Contender kryptonite: Biggest weaknesses on NFL’s top 14 teams

Contender kryptonite: Biggest weaknesses on NFL’s top 14 teams

Every NFL team has at least one weakness. It’s impossible for teams to be flawless in the salary-cap era, and in a season that has repeatedly made us ask whether there are any great teams, it’s not difficult to believe that even the league’s top playoff contenders can be exploited by the wrong matchup or opponent.

With the playoffs a month away, let’s take a look at the contenders and their weaknesses before identifying which possible playoff opponents in their conference are best suited to go after those weaknesses (names in bold for each team). The idea of playoff kryptonite doesn’t mean that a team is guaranteed to lose if it ends up with an opponent that could give its problem fits, but it should at least give fans a look into where their favorite team might be faltering and whom to root against once the playoff bracket officially takes fold.

For the purposes of this piece, I included the 14 teams the ESPN Football Power Index (FPI) believes have at least a 10 percent chance to make the postseason. We’ll go in order of the team with the worst chance (Atlanta) to the teams with the best chances (New England and Pittsburgh):


Atlanta Falcons (36.6 percent chance to make the playoffs)

Playoff kryptonite: Run defense

The Falcons’ defense hasn’t been very good in general this season, but it has been particularly egregious against the run. Atlanta ranks 31st in the league in rush defense DVOA and was dead last as recently as one week ago. As an undersized defense built on speed, the Falcons aren’t likely to suddenly improve against opposing rushing attacks. Dan Quinn’s team is allowing runners to convert on 69.2 percent of their third-down carries, the worst rate in football by nearly five full percentage points.

As a result, the Falcons probably don’t want to see their NFC South brethren in the playoffs, given that the Panthers are built upon their power running game, while the Saints have built a balanced attack around their impressive offensive line and the duo of Mark Ingram and Alvin Kamara. Carolina has been the second-best team in the league at converting third-down rushing attempts, while the Saints are averaging a league-high 5.3 yards per carry on their first-down rushing attempts. Sean Payton’s team has added 2.06 wins this year through its running game, which puts the Saints in second place behind the Cowboys.

Playoff kryptonite: Tackling

Every team has to tackle, and the Chargers have gotten better as the season has gone along, but the Los Angeles defense has a way of turning decent gains into huge chunks of yardage. The Chargers are allowing a league-high 2.38 yards after first contact against opposing rushers this season. Given that Los Angeles is 21st in the league in yards before first contact, taking down opposing ball carriers would greatly improve its run defense.

The Raiders might be on the outskirts of the playoff picture, but it’s no surprise Marshawn Lynch‘s team leads the league in yards after first contact at 2.26. In shouting distance behind Oakland are the Patriots, who are in sixth at 1.99 yards after first contact. In fact, every likely AFC playoff team ranks in the upper half of the league in this category.

Playoff kryptonite: Lack of pass pressure

I wrote on Monday about Kansas City’s disappearing pass rush. The Chiefs desperately need a healthy Dee Ford to step up and deliver as a second threat alongside Justin Houston, because opposing quarterbacks simply haven’t had much to worry about in the pocket. The Chiefs are pressuring opposing quarterbacks on just 24.8 percent of their dropbacks, the fifth-lowest rate in the league.

The Chiefs don’t have to be worried about the two quarterbacks who lead the league in passer rating while unpressured this season, given that No. 1 is injured Texans rookie Deshaun Watson and No. 2 is Alex Smith. Three other AFC quarterbacks have posted a passer rating of more than 105.0 while unmolested in the pocket this season, and two of them are in the playoff hunt. One is Tom Brady of the Patriots, while the other is Los Angeles’ Philip Rivers, whose team is suddenly in the thick of the division race. During the Chargers’ three-game winning streak, Rivers has posted a molten-hot 126.8 passer rating without pressure. That’s yet another thing for Chiefs fans to worry about in advance of their home game against the Chargers in two weeks.

Playoff kryptonite: Absent interceptions

It’s not quite as bad as what’s going on with the Raiders, but the Panthers just aren’t intercepting many passes. Carolina has five picks through 12 games, which is 29th in the NFL. Luke Kuechly leads the team with three interceptions and safety Mike Adams has two. That’s it. The Panthers’ starting cornerbacks have no picks. Kurt Coleman, who intercepted seven passes two years ago and had four last season, has zero in nine games. ESPN Stats & Information gives Carolina credit for three dropped interceptions, but even that’s just about average.

