Every NFL Team's Kryptonite in 2020
Nobody's perfect, especially in the NFL.
I mean, technically the Pittsburgh Steelers have a perfect record, but they have punted, turned the ball over and surrendered some points on defense. They're fallible, and there's room for improvement.
With that in mind, let's run through every organization's most glaring weakness entering the home stretch of the 2020 season.
Arizona Cardinals: Pass Defense
Entering Week 11, the rebuilt Arizona Cardinals found themselves in a three-way tie atop the NFC West following an unreal last-second victory over the Buffalo Bills, but that win only came after Arizona gave up a deep touchdown pass to Josh Allen in the final minute of regulation.
That was the 17th touchdown pass allowed this season by the Cards, who have intercepted just five passes.
At cornerback, eight-time Pro Bowler Patrick Peterson is no longer the player he once was, veteran Dre Kirkpatrick has struggled, sophomore second-round pick Byron Murphy has yet to fully emerge, and the newly acquired Johnathan Joseph shouldn't be expected to save the day at the age of 36.
Of course, it doesn't help that without superstar edge defender Chandler Jones, they rank below the league median with a pressure rate of 19.5 percent.
At least they don't face too many elite passing offenses the rest of the way.
Atlanta Falcons: The Running Game
Look, the 3-6 Atlanta Falcons require more than just one diagnosis. The pass defense is bad (they've surrendered a 105.6 passer rating), the passing game has again lacked consistency (Matt Ryan has four games with a sub-90 rating), and the pass rush can't close (they've registered just 14 sacks in nine games).
But even more concerning might be Atlanta's offensive struggles on the ground.
Through nine weeks, the Falcons' rush offense ranked 30th in terms of DVOA (defense-adjusted value over average) at Football Outsiders. They also rank in the bottom three in the NFL with a team yards-per-attempt average of 3.7. Todd Gurley has faded substantially after a relatively strong start to his first season in Atlanta, and it doesn't look as though 25-year-old Ito Smith is a long-term solution either.
And it's not just a running back issue. Guard Chris Lindstrom has improved in his second season, but the other guard spot is a problem, and they might have to replace 34-year-old center Alex Mack pretty soon.
This running game needs a makeover in the 2021 offseason.
Baltimore Ravens: Big Games
The Baltimore Ravens need to get healthier in the trenches, they need to cut down on penalties and they could use better all-around play from regressing third-year quarterback Lamar Jackson. But the Ravens are loaded with talent and likely to be in the Super Bowl picture come January.
The only problem with that is they've become remarkably untrustworthy in games that matter most.
This season, the Ravens are 0-2 in prime-time games and 0-2 against the only two teams they've faced that have better records than them (the Kansas City Chiefs and Pittsburgh Steelers). They're now 0-3 against the Chiefs in the Jackson era and winless in their two home playoff games.
If they can't beat the so-far-undefeated Steelers on the road on short rest in Week 12, they'll be in line to enter the 2020 playoffs having lost each of the seven biggest games of the Jackson era (three against Kansas City, two against Pittsburgh and two in the last two postseasons).
How can anybody be confident in this team come playoff time?
Buffalo Bills: Consistency
The Buffalo Bills are undoubtedly in contention at 7-3, but they're all over the map.
The Josh Allen-led offense was unstoppable during the first four weeks of the season before practically disappearing for four weeks and then rising again the last two weeks against the Seattle Seahawks and Cardinals.
The running game wasn't much help earlier in the year before exploding just in time to save the day in a Week 8 victory over the New England Patriots.
The defense has as many takeaways the last two weeks (six) as it had during the first five weeks, but that unit has now surrendered 28-plus points five times (including against Seattle and Arizona). They've recorded five or more sacks twice but two or fewer five times.
If the Bills are going to make a sustained Super Bowl run, they'll need more consistency from Allen, from running backs Devin Singletary and Zack Moss, and from a D that has too much talent to rank below the league median in DVOA.
