Week 7 was weird. There were only a few close games and even the blowouts were wild. It’s tough to take in too much from Sunday’s slate of games, but let’s dive in.
1. Bengals Break Out
After a 41-17 win over the Baltimore Ravens, the 5-2 Cincinnati Bengals are currently the top seed in the AFC — just as we all expected. By making this game competitive, the Bengals could have shown they were ready to be taken seriously but a dominant blowout is more any anyone on the Cincinnati side could have hope for this week.
The Bengals approached this game with near perfection, tweaking what they do well to counter what they knew the Ravens like to throw at opponents. With Joe Burrow, the Bengals have been a team that goes to an empty backfield often. Per TruMedia/PFF, Burrow had the second-most dropbacks in empty from Weeks 1-6, averaging 10.7 dropbacks per game. Empty could have been effective against a Ravens defense that likes to stack bodies across the defensive line whether they blitz or not. With empty formations, the Ravens would be handcuffed in some of their pre-snap looks by having to defend the spread.
But Cincinnati took that idea and used it against Baltimore by using heavier and more condensed sets. The Bengals went empty just twice in the game.
On a third-and-8 during Cincinnati’s opening drive, the Bengals came out in 11 personnel but lined tight end C.J. Uzomah in the backfield for a split-back look with Samaje Perine. Baltimore showed pressure with six and rushed five. As the pressure came, Perine snuck through the blitz and wasn’t picked up. Burrow avoided the rush and found his back open for a gain of 23 yards.
Cincinnati’s first touchdown, midway through the second quarter, came on a first-and-10 in 13 personnel. The Bengals had used 13 personnel on just 14 plays through the first six weeks, Cincinnati ran play-action to the opposite side of jet motion from Auden Tate, the lone receiver on the field. A deep crosser from Michael Wilcox (84) on the left pulled in the deep safety (32) and that left Uzomah one-on-one with Marlon Humphrey. Nine times out of 10 that’s a mismatch in Baltimore’s favor, but Humphrey had so much outside leverage, he wasn’t able to run with Uzomah once he broke to the middle of the field. Burrow had to avoid pressure to get the pass off but delivered a strike for a 55-yard score.
Uzomah’s second touchdown came on a coverage bust from the Ravens. Cincinnati had 11 personnel with Uzomah in the middle of a trips side between Tee Higgins outside and Tyler Boyd in the slot. At the snap, four Ravens carried Boyd into the flat, which left Uzomah wide-open down the seam. The tight end got the deep safety to miss and got in for a 32-yard score.
Burrow was able to handle pressure, especially against the blitz. The Ravens went back to blitzing heavily, on 42.1% of Burrow’s dropbacks. Against the blitz Burrow went 10-of-16 for 16 yards per attempt and a league-high 0.98 EPA per dropback, per TruMedia.
As a quick processor, Burrow has been great against the blitz all season. Heading into Week 7, Burrow was 36-of-48 against five or more pass rushers with 0.34 EPA per dropback, which ranked fifth among quarterbacks.
When teams bring that extra pressure against Burrow, Ja’Marr Chase has been a go-to. Through Week 6, Chase had a league-leading 291 yards against the blitz. In Week 7, 147 of his 201 receiving yards came vs five or more pass rushers.
Chase has been a dominant fixture on the outside and his Week 7 performance was his best so far, most of it done against Marlon Humphrey. Per Next Gen Stats, Humphrey covered Chase on 70% of his routes which led to 134 yards and a touchdown.
On the 82-yard touchdown on the Bengals’ second drive of the third quarter, Chase spun Humphrey around with his release that faked to the outside before he broke inside for a slant that went to the house.
Right now, Chase is winning in just about every way imaginable. The matchup with Humphrey was his biggest test against one of the most physical corners on the line and one of the best in man coverage. Chase had no problems.
