AFC Wild-Card Playoff Preview 2021
Welcome to the postseason bracket in the top-heavy AFC, where every team to make the playoffs went at least 11-5 this year. We've got two teams where the fan bases are hungry for some kind of postseason victory after many years in the wilderness. We've got two aging quarterbacks from the Class of 2004, trying to make one last run at Super Bowl glory. And we've got the closest matchup of the wild-card round, a rematch of both a regular-season game and a big upset from last year's playoffs.
For those who may be unfamiliar with the Football Outsiders stats, they are explained at the bottom of the page. Scroll down or click this link. Game charting data appears courtesy Sports Info Solutions, unless noted.
Indianapolis Colts at Buffalo Bills
|DVOA||14.3% (10)||23.8% (4)|
|WEI DVOA||13.5% (9)||34.5% (1)|
|Colts on Offense|
|IND OFF||BUF DEF|
|DVOA||2.8% (12)||-2.2% (12)|
|WEI DVOA||6.5% (10)||-8.0% (8)|
|PASS||14.3% (16)||2.2% (12)|
|RUSH||-5.4% (12)||-8.2% (17)|
|Bills on Offense|
|IND DEF||BUF OFF|
|DVOA||-9.5% (7)||15.6% (5)|
|WEI DVOA||-6.0% (10)||17.8% (5)|
|PASS||-2.9% (8)||43.3% (3)|
|RUSH||-19.7% (9)||-15.0% (22)|
|DVOA||2.0% (10)||5.9% (4)|
All readers can click here for the open in-game discussion thread. If you have FO+, you can click here to see all the matchup of DVOA splits for this game.
Could this finally be the year for the Buffalo Bills? Bolstered by Josh Allen's giant steps forward this year, Buffalo may well have their best team of the DVOA era. Their 23.8% DVOA is second in franchise history behind the star-crossed 2004 team, ranking above any of their 1990s K-Gun squads. And that may well be understating how well Buffalo is playing at the moment, considering their league-leading weighted DVOA. Since coming back from their bye in Week 12, the Bills have had the third-best offensive DVOA and the fifth-best defensive DVOA in the league. Their three losses came in two games postponed by COVID outbreaks and a third that ended in the Hail Murray. On paper, everything seems to be lined up for, at the very least, a showdown with Kansas City in the AFC Championship Game.
Games aren't played on paper, however. To even get out of the wild-card round, the Bills first have to get past the seventh-seeded Indianapolis Colts. While the Colts are only in the postseason thanks to this year's playoff expansion, a 14.3% DVOA would sit comfortably in the top 10 in all but three years since 1985; they're not simply a pitstop on Buffalo's way to divisional round. This is a solid, consistent team -- they're fifth in variance and rarely deviate from good, if not great, levels of performance. They are a team without massive weaknesses or overwhelming strengths -- or, at least, they were before left tackle Anthony Castonzo was placed on season-ending injured reserve before Week 16. While the Bills are rightfully favored in this matchup, the Colts aren't pushovers. This game, at the very least, looks to be the more competitive of the 2-7 matchups this year.
WHEN THE COLTS HAVE THE BALL
Losing Anthony Castonzo is a huge blow to the Colts' offensive line. Castonzo had just seven blown blocks this year per Sports Info Solutions charting, and a blown-block rate of 1.0%. That ranked fifth among tackles with at least 500 snaps in 2020. He'll especially be missed in pass protection, as the Colts' adjusted sack rate rose from 4.7% with Castonzo in the lineup to 7.0% when he was sidelined. With the Colts already missing backup Le'Raven Clark, and Will Holden nursing a gimpy ankle, the Colts are down to Jared Veldheer at left tackle; he came out of retirement to sign with the Colts on December 31.
Veldheer held his own against the Jaguars after just two practices, but the Bills present something of a tougher challenge. While Buffalo's pressure rate is a pedestrian 24.6%, they blitz quite frequently -- eighth-most in the league, per Sportradar. Expect Sean McDermott to send pressure from all sorts of exotic angles in order to put Veldheer to the test. To this point in the season, Philip Rivers hasn't had to deal with excessive amounts of pressure -- the Colts' 18.1% pressure rate allowed is third-best in the league, aided by both Rivers' offensive line and the fact that he only holds the ball for 2.52 seconds on average, per Next Gen Stats. But that may change on Saturday.