Carolina Panthers: The Health of Teddy Bridgewater and Christian McCaffrey
The Carolina Panthers basically started from scratch this season, leaving returning offensive centerpiece Christian McCaffrey and free-agent addition Teddy Bridgewater to carry a novice defense that has an NFC-high 78 missed tackles this season.
The problem is, McCaffrey has missed all but three games because of multiple injuries this season, while Bridgewater's status is also up in the air after the 28-year-old quarterback suffered a knee injury Sunday against the Tampa Bay Buccaneers.
Sure, backup Mike Davis has done a solid job in relief of McCaffrey this season, but he's not a game-changer to the same extent, and he might not be as effective if Bridgewater isn't 100 percent in the coming weeks.
This rebuilding team had a minuscule margin for error to begin with. Now they've lost five consecutive games to basically fall out of playoff contention, and that is highly unlikely to change with Bridgewater and McCaffrey both hurting.
In fact, at some point soon the Panthers might want to consider shutting those guys down to preserve their bodies for 2021 and beyond.
Chicago Bears: The Quarterback Position
Chicago Bears head coach and supposed quarterback guru Matt Nagy handed off play-calling duties to offensive coordinator Bill Lazor in Week 10, but that did nothing to fix a Bears offense that entered Monday night averaging an NFC-low 4.8 yards per play before averaging 3.0 yards per play in a loss to the Minnesota Vikings.
Nagy isn't off the hook, and a mediocre offensive line and abysmal running game are factors as well, but those are obstacles that can be overcome if you've got a strong defense (which Chicago does) and an elite quarterback (which it most definitely does not).
Against a beatable Minnesota pass defense, Nick Foles mustered just 106 passing yards in Monday's loss, bringing his passer rating down to 81.2 and his yards-per-attempt average down to an NFC-worst 5.95. And that comes after Nagy and Co. benched bust Mitchell Trubisky, who has a shoulder injury now anyway.
Neither Foles nor Trubisky looks like a long-term answer for Chicago at the sport's most important position, and the short term looks even more foreboding considering that Foles was carted off with an injury late in what was the Bears' fourth consecutive loss.
Best of luck to whoever starts for the Bears at Lambeau Field.
Cincinnati Bengals: The Offensive Line
Not expecting much pushback on this one. Rookie Cincinnati Bengals quarterback Joe Burrow has been sacked an AFC-high 32 times, thanks primarily to the fact that the offensive line has been a mess.
Both guard spots and the right tackle position lack stability, consistency and all-around talent, leaving the Bengals in need of upgrades at every line position except left tackle and center, where Jonah Williams and Trey Hopkins have delivered.
The Bengals have won just four of their last 27 games, so of course there's more to it than just that. The defense ranks in the bottom 10 in DVOA against both the pass and run, the running game is averaging just 4.0 yards per carry, they have the lowest defensive pressure rate in the league, and Burrow needs to become more consistent as well.
But because the top priority right now has to be Burrow's development, the main area of concern must be the O-line.
Cleveland Browns: Bad Baker
The Cleveland Browns might have enough depth at the offensive skill positions to overcome the loss of top wide receiver Odell Beckham Jr., and a mediocre defense might survive because of the phenomenal contributions they've often received from standouts Myles Garrett and Denzel Ward.
But if the Browns are going to experience playoff success for the first time in the 21st century, they'll need more consistency from quarterback Baker Mayfield.
The third-year No. 1 overall pick has been Hyde a little more often than he's been Jekyll this season, posting a sub-80 passer rating in five games and a rating of 100 or higher in four. There's been nothing in between. He and Josh Allen are the only quarterbacks who have four-plus sub-80 ratings and four-plus triple-digit ratings this season.
The bad news is four of those poor performances have come in Cleveland's last five games, with Mayfield completing barely 60 percent of his passes during that mediocre stretch.
Injuries to both himself and his supporting cast factor in, as does a short stretch on the reserve/COVID-19 list, but Mayfield is supposed to be a franchise quarterback and he's running out of excuses.
Dallas Cowboys: Injuries
There are valid long-term concerns about head coach Mike McCarthy's ability to run a 2020-style offense, about the money they're giving running back Ezekiel Elliott, and about the state of an aging offensive line as well as a defense that has probably underperformed regardless of injuries.
