With the NFL’s regular season already through its first eight weeks, many of the top teams have begun to distinguish themselves. Each has things to work on, but the Kansas City Chiefs, Seattle Seahawks, Pittsburgh Steelers and Tampa Bay Buccaneers look like bona fide Super Bowl contenders.
Then comes the next tier of teams: the Baltimore Ravens, Tennessee Titans, Green Bay Packers, Buffalo Bills, New Orleans Saints and Los Angeles Rams. All appear capable of making playoff runs. But they also have exhibited some alarming weaknesses in recent weeks. Unless corrected, these areas could prove costly.
Here’s a look at some of the potentially fatal flaws for these second-tier teams.
Packers — Run defense
Green Bay certainly opened the season in impressive fashion. Year 2 in Matt LaFleur’s system has rejuvenated Aaron Rodgers and the Packers’ offense has looked unstoppable at times. But so, too, have opposing offenses — particularly their rushing attacks. Teams are finding they can gash Green Bay’s run defense and help keep Rodgers and Co. off the field. On Sunday, Dalvin Cook racked up three rushing touchdowns and 163 yards to lead Minnesota to its second win of the season. In their two losses, the Packers have surrendered 158 and 173 rushing yards, respectively.
Green Bay struggled with defensive inconsistencies last season, and their problems wound up costing them in a blowout loss to the San Francisc0 49ers in the NFC championship game. The same weakness could represent their downfall this year as well.
Titans — Pass defense
Tennessee picked up where it left off after last season’s charge to the AFC championship game, opening the year with a 5-0 record. But the Titans have now lost two straight — to the Steelers (no shame) and the Cincinnati Bengals (say what?!).
The Titans have the offense to contend, but they won’t go very far with this pass defense. Tennessee ranks 27th against the pass (268.7 yards allowed per game), with injuries in the secondary playing a part in their struggles but a repeated inability to get to the quarterback playing a larger role. Through seven games, Mike Vrabel’s unit has just seven sacks despite investing just more than $20 million this season in a pair of pass-rushers Jadeveon Clowney and Vic Beasley.
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Ravens — Pass game, discipline
Baltimore suffered yet another loss to a quality opponent, this time falling to the AFC North-rival Steelers. As was the case in their loss to the Chiefs in Week 3, the Ravens struggle to consistently execute in the passing game. Lamar Jackson rushed throws and made poor decisions, throwing two interceptions and losing two fumbles. Meanwhile, his receivers struggle to win one-on-one matchups. Baltimore had a shot late but would have never found themselves in a hole had they executed better in this area of the game. They’ll soon see if Dez Bryant can help boost this area by providing another big target. A trade deadline move for someone like Golden Tate also could help.
Meanwhile, a talented defense tends to do itself in with a lack of discipline and untimely penalties that help keep opponents in the game. The Ravens have the sixth-most penalties in the league, and good teams like the Steelers and Chiefs will take advantage of their missteps.
Rams — Pass protection
As the Miami Dolphins reminded us all on Sunday, the key to neutralizing Los Angeles’ offense is to send waves of pressure at quarterback Jared Goff. When he gets flustered, the mistakes follow.
Just as he did while directing New England’s defense in the Super Bowl, Dolphins coach Brian Flores dialed up one cover-zero blitz after another on Sunday.
As we’ve seen throughout his young career, Goff is very good when executing the scheme, but his effectiveness deteriorates when forced to go off script. The Rams have to do a better job of consistently keeping their quarterback comfortable in the pocket.
Saints — Pass defense, pass offense
New Orleans struggles with consistency both on pass defense and offense.
Improved health will help the offense. Once they get their full collection of weapons back, their effectiveness could improve. However, if opponents can match up well in coverage and force Drew Brees to go deep, the Saints struggle. If a game comes down to needing a big play, this squad could be sunk.
Defensively, New Orleans gives up too many big plays. In the last five games, the Saints have given up seven completions of 48 yards or longer. That can’t happen, especially against elite offenses like the NFC South rival Buccaneers, whom New Orleans faces again this Sunday, or potential playoff foes like the Seahawks or Packers.
Bills — Red-zone efficiency
Buffalo shot out of the gates boasting one of the most high-scoring offenses in the league. But as the season has progressed, the group’s effectiveness has diminished, most notably inside the 20-yard line. Despite leading the league in third down conversions (51%), the Bills can’t cash in on the most crucial area, scoring on only 45% of their trips in the red zone, the fifth worst rate in the league.
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