Week 8 had its share of surprises. A number of upsets popped up but few were truly fluky. In a year without one or more dominant teams, results like that are bound to happen with most teams clustered together in quality. There’s a lot to take in, so let’s get to it.
1. The Steelers Can Outspeed The Ravens
There was never a doubt a November meeting between the Pittsburgh Steelers and Baltimore Ravens would be a one-score game. But the path to a 28-24 Steelers win, to keep them as the lone undefeated team in the NFL, was a ride full of pressure and coverage. These defenses were second and third in defensive DVOA entering the game, according to Football Outsiders, and the two most blitz-heavy defenses.
The defensive deception started on the first drive of the game when the Ravens had a third-and-6 from their own 29-yard line. Baltimore motioned into empty and Pittsburgh had just a four-man pressure look in a single-high nickel package. But just before the snap, Robert Spillane (41) crept to the middle of the field and Vince Williams (98) charged to the line of scrimmage.
Four men rushed, but it wasn’t the four expected. At the snap, Bud Dupree dropped into coverage on the left side of the line and Williams rushed the quarterback. Entering this game, Williams had been a pass rusher 12.2% of his pass snaps as one of Pittsburgh’s most frequent blitzers but Dupree had dropped into coverage on just 7.2% of his pass snaps, per Sports Info Solutions.
Lamar Jackson didn’t expect Spillane to be in the middle of the field as he fired a short pass to James Proche, which Spillane jumped and returned for a touchdown.
For as often as these two teams played each other, the Ravens and Steelers played each other like they knew what the opponent liked to do on offense. As obvious as that sounds, it really hasn’t been the case for opposing teams this season.
Early in the game, the Steelers were able to break through the Ravens’ offensive line to create havoc on the read option mesh point. On one play, Pittsburgh had a defender hitting Jackson and Gus Edwards right after the exchange, which gave the Ravens no correct answer on the read.
Pittsburgh got its best moments in high leverage spots by forcing Jackson into mistakes. The Steelers’ defensive speed was able to disrupt just enough to Baltimore’s offense that Jackson was pressed into looking for the big play. The Steelers used that to force and take advantage of a few mistakes.
Jackson’s second interception of the game came when Pittsburgh dropped rookie linebacker Alex Highsmith into coverage on a first-and-10 from Baltimore’s own 17-yard line. Highsmith was responsible for fullback Patrick Ricard out of the pistol 2-back look, but Highsmith kept his eyes on the quarterback and drifted back to get in the throwing lane in front of intended target Mark Andrews, who had beaten his man to the outside.
It was a 17-7 Ravens lead at the time of the interception. The Steelers scored a touchdown two plays later, forced a three-and-out, and drove down the field for a go-ahead touchdown on the following drive.
The Ravens were able to have their way on the ground for much of the game. They rushed for 265 yards as a team, led by 113 from J.K. Dobbins (0.24 EPA per play and 53% success rate, per nflfastR) but the Steelers were prepared for the Ravens’ go-to runs in big spots.
On a third-and-8 from midfield late in the third quarter, T.J. Watt was in the backfield so quickly, he was able to move off his running back responsibility on the option and take down Jackson on the keeper for no gain.
Baltimore’s two plays in the red zone straddling the two-minute warning saw Jackson get stopped short for a two-yard gain on third-and-5 and stopped for a two-yard gain with a fumble on fourth-and-3.
Jackson easily had his worst game of the season with -0.24 EPA per play, a 38% passing success rate, and a QBR of just 12.6. But there are few defenses that can match both the physicality and speed of the Baltimore offense as well as Pittsburgh’s.
Pittsburgh’s second level of the defense got even better after the game when it was reported the Steelers traded for Jets linebacker Avery Williamson. The trade sent a 2022 fifth-round pick in exchange for Williamson and a 2022 seventh. Williamson missed all of last season with a torn ACL but at his best was a solid all-around linebacker who was a plus-blitzer, a skill set that fits in well for the Steelers as they continue to work in replacements for Devin Bush.
