Week 4 Previews: Brady and Belichick, the Homecoming Kings
Game of the Week: Arizona Cardinals at Los Angeles Rams, Sunday, 4:05 p.m.
Football is a deceptively simple game. If your offense creates big plays and your defense prevents big plays, your team is probably gonna do pretty well.
The Rams have produced six offensive plays of 40-plus yards, the most in the NFL. The Cardinals have produced 15 passing plays of 20-plus yards, the third-highest figure (Raiders, Buccaneers) in the NFL.
The Cardinals have allowed just four passing plays and two rushes of 20-plus yards. They rank second in the NFL (Bills) on DVOA against deep passes; more on that in a moment.
The Rams have allowed nine passes and one rush of 20-plus yards. The run came by David Montgomery on the second play of the season, and four of the passes were by Tom Brady in the second half of the Rams' Week 3 victory over the Buccaneers. The Rams rank sixth in deep-passing defensive DVOA. Deep-passing DVOA and the ability to stop big passing plays are not quite the same thing, but I feel safe painting with a broad brush when dealing with just three games' worth of data.
So the Rams are outstanding at generating big plays and pretty good at preventing them. The Cardinals, meanwhile, are very good at generating big plays but excellent at stopping them. Or are they?
Opponents have only thrown 15-plus yards downfield 11 times against the Cardinals. Ryan Tannehill was 1-of-3 for 29 yards and one interception, with Taylor Lewan playing left tackle on crutches. Kirk Cousins was 2-for-4 for 79 yards and an opening-drive touchdown. Trevor Lawrence, a rookie operating a barely functional offense, was 1-for-4 for 25 yards. Sports Info Solutions marked pressure on six of these 11 dropbacks: the Cardinals secondary has faced just five deep passing attempts from a clean pocket.
The Cardinals might have a great deep-passing defense. It's more likely that they haven't been challenged yet and that their pass rush, while certainly formidable, has benefitted from some unique circumstances. Having withstood Brady and the Bucs, the Rams pass defense is probably what we think it is. Their deep passing offense is almost certainly what we think it is.
That theme can be extended to the teams themselves. The Rams just manhandled the defending champions and beat the Bears convincingly on national television two weeks ago. They got sloppy against the Colts but still came away with a win. They have proven that they're Super Bowl contenders.
The Cardinals? They needed a 62-yard field goal and a missed end-of-game chip shot to beat the Vikings. The Jaguars played them close and led late in the third quarter last week. The Cardinals trounced the Titans in Week 1, but we have all seen misleading Week 1 results before.
The Cardinals have a deep skill-position corps and a strong pass rush. Both Kyler Murray and Kliff Kingsbury have taken steps forward in terms of creativity and consistency. But they're almost certainly overvalued right now. And they're about to discover that stopping Matthew Stafford and Sean McVay is a wee bit harder than stopping the opponents they have faced so far. Rams 34, Cardinals 24.
Seattle Seahawks at San Francisco 49ers, Sunday, 4:05 p.m.
(In the quarterback room at 49ers headquarters).
KYLE SHANAHAN: Okay fellas, it's time to install this week's game plan.
JIMMY GAROPPOLO: Yes sir!
TREY LANCE: I'm ready! I'm ready! I'm ready!
SHANNY: We all learned in Thursday's Walkthrough that the Seahawks defense can be shredded by offensive balance and short passes underneath. Which is perfect because we're, um, saving Jimmy's deep game for when we really need it.
GAROPPOLO: Great thinking, Coach!
LANCE: I can throw deep!
SHANNY: Of course you can, kiddo. Anyway, I have designed a package of plays that operate like triple-options, and they worked very well in the third quarter against the Packers last week. Deebo or Kittle lines up like a wingback, and Jimmy either hands off to the running back or flairs the ball out to the wing. The only thing that's missing from these plays is the threat of a quarterback keeper. Jimmy, you don't run all that well, so we can't add that dimension to this series, which would be lethal if we had a dual-threat quarterback.
GAROPPOLO: I understand, Coach!
LANCE: I'm a dual-threat quarterback!
SHANNY: Also, I have installed a package of end-arounds, screens, and misdirection plays as well. They're designed to diversify the offense while hiding a quarterback's limitations. They're perfect for you, Jimmy.
GAROPPOLO: Yes sir!
LANCE: Gosh, I would look swell in a system designed to get the ball to its playmakers so easily.
SHANNY: Now, we're going to put Trey in the shotgun for our short-yardage package...
LANCE: Finally! I'm ready for anything you throw at me, coach!
SHANNY: ... Kyle Juszczyk will motion across the formation from the slot...
