What’s going on with NFL offenses? Through the first three weeks of the season, teams are averaging the fewest points per game (21) since 2006, with the troubles scoring points being quite prevalent in the primetime games in Week 3. So, is this just a small sample size fluke, or something to monitor? The increased focus for defenses playing light boxes and being centered around limiting explosive plays through the air certainly plays a role in this, while quarterback play hasn’t been as strong as we’ve come to expect. For the sake of entertainment, here’s hoping the code is cracked eventually.
Welcome, everybody! Every week for the NFL season, we’ll be going over every matchup, analyzing storylines, key matchups, and, most importantly, making predictions. To help with this, having a strong foundation is paramount. Thus, using previous research on what facets of play, as measured by Pro Football Focus, leads to NFL wins, as well the effect of each offensive/defensive play-caller, I was able to create a statistical projection model that has been a feature on this site before. By factoring in each team’s projected PFF grades in each significant area based on their personnel, and than using a multi-variable formula to project a unit’s expected points added per play, and, thus, their points per game/points allowed per game, we can then project their expected point differential. Essentially, all of this can be leveraged to predict the winner of every NFL game, the margin of victory, what the actual betting line (spread+total) for each game should be, and much more!
As helpful as the model can be, though, something I’ve come to learn is the significance of added context upon it. In 2020, for instance, we perhaps leaned too much on the statistical projections at the expense on how each teams matched up against each other, losing significant predictive power. At the end of the day, it’s up to us to use all information at hand to make the most calculated decision, so cutting out any source of information puts us at a disadvantage. How else would you know that nobody came to a quarterback’s birthday party.
Kidding, of course- consider that part from Draft Day one that has always puzzled me. Regardless, whether you have a vetted interest in the game as fan of a specific team, are a sports better, or just a fan of football, there is nothing more fun than going through every game to find any sort of edge in terms of predictive power. Having betting lines give us a strong foundation for an expectation of the game, but nobody’s perfect, and you never know when the upset of the world (see Jets over Rams 2020) is going to happen.
Last week, underdogs actually had a winning record straight-up (9-7), continuing to prove that, this early into the season, our confidence level in our evaluation of every team can’t be as high as we may want to think. That being said, isn’t that the fun in this? Every week, we are learning something new, and we are blessed this week with another slate with very tightly-matched affairs, including three exceptional primetime games. It shouldn’t be too hard to be entertained this week, to say the least.
Stats via Pro Football Focus and rbsdm.com
Before we start, let’s go over a few key points of data that can help us shine a light on prior weeks in other to forecast future events. Let’s start with the most important position in all of sports- the quarterback. We recently delved into a method to project quarterback production, measured by adjusted expected points added per play (adjusted EPA/play), using several key peripheral metrics, and although this is more meant to project a full season output, there is great benefit of monitoring the performance of the players that almost entirely dictate the outcome of an individual game:
CPOE: Completion Percentage Over Expectation
BTT%: Big-Time Throw Rate
TWP: Turnover-Worthy Play Rate
Think of these as quarterback composite ratings for how they’ve performed, rather than an actual ranking of how they’ll do moving forward. Regardless, knowing which quarterbacks may have over/underperformed based on the overall data is significantly important for analysis sake, and allows us to paint a better picture.
So does knowing which team’s success is the most sustainable. Turnover luck is an easy way to measure this, but there is another underrated facet. See, third-down performance has been found to be much more unstable compared to production on early downs, yet success on third downs make a major difference in an individual game’s production. Alas, when projecting for the future, we want to focusing on how teams are performing in more stable areas of play:
Performance in specific situations is measured by EPA/play, and then converted to a percentile ranking. A positive difference on offense or defense means the team was better on early downs than third downs, and, thus, could be in line for positive regression, while the opposite is true vice versa. From there, the offensive and defensive ratings are combined for an aggregate ranking; the chart is sorted by the overall amount of positive regression a team can expect based on their production on early downs compared to that on third downs.
The Jaguars have already impressed greatly, and based on their performance on early downs, things could actually get better moving forward. It’s interesting that the #2 and #3 teams on this list (Panthers, Cardinals) play each other this week, and which team receives more positive third-down regression may be the difference in who comes out on top. Meanwhile, as by far the least-efficient offense on early downs, it’s very reasonable to be concerned in Cincinnati, and it’s evidently clear that things may only get worse for the Commanders. As the season goes on, team performance will stabilize more, but, for the time being, focusing on more predictive situations allows us to get a better idea of the true prodigious of a specific unit moving forward.
Now, onto the previews!
Miami Dolphins (3-0) at Cincinnati Bengals (1-2)
Spread: CIN (-3.5)
- Projected Spread: CIN (-0.35)
- My Pick: MIA (+3.5)
- Projected Total: 45.53
- My Pick: Under
- MIA: 48.94%
- CIN: 51.06%
Score Prediction: Dolphins 24 Bengals 23
- Will The Dolphins Bring The Heat and How Do The Bengals Respond?
- Was Cincinnati’s Early-Season Defensive Success Simply a Product of Soft Competition?
- Can Miami’s Secondary Hold Up?
A rematch at last. When we last saw Joe Burrow and Tua Tagovailoa face off (2019 LSU vs Alabama), 87 points were scored, the two quarterbacks combined for 817 passing yards and seven touchdowns, and there were 1100 total yards of offense. Fast forward five-and-a-half months later, and they were the top-two quarterbacks selected in the 2020 NFL Draft, yet the start of their careers couldn’t have gone more different; Burrow led his team to a Super Bowl in his second season while being PFF‘s highest-graded quarterback, while Tagovailoa has had his fair share of struggles in Miami. Nevertheless, it’s Tagovailoa who enters this game quarterbacking an undefeated team, while Burrow faces a need-to-win situation for the reeling defending AFC Champions.
When you’re the least-productive offense on early downs, you’re generally going to have your fair share of problems, yet this should not be what’s happening for such a talented Bengals offense. To their credit, head coach Zac Taylor has taken what he learned from the end of last year and is passing at the fifth-highest rate on early downs, yet some of the benefits that come from passing on early downs is putting the defense in a bind in terms of having to guess “run or pass”, while capitalizing via the play-action passing game. Nevertheless, when you’re the third-least efficient rushing attack, are in the bottom-ten in play-action pass rate, and have a clear tell when you’re passing (shotgun) and when you’re running the ball (under center), those edges go away.
Now, one could point to improved offensive efficiency for the Bengals against the Jets, yet I’d counter by saying they still ranked just 27th in EPA/play on early downs, relying on an outlier performance on third downs (1st in EPA/play) to move the ball down the field. Plus, there’s this:
Now, the Dolphins are a very curious matchup for Cincinnati. They just pressured Josh Allen on 43.8% of his dropbacks, and have shown the willingness to bring more than four rushers when the opportunity presents itself. Now, Burrow has generally performed well against the blitz, but if Miami can continue to generate pressure with four rushers, as they were able to do last week, then it puts the league’s second-most often sacked quarterback in a tough predicament. At the same time, though, the Dolphins have had major issues in the secondary (fourth-worst PFF coverage grade, third-worst dropback success rate allowed), so the opportunity for a very productive outing through the air is there. That being said, it’s very unlikely they get by continuing to rely on third down efficiency the way they have so far.
Then, you have Miami’s offense, who has the most-efficient unit in the NFL based on EPA/play, which is quite impressive when you look at the slate of defenses they faced – Patriots, Ravens, Bills. There were plenty of reasons to have questions about what Tagovailoa could be for this offense given his perceived limited big-play ability, yet he always showed the capability to be accurate down the field, and that has showed up this year; he is PFF’s highest-graded passer throwing 20+ yards down the field, leads the league in adjusted completion rate (76.9%) on those passes, and is second in yards/attempt (23.3). Well, I guess that’s the benefit of having Tyreek Hill and Jaylen Waddle to throw to, and condensing the passing game around them gives them the speed that makes them an undeniable threat- it’s so difficult to be perfect as a defense, so to have multiple players who can easily go for 80 yards on any given play is an absolute nightmare that completely shifts the outcome of a game.
