Chiefs Brace for Bengals' Empty Threat

Cincinnati Bengals QB Joe Burrow
Cincinnati Bengals QB Joe Burrow
Photo: USA Today Sports Images

NFL Week 17 - Let's bid a fond farewell to the "two high safeties nerf great quarterbacks" narrative, the dumbest smart-person talking point of 2021.

This was the year when clever, insightful NFL tape junkies and thoughtful analytics types, folks who really should have known better, talked themselves into believing that a basic high school tactic was some sort of cheat code for stopping the likes of Patrick Mahomes or Aaron Rodgers. They misled themselves by falling for all manner of distortions and biases: small sample sizes, situational distortions (deep-safety formations are common on third-and-long, when success rates naturally plunge, and nonexistent close to the red zone, where touchdown rates increase but yards per attempt drop), and the wishful thinking that comes from wanting to be an outspoken advocate for a bold new idea.

Most confoundingly, the Two High Safeties crowd lost track of the simple fact that quarterbacks such as Mahomes and Rodgers face more two-deep looks because opponents often have no other choice. Dropping two safeties against a great offense has always been a survival tactic, not an optimal one. It's like claiming that the best way to beat Mike Tyson in a fight is to just cover up. It "worked" because Mahomes and Rodgers made a few mistakes while playing catchup in early-season losses, not because it was ever some sort of countermeasure.

The Chiefs' stats against two-high safeties appear to be normalizing, and everyone conveniently forgot that the meme started with Rodgers, so the Cover-2 family of tactics can now safely return to the their appropriate place in the playbook and our hearts.

Of course, the Chiefs may find themselves lining up with two deep safeties often against the Bengals' empty-backfield sets.

Will the tactic turn out to be Joe Burrow's KRYPTONITE?

Kansas City Chiefs at Cincinnati Bengals, Sunday, 1 p.m.

The Bengals love to empty the backfield and attack with Ja'Marr Chase, Tee Higgins, and Tyler Boyd. Their quarterbacks (mostly Joe Burrow of course) have dropped back to pass 131 times from empty-backfield sets, the fourth-highest total in the NFL. The Bengals' 868 net passing yards from empty backfields rank second to the Rams, the NFL leaders in all things empty. But the Bengals' empty-backfield rate statistics are all middle-of-the-pack, except for one: they lead the NFL with 13 sacks from the formation.

The best way to attack an empty backfield, especially if the receivers are formidable and the quarterback is not a running threat, may be to unleash a four-man pass-rushing stunt or game. If that's the plan, it helps to have Chris Jones, Frank Clark, and Melvin Ingram on the field and Steve Spagnuolo installing the stunts. The Chiefs have faced just 61 empty-backfield pass attempts, tied for the third-lowest total in the NFL. That scans: the Chiefs run defense was horrible early in the season (no good reason to empty the backfield against them), and no one wants to face Spagnuolo's latest NASCAR packages without extra pass protection late in the year. The Chiefs recorded 22 pressures in those 61 pass attempts, which would dissuade most coaches from using the tactic very often.

The Bengals' chances of an upset will likely come down to Zac Taylor's ability to adjust, which has never been his strong suit. The Bengals also didn't suddenly become more consistent because they beat Josh Johnson last week. Trust the Chiefs. And be wary of that Over of 50, because Walkthrough senses a final score in the range of Chiefs 27, Bengals 20.

Las Vegas Raiders at Indianapolis Colts, Sunday, 1 p.m.

Time now for the long-awaited return of the Carson Wentz Victimization Index:

  • Omicron variant? More like "secret pinko plot" variant! Use American letters like an American, comrade. 20 Victimization Points.
     