Meanwhile, Ben Roethlisberger continued his Derek Carr impression by getting the ball out quickly, with a week-leading 2.26 average time to throw, per NFL Next Gen Stats. The Steelers tried to push the ball down the field a little more often (his average depth of target was 7.1) but those attempts didn’t always work out. His average completion came just 4.4 yards beyond the line of scrimmage and Roethlisberger was 0-for-4 on throws that went 20 or more yards in the air.
Some of those deeper passes, or at least second-read attempts, came as the Ravens’ secondary sat on some of the quicker routes. Still, Roethlisberger was able to move the ball just enough in the short passing game. The Steelers actually were significantly outgained by the Ravens on a per-play basis (5.8 yards per play to 4.4) but Pittsburgh had the more advantageous situations off turnovers. For his part, Roethlisberger put up 0.15 EPA per play and a 51% success rate with no help from a running game.
It’s hard to overstate how big the win was for the future outlook of the Steelers. Pittsburgh now has a two-game advantage over Baltimore for the division lead and keeps its one-game lead over Kansas City for the top spot in the AFC. FiveThirtyEight gives the Steelers an 82% chance to win the AFC North and a 51% at the top seed and a first-round bye. Football Outsiders has those numbers at 81.2% and 51.8%.
Even if the current version of the offense doesn’t have the highest ceiling, there is enough of a baseline success level to get by with a defense that can force an opposing offense off its game. The Steelers might not be the league’s or AFC’s best team, but with seven wins in the bank, they have a sizable lead in the division with an inside track at the conference’s top spot without the Chiefs on their schedule.
2. Burrow Beats The Titans
One of the bigger surprises of Week 8 was a 31-20 Cincinnati Bengals upset of the Tennessee Titans. Perhaps the most surprising thing about it was that it wasn’t really a fluky upset, either. The Titans didn’t have an off-game, in fact, they did quite well for most of the contest, but the Bengals were just able to outplay them for the majority of the game.
So much of this comes on the back and arm of Joe Burrow. There has been a ton put on the rookie’s plate this season. He currently leads the league in pass attempts and hasn’t had the luxury of standout blocking from the line in front of him — Cincinnati ranked 25th in ESPN’s Pass Block Win Rate through Week 7. This week, he was down to a line full of backups but was able to stay out of danger with no sacks taken.
Burrow continued to get the ball out quickly, as has been the case throughout the season, using a ton of empty sets. His 2.8 average seconds to throw in the game shows a mix of the quick game and a few snaps when Burrow escaped the pocket to extend plays.
That started early, like this 24-yard pass to Tee Higgins on a third down in the first quarter.
Burrow’s 10.9% completion percentage above expectation led the week, per Next Gen Stats, and much of that had to do with fitting the ball into tight windows. Nearly 30% of Burrow’s pass attempts against Tennessee came with a yard or fewer of separation by the receiver. That’s not a rate the Bengals are going to want Burrow to repeat (though his full-season figure is 22.4%, second-highest in the league) but Burrow’s short and intermediate accuracy has allowed a high rate of those passes to be completed, especially when targeting a receiver such as Higgins, with tremendous body control.
There is already a connection between the two rookies to where Burrow trusts he can put a ball somewhere around Higgins, even in tight coverage, and the receiver will come down with the pass.
Higgins led the Bengals with nine targets and both Tyler Boyd and Auden Tate had splash plays with seven targets each. Much of the Bengals’ success in this game came from continuously moving the ball through the air without making a mistake. Burrow had a 61% passing success rate with 0.54 EPA per play. Cincinnati even trusted Burrow to throw late in the game.
After the Titans got within 10 points at the start of the fourth quarter, the Bengals took a big kick return and had Burrow pass on four of Cincinnati’s seven plays on a scoring drive, including a six-yard touchdown pass to make the score 31-14.
Cincinnati playcalling was even a bit creative on the final drive with a few jet sweeps to Higgins in order to throw off the Tennessee defensive line and hide the offensive line from obvious run situations to drain the clock.
