Each week during the 2021 NFL season, Sports Info Solutions will highlight the spread of three games including Monday Night Football.
The Chiefs have been awesome since Patrick Mahomes took over as quarterback in 2018. In two of the last three years, Mahomes has put up the two highest Passing Points Earned seasons of the Total Points era (since 2016). And in the other season, he won Super Bowl MVP.
Andy Reid is one of the top head coaches in the NFL, and he probably has the best trio of coordinators, too. Eric Bienemy, Steve Spagnuolo, and Dave Toub are all legitimate NFL head coaching candidates, with Bienemy at the top of many short lists and Spagnuolo having previous experience in the role. In my opinion, they are the rightful Super Bowl favorites heading into 2021.
That said, their defense is not to be confused with the ‘85 Bears or even the 2007 Giants; they don’t have that caliber of personnel. Instead, a lot of what they do is to try to outwit the opposing offense, complementing their (expensive) offense by understanding that they can afford to allow some points as long as they get some key stops, and most importantly, create turnovers.
A big part of their cerebral defense is how they deploy their safeties, and while the Chiefs were fourth in the NFL in usage of Middle of the Field Open (MOFO) coverages in 2020, they ranked just 24th in efficiency, allowing a Positive Play Rate of 51%. Their desire to keep two safeties high will be complicated by the Browns’ talented running game and preference for bigger personnel groups. It will be further complicated if star safety Tyrann Mathieu is unavailable due to COVID.
The Browns, for their part, were seventh in the NFL in EPA (31) and eighth in Positive Play Rate (56%) against MOFO coverages in 2020, so the Ivy-educated Kevin Stefanski should be able to create some favorable matchups.
It’s also worth keeping in mind that the Chiefs’ Achilles’ Heel during their Super Bowl loss wasn’t their defense, but rather their offensive line. They had a whopping 20 Blown Blocks and three holding penalties in the Super Bowl, and so they remade their offensive line. While their talent up front is better, it wouldn’t be a surprise to see this unit take some time to jell.
As good as the Chiefs are, the Browns have some cause for optimism as they make the trip to Arrowhead.
With the way that the last several weeks have gone for the Colts, it’s easy to see why people have been so quick to forget that this young roster won 11 games last year. T.Y. Hilton will start the year on IR, Carson Wentz missed the preseason, and as the injury list has grown, there has been little in the way of good news coming out of Indianapolis.
Meanwhile, the Seahawks are a legitimate contender with a quarterback who currently ranks fifth in the SIS World’s #1 Quarterback Rankings. On top of that, there is reason for added excitement with Shane Waldron coming over from the Rams and bringing over some of their schemes.
All that said, the Colts did win 11 games last year, and their defense should be even stronger now. The public seems to have lost some degree of faith in Chris Ballard and Frank Reich for them to be home underdogs in Week 1, but I think we need to have a longer memory than August to have a fair sense of what to expect from this team in 2021.
On the defensive side, the Colts were 10th in the NFL in Pass Defense Points Saved and 11th in Run Defense Points Saved last year. They are balanced with strong personnel at all three levels, and they are difficult to attack with their bend-but-don’t-break philosophy. This is a difficult defense to score points against, and it is not a desirable matchup for a team with an entirely new offense.
On the other side of the ball, it seems foolish to underestimate Frank Reich’s ability to put together an offense. It’s easy to point to the last time that Wentz and Reich were together in Philadelphia, but Reich has proven the ability to extract the most out of multiple quarterbacks over the past few years.
It’s not realistic to think that Wentz will return to 2017 form. As the table below shows, that was always a mirage. The Eagles created over 80 EPA on just a 50% Positive Play Rate on passes by Wentz that year, so there was always going to be a regression.
In fact, Wentz had higher Positive Play Rates in each of the two years that followed. It’s much more reasonable to think that his true talent lies somewhere closer to the 1.8-1.9 WAR level that he performed at in 2018-19 than either the 3.1 WAR of 2017 or the -1.0 WAR of 2020.
Carson Wentz: Value Metrics by Season
|Season||Att||Points Earned||PE Per Play||EPA||Pos%||Boom%||Bust%||WAR|
Wentz has never been the most careful with the football, but based on his stable Bust Rate (percentage of plays that result in less than -1 EPA) of 15% every season leading up to 2020, I expect that he will return to that level under Reich. The question for me is more about what level of explosiveness he can bring.
If he can also bring the Boom Rate (percentage of plays that result in greater than +1 EPA) back into the 20-25% range, he would be back to about a 2 WAR player. In the weak AFC South, that could be enough to win the division.
Although the Ravens have established themselves as a run-first team under Greg Roman’s direction, there might be a change of plans for Monday night’s game against the Raiders. Baltimore had already lost their starting RB J.K. Dobbins to an ACL injury earlier this offseason, and his presumptive replacement, Gus Edwards, went down with his ACL injury during Thursday’s practice. This could certainly be seen as an early test of their commitment to the ground game, but it could just as easily be a test of their perimeter additions.
First-round pick Rashod Bateman has a lot of hype entering the season after an impressive offseason, and veteran Sammy Watkins was one of the more underrated pickups of this past free agency period. Watkins was 54th in Receiving Points Earned among wideouts in 2020 (11.9), which is respectable for a complementary receiving option, especially when you consider he had to fight Tyreek Hill and Travis Kelce for targets.
Meanwhile, the Raiders’ corner situation is in a bit of disarray. With Damon Arnette reportedly in the doghouse and Nevin Lawson serving a suspension to begin the season, the Raiders have listed Casey Hayward, Trayvon Mullen, and rookie fifth-rounder Nate Hobbs as their starters, with Hobbs manning the slot.
As good as Hayward has been in the past, he just celebrated his 32nd birthday on Thursday and he ranked 77th in yards per coverage snap (1.3) last year among outside corners with at least 10 targets.
And while the Raiders beat is optimistic about Mullen entering his third season, his 2020 stats are a mixed bag. The 2019 second-round pick ranked 16th in yards/coverage snap (0.7), but just 72nd in Points Saved per 100 coverage snaps (1.6).
Hobbs, on the other hand, is entirely unproven and is getting thrown into the fire after ranking 196th in yards/cover snap (2.0) among corners with at least 10 targets vs. Power 5 competition in 2020.
This is an opportunity for 2019 MVP Lamar Jackson to play with his new toys, and for Greg Roman to showcase what renovations he’s made, if any, to a passing game that was very stale last year.
Bryce Rossler also contributed to this article.