All-32: NFL Power Rankings Heading Into Week 7

Despite the injury to Ben Roethlisberger, the Pittsburgh Steelers are 4-2. Where do they sit in our analytically-driven power rankings?

Week 6 ended up being a strange one in the NFL. Seattle blew another fourth quarter lead, this time to Cam Newton and the Panthers. The Saints defeated the previously unbeaten Falcons to kick off the week, and the Landry Jones-led Steelers upset the Cardinals, who have sat atop our rankings since before Week 3. 

Even with the loss, though, the Cardinals still come out as our top team, by a fairly wide margin, too -- Arizona's loss to a good Pittsburgh team did more for the Steelers ranking (more on that below) than it did to hurt the Cardinals. While the top spot did remain unchanged, there was plenty of movement elsewhere in the rankings.

Unlike many other rankings across the internet, these are not some subjective rankings by a writer -- trust me, those would be way worse. Instead we use nERD, which 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. Throughout the rankings we’ll also be using our Net Expected Points (NEP) metric, which is used as part of the nERD score. NEP measures the value of each play on the field based on how an average team would be expected to score in each scenario using historical data.

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 around three times during the course of the season.

32. Chicago Bears (nERD: -11.96, Record: 2-4, Last Week: 32)
31. Jacksonville Jaguars (nERD: -9.78, Record: 1-5, Last Week: 31)

If there was a shine on the Jacksonville Jaguars in a “they’re not as bad as previous teams” sense, it’s worn off. Jacksonville’s lone Week 2 win against the Miami Dolphins is looking less impressive with how Miami’s season played out afterwards, and while they’ve been competitive in a few other games, there’s still not quite the sense of optimism this Jaguars team will continue to take strides forward.

Much of that comes from the defense, where head coach Gus Bradley is supposed to specialize. Jacksonville ranks 30th in schedule-adjusted NEP per play on defense, better than only New Orleans and Chicago. The defense just played its first game of the season with Sen'Derrick Marks, but his absence should not be enough to justify the underwhelming play from the unit. Without Marks, the Jaguars have been able to hold up in the run game along the defensive line and rank significantly better stopping opponents on the ground than through the air. By Adjusted NEP per play, the Jaguars defense is 16th against the run and 32nd against the pass.

Some of that is due for regression -- Jacksonville is the only team without multiple interceptions through six weeks -- but the Jaguars are also allowing a 67.6 completion percentage against (seventh worst in the league) and are tied for fifth worst for Adjusted Net Yards per Attempt allowed after factoring in sacks and interceptions.

Jacksonville is still young on the defensive side of the ball especially in the secondary -- even free agent acquisition Davon House is 26 years old -- but that's been the case for a while now. In the third year under a defensive-minded head coach, that’s a problem.

30. Tampa Bay Buccaneers (nERD: -8.19, Record: 2-3, Last Week: 30)
29. San Francisco 49ers (nERD: -7.18, Record: 2-4, Last Week: 29)
28. Oakland Raiders (nERD: -6.68, Record: 2-3, Last Week: 28)
27. Tennessee Titans (nERD: -4.74, Record: 1-4, Last Week: 21)
26. Detroit Lions (nERD: -4.57, Record: 1-5, Last Week: 25)
25. Houston Texans (nERD: -3.63, Record: 2-4, Last Week: 23)
24. Baltimore Ravens (nERD: -2.98, Record: 1-5, Last Week: 17)
23. Indianapolis Colts (nERD: -2.96, Record: 3-3, Last Week: 22)
22. Cleveland Browns (nERD: -2.92, Record: 2-4, Last Week: 24)

This ends up being the place where we talk about Josh McCown way more than we should probably talk about Josh McCown. McCown still ranks 12th by Passing NEP among all quarterbacks, but that’s been helped by quite a few big plays to go along with a lot of bad ones. Among the top-20 quarterbacks in Passing NEP, none have a lower Success Rate -- the percentage of plays that positively impact NEP -- than McCown’s 44.9 percent. That means on more than half of McCown’s plays, he’s not bringing positive value to the offense.

That's not the ideal for a starting quarterback.

But McCown and the Browns have been bailed out by some occasional big plays thanks to some playmakers emerging on offense. Travis Benjamin is currently ninth in Reception NEP, but has the third lowest catch rate among the top-10 receivers, ahead of only DeAndre Hopkins and Emmanuel Sanders. McCown has also been bailed out by the magic of Gary Barnidge, who leads all tight ends in Reception NEP thanks to five touchdowns in the past four games.

Cleveland’s offense was never going to be a sure thing, but the defense so far this season has been a disappointment. The Browns rank 26th in Adjusted NEP per play on defense, 21st against the pass and 32nd against the run. The defensive line was supposed to be sured up through the draft with the selection of Danny Shelton out of Washington, but after flashes in the preseason, Shelton has been disappointing through six weeks at the nose. The Browns have given up at least 150 rushing yards in all but one game this season, and their next four games before the bye come against Todd Gurley, Chris Johnson, Giovani Bernard/Jeremy Hill, and Le'Veon Bell. Yikes.

21. New Orleans Saints (nERD: -2.82, Record: 2-4, Last Week: 26)
20. Kansas City Chiefs (nERD: -2.56, Record: 1-5, Last Week: 19)
19. Miami Dolphins (nERD: -1.95, Record: 2-3, Last Week: 27)

It’s amazing what can be accomplished when good players are used in a game plan. In Miami’s first four games, running back Lamar Miller received 13, 10, 7 and 7 carries. The Dolphins were the most pass heavy team in the league, dropping back 2.78 times for every rushing attempt. 

