NFL Week 7: Giant Overreaction

Welcome back! Last week’s free play on the Niners was sweat-free for the vast majority of the game as they proved to the world that their defense is as advertised. The week finished 3-3 for +0.14u, moving the season to 22-17 (56.4%) for +6.79u (11.2% ROI). Before we move on to this week’s matchup, I wanted to highlight the college basketball announcement I made yesterday. The donation run we made last year that raised $25,000+ will be returning ($20+ donation to Doctor’s Without Borders gets you the last month of plays), while those interested in a full season package can donate $20+ to get a $100 discount code to bring the price from $299 to $199. That discount code can also be used on NFL, which would bring it from $329 to $229 for the rest of the season.

Arizona Cardinals (2-3-1) vs. New York Giants (2-4)

After six weeks, a lot of attention has been drawn towards the improvement the Cardinals’ offense has shown this year. They currently rank 17th in points scored after a year in which they finished dead last. Kingsbury truthers, however, have conveniently picked this week to highlight the improvement given that the Cardinals just finished playing the Bengals (31st in defensive DVOA) and the Falcons (29th in defensive DVOA). Prior to those two games, the Cardinals ranked 25th in points scored.

Granted, the Giants are not a defensive powerhouse (they rank 23rd in defensive DVOA). However, sometimes the deeper nuances of marginal improvement from team to team is what makes the largest differences at the professional level. This is especially true when the team’s performance is steadily improving in that regard, as the Giants have over the course of the season. In particular, let’s look at how their pass defense has improved over the first six weeks (Note: For DVOA, positive numbers represent allowing more scoring):

Granted, the Giants’ pass defense is still poor (28th in pass defense DVOA) but the gap between the Giants and the 30th ranked Bengals is the same size as the gap between the Giants and the 19th ranked Eagles, and the gap between the Giants and the 31st ranked Falcons is the same size as the gap between the Giants and the 7th ranked Broncos.

A large reason for that gap (despite the relative closeness in rankings) is the Giants’ ability to pressure the quarterback, as they rank 11th in adjusted sack rate. That doesn’t bode well for the Cardinals whose offensive line ranks 28th in adjusted sack rate allowed, especially given the defensive lines they’ve faced. Aside from the Panthers (3rd), the Cardinals have faced the Lions (25th), Ravens (26th), Seahawks (29th), Bengals (30th), and Falcons (32nd). Those five bottom-dwelling teams averaged 2.6 sacks per game against the Cardinals, whereas the Panthers sacked Kyler Murray 8 times in their affair.

Let’s take a look at the other side of this coin: the Giants’ offense vs. the Cardinals’ defense. The Cardinals pass defense has been very poor this year, ranking 29th and performing just a smidge better than the Bengals. They do get Patrick Peterson back this week from suspension, but the track record for first games back (even for elite talents) isn’t promising, so the improvement that he’ll bring and that everyone seems to be penciling in may be exaggerated for this week. Even if Peterson does play lights out, the talent the Giants get back this week (Saquon Barkley and Evan Engram) is far more impactful. In fact, this week easily marks the most offensive talent the Giants have had on the field so far this season, given that the Giants will have Daniel Jones, Saquon Barkley, Golden Tate, and Evan Engram together for the first time.

Engram’s return is particularly noteworthy given the Cardinals’ inability to guard tight ends, especially those on the talent level of Engram. Through the first six weeks, opposing tight ends have put up the following performances:

  • W1 T.J. Hockenson: 6 receptions, 131 yards, 1 TD
  • W2 Mark Andrews: 8 receptions, 112 yards, 1 TD
  • W3 Greg Olsen: 6 receptions, 75 yards, 2 TDs
  • W4 Will Dissly: 7 receptions, 57 yards, 2 TDs
  • W6 Austin Hooper: 8 catches, 117 yards, 1 TDs

Outside of the Bengals’ weak performance in Week 5, opposing tight ends have torched the Cardinals for an average of 7 catches, 98.4 yards, and 1.4 touchdowns.

All in all, my model sees this as a game between a firmly below average team going against a firmly just-above-bottom-of-the-barrel team. Then you add in the fact that the Giants are on extended rest coming off of a Thursday Night game and the Cardinals are a west coast team traveling to the east coast for an early game, and the model sees more than enough value to make NYG -3 -100 a play for 1.35 units.

NFL Week 6: California Love

Yes, I know – it has been a while. Three weeks ago my dog had to have his knee surgically repaired, and the recovery has been slower than anticipated with some unexpected hurdles along the way. But he is showing progress and is doing a lot better these days, which means I have time to sit down and put together one of these write-ups for you fine folks.

The model thus far is 19-14 (57.6%) for +6.66 units (12.5% ROI). I’m pretty pleased with those marks given that there have been 13 quarterback changes in the first five weeks and they are the largest and arguably the most difficult adjustment to make to a team’s evaluation. If you are interested in joining, the model plays have been prorated down to $349 for the rest of the season given that a month of plays is already in the books.

