NFL Nation reporters break down the biggest breakthrough for teams across the league through Week 4, from standout rookies to overhauled offenses and defenses and more.
What the Bills have been able to accomplish with their defense in a short period of time this season is remarkable -- and that is a credit to coach Sean McDermott, defensive coordinator Leslie Frazier and their players for adjusting to a new scheme and to entirely new personnel in the secondary. By holding the Falcons to 17 points on their home turf, the Bills proved Sunday that their league-leading defense entering Week 4 is no fluke. The faster-than-anticipated success of the unit has propelled the Bills to first place in the AFC East.
The Dolphins (1-2) are allowing 3.1 yards per carry through their first three games. This is a big improvement versus one year ago when Miami was 30th against the runs. It's defensive line winning one-on-one battles is a big reason for the improvement.
The Patriots are 2-2 and it would be 1-3 if not for QB Tom Brady, who at 40 has shown few, if any, signs of decline. The problem for the Patriots: They can't keep relying on Brady to bail them out. He is 103 of 155 for 1,399 yards, with 10 TDs and no interceptions. He's put up those numbers while being hit 26 times and sacked 13 times.
How 'bout the turnaround by the Jets' defense? After surrendering a league-high 66 points in the first games, the defense has allowed only two touchdowns in the last eight-plus quarters. The Jets tightened up their run defense, making their last two opponents one-dimensional. The linebackers, Demario Davis in particular, are doing a better job of reading keys and plugging running lanes.
The Ravens' top offensive playmaker is someone who wasn't even on the season-opening roster. Running back Alex Collins, who was cut by the Seahawks and initially landed on Baltimore's practice squad, leads the team with 206 yards rushing and averages 8.2 yards per carry. Collins has had a problem holding onto the ball, and coach John Harbaugh said he will have a short leash on him. But Collins has brought a physical edge to the Ravens' running game.
The Bengals defensive line has been a pleasant surprise this season and are currently tied for third in the league with 12 sacks. Bengals have been able to mix things up by moving Michael Johnson and Chris Smith around, and rookie Carl Lawson has been a much needed boost for the pass rush. The Bengals only had 33 sacks last year.
The theory of relativity applies to labeling anyone or anything a breakthrough on an 0-4 team. The Browns have had very few stand-up-and-take-notice players, but Duke Johnson has improved. Johnson, a running back, is the team's leading receiver in catches (20) and yards (207), he is averaging 5.7 yards on his 10 carries, and he is tied for the team lead in touchdowns (two). The Browns are probably getting more from Johnson than any other skill player on offense.
For all the discussion about the Steelers offense not taking flight, the defense is showing the real breakthrough. Pittsburgh hasn't allowed more than 18 points in regulation through the first four weeks. After Sunday's four-sack explosion in Baltimore, the Steelers are on pace for 60 sacks for the year, 12 more than last season's leader. "Right now, we're definitely clicking and learning how to play with each other," OLB T.J. Watt said.
It's hard to believe this is the same offense that scored just 13 points against the 1-3 Bengals in Week 2. The Texans' offense has had a huge breakthrough since then, scoring 76 points in two games against the Patriots and Titans. A lot of that is due to the improvement of rookie quarterback Deshaun Watson, who has led the Texans that has gained more than 400 yards of total offense in that span.
It turned out to be a footnote because of the disastrous second half in the 46-18 blowout loss, but rookie safety Malik Hooker is tied for the NFL lead in interceptions after getting his third one of the season in the second half.
The Jaguars' defense has already nearly equaled its turnover output from 2016 -- and we're only four games into the season. The Jaguars have forced 10, including five interceptions -- they forced 13, including just seven interceptions last season. The additions of S Barry Church and CB A.J. Bouye to a secondary that already included CB Jalen Ramsey has infused a ball-hawking attitude that seemed to be missing the last five years. It's unrealistic to expect the Jaguars to maintain this pace (they'd finish with 40) but certainly not outrageous to expect them to double last season's output.
