What a week thus far! Generally, the NFL trade deadline, for a multitude of reasons, has much less activity than the respective trade deadlines of the MLB and NBA. This season, though, was much different; the ten trades made on deadline day was an NFL record, which is interesting in a season with so much parity. On one end, the more teams that seemingly have a chance of the postseason, the more buyers there will be, but, of course, you also need teams on the other side of the spectrum to decide to trade away those players. This created a bit of a “seller’s market” that specific teams were able to take advantage of, with the “buyers” mainly acquiring players they believe not only help them this year, but are ascending to the point that perhaps we haven’t seen their best play yet. Seeing the balance of priorities weighed out is an incredibly fascinating look into team building; every team has a unique agenda and strategy.
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.
After weeks of chaos, last week presented a reasonable “return to expectations”; favorites were 10-5 in total, and, just anecdotally, no game’s outcome was a particular surprise; don’t ask me to explain the end of Panthers-Falcons, however. Looking ahead to this week, while four games feature spreads of over a touchdown, there are also seven games with a spread of 3.5 points or less, meaning this should, in theory, be a very eventful week. Naturally, the double-digit underdogs will combine for a winning record, because football doesn’t make sense anymore, though this certainly looks like a week where we’ll learn a lot about specific teams- consider it a potential turning point for several organizations.
Stats via Pro Football Focus, 33rd Team, Football Outsiders, 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 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.
It’s data points such as this that will continue to leave me maintaining faith in the Buccaneers, though, at some point, that patience wanes. The Cowboys, on the other hand, should see a significant uptick in third-down production with Dak Prescott back healthy, though I’m less confident for that for teams such as the Vikings, Falcons, and Packers, given the makeup of their offenses. On the contrary, I’d be sounding the alarm bells if I were the Patriots, and teams such as the Chargers and Bengals are putting an extensive amount of pressure on their quarterbacks to “bail them out” time and time again. At some point, can we try to make their lives just a little bit easier?
Finally, there’s one other notable measure of variance that we’d be remiss not to mention. Since 2018, the percentage of touchdowns scored in the red zone by team is as unstable (r^2= .026) as it gets, meaning that, in theory, the teams that score the most red-zone touchdowns should be the ones who get to the red zone all together. Thus, if we adjust each offense and defense’s performance for red-zone variance, we can better grasp their true level of performance:
The amount of clear information supporting an eventual turnaround for the Bucs is starting to get frustrating at this point! Over time, you’d also expect Vikings game to potentially feature fewer points given their position in terms of red-zone success on both sides of the ball, with the Raiders also likely a better team that the results would indicate thus far. Perhaps there is a legitimate reason for a few teams being on the extreme end of either spectrum, yet given the lack of statistical consistency, it would still be wise to not expect that to be the case. That’s the beauty of the NFL; so much can change is any given week.
Now, onto the previews!
Philadelphia Eagles (7-0) at Houston Texans (1-5-1)
Spread: HOU (+13.5)
- Projected Outcome: PHI (-16.06)
- Projected Spread: HOU (+11.2)
- My Pick: PHI (-13.5)
- Projected Total: 46.84
- My Pick: Under
- PHI: 83.89%
- HOU: 16.31%
Score Prediction: Eagles 31 Texans 13
- The Texans Are Still Looking For More Signs Of Progress From Their Rookie Class
- So, How Many Yards Are The Eagles Going To Gain On The Ground Here?
- A Perfect Matchup For Jalen Hurts To Continue To Thrive
When the NFL decided to feature this game in primetime, who would’ve thought that it wouldn’t even be the most compelling sporting event of the day featuring a team from Houston and Philadelphia? In fact, had it not been for a rainout on Monday, the Astros and Phillies wouldn’t even be playing today! Alas, there are worst problems for Philadelphia sports fans to have than deciding whether to watch a team in the World Series or their undefeated football team, though at least Houston fans don’t have to deal with that same dilemma? So far this season, every Thursday Night football game has been within one score. Most likely, though, that will change in a major way this week.
At this point, it’s getting difficult to find new talking points regarding the Eagles. For starters, they’ve only played two teams with a winning record thus far, and one of them (Cowboys) was starting Cooper Rush at quarterback. Thus, they haven’t been exactly tested, and have fully taken advantage of the favorable schedule; they’ve won their games by an average of 11.1 points, which is a truly staggering amount. Looking ahead on their schedule, only the Titans, Giants (x2), and Cowboys have winning records currently, and to be honest, do any of those teams outside of Dallas truly worry Philadelphia? With the way the NFC is shaping up, they’re in an enviable position, though they continue to do it in different ways.
By now, we’re certainly way aware of the ascension of Jalen Hurts, PFF‘s second-highest graded passer and fifth in adjusted EPA/play. What’s so fascinating, though, is how much variance there tends to be in his play style. Take a look at his average depth of target by week:
- Week 1 (at DET): 5.1 yards
- Week 2 (vs MIN): 9.1 yards
- Week 3 (at WSH): 11.8 yards
- Week 4 (vs JAX): 6.2 yards
- Week 5 (at ARI): 3.5 yards
- Week 6 (vs DAL): 4.7 yards
- Week 8 (vs PHI): 11.4 yards
While this may seem odd, a great deal of it may simply have to do with the opposing defenses he’s faced; the Jaguars, Cardinals, and Cowboys all rank in the bottom-12 in average depth of target allowed, whereas the Commanders, Vikings, and Steelers are all in the top ten. With the highest-graded pass-blocking offensive line from PFF and a receiving corps featuring AJ Brown and Devonta Smith, it’s no surprise that Hurts has been so efficient (19.5 yards/attempt, 4th) on passes of 20+ air yards, which is very significant for this offense; they’re incredibly productive after the catch (2nd in yards after catch/reception) and lead the league in rushing success rate, so having this added vertical element to their offense creates an absolute conundrum for opposing defenses. Especially if Hurts continues to limit negatives (second-lowest turnover-worthy play rate), the amount of flexibility this offense has is utterly absurd.
In this particular game, it truly is a “best of all worlds” for the Eagles. In terms of pushing the ball downfield when the opportunity presents itself, the Texans are allowing the fourth-most air yards/completion, with rookie cornerback Derek Stingley Jr. (48.4 PFF coverage grade, sixth in yards allowed by CBs) particularly having his fair share of struggles on the outside; it doesn’t help that they rush with four the most in the NFL and also have the fifth-lowest PFF pass rush grade, which isn’t an ideal combination whatsoever. Really, though, do teams even need to pass on the Texans at this point? The Titans, with 45 carries and just 10(!) pass attempts, put that to the test in Week 8, and proceeded to rush for .321 EPA/rush, which is particularly absurd when you consider how much more difficult it is to retain efficiency with increased volume. For the year, Houston is allowing a notable 5.6 yards/carry, and have allowed 6.7 yards/attempt over their last two weeks. It’s easy to look past run defense, but when it’s this this much of a liability, you’re not giving yourself much of a fighting chance at all.
Meanwhile, it isn’t going any better for the Texans offensively; only the Panthers and Rams have been worse offensively this year based on EPA/play, with only Carolina being less efficient through the air. While still thin on depth, their receiving corps has some reason for intrigue with the second-year progression of Nico Collins (1.97 yards/route run) to go along with an established commodity in Brandin Cooks. Yet, Collins is now injured, and Cooks is away from the team after expressing displeasure with not being traded, when the main reason he couldn’t be traded is because of the money he’s owed on a contract extension that Houston just gave him! That, my friends, is dysfunction 101. Add in accuracy woes (fourth-worst in CPOE) with Davis Mills, in addition to the complete lack of mobility, and you end with a very uninspiring passing attack. Sure, what rookie running back Dameon Piece (second-most missed tackles forced) is accomplishing is impressive, yet even then Houston is just 20th in EPA/rush; there’s simply no true semblance of a threat for this offense right now, and, to honest, what building blocks do they have long term? The continued struggles of first-round rookie interior offensive lineman Kenyon Green (28.7 PFF pass-blocking grade) don’t help.
