– Evan Sally
At the end of Week 5 this season, the Eagles, Steelers, Packers and Vikings all had reason to feel great about themselves. With a combined 15-3 record their seasons were off to great starts, with a few of those teams (Eagles and Vikings) being bigger surprises than others (Packers and Steelers). In the ensuing weeks the wheels have fallen off each respective bandwagon. These 4 teams’ great expectations have come to a screeching halt, combining for a putrid 2-12 record since Week 5. What’s going wrong? And what chance does each team have of pulling things together and salvaging a playoff spot?
Record through Week 5: 5-0
Record since then: 0-3
Biggest Cause for Concern: Offense
Minnesota started the year in dominant fashion. Not only were they the only team to start 5-0 but they won each game by double digits. Sam Bradford was lights out, they’d committed zero turnovers as a team and the defense seemed like the Purple People Eaters reincarnated. Not a power rankings column in the world had them ranked below 3rd, some even ranking them above the Patriots.
What a difference 3 weeks makes.
Since popping their turnover cherry with 2 in the first 10 minutes against Philadelphia in Week 6, the Vikings have been a mess. While their offense was never any juggernaut they were doing enough to support their stellar defense; now after scoring only 36 points in 3 games the flaws are readily apparent. Bradford has been sacked 13 times in the past 3 games and their skill players aren’t reliable outside of Stefon Diggs. On top of everything else, venerated offensive coordinator Norv Turner stepped down in a surprise move last week. After losses to the Eagles and Bears on the road it could be said that the offense is merely slumping as result of playing some good defenses but after struggling yet again to score, this time at home against a terrible Lions defense the problems look to be very real. Minnesota’s defense gives them a floor that will prevent a complete collapse, but the concerns should be very real in Minnesota. Between Asiata, McKinnon and Hillman the Vikings have to cobble together some type of running game to help get pressure off of Bradford or else these woes will continues. And to add insult to injury, their kicker Blair Walsh isn’t reliable at all which is a major problem for a team that will need to keep games low-scoring to win.
Level of concern: High. Minnesota even after all of their problems are still leading the NFC North by a half game by virtue of the fact that Green Bay has been a mess recently too and Detroit wins games exclusively via late game comebacks. However, their offensive problems are real and probably aren’t going to get better. The defense is good but without playing at a Denver 2015 level consistently this is a team that’s going to struggle. They’re extremely lucky for the division they play in but I think even that may not save them. Most importantly they traded a first round pick in order to salvage the season and get Sam Bradford. A few weeks ago that seemed like a genius move, now maybe not so much. Bradford still gives them a shot to pull out of this tailspin more than Shaun Hill ever would, but if they don’t right the ship soon that trade will look very very bad, and the Eagles will get a good draft pick.
Green Bay Packers
Record through Week 5: 3-1
Record since: 1-3
Area of Concern: Everything aka Aaron Rodgers
Unlike their division rivals, the Packers have issues evident from the very beginning of the season when they barely survived against a terrible Jacksonville team. (By the way, remember when we saw that game as an example of the Jaguars improving? What a difference a few games makes.) Even when the Pack had a 3-1 record, they had the oddity of being the best first half offensive team in the NFL while also being the lowest scoring second half offensive team in the league. Since Week 5, they’ve been dominated at home by the Cowboys, won ugly against a broken Bears offense, played well against Atlanta only to lose by a point late and then got dominated for most of their game against Indy this week only rally late and still lose.
I wonder how much of what my perspective on Green Bay is tainted by Packers teams of recent history, but they haven’t looked right all year offensively outside 2 quarters against Detroit and their game against Atlanta, and as their defense falls back to Earth their record is starting to pay for it. Aaron Rodgers struggles have been well documented, even on this very website, but you can start to see that Rodgers has been a bit of a one man firewall insulating the Packers from all of the other problems they have had and now it’s catching up to them. Almost nothing on this team is reliable at this point. Can you trust Mike McCarthy to figure out their problems? Do you trust their receivers to get open regularly? Do you trust their defense to stop opposing passing games regularly? The answer those questions is a resounding no. And now we’re officially reaching a point where you can’t really trust Aaron Rodgers either, not because he’s “bad now” but because he’s no longer playing at a high enough level to render all those other concerns moot. There is a difference. There’s hope in the form of Ty Montgomery at running back, a player who provides a level of dynamism and freshness this stale offense badly needs; but he must be used correctly. In Sunday’s loss to the Colts, Montgomery ran for 24 yards on his first carry; he only got 9 more touches the rest of the game.