  • I have been playing well! OK, I have been playing well enough to win games. OK, I have been playing well enough to not lose games. OK, I handed off a lot and did this on Saturday night (-10 VP):

     

  • C'mon, let me play. The CDC is loosening restrictions! Sure, I believe that CDC stands for Commie Disinformation Conspiracy, but I am willing to listen to them when it suits my interests. (-10 VP)
     
  • The point spread dropped nearly a touchdown when news broke that I tested positive. That proves I'm a better quarterback than what's-his-name, my backup. Ian Bookinger or whoever. (-10 VP)
     
  • But what if Philip Rivers signs off the street, starts on Sunday, and outperforms me? (Gasp!) Hey Coach, I need to borrow your phone. Whoopie! I accidently dropped it into a toilet. And accidentally smashed it with a brick 20 times. And accidentally changed Rivers' name in your contacts to Otherfoles Bad bad BAD. (40 VP)
     
  • I cannot get tested again until after the Super Bowl. So really, I'm the hero here. Right? (5 VP)

Total: 35 Victimization Points.

You might think Walkthrough is rooting for Wentz to miss Sunday's game, but a) that would mean he was significantly symptomatic, and no one wants that; and b) we don't want to see the Raiders slip into the playoffs by beating Nick Mullens, Drew Lock, and either Sam Ehlinger or Rivers' oldest child. So c'mon, Carson: beat the virus, benefit from the revised NFL protocols, handoff to Jonathan Taylor a trillion times, lead the Colts to victory against a mediocre opponent, and prove your doubters wrong as only you can! Colts 20, Raiders 16 with Wentz; Raiders 22, Colts 9 without him.

Arizona Cardinals at Dallas Cowboys, Sunday, 4:25 p.m.

No, we aren't imagining things.

One month ago, the Cardinals were 10-2 after going 2-1 with Colt McCoy at quarterback. DVOA ranked them among the league's top contenders on offense and defense, and wins without Kyler Murray or DeAndre Hopkins suggested that they were built for the long haul.

It's now hard to remember what the Cardinals even did well early in the season. Their game plans are gibberish. Their secondary appears incapable of handling routine assignments. Every shotgun snap is a potential disaster. The Cardinals lost punter/holder Andy Lee and were rendered incapable of kicking field goals against the Colts. This is a team whose muffler and tailpipe are about to fall off for the second consecutive year.

The Cowboys, meanwhile, are getting better at about the time of year when the Cowboys traditionally do what the Cardinals are doing. It's time to accept that while the Cowboys might lose to a superior opponent in the postseason, they can no longer be counted upon to beat themselves. Cowboys 33, Cardinals 21.

Denver Broncos at Los Angeles Chargers, Sunday, 4:05 p.m.

Headache-Inducing Week 17 Quarterback Talking Point No. 1: Who would you rather build a franchise around right now, Justin Herbert or Joe Burrow?

  • Burrow just threw for 525 yards and four touchdowns against an opponent with a great reputation but a fourth-string quarterback and zero healthy cornerbacks. Herbert is coming off a stunning upset loss in which his defense collapsed. But don't let Recency Bias sway you!
     
  • Herbert ranks third in the NFL with 1,171 passing DYAR, Burrow 16th with 343 DYAR. Close, right? Not really?
     
  • Did you know that Herbert ranks third in rushing DYAR for quarterbacks with 98? Burrow ranks 29th with -5. Details, details.
     
  • Burrow does have a higher completion rate, yards per attempt, touchdown percentage, and (therefore) efficiency rating. He also has a higher interception rate (Burrow and Herbert are tied for the league lead in interceptions) and a significantly higher (8.9% to 4.6%) sack rate. Sacks aren't just a quarterback stat when you want them to be!
     
  • Herbert is visibly bigger, stronger-armed, and quicker-footed. But that's just Mayock-style scouting.

Look, Burrow is having a fine season and should be a quality NFL starter for a long time. But the only reason to rank him ahead of Herbert right now is because he just put up gonzo stats against a depleted opponent in a game no one watched because Bills-Patriots was on.

