The Divisional Round is usually the best weekend of the football calendar but this year’s games didn’t completely live up to the hype. We still get exciting conference championship game matchups between the Green Bay Packers and Tampa Bay Buccaneers plus the Buffalo Bills against the Kansas City Chiefs. But with such a strange weekend of football, we’re left with questions from the Divisional Round.
Was the Rams defense ready for the Packers offense?
The matchup to watch was the Green Bay deep passing offense against the Los Angeles deep passing defense, which had only allowed 12 completions of 20-plus air yards during the regular season. Meanwhile, the Packers threw deep at one of the highest rates and were among the league’s most efficient teams when doing so.
The Rams played into a growing trend during the 2020 season of playing two deep safeties while selling out to stop the long ball. The strategy worked early on for what it was intended to do. Aaron Rodgers had no issue with throwing the ball short to what was open. Midway through the second quarter, Rodgers’s average depth of target was just 3.8 yards past the line of scrimmage, per NFL Next Gen Stats. The problem for the Rams was a typically good tackling defense (they had the sixth-lowest missed tackle rate during the regular season, according to Sports Info Solutions) struggled to bring down receivers on first effort. Green Bay’s short passes turned into moderate gains, at worst.
Rodgers finished the game with a 63% success rate thanks to those passes that turned easy completions into successful gains. The Packers’ first touchdown of the game came on a drive that featured gains of 3, 6, 8, 9, 5, 6, 8, 3, 15-yard penalty, 4, 8, 3, 5, and 1. There were only two third downs faced in that sequence, an 8-yard gain on a third-and-1 and the 1-yard touchdown on third-and-goal.
Without Aaron Donald at 100%, the Rams’ defensive line wasn’t able to create the pressure it typically had during the regular season and Rodgers was able to sit back and be patient.
It wasn’t until late in the second quarter and into the second half until the Packers made a concerted effort to push the ball down the field. Rodgers ended the game with an aDOT of 10.1 yards, two deep completions, one a 58-yard touchdown in the fourth quarter, and 0.47 EPA per dropback according to nflfastR.
Who won Davante Adams vs Jalen Ramsey?
This was the individual matchup that brought the most intrigue on that side of the ball. The 1-yard touchdown that capped up the drive described above was designed to stress the Rams secondary by sending Adams in motion before the snap and bringing him back across to the outside through the snap. Ramsey was in man coverage and got lost through traffic, which left Adams wide-open in the end zone.
Ramsey was upset that no other Rams defender picked up the route after the motion but the corner in a nearly impossible position to cover Adams. As much as Ramsey, the play design picked on safety Nick Scott (33) who played 19% of the Rams’ defensive snaps during the regular season, but was on the field often early in this game. The quick hitch from Marquez Valdes-Scantling (83) kept the attention of Scott which stopped the safety from picking up Adams’s route. Scott finished the game with just 20% of the snaps played.
The Packers often put Ramsey in no-win situations. He was the closest defender in coverage for six targets and allowed six receptions for 55 yards and the touchdown. That would point towards an Adams win, but few of those were lined up against Ramsey. Adams for his part only gained 66 yards on nine receptions.
Ramsey didn’t shadow Adams throughout the game and the Packers often motioned Adams away from Ramsey’s side. That happened on four of Adams’s catches. His receptions against Ramsey came on that touchdown, a 12-yard gain with a nice move off the line as Ramsey backed into zone coverage, and a seven-yard slant.
A focus came to make plays elsewhere. Green Bay got a heavy use of pre-snap motion to create more openings and mismatches in coverage across the defense. According to Next Gen Stats, the Packers used motion on 71% of their plays, which was their highest rate of the season. With so much of the Rams’ focus on stopping the deep ball, the pre-snap motion stressed the responsibilities of the few defenders near the line of scrimmage.
Are we about the see a change in LA?
Surprisingly, Rams defensive coordinator Brandon Staley was named head coach of the Los Angeles Chargers Sunday night. That will already be a massive loss for a defense that went from ninth to fourth in defensive DVOA in Staley’s lone season.