Still, the story of the Dallas Cowboys' 2020 season should focus mainly on what has gone down medically.
Quarterback Dak Prescott, left tackle Tyron Smith, right tackle La'el Collins and tight end Blake Jarwin are out for the year, center Travis Frederick retired suddenly prior to the season, and defenders Leighton Vander Esch, Chidobe Awuzie, Anthony Brown and Sean Lee have spent time on injured reserve.
Lately, with Andy Dalton also sidelined, they've been down to their third quarterback, and at this point it feels as though they're playing out the string despite the fact that the NFC East is wide-open.
The gutted Cowboys have averaged just 10.3 points per game over the course of a four-game losing streak, and their only two wins this season have come against teams that are a combined 6-13. It's likely a lost cause now, but they're too banged up to accomplish anything in January anyway.
Denver Broncos: Drew Lock
This was supposed to be the year John Elway's Denver Broncos finally benefited from the presence of a franchise quarterback not named Peyton Manning. After all, 2019 second-round pick Drew Lock shined during his first run as an NFL starter late in his rookie campaign.
But instead, Lock has been the most glaring impediment to success this year in Denver.
The big-armed Missouri product ranks dead last among qualified quarterbacks with a completion percentage of 55.0, and his 66.5 passer rating is just a point up on the last-ranked Sam Darnold in that metric. His arm is intriguing, but among 34 quarterbacks with at least 20 deep-passing attempts this season, he ranks 34th by a wide margin with a passer rating of just 30.8.
Now, his right tackle, Ja'Wuan James, opted out in August, and his top receiver, Courtland Sutton, is on injured reserve. Plus, he's dealt with shoulder and rib injuries himself this season. But the Broncos have multiple options in the running game, and the banged-up defense actually ranks above the league median in DVOA against both the pass and run.
Lock has some fair excuses, but he's still been the main problem for 3-6 Denver in 2020.
Detroit Lions: Big Leads
The Detroit Lions might be falling out of the playoff picture at 4-5, but they've held double-digit leads in three of their five losses this season. All three of those collapses came in the first four weeks of the year against fellow NFC playoff contenders, which means there's a decent chance the team's inability to hold on to leads will be the difference between a playoff berth and draft preparation come early January.
Matt Patricia's team, which also blew two such leads last year, has surrendered just 39 points in first quarters this season but 88 in the fourth. And that comes one year after they gave up just 65 first-quarter points but 149 in the fourth.
In fact, during the Patricia era, the Lions have the NFL's third-best scoring margin in the first quarter and the league's third-worst scoring margin the rest of the way.
They're just very good at choking, and that habit trumps unremarkable quarterback play from the now-injured Matthew Stafford, horrendous run defense and a pass rush that has the worst pressure rate in the NFC.
Detroit isn't good enough to experience success while blowing games as often as it does.
Green Bay Packers: Run Defense
We all saw the Green Bay Packers fall victim to their kryptonite when the San Francisco 49ers rushed for 285 yards in a dominant playoff victory over Green Bay last season. The Packers' porous run defense was exposed that day as the D missed 13 tackles in a blaze of embarrassment.
This year, that remains the largest potential obstacle for a Super Bowl contender.
Only a handful of teams have missed more tackles this season than the Packers, who have surrendered 4.6 yards per carry but rank in the bottom 10 in expected points on run defense.
A strong performance from undrafted rookie back James Robinson allowed the lowly Jacksonville Jaguars to hang with the Pack at Lambeau in Week 10, Dalvin Cook of the Minnesota Vikings basically defeated Green Bay singlehandedly in Week 8, and that D was wrecked by Bucs running backs Ronald Jones II and Ke'Shawn Vaughn in an ugly Week 6 loss.
The Packers have a lot going for them with quarterback Aaron Rodgers experiencing somewhat of a rejuvenation, but they could be in trouble if they have to deal with Jones, Alvin Kamara, Cook, Kenyan Drake, Chris Carson or Darrell Henderson in the NFC postseason.
