1 Question Still Haunting Every NFL Team

Kristopher Knox@@kris_knoxFeatured ColumnistOctober 18, 2021

1 Question Still Haunting Every NFL Team

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    David Richard/Associated Press

    We're now six weeks into the 2021 NFL season, and while now have a pretty good idea of what teams are going to be this season, every franchise still has unanswered questions. Unfortunately, some questions have the potential to unravel even the most promising of campaigns.

    Last year's Pittsburgh Steelers, for example, rattled off 11 wins to start the season. However, it was fair to wonder if a lackluster running game and an inconsistent offense could carry them through the playoffs. Ultimately, it couldn't.

    Here, we'll examine one question still hanging over each team. These questions largely pertain to roster weaknesses, injury concerns and coaching questions based on what we've seen so far—though we will take a big-picture approach in some instances. We'll dive into what these questions are and how they could haunt teams over the final 12 weeks of the season and beyond.

    Teams are listed in alphabetical order.

Arizona Cardinals: Can Arizona Shut Down the Run When It Has To?

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    Cardinals vs. Browns
    Cardinals vs. BrownsKirk Irwin/Associated Press

    As the NFL's last undefeated team, the Arizona Cardinals don't carry many questions. They throttled the Cleveland Browns on Sunday and corralled what has been one of the NFL's best rushing attacks—though there is a caveat.

    The Browns came into the game without starting back Nick Chubb. Kareem Hunt was dealing with knee and wrist injuries and was eventually carted to the locker room with a calf injury. Arizona also opened up an early 20-0 lead, which took Cleveland out of its rushing element—the Browns finished with 73 yards on 19 carries.

    What the Cardinals must figure out is whether Sunday's performance is a sign of improvement or a situational aberration. Arizona entered the game ranked 31st in yards per attempt allowed (5.4)

    Considering Arizona is sitting at 6-0, it's safe to say that the Cardinals can live with how their run defense has performed to this point. However, it's a potential problem that could cost the Cardinals against a run-heavy team in the postseason.

Atlanta Falcons: Why Can't the Defense Generate More Turnovers?

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    Mark Humphrey/Associated Press

    The Atlanta Falcons entered their Week 6 bye with a 2-3 record. However, Atlanta has won two of its last three and could be on the upswing. The offense without Julio Jones is a work in progress but is better than its 22nd ranking in points (heading into Sunday) might suggest.

    Atlanta scored nine in Week 1, Arthur Smith's first-ever game as a head coach. It scored 27 in Week 5 despite not having top wideouts Calvin Ridley and Russell Gage.

    The defense under new coordinator Dean Pees is perhaps even more promising. It came into Week 6 ranked 13th in yardage after ranking 29th a year ago. Yet, the Falcons defense ranked 28th in points allowed—in part because of return scores (two interception, one kick return) and a lack of turnovers.

    The Falcons have forced just three turnovers, tied for second-fewest in the league. They need to force more if they hope to capitalize on a defense that is solid and improving.

    Teams cannot simply ask opponents to drop the ball or throw to the wrong player, but they can make aggressive plays and force mistakes.

    Pees can answer the turnover question by better disguising coverages and pressuring opposing quarterbacks coming out of the bye—and finding a new approach to the pass rush should be part of the equation. Though the Falcons have blitzed on 24.2 percent of their defensive snaps—the league's 17th-highest rate—they came into the bye with the fourth-lowest pressure rate in the NFL (21.1 percent).

    And if the Falcons cannot effectively pressure opposing quarterbacks with their current personnel, they need to seek out players who can get it done.

Baltimore Ravens: Can the Secondary Hold Up Consistently?

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    Ravens CB Marlon Humphrey
    Ravens CB Marlon HumphreyTerrance Williams/Associated Press

    The Baltimore Ravens should feel pretty good about coming out of Week 6 with a 5-1 record and a decisive win over a very good Los Angeles Chargers team.

    The Ravens might feel even better about how their secondary held up against one of the game's best young gunslingers. Justin Herbert finished the game with only 195 passing yards, one touchdown and one interception.

    However, Baltimore's pass defense has been far from stellar thus far in 2021. Baltimore ranked 29th in passing yards allowed and 25th in yards per pass attempt surrendered entering Sunday. Baltimore surrendered 390 passing yards or more in three of its first five games.

    Naturally, losing cornerback Marcus Peters for the season to a torn ACL has been part of the issue. Lapses in coverage and a reliance on the blitz, though, have also contributed to the defense's issues.

    Heading into Week 6, Baltimore blitzed on 33.2 percent of its defensive plays—the fifth-highest rate in the NFL.

    Baltimore's underwhelming pass defense has only led to a loss once this season, but it could be a significant liability come playoff time. The big question is whether Sunday's turnaround is a sign of improvement to come or merely a mirage.

Buffalo Bills: Can Josh Allen Continue His High Level of Play?

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    Bills QB Josh Allen
    Bills QB Josh AllenAssociated Press

    Heading into Monday night's showdown with the Tennessee Titans, there simply aren't many questions surrounding the Buffalo Bills. The team dropped its opener to the Pittsburgh Steelers but has since won four games by 28.8 points.

    As Michael David Smith of Pro Football Talk recently pointed out, that's the largest margin of victory during a four-game winning streak since 1953.

    Cynical Bills fans, however, may wonder if Buffalo can sustain its hot streak—and more importantly, if quarterback Josh Allen can continue his lights-out level of play.

