Week 2 had some wild games. Today we’ll have a slightly abbreviated recap that only focuses on three games, but we’ll get to three of the league’s most important quarterbacks — two who can fix problems and a third who just eliminates them even popping up.
1. Kyler Murray Can Fix Problems
Kyler Murray is a Get Out Of Jail Free card. The offense of the Arizona Cardinals is not perfect. There have been improvements where the Cardinals struggled in 2020 but there are also some underwhelming elements that still remain. It doesn’t completely matter when the quarterback can just take over and do something absolutely ridiculous.
Through two games of the 2021 season, Murray has reached that point. Even Murray wasn’t perfect on Sunday. In fact, Kirk Cousins had more EPA per play (0.28 to 0.19) in Arizona’s 34-33 win over the Minnesota Vikings, according to rbsdm.com.
But Murray showed why he was a first overall pick and the raw talent that made him a special talent that has been able to keep the Cardinals afloat at times throughout his career. Murray threw for 400 yards and averaged 11.1 yards per attempt, yet still needed to make up a 20-7 deficit in the first half and a missed field goal at the end of regulation to secure the win over the Vikings.
On Arizona’s first touchdown, the Cardinals came out in empty, something they didn’t do often in the red zone last season. Murray had just nine dropbacks in empty inside the opposing 20. Arizona has already used empty more in the red zone this season to spread out defenses and give Murray more control of the pocket. On the third-and-10, Murray felt pressure tried to escape to his right, realized that was the wrong move, spun back to his left, then found an open DeAndre Hopkins in the back of the end zone.
Murray didn’t have a single red zone rushing attempt from empty during the 2020 season, either. Much of the Cardinals’ quarterback run game, especially near the end zone came with a ton of play fakes and options. But on a second-and-9 late in the second quarter, Murray ran a QB draw from empty and went 12 yards for a touchdown.
Sometimes there’s a little luck involved with the skill on display. On Rondale Moore’s 77-yard touchdown at the end of first half, Murray was able to avoid a free rusher of the left side, turn in the pocket, reset his body, and find a wide-open Moore down the field.
With so much of the Arizona passing game played horizontally over the past two seasons, the Cardinals caught a break going vertical. With a 3×1 set to the left, the Cardinals caught the Vikings in a post-snap rotation from a two-high look to a single-high coverage. Even against Arizona’s 10 personnel, Minnesota came out in a nickel look.
After the rotation, the deep safety was forced to carry a deep post from Christian Kirk (13) from the inside spot of the alignment, which at the time gave the Vikings a 3-on-3 shot in coverage.
But Alexander thought there was more help on the back end and passed Moore off in coverage… except there was no one to pass Moore off to behind him. That’s how you get a wide-open 77-yard touchdown.
While the second half was up and down for Murray, which included two interceptions and one for a touchdown, he was again able to bail the team out when needed. On a fourth-and-5 from the Minnesota 41-yard line with just over six minutes left and the Cardinals down by two, the Vikings went Cover 0. Seven Vikings came on the rush and as Murray backpedaled, he heaved a ball up to Kirk down the middle of the field.
The Vikings asked a little too much of Mackensie Alexander, who had a bad angle on Kirk and allowed the receiver to get separation. The pass went for 35 yards and eventually set up what would be the game-winning field goal.
Before the season, Murray said he was going to make an emphasis to not rely on his legs to make plays. That has been the case as in he’s not scrambling for gains often, but those legs have been a weapon in the pocket. Multiple times he was able to beat a rush by avoided pressure most other quarterbacks would have been sacked by, The athleticism on the heave to Kirk to not only backpedal from the pressure but also have the arm strength to get the ball to his receiver is special.
If these are the types of things that will click for Murray in Year 3, along with a more vertical offense and more control in empty sets near the goal line, the Cardinals could finally have something more consistent on offense and that can carry some games, as it did against the Vikings on Sunday.
2. Can the Tampa Bay Buccaneers Be Stopped?
Throughout the 2020 season, no team was less consistent than the Buccaneers. Per Football Outsiders’ Variance metric, Tampa Bay ranked 32nd in the regular season. Then the playoffs happened and two weeks and 79 points into the 2021 regular season, the Buccaneers appear to be pretty consistent and quite good.
The switch started to flip in the second half of last season when Tom Brady and the combination of Bruce Arians and Byron Leftwich figured out the right mix of what the quarterback wanted to do and what the offense was designed for. Brady threw deep a little more often, more motion gave the quarterback what he wanted at the line, and from Weeks 11-17, Brady was fourth in EPA among quarterbacks,
Perhaps what’s scariest about the Buccaneers right now is that Brady doesn’t have to be particularly sharp or otherworldly in order for Tampa Bay to dominate. In Tampa’s 48-25 win over the Atlanta Falcons, Brady was able to pick apart the defense on intermediate throws but he just went 1-of-5 for 26 yards on throws that traveled 20 or more yards past the line of scrimmage. But Brady killed inside the red zone and that’s all that was necessary for the victory. Brady now has nine touchdown passes on the season, which leads the league. Only one has come outside the red zone.