Houston Texans: Their Own Front Office
For all intents and purposes, the 2-7 Houston Texans are toast for 2020. That means there's little use focusing on what could continue to sink them this season (the worst running game and run defense in football, for example).
Instead, their kryptonite with an eye toward 2021 might be their own front office.
They don't currently have a general manager or a head coach locked in, there are major questions about executive Jack Easterby's role, and they took significant heat for a weird midseason decision to fire VP of Communications Amy Palcic last week.
There's plenty of reason to be concerned about the direction of an organization that won't be able to easily rally without its top two picks in the 2021 draft. Doing that will take some clever maneuvering from the next regime, and it's hard to feel confident that the current front office will hire the right people for that job.
Indianapolis Colts: 'Fourth-Quarter Phil'
That's my nickname for the dreaded version of Indianapolis Colts quarterback Philip Rivers, who ranks 26th among 27 quarterbacks who have thrown at least 25 passes in the fourth quarter of one-score games, with a passer rating of 56.7 in those situations.
Three of Rivers' seven interceptions have come in the fourth quarter. One might have cost them a win against Jacksonville, another was a nail in their coffin against Cleveland and the other nearly led to a loss against Cincinnati.
And that isn't confined to 2020. Rivers has now thrown a league-high 12 fourth-quarter interceptions since the start of last season, with eight of those coming in one-score games (nobody else has more than five).
Put it all together and, despite a strong offensive line, a decent group of weapons and an elite defense, it's extremely hard to trust the Colts entering the home stretch.
Jacksonville Jaguars: Pass Defense
The Jacksonville Jaguars are plagued with holes and areas worthy of concern, but the gutted defense is in particularly bad shape when it comes to slowing down opposing passing attacks.
They miss Jalen Ramsey and A.J. Bouye at cornerback, where rookie C.J. Henderson has struggled early on (he's given up a 110.2 passer rating into his coverage). Meanwhile, nobody on the roster has three sacks or even a dozen quarterback hits as they await the full emergence of second-year edge defender Josh Allen. The No. 7 overall pick was a Pro Bowler as a rookie but has suffered somewhat of a sophomore slump with limited support in 2020.
At least former Philadelphia Eagles corner Sidney Jones has experienced some success in a new setting, but that alone isn't enough to save this pass defense. The Jags need to improve significantly in this field in order to compete again in 2021.
Kansas City Chiefs: Run Defense
The defending Super Bowl champion Kansas City Chiefs don't do a lot wrong, but they're averaging 8.6 missed tackles per game. That's the third-worst missed-tackle rate in the league and an indication that Kansas City—like Green Bay—could be particularly vulnerable on the ground.
They rank 30th against the run in terms of DVOA after surrendering 140-plus rushing yards in five of their first nine games. And in their only loss in the last calendar year, Josh Jacobs and Devontae Booker rushed 30 times for 139 yards for the Las Vegas Raiders.
Linebacker Ben Niemann has struggled, and veterans Anthony Hitchens and Damien Wilson haven't stood out, either. Meanwhile, interior defensive lineman Chris Jones is obviously much more oriented toward the pass rush.
Kansas City will again have to face Jacobs and Booker in Week 11 as those two meet in a critical divisional matchup, and beyond that, the Chiefs will have to deal with strong running games belonging to the Buccaneers and New Orleans Saints during the home stretch.
It's a vulnerability worth some attention.
Las Vegas Raiders: Lack of Big Plays
The Las Vegas Raiders have remained efficient offensively while improving defensively thus far in a breakout 2020 campaign. And while they remain somewhat vulnerable on D and have just one game with multiple takeaways this season, a larger concern might be the offense's inability to consistently hit on splash plays.
Only four offenses have executed fewer 15-yard plays this season, and quarterback Derek Carr has completed just 21 of 46 deep passing attempts. Carr also ranks 24th among 33 qualified passers with 5.6 air yards per completion.
The Raiders are at their best when they're balanced if not run-oriented offensively. When that wasn't the case against the Patriots, Bills and Bucs in Weeks 3, 4 and 7, they were clearly outplayed in losses as too much fell on Carr's shoulders and they couldn't stretch the field.