    Through the winning streak, Allen has passed for 1,100 yards, rushed for 144 yards, totaled 13 touchdowns and thrown just two interceptions. During last year's 4-0 start, Allen passed for 1,326 yards, rushed for 83 yards and totaled 15 touchdowns.

    However, Allen then tossed two interceptions against the Titans in Week 5 during the team's first loss. After posting a passer rating above 100 in each of the first four games, he failed to hit that mark in seven of the final 12. Buffalo went 13-3 but still failed to capture the No. 1 seed in the AFC.

    It's hard to nitpick a team that ranks first in total defense, eighth in offense and first in both scoring and points allowed. However, the question of whether Allen has finally arrived as a perennial All-Pro has yet to be answered.

Carolina Panthers: Can Sam Darnold Succeed Behind This Offensive Line?

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    Panthers QB Sam Darnold
    Panthers QB Sam DarnoldGerald Herbert/Associated Press

    At times, Carolina Panthers quarterback Sam Darnold has looked like an entirely different quarterback than the one who struggled to develop with the New York Jets. However, he has had his fair share of struggles—he threw three interceptions in a winnable game against the Philadelphia Eagles in Week 5.

    Darnold cannot shoulder all of the blame, however. He's been hampered by an offensive line that continues to struggle in pass protection.

    Before Sunday's defeat to the Vikings, Darnold had been sacked only 14 times. However, he was under pressure on 28.1 percent of his dropbacks. That's the highest rate of Darnold's career, including his three lean years in New York.

    Carolina was without left tackle Cameron Erving in Week 5—forcing right tackle Taylor Moton to the opposite side—but pass protection has been a constant issue.

    "It's disappointing," Moton said, per Darin Gantt of the team's official website.

    Darnold was sacked another four times against the Minnesota Vikings, tossed another interception and finished with a disappointing 55.6 passer rating.

    If the Panthers cannot get better O-line play out of their current lineup, they're going to have to test the free-agent and trade markets ahead of the Nov. 2 trade deadline.

Chicago Bears: Can the Bears Develop Justin Fields with This Offensive Line

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    Bears vs. Packers
    Bears vs. PackersJeffrey Phelps/Associated Press

    In Weeks 4 and 5, the Chicago Bears proved that they can win with rookie quarterback Justin Fields under center. However, a problematic offensive line begs the question of whether the Bears can successfully develop Fields this season.

    Now that Fields has been named the full-time starter, it's his show. However, that show has too often involved opposing defenders in his face. Fields entered Week 6 facing pressure on 31.2 percent of his dropbacks.

    Fields and Andy Dalton were sacked a combined 18 times before Sunday. Against the Green Bay Packers, Fields was sacked another four times and was frequently under pressure. He finished just 16-of-27 for 174 yards with a touchdown and an interception.

    Part of the problem, of course, is that Chicago lost offensive tackle Teven Jenkins, a rookie second-round pick, to back surgery before the start of the season. With running back David Montgomery on injured reserve (knee) and Damien Williams out on the reserve/COVID-19 list, Fields had a lot of pressure on his shoulders against Green Bay.

    Of course, Fields was asked to shoulder the load in his first NFL start too, when the Bears ran the ball only 13 times while Fields was sacked nine times.

    If the Bears hope to see Fields make continued progress as a rookie, they need to do a better job of protecting him, which may require taking the ball out of his hands when he's taking a beating.

Cincinnati Bengals: Are the Bengals Doing Enough to Protect Joe Burrow?

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    Bengals QB Joe Burrow
    Bengals QB Joe BurrowDuane Burleson/Associated Press

    Cincinnati Bengals quarterback Joe Burrow suffered a devastating knee injury in 2020 that cut his rookie campaign short after 10 games. It resulted in multiple torn ligaments in his left knee. While Burrow has looked healthy and played like a top-tier quarterback, he's also taken multiple hits.

    Burrow has now been sacked 16 times, and he's taken several other hits as a runner. As Green Bay Packers quarterback Aaron Rodgers stated after his Week 5 shootout against Cincinnati, taking on defenders is a habit that Burrow needs to break.

    "Sometimes you gotta slide," Rodgers said on the Pat McAfee Show (at the 1:18 mark).

    It's fair to wonder if the Bengals have done enough to protect Burrow—both behind a rebuilt offensive line and from himself. Given last year's injury, his potential and his importance to the franchise, it's fair to say that Cincinnati needs to do a better job.

    With a healthy Burrow under center, Cincinnati has the look of a playoff team and a perennial contender. All of that goes out the window, however, if he suffers another significant injury.

Cleveland Browns: Will Injuries Derail Cleveland's Season?

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    Browns RB Kareem Hunt
    Browns RB Kareem HuntDavid Richard/Associated Press

    The Browns entered the season as talented on paper as any team in the league. However, the NFL is a game of attrition, and Cleveland may have already lost it.

    Cleveland has been without wideout Jarvis Landry since early in Week 2. It played without cornerbacks Denzel Ward and Greg Newsome II for most of the Week 5 loss to the Chargers. On Sunday, the Browns were forced to play without starting tackles Jedrick Wills Jr. and Tyler Conklin, plus starting running back Nick Chubb.

    Quarterback Baker Mayfield aggravated the shoulder injury that has been hampering him since Week 2, and running back Kareem Hunt was carted to the locker room with a calf injury.

    Both Hunt and Mayfield are expected to undergo MRIs on Monday.

    Cleveland is now 3-3, coming off a blowout loss and about to face a formidable Denver Broncos team on a short week. The Browns could be staring down at being 3-4 and are in very real danger of falling out of the AFC North race early.

