I struggled to just let this write-up flow as I was typing it up, once I had collected all the information, due to the remaining uncertainty about the health of Bills safety Damar Hamlin. This is a major challenge for all parties involved and what actually happens on the field seems secondary right now, but NFL life goes on and maybe just talking some ball will be welcome change for people, who don’t quite know how to deal with all of this. Plus, we’re continuing to get positive news about the young man, thankfully. I actually couldn’t state some things definitely, as it pertains to the effect of remaining regular season games on the final playoff picture.
There’s one more week left in the 2022 regular season, to finalize the playoff picture and upcoming matchups, along with whatever the NFL does with the Bills-Bengals matchup. Before we get into those and the specific X’s and O’s, I wanted to look at all the teams in the running and talk about the ten biggest strengths or most dangerous elements across them. All but one of these groups associated with them have already clinched a playoff spot, along with the Dolphins, who will host the Jets in basically a pick’em this Sunday and need a win in combination with the Bills beating the Patriots – a matchup that still brings some questions with how relevant it will be for playoff seeding. Still, therefore Miami actually has a slightly higher chance at a Wildcard spot than their division rivals.
So without any further proclamations, here are the ten elements that stood out most to me from this pool:
1. Mahomes’ magic
This first one is pretty self-explanatory. For anybody who has tracked Patrick Mahomes’ career, ever since starting that final game of his rookie season, before taking over for Alex Smith the following year and immediately elevating the Chiefs into an AFC powerhouse, you know that he’s a human highlight reel, doing things that we’ve never really seen from the quarterback position. Two weeks into his first season as a full-time starter, I was ready to trash my pre-draft thoughts on him and expressed my belief in his future. I ordered a jersey of his and have followed his career with great interest.
While Mahomes has continued to grow as a student of the game, being able to identify pre- and post-snap looks by the defense, and has really become a machine at finding weaknesses and attacking those from within the pocket, he still adds that cherry on top with the stuff he does after the initial play breaks down. Whether it’s drifting around the pocket with bodies flying, frequent no-lookers, spinning out of trouble and finding his guys down the field, looking like he’s covered in grease with tacklers slipping off him as he’s somehow getting away from them as a runner, or even switching the ball to his left hand and somehow completing passes that way – this guy has made our jaws drop on numerous occasions.
What makes him so special in that regard is that neither does he allow his eyes to drop and miss opportunities to find his receivers down the field, nor is he ever really unaware of somebody having an angle on him and exposing the ball to be stripped. Pat will literally look behind himself at times as he’s leaving the pocket and then toggle right back to his targets trying to break free on secondary routes, while having the flexible arm to flick it to them from all kind of different arm angles and off either foot, when needed. He and Travis Kelce have almost a Zen-like connection on critical downs, finding green grass together, but this season Jerrick McKinnon has been the recipient of quite a few of those off-schedule plays, that have broken the backs of defenses. I feel like all the components around Mahomes have really embraced that style of creating secondary plays, along with the transformation we’ve seen this offense make on script, with more runs from under center and working the middle of the field. That dichotomy of being able to carve up opponents when things are on-script, but then being even more dangerous when Pat uses his wizardry even if the defense wins initially, makes them maddening to play against.
Whether it’s the two-yard touchdown flip to Clyde Edwards-Helaire against the Bucs back in week four, where he spun around Devin White and then went airborne, the 57-yard underhand toss to Jerrick McKinnon against the Broncos a month ago, as someone tried to drag him down from behind, or the hand-plant and pylon stretch against the Seahawks from three yards out a couple of weeks back, there have been several examples in just 2022.
2. San Francisco’s suffocating talent & schematic advantages
I know I’m already cheating to some degree here, but I had to make a point on this – to me, the 49ers have the most talented roster and the best combination of offensive and defensive play-caller in the entire NFL. Like that is pretty glaring as we discuss the best teams in this field. The only two reasons they aren’t quite regarded as an overwhelming force in the NFC are the fact that we also have an Eagles squad, which is 13-1 with their starting quarterback under center, and the final draft pick last April in Brock Purdy leading this squad – even though he actually has the highest passer rating in the league since taking over as a starter (112.7), and gives them more of a play-making component than they’ve had in recent years.
