Week 4 of the NFL season featured a number of exciting matchups. Some of the best teams in the NFC squared off and the entire West division went head-to-head. We also got THE MOST ANTICIPATED REGULAR SEASON GAME EVER or something like that.

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1. Cowboys Over Carolina

The Dallas Cowboys presented the hardest test the fun and aggressive Carolina Panthers defense faced this season. Carolina was first in defensive DVOA across the board — overall, passing, and rushing — but the Cowboys had answers for everything the Panthers threw at them throughout the game in a 36-28 Dallas win.

Kellen Moore has been on a roll coordinating the offense while Dak Prescott has mentally been a step in front of opposing defenses and his physical ability has not been far behind. The Cowboys had something as early as their first offensive play of the game when Prescott was able to escape a Panthers blitz with a quick pitch to Ezekiel Elliott that turned a 7-yard loss into a 2-yard gain.

 

The Cowboys went three-and-out on the drive, but that first play was a sign of how the offense would continue to be one step ahead of what the defense wanted to do. Despite blitzing heavily and getting pressure, the Panthers only officially hit Prescott once during the game.

Prescott has become a master at the line of scrimmage and rarely were the Cowboys set up to fail before a play started. So many times, it was the opposite. Dallas has combined that with a heavy use of motion before the snap that has put defenders in conflict and provided Prescott with easy options after the snap. Through three weeks, the Cowboys had the fourth-highest rate of motion on offense, according to Sports Info Solutions.

On Prescott’s second of four touchdown passes, the Cowboys came out in 2×2 set from 12 personnel on the Carolina 18-yard line. Before the snap, tight end Blake Jarwin (89) motioned from the outside to the slot, just inside wide receiver Noah Brown. Safety Jeremy Chinn (21) followed Jarwin, which indicated man coverage. At the snap, Jarwin started his break to the outside, underneath Brown’s route as the start of a natural pick. Jarwin then broke back inside, which left Chinn behind with the change of direction. Brown’s vertical route also pulled the single-high safety, which left the middle of the field open for Jarwin to run to the end zone.

 

 

Then on Dallas’s first drive of the third quarter, the Cowboys came out in a bunch to the left then motioned Amari Cooper across the formation to the right to get him one-on-one against the newly acquired C.J. Henderson. Cooper ran straight up the field and gave a slight hesitation that caught the second-year corner flat-footed as Cooper ran by him to catch a 35-yard touchdown pass. (Also note the blitz pickup from Elliott that allowed Prescott time in the pocket.

 

 

It was clear how big the loss of rookie corner Jaycee Horn, who led the league in Adjusted Yards allowed per coverage snap through three weeks, was for the Carolina secondary. Whether Henderson or someone else played to the right side of the offense, the Cowboys had a clear lock on that side of the field. 13 of Prescott’s 22 attempts targeted the right side of the field and he went 11-of-13 for 157 yards and three touchdowns on those throws.

Prescott only had to throw 22 times while the run game was able to keep the offense on schedule. The Cowboys faced just one third down in the game longer than third-and-4, a third-and-10 at the end of the second quarter (a play where the Panthers recorded their lone hit). That kept the Panthers out of a lot of their pressure looks and exotic blitzes they’ve used on third-and-longs throughout the season. That also played to the strength of the Cowboys’ offensive line, a team that has struggled to pass block (30th in ESPN’s Pass Block Win Rate) but was been dominant in the run game (third in Run Block WIn Rate).

The Cowboys managed 0.25 EPA per attempt on early down runs with a 56% success rate per rbsdm.com. Dallas’ success on the ground came against a defense that had been the second-best EPA per play allowed on the ground through three weeks.

These runs were a full team effort too, like a 47-yard run from Elliott that was opened up by blocks on the end of the line from Dalton Schultz, Blake Jarwin, and Amari Cooper.

 

 

On the other side of the ball, the Cowboys have been able to pull through with just enough big plays to make an impact. Per rbsdm.com, Dallas ranks 18th in success rate allowed on defense, but 10th in EPA per play. That type of defense can work as a complement to a great offense.

