We’re now over the halfway mark of the 2021 season and even if we still don’t know if any teams are good, we at least got a closer to normal week of action with actual interesting takeaways.
1. Mac Jones & The Patriots, Still Getting Better
With a dominant 45-7 win over the Cleveland Browns, the New England Patriots are suddenly 6-4, a half-game behind the Buffalo Bills in the AFC East, sporting the league’s second-best point differential.
Mac Jones only had to throw 23 times and was eventually replaced by Brian Hoyer in the fourth quarter, but this was easily the most impressive outline of the rookie’s career. Jones made a number of outstanding throws, a few deep down the field, as he averaged 8.6 yards per attempt and 0.60 EPA per play with a QBR of 83.8, the highest of his career, and a week-best 16.2% Completion Percentage Over Expectation, per Next Gen Stats.
Jones mixed in his typical short, efficient passes with a few shots down the field. Jones’s average depth of target was only 6.5 because of a number of screens and jet sweeps that helped slow down and attack an aggressive Cleveland pass rush, but Jones went 6-fo-7 on throws 10 or more past the line of scrimmage. Those included some of the best throws he’s made so far in his young career.
Two of those throws came on a scoring drive in the second quarter. On a third-and-9, the Patriots motioned to get Jakobi Meyers isolated on the left side of the formation. Jones threw a perfect fade down the sideline as soon as he hit the top of his drop and connected for a 26-yard pass.
A few plays later, Jones hit Kendrick Bourne up the seam for a 24-yard touchdown on a pass that snuck into the tiniest of windows.
New England had a 3×1 set against a single-high look from Cleveland. John Johnson (43), the deep safety, shaded toward the iso side against Nelson Agholor, which created the window for the throw as Johnson needed to come over from the opposite hash. He’s the pre-snap look:
Everything clicked for the Patriots in this game. Jones was barely pressured against a team that had three of the op three edge rushers by ESPN’s Pass Block Win Rate. Receivers like Bourne flashed and tight end Hunter Henry continued his streak of hot play. Henry had two touchdowns on a slot fade and a one-on-one slant against Johnson on the goal line that looked like a Senior Bowl one-on-one rep. That gave Henry seven touchdowns in the past seven games, just one short of his overall career-high.
The most impressive hookup between Jones and Henry came in the third quarter. On a second-and-5, Henry motioned to the inside man in a trips set to the left. Cleveland blitzed the linebacker over him (44) from that side, which left the linebacker on the opposite hash (51) responsible in coverage. Henry ran a corner route and Jones hit him for a 19-yard gain.
Trent Brown returned to the lineup for the first time since Week 1, which helped for both pass protection and run blocking — a giant addition to the line all-around. The Patriots found success on the ground with fourth-round pick Rhamondre Stevenson, Stevenson had 21 carries for 100 yards and two touchdowns for 0.11 EPA per attempt, per rbsdm.com.
On the defensive side of the ball, New England was able to dominate and force Cleveland to play from behind. When the Browns rolled last week, they were able to control the pace of the game, use heavy personnel with play-action, and stay ahead of the sticks. Once the Patriots got the Browns into obvious passing situations, mistakes were made.
Baker Mayfield made a terrible decision on a third-and-7 at the start of the second quarter that flipped the game. From an empty set in 11 personnel, Mayfield felt pressure and forced an out to tight end David Njoku. Kyle Duggar (23) easily undercut the route and returned the ball to the 5-yard line. The Patriots scored on the next play. Even if Duggar wasn’t there to make the play on the ball, Jalen Mills (2) was as he peeled off a vertical route on the outside. There was no way that pass was being completed.
Per rbsdm.com’s win probability model, New England’s win probability shot up from 58.9% to 70.5% with the interception and touchdown. Cleveland had to play from behind and the offense is not built to do that consistently.
The Patriots now get the Atlanta Falcons on Thursday night then get to test themselves against the top of the AFC with games against the Tennessee Titans and Buffalo Bills before a Week 14 bye. Per FiveThirtyEight, New England already has a 74% chance to make the playoffs, though still just a 26% chance to win the division. The Patriots continue to be a team that looks better every week and that could be scary for a muddled AFC hierarchy in the second half of the season.
2. Cowboys Bounce Back
A week after the Dallas Cowboys were embarrassed 30-16 by the Denver Broncos, they turned right around with a 43-3 win over the Atlanta Falcons. (This should have been an obvious result after the Falcons’ improvement on offense was written about last week.) Dallas controlled this entire game on both sides of the ball.