You look at their lineups on both sides of the ball and it’s truly astonishing. In three-and-a-half games without Deebo Samuel, their offense has scored 109 points (those 31.1 points per game would lead the NFL). Now they are slated to get him back, to re-unite what undoubtedly is the most talented combination of five skill position players, when they go into 21 personnel, not only because of what all those guys can do with the ball in their hands, but even more so the way they can stress defensive rules because of the formation and play-design flexibility it provides them with. You can maybe argue that the O-line outside of All-Pro left tackle Trent Williams may be somewhat vulnerable in heavy dropback settings, but all their weapons are so explosive after the catch and the Niners have now run for over 120 yards in all but one of their eight games (vs. NO) since the bye week.
Meanwhile, the defense has actually been even more consistently dominant. There have been three games all season in which they’ve allowed more than 20 points – when they were missing half of their starters at Atlanta, at home against the flamethrower that is Patrick Mahomes and shockingly, this past Sunday in an overtime shootout at Las Vegas. Those are complete outliers to the rest of their schedule, as they’re still number one in the league in points per game (16.5), DVOA (-14.0%) and EPA per play (-0.096). Nick Bosa is the Defensive Player of the Year, as the most consistent and well-rounded threat off the edge, their range on the second level to either chase things down out wide or take away passing lanes and still race up for minimal YAC, and the way they squeeze down routes in zone coverage, to force quarterbacks to hold onto the field, are all phenomenal.
And of course, a big reason for the success of their players is the way that coaching staff has put them in place. Kyle Shanahan has been one of the premier offensive play- and game-plan designers in the game for nearly a decade now. The way he can dress plays up differently and mess with defensive rules, add little wrinkles in the run game, affect the eyes of defenders and all the variations of how to put the ball in the hands of his best players stands out on a weekly basis. On the opposite side, DeMeco Ryans has risen to one of the top head-coaching candidates in this upcoming cycle for how well-orchestrated that defensive unit has been. There’s obviously a lot of talent to play with in the front-seven, but the way he has maximized their strengths with different games up front and utilizing that range of those linebackers, along with not de-accentuating the impact of a fairly average corner group with how they orchestrate coverages, has been tremendous.
San Francisco still has a shot at the number one seed and can beat anybody in this league.
3. Allen’s alien skill-set
Talking about the Bills concerning anything but the health of Damar Hamlin is challenging and I still have a tough time imagining that crew stepping onto a field, as long as their brother is still in a hospital bed. However, we got some great news recently and it’s usually easy for me to marble at the crazy set of tools that their quarterback brings to the table. So after discussing more of a team-building and overall evaluation of a team, we go back to the superhuman quarterbacks, looking at all the things Josh Allen can do to putting his stamp on games. You can argue some of the questionable decision-making leading to turnovers, particularly in the red-zone, and that’s why he is a couple of spots down from Mahomes. However, I don’t believe there’s a team in this league relying more heavily and putting more onto the plate of their quarterback than the Bills. They’ve truly asked their signal-caller to put on a cape and he has delivered in a major way these last three years (plus). Only Mahomes has been responsible for more total yards (4775) and touchdowns (39 – tied with Joe Burrow).
Obviously, what the two biggest poster children in terms of freaky skill-sets in Mahomes and Allen can do any time they take the snap is mind-warping, but what really stood out to me looking back when those two faced off back in week six, was the way they would break the structure of defenses on numerous occasions. And while the former does it with the way he can escape from pressure and deliver from different arm-angles, Buffalo’s gunslinger can often wait an extra beat or even be late in the eyes of some, because of the velocity he can rip throws with. You see some instances of windows and defenders breaking on routes, yet Allen while fire the ball slightly behind his targets and actively stop them from collisions. And going back to their first meeting with the Jets – certainly not his best performance in an upset loss – on Buffalo’s final offensive play he literally put the ball right on the numbers of Gabe Davis, where the ball legitimately travelled 70 yards through the air. Combining that ability to hang at the top of his drop and Stefon Diggs’ savvy to create that little bit of late separation matches extremely well.
