Who’s a Real Threat—and Who’s Not—From the AFC’s Murky Middle Class?

After we spent the offseason hyping up what figured to be a broadly aggressive AFC race, by means of two weeks, it as soon as once more looks like a two-team battle between Kansas Metropolis and Buffalo. The Chiefs are 2-0 following a come-from-behind victory over the Chargers on Thursday evening, and the Payments can be a part of them with a win over an overmatched Titans workforce on Monday. In the meantime, the remainder of final season’s AFC playoff subject is a mixed 2-7, and an unproven Dolphins squad is the convention’s solely different workforce with a successful document.

It’s not going to remain that means, although. Whereas there does appear to be a transparent divide between the 2 AFC powerhouses and everybody else, the convention is deep with gifted groups which have the capability to make a postseason run. As we shut the ebook on Week 2, the AFC’s center class is terribly cluttered—so let’s kind by means of which groups really pose a menace to the Payments and Chiefs, and which don’t stand an opportunity.

The Legit Threats

Los Angeles Chargers

The Chargers Charger’d on Thursday evening. That’s actually the one method to put it after Los Angeles didn’t make the most of a mistake-prone Patrick Mahomes in Kansas Metropolis. The 27-24 loss might find yourself deciding the AFC West—however as robust as that end result was for this younger Chargers workforce, there are a variety of positives to remove. Justin Herbert proved able to maintaining with the NFL’s greatest quarterback and even outplayed Mahomes at occasions. Busted-up ribs couldn’t cease Herbert from making one of many extra spectacular throws of the younger season.

And out of doors of the game-changing pick-six within the purple zone—which was extra of a miscommunication than an outright mistake—the 24-year-old performed a clear sport with out his prime receiver, Keenan Allen. L.A.’s dink-and-dunk strategy was efficient for essentially the most half, and it will have been even higher with its greatest beneath choice out there.

Extra importantly, Brandon Staley’s rebuilt protection, which received J.C. Jackson again from damage, lived as much as its preseason billing. Mahomes got here out of the sport with a good statline, however he had a couple of interceptions dropped and one other worn out by a questionable flag. Essentially the most spectacular half? The Chargers didn’t do something too elaborate in protection. Staley principally opted for single-high appears—which you’re not presupposed to do in opposition to Mahomes—and L.A. usually received the higher of the matchup.

There are some obvious points with the Chargers offense—Herbert rating twenty sixth in common depth of goal being chief amongst them—however we all know this unit is playoff-caliber. And the season’s first two weeks counsel the protection is perhaps catching up after dragging the workforce down a season in the past. There will probably be many extra exams to come back for Staley’s protection, however it might have already handed the hardest one it would face all common season.

Baltimore Ravens

Sunday ought to have been a celebratory day for Baltimore. By means of three quarters, Baltimore held a 35-14 lead over a Dolphins workforce that didn’t appear to pose a lot of a menace. Lamar Jackson was averaging 13.4 yards per dropback and he’d simply ripped off a 79-yard landing run to increase the lead. On the opposite facet of the ball, Tua Tagovailoa had thrown two interceptions and was averaging simply 5.8 air yards per try going into the fourth quarter … after which the Ravens secondary forgot learn how to play soccer.

A Story of Two Tuas

Quarter Dropbacks Yards/Dropback EPA/Dropback Success Price
Quarter Dropbacks Yards/Dropback EPA/Dropback Success Price
1-3 34 7.7 0.15 47.1%
4 17 11.7 1.14 64.7%

Knowledge through TruMedia

Dolphins coach Mike McDaniel deserves credit score for calling the proper performs to generate open receivers, and Tagovailoa needed to make the throws. However you don’t erase a 21-point deficit with out explosive performs, and the Baltimore protection made these straightforward to come back by in Miami’s 42-38 win. Rookie security Kyle Hamilton and cornerback Marcus Peters allowed Tyreek Hill to run free downfield on third-and-long to spark the comeback.

Then somebody—it’s unclear who—forgot to take the deep half of the sphere on one other lengthy bomb to Hill.

It’s dangerous protection, and people performs actually don’t replicate nicely on first-year defensive coordinator Mike MacDonald. “That simply can’t occur; that’s not OK,” coach John Harbaugh mentioned after the sport. “I don’t care who’s again there, [or] what they’re doing. These performs will value you a sport when you’ve a lead like that. You possibly can’t have miscommunication; you possibly can’t have a man working a submit behind Cowl-3.”

