This NFL season has been stranger than most, with a surplus of hard-to-recognize teams, an uptick in surprising upsets, and an unbelievable amount of injuries to major stars. But all that weirdness serves as a reminder that there’s a razor-thin line between success and failure in this league: A team or one of its individual units can make a major jump forward because of any number of factors big or small, whether it’s a player addition here, a player subtraction there, a new coach, a new scheme, or all (or none) of the above.
This year, the Rams offense is the poster child for unexpected turnarounds. Seemingly overnight, L.A.’s flipped from one of worst offenses in the NFL to one of the best—but they’re not the only squad that’s undergone an offseason metamorphosis. Let’s take a look at the units around the league that have improved the most compared with last year.
The NFL is a player-dominated league, but the Rams have been a prime example that coaching still matters. New head coach Sean McVay completely reinvented L.A.’s offense with the help of a new scheme and a little bit of his youthful exuberance. (The scheme is probably more important, but this team seriously needed some energy after too many years under Jeff Fisher.) Quarterback Jared Goff looks nothing like the in-over-his-head, panic-stricken rookie we saw last year, and McVay’s offense caters to his strengths while better utilizing Todd Gurley’s and Tavon Austin’s talents.
The changes have been a godsend for Goff’s development; last year, the rookie passed for 1,089 yards (155.6 yards per game) with five touchdowns and seven picks, 5.3 yards per attempt and a 63.3 passer rating in seven starts. This year, he’s on pace to pass for 4,060 yards (253.8 per game), with 26 touchdown and eight interceptions at 8.3 yards per attempt and a 97.9 passer rating. The Rams’ new scheme has also been a boon for Gurley, who’s on pace for 1,372 rushing yards and 14 touchdowns with 58 receptions for 676 yards and six scores.
It helps that the Rams added left tackle Andrew Whitworth (in free agency), a reliable pass catcher in Robert Woods (free agency), a talented slot option in Cooper Kupp (a third-round draft pick), and a dangerous home run hitter in Sammy Watkins (via trade). Put it together and the numbers have been stark in comparison: Last year, the Rams averaged 14.0 points per game (last in the NFL), 262 yards per game (also last), 4.4 yards per play (last again), 14 pass touchdowns (yes, last). This year, they’ve scored 32.9 points per game (first), averaged 382.1 yards per game (third), and 6.0 yards per play (tied for third). Eight games in, Goff’s already thrown 13 passing touchdowns (tied for 11th), just one shy of the Rams’ total for all of last year.
Carson Wentz played like a rookie last year, finishing with 16 touchdowns and 14 picks at 6.2 yards per attempt with a 79.3 passer rating. This year, he’s turned the corner in his development and has looked like a legit MVP candidate. Through the team’s first nine games, he’s thrown a league-best 23 touchdowns, connecting on more passing scores in his last five games alone (17) than he did in all of 2016. Wentz’s incredible jump forward has helped turn the Eagles offense into one of the best in the game.
Credit goes to general manager Howie Roseman too for putting more talent around the team’s franchise quarterback over the offseason. Free-agent additions like Alshon Jeffery and Torrey Smith give Wentz a pair of veteran pass catchers to throw to downfield, and LeGarrette Blount (and going forward, Jay Ajayi, who was acquired in a trade last week) gives Wentz a run game to lean on. It doesn’t hurt that Zach Ertz has turned into one of the game’s top tight ends and that Nelson Agholor’s finally broken out as a dangerous threat in the slot, either. Last season, the Eagles finished middle of the pack (or near the back) in most traditional stats, averaging 22.9 points per game (16th), 337.4 yards per game (22nd), and 5.0 yards per play (29th). This year, the team has jumped up toward the top in all the same metrics, scoring 31.4 points per game (second), with 377 yards per game (fifth), 5.7 yards per play (seventh).
The transition from Gus Bradley to Doug Marrone may be playing a part in the Jaguars’ improvement on defense, but it’s been the additions of big-ticket free agents Calais Campbell and A.J. Bouye that have really transformed a middle-of-the-pack group to one of the league’s most dominant units. Campbell’s been the capstone piece of an already talented defensive line, and has racked up a career-high 11.0 sacks in the team’s first eight games. Meanwhile, Bouye has surrendered a 43.8 passer rating in coverage, with two picks and zero touchdowns allowed, and he has combined with talented sophomore Jalen Ramsey to form the best cornerback duo in the NFL.
Last year, Jacksonville finished 12th in Football Outsiders’ defensive DVOA and 25th in points allowed (25.0). This year, the Jags are first in both metrics, surrendering just 14.6 points per game. They’re also first in opponent passer rating (63.5), first in passing touchdowns allowed (4), first in yards per attempt allowed (5.8), and first in sacks (35).
