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The NFL Has Lost Its Balance

On the heels of the Denver Broncos winning the Super Bowl with a historically dominant defense and a milquetoast offense, many of the NFL’s best teams are hoping to ride one-sided approaches to postseason success

Getty Images/Ringer illustration
Getty Images/Ringer illustration

As the NFL’s midseason point approaches, the majority of the league’s playoff-caliber teams have one thing in common: an alarming lack of balance.

Fatal flaws show up among all the best teams. The Falcons will kick your ass on offense, but get knocked back by a stiff wind on defense. No one’s stopping the Cowboys’ runaway-beer-truck run game, but don’t ask them to come back and rush the passer. The Vikings and Seahawks will put you in a submission hold on defense, but neither team can protect its quarterback to save its life. And if there’s anything more frightening than the Raiders’ elite passing attack, it’s their league-worst pass defense.

Even Green Bay and New England, the most balanced top-tier teams, have question marks: The Packers have seen their two-time-MVP superstar quarterback struggle through his career-worst start to a season, and the Patriots’ secondary is a little too leaky for comfort.

This lack of balance is part of wider phenomenon. Per ESPN’s Expected Points Added model, no one team currently ranks in the top nine in both offensive and defensive EPA, a rarity in any given week over the past decade. In fact, balance was a heavy trend last season, and per Football Outsiders DVOA, the seven highest-ranked teams at the end of the year finished in the top eight for offense and the top 12 for defense. Of course, the Broncos, who finished eighth in DVOA, had their first-ranked defense carry their 25th-ranked offense to a Super Bowl title.

Maybe teams saw that as a signal to double down on one side of the ball, because this season, imbalance is all the rage. It’s hard to remember a more wide-open playoff field from a parity point of view. There are no dominant teams this season, there are zero unbeaten teams (compared with five at this time last season), and with the lack of balance amongst the league’s elites, vulnerabilities appear for almost everyone. Eight of the current top 10 teams per DVOA have clear issues on one side of the ball or other. The Broncos haven’t changed much, and their fifth-ranked defense is still dragging their 17th ranked offense to wins, but they’re no longer the black sheep. Too many teams are following in their one-sided footsteps.

Here are some of the most lopsided culprits.

Great Defense, Terrible Offense

Arizona Cardinals (3–3–1, Second in NFC West)

Arizona’s defense is as good as ever, and we saw that in the 6–6 stalemate on Sunday Night Football against Seattle. Chandler Jones and Markus Golden have brought pressure on the edges, Tyrann Mathieu is balling, and the Cardinals came out of Week 7 with the fourth-ranked defense per DVOA. But all of that is hardly shocking.

It’s their 25th-ranked offense that has been the major surprise. Arizona’s deadly deep-passing attack from last season has been neutered this year. Protection has been an issue; it’s especially apparent with rookie right tackle D.J. Humphries, who has struggled. Meanwhile, Michael Floyd has a case of the drops, and Carson Palmer’s completion percentage has dropped almost four points from last year. To compensate, Arizona has shifted to a “let’s give the ball to David Johnson every time” strategy. Johnson leads the NFL in yards from scrimmage (1,004) — he’s caught 28 passes for 323 yards and taken his league-high 146 carries for 681 yards (second in the NFL) and eight touchdowns (tied for first).

Still, even at 3–3–1, the Cardinals are in good shape. They can lean on their effective run game while figuring out a way to jumpstart the aggressive bombs-away passing game. As the offense works itself out, their defense is going to keep them in almost every game.

Minnesota Vikings (5–1, First in NFC North)

The Vikings’ second-ranked defense (by DVOA) has taken a huge step forward this season, and Mike Zimmer’s group has carried Minnesota to the top of its conference. The Vikings have given up just 14.0 points per game (tied for first in the league), have 16 takeaways (first), and have held opposing quarterbacks to a 63.7 passer rating (first) while allowing a 55.7 percent completion rate (second). Xavier Rhodes looks like a shutdown corner, and Everson Griffen is an elite pass rusher — there’s talent everywhere. They’ve racked up 19 sacks (tied for seventh) and have given up the fourth-fewest passing yards per game and the third-fewest rushing yards per game. This defense is, uh, really good.

However, the offense is, uh, not. Plans for a run-oriented attack had to be abandoned when Adrian Peterson tore his meniscus in Week 2. Without Peterson, they’re dead last in rushing yards per carry (2.6) and near league-worst in just about every other run category. So, while Sam Bradford has been more efficient than anyone could have hoped, putting the responsibility of carrying the offense on his arm alone doesn’t leave a lot of room for error. A rash of injuries at offensive tackle has meant that a horrifying combination of Jake Long, Jeremiah Sirles, and T.J. Clemmings is tasked with protecting him, and for opposing pass rushers, it’s been a turkey shoot. Minnesota’s newly acquired quarterback has been under near-constant pressure, and the clock is ticking on another major Bradford injury if the Vikings can’t figure out a better way to protect him.

