It’s hard to imagine there’s an NFL fanbase that’s not panicking even a little bit right now. The Patriots and Chiefs — the only teams with 4-0 records — survived scares last week from the Bills and Lions, who couldn’t quite overcome the cursed history of their respective franchises.
Six teams are winless; one has fully accepted its tanking fate and at least one more probably should. A third of the NFL has had to bring in a backup quarterback for major playing time, while almost half of the league is sporting a 2-2 record.
There’s a lot we don’t know about this season, even a quarter of the way through it. While there’s freedom in that kind of uncertainty, it also means we’re probably in for a wild ride the rest of the way.
As exciting (and a little daunting) as that is, let’s take stock in what we might need to be nervous about at this point of the season.
The Vikings are paying too much for a passing offense this bad
Quarterback Kirk Cousins and wide receivers Adam Thielen and Stefon Diggs count for a combined $49.573 million against the Vikings’ salary cap in 2019. It’s the most in the NFL for a quarterback-receiver-receiver trio.
That wasn’t exactly a problem for Minnesota when running back Dalvin Cook racked up 375 rushing yards and four touchdowns in the first three weeks of the season. But when the Bears held Cook to just 35 yards in Week 4, the inability to throw the ball became a glaring issue.
“At some point, you’re not going to be able to run the ball for 180 yards, even with the best running back in the NFL,” Thielen, who had just two catches for six yards in Chicago, told The Athletic. “That’s when you have to be able to throw the ball. You have to be able to make plays. You have to be able to hit the deep balls. You have to do that.”
The Vikings haven’t done that much at all. Even when the situation against the Bears begged for desperation, Minnesota couldn’t break out of dink-and-dunk mode.
The Vikings got the ball down 10 with less than three minutes left and threw four passes short of the first-down marker.— Chad Graff (@ChadGraff) September 29, 2019
Part of the blame lies with Cousins, who is better when he’s not asked to put the team on his back. He doesn’t handle pressure well — he’s fumbled 52 times in his career and has 15 in 20 games with the Vikings. Even when he has time to throw, he doesn’t always wait for Thielen and Diggs to get open. Or when he does, his accuracy is not there.
Part of the blame lies with the offensive line, which still has problems protecting Cousins. And part of the blame lies with the playcalling, which needs to find ways for the passing game to succeed and to get the ball in the hands of playmakers like Thielen and Diggs.
The Vikings are spending way too much money on the passing game to be afraid to throw the ball, and it’s a major reason why they’re at the bottom of the NFC North.
Panic index: Some alarm is warranted at this point — especially when Cousins, Diggs, and Thielen count for a combined $58.3 million next year too. Fortunately, the Vikings won’t play a defense like the Bears’ every week, and Minnesota’s own defense is strong enough to carry the team to some wins.
But until they can figure out how to get the passing game to work more consistently, the Vikings could be headed for another season like last year: good enough to finish with a winning record, but not good enough to make the playoffs.
The Ravens’ defense looks very un-Ravenesque
Almost every great Baltimore team has one thing in common: a dominant defense. Few franchises have been as defined by their ability to stop the ball and make life miserable for opposing quarterbacks than the Ravens — home to Hall of Famers Ray Lewis and Ed Reed and All-Pros like Haloti Ngata, Adalius Thomas, and Terrell Suggs in their 24 years of existence.
Baltimore tried to keep that tradition alive by signing Earl Thomas and drafting the NCAA’s all-time sack leader, Jaylon Ferguson, this offseason. That hasn’t been nearly enough to offset the loss of players like Eric Weddle, Za’Darius Smith, C.J. Mosley, and Suggs. Each left Maryland in 2019, and the Ravens clearly aren’t the same without them.
After handling bottom dwellers Arizona and Miami in Weeks 1 and 2, Baltimore has struggled against teams not currently in the midst of an identity crisis. The Chiefs hung 33 points on them, but it was easy to write that off because hey, it’s the Chiefs and that’s what they do. Then the Browns came to visit in Week 4 and that Kansas City loss went from an outlier to a giant warning sign, embarrassing Thomas in the process.
