From an entertainment perspective, parity in sports is appreciated, and for good reason; more separation between teams tends to lead to less-exciting games with more predictability. Well, consider this the ultimate season of parity. At this point, good luck trying to figure out who the second-best team in the NFC is, and teams such as the Falcons, Giants, Jets, and Seahawks have a legitimate puncher’s chance at a postseason berth. Then, there are the Bills, Chiefs, and Eagles, just to remind us what consistently quality football looks like. With a few powerhouses followed by a plethora of teams in similar spots, this season seems to have the perfect collection of teams to produce the most exciting outcome.
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.
Want to know how unpredictable the NFL season has been? In 14 games last week, seven of them involved an underdog winning outright. We’re still seeing very low-scoring games (10 of 14 unders covered), yet if that’s made up for by down-to-the-wire affairs, it’s hard to find any reason to complain. For what it’s worth, there are plenty of candidates to keep the underdog train churning this week.
Stats via Pro Football Focus, 33rd Team, 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.
If there’s one clear source of optimism in Tampa Bay, they’ve remained very efficient on early downs, and there’s no reason why they’ll continue to struggle on third downs, based on the talent they have on both sides of the ball. Plus, can you imagine what the Bills or 49ers are going to be able to accomplish defensively with improved third-down luck? As for the other side of the spectrum, the Chargers and Bengals continue to rely significantly on their quarterbacks to bail them out of disadvantageous situations, which is a risky game, and the Colts, Titans, and Commanders are among the teams unlikely to continue their current defensive performance. Specifically on that side of the ball, the less variance present, the better.
Now, onto the previews!
New Orleans Saints (2-4) at Arizona Cardinals (2-4)
Spread: ARI (-2.5)
- Projected Outcome: NO (-2.23)
- My Pick: NO (+2.5)
- Projected Total: 46.04
- My Pick: Under
- NO: 62.69%
- ARI: 37.31%
Score Prediction: Saints 20 Cardinals 17
- DeAndre Hopkins In, Marquise Brown Out
- Who Bounces Back: Cardinals Offense or Saints Defense?
- Can The Saints Continue To Manufacture Offensive Production With So Many Injuries?
Over the past two Thursday Night Football games, a grand total of 40 points and two touchdowns have been scored, with one team being held to single digits in each of those affairs. Certainly, the football world is hoping for more action this time around, and it’ll need to come via two teams that find themselves in similar stages. See, at the moment, these are the two oldest rosters in the NFL, and both organizations came into this year fully expecting to be a postseason team. That doesn’t correlate with the 2-4 starts they have each experienced, making this the ultimate “do or die” game. With desperation breeds entertainment.
Want to know a fun stat? The Arizona Cardinals have scored three points in the first quarter, and have trailed at halftime in each game this season. Only two teams are scoring fewer points per drive this year, while no team is averaging fewer air yards/completion (4.1) than them. That’d be less concerning if they were making up for it with production after the catch, yet they rank in the bottom-ten there as well, leading to the fewest yards/pass attempt in the NFL (5.8). Considering Kyler Murray just led the league in big-time throw rate a year ago, you wouldn’t expect this to be a limitation with him, rather than a fundamental flaw for an offense that lacked any sort of dynamic offensive perimeter players outside of Marquise Brown. The hope was that Brown combined with the return of DeAndre Hopkins would bring back some of that explosiveness, but Brown is now out for an extended period of time with an ankle injury; although Robbie Anderson was acquired to make an impact from Week 8 on, there’s very little for opposing defenses to fear here. Remember, the last we saw Hopkins, he posted his lowest yards/route run (1.76) since 2016, which, for a receiver now in his 30s, is a concern when the offense may need to be condensed around you.
It was one thing when these struggles were evident against the Eagles, but when they continue on to a porous effort (6 yards/pass attempt) against the league’s worst passing defense (Seahawks) heading into last week, then it becomes a notable concern. They’ll have another shot against a Saints pass defenses ranked in the bottom-ten in EPA/dropback allowed and still without Marshon Lattimore, yet will that matter for the NFL’s second-worst offense against man coverage this season, which resembles their overall lack of skill position talent? Against a man-heavy New Orleans defense whose main issue has been allowing chunks plays (bottom-ten in yards/reception and air yards/attempt), I’m not sure it will. By this point, there have been enough chances for Arizona to show any sort of optimism offensively; to assume Hopkins at this stage of his career is going to be savior when Marquise Brown was essentially matching his production last year seems like a stretch.
Then, on the other end, you have the Saints, who have been starting a backup quarterback and receiving corps, yet somehow have the 10th-best EPA/play and fifth-best success rate over the past three weeks. Now, some of that has come from absurd rushing efficiency (3rd in rush EPA/play), and they’ve been the sixth-worst offense in EPA/play on early downs during that span. At the same time, Andy Dalton (81.5 PFF passing grade, .104 adjusted EPA/play) has performed quite well in place of Jameis Winston as a quality distributor, and they’ll at least have rookie sensation Chris Olave (6th among wide receivers in PFF receiving grade) back for this game. That may be enough against a Cardinals defense that still has the lowest PFF coverage grade in the NFL, though with the second-highest blitz rate, they’ve done a great job neutralizing the target depth (third-lowest) of the opposing quarterback. For a receiving corps that is averaging the fewest yards after catch/reception, will that prove to be problematic? Here lies the low-scoring matchup we’re in store for.
Regardless, in spite of their injuries, you almost have to feel better about the Saints taking advantage of Arizona’s clear defensive deficiencies in coverage, especially since they, on paper, should improve defensively. At some point, the clock is running out for the Cardinals, and while that is the case for both of these teams, it’s probably worth noting how depleted they’ve been due to injury. Arizona, on the other hand, extended their quarterback, head coach, and general manager, and simply have no choice but to hope something changes. I’m at this point a bit shocked to see them as nearly a field-goal favorite, similarly to them being favored in Seattle last week, which only increases expectations for what, once again, may be a disappointment. Hey, in-season Hard Knocks could be quite entertaining!
New York Giants (5-1) at Jacksonville Jaguars (2-4)
Spread: JAX (-3)
- Projected Spread: JAX (-2.66)
- My Pick: JAX (-3)
- Projected Total: 44.95
- My Pick: Over
- NYG: 36.75%
- JAX: 63.25%
Score Prediction: Giants 21 Jaguars 24
- Trevor Lawrence Takes On Wink Martindale’s Defense
- There’s No Way The Giants Continue To Sustain This On Both Sides of The Ball, Right?
- Four First-Round Rookies On Display
Somehow, someway, we’ve gotten to a point where a Giants-Jaguars game is not only one of the most interesting games of the day, but features two teams ranked in the top-12 in point differential. Remember how I said this season was strange? Both of these organizations have already experienced the benefits of a new head coach replacing a previously dysfunctional coaching staff, and possess two of the five-youngest rosters in the NFL. Thus, the immediate returns in terms of wins or losses aren’t the main organizational focus compared to player development, but, hey, why not do both at once?
From a pure talent perspective, you can make a strong case that the Giants have the most depleted roster in the NFL. Even in spite of a 5-1 start, they still have the fourth-lowest PFF team grade, and, just objectively-speaking, one look at their depth chart exposes major issues at wide receiver, interior offensive line, and in the back-seven. Yet, here they are, and while some of it is to success in one-possession games, the coaching staff deserves plenty of credit as well. For instance, only the Falcons are utilizing more play-action concepts than the Giants, while they’re also utilizing multiple two-running back formations (21 and 22 personnel) at top-five rates; all of this is what you need to do when you’re as thin at wide receiver as they are. Meanwhile, they’ve gotten strong production (77.4 PFF passing grade, 85.2% adjusted completion rate) from Daniel Jones over the past three weeks, are utilizing him heavily as a rushing threat, and, somehow, rank 8th in EPA/play thus far. Plus, with with fourth-round rookie tight end Daniel Bellinger (76.5 PFF receiving grade) exceeding expectations and second-round rookie receiver Wan’Dale back from injury to provide more “juice” to the offense, and you can see the crafting of an offense for the future. Regardless of what happens, kudos to head coach Brian Daboll and offensive coordinator Matt Kafka.
