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Twenty-One Questions Answered Halfway Through the 2021 NFL Season

Before the season began in September, we asked 21 questions that could shape this year of football. Now, at the midway point, it’s time to revisit those questions and see what their answers could mean for the rest of the season.

Getty Images/Ringer illustration

Back in early September, I asked 21 questions that would shape the 2021 NFL season. Now that we’re halfway through this wild, unpredictable season, it seems like a good time to revisit those questions and try to offer up some answers that will help us understand what to expect over the next three months.

1. Have the Chiefs fixed their offensive line?

Based on the team’s raw sack numbers, the answer is clearly no. But those figures can be a little deceiving. While Patrick Mahomes’s sack rate is up to 4.5 percent this season from 3.6 percent in 2020, the Chiefs’ offensive line is allowing pressure at a lower rate than it did a year ago. So is Mahomes to blame for holding on to the ball too long? Not really. His average time to throw has actually dropped slightly from last year—from 2.89 seconds down to 2.77, according to Next Gen Stats. You have to drill a little deeper to find the biggest difference between last season’s high-flying offense and this year’s group, which ranks 29th in explosive play rate, per Pro Football Focus.

A lot of Mahomes’s sacks are coming when the defense is in man coverage. The Chiefs’ sack rate has nearly tripled against man coverage this season, according to TruMedia, and their average time to throw and pressure rates facing man have also significantly increased.

Patrick Mahomes vs. Man Coverage

Season(s) EPA per play Sack rate Pressure rate Time to throw
Season(s) EPA per play Sack rate Pressure rate Time to throw
2018-2020 0.23 3.9% 31.6% 2.77 sec
2021 0.01 9.9% 41.2% 3.02 sec
Data via TruMedia

The film tells the same story: Kansas City’s receivers are having a hard time getting open against man coverage. No team in the league is seeing more coverages with two safeties back deep. Tyreek Hill has struggled with that extra attention. And while Mahomes’s answer for those two-high looks in the past was always Travis Kelce underneath, the star tight end is having a dreadful year—especially against man. He ranks 19th in yards per route run against man (1.29 yards), which is a steep drop from last season, when he ranked fourth at 2.38 yards, per Pro Football Focus.

That’s a roundabout way of saying the Chiefs’ problems are much bigger than the offensive line. The pass protection unit has been OK. The run blocking hasn’t been so great, which has stood out as the Chiefs have seen more light boxes this year. If Kansas City’s offense is going to rebound to its peak form, it’ll have to do a better job of exploiting those light fronts and get defenses to drop a safety into the box to open up the deeper parts of the field.

2. Have the Browns upgraded their defense enough to contend?

If Sunday’s showing in the team’s 41-16 win over the Bengals is what we can expect going forward then … well, the answer is probably still no. But that has more to do with the offense than what we’ve seen out of the defense this season.

Jadeveon Clowney and Malik McDowell have been major hits in their first nine games with the Browns. Myles Garrett looks like the favorite to win Defensive Player of the Year. The secondary has been banged up, but we saw it at full strength against the Bengals, and it lived up to the hype. Denzel Ward was a menace in coverage; John Johnson III was his typical disruptive self; rookie Greg Newsome showed off some nice ball skills; and even A.J. Green (not that one) made some plays. If the Browns can get standout rookie linebacker Jeremiah Owusu-Koramoah back healthy soon, defensive coordinator Joe Woods could have Cleveland’s defense playing like a top-five unit by year’s end.

3. Can the Buccaneers stay healthy (again)?

The Buccaneers have yet to suffer any major blows this season, but their injury luck has taken a turn since 2020 when they finished last in the NFL in Football Outsiders’ adjusted games lost metric. The secondary has taken the biggest hit, with Carlton Davis and Sean Murphy-Bunting missing significant time already (an issue that forced Tampa to sign Richard Sherman off the street and start him just days later against the Patriots). Then Sherman suffered a soft tissue injury of his own. On offense, both Rob Gronkowski and Antonio Brown have missed games recently. Gronk is back now, and Brown is expected to be out of a walking boot soon, so it shouldn’t be too long before the Bucs passing game is back to full strength. And, really, as long as the oldest guy on the roster stays healthy, none of these setbacks seem to matter.