Speaking of which, there truly isn’t a worse defense to try to compensate on the interior offensive line than the Eagles, with Javon Hargrave (9th in pass-rush productivity) having another phenomenal season to go along Fletcher Cox, in addition to an absurdly deep offensive line that has the fourth best PFF pass rush grade; if that wasn’t enough, their two starting outside cornerbacks are in the top-three in passer rating allowed, with slot corner Avonte Maddox (77.5 PFF coverage grade also performing at a high level. It doesn’t exactly take a rocket scientist to make the connection that the team struggling to pass the ball will likely have issues against one of the league’s top pass defenses, especially when the game script likely entails one with obvious dropback scenarios. In other words, this may get quite ugly.
Expectations weren’t high for the Texans coming into the year, but the struggles of the rookie class, mainly their two first-round picks, are concerning, and it’s hard to argue with them possessing less talent than any other team in football. The Eagles, ironically, likely have the league’s deepest roster in the NFL, and while I’d say they match up well against Houston, that’s mainly implied with the two teams’ performance this season. We’ll see what happens in the World Series, but Philadelphia certainly should be able to at least celebrate one team this week. For Texans fans, you may want to tune in to watch Bryce Young take on LSU on Saturday.
Carolina Panthers (2-6) at Cincinnati Bengals (4-4)
Spread: CIN (+7.5)
- Projected Outcome: CIN (-8.3)
- Projected Spread: CIN (-6.9)
- My Pick: CAR (+7.5)
- Projected Total: 44.32
- My Pick: Over
- CAR: 29.17%
- CIN: 70.83%
Score Prediction: Panthers 19 Bengals 24
- Can The Bengals Offense Finally Make The “No Ja’Marr Chase” Adjustment?
- Regardless Of The Sustainability Of His Production, PJ Walker Is Fun!
- The Injury To CB Chidobe Awuzie Leaves The Bengals In a Rough Spot In Their Secondary
Roller coasters can be a very enjoyable ride, but when it becomes too bumpy and volatile, that enjoyment starts to wane. Is that where we’re at with the Bengals right now? In a span of one year in 2021, the team went from a disaster during the preseason to the #1 seed after seven weeks to losing to the Mike White-led Jets and by three scores to the Browns, only to respond with multiple wins followed by consecutive losses, and, then, a Super Bowl run ensued. It’s easy to forget, but this was a team that was 7-6 through Week 14 last year; sometimes, exciting postseason runs can perhaps leaves us with a false sense of reality. Fast forward to 2022, and after recovering from a rough start to score 65 combined points between Weeks 7 and 8, they hit a new low with a 32-13 Monday night loss to the Browns, and with Ja’Marr Chase out of the picture, are suddenly undergoing an identity crisis. Is this a spot where the turbulence softens up?
Granted, adjusting on the fly to being without one of the league’s superstar wide receivers is never a smooth task, but Cleveland came into Week 8 with the second-worst defense in the NFL based on EPA/play. Thus, to not score a point in the first three quarters was certainly alarming, and goes back to Cincinnati’s flaws from early in the season; without Chase, there isn’t any explosive element to their offense, leading to a condensed target depth for Joe Burrow. Add that to the negatives provided by sacks (five on Monday) and a bottom-six offense in rushing efficiency, and you end up with an offense that simply doesn’t have a plan for sustained success. The Panthers, to their credit, provide a more challenging (12th in EPA/play allowed) test for the Bengals, especially with individual players such as edge rusher Brian Burns (7th in total pressures) and interior defender Derrick Brown (12th in PFF pass rush grade) that provide difficulties for a still-struggling offensive line. Burrow struggled mightily against man coverage (three completions on seven pass attempts for 28 yards, 2 sacks) against Cleveland, which, while a small sample size, goes back to a major theme; third downs aren’t going to bring the highs it has previously, which is a problem considering their lack of efficiency on early downs (22nd in EPA/play). Right now, this is a team that desperately needs to get to their bye week.
Speaking of injuries, Chase isn’t the only notable player whose loss is a significant one; Cincinnati will be without top cornerback Chidobe Awuzie for the season after he suffered a torn ACL. Awuzie, 10th in passer rating allowed, isn’t just another cornerback, but, really, the most irreplaceable player for the Bengals defense; all of a sudden, they’re starting Eli Apple (39.5 PFF coverage grade and second-round rookie Cam Taylor-Britt on the outside, which leaves them quite vulnerable at a time where they’re also a bottom-ten graded run defense by PFF; it’s hard to see them operating as the top-ten unit that they have so far this year. Even if Carolina’s recent offensive success under PJ Walker has been mainly predicated on chunk plays (11th in EPA/play vs 25th in success rate, that’s easier to lean on when a) the quarterback is doing his part (81.9 PFF passing grade, 14.8% big-time throw, 11.2-yard average depth of target) and b) the secondary you’re facing is as compromised as Cincinnati’s; Jacoby Brissett averaged 12.7 yards/attempt and 16.4 yards/completion on Monday. Given his limited track record and some of the clear red flags, Walker’s current stretch of play may not exactly be sustainable, but the high-variance play style he’s adopted is enough to keep the Panthers more competitive than they perhaps should be, as well as bring life for players such as DJ Moore (3.62 yards/route run) and Terrace Marshall Jr. (2 yards/route run). Consider this a remarkable shift after what we were subjected to over the first six weeks.
It’s fortunate for the Bengals that, on paper, they get a very winnable game before their bye week, which should give them enough time to simply catch a deep breath. That being said, they’re also not exactly in position to assume anything, especially if their offense continues with the same identity crisis they currently find themselves bestowed in. With them simply not able to rely on starpower the way they have in the past, it’s time for them to discover different ways to have success, which, ultimately, falls on the coaching staff. We’ll see if they’re truly ready to make that adjustment on Sunday.
Miami Dolphins (5-3) at Chicago Bears (3-5)
Spread: CHI (+4)
- Projected Outcome: MIA (-11.7)
- Projected Spread: CHI (+9)
- My Pick: MIA (-4)
- Projected Total: 46.11
- My Pick: Over
- MIA: 77.15%
- CHI: 22.85%
Score Prediction: Dolphins 27 Bears 20
- Can Justin Fields Continue To Trend Up?
- So, Dolphins, You’re Ready To Be “All In”?
- Tyreek Hill and Jaylen Waddle Continue To Accomplish Unprecedented Feats
When it comes to roster construction in the NFL, it all stems around the quarterback position. The amount of positive value you can get from drafting and developing a quarterback on a rookie contract is immense, but it doesn’t just end there; you need to support them with talent that not only puts them in a better position to succeed, yet also allows you to gain more information quicker about the true capabilities of said quarterback. In subsequent years, both of these organizations have drafted extremely well-regarded college quarterbacks, only to see their early development staggered, partially due to the circumstances they were thrust into. Clearly, that’s changed dramatically in Miami, and, recently, things are trending up in Chicago as well. So, are we on our way to two successful quarterback development stories? That’s the hope!