In the Jaguars, the Giants will be opposed by a different-style of defense than they have recently. Over the past four weeks, they’ve faced a defense either in the bottom-six in PFF run defense grade or in the bottom-ten in EPA/rush attempt allowed, giving them a clear pathway to creating enough explosive plays. Jacksonville, on the other hand, ranks fifth in PFF run defense grade, and with tremendous run-defending athletes such as Josh Allen and Travon Walker on the edge to go along with rookie linebacker Devin Lloyd, would seemingly be in position to limit Jones’ effectiveness as a rusher; they certainly held Jalen Hurts (38 rushing yards on 16 carries) in check in their one matchup with a true rushing threat at the quarterback position. Meanwhile, this is a pass rush that ranks fifth in quarterback knockdown rate, which would seemingly be bad news for an offense pressured the third-most this year. If there’s one area where the Jaguars have been vulnerable, it’s their secondary (ninth-worst PFF coverage grade), yet what are the odds the Giants’ receiving corps is actually able to exploit that. Likely minimal, to say the least.
Speaking of surprisingly productive offenses with a new head coach, there’s a lot to be intrigued by in Jacksonville, where, under Doug Pederson, the Jaguars have been a top-ten offense in both EPA/play and success rate. Pederson’s use of pre-snap motion and play-action at above league-average rates stick out, and the combination of a strong pass-blocking offensive line and Trevor Lawrence getting rid of the ball quickly (seventh-lowest time-to-throw) has led to an offense operating from clean pockets at the 11th-highest rate as well. What it comes down to, though, is whether they have the talent for it to come together. Take last week’s loss against the Colts as an example. On the surface, when a quarterback completes 20 of 22 passes, they should probably be in line for an exceptional statistical performance. That being said, the calculus changes when you’re averaging just 8.2 yards per completion, which happens when 45.5% of your pass attempts are coming behind the line of scrimmage and you attempt just one pass over 20 air yards. That’s something that’ll happen with PFF‘s eighth-lowest graded receiving corps; Christian Kirk has been held under a yard/route run over the past two games, Zay Jones is averaging just 8.4 yards/reception, and the main source of chunk plays have through schemed touches to Travis Etienne and Jamal Agnew. Then again, let’s remember that, in spite of these concerns, they’re still performing at a high level, and that’s while facing the tenth-most difficult schedule of opposing defenses, per Football Outsiders. At this point, it becomes much harder to question what they’re accomplishing.
So far this season, Lawrence has been blitzed at the fourth-lowest rate, but that’ll change in a hurry- no team blitzes more than the Giants, and it’s been effective for them in producing a top-ten pressure rate. So far, Lawrence’s production certainly gets impacted negatively when blitzed, mainly due to massive struggles when under pressure. That being said, that also would be appear to be skewed by abnormally poor numbers (36.4 PFF passing grade, 4.3 yards/attempt) in a loss to the Eagles where he struggled just as much when not blitzed, making the real significant data point his low depth of target (4.8 yards) when blitzed. As such, we may be looking at a scenario with another condensed passing attack centered around exploiting New York’s deficiencies at linebacker by leveraging Etienne and Agnew, to go along with Kirk out of the slot. That being said, per Football Outsiders, the Giants rank 29th in defense-adjusted value above average (DVOA), and that comes with the fourth-easiest schedule of opposing offenses. Ultimately, it’s probably best to have faith in a productive offense against a questionable defense.
At first, it may be seem stunning that the 5-1 Giants could find themselves as a field-goal underdog here, yet records don’t tell the whole story here. Even by point differential, Jacksonville’s average scoring margin is double that of the Giants, and that’s with a schedule that has certainly been more difficult. At some point, the gap in performance in one-score games (Giants 5-1, Jaguars 0-4) is going to flip, and that may show up here. It feels quite peculiar to say this, but this is pretty clearly the most intriguing game on the early slate. Heck, I haven’t even mentioned the four first-round rookies in this game! You may be inclined to tune into this one.
Atlanta Falcons (3-3) at Cincinnati Bengals (3-3)
Spread: CIN (-6.5)
- Projected Outcome: ATL (-0.75)
- My Pick: ATL (-6.5)
- Projected Total: 47.64
- My Pick: Over
- ATL: 52.47%
- CIN: 47.73%
Score Prediction: Falcons 27 Bengals 24
- Have The Bengals Found Their New Offensive Identity?
- The Falcons Are Seemingly Set Up For Continued Offensive Success Here
- AJ Terrell v. Ja’Marr Chase Part II
Coming into the season, would you have expected this to be a matchup between two 3-3 teams? Probably not, but what if I told it was the Falcons, the team with a 4.5 preseason win total, that had the better-performing offense than the defending AFC champions? Hey, this is a matchup between two Heisman winners, after all! Based on the spread for this game, it doesn’t appear that Atlanta is getting much credit for their intriguing start to the season, but perhaps this is when that changes.
I mean, what else do the Falcons need to prove? It’s not just that they’re 7th in EPA/play and points per game. Rather, it’s that they’ve done so with a top-ten strength of schedule (per Football Outsiders), are doing their damage on early downs, and have been remarkably consistent week-to-week. Now, it’s definitely not a traditional offense – they have the third-lowest early-down pass rate and run 11-personnel less than all but one team – but there are plenty of schematic edges head coach Arthur Smith is tapping into. For one, the team’s current 47.6% play-action rate would be the highest ever since PFF starting charting that information, while they’re creating chunk plays through the third-most air yards/completion and an explosive zone-rushing attack (4th in zone rush EPA/play) thriving by creating the sixth-most yards before contact/attempt. What’s the best way to compensate for limitations with Marcus Mariota on third downs? Simply don’t get to those scenarios – no team is averaging fewer third downs per game than the Falcons. What’s happening in Atlanta is truly a work of art.
Meanwhile, it’s very likely to continue their offensive production here. The Bengals have built their defense to be a light-box unit that succeeds mainly via nickel and dime packages, which certainly helps explain their success defending opposing passing attacks- it’s the ideal way to build a defense without investing significant resources. Yet, since they’ve been without interior defender DJ Reader due to a knee injury, they’ve been a bottom-five unit in rushing success rate allowed, and have specifically struggled (27th in EPA/rush) against zone-rushing concepts. Meanwhile, linebacker Logan Wilson is out for this game, and, even with him, linebacker depth in a game they may need to play more than expected base packages was already a concern. Don’t look now, but the efficiency on early downs should continue for Atlanta, and, from there, points will continue to be scored in bunches.
Of course, the same could also be true for the Bengals. Last week marked the first time in which Cincinnati (57.8% success rate) was able to perform at a high level on early downs, and they’ve suddenly also found a surge in rushing success (third in EPA/rush) over the past two weeks. Usually, you’d label that as “small sample size noise”, but there may be something more here. After all, take a look at this:
We’ve discussed the Bengals’ predictability in terms of running under center and passing out of shotgun, so it isn’t surprising that decreasing that predictability would be very beneficial. From an aesthetics standpoint, it’s a much more spread-out offense with a specific focus over the middle of the field, as illustrated here:
It is worth noting, though, that Burrow saw as much man coverage with less than half of his snaps against two-high looks, something he’ll see a lot more of this week against Falcons defensive coordinator Dean Pees. We highlighted how Atlanta’s success limiting yardage after the catch (bottom-ten in yards after catch/reception in back-to-back years) could give them an edge versus the 49ers, and with 56% of Cincinnati’s passing yardage coming after the catch, that’s applicable here as well. Now, I’d be remiss not to mention that this is still a defense that ranks 25th in EPA/play allowed. That being said, from a pure matchup perspective, dare I say the Falcons may have the edge here.