Dak Prescott went 24-of-31 for 296 yards (9.4 yards per attempt) with a QBR of 93.4. He averaged 0.78 EPA per attemp[t with a 62% success rate. Atlanta’s defense wasn’t completely overmatched in coverage. Prescott only had an average depth of target of 5,6 yards past the line of scrimmage but 19.4% of his pass attempts were into tight windows, according to Next Gen Stats. Because of that, Prescott’s expected completion percentage was just 65.7%, but he finished the day with an 11.7% Completion Percentage Over Expectation.
Dallas was ready for whatever defensive looks Atlanta defensive coordinator Dean Pees was going to bring, but Kellen Moore and the Cowboys had their own wrinkles prepped. On the second play of the game, a second-and-7, the Cowboys came out in an empty set with a sixth offensive lineman. Connor McGovern (66) lined up as the No. 2 in a 4×1 set with Ezekiel Elliott as the isolated receiver. Dallas used that formation to run a screen to CeeDee Lamb, the outside receiver to the left, which went for a gain of 37 yards.
That drive ended with a 13-yard touchdown to Lamb against a six-man rush. Prescott remains one of the league’s most blitzed quarterbacks and he’s continued to have success against it. Per PFF, Prescott went 6-of-7 against the blitz for 72 yards (10.3 yards per attempt) with two touchdowns.
Prescott was on top of timing and accuracy in this game, especially hitting out-breaking routes. The Cowboys were aggressive early in the game, going for it on a fourth-and-5 from the Atlanta 33-yard line at the end of the first quarter when the game was still just 7-3. Lamb motioned from the left to right and had an out route that Prescott started to throw as the receiver broke outside. The play gained 21 yards and set up an Ezekiel Elliott rushing touchdown.
Defensively, the Cowboys clamped down on the Falcons. Matt Ryan completed just 9-of-21 passes for 5.6 yards per attempt with two picks and a 9.1 QBR. Ryan couldn’t really stop throwing into tight coverage. Per Next Gen Stats, 38.1% of Ryan’s pass attempts were into a tight window, defined as a yard or fewer of separation. That’s more than double Ryan’s regular season rate of 16.8%, which is already one of the higher rates in the league. Because of that close coverage, the Cowboys had 10 passes defensed, including the two interceptions.
Trevon Diggs picked up his league-leading eighth interception in the third quarter. The ball just keeps finding the second-year corner. On the play, Diggs played well off the line and had Kyle Pitts in coverage. Diggs looped behind the route and was able to snag the poorly thrown ball due to pressure. Ryan never got to see an open Tajee Sharpe (4) who was not picked up on a wheel down the sideline after pre-snap motion.
The Diggs interception continues the rift between the corner’s high- and low-end play this season. Entering Week 10, Diggs ranked 46th of 112 cornerbacks with at least 100 coverage snaps in Adjusted Yards Allowed per coverage snap. That’s a figure that already gives Diggs massive credit for interceptions (basically erasing 45 yards, per the pro-football-reference formula). Without the adjustments, Diggs ranked 110th in yards allowed per coverage snap.
With so many turnovers and how well the offense has played, the Cowboys can live with the high variance, but if one of those starts to go, that could be a problem for Dallas — potentially against the Kansas City Chiefs next week.
3. Are The Chiefs Back?
In a 41-14 win over the Las Vegas Raiders, the Chiefs more like the previous versions of themselves than they had in any other game this season. So are the Chiefs back? We can say maybe.
Every talking point about Kansas City’s struggles this season has centered around defenses selling out in two-high shells to stop the deep pass. You’re probably sick of reading about it in this column. But, of course, there is some truth to that even if defenses had been doing that to Kansas City well before the start of this season. But between the coverage shells, no blitzing, and teams mugging Travis Kelce at the line of scrimmage, the Chiefs couldn’t consistently find a counterpunch.
The good news for Kansas City is Las Vegas saw how all these other defenses around the league found success this season and thought, “what if we did none of that?” Heading into the game, the Raiders had the highest rate of single-high looks pre-snap (65%) and the second-highest rate of single-high coverage post-snap (63%), per Sports Info Solutions. The Raiders stuck to that plan, especially on early downs, and got burned.
The Raiders were able to stop the run on early downs and held the Chiefs to -0.14 EPA per attempt on the ground but the Chiefs averaged 0.22 EPA per dropback through the air with a 51% success rate.
Patrick Mahomes had five touchdown passes in the game, which was more than his total over his previous four games. But it wasn’t just Mahomes. The Chiefs were prepared to attack whatever coverage was coming with more creative pre-snap looks and spacing.
