Week 3 Previews: Can Aaron Rodgers Beat 49ers' Cover-2?
Game of the Week: Green Bay Packers at San Francisco 49ers, Sunday, 8:20 p.m.
Aaron Rodgers has a weakness: a defense with two high safeties.
Seriously, that's his weakness.
How is everyone keeping a straight face when talking/writing about this? As weaknesses go, this is Silver Age comic book stuff: Green Lantern rings not working against anything yellow, or Martians being afraid of fire. It's like the Wicked Witch of the West (or some M. Night Shyamalan aliens) melting when exposed to water. Their only weakness was that they could be insta-killed by the most common and prevalent substance on the planet! And Rodgers' only weakness is the defensive concept you learned in high school, the one you have been calling in Madden since you were old enough to hold a controller. Two-deep looks, Man-2 in particular, would be Rodgers' Kryptonite if Kryptonite was as common as driveway gravel.
I can't stop thinking about the big-brain coaching energy at work here.
DEFENSIVE COACHING GENIUS: I have tried everything to stop Rodgers and the Packers, from Fire X Invert Cloud Robber Joker Thumbs to Cover Quarter-Quarter-Fifth-Fifth-Twentieth-Twentieth. Nothing works!
SMALL CHILD WANDERING INTO THE ROOM: Have you tried covering each of his guys with one of your guys, then keeping two guys deep just in case?
DEFENSIVE COACHING GENIUS: (long pause) Imma steal that.
That tracks after a Monday night Packers win that brought us this halftime exchange:
MATT LAFLEUR: Mayhaps we should endeavor to apply some pressure to the opposing quarterback.
JOE BARRY: Hmmm…
The funniest thing about Rodgers' two-deep allergy is that it appears to be kinda-sorta true. The Lions, with their caveman-level approach to cause and effect, saw the Saints embarrass Rodgers with lots of two-high looks and kept their safeties deep so often on Monday night that there are images of Tracy Walker and Will Harris burned onto the right edge of my television screen. Rodgers threw for 255 yards and four touchdown passes, but three of the touchdowns were shorties, and on the deep one Rodgers just said "the hell with this" and fit the ball between three defenders to Robert Tonyan. Overall, Rodgers appeared a little frustrated to be facing non-stop two-deep zones, and the talent-starved Lions would have stayed in the game if Jared Goff could have held on to slippery balls. (Yes, I am 12 years old. Why do you ask?)
Rodgers wants to force the ball deep. And when Rodgers cannot do what he wants to do, well, he does it anyway. LaFleur knows the Packers can run the ball against a two-deep shell but grows bored with the running game quickly, or perhaps he worries that Rodgers will grow bored of the running game quickly.
A steady diet of Man-2, with some Cover-2 and quarters in the mix, forces the Packers to either turn into an I-formation Aaron Jones-heavy offense or baits Rodgers into taking some risky shots. Either option is preferable to designing some intricate scheme that just results in Rodgers and Davante Adams playing 40-yard pitch-and-catch all day.
To play predominantly two-deep shells with the hope of doing more than covering the spread, a defense must have a front that can both stop the run effectively and rush the passer without blitzing. The 49ers have Nick Bosa, Arik Armstread, Dee Ford, Javon Kinlaw, D.J. Jones, and others rotating on their line, plus Fred Warner at linebacker. Their run defense got pushed around a bit by the Lions, but they can generate an all-angles pass rush without blitzing. A two-deep heavy game plan will also allow the 49ers to cover for their shortcomings at cornerback.
Their ability to keep their safeties deep without sacrificing run defense or pass rush does not assure the 49ers of victory, and that -3.5 spread hovers right where DVOA and the EdjSports app land on this game, making a wager tricky. But I don't love the Packers defensive front or pass protection right now. That essentially leaves Rodgers and his High Noon tactics. Those are still mighty effective against any defense, but the Packers are gonna need more now that opponents have finally learned to sit back and wait for them. 49ers 26, Packers 23.
Tampa Bay Buccaneers at Los Angeles Rams, Sunday, 4:25 p.m.
I'm trying to buy into the whole "Matthew Stafford makes the Rams Super Bowl contenders" storyline. I really am. I see them atop the Buccaneers in the DVOA rankings, right below the, ahem, Panthers. But … the Buccaneers are better at quarterback, running back, wide receiver, tight end, on the offensive line, on the overall defensive line, at linebacker, and on special teams. That leaves the secondary as the only Rams advantage on the field, and that's not enough.
