yard game-winner. That’s progress.

— Kimberly Jones

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CLEVELAND BROWNS: Kitchens sure he can right the ship. The Browns are spending the week trying to forget their disastrous season-opening loss to the Titans. But lessons remain.

"Our guys know we don’t coach penalties," said coach Freddie Kitchens, alluding to the 18 committed by Cleveland last Sunday. "The smartest and most physical team usually wins the game. We were physical, but we weren’t the smartest. Our guys understand that, they accept that. (It was) a problem; now we’re going to rectify the problem."

Kitchens maintains the Browns have enough — even plenty — of talent.

"No one’s shaking here," he said. "We’re going to fix the problem."

Their next chance comes Monday night, on the road against the Jets. Asked about Sam Darnold (mono) being ruled out, Kitchens had a pretty astute reply: The Titans, he said, didn’t have their starting left tackle, Taylor Lewan, who was out with a suspension. And, ultimately, that did not matter to Tennessee.

— Kimberly Jones

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DENVER BRONCOS: Sutton bursts onto the scene. A lot of praise was thrown at Broncos receiver Courtland Sutton during the offseason. Many predicted he’d break out in Year 2 of his NFL career and become a threat, opposite Emmanuel Sanders, that teams would have to prepare for. Sutton didn’t disappoint Monday against the Raiders, especially in the eyes of his offensive coordinator.

"I felt very strongly about him since I got here," first-year coordinator Rich Scangarello said Thursday. "You could see it at the end of last year. Like in the Cincinnati game (Sutton caught four passes for 85 yards and a score against the Bengals in Week 13), he looked like the best player on the field."

"You can see flashes of it," Scangarello said. "I think it’s slowing down, he’s getting better — he looked fresh, he looked fast, he looked youthful, he had his legs rolling, he looked like a real player out there. You could see it from the box, and he was a difference-maker in that game. I really felt had we gotten another opportunity there at the end, we would have had a real chance because of him."

— James Palmer

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KANSAS CITY CHIEFS: Personal reinvention leads to Watkins’ revival. Heading into Week 2, Sammy Watkins has already matched his 2018 touchdown total. Against the Jaguars in Week 1, the Chiefs receiver caught nine passes for 198 yards and three touchdowns. He finished 2018 with 40 catches for 519 yards and three touchdowns on the entire season.

Why the sudden explosion? Watkins saw it coming because of a change in his mental approach, along with altering his nutrition and body. He hinted to me that coach Andy Reid expected it, as well. Watkins openly admitted that he didn’t have a grasp of the offense last year, his first in Kansas City after three years with the Bills and one with the Rams.

"Now I know what I can and can’t do," Watkins said. "Last year, I was really running around kind of like a robot, not really trying to get the ball. Now, every play, I’m trying to get the ball. Even if I’m not getting it, I’m wanting it."

The comfort wasn’t there, either. He felt that he didn’t really belong.

"Everything is adding up to where it should be," Watkins said smiling. "I’m good with the guys now. I felt like last year, I was kind of an outsider; now, I think the bond is better."

Added reps at different spots during the offseason, with receiver Tyreek Hill and tight end Travis Kelce both missing time during OTAs and minicamp, made a massive impact, as well.

"Last year, I played just one position and knew only one position," Watkins admitted. "I didn’t really know what my job was or what other guy’s jobs were or if was I actually going to get the ball."

— James Palmer

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Kicker gets sharp for visit to Raiders on the diamond. Arrowhead Stadium is right next to Kauffman Stadium. The Chiefs and MLB’s Kansas City Royals are separated by a distance that Patrick Mahomes could probably cover with a throw.

So when kicker Harrison Butker came up with the idea to spend some time kicking off the dirt of the Royals’ infield ahead of the team’s trip to Oakland, where the Raiders play on a converted baseball field that they currently share with the Oakland Athletics, it was an easy commute for Kansas City’s specialists.