Level of Concern: Moderate to high. Just like Minnesota, the Packers are extremely lucky to be in the NFC North. By having the best quarterback in the division, I’d still say the Packers are the best bet to get to 9 or 10 wins in the division. But they’re supposed to be much better than this and my faith is almost entirely predicated on past performances. This is an offense that has struggled to put up numbers all year and it hasn’t looked any better against weak defenses like the Colts. The fate of Packers offense is one of the biggest mysteries in the league as we move forward, and there’s very little reason to think things will change aside from reputation, and when it comes to quarterbacks playing well in the NFC North, Matthew Stafford is pushing Rodgers for that crown.. The Packers just don’t look right, and until they make changes like hopefully firing Mike McCarthy who’s been coasting for far too long at the end of the season, this broken version of the Packers is what we’re going to get.
Record through Week 5: 4-1
Record since: 0-3
Area of Concern: Injuries and lack of focus
We’ve seen this story before from Pittsburgh. A dominant offense that can wreck teams and an ok defense that’s good enough to get by with. We’ve also seen them be prone to massive letdowns, like when they only scored 3 points and lost by 31 in Philadelphia, or began Jay Ajayi’s reign of terror by collapsing in Miami. The Steelers have also already endured their annual Big Ben injury costing them their chances in a game against New England and the subsequent premature Big Ben comeback to action before he’s ready costing them a win against a mediocre at best Ravens team. So I can’t say I’m really surprised that the Steelers season has gone this way. However, I’m a little shocked that they didn’t take steps to prevent this movie from repeating.
At this point in his career Big Ben is injury prone. He’s not going to get through 16 games anymore, whether it’s because of an accumulation of hits or some other reason, he’s good to miss at least 2 games a season. That’s something you can’t plan for and the Steelers can’t be blamed for. However these lulls Pittsburgh has when they just go to sleep against inferior opposition and completely collapse are extremely odd to me. Mike Tomlin is by any measure a good coach, he’s a Super Bowl champion and his players seem to love him. But at some point these constant underwhelming efforts fall on him. There’s a consistency of performance that Tomlin is unable to coax from his team that always costs the Steelers a few wins. That’s the difference between a first round bye and 4th seed, or a wild card and missing out on the playoffs entirely. It’s an interesting problem because while I’m sure the Steelers are happy with the winning Tomlin has brought them, you have to wonder if the Steelers are missing another chance to win big because of Tomlin’s shortcomings.
Level of Concern: Moderate. They really do this every year. And as is customary a late season 6-2 rally to get to 10 wins is coming, but only if Big Ben gets back to something close to healthy. After Sunday’s game against Dallas, the Steelers have 7 very winnable games down the stretch are lucky to play in the only division in football with no teams with a winning record. The margin of error is slim, but apparently Pittsburgh likes it this way.
Record through Week 5: 3-1
Record since: 1-3
Area of Concern: Inexperience
The Wentz Wagon has some broken ass wheels man. Not to say that rookie Carson Wentz has been bad lately; he’s been pretty good by the typical standards we apply to rookies But perhaps we should’ve waited a tad longer to crown him. It’s really not his fault the media oversold what he is and even if his struggles continue the rest of the year if he continues to play this way Eagles fans will be encouraged. But he’s not the second coming of Peyton Manning. He’s just pretty good. And the rest of the Eagles offense isn’t good enough around him to make up for his shortcomings. However this team is actually pretty good and of the 4 teams in this article this is probably the most well-rounded. The Eagles, even after losing 3 of their last 4 games are still 6th in defense and 10th in offense. They’ve lost those 3 games by 1 possession each and each loss was to a team with a winning record. Relative to expectations the Eagles are having a really nice season.
But once you start a season 3-0 and crush a team like the Steelers by 31 points expectations have a tendency to rise. The Eagles, despite being 3 games back of the sizzling Dallas Cowboys in the NFC East, are only a game back in the Wild Card race. So what’s this team’s problem? Inexperience at the two most important areas in football, coach and quarterback. The Eagles’ biggest problem has been in close games and figuring out to win them, and while I believe there’s a certain amount of luck that goes into winning 1 possession games there are certain things experienced coaches and quarterback know how to do down the stretch of games to tilt the odds in their favor. Coach Doug Pederson and Carson Wentz are still figuring that out. When to play it safe, when to take risks and how to play certain situations are all things you learn over time. This season will be a trial by fire for the Eagles new battery of leaders, and they may lose the battle this year but this time will be invaluable for their development and for the future of the Eagles.
Level of Concern: Low. The Eagles after they traded Sam Bradford and started a rookie quarterback weren’t supposed to be here. And while they’re only 4-4, they’ve played well in almost every game and are just a few bounces from being 6-2 (well who isn’t, but I digress). I understand Eagles fans who thought they were going to have the season Dallas is having right now being disappointed but from a realistic perspective playing somewhere in the range of ok to well each week and being a game back of a playoff spot in a mediocre NFC isn’t the worst thing. Wentz will have to improve however, and that begins with getting his throws down so he isn’t killing his receivers or getting picked off as much. It also includes Pederson figuring out his running game so he can build some consistency in the backfield with Wentz. The Eagles concerns are real, but unlike the rest of the teams on this list, this was just supposed to be a rebuilding year.
– Evan Sally (Twitter)