Sunday afternoon was cruel to the teams that were supposed to rule the NFL this season. The Patriots, Raiders, Cowboys, and Falcons were the toast of the league in 2016; if Oakland quarterback Derek Carr hadn’t gone down with a broken leg in Week 16, those clubs would have presumably been the top two seeds in their respective conferences heading into the playoffs. With each roster retaining most of its high-level talent entering this fall, the expectation was that all four would continue to thrive in 2017.
At the season’s quarter mark, though, that hasn’t been the case. All four lost Sunday—three in games where they were overwhelming favorites. Dallas, Oakland, and New England dropped to a surprising 2-2, and even Atlanta’s 3-1 record has been less than impressive: The Falcons are one overturned Golden Tate touchdown and one Jordan Howard dropped pass away from being 1-3. Over a choppy first month of this campaign, the NFL’s supposed heavyweights have shown cracks that could have devastating implications if left unaddressed. The question is which of these potential fatal flaws are most likely to be ironed out as the season goes along, and which are symptomatic of who these teams could be for the long haul.
Raiders: A Sputtering Offense Has Failed to Compensate for a Leaky Defense
Oakland used the majority of its draft capital this offseason to bolster its shaky secondary, but this defense still has serious issues. And while the Raiders have given up more than 20 points just once during their 2-2 start, those point totals aren’t indicative of how easily opponents have played pitch-and-catch against Oakland. Concerns about the back end have only been exacerbated by a lack of pass-rushing pressure from nearly every player not named Khalil Mack. For reasons that aren’t entirely clear, the Raiders deployed Mack in coverage on a few scattered snaps in their 16-10 loss to Denver. I don’t know if Broncos quarterback Trevor Siemian is a big Ken Burns fan, but Sunday he had time to watch most of The Vietnam War while standing in the pocket.
The Raiders’ offensive limitations over the past two games have been more unexpected. After managing just 128 total yards in a 27-10 loss to Washington in Week 3, Carr’s bunch was grounded again in Denver. Before leaving the game midway through the third quarter with a reportedly minor back injury, Carr was 10-of-18 passing for 143 yards, 64 of which came on a long Johnny Holton touchdown that was the byproduct of busted coverage. On his 17 other throws, Carr averaged a meager 4.65 yards per attempt.
Oakland was without wide receiver Michael Crabtree in Week 4, but its issues this season run deeper than that. Amari Cooper has been a nonfactor for two consecutive games, and, after he hauled in only two of eight targets for 9 total yards against the Broncos, it’s worth wondering whether the knee injury that has caused him to miss practice time is a real concern. For two straight weeks, Cooper and the rest of Oakland’s receiving corps have failed to create much separation. That’s understandable against Denver’s trio of tough, physical corners; it’s more troubling that Washington’s secondary consistently took away easy throws and regularly beat the Raiders to spots on early-in-the-down route combinations. Oakland’s ground game, led by Marshawn Lynch and a massive offensive line, hasn’t been any more effective: The Raiders squeaked out 24 yards on 15 carries in Denver.
There’s a chance that Oakland just ran into a buzzsaw on the road—the Broncos’ run defense has been absurdly good through four games—after an aberration of a performance in Washington. New offensive coordinator Todd Downing should settle in with additional time, and Cooper figures to find his rookie form when he’s no longer banged up. The defensive issues seem likely to persist, though, meaning that the offense has to turn things around quickly if the Raiders hope to keep pace in a loaded AFC West.
Cowboys: The Offense Has Regressed While the Defense Has Stagnated
The Cowboys’ issues during their 2-2 start have been similar to Oakland’s, albeit not quite as pronounced. At its worst, the Dallas defense (which was without linebacker Sean Lee in Sunday’s 35-30 loss to the Rams) has been uninspiring, but not horrifying. And even with its early inconsistency, the offense hasn’t fallen as low as Carr and the Raiders. Still, the core problems are comparable: For Dallas to be a contender, its offense has to be among the best in the league. So far, that hasn’t happened.
