A lot can go wrong for a team in five weeks. History says you can kiss your playoff chances goodbye if you start 0-5; since the NFL went to its current postseason structure in 2002, no team that started the year without a win through five games has made it to the postseason. That's bad news for Cincinnati and Washington. Even teams that win one game out of their first five have only converted their slow starts into postseason trips 8.5% of the time.
It's one thing for the league's worst teams, who started out of the race, to confirm their January vacations early. It's another to watch teams that were expected to contend see their playoff chances wane. Let's go through the six teams that have had their playoff chances decline most severely, according to the ESPN Football Power Index (FPI). It's a list that starts in California and makes its way all around the NFL:
Preseason playoff chances: 57.0%
Current playoff chances: 10.3%
Playoff chances decline: -46.7%
Is it just simple enough to list a bunch of injuries? Sadly, the Chargers have been bit by the injury bug yet again. Kicker Michael Badgley, safety Derwin James and left tackle Russell Okung haven't played a single game. Tight end Hunter Henry went down because of a knee injury after Week 1, although he's expected to return. Safety Adrian Phillips and corner Trevor Williams have already hit injured reserve, with Williams, a starter last season, eventually cut before joining the Cardinals. Wide receivers Mike Williams and Travis Benjamin were both injured, which led the Chargers to sign Dontrelle Inman, who started in Week 4 and then went to injured reserve himself. Starting center Mike Pouncey hit IR on Wednesday. Edge rusher Melvin Ingram missed Week 5 because of a hamstring injury, which was the season debut for the team's other prominent Melvin.
Melvin Gordon's absence was of his own choosing, and Austin Ekeler held his own as the team's primary running back, but the offense has been felled by another problem: turnovers. In 2018, the Chargers either didn't turn the ball over or turned the ball over only one time in 11 of their 18 games across the regular season and the playoffs. They were 11-0 in those games and just 2-5 otherwise. "Don't turn the ball over" isn't exactly some sort of modern finding, but when L.A. didn't shoot itself in the foot, it was hard to beat.
The Chargers have two or more turnovers in three of their first five games, and they're 1-2 in those games. They've won the turnover battle only once in 2019, and even that came against the Dolphins. Some of that is bad luck -- they have recovered only four of the 15 fumbles in their games this season, good for a dismal 26.7% rate -- but they have simultaneously been the luckiest team in the league on special teams, notably with opposing kickers missing a league-high 10 of their 22 attempts on field goals or extra points against them so far.
Much of that came from Adam Vinatieri's terrible performance in Week 1, when the future Hall of Famer missed an extra point attempt and two field goal attempts in regulation before the Chargers won in overtime. With even a competent day from Vinatieri, the Chargers might very well be 1-4 and have had their only win come from a game against the Dolphins.
Of course, without Badgley, the Chargers have gotten back to their old habits in the kicking game. Los Angeles started the season by using punter Ty Long as its kicker, which is cocky for an organization that couldn't find a competent kicker before landing on Badgley. Long missed two second-half field goal attempts in a 13-10 loss to the Lions, and even then, it took two weeks before the Chargers signed a full-time kicker in Chase McLaughlin.
The issue isn't getting to the quarterback. The Chargers are forcing pressure about as frequently as they did last season -- 29.4% of the time in 2018 and 29.9% of the time this season, with similar blitz rates -- but the results are different in the secondary. Here's their passer rating allowed between 2018 and 2019, split out by whether they were able to pressure the passer. Across the board, they're worse:
The problems are in the secondary. If the Chargers could magically heal one of their players, the clear pick would be James. Defensive coordinator Gus Bradley badly misses his star safety's versatility and coverage ability. In watching the various big plays against the Chargers' defense this season, there's not one obvious culprit like the Falcons.
There are moments like the 70-yard touchdown to Courtland Sutton last week, where the Broncos lined up in trips to the left. It looked as if the Chargers played man coverage on the two outside receivers but had Denzel Perryman standing over Sutton as the slot receiver, which obviously attracted Joe Flacco's attention. Perryman wasn't in coverage on Sutton, as the linebacker moved into the middle of the field as a robber, but it's unclear whether Roderic Teamer (an undrafted free agent who has started three games as a rookie) or Rayshawn Jenkins (who was a backup last season) were supposed to be in coverage on Sutton's deep out (animation via NFL Next Gen Stats):
Neither got close before the catch, and Sutton broke Jenkins' tackle attempt and shed Teamer afterward. The result was a 70-yard touchdown. I don't know if James would have been able to get to the sideline and stop Sutton from catching the ball, but he probably would have made the tackle and kept the play to a first down.