Maybe more eye-opening were Sean McVay’s comments about the quarterback position after the game. Jared Goff struggled through the regular season and played both playoff games with a fractured thumb in his throwing hand. He averaged -0.02 EPA per dropback against the Packers in the Divisional Round. McVay, typically a strong Goff backer, was noncommittal after the game when asked about Goff’s future as the quarterback.
McVay’s public frustration towards Goff has increased this season with the coach telling reporters, “our quarterback has got to take better care of the football,” after a loss to the San Francisco 49ers in Week 12.
The Rams were 20th in passing DVOA during the 2020 regular season. Goff is virtually uncuttable before the 2021 season with $65.2 million in dead money against a $34.6 million cap hit. But the Rams could save $12 million on the cap with a trade. Still, the contract would be a tough sell with the acquiring team locked into a fully guaranteed 2021 season at a cap hit of $27.8 million and a $15 million roster bonus for 2022 that is already guaranteed.
Where was this Buffalo defense all year?
Following a season in which the Bills had one of the league’s best defenses, the unit turned out to be just good in 2020, 12th by DVOA. The offense led most of the success in Buffalo this season, but against the Baltimore Ravens, the Bills defense looked like its 2019 form.
Much of this came from how aggressive the Bills were against Lamar Jackson. Buffalo blitzed Jackson on 48.1% of his dropbacks and got pressure on 40.7% of his dropbacks, per Next Gen Stats. During the regular season, Sean McDermott’s defense had the ninth-highest blitz rate in the league at 35.5% according to SIS.
The Bills had no fear in the Ravens’ quick passing game when they sent extra rushers. Buffalo blitzed often and played off-coverage against the Baltimore wide receivers. Of the four Ravens receivers with at least 25 routes run in the game, only Miles Boykin was pressed at the line more than 6% of the time.
Buffalo got home by rushing six and won when they only sent four. The Bills had a 55.6% pressure rate when they sent six or more rushers but also had a 34.8% pressure rate with just a four-man rush. Jerry Hughes had seven pressures on his own off the edge, which led to two sacks. The pressure sped up the timing for Jackson, who finished with -0.33 EPA per dropback.
Jackson’s biggest mistake of the game was a pick-6 that could have been a Ravens touchdown for the lead. The Bills gave a pressure look against a 3×1 set, but only rushed four at the snap. Jackson thought Mark Andrews was going to have an open window after a break away from Tremaine Edmunds, but didn’t see Taron Johnson, who lined up across from Willie Snead in the middle of the tips set, had dropped back into a shallow zone and was able to jump the route for an interception.
Buffalo’s aggressive rush also came against Baltimore run plays, when the edges crashed hard and left little room for Jackson or the running backs to break outside. Jackson only had nine carries for 38 yards. The Ravens finished with just -0.17 EPA per carry on early down rush attempts, which forced more passes and played into Buffalo’s aggressive game plan.
Are the Bills keeping Brian Daboll?
Daboll was rumored to be the favorite for the Chargers’ head coaching position, but that job went to Staley. That leaves two openings with the Eagles and Texans and ups the probability of Daboll staying in Buffalo for at least another season.
That would be a pleasant unexpected surprise for the Bills, who could keep an offensive coordinator that helped play to Josh Allen’s strengths for his 2020 breakout season. The Divisional Round game wasn’t Buffalo’s best offensive effort — Allen finished with -0.04 EPA per dropback and 5.6 yards per attempt — but there were a few missed open throws throughout the game. Allen was just 1-of-6 on throws of at least 20 air yards but that the opportunity for more production on those shots.
Of course, what stood out was how pass-heavy the Bills were in this game. Daboll called just one run in the first half and the Bills finished with nine running back carries against 39 dropbacks from Allen. Without Zach Moss, Buffalo knew they didn’t have much of an advantage on the ground. The Bills opened up with the pass and had positive EPA — though just 0.02 — on early down passes in the game.
Baltimore didn’t blitz as often as one might expect, 25.6% against Buffalo, compared to a league-high 44.1% during the regular season, but they used some creative looks and sim pressures to get Allen confused after the snap. The Bills got just enough favorable looks, including a 3-on-2 for a screen that turned into Allen’s lone touchdown, to keep the advantage. It was a good plan with execution made difficult by a solid defensive effort.
Did the Chiefs find another gear?