If this becomes a shootout, the advantage shifts heavily in favor of the Bills. Gone are the days when Rivers was great at handling pressure; he is a statue in the pocket now, and every split-second he's forced to hold onto the ball brings with it exponentially less success. Rivers is succeeding this year as an accurate dink-and-dunker; his 7.4 air yards ranks 10th in the league, and all but two of his interceptions have come on plays where Rivers has been forced to hold the ball for at least 2.5 seconds in the pocket. He has been, in general, much more comfortable getting the ball out of his hands immediately. One possible exception is on shots to the deep right -- Rivers has a DVOA of 111.3% on 33 attempts, fourth-best among the playoff passers. The way to beat the Bills through the air is to isolate Levi Wallace (58th among qualified quarterbacks in success rate, compared to Tre'Davious White's 21st), match him up against a quick route-runner, and beat him with post routes over the top. Don't be surprised if Frank Reich calls T.Y. Hilton's number if he can get the receiver one-on-one on Wallace on Rivers' good side; it's Indy's best chance for a splash play. It's just not what I would base my offense around, as Rivers' arm strength has deteriorated faster than his trust in said arm. If the Colts have to throw deep often, the game will get ugly, quickly.
Instead, the Colts' offense is based on around short, quick passing, complemented by Jonathan Taylor on the ground. The Colts were only 12th in rushing DVOA -- good, but not great -- but they ranked in the top 10 in both second-level yards and open-field yards. And according to NFL statistician Michael Lopez, no team in football created more big-play run opportunities for their running backs than the Colts. Quenton Nelson and the rest of the Colts' interior line should have an advantage over Ed Oliver and the rest of the Buffalo's run defenders. And if Taylor can get past the line, he may not be stopped. The Bills ranked fifth in the league this year with 127 missed tackles, with A.J. Klein and Tremaine Edmunds both missing double-digit tackles from the linebacker position. Run plenty of Taylor, get the ball in the hands of Michael Pittman and Nyheim Hines on short routes, get those linebackers to cheat up and make them pay with play-action, and avoid giving the ball back to the Buffalo offense -- as long as the Colts can keep the game close, they have a workable offensive strategy. About that, however…
WHEN THE BILLS HAVE THE BALL
To begin with, I highly recommend reading both Derrik Klassen's breakdown of the Bills' offense against Miami and Ben Muth's look at Buffalo's offensive line, just to get a general feel for what Indianapolis is up against. Klassen concludes by calling Buffalo's passing attack "ruthless," crediting both Josh Allen's personal development and Brian Daboll's play-calling brilliance for the Bills' dramatic improvement from last season.
Allen becoming a top-five passer and borderline MVP candidate would be the story of the year if it weren't for how crazy 2020 was in general. Allen had already improved by 500 DYAR between his first and second seasons; to then jump by nearly 1,500 more points in Year 3 is unprecedented. Allen narrowly missed becoming the first quarterback in our database to see a 2,000-DYAR jump in two seasons, instead joining Troy Aikman, Matthew Stafford, and Jared Goff in the +1,500 club. Allen's improvement turns the Bills from tough outs to Super Bowl contenders.
Allen's statistical improvement is nearly entirely based on accuracy -- he has always had the cannon for an arm, but he now has receivers on the other end of his lasers. Per SIS charting, 73.8% of Allen's passes this year have been on target, with 77.3% charted as catchable. He ranks fourth and 13th in 2020, up from 63.8% and 70.5% a year ago. Part of this can be credited to Allen's personal improvement -- both in terms of better mechanics and becoming more comfortable in Daboll's system. That system is helping, as well -- Allen's top receivers are averaging 3.29 yards of separation, per Next Gen Stats, fourth in the league and significantly improved from 2019. Adding Stefon Diggs certainly didn't hurt either; the Allen-to-Diggs connection produced 747 passing DYAR, second to only Kansas City's Patrick Mahomes and Travis Kelce.
That last one may be a bit of an issue for this weekend -- both Diggs and Cole Beasley are listed as questionable for Saturday's game. Both returned to practice on Thursday, and even if neither is quite at 100%, it's expected that they'll both play. If they do, it will be the first time since before the Bills' bye week that Allen has had all his targets available. Add in the fact that Colts cornerback Rock Ya-Sin is still in the concussion protocol and could miss Saturday's game, and there's just a talent mismatch in the passing attack.