Herbert's biggest problem is that the Chargers run defense ranks dead last in the NFL in DVOA. The Broncos rushed for 108 yards in the first half alone in their 28-13 Week 12 victory, while the Chargers committed a sampler platter of their other venial sins (a missed field goal, fourth-down failure in scoring position, Herbert pressing when trailing late). The Broncos could easily repeat that formula on Sunday, but we think the Chargers are getting enough guys back from the COVID list—and will be embarrassed enough when they watch the Texans film—to prevent another meltdown. Chargers 24, Broncos 20.

Houston Texans at San Francisco 49ers, Sunday, 4:05 p.m.

Headache-Inducing Week 17 Quarterback Talking Point No. 2: Maybe Davis Mills is a franchise quarterback!

As mentioned a moment ago, the Chargers defense was depleted and feeble in their loss to the Texans. At one point early in the game, Royce Freeman ran straight up the middle for an easy 18-yard touchdown which was negated by a holding penalty. Rex Burkhead promptly took the next handoff down the left sideline for a 25-yard touchdown. If you can evaluate a quarterback's performance facing a defense that makes a 31-year-old castoff Patriots change-up back look like Derrick Henry, you're much better at this than we are.

As for Mills' splash plays, you either look at completions such as this one and think, "Gosh, that's an Aaron Rodgers-level back-shoulder throw," or "Eh, he just heaved it out there and his receiver made an incredible adjustment for him." Guess which one is almost certainly correct:

Mills appears to be outplaying Zach Wilson and Trevor Lawrence right now, but at some point rookie quarterback performances become so unimpressive—and their game plans so remedial—that we aren't really measuring their capabilities, but whether the opponent mounted a pass rush this week, ortheir receivers broke tackles on screen passes or their head coach was too busy screaming and sexting to pay attention during practice. Mills is indeed better than many of us thought he would be, but Walkthrough thought he would be Nathan Peterman, so we have a ways to go before suggesting that the Texans have solved their on-field quarterback problem.

Anyway, Trey Lance will almost certainly start for the 49ers due to Jimmy Garoppolo's hand injury. Mike Shanahan hyped up how much Lance has improved in practice over the last month, which means either: a) Shanahan is lying for the sake of lying (always a possibility); or b) we should see more from Lance than the designed runs and 120 mph fastballs-to-everywhere we saw in the Week 5 Cardinals loss.

We'll see one bona fide rookie quarterback of the future in this game, but probably not two. 49ers 23, Texans 13.

Cleveland Browns at Pittsburgh Steelers, Monday, 8:15 p.m.

Sunday will likely be Ben Roethlisberger's final home game at Heinz Field. Steelers Nation is commemorating this historic moment by pointing fingers and assigning blame for a season which went as well as most impartial outsiders thought it would.

Offensive coordinator Matt Canada is under lots and lots of fire for not finding ways to score 27 points per game with an immobile, creaky-shouldered quarterback and a patchwork offensive line. Mike Tomlin offered Canada a tepid endorsement on Monday. "I have no reservations about the play-calling component of his job and what he has done," Tomlin said. "But I will also acknowledge there's probably a learning curve at every job that pertains to the National Football League." Translation: My job is safe, and I will sacrifice my pawns when I choose to.

Wide receiver Diontae Johnson, meanwhile, called out fans for criticizing the Steelers offensive line. "If it's so easy—from a person speaking that's not on the team that's a regular fan—why don't you come out here and do it for us? Show me, you feel me, that you can do it better than me." Nothing screams "laser-sharp focus on the team's objectives" like playing the let's see you do a better job, puny fanboy card!

Forgive the Steelers and their fan base. They're not used to the team and the quarterback being undeniably below average or entertaining criticism about anyone except skill-position players who dance too much or ask to be paid market value. That's why everyone's lashing out at everyone else.

The Steelers Jedi Mind-Tricked the Browns into thinking they were a competent passing team in Week 8, picked up a key fourth-and-short stop, came out on the better end of the fumble-and-penalty sweepstakes, and slopped out a 15-10 victory. They have done similar things to other opponents this season, but the Browns are healthier and eager to restore a little dignity, and the Steelers sound ready to clean out their lockers. Browns 24, Steelers 19.