Another reason it’s all coming together in Miami? Head coach Mike McDaniel, who has leaned into his personnel with the third-highest play-action rate, an overall pass-heavy offense, and making sure to create specific chaos for defenses by taking advantage of the speed he has with concepts like this:
On the surface, the Bengals have been a top-five defense in EPA/play allowed this season. Of course, though, that’s come with facing Mitch Trubisky, Cooper Rush, and Joe Flacco, which isn’t exactly the most terrifying slate of opposing quarterbacks. This is a defense that generally likes to mix in their fair share of man coverage, though they certainly don’t have the bodies in the secondary to adopt that strategy against Hill and Waddle- Eli Apple against either of them would be a terrifying thought for Bengals fans. All told, the personnel is essentially the same as the defense that finished 11th in EPA/play allowed last year, though that also came with a last-place schedule, so it’s hard to really gauge where this unit is at. Suffice to say, though, this is an offense that is going to challenge them greatly, and being without interior defender DJ Reader doesn’t help.
It’s anyone’s guess as to who comes away with a victory, though it’s fascinating how different the perspective is for each team- the Dolphins come into this game with nothing to loss while so much appears to be on the line for the Bengals. Clearly, there is some skepticism about Miami coming off an emotional victory against the Bills while also dealing with some injuries, but it’s generally advisable to eliminate the noise associated with more narrative-based arguments, especially with how different these teams have started out the year. In the end, it’s hard not to go with the team that is simply much better coached, though do we really think a team with Joe Burrow as their quarterback isn’t going to be an impact playoff contender? There is a lot we’ll learn on Thursday night.
Minnesota Vikings (2-1) at New Orleans Saints (1-2)
Spread: NO (+2.5)
- Projected Spread: NO (+2.22)
- My Pick: MIN (-2.5)
- Projected Total: 46.67
- My Pick: Over
- MIN: 56.72%
- NO: 43.28%
Score Prediction: Vikings 24 Saints 20
- A Very Injured Saints Offense
- Can Justin Jefferson Get Back On Track Shadowed By Marshon Lattimore?
- Continued Confusion As To Why The Saints Can’t Rush The Passer
Across the pond we go for a game not only between two teams with plenty of history, but also a critical one for both teams. So, what does an early-morning London affair have in store for these two teams? Seemingly, they’re heading in different directions.
When the Saints came back from a 16-point deficit against the Falcons in Week 1, there was optimism about how the fourth quarter went, but also the reality that they were the least-efficient offense in the NFL through those first three quarters. That trend (31st in first three-quarter EPA/play) has remained in place, while costly turnovers (part of the Jameis Winston experience) have held them back. Now, though, it’ll be a much different looking offense with Andy Dalton lined up to replaced the injured Winston, bringing a much more steady, yet less “high-upside” style of play. Generally, that could work with a stable supporting cast, yet Michael Thomas has already been ruled out for this game, and, for as efficient as Chris Olave has been, is a pure vertical receiver who doesn’t create after the catch going to mesh with a notably conservative quarterback?
The Vikings blitz at the fourth-lowest rate and play as much zone coverage as any team in the NFL, so it’s likely we see them let Dalton take what’s there, and not much after. As such, New Orleans’ ceiling this week offensively would appear to be capped, especially with the perimeter being the weakest spot of Minnesota’s defense. That shapes up well for Kirk Cousins and the Vikings offense to not have as much on their plate here, especially if the Saints continue to struggle the rush the passer (second-lowest pressure rate) as much as they have. Now, we’re going to see strength vs strength with regards to New Orleans’ run defense against an offense that generates a lot of efficiency on the ground, and the Saints have been as good as advertised from a coverage standpoint (5th in PFF COV grade). At the same time, though, positive gamescripts lead to the Vikings being able to do what they do best – create off the play-action passing game and stay in rhythm – and that’s very hard to deal with.
For perspective, whereas the Vikings are the seventh-most efficient offense on early downs, the Saints are all the way down at 31st in that metric. Unless you believe Minnesota is going to be an outlier in terms of poor performance on third downs, it’s only a matter of time before their offense ascends, which, if so, makes them a serious threat to win the NFC North. For this game, though, New Orleans simply appears to be too compromised to get on track here, which, given their upcoming schedule, would put the outlook of their season in serious question. That’d be quite unfortunate for a team that put so many chips into competing this year, and is yet another reminder of the limitations of an “all-in” approach- chaos happens in the NFL. Hey, maybe THIS is the time Tre’Quan Smith finally has his breakout game!
Washington Commanders (1-2) at Dallas Cowboys (2-1)
Spread: DAL (-3)
- Projected Spread: DAL (-6.77)
- My Pick: DAL (-3)
- Projected Total: 42.07
- My Pick: Under
- WSH: 29.5%
- DAL: 70.5%
Score Prediction: Commanders 14 Cowboys 20
- Carson Wentz’s Pocket Presence Issues Against a Star-Studded Pass Rush
- Has Dallas Successfully Remade Their Receiving Corps?
- The Cowboys Continuing To Get Jason Peters Into The Mix
If you ever want to know how much the outlook of an NFL team can change in just a few weeks, look at the Dallas Cowboys. Coming off an embarrassing primetime loss to the Bucs where they scored just three points and lost quarterback Dak Prescott due to a thumb injury, the key appeared to be truly falling, with the general assumption being that their postseason hopes had withered away. Now, though, they enter this game off of two straight wins and a favorite to win a third straight, with a return from Prescott on the horizon. With the Rams and Eagles up next, taking care of a struggling Commanders team becomes a necessity for them, and there is plenty of reason to believe that to be the case.
This seems like the proper transition to take about the Commanders, who certainly haven’t been flying on ally cylinders. Yes, it was to look at their overall passing output from a volume perspective and be very optimistic about a new-look offense under Carson Wentz, yet there has been something notable the entire time- a complete lack of efficiency on early downs. Even now, only the Bengals have a greater negative difference between their performance on early downs (28th percentile) and third downs (71st percentile), and it doesn’t help that almost all of their offensive production has come via chunk plays (29th in success rate). Add it all together, and they’ve been on the right side of variance, and, in spite of that, have only managed to rank 19th in EPA/play. That’s not exactly a shining light on how Washington’s offense will perform moving forward, and it’s a bit concerning how inefficient their wide receivers have been compared to expectations; it’s easy to see the quarterback problem here.
After all, Washington has provided Wentz with the 12th-highest graded pass-blocking offensive line per PFF, yet he’s still taking sacks at the fourth-highest rate in the NFL. When you’re an inefficient passer taking a lot of sacks, that needs to compensated with more big plays than where he’s at currently (17th in big-time throw rate), and the current target distribution (Curtis Samuel leads the team with 28, Terry McLaurin has just one more than JD McKissic on twice as many routes), seems rather flawed. Certainly, relying on third-down production with a quarterback with poor pocket presence facing the second-highest graded pass rush from PFF is a disaster waiting to happen, and it’s quite clear to see the bottom falling out here.
Of course, Dallas has its offensive limitations while Cooper Rush continues to fill in for Prescott, though there also plenty of reasons to be excited about them moving forward sans Prescott returning. For instance, heading into the season, their receiving corps with Amari Cooper being traded and Michael Gallup recovering from a torn ACL, appeared to be in a precarious state, yet, now, that calculus has seemingly changed. CeeDee Lamb (2.53 yards/route run over past two weeks) has started to look like the “alpha” receiver he was supposed to be in this offense, but, most importantly, a complement may have been found. Enter Noah Brown, a former seventh-round pick in 2017 who played a marginal role during his first five career years with the Cowboys, but has been tremendous to the start the season (77.8 PFF receiving grade, 2.17 yards/route run) in a way that simply can’t be ignored, and now Gallup is set to make his season debut. Then, there’s the offensive line, where first-round rookie tackle Tyler Smith has more than held his own, right tackle Terence Steele (80.1 PFF pass-block grade) has exceeded expectations, and veteran Jason Peters figures to be worked into the mix even more to fill their one true hole at left guard. Then, you add Prescott returning in the next few weeks, and it’s very likely that this is a postseason team in a very thin NFC. That feels very strange to say after Week 1.
