NFL Week 3: Backups Galore

Last week’s free play on the Jaguars played out like a treat. The Jaguars’ defense, fresh off of a game where they allowed 40 points, held the Texans’ offense to just 13 points. That was right around the average for the Jaguars following games in which they allowed 21+ points (11.1) which I covered in last week’s write-up. This allowed the Jaguars’ offense, led by backup Garnder Minshew, to do the bare minimum to cover the 9 point spread. Speaking of backups, last week’s model plays went 5-3 for +4.72 units with three of the plays being on games in which backup quarterbacks were unexpectedly needed (we went 1-2 on those games). To keep with the theme, we’ll be diving into a game that involves a backup.

New Orleans Saints (1-1) vs. Seattle Seahawks (2-0)

Simply put, there just isn’t a categorical edge I can find for the Saints when looking at this matchup. First let’s look at how the Seahawks’ offense stacks up against the Seahawks’ defense. The Seahawks currently rank seventh in the model passing offense and will be going against a Saints’ pass defense that ranks in the bottom third of the league. Seattle also ranks just outside the top third in rushing offense and will be going against a Saints’ rush defense that ranks 27th in yards allowed per game, 28th in yards allowed per attempt, and 25th in rushing first downs allowed per game.

On top of that, the Seahawks should have no problem putting together long drives given that the Saints’ defense is already allowing the fifth most yards per drive in the league (only edging out the Giants, Raiders, Dolphins, and Redskins) and ranks fifth worst in generating three-and-outs. The Seahawks should be able to put together a few drives that land them inside the red zone, where they are just one of three teams to have scored a touchdown on all of their trips there. But even when the Seahawks fail to push the ball into Saints territory, they will have All-Pro punter Michael Dickson to help pin the Saints deep in their own territory.

As for how the Saints offense might fair, the model expects the Saints’ offense without Drew Brees to be in the bottom third when it comes to both passing and running the ball. The Seahawks’ pass defense only ranks around league average in the model, but their run defense ranks tenth. So things may look bleak on offense for the Saints if Sean Payton were to opt for a more run-heavy, possession-focused type approach in lieu of Brees’ absence. If not, I don’t expect the Saints to find much repeated success through the air whether it’s Teddy Bridgewater or Taysom Hill behind center on Sunday. I expect the former to be a better quarterback but a harder piece to either fit into the Saints’ offense or to adequately adapt the offense to in a week, whereas the latter is a better fit to the existing offense (obviously given that he already had a role prior to Brees’ injury) but is less talented and very likely to see diminishing returns the more he is used.

Given everything highlighted above, it’s not hard to see why there would be value on the Seahawks being favored by four points. As most know, the Seahawks possess one of the better home field advantages in the NFL. Even when considering that the average homefield advantage in the NFL has seen an approximate 20% decline in the past two decades, it would be hard to argue that the Seahawks’ homefield advantage is any lower than the equivalent of three points. So intuitively, if you subtract out those three points we are left with a line that suggests that the Seahawks are just a point better than the Drew Brees-less Saints on a neutral field.

That should be a hard buy for anyone, and my model agrees. Prior to the season, my model had the Saints as the fourth best team at 9.64 wins and the Seahawks as the seventh best with 9.38 wins (Note: model wins are expressed in terms of a team playing 16 games against a league average team). While Seattle has managed to hold steady in the model through two weeks of play, the Saints are a much different story. As a result of Drew Brees absence and the Saints’ poor defensive play to start the season, the Saints have been downgraded to 6.27 model wins, good for 27th in the league. The result is a 68.2% probability that the Seahawks would beat the Saints on a neutral field, which is already higher than the implied probability of the Seahawks moneyline for the game. After accounting for game-specific factors the model makes this game Seahawks -8.4, which makes SEA -4 a 2.2 unit model play.