Week 9 NFL Power Rankings: We picked this season’s Achilles’ heel for each team

While the NFL Power Rankings prefer to look at the league through a positive lens, sometimes we have to go to Negative Town. That’s where we are this week, as we asked our NFL Nation writers to pick the weakest aspect of their team through eight weeks.

Of course, some teams have more problem areas to choose from than others, and some of those issues are a bit more detrimental to winning games. So while teams such as the Houston Texans, Detroit Lions and the residents of New York City had quite a few more ailments than the relatively minor problems of the NFC’s Fab Five (or six if you ask the New Orleans Saints), every team has wrinkles to iron out. The entire game experience is covered this week, from not being able to rush the passer to not converting on third down to not being able to defend onside kicks (Los Angeles Rams fans know that pain). So here’s what your team, and every other team, is bad at midway through the 2021 season.

How we rank our Power Rankings: Our power panel — a group of more than 80 writers, editors and TV personalities — evaluates how teams stack up throughout the season.

Previous rankings: 8 | 7 | 6 | 5 | 4 | 3 | 2 | Preseason

1. Green Bay Packers (7-1)

Previous ranking: 4

Biggest Achilles’ heel: The red zone

The Packers were one of the best red zone teams last season on both sides of the ball. They led the NFL in red zone offense, scoring touchdowns on 80% of their trips inside the opponents’ 20. This season, they’re tied for 20th at 57.6%. On defense in 2020, they were eighth, allowing opponent touchdowns on 57.7% of their red zone possessions. This season, they’re 30th at 78.3%. They had the awful run of 15 straight touchdowns allowed on opponent red zone possessions. That finally ended in Week 7, when punchless Washington went 0-for-4. But the same issues recurred Thursday against the Cardinals, who went 3-for-4. The one stop, however, was Rasul Douglas’ game-clinching interception in the end zone in the final seconds. — Rob Demovsky

2. Arizona Cardinals (7-1)

Previous ranking: 1

Biggest Achilles’ heel: Run defense

As the world saw Thursday night, when the Packers ran for 151 yards, if a team can eat the clock on the ground, the Cardinals become vulnerable. Their run defense has been suspect throughout the season, giving up an average of 120.1 yards per game but 4.88 yards per carry, which is the second most in the NFL. Arizona has given up more than 100 rushing yards in five of its eight games. Running against Arizona has become a team’s best defense against quarterback Kyler Murray, who sits on the sideline as teams pound the ground for yards and clock. — Josh Weinfuss

3. Los Angeles Rams (7-1)

Previous ranking: 3

Biggest Achilles’ heel: Special teams

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The Rams have been unable to settle on a consistent kick and punt returner, leaning instead on sure-handed receiver Cooper Kupp, which makes it difficult not to hold your breath when such duty is required of the NFL’s leading receiver. Rookies Jake Funk, Tutu Atwell and Ben Skowronek have also tried their hand at returning, but Funk suffered a season-ending injury, and neither Atwell nor Skowronek has proved capable of handling the full-time job. And it’s not just the Rams’ return game that’s in question. In a Week 7 win over the Lions, the Rams allowed an early onside kick and watched as two fake punts were converted into first downs. — Lindsey Thiry

4. Tampa Bay Buccaneers (6-2)

Previous ranking: 2

Biggest Achilles’ heel: Penalties

If the secondary was the Bucs’ Achilles’ heel last season, penalties are this season. The Bucs’ 59 penalties this season are one shy of the league high of 60 by the Philadelphia Eagles. The Bucs’ 580 yards in penalties are also the most in the league. Their 11 penalties for 99 yards were a key culprit in the Saints’ advancing the ball despite losing Jameis Winston in the Bucs’ 36-27 loss Sunday. — Jenna Laine

5. Dallas Cowboys (6-1)

Previous ranking: 6

Biggest Achilles’ heel: Big plays allowed

To a degree this feels like a nitpick because the Cowboys’ defense has outperformed expectations so far entering the season. But when they play better quarterbacks down the stretch — and potentially in the playoffs — they can’t have these types of lapses. They have allowed 31 plays of at least 20 yards in the first seven games. They allowed the same amount through the first seven games a season ago. The difference is this season they are getting takeaways and coming up with stops. This was a focus of the coaches during the bye week, but the Cowboys allowed four more big plays against the Vikings. It has not hurt them yet, but it could later. — Todd Archer

