Picking apart the fatal flaws of the eight playoff teams still standing
Even the weakest playoff teams can back into the field and still go all the way if they’re able to maximize what works for them. At the other end of the spectrum, even the best playoff teams have issues that run the risk of being badly exposed when the stakes are highest, and it’s on each remaining team to address or camouflage those weaknesses effectively enough to advance. Ahead of this weekend’s divisional round action, here are some obvious deficiencies for every team still standing.
Chiefs: Deep passing game
The Chiefs have won 11 straight games with an efficient passing game, a running game that has stayed effective through scheme since the loss of franchise back Jamaal Charles to injury and a defense that is as good as any you’ll find in the NFL right now. When everything’s on, this team is very tough to beat, and I have enough faith in what Andy Reid and defensive coordinator Bob Sutton are doing to have made Kansas City my Super Bowl 50 winner in SI’s staff predictions.
However, the Chiefs are not really built to play from behind, which can be a larger issue when the postseason comes around. Their passing game is far from explosive, and the obvious reason is that quarterback Alex Smith doesn’t have the kind of deep arm to make it a consistent threat. That’s been known about Smith since he was the No. 1 pick in the 2005 draft, and while it is possible to devise a championship game plan around a quarterback who primarily throws short and intermediate passes, taking the home run play out of the picture does limit the overall attack.
During Kansas City’s current winning streak, Smith has attempted a total of just 23 passes that traveled 20 or more yards in the air, completing eight for 246 yards, three touchdowns and one interception. Jeremy Maclin, who may or may not be able to go against the Patriots due to a high ankle sprain, caught two of those touchdowns and has been Smith’s best deep receiver by far. This is all not to say the Chiefs can’t win it all without the deep ball, but it’s a bad look when you’re in the Super Bowl and the opposing defense is throwing eight defenders into the box because it knows exactly what the offense can't do. Ask the Patriots, the Chiefs’ divisional-round opponent, who found that to be the case in their second Super Bowl loss to the Giants at the end of the 2011 season.
Patriots: Vulnerability to pressure
The Patriots have rolled out more line combinations than any other team in the league this season. Part of that is due to the preference of line coach Dave DeGuglielmo, and part of that is due to injury necessity. Because of all that moving around, it’s hard to blame one player for this particular statistic, but only the Chargers allowed more regular-season pressures than New England in 2015. Tom Brady was pressured a total of 221 times on 675 passing plays, with 26 sacks, 48 hits and 147 hurries. Factor in that the Patriots generally employ a shorter passing game these days, and you have a line that could be in a lot of trouble against the kinds of defensive fronts it will see in the playoffs, starting with the Chiefs on Saturday.
It doesn’t help that Brady has been without various receivers through different parts of the season, and he’s obviously hoping for the return of Julian Edelman for the playoffs. But the pressure has been a problem all season. The good news, we suppose, is that Brady has been pretty lights-out when he’s been moved off his spot—this season, when under pressure, he has completed 97 of 191 passes for 15 touchdowns and three interceptions. It goes to show that the same axiom that has always applied to Brady still applies: You can come after him, but ending the play is the only guarantee that he won’t burn you.
Packers: Limited passing attack
The Packers have been doing the same things on offense all season and expecting better results. Green Bay receivers have constantly struggled to gain separation, especially against tight man coverage, and Aaron Rodgers has had his worst statistical season in several categories. Packers coach Mike McCarthy continues to refuse to scheme his receivers open and provide easier and more consistent looks for his quarterback. When pressed, McCarthy has said that his players need to play better, which isn’t really the point.
The result has been a weird mix of predictability and randomness. The Packers run by far the most 3-by-1 receiver sets in the league, and the route concepts are beyond basic. As a result, most of the offense’s big plays have come when Rodgers breaks out of the pocket and throws out of structure to receivers who find openings simply by following their escaping quarterback. This did not work when the Packers faced the Cardinals in Week 16: Rodgers completed 15 of 31 passes for 151 yards, one touchdown and one interception in a 38–8 loss. He was sacked eight times, and two of his fumbles were returned for touchdowns.
Some will say that the Packers are back after beating the Redskins in the wild-card round, but Rodgers completed 21 of 36 passes for 210 yards and two touchdowns against a secondary that was so banged up, Washington signed cornerback Cary Williams off the street in preparation for that game. The tape of the win over Washington shows a lot of the same basic schematic problems, and if McCarthy hauls that playbook back into the Valley of the Sun, he can expect the same kind of spanking.
Of all the teams on this list, it’s hardest to come up with a fatal flaw for Arizona. Carson Palmer has stayed healthy all season, and as a result, head coach Bruce Arians has been able to unleash the most explosive and complex passing game in the NFL on the rest of the league. Rookie running back David Johnson has given a new element of power and speed to that offense, and the Cardinals’ defense has maintained its status as one of the NFL’s best, despite the loss of cornerback Tyrann Mathieu to a season-ending knee injury. This team is loaded, potent and confident, which is an offshoot of Arians’ football genius and overall philosophy.
Still, if there’s one thing that could upend this team in the playoffs, it’s special teams—especially the punting game. This season, Arizona ranked 29th in yards per punt at 42.9 and gave up the fourth-most yards per punt return with 11.8. Thus, the Cardinals’ net yardage per punt (37.4) is the second-worst in the league—only the Jets finished with a lower average. There are games in which Arians’s offense is so potent, the Cardinals don’t punt much at all (Drew Butler punted three times or less in seven of Arizona’s 16 games), but if field position is an issue in the postseason, the Cards may not stack up too well. Arizona’s offense ranks first in yards per drive and third in points per drive on offense, so Butler’s overall inefficiency and the relative weakness of Arizona’s return coverage unit has been masked. At least, for now.
