Detroit Lions 2019: Establish the Run!

Detroit Lions 2019: Establish the Run!
Detroit Lions 2019: Establish the Run!

Detroit Lions Stats From 2018

Record: 6-10

Pythagorean Wins: 7.0

ATS: 9-7; average line +2.8

Over/Under: 6-10; average total 46.3

Close Games Record: 2-4

Turnover Differential: -0.3

Offense: 20th in EPA per play (0.01); 5.2 yards per play

Defense: 23rd in EPA per play (0.08); 5.8 yards per play

No Kerryon, No Party?

Matt Patricia’s first year as the head coach of the Detroit Lions was unsuccessful. The team finished 6-10 after falling off a cliff midway through the season. The main reason was the injury to rookie running back sensation Kerryon Johnson. At least that’s what the media and many Lions fans have been telling us since December. Let’s dig into the data: Over the first ten games with Kerryon Johnson healthy, the Lions averaged -0.04 expected points added (EPA) per rush, good for rank 23rd.  After week eleven, when Johnson was out, Detroit averaged -0.04 EPA (data pulled from nflscrapR) per rush, too. That ranked 19th over that span.

They didn’t miss a beat of efficiency in the run game. Four guys of their starting offensive line almost played the full season. They ‘only’ lost right guard TJ Lang who battled injuries since the beginning of the year. However, they lost more important players like WR Golden Tate after week seven and WR Marvin Jones in week nine. Until the departure of Tate, the Lions ranked 9th in passing EPA (+0.16). Until the injury of Marvin Jones, they ranked 13th (+0.09).

With the absence of Tate and Jones, the Detroit Lions dropped to 25th in EPA per dropback (-0.04) for the remainder of the season. You cannot lose two decent, experienced wide receivers and expect a quarterback like Matthew Stafford to perform as well as before especially when he played with broken bones in his back. The reason for their offensive decline was not the run game.

Their defense, the unit Patricia was mostly responsible for, didn’t contribute to winning many games either. However, the Lions were a slightly underperforming team: they went 2-4 in close games and had a Pythagorean win expectation of 7.0.

“Pound the Damn Rock”

After the season, the Lions decided that offensive coordinator Jim Bob Cooter had to go. But before Cooter’s arrival, Matthew Stafford had a career QBR below 52. With the remainder of the 2015 season, he produced numbers of 58.3, 65.2, 65.2 and 53.8 in 2018. His 2018 finish would have been higher without the bad injury luck. He played like a below-average quarterback before 2015, but like an above-average signal-caller under Cooter.

Former Seahawks-OC Darrell Bevell will call the plays this year and try his best to fulfill Matt Patricia’s offensive philosophy of establishing the run as early and as much as possible. The Lions made it clear this off-season that they are going to be a run-oriented team. Patricia hopes that Bevell can replicate his run success with the Seahawks in Detroit.

There is just one problem: passing leads to winning, not running. The more you run on early downs, the more third downs your quarterback faces which inevitably puts more pressure on your signal-caller, contrary to conventional wisdom. Imagine you have an offense that averages 0.16 EPA per dropback and -0.04 EPA per rush. In a vacuum, a 70/30 pass/run split would lead to +0.10 EPA per play. A 50/50 split would result in +0.06 EPA per offensive play. Why would you sacrifice efficiency for too many inefficient run plays, to establish a “culture” or “branding”?

The second point is that the Seahawks’ run success under Bevell occurred mostly due to Russell Wilson’s high-efficiency runs. He’s also a quarterback that can make up for -EV play-calling, as he demonstrated in 2018. If we ignore QB scrambles, the 2011-2017 Bevell-led Seahawks ranked 14th in EPA per rush over that stretch. Take away designed QB runs, and it gets even lower. Also, we all agree that Stafford isn’t Wilson.

Heavy Formations

When the Lions step on a football field in 2019, they will have established the run. But that likely won’t hold Bevell back from going run-heavy on early downs. They will likely use a lot of 21 and 12 personnel sets. They signed former Steelers tight end Jesse James and drafted TE TJ Hockenson 8th overall. Hockenson seems to be one of the best tight end prospects in years. He can be a weapon in the passing game and is already a very good run-blocker – the perfect fit for Patricia’s offensive philosophy.

Kerryon Johnson is back healthy, CJ Anderson is another power runner the Lions signed in the off-season. Theo Riddick is best-suited as a receiving back. Fullback Nick Bawden, last year’s 7th-round pick, is coming back from his ACL tear. He was Rashaad Penny’s lead-blocker at San Diego State when the Aztecs ran all over opposing defenses. This offense screams run-first and dense formations. If you run the ball, it’s preferable to have a good run game. But Bevell’s history isn’t indicative of this.

Detroit Lions Offensive Depth Chart Projection
Detroit Lions Offensive Depth Chart Projection

The offensive line is what I would describe an average unit on paper. Taylor Decker and Rick Wagner are solid tackles. Last year’s first-round pick Frank Ragnow will switch to center, which pushes Graham Glasgow to left guard. Right guard Kenny Wiggins seems like the weakest spot – I wouldn’t be surprised if we saw Joe Dahl as the starter in week one.

The learning curve for tight ends is usually very steep in the NFL. Hockenson will likely contribute more in the run game than he will in the receiving game early in the season. But with Marvin Jones and Kenny Golladay, the Detroit Lions have two quality wide receivers on the outside. Danny Amendola was most likely a homer signing by Matt Patricia. Over his career, Matthew Stafford is an average quarterback at best. He needs a strong supporting cast to succeed. Depending on the development of Hockenson, this could be a good passing offense, as indicated by their early-season performances in 2018. But I doubt that Bevell and Patricia will maximize their efficiency.

Defensive Performance Can Only Go Up

On defense, the Detroit Lions should see an improvement over 2018, especially in the passing game. But the ceiling shouldn’t get fans too excited. They added former Patriot Trey Flowers who graded as the 12th-best pass rusher by Pro Football Focus. Fourth-round pick Austin Bryant provides depth in the rotation as likely the third guy behind Flowers and De’Shawn Hand. The interior is clocked by run-stopping genius Damon Harrison and A’Shawn Robinson.

Detroit Lions Projected Defensive Depth Chart
Detroit Lions Projected Defensive Depth Chart

The linebacking corps is still concerning as Jarrad Davis hasn’t lived up to his first-round status from 2017 and guys like Christian Jones and Devon Kennard don’t move the needle as much. However, the secondary is slightly improved. Former Seahawk Justin Coleman has been one of the better slot cornerbacks in the league and will be a significant upgrade over a guy like Nevin Lawson from 2018. Rookie Amani Oruwariye went off the board later than a lot of draft pundits predicted, and he might start over Jalen Tabor. He projects as the prototype cornerback that Patricia wants to have on the outside. All in all, the defensive line and the cornerback group are slightly improved, which should lead to higher defensive efficiency. But I am not expecting miracles.

2019 Schedule

According to Pinnacle regular-season win totals, the Detroit Lions are expected to face the 15th-hardest schedule at 0.5012. Everything else seems to be an average projection, too. But their 2019 program has two faces: over the first eight weeks, it’s going to be extremely brutal, before it gets much lighter starting in week eight. Until week eight, they will play the Chargers, Eagles, Chiefs, Packers, and Vikings. While the road opener at Arizona looks to be the easiest of the bunch, the Lions won’t know what they are getting with Kliff Kingsbury in week one.

