Tampa Bay Buccaneers
The Problem: Their quarterback play has been erratic. And, of course, they’ve taken measures to address this. Rookie Mike Glennon looked decent in his first start against the Cardinals in Week 4. He’s a disciplined, classic pocket passer. As long as his protection is sound, he gives the play designs a chance to fully develop.
There’s some question about those play designs, though. Many of them involve downfield isolation routes. That’s fine for big, talented receivers like Vincent Jackson and Mike Williams, but it calls for a lot of anticipatory, tight-windowed throws by the quarterback. Glennon struggled with that against Arizona, particularly when throwing to his left to Jackson. (It didn’t help that Jackson was rarely able to separate from Patrick Peterson.)
Then there’s the issue of pass protection. The Bucs have been solid against the four-man rush, but they’ve had trouble reacting to the blitz. The inexperienced Glennon cannot be expected to always recognize convoluted sub-package pass-rush attacks; his O-line and running backs must do a better job picking up the slack.
Sliver of optimism: Tampa Bay’s defense is fantastic. You can question Greg Schiano’s and coordinator Bill Sheridan’s decision to play zone on practically every down. (Why trade for Darrelle Revis if you’re not going to use him as a shutdown corner?) You can’t, however, question the Bucs’ effectiveness in zone. The secondary has been stellar and the young linebackers have compensated for a somewhat underwhelming pass rush by playing with speed when blitzing and in coverage.
The Problem: You know about Pittsburgh’s downtrodden offense. The front line has been deplorable, the receivers have been unimpressive and, with Le’Veon Bell not making his debut until Week 4, the running game has been nonexistent.
No sense diving any deeper into the obvious; let’s examine the “vaunted” Steeler defense instead. It ranks a respectable 10th in yards per game, but it’s the only unit that hasn’t forced a turnover in 2013. In fact, it’s the only unit that hasn’t forced at least two turnovers in 2013. It also ranks dead last in sacks per game (1.0; and without LaMarr Woodley, it’d be 0.25).
The essence of Dick LeBeau’s zone-blitz scheme is to use as few defenders as possible in generating pressure. That’s the biggest factor in the turnover formula. This season, with Troy Polamalu healthy and two uniquely athletic rookies, linebacker Jarvis Jones and safety Shamarko Thomas, playing significant snaps (a major rarity for this defense), LeBeau has been even more diverse than usual in his sub-package designs. The results just haven’t been there.
A paucity of big plays also marred this defense a year ago. Despite a pass rush that registered almost 2.5 sacks per game, they failed to generate more than 20 turnovers. This year the Steelers have allowed more yards on the ground and through the air, but those numbers are somewhat inflated by the trip to London, where a handful of normally dependable guys seemingly left their tackling skills at customs.
Overall, this defense has solid players. But the unit hasn’t been consistent or dynamic enough.
Sliver of optimism: If Polamalu stays healthy, it seems inevitable that this D will start cashing in on opportunities. Plenty have been there.
New York Giants
The Problem: Severe offensive line woes have prevented the Giants from finding any sort of rhythm. Quarterback Eli Manning has tried to compensate by forcing balls into coverage, mostly with disastrous results. It was encouraging to see Hakeem Nicks catch nine passes for 142 yards against Philadelphia—perhaps he and Manning can rediscover their once-potent chemistry. In 2011, Nicks was as good as anyone at creating just enough separation at the top of a route. He must start doing this again. (It won’t be easy against the Bears on Thursday night; Chicago cornerback Charles Tillman, who generally shadows the opposing team’s biggest receiver, is one of the best in the league at repositioning his coverage when the ball is in the air.)
Also hindered by the offensive line, tailback David Wilson has been so preoccupied with not fumbling that you’d never guess he has the speed and explosiveness of a first-round pick. Wilson has regained some of his form over the past two weeks but still has a long way to go.
On the other side of the ball, New York’s once-venerated four-man pass rush remains dormant. Jason Pierre-Paul, four months removed from back surgery, is clearly not himself. Justin Tuck has been versatile and disruptive, but the production isn’t there. Mathias Kiwanuka has only 1.5 sacks. Which, sadly, is only two fewer than the rest of the team combined. The Giants’ linebackers and defensive backs are not good enough to survive behind a tepid pass rush.
Sliver of optimism: With even mediocre pass-blocking, Manning and his talented wide receivers can rediscover their timing. The ground game may not get going, but despite Tom Coughlin’s reputation, this team doesn’t need to run the ball in order to win. (The 2011 Super Bowl-champion Giants ranked 32nd in rushing.) It does, however, need a viable defense. Coordinator Perry Fewell may have to keep going against the organization’s M.O. by trying to generate pressure via blitz.