Dallas has the ability to pressure the quarterback and now has players on the backend, specifically Trevon Diggs, who can make splash plays for takeaways.

Sam Darnold was able to find success early in the game, especially on the ground with two rushing touchdowns, but the Cowboys were able to force Darnold into his first negative game script of the season and that forced some mistakes. Darnold had to hold the ball longer and took five sacks with two picks thrown to Diggs.

The Panthers had been able to hide Darnold with play-action and short throws but he struggled in the straight dropback game when trailing. Darnold went 0-for-4 on throws that traveled at least 20 yards beyond the line of scrimmage, which brings his season total to 5-for-14 (35.7%).

Throughout the game, the Cowboys were ready for what the Panthers tried to do, which is a great sign for what this team could be going forward.

2. Kyler Takes Over

There is not a more fun watch in the NFL right now than Kyler Murray. Murray has developed into a quarterback who can make unreal throws inside and outside of structure to go along with his ability to change the game with his legs. All of that was on display as the Arizona Cardinals defeated the Los Angeles Rams 37-20 in a battle of undefeated NFC West teams.

On Arizona’s first touchdown drive Murray had effortless strikes to DeAndre Hopkins and A.J. Green down the field. The first to Hopkins was perfectly placed over cornerback David Long down the sideline for 25 yards and three plays later on a third-and-6, Murray hit Green, again over Long, for a 41-yard touchdown.

 

 

Murray is now 13–for-16 on throws over 20 yards beyond the line of scrimmage this season. Over his first two years in the league, Murray connected on just 41.7% and 39.3% of his deep targets, per SIS. Now, Murray is not going to continue to be an 80% deep thrower but he has been hitting these throws and throwing them more often. Murray’s 13 deep completions already make up 54% of the deep completions Murray had in 2020. We are currently through Week 4.

The Cardinals were able to take advantage of a Rams defense that had been bend-but-don’t-break to this point in the season. Per SIS, the Rams had allowed the seventh-lowest EPA per play on pass attempts but allowed the fifth-highest rate of passing plays to produce positive EPA for the opposing offense. Arizona didn’t make the mistakes that would allow the Rams to capitalize as they did in the first three weeks.

Los Angeles had been eighth in points allowed per red zone trip, but the Cardinals scored on three of their five trips inside the 20.

Arizona was also able to turn a few Rams mistakes into points. Matthew Stafford threw a deep interception intended for DeSean Jackson that was undercut by Byron Murphy in the first quarter. The Cardinals marched down the field for a touchdown drive that featured the above plays to Hopkins and Green.

In the second quarter, the Cardinals turned a Sony Michel fumble into a five-play touchdown drive that included an 18-yard scramble from Murray on a third-and-16.

 

 

That’s part of what makes Murray so difficult to defend. On that play, linebacker Kenny Young has an angle on Murray that would work on just about every other quarterback in the league. But in an instant, Murray was able to turn the corner around him and completely erase any line Young thought he had as Murray rushed up the sideline.

During the offseason, Murray said he wanted to rely on his legs less and that has mostly been the case. Murray isn’t bailing from clean pockets just to run and his passing has continued to improve because of it.  Through four weeks (and pending Monday Night Football), Murray is second in the league in passing yards and first in Completion Percentage Over Expectation (9.2%), according to Next Gen Stats.

Even if Murray isn’t using his legs quite as often as he did in the past, the threat of the run has opened up so much more in the run game for Chase Edmonds and James Conner. The threat of Murray fooled with some of the Rams’ run fits in light boxes and Edmonds ran for 120 yards on just 12 carries for 0.43 EPA per attempt and a 54% success rate.

The Cardinals defense held the Rams mostly in check to where the explosive plays the Rams were able to create at will over the first three weeks didn’t really exist in this game. Through three weeks, the Cardinals had allowed the second-lowest rate of explosive pass plays on the season. Stafford was just 1-of-4 with the interception on throws over 20 air yards in the game.

