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Playing NFL Catch-up

We've had only two weeks of games, but there have been plenty of stories to keep tabs on this season

We’re two weeks into an NFL season that has revealed, as of yet, very little. It’s pretty clear that the Broncos and Seahawks are good, the Jaguars are bad, and the Buccaneers are your crazy uncle. Everything else seems up for grabs. The first two weeks of the 2013 campaign have delivered 22 games decided by one touchdown or less, the most from any season-opening stretch in NFL history. That’s a lot of exciting games, but it’s also a lot of close contests in which the mere measurements of winning and losing can distort how a team actually played. Did the Jets play as well in their win over the Buccaneers as the Seahawks did when they blew out the 49ers? Of course not. As the season goes on, we’ll find out more about each team’s true level of play, and their win-loss records will be closer to their performance records.

So, while it’s really too early to make proclamations about where most of the league will finish up, the space in between Week 2 and Week 3 is the perfect time to start evaluating what each team is doing with its personnel and how players are beginning to perform. Some of the players breaking out will obviously be two-game flukes — Eddie Royal isn’t going to finish the season with 40 receiving touchdowns, regardless of what he’s on pace to do — but these first two weeks can be the initial insight into players producing or appearing at an unexpected rate.

With that in mind, I’m going to take a trip around the league and point out an interesting fact or two about each team. Consider this a quick way to catch up on what’s happening leaguewide.


AFC Teams

Baltimore let both of the starting safeties from its Super Bowl–winning team leave in free agency, with Ed Reed off to Houston and a cut Bernard Pollard making his way to Tennessee. They made moves to replace those departed stars by drafting Florida safety Matt Elam in the first round and signing former first-round pick Michael Huff away from the Raiders in free agency. Huff started alongside former Jets and Ravens backup James Ihedigbo in Week 1 and got torched so badly that he was benched for Elam last week; Huff took just four defensive snaps in Week 2. The Ravens also used Lardarius Webb and Jimmy Smith as their starting corners last week, consigning Corey Graham — the team’s top cornerback during their playoff run last year — to a role in the nickel as the slot corner.

There have also been promising signs that Terrell Suggs might be back to his former self. Through two games, Suggs has two sacks and six quarterback hits. Daryl Smith, whom the team imported from Jacksonville to play inside linebacker, has also had an impressive impact: Against the Browns, he had 1.5 sacks, two quarterback hits, and two passes defensed.

Buffalo is enjoying a surprising burst of great play from Leodis McKelvin, who had struggled to establish himself as a viable corner after being drafted in the first round of the 2008 draft. Nobody doubts McKelvin’s ability as a return man, but he’s been thrust into the role of top cornerback with the injury to Stephon Gilmore and has been playing very well. McKelvin has broken up seven passes through two games, which is second in the league behind Denver’s Tony Carter. Along with impressive starts from rookie linebacker Kiko Alonso and star pass-rusher Mario Williams (who had 4.5 sacks against the Panthers last week), the Bills have been much better on defense than anybody would have expected so far this season.

Cincinnati‘s biggest problem on offense is managing the snaps for their promising rookies, each of whom needs reps to get used to the speed of the NFL game. How those players see their role expand over the season will be worth noting. If you watched Cincinnati beat Pittsburgh on Monday Night Football, you saw the impact that Gio Bernard can have, but he really isn’t playing very much so far; he’s taken just 35 percent of the offensive snaps through two weeks, while the more experienced BenJarvus Green-Ellis is up at just under 61 percent. Tyler Eifert has played a respectable 68.6 percent of snaps, but his path to every-down status goes through Jermaine Gresham, and the veteran has missed just one offensive snap in two weeks.

The Bengals also couldn’t find much room for James Harrison last week; the former Steelers star played just 15 defensive snaps in his first game against his old foes, mostly because the Bengals spent most of the game in their nickel set, as five defensive backs played 86 percent or more of the defensive snaps. It’s not surprising that the Bengals wouldn’t want Harrison out there in pass coverage, but it was interesting that they didn’t use him more frequently as a pass-rusher on the line of scrimmage. I wonder if that will continue to be the case.

