Week 7 NFL Preview
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Cincinnati Bengals at Atlanta Falcons
These are two fairly well-matched teams in Offensive, Defensive, and Special teams DVOA, but there are a few smaller matchup issues that could make a big difference. Cincy's dynamite cornerback combo of Leon Hall and Johnathan Joseph have allowed the Bengals to put up the second-best DVOA against #1 receivers, behind only the Colts. So, Falcons quarterback Matt Ryan could be forced to look for other receivers not named Roddy White, and that isn't something he's all that familiar with this year - White is the NFL's most-targeted receiver with 69 passes thrown his way. The good news for Ryan is that the Bengal are about league average against tight ends, and that's encouraging for a guy who has Tony Gonzalez on his roster.
Washington Redskins at Chicago Bears
The Bears' offensive line issues are clear - and potentially disastrous. But who's at fault for a situation in which quarterback Jay Cutler has taken 18 sacks in his last three games? You can probably start with line coach Mike Tice. Tice has recently blamed some of Chicago's younger linemen for not knowing what they're doing, but how were they supposed to know when Tice held his protections back in the preseason, and didn't use them during practice? The Bears allowed 3 ½ sacks to free blitzers against the Seahawks last Sunday, and there are far too many examples of unaware linemen failing to pick up obvious blitz concepts. One would expect that Brian Orakpo will be walking around Redskins HQ with a big smile on his face after watching the film.
St. Louis Rams at Tampa Bay Buccaneers
With rookie quarterback Sam Bradford finding his way in the NFL, the Rams already have 15 pass plays of 20 yards or more this season; last year's pathetic offense had just 32 through all of 2009. But the interesting thing about a player who has been so deservedly praised for his deep accuracy is that more of his passing yards have come after the catch this year - 5.0 yards per completion in the air, and 5.2 after the catch. Tampa Bay's Josh Freeman has a bit more going on through the air - 6.27 yards through the air per completion and 4.83 yards after the catch. So far, the main difference between the two bright young quarterbacks is interceptions percentage; Freeman's is just 1.9 (three picks in 159 attempts), and Bradford's is 3.8 (eight picks in 234 attempts). Last year, Freeman's rookie interception percentage was a league-leading 6.2% (18 picks in just 290 attempts), and things will likely get better for Bradford as he goes along - he's been tremendously impressive to date.
San Francisco 49ers at Carolina Panthers
Is it taking some quarterbacks too long to figure things out this season, or are they just bailing out far too often? Through six weeks of the 2010 season, two quarterbacks - San Francisco's Alex Smith and San Diego's Philip Rivers - are among the top three players in overall penalties. Smith's nine penalties put him behind only Green Bay cornerback Charles Woodson, and he's already got six intentional grounding calls. That is so beyond the pale, one has to wonder is it's time to get a different quarterback in Frisco, or if the team's offensive line is causing excessive protection problems. No other quarterback has more than one grounding penalty this season, and in 2009, Jason Campbell led the league with just three grounding calls.
Buffalo Bills at Baltimore Ravens
Do the Bills have any chance in this game, especially with Ed Reed most likely returning to action? It's hard to see how. Ray Rice is starting to bust out after a slow start, and the Bills rank dead last in run defense DVOA. Joe Flacco has found a rhythm with new receiver Anquan Boldin, and the Bills rank dead last in pass defense DVOA (not to mention 29th in defensive DVOA against #1 receivers). The Ravens are susceptible to the run this season, and the Bills rank 12th in Rushing DVOA, but when a team this one-dimensional faces a great defense, it's generally time to stick everyone in the box and tee off on the backs in question. That puts the pressure on Ryan Fitzpatrick to transcend the obvious and make plays downfield against the returning Mr. Reed. Sometimes, a game just looks like a blowout in every way, shape, and form.
Philadelphia Eagles at Tennessee Titans
There's no question that the Eagles will miss DeSean Jackson if he can't play, especially since #1 receivers are one of Tennessee's very few defensive liabilities. Then again, Jeremy Maclin's skill set is similar to that of many #1 wideouts. The Titans rank 28th in Defensive DVOA against #1 receivers, eighth against #2 receivers, and they're the best defense in the NFL against other receivers who aren't tight ends or running backs. If you want the name of a sleeper reason why, and a player to watch for the rest of the season, check out rookie cornerback Alterraun Verner. The fourth-round pick out of UCLA already has two interceptions and has deflected seven passes -- he's consistently around the ball.
Jacksonville Jaguars at Kansas City Chiefs
You may have wanted a refund for the three hours you spent watching last Monday's game between the Jaguars and the Tennessee Titans, and Jags quarterback David Garrard may be willing to oblige - he's been very generous this season. Though Trent Edwards played most of that game due to Garrard's in-game concussion, Garrard still leads the league this year in interception percentage (seven interceptions in 128 attempts for a percentage of 5.5). Edwards may be less mistake-prone, but they don't call him "Captain Checkdown" for nothing. In 2010, Edwards has thrown 12 balls at or behind the line of scrimmage, 12 from 1-10 yards, just four from 11-20 yards, and one 20 yards or more. Ironically, his longest pass (31 yards) was for a touchdown. Kansas City's up-and-coming pass defense, led by star cornerback Brandon Flowers, will make such passes tough to complete.