4. Is the Fangio/Staley defensive system going to take over the NFL?

The Vic Fangio/Brandon Staley coaching tree—which has now spread to Green Bay, Chicago, Denver, and Los Angeles—isn’t having a ton of success midway through the 2021 season. All of those teams rank outside of the top 15 in defensive DVOA, so it’s safe to say that the system is not taking over the NFL. But its main tenets—two-high safety coverages and light run boxes—have made their way throughout the league this season. Defenses have deployed six or fewer defenders in the box on 29 percent of run plays in 2021, per TruMedia. That’s up from 22.3 percent in 2020. The use of quarters coverage, a favorite of the Fangio tree, has also seen a slight uptick, going from 18 percent in 2019 to 20.2 percent last season and 21.8 percent in 2021. Based on the schematic evolution we’ve seen in the college game—which is always out in front of the pro game by a few years—there’s no reason to expect this trend to stop. This is the new way of life for NFL defenses.

5. Can Todd Downing maximize the Titans’ offensive talent?

In fairness to the first-year offensive coordinator, he really hasn’t had a chance to. Derrick Henry, Julio Jones, and A.J. Brown have all missed at least one game due to injury, and the Titans will be without their star back for at least the remainder of the regular season after he suffered a broken foot in Week 8. Tennessee is 7-2, so you won’t hear a lot of complaints about the job Downing is doing, but the offense hasn’t been nearly as efficient as it was under now-Falcons head coach Arthur Smith. The Titans have dropped from fourth in offensive DVOA last season to 16th this season—and the running game has been propping up a pass game that ranks 22nd in DVOA. That figures to change after Henry’s injury.

6. Is Urban Meyer cut out for this?

I posed this question based on Meyer’s rocky offseason, during which he: hired a strength and conditioning coach who’d left Iowa after former players said he was racist and demeaning; incited an NFLPA investigation by admitting that a player’s vaccination status went into roster decisions; and created a bit of a sideshow by signing his old pal Tim Tebow. I didn’t realize how much worse it could—and would—get.

Then came the video. You know the one. Meyer was recorded getting awfully close to a woman who was not his wife in an Ohio bar the day after the Jaguars fell to 0-4. On top of the embarrassing video, Meyer had skipped the team flight back to Jacksonville following the game, which added another layer of muck to the story. Meyer was publicly reprimanded by Jags owner Shad Khan, and his attempt to apologize to the team was reportedly mocked by players. I am genuinely in awe of how poorly things have gone so far, and here’s the thing: We’re only two months in to this. How much longer can this possibly last?

7. How washed is Ben Roethlisberger?

Look, this article is going to be very long and there are more important questions to address than this one, which has a fairly obvious answer. So just watch this stupid video I made after Roethlisberger’s dreadful performance in a Week 3 loss to the Bengals.

At this point in his career, Roethlisberger doesn’t look particularly interested in playing the quarterback position in the way it’s supposed to be played. He’s getting rid of the ball faster than anybody else in the league, and those quick passes haven’t worked. No quarterback has completed more passes (69) that failed to produce a positive EPA this season, per TruMedia.

The Steelers have won four straight against weak opponents, which has them back in the playoff race. But they’ll need more from Roethlisberger if they’re going to stay in it during a brutal second-half schedule—and it just doesn’t look like he has any more to give.

8. Is this Kirk Cousins’s last season in Minnesota?

Not much has changed since I addressed this question in early September. The Vikings are still mediocre, and Cousins’s 2022 cap hit is still FORTY-FIVE MILLION DOLLARS. His salary became fully guaranteed back in March, so the only way Minnesota can get out of this without paying an exorbitant dead cap charge is by convincing some desperate team to trade for Cousins and what would be a $35 million cap hit for his new squad. The Vikings could pay a chunk of that salary in order to get a deal done, and Cousins could make it easier for Minnesota to trade him by playing better down the stretch. Maybe a fresh start will do for Kirk what it did for Matthew Stafford, and he’ll develop into an MVP candidate. Or maybe he’s just destined to be a decently talented and handsomely paid quarterback for the rest of his career.

9. Is Sean Payton still an offensive genius without Drew Brees?

Sean Payton’s genius will be put to the test over the next two months. It’s one thing to coax good play out of former first-round picks Teddy Bridgewater and Jameis Winston, but doing so with Trevor Siemian will require some next-level scheming. Payton already pulled off one minor miracle by turning Winston into a relatively consistent quarterback without sacrificing his big-play ability. Before his season-ending ACL injury, Jameis was on pace to set career-best marks in big-time throw rate and turnover-worthy play rate, per Pro Football Focus.

