With over half the NFL regular season in the books, the wheat is being separated from the chaff. While some teams have surprised us, others are where we expected them to be all along. It has left us with eight teams with six wins or more, and all eight will be thinking what could be come Feb. 2, 2014, when New York/New Jersey hosts the Super Bowl.
But that's not all they will be thinking about. Because the journey to get there is still a long one and each team will have identified some key weaknesses that they'll need to improve on during the stretch run. So this week we're going to help them out and break down the weakest link in the starting lineup and explain why they're a problem for the weeks ahead. And as Kansas City shows us, even perfection has a potential big flaw.
The Chiefs may be 9-0, but the arm of Smith has hardly been tested this season. Smith is a player who has just enough talent that he can get by with a special defense (and the Chiefs D is special, as they comfortably are our highest-ranked defense). As the poor results under Matt Cassel showed us, Smith's achievements are still notable, but it means when the schedule toughens up (as it will over the next month), Smith's flaws are likely to be exposed. Smith is our fifth lowest-ranked pure passer and it's easy to see why, with a style that is more reliant on dumping the ball off than making plays downfield. It's telling that his yards-in-the-air percentage of 44.9 is the lowest in the league, meaning the Chiefs have the highest percentage of yards after the catch of any team in the league. Eventually Smith will need to beat teams down the field if the Chiefs are trailing -- and that's not his game. He's throwing just 5.7 percent of his attempts further than 20 yards, the lowest rate in the league and an indication of how limited the passing attack is.
The good news for Seattle fans is that McQuistan isn't likely to be left tackle all that much longer. Russell Okung is getting set to start practicing again and return to his usual spot. But the team is asking a lot of Okung to come back in and it remains to be seen how fit he'll be. That could mean McQuistan seeing more time at tackle, or moving back to guard. Neither is an ideal solution, as McQuistan is our third lowest-ranked tackle on the year and, by virtue of giving up 31 quarterback disruptions on 254 pass blocks at tackle, the owner of the third lowest pass blocking efficiency score. The concern is that the more he plays, the more vulnerable QB Russell Wilson is. Wilson already is leading the league by facing pressure on 48.3 percent of his dropbacks and that is a recipe for disaster.
The Broncos knew they had a problem at defensive tackle when they spent their first-round pick on Sylvester Williams. The obvious hope was that Williams could contribute immediately, but after looking out of place in preseason, he has found his way onto the field for just 87 snaps and, outside of one quarterback hit, done very little. That has meant their base defense has chiefly featured Terrance Knighton and Vickerson, with one of them delivering and the other not. The problem isn't just that Vickerson grades negatively against the run (just eight defensive stops all year) or fails to generate much pressure (he's 36th out of 58 qualifying defensive tackles in our pass rushing productivity signature stat). The problem is he draws a lot of yellow flags -- seven of them this year. Those are the kinds of things that sustain drives and put a defense under more pressure than it needs to face.
On the surface Jones hasn't done all that bad, combining on six sacks. Considering the guy who he replaced (Tommy Kelly) had three, that would suggest improvement, right? Not exactly. This is where sacks are a deceiving statistic because they're not an entirely reflective or predictive measurement of success getting to the quarterback. At the moment Jones has converted 60 percent of his pressures into sacks and converting pressures into sacks owes as much to the opposition as it does to the pass-rusher. Instead, his pass rushing productivity score has him ranked 42nd in the league with 10 quarterback disruptions on 201 pass rushes while he's a nonfactor in the run game. His 5.4 run stop percentage ranks 56th out of 73 defensive tackles. The Patriots already felt the need to go out and get Isaac Sopoaga, which just highlights the concern over the middle of their defensive line.