That trend will have to change if they expect to have any chance against stout opponents like the Steelers, Ravens or Colts come January.
Los Angeles Chargers: The Fourth Quarter
The Los Angeles Chargers are averaging 25.1 points per game, which ranks in the middle of the pack offensively. But only the winless New York Jets have scored fewer points than the Chargers in the fourth quarter this season.
The Bolts have lost seven games, but...
- They led the Chiefs 17-9 in the fourth quarter before losing 23-20 in overtime
- They led the Bucs 31-28 in the fourth quarter before losing 38-31
- They led the Saints 20-13 and 27-20 in the fourth quarter before losing 30-27 in overtime
- They led the Broncos 24-10 in the fourth quarter before losing 31-30
That, right there, is the difference between 2-7 and 6-3.
It's an indictment on head coach Anthony Lynn's game-management skills, rookie quarterback Justin Herbert's lack of experience and the defense's ability to close out games. And while it's probably too late to correct those flaws this season, that's something the notoriously choke-prone Bolts have to fix between now and Herbert's sophomore season.
Los Angeles Rams: Jared Goff in Big Spots
The contending Los Angeles Rams are quite balanced on both sides of the ball and don't have any glaring issues worth reporting. But as they race toward the playoffs, a veteran Rams team is likely anxious about what quarterback Jared Goff and the offense will bring to the table in key moments.
The last time we saw Goff in the playoffs, he bombed in L.A.'s Super Bowl LIII loss to the Patriots. In four career postseason games, he has a completion percentage of just 55.0 percent, as many interceptions (two) as touchdown throws and a 73.6 passer rating.
He also posted a mere 84.9 rating in two crushing December losses to the Cowboys and 49ers as the Rams fell short of the playoffs in 2019, and he's currently coming off two so-so performances in a row against fellow playoff contenders Seattle and the Miami Dolphins.
Can Goff and Co. handle strong pass defenses like those belonging to the Saints, Packers, Bucs or Bears in the NFC or the Chiefs, Steelers, Colts, Ravens or Dolphins in the AFC come playoff time? It's a concern.
Miami Dolphins: The Running Game
The Miami Dolphins have to be taken seriously following a five-game winning streak, but opposing defenses are going to begin to take advantage of increased tape on Tua Tagovailoa to stymie the rookie quarterback.
When that happens, the Dolphins will need a boost from a running game that hasn't provided enough assistance for Tagovailoa over the course of his first three NFL starts.
Miami's rush offense ranks 27th in DVOA, and they're the only team in the NFL averaging fewer than 3.6 yards per rushing attempt. Leading rusher Myles Gaskin is on injured reserve with a knee injury, Matt Breida (hamstring) hasn't suited up since Week 8, and now-benched quarterback Ryan Fitzpatrick has more rushing yards than everybody on the roster except Gaskin.
Undrafted and unproven backups Salvon Ahmed and Patrick Laird didn't perform badly in Miami's Week 10 victory over the Chargers, but the surging Miami defense did most of the heavy lifting in that win.
If Gaskin or Breida can't come back and take off soon or Ahmed or Laird can't shock the football world, a lack of effectiveness on the ground will eventually catch up to the Dolphins.
Minnesota Vikings: The Pass Rush
This blurb could have easily been dedicated to the inconsistent play that has plagued Minnesota Vikings quarterback Kirk Cousins for the entirety of his career, but Cousins did help the Vikes win a playoff game in 2019, and the veteran has posted a 123.0 passer rating during a three-game winning streak.
He and star running back Dalvin Cook are rolling, and a new-look defense has also made progress for a team that is suddenly alive in the playoff hunt.
Still, it's concerning that with Everson Griffen gone, Yannick Ngakoue traded and Danielle Hunter on injured reserve, the Minnesota pass rush just hasn't made an impact. They've recorded just five sacks over the course of this three-game winning streak, including zero Monday night against the Bears, and they rank seventh-last in the NFL with a pressure rate of 18.6 percent.