I’d be worried about this from Carolina’s perspective, given that just about every team it is going to face in the NFC also ranks among the league leaders in avoiding interceptions. The Saints and Vikings are second and third in lowest interception rate, followed by the Eagles and Rams in fifth and sixth, respectively. Case Keenum, whom the Panthers face on Sunday, hasn’t thrown an interception in his past three games.

Playoff kryptonite: Penalties

The Seahawks are a physical team. They’re also a team with an offensive line that is particularly fond of holding and false starting. As a result, Pete Carroll’s squad has committed 137 penalties in 12 games this year. That’s a staggering number; consider that the Broncos and Dolphins are tied for next-to-worst with 114 penalties, and they’re closer to league average (96.1) than they are to Seattle. Fourteen players have racked up double-digit penalties this season, and the Seahawks have two of them, including right tackle Germain Ifedi, who leads the league with 14.

It’s probably not realistic to look at a particular opponent as a team likely to benefit from the other team’s being penalized. It makes more sense to focus on referees; while the NFL does mix up crews heading into the postseason, it’s fair to wonder whether a head referee is likely to set the enforcement tone for that crew.

With that in mind, the Seahawks probably don’t want to see Jeff Triplette, who has handed out more penalties than the league average on a per-game basis for nine consecutive seasons from 2008 through 2016, although he actually has been below average so far this season. Jerome Boger has been above the league average in 10 of his 11 seasons as a referee, although he is also slightly below average this season and has been assigned a playoff schedule only once in the past seven seasons. The Seahawks also would prefer to avoid Carl Cheffers and Walt Anderson.

Playoff kryptonite: Passing

I mean, there’s not much of a need to be more specific. Joe Flacco & Co. just aren’t a good air attack. Even after what was arguably their best passing game of the season against the Lions on Sunday, the Ravens rank 27th in passing DVOA. Only the Broncos are averaging fewer yards per pass attempt on first down than Baltimore’s 5.21, while just 28.4 percent of Baltimore passes have resulted in first downs. The Bears, Colts and Browns are the only teams that haven’t topped that mark in 2017.

Flacco doesn’t have to face his own pass defense, fortunately, but he might very well have to go up against the Jaguars in the wild-card round. Jacksonville has posted the league’s best pass defense DVOA this season, and when these two teams faced each other in Week 3, the Jags held Flacco to 28 yards and a 12.0 passer rating on 18 pass attempts before the former Super Bowl winner was benched for Ryan Mallett.

Playoff kryptonite: Lack of big plays on offense

Mike Mularkey’s “exotic smashmouth” offense set up all kinds of big plays in the passing game last season. By the end of 2016, the Titans had amassed 38 plays of 25 yards or more, with 33 of them coming via pass. Thirty-eight tied them with the Chargers for 10th in the NFL.

In 2017, with Marcus Mariota struggling and the league enjoying a second look at Mularkey’s attack, the big plays have mostly disappeared. Tennessee has only 18 plays of 25 yards or more through 12 games, which is 29th and ahead of only the Bears, Giants and Ravens. Two of them have been long Derrick Henry runs on the final series of games where a first down would have ended the contest, like last week’s 75-yarder against the Texans.

It helps that Tennessee is taking away big plays on defense, as the 18 plays of 25-plus yards the Titans have allowed on the other side of the ball is third-best in the league, but this was supposed to be a season in which the young Tennessee offense took another step forward. Mariota’s unit doesn’t have to suit up against its own defense on Sundays, but it is in line for at least one more game against the Jaguars‘ defense, which isn’t much friendlier toward big plays. The Jags have allowed just 20 plays of 25 yards or more.

Playoff kryptonite: Fumbles

The Rams have done a lot of things right since hiring Sean McVay, but if there’s one problem with their offense in 2017, it has been coughing up the football. Los Angeles has fumbled 19 times, tying it with the Browns and Colts for the sixth-most fumbles in the league. And while most teams atop the fumble charts are seeing an inexperienced or frazzled quarterback fumbling away the ball, the Rams have had problems with their skill-position talent holding onto the rock. There are 26 players in the league with three fumbles or more this season, and the Rams hold three of them with Todd Gurley (five), Tavon Austin (four) and Pharoh Cooper (three).

The Jaguars lead the league in forced fumbles with 22, but if the Rams get to a point at which they’re playing Jacksonville in the playoffs, I doubt they’ll be upset with the matchup. Closer to home, the Rams might be concerned with the Saints and Seahawks, each of whom rank in the top 10 with 17 forced fumbles.