Cleveland is 5-for-29 on third down through two weeks. That’s 17.2 percent. They won’t be that bad all season, but 5-for-29 is staggeringly bad. Three of those five conversions have been on passes to Davone Bess, so teams even know whom to take away! Fortunately, the Browns get promising wideout Josh Gordon back from suspension this week, which should alleviate some of their spacing issues on third down.

Denver has skipped past the absence of Von Miller and Champ Bailey without missing a beat, as Chris Harris leads the league in passes defensed with eight. They’ve really been getting it done with good work from their secondary as opposed to the pass rush; they had just one sack against the Giants in Week 2, but knocked away a whopping 12 passes, which contributed to the Giants going 1-for-11 on third down. In all, the Broncos have 26 passes defensed through two weeks, with no other team posting more than 18.

The Broncos are monitoring Wes Welker’s reps, which is interesting. The former Patriots star has lined up for 72 percent of the offensive snaps so far this season, well behind Demaryius Thomas (95.1 percent) and Eric Decker (89.7 percent). The trio all have similar target totals, however, as each of the three has been targeted on between 17 and 20 of Peyton Manning’s passes.

Houston got staggering production out of Defensive Player of the Year J.J. Watt one year ago, leading to suspicions that Watt would struggle to match his output from 2012 in 2013. So far? In two games, Watt has two sacks, six quarterback hits, three tackles for loss, and three passes batted away. That’s filling up the score sheet in a lot of different ways, which was Watt’s specialty a year ago. Sure, maybe hitting 20.5 sacks again will be hard, but if Watt can be this guy for an entire season, the Texans won’t be disappointed one bit.

Arian Foster appears to be over the nagging injuries that kept him out of the preseason. Even though Gary Kubiak went into Week 2 suggesting that he wanted to split time more evenly between Foster and backup Ben Tate, Foster got 60 offensive snaps in Week 2 to Tate’s 21. Perhaps Kubiak meant, “I hope that we’re blowing the opposing team out so I can put in Ben Tate.”

Indianapolis hasn’t done a good enough job of keeping pass-rushers off star quarterback Andrew Luck. Last year, Luck was hit 83 times per Football Outsiders, with second-place Aaron Rodgers closer to the 17th-place quarterback in hits than he was to Luck. The scary thing is that Luck has been hit even more frequently this year: Through two games, Luck has been knocked down 14 times. That puts him on pace for 112 knockdowns. Even worse is that the Colts lost left guard Donald Thomas for the year on Sunday after he tore a quadriceps. It’s been a noticeable enough problem that it induced an angry tweet from owner Jim Irsay, which normally only happens when his cassette copy of Houses of the Holy is on the fritz.

Jacksonville is a bad football team; if anything, the statistics undersell their issues on offense, since they’ve made some things happen in garbage time. When the Jaguars have been within 10 points or fewer of the opposition this season, they’ve averaged an even three yards per play. That’s a half-yard worse than the second-worst team in the league, Tennessee, and 2.3 yards below league average. And that includes a game against the Raiders. The Jaguars have to travel to Seattle to play the Seahawks this week. Where would you set the over-under for their first-half yardage total? Is it in triple digits? Double digits? Is it just a sad emoji?

Kansas City has ridden great field position to its 2-0 start. Through two games, the Chiefs have had an average starting field position 15.6 yards better than that of their opposition, the best figure in football. And that’s not inflated by their game against the Jags, either; they enjoyed that same 15-yard advantage against the Cowboys in Week 2. That’s too big of a gap to hold up, but if the Chiefs can remain among the league leaders in starting field-position difference, it would be a huge help for an offense that has been slow to produce big plays.

A player who hasn’t been slow to start: nose tackle Dontari Poe. Scott Pioli’s final first-round pick has been a monster through two games, producing 3.5 sacks, three tackles for loss, four quarterback hits, and a tipped pass. He was also on the field for every one of Kansas City’s 64 defensive snaps in their win over Dallas, which is unheard of for a nose tackle. The Chiefs also kept running back Jamaal Charles on the field for 66 of the 67 offensive snaps in the game, which is a surprise considering his history of platooning. The truth is, there’s nobody reliable in the backfield behind Charles; nominal backup Knile Davis is a raw project with fumble issues, and he’s off to a slow pro start, as he dropped a kickoff last Sunday and had to scramble for the ball to pick it up.

