Josh Allen's 4th-Quarter Blues; Eagles' Suh Factor
NFL Week 11 - In this whiparound NFL Week 11 end-of-week edition of Walkthrough:
- Kirk Cousins, Hall of Famer? We go off our meds so you don't have to;
- The Philadelphia Eagles try to stave off an emergency on their run defense;
- The New Orleans Saints and Los Angeles Rams square off on the Boulevard of Broken Dreams; and
- Justin Fields scrambles everyone's minds.
Josh Allen, Unnecessary Risk-Taker
You don't need Walkthrough to point out that Josh Allen and the Buffalo Bills have gotten a little over-aggressive when leading in the fourth quarter. But you may need us to add some data to the conversation. We're happy to help!
Here are Allen's passing statistics when the Bills are leading by 14 or more points: 25-of-44, 427 yards, four touchdowns, two interceptions, two sacks, a 56.8% completion rate and 9.7 yards per attempt. Note the low completion rate in circumstances when high-percentage passing would be beneficial. Patrick Mahomes is the only other quarterback with two interceptions when leading by 14 points. (All splits from Sports Info Solutions unless otherwise mentioned.)
Believe it or not, Allen does not lead the NFL in pass attempts while winning big. Joe Burrow is 41-of-54 for 410 yards, three touchdowns, no interceptions, six sacks, a 75.9% completion rate and 7.6 yards per attempt. Notice Burrow's high completion rate and relatively low yards per attempt. Much of Burrow's production came in the Bengals' wins over the Falcons and Panthers, where they raced out to huge halftime leads. Burrow had to do something for the entire second half of those games, so he threw lots of short passes to help move the chains.
To get a better gauge of real risk-taking with a lead, here are Allen's numbers on passes of 10 or more air yards with a 14-point lead: 10-of-19, 275 yards, four touchdowns, one interception. Allen's interceptions have come when opponents have pulled within 14 points. It's likely that Allen's two late-game sacks also came on what were expected to be 10-plus-air yard passes. What we see is a rather significant boom-bust ratio: some touchdowns to be sure, but a 50-50 shot at a counterproductive incompletion (stopping the clock) or sack. Burrow is 13-of-16 on such passes.
Naturally, Allen only gets lots of pass attempts with a 14-point lead because he and the Bills are good enough to regularly mount 14-point leads. So let's come at this from another angle.
The Bills have rushed 42 times for 224 yards and 5.3 yards per rush when leading by 14-plus points. The Bengals lead the NFL with 59 rushes and 271 yards in such circumstances, again largely because they spent entire halves goofing around against the Falcons and Panthers.
So the Bills have run 42 times and passed 46 times (counting sacks) with a 14-point lead. But wait! There are five Allen scrambles (not designed runs) for 59 yards in the data. Counting those scrambles as passes gives the Bills a 42% run rate. When leading big. That's very close to the overall NFL run rate in every situation. And the numbers don't change meaningfully if you slide the definition of "winning big" down to 13 or up to 16.
Take Allen's scrambles out of the Bills rushing data and they still average 4.5 yards per carry. Devin Singletary and the others are capable of grinding out yardage to protect a lead. Instead, Sean McDermott and coordinator Ken Dorsey keep calling Allen's number, often on deep passes. And yes, he's Allen. But the Bills coughed up a big lead against the Vikings and a more modest one against the Jets, and they allowed the Packers to climb back into what looked like it was going to be an easy win. They should save the Allen superheroics for when they face the Chiefs. Late in the game, against most opponents, less is more.
One final thoughts before the next segment: the leaders in pass attempts while leading by 14 or more points since 2015 are: Tom Brady in 2015 (118 attempts), Tom Brady in 2016 (104), Tom Brady in 2019 (96), Tom Brady in 2021 (94), and Matt Ryan in 2016 (92), with Lamar Jackson a surprising sixth with 89 attempts in 2020. Again, this is a split which rewards quarterbacks whose teams blow out opponents. The Bills just need to focus on securing those blowouts.
Kirk Cousins Chasing History
You know what keeps Walkthrough awake at night? The thought of a Kirk Cousins Pro Football Hall of Fame debate keeps Walkthrough awake at night.
Kirk Cousins is 51 yards away from 35,000 passing yards. He will likely reach that milestone before halftime on Sunday against the Dallas Cowboys.
A modest 250-yard performance by Cousins will push him past Jay Cutler and Ryan Fitzpatrick into 31st on the all-time passing yardage list with 35,199. In a week or two, he will climb over Jim Kelly and into 30th place. Donovan McNabb and Boomer Esiason are also comfortably within Cousins' sights this season.
Over on the all-time touchdown list, Cousins and Andy Dalton are tied at 29th with 237 touchdowns. With three touchdowns, either or both of them (we'll discuss Dalton's Saints in a later segment) will pass Len Dawson. A modest 13 more passing touchdowns will push Cousins (and/or Dalton) past Dawson, Y.A. Tittle, John Hadl, Esiason, and Tony Romo into 24th place with 250 touchdowns.
