With no Thursday Night Football, the NFL jammed a lot of football into the early afternoon window in Week 6. With so much to take in at once, it’s ok if you missed something. That’s why we’re here, to give you just slightly less to take in at once.
1. Titans Win Another Close One
The Tennessee Titans are one of the NFL’s three remaining unbeaten teams after a 42-36 overtime win over the Houston Texans. The 5-0 Titans haven’t been dominant yet this season — their best win was this past Thursday in a 42-16 win over the Buffalo Bills — but they’ve scored at least 30 points in each of the past four games. The Titans might keep it close, but they’re able to score enough to make that the case.
Tennessee put up 601 yards of total offense in this game against the best performance of Deshaun Watson’s season. Watson threw for 9.1 yards per attempt, four touchdowns, no interceptions, and a 93.1 QBR. Watson had the second-highest completion percentage above expectation this week (+8.8%) per Next Gen Stats. But the Titans were able to hang.
What’s most impressive this season is that the Titans have increased the big-play potential from the low-ceiling offense they ran for most of the season last year, even with Ryan Tannehill. Last year’s Titans needed to keep the game low-scoring in the hope something would break late in the game but the 2020 version has been able to work itself into shootouts and come out on top.
So much of that comes from the play-action game designed by offensive coordinator Arthur Smith. Coming into this game, the Titans led the league with 11 yards per dropback on play-action passes, per Sports Info Solutions. They held the fourth-highest play-action rate at 33.6%. That was necessary because Tennessee had the fourth-lowest yards per dropback figure on non-play-action passes, just 5.01.
These play-action shots have continually opened things up downfield for Tannehill. It worked on a second-and-8 from the Houston 22-yard line near the end of the second quarter. The Titans used play-action out of shotgun and the brief play fake was just enough to get both linebackers to bite. That forced a deep safety to break in to cover tight end Jonnu Smith and allowed Adam Humphries to get behind a cornerback who was expecting deep safety help.
After what looked to be an unsustainable performance throwing to the intermediate area of the field last season, Tannehill is back to picking apart opposing defenses between 11 and 19 yards beyond the line of scrimmage. Against the Texans, Tannehill was 7-of-8 for 130 yards and two touchdowns on intermediate throws. On the season now, Tannehill is 28-of-38 (73.7%) for 522 yards (13.7 yards per attempt).
That type of production and efficiency is needed for these high-scoring games because the Titans sare still one of the league’s most run-heavy teams. Sometimes that can work out, as it did at times against Houston as Derrick Henry rushed for 212 yards. While Henry averaged an incredible 0.42 EPA per play on the ground, per nflfastR data, Henry produced positive EPA on just 39% of his rushing attempts.
Part of what has made Henry dangerous as a runner is the ability to break those big plays. In this game, he had a 94-yard touchdown run in the fourth quarter that gave the Titans a 29-23 after a successful two-point conversion. Defenses want to stack the box against Henry but when he can make a man miss, he makes the defense pay with a big gain.
That had yet to be the case this season, though. On 14 non-red zone carries against stacked boxes this season, Henry had averaged just 2.4 yards per carry. That ranked 26th of 26 running backs with at least 10 such attempts.
Even on the 94-yard run against Houston, Henry forced an impressive miss in the open field but he was set up perfectly by his blockers that caused him to only need to make one defender miss. At the time of the handoff, the Titans had already created a 3.5-yard hole between center Ben Jones and left guard Nate Davis.
By the time Henry hit the hole, it was over 4.5 yards and A.J. Brown was already nine yards down the field ready to block one of two defenders in the open field.
Henry’s second-biggest play was a 53-yard reception set up by play-action on a second-and-8 for the second play of overtime. The Titans suckered the Texans in with a tight formation, fake to Henry, and a fake end-around to Adam Humphries (10). All of that action pulled in the box defenders and Henry was left alone down the right sideline.
