Achilles’ heels: What cost the 20 non-playoff teams most dearly

| 6 years ago

Achilles’ heels: What cost the 20 non-playoff teams most dearly

Every team comes into the season with some weaknesses they know need to shore up.

Some manage it nicely. Others, well, not so much.

Many of those teams who couldn’t protect their Achilles’ heels are playoff spectators now because of it; here’s a look at the 20 teams that didn’t make it to the promised land, and the specific problem that haunted them right to the end.

(teams listed in official NFL draft order of inverse finish)


The 2010 Panthers had a lot going for them, believe it or not. They were a top-10 pass blocking unit, had a respectable run game and good pass coverage. Great special teams, to boot. But it all added up to naught because their passing game was just brutal. None of their wideouts were even average, and QBs Jimmy Clausen, Matt Moore, Brian St. Pierre and Tony Pike took turns sabotaging what could have been a pretty good football team. They have to be killing themselves for trading what turned out to be the No. 33 pick in the 2011 draft to New England to select a receiver (Armanti Edwards) that played 11 snaps.


The Broncos’ passing game was at times spectacular, and they were good against the run and in coverage. And while their running game was subpar, it was their lack of pass rush that leaves them picking No. 2 overall in the draft. Maybe no single injury had a bigger impact on a team than the loss of Elvis Dumervil. Dumervil had 17 sacks and 55 total QB disruptions last season; heading into Week 17, Jason Hunter’s 26 total pressures was the 2010 team’s high point.


The Bills didn’t have a single issue that haunted them in 2010; it was more that they were just a little subpar in every area. While they didn’t outright stink at anything, they didn’t particularly block well, didn’t pass well, didn’t do any of the three defensive disciplines well. Their biggest flaw was run defense, where teams just sent the backs at them constantly and they couldn’t do anything to stop it despite the great play of Kyle Williams. This speaks to a roster that was well-coached but thin in ability; the Bills will have to put together a couple of really good drafts if they want to compete in the AFC East any time soon.


When the Bengals made the postseason in 2009, it was largely on the strength of their excellent pass coverage. But that great play wasn’t there in 2010, mostly because of injuries. Johnathan Joseph was banged up, and Leon Hall struggled without his running mate. With Cincinnati hanging tough in almost all of their losses, you have to think a healthy secondary could have had them at least at .500 … at least if Carson Palmer had cut down on just a few of those killing mistakes.


It’s really hard to believe in looking at the Cardinals that they aren’t the ones drafting first in the 2011 draft.  They were the worst passing team in the league, one of the worst blocking teams in the league, and one of the worst run defending teams in the league. Only their fluky ability to score with their defense kept them from the bottom of the standings. But if you have to pick one Achilles heel, it would clearly be the quarterback play. While Carolina at least got flashes of decent play from its QBs, the Cardinals’ trio of Max Hall, John Skelton and Derek Anderson were all in the JaMarcus Russell range. Even the presence of a No. 1 wide receiver couldn’t help this passing game.


The Browns were a pretty solid team that faced a very difficult schedule and generally acquitted themselves well – although not well enough for Eric Mangini to retain his job. They did most of their good passing in the short game, to Peyton Hillis or the tight ends, but none of their wide receivers had even close to a good season. This was a team that needed to be lights out on defense to win games, and there were enough problems with the Browns’ pass coverage to keep them shy of excellence.


The 49ers were the NFC’s version of the Browns – did a lot of things well, but didn’t get anything from their wideouts and weren’t strong enough in the secondary to overcome a pedestrian offense. The Niners also didn’t get their usual great special teams play, which didn’t help. Still, if there was a single fatal flaw here, it might have been the play of rookie right tackle Anthony Davis, who got the start all year long but showed no growth and will certainly wind up as one of our bottom five tackles.


This is a pretty easy one. Despite being built around Chris Johnson, the Titans were the worst run blockers in the league this year. They were pretty good last year, but a lot of Johnson’s yards came strictly on his own abilities. In 2010, he was on his own from start to finish. Only Michael Roos was respectable, and center Eugene Amano was our worst-graded by a long margin.


The Cowboys were a pretty solid team in 2010, but they were let down by their secondary — Mike Jenkins and Terence Newman both ranked in the bottom 10 percent or so in our cornerback grades heading into Week 17, and safety Alan Ball was also a liability. There’s plenty to still be excited about for Cowboys fans, but they were another example of bad pass coverage leaving an otherwise good team in the dumps.


Washington didn’t grade well, so it’s a tossup whether Mike Shanahan deserves credit for getting this team to six wins or bashing for their poor individual play. They were in the bottom of our grades in almost every category, but they were worst in pass coverage – especially among their linebackers, with the exception of London Fletcher. Not sure what defensive coordinator Jim Haslett was up to this year, but it wasn’t working.