Truly, it’s hard to put into words how dominant of a performance Tua Tagovailoa put together on Sunday, but let’s try:
- In spite of an average depth of target of 12 yards, Tagovailoa had a 93.6% adjusted completion percentage (adjusted for drops), including an 100% completion rate on five throws of 20+ air yards
- He completed 19.9% of his passes over expectation
- The combination of target depth (12 yards) and quick release (2.46 time-to-throw) is a lethal combination
- All told, he contributed 28.3 total expected points added, an exceptional amount
For the season, Tagovailoa leads the league in PFF passing grade (87.3), leads the league in adjusted completion rate (70.8%) on passes 20+ yards down the field, leads the league in adjusted EPA/play (.372), and ranks second in CPOE (5.8%). A large amount of credit needs to go to him for his remarkable development, but, man, it’s hard to be in a much better situation. Right now, under head coach Mike McDaniel, no teams runs more pre-snap motion than Miami, while only Marcus Mariota passes out of play-action concepts at a higher frequency than Tagovailoa. Then, in Tyreek Hill and Jaylen Waddle, you not only have two wide receivers each in the top three in yards/route run, but their simple presence has led to Miami seeing the most zone coverage in the NFL, and the explosiveness (most air yards/completion) is the ultimate bail-out tool if anything sputters. Ultimately, you have a very accurate quarterback with a tremendous head coach getting the most out of an absolutely dominant wide receiver tandem, and you get this; heck, the return of tackle Terron Armstead has stabilized the team’s pass protection as well. Really, do we see this stopping anytime soon?
Most importantly, certainly not by the Bears, who, when excluding turnovers, rank in the bottom-five in EPA/play allowed, and that was with linebacker Roquan Smith and edge rusher Robert Quinn in the fold. The thought of McDaniel and co. taking advantage of rookie slot corner Kyler Gordon (114.9 passer rating allowed and a further weakened linebacking corps ought to be a scary thought, and we already mainly saw that come to fruition with a rather rough showing (.529 EPA/play allowed) in Dallas last week. That’s not the focus for the Bears at the moment, though. Rather, it all lies with Justin Fields, who now ranks 9th in PFF grade (73.3) over the past four weeks (among quarterbacks with at least three games played), as well as 12th in adjusted EPA/play (.132). Notably, his rushing prowess (42 carries) has been a major benefit during that span, but it’s the improved accuracy (1.2% CPOE) and refined as a passer that particularly sticks out, and the Bears likely need to start acting as if they have their quarterback for the future. By trading a second-round pick for receiver Chase Claypool, even if perhaps the compensation is quite high, they’re demonstrating that belief, and now get to benefit from being done with a brutal schedule (Commanders, Patriots, Cowboys) of opposing defenses. Now, after their two-best graded pass protecting games, including one against the Cowboys, can that carry over to go along with whatever Claypool brings? Honestly, it’s just exciting that we’ve gotten to this stage so quickly.
Their next foe? A Dolphins defense that, clearly, the organization is hoping is close enough to make a Super Bowl push. After all, you don’t trade a first-round pick for edge rusher Bradley Chubb, while signing him to a massive $110 million extension, if that’s not at the forefront of your mind. That being said, consider me still pessimistic. As is, Miami’s pass rush was already a top-ten graded unit from PFF, with the edge rush tandem of Jaelan Phillips, each in the top-16 in PFF pass rush grade, standing out. On the contrary, their secondary, with the third-lowest PFF coverage grade and the eighth-most yards/attempt allowed, has consistently stuck out like a sore thumb, especially with top cornerback Xavien Howard (148.1 passer rating allowed) continuing to get attacked hard and the depth behind him a question without Byron Jones and Nik Needham. Perhaps their hope is the addition of Chubb allows them to rush with four more often (currently 32nd), which, in turn, can help the secondary. Yet, Chubb, 37th among 63 qualified edge rushers in pass-rush win rate, hasn’t demonstrated the production to truly be that “missing piece”, which, to be honest, would’ve been mythological to begin with. If Miami makes a postseason run, it comes down to their offense continuing to be an overwhelming force with some sort of defensive variance, but perhaps not because of this sole acquisition.
For this particular game, it’s quite surprising to see the spread as close as it is, given the massive discrepancies in the two offenses, and, thus, the teams in general. When you truly want to be “all-in”, these are the games you’re expected to take care of, which Miami didn’t exactly do last week in Detroit; in fact, they’ve been at mercy at the other team with the ball and having a chance to win late in the fourth quarter despite facing the Lions and Steelers. Can we see start to see more consistent forms of dominance that a team with these expectations should be hoping for? Meanwhile, in a much easier spot, can the good times keep rolling for Fields and the Bears offense? Truly, there is a lot to be intrigued by in this game.
Los Angeles Chargers (4-3) at Atlanta Falcons (4-4)
Spread: ATL (+3)
- Projected Outcome: ATL (-9.7)
- Projected Spread: ATL (-7.8)
- My Pick: ATL (+3)
- Projected Total: 48.03
- My Pick: Under
- LAC: 26.44%
- ATL: 73.56%
Score Prediction: Chargers 20 Falcons 24
- Who Is Justin Herbert Throwing The Ball To?
- An Advantageous Matchup For The Falcons Offense
- Speaking Of Which, Brandon Staley’s Defense Needs To Take Strides Coming Out Of The Bye
How can two teams start the season with such different expectations, yet end up in a very similar spot? Coming into the season, the Chargers were not only seen as a direct threat to the Chiefs in the AFC, but had the fourth-best Super Bowl odds as well. The Falcons, on the other hand, were considered by many to be one of the favorites for the #1 pick. Alas, let this be a reminder of how much can change throughout the course of an NFL season.
Given the organization’s history, it was easy to be queasy about the concept of them not living up to expectations via injuries and disappointment, but this year was supposed to be different! Instead, they remain without tackle Rashawn Slater, and now enter this game without receivers Keenan Allen and Mike Williams; heck, even backup tight end Donald Parham is injured. All together, you have a bottom-ten graded offensive line in pass protection from PFF and with no viable threats on the perimeter, which, combined with suspect play-calling, cumulates into Justin Herbert having the fifth lowest average depth of target (6.8) in the NFL; there is zero explosive element at all to this offense. Add in a bottom-ten rushing offense, and you have an offense ranked 16th in defense-adjusted value over average (DVOA). Doesn’t that sound remarkably appropriate? Really, it’s remarkable they’ve managed to be that productive.
Speaking of which, the Chargers will enter this game with a starting wide receiver trio (Josh Palmer, DeAndre Carter, Michael Bandy) that is averaging less than a yard per route run, can’t even lean on two tight end sets with Parham out, and, now, even Austin Ekeler may be limited with an abdomen injury. Even against the Falcons, allowing the most air yards per attempt in the NFL, can we be confident that they simply have enough playmakers to have any true amount of effectiveness? I really wish I had a different answer for that. Naturally, though, a defense with the fourth-most amount of cap space dedicated to it would hold its end of the bargain, right? Not exactly. Surely, being without edge rusher Joey Bosa hurts, but given the notable investments they made on that side of the ball, ranking just 26th in EPA/play allowed is extremely disappointing; they’re in the bottom-ten in pressure rate, are allowing the eighth most air yards/attempt, and have also yielded the most yards/carry in the NFL. When all three levels of the defense are struggling at the same, the domino effect is substantial, and they’ll be tested immediately after their bye.
That’s right- the Falcons continue to operate as a very efficient offense. In the top-ten in DVOA and EPA/play, as a matter of fact, which maybe surprising for an offense with the second-fewest amount of pass attempts per game. Yet, while in unconventional fashion – creating chunk plays in the play-action passing game (highest rate in NFL) with the deepest average depth of target in the NFL, while also remaining efficient enough on the ground (10th in rush DVOA. All together, they’ve dominated (4th in EPA/play) on early downs, with Marcus Mariota averaging the sixth-most yards/attempt in the entire NFL. I’ll be honest when I say it doesn’t make complete sense, but when you’ve faced the schedule of opposing defenses (7th per Football Outsiders) and have remained this effective for an eight-week stretch, it doesn’t make sense to hold their uniqueness and preseason expectations against them anymore. Facing a defense that, as we mentioned, is extremely vulnerable over the top and on the ground, it should be more of the same in Atlanta this week.