Miami is 2-0, primarily thanks to the efforts of a dominant pass defense. The Dolphins have knocked down opposing quarterbacks 22 times in two weeks, sacked them a league-leading (in a tie) nine times, and batted away 18 throws, the second-best total in football. And that’s without much of an impact from Dion Jordan, who took just seven defensive snaps a week ago. The Dolphins are actually extremely aggressive with rotating their ends — even Cameron Wake took a mere 78 percent of the snaps a week ago — so it’s a surprise that Jordan hasn’t gotten more burn, even if it’s as a situational player.

New England has dropped a lot of passes. Breaking news. Where that has really hurt the Patriots? On third down. Pats fans might want to look away before reading this one. The Patriots are a passable 15-for-38 (39.5 percent) on third down through two weeks. Split that out, though, and you get some depressing results. When Tom Brady has thrown to Danny Amendola on third down, he has picked up seven of eight conversions. When he’s throwing to everybody else, he’s 8-for-30 (26.7 percent). In other words, when Brady hasn’t been throwing to Amendola, he’s picked up first downs at a worse rate than Brandon Weeden (31.5 percent) in 2012. Gulp.

The New York Jets have a scary front seven. Through two games against two of the league’s better rushing attacks last season, the Jets have allowed the Buccaneers and Patriots to run the ball 49 times for a total of 119 yards, a mere 2.4 yards per carry. The much-maligned David Harris has looked revitalized through two weeks; if he can return to his former self as a run-plugging inside linebacker, it would be a boon to an already-effective run defense. They should even be better when they get Kenrick Ellis healthy, as the nominal starter at nose tackle has been able to suit up for only 20 defensive snaps so far this season. Say what you want about Rex Ryan as a head coach, the Jets have a ton of young talent that has come through their ranks, and Ryan has to be given some of the credit for developing them into real players.

Oakland has nine sacks and 15 quarterback hits through two weeks; is this a sign that the Raiders have developed a pass rush from the spare parts they cobbled together over the offseason? Doubtful. Remember that those two games came against Andrew Luck and Chad Henne at quarterback. I mentioned Luck’s hittability (maybe a word?) earlier on, but Henne gets hit just as frequently. He’s been sacked more than once every 12 drop-backs as a Jaguars quarterback, and the Raiders took him down five times in 43 drop-backs on Sunday. I guess it’s possible that Oakland could have found a notable pass rush amid the likes of Jason Hunter and Christo Bilukidi, but it doesn’t hurt to be skeptical of this one.

Pittsburgh has one sack through two games. One. Opposing passers have dropped back 66 times and they’ve been taken down once, by LaMarr Woodley on Monday night. They’ve already moved Jarvis Jones into a regular role in the lineup, as the first-round pick took 72 percent of the defensive snaps against the Bengals on Monday, with Jason Worilds moving to the bench. The defense really hasn’t played all that poorly otherwise, but man, do they need a pass rush to sprout up to have any hope of getting better. I mean, they practice against Ben Roethlisberger four days a week! Shouldn’t that give them positive reinforcement that sacking quarterbacks is easy?

San Diego has been the best third-down offense in football through two games. Philip Rivers & Co. have picked up 17 of the 29 third downs they’ve faced so far in 2013, producing a 58.6 percent conversion rate. That includes a 10-for-15 run against the hapless Eagles defense on Sunday. That won’t stick (at least not to that extent), but what’s been more promising is how they’ve kept Rivers upright. After Rivers was sacked on 8.5 percent of his drop-backs a year ago, the new San Diego offensive line has kept the pressure off him this year, as he’s been sacked on only 3.8 percent of his pass plays.

Tennessee might be 2-0 if it had gotten more out of its running game. Despite investing heavily on their offensive line this offseason and employing one of the league’s most expensive backfields, the Titans have run the ball 75 times for a mere 231 yards this season, an average of just 3.1 yards per carry. The team seems committed to getting its money’s worth out of Chris Johnson, though, as the star back has received exactly 25 carries in each of his first two games. Johnson had averaged fewer than 19 carries per game during his four previous seasons as the unquestioned starter in Tennessee before this year.

