A Tale of Four Quarterbacks: Your Week 3 NFL WrapJim Davis/The Boston Globe via Getty Images
After talking about the league’s 0-2 teams on Friday, this seems like a good time to switch gears and get to the teams atop the NFL. There are six 3-0 teams in the NFL right now, and with all due respect to the teams that have clawed their way to an undefeated record after three games, two of those six teams stand out from the rest.
That grouping starts in Foxborough, where the Patriots are picking up where they left off last season. It almost feels like a shame that they’re about to take their bye week, given how well the Patriots are playing right now. They stomped an overmatched Jaguars team on Sunday, 51-17, with Tom Brady throwing for 358 yards and two touchdowns.
The natural comparison for this Patriots team is to the 2007 squad, under the obvious idea that this would be another revenge season designed to get back at the league. In 2007, of course, the revenge was for the Spygate saga; this time, it’s for Deflategate and the attempt to suspend Brady for his role in the ball-manipulating controversy.
I have to admit that I’ve never really been a believer in the whole EFF YOU season idea. That Patriots team in 2007 was stacked from the beginning, blowing out the Jets, 38-14, in Week 1. They weren’t especially pass-happy late in that stunning string of first-half blowouts, with plenty of stretches where they turned the game over to Heath Evans and Kyle Eckel late. They were so good at times that it just seemed like they wanted to make the opposition look bad.
It’s true that Brady is staying in late into games, but that’s not uncommon for Bill Belichick, who rarely takes his star quarterback out. Brady didn’t exit many of New England’s blowouts between 2008 and 2013; one of the rare exceptions was the blowout loss to the Chiefs in Week 4 last year. The EFF YOU argument also implies that the Patriots aren’t otherwise trying their hardest or suffering from (perceived) slights during their other seasons with Brady, which seems silly.
What’s also true is that New England’s offense is invoking memories of that legendary 2007 season. The Patriots have scored 119 points through three games, breaking their franchise record and approaching a post-merger league record. The franchise record just wasn’t held by the Patriots team you’re thinking of:
The 2002 Patriots actually hit 115 points in three games; they, like the rest of the teams on this list, started 3-0. That Patriots team promptly lost its next four games and finished 9-7, averaging 20.5 points per game the rest of the way. It’s fair to say that probably won’t be happening with this year’s Patriots unless Brady and/or Rob Gronkowski get injured.
What this year’s Patriots have done, really, is just keep up what they were doing for most of last season. After that disastrous loss to the Chiefs, the Patriots found an offensive line combination that worked, upped Gronk’s snap count, and began to score in droves. From their Week 5 blowout of the Bengals through Brady’s last full game of the season against the Jets in Week 16, the Patriots averaged 34.5 points per game.
During their first three games of the season in 2015, they’ve averaged 39.7 points per game; better, of course, but aided by the fact that they’ve played what are likely to be a pair of mediocre defenses in Pittsburgh and Jacksonville. That’s in itself impressive because it looked like missing players would slow the Patriots down, but they haven’t skipped a beat. Dion Lewis, who spent most of 2014 out of football, has actually been an improvement upon Shane Vereen, fumbles aside.
Lewis had three catches across two seasons before arriving in New England, but after catching all five of his targets on Sunday, he has 15 catches on 19 targets for 179 yards.1 That’s a 955-yard pace that would double Vereen’s receiving output from 2014. He’s the latest Belichick running back to be plucked off the scrap heap and contribute for next to nothing, a lineage that starts in New England with Antowain Smith and runs through to LeGarrette Blount, who scored three touchdowns in short-yardage situations on Sunday.
Lewis has gotten most of the attention, but there have been surprise contributors elsewhere. With Brandon LaFell on the Physically Unable to Perform list, his role has been filled in alternate weeks by Aaron Dobson and recently acquired Keshawn Martin, who scored a touchdown on Sunday. The interior of the line was expected to be a problem with Dan Connolly retiring and Bryan Stork out indefinitely with a concussion, but even that’s been a positive, with rookies David Andrews and Tre’ Jackson playing well enough at center and right guard, respectively. Andrews gave up his first sack of the season on Sunday, and the Patriots still continue to rotate Marcus Cannon in off the bench for unknown reasons, but anyone who remembers how awful the Patriots offensive line was this time last year can appreciate how valuable competency can be around Brady.
