Welcome back, NFL offenses! After a sluggish first three weeks of the season, NFL teams averaged 24.9 points per game in Week 4, making for an extremely entertaining slate of action. Now, is this a trend, or just a case where the Seahawks and Lions clearly thought playing defense was optional? As more offenses adjust to the new wave of two-high defenses, you’d expect moe scoring to follow, though this week will be a significant litmus test.
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.
With four games this week possessing a spread of at least a touchdown, is this the week a replication of that occurs? Once you think you have it all figured out, the NFL surprises you once again, which is the beauty of a small sample size sport; every game can be a major teaching moment for us. Just think about how much differently teams look now compared to a month ago! I mean, Geno Smith is literally Pro Football Focus’ highest-graded quarterback a month into the season. How can you not be romantic about football?
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.
At some point, the Cardinals offense should improve, right? It’s a funny dynamic after being the top team in the league on third downs last year, further demonstrating how unstable success in that situation can be, but it’s very unlikely a Kyler Murray-quarterbacked team is going to deal with these issues all season long. At the same time, it’s been a rough go for the Jets defense, but it’s pretty easy to be optimistic about that improving with natural third-down regression, especially with such an improved secondary. On the contrary, the Bengals offense remains a clear point of concern, as does the Titans and Packers defense. Oh, and what else is there to say about the Commanders at this point? It ain’t pretty, folks.
Now, onto the previews!
Indianapolis Colts (1-2-1) at Denver Broncos (2-2)
Spread: DEN (-3.5)
- Projected Spread: DEN (-4.2)
- My Pick: DEN (-3.5)
- Projected Total: 42.09
- My Pick: Under
- IND: 37.16%
- DEN: 62.84%
Projected Margin of Victory: Broncos by 5.05
Score Prediction: Colts 17 Broncos 23
- Was The Colts’ Overall Offensive Success In Week 4 a Sign of Future Improvement?
- Russell Wilson Coming Off of His Best Game as a Bronco With a Favorable Matchup
- How Notable Is The Loss of EDGE Randy Gregory For Denver’s Defense?
It wasn’t supposed to be this way. When you trade for a new quarterback, especially a potential future Hall of Famer, you do so with the expectation of not only being competitive, but with a postseason berth being the baseline; both of these two teams had preseason win totals of 9.5 or higher for a reason. Now, though, things have been quite messy, and, now, this feels like the potential climax for each of their seasons.
To be fair to the Colts, when you exclude turnovers, they were the second-most efficient team when passing the ball last year. The problem? The negatives are starting to become a consistent problem. At the moment, Matt Ryan is tied for the league-lead with nine turnover-worthy plays, while he’s also the fifth-most sacked quarterback. When you also have the lowest big-time throw rate in the league, are 37-years-old with declining physical capabilities, and play in an offense with a receiving corps most would consider limited, that can’t be the case. At this point, though, can you bank on anything changing, especially with little support in the ground game? Last week showed reasons to be optimistic, though, even without edge rusher Randy Gregory, we’re still talking about a Broncos defense that ranks 3rd in the NFL in EPA/play allowed on non-turnovers, with a coverage unit (4th in PFF COV grade) playing at an extremely high level. On a short week, this may not be the time it all comes together.
On the other side, even when taking out turnovers, Denver’s offense currently has the fourth-lowest success rate in the NFL, and have been particularly abysmal (30th in success rate) on dropback situations. Mainly, this is due to a lack of success on early downs (fifth-worst EPA/play), which, for the most part, is an indictment on the current functioning of this offense. It’s really hard to describe what’s going on other than an offense that simply cannot find their identity, though last week, where Russell Wilson looked much more like his vintage self (80.3 PFF grade, 10% big-time throw) in terms of being able to create down the field in a way that should create a very high offensive floor. Plus, if there was a time for a coming out party, it’d be here; the Colts, under Gus Bradley, are notorious for running a heavy amount of cover-three shells, which Wilson (9.1 yards/attempt since 2021) has shredded throughout his NFL career. If that wasn’t enough, Indianapolis is also a bottom-ten defense in terms of EPA per dropback, have the sixth-lowest PFF coverage grade, and are without linebacker Shaquille Leonard in this game. What else needs to be aligned for a Broncos offense with Wilson, strong pass protection, and a receiver tandem of Courtland Sutton and Jerry Jeudy to reach its potential?
There are clear parallels to the way the season has started for both of these teams, but, at the same time, the Broncos also are the team with a quarterback who isn’t 37-years-old and is simply physically capable of much more, have far superior offensive talent, and also carry a notable defensive edge. Indianapolis still plays in the AFC South and could make a run, but the fact they’re now 0-2-1 in said division isn’t exactly a ringing endorsement, and the clear deficiencies in roster construction are likely to show up here. At the end of the day, this is still a sport where talent wins out.
New York Giants (3-1) at Green Bay Packers (3-1)
Spread: GB (-8)
- Projected Spread: GB(-9.9)
- My Pick: GB (-8)
- Projected Total: 44.48
- My Pick: Over
- NYG: 20.05%
- GB: 79.97%
Projected Margin of Victory: Packers by 15.6
Score Prediction: Giants 17 Packers 27
- The Packers’ Run Defense Could Be Very Problematic
- Another Chance For Green Bay To Establish a Deeper Passing Attack
- Brutal Tests For the Giants’ Two First-Round Rookies
Back-to-back weeks with London games? Well, there’s no issue with getting football even earlier on Sunday! Here, we see just your normal matchup between 3-1 teams, and there’s nothing more to it than that. Of course, that’s all in good humor for two teams with much different expectations for the rest of the season, and I do wonder if this is the time where that talent gap shows up for both sides.
The mere fact that the Packers had to go to overtime to beat a Patriots team down to their third-string quarterback, a fourth-round rookie, isn’t exactly a ringing endorsement for a team that has been heavily scrutinized so far in the post-Davante Adams era. Overall, they’ve been a middle-of-the-pack offense (14th in EPA/play) without any sort of explosive element, yet last week may have been a turning point. Simply take a look at Aaron Rodgers’ average depth of target by game
- Week 1: 5.9 yards
- Week 2: 5.6 yards
- Week 3: 5.4 yards
- Week 4: 9.6 yards
Allen Lazard has been consistently utilized down the field, but for fourth-round rookie Romeo Doubs (11.8 average depth of target) to also get a chance to shine there, with just 16% of the targets going to running backs, is a very positive sign. After all, this is still Aaron Rodgers, the quarterback with the highest PFF passing grade working 20+ yards down the field and someone you do not want to be limiting to a game manager role. With the Giants ranking near the top of the league in blitz rate and the amount of man coverage they play, there are going to be plenty of opportunities for more of what we saw last week against New England, which would be a significant development for them.
While the Giants have been a quality defense (16th in EPA/play allowed) this year, keep in mind that has come against the Titans, Panthers, Cowboys (without Dak Prescott), and the Bears. When you put in that context, it’s easy to see why they’ve been such an elite third-down defense (3rd in EPA/play allowed) while acknowledging that almost certainly won’t be the case moving forward. For what it’s worth, interior defender Dexter Lawrence (90.8 PFF pass-rush grade) could be playing his way into a notable contract extension, though the back-seven remains a major concern, to say the least. Then again, this is why we’re talking about a rebuilding organization.
Speaking of their organizational direction, the lack of talent offensively certainly is showing for the Giants in terms of their receiving corps (consisting of Richie James Jr., David Sills, Darius Slayton) , which, combined with a struggling offensive line, has led to Daniel Jones being the most-pressured quarterback in football. Now, they face a Packers defense that is allowing the lowest success rate in the NFL against the pass, have two top-ten rated players in PFF pass rush grade (Kenny Clark, Rashan Gary) at their respective positions, as well as a renowned back-seven that should get Jaire Alexander back. Oh, and Jones is currently dealing with an ankle injury. Outside of that, though, this should be easy for head coach Brain Daboll!
Ultimately, we’ll see how big of a concern Green Bay’s run defense is. A traditional light-box team that hasn’t invested a lot into run defense, only the Patriots are allowing a higher rushing success rate than the Packers, which is backed up by the third-lowest PFF run defense grade. Now, they face a top-ten offense on the ground, mainly due to what Saquon Barkley has been able to accomplish, so consider this a pretty strong indicator of how much a running back can accomplish on their own.