The rookie currently leads the league in yards per route run among receivers with at least 25 targets. He’s also winning in every area of the field. Among 50 receivers with at least a 15% target share on the season, Chase is fourth in average depth of target and second in yards after the catch per reception. Only two other receivers are in the top-20 of both and they rank 19th and 20th in aDOT.
Cincinnati has a lot of pieces that have come together to work quite well on both sides of the ball. On defense, the Bengals didn’t blitz often but had production on the opportunities, forcing Lamar Jackson to go 2-of-8 for 10 yards with two sacks and -1.12 EPA per dropback against the blitz in the game.
Next week the Bengals get the Jets followed by the Browns before a Week 10 bye. The schedule gets a little tougher out of the break, but Cincinnati has proven to be a team that can hang with the best at their best. This group is also improving, which could make for a fun second half of the season.
2. The Titans Are Finding Their Stride
Tennessee’s 34-31 win over the Buffalo Bills on Monday Night Football last week was a bit of a shock. Despite the win over the perceived best team in the conference, the Titans still came out 23rd in DVOA heading into Week 7. That made the 27-3 whipping of the Kansas City Chiefs an even bigger surprise. At no time was this game particularly close. According to ESPN’s Win Probability model, the last time the Chiefs had more than a 50% chance to win this game was with 13:34 remaining in the first quarter.
While dealing with a new offensive coordinator and working through a number of injuries for skill position players, the start to the season had been a rocky one for the Titans. But over the past few weeks, they’ve been finding their stride. This team is still going to ride Derrick Henry, who still leads the league in rushing attempts and rushing yards by a ridiculous margin — 68 rushing attempts and 290 yards over the No. 2 in those categories — but the offense is at its best when the passing game is clicking.
Henry played his part in the passing game with a wildcat touchdown pass that opened the scoring on Tennessee’s opening drive.
A healthy A.J. Brown is the biggest help for the offense. Brown had eight catches for 166 yards and a touchdown on nine targets against the Chiefs. Brown won all over the field and looked great on two deep routes down the left sideline, one for 46 yards and another for a 24-yard touchdown.
With a healthier receiving corps, the Titans found a way to have success by spreading things out. As a heavy play-action team in the past, Ryan Tannehill has been one of the best quarterbacks in the league against stacked boxes of eight or more defenders. Even with Henry running through opposing defenses, the offense hasn’t been able to capitalize as much this season. Last year, Tannehill averaged 0.31 EPA per dropback against stacked boxes, which ranked fifth among quarterbacks. This season, Tannehill is averaging 0.04 EPA per dropback, which ranks 19th.
Against light boxes this season, Tannehill averages 0.13 EPA per dropback which ranks 11th. That’s still below his 0.20 (fifth) figure last season, but it’s better than what he’s done with more defenders around the line of scrimmage.
That was the case in this game, especially with how quickly the Titans wanted to get the ball out of Tannehill’s hands. Per Next Gen Stats, Tannehill’s average time to throw was 2.17 seconds, easily the lowest of the week and the lowest single-game of the season so far. 70.4% of Tannehill’s pass attempts came within 2.5 seconds of the snap, per TruMedia.
The Titans took that to the extreme against light boxes, where 91.7% of Tannehill’s attempts came within 2.5 seconds. But that worked. Tannehill was 11-of-12 for 135 yards and 1.07 EPA per dropback when facing a light box against the Chiefs.
As Kansas City stacked the box for Henry, not only did that slow the running back down a bit — only 37.9% of Henry’s carries had more rushing yards than expected per Next Gen Stats — it clogged some of the throwing lanes for the Titans. Tannehill went 4-of-6 for 77 yards with a sack and an interception with -0.02 EPA per dropback against stacked boxes in the game.
The Chiefs defense leaves a lot open for opposing offenses but the Titans have started to put some things together, regardless of the quality of the opponent. Tennessee gets two different tests over the next two weeks. In Week 8, they’ll face the Indianapolis Colts to see if they’ll face any competition in the AFC South. The following week, they play the Los Angeles Rams to see if they can hang with a top team in the opposite conference.
