Week 5 had a lot of action early — almost all of it — but still stayed interesting late. After a wacky Week 4, results in Week 5 were mostly as expected but there were still a number of noteworthy developments. Let’s dive into what we saw on Sunday.
1. Teddy unleashed
The New Orleans Saints are 3-0 with Teddy Bridgewater at quarterback filling in for the injured Drew Brees, but those three games have been wildly different in terms of the quarterback play. For the first two games, Sean Payton kept a cap on what the passing game was asked to do. Bridgewater and the Saints got away with short passes and allowed Alvin Kamara to take the lead. That strategy worked for 33 points against the Seahawks in Week 3 but was a little uglier in a 12-10 win over the Cowboys in Week 4. A Week 5 divisional matchup with the Tampa Bay Buccaneers brought out a more open offense and easily Bridgewater’s best game of 2019.
In a 34-21 win over Tampa Bay, Bridgewater was unleashed. He threw 34 times for 314 yards (9.2 yards per attempt) with four touchdowns, no interceptions, and no sacks. It was good enough for a 79.9 QBR. There was more responsibility on Bridgewater’s plate and he was able to push the ball down the field more often than he did in his first two starts. His average depth of target has increased in each of his three starts this season. Bridgewater’s average completion came further down the field in Week 5 than his average pass attempt traveled in Week 3 or 4.
Bridgewater’s volume and efficiency were much higher down the field in Week 5. In his first start against Seattle, Bridgewater only attempted four passes beyond 10 yards past the line of scrimmage and none over 20. He completed two of those attempts for 28 yards. In Week 4, he was 2-for-6 on throws at least 10 yards past the line for 36 yards. He had one pass that traveled over 20 yards, but that was intercepted.
Heading into the game, the surprising Bucs defense had been much better defending short passes (seventh in DVOA) than deep ones (18th). Bridgewater killed the deep ball against the Bucs — 7-of-10 for 222 yards and a touchdown on attempts at least 10 yards past the line of scrimmage. He was 3-of-3 on passes that traveled at least 20 yards in the air, including a 33-yard touchdown to Ted Ginn.
The scaled-back version of Bridgewater and the Saints offense put a cap on the ceiling for this team without Brees on the field. But now if the Saints are going to trust their quarterback to take shots when they’re available — Bridgewater threw deep, but only into tight coverage on 8.8% of his attempts per Next Gen Stats — New Orleans won’t have to sacrifice much on that side of the ball.
At 4-1 New Orleans now has a game lead over the Carolina Panthers in the NFC South and will now face a Jacksonville Jaguars defense that has also struggled against the deep ball before traveling to Chicago to face a tough Bears defense. Bridgewater isn’t going to throw four touchdown passes every game, but this version of the offense will allow the Saints to stay in more games. It would have been too tough a task to continually compete with what New Orleans showed over Bridgewater’s two previous starts. That should no longer be the case.
2. Christian McCaffery might matter
There might not be a running back who matters more to his current team than Christian McCaffery. At full health, Cam Newton is Carolina’s most important player, but at no point in the season was Newton at full health. Now, with Kyle Allen at quarterback, no team has become more dependant on what its top running back has to produce. Allen has been more than respectable under center, but the Panthers have revolved around what McCaffery can do with the ball in his hands.
In this week’s 34-27 win over the Jaguars, McCaffery did it all. He had six catches for 61 yards and a touchdown to go along with 176 rushing yards and two touchdowns on 19 carries. He also tried to throw a pass, but the play was covered and he had to throw the ball away.
Against the Jaguars, McCaffery had a mix of big plays (like an 84-yard touchdown run) and consistent ones (he picked up a first down on 56% of his targets). What makes McCaffery so special isn’t just his ability to catch passes or create big plays, but how the Panthers put him in a position to do those things. There might not be a team that has a better understanding of how to set its top running back up for success than the Panthers do with McCaffery, except maybe the Saints with Alvin Kamara.
