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Six Things About the AFC East

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The AFC East has been one of the better divisions in the NFL.  Despite being ravaged by injuries, the New England Patriots are one of the favorites to make it out of the AFC. The New York Jets have been one of the most surprising teams as they have fought their way to an 8-5 record. The Buffalo Bills are 6-7 despite the fact that their defense has underachieved all year. The Miami Dolphins have even been a tough out since they fired their head coach.

Until Tom Brady retires and head coach Bill Belichick steps away from football, the AFC East will be the Patriots’ division to lose; however, for the first time in a long time, the division looks to be deep and filled with talent. Gone are the days of easy wins in the AFC East as every team presents problems in different areas.

With that in mind, let’s take a look at six things about the AFC East.

The Buffalo Bills’ Pass Rush Has Been Disappointing

Going into this season, if you asked 10 experts what the root cause of the Bills’ struggles would be, they would almost assuredly say quarterback play. Yet, Tyrod Taylor has played better than anyone could expect, some would say he has been a very good quarterback, but yet the Bills are struggling because of another area on the team. An area that was thought to be a strength coming into this year.

Last year, the Buffalo Bills led the NFL in sacks with 54 on the heels of big years from Mario Williams, Kyle Williams, Jerry Hughes and Marcel Dareus. This year, the Bills have just 19 sacks with three games to go and no single player has more than four individual sacks.

The main reason for the big dip in production appears to be a scheme change. Last year, the Bills pass rush excelled under Jim Schwartz’s 4-3 defense because it amplified their strengths and put players in the positions that they were the most comfortable. This year, the Bills have switched to head coach Rex Ryan’s multiple defenses, which all too often puts players in positions that don’t highlight their strengths enough.

This is why the pass rush has struggled. The way they rush the passer has changed. They don’t utilize the same angles, which means they have to use different techniques that they aren’t accustomed to.

The New York Jets Are Winning In Spite of Quarterback Play

The New York Jets are one of the better teams in football with an 8-5 record and an easy route to the playoffs. When you watch the Jets there are a ton of things that you can fall in love with.  The wide receiving corps has played at a high level, the defensive line may be the best in football and the secondary has been dominant at times.

Nevertheless, one aspect of the Jets that hasn’t been impressive is the play of Ryan Fitzpatrick at quarterback. The Jets haven’t gotten the type of bad quarterback play that eliminates their ability to compete, like the Dallas Cowboys, but Fitzpatrick hasn’t played anywhere near to the level of an 8-5 signal caller.

Fitzpatrick has thrown for 25 touchdowns and only 11 interceptions, which looks great if you take it for face value, but if you dive deeper into those numbers, you see that he has been pedestrian at through the first 13 games of the season.

He is only completing 60 percent of his passes (28th in the NFL), averaging seven yards per attempt (24th in the NFL); all this is despite being sacked only 15 times (tied for sixth least in the NFL).

The Jets have gotten by one the back of great play from their defense and impressive performances from their playmakers.

Oliver Vernon Is Going To Get Paid This Offseason

The Miami Dolphins have had their share of struggles this season, but one bright spot has been how well Oliver Vernon has played, even though it may be coming at a bad time for the Dolphins financially.

Since Cam Wake went down with a torn Achilles tendon, Vernon has been on a tear. He is Pro Football Focus’ third-ranked 4-3 defensive end in football. He is eighth in sacks, first in quarterback hits, 10th in quarterback hurries, first in stops and fourth in pass-rush productivity among 4-3 defensive ends per PFF.

If that doesn’t paint the picture of how well Vernon as played then nothing will. Furthermore, it’s not like Vernon is doing this against subpar offensive tackles. Two of his best games have come against perennial Pro-Bowl offensive tackles Tyron Smith and Jason Peters.

In the NFL, players who have proven that they can rush the passer get paid and Vernon has proven that against the best competition. The question teams will ask is whether Vernon is playing at this level because he is in a contract year, but you can bet the Dolphins, or someone else, will gamble on the hope that Vernon can recreate this year’s play for the future.

Jabaal Sheard Is One Of The Most Underrated Defensive Linemen In The NFL

When you talk about the difference makers for the New England Patriots this season you will a lot about Tom Brady, Rob Gronkowski, Julian Edelman, Chandler Jones, Devin McCourty, Jamie Collins and Dont’a Hightower; however, you will not hear a whisper about the player playing better than everyone outside of Gronkowski and Brady, and that’s Jabaal Sheard.

The defensive end has been one of the more well-rounded players in the NFL. He has been an effective pass-rusher and run defender for the Patriots this season. He is the fifth-ranked 4-3 defensive end and he ranks in the top against the run and pass per PFF.

Sheard does a great job of opening things up for the linebackers and interior defensive linemen. He does a superb job of eating up blocks and he uses his power and relentless motor to make plays on several occasions throughout every game.

While the other players deserve praise for helping the Patriots get to an 11-2 record, Sheard deserves his share of credit as well.

The New England Patriots Are Winning In Spite Of Awful Offensive Line Play

Normally, an offense needs to get at least adequate play from their offensive line to play at a high level. The Patriots are turning that idea upside down as they have had arguably the worst offensive line in football while still having a top three offense in the NFL.

The way the Patriots have combated this weakness is by stellar play design and otherworldly play from their quarterback. Tom Brady gets the ball out 2.26 seconds per pass attempt per PFF, which means that he gets the ball out before the pass rush has an opportunity to get to him, which limits the negative impact the offensive line can have on the play.

This wouldn’t matter if the Patriots offense was predicated on downfield passing and long developing routes; instead, the Patriots have feasted in the quick and intermediate passing games that don’t require a lot of time to throw the ball. For this to work, the quarterback has to be incredibly accurate and precise with his footwork and movement. His drop backs have to be timed with the routes and the passes have to be delivered on time into small windows. Brady has done that and more for the Patriots as he has shown why he is one of, if not, the best quarterback of all time. 

The Patriots awful offensive line play may rear its ugly head in the playoffs, but the fact that the Patriots have gotten this far is truly remarkable.

Richie Incognito Resurrected His NFL Career

If the NFL was serious about the Comeback Player of the Year Award, the Bills’ Richie Incognito would win it in a landslide. He went from an NFL castoff who teams wouldn’t touch with a 10-foot pole to one of the three best interior offensive linemen in the NFL in the span of one year.

During his time off, it is obvious that Incognito worked hard on his game, which has led to significant strides on the football field. Furthermore, Incognito has been a perfect fit into the Bills’ offense as they highlight his strength and ability to win at the point of attack.

Incognito has been PFF’s second-rated guard this year, behind only Baltimore’s Marshal Yanda. Incognito has always been a great run blocker, but the spot that he has improved most has been in pass protection. He has only yielded two sacks, four quarterback hits and 11 hurries thus far this year, to go along with his dominance in the run game.

Incognito has been a big reason why the Bills have been able to establish a running game and he is a big part as to why Tyrod Taylor has been to operate at a high level this year.

He won’t win it because of his past, but Incognito deserves to be the Comeback Player of the Year.


About John Owning

John Owning

John Owning is a NFL columnist for Football Insiders. He has years of experience covering the NFL, NFL draft and NCAA football. John's work has been featured on the Bleacher Report and DraftBreakdown.com