Week 3 NFL underdogs: Matt Ryan, Jason Garrett, Steelers' run game in spotlight

Itching to watch an underdog try to overcome the odds or triumph against adversity? Simply looking to pass the time reading another NFL.com article while stuck in your cube? Marc Sessler offers a bead on seven intriguing scenarios to track as we tumble toward Week 3:

1) Matt Ryan

I refuse to listen to “Matt Ryan is washed” chitchat. After two weeks of Falcons football, though, I wonder if a little part of him wishes to be kidnapped by a band of pirates. (In this scenario: cordial pirates. He’d be treated well. Fed and clothed. They’d return him home just after Week 18.) That might be the only way to stay safe behind a bottom-five Falcons O-line that makes it a chore for Ryan to find a secure groove in Arthur Smith’s new offense. His three interceptions against the Bucs (with a pair of pick-sixes by Mike Edwards) included two tipped balls and one anti-laser that Edwards acrobatically jumped. It helps to face the Giants and Jets over the next three weeks, but 36-year-old Ryan vibes as a doomed figure on a work-in-progress roster that feels closer to April’s top overall pick than postseason play.

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2) Miami’s offensive line

Tua Tagovailoa knew something was amiss. The second-year starter was sacked twice on Miami’s first drive. On the next, he was drilled to terra firma before a cart pulled him away with a game-ending rib injury — one that will keep Tua out of Sunday’s meeting with the Raiders and push Jacoby Brissett into the starting spot. “You never want to see your quarterback hurt or on the ground,” said left tackle Austin Jackson after a 35-0 drubbing by Buffalo. “Those are two terrible things that we all kick ourselves over.” The Fins were pummeled for six sacks and 11 quarterback hits — and this came with their five O-line starters in the lineup.

It was concerning to see Tua blasted by a pair of defensive backs who nobody put a hand on. The injury came when Bills end A.J. Epenesa ghosted right tackle Jesse Davis to hammer the young passer. The offense spent Sunday as a nonfunctioning pile of rubble. Despite seven draft picks invested over the past three offseasons, Miami’s line stands out as a rotten apple with enough stink to unspool an otherwise talented and balanced team. Fingers crossed they mesh in a hurry.

3) Jason Garrett

I grew up on the East Coast watching the Giants every Sunday on CBS. They aren’t my cup of tea, but vast pockets of childhood friends remain Big Blue loyalists. Based on recent texts, this crew is highly piqued by the Jason Garrett Experience in New York — and they have a point. The embattled play-caller’s scheme has pumped out fewer than 20 points in 10 of 18 tilts since his arrival last season.

The winless G-Men resembled a quintessential Garrett creation in Week 1, dialing up a flurry of punts and two drives that died at Denver’s 6- and 21-yard line, respectively. Last week’s 30-29 loss to Washington was spicier, but also saw Garrett attempt to milk the clock from the WFT’s 20 after James Bradberry picked off Taylor Heinicke with 2:16 left in the fight. Trailing 27-26, Garrett called back-to-back Saquon Barkley runs before Daniel Jones misfired on a third-and-7 lob to Sterling Shepard. The upshot: A 16-second “march” that set Washington up for the game-winning drive. It’s not impossible to fathom why Kenny Golladay was seen screaming at Garrett at the end of a frustrating night for the G-Men. 

Garrett’s conservative approach ruffled feathers in Dallas, too. He’s the opposite of avant-garde, but oversees an offense with plenty of talent in Shepard, Barkley and Golladay. With Atlanta’s scorched defense up next, Garrett’s on the hook to polish a diamond come Sunday. Can we trust him to design more runs for Jones, quietly one of the game’s juiciest quarterbacks on the ground? How about unleashing first-round wideout Kadarius Toney, an electric presence at Florida who has produced a whopping two catches for minus-two yards receiving on the year?

Ron Rivera famously forced himself to cast off conservative threads and ride the riverboat years ago in Carolina. Garrett has a choice: Adapt and evolve to 2021 standards on offense, or be hoisted up to the frothing New York media as a white-hot scapegoat.

4) Pittsburgh’s attempt at a ground game

“We need to run the ball better. We need to throw the ball better. We need to do everything better right now on offense. So, we don’t need to point at one thing. We need to point at the whole thing.” — Ben Roethlisberger after Sunday’s loss to the Raiders

Noted, sir, but let’s point to the ground game, churning out a league-worst ​​57 yards per tilt after sputtering for just 39 in Week 2. This isn’t a Najee Harris complaint, either, with the first-round rookie doing all he can behind a line unfamiliar with the practice of creating alleyways to prance through. Pittsburgh’s collapse down the stretch in ’20 was pockmarked by just 52.1 rushing yards per outing after its 11-0 start. Over two weeks, nothing has changed behind an inexperienced line searching for daylight.