Miami Dolphins at Tennessee Titans, Sunday, 1 p.m.

Walkthrough was hoping for a Monday night referendum on Tua Tagovailoa. Instead we got more RPO Crapwagon, some inane Wildcattery, the obligatory ugly interception, a pair of nearly disastrous sacks in field goal range, and just enough competence for an easy win over a team starting their fourth-string quarterback.

So let's try it again: THIS will be the referendum on Tagovailoa's future: real playoff stakes, an opponent that should be coming out the other side of their COVID crisis by kickoff. If Tua plays well on Sunday, we'll ease up on the skepticism a little bit.

(Let's hope we didn't just hex a safe into falling on Ryan Tannehill's head or something). Titans 22, Dolphins 20.

Philadelphia Eagles at Washington Football Team, Sunday, 1 p.m.

The Eagles now rank fourth in rushing DVOA, second in adjusted line yards, first in (lowest) stuff rate, first in raw rushing yards (2,448), and third in yards per carry (5.1). Yet Nick Sirianni still starts games with a flurry of dropback passes and easy-to-diagnose screens. It's as if he's trying to prove to the analytics community that he doesn't believe in establishing the run. We get it, Coach. Now just run the ball until the opponent surrenders, please.

Speaking of surrendering, Washington entered their Cowboys-Eagles-Cowboys-Eagles layer cake as solid wild-card contenders and will be lucky to exit it without beating the snot out of each other on the sideline. They have faced the toughest past schedule in the league and got hammered by COVID just before the CDC-NFL-NFLPA loosened restrictions, so it's easy to understand their frustration and predict that they have one bounce-back game left in them. Walkthrough has the Fatalist Iggles Fan jitters, but we wager with our minds, not our anxieties. Eagles 22, Washington 17.

Los Angeles Rams at Baltimore Ravens, Sunday, 4:25 p.m.

Some Rams notes …

  • Odell Beckham has caught four touchdown passes in his last five games. But, ya know, he was the reason Baker Mayfield was struggling in Cleveland.
     
  • Sony Michel has rushed for 423 yards and 4.75 yards per carry in four December games. Michel now has 1,356 career regular-season rushing yards in December/January, 44.9% of his career total. We know late-season battering-ram running backs are not supposed to be a thing, but Bill Belichick and Sean McVay seem to disagree with us.
     
  • The Rams possess the second-best red zone defense (and the best red zone passing defense) in the NFL. They held the Vikings to just two touchdowns on five red zone trips (two of which were the result of Matthew Stafford interceptions) in their Week 16 victory.
     
  • Cooper Kupp ranks dead last in QYRA%, a super-secret but 1000% legitimate receiving metric Walkthrough just dreamed up. He also doesn't change the toilet paper when finishing a roll and likes to brag at parties about how he does not own a television. (Editor's Note: Tanier has an outstanding +2000 bet from November for Jonathan Taylor to win Offensive Player of the Year. Please ignore his Kupp slander.)

The Ravens' only path to victory will be to take advantage of an early-game Stafford turnover spree the way the Titans and 49ers did earlier in the season (and the Vikings tried to do on Sunday). That tactic generally involves having a handful of healthy starters, which means it is likely to fail. Rams 30, Ravens 20.

Jacksonville Jaguars at New England Patriots, Sunday, 1 p.m.

Headache-Inducing Week 17 Quarterback Talking Point No. 3: Trevor Lawrence versus Mac Jones. Nature versus nurture. The worst possible environment for a rookie quarterback versus a nearly ideal environment. "Golly, mayhap the time has come for us to worry that Lawrence is a bust?" talking points versus "Anyone who doesn't see that Jones is identical to Tom Brady is just a hater" talking points.