Throughout the regular season, the Chiefs kept things close with opponents in matchups that shouldn’t have been all that close. The question was if Kansas City had slow-played some of its hand against inferior opponents, knowing the playoffs would be where it mattered. Well, we didn’t get too much different from the Chiefs in their first game.
Cleveland’s defense followed what many others have done before them against Kansas City — and similar to the Rams on Saturday — and played deep coverage to prevent the big play. Like the Packers and many other Chiefs games during the regular season, Patrick Mahomes had no problem taking the easy completions. Mahomes’s average depth of target in the game was just 6.0 yards beyond the line of scrimmage. He only had one attempt, an incompletion, over 20 air yards. This was against a Browns secondary that ranked 29th against the deep pass by DVOA during the regular season, according to Football Outsiders.
The Chiefs did have some wrinkles ready, of course. Their longest play of the day came on a jet sweep pass that went for 42 yards on a second-and-10 in the first quarter. Kansas City relied heavily on receivers in this game with Clyde Edwards-Helaire inactive. The Chiefs used 10 personnel (four wide receivers) on just two snaps during the regular season, but that was the personnel grouping for the long Mecole Hardman catch and run, which featured Tyreek Hill lined up in the backfield.
There were also the typical “we’re just better than you” plays that the Chiefs consistently have available to them. Travis Kelce’s 20-yard touchdown reception came lined up against Cleveland’s top cornerback Denzel Ward. Kelce was able to shake free and send Ward to the ground with a fake to the outside before a break back to the middle of the field.
While the Browns sold out against the deep ball, there was little to no resistance against the Chiefs going short. Cleveland only blitzed Mahomes on 10% of his dropbacks and despite the extra players in coverage, Mahomes threw into exactly zero tight windows (a yard or fewer of separation), according to Next Gen Stats.
The Chiefs again took the path of least resistance and while it led to 0.34 EPA per dropback and a QBR of 75.8 for Mahomes, it still left the Browns with a chance for the lead late in the game.
Can the Chiefs survive without Patrick Mahomes?
Mahomes left the game early and was ruled out with a concussion. Chad Henne stepped in as the backup and was wildly inconsistent. His first throw on his second drive was a well-placed loft to Tyrekk Hill for 26 yards. But that drive ended with a throw so poor, Browns safety Karl Joseph looked like he was fielding a punt on his interception in the end zone. Henne also had a huge 13-yard scramble on a third-and-14 and completed the following fourth-and-1 pass to seal the game for the Chiefs.
With Mahomes in concussion protocol, we won’t know more about his status until later in the week.
Were The Browns too pass happy?
This isn’t a question we’ll ask a lot here, but it’s worth diving into as the Browns didn’t attempt much on the ground in the first half and ended with just three points. Yes, a Rashard Higgins fumble turned a could-have-been touchdown into a touchback due to a fumble through the end zone, but that still only would have been 10 points in the half.
Things took off in the second half and Cleveland had some chunk plays in the running game after a three-play drive that ended in an interception opened the half. The Browns’ next drive started with gains of 23 and 18 yards from Nick Chubb on the ground. Cleveland finished the game with a 53% success rate on early down runs but a 29% success rate on early down passes. The ratio was 31 passes to 17 runs.
It wasn’t even that Baker Mayfield was bad. His 64.8 QBR is more reflective of his performance than either the 5.5 yards per attempt or -0.14 EPA per dropback would indicate. Mayfield made some throws in this game, but far too often his great throws only gained a maximum of 15 yards. The Chiefs limited the explosive play potential and made Mayfield and the Browns work incredibly hard for not a lot of return through the air.
A few more runs also could have slowed down an aggressive Kansas City defense that blitzed Mayfield on half of his dropbacks.
What’s gotten into Andy Reid?
With a fourth-and-inches from the Kansas City 48-yard line and 1:14 remaining, Andy Reid kept the offense on the field with a backup quarterback. Reid called for a sprint out to the right targeting Hill as the inside man in a trips alignment. The pass was complete for a five-yard gain.