The Colts are not going to be able to stop the Bills from moving the ball through the air. What they need to do is generate splash plays to steal possessions, and the way they can do that is by playing plenty of zone coverage. While Allen's accuracy and yards per attempt are about the same against both zone and man coverage, eight of his 10 interceptions have come against zone, as have just nine of his 37 touchdown passes. Don't take that the wrong way -- zone coverage doesn't "solve" Allen or anything of that nature, and Daboll has more than his fair share of zone-beating schemes to roll out -- but a hefty dose of zone has been the way to force game-altering plays against the Buffalo offense.
The Colts play plenty of Cover-2, relying on Darius Leonard and Bobby Okereke to take away the middle of the field and force opposing quarterbacks to throw underneath -- hopefully thereby eliminating some of Allen's arm strength. Pressure will be key, as well, and the Colts have a weapon in DeForest Buckner on the inside -- he has 27 pass pressures and 9.5 sacks, and Indianapolis' pass rush goes through him. Mitch Morse and John Feliciano will have their hands full keeping Buckner out of the backfield, and while Allen has dramatically improved his decision-making when under pressure, he's still a sub-50% passer with defenders in his face. Keep defenders in the backfield all day long, play disciplined and sound zone coverage, and the Colts might be able to hold the Bills under 30 points.
Give Allen time to work in the pocket, and he'll pick you apart. Give Allen's receivers open space, and he'll pick you apart. The Bills are the best in the league with a 50.4% DVOA passing on first downs; they throw early, they throw often, and they throw effectively. If they have a weakness, it's short-yardage rushing -- they're 22nd in rush DVOA on third downs, 25th in rush DVOA in the red zone, and 17th in power success rate. That rarely ends up mattering however -- the Bills know what they're good at and lean on it. They throw the ball 67% of the time on first downs in the first half, more than any other team in the league; in situations where they game is still in doubt, they're more than happy to lean on their passing offense. And it works.
Advantage: Buffalo. The Bills lead the league in kickoff value and are in the top five in both kickoff and punt returns as well. Tyler Bass isn't the world's most accurate kicker -- an 82.4% field goal rate, including three misses from under 40 yards, is far from ideal -- but everywhere else, Buffalo is doing just fine. Indianapolis does have a good set of returners, with both Nyheim Hines and Isaiah Rodgers leading the Colts to top six-finishes in kickoff and punt returns, but both Rodrigo Blankenship and Rigoberto Sanchez's units have ended up with negative value on the year.
This game isn't a foregone conclusion, and not just in the "Any Given Sunday" sense that any team could lose to anyone else. If the Colts can slow down the Bills' offense enough to keep the game close in the fourth quarter, they have some matchup advantages on offense that could give them every chance to come out on top. The problem is, it's far too easy to see Buffalo jumping out to a huge lead early, forcing the Colts to play catch-up, and that's just not their game. Frank Reich may have the biggest comeback in NFL history under his belt while playing for Buffalo, but his Colts won't be able to replicate that feat this weekend. It's more likely that the red-hot Bills jump out to a multiple-score lead and coast to their first divisional round since 1995.
Baltimore Ravens at Tennessee Titans
|DVOA||18.6% (7)||2.9% (14)|
|WEI DVOA||15.7% (7)||4.3% (12)|
|Ravens on Offense|
|BAL OFF||TEN DEF|
|DVOA||4.3% (11)||11.1% (29)|
|WEI DVOA||7.2% (9)||12.2% (29)|
|PASS||13.9% (17)||25.3% (30)|
|RUSH||6.0% (3)||-9.6% (16)|
|Titans on Offense|
|BAL DEF||TEN OFF|
|DVOA||-6.9% (9)||18.4% (4)|
|WEI DVOA||-2.6% (15)||19.1% (4)|
|PASS||0.4% (10)||39.5% (4)|
|RUSH||-18.5% (12)||6.1% (2)|
|ST DVOA||7.4% (2)||-4.4% (28)|
All readers can click here for the open in-game discussion thread. If you have FO+, you can click here to see all the matchup of DVOA splits for this game.
Fresh off a solid month of feasting on the hapless, the Ravens head into the playoffs strong. They run into a Titans squad that handed them an overtime defeat earlier in the year in Nashville, one that has (as is usual for December) a rushing attack that is humming. It's a rematch of the stumble Baltimore took that kept them out of the AFC Championship Game last season and exposed some of Lamar Jackson's less polished traits, and one they're surely keen to avenge. The Ravens are three-point road favorites.