Also worth noting: After Randy Bullock’s disastrous game against the Titans last week, Tennessee has already enjoyed the spoils of three missed kicks against them this season. Last year, opponents missed only two field goals against the Titans all season, going 29-for-31 on field goal tries. If only Mike Munchak had started icing kickers a year ago!


D.J. Williams

NFC Teams

Arizona rode an enormous field-position difference to its win over Detroit last week; the Cardinals started with the ball, on average, on their own 36-yard line, while the Lions were all the way back on their own 15. Detroit never started a drive outside its own 21-yard line, while Arizona had six different drives begin on its own 37-yard line or better. The Cardinals won by stopping Matthew Stafford in the second half; after Stafford went 16-of-20 for 210 yards with two touchdowns in the first half, the Cardinals held him to 68 passing yards during an 8-of-16 half.

There are some interesting changes sprouting up with the Arizona defense, too. For one, Tyrann Mathieu is becoming an every-down player. After taking 58 percent of the defensive snaps against the Rams in Week 1, the Honey Badger took 91 percent of the snaps on D against the Lions last Sunday. Karlos Dansby was the team’s only every-down linebacker, as John Abraham actually took 57 percent of the defensive snaps, likely owing to Detroit’s pass-heavy approach. Nose tackle Dan Williams has been used very sparingly, appearing in just 30 percent of the defensive snaps so far. And while offseason acquisition Antoine Cason was expected to compete for a starting spot at cornerback across from Patrick Peterson, he has barely been able to get on the field; Cason played just five defensive snaps in Week 1 and didn’t take a single snap outside special teams in Week 2.

Atlanta is getting scarily thin on defense. This past week, it lost star linebacker Sean Weatherspoon to the short-term injured reserve, which means that he won’t be able to return until Week 11, as well as versatile end Kroy Biermann, who is out for the year with a torn Achilles. The pass rush is virtually nonexistent, having produced just two sacks through two games. They didn’t sack Sam Bradford on even one of his 55 drop-backs a week ago, and that was with Rodger Saffold hurt for a good chunk of the game.

One bright sign so far: linebacker Joplo Bartu, a rookie free agent out of Texas State who was impressive during the preseason. Bartu didn’t play in Week 1, but he was forced into action against the Rams and acquitted himself well across 63 snaps. With Weatherspoon out, Biermann gone, and Stephen Nicholas banged up, Bartu might need to be a three-down player from here on out.

Carolina was unable to win against Buffalo on Sunday despite enjoying an incredible field-position advantage; their average drive began on the 34-yard line, while Buffalo’s average drive started on its own 19. Only Kansas City and Atlanta have had a better average starting field position on defense than the Panthers, which has helped make its defense look good through two games. Carolina is 10th in scoring defense, but 21st in defensive DVOA.

Their plans for personnel usage on defense are pretty obvious by now. They’re going to rotate their three defensive tackles — Dwan Edwards, Star Lotulelei, and Kawann Short (who knocked down EJ Manuel three times last Sunday) — about evenly. They’ll use Luke Kuechly and Thomas Davis at linebacker in the nickel, leaving Jon Beason on the bench. That’s all clear. The secondary? Not so much. Charles Godfrey, the team’s best defensive back, tore his Achilles last week and is done for the year. The team could have replaced him with Quintin Mikell, but Mikell was carted off last week with an ankle injury. Next up is Colin Jones, who has never started an NFL game. Oh, and the Panthers might be down their Joshes at cornerback, with both Josh Norman and Josh Thomas very questionable for Sunday. Eli Manning is licking his chops. No, really: That’s a thing Eli Manning does.

Chicago has gotten very little from its pass rush through two weeks. Despite the presence of Julius Peppers and friends, the Bears have just two sacks and three quarterback hits against 65 drop-backs so far this year. The good news is that they’ve been about as good in keeping rushers off Jay Cutler, who has been sacked only once in his 73 drop-backs this year. During his time with the Bears, Cutler had previously been sacked about six times for every 73 drop-backs he took. Progress!

