We’re now through five weeks of the 2018 NFL season, and early returns have been predictably unpredictable. The Bengals sit atop the AFC North, the Bears lead the NFC North, and it’s unclear whether any of the teams in the NFC East, including the defending champion Eagles, are, uh, good. Offenses have exploded, quarterbacks are setting new passing records, and, perhaps most surprising of all after last season, the league’s most exciting superstar players have managed to stay on the field. These developments undoubtedly have made an impact on your fantasy football league, but which early-season happenings can we trust, and which others are just small-sample statistical anomalies? Let’s dig into a few.
Andy Dalton Is Good
The strongest catalyst behind the Bengals’ surprising 4-1 start has been the renaissance from quarterback Andy Dalton, who’s playing better than we’ve seen in years. Dalton leads the NFL with three fourth-quarter comebacks and three game-winning drives, he is on pace to set a new career high in yards (4,264) and touchdowns (38), and his 7.7 yards per attempt, 65.8 completion rate, and 94.9 passer rating are all at three-year highs.
That jump can be traced in part to Dalton’s improvement passing under pressure. Despite Cincy’s investments on the offensive line over the offseason, the team’s pressure rate allowed has actually increased slightly (32.7 percent this year vs. 31.3 percent last year), per Pro Football Focus. But Dalton’s been sharper in those situations, completing 48.1 percent of his passes under pressure (up from 45.2) with an 83.3 passer rating, seventh among quarterbacks per PFF. Crucially, Dalton’s taking far fewer drive-killing sacks as well. The Bengals’ signal-caller was sacked 39 times last year on 535 dropbacks, a 7.3 percent sack rate (22nd), and this year, he’s taken just nine sacks on 196 dropbacks, a 4.6 percent rate (ninth). Some of that is smart scheming by offensive coordinator Bill Lazor, who’s designed route-combinations that give Dalton simpler reads and help him get the ball out on time. But some of it is just old-fashioned quarterbacking: The soon-to-be 31-year-old vet has done an excellent job of stepping up into the pocket and delivering strikes down the field in the face of oncoming pass rushers.
The emergence of wide receiver Tyler Boyd as a security blanket underneath has paid dividends, too, particularly in third- and fourth-down situations. Dalton’s leaned heavily on the third-year receiver when he needs to move the chains: From Week 2 on, Boyd ranks first in the NFL in targets on third and fourth down (16), tied with DeAndre Hopkins and Adam Thielen in first-down conversions (nine) on those downs. The combination of Boyd and A.J. Green gives Dalton a dangerous one-two punch to throw to downfield.
Through five weeks, the Bengals have fielded a top-10 offense by just about every metric. Cincy’s fourth in points per game (30.6), tied for ninth in yards per play (6.0), eighth in first downs per game (23), and sixth in offensive DVOA—and they’ve done all that despite missing starting running back Joe Mixon for two games. Losing tight end Tyler Eifert for the year to a broken ankle is a blow for this team’s upside down the stretch—and some might look at Dalton’s seven picks thus far and start to worry. But context is key: One of those interceptions was a desperation Hail Mary, two were arguably on the receiver taking bad routes, and another two were on tipped balls. Dalton must prove he can rein in the turnovers, but his relatively high interception rate isn’t wildly concerning.
The combination of smart scheming by Lazor, better performance under pressure from Dalton, and a more effective mix of playmakers at receiver make me a believer in Dalton and the Bengals’ skill position players. The early-season success was no fluke.
Cam Newton Is Back
Under new offensive coordinator Norv Turner, Newton’s played with a level of consistency and efficiency that we haven’t seen over the past two years. Through five weeks, Newton’s thrown for 883 yards, seven touchdowns, and three picks—and is on pace for a career low in sack rate (5.1 percent), a career-high in completion rate (65.4, up more than six points from last year), and a three-year low in interception rate (2.3 percent). He’s posted improved numbers in passer rating (93.2) and adjusted yards per attempt (6.8). And on the back of that performance, the Panthers are 3-1, a half game behind the Saints in the NFC South.
Turner’s slightly tweaked scheme has all but abandoned the deep passing attack while focusing on giving Newton a greater number of high-percentage throws. Newton threw into tight coverage on 24.5 percent of his passes in 2016 (second most) and 20.5 percent of his throws last year (fifth). This year, that number has dropped to 16.9 percent (13th); Instead of trying to thread the needle downfield, the 29-year-old quarterback has leaned on running back Christian McCaffrey out of the backfield far more (McCaffery has reeled in 27 of 32 targets for 192 yards). Newton’s average depth of target has dropped from last year (8.9 yards to 8.2 yards, per PFF), but the emphasis on shorter, easier passes hasn’t hamstrung the offense; instead, it’s actually helped Carolina improve its per-drive efficiency: The Panthers are averaging 22.8 first downs per game (10th, up from 20 last year), are 10th in drive success rate (.734, up from .699 last year) and points per drive (2.23, up from 1.98), and crucially, rank fifth in turnovers per drive after finishing 19th in that metric in 2017.
