Even 'elite' teams have major concerns now

Posted Oct. 05, 2010 @ 8:45 p.m.
Posted By Eric Edholm

After roughly my 16th radio show over the past few days asking me what the best team in football is, I have decided to take matters into my own hands here.

Yes, I take blame for the first few shows, bringing up the fact that no team is head and shoulders above the other top-tier clubs and that the difference between the one-loss Saints, Falcons and Packers and the zero-win Panthers, 49ers and Lions, respectively, was two points in all three cases (and on the favorites’ home fields).

But I started to lose patience when one of those shows that shall remain nameless then went on to ask me — two different times — who the best team was at this point.

The answer? I really don’t know.

So I thought I would run through PFW’s top five in our power rankings and point out each team’s greatest strength right now and also its biggest shortcoming.

Onward …

1. Jets

Strong point:
More than the defense, the run game has been shockingly good of late. Of course, running through the Patriots and Bills might be less impressive in retrospect, but it must be noted how well LaDainian Tomlinson is performing and how well the offensive line has rebounded from a slow start.

Achilles' heel: Third downs. On offense, the Jets are 20-of-50 conversions, which is just above the league average of about 38 percent. And that conversion rate has gone up from a nightmarish opener against the Ravens. But defensively, the team has allowed a disappointing 41.8 percent conversions. That’s way too high for them, even if Darrelle Revis, Calvin Pace and others have missed time.

2. Packers

Strong point:
They control the air. Sure, Aaron Rodgers and the receivers have yet to hum at a Packers-like clip, but it’s coming. They are too deep, too talented and too well-run not to get going even better than they have. And on defense, the team has a strong secondary — even with Morgan Burnett out for the year — and a pass rush to match that makes it tough for opponents to throw consistently well. Although I must admit, I am hedging those statements a bit after the past few games.

Achilles' heel:
Um, special teams maybe? Sure, their meltdown in Chicago wasn’t anywhere close to what the Dolphins suffered through last night. But the Packers’ special teams have been bad, make no mistake. So-so return teams and PK Mason Crosby  (one missed FG) are the only things that are not putrid right now, but even Jordy Nelson coughed up a kickoff against the Lions that really could have cost them. This is a real crisis area right now. A close second could be the run game.

3. Ravens

Strong point:
Whom are we kidding? It’s the defense. They’ve been gashed a couple of times by the run, but overall this group remains playing at a very high level and will be the backbone of the team, no matter what the offense does. Interceptions have been hard to come by so far and shaky special-teams coverage units have hurt field position. But there might not be a better group that exploits weaknesses as well as the Ravens do.

Achilles' heel:
Very few contenders get by with a turnover margin — minus-7, worst in the NFL — like the Ravens are at now. They have but two turnovers forced, despite all their defensive execution, and have coughed up the ball nine times (only seven teams have relinquished it more often). Joe Flacco has been more careful since his four-INT game, though, which has helped.

4. Steelers

Strong point:
Simply put, they bury your run game and make you one-dimensional on offense. The Steelers might not have the corners to eliminate great receivers, but quarterbacks can’t get them the ball if they are under fire all game. The return of S Troy Polamalu has made a big difference, but it’s great team ball — orchestrated by Dick LeBeau, naturally — they’re playing in Pittsburgh.

Achilles' heel:
Some of their passing woes eventually could dissolve once Ben Roethlisberger gets back into the flow, but I am not convinced it’s going to be a matter of flipping a switch. I think they’ll need time to get him back into the groove of the offense, and it would be smart not to ask too much of him too quickly. The run game remains the bread and butter right now.

5. Saints

Strong point:
If you have Drew Brees and good targets, you have a chance. The Saints’ scoring might be down, but their efficiency is not too far off last year’s pace. Teams playing the Saints this year spent all offseason breaking down the tape looking for weaknesses, and a few small ones have shown up. That said, Brees is operating at a high level and the offense will not be this team’s downfall.

Achilles' heel: Statistically speaking, the run game appears to be the biggest problem on paper. But I think it’s the run defense. Teams will attack the Saints by running right at them, eating up the clock and wearing down the defense. They are already shorthanded up front and might continue to suffer injuries on that side of the ball with such a physical approach coming from opponents.

It’s entirely possible, and quite likely, that two or three teams not on this list will emerge as being among the best teams in the league as we get closer to the playoffs, But for now, this is where we need to start.