Throughout the game, and the season, Tennessee had some exploitable pieces on defense. The pass rush continues to struggle — just two hits and no sacks against a backup offensive line — and weak links in coverage, such as Jonathan Joseph can be picked on. But it’s hard to come away from this Titans game without noting how perfect the offense has to be in order for it to work.
The Titans, for the most part, did what they wanted on offense. Derrick Henry was nearly unstoppable with 112 yards and a touchdown on 18 carries, good for 0.39 EPA per play and a 68% success rate. Corey Davis also had an insane game with 128 yards and a touchdown on eight receptions and 10 targets.
But the Titans left some plays on the field. On their first drive, Tannehill threw an interception in the red zone, something he had yet to do this season against 13 touchdowns. The Titans had again been one of the league’s best red zone teams with 5.80 points per red zone trip (fifth entering the week) and an 80% touchdown rate in the red zone (second).
On a first-and-goal from the 8-yard line, Tannehill was forced out of the pocket by a blitz against play-action and the quarterback never saw the (still underrated) Jessie Bates playing centerfield to cut off a pass intended for A.J. Brown.
Tennessee’s second drive got into Cincinnati territory but ended on a missed 53-yard field goal. The Titans’ first drive of the second half when down just 17-7 was derailed by a Ben Jones holding penalty on a second-and-2 from the Cincinnati 26-yard line. That forced a second-and-12 and eventually a fourth-and-12 punt from the Cincinnati 38-yard line. Then the next drive also got to the Bengals’ side of the field, but a 10-yard sack from Tannehill on a third-and-8 from the 40 forced a punt from the 50.
Those haven’t been mistakes the Titans have made and they’re not ones the team can afford, especially against an opponent that played successful mistake-free football throughout the game.
3. Dolphins Get Aggressive
The big story from Miami was supposed to be the first career start for Tua Tagovailoa. That started rough with a strip sack courtesy of Aaron Donald and didn;t get much better — Tagovailoa finished 12-of-22 for 93 yards with a touchdown, good for -0.45 EPA per play and a QBR of just 25.
Thankfully for the Dolphins, the defensive effort and a demolition of Jared Goff helped mask an underwhelming offensive performance and propelled a 28-17 win over the Rams.
Goff never really had a chance in this game and the pressure packages put in place by the Dolphins threw Goff and the Rams off what they set out to do on offense. Miami finished the game with eight quarterback hits, which led to two sacks (including a strip-6), two interceptions, and 13 passes defensed.
Dolphins head coach Brian Flores was on the Patriots staff that stifled Goff and Sean McVay in the Super Bowl. Flores picked up where that game left off by sending constant pressure against Goff.
Every quarterback performs worse under pressure, but Goff has been prone to fall apart without ideal surroundings. Here are Goff’s splits with and without pressure from 2020 entering this week (numbers per Sports Info Solutions):
Jared Goff Pressure Splits, 2020 (through Week 7)
|Pressure||Dropbacks||Comp/Att (%)||Yards (YPA)||TD/INT||EPA/Att||Positive %|
|Without||163||121/157 (77.1%)||1476 (9.4)||9/2||0.34||63.7%|
|With||76||30/66 (45.5%)||314 (4.76)||3/2||-0.34||32.4%|
So much of Miami’s success came from ignoring so much of the window dressing the Rams use on offense. Goff’s rollouts were consistently covered and contained. The Dolphins also attacked the Rams’ empty sets with heavy blitzes, which puts more rushers against five-man protections and puts a lot of responsibility on the quarterback to account for the free rusher.
On the strip-6, the Rams came out in empty in the red zone, which they do often. Darrell Henderson ran jet motion but the Dolphins had a six-man blitz and Emmanuel Ogbah ran straight through ignoring the jet player and came in as a free rusher to Goff, who was not prepared for the hit.