With this pass rush, the defense gives Minnesota a chance to win every week. But if the passing game can’t recover from last week’s disaster in Philadelphia and joins the spirit of their rush attack in Valhalla, they’re going to have to MacGyver a lot of their points with pick-sixes, fumble returns, safeties, and special teams trickery. That’s a treacherous road to success.

Philadelphia Eagles (4–2, Second in NFC East)

The Eagles’ defense reasserted itself with a dominating performance against the Vikings. They’re into the no. 1 spot in defensive (and overall) DVOA and fall just behind Seattle and Minnesota in opponent points per game (14.7). With Brandon Graham (eight quarterback pressures against the Vikings) at the vanguard, they’ve recorded 20 sacks (tied for third) and 12 takeaways (tied for seventh), and feature talent at all three levels — Fletcher Cox anchors the defensive line; Mychal Kendricks, Jordan Hicks, and Nigel Bradham star at linebacker; and Rodney McLeod has been a big-time playmaker in the secondary.

Getty Images
Getty Images

After a hot start to the season, though, the offense has taken a massive step back. Rookie passer Carson Wentz has thrown for 7.2 yards per attempt (18th) and is averaging just 220.7 pass yards per game (26th). His 92.7 passer rating ranks 16th and his 63.8 completion percentage 19th, and with the loss of suspended right tackle Lane Johnson, opposing teams have turned up the heat. The pressure has affected him, and his middling-to-bad supporting cast at running back and receiver hasn’t been able to pick him up. The good news is that Wentz is a rookie and rookies are supposed to struggle, but until he develops into a top passer, the Eagles will have to lean on their defense to carry the water. That unit is good enough to let them compete in the NFC East, and Philly can overcome some of its offense-defense imbalance with the league’s top-rated special teams group.

Seattle Seahawks (4–1–1, First in NFC West)

As usual, Seattle has an elite defense. The third-ranked group per defensive DVOA is giving up 14.0 points per game (tied for first), has allowed four passing touchdowns (tied for first), and surrendered 3.3 rushing yards per carry (fourth), and they’ve done all that with just six takeaways (tied for 27th). If Seattle can start getting more turnovers — Earl Thomas could start by catching some near-interceptions — the defense could be stupid-good. But they’re dragging a much heavier anchor than they’ve had to over the past few seasons.

Seattle has already held its opponent to 10 points or fewer three times this season, but the team has a solitary win from those games. (They beat Miami; lost to the Rams, 9–3; and tied the Cardinals, 6–6.) The Seahawks offensive line is a major problem and Russell Wilson is severely hobbled due to ankle and knee injuries. As a result, their normally elite run game has been atrocious. An immobile Wilson means Seattle can’t effectively utilize the read-option, and the rest of the team’s run-play arsenal has been underwhelming. The Seahawks rank 31st in yards per carry (3.1) and 27th in yards per game (82.7), and without that foundational piece to lean on, they’ve struggled to score points (18.5 points per game, 28th in the NFL).

Seattle finds itself in the same boat as the Vikings: Until the Seahawks can get Wilson going in the passing game like they did in the second half of last season, they’ll need to be near-perfect on defense and special teams (looking at you, Steven Hauschka).

Great Offense, Terrible Defense

Atlanta Falcons (4–3, First in NFC South)

The Falcons’ offense is straight-up scary. They’re first in points per game (32.7), first in yards (3,035), first in yards per play (6.8), first in yards per pass attempt (9.6), third in pass touchdowns (16), ninth in rush touchdowns (seven), and second in offensive DVOA. Matt Ryan is dialed in, Julio Jones is unstoppable, and the combination of Devonta Freeman and Tevin Coleman gives them one of the most versatile and explosive backfields in the NFL.

The problem is, well, their defense sucks. The 26th-ranked group by DVOA is giving up 28.4 points per game (27th), while conceding 2,703 yards (27th), 15 passing touchdowns (tied for 29th), seven rush touchdowns (tied for 20th), and an opponent QB rating of 96.9 (tied for 26th). They haven’t created turnovers (just eight takeaways, ranked 16th), play too soft in their zones, and let too many passes get over their heads.

The sieve-like pass defense makes the endings of Falcons’ games a weekly adventure. They weathered the Raiders furious comeback in Week 2 to win by a touchdown and held off the Broncos rally in Week 5 by recovering an onside kick to win by seven, then gave up the game-winning field goal to Seattle with two minutes left in Week 6. Last week, they blew a 17-point, second-quarter lead to lose in overtime to the Chargers. We’re not quite at the point where no lead is safe for the Falcons, but it feels like we’re getting close.