Just look at what the Panthers did to help create that 84-yard touchdown run in the third quarter. Greg Olsen motioned from the right slot to the left side of the line, which pulled a safety in close. Then at the snap, Olsen ran back to the right side — opposite of the offensive line — and Curtis Samuel faked an end-around from the left, both motions were enough to freeze linebacker Myles Jack, which opened up the hole for McCaffery.
3. Unintentional Tanks
We’ve talked a lot about the Miami Dolphins and the records they’ve been setting for poor play this season. The Dolphins were on a bye this week, so there’s nothing new to report there. For as poor as Miami has played, there’s a long-term strategy attached to it. Sure the Dolphins probably don’t want to be setting all-time point differential records, but they’re sacrificing short-term play to benefit in the future. Miami will have three first-round picks in 2020 and two in 2021. It’s not a guarantee of success, but at least there is a strategy behind it. There are plenty of other NFL teams that have been flat out bad in 2019 without any plan, so let’s check in on them.
New York Jets: The Jets fell to 0-4 with a 31-6 loss to the Philadelphia Eagles. Head coach Adam Gase was apparently so hopeful Sam Darnold would be able to play, despite the issue keeping him off the field being an enlarged spleen and not an injury controlled by pain tolerance, that he gave Darnold all the reps in practice this past week. Darnold wasn’t cleared to play and Luke Falk had to make another start without prepping for the week as the starter. He averaged 4.6 yards per attempt and got sacked nine times for a QBR of 1.9.
Washington Redskins: Washington jumped out to a surprising 7-0 lead over the New England Patriots and the proceeded to lose 35-7. Head coach Jay Gruden chose to start Colt McCoy in the world’s worst choose your own adventure that only has three incorrect answers. That was the last decision Gruden would make as head coach. He was fired early Monday morning, per ESPN’s Dan Graziano.
McCoy threw for 4.4 yards per attempt with an interception and was worth minus-0.66 Expected Points Added per play. Only one Washington offensive player was worth positive EPA per play on Sunday — Terry McLaurin, who averaged 0.18 EPA per play on eight targets. Fellow rookie Steven Sims had 5.8 EPA on the ground thanks to a 65-yard touchdown on an end-around, but he had minus-6.7 EPA as a receiver.
Fun (?) note: Washington plays Miami in Week 6
Cincinnati Bengals: The Bengals lost 26-23 to the Arizona Cardinals on a last-second field goal. For a winless team, there still feels like there should be hope for Cincinnati, at least in the process for head coach Zac Taylor. The Bengals have used a fast pace, favor early-down passing, and have used play-action before the game gets away. Even against the Cardinals, Cincinnati had success on early-down passes — 0.36 EPA per play and a 60% success rate, per the Baldwin boxscore. Right now, the biggest problem is the players aren’t great, especially an offensive line that has struggled pass and run blocking. The results aren’t there, but the Bengals are in a better spot than either the Jets or Washington going forward.
Pittsburgh Steelers: Pittsburgh isn’t exactly in the same category as the other teams here, but they are in a questionable spot for the future. Without Ben Roethlisberger and perhaps Mason Rudolph after a scary hit on Sunday, the Steelers are 1-4 following a 26-23 overtime loss to the Baltimore Ravens. Pittsburgh’s biggest issue is the first-round pick they traded to the Dolphins for Minkah Fitzpatrick. Fitzpatrick might be a great player who eventually helps fix the secondary, but the Steelers are now a bad team with an aging, injured quarterback. Even before the hit on Sunday, it was clear Rudolph wasn’t going to be the long-term answer. So now the Steelers have shipped out a potential top-5 or 10 pick that could reshape the franchise.
Even if the Steelers don’t view themselves as a bottom of the league roster, the reality of their current record would suggest it’s going to be hard to get out of that spot. The 10th overall pick in 2019 was held by the Denver Broncos, who went 6-10. In order to best that, Pittsburgh would have to go 6-5 the rest of the way. They’re not currently a .500-type team. A 5-11 record finished as the fifth overall pick in 2019, which Pittsburgh would have to go 4-7 the rest of the way to match.