Here we see two teams going in completely different directions, and although their offenses may be somewhat similar in expected production, we’re also looking the league’s second-worst defense on early downs compared to a much more stout Dallas defense (top-ten EPA/play allowed excluding turnovers), which makes the real difference in this game. It’s tough to see Washington essentially in the same exact spot as last year, but with less draft capital coming out of it, and it’s very unclear to see a clear path moving forward. Alas, as we’ll get to with another team shortly, this is the danger of playing “quarterback carousel”; eventually, it goes out of order.
Chicago Bears (2-1) at New York Giants (2-1)
Spread: NYG (-3)
- Projected Spread: NYG (-3.65)
- My Pick: NYG (-3)
- Projected Total: 38.65
- My Pick: Under
- CHI: 38.95%
- NYG: 61.05%
Score Prediction: Bears 13 Giants 17
- Looking For Any Signs of Life For Justin Fields Against a Tough Defensive System
- A Prime Spot For The Giants’ Two First-Round Rookies
- Time To Be Worried About Bears Rookie CB Kyler Gordon?
How are these two teams each 2-1? Despite both ranking in bottom-four in overall PFF grade, one of these teams is going to be 3-1 a month into the season, which is a scary thought for the sake of sanity, even if one look at their upcoming schedules can clearly see where things go wrong after that. Let’s just say that this should be an interesting game, to say the least.
By now, it’s pretty clear the Bears’ unique offensive approach is here to stay; for context, they rank last in the NFL with 15 pass attempts/game, with the 31st-ranked team averaging 11 (!) more pass attempts/game than them. That’s good for a negative 18% pass rate over expectation, per Ben Baldwin, and it doesn’t just stop there. See, it’d be one thing if they were efficient on their limited pass attempts, but Justin Fields currently ranks dead-last in the NFL in a variety of metrics:
- PFF Passing Grade (38)
- Big-Time Throw Rate (0%)
- Turnover-Worthy Play Rate (9%)
- Adjusted Completion Rate (58.1%)
- Adjusted EPA/Play (-.157)
- Sack Rate (15.38%)
For a quarterback who the previous regime traded a future first-round pick to move up and draft just a year ago, this is remarkably concerning. The amount of negative plays Fields is generating based on poor decisions and taking sacks is alarming, and this development track remains unfortunate for a such a high-profile college prospect. Now, at least they’ve been quite efficient on the ground (6th in EPA/play), and they are facing a very poor run defense in the Giants (fourth-worst rush EPA/play allowed) that remains without interior defender Leonard Williams. At the same time, New York defensive coordinator Wink Martindale is going to bring the heat in terms of blitzing (second-highest blitz rate) while mixing in a lot of man coverage against a receiving corps that has struggled to gain any sort of separation, which creates a disastrous scenario for Chicago through the air. Hopefully, something changes for the better on Sunday.
Of course, the outlook isn’t that much better for the Giants offensively, though it’s also much easier to buy into their play-calling with head coach Brian Daboll and offensive coordinator Mike Kafka. They’re passing at the 12th-highest rate in football, are utilizing play-action passes at the sixth-highest rate, and, to be honest, certainly came in with a much better reputation. The fact that Daniel Jones has been pressured on more dropbacks than he has been kept clean is a notable problem, and a reflection of a high time-to-throw (3.26 seconds) and poor pass protection (third-worst PFF pass-blocking grade). That likely is going to continue to be an issue with the receiving corps down to Richie James Jr., David Sills, and Kenny Golladay, with the offense mainly relying on chunk plays from Saquon Barkley and moving the chains methodically without an explosive element in the passing game. The fact that they rank 21st in EPA/play is actually somewhat remarkable given all of this, and has to make you very optimistic about what this offense could look like with much more talent in the future.
Points certainly shouldn’t be a common occurrence in this game, especially via the passing game. With that in mind, this is a game that may come down to simply limiting negative plays, which is very much in the Giants’ favor. What’s going on in Chicago is bizzare right now, and it’s very unclear what sort of developmental plan, if any, they had for Justin Fields. That’s very disappointing at a time where breakthroughs in quarterback development have been as transparent as ever, and who knows what to expect moving forward. Fields is still far too talented to simply dismiss, but it’ll take a change in both circumstances and clear improvements from him for that to happen, and, seemingly, this would be a nice spot for that to happen. That being said, Big Blue has shown much more competence and is laying out the foundation for a young quarterback to succeed, and they’re in good position to be rewarded for that with another early-season win. Kudos to those who grind this game from start to finish!
Buffalo Bills (2-1) at Baltimore Ravens (2-1)
Spread: BAL (+3)
- Projected Spread: BAL (+2.75)
- My Pick: BUF (-3)
- Projected Total: 50.3
- My Pick: Under
- BUF: 58.34%
- BAL: 41.66%
Score Prediction: Bills 27 Ravens 23
- How Do The Bills Attack Baltimore’s One Weak-Link In The Secondary?
- A Much Different Style of Defense For Lamar Jackson To Combat
- Can The Ravens Take Advantage of Buffalo’s Offensive Line Deficiencies?
Hey look, it’s another game between 2-1 teams! The fact that this game is taking place at 1:00 PM ET is rough, but when I say your eyes should be glued to this game, I truly mean it. Boy, this is going to be fun.
How a team out-gains a team by 285 yards is beyond me, but the Bills need to come out of their close loss in Miami without feeling like the actually lost that game- in principle, they did, yet it’s incredibly difficult to say they weren’t the better team. At the same time, though, this was the first time we started to see some of their cracks show up in a major way. For instance, the offensive line is a notable concern. Should center Mitch Morse not be able to play in this game, Buffalo will come into this game with four of their five starting offensive linemen having a PFF pass-block grade under 51.5, which, in turn, is correlated with Josh Allen’s average depth of target being two yards less (9.1 to 7.1) than it was last year. Now, some of that has to do with a shift in offensive coordinator and embracing the quick passing game, though it’s quite evident that they’re trying to protect their offensive line in any way imaginable, and they now face a Ravens defensive line with the fifth-highest PFF pass-rush grade thus far.
Why is this significant in this matchup? Well, historically, the Ravens have been most vulnerable in the downfield passing game, and that’s shown with them allowing 13.62 yards/reception over the past two weeks- they’re a fundamentally-sound defense that tends to have just enough coverage busts to limit their chances of emerging as the elite defense they have the talent to be. After all, between the corner duo of Marlon Humphrey and Marcus Peters, as well as the safety trio of Marcus Williams, Chuck Clark, and first-round rookie Kyle Hamilton, the number of high-end players they have in the secondary is endless. The issue? Whether it’s Damarion Williams (42.6 PFF COV grade), Brandon Stephens (46.9 PFF COV grade), and Jalyn Armour-Davis (27.8 PFF COV grade), the third cornerback spot has been a complete liability, and a spot that opposing offenses are consistently attacking. Whether it’s Gabriel Davis (versus the latter two) or Isaiah McKenzie (mainly against Williams), it’s likely that we see one of Buffalo’s tertiary options have a chance to make a notable impact in this game, though, of course, a lot of it lies with Allen having enough time to exploit those deficiencies.
Meanwhile, only two quarterbacks are being blitzed at a higher rate (35.4%) than Lamar Jackson, and he’s responded by absolutely demolishing those types of looks (89.8 PFF grade, 11.5 yards/attempt); he’s actually been rather pedestrian (67.2 PFF grade, 6.8 yards/attempt). We’re still dealing with small sample sizes, but it is worth noting he’ll now face the least blitz happy defense in the NFL. Speaking of Buffalo’s defense, their secondary was absolutely decimated due to injuries in Miami, and they’ll still need to adjust to life without star safety Micah Hyde. If they’re once again without safety Jordan Poyer, that’d be a notable blow, though getting corner Dane Jackson back surely will help, and there’s still an obvious difference between facing Tyreek Hill and Jaylen Waddle and facing Baltimore’s receiving corps. For a Ravens offense that has been as reliant on explosive plays as they have been (just 13th in success rate), they’ll have to figure out a way to be simply more efficient in this game- this isn’t a defense that is going to let you beat them over the top or create yardage after the catch (third-least amount of YAC/REC allowed).