Now, let’s get to the fact this guy is also a 245-pound monster-truck when he carries the ball. Even though we’ve seen Allen injure his elbow and ankle this season – showing some signs of actually being human – he hasn’t been shy of putting his body on the line and deliver key plays as a runner. Having a guy like this, who’s capable of attacking every blade of grass as a passer and then can gain ground in a hurry, run over a linebacker or hurdle some DB trying to dive at his feet, presents a major challenge. However, Allen is also a featured weapon in the designed run game. The Bills can of course run zone read at times, but QB power and sweeps towards the perimeter are staples on the menu, even if new OC Ken Dorsey doesn’t quite access that portion of the playbook as regularly as previous years – probably in connection with the health of his signal-caller, as 47% of runs were logged as scrambles. Allen is their biggest threat on the ground once they get into the red-zone, and good luck stopping this tank on sneaks.
You can definitely argue no other team relies as heavily on their quarterback as the Bills. Thanks to his combination of athleticism, size and arm-talent, combined with continued progress from a mental aspect, nobody may be able to stress defenses in as many ways as he does.
4. Philly’s physicality up front
It’s rare to see an NFL team truly dominate in the trenches on both sides of the ball in the vast majority of matchups. However, that’s what we’ve seen from the Eagles this season. They are the only NFC to be top-five in offensive and defensive DVOA right now (along with the Bills in the AFC) and until having to rest Jalen Hurts at quarterback, they were comfortably atop the league with a 13-1 record. Despite having two of their bottom-four marks these last couple of weeks, they’re still fifth in rushing yards (2374) and have seven more touchdowns on the ground than anybody else (31). More importantly, they’re easily number one in rushing success rate (51.0%). The run defense has had some issues in the middle of the season, with interior D-linemen hurt and a couple of ways teams attacked their five-man surfaces with. However, they’re still tied for number in yards per play surrendered (4.8) and second in takeaways (27) thanks in large part to the way the consistently affect the pocket, as they lead the league by 16(!) with their 68 sacks and rank behind only the Cowboys in pressure rate (25.0%).
The reason Philly isn’t even quite at the top of the league in total or average yards per rush, because they don’t have those legit home-run hitters in the backfield, but they have more five/six-yards runs on first downs, have been more successful at converting in short-yardage situations and consistently are able to move the chains than anybody else. Looking at that front five, they can really run any concept, whether it’s taking advantage of the mobility at the center position with Jason Kelce and right tackle with Lane Johnson, once he’s back, creating lanes with the way they create displacement off short and long pulls or just going to their “victory” formation and letting Jalen Hurts tank ahead behind those big guys on sneak plays. On those, he’s converted an absurd 27-of-29 such plays into first downs (on third and fourth). Hurts and Miles Sanders have moved the chains on 75% of rushing attempts on third and three or less. That’s a big reason, they’re converting an NFL-best 72.2% of red-zone trips into touchdowns, along with their 60(!) total runs of 10+ yards between their top two ball-carriers.
Defensively, I mentioned some of the issues they’ve had in terms of how opposing teams have given their five-man fronts problems at times, especially with using those angles against them with pin-and-pull or GT power schemes. However, they did add some depth to that unit with veteran free agents and their splits with rookie D-tackle Jordan Davis on the field vs. when he’s not are pretty stunning. So I still believe as he’s getting healthier and more acclimated, we will see him become a bigger part of their formula, not having played more than 25% of defensive snaps since week six. More importantly, this D-line has been crushing pockets all season long. They have some of the most impressive snaps on tape, where they truly collapse that space around the quarterback from all angles and force him to release the ball off his back-foot. Those don’t even show up on the stat sheet, other than ending up in incompletions and interceptions, along with having a commanding lead on the rest of the NFL with their 68 sacks. You combine that with the way they have their corners funneling everything inside and their safeties aggressively driving on routes in quarters or cover-six, it really forces QBs to attack tight windows and as an effect of that, balls being popped up for grabs.
As temperatures are low and teams most likely will need to come through Philadelphia, with a Giants team up on the slate this Sunday, which is locked into the number six seed, being able to win on the ground and having the upper hands from a physicality perspective, will be huge.
5. Burrow’s brains & guts
While the “superhuman” or “alien” tags fit for the likes of Mahomes and Allen, for the guy up with them in that top tier right now I believe, in Joe Burrow, supercomputer or assassin may be more apt. Cincinnati’s rise from a team that picked Burrow first overall in the 2020 draft to the AFC representatives in the Super Bowl last year, was in large part due to the way their quarterback and those weapons around him could stress opponents, along with a very well-schooled defense. In 2022, we saw that newly grouped offensive line have major struggles early on with communication and also individual play, while the heavy dose of two-high defensive structures they were facing and their own overwhelming tendencies based on formations and down & distance, created major issues for this unit over the first month of the season. However, allow me to discuss some of the adjustments they’ve made and how Burrow has torn apart opposing defenses since then.