The Chargers are 28th in defensive DVOA through five games, and given that their schedule has included a relative middling group of quarterbacks beyond Deshaun Watson, I suspect their numbers will get worse as opponent adjustments become more significant. They can be thankful that the schedule stays relatively friendly, as they'll get Devlin Hodges, Marcus Mariota, and either Mitchell Trubisky or Chase Daniel over the next three weeks. The only upper-echelon quarterbacks L.A. will really face the rest of the way are Aaron Rodgers and two games against Patrick Mahomes.
The other good news for Anthony Lynn's team? The AFC is a bit of a mess. The Chiefs lost to the Colts, which keeps the Chargers within two games in the AFC West. The Chargers beat Indy, which would come in handy if the two end up in a wild-card tiebreaker. After the 5-0 Patriots, the 4-1 Chiefs, and the 4-1 Bills, there are eight teams that are either 3-2 or 2-3 competing for three playoff spots. The Chargers don't look like the team from 2018, but if they can stick around .500 and possibly get guys like James and Henry back on the field, they should be able to compete for a playoff spot in December.
Preseason playoff chances: 55.9%
Current playoff chances: 16.8%
Playoff chances decline: -39.1%
Some explanations are simpler than others. When you replace a Hall of Fame quarterback with an untested midround pick, and then replace that midround pick with an undrafted rookie, your offense gets worse. Here are Pittsburgh's ranks by DVOA from this season and last season:
2018: 6th in offense, 13th in defense and 27th in special teams
2019: 25th in offense, 7th in defense and 19th in special teams
The defense has actually done an admirable job of stepping up after struggling mightily against the Patriots and Seahawks. Over the past three games, the Steelers have picked off six passes, posted the league's second-highest sack rate and allowed a QBR of just 22.4, which is third best in the league. One of those games was a five-takeaway performance against the 49ers, which should essentially guarantee victory; teams have gone 232-21 (.917) over the past 20 years when they've forced five takeaways.
The Steelers lost that game, though, and lost to the Ravens despite forcing three Lamar Jackson interceptions. The offense hasn't been able to hold up its end of the bargain, scoring only two touchdowns on seven trips to the red zone over the past three games. Only the Dolphins have been worse in the red zone over that time frame.
The early returns on quarterback Mason Rudolph, who stepped in for Ben Roethlisberger, have been mixed. Any idea that the Steelers were going to be able to run the same offense or had a plug-and-play replacement for Roethlisberger was quickly rendered absurd. The game plan through Rudolph's first two starts is about as conservative as you'll ever see for an ambulatory quarterback. The evidence: 65.5% of Rudolph's passes traveled five yards or less in the air. To put that in context, no other quarterback in the NFL topped 59% over that same time frame. Rudolph tried to take the occasional shot downfield, but he was 3-of-11 for 99 yards on deep passes, and two of those completions came against the Bengals, who have been the league's fifth-worst team against deep passes this year.
Rudolph's expected completion percentage by NFL Next Gen Stats research in those first two games was 68.7%, the sixth-highest figure in the league among quarterbacks who started and finished both games. Rudolph completed 69.1% of those throws, right in line with projections. There's nothing inherently wrong with an extremely conservative offense, but it's no surprise that Pittsburgh wasn't able to do much in the red zone, where those easy completions aren't quite as easy.
Before Rudolph went down because of a serious concussion from a blow to the head in Week 5, though, he was producing his best start as a pro. The offense looked more like the actual Steelers offense, with Rudolph averaging 9.9 air yards per pass attempt. He appeared far more comfortable in the pocket, and the Steelers didn't do whatever possible to get the ball out of his hands immediately. He still looks a step or two slow when scanning the field, which hopefully should get better with more NFL reps. The problem, of course, is that it's unclear when Rudolph will be able to return from his brain injury.