The Saints defense set a low bar for improvement the past few years, and I mean, a really, really low bar. Over the past three seasons, the Saints have finished 31st, 32nd, and 31st, respectively, in Football Outsiders’ defensive DVOA. And early on, it looked like we’d see more of the same from that squad, as New Orleans surrendered 65 points and 1,025 yards combined in losses to the Vikings and Patriots the first two weeks of the season. But during the team’s six-game win streak, this group’s not only shown improvement over last year’s unit (and that of the year before, and the year before), but it’s turned into an actually good defense all of a sudden. Defensive end Cam Jordan has led the way, with six sacks and a pick-six in that stretch, but he’s gotten a lot of help from a burgeoning core of defensive standouts. Rookie cornerback Marshon Lattimore is Pro Football Focus’s top-rated cornerback this year, surrendering a 37.4 passer rating in coverage with two interceptions on 261 snaps. Second-year pro Ken Crawley’s played well opposite Lattimore, with one pick and a 74.0 passer rating against. Safety Kenny Vaccaro’s shown up in the slot, with two picks and a 74.2 passer rating surrendered. Rookie safety Marcus Williams is playing well, P.J. Williams has emerged as a contributor (he picked off Cam Newton in the team’s Week 3 matchup with the Panthers), and veteran defensive end Alex Okafor has 3.5 sacks and two forced fumbles.
Last year, the Saints gave up 28.4 points per game (31st), 375.4 yards per game (27th), 6.0 yards per play (30th), and surrendered an opponent passer rating of 98.1 (29th). This year, even with the slow start, they’re giving up just 19.4 points per game (tied for ninth), 326.6 yards per game (15th), 5.3 yards per play (tied for 18th), and are allowing an opponent passer rating of 79.2 (seventh).
Buffalo’s embarrassing loss to the Jets on Thursday Night Football certainly takes a little bit of shine off the team’s hot start—but the Bills’ turnaround on defense has still been impressive, especially considering the amount of personnel turnover the team has gone through since last year. Buffalo lost cornerback Stephon Gilmore and linebacker Zach Brown in free agency and then traded away Ronald Darby in the preseason, and for much of the summer it looked like the franchise, under new head coach Sean McDermott and GM Brandon Beane, was in full-on rebuild mode.
Except the free-agency additions of safeties Micah Hyde and Jordan Poyer have proved to be brilliant moves, the trade for cornerback E.J. Gaines was savvy, and the selection of cornerback Tre’Davious White in the first round has netted a starter in year one and a potential Defensive Rookie of the Year. Along with more solid play from pass rusher Jerry Hughes, the Bills defense has carried the team to a 5-3 start and could put them in contention for the team’s first playoff trip since 1999.
Last year, the Bills gave up 23.6 points per game (16th) and finished with just 18 takeaways (tied for 23rd). This season, they’re tied for fifth in points allowed (18.6) and have already racked up 17 turnovers, second-most in the league. The Bills have a tough schedule in front of them, with the Saints, Chargers, Chiefs, and Patriots on deck, so we’ll get to find out if this new-and-improved defense can get back to its early-season form or if it looks more like the squad we saw in New York last week.
All you have to know about this year’s Chiefs is that Alex Smith has gone from being the guy that (most of us thought) was holding back Kansas City’s talented offense to the guy that’s arguably the league’s MVP. Smith’s thrown for a career-high 271.1 yards per game, with 18 touchdowns and just one pick at a league-best 8.3 yards per attempt and a league-best 113.9 passer rating. Smith hasn’t suddenly turned into a deep-passing juggernaut—he has thrown 20-plus yards downfield on 11.9 percent of his throws this year (15th), per Pro Football Focus, up from 9.4 percent of his passes last year (26th)—but it’s his huge increase in efficiency on those throws that matters. On those deep shots down the field, Smith has an NFL-best 139.0 passer rating, with an NFL-best 57.1 accuracy percentage and an NFL-best (tied with Watson and Wentz) seven touchdowns.
His newfound effectiveness downfield has mixed well with the Chiefs’ hybrid offense under Andy Reid. Mixing college concepts with Reid’s West Coast offense, Kansas City’s turned into one of the most challenging offenses in the league to defend. After finishing last season 13th in points per game (24.3), 20th in yards per game (343), and tied for 15th in yards per play (5.5), the Chiefs have averaged 28.1 points per game (fifth), 372 yards per game (sixth), and 6.2 yards per play in 2017 (tied for first).
It’s been an up-and-down campaign for the Lions defense this year. They’d probably love to forget the 428 yards and 30 points they gave up to the Falcons in Week 3, and despite holding opposing backs to just 3.6 yards per carry, they’ve given up eight scores on the ground (third-worst). But this is a unit that looks a lot more dangerous than it did last year, particularly in the turnovers department. After creating just 14 takeaways all of last season (28th), this group’s thrived on turnovers, and is tied for third with 16 so far this year. They’ve intercepted 10 passes (tied for fourth), led by their top two playmakers in safety Glover Quin and corner Darius Slay, who’ve each picked off three.
After finishing dead last in defensive DVOA and dead last in opponent passer rating (106.5) last season, the Lions rank 11th this season and came into their Week 9 matchup with Green Bay giving up an 84.6 passer rating to opposing quarterbacks (13th). That 20-plus-point swing in the right direction is a big reason this team is 4-4 and still in the hunt in the NFC North.
Honorable Mention: The Texans Offense
Look, we have to talk about (and pour some out for) the incredibly fun, read-option-heavy, deep-ball-friendly college offense we saw under rookie quarterback Deshaun Watson. That unit averaged 40.0 points per game from Week 3 on, after head coach Bill O’Brien had finally realized he could unleash Watson’s talents on the world. Unfortunately, it shined too bright for this world, and now we’re back to the terrible, horrible, no-good Texans offense we’ve seen the past few years under the rotation of seemingly endless bad quarterbacks. You’re up, Tom Savage, at least until O’Brien benches you for someone else sometime in the next few weeks.