Chiefs' D? Jared Goff vs. pressure? A hurdle for each 2-0 team

Since 1990, 62.3 percent of teams that started the season 2-0 (142 of 228) have made it to the playoffs. Of the 28 Super Bowl winners in that span, 64.3 percent have started 2-0. The best part about starting off so strong could be establishing the culture and standard of winning early in the season, but that's not something that can really be measured -- at least, not externally.

We all know better teams win more games over the course of a full season, but not all 2-0 teams -- or their opponents -- are created equal. This article is not meant to take any shine away from the excellent starts the seven 2-0 teams have earned this season. Instead, I am going to examine all these squads (and the 12.5 percent sample size of the 2018 season that we have to work with) through the lens of production and attributes tied to sustained winning based on 10 years of full-season data, to identify what they must address in order to avoid falling into the 37.7 percent of fast starters that didn't reach the playoffs.

Cincinnati Bengals

Where improvement is needed:Offensive rushing efficiency.

Interior pressure combined with tight coverage in the defensive backfield predicts the highest number of stopped drives based on the past three seasons of results. Bengals DT Geno Atkins already has three sacks, and his impact in stopping drives might not even be as great as that of CB William Jackson III, though it's truly the combination of the pressure up front and the secondary together that matters (leading to an increase in turnovers and better starting field position on offense).

However, for the Bengals to make the playoffs, they'll need to keep a high rushing average, like they did in Week 1 (5.1 yards per rush). It's unlikely that teams will only assign single coverage to A.J. Green in the red zone (especially in the slot) like Baltimore did in Week 2, driving Andy Dalton's 137.5 passer rating under pressure vs. the Ravens. It was 14.9 vs. the Colts in Week 1 ... he's more like a 58.4 guy under pressure. Over their next four games (at Panthers, at Falcons, vs. Dolphins, vs. Steelers), establishing the run will be the key to wins, and doing so will be more challenging with Joe Mixon sidelined for the next 2-4 weeks, given his exceptional tackle-breaking ability in both the pass and run games.

Denver Broncos

Where improvement is needed:Reducing pressure on Case Keenum.

The Broncos are averaging 4.61 yards per rush on first down this season (last year, they averaged 3.51 yards, ranking 24th in the league). Denver's play calling and blocking in the run game has helped earn first downs (they're second in the league with an average of 3.6 yards before contact; they ranked No. 27 with 1.8 YBC last season). Coupled with their elite defensive pressure, that's the reason they're 2-0.

The key to this season will be the performance of their offensive line on passing downs. My model measures how far O-lines get pushed back (lose their leverage) on passing downs. Over 10 years, the more push-back per play and the more times that an O-line gets pushed back, the more the pressure negatively impacts a QB's passer rating. The Broncos rank in the bottom five in getting pushed back on passing downs. In fact, they are tracking quite similarly to last year, when they finished 27th. Keenum has been under pressure on 16 passing attempts and has a passer rating of 1, with two turnovers, in this situation. With Emmanuel Sanders ranking in the top five in wide receiver impact (how much the WR impacts a team's ability to earn first downs), even a small improvement in relief from pressure, combined with sustained success in the run game, will have a big impact on the Broncos' win total and is certainly a huge factor in both the Ravens (Week 3) and Rams (Week 6) matchups over their next four games.

Jacksonville Jaguars

Where improvement is needed:Offensive line play.

Second to winning the turnover differential, do you know which trait the majority of playoff teams exhibited over the past 10 years? They ranked in the top five in pressure differential (defensive pressures created minus offensive pressures allowed). And yes, I am complimenting the Jaguars' O-line here. The Jags' defense is looking historically talented, but the O-line allowing zero pressures to the Patriots in Week 2 adds important postseason upside to this club. The season-ending ACL tear suffered by OT Cam Robinson vs. New England is a concern going forward (he had zero pressures allowed), but of all the 2-0 teams, the Jags have the greatest projected win percentage over their next four games (vs. Titans, vs. Jets, at Chiefs, at Cowboys), mostly due to their defense. It will be the Jags' offense -- and specifically the O-line's ability to aid quarterback Blake Bortles in avoiding pressure (like getting hit while he throws, which has happened to him 17 times since the start of last season, which is top two in the league) that will determine how far this team goes. If he can avoid pressure, it will increase his efficiency.

Kansas City Chiefs

Where improvement is needed:Defense.

I've been sitting here overthinking how to contextualize the Chiefs' offense, and really the only word I need is special. Andy Reid is a proven, special play caller, they have special players and their quarterback has had an exceptionally special start. However, the Chiefs' defense, which ranks last in the league in yards allowed, has some areas to address. It's extremely rare that a team whose defense ranks in the bottom five in key defensive metrics (like allowing 4-plus yards on first down, and yards allowed) will make the playoffs. It's happened less than 10 percent of the time, although one of those teams was the Chiefs last season (the Kansas City defense allowed the most first downs in the league and they still did reach the playoffs).