It looks as if Devlin Hodges will make the start against the Chargers on Sunday night. It's impossible to say much about how he'll perform, although he played reasonably well against the blitz-happy Ravens in his NFL debut Sunday. He didn't always get much help from his receivers, with JuJu Smith-Schuster fumbling away a catch in overtime that handed the Ravens a short field and the eventual winning field goal. The Steelers also used Jaylen Samuels as a Wildcat quarterback in recent weeks, but after Samuels threw an ugly interception and went down because of a knee injury on Sunday, that part of the playbook might be scrapped for the foreseeable future.
Injuries are really what has dismantled the Steelers' offense. Roethlisberger is done for the year. Samuels is out for a month. Wide receiver James Washington will miss several weeks because of a shoulder injury. Receiver Donte Moncrief's ugly start to the season was influenced by a broken finger he suffered during camp. Tight end Vance McDonald missed time because of a shoulder injury. Smith-Schuster is playing through a toe injury. Running back James Conner has already left games because of knee and ankle injuries this season. The Pittsburgh line has stayed healthy, but we're going to see third-stringers at quarterback, running back and receiver take meaningful snaps for the Steelers on Sunday.
Pittsburgh's best hope, realistically, is to get Conner and the running game going. So far, it hasn't been effective. The team ranks 26th in rush offense DVOA, down from sixth in 2017 and 12th a year ago. There has been a total absence of big plays; while Conner's success rate of 48% is right in line with his 49% mark from a year ago, his 58 runs have produced only one run of more than 15 yards, a 21-yard carry against the Bengals. Conner is never going to be Matt Breida in terms of big-play ability, but 16 of his 215 carries went for 15 or more yards last season. That's about 7.5%, and in 2019, the typical halfback has turned about 5% of his runs into 15-plus yard gains.
It's likely that Conner will break off more big plays going forward, although teams are already committed to stopping Pittsburgh's running game. When Conner ran the ball last season, he had either a blocking tie or an advantage in terms of blockers vs. defenders in the box on 69.3% of his carries. That was the fifth-highest rate among 23 backs with 160 carries or more. This season, Conner has only enjoyed the blocking advantage on 60.3% of his runs, which ranks 27th out of the 32 backs with 50 carries or more.
Naturally, that brings things back to Rudolph and Devlin. If the Steelers can make enough big plays downfield to create space in the box, they should be able to run the ball and play excellent defense. You can win games that way, and with the Ravens struggling on defense, the Browns wildly inconsistent from week to week, and the Bengals at 0-5, Pittsburgh is still in the divisional race.
So much depends on whether Rudolph comes back and looks more like the guy from Week 5 than the one who was throwing screens and stick routes in Weeks 3 and 4.
Preseason playoff chances: 40.5%
Current playoff chances: 3.5%
Playoff chances decline: -37%
The Falcons' collapse is a lesson in self-scouting. Crucially, on the defensive side of the ball, the team evaluated itself as the defense it wanted to be as opposed to the defense it actually has been for several years. Dan Quinn & Co. wanted to believe that a healthy version of the defense that looked dominant during the 2016 playoffs is what the Falcons would look like in 2019. It wasn't realistic.
To put it another way, here are Atlanta's ranks on defense during the Quinn era by points allowed and DVOA, where first would be best and 32nd would be worst:
2015: 14th in points allowed, 22nd in DVOA
2016: 27th in points allowed, 26th in DVOA
2017: 8th in points allowed, 22nd in DVOA
2018: 25th in points allowed, 31st in DVOA
In 2016, the defense was subpar all season, only to dominate in the NFC playoffs and for half of Super Bowl LI. In 2018, the defense was ruined by injuries. In 2015 and particularly in 2017, though Quinn might have thought he was running an above-average defense, the Falcons' mediocrity on that side of the ball was masked by opportunity. Because their offense typically ran long, methodical drives, the defense faced a league-low number of drives in both 2015 (172) and 2017 (164).
The only explanation I can imagine for the Falcons conducting their business as they did this offseason is to assume that they wrote off 2018 because of injuries and thought their 2017 performance in scoring defense was real. Outside of signing defensive tackle Grady Jarrett and linebacker Deion Jones to extensions, the organization did little to address its defensive woes. Atlanta signed defensive linemen Adrian Clayborn and Tyeler Davison to small deals, then added edge rusher Allen Bailey on a two-year, $10.5 million deal in July after his market didn't develop.