Sometimes, it’s not just about who the better team is, but how their strengths and weaknesses collide with one another. Plus, it doesn’t hurt that it’s the Falcons who have actually been the better-performing offense to this point, and when you consider the deficiencies they’ll be able to exploit from Cincinnati’s defense, the gap there is much more even. Perhaps I’m sipping the kool-aid in Atlanta too much, but, hey, I can’t help myself at this point!
Green Bay Packers (3-3) at Washington Commanders (2-4)
Spread: WSH (+4.5)
- Projected Outcome: GB (-8.37)
- My Pick: GB (-4.5)
- Projected Total: 45.21
- My Pick: Under
- GB: 70.62%
- WSH: 29.38%
Score Prediction: Packers 24 Commanders 17
- Please Put It Together, Packers
- Who Wins Out: Washington’s Defensive Front or Green Bay’s Offensive Line?
- Is There A Shift In Offensive Philosophy In Washington That Continues With a Change Under Center?
Let me know if you’ve heard this story before: the Packers have a shot to get on track against an East Coast team that they’re a notable favorite over. I mean, what could go wrong? Losing back-to-back games to the Giants and Jets certainly qualifies, and, now, they’ll take another bite at the apple. At this point, how bad can it get?
When you trade a receiver of Davante Adams’ caliber and then don’t make any notable attempt to replace his production, you’re naturally expecting some sort of negative impact on your passing attack. Nevertheless, could the Packers have ever thought that an offense led by Aaron Rodgers would rank 23rd in EPA/play six weeks into the season. Now, producing positive plays hasn’t been the issue- Green Bay actually ranks 5th in success rate. The main issue, though, is the lack of chunk plays. The Packers currently have the third-fewest converted air yards per completion, which forces them to stay on schedule with an inexperienced receiving corps and interior offensive line. Mainly, however, it leads to more reliance on third downs, and not only have they struggled (13th percentile) there, but I’m not entirely sure that regresses all the way back; the issues in the receiving corps, especially when it comes to handling man coverage, are likely a notable reason why. Ultimately, when you combine an elite quarterback with an accomplished play-caller and top-ten graded pass-blocking offensive line, and you want to assume things get sorted eventually. If there is still very little in the way of explosive plays against a Commanders defense allowing the most yards/reception in the NFL, however, then the concern ought to raise to another level.
Speaking of Washington, they’ve quietly ascended in a top-five defense based on EPA/play and success rate when excluding turnovers, and while that has come against a very soft schedule of opposing offenses, it’s an encouraging sign nonetheless. Specifically, to see a pass rush without Chase Young still rank third in pressure rate is a very positive indicator, and they’ve shored things up on the back end with a PFF coverage grade of 62 or higher in four straight games. Now, I’m not sure how sustainable this is considering the gap (16th percentile ED vs 87th percentile TD) between their early-down and third-down production, though they certainly aren’t the defensive liability they were shaping up to be early in the season.
The problem? They can’t score points. In fact, the Commanders have scored a grand total of 47 points over their past four games, ranking in the bottom-three in both EPA/play and success rate during that span. What piques my interest, though, was a philosophical change in Week 6. After being amongst the league’s pass-heaviest teams in the NFL to start the year, they had the third-lowest early-down pass rate in Chicago, which aligns with a statement by offensive coordinator Scott Turner wanting to lead a more “balanced” offense. That’d be a lot easier to do if they also weren’t one of the least-efficient rushing attacks, but it’s likely the approach they take against a Packers defense allowing the highest rushing success rate in the NFL. This is also complicated by the injury to Carson Wentz, inserting in Taylor Heinicke under center; with him being the league’s lowest-graded passer when throwing 20+ yards down the field last year, it’s likely any last bit of explosiveness to the passing attack has been eliminated. For what it’s worth, they were certainly a competent offense (21st in EPA/play, 14th in success rate) with Heinicke last season, though, so perhaps the change leads to better structured unit.
In all likelihood, you’d probably expect similar results for the Commanders offense moving forward, and that’s difficult against a Packers defense that creates havoc (5th in dropback EPA/play when excluding turnovers) against opposing passing attacks; a top-ten graded pass rush and coverage unit will do that for you. If Washington struggles to have any sort of rushing efficiency here, a la Bucs vs Packers in Week 3, then they’re playing right into Green Bay’s hand to thrive on later downs, making this a game where Rodgers and co. can get by without scoring many points. It’s crazy we’ve gotten to a point where a total of 41.5 points may be too high for a game involving one of the greatest quarterbacks of all time, but that’s 2022 for you. Ahead of multiple difficult matchups, this is as close to a must-win as it gets for the Packers. If not, the season could get out of hand quickly.
Tampa Bay Buccaneers (3-3) at Carolina Panthers (1-5)
Spread: CAR (+13)
- Projected Outcome: TB (-11.55)
- My Pick: TB (-13)
- Projected Total: 41.23
- My Pick: Under
- TB: 74.73%
- CAR: 25.27%
Score Prediction: Buccaneers 23 Panthers 10
- The Buccaneers Offense May Be The Most Frustrating Unit In The NFL
- Panthers IDL Derrick Brown Against a Suspect Tampa Bay Interior Offensive Line
- How Does Carolina Get Past Midfield?
Are you going to find a matchup between two teams with completely different organizational directions quite like this one? As you’d expect when your quarterback is Tom Brady, the Buccaneers are “all-in” on winning a Super Bowl this season, but after losing as ten-point favorites to the Steelers, a bounce-back is desperately needed. At the same time, the Panthers have now fired their head coach, traded away receiver Robbie Anderson, and, now, sent away their most popular player in Christian McCaffrey to the 49ers. The difference in current urgency should be rather evident.
While the immediate effects are difficult for Panthers fans to swallow, this past week has been a tremendous next step for their organization. First off, McCaffrey, as a 26-year-old running back on a significant contract for the next two seasons, served little value for them given their current state, so to not only take on the immediate dead cap hit and clear space for the future, but also to come away with a second-round pick, third-round pick, fourth-round pick, and a fifth-round pick is a substantial haul. Add in multiple day-three picks in the Anderson trade, and they now have significant draft capital to complement what may be a franchise quarterback that they get to select with the #1 overall pick next year. Talk about rectifying a poor situation in a hurry; I’m sure they’ll listen to offers on other players, though what they’ve done enough would be a sufficient start.
As for now, though, it’s going to be rough. In his first start last week, PJ Walker attempted only four passes beyond the line of scrimmage, good for a 0.1 average depth of target. No, that’s not a typo. McCaffrey, meanwhile, received a 40% target share in that game, and, now, there’s practically zero chance that type of offense has any chance of producing at all- zero air yards with limited yards after the catch isn’t the ideal combination. Would this be a good time to mention that the Bucs are allowing the third-fewest yards after the catch/reception? A shutout is very possible here.
Thus, the focus on this game lies with any sort of progress we can see from the Bucs offense. As of now, they’ve actually been a below-average unit (17th in EPA/play) this year, which was not expected, to say the least. While the focus lies with Brady right now, Tampa Bay still is the fifth-most efficient offense on dropbacks. The issue, however, is their rushing attack; not only do they rank dead-last in EPA/rush attempt, and, in spite of that, there seems to be a stubbornness to lean on it more than they should on early downs:
I’m not sure how facing a Steelers defense without four of their five starting defensive backs leads to a run-first mindset, yet, regardless, it came back to bite them. They may be in a situation where they can get away with said strategy just by playing from ahead here, but Carolina is a top-ten defense in EPA/rush allowed, with their issues coming from injuries in their cornerback room. With Chris Godwin (2.36 yards/route run over the past two weeks) in peak form back from a multitude of injuries to go along with Mike Evans and Russell Gage, who the team signed for $30 million this offseason and seemingly had larger plans for, the injury excuses are no longer present. Sure, the thought of rookie interior offensive lineman Luke Goedeke (league-worst 24.8 PFF pass-blocking grade) trying to hold his own against Derrick Brown and Matt Ioannidis is a scary thought, but that’s why you have a quarterback with the quickest time-to-throw in the league!