When the Cowboys cruised to a 13-3 record in 2016, the offense was a model of efficiency. Ezekiel Elliott averaged 5.1 yards per carry while operating behind the league’s premier offensive line, and a passing game reliant on play-action looks and advantageous down-and-distance situations followed. That formula hasn’t been accessible through four games in 2017. After averaging 5.5 yards per carry on 204 first-down rushes last season, Elliott has averaged just 2.84 on 43 first-down carries this fall. Possibly as a direct result, the Cowboys have run the ball on first down less frequently. In 2016 Dallas handed off a staggering 61.6 percent of the time on first down. This year’s split is almost even: 56 runs compared with 52 passes. Elliott had only seven carries in the second half of the Cowboys’ loss to the Rams, with his five first-down attempts going for just 7 yards.
Without the ability to dominate on the ground, the rest of the Dallas offense has suffered. Quarterback Dak Prescott has completed just 60.8 percent of his passes as a receiving corps that’s more dependent on physicality than elusiveness has failed to create space. With two members of the line (left guard Chaz Green and right tackle La’el Collins) flailing, the unit that dominated the league in 2016 has lagged behind its prior performance, too.
This offense is putting considerably more pressure on Prescott to make difficult throws than it did during his rookie season, and as such it’s stalled. This running game should find its footing with time, though. If Dallas can get things moving on the ground, the rest of the offense should follow.
Falcons: A Historic 2016 Offense Has Taken a Step Back
Among all the contenders who’ve struggled out of the gate in 2017, the Falcons have what seems to be clearest path to rectifying the issues they’ve faced. Through four games, Atlanta’s offense has been potent; it just hasn’t been able to replicate the team’s scoreboard-shattering efficiency from last fall. And while Sunday’s 23-17 home loss to the Bills looks ugly on paper, new Buffalo head coach Sean McDermott’s defense might be for real. The 3-1 Bills already have a clear identity on that side of the ball, and they’re giving opposing offenses fits. By playing sticky man coverage on the outside and constantly bringing a blitzer or two, Buffalo has been able to dictate the terms of its games; in Week 4, it made a Falcons receiving corps that was missing Julio Jones for all of the second half looked overmatched. With pass catchers unable to win at the snap and quarterback Matt Ryan getting knocked off his spot on virtually every play, Atlanta’s offense struggled to find much of a rhythm in the passing game.
The Falcons’ young defense hasn’t made the jump that seemed possible considering its play in the second half of the 2016 campaign, but with Vic Beasley likely to return from a hamstring injury by mid-October and rookie pass rusher Takk McKinley ramping up his workload, there’s reason to believe that this unit will coalesce as the season progresses. Even if the offense fails to reach the stratospheric heights that it did in 2016, Atlanta should enjoy better days ahead, especially when facing defenses that are less formidable than Buffalo’s.
Patriots: The Defense Has Never Been This Bad
Let’s start with an important caveat: Anyone who has ever discounted the Patriots—even a single aspect of the Patriots—has come to regret it. Still, a month into the season, there’s no hiding the fact that this defense looks like a real problem. After a 33-30 loss to the Panthers on Sunday, the Patriots have allowed at least 33 points in three of their opening four games. That’s the first time opponents have reached that mark three times against New England in a season since 2009.
The most discouraging part about the latest Pats’ outing is that Carolina’s offense looked hapless through its initial three games. Quarterback Cam Newton and Co. mustered just 13 points against the Saints in Week 3, yet racked up 444 yards of total offense (304 through the air) against New England. Blown coverages and miscommunications, including an awful mishap that led to a Devin Funchess touchdown in the third quarter, again plagued the Patriots secondary, but the struggles went beyond mental blunders. Funchess, a wideout not exactly known for his shiftiness, twisted cornerback Malcolm Butler into the dirt on a 13-yard catch in the second quarter; Newton was routinely given ample time to throw; the Patriots also allowed Newton to scamper past the sticks to complete multiple third-down conversions. New England’s controlled rush up front is designed to keep quarterbacks like Newton in the pocket. Allowing him to excel as both a passer and a runner defeats the purpose of that philosophy.