In the end, the answer will almost certainly be “not enough”. The Giants already came into this season in a talent deficit, but to have multiple wide receivers and defensive linemen now injured makes life even more difficult, whereas the Packers are starting to make clear strides offensively from a process standpoint. Then again, what are the expectations in New York anyways? The coaching job by Brian Daboll, offensive coordinator Mike Kafka, and defensive coordinator Wink Martindale is enough to provide plenty of optimism moving forward, even if the lack of impact players is eventually going to show up. Is this the game where the Packers hit their stride and don’t look back? Maybe all it ever was going to take was a quick trip overseas!
Houston Texans (0-3-1) at Jacksonville Jaguars (2-2)
Spread: JAX (-7)
- Projected Spread: JAX (-3.5)
- My Pick: HOU (+7)
- Projected Total: 42.28
- My Pick: Under
- HOU: 39.39%
- JAX: 69.6%
Projected Margin of Victory: Jaguars by 3.68
Score Prediction: Texans 18 Jaguars 21
- Rebound Spot For Jaguars Offense
- The Texans Secondary Is Actually Quite Competent?
- The Development of Jacksonville’s Young Defensive Players
Wait, the Jaguars are favored in an actual game by seven points? Wow, a lot can happen in a month. Honestly, that “change in mentality” from consistent underdog to heavy favorite is a fun storyline in it of itself, outside of the fact that this is a fun team with plenty of young players whose development they’re relying on. Oh, and I’m being told the Texans are also playing in this game.
Really, is there a team that gets cast aside in football discussions more than the Texans? It’s easy to see why, given the fact they’re the only winless team in the NFL, came into the year as the favorite for the #1 overall pick, and are now entering their second straight season in a teardown phase. At the same time, shouldn’t we spread the love around? Hey, this is the 11th-most efficient offense in the league on early downs! Evidently, there are some clear limitations to what Davis Mills can provide (1.3% big-time throw rate), but he’s also taken care of the ball (1.8% turnover-worthy play), has gotten quality pass protection (12th in PFF pass-block grade), while Nico Collins (1.82 yards/route run) may be in the midst of a second-year surge to pair with Brandin Cooks to for a quality receiver tandem. Certainly, the team’s deficiencies on third downs are likely real when referring to Mills’ limitations as a statue-esque passer who struggles to deal with pressure, in addition to lack of playmaking depth. That being said, perhaps offensive coordinator Pep Hamilton is doing a quality job so far, and setting the stage for the next Texans quarterback.
Now, from a pure athletic perspective, Houston’s in for a rough matchup against Jacksonville, who is filled with elite-level athletes on the defensive side of the ball. Whether it’s generating pressure (4th in pressure rate) or limiting success on the ground (fifth-best PFF run defense grade), their defensive line has certainly lived up to preseason hype so far, but with second-year defensive backs Tyson Campbell and Andre Cisco holding their own, as is rookie linebacker Devin Lloyd, they’re also in a much better spot in the back-seven than anticipated; positive regression on third downs could truly demonstrate what they’ve been able to bring to the table so far. That’s not to say there are some clear holes present, ironically at some spots where they’ve invested heavily (LB Foyesade Oluokun , S Rayshawn Jenkins, CB Darious Williams, #1 overall pick Travon Walker), but it’s clear to see the reasons for optimism.
Meanwhile, it was a rough offensive showing for the Jaguars in Philadelphia on Sunday, as only the Panthers had a less-efficient offense; Trevor Lawrence (27.6 PFF grade) struggling as much as he did also wasn’t the ideal outcome. There is some reason to associate some of that to the weather conditions though, making this is a spot where they can quickly move past that; I’m assuming five of Lawrence’s 23 pass attempts won’t be dropped again, nor will he fumble the ball four times. Then again, conditions weren’t responsible for Lawrence being baited for an interception by James Bradburry, the team’s overall lack of rushing success, or Lawrence continuing to struggle with pressure (lowest-graded QB under pressure after similar issues last year). Now, the Texans (13th in PFF COV grade, 12th in pressure rate) aren’t exactly a walk in the park with a secondary, that, with veterans in Steven Nelson and Desmond King to go along with rookies Derek Stingley Jr. and Jalen Pitre, has been a pleasant surprise this season. Thus, it’s likely they’re being a bit discounted here, nor is it a given that the Jaguars simply have their way with them. In fact, it could easily turn into more of a struggle than they’re hoping for.
A Jaguars fan, considering the team has the third-best point differential in the NFL despite facing the Eagles and Chargers during that span, should be quite optimistic about the team’s future, as well as their ability to win a depleted AFC South. Naturally, though, that can lead to us getting ahead of ourselves, such as them being a seven-point favorite here. Yes, a lot has changed, but are we perhaps drinking the Kool-Aid a bit too much here? We should have a much better idea after Sunday.
Tennessee Titans (2-2) at Washington Commanders (1-3)
Spread: WSH (+1.5)
- Projected Spread: WSH (+2.3)
- My Pick: TEN (-1.5)
- Projected Total: 44.79
- My Pick: Under
- TEN: 56.89%
- WSH: 43.11%
Projected Margin of Victory: Titans by 1.39
Score Prediction: Titans 23 Commanders 20
- Are The Titans Now Too Limited In The Receiving Corps?
- The Optimism Regarding The Commanders’ Passing Attack Withered Quickly
- A Potential Breakout Game For Tennessee’s Pass Rush
Sometimes, the hunt for a quarterback can become so extreme to the point that once you believe you’ve identified the solution, you ignore any areas of concern and shine perhaps to much of an optimistic light; this leads to potentially pushing your chips into the table for a quarterback that comes with notable downside. Of course, though, when you’re spending a significant amount of money at the quarterback position for someone not considered a game-changing quarterback, you need to have relatively flawless team-building elsewhere to compensate for that.
Why do I bring this up? Well, both of these teams currently rank in the top-three in dollars allocated to the quarterback position, yet the final product certainly doesn’t reflect that being a rightful investment. I’ll start with the Commanders, who perhaps are the more egregious version of this. Since head coach Ron Rivera took over in 2020, there was been a clear expectation of contending with several high draft picks on the defense, especially after a postseason appearance in his first season. Since then, though, they’ve been bitten hard by the quarterback carousel, and the current version of their team seems to be a “worse-case scenario”. We’ll get to the quarterback woes, but it’s also important to point at the mere fact that the perceived “core” talent hasn’t panned out as expected. Dating back to 2021, they’re not exactly in great company here:
The teams associated with them are all what you’d classify as rebuilding organizations, and it’s not just a quarterback issue; their defense has cratered, remains without edge rusher Chase Young, they aren’t getting ideal returns from players they invested a lot of money on during the 2020-2021 offseason, and recent draft picks perhaps haven’t panned out as they’d hope for. Now, the worst part- after trading a third-round pick and another conditional pick likely to be a second-round draft choice for Carson Wentz, they’re currently the third-worst offense in the NFL based on EPA/play despite being on the right side of significant third-down luck.
For a quarterback perceived as being volatile with high-end upside based on his arm talent, Wentz (16th in big-time throw rate) isn’t providing Washington with the chunk plays through the air that was supposed to compensate for their lack of efficiency. Plus, with the sixth-highest sack rate and a still high 3.8% turnover-worthy play rate, the negatives are still there, and they’ll now be without center Chase Roullier and may also be without both starting tackles. Yikes! There is plenty of reason to be concerned about a Titans defense that is allowing the highest EPA/play in the NFL on early downs, while also struggling mightily on the back-end (fifth-worst PFF coverage grade). At the same time, they also have three players (Jeffery Simmons, Denico Autry, Teair Tart) with a PFF pass rush grade of 80 or higher, and could see that finally translate into tangible production against a quarterback who clearly struggles to protect himself. Thus, the negative plays that have plagued Washington remain in effect.
Speaking of Tennessee, what are they truly trying to accomplish this season? No player has a larger cap hit this season than Ryan Tannehill, while they’re currently projected to be in a cap deficit next year. Usually, this explains a team competing for a Super Bowl, but I don’t think it takes a rocket scientist to state that this may be inconsistent with the product on the field. Overall, even when taking away turnovers, the Titans have just the 20th-most efficient offense in football, and, frankly, it hasn’t been much better on defense (30th). Now, first-round rookie Treylon Burks will be sidelined with a turf toe, limiting a receiving corps that still misses AJ Brown even further. Add that to very poor pass protection (two bottom-five graded tackles in pass protection), and it’s easy to see why Tannehill’s production falls off so dramatically (10.5 yards/attempt to 6.1 yards/attempt) when not in a play-action concept. As such, it’s an offense that is going to be very game-script dependent and have more success on early downs than third down.