On the next play, Jeremy McNichols gained 17 yards on the ground, thanks to great blocking for the offensive line and tight ends. Per ESPN, the Titans had the sixth-best offensive line by Run Block WIn Rate through five weeks.
Three plays later, Henry scored on a five-yard touchdown run from a direct snap. Even that play was well designed to show a run up the middle to open up the edge for Henry.
Tennessee was able to tie the game and win on that first drive in overtime because of a controversial decision by Houston to go for two after a touchdown that put them up by seven late in the fourth quarter. The math between kicking and going for two in that situation is mostly indifferent and some models even favored kicking.
Being up by eight forces the opponent to drive down the field and have a successful two-point conversion. Being up nine forces the opponent to score twice. It’s hard to fault Romeo Crennel, in his second game as interim head coach for the fired Bill O’Brien, for getting aggressive in this situation. In fact, you can probably use how easily the Titans drove down the field at both the end of regulation and the start of overtime to back Crennel’s decision.
Crennel knew the Houston defense was unlikely to slow down the Tennessee offense and Watson’s reaction when the Texans lost the coin toss showed the quarterback had similar feelings.
Throughout the game, Crennel had successfully been aggressive on a number of fourth downs. Houston scored on a fourth-and-1 at the goal line in the second quarter and went for fourth-and-1 twice on the Texans’ final touchdown drive of the game. Houston converted one from the Tennessee 35-yard line and eventually scored on a fourth-and-1 from the 1. In both instances, Houston got aggressive to avoid a four-point lead which forces the opposing offense to be more aggressive on the next drive and try for the touchdown instead of playing for a field goal.
The win for the Titans did not come without a cost. It is believed Tennessee lost left tackle Taylor Lewan to a torn ACL. Lewan was third among tackles in Run Block Win Rate through Week 5. Given how important that line is for the run and play-action game, that could be a major loss for a team that needs that efficiency to continue getting away with these wins.
2. Steelers Shut Down Browns
The AFC’s other undefeated team is the Pittsburgh Steelers, who completely shut down the Cleveland Browns in a 38-7 divisional blowout. Last week, the Browns looked like they were starting to get on track, especially as an offense, but there was little hope for anything against Pittsburgh.
Baker Mayfield suffered a rib injury at the end of last week’s game against the Colts and was limited in practice throughout the week, but was deemed healthy enough to start. Whether it was the injury, the Steelers defense, general ineffectiveness, or all of the above, Mayfield never looked comfortable on the field. Even when the Browns had played well, there were still times Mayfield had looked like he was stressing to make some things work.
That was definitely the case for the time he played against Pittsburgh before he was replaced by Case Keenum. Mayfield was trying to buy time to throw — his 3.3 seconds to throw was the highest among quarterbacks in Week 6 per Next Gen Stats — but that time couldn’t make throws happen down the field. Despite that high time to throw, Mayfield had no attempts travel over 20 yards in the air. Like some poor Mayfield starts in the past, it was frantic and rushed.
Pittsburgh did a lot to force that and it started on Cleveland’s first offensive drive. On a third-and-3, the Steelers came out in a two-high look but at the snap, Pittsburgh switched into a Cover 1 Robber look that had Minkah Fitzpatrick charge into the box and jump in front of a slant for an interception returned 33 yards for a touchdown — it was similar to how the Browns forced interceptions against the Colts last week.
Pittsburgh held Cleveland to just 1-of-12 on third downs in the game. It was a much-needed win for a team that had created pressure like none other on third down this season, but hadn’t been able to capitalize. Entering the week, the Steelers had created pressure on an insane league-leading 78.4% of opposing third down pass attempts (next highest at 63.9%), per SIS, but had allowed 9.57 yards per attempt on third downs, the second-worst figure in the league.
The Browns faced six third downs in the first half and the Steelers forced pressure on four of them.
