We’ve broken down each play and, though it may be unfair to the three teams that have played three games, we’re going to jump the gun and put forward our All-PFF team for the first quarter of the season.
There are certainly plenty of stars on the list, but more than a few names you wouldn’t expect …
Quarterback — Peyton Manning, Indianapolis (+25.9)
Currently far ahead of all his rivals, Manning has been as good (if not better) as ever. While others around the league struggle, Manning is connecting on everything, with his deep ball being better than ever (14 of 24 passes longer than 20 yards for 451 yards).
Running Back — Adrian Peterson, Minnesota (+8.5)
A game behind most, Peterson is still three points ahead of any other running back with our grading. Not helped by his blocking, Peterson has picked up an incredible 76.02 percent of his yards after contact while forcing 21 missed tackles. Breathtaking.
Fullback — Le’Ron McClain, Baltimore (+4.3)
He beats out Vonta Leach with more consistent performances. McClain has gone from a novelty fullback who ran the ball hard but couldn’t block to a guy who can take linebackers out head-on.
Tight End — Antonio Gates, San Diego (+8.5)
You know his blocking isn’t great, right? Well sometimes you have to say, “So what?” Gates has been out of this world so far, catching 75 percent of balls thrown his way and leading tight ends (who have more than 15 receptions) in touchdowns, yards, yards per reception etc., etc.
Wide Receiver — Brandon Lloyd, Denver (+9.5) and Reggie Wayne, Indianapolis (+6.0)
If you were to ask me before the season about Lloyd, the response wouldn’t have been positive. In fact, a Broncos friend did and I put his faith in Lloyd to the sword. How wrong I was. Utterly, utterly excellent with a number of excellent catches, and just 2 yards less than league-leader Wayne. As for Wayne, he just keeps on catching balls (just one drop and 73.3 percent his targets caught) as he looks to be on course for his best year yet.
Offensive Tackles — Jake Long, Miami (+8.1) and Eric Winston, Houston (+8.6)
Long may actually be the best pass-protecting left tackle in the league with Joe Thomas having a down year by his standards. Long has given up just four total quarterback pressures. Winston, on the other hand, is making a case for being the best run-blocking right tackle in the league. He’s been a big part of a Texans offense that is picking up lots of yards on the ground.
Guards — Wade Smith, Houston (+10.3) and Josh Sitton, Green Bay (+7.2)
Earlier this year my colleague Ben Stockwell wrote that Smith would make an excellent free-agent pickup for some team. Boy has he. Just one quarterback pressure given up and a superb job with his blocking has him as our top-ranked guard. Sitton hasn’t been quite as good in protection but grades out as our strongest run-blocking guard. He’s continued to build on his breakout 2009.
Center — Todd McClure, Atlanta (+9.2)
McClure never seems to get much (if any) credit, but he has consistently been one of the league’s better centers. Just watch how he has handled big guys like Remi Ayodele, Aubrayo Franklin and others this year, and you’ll see a center at the top of his game.
4-3 DEFENSIVE FRONT
Defensive Ends — Mario Williams, Houston (+14.2) and Trent Cole, Philadelphia (+12.2)
The Texans’ defense has been bad. Outside of Super Mario, of course. Williams has six sacks, seven quarterback hits and 11 quarterback pressures already (along with two batted passes). Cole continues to impress with 20 total quarterback pressures and 14 stops, best among DEs. He is the most active of all defensive ends.
Defensive Tackles — Haloti Ngata, Baltimore and Jason Jones, Tenessee (+12.4)
Ngata has lined up in three-man and four-man lines at tackle and at end, but the quality of his play has been consistently excellent. His 19 defensive stops are mind-boggling for a defensive lineman. Jones is showing what he can do when he is healthy, with 14 pressures and seven defensive stops. He’s an every-down tackle with a very high ceiling.
Linebackers — David Hawthorne, Seattle (+8.7), James Laurinaitis, St. Louis (+12.1) and Jon Beason, Carolina (+7.9)
We loved the play of Hawthorne last year and in changing positions, he may have actually become more effective (even if he is rotated out of some packages). Beason had a tough Week 4 but is all over the field in a Carolina defense that has surpassed expectations. After an up-and-down rookie year Laurinaitis is putting it all together — pass breakups (two), defensive stops (18) and quarterback pressures (six). There’s nothing he can’t do right now.
3-4 DEFENSIVE FRONT
Defensive Line — Cullen Jenkins, Green Bay (+11.0), Aubrayo Franklin, San Francisco (+5.5) and Shaun Ellis, NY Jets (+9.3)
Despite playing with a clubbed hand, Jenkins has terrorized quarterbacks to the tune of 15 total pressures. Ellis has even more with 17, and has really stepped up and given the Jets some pass rush with Calvin Pace out. Franklin remains one of the league’s top run-stuffing tackles.
Outside Linebackers — DeMarcus Ware, Dallas (+17.8) and Clay Matthews, Green Bay (+18.9)
It sucks to write this, in some respect, because Cleveland’s Matt Roth has played at an All-Pro level and deserves notice. But these two guys have been All-World. Ware especially has done so much on a Dallas team that struggled that you need to look past his 16 quarterback pressures to see his true worth. Not so for Matthews, who was immense initially and has a stunning 26 combined sacks, hits and quarterback pressures.
Inside Linebackers — Lawrence Timmons, Pittsburgh (+11.0) and Derrick Johnson, Kansas City (+7.2)
It feels dirty not to have Patrick Willis in here, but the tape doesn’t lie — he hasn’t had the greatest of starts to the season. Instead, we’ve gone for the continually improving Timmons. He may be the most unheralded Steelers linebacker, but that doesn’t make him (or his 18 defensive stops) any less effective. The worst thing about Johnson’s play in three games is it shows just how stupid it was to have him riding the pine for most of 2009.
Cornerbacks — Brandon Flowers, Kansas City (+9.1) and Tramon Williams, Green Bay (+7.9)
Quarterbacks have thrown at Flowers 26 times. The end result has been just nine receptions for 66 yards. Oh, and Flowers has broken up three pass and intercepted another two. Maybe it’s best to stay away from him? Williams looked good last year, and looks even better this year. He’s allowed 56.3 percent of passes with four breakups and no longer looks like an understudy.
Safeties — Troy Polamalu, Pittsburgh (+5.3) and Dawan Landry, Baltimore (+5.3)
We were pretty critical of Landry last year, but have nothing but good things to say about him in 2010. More than able in coverage, he’s done a fine job dropping down into the box to help in run support. Polamalu misses more tackles than we’d like (four) but is such a playmaker that he seems to energize others around him. No eye-catching stats, just a guy who makes plays when his team need him to.
Kicker — Josh Scobee, Jacksonville (+4.5)
He’s just average on kickoffs, but he’s 5-for-5 on field goals, all from 40+.
Punter — Sav Rocca, Philadelphia (+7.2)
The best of a strong pack of punters — what happened to the days when 40 yards a boot was good enough?
Returns — C.J. Spiller, Buffalo (+4.5)
At least the Bills have someone that can move the ball.