Fortunately for Tennessee, the Commanders’ offensive deficiencies put them in a great spot here to stay in a favorable game script, though Washington’s success limiting opposing rushing attacks (tied-first in rushing success rate allowed) for a very run-heavy offense is a natural concern. Of course, they’ve also struggled mightily against the pass (27th in dropback EPA/play allowed excluding turnovers), and the Titans are in position to find success in the play-action passing game. In many ways though, consider this game a reminder of how much things can shift in a hurry without a high-end quarterback in place. It’s the most important position in sports for a reason!
Chicago Bears (2-2) at Minnesota Vikings (3-1)
Spread: MIN (-7.5)
- Projected Spread: MIN (-10.5)
- My Pick: MIN (-7.5)
- Projected Total: 42.25
- My Pick: Under
- CHI: 18.08%
- MIN: 81.92%
Projected Margin of Victory: Vikings by 16.8
Score Prediction: Bears 14 Vikings 23
- Can Justin Fields Build Off Of Last Week’s Performance?
- What’s The Truth Regarding The Vikings’ Run Defense?
- How Big Of a Worry Is Minnesota’s Interior Offensive Line?
Naturally, based on what we’ve come to expect from them, the Packers would appear the clear favorites to win the NFC North. Yet, the Vikings, who’ve already beaten them, simply won’t go away. After multiple last-second wins that perhaps weren’t extremely inspiring, this is a clear spot for them to stand out in a way they haven’t since Week 1, though that’s always easier said than done.
Really, so far, it’s been very status quo for Minnesota this season. Overall, they’ve shown strong offensive competence (13th in EPA/play, 7th in success rate), with Kirk Cousins being PFF‘s 11th-highest graded quarterback. With a more pass-oriented mindset, stronger play-action usage, and simply higher quality route concepts, head coach Kevin O’Connell has looked strong from a process standpoint, yet they’re also 18th on EPA/play on dropbacks and simply haven’t had an explosive element to their passing attack. A lot of that is due to Cousins attempting a pass 20+ yards down the field at the second-lowest rate, correlating with Justin Jefferson’s average depth of target being nearly 3.5 yards lower than last year. On the bright side, though, Cousins’ average depth of target (8.5 yards) is back to career norms over the past two games, which, from there, should allow for an offense slightly less reliant on efficiency.
To be fair to Minnesota, outside of their Week 3 win against the Lions, have faced a gauntlet of opposing pass defenses: Packers, Eagles, Saints. On the other hand, the Bears have faced the 49ers in a monsoon, as well as the Texans and Giants, yet still rank just 18th in EPA/play allowed on dropbacks. As such, consider this a change of perspective for both sides. Only the 49ers and Bills blitz less than the Bears, and combined with the lowest PFF pass rush grade in the NFL, that’s going to lead to a lot of clean pockets for Cousins to operate from. Then, there’s second-round rookie cornerback Kyler Gordon, who has allowed the most passing yards in the NFL this season and has struggled mightily out of the slot, something you can bank on Minnesota taking advantage of (hello, Justin Jefferson and KJ Osborn). Consider this the week where Cousins gets back to producing at the level he is capable of in this offense.
Meanwhile, while it wasn’t a perfect game, Justin Fields (67 PFF grade, 4.3% big-time throw, 0% turnover-worthy play) is coming off of a clearly his best showing of the year, while the Bears showed some willingness (only the seventh-lowest early-down pass rate) to not be an archaic offense in terms of pass/run splits. Yet, a lot of that came with Fields flourishing against the blitz (10 yards/attempt), which he saw on over half of his dropbacks. The Vikings, though, blitz at the seventh-lowest rate and almost exclusively play off-zone coverage, making this a different test for Fields. From there, we’ll also get a better idea of which side of Minnesota’s run defense metrics (fourth in PFF run defense grade, fourth-worst rush success rate allowed) holds true against the most run-heavy offense in football, though we’re still talking about the least-productive offense in the NFL based on success rate.
There’s only one team that you can trust to pass the ball competently in this game, and, to be honest, this is setting up to be a very strong game for Cousins, and Minnesota’s offense as a whole. Alas, that could make life much more challenging for Fields in obvious passing situations, which, in turn, leads back to the deficiencies that they’re going to have to deal with against stronger competition. For now, though, we’ll see if this is a lifting-off point for the Vikings.
Miami Dolphins (3-1) at New York Jets (2-2)
Spread: NYJ (+3.5)
- Projected Spread: NYJ (+6.9)
- My Pick: MIA (-3.5)
- Projected Total: 48.02
- My Pick: Under
- MIA: 71.03%
- NYJ: 28.97%
Projected Margin of Victory: Dolphins by 10.1
Score Prediction: Dolphins 24 Jets 17
- Zach Wilson’s Massive Struggles Against Man Coverage And The Blitz
- Does Miami’s Offense Stay on Track With Teddy Bridgewater?
- A Very Fun Test For The Jets Secondary
Wait, the Jets are 2-2? Somehow, despite not having a lead with two minutes to go in any game they’ve played, New York has managed to come away with a .500 record over their first month of the year, which, perhaps, may be a bit misleading. Still, though, can you imagine a world where the Jets and Giants are each over .500?
Certainly, it wasn’t the most pretty game for Zach Wilson in his first game back healthy (four turnover-worthy plays), though with the Jets ranking 2nd in EPA/play in the fourth quarterback, they are definitely riding off a very positive move right now. Yet, that could change in a hurry. While it’s true that the Dolphins as a whole have struggled mightily in pass defense (31st in dropback EPA/play allowed), it’s also worth noting three of their four games have come against the Ravens, Bills, and Bengals, and their specific style of defense has been a nightmare for Wilson throughout his career. Against man coverage throughout his career, he has had disastrous results (-.390 EPA/play, 5.9 yards/attempt), and, naturally, both of his interceptions last week came against man coverage. Against the blitz, those numbers (-.380 EPA/play, 4.9 yards/attempt) are even worse, pointing a significant theme; the inability to handle pressure and work through tight windows. Well, the Dolphins run man coverage nearly half of the time, and while their blitz rate is down compared to year’s past, that’s also likely due to facing back-to-back quarterbacks (Josh Allen, Joe Burrow), whom it would be illogical to blitz against. In this game, expect them to utilize the entire toolbox, thus creating plenty of chaos for Wilson.
Meanwhile, for most teams with a backup quarterback stepping in, a notable adjustment is needed, yet will that happen in Miami? After all, Teddy Bridgewater was tied for 13th in adjusted EPA/play in the NFL last year with the Broncos, with a previous track record of playing mainly mistake-free football with plenty of accuracy (career 78.3% adjusted completion rate) to boot. Certainly, that’s not the description of a quarterback that is going to elevate an offense, but for one distributing the ball to Tyreek Hill and Jaylen Waddle with an offense that is going to create yards-after-catch opportunities with heavy play-action usage, that is still going to lead to plenty of production. Even if the Jets have gotten very strong production from the cornerback duo of DJ Reed Jr. (78.9 PFF COV grade) and Sauce Gardner (71.3 PFF COV grade), their poor production from their safeties and linebackers is alarming when facing an offense designed to create paranoia over the middle-of-the-field. Remember, this is still a defense that ranks 29th in EPA/play allowed for a reason.
Coming off of 10 days of rest and after three straight grueling matchups (Ravens, Bills, Bengals), this has to be a very welcome sight for Dolphins head coach Mike McDaniel, who now find themselves with a very favorable schedule coming up. Hopefully, that leads to even less of an inclination to rush Tua Tagovailoa back prematurely, and, from there, a happy ending to a very troubling situation. For now, though, this game is shaping up quite well to put aside what has been a tumultuous week.
Atlanta Falcons (2-2) at Tampa Bay Buccaneers (2-2)
Spread: TB (-10)
- Projected Spread: TB (-1.9)
- My Pick: ATL (+10)
- Projected Total: 46.05
- My Pick: Over
- ATL: 44.29%
- TB: 55.71%
Projected Margin of Victory: Buccaneers by 0.66
Score Prediction: Falcons 23 Buccaneers 27
- Can Arthur Smith Sustain This Level of Offensive Success?
