Six NFL teams that made the playoffs last year entered Week 4 with a losing record. One of those squads – Pittsburgh – had a bye this week. I watched the other five teams closely. Here are my notes from their respective performances.
Denver spent their previous two games basically defining the term ‘defensive breakdown’, blowing coverages galore against both the Falcons and Texans. But the stop unit was much better against a lesser foe this week, forcing five ‘three-and-outs’ on the Raiders ten drives and keeping Oakland out of the end zone on both of their red zone chances.
There was legitimate week-to-week improvement in several areas. First, as a defense, the Broncos weren’t missing many tackles. Secondly, they had a pass rush, getting consistent pressure on Carson Palmer. And perhaps most importantly, the Denver secondary didn’t blow many coverages and assignments, although they still gave up a pair of 30+ yard completions.
I don't understand why this team huddles at all; the offense seems to work best playing uptempo. Those schemes confused the heck out of Oakland for a good portion of the game. And while Peyton Manning is getting more comfortable in his new surroundings, I still have questions about this receiving corps. DeMaryius Thomas has not developed into a true #1 WR; his fumble here cost them a TD while Eric Decker struggles to get open against decent coverage.
Detroit allowed a pair of special teams touchdowns last week, and they opened the game by allowing a 105 yard kick return touchdown this week. They followed that up by allowing a punt return touchdown in the second half; the first team in NFL history to allow kickoff and punt return touchdowns in back-to-back weeks. To me, that smacks of poor coaching and cockiness. When a team loses a game because of a major deficiency and that same deficiency is still there the following week, I blame the staff, not the players.
Since their 5-0 start last year, the Lions are now 6-9 in their last 15 ballgames. None of those six wins came against an opponent that had a winning record at the time or finished the season with a winning record last year. And, as the short pointspread clearly showed on Sunday, the betting markets don’t have much respect for this team right now.
With cluster injuries at safety, the Lions had to activate Ricardo Silva off the practice squad and put him right into the starting lineup. It didn’t matter – the Lions allowed only one pass play of longer than 17 yards all day, head and shoulders better than they’ve played in any game this year. Several key pass interference calls doomed their chances, but you can’t blame a defense that allows two field goals in four quarters of football.
So why didn’t this offense click? Detroit is a team that often doesn’t seem to wake up until they are trailing by margin; arguably the best 'come-from-behind’ team in the NFL. But their offensive line got absolutely dominated today, a woeful effort that resulted in a 2.0 yards per carry effort from Mikel LeShoure and five sacks of Matthew Stafford. Throw in a bevy of dropped passes from this loaded receiving corps – the Lions lead the league in that dubious category -- and the issues become even more worrisome.
This passing game hasn't been in rhythm since the start of the preseason. Aaron Rodgers didn't get much playing time in August; neither did his receivers. Then they opened up the season against three quality defenses -- the Niners, Bears and Seahawks. And his receivers are suffering from the dropsies, making matters even worse. Green Bay scored only one offensive touchdown in each of their last two games, held out of the end zone on offense into the fourth quarter each time.
I place the blame squarely on the receiving corps. Against New Orleans, there were lots of drops and lots of catchable balls where the receivers didn’t make plays. Even after scoring three consecutive touchdowns in the first half, the Packers didn’t put another point on the board until late in the fourth quarter, unable to consistently generate production against a bottom tier stop unit.
When the pass rush isn't there, this defense is getting picked apart. And they're not generating pressure on the QB without blitzing, putting more pressure on their secondary. With all the blown coverages in this game, you know that this defense isn't head and shoulders better than last year. A team can't give up 80 yard TD throws to wide open receivers and tell me that their pass defense is fixed; or allow their opponent to convert on nine of their third down chances.
You know a coach has ample job security when he calls a fake punt inside their own 20 yard line in the second quarter. And you know a team is well coached when they execute that fake perfectly, resulting in a first down, then a touchdown a few minutes later. Then again, when your coach wastes both challenges on low percentage chances, it's not necessarily great coaching, especially when the lack of a challenge almost cost them the game when they couldn’t review an obvious late fumble.
The Pats came into this game shorthanded due to injuries, without perennial pro bowler Logan Mankins on the offensive line and their most versatile weapon, tight end Aaron Hernandez. Even without Mankins, facing a revamped Bills defensive front, Brady had time to throw the football all afternoon.
Offensive coordinator Josh McDaniels proved his commitment to the run here. McDaniels had promised fewer four and five WR sets this year, and he certainly lived up to that promise. By midway through the third quarter, the Pats had outrushed the run-heavy Bills by a 4:1 margin, and they finished the game with a 6.2 yards-per-carry average on 40 rushing attempts.
This was the first opening drive touchdown of the year for New England. Belichick’s teams ALWAYS defer when they win the opening coin toss, preferring to kick off in the first quarter and receive the opening kick of the second half. That’s most assuredly a key factor for first quarter, first half or halftime bettors to consider
For all the talk of defensive improvement, this D got lit up by the Ravens on Monday Night and gave up four TD passes to Ryan Fitzpatrick here. Those deficiencies are forgivable, however, when your defensive front dominates the game, forcing six turnovers and creating three sacks.
It’s clear that both rookie first rounders (Chandler Jones and Dont’a Hightower) are playmakers, exactly what this defense needs. With veterans Vince Wilfork, Devin McCourty and Jerod Mayo stepping up today, perhaps this defense will be less of a sieve as the season progresses, taking some pressure off Tom Brady and the offense.
Steve Spagnuolo made his name as a defensive coordinator with the Giants, during their first Eli Manning led run to the title; a defense that shut down the record setting Patriots offense in the Super Bowl. That was his last moment of glory. Spagnuolo failed in three miserable years as the Rams head coach. And, after losing his job and going back to a coordinator position, Spagnuolo's schemes just aren't working in New Orleans. This team is, quite simply, unable to stop the run or the pass, allowing 28+ in each of their first four games and ranked dead last in the league in yardage allowed as well.
Illegal formation penalties, dropped passes -- Aaron Kromer as the third string head coach is struggling with attention to detail. Where's the run game? Answer -- you won't have one when your defense puts you behind the eight ball by allowing multiple early touchdowns on a weekly basis. And the Saints offensive line is struggling with their run blocking – there just are not many holes for Mark Ingram or Pierre Thomas to run through. Big free agent acquisition Ben Grubbs is getting beaten badly, and this OL is not handling the blitz well.
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