The Titans special teams shifted from one of their biggest weaknesses to one of their biggest strengths. Adoree' Jackson has been one of the NFL's best punt returners with a 12.7 average, which doesn't include a TD called back after a penalty. Ryan Succop is 10-of-11 on FGs and has boomed kickoffs through the end zone regularly. Punter Brett Kern is having a Pro Bowl caliber season so far and the coverage units have been solid as well.
As the Broncos head into their bye week at 3-1 easily the biggest difference between last year's team that finished 9-7 and this year's edition is the team's run defense. Last season the Broncos, despite all if the good they did on defense, finished 28th in run defense while this year -- after Sunday's 16-10 win over the Raiders -- they are No. 1 in the league, allowing just 50.8 rushing yards per game.
Hard to highlight an individual player from a 0-4 team, but undrafted rookie RB Austin Ekeler has flashed when given an opportunity. Ekeler had a 35-yard run for a touchdown and also totaled two catches for 23 yards, finishing with 58 yards from scrimmage. Chargers head coach Anthony Lynn said he wanted to get Ekeler in the game to see what he can do, and that he's been productive no matter the situation the team puts him in.
Sure, you could say the Raiders have had more breakdowns through the first quarter of the season than breakthroughs, but let's keep it positive, shall we? Giorgio Tavecchio, signed to the practice squad two days before the season opener at Tennessee and to the active roster the day before, has been a revelation as the Raiders' kicker. The longtime camp leg got his shot in Oakland when Sebastian Janikowski went on Injured Reserve with a back issue and Tavecchio has not looked back. Tavecchio is 7-for-7 on his field-goal attempts, including two from 52 yards against the Titans, and has made all 10 of his PATs.
DeMarcus Lawrence’s career high in sacks entering this season was eight, which came in 2015. He has 7.5 in the first four games this season, including one in Sunday’s loss to the Los Angeles Rams. Lawrence saw more attention from the Rams with a tight end or a running back helping the offensive line, which is something he should expect to see as he continues to get to the opposing quarterback.
There haven't been a lot of positives for the winless Giants early this season. One of the few have been the emergence of tight end Evan Engram. He caught six more passes for 62 yards Sunday against the Bucs and now has 19 catches for 200 yards this season. The speedy first-round pick is really establishing himself as a significant weapon early in his career. His speed and pass-catching ability are impressive.
LeGarrette Blount and the Eagles running game have emerged as major factors over the last two games. The turning point was the loss to the Kansas City Chiefs Week 2, when Blount didn't receive a single carry and the team rushed 13 times overall. In the two weeks since, the Blount-led attack is averaging over 200 yards per game on the ground.
The Bears' Week 4 loss at Green Bay notwithstanding, rookie 4th round pick Tarik Cohen's first quarter of the season has been a memorable one. Cohen -- second on the team in rushing -- is averaging six yards per carry, and he's Chicago's leading receiver with 24 catches. On special teams, Cohen has returned eight punts with his longest return going for 17 yards. Cohen is one of only a couple of playmakers on Chicago's offense, so look for him to touch the ball 15-plus times per week over the final 12 games.
Anthony Zettel flashed potential this preseason, but after four sacks in four games, he's been the clear breakthrough player Detroit has needed. He's the team leader in sacks and has become the Lions' much-needed second pass-rusher. He might, too, be starting to earn respect of others around the league. "I think it will come with time," Zettel said. "Just need to keep doing what I'm doing."
Through one quarter of the season, Dom Capers' nitro defense appears to have done exactly what the Packers defense coordinator wanted. It's allowed him to get more speed on the field with Morgan Burnett or Josh Jones at inside linebacker.