4. Run Defense Won’t Matter If The Opposing Offense Is Forced To Pass
Against the Philadelphia Eagles in Week 4, the Packers’ run defense was exposed. Due to their strengths and weaknesses in personnel, the Packers have been one of the most defensive back-heavy units in the league. They’ll defend 11 personnel in dime and 12 personnel in nickel. It’s conceding the run while protecting against the pass. Last week, the Eagles were more than content to pound the ball and it led to a win (though it took an Aaron Rodgers interception at the goal line for that to happen).
What could make Green Bay’s defense incredibly dangerous is when the threat of the run is eliminated. That’s helped by big early leads and that happened against the Dallas Cowboys on Sunday. The Packers ended the first quarter up 14-0 and went into halftime with a 17-0 lead. That forced Dallas to throw and even though they’ve been successful through the air, and still were to a point on Sunday, being forced to throw is different than controlling your own passing offense. Dak Prescott averaged 10.2 yards per attempt against Green Bay, but forced the ball into tight coverage on 22.7% of his attempts (he hadn’t been above 18.8% in any other game in 2019) and threw three interceptions along with three sacks for a QBR of 37.4.
The Packers have been off to good starts in their games (their scripted offensive plays go significantly better than late-game offense) and that could be the key to unlocking this defense. Forcing opposing offenses into pass mode will help a secondary that had allowed the fifth-lowest Adjusted Yards per attempt coming into the week and led the league in pressure rate, per Football Outsiders.
5. Cousins’s Comeback
After a tumultuous week, Kirk Cousins had the type of passing day he, his receivers, and the Vikings needed. It wasn’t just that Cousins was able to hit the open receiver when it was available (he did that). It was taking advantage of a defense that has struggled against the pass and made the effort to stop Minnesota’s running game.
On early-down runs against the New York Giants, the Vikings averaged minus-0.11 EPA per attempt with a 29% success rate, per the Baldwin boxscore. In any other game this season, that probably would have derailed the entire Minnesota offense, but on Sunday the Vikings averaged 0.36 EPA per play and a 56% success rate on early-down passing. Cousins and the Vikings finally found success on play-action passes and took advantage of an overmatched secondary, especially whichever slot cornerback lined up across from Adam Thielen (seven catches, 130 yards, two touchdowns, and 1.76 EPA per play).
The Vikings won’t get the Giants’ secondary every week (though they get an injured Eagles secondary next, which helps), but knowing there are shots that can be connected and getting the play-action game to work are positive signs for this struggling offense going forward.
6. Kyler Fits In
It took five weeks, but we got a Kyler Murray performance we’ve been expecting. Murray led the Cardinals to their first win of the 2019 season with 253 yards passing and 93 yards on the ground with a touchdown. The complete effort was worth 77.8 QBR, which was the fourth-highest figure for quarterbacks this week.
Arizona hasn’t matched offensive expectations this season, mostly due to a shorter passing scheme constructed mask a poor offensive line. Despite being a mobile quarterback, Murray has a quicker than average time to throw this season, thanks to the emphasis on getting the ball out quickly. That hasn’t led to a lot of deep shots, though there have been flashes there. He had a few nice deep passes against the Bengals, including a perfectly placed ball down the sideline to David Johnson on the final drive of the game.
What’s more promising is this was Murray’s best rushing game of the season for a few reasons. After settling for field goals near the goal line in the first four weeks, Kliff Kingsbury finally decided to go for a score on a 4th and 2 from the Cincinnati 6. Murray faked a handoff to Johnson up the middle, the took off to his left and scored.
Murray also had a 24-yard scramble on the final drive that helped set up the game-winning field goal.
We finally got a Murray performance close to what had been in expected in this offense and it led to Arizona’s first win of the season.
7. The Bills keep winning ugly
The Buffalo Bills are 4-1. At this point, they have a pretty good chance of making the playoffs. Historically 74% of teams make the postseason after starting 4-1. How the Bills have gotten to 4-1 remains unique. They’re riding one of the league’s best defenses and in the only loss, they forced Tom Brady to have one the worst games of his career. On Sunday, Buffalo got its fourth win by holding the Titans to a touchdown in a 14-7 victory.