WHEN THE RAVENS HAVE THE BALL
Well, this was not a wildly successful season for the Ravens passing offense, but the No. 1 thing they can do is use Lamar Jackson to roll you in the running game. They have lost several key blockers from last year's team. Ronnie Stanley is out for the season. Nick Boyle is out for the season. But Jackson is so special that it really doesn't matter all that much, and his ability to sprint for yards in man coverage forces a lot of zone coverage from defenses. The Ravens finished third in rushing DVOA and led the NFL in rushing attempts. This is the identity of the offense.
Unlike last season, though, the Ravens have struggled a bit when their run game hasn't worked. They're 25th in second-and-long DVOA, and seventh in third-/fourth-and-long DVOA, and that ranking has improved substantially since losing to New England in Week 10. We covered that game for Any Given Sunday, and Baltimore's third-/fourth-and-long DVOA at the time was 20th at -24.1%. Since Week 11, Baltimore's third-/fourth-and-long DVOA has been 130.4%, second in the league over that timespan behind only the Chargers. The Ravens only really played one good defense over that span, though -- the Steelers in Week 12 -- and they played that game without Jackson because of COVID-19 protocols. Their seasonal third-/fourth-down pass DVOA is 9.3%, but since Week 11, it's 75.4%. You can read that as Jackson returning to form, or you can read it as an indictment of the defenses they have played, which ranked 21st, 22nd, 25th, 27th, 30th, and 31st in DVOA against the pass.
Unfortunately for the Titans, they are one of those teams -- the one that is 30th in pass defense DVOA and that has had two games of cornerback Adoree' Jackson all season. They won Week 10's game, but it was mostly behind a strong red zone performance. They forced field goals on three separate red zone drives. Baltimore's only punted on three drives in regulation: the opener, a half-ender with 41 seconds left after a penalty, and a fourth-and-5 punt at the Baltimore 41 that felt very un-Ravens-like. Jackson's return has not exactly seen him wrecking shop, with Sportradar charting him allowing 13 of 16 targets to be completed for 152 yards and three touchdowns. Given that he went right into the fire by facing Davante Adams, those numbers are a little more excusable. Still, that's not a great start to the comeback.
An undertold story this season has been the complete and utter lack of talent at receiver for Baltimore. Marquise Brown, per Sportradar data, has dropped six balls and broken just four tackles all season. He had created just seven first downs and no touchdowns on his first 32 deep targets of the season. Over the last five weeks, playing with Jackson, he has caught three deep touchdowns and two deep first downs in six attempts. Miles Boykin finally caught some deep touchdowns over the last five games as well, but he is lightly targeted and doesn't fit Jackson's strengths well as a deep sideline receiver.
The Titans have almost no pass rush. Jadeveon Clowney arrived to camp heavy and never got going before heading to IR. Tennessee finished with just 19 sacks, third-fewest in the NFL, and generated pressure per Sportradar on only 17.3% of opponent dropbacks, second-lowest in the NFL. Sportradar had the Titans pressuring Jackson four times in 30 dropbacks in Week 11. The Titans had just one sack for the entirety of December, despite playing the Jaguars, Browns, and Lions in that stretch. They only had one against the Ravens as well, but it was a crippler as it came in overtime and forced a Ravens punt. You would think this would be a place where the Ravens could capitalize on play-action passing, but they really don't do that much. They ran just 112 play-action passes this season per Sportradar -- tied with Tom Brady's Bucs -- and created an astonishingly low 774 yards on them. Even the Jets hit 798. (It's a high percentage of Baltimore's pass attempts, roughly 30%, but of course Baltimore throws the ball less than most other teams other than New England.)
What the Titans were mostly able to do against the Ravens in Week 11 -- and what they'll need to do here as well -- is hold down the run offense. The Ravens had just 78 rushing yards from their running backs. That is pretty much exactly what happened in last year's playoff game, when Ingram and Gus Edwards combined for nine carries for 42 yards. The Titans are going to make Jackson beat them on the ground. They want the hits on him. Only two of Jackson's 13 runs in Week 11 were scrambles. Given the success Tennessee had with this in both of the last two meetings, the Ravens are probably going to want to formulate a counterpunch to this. Namely, they're probably going to need Jackson to be on-point on his throws outside to punish Tennessee.
