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ESPN’s NFL Nation
While we aren’t nearly halfway through the season (due to the new 17-game schedule), the NFL Power Rankings felt this week would be a good opportunity to talk about each team’s greatest early-season shocks.
Some of them come as pleasant shocks, such as Cooper Kupp’s emergence as one of the league’s best receivers for the Los Angeles Rams, Lamar Jackson’s improved throwing skills for the Baltimore Ravens, or the Arizona Cardinals’ emergence as the league’s hottest division’s it team. Others, such as the Washington Football Team’s regressing defense, the Indianapolis Colts’ inability to keep its key players healthy, and the Tampa Bay Buccaneers’ cornerback shortage, aren’t doing so well. But, good or bad, we asked each of the 32 clubs’ writers to choose the one aspect of the teams they cover that has surprised them the most during the first 23.52 percent of the season (we did the math).
How we rank in our Power Rankings: Throughout the season, our power panel of more than 80 journalists, editors, and TV personalities assesses how teams stack up.
Preseason: 4 | 3 | 2 | Previous rankings: 4 | 3 | 2
ARI | ATL | BAL | BUF | CAR | CHI | CIN CLE | DAL | DEN | DET | GB | HOU | IND JAX | KC | LV | LAC | LAR | MIA | MIN NE | NO | PHI | PIT | SF SEA | TB | TEN | WSH
3rd place before.
The biggest surprise was the team’s defensive domination.
Why is this surprising: The fact that the Bills’ defense is playing well is unsurprising, but the statistics they’ve put up aren’t. Buffalo has forced three or more turnovers in each of its last three games and has kept two opponents scoreless in its last four games, including a 40-0 victory against Houston on Sunday. That’s a huge achievement in the NFL, regardless of the opposing offenses (the club has faced three backup quarterbacks). As a result of their accomplishment, they have a plus-90 scoring margin. In the last 20 years, the Bills are the sixth team to be plus-80 or better after four games. Alaina Getzenberg is a writer who lives in New York City.
Previous position: 8
The biggest surprise is how fast success comes.
Why is it surprising: It’s not that the Cardinals are excellent; it’s that everything is falling into place so early in the season. This season, the offense acquired some key components, and it was anticipated that they would all gel, but for everything to come together and go undefeated, lead the NFC West, have one of the greatest offenses in the league, and an early MVP contender at quarterback, well, that’s what’s shocking. The Cardinals’ best case scenario is for everything to come together early. Despite the fact that Arizona had a strong start last year before going into a spiral, this year’s start seems different. Josh Weinfuss (@JoshWeinfuss)
1st place previously
Cooper Kupp, wide receiver, was the biggest surprise.
Why is this surprising: Cooper Kupp has established himself as quarterback Matthew Stafford’s favorite target in his fifth NFL season and has skyrocketed to become one of the league’s best receivers. Kupp leads the NFL with five receiving touchdowns and is third with 431 receiving yards as of Monday night. Kupp has also been targeted 46 times and caught 30 passes, which is a league best. Kupp was anticipated to be a key player in the Rams’ offense, but few could have guessed that he’d be one of the league’s most prolific receivers. Lindsey Thiry (Lindsey Thiry)
Previous position: 2
The high number of injuries was the biggest surprise.
Why it’s surprising: The Buccaneers had a fantastic training camp in terms of injuries after making it all the way to the Super Bowl and winning. After Carlton Davis departed their Week 4 victory over the Patriots with a quad injury, the team’s fortunes have shifted fast, with all three starting cornerbacks now possibly out. Antoine Winfield Jr. has been placed in the concussion protocol, while Jason Pierre-Paul has missed several games due to rib fractures. Four weeks in, the once-dominant defense has taken a significant blow. Jenna Laine is a writer who lives in New York City.
Previous position: 4
The offensive line holding up is the biggest surprise.
Why is this surprising: Life without All-Inclusive The absence of Pro Bowl LT David Bakhtiari (who is recuperating from ACL surgery) and Pro Bowl G Elgton Jenkins (who has missed the last two games due to an ankle injury) hasn’t been as devastating to the offense as it might have been. With one veteran lineman (Billy Turner), two rookies at center and right guard (Josh Myers, Royce Newman), and second-year professionals at left tackle and left guard, the Packers have held their own (Yosh Nijman, Jon Runyan).