It’s fair to wonder how 39-year-old Roethlisberger — now dealing with a left pec injury — feels about a Matt Canada scheme still figuring itself out. After Sunday’s thumping, Big Ben deflected thorny reporter questions about the offense to his new coordinator with a time-tested football player blow-off line: “You’ll have to ask coach Canada that.”

Ben then unfurled one additional arrow, saying: “We got some really good football players that you want to get on the football field. So, if you don’t have them out there, they’re sitting on the bench doing nothing.”

The rugged Steelers have earned our trust, but doesn’t this sound like last year’s mess all over again?

5) The adventures of Storm Norton

All it takes is one key injury to shove guys we’ve never heard of into the unforgiving spotlight. 

Case in point: Chargers tackle Storm Norton, who materialized in the opener after Bryan Bulaga left with a back injury. With the vet blocker tossed onto IR, Storm took the reins in Sunday’s loss to the Cowboys, saddling up to face rookie linebacker-turned-edge-terror Micah Parsons. Glowing reviews for Parsons poured in immediately, many noting that poor ol’ Storm was being filleted by a first-year defender who hadn’t played end since high school.

Parsons wound up with only one sack — a game-changing, 18-yard takedown of Justin Herbert — but harassed L.A.’s fill-in tackle all day, with Norton allowing a whopping nine pressures on 51 pass-blocking snaps, per Pro Football Focus. “Storm Norton battled through a lot of adversity,” said an extremely generous Herbert. Bulaga’s back woes suggest we’ll be seeing plenty of Storm against the Chiefs, Raiders and beyond. Another week of practice should help, but every defensive coordinator will single this player out. It’s up to the Bolts’ brain trust to scheme up assistance for our young, underwater pal.

6) The Monday Night Football announcing booth

I didn’t expect to fall in love. Not with these guys. 

I wasn’t certain I needed three-plus hours of the Manning Bros. putting a Mystery Science Theater 3000 spin on Monday Night Football

Color me the fool. 

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Their broadcasting work over two weeks on ESPN2 has morphed into appointment viewing: The ideal tonic for fans seeking a different experience than guys donning suits and ties inside a traditional announcer’s booth. I found myself feeling for MNF’s current threesome — the perfectly competent Steve Levy, Brian Griese and Louis Riddick — as Peyton and Eli found their sea legs about 20 minutes into Week 1. After all, this really has nothing to do with Levy, Griese or Riddick. It has to do with our viewing habits shifting — demographic by demographic — away from what we’ve been spoon-fed for 50 years. 

What I dig about the Manning Cast is obvious: There’s a sense of hanging out with the starry duo as they pick apart all the shenanigans. In Week 1, I adored Peyton killing a frenzied Raiders crowd for drowning out the offense on a doomed fourth-down attempt in Ravens territory. Or the duo asking Travis Kelce if he was specifically zeroed in on Baltimore’s tendencies — only to have the Chiefs tight end admit he had no idea the Ravens were Kansas City’s Week 2 opponent. During Packers-Lions, Eli wondered out loud, in delicious fashion, if the Patriots had bugged the Colts’ complex during the elder Manning’s time with the team.

Peyton drops so many inner-world gridiron info-bombs, you want them to publish a transcript. It’s freeform late-night riffs and poetry. His version of Allen Ginsburg’s Howl.

It puts the MNF crew in a tough spot. They’re smushed into a more conservative space while Peyton and Eli are riffing with Charles Barkley and Russell Wilson one channel-change away. 

Maybe it’s a passing fad — 1,000 clunky copycats aren’t what we need, by the way — but the Mannings found a way to turn a predictably DOA tilt between Detroit and Green Bay into a balm for the senses. They make football fun. That’s no crime.

7) Anyone underestimating the Panthers

New regimes better show teeth by Year 3. Matt Rhule’s Panthers prefer a faster track, jumping out to 2-0 behind a balanced, creatively coached roster. Some balked when Rhule hired Joe Brady and Phil Snow, a pair of coordinators with scant pro experience. Brady has unveiled an easy-on-the-eyes attack that feels like home to reclamation project Sam Darnold. Snow’s top-ranked defense smacked the wandering Jets in Week 1 and held the Saints to 128 yards on Sunday, their lowest output since 2002, per Pro Football Reference. By comparison, Christian McCaffrey alone put up 137 yards against New Orleans.

Rhule’s staff has shown an ability to develop young players like Brian Burns and flip the switch on veterans in Robby Anderson and Shaq Thompson. We’re mere steps into the season, but this Panthers cadre arrives well-prepared and determined to create darkness. It’s less about Houston in Week 3 and more about every foe to come: Carolina is a playoff team. Many will crumble at its feet before this whole thing wraps.

Follow Marc Sessler on Twitter.

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