It seemed like a sure thing that Atlanta would address its woes in the draft, but it used the 14th pick on offensive lineman Chris Lindstrom. General manager Thomas Dimitroff then traded his second- and third-round picks to sneak back into the first round for what was surely going to be some help ... only to draft a second offensive lineman in Kaleb McGary. Atlanta did take a pair of defenders in the fourth round in end John Cominsky and cornerback Kendall Sheffield, but the two have combined to play only 71 snaps on defense through five games.
The Falcons have been healthier this season, though they did lose safety Keanu Neal to a torn Achilles in Week 3. They weren't playing well before Neal went down, though, and they're currently 27th in defensive DVOA through five games. That's a tiny improvement, driven by better performance against the run; Atlanta is 30th against the pass after allowing Deshaun Watson to throw for a staggering 426 yards and five touchdowns Sunday.
There's really not much Atlanta does right in pass coverage. Start up front and you see that the Falcons aren't bothering opposing quarterbacks. Only seven teams have blitzed more frequently than them, but they still rank a lowly 30th in pressure rate. When they do manage to get pressure, their pass-rushers don't finish the job, as the Falcons also rank 30th in sack rate against pressured quarterbacks.
In part, this is a personnel problem. The organization has continued to believe that Vic Beasley Jr. was only one shift or movement away from recapturing his 2016 form, when he led the league in sacks off an unsustainable hit rate; he had 15.5 sacks on only 16 knockdowns. The former first-round pick produced only 10 sacks and 13 knockdowns over the ensuing two seasons, but the Falcons still decided to keep him on the roster under his fifth-year option at $12.8 million. Beasley did make a fourth-and-1 run stop against the Titans in Week 4, but he has only 1.5 sacks this season. Fellow former first-rounder Takkarist McKinley, who led the team in sacks a year ago, has just a half-sack through the first five games.
The secondary, too, hasn't lived up to form. Cornerback Desmond Trufant was supposed to be Quinn's version of Richard Sherman, but after an impressive debut season with Quinn in 2015, Trufant tore his pec in 2016 and hasn't been the same player since. He is tied for the league lead with four touchdowns allowed as the closest defender in coverage this season.
Opposite number Isaiah Oliver, who moved into the starting lineup after the Falcons cut Robert Alford this offseason, has been worse. The 2018 second-rounder has been targeted on 23.7% of opposing pass attempts, the eighth-highest rate in the league. That's great if a defender is holding up against those throws, but Oliver has allowed an opposing passer rating of 136.0 as the closest defender, which is the fourth-worst mark in the league for corners with 100 coverage snaps or more.
It's hard to overstate just how frequently Oliver shows up in this secondary's lowlights. Quinn's defense from Seattle was famously in three-deep coverage frequently, so the players see a lot of Cover-3 beaters on offense. It's one thing when the Vikings run Adam Thielen on a clearout and then sneak Stefon Diggs into the zone Oliver vacated for a 31-yard gain. It's another when the Titans go back to the same concept three weeks later, and it's even worse when the Texans appear to get Oliver on a similar scissors concept for an easy touchdown the following week.
There were moments in the Colts game when it looked as if Oliver was lost on the field. Teams often try to take advantage of young cornerbacks with veteran wideouts on back-shoulder throws, but rarely do you see a corner still running upfield as their receiver catches the ball, as Oliver does while T.Y. Hilton makes this catch. On a later third-and-1, both Oliver and Kemal Ishmael were flat-footed and absolutely mesmerized by a play fake, with Zach Pascal running by Oliver for an easy 35-yard gain. I don't want to keep picking on Oliver, but I could keep going.
Sometimes, though, it isn't Oliver's fault. Take the third-and-5 touchdown pass in the Texans game to Will Fuller V, where Oliver was the closest cornerback in coverage. Quinn dials up one of the strangest coverage concepts you'll see. The Falcons rush three against Houston's five-man line, leave two quarterback spies for Watson, and then play man coverage across the board with a double-team on DeAndre Hopkins. This is a great play if the Falcons somehow get pressure quickly with three men or if Watson decides to run out of boredom. Neither of those things happened, and Fuller was able to turn his route upfield for an easy touchdown (animation via NFL Next Gen Stats):
Quinn hasn't been able to come up with a solution for Atlanta's defensive woes beyond repeatedly explaining how "pissed" he is about the defense on the team's Twitter account. The Falcons swapped linebacker Duke Riley and a sixth-round pick for backup Eagles safety Johnathan Cyprien and a seventh-round selection, only to place Cyprien on injured reserve after one game.