Buffalo sacked Marcus Mariota five times and kept the Titans’ ground game in check. The Titans wanted to establish the run and ran more than they passed on early downs (22 plays to 20) but had minus-0.17 EPA per play and a 23% success rate on those runs.
The Bills defense again lifted an offense that struggled. Buffalo had negative EPA through the air and on the ground and Josh Allen finished the game with a QBR of 34.5. This is already similar to the Jaguars’ situation a few years ago where an elite defense was only able to go as far as a highly-drafted, inaccurate, and inconsistent quarterback can take them.
8. Play of the day: wide receiver deep cross
This week’s play isn’t a single specific play, but more of a concept that was successful across the league in Week 5. Deep crossers work for a variety of reasons, especially from the slot where the offense can put stress on the defense horizontally and vertically. During the offseason, we wrote about how the tight end deep cross (mostly Y-Cross) was taking over. This week, teams were using receivers on deep crossers to take advantage of single-high safeties.
ESPN Stats and Info’s Seth Walder noted the similarities in touchdowns from Juju Smith-Schuster and Will Fuller.
not exactly the same but close: Will Fuller’s touchdown on the left, Smith-Schuster’s on the right.
— Seth Walder (@SethWalder) October 6, 2019
He then also highlighted a similar Smith-Schuster reception later in the game from a different quarterback. The Vikings used a similar concept to kill the Giants with Adam Thielen as the target and Stefon Diggs and the opposite wide receiver.
9. Chart of the day: Deshaun Watson
Deshaun Watson could not be stopped against the Atlanta Falcons. He had the deep bombs to Will Fuller, who finished with 217 yards and three touchdowns and the Texans were so in control on offense Darren Fells became a legitimate receiving weapon. Watson was worth over a full Expected Point Added per play on Sunday and had the highest QBR of any quarterback.
This also serves as another look into the troubles of the Falcons’ defense. This has been a reoccurring theme for Atlanta in the Dan Quinn era and even now as Quinn took on more responsibilities on the defensive side of the ball, little has changed. What Texans players had to say about the defense didn’t help much, either.
Texans WR Keke Coutee on Falcons’ defense: ‘We knew they were a pretty basic defense that wasn’t going to do too much. They were going to keep running the same thing over and over. Once we kind of found out their kinks they had, we just started capitalizing on our opportunities’
— Aaron Wilson (@AaronWilson_NFL) October 6, 2019
After the game, Falcons owner Arthur Blank supported Quinn, but there has to be an expiration date on this type of consistent defensive performance.
10. Mahomes vs Man
The Indianapolis Colts held the Kansas City Chiefs to just 13 points. It was the second game in a row Patrick Mahomes was kept mostly in check. After the game, Mahomes said the Colts changed up their defense to run more man coverage than their zone-heavy scheme typically uses.
Mahomes says Colts did exactly what Lions did last week and what Patriots did in AFC Championship: Man coverage. Colts have been predominately zone defense. Mahomes says KC needs to learn to beat man coverage or teams will keep doing it. I’d guess Tyreek’s return could help that.
— Jeff Darlington (@JeffDarlington) October 7, 2019
Mahomes only relatively struggles against man coverage. Per Sports Info Solutions, Mahomes had completed 61% of his passes for 9.0 yards per attempt, 0.39 EPA per attempt, and a 53.4% positive play rate against man coverage before Sunday night. Against zone, Mahomes had completed 76.7% of his passes for 14.7 yards per attempt and 0.73 EPA per attempt with a positive play rate of 59.4%.
Still, Mahomes had thrown against more man coverage than zone, so it’s not as if that coverage is a surprise to the Chiefs. Still, it appears to be a situation worth watching if defenses are going to be more aggressive in coverage and accepting risks knowing Mahomes will probably shred the defense for big plays if they’re passive anyway.