Each week during the 2021 NFL season, Sports Info Solutions will highlight the spread of three games.
Pittsburgh Steelers (+5.5) at Baltimore Ravens
Many of us watched on Monday as Ben Roethlisberger continued his march to the sea. But kind of like when you walk in the sand and you just sort of sink slowly as you go. If you want a sense of how that game went for the Steelers passing game, consider this tweet.
If this truly is a slow trudge into the sunset, this game could be disastrously bad. Each of Roethlisberger’s last four game-level Adjusted Net Yards per Attempt has been worse than the last, starting with 8.6 in Week 13 and ending with 1.8 on Monday night.
The good news is that he faced the Ravens in that Week 13 game, which was Ben’s second-best in terms of ANY/A. They blitzed him eleven times and he was able to get the ball out quickly and efficiently, going 7-for-11 with an average throw depth over 10 yards. He wasn’t sacked or intercepted, and he was under pressure only once. In Week 12 of last year, Roethlisberger was able to beat the Ravens blitz as well, although then he did it with much shorter throws.
The point is that the Steelers have kind of looked this anemic throughout the season, and a season finale against a division rival that they have played close in recent history doesn’t smell like a 6-point win for the Ravens.
Despite the opportunity to knock out a division rival, it would seem imprudent to rush Lamar Jackson back (if that’s the situation he’s facing), and Tyler Huntley has been…fine. The last two games Huntley’s played—remember Josh Johnson made a cameo in Week 16—he’s been a smidge above average from a Total Points perspective. That’s actually better than Jackson had been over the previous month.
And speaking of the blitz, we’ve seen multiple games where Lamar was victimized by extra rushers. Pittsburgh didn’t go full-Broncos in Week 13, but Jackson was sacked five times and pressured ten times when they rushed 5 or more. Huntley hasn’t shown the same tendency to fall apart against extra rushers, but teams have also not been nearly as blitz-happy as they were when Jackson was in the lineup.
Tennessee Titans at Houston Texans (+10.5)
What do we make of either of these teams?
With a win, the Titans become one of the least impressive No. 1 seeds we’ve seen in quite some time. In terms of Total Points per play, they look more like a borderline playoff team than one that could be resting next week.
The Texans have only four wins on the season, but two of those came in the last two months against this Tennessee team and another playoff-caliber squad in the Chargers. They’ve also gotten blown out by Seattle and Indianapolis in that time.
Through Derrick Henry’s absence and the inconsistent availability of their two big receivers, the Titans have really constrained their offense. Since Henry’s injury in Week 8, Ryan Tannehill ranks below—gasp!—Ben Roethlisberger in Average Throw Depth. (For what it’s worth, Tannehill’s performance on play-action throws has basically been the same.) For a Houston team that has improved but still has some issues defending the deep ball, that’s great news.
The Tennessee running game certainly looks to have rebounded after a midseason swoon. The Titans have rushed for over 170 yards per game since their loss to Houston a month and a half ago. But at the same time we’re talking about virtually zero EPA per rush, so let’s not get carried away.
To a similar point about not taking raw numbers too far, don’t combine the Titans’ rushing success with the Texans’ ineffectiveness and call it a runaway win. The Texans have allowed nearly twice as many rushing yards in the fourth quarter of three-score games as anyone else in the NFL. In close games, they’re pretty average against the run.
The Texans offense has had its outbursts but generally isn’t going to scare anyone, and Tennessee’s defense is just fine. Keep an eye out for what each team does personnel-wise. Houston is in the top ten in both 12 and 13 personnel usage, while Tennessee employs dime personnel as much as anyone. We obviously won’t see both of those at once, but when the Texans go heavier the Titans will be well-suited to match. Titans linebackers lead the NFL in Total Points Saved defensively, partly because they lead in pass breakups and completion percentage allowed.
Los Angeles Chargers (-3) at Las Vegas Raiders
This is a win-and-you’re-in situation (almost). Against quite a number of odds (but maybe not all), the Raiders could grab as high as the five seed if enough things fall their way.
The Chargers are still the road favorites, though, and that’s probably with good reason. By point differential, these teams are five points per game apart, and as division-mates they have had very similar schedules to get there.
Justin Herbert leads the NFL in Total Points at quarterback. You’d think that he’d be hanging his hat on being very productive with deep passes. After all, Herbert’s throws of 20-plus yards have gained the fourth-most total EPA despite 17 guys throwing more such passes. But he’s actually been arguably more productive on short throws, ranking second in both the percentage of short throws yielding a positive EPA and the percentage gaining at least 1 EPA.
The matchup with the Raiders is an interesting one. Las Vegas has been pretty poor in pass coverage on the whole, sitting at the bottom of the league in Pass Coverage Points Saved (the coverage element of Total Points) on a per-play basis. But the Raiders have actually been effective defending the deep ball. They’re among the five best teams in the same metric on deep passes, yielding a completion percentage under 30%. Herbert’s ability to work all levels of the defense is going to be hard for the Raiders to squash, though.
On the other side of the ball, the Chargers are known to be a sieve in the run game, but the Raiders aren’t in a great position to capitalize. They rank among the ten worst teams in both Boom Rate (EPA > 1) and Bust Rate (EPA < -1), which basically means they don’t produce chunk gains and they get stuffed quite a bit. It’s been better of late with Josh Jacobs more consistently involved and productive, but playing the Chargers is likely to up the pace of the game enough that they won’t be able to exploit this weakness as much as they’d like.