Lion-sized problem with special teams in the NFL

Oct 2, 2012 3:07 AM

Six NFL teams that made the playoffs last year entered Week 4 with a losing record. Pittsburgh had a bye, leaving five I closely watched.

Here are my notes from their respective performances.

Denver Broncos:

Spent their previous two games defining the term “defensive breakdown,” blowing coverages galore against both the Falcons and Texans. The stop unit did force five three-and-outs on the Raiders’ 10 drives and no touchdowns on both red zone chances.

There was legitimate week-to-week improvement in several areas. First, as a defense, the Broncos weren’t missing many tackles. Secondly, they had a pass rush, getting consistent pressure on Carson Palmer. Most importantly, the secondary didn’t blow many coverages and assignments, though giving up a pair of 30+ yard completions.

I don’t understand why this team huddles at all. The offense seems to work best playing up-tempo. Those schemes confused the heck out of Oakland for a good portion of the game. While Peyton Manning is getting more comfortable in his new surroundings, I still have questions about the receiving corps. Demaryius Thomas has not developed into a true No. 1 WR. His fumble cost them a TD while Eric Decker struggles to get open against decent coverage. 

Detroit Lions:

Allowed a pair of special teams TD’s last week, including a 105 yard kick return to open the game. They followed that up by allowing a punt return TD in the second half – the first team in NFL history to allow kickoff and punt return touchdowns in back-to-back weeks. To me, that smacks of poor coaching and cockiness. When a team loses a game because of a major deficiency and that same problem is still there the following week, I blame the staff, not the players.

Since their 5-0 start last year, the Lions are now 6-9 in their last 15 ballgames. None of those six wins came against an opponent that had a winning record at the time or at the end of the year. As the short point spread clearly showed against the Vikings, the betting markets don’t have much respect for Detroit right now.

With cluster injuries at safety, the Lions had to activate Ricardo Silva off the practice squad and put him right into the starting lineup. It didn’t matter – the Lions allowed only one pass play of longer than 17 yards all day, head and shoulders better than in any game this year. Several key pass interference calls doomed their chances, but you can’t blame a defense that allows two field goals in four quarters.

So why didn’t this offense click? Detroit often doesn’t seem to wake up until trailing by margin; arguably the best “come-from-behind” team in the NFL. The offensive line got absolutely dominated by Minnesota, managing just 2.0 yards per carry from Mikel LeShoure and five sacks of Matthew Stafford. Throw in a bevy of dropped passes from this loaded receiving corps – the Lions lead the league in that dubious category – and the issues become even more worrisome.

Green Bay Packers:

This passing game hasn’t been in rhythm since the start of the preseason. Aaron Rodgers didn’t get much playing time in August; neither did his receivers. Then they opened up the season against three quality defenses – the Niners, Bears and Seahawks. His receivers are suffering from the dropsies, making matters even worse. Green Bay scored only one offensive TD in each of their last two games and was held out of the end zone on offense into the fourth quarter each time. 

I place the blame squarely on the receiving corps. Against New Orleans, there were lots of drops. Even after scoring three consecutive touchdowns in the first half, the Packers didn’t put another point on the board until late in the fourth quarter against the Saints, unable to consistently generate production against a bottom tier stop unit.

When the pass rush isn’t there, this defense is getting picked apart. And they’re not generating pressure on the QB without blitzing, putting more pressure on their secondary. With all the blown coverages, you know that this defense isn’t head and shoulders better than last year. A team can’t give up 80 yard TD throws to wide open receivers and tell me that their pass defense is fixed. Saints converted on nine of their third down chances. 

You know a coach has ample job security when he calls a fake punt inside their own 20 in the second quarter. And you know a team is well coached when they execute that fake perfectly, resulting in a first down, then a touchdown a few minutes later. Then again, when your coach wastes both challenges on low percentage chances, it’s not necessarily great coaching, especially when the lack of a challenge almost cost them the game when they couldn’t review an obvious late fumble.

New England Patriots:

Came into this game shorthanded due to injuries, without perennial pro bowler Logan Mankins on the offensive line and their most versatile weapon, tight end Aaron Hernandez. Even without Mankins, facing a revamped Bills defensive front, Brady had time to throw the football all afternoon. 

Offensive coordinator Josh McDaniels proved his commitment to the run here. McDaniels had promised fewer four and five WR sets this year, and has lived up to it. By midway through the third quarter, the Pats had outrushed the run-heavy Bills by a 4-to-1 margin and finished the game with a 6.2 yards-per-carry average on 40 rushing attempts.

This was the first opening drive touchdown of the year for New England. Belichick’s teams always defer when they win the opening coin toss, preferring to kick off in the first quarter and receive the opening kick of the second half. That’s most assuredly a key factor for first quarter, first half or halftime bettors to consider

For all the talk of defensive improvement, this D got lit up by the Ravens on Monday Night and gave up four TD passes to Ryan Fitzpatrick. Those deficiencies are forgivable, however, when your defensive front dominates the game, forcing six turnovers and creating three sacks. 

It’s clear that both rookie first rounders (Chandler Jones and Dont’a Hightower) are playmakers, exactly what this defense needs. With veterans Vince Wilfork, Devin McCourty and Jerod Mayo stepping up today, perhaps this defense will be less of a sieve as the season progresses, taking some pressure off Tom Brady and the offense.

New Orleans Saints:

Steve Spagnuolo made his name as a defensive coordinator with the Giants, during their first Eli Manning led run to the title; a defense that shut down the record setting Patriots offense in the Super Bowl. That was his last moment of glory. Spagnuolo failed in three miserable years as the Rams head coach. His schemes just aren’t working. The Saints are unable to stop the run or pass, allowing 28+ points in each of their first four games and rank last in yards allowed. 

Illegal formation penalties, dropped passes shows Aaron Kromer as the third string head coach is struggling with attention to detail. Where’s the run game? The Saints O-line is struggling with run blocking – there just are not many holes for Mark Ingram or Pierre Thomas to run through. Big free agent acquisition Ben Grubbs is getting beaten badly, and this OL is not handling the blitz well. 

Ted Sevransky is one of the nation’s premier sports handicappers and analysts. Follow Teddy on Twitter @teddy_covers or visit his page at experts.covers.com. Contact Ted Sevransky at[email protected]

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