Granted, the Ravens have been coping with accidents within the secondary and needed to shuffle gamers out and in of the lineup, together with Marlon Humphrey, who missed Friday’s follow with a groin damage and was on and off the sphere all through Sunday’s contest. The Ravens secondary had a tough time coping along with his absence, as is abundantly clear in his on/off splits:

Ravens Go Protection Struggles With out Humphrey

On/Off Dropbacks Completion % Yards/Try Touchdowns Interceptions
On/Off Dropbacks Completion % Yards/Try Touchdowns Interceptions
On Subject 38 67.6% 8.6 3 2
Off Subject 13 84.6% 11.6 3 0

Knowledge through TruMedia

It’s disconcerting that one banged-up participant would have such a dramatic impression on the remainder of the protection, however I’m skeptical that this can proceed to be an issue going ahead. The Ravens are a well-coached workforce that will probably be incentivized to work on communication after this painful setback. And based mostly on every part else we noticed on Sunday, Baltimore nonetheless appears just like the clear favourite within the AFC North.

Lamar Jackson is off to his greatest begin because the 2019 MVP marketing campaign. Over two video games he’s proven the flexibility to make performs downfield and carry the Ravens run sport on his again, main the workforce with 136 dashing yards. (Kenyan Drake is second with simply 39 yards.)

Baltimore should repair its run sport if it’s going to pose a menace to Buffalo and Kansas Metropolis, however there may be purpose for hope: Operating again J.Ok. Dobbins and left sort out Ronnie Stanley have been shut to creating their returns from damage in Week 2 and needs to be again any time now.

It’s exhausting to really feel too good about this workforce after a loss like that, but when getting this passing sport buzzing once more was the chief concern for the Ravens headed into the season—and it ought to have been—they should be inspired by Lamar establishing himself as an early MVP candidate.

Perhaps on a Good Day

Miami Dolphins

Even when Sunday’s come-from-behind win isn’t a referendum on what Tagovailoa is as a quarterback—he had performed poorly earlier than the fourth-quarter outburst—it may function proof of idea for this offense as an entire. McDaniel has been significantly spectacular to start out the season, utilizing myriad ways to get his two stars, Hill and Jaylen Waddle, into house and letting their expertise handle the remainder.

On Sunday, the Dolphins generated 220 yards after the catch. Solely the Broncos in Week 1 have extra YAC in a sport this season. And McDaniel is utilizing all of the pace he has at his disposal by stretching defenses vertically. The rookie head coach put a banged-up Baltimore secondary to work on Sunday.

So whereas any 21-point comeback goes to really feel a bit of flukey, Baltimore’s protection sporting down within the fourth quarter wasn’t a fortunate break for Miami. McDaniel made it occur.

If there may be one concern—aside from Tua’s up-and-down play, after all—it’s the Dolphins’ overreliance on third down to maneuver the chains. Miami’s 48 p.c conversion price on first and second down ranks under the NFL common, in response to Timo Riske of Professional Soccer Focus:

Good offenses are typically productive on third down, because the Dolphins have been, however in addition they keep away from third downs for essentially the most half, which the Dolphins haven’t. McDaniel has to get his offense taking part in higher on early downs if Miami goes to maintain this up.

Cincinnati Bengals

The defending AFC champs aren’t simply off to an 0-2 begin—they’re off to an 0-2 begin after taking part in in opposition to Mitchell Trubisky and Cooper Rush. So it’s even troublesome to get excited a couple of protection that ranks ninth in EPA allowed and third in success price after two weeks, in response to RBSDM.com. In addition to, this workforce was all the time going to go so far as its offense can take it, and the offense simply isn’t excellent for the time being. Joe Burrow simply isn’t excellent for the time being.

Solely 4 quarterbacks are averaging fewer yards per dropback this season, in response to TruMedia: Trubisky, Davis Mills, Justin Fields, and the injured Dak Prescott. And the third-year quarterback was sacked six occasions in a 20-17 loss to the Cowboys on Sunday, bringing his season complete up 13. He’s now on tempo to be sacked 110.5 occasions this season, which appears awfully dangerous for an offensive line that was supposedly upgraded over the offseason. It’s straightforward accountable cross safety for Burrow’s gradual begin, however that’s not solely honest. Burrow has contributed to the problem by holding on to the ball for an eternity and working himself into sacks. And coach Zac Taylor has didn’t correctly mesh the completely different aspects of the offense.

