Week 9 gave us more than expected, especially with one of the most entertaining late afternoon slates we’ve had in a while. So many young quarterbacks are popping up and thriving. We start this week with the day’s most exciting game in Arizona.
1. Kyler Murray and Tua Tagovailoa Steal the Show
The young quarterbacks are good. (…just don’t look at New Jersey.) Few things are more entertaining than when two young quarterbacks go toe-to-toe and live up to the hype of a matchup. Kyler Murray and Tua Tagovailoa did that and more in Miami’s 34-31 win over Arizona.
Tagovailoa’s first start was overshadowed by a dominant defensive performance against the Rams and early on, it looked like the Dolphins were ready to shut down another NFC West offense. On Arizona’s opening drive, the Cardinals faced a third-and-3 from the Miami 45-yard line. Arizona came out in empty and last week, that was Miami’s cue to blitz Jared Goff.
This time, the Dolphins showed heavy pressure with a six-man front. At the snap, two defenders dropped back into coverage but with the five-man protection against six defenders, the Dolphins still had a free rusher from the left side which forced Murray to his right and into Emmanuel Ogbah, who was able to beat his block and knock the ball out. Shaq Lawson, the free rusher, scooped the ball up and ran for a touchdown.
The defensive highlights mostly stopped there. Arizona started to use Miami’s aggressiveness against itself and had Murray on designed runs from empty that neutralized some of those sim pressure packages, like this 16-yard run on a third-and-2 in the second quarter.
Arizona has continued to make adjustments throughout games and the season in addition to correcting what didn’t work last year. In 2019, The Cardinals had a stale red zone offense. They tried to do a little too much which led to a rank of 24th in points per red zone trip and 29th in touchdowns per red zone trip. This year, they have the red zone offense working and they entered the game fourth in points per red zone trip and fifth in touchdowns per red zone trip.
Red zone production on both offense and defense can be less reliable from year-to-year than performance over the other 80 yards of the field, but it’s clear the Cardinals have made a change in 2020. Last year, the Cardinals were 56% pass in the red zone, which was the 13th-highest rate in the league. Entering Week 9, the Cardinals were 41% pass, the sixth-lowest rate in the league. The red zone is one area where rushing can be more efficient than passing, especially with a running threat like Murray at quarterback.
This year’s red zone success has been centered around Murray’s legs and a passing game built off of that threat.
Arizona’s first touchdown to Maxx Williams came off play-action as Williams crossed the formation and sidestepped what the edge defender expected would be a block for a run.
Later in the game, Murray had a 12-yard rushing touchdown on a read that took the defensive line to the right with blocking while Christian Kirk’s jet motion and a pulling Maxx Williams helped clear the way to the left.
Murray had arguably the best game of his career. He averaged 10.9 yards per attempt, threw for three touchdowns, rushed for 106 yards with that score, averaged 0.58 Expected Points Added per play, and finished with a 96.7 QBR, the 10th-highest mark for a quarterback this season. He’s one of two quarterbacks in the top-10 to lose this season, partly because the passer on the opposite side was able to keep up just enough on Sunday.
Kyler Murray vs Tua Tagovailoa, Week 9
|Kyler Murray||21/26||283 (10.9)||10||15.1%||0.58||96.7|
|Tua Tagovailoa||20/28||248 (8.9)||9.4||14.7%||0.39||87.6|
Tagovailoa wasn’t asked to do much last week thanks to the defensive effort, but he didn’t exactly light up with what he was asked to do. In his second start, the fifth overall pick showed his potential.
There was a two-play stretch (interrupted by a false start) on Miami’s first offensive touchdown drive that highlighted what Tagovailoa can bring to the offense. The first was a play-action rollout on a second-and-5 that saw Tagovailoa throw a strike to Mike Gesicki on the move.
The second saw him on a straight dropback, pump screens to the right and left to buy time for tight end Durham Smythe to get out of his delayed release for a gain of 19 yards.
Both offenses were able to move the ball. 11 of the game’s 17 full drives ended in points. For as exciting as the touchdowns and quarterback play were in this game, the final score fell on two big field goal decisions.