Cleveland stomped a mudhole into a once-proud defense in a 40-25 win, recharging the fortunes of second-year players Baker Mayfield (342 passing yards) and Nick Chubb (165 rushing yards, three touchdowns) in the process. With that, the Ravens fell to 23rd in the league in points allowed. Their 7.03 yards given up per play is dead last in the NFL — a hair worse than the woeful Dolphins’ 6.99 mark.
The Ravens have the league’s top offense in terms of both scoring and yards gained. They haven’t ranked in the top five in either category since 1996. Despite this, they’re 2-2.
Panic index: Help may not be on the way this fall. Ferguson was the only man among the team’s top five draft picks who plays defense. Thomas hasn’t been the same dynamic talent he was before breaking his leg in 2018. Cornerback Jimmy Smith will return at some point, but he’s slated to miss a few more weeks with an MCL sprain. The pass rush has only produced eight sacks in four games.
But hey, Lamar Jackson still looks awesome. Maybe winning shootouts is the new Ravens way.
Kellen Moore’s Cowboys offense suddenly has a Scott Linehan vibe
Kellen Moore, one of the league’s youngest offensive coordinators, had Dak Prescott and the Cowboys averaging 32 points per game through the first few weeks of the season. But against the Saints during Week 4, Dallas was held in check. The team had its lowest offense output of the season, including just 10 points and 45 yards on the ground.
To start the season, one of the best elements of Moore’s offense was the heavy play-action. That was shut down against New Orleans:
#Cowboys set season low in play-action rate & season high in first-down run rate in SNF loss to #Saints.— Evan Silva (@evansilva) September 30, 2019
Please let this not be the work of Jason Garrett infiltrating Kellen Moore’s beautiful offense.
Please let this not be a sign of things to come.
Prescott still played well when they used play-action — he was 6 of 7 for 65 yards Sunday night, according to Pro Football Focus. But the Cowboys mostly went away from it, going from an average of 39 percent to 20 percent in Week 4.
Instead, they fell back into the conservative playcalling of the old Scott Linehan offense, such as running the ball too much on first down. The Cowboys averaged just 3.4 yards on first down, and kept trying to feed an unproductive Ezekiel Elliott, who had 35 yards on 18 carries. Here’s Cowboys’ blog Blogging The Boys on the first-down playcalling:
You throw it twice, picking up a first down and then having a “success” on the next - then you hand it off to start seven consecutive sets of downs, with only one meeting the traditional criteria of success, 40% or more of the yards needed for the next first down. A failure to execute well played a part, but even with that, why go back to that dry well over and over?
Head, meet wall.
There has been a suggestion that Prescott was changing the call at the line a lot, and it certainly seemed like the Saints found a way to disguise things very well. Whatever happened, Moore and company need to get this sorted out.
The Saints deserve credit for what they did, but if future opposing defenses sell out to stop Elliott again, Moore has to find ways to get the offense’s early-season mojo back.
Panic index: It’s a little too soon to assume Dallas’ offense is going back to the Linehan era, even after one bad game against a great defense. Moore showed enough promise with his creative playcalling in the first three weeks that it’s worth waiting to see how he adjusts before worrying too much.
Khalil Mack is coming for you, Raiders
There is no amount of context that will properly explain Jon Gruden’s actions when he took over control of the Raiders. Sending Khalil Mack to the Bears was a mistake, pure and simple. Now, Mack wants his revenge. Given Mack’s entire job boils down to making life as difficult as possible for exactly one person on the other team, his words should carry some weight.
“This is one I’ve been looking forward to,” Mack said about facing the team that traded him just over a year ago. “I can’t lie to you, man; I’ve got to let you know how it is. It’s going to be a big one.”
In his first season in Chicago, Mack racked up 12.5 sacks, a pick-six, and six forced fumbles, helping the Bears to the NFC North crown. This season, he’s already up to 4.5 sacks and four forced fumbles.
Mack, who thought he was going to be a Raider for life when they drafted him, also said, “I ain’t a talker. I just want to go out and show it.” That’s even scarier considering what he can do.
Panic index: Mack has been a force with the Bears, even while constantly double-teamed by opposing offenses. The Raiders will need to do that to contain him, but the last thing they need right now is Mack with a little bit of extra fire in his step.
Derek Carr has only been sacked eight times this season, but Mack is going to do his best to throw a wrench in those works. Unlike Gruden, we would never bet against Mack.