- A Breakout Spot For The Bucs Offense
- The Woes of Rookie IOL Luke Goedeke
Clearly, we’re looking at the top two teams in the NFC South, both of whom came into the season with the exact same expectations! Considering that this is a matchup between the team with the lowest win total and the NFC favorites, it’s shocking that, a month in, the Falcons are the team that have perhaps impressed the most, though that’s what can happen in small samples.
In the future, it’s quite clear which of these two teams will be making a Super Bowl run, but I do think there is great significance from what we’ve seen from the Falcons so far. I mean, who had them ranking 4th in success rate on offense over the first month of the season? There have plenty of impressive showings from offensive play-callers, but head coach Arthur Smith has to be near the top of that list. Here are some fun noteworthy stats from Atlanta’s offense currently:
- Marcus Mariota is currently passing out of a play-action concept on 48.9% of his dropbacks. That would be the highest ever in the time Pro Football Focus has charted this (since 2012).
- Only the Ravens and Lions are creating more yardage before contact per rush attempt than the Falcons, pointing to a rushing attack that should be able to sustain success even as they shuffle through various running backs
- On the Saints have a higher team average depth of target than the Falcons, so when they do pass, they’re taking their shots down the field
- Drake London has not only been the most productive rookie receiver, but ranks 6th in PFF receiving grade (83) as well.
Remember the 2019 Titans, Ryan Tannehill’s first season there? Well, consider this a carbon copy of that; a run-heavy offense that gets more than enough explosive plays through the air with a play-action, “big-play” passing attack condensed through multiple receivers who thrive off of physicality. Unfortunately, not having impact tight end Kyle Pitts hurts here, but if Atlanta is having this type of success right now, can you imagine what it can look like with an upgrade at the quarterback position? Clearly, they’re heading in the right direction.
Now, can they sustain their success here against a renowned Bucs defense? Based on reputation, you’d assume that Tampa Bay’s front seven would make them quite stout against opposing rushing attacks, but they actually rank in the middle-of-the-pack in that regard, mainly due to struggles in run defense from their linebackers. Plus, we’ve already seen them perform just fine (7th in success rate over the first two weeks) against the Saints and Rams, and the more they can prevent standard dropback situations, the better suited they are to hide their talent deficiencies. Now, we’ll see how much power Smith really has.
Of course, it may not be enough no matter what. It’s interesting that the Falcons rank 4th in PFF coverage grade, but they’ve been a bottom-five defense in EPA/play allowed, and success rate allowed against the pass and run. Meanwhile, lost in the midst of a tough loss to the Chiefs was the Bucs having the second-highest success rate of any team last week, getting back to their roots as a team built to “air it out at all costs”; only the Rams passed on early downs at a higher rate than them. With Mike Evans, Chris Godwin, Julio Jones, and Russell Gage all healthy at the same time, to go along with Tom Brady (fifth in PFF passing grade) still playing at an extremely high level, there’s no reason why they won’t be a top-notch offense through the air, even if their lack of rushing success remains. One potential hole, though, is second-round rookie interior offensive lineman Luke Goedeke, who has gotten off to quite a brutal start (105th among 112 IOL in PFF pass-blocking grade). If we know anything about offensive lines, it’s that it’s a weak-link unit, and for a team trying to make a Super Bowl run, being this liable in terms of interior pressure, and he’ll now get another notable test with Grady Jarrett coming to town. At some point, a change has to be considered, though it won’t be easy for an offensive line thin on depth to execute it.
The Bucs, per PFF, have faced the toughest schedule in the NFL so far, and are about to go on a very smooth run over their next three games. Still, though, don’t discount the Falcons, who’ve demonstrated the ability to have stable offensive success simple based on the offensive system in place, from making this a higher-scoring game than anticipated. Maybe I’m merely biased to teams that are way more fun to watch than they should be, but, hey, scoring points is fun! There should be plenty of that here for both sides.
Seattle Seahawks (2-2) at New Orleans Saints (1-3)
Spread: NO (-5)
- Projected Spread: NO (-4.1)
- My Pick: SEA (+5)
- Projected Total: 47.95
- My Pick: Over
- SEA: 37.56%
- NO: 62.44%
Projected Margin of Victory: Saints by 4.8
Score Prediction: Seahawks 23 Saints 24
- Well Then, Geno Smith……
- The Saints Could Score a Lot of Points Here
- New Orleans’ Edge Rush Duo Against Seattle’s Rookie Tackles
Could these two teams have gone about this offseason any differently? Ironically, both organizations finished the 2021-2022 season at a similar stage in terms of former contenders whose window appeared to be closing, but whereas the Seahawks took that as a time to hit the reset button, the Saints continued to invest significantly in being an impact team right away. In spite of that, they both have the exact same point differential (-20) despite facing similar schedules, leaving them with much different tastes in their mouth. Is this the game where a course correction comes, or will it be more of the same?
The trajectory of Geno Smith is so absurd that you’d be justified to be skeptical of it, and you should be. Yet, there’s also the mere fact that he’s playing well in all the stable areas. Not only is he PFF‘s highest-graded quarterback, but he also ranks #1 in grade from a clean pocket, leads the league in completion percentage over expectation, and was also quietly productive (73.9 PFF grade, 6.9% big-time throw, 2.4% turnover-worthy play) in place of Russell Wilson. Now, this is where I could remind you that Teddy Bridgewater, Taylor Heinicke, Daniel Jones, and Sam Darnold ranked in the top 13 in adjusted EPA/play four weeks into last year, ahead of Josh Allen and Tom Brady. Still, we’re also looking at an offense with the highest-graded receiving corps, an extremely explosive rushing attack (5th in rush EPA/play excluding turnovers), and an offensive coordinator in Shane Waldron who ranks above-average in play-action rate, early-down pass rate, and limiting third downs. Even with a drop-off in performance in Smith, this is still an offense that is going to be able to score points, even if I’d be remiss to not point out that, prior to facing the Falcons and Lions, was in the bottom-ten in EPA/play with or without turnovers factored in.
Why do I bring this up? Well, the Saints are certainly not the Falcons and Lions. When looking past turnovers, they’ve been a top-five defensive unit in EPA/play allowed and rush EPA/play allowed, while also getting strong production (10th in PFF COV grade) from their back-seven. Now, in spite of their defensive line talent, they still have the fourth-worst pressure rate, and don’t have a single cornerback with a PFF coverage grade of 64 or higher. Still, though, they’ve continued their strong of high-end play into this year, so this will be a good test for Seattle.
Speaking of quarterbacks exceeding expectations, how about Andy Dalton last week? For context, his 79.8 PFF grade was his highest-graded full game since 2018, and led the offense with the highest success rate in Week 4. The strangest part? A willingness to push the ball down the field (11.3 average depth of target), leading to their offense operating similarly, yet more efficiently, than previously. You wouldn’t bank on that trend long-term (Teddy Bridgewater started off similarly last year), yet he couldn’t be more set up for success. When taking turnovers out of the equation, the Seahawks have been the worst defense in the NFL by EPA/play allowed, and are an absolute outlier in terms of those woes:
Yikes! This is what they signed up for after hitting the reset button and going into this season with the defensive personnel they have in place, making this mainly a talent issue than anything else. The Saints, on the other hand, may have some questionable tendencies in terms of their run-heavy blueprint without any sort of play-action concepts, but, in this scenario, the talent gap should be enough to compensate for that.
Now, it’s hard to see this turning into a blowout, or the Saints even making good on being five-point favorites, simply because of the functionality of how these two teams are being run right now on the offensive side of the ball. It’s pretty clear which team has the better roster and should figure into postseason contention longer (it’d be a shock if the Seahawks actually hung around), though, similar to Falcons/Bucs, is this another “this may be closer than you think” type of game? Either way, this game is going to have plenty of entertainment, and I’m fully on board with that. At the end of the day, isn’t that the point?
Detroit Lions (1-3) at New England Patriots (1-3)
Spread: NE (-3)
- Projected Spread: NE (-6.3)
- My Pick: DET (+3)
- Projected Total: 47.64
- My Pick: Over
- DET: 30.9%
- NE: 69.1%
Projected Margin of Victory: Patriots by 8.91
Score Prediction: Lions 24 Patriots 22
- We Could Legitimately See 300+ Combined Rushing Yards Here
- Bailey Zappe Against Arguably The League’s Worst Defense
- Can The Lions Continue To Be Such an Explosive Offense?