If the season ended today, I’m pretty confident that these two quarterbacks should finish #1 and #2 in the MVP voting; no two players carry as much of the weight of their offense as they do. In the end, while not a perfect team, the Bills still are the perceived Super Bowl favorites for a reason, and how Baltimore compensates for their one weak-link in the secondary remains a notable concern. Certainly, Buffalo will be hoping for better luck this time around, though this is a franchise that hasn’t had a lot of it. Hey, no better time to start than now!
Cleveland Browns (2-1) at Atlanta Falcons (1-2)
Spread: ATL (+1)
- Projected Spread: ATL (-0.11)
- My Pick: CLE (-1)
- Projected Total: 48.82
- My Pick: Over
- CLE: 49.7%
- ATL: 50.3%
Score Prediction: Browns 26 Falcons 24
- The League’s Worst Run Defense (Falcons) Against The League’s Best Rushing Attack
- Can The Browns Clean Up Coverage Busts Versus a Big-Play-Oriented Offense?
- Will These Two Quarterbacks Continue To Surprise?
Every week, there is one game that doesn’t garner a lot of excitement initially, but ends up being the game that continues to show up on NFL Red Zone. Last week, that game featured the Falcons and Seahawks, and we may be see in Atlanta once again participate in a similar type of game. For two teams that have experienced their fair share of late-game collapses, consider this familiar territory.
The Browns have been a difficult team to objectively analyze given the questionable morality with the decisions they made this offseason, but dare I say that, even with Jacoby Brissett under center, they’re a playoff-caliber team? Generally, a successful offense shouldn’t be built off the running game, but at a time where passing efficiency is down, is that no longer completely the case? Cleveland is currently averaging more EPA/play on rush attempts (.166) than all but seven teams are averaging per dropback, and that’s double the EPA/rush attempt of the second-place team (.082). I mean, that is simply absurd. It’s tremendous to see Nick Chubb, PFF‘s highest graded rusher, start to get the attention he deserves as arguably the best running back in the sport, and this shouldn’t be seen as a fluke; the top-three running backs in explosive rush rate last year were all Cleveland Browns! What head coach Kevin Stefanski is accomplish here is remarkable, and it also helps when you have Chubb and Kareem Hunt to go along with a superb run-blocking offensive line.
Yet, that’s not all; they quietly rank 8th in EPA/dropback as well. After essentially being cast aside this offseason as someone Cleveland needed to find an upgrade to while Deshaun Watson was suspended, Jacoby Brissett is PFF‘s fourth-highest graded quarterback, serving as an accurate and effective distributor for the likes of Amari Cooper (2.31 yards/route run) and tight end David Njoku (4th in PFF receiving grade for tight ends), both of whom are more than exceeding expectations so far this year. Will this last in less favorable gamescripts? Likely not, but let’s not act like they aren’t in position to succeed here. After all, no team is allowing more EPA/rush attempt than the Falcons, who also are allowing the highest success rate- not ideal when the best offense you’ve faced in EPA/play was the Seahawks (12th), whose ranking is inflated because they played you. It’s pretty easy to see Cleveland continuing to roll here offensively.
That being said, is their defense up to the task? That seems weird to say given the low expectations for the Falcons coming into the year, but Atlanta is the third most-efficient offense on early downs, and it’s a credit to head coach Arthur Smith; Marcus Mariota is on pace for the highest play-action rate (47.8%) since Robert Griffin III in 2012, and he’s shredding opposing defenses (10.2 yards/attempt) on those looks. To make matters better, rookie receiver Drake London (85.8 PFF receiving grade, 2.74 yards/route run) has seemingly already established himself as a high-end NFL player, and the physicality he and Kyle Pitts bring is exactly what Smith is looking for on in-breaking routes and creating chunk plays via the play-action passing game- see the Titans with AJ Brown and Corey Davis. The Browns have notably dealt with their fair share of coverage lapses this year (see the Panthers and Jets games), are a bottom-five graded run defense, and are very limited in terms of pass rush with Myles Garrett ruled out and Jadeveon Clowney not a sure thing to play in this game. In other words, it’s very possible Smith’s magic continues in Atlanta.
While the Browns have a stronger foundation in terms of offensive line, more current quarterback stability, and defensive talent, it’s hard to not see this as a high-scoring affair that, to state a cliche, comes down to the wire. Both of these head coaches should be commended for the jobs they have done over the first three weeks of the season; who had these two teams being in the top-ten in EPA/play and points per game after the first three weeks of the year? Don’t lose sight of this game- it’s going to better than you think.
Los Angeles Chargers (1-2) at Houston Texans (0-2-1)
Spread: HOU (+5.5)
- Projected Spread: HOU (+5.13)
- My Pick: LAC (-5.5)
- Projected Total: 44.31
- My Pick: Under
- LAC: 65.55%
- HOU: 34.45%
Score Prediction: Chargers 24 Texans 17
- How Does Justin Herbert Look? (Please Stay Healthy)
- The Loss of Rashawn Slater Makes The Chargers Offensive Line a Devastating Concern
- The Continued Development of The Texans’ Rookie Defensive Backs
Have you ever wondered if life is just a continuous cycle where different events lead to the same outcome? Let me introduce you to the Los Angeles Chargers. The endless circular pattern of “get offseason hype, have the whole team get injured, barely miss the postseason” has become quite a consistent theme for this organization, but this year was supposed to be different. After all, they have one of the game’s best young quarterbacks, continued to solidify their offensive line, and made major moves this offseason to try to establish one of the game’s best defenses. Instead, they’re 1-2, are in the bottom-ten in offense and defense based on EPA/play, and are in the exact same position they’ve consistently been in.
One look at the Chargers injury report tells you all you need to know; they’ll be without elite left tackle Rashawn Slater for the season and star edge rusher Joey Bosa for a period of time, while receiver Keenan Allen is out for his third straight game with a hamstring injury. Heck, that’s not even counting for the fact that Justin Herbert continues to play through a serious rib injury, as well as previous time missed by All-Pro center Corey Linsley and cornerback JC Jackson. Oh, and in the process, head coach Brandon Staley went from gaining every little edge with fourth-down decision making to becoming one of the most conservative coaches in the NFL? Why can’t we have nice things!
The Slater injury is the one that is a particular concern, as the Chargers already enter this game with the lowest-graded pass-blocking unit from PFF, while Justin Herbert is the third-most pressured quarterback in the NFL. That’s a concern as is, but particularly true for someone playing through a very painful injury. Now, new left tackle Jamaree Slater did fare quite well in pass protection in college, but he’s also a sixth-round rookie, and the guard duo of Matt Feiler (33.5 PFF PBLK grade) and first-round rookie Zion Johnson (39.7 PFF PBLK grade) has been a major problem. In other words, that Week 6 matchup against the Broncos’ defensive line could get ugly in a hurry. For this game, Jerry Hughes, Jonathan Greenard, and interior rusher Maliek Collins pose enough of a threat to be worried, even if it’s still hard to bet against Herbert and a receiving corps that has gotten surprising contributions from DeAndre Carter and tight end Gerald Everett. Rather, it’s more likely this is a bigger deal against the likes of Denver, San Francisco, and Kansas City in the future.
On the bright side, with JC Jackson back healthy, the Chargers’ secondary is in great shape, and they’ve made great strides in run defense (13th in rush success rate allowed). Now, we’ll see how they get about rushing the passer with Bosa out for a elongated period of time, though it’s reasonable to believe they’ll be fine simply based on the prowess of their pass coverage. Plus, it also helps to face a Texans passing attack that has been abysmal (30th in EPA/dropback), with Davis Mills yet to produce a big-time throw this year. As such, there aren’t many avenues for success for this offense, which, ultimately, may bail the Chargers out.