Reid has gone to a sprint out to Hill on big fourth downs late in games this season. The Chiefs used this exact play on a fourth-and-1 late in the fourth quarter against the Miami Dolphins in Week 14 and flipped a sprint out to the left with a more vertical route for a game-sealing 8-yard completion on fourth-and-7 against the Tampa Bay Buccaneers.
Once known for his passive fourth-down decision-making and terrible clock management, Reid has turned into one of the most aggressive coaches in the league. That also coincided with Mahomes taking over as the starting quarterback. Reid’s bump in aggressiveness started in 2018 and he’s been above average in each year since, according to data from rbsdm.com. Even last season, which was down compared to the other two of the Mahomes era, Reid got aggressive when it mattered most in the Super Bowl.
Is this the end for Drew Brees?
Before the Saints and Buccaneers kicked off, Fox Sports’ Jay Glazer reported Drew Brees would retire after the season. Brees went out in one of the worst ways you could see someone of his stature go, but it was also a game that highlighted the limitations Brees and the Saints had to work around.
Without a deep ball, the Saints had to be uber-efficient in the short game. That hadn’t been a problem over the past two seasons, but it was an issue this year when the Saints were mostly fine instead of great. It all came to a head against Tampa Bay with a three-interception night and 3.9 yards per attempt. The Saints couldn’t move the ball through the air, save for a deep touchdown pass for a trick play from Jameis Winston, and the Buccaneers were able to sit on the short stuff and wait for a mistake.
The first interception came when Michael Thomas couldn’t get separation off the line. Thomas’s skillset has meshed perfectly with Brees to make those short throws automatic. But off an injury, Thomas couldn’t fight through contact and Sean Murphy-Bunting jumped the route and brought the ball to the 1-yard line.
Tampa Bay had no problem with Thomas in this game. Per Next Gen Stats, Thomas was pressed on 64% of his routes. Thomas couldn’t separate and had no receptions on only four targets.
Brees’s second interception came on a miscommunication with Alvin Kamara. Bress tried to get the ball quickly to the back running up the seam, but Kamara wasn’t ready for it. Timing might not have mattered that much because Devin White was sitting in the middle of the field and ready to jump the route.
His third interception came late in the game when he was forced to push a ball down the sideline with under five minutes remaining. The ball popped out of Jared Cook’s hands and into the arms of Mike Edwards.
So much of this game showed how small the margin for error was with Brees and the New Orleans offense. He did not attempt a pass over 20 air yards. The Buccaneers were prepared for that and sat on short routes while they blitzed on 52.9% of his dropbacks. There might have been three interceptions, but there were eight total passes defensed.
Add in a fumble from Cook and the Buccaneers were set up for scoring drives of 3, 40, and 20 yards — all touchdowns. The Saints just aren’t built to come back from that.
On the other side, Tom Brady didn’t have to be much more than fine to take advantage. The difference in builds was also apparent. Brady missed a few throws in the game, but the receiving weapons and design of the offense allowed the Buccaneers to get those plays back — eventually, they did. Brady didn’t have to be close to perfect but Brees would have had to be beyond that in order to keep the Saints in the game.
Will the cap finally catch up with the Saints?
It appears this might finally be the year. New Orleans has been manipulating the salary cap just about every year since Brees came to town, moving money around and creating cap space to make splash moves. That can work when the quarterback is around to move his money and the cap rises every year.
But now with Brees set to retire and a cap that’s projected to drop to $176 million, there aren’t many tricks left in the Saints’ bag. According to Over The Cap, the Saints are currently $95 million over the projected 2021 cap. It’s likely Brees will do something to his contract to lower the number and let it hang around until June 1 so the dead money hit can spread over two seasons, but that will only do so much.
Earlier in the year, I played around with the cap calculator and got the Saints $12 million under by only having Brees retire, restructuring the contracts of Cameron Jordan, Michael Thomas, Terron Armstead, Andrus Peat, and Demario Davis, extending Ryan Ramczyk, cutting Janoris Jenkins, Kwon Alexander, and Emmanuel Sanders, and trading Taysom Hill and Marshon Lattimore. That left the Saints with 31 players under contract with no starting quarterback or outside corner.
The good news is I got the Saints $12.6M under the projected 2021 salary cap.
— Dan Pizzuta (@DanPizzuta) December 17, 2020
This offseason will be fascinating.