In The First Read, Jeffri Chadiha provides a snapshot of the hottest stories and trends heading into Week 15 of the 2022 NFL season, including:
But first, breaking down six defenses under the most pressure as playoff races heat up ...
OWINGS MILLS, Md. -- The Baltimore Ravens are back in a familiar place. They're looking at a defense filled with big names at a critical juncture of the season and hoping it can carry them to a happy ending. Quarterback Lamar Jackson has been the player largely responsible for handling those expectations for most of the past four seasons. He's now dealing with a knee injury and relying on that defense to be precisely what it has the potential to be.
It's no secret the Ravens have been up and down on defense. Baltimore has blown three fourth-quarter leads this season, and two of their defeats came in contests where they had advantages of 17-plus points. These are the kind of meltdowns that would make Ray Lewis throw up in his mouth. The Ravens won both of their championships this century -- in the 2000 and 2012 seasons -- by routinely beating up on opposing offenses and closing out games in a consistent fashion.
This year's team certainly has the talent to be that overwhelming. After Sunday's 16-14 win over Pittsburgh, the question is whether they're ready to take over down the stretch.
"It's easier said than done, but the talent is there, the scheme is really good, and the coaches do a great job of putting us in position to be successful," defensive end Calais Campbell said last month, before the team's Week 11 game against Carolina. "They listen to our feedback and what we have to say and put it in the game plan. We have a lot of guys who can make plays. It just comes down to high-level execution."
The Ravens, now 9-4, easily could be in the discussion for the AFC's top seed in the playoffs if they hadn't suffered a 28-27 loss to Jacksonville in Week 12. They seized a nine-point lead early in the fourth quarter of that contest before Jaguars quarterback Trevor Lawrence pulled off a late comeback. That's the only Ravens defeat in the last seven games. This team also faces only one opponent with a winning record the remainder of the season: the Bengals, in a regular-season finale that likely will decide the AFC North.
As Campbell said, Baltimore has everything it needs on defense to stay hot. They've got perennial Pro Bowl players (cornerbacks Marcus Peters and Marlon Humphrey) and savvy veterans who are playing at a high level (edge rusher Justin Houston has nine sacks in his 12th season). They've seen key players return from injuries (linebacker Tyus Bowser and safety Marcus Williams) while a new star arrived at midseason (linebacker Roquan Smith came via a trade with Chicago). The numbers also have been impressive; the Ravens rank second in the league with 23 takeaways and eighth in points allowed.
This is why the earlier problems were so confounding. There was always going to be an adjustment period under new defensive coordinator Mike Macdonald, who replaced Wink Martindale in that role this season. But the Ravens learned just how difficult that change was going to be in those letdown losses, when they were failing to fully grasp the new wrinkles in Macdonald's scheme, and younger players were blowing assignments. As Campbell said going into Week 11, "We all took turns making our mistakes."
"The biggest takeaway from that time was making sure we're putting the right guys out there doing the right things," said Macdonald, who spent seven seasons as a Ravens assistant before a stint in 2021 as Michigan's defensive coordinator, last month. "Continuity was big, and I've also seen more trust from the guys. There's an understanding that if one player does his job, the other guys will do theirs."
Macdonald's defense received a huge boost when Smith, a two-time All-Pro, arrived. Smith is the kind of linebacker who can do everything in a scheme as diversified as Baltimore's -- he's elite as a tackler, blitzer and pass defender -- and his teammates felt his impact the minute he took the field. He brings a confidence and an ability to communicate that makes life easier for younger teammates like linebacker Patrick Queen and rookie safety Kyle Hamilton. He's also the best player the Ravens have seen at that position since Lewis retired after the 2012 season.
Baltimore isn't going on a championship run unless Jackson heals quickly from the knee injury he sustained in a win over Denver in Week 13. However, the more you look at the potential of this defense, the more you see a real road for this team to be a player in the postseason. There isn't a dominant team in the AFC this year. There are only teams with dominant individuals or dominant units, such as Kansas City with quarterback Patrick Mahomes or Cincinnati with all its playmakers on offense.