Dallas Cowboys (5–1, First in NFC East)

For Dallas, the investments in the run game have paid off — and then some. With first-round pick Ezekiel Elliott running behind an elite, homegrown offensive line, the Cowboys lead the NFL in rush yards per game (161.2 yards) and touchdowns (11). The surprise emergence of Dak Prescott as the future franchise quarterback has made their passing attack pretty dangerous, too. Prescott is second in the league in completion percentage (68.7) and fifth in yards per attempt (8.2), and has thrown seven touchdowns to just one pick. The top offense by DVOA is so good that you almost forget about the dearth of talent on the other side of the ball.

The Cowboys’ 20th-ranked defense by DVOA is giving up 5.9 yards per play (tied for 22nd), has surrendered an opponent passer rating of 95.0 (23rd) and 266.2 pass yards per game (21st), and has just four interceptions (tied for 20th) and 11 sacks (tied for 24th).

However, the offense has done such a great job of keeping the defense off the field with their league-leading time of possession, so the Cowboys ranks seventh in scoring defense, where they’ve given up just 17.8 points per game. The fear is that Dallas will wear Elliott down too quickly. He leads the league with 22.8 carries a game, a pace that would put him at 365 on the year — 38 more than Peterson’s league-high 327 carries last year, and 77 more than the next closest back, Doug Martin, who carried it 288 times. Even though Dallas seems hell-bent on riding Elliott into the dirt, the calculation is working so far.

Oakland Raiders (5–2, Tied for First in AFC West)

The Raiders fifth-ranked offense by DVOA is sound across the board. They have a great offensive line, anchored by free-agent acquisition Kelechi Osemele. They have a very good quarterback in Derek Carr. They have perhaps the best receiver duo in the NFL in Michael Crabtree and Amari Cooper. And they have some explosive running backs with Latavius Murray, DeAndre Washington, and Jalen Richard. They’re eighth in the NFL in scoring (26.4 points per game) and have done it with a balanced approach: 1,783 passing yards (12th), 804 rushing yards (11th), 13 passing touchdowns (tied for sixth), and eight rushing touchdowns (seventh).

Getty Images
Getty Images

Despite an offseason overhaul, the defense ranks 28th per DVOA. Reggie Nelson and Sean Smith have struggled in the secondary, and Oakland has given up a league-high 2,115 passing yards, in addition to 13 passing touchdowns (tied for 24th). The pass rush hasn’t helped a ton either, and even with Khalil Mack and Bruce Irvin, the Raiders have gotten to the quarterback just nine times this year (tied for 28th). Oh, and they can’t stop the run either (28th in yards surrendered on the ground). They’ve managed to find themselves near the bottom of every defensive category except takeaways (13, tied for fourth in the NFL), so if those start drying up (and there’s a not-insignificant amount of luck in turnover ratio), it could actually all get worse.

This defense isn’t getting better, and if Carr and Co. slow down even a tiny bit, Oakland might quickly find itself outside of the playoff picture.

Pittsburgh Steelers (4–3, First in AFC North)

The Steelers cobbled things together to get through Le’Veon Bell’s early-season suspension and have had to adapt their offense until Ben Roethlisberger can get back onto the field, but even with those challenges, they’ve still produced. Pittsburgh has averaged 24.3 points per game (tied for 11th) and has moved the ball through the air and on the ground: The Steelers’ 1,874 pass yards ranks eighth, their 17 pass touchdowns are tied for first, their 4.5 yards per rush attempt ranks eighth.

Of course, while they weather the annual Big Ben injury storm, it’s tough for Pittsburgh to lean too much on their defense, which ranks 25th in DVOA. The Steelers have really struggled to defend the run the last two weeks: In their loss to the Dolphins in Week 6, they gave 222 yards and a pair of touchdowns to Jay Ajayi and the Miami offense, then followed that up by surrendering 140 yards and two touchdowns to the Patriots in a 27–16 loss last week.

Despite all the setbacks, Pittsburgh still owns the eighth-ranked offense per DVOA, and the sky is the limit in terms of what they can do if and when Roethlisberger is on the field with Bell and Antonio Brown. If the Steelers can get their run-defense woes worked out — and there’s potential there, as this is the same team that held the Redskins, Bengals, Chiefs, and Jets to an average of 65 rush yards a game in four wins — then that will open up things for the entire group, especially the struggling pass rush. But if they keep getting gashed on the ground, they’re going to have to win a lot of barn burners to get into the playoffs.