WHEN THE TITANS HAVE THE BALL
Ah regression, it was sad to see you hit the Titans this year, lemme just take a swig of coffee and --
Wait, the Titans continued to be a very good offense this year? The Titans did. They have scored 30 or more points in five of their last six games -- every week but the embarrassing loss in Green Bay -- and not every one of those games was the typical "control the clock" thing we've associated the Titans with in the past. They came back from down 38-7 to lose 41-35 to the Browns. The Titans finished fourth in passing DVOA and were in the top 10 of every single down-and-distance split … except third-/fourth-and-long, where they were 19th with a -18.8% DVOA. That makes a lot of intuitive sense because Tannehill's main weakness as a passer is that he's willing to hold the ball and take sacks. Tannehill took a career-low 24 sacks this year -- but eight of them came on third-and-long.
The Titans offense is designed to avoid this, and it does an excellent job of that. The Titans only faced 87 third-/fourth-and-longs all season, a number that cleanly puts them well below the average of 97.3. Derrick Henry's numbers are probably somewhat overstated because he trampled the hapless Texans and Jaguars for 761 of his league-leading 2,027 rushing yards, but he is an imposing and unique force in today's NFL. Playing the Ravens in Week 11, he ran for 133 yards on 28 carries -- good for a -3.5% DVOA on a 39% success rate.
That actually has to be considered a victory for the Ravens, who let Henry roll up 195 in the playoffs and have to count run defense as something that has gashed them again and again this season. Sometimes it has been because they have been without stars such as Calais Campbell and Brandon Williams. Often, it has been a situation where rookie linebacker Patrick Queen and the rotating cast of L.J. Fort, Malik Harrison, and Chris Board have struggled to make tackles and read gaps correctly. When they played the Titans in Week 11 -- without Campbell or Williams -- the biggest struggle actually came against heavy packages. The Titans averaged 7.1 yards per carry on seven rush attempts out of 21 personnel (two backs, one tight end) and 6.7 yards per carry on seven rush attempts out of 13 personnel (one back, three tight ends). This is an area where the Ravens have spent an entire offseason trying to create enough of a bully to hang with a team like Tennessee. If they don't do it, it calls into question a lot of their moves and is a dark mark on early returns for their linebacker-heavy draft.
Baltimore's midseason acquisition of Yannick Ngakoue has honestly not done a lot for their defense. He had three sacks and 31 hurries (per Sports Info Solutions) in nine games, and the Ravens have toted a 1.4% defensive DVOA since Week 11, compared to a seasonal -6.9%. Baltimore plays defense to try to be the biggest bully on the block. Defensive coordinator Don Martindale led the NFL in blitz rate in both 2019 and 2020 per Sportradar charting, and it has to be killing him that he only managed three sacks of Tannehill in the last two meetings between these teams. The Ravens barely snuck into the top 10 in man coverage rate by Sports Info Solutions data, playing man 37.2% of the time. The Titans have had big years out of both Corey Davis (kind of a surprise given the declined fifth-year option) and A.J. Brown (not a surprise); Davis/Brown versus Marcus Peters and Marlon Humphrey is a surprisingly strong undercard on a heavyweight matchup. Third-down stops are going to be at a premium.
Like the Ravens, the Titans have undergone a ton of turnover on the offensive line this year. Taylor Lewan is gone for the season. Isaiah Wilson, who was supposed to be a contender at tackle, has dealt with COVID-19 and other personal issues and isn't on the roster. The Titans have been using David Quessenberry, a cancer survivor, at right tackle. Rodger Saffold has already said he is playing, but he was hurt in last week's game and briefly created a situation where Aaron Brewer was called on to play guard. That hasn't seemed to stop either the run or the pass much -- Brewer was called for a hold on a play where it looked like he absolutely dominated his block -- but it's something to watch out for against a, um, better defense than the Houston Texans.
Finally, we'd be remiss to not mention the success that the Titans had with play-action this year. Per Sportradar, they threw for 1,541 yards off 174 play-action passes. That missed the league lead by just 26 yards (go Brian Daboll!), but they did it a little more efficiently than the Bills did on seven fewer attempts. One thing that Sportradar doesn't offer on Pro Football Reference but that we can get from Sports Info Solutions is play-action defense. The Ravens allowed only 6.5 yards per attempt against play-action, which was fourth-best in the league. So, yes, yet another strength-on-strength matchup on this side of the ball.
Each team has one true ace specialist. The Ravens have Justin Tucker, the greatest kicker of his generation. The Titans have Brett Kern, who added 24.2 points of gross estimated field-position value from 2017 to 2019 with his punts, second-most in the NFL. As you'd expect, Tucker's value has shined again this season. Devin Duvernay returned a kickoff for a touchdown in Baltimore's Monday Night loss against Kansas City and has otherwise also been a fairly good returner. Justice Hill has been Baltimore's top special teams tackler with nine, including seven stops.
