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Where all 32 NFL teams need to improve in 2019

As strong as some NFL teams looked in 2018, none were perfect. Whether it was a lack of pass-rush, an inability to cover the deep ball or deficiencies along the offensive line, all 32 squads have something to work on entering the 2019 season. And while some teams are plagued with more problems than others, here is one area for each to improve in.

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AFC NORTH

Baltimore Ravens: Lamar Jackson’s ball security

Key Number: 10 fumbles on 130 designed runs in 2018

No player fumbled more on designed rushes last season than Lamar Jackson, and it wasn’t particularly close. Jackson’s 10 fumbles made him one of just two players to fumble five or more times on designed runs along with Ezekiel Elliott (6). Nearly all of them were unforced errors as well, coming via either a botched snap or mesh point. Even more alarming was that he accomplished that feat on merely 130 attempts, giving him just 13 designed runs per fumble. That was easily the worst mark in the NFL among all players with 100 or more attempts, as the next closest player was Jackson’s teammate Alex Collins at 38 rushes per fumble. On an offense that is built around Jackson’s ability as a runner, coughing up the ball at that rate isn’t going to cut it in 2019.

Pittsburgh Steelers: Ben Roethlisberger’s downfield accuracy

Key Number: 41.4% of passes 10-plus yards downfield were uncatchable (5th worst)

Ben Roethlisberger posted the most passing yards and touchdowns of his career in 2018, but that came on the back of a league-high 675 pass attempts. His playmakers shouldered a large load as well, as the 2,844 yards after the catch for the Pittsburgh Steelers last season were the most of any team since PFF’s inception in 2006.  The truth is that Roethlisberger struggled in 2018 more than he had in previous seasons with ball location, particularly downfield.  Of the passes he threw 10 or more yards downfield, 41.4% of them were uncatchable, which was better than only Ryan Tannehill, Mitchell Trubisky, Josh Rosen and Josh Allen among qualifying quarterbacks. In all, just 42.4% of his passes were considered accurate (26th).

Cleveland Browns: Tackling

Key Number: 169 missed tackles on defense (most in the NFL)

As Florida and Miami were kind enough to show us this past Saturday, missed tackles can be the difference between a mundane gain of three or four and a 60-yard touchdown. They can be game-changers. No team in the league missed more tackles than the Browns, whose 169 missed tackles as a defense were the most in the NFL by 28. Linebacker Joe Schobert was one of the primary culprits, as his 24 missed tackles led the NFL. Jamie Collins Sr. — now a member of the New England Patriots — also joined Schobert in the 20-missed tackle club. If the Browns are to live up to the lofty expectations being put on them as AFC North favorites, they’ll have to clean up their tackling.

Cincinnati Bengals: Linebacker coverage

Key number: 1,779 passing yards allowed with a linebacker in primary coverage (most in NFL)

The Bengals’ linebacking corp was the only linebacker group in the NFL to allow over 1,500 receiving yards. They allowed 1,779. No group across the league was picked on more or gave up more production. They were among the bottom five teams in the league in passer rating allowed, yards per reception allowed, EPA per play allowed and coverage grade on linebacker targets. No matter the way you cut it, it wasn’t pretty. A revamped group that includes third-round pick Germaine Pratt will need to show improvement in order for the Bengals to contend in a crowded AFC North.

AFC EAST

New England Patriots: Making plays through contact

Key Number: 2.4 rush yards after contact per attempt (32nd) and 2.7 receiving yards after contact per completion (28th)

The Patriots are a team with very few glaring weaknesses, especially where it matters: passing and defending the pass. Shockingly, that led to yet another Lombardi Trophy. An area that did give them some problems in 2018, though,  was their playmakers' ability to make plays through contact. No team picked up fewer rushing yards after contact per attempt than New England, though their 1.9 yards before contact per attempt (3rd in NFL) helped offset that. A similar story played out with their receivers after the catch, as their 2.7 yards after contact per completion was also a bottom-five figure. Fighting through contact for extra yards is an area that the Patriots could stand to improve in both the run and the passing game.

Miami Dolphins: Limiting turnover opportunities for the opposing defense

Key Number: 16.9 pass attempts per turnover-worthy throw (fewest in the NFL)

Ryan Tannehill and Brock Osweiler didn’t form the ideal 1-2 punch for the Dolphins last season. Out of all quarterbacks with at least 250 snaps last season, Tannehill posted the worst overall PFF grade, and Osweiler was on his heels at third-worst. A large part of that was their propensity to put the ball in the path of the opposing team. The Dolphins had a combined 27 turnover-worthy throws in 455 pass attempts — the worst turnover-worthy throw rate in the NFL. The good news? Tannehill and Osweiler are both gone. The bad news? Josh Rosen and Ryan Fitzpatrick — the new Dolphins’ quarterbacks — both finished among the bottom 10 quarterbacks in the league in turnover-worthy throw rate last season.

