The league seems to be in the throes of an injury epidemic. Here’s how each team has been affected, ranked in order of who has been hit the hardest
1) San Diego Chargers
RB Danny Woodhead, high ankle sprain and fractured fibula, IR
RB Ryan Mathews, knee, out 4-6 weeks
C Nick Hardwick, neck, IR
G Jeromey Clary, hip, PUP
OLB Melvin Ingram, hip, IR designated to return
LB Manti Te’o, broken foot, out multiple weeks
Woodhead is one of the 10 most valuable running backs in the NFL. On top of his lateral quickness and agility as a runner, he was integral to San Diego’s underneath passing designs. Coach Mike McCoy had done a great job lining up Woodhead in ways that discouraged defenses from doubling Antonio Gates. Donald Brown can be used in Woodhead’s capacity, but the drop-off will be significant.
Hardwick helped a very average offensive overachieve; at least his replacement, Rich Ohrnberger, brings nastiness to the running game. Ingram is the most dynamic piece to what had been (but perhaps no longer) a potent front seven.
2) Indianapolis Colts
RB Vick Ballard, Achilles, IR
OG Donald Thomas, torn quad, IR
FB Stanley Havili, shoulder from January, PUP
DE Robert Mathis, Achilles, out for season
The first three losses on this list compromise a power running game that Indy wants to be committed to. Losing Mathis hurts a defense that now has no chance at generating pressure without blitzing. That puts intense pressure on corners Vontae Davis and Greg Toler to hold up in iso-man coverage.
3) Kansas City Chiefs
ILB Derrick Johnson, Achilles, IR
ILB Joe Mays, wrist, IR designated to return
DE Mike Devito, Achilles, IR
G Jeff Allen, elbow, IR
Johnson is one of the league’s few linebackers rangy and heady enough to keep a defense competitive against the run out of a light three-safety, three-corner dime package. There’s no way to replace that. DeVito is about as pure of a two-gap defensive end as you’ll find, and that’s not to say he can’t also get penetration in one-gap attacks. His versatility will be missed.
4) Arizona Cardinals
OLB John Abraham, concussions, IR
DE Darnell Dockett, knee, IR
This is why Todd Bowles is the frontrunner for Defensive Coordinator of the Year (too bad that award doesn’t exist). Abraham was the team’s only viable edge-rusher up front, while Dockett’s violent hands and tenacity made him ideal in Arizona’s hybrid 3-4 system. The Cardinals have survived both losses because their secondary can play tight man-to-man across the board, allowing Bowles to still use his myriad blitz packages.
It’s possible that Carson Palmer will also soon be added to this list.
5) St. Louis Rams
DE Chris Long, ankle, IR designated to return
CB Trumaine Johnson, knee, returning sometime between Week 5-6
QB Sam Bradford, knee, IR
The leader of the offense and the defense are both down. The Rams do, however, have ways to compensate. They’re rich along the defensive front, even without Long. And if any offense were schematically equipped to withstand the loss of its quarterback, it’s this one, thanks to the rudimentary run-heavy scheme that Jeff Fisher and Brian Schottenheimer have adopted.
QB Robert Griffin, ankle, 6-8 weeks
CB DeAngelo Hall, Achilles, IR
NT Barry Cofield, ankle, IR designated to return
Kirk Cousins will dictate the fallout from RG3’s injury. Hall could play outside corner, slot or safety, serving as an important stopgap in a sub-par secondary that defensive coordinator Jim Haslett often asks a lot of. Cofield is one of the best penetrating nosetackles in the league, though so far the D has held strong with Chris Baker in his place.
7) Detroit Lions
LB Stephen Tulloch, knee, IR
LB Kyle Van Noy, abdominal, IR designated to return
CB Nevin Lawson, ankle, IR
CB Bill Bentley, knee, IR
Tulloch and DeAndre Levy were playing as well as any linebacking tandem in football. Now the eighth-year veteran is out and Levy has to move from the weak side to the middle, where he’ll have less space to unleash his playmaking speed. The loss of depth that stems from Lawson and Bentley will be a major problem throughout the year.
8) Minnesota Vikings
QB Matt Cassel, foot, IR
TE Kyle Rudolph, groin, six weeks
G Brandon Fusco, pectoral, IR
The Teddy Bridgewater-era starts earlier than the Vikings wanted and, just for good measure, the football gods have taken away Rudolph, who would have been the rookie’s top target on a lot of the simplified reads that Norv Turner will now call. Oh yeah, Adrian Peterson (i.e. Minnesota’s running game) is also gone.
