3 Week 4 Storylines to Watch: Can the Colts Right the Ship?
As we round out the first quarter of the NFL season, team and player expectations are being adjusted as we get more and more actionable data to work with. Teams that we thought would be sitting atop the perch of their divisions are struggling. Players long cast off as too old are experiencing career revivals past the age of 30. It's a wonderful time of year.
So while we still caution not to overreact to everything that's happened through Week 3, Week 4 is a big week in determining the true landscape of the NFL. With make-or-break games on the docket for storied and/or recently relevant franchises, there's a lot to digest heading into Week 4.
Here are three storylines you should be following as we approach Football Sunday.
Are the Colts Ready to Surge?
Last week, I stated that the Colts were likely to right their ship headed into Tennessee for an easy matchup. And while they came away with the win, it was anything but easy. While Andrew Luck was surgical against the Titans in the fourth quarter, the fact that he and the team had to come back from being down 13 points headed into the fourth quarter against a Titans team led by rookie quarterback Marcus Mariota is worrisome.
What's different about the Colts this season is primarily Luck-related; their offensive line has long been a concern, and their defense, for the past three years, has been average at best and bottom-10 at worst. The Colts have relied on the explosiveness of their Luck-led offense the past few years to mask these problems. But this season, Luck's been less than stellar at circumventing these issues. He has committed eight turnovers in three games, and is currently only the 20th-most efficient quarterback in terms of our Passing Net Expected Points (NEP) metric on a per-drop back basis.
The Jaguars currently rank as the 29th-best passing defense in the NFL according to our Defensive NEP metrics, so if the Colts can't get consistent, four-quarter offensive production out of their star quarterback, there should be reason to worry. On the other hand, this game offers the perfect opportunity for the Colts to get back on track by putting the pedal to the floor against a weaker opponent in order to get their offensive rhythm back. We'll find out in Week 4 if their fourth-quarter comeback in Week 3 was a sign of things to come.
Are the Raiders for Real?
Look, I have to tell you that even writing that headline made me question my sanity. But seriously you guys, the Raiders are making positive strides.
First, starting at quarterback, Derek Carr has actually been playing very well. Our own Dan Pizzuta posited earlier this week that Carr's improvements this season may be a sign of things to come, citing his full-yard increase in air-yards per attempt, which, if it holds, would be a huge improvement from his rookie season. Through three weeks, Carr currently ranks as the eighth-most efficient quarterback in the league in terms of Passing NEP per drop back. Last season he ranked 28th out of 30 quarterbacks who dropped back to pass at least 300 times by this same metric.
Much of this can be attributed to the chemistry he’s developed with his much better crop of receivers this season. Rookie Amari Cooper is as good as advertised, having gone for over 100 yards in two straight games and currently ranks 13th among all receivers with 20-plus targets with a Reception NEP per target of 0.78. Michael Crabtree hasn’t been efficient with his targets, but his 0.49 Reception NEP per target is higher than James Jones’s last season (0.48), as is his 83.3% Reception Success Rate. Jones’s 2014 Reception Success Rate stood at a paltry 68.5%, meaning that at the very least, Crabtree’s a more reliable target thus far in moving the chains when targeted for the Raider offense.
And let's not forget the emergence of running back Latavius Murray, the 6'3", 230 pound speedster made from chiseled rock. Murray has been straight nasty through three weeks, and is on pace to rush for over 1,300 yards and double-digit touchdowns. He's also been efficient to boot, currently sporting a 0.07 Rushing NEP per rush. For reference, the league average per this metric for the past few seasons stands at about -0.02 Rushing NEP per rush. With Murray's efficiency making him a legitimate backfield threat, defenses must account for him making it harder to shut down Carr's aerial attack.
With the Raiders set to take on the 27th-ranked pass defense and 29th-ranked rushing defense in the Chicago Bears this weekend, there's a good chance the team could start the season 3-1. And based on the events of the last decade or so, that'd be pretty freaking weird.
Can the Wide Receivers (and Gronk) Keep up this Torrid Pace?
While it's clear to most people with a set of eyes and a longtime love of football, the game is certainly more pass-focused than it was a couple of decades ago. But looking over some of the numbers that wide receivers are putting up through three games (or four, if they're on the Ravens or Steelers), the pace of production for some of the best receivers in the league right now is eye-popping.
|Player||Receptions||Receiving Yards||Receptions Pace||Receiving Yards Pace|
Going all the way back to 2000, there hasn't been a single season in which more than four receivers topped 1,450 yards. Currently, there are 9 on pace to do just that, and 10 if you count resident tight end monster, Rob Gronkowski. And since 2000, there hasn't been a single season where more than one receiver topped 120 receptions. This season there are six receivers on pace to do just that.
Julio Jones is on pace to have the best season in NFL history and is the only receiver currently on pace to top Calvin Johnson's monster 2012 season in which he accumulated 1,964 yards through the air, although Antonio Brown's 5-catch, 42-yard performance against the Ravens last night is the only reason he isn't outpacing Johnson’s 2012 record as well.
Five receivers, including Jones, Brown, A.J. Green, Larry Fitzgerald, and Keenan Allen, are currently on pace to have top-10 seasons in NFL history in terms of total receiving yards. And Jones, Allen, and Julian Edelman are all on pace to shatter Marvin Harrison's 2002 record for 143 receptions in a single season.
While regression is very likely to come for some of the players on this list, the 2015 season is currently shaping up to be full of record-breaking potential. We'll find out in Week 4 if these players can keep this ridiculous pace going.