From week five on, Cincinnati fully embraced the idea of being a shotgun offense, ranking behind only the Cardinals and Ravens – two teams that heavily rely on mobile quarterbacks and what they can present in the option run game – in snap rate with their signal-caller five/six yards behind the center. Since that point, they rank behind only Kansas City in offensive EPA per play (0.148) and third in both EPA per rush and rushing success rate. Burrow vision. Because they don’t give away information with their prior tendencies of running the ball on first down and 12 personnel being a massive indicator for zone schemes, it has opened up their offense and made them much tougher to prepare for. That threat of handing the ball off from the gun and out of three-WR sets not only fits their O-line better, as they benefit from creating favorable angles and utilize pullers more regularly, but it also creates easier opportunities for explosive in the RPO game and you really see the second level not gain depth as quickly.
More importantly, Joe Burrow has always been more comfortable with that wider peripheral vision and not having to turn his back to the defense when using play-action. His ability to ID pre-snap matchups to take vertical shots within 2.5 seconds, along with the awareness for leverage advantages versus zone coverage and route adjustments, make him an assassin from within the pocket. You combine that with a growth in the dropback pass game schematically, as Zac Taylor and OC Brian Callahan have added more wrinkles, to take pressure off their top-flight signal-callers. From what I’ve seen on tape, the spacing and aim stem routes in a way that affects how defenders are leveraged by those five skill-position players has looked better-taught. And there are more well-designed rubs, formation flexibility – particularly the way they utilize their backs as coverage indicators and more integral parts of route patterns – and simply answers for defensive looks incorporated, especially with the improvements from near the bottom of the league to number two(!) in EPA per dropback versus cover-two.
So having a cyborg at that QB spot, who can take advantage of everything that’s on the table and isn’t afraid of hanging in the pocket, plus what he can present in terms of identifying opportunities to take off as a runner or wiggle his way out of sacks and muddy pockets, as we saw him do on numerous occasions during last year’s postseason run, will make them an even bigger threat to march through the AFC yet again.
6. Cowboys’ crushing pass-rush (with the lead)
Finding reasons for regression concerning the Cowboys coming into 2022 was fairly easy for me personally, because I had legit concerns about the reformed offensive line and lack of proven perimeter weapons offensively, but more importantly, the variance we see on the defensive side of the ball, above all turnover “luck” and largely also pressure rates. Dallas finished last season number on in takeaways with 34 and fourth in percentage of pressures per dropback at 27.6%. Well, guess what – they once again are at the top of the league in takeaways (32 – which is five more than the next-closest team) and have also risen to first in pressure rate (25.6%), along with being third in sacks (51). While he has cooled off to some degree, Micah Parsons being even more dominant in his second season as a chess piece for their front has been huge, while a lot of the guys around him have taken advantage of their one-on-one matchups.
Something that has hurt Dallas at times, in terms of creating opportunities to just tee off in the pass-rush department, is the fact they’ve had issues against teams who have stuck with the run game in neutral game-script situations. They’re tied for 19th in yards per rush (4.5) surrendered and have allowed 136+ yards on the ground in seven games this season. However, only one of those has happened across the past seven weeks and they’re now actually up to third in rushing success rate (37.6%). Thanks to that, defensive coordinator Dan Quinn has been able to be versatile with those looks they throw out there on the back-end, which in return gives those guys up front time to get home, as quarterbacks have to re-evaluate post-snap. You see quite a few twists and overloading of sides, but the Cowboys rank just outside the top-ten in blitz rate (26.4%). Altogether, they now have the third-best EPA per dropback (-0.060) and overall EPA per play defensively (-0.083), as well as actually being tied for first now in defensive DVOA (-14.0%) with the 49ers.
