The NFL's Seven Biggest Surprises

Mike Roemer/AP

Aaron Rodgers’s Woes

The Packers quarterback is completing 60.2% of his passes this season, down from his career mark of 64.9%. And Packers receivers’ yards after catch have declined. All this because Rodgers’s ball placement has been less precise than normal. Guys aren’t getting hit in stride (or at all). There’s also overwhelming evidence that Rodgers isn’t seeing the field as clearly as usual. The interception to Cowboys safety Barry Church last week was a glaring example—it came against the most common zone coverage rotation you see in pro football—but there had been countless others before that. And while many defenses still don’t like blitzing Rodgers, they may soon reconsider given that his completion rate against pressure designs has fallen to 45.8% (it was 56.7% from 2012 to ’15).

But maybe we shouldn’t be surprised given that…

Rodgers has been playing with increasingly less discipline since Green Bay’s receivers started struggling so mightily against man coverage at the start of last season. Even when the Packers were 6-0 in 2015, their receivers weren’t looking good.

Forecast moving forward…

It’s always wiser to bet on a QB like Rodgers. But know this: people within the NFL who have studied the Packers closely are not the least bit surprised with what’s going on. Unrefined play, both from QB and his targets, mixed with what many assess as unimaginative play design, will always yield results such as these.


The Vikings’ Offense

After losing their starting quarterback during training camp and their Hall of Fame running back in Week 2, the Vikings rank dead last in rushing. And yet they’re the only undefeated team in the NFL.

Sam Bradford has been sensational and done whatever has been needed to win each week. With a rock-solid defense such as Minnesota’s, all that is usually needed to win is a controlled passing game and minimal turnovers. But there have been times when Bradford has had to make critical throws downfield, and he has done it well—his passer rating of 137.5 on throws 15 yards or farther tops the NFL. And he’s doing all this behind one of the NFL’s least athletic offensive lines.

But maybe we shouldn’t be surprised given that…

Bradford was once drafted first overall for a reason. He has upper-level arm strength and precision accuracy. And, though results over the years have been mixed, he is experienced when it comes to learning a new system. Now he’s playing in a proven one under Norv Turner, one of football’s most revered quarterback instructors. (And under Norv’s son, Scott, who after this year will likely be regarded as one of the game’s best young QB coaches.)

Forecast moving forward…

Positive. The Vikings’ defense is great and so the offense will continue having a comfortable margin for error. In the NFL, margin for error doesn’t mean you can play poorly and get away with it. It means you can be more selective with taking chances. That keeps an offense more in command. Also—and don’t take this the wrong way—but with Jerick McKinnon in for Adrian Peterson, the Vikings have a more diverse ground game. Peterson’s talent has never been in doubt, but he’s never been a patient ballcarrier, which is a big reason why the Vikings mostly run straight up the gut. McKinnon is very patient and gives the Vikings more of a perimeter threat as well as dimension out of shotgun. Just 11% of Peterson’s carries last season came out of shotgun; so far 32% of McKinnon’s carries have. This type of rushing attack bodes well for Bradford.

Dak Prescott

You know the specs: fourth-round rookie, new record-holder for most pass attempts to start a career without an interception (the streak ended last Sunday against Green Bay, at 176) and subject of all the “It Factor/ Moxie/Just A Winner” jargon you can stomach. Indeed, Prescott has been stellar. But when breaking down the NFL, counterintuitive as it is, you have to put results aside and analyze the process. And it’s in the process where Prescott stands out. He’s managing business before the snap at the line of scrimmage. He’s most comfortable in spread empty backfield formations, when the burden is on the QB to be prompt and sharp in his decisions. Though he’s not razor sharp here yet, he’s making some full-field reads. He’s played in command both with and without Dez Bryant in the lineup. And he’s been effective with his feet without relying on them. You almost never see a mobile rookie QB committ to playing from the pocket. Prescott has. And the Cowboys, to their credit, have capitalized on Prescott’s mobility with zone-read looks and bootlegs—tactics that freeze edge defenders, creating more space for runners inside.

But maybe we shouldn’t be surprised given that…

Prescott is playing behind the league’s best offensive line and alongside one the league’s most dynamic runners, Ezekiel Elliott. These are near-perfect quarterbacking conditions.

Forecast moving forward…

Bright. The game will only slow down for Prescott with more experience. We should see steeper progress in his precision accuracy and a greater number of intermediate throws being made on time.


The Texans Without J.J. Watt

They’re 4-2 because they rank second in passing yards allowed per game and seventh in opponent’s passer rating. Last season, with J.J. Watt on the field, they ranked third and ninth, respectively. Where Watt’s absence has been felt more is against the run. The Texans allowed 99.8 yards a game on the ground last year and 105.1 in 2014. This year’s they’re up to 126.3 (fourth most in the league). However, their yards allowed per carry are about the same (4.06 in ’14-’15; 4.23 this year) and they still sit atop the AFC South.