Only three active Minnesota defenders have more than one sack all season. They've found ways to get less conventional pressure with Eric Wilson, Shamar Stephen and Harrison Smith coming from spots other than the edge, but they'll eventually need more from a relatively unknown group of defensive ends.
New England Patriots: Um, the Personnel?
This might seem a tad broad, but the New England Patriots are a well-coached team that still likely intimidates opponents because of its track record. That's why the Pats can't be totally ruled out in the playoff race despite the fact that the depth chart is lacking significantly in practically every key spot.
Aside from the secondary, there isn't a single area in which New England is close to special. Quarterback Cam Newton is the NFL's sixth-lowest-rated qualified passer, they're yet to get consistent production from any of their running backs, the pass-catching corps is a train wreck, the offensive line ranks below the league median in adjusted sack rate, only six defenses have recorded fewer sacks, the run D ranks 31st in DVOA and only the Jags have surrendered more yards per pass attempt.
No wonder New England has the eighth-lowest team DVOA in the league. The roster has been gutted of late, leaving very few players—Newton and back Damien Harris on occasion, wide receiver Jakobi Meyers here and there, young offensive linemen Michael Onwenu and Isaiah Wynn for the most part, and defensive backs J.C. Jackson and Jonathan Jones—to be truly excited about.
The Pats might battle back from a 2-5 start to enter the Super Bowl picture simply because they can never be counted out, but the fact is pretty much the entire roster looks like it is far from worthy.
New Orleans Saints: The Health of Drew Brees
If not for the fact that 41-year-old New Orleans Saints quarterback Drew Brees went down with rib fractures and a collapsed lung in Week 10, we would have had to nitpick here about the Saints' slightly high penalty rate or the defense's mildly alarming struggles in the red zone.
Instead, we merely have to state the obvious.
With all due respect to Jameis Winston and Taysom Hill, it will be next to impossible for the Saints to conquer the loaded NFC playoff race without Brees, who now seems likely to miss multiple games.
Sure, they went 5-0 sans Brees last year, but that was with Teddy Bridgewater, and it came during somewhat of an easy stretch earlier in the season. The circumstances are different this time, and even if Brees returns sooner than later, there's no telling how long it'll take for him to be 100 percent.
I wouldn't bet on Winston or Hill or a significantly limited Brees against the Chiefs or Vikings in Week 15 or 16, and that applies to any playoff matchup except maybe a potential first-round clash with the winner of the NFC East.
New York Giants: The Offense
Pick the poison that will sink the New York Giants' quest to capture the horrendous NFC East in 2020.
1. Quarterback Daniel Jones, who turned the ball over 29 times in his first 16 NFL games but has committed just seven turnovers in his last seven starts, will fall back into bad habits now that every game matters down the stretch.
2. The absence of superstar running back Saquon Barkley will rob the Giants of consistent offensive balance and put too much pressure on Jones as an offensive line that ranks dead last in adjusted line yards is exposed.
3. All of the above.
It's encouraging that Jones has made progress in recent weeks, but that sample remains small, it's hard to get too fired up about Wayne Gallman, and Andrew Thomas and Cameron Fleming remain liabilities along the O-line. Call it a cop-out if you want, but any opponent that can play half-decent defense will likely continue to serve as kryptonite for the G-Men.
New York Jets: Adam Gase
The 0-9 New York Jets are basically swimming in their kryptonite right now, so let's focus instead on what might impact them negatively in 2021 and beyond, and let's start and end that analysis with head coach Adam Gase.
Gase specializes in coaching quarterbacks, but his starter, Sam Darnold, is the NFL's lowest-rated qualified passer, and his offense has the second-worst passer rating in the league. He's an offensive guru whose offenses have ranked 32nd in 2020 (thus far), 32nd in 2019, 31st in 2018, 25th in 2017 and 24th in 2016.
Five years as a head coach (three in Miami, two with the Jets), always in the bottom 10. And it's not as though he hasn't had talent with which to work. Ryan Tannehill became one of the league's highest-rated passers after breaking away from Miami, and Gase has gotten nothing out of the talented Darnold.