This team preview will hopefully provide you with a lot of information. But it doesn’t replace your weekly handicapping/pricing process. It’s your job to price all 32 NFL teams and situations accurately weekly. 

Detroit is the Guinea pig for the Kingsbury-offense. With a run-first approach, it will be hard to keep pace against those high-octane passing offenses. A 1-5 start into the season wouldn’t surprise me at all. Their only advantageous spot during that stretch is getting the Chargers at home on an early east start. After that brutal stretch, it will get more comfortable with games against the Giants, Raiders, Redskins, Bucs, and Broncos. I’d say the Cowboys are beatable at home, too.

Detroit Lions 2019: Establish the Run!

My best-educated guess is that the Lions are slightly improved over last year – personnel-wise. But their coaching staff is concerning me, and that’s a big reason why I predict them to fail to make the playoffs this season. They could be a top-15 passing offense, but Patricia and Bevell aren’t willing to make full use of that. Their strategy can work against the worse opponents in the league, who can’t go ahead on the scoreboard to get the Lions offense out of its comfort zone.

Detroit’s win total sits at 6.5 with a tendency towards the over which is entirely fair, in my opinion. This team is skilled enough to beat up some light opponents, but they lack top-end quarterback play or coaching to make the most out of this squad. Their divisional opponents are good, too. My best guess is a 7-9 finish after a bad start that could get Matt Patricia fired mid-season.

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Carolina Panthers 2019 – Rising Tendency

Carolina Panthers 2019: Rising Tendency
Carolina Panthers 2019: Rising Tendency

Regression was Inevitable for the Carolina Panthers

Last year, the Carolina Panthers were set up for one of the biggest regression seasons in years as they had significantly overperformed in 2018. They started the season 6-2 and were on an 11-3 run in close games which had to regress. They closed the season on a 1-7 run with an 0-5 stretch in close games. It didn’t help that Cam Newton played with a banged up shoulder throughout the season. At some point, he wasn’t able to throw a 20-yard pass anymore.

The Panthers defense was as bad as advertised, finishing the season 22nd in DVOA; 24th against the pass. However, their passing offense surprised me – positively. Even though Cam Newton played with a hurt shoulder and missed the last two games against ATL and NO, Carolina finished 11th in DVOA, 19th in passing. Newton himself – probably because of the injury – wasn’t that violent as a runner, but he still finished 20th in QBR (out of 33, 200+ passes) and 16th in EPA per dropback (out of 39, 150+ passes). Against my prediction, OC Norv Turner shaped the offense towards its strengths. He also showed some smart situational play-calling like an above average pass rate on early downs. That’s the most significant driver for their potential future success in 2019.

The Panthers have some positive regression going for them. They went 7-9 but had 7.8 Pythagorean wins. Their turnover margin was a neutral 0.1, but they had a record of 3-7 in close games, tied with three other teams for the worst differential. They were injury-riddled, finishing with 103.8 adjusted games lost, the 6th-highest number in the league and 22.9 over average. Carolina should get luckier in close games and more healthy overall – starting with Cam Newton.

Bounce-Back Year for Cam Newton and the Offense?

Throughout his career, Cam Newton has been an elite runner and an above average passer. His running ability declined after 2014, along with some injuries. Since 2009, 77 quarterbacks attempted at least 500 passes in the NFL. Cam Newton ranks 26th in EPA per dropback (0.043). That is Baker Mayfield level of 2018 and ranks exactly behind Alex Smith who enjoyed five years with Andy Reid and never played extended stretches with a hurt shoulder. You can win games with Cam Newton – build around him! All reports indicate that he will be healthy going into 2019. At age 30, he got some time left to be a multi-weapon – it could be a bounce-back year.

Carolina Panthers Offensive Depth Chart Projection
Carolina Panthers Offensive Depth Chart Projection

When watching Panthers pre-season games, I always thought that Taylor Moton should get a starting gig, especially over Daryl Williams. The latter had one “good” season during which he got a lot of extra help by chips. Moton started in place of the injured Williams and didn’t disappoint. Pro Football Focus graded him as the 12th-best pass blocking tackle last season. If I’m the Panthers, I would pencil in Moton at left tackle and let rookie Greg Little play at right tackle. Make Daryl Williams the swing tackle. Center Matt Paradis is one of the better players at his position, same for right guard Trai Turner. Greg Van Roten remains the weakest spot. All in all, this unit looks improved from last season.

Improvement Across the Board

Running back Christian McCaffrey is a beast as a receiver, but he should see targets even more while Carolina should pound him less on longer downs. WR Curtis Samuel was injury-plagued but occasionally flashed whereas last year’s first-round pick DJ Moore created a lot of efficiency targets. Former Patriot Chris Hogan brings a lot of experience and should contribute as the third option in the passing game. Over the past three seasons at New England, he posted a combined stat line of 107-1651-12 while missing seven games in 2017. There could be worse options for the third slot. Torrey Smith and Jarius Wright should play complementary roles. It’s uncertain how much gas veteran tight end Greg Olsen has left in the tank, but at least he will enter the season back healthy.

This team preview will hopefully provide you with a lot of information. But it doesn’t replace your weekly handicapping/pricing process. It’s your job to price all 32 NFL teams and situations accurately weekly. 

Norv Turner got creative in the run game, running a lot of options and sweeps. The Panthers finished 2nd in offensive rush DVOA but unfortunately, running the ball only gets you as far as the passing game. Efficient quarterback runs are a cheat code though, as Cam Newton has shown over his career. With him being healthy, we should expect some damage via the ground game again. Newton has averaged around 0.43 EPA per rush over the first four seasons of his career, only 0.18 last year. With an improved receiving corps, an improved offensive line and Cam Newton healthy, the Panthers should cause some havoc for opposing offenses. The passing game can open up the run game involving Newton.

The Defense Has Two Faces

Carolina is switching their base defense from 4-3 to 3-4. In today’s NFL, that isn’t much of an issue, because teams spend only about 20-25 percent in their “base” defense. It could be less next year. Nowadays,  nickel (5 DBs) should be called base. IF – and it might not be small if – the Panthers can establish a quality pass rush out of their edge rush rotation, they could have a decent front seven.

With the addition of DT Gerald McCoy, Carolina features one of the better interior starting duos, along with Kawann Short. The latter had a down year, but with the addition of McCoy, Short might not face as many double teams. Nose tackle Dontari Poe will play his natural position on base downs. End Mario Addison is coming off three straight seasons with 9+ sacks but hasn’t graded well on a play-by-play basis.

Carolina Panthers Defensive Depth Chart Projection
Carolina Panthers Defensive Depth Chart Projection

Rookie Brian Burns joins the NFL with one of the best athletic profiles for an edge rusher in a long time, and he gets premature praise for his explosiveness. Veteran Bruce Irvin, who didn’t find his groove at Oakland and Atlanta last year, should be the third pass rusher in the rotation. Having him as an occasional pass rusher could make him more valuable.

However, Addison, Burns, and Irvin are going to decide whether this front seven is going to be average or good. Linebacker Luke Kuechly is still top-3 at his position. With the departure of Thomas Davis to the Bolts, Shaq Thompson needs to take his game to the next level. If Ron Rivera, who will be calling plays in 2019, can get a decent pass rush out of his new-look front and gets creative with blitzes, this front seven could be nasty. It better be. Because the secondary remains a big problem. Aside from safety Eric Reid, there aren’t guys you can bank on to be useful in coverage. Ross Cockrell missed all of 2018, S Rashaan Gaulden and CB Donte Jackson will go into their second years. CB James Bradberry remains a liability in coverage, according to target data.