Still, the Saints’ overall offensive results haven’t been super impressive. New Orleans ranks 17th in offensive DVOA, and the receiving corps has been virtually nonexistent. If you can name the top three receivers on the team, you’re either a die-hard Saints fan, a member of the coaching staff, or you’re lying. Alvin Kamara remains the star of the show and leads the team in targets, which tells you everything you need to know about the state of the receiver room. Michael Thomas is out for the season, so unless the Saints can land Odell Beckham Jr., Payton will have to make do with a receiving corps led by Marquez Callaway.

10. Can Kliff Kingsbury and Kyler Murray take the next step?

Well, Kyler Murray is an MVP candidate and has raised his efficiency numbers across the board, and Kliff Kingsbury has Arizona sitting atop the entire NFL with an 8-1 record. So I’d say the answer to this question is a firm yes.

Murray’s progress is hardly surprising. His physical talent has been evident since his rookie season, and Year 3 is typically when we see a big mental jump from young quarterbacks. Murray has been better after the snap—his accuracy is up nearly 5 percentage points since last year, per Sports Info Solutions—but we’ve seen even greater improvement before the snap. The 24-year-old, with help from Kingsbury, has had more answers when defenses blitz him, which had been a problem during his first two seasons. This year, he’s been dominant when the defense sends extra pass rushers.

Kyler Murray vs. the Blitz

Season Dropbacks EPA per play Yards per play
Season Dropbacks EPA per play Yards per play
2020 106 0.04 5.9
2021 56 0.64 10.2
Data via TruMedia

Kingsbury also deserves a ton of credit. He’s been criticized in the past for poor game management and having an unimaginative passing attack, but he’s been far better in both areas this season. And on Sunday, the offense put up the second-best DVOA of the week without Murray in the lineup. Kingsbury is still in the early stages of his own development as a coach. Maybe it was foolish to write him off after just two seasons.

11. Are the Bengals failing Joe Burrow?

“Failing” is a strong word. “Letting him down” might be a more appropriate way to put it. While it looks like Cincinnati made the right choice by drafting Ja’Marr Chase over Penei Sewell in April—the rookie receiver is on pace to match Randy Moss in terms of first-year production—there are still glaring issues with the offense outside of the Burrow-Chase connection. For one, the line is still a problem. Burrow’s sack rate has increased after we spent his rookie season wondering whether the Bengals were doing enough to protect him. They weren’t, and they still aren’t. To make matters worse, head coach Zac Taylor keeps asking the line to block without extra help. And they keep seeing unsurprisingly poor results.

Joe Burrow Has Been Better With an Extra Blocker

No. of blockers Dropbacks EPA per play Yards per attempt
No. of blockers Dropbacks EPA per play Yards per attempt
5 235 -0.02 7.8
6 59 0.45 11.7
Data via TruMedia

While employing a spread passing attack better suits Burrow’s style of play, the Bengals just do not have the offensive line to operate five-man protections down after down. Keeping a back or tight end in to block more often might lead to better results—and, more importantly, it should help to protect the franchise’s prized player.

12. Can Dan Quinn make the Cowboys defense passable?

He’s done even better! The Cowboys enter Week 10 ranked seventh in defensive DVOA and sixth in EPA allowed, per RBSDM.com. That, combined with an elite offense, has Dallas looking like a legitimate contender as we head into the second half of the season.

This defense is playing fast, which is a big departure from last year, when players had a hard time picking up Mike Nolan’s complex scheme. Quinn replaced Nolan as defensive coordinator this offseason and immediately simplified things. Now, Dallas’s young, talented depth chart can just worry about making plays rather than making the right adjustments and checks before the snap.

There are some valid concerns about the sustainability of this performance, though. The Cowboys rank fifth in turnovers forced, which is a notoriously volatile stat. We’ve already seen some regression in that department over the past few weeks now that Trevon Diggs isn’t picking off quarterbacks every single game. But, really, this unit has a huge margin for error given how the offense had been playing before Dak Prescott’s injury, so a little regression shouldn’t hurt the Cowboys’ playoff chances too much.

