The NFL started to fall in line with expectations this week after a smattering of upsets that ruined everyone’s survivor pools and almost had us trying to erase all those preseason predictions we made.
Buffalo got back to losing, FitzMagic went up in smoke against the Bears, the Browns lost in overtime, Alvin Kamara ran wild and the Patriots resembled, well, the Patriots. But there’s one team that just can’t shake its early season funk, a team that should be in the conversation for a Super Bowl contender ...
The Steelers are falling apart
No team in the NFL had a better record than the Pittsburgh Steelers in 2017. And while 2018 meant the team would be without Ryan Shazier (career in limbo due to a spinal injury) and Le’Veon Bell (holding out for a long-term contract), the Steelers were slated for another year of contention. They still had Ben Roethlisberger, Antonio Brown, JuJu Smith-Schuster, and a defense loaded with former first-round draft picks.
But the Steelers are 1-2-1 through a quarter of the season and winless against the AFC North — and they’ve got a deficient defense to blame for it. Pittsburgh has allowed an average of 451 yards per game over their last three weeks, dropping a defense that ranked 5th in opponent yardage in 2017 all the way to 30th in 2018. Over the past two weeks, the secondary has allowed 742 passing yards ... to Ryan Fitzpatrick and Joe Flacco.
Typically, an offense built like an unfair NFL Blitz roster would be able to come up with the points to overcome that, but Pittsburgh has struggled thanks in part to Bell’s absence. After a striking season debut, James Conner has been inefficient out of the backfield, averaging just 37 total yards per game and three yards per carry. While Smith-Schuster’s sophomore campaign has been brilliant so far (31 catches, 416 yards), Brown has been stifled en route to a career-low catch rate.
Roethlisberger has put the weight of those struggles on his shoulders.
“I’m not playing well enough. I need to play better. Today was just a bad day at the office. I promise I’ll be back to play better.”
But even if he returns to prime form, will that be enough to overcome his porous defense?
Panic index: The good news is Bell will be back soon, reportedly by Week 8. The bad news is that’s still two games away — and he doesn’t play defense.
The Browns are back to having no luck
Oh, you thought some kind of curse was lifted when Baker Mayfield sprinkled fairy dust on the offense in Week 3? No, no, it’s never that easy for Cleveland.
After three weeks of the defense playing well enough to keep the Browns in games where the offense struggled, the opposite happened in Week 4. The Raiders offense had a great day and rallied in the fourth quarter to beat Cleveland, 45-42, in overtime.
But the Browns had a very legitimate gripe about two fourth quarter moments with questionable, or outright terrible, officiating. Bad enough that some, including Cleveland police, called the loss a robbery.
A day later, Cleveland got some more lovely news. The Steelers’ star running back Le’Veon Bell plans to make his return during a Week 7 bye, so that he can be back in time to play who else but the Browns.
Will the day ever come that things go the Browns’ way?
Panic index: Officiating aside, the Browns had that “L” coming. They gave up 565 yards of total offense and let the Raiders back into the game in the fourth quarter. There was a five possession stretch for the Browns offense late in the game that went: fumble recovered by the Raiders, three and out, three and out, fumble recovered by the Raiders, three and out.
It’s hard to call it a robbery when you leave the door that wide open. The world isn’t always nice to Cleveland, but the football gods may have got this result right.
The Broncos still don’t have a quarterback
If Case Keenum’s worth $18 million per year, Patrick Mahomes must be worth, oh I don’t know, $90 million per year?
In four starts with the Broncos, Keenum has three touchdowns with six interceptions which puts him 31st out of 34 qualifying starting quarterbacks in passer rating this year. He’s ahead of only Josh Allen, Tyrod Taylor, and Sam Bradford — two of whom already got benched.
It’s a familiar sight for the Broncos, who are now four years removed from having a quarterback even finish top 20 in passer rating. Keenum doesn’t look like the answer at all.
In a Week 4 loss to the Chiefs, Keenum’s struggles late allowed Kansas City to come back. But his worst moment was missing a wide open receiver for what would’ve been a game-winning touchdown:
The hook and ladder playcall is going to let Case Keenum off the hook for the worst missed throw of the season so far. pic.twitter.com/ErhkLmrdTm— Will Brinson (@WillBrinson) October 2, 2018
Plenty of people saw this coming. Keenum was a journeyman quarterback who had a good run with the Vikings in 2017. The Broncos banked that it was a trend and not an outlier year. It looks like they probably guessed wrong.
Panic index: It’s hard not to feel like the Broncos are doomed at the quarterback position right now. If Keenum doesn’t get it together, they can move on in the offseason and recoup $11 million, but that still leaves them without a passer. There’s 2017 Mr. Irrelevant Chad Kelly who impressed in preseason, but hoping that he’s the quarterback of the future is pretty optimistic.
It looks like John Elway will probably have to go back to the well for a quarterback again in the 2019 offseason. Given his track record there, it might really be time for Denver fans to panic.
Mike Smith will coach the Bucs’ defense for the rest of time
Once again, the Buccaneers have a terrible defense. Even before Mitch Trubisky dropped five touchdowns in a single HALF of play, the Buccaneers have been getting destroyed by opposing passing attacks.
For the season, Tampa Bay is giving up 9.4 yards per attempt, a 77 percent completion rate and 13 touchdowns to just 1 interception. That’s ... not good.
Things aren’t looking any easier for Mike Smith’s defense with games against the Atlanta Falcons, Cleveland Browns (yes, it feels weird to include him here), Cincinnati Bengals, and Carolina Panthers after their Week 5 bye. Head coach Dirk Koetter already said he doesn’t plan on letting go of Smith, so Bucs fans need to buckle up for 12 more games this season.
Panic index: The time to panic about the Bucs defense was during the offseason. At this point, the best thing Bucs fans can do about their defense is pray. A major overhaul needs to be coming in the 2019 offseason.
The Jets are grounded
In Week 1, the Jets began the Sam Darnold era on Monday Night Football against the Lions. Things got off to a dicey start, when Darnold threw a pick-six on his first ever NFL throw. But from there, the Jets were ... fun. They scored 47 points, including touchdowns in all phases of the game — running, passing, defense, and punt return. They looked like a team that could cause trouble for their opponents.
That feels like years ago now. Since then, they’ve lost three straight and haven’t scored more than 17 points in a game. They blew a lead against the Browns and became the answer to a trivia answer about which team finally ended Cleveland’s ages-long winless streak.
It’s hard to put too much of the blame on Darnold, who is expected to have some growing pains in his first season and on a team with not very many weapons. His numbers haven’t been great, but he’s coming along in other ways.
But it is easy to fault the coaching staff. The Jets can’t put together a complete game, the defense (the supposed strength of the team) can’t stop anyone when it matters, and Todd Bowles is out here kicking field goals when they’re down 25-3.
Honestly, we wouldn’t be surprised if Doug Marrone dunked on them just to see if they were still alive.
Panic index: The Jets just don’t have as much talent as most teams, and that’s usually not much fun to watch. They can steal some wins and beat talent-lacking teams like the Bills, but just don’t expect them keep you entertained much this season.