Week 4 was wild before a snap took place. This season is not going to be normal on or off the field and this was the week where if you had been trying to ignore that, it was very real. But once the games kicked off we got mostly normal football and a few entertaining games. Let’s dive in.
1. The Odell Beckham Show, And Other Takeaways From Browns-Cowboys
It might be impossible for the Dallas Cowboys to play a normal game in 2020. The offense is good but the defense is so bad it has continually put the offense in a hole so deep, the offense needs to go into hyperdrive in the second half to get out. To the Cowboys’ offense’s credit, they’ve been able to do that so far. In Week 2, Dallas was able to pull out the seemingly impossible comeback against the Atlanta Falcons. Last week, they kept a shootout with the Seattle Seahawks close until the end. And this week, in a 49-28 loss to the Cleveland Browns, Dallas pulled within three late in what had been a blowout early.
Again, Dak Prescott played well and was a much bigger reason why the Cowboys were in the game than why they were losing. Prescott finished the game with 502 passing yards on 58 attempts, an 8.7 yards per attempt average. Prescott had some throws that could have been intercepted throughout the game and his one pick did end the game, but without Prescott, this game would have been a blowout from whistle to whistle. There was also a fumble, but one from Ezekiel Elliot was more impactful. Prescott still finished the day with a QBR of 75.7, which means a team with Prescott’s performance at quarterback would be expected to win about 75% of the time. Of course, that was not the case on Sunday.
Instead, the Browns were able to take advantage of one of the league’s worst defenses through four weeks. Entering the week, Dallas had ranked a respectable 13th in yards allowed per drive but 23rd in points per drive. It was feast or famine, for the most part. The Cowboys were fifth in punts forced per drive but also 23rd in touchdowns allowed per drive. Against the Browns, the Cowboys did force four punts but also allowed six touchdowns.
Three of those touchdowns came from Odell Beckham. Kevin Stefanski got Beckham involved early and worked to manufacture big plays to both kick start and ice the game.
On the first drive, the Browns ran a wide receiver reverse pass that saw Jarvis Landry throw a 37-yard touchdown to Beckham. The play started with a pitch to Nick Chubb to the right, who tossed it to Landry coming from the right to the left.
I used to write a column every year highlighting the non-quarterback pass attempts across the NFL. Some of the best uses came from a left-handed thrower reveal. The defense is already out of sorts with a wide receiver reverse, but a player able to throw the ball while sprinting to his left adds another layer of surprise.
The entire play got the Dallas defense out of sorts. The entire second level flowed to the Chubb pitch, which left Landry with a clear throw for Beckham down the field.
But even if the Cowboys had covered Beckham, the linebackers tried to break late to chase Landry and would have left Chubb with a wide-open path down the right sideline.
The second touchdown came from the four-yard line to cap off a nine-play, 75-yard drive between the end of the first and start of the second quarter. Cleveland used play-action and Beckham sold a slow release off the line before he broke inside for an easy touchdown against Daryl Worley.
What helped sell this touchdown was the formation. The Browns came out in 11 personnel but aligned the two other receivers and tight end Austin Hooper in a tight bunch to the right. That kept the Dallas defensive personnel light but also kept the 10 non-Worley defenders in the middle of the field. The play-action pulled in them all and opened the window for the Beckham touchdown.
Beckham’s third touchdown was the dagger with under three and a half minutes left in the game. The Cowboys had just pulled to within three points but on the first play of the next drive, Cleveland ran an end-around for Beckham that went for 50 yards.
The 50-yard touchdown was just part of a huge day on the ground for the Browns. Cleveland was able to keep control on the ground for a total of 307 rushing yards including 95 from D’Ernest Johnson, 71 from Kareem Hunt, and 43 from Chubb, who left the game early due to injury. The Browns had both the big plays and consistency on the ground with 62% of rushing attempts producing positive EPA, per nflfastR data via the Baldwin Boxscore.
That success on the ground was a boost to an offense that needed it while Baker Mayfield had an interesting day. Per NFL Next Gen Stats, Mayfield’s expected completion percentage was just 49.8%, which means he was attempting a lot of low percentage throws. Mayfield threw the ball relatively deep (his 9.5-yard average depth of target was among one of the week’s highest) and he threw the ball into tight windows (a yard or fewer of separation) on 30% of his attempts.