Browns First Half Third Downs vs Steelers
|Down & Distance||Result||EPA|
|3rd & 3||Disguised Coverage Interception||-7.1|
|3rd & 6||Sack||-1.8|
|3rd & 10||Pressured Incompletion||-1.8|
|3rd & 4||Pressured Incompletion||-1.8|
|3rd & 12||Pressured Interception||-2.8|
|3rd & 5||Completed RB Screen, 5 yards||1.0|
On all third and fourth downs in the game, Cleveland averaged -2.03 EPA per play.
Overall the Steelers had seven quarterback hits and seven passes defensed between Mayfield and Keenum. Mayfield was sacked four times to go along with the two interceptions for a QBR of just 5.4.
It was a necessary defensive shutdown that helped out an offense that flashed but didn’t have much consistency throughout the game. Ben Roethlisberger’s deep touch has been spotty early in the 2020 and the concerns over arm strength might have been softened a bit with two deep throws in the game — one a 36-yard pass to Chase Claypool down the left sideline that set up a James Conner touchdown run and a 28-yard touchdown pass to James Washington.
But outside of that, the Steelers’ game plan was to get the ball out of Roethlisberger’s hands quickly. His 2.1 average seconds to throw was easily the quickest of the week, per Next Gen Stats, and was the fastest of any quarterback in a game this season. Only Ryan Fitzpatrick’s 2.19 seconds in Week 2 was also under 2.2 seconds.
Some of the problem there was even though Roethlisberger was getting the ball out quickly, he was still forcing some passes. 22.7% of his attempts were thrown into tight coverage (a yard or fewer of separation per Next Gen Stats) and that shouldn’t be the case on so many short throws. He ended with just 0.01 EPA per play.
Of course, the highlight of the offense was again Claypool. He only scored one touchdown in the game (a rushing score on a jet sweep from three yards out) but he added 74 yards on four receptions. Midway through the fourth quarter, he took a short pass on a third-and-7, stopped and changed direction, then sprinted up the sideline to get pushed out at the 1-yard line.
Even as James Washington led the team in targets (seven), the Steelers created ways to get the ball in Claypool’s hands and that could be the best bet for the Pittsburgh offense going forward.
3. Philip Rivers Bounced Back
Last week after a 32-23 loss to the Cleveland Browns, there was a vocal group around the Colts — from both fans and the beat — that Philip Rivers was a big problem. Rivers followed that up with a line of 29-of-44 for 371 yards (8.4 yards per attempt), 80.1 QBR, and 0.22 EPA per play in a 31-27 win over the Cincinnati Bengals. It wasn’t a stellar Rivers performance, but it was enough to silence some doubters who believed he was completely done.
The Bengals jumped to a 21-0 lead by the start of the second quarter, but Rivers led three straight touchdown drives to bring the Colts within three (due to a Bengals field goal) by halftime. Those drives went seven plays for 87 yards, nine plays for 75 yards, and nine plays for 72 yards. Each had at least one big play to move the ball. There was a 55-yard pass to Marcus Johnson on the first, a 22-yard pass on a third-and-10 to Zach Pascal on the second, and another deep ball to Johnson for 20 yards on a third-and-7 on the third drive.
The Colts broke through on third downs (7-of-11), which bailed them out of some lackluster early down plays. Per nflfastR data via the Baldwin Boxscore, the Colts averaged just 0.01 EPA per play on 12 early down rushing attempts and 0.03 EPA per play on 38 early down pass attempts, but they averaged 0.74 EPA per play on third and fourth down.
Splits like that aren’t going to be sustainable, but the Colts worked to undo some other bad luck they’ve had this season. Through Week 5, Indianapolis was just 28th in points per red zone trip and 29th in touchdowns per red zone trip. All four of the Colts’ touchdowns in this game came in the red zone and the only field goal they kicked came just outside the red zone, from the Cincinnati 22-yard line.