Again, we have to go back to the offseason. The Falcons fired both offensive coordinator Steve Sarkisian and defensive coordinator Marquand Manuel and attempted to relive prior glories. Quinn hired former Falcons offensive coordinator Dirk Koetter to take over his old job and handed himself the defensive coordinator duties. Any extent to which the defense has improved seems to be a product of getting Jones back on the field.
The offense, meanwhile, has taken a step backward. Falcons fans made up their minds about Sarkisian after the team failed in goal-to-go situations against the Eagles to end the 2017 season and to start the 2018 campaign, suggesting that he didn't know what he was doing in the red zone. (Never mind that the Falcons scored touchdowns on their next 11 trips inside the 20.) By the time the season ended, it was clear that the Falcons were going to make a change.
And yet, five weeks into 2019, even with a healthy Devonta Freeman, the Falcons are worse in the red zone with Koetter than they were last season with Sarkisian. The 2018 Falcons averaged 5.1 points per trip to the red zone. The 2019 Falcons are averaging 4.8 points per red zone possession. After ranking ninth and then eighth in offensive DVOA during the two seasons with Sarkisian, Koetter's offense is 20th in DVOA through five games.
After Week 2, the NFC South seemed as if it had opened up perfectly for Atlanta. The Saints were 1-1 and down Drew Brees. The Panthers were 0-2 and were about to sit an injured Cam Newton. The Bucs were 1-1, with a brutal loss to the 49ers and a narrow win over Newton's Panthers. The Falcons had just ridden an emotional roller coaster by converting a fourth-down pass to Jones for a touchdown to finally beat the Eagles in prime time.
Since then, the Saints and Panthers have gone 3-0, the Bucs upset the Rams, and the Falcons have lost three games to the AFC South by a combined 38 points. I have faith that this offense will get better as the season goes along, but it would take something close to the 2016 offense to carry the defense to victories every week. Unless Quinn suddenly stumbles onto a solution or the defense starts forcing three turnovers per game -- which is hardly out of the question against the Cardinals on Sunday, to be fair -- the Falcons are probably out of the playoff picture.
Preseason playoff chances: 27.2%
Current playoff chances: 0.9%
Playoff chances decline: -26.3%
From the day the schedule was released, this season was going to be about the second half for the Jets. From Week 8 onward, they play only two games against teams FPI projects to finish with even a .500 record in 2019, with one game against the Ravens and a Week 17 matchup with the Bills. The Jets have five games left against teams that FPI projects to finish with one of the top six picks in the draft, although that top six also includes themselves. They needed to keep things manageable over the first seven weeks of the season before breaking out against the easiest schedule in the league afterward. That means 3-3 would have been ideal, 2-4 would have been totally fine, and 1-5 would even have been passable.
Instead, the Jets are 0-4, and with games against the Cowboys and Patriots to come, there's a good chance they'll start 0-6. They blew a 14-point lead in a game the Bills tried to hand to them in Week 1, and with quarterback Sam Darnold sidelined by mononucleosis, the team promptly lost its next three games by a combined 61 points. Adam Gase, the offensive guru the Jets imported to develop Darnold and kick-start a moribund attack, is running a team that has scored two offensive touchdown in four games.
New York's offseason spending spree, too, has been a disaster. Linebacker C.J. Mosley injured his groin in the opener and hasn't played since. Guard Kelechi Osemele missed last week's loss to the Eagles because of a shoulder injury. Center Ryan Kalil was briefly benched during an ugly start to the season. Cornerback Trumaine Johnson, the team's top free agent from a year ago, also rode pine. Wide receiver Jamison Crowder and running back Le'Veon Bell -- strictly by staying healthy and by playing well enough to avoid being benching -- have been New York's best signings so far.
Bell's season is a reminder of just how futile it is to sign a running back and expect him to propel your offense. It's certainly not his fault that Darnold went out because of illness and backup Trevor Siemian subsequently suffered a season-ending injury, but without an effective offensive line or a viable passing game, Bell has been a replacement-level back. The former Steelers star ranks 31st out of 40 backs in success rate and is averaging just 2.9 yards per carry. He might even be less effective as a receiver, where he has averaged a mere 6.1 yards per catch, last in the league among players with 20 catches or more.