Given the Prince and the Pauper treatment, Lawrence would be the runaway Offensive Rookie of the Year and Jones would probably be injured by now. But none of that matters. Jones may be fading a bit but still has all day to throw and a defense that keeps the Patriots in most games, while Lawrence is basically playing a first-person shooter solo mission.

The 15.5-point spread appears a little high, but the Jaguars appear content to settle in with the first overall pick, while the Patriots have some frustrations to work out. Patriots 31, Jaguars 13.

Atlanta Falcons at Buffalo Bills, Sunday, 1 p.m.

Walkthrough covered the arbitrary milestone that Josh Allen reached (100 passing touchdowns and 20 rushing touchdowns in his first four seasons) on Wednesday.

The Falcons are 14-point dogs, so the house is not fooled by their 7-8 record. The Falcons' average margin of defeat in losses this year has been 19.4 points, while the average Bills margin of victory in wins has been a whopping 23.6 points. The Falcons probably don't have a backdoor cover in them, but they will find some way to tick us off, so we're predicting a push. Bills 34, Falcons 20.

Tampa Bay Buccaneers at New York Jets, Sunday, 1 p.m.

Cyril Grayson, a low-center-of-gravity speedster who has hung around the Buccaneers practice squad for three seasons, has temporarily taken over the Chris Godwin role in the Bucs offense. Grayson caught a 62-yard bomb against the Panthers in Week 16 and a 50-yard touchdown against the Saints in Week 8, and he's also a threat on screens and end arounds.

Ke'Shawn Vaughn, a third-round pick in 2020, has taken over Leonard Fournette's role as the rusher who provides occasional splash highlights and makes lots of mistakes as a receiver but still gets opportunities. Vaughn is more explosive than Fournette, but a firecracker fished out of the bottom of a lake would also be more explosive than Fournette.

The Jets have played with a lot of pride in the last two weeks, but if pride did them any good against Tom Brady when playoff seedings are on the line, they wouldn't be the Jets. Buccaneers 27, Jets 16.

Carolina Panthers at New Orleans Saints, Sunday, 1 p.m.

Walkthrough covered the Panthers in Wednesday's TankWatch.

The Saints playoff hopes remain very much alive after Monday night's Book Fair strictly because they face the Panthers and Falcons down the stretch. It's worth mentioning that the Saints aren't in danger of missing the playoffs because Ian Book is terrible, but because Trevor Siemian and Taysom Hill are terrible and Book managed to be worse than street free agents such as Josh Johnson and Garrett Gilbert: replacement-level quarterback play might have been enough for a win on Monday night. At any rate, Hill is expected to return and could easily play the hero with a pair of late-season wins. Sean Payton's creepy fascination wouldn't have it any other way.

The fact that this is only the third-most depressing game on the Week 17 schedule is a testament to how miserable the Seahawks, Giants, and Bears have become. Saints 22, Panthers 16.

Detroit Lions at Seattle Seahawks, Sunday, 4:25 p.m.

The Seahawks have been more sad than bad, more inconsequential than awful in 2021. A spectacular flameout full of recriminations and trade demands might have been better for the organization in the long run than this season's long, slow fizzle, culminating with a dreary last-minute loss to the Bears in the snow last week.

"What's Next for the Seahawks?" content will become a popular subgenre of speculative fiction in the weeks to come, and this is not the space for musings about the futures of Pete Carroll or Russell Wilson. Walkthrough will instead stick with what's certain: the Seahawks are 7.5-point favorites, and the Lions are gonna cover. Seahawks 23, Lions 17.

New York Giants at Chicago Bears, Sunday, 1 p.m.

This will be a bad coaching clinic worthy of preservation in the National Archives. The over-under for punts in this game should be 17.5. At least the Bears must only put up with two more weeks of this. The Giants appear to have eagerly signed on for another year. The lifelong Eagles fan in Walkthrough hopes they don't see the light, but the lover of football, meritocracy, and life itself within me hopes that they do. Bears 19, Giants 13.

