By: Chris Dagonas
Traditional football wisdom tends to lean toward the idea that teams win by controlling the ball, and the clock, with a strong running game. In recent years, and especially this season, it seems that teams that have the most wins are not the ones rolling past opponents on the ground, but the ones that rule the air. The best teams can either throw the ball with ease, or dominate their opponents’ passing games.
There is no doubt that the NFL’s best teams this year are also the best at moving the ball on offense, through the air. There are five undefeated teams left in the league; the Patriots, Bengals, Broncos, Packers, and Panthers. There are also three very good teams, in the Arizona Cardinals, New York Jets, and Atlanta Falcons, with serious playoff aspirations. Of those, four are inside the top five in passing efficiency (Bengals at 1, Patriots at 2, Cardinals at 3, Packers at 4). The Panthers sit about middle of the pack at 18th.
Surprisingly, to me at least, the Broncos sit 30th in passing efficiency, and 32nd in overall offensive efficiency this season. Sure, Peyton Manning has lost some steam in his throws, but with him and super talented receivers Demariyus Thomas and Emmanuel Sanders, I figured they would be at least middle of the league. But Denver’s dominance comes on the defensive side of the ball, as we’ll see later.
Measured by passer rating, the Patriots, Bengals, and Packers check in at first, second, and third, respectively. Again, the Panthers and Jets are found in the middle of the pack, and the Broncos bring up the rear. By passing touchdowns, the Packers lead the league with 15, where as the Patriots, Cardinals, and Bengals have 14 each, while the Falcons, Jets, Panthers and Broncos all sit between 9 and 7.
So one strategy to win is to torch opposing defenses through the air. But what if your roster doesn’t feature an Aaron Rodgers, Tom Brady, Carson Palmer, Matt Ryan, or Andy Dalton?
The answer is to dominate the opponents’ passing games. Starting with the league’s 30th-best passing offense, the Denver Broncos. The Broncos have built a defense that demolishes opposing quarterbacks, with a league-best 26 sacks and second-best 9 interceptions, the Broncos have made it nearly impossible to pass the ball against them: Opposing quarterbacks have a meagre 69.6 passer rating against the Broncos. With pass rushers DeMarcus Ware and Shaquil Barrett, quarterbacks need to have their heads on a swivel at all times.
If there is one team in the league that could challenge the Broncos for title of “Stingiest Pass Defense”, it’s the New York Jets. The Green Machine only has 8 sacks to go with 8 interceptions, but allow only 51.1 percent of passes to find their mark, and opposing quarterbacks can only manage a 62.3 passer rating against the Jets. Both marks are the lowest in the NFL. By re-adding cornerback Darrelle Revis in the offseason, the Jets have sparked a ferocious passing defense.
Leading the league in interceptions are the Arizona Cardinals. Sitting at 4-2, the Cardinals have ridden the strength of an explosive passing offense and ballhawking defense to first place in a somewhat weakened NFC West. While Tyrann Mathieu and Patrick Peterson are the most well-renowned, safety Rashad Johnson leads the team with 3 picks and 7 passes defended.
The Packers and Panthers also rate highly in passing defense efficiency, and offer low completion percentages to the opposition. The Packers have generated 23 sacks, second most in the league, and both teams have 8 interceptions, which places them in a three-way tie for third, with the Jets.
If there is one team that might blow up this theory, it’s the Atlanta Falcons. The dirty birds are currently 5-1, and look like a dangerous team, perhaps even more dangerous than the team ahead of them in the NFC South, the Carolina Panthers. With 130 rush yards per game and 11 rushing touchdowns, the Falcons’ league-average defense and passing game is boosted by an exceptional running game, centred on second-year standout Devonta Freeman.
While the Falcons are showing that an NFL team can win without controlling the air game in 2015, they are the exception, rather than the rule. Taking a look at almost any other division leader, you will find either a fantastic passing offense, or a ruthless passing defense centred on quarterback pressure or swiping balls in the air. Or, if you’re an early Super Bowl favourite, you might even have both.
Observations from week 6:
The Miami Dolphins decided to cut ties with coach Joe Philbin after the London loss to the New York Jets. That gave new coach Dan Campbell two weeks to prepare for the Tennessee Titans. The Dolphins played with renewed vigour in a 38-10 dismantling of the Titans. I am bummed to hear that Marcus Mariota may have to miss some time with a knee injury, so maybe the Olivier Vernon was a little too intense. Don’t read too much into the victory, though; New coaches usually tend to have a good showing early on. The Dolphins still have their issues, but it seems clear under Campbell that effort and intensity won’t be one of them. Now if only Tannehill could figure out the deep pass.
Sunday night’s game was supposed to be a “revenge” game for Tom Brady and the New England Patriots against the Indianapolis Colts. The Colts, you may remember, accused the Patriots of using deflated footballs in last season’s AFC Championship game. Far from being a revenge game, the Colts reminded everyone that they are an AFC finalist and still-contender. The Patriots won the game by a touchdown, with help from Colts coach Chuck Pagano and a ridiculous fake punt disaster. The Patriots did not steamroll the Colts, and maybe if the Colts had played with as much fire in the AFC Championship as they did on Sunday night, deflated footballs would not have even been a problem.
Pittsburgh Steelers receiver Martavis Bryant returned from a four-game suspension on Sunday afternoon, and showed immediate rapport with third-string quarterback Landry Jones, after Michael Vick went down with a leg injury. He finished the game with 137 receiving yards (most of which came on this YAC masterpiece) and 2 touchdowns. Meanwhile, star receiver Antonio Brown continues to struggle without starter Ben Roethlisberger. So many of the NFL’s receivers are wickedly talented, but the difference between realizing that potential or not could be as simple as having a mental connection with the quarterback.
In the spirit of controlling the air, have a look at the incredible De’Andre Hopkins, who is already making football fans in Houston wonder “Andre Johnson who?” And also, “Why is our team so bad?” and “When does the Rockets’ season start?”