Are you dissatisfied with the growth of popularity of pass-heavy offenses? Would you prefer to turn back the clock with some old fashioned “ground-and-pound” offenses? Well, do I have a treat for you. Move over Browns/Falcons, there’s a new leader in the clubhouse for the most “old school” game of the year.
Could you imagine being told before the season that, a month into the year, the Lions would lead the league in points scored and yards per play? Yes, the same Lions team that, between Weeks 1 and 12 last year, was averaging 15.8 points per game without a single win. It’s been quite an ascent in Detroit, and a lot of the credit lies with offensive coordinator Ben Johnson. After all, the Lions rank just 16th in PFF run-blocking grade, yet only the Ravens are creating more yardage before contact than them. Why the disconnect? That’s what a favorable offensive scheme will do for you, creating the opportunities for explosive plays on the ground. Meanwhile, Jared Goff has made the sudden transformation from the most conservative quarterback based on average depth of target to ranking in the top-ten in that statistic (9.2 yards), which, naturally, also leads to chunk plays through the air as well. It’s not too dissimilar in some ways to the Falcons, albeit with an offense that can succeed on straight dropbacks and is more flexible, which, put together has created the offense (8th in EPA/play) they’ve produced thus far.
We’ll see how this sustains in the future, but why would it stop against the Patriots? No team is allowing a higher success rate on the ground than New England, who also have the seventh-worst PFF coverage grade, and continue to be near the top of the league in the amount of man coverage they play. Yes, it’s a small sample, but Goff and the Lions (.340 EPA/play, 9.8 yards/attempt) have shredded man coverage so far this year, which makes sense for a team generally reliant on chunk plays. Maybe that’ll prove to be simply statistical noise, but even beyond that, the simpler view of a high-flying offense against a team with limitations in the back-seven and clear deficiencies against the run certainly favor them here.
That being said, if there’s anything that has become clear, it’s that the Lions (last in EPA/play allowed) are not exactly strong defensively. That’s not a surprise considering they’re a rebuilding team who ranks 31st in defensive spendings, but you’d hope for some signs of progress here. With the second most run-heavy offense last week on early downs, the Patriots showed their plan to get by with fourth-round rookie Bailey Zappe under center, who certainly had his fair share of struggles (51 PFF passing grade, -.264 EPA/play) in his NFL debut and clearly wasn’t trusted by his own team last week. For what it’s worth, during his time at Western Kentucky, his production fell off notably when blitzed, which could be a concern against the third-most blitz happy defense in football. Alas, New England will likely try to win this game on the ground, which makes sense given their success there and Detroit’s run defense woes (32nd in rush EPA/play allowed). That being said, if the Lions are having just as much success on the ground and also have an efficient passing attack, you’d almost certainly need to attack their deficient man-heavy defense through the air, but I’m not sure if that’s something even on the table for the Patriots.
We’ll learn a lot this week about the team’s faith in Zappe, who, at the very least, would ideally emerge as a backup option for them, especially since we don’t know how long Mac Jones will be sidelined with an ankle injury. Frankly, it’s a bit surprising that the team with the much more reliable offense at this point comes into this game as three-point underdogs, though if there’s anything we’ve learned about the Lions, that’s a spot they’re very comfortable being in. I’d anticipate more rushing yards in this game than through the air, which is a rarity in today’s game, but, hey, unique is good! At the end of the day, all that matters is the amount of points scored.
Pittsburgh Steelers (1-3) at Buffalo Bills (3-1)
Spread: BUF (-14)
- Projected Spread: BUF (-8.9)
- My Pick: PIT (+14)
- Projected Total: 44.7
- My Pick: Under
- PIT: 22.95%
Projected Margin of Victory: Bills by 13.8
Score Prediction: Steelers 14 Bills 24
- The Kenny Pickett Era In Pittsburgh Is Under Way
- Buffalo’s Search For Wide Receiver Depth Beyond Stefon Diggs
- Is Pittsburgh’s Strong Pass Protection For Real?
Following a loaded 2021 rookie quarterback class, the 2022 NFL Draft may have seemed like a slight letdown, but we still did see one quarterback taken in the first round. Said quarterback has the task of replacing a future Hall of Famer for one of the most demanding franchises in football, which certainly adds further to the pressure already associated with any first-round quarterback. Oh, and he has to make his first start in Buffalo as a 14-point favorite for a team that has lost three straight games. Welcome to the NFL, Kenny Pickett.
To be fair to Pickett, he’s done all the right things since being drafted. First off, he impressed (80.4 PFF grade, 85.3% adjusted completion percentage) in the preseason, to the point that it surprised many that he didn’t win the starting quarterback job to start the season. Then, upon replacing Mitchell Trubisky in Week 4’s loss to the Jets, he was absolutely stellar:
- .232 adjusted EPA/play, 50% success rate, 18.7% CPOE
Notably, Pickett was more than willing to push the ball down the field (13.2 average depth of target), but he still mustered an 84.6% adjusted completion rate, and the difference between him and Trubisky was quite notable. Go back to his final season at Pittsburgh, where he was tied with CJ Stroud and Bryce Young for the highest PFF grade in college football, and his recent run of success has been quite notable. Now, there’s the matter of it taking until his fifth season in college to perform at a high level and a propensity for holding onto the ball longer than he perhaps should, all of which may cap his long-term ceiling. Still, that’s all to be determined, and, at the moment, they’re a better team with him under center.
Still, is this how it should have taken place? It’s certainly not ideal for a quarterback’s first run of starts to come against the Bills, Bucs, Dolphins, Eagles, Saints, and Bengals, especially when you just had 10 days between Week 3 and Week 4 to set him up for a softer start against a poor Jets defense at home. Considering the Steelers were the worst team in the NFL in terms of EPA/play on dropbacks, what suddenly changed in Week 4? There’s no problem with playing Pickett, but for it to come in what seems to be a decision made emotionally, rather than an intuitive plan, is troubling, especially at a time where several offensive players have rightfully expressed their displeasure with offensive coordinator Matt Canada.
What’s done is done, though, and Pickett faces about as rough of a first matchup as one could dream of. Despite facing a very difficult opening schedule including the Rams, Dolphins, and Ravens, the Bills rank 2nd in EPA/play allowed, are so deep on the defensive line (#1 in PFF pass-rush grade) that they simply don’t need to blitz (lowest blitz rate in the NFL), leading to them also rank in the top-five in yards/attempt allowed, yards/reception allowed, and yards after catch/reception allowed. Now, the Steelers offensive line has been a pleasant surprise in terms of their success in pass protection (3rd in PFF pass block grade), though that hasn’t come against a very strong slate of opposing pass rushes (Bengals, Patriots, Browns, Jets). Certainly, this is going to be a much more daunting task for an offensive line that, on paper, isn’t the most appealing group, and Pickett’s tendency of holding onto the ball longer than he perhaps should makes life more difficult. Really, this should go about as anticipated.
If anything, what provides me with more curiosity regarding the Bills is their outlook on the offensive side of the ball. Only Matt Ryan and Kirk Cousins have attempted a pass 20+ yards down the field less than Josh Allen, whose average depth of target (7.1 yards) remains a full two yards below where it was last year, leading to an offense that lacks the explosive element we’ve come to expect from them. Allen’s efficiency on the subsets of throws has made up for it, yet the team’s non-Stefon Diggs playmakers – Gabriel Davis (0.93 yards/route run), the combination of Isaiah McKenzie and Jamison Crowder (combined 1.22 yards/route run), and Dawson Knox (0.88 yards/route run) – haven’t stepped up to build a more diverse passing game. Davis theoretically could get back on track as he recovers from an ankle injury, yet the other three players are currently injured, leaving them in a bind currently. Plus, there’s also the fact that four of their five offensive linemen have PFF pass-blocking grades under 58, condensing the passing game even further. Allen is still Allen, but perhaps there are more cracks here than initially let on.
Fortunately for Buffalo, these are not the Steelers of old. Despite facing a somewhat soft schedule (Bengals, Patriots, Browns, Jets), they’re in the bottom-half of the league in EPA/play allowed when excluding turnovers, have struggled to rush the passer without TJ Watt (three straight games with PFF pass rush grade under 64), and have only one active cornerback (Cameron Sutton) with a PFF coverage grade of 53.5 or higher. Meanwhile, Sutton may not play, safety Terrell Edmonds has already been ruled out, as has cornerback Akhello Witherspoon. With a daunting schedule ahead, this is continuing to look like a team that is going to be picking near the top of the draft, which is unfamiliar territory for Pittsburgh, and puts even more pressure on Pickett.