    If the Browns are going to have any hope of making the postseason, they're going to have to find some way to navigate multiple injuries and a tough upcoming slate that includes games against Denver, Pittsburgh, Cincinnati and New England.

Dallas Cowboys: Will the Defense Have to Rely on Turnovers All Season?

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    Cowboys CB Trevon Diggs
    Cowboys CB Trevon DiggsRoger Steinman/Associated Press

    With arguably the best offense in the NFL, the Dallas Cowboys are legitimate contenders in the NFC. They narrowly lost to the defending champion Tampa Bay Buccaneers in Week 1 and then rattled off four straight wins.

    With Dak Prescott healthy and weapons like Ezekiel Elliott, CeeDee Lamb, Amari Cooper and Dalton Schultz in the lineup, the Cowboys can outscore just about anyone.

    Where Dallas could run into trouble is with its defense. Entering Week 6 ranked fifth in run defense, Dallas has been solid against the run, but it tends to surrender passing yards in chunks. That's a potential problem in shootout situations, especially if the offense struggles or turns the ball over.

    Before Sunday's slate of games, the Cowboys ranked dead-last in passing yards allowed and 21st in passing yards per attempt surrendered. On Sunday, the Cowboys allowed only 215 passing yards, but they also forced only six incompletions and surrendered a 75-yard touchdown pass with just over two minutes remaining in regulation.

    Dallas beat the New England Patriots in overtime, thanks in no small part to Trevon Diggs' second pick-six of the season, but it can't consider its secondary concerns alleviated.

    The stellar play of Diggs (seven interceptions) has helped make up for the inconsistent secondary. However, Dallas cannot count on Diggs being a turnover machine all season long. The Cowboys have to figure out a way to not be so turnover-dependent defensively.

Denver Broncos: Is This Defense Really Good Enough to Carry the Team?

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    Broncos edge Von Miller
    Broncos edge Von MillerJack Dempsey/Associated Press

    The Denver Broncos fell to 3-3 on Sunday, in large part because of three interceptions by quarterback Teddy Bridgewater. Denver's new starting quarterback has now thrown four interceptions in the last two weeks—both games resulted in losses. In Denver's other loss this season, Bridgewater exited with a concussion after only 16 pass attempts.

    While Bridgewater must shoulder the blame for his miscues, the fact that the Broncos have been unable to win poses a big question. Is a strong-looking defense really good enough to carry Denver into the postseason?

    The Broncos ranked third in total defense and second in points allowed before their latest loss. However, it's worth noting that the Broncos beat up on three teams that now own a combined three wins to start their season.

    In their three losses, the Broncos have lost by a combined 84-50 score.

    Against the Las Vegas Raiders on Sunday, Denver surrendered 426 yards of offense, which certainly does not suggest that the Broncos have a truly elite defense. And if they don't, head coach Vic Fangio will have to figure out how to get more out of Bridgewater and an offense that has averaged 21 points per game.

Detroit Lions: Does Jared Goff Have a Future in Detroit Beyond 2021?

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    Lions QB Jared Goff
    Lions QB Jared GoffPaul Sancya/Associated Press

    When the Lions traded away quarterback Matthew Stafford, they acquired a pair of first-round picks along with quarterback Jared Goff. Theoretically, this set up the Lions with a pair of options for the quarterback position. They could either try developing Goff as a long-term answer or use their draft capital to find a new quarterback of the future.

    The problem is that the 2022 draft class isn't perceived as one loaded with quarterback talent. Last month, the Bleacher Report Scouting Department mocked Oklahoma's Spencer Rattler as the only quarterback in the first nine picks. Rattler was recently benched in favor of Caleb Williams.

    If Detroit isn't going to look to the 2022 draft for its next signal-caller, it has to decide whether Goff can carry the team for at least another season. Based on the early results, the answer is no.

    Goff hadn't exactly been bad before Sunday's lopsided loss to the Bengals, but he was average at best. Goff came in with 1,303 passing yards, seven touchdowns and three interceptions. He had 202 passing yards and an interception against Cincinnati.

    Goff has now had three games without a touchdown pass, and of course, he has left the Lions winless.

    To be fair, Goff hasn't exactly been surrounded by a stellar supporting cast. But he's shown nothing to suggest that he can be the long-term answer. Right now, Detroit should be wondering if it can deal with another year with Goff as the stopgap.

Green Bay Packers: Do the Packers Have Adequate Receiver Depth?

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    Packers WR Davante Adams
    Packers WR Davante AdamsEmilee Chinn/Associated Press

    Wide receiver depth has been a question mark for the Packers dating back to last season. There's Davante Adams, and then there's everyone else. The Packers did acquire Randall Cobb during the offseason, but Adams still dominates the target share by a large margin.

    Before Week 6, Adams led the Packers with 61 targets and 42 receptions. No other wide receiver had more than 16 targets. Against the Bears, Adams led the team with four receptions and 89 yards. Allen Lazard was next among wideouts with three catches and 27 yards.

    Now, Rodgers targets Adams as often as he does for one simple reason. Regardless of the coverage he is facing, Adams always seems to get open. And as long as Adams is healthy, Green Bay's lack of other options isn't going to be an issue.

    If Adams is forced to miss time, however—he missed six games over the last two seasons—the Packers offense could have problems. Lazard came up big (146 yards, one TD) during one of Adams' absences last year, but Marquez Valdes-Scantling led Packers receivers with just 45 receiving yards in the other.