Of the next four games, I'm circling Weeks 5 and 6 (vs. Jaguars, at Patriots) as a preview of Kansas City's true identity this season. My model projects an uptick in pressure on Patrick Mahomes in those games -- he has a 132 passer rating under pressure but has only been pressured on 18 percent of his dropbacks. He'll face a tougher balance of pressures and defensive-back production against Jacksonville and New England -- the Chiefs' next two opponents (49ers and Broncos) are imbalanced compared to the Jaguars and Patriots.

Right now, the only defensive back on their team who ranks better than 55th in limiting the impact of passes is cornerback Kendall Fuller (he's No. 42). This metric combines situational pass information -- like passes defensed, catch percentage allowed, yards allowed, limiting yards after the catch to less than 1 yard and defensive pass interference yards -- and relates it to first downs and scores allowed. The thing is, when teams are playing from behind, they throw the ball more. If pass defense is a problem, more shootouts ensue (SEE: both of the Chiefs' games in 2018). If Eric Berry, who's on the mend from a heel injury, can return to his All-Pro form, this could be an extra special year for the Chiefs.

Los Angeles Rams

Where improvement is needed:Jared Goff's performance when under pressure from the defense.

Calculating my model's win percentages ahead of both Rams matchups projected overwhelming victories (well over 75 percent) in favor of the Rams in both games this season, by far the highest for any team. My models use metrics that are proven to be related to wins in the past and include things like personnel matchups, coaching tendencies and play trends -- the more they are fed with recent data, the better they perform. The tricky part about lopsided wins (33-13 over the Raiders in Week 1 and 34-0 over the Cardinals in Week 2 ... and Arizona has the fewest pressures in the league) is that strategy can be masked.

There are a lot of strong positive indicators for the Rams overall, but one situation to monitor is how Goff's passing production changes under pressure. So far this season, he has a 28.6 passer rating under pressure versus a 117.6 passer rating when not under pressure (last season: 61.6 vs 110.1). Think of -20 as how much the rating for top 10 QBs changes on the routes Goff has been targeting. Three of the Rams' next four opponents (Chargers, Vikings and Broncos) have upper-end ability to get in the face of opposing quarterbacks and should reveal how Sean McVay is going to evolve when it comes to play-calling and using Goff this season. Relying on Todd Gurley to overcome pressures is efficient ... until it is not. Relying on Gurley and being able to make plays via the pass under pressure would project the Rams into the playoffs and beyond with this defense.

Miami Dolphins

Where improvement is needed:Efficiency on first and second down to avoid third-and-long.

The Dolphins' three takeaways and plus-1 turnover differential in each of their first two games shows how the their defense is positively impacting Miami's opportunity to win. Despite generating below-average pressure (think of 10 per game as a threshold; the Dolphins have only 15 total in two games) the unit has shown signs of being able to adapt. In Week 1, they were strongest against the pass (three interceptions), and in Week 2, they also stifled the run (allowed 1.07 yards per rush on first down).

Without top-end defensive pressure, the balance of efficiency between offense and defense matters more. Complementary football for this team will require the offense to stay away from third-and-long (6-plus yards), a situation where Ryan Tannehill's passer rating drops more than double the average for a starting QB (-44 in past three seasons; think of -20 as average). Through two games, he's already tracking 53.9 on third-and-6 or longer versus 126.2 on all other passes. Look for an uptick in RPOs and read-option plays, like we saw against the Jets in Week 2, to combat the buzz saw of pressure coming for Tannehill in three of the next four games (Patriots, Bengals and Bears), especially with guard Josh Sitton out for the season.

Tampa Bay Buccaneers

Where improvement is needed:Stopping the deep pass.

No duo of receivers is more responsible for earning first downs so far this season than Mike Evans and DeSean Jackson. The only quarterback to end up in the top three in accuracy in both weeks is Ryan Fitzpatrick (as measured by percentage of passes traveling within three feet of the receiver; direction in which the pass catcher is traveling is factored in). So, it is an improbably cool time to be a Bucs fan. I say improbable because it's rare for even a first-ballot Hall of Fame quarterback to earn a passer rating of 140-plus in consecutive weeks (and 130-plus under pressure), especially when the rushing average on first down drops from 4.1 yards in Week 1 to 2.3 in Week 2. It's also less probable for a team with a badly banged-up secondary, as the Bucs have dealt with, to keep a lead (opposing teams throw more when they're playing from behind, and Tampa Bay allowed 40 points vs. the Saints in Week 1).

To keep the magic going over the next four weeks (vs. Steelers, at Bears, at Falcons, vs. Browns), their secondary will have to contain some of the best pass catchers and deep-ball throwers in the league (Ben Roethlisberger-Antonio Brown/JuJu Smith-Schuster; Matt Ryan-Julio Jones), and they'll have to do it at a level that supports more sustainable offensive output (it's unlikely that allowing 40 points will net a win).

Follow Cynthia Frelund on Twitter @cfrelund.

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