The first was a 50-yard attempt from the Dolphins on a fourth-and-1 with the score tied and 3:30 remaining. Fourth down models, specifically the one from EdjSports favored going for it, but the field goal was successful and Miami led by three.
On the previous drive, Kingsbury and the Cardinals went for two fourth-and-short tries. On the first, a fourth-and-1 from the Arizona 47-yard line, Murray easily converted himself on a sprint option. The second, a fourth-and-1 from the Miami 40-yard line was an unsuccessful run up the middle by Chase Edmonds.
Following Miami’s made field goal to take the lead, the Cardinals faced a similar decision. Arizona had a fourth-and-1 on the Miami 31-yard line with 1:58 remaining. Kingsbury elected to try a 49-yard field goal that ended up short.
This decision has some win probability calculators mixed. ESPN’s model favored the field goal but more modern and aggressive models from EdjSports and Ben Baldwin heavily favored going for it. With Murray on the field, it’s hard to not favor going for it, especially with how easily the speed option converted on the previous drive and how well Murray had run throughout the game. The miss ultimately cost the Cardinals the game.
Both of these teams surprisingly sit at 5-3 and have to be thrilled with the quarterback play that could carry them throughout the rest of the season and beyond. Arizona still has a 64,2% chance to make the playoffs, according to Football Outsiders, thanks to a jumbled NFC playoff picture without a truly dominant team. Meanwhile, Miami has a 56.3% chance at the playoffs, including a 17% chance at the division.
Part of the Dolphins’ plan to start Tagovailoa was to put a potential playoff run on hold in order to evaluate the rookie quarterback with a high pick likely coming their way via Houston. It appears Miami could have the best of both worlds without sacrificing a shot at the playoffs while the hopeful future of the franchise takes over.
2. The Bills know what they’re doing
Let’s start at the end before we go to the beginning. In a post-game press conference, Pete Carroll said he wasn’t expecting the Buffalo Bills to abandon the run and that the Seahawks had a great gameplan to slow the running game down. The Seahawks entered the week sixth in DVOA against the run but 30th against the pass. On the other side, the Bills offense ranked fifth in passing DVOA and 25th on the ground.
En route to a 44-34 win, Buffalo had 11 designed running back attempts. That split was 28-3 in the first half, which Bill Barnwell of ESPN noted might be the pass-heaviest first half in league history.
The Bills knew exactly what they needed to attack and did just that.
After a few rough weeks, Good Josh Allen was back. Allen finished the game 31-of-38 for 415 yards with three touchdowns and no interceptions. The passing game was so effective even seven sacks taken couldn’t derail it.
Allen and the Bills picked their spots and continued to pick on them. He was 7-of-7 for 73 yards targeting the short middle of the field and 6-of-6 for 109 yards to the intermediate (11-19 air yards) right.
Buffalo was clicking all-around, both on playcalling and execution. The Bills’ first touchdown came from 10 personnel and featured pre-snap motion from Cole Beasley (11), which tipped Seattle’s zone coverage and shifted the defensive responsibilities. It meant all Isaiah McKenzie (19) had to do was beat safety Quandre Diggs (37) and his crossing deep crossing route gave him the angle to beat Diggs to the end zone for a 25-yard touchdown.
That also included a red zone touchdown to Gabriel Davis that featured play-action off jet motion, a fake quarterback draw, and a pop pass to Davis who snuck behind the defense drawn in from the draw threat.
With Bills succeeding through the air, that forced the Seahawks to throw. Seattle, of course, had been one of the most pass-heavy offenses in the league this season but there can be a difference between wanting to pass and needing to pass. Russell Wilson still threw for 390 yards and two touchdowns but threw into tight coverage more often than usual (19.5% of throws, according to Next Gen Stats, opposed to a 12.5% season average) and that led to two costly interceptions.
The first was on a fourth-and-1 from the Buffalo 5-yard line. While the interception wasn’t much more costly than an incompletion, it was forced by good defense and pressure from Buffalo with the Bills already up 14-0 at the end of the first quarter. The second came with the Seahawks backed up near their own goal line and Tre’Davious White peeled off his man to jump a pass intended for D.K. Metcalf.