San Francisco 49ers (4-0) vs. Los Angeles Rams (3-2)

The matchup I’ll be looking at this week is one that I anticipate a massive divide on across handicappers, modelers, and bettors everywhere. The Rams and Sean McVay have been adored by the analytics community for quite some time now and for good reason. In 2018, they finished 2nd in offensive DVOA including finishes of 5th in passing DVOA and 1st in running DVOA. As a result the Rams only trailed the Chiefs last year in scoring, averaging 31 points per game. With Cooper Kupp returning from injury this year, there were expectations that this offense could generate similar (if not better) results in 2019. Kupp has been more than advertised, averaging 8.2 catches and 101 yards per game and has been responsible for more than half of all of Jared Goff’s touchdowns (4 of 7).

Despite that, a lot of data points suggest that this Rams offense has taken quite a step back, especially through the air. A lot of it has to do with the inefficiencies from the offensive line and Jared Goff. After finishing seventh last year in yards per attempt (8.1), Jared Goff now ranks 17th with 7.4 yards per attempt. Much of this comes from the fact that the Rams offensive line has graded poorly in pass blocking this year, allowing the 12th most QB hits per game after allowing just the ninth fewest in 2018. That obviously doesn’t bode well for a quarterback who only completed 41% of his throws while under pressure last year.

Those numbers alone should be concerning for the Rams, but it gets much uglier when you look at the defense they have to face on Sunday. For as much attention as the Patriots’ defense has received this year, the 49ers have been just behind them as a complete unit. On a per game basis, the 49ers currently rank:

  • 4th in points allowed
  • 2nd in yards allowed
  • 2nd in defensive DVOA
  • 1st in pass defense DVOA
  • 5th in rush defense DVOA
  • 5th in sacks
  • 7th in adjusted sack rate
  • 8th in 3rd down conversion rate
  • 2nd in interceptions
  • 3rd in penalties committed and penalty yards

Credit needs to be given to the 49ers’ front office for the amount of defensive talent they have accrued through the draft. In the last five drafts, the 49ers have hit on the following Day 1 and Day 2 picks on defense: Nick Bosa, Fred Warner, Solomon Thomas, Ahkello Witherspoon, DeForest Buckner, Arik Armstead, and Jacquiski Tartt. That is quite the haul, and having a Kyle Shanahan offense to practice against for the past two seasons has undoubtedly played a huge role in their development.

To make matters worse for the Rams, Brandin Cooks is currently in the concussion protocol and Todd Gurley might be limited in some significant capacity. Cooks brings a deep threat element to that offense that will be hard for Josh Reynolds to replicate, which would make the jobs of Cooper Kupp, Robert Woods, and Gerald Everett (who just came off of a game in which he logged career highs in targets, receptions, and yards) much more difficult. Gurley’s impact is a bit more arguable, depending on where you stand in the “Do running backs matter?” debate.

But the Rams aren’t the only ones with noteworthy injuries coming into this week’s game. Starting right tackle Mike McGlinchey will be out for the next 4-6 weeks, which hurts a bit more than usual given that starting left tackle Joe Staley is already out and with the 49ers leading the league in rushing rate (57%). Fullback Kyle Juszcyk is also out, but the 49ers are arguably the deepest and most versatile team at the position and will surely find a way to distribute his touches.

Being deep and versatile best describes the 49ers as a whole so far this season. Sure, they have the capability just like any team performing well to start the season to come falling back down to earth. As for now, they currently rank 10th in pass offense and 7th in rush defense, and rank 2nd in pass defense and 5th in rush defense. Altogether, the 49ers are the second strongest team in my model as of this writing. That was certainly not something I expected heading into this season. In fact, the 49ers have outperformed my priors so much that their expected wins vs. league average has increased by 2.67 wins through just five weeks. The next best improvement has been New England, who has improved by 1.65 wins so far this season. To provide more context, there were only four teams through Week 5 last year that saw an improvement of one win or more, and only one team improved by two or more: the Kansas City Chiefs.

The Rams on the other hand have regressed a bit more than I had expected, finding themselves as the tenth best team in the model and decreasing their expected wins vs. league average by 0.67 wins. As for this week’s matchup, the model has this game made to be LAR -0.2 after accounting for game specific factors, rest discrepancies (Rams coming off TNF, 49ers coming off MNF), injuries, etc. That makes SF +3 +104 good for a 1.4 unit play.

NFL Week 2: Minshew Madness

Welcome back! Last week’s play fell incredibly flat as the Raiders had their way with the Broncos for the entire night. The Raiders offensive line, which was missing two starters, allowed zero QB hits. Big money free agent acquisition Juwan James went down early and the right side of the Broncos offensive line never really recovered after that. On the other side of the ball, stud cornerback Bryce Callahan (2018 PFF grade of 81.3) also went out early and the Raiders intelligently went after Isaac Yiadom after that, who received a PFF grade of 41.3 for the night. To cap off the ugly night, Vic Fangio showed poor game management skills in his head coaching debut – the lowlight being opting to kick a field goal when down 21-6 to decrease the deficit from a two touchdown game to a two touchdown game. Nevertheless, Week 1 is behind us and we are on to Week 2.