Kern, on the other hand, has been dinged up this year, and the Titans replaced him with Ryan Allen and Trevor Daniel for five games. If you look at Tennessee's value with just Kern as a punter, it's closer to average. The Titans also have several gaping holes on special teams. Stephen Gostkowski was alarmingly bad to start the season, and Sam Sloman was so untrusted that the Titans went for it on fourth-and-11 at the Houston 37 last week. Gostkowski was on the COVID-19 list in Week 17, but looks like he'll be active for Sunday. Only two Titans kickoff returns all season went past the 30-yard line. Kalif Raymond has had more success as a punt returner, but we're talking about 11 of 45 returns going over 10 yards, and only one above 21.
This is a clear edge for the Ravens, but one that could be a little more muted than the seasonal results spell out.
This is the line that our FO+ picks have as the closest to correct, and thus the one that it predicts with the least confidence. It is not hard to see the path for either team to win the game, and thus, it figures to be one of the closest contests of the weekend. It would be hard to understand how the Titans defense could hold up to much scrutiny given their seasonal record, but the Ravens were actually the one team all season that they held under 310 total offensive yards.
The numbers agree that the Ravens should be favored narrowly. They also want you to take the points with Tennessee.
Cleveland Browns at Pittsburgh Steelers
|DVOA||-5.6% (18)||16.8% (7)|
|WEI DVOA||-0.7% (18)||13.5% (10)|
|Browns on Offense|
|CLE OFF||PIT DEF|
|DVOA||5.4% (9)||-20.2% (1)|
|WEI DVOA||8.2% (8)||-20.0% (4)|
|PASS||20.9% (10)||-19.8% (1)|
|RUSH||-0.8% (7)||-20.7% (5)|
|Steelers on Offense|
|CLE DEF||PIT OFF|
|DVOA||7.4% (25)||-4.7% (22)|
|WEI DVOA||7.0% (25)||-7.9% (22)|
|PASS||16.4% (25)||11.3% (21)|
|RUSH||-5.4% (19)||-26.2% (30)|
|ST DVOA||-3.6% (27)||1.4% (14)|
All readers can click here for the open in-game discussion thread. If you have FO+, you can click here to see all the matchup of DVOA splits for this game.
Playoff games are heated as is. Playoff games between divisional rivals, when one team is making the playoffs for the first time in almost two decades, turn the heat up to Death Valley-in-July levels.
Historically, the Cleveland-Pittsburgh feud has been a one-sided affair, as is the case with most of the Browns' matchups as of late. The Browns have been little more than a nagging younger sibling to the Steelers. Since 2010, the Browns have only beaten the Steelers three times, and never twice in the same season. Only one of those three wins was by more than one score -- the 2014 Browns home game in which Kyle Shanahan was calling their offense.
Even this year's win, despite how much better this Browns team is than usual, was a squeaker. The Browns barely moved past the Steelers in 24-22 fashion while Pittsburgh kept quarterback Ben Roethlisberger on the bench. Steelers fans will be shouting that the game did not matter to them since they already had a top-three seed, while Browns fans on the other side will insist that the loss was part of the Steelers' skid during the second-half of the year and evidence that they can beat them again in the postseason. It's a deservingly petty argument for such a rivalry.
WHEN THE BROWNS HAVE THE BALL
It took some time, but the Kevin Stefanski offense is finally taking shape in Cleveland. Through the first half of the year, the Browns sat at a middling 17th in offensive DVOA. There were a few bright spots throughout that stretch, but performances from quarterback Baker Mayfield in the Ravens and Steelers games gave pause as to how well the offense could really come together.
Over the last half of the season, though, Cleveland has steadily risen to eighth in offensive DVOA, seeing a clear leap in passing DVOA from 16th to seventh. Mayfield is still prone to mistakes from time to time, but he has grown more comfortable within the system and has cut down on some of the panicked plays we saw earlier in the season.
Throughout the ups and downs, a curious dichotomy with the Browns offense is how well they have kept Baker Mayfield clean despite his propensity to hold onto the ball. Cleveland ranks smack-dab in the middle in pressure allowed at 24.6%, yet Mayfield has the second-highest time to throw in the league at 3.05 seconds. Only Eagles rookie quarterback Jalen Hurts ranks higher in that regard than Mayfield, which is both a product of Hurts' play style and a small sample size. Most of the other quarterbacks to rank high in time to throw (Josh Allen, Lamar Jackson, Russell Wilson, etc.) find their offensive lines near the bottom in pressure rate allowed.