Metcalf still had himself a day with 108 yards and a touchdown but Buffalo kept enough of a lead that Seattle was never able to fully get back in the game, only pulling within a touchdown at the end of the third quarter, which went back to a 14-point deficit on the next drive.
Both of these teams have faults that could become liabilities through the second half of the season and into the playoffs. Seattle’s defense is still a problem, even with the return of Jamal Adams and the addition of Carlos Dunlap. Of course, there were seven sacks but allowing 10.9 yards per passing attempt more than cancels those out. The Seahawks only need an average defense to be one of the league’s most dangerous teams, but it’s yet to be seen if they can even get there.
Buffalo has shown why the Bills need MVP-level play from Josh Allen to contend. The problem there is expecting consistent high-level play from the quarterback isn’t something that can be relied on. There are still problems with the running game and a defense that did allow 34 points.
On the bright side, the Bills are well-coached, especially on the offensive side and they should be able to identify and take advantage of opposing weaknesses. At 7-2, the Bills are still a game and a half above the Dolphins in the division and have a 93.6% chance to make the playoffs with an 82.3% chance at the division title, according to Football Outsiders.
3. Can only hold down the Chiefs for so long
2020 has been a weird season for the Kansas City Chiefs. They still feel like the league’s best — or at least most dangerous — team but they’ve yet to sustain an A-game over multiple weeks. Still, Kansas City has done what the team has needed to do in order to get the job done. A lot of this has come from adjustments to defenses that have sold out to stop the explosive plays. But as the Chiefs proved in a 33-31 win over the Carolina Panthers, there’s only so long that the Chiefs can be held down.
The start of this game belonged to the Panthers, who started the game with a 15-play, 75-yard touchdown drive that took up 8:53. It’s a strategy needed to hang with the Chiefs, especially ones that won’t be able to keep up in a shootout. The Panthers caught a few breaks to take an early 14-3 lead and the Carolina offense did what it could to hang.
Teddy Bridgewater almost matched Patrick Mahomes in EPA per play, per nflfastR, 0.35 to 0.36. The Chiefs even made the Panthers’ short passing game as tough as possible. Bridgewater’s average pass only traveled 4.8 yards beyond the line of scrimmage, the third-lowest of the week, and his average completion was just 2.8 past the line. Yet, his expected completion percentage, which takes into account pass depth, position on the field, and separation from defenders was almost the same as Mahomes’s, who had a 9.8-yard average depth of target and 8.2-yard average depth of completion (66.1% for Bridgewater and 66.8% for Mahomes). Bridgewater finished with a 7.4% completion percentage above expectation, the seventh-highest mark of the week, per Next Gen Stats.
But for as far as the Carolina offense could carry the team, Kansas City’s offense eventually took over. The Chiefs just have that switch when they need to turn it on. It happened at the end of the Texans and Chargers games this season and it started a little earlier in this one.
Kansas City’s first touchdown had Mahomes run in motion before he turned around to bootleg right and find Demarcus Robinson coming across the back of the end zone to pull within a point at 14-13.
The Chiefs and Panthers both missed a field goal to start the second half but the Chiefs scored touchdowns on their next three drives, the longest of which lasted 2:42.
What makes Kansas City so dangerous is that at any time on of their offensive weapons can go off and many times it more than one. Tyreek Hill had nine receptions on 18 targets for 113 yards and two touchdowns. Travis Kelce has held out of the end zone, but that was the only place he was limited. Kelce had 10 receptions for 159 yards on 12 targets that averaged 0.73 EPA per play with a 77% success rate (percentage of plays that produced positive EPA).
On the three-drive touchdown streak, the Panthers actually matched with two of their own but they followed the first of those Chiefs touchdowns with a punt. That’s what makes playing the CHiefs so hard, even when everything can break right, any imperfection can be what loses the game.
4. Lamar Jackson and a simplified plan
It hasn’t been easy for Lamar Jackson and the Baltimore Ravens passing game this season. Some of the struggles have been exaggerated, but it’s clear the Ravens aren’t where they were a year ago. Against the Indianapolis Colts, the Ravens kept things simple for Jackson.