Cousins is entering the leaderboard territory of real and near-Hall of Famers. The Minnesota Vikings are 8-1. The NFC is wide open. Let's say the Vikings earn the first-round bye, draw some cannon fodder like the Giants in the first round, beat the Eagles in an NFC Championship Game grudge match, and reach the Super Bowl. Two weeks of Kirk Cousins takes will then ensue. You can hear it, right?
DAYTIME TALK-SHOW SOCK-PUPPET: If Kirk Cousins wins the Super Bowl, he's a no-question first-ballot Hall of Famer, and anyone who disagrees is a hater.
(Screaming into a pillow for seven solid hours.)
Now, you may be thinking that Cousins might deserve Hall of Fame consideration if he indeed leads the Vikings to a Super Bowl win. You may have thought the same about Matthew Stafford last year. You may somehow still feel that way about Stafford now.
Stafford's 2022 season did increase his Hall of Fame probability from about zero to maybe 10%; if he were leading another Rams charge this season, he would be mounting a more serious case.
A Super Bowl win could do the same for Cousins. But—and this is a huge but—Stafford and Cousins will likely hit the ballot at about the same time. Even if you think (very incorrectly) that voters wave all quarterbacks with rings into Canton, do you think voters would wave two of them in simultaneously? And Matt Ryan too, why not?
What's more interesting about this season is that Cousins has probably bought himself another 12,000 career passing yards and 50 career touchdowns: the rest of this year, two more seasons as an uncontested starter in Minnesota or elsewhere, a short Ryan-like denouement. There was no guarantee entering 2022 that Cousins would not start to taper off quickly like Dalton. He's now likely to stick for a while longer.
If Cousins ends his career with 47,000 passing yards, he will rank either 15th or 16th on the all-time list, depending on what happens to Russell Wilson (now 23rd) in the next few years. Cousins would be right behind Fran Tarkenton, Warren Moon, and John Elway in all-time yardage. Fifty more career touchdowns would place him just behind Johnny Unitas in 18th place overall. Cousins would be ahead of Joe Montana and Dan Fouts, among many others, in both categories. That's the region of the leaderboards where the engagement-parched start yammering about the Hall of Fame, rings or no rings.
The all-time passing lists remain a reliable indicator of longevity and a horrendous indicator of excellence. Cousins is a fine quarterback who has played for a long time. The 35,000-yard mark is a noteworthy accomplishment and a testament to the value of the sturdy "win with" quarterbacking we all love to denigrate. The Vikings are enjoying an odd-though-not-totally-unexpected ride at the top of the standings. Walkthrough just hopes it doesn't all turn into some nightmare of takesmanship.
The Philadelphia Eagles Get Serious on Run Defense
For the Eagles, the first step to improving their run defense was admitting there was a problem. The second step was signing every thirtysomething former Pro Bowl defensive tackle who wasn't nailed down.
The Eagles allowed 152 rushing yards in Monday night's loss to the Washington Commanders after allowing 168 yards to the Texans in Week 9. Five straight opponents have rushed for over 100 yards against the Eagles, whose defense ranks 28th in DVOA against the run. Some breakdowns:
- First-down rushing defense: 24th in DVOA, 4.7 yards per carry allowed.
- Second-down rushing defense: 21st, 4.7.
- Third-/fourth-down rushing defense: 28th, 5.2.
- Red zone rushing defense: 27th, 3.5.
- Power success: 86%, 32nd.
- Stuff rate: 14%, 28th.
It goes without saying that a defense which allows nearly 5 yards per carry on every down, rarely gets a stuff, and cannot stop red zone and short-yardage runs has a problem.
The Eagles have compensated for their run defense by outscoring everyone early in games (always the best way to protect a bad run defense) and playing outstanding, turnover-happy pass defense. The Eagles have the best pass defense in the NFL on third-/fourth-and-long, with nine sacks, five interceptions, and a 42.9% completion rate allowed on 35 attempts But the Commanders demonstrated that opponents will rarely find themselves in third-and-long if they are willing to run on first and second downs. That created an easy avenue for weaker opponents to stay in games that future opponents were likely to exploit. With Jonathan Taylor healthy, the Colts offense can do one thing very well, and even a novice game-planner should figure out what to do. The Packers just remembered they have running backs. Derrick Henry is coming.
The signings of Ndamukong Suh and Linval Joseph would be a much bigger deal if it were still 2016. Joseph, once a Pro Bowl-caliber run-plugger for the Vikings and Giants, was part of the Chargers' woeful 2021 run defense. Suh was still effective in bursts for the Buccaneers in 2020 and 2021, but he is strictly a rotation player these days.
Still, the Eagles are not trying to fix their entire defense. They're addressing one specific problem. Joseph, Suh, and Fletcher Cox each playing 30 or 40 snaps per game should give them fresh legs at defensive tackle whenever they need them. Javon Hargrave, who is best on passing downs and in a 40-snap role, won't get overused. Marlon Tuipulotu won't be asked to play much, especially over the center. And when Jordan Davis comes back, the Eagles run defense could turn from a weakness into a relative strength.