Ultimately, it comes down to ideal coaching here; health plays a role, though the Chargers’ continued deficiencies on the defensive side of the ball, combined with an inability to adapt at all offensively is a notable red flag. At this point, the only reason for them being favored over Atlanta is previous expectations, but we also have plenty of evidence available since then with Atlanta performing better offensively with a more difficult schedule, and that’s before accounting for the injury of Mike Williams. All told, it may be time to sound the alarm bells for the Chargers (49ers and Chiefs up next), whereas the Falcons might be playing themselves into a postseason spot with a very favorable slate of upcoming opponents. In the battle of the Ducks, it’s the original top Oregon quarterback who may very well be in position to pull off the upset that is anything but that.
Minnesota Vikings (6-1) at Washington Commanders (4-4)
Spread: MIN (+3)
- Projected Outcome: MIN (-11.4)
- Projected Spread: WSH (+8.8)
- My Pick: MIN (-3)
- Projected Total: 43.51
- My Pick: Under
- MIN: 76.6%
- WSH: 23.4%
Score Prediction: Vikings 24 Commanders 16
- Can Kirk Cousins Finally Air It Out, Even a Little Bit?
- Terry McLaurin Back In The Spotlight Against a Well-Performing Vikings Cornerback Duo
- Washington’s Defense: Legitimate or a Product Of Their Schedule?
Wait, how does this game feature two teams with a combined 14-5 record? Eight one-score wins between these teams over the past six weeks will do that for you, though it’s come in completely different fashion; in a year of chaos, Minnesota still ranks fifth in average scoring margin, whereas Washington (28th) is on the other end of the spectrum. Theoretically, you’d hope that the Vikings, if ready to be a true threat in the NFC, would expose that gap here, though that’s been easier said than done in the Twin Cities this year. Perhaps a Kirk Cousins revenge game narrative can change things.
When you face the third-easiest schedule of opposing defenses in all of football, per Football Outsiders, you’d hope for more productivity (14th in EPA/play) than the Vikings have demonstrated this season. Certainly, this isn’t a pure efficiency issue – Minnesota has the fourth-highest success rate in the NFL – but that gap shows a massive issue when it comes to producing chunk plays, particuarly through the air. Only Matt Ryan and Matthew Stafford have a lower average depth of target than Kirk Cousins this season, who also has the third-fewest percentage of passes of 20+ air yards and has seen his big-time throw rate (2.8%) nearly cut in half from last year. Considering this is the exact same offensive personnel as last year, there’s definitely hope for this turning around, and the addition of tight end TJ Hockenson hopefully adds another option to potentially open things up for Justin Jefferson to not have such a shallow depth of target (8.9 yards). Combined with an efficient rushing attack, the foundation is strong here, though there’s another layer needed for the potential to truly be unlocked.
If there was a time for that to happen, it’d be against the team allowing the most air yards per completion in the NFL. On one end, the Commanders (8th in EPA/play allowed over past five weeks) have appeared to make some clear strides, though that has come against the Cooper Rush-led Cowboys, Titans, Bears, Packers, and Colts. In other words, this should be their toughest test in over a month, which may really come to show up on early downs- they’re the fifth-least efficient defense in those situations, and you have to wonder if their third-down success comes down to the opponents they’ve faced more than anything else. That’d leave them in quite a pickle considering the drastic limitations of their offense (26th in success rate) since turning to Taylor Heinicke under center; they’re running the ball on early downs at the fourth-highest rate, which isn’t ideal when you’re just 26th in rushing EPA/play, and now have to face the defense with the highest PFF run defense grade in the NFL. Heinicke being protected by a bottom-ten pass-blocking unit, per PFF, against a stellar pass rush (7th in PFF pass rush grade) on obvious passing situations seems less than ideal, and you’d expect the Vikings to continue to not allow a red-zone touchdown rate (77.8%) around 20% above league average. Really, consider this a “regression to the mean” situation.
How often has a team been 6-1 and in clear position to earn the #2 seed in the NFC, yet be in such a questionable spot as a team overall? At some point, the Vikings won’t be so fortunate to play against just one healthy team with a winning record (Dolphins with their quarterback injuries don’t count), and that’s coming up with the Bills and Cowboys next. Even if they win this game, if it comes in another “too close”, down-to-the-wire game script, then we’re left in the same befuddlement as we were previously, which doesn’t inspire much optimism. From a predictiveness and confidence standpoint, how you win is just as important as whether you win, and if things don’t get cleaned up, the latter won’t be such a sure thing. Plus, Justin Jefferson catching a pass of over ten air yards would be nice from an enjoyment standpoint. You know what they say, though; revenge raises aggressiveness. Let’s hope that’s what’s on display here.
Green Bay Packers (3-5) at Detroit Lions (1-6)
Spread: DET (+3.5)
- Projected Outcome: GB (-10.3)
- Projected Spread: DET (+8.1)
- My Pick: GB (-3.5)
- Projected Total: 49.12
- My Pick: Over
- GB: 74.64%
- DET: 25.36%
Score Prediction: Packers 30 Lions 21
- It’s Now or Never For The Packers
- Is The Lions Offense Back To Their Previous Wonders?
- Rashan Gary vs Penei Sewell = Fun
In all aspects of life, we’re going to go through our fair share of struggles. At some point, though, there is a breaking point; if this doesn’t go smoothly, what ever will? When you’ve won at least 13 games in three straight years, it’s easy to feel you can walk on water, and while the trade of Davante Adams had long-term benefits, the inability to make any effort to supplement the roster with any perimeter talent seemed like a gamble that the duo of Aaron Rodgers and Matt LeFleur would be enough to overcome any obstacles. Now, they’ve already lost more games this year than in any previous year with that duo, and are on the verge of going from the back-to-back #1 seed to potentially missing the playoffs altogether. Ironically, in many ways, as they enter desperation mode, it all lies with accomplishing something they’ve done repeatedly- taking care of the Lions.
Did you ever imagine a time would come where an offense led by Aaron Rodgers would rank in the bottom-ten in EPA/play? Ultimately, it comes down to this simple disparity:
- Early Down EPA/Play: 6th
- Third Down EPA/Play: 30th
On early downs, where the Packers can take advantage of the #2 offense in rushing success rate, face less man coverage, and simply lean more on scheme over talent, they’re in a fantastic spot. If that doesn’t work, though, they’re in trouble: Rodgers ranks 22nd among 27 quarterbacks in EPA/play (-.240) against man coverage, Allen Lazard is the only healthy wide receiver with a PFF receiving grade of 66 or higher, and Rodgers is allowing the seventh-lowest average depth of target (7.7) on third downs. In simple terms, the lack of explosiveness/talent on the perimeter leaves this offense with little margin for error, so whether it be a penalty or an inefficient early-down play, any setback leaves them in an irrecoverable spot. Strangely, Rodgers’ peripherals (6.2% big-time throw, 1.6% turnover-worthy play, 77.4% adjusted completion rate) are very similar, but he’s also throwing a quarter of his passes behind the line of scrimmage and is averaging nearly five yards/attempt fewer on passes of 20+ air yards. The success on early downs would lead me to believe there is still hope, but how much can you overcome a pure lack of talent?
Fortunately for Green Bay, any talent gap shouldn’t be an issue in this game. After all, the Lions are in their own world in defensive futility:
After last week, Detroit is now allowing more than twice the EPA/play (.194) of the 31st-ranked defense (.098), which now means that the average offense facing the Lions is performing better than every offense not named the Chiefs. They’re an outlier in terms of how deficient they’ve been from a PFF coverage grade standpoint (40.4), also possess a bottom-five graded run defense and pass rush, and haven’t seen improvements despite recent changes to play less man coverage with a lower frequency of blitzes. Want to see Green Bay put it together on third downs? Who better to do that against than quite clearly the worst defense in the NFL on third downs; while they’ve allocated the second-fewest amount of dollars to their defense, you’d have to imagine defensive coordinator Aaron Glenn may start feeling some serious pressure soon, especially after defensive backs coach Aubrey Pleasant was let go. Hmm, I wonder where some of the team’s excess draft capital and cap space will be spent!