Indianapolis has been a team that has favored zone coverage this season with a lot of movement before and after the snap. Those types of defenses have given the Ravens trouble this year, just remember what happened against Pittsburgh, especially the two interceptions, last week.
Jackson only had 170 passing yards in this game, but Baltimore was able to open up the short middle of the field for easy throws that could keep the offense moving. He hit 6-of-7 passes for 67 yards to that area.
Against the Colts, Jackson’s average pass only went 4.1 yards pas the line of scrimmage, the second-lowest mark of the week, per Next Gen Stats. This isn’t necessarily a referendum on Jackson’s ability as a passer, but it does show how the Ravens and opponents view their passing game weapons. There is no clear outside threat and this year the inside options are weaker without a second tight end.
Early in the game, Indianapolis stayed disciplined and didn’t react much to a lot of Baltimore’s misdirection. Even some of Jackson’s runs in obvious running situations have been stopped as the defense continues to focus solely on the quarterback.
But throughout the game, Jackson was eventually able to wear out the defense and rushed for 58 yards and a touchdown, though that 9-yard run was his longest of the day. The losses of Marshall Yanda, who retired in the offseason, and Ronnie Stanley, who was lost for the year last week, have loomed large on the offensive line.
There is some good news that Baltimore averaged 0.29 EPA per play and a 65% success rate on early down pass attempts, but this being the Ravens, they ran more than they threw and had -0.33 EPA per play and a 38% success rate on early down runs, per nflfastR.
Luckily for the Ravens, the defense continues to dominate and it did just that against the Colts. Philip Rivers passed for just 5.3 yards per attempt and threw a controversial interception to Marcus Peters. Peters also forced a fumble from Jonathan Taylor early in the game that Chuck Clark picked up and ran back for a touchdown.
5. Aggression vs Conservative in LA
Derek Carr led the week with a 12.2 average depth of target. Aggressive Derek Carr might not have the appeal or sustainability of Let Russ Cook, but if Carr is continually willing to push the ball down the field, the Raiders have a significantly higher ceiling. Remember, that’s how they beat the Chiefs earlier in the season.
Coming into the week, Carr had the fourth-highest on-target rate on attempts that travel 20 or more yards beyond the line of scrimmage among 32 quarterbacks with at least 10 attempts. Carr’s 10.5% deep rate is still low, though it 8.9% deep passing rate entering the game is still low for a quarterback and it was just 8.9% entering the game, but last year that figure was only 7.9. With his fifth deep touchdown of the season on Sunday, this is already tied for Carr’s third-most deep touchdowns in a season since 2015, per Sports Info Solutions.
Just the willingness to go deep more often is a step in the right direction and raises the potential of what the offense can do, especially with the way it’s been constructed. The Jon Gruden offense has been designed to take advantage of speed and those deep passes, so Carr was almost forced into this new role.
While Carr’s offense has created the opportunity to be aggressive, the opposite has been true for Justin Herbert with the Chargers. Herbert has been able to go deep plenty and that has led to a number of highlight plays, but the infrastructure of the offense and playcalling has continued to hold the team back.
While Anthony Lynn has started to lay off the early down runs on average — the Chargers were at 59% pass on early downs on Sunday — there are still a number of second-and-long runs that setup the Chargers in third-and-long situations. And, of course, the end of the game situation was a master class in how to squander an opportunity.
Down 31-26, the Chargers had a second-and-goal from the Raiders’ 4-yard line after a spike to stop the clock with no timeouts and five seconds left. The second down play was a fade to Mike Williams that feel incomplete with Williams injured after the play. With Williams not on the field, the third down play with one second left was a fade to Donald Parham that was originally ruled a touchdown but correctly overturned on replay.
Goal line fades are one of the lowest percentage plays in football and part of the draw, avoiding an interception, is basically taken off the table with only one second on the clock. One fade is bad enough but back-to-back plays to decide the game is inexcusable.
The decision also overshadowed an effective Herbert performance (0.21 EPA per play) as he mostly outplayed Carr (0.13 EPA per play) throughout the game.
6. What are the Steelers?
The Pittsburgh Steelers remain the league’s only undefeated team at 8-0, but they have yet to backup that record with a showing that puts them as the league’s best team. For the majority of the 24-10 win against the Dallas Cowboys, it looked like it was going to be the annual Steelers letdown against a clearly inferior opponent — Pittsburgh didn’t take the lead in this game until there was 2:14 left in the game.