One final thought: Suh is a little like the defensive line version of Odell Beckham Jr. He still has special moments and can upgrade the players around him. He can also be a bit of a mercenary and comes with a high name-recognition-to-production ratio. But he was on the waiver wire in November because he had the opportunity to wait and choose a contender to contribute to. Suh is coming back for another ring. That's the version of Suh the Eagles want and need. And for a team that's as strong as the Eagles elsewhere, a handful of stuffed runs will go a long way.
Los Angeles Rams at New Orleans Saints: The Hopelessness Bowl
Sunday's Rams-Saints game will feel like the election night party for a candidate who spent tens of millions of dollars on their campaign but loses by 30 points.
It's not just that Cooper Kupp is injured and Michael Thomas doesn't really exist. It's not just that the Saints are depressingly dickering between Jameis Winston and Andy Dalton (they chose Dalton) or that both teams are now ravaged by injuries. It's the dashed preseason expectations. And the waste. Oh, the waste.
Rams-Saints is probably the first matchup in NFL history between a 3-6 team and a 3-7 team with a combined negative-$72 million in effective cap space and zero first-round draft picks in the following year. It's an all-time battle of persistent hopelessness.
Walkthrough has done the Saints cap situation to death, and we have warned many teams about Theoretical Jameis, the turnover-free version of Winston folks always seem to think is just one coaching change or optical procedure away. So let's set them aside for a moment.
The Rams, per Over The Cap, are effectively over $5 million in the salary-cap red for 2023: they show a $6.8-million surplus, but so few players are under future contract that all of that money would be eaten up just by filling out the bottom of a 53-man roster with minimum-wage randos.
Five million in the red may not sound that bad, at least compared to the Saints at $67.5 million. Ah, but the Rams are also already $12 million in the red for 2024, when the Saints at least can start climbing out of their worst contract situations. Aaron Donald is on the books for $34 million in 2024, Jalen Ramsey $26.7 million, Kupp $26.3 million, and Stafford a cool $45.5 million. The solution to the Rams' future cap situation is probably Donald's retirement and some off-the-wall restructuring for Stafford. Luckily, the Rams have ideal replacements waiting in the wings like … um … well maybe they can draft … oh … right.
The Rams traded it all for a Super Bowl, so it was worth it. But any future NFL owner/general manager/showrunner who considered dabbling in Win Now tactics in February—including teams such as the Broncos and Raiders who have already dabbled—has probably come down from the sugar rush by now.
Imagine if the Bengals had held onto their fourth-quarter Super Bowl lead or came back on their final drive. Imagine if the 49ers had held onto their late lead in the NFC Championship Game. What would this Rams season look like? The Rams and their fans don't need to imagine such scenarios, but any imitators had better.
The Rams are not a year away from rebuilding. They are a year away from becoming the Saints. And the Saints are still paying for a Super Bowl window that closed two seasons ago.
Justin Fields: Scramblin' Man
We saved Justin Fields for last because other Football Outsiders are featuring him this week. But last does not mean least!
Fields leads the NFL in scrambles (47) and scramble yards (448) by a wide margin. Josh Allen is in second place with 33 scrambles for 354 yards. To fully clarify: this is scramble data from the Sports Info Solutions datahub, not overall rushing data.
Fields already has the fourth most scramble yardage in the SIS datahub, dating back to 2015, with seven games left to play. Here are the top five. Remember, these are full-season stats for everyone but Fields:
|Most Scramble Yards, Single-Season, 2015-2022|
If you are curious, Lamar Jackson scrambled for 390 yards in 2021 and 384 yards in 2019, 12th and 13th on the list. Most of Jackson's most productive runs are designed.
On the one hand, it's encouraging to see Fields on a list with Allen and Wilson. On the other hand, Fields is on pace for 79.9 scrambles for 761.7 yards, so he is not really on a list with Allen and Wilson, but in nearly uncharted territory. Michael Vick and Randall Cunningham likely gained 700-plus yards on scrambles in their scrambliest seasons. That doesn't leave us with a lot of data with which to analyze Fields.
To frame things another way, scrambling yardage accounts for 20% of Fields' overall production and a whopping 13.8% of the Bears total net yardage.
Fields is a thrill to watch and appears to have taken a step forward from where he was in 2021 or September. But it's impossible to make any firm judgments on a quarterback who has either scrambled or been sacked on 83 of his 290 dropbacks (29%). The ratio of out-of-structure chaos is simply too high.
Fields also has lots of scrambling production while the Bears trailed opponents by two scores in wild 'n' wooly games. What works when trailing by two scores might not work in higher-leverage situations.
For example, the Bears had two possessions after the Lions took a 31-30 lead in the fourth quarter. They ran twice on the first, then Fields scrambled for 1 yard on third-and-six. The second drive? Three incomplete passes (plus a defensive penalty), one 7-yard pass on third-and-15 and two sacks. It sounds like teams—even the Lions, with their awful defense—can clamp down on Fields' scrambling to a degree if they have to.
Fields could grow into an Allen-/Wilson-level scrambler, designed rusher, AND passer in 2023 or beyond. There is evidence that will happen. But there is no guarantee that it will happen. And please don't pretend that it has already happened.