    Sure, we're looking at a bit of a "what if" scenario here. However, Green Bay is a team with championship aspirations and must plan for all possibilities. This is one question that the Packers could potentially look to answer at the trade deadline.

Houston Texans: When Is Tyrod Taylor Getting Back?

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    Texans QB Tyrod Taylor
    Texans QB Tyrod TaylorDavid Richard/Associated Press

    Sans quarterback Deshaun Watson, the Houston Texans were widely expected to be one of the worst teams in the NFL this season. That's pretty much been the case, but for the first six quarters of the season, it wasn't.

    With journeyman Tyrod Taylor under center, the Texans looked and played like a competitive team. In six quarters of action, Taylor passed for 416 yards and three touchdowns with no interceptions. He also rushed for 55 yards and another score. When he left at halftime of Week 2 with a hip injury, Houston had outscored opponents by 16 points.

    Since Taylor exited, though, the Texans have rarely appeared competitive. Sure, they put up a fight against New England in Week 5, but Houston has lost by double digits in four of their five losses.

    While rookie quarterback Davis Mills has shown flashes of promise, he's looked overwhelmed at other times—he finished 29-of-43 for 243 yards with two interceptions on Sunday.

    Texans head coach David Culley insists that Taylor will reclaim the starting gig once he's back to 100 percent.

    "Tyrod comes back and he's healthy, he's our starting quarterback," Culley said, per Aaron Wilson of SportsTalk 790.

    Unless the Texans are trying to tank, they have to be wondering how soon that's going to happen.

Indianapolis Colts: When Will the Defense Get Back on Track?

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    Colts LB Darius Leonard
    Colts LB Darius LeonardAJ Mast/Associated Press

    The good news for the Colts is that quarterback Carson Wentz appears to have turned the proverbial corner. After dealing with a dual-ankle injury, Wentz finally appears healthy and is playing at an above-average level.

    Indianapolis can make a run with the version of Wentz we've seen over the past few weeks.

    The problem is that Indianapolis' defense has been a problem. A year ago, the Colts ranked eighth in total defense and 10th in points allowed. They were a balanced team, capable of winning individual matchups on both sides of the ball.

    It's been a different story this year, as Indianapolis ranked 18th in total defense and 23rd in points allowed before Week 6. Indy's Week 5 defensive meltdown against Baltimore—the Ravens surged back from a 22-3 third-quarter deficit—cost the Colts what might have been a turnaround win.

    "When the game was on the line, the defense didn't step up," linebacker Darius Leonard said, per Joel A. Erickson of the Indianapolis Star. "That was really heartbreaking."

    The Colts defense was better against the Texans, but let's take that with a proverbial grain of salt. Houston came in ranked 29th in total offense and still amassed 353 yards. Indy can feel very good about holding the Texans to three points, but this defense is still a question mark.

    If the Colts hope to contend for the AFC South title, they have to be more consistent on the defensive side of the ball.

Jacksonville Jaguars: Is Urban Meyer Really the Right Man for the Job?

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    Jaguars coach Urban Meyer
    Jaguars coach Urban MeyerIan Walton/Associated Press

    It's early in the season, but it's already looking like Urban Meyer is struggling to adjust to life in the NFL. He first raised eyebrows when he brought in former Florida quarterback and friend Tim Tebow for a tryout at tight end. A couple of weeks ago, Meyer drew criticism for not flying home with the team, instead staying in Ohio and hitting the town.

    Hall of Famer Tony Dungy said on Brother from Another (h/t Mike Florio of Pro Football Talk): "I never went to a game where the head coach didn't come back with my team, me and myself for 13 years as a head coach, 15 years as an assistant, 15 years playing when the head coach went to a game, when we returned the head coach came back with us." 

    Along the way, Meyer has put a subpar Jacksonville Jaguars team on the field. Jacksonville has been out of sorts both offensively and defensively. They came into Sunday ranked 28th in scoring and 29th in points allowed.

    Meyer did get his first win of the year Sunday morning—a 23-20 thriller against a bad Miami Dolphins team—but that victory doesn't suddenly make Jacksonville a contender.

    There is still time for Meyer to change the narrative, of course, but he needs to act quickly. The Jaguars brought him in to help change the culture and to develop rookie No. 1 overall pick Trevor Lawrence. Through six weeks, Jacksonville looks a lot like the one-win team it was a year ago.

Kansas City Chiefs: Can the Chiefs Reach the Super Bowl with This Defense?

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    Chiefs DL Chris Jones
    Chiefs DL Chris JonesTerrance Williams/Associated Press

    The Kansas City Chiefs offense is championship-caliber. No one is questioning that. With Patrick Mahomes, Tyreek Hill and Travis Kelce leading the way, the Chiefs can go toe-to-toe with any opponent in a shootout.

    Unfortunately, Kansas City is going to find itself in a lot of shootouts this season, because the defense has been atrocious.

    Before Sunday's win, Kansas City ranked 31st in total defense and last in points allowed. The Chiefs defense wasn't an elite unit a year ago—it ranked 16th overall and 10th in points allowed—but it was good enough to get the team into Super Bowl LV.

    Turnovers have been a big difference between what we saw last year and what we've seen in 2021. Kansas City forced 24 turnovers a year ago. It forced four over the first five weeks. That, combined with a bad run defense, has allowed opponents to sustain drives and put points on the board.

