Through four weeks, the biggest on-field story in the NFL is parity. If there’s a truly great team in the league this year, it has yet to reveal itself. The likes of Arizona, Cincinnati, and San Diego might rate among the league’s best teams, but even they have visible flaws. As soon as a team produces a dominant performance, it seems to come back to earth with a disappointing follow-up, while a team left for dead returns with a stunning win. The Steelers were blown out by a surely distracted Ravens team by 20 points in Week 2, beat a 2-0 Panthers team by 18 points in Week 3, and then lost on Sunday to the 0-3 Buccaneers, who were coming off a 42-point loss. There have been an average of 3.6 undefeated teams through Week 4 since the league went to its current schedule format in 2002. This year, there are two.1
And even those two teams — Arizona and Cincinnati — are 3-0 with a bye.
Unless you’re confident we’re going to see the Cardinals play the Super Bowl at home against the Bengals on February 1, we’re all waiting to see who emerges from this pack as the pick of the NFL litter. I don’t see that truly great team, but I know how to make one. Let’s put together the truly great NFL team, piece by piece, after the season’s first quarter.
Philip Rivers and the San Diego Chargers: After he revitalized his career in a stunning 2013 campaign, it was natural to expect that Rivers would lose some of his gains in 2014. That hasn’t happened. Somehow, despite Ken Whisenhunt leaving, the running game falling apart, and having to face three excellent pass defenses in a row, Rivers’s numbers are even better. After staring down Arizona, Seattle, and Buffalo to start the season, he finally got to pick apart an easy defense Sunday, when he went 29-of-39 for 377 yards with three touchdowns against an overmatched Jaguars team.
It wasn’t the best performance of the day — Aaron Rodgers was nearly perfect against Chicago — but over the course of the first month, Rivers has been a very viable MVP candidate:
It’s hard to even argue that Rivers has had a lot of help. Injuries to Ryan Mathews and Danny Woodhead have left the running game threadbare, with Donald Brown scuffling as the team’s primary back. The free-agent import has produced exactly 100 yards on 50 carries through four games, without one of San Diego’s four running backs averaging more than 3.1 yards per carry.
Rivers’s star receiver hasn’t even been responsible. Keenan Allen went missing during the first three weeks, with those aforementioned pass defenses locking him down for 12 catches and 109 yards. He finally ate on Sunday, more than doubling his season total with 135 yards while catching 10 of the 11 passes thrown to him. Ladarius Green, a popular sleeper pick in fantasy football, had caught just six passes for 88 yards before sitting out Sunday with a hamstring injury.
And the biggest weapon against Rivers, strangely, has been the play of his own centers after the loss of longtime starter Nick Hardwick. A bad snap from backup center Rich Ohrnberger on third down late in the fourth quarter during Week 1 might have cost the Chargers the game against Arizona, while new center Doug Legursky’s awful Sunday is documented by Robert Mays in his Monday wrap-up. The poor play from all the backs in the running game suggests this isn’t exactly a great offensive line, but Rivers gets the ball out quickly and has been surprisingly mobile in getting out of the pocket to improvise. That happens when you’re expecting the ball to come to you on a hop in the shotgun.
Otherwise, it’s been Rivers manufacturing first down after first down with accurate throws to whoever has been open. He’s thrown four touchdown passes to Eddie Royal, who now has 12 touchdowns in 19 games since head coach Mike McCoy arrived in town last year. In his five previous campaigns, Royal had 10 receiving touchdowns in 67 games. We were all sure (OK, I was sure) the Chargers wouldn’t be able to keep up their league-high third-down-conversion rate of 49.0 percent from a year ago, but through four games, San Diego has picked up … 49.2 percent of its third downs.
There’s reason to think this will continue, too. Those dominant pass defenses will soon be a September memory, because there are friendly teams to come. Rivers gets to play the Jets, Raiders, and Chiefs in the weeks ahead, matchups that should be more in line with the Jaguars than the teams that preceded them on the schedule. The Chargers should also be comfortable favorites in each of those games, so if they can hold form, they might head into a division-deciding matchup at Denver in Week 8 at 6-1 and with Rivers looking like the league’s best player.