Against the Titans this past Thursday night – a decimated, one-dimensional offensive team – they pressured Joshua Dobbs on a season-high 42.9 percent of dropbacks and what really stands out once they take control in games, is how the dam can break and this unit piles on big plays. In their dominant showing against the Vikings mid-way through the year, they sacked Kirk Cousins seven times and held those guys to three points, and while they shouldn’t have allowed the Colts to hang around against them about a month ago, what they did in the fourth quarter is almost unheard of – they created turnovers on four consecutive possessions, once taking the ball back to the house themselves and setting up three more short fields leading to touchdowns. The key to everything they do is the way they can make opposing quarterbacks uncomfortable and create opportunities for game-changing plays. Dallas right now has four of the top-58 players in sacks and top-62 in total pressures (Micah Parsons, Dante Fowler, DeMarcus Lawrence and Dorance Armstrong Jr.). Only two other teams have three such names (Patriots and Eagles).
It’s fair to question if we’ll see one these dominant showings of the Cowboys defense overall against the well-balanced teams at the top of the NFC, but if they can play with the lead or get into situations, where the opposing team is in heavy dropback settings, they can unleash that pass-rush and create some massive plays.
7. Jefferson’s jittery elusiveness & Minnesota’s late-game madness
The first part of this has certainly lost some weight due to the most recent showing, where Jefferson was held to just one catch for 15 yards in a blowout loss to the Packers. However, if we’re looking at the rest of the NFL season, this guy has been the most dominant receiver in football, and demanded a gameplan that saw safety help over the top on the majority of snaps, along with an All-Pro level corner in Jaire Alexander playing man on him, to hold him to under 98 receiving yards for just the third time since week three. Across the three prior contests, Jefferson had hauled in 35 of 47 targets for 479 yards and a couple of touchdowns. And when he went up against Green Bay in the season-opener – a game in which the Packers played a lot more match-zone – number 18 in purple went off for 184 yards and two TDs. He has simply been phenomenal this season. Despite leading the league with 174 targets and 599 routes run, Jefferson is still number four in yards per route run (2.93) and second in yards per team pass attempt (2.92).
When you watch this guy attack defensive looks, there are just so many things he can do to stress rules and put individual players in conflict. Jefferson is really unique with his elusiveness off the line and then the herky-jerky type of twitchiness to create separation out of his breaks. The way he can put guys in stress who want to control reps by getting into his frame, as he slithers by them, or shakes them off with one of his signature rocker-steps, makes him a nightmare to match up against in true man-coverage. And with his football IQ to find voids in zone coverage and how he tilt his body, to where he gets safeties leveraged the wrong way, that approach isn’t a whole lot better. I think we all saw that nasty triple-move he had for a touchdown in their historic comeback against the Colts, where he left Stephon Gilmore behind in the dust, but it’s the way he runs those backside digs, when he’s truly doubled and is focused on manipulating the safety to flip his hips the wrong way, which really stands out to me. On top of his route-running excellence, Jefferson tracks the ball tremendously well over either shoulder and has some spectacular catches in contested situations on film, most notably that unreal one-handed on fourth-and-19 against the Bills, which allowed Minnesota to take the game to overtime, where they ultimately won.
And that leads me into my second point here, which is the late-game craziness we’ve seen by this Vikings squad and how they’ve managed to pull wins out of their hats. While three of their four losses have now come in blowout fashion (against the Eagles, Cowboys and Packers this past Sunday) and you can question how legitimate they are as a championship contender in the NFC – if you let these guys hang around, they will do something nuts to come out victorious. That’s how they’re still a perfect 11-and-0(!) in one-score affairs. Their 10.2 points scored on average in the fourth quarter are 1.6 better than any other team and they’re tied for 11th, surrendering just 5.7 on average. It’s really a combination of all the different elements – Kirk Cousins being a tough son of a gun and hanging onto the ball as a defender is barreling in on him, his prayers thrown up to Jefferson being answered, an opportunistic defense with multiple veterans creating takeaways, along with a couple of pass-rushers getting to the QB when needed most, plus a couple of big plays on special teams being sprinkled in, such as a fourth-quarter kick return touchdown by Kene Nwangwu in a tight affair with the Patriots back in week 11.
8. Dolphins’ deadly speed
There’s a bigger topic at hand, considering Tua Tagovailoa’s concussion history, especially in the light of the unprecedented situation with Bills safety Damar Hamlin, but I would expect Tua to be back under center for this Miami team, if they can just take care of business against the Jets in their final regular season contest. While he may not have the arm-strength to fully maximize the skill-sets of Tyreek Hill, Jaylen Waddle & company, in terms of attacking over the top of coverages, but he is capable of punish defenses for leaving those guys isolated down the field and certainly take advantage of the gravity they hold, with the windows they create just with the threat they present to opponents. So having him under center during a potential playoff run – which they would need to beat the Jets and have the Bills beat the Patriots to qualify – will be key.
