First Quarter Unexpected Performances

First Quarter Unexpected Performances

Whose Performances Have Been Unexpected This Year?

Written by David Eads

With such a small sample size, there’s not much we can know from these first few games. That said, there have been some positional groups that have performed differently than we might have projected at the beginning of the year. What I’ll do here is look at those units and try to see if there are any player performances that can help explain these unexpected happenings.

Browns Defense

Look, nobody was expecting the ’85 Bears here, but the Browns were a middle of the road defense last year and top ten in yards allowed per game. Going into the season, people looked at that side of the ball and saw some talent. Joe Haden, Jabaal Sheard, and Paul Kruger all have a solid pedigree. Sure, losing playmaking safety TJ Ward was tough, but Cleveland seemed to more than make up for it by adding monster linebacker Karlos Dansby and consistently solid safety Donte Whitner along with top ten pick, cornerback Justin Gilbert. A lot of people, myself included, saw a decent Browns defense growing up and competing with the traditional powers in their division.

Unfortunately, that hasn’t been the case so far. Cleveland is currently second worst in yards per game and hasn’t held anyone under three touchdowns. Granted, in playing the Steelers, Saints, and Ravens so far, Cleveland has had to put up with some tough offenses, but they should be doing better. The major issue is the Browns’ secondary. Ward was arguably their best defender last year and losing him really stings especially since he’s still balling over in Denver. His replacements have not fared well as Whitner is playing well below his normal standards and Justin Gilbert has been an unmitigated disaster. Neither of those two, though, are the real issue – it’s that Joe Haden hasn’t showed up at all this year. Last year, he was one of Cleveland’s best players and he was easily one of the better corners in the league. This year it has not been pretty. Haden has allowed catches on 72.7% of passes for 2 TD’s, 4 penalties, 15 yds/cth, and a 138.4 Quarterback rating with no picks or passes defensed. Compare that to last year where those same numbers were 55.6%, 10.1 yds/cth, and 75.2 QB rating. The loss of Ward and the drop off from Haden are two of the biggest reasons for the defense taking a step back.

Panthers Passing Game

The Panthers passing game was supposed to be a disaster this year. They lost a bunch of talent in the receiving corps, including face-of-the-franchise Steve Smith Sr., and so Carolina was a hot regression pick for many leading up to the season. Now, again, it’s not like the 2014 Panthers passing attack will be remembered for generations, but it turns out that they’re playing way better than expected.

The best thing that they’ve done, first, is not turn the ball over. Panther quarterbacks (three games with Cam Newton, one with Derek Anderson) have yet to throw an interception compared to six touchdowns. At first glance, we might think that the solid passing game, then, comes down to a lot of time and a good O-Line. Not necessarily so. Panther quarterbacks have been sacked for the second most yards in the league only ahead of the hilarious Jags. Cam/Derek Anderson have played well, but not spectacular. Their schedule hasn’t been the toughest…but they haven’t played a bunch of creampuffs either. Could it be possible that the Carolina receivers aren’t that bad? Yeah, kinda. Jericho Cotchery has been solid and is without a drop so far this year. Kelvin Benjamin looks like he might be a stud, particularly as it really takes 2 years for receivers to make a serious impact on an NFL level. And then old, reliable Greg Olsen has caught passes as well as any tight end in the league this year. Again, it’s not that these guys are lighting the world on fire, it’s that folks just figured that there was no talent there and it looks like that might not be the case.

Dolphins Defense

This is a little different from the previous two. Here, we knew the Dolphins defense was pretty good. They have covered well and been among the best at rushing the passer the last few years but I don’t think anyone was expecting what we’ve seen this year. Miami’s front-seven has simply dominated. Cameron Wake is Cameron Wake – he’s been a complete menace rushing the passer – but it’s three other, more under the radar guys who have really been responsible for this step up.

First, second year linebacker Jelani Jenkins has been fantastic. In addition, veteran linebacker Philip Wheeler, who did not play very well last year, has really turned it around and is playing as well as he ever has. Perhaps the most surprising star is tackle Earl Mitchell. Former Texan and Bear, he is a quicker, undersized guy that has ranged from OK to decent throughout his career. This year, in a proper 4-3, surrounded with a serious stable of defensive lineman, Mitchell has flourished. He has been a rock in the running game and has proved quick enough to get heat on the passer every once in a while. If the Dolphins front seven, along with their aging secondary, can continue this type of play, they could give the Pats a run for their money down the stretch.

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