It was clear the Colts worked to get a little more production in the red zone. Tight end Trey Burton scored the first touchdown on a Wildcat option keeper. Then, Rivers’s three touchdown passes forced Bengals middle of the field defenders to stay with Colts tight ends and receivers to the outside.
Much of Rivers’s damage in this game came past 10 yards beyond the line of scrimmage. He was 9-of-11 for 190 yards on passes that traveled at least 10 yards in the air. One of those incompletions was an interception that could have been a game-changer, early in the fourth quarter with a one-point lead, not unlike some ill-advised Rivers throws in the past. But after the pick, the Colts held the Bengals to a 48-yard field goal try that was missed.
Bengals head coach Zac Taylor decided to attempt the long field goal instead of go-for-it on a fourth-and-1 from the Indianapolis 30-yard line, a decision that cost Cincinnati two percentage points of win probability before the attempt, per EdjSports. That came after another decision to kick a field goal on a fourth-and-2 from the Indianapolis 37-yard line that only increased the Bengals’ lead from three to six.
The Colts kicked a field goal of their own after the Bengals’ miss, to make it a four-game. That forced Cincinnati to play aggressively for a touchdown and Joe Burrow played the role of Rivers with a deep interception to end the game. Burrow had played mostly well to that point (his 0.31 EPA per play topped Rivers) but the Bengals weren’t able to take advantage of some of the edges presented to them, which left the rookie in desperation mode late.
4. Defense Mattered For the Buccaneers and Packers
In a year in which there looked to be no truly dominant teams and no top defenses, the Tampa Bay Buccaneers might be flirting with the latter. Tampa was second in defensive DVOA behind Indianapolis through five weeks as the Bucs ranked first in yards allowed per drive and fifth in points allowed per drive. The defense showed up in Week 6 by shutting down Aaron Rodgers and the Green Bay Packers en route to a 38-10 win.
So much of Rodgers’s success this season came from a newfound comfort in Matt LaFleur’s offense. Rodgers trusted the overall structure of the offense and would get the ball out on time in rhythm. It also helped that the Packers had one of the league’s best offensive lines, which allowed for Rodgers to sit back and wait for deep shots to open up.
The Buccaneers disrupted all of that on Sunday. Green Bay jumped out to an early 10-0 lead, but it was all downhill from there. The Packers faced a third-and-10 on their third drive from their own 22-yard line. Rodgers saw a delayed corner blitz and threw a late out to Davanate Adams, a cardinal sin for quarterbacks. Jamel Dean (35) was able to jump the route for a pick-6.
On the next drive, the Packers faced a third-and-3 from their own 32-yard line. This time, the Buccaneers sent six pass rushers and Rodgers fired a throw into traffic that bounced off Adams and into the arms of Mike Davis, who returned it just two yards shy of what would have been a second pick-6 in as many drives.
Heavy blitzing has been Tampa Bay’s M.O. under Todd Bowles. The Buccaneers started the 2020 season fourth in blitz rate after they were third last season. The pressure got to Rodgers, who could have even had a worse day. Some throws were just as bad or worse than the ones that got intercepted as he was never comfortable in the pocket. He was sacked four times and hit 13 times total.
Tampa also has a secondary that is able to hold up with the heavy blizting. Carlton Davis has turned into a top corner (he had four passes defensed in the game) and Jamel Dean has started to break out as a playmaker. The safety duo of Mike Edwards and Antoine Winfield Jr. has emerged as one of the better young tandems in the league.
On the other side of the ball, the Packers defense couldn’t hold up. Tom Brady only averaged 6.1 yards per attempt, but he didn’t have to do much more than that. He had two touchdown passes and a QBR of 96.1.
Green Bay’s defense continues to confuse. The Packers are one of the league’s most passive defenses with one of the lowest blitz rates, but it’s not because they’re getting overwhelming pressure with four. They ranked 29th as a team in pressure rate, per SIS. They’ve also turned Preston Smith into an off-ball linebacker who has rushed the passer on just 65.5% of his pass snaps this season. Even worse, his pressure rate was somehow just 2.2% entering Week 6 (though he did have a hit in the game).