Jacksonville Jaguars (0-1) vs. Houston Texans (0-1)

Both of these AFC South teams will face off after having quite an eventful Week 1. The visiting Jaguars come off of a blowout at home in which Nick Foles exited with a season-ending broken clavicle. The Texans on the other hand watched a late-game comeback slip through their fingers as they lost in the final moments of the early Monday Night Football game. This week is a pivotal week for many 0-1 teams, as teams starting 0-2 only make the playoffs roughly 11% of the time. Add in the fact that all four AFC South teams face off against each other this week, this week has a lot at stake.

The glaring element to this game is the undrafted rookie quarterback who will now start in place of Nick Foles, Gardner Minshew. After taking over for Foles,  Minshew went on to finish 22/25 (88%) for 275 yards, 2 TDs, and 1 INT. To add to his performance, the three incompletions were drops and Minshew wound up finishing fourth in attempted Air Yards amongst all quarterbacks. Not bad at all if you ask me.

But when it comes to replacement quarterbacks, it’s not necessarily about how good the replacment is – it’s more about how much more valuable the starter was compared to the backup. Luckily for us, BetOnline actually released the effect each quarterback has on the line:

 

Now obviously different books might have different numbers for each quarterback but I can’t imagine it differing by too much. If Foles is worth 2.5 points, then the current spread of Texans -9.5 for this game suggests that it would have been around Texans -7 had Foles finished last week’s game unscathed. To me, that immediately didn’t sound right. Prior to Week 1, the Pinnacle regular season win total for the Texans was approximately 8.6 and the Jaguars’ was 7.9. A difference of 0.7 wins would never equate to a spread of -7 in Week 2 had Foles been healthy. And that’s absolutely true. When we look at what the lookahead line for Week 2 was before Week 1, you can see that the Texans were originally -3.5. That means that after adjusting for the quarterback change, there is 3.5 points of unexplained movement left. For many, that alone would be enough to take a line and not think twice about it. But that wouldn’t make for a good write-up so let’s dive a bit deeper.

Outside of the quarterback situation, the two biggest takeaways from the two games these teams played last week are that 1) The Jaguars defense looked apprehensible, allowing the Chiefs to score 40 points and that 2) the Texans passing game looks better than ever with the offensive line getting a boost from Tunsil and with Will Fuller back. However, long-time NFL bettors will tell you that overreacting week-to-week is a good way to deplete your bankroll, especially at the start of the season.

To put the Jaguars’ poor defensive performance in context, I took a look at every time the Jaguars allowed 21+ points in the past two seasons (left column) and how they fared in the following week (right column):

2017 W2 Titans 37

2017 W4: Jets 23 (in OT)

2017 W6: Rams 27

2017 W12: Cardinals 27

2017 W14: Seahawks 24

2017 W16: 49ers 44

2018 W5: Chiefs 30

2018 W6: Cowboys 40

2018 W12: Bills 24

2018 W14: Titans 30

2017 W3: Ravens 7

2017 W5: Steelers 9

2017 W7: Colts 0

2017 W13: Colts 10

2017 W15: Texans 7

2017 W17: Titans 15

2018 W6: Cowboys 40

2018 W7: Texans 7

2018 W13: Colts 0

2018 W15: Redskins 16

As you can see, the Jaguars’ defense only allowed 21+ in consecutive weeks once in the last two seasons: in Week 6 of last season when they allowed 40 points to the Cowboys after allowing 30 to the Chiefs in Week 5. In the ten weeks following a game in which the Jaguars allowed 21+ points, they only allowed 11.1 points per game. Logically, this makes a lot of sense when you think of the ebb and flow of week-to-week game-planning. If the Jaguars’ defense plays well, opposing coaches will avoid what the Jaguars defended well and try to find where they were lacking. The Jaguars’ coaches on the other hand will be a bit more content with their defense and try not to change too much. That leaves the Jaguars defense exposed. If the Jaguars’ defense plays poorly, opposing coaches will look to exploit the weaknesses the Jaguars already showed whereas the Jaguars’ coaches will look to patch up those holes. This will give the Jaguars’ defense the advantage.

But if you’re unconvinced and have the Texans’ recent offensive performance still fresh in your mind, you might want to pump the brakes. The Saints defense ranked dead last in DVOA allowed on deep passes last year. The Jaguars, on the other hand, ranked seventh best. Yes the Jaguars did just get burned deep by Mahomes, but like we just discussed you would be hard-pressed to find instances where the Jaguars had consecutive weeks of defensive lapses.

As for the model, the Jaguars are given a 38.6% chance of winning on a neutral field and after adjusting for game-specific factors the Jaguars are made to be 5.8 point underdogs. I’ll sell a half point and opt for JAX +9 -110, which leaves us with 3.2 points of disagreement making this a play risking 1.76 units to win 1.60.