The Patriots’ track record is such that coach Bill Belichick and coordinator Matt Patricia deserve the benefit of the doubt. The Pats have solved what appeared to be unsolvable issues in years past, but at this point believing they can piece together this unit is rooted almost entirely in wizardry from the coaching staff. The team’s best pass rusher right now is probably Dont’a Hightower; considering that he’s also the Pats’ top coverage linebacker, that could be a problem. Butler, Stephon Gilmore, and the rest of the secondary shouldn’t be a total mess all season, but the strain put on that group by New England’s front four could mean that any improvement is incremental.
Tom Brady and the Patriots offense are going to put up points all season, and they should be considered the AFC favorites even at 2-2. Among the potential season-long issues for the league’s would-be contenders, though, the suspect New England defense seems to be the least imminently fixable.
The Starting 11
A look at 11 big story lines, key developments, and interesting tidbits from this week in the NFL.
1. It’s time to get excited about Deshaun Watson. Houston’s rookie quarterback tore up the Titans defense Sunday, going 25-of-34 passing for 283 yards with four touchdowns and adding another 24 rushing yards with a score in the Texans’ 57-14 rout. A well-tailored Houston game plan that included plenty of play action and some stupefying Tennessee miscues both went a long way in pumping up Watson’s numbers, but the Clemson product also strung together his share of tough throws.
Watson’s 16-yard second-quarter touchdown toss to Will Fuller V was the type of precision pass to an intermediate area of the field that should turn heads. Watson also fit a handful of tight throws to DeAndre Hopkins, working both at the sticks and along the sideline. Hopkins hauled in 10 of his 12 targets for 107 yards with a touchdown (on a pass that featured play action) and looked very much like the talent we came to know and love in 2015. “It means a lot,” Hopkins told reporters of the team breaking the franchise’s single-game scoring record. “Have to thank the organization for going out and getting a guy like Deshaun Watson.”
In that moment, Hopkins might as well have been speaking for everyone invested in the Texans’ success. Over the past few seasons, everything about Houston’s offense has felt stale. Turning to Watson has reenergized the guys in the huddle, but the quarterback’s impact goes beyond that. The Texans’ newfound schematic creativity driven in large part by Watson’s individual strengths. This team is fun, and that’s been a long time coming.
2. The Rams offense continues to impress, and that’s about much more than just Jared Goff. Head coach Sean McVay’s squad came into Sunday boasting the most efficient passing offense in football through three weeks. And while Goff’s numbers in Dallas (21-of-36 passing for 255 yards with two touchdowns) were just fine, his teammates stole the show in the Rams’ biggest win of the season.
Running back Todd Gurley racked up 215 yards from scrimmage with a touchdown, and 80 of his 121 rushing yards came in the second half. The Los Angeles ground game has stalled at points this season, but not in Week 4: Gurley salted away Sunday’s victory as he pounded through the Cowboys defense in the fourth quarter. Rams tight end Tyler Higbee, largely quiet through three weeks, corralled three passes, one of which included nifty footwork along the sideline and set up a field goal just before halftime. And rookie wide receiver Cooper Kupp continued to be a reliable target, hauling in five receptions for 60 yards with a touchdown.
The work that McVay has done with Goff during the Rams’ 3-1 start is one of the stories of the season to date, but there will be games when the former no. 1 pick struggles and the rest of the offense has to pick up the slack. With Gurley looking resurgent and Kupp, tight end Gerald Everett, and veteran receivers Robert Woods and Sammy Watkins faring well, L.A. has a group of skill-position players who can do just that. Last season the Rams didn’t have one way to regularly beat defenses. Now they have too many to count.
3. This is why the Jaguars can’t have nice things. The next time I get enthusiastic about the Jags, I need somebody to step in and slap me. A week after rolling over the Ravens 44-7 in London, Jacksonville put up a clunker in a 23-20 loss to the Jets.
Whatever Twilight Zone–type shit happens to Blake Bortles on transatlantic flights had worn off by Sunday. He finished 15-of-35 passing for 140 yards and threw a tipped-ball interception to Kony Ealy that helped decide the outcome of the game. But this Jaguars loss was about more than Blake Bortles simply being Blake Bortles. The Jacksonville defense, which has been downright terrifying at times this season, allowed New York to rush for 256 yards on 32 carries.