If anything, the difference between this team and the 2007 squad is that the defense looks worse, but the numbers overstate that difference. The Patriots have allowed 70 points, but much of that has come in the second half of blowouts the past two weeks. Malcolm Butler has looked mostly impressive as a no. 1 cornerback, although he dropped a would-be Blake Bortles interception yesterday and has allowed two touchdowns on plays where he mistimed his jump on pickable passes. The Patriots have surprisingly marginalized former star linebacker Jerod Mayo by keeping him out of their sub-packages, but Jamie Collins — who had a sack and a forced fumble yesterday — has been an absolute monster.
There’s little reason to think that things will suddenly get much worse for the Patriots. In fact, if you’re one of those fans who wants to compare this team to the 2007 unit and start dreaming of a second undefeated regular season, things appear to be slowly breaking in your favor, although we’re three months away from it being even a remote likelihood. The toughest stretch of New England’s season appeared to be coming up after this bye, when the Patriots were booked for consecutive road games against 2014 division winners.
Those games no longer seem quite as scary, given that the Cowboys will be starting Brandon Weeden or Matt Cassel at quarterback and the Colts appear to be a mess. ESPN’s Football Power Index suggests that the Patriots have a 75.3 percent chance of beating a Tony Romo–less Cowboys team and a 54.7 percent chance of topping this flawed Colts squad in Indy. And after that, the schedule begins to really open up. The Patriots are favored by FPI in each of their remaining games short one: Brady-Manning XVII in Week 12, where FPI gives the Patriots a 49.4 percent chance of topping the Broncos. Here’s the Patriots’ win expectancy for each of their remaining games2 along with their chances of going 16-0 heading into each of those contests:
The chances are still incredibly high that the Patriots will slip up, that the Giants or the Bills or the Jets will get them in that rare game in which Brady throws four picks. It happens to just about every great team. Patriots fans might want a 16-0 campaign, but they’ll happily trade a couple of regular-season losses for another trip to the Super Bowl. FPI gives them a 39.7 percent chance of making a trip back, with no other AFC team above 20 percent. There, they can do the one thing the 2007 team failed to accomplish.
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The only team that FPI pegs with a greater chance of making the Super Bowl is the only team that has managed to outscore the Patriots so far this season. You may have noticed the Cardinals sneaking into the table of greatest season-opening three-game offenses above, and in fact, Arizona has been an unholy force so far this season. The Cardinals have posted a plus-77 point differential through three games in 2015. That’s the seventh-best figure since the 1970 merger. Four of the six teams with better point differentials than this Cardinals team through three games made it to the Super Bowl, and FPI gives the Cardinals a 41.2 percent chance of following those teams to the big game.
Now, this is awkward. The Cardinals were supposed to decline this year. It’s not even a quarter of the way into the season, and we don’t have to go far to think about a Cardinals team that got off to a dominant start before falling apart, given that the 2012 team started 4-0 before losing 11 of its final 12 games. It’s also simply inaccurate to compare those two teams, and increasingly, it’s becoming inaccurate to compare what the 2014 Cardinals looked like to this 2015 version.
The easy story is that the 2015 Cardinals are what the 2014 Cardinals would have been if Carson Palmer hadn’t gotten hurt. Given that the Cards were 6-0 with Palmer last year and have started 3-0 with Palmer in 2015, one can see why that story makes some sense. On a point basis, though, they’re playing dramatically better:
That’s not the same team. That 2014 Cardinals team, outscoring the opposition by nine points, would be one of the best teams in football in a typical season. They would be like the 2014 Patriots, who outscored their opposition by 9.7 points per game. The 2015 Cardinals would be the best team in NFL history. They would take the 2007 Patriots, who outscored their opposition by 19.7 points per game, and throw another touchdown on for good measure.
And this is mostly happening with the same personnel, at least among the players who were around when Palmer was in the lineup. Arizona’s top two offseason acquisitions haven’t played; former 49ers guard Mike Iupati has missed the first three games after undergoing knee surgery, while first-round pick D.J. Humphries has been a healthy scratch at tackle. The Cardinals got suspended tackle Bobby Massie back for Sunday and have made changes at halfback, with the 2014 version of Andre Ellington swapped out for a combination of rookie David Johnson alongside Ellington in Week 1 and free agent Chris Johnson afterward. Chris Johnson, who floundered in free agency for months, ran for 110 yards and two touchdowns on Sunday.
Otherwise, though, this is basically the same team getting 16.2 points per game more out of its offense with Palmer under center than it was a year ago. How are the Cardinals doing it?