Playoff kryptonite: Downfield pass defense

The Saints have turned around their defense in remarkable ways this season, and the focus has rightly shined on their young secondary. Second-year corner Ken Crawley and rookies Marshon Lattimore and Marcus Williams have become mainstays in the starting lineup, while 2016 second-round pick Vonn Bell has filled in as a nickelback. The elder statesman of the unit is 27-year-old Kenny Vaccaro.

When things go well, the secondary looks and plays fast. The problem with a young secondary — even one that has looked as good as the Saints’ has this season — is that lapses can lead to big plays downfield. Indeed, New Orleans has been victimized by downfield passing attacks. The Saints have the league’s second-best DVOA against short passes but are 28th against deeper throws. On passes traveling 16 or more yards in the air, the New Orleans secondary is allowing a 42.7 percent completion percentage and a passer rating of 104.0, the latter of which is 23rd in the league.

Coordinator Dennis Allen would probably like to avoid seeing teams that routinely chuck it downfield in the postseason if possible. That includes the Eagles, with Carson Wentz & Co. averaging 9.9 air yards per throw this season, which is third-most in the league. Russell Wilson is averaging 9.1 air yards per pass for the Seahawks, which also could give the Saints fits. The Saints have allowed plenty of big plays against the run as well — they have given up 10 runs of 25 yards or more, which is two more than any other team.

Playoff kryptonite: Throwing downfield

Everyone should be scared of the Jacksonville pass rush, which can make any offense look bad on its day. (Ask the Steelers.) The offense has been more erratic, however, with Leonard Fournette dominating earlier in the season before slowing down thanks to a suspension and an ankle injury. Blake Bortles‘ season has been inconsistent, alternating excellent performances against the Colts and Bengals with uglier games against the Rams and Chargers. Sunday was one of his better performances, as he went 26-of-35 for 309 yards with two touchdowns in his second go-round against a faded Indy secondary.

The Jags have a 98.9 percent chance of making the playoffs, so it’s likely we’ll see Bortles suit up for his first playoff game. The concern about Bortles against playoff-caliber competition will be whether he can make plays downfield in meaningful situations. The NFL defines deep passes to be throws that travel 16 yards or more in the air. Bortles has made 61 such throws this season, with those passes producing a passer rating of 67.8, which is 27th out of 35 qualifying quarterbacks. By Total QBR, which adjusts for game situation, Bortles’ 47.4 mark on deep throws is 30th.

Jags fans will have to hope that the arrival of Dede Westbrook eventually spurs Bortles into big plays, because opposing defenses should be able to squeeze him in January. Take the Ravens, who might face the Jags in the wild-card round. Eric Weddle & Co. have posted the league’s best DVOA against short passes. Baltimore is 21st against deep throws, but Bortles might not be able to exploit that possible weakness. (To be fair, Bortles did throw four touchdown passes when these two teams played in Week 3.) The Steelers, in a similar vein, are third against short passes and 24th against deeper attempts. And if you want to match weakness against strength, the Chargers have the league’s second-best DVOA against deep throws.

Playoff kryptonite: The kicking game

I’m truly sorry, Vikings fans. I don’t want to dredge up old wounds by bringing up kickers like Gary Anderson and Blair Walsh, but with the Vikings executing in all facets of the game right now, their biggest concern is what happens on special teams. Minnesota was 19th in special teams DVOA heading into Week 13, but most of its success has come via solid punting work. Kicker Kai Forbath has been 2.6 points below expectation on field goals and extra points, which is 21st in the NFL, and just 54 percent of Forbath’s kickoffs have resulted in touchbacks, which is 21st among regular kickers.

No team has the ability to control whether a team is likely to hit or miss field goals against it, so it’s probably more realistic to worry about places where Forbath is likely to encounter wind or weather issues. I’d be nervous about the 30-year-old kicking on the road against the Eagles and Seahawks. The Rams, meanwhile, have been a league-best 8.8 points above average on kick returns, with Pharoh Cooper averaging 28.7 yards per attempt and producing one of the league’s three kick return scores this season.

Playoff kryptonite: Offensive tackle Halapoulivaati Vaitai

This exercise is virtually futile for the Eagles, who are the most balanced team in football and don’t appear to have an obvious weakness. They rank in the top eight in both passing and rushing offense and defense DVOA and are 10th on special teams. They’re fourth in DVOA at defending short passes and long passes. They run efficiently and generate big plays. They rarely turn over the ball, and they force plenty of giveaways.