That is on no account a brand new drawback. Even in the course of the Bengals’ run to the Tremendous Bowl final season, Taylor was unable to mix Burrow’s preferences within the passing sport—shotgun formations and getting 5 receivers out into the route—and the under-center run/play-action sport that serves as the inspiration for the Shanahan/McVay-style offense the Bengals make use of. Cincinnati’s working sport is nonexistent and unable to punish defenses for promoting out to cease the deep passes that fueled this offense final 12 months. Burrow led the NFL in passing yards on throws of 20-plus air yards in 2021, in response to TruMedia. He has but to finish such a cross in 2022 and he hasn’t even tried a cross that has traveled greater than 30 yards within the air.

Joe Burrow on Throws of 20-Plus Air Yards

Season Makes an attempt Yards/Try EPA/Try Success Price
Season Makes an attempt Yards/Try EPA/Try Success Price
2021 53 17.4 0.89 45.3%
2022 3 0 -0.51 0.0%

Knowledge through TruMedia

Tee Higgins did get a deep goal on Sunday in Dallas, however Ja’Marr Chase has but to have one thrown his means. And it’s not like defenses have provide you with some revolutionary tactic to thwart Cincy’s deep passing sport. They’re simply taking part in basic-ass Cowl 2, a protection that has been round because the Steelers dynasty of the Seventies! To this point this season, Burrow has seen Cowl 2 on 45 of his dropbacks, whereas no different quarterback has seen it greater than 30 occasions, in response to TruMedia. He’s averaging negative-0.21 EPA per play in opposition to the protection.

It’s not like this technique needs to be a shock. Again in June, Burrow mentioned, “Groups are going to be taking part in two-high and making us examine the ball down and all that. So we now have to have the ability to maintain drives and run the ball and take what the protection offers us all the way in which up and down the sphere, after which take these [deep] alternatives after they current themselves.”

The Bengals aren’t doing any of that proper now. The working sport stinks, Burrow doesn’t belief his safety sufficient to get by means of a development, and Taylor has been flummoxed by a protection that’s been round for 50 years.

And but, it’s nonetheless too early to rely out a workforce as gifted as this one. As exhausting as it’s to see, the offensive line has really performed higher than it did a 12 months in the past, and Lou Anarumo’s protection appears to have picked up the place it left off final January. If Burrow and Co. can determine learn how to get the deep passing sport going, Cincinnati shouldn’t be any worse than it was a season in the past when it took down the Chiefs in Arrowhead within the playoffs.

Regardless of the Broncos Are

Denver Broncos

Hear, I might spend 400 phrases breaking down how the Broncos offense has already devolved into the Russell Wilson offense we noticed in Seattle—which implies no throws to the center of the sphere and an overreliance on deep photographs—however so long as this dude is the top coach, I’m undecided any of that issues:

Fairly tough! However there’s extra …

We’re not executed.

After opening the season with a disaster-class loss in Seattle, Broncos head coach Nathaniel Hackett took his sport to the following stage on Sunday with poor play-calling, horrible clock administration, and a common lack of self-discipline in a 16-9 win over the lowly Texans. Two weeks in, the Broncos lead the NFL in each offensive penalties and sideline photographs of a head coach trying very confused and out of his depth. I’d’ve made up that final stat.

All of the indicators of a nasty coach are current, so I don’t know the way a lot Wilson’s extremely unstable strategy even issues. Even when Wilson is ready to preserve the Broncos in video games in opposition to the Chiefs and Chargers within the division, do we actually belief Hackett to tug the proper strings in crunch time? I actually don’t.

The AFC South

Jacksonville Jaguars

Jacksonville’s going from City Meyer to Doug Pederson might have been the one largest improve any NFL workforce made this offseason. A complete 24-0 win over the Colts on Sunday speaks for itself, however you actually have to look at this offense play to totally recognize the job Pederson has executed. It’s not simply that the unit is extra productive, which was to be anticipated with Trevor Lawrence getting into 12 months two and all the cash that was poured into enhancing the ability gamers round him. It’s the way it appears that’s actually encouraging for the downtrodden franchise.