Schedule Analysis

According to the current Pinnacle regular season win totals (06/25), Carolina will face the 10th-hardest schedule next year. Mostly due to their competitive division, they will play the 6th-hardest schedule according to 2018 offensive pass EPA. Their technical program is no slouch, either. They will travel the 8th-most miles with games at San Francisco, Arizona, and London. Their second-half schedule is robust, with games vs. New Orleans (2x), Atlanta (2x), at Green Bay, at Indianapolis and vs. Seattle. Intriguing situational spots:

  • Week 6 vs. TB: Carolina will travel to London after a home game against the Jags whereas the Bucs will be on their third straight roadie after playing at Los Angeles and New Orleans. It’s complete bullshit by the NFL, but be aware: this will be priced into the line. You better pray for the Panthers to be on a losing streak.
  • Week 13 vs. WAS: this one screams LETDOWN SPOT with an inflated price. The Panthers have a sandwich game between road games at Atlanta and New Orleans.

2019 Prediction – Rising Tendency

With Cam Newton back healthy, the 2019 outlook is promising. The Carolina Panthers are healthy (for now) and will enter the season with an improved offensive line and receiving corps. Their secondary remains a question mark and will mostly be dependent on the offense scoring enough points. If Newton – for whatever reason – isn’t as healthy as it seems, and rookie Will Grier will start, their season could take a swing. Grier was Matt Waldman’s highest ranked quarterback entering the draft, though. The critical problem is the schedule with a competitive AFC South and lots of travel miles. If this isn’t going to be a successful season for Carolina, Ron Rivera might find himself unemployed next January.

However, this team is set up to march back into the playoffs, and I believe they are a 9-7 team on paper. I can see them as one of the new faces in the playoff picture. I lean towards the Over on their win total of 7.5 (-120 at Pinnacle), and I agree with the market movement thus far. But Cam Newton’s shoulder still provides some uncertainty, despite the reports – that’s why I’m staying away from futures for now.

Become a member for the 2019 season and get win totals, weekly analysis and picks until the Super Bowl. Since I started this service in 2017, we beat the closing line 70.6% of the time for an average closing line value of 4.0%. The record is 136-104 (56.7%) for +27.46 units at 10.5% ROI. Find all the picks with closing line reports on the records page.

Baltimore Ravens 2019: Underrated Playoff Contender

Baltimore Ravens 2019: Underrated Playoff Contender
Baltimore Ravens 2019: Underrated Playoff Contender

The Crazy Part About the 2018 Baltimore Ravens

The Baltimore Ravens have a weird season behind them. Right before their bye week, the Ravens were 4-5 and made the switch from QB Joe Flacco to then-rookie Lamar Jackson. With the latter, Baltimore went on to finish the season 6-1 with the only loss occurring in overtime at Kansas City. People might rightfully point to the ‘weak’ schedule with the likes of Oakland, Cincinnati, and Tampa Bay. They also went 3-1 in close games with Jackson. But they also beat the Chargers and were a fumble away from winning over the Chiefs at Arrowhead. The games against the Bengals and Browns were toss-ups. The range of possible outcomes probably went from 4-3 to 7-0.

This team preview will hopefully provide you with a lot of information. But it doesn’t replace your weekly handicapping/pricing process. It’s your job to price all 32 NFL teams and situations accurately weekly. 

Considering their late stretch, here’s the crazy part: the offense wasn’t good at all. And the defense – while playing well – didn’t collect many turnovers. Lamar Jackson ranked 31st in QBR, which was part himself – all scouting reports indicated that he would need time to develop as a passer. At times, his accuracy spread like a shotgun. But it was also part a horrendous receiving corps. Out of 39 passers with at least 150 dropbacks, Jackson ranked 31st in EPA/dropback (-0.04). It wasn’t good at all, but surprise: it was more efficient than fellow rookies Sam Darnold (-0.06), Josh Allen (-0.18), and Josh Rosen (-0.33). Jackson looked to be a generational talent on the ground, but he failed to get his power on the street efficiently.

The Not-So-Efficient Scrambles

RB runs barely matter, but QB runs do. Among 74 players with 50+ designed runs, Lamar Jackson ranked fourth in EPA per rush (0.13). The record season by Cam Newton sits at 0.49. However, on scrambles, which we would tend to believe makes him so dangerous, he ranked 29th out of 31 quarterbacks with at least ten attempts (0.13). Josh Allen had 0.94 EPA per scramble, Trubisky had 0.93 – absurd numbers. Every time Mitch Trubisky or Josh Allen scrambled, they added 2.6 and 2.7% in win probability. Lamar Jackson added 0.75%. Jackson can only regress positively.

If you think the Ravens should regress, you got fooled. They went 3-4 in close games, had a turnover margin of -0.2 and 10.8 Pythagorean wins. Their defense created 17 turnovers (tied-22th), but those weren’t efficient. The Ravens defense created 15.6 expected points through turnovers which ranked 31st last year and 7th-worst since 2009. They only added 6.4% of win probability per turnover – 2nd-worst in 2018. The Ravens still underperformed. It’s a high probability that Baltimore will collect more turnovers next year, which are also going to be more efficient for their win probability.

All Eyes on Greg Roman and Lamar Jackson

Baltimore has one of the best coaching staffs in the league. Greg Roman will take over play-calling duties from Marty Mornhinweg this year, and this is good for Lamar Jackson. Greg Roman spent five seasons with Colin Kaepernick and Tyrod Taylor – QBs similar to Lamar Jackson. During those five years from 2012 – 2016, Taylor and Kaepernick produced four top-10 finishes in QBR. The worst season was 58.1 by Kaepernick in 2014. Rookie seasons are tough – quarterbacks usually improve from year one to year two. But even if Lamar Jackson doesn’t improve as a passer AT ALL, he should get more efficiency out of his runs, especially his scrambles – regression.

Baltimore Ravens Projected Offensive Depth Chart
Baltimore Ravens Projected Offensive Depth Chart

The biggest flaw on the offensive side remains the wide receiving corps. Baltimore drafted WR Marquise Brown in the first round, and fellow rookie Myles Boykin was very high on Matt Waldman’s ranking. Both bring intriguing athletic skill sets to the table, but it’s hard to predict any real impact in the first year. If the Ravens get solid production – and separation – out of either one, it will help this offense tremendously. The tight end position is stacked. Second-year players Hayden Hurst and Mark Andrews have a season under their belt and should increasingly take over snaps from Nick Boyle. Hurst had some injury issues, but Andrews was the better receiver coming out of college anyway. Andrews had a stat line of 34-552-3 in his first year. With the lack of quality at WR, we should expect Greg Roman to call a lot of sets with two tight ends. Running backs Mark Ingram and Gus Edwards aren’t great receivers. Rookie Justice Hill comes into the league with an elite RAS of 9.35 and could add a speedy layer to the option game.

More Option Runs for Lamar Jackson

The offensive line should rank in the middle of the pack – no player stands out as elite, but neither is anyone awful. Pro Football Focus graded them as the 14th-best pass-blocking unit and the 10th-best run-blocking unit. Right guard Marshal Yanda is a stud, the tackle tandem of Ronnie Stanley and Orlando Brown seems to be above-average going into their second year together. Left guard Alex Lewis and center Matt Skura are the two weaker spots along the line. All in all, this line shouldn’t hold Lamar Jackson back from making a step forward.