There’s not much we’ll get to learn from this game, but seeing some sort of progress from Tampa Bay’s offense, especially from a process standpoint, would be very encouraging. With how open the NFC is, it’s hard not to bank on what they’re able to accomplish through the air on both sides of the ball, though, at some point, you’d like it to lead to tangible results. Most likely, though, the focus may already be on Baltimore next Thursday night.
Detroit Lions (1-4) at Dallas Cowboys (4-2)
Spread: DAL (-6.5)
- Projected Outcome: DAL (-11.96)
- My Pick: DAL (-6.5)
- Projected Total: 45.69
- My Pick: Under
- DET: 24.74%
- DAL: 75.26%
Score Prediction: Lions 17 Cowboys 27
- Welcome Back, Dak Prescott!
- Can The Lions Regain Offensive Efficiency in a Major Test?
- Who Is The Real Jeffrey Okudah?
Want to know what being in a good spot looks like? Take a look at the Dallas Cowboys. If you would have told them that after being embarrassed in Week 1 by the Bucs and Dak Prescott injuring his thumb, that they’d proceed to go 4-1 without him and play a tight game with the undefeated Eagles, I’m pretty sure they would be thrilled with that outcome! Now, though, Prescott is set to return, and with a very easy schedule in the future, a postseason berth is an overwhelming possibility.
Is there a better way to get back into form than to play the Lions defense? For perspective, the current EPA/play allowed (.195) by the Lions is higher than any offense has generated, with only the Bills and Chiefs averaging more EPA/dropback than what Detroit has allowed (.252). They’ve tried to compensate for this with changes in their secondary (AJ Parker in, Amani Oruwariye out), but unless a bye week miracle saves matters, it’s hard to see anything changing. After all, they’re spending less money on their defense than any team besides the Falcons, and their attempts to cover that up by blitzing and playing man coverage at top-five rates hasn’t gone as planned. Thus, they should be fully expecting their fair share of struggles, but, hopefully, we see progression from young players such as edge rusher Aidan Hutchison, cornerback Jeffrey Okudah, safety Kerby Joseph, and linebacker Malcolm Rodriguez. After all, this is still a rebuilding team for a reason.
For the Cowboys, they’ve already seen the most amount of man coverage this season, likely due to an overall lack of fear of the passing attack with Cooper Rush starting. Prescott, meanwhile, has a slightly higher EPA/drop back when blitzed (.140) than when not (.1) dating back to 2021, ranking in the top-ten in PFF grade (79.6) and big-time throw rate (6.9%) in those situations as well last year. The fact they’ve managed to rank 17th in DVOA mainly without Prescott and facing a difficult schedule is remarkable, and simply getting back to being merely a slightly above-average unit is a notable change.
Of course, it also helps that, at a time where offensive efficiency is down, you also have all the makings of exceptional play on the other side of the ball. If it wasn’t enough for Dallas to lead the league in pressure rate, yet they also are fourth in PFF coverage grade, giving them the makings of an elite pass defense. For what it’s worth, though, there are some deficiencies in run defense (sixth-worst PFF run defense grade), and I’m sure the Lions (4th in rushing EPA/play) are going to do everything in their power to take advantage of that. The problem? They’re also a bottom-five unit in pass-blocking efficiency, and if forced into standard drop back situations, that seems like a disastrous scenario for Jared Goff. Don’t discount what Ben Johnson’s unit (9th in DVOA) has been able to accomplish, but I’m not sure they can handle the game script coming their way; being without receiver DJ Chark Jr. and Josh Reynolds also questionable to play doesn’t help.
With the Lions and Bears up next ahead of their bye, this is shaping perfectly for the Cowboys, who, per PFF , have the third-easiest schedule moving forward. For as entertaining as trying to create as quarterback controversy was, we’re about to be reminded in a major way the value above replacement level Prescott brings to the table. The Lions have proven to not go down easily, and it would be completely in their DNA to spoil this party, yet the talent mismatch is too notable here to ignore. Enjoy this stretch, Cowboys fans.
Indianapolis Colts (3-2-1) at Tennessee Titans (3-2)
Spread: TEN (-2.5)
- Projected Outcome: TEN (-2.59)
- My Pick: TEN (-2.5)
- Projected Total: 44.67
- My Pick: Over
- IND: 36.84%
- TEN: 63.16%
Score Prediction: Colts 20 Titans 23
- Which Defense Gets Hit More By Third-Down Regression?
- Have The Colts Found Something Offensively?
- Can Indianapolis Handle Tennessee’s Defensive Front?
Believe it or not, but someone has to win the AFC South! The fact that the Colts and Titans, two bottom-ten teams in average point differential, each have winning records is remarkable, especially considering how poor they’ve looked from the eye test at times. Certainly, style points aren’t going to be coming in bunches here, and, to be honest, I don’t think I’ve ever seen a game that would be better suited for Thursday Night Football than here. Yet, it’s coming to us on a Sunday afternoon, with the result of this game likely to have notable division implications.
Coming off of their bye week, does anyone have an idea of what the Titans are? Usually, a bottom-ten team in EPA/play on both sides of the ball don’t have a winning record, yet that happens when you’re on the wrong side of big plays; the 15th-ranked offense and 10th-ranked defense in success rate sounds much more like a team with their current record. On early downs, we’ve continued to see them continue to do what they do best in terms of play-action passing game (11.6 yards/attempt, 3rd in EPA/play), but when you’re such a run-first offense (7th-lowest early-down pass rate) you need to be efficient on the ground. Instead, the opposite (26th EPA/rush) has happened, creating too many third-down scenarios for a quarterback who historically has struggled in dropback situations behind the second-lowest graded pass-blocking offensive line by PFF. With that in mind, it’s no surprise they’ve struggled so much (30th in EPA/play) on third downs, meaning something has to give- either they get back to the rushing production they had previously, or a slight tweak in process needs to take place.
When excluding turnovers, the Colts (9th in EPA/play allowed) have seemingly performed at a high level, but Tennessee (50% success rate, .17 EPA/play) had their fair share of success against them in Week 4 on early downs, with Derrick Henry averaging 5.4 yards/carry to go along with strong production from a clean pocket (81.8 PFF passing grade). At the same time, though, Henry is only averaging 3.9 yards/carry with a lower-than-normal 10.5% explosive rush rate, so it’s not a given. Of course, the Jaguars also just ran for 243 yards against Indianapolis, so who knows at this point; rushing production is volatile for a reason. On the bright side for the Titans, the Colts (fourth-lowest PFF pass rush grade) have struggled to rush the passer and are now without edge rusher Kwity Paye, yet I’d be lying if I said that the Titans’ offensive production wasn’t completely up in the air here.
Ironically, that last line can be pasted for the Colts, who haven’t exactly been the model of offensive consistency this year. On a positive note, Matt Ryan just got through his first game without a turnover-worthy play despite dropping back to pass 58 times, leading Indianapolis to the third-highest EPA/play (.235) of the week. At the same time, that’s also just one game, and, for the whole season, it hasn’t been pretty- 31st in DVOA, 30th in passing DVOA, 32nd in rushing DVOA. The combination of Indianapolis’ offensive line struggles (8th-lowest PFF pass-blocking grade) combined with a Titans pass rush (4th in PFF pass rush grade) headlined by interior pressure via Jeffrey Simmons, Denico Autry, and Teair Tart (all PFF pass rush grades above 78). The Titans have gotten hit hard with chunk plays (7.7 air yards/attempt), yet is that something Indianapolis, 25th in yards/reception, can take advantage of? Matt Ryan has a lower proportion of passes 20+ yards down the field (3.6%) than any other quarterback, which seems particularly noteworthy here.