Dominating the red zone. San Francisco became the first team to stop the Cardinals in the red zone this season, with Arizona kicking a field goal solely because there was one second left on the clock at the end of the first half. The Cardinals have now scored 11 touchdowns and one field goal on 12 trips to the red zone this year, meaning that they’ve averaged 6.6 points per red zone possession in 2015.3
That’s otherworldly. It’s also not entirely insane, given that the Cardinals were really good in the red zone with Palmer in 2014. They averaged 5.3 points per red zone possession with him in the lineup, scoring 10 touchdowns and four field goals across 15 trips. With Drew Stanton and Ryan Lindley at the helm, Arizona took 23 trips to the red zone and scored just six touchdowns and 13 field goals, averaging just 3.6 points per possession. That’s almost the difference between the best red zone offense in football over the entire season (Oakland, 5.7 points/possession) and the worst (Jacksonville, 3.8 points/possession). It’s a small sample size, and red zone performance tends to be inconsistent from year to year, but it’s impossible to say that the Cardinals aren’t much better in the red zone with Palmer at the helm.
Getting return touchdowns. It’s hard to credit Palmer for this one, but the Cardinals have been taking extra trips to the house with their quarterback on the sideline. Last year, across their 16-game slate, the Cardinals produced five return touchdowns. Two of those were by Antonio Cromartie and Ted Ginn, who are no longer with the team. That’s not an unreasonable number, and there was little reason to think the Cardinals would be particularly above-average or below-average on returns in 2015, given that return touchdowns are also almost entirely random from year to year.
Things have changed. The Cardinals already have four return touchdowns in three weeks. They picked up two in Week 2, when David Johnson returned the opening kickoff for a score before Tony Jefferson took a Jay Cutler gift to the house. They added two more in the first quarter on Sunday, when Colin Kaepernick threw ugly interceptions to Justin Bethel (playing his first defensive snap of the year) and Tyrann Mathieu for easy pick-sixes. More than nine points per game of Arizona’s offensive improvement have come from return touchdowns alone.
Now, I think even the most aggressive Cardinals fan isn’t going to suggest that Arizona will grab two return touchdowns per week the rest of the way. But creating takeaways is a skill, and the Cardinals could very well be good at that. Mathieu, in particular, is clearly healthier and more productive than he was a year ago. It also helps when the other team makes it easy for you:
Mathieu: “Their passing game has just simplified so much it was easy for us to anticipate routes, get some good breaks on the ball today.”
— Marcus Thompson (@ThompsonScribe) September 28, 2015
Keeping Palmer healthy. The most important thing the Cardinals could have done heading into the season was ensure that Palmer was healthy for as long as possible. That was hardly a guarantee, given that the former Bengals star has a long injury history and was coming off of a season that included nerve damage in his shoulder and his second torn ACL. The Cardinals made those aforementioned moves to beef up their offensive line, but as I noted, both Iupati and Humphries haven’t taken a single snap.
Turns out that it hasn’t mattered. Despite Palmer’s average pass going a league-high 11.1 yards in the air, the Cardinals have done an incredible job of keeping him upright and unmolested. Palmer has had 2.68 seconds to throw before his passes, the fifth-longest rate in the league. And he’s been sacked just once across 91 dropbacks this season, producing a 1.1 percent sack rate that’s the second lowest in football.
Again, it’s probably fair to say that they won’t keep this up, but it’s a question of degree. A 1.1 percent sack rate would be right there with the 1988 Dolphins for the lowest figure in modern league history, but the Cardinals can decline some and still do a great job of protecting Palmer. It’s hard to figure that they’re going to get worse as a pass-blocking unit when Iupati debuts and replaces Ted Larsen at left guard. Palmer was sacked on 3.8 percent of his dropbacks last year; if the Cardinals can improve on that figure, it’ll be a job well done for Bruce Arians & Co.
Can the Cardinals keep this up? Well, it depends on what “this” is. The Cardinals will probably not continue to cash in on 90 percent of their red zone trips with touchdowns or score two return touchdowns a game or allow Palmer to be sacked once a month. They’re probably not going 16-0, either, though I’m not sure even I would listen to me doubt the Cardinals right now.