All of this to say that I’m not confident the Bills, as currently formed, should be a two-touchdown favorite here. Come Week 10, when Davis is healthy and performing and some of the cracks have potentially been addressed, then that could change, though consider this more of a “just get through” game with the Chiefs up next. Believe it or not, this is the largest spread against a Steelers team since the 1996 Super Bowl, and, in many ways, represents a downward trend for the franchise. Or, Pickett could throw for 400 yards, the defenses forces a few turnovers, and football continues to make zero sense. There’s a reason we love this sport!
Los Angeles Chargers (2-2) at Cleveland Browns (2-2)
Spread: CLE (+1.5)
- Projected Spread: CLE (-3.9)
- My Pick: CLE (+1.5)
- Projected Total: 50.15
- My Pick: Over
- LAC: 38.07%
- CLE: 61.93%
Projected Margin of Victory: Browns by 4.49
Score Prediction: Chargers 24 Browns 27
- Are The Browns Going To Run All Over The Chargers Again?
- Cleveland’s Secondary Should Regress To Previous Norms, Right?
- Chargers Rookie LT Jamaree Salyer against Myles Garrett
There were plenty of very entertaining games last year, but did any match up live up to the excitement that the Browns and Chargers provided in Week 5? Simply by a total points perspective (89), the answer would be no, as it took until the Seahawks and Lions to dethrone it as the most recent highest-scoring NFL game. Now, these two teams are back clashing in Week 5, and, when it’s all said and done, we could be looking at one of the premier matchups of the week.
If there was one consistent theme from the Chargers last year, it was their inability to stop the run. All told, they were the third-worst defense in EPA/rush attempt, allowed the fourth-most yards/carry, and gave up the highest success rate allowed, which led to our last memory of them from 2021- not being able to get a stop against the Raiders in overtime. Thus, it’s perhaps no surprise that the Browns were able to run for 230 yards on them, and, now, they return with a rushing attack with a higher EPA/play (.179) than all but seven passing offenses, and double that of the next-best rushing offense. Theoretically, the Chargers’ massive investments on the defensive line would be enough to quell some of these concerns, which, to be fair, they do rank 12th in success rate this year. At the same time, they’re still in the bottom-five in rushing EPA/play allowed and have allowed the second most yards/carry; that gap indicates an issue with explosive carries that could get better, or perhaps a sign of a fundamental problem. Plus, there’s also a difference between the rushing offenses they’ve faced (Raiders, Chiefs, Jaguars, Texans), and the Browns, especially with the run defense taking a step back with Kyle Van Noy replacing the injured Joey Bosa off the edge, thus moving Kenneth Murray back into a starting inside linebacker job.
Really, this could be a game in which Jacoby Brissett merely needs to perform at a competent level, which he has more than done (6th in PFF grade, 9th in adjusted EPA/play) so far. Thus, their run of 20+ point games should continue, setting the table for Justin Herbert to continue to carry the load for a beaten-down Chargers offense. Rookie offensive tackle Jamaree Salyer more than held his own (90.4 PFF pass-block grade) in his NFL debut, but how does the calculus change when it’s Myles Garrett lining up on the other side? Given the team’s deficiencies elsewhere on the offensive line, they’re not in position to give him any sort of extra help, and that’s without considering that Keenan Allen remains injured, with the team’s lack of speed helping contribute to Herbert being merely in the middle-of-the-pack in big-time throw rate (3.5%)- it’s a very condensed passing attack with no true explosive element.
Interestingly, allowing explosive plays through the air has been the Achilles heel for the Browns, who, despite their struggles, are third in the NFL in success rate allowed. Currently, based on PFF coverage grade, cornerbacks Denzel Ward and Greg Newsome II, as well as safeties Grant Delpit and John Johnson III, are performing well below their career baselines, which, eventually, you’d expect to not remain the case. Still, no team has had a softer start to the season than Cleveland (Panthers, Jets, Steelers, Falcons), so it’s also a large jump to suddenly be facing a passing attack orchestrated by Herbert. Still, without a real threat of an explosive element and not having any threat of a rushing offense, are the Chargers actually built to exploit Cleveland’s weaknesses in the way that the Browns could on the other side of the ball? It’s hard not to see clear advantages for the Browns here.
Of course, this is also a matchup between Justin Herbert and Jacoby Brissett, so it’s easy to see why the Chargers are favored. That being said, one can’t be confident right now that they’re the better team here, and they’re facing the exact team that can remind them of some of their major issues. Really, we’ll learn a lot from these teams after this game, which makes it extremely tantalizing. In a peculiar early slate of games, this is definitely one that you don’t want to miss.
San Francisco 49ers (2-2) at Carolina Panthers (1-3
Spread: CAR (+6.5)
- Projected Spread: CAR (+4.1)
- My Pick: SF (-6.5)
- Projected Total: 40.56
- My Pick: Under
- SF: 62.33%
- CAR: 37.67%
Projected Margin of Victory: 49ers by 4.74
Score Prediction: 49ers 23 Panthers 13
- Will The Panthers Cross The 50-Yard Line?
- The 49ers Down To Their Third Left Tackle with Continuous Interior Offensive Line Issues
- Panthers Rookie LT Ikem Ekwonu against Nick Bosa
Last week, when previewing the Panthers’ matchup against the Cardinals, we pondered what would happen if a completely stoppable force met a movable object. As it turns out, the futility of the Panthers, who finished as the worst offense in terms of EPA/play (-.460) despite facing Pro Football Focus’ lowest-graded defense, won out. Now, they’ll take on the #1 ranked defense in the NFL. Gee, I wonder how this could go!
Remember, Carolina currently has the third-least cap space for next season, and that’s without having a quarterback under contract for next year! Even better, they’re sixth in offensive spending this season, ranking in the top-ten in spending for quarterbacks, running backs, and wide receivers. Yet, it’s hard to find a category in which they haven’t been the worst-performing offense in the league. How does that happen? From a clean pocket, Baker Mayfield is in a league of his own when it comes to PFF grade (48.5) and yards/attempt (5.6), and with the disconnect between that and his numbers (8.6 yards/attempt) under pressure, things could get even worse quickly. Meanwhile, they have the lowest-graded receiving corps in the league from PFF, and, now, have to watch struggling first-round tackle Ikem Ekwonu take on Nick Bosa, the current leader in the NFL in total pressures. Oh my.
Speaking of the 49ers defense, it’s remarkable how stout they’ve been at every facet of play. Hold up in the back end? They have the #1 PFF coverage grade in the sport. Generate pressure? They’re doing that at a top-ten rate. Contain the run? Oh, they’re simply allowing the lowest rushing success rate. There’s simply no weakness to be exploited, and, now, they also get safety Jimmie Ward back from injury. Good luck?
For San Francisco, it’s still ultimately going to come down to what they can produce on the offensive side of the ball. So far, Jimmy Garroppolo’s poor accuracy (-6.3 CPOE, 69% adjusted completion percentage) has been a notable concern, while their rushing attack (22nd in success rate) has taken a notable step back with the changes on the interior offensive line not going as smooth as they hoped for. To make matters more complicated, star tackle Trent Williams remains sidelined, while his replacement (Colton McKivitz) is also now on injured reserve. For a limited quarterback reliant on his situation, having any cracks show there is a major concern, as is the lack of accuracy when that historically has made him a strong fit for a passing attack reliant on yardage after the catch. The game script here makes us likely to not learn a lot, though Carolina (7th in success rate allowed) has continued to perform well defensively, so this is far from a cakewalk for Kyle Shanahan’s offense. They can continue to get by with absurd defensive efficiency in the short term, yet with the Chiefs, Chargers, and Bucs all ahead, some sort of offensive rhythm will be critical.
Then again, when your defense has a legitimate chance of outscoring the opposing team’s offense, that also helps, as is the case this week. I would not be surprised to see this be head coach Matt Rhule’s last stand in Carolina, because, frankly, I’m not sure I’ve seen an organization with this amount of clear dysfunction in some time. Well, Urban Meyer may want a say in that. You’ll always have the 2015 season, Panthers fans.