Seahawks: Covering tight ends
The Seahawks have led the NFL in scoring defense in each of the last four years, something not done in the NFL since the Browns did it in the 1950s. They ranked fourth in Defensive DVOA this season and have never ranked lower than that since 2012 (they ranked first overall in ’12 and ’13). This is one of the historically great defenses in league history, but it has one obvious Achilles’ heel: tight ends. This season, Seattle ranked first in DVOA against No. 1 receivers, fifth against No. 2 receivers, 10th against No. 3 receivers, sixth against receiving backs ... and 26th against tight ends. In 2014 they ranked 18th against tight ends, and in 2013 they ranked third, so this is a two-year issue, but it’s a fairly major one. What makes it more puzzling is that the Seahawks have good cover linebackers in Bobby Wagner and K.J. Wright, safety Kam Chancellor has improved his coverage skills, and safety Earl Thomas is one of the best and quickest coverage men at his position.
But especially this year, tight ends have been a problem. Against the Bengals on Oct. 11, Seattle allowed two touchdowns to Tyler Eifert, who caught eight passes for 90 yards. Chancellor was caught short on each of those touchdowns, stuck in middle-distance coverage, and it was a bit of an embarrassment. One week later, the Seahawks lost to the Panthers when Cam Newton connected with tight end Greg Olsen for a 26-yard touchdown with 32 seconds left in the game. A miscommunication with first-year defensive coordinator Kris Richard had the Seahawks playing two different coverages—an unplanned mixture of Cover-2 and Cover-3—and Olsen was left wide open.
The divisional rematch with the Panthers will undoubtedly put Olsen in position to match or exceed his seven-catch, 131-yard day in Week 6. And unless the Seahawks come up with an answer for this position that has inexplicably stumped them, their season could be over. Seattle is covering better overall as Richard has simplified the schemes, but this remains a big hole.
Panthers: Banged-up secondary
The real issue the 15–1 Panthers have is obvious: Outside of Olsen, they don’t have any receiving targets you can call truly reliable. Ted Ginn Jr. is Cam Newton’s best deep threat, but he can also be his own worst enemy with route mistakes and dropped passes. A more subtle issue is that with cornerbacks Charles Tillman and Bené Benwikere out with injuries, Carolina’s formerly esteemed secondary is springing a few leaks. Josh Norman has been perhaps the league’s best overall cornerback this season, but alongside him and in the slot, the Panthers are going to have to push their luck. Robert McClain, who was signed off the street on Dec. 15, will likely start against the Seahawks opposite Norman, and Cortland Finnegan, whose performance in the slot has been average, may continue that role. Losing Benwikere to a broken leg in early December was an especially bad bit of luck, as Benwikere can play the slot and outside with equal aplomb.
So, someone will be tasked to do more than they might prefer against Seattle’s suddenly dangerous passing game. Doug Baldwin and Tyler Lockett are the main problems for defensive coordinator Sean McDermott to solve, and Jermaine Kearse has done well running a lot of the routes Jimmy Graham was running before he was hurt. One possible solution for the Panthers is to vary their slot defenders; over the last month, everyone from Finnegan to safety Roman Harper to linebacker Thomas Davis has taken turns there.
Steelers: Decline in the deep ball
Not a good look for the Steelers, coming into the second weekend of the playoffs with Ben Roethlisberger’s banged-up throwing shoulder and Antonio Brown’s concussion. Of course, given the ways in which the Steelers handle concussions in the postseason, you can expect Brown to go no matter what. Even before Pittsburgh’s quarterback and primary receiver suffered those injuries in their wacky wild-card win over the Bengals, the deep ball was a point of concern late in the season.
The Steelers have gone deep a ton this year, but they haven’t really been all that efficient with it: Through his entire 2015 season, Roethlisberger has attempted 77 passes traveling 20 yards or more in the air, with 30 completions for 1,217 yards, six touchdowns and six interceptions. When the Steelers beat the Broncos 34–27 in Week 15, coming back from a 27–13 halftime deficit, Big Ben attempted just three passes over 20 yards in the air, completing one—a 23-yard pass to Brown against Denver’s single-high safety look that proved to be the game-winner.
Whether it’s Roethlisberger or Landry Jones starting against the Broncos this time around, it’s probably best to ditch the deep ball unless it really makes sense. More often than you might think this year, it really hasn't.
Broncos: Scheme that doesn’t fit Peyton Manning
Manning hasn’t played like Manning since about the middle of the 2014 season, and whether that’s due to injuries, general wear-down, scheme issues, or an unholy combination of all three, his problems this year have been clear -- and glaring. Manning finished his 2015 regular season with the second-lowest DYAR in the NFL (only Nick Foles was worse), and he was finally usurped as the league’s interception champ in Week 17 by Jacksonville’s Blake Bortles, despite the fact that Manning didn't throw a pass in a game from late November through early January. Based on the tape I’ve watched, part of the issue is that Manning simply isn't reading the field and making the right decisions, but there’s also the issue of the difference between the scheme Manning prefers and the scheme coach Gary Kubiak wants.
Ideally, Kubiak’s quarterback would operate under center, utilize a lot of play-action and boot-action and throw on the run. Manning isn’t that guy, nor was he ever. Watching Manning try to roll right and throw early in the 2015 season was a painful exercise, and unless Kubiak can use that extra week off afforded to him by Denver’s No. 1 seed to think outside his own box and implement more shotgun, pistol and quick-passing plays, he’ll need to have a quick hook, because things could get out of hand pretty quickly.