But maybe we shouldn’t be surprised given that…

Houston has one of the best-coached secondaries in the NFL. Under head coach Bill O’Brien, D coordinator Romeo Crennel and secondary coach John Butler and assistant Anthony Midget, the Texans have converted Kareem Jackson to slot corner, inserted youngster Kevin Johnson into the lineup (with great results), yielded consistency from veteran journeyman Quintin Demps and converted two corners, Andre Hal and A.J. Bouye, into safeties. Despite all the changes, this group has improved steadily. The Texans feature a lot of Quarters coverage (Cover 4), a matchup-zone scheme that has more reads and rules than perhaps any base coverage in football. It takes everyone being on the same page for it to work. Making it work on an everydown basis (when offenses can start predicting and attacking the coverage) takes exceptional chemistry.

Forecast moving forward…

Much bleaker than it was just a few days ago. Johnson broke his foot in the Sunday night comeback-win over the Colts and is likely out for the season. Bouye has been moonlighting back at cornerback the past two weeks while Kareem Jackson nurses a hamstring. Don’t be surprised if Bouye stays at corner for several more weeks. He’s played exceptionally well, but still, this at the very least marks a downgrade at his new safety position. (Corey Moore or Eddie Pleasant will now handle those duties.) Plus, Bouye himself does not have Johnson’s agile transitional movement. Offenses could very well spot glitches with more film on him.

The Panthers’ Defense

It’s been mostly terrible. For an in-depth look, check out what I wrote on Monday about this team.

But maybe we shouldn’t be surprised given that…

Just by the nature of how it’s constructed, the Panthers are always one pass rushing slump away from stinking. And most pass rushes start on the edges, where the Panthers don’t have the most explosive personnel. Few have noticed, but Charles Johnson for some time now has been closer to “average” than “good.” He’s not twitchy. Kony Ealy came on strong last season, especially late, but now his progress has stalled. He has zero sacks on the season, which almost leads the team. Mario Addison and Wes Horton have not been as potent off the bench. But if your pass rush falls apart because your second-stringers hiccup, then maybe you didn’t have a great pass rush to begin with.

Forecast moving forward…

Better than a 1-5 record suggests. Defensive tackles Kawann Short and Star Lotulelei will likely start making the splash plays that became regular a year ago. That will help the edge rushers.


The Bills: 4-2

After opening with losses following a training camp full of injuries and suspensions, Buffalo fired offensive coordinator Greg Roman. His ouster came a day after the Bills lost to the Jets, 37-31, and it wasn’t the best look for Rex Ryan. Roman is a respected running game designer and wasn’t responsible for the 37 points that the defense allowed that night. But the results have been clear: Buffalo’s two most important players, Tyrod Taylor and LeSean McCoy, have been much more comfortable under new OC Anthony Lynn and his shrunken playbook. The result: four straight wins.

On defense, the Bills have 20 sacks, most in the league behind Denver’s 21. Their only individual edge rush creator, Jerry Hughes, has four. Leading the pack is Lorenzo Alexander with eight. Eight! (The 12-year veteran had nine total in his career coming into the season.) Alexander is 1) playing well and 2) benefitting from Rex’s disguise-intensive pressure packages. The Bills now lead the league in point differential.

But maybe we shouldn’t be surprised given that…

The Bills ranked first in rushing last season in Roman’s gap-scheme intensive ground game, which Lynn has continued to feature. And McCoy, we almost forgot, can conjure his own yards as well as any player in football. Regarding Rex Ryan’s scheme, we know it works when he has corners who can cover one-on-one (which Ronald Darby and Stephon Gilmore can do) and versatile safeties who can occasionally rush the quarterback.

Forecast moving forward…

Tyrod Taylor is more comfortable, but he still lacks anticipation as a passer when reading the field. That puts an inherent ceiling on any offense. If the Bills running game dries up, the whole offense will. That makes this team a week-to-week proposition.


Marc Trestman Fired in Baltimore

The 2016 Ravens had not run the ball consistently or often enough. More concerning, their passing game had been sporadic. But one figured that was because 37-year-old Steve Smith is coming off an Achilles injury, inexperienced second-year man Breshad Perriman off a knee, tight end Dennis Pitta off three years of hip injuries and newcomer Mike Wallace off a down year in Minnesota in which he didn’t exactly look like a fast learner of new offenses. But John Harbaugh didn’t see it this way. Baltimore’s Week 5 loss to Washington was especially damning for this offense. Like it had against Cleveland the week before, Washington’s zone-based defense played more snaps of man coverage than expected. The Ravens got stuck in ineffective isolation routes here a number of times. This alone was surprising because Trestman’s strength in Chicago was his intertwined downfield route combinations. Harbaugh made the coordinator change after the game.

But maybe we shouldn’t be surprised given that…

The Ravens have now had five offensive coordinators in as many years, and Harbaugh has fired a big name play-caller midseason before: Cam Cameron in Week 15 of 2012. Harbaugh replaced Cameron in-house with another proven veteran coach, Jim Caldwell, and the Ravens went on to average 27.3 points a game and win the Lombardi Trophy. Harbaugh has now tapped another in-house veteran coach, promoting quarterbacks coach Marty Mornhinweg to Trestman’s position.

Forecast moving forward…

Despite an anemic showing against the blitz-happy Giants, positive. Like Trestman, Mornhinweg prefers deeper route combinations, which take advantage of Joe Flacco’s unique arm. It may still take a little time to all come together. This receiving corps is still working itself into form. And one other caveat: Flacco will have to play better. At times this season he has been uncharacteristically uneven in his dropback mechanics and field vision.

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