I added an example of Tyreek and Waddle streaking downfield – which has to be a scary sight for any defense – but more than that, it’s the way they can utilize them in similar roles and how they can both affect the structure of coverages. On their favorite RPO concept, where they typically have somebody wheeling up the sideline, along with some kind of glance or skinny post off that, having either of them already at full speed off motion routinely forces the corner to play over the top with outside leverage and creates a lot of space to the safety inside, which Tua can then attack with his quick trigger and ability to make decisions. And then of course, thanks to how the put DBs on their heels and how their coached to approach coverage, that can lead to plenty of separation as they break off on deep curls and digs, after threatening vertically.
Along with the damage Hill and Waddle can do individually, it creates matchup advantages and just space to work with for the rest of that receiving corp. While Cedrick Wilson has been largely limited to a few flash plays and Mike Gesicki’s numbers have seen major regression, Trent Sherfield has really carved out a nice role for himself and taken advantage of those favorable looks, easily becoming the WR3 in terms of snap count (57.4%) and putting up at least 25 receiving yards in nine games, thanks to his quickness in short areas and feel for working towards open space. And Miami’s backs have racked up 541 yards through the air on 7.8 yards per grab, thanks to the room they’re provided with on checkdowns. In terms of the run game, those RPO elements they’ve incorporated can certainly benefit the those backs, but with defenses game-planning to take away those passing lanes with flooding zones, they’ve gone to more two-tight sets and traditional I-formation out of 21 personnel. Out of those they go with straight hand-off or tosses, reading than reading stuff out of the shotgun. Yet, even then Mostert and Wilson can quickly rip off big gains if you give them a lane.
Just throwing either of those two speedy receivers – who are just one yard shy of the 3000-mark as a duo right now – a simple bubble screen or one of those shallow cross set-ups with blockers in front creates problems, if the outside receiver can shield the corner and the safety tries to leverage inside, because they have that extra burst to take it up the sideline or punish guys overrunning the play in a hurry. Having those play-makers gives this team a shot at beating just about anybody, if they can simply grab a spot in the tournament.
9. Herbert’s heroics in got-to-have-it moments
Justin Herbert has been a prominent topic across sports media, with some people calling him a “social media quarterback” and his winning percentage being put in question. Well, I believe over the past six weeks, he has silenced a lot of the critics out, by securing a spot in the postseason for the Chargers with a 5-1 record across that stretch, with several big-time throws directly affecting the outcome of those contests. That’s often times where these talking heads on TV simplify the game way too much and purely consider the results, without considering the process behind them. And similar to the Patrick Mahomes conversation at the top, I – and many other for that matter – had to eat a lot of crow ever since Herbert has stepped onto an NFL field, with how much better he’s been in terms of ability to process the game, in combination with the raw physical abilities. The numbers and the tape over his first three seasons have both been stunning, outside of a five- or six-game stretch this season maybe, where he was missing several key components around him, as far receivers and offensive line are concerned. And he’s shined the brightest in the biggest moments of his young career.
You look at so many of the advanced metrics and what they’re doing under offensive coordinator Joe Lombardi, the Chargers attack and how they restrict their quarterback has been very frustrating to watch at times. Not having any proven vertical threats among that group of targets and missing All-Pro level players at left tackle and center for extended stretches have certainly contributed here, but I refuse to believe there should be a world in which L.A.’s trigger-man should be tied for 31st among qualified passers in intended (6.4) and completed air yards per attempt (4.7) respectively. Thankfully, with the return of Corey Linsley at center, to make them more sound at picking up pressures accordingly, Keenan Allen as a consistent chain-mover who Herbert can rely upon to be in the right spot as part of this very methodical passing game, which relies so heavily on perfect spacing, and Mike Williams being a true weapon with his ability to adjust to the flight of the ball and win in contested situations, we’ve seen this offense get the job done when needed most. Particularly on those key downs, they’ve been able to move the chains consistently with Herbert’s pin-point accuracy and better precision. Over the past four weeks, they’ve gone a combined 33-of-67 on third and fourth downs (49.3%).