After facing a second consecutive club with a dominating defensive front, the 49ers and then the Steelers, Aaron Rodgers put it best Sunday. “I would have been thrilled with two victories if you had told me early in the season that we’d be missing probably two of our top lineman for a couple of games and play those two fronts.” Demovsky, Rob
Previous position: 6
The defense’s rapid emergence as a unit has been the biggest surprise.
Why it’s surprising: The Browns revamped their defense in the offseason, bringing in or drafting eight new starters after ranking 19th in defensive efficiency previous season. It was clear that there had been a talent improvement across the board. But it’s still amazing how fast this defense has gelled in only four weeks. The Browns have a defense that boasts the league’s best pass rush victory rate and the appearance of a championship-caliber team. Jake Trotter’s remark
Previous position: 7
The biggest surprise is Lamar Jackson’s throwing yardage ranking in the top half of the NFL.
Why it’s surprising: It was anticipated that Jackson would improve as a passer, particularly since the Ravens lost their two best running backs (J.K. Dobbins and Gus Edwards) before the regular season started. However, this is a significant step forward. Worst season, Baltimore was last in the NFL in passing, and Jackson had finished 22nd in passing yards in each of the previous two seasons. Jackson has really extended the field this season. He is third in the NFL with 19 completions of 20 yards or more, behind only Tom Brady (23) and Derek Carr (21). (21). Jamison Hensley (Jamison Hensley)
14th place before.
Defensive takeaways were the biggest surprise.
The Cowboys have ten takeaways in four games, which is second in the league and the best in the NFC. What caused this to happen? Last year, they didn’t get their 10th takeaway until the 11th game of the season. Trevon Diggs is enjoying a breakthrough season so far, with five interceptions in his first four games. Terence Newman, the last Cowboy cornerback to record five interceptions in a season, did it in 2010. The defense still has its flaws, but if it can continue to generate turnovers, it will provide more possessions to an offense that is flowing. The Cowboys have a great feel for complementary football right now. Todd Archer is a writer.
Previous position: 9
CB Asante Samuel Jr. was the biggest surprise.
Why is it surprising: When Samuel was selected with the 47th overall selection, no one knew what they were receiving. He isn’t his father, yet he has shocked almost everyone with consecutive interceptions (the first off of Dak Prescott in Week 2, the second off of Patrick Mahomes in the red zone in Week 3). Samuel had four pass breakups and was awarded Defensive Rookie of the Month, but he still adds, “I’ve got to work.” In the Class of 2021, he’s already established a name for himself. Shelley Smith says:
Previous position: 5
The Raiders’ defense was the biggest surprise.
Why it’s surprising: Late failures against the Chiefs, Chargers, and Dolphins last season were the difference between an 11-5 playoff season and a mediocre 8-8 season for the Raiders. Yes, four weeks is a tiny sample size, but Gus Bradley’s reimagined defensive system is getting off the field and, yes, creating plays. The greatest advantage for Las Vegas is that the better defensive performance is also benefiting quarterback Derek Carr. Gutierrez, Paul
Previous position: 10
The biggest surprise was the defense in the red zone.
Why it’s surprising: The Chiefs have spent a lot of time and effort on the practice field this season trying to improve their defense within the 20-yard line, which was the worst in the league last year, but things have only grown worse. The Chiefs have let up a score in the red zone 79 percent of the time, which is the fifth-worst mark in the league and two percentage points worse than last year. It’s the main reason the Chiefs are ranked 31st in terms of points allowed. Adam Teicher’s remark
This week’s essentials include: • Check out the full schedule » | Check out the standings » • Every team’s depth chart » • Injuries » | Transactions » • Rankings of the Football Power Index » Additional NFL coverage »
Previous position: 12
QB Sam Darnold is the biggest surprise.
Why it’s surprising: No one could have anticipated Darnold would lead the NFL in running touchdowns (five) through four games if they claimed they did before the season. In three seasons with the Jets, Darnold only scored five running touchdowns. He wasn’t seen as a dangerous fugitive. Teams, on the other hand, are leaving lanes open, which Darnold is taking advantage of. This isn’t a game of quarterback sneaks. Carolina was accustomed to seeing Cam Newton run read-options or QB draw-type plays (credit: OC Joe Brady). David Newton is an author.
