Big Problems That NFL Contenders Need to Fix Before the Postseason

Kristopher Knox@@kris_knoxFeatured ColumnistDecember 15, 2021

Big Problems That NFL Contenders Need to Fix Before the Postseason

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    Don Wright/Associated Press

    This year's NFL playoff race is a wacky one. In the AFC, 10 different teams have six, seven or eight wins.

    The gap between the league's top teams and its middle class is as close as it's ever been. Outside of a fortunate few, even the division leaders have flaws that could quickly oust them from the title chase. Some problems—such as injuries or a lack of talent at a particular position—aren't correctable. But others are.

    We're here to examine the latter group.

    Here, we'll look at seven different contenders and the issues they need to address immediately. We'll specifically be looking at teams with at least seven wins and solely at problems that can be corrected through coaching and/or execution.

    Teams are listed in alphabetical order.   

Baltimore Ravens: Inadequate Pass Protection

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    Don Wright/Associated Press

    The good news for the Baltimore Ravens is twofold. They still control first place in the AFC North, and they're not expected to be without star quarterback Lamar Jackson—who didn't finish Sunday's game—for long.

    "[Coach John] Harbaugh said that Lamar Jackson does not have a high ankle sprain. Harbaugh said that his plans for Sunday still include Lamar Jackson," Jeff Zrebiec of The Athletic tweeted Monday.

    The bad news is that Baltimore is ravaged by injuries and is struggling with pass protection. The second issue, at least, could be alleviated by a few schematic changes.

    Jackson has been blitzed a career-high 149 times this season. He's been under pressure on 22.4 percent of his dropbacks. This has led to both sacks and mistakes, as Jackson has been taken down a career-high 38 times and has thrown 13 interceptions, with eight in the past five games alone.

    It's unlikely that Jackson's ankle injury is going to help matters, and it may temporarily take away the option of using designed quarterback runs to beat the blitz. Instead, the Ravens should put a premium on max protection and short pass patterns that allow Jackson to get the ball out quickly.

    Baltimore must also stress to Jackson that his tendency to buy time in the pocket and look for the big play needs to be reeled in—at least until he's back to 100 percent. Otherwise, more mistakes and perhaps a bigger injury will follow.

Cincinnati Bengals: A Propensity for Turnovers

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    Michael Conroy/Associated Press

    We're diving into advanced statistics and specific situations for many of the issues on this list, but things are a little different with the Cincinnati Bengals. They simply need to do a better job of stressing ball security down the stretch.

    The Bengals were, at one point, in control of the AFC's No. 1 seed. They've lost four of their last six games, though, and turnovers have been a big part of the problem.

    "It's simple and a known fact the effect it has on winning, but it's painfully obvious with this group," Paul Dehner Jr. of The Athletic tweeted following Cincinnati's Week 13 loss to the Los Angeles Chargers.

    As Dehner pointed out, the Bengals had turned the ball over a total of five times in their seven wins and 14 times in their five losses. In Sunday's overtime defeat to the San Francisco 49ers, they coughed up the ball another two times.

    Cincinnati has had only two outings without a turnover this season, in close wins against the Minnesota Vikings and Jacksonville Jaguars.

    Quarterback Joe Burrow leads the charge with 14 interceptions. And he still has a passer rating of 100.6 on the season. If Burrow and Co. can make a concerted effort to not give away the football, they can regain control of the AFC North. If they don't, they're probably going to be sitting at home in January.   

Cleveland Browns: An Offense That Is Too Conservative

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    David Richard/Associated Press

    The Cleveland Browns also have an opportunity to claim the AFC North, but they're going to have to find a way to spark the offense. The unit has scored 17 or fewer points in four straight games and has floundered in the second half.

    Thanks to a Myles Garrett defensive touchdown, Cleveland took a 24-6 lead into halftime against Baltimore on Sunday. It barely hung on to win 24-22. As Danny Cunningham of ESPN Cleveland pointed out, the Browns have scored seven total fourth-quarter points since facing the Chargers in Week 5.

    After the win, Mayfield complained about the team's conservative approach in the second half.

    "We did enough to win the game, so check that box off, but got conservative,’" Mayfield said, per Mary Kay Cabot of "I think we need to put that team away."

    Cleveland has had a conservative approach under head coach Kevin Stefanski. It plays a lot of two-tight end sets, runs first and runs often. The Browns rank ninth in rushing attempts and just 28th in pass attempts. 

    It's time for Stefanski to open up the passing attack, if only enough to keep opponents from constantly stacking the line. That will be a challenge, as Cleveland is light on wide receiver talent. Giving Rashard Higgins some opportunities could help, though.

    Higgins only started six games in 2020 but finished with 599 yards and four touchdowns while providing a passer rating of 119.0 when targeted. He was a healthy scratch in Week 12 and played only 24 snaps in Week 14.

Green Bay Packers: Special Teams Shenanigans

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    Morry Gash/Associated Press

    On Sunday night, Chicago Bears receiver Jakeem Grant Sr. returned a punt 97 yards for a touchdown against the Green Bay Packers. It was his second big return of the night, and he finished with 131 yards and a score on three punt returns.

    Grant's returning prowess helped spark the Bears, who led 27-21 at halftime. The Packers offense did enough to run away with the game in the second half, and if this was an isolated event, there may be no real reason for concern.

