The NFL playoffs are set to kick off this weekend, and teams in the wild-card round will be crafting their game plans all week. Just like coaching staffs across the playoff field are trying to exploit soft spots in their opponents, we examined one glaring weakness from each squad in the postseason.
No. 1 Kansas City Chiefs: defensive performance
To be fair, part of this is the double-edged sword that comes with playing opposite a potent offense that paced the NFL in yards and points. But Kansas City also gave up 405.5 yards (ranking 31st) and 26.3 points (24th) per game, often putting pressure on quarterback Patrick Mahomes to keep scoring.
No. 2 New England Patriots: rushing defense
In the 11 games New England won this season, it allowed 94.8 rushing yards a game. In the five it lost, however, that number ballooned to 152. With two of the top 10 rushing offenses in the league – second-ranked Baltimore (152.6 yards per game) and eighth-ranked Houston (126.3) – potentially on tap for the Patriots in the divisional round, the issue is one the team needs to fix.
No. 3 Houston Texans: offensive line
There’s no question about this. Houston's pass protection was worst in the NFL, yielding 62 sacks this season and 126 hits to quarterback Deshaun Watson. That makes it almost remarkable for Watson to have had the production (68.3 percent completion rate for 4,165 yards, 26 touchdowns and nine interceptions) he did. Against elite pass rushes, the Texans' front could be a fatal flaw.
No. 4 Baltimore Ravens: passing offense
This one comes with a bit of a caveat because the Ravens won six of their seven games since rookie Lamar Jackson became the starting quarterback. Offensive coordinator Marty Mornhinweg has transformed the team into a dominant rushing offense, but the passing game isn't up to par. Baltimore is averaging just 156.1 passing yards since Jackson took over. If the Ravens need to keep up with some high-octane offenses in the playoffs and are forced to throw, they could encounter problems.
No. 5 Los Angeles Chargers: tight ends
This season, Chargers tight ends – Antonio Gates, Virgil Green and Sean Culkin – have combined for just 48 catches for 567 yards and three scores. By comparison, 12 players at the position across the league have caught more passes by themselves, and 10 have racked up more yards on their own. The production has been a shortcoming from L.A.’s offense – especially in the red zone. The good news for the Chargers: After tearing his anterior cruciate ligament in May, Hunter Henry is inching toward a potential return.
No. 6 Indianapolis Colts: penalties
Under the direction of coach Frank Reich and general manager Chris Ballard, Indianapolis has improved in most categories. Penalties, however, have been costly. The Colts had 120 penalties enforced on them, 29th in the league. Their 31 offensive holding calls were second only to the Redskins. And in the playoffs, when the margin of error is so thin, self-inflicted errors that can kill drives or extend them on defense could be the difference.
No. 1 New Orleans Saints: red zone defense
Arguably the most balanced team in the entire field, the Saints own an explosive offense and a defense that has tightened up in the second half of the season. But still, New Orleans ranked 23rd in the NFL in red zone defense, allowing opponents to cross the goal line 63.27 percent of the time.
No. 2 Los Angeles Rams: inside linebackers
No team in the NFL gave up more yards per carry (5.1) than the Rams. And that’s with defensive tackles Aaron Donald and Ndamukong Suh. Inside linebackers Mark Barron and Corey Littleton too often have failed to diagnose plays quick enough and their delayed reactions have yielded yards up the middle. The 147 rushing plays up the middle that L.A.’s defense faced – fifth-most in the NFL – produced an average gain of 4.27 yards, 21st in the league for that direction.
No. 3 Chicago Bears: special teams
Of place kickers with at least 20 field goal attempts this season, Cody Parkey had the third-lowest conversion rate at 76.7 percent. Parkey, who hit on 23 of 30 in field goals, had six games in which he missed at least one. And Chicago ranked last in kick return average, gaining just 19.1 yards per attempt. Since playoff games can be swayed by field position and can come down to field goals, any mistakes could be fatal.
No. 4 Dallas Cowboys: red zone and goal-to-go offense
Since they traded for receiver Amari Cooper, the Cowboys have been significantly better on offense. But finishing inside the 20 remains a problem. Dallas ranks 29th in red zone rate (48 percent). But it’s even worse when the Cowboys are even closer. They’re dead last in goal-to-go tries, converting touchdowns on just 52 percent of those situations. The offensive line gets beat way too often on rushing plays near the end zone, and leaving points off the board is a recipe for an early exit.
No. 5 Seattle Seahawks: time to throw
Only two quarterbacks took longer to get rid of the ball than Russell Wilson this year, who averaged 3.01 seconds from snap to throw. And though Wilson had an extremely productive season, his play has been one reason why the Seahawks gave up 51 sacks. When compared to Houston’s 62 sacks, that might not seem so bad, but the issue for Seattle is that it ranked last in the NFL in passing attempts (427) and gave up sacks on 10.7 percent of their dropbacks. And sacks can stall drives.
No. 6 Philadelphia Eagles: forcing turnovers
Of all the teams in the postseason, Philadelphia was the one with the worst turnover differential at -6, which ranked them 25th in the regular season. It wasn’t so much that the Eagles gave the ball away too much – they had 23 giveaways this year after posting 20 last season – but that they didn’t seize turnovers on defense. One year after ranking fourth in takeaways (31) during their Super Bowl run, the Eagles forced just 17 (tied for 22nd) this year.
Follow Lorenzo Reyes on Twitter @LorenzoGReyes.
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