Minnesota Vikings at Green Bay Packers, Sunday, 8:20 p.m.

There was some talk on the postgame show and some chatter on Twitter after the Christmas night Packers victory over the Browns about how "happy" the ceaselessly surly Aaron Rodgers looked after the game.

As a society, we should be judged by the quality of happiness we provide for Rodgers, who looked ready to stab a kitten with an ice pick when Davante Adams dropped a deep sideline pass late in the fourth quarter.

As for the Packers, there's nothing healthier in any relationship, professional or personal, than the one-sided sacrifice of all energy, resources, and dignity in an effort to provide moments of fleeting joy to someone willing to toss you onto the curb like a dead pine tree the moment you stop catering to them.

The Vikings upset the Packers in Week 11 mostly because Kirk Cousins' turnover-worthy plays kept getting overturned/nullified by penalties/recovered by his teammates, leading directly to Vikings touchdowns. That made Rodgers sad, and we should all be ashamed of ourselves for letting it happen. Rest assured that he will earn his revenge this week, and we can therefore all feel good about ourselves. Packers 32, Vikings 23.

Comments

9 comments, Last at 01 Jan 2022, 11:25pm

1 Journeys end in lovers…

Journeys end in lovers meeting.  Tom Brady loves playing the Jets in Met Life.  I'm just thinking he's going to end up like Eleanor in Haunting of Hill House.  Not that the Jets defense will do anything, because they aren't capable of anything like tackling a quarterback (except for Bryce Hall, and he's a cornerback).  No, Brady is going to punch the turf after throwing a touchdown pass and break his hand.  It wouldn't be the first player that turf has taken out by itself.  Just calling it as I see, not wishing for it (because I really don't care since he's out of New England).

2 No live organism can…

No live organism can continue for long to exist sanely under conditions of absolute reality; even larks and katydids are supposed, by some, to dream. Met Life, not sane, stood by itself against its swamps, holding dankness within; it had stood for ten years and might stand for ten more. Within, passes continued upright, tendons snapped neatly, turf was firm, and doors were sensibly shut; silence lay steadily against the wood and stone of Hill House, and whoever rooted there, rooted alone.

3 Just wrong

“we don't want to see the Raiders slip into the playoffs by beating Nick Mullens, Drew Lock, and either Sam Ehlinger or Rivers' oldest child.”. Oh, yes we do.

”in a game no one watched because Bills-Patriots was on.” Except for all the people who live in the AFC North region, where CBS televised CIN-BAL.

”This will be a bad coaching clinic worthy of preservation in the National Archives.”

It does not archive porn.

7 I can envision Odell Beckham…

I wouldn't hold Odell Beckham completely blameless. I can envision Beckham giving Baker Mayfield fits by rearranging the furniture in Mayfield's 'home'.

8 About Tua, if the question…

About Tua, if the question is, will he be a top 10 QB? Then (spoiler alert!), we'll have to wait until next year to find out. But if the question still is, has he improved from last year? That conversation doesn't feel relevant anymore. Last year Tua had -8.5% DVOA and 56 DYAR. This year it's 2.2% and 308. For comparison's sake, Burrow had -7.3% DVOA and 108 DYAR last year and -1.3% and 343 this year. So not only has Tua improved more by DVOA than Burrow has, he currently has a higher DOVA, period. All the usual caveats apply, including the fact that Burrow is a higher volume passer (and so therefore less efficiency is expected), as well as the fact that PFF is still grading the Dolphins OL as "a historically bad unit".

Of course, Burrow is flashier and sexier, but that's totally beside the point. Tua has RPOs, Burrow can toss it up to Chase, Josh Allen can scramble, Brady can dump it off to RBs. All QBs have their particular cheat codes they take advantage of.

9 I know Kyle got older really…

I know Kyle got older really quick but he still looks slightly younger enough than his father Mike Shanahan to avoid confusion :)

Great article by the way. Walkthrough has been a joy to read.