    Kansas City was ranked 30th in both rushing yards allowed and yards per attempt surrendered entering Week 6. Coming into Sunday, opponents had scored on 54.2 percent of their drives—the highest rate in the NFL.

    The Chiefs defense was better against the Washington Football Team on Sunday—it held Washington to 276 yards and 13 points. However, the Football Team came in ranked just 19th in total offense, so while this performance could provide a spark, there's no guarantee.

    Whether it's to the scheme or to personnel, the Chiefs need to make changes on defense. The unit as constructed isn't good enough for Kansas City to make any significant playoff run.

Las Vegas Raiders: When Will Josh Jacobs Get Back to Form?

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    Raiders RB Josh Jacobs
    Raiders RB Josh JacobsRick Scuteri/Associated Press

    The Raiders moved to 4-2 on the season with their win over the rival Broncos, and there's plenty to feel good about as they move into the post-Jon Gruden era. However, the Raiders would feel even better about their playoff chances if they were seeing the 2020 version of running back Josh Jacobs.

    Jacobs made the Pro Bowl last season after rushing for 1,065 yards, catching 33 passes for 238 yards and scoring 12 rushing touchdowns. Unfortunately, he's been banged-up for much of this season, missing two games with ankle and toe injuries and coming into Sunday's contest questionable with an illness.

    While the Raiders have gotten fine contributions out of Peyton Barber and Kenyan Drake—primarily as a receiving back—their ground game has suffered. Las Vegas entered Week 6 ranked 31st in yards per rush and 29th in rushing yards. Jacobs came in averaging just 3.2 yards per carry.

    Jacobs again averaged 3.3 yards per carry against Denver, while Drake averaged 8.5 yards per carry, albeit on four rushes.

    Both running backs ran for touchdowns Sunday, and Jacobs has four rushing touchdowns in four games. However, Las Vegas has to be wondering when he'll be at 100 percent and when he'll be back to taking over games as he did a year ago.

Los Angeles Chargers: How Big of a Liability Is the Run Defense?

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    Ravens vs. Chargers
    Ravens vs. ChargersGail Burton/Associated Press

    For most of the season, the Los Angeles Chargers offense has been a revelation. Second-year quarterback Justin Herbert is looking and playing like a star, while guys like Mike Williams and Austin Ekeler are emerging as elite talents.

    Things weren't clicking on Sunday against Baltimore, and the game highlighted just how problematic the Chargers defense has been.

    Unfortunately, Los Angeles' defense—particularly against the run—has been an issue all season. The Chargers entered Week 6 as the league's worst in rushing yards allowed and rushing yards per attempt surrendered. They ranked 19th in total defense.

    The defensive struggles were on full display in Week 5 against the Browns. L.A. came away with the win, but the defense surrendered 42 points, 230 rushing yards and 531 yards of total offense while failing to force a turnover.

    The Chargers defense got shredded by the Ravens, who racked up 187 rushing yards, 327 total yards and 34 points. With the offense out of sync, the game turned into a blowout.

    The run defense is a question mark that L.A. needs to find an answer for immediately. If it can't, opponents who can run well will take over games in which the Chargers offense stumbles.

Los Angeles Rams: Is the Ground Game Good Enough?

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    Rams RB Darrell Henderson Jr.
    Rams RB Darrell Henderson Jr.Frank Franklin II/Associated Press

    The Los Angeles Rams have certainly looked like legitimate NFC contenders through the first six weeks of the season. Their defense, though not as impressive as last season, came into Week 6 ranked 12th in points allowed. The offense, led by quarterback Matthew Stafford, came in ranked ninth overall and eighth in scoring.

    However, the Rams have had to wonder if they can get enough out of the ground game to win when running is required.

    Los Angeles suffered a significant blow when second-year back Cam Akers was lost for the year to a torn Achilles. The Rams traded for 2018 first-round pick Sony Michel but haven't gotten a ton of production out of the former New England Patriot.

    Instead, it has been Darrell Henderson Jr. leading the way. The Rams running game has been functional but far from great. Coming into Sunday, L.A. ranked 23rd in both rushing yards and yards per rushing attempt.

    Despite opening up a 28-3 halftime lead against the lowly New York Giants on Sunday, the Rams produced just 131 yards on the ground and 3.9 yards per play.

    While Los Angeles has continued rolling because of Stafford and a potent passing attack, better balance could be critical in the postseason.

Miami Dolphins: Is Miami Fully Invested in Quarterback Tua Tagovailoa?

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    Dolphins QB Tua Tagovailoa
    Dolphins QB Tua TagovailoaMatt Dunhan/Associated Press

    Dolphins quarterback Tua Tagovailoa made his return from injured reserve (fractured ribs) on Sunday morning and mostly performed well against a bad Jaguars defense.

    Tagovailoa finished 33-of-47 for 329 yards with two touchdowns, an interception and 22 rushing yards.

    However, one good performance doesn't erase the fact that Miami still doesn't know what it has in Tagovailoa. The Alabama product was in and out of the starting lineup as a rookie and went just 17-of-31 for 215 yards with a touchdown and an interception before the injury this year.

    What we don't know is how committed Miami is to developing Tagovailoa. Rumors persist that the Dolphins are interested in trading for Texans quarterback Deshaun Watson.

    Watson faces 22 civil lawsuits from women accusing him of sexual assault and misconduct. Houston police and the NFL have also been investigating the allegations against Watson. He has not played in 2021, but Watson made three straight Pro Bowls. Dan Graziano and Jeremy Fowler of ESPN have reported Watson "would like" to play in Miami and that the Dolphins are the "most likely" landing spot.