Minnesota's offensive line has held its own through the first quarter of the season. It's been up and down ride with a backup quarterback in Weeks 2-4, but the unit has done a solid job in protecting Case Keenum and allowing the offense to pursue a more aggressive approach. The tackle spots were areas the Vikings spent ample dollars to shore up in the offseason. At times, right tackle Mike Remmers has looked really good while other instances show him struggling against defensive ends. Riley Reiff has proven to be a tremendous upgrade at left tackle, especially in against the Lions in Week 4, and continues to be a leader of this unit.
The Falcons still are trying to find themselves in different areas on both sides of the ball, but the running back combo of Devonta Freeman and Tevin Coleman continue to be a constant as the top 1-2 running back combo in the league. Freeman already has five touchdowns, while Coleman not only is showing up as a receiver and as a pass blocker picking up blitzes. The two of them playing at a high level in unison makes the Falcons' offense that much more potent, particularly if injuries start to take a toll at other positions.
Throughout training camp and for the first three game the big question was when Panthers quarterback Cam Newton would regain his rhythm after undergoing offseason surgery to repair a partially torn rotator cuff and adjust to an offense that depends more on play-makers like Christian McCaffrey. For three games it didn't happen. It finally did on Sunday as Newton, ranked 29th in the NFL with a 69.7 passer rating after three games, completed 22 of 29 passes for 316 yards and a rating of 130.8. The 2015 NFL MVP finally took charge of the offense, making the easy throws that turn short passes into big plays and touchdowns as coach Ron Rivera envisioned during the offseason.
Perhaps no unit in the NFL has made a bigger breakthrough from Week 2 to Week 4 than the Saints’ defense. After allowing more than 1,000 yards without a takeaway through the first two losses, they held opponents to a total of 13 points with four interceptions over the last two wins. They pitched their first shutout since 2012 Sunday in a 20-0 win over Miami. And the hero was cornerback Ken Crawley, a breakthrough player himself, who was a healthy inactive the first two weeks before thriving as a starter in the last two games.
The Bucs are now 2-0 at home this year after starting 0-4 at home last year. The last time they started a season 2-0 at home was 2008. Tight end Cameron Brate said, "We are really trying to emphasize winning at home this year. We kind of caught fire off that at the end of last year at home, so we are trying to carry that into this year." Since 2009, the Bucs are 22-43 at home, the worst home record in the NFL.
Andre Ellington's performance as a receiver over the last three weeks has made the biggest breakthrough on the Cardinals in the wake of David Johnson's injury in the season opener. He's averaging 5.6 catches and 52.3 yards per game since Week 2, including a team-high nine catches on Sunday against San Francisco for 86 yards. He was moved to receiver during after last season but was moved back to running back in June. He's flourished coming out the backfield as a receiver i a role similar to Johnson's.
Veteran OLB Connor Barwin, new to the Rams this season, was asked if he expected the team's offense to be this effective this year. "Not at all," Barwin said. Nobody did. The Rams, last in the NFL in yards each of the last two years, are somehow the NFL's highest scoring team in the season's first quarter. Jared Goff looks like an elite quarterback, Todd Gurley is back to being a premier running back, and different receivers seem to step up every week. It's the type of breakthrough nobody saw coming.
Picking a breakthrough on the 49ers is tough considering the up-and-down play they've received from the offense and defense. But the one phase they've been most consistent with is special teams. The Niners are on a record-setting pace when it comes to expected points added from their special teams through the first quarter of the season. If that doesn't seem like a big deal, consider that in games against Seattle, the Los Angeles Rams and Arizona, the Niners have lost by a total of eight points. A big reason for that is a complete special teams effort that has kept them in games that might otherwise have slipped away.
Raise your hand if you had rookie Chris Carson tabbed as the Seahawks’ starting running back before the season. Carson was almost an afterthought when the Seahawks drafted him in the seventh round after signing Eddie Lacy in free agency. But he’s been the main man in Seattle’s backfield ahead of Lacy and incumbent Thomas Rawls, who was a healthy scratch Sunday night. Carson, however, left the field on a cart in the fourth quarter Sunday night, so the Seahawks may need their other running backs to step up.