6. Buffalo Bills (5-2)

Previous ranking: 5

Biggest Achilles’ heel: Special-teams inconsistency

Buffalo doesn’t punt often (third fewest in the NFL with 21). But when Matt Haack has been needed, he has been inconsistent, averaging a net of 36.1 yards (second lowest of any team). Only 28.6% of his punts have been taken over inside the 20-yard line. Kicker Tyler Bass has been solid for the Bills this season, and defensive back Siran Neal has been dynamic in kick coverage, but returner Isaiah McKenzie muffed a punt vs. the Dolphins in Week 8 and was bailed out by Jake Kumerow. The inconsistencies on special teams have put the Bills in some dangerous situations. — Alaina Getzenberg

7. Baltimore Ravens (5-2)

Previous ranking: 8

Biggest Achilles’ heel: Tackling

Lamar Jackson can produce big plays, but he can’t stop them. In Baltimore’s two losses, the Ravens’ pass defense has allowed 15 completions over 20 yards. It’s not because receivers are getting behind the defense. It’s the inability of Baltimore to get receivers on the ground. The Ravens’ poor tackling has led to 1,200 yards allowed after the catch — worst in the NFL. “Until we get that [tackling problem] fixed, we’ll be a very mediocre defense,” coach John Harbaugh said. — Jamison Hensley

8. Tennessee Titans (6-2)

Previous ranking: 9

Biggest Achilles’ heel: Kickoff return

Entering training camp, the Titans were excited about having Darrynton Evans make an impact as a kick returner. That never happened as Evans suffered a knee injury and was placed on injured reserve before the season even started. Evans was activated and added to the 53-man roster last month only to end up on injured reserve once again, which ended his season. Chester Rogers, Marcus Johnson, Cameron Batson, Jeremy McNichols and Evans have all gotten a shot to return kicks. Through eight games, the Titans are averaging 17.3 yards per kick return, tying the Dolphins for the worst in the NFL. — Turron Davenport

9. Cincinnati Bengals (5-3)

Previous ranking: 7

Biggest Achilles’ heel: Offensive inconsistency

Cincinnati’s boom-or-bust offense is a problem. The Bengals rank 31st in plays per drive and have the second-highest three-and-out percentage in the league. And yet, Cincinnati is still fourth in touchdowns. But the inability to sustain drives has proved to be a problem, as evidenced by the minus-71 play differential, which is also the second highest in the league. If that trend continues, it will continue to place significant pressure on the defense and leave that side of the ball weary in December, which is when the Bengals are hoping to secure their first playoff berth since 2015. — Ben Baby

10. New Orleans Saints (5-2)

Previous ranking: 13

Biggest Achilles’ heel: Passing game

Quarterback is the obvious choice in the wake of Jameis Winston’s knee injury. But even when he was healthy, the Saints’ lack of proven WR and TE targets was a glaring problem. They rank 31st in the NFL in passing yards per game (180.9) and completion percentage (58.8) — and dead last in receptions by WRs (7.9 per game) and receptions by TEs (2.4 per game). Needless to say, they’re eagerly awaiting Michael Thomas’ return from an ankle injury. — Mike Triplett

11. Las Vegas Raiders (5-2)

Previous ranking: 11

Biggest Achilles’ heel: The constantly reshuffled offensive line

Derek Carr’s personal protectors of LT Kolton Miller, LG John Simpson, C Andre James, RG Alex Leatherwood and RT Brandon Parker have kept the Raiders QB upright and clean without a sack the past six quarters. But the reshuffled O-line is just that — constantly in flux and a work in progress. The bye week should have helped with nagging injuries, and veteran left guard Richie Incognito, who has not practiced since injuring his right calf in a joint practice with the Rams on Aug. 19, could potentially start practicing this week. — Paul Gutierrez