    Any trade before Watson's civil cases are resolved feels unlikely, but one could come in the offseason. If the Dolphins aren't all-in on Tagovailoa—and they presumably aren't if Watson is on their radar—Tagovailoa may only have until the offseason to prove himself.

    That places a lot of pressure on a young quarterback who played well in a losing effort on Sunday but who has yet to prove himself. That pressure could build and become a significant problem as the season wears on.

Minnesota Vikings: How Often Can the Vikings Live on the Edge?

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    Vikings QB Kirk Cousins
    Vikings QB Kirk CousinsJacob Kupferman/Associated Press

    The Vikings are sitting at 3-3, but they could easily be 6-0 or 1-5. Minnesota has exactly one decisive win on the season—a 28-17 victory over the Seattle Seahawks—and multiple close calls.

    After winning in overtime against the Panthers on Sunday, the Vikings now have both wins and losses in overtime. They won in Detroit a week ago on a last-second field goal and missed on a potential game-winner at the end of regulation in Week 2.

    Against the Browns in Week 3, Minnesota lost by a touchdown but had a last-second throw into the end zone that should have resulted in pass interference and given the Vikings another chance.

    "I am anxiously awaiting NFL Officiating to explain why this is not Defensive Pass Interference on the last play of the Browns-Vikings game?" Tony Dungy tweeted.

    At this point, the Vikings have to wonder how often they can live on the edge in games and still come away with a playoff-caliber record.

    Close games are going to happen, of course, but championship-caliber teams figure out how to put away opponents before the closing moments. That's not what happened Sunday, with Minnesota allowing Carolina to climb out of a 28-17 fourth-quarter hole.

New England Patriots: Are the Patriots' Wide Receivers Good Enough?

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    Patriots WR Jakobi Meyers
    Patriots WR Jakobi MeyersMatt Patterson/Associated Press

    The Patriots are sitting at 2-4, but they have lost close games to the Dolphins, Buccaneers and Cowboys and could easily be sitting at 5-1 instead. Counting New England out of the postseason mix would be a mistake.

    However, if the Patriots hope to make a serious push, it's time for them to ask if their wide receiver corps is good enough. Rookie quarterback Mac Jones has played more good football than bad, but he hasn't had the benefit of a legitimate go-to No. 1 receiver.

    Jakobi Meyers came into Sunday leading New England receivers with 302 yards. However, he provided a quarterback rating of just 60.4 when targeted. Meyers led the Patriots with five receptions and 44 receiving yards against Dallas.

    Kendrick Bourne came in as New England's second-leading wideout with 207 receiving yards. He had a 75-yard touchdown reception on Sunday (his only catch) but also had a pass bounce out of his hands and returned for a touchdown by Trevon Diggs.

    The Patriots, who came in ranked 27th in passing yards per attempt, have been able to field a functional offense. However, they could and probably should be getting more out of the passing game. If New England's current crop of receivers cannot provide it, it's time for the Patriots to consider external alternatives.

New Orleans Saints: Can Jameis Winston Be a 'Safe' Quarterback?

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    Saints QB Jameis Winston
    Saints QB Jameis WinstonAssociated Press

    The New Orleans Saints rarely had to worry about Drew Brees making game-killing mistakes. He last threw double-digit interceptions in 2016, and he had a completion percentage above 70 in each of his last five seasons.

    In short, Brees was both consistent and reliable. The same cannot be said for quarterback Jameis Winston. If the Saints are hoping to make Winston their long-term answer at quarterback, they need to find out if it ever can.

    His talent has never been in question, but turnovers and consistency issues were common during Winston's pre-Saints career. The seventh-year quarterback has also been up-and-down during the first five weeks of the season.

    Winston has had big plays and 12 passing touchdowns, but he's also created problems for the Saints to overcome. He tossed two interceptions in the Week 2 blowout loss to Carolina. He had two first-quarter turnovers in Week 5 against Washington. In each game, he completed just 50 percent of his pass attempts.

    Despite dealing with injuries to multiple starters—including Michael Thomas, Erik McCoy and Wil Lutz—the Saints have appeared formidable enough on defense and on the ground to be a playoff team. If Winston can learn to match his highlights with reliability, New Orleans will be a tough out in January. If not, the Saints will continue being a team that could win or lose to any given opponent.

New York Giants: Is the Team Doing Enough to Protect Saquon Barkley?

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    Giants RB Saquon Barkley
    Giants RB Saquon BarkleyBrett Duke/Associated Press

    Giants star running back Saquon Barkley was forced to miss Week 6 with an ankle injury. Injuries are nothing new to Barkley, who was hampered by an ankle sprain in 2019 and missed the bulk of 2020 with a torn ACL and a meniscus injury in his right knee.

    While the most recent ankle injury was a bit of a fluke, it came at a time when Barkley was just beginning to round into Pro Bowl form.

    "I'll be honest, it's frustrating," Barkley said, per Michael Eisen of the team's official website.

    It's fair to wonder if the Giants are doing enough to protect Barkley, who presumably is in the team's long-term plans. While Barkley has not carried the ball more than 16 times in a game this season, he has played 209 offensive snaps. That's a sizable workload for a 232-pound jump-cut runner barely a year removed from a devastating knee injury.

    Barkley is New York's biggest offensive asset. However, he'll also be on the final year of his rookie deal in 2022. If the Giants hope to have him around beyond that, they may want to consider lightening his workload even more than they already are.