Tennessee might be able to with the way they played on Sunday, but it remains to be seen if that’s something the Titans can continue to build upon.
3. The Lions Tried Their Best
Heavy underdogs with inferior talent should approach games as if that is the case. So often bad teams in the NFL treat games against superior opponents like any other game. Rarely is that enough to win. Against the Rams, the Detroit Lions knew they were the underdog and needed to create more opportunities to score.
After an impressive opening drive that resulted in a touchdown, the Lions ran a surprise onside kick on the ensuing kickoff and recovered. Then on that drive, the Lions ran a fake punt and converted. They worked the ball all the back down to the Rams’ 18-yard line and kicked a field goal. The score was 10-0 before the Rams even touched the ball. That’s not a bad way to start a game!
Los Angeles still won 28-19, but Detroit was able to hang on for as long as it possibly could by pushing those edges early in the game. Eventually, the talent discrepancy came back and the Rams had too much that the Lions couldn’t contain.
In a more normal flow of the game, the Rams had too many answers for what the Lions wanted to do. On a third-and-6 in the second quarter, the Lions were ready to blitz against an empty set. Matthew Stafford brought Darrell Henderson back in to block to help pick up the extra rushers. With a bit more time, Stafford hit Robert Woods on a crosser out of a bunch that just beat an incoming safety. Woods gained 22 yards on the play that eventually set up a 2-yard Cooper Kupp touchdown.
Stafford excelled in two of the places a team would hope a star quarterback could put a team on his back — against the blitz and on third down. In this game, Stafford went 9-of-10 for 142 yards with two touchdowns and 1.50 EPA per dropback on third down. Against five or more pass rushers, Staford went 9-of-10 for 132 yards and 0.86 EPA per dropback. Half of those plays overlapped (Stafford faced five blitzes on third down) but both of those EPA figures were the highest among quarterbacks in Week 7.
Jared Goff was fine against the Rams’ blitz (8-of-13, 123 yards, 0.04 EPA per dropback) but when he was under pressure, the biggest difference between the two quarterbacks was revealed. Goff went 2-of-6 under pressure with two sacks, -1.21 EPA per dropback, and an interception to Jalen Ramsey in the end zone that clinched the game for the Rams, thanks to quick pressure from Aaron Donald.
Ramsey doesn’t have the interception numbers of Trevon Diggs, but he’s been just as impressive in coverage and more consistent. Among 92 cornerbacks with at least 100 coverage snaps through Week 6, Ramsey ranked 10th in Adjusted Yards allowed per coverage snap. He played the third-most coverage snaps and few players deter targets as much as Ramsey (0.09 targets per coverage snap ranked 13th). He should be the favorite for Defensive Player of the Year.
4. Raiders Keep Rolling
In a “score was closer than the actual game” 33-22 win over the Philadelphia Eagles, the Las Vegas Raiders built on last week’s impressive showing. Derek Carr continues to be an aggressive passer, who is showing accuracy down the field.
The Eagles are a defense that is going to sit back in a two-high structure in order to defend against deep and explosive pass plays. Carr only went deep twice, but completed both. On throws over 10 yards past the line of scrimmage, Carr wnet 7-of-7 for 169 yards and 2.04 EPA per dropback. Overall, Carr completed 31-of-34 passes for 323 yards and 0.47 EPA per dropback, which was second to only Ryan Tannehill this week.
There’s now a rhythm to the Las Vegas passing game that is working all across the field. Carr has been patient to push the ball downfield, but can still be rattled when he gets hit. To counter that, the Raiders are getting the ball out quicker and 76.5% of Carr’s throws against the Eagles came within 2.5 seconds of the snap according to TruMedia.