12. Los Angeles Chargers (4-3)

Previous ranking: 10

Biggest Achilles’ heel: Lack of consistency on offense

Never thought I’d write this, not with Justin Herbert at QB and the number of top receivers the Chargers have, but they have struggled at times, especially this past Sunday against the Patriots. Herbert threw two interceptions against the Pats (one of which was returned for a pick-six), which gives him six on the year. He had just 10 as a rookie. He hasn’t been helped by his receivers, because of either drops (running back Austin Ekeler) or running the wrong routes (tight end Jared Cook). Worse yet, the Chargers have put themselves in tough third-down situations due to inconsistent play on first and second down. — Shelley Smith

13. New England Patriots (4-4)

Previous ranking: 18

Biggest Achilles’ heel: Cornerback

After trading Stephon Gilmore and placing top slot Jonathan Jones on injured reserve, the Patriots are thin at cornerback. J.C. Jackson and Jalen Mills are the starters — with opponents often attacking Mills, as the Chargers did on their late TD on Sunday — and practice-squad call-up Myles Bryant is the top slot option. Joejuan Williams and Shaun Wade are next on the CB depth chart. Chargers coach Brandon Staley made the point that the Patriots played more zone than man Sunday, in part because of their short-handed situation. — Mike Reiss

14. Pittsburgh Steelers (4-3)

Previous ranking: 15

Biggest Achilles’ heel: Vertical passing attack

The Steelers are slowly developing into a balanced offense as their run game emerges, but their biggest weakness is obvious: the vertical passing attack, particularly over the middle. Against the Browns, Ben Roethlisberger attempted just three passes of more than 20 air yards and only one between the numbers. Each fell incomplete. Roethlisberger has completed just 25.5% of deep passes since 2020, down from 30.5% between 2016 and 2019, per NFL Next Gen Stats. Relying too heavily on throws within 10 yards of the line of scrimmage risks a one-dimensional attack. A bolstered run game and offensive line will divert just enough to attention to open up more efficient, vertical options — especially in crunch time. — Brooke Pryor

15. Kansas City Chiefs (4-4)

Previous ranking: 14

Biggest Achilles’ heel: Pass rush

The Chiefs had a league-low eight sacks and a feeble pass rush win rate of 35.2% heading into Monday night’s game against the Giants. There’s no mystery why opposing quarterbacks had a 61.4 QBR against them. It’s difficult to see any hope that the defense will make significant improvement unless these numbers improve. The Chiefs were getting little from Chris Jones and Frank Clark, two of the highest-paid players on their roster. The two combined for two sacks, with Clark contributing zero going into the Giants game. — Adam Teicher

16. Cleveland Browns (4-4)

Previous ranking: 12

Biggest Achilles’ heel: Passing attack

The Browns’ passing attack has fallen off a cliff, and it’s not just due to the injuries — even if they have been a major factor. Baker Mayfield, battling the torn labrum to his non-throwing shoulder, has been up and down, but he isn’t getting much help from his highly paid star receivers, either. Jarvis Landry had multiple drops late in the fourth quarter in the loss to Pittsburgh, along with a key fumble. Odell Beckham Jr., meanwhile, has become a total nonfactor. Cleveland’s passing game last season gradually got better. This season, it seems to be getting worse. — Jake Trotter

17. San Francisco 49ers (3-4)

Previous ranking: 20

Biggest Achilles’ heel: The turnover battle

There are plenty of things we could discuss here, but let’s keep it simple: The Niners are minus-6 in turnover differential, which is fourth worst in the NFL through the first eight weeks. This is actually the perfect choice because it points to deficiencies on both sides of the ball and it’s the single stat that most correlates to winning. The offense has 11 giveaways, the defense has just five takeaways and the Niners have been on the positive side of this stat just once in seven games. Given that, it’s no surprise that San Francisco sits at 3-4 right now. — Nick Wagoner

18. Denver Broncos (4-4)

Previous ranking: 21

Biggest Achilles’ heel: Offense

The Broncos currently reside in a points-scoring neighborhood where they’ve spent the past six seasons. They are one of 10 teams averaging fewer than 20 points per game this season, and of those 10 teams, only the Broncos (4-4) and the Steelers (4-3) do not have losing records. In short, that’s not where a legitimate playoff hopeful finds itself. The Broncos haven’t averaged more than 21 points a game in any of the previous four years and haven’t averaged more than 23 points per game since 2014. — Jeff Legwold