The Baltimore Ravens can’t solely rely on their run game around Lamar Jackson. Greg Roman needs to find ways to stretch defenses vertically and horizontally to create space for Jackson to throw to. Without at least a functional passing game, this offense will die a slow death. I expect Roman to install a lot more option runs and run-pass-options. Baltimore also brought “triple-option guru” Paul Johnson to training camp. I anticipate that Roman is going to present opposing defenses with many different looks, option runs, fake-handoffs and play-action to get Lamar Jackson on the move and cut the field for him.

It’s is a very conservative prediction now. Assuming neither Lamar Jackson improves one bit as a passer nor any of the young receivers has an impact, there is still little chance this offense will be worse than in 2018. Regression-wise, Jackson’s runs, especially the scrambles, should get more efficient. Scheme-wise, the Ravens have a full off-season to build an offense to Lamar Jackson’s strengths. If he improves as a passer or anyone of Marquise Brown or Myles Boykin has a decent impact, this offense will be more efficient than in 2018.

Two-Thirds of the World are Covered by Water

Earl Thomas covers the other third. As Eric Eager and George Chahrouri have pointed out, coverage is more important than pass rush. The Ravens are following this strategy. While their front seven is going to be a grab bag, this defense will likely have the best secondary in the league. Even though he’s coming off a broken leg, Earl Thomas should still be considered the best free safety in the league. He was the centerpiece of the Seahawks defense, consistently defending the deep middle and forcing opposing quarterbacks to go underneath with the football.

Next to Thomas is strong safety Tony Jefferson, who is solid in coverage. A stacked cornerback group consisting of Marlon Humphrey, Jimmy Smith, Tavon Young, and Jimmy Smith round up this great secondary on paper. But each of those players will be in an advantageous position because Earl Thomas covers more ground than everyone else. As soon as Thomas got hurt in 2016, the Seahawks defense turned from a top-10 unit into a bottom-5 unit against the pass.

Baltimore Ravens Projected Defensive Depth Chart
Baltimore Ravens Projected Defensive Depth Chart

I have no clue how this front seven is going to look from snap to snap. Defensive coordinator Don Martindale runs a “complicated scheme” (Earl Thomas) with a lot of blitzes, and he likes to dial up pressure from various angles. Remember the playoff game against the Chargers? I have never seen Philip Rivers correcting, shifting his pass protection and audibling so much in a single game. Now add Earl Thomas into the mix. The coverage will be stellar; the pass rush will be dialed up via scheme. It’s a top-10 defense on paper with upside because of their elite secondary.

The Schedule

The Ravens are expected to play a below average schedule. Based on current NFL regular season win totals at Pinnacle, the Ravens are expected to face the 16th-hardest schedule. According to 2018 EPA per dropback, their program is expected to be the 21st-hardest. A significant advantage is squaring off against the AFC East. The Ravens have seven games on their schedule against quarterbacks with less than a full season under their belt: Sam Darnold, Josh Allen, Jimmy Garoppolo, Josh Rosen, Baker Mayfield 2x, and Kyler Murray. Their two biggest travel games will be at the west coast against the Seahawks and the Rams. After the game at Seattle, Baltimore will have a bye week. Before the Rams game, they have an extra day off, because it’s on a Monday. There are no back-to-back road games. Overall, this schedule is exceptionally fortunate. Here is a spot to circle:

Week 7 at SEA: The Ravens travel across the country to Seattle after a home game against the Bengals. The Hawks will be home after a tough early eastern game at Cleveland. This game could set up as a great spot to fade the Ravens.

The Prediction

The Baltimore Ravens are EXTREMELY underrated. After winning ten games last year, their season total for the upcoming season sits at 8.5 but is shaded towards the under. The implied total is 8.2. I disagree with the market here and would advise a play on the Over at 8.5 +115 (Pinnacle). People are very low on Lamar Jackson, and the Browns hype is for real. Also, some part of the market might only remember their ugly playoff loss at home against Los Angeles. Baltimore feels like the forgotten AFC North team that shouldn’t be worse than last year. They only have the third-best odds to win their division, which feels a bit off, too.

The Ravens are a very well-coached team on all three phases. Their offense shouldn’t be worse than last year but has some upside while they probably got the best secondary in the league. On top of that, they will play a fortunate schedule without a lot of bad spots but with some inexperienced quarterbacks. I believe this team should win nine to ten games and go back to the playoffs.

Become a member for the 2019 season and get win totals, weekly analysis and picks until the Super Bowl. Since I started this service in 2017, we beat the closing line 70.6% of the time for an average closing line value of 4.0%. The record is 136-104 (56.7%) for +27.46 units at 10.5% ROI. Find all the picks with closing line reports on the records page.

Atlanta Falcons 2019: Offensive Philosophy the Rabbit Punch?

Atlanta Falcons Team Preview 2019
Atlanta Falcons Team Preview 2019

Going into the 2018 season, the Atlanta Falcons had high hopes. Personnel-wise, they had units with top-10 potential on both sides of the ball. One group delivered: their offense ranked 6th in EPA/dropback (0.18); QB Matt Ryan ranked 9th in QBR. Finishing below .500 with these numbers is a tough pill to swallow. There are several reasons why the Falcons finished 7-9.

This team preview will hopefully provide you with a lot of information. But it doesn’t replace your weekly handicapping/pricing process. It’s your job to price all 32 NFL teams and situations accurately weekly. 

Some Late-Game Struggles

They went 4-4 in close games. While this is a decent indicator of luck in general, not all close games are equal.  In their four narrow wins, the Falcons had two-possession leads at some point during the fourth quarter in all of them. In three of their four close losses (vs. PHI, NO, CIN), Atlanta had a lead late in the fourth. But they gave those games away, with a mix of predictive play-calling, scoring too early or not getting any breaks on defense. They also struggled in the red zone at times, especially running the ball near the goal line where the run game should be extremely efficient.

After starting 4-4, they had a rough stretch, losing five straight to put their season into the trashcan. Head coach, Dan Quinn’s defense, lost some essential players like MLB Deion Jones, safeties Keanu Neal and Ricardo Allen early in the season. Their coverage was terrible for the most part, and they couldn’t create enough pressure in distinct passing situations. On third and fourth downs, their defense allowed the third-highest DVOA (0.324) after NYG and OAK.

Regression-wise, the Falcons only have some little positive things going on for them. Sure, they will get the aforementioned defensive players back. But overall, their injury luck was precisely average. They had 77.9 adjusted games lost, which was 0.24 fewer than the league average. They went 4-4 in close games, had a turnover margin of +0.1 and had “just” 7.8 Pythagorean wins. Atlanta played an easy schedule on offense and an average one on defense.

Dan Quinn’s Offensive Philosophy

Before we dig into the personnel, it’s essential to address the coaching setup. Defensive-mind Dan Quinn is still the head coach and will take over play-calling responsibilities this season. Former Bucs HC Dirk Koetter, who was Atlanta’s OC from 2012 to 2014, replaced Steve Sarkisian as offensive coordinator. Ground-and-pound enthusiast Mike Mularkey will coach the tight ends, but it seems like he also has some assistant role.

