Patriots head coach Bill Belichick said last year that he doesn’t know what his team really is until around midseason. Another anonymous coach recently compared the first month of the season to the NFL’s new de facto training camp, a reference to the lack of full-contact practices now permitted in the preseason run-up. Both coaches point to an anxiety-soothing concept for those of you who have watched your favorite team struggle in the early going: It’s a long season, and early results don’t always mean a whole lot.
For the teams that have stumbled out of the gate, though, the first step toward righting the ship is to identify the biggest problems. We’re here to help. Here’s what’s holding the NFL’s three remaining winless teams back.
Arizona Cardinals (0-3): The Punchless Offense
A botched third-and-2 play in the Cardinals’ 16-14 loss to the Bears on Sunday is a microcosm of everything that’s wrong with their offense thus far. With the ball at the Chicago 42-yard line and two minutes to go, the Cardinals needed to pick up just 2 yards to move the chains and keep the drive alive. Rookie quarterback Josh Rosen handed off to backup running back Chase Edmonds—inexplicably on the field for a healthy David Johnson—who lost 3 yards.
Let’s start first with the fact it was Rosen, and not the game’s starter, Sam Bradford, lining up under center. Instead of benching Bradford after an ineffective first two weeks (3.98 yards per attempt, 55.6 rating, zero touchdowns, two interceptions) and giving Rosen a full slate of first-team reps in preparation for the Bears defense, the Cardinals stuck with Bradford until the 4:31 mark of the fourth quarter before calling on Rosen to come in cold and engineer a game-winning drive against one of the most devastating defensive fronts in football.
still can't believe the coach of the Arizona Cardinals put in Josh Rosen for his first ever NFL game action and told him to engineer an 80 yard game winning drive against Khalil Mack and the Bears pass rush. it's like he was hazing Rosen— Chris B. Brown (@smartfootball) September 24, 2018
The Cardinals’ decision over the offseason to sign Bradford to a one-year, $20 million deal was questionable enough, but the choice to give Rosen the reins at that point in the game borders on negligence. But the rookie passer hung tough, completing passes of 9, 4, 10, and 8 yards on the drive to set Arizona up with that fateful third-and-2 as the two-minute warning hit. That’s when offensive coordinator Mike McCoy and the Cardinals coaching staff let Rosen down again, pulling Johnson from the game while dialing up a slow-developing counter run play to the left, which was blown up in the backfield.
Rosen was picked off on the next play, the punch line of a comedy of errors that highlighted Arizona’s two most troubling issues over the first three weeks of the season: poor execution and a puzzling strategy with the team’s best players. The latter, to me, is more egregious, and I’m not just talking about the delayed decision to turn to Rosen: Edmonds replaced Johnson in the most pivotal moment of the game, apparently, because the All-Pro missed a blitz pickup on the previous second-down play. Which had happened before the two-minute warning. You’d think they could’ve sorted it out during the break in the action.
RB David Johnson said the reason he wasn’t on the field on the late third-n-2 was because he missed a blitz pickup on second down. He was brought out to discuss the matter with RB coach Kirby Wilson.— Darren Urban (@Cardschatter) September 24, 2018
Johnson’s been missing in action far too often this year. He has failed to gain much traction on the ground (34 rushes, 116 yards, one touchdown), and has barely been used as a pass catcher (10 catches, 63 yards, one touchdown), both symptoms of the team’s apparent preference for systems over personnel. When McCoy was hired, instead of adopting most of the offense the team ran last year under Bruce Arians, he brought with him new verbiage and a whole new scheme. That system has largely failed to deploy the all-world running back in a way that maximizes his uniquely versatile skill set: The vast majority of his runs have been concentrated right up the gut, making Arizona far too predictable while ignoring Johnson’s power and elusiveness in space. Worse yet, after playing the role of hybrid runner and receiver on the Cardinals’ 2016 squad, Johnson has mostly toiled in the backfield to line up for boring, traditional swing-pass and dump-off routes. Ironically, the one vertical route I’ve seen Johnson run this year turned into a touchdown.