19. Minnesota Vikings (3-4)

Previous ranking: 17

Biggest Achilles’ heel: Offense

A seven-game sample size reveals the Vikings’ offense is not cut out for the modern NFL. Minnesota has routinely come out of the gates swinging and scoring on its first possession, but the offense has disappeared after that to the tune of no second-half touchdowns in five of seven games. In a loss to Dallas, the game plan turned quarterback Kirk Cousins into a predictable checkdown machine whose average depth of target was 4.5 yards and totaled a measly 184 yards passing. This unit went from explosive to dull and conservative in a year’s time and has evolved into Minnesota’s chief downfall this season. — Courtney Cronin

20. Carolina Panthers (4-4)

Previous ranking: 24

Biggest Achilles’ heel: Pass protection

The offensive line proved it could run block, paving the way for Carolina to rush for a season-high 203 yards on 47 attempts in Sunday’s win at Atlanta. That kept the Falcons from loading up against the pass as teams did the past four weeks, collecting 15 sacks against Sam Darnold during that span. But teams will load the box and force the Panthers to pass, and the line remains vulnerable. — David Newton

21. Seattle Seahawks (3-5)

Previous ranking: 23

Biggest Achilles’ heel: Not having QB Russell Wilson

On Sunday, Geno Smith played his best game since Wilson went down in Week 5 with his finger injury. But when Smith replaced Wilson in that game and in his next two starts, Seattle’s offense only functioned in spurts and didn’t have the finishing touch it has under Wilson. Smith and the Seahawks were dominant against the one-win Jaguars, but with tougher games ahead — at Green Bay following this week’s bye, then at home vs. Arizona — the Seahawks will have to be better finishers than they’ve been so far. And with no guarantee that Wilson will be back for the Packers game, they might need Smith at quarterback. — Brady Henderson

22. Indianapolis Colts (3-5)

Previous ranking: 16

Biggest Achilles’ heel: Pass rush

For as good as Colts GM Chris Ballard has been in selecting some talent in the draft — RB Jonathan Taylor, WR Michael Pittman Jr., LB Darius Leonard and G Quenton Nelson — he has struggled mightily in finding pass-rushers. The Colts are tied for 16th in the NFL in sacks with 17. To put things in perspective, the Colts are tied for the league lead in takeaways with 18. — Mike Wells

23. Chicago Bears (3-5)

Previous ranking: 22

Biggest Achilles’ heel: Offense

The Bears’ defense collapsed in last Sunday’s loss to the 49ers, but Chicago’s offense has been its biggest Achilles’ heel throughout the season. The Bears rank at the bottom or near the bottom of almost every major offensive category, including points per game and yards per game. It really says something when scoring 22 points — as the Bears did versus San Francisco — is considered an offensive explosion. The Bears’ offense played a little better in Week 8, but it’s nowhere close to good enough. — Jeff Dickerson

24. Philadelphia Eagles (3-5)

Previous ranking: 25

Biggest Achilles’ heel: Inexperience

Nick Sirianni is a first-year head coach surrounded by the youngest coaching staff in the NFL. Quarterback Jalen Hurts has started 12 games in the NFL and doesn’t have a primary wide receiver over 23 years old. The result is inconsistency in both game plan and performance. The Eagles have beaten a pair of teams by 26-plus points and have also been manhandled at times. You never know what you’re going to get. — Tim McManus

25. Atlanta Falcons (3-4)

Previous ranking: 19

Biggest Achilles’ heel: Pass rush

There are a lot of issues with the Falcons at the moment, but the team has had very little pass rush throughout the season — particularly with Dante Fowler Jr. on injured reserve. No Falcons player has more than two sacks (Fowler, Deion Jones and Jacob Tuioti-Mariner) and more critical, only two Falcons have more than five quarterback hits — Grady Jarrett with six and Foyesade Oluokun with five. Pressure is sometimes worth sending only if the players can get there, and that’s been a problem for Atlanta, but it also alters the entirety of what the Falcons can and can’t do on defense. — Michael Rothstein