The Bears have been pretty aggressive with rotating their defensive linemen this year, likely in the hopes of keeping the likes of Peppers fresh for a long season. Interestingly enough, after taking the majority of the reps at middle linebacker during preseason, second-round pick Jon Bostic hasn’t played a single defensive snap so far this season, with the team preferring the previously injured D.J. Williams. Devin Hester also has yet to take a single snap on offense, even as a decoy.

Dallas already has two defensive touchdowns this year, thanks to its six-takeaway night against the Giants. You know, the game whose tape served as the basis for 8MM? The Cowboys have averaged exactly two defensive touchdowns per year over the past five seasons, so they’re playing with house money from here on out.

They’re about to move Brian Waters into the lineup at guard, replacing Mackenzy Bernadeau, who will sadly go unmentioned on the NFL Podcast going forward. Waters took 28 percent of Bernadeau’s snaps last week after sitting out in Week 1. Anthony Spencer is slowly working his way back into the lineup after knee surgery; he played about half the snaps against the Chiefs last week, with journeyman George Selvie taking most of the reps in his absence as the swing defensive end. Morris Claiborne is also still struggling with his dislocated shoulder and played only 55 percent of the defensive snaps, with Orlando Scandrick stepping up to play every defensive snap. It remains to be seen how the shoulder will hold up over the course of the season.

Detroit has already integrated raw first-rounder Ezekiel Ansah into the team’s rotation up front. The speedy end took 70 percent of the snaps last week in the loss to Arizona, and he already has two quarterback knockdowns. Ryan Broyles remains inactive, with the Lions suggesting that he’s not on the active roster because he’s lost the competition to be there, which seems odd given his production last year. The team has also essentially benched Tony Scheffler, who took just four offensive snaps last week. Broyles and Scheffler would have been useful on that fourth-down play against the Cardinals last week.

Green Bay has some kind of epic rotation going on with its defensive linemen. Five players have been on the field between 37 and 59 percent of the time, with B.J. Raji unsurprisingly pacing the field at 59 percent. The player just behind him, though, is a surprise: Mike Neal. Neal, who has missed 29 of his 50 regular-season games with various injuries since the Packers took him in the second round of the 2010 draft, has seen reps as both a defensive lineman and as an outside linebacker rushing the passer. The returning Johnny Jolly has also seen the field on 42 percent of defensive snaps, while Datone Jones, the team’s first-round pick, has lined up on just 28 percent of the defensive snaps through two games. That should change as the season goes along.

Minnesota is already in trouble, and that trouble starts with a missing pass rush. Through two games — games against the Lions, who replaced both their offensive tackles, and the Bears, who have let anything with a pulse through to Jay Cutler in the past — the Vikings have just one sack in 83 drop-backs. Six quarterback hits isn’t anything to write home about, either. Jared Allen has the one sack and the three hits, but the rest of the team has done virtually nothing to opposing quarterbacks. Their next two games will be against Brian Hoyer and Ben Roethlisberger, so the opposition might give them a boost, but if they couldn’t touch Cutler or Stafford …

New Orleans needs to get over the existence of Mark Ingram already. He was on the field for 13 offensive snaps against the Bucs last Sunday, and he was given the ball on nine of those snaps. Those nine touches yielded an incomplete pass and eight carries for a total of 20 yards, including that game-changing stuff on the goal line. Ingram is bad with the ball in his hands, and it’s clear to see that the coaching staff doesn’t value his blocking contributions very highly. At what point do you cut bait on the offensive player who is holding you back?

The New York Giants need a bye week and it’s just Week 3. And if you could turn that bye week into a bye month, it would be better for everyone involved. The Giants have also turned the ball over 10 times in two games, which leads the league comfortably. Sigh.

The flip side of the offensive problem is that the Giants aren’t really set on defense, either. They’re rotating defensive linemen in and out on virtually every snap; last week, Mathias Kiwanuka, Justin Tuck, Jason Pierre-Paul, Cullen Jenkins, and Linval Joseph all played between 59 and 70 percent of the defensive snaps last week. Aaron Ross, who lined up for 35 defensive snaps in Week 1, didn’t take a single such snap in Week 2. When Terrell Thomas went down briefly with an injury, the Giants pushed Jayron Hosley in the lineup ahead of Ross.