Previous position: 17
The biggest shock: Jamal Adams isn’t a sack machine.
Why it’s surprising: The Seahawks aren’t giving Adams as many chances to attack the quarterback as they were last season, when he set an NFL record with 9.5 sacks in just 12 games. Over the summer, defensive coordinator Ken Norton Jr. speculated that Adams may not blitz as much this season. Still, considering how inconsistent Seattle’s pass rush has been — nine sacks in four games — it’s surprising he isn’t blitzing more. The Seahawks aren’t getting the most out of their $17.5 million per year safety without using Adams’ greatest strength. According to ESPN Stats & Information, Adams has rushed the passer 13 times through four games after averaging 8.25 rushes per game last season. Brady Henderson’s quote
Previous position: 13
The biggest shock: the struggles of the special teams.
Why it’s surprising: On one hand, it shouldn’t be surprising since the Broncos’ special teams units and consistency haven’t been coupled together in a long time. The Broncos have given up a 38-yard kickoff return in the season opener and a 102-yard kickoff return for a touchdown in Week 2, have been penalized for a taunting penalty after downing a punt, and have given up a 42-yard punt return in Week 4. None of those plays have harmed them in their 3-1 start. However, if this club is serious about making the playoffs, fixes must be done, otherwise these kind of plays will cost them. Legwold, Jeff
Previous position: 11
Deebo Samuel, WR, was the biggest surprise.
Why is this surprising: Samuel arrived to training camp slimmer, healthier, and with a broader skill set. He seemed to be on track for a great season, but even the most ardent Samuel supporters couldn’t have predicted this. Samuel leads the NFL in receiving yards (490) and yards after catch (266) after four games, while ranking sixth in yards per reception (17.5). Through four games, he has 490 receiving yards, second only to Jerry Rice’s 522 yards in 1995. Nick Wagoner is a writer.
Previous position: 18
The Bengals’ stout defense was the biggest surprise.
Why is this surprising: In coordinator Lou Anarumo’s first two seasons, the Bengals have failed to field a good defense. However, through four games, the Bengals have been among the best in the NFL. Cincinnati allows the fifth-most yards per play and the seventh-most points each drive. Granted, the opposition attacks haven’t been very strong, but Anarumo’s squad has made significant strides. According to ESPN Stats & Information, defensive end Trey Hendrickson, who inked a $60 million contract with the club in the summer, ranks second in the NFL in pass rush initial pressures. – Ben Little
• The Ravens are sick of hearing about Lamar’s inability to pass the ball • The Cards’ offense has discovered a new dimension • The Hurts-Smith connection is giving them optimism • Goff is trying not to ‘go numb’ after losing • Wentz is taking a step in the right direction
15th place before.
The 31st-ranked passing offense is the biggest surprise.
Why is this surprising: The Saints are averaging only 144 passing yards per game, but Alvin Kamara has established career highs in carries with 24 and 26 in the last two weeks. When the Saints were running out the time in huge victories over Green Bay and New England, that sort of run-pass imbalance worked, but it’s being called into question again after they enabled the Giants to regroup for a surprising comeback victory Sunday. Sean Payton may have to lean more heavily on Jameis Winston and the passing game at some point. If wide receiver Michael Thomas recovers from his ankle injury following the Week 6 bye, it will be a huge boost. — Mike Triplett (Mike Triplett)
Previous position: 16
The difficulties on offense have been the biggest surprise.
Why is this surprising: Last season, the Titans’ offense averaged 30 points per game. After adding Julio Jones to the mix, Tennessee was expected to keep up its high-scoring ways. Tennessee has a 23.8 point per game average through four games. A.J. Brown has just one touchdown, while Jones has yet to score. Last week, neither receiver was available for the Titans, yet they still managed to score 24 points. The issue is that they should have scored higher. The Titans are no longer as effective in the red zone. They went from scoring 75% of their touchdowns in the red zone last season to just 50% this year. Turron Davenport (Turron Davenport)
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22nd in the previous ranking
The biggest surprise has been the defensive difficulties.