Kelce also started to fight back a bit, realizing if refs won’t call the defensive contact, they’re not likely to call it on the offense, either. Kelce caught eight of his 10 targets for 119 yards with most of his work done in the short area. That’s something that should hold against two-high looks down the line.
The Chiefs were able to use some motion and routes against single coverage they haven’t been able to take advantage of often this season. On a third-and-2 late in the third quarter, Tyreek Hill motioned from a 3×1 set on the right to the left, outside of Kelce. The single-high safety stayed on the opposite hash. Hill got behind the corner as he broke in then back to the outside for a gain of 32 yards.
Mahomes didn’t go deep often (he was 3-of-8 for 92 yards and two touchdowns on throws 20 or more yards past the line of scrimmage) but he was super efficient on shorter passes and the screen game finally worked.
For all the worry about the Chiefs, they currently sit atop the AFC West and only the Tennessee Titans have more wins in the conference. FiveThirtyEight now gives Kansas City a 52% chance to win the division. The Chiefs aren’t out of the woods yet and next week’s game against the Cowboys will be a test to see if this offensive output can continue.
4. The Packers and Seahawks Played And No One Told The QBs
As snow fell over Lambeau Field, the Green Bay Packers and Seattle Seahawks played a game that looked like neither starting quarterback had played in a while. Russell Wilson was shut out for the first time in his career in the 17-0 loss and the Seattle quarterback couldn’t connect on much to get the offense going.
The Packers’ defense basically enacted the Chiefs plan when trying to stop the Seahawks. Per Next Gen Stats, Green Bay showed a light box on 97% of their snaps with deep defenders and rarely blitzing. That didn’t stop Seattle from trying to push the ball down the field, but there was no success for the offense.
Wilson’s average depth of target in the game was 12.3, the second-highest among quarterbacks in Week 10, but his average completion was just 3.3 yards past the line of scrimmage, the fifth-lowest. On throws of at least 20 air yards, Willson was 0-for-7 with an interception.
Per Next Gen Stats, the Packers were able to get to Wilson without blitzing — 13 pressures and three sacks with four or fewer pass rushers. Overall, Wilson averaged just 4.0 yards per attempt.
Aaron Rodgers didn’t fare much better — his 29.6 QBR still reflects a well-below-average performance — but he did just enough to move the ball down the field and allowed his backs to take over. AJ Dillon had 66 yards on the ground with two touchdowns and 62 yards on two receptions. He’ll have to take over a bigger role going forward as Aaron Jones suffered a sprained MCL that will keep him out at least a few weeks.
While the game was sloppy, it made a massive impact on the playoff picture in the NFC. The Packers, with the Rams set to play Monday night, the 8-2 Packers currently have a 40% chance at the No. 1 seed and the bye, per FiveThirtyEight. Meanwhile, the 3-6 Seahawks dropped to just a 16% chance to make the playoffs.
5. Washington Upsets Tampa Bay
The Washington defense has been nowhere near many expectations heading into the season, but that unit held down Tom Brady and an injury-riddled Tampa Bay Buccaneers team for a 29-19 victory. The defense forced Brady into two bad interceptions and his 31.7 QBR was his second-worst as a Buccaneer behind last season’s 38-3 three-interception game against the New Orleans Saints.
Neither interception was a good pass, but the picks were fluky bounces of the ball. But Washington was able to hold off the downfield attack that has made Brady and this Tampa Bay offense so dangerous. Brady’s average depth of target against Washington was just 5.1, his lowest of the season, and his 4.0 average depth of completion was better than only a Week 6 game against the Philadelphia Eagles (2.9).
Mike Evans had a 40-yard reception down the sideline but Chris Godwin was held to a long of just 15 yards.
While Washington’s defense exceeded expectations (at least the current set of expectations), the most impressive performance from the Football Team came on the final drive. After a fumble gave the Buccaneers a short field in the fourth quarter, and eventually a touchdown to make the score 23-19, Washington went on a 19-play, 80-yard touchdown drive to ice the game.
The drive included a few big plays from Terry McLaurin (eight catches for 75 yards on the day), including a 16-yard catch and a huge six-yard reception in traffic on a third-and-5.
With the loss, Tampa Bay dropped to 6-3 and more importantly just a 5% chance for the top seed in the NFC, per FiveThirtyEight. They will get some extra rest to get healthy with a Monday Night Football game against the New York Giants upcoming.