Aside from their schedule, the Jets are about as poorly positioned to make the playoffs as a team can be after five weeks. They're already 4.5 games back of the 5-0 Patriots, who hold a tiebreaker over Gang Green. If the Patriots were to slip up, the Jets are also 3.5 games back of the 4-1 Bills, who also hold the head-to-head tiebreaker. The Browns also loom as a plausible wild-card contender this year, and they, too, hold the trump card over the Jets.
Realistically, the Jets need to split their next two games against the Cowboys and Patriots and then run the table to finish 9-7 to have a viable path toward the postseason. It's not going to happen. The rest of this season is going to be about trying to find some positives on offense, further evaluating Darnold, and figuring out whether Gase is worth bringing back for a second season. The team is likely to enjoy the benefits of recency bias and seem as if it's going somewhere because of its second-half schedule, but this is already a wasted season for Darnold & Co.
Preseason playoff chances: 72.8%
Current playoff chances: 51.6%
Playoff chances decline: -21.2%
Of course, this could be an even more extreme drop-off if we set the initial bar after Week 3. The Rams started 3-0, with a win over the Saints, giving Sean McVay's team the inside track to the top seed in the NFC. At that point, the Rams had a 92.1% chance of making it to the postseason, best in the conference.
Since then, they have gone 0-2, including a loss to the division-rival Seahawks. The 49ers went through their bye and dominated the Browns on Monday Night Football. Forget first place in the conference; the Rams are in third place in their own division. Their playoff chances will fall below 50% if they lose what suddenly looms as a critical game against the Niners in Los Angeles this Sunday.
What's happened? To start, L.A. has been hit by the sort of bad luck it mostly avoided in 2018. The 13-3 Rams went 6-1 in games decided by seven points or fewer because they came up with the big play at the exact moment they needed one. They forced takeaways late in the fourth quarter just as other teams were going to have a shot to win the game. They came up with critical fourth-down conversions to seal games up. Quarterbacks missed open receivers at exactly the worst possible time.
Over the past two weeks, the pages have turned. With the Rams driving to try and tie the game down 48-40, pass-rusher Shaq Barrett forced a strip sack and former defensive Rams tackle Ndamukong Suh returned it for a game-sealing touchdown. The following week saw the Seahawks convert on fourth-and-goal when Russell Wilson found a wide-open Chris Carson in the end zone for a touchdown, and while he bobbled the pass and stopped Seattle hearts for a moment, Carson caught the ball on his second try to put the Seahawks ahead.
The Seahawks then came up with a spectacular interception of Jared Goff on the Rams' first attempt to take back the lead with 2:13 to go. L.A. got the ball back, but after Goff drove the team into field goal range, Greg Zuerlein reminded us that he was human. He had been 12-of-13 in the final five minutes of the fourth quarter and overtime under McVay, only for the Rams to take an inexplicable delay of game penalty with 20 seconds to go before Zuerlein pulled his 44-yard kick narrowly wide. This stuff didn't happen to them last season.
The Rams recovered a league-high 71% of the fumbles in their games in 2018, then came away with all three of the fumbles in their 30-27 victory over the Panthers in the opener. Since then, though, they have recovered just one of the ensuing seven fumbles across their four other games. McVay's team finished with a turnover margin of plus-11 last season, the fourth-best figure in the NFL; with Goff throwing seven interceptions and the fumble recovery rate regressing toward the mean, the team has a turnover margin of minus-4 after five games.
I wrote about Goff after Week 3 and covered the issues with Los Angeles's offensive identity after Week 4, so I won't go too much into those concerns again. Goff did miss a couple of throws against the Seahawks, but Total QBR agreed that it was his best game of the season, as he posted a 63.9 mark and put his team in a position to win the game.
Two things about how McVay approached the Seahawks game stood out as particularly interesting to me. One is that he scrapped his load management scheme for Todd Gurley. After playing Gurley on just over 71% of Los Angeles' offensive snaps through the first four games of the season, McVay bit the bullet and sent Gurley out for 62 of Los Angeles' 67 offensive snaps against the Seahawks, which is nearly 93%. Was it because the Rams were in a key divisional game? Did he make the decision because the Rams were playing on Thursday and would have 10 days before their next game? Regardless of why McVay increased the running back's workload, there appear to be consequences: Gurley is struggling with a thigh contusion and is questionable to play against the 49ers.