Dan Quinn is a Pete Carroll disciple; he is an “establish the run” truther and believes that stopping the run on defense should be the primary goal. It’s no secret anymore that the NFL is a passing league and the run game only plays a minor role. Each offensive philosophy should follow the goal of being as efficient as possible. Running the ball for the sake of it, to stay “balanced” or to set up play-action is dumb. Even though it’s Dirk Koetter’s offense, he will make sure that he runs his unit according to Dan Quinn’s philosophy. He recently said they ‘have been adjusting to the style of football Quinn wants to see out of that unit.’ It’s not great news for Falcons fans. Dan Quinn’s offensive philosophy is highly questionable, as indicated by the following four quotes from an article in January:

  • “Having that kind of balance, Dirk and I both agree, is the best way to attack and is the best way to feature the guys on our team”
  • “The thing I think for us to get back from an identity standpoint is the amount of run attempts,”
  • “What I’d like to make sure is we can feature … the run game” to make play-action passes more effective.
  • “We’re going to work really hard at that,” he said, adding “That will be a big part of our identity, not just this year but for years to come.”

Run More, Punt More

These quotes mirror everything you do NOT want to hear from an NFL head coach. A run-first offense is a wrong approach to NFL football, especially when you have Matt Ryan and a lethal passing attack. Wanting to stay balanced is the wrong approach, too.  Before week 13 last year, coming off a 17-31 prime-time loss at New Orleans, Quinn named three areas his team has to improve: 1. Win the turnover margin, 2. Get the run game going and 3. Stop the run. Especially about the second part, Quinn said he wants balance and make the play-action go. They had a top-10 passing attack and ranked 5th in play-action yards per play – despite having a below-average run game and not being ‘balanced’ enough. The quality or the volume of the run game has nothing to do with how effective teams are at play-action. NFL teams establish the run when they leave their locker rooms.

The defense had the worst run EPA/play since 2009 (0.14), but it correlates little to win games. You always need to stop the pass or at least prevent it to a certain degree so that your offense has an advantage. If your passing attack is efficient and you also use it efficiently (two different things), you will inevitably score many points and force your opponent to stop running the ball. Prime example: the 2018 Chiefs had a brutal run defense, but where a flag away from the Super Bowl. Dan Quinn’s approach to offense increases the probability of scoring fewer points, going into more and longer third downs, and also of punting more.

A Revamped Offensive Line for the Falcons

The willingness to run the ball only for the sake of it must be matched with quality offensive line play, among others. After the retirement of the injury-riddled LG Andy Levitre and the release of RT Ryan Schraeder, the Falcons had some work to do. Thomas Dimitroff drafted guard Chris Lindstrom and tackle Kaleb McGary whom I both expect to start in week one. Former Jets-guard James Carpenter should be penciled in on the left side. There is a lot of uncertainty with this group. While James Carpenter isn’t an upgrade, the right side heavily depends on the development of the rookies.

According to the College charting of Pro Football Focus, Lindstrom ranked 1st in pass-blocking grade at his position, McGary ranked 10th. Pass blocking grade has stable predictive value translating to the pro game. However, predicting success for rookie offensive linemen is still hard to do. Especially when they are forced into more run-blocking snaps than necessary, this will inevitably lead to some longer passing downs. Center Alex Mack and LT Jake Matthews are both above average to good starters. With Carpenter and the two rookies, the range of possible outcomes for this unit is wide.

Atlanta Falcons offensive depth chart projection
Atlanta Falcons offensive depth chart projection

I don’t need to lose many words about the receiving corps. Julio Jones, Calvin Ridley, and Mo Sanu in 11 personnel are top-notch. Atlanta’s tight end group could need an upgrade though; Austin Hooper isn’t near the top group at his position, Logan Paulsen is primarily a run-blocker. The offense is set up for success but depends on the development of both rookie offensive linemen and help via play-calling. They can be explosive and efficient on early downs and score a lot of points. But their head coach wants to be balanced. Somewhere, Mike Leach is shaking his head.

Will the Falcons Fly on Defense?

Atlanta got a lot of speed and range on defense, but this is the year they need to bring it on the EPA and DVOA boards. Grady Jarrett is a stud pass rusher from the inside who might develop into a borderline All-Pro starter next year. Next, Jack Crawford and young Deadrin Senat will share the load. The question mark remains where the full dose of pass rush should come from. Takkarist McKinley has been their best edge rusher last year and will develop further. But Vic Beasley remains inefficient, and Adrian Clayborn is a below average pass rusher over his career. Dan Quinn, who loves getting pressure with four rushers, will need to get creative with this unit. He took over play-calling duties from fired ex-DC Marquand Manuel.

The back-seven has potential. Deion Jones is one of the best coverage linebackers in the league, De’Vondre Campbell struggled in his absence last year. However, Campbell will only need to fill the role next to Jones, who will get the critical tasks in coverage. Desmond Trufant is one of the better cornerbacks in the league, but he got burned quite sometimes last year. Opposite him, second-year player Isaiah Oliver will get the starting gig. Oliver was a Brett-Kollmann-favorite coming out of college. Oliver was the fourth cornerback on the depth chart last season and only played 240 snaps, according to PFF.

Atlanta Falcons offensive depth chart projection
Atlanta Falcons offensive depth chart projection

The slot is a big question mark. Blidi Wreh-Wilson is an outside corner, Kendall Sheffield is a green rookie. My best guess is that they will try to rotate safeties Damontae Kazee, Ricardo Allen and Keanu Neal around. Allen and Neal missed almost all of 2018. On paper, this defense has some intriguing coverage potential. But the pass rush should remain a weakness, and it’s not easy to predict quality production from Oliver and the slot cornerback position.

Schedule Analysis

The schedule is going to get harder for the Falcons in 2019. According to the win totals market at Pinnacle (06/11), Atlanta is projected to play the seventh-hardest schedule (0.5127) next year. Their defense is going to face the eight-strongest program in opposing EPA per pass from 2018. That has a decent predictive value year-to-year. Passing EPA per play correlates year-to-year at R^2 = 0.1994 since 2010. The NFC South is probably going to be more competitive than last year. Cam Newton seems to be back healthy and has an improved offensive line, while the Bucs got Bruce Arians and a lethal passing attack. We shouldn’t expect a significant drop-off by the Saints.

On top of that, the Falcons will face the NFC West and the AFC South who produced four playoff teams last year – even though that doesn’t mean a lot. One significant advantage for them is that they won’t play outside a dome until November 17th at Carolina. They only have three games outside, two of them in good weather (SF & TB). They only have one game on the west coast. Some interesting scheduling spots:

  • Week 6, @ ARI: The Falcons play their third road game in four weeks with LAR and SEA on deck. Depending on their result at Houston a week prior, this is a spot where Atlanta could be overvalued.
  • Week 12, vs. TB: For whatever reason, home teams with a Thursday night game on deck are a losing proposition historically. Since 2010, home favorites at -3 or higher are  44-65-3 (40.4%) against the spread. Falcons will have the Saints on deck.

2019 Prediction

Two rookies along their offensive line, a head coach who dictates an efficiency-reducing approach and one of the harder schedules – I’m not in love with the Falcons for 2019. In a tough division, a lot of things need to go right for them to grab a playoff spot. They still have Matt Ryan, a good receiving corps and are healthier on defense. However, the circumstances are more complicated than last year. Matt Ryan will probably need to overcome offensive line struggles early in the season as well as the “balanced” rushing attack.