Regardless of whether the Jets land Trevor Lawrence or another of the draft's highly touted quarterbacks or stick with Darnold for another year, the organization has to bring an end to the toxic, dreary Gase era as soon as the 2020 campaign comes to a merciful conclusion.
Philadelphia Eagles: Carson Wentz
Injuries—particularly the high number of them suffered by members of quarterback Carson Wentz's supporting cast—have often crippled the Philadelphia Eagles this season. But they've been resilient in the past and they still have the talent, especially with a healthy Wentz, to dominate a terrible division.
And yet, the odds favor the Eagles falling to 3-6-1 this weekend. They're a mess, and the main culprit is the passing game. Wentz is the NFL's interception leader (12), the NFC's lowest-rated qualified passer (73.1) and one of the league's least accurate deep-ball throwers (33.3 percent, which is just better than Joe Burrow, Drew Lock and Sam Darnold).
A constantly rotating cast of receivers, tight ends, running backs and offensive linemen hasn't helped, but the numbers and the eyeball test are still damning. Wentz, who makes $32 million a year and should be in his prime at age 27, looks as though he's been suffering from the yips for two-and-a-half months.
The Eagles remain very much alive (thanks, NFC Least!), so if they blow this, it'll likely be because Wentz never gets it together.
Pittsburgh Steelers: The Running Game
They might be 9-0, but only four teams have fewer 10-plus-yard runs this season than the Pittsburgh Steelers, who rank in the bottom six in football with a 3.8 yards-per-attempt average on the ground and fourth-last in the league in rushing DVOA.
Top back James Conner, who struggled last year, hit a groove in September and October this year but has averaged just 2.8 yards per carry the last three weeks. Meanwhile, youngsters Benny Snell Jr. and Anthony McFarland Jr. have hardly factored in.
"The biggest significant component or analysis or critique of [Sunday's game against Cincinnati] is our ineffective running game," Steelers head coach Mike Tomlin said this week, per Bob Labriola of the team's official website.
"And we've spent a lot of time thinking and talking about that in an effort to move forward. One of the things I'll acknowledge is as a team you always go through lulls in the season where components of your play are lacking, and it requires a re-center of energy and focus and attention. I believe that's where we are in regards to the run game right now, so we'll get about that task this week."
Veteran quarterback Ben Roethlisberger could become kryptonite if his 38-year-old body begins to break down between now and February, but that hasn't happened yet and the Steelers are pretty loaded elsewhere, so the biggest tangible fear right now is that a lack of offensive balance could eventually sink the Steelers.
San Francisco 49ers: Injuries
Quarterback Jimmy Garoppolo, running backs Raheem Mostert and Tevin Coleman, wide receivers Deebo Samuel, Jalen Hurd and Richie James, tight ends George Kittle and Jordan Reed, offensive linemen Weston Richburg and Ben Garland, defensive linemen Nick Bosa, Dee Ford, Solomon Thomas, Arik Armstead and Ronald Blair, cornerbacks Richard Sherman, Emmanuel Moseley, Ahkello Witherspoon and K'Waun Williams, and safety Jaquiski Tartt.
That's a rundown of the key players who have missed significant action or are in the process of missing substantial time for the San Francisco 49ers this season.
I don't remember the last time I saw any team get hit as hard by injuries as the 2020 49ers, who under those circumstances have no realistic shot at winning the stacked NFC West or making another Super Bowl run.
Sometimes, the football gods just aren't on your side.
Seattle Seahawks: Big Plays on Defense
From an oft-ineffective pass rush to poor pass protection to suddenly inconsistent quarterback play, the Seattle Seahawks have major issues. But Russell Wilson is still quite magical, and he's gotten by with offensive line problems before, and the pass-rushing dilemma is tied closely to Seattle's overall plight on defense.
Prior to Thursday night, the Seattle defense had surrendered 41 20-plus-yard completions this season—a total which ranked behind only the Falcons (44). They'd also given up 67 completions on passes that traveled at least 15 yards, which also ranked behind only Atlanta (80).