Sam Bradford fez o passe para touchdown de David Johnson. pic.twitter.com/t1h0Xqn2kv— Left Tackle Brasil (@LeftTackleBR) September 23, 2018
It doesn’t help either that the line has struggled to block (Bradford was under pressure on 42 percent of snaps before being benched, third worst per Pro Football Focus), the receiver group is thin behind Larry Fitzgerald, and tight end Ricky Seals-Jones has yet to get very involved. Arizona’s scored just 20 points in three games (dead last), has gained a league-low 571 yards, and has run just 142 offensive plays. That puts them on pace to run just 757 plays this season, which would come well short of last year’s low (927 by the Bengals) and would be the lowest since the league moved to 16 games. The lack of offense has, in turn, put a lot of pressure on the defense, which has been on the field for 211 plays, tied for third most in the league.
Rosen could create a spark, but McCoy must recalibrate the offense to accentuate the rookie’s skill set best. The former UCLA star has a good arm and experience in pro-style schemes, but McCoy would do well to mitigate the issues the team has in pass protection by designing schemes that get the ball out of Rosen’s hands quickly while leaning more heavily on deception.
Upping the amount of play-action would be a nice start; Bradford ran play-action fakes on just 11.4 percent of his dropbacks over the first three weeks, 30th out of 31 qualifying passers per Pro Football Focus, and upping the frequency of those plays could help exploit overly aggressive defenses primed to bring pressure. Rosen was best in college when he played on schedule, so drawing up schemes that get Fitzgerald open early in his routes, perhaps using bunch and trips formations that help give him a free release, could give the rookie signal-caller a security blanket to rely on over the middle. Christian Kirk—a favorite target for Rosen in preseason action—offers run-after-the-catch potential in the screen game and should provide another quick-throw option on the outside. Most importantly, the Cardinals need to deploy Johnson like the movable mismatch creator that he was in 2016. There’s still hope for this offense, but not unless we see major shifts in scheme.
Houston Texans (0-3): The Porous Offensive Line
The Texans’ failings thus far can best be pinned to their underperforming offensive line, a bottom-three unit in 2017 that managed to somehow get worse over the offseason. A general lack of depth has been exacerbated by injuries: When starting right tackle Seantrel Henderson was lost for the season to an ankle injury in Week 1, Houston moved left tackle Julién Davenport over for Week 2 and replaced him on the left with rookie Martinas Rankin. Then, in Week 3, starting guard Senio Kelemete was injured in pregame warm-ups and replaced by backup Greg Mancz, which further threw that unit out of whack. The results of that shake-up have been disastrous from a schematic point of view, and quarterback Deshaun Watson’s been pressured on a league-high 49.2 percent of his dropbacks.
QB Deshaun Watson is taking a beating due to the HOU OL & scheme. He has endured 27 knockdowns, 43 hits, 11 sacks, & 50 pressures to open the season.— Josh ADHD (@FantasyADHD) September 25, 2018
To make matters worse, the offensive line keeps picking up drive-killing penalties, putting Watson in endless tough down-and-distance situations. In the Texans’ 27-22 loss to the Giants on Sunday, the offensive line not only surrendered an absurd 19 pressures, per PFF, but committed an additional six penalties. It’s just tough to win when the line is constantly pushing you backward.
Of course, a sieve-like offensive line is nothing new for Watson, who endured a 47.7 percent pressure rate in the seven games he played in 2017, per PFF. This year, though, his relative lack of mobility (as he continues to recover from ACL surgery) makes him slightly less dangerous as a scrambler and escape artist, and the Texans’ new, more traditional dropback scheme on offense has struggled to mitigate all the issues that pressure creates. The read option, so effective at slowing the rush last year, hasn’t been a big part of the game plan in 2018, and play-caller and head coach Bill O’Brien’s gone away from the heavy doses of play-action we saw in 2017, too.