Pittsburgh Steelers at Miami Dolphins
You can generally expect Dolphins quarterback Chad Henne to air it out in the friendly confines of Sun Life stadium - he's averaging 8.15 yards per attempt at home, and 5.99 on the road. However, that go-for-broke approach comes at a price; Henne has thrown four of his five picks at home. Expect both Henne and Steelers quarterback Ben Roethlisberger to be under siege in this game - the Steelers and Dolphins are each attacking quarterbacks at a high rate (PIT 17 sacks, MIA 14 sacks). That stat favors Miami on the offensive side of the ball - the 'Fins rank ninth in Adjusted Sack Rate, while the Steelers rank 22nd in the NFL in protecting their quarterback. Of course, those numbers don't really account for Roethlisberger's amazing ability to complete passes with defenders hanging all over him - that will be a primary challenge for the Dolphins in this game.
Cleveland Browns at New Orleans Saints
You'd expect Saints running back Pierre Thomas to lead the team in yards after catch, and he does, with 10.18 YAC (he actually averages his catches more than two yards behind the line of scrimmage). But receiver Lance Moore's YAC totals are unusual for his position, and they speak to the Saints' "new offense" in which there are fewer downfield routes. Moore averages 6.82 air yards per catch (yards between quarterback and initial catch), but an amazing 9.29 after he gets the ball. Oakland's Louis Murphy ranks second in YAC among receivers at 7.33, which tells you how unique Moore's totals are. This, however, might be a good time for Drew Brees to air it out. The Browns have allowed 19 plays of 20 yards or more, and four of 40 yards or more.
Arizona Cardinals at Seattle Seahawks
The underrated aspect of Seattle's early success has been special teams. We saw this when Leon Washington returned two kickoffs for touchdowns against the San Diego Chargers, but Seattle also ranks first overall in Special Teams DVOA, puts their opponents in the biggest hole in every drive (average opponent drive start: the 20.6-yard line), and brings about the best starts for their offense (average drive start: the 33.7-yard line). The Cardinals' opponents start their average drives at their own 27.1-yard line, and Arizona begins an average drive at the 28.3-yard line.
New England Patriots at San Diego Chargers
We spoke of quarterback penalties in the San Francisco section; let's talk about Philip Rivers. Through six games, Rivers leads the league on delay of game calls with six; Denver's Kyle Orton is second with four. In 2009, Cincinnati's Carson Palmer led the league with nine in the entire season, and Rivers had just six all year. Both Smith and Rivers could be dealing with ancillary offensive line issues - all of Rivers' delay calls came in weeks 1 and 3, when reserve tackle Brandyn Dombrowski was playing in place of holdout Marcus McNeil. That was one reason the Chargers finally gave McNeil a new contract - another reason might be the fact that San Diego ranks 25th in Adjusted Sack Rate after finishing the 2009 season as the league's fifth-best in that category.
Oakland Raiders at Denver Broncos
We're not exactly sure where Brandon Lloyd came from this year after his notable multi-season disappearing act, but one thing we do know is that the Raiders are in trouble against this guy. Oakland is by far the worst team in the league when it comes to defensive #1 receivers, and Lloyd is 61 yards ahead of the next-most productive receiver (663 to Reggie Wayne's 602). Lloyd needs just 60 yards to tie his season-high total to date, which he amassed for the San Francisco 49ers in 2005. In case you're wondering, Redskins fane, Lloyd put up just 379 yards in two seasons in the nation's capital. Ah, the Vinny Cerrato era - how we miss it so.
Minnesota Vikings at Green Bay Packers
The interesting thing about the Vikings' defense this year is that that formerly-scary front four isn't getting after the quarterback too much at all. After leading the NFL in sacks in 2009. The Vikings have just six through the 2010 season. This could reflect a more coverage-friendly scheme, as opposed to forcing the issue with pressure in a more boom-and-bust fashion - despite that lack of heat, Minnesota's pass defense is the sixth-best in the league.
New York Giants at Dallas Cowboys
Our advice to the Cowboys against this defense? Use the shotgun (no, not literally). Dallas does much better when Tony Romo is out from under center and can actually see what is going on before his protection-impaired line gives up sacks, hits, and hurries. The 'Boys have run shotgun 42.7 percent of the time, and they rank seventh in DVOA and first in yards when doing so. Those numbers drop to 15th in DVOA and 14th in yards per play (7.1 YPP vs. 5.1) when Romo is under center. The Giants rank second in Defensive Adjusted Sack Rate, and they're first in DVOA against the pass.