To be fair, Vaitai has looked better in this second season as a regular filling in for a missing star on the Philadelphia offensive line. Vaitai was posting up at right tackle for the suspended Lane Johnson in 2016; this season, he’s lining up at left tackle for the injured Jason Peters.

On Sunday night, though, we saw what might happen when Vaitai goes up against upper-echelon pass-rushers. Seahawks end Frank Clark beat Vaitai for two sacks, and MVP candidate Carson Wentz spent much of his night running away from pressure on his blind side.

Plenty of teams will place their star pass-rusher on the left side of the field and go after what is generally a weaker pass-protector at right tackle, but Vaitai could encounter a few stars as the Eagles push toward the Super Bowl. Clark could come in for another appearance, but I’d be particularly concerned about someone else. Everson Griffen has been an absolute terror for the Vikings this season, and 11 of his 12 sacks have come as a right defensive end against an opposing left tackle. The Vikings also can rotate Danielle Hunter and Brian Robison into the lineup when Griffen takes a play off, which means no breaks for Vaitai. The Eagles will give him help, but against dominant pass-rushers like Griffen, help might not be enough.

Playoff kryptonite: Run defense

The Patriots were plagued by blown coverages and mental mistakes in the secondary early in the season, but they’ve mostly overcome those issues and appear to be rounding into form as an above-average defense. Their run defense, though, hasn’t come around. The Pats are dead last in rushing defense DVOA. They’ve stuffed opponents for no gain or a loss on just 14 percent of carries, which is also the lowest rate in the league.

On first downs, opponents are averaging 5.2 yards per carry against Bill Belichick’s defense this season, which is tops in the league by a significant margin. The Jaguars have had the second-worst rushing defense on first down in the league, but they’re at 4.7 yards per carry and that’s skewed by two long runs in one game against the Jets. For comparison, Jacksonville is allowing teams to convert for first downs on 9.4 percent of their first-down rushes, while the Patriots are all the way up at 16.8 percent. The latter mark is fourth-worst in the league.

If the Patriots are dominating on offense and holding up against the pass, the run defense might not be a concern, given that teams will be throwing the ball in a desperate attempt to keep (or catch) up. And it does seem weird to suggest that the Patriots won’t be able to overcome a postseason deficit given their recent work in Super Bowl comebacks, but opposing offenses might have more success holding on to their leads against this particular run D.

The good news for the Patriots is that most of the league’s best rushing attacks are in the NFC. The best AFC rushing attacks by DVOA belong to the Titans (fourth) and Chiefs (fifth), with Kansas City sealing its own victory against the Patriots in Week 1 with a pair of late rushing touchdowns. The Saints would represent a fascinating Super Bowl matchup, given the matchup of two future Hall of Fame quarterbacks and the presence of a dynamic two-way threat on the other side in Alvin Kamara. Would Belichick treat Kamara the way he treated Marshall Faulk in the Super Bowl 16 years ago?

Playoff kryptonite: Red zone offense

The Steelers should be great in the red zone. Short of a dominant tight end, they have just about everything you would put on your shopping list if you were trying to build a great offense. And yet, strangely, they haven’t been very good inside the opposition 20 this season. The Steelers are averaging 4.5 points per red zone possession, which is just 23rd in the league. They’re 26th in red zone touchdown percentage, and the six teams who have been worse are a combined 20-52.

To be specific, Le’Veon Bell & Co. haven’t been able to pound the ball in. The Steelers are fourth in red zone win probability added (WPA) with their passing game, but a middling 23rd in the same category on the ground. Red zone performance is generally random, but Bell’s patient style might be less effective when defenses have less space to cover. Pittsburgh led the league in the red zone rushing WPA in 2015, but that was with Bell missing 10 games and DeAngelo Williams taking over the primary back duties. And of the 22 backs to carry the ball 100 times or more in the red zone since 2013, Bell’s 15.1 percent touchdown rate ranks 16th.

Bell is obviously still a great player, but Pittsburgh is going to want to come away with touchdowns in the playoffs. The problem is that many of the league’s best red zone rushing defenses are likely to pop up in the playoffs. The Steelers actually have been the best in the league at stopping rushing attacks in the red zone, but the Chargers, Titans, Jaguars and Patriots also all rank among the top six.

Source: http://www.espn.com/nfl/story/_/id/21690046/2017-nfl-playoffs-contender-kryptonite-biggest-weaknesses-top-14-teams

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