This shouldn’t be looked at as a panic game for the Rams — Stafford still finished with a passable 0.11 EPA per play and 50.2 QBR — but it more shows the Cardinals can be a real threat in this division and now they have a game advantage in the standings. With a playoff structure where not just a division title but the No. 1 seed in the conference matters, that game is a big advantage early in the season.

3. The Bills Win Blowouts

The team with the best point differential in the NFL through four weeks is the Buffalo Bills at +90. The next best team is the Cardinals at +55 and the Denver Broncos at +34. The Bills have gotten there mostly by beating up on bad teams. A 40-0 win over the Houston Texans on Sunday makes up for 44.4% of their point differential on the season, but breathing up on bad teams should be viewed as a good sign rather than “they haven’t played anybody.”

The idea that the best sign of a great team is its ability to beat up on bad teams is an old Football Outsiders staple and it’s been a reliable measure. The Bills are without a doubt a good team right now.

We can, though, wonder about the structure of Buffalo at the moment. This defense has been great — a welcome development over the fine unit last season. The Bills can create pressure with four (they had the second-highest pressure rate when doing so through three weeks) and that was allowed more resources to be put into coverage. The coverage has also thrived with Tre’Davious White and Levi Wallace as the top corners. The defensive performance on Sunday might have been one of the best we’ve ever seen from a statistical stance. Davis Mills finished with a QBR of 0.8. 

The offense hasn’t quite hit its stride, though, at least from a consistency standpoint. Josh Allen’s 2021 season has been flashes of the 2020 version with the 2019 version just dying to break free and take over. Even in this blowout, Allen only averaged 0.08 EPA per dropback and finished with a -1.1% CPOE, per Next Gen Stats.

There are, of course, still things to like on that side of the ball. Allen still averaged 8.6 yards per attempt in the game and the structure of the offense is still such that big plays are going to be on the table.

Stefon Diggs hasn’t completely taken off yet, but he still has a massive impact on the offense. The first touchdown to Dawson Knox in the first quarter was a Diggs gravity play. Lined up in a 2×2 set against a single high safety, both Justin Reid (20) and Lonnie Johnson (1) got pulled into Diggs, which left three defenders on the receiver and no one covering Knox on his way to the end zone.

 

 

Buffalo might not have played the toughest schedule, but the big wins do prove the Bills are a good team. We’re going to get a real good look against the Kansas City Chiefs next Sunday night, but a close win or loss doesn’t negate what the team has done early in the season.

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4. Seattle Savior, Russell Wilson

When things are going wrong for the Seattle Seahawks, Russell Wilson is there to bail them out. That, unfortunately, has been the case too often over the past few seasons, but the quarterback has been bottoming-out proof for the team when the rest of the roster hasn’t been able to keep up. He was just enough to lift Seattle to a 28-21 win over the San Francisco 49ers. 

The defense has been a problem. Few players can cover and the pressure has not been created. There were finally some flashes in the secondary against the duo of Jimmy Garoppolo and Trey Lance with nine passes defensed but there were still huge coverage busts, like on the 76-yard Deebo Samuel touchdown. Samuel ran a slot wheel and there was a miscommunication in the coverage that left Samuel wide-open down the sideline.

These coverage busts and communication breakdowns have been common for the Seahawks through the first four weeks. Per rbsdm.com, 57.3% of opposing pass attempts against Seattle have produced positive EPA for the offense, the worst rate in the league.

On offense, the Seahawks are still stuck between letting Russ cook and finding a balance with the run game. That, again, has cost Seattle in their efficiency. In this game, the Seahawks had 22 early down rushing attempts that averaged -0.11 EPA per play and 20 early down passing attempts that averaged 0.39 EPA per play.

Offensive coordinator Shane Waldron is still figuring out how to balance his offense with the Seahawks’ overall philosophy, but when it’s been able to blend together, it’s been fun. Take this second-and-7 from the San Francisco 12-yard line at the two minute warning in the first half.