Why is this surprising: Last season, Washington finished second in yards and fourth in points. It had a strong young offensive line, including the defensive rookie of the year (Chase Young), and acquired players via free agency (corner William Jackson III) and the draft (linebacker Jamin Davis, corner Benjamin St-Juste). However, after four games, they are ranked 29th in terms of yards allowed and 30th in terms of points scored. It’s not simply a matter of having a more difficult schedule; it’s also a matter of playing — and coaching — badly. Every week, there has been a major blown coverage assignment, and they aren’t putting enough pressure (sacks on 4 percent of dropbacks compared to 7.8 percent last season). Another surprise, quarterback Taylor Heinicke, has bailed out the defense. When he was named starter, the expectation would have been for the opposite outcome. ‘John Keim’
Previous position: 19
The offensive line, which has been struggling, has been the biggest surprise.
Why is this surprising: The Patriots’ offensive line of Isaiah Wynn (LT), Mike Onwenu (LG), David Andrews (C), Shaq Mason (RG), and Trent Brown (RT) was expected to be a strength, but rookie quarterback Mac Jones has already absorbed 34 hits in four games. In addition, the rushing game has been erratic, as demonstrated by a minus-1 yard gain on eight attempts against the Buccaneers on Sunday night. Brown’s right calf injury, which has kept him out of action for all but the first two series of the season, has played a role in the team’s struggles, but it is far from the only one. — Reiss, Mike
Previous position: 26
The amount of important players injured was the biggest surprise.
Because the offensive line has battled with injuries, Carson Wentz has no experience what it’s like to play behind the anticipated starting offensive line. Braden Smith, the right tackle, is still out with a foot injury, Quenton Nelson, the left guard, is on injured reserve with a high ankle sprain, and Eric Fisher, the left tackle, missed the opening game of the season due to an Achilles injury. And that’s just the beginning. With a disc injury, receiver T.Y. Hilton has been placed on injured reserve. Khari Willis, the starting safety, Kwity Paye, and cornerbacks Xavier Rhodes and Rock Ya-Sin have all missed games due to injury. Injuries are unavoidable in football, but the Colts have been plagued by them for the first four weeks. Mike Wells’ remark
Previous position: 20
CB Bashaud Breeland was the biggest surprise.
Why is this surprising: Breeland was signed by Minnesota to bolster the secondary and provide a veteran with excellent coverage abilities (rated 18th by Pro Football Focus in 2020) opposite Patrick Peterson at outside corner. Breeland’s performance has been a catastrophe through four games. He’s been targeted 23 times and has given up 20 catches for 281 yards (14.1 yards per catch), four touchdowns, and a near-perfect passer rating (157.2). After being the closest defender on a 21-yard throw that converted a third-and-long for the Browns, Breeland left the game after six plays with a “illness” and did not return. Courtney Cronin (Courtney Cronin)
Previous position: 27
LB was the biggest surprise. Quinn, Robert
Why is this surprising: Quinn has been all over the field for the Bears defense through four games after a disappointing 2020 season. With 4.5 sacks and multiple tackles for loss, the veteran pass rusher leads the club. Quinn believes he is in a better mental and spiritual position this season, and it shows on the field. The Bears boast one of the most dangerous edge rusher duos in the NFC North when Quinn is teamed with Khalil Mack. Dickerson, Jeff
Previous position: 21
The biggest shock: the pass rush’s problems.
Why it’s surprising: The Steelers’ four-man rush put up a lot of pressure in Week 1, but they haven’t been able to keep it up the last two weeks. The Steelers didn’t have a single sack against the Bengals without T.J. Watt and Alex Highsmith, and just two against the Packers — one of which looked to be a trip by Watt. Watt, who had a groin injury against the Raiders, said he felt well enough to play against the Packers, but he and the rest of the Steelers’ front seven haven’t been as good as they were in Week 1. The Steelers have proven that they can play championship-level defense, but there hasn’t been much repetition. Brooke Pryor is an actress who plays Brooke Pryor.
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Previous position: 24
The use of RB Miles Sanders was the biggest surprise.
Why is this surprising: Sanders is the Eagles’ starting running back, but he has just 37 carries after four games, which ties him for 33rd in the NFL with Tony Pollard of the Cowboys and Jets rookie Michael Carter. In the last two weeks, he’s had nine rushes in total. Meanwhile, Kenneth Gainwell (89 total yards and a touchdown against the Chiefs) is on the rise. Sanders and quarterback Jalen Hurts were supposed to be a powerful 1-2 punch out of the backfield, but Sanders has struggled to get going. Tim McManus, Ph.D.