Oh, and that running back platoon? It hurts. David Wilson took just 30 percent of the snaps last week, with Da’rel Scott at 49 percent and Brandon Jacobs at 18 percent. Wilson has his fumbling issues, but he’s also by far the best back of the three. At some point, the Giants just need to turn the ball over to Wilson and hope that he doesn’t screw it up.

Philadelphia has a defense that might be even worse than the numbers suggest. The Eagles are 28th in pass defense yards allowed per play and 29th per Football Outsiders’ pass defense DVOA. In addition to whatever they allowed that remains on the score sheet, keep in mind that the Eagles have now benefited from a number of turnovers in fortuitous places. Just last week, the Eagles recovered two fumbles inside their own 10-yard line; that won’t happen again. If the turnovers go away … this is going to be a really brutal defense, regardless of how many blitzes they dial up to try to create pressure. I love the cardboard play cards they use to signify personnel groupings as much as the next guy, but I don’t know why they need to line up two of them at safety each week.

Curiously, some of the free agents Philly signed over the offseason aren’t getting much playing time. Isaac Sopoaga is in a snap-for-snap time-share with third-round pick Bennie Logan at nose tackle and taking about 30 percent of the defensive snaps. Perhaps more notably, James Casey has come in and played a total of seven offensive snaps in two weeks. LeSean McCoy has 115 snaps to Bryce Brown’s 24. This stuff will have to change as the season goes along.

Seattle is quite good at football, in case you haven’t noticed. The Seahawks were dominant against the 49ers on Sunday with some hidden help: They recovered each of the three fumbles that hit the ground in that game, and their average starting field position was on their own 40-yard line. That’s incredible.

Seattle’s leading defensive tackle in the game against the 49ers was an interesting story. D’Anthony Smith knew before the season that he would be suiting up in Seattle in September, but he thought it would be as an opponent; he was in training camp with the Jaguars, who play in Seattle next week. Seattle traded a draft pick to Jacksonville at the end of training camp to acquire Smith, and there he was on Sunday, playing 61 percent of Seattle’s defensive snaps.

San Francisco went 3-for-12 on third down against the Seahawks, which made it very hard to extend drives. Richard Sherman shut down Anquan Boldin, Vernon Davis failed to get open before suffering a hamstring injury, and the likes of Kyle Williams and Vance McDonald weren’t going to make these defenders miss. Based on their personnel usage, it looks like the Niners spent most of the game against Seattle in a 2-4-5 look, with Nnamdi Asomugha taking 42 snaps as the nickel cornerback. I wrote about the anemic running game on Monday, but feel free to go read that if you haven’t already.

St. Louis continues to get a monster year from Robert Quinn. Quinn already has four sacks, seven quarterback hits, and two forced fumbles in two weeks, which is the sort of production you get from a good run by Aldon Smith or J.J. Watt. At this point, as good as Chris Long is, it’s entirely possible that Robert Quinn is the more fearsome pass-rusher of the two. The Rams are also already using rookie linebacker Alec Ogletree as their nickel linebacker, a move that saw him remain on the field for 63 of the 65 snaps against Atlanta last week.

Tampa Bay gets me a little emotional whenever I try to break down how close it is to being 2-0. A dash of sanity here, some calming music at the right time, an alarm clock for Josh Freeman, and maybe things are totally different now. Instead, the Bucs are off to an 0-2 start and imploding in the media. Sounds like fun for a trip to Foxborough this upcoming week.

Media types suggested that the Buccaneers really got a big boost from having fullback Erik Lorig back after missing Week 1 to block for Doug Martin, but Lorig played only 15 offensive snaps on Sunday. The Bucs also have a steady rotation across from Adrian Clayborn at defensive end, with everybody from Da’quan Bowers to Daniel Te’o-Nesheim showing up to partake. None of them is as good as Clayborn.

Finally, I wrote about Washington at length on Monday; that has all the numbers and issues you’ll want to read to break down this disastrous 0-2 start.

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Bill Barnwell is a staff writer for Grantland.

Archive @ billbarnwell