As for coaching, Sean McVay's offense used to be about creative pre-snap motion and spreading the ball to as many weapons as possible. So far this season the only thing the Rams really excel at is getting the ball to a wide-open Cooper Kupp. They have done a spectacular job of getting Kupp wide open multiple times through two games, but that's not going to be enough against Tom Brady's Fast & Furious family.
Rest assured that the Rams will reach the playoffs with about 11 wins this year, which is vast improvement over last year if you don't think too hard about it. Buccaneers 37, Rams 31.
Seattle Seahawks at Minnesota Vikings, Sunday, 4:25 p.m.
Dalvin Cook suffered a minor ankle injury against the Cardinals and missed practice time this week. But Mike Zimmer plans to play him on Sunday. "Dalvin's a tough guy," Zimmer said on Wednesday. "If he can't play, there's a reason why he's not playing. But he makes us go, so we're going to continue to play him."
Folks, this is how EVERYTHING bad happens. This is the mentality that results in teams like the Vikings underperforming. This is why conservative defense-oriented head coaches banish otherwise well-constructed teams to wild-card purgatory. This is why running backs wash out of the NFL by age 27. This may be the freakin' butterfly effect cause of world hunger. The whole chain of events—overvaluing a running back, overpaying him, overusing him because you overvalue and overpay him, rinsing-and-repeating while the returns diminish—is a huge honking metaphor for the institutional mediocrity that cripples the very foundations of our society.
(Pants heavily. Looks around with scary Adam Gase eyes).
OK, I walked the dog and drank a smoothie. I'm better now.
The Seahawks have won seven straight games against the Vikings in the regular season and playoffs. Their games are often close and a little silly because, well, look at the participants. Walkthrough was smelling an upset before Zimmer unveiled his feed the injured running back strategy. The Vikings didn't lose their first two games because of bad luck. Everything about them is just designed to lose close games. Seahawks 27, Vikings 24.
Chicago Bears at Cleveland Browns, Sunday, 1 p.m.
(At a midweek press conference in Chicago)
REPORTER: Coach, can you confirm for us that Justin Fields will start on Sunday?
MATT NAGY: I don't answer questions about scheme.
REPORTER: That's not a scheme question. It's a personnel question.
NAGY: And just what do you think personnel does? They execute scheme. Ergo, it's a scheme question.
REPORTER: OK, well can you tell us what challenges the Browns offense pose for the Bears on Sunday.
NAGY: I don't answer questions about scheme.
NAGY: The Browns run a scheme. We run a scheme to stop them. Asking me what challenges they pose is tantamount to asking me to reveal strategic secrets about both schemes. And I am far too shrewd to give up such a tactical advantage.
REPORTER: Coach, are you feeling OK?
NAGY: That's a HIPAA violation. I have the right to not answer that question under the First and Fifth Amendments.
REPORTER: Are there any questions you are willing to answer?
NAGY: That's a scheme question. Not answering questions is part of my overall tactical philosophy. So I refuse to tell you whether or not I am willing to answer questions.
REPORTER: But your refusal to answer a question about your willingness to answer questions is, in fact, an answer to that question. You just violated your own policy.
NAGY: What? No! (Short-circuits and bursts into flames).
So, Nagy is … a robot? Just roll with it.
Walkthrough discussed the Browns wide receiver situation a bit on Thursday. Seven points are a lot to lay against an opponent that's better than its reputation and a rookie quarterback with playmaking ability making his first start. Browns 24, Bears 20.
Washington Football Team at Buffalo Bills, Sunday, 1 p.m.
Some Taylor Heinicke odds that you won't find anywhere else:
- Over-under on the number of receivers injured while trying to catch Heinicke moon rockets this season: 1.5.
- Odds announcers will make a vague comparison between Heinicke and Josh Allen on Sunday based on their daring play and reputation for aiming their throws for the fifth row: -150.
- Odds you will scoff at that comparison when you first hear it, then think about it for a moment and go, "Hmmmm…": -120.
- Odds that Heinicke vs. Ryan Fitzpatrick snowballs into an organization-consuming controversy, even though both are obvious stopgaps at best: -200. (They would be -2000 without Ron Rivera).