Part of that success, of course, is that Carolina’s redoubled its efforts on the ground, and the Panthers currently lead the league in rushing at 154.0 yards per game. Newton’s been a major part of the team’s ground game, as the Panthers are simply letting the big 6-foot-5, 245-pound dual-threat quarterback do what he does best: Make plays. Newton’s averaging a career-high 9.0 rush attempts per game and is on pace for 660 yards and 12 touchdowns on the ground. And, as a perfect complement to that boost in the rushing attack, Carolina’s using the play-action passing attack much more frequently and effectively.
#Panthers are using play-action more often with huge success (PFF):— Graham Barfield (@GrahamBarfield) October 9, 2018
- In 2017, Cam Newton ran play-action on 17% of his attempts (fifth-fewest). 96.7 Passer Rating using PA.
- This year, Newton has used play-action on 28% of his attempts (third-most). 136 Rating (third-best).
Newton has often struggled over the past two years when he tries to do too much with his arm, forcing passes into coverage instead of taking easier throws and living to see another down. Consistency is the key here—and it’s worrisome that Newton had a pair of ugly interceptions in Sunday’s win over the Giants. But Turner’s new-look offense seems to be designed around a few of the things his former MVP quarterback does best, and that bodes well for the rest of the year. If Carolina can manage to rediscover the deep passing attack without sacrificing the efficiency they’ve achieved, though, watch out—because that could make this squad pretty tough to stop.
The Patriots Offense Is Bad
Everything’s relative, so when I say New England’s offense has been “bad,” it’s really like saying “it hasn’t been completely dominant, like it usually is.” In 2017, Brady led the league in passing yards (4,577). This year, he’s 22nd in yards per game (on pace for 4,029 yards). In 2017, the Patriots ranked first in yards per drive (39.2), points per drive (2.69), and drive-success rate (.767), and finished second in points per game (28.6). This year, they’re 21st in yards per drive (32.2), seventh in points per drive, and 12th in drive success rate and rank ninth in points per game. In a season in which NFL offenses are moving the ball and scoring at will at historic rates, the Patriots have been late to join the party.
I just don’t think that’s going to be a season-long trend. After trading away Brandin Cooks and letting Danny Amendola leave in free agency, the Patriots came into the season with a dearth of talent at receiver, a problem exacerbated by the four-game PED suspension Julian Edelman served to begin the year. In the first three weeks, teams bracketed Rob Gronkowski on about 70 percent of his routes, leaving Brady with the decision of whether to throw into double-coverage or try to find one of Chris Hogan, Phillip Dorsett, or Cordarrelle Patterson running open, which turned out to be a rarity. That severely limited what Brady could do, and the New England offense failed to exploit huge swaths of the field, mostly staying away from the middle and deep sideline areas in the passing game.
Over the past two weeks, though, the Patriots offense has opened up. The trade for Josh Gordon and the return of Edelman help stretch the field and attack the defense at two levels, thus making it tougher for opponents to solely focus on taking Gronkowski out of the action. Offensive coordinator Josh McDaniels has designed a few plays that help Brady get some deep shots in down the sideline—like the pick-play that got Patterson a touchdown in Week 4—and running back Sony Michel has a little more pep in his step, perhaps now better recovered from preseason knee procedure. The result? The Patriots offense has rediscovered balance, and I’m not just talking about run-pass ratio (which has dropped from a 57 percent pass rate in game-neutral situations in weeks 1-3 to 54 percent pass rate in weeks 4-5): New England’s back to attacking every level of the field, both vertically and horizontally; have found their run game thanks to a nice rotation between Michel and pass-catching back James White; and seem to have figured out how to best utilize the rag-tag group of skill-position role players. This might not be Brady’s best offense ever, but I’m not too worried about them anymore.
The Bears Have an Elite Defense
Khalil Mack’s been the final piece of the puzzle for the Bears defense, a unit whose only major question mark coming into the year was where it was going to get a pass rush. Mack’s elevated the play of everyone around him while racking up 5.0 sacks, 24 pressures, 12 stops (defined by Pro Football Focus as tackles resulting in an unsuccessful play by the offense), four forced fumbles, and a pick-six. Oh, and he’s done that in just four games—the Bears are one of only four squads who have already had their bye week.
Chicago’s defense has competition from the Jaguars, Ravens, and Browns, but through five weeks, the Bears rank first in Football Outsiders’ defensive DVOA, second in points allowed (16.3 per game), second in yards allowed (294.5 per game), tied for second in takeaways (11), second in sacks (18), sixth in opponent passer rating (82.1), second in opponent drive success rate, and first in three-and-outs forced per drive. There’s talent on every level, from the secondary, to the linebackers, to the defensive front, and their Week 7 matchup against Brady and the Pats should be must-see TV (along with Week 11 against Kirk Cousins and the Vikings, and weeks 14 and 15 against the Rams and Packers). Like every team in the league, Chicago’s going to need some luck in the injury department, but there’s no reason to believe the Bears’ early-season performance on defense was anything but legit.