    With Barkley completely out of the game, New York managed only 11 points against the Rams on Sunday.

New York Jets: Should the Team Have Provided Zach Wilson with a Veteran Mentor?

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    Jets QB Zach Wilson
    Jets QB Zach WilsonSteve Luciano/Associated Press

    The short answer here is yes. Unless the New York Jets were worried about a veteran blocking Zach Wilson's path to the starting gig, it's hard to imagine a scenario in which Wilson wouldn't have benefited from veteran guidance from the get-go.

    Instead, the Jets surrounded Wilson in camp with a first-time head coach, a first-time offensive coordinator and two quarterbacks (Mike White, James Morgan) who had never taken regular-season snaps. They eventually signed Josh Johnson, who has made just three starts since 2011 and who is now on the practice squad.

    Wilson has played like an ill-prepared rookie often this season. He did get his first win in Week 4, but he followed that up with another poor performance (192 yards, one INT, 63.5 rating) in Week 5. On the season, Wilson has a passer rating of 62.9 and nine interceptions with just four touchdown passes.

    New York should have shadowed Wilson with some veteran experience, if not outright sat him to start his career.

    The big question now is whether the Jets can find a way to right the proverbial Wilson ship coming out of the bye—and perhaps whether Wilson is simply destined to languish in New York, a la Sam Darnold, for the foreseeable future.

Philadelphia Eagles: Why Is Nick Sirianni so Averse to the Run?

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    Eagles coach Nick Sirianni
    Eagles coach Nick SirianniMatt Slocum/Associated Press

    Nick Sirianni is a first-time head coach, and Philadelphia Eagles fans may be wondering if he's built to handle both that job and play-calling duties. His aversion to the ground game is questionable at best.

    Despite having a dual-threat quarterback in Jalen Hurts and a quality running back in Miles Sanders, Sirianni has not looked to lean on the run often. Despite ranking fourth in yards per rush, Philadelphia exited Thursday night's game ranked just 28th in rushing attempts.

    Sanders has averaged fewer than 10 carries per game. 

    "We've been heavy pass, as we all know, but we always want to get that closer to at least 75 percent," Sirianni told reporters (h/t Alexis Chassen of SB Nation). "Never be above 75 percent in anything because we know that's where defenses really look at that and make plans off of that."

    Of Philadelphia's offensive plays, 74.2 percent have either been passing attempts or runs by Hurts. This makes for a one-dimensional offense and places a lot of pressure on a signal-caller with only 10 starts. Now, the latter part may be intentional, as Sirianni and the Eagles are still evaluating Hurts—possibly with one eye on the 2022 quarterback class.

    However, the Eagles are going to find it tougher to win when defenses can focus almost exclusively on containing Hurts and defending the pass.

Pittsburgh Steelers: When Will the Running Game Get Going?

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    Steelers vs. Seahawks
    Steelers vs. SeahawksFred Vuich/Associated Press

    The Pittsburgh Steelers finished the 2020 season ranked last in both rushing yardage and yards per attempt. Unsurprisingly, they then used a first-round pick on former Alabama running back Najee Harris.

    While Harris has been fantastic as a receiving back, he hasn't quite erased Pittsburgh's rushing woes. The Steelers entered Sunday night ranked 31st in rushing yards and 29th in yards per attempt. Harris had averaged a good-not-great 3.9 yards per carry.

    Against a Seattle Seahawks defense that had ranked 31st in run defense, Pittsburgh did produce 144 rushing yards. However, wideout Diontae Johnson was responsible for 25 yards of that. Harris rushed for 81 yards and a meager 3.4 yards per carry.

    Pittsburgh did escape with an overtime win after Seahawks quarterback Geno Smith fumbled to set up the game-winning field goal. However, the Steelers failed to salt the game away after taking a 14-0 halftime lead—in part because of inconsistency with and a lack of commitment to the run.

    Harris is a young runner, and Pittsburgh's revamped offensive line is still finding its way. At this point, though, the Steelers need to figure out if scheme or personnel changes can improve the ground game or if they're simply destined to remain a pass-heavy team under coordinator Matt Canada.

San Francisco 49ers: Can San Francisco Beat the Dreaded Injury Bug?

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    49ers QB jimmy Garoppolo
    49ers QB jimmy GaroppoloJed Jacobsohn/Associated Press

    We all know the narrative of the San Francisco 49ers' 2020 season. They were a Super Bowl team the previous year. Injuries to key players like Nick Bosa, George Kittle, Jimmy Garoppolo and Richard Sherman derailed what should have been a promising follow-up campaign.

    Unfortunately, the 49ers are headed down a similar past here in 2021. They've already lost starters Jason Verrett and Raheem Mostert for the season. Garoppolo and Kittle both missed the Week 5 loss to Arizona. K'Waun Williams, Dre Greenlaw and JaMycal Hasty have also missed time.

    After a 2-0 start, San Francisco entered the bye week at 2-3 and lurking in the NFC West basement.

    The question here is whether coach Kyle Shanahan and the 49ers can overcome injuries and succeed where they failed a year ago—and perhaps whether more injuries can be avoided. Garoppolo could return after the bye, but his return alone won't turn San Francisco into a title contender.

    "These three losses that we've had in a row, the answer good or bad is not just the quarterback," Shanahan said, per Josh Dubow of Yahoo. "We've got to play better all around."

    If the 49ers cannot overcome their injury issues, it may be time to focus on developing rookie quarterback Trey Lance instead of trying to make a playoff push.