Mayfield made it work, though. He finished with a +13.5% completion percentage above expectation, which was the third-highest of the week, and 0.24 EPA per dropback. All of that came with also averaging just 5.5 yards per attempt.
While the Cleveland scheme didn’t exactly open a lot of things up for Mayfield on Sunday, the quarterback made few mistakes and looked more comfortable leading the offense. That’s going to be important as the Browns face the Indianapolis Colts and Pittsburgh Steelers over the next two weeks. Cleveland certainly has now positioned itself well at 3-1 and parts of the offense have clicked — and some of those have been able to lift others — but those pieces need to click together more often for this to sustain.
2. Quarterbacks Carry Buccaneers & Chargers
The best quarterback matchup of the day ended up being 43-year-old Tom Brady and 22-year-old rookie Justin Herbert in a 38-31 Tampa Bay win. Both quarterbacks showed promise that should excite their respective teams going forward for the rest of the season. Brady looked the most in sync he’s been with this Buccaneers offense and that worked to tear up the hearts of the Chargers with a comeback from a 10-point halftime deficit. Herbert has flashed sooner than expected, especially given the way he was thrown into his first start.
Both quarterbacks finished this game with a QBR over 85: 86 for Herbert and 85.3 for Brady. Each quarterback had one hiccup. Brady’s came early in the game on Tampa Bay’s second offensive drive after the teams traded touchdowns to start the game.
On a 2nd and 9 from the Chargers’ 32-yard line, Brady tried an opposite-hash out to Justin Watson and the pass was jumped and intercepted by Michael Davis for a pick-6.
The talk of Brady’s arm strength has been constant and understandable for a 43-year-old. But the true deep passes haven’t really been the issue. In this game alone, Brady was 4-for-7 for 147 yards and a touchdown on throws that traveled at least 20 yards beyond the line of scrimmage. He also had the seventh-highest aDOT for a quarterback in Week 4, per Next Gen Stats.
But if there is an impact from any lack of arm strength, it’s more likely to show on those deep outs when the window can close quickly. Per Sports Info Solutions charting, Brady had been just 1-for-4 for 12 yards on out routes of more than 10 yards through three weeks.
It’s unlikely the Buccaneers are going to rely on those throws often. The better play for throws of that distance has been the comeback, which Brady hit to Mike Evans on a few times in the game. That allows Brady to still hit the same distance and location, but the initial vertical stem of the route gives more cushion from the defender and significantly decreases the chance of the defender breaking on the ball. (It should also be noted the interception was thrown after Evans left the field for an injury.)
This was easily Brady’s best game as a Buccaneer, thanks in part to five touchdown passes. But more importantly, the overall consistency was there. 56% of Brady’s dropbacks produced positive EPA, per nflfastR. Brady’s success rate has slowly crept up from 44% in Week 1 to 45% in Week 2 to 50% in Week 3.
Herbert took control of the Chargers offense because there was really no other option. Austin Ekeler left the game early with an injury (and was seen on crutches after the game) and the Chargers had no run game for support. On early-down runs in the game, the Chargers had a 6% success rate.
Even in those circumstances, and with Mike Williams inactive, Herbert averaged 11.6 yards per attempt against a pass defense that had ranked third in DVOA through three weeks. LA’s three passing touchdowns went to Donald Parham Jr., Tyron Johnson, and Jalen Guyton. Two of those touchdowns were over 50 yards: 53 yards to Johnson on LA’s first drive of the game and 72 yards to Guyton at the end of the third quarter. Both were straight-up strikes. The first came on a 1st and 10 off play-action and the second was on a 3rd and 7 with pressure coming in.
Through just three games, Herbert has great chemistry with Keenan Allen, who had eight receptions for 62 yards on 12 targets. Allen acted often as Herbert’s safety net, especially without Ekeler in the game, which makes his 62 yards look like a disappointment after games of 132 and 96 yards from the previous two weeks. Allen had to play a different role in this game but the targets still came.
The next step for Herbert is more down-to-down consistency. The high points are definitely there, as evidenced by the touchdowns and a number of other throws in this game, but just 47% of Herbert’s dropbacks produced positive EPA in this game despite a ridiculous 0.50 EPA per dropback.