Still, while focusing on dropping players into coverage — sometimes way too many — the Packers still find a way to allow opponents to run free. Rob Gronkowski looked the closest to the old Gronk instead of Old Gronk with five catches for 78 yards and a touchdown. Brady and Gronkowski even connected on a 31-yard pass at the beginning of the third quarter.
One defense in this game made it as hard as possible to do his job well. The other didn’t put much pressure on the opposing offense at all. With so many teams clustered together in quality this season, those small differences can turn into huge advantages. Tampa had that edge on Sunday.
5. Kyle Shanahan At His Best
Some people do their best work when the odds are stacked against them. Kyle Shanahan might be one of those people. Sure he can turn Matt Ryan into an MVP, but he consistently does some of his best work when he knows he has to overcome his own quarterback play. Shanahan did just that while directing a 24-16 San Francisco 49ers win over the Los Angeles Rams.
An injured Jimmy Garoppolo was benched at halftime last week after a 7-of-17 performance. The Niners didn’t take any chances of that happening again. Garoppolo’s average throw traveled just 4.4 yards beyond the line of scrimmage and his average completion was just 1.8 yards past the line, both were the lowest marks among quarterbacks in Week 6.
The 49ers identified a clear weakness in the middle of the Rams’ defense and they took advantage. Garoppolo was 15-of-16 throwing to the middle of the field with three touchdowns and was just 8-of-17 elsewhere.
Those numbers in the middle of the field behind the line include the touch jet sweep pass, which dominated San Francisco’s first drive. Deebo Samuel took the first for 35 yards and finished the drive with a six-yard touch pass touchdown.
Garoppolo’s second touchdown came on a quick post on a fourth-and-2 against a zero-blitz — a 44-yard touchdown pass with 33 yards after the catch.
These quick schemed plays got the ball out quickly (2.33 seconds on average per Next Gen Stats). That neutralized a Rams defense that blitzed 24% of time and forced just two pressures. More importantly, that kept Aaron Donald away from the quarterback. Donald had one quarterback hit but didn’t have a chance to do much more.
Another helpful piece of the 49ers was a much healthier defense. Last week with Brian Allen at cornerback, San Francisco had a clear weak link on defense, something that hadn’t had all of last season. This week Emmanuel Mosely returned with three passes defensed. Jason Verrett has also emerged in a season when he’s finally healthy enough to stay on the field. His interception in the end zone late in the third quarter showed the awareness and ball skills that made him such a promising and exciting cornerback early in his career.
San Francisco’s win brought the 49ers to 3-3 and dropped the Rams to 4-2 as the NFC West condenses behind the Seattle Seahawks. Per Football Outsiders, the Rams still have a 72% chance to make the playoffs while the Niners jumped 10.5% to 32.3%, which is still the lowest in the division pending Arizona Monday Night Football game against the Arizona Cardinals.
6. Bears Jump The Panthers
The 5-1 Chicago Bears have a 78.3% chance to make the playoffs per Football Outsiders. With a 23-16 win over the Carolina Panthers, the Bears extended their streak of playing every game this season to one-score. The Bears’ +12 point differential currently ranks just 13th in the league and behind all four NFC West teams.
Still, wins are in the bank at this point and those have set the Bears up favorably to start the season. Against the Panthers, the defense was able to take over and widened the margin for error on offense.
Chicago played aggressive coverage to jump the shallow crossers the Panthers have killed defenses using this season. Teddy Bridgewater has won this season by getting the ball out quickly to those short routes that can pick up 10 to 15 yards at a time. But the Bears were prepared for those routes and Bridgewater was thrown off his game. He pumped faked and double-clutched more in this matchup than he had in any other to start the season.