Previous position: 23
The biggest shock: the offense’s lackluster performance.
Why is this surprising: The Dolphins are close or at the bottom of the NFL’s offensive rankings in every category. Miami ranked 31st in scoring, 31st in total yards, 30th in first downs, 30th in passing yards, and 26th in rushing yards before Monday night’s game. Tua Tagovailoa’s current injury hasn’t helped matters, but even he can’t fix Miami’s offensive problems on his own. Despite facing the fewest blitzes in the league, the Dolphins’ offensive line ranks 29th in pass block win rate and has allowed the fourth most sacks. For a club that was hoping to make the playoffs in 2021, it’s been a very bad start to the season. — Louis-Jacques Marcel
Previous position: 25
Cordarrelle Patterson, RB, was the biggest surprise.
Why is this surprising: Patterson has been a surprise in an otherwise failing Atlanta offense, as he is on track to have his greatest running and receiving seasons (he already has 27 carries for 119 yards) (already having 18 catches for 235 yards). Arthur Smith has found a way to generate chances for himself, resulting in him scoring three touchdowns versus Washington, equaling his total for the previous four seasons. In every aspect, Patterson has been a pleasant surprise for Atlanta. Michael Rothstein is a writer and producer.
Previous position: 29
The biggest surprise has been the defensive difficulties.
Why is this surprising: The Giants’ defense was expected to be their strongest suit. It isn’t the case. With 382 yards per game allowed, it is ranked 22nd in the NFL. And things aren’t likely to improve any time soon. The Giants have yet to find a solution at edge rusher, and starting middle linebacker Blake Martinez will miss the rest of the season. With a mediocre pass rush, it’s difficult to be a top defense like what was anticipated. Jordan Raanan is a writer.
32nd in the previous ranking
The biggest surprise is that the defense has outperformed expectations.
Why is this surprising: Despite some difficult conditions, the defense is in the top half of the league in points and yards allowed. Carl Lawson, the team’s top pass rusher, suffered a season-ending injury in the preseason, linebacker Jarrad Davis (ankle) is yet to play, free safety Lamarcus Joyner tore his ACL in Week 1, and three rookies are starting. Talk about overcoming hardship. The Jets’ defense has held together because to excellent coaching and strong beginnings by LB C.J. Mosley and DT Quinnen Williams. Cimini, Rich
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Previous position: 28
The biggest surprise was RB’s lack of output. Lindsay, Phillip
Why it’s a shock: The Texans anticipated Lindsay to emerge as their starting running back heading into training camp. Lindsay, on the other hand, is behind experienced running backs Mark Ingram II and David Johnson in terms of carries, with just 31 yards and a score on 24 runs. Houston has struggled to run the ball since Week 1 and now ranks 31st in Football Outsiders’ running DVOA. The Texans’ task may be made simpler in Week 5, as the New England Patriots’ defense ranks 28th in rushing DVOA after allowing Tampa Bay to carry for 119 yards on Sunday night. Sarah Barshop is a writer.
30th in the previous ranking
The biggest shock: starting 0-4
Why is this surprising: Nobody expected the Lions to make the playoffs, but an 0-4 start isn’t ideal for any team, much alone the Lions. They failed to score on four separate red zone possessions against Chicago, tying for the most by any team in a game since 2000 — and tying for the most by Detroit in a single game. Jared Goff has now lost six straight regular-season starts, the longest current skid among quarterbacks. While injuries and costly miscues haven’t been entirely his fault, the Lions must improve their ability to minimize errors in scoring situations if they want to win a game. Eric Woodyard’s remark
Previous position: 31
The difficulties of Josh Lambo have been the biggest surprise.
Why it’s surprising: Other than Lambo, there hasn’t been much the Jaguars have been able to rely on in recent seasons. Lambo acquired the moniker “Lambomatic” after making 95 percent of his field goal tries with the Jaguars (76 of 80) from October 2017 through the end of the 2020 season. Lambo, who is 0 for 3 this season and missed last week due to personal circumstances, will have to battle with Matthew Wright for the kicking position this week, according to coach Urban Meyer. A dependable kicker is required for an offense that averages just 18.5 points per game. Lambo’s time in Jacksonville is certainly over if he doesn’t bounce back this week. Mike DiRocco’s remark