Part of that could happen once the game slows down for the quarterback, especially late in games. Herbert’s big mistake in this was an airmailed pass intended for Allen on a 2nd and 7 with two and a half minutes left down six. That poor throw erased a lot of good for the rookie throughout the game, but the overwhelming feeling for Herbert should be positive going forward.
3. It’s time to take this Colts defense seriously
Through three weeks, the No. 1 defense in DVOA belonged to the Indianapolis Colts. Part of that was due to a high turnover rate against bad offenses but one of the best signs of a good unit (and good team in general) is the ability to blowout inferior opponents. The Colts did that again in a 19-11 win over the Chicago Bears. On a day when an injured offense struggled to move the ball for the Colts, the defense was able to take over.
Schematically, the Colts aren’t doing much differently from what they did last season when they finished as an average defense (19th in DVOA) but now they have better personnel to make the scheme work better. The biggest impact has come from DeForest Buckner in the middle of the defensive line. Bucker has been a top run defender this season per ESPN’s Run Block Win Rate and he’s been growing the pass rush in each game. He had three quarterback hits against the Bears and added to his weekly highlight reel of throwing a guard away.
Indianapolis has also been nickel heavy in 2020, which has put a lot of faith in the linebacker group of Darius Leonard, Anthony Walker, and Bobby Okereke. Leonard left this game early but Walker and Okereke were able to stay strong in the second level as the two leading tacklers on the team. Okereke also added a tackle for loss on a 3rd and 1 early in the fourth quarter that forced a Chicago punt on a three-and-out.
Outside, the Colts are relying heavily on zone coverage, about 63% of the time. They now have corners who have been able to take advantage of the soft coverage and it has unlocked a bit of youth in free-agent signing Xavier Rhodes. Rhodes had two interceptions against the Jets last week and added two passes defensed in this game to bring his season total to five after he had just six total in 2019.
Rhodes can still be had deep if forced to run with quicker receivers — he allowed receptions of 33 yards to Darell Mooney and 25 yards to Allen Robinson in this game — but even with those gains, the positives have outweighed the blips, which was nowhere near the case for Rhodes last season.
Another positive from this game is that the Colts were able to dominate for most of the game without having to rely on turnovers. Nick Foles was forced into an interception early in the fourth quarter, but the Bears had been held to only three points through that point.
Indianapolis entered the week first in both yards and points allowed per drive and much of that was a league-low 5.23 plays faced per drive, a number driven by a league-leading interception rate. That type of turnover luck would not be sustainable for a full season but if the Colts can continue to put pressure on opposing offenses without having to rely on interceptions, this could be a unit that causes a lot of problems throughout the season, one in which there haven’t really been standout defensive performances outside of Indianapolis and Pittsburgh.
4. Drew Brees looked good
Drew Brees read the tweets or the articles about his arm dying. He responded with a vintage Brees performance — like real vintage. His first pass of the game was tipped at the line and intercepted which led to a 14-0 Detroit Lions lead, but Brees came back strong en route to a 35-29 win.
Brees averaged 9.5 air yards per attempt and his average completion happened 8.7 yards beyond the line of scrimmage. He also got back on the CPOE train with a completion percentage over expectation of 12.6%. All of those numbers are vast improvements over what Brees did over the first three weeks of the season.
Drew Brees by game, 2020
|Week||Avg. Depth of Target||Avg. Depth of Completion||CPOE|
Only once did Brees throw for over 9.0 air yards per attempt last season per Next Gen Stats and even in that game, his average completion came just 6.4 yards beyond the line of scrimmage in a Week 12 34-31 shootout with the Carolina Panthers.
Brees stood in the pocket — averaged 2.93 seconds to throw — and looked downfield often. It was the deep ball that was really opened up, but the volume at which Bress pushed the ball over 10 yards beyond the line. He was 2-for-3 for 45 yards and a touchdown on throws that traveled at least 20 air yards and he was 7-of-9 for 129 yards on passes that traveled between 11-19 air yards.