So much of the Carolina offense this season has been about creating shallow space but Bridgewater was pressured into forcing some throws into tight coverage. His first interception came following a second down sack where he wanted to get the ball out but had to pull back when the slant was covered. On third down, a defensive line stunt created pressure and Bridgewater threw a covered curl to Robby Anderson that bounced into the air and into the arms of Tashaun Gipson.
Carolina did have positive EPA on early down passes (0.14) but those third down packages from the Chicago defense forced more mistakes than Bridgewater had made all season.
That’s a positive sign for a Bears team that isn’t likely to win games with a dominant offense this season. The defense is going to have to be the bright spot against an upcoming schedule that includes the Rams, Saints, and Titans over the next three games.
7. Drew Lock’s Deep Passes
As an underdog, more teams should try high variance gameplans with a high reward. Drew Lock and the Denver Broncos kind of tried that against the New England Patriots on Sunday. Lock basically took the theory of what would happen if a quarterback just threw deep all the time and made it a reality, Lock’s average pass traveled a league-high 16.9 yards beyond the line of scrimmage. In turn, his average completion was 13.2 yards past the line. Those numbers might suggest an effective air attack, but this was really anything but.
Lock was just 2-for-8 on throws that traveled at least 20 air yards. Most of them never had a chance. Lock’s expected completion percentage in this game was just 44.1% due to how deep and covered his pass attempts were and he still finished below that with an actual completion percentage of 41.7%.
Here’s a clip of all of Lock’s 20+ air yard attempts from this game:
Still, somehow, the Broncos beat the Patriots 18-12, thanks to kicker Brandon McManus. For as much of a mess as those deep throws might have been, the Patriots looked as disorganized on offense overall.
The Titans were able to look like a COVID-related shutdown of the team facility would not have to impact play, but it clearly did for the Patriots. Cam Newton had little going through the air and 76 yards and a touchdown on the ground were the only highlights. Newton had a QBR of just 19.9… and still that was the higher mark in this game, above Lock’s 19.6.
8. Chart of the day
The Minnesota Vikings continued to struggle in a 40-23 loss to the freed-of-Dan Quinn Atlanta Falcons. But in that loss, rookie Justin Jefferson continued to shine. Jefferson had nine receptions for 166 yards and two touchdowns. He’s now gone over 100 yards in three of his past four games and suddenly his 537 receiving yards are third in the league through Sunday’s games.
9. Play of the day
Lamar Jackson has yet to hit his stride in 2020 as a passer, though he’s continued to be dangerous as a runner — he had a 37-yard option keeper for a touchdown on Sunday. But Jackson’s athleticism is always going to keep plays alive longer than they should be.
Early in Baltimore’s 30-28 win over Philadelphia, the Ravens called a sprintout near the goal line. Mark Ingram was supposed to be the intended receiver but it was well covered. So instead, Jackson bought time and avoided two tackles. While he planted to force the second missed tackle, he found Nick Boyle open in the end zone.
10. Unpredictable trade deadline
The NFL trade deadline is on November 3 (yes, trade deadline and Election Day on the same day… good job, NFL). Over the past few seasons the trade deadline has been active as teams have been more willing to both part with assets and add players midseason.
That might be tricky this season. New health protocols for new players could take a week for a new player to be allowed into the facility, which could hamper how willing teams are to trade for outside help. What we could see instead are earlier trades. Already the Jets and Buccaneers swapped defensive tackle Steve McClendon, a deal that was announced shortly after both finished late afternoon games on Sunday.
There are a number of interesting names that could be on the move. The Jets are reportedly taking calls on anyone not named Mekhi Becton, though that doesn’t leave a lot of good players. The Giants would be wise to trade Evan Engram to a team that will use him on more than drag routes (Arizona?).
If teams want to speed up the process and get these players into the building as soon as possible, we could see some moves start this week. Hopefully, we’re in for some action soon with a few surprises.