All-32: Power Rankings Heading into Week 5
With most teams in the NFL having played at least four games, our rankings are starting to show a better picture of how teams have really played this season. While the bottom hasn't changed much over the past few weeks, there's been enough movement in the middle and towards the top to suggest there's still plenty of teams that can have optimistic outlooks at the one-quarter mark. In fact, 19 teams this week have a nERD score above 0, which is now two more than last week.
A weekly reminder: our power rankings aren’t subjective. They’re based off our nERD scores. For those unfamiliar, nERD is our calculation of how good a team really is, based on expected point differential against a league average team. If the team's nERD rating is 10, they would be expected to win by 10 points against a league-average opponent. Each week, we’ll list all 32 teams from worst to best with a more detailed breakdown of five different teams. The highlighted teams will rotate each week, which will lead to each team being featured at least three times during the course of the season.
Heat The Seats
32. Jacksonville Jaguars (nERD: -16.12, Record: 0-4, Last Week: 32)
31. Oakland Raiders (nERD: -7.96, 0-4, Last Week: 30)
All of Oakland’s problems are now solved. That pesky head coach was holding them back and now the Raiders are ready to turn the corner after their Week 5 bye. Oakland will definitely show improvement with an easy six week stretch that features San Diego twice, road games in Cleveland and Seattle and home games against Arizona and Denver.
Well, that optimism was fun while it lasted. Only one of those teams in their upcoming schedule shows up in the bottom half of our rankings this week. Things are not going to get any easier for the Raiders.
The difference in switching from Dennis Allen to Tony Sparano as a head coach during the season is about the same as switching between an endless loop of Nickelback and Hinder songs. That’s not enough of an upgrade in the change other than to say, “Hey look, we’re doing something different now!”
Coaching was not the biggest problem on this team, though it certainly was one of them. One of the big problems, which doesn’t necessarily fall on the coaching staff, is the inverse ratio between big name players and actual production. Despite bringing in players like Justin Tuck, Lamarr Woodley and Tarrell Brown, Oakland ranks 21st in Adjusted Defensive Net Expected Points (NEP), including 21st against the pass and a surprising 12th against the run. Some of that stems from holding the Patriots to 76 rushing yards last week, which might not be as impressive as it would have seemed two weeks ago.
The offensive side of the ball faces the same type of issue, especially in the running game. The bigger issue there is the new interim coach was supposed to be the guy to come in and fix it. As the offensive line coach, Sparano was expected to install a blocking scheme that would be more favorable for Darren McFadden. So far that’s led to a Rushing NEP of -3.91 and a Success Rate of 36.4% on 44 attempts. That's one of the worst in the league.
Raiders fans looking for a silver lining can take solace in the fact McFadden is not Maurice Jones-Drew. Jones-Drew has already missed two games with a hand injury. In the two games he has played, MJD has rushed 11 times for 12 yards, a Rushing NEP of -5.59 and a Success Rate of 18 percent.
A team that hasn’t scored more than 14 points in a game through four weeks has more issues than Dennis Allen. It’s more than likely those issues aren’t something a coaching change over a bye week will be able to fix.
30. Tampa Bay Buccaneers (nERD: -6.97, 1-3, Last Week: 31)
29. St. Louis Rams (nERD: -5.35, 1-2, Last Week: 29)
28. Tennessee Titans (nERD: -3.86, 1-3, Last Week: 24)
27. Cleveland Browns (nERD: -2.27, 1-2, Last Week: 25)
26. New York Jets (nERD: -2.07, 1-3, Last Week: 28)
Almost There, Going Nowhere25. Pittsburgh Steelers (nERD: -1.59, 2-2, Last Week: 17)
Our system has favored teams that have won big against the Jaguars and Buccaneers so far this season - it’s been the fastest way to make a one week jump in the rankings. Inversely, losing to one of those teams can send a team down the rankings pretty quickly. Only one team has accomplished that feat so far this season: the Pittsburgh Steelers. Pittsburgh has a chance to right the ship or break the system completely as they play the Jacksonville in Week 5. Last week, the Steelers had a perfectly average nERD score of 0.00 then spent most of Sunday - especially the second half - playing below that level.