Nobody seems to find receivers in every nook and cranny of the football field the way Philip Rivers does. Which is why, on this dream team we’re concocting, he gets to play with the receiver who seems to get open by using every inch of the field …
The One-Man Receiving Corps
Antonio Brown, Pittsburgh Steelers: No team gets more out of a receiver and uses that weapon more creatively than the Steelers do with Antonio Brown. He doesn’t lead the league in receiving yards, as that title belongs to Jordy Nelson of the Packers, but it’s almost impossible to imagine what the Steelers would do without Brown in the lineup. Pittsburgh had a brief stretch without Brown in the first half against Baltimore in Week 2, during which America collectively realized that Pittsburgh’s top receiver would suddenly become Markus Wheaton. It didn’t go swell for the Steelers. Ben Roethlisberger’s numbers on throws to Brown and to all other players are instructive:
That difference comes even though other teams should be putting out an all-points bulletin for Brown before each and every play. The first thing anybody wants to do when playing the Steelers is stop Brown, but Todd Haley puts Brown through the same wringer he once prepared for the likes of Dexter McCluster. Brown is liable to line up in any spot as a receiver and run any route on any given down and distance. He gets the max on screens, beats defensive backs downfield, and somehow manages to get open in the red zone week after week for touchdowns.
You can point out just how great Brown is by what he missed Sunday. On a day when he caught seven of the 11 passes thrown to him for 131 yards and two scores, two of his incompletions could have been long touchdown passes. The first was a flea-flicker that saw Brown accelerate past double coverage only to drop a pass that glanced off his fingertips. That somehow did not convince the exceedingly expensive pair of safeties employed by the Buccaneers to worry about Brown beating them deep, because later on that very same drive, Brown went up the sideline and ran free for a would-be touchdown yet again, only for Roethlisberger to overthrow him.
Everyone knows where the ball is going. Nobody has found a way to do anything about it.
Cincinnati Bengals: I covered Cincinnati’s dominant pass defense and the impact it has had on opposing quarterbacks last Monday, before the Bengals enjoyed their Week 4 bye. Most of that comes from the secondary, as Cincinnati’s sacked the opposing quarterback on 4.5 percent of its drop-backs, which is below the league average of 5.1 percent. So let’s give them a dominant pass rush.
Rex Ryan’s New York Jets: How do you keep a pass defense that’s down its top two cornerbacks afloat? You get after the opposing quarterback, of course, and Rex Ryan has managed to do that without an above-average performer in a traditional pass-rushing spot on the roster. The likes of Jason Babin, Calvin Pace, and Quinton Coples have combined with star interior lineman Muhammad Wilkerson to take down opposing quarterbacks on 8.4 percent of their drop-backs, the highest rate in football.
It hasn’t been a string of easy-to-sack quarterbacks, either. Jay Cutler has a sticky reputation from his days behind dismal offensive lines in Chicago, but Aaron Rodgers is one of the most elusive passers in the game, and Matthew Stafford is routinely one of the least frequently sacked quarterbacks. The Jets have had no problems taking them all down, even if the rest of the league has. In comparison to that 8.8 percent sack rate for the Jets, other opposing pass rushes have taken down the quarterbacks of the offenses the Jets have played (Oakland, Chicago, Green Bay, and Detroit) just 4.1 percent of the time.2
The worst sack rate in football through four weeks, by the way? The 1.4 percent figure posted through three games by the St. Louis Rams. Chris Long has been missing for two of those games, but the only Rams player with a sack in September was Aaron Donald, who had one.
Ryan also hasn’t benefited from a significant amount of luck on pass pressures, either. I tend to take notice when a team produces six or more quarterback hits in a game. Even if those hits don’t result in sacks, they’re still a healthy sign you’re getting to the quarterback and influencing the game with your rush. The Jets have been above that figure three weeks in a row, including a massive 12-hit performance on Rodgers in Week 2. Wilkerson, who will be in the running for defensive player of the year with this form, has three hits on his own in each of the last two games. As fans grumble about the dismal Jets offense and their lack of spending at cornerback, it’s hard to argue with what the pass rush has done to affect opposing offenses.