9) New York Giants
WR Jerrel Jernigan, foot, IR
G Geoff Schwartz, toe, IR designated to return
WR Mario Manningham, calf, IR
KR Trindon Holliday, hamstring, IR
RB David Wilson, neck, retired
WR Odell Beckham Jr., hamstring, yet to play
LB Jon Beason, foot, out indefinitely
CB Walter Thurmond, pectoral, IR
It’s a long list of players, but the Giants have the depth to replace each guy on offense. Defensively, Beason has become the cog of the front seven. The absence of Thurmond will prove critical if Trumaine McBride does not adapt well to the slot. He held up fine against the Texans last week, but if the coaching staff were truly confident about him in this role, Thurmond would not have been acquired in the first place.
10) Pittsburgh Steelers
OLB Jarvis Jones, wrist, IR designated to return
CB Ike Taylor, broken arm, out indefinitely
It was a Pyrrhic Victory for the Steelers at Carolina on Sunday night. You already know the significance of linebackers in Pittsburgh’s 3-4 scheme. With Jones out, offenses can focus their protections more around Jason Worilds, as well as Dick LeBeau’s A-gap blitzes—two areas that have not been consistently dynamic this season. As for Taylor, corners in this matchup zone scheme are aided by many of the system’s help coverage principles, but the reason you don’t see youngster and newcomers play here is because those help coverage principles take time to learn.
11) Oakland Raiders
CB D.J. Hayden, foot, PUP
S Tyvon Branch, foot, out indefinitely
WR Rod Streater, foot, out indefinitely
The Raiders have not been as aggressive with their coverage disguises and third-level blitzes this season, and now there’s little chance of that changing. Branch was the stabilizer in the box. His absence in 2013 kept this defense under water. Hayden, while still green, is the team’s most talented cover artist in nickel.
12) Philadelphia Eagles
C Jason Kelce, hernia, out 6-8 weeks
RT Allen Barbre, ankle, IR
LG Evan Mathis, knee, IR designated to return
Philly’s running game, which ranked first a year ago, is predicated on leveraging space. And much of the passing attack centers around screens. Both items require mobile, rangy offensive linemen. Kelce is the best in the conference at his position and Mathis is one of the league’s most agile guards. The Eagles got a victory without these guys against Washington, but LeSean McCoy managed just 22 yards on 19 carries. That won’t be enough most weeks.
13) Dallas Cowboys
MLB Sean Lee, knee, IR
LB Justin Durant, groin, out at least 4 weeks
DE Demarcus Lawrence, foot, has not played
The Lee injury has been dissected since late spring. So far, his replacements, Rolando McClain and fourth-round rookie Anthony Hitchens, have been very up and down. And it’s hard for anyone to match Lee’s big-play prowess. Lawrence was supposed to be the primary threat in what’s an otherwise lackluster pass rush.
14) Atlanta Falcons
LT Sam Baker, knee, IR
LB Sean Weatherspoon, Achilles, IR
Baker’s absence puts rookie Jake Matthews on the left side, which puts Lamar Holmes at right tackle, which puts pressure on Matt Ryan. It all means offensive coordinator Dirk Koetter will at some point be limited in the way he can use wideouts Roddy White and Julio Jones downfield. Sean Weatherspoon would have been the most athletic force in a front seven that needs all the force it can get.
15) Baltimore Ravens
CB Aaron Ross, torn Achilles, IR
DL Terrence Cody, hip, still on PUP
TE Dennis Pitta, dislocated hip, out for season
Ross’s injury compromised the already iffy depth of Baltimore’s secondary (exacerbated by the early absence of Lardarius Webb, who has been nursing a back injury since training camp). The Ravens want to play more man-to-man coverage this season; that’s tough to do without at least three quality corners.
Pitta was the key to an offense that’s run hot and cold in adjusting to Gary Kubiak’s new zone-based scheme. It’s doubtful that third-round rookie Crockett Gillmore can match the veteran’s awareness down the seams and on the staple crossing patterns.
16) Buffalo Bills
ILB Kiko Alonso, ACL, non-football injury list, likely out for season
Alonso’s speed on the weak side was supposed to be a cornerstone of new defensive coordinator Jim Schwartz’s 4-3 scheme. Now, 2014 fourth-round pick Nigel Bradham and third-round rookie Preston Brown have shared the starting and (more importantly) nickel duties. Bradham has been solid and Brown has quickly improved his pass defense awareness after an up-and-down season opener. Neither player has Alonoso’s recovery speed, though.