They are priced at -148 on the Under at nine regular season wins – that’s an implied win total of 8.6 which got bet down from 8.8 since early May. This range seems about right. I expect them to compete for a wild card spot rather than a bye week late in December. In the division market at BetOnline with a 10.2% hold, the Falcons are priced at +350 (22.2% break-even). While the Saints are the favorites for a reason, the Falcons seem to be a bit underpriced.

Become a member for the 2019 season and get win totals, weekly analysis and picks until the Super Bowl. Since I started this service in 2017, we beat the closing line 70.6% of the time for an average closing line value of 4.0%. The record is 136-104 (56.7%) for +27.46 units at 10.5% ROI. Find all the picks with closing line reports on the records page.

NFL Win Totals – Recap of 2018 Pinnacle Numbers

It’s schedule SZN! It is the time of the year when most bookmakers release their NFL win totals for the upcoming season. Predicting future records in sports is as hard as it gets. Teams may change drastically from one season to another. Regression to the mean, positively or negatively, plays a significant role, too. However, year in year out bettors across the world try to predict future wins by placing their hard earned money on season win totals.

Roughly two weeks before the 2018 NFL season, I posted the implied strength of schedule based on Pinnacle win totals. The published number by the bookmaker doesn’t always represent the exact win total. Due to the juice, the numbers usually shade towards either side. For instance, the Arizona Cardinals sat at 5.5 wins odds of -193 in favor of the over. This price tag equals 6.3 wins. It’s the normalized win total.

NFL Win Totals from Pinnacle and the corresponding results and SOS implication
2018 NFL RSW from Pinnacle (08/20) and corresponding results plus numbers

During the off-season, public opinions on NFL teams are widely positive. Every organization is better than the year before, addressed its weaknesses during free agency, and every veteran is in the shape of my life. Beat writers are supposed to be biased and to cover their teams in a positive manner.

The betting markets tend to judge NFL teams more positively than negatively, too. With 16 games on their schedule, NFL teams can win a collective 256 games per season. The sum of the normalized win totals from Pinnacle last year was 260.7. That’s 4.7 more wins than it’s mathematically possible. Twenty-two win totals shaded towards the over. However, the Over/Under was 13-17-2 last season. If you had bet the Over blindly 32 times for $100 as the base amount, your result would have netted -$820 on the year (-19.8% ROI). In contrast, if you had bet all 32 Unders blindly, your profit would have been +$620 (+17.7% ROI). Distribution-wise, you would expect the Over/Under to be around 50/50 over time. But with the heavy shade towards the over side, it’s not truly a winning proposition to bet overs blindly.

Last season, the difference between actual wins and Pinnacle’s normalized win totals was 2.1 per average. The betting markets predicted 13 win totals to be within 1.5 wins of the actual team record. Ten times they fell outside the range of 2.5 wins. The correlation between Pinnacle win totals and the real team wins was 0.27 (R^2).

Win Totals and Strength of Schedule

With the schedule release, many football fans and media outlets try to predict the future strength of schedule (SOS) based on team wins from the season before. Here’s a friendly reminder: don’t do this! There is no predictive nature. It doesn’t matter how many games a team wins in the season before. Predicting future SOS is hard. Based on our team projections we can calculate a rough estimate, but it cannot be perfect. If Deshaun Watson got hurt in week one in 2018, it would have changed the SOS landscape entirely. The SOS for teams like the Colts or Jaguars would change because the Texans were suddenly much weaker than predicted before the season.

As mentioned before, the correlation between Pinnacle win totals and actual team wins was 0.27 in 2018. However, the relationship between 2017 wins and 2018 wins was just 0.12. The calculated SOS based on 2017 wins correlated 0.02 with the actual 2018 SOS. It’s simply noise. Wins from the season before have no predictive value for the victories the next season.

Week 8: Miami Dolphins @ Houston Texans

Miami Dolphins @ Houston Texans (-7.5, 44.5)

Line: The spread and the total feel too high. Even with Osweiler, I don’t think this current Texans team should lay 7.5 points in this spot. Not sold on either side here, but if I had to bet, I would take Texans in a teaser and Dolphins on the spread from a value perspective. We played the under on 45.5 because the total was set too high for this game. I don’t know where 45 points should come from.

Situation: –

Analysis: Let’s break this one down to the simplest form of handicapping. The Dolphins have Brock Osweiler at quarterback which decreases their scoring expectation per se. They scored 28 points in regulation against a Bears defense that couldn’t prepare for Osweiler and publicly admitted that they were gassed by the heat (100°F) and the sun. Chicago gave up two long touchdowns off short passes by not tackling the ball carrier. If that game was played on a neutral field, Chicago probably holds the Dolphins to around 14 points. Against a below average Lions defense, Miami scored 22 points at home last week – another game with a good home-field advantage. Since Adam Gase took over as the head coach of the Dolphins in 2016, this team has been averaging 16.4 PPG in road games. This includes a variety of QBs like Ryan Tannehill, Matt Moore, Jay Cutler, and David Fales.

The Texans defense has been below average in pass efficiency, but after the two most recent games, they have climbed to #14 in pass DVOA. Their big strength is their pass rush which gets to the quarterback. This is a great matchup against a putrid Dolphins offensive line. I don’t know how RT Ja’Wuan James is going to block JJ Watt, or how that interior line is going to block Jadeveon Clowney, who moved around and rushed through A- and B-gaps against the Jaguars. Like I mentioned, the Texans secondary can be exploited through the air, but we are talking about Brock Osweiler who is going to miss WRs Kenny Stills and Albert Wilson who have a combined 64 targets this year. Wilson is great on screen and short passes which can negative arriving pressure whereas Kenny Stills is an underrated deep threat.

Considering the Texans is strong against the run (#1 in rush DVOA), Osweiler will be forced to move the ball through the air while relying on Danny Amendola, DeVante Parker, Kenyan Drake, and Kenny Stills. It also doesn’t help that Osweiler will play against his old DC who might know his tendencies. However, after Dean Pees wasn’t able to blitz Flacco I don’t know how much impact those kinds of things have. Overall, I think the Fins have a tough matchup in this one and I don’t really see how they will touch 17 points in this one.

The Houston Texans have won four straight, but their issues are still obvious: the offensive line is the worst in the league and Deshaun Watson had to travel to Jacksonville by bus because the air pressure on the airplane could have been too much for his bruised lunge. The Dolphins defense didn’t look good the last two weeks, but they faced decent offenses with much better offensive lines – against the Texans, they will have a better matchup. Rookie WR Keke Coutee joined the team in week four and is already the third-most targeted receiver on the season with 7.5 targets per game. He would be a good counter attack against Miami’s rookie Minkah Fitzpatrick who has been excellent at defending the slot where he plays the majority of his snaps. Tyler Boyd (4-44-0), Anthony Miller (1-29-1) and Golden Tate (4-36-0) are slot receivers who got shut down by the Fins over the past three games. It’s going to be difficult for the Texans to find matchups in the slot.

The biggest strength of the Dolphins is the secondary – they have decent coverage across the field. The way to beat them is with a good offensive line because their lack of pass rush will let guys run open at some point. The Texans don’t have the offensive line to get enough time and their tight ends should get shut down by the Fins. Watson’s only chance to move the ball is going to be on the perimeter with passes to DeAndre Hopkins who will be covered by young stud Xavien Howard and Will Fuller who has a good matchup against Bobby McCain. I doubt this will be enough to put up a ton of points.