On the bright side for the Lions, with last week’s offensive rebound, they’re back to being a top-ten unit based on DVOA, leaning on a rushing attack benefitting from the second-most yardage before contact/attempt to go along with a passing attack that is surprisingly averaging the seventh-most yards/reception. Give Jared Goff credit for being willing to take more chances down the field (average depth of target up two yards from last year), even if success there becomes more challenging against a Packers defense ranked 8th in PFF pass rush and coverage grade. On the other hand, though, the Packers (30th in rush EPA/play) have also become a massive liability there, which, in turn, limits their effectiveness on early downs- in fact, they’re the worst-performing defense in those situations. So, can Detroit remain efficient enough to avoid the exact situations where they could get in the trouble? In what may need to be a shootout, that’s their path to success.
Ultimately, for as flawed as Green Bay’s offense is, it’s hard to imagine their struggles continuing against a defense that the Broncos may be able to have success against. If Detroit is efficient enough on early downs, which they certainly have the potential to do with the notable mismatch upfront, this becomes very interesting, but, in turn, the thought of them navigating through obvious passing situations with TJ Hockenson a Viking and Josh Reynolds injured against this pass defense is concerning. Again, this isn’t the Lions’ time, and continued progression offensively is beneficial, though they’ll be looking for more contributions from their young defensive players, especially if contention by next season is the goal. For now, the Packers may still have the upper hand in the rivalry, with Detroit perhaps starting to lick their chops about a future opportunity to take control emerging. Plus, could you imagine Bryce Young in this offense?
Buffalo Bills (6-1) at New York Jets (5-3)
Spread: NYJ (+11.5)
- Projected Outcome: BUF (-17.4)
- Projected Spread: NYJ (+11.7)
- My Pick: BUF (-11.5)
- Projected Total: 43.41
- My Pick: Under
- BUF: 85.53%
- NYJ: 14.47%
Score Prediction: Bills 23 Jets 10
- Okay Jets Defense, Let’s See What You’re Made Of
- A Nice Test For Buffalo’s Offensive Line
- The Clock Is Ticking Quickly For Zach Wilson
Constructing an NFL roster certainly is not an easy task. That’s an obvious statement, but think of this; you can put together an exceptional roster loaded with star talent, yet if the quarterback position remains unresolved, it all may just go to waste. Is that the position general manager Joe Douglas is going to find himself in soon? What the Jets’ lead decision maker has been able to accomplish via the draft and shrewd free-agent signings has been impressive, but he may continued to be tied to one decision: drafting Zach Wilson with the #2 overall pick in the 2021 draft. Right now, that may be one he’d like to have back.
For context, let’s take a look at Wilson’s overall production in his second season as a pro, coming off of being the least-efficient passer in the NFL as a rookie:
- Adjusted EPA/Play: 34th among 39 quarterbacks
- PFF Grade: 36th among 39 quarterbacks
- CPOE: 37th among 39 quarterbacks
- Big-Time Throw Rate: 32nd among 39 quarterbacks
- Turnover-Worthy Play Rate: 38th among 39 quarterbacks
That’s definitely a major reason for worry, but what’s so strange is the massive splits Wilson experiences depending on the situation. When in a clean pocket, for instance, he’s actually ranked 9th in PFF grade and leads the league in yards/attempt (9.5). When pressured? The worst PFF grade, three yards/pass attempt, the highest turnover-worthy play rate, nd a 33.3%(!) adjusted completion rate. There’s struggling under pressure, and then there’s this; generally, performance from a clean pocket is much more stable than performance when pressured, but a gap this sizable is notable, particularly when it checks with what is consistently on display- I may not be a quarterback whisperer, but his consistent drifting in the pocket is not something I would call optimal for success at the NFL level. Of course, it also doesn’t help that the team’s offensive line has been impacted negatively by injuries, now ranking fourth-worst in PFF pass-blocking grade, and the team’s only source of explosive plays (running back Breece Hall) is out for the year with a torn ACL. Then, there are the Bills, who’ll provide quite the challenge.
Despite dealing with the second-most difficult schedule of opposing offenses in the NFL, per Football Outsiders, Buffalo is a top-four defense in both EPA/play allowed and DVOA, and are on the verge of getting back top cornerback Tre’Davious White- that’s a fun position to be in. With the production that cornerbacks Kair Elam and Dane Jackson are giving them, in addition to Taron Johnson in the slot, that leaves them with an abundance of cornerbacks, to along with two linebackers (Matt Milano, Tremaine Edmunds) in the top-ten in PFF coverage grade and the league’s second-highest graded pass rush. Fully constructed, it’s hard to say they aren’t the best defense in the NFL, and with Wilson’s current performance, could we even be looking at a potential shutout here? Suffice to say, it won’t be pretty. Well, unless you’re a Bills fan.
Speaking of Buffalo, Josh Allen, fresh off his least efficient game from an accuracy (-9.5 CPOE) and mistake (8.8% turnover-worthy play) standpoint showed some warts last week, but still mustered elite overall production (.240 EPA/play, 8.7 yards/attempt), continuing to demonstrate how unfathomable it is to try to defend the current construction of the Bills offense. Now, if there’s one weakness, it remains on the offensive line – only one starter with a PFF pass-blocking grade over 61.5 – and the Jets (5th in PFF pass rush grade) are built to take advantage of that. Add in the team’s secondary (2nd in PFF coverage grade), fronted by two corners in DJ Reed Jr. and Sauce Gardner that are in the top-five in PFF coverage grade, as well as another one in the top-20 in nickel corner Michael Carter II, and you have the makings of a superb pass defense. That being said, it’s also worth noting that, since Week 3, they’ve faced the Steelers, Skylar Thompson-led Dolphins, Packers, Brett Rypien-led Broncos, and Patriots, making this the chance for Robert Saleh’s unit to put their money where they mouth is. Given the way the defense has been constructed over time, it’s likely this is a very strong group, but if they’re truly making a surprise postseason run, the pressure is going to be extremely high on them to be practically perfect every week. It may not matter here, yet this is a major litmus test for them.
Winning solely off of defensive performance is a daunting task, especially when you face a team that may legitimately have the best offense and defense in all of football. Josh Allen vs Zach Wilson may be a sufficient enough description for this game, and while that may determine the ultimate result, the cage match between Buffalo’s passing attack and New York’s pass defense is entertainment at its finest. I mean, Stefon Diggs versus Sauce Gardner was made for a movie. It’s strength-on-strength matchups like this that can remind us why we love football.
Las Vegas Raiders (2-5) at Jacksonville Jaguars (2-6)
Spread: JAX (+2.5)
- Projected Outcome: LV (-3)
- Projected Spread: JAX (+2.8)
- My Pick: LV (-2.5)
- Projected Total: 46.58
- My Pick: Under
- LV: 58.42%
- JAX: 41.58%
Score Prediction: Raiders 24 Jaguars 21
- Trevor Lawrence, This Is Going In The Wrong Direction
- Who Are The Raiders? When Do The Star Players Play Up To Par?
- Somebody Has To Win, Though a Tie Would Be Fitting
Do you agree with Bill Parcells’ saying that “you are what your record says you are”? On one end, the Raiders and Jaguars, a combined 0-10 in one-score games, have certainly performed better than their record would indicate, leaving optimism for the future. At the same time, since the standings are ultimately based on whether or not you won the game, they’re also in a spot where any sort of postseason hopes are starting to wither away. Theoretically, one of these teams can’t get in their own way here, but should we just lock in a tie? It definitely would encapsulate these two teams to a tee.