Pittsburgh’s defense has continued to live off of turnovers — they entered the week fifth in turnovers forced per drive — and they got two at opportune times in this game. The biggest came early in the fourth quarter when Cowboys quarterback Garrett Gilbert flung a pass into the air as he was hit by Cameron Hayward and into the waiting arms of Minkah Fitzpatrick on a third-and-goal.
The Steelers’ next drive stalled but they prevented points from the Cowboys and kicked a field goal to bring the score within a point.
If there is a weak link on this Pittsburgh team, it remains the passing offense that wasn’t able to exploit a Dallas secondary that has given opposing offenses little issue this season. Ben Roethlisberger continues to struggle to throw the ball deep and even his 31-yard touchdown to JuJu Smith-Schuster at the start of the fourth quarter was a line drive to an open receiver in the middle of the field and not leading deep ball with touch.
Pittsburgh has the third-best point differential in the AFC but they clearly have the advantage in still finishing the season as the AFC’s top team with a 50.2% chance at the top seed in the conference per Football Outsiders. The wins are bankable but not all teams are what their record says they are.
7. The Bears Still Need A Quarterback
Ryan Tannehill finished Sunday with a sub-50% completion percentage and a QBR of 44.2 and was the significantly better quarterback in his matchup with the Chicago Bears. Nick Foles dropped back 55 times for -0.09 EPA per dropback and that was the significantly better option for the Chicago offense that couldn’t do anything on the ground. Linebacker Barkevious Mingo’s 11-yard run was the longest of the day for Chicago and that happened on a fake punt.
The Bears again have constructed one of the league’s best defensive units but it just doesn’t matter when the offense can’t functionally move the ball. There was a point in this game when Tannehill was 5-of-15 and the Titans had a 17-0 lead.
Foles actually finished the game with a respectable 9.7% CPOE but that was mostly due to how often he threw into tight coverage, 21.5% of attempts per Next Gen Stats.
Luckily for the Bears, the defense was able to force the Titans passing offense off its game. A.J. Brown finished with over 100 receiving yards and had a patented catch and run with a broken tackle at the catch point for a 38-yard gain along with a deep 40-yard touchdown but the Bears forced Tannehill into an absurdly high number of tight window throws (38.1%) and he had the lowest CPOE of any quarterback this week at -11.3%.
If the Bears had only a passable offense, they could be among the true best in the NFC but in the quest to find a quarterback competition for Micthell Trubisky without actually pushing the incumbent, the Bears now find themselves in purgatory with few options out and fewer in-season to turn around one of the league’s best offenses attached to one of the top defensive units.
8. Chart of the day
Tom Brady had a Total QBR of 3.8 in last night’s Bucs loss to the Saints, his worst in any game since QBR was first tracked in 2006.
— Seth Walder (@SethWalder) November 9, 2020
9. Play of the day
Dalvin Cook has one of the highest rates of runs into stacked boxes this season, partly because the defense knows the Vikings want to run and partly because the Vikings bring it on themselves with tight formations in clear running situations. For the most part, Cook has been able to stay productive. He’s fifth among running backs in the percentage of runs that gain more yards than expected, per Next Gen Stats.
That 70-yard run definitely counts — it was 63 yards above expectation per the NGS model — but runs are often easier with a numbers advantage in the blocking scheme. It most certainly helps when there are only 10 defenders on the field for the defense.
Your 2020 Detroit Lions.
10. What’s going on with the top of the NFC?
The NFC playoffs might be the most exciting in years because no one has been able to pull away from the pack. Every time we might think there’s an NFC team ready to take the lead, an egg gets laid. The Buccaneers had been first in DVOA as one of the league’s most complete teams but they struggled against the Giants last week and the blowout loss to the Saints on Sunday night was so bad, it vaulted New Orleans to the top spot.
What’s even more fun is the lower tier potential playoff teams like the Rams and Cardinals can pull out dominant efforts at any time. This could be one of the least predictable conferences in a while with no truly dominant team.