From Patriot struggles to Gruden’s agony: will the NFL’s early trends hold up? | Sport

The New England Patriots’ early struggles

What’s the problem? Sound the alarm: the Patriots are 1-2. A loss to Miami this weekend would put them three games behind the Dolphins in the AFC East before the calendar hits October.

We’ve been here with Bill Belichick and company before. They don’t always leap out of the blocks, but this time just feels different. The Patriots look slow, on both sides of the ball. The defensive front isn’t twitchy enough. Receivers struggle to uncover from man-coverage. In back-to-back weeks, Jacksonville and Detroit punched the Pats in the mouth – and New England offered little response.

Season-ending injuries to Rex Burkhead and rookie Ja’Whaun Bentley this week compound matters. Both saw significant playing time through the first three weeks and are now out for the remainder of the season. We’ve seen the Patriots go through poor stretches before, but rarely have they looked quite this fragile.

How likely is it to continue? Never bet against Belichick finding a way: Tom Brady and the Patriots offense will get going eventually. They’re going to need something out of Josh Gordon and Julian Edelman because Rob Gronkowski cannot do it all alone.

Defensively though, they’re in all sorts of trouble. Good defense isn’t always spectacular, it resides in the absence of spectacle. The Patriots continue to struggle with the little things. Detroit owned the line of scrimmage on Sunday night. There’s only so much in-season coaching and gameplans can do to mask a lack of talent and athleticism.

The same issues that have hampered the team’s defense for two seasons have somehow gotten worse. That may not prevent them from making the playoffs, but it will thwart their bid for a sixth Lombardi.

Jon Gruden can’t coach

What’s the problem? Rarely are coaches as good or bad as they appear in the moment. Right now, Jon Gruden is really, really bad.

Gruden’s second stint with the Raiders couldn’t have started on a worse footing. There’s in-fighting. He traded Khalil Mack a future hall of famer – and the team’s best player – in his athletic prime. The team are 0-3. Is now a good time to remind you the Raiders shelled out $100m to bring Gruden back on a 10-year deal?

There are already real questions about the futures of Derek Carr and Amari Cooper, once considered cornerstones of the franchise. That would be a real stinker for Raiders fans. Not paying Mack has some rationale, provided Gruden didn’t want to tie up close to 24% of the team’s total cap in its quarterback and a pass-rusher.

Decide to draft his own quarterback, however, and the Mack move takes on a whole new level of indefensibility. The best time to pay star defensive players is while you have a quarterback on a rookie contract – see the Rams with Jared Goff and Aaron Donald, or the Bears with Mitch Trubisky and Mack.

Carr has been on a downward trend for some time. In the 18 games since he signed his extension, his passer rating has been 86.7, while averaging 6.55 adjusted yards per attempt. That’s among the lowest in the NFL during that span, putting him behind such luminaries as Blaine Gabbert, Blake Bortles, and Shaun Hill. Shaun Hill!

Carr has changed his style. He’s become safer, less effective. The bombs away approach we were treated to in his early days in Oakland has evaporated. Gruden’s timing based, ball control, west-coast passing system has only exacerbated things. Gruden was supposed to be the quarterback whisperer; the guy who took Carr to the next level. So far, he’s submarined him.

How likely is it to continue? Things are likely to get worse before they get better. The Raiders are old and slow on offense; they’re young and bad on defense. It’s a situation that can only be corrected in the offseason. Only nine Gruden seasons to go.

The Kansas City Chiefs juggernaut

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Patrick Mahomes’ Chiefs are one of the most exciting teams in the league for years. Photograph: Charlie Riedel/AP

What’s the story? The Chiefs fun-n-gun offense has been the early highlight of the season. They’ve been historically great on offense, behind an unprecedented start from Patrick Mahomes and his band of merry receivers. Andy Reid deserves a ton of the credit. He has embedded a new quarterback, new weapons, and tweaked his system. They’ve gelled fast, and blown away everybody.

How likely is it to continue? I know what you’re thinking, we’ve seen starts like this from Reid’s teams before. We haven’t quite seen something like this.

There are the same old Reid tactics: man-beater concepts specifically designed to spring less talented receivers open against man-coverage. And the new stuff: more spread principles that put athletes in space and force a defense to make one-on-one plays. Pair the two, and you have something pretty special.

Much has been made of the Chiefs’ funky post-snap options. Optioning can make up for a talent gap, but only so much. Talent wins, and the Chiefs have it in buckets. Reid’s team aren’t winning purely through play-design. They’re winning due to sheer speed. That isn’t letting up any time soon.

The only thing that can slow the Chiefs down is their defense. They currently rank 32nd in defensive DVOA, Football Outsiders’ efficiency metric. For as great as they’ve been on offense, they’ve been equally turgid defensively. It’s not a sustainable model for success.

At some point, the defense is going to be relied on to make plays. It doesn’t have to be good, or even average. But it cannot drag along at the bottom of the league. Regardless, Mahomes and company will remain must-see TV.

Issues with the Cowboys offense

What’s the problem? The Cowboys offense has been downright awful through three games. The team have averaged an abysmal 13.7 points per game, second stingiest in the NFL. Dak Prescott has regressed, and has failed to throw for 200 yards in his last five games. Only four quarterbacks have ever had longer streaks of games with at least 25 attempts and fewer than 200 yards. Add to that, in his last 11 starts, he’s thrown eight touchdowns to 11 interceptions.

It’s not all on Prescott, though. The flaws are deep-rooted. Dallas runs the most pedestrian, predictable system in the league. The team’s once-formidable offensive line is a shadow of its former self because of injuries and a lack of form. The battering-ram approach the side used a couple of years ago when Prescott and Ezekiel Elliott galloped through the league as rookies, has stopped working.

How likely is it to continue? The offensive design needs a complete overhaul. The only consistent way it has found to move the ball this season has been through subterfuge: run-pass options, or play-action.

You don’t need a good, or even competent, run-game to be an excellent play-action side. You simply need to commit to the fake, wholeheartedly. Washington finished fourth in play-action effectiveness in 2017 (averaging 8.7 yards per attempt). Opposing defenses laughed at Washington’s run-game; they still fell victim to play-action.

Garrett has steered clear of play-action this season – the Cowboys rank 20th in play-action attempts. It doesn’t make much sense. The Cowboys have opted to spread things out, running more quick-timing dropbacks instead. The issue: they don’t have the horses to beat man-coverage. Outside of Elliott, the team has no proven, top-shelf playmakers to speak of. This thing is broken. Unless there’s a significant change – head coach, offensive coordinator, play-caller – there’s unlikely to be much difference moving forward.

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