LANCE: Oh boy oh boy oh boy, Imma get to execute some genius play! Shovel pass? Misdirection keeper? Philly Special?
SHANNY: … and Juice takes the direct snap handoff and plunges into the line for 2 yards!
LANCE: Gah! C'mon, Coach. I appreciate the goal-line plays you designed for me, but I am ready for more.
SHANNY: Sorry, Trey. I read in the New York Times that rookie quarterbacks are doing terribly this year. You don't want to get sacked nine times, do you?
LANCE: But you're a game-planning wizard, not like those knuckleheads in Chicago. And this system is designed to cater to quarterbacks who might not be ready to read the whole field or have a feel for the pass rush just yet. If it wasn't, Pretty Boy over there would be backing up Baker Mayfield by now.
GAROPPOLO: Compliment accepted!
SHANNY: Trey, I watched Robert Griffin get the full passion play treatment in Washington. I was at Ground Zero for the Johnny Manziel experience, and while Manziel had his own issues, your situation is also rather unique. Heck, I shepherded Pretty Bo—er, Jimmy through lots of ups and downs here in San Francisco. Someday, you will thank me for shielding you from the expectations, for not inviting a quarterback controversy, and for giving you as long an onramp as possible to go from the FCS through a lost 2020 season to the heat of the NFL playoff race.
LANCE: Sigh. I guess so.
SHANNY: Great. Now for the next package of plays, we line up in the wishbone and direct snap to Deebo …
49ers 26, Seahawks 24.
Cleveland Browns at Minnesota Vikings, Sunday, 1 p.m.
- Start with the 2021 Cleveland Browns.
- Fast-forward five years.
- Freeze Baker Mayfield at roughly his current level of development and effectiveness...
- … but give him a contract that eats up one-sixth of the team's cap space over multiple years.
- Age the current stars from their early primes to their late primes. Remove any unlikely to fit under the future cap.
- Add the fruits of picking at the bottom of the draft order over multiple years.
- Maintain the same offensive and defensive philosophies, but replace the current coordinators with their less impressive assistants, proteges, or children.
Presto! We have created the 2021 Minnesota Vikings: not a terrible team by any stretch, but one that's bailing the boat like crazy just to stay in the wild-card picture and forestall a looming rebuild.
There are plenty of reasons to think the Browns will escape the Vikings' fate: Mayfield could keep improving, they can sign smarter contracts, and so forth. Still, this game is going to have a lot of I'll NEVER turn out like you, dad! energy. Browns 26, Vikings 24.
Indianapolis Colts at Miami Dolphins, Sunday, 1 p.m.
The Carson Wentz Victimization Index has been running non-stop for a month, but we think we can use it one last time before switching it to power saver mode so its poor exhaust fans don't get, well, exhausted:
- The Colts have no choice but to force poor Carson to play on two sprained ankles: 20%
- Seriously, that's how the organization is selling it: this is their only choice: 5%
- It's not like there's a young backup on the roster who took tons of starters' reps in training camp and threw 62 passes in the preseason. Such a player simply does not exist: 5%
- OK, he exists. But research shows that it's scientifically impossible for a team with Frank Reich on its staff to win important games with a backup quarterback: 10%
- Nick Foles? (scary Batman voice): WHY DID YOU SAY THAT NAME?: 10%
- Carson's not insecure about losing his job if Jacob Eason outplays him, darn it. You're insecure about Carson Wentz losing his job if Jacob Eason outplays him: 20%
- Quenton Nelson is questionable at best for Sunday. Therefore, no sacks can be blamed upon the quarterback, no matter how long he stands perfectly stationary in the pocket: 10%
Total CWVI: 80%.
We're in the victimization red zone, folks! Reich claims Wentz will be slightly more mobile this week (bookshelves are slightly more mobile than Wentz was last week), but the Dolphins' pass rush is much more dangerous than the Titans' pass rush. The over-under on passes thrown at the feet of a nearby running back because the pocket is starting to collapse is set at 2.5. Dolphins 23, Colts 16.
Carolina Panthers at Dallas Cowboys, Sunday, 1 p.m.
The Panthers have still not trailed for a single down yet this season. That's likely to change against the Cowboys, who have outscored opponents 35-17 in the first quarter. Christian McCaffrey's probable absence leaves the Panthers thin at the skill positions, and Jaycee Horn's injury will be felt against CeeDee Lamb and Amari Cooper.
The good news for the Panthers is that even if the Cowboys write them a hefty reality check on Sunday, the upcoming Eagles/Vikings/at Giants/at Falcons stretch likely has three wins in it, and 6-2 entering November will feel awfully good. Cowboys 27, Panthers 20.
