What To Make Of Surprising Starts From Packers, Bills, & Steelers

A stat that has been floating around quite a bit is that teams who start the season 0-2 only make the playoffs about 10% of the time. While true, this doesn’t tell the entire story. The sample is made up largely of teams similar to the Dolphins this season who never really stood a chance. Just about every year there are teams that get off to slow starts, only to catch fire down the stretch. 

Conversely, starting the season 2-0 doesn’t guarantee you much of anything. It does, however, allow for a higher margin of error down the stretch. 

Let’s focus on a few teams who have had surprising starts to the season, whether it be good or bad. 

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Green Bay Packers (2-0)

The Packers were one of the hardest teams to project coming into the season. The defense was overhauled during the offseason, and there were persistent questions about the dynamic between Aaron Rodgers and first-time head coach Matt LaFleur. 

It’s been far from perfect, but the Packers have jumped out to 2-0 and are now in the driver’s seat in the NFC North. 

Why they can keep it up

Through two games, the Packers defense ranks second in Sports Info Solutions’ Pass Defense Points Saved with 49.6. They also rank as the second-best pass defense in terms of Expected Points Added (EPA) and third best in Positive Percentage (Positive%) allowed. This is compared to a 2018 unit that ranked 29th in Points Saved, 27th in EPA, and 15th in Positive%. 

A lot of this is due to a new and improved pass rush. The Packers are tied for the league lead in pressures through two weeks, and also rank in the top 10 in sack percentage. The pass rush is anchored by offseason signees Za’Darius Smith and Preston Smith, who rank second and eighth in pressures, respectively, and have combined for 2.5 sacks over the first two weeks. 

On the back-end, Adrian Amos rates out as the fourth-best safety in Points Saved with seven, and fellow defensive backs Kevin King, Darnell Savage, and Jaire Alexander all also rate out well. By contrast, last year’s safety tandem of Josh Jones and Kentrell Brice combined for minus-11 Points Saved. 

Why they might not

After winning ugly against the Bears in Week 1, the Packers offense appeared to be clicking in Week 2. They opened the game with three consecutive scoring drives of 75, 63 and 34 yards, and appeared well on their way to a rout. The offense, though, came crashing down to earth after the first quarter.

QuarterPlaysYards per PlayEPA per Play

Over the final three quarters Rodgers posted an Independent Quarterback Rating (IQR) of 68.6 after posting a perfect IQR of 158.3 in the first. He also only completed 54% of his passes after the first quarter at a clip of 3.1 Yards per Attempt (Y/A) and his 13 completions traveled a total of 13 yards in the air. 

It’s hard to divide up the blame between QB and play-caller, but if the Packers want to hold their lead in their division, they will need to find more consistency in their offense.  

Buffalo Bills (2-0)

The Bills quietly had a busy offseason. While their defensewhich ranked as one of the best in the league last seasonlooks mostly the same, their offense is returning only Josh Allen, Dion Dawkins, and Zay Jones as starters from last year’s unit. 

It was hard to know what to expect from a unit with so many new faces, but after back-to-back wins at MetLife Stadium, the Bills have left themselves in good shape for a playoff push. 

Why they can keep it up

The Bills defense is as advertised. Led by Micah Hyde, Jordan Poyer, and Tre’Davious White, their pass defense leads the league in Points Saved with 50.3, narrowly ahead of the aforementioned Packers. In two games this season, opposing passers are averaging 4.9 Yards per Attempt (Y/A), 198 yards, and a Passer Rating of 73 against the Bills. Dating back to the beginning of last season, no team has allowed fewer passing yards per game than the Bills. 

But the real story in Buffalo through two weeks is their offense. The wide receiver group, which was among the worst in the league last year, is greatly improved. John Brown has 14 catches for 195 yards and a touchdown on 14 catchable targets. Of his 14 catches, 12 have resulted in a first down. His nine Points Earned have him tied for sixth among receivers so far this season, according to the SIS DataHub.

The most important thing, though, is that Josh Allen appears (at least so far) to have taken major strides in his sophomore campaign. Through two weeks he has completed 64% of his passes, up from 52% last year, and has an IQR over 100. 