The Ravens can be a scary team if that defense can play up its potential. In November, Campbell said this group had been growing up with each passing week and trying to establish its identity in the process. He said it had come to understand it can't rely solely on overwhelming teams with talent. It must grasp the importance of never thinking it has the luxury of relaxing at any point. It's a good thing the Ravens are figuring that part out, even if they've had to gain that wisdom the hard way.
As Smith said last month, "As long as we don't get complacent, we should be able to do whatever we want to do." If Baltimore needs that mindset reinforced, it only has to glance to the sideline during games and see Jackson standing there in street clothes. The Ravens may not know exactly when he'll return, but it's also clear what it will take to survive without him.
The Ravens aren't the only defense under pressure heading into the final month of the season. Here the five others that really need to deliver for their respective teams:
Rookie quarterback Brock Purdy has shown so far that he's not going to wilt under the pressure of playing in place of injured starter Jimmy Garoppolo. He's been poised and productive, and the 49ers are praying an oblique injury he sustained in Sunday's 35-7 win over Tampa Bay isn't severe. He'll feel even better about this opportunity if the San Francisco defense continues playing at a high level. The 49ers only have allowed 64 points over their current six-game win streak. They demolished the Bucs, and they're no longer battling the kind of injuries that plagued them earlier in this season. This defense also has to know one basic truth: This team isn't going to win a championship unless this unit dominates in ways that bring back memories of the '85 Bears or 2000 Ravens. The 49ers already have lost Garoppolo, and All-Pro wide receiver Deebo Samuel was carted off the field on Sunday with MCL and ankle sprains. San Francisco can't keep losing stars on offense and be hopeful that a first-year quarterback can overcome all that. This team has won with defense many times over the last few years. They're going to have to do it again.
The Jets became an early-season surprise because what was the league's worst defense a year ago grew up in a hurry. The team's chances to make its first postseason appearance since 2010 hinge on how that unit performs in the final four games. Like the 49ers, the Jets are relying on a backup quarterback (Mike White) to lead their offense. Unlike San Francisco, the Jets' supporting cast is not nearly as dynamic. White, by the way, was pummeled by the Bills in Sunday's 20-12 loss to Buffalo. Give him credit for his courage and inspired play, but the calf injury that shelved star defensive end Quinnen Williams in that loss was just as noteworthy. The Bills struggled to move the football when Williams was on the field. They found enough success after his departure to pull away for the win. Williams apparently isn't severely hurt -- he's been listed as day-to-day -- but the upcoming challenge for this team won't be easy. The Jets will see the Lions, Seahawks and Dolphins in the final month of the season. All three rank among the top 10 in the league in points scored.
It feels weird writing this, but Tampa Bay can't trust an offense led by Tom Brady anymore. It's not that there aren't big names on that side of the ball. It's just that they haven't performed consistently enough at any point this season to think something is going to change anytime soon. The bad news for the Bucs is their defense hasn't been much better, and it's fighting through a rash of injuries that couldn't have come at a worse time. Tampa is playing with a makeshift secondary -- its top three cornerbacks have all dealt with injuries, while safeties Mike Edwards and Antoine Winfield Jr. didn't play on Sunday -- and the 49ers had no problems exploiting that with a backup quarterback who threw two touchdown passes and ran for another score. That's not a great place to be with Cincinnati coming next on the schedule, even with questions lingering about the health of Bengals wide receivers Tee Higgins and Tyler Boyd (both left Sunday's win over Cleveland with injuries). The Bucs remain the most talented team in the NFC South. Their ability to hold off the Panthers and Falcons in this weak division will come down to whatever they can still get from that defense.