Much of this falls upon an old and injured defense. It’s one thing to be old and injured, but it’s another when the old players are the healthy ones. First-round linebacker Ryan Shazier missed the game against Tampa and isn't expected to return in time for Week 5 with a knee injury. Last year’s first-round linebacker Jarvis Jones is on injured reserve with a designation to return for a wrist injury. Through four weeks, the Steelers rank 29th in Adjusted Defensive NEP, 28th individually against both the run and pass. When a 36-year-old James Harrison is the emergency plan on defense, things probably aren’t going too well.
That’s a shame because parts of the offense this season have been stellar. Only Rashad Jennings and DeMarco Murray have a higher Rushing NEP total than Le’Veon Bell among running backs with at least 70 carries. And with only 21 attempts, LeGarrette Blount has the sixth-highest Rushing NEP of all players.
Meanwhile, there’s nothing any defense has been able to do in an attempt to stop Antonio Brown. Brown has been the most productive receiver in the league through four weeks, and it’s not really close. Brown has the highest Reception NEP of any receiver, more than three points more than Steve Smith, the number-two receiver on the list.
The Steelers have shown multiple versions of themselves this season and the only one that looked like a really good team came against Carolina, who might be falling apart faster than any other team in the league.
24. Washington Redskins (nERD: -1.14, 1-3, Last Week: 12)
23. Buffalo Bills (nERD: -.68, 2-2, Last Week: 20)
22. Minnesota Vikings (nERD: -.55, 2-2, Last Week: 27)
21. Houston Texans (nERD: -.36, 3-1, Last Week: 21)
Finding Love In A Hopeless Place20. Green Bay Packers (nERD: -.03, 2-2, Last Week: 18)
19. Miami Dolphins (nERD: .20, 2-2, Last Week: 23)
18. Carolina Panthers (nERD: .42, 2-2, Last Week: 10)
17. Dallas Cowboys (nERD: .62, 3-1, Last Week: 22)
The Dallas Cowboys have the 15th best defense according to our metrics. While that rank would be disappointing for Seattle or Cincinnati, a middle-of-the-road defense in Dallas almost has the same impact as if it were a top-five unit. Coming into the season, it would not have been surprising if the Cowboys fielded the worst defense in the league. After having to cut DeMarcus Ware due to a poorly managed salary cap and losing Sean Lee for the season in training camp, Dallas had no standout players on defense. The idea of having no standout players hasn’t changed much, but the unit is playing much better as a whole than anyone outside - and probably inside - of Dallas could have expected.
There’s still some work to be done in the secondary, as Dallas ranks 22nd against the pass, but the run defense has been average. Again, “better than expected” and “well” are not the same thing, but when the preseason expectations were possibly historically bad, “better than expected” is as useful as “good.”
The defense can get away with being average because the offense can be pretty good, and actually pretty good, not better than expected good. Dallas is currently ranked 12th in Adjusted NEP, 16th through the air and 14th via the ground.
The Cowboys are one of three teams this season to run more than they’ve passed, along with Cincinnati and Houston. While the other two teams are limiting the amount of inefficiencies exposed at quarterback, Dallas is relying on the run game because their offensive line is built to knock people over. Considering the Cowboys are also a Tony Romo bad back away from Brandon Weeden as their starting quarterback, it might also not be a bad strategy to limit the amount of times he has to drop back, if possible.
DeMarco Murray will be the first back to 100 carries this season with his next rushing attempt. The next closest running back in attempt is Rashad Jennings with 81. While Jennings has a 0.09 edge in Rushing NEP, Murray has a 4.5% edge in Success Rate. Murray is also just one of three backs with a Success Rate above 50 percent with at least 50 attempts.
It’s likely Dallas isn’t anything more than an average team, but in the NFC East average might be enough to hang around for a while.
16. Chicago Bears (nERD: .64, 2-2, Last Week: 11)
15. New York Giants (nERD: .68, 2-2, Last Week: 26)
14. New England Patriots (nERD: .81, 2-2, Last Week: 5)
Climbing The Tiers13. San Diego Chargers (nERD: 1.04, 3-1, Last Week: 14)
12. Indianapolis Colts (nERD: 1.44, 2-2, Last Week: 19)
11. Atlanta Falcons (nERD: 2.19, 2-2, Last Week: 8)
10. Kansas City Chiefs (nERD: 2.88, 2-2, Last Week: 15)
9. Baltimore Ravens (nERD: 2.95, 3-1, Last Week: 16)
Steve Smith. How can any on-field analysis in Baltimore start anywhere else? Smith promised blood and guts against the Panthers, and he delivered with 7 receptions, 139 yards and 2 touchdowns.