- Odds that Fitzpatrick throws gasoline on the controversy with a self-serving public statement that is somehow interpreted as "refreshing honesty.": -3000.
- Odds that Heinicke will lead Washington to victory against a team that will punish him (and his receivers) for every high throw and can take advantage of the fact that Washington's back seven is not nearly as good as their front four: +310.
Those were Washington's actual odds to win as of Friday. Walkthrough doesn't like 'em. The +7.5 spread, however, is right on the cusp of being appealing. Bills 23, Washington 16.
Indianapolis Colts at Tennessee Titans, Sunday, 1 p.m.
Walkthrough semi-proudly presents The Stations of the Wentz, a Carson Wentz Victimization Index doxology.
I Carson is condemned by the Eagles fans.
II Frank Reich helps Carson carry his burden.
III Carson falls the first time.
IV Carson rejects the life-saving medicine.
V Carson is betrayed by his offensive line, or at least that's how it's being spun.
VI Carson is mocked for throwing the shovel-pass interception.
VII Carson falls the second time.
(All bow your heads and solemnly acknowledge his effort to play through two sprained ankles).
VII The angry mob clamors for Jacob Eason over Carson.
VIII Frank Reich is tempted by a Deshaun Watson trade offer.
IX Carson falls the third time (let's go with a Week 11 back injury against the Bills).
X Carson is stripped of his starting job.
XI Carson is banished to Houston.
As every former altar boy knows, this particular liturgy does NOT end with a resurrection. Titans 24, Colts 14.
Los Angeles Chargers at Kansas City Chiefs, Sunday, 1 p.m.
The Chargers lead the NFL with 49.4 yards per drive but rank 31st in red zone DVOA; the Patriots, who noodled around in the red zone when leading the Jets last week, ranked last. Penalties have been a big part of the red zone problem for the Chargers, but Brandon Staley also wants to see them run the ball more effectively near the goal line. "I think if we can run the ball better, we'll put ourselves in more favorable down-and-distances down there," he said this week.
The Chargers have rushed 12 times for 28 yards in the red zone after three Justin Herbert kneels are taken out of the data. That's not very good. Part of the problem may be that Austin Ekeler isn't a thumper between the tackles: that type of back remains useful near the goal line. The Chiefs defense ranks 31st against red zone rushing, so the Chargers should try to figure something out.
The Chiefs are just 4-4 at clearing overs of 55 or greater in the Patrick Mahomes era. But if the Chargers can figure out how to run the ball, line up properly, and avoid "in the grasp" sacks in the red zone, the over could be safe by the middle of the third quarter. Chiefs 38, Chargers 31.
New Orleans Saints at New England Patriots, Sunday, 1 p.m.
The de-evolution of a perennial powerhouse once their legendary quarterback leaves:
STAGE 1: "We're geniuses! Watch us rehabilitate this former first-overall pick!" (2020 Patriots, 2021 Saints).
STAGE 2: "Our roster is still stacked! We can win with the fifth-best rookie in the draft pool!" (2021 Patriots, probably 2022 Saints).
STAGE 3: "What we need is a game manager whom the veterans in the locker room trust to compete with our fifth-best rookie." (the Broncos, for several years).
STAGE 4: "Eh, maybe we should draft another fifth-best rookie with some upside to compete with our game manager." (also the Broncos).
STAGE 5: "How can you talk about rebuilding while Dont'a Hightower/Demario Davis still anchors the 13th-best defense in the league?"
STAGE 6: A coach who once ruled like an emperor answers questions about his team's quarterback dilemma by saying "I don't talk about scheme." Patriots 22, Saints 17.
Miami Dolphins at Las Vegas Raiders, Sunday, 4:05 p.m.
It's hard to find things that the Raiders are truly great at. Sifting through the situational DVOA splits, they're below average-to-pretty good at most meaningful elements of football. Their defensive line metrics are strong and their offensive line metrics rather weak, an unexpected pair of results, considering their personnel, the nature of the opponents they upset, and the look and feel of their first two games. It's best to toss the Raiders onto the "possible wild cards" rack and let the numbers bake a little longer.
On the other hand, it's easy to find something the Dolphins are terrible at: offense. Ensign Jacoby Brissett will be sitting in the commander's chair for a while, and Brissett has been a capable short-term spark plug in the past. Brissett, Will Fuller, a weaker opposing defense, and desperation could get the Dolphins back on track this week, though I am not convinced enough to bet my own money on it. Dolphins 22, Raiders 20.