Buffalo Bills: Josh Allen holding onto the ball

Key Number: 3.01 time to throw (highest in the NFL)

There’s a prevalent notion that the Bills were one of the worst pass-protecting teams in the league last season, and yet, their team pass-blocking grade ranked 19th in the regular season. Why then, was Allen pressured on 43.4% of his dropbacks, which was the second-highest rate among qualifying quarterbacks, last season? Because he held on to the ball for over three seconds per dropback. That was the highest time to throw by a quarterback with at least 250 dropbacks since Terrelle Pryor in 2013. Andrew Luck‘s recent retirement serves as a reminder of the physical and subsequent mental damage that an offense built around a quarterback holding onto the ball for long stretches of time behind a non-elite offensive line can cause long term. That, paired with how ineffective Allen was under pressure, posting just a 28.3% completion percentage, should be enough motivation for Buffalo to pursue an offense built around quicker releases.

New York Jets: Making contested catches

Key Number: 30.5% contested-catch rate (last in the NFL)

It wasn’t the most auspicious start for prospective franchise quarterback Sam Darnold, but he also didn’t drop into an ideal situation for a young passer. The Jets' receiving corps was among the worst in the league. They were the NFL's worst at bringing in contested catches, converting just 25 of their 82 contested catch opportunities over the course of the season. The two primary culprits were Robby Anderson (caught 8-of-28 contested-catch opportunities) and Jermaine Kearse (2 of 16). Darnold saw significant improvement toward the end of 2018, and any improvement in the contested-catch department would only help moving forward.

AFC SOUTH

Houston Texans: Deshaun Watson taking unnecessary hits

Key Number: 22 combined sacks + hits were Watson’s fault and not his OL (most in the NFL)

As PFF Data Scientist Eric Eager pointed out earlier this month, a quarterback’s pressure rate is largely a function of the quarterback themselves. Deshaun Watson was under pressure more than any other quarterback in the league, yet as we discussed earlier with Josh Allen, that was largely due to him holding onto the ball rather than getting rid of it. No quarterback was responsible for more of their own sacks and hits than Watson. For a player as important to their team as Watson is, the goal should be to eliminate those hits and potential injury risks wherever possible.

Indianapolis Colts: Making plays after the catch

Key Number: 4.5 yards after the catch per reception (tied last in the NFL)

The Colts were tied with the Tampa Bay Buccaneers for the fewest yards after the catch per reception in the league last year. The big difference between them, though, is that the Buccaneers' average depth of target sat at 11.1 yards (highest in the NFL) while the Colts' average depth was 8.2 yards (19th), making their lack of production after the catch even more glaring. Considering that the Colts were just 27th in the NFL in average depth of target in 2017 — the last time Jacoby Brissett manned the helm — their production after the catch will have to take a jump in 2019.

Tennessee Titans: Mariota’s passing from a clean pocket

Key Number: 19 interceptions from a clean pocket since 2017 (most in the NFL)

Clean-pocket passing is one of the most stable metrics for a quarterback year-to-year, and how a quarterback performs in a clean pocket is one of the best ways to evaluate their ability. Unfortunately for Tennessee, Marcus Mariota has yet to perform at an above-average level free of pressure. He has posted a top-20 passer rating from a clean pocket only once (13th in 2016), and his 19 clean pocket interceptions over the last two seasons lead the NFL. With Ryan Tannehill being brought in this offseason and putting up solid numbers this preseason, Mariota is in a make-or-break year. He’ll need to improve from a clean pocket to show that he is still the quarterback of the future for the Titans.

Jacksonville Jaguars: Catching the ball

Key Number: 83.9% of catchable passes caught (last in the NFL)

2018 was disappointing in many ways for Jacksonville. Just a year removed from nearly competing in the Super Bowl, the Jaguars went 5-11 en route to a spot in the cellar of the AFC South. If they are to rebound, the pass-catching unit will need to take a step forward. In 2018, the Jaguars led the NFL in drops (39) despite their receivers seeing only 489 targets (22nd). No team caught a lower percentage of the catchable passes thrown their way. Fresh off a four-year, $88 million contract, Nick Foles would appreciate if those numbers changed — and fast.