The other change was how McVay employed his personnel. The Rams were able to revitalize their offense during stretches in December and January by going with 12 personnel and getting both tight ends Gerald Everett and Tyler Higbee on the field. That made sense with Cooper Kupp sidelined by a torn ACL, but with Kupp back in the fold, the Rams went with 12 personnel on just 5% of their runs through the first four games of the season.
Even though they started the game with all three of their standout wide receivers healthy against the Seahawks, McVay used two or more tight ends on 26-of-67 snaps against Seattle on Thursday. Wide receiver Brandin Cooks eventually left the game with a concussion, but the Rams used 12 personnel most frequently in the first quarter, when he was still available. When the Rams went to those sets, they generally sacrificed Kupp, which seems surprising given how effective he has been this season. The gambit didn't really work -- just 29% of Los Angeles' snaps out of 12 personnel were considered successful plays by the NFL's Next-Gen Stats, as opposed to a 52% success rate out of their more traditional 11 grouping.
I suspect McVay wanted to use the 12 personnel to try to create easier running opportunities for Gurley. It also helped out an offensive line that is struggling right now in ways I wouldn't have expected. The natural expectation before the year was that the interior of the Rams line would struggle, given that Los Angeles had two new starters at left guard (Joe Noteboom) and center (Brian Allen). The hope was that the Rams could rebuild on the interior while relying on dominant play from star tackles Andrew Whitworth and Rob Havenstein.
Instead, while Allen has stepped in and played at a high level, the tackles are the ones noticeably struggling. In 2018, they combined for just eight penalties, three of which were holding calls. In 2019, though, Whitworth and Havenstein have already combined for 10 penalties, including five holding calls, through five games. Last year, Whitworth (first) and Havenstein (eight) were both among the top 10 for tackles in ESPN's pass block win rate statistic. This year, Whitworth is 20th, while Havenstein has fallen all the way to 46th.
The biggest concern for the Rams, though, has to be on the other side of the ball. Los Angeles allowed Russell Wilson and Jameis Winston to complete more than 70% of their collective passes, average 10.2 yards per attempt, and throw eight touchdowns against just one pick. The resulting 89.0 Total QBR the Rams have allowed over that time frame is last in the NFL. The Rams are not supposed to be last in the NFL at anything.
Aaron Donald, who lives in the opposing backfield, hasn't knocked down an opposing quarterback once over the last two games. That's very strange. Clay Matthews had sacks in each of the losses to the Bucs and Seahawks, but he also broke his jaw and will miss the next month. As a team, the Rams have pressured opposing quarterbacks on 27.8% of their dropbacks during those two losses, which isn't a huge drop off from the 29.4% pressure rate they ran during the three-win start to the year.
The secondary, though, has been disappointing. Cornerback Marcus Peters has been making critical mental mistakes. On the Mike Evans touchdown catch, Peters was in man coverage without any safety help in a Cover-0 look from Phillips. For some reason, he stood flat-footed at the sticks and didn't run with Evans, who ran right past the former Chiefs standout. Winston had little trouble hitting Evans for a 67-yard score. Last week, the whole secondary seemed to break down on the 40-yard touchdown pass to D.K. Metcalf.
Both passes came off play-action, which has given the Rams fits all season. Over the entire five-week campaign, they have basically passed out whenever teams have play-faked. Opposing quarterbacks are 35-of-42 on play-action, gaining an even 500 yards with five touchdowns and no picks. L.A. ranks last in passer rating (156.5) and QBR (96.7) against play-action. And it is about to take on a 49ers team that runs 29% of its pass snaps off of play-action, which is the second-highest rate in the league.
The Rams will figure things out on defense, if only because they have too much talent to be this bad against the pass for any length of time. This is an organization that has been aggressive in sacrificing draft picks for trades, and it wouldn't shock me if they add a pass rusher to help fill in for Matthews while he's recovering from the jaw injury. The offense, even if it's not quite as efficient as it was in 2018, is still 12th in DVOA. A lot of teams would love to have Los Angeles' problems.