17) Miami Dolphins
C Mike Pouncey, torn hip labrum, still on PUP
RB Knowshon Moreno, elbow, out 4-8 weeks
LB Dannell Ellerbe, hip, IR
Aside from costly mental mistakes on back-to-back third downs in Miami’s Week 2 loss to Buffalo, veteran role player Samson Satele has been adequate filling in for Pouncey, arguably the game’s most athletic center. But the Dolphins still miss Pouncey’s range on perimeter runs and screens, which are critical in new offensive coordinator Bill Lazor’s Philly-style scheme. Moreno, one of the game’s most refined all-around backs, was rolling before his elbow injury. Now Lamar Miller assumes a heavier load. Miller had 108 yards on 15 carries against the Chiefs in Week 3, but has been inconsistent throughout his career.
At linebacker, Ellerbe was a fast inside blitzer in Miami’s A-gap pressure-based third-down packages. On the bright side, replacement Jelani Jenkins, a fourth-round pick a year ago, has shown intriguing sideline-to-sideline speed and will likely become a long-term starter.
18) Cincinnati Bengals
TE Tyler Eifert, dislocated elbow, IR designated to return
TE Alex Smith, biceps, IR
WR Marvin Jones, broken foot, expected to return Week 5
Hue Jackson is the frontrunner for Offensive Coordinator of the Year (too bad this award doesn’t exist either). His Bengals are 3-0 despite not having their dynamic No. 2 receiver, Jones, opposite A.J. Green (who also hasn’t been completely healthy) and their second-year tight end, Eifert, who gave their offense flexibility and unpredictability. With Eifert and Jermaine Gresham together, the Bengals could operate out of any formation using the same base personnel package. That’s the crux of dictating matchups. Instead they’ve had to deploy more three-receiver sets, which have flourished thanks to the continued development of Mohamed Sanu, one of the few Bengals receivers who is equally viable outside and in the slot.
19) Green Bay Packers
NT B.J. Raji, biceps, IR
OT Don Barclay, knee, IR
Center J.C. Tretter, knee, IR designated to return
When you play as much two-lineman, four-backer nickel as Dom Capers has over the years, you’re reliant on having an interior two-gap plugger up front. Raji was the only Packer who could do this. His backup, Letroy Guion, has not been effective. Fortunately, third-year pro Mike Daniels has continued the progress he displayed down the stretch last season and is becoming a disruptive every-down force. But the Packers are playing more base 3-4 and 4-3 sets than they likely anticipated.
20) Chicago Bears
CB Charles Tillman, triceps, IR
If the Bears were ready to move on from the cagey two-time Pro Bowler, they wouldn’t have re-signed him this past offseason. Now, they’re counting on first-round rookie Kyle Fuller to be an every-down player, as opposed to a passing-down one. That’s not a big transition, though. Fuller was already playing on the outside and appears more than ready. What’s big is the change in the nickel package: Isaiah Frey will carry a bullseye.
21) Tampa Bay Buccaneers
QB Josh McCown, thumb, several weeks
RB Charles Sims, ankle, IR designated to return
DE Adrian Clayborn, biceps, IR
CB Mike Jenkins, pectoral, IR
With McCown having not played well before his injury and Mike Glennon being an upper-tier backup (and respectable starter as a rookie last year), the biggest injury in this group is Adrian Clayborn. The fourth-year pro posted a somewhat modest 13 sacks in the two seasons he’d been healthy coming into this year, but he was an upper-tier defensive end because of his ability to work through traffic against the run and the way he sets up stunts. Losing Clayborn makes things harder on Gerald McCoy (who, as it happens, is also out right now, with a broken hand).
22) Tennessee Titans
ILB Zach Brown, torn pectoral, IR
ILB Colin McCarthy, shoulder, IR
The Titans are now relying heavily on Zavier Gooden, who has struggled with play recognition since being drafted in the third round last year. Defensive coordinator Ray Horton’s voluminous, complex scheme doesn’t have leeway for that.
23) San Francisco 49ers
NT Glenn Dorsey, biceps, IR designated to return
LB NaVorro Bowman, knee, PUP Week 10
RT Anthony Davis, hamstring, yet to play
We knew about Bowman coming into the season. We didn’t know that his replacement, Matt Wilhoite, would not have his up-and-coming nosetackle to keep blockers at bay.
24) Jacksonville Jaguars
TE Marcedes Lewis, high ankle sprain, IR designated to return
Losing a sound blocker and 6’6” security blanket does not help a rookie quarterback—Blake Bortles will make his first start this weekend—who is directing an offense that now has no blocking or receiving weapons on the inside.