Kansas City Chiefs at Philadelphia Eagles, Sunday, 1 p.m.
Andy Reid returns to Philly seeking to become the first coach in NFL/AFL/AAFC history to win 100 games with two different franchises. The Eagles celebrated his return on Monday night by abandoning the run like a Ford Pinto in the gulley beside a county highway. And Mike McCarthy brought pre-halftime clock mismanagement as a hostess gift!
The Chiefs are now 8-14 ATS since 2020, 3-6 as road favorites. Reid doesn't care, and neither does Walkthrough. Chiefs 34, Eagles 22.
Baltimore Ravens at Denver Broncos, Sunday, 4:25 p.m.
Broncos games so far this season have had all the energy and urgency of a power-conference also-ran facing a compass-angle midmajor on Saturday at noon on ESPNU. The Broncos have proven they could be capable of winning the NFL equivalent of a Belk Bowl: a Monday night road wild-card game against the Titans. But they host a ranked team on Sunday, they're running out of wide receivers, and they are about to discover that their conference schedule is a lulu. Ravens 23, Broncos 17.
Washington Football Team at Atlanta Falcons, Sunday, 1 p.m.
Washington's pass rush has produced 59 pressures and a 44.0% pressure rate, fifth-best in the NFL according to Sports Info Solutions, but just six sacks and two turnovers. Josh Allen was able to sidestep their pass-rushers effectively, while Daniel Jones got rid of the ball quickly when he wasn't doing his Lamar Jackson impersonation in Week 2. Eventually, Washington defenders will start getting to the quarterback. And by "eventually," we mean this week, when they face an immobile quarterback protected by five piles of milk crates. Washington 23, Falcons 13.
Houston Texans at Buffalo Bills, Sunday, 1 p.m.
Walkthrough discussed this game at length on Wednesday. Our metrics keep shouting that the Texans are a garden-variety bad team, not the historic catastrophe they appear to be when you follow their "rough draft of unpublishable Game of Thrones fanfic" behind-the-scenes saga. The EdjSports app suggests the line for this game should be closer to Bills -13, and we're down with that. Bills 33, Texans 20.
Detroit Lions at Chicago Bears, Sunday, 1 p.m.
Walkthrough covered the Lions in Wednesday's TankWatch and the Bears after Sunday's debacle. Matt Nagy refuses to divulge who will start at quarterback and who will call plays for the Bears, and he sounds more like a highly competent, secure, tactically brilliant Leader of Men™ ready to lead the Bears to multiple Lombardi trophies each and every week. Bears 22, Lions 20 with Justin Fields; Lions 23, Bears 16 with Andy Dalton limping around.
New York Giants at New Orleans Saints, Sunday, 1 p.m.
Quarterback math: (Jameis Winston + Taysom Hill) / 2 = Daniel Jones. You're welcome.
The Saints have just three offensive plays of 20-plus yards and average just 23.34 yards per drive this year. (Only the Bears and Jets gain fewer yards per drive). The Giants are awful in the red zone (27th in DVOA) and seem weirdly proud of it. This is going to be a low-scoring yuckfest, so why not spice it up with a Walkthrough Same-Game Parlay: Giants +7.5 and UNDER 42.5 points at +235. That way, we can all root for Jason Garrett to be silly and Jameis to be sloppy together! Saints 22, Giants 16.
Tennessee Titans at New York Jets, Sunday, 1 p.m.
Have you ever stopped for a moment to wonder just who the hell Jeremy McNichols is?
It's accepted as a given that Derrick Henry is somehow useless in the passing game and needs a third-down change-up back. The Titans used Dion Lewis in that role for two years, but Lewis was awful: negative values in both rushing and receiving DVOA for both seasons. So one day McNichols took over for Lewis, and we all just shrugged and said, "the most dangerous running back in the NFL leaves the field in the highest-leverage situations for a guy who couldn't stick on the Jaguars roster? Cool cool cool."
McNichols, a standout at Boise State in the mid-2010s, scored a touchdown last week and is a capable-enough receiver out of the backfield. But Henry ranks seventh in receiving DYAR in 13 passes this season! Last week, he caught a non-screen pass along the sideline, stiff-armed Xavier Rhodes into the stadium parking lot, and rumbled for 11 yards when the Titans needed to sustain a fourth-quarter drive.
Are we sure Henry is so ineffective as a receiver that he needs to be replaced on third downs by a guy with "replacement level" stenciled on the back of his jersey? Mayhap, even on third-and-medium, the threat of a Henry draw is more of a concern for the defense than the threat of McNichols in the flat?
These are the things Walkthough thinks about so we won't have to think about the Jets. Titans 27, Jets 10.