There was a better connection with Emmanuel Sanders, who had 93 yards on six receptions and nine targets. New Orleans also had a more aggressive game plan, which included a deep slot wheel to Alvin Kamara on a 4th and 4 from the Detroit 43-yard line early in the second quarter. A 25-yard pass to Sanders also came on a 3rd and 1 later in the quarter. He also threw a 19-yard crosser to Tre’Quan Smith on a 3rd and 5 with just over three minutes left in the game as the Saints worked the clock down to ice the game.
Part of this was helped by a Detroit defense that gave little resistance. Even with some pressure (Brees was hit five times), the coverage wasn’t good enough to hold up. The Lions have relied on heavy man-to-man coverage and Brees was comfortable enough in the pocket to wait for something to inevitably come open… and it did down the field in this game.
Michael Thomas practiced some this week but was still ruled out for the game. If the Saints can get back Thomas to add the efficiency on short passes while Brees keeps at least some of Week 4’s aggressiveness to the intermediate area, the Saints could be finding their offensive groove at the right time.
5. If this bad Russell Wilson, the NFL is in trouble
After throwing for a billion yards and all the touchdowns (estimated figures) over the first three weeks of the season, Russell Wilson had a down week with just 360 yards and two touchdowns. Wilson’s QBR was only 68.7 and it stands as only because it was Wilson’s first game below 80 this season — and he’s now fourth for the season, pending Patrick Mahomes and Aaron Rodgers who play Monday night.
The biggest positive after four weeks is the early-down passing is no longer a thing that should be feared to disappear. Seattle again passed on 60% of early downs and there was a gigantic split between the success on those passes (0.73 EPA per play) and the early down runs (0.08).
Seattle has remained pass-heavy in the situations they should be throwing the ball and the offense is even adding some new wrinkles every week. This week, it was taking advantage of jet motion for a clear half of the field following play-action. The Seahawks used that to start a drive midway through the first quarter. Freddie Swain started jet motion before the snap and Seattle faked the handoff to Travis Homer. The entire Miami defense fell for the fake and Swain was left all alone for a 23-yard gain.
Wilson still continued to cook and the main beneficiary remains D.K. Metcalf. Metcalf wasn’t perfect in the game — he had a drop after a hit and was undercut by Xavien Howard for an interception in the end zone — but he’s a big gain waiting to break on any play. He’s taking over the deep targets; Wilson’s second throw of the game was a 37-yard shot to Metcalf. He’s also a threat to take short passes for big gains. In the fourth quarter, he took a quick screen 32 yards down to the 1-yard line with a broken tackle and a lane created to the outside.
The end result of this game was a 31-23 Seattle win as Wilson still averaged 10.6 yards per attempt. Even when this offense is fine, it’s one of the best in the league. If the defense can stay average or close to it like the unit did on Sunday (shout out Shaquill Griffin, who turned in a great performance after being one of the worst charted cornerbacks through Week 3), it’s going to be nearly impossible to beat this team.
6. Joe Burrow is still working it out deep, but that’s ok
Last week’s tie felt like a loss to Joe Burrow. Sunday’s 33-25 win over the Jacksonville Jaguars, Burrow’s first of his career, must have felt much better. Even in defeat, Burrow has shown the traits that made him one of the best college quarterbacks we’ve ever seen and the first overall pick of the 2020 NFL Draft.
Cincinnati has worked in a lot of Burrow’s college concepts and head coach Zac Taylor has allowed Burrow to command the offense in a high volume of empty sets. Through three weeks, Burrow led the league in pass attempts from empty (36), 10 more than the next quarterback.
Some of that was to give Burrow more control over the offense but it was also a shortcut to getting the ball out quickly to cover up a poor offensive line. What that did, though, is lead to a lot of short, mostly inefficient passes. That’s also led to a big disconnect on the deep ball. That continued on Sunday. Burrow was 0-7 against the Jaguars on passes that traveled at least 20 yards beyond the line of scrimmage. Entering the week, Burrow was just 1-of-13 on those passes with only four on-target per SIS charting.
A huge difference this week, though, was that Burrow was able to find success in the intermediate area. He was 10-of-12 for 190 yards on passes that went between 11-19 air yards.