Injuries are a factor, but that doesn't excuse making Nick Mullens look like Joe Montana earlier this season. They also allowed Cam Newton to put together his most prolific passing performance in nearly a decade, which hasn't aged well as Newton has struggled ever since.
That should have been an omen. Now, Seattle is consistently getting dumped on by quarterbacks who are far less capable than Aaron Rodgers, Drew Brees and Tom Brady, and it's unlikely they'll make a run to Super Bowl LV without having to prove they can contain a quarterback of that ilk.
Tampa Bay Buccaneers: Father Time
The Tampa Bay Buccaneers have the second-highest team DVOA in the NFL, and even a running game that caused some concern prior to the season has broken out with six strong performances in the last seven weeks (Ronald Jones II suddenly ranks third in the league in rushing yardage).
But Tampa Bay's three losses just so happen to have come in arguably the three worst games of quarterback Tom Brady's season thus far. He looked rusty in a Week 1 loss to the Saints, he didn't have it at all in a short-rest road loss to Chicago, and he bombed again on short rest in a blowout Week 9 loss to New Orleans.
Those are also the only games this season in which Brady has been sacked more than twice, which is a reminder that future Hall of Famer's kryptonite continues to be effective pressure. That's not exactly breaking news, but it's important to keep in mind as the Bucs embark on a playoff run that will involve guaranteed matchups with the Rams and Chiefs and playoff meetings with similarly fierce opponents.
The point? Brady is the only successful 43-year-old quarterback in NFL history, but he's still forty-freaking-three. It's fair to wonder if his body can hold up over the course of the home stretch and into January, especially considering how much he struggled late in 2019.
Tennessee Titans: The Defense When It Matters Most
The Tennessee Titans defense ranks in the middle of the pack in points per game allowed, the top 10 in takeaways and at least outside of the bottom 10 in yards per play allowed. But look a little closer and there's reason to be concerned about a D that ranks 24th in DVOA.
The Titans defense is one of just five units that have surrendered 20-plus touchdowns, mainly because they have the worst third-down stoppage rate in the AFC (opponents have converted 53.2 percent of the time) and the fifth-worst red-zone touchdown prevention rate in the NFL (opponents have found paydirt 74.3 percent of the time).
And only Houston is allowing opposing offenses to take more time off the clock on a per-drive basis than the Titans, who also rank in the bottom five when it comes to sacks, sack rate and pressure rate.
The Tennessee defense can't get off the damn field, which makes it harder for offensive centerpieces Derrick Henry and Ryan Tannehill to do their thing. Eventually, they're going to have to make some stops, which means guys like Jadeveon Clowney, Jeffery Simmons, Jayon Brown, Harold Landry III and
Rashaan Evans might have to start making more plays in key moments.
Washington Football Team: The Passing Game
The Washington Football Team's talented young defense has generally flourished this season, and there's even some reason to be optimistic about a WFT running game featuring Antonio Gibson and J.D. McKissic. But it's impossible for Washington to make a push, even in the sick joke that is the NFC East, with so many issues in the passing game.
Second-year quarterback Dwayne Haskins Jr. has of course been benched, while his replacement, Kyle Allen, is now on injured reserve. Veteran Alex Smith's return to that starting role is a tremendous story considering his battle back from a gruesome leg injury, but the reality is Smith is quite rusty.
The 36-year-old has thrown three interceptions to one touchdown pass thus far, and he's also already taken 10 sacks behind an offensive line that has the league's seventh-worst adjusted sack rate. They lost left tackle Geron Christian Sr. to a season-ending knee injury last month, and the jury is still out on replacement Cornelius Lucas.
And while sophomore wideout Terry McLaurin is on track for a 1,000-yard campaign, there just aren't many other options in the pass-catching corps. Tight end Logan Thomas has flashed a bit, but Dontrelle Inman is hurt, and Isaiah Wright, Cam Sims and Steven Sims aren't exactly moving the needle yet.
Even with Smith putting up bigger yardage numbers in a small sample, there just isn't enough happening with a passing offense that ranks dead last in the NFC in DVOA. And it's hard to see that changing in 2020.