Miller wasn’t the only player being underutilized or just used incorrectly, though. Free agent prize Ndamukong Suh was asked to two-gap -- cover two separate gaps along the line -- more often than he ever had to in Detroit. Miami’s 38-10 win over the Tennessee Titans is going to be billed as a success for interim head coach Dan Campbell, but it was mostly a win for logical decision makers and talented players playing closer to their potential.

Miller received 19 carries in the win and ran for 113 yards with his first rushing touchdown of the year. While some of that was due to Miami’s best game script of the season, Miller was also heavily featured early in the game against a run defense that ranks 31st in Adjusted NEP per play. The Dolphins’ rushing offense jumped to 12th in Adjusted NEP per play and could continue to be a positive for the team going forward.

On defense, the scheme appeared to be much simpler and allowed players to win where they play best. Suh still didn’t have an overwhelmingly great performance, but it helped clear up pass rush opportunities for others along the line. A better pass rush can help a struggling secondary that’s led to the 23rd ranked pass defense by Adjusted NEP per play.

18. New York Giants (nERD: -1.66, Record: 3-3, Last Week: 14)
17. Dallas Cowboys (nERD: -1.57, Record: 2-3, Last Week: 20)
16. Washington Redskins (nERD: -0.78, Record: 2-4, Last Week: 16)
15. San Diego Chargers (nERD: -0.14, Record: 2-4, Last Week: 18)
14. Minnesota Vikings (nERD: 0.32, Record: 3-2, Last Week: 15)
13. St. Louis Rams (nERD: 1.51, Record: 2-3, Last Week: 12)
12. Philadelphia Eagles (nERD: 3.19, Record: 3-3, Last Week: 13)
11. Denver Broncos (nERD: 3.86, Record: 6-0, Last Week: 8)

It’s now come to this. The Denver Broncos have the worst offense in the league by Adjusted NEP per play, ranked 32nd for both the run and pass. It’s a sad reality for a team led by Peyton Manning. Manning, of course, is going to get most of the blame and attention because he’s Peyton Manning. The quarterback deserves some of the blame, but not quite as much as he’s gotten this year. Manning hasn’t been near the player he’s been in the past, but he’s been getting less help from those around him too.

Much of this starts with the offensive line. Throughout his career, Manning was one of the best quarterbacks at compensating for a poor line. Regardless of the ability of those blocking, Manning routinely had sack rates below three percent and he’s led the league in sack rate five times. That’s something 28-year-old Manning could do pretty well, it’s even something 38-year-old Manning did well last season, but this version of Manning with this offensive line isn’t working. Manning’s been sacked on 4.8 percent of his drop backs this season, which would be the most for him since 2001. Even when he’s not getting sacked, he’s feeling the pressure and overcompensating for his loss in arm strength by overthrowing his targets while trying to get the ball out quickly.

Manning’s also been a few plays from receivers away from much of this not being as big of a deal as it is. Demaryius Thomas has dropped passes at keys points over the past two weeks, and Manning even placed a ball in Emmanuel Sanders’s hands in the endzone late in the game against Cleveland, but the pass fell incomplete.

Just five quarterbacks have a worse Passing NEP this season than Manning. It’s clear he’s no longer at the top of his game -- two of the three interceptions against Cleveland were awful decisions -- but there’s potential to be better. Teamed with the best defense in the league by Adjusted NEP per play and a couple of breaks going better, the Broncos could still be one of the best teams in the league, just not quite in the way Manning’s teams have gotten there before.

10. Atlanta Falcons (nERD: 3.98, Record: 5-1, Last Week: 6)
9. Carolina Panthers (nERD: 4.84, Record: 5-0, Last Week: 9)
8. Green Bay Packers (nERD: 4.93, Record: 6-0, Last Week: 4)
7. Buffalo Bills (nERD: 5.01, Record: 3-3, Last Week: 7)
6. Seattle Seahawks (nERD: 5.09, Record: 2-4, Last Week: 5)
5. New York Jets (nERD: 5.31, Record: 4-1, Last Week: 11)
4. Pittsburgh Steelers (nERD: 6.28, Record: 4-2, Last Week: 10)

Ben Roethlisberger has missed the past three games, yet the Pittsburgh Steelers are not just still alive in the playoff race, they’ve been impressing. A win over our still-top-ranked team will certainly help in that aspect.

Roethlisberger’s health status is still unknown, but the team’s ability to stay competitive in his absence is a positive sign for his eventual return. Even without the starting quarterback for half of its games, the Steelers offense ranks fifth in Adjusted NEP per play on offense. Especially now with the return of Martavis Bryant, who flashed his potential against Arizona, the Steelers have a group of players that should help ease any quarterback into the system. This week that might be Landry Jones, replacing Michael Vick, who now ranks as our worst quarterback in the league by Passing NEP.

The question now will be how long the Steelers can sustain this type of play. Along with Roethlisberger missing time, Pittsburgh will be without its starting center and left tackle, both of whom are on injured reserve.

Pittsburgh’s defense has also impressed statistically -- eighth in Adjusted NEP per play -- but that’s mostly come from a second-ranked run defense. The pass defense has been better than expected, currently ranked 12th, but the opportunity for big plays was there for the Cardinals in Week 6 and the plays were just missed. That’s worrisome of the sustainability of the defense, but luckily the Chiefs, Raiders and Browns make for three of Pittsburgh’s next four opponents.

Though the Steelers enter Week 7 and potentially the fourth game without their starting quarterback, they still have a 66.9 percent chance of making the playoffs, per our simulations, thanks to a bad AFC. 

3. Cincinnati Bengals (nERD: 7.57, Record: 6-0, Last Week: 3)
2. New England Patriots (nERD: 8.44, Record: 5-0, Last Week: 2)
1. Arizona Cardinals (nERD: 12.79, Record: 4-2, Last Week: 1)