When you draft a quarterback deemed as a “generational prospect” with the #1 overall pick in the draft, you’d that, by his second season, you’d be reaping the benefits of that selection with him emerging as a rising superstar. Instead, it’s been one step forward, one step back for Trevor Lawrence. Between Weeks 2 and 3, the Clemson product ranked fourth in PFF grade (79.8), and seemed to be on the precipice of taking a Jaguars team that had won those two games by a combined 62-10 score to an AFC South title. Since then, he’s the lowest-graded quarterback (44.5) in all of football, is averaging a meager 6.5 yards/attempt, and has nearly twice as many turnover-worthy plays (4.9%) as big-time throws (2.8%). Really, if you look at his underlying passing numbers from PFF, little has changed from his rookie season, with accuracy woes and an improper proportion of positive plays and negatives continuing to be at the pinnacle. In all reality, regardless of Travis Etienne’s success as a runner, the team’s trade for Calvin Ridley, or anything else, his development defines this latest rebuild attempt, and that’s what the rest of this season is dedicated to. Give credit to head coach Doug Pederson for compensating warts between Lawrence and an unfinished receiving corps to be the 11th-ranked offense in EPA/play, but, now, it’s time for the former to be a player who doesn’t need compensated for.
Then, there are the Raiders, who came into this season in a much different spot than the Jaguars; by trading a first-round and second-round pick to sign Davante Adams to a $140 million contract extension, signing quarterback Derek Carr, receiver Hunter Renfrow, tight end Darren Waller, and edge rusher Maxx Crosby to extensions, and also bringing in edge rusher Chandler Jones on a notable three-year deal, they fully anticipated on making a quick surge in the first year of the Josh McDaniels era. That isn’t supposed to translate to a 2-5 team with a negative point differential, as well as an offense just 20th in DVOA. Alas, Carr (64.2 PFF passing grade, 6.8 yards/attempt) is arguably having the worst season of his career, Adams (2 yards/route run) is having his least efficient year since 2017, while Renfrow and Waller (1.08 and 1.23 yards/route run, respectively) have been close to non factors. Really, the success the team has had has lied with running back Josh Jacobs averaging 5.6 yards/carry, but even that has a limit, nor would I want to bank on that sustaining. When you fail to cross the 50-yard line with your starters against a Saints defense that had been exposed previously, that’s notable, and is a screaming cry for change. The track record of production certainly should be acknowledged, and we’ve seen the peaks previously – they were averaging over 30 points/game in their previous three games prior to last week. Still, could we please have some consistency?
With regards to these two defenses, both have similar flaws, ranking in the bottom-ten in PFF coverage grade while also being top-five units in yards/carry allowed, notable considering both of these offenses have been elevated by rushing success that they shouldn’t want to rely on. Ultimately, it comes down to which passing attack holds their own, and you’d hope that’d be one led by Carr and Adams, especially until we see more signs of progress from Lawrence. It’s astonishing how similar yet different these two teams could be, but one thing is for certain; both simply want a win here in the worst way. Anything than it coming down to the final play would be a surprise based on the chaos they’ve given us this year, which is exactly what you’d want from this game- chaos is a virtue, my friends.
Indianapolis Colts (3-4-1) at New England Patriots (4-4)
Spread: NE (-5.5)
- Projected Outcome: NE (-11.7)
- Projected Spread: NE (-9)
- My Pick: NE (-5.5)
- Projected Total: 42.53
- My Pick: Under
- IND: 22.88%
- NE: 77.12%
Score Prediction: Colts 13 Patriots 20
- What Is Going On With Mac Jones?
- What Are The Colts Trying To Be?
- How Much Havoc Does New England’s Defensive Line Create Against A Subpar Colts Offensive Line
Oh, how things have changed. Once upon a time, the Colts and Patriots shared one of the premier rivalries in the sport, akin to what we may be now seeing between the Bills and Chiefs, facing off five times in the postseason in 2003, with Peyton Manning and Tom Brady later carrying onto Brady and Andrew Luck. Yet, starting in 2010, towards the end of Manning’s time, New England came out on top eight straight times with Brady, including multiple playoff games, such as the infamous deflategate. Now, it’s Sam Ehlinger versus Mac Jones for two teams trying to rediscover themselves, with notable long-term questions looming. For now, though, we’ll see who can manufacture a win here.
Just one season ago, the Patriots ranked fourth in point differential, made the postseason, and, most importantly, seemed to strike gold with Mac Jones, who impressingly ranked 10th in adjusted EPA/play as a rookie, which stood out even more at a time where the rest of the rookie quarterback class struggled mightily. A year later, and no quarterback has worse PFF passing grade than him (50.6), with his peripheral numbers contributing into a projected EPA/play only better than Baker Mayfield, Zach Wilson, and Taylor Heinicke. So, what has changed. Really, he’s become a completely different quarterback. Applauded for his refined decision-making as a rookie, Jones’ turnover-worthy play rate (5.2%) is double of what it was last year, while he has struggled mightily (28.8 PFF passing grade) in the intermediate areas of the field and is also taking far more sacks (6.7%) than he did last year (5%). Add it all up, and the negatives have become a mighty concern. Of course, it doesn’t help that, under new offensive coordinator Matt Patricia, he’s seeing half the amount of play-action passes as last year, as well as playing in an offense that has nowhere close to the level of synergy they had with Josh McDaniels; the team’s massive issues on early downs (28th in EPA/play) is a strong indicator of that. The pieces are there for an offense still in the top-12 in PFF grade for receiving, pass protection, and run blocking, yet, at some point, Jones needs to get back to limiting the negatives in the way he’s shown capable of doing before.
The Colts, allowing the fifth-fewest air yards/completion in the entire NFL, are the exact type of defense where Jones needs to be careful not to continue to play such a high-variance style of play, especially since they’ve issues in terms of pass defense efficiency (28th in dropback success rate). Notably, the matchup between nickel corner Kenny Moore (43.1 PFF coverage grade, 124.7 passer rating) and Jakobi Meyers is quite favorable for New England, and Indianapolis has faced two offenses (Chiefs, Jaguars x2) ranked in the upper-half of the league in EPA/play. Then again, Football Outsiders also states that the Patriots have had the easiest slate of opposing defenses, so who knows at this point? Really, it comes down to if Jones can reconcile his true self.
At the very least, there’s clear evidence of the pieces of this Patriots offense finding more consistency, whereas things continue to trend in the wrong direction for the Colts. I mean, who thought that, by Week 9, the team’s quarterback-running back combination would consist of Sam Ehlinger and Deon Jackson, rather than Matt Ryan and Jonathan Taylor? Ehlinger did demonstrate positives in his first ever start, mainly based on his accuracy (7.9% CPOE), though inconsistency in terms of pocket presence and overall mistakes led to an average showing (.06 EPA/play), and he’ll have the kitchen sink throwing against him with the Patriots. Notably, their defense not only has the second-best dropback success rate allowed, but the third higher pressure rate as well. Considering Ehlinger’s propensity to hold onto the ball long and Indianapolis’ offensive line deficiencies (fifth-lowest PFF pass-block grade), and a run-heavy approach doesn’t work as well without any sort of impact either at running back or on the offensive line (third-lowest PFF run defense grade). Against a defense still 6th in DVOA in spite of continued fluctuation in personnel, things could go south right as the game starts.
This leaves me with this question: what are the Colts? It’s very unclear if Ehlinger’s presence actually moves the needle anymore than Ryan, and we now have questions at quarterback, offensive line, and the team’s playmakers. Meanwhile, said offensive line has the highest amount of cap dollars allocated to it, and, to be frank, few building blocks are present on the entire roster. The Patriots, on the other hand, find themselves with some similarities, albeit with more roster depth, though both of these organizations may be starting to realize the downside of trying to stay in the middle of the pack too long- it’s the worst spot to be in as a franchise. It’s likely we come out of this game with the Patriots finding a way to win a low-scoring game, but what does a win actually accomplish for either team here? Really, it’s time for something to be done differently.