Philadelphia Eagles: All hail the work of special teams coach Dave Fipp, who has seen his units outpace the rest of the league through four weeks. In fact, during a disappointing performance against the 49ers on Sunday afternoon, it was the Philly special teams that gave the Eagles any hope of winning whatsoever.
The Eagles came into the week third in special teams DVOA despite turning over several of their key contributors during the offseason. Kicker Alex Henery was waived for the big leg of Cody Parkey. Philly also released DeSean Jackson early in the offseason before cutting primary punt and kick returner Damaris Johnson just before camp. With fellow returner Brandon Boykin moved into a coverage role, the only familiar Eagles specialist is punter Donnie Jones.
The new guys had all made their mark before Week 4. Parkey was 8-of-9 on field goals while booting 14 of his 21 kickoffs for touchbacks. Chris Polk contributed a 102-yard kick return for a touchdown against Washington in Week 3. You already know what Darren Sproles has done in his brief time with the Eagles.
Somehow, as if they were trying to fill in some weird game of special teams bingo, the Eagles did more great things Sunday. Jones’s first punt pinned the 49ers on the latter team’s own 13-yard line before a sack of Colin Kaepernick pushed the ball back to the San Francisco 2-yard line. A jailbreak pressure from the Eagles saw Trey Burton burst through and block Andy Lee’s punt, which Brad Smith recovered in the end zone for Philadelphia’s first touchdown. It was the first time an opponent had blocked a Lee punt since 2011.
One quarter later, the Eagles extended their lead with another moment of special teams magic. Sproles, who normally waits for the second half to start terrifying the opposition, simply couldn’t wait and took a Lee punt 82 yards to the house for his first punt return touchdown of the year.
The touchdown gave the Eagles a 21-10 lead, one that had come entirely on non-offensive scores. In addition to the blocked punt and the punt return, Malcolm Jenkins had snuck in front of a Kaepernick pass and returned it 53 yards for a touchdown, giving the Eagles three defensive/special teams touchdowns in the first half alone. The Eagles entered the game with two such touchdowns in their first three games, giving them five for the year. That’s a remarkable total, especially considering they managed just two touchdowns from their defense and special teams in all of 2013.
The gaudy work from its defense and special teams masked the issues Philly displayed on offense in this game. With the interior of their offensive line decimated by injuries and overwhelmed by a game 49ers front seven, the Eagles could not run the ball whatsoever. LeSean McCoy finished with just 17 yards on 10 carries, and the passing game wasn’t much better. Philadelphia’s first nine drives produced just 105 yards on 37 plays, a dismal average of 2.8 yards per play. Nick Foles finally turned things around with a number of excellent throws on the 10th drive, producing a 15-play, 90-yard march that came up one yard short of the end zone, with the Eagles going backward on their last drive to end the game.
Arizona Cardinals: On a bye this week, the Cardinals have pieced together what looks to be the league’s best ground defense despite losing their second-best defensive lineman (Darnell Dockett) and both of their star inside linebackers (Daryl Washington and Karlos Dansby) from a year ago. They’ve given significant reps to Tommy Kelly, who couldn’t make the Patriots roster, and received three-down play from Larry Foote, who is making $955,000.
And yet, somehow, the Cardinals have allowed opposing offenses just 2.9 yards per carry, leaving them tied for the second-lowest rate in the league behind Seattle (2.8), with the Seahawks playing an easier schedule. Both teams played the dismal rushing attack of San Diego, but Arizona has also faced the Giants and 49ers, who have run the ball well otherwise. Arizona’s defense is allowing 2.9 yards per pop to offenses that otherwise have averaged 3.8 yards per carry. Seattle’s defense is giving up 2.8 yards per carry to offenses that have averaged only 2.9 yards per carry in their other games.