The Seahawks came out in a 13 personnel package, something they had only done on two other plays this season — both runs, with DK Metcalf as the lone receiver. After breaking the huddle in a tight formation, the Seahawks shifted to an empty formation with Chris Carson outside Metcalf to one side and the three tight ends on the other. The shift against San Francisco’s zone look matched Metcalf up with linebacker Azeez Al-Shaair (51). Metcalf head faked to the outside then broke back inside for the touchdown catch.

 

 

Of course, sometimes Wilson just takes over and does Russell Wilson things.

 

 

Seattle still has its problems but when everything clicks, the Seahawks continue to look like a team that can hang with anyone else. The issue is that clicking just hasn’t been consistent and the offense has yet to be opened up to make up for some of the struggles on the defense. The Seahawks sit at 2-2 but with the lowest point differential in the division (+3, the only division with four positive point differentials). If the Seahawks are going to hang around, they’ll either need a significant improvement of the defense or trust the offense enough to score all the points.

5. The Baker Mayfield Problem

The biggest beneficiary of The Justin Fields Debacle last week was Baker Mayfield. Mayfield quietly had a bad day throwing the ball where he went 19-of-31 with 7.9 yards per attempt, five sacks, and a 45.3 QBR. Mayfield followed that up with a significantly worse performance despite a 14-7 win over the Minnesota Vikings.

Mayfield went 15-of-33 with 4.7 yards per attempt, three sacks, and a QBR of 15.6. As a reminder, single-game QBR is best viewed as a win probability metric, so a team that had Mayfield’s performance at quarterback would be expected to win 15.6% of the time. That’s obviously not great.

This has become a troubling trend for the Cleveland quarterback who has performed worse each week this season. Against the Chiefs in Week 1, Mayfield looked great and held his own until a late interception, but it’s been downhill from there.

Mayfield went 0-for-6 on deep attempts against the Vikings and just flat-out missed Odell Beckham on a number of throws. Beckham was targeted seven times, but was able to haul in just two receptions.

Things couldn’t be much easier for Mayfield in an offense designed to take stress off of the quarterback. We saw Mayfield play well in this offense last season and in Week 1 but the throws just haven’t been there for the quarterback.

The good news is Mayfield has gotten bailed out on the other side of the ball. The defense is currently living up to some of the lofty offseason expectations. Rookie Jeremiah Owusu-Koramoah has been great at linebacker. The Browns are currently eighth in EPA per play allowed on defense with the third-best success rate. The problem is the Browns don’t have much time to figure out the offense. In the next three weeks, they face the Chargers, Cardinals, and Broncos. Even the following game against the division-rival Steelers is a harder matchup for Mayfield than it will be for the defense. 

6. The Chiefs Can Still Adjust

The Kansas City Chiefs wanted another counterpunch against the two-high defensive structure they saw so often in 2020. They have already run into teams willing to sit back and not allow the explosive pass play. The Eagles were another.

During the offseason, the Chiefs tried to rebuild their offensive line so the run game could be a strength. It hadn’t completely worked over the first three weeks, but they got it going during their 42-30 win in Philadelphia. Clyde Edwards-Helaire took advantage of the light boxes and totaled 102 yards on 14 carries for 0.31 EPA per attempt with a 57% success rate. It was a positive development for a team that had tried to get the run game going but seemed to stall with turnovers early in the season.

Against defenses like this, it allows Patrick Mahomes to sit back and pick away. Per Next Gen Stats, Mahomes only held onto the ball for an average of 2.32 seconds, the second-lowest time of the week, with an average depth of target of just 6.8 yards past the line of scrimmage. That’s similar to how we saw the Chiefs attack these types of defenses last season.

But there is always a Mahomes being Mahomes element to these game plans. Mahomes still managed five touchdown passes in this game — two that featured a shovel and underhand toss in the red zone. Kansas City went 5-for-5 scoring inside the red zone.

The big plays were also there, despite the defense structured to stop them. Tyreek Hill had a 37-yard catch that got down to the 1-yard line and completely changed the geometry on a charging Anthony Harris, who thought he could make a tackle. There was also a 44-yard touchdown in the fourth quarter that left Harris on Hill deep down the field. 