I see both offenses going to struggle to move the ball for various reasons and I can see both quarterbacks throwing one or two interceptions that will kill drives. The Texans should have more firepower at home but I don’t see a blowout. A score like 23-14 or 20-16 seems likely to me – definitely below the posted total.

The Pick: Dolphins / Texans Under 45.5 -110 (Bookmaker, 10/22 04.00 PM EST)

Week 7: Carolina Panthers @ Philadelphia Eagles

Carolina Panthers @ Philadelphia Eagles (-5, 45.5)

Line: this line is too low. It opened at -3.5 and -4 in some places and got bet up to -5 by now. I expected an opener around -6.5, -4.5 felt way too low when I locked in my bet. My power number is Eagles -8. I think the betting markets aren’t catching up with the current Eagles performances and are overrating the Panthers.

Situation: Doug Pederson has ten days to prepare, Carson Wentz has ten days to get more confident in his leg. Advantage Eagles.

Analysis:  When we exclude the Nick Foles data from the first two weeks, which I did, we understand that the Eagles offense ranks 8th in passer rating, 9th in ANY/p and 18th in total DVOA (includes run DVOA) while progressing every week. The defense is about as average as it could get. They are 2-2 since Wentz came back and played very well against the Vikings but had some breaks going against them with a goal-line fumble and a fumble return touchdown. I believe the Eagles offense will – considering there won’t be more wind as of now – move the ball easily on the Panthers, especially through the air. Every offense except for Dallas was able to create big plays against a weaker Carolina secondary and I expect Wentz to do so as well when Alshon Jeffery is matched up against those corners and especially out of their 12 personnel grouping (2 TEs) which they run 36% of the time. The Panthers defense allows the fourth-highest success rate (69%) on passes to TEs and 9.6 YPA against 12 personnel. They are average against WRs. Zach Ertz should have a big game.

Carolina is vastly overrated in my opinion. Year to date, they got three home wins against two losses on the road. They beat a bad Cowboys team in week one and were outgained by the Giants and Bengals in their other two home games they won. They had a 4-0 turnover advantage over Cincy and they got outgained by three yards against the New York Giants who didn’t convert a third down. On a different day, they could have easily lost both matchups. If they lost against the Giants, this line would be Eagles -6.5. The way to attack the Eagles is by exploiting their secondary with quality route running and signal-callers who are not afraid to throw the ball. The Falcons, Bucs, and Vikings went off against them when Diggs, Thielen, Julio, Evans, and Jackson exploited that secondary. The Panthers don’t have that premium quality on their roster, their strength is the run game and feeding Christian McCaffrey as well as TE Greg Olsen. The Eagles defense, with their stout defensive line and athletic linebackers, ranks 7th in success rate (38%) against RB passes and 2nd (44%) against TE passes. This defense will take away the Panthers’ strength which forces Cam Newton to air it out against one of the best pass rushes in the league behind a questionable offensive line. Kirk Cousins was under pressure a lot, but he is a better passer than Cam and has much better perimeter weapons.

The Pick:  Philadelphia Eagles -4.5 -105 (Pinnacle, 10/15 04.00 PM EST). They will take care of business at home against an overrated Panthers squad by taking away their strengths and doing enough on offense to comfortably win this one. Give me 31-17 Igglez.

Week 6: Seattle Seahawks vs Oakland Raiders

Seattle Seahawks vs Oakland Raiders (London, +2.5, 48)

Line: The line might be a bit too high from a power rating perspective and an overreaction to the Seahawks playing a close game against the mighty Rams whereas the Raiders got pummeled by the Chargers. The lookahead line last week was a pick’em, my power numbers make it a pick’em without adjusting for the banged-up offensive line for Oakland and their awkward travel schedule.

Situation: the travel factor is going to be crucial here as you need time to adjust to the new time zone (8 hours from Pacific time). I’ve spent two weeks in Florida during July this year. After flying back to Germany, I needed more than four days to get back to my sleep routing – I couldn’t sleep until late in the night and wasn’t myself during the day. Most people deal with jet lags when traveling west. Our bodies and brains usually don’t perform at the highest level when we mess up our sleep rhythm. There is a reason why teams from the west coast perform worse in early east coast games than the average road team. Teams who travel earlier to London and focus on sleep rhythms have had significant advantages in the past. The Seahawks traveled on Wednesday and Pete Carroll explained in detail how they chose the time to give their players the best possible sleep adjustments:

“There is some science to it. We’ll try to sleep on the way over and then keeping them up the day that we get there so that they can get a regular night’s sleep, a real healthy night’s sleep without going to sleep during the day—that’s one of the big issues. Then we have days to turn it around. There’s a lot of different ways people have done it whether they go over in the first of the week, where they wait as long as they can. We have chosen our options after a long study and we feel really good about what we’re doing. We should be OK, we’ll be fine.”

The Raiders travel on late Thursday to arrive Friday in London, basically “just in time” and Jon Gruden couldn’t even explain why. He just said that he “talked to guys who have been there”. And there is something else:

“I hope I can make it, honestly. I’m not great (traveling),” Gruden said. “I get claustrophobic. My son was a weightlifter and he won a powerlifting competition in Belarus. I had to fly 14 hours. I had to fly home 14 hours. I had vertigo for a month. I couldn’t even lay down, the house was spinning. I am hoping I don’t get vertigo. I’m not a great traveler. 

“I’ll be honest with you, I hate it. I’m not good. I’m concerned. I’m more worried about that than our goal-line offense right now.”

When the Jets traveled to London in 2015, they started their research during the spring by consulting sleep specialists. The Dolphins arrived on Friday that year and the Jets dominated them from the get-go. The Jaguars arrived early in London last year – they blew out the Ravens 44-7. The Rams played at Jacksonville before playing the Cards at London. They stayed on the east coast and traveled earlier – they beat Arizona (with Carson Palmer) 33-0. The Saints faced the Dolphins in Wembley: the team of Sean Payton traveled immediately after their Sunday game and arrived in London on Monday morning. They won 20-0. This is a significant advantage for the Seahawks!

Analysis: This game pretty much comes down to a better rested and sleep-adjusted Seahawks defense against Derek Carr without All-Pro LG Kelechi Osemele, RT Donald Penn (IR) and three other banged up offensive linemen in Kolton Miller, Gabe Jackson, and Rodney Hudson. Rookies Miller (sprained MCL) and Brandon Parker are going to protect the edges. Against the Chargers, Parker and Miller gave up a combined 12 pressures, according to PFF. Especially Kolton Miller has struggled mightily against quality edge rushers the past two games. This week he is going to face Frank Clark who created 20 pressures year to date with only two coming against Andrew Whitworth last week.

Derek Carr, one of two qualifying quarterbacks who has thrown more interceptions than touchdowns (Case Keenum is the other), can’t deal with pressure. As soon as he recognizes the slightest push of pressure, he gets happy feet and gets rid of the ball. This has been the case throughout his career and this season he has a bottom-five passer rating under pressure. This doesn’t bode well, not even against a Seahawks-defense that could have conceded 44 points to the Rams last week. I expect the Hawks to attack those edges consistently and make Derek Carr uncomfortable in the pocket. DC Ken Norton Jr has been the Raiders DC last season and while I don’t think he is any good, he might know a bit about Derek Carr’s tendencies. Based on efficiency numbers, the Raiders underperform in terms of scoring, but I doubt they will be able to score a lot with Derek Carr behind a super banged up offensive line. Their ceiling is probably around 17-20 points.