Washington was 1-4 at one point and looking very much like a team that needed to start thinking about next year. They've fought their way back into the wild-card race because quarterback Taylor Heinicke has been a critical spark, and their defense found its footing. The Commanders haven't allowed more than 21 points to any team over the last nine weeks, when they've gone 6-2-1. They've gotten stellar play from a dominant defensive line, and they've displayed a penchant for taking the ball away. The Commanders forced just one turnover in their first five games. They've had 14 since, including four in an upset win over Philadelphia that revealed how dangerous this team can be when on point. There's no secret to what the Commanders want to do with Heinicke under center. They want him to move the chains, make the occasional key play and let the running game do the rest. For that to work, this defense must play at a high level. That formula has succeeded lately, and it might be enough to get this team into the postseason.
The rankings say Detroit still has one of the league's worst defenses, both in points and yards allowed. The eye test reveals the Lions have made enough improvement to be optimistic about this unit holding its own in the push for a playoff spot. The Lions have held four opponents under 23 points in four of their last five wins. Yes, the Minnesota Vikings gave them some fits in Sunday's 34-23 triumph -- Kirk Cousins threw for 425 yards and Justin Jefferson amassed a Vikings-record 223 receiving yards -- but Detroit did shut down running back Dalvin Cook. That was enough in that contest, and it might be the key to whatever the Lions do defensively moving forward. This team doesn't need a defense that is on the same elite level as San Francisco, Philadelphia or Dallas. The Lions only need a unit that can generate enough stops to help a top-10 offense keep rolling.
The Lions have won five of their last six games, and Goff is a major reason for that stretch of success. He roasted the Vikings for 330 yards and three touchdowns on Sunday. He's thrown 10 touchdown passes and one interception over the last six weeks. If you look at his last 18 games, he's accounted for 33 touchdown passes and nine picks. Goff was supposed to be holding a spot until the Lions were able to find their franchise quarterback. Looks like that search could be over, with NFL Network Insider Ian Rapoport reporting before Sunday's game that the Lions plan to keep Goff "in Detroit for the future."
The Bengals beat the Browns even though both Tee Higgins (hamstring) and Tyler Boyd (finger) didn't finish the game. Absences like those simply don't matter as much when you have a talent like Chase. He had 10 receptions for 119 yards and a touchdown in a 23-10 win over Cleveland. Joe Burrow also targeted his star wideout 15 times; no other Cincinnati player saw more than five passes coming their way. The Bengals managed to flourish during a four-game period in which a hip injury sidelined Chase. They're going to need him playing at a high level if Higgins and Boyd are going to be sidelined for a significant amount of time, as well.
The Ravens have been waiting for Dobbins to do precisely what he did in Sunday's 16-14 win over Pittsburgh. It wasn't just that the 2020 second-round pick gained 120 yards (the second-highest total of his career) on 15 carries and scored a touchdown. It's that Dobbins did it in the first game the Ravens are playing this season without Lamar Jackson. Baltimore also lost second-string quarterback Tyler Huntley during the game. In other words, the Ravens sorely need difference-makers on offense. After missing all of last year with a torn ACL and landing on injured reserve earlier this season with more knee problems, Dobbins might just be one of those.
It takes a lot to make the Denver Broncos' offense look dangerous, but Kansas City accomplished just that in a 34-28 win. That the Chiefs won doesn't change the fact that there are some major concerns with this unit as the postseason nears. Yes, Kansas City logged a season-high six sacks in this game. This is also a team that is minus-5 in turnover differential -- which ranks among the worst such marks in the league -- and just surrendered 28 points to a team had been averaging about 14 per contest. The Chiefs didn't have any answers for Joe Burrow in a loss to Cincinnati a week ago. Making a lousy offense feel good about itself is an even worse sin.