The defense is still an issue for the Chiefs. Jalen Hurts threw for 387 yards with an average of 8.1 yards per attempt and 0.24 EPA per dropback. That could be a bigger problem next week against the Bills.

7. Brady Returns

Tom Brady returned to New England and the game was not pretty. Through a downpour, Brady struggled to pass in a 19-17 win over the Patriots. New England mostly sat back in man coverage and forced Brady to make tight window throws. Per Next Gen Stats, 20.9% of Brady’s attempts had a yard or fewer of separation, his highest rate of the season. The Patriots only blitzed on 18.2% of his dropbacks and pressured him just four times.

Part of the issue was how deep Brady continued to throw despite the conditions. His average pass traveled 11 yards past the line of scrimmage. Those didn’t often hit and Brady finished with -9.2% CPOE.

Mac Jones had to weather a heavy blitzing gameplan from the Buccaneers’ defense. Jones was blitzed on 47.7% of his dropbacks. The counter to that was short, accurate quick game throws. Jones’s aDOT was just 5.3 yards but that did lead to 31-of-40 passes completed. Part of the problem for the Patriots, though, was a lack of big plays. Against a Tampa Bay secondary that came into the game injury-depleted and only got more injured, Jones had no throws that traveled over 20 air yards. Jones is just 4-for-15 on deep throws this season.

Still, the Patriots had a chance to take a lead late in the game but on a fourth-and-3 from the Tampa Bay 37-yard line, Bill Belichick elected to try a 58-yard field goal instead of going for the first down to take more time off the clock and get a closer kick attempt. Just about every fourth down calculator was in favor of going for it.

 

The kick was no good and Brady escaped with a close, ugly victory on a night he set the NFL record for career passing yards.

8. Chart of the day 

Justin Fields’s second start couldn’t have been more different from the first. Fields only threw 17 passes but he was under center more and took more shots to the intermediate and deep areas of the field. Fields was 5-of-9 for 172 yards with an interception on throws that traveled over 10 yards past the line of scrimmage. His average completion came 12.8 yards past the line of scrimmage, the highest total of the week for a quarterback, The second-highest was Lamar Jackson at 9.6.

It was revealed after the game that offensive coordinator Bill Lazor called the plays but Matt Nagy still got his Matt Nagy in by responding to a question about the playcalling with whatever this is.

9. Play of the Day

In a 23-7 win over the Denver Broncos, the Baltimore Ravens tied an NFL record with their 43rd straight game of over 100 rushing yards. They kept the streak alive with a 5-yard run from Lamar Jackson on the final play of the game instead of a kneel down. John Harbaugh admitted after the game it was his call. That’s fun. Chase dumb records forever. The Ravens will almost assuredly set the record next Monday night against the Indianapolis Colts.

10. New York, New York

For the first time since December 22, 2019, the Giants and Jets won on the same day, Both teams needed overtime to do so and both were led by impressive performances from their quarterbacks.

The Giants came back from a 21-10 deficit and did so with some fun offensive plays. John Ross made his season debut and caught a 52-yard touchdown pass. Kadarius Toney looked like a first-round pick at wide receiver, and Saquon Barkley was used as a vertical threat on the outside in an empty set, which resulted in a 54-yard touchdown. Daniel Jones threw for a career-high 402 yards with 0.30 EPA per dropback.

The Jets had a standout defensive performance against a team missing two of the best wide receivers in the league, but those receivers weren’t the cause of the pressure created by the defensive line. Bryce Huff, a 202 undrafted free agent, is currently fourth among edge rushers in ESPN’s Pass Rush Win Rate. The most promising aspect of the win was the play of Zach Wilson, who finally looked like the quarterback from BYU and the one with the great connection with Corey Davis from the preseason. Wilson averaged 0.28 EPA per dropback and had a number of throws that resembled a quarterback worthy of the second overall pick.

Neither of these wins solidifies the future outlook for their franchise, but it was a positive sign for those looking for hope.

 

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