Carr’s aDOT was only 5.68 in this game, down from his 8.94 season average, but he’s the type of quarterback who isn’t going to force passes into bad coverage just to do it. Carr and the Raiders have found the balance between smart and aggressive throughout the season. Offensive coordinator Greg Olson has done an outstanding job calling and designing the offense over the past two weeks, helping to unlock some pieces that weren’t being used to their full potential.
What continues to stand out, though, is the Las Vegas defense, specifically the front four. Few teams have gotten more out of their front four than the Raiders this season and that continued on Sunday. Per TruMedia, the Raiders only blitzed on 5% of Jalen Hurts’s dropbacks but forced pressure on 42.5% of them. On the season, the Raiders have the lowest blitz rate of 10.8%.
Per TruMedia/PFF, Yannick Ngakoue had a 29.6% pressure rate off the four-man rush, which was the second-highest rate in the league in Week 7, and both of his sacks came without an extra rusher.
The Raiders now find themselves 5-2 and atop the AFC West, due in part to a Chargers bye. In a situation that easily could have gone horribly wrong on the field, the Raiders have kept up a fight and have looked more impressive than they did in their start to the season.
5. The Cardinals Already Have A Plan For Zach Ertz
The Arizona Cardinals traded for Zach Ertz last week and in the tight end’s debut with his new team, he was second on the team in targets and tied for the team lead in receiving yards. Neither of those raw numbers — five targets and 66 yards — truly stands out, but it’s already clear the Cardinals have a plan for Ertz and it adds a new element to the offense.
Ertz’s biggest play of the day was a 47-yard touchdown reception in the third quarter. On that play, the Cardinals came out in 22 personnel — a package they had used for two total plays previously in 2021, both runs. Jet motion from Chase Edmonds (2) on the outside helped freeze some second-level defenders as Ertz snuck through wide-open in the middle of the field and was able to turn the corner for the score.
That’s an excellent changeup in the short/intermediate area on days when the deep ball isn’t working, or even if it is. Despite Kyler Murray having a historical run going deep and the Houston Texans being one of the worst deep ball defenses, Murray only went 1-of-4 on passes 20 or more yards past the line of scrimmage in Week 7. But with those intermediate openings, he still finished with 0.31 EPA per dropback, which ranked seventh among quarterbacks.
6. The Development Of Mac Jones
This was the best version of the current Mac Jones we’ve seen in his rookie year. He hit all the Jones standards from a quick release to a high completion percentage but those throws actually meant something. Jones averaged 0.30 EPA per dropback, which was fourth among quarterbacks in Week 7.
The Patriots have continued to keep Jones in a rhythm, getting him easier throws short and in the middle of the field. They hit play-action hard against the Jets and his 16 play-action dropbacks were his most in a season so far, per TruMedia. He was successful on those throws, too, 11-of-15 for 173 yards and 0.52 EPA per dropback — all career-highs on play-action for the rookie.
More plays opened up for the Patriots targeting their tight ends, though Jones went just 4-of-9 targeting the position, those included a 24-yard pass to Jonnu Smith, a 22-yard pass to Hunter Henry, and a 1-yard touchdown to Henry.
Jones had seven completions in the game that went for 20 or more yards, but the quarterback continued some of his struggles throwing deep. Jones went just 1-of-5 on passes more than 20 yards past the line of scrimmage — though the one completion was a nice 46-yard pass down the left sideline to Kendrick Bourne (but also it was a deep pass on a third-and-4 when the game was already decided).
If the Patriots can continue to manufacture explosive plays out of short and intermediate passes, they could be able to keep the offense moving while the quarterback develops some of that other play-making ability on his own. It’s also not going to come easy next week against a Chargers defense that is one of the best against the deep pass.
Jones showed the best version of himself in a blowout of the Jets but Jones still needs that little extra something to upgrade that version into something that can carry an offense.
7. Teams That Passed On Quarterbacks Aren’t Looking Great
We expected a lot of quarterback movement last offseason and we didn’t get all the big names that were rumored. That caused a number of teams to sit back and take half-measures at the position. None of those teams are feeling great right now.