Pittsburgh Steelers at Green Bay Packers, Sunday, 4:25 p.m.
Ben Roethlisberger at 399 career passing touchdowns is like a former All-Star slugger trying to reach 400 homers while batting .207 as a pinch hitter and DH. Except the Steelers still have Big Ben in center field and batting cleanup.
The Packers will make this game more melodramatic than it should be because of injuries on the offensive and defensive fronts, and also: have you met them? Packers 26, Steelers 17.
Las Vegas Raiders at Los Angeles Chargers, Monday, 8:30 p.m.
Some Raiders facts, for those of you (us) still trying to make sense of them:
- The Raiders lead the NFL with 21 pass plays of 20-plus yards. Henry Ruggs has generated 172 yards on five big passing plays. Bryan Edwards, quietly second among wide receivers in DVOA, has five big passing plays for 141 yards.
- The Raiders lead the NFL in defensive power success. They stuffed the Dolphins on both third-and-1 and fourth-and-1 to halt a fourth-quarter comeback drive last week. They gave up a long touchdown to the Ravens on fourth-and-short in the season opener but stopped them on a later fourth down. The Raiders' short-yardage defense has not been challenged all that often, however, because the Steelers and Dolphins seem to enjoy third-and-9 a lot.
- The Raiders defense ranks 29th in stopping opponents in the deep zone (inside their own 20), but opponents end up back there an awful lot (A.J. Cole is a heckuva punter), which has resulted in a few big plays for the Raiders. The Dolphins, of course, gave up a safety on an ill-conceived screen pass from the 1-yard line. Ben Roethlisberger threw an interception on a drive that started at the 8-yard line, setting up a Raiders field goal.
The Raiders' big-play capability appears to be sustainable, especially with Ruggs around to both catch bombs and create space for others. The short-yardage and field position-based stuff looks less repeatable. The Raiders are winning close games thanks to a stop here and a punt-and-pin play there. Monday night is when the scales start to tip in the other direction, and the AFC West becomes more muddled than ever. Chargers 27, Raiders 21.
His ex looked radiant at the head of the ballroom, seated in a place of honor beside his new spouse's family. He had heard that his ex was thriving since the separation: reconnecting with old friends, making new ones, recharging far from the dreary New England winters in sunny Florida. In other words, rediscovering who a person can become when their very identity, and every success, is no longer intertwined with someone else. But hearing about it is one thing. Seeing it caused a lump in his throat that all the open-bar vodka-tonics couldn't soothe.
He knew for months that this day was coming. He knew his ex would be laughing and cavorting with the young and beautiful people at the head table while he remained relegated among the second cousins and friends-of-friends, hoping the chicken almondine would still be warm by the time his table was called to the buffet. But look at them up there! Gronk with a beer in each hand. Bruce with that tipsy father-of-the-groom swagger. Richard? When did Richard become part of the inner circle? He remembered when someone like Richard would beg for a seat at his table.
He could almost hear the murmurs among the nephews and neighbors who once treated him with a deference that bordered on reverence. I hear he's miserable. He nearly bottomed out last year. He's spending money like a drunken sailor. And, worst of all, look who he settled for.
Maxie sat beside him, twiddling with a smartphone. He had done his best to spruce Maxie up to look as little as possible like a last-second replacement. He and Cammie had pretended as long as they could, cleaving to each other after their previous relationships collapsed, but they proved incompatible. But at least Cammie would have shown up in Armani and carried a certain gravitas, an aura so to speak. Maxie was appealingly youthful and well-scrubbed but was not prepared in any way for a social situation rippling with this much hostility.
He thought back to that April night when he met Maxie. Everyone else had already coupled up. They were little more than a pair of prideful leftovers as the evening drew late. But with enough wishful thinking and wistful nostalgia, Maxie reminded him just enough like like...
The moment approached. His ex made the rounds like a monarch touring the countryside. That regal bearing was unmistakable, the truth undeniable. His ex was better off without him. And while he was no means desperate—sheer brilliance in the workplace guaranteed a moderate degree of dignity—he was surrounding himself with the sorts of people they used to laugh at together, spending himself into debt to keep up appearances, and quite obviously seeking a replacement instead of seizing the separation as a growth opportunity. He was living in the past, while his ex had created a new, incandescent present.
He knew what would happen next. Maxie would be cowed by his ex's presence, the gingerbread fantasy he built around himself would melt before everyone's eyes, and he and poor Maxie would scurry to his Buick and race back to the Divorcee Arms Condominiums to pick up the pieces of their still-fragile relationship, long before the cutting of the cake.
Buccaneers 37, Patriots 20.