Four of the NFL’s top teams struggle defensively. They have survived the issues so far, but the competition level is about to increase exponentially.
NFL’s Top Teams Have Defensive Issues Heading Into the Playoffs
Kansas City BBQ
The Kansas City Chiefs offense, led by second-year wunderkind Patrick Mahomes, lead the league in points per game with 35.6 and yards per game at 427.2. Most of that comes from passing as the Chiefs rank 16th with 114.4 rushing yards and 23rd with 24.4 attempts, both on a per game basis.
This is an issue with Kareem Hunt no longer on the roster, someone the team could trust to produce on sporadic work. Spencer Ware stepped in with mediocre results. Damien Williams performed admirably with Ware hurt, but it remains to be seen if the former Miami Dolphin can keep it up.
Keeping the opposing offense off the field while giving your defense rest pays dividends in the playoffs. Relying so heavily on the pass leads to stopped clocks and quick drives; and more opportunities for the other team. This shows up in the Chiefs ranking 32nd giving up 282.5 passing yards and 26th against the run, allowing 126.9 yards per game.
Kansas City can not afford to give the other team extra possessions in the playoffs. Safety Eric Berry’s return may not be enough. In week 15, the Chiefs were at home to a Los Angeles Chargers team they had beaten nine straight times. They lost by a single point on a two-point conversion at the end of regulation.
Houston Has a Problem
The Houston Texans have gone from worst to first; not surprising considering Deshaun Watson missed more than half of 2017 with a torn ACL. He has returned to lead the 18th-ranked passing offense with 233.1 yards per game. The rookie numbers were bound to fall, but the Texans also reduced Watson’s volume following a rib injury earlier in the year. Houston still boasts a top-half scoring offense; coming in at 11th with 25.1 points per game.
Will Fuller tore his ACL back in Week Eight, meaning DeAndre Hopkins will need to produce like he did Sunday against the New York Jets. Protecting their franchise quarterback is the Texans’ biggest concern going forward, meaning they will need more consistency from a ground game that lacks a true workhorse.
J.J. Watt has returned to dominant form after suffering through injuries the last two years. His presence has helped Houston rank fourth against the run, holding opposing backfields to 88.3 rushing yards per game. Conversely, the Texans check in near the bottom against the pass. Over the last three weeks especially, they have given up 337 passing yards per game. For all the pressure Watt and Jadeveon Clowney create up front, the secondary featuring safety Tyrann Mathieu is a liability.
The Texans mask this with their slower pace leading to them having the fifth-ranked scoring defense; allowing 20.1 points per game. They also give opponents the second-fewest red zone opportunities in the NFL at 2.7. Sunday, Houston narrowly escaped with a win against the Jets 29-22. Their competition in the postseason will be substantially better.
Rams Hollywood or Bust
The Los Angeles Rams’ seventh-ranked rushing attack is averaging 129.1 yards per game, spearheaded by Todd Gurley. The Rams passing offense is 12th the past three weeks; putting up 229.3 yards per game.
Jared Goff has looked uncomfortable the past few weeks. Defenses have disguised their coverages longer to neutralize the communication between the signal caller and his head coach. Cooper Kupp being gone from the lineup has become more obvious with every game, as he was Goff’s safety blanket.
A star-studded defense is healthy after both Aqib Talib and Marcus Peters missed time this year. That pedigree has resulted in the Rams ranking 21st in rushing yards, permitting 123.3 yards per game. The pass defense ranks 17th; allowing 239.8 passing yards per game. Those marquee players will need to play up to their reputations if Los Angeles wants to take that next step after losing in the wild card last year.
Aaron Donald is the only consistent presence on that side of the ball, and teams have started double- and even triple-teaming him to minimize his impact. The Rams returned home and faced the Philadelphia Eagles, who had Nick Foles at quarterback and a banged up secondary. The final score was 30-23 Philly.
Atop the NFC landscape, the New Orleans Saints face a different set of questions. Sure, they just came from behind to beat the Carolina Panthers on Monday night. They also could only muster 12 points against a defense that came allowing 101.9 rushing and 250.3 passing yards per game; good for 7th and 21st, respectively. The Saints quarterback typically plays worse on the road, but the game seemingly played into Drew Brees’ strengths.
The issue for New Orleans comes from that narrow usage tree. If those three studs are ineffective, who can the Saints count on? Carolina knows New Orleans better than any playoff contenders, so maybe that played into the sluggish night. It is also worth mentioning that as the top seed, the Saints would have the luxury of playing at home; notable for Brees.
Their defense ranks third in scoring; allowing 12 points per game the last three weeks. They were up to the task against the Panthers, but they lost a similar game only two weeks prior to the Dallas Cowboys. These games were on the road, possibly alleviating the concern. The midseason trade for Eli Apple and the return of Marcus Davenport give New Orleans’ defense some added teeth for a potential championship run.
Four top teams, all with issues defensively. The side of the ball that wins championships. They will need to figure it out quickly, or they all could very well end up on the outside looking in.