Per Football Outsiders, no two offenses experience more week-to-week variance than these two, which may explain why I simply have no idea how this game will go. Theoretically, a team will win, though, can we even count on that? Tennessee appears to be better suited here and also comes off of their bye week, yet without the turnover luck (+3) they received in their last matchup against the Colts, they’ll need to get by via added efficiency. Both of these defenses are clear outliers in terms of their production on third downs compared to early downs, so perhaps more scoring could be expected, or it also could be a 10-9 game, because who knows with these two teams at this point. Even if the shine isn’t there, the mere unpredictability of these two teams almost makes it “must watch” football; chaos is a virtue.
Cleveland Browns (2-4) at Baltimore Ravens (3-3)
Spread: BAL (-6.5)
- Projected Outcome: BAL (-1.21)
- My Pick: CLE (+6.5)
- Projected Total: 51.15
- My Pick: Over
- CLE: 38.62%
- BAL: 61.38%
Score Prediction: Browns 24 Ravens 27
- The League’s Top-Two Rushing Attacks + Lots of Explosive Plays
- The Return(?) of Rashod Bateman: Is This What Can Get Lamar Jackson Back On Track?
- Two Defenses Underperforming Expectations
Since Lamar Jackson was drafted by the Ravens, he’s had some very fun matchups against the Browns:
- 2018 Week 17: Ravens clinch the division with a 26-24 shootout showcasing Jackson and Baker Mayfield
- 2019 Week 4: Browns make a statement with a 40-25 victory in Baltimore, Ravens went on to not lose another regular season game
- 2020 Week 14: What’s better than a 47-42 game on Monday Night Football that featured 12(!) touchdowns?
- 2021 Week 12: Contrast that to the next matchup, where Jackson managed to throw four interceptions yet also complete two absurd passes to Mark Andrews, which, combined with the Browns’ offensive woes, led to a 16-10 win
All told, Jackson has lost just once to Cleveland when playing a full game, though it’s safe to say entertainment has not been a problem. Fortunately, we could be in store for another high-scoring affair here. Both of these teams enter this game as top-seven scoring offenses and have had plenty of defensive issues, which, combined together, could lead to a volcanic eruption.
Can someone please explain to me how the Ravens are only 3-3? I guess that’s what happens when you lose each of these games:
- In Week 2, Baltimore led 35-14 to the Dolphins with 12:18 remaining
- In Week 4, Baltimore led 20-3 to the Bills with 0:13 remaining in the first half
- In Week 6, Baltimore led 20-10 to the Giants with 6:07 remaining
How is it even possible to not win at least one of those games? Fourth-quarter performances like this explain a lot:
Is this something actually useful projecting them moving forward? I certainly hope not, but it’s a fun discussion point nonetheless. Regardless, it’s really difficult to ask anything more from an offense that’s ranked fourth in EPA/play, second in EPA/rush, and 10th EPA/dropback, which only should continue to be boosted by the return of star tackle Ronnie Stanley and receiver Rashod Bateman- Bateman’s injury, in particular, may have played a role in them being very susceptible against the blitz and in man coverage the past few weeks. Want to know if their rushing success is sustainable? Well, just ask Jackson. 30% of his carries have gone for 10 or more yards, and if that wasn’t enough, his presence has played a major role in allowing the Ravens to lead the league in yards before contact per attempt. Combine that explosiveness with chunk plays through the air (7th in big-time throw rate), and you get an offense that is incredibly difficult to contain.
To be fair, can the Browns defense be trusted to contain any offense right now? The Lions are the only team with a higher EPA/play allowed than Cleveland, but what remains telling is how deficient they are in run defense- they’re allowing more EPA/rush (.162) than what every team outside of the Bills and Chiefs are averaging as an offense overall. Meanwhile, that’s while facing the 27th-ranked schedule of opposing offenses (per Football Outsiders), and it isn’t though they’re making up for it with strong pass defense; they’re also in the bottom-ten in dropback efficiency allowed while surrendering second-most yards per reception. Can you imagine how many explosive plays the Ravens could create here?
Thus, to stay in this game, the Browns will lean on an offense that has, to their credit, consistently produced (6th in EPA/play) as well. Being able to lean on a rushing attack more efficient than all but three offenses overall helps, though the key aligns with Jacoby Brissett. In many ways, the 29-year-old has been the opposite of what you would’ve expected, taking plenty of chances down the field (9.5 average depth of target) with just enough mistakes (4.2% turnover-worthy play rate) to hold them back- the volatility is still an upgrade over preseason expectations, but certainly creates plenty of in-game variance. That, combined with a surge in production from Amari Cooper and tight end David Njoku (1.96 yards/route run), as well as Donovan Peoples-Jones serving as another viable field stretcher, has led to a passing attack that can have its run of success, though the downside remains high. It’s a fascinating contrast to a Ravens defense that, under new defensive coordinator Mike MacDonald, is allowing the fifth-lowest average depth of target this year, especially since Cleveland’s notable usage of heavier sets could help cover up some of Baltimore’s woes defending the slot.
Banking on defensive improvements from the Ravens (27th in EPA/play allowed) mainly would come through their schedule (fifth-most difficult, per Football Outsiders), though where is that same excuse for the Patriots (1st), Jets (2nd), and Bills (4th)? It’s a slippery slope to attribute these issues to just the opposition they’ve faced when they’re about to face another productive offense and other defenses have gotten through just fine, and it doesn’t get easier with safety Marcus Williams on injured reserve. Compared to where they were just a few years ago, it’s definitely been disappointing to see this drop-off in production.
Ultimately, though, they’d take the trade-off for elite offensive production, which, with normal fourth-quarter variance, is going to lead to a lot more wins. To be frank, it wouldn’t be shocking if they scored 40 points here and blew Cleveland out of the water, though that’s assuming that the Browns don’t have enough counter-punches offensively as well. Heck, not only could this be the highest-scoring game of the week, but dare we come close to that Week 14 matchup in 2020? The Red Zone channel could have a field day here.
New York Jets (4-2) at Denver Broncos (2-4)
Spread: DEN (+1.5)
- Projected Outcome: DEN (-3.26)
- My Pick: DEN (+1.5)
- Projected Total: 39.22
- My Pick: Under
- NYJ: 35.98%
- DEN: 64.02%
Score Prediction: Jets 13 Broncos 17
- The Roller-Coaster of Zach Wilson’s Second Season Continues Here
- Two Strong Defenses, Two Poor Offenses = Defensive Grudge Match!
- Can The Jets’ Offensive Line Hold Up?
This perfectly leads up to a game that, simply put, will not feature many points scored. In fact, this is the lowest total for a game thus far, and for good reason. Six weeks ago, would you have thought, of these two teams, that it’d be the Jets looking to advance to 5-2? Sadly, the intrigue of this game dampens with Russell Wilson out with a hamstring injury, but this is a very interesting change of attitude for the Jets, who have been favored just one time in their last 32 games. Prior to that run, they were favored by a point against the Broncos, who happened to be starting Brett Rypien. Well, Gang Green, meet deja vu.