13. Is Matthew Stafford really Sean McVay’s missing piece?

Considering the fact that the Rams lead the NFL in just about every offensive category so far this season and Stafford is one of the favorites to win MVP, I’d say yes. McVay’s offense isn’t just better this year; it looks completely different with Stafford at the helm. The Rams coach no longer has to lean on the run game and play-action passes to make the offense go. In Stafford, he has a quarterback he can trust to make the right decisions, even when the defense does something unexpected. The Rams are passing the ball more often on early downs; they’re spreading things out a bit more; and they’ve even added an RPO package to the playbook. We all assumed that Jared Goff was holding McVay’s scheme back, but I don’t know if anyone expected this drastic of a shift this quickly.

14. Have the Ravens surrounded Lamar Jackson with enough talent?

While the Ravens aren’t loaded with proven talent, the answer is probably yes. With Sammy Watkins and rookie Rashod Bateman, who has already earned his QB’s trust, Lamar Jackson has had enough help to carry the team to the top of the AFC North standings. But that’s mostly due to Lamar’s own improvement. The 2019 MVP has taken another massive step in his development as a passer this year. He looks more comfortable in the pocket, and that comfort has allowed him to make throws he wasn’t even trying in his first three seasons in Baltimore. Before 2021, there were two big criticisms of Lamar’s game: (1) He couldn’t throw to the perimeter, and (2) he couldn’t play from behind. Well, only four quarterbacks have generated more EPA on throws aimed outside of the numbers this season, per Sports Info Solutions, and Lamar is tied with Justin Herbert for the league lead in fourth-quarter comebacks, per Pro Football Reference. If he can keep this up, and Baltimore continues to win, a second MVP trophy might be on the way.

15. Which first-round QB will have the best rookie season?

There are different ways to approach this question. Mac Jones has been the best rookie based on production. He leads the class in almost every meaningful passing metric, including QBR, EPA, and success rate, and he has the Patriots on track to make the playoffs. His tape also doesn’t contain many egregious errors, which cannot be said of the other quarterbacks who’ve been starting consistently.

But that’s not necessarily how we should be evaluating these first-round quarterbacks, who were drafted for what they can eventually become, not what they are right now. And compared to Trevor Lawrence and Justin Fields, we just haven’t seen many flashes from the Pats rookie. He’s thrown a lot of completions, but a decent chunk of them have actually hurt his team. Per TruMedia, Jones ranks third in the league in completions that lose EPA. And he’s last among the five rookies who have seen regular playing time in both air yards and EPA per completion.

2021 Rookie QBs

Player Completions EPA per play aDOT
Player Completions EPA per play aDOT
Justin Fields 111 0.78 7.6
Trevor Lawrence 176 0.74 5.69
Zach Wilson 104 0.7 7.25
Mac Jones 204 0.65 5.49
Data via TruMedia

Jones has lived up to his predraft scouting reports by getting rid of the ball quickly and avoiding mistakes; it’s just unclear whether he’ll ever develop into a star passer. The second part cannot be said for Lawrence and Fields. They have had growing pains, for sure, but both have put together quite the highlight reel:

Lawrence has been the more consistent of the two, and I’ve already seen enough on tape to feel confident that he’ll be a star sooner rather than later. With Fields, there are just enough cracks in his game to prevent me from fully buying into him as an elite prospect. But there are also more than enough flashes of ability to make me feel like a complete dork for caring about those very mendable cracks. Does the ball come out a little late sometimes? Sure. Does he bail from a clean pocket every now and then? Yes. But he’s making plays we just haven’t seen from the other rookie quarterbacks outside of Jacksonville.

16. Is Tua the guy in Miami?

Another way to ask this question: Did the Dolphins seriously consider trading multiple first-round picks for a quarterback who currently faces 22 civil lawsuits and 10 criminal complaints from women who say he sexually harassed and assaulted them? They did, which doesn’t exactly make it seem like the team is all in on Tua Tagovailoa. Barring the second-year pro going off in the second half, the Dolphins will almost certainly be in the market for a quarterback this offseason. Between his glaring lack of arm strength, which seems to be getting worse, and his skittishness in the pocket, Tagovailoa hasn’t looked the part of a franchise quarterback.

17. How will Russ cook in his new kitchen?

We’ll leave this one marked “TBD,” as Wilson has missed the past month with a hand injury. But after an impressive start in Shane Waldron’s offense, Wilson’s play was headed in the wrong direction before his injury.