I’m officially worried about the Chargers’ long-term prospects, but this is not the game where that comes to fruition. It won’t be pretty, though there is still a seismic talent gap here, and should still enter the four games after this as favorites too. That’s perfect as Herbert figures to get healthier with every given week, and allows them to adjust on the fly to the new offensive line and defense. Sometimes, the schedule just works out in your favor.
Jacksonville Jaguars (2-1) at Philadelphia Eagles (3-0)
Spread: PHI (-6.5)
- Projected Spread: PHI (-12.84)
- My Pick: PHI (-6.5)
- Projected Total: 45.84
- My Pick: Over
- JAX: 11.11%
- PHI: 88.89%
Score Prediction: Jaguars 20 Eagles 27
- A Huge Test For Trevor Lawrence and The Jaguars Offense
- Athletes vs Athletes: Eagles Offense versus Jacksonville Defense
- Is EDGE Josh Allen Becoming a True Star?
Dare I say that this may be the most interesting game of Week 4? Obviously, there is the fun storyline of Jaguars head coach Doug Pederson returning to the where he won a Super Bowl, but, just from a football perspective, there is so much to be excited about from this game, which is not something I expected to say three weeks ago.
Mainly, that’s due to the ascension of the Jaguars, who’ve now outscored two teams that entered the season as clear playoff-caliber teams (Colts, Chargers) by a combined scored 62-10 over their past two games, and there isn’t anything fluky about it; they’re a top-five team on early downs on both sides of the ball, and although they’ve benefitted from a strong turnover differential, they’re still a top-five defense (based on EPA/play allowed) on early downs even when excluding turnovers, while Trevor Lawrence’s propensity for not making mistakes (2.4% turnover-worthy play rate) also plays a major role. Speaking of Lawrence, it’s almost as if his rookie season didn’t happen. Through three weeks, he ranks fifth in adjusted EPA/play, second in completion percentage over expectation, and first in success rate. That’s pretty good!
So, how is the player who was deemed a generational prospect reaching his true potential. Well, we can thank our lucky stars for Doug Pederson. Even if he’s not doing anything particularly creative, the team’s offense flows through the quick passing game, allowing Lawrence to utilize some of his best traits in terms of processing, while allowing for plenty of yardage after the catch (see, the emergence of Christian Kirk). Yet, Lawrence has still demonstrated the ability to go off structure and utilize his elite physical tools, while also making throws like this:
The combination of being able to work in and out of structure is one that’s difficult to beat, and although Lawrence will have to push the ball down the field eventually, there is almost zero reason to believe that is any sort of potential drawback for the offense. Meanwhile, Christian Kirk (2.45 yards/route run) and Zay Jones (76.4 PFF receiving grade) have been impact players, the team’s running backs are performing well, and the offensive line (13th in PFF PBLK grade) has even held up. I’m honestly in awe, but outside of previous biases, it’s hard to see a notable drop-off at this current moment; at the very least, they seemed to definitely be settled under center.
The Eagles, though, aren’t an easy test at all. Whether it’s their pass coverage (3rd in PFF COV grade) or pass rush (8th in pressure rate), they’ve been a nightmare for opposing pass offenses, and things aren’t going to be as easy for Lawrence; this is a defense that can matchup with Jacksonville’s still questionable group of playmakers and force Lawrence to hold onto the ball longer than he desires, which means more being placed on his plate. Plus, it’s very likely his defense allows more than the current five points per game that they’ve allowed over the past two games. I’m sure I’m not breaking news when I say the Eagles offense, ranked fourth in EPA/play, has been absolutely stellar, with Jalen Hurts currently PFF‘s highest-graded quarterback and them also ranking #1 in PFF pass block grade and receiving grade. In theory, though, the Jaguars have the athletic talent at all levels of the field to cause make their lives much more difficult, making this the first time that Hurts is under any sort of pressure or that they’ve played a well-regarded defense at all. So, who’s it a bigger test for? Really, it goes both ways, and that’s what makes this game so intriguing.
Ultimately, there’s still so much unknown with the Jaguars, while the Eagles are mainly simply living up to preseason hype. With how balanced they are, there are just so many avenues for them to have success on both sides of the ball, and, for as dominant as Jacksonville has been, it’s still reasonable to look at the personnel they have and wonder if this can sustain. Now, I do think we’ve seen enough from Lawrence and Pederson to be confident in that marriage, which is ultimately all that matters, but if they really do compete with Philadelphia, then it’s time for them to start being taken even more seriously as the favorites to win the AFC South. After last season’s debacle, what a turn around this has been, even if they face a mighty challenge here.
New York Jets (1-2) at Pittsburgh Steelers (1-2)
Spread: PIT (-3.5)
- Projected Spread: PIT (-6.86)
- My Pick: PIT (-3.5)
- Projected Total: 41.43
- My Pick: Under
- NYJ: 29.21%
- PIT: 70.79%
Score Prediction: Jets 14 Steelers 20
- The Return of Zach Wilson
- The Steelers’ Passing Game Remains Very Odd
- Can WR Elijah Moore Get Going To Pair With Garrett Wilson?
From the #1 overall pick in the 2021 Draft to the player drafted one pick later, could Zach Wilson make a similar second-year leap? That’s honestly the only real matter of significance for the Jets this season, and it’s hard to be overly optimistic after what took place last year:
“Development isn’t always linear, and it would be bad process to write off a #2 overall pick after one season. That being said, there are a lot of reasons to be concerned about Zach Wilson following his first year in the league. Not only was he the worst quarterback in terms of limiting negative plays, yet the big-play ability (26th in positively-graded play rate) didn’t show up either, and he was the least-accurate quarterback in the NFL based on PFF charting. No quarterback was credited for being responsible for more sacks than he was (17 in 13 games), while he finished dead last in every notable statistic- PFF grade, adjusted EPA/play, CPOE, etc.. Yeah, not ideal.”
Of course, there’s the possibility that a highly-regarded draft prospect takes a major step forward, though the baseline is very low, and he’ll be playing behind a decimated offensive line that is without both starting tackles and ranks second-worst in PFF pass-block grade. That being said, from a skill position standpoint, standout first-round rookie receiver Garrett Wilson (80.2 PFF receiving grade), Elijah Moore (who’s looking to get back on track after a very productive rookie season), and Corey Davis is a strong supporting cast, and he’ll now be in his second year of the offensive system. You need to project a lot to end up in the “clear franchise quarterback” outcome, though, for this game, the Steelers have struggled in consecutive weeks (24th in EPA/play allowed) since losing star edge rusher TJ Watt, so you’d hope Wilson shows signs of promise. Call it far from a certainty, however.
In spite of the questions with Wilson, do the Jets have the better offense in this game? I mean, it’s been quite miserable in Pittsburgh so far. After all, the Steelers rank dead-last in EPA/dropback, and, in damning fashion, their three of their starting wide receivers are the bottom-three players in the NFL in yards after catch/reception. Diontae Johnson, for perspective, is averaging NEGATIVE yardage after the catch! This speaks to a complete inability for Mitch Trubisky to throw the ball between the numbers, as well as a very questionable offensive system put in place by offensive coordinator Matt Canada. On the bright side, their offensive line (5th in PFF PBLK grade) has held up very well, the receivers are still ultra-talented, and Trubisky (69.9 PFF passing grade, 5.5% big-time throw, 1.7% turnover-worthy play) has shown signs of progress outside of the dreaded lack of accuracy. If there’s one thing we know, it’s that the Jets defense (29th in EPA/play) isn’t exactly stout, particularly when it comes to allowing explosive plays through the air, so if not now, when?
The most likely scenario for this game is that the Steelers are on the beneficiary of turnover luck and win a low-scoring affair, though, really it’s all in the hands of Wilson. Can the Jets finally feel a sense of stability at the quarterback position, or do things continue to go south? We’ll at least get some sort of sense in which way that’s heading after this game, which, considering the state of both of these teams, thank goodness for that storyline.