Ironically, that 2020 win in New York remains Rypien’s only start in his career, and it was a roller-coaster, to say the least. On the positive end, he showed no fear serving as a gunslinger with four big-time throws and a 10.9 average depth of target, but it also came with four turnover-worthy plays and three interceptions, cumulating into a 39.6 PFF grade. Since then, the only information we have about him comes from limited preseason sample sizes, which, to be honest, where’s continued to adopt a fearless mentality. Heck, at this point, perhaps that’s what Denver’s offense needs; really, it just comes down to how much the receiver duo of Courtland Sutton and Jerry Jeudy can compensate for other limitations. On the bright side, it can’t get much worse than where they find themselves currently (27th in DVOA).
Really, the main source of attention ought to come from the Jets, who, at the very least, definitely are starting to live up to Robert Saleh’s defensive visions. In spite of the second-most difficult schedule of opposing offenses, the Jets rank 11th in EPA/play allowed, and that’s while being due for third-down regression (30th in EPA/play allowed on third downs). The cornerback tandem of free-agent signing DJ Reed Jr. and fourth overall pick Sauce Gardner each rank in the top-ten in passer rating allowed and the top-14 in snaps/reception allowed, while second-year nickel corner Michael Carter (68.3 PFF coverage grade) and free-agent safety Jordan Whitehead (67.6 PFF coverage grade) have also made a notable impact. Add that to a very deep pass rush (4th in pressure rate), and you get a vaunted pass defense that teams should want absolutely no part of right now.
The problem? The offense, particularly the player they’re counting on to be their franchise quarterback, may not be up to par. It’s been a very confusing first three games for Zach Wilson after missing the first three weeks with an ankle injury, yet the entire sample size includes three times as many turnover-worthy plays (6, 6.6%) as big-time throws (2, 2.5%), very subpar accuracy (-5.4% CPOE), and the lowest projected EPA/play amongst all qualified quarterbacks. Meanwhile, his splits when blitzed (51.9 PFF passing grade) or under pressure (25.6 PFF passing grade) remain very concerning, and he now faces as brutal of a test as he could face; the Broncos are the only defense in the NFL to rank in the top-three in PFF pass rush and coverage grade, leading the league’s second-ranked unit in EPA/play allowed. New York’s offensive line (bottom-five in pass-blocking efficiency) hasn’t exactly been consistent, and Elijah Moore being ruled out for this game completely thins out their receiving corps. This is a spot where the odds are stacked against Wilson, and him finding a way to perform even competently would go along way. At this point, though, it may be time to be pessimistic.
Is there a game more fitting for a 0-0 tie than this one? Both of these quarterbacks will take risks, leading to enough mistakes to put points on the board, even if it’s not in the manner they’d be hoping for. This is a time for the Jets to make a statement, but how limited are they under center? Enough so for me to be very concerned about how they match up against Denver’s superb pass defense, which could lead to a very disappointing reminder of the insignificance of production elsewhere when the quarterback you drafted continues to have a very volatile start to his career. At the end of the day, though, let this be a reminder of how little we know when it comes to preseason projections, and, now, it’s time to see, once again, if the Jets have truly found another gear. This game may not tell us a whole lot, though considering the young pieces on offense are what’s in question, maybe this is the perfect test for them. Now, the next phase of the grading process begins.
Houston Texans (1-3-1) at Las Vegas Raiders (1-4)
Spread: LV (-7)
- Projected Outcome: LV (-4.08)
- My Pick: HOU (+7)
- Projected Total: 46.69
- My Pick: Under
- HOU: 34.91%
- LV: 65.09%
Score Prediction: Texans 19 Raiders 24
- Post-Bye Week Surge For The Raiders Offense?
- A Fun Matchup For Derek Stingley Jr.
- Are We Witnessing The Decline of Chandler Jones?
It’s not often that we get a matchup between two teams each coming off of a bye, but for competition purposes, this is something I wish we saw more of. Generally, you’d expect a game with these circumstances to feature two well-rested teams, thus raising the quality of play. That being said, as the Raiders look to turn their season around, they’re dealing with a multitude of injuries, and will need to count on the little depth they have. This is a favorable opponent for them to do that, though in the current landscape of the NFL, that’s easier said than done.
To be fair to the Raiders, although their record (1-4) doesn’t indicate it, they’ve haven’t played poorly by any means this season. It’s already difficult enough that, per PFF, they’ve had the sixth-most difficult schedule, but to be 0-4 in one-score games is absolutely brutal, especially in the manner they have come in. In spite of everything, they do rank 9th in EPA/play, and while that may regress given how much they’ve relied on third downs, you’d also expect them to simply be more efficient on early downs as well. After a rough start to the year, which can be anticipated with a new head coach, Derek Carr (72 PFF passing grade, .203 adjusted EPA/play) has been fantastic over his past three games, taking plenty of chances down the field (10.6 average depth of target) and leaning into a high-variance style of play. With tight end Darren Waller out and receiver Hunter Renfrow unlikely to play, it’s likely we see a similar passing attack centered around the vertical passing game with Davante Adams and Mack Hollins, though, really, this is a game where there Josh McDaniels is going to run, and run a lot. Despite ranking in the bottom-half of the league in yards before contact/attempt, Josh Jacobs has compensated for that by simply being PFF‘s highest-graded rusher with the fourth-most yards after contact/attempt; while I question the sustainability of this, they also have the benefit of facing PFF‘s second-lowest graded run defense, making it more of a future concern.
Speaking of the Texans dense, Lovie Smith’s unit has quietly (17th in EPA/play allowed) held their own, thanks, in large part, to a top-ten graded coverage unit that is getting strong play from the cornerback trio of Steven Nelson, Desmond King II, and Derek Stingley Jr. I’d be remiss to say the opposing schedule (Colts, Broncos, Bears, Chargers, Jaguars) hasn’t been particularly difficult, yet if they continue to get the stability they’re getting in the secondary, you can go along way to merely being competent on that side of the ball. The Raiders, on the other hand, have the third-worst passing DVOA allowed, are now without their top cornerback in Nate Hobbs, and big free-agent signing Chandler Jones ranking 61st of 68 edge rushers with 100 pass-rushing snaps in pass-rushing productivity rating. That may not come back to bite them against the 30th-ranked offense in EPA/play, yet with an offense reliant on very few star players and clear defensive holes, it’s also hard to be assured that they’ll be able to not only take care of business this week, but truly compete for a postseason spot.
With a soft schedule coming up, the Raiders could certainly make a run during the second half of the year, and this is a nice spot for them to continue to get in sync. That being said, they’re remarkably compromised here against a Texans team that, to their credit, has been rather pesky (3-1-1 vs the spread) this year, and I’m always worried when the main gameplan is centered around “hoping the star running back continues to have an outlier season behind a poor offensive line”. There have been plenty of positive signs, but this is a game where that needs to start translating into perhaps more sustainable success.
Seattle Seahawks (3-3) at Los Angeles Chargers (4-2)
Spread: LAC (-4.5)
- Projected Outcome: SEA (-1.34)
- My Pick: SEA (+4.5)
- Projected Total: 49.62
- My Pick: Under
- SEA: 54.06%
- LAC: 45.94%
Score Prediction: Seahawks 26 Chargers 24
- Can Geno Smith Get Back On Track?
- Tariq Woolen vs Mike Williams
- What’s Going On With JC Jackson?
Sometimes, expectations are everything. Coming into the season, the Chargers were seen as a major threat to the Chiefs and a Super Bowl contender, so while their 4-2, how they’ve gotten there (too many struggles against teams they should’ve beaten and a negative point differential) has been underwhelming. On the other end, the Seahawks may just be 3-3, but compared to preseason expectations, it feels like they’re on top of the world. Don’t look now, but we may be on upset alert here.