While Smith specifically called out his former team, the Panthers aren’t the only squad Smith has been taking out his aggression on. Smith is second in the league in Reception NEP, as stated before, behind only Antonio Brown. The amazing thing about Smith’s performance so far has been his Success Rate. Of his 25 receptions so far this season, all 25 of them have contributed a positive impact on NEP. Only 11 players have a rate of 100 percent with at least 10 receptions, but only Smith and Calvin Johnson have been perfect with at least 20 catches.
Steve Smith is taking away the top receiver spot many though Torrey Smith would be occupying in the Baltimore offense this season. Steve Smith has been the third-most targeted receiver in the league behind Jordy Nelson and Jeremy Maclin. And he has double the amount of targets as Torrey.
The elder Smith has also helped out quarterback Joe Flacco, who is currently fourth in Passing NEP. Baltimore as a whole is 10th in Adjusted NEP under new offensive coordinator Gary Kubiak. Their worst performance this season was against the Bengals in Week 1, and from what we can tell about the Bengals defense - third best in our rankings - that’s not something to be disappointed about.
On the ground, the duo of Justin Forsett and Lorenzo Taliaferro is better than what the Ravens were planning on starting the season with in the backfield. Forsett owns the highest Rushing NEP of any player on his 44 carries at 10.02. Taliaferro has also contributed a positive Rushing NEP, something that could not be said for Ravens running backs last year. While Gary Kubiak’s zone blocking system seems to be working in the run game, the production so far could also be a case of better talent carrying the ball.
8. Arizona Cardinals (nERD: 3.26, 3-0, Last Week: 9)
7. New Orleans Saints (nERD: 3.81, 1-3, Last Week: 4)
6. Detroit Lions (nERD: 3.89, 3-1, Last Week: 7)
5. San Francisco 49ers (nERD: 4.07, 2-2, Last Week: 13)
4. Philadelphia Eagles (nERD: 4.12, 3-1, Last Week: 6)
Last season, all five starters on the Eagles' offensive line played at least 1,000 snaps. That was great for continuity in an offense system that puts a lot of responsibility on the linemen to move around.
That hasn't been the case so far in 2014. The Eagles have already used more offensive linemen through four games than they did through the playoffs last season. Nowhere has that led to a bigger decline in production than in the running game.
LeSean McCoy has the fourth-worst Rushing NEP in the league, just a year after being one of the best running backs in the NFL. McCoy has succeeded behind subpar offensive lines before, but his success last season was due to a lot of space created by the line. When McCoy got into space, he became a dangerous weapon, especially with his ability to break tackles. Now McCoy has to break some of those tackles before he reaches the line of scrimmage, which is typically not conductive to a good run game.
The passing offense, though, has been able to make up for the lack of success on the ground. To adjust to the rotating line in front of him, Nick Foles has been able to get the ball out quicker this season. One of the knocks on Foles was his tendency to hold onto the ball too long in the pocket. While that does still happen, he’s been quicker to make smart reads and get the ball out before a defender in the backfield becomes a problem. With the strong offensive line last season, Foles was sacked on 8.1 percent of his drop backs. This season, he’s only been sacked on 3.5 percent. How Foles performs against the Rams’ defensive line on Sunday behind this line could give a better picture of how sustainable these changes could be for the remainder of the season.
Foles has gotten his most help this season from Jeremy Maclin. Maclin ranks eighth in Reception NEP and has shown the big play ability DeSean Jackson showed in this offense last season. The impact Darren Sproles has given to the offense might make the draft pick given up by Philadelphia the best use of a fifth-round pick in the draft this year.
While the offense is going to be the main focus of any Chip Kelly helmed team, our numbers suggest the defense has been playing well too, as the Eagles rank fourth defensively. That comes mostly from having the second ranked run defense, even after giving up over 200 yards on the ground to San Francisco last week.
A Cut Above
3. Cincinnati Bengals (nERD: 7.23, 3-0, Last Week: 3)
2. Denver Broncos (nERD: 8.49, 2-1, Last Week: 2)
1. Seattle Seahawks (nERD: 8.86, 2-1, Last Week: 1)