25) New Orleans Saints
RB Mark Ingram, hand, out 4-6 weeks
The much-maligned first-round pick was just starting to emerge as the Saints’ best running back. Now we’ll see if Khiry Robinson can handle a heavier load. He’ll share snaps with Pierre Thomas.
26) Seattle Seahawks
CB Jeremy Lane, groin, IR designated to return
This injury looked significant at first, but replacement Marcus Burley has been terrific in the slot. In fact, much in the way that Byron Maxwell wound up taking Brandon Browner’s job last year, Burley could wind up taking Lane’s job.
27) Houston Texans
OLB/DE Jadeveon Clowney, torn meniscus, out 4-6 weeks
With Whitney Mercilus and the now movable Brooks Reed, the Texans have the depth to survive Clowney’s absence. But, oh, what could have been: Clowney often aligned behind J.J. Watt in the first half of the season opener and drew favorable one-on-one matchups while flashing his otherworldly raw talent.
28) Carolina Panthers
FB Mike Tolbert, hairline fracture in leg, IR designated to return
Carolina’s best backfield blocker and pass receiver is now gone. His absence limits formation versatility and robs the team of a good power back.
29) New York Jets
OLB Jermaine Cunningham, Achilles, IR
OLB Antwan Barnes, slow recovery on knee from an October 2013 injury, PUP
Cunningham’s absence means there is now less versatile depth in the Jets’ front seven. Barnes offered raw speed, but little else. Both players are replaceable. Unfortunately, replacement Jason Babin has not been productive.
The Lucky Three
New England, Denver and Cleveland have not had any significant injuries.
Jumping out on film
The Giants interior offensive line, particularly center J.D. Walton and guard Weston Richburg, was sensational in the running game against Houston. Often running plays that put the point of attack away from J.J. Watt, the Giants got 176 yards on 34 carries from Rashad Jennings. And it was steady production; Jennings’s longest rush went for only 18. A lot of the damage was done out of shotgun, in which the Giants were able to still execute traditional blocking concepts while allowing for Jennings to capitalize on his good vision and patience.
Smart watching for Week 4
Bucs coach Lovie Smith has uncharacteristically used more blitzes, and to no surprise. He doesn’t have the D-line to simply rush four and play zone. That’s especially true if Gerald McCoy is out. Whether McCoy plays Sunday against the Steelers or not, expect Smith to dial up more blitzes in critical passing situations. He just saw a white-hot Ben Roethlisberger dissect the league’s best zone-based defense, Carolina. Blitzing Pittsburgh can be dicey, though. Besides Roethlisberger’s ability to shed would-be sackers, you must account for the Steelers’ quick-strike passing game, particularly wide receiver screens. Those passes can turn into points against overzealous pressure packages.
Here’s what happened on Denver’s two long completions on that extraordinary game-tying touchdown drive:
On the podcast this week
We analyze all the upcoming Week 4 action plus talk to Texans cornerback Kareem Jackson, who is playing at a Pro Bowl-caliber level. Jackson shared with me all the details of his Week 2 interception against Derek Carr, including how he knew before the snap what routes the Raiders would run.
10 film study quick-hitters
1) Atlanta will do a ton of damage this season if Matt Ryan can keep making throws late in downs. Historically, Ryan has not had good enough protection for that. His line is better this year, but not by much. The biggest difference is his newfound mobility. Against Tampa Bay, Ryan even showed the ability to elude uncontested blitzers (see his early third-and-10 conversion to Julio Jones).
2) A ball-control play the Giants love: motion a receiver to the slot, then hit tight end Larry Donnell in the flats underneath.
3) Ryan Fitzpatrick does not always read things sharply before the snap, which is why he’s so often scattershot.
4) Russell Wilson did have one mistake Sunday against Denver: on the interception to Chris Harris, he failed to read Aqib Talib’s Cover 2 trap. That is when the outside corner shows man-to-man but peels back into a Cover 2 zone, taking away a slot receiver’s shallow out-route. Can’t censure Wilson for this, though. It was more great defense than bad offense.
5) One reason Jason Worilds didn’t post big numbers last week: he was used as a spy on Cam Newton, usually behind a three-man rush.
6) Ben Roethlisberger’s passing placements have been impeccable this season.
7) The heat that Brian Schottenheimer is taking from Rams fans is unjust. Schottenheimer has done a great job with route combinations to help his so-so wideouts and backup QB.
8) Just putting it out there: Tony Romo’s arm at times has not looked as strong as usual.
9) The Jets don’t have a good enough secondary to get away with blitzing as much as they have. But they also don’t have a good enough pass rush to get away with not blitzing. This is how 6-10 happens.
10) Odds that James Harrison is anything close to his old self: 7 to 1.