Just two weeks after seeming like the Rams had a clear path to the top seed in the NFC, though, they're in a realistic fight for a playoff spot. I'm skeptical of the Seahawks, who have three wins by two points or less and just played their first game against an opponent not missing its best player, but both Seattle and the 49ers are legitimate playoff contenders. The Rams are still likely to make it into January, but the sense that they are two steps ahead of everyone else is gone.
Preseason playoff chances: 48.1%
Current playoff chances: 30.1%
Playoff chances decline: -18%
The Bears were just over 50% before Sunday's loss to the Raiders in London, which seemed set in stone as a Khalil Mack revenge game and instead became a Jon Gruden revenge game. Mack was mostly anonymous throughout the contest, with his most notable impact coming when the Raiders changed a handoff to a pitch play and Josh Jacobs didn't hear the audible. Mack recovered the rare pitch to nobody.
Mack and his defensive teammates are about where we would have expected through five games. The Bears have dropped off ever so slightly in DVOA, falling from their top-placed rank in 2018 to fifth so far this season. Much of that has been driven by a decline in their takeaway rate. The Bears had 14 takeaways through five games last season and finished the season with a league-high 36, but they're now at 10 takeaways through five games. They've been lucky to recover six of the nine fumbles in their games on defense; safety Eddie Jackson & Co. only have four interceptions after racking up a league-high 27 last season.
The defense is still very good and should continue to play at that level, although injuries are inevitably going to give them more problems in 2019. The Bears played great against the Vikings in Week 4 without defensive tackle Akiem Hicks and linebacker Roquan Smith, but when Hicks went down with an elbow injury in the first quarter last week, the Raiders were able to take advantage of the star lineman's absence in the running game. It's unclear when he will return from his elbow injury, and he's one of the best defensive players in all of football when healthy.
The offense? Well, it's probably telling that one of Chicago's best weapons has been kicker Eddy Pineiro, who has been the seventh-best kicker in football this season on scoring plays. Outside of getting the ball to star receiver Allen Robinson, who is on pace for a 1,206-yard season, this team has been a mess on offense. Chicago ranks 26th in DVOA through five weeks, right in line with the likes of the Steelers and Titans.
Its issues extend beyond injured quarterback Mitchell Trubisky, who ranked 30th in Total QBR and 27th in passer rating before going down with an injury to his non-throwing shoulder. Regardless of whether it has been Trubisky or backup Chase Daniel under center, this offense isn't creating the same sort of opportunities it did a year ago. Last season, the average Bears pass attempt traveled 8.5 yards in the air, the sixth-longest figure in the league. The Bears were only 28th in averaging 4.7 yards after catch, but the depth of their passes made up for what they did afterward.
This season, they rank 23rd in average pass distance (6.9 yards) and last in average yards after catch (3.9 yards). Matt Nagy's team also ranks 29th in average yards after first contact in the running game (1.1 yards). It seems impossible for an offense with fast, agile players like Tarik Cohen, David Montgomery, Cordarrelle Patterson and Taylor Gabriel, but the Bears just aren't doing enough with the ball in their hands. It's surprising for an offense that runs screens for nearly 16% of their pass plays, the third-highest rate in the league.
Could it all be as simple as Trubisky (and Daniel) not scrambling for first downs? The Bears converted 41% of their third downs last season, which was 11th in the league. Twelve of their 82 conversions came on scrambles; when you remove those plays from the equation and strictly look at the ones in which the Bears either handed the ball off to a runner or attempted to throw for a first down, they converted 38.5% of their third-down tries. This season, with Trubisky scrambling to convert just one third down, the Bears are only picking up 34.8% of their third downs.
Honestly, while the offense is slightly below where I would have expected, Chicago is playing about as well as I would have imagined heading into the year. The biggest hindrance is what's happening around them. The other three teams in the NFC North combined to go 22-26-2 last season. This season, the Lions, Packers, and Vikings are a combined 9-4-1 and each rank in the top 11 in DVOA through Week 5. The Bears, while a respectable 14th after the Raiders loss, have played like the worst team in the division.
The offense should improve once Trubisky comes back, although I'm concerned about whether scrambling will aggravate his shoulder injury and/or whether he can be an effective quarterback without scrambling. This is probably right around where the defense settles, although it will trade more interceptions for fumble recoveries as the season goes along. That combination should be good enough to compete for a postseason berth, but it's going to take the 2018 defense (and its interception rate) returning for the Bears to be clear favorites in the NFC North again.