If “this” means being one of the genuine best teams in football, though, the Cardinals can certainly keep that up. Even if they slip in those aforementioned categories, this offense is playing at a high enough level and is joined by an impressive enough defense that the Cardinals are going to be tough to stop. Their schedule admittedly hasn’t been especially tough so far — their three opponents are a combined 1-5 in non-Cardinals games this season — but when you’re stomping each challenger by nearly four touchdowns per game, it doesn’t matter. The 2014 Cardinals looked like they were going to regress in 2015. The 2015 Cardinals, at least through three weeks, don’t look anything like even the best version of the 2014 Cardinals.
Tyrod Taylor had what was comfortably his best start so far on Sunday, posting the league’s top QBR — 95.3 — during a 41-14 Bills blowout in Miami. Taylor finished up 21-of-29 for 277 yards and three touchdowns while running a more sustainable offensive scheme than the hyper-conservative one he ran successfully against the Colts in Week 1.
He got some help, because Miami’s defense had a brutal day. The Dolphins’ lowlight came on the opening play of the fourth quarter, when a blown coverage led to an easy touchdown catch for Chris Hogan. Taylor actually stares down Hogan for most of the play before delivering a perfect throw down the sideline, but watch the defensive backs on Hogan’s side of the field:
This simply shouldn’t happen. It looks like the Dolphins should be in a simple three-deep coverage with four intermediate zones … except cornerback Jamar Taylor bumps Hogan and then proceeds to settle in the intermediate zone as Hogan runs past him. Jamar Taylor thinks he has safety help, but there’s no way the Dolphins can expect Walt Aikens, in center field, to cover both sidelines like he’s DirecTV Earl Thomas. He actually sees the quarterback staring down Hogan and is able to sprint over to try to break up the play, but the only way this wasn’t going to be a touchdown was if Tyrod missed the throw. And he didn’t.
This is the thing you have to worry about if you’re a Dolphins fan. Miami has built its defense around several stars, and those stars have to be playing at a high level for things to go well. They’re not right now. One of Miami’s three quarterback knockdowns came on this play, but the Dolphins failed to sack Taylor once. Ndamukong Suh, who presumably wasn’t freelancing this week, had two tackles for loss against the run without pestering Taylor. Cameron Wake, struggling with a hamstring problem, didn’t play his usual complement of snaps. Brent Grimes hasn’t looked like his usual self this year and was powerless to do anything about this throw. You can break down the weak links on this Miami defense, and on this play, the chain snapped.
MCL Hell in Pittsburgh
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Before Sunday, it would have been hard to imagine that Steelers fans would be happy to hear that Ben Roethlisberger was going to miss four to six weeks, but after early fears that Roethlisberger suffered a season-ending injury against the Rams, it’s a timeline they’ll happily accept. Pittsburgh’s star quarterback suffered a sprained MCL after a Mark Barron sack yesterday afternoon, an injury that should keep him out for at least one month.
As with any hit that injures a quarterback, Barron’s sack was controversial. Steelers fans were likely angry4 after the fact because Barron hit Roethlisberger below the knees, a violation of the so-called Brady Rule, designed to protect quarterbacks from defenders diving at their knees or legs as Bernard Pollard did when ending Tom Brady’s season in 2008.
I think Barron’s hit was illegal and should have been flagged as a foul, but I don’t think it was deliberately dirty. Watch the play and you’ll see Barron beginning to trip and fall as he approaches the line of scrimmage on his blitz. He’s on his hands and knees crawling at Roethlisberger like a zombie by the time he gets to the quarterback, at which point he clearly hits Roethlisberger below the knee, causing the injury.
Barron had a free path to the passer and his momentum was falling forward toward Roethlisberger; he would have basically had to lie on the ground and let Roethlisberger go right by him to avoid making the hit he made. It’s not as if Barron was running upright and tried to clip Roethlisberger at the ankles. He made the only play he could have made, and that happened to cause an injury. Yes, that play wasn’t legal, but it wasn’t inherently dirty.
Regardless of whether it should have been flagged, the damage is done. The Steelers had their offensive starters miss just seven games in 2014 and fielded the league’s healthiest offense per Adjusted Games Lost, but Roethlisberger’s injury will make him the fourth Steelers offensive starter to miss time in 2015. The Steelers just got Le’Veon Bell back from suspension and will get Martavis Bryant back after Week 4, but Roethlisberger will join center Maurkice Pouncey as a long-term injury absentee. It ends a string of 39 consecutive regular-season starts for Roethlisberger, a remarkable run for a player who made it through 16 games just once during his first nine seasons in the league.