AFC WEST

Kansas City Chiefs: Covering tight ends

Key Number: 2.6% forced incompletion rate on passes targeting tight ends (last in the NFL)

It’s hard to pinpoint holes in the Chiefs' offense, which should once again be one of the best in the league next season under third-year phenom Patrick Mahomes. There are some question marks on the defensive side, though, one of which is how they will fare against the tight end position. Last season, only the Oakland Raiders received a worse team coverage grade when a tight end was targeted than Kansas City. They ranked top-five in receptions, yards, touchdowns and first downs allowed to tight ends while posting a forced incompletion rate of just 2.6% on tight end targets, easily the worst mark in the NFL. The addition of Tyrann Mathieu should help in this department. His 88.7 coverage grade against tight ends since entering the league in 2013 will be welcomed with open arms.

Los Angeles Chargers: Protecting Philip Rivers

Key Number: 61.9 team pass-blocking grade (2nd worst in the NFL)

The offensive line has been the biggest question mark on what has otherwise been a well-rounded roster for several seasons now. Rivers has been able to alleviate it somewhat with a quick release — his time to throw of 2.42 seconds was fourth fastest among quarterbacks with 250 or more regular-season dropbacks — but nonetheless, pressure was still able to get home. Rivers was pressured 140 times in 2.5 seconds or less, which was the seventh-highest total in the NFL. There wasn’t a bevy of additions to improve the OL through free agency or the draft this offseason, either, so the Chargers will be counting on in-house improvements from the guys upfront.

Denver Broncos: Explosive plays in the passing game

Key Number: 12.9% of pass plays resulted in completions of 15-plus yards (2nd lowest in NFL)

John Elway’s cycle through quarterbacks following Peyton Manning continues, as the next candidates arrived this offseason in Joe Flacco and Drew Lock. The Broncos will be hoping that those two passers spark a more explosive aerial attack than what was seen in Denver last season. Case Keenum led a passing offense that converted just 12.9% of its dropbacks into completions of 15 or more yards, a rate that led only the Jacksonville Jaguars. There is no question that Flacco and Lock have the arms to push the ball downfield, but the question remains: can they do it effectively and consistently?

Oakland Raiders: Generating pressure

Key Number: 23.3% defensive pressure rate (last in the NFL)

There were multiple areas to choose from on the Raiders' defense, but the one that sticks out most is their complete inability to generate pressure last season. Their defensive pressure rate of 23.3% wasn’t just last in the NFL, but it was last by over 6%. It’s safe to say they didn’t find anyone to fill the Khalil Mack-sized void on their defensive line. Looking at all defenders with 100 or more pass-rushing snaps, the Raiders’ highest individual pressure rate was Arden Key at 9.4%, otherwise known as the 89th highest rate in the league. Given that, it comes as no surprise that the Raiders targeted a pass-rusher with their first selection in this year’s draft.

[Editor’s Note: All of PFF’s advanced stats and grades for every NFL player are made available in PFF’s ELITE subscription. Subscribe today to gain access!]

NFC NORTH

Chicago Bears: Trubisky’s accuracy

Key Number: 23% of passes were uncatchable in 2018 (4th worst in NFL)

When looking at the numbers that most of the general public uses to evaluate quarterbacks — completion percentage, passer rating, yards per pass attempt, etc. — Mitchell Trubisky appears to have performed like a league-average quarterback in 2018. However, looking through the lens of PFF data on throw quality and ball location on a throw-for-throw basis, it becomes clearer that his performance didn’t live up to his stats. Trubisky had the fourth-highest rate of uncatchable passes in the NFL and just the fifth-lowest rate of accurate passes among the top 32 qualifying quarterbacks. When he did throw a catchable pass, the most was made of it, as the Bears led the league in percentage of catchable passes caught at 94%. They even took advantage of inaccurate passes, as Trubisky averaged 10.2 yards per pass on catchable but inaccurate passes, over two yards higher than the league average.

Minnesota Vikings: Offensive line performance

Key Number: One of four offensive lines to have bottom-10 pass-blocking and run-blocking grade

It doesn’t come as a surprise that the Vikings’ offensive line is the unit appearing on this list. It has been a weakness for several seasons now, and 2018 was no different. The Vikings were one of just four teams to have a bottom-10 regular-season grade in both pass-blocking and run-blocking, joining the Houston Texans, Miami Dolphins and the Cincinnati Bengals. Kirk Cousins was pressured on 38.9% of his dropbacks (fifth-most among quarterbacks with 250 or more dropbacks), and the Vikings averaged just 1.3 yards before contact per rushing attempt (t-21st in the NFL). The unit as a whole will need to improve in 2019 in order for the Vikings to reclaim the NFC North title.