Brady and the Buccaneers have worked the corners of the end zone in a way that stresses the defense and takes advantage of the quarterback’s still pinpoint accuracy. Most of those plays also came with manipulating the middle of the field. Rob Gronkowski’s second touchdown got the tight end into the flat off play-action.
Mike Evans’s first touchdown came on a whip route to the outside.
Chris Godwin’s 12-yard touchdown came on a corner route from the slot off of motion.
Right before the Godwin touchdown, the Buccaneers only held a 28-25 lead over the Falcons in the fourth quarter. But that’s when Tampa was really able to turn on the pressure on both sides of the ball. On back-to-back Atlanta drives, Tampa Bay was able to send heavy pressure that forced Matt Ryan into bad mistakes. The first came off a five-man blitz as pressure forced Ryan to attempt a tight-window throw to Russell Gage but safety Mike Edwards was there to jump the route and return the pick for a touchdown. Then on the next drive, another blitz hurried Ryan and a blitzing Carlton Davis was able to bat a ball that flew in the air and into the arms of Edwards, who scored another touchdown.
The Bucs had some trouble with the Falcons and the game was closer than it should have been through the middle of the fourth quarter. Brady’s QBR was just 63.3, meaning a team with the quarterback performance of Brady would be expected to win about 63% of the time. Brady and Ryan had the same success rate in the game (52%) but it was the pressured mistakes of one against the precision of the other that led to the overall performance gap — 0.13 EPA per play for Brady and -0.13 for Ryan.
Tampa Bay wasn’t perfect by any means and that’s part of what makes the team scary. They’re going to capitalize on all the easy stuff presented to them and there are so many other ways they can create splash plays to pull away even if the game is close. The Buccaneers are currently Football Outsiders’ favorite to win the Super Bowl (23.2), nearly double that of the next highest team (12.7%).
3. The Ravens Found A New Plan Against The Chiefs
Despite being two of the best teams in the league over the past few seasons, Ravens-Chiefs matchups rarely lived up to the hype. The way Baltimore played is among the worst ways an opponent could go about attacking Kansas City. The Ravens lived off the blitz, but Patrick Mahomes thrives against it. The Ravens rarely, if ever, had a counterpunch and they would go down swinging throwing the only punches they knew how to throw.
With so many injuries in the secondary, the Ravens didn’t really have the personnel to blitz as heavily as they’re used to doing. Trusting the coverage to hold up behind heavy blitzing is one thing when the top coverage players are on the field. As the end of the Week 1 game against the Raiders showed, it’s not an advisable plan when the secondary can’t hold up. Nearly by default, the Ravens had to hold back and figure out how to adjust in this game.
Baltimore blitzed Mahomes on just 12.9% of his dropbacks, according to NFL Next Gen Stats, and while he was only pressured on 19.4% of dropbacks, the lack of blitzing helped the Ravens have the resources back in coverage to limit the damage done. Of course, this is a sliding scale. Mahomes still averaged 11.1 yards per attempt, 0.54 EPA per dropback, and a 73 QBR. But the Ravens were able to take away Tyreek Hill — just three catches for 14 yards — and even the splash plays took a while to get going.
That left the window open just enough for Lamar Jackson to take over when needed. Jackson had an inconsistent passing performance, but that should be expected given the personnel available in the game. His two interceptions were poor throws and decisions forced while the quarterback was trying to do too much.
His mistakes nearly canceled out the production he had through the air. Jackson only averaged 0.03 EPA per dropback despite a 58% success rate. There were some big plays manufactured in the passing game, though, mostly involving Marquise Brown. In the third quarter, the Ravens had a nice RPO slant to Brown that went for 28 yards and opened up room to run for the receiver. Brown only had 13 targets on slants last season with nine receptions. Just three went fort first downs, per Sports Info Solutions. These types of throws could be easy completions that gain successful yards. Last season, Jackson’s average depth of target off RPO throws was just 3.2.
That set up one of the most fun plays of the game, a 42-yard touchdown to Brown on a third-and-4. From empty, Jackson stepped up in the pocket against the blitz and delivered a jump pass to a wide-open Brown that brought the Ravens within a score in the third quarter.
Baltimore has been one of the heaviest motion teams in the league over the past few seasons but so much of that has been used to create opening in the run game. But on this play, the Ravens quickly shifted the back out to an empty look, which carried a linebacker and brought confusion to the coverage in the middle of the field. Both the safety and the corner stayed in against James Proche’s (11) curl while Brown snuck behind them for the score.
Jackson settled down late in the game and the Ravens found a way to use their quarterback in advantageous spots, especially on the ground. Jackson averaged 0.53 EPA per rush attempt with a 64% success rate against the Chiefs. On Baltimore’s second-to-last drive, down by five, Jackson had 27 rushing yards on four runs, including a big third down conversion and the one-yard touchdown run that gave the Ravens the lead.
On the final drive, Jackson was the go-to. After a fumble that gave Baltimore the ball back with the lead needing to kill the clock, Jackson was asked to run the ball four times, including the fourth-and-1 that sealed the victory.
Baltimore’s path as an AFC contender is still tough given the injuries on the roster, but given the Ravens’ ability to adapt in this game, a matchup they repeatedly approached the same way, there could be hope for more adjustments going forward and that could make the Ravens more dangerous and effective throughout the season.