After its poor performance against the Jets, the Jaguars are now letting opposing offenses average a league-high 5.7 yards per carry. That doesn’t even seem possible. That number is partially attributable to Bilal Powell’s fluky 75-yard touchdown run in which he fell down, but it’s also partially the byproduct of Elijah McGuire’s 69-yard third-quarter scamper. And it’s not as if these issues are new for the Jags. Through three games, they were comfortably no. 1 in Football Outsiders’ pass defense DVOA, but dead last in run defense DVOA. While there’s a lot to like about these Jags, this is still a team with more pronounced flaws than strengths.
4. Dalvin Cook’s knee injury is a heartbreaker for him and the Vikings. Minnesota’s rookie running back will have surgery to repair the ACL in his left knee, and his season is now over. After making a sharp cut on an inside run with 10:35 remaining in the third quarter of a 14-7 loss to the Lions, Cook immediately dropped the ball and fell to the ground. His reaction looked like one of painful resignation.
With Cook, Stefon Diggs, Adam Thielen, and Sam Bradford (all playing with a revamped offensive line), Minnesota’s offense had a chance to be formidable in 2017. Now, just four weeks into the fall, Cook is done for the season, and there’s no telling when Bradford will return as he deals with an issue in his left knee. Cook’s absence and the reliance on backup quarterback Case Keenum were made all the more frustrating on Sunday by the way Minnesota’s defense knocked around Matthew Stafford and Detroit: The Vikings recorded nine tackles for loss, including six sacks.
The Lions, now 3-1, are a couple of inches and one overturned call from sitting at 4-0. And while Cook getting injured was the biggest story to come out of this game, it’s worth noting that Detroit’s defense has played significantly better than most anticipated.
5. The sight of Matt Cassel temporarily leading the Titans offense should make Tennessee’s staff think hard about how it wants to use Marcus Mariota. The Titans’ franchise quarterback, who’s yet to start 16 games in a season, spent the second half of Sunday’s blowout loss to the Texans on the sideline with a hamstring issue. Head coach Mike Mularkey says Mariota got injured on his second touchdown of the game, and his last active play was an off-target interception with 1:19 left in the second quarter.
Hopefully the problem is minor and Mariota won’t miss much (if any) time. For Tennessee, even one half of trotting out Cassel under center should be enough to cause the powers that be to reconsider how they’re using their 23-year-old star. Through four weeks Mariota has carried the ball 20 times in 2017. That puts him on pace for 75 carries through 15 games—15 more than he got over that same time frame last season.
Mariota’s talents as a ball carrier add a devastating and thrilling element to Tennessee’s approach. His 34-yard touchdown Sunday is a prime example. But it might be time for the Titans to shelve that section of the playbook for a while. The peaks of this offense feature the occasional, heart-pounding Mariota scamper. But the valleys that would come with him having to miss extended time aren’t worth that risk.
6. Miami’s offense looked unfathomably bad against a Saints defense that’s been routinely stomped in 2017. No one in America had enough coffee in them to handle watching the Dolphins early Sunday morning. Miami mustered just 186 yards of total offense and averaged 4.0 yards per play in a 20-0 loss to New Orleans. Jay Cutler was intercepted in the end zone after overthrowing a fade on the Dolphins’ first drive; Miami finished one other possession in Saints territory the rest of the game.
The thought in bringing Cutler aboard in August after Ryan Tannehill went down with a season-ending knee injury was that his familiarity with head coach Adam Gase’s offense would help Miami maintain some of the success it had toward the end of last season. Instead, the Dolphins have cratered, scoring a single touchdown in their past two games. The notion that Cutler, coming off the couch at 34 years old, represented an offensive upgrade over Tannehill was always misguided. After Cutler’s latest putrid showing, we’re starting to find out to what extent.
7. The Broncos run defense—an area that hampered Denver’s otherwise excellent unit last season—has been impenetrable this fall. After finishing the 2016 campaign ranked 21st in run defense DVOA, the Broncos have been borderline impossible to run against through four games this year. Denver came into Sunday’s matchup against the Raiders ranked first in DVOA against the run, allowing 2.6 yards per carry; it then proceeded to hold Marshawn Lynch to 12 yards on nine carries.