Seattle Seahawks (1-2) at Detroit Lions (1-2)
Spread: DET (-3.5)
- Projected Spread: DET (-2.31)
- My Pick: SEA (+3.5)
- Projected Total: 43.7
- My Pick: Under
- SEA: 42.99%
- DET: 57.01%
Score Prediction: Seahawks 20 Lions 21
- DK Metcalf and Tyler Lockett Against a Subpar Man-Heavy Lions Pass Defense
- So, Who Is Jared Goff Throwing To? Will It Matter?
- The Young Bucks
If you want to go really deep into the rabbit hole and find a game that is way more entertaining that it should be, then this is the game for you! Both of these teams, the Lions in particular, have plenty of exciting young players that are allowing to be much more competitive than expected, and, to be honest, have also been very fun to watch. Expect more of the same here.
Ultimately, it’s the Lions who come into this game with a positive point differential, and it all comes down to their offense- they’re second in the league in points per game (31.7) right now. If you had that at the beginning of the year, please buy a lottery ticket. Only the Browns and Panthers are averaging more EPA/rush attempt so far this season, and a lot of the credit should be given to what offensive coordinator Ben Johnson is designing in the run game- 17.9% of their carries have gone for 10+ yards, which, just so you know, would have second in the entire NFL for a single running back- Nick Chubb ranked first at 17.98%. I mean, that’s just absurd! Now, D’Andre Swift not being able to play in this game does take away a decent amount of explosiveness, though it’s also suspicious that his peak season appeared to be happening right when Johnson took over. Yeah, there may something to do that.
It certainly helps to be facing a Seahawks defense with the fourth-worst PFF run defense grade, but to attack the league’s worst pass defense, you actually have to pass the ball. With Amon-Ra St.Brown and DJ Chark Jr. both out for this game, nearly half (47.2%) of the team’s targets from this season will be vacated, leaving Josh Reynolds, Kalif Raymond, Quintez Cephus, and tight end TJ Hockenson as Jared Goff’s top options. Now, if there’s a defense to figure something out against, it’s the one with one starting back-seven player (Quandre Diggs) with a PFF coverage of 56 or higher. That being said, this may not be as “easy” as they’d hope.
Plus, we’ve also seen more offensive success (12th in EPA/play) than anticipated for the Seahawks, with Geno Smith leading the league in completion rate over expectation. Now, they’re just 27th in the NFL in terms of early-down efficiency, but Smith has at least proven to be a competent distributor for two high-end receivers DK Metcalf and Tyler Lockett, which could be problematic for an aggressive Lions defense that ranks 4th in blitz rate and leads the league in the amount of man coverage they play; that works better you’re also not a bottom-five graded coverage unit. Thus, even if you expect the good feelings in Seattle to end eventually, you wouldn’t figure it’d happen here, and, to be honest, a quick look at their schedule shows that it may not end as soon as you’d think (playing the Cardinals twice helps with that).
Ultimately, the Lions have proven to be the significantly better team so far with much better coaching, but they’re quite short-numbered here offensively, and there is reason to be concerned about their defensive style matching up against two wide receivers who can exploit the heavy man coverage they’re going to bring to the table. As such, I’d say this is relatively close to a coin-flip, which is part of what makes this game such quality entertainment. The fact that Detroit can be a 3.5-point favorite against anyone without their top-two wide receivers says a lot about the progression they’re making even if they struggle more than expected, and, come season’s end, don’t be surprised if Ben Johnson finds himself in the head-coaching mix. That being said, they’re going to have to find a way to gut this game out.
Tennessee Titans (1-2) at Indianapolis Colts (1-1-1)
Spread: IND (-3.5)
- Projected Spread: IND (-0.39)
- My Pick: TEN (+3.5)
- Projected Total: 44.36
- My Pick: Over
- TEN: 48.81%
- IND: 51.19%
Score Prediction: Titans 24 Colts 23
- Can Matt Ryan Show Some Signs Of Life?
- Is Shaquille Leonard Coming Back Enough To Stabilize Indianapolis’ Defense?
- Is The Titans Receiving Corps Trying To Come Together?
Theoretically, this should be your classic “well, someone has to win the AFC South” game, though the emergence of the Jaguars perhaps places even more pressure on these two teams to come out victorious here. Hey, a division win is a division win, right? Matchups between these two teams have been very tight over the past few years, and that is unlikely to change here.
What is going on in Indianapolis? Yes, they did find a way to beat the Chiefs last week, yet that come after a muffed punt, multiple missed kicks, a failed fake field goal attempt, AND an unsportsmanlike conduct penalty that kept the final drive alive. At the end of the day, we’re looking at the worst offense in EPA/play right now, with Matt Ryan being PFF‘s fourth-lowest graded quarterback. For someone who was supposed to be a stabilizing force for a team that has dealt with so much quarterback instability, it’s very scary to see the 37-year-old show serious signs of decline, and puts a serious potential limit on this offense. Making matters more complicated, the receiving corps outside of Michael Pittman Jr. remains very questionable, the offensive line has regressed to a middle-of-the-pack unit in terms of pass protection (16th in PFF PBLK grade), and they’re also a bottom-ten offense in terms of rushing efficiency despite ranking first in that aspect of play in 2021. Yikes!
Is is worth noting that the Titans will be without both of their starting linebackers in this game, and have had plenty of struggles defensively. At the same time, a lot of that is due to explosive plays (they rank 18th in success rate allowed), and there is very little avenue for those types of plays for the Colts offense. Really, it comes down to their continued evolution of their offense, which is looking much more promising with Robert Woods (1.93 yards/route run) coming off his best game yet and first-round rookie Treylon Burks (2.02 yards/route run) being very efficient and seeing a larger role every week in terms of route participation. This is still a team that is dead-set on trying to win through their rushing attack, yet Indianapolis (1st in rush EPA/play allowed) is in great position to combat that, whereas they’ve struggled mightily (fourth-worst success rate allowed) in pass defense.
Assuming we see a lot of cover-three from the Colts, as is almost always the case with Gus Bradley as defensive coordinator, that’s great news for Tannehill, who has fared well (8.5 yards/attempt, .14 EPA/play) against that exact coverage. Alas, the onus truly is on Tennessee to recognize where their advantage is and exploit it, though who knows if that’ll hold true here. Regardless, they’re the team with the currently better-performing quarterback and passing attack, while still holding a higher defensive projection moving forward. The pitchforks may come out in Indianapolis if they fall short in this one, but that has a better chance of happening than perhaps the betting markets believe. Want to know the true definition of a “50:50” game? Here it is, and we wouldn’t want it any other way in the AFC South.
Arizona Cardinals (1-2) at Carolina Panthers (1-2)
Spread: CAR (-1)
- Projected Spread: CAR (+3.95)
- My Pick: ARI (+1)
- Projected Total: 43.3
- My Pick: Under
- ARI: 61.96%
- CAR: 38.04%
Score Prediction: Cardinals 23 Panthers 20
- What Happens When a Movable Force Meets a Stoppable Object?
- When Did Kyler Murray Become Last Year’s Version of Ben Roethlisberger?
- Someone Save DJ Moore
Oklahoma Sooner fans, enjoy this one; two former #1 overall picks and heisman trophy winners will face off here. Now, if we left it at just that, I’d have a much better chance on selling you on this game, but let me warn you that these two organizations aren’t exactly the definition of functionality currently. Still, the winner of this team will somehow come out of the first month of the season with a .500 record, which is truly remarkable to think about. So, can these teams show any signs of life?
It’s always fun to see the league’s best offense take on the league’s best defense in a “strength vs strength” sense, but does that also apply in the reverse? No offense has a lower success rate than the Panthers this season, and while Baker Mayfield has the worst completion percentage over expectation in the NFL, the second-worst PFF grade overall, and the lowest PFF grade from a clean pocket (44.3). To say their offense under Ben McAdoo lacks any sort of creativity or movement would be a dramatic understatement, and there’s really no rhyme or reason to what they’re trying to accomplish. I mean, the fact that DJ Moore, of all receivers, is in the bottom-12 in yards/route run (0.90 is simply criminal), and that’s without him dropping him one pass so far. Right now, it’s very tough to watch.