I continue to be extremely perplexed with who the Chargers are, and what they can be. As things stand, they’re just the 20th-ranked offense on early downs, have had Justin Herbert under pressure at the fourth-highest rate (36.5%) due to offensive line woes, and are a bottom-ten offense in yards/pass attempt mainly due to any sort of impact from any receiver not named Mike Williams with Keenan Allen injured. In spite of his arm talent, Herbert has the fifth-lowest average depth of target in the NFL, leading to an un-explosive offense that needs to be perfect in order to succeed. When you have offensive line deficiencies and limited receiver depth, that doesn’t work as soundly as you’d hope.
If that wasn’t enough, when you add premium talent such as Khalil Mack and JC Jackson, along with more impact players on the defensive line and the secondary, you do so believing you can field an elite defense, not one ranked 21st in EPA/play allowed. At this point, Jackson, with the second-highest passer rating allowed, may continue to be benched for this game, and with Joey Bosa out, they’re struggling to create pressure (22nd) in addition to their woes in run defense (28th in rush EPA/play allowed). When you have a defensive-minded head coach, this cannot happen, and serious change needs to happen in some form soon.
Should that not happen, the Chargers could be in for a tougher day than expected. After all, the Seahawks are definitely not a slouch by any means- you don’t rank 4th in DVOA by accident. Although last game didn’t go as expected for Geno Smith, he’s still PFF‘s second-highest graded passer, leads the league in completion rate over expectation, and has been particularly effective (2nd in big-time throw rate) when throwing 20+ yards down the field. It also helps when you an explosive wide receiver duo of DK Metcalf and Tyler Lockett, leading to the #1 offense in the NFL on EPA/play on man coverage. Why is that significant? Well, to compensate for troubles in the secondary with communication, Los Angeles has leaned on man coverage (8th), particularly cover-1, which Smith (.61 EPA/play) has analiated this year. Oh, and Kenneth Walker III has also been one of the league’s explosive rushers (15.9% in explosive rush rate) against a run defense that has had its fair share of struggles with chunk runs, to say the least. Points should be scored here.
Yes, Seattle’s defense has been problematic this year, but rookie cornerback Tariq Woolen is allowing the fourth-lowest passer rating in the NFL, has the size (6’4″) to match up with Mike Williams, and, from there, the Chargers don’t have many other avenues for offensive success; even second-year receiver Joshua Palmer is out with a concussion. Quietly, the Seahawks have gotten more pressure (14th) than expected, and, to be honest, the gap between their defense and what’s going on in Los Angeles is minimal at the moment. Compound that with the fact that they have an offense that is not only better, yet has the dynamism that is built to exploit the Chargers’ deficiencies, and you get a game where an upset is very possible. Part of me hopes I’m wrong for Justin Herbert’s sake, but, hey, perhaps it is just the year of Geno.
Kansas City Chiefs (4-2) at San Francisco 49ers (3-3)
Spread: SF (+1)
- Projected Outcome: KC (-1.18)
- My Pick: KC (-1)
- Projected Total: 47.71
- My Pick: Over
- KC: 53.58%
- SF: 46.42%
Score Prediction: Chiefs 27 49ers 23
- Strength on Strength: Chiefs Offense vs 49ers Defense
- What Is The Effect of Trent Williams’ Return For San Francisco’s Offense
- Will Chris Jones Continue To Create Absolute Havoc?
At this rate, the Chiefs are going to be playing the “game of the week” for the rest of the year! First it was the Chargers, then the Bucs, then the Bills, and, now, this. It’s been a gauntlet of an opening schedule for Kansas City, yet they’ve come away looking quite strong, which is the complete contrast with what we’ve seen from the 49ers this year. Regardless, when you trade four draft picks for Christian McCaffrey, you do so believing you’re going to make a Super Bowl run, and this is a major test for them.
With the fifth-most difficult schedule of opposing defenses thus far, one could imagine the Chiefs could get off to a slower foot while adjusting to life without Tyreek Hill. Instead, they lead the league in EPA/play, because, at the end of the day, doubting the combination of Patrick Mahomes and Andy Reid doesn’t work out. Speaking of Mahomes, his performance thus far has led to him ranking first in our adjusted EPA/play metric, with a major difference being an improvement in the intermediate passing game between the numbers; no quarterback has totaled more yards at this area of the field than Mahomes. This allows receivers to get in space and make plays after the catch, which is exactly (4th in yards after catch/reception) what has happened, with Juju Smith-Schuster (4th) dominating in that aspect. When you have an offense designed to win in high-percentage areas, lead the league in early-down pass rate, and have a quarterback who limits negatives (sacks and turnovers) while also still producing enough explosive plays, this is the result.
In the ultimate “strength vs strength” matchup, they’ll now be tasked with taking on the 49ers defense, who lead the league in EPA/play allowed. The problem? It’s come against the third-easiest schedule overall, per Football Outsiders. You’d always bank on an elite offense against a high-end defense as is, but given the gap in the strength of schedule, there should be even more confidence in Kansas City’s offense here. After seeing the Bills, the league’s top-team in zone coverage, run man coverage on over half of their snaps last week, I’m interested to see if San Francisco tries to adopt a similar approach, but, to be honest, it hasn’t made a difference either way. As they say, offense wins championships; did we not just see the Chiefs move the ball with relative ease against Buffalo, a defense they should’ve had trouble against?
Thus, the onus falls on the 49ers to produce enough offensively, and they certainly have the skill position talent to do so against a questionable (24th EPA/play allowed, albeit against a difficult schedule) defense. At the same time, though, since turning to Jimmy Garoppolo for the injured Trey Lance, San Francisco ranks just 14th in EPA/play and 21st in success rate, which is less than ideal. Now, this hasn’t been an issue with the passing game (4th in EPA/dropback, 3rd in yards/reception), where they’ve continued to create chunk plays after the catch (first in yards after catch/reception). Rather, when you’re in the bottom five in early-down pass rate, you can’t also be so inefficient (27th) on the ground. Sure, you’d assume that adding McCaffrey would fix that, but will it? McCaffrey was averaging 3.9 yards/carry as is for a higher-graded offensive line by PFF, and, for what it’s worth, Jeff Wilson Jr. has a higher rushing yards over expectation than McCaffrey, per NFL Next Gen Stats. What may change matters, actually, is the return of tackle Trent Williams, last year’s highest-graded run blocker from PFF, though that isn’t enough to make up for the difference between the run-blocking success they had last year (2nd) versus this year (21st); a remade interior offensive line has impacted them tremendously.
Speaking of that interior offensive line, we’ll see if they can somehow stand ground against Chris Jones, who, as the league’s highest-graded interior pass rusher by PFF with the most pressures as well, has arguably been the top-performing defensive player in the NFL. Ultimately, though, the strength of schedule gap (Chiefs 5th, 49ers 32nd) is notable considering how much more productive Kansas City has been, and the limitations of trying to keep up in a shootout with a rigid offense is incredibly difficult. The 49ers surely can give the Chiefs a run for their money, but, at the end of the day, the offensive edge can’t be ignored here. Regardless, this should be a good one.
Pittsburgh Steelers (2-4) at Miami Dolphins (3-3)
Spread: MIA (-7.5)
- Projected Outcome: MIA (-7.5)
- My Pick: PIT (+7.5)
- Projected Total: 45.87
- My Pick: Over
- PIT: 33.19%
- MIA: 66.81%
Score Prediction: Steelers 20 Dolphins 26
- Welcome Back, Tua Tagovailoa!
- Can Kenny Pickett Take Advantage Of Miami’s Pass Defense Deficiencies?
- The Steelers Linebackers Are In For a Long Night
Considering what the quarterback matchup for this game could have looked like, I’m sure the NFL is quite pleased with how this will turn out. With both Kenny Pickett and Tua Tagovailoa being cleared from concussion protocol for this game, the intrigue surrounding the quarterback position is extremely high, leading to what should be a very interesting game.