While every analytics guy hates the Seahawks offensive philosophy – which I agree with, I like that the Seahawks have recognized their highly efficient play-action offense. Russell Wilson ranks first in play-action passer rating and second in play-action yards per play. Brian Schottenheimer has increased the play-action percentage, last week he called play-action on more than 50% of the dropbacks. The Seahawks offense has a great matchup this week because the Raiders defense ranks 30th in pass efficiency (while playing a tough schedule), they rank 32nd in pressure rate and 23rd in play-action yards per play while facing the 2nd-highest PA rate in the league. This is a superb matchup for the Seahawks offense as I don’t know how the Raiders are going to defend those play-action passes.

The Seahawks have the much better traveling schedule while the Raiders travel late to London, have significant offensive line problems and a bad matchup. Seahawks should take this one home at Wembley!

Pick: Seattle Seahawks -3 -101 (Bookmaker, 10/11 07.45 AM EST)

Week 5: Arizona Cardinals @ San Francisco 49ers

Line: A 0-4 team is traveling to a 1-3 team that looked somewhat competent and came close to beating the Chargers and the argument could be made that the Cards are slightly worse on a neutral field – therefore the line opener of 5/5.5 might have seemed pretty fair from the market perception. However, I think the Cardinals are underrated in this buy low spot after four tough games of which they should have won the last one and the Niners are overpriced. I give Josh Rosen a neutral rookie grade, which might be too conservative after last week. My power number is Niners -4, but that line includes data from the first three weeks when Jimmy Garoppolo and Josh Rosen had played and I might be a bit too low on the Cards defense. It would be a different line with Rosen and Beathard for the full season. 


Analysis: Wow, what a performance by Chosen Rosen! You don’t recognize it when looking at the box score, but this young guy was super sharp against the Seahawks and they should have won that game. Rosen was throwing dimes all over the field, but his stat line of 15/27 for 180 yards and a touchdown is misleading. His receivers dropped four passes and caught one out of bounds that would have been an extra 123 yards, one touchdown, and two grabs right in front of the goal line. It would have been 22/27 for 303 yards and three touchdowns and an easy win on a different day. The Seahawks actually got the worst coverage grade by Pro Football Focus since 2016 in this specific game. And that was with Earl Thomas playing all but five snaps in coverage.

This week, Chosen Rosen will meet a Niners defense that is not good. SF got some interior pressure and two young studs at LB (Warner & Foster), but they have zero edge rush, mostly poor coverage ability on their secondary and they have tackling issues. Greg Mabin, who got some snaps last week, looked like the best coverage guy – remains to be seen whether it was just a one-hit wonder. The Cardinals offense is still limited in terms of pass protection and playmaking ability on their receiving corps and I don’t like their coaching, but it’s hard not to see Rosen orchestrating some scoring drives for six points in this one.

Kyle Shanahan and CJ Beathard got the best out of a bad Chargers defense for almost three quarters, before the Chargers defense started covering underneath routes and exploited the injuries on the Niners offensive line. LT Joe Staley, RT Mike McGlinchey, and C Weston Richburg are all questionable for next week whereas Staley looks rather doubtful as he hasn’t practiced on Thursday. Those are actually the best positions along the line as both guard positions are low-level quality. Even if all three will be able to play, it’s safe to assume that they are banged up.

Joe Staley hasn’t reached his 2017 level of play thus far, age might be catching up with him. He – or either one of Garry Gilliam or Shon Coleman (yikes) – is going to face Chandler Jones, arguably one of the best pass rushers in the game. DE Markus Golden, who is coming off an ACL injury, has played 12 snaps in week three and 34 snaps in week four when he collected a couple of pressures – the pass rush is slightly coming together. The Cards actually rank 6th in pressure rate and their coaches love to blitz as they have the 2nd-highest blitz frequency in the league right after Cleveland. They are going to get after Beathard – this is one of the key matchups in this game.

I don’t think Beathard is anywhere near an average quarterback. He was mostly throwing to open receivers last week and came down to earth after the Chargers started playing tighter. I would expect the Cardinals defense to dominate the trenches and win their matchups more often than not in order for the team to get the win done. I can see a 24-20 road victory.

The Pick:  Arizona Cardinals +4.5 -110 (Bookmaker, 10/04 11.15 AM EST)

Week 4: Houston Texans @ Indianapolis Colts

Line: I really had hoped for an overreaction to the Texans going 0-3 – I thought the books could open this line at Colts -3. They opened this Colts -1.5, early Indy money poured in to push it to -2.5 before Texans bettors came in on a bigger buyback down to +1 and now to pk on Saturday. It seems like the sharp money is seeing what I am seeing: an underperforming Texans team against an overperforming Colts squad. I’ve got the Texans slightly favored, by 0.5 points. Texans could be favorited by Sunday after the Colts injury reports.

Situation: Texans play their third road game in four weeks and Bill O’Brien should be on the hot seat.

Matchup: Andrew Luck cannot throw the ball deep, he just cannot. Not only did the Colts sub in Jacoby Brissett for the hail mary, but Luck also had three of his five worst “yards per completions” games this year. His zip is gone, he doesn’t possess the arm strength to hit comeback and out routes to the far side – he is far away from being 100%. His shoulder is still a big issue. To this point, he wasn’t forced into any shootouts where his arm strength could be exposed. He is also bad under pressure, plays on which you need to get the ball out quickly with power – he doesn’t have it right now.

The Texans pass rush is slightly coming alive, JJ Watt registered the first sacks since 2016. The Colts offensive line ranks bottom-five in pressure rate to begin the season and I believe Watt, Mercilus, Reader and Clowney will get the best of them. Left tackle Anthony Castonzo is still out as well as right tackle Joe Haeg. Haeg has been a liability to this point, but I don’t think Denzelle Good will do any better against Watt. The Colts will also be without starting tight end Jack Doyle. Eric Ebron can’t be trusted.

The Colts have been playing very conservatively, “bend but don’t break” on defense and small steps on offense which kept them in the games. But their defense – which I’m not sold on – has only been tested in the Bengals game when Dalton went downfield a couple of times. This will be different this week: Deshaun Watson is the most aggressive downfield passer, by nature, but also by numbers this season. He leads the league in air yards, even ahead of Fitzpatrick, Big Ben, and Patrick Mahomes. This week the Colts secondary who are without starting safety Clayton Geathers, will finally get tested  by DeAndre Hopkins, Will Fuller and rookie speedster Keke Coutee. I can see a breakout game for the Texans offense. I give the edge to Houston.

Bill O’Brien is plain stupid and he shouldn’t be the head coach anymore, but he is coaching for his job and we gotta believe that he is finally going to take limitations off Watson by designing more zone reads and play-action. He publicly talked about how bad his offensive line plays – which is true – and the only way to fix it is to mask it by play design. This is O’Brien’s game of the year, at 0-4 I could see him getting fired.

I expect the Texans to score which will force Luck to air it out where I don’t see them succeeding. The Texans are on a 0-8 run in close games which got to regress at some point, the coach is fighting for his job, the pass rush is getting stronger and their offense should really be successful against this Colts-secondary – Houston is going to take this one home.

The pick: Houston Texans ML +103 (Pinnacle, 09/28 03.10 PM EST)