A simple phone call set the whole thing up, and the Royals couldn’t have been more accommodating. They asked special teams coordinator Dave Toub how the Chiefs would like the dirt. Hard? Soft? In the eyes of Toub, the dirt perfectly simulated the conditions they’ll find at Oakland-Alameda County Coliseum this Sunday.

Only one thing was missing.

"No, no goal posts," Toub said. "We kind of lined up on the first-base line, and they kicked right there. We did onside kicks, we did kickoffs, we punted on it, we snapped on it, so it was good."

Oakland’s current home is the only NFL stadium that features dirt. (When the Raiders move to Las Vegas, the days of playing on converted baseball fields will come to an end.) The Chiefs aren’t the first team to simulate kicking off the dirt of a baseball field by heading over to their respective city’s MLB stadium for some prep work. But their trip might have been one of the easiest to execute.

— James Palmer

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LOS ANGELES RAMS: Shaking off the rust on the field. The Rams didn’t play starters and key rotational players in preseason games. Head coach Sean McVay said the lack of game action showed up some in the team’s season-opening victory over the Panthers.

Running back Todd Gurley, for instance, ran five times for 8 yards in the first half and nine times for 89 yards in the second. In speaking about Gurley’s enhanced production as the game wore on, McVay said: "It’s like anything else, and it’s not exclusive to Todd. It’s our team getting in football shape. Especially when you look at the approach that we took, playing the amount of snaps that we did in that kind of weather. I thought that was a great first opportunity for us to kind of get ourselves into game shape."

The Rams, by the way, scored 30 points while getting into game shape.

— Steve Wyche

Rapp making waves. Rookie safety Taylor Rapp had seven tackles against the Panthers, mostly after filling in for veteran Eric Weddle, who had to leave with a head laceration and concussion. Even though Weddle is on course to play Sunday against the visiting Saints, Rapp’s role won’t be significantly diminished. The Rams are very high on the second-round pick, and because of the varied personnel groups the Saints use, L.A. will employ a lot of six-defensive back sets.

"He’s a guy that we consistently talked about because he deserved to be talked about based on just getting better every single day," McVay said of Rapp. "He’s a mature football player. He’s just a good football player that has a great feel for the game and that you trust in [certain] situations."

As for the 34-year-old Weddle, he likely is going to have to change helmets because of the wound on his head that required stitches, according to a Rams source.

— Steve Wyche

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NEW YORK GIANTS: Barkley bound for more action? There is no doubt that running back Saquon Barkley is the Giants’ best player and most explosive offensive weapon. The question: Why did the 2018 Offensive Rookie of the Year touch the ball only 15 times in the season-opening loss to the Cowboys?

In Barkley’s 17 career games, the Giants are 1-9 when he has 15 carries or less. He had 11 for 120 yards against Dallas. And at one point in the first half, as Dallas extended its lead from 14-7 to 21-7, the Giants went 10 consecutive plays without giving Barkley the ball.

"I think Saquon needs to touch the ball," Giants coach Pat Shurmur said. "That’s something we’re going to talk about weekly, (so) I’m glad you brought it up. It’s important that he touches the ball, because he has a chance to be explosive."

Shurmur added: "I think it’s also important to know that, offensively, it takes a village, and everybody else has to do their part."

In Week 1, the Bills defense held Jets running back Le’Veon Bell to 60 rushing yards on 17 carries with a long gain of 12. We’ll see Sunday how they deal with Barkley.

— Kimberly Jones

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NEW YORK JETS: Mosley matters. One observation that has remained consistent over the offseason, preseason and — mostly importantly — in Week 1 is that the fortune the Jets spent on middle linebacker C.J. Mosley in free agency was money well spent. Mosley was the best player on the field Sunday; he had two takeaways, including an interception return for the game’s first touchdown, against the Bills.

It was not until Mosley left the game with a groin injury, late in the third quarter, that the Bills began their 16-point comeback, ultimately winning, 17-16.