Why they won’t

The kings of New Jersey narrative is fun, but beating the Jets and Giants is looking like less and less of an accomplishment. Everything the Bills have done to this point comes with the caveat that they have done so against opponents that don’t appear to be very good. And while Allen has been decidedly better than he was last season, he has still proven to be a high variance quarterback with some very low lows. 

The Bills were forced to make a 16-point fourth quarter comeback against the Jets in large part because of four first half turnovers from Allen. The Bills defense is good enough to keep them in just about any game, but the Bills likely won’t be able to bounce back if Allen has another half of football like that. 

Finally, the Patriots appear to be as good as ever, meaning the Bills are likely relegated to vying for a Wild Card spot. Even the most optimistic simulations give the Bills about a 10% chance of winning their division, even after a 2-0 start. Regardless of how good a team is, being virtually eliminated from contention in your division makes a playoff push all the more difficult. 

Pittsburgh Steelers (0-2)

It was speculated that nobody enjoyed this offseason more than Mike Tomlin. The Le’Veon Bell contract dispute was in the past, and Antonio Brown’s antics were happening on the other side of the country, far from the Steelers’ locker room. It was an offseason that was strictly about business, and despite the loss of Brown, expectations were high for the Steelers.

That all came to an abrupt end after a 30-3 shellacking at the hands of the Patriots in Week 1. The offense never found the end zone, and the defense couldn’t slow Tom Brady down. 

Things got worse after Week 2 when it was announced that Ben Roethlisberger would be undergoing elbow surgery and would miss the rest of the season. The big three of Roethlisberger, Brown and Bell is officially out in Pittsburgh, and they will be turning to Mason Rudolph, JuJu Smith-Schuster, and James Conner the rest of the way. 

Why they can bounce back

Back to back games against the Patriots and Seahawks to open the season is a difficult stretch, and in a vacuum, neither loss is devastating. The Patriots remain favorites to represent the AFC in the Super Bowl. The Seahawks are a legitimate playoff contender who the Steelers played within two points, despite the loss of Roethlisberger. 

Another obvious source of optimism in Pittsburgh is the newly acquired Minkah Fitzpatrick. While trading a first-round pick in a season where you are already 0-2 and down a starting quarterback seems a bit odd, there’s no denying the Steelers are getting a talented player in return. Fitzpatrick had 22 Points Saved in 2018, ranking him 40th among all defensive backs as a rookie, and has the ability to play both in the slot and on the backend.

Fitzpatrick is joining a defense that desperately needs all the help it can get. Through two weeks the Steelers have given up 320 yards per game through the air and have allowed a QB Rating against of 131, both in the bottom five of the league. 

Why they can’t 

For starters, the division may not be as wide-open as we originally thought. While the Steelers have stumbled out of the gate, the Ravens have done quite the opposite. Lamar Jackson has quickly established himself as one of the most promising young players in the league and the Ravens look to have a firm grasp on the division early. 

Perhaps more concerning though is the lack of playmakers at wide receiver. JuJu Smith-Schuster hasn’t been able to fill AB’s shoes quite yet. Through two games Smith-Schuster has turned 16 targets into 11 catches for 162 yards and no touchdowns. It’s not a terrible stat line by any stretch, but it’s underwhelming for a receiver who was expected to establish himself among the league’s elite. 

The real problem though is the talent opposite Smith-Schuster. Donte Moncrief was signed to fill part of the void left behind by AB, but through two weeks he has almost as many drops as catches and has ranked as the worst receiver in football according to Total Points. 

This is particularly problematic because Smith-Schuster doesn’t fit the traditional “number one receiver” role. Of his 111 catches last season, 74 of them came from the slot or tight alignment, including five of his touchdowns. In total, he only lined up out wide on about 30% of his snaps last season. Without a legitimate playmaker on the outside, real estate in the middle of the field has been harder to come by, and Smith-Schuster’s production has dropped because of it. 

Final Thoughts

All of this comes with the caveat that we are only two games into the season. There is no doubt that teams on both ends of the spectrum will surprise us down the stretch. And if last weekend taught us anything, it’s that any team’s outlook can change in an instant.