Shotgun play fakes were Watson’s bread and butter last year: In the seven games Watson played, he threw off play-action on an NFL-high 30.3 percent of dropbacks, racking up 683 yards (first among all teams during that stretch) at 10.0 yards per attempt (sixth) with 11 touchdowns (first) and a 121.5 passer rating (fifth). This year, it’s gone the other direction. Watson’s thrown off play-action on just 16.9 percent of his dropbacks (23rd of 34 qualifying passers), with 202 yards (12th), no touchdowns, and two interceptions for a passer rating of 54.6 (dead last). That part of his game—the foundation on which he based his electric breakout rookie campaign—has gone conspicuously quiet.
Still, a few mental mistakes and three untimely end zone interceptions have marred what’s otherwise been a steady performance for Watson this year in the face of near-constant pressure. Through three weeks, he’s graded out 10th among quarterbacks, per PFF, with 871 yards passing, five touchdowns, three picks, and an 89.8 passer rating at a respectable 8.2 yards per attempt. His connection with receiver Will Fuller remains undeniably strong, and he’s still delivering the ball to DeAndre Hopkins downfield.
The Texans offense, despite all its shortcomings thus far, doesn’t feel too far off. But O’Brien and the team’s offensive brain trust have to find more ways to work around an offensive line that’s not likely to get much better. Read-option run plays and the triple-option may be off the menu in order to protect Watson’s knee, but the team can resurrect the deadly play-action passing attack we saw last year and keep the pass rush at bay by finding more ways to get the ball out quickly. If they don’t, the Texans could be in for a long season.
Oakland Raiders (0-3): The Inability to Finish
I’ll say this about Jon Gruden’s new-look Raiders: They’ve been more competitive than I thought they’d be. In the opener, they played the Rams tough for three quarters; in Week 2, they led the Broncos for most of the game; and then on Sunday, they gave themselves the chance to win late in Miami. But being competitive isn’t worth much if you’re not winning, and the Raiders are 0-3 in large part because they just haven’t been able to finish.
The Raiders (0-3) have played 180 minutes of football this season.— Matt Schneidman (@mattschneidman) September 24, 2018
They have led or been tied for 157 minutes and 36 seconds, trailed for 22 minutes and 24 seconds.
There’s no easy answer for how to fix that issue. For starters, Khalil Mack isn’t coming back, and there just aren’t many game-wrecking defensive closers available who can create sacks and get turnovers to protect late-game leads. Past that, Oakland’s got the oldest roster in the league, so it’s not a big surprise the Raiders seem to wear down as games go on, leading to mistakes and poor execution. And crucially, they lack speed on defense, especially at linebacker—evidenced by the fact they’ve given up touchdowns on three jet-sweep plays thus far—two to Miami and one to L.A. But outside of major in-season personnel shifts (which would require a bevy of trades), none of that is likely to change a whole lot until the offseason.
Among the things that could change in the short term is quarterback Derek Carr’s fourth-quarter play. Through three weeks, Carr’s thrown two touchdowns and two picks, averaged 8.9 yards per attempt, has a 79.7 completion percentage, and registered a 101.7 passer rating in quarters one through three. In the fourth quarter, though, his numbers drop off drastically: zero touchdowns, three picks, and a passer rating of 50.5. When the games get tight, he tries to do too much, and that’s often led to devastating turnovers.
Of course, finishing applies to more than just the end of games. Through three weeks, the Raiders are tied for the third-lowest three-and-out rate, sixth in the NFL in total yards (1,202), and 28th in points (17.3 per game). Red zone execution has been a big problem—and not just in the fourth quarter. Coming into Sunday’s game, the Raiders were 28th in the league in touchdowns per red zone trip, and against the Dolphins, they converted TDs on just two of five red zone trips, including one of three goal-to-go situations. The Raiders aren’t as close to being the most explosive offense in the NFL as Marshawn Lynch says, but I think he is right that they’re just a few plays away from really clicking on that side of the ball, particularly in the red zone. Fix that problem, and Oakland will start winning a few of its close games.