It’s difficult to gauge a more accurate timeline for Roethlisberger’s return because the reports of his injury are still vague. While we found out on Sunday night that Roethlisberger had a sprained MCL, the knee sprain’s severity and degree remain unclear. It’s likely that Roethlisberger is suffering from a second-degree MCL sprain, which has a six-week recovery time frame but often sees NFL players return in two to four weeks.
Roethlisberger has a history of being a quick healer and returning to the field at less than 100 percent, even if it perhaps stands as a detriment to his team’s chances. In 2011, Roethlisberger tried to grit his way through a high ankle sprain without missing any time and played poorly in a 20-3 loss to the 49ers; he took the following week off before returning for a Week 17 game against the Browns, where he again struggled before a third disappointing performance against Tim Tebow and the Broncos in a wild-card loss. Roethlisberger is unquestionably tough and regularly plays through injuries, but rushing him back isn’t in itself a great idea.
It’s a shame, too, because Roethlisberger was playing some of the best football of his career. Through three games, Roethlisberger’s 91.3 QBR was the second-best mark in football behind Aaron Rodgers. Pittsburgh was being slowed down by a very good Rams defense on Sunday, but the bulk of Roethlisberger’s success had come during the first two games, without his star running back or his primary deep threat. The only quarterback in the league who had been throwing his passes farther downfield than Roethlisberger was Carson Palmer, and Roethlisberger was still completing more than 75 percent of his passes before the injury.
He was in control of the offense in a way that replacement Michael Vick simply cannot and will not be. Roethlisberger is a far more accurate passer, even on the bevy of screens the Steelers love to run to set up their throws downfield. Since his rookie season in 2004, Roethlisberger has completed 73.2 percent of his passes that travel no farther than 5 yards past the line of scrimmage. That’s the sixth-highest rate among quarterbacks with at least 800 such attempts over that time frame. Vick has picked up 66.4 percent of those same passes, good for 30th over the same time frame.
It might be better if Vick had been a steady backup behind Roethlisberger for years, but that isn’t the case. He only signed with the Steelers on August 25 after longtime reserve Bruce Gradkowski was placed on injured reserve with a dislocated finger. It’s reasonable to question Vick’s work ethic as a backup after the former Falcons star admitted that he wasn’t prepared to come in last October as a backup for the Jets. And that was in a Marty Mornhinweg–led scheme, one Vick was familiar with from his time in Philadelphia. Vick had never worked with offensive coordinator Todd Haley before last month, so it’s fair to say that he’s still learning the nuances of Haley’s scheme. Even beyond the fact that Vick’s legendary physical skills have obviously eroded, it’s hard to expect him to be comfortable in Pittsburgh’s offense, which is likely to get far more vanilla.
There was never going to be a good time for the Steelers to lose their star quarterback, but they’re about to enter a particularly brutal stretch of their schedule. Vick will have a short week to prepare for his starting debut against a desperate Ravens team on Thursday. After that, the Steelers play the Chargers, Cardinals, Chiefs, and Bengals. The move solidifies 3-0 Cincinnati at the top of the division, especially if Roethlisberger doesn’t return in time for its clash with Pittsburgh on November 1. The 0-3 Ravens caught what could be a season-saving break with this injury; they’re already listed as three-point favorites for Thursday night, something that would have been unimaginable with a healthy Roethlisberger in the lineup.
It’s hard to say how much Pittsburgh’s chances will be affected by Roethlisberger’s absence until we know just how long he’ll actually be missing, but it’s fair to say that the Steelers are going to badly miss their star quarterback. What may end up saving their playoff chances may actually be what happened after Roethlisberger went down in the third quarter.
The Steelers led 9-3 at the time and managed to keep that lead, with the Rams seeing their lone drive deep into Pittsburgh territory fall apart with a pair of false starts in the red zone before kicking a field goal. A much-maligned Steelers secondary came up with an interception on a dismal Nick Foles pass before kicking a field goal and promptly forcing the Rams to turn the ball over on downs, ending the game. A 1-2 Steelers team without Roethlisberger and about to face their upcoming schedule would have been dead in the water. At 2-1, they may have banked just enough to keep afloat until Roethlisberger returns, especially if he beats those six-week estimates. It’s a stunning turn of events for a team that before this weekend would have expected — not hoped — to make the playoffs this season, but given how bad things looked while Roethlisberger was writhing on the scorched St. Louis turf, its current situation beats the alternative.
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