Sunday represented the fourth straight game that Denver has limited its opponent to 75 yards or fewer on the ground. Over the past three weeks, it held Ezekiel Elliott, LeSean McCoy, and Lynch to a combined 41 yards with an average of 1.28 yards per carry. A ton of credit is due to defensive line coach Bill Kollar, who’s done an excellent job developing the likes of Adam Gotsis and Shelby Harris to complement the already formidable trio of Shaq Barrett, Derek Wolfe, and Von Miller.
8. Cleveland wasn’t supposed to be this bad. After shelling out $58.5 million in guaranteed money to free agents J.C. Tretter, Kenny Britt, and Kevin Zeitler this offseason and spending about $50 million more to retain guard Joel Bitonio and linebacker Jamie Collins, the Browns entered the 2017 campaign poised to end their rebuilding period. Rather than stumble to another 3-13 finish, Cleveland hoped to start showing signs of promise and at least keep games close every week. Well, after a 31-7 loss to the Bengals, this team is 0-4 and again going nowhere fast.
The Browns were in a hole before Sunday’s contest began, with Collins, Danny Shelton, and 2017 no. 1 overall pick Myles Garrett all ruled out with injuries. Still, even with those guys on the mend, Cleveland shouldn’t get rolled by a Bengals team that’s had issues putting the ball in the end zone. Britt’s contract already looks like a disaster, and none of the young pieces on defense have shown any development under coordinator Gregg Williams’s tutelage. Shrewd asset acquisition and sound strategy are great, but at a certain point those assets have to turn into contributors.
9. This week’s line-play moment that made me hit rewind: DeForest Buckner’s arm-over move, which has become his go-to while lining up as 3-technique tackle. The 49ers defense was a subject of fascination heading into the season, especially in regard to how three of the franchise’s recent first-round picks (Buckner, Solomon Thomas, and Reuben Foster) would adapt to new coordinator Robert Saleh’s 4-3 scheme. Buckner, the seventh overall pick from the 2016 draft, has taken to his new role like a shark to water.
The 23-year-old Oregon product finished Sunday’s 18-15 loss to Arizona with four quarterback hits, two tackles for loss, and a sack. With 10 quarterback hits on the season, he trails only Cowboys star Demarcus Lawrence in that statistic, and he’s put up those numbers as an interior rusher. This is the type of progress San Francisco hopes to see from its young, highly drafted talent as it continues to revamp its roster.
10. This week in tales of the tape: This tricky pass concept to Todd Gurley adds to the argument that Sean McVay is a sorcerer who summons the most out of his offensive personnel.
Todd Gurley snatches longest TD catch of career!!! pic.twitter.com/9Vnc4GXLWp— TheRenderNFL (@TheRenderNFL) October 1, 2017
On this first-and-10 late in the third quarter of Sunday’s game, the Rams line up in shotgun with Gurley offset to the right. Before the snap, wide receiver Tavon Austin tears in motion from the left side. As Goff takes the shotgun snap, he quickly fakes a handoff to Austin, and the rest of the play is there for the taking.
The fake to Austin accomplishes two tasks: It pulls safety Xavier Woods (the flat defender in the Cowboys’ zone defense) even closer to the line of scrimmage, and it yanks the Dallas linebackers up two steps as they react to what could be a run. This concept simulates the desired effect of a typical play-action pass, except by using a receiver running at full speed as the decoy, the Rams don’t give up any potential targets as the fake happens. Gurley is free to release instantly as the middle of Dallas’s zone is vacated.
11. This week in NFL players, they’re absolutely nothing like us: Broncos tight end A.J. Derby decides he doesn’t need to use two hands.
A.J. Derby’s first career touchdown was FILTHY pic.twitter.com/C5rsNjyqZr— CBS Sports (@CBSSports) October 1, 2017
I don’t know how recently you’ve held an NFL-sized football, but I suggest finding one and seeing how much of your hand fits around it. The idea that players can just snag these things while moving full speed is beyond me. Oh, and Derby has small hands for a tight end. None of this makes sense.