Philadelphia Eagles (4-0) at Arizona Cardinals (2-2)
Spread: ARI (+5.5)
- Projected Spread: ARI (+7.2)
- My Pick: PHI (-5.5)
- Projected Total: 52.34
- My Pick: Over
- PHI: 71.73%
- ARI: 28.27%
Projected Margin of Victory: Eagles by 10.52
Score Prediction: Eagles 34 Cardinals 17
- Everything Setting Up For An Offensive Explosion For The Eagles
- When Did Kyler Murray Become Checkdown Charlie?
- A Very Rough Test For Arizona’s Young Linebackers
Want to know how much things can change in a hurry? After nine weeks last season, the Cardinals were the talk of the town with an 8-1 start, whereas the Eagles were just 3-6 with a clear lack of faith from the fanbase in their quarterback and head coach. Now, are those roles essentially reversed?
At this point, it continues to be quite clear who the best team in the NFC is, which is partially due to other teams disappointing, but just as much about the rise of the Eagles. For Jalen Hurts to go from a “quarterback question” to the league’s highest-graded passer from PFF a month into the year is astonishing, and he’s making an impact in every way possible: he is tied for the league-lead with the lowest turnover-worthy play rate (1.2%), is ninth in big-time throw rate (4.4%), and also has incredibly vaulted into the top-five in adjusted completion rate (79.3%). Game-to-game, he can push the ball down the field or take what’s given to him in the short passing game, and that flexibility is very easy to possess when your receivers rank third in yards after catch/reception, yet also sixth in converted air yards/reception. All together, this is a special passing attack.
Oh, and I almost forgot to mention that, thanks to what Hurts provides in the running game, an exceptional offensive line, and strong production from their running backs after contact, this is also the sixth-most efficient rushing offense as well. Want to stick in two-high shells and operate with light boxes? Well, this is a team that can gash you there, but when you’re facing AJ Brown and Devonta Smith, you also can’t afford to not play it conservatively. It’s an impossible conundrum for opposing defenses to deal with, especially the Cardinals, PFF‘s lowest-graded defense and coverage unit. Outside of cornerback Byron Murphy, no starting back-seven player for Arizona has a PFF coverage grade of 52.5 or higher, and it doesn’t help that they blitz at the second-highest rate and have clear woes at linebacker- not something you want against a team that can run-pass option you to death. Essentially, this is the reverse of the 49ers-Panthers matchup; I think we have a pretty good idea how this could go.
This would be fine if the Cardinals could make a notable impact offensively, yet that hasn’t happened thus far. An offense led by Kyler Murray should not rank in the bottom-ten in EPA/play when excluding turnovers, but when you rank dead-last in air yards/completion and are also in the bottom-five in yards after catch/reception, this is what happens. Aging players such as AJ Green (0.3 yards/route run) and Zach Ertz (1.12 yards/route run) simply cannot create on their own at this point, and with DeAndre Hopkins still suspended, it’s an offense that has become completely reliant on Marquise Brown. Now, all they have to do is face the defense with the lowest yards/attempt allowed in the NFL that is leading the league in pressure rate as well. I would say this could go poorly, but, at this point, it’d be more of the same for Arizona.
To be honest, I’m very surprised only 5.5 points separate these teams in terms of the spread. Even outside of the talent, there couldn’t be a bigger difference in terms of the functionality of both of these organizations, and there’s really no pathway for the Cardinals limiting Philadelphia in any which way. Again, this could turn into a engaging shootout, but with no explosive element to their offense, Arizona simply can’t produce points at that current level. Man, in-season Hard Knocks can’t get here soon enough.
Dallas Cowboys (3-1) at Los Angeles Rams (2-2)
Spread: LAR (-5.5)
- Projected Spread: LAR (-2)
- My Pick: DAL (+5.5)
- Projected Total: 44.03
- My Pick: Under
- DAL: 43.89%
- LAR: 56.11%
Projected Margin of Victory: Rams by 0.91
Score Prediction: Cowboys 17 Rams 19
- The Rams’ Decimated Offensive Line Against a Superb Dallas Pass Rush
- Can Dallas Continue To Get By Until Dak Prescott Returns?
- How Can The Rams Generate Any Sort of Chunk Plays?
A Cowboys-Rams matchup? Wow, I can’t wait to watch two high-powered offenses go back and forth! Wait, this isn’t 2021? Nope! Rather, we’re looking at two of the bottom-five scoring offenses currently, which is unexpected, to say the least. Thus, this game amy have a different feel than one may have assumed.
The Cowboys have the excuse of being without their starting quarterback, but those excuses aren’t there for the Rams, who have the fifth-worst EPA/play, and rank bottom-ten both passing and running the ball. Yet, at the same time, they rank 10th in success rate, so what gives? A complete inability to create any sort of explosive plays. Only the Cardinals are averaging fewer air yards/completion than Los Angeles, with 62% of the targets going to Cooper Kupp and tight end Tyler Higbee. On the other hand, Allen Robinson II (0.58 yards/route run) has both continued his decline from last year and has been a poor fit in this offense, which really needs a field stretcher more than anything else- not having either Odell Beckham Jr. or Van Jefferson is costly. Alas, Matthew Stafford has to operate in a way he isn’t comfortable playing, which, in turn, has likely led to him being the third-lowest graded quarterback from PFF when in a clean pocket- as his production when under pressure regresses negatively, this is a major concern.
That’s not all, though; with Andrew Whitworth retired and the interior offensive line dealing with multiple injuries, the Rams currently have the worst PFF pass-blocking grade in the NFL, and now have to go to battle against a Cowboys defense with the second-best pressure rate in the NFL. Specifically, Dallas has moved edge rusher Demarcus Lawrence inside a lot this season on nickel packages, which can be done to exploit the injuries on the interior offensive line, while Osa Odighizuwa (70.4 PFF pass-rush grade) and Dante Fowler Jr. (77.7 PFF pass-rush grade) have also been very productive to go along with Micah Parsons. Now, there is a clear matchup for Los Angeles to exploit with Cooper Kupp likely lining up with Jourdan Lewis (47.5 PFF coverage grade) in the slot, yet, at some point, another player needs to step up. Unfortunately, the options are quite limited.
On the other side, in place of Dak Prescott, backup Cooper Rush’s surface-level numbers have been impressive, though there are also some clear red flags; for instance, he is charted by PFF with four turnover-worthy plays yet has not thrown an interception, while his accuracy (-3.4 CPOE) and big-play ability (2.8% big-time throw rate) leave a lot to be desired. That’s sufficient for a backup, though you’d be fooling yourself to believe that Prescott won’t serve as anything but a massive upgrade upon return. For now, though, the Rams have the lowest pressure rate in the NFL, are in the bottom-half of the league in PFF coverage grade, and with Michael Gallup back healthy, the Cowboys now appear to have a formidable receiver trio with him, CeeDee Lamb, and the ascension of Noah Brown (2.28 yards/route run, 78.3 PFF receiving grade). Then again, when you rank in the top-five in air-yards/attempt allowed and yards after catch/reception allowed, it’s going to be difficult for the opposing to get the chunk plays they desire, which is key for the Rams; theoretically, forcing Rush to rely on efficiency rather than the chunk plays the Cowboys have gotten over the past few weeks is a pathway for defensive success.
Ultimately, points are likely to be at a premium, and it wouldn’t be shocking to see the Rams simply lose this game outright- they’re a complete wreck offensively with no identity right now. Of course, there’s also the fact that this is a matchup between Cooper Rush and Matthew Stafford, which holds legitimate meaning, especially in a game that likely is won through efficiency rather than explosiveness. Ultimately, that’s the slight difference in this matchup, though, my goodness, could you imagine if the Cowboys advanced to 4-0 without their starting quarterback? I’m sure national media outlets (and Jerry Jones) would take that well.
Cincinnati Bengals (2-2) at Baltimore Ravens (2-2)
Spread: BAL (-3)
- Projected Spread: BAL (-3.3)
- My Pick: BAL (-3)
- Projected Total: 46.53
- My Pick: Under
- CIN: 40.05%
- LAR: 59.95%
Projected Margin of Victory: Ravens by 3.28
Score Prediction: Bengals 20 Ravens 24
- What Adjustments Do The Ravens Make Defensively?
- Can The Bengals Accomplish Anything On Early Downs?
- Is Cincinnati’s Defense The Real Deal?