The Dolphins also used sim pressure (showing heavy blitz, dropping expected rushers back) to muddle Goff’s pre-snap reads and post-snap expectations. On his first interception on a second-and-2, Miami lined up six defenders on the line of scrimmage. The Rams slid the protection to the right, but at the snap two of the defenders from the right side dropped back into coverage. That left Ogbah unblocked from the other side. Goff recognized the pressure but as he tried to throw hot to Cooper Kupp, defensive tackle Christian Wilkins, one of the defenders who had dropped into coverage, was in the throwing lane and came down with the pick.
Goff’s second interception came on a 0-blitz (no deep safeties, man-to-man coverage on receivers) on a second down just outside the red zone. Again, the blitz brought one more defender than the Rams had blockers and Goff wasn’t ready for the free rusher, this time Jerome Baker, who hit the quarterback as he threw and the ball floated for an Eric Rowe interception.
The Rams had only faced a 0-blitz on three dropbacks in 2020 prior to Week 8, per SIS. Those plays resulted in an incompletion, sack, and interception.
Miami has been more aggressive with blitzes throughout the season and this was their most aggressive game to date. The Dolphins messed with the Rams’ protection rules and post-snap reads and came away with three turnovers in the process.
That, along with a punt return touchdown from Jakeem Grant, kept the pressure off a rookie quarterback making his first start. Tagovailoa wasn’t the story on Sunday, and for the Dolphins that was a great thing.
4. Dalvin Cook Runs Wild
Mike Zimmer’s football heaven was fully realized at Lambeau Field. The Minnesota Vikings shocked the Green Bay Packers with a 28-22 win over the division rival. The Vikings accomplished this by running the Packers into the ground.
Dalvin Cook carried the ball 30 times for 163 yards and three touchdowns. He added another two receptions for 63 yards and a touchdown through the air. The Packers had no answer when the Vikings went to the ground.
The Vikings, because of how they want to play and a lack of receivers, tend to be a heavy personnel team with multiple backs or tight ends on the field. Through Week 7, Minnesota had a league-low 39% of snaps in 11 personnel (three wide receivers) with 21% of offensive snaps in 12 personnel and another 21% in 21. The Packers are typically the exact opposite of that defensively. This season, Green Bay has been a Dime defense with 53% of their plays coming with six defensive backs on the field.
But against the Vikings, the Packers tried to match heavy with heavy and used base defense on 39 snaps. One of the reasons the Packers play Dime so often is that it keeps just one linebacker on the field and they can use better depth at defensive back to make up for it. The problem, then, with playing base often is the Packers don’t have three linebackers to do that.
Green Bay tried to stack the box against the run — 14 of Cook’s 30 carries came against a box of eight or more per Next Gen Stats — but that didn’t work. Cook was more often able to find a hole to open space once he broke through the box. There was really no right answer for the Packers. The Vikings were able to break through stacked boxes and Minnesota could bully Green Bay when they went light. Cook’s 37-yard run to start the second half came against nickel with a seven-man box.
Minnesota also used the passing game as the proverbial extension of the run game. The dominance and ability to run after the catch served a similar purpose. Kirk Cousins only threw 14 times and no attempt went beyond 10 yards past the line of scrimmage. Yet he still finished with 11.4 yards per attempt and 0.84 EPA per play.
This is a bad loss for the Packers and it highlights the clear weakness in a poor Mike Pettine-coordinated defense but the offense still moved the ball relatively well — Aaron Rodgers finished with a QBR of 70.9 — and there are few games the Packers will play against meaningful opponents in which there will be such a dedication to the run.
5. How The Chargers Charger’d
24-3 leads are safe for most teams. We’re not talking about most teams, we’re talking about the Chargers. The Chargers entered the fourth quarter of their game against the Denver Broncos with a 24-10 lead as the Broncos had the ball on their own 29-yard line. In a span of 15 minutes, that turned in a 31-30 Denver win.
This wasn’t the most Chargery loss in the sense that a late interception lost the game but there were a few passive decisions that helped drive the comeback in the fourth quarter.