There was a back-to-back play stretch early in the second quarter when Burrow put a deep ball right in the hands of Tee Higgins but the pass was dropped on an adjustment down the sideline. But on the next play, Burrow found Higgins on an intermediate post for a gain of 30 yards.
Even with the 0-for in the game on deep passes, Burrow finished the game with a CPOE of 11.7%, the sixth-highest of the week. That’s also a trend that carries over for the season. Burrow is currently fourth among qualified quarterbacks in CPOE in 2020 per Next Gen Stats.
Burrow will eventually find the touch on his deep ball. It’s encouraging that he’s finding success and getting better in the other areas of his game.
7. Your NFC East-leading 1-2-1 Philadelphia Eagles
The Philadelphia Eagles aren’t good. Glad we got that out of the way. But they do currently lead the NFC East because the other teams in the division are also not good. Philadelphia got its first win of the season after a sloppy and plodding 25-20 Sunday Night Football win over the San Francisco 49ers.
Carson Wentz wasn’t great, but he had his first positive EPA start of the year. Wentz again struggled through most of the game only to come alive with a 42-yard touchdown strike to Travis Fulgham that proved to be the game-winner… and a score followed up by a pick-6. Wentz still had negative CPOE on the day but 37 yards and a touchdown on the ground helped boost a single-game QBR to 73.7. Without just about every intended starting wide receiver and offensive lineman, it could have been worse. It has already been worse this season.
Philadelphia’s defense finally got some pressure but that was not the case once C.J. Beathard replaced Nick Mullens in the fourth quarter. The coverage units still looked overmatched often, especially against George Kittle, who had 183 yards and a touchdown on 15 receptions.
The Eagles might hold the lead in the division now and we can laugh about it, but the next two games for Philadelphia (at Pittsburgh and home for Baltimore) will be a wake-up call if nothing has actually improved. Per FiveThirtyEight’s ELO forecast, the Eagles still just have a 37% chance to make the playoffs. In order for that to improve, Philadelphia will need to make a visible step forward or hope the NFC East remains as bad as it currently is. Even with the win, the Eagles’ best hope might be the latter.
8. Chart of the day
After years of being sent on go routes to be not targeted or thrown a bad ball, Joe Brady and the Carolina Panthers have figured out that Robby Anderson can be a dangerous short to intermediate receiver. The Panthers have taken advantage of the cushion Anderson often gets off the line and they’ve worked him on shallow crossers that have taken advantage of his speed.
This week there was also a jet motion screen off play-action that gave Anderson an open sideline for a 24-yard gain.
Anderson has become Carolina’s No. 1 receiver — he’s ninth among all receivers/tight ends in targets — and he’s winning at every level of the field.
9. Play of the day
The quickest way to find yourself in the play of the day section is to run Leak with a wide receiver. The Buffalo Bills are rolling on a hot streak right now and offensive coordinator Brian Daboll is the one throwing heat.
This particular play — a 26-yard touchdown to Gabriel Davis — was brilliant for two reasons. First, Leak is nearly a fool-proof route concept. A receiver (usually a tight end) fakes a block long enough and then “leaks” out into a route, usually wide open on the opposite side of the play fake. But also, this play took advantage of a rookie corner, Amik Robertson, on his first play after Lamarcus Joyner was injured on the previous play. NFL offenses don’t take enough advantage of the injury replacement corner but Daboll and the Bills did here with one of the best routes in football.
10. Going for 2 down 8
We had two instances of trailing teams smartly going for two after a touchdown put them down eight points. Both Jacksonville and Detroit made the smart play, even in a loss. The math and expected points back up the strategy, but intuitively this should make sense and would if the extra point (which is no longer automatic) wasn’t so ingrained in the structure of scoring.
At its most basic concept, the advantage for a team being down six is much great than the disadvantage of being down eight with a failed conversion. In each situation, the trailing team still needs a stop and another score. With a successful conversion, the trailing team would be able to take the lead with a touchdown and extra point. At worst, a failed conversion would only force the trailing team to attempt another two-point try. The reward far outweighs the risk.
These two attempts in Week 4 were already as many as were attempted in 2018 and half of 2019’s total. From 2004 through 2017, there was just one attempt total. It’s a strategy that should be more widely adopted and if Week 4 is any indication, it might pick up some steam, even in losses.