Green Bay Packers: Play action defense

Key Number: 15.9 yards per reception allowed with play-action (last in the NFL)

The Packers improved their team coverage grade from 31st in 2017 to 25th last season, but as their bottom-third placement would indicate, they still had their issues. One area, in particular, where they struggled was coverage on plays with play-action. On play-action passes, the Packers allowed 80 of the 107 passes against them to be completed for 1,273 yards and eight touchdowns. Their 15.9 yards per reception allowed mark was worst in the league, and their 131.1 passer rating allowed was third-worst among all teams. The Packers did address the secondary this offseason with additions such as Adrian Amos and Darnell Savage, who should help improve a secondary that has significant room for growth.

Detroit Lions: Pressure off the edge

Key Number: 10.3% edge pressure rate (31st in the NFL)

The Lions had several defenders grade very well along the interior of their defensive line last season — Damon Harrison, A’Shawn Robinson and Da’Shawn Hand — but all three of those players lined up primarily inside and were more accomplished run-defenders than pass-rushers. When it came to getting pressure off the edge, only the Oakland Raiders had a lower edge pressure rate than the Lions (10.3%). The Lions went out and added to a stacked defensive line this offseason by signing Trey Flowers and his 18.5% pass-rush win rate from New England last season. He should help in their effort to bring more heat off the edge.

NFC EAST

Dallas Cowboys: Dak Prescott taking sacks

Key Number: Prescott responsible for 15 of his sacks (most in the NFL)

As has been mentioned with several other quarterbacks above, pressure rate can be attributed largely to the quarterback themselves. Dak Prescott is one of the quarterbacks in the league who brings unnecessary pressure on himself, especially when it comes to taking sacks. No quarterback was given responsibility for more of his own sacks than Prescott in 2018, as he was at fault for 15 sacks, which edged out Deshaun Watson (14) and Russell Wilson (13).

Philadelphia Eagles: Converting pressure into wins for the defense

Key Number: 39.6% success rate allowed on plays with pressure (6th worst in NFL)

The only team with a higher pressure rate than the Philadelphia Eagles (39.9%) last season was the Los Angeles Rams (40.3%). They were able to do that largely without the blitz, as their 20.1% blitz rate was the lowest in the NFL. That should mean their coverage was in an even better position to capitalize on a pressured quarterback given their extra men in coverage compared to a team that blitzed to accomplish their pressure. However, the Eagles coverage numbers with the opposing quarterback under pressure don’t come across as all that impressive. Opposing offenses had the sixth-best success rate under pressure, and the Eagles recorded bottom-10 marks in completion percentage allowed and passer rating against.

Washington Redskins: Deep passing

Key Number: 13 completions on passes 20 or more yards downfield (lowest in the NFL)

It shouldn’t come as much of a surprise given the upheaval that the Redskins saw at the quarterback position last season, but no team recorded fewer completions (13) or passing yards (434) on deep passes a season ago. Only the New York Jets recorded a lower passer rating on those passes 20 or more yards downfield. Last season with the Broncos, new Redskins’ starting quarterback Case Keenum attempted plenty of downfield passes (72) but did not see much success, connecting on 26 of them with five touchdowns and eight interceptions to show for it. That will need to change for Washington to improve its deep passing attack.

New York Giants: Accuracy under pressure

Key Number: 44.4% accuracy rate under pressure (3rd lowest of any team in the NFL)

Whether it’s Eli Manning or Daniel Jones playing the majority of the Giants' snaps this season at quarterback, New York's passing attack under pressure will need to improve. Just 44.4% of their passes under pressure were accurate last season (3rd lowest), and 10.4% of their passes were considered perfect throws (2nd lowest) when under pressure. Manning’s grade under pressure from 2016 through 2018 of 30.3 ranks last among 33 quarterbacks with 300 or more pressured snaps over that span. Jones is an unknown, but as Manning has shown, it can’t get much worse when the pressure is on.

NFC SOUTH

New Orleans Saints: Slot coverage

Key Number: 49.2 coverage grade when the slot is targeted (30th in the NFL)

Only the New York Jets and the San Francisco 49ers had lower coverage grades against slot receivers than the New Orleans Saints. P.J. Williams was the primary culprit, as he had just a 38.6 coverage grade against slot receivers, allowing 31 of 47 targets against him to be completed for 348 yards and three touchdowns. Whether it is Patrick Robinson returning from injury and solidifying his role in the slot or P.J. Williams returning to starting slot duties, the Saints will need a collective improvement from the group this season.