The second play of the fourth quarter was a 43-yard pass to Jerry Jeudy on a third-and-16. Jeudy’s outside post put him right in the middle of four Chargers zone defenders to set up the big play with little resistance.
Five plays later, the Broncos scored a touchdown on a 9-yard pass to Albert Okwuegbunam to pull Denver within seven points.
The Chargers kicked a field goal on the next drive and the big error there was a first-and-10 run by Troymaine Pope from the Broncos’ 32-yard line that led to a third-and-long and the eventual field goal.
Denver’s next drive lasted just two plays and ended with a 40-yard touchdown pass to DaeSean Hamilton, made possible by a slip from safety Nasir Adderly.
Los Angeles kicked another field goal on the next drive but again a major error kept that from being more. A Hunter Henry crackback block turned a first-and-10 from the Broncos’ 17-yard line to a first-and-24 from the 31. The Chargers got it back to a fourth-and-8 at the 15-yard line and made the mistake of kicking the field goal to turn a three-point lead into a six-point lead. While there is no difference in win probability, a six-point lead incentivizes the opponent to be aggressive to score a touchdown for the win instead of play for the field goal to tie.
That’s exactly what happened as the Broncos drove down the field and eventually scored the game-winning touchdown. The Chargers killer was a defensive pass interference call in the end zone on a fourth-and-4. That set up a first-and-goal from the 1-yard line for the final play, a sprint out from Drew Lock to K.J. Hamler.
Lock looked awful for the first two and a half quarters of this game, but turned it on when the Chargers got more passive in coverage and finished with positive EPA on the day. This, of course, isn’t new for the Chargers. No team has played worse defending a lead late in games. Per SIS, the Chargers came into the week with the most passing EPA allowed in the fourth quarter holding a one-score lead. Only the Seahawks and Bears faced more pass attempts in that situation.
Most Passing EPA Allowed In Fourth Quarter With One-Score Lead, 2020
|Team||Att||EPA Allowed||Positive% Allowed|
All of this was also done without Desmond King on Sunday, who was inactive for a non-injury related reason. King, one of the league’s best slot corners (with safety versatility) has fallen out of favor with the Chargers, despite ranking 13th among 107 qualified cornerbacks in Adjusted Yards allowed per coverage snap through Week 7. King was rumored to be moved in the offseason and is likely going to be moved before Tuesday’s trade deadline.
6. Contenders/Pretenders Atop the NFC
The New Orleans Saints and Chicago Bears entered the week among the NFC’s second tier of teams, at least by record. New Orleans has been disappointing but talent has flashed through enough to keep hope alive. Chicago has ridden the wave of another dominant defense while trying to catch any positive momentum on offense. During the Saints’ 26-23 overtime win, we were shown how helpful even the tiniest spark on offense can be.
Drew Brees continues to get better at his role-playing Old Drew Brees. Per Next Gen Stats, his average pass traveled just 4.7 yards past the line of scrimmage and his average completion was nearly a yard and a half shorter than that (3.4).
Chicago was able to sit on the short stuff for most of the game without the threat of anything beating them deep. Still, Brees got the ball out quickly enough and was sacked just once on three quarterback hits. Though Brees threw for just 6.8 yards per attempt, he had two touchdowns and finished with a QBR of 77.
On the other side of the ball, the Bears couldn’t play mistake-free and it was difficult to string positive plays together. The Bears couldn’t run the ball and Nick Foles couldn’t drive the passing game on his own. While there were some highs — the return of Anthony Miller from obscurity, Allen Robinson being Allen Robinson, a deep 50-yard pass to Darnell Mooney — Chicago wasn’t able to keep anything going and poor early down success pushed the offense into hard to convert situations.
With the loss, the Bears dropped to a below 50% chance (49.9%) to make the playoffs per Football Outsiders (though FiveThirtyEight still has them at 63%). The Saints might not be as good as their preseason projections, but there is still talent across the roster that should play better and their best offensive player should return soon.