That formula is no guarantee to hold up against Pittsburgh, though. In fact, in each of the two divisional meetings this year, the Steelers sacked Mayfield four times apiece. Nothing about that is surprising given Mayfield's slow play style and Pittsburgh's 30.1% pressure rate, which ranks second in the league.
The way in which the Steelers generate pressure is an issue for Mayfield, too. The Steelers love sending blitzers from all over. Whether basic fire zone pressures or "creeper" packages with defenders dropping off the line of scrimmage, Pittsburgh does what they can to tip the numbers in their favor rather than just let their guys get after it.
Tyus Bowser has tied Marcus Peters with a team-high three interceptions in 2020.
— Jonas Shaffer (@jonas_shaffer) December 15, 2020
Mayfield, to this point in his career, has often struggled identifying and battling blitzes, particularly of the "creeper" variety that teams such as Pittsburgh will use sometimes. He threw a back-breaking interception against the Ravens on one such blitz. Expect the Steelers to bring a ton of different blitzes like this.
The saving grace for Mayfield and the Browns passing game is that the Steelers will likely still be without star cornerback Joe Haden. On 69 targets this season, Haden posted an excellent 63.8% coverage success rate, which finished fourth in the league among qualifying cornerbacks. Haden also allowed just 6.6 yards per attempt while giving up an average of 2.5 yards after the catch, both of which landed in the top 20. The rest of the Steelers secondary is still quite good, but it's a pain for any defense to lose their shutdown cornerback on the outside.
All that being said about Mayfield and the passing game, it's the Browns run game that may power them through this one, just as it did in Week 17. Pittsburgh's run defense has gotten notably worse since the Browns and Steelers first faced off in mid-October, a game in which the Browns ran for just 3.4 yards per attempt while Chubb was absent. Last week, though, Cleveland gashed the Steelers for over 6.0 yards per carry. Over the second half of the season, the Steelers defense has fallen to about league average in run defense, so it comes as no surprise that teams like the Browns can run all over them now.
Running back Nick Chubb, in particular, has been a menace in the Browns' versatile run game. They like to lean on zone as their base run concept, but Stefanski blends in some power, counter, and other gap plays to take full advantage of how commanding Chubb can be once he gets a full head of steam going. Chubb has broken 56 tackles on 206 touches this season, coming out to a 27.2% rate that ranks third in the league and first among running backs (minimum 50 touches). Seeing as the Steelers defense is about middle-of-the-road in broken tackles allowed, this game is ripe for some Chubb magic, just like last week.
WHEN THE STEELERS HAVE THE BALL
From a philosophical approach, the Steelers are nothing like their adversaries. Pittsburgh ranks fourth in shotgun rate, while Cleveland ranks 29th. The Steelers were last in both lowest usage of play-action and average yards on those plays; the Browns rank top-10 in each. Despite the low play-action rate, the Steelers are the second-most pass-happy team in the league, while the Browns fall in at 29th in passing rate.
Even the personnel each team plays from is completely different. The Steelers prefer to operate from 11 personnel, doing so about 71% of the time (seventh), per Sharp Football Stats. The Browns, on the other hand, have the third-lowest percentage of plays from 11 personnel, only playing from that personnel grouping about 42% of the time.
Though Ben Roethlisberger has never been one to embrace play-action in recent seasons, this year has been a full move away from it. The Steelers offense has become as dink-and-dunk as it gets in an effort to cater to Roethlisberger's increasingly limited mobility and wavering arm strength. Slants, shallow crossers, stick routes, and the like have become the core of the offense over the deep crossing patterns, post routes, and deep comebacks of Steelers past.
That does not mean the Steelers are YAC stars, though. In fact, because so many of the Steelers passes are underneath that few of them actually get chances to break for big plays. They do not often get guys running 20 yards deep across the middle of the field. Pittsburgh's crew of receivers do a fantastic job squeezing what YAC they can out of each play, but given the structure of the offense, a lot of what they are accomplishing through YAC is turning solid plays into good plays, not good plays into great plays.