On a more optimistic note for Carolina, if there was ever a defense to work your way out of offensive futility against, it’d be the Cardinals. We’re talking about the worst defense in overall PFF defense grade, coverage grade, passing success rate allowed, with no starting defensive player possessing a PFF coverage grade of 55 or higher. Clearly, Vance Joseph’s blitz and man-heavy defense is starting to come back to bite him, as you’d expect with a talented-deficient defense, and it allows for the possibility that the Panthers can produce offensively simply based on explosive plays and the clear matchup advantage they have with DJ Moore and Robbie Anderson on the outside, which is key for such an inefficient offense. Of course, offense also tends to dictate their own performance regardless of the defense they’re facing – hence, why it’s given a larger weight in standard projections – so it’s also very likely Arizona’s weaknesses won’t be exploited here. Really, that’s something that actually makes this game very fascinating.
At the very least, though, it’s time for the old Kyler Murray to please return. Only four players are getting rid of the ball quicker (2.44 time-to-throw) than he is, and, consequently, it’s leading to the second-lowest average depth of target (6.4 yards), which is criminal for a quarterback who has historically been at his best working 10+ yards down the field. Meanwhile, he’s also been close to a non-factor as a runner, and there’s just no out of structure element to this offense, which would work a lot better if things were actually going well in structure. In spite of this, though, they still rank 11th in EPA/play, and you’d expect Murray to eventually get back to what he thrives at. Now, Carolina has performed well (10th in EPA/play allowed) defensively, but merely playing from a favorable gamescript as opposed to what they’ve dealt with so far will be of great benefit, and I’d assume they won’t have to settle for four field goal tries again. At the end of the day, even with a putrid infrastructure, there’s so much wiggle room having a quarterback like Murray – last year’s leader in big-time throw rate – allows for, as demonstrated by the fact they’ve had any sort of competence offensively so far.
The fact that this current version of Baker Mayfield is a favorite over Kyler Murray may be the most perplexing betting line I’ve seen of the year- I’ll gladly bank on the team that has shown at least some sort of hope offensively. Unless the Panthers plan on having a fumble return touchdown, two missed opposing field goals, and a 67-yard touchdown on a screen pass to Laviska Shenault Jr. again, it’s very difficult to see how they accomplish much of anything this season, which, in turn, likely leads to seismic change this offseason. For now, though, consider this a clear “you can be better than this” spot for the Cardinals.
New England Patriots (1-2) at Green Bay Packers (2-1)
Spread: GB (-9.5)
- Projected Spread: GB (-5.97)
- My Pick: NE (+9.5)
- Projected Total: 50.48
- My Pick: Over
- NE: 31.92%
- GB: 68.08%
Score Prediction: Patriots 19 Packers 24
- Can Some Sort of Downfield Passing Attack Be Established In Green Bay?
- Hello, Romeo Doubs!
- Is This Going To Be The Worst Patriots Defense In Recent Memory?
Is it just me, or was this consistently the popular Super Bowl pick of the 2010s? Sadly, we never got to see a Tom Brady-Aaron Rodgers Super Bowl, and, now, these two teams aren’t exactly the offensive powerhouses they once established themselves as. Still, the Rodgers-Bill Belichick chess match is in place here, so there’s that?
Who thought that we’d eventually live in a world where Aaron Rodgers had the lowest average depth of target in the NFL? Alas, when your offense is centered around your two running backs, that’s the negative effect, and it’s already showing- a team quarterbacked by Aaron Rodgers should not be in the middle-of-the-pack in EPA/play. Now with Sammy Watkins on injured reserve and Christian Watson not in Rodgers’ favor, there isn’t much in the way of vertical speed on this offense, though Romeo Doubs (1.90 yards/route run) is making good on his preseason hype as a fourth-round rookie. Now, considering he was very effective down the field in college, can he start to have a more expanded route tree? That’ll be needed, and they’ll have their chances against a man-heavy Patriots defense that can certainly be beaten over the top.
Speaking of which, how long before we start to stop recognizing the Patriots as a productive defense simply based on reputation? Through three weeks, they rank 26th in success rate allowed, have the fifth-worst PFF coverage grade, and also have gotten gashed on the ground (31st in EPA/rush attempt allowed). At this point, the talent has dissipated from this defense, particularly with the linebackers and cornerbacks, making this the unfortunate result. Plus, they’ll now have to try to get by with Brian Hoyer under center, which, considering that Mac Jones was struggling (20th in adjusted EPA/play) in a poor offensive infrastructure and receiver Jakobi Meyers is out, doesn’t seem ideal against a top-ten pass defense.
With the season getting away from them and little young talent on the roster, the Patriots appear to have officially reached organizational purgatory, and there’s not a lot they can hang their hats on currently. Now, this game may simply be closer than expected considering how limited Green Bay’s offense has been, but what’s the end goal for this season? Alas, it may be time to take a step back and reflect, though, for now, perhaps they can continue to expose some of the Packers’ deficiencies. Or, maybe this is the game they start to look like, you know, the Packers.
Denver Broncos (2-1) at Las Vegas Raiders (0-3)
Spread: LV (-2.5)
- Projected Spread: LV (+1.61)
- My Pick: DEN (+2.5)
- Projected Total: 45.38
- My Pick: Under
- DEN: 54.88%
- LV: 45.12%
Score Prediction: Broncos 23 Raiders 21
- Will The Broncos Offense Ever Get In Sync?
- Doomsday in Las Vegas?
- Mack Hollins Is The Raiders Leading Receiver over Davante Adams and Darren Waller?
Coming into the season, we all anticipated the AFC West to solidify themselves as a gauntlet of a division, and although much of that was due to the Chiefs and Chargers, but also to the depth provided by the Broncos and Raiders, who, on paper, seemingly had all the talent needed to make major waves offensively. So far, though, it’s been a mighty struggle for both teams, and, now, this is a major game for them to prove themselves.
On the bright side for the Broncos, they somehow have come out of the first three weeks with a winning record, which I guess happens when your defense allows a combined 16 points in their last two games. I want to be careful to say its been a disastrous start to the Russell Wilson era in Denver considering they rank 13th in EPA/play overall, but they’ve also had the fourth-worst success rate so far, pointing to a complete inability to put together successful, sustained drives. Right now, it’s safe to say Wilson (9th-worst PFF grade) hasn’t lived up to early expectations, with a lack of consistent accuracy (9th-worst adjusted completion rate) or chunk plays (9th-worst big-time throw rate) playing a factor. At his peak, this isn’t a quarterback who keeps an offense on schedule, but, rather, makes up for it with pure improvisation and the ability to flip the game with one play. Yet, when the home runs go away and you can’t get on base, that’s an issue; it’s now been a two-year tend with no scrambling ability present, and he hasn’t been able to adapt by being a more efficient passer elsewhere.
Still, you’d figure a drop-off in production wouldn’t be THIS extreme for Wilson, and it is normal for things to take time for a new offense to get in sync. Overall, the team’s pass protection (fourth-highest PFF PBLK) is very strong, and an instant connection has been built with Courtland Sutton (2.51 yards/route run). It’s hard to bank against an offense with so much talent, and facing the Raiders defense (fourth-worst on early downs) gives them a great “breakout” spot. Speaking of Las Vegas, it’s very evident that things are starting to go downhill in a hurry. After all, they’re a bottom-ten team on early downs on both sides of the ball, are 0-3 despite consecutive winnable games against the Cardinals and Titans, play in a extremely difficult division, and have no cohesion whatsoever. Meanwhile, Davante Adams and Darren Waller, each at 1.48 yards/route run, are producing at a rate well below their career baselines, to the point Mack Hollins is currently the leading receiver for this offense. Who had that on their bingo card?
To boot, there’s also reason to be very worried about head coach Josh McDaniels. The Raiders are throwing play action at the third-lowest rate, while the offense as a whole has been very stagnant; they were running four verticals in a goal-to-go situation at the end of last week’s loss to the Titans just to give one example, while they’re also passing 6% below expectation on first downs. Add in still clear offensive line woes, and there’s more limitations to the offense that one would’ve imagined, and the defense, which is getting little impact from edge rusher Chandler Jones (59.7 PFF pass rush) in addition to their lack of pass coverage. The Broncos, on the other hand, rank in the top-four in PFF pass rush grade and coverage grade, and, thus, could make life very miserable for an offense struggling to put it together.