If the Giants, who are currently the seventh seed in the NFC, fall out of the playoffs, this was the loss they will remember as the beginning of the end. Daboll's team has been floundering for more than a month -- with three losses and a tie over the last four games -- but a 48-22 defeat to Philadelphia at home was easily New York's worst of the season. The Giants couldn't contain Jalen Hurts or Miles Sanders, and they definitely didn't have the firepower to keep pace with an offense as prolific as the Eagles'. Daboll has done more than anybody expected with this so team so quickly in his first year on the job. It just feels like he doesn't have many moves left to keep them competitive.
The Steelers turned to Trubisky on Sunday after Kenny Pickett was placed in the concussion protocol in the first quarter of that loss to Baltimore. Trubisky finished the day by reminding us of why he lost this job in the first place. His three interceptions -- all in the red zone -- killed Pittsburgh in a game that was very much winnable. If Pickett doesn't clear concussion protocol and Trubisky is called upon again, the Steelers will hope he can do better than the ghastly numbers he put up in his last start, against the Jets in Week 4 (7-of-13 for 84 yards, zero TDs, one pick and a 41.8 passer rating).
One question answered by an unnamed front office source.
Will 2018 No. 1 overall pick Baker Mayfield ever be an effective starting quarterback again in the NFL?
NFC PERSONNEL DIRECTOR: "I'm not sold. He's an average starter at best, especially if he has to a carry a consistently undermanned team. If you get some really good pieces around him, you have a chance to win because he's smart, competitive and has a good enough arm. Playing with a bad team, as he did in Carolina, only amplifies his shortcomings and makes his confidence work against him. You're really only concerned about him if he's got dudes around him and reliable protection. He can light you up in that scenario just by being a distributor and making the occasional play when he has the opportunity. Give him a weaker supporting cast and he can't do that. He's too limited, and the problem is he thinks he's John Elway. I think his truest comp is somebody like Ryan Fitzpatrick. He probably has a better arm than Fitz, but everything else is similar, with the exception that Fitz is universally loved by his teammates. Even when you look at guys who've turned their careers around in recent years -- like Ryan Tannehill in Tennessee or Geno Smith in Seattle -- Baker doesn't have their skills. Geno has always been really gifted as a pure thrower and athlete, so physical ability was never his issue. Same with Tannehill. Baker has never had that level of natural talent. I know he looked good in that comeback win (two days after being acquired by the Rams on waivers, Mayfield helped Los Angeles beat the Raiders on Thursday), but (Rams head coach) Sean McVay and Kevin Stefanski (Mayfield's head coach when he was with the Browns) are both West Coast offense disciples. I'm guessing Baker was a little more comfortable with that offense in that situation because of that. West Coast lingo rarely changes."
A simple ranking of the top five candidates as I see them, which will be updated weekly, depending on performance. Here is how it stands heading into Week 15 (odds courtesy of FanDuel were current as of 4:35 p.m. ET on Dec. 12):
Weeks in Top 5: 12
Next game: at Bears | Sunday, Dec. 18
Weeks in Top 5: 14
Next game: at Texans | Sunday, Dec. 18
Weeks in Top 5: 6
Next game: at Buccaneers | Sunday, Dec. 18
Weeks in Top 5: 12
Next game: vs. Dolphins | Saturday, Dec. 17
Weeks in Top 5: 2
Next game: vs. Colts | Saturday, Dec. 17
My slowly evolving Super Bowl pick, which also will be updated each week, depending on performances: Eagles over Bengals.
Previous picks ...
- Week 14: Bengals over Cowboys
- Week 13: Eagles over Bills
- Week 12: Bills over Eagles
- Week 11: Eagles over Bills
- Week 10: Bills over Eagles
- Week 9: Bills over Eagles
- Week 8: Bills over Eagles
- Week 7: Bills over Eagles
- Week 6: Bills over Eagles
- Week 5: Bills over Eagles
- Week 4: Bills over Eagles
- Week 3: Bills over 49ers
- Week 2: Bills over Buccaneers
- Week 1: Bills over Packers