Something tells me this game is going to be very important by the time this season is settled. Although the Browns linger, the common expectation has been that one of these two teams are going to come away with an AFC North crown, making this a major swing game between two .500 foes. At the same time, we also get to watch Joe Burrow and Lamar Jackson on primetime, which seems…. quite fun?
That being said, how close are these two teams? Performance on early downs tends to be a lot more stable than what happens on later downs, and these two teams couldn’t be far off in that regard:
- Bengals: 32nd in EPA/play on early downs
- Ravens: 2nd in EPA/play on early downs
For the Bengals, how does this happen? A lack of passing under center, the league’s most inefficient rushing attack, and simply poor play-calling (this is a team that almost exclusively passes out of shotgun and runs under center) all contribute to a continuous issue. So far, they’ve been able to rely on Joe Burrow to “make magic” happen on later downs, but, in any given game, there’s too much variance with that strategy historically for it to be seen as sustainable. When it does, it’s unclear if they have a next punch.
Yes, but the Bengals scored 82 combined points against Baltimore last year, so shouldn’t that carry over? Not in any way, shape, or form. For starters, under new defensive coordinator Mike MacDonald, this is a much different defense playing less man coverage, more two-high shells, and not blitzing at the same rate as last year. Plus, let’s look at the different circumstances in those two games:
- Game #1: Baltimore played man coverage essentially half of the time while Burrow (16.3 yards/attempt) took advantage of a heavy-blitz approach
- Game #2: The Ravens were so depleted at cornerback that they played Daryl Worley, Kevin Seymour, Tavon Young, and Anthony Averett at cornerback. None of those players are either on the active roster or have played a snap for them this year.
Although the Ravens have still had their issues in pass defense at times, they still rank 16th in PFF coverage grade, have the defensive line (11th in PFF pass-rush grade) to exploit a talent-deficient offensive line, and have already faced three offenses (Dolphins, Bills, Patriots) in the top-ten in EPA/play when excluding turnovers. You’d figure that the shift to a new defensive coordinator would have taken some time, and key personnel changes (playing Brandon Stephens in the slot in favor of Damarion Williams and Jalyn Armour-Davis) makes a difference.
On the contrary, the Bengals (Steelers, Cowboys, Jets, Dolphins with Tua Tagovailoa getting injured in the middle of the game) certainly have not been tested defensively. Now, they face the second-most efficient offense on early downs without interior defender DJ Reader, while Baltimore will finally have star tackle Ronnie Stanley healthy. Being without wide receiver Rashod Bateman (2.59 yards/route run) hurts Baltimore, yet they’ve also seen tight end Mark Andrews and receiver Devin Duvernay eclipse the two yards/route run mark, and will actually put Cincinnati in a bind with a heavy usage of 12 personnel sets- linebacker depth has been a consistent problem for the Bengals, who have split time between Germain Pratt and Akeem Davis-Gaither opposite of Logan Wilson. Plus, outside of a strong showing against the Jets, they’ve struggled as a pass rush (PFF pass rush grade under 65 in all three other games), nor have they been tested on the ground at all- the Steelers are the only above-average rushing offense (based on EPA/play) that they’ve faced so far.
This appears to be a case where our perceptions of these two teams are clouded by much different opening schedules, as well as two late-game collapses by Baltimore- they’ve trailed for a grand total of 13 seconds this season! When all else fails, the team that is relying a lot on volatile aspects of play is going to be at an advantage, and this is a much different Ravens team than the one that struggled against Cincinnati last year. Still, there’s also enough offensive firepower where things could click (a la last year) at any moment for the Bengals, so by no means would I rule that out of the equation here. Regardless, it’s pretty evident who the better team has been thus far.
Las Vegas Raiders (1-3) at Kansas City Chiefs (3-1)
Spread: KC (-7.5)
- Projected Spread: KC (-7.8)
- My Pick: KC (-7.5)
- Projected Total: 50.25
- My Pick: Under
- LV: 26.34%
- KC: 73.66%
Projected Margin of Victory: Chiefs by 11.71
Score Prediction: Raiders 20 Chiefs 30
- How Does Raiders Defensive Coordinator Patrick Graham Attack Patrick Mahomes?
- Can The Raiders’ Passing Attack Get Going?
- Will Kansas City’s Complementary Playmakers Step Up?
In football, there are few things better than the restoration of a classic rivalry in a primetime matchup. These two teams have been in the same division as one another since 1960, and, along the way, haven’t exactly become friends. When Patrick Mahomes said last week in a postgame speech to the Chiefs that “they know who is coming into town next”, he means it; this is a game that both teams are going to put everything on the table. Still, since 1990, the Chiefs (46-19) have made this anything but an evenly-matched rivalry, and that’s unlikely to change here.
I mean, what else do we need to see? According to Pro Football Focus, Kansas City has faced the toughest schedule in the NFL, rank fourth in the NFL in point differential. Worried about their offense sans Tyreek Hill? They’re the #1 offense in the NFL in EPA/play, success rate, and EPA/dropback. Considering the circumstances, Mahomes, ranked #1 in both adjusted EPA/play and our projected EPA/play tool, may be having his most impressive season since 2018, and there aren’t many offenses that can stay on schedule as efficiently as them. Meanwhile, with Travis Kelce (25%) the only player with a target share over 18.5%, this has been a very spread-out passing attack, and one that create a lot after the catch (6th in yards after catch/reception). Really, it’s just status quo for Andy Reid’s offense.
Many may point to Kansas City’s success against the Raiders last year, but that was with a completely different coaching staff- whereas Gus Bradley was adamant on sticking in cover-three shells, Las Vegas defensive coordinator Patrick Graham is more than willing to stay in two-high shells and play much more flexible. In fact, with the Giants last year, Graham did wonders against Mahomes (5.7 yards/attempt, 54.9 PFF passing grade), notably blitzing him on just four of his 52 dropbacks, playing close to zero man coverage, and forcing Mahomes to hold onto the ball (2.93-second time-to-throw) than he likely desired. Since then, though, Kansas City has evidently had plenty of time to adjust to this style of defense, and Graham will have his work cut out for him with a bottom-ten defense in EPA/dropback and PFF coverage grade. Specifically, both of their linebackers possess PFF coverage grades of 48.5 or lower, as has safety Jonathan Abram, which seems not ideal for a team whose leading receiver is the highest-graded tight end in the NFL from PFF. I’m very excited to see how Graham goes about trying to limit Mahomes, but it’s hard to see this ending well.
So, we should be looking at a shootout here, right? Well, that’s only if the Raiders can do their part. In spite of the investments they’ve made in the passing game, they’re a bottom-ten passing attack on EPA/play on early downs, while Derek Carr ranks just 27th in PFF passing grade. On top of that, star receiver Davante Adams (1.75 yards/route run) and tight end Darren Waller (1.29 yards/route run) are having the worst seasons in quite some time, and while they’ve had success running the ball, it’s hard to see that sustaining with the third-worst run-blocking unit by PFF grades, especially when they rank in the bottom-ten in yards before contact/attempt. It’s been a disappointment thus far, and they now face a Kansas City defense (13th in EPA/play allowed) that has more than held their own in the midst of a brutal schedule, has a rejuvenated pass rush (5th in pressure rate), and continues to play sound coverage on the back end (11th in PFF COV grade). If the Raiders don’t find a way to make some adjustments, this could go south in a hurry.
Even if they do, though, it’s likely they’re simply overmatched by the Chiefs here, who have done everything they can to quell any concerns there could have been coming into the year. You’d hope to see a complementary playmaker such as Marquez Valdes-Scantling or Mecole Hardman make more of an impact, but, even then, we’re still talking about likely the best offense in the league; this perhaps would be more of a concern against Buffalo next week as opposed to an overmatched Raiders team. Hopefully, Carr, Adams, and Waller can find their groove here, but, regardless, this rivalry is likely continuing in the direction it’s been in for some time.
NYG/GB: Packers Wire
HOU/JAX: Texans Wire
TEN/WSH: Gwinnett Daily Post
MIA/NYJ: Dolphins Wire
ATL/TB: Falcons Wire
DET/NE: Pats Pulpit
PIT/BUF: Steelers Now
LAC/CLE: San Diego Tribune
SF/CAR: 49ers Webzone
DAL/LAR: Blogging The Boys
CIN/BAL: CBS Sports
LV/KC: Arrowhead Addict