That low-cost, low-benefit style of play still has some value to it, though. Sure, their positive plays tend to go for less, but that's a trade-off they are clearly willing to make. For one, the Steelers do a good job of not taking negative plays in the passing game. They have allowed the lowest rate of pressure this season at just 14.6%, thanks in large part to Roethlisberger holding a league-low 2.30 seconds to throw according to Next Gen Stats. Pittsburgh, unsurprisingly, has allowed just 14 sacks, making them the only team to finish the year below 20.
Trying to somehow be the ones to crack Pittsburgh's offensive line is not a worthwhile strategy for the Browns. Mixing in some more creative pressure and "creeper" packages could do some damage, but straight-up trying to tee off against Pittsburgh's quick passing game probably will not do much. Instead, the Browns ought to turn to what they have done for much of the year: sit in zone coverages and try to limit yards after the catch by rallying underneath. The Browns have been middle-of-the-pack this year in terms of pass defense DVOA as well as yards after catch allowed, so they may be able to hold up just fine.
For the most part, defenses have been able to get away with this against Roethlisberger. He still flashes vintage Roethlisberger when attacking man coverage to exploit one-on-ones every now and then, but against zone coverages, Roethlisberger has mostly stuck to taking the easy yards and avoiding troublesome windows further down the field. In 2020, Roethlisberger ranks 30th of 37 quarterbacks (minimum 100 attempts) in success rate when throwing against zone coverages. That bodes quite well for a Browns team that wants to be playing zone coverage anyway.
Do not look for the Pittsburgh run game to be of any help, either. In "substituting" a ton of short passes into the offense to simulate the effect of a run game, the Steelers have entirely abandoned their actual run game. The Steelers rank 30th in rushing offense DVOA on the year and dead-last through the second half of the year. Not only are they bad at run blocking, but the offense does nothing to force or help the run game via game plan. Pittsburgh has simply accepted they can not and will not run the ball save for the bare minimum amount of times that is required to make the defense not completely sell out for the pass. The ethos of the Steelers offense is some bizarro NFL version of a middling Air Raid offense.
The difference here comes down to kicking, mostly. Browns kicker Cody Parkey is 19-of-22 this season, yet has not even attempted a single attempt beyond 50 yards. Steelers kicker Chris Boswell, on the other hand, has missed just one of his 20 attempts and has nailed a 59-yarder. If this game comes down to a potential game-winning field goal, the Steelers probably feel better about that scenario.
Keep an eye on the Steelers' kick return opportunities, too. Though they have not housed one this season, the Steelers' kick return unit ranks a solid 13th, while the Cleveland kickoff defense ranks a putrid 29th. Backup wide receiver Ray-Ray McCloud is Pittsburgh's primary kick returner, though Diontae Johnson also has one attempt.
This game will probably look much closer to the Week 17 matchup between these two teams than their first meeting from earlier in the season. The Browns have gotten much better since that first blowout, particularly on offense, while the Steelers have taken a step back on offense and put extra strain on their defense.
That being said, the Steelers have been the stronger team all season and head coach Mike Tomlin has a much stronger track record to count on in this situation than Stefanski. It may not be a dominant performance, but Pittsburgh should have the edge over their scrappy little brothers in the AFC North.
DVOA (Defense-adjusted Value Over Average) breaks down each play of the season and compares it to the NFL average based on situation and opponent. You'll find it explained further here. Since DVOA measures ability to score, a negative DVOA indicates a better defense and worse offense, and a positive DVOA indicates a better offense and worse defense.
Team DVOA numbers incorporate all plays; since passing is generally more efficient than rushing, the average for passing is actually above 0% while the average for rushing is below 0%.
SPECIAL TEAMS numbers are different; they represent value in points of extra field position gained compared to NFL average. Field goal rating represents points scored compared to average kicker at same distances. All special teams numbers are adjusted by weather and altitude; the total is then translated into DVOA so it can be compared to offense and defense. Those numbers are explained here.
Each team is listed with DVOA for offense and defense, total along with rush and pass, and rank among the 32 teams in parentheses. (If the DVOA values are difficult to understand, it is easy to just look at the ranks.) We also list WEIGHTED DVOA (WEI DVOA), which is based on a formula which drops the value of games early in the season to get a better idea of how teams are playing now (explained here).
Each team also gets a chart showing their performance this year, game-by-game, according to total DVOA. In addition to a line showing each game, another line shows the team's trend for the season, using a rolling average of the last five games. Note that even though the chart appears in the section for when each team has the ball, it represents total performance, not just offense.