    However, the Packers special teams unit has been awful all season. Green Bay has surrendered an average of 13.4 yards per punt return and 25.9 yards per kickoff return this season, the highest and seventh-highest averages, respectively, in the league. The Packers are the only team to surrender a punt-return touchdown this season.

    Special teams coordinator Maurice Drayton needs to make some changes—and we're not even touching on kicker Mason Crosby and his nine missed field goals in 2021. Voluntarily changing kickers this late in the season would be a dicey proposition at best.

    However, Drayton should consider altering the makeup of his coverage unit and perhaps changing the strategy for punter Corey Bojorquez.

    Bojorquez, who led the league with an average of 50.8 yards per punt a season ago, has plenty of power. Green Bay should be willing to sacrifice a little distance in exchange for high-angle or directional kicks that limit chances for returns. Green Bay is loaded with offensive and defensive talent but could quickly be ousted from the playoffs by bad special teams plays.

Kansas City Chiefs: Too Much Focus on the Big Play

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    Reed Hoffmann/Associated Press

    The Kansas City Chiefs rolled in Week 14, blasting the Las Vegas Raiders 48-9. However, they've largely been winning with defense recently, as the Chiefs have been plagued by offensive issues.

    Make no mistake, the Kansas City passing attack can still be potent. However, it has also been hurt by inefficient play and turnovers. Vaunted quarterback Patrick Mahomes has tossed 12 interceptions, while Kansas City has had just three turnover-free games.

    Though defenses have often schemed to not be beaten deep, Mahomes has frequently been forcing the long ball and looking for the big play. According to the three-time Pro Bowler, he's not going to change his approach.

    "You understand that turnovers are a huge part of this game. Our defense is getting a lot of turnovers and winning that turnover battle," Mahomes told reporters. "I'll try to limit them as much as possible, but at the same time I have to be me and continue to throw the football and give guys chances to make plays."

    The problem is that by giving his guys a chance, Mahomes is also giving the opposition opportunities. He has been off-target on a career-high 18.8 percent of his throws this season. That's the eighth-highest rate in the NFL, just above Carson Wentz and Daniel Jones.

    While head coach Andy Reid need not rein in Mahomes completely, he should be a little more conservative with his play-calling. The Chiefs should focus on taking what's there and relying a little more on the ground game; Kansas City ranks 12th in yards per rush but only 19th in attempts.

    With a defense now allowing the sixth-fewest points per game, the Chiefs can afford a measured approach on offense. What they cannot afford is a handful of interceptions in a playoff game.

Los Angeles Rams: Too Much Blitzing

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    Eric Smith/Associated Press

    There's nothing wrong with having an aggressive defense, but the Los Angeles Rams seem to be playing things a little too aggressively. The defense is still pretty good in L.A., but it's taken a step back under coordinator Raheem Morris.

    Under Brandon Staley, who left to become head coach of the Chargers, the Rams ranked first in passing yards allowed, total yards and points allowed last season. Coming into Monday night, they ranked 16th, 11th, and 17th in those categories. Bringing extra defenders too frequently is part of the problem.

    A year ago, L.A. blitzed 27.3 percent of the time. Through 13 weeks this season, the Rams blitzed 27.9 percent of the time. That's not a huge difference, but the issue is that this year's personnel isn't as well-suited to support the blitz because players like Troy Hill, John Johnson III and Samson Ebukam left via free agency.

    Despite blitzing at the eighth-highest rate, the Rams had the 11th-lowest pressure rate (22.4 percent) in the NFL.

    The blitz isn't pressuring quarterbacks as intended, and opponents are finding voids in the Rams secondary. L.A. could improve its pass defense by dialing back the blitz and presenting opposing pass-catchers with fewer one-on-one opportunities. With Aaron Donald and Leonard Floyd leading the way, the Rams should be able to pressure opposing quarterbacks with a four-man rush.

    That's exactly how it played out during Monday night's win over the Arizona Cardinals. The Rams rarely blitzed Kyler Murray—their blitz rate has since dipped to 24.9 percent—and survived against a potent passing attack. This should be the formula moving forward.

Tampa Bay Buccaneers: Poor Tackling

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    Jason Behnken/Associated Press

    The Tampa Bay Buccaneers are in command of the NFC South, and they've rattled off four straight wins. However, Tampa's diminished defense is cause for concern. A year ago, the Buccaneers ranked sixth in total defense and eighth in points allowed. This year, they rank 15th and 19th in those categories, respectively.

    Injuries have played a part, as key defenders like Carlton Davis, Antoine Winfiled Jr. and Jamel Dean have missed games. Poor tackling has been just as big of an issue, though.

    While it may be hard to imagine a Tom Brady-led team lacking in fundamentals, we've seen it in Tamps this season. As a team, the Buccaneers have missed 93 tackles. Only the Jacksonville Jaguars and Pittsburgh Steelers have missed more.

    The Jaguars and Steelers rank 21st and 27th in total defense.

    It would behoove head coach Bruce Arians and defensive coordinator Todd Bowles to stress tackling fundamentals over the final month. That's not something a Super Bowl-caliber team should be working on this late in the season, but if the Bucs can eliminate even a few bad angles or unnecessary arm tackles per game down the stretch, it could do wonders for the defense.

    If the Buccaneers can have a healthy complement of starters in the postseason, it would give the unit a huge boost—and it's why Tamps should be hoping to somehow steal the NFC's first-round bye. But the Bucs still need to do a better job of ensuring the players on the field are bringing down opposing ball-carriers when given the chance.


    Advanced statistics from Pro Football Reference.