Dallas Cowboys: Why, yes, those are the 3-1 Dallas Cowboys, a team we had all written off for dead after a cap-strapped offseason and a terrifying first quarter at home against San Francisco to start the season. Their three-game winning streak has seen blowout victories over the Titans and Saints sandwich a 21-point comeback against the Rams, leaving Dallas in a tie for first in the surprisingly competitive NFC East.
The undeniable strength of the Cowboys is their rushing attack, a unit built around the modern ideal of a running game: three first-round picks on the offensive line clearing the way for a speedy, versatile third-round pick making close to the league minimum. The Cowboys were brave to take Notre Dame guard Zack Martin as opposed to Johnny Manziel with their first-round pick, and while Manziel would just be fanning the flames of discontent behind an inconsistent Tony Romo right now, Martin’s been a key component in the game’s best rushing attack.
Dallas has averaged 5.1 yards per carry this year, tied for third in the league behind New Orleans and Pittsburgh, but the Saints are a team that uses the pass to set up the run, and the Steelers can chalk up much of their totals to an overwhelming performance against Carolina, which has been a mess against the run.3 The Cowboys have been utterly dependent upon their ground game, even when behind, to generate successful plays and keep pressure off Romo.
The Panthers have allowed 5.7 yards per carry. The second-worst team, Cleveland, is allowing only 5.2 yards per carry.
While DeMarco Murray has fumbled three times,4 he’s looked like football’s most impressive runner through four weeks. The Cowboys have given Murray an overwhelming workload, but he’s managed to stay healthy and productive through his 99-carry month. The result is one of the most impressive four-game stretches to start the season that a running back’s had in recent memory:
To be fair, he’s also been unlucky to lose each of those fumbles. Murray fumbled seven times in his first three seasons and lost only three of those.
Those other nine players finished with an average5 of 358 carries for 1,778 yards and 15 touchdowns. None were able to keep up the pace of their hot start, but they each managed to remain among the leading rushers in football without suffering a notable injury, and two of the nine (Simpson and Lewis) would finish the year with 2,000 rushing yards.
Prorating Simpson’s numbers from 14 games to 16.
That’s not out of the question for Murray. What is more likely to change is his workload; there’s just no way the Cowboys will let Murray approach the 396 carries he’s on pace to hit, not in 2014. With no recognizable running back behind Murray in the Dallas rotation, the Cowboys will likely need to shift a few more passes Romo’s way, even if it’s while Dallas is winning in the second half of games. Fortunately, Jason Garrett never gets taken apart for throwing the ball too frequently when it costs him games, so this plan should work out fine. Their 3-1 record and Murray’s dominance as a runner raise a very interesting question, though: Are the Cowboys a really good football team?
It’s far more difficult to answer than it seemed before the season, when Dallas was basically written off with the expectation of another 8-8 campaign before a tragic loss in Week 17 to its latest divisional rival, this time Washington. While many expected Murray and the running game to be a real strength for these Cowboys, the obvious concern for many (including me) was the Dallas defense. After losing DeMarcus Ware to cap woes, Jason Hatcher to free agency, and Sean Lee to a torn ACL before the season even began, it looked like the Cowboys were going to have one of the worst defenses in league history. No-names and question marks dotted the roster.
Somehow, through four weeks, they’ve been … passable! Dallas was 24th in defensive DVOA heading into the week, and that figure will rise after an impressive performance against the Saints, especially once opponent adjustments are figured in later in the year. Dallas held Drew Brees & Co. to less than 5.5 yards per play in the first half, as the Saints failed to score on their five possessions. The Saints did enjoy some success throwing while down several touchdowns in the second half, but a Cowboys stop and a questionable fake punt brought New Orleans’s unlikely comeback to a halt.