Russell Wilson 2021 Game Log

Week Opponent EPA per play Yards per play
Week Opponent EPA per play Yards per play
1 IND 0.43 9.1
2 TEN 0.09 9.4
3 MIN 0.01 7.8
4 SF -0.16 5.6
5 LA -0.14 7.3
Data via TruMedia

We can say this about Waldron’s offense: The play-action passing game seems to suit Wilson. The Seahawks star had been perfect on play-action passes before his injury, and that’s no exaggeration. Per Sports Info Solutions, Wilson’s on-target throw rate is 100 percent on play-action attempts, and he’s averaging 12.8 yards per attempt on those plays. Both marks lead the league.

Straight dropback plays are where Wilson has gone through some growing pains in this new offense. According to TruMedia, he’s averaged 0.53 EPA per play-action dropback, but that number plummets to negative-0.14 on dropbacks without a play-fake. For this marriage to work, Wilson will have to get that number up over the next two months.

18. Will the Patriots defense bounce back to its 2019 form?

The Patriots were always going to have a tough time matching their 2019 defensive performance. The 2021 defense has been a lot better than the 2020 defense, but it hasn’t quite reached the heights we saw two years ago. New England ranks fifth in defensive DVOA through nine weeks after ranking 31st at the same point last season. And while stylistically the Pats aren’t doing much different this year—playing the same defensive fronts and the same coverages and blitzing at a similar rate—they’re just doing everything better. It turns out that adding good players to the front seven—like Matthew Judon, Christian Barmore, and Kyle Van Noy—makes playing defense a lot easier. And the offense has been a big beneficiary, as it’s enjoyed the best average starting field position in the NFL this season, according to Football Outsiders. The Pats are back to playing complementary football, and they look like a playoff contender because of it.

19. Where does Cam Newton land?

At this point, it’s looking like Newton will have to wait until next season to find a new team. Things could change with a few more losses, but the Saints appear content to roll with Siemian for the rest of the season, and New Orleans was likely Newton’s last shot at playing in 2021. Losing teams have no motivation to add a quarterback, and any team dealing with a short-term injury to an entrenched starter—like Seattle, for instance—wouldn’t want to add a backup with such a big locker-room presence, as Newton said himself when discussing his departure from New England. The Saints lost Winston for the rest of the season and have no financial commitment to him beyond 2021. If they passed on the 31-year-old Newton, it’s hard to believe any other team would give him a shot.

20. Can the Bills rush the passer?

They sure can! Buffalo doesn’t have a dominant pass rusher on the roster—Mario Addison and Gregory Rousseau are tied for the team lead with three sacks apiece—but their pressure by committee approach is working. The Bills rank seventh in ESPN’s pass rush win rate metric and 10th in pressure rate. What’s more, they’re getting pressure in a hurry. Buffalo is one of five teams that rank in the top 10 in both pressure rate and time to pressure, according to TruMedia.

Sean McDermott hasn’t had to blitz much to get that pressure, either. The Bills rank 30th in the league in blitz rate, according to Sports Info Solutions, which is taking pressure off the secondary. Not that the secondary has it too hard when McDermott does send an extra rusher. On blitzes, Buffalo’s average time to pressure is just 2.05 seconds. That’s the lowest mark in the league, per TruMedia.

The improved pass rush, which has been buoyed by the drafting of Rousseau and the leap taken by second-year pro A.J. Epenesa, has helped elevate the entire defense. This Bills defense leads the NFL in total DVOA and passing DVOA. If the offense can get back to where it was a season ago, Buffalo should be considered the favorite to win the Super Bowl.

21. Who’s getting Spencer Rattler?

I don’t know … Tulsa?

Oklahoma benched Spencer Rattler against Texas in October, and the offense immediately took off with Caleb Williams under center. Williams has been given the full-time job, which may force Rattler to enter the transfer portal in the near future. Coming into the season, Rattler had been the only 2021 quarterback prospect who looked worthy of the first pick, so some poor, QB-needy team will have to talk itself into Malik Willis (talented but very raw), Sam Howell (think Baker Mayfield but bad and less interesting), or Desmond Ridder (he’s fine) if it wants to draft a franchise passer. Then again, we’re all pretty collectively bad at evaluating quarterback prospects, and the last time the draft community was this down on a class, it gave us Mahomes.