6. Justin Jefferson Took Over
There might not have been a more impressive singular performance in Week 10 than what Justin Jefferson did to the Los Angeles Chargers in a 27-20 win. Jefferson had nine catches on 11 targets for 143 yards. Per rbsdm.com, Jefferson was worth over 1.0 EPA (1.01) per target in the game with a 69% success rate.
Jefferson had a number of ridiculous catches throughout the game. In the first quarter, he had an 18-yard reception on a third-and-15 as he fought through defensive pass interference on a corner route.
On the next drive, after a Minnesota interception, Jefferson ran a deep crosser into traffic on a second-and-20 and fought through a pile of Chargers defenders to pick up a first down with a gain of 21.
On Minnesota’s final drive, with a touchdown lead, Jefferson won a go route down the sideline with tremendous body control to adjust to the pass and stay inbounds for a 27-yard gain.
Five plays later (including a four-yard gain on a fourth-and-2), Minnesota was able to kneel for the win.
7. The Titans keep winning
The Tennessee Titans keep finding ways to win. Now at 8-2, the Titans are the overwhelming favorite to come away with the bye in the AFC — a 76% chance per FiveThirtyEight. Only eight teams, including the Titans, even have a 76% to currently make the playoffs.
Tennessee is still adjusting to life without Derrick Henry and now without Julio Jones, who was placed on injured reserve prior to the game. That was part of the downside with Tennesee, a team built so much around stars that the fragility could emerge at any moment. To this point, it has yet to hurt.
Ryan Tannehill wasn’t particularly great in this game. His 0.14 EPA per dropback was good, though a 45.0 QBR suggests some potential left on the field. It’s not easy for Tannehill to navigate the offense now with just one star receiver and not much run support, but again, the Titans made it work.
Marcus Johnson, a 2016 undrafted free agent, emerged as the go-to with the Saints’ focus on A.J. Brown. Johnson had five catches for 100 yards as Brown managed just four targets, one reception, and 16 yards.
New Orleans fairly outplayed Tennessee and averaged 6.1 yards per play to Tennessee’s 4.6. The killer was a fumble on the second half kickoff that was recovered by the Titans. The only turnover of the game led to an extra Titans possession and a Tennessee touchdown to start the second half.
The Saints even nearly came back and after kicking a field goal on fourth-and-goal from the 1-yard down 11, they were able to score a touchdown to bring the score within a two-point conversion. After a false start, the Saints were pushed back and a fade landed short.
Wins matter and Tennessee has those in the bank. They did that against Football Outsiders’ hardest past schedule and they’ll have the easiest schedule for the rest of the way. The Titans do some things well and they’ve been able to pull off just enough to win most of these games. They might not be a dominant team, but they won’t have to be for at least a few months.
8. Chart of the day
This week’s chart is not an impressive one, but we can’t let this go unacknowledged. Jared Goff’s average depth of target was 4.8 yards and yet he still managed to throw 20% of his pass attempts into tight windows. Goff’s average completion came just 1.9 yards past the line of scrimmage and his Completion Percentage Over Expectation was -11.8%. The Lions did not pick up a first down through the air until after the two minute warning in the fourth quarter. They tied this game.
9. Play of the day
After Cam Newton signed with the Carolina Panthers we wrote a bit about his potential impact on the 2021 season. He managed to win his way into the field in Week 10 for a few plays in a 34-10 win over the Arizona Cardinals. When asked how much of the playbook Newton knew, he responded “two touchdown’s worth.”
10. What Are The Eagles Right Now?
The Denver Broncos beat up the Cowboys last week, but the Philadelphia Eagles did the beating with a 30-13 victory over Denver in Week 10.
Philadelphia is an intriguing team because some things are starting to click with the offense. Jalen Hurts hasn’t blown many away at quarterback, but he’s been good enough to keep the offense moving. Over the past three weeks, Hurts leads the league in EPA per attempt (0.35) and success rate (54.8%), per rbsdm.com.
Devonta Smith is also starting to develop as a legitimate top receiver. He had four catches on six targets with two touchdowns against the Broncos, including a contested grab over former teammate and first-round pick Patrick Surtain.
At 4-6 the Eagles still only have a 26% chance to make the playoffs, but those are higher odds than the 49ers and Seahawks. They’re only a game behind the Vikings, who sit with a 42% chance.
This season was always going to be about finding pieces for future Eagles teams, but those pieces have played just well enough lately to make the current version interesting. Football Outsiders has Philadelphia with the third-east future schedule and that included the Broncos. It might not mean anything and this team could still be bad, but they’re at least worth paying attention to as they start to figure some things out across the board.