The Denver Broncos started hot but they are 3-4 after winning their first three. Carolina is on a similar course and benched Sam Darnold in a 25-3 loss to the New York Giants. Washington hoped Ryan Fitzpatrick could be a solid bridge, but with an injury they were left with just the wild volatility of Taylor Heinicke.
There were always flaws to these types of bridge deals. For Denver and Washington, at least the bridge was a cheap one without much commitment. Still, either of those teams might rather be developing a young quarterback, especially as defenses that were expected to be among the best in the league have underperformed early in the season.
Carolina found itself in the worst spot, trading fairly significant assets — a second- and third-round pick — plus picking up an $18 million fully guaranteed fifth-year option for the 2022 season connected to a quarterback who hasn’t been good throughout his NFL career.
Now the Panthers might be desperate enough to move on to Deshaun Watson, a player who is being accused of 22 counts of sexual assault in civil lawsuits with a possible criminal case to come. It’s hard to sell “building a culture” if that’s the type of panic move the team will make.
The same goes for the Miami Dolphins, who appear to be pressured by the owner, who has overseen a team that has averaged a ranking of 22nd in points scored since he took majority ownership of the franchise. Guess 22 could be a theme for them.
In all of these cases, the bridge quarterback didn’t add much, if anything to the chances of being successful in 2021. Midseason panic moves aren’t going to make things better and given that many of these players just are exactly who they were when they were acquired, it’s hard to feel bad for any of the situations these teams are now in.
8. Chart of the day
So sometime during the bye, the Atlanta Falcons realized they had Kyle Pitts and they started using him like many expected someone of Pitts’s size, skill, and athleticism should be used. Pitts lined up all over the field, won in tight spaces, open areas, one-on-one, down the sideline, basically everywhere. The hope is this type of usage continues as the Falcons work out their offense that has been quietly doing good things over their past few games.
9. Play of the Day
Everyone was injured on the Giants, so Daniel Jones did everything himself. It still wasn’t an impressive performance — -0.16 EPA per dropback still leaves a lot to be desired — but it was mistake-free enough that it could beat a Panthers team that made nothing but mistakes when they were on offense. Anyway, this one-handed catch was easily the highlight of the game.
10. Trades we want to see
The NFL Trade Deadline is Nov. 2. We’ve seen some action with more players moving in-season, but an “active” deadline might be a move or two. Here are three quick trades we could see to help some contenders on the brink in 2021.
WR James Washington to New Orleans Saints
This is pending what happens on Monday Night Football, but the New Orleans passing attack has been efficient, just not voluminous. Marquez Callaway hasn’t completely taken his preseason sensation into the regular season and the Saints could use a more consistent deep threat. Washington could be what Callaway and Tre’Quan Smith were expected to be and could be a useful complementary option to Michael Thomas if/when he returns. Washington is not satisfied with his role in Pittsburgh and is a free agent after this season.
DT Tim Settle to Los Angeles Chargers
The Chargers don’t have a lot of quality depth along the defensive line. Their main need is for a run-stopper for a team that ranks 32nd against the run but for a team that wants to defend the pass first, having a pass-rushing presence such as Settle in the middle of the line could provide penetration that helps the run while beefing up against the pass. Settle had an impressive 10.3% pressure rate from the interior last season and a rotational player in Washington. He’s still 24 years old and in the final year of his rookie deal.
TE Evan Engram to Tennessee Titans
There is no purpose of Engram on the Giants. He’s also in the final year of his rookie deal and has yet to find a role suitable for his athleticism in a Giants offense. Drops have been an issue, but those tend to happen in highly trafficked short passes. Above, we just talked about Tennessee spreading out the passing game. Engram could be a boost there with the ability to line up in the slot, outside, and in the backfield. Engram over the middle or down the seam off play-action could add another point of attack for a Tennessee offense that still needs to improve weapons outside of the big stars.