"We didn’t handle the fact that we lost our middle linebacker very well," coach Adam Gase said. "Basically we need to understand that when we lose somebody, the next guy has to step up. We can’t have any loss of energy. We can’t lose our minds."

Neville Hewitt replaced Mosley. Bills quarterback Josh Allen benefited. Five of the Bills’ 10 longest plays were made in the fourth quarter, including a 38-yard game-winning touchdown pass from Allen to John Brown. Mosley did not practice Thursday, and his availability for Monday’s matchup with the Browns would seem to be in question.

— Kimberly Jones

Gase pulls no punches when discussing Jets’ issues. By the way, we’re learning that Adam Gase is a pretty honest, unfiltered quote. After Sunday’s loss, he referred to the Jets’ offense as "inept." He later corrected himself, taking some blame off the shoulders of Sam Darnold — and putting it squarely on his wide receivers for running poor routes.

Then there’s the kicker situation. The Jets are on their fourth kicker in a month’s worth of time: Chandler Catanzaro retired, Taylor Bertolet was cut, Kaare Vedvik was cut after missing an extra point and a 45-yard field goal in the one-point loss to the Bills, and now Sam Ficken is aboard.

"Got a new one," Gase joked. "Why not? Let’s go, baby. It’s the NFL, baby. Not for long."

Last year, the Jets had a Pro Bowl kicker in Jason Myers. Former GM Mike Maccagnan did not re-sign Myers, who is now a Seahawk.

That, of course, is no laughing matter.

— Kimberly Jones

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OAKLAND RAIDERS: Defense dealing with injuries. The Raiders’ defense made a huge statement in the Week 1 win over the Broncos, showing their much-improved pass rush and the skills of their revamped secondary, sacking Joe Flacco three times and limiting Denver to 16 points. But when you play as hard and as physical as that defense did Monday, you’re bound to take a few hits yourself.

The news for cornerback Gareon Conley was good. On Wednesday, Conley, who was carted off the field and taken to a local hospital after a scary hit against Denver, returned to practice, and on Thursday, defensive coordinator Paul Guenther said the 2017 first-rounder was "good to go."

Safety Johnathan Abram did not get as lucky. Although the rookie made a tremendous impact in the game, his all-gas-no-brakes style of play resulted in a shoulder injury that will keep the first-round pick off the field for the rest of the season. "He would have played this week if we let him. … We will miss him, no doubt," head coach Jon Gruden said, referring to Abram’s grit.

The safety group that the Raiders will roll with against the high-powered Chiefs’ offense in Week 2 includes Erik Harris, Lamarcus Joyner and Karl Joseph. Guenther said the safeties will take a committee approach. "We kept five safeties on the roster for a reason: because we liked all of them," Guenther said. "I always tell them they have to step up, and the standards stay the same."

The Raiders’ defense, especially the secondary, will have its hands full with guys like WR Sammy Watkins and TE Travis Kelce coming to town.

— MJ Acosta

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PITTSBURGH STEELERS: Bounce-back on tap? Steelers quarterback Ben Roethlisberger pointed out to teammates during a Monday-morning run that the sun still came up and the sky was still blue, their 33-3 loss to the Patriots the night before notwithstanding.

"You never want to put tape out there like that," defensive end Cameron Heyward, one of the Steelers’ captains, told me Thursday. "We had to go in and find the answers. The best way to get over last week is, start with this week."

What the Steelers found on tape, Heyward said, was "a lot of self-inflicted wounds" — players being out of position, among other things that led to big plays — that need to be cleaned up before their home opener against the Seahawks.

Coach Mike Tomlin’s teams have a history of improving as the season goes on. According to NFL Research, the Steelers are now 22-19-1 (.536) in September in the Tomlin era; in regular-season games from October to January, they’re 103-48 (.682).

"Every team’s different," Heyward said, "but I think we’ve got the right group of guys that are going to attack it."

— Tom Pelissero

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