Yet, the Raiders are favorites here? That’s hard to comprehend given the fact that Denver has the more successful offense with a major defensive mismatch in place, and, in simple terms, that would make them the clear better team. Sometimes, that’s as straightforward as it needs to be; I’m not sure the Broncos even need to be in sync to win this game. There’s a lot of pressure for both of these teams here, making this the perfect game to focus on in the late slate. At some point, it’s now or never.
Kansas City Chiefs (2-1) at Tampa Bay Buccaneers (2-1)
Spread: TB (-1.5)
- Projected Spread: TB (+1.7)
- My Pick: KC (+1.5)
- Projected Total: 47.58
- My Pick: Over
- KC: 55.17%
- TB: 44.83%
Score Prediction: Chiefs 27 Buccaneers 24
- Tom Brady Has His Playmakers Back!
- Elite vs Elite: Chiefs Offense vs Bucs Defense
- Can Tampa Bay’s Offensive Line Hold Up Against IDL Chris Jones?
Is this the last time we’ll see Patrick Mahomes and Tom Brady face off? Barring a rematch in Glendale in Feburary, that almost certainly will be the case, making this game one to treasure. After an embarrassing blowout loss during Super Bowl LV, the Chiefs finally get to return to Tampa Bay to try to exorcise their demons, and, most importantly, both of these will be looking to rebound after heartbreaking losses last week. There’s nothing like potential Super Bowl preview on Sunday Night Football.
It may not seem like it, but the Chiefs offense, who still lead the league in EPA/play, are probably going to be fine! If anything facing a pass-funnel Tampa Bay defense plays into their strengths even more, as when it comes to the actual passing game, this offense remains as elite as it get, with Juju Smith-Schuster (1.89 yards/route run) off to a strong start, Travis Kelce showing no signs of slowing down, and the combination of Marquez Valdes-Scantling and Mecole Hardman likely to provide much more in the way of big-play ability based on their track record. Now, that isn’t to say the Bucs, with the #1 EPA/play allowed and the #2 PFF coverage grade, aren’t a daunting test. Of course, going from the Cowboys, Saints, and Packers to the Chiefs is also a notable jump, and history would indicate that the elite offense likely will have the edge against the elite defense, as simple as that seems.
Fortunately for the Bucs, with Mike Evans, Julio Jones, and Chris Godwin all back for this game, as well as left tackle Donovan Smith, they should seemingly be much more set up in the passing game. So, is that enough for them to get back to their roots and not rank in the bottom-ten in early-down pass frequency? Especially when considering how inefficient they’ve been (last in EPA/rush attempt) on the ground. Now, that’s also assuming their young interior offensive line tandem of Luke Goedeke (31.3 PFF PBLK grade) and Robert Hainsey (55.5 PFF PBLK grade) can find a way to hold up against Chris Jones, which could throw a definite wrench in Tampa Bay’s plans. Yet, on paper, including Russell Gage, they’re four deep at wide receiver and have all the talent they need to have the same offense stylistically they’ve had in the past. So, is this a coaching issue or just a short-term mirage? The answer there could actually have notable effects for the team’s long-term prospects.
There’s much more offensive stability and certainty with the Chiefs right now, which seems strange to say when Tom Brady is on the other side. Perhaps this is the type of game where the absence of Tyreek Hill shows up, but trusting Patrick Mahomes and Andy Reid is usually not a faulty strategy. Still, would it be surprising if all the Bucs offense needed was health for them to revert back to the explosive passing attack they were last year? Of course not; that’s why they’re favored to win this game. Yet, would it also be surprising if they remain ultra-conservative, the interior offensive line remains a notable concern, and they suffer without the turnover luck (+8) they’ve had to start the year? Wow, NBC really hit the jackpot here.
Los Angeles Rams (2-1) at San Francisco 49ers (1-2)
Spread: SF (-2)
- Projected Spread: SF (+2.98)
- My Pick: LAR (+1.5)
- Projected Total: 44.3
- My Pick: Over
- LAR: 59.04%
- SF: 40.96%
Score Prediction: Rams 23 49ers 20
- Two Completely Compromised Offensive Lines
- Where Did The Explosive Element of The Rams Passing Game Go?
- How Elite Is the 49ers Defense?
What better way to wrap up the week than a consistently evolving rivalry getting under way once again? By now, Kyle Shanahan’s success against Sean McVay (six straight regular seasons wins) is well known, but what’s left out of that is the fact that McVay’s Rams just defeated Shanahan’s 49ers in last year’s NFC Championship Game, which paved the way for Los Angeles’ Super Bowl title. So, was that enough to get the proverbial monkey off of McVay’s back?
Right now, McVay has much bigger concerns than simply overcoming recent struggles against the 49ers. Through three games, the Rams rank just 19th in EPA/play and 29th on EPA/play on early downs, while there’s no explosive to their passing game- they have the third-lowest converted air yards per completion, which should not be the case for a team quarterbacked by Matthew Stafford. This is where not having Odell Beckham Jr. and even Van Jefferson really hurts, especially with Allen Robinson’s struggles from last year showing up so far (0.81 yards/route run). Couple that with much worse pass protection, and it’s going to be very difficult for them to be the spread-out offense that they were last year, pivoting McVay into a more condensed, on schedule offense; you can’t rely on Stafford to be so dominant under pressure (87.8 PFF grade) for the entire season.
Still, for what it’s worth, they’ve managed to stay on schedule (6th in success rate) very well, and I also wouldn’t expect them to struggle with turnovers (seven in three games) the way they have. It’s not going to be an easy test against a 49ers defense that is going to play off and rush four in similar fashion to what we saw Buffalo do the Rams in Week 1 – blitzing Stafford is not a sound idea – but it’s also completely unclear how elite San Francisco’s defense is when considering they’ve so far faced the Bears, Seahawks, and a completely out-of-sync Broncos offense. Plus, what do we make of the 49ers offense?
Even when excluding Week 1’s monsoon game, San Francisco ranks just 18th and 20th in EPA/play and success rate, respectively, and have been a bottom-ten offense on early downs overall. We’ve seen Kyle Shanahan produce successful offenses with Jimmy Garoppolo in the past, though even when starting in 2021, ranking 15th in success rate isn’t a super lofty number, and it’s much harder when the infrastructure starts to collapse- they have a completely different interior offensive line, and, now, have to get by without Trent Williams, who is coming off arguably the best season ever (96.6 PFF grade) for an offensive tackle. That’s not easy considering the attention that Aaron Donald on his own is going to command, especially when the Rams also have the linebacker duo (Bobby Wagner, Ernest Jones) to no longer be exploited over the middle-of-the-field as they have in the past and is PFF‘s highest graded run defense after three weeks. Similar to last week against Denver, whose defensive coordinator (Ejiro Evero) was on the Rams’ coaching staff last year, it could be another offensive struggle for the 49ers.
In the end, it’s going to come down to these two teams in the NFC West, though, right now, both look a shell of the teams that we saw in January last year. Ultimately, the Rams are the team with the quarterback that has proven to be capable of high-end play to elevate an offense that isn’t as strong as it was last year, and given what we’ve seen from San Francisco this year, it’s a bit surprising to see them as a two-point favorite here. In the end, it’s anyone’s guess who turns the corner here, though the quarterback position is a strong place to start.
MIN/NO: Vikings Wire
WSH/DAL: NBC Sports
CHI/NYG: Bears Wire
BUF/BAL: Democrat and Chronicle
CLE/ATL: Dawg Pound Daily
LAC/HOU: Chargers Wire
JAX/PHI: Philly Sports Network
NYJ/PIT: Yahoo! Sports
SEA/DET: Detroit Free Press
TEN/IND: Stampede Blue
NE/GB: Packers Wire
DEN/LV: CBS Sports
LAR/SF: Rams Wire