Cincinnati Bengals at Pittsburgh Steelers, Sunday, 1 p.m.
Two teams. Two quarterbacks in need of protection. About four total half-decent offensive linemen. At least six dynamic wide receivers. Endless over-engineered screen passes, Occasional deep shots that take eight seconds to wobble to their targets. One game that's likely to be much closer than you expect. Or maybe not, since the Steelers are mere three-point home favorites. Steelers 22, Bengals 13.
Atlanta Falcons at New York Giants, Sunday, 1 p.m.
The Falcons opened as 3.5-point underdogs. Imagine being 3.5 point underdogs to the freakin' Giants. But the Falcons have come by their fate honestly: the Giants should smoke them simply by virtue of having a functioning defensive front seven. Still, Walkthrough's wagering advice for this game remains never ever ever ever EVER bet on a Falcons game. Ever. Giants 28, Falcons 17.
Baltimore Ravens at Detroit Lions, Sunday, 1 p.m.
Walkthrough covered Lamar Jackson "hitting for the cycle" against the Chiefs on Wednesday. The Lions can run the ball through an opponent's ribcage, making them a danger to keep every game close. That makes the Backdoor Cover Force strong in them, especially as nine-point home dogs. Ravens 31, Lions 24.
Arizona Cardinals at Jacksonville Jaguars, Sunday, 1 p.m.
The Cardinals rely on Kyler Murray's sandlot scramble-and-throw plays to generate much of their offense. Their stars 'n' scrubs defense can shut down Derrick Henry one week but get gouged by Dalvin Cook the next. Arizona has a self-destructive streak when it comes to penalties and turnovers, and they needed lots of things to break right (a 62-yard Matt Prater field goal, Greg Joseph's end-of-game miss, a fumble near the end zone that was ruled out-of-bounds, etc.) to narrowly beat the Vikings.
In other words, the Cardinals are the Chiefs Lite. But how lite? They will roll on Sunday, of course. We'll know much more about them after they face the Rams and 49ers in Weeks 4 and 5. For now, they have picked a very good team to impersonate. Cardinals 26, Jaguars 12.
New York Jets at Denver Broncos, Sunday, 4:05 p.m.
This concludes the bunny farm section of the Broncos schedule: they face the Rams, Steelers, Raiders, and Browns over the next month.
The Broncos have the easiest schedule in the AFC West because they drew the Jaguars and Jets, fellow last-place finishers, in their at-large conference games and the last-place Lions in their bonus 17th-game interconference matchup. Their playoff odds are 74.7% and should climb slightly higher after they beat Fordham on Sunday. It pays to finish in last place without completely flatlining as an organization. Broncos 27, Jets 13.
Philadelphia Eagles at Dallas Cowboys, Monday, 8:15 p.m.
How this game will go:
- All of Jalen Hurts' pass attempts will be screens or bombs outside the numbers. It will take the Cowboys coaching staff until halftime to realize this.
- All of Dak Prescott's pass attempts will be quick hitches if his receivers line up split wide or quick outs to the flats if they line up tight. The Eagles coaching staff have already figured this out but won't be able to do much about it because Prescott, Amari Cooper, and CeeDee Lamb are really good.
- A 90-yard DeVonta Smith reception nets zero points when Nick Sirianni calls three straight Statue of Liberty plays at the goal line, followed by a missed field goal.
- You know that play where Tony Pollard motions into the backfield, Prescott fakes a handoff to Ezekiel Elliott, then tosses to Pollard on a sweep? The one that looks cool and always catches the defense off guard? The Cowboys will run that once, but with Blake Jarwin instead of Pollard.
- The Cowboys will, however, line up with Pollard split wide left in a wacky formation with two tight ends and an offensive lineman in front of him. Prescott will hand off to Elliott for 4 yards.
- Hurts is called "in the grasp" for a loss of 16 on a third-and-goal pass attempt when Micah Parsons slaps Hurts' shoelaces with a pinkie. The bust of Randall Cunningham in the Eagles Ring of Honor sheds real tears.
- After the Cowboys defeat a second straight opponent that outplays them but self-destructs at the goal line, the main talking point around Dallas will be Elliott's selflessness. Cowboys 24, Eagles 21.