Seattle Seahawks (5-3) at Arizona Cardinals (3-5)
Spread: ARI (-1.5)
- Projected Outcome: SEA (-10.3)
- Projected Spread: ARI (+8.1)
- My Pick: SEA (+1.5)
- Projected Total: 48.51
- My Pick: Under
- SEA: 74.66%
- ARI: 25.34%
Score Prediction: Seahawks 27 Cardinals 21
- Both Of These Quarterbacks Struggled Mightily In Their Last Matchup
- Tariq Woolen vs DeAndre Hopkins
- These Two Teams Are Heading In Different Directions Quickly
In sports, the idea of “momentum” can often be overstated, especially in football, where a week separates each game. That said, when two teams are heading in completely distinct directions, it’s hard to go against that. Ultimately, expectations are everything. Whereas the Cardinals have the oldest roster in the NFL, just signed their quarterback, head coach, and general manager to contract extensions, and was an undefeated team halfway through last year, the Seahawks traded their franchise quarterback and clearly hit the reset button, leading to them being seen as a perennial “bottom feeder” coming into the year. So, can you guess which team is currently winning the NFC West? When does anything go as planned in football?
With Arizona’s feature on Hard Knocks set to start next week, they’ll certainly be in the national spotlight in short order. On the bright side, their two highest-scoring games in regulation have come the last two weeks, which correlates with the return of star receiver DeAndre Hopkins; Kyler Murray is averaging over a yard/attempt (7.3) higher than his season average. Undoubtedly, the presence of Hopkins, averaging 3.2 yards/route run, helps, yet as is Murray has only completed two passes of 20+ air yards in that span, leading to an offense that is averaging the second-fewest yards/completion in the NFL. On the bright side, even though they struggled in Seattle the last time they played, their man/zone splits favor them tremendously when facing zone coverage; players like Zach Ertz and Rondale Moore see a notable uptick in production when not faced with man coverage. Theoretically, could this be a spot where things improve?
On the contrary, though, starting with allowing just three points of offense to the Cardinals in Week 6, the Seahawks are allowing the second-fewest EPA/play allowed over the past three weeks, as well as the lowest success rate. Meanwhile, they’ve earned a PFF defense grade over 73 in each of those games with above-average grades in run defense, pass rush, and coverage, thrusting them up to 11th in DVOA for the entire season. With rookie cornerback Tariq Woolen (50.2 passer rating allowed) emerging as a budding star, they’re also well-situated to handle an offense mainly condensed around one player, and, to be honest, may just be on their way to being at least a competent defense. If so, they’re in a tremendous spot; with an offense ranked 7th in EPA/play with the second-highest graded quarterback in the NFL from PFF, a top-ten graded receiving corps and running back unit, and above-average pass protection, their ceiling is considerably higher than you may think. Interestingly, Geno Smith’s least productive outing of the year did come against the Cardinals in Week 6, as they exclusively played zone coverage against them and blitzed him on 42.5% of his dropbacks. That being said, as a defense graded in the bottom-ten in coverage grade, pass-rush grade, and run defense grade by PFF, I wouldn’t be holding my breath for a repeat performance by Arizona.
Vegas may know best, but the Seahawks have a significantly better offense, a seemingly better defense, and, are…… underdogs? Sometimes, it feels as though we may cling to our previous expectations too highly, especially when we’re now eight weeks into the season. So far, all Seattle has done is continue to pass every “test” thrown their way, and in another meaningful statement game, they’re well-situated to continue to be arguably the best feel-good story in the entire NFL. From there, don’t be quick to rule out an NFC West title, while, for the Cardinals, Hard Knocks continues to get more interesting by the day.
Los Angeles Rams (3-4) at Tampa Bay Buccaneers (3-5)
Spread: TB (-3)
- Projected Outcome: TB (-8)
- Projected Spread: TB (-6.7)
- My Pick: TB (-3)
- Projected Total: 41.27
- My Pick: Under
- LAR: 29.67%
- TB: 70.24%
Score Prediction: Rams 17 Buccaneers 23
- It’s Now or Never For These Two Teams (Mainly, The Offenses)
- Can Tampa Bay Create Enough Havoc To Expose The Rams’ Pass Protection Woes?
- Aaron Donald vs a Suspect Bucs Interior Offensive Line
Remember when this was a potential NFC Championship Game preview? After all, a matchup between the two previous Super Bowl champions, came into the season with double-digit win totals, and had very few flaws that seemed likely to come back to bite them. Naturally, they each have losing records, and, to be honest, both come into this game in desperation territory- a loss here would be crushing. For two teams over the cap already for next season, their window is closing in a hurry, and it’s time to pull out all the tricks. Thus, expect a playoff-esque atmosphere here.
Can someone please explain to me why the Buccaneers are struggling like they are? After all, Tom Brady is still a top-ten graded quarterback by PFF, the team’s receiving corps is in a similar spot to last year, and their offensive line ranks in the top-five in pass protection as well. Heck, they’re the seventh-best offense on early downs! Yet, between bottom-ten production on third downs and in the red zone, they’re coming up just short, which theoretically screams positive regression, no? Certainly, the team’s rushing attack being a complete liability (32nd in EPA/rush) isn’t helpful, but that hasn’t stopped them from performing well on early downs, and Tom Brady’s peripheral metrics (big-time throw, turnover-worthy play, CPOE, adjusted completion rate) are all right in line with where they were last season. Football is a long season, and I’d expect this to improve, though it’s undoubtedly painful to watch right now.
Interestingly, the Rams, allowing the third-fewest air yards/completion, present a challenge for a Bucs offense that doesn’t create after the catch (sixth-fewest yards after catch/reception) at all. Still, though, Los Angeles cannot pressure opposing quarterbacks (31st) at all, and haven’t been sound on the back end (19th in PFF coverage) as they’ve been in the past. On the contrary, Tampa Bay, fourth in PFF coverage grade and sixth-best defense in EPA/play and success rate allowed against the pass, haven’t skipped a beat, and face a Rams offense that remains a catastrophe; only the Panthers have a worse EPA/play than them, while they’re the worst offense on early downs in the NFL. I mean, who would have imagined Matthew Stafford would have the lowest average depth of target in the NFL among current starting quarterbacks? That’s what the league’s third-worst graded pass-protecting offensive line from PFF and a receiving corps that is completely condensed around Cooper Kupp and tight end Tyler Higbee (55% of the targets) will do to you, and we saw very little change last week against the 49ers even after their bye week and with receiver Van Jefferson back healthy. Whereas Tampa Bay has shown flashes of excellence offensively, there is no data point to look at and believe in any sort of bounceback for the Rams, which, in turn, not only leaves little optimism for this season, but makes their future remarkably concerning- they don’t have the assets to turn this around.
In a tale of “disappointments”, the Rams simply cannot accomplish what they want to do due to their personnel, whereas the Bucs have simply been unorganized in timely situations. I don’t know about you, but the latter definitely feels more fixable. It’s remarkable how far we’ve fallen from where these two teams were supposed to be, but, make no mistake, they shouldn’t be grouped together. Hopefully, we can turn back the clock to last year.
Tennessee Titans (5-2) at Kansas City Chiefs (5-2)
Spread: KC (-13.5)
- Projected Outcome: KC (-12.6*)
- Projected Spread: KC (-9.4*)
- My Pick: KC (-13.5)
- Projected Total: 49.1*
- My Pick: Over
- TEN: 21.37*%
- KC: 78.63*%
Score Prediction: Titans 17 Chiefs 31
- Andy Reid Off a Bye Is Always a Scary Thought
- Tennessee’s Third Down Defense Will Be Put To The Test
- Who Starts For The Titans Under Center?
Every year, there are games where the outcome is so shocking that it utterly dominantes the next day’s headlines. Last year, a Week 7 matchup between the Chiefs and Titans, where Tennessee boat raced them in a 27-3 blowout, was right at the top of the list. In fact, this became the pinnacle of Kansas City’s midseason offensive lulls last year, and paved the way for the Titans to defy the odds by claiming the #1 seed in the AFC. Since then, adjustments have been made, and while their records may be the same, there’s a reason this game has a near two-touchdown spread.