All the things simply appears simpler for Lawrence. And as a lot enjoyable as we had mocking Trent Baalke for overspending on Christian Kirk, the Jags’ new receiver has emerged as the focus of the offense. He’s executed most of his harm from a conventional position within the slot, however in opposition to the Colts, Pederson began to maneuver him round a bit of extra. The primary of two Kirk touchdowns got here on a play by which he began within the backfield, à la Cooper Kupp.

On his second rating, Kirk ran throughout the formation into the alternative flat, the place he was extensive open for a simple landing pitch from Lawrence:

Getting this group to the place it’s wasn’t low-cost, however Kirk and Zay Jones have been dependable targets up to now, and the backfield duo of James Robinson and Travis Etienne is perhaps the NFL’s most dynamic working again pairing. All of those weapons and a great scheme enable the Jaguars to take action a lot on offense, and Pederson is making good use of them.

With the remainder of the AFC South struggling to only win a sport, the Jaguars have a professional shot at competing for the division. They’re nonetheless clearly a 12 months or two away from competing with the convention’s higher crust, however this can be a superb begin for Pederson’s reclamation challenge.

Indianapolis Colts

For a second consecutive week, the Colts misplaced the battle for the road of scrimmage to a workforce that lacks expertise on each the offensive and defensive traces. Given the funding GM Chris Ballard has made within the trenches—and principally nowhere else on the roster—that’s regarding. And the offensive line struggles have clearly had an impact on Matt Ryan, whose waning bodily abilities have stood out below near-constant duress.

Ryan was significantly dangerous on Sunday when coping with stress. He accomplished simply two of 9 passes on 14 pressured dropbacks and averaged 2 yards per try within the 24-0 loss to the Jags, per TruMedia. Ryan isn’t any extra washed than Philip Rivers was when he led the Colts to the postseason in 2020, however the remainder of the workforce has devolved since that point.

The offense—which was lacking most of its beginning receiving corps on Sunday, together with WR1 Michael Pittman Jr.—received’t be this dangerous. However with an underwhelming group of ability gamers outdoors of Jonathan Taylor, an getting old quarterback, and an unreliable offensive line, this doesn’t seem like a workforce that’s able to competing with the AFC’s superpowers. It is perhaps time to start out over in Indianapolis.

They Don’t Stand a Likelihood

New England Patriots

It might in all probability be sufficient to only insert a photograph of Matt Patricia and Joe Decide right here to elucidate why the Pats discover themselves on this group, however, actually, the issues at present plaguing New England’s offense have been additionally current a 12 months in the past. The Patriots simply don’t have sufficient playmakers round Mac Jones, who isn’t a playmaker himself. And with no choices on the perimeter and a quarterback who doesn’t have the arm to persistently make tight-window throws over the center, New England’s passing sport has been pressured right into a field that stretches no additional than 20 yards downfield and infrequently assaults outdoors of the numbers. Check out Jones’s passing map from the Pats’ ugly 17-14 win in Pittsburgh on Sunday:

Because the Patriots discovered of their two losses to Buffalo in 2021: It’s exhausting to maintain up with a metahuman like Josh Allen with an offense that appears designed to common precisely 17 factors a sport.

These 17 factors have been sufficient in opposition to the Steelers, however different groups aren’t beginning Mitch Trubisky. Talking of …

Pittsburgh Steelers

As we’ve seen over the primary two weeks, the Steelers protection stays ok to maintain this workforce in video games in opposition to mediocre offenses. But when Pittsburgh insists on trotting Trubisky on the market each week that received’t matter in opposition to the likes of Buffalo and Kansas Metropolis. Right here’s why:

You see that lone dot on the 20-yard line in the course of the sphere? That was a free play the place Trubisky was capable of chuck it as much as Pat Freiermuth with none threat of turning the ball over.

It’s been solely two weeks, however haven’t we seen sufficient right here? Trubisky is just not serving to this workforce win—he practically misplaced the Steelers the Week 1 sport in opposition to Cincinnati with a 36-yard efficiency within the second half—and there’s a first-round rookie sitting on the bench who might be getting helpful in-game reps. Both Mike Tomlin is being overly protecting of his not-so-young rookie, or drafting Kenny Pickett within the first spherical was a mistake. He can’t probably be worse than this.