Herbert has been a gamer for his entire career with the Chargers. He has registered a total of 13 game-winning drives across 48 career starts, and where I get back to the idea of football being a team sport, is the moments where his defense and receivers have let him down. The Chargers have dropped the third-most passes league-wide as a unit and thinking all the way back to week two, Gerald Everett ran a sloppy route, when he was gassed at the end of a drive, which led to a 99-yard pick-six the other way – a game in which Herbert got his ribs cracked and still threw an absolute piss-missile down the seams, to set up a passing TD with a few seconds left, even setting up the opportunity for an onside kick. Meanwhile, the defense allowed an average of 25.5 points per game through their first twelve games and whether it was the Chiefs seemingly effortlessly strolling down the field for a game-winning touchdown with less than two minutes left, after Herbert had just put them up by four, or their corners getting smoked by Raiders WR Davante Adams, forcing him to make crazy off-schedule throws on fourth downs, to climb back into that game, his efforts have been minimized to some degree, because the other side couldn’t do their part. At no point was that more apparent than in the regular season finale last year at Las Vegas, when Herbert converted a third-and-ten and three fourth-and-ten’s with bonkers throws, to send his team to overtime, only to see Josh Jacobs slice through the defense, in order to set up a field goal that eliminated the Chargers from the playoffs.
With that being said, despite fairly week competition over the last month, with Joey Bosa, Derwin James and company back, having played by far their best stretch of the season (11 points per game), I believe Brandon Staley and Renaldo can do anything in a knockout set-up, with some of the things they’ve shown crafting specific game-plans for their opponents, to set up this quarterback with opportunities to lead them to big wins.
10. Baltimore’s ball-hawking
With only one combined takeaway over the last three weeks, facing some of the more conservative and run-heavy offenses in the league, with the Browns, Falcons and Steelers, this point seems less eminent right now. However, Baltimore is still tied for sixth league-wide in takeaways with 24. That’s despite their interception leader in safety Marcus Williams missing seven weeks. He picked off three passes through his first four-and-a-half games with the Ravens and got another one in his return from IR, now having played at least 97% of defensive snaps in each of the past four contests. And while he hasn’t been truly healthy all season, the hope is that corner Marcus Peters will be an impact player again as we get to the postseason, looking at his past, with 31 interceptions in five seasons as a pro. You add that on top of what else they have on that unit and there’s a lot of guys with their eyes set on getting the ball back for their offense.
Through the first 13 weeks, the Ravens had seven games with multiple takeaways. More recently, they’ve been in low-scoring affairs, as their passing game has devolved due to a lack of creativity and an already thin receiving corp being decimated, along with Lamar Jackson getting hurt at the start of December. Over their last eight games, the defense has allowed more than 17 points just once, with improved play on the second level, as Roquan Smith has given them a more steady presence in the middle and also enabled Patrick Queen to be utilized as a pressure player more regularly. Both those linebackers have since picked off a pass against the Steelers. So they can add to this, by robbing throws down the seams with their closing burst or come free on some games with the front, to affect the flight of the ball off the quarterback’s hands. And when you look at how they’ve constructed their defensive line, there’s a lot of big, long bodies, who even if they don’t create pressure quickly, can affect passing lanes and bat passes in the air as they put those hands up late. Jason Pierre-Paul and the interior D-linemen alone have combined for 19 passes defensed.
While Chuck Clark is more of the chess-piece for that unit, who they incorporate in their pressure packages and use as a roaming zone defender underneath, Marcus Williams gives them a true rangy free safety, to make plays behind the other cover-guys locked up when they do go to man-coverage. Yet, Baltimore has used more of the meta-oriented zone coverages (quarters, cover-six) and they’ve regressed from being near the top for the last several years to just 20th in blitz rate (21.5%). Still, it’s more about being selective with when they bring pressure and they’ve been more effective as a result. While they certainly make use of Marlon Humphrey’s ability to excel in isolated situations and play through the hands of the receiver, giving those DBs more opportunities to play with their eyes on the passer. You combine that with the way Humphrey has mastered the art of the peanut punch, Marcus Peters – for his faults of gambling and getting run by a few times – always looking to attack the ball and rookie Kyle Hamilton’s crazy wingspan allowing him to wrap around swat at it, this is a unit that can come up with a turnover at any point it feels like.
With Lamar set to return soon and putting pressure on the opposing offense to put up points, that will lead to the ball being put in harms way more regularly as we get to the postseason.