Atlanta Falcons: Converting turnover opportunities on defense

Key Number: 26 fumbles not recovered + dropped interceptions on defense (most in the NFL)

Turnovers are often turning points in the game, and the Falcons were on the wrong end of turnover luck as a defense last season, missing out on those big plays. As a defense, they recovered only three of the 16 fumbles against them — that 18.8% recovery rate was the worst in the league — and they dropped 13 interceptions (t-2nd most in the NFL). In total, their 26 combined missed fumble opportunities and dropped interceptions led the NFL. Securing those interceptions and having a few more fumbles bounce their way in 2019 could be the difference between a 7-9 record and a few more wins/playoff berth.

Carolina Panthers: Downfield coverage

Key Number: 1,206 deep passing yards allowed (last in the NFL)

There are few things more demoralizing on defense than getting beat over the top for a big play. That was a common occurrence in Carolina, as no team allowed more passing yards on throws 20 or more yards downfield. It wasn’t simply volume-based, either. They also had the highest mark in expected points allowed per deep pass and the second-worst coverage grade on those attempts of any team in the league.

Tampa Bay Buccaneers: Everywhere coverage

Key Number: 76.5% completion percentage allowed (last in the NFL)

The Buccaneers had one of the worst secondaries in the league last season in pretty much any metric available. They had the second-highest expected points added per play against mark, the highest percentage of plays allowing positive expected points added, the highest completion percentage allowed (76.5%) and the highest passer rating allowed (117.0). Their highest-graded member of the secondary was safety Justin Evans, who managed just a 67.6 overall grade. There has been some buzz around the Buccaneers new-look passing attack with the arrival of Bruce Arians, but if they are to make any noise in the NFC South, their coverage as a team will have to improve.

NFC WEST

Los Angeles Rams: Jared Goff’s performance under pressure

Key number: 44.1 overall grade under pressure (24thamong 32 qualifying quarterbacks)

The Rams provided Jared Goff with one of the top offensive lines in the league in 2018, which helped to keep him clean on 68.0% of his dropbacks (13th in the NFL) despite having a time to throw of 2.72 seconds in 2018 (6th-highest among qualifying quarterbacks). As Goff's high time to throw would indicate, the Rams' offense is built around some longer developing routes, particularly crossing routes that extend across the field. The problem with that is that Goff has been sub-par under pressure, posting an overall grade under pressure of just 44.1 in 2018 (24th at the quarterback position). If his performance under pressure doesn’t improve, the onus will fall on a new-look offensive line to continue to play at an extremely high level.

Seattle Seahawks: Utilizing one of the best quarterbacks in the NFL

Key Number: 49.6% run play percentage (first in the NFL)

The Seahawks ran the ball more than any other team in the NFL last season (49.6%). Seattle also has Russell Wilson at quarterback, one of the top passers in the league. Both of those statements should not be true. Wilson was remarkably efficient last season, particularly when taking shots deep downfield. On passes 20 or more yards downfield, Wilson was third in PFF grade, had 26 big-time throws compared to just one turnover-worthy play and posted a passer rating of 128.1, trailing only Drew Brees. The Seahawks did not put the ball in his hands enough over the course of the season, especially in their playoff loss, instead choosing to establish the run.

San Francisco 49ers: Producing turnovers

Key number: Two interceptions (fewest in NFL history)

The 49ers played 16 games last regular season, just like everybody else, but they picked off only two passes. One pass every eight games. It’s a pretty remarkable feat, and it was also the lowest number recorded by any team in NFL history. Add in that they recovered just five of the 18 fumble opportunities they had on defense, and it becomes apparent that San Francisco had a turnover problem in 2018. Needless to say, a concerted effort to force more turnovers will be one of the primary messages being given to their defense by Kyle Shanahan and company.

Arizona Cardinals: David Johnson usage

Key Number: Average depth of target of 0.7 yards

Coming out of the 2016 season, David Johnson had officially broken out and looked to be one of the premier three-down running backs in the NFL, largely due to his receiving prowess. As PFF analyst Mike Manning laid out earlier this offseason, that all changed after his return from injury in 2018. His average depth of target dropped nearly four yards from the 4.58-yard average depth that he recorded in 2016, his slot target rate was cut by over half, and he averaged almost a half yard fewer before contact per rushing attempt. The Cardinals did not put him in position to succeed last season, and one of Kliff Kingsbury’s primary goals should be to get Johnson back to 2016 form.

[Editor’s Note: All of PFF’s advanced stats and grades for every NFL player are made available in PFF’s ELITE subscription. Subscribe today to gain access!]

Cris Collinsworth

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