The biggest surprise for Dallas’s defense has been one of the last players to arrive in town. The Cowboys traded for Rolando McClain in July as an afterthought, a lottery ticket who might fill in for the injured Lee if everything somehow went right. McClain’s career had been a stuttering mess since the Raiders drafted him in the first round of the 2010 draft. McClain struggled mightily and was involved in several off-field incidents before being released. He signed with the Ravens, almost immediately announced his retirement, and then returned to the team a year later. Baltimore, which had acquired several inside linebackers between his original signing and his return, dealt him to the Cowboys. Rotoworld credited McClain’s return to a “need for money” and rightfully praised Ozzie Newsome for getting a swap of late-round draft picks in the deal.
McClain was out for Week 3, but otherwise, he’s been a revelation in the middle of the Dallas defense. He’s been all over the field as a run defender and playmaker, picking up an athletic interception of Jake Locker in Week 2 and forcing a Jimmy Graham fumble to stop a Saints drive into Dallas territory last night. He’s that rarest of birds: a talented Cowboys defender making less than he should. It’s heartening to see him turn around his career and secure a consistent roster spot, let alone look like the guy who was once one of college football’s best linebackers at Alabama.
His range has made the players around him better, notably linebacker Bruce Carter, who was benched last season after showing signs of solid play in 2012. Carter has the ideal speed and athleticism to operate as a weakside linebacker in the 4-3, and he’s shown more of that this year. It was Carter who tipped a Brees pass into the air for Justin Durant to intercept, a play that took spatial awareness and the ability to avoid Brees’s eye-fakes. Carter did leave late in the game after suffering a quad injury while chasing down Khiry Robinson on a long run down the sideline, but it remains to be seen whether he’ll miss time.
Defensive coordinator Rod Marinelli has also whipped a bare-bones defensive line into shape, as the front four finally came up with their first sacks of the year against Brees. Dallas is still very mediocre at defensive end, even with Anthony Spencer making his season debut, but it may be able to create some pressure up the middle. Henry Melton and Tyrone Crawford each had sacks Sunday, and Marinelli may have stumbled onto something by moving Crawford, the team’s 2012 third-round pick, into the interior so he can line up as a 3-technique against guards. Dallas doubled down on the interior pressure against Brees by sending a linebacker shooting through the A-gaps on a number of early snaps, either on a traditional blitz, a delayed blitz, or as the green dog.
Really, the one real problem for Dallas on defense has been the play of Morris Claiborne, whom the Rams ruthlessly attacked in building their lead during Week 3. That isn’t going to be an issue going forward for a number of reasons. First, the Cowboys replaced Claiborne in the starting lineup during the week with the returning Orlando Scandrick, a move that caused Claiborne to leave the facility and skip practice. Claiborne returned later in the week, but during Sunday’s game, he suffered a knee injury that was later reported to be a torn ACL, which should end his season.
Claiborne obviously wasn’t playing very well for the Cowboys, and Scandrick should be an upgrade, but there’s no guarantee Claiborne was any worse than Sterling Moore, the journeyman cornerback who will take his spot in the lineup. That, as always, is the worry with the Cowboys. There’s more talent on this defense than we expected, but the Dallas defense has fallen apart in years past when starters have gotten hurt and reserves have been exploited in larger roles. Maybe losing Claiborne won’t matter all that much. Can they fade an injury to Carter or McClain? What if Crawford or Melton go down? Dallas has its fair share of players with injury histories manning this defense, so injuries are more likely to pop up here than they would elsewhere.
On current form, though, this is a better Cowboys team than most expected. It can run the ball. The passing offense is not exactly dominant, especially given how erratic Romo’s looked with his back injury, but it’s hard for a group with Romo, Dez Bryant, and Jason Witten to look all that bad. Dan Bailey’s contract is awful, but it’s hard to argue with how he’s played. If Marinelli can deliver a passable defense as opposed to a terrible one, the Cowboys can contend for a playoff spot in the NFC East.
That seemed out of the question even 15 minutes into the season, and maybe in some seasons, that wouldn’t be enough. In 2014, though, there don’t appear to be many great teams getting in the Cowboys’ way. Pretty good might just be good enough to make it to January.