26. New York Giants (2-6)

Previous ranking: 27

Biggest Achilles’ heel: Pass rush

Forget about sacks. The Giants’ defense can’t even get consistent pressure on opposing quarterbacks without a high-end edge rusher. The team entered Monday night 24th in the NFL with a 25.2% pressure rate, per NFL Next Gen Stats. It has prevented this defense from repeating its success from last season and is the Giants’ biggest weakness. — Jordan Raanan

27. Washington Football Team (2-6)

Previous ranking: 26

Biggest Achilles’ heel: Pass coverage

Washington is tied for 29th in the NFL with seven passing touchdowns of 20 or more yards, and most of those stem from a secondary not in synch with its reads, leading to blown coverages. It ranks 26th in yards allowed per pass attempt and last in the NFL in third-down conversions at 56.5% — a lot of which is the result of opposing quarterbacks having completed 70.6% of their passes vs. Washington on third down. No defense has allowed a worse number. This isn’t just on the secondary, though. The corners have not played as well as anticipated, and the linebackers have blown their share of assignments, too. And the pass rush must be better. — John Keim

28. New York Jets (2-5)

Previous ranking: 30

Biggest Achilles’ heel: Quarterback inexperience

It might seem like an odd time to single this out, considering Mike White just passed for 405 yards and three touchdowns, but it doesn’t change the fact that White and Zach Wilson have only seven combined starts in their careers. The Jets have a league-high 13 interceptions, in large part because of their inexperience. There will be good days and bad days, depending on the quality of the opponent and style of defense. There’s nothing the Jets can do to change it; they just have to ride this out, hoping it pays long-term dividends. — Rich Cimini

29. Jacksonville Jaguars (1-6)

Previous ranking: 29

Biggest Achilles’ heel: Pass defense

The Jaguars have given up more than 300 yards passing four times in seven games (Teddy Bridgewater, Kyler Murray, Joe Burrow and Tua Tagovailoa) and they’re allowing opposing QBs to complete 74% of their passes — the second-highest completion percentage in the league. QBs are also averaging 8.94 yards per attempt against Jacksonville (the second-highest mark) and have a Total QBR of 64.2, the highest in the NFL. — Mike DiRocco

30. Miami Dolphins (1-7)

Previous ranking: 28

Biggest Achilles’ heel: Offensive inefficiency

This is a question with about a dozen different answers, but Miami’s struggles on offense stand out. The Dolphins rank 30th in yards per game, 31st in yards per play and 28th in scoring. In almost unbelievable fashion, Miami attempts the fourth-most passes per game yet still ranks 25th in passing yards. As Sunday’s loss to the Bills proved, Miami is still capable of playing good defense — but without an offense that can carry its own weight, the Dolphins won’t win many more games. — Marcel Louis-Jacques

31. Houston Texans (1-7)

Previous ranking: 31

Biggest Achilles’ heel: Running game

It’s hard to pick just one category for a 1-7 team, but one area the Texans have struggled in all season — and not because of injury — is running the ball. Houston ranks dead last in Football Outsider’s rush DVOA and is averaging 76.1 rushing yards per game. Now that Houston has traded lead back Mark Ingram II, it has four running backs: veterans David Johnson, Phillip Lindsay and Rex Burkhead and second-year pro Scottie Phillips. After Ingram was traded, it was Burkhead who led the way in Sunday’s loss to the Rams — but the group was still held to 44 yards on 14 carries. — Sarah Barshop

32. Detroit Lions (0-8)

Previous ranking: 32

Biggest Achilles’ heel: Offense

Following a 44-6 loss to the Eagles on Halloween, the Lions fell to 0-8 for the first time since the infamous 0-16 season. Coach Dan Campbell acknowledged that the offense looked “very anemic,” which has been the case all season. The Lions rank near the bottom of nearly every offensive category, notably offensive efficiency and points scored. Jared Goff has suffered 11 consecutive losses, including the playoffs, which is the longest active streak for any quarterback. Tight end T.J. Hockenson feels that the offense hasn’t been able to overcome self-inflicted wounds such as penalties and mistakes in critical moments. “That’s what good offenses do is be able to keep moving the ball and overcome mistakes that you make on yourself,” Hockenson said. — Eric Woodyard

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