For the Dolphins, Tagovailoa being cleared is critical. Prior to his injury, Miami was leading the league in EPA/play despite a difficult schedule (Patriots, Ravens, Bills) of opposing defenses, due in large part to what he was able to accomplish for them. During that stretch, only Mac Jones had more passing yards 20+ yards down the field, while Tagovailoa also ranked 4th in PFF passing grade from a clean pocket; his adjusted EPA/play (.336) is still better than all quarterbacks not named Josh Allen. With Teddy Bridgewater last week, the Dolphins were still able to average 9.7 yards/pass attempt – having two of the top-six receivers in yards/route run helps – and, hopefully, they can get through their first game since Week 3 with their starting quarterback finishing the game. That being said, can the team’s pass protection hold up? The Dolphins now are dead-last in PFF pass-blocking grade by a significant margin, with the combination of Teddy Bridgewater and Skyler Thompson pressured on 50.5%(!) of their dropbacks over the past two weeks. That aligns with star tackle Terron Armstead being out of the lineup, but, even then, tackle Greg Little (19.8 PFF pass-block grade) and guard Liam Eichenberg (34.9 PFF pass-block grade) have struggled immensely, and having such a weak-link unit could easily slow down the entire operation.
Fortunately for them, the Steelers, still without TJ Watt, are generating pressure at the fourth-lowest rate, and have been a bottom-ten defense overall. Specifically, should Miami force them into more base packages based on their usage of two tight end sets, which could lead to an overexposing of linebackers Devin Bush (44.1 PFF coverage grade) and Robert Spillane (47.2 PFF coverage grade); this is an offense that, with the amount of pre-snap motion (1st) and targets between the numbers that is present, can put linebackers in an absolute bind, as we saw before Tagovailoa got injured on Thursday Night Football against the Bengals. Without a pass rush and issues in terms of linebackers and defending the slot, they’re in an impossible situation to contain the speed that is coming their way, allowing head coach Mike McDaniel to exploit some clear matchup advantages. In simple terms, Miami could easily score 40 points here.
That being said, will their defense hold up? Ranked in the bottom-five in EPA/play allowed, EPA/dropback allowed, and PFF coverage grade, it’s been a massive struggle for the Dolphins defensively, and that’s before losing cornerback Nik Needham as well. With Diontae Johnson, George Pickens, and Chase Claypool, Pittsburgh has the personnel to take advantage of a defense that will put their cornerbacks on an island, and Kenny Pickett has handled both man coverage (.13 EPA/play) and the blitz (.2 EPA/play) extremely well in a small sample size. So far, Pickett’s accuracy (4.3 CPOE) has been on full display, and while the big-play ability hasn’t been, he’s taken care of the football (3% turnover-worthy play) and goes from facing the Jets, Bills, and Bucs to one of the least-productive pass defenses in the NFL.
Take away their 35-point loss to the Bucs, and the Steelers have actually been reasonably competitive this season. Pickett’s mere competence as a rookie quarterback being thrown into the fire, particularly navigating the blitz (4th in PFF grade), has been impressive, and he’s now in position to let his skill position players exploit clear deficiencies on the back-end for the Dolphins. On the contrary, Miami likely scores too many points for that to matter in the end, though there are a lot of moving parts in this game left to be resolved. Really, this is one that should live up to the primetime billing regardless of the outcome, with both quarterbacks leaving this game healthy the top priority. Assuming that, the football aspect of this game is quite fascinating.
Chicago Bears (2-4) at New England Patriots (3-3)
Spread: NE (-8.5)
- Projected Outcome: NE (-17.37)
- My Pick: NE (-8.5)
- Projected Total: 45.43
- My Pick: Over
- CHI: 17.76%
- NE: 82.24%
Score Prediction: Bears 13 Patriots 30
- Welcome Back, Mac Jones!
- A Daunting Test For Justin Fields
- Have The Patriots Found Their Pathway To Defensive Success Once Again?
Does the NFL have a crystal ball when it comes to scheduling games at the perfect time? Probably not considering how much the Broncos have played in primetime games, but it’s extremely fitting that Bill Belichick has a chance to break the record for the most wins ever by a head coach on a national spotlight. Based on how his team is playing compared to the opponent, it’d be a shock if he wasn’t able to accomplish that today.
For whatever reason, the Patriots are a team that has seemed to get cast aside this season, which seems odd for a team ranked 11th in EPA/play on offense and 6th on defense. Meanwhile, this hasn’t just come against an easy schedule (18th, per PFF), and they’ve been able to do this with three different quarterbacks starting a game this year. Now, though, Mac Jones has been cleared to play when healthy, which is more interesting to monitor than you’d expect. See, Jones (58.8 PFF passing grade, 5.1% turnover-worthy play) had his fair share of struggles playing an aggressive gunslinger role, which isn’t what you’d expect from him, and it didn’t help that he benefited from fewer play-action concepts than any team in the NFL. Bailey Zappe, on the other hand, received over three times as many play-action concepts and was able to lead a more efficient offense not predicated on a boom-or-bust style of play, and the hope is that the offense has sorted itself up for Jones to come in and benefit from the same advantages. Even as is, New England was in the top-ten in success rate with Jones, but you’d hope for more sustainable method of offensive success.
Fortunately for him, the Bears, who allow an average depth of target of just 6.4 yards, yet still are in the bottom-ten in dropback EPA/play allowed, may be the perfect defense for Jones to harness himself in. With the lowest blitz rate and the lowest-graded pass rush from PFF, they’re not going to be able to limit Jones from operating mainly from clean pockets against a top-five graded offensive line, and you’d also be concerned about rookie cornerback Kyler Gordon (50.2 PFF coverage grade, 126 passer rating allowed) manning the slot against Jakobi Meyers (3rd in yards/route run). Add in their success as a rushing attack (3rd in EPA/rush) against a bottom-ten run defense, and there are too many pathways for offensive success to count. Really, it’s the perfect game for Jones to get himself situated in.
Meanwhile, the Patriots have also seemingly found their way defensively, which is impressive with the offenses (Dolphins, Ravens, Packers(?), Lions, Browns) they’ve faced along the way. At the moment, no defense is allowing a lower success rate on dropbacks than them, and despite facing two top-four rushing attacks in the Lions and Browns, have been exceptional (-.323 EPA/rush) over the past two weeks defending the run. Against a Bears offense in the bottom-five in early-down pass rate, that’s critical, and they also have the pass rushers (Deatrich Wise Jr., Matthew Judon, Christian Barmore) to expose an offense being pressured more than any other offense in football; having the 11th-graded coverage unit by PFF doesn’t hurt either. It may have taken more time, but we’re once again looking at a deep, well-coached unit that has been tested tremendously up to this point, leading to another successful defense run by Belichick. What else would you expect?
Theoretically, as a young quarterback with some gaffs in processing, this is a nightmare scenario for Justin Fields. It is worth noting he’s had his fair share of success against cover-one man and cover-three looks, but, even then, the league’s fourth-worst offense in dropback success rate against the league’s best defense in that category doesn’t seem like a fair matchup. Hence, why New England is a considerable favorite here, which, to be honest, is still underselling them here. Outside of a miraculous performance from Fields or Jones struggling immensely in his first game, there are essentially zero pathways for Chicago to not just win this game, but to keep it reasonably close at all. Of course, it’s the NFL in 2022, so anything is possible, but this is shaping up to be a memorable night for Bill Belichick. At the very least, consider this a night to appreciate one of the most impactful figures in football history.
NYG/JAX: Big Blue View
GB/WSH: Hogs Haven
TB/CAR: Pewter Report
IND/TEN: Colts Wire- USA Today
CLE/BAL: The Land On Demand
NYJ/DEN: Jets Wire- USA Today
HOU/LV: New York Times
SEA/LAC: Field Gulls
KC/SF: Niners Nation
PIT/MIA: Sports Illustrated