By Steve Silverman
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When looking at NFL teams and trying to assess the reasons some of them have fallen below expectations through the first quarter of the season, there is a tendency to do quite a bit of over-analysis.
Instead of finding the issue and coming up with a simple solution, the usual way to address the situation is to change schemes or personnel groupings, and ask players to do things they haven’t done before.
In many cases, those major changes aren’t necessary. It’s much more effective to find the key players and get them to improve their effort and production on the field.
Several key players have not gotten off to the start that was expected of them, and their teams have suffered as a result.
So, let’s look at those players and how they can help turn things around for their respective teams.
The Oakland Raiders are 2-2, and the primary reason they have struggled is because their offense has not produced much over the two games.
However, that unit is not likely to pick it up in the next few weeks because quarterback Derek Carr suffered a fractured bone in his back and could miss significant time.
If the Raiders are going to hold their own while Carr is out and win more games than they lose, they need to get a championship-type effort from the defense.
So far, that has not been the case. The Raiders rank 20th in yards allowed and 24th against the run, and if Carr was healthy and the offense was functioning at a high level, the defense’s deficiencies might not be all that worrisome.
Pass rusher Khalil Mack has to become the leader that he has been in the past and help raise the level of the Raiders’ play on that side of the ball. Mack has four sacks this season, but he hasn’t forced or recovered a fumble, and he has deflected just one pass.
He has to do more, and he has to inspire his teammates, starting with this week’s game against Baltimore.
The Dallas Cowboys were explosive on offense last year because running back Ezekiel Elliott and quarterback Dak Prescott were the team’s rookie gold-dust twins who could do no wrong.
While Prescott played nearly error-free football and was happy to take what opposing defenses game him, Elliott was a game-breaking running back who rushed for 1,631 yards and averaged 5.1 per carry while pounding the ball into the end zone 15 times. He was also an excellent receiver, with 32 receptions for 363 yards and one TD.
Every time the Cowboys needed a big play, Elliott stepped up. He averaged at least 5.0 yards per carry in seven games in 2016, but has yet to do it once this season.
Elliott has not been running with the same reckless abandon that he did last year, and with a suspension hanging over his head, it’s clear he is distracted. However, the NFL is a prove-it-to-me business, and he has to pick it up.
Much has been going right for the Houston Texans since they made rookie Deshaun Watson their starting quarterback.
In the past, the Houston defense, regularly led by all-everything J.J. Watt, was dominant. However, the team didn’t win all that much because it didn’t have the competent quarterback play needed to get the job done.
The Texans are just 2-2. They lost the first game of the season at home to Jacksonville before Watson was named the starter, and they lost their Week 3 matchup at New England. Watson did his part in that game, but the defense could not stop Tom Brady at key moments.
While that’s not necessarily an indictment because Brady does that to nearly every opponent, Watt has not been the same player this year. He has just 13 tackles, two passes batted down and has yet to record a sack.
Watt injured his left ring finger in the Texans’ Week 2 win over Cincinnati, but he has minimized the impact of that injury. He has to find a way to raise his level of play and get back to where he has been in the past.
The Miami Dolphins have been awful on offense over their last two games, as they scored one garbage time TD against the Jets and they were blanked by the New Orleans Saints.
The offense has problems with Jay Cutler at quarterback in place of injured Ryan Tannehill. It cannot continue for much longer.
But what about the defense, and, specifically, Ndamukong Suh? The defensive tackle is one of the most powerful and strongest players in the league, but he has been known for playing hard only when he wants to. He has a tendency to disappear for weeks at a time.
Suh has 12 tackles and one pass batted down, and has no sacks and hasn’t forced or recovered a fumble. He does not seem fully engaged, and that has to change.
Odell Beckham, Jr.
The Giants are a winless team, and, obviously, are one of the league’s biggest disappointments. Odell Beckham, Jr. is their most talented player, but was nearly invisible the first two weeks of the season. While he picked it up in Week 3 against the Philadelphia Eagles and in Week 4 against the Tampa Bay Buccaneers, Beckham does not display the consistency needed in the effort department to turn the Giants into winners.
Beckham’s numbers are decent — 20 receptions for 202 yards and two touchdowns — but he has never shown the maturity or leadership that a great player should. Head coach Ben McAdoo has either unable to reach him or is afraid to show him who is boss. Until the multi-talented receiver takes his role more seriously, the Giants will continue to disappoint.
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