Since becoming a head coach in 1999, Andy Reid is 20-3 coming off a bye week. I’m sorry, what? The difference this year? That’s not a lot to adjust when you have the #1 offense in EPA/play despite already being put to the test against the Bucs, Bills, and 49ers. In addition to being the second-best offense on third downs, they’ve continued to make their mark on early downs, leading the league in EPA/play in those situations and showing no mercy with the highest early-down pass rate. No quarterback has produced more yardage in the intermediate area of the field per game than Patrick Mahomes, which, combined with a heavy frequency of passes between the numbers, has allowed them to create yardage after the catch at the third-best rate. Now, that’s something the Titans (7th-lowest yards after catch/reception) have done a great job containing, but they’re also allowing the most air yards/attempt in the NFL, and while they’ve been fantastic on third downs, rank 26th in both EPA/play and dropback EPA/play on early downs; schematically, they’re built for obvious passing situations, yet they also need to get there. Even then, per Football Outsiders, they’ve faced the easiest slate of opposing offenses in the NFL, with the Raiders, Colts (x2), Commanders, and Texans representing their last five opponents. Something tells me that it’s easier to succeed as a third-down defense when facing those offenses as opposed to one led by Patrick Mahomes and Andy Reid.
Considering the Titans have been a bottom-ten offense both in terms of DVOA and EPA/play, it truly has been their defense allowing just 15.2 points per game during their five-game winning streak. Outside of Robert Woods, the team’s other healthy starting wide receivers have averaged just 1.15 yards/route run, leaving any sort of passing attack condensed around Woods and the team’s running backs. Really, though, most of the touches are coming via Derrick Henry’s 26.4 carries/game during this five-game streak, which, of course, works a lot better when you’re not a 13.5-point underdog and can rely on your defense to play from ahead; Ryan Tannehill is averaging just 5.8 yards/attempt on standard dropbacks, while Tennessee has the lowest-graded pass-protecting offensive line in the NFL by PFF. Heck, it’s unclear if it’ll be Tannehill or Malik Willis starting due to Tannehill’s ankle injury, which, if the latter, puts them at an even greater disadvantage. In the end, this type of strategy is one that is built to be exposed by superior teams.
The good news for the Titans? They’ll play multiple teams with a losing record after this, and are in position to win the AFC South by default. At the same time, we’re still talking about a team with a negative point differential despite not facing a team with a winning record over their past five games, who now has to take on an offense that has been on a tier of their own amidst several challenges. Before even adding in the “Andy Reid’s team is coming off a bye and the Titans may be starting a backup quarterback”, this is quite the one-sided matchup. Alas, it’s time to sit back, grab some popcorn, and watch the Chiefs do their thing; heck, maybe Ka’Darius Toney will get involved along the way!
Baltimore Ravens (5-3) at New Orleans Saints (3-5)
Spread: NO (+1.5)
- Projected Outcome: NO (-4.1)
- Projected Spread: NO (-3.8)
- My Pick: BAL (+1.5)
- Projected Total: 47.33
- My Pick: Under
- BAL: 38.57%
- NO: 61.43%
Score Prediction: Ravens 24 Saints 22
- How Do The Ravens Manufacture Offensive Production With Key Injuries?
- Is The Saints Defense Ready To Play Up To Their Talent Level?
- The Ravens Debut For LB Roquan Smith
Somehow, someway, the Ravens and Andy Dalton can’t avoid each other. While this matchup’s history goes back to Dalton’s time in Cincinnati, he’s somehow managed to face them in three straight years despite playing for three different NFC teams, which, of course, means one thing; in order for him to face them again next year, he’ll have to find his way into the starting lineup for an NFC West team. For now, he comes into this game looking to continue to not only serve as a notable pleasant surprise, but keep the Saints in the thick of the playoff picture. Yet, Lamar Jackson may have something to say about that.
It’s still rather remarkable that the Ravens have managed to lead by ten points in every game, and still only have a 5-3 record. Statistically, they’ve been about as strong as you could want offensively (2nd in DVOA, 5th in EPA/play), which certainly stands out against a schedule that has featured the Jets, Patriots, Bills, Bengals, and Bucs already. The question is: can that be sustained? Receiver Rashod Bateman, the team’s only true X receiver, is out for the season with an ankle injury, and, for at least this game, tight end Mark Andrews is sidelined as well. Alas, they’ll be relying on continued production from third-year receiver Devin Duvernay (76.8 PFF receiving grade) and fourth-round rookie tight end Isaiah Likely, especially since their explosiveness on the ground (2nd in EPA/rush) will be put to the test against the defense with the lowest rushing success rate allowed in the NFL. On a bright note, though, their pass protection is grading out as the best in the NFL by PFF, and against a bottom-five defense in pressure rate, it naturally becomes a bit easier for Lamar Jackson to navigate through this adversity. Mainly, though, the optimism in Baltimore’s offense for this game lies with the combination of Jackson and the scheme- when you’re averaging the most yards before contact/carry in the NFL by a sizable margin and are able to have success passing in heavier personnel looks, that uniqueness may be just enough to get by.
Of course, it’ll also depend on which version of the Saints defense we get to see. Coming into the season, expectations were high for a unit that finished 2nd in EPA/play allowed a season ago, but by virtue of being the league’s worst defense in EPA/play allowed between Weeks 5 and 7, seemingly were doing the opposite of what was anticipated of them. As alluded to, the pass rush remains a concern, and with Marshon Lattimore out, none of their starting cornerbacks possess a PFF coverage grade of 55 or higher. Now, how much that ultimately matters against an offense without much impact on the perimeter is to be determined, though it’s fair to be befuddled by what we’ve seen from this year. The same goes for their offense, which quietly ranks 3rd in EPA/play when excluding turnovers, with Dalton serving as PFF‘s fifth-highest graded quarterback in a way that is nowhere close to the baseline he had set over the past three years. With the Ravens allowing the third-lowest average depth of target, you’d figure Dalton would be on the more conservative end of the spectrum, which could lead to heavy usage from Alvin Kamara in the passing game- the running back has at least eight targets in each of his last three games. At the same time, where Baltimore has gotten beaten is in the slot with nickel back Damarion Williams (38.6 PFF coverage grade), while the Saints as a whole are averaging the fewest yards after catch/reception and remain very limited in their wide receiver depth behind Chris Olave. There’s been plenty of consternation about the Ravens defense, but, at the end of the day, what else could you want from a unit that ranks 12th in passing DVOA and continues to trend in the right direction? Certainly, it’d be fitting if Dalton’s potential “regression back to the mean” trend started against the Ravens.
Here’s a fun way to look at this; per PFF, the Ravens have played the fifth-hardest schedule. The Saints? 27th. In spite of that, these two teams remain separated by a notable 26 points in Baltimore’s favor, and while some of that is due to New Orleans’ poor turnover luck, it’s also reliant on Dalton continuing to perform at such a strong level. In the end, it’s easy to have much more faith in the Ravens’ coaching staff with 11 days off, to go along with a quarterback who certainly instills much more faith naturally. We already saw Baltimore be able to compensate for the loss of Bateman and Andrews against a top-ten defense in Tampa Bay last week, and while the Saints possess different challenges, we still are completely unclear of the outlook of their defense. That being said, of any game this week, this may be the one with the hardest outcome to project. Really, what better way to cap off the way than this? Questions were meant to be answered, after all.
PHI/HOU: Sporting News
CAR/CIN: San Diego Tribune
MIA/CHI: Yahoo! Sports
LAC/ATL: Sporting News
MIN/WSH: Fox 9
GB/DET: Packers Wire
BUF/NYJ: Buffalo Rumblings
LV/JAX: The Score
SEA/ARI: Revenge of The Birds
LAR/TB: Turf Show Times
TEN/KC: Titans Wire