The Bears don’t really have that. The quarterback change turned out to be a net neutral and that has derailed a defense that has continued to play well. Chicago’s offense is draining to watch and there isn’t much that can be done to turn it around.
7. Philip Rivers is fine
We’re only a few weeks removed from some wondering if Philip Rivers’s time as the Indianapolis Colts’ starting quarterback should be over. In the two games since that happened, Rivers has gone 52-of-77 for 633 yards, six touchdowns, and an interception. Rivers had three touchdowns and a QBR of 85.9 in a 41-21 win over the Detroit Lions in Week 8.
The old quarterback has been helped some by the scheme but he also hasn’t gotten as much help as most assumed when he signed with the Colts. The running game has been a work in progress — the Colts -0.08 EPA per play on the ground against the Lions and all three Colts backs had negative EPA per nflfastR — and the receiving corps has yet to be healthy all season.
Still, Rivers worked his way through the Lions’ defense, mostly tearing up the right side of the field. He was 9-of-12 for 130 yards and all three touchdowns throwing to his right against Detroit. The Lions’ defense hasn’t posed much of a threat to opposing offenses but Rivers did what he was supposed to do by lighting up a bad defense and proving he’s not the problem.
Thanks to the Tennessee loss, the Colts have now taken the division lead and a 59.2% chance to finish atop the AFC South per Football Outsiders. That win is important because the Colts will be put to the test over the next four games, though luckily three are at home: vs Baltimore, at Tennessee, vs Green Bay, vs Tennessee.
8. Chart of the day
This is your casual reminder that D.K. Metcalf was the ninth wide receiver selected in the 2019 NFL Draft. He lit the San Francisco 49ers up for a career-high 162 yards with two touchdowns in a 37-27 Seattle win. He’s fourth in the league in receiving yards and tied for the league-lead in receiving touchdowns. His combination of size and speed have become nearly unrecoverable.
9. Play of the day
The Chiefs ran a fake punt against the Jets. In a game eventually ended with a 35-9 final score. In a game where the Jets somehow had more rushing attempts (25) than the Chiefs (20). In a game where Patrick Mahomes threw for 416 yards and five touchdowns. The Chiefs did not need this fake punt. It was mean. But the Jets also very much deserved it.
10. Patriots at a Crossroads
After a 24-21 loss to the Buffalo Bills, the New England Patriots sit at 2-5 with a lot of questions. The Patriots were left without a lot of depth due to opt-outs, though the early season play of Cam Newton masked some of those concerns and it appeared the Patriots would continue on as a perennial playoff contender.
Now, the Patriots have an 8.1% chance of making the playoffs per Football Outsiders and some decisions need to be made. First, let’s get the quarterback question out of the way. Newton’s fumble at the end of the game will be what stands out, but he finished Week 8 with 7.0 yards per attempt and positive EPA while throwing to Jakobi Meyers, Damiere Byrd, James White, Ryan Izzo, Isaiah Zuber, and Rex Burkhead. Some of those are useful players, sure, but that should not be the full list of targets for any NFL team in a game. Newton had a rough two-game stretch the past two weeks, but the Patriots aren’t in this game with a different quarterback.
What’s more interesting is what the Patriots do on the defensive side of the ball. Stephon Gilmore’s name has popped up in trade rumors and it could make sense to move him. Gilmore has 2021 left on his contract, but no guaranteed salary. The play of J.C. Jackson could make Gilmore expendable, but even with his high salary, the Patriots don’t need to shed much money with over $66 million in cap space next season on the lower cap with Gilmore’s contract on the books.
Still, the Patriots could look to turn their big tradable piece into draft compensation and lean into a full rebuild, or at least get all the high draft capital they can. The Patriots currently sit with the ninth overall pick and they could bundle picks to move up for a quarterback of their choosing.
There’s still time for the Patriots to work that out, but they’ll have to make the call on Gilmore within the next two days. We’ve never seen New England in this type of situation before and what the next few days tell us about how they view themselves and their plans will be fascinating.