Guess they should have paid the man. Dunta Robinson was willing to stay in Houston for a contract extension, but they felt like the cash would be better spent elsewhere. Robinson was consistently good as a Falcon in 2010, while the Texans just couldn’t do anything to stop opposing passers; Robinson came into Week 17 ranked 18th in coverage while Glover Quin led the Texans at No. 71. Would Robinson have been the difference between 6-10 and 10-6? Probably not, but Atlanta certainly seems pleased with the transaction.


Poor Adrian Peterson. He battled it out with Jamaal Charles all year for the honor of best pure runner – and Charles has been incredible — but the Vikings’ horrendous run blocking made his season look just pretty good. He wound up sixth in rushing yards and yards per carry despite really doing his job better than anyone. Poor as Brett Favre was, it was the big boys that really cost the Vikings in 2010.


It was a great season for Detroit, which put some very good players in the spotlight and rode them to their best year in a long time. The passing game was excellent, and the defense did a lot of good things, especially up front (not so much in the back, where they rotated a bunch of DBs for the umpteenth straight year with little success). But the Lions’ discipline was quite poor – penalties cost them dearly, especially on defense. Also, can they please find someone to replace WR Bryant Johnson for good? In three years of grading, he’s only gotten one really good grade despite playing every week, and is in our bottom five for the third straight year.


With most of the nation watching the Rams play for the first time Sunday night, their Achilles heel must have been fairly obvious – their offensive line just doesn’t get it done. Rodger Saffold and Jason Smith might have bright futures, but the blue-chippers were both subpar this year, especially in opening up holes for Steven Jackson, and the Rams could comfortably upgrade at four of the five spots along the line. The defense looks like it might be exciting, and Sam Bradford certainly is going to be there for a long time, but they’ve got a lot of cash tied up in those tackles – they’d better produce.


It’s remarkable in looking at our grades just how good the Dolphins were in 2010. Great receivers, great left tackle, decent running backs, incredible front seven. You’d think you were looking at a 12-4 team, not one that went 7-9. Chad Henne has to be pointed out as the team’s fatal flaw, but he also had a lot of strong games as an intermediate passer. His big problem, and the Dolphins’ as a whole, was deep passing. Heading into last week, they were 11-of-43 on passes of 20+ yards, with four interceptions and just one touchdown. That’s very poor, both in the number of shots they actually took and the success they found. Fortunately for the Dolphins, it’s probably a case of tweaking rather than rebuilding for next year.


Much like the Texans, the Jags’ inability to deal with opposing passing games really hamstrung their efforts to take advantage of Indy’s struggles. Their linebackers and DBs struggled equally in coverage, despite some decent pass rush. Perhaps its time for the Jaguars to stop drafting D-linemen every year and realize that their back seven is killing them.


What is it about the Raiders and penalties? Their front seven played some incredibly good football this year, and their running game was special at times – that’s the type of combination that can get you into the playoffs, but only if you’re playing smart to go with it. Unfortunately, the Raiders were among the most penalized teams on both sides of the ball, the kind of thing that upsets the balance they’re built to achieve. Perhaps this is why coach Tom Cable doesn’t have the job security you’d expect after a season of improvement.


Special teams, special teams and special teams. There’s little doubt that if the Chargers had even average special teams that they’d be in the playoffs today. Nate Kaeding was rough on kickoffs, they took a load of penalties, missed a lot of tackles, Darren Sproles was not a game-breaker in returns, and the punting problems were well-documented. Definitely not special.


One of their biggest problems was playing in the ultra-competitive NFC that was made all the more difficult with the NFC West’s collective struggles. They were good unit by unit, but the poor play of left tackle David Diehl really hurt them. Eli Manning was particularly poor under pressure this year, and Diehl was responsible for an awful lot of it. The Giants need to find a new solution at left tackle; when William Beatty filled in for Diehl at midseason, he struggled as well.


It’s hard to see how this team won 10 games with a collectively poor set of individual performances, but is another example of how a good passing game and good pass coverage is the best combination you can have. The Bucs’ offensive line was really a mess, and it’s a tribute to the “triplets” of Josh Freeman, LeGarrette Blount and Mike Williams that the Bucs were able to overcome it. Every Bucs’ lineman graded negatively for 2010, and the tight ends were poor in blocking as well. Some of it is down to injuries – nine different guys had 300+ snaps on the O-line, but there has to be more to it than that. If they solve that for 2011, the Falcons and Saints could have some real company in what’s shaping up as the league’s new power division.

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