Seattle Seahawks: How Long Will Russell Wilson Be Out

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    Seahawks QB Russell Wilson
    Seahawks QB Russell WilsonStephen Brashear/Associated Press

    Seattle Seahawks quarterback Russell Wilson is out indefinitely after undergoing finger surgery on his throwing hand. He was recently placed on injured reserve along with starting running back Chris Carson. At a minimum, both will miss three games.

    Naturally, losing Carson is not ideal. However, losing Wilson for an extended period could cost Seattle a shot at relevance in the NFC West. Seattle entered Week 6 at least two games behind both the Rams and the Cardinals in the division.

    Throughout his career, Wilson has often been asked to overcome defensive liabilities, win shootouts and perform late-game magic. In 2020, for example, Seattle ranked 22nd in total defense and was forced to score 35 points or more in five of their 12 wins.

    Asking Geno Smith to fill the same role is not a recipe for success. Smith helped lead a second-half surge in Pittsburgh that led to overtime. He also fumbled on Seattle's final drive, setting up Pittsburgh's game-winning field goal.

    While teams have weathered quarterback injuries in the past, Wilson's could be a season-killer, depending on his length of absence. Getting Wilson back at the Week 9 bye could be critical, as the Seahawks then face the Packers, Cardinals and 49ers in three of the next four weeks.

    If Wilson isn't available for that stretch, Seattle could fall too far out of the divisional race—and possibly the wild-card race—for his return to matter much.

Tampa Bay Buccaneers: Can the Defense Hold Up Through a Playoff Run?

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    Buccaneers CB Carlton Davis
    Buccaneers CB Carlton DavisAssociated Press

    Last year, the Tampa Bay Buccaneers went on a late run that lasted through Super Bowl LV. The run was largely sparked by a defense that finished the regular season ranked sixth overall and eighth in points allowed. That defense allowed just nine points to the Chiefs in the Super Bowl.

    This year, though, Tampa's defense has, at times, been more of a liability than an asset. Yes, Tampa is 5-1, but multiple wins have been too close for comfort. Against the Eagles on Thursday, the Buccaneers allowed Philadelphia to pull within a touchdown after building a 21-point third-quarter lead.

    Injuries have been part of the problem. Cornerback Carlton Davis, for example, is on injured reserve with a quad injury. Linebacker Lavonte David (ankle) and safety Antoine Winfield Jr. (concussion) both missed Thursday's game.

    Following Thursday's game, Tampa ranked ninth in total defense but a mediocre 17th in points allowed.

    If the defense gets healthy and Tom Brady continues playing at an MVP level, the Buccaneers will remain in the Super Bowl conversation. However, the defense we've seen through the first six weeks could easily cost Tampa in an elimination game.

Tennessee Titans: Where's the Pro Bowl Version of Ryan Tannehill

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    Titans QB Ryan Tannehill
    Titans QB Ryan TannehillPhelan M. Ebenhack/Associated Press

    Last offseason, the Titans signed quarterback Ryan Tannehill to a new four-year, $118 million contract. At the time, it was justifiable, as Tannehill was coming off an incredibly efficient Pro Bowl campaign—his 117.5 passer rating led the NFL.

    Tannehill wasn't quite as impressive last season, but he was still very good. He finished with 3,819 passing yards, 33 touchdowns, seven interceptions and a rating of 106.5.

    Unfortunately, Titans fans haven't seen this version of Tannehill often in 2021. Entering Monday night, he has passed for 1,251 yards with only six touchdowns and three interceptions. He has completed 63.6 percent of his passes—his lowest rate as a Titan—and posted a rating of just 89.5.

    The answer shouldn't be that difficult to discern, though. Tannehill lost No. 1 tight end Jonnu Smith in free agency and has been hampered by injuries to both top wideouts, Julio Jones and A.J. Brown. Tannehill has also been hurt by an offensive line that has surrendered a league-high 20 sacks.

    If the Titans want to see the Pro Bowl-caliber version of Tannehill, they need to get Brown and Jones fully healthy and figure out some way to shore up pass protection, which may require a dip into the free-agent and trade pools.

    The Titans still feature a Derrick Henry-centric offense, but if they want to be one of the NFL's elite squads, they need to do a better job of supporting their quarterback.

Washington Football Team: Where Did the Defense Go?

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    Washington edge Chase Young
    Washington edge Chase YoungAssociated Press

    A year ago, the Washington Football Team won the NFC East. It did so largely on the back of a defense that ranked second overall and fourth in points allowed. While many of Washington's key defensive players—Chase Young, Jonathan Allen, Montez Sweat and Kamren Curl—returned in the offseason, Washington's defense has not been the same dominant unit.

    Coming into Week 6, Washington ranked just 27th in total defense and 31st in points allowed.

    The additions of players like William Jackson III and rookie first-round pick Jamin Davis were supposed to make Washington's defense even better. After six weeks, though, it's clear that the poor defensive performances are not flukes.

    It's disappointing because Taylor Heinicke and the offense have played well enough to win games more often than not. Unfortunately, stopping opponents has been a major issue. Washington carried a 13-10 lead into halftime against Kansas City but surrendered 21 second-half points and 499 yards in a lopsided loss.

    Washington is not playing up to its potential defensively, and that lands on defensive coordinator Jack Del Rio. Del Rio simply isn't getting the most out of his personnel, and if he can't figure out how, Washington is quickly going to fall out of the divisional race.


    Advanced statistics from Pro Football Reference unless otherwise noted.


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