Football is a chaotic sport. A cursory glance at a box score to see who won and who did well will tells a bettor very little about what actually happened. In this column, we will dive deeper to find angles the average bettor would miss in reviewing the results and will use them to our advantage the next week.
Here are my Week 1 NFL betting takeaways:
Pittsburgh Has A Problem
Final score: Steelers 23 (+ 6.5), Bills 16
Game stays Under total of 48
After a win in Buffalo, the betting market seems to have some real belief in Pittsburgh. Lookahead lines posted last week had the Steelers as 5.5-point favorites at home against the Raiders, but when lines were posted marketwide Sunday, they were laying a solid 6. It’s not a massive bump, but upgrading Pittsburgh after that game is not the move to make. The Steelers are a dominant defensive team, and that played out Sunday, but the offense has some real problems that were not fixed in the offseason.
Pittsburgh managed only 4.6 yards per play and was outgained by 119 yards. The Steelers averaged just 22.9 yards per drive — 6 fewer than the worst team in that metric last season, the New York Jets. The most troubling aspect of their offense was not just the statistical output, though. It was that the areas thought to be weaknesses, offensive line and quarterback, were negatives. One might look at the box score and see Ben Roethlisberger was not sacked and think it was a good day for the offensive line, but that is not the case. On 13 true pass sets, which excludes plays with fewer than four rushers, play-action, screens, short drop-backs and time-to-throws under two seconds, the Steelers gave up five pressures, two quarterback hits and a hurry. The run-blocking was atrocious. Najee Harris found no room on the ground, managing just 2.8 yards per carry. As a result, the Steelers had no game off play-action despite their attempts to do so.
It also did not help that Roethlisberger was every bit as poor as he was a season ago. He completed just 56.3% of his passes for 5.9 yards per attempt and one touchdown. That’s bad, but the advanced metrics paint an even uglier picture. Roethlisberger posted a 38.2 PFF passing grade and committed two turnover-worthy plays, and his average depth of target was just 6.2 yards downfield. Under pressure he completed a single pass, and he posted his lowest passing grade of the day (21.5) on attempts in which he was not pressured. Given all these poor indicators on offense, should the market really be upgrading Pittsburgh’s power rating?
The defensive performance is certainly something that can sustain itself, but the Steelers benefited from a blocked punt that led to a touchdown and two missed touchdown throws by Josh Allen. Those events tend not to repeat themselves week to week, so be careful believing in Pittsburgh just because of its win in Buffalo. This offense has some massive problems that will likely remain as the season continues.
The Atlanta Misconception
Final score: Eagles 32 (+ 3.5), Falcons 6
Game stays Under total of 49
Last season the Falcons finished 9-7 to the Under. After their first three games went Over the total, they finished on a 9-4 run to the Under despite the market consistently hanging totals of 52 or higher. The perception exists that the Falcons are poor defensively but adequate enough on offense to put forth high-scoring efforts. With the latest result in Week 1, the Falcons are now 10-4 to the Under since Week 4 of last season, but the market fell into the trap, again driving this total up from 47.5 to 49.0 at close. Atlanta is indeed poor on defense, but it is time to realize that this is not a good offensive team, even with talent at the skill positions.
The Falcons took their first two drives inside the Philadelphia 10-yard line Sunday but settled for field goals. Those drives were like pulling teeth, as Atlanta averaged just 5.07 yards per play. It was a sign of things to come. On the ensuing drives the Falcons averaged 2.08 yards per play and 8.55 yards per drive! Most of the blame will fall on Matt Ryan, and he deserves criticism, but the play of the offensive line should be front and center. Not a single offensive lineman who played more than nine snaps posted a PFF grade higher than 66.3. Rookie guard Jalen Mayfield was atrocious, giving up eight pressures, four hurries and two sacks on 41 pass-blocking snaps, but it was hardly just him. Overall, the line allowed 18 pressures, 11 hurries, four hits and three sacks on just 44 pass-blocking snaps. That is a pressure rate of 40.9%! Concerns were expressed about this line heading into this season, and when concerns are confirmed in the first week in such alarming fashion, you have a problem.
Concern should also surround Arthur Smith as a play-caller. On the Falcons’ second field-goal drive, they were facing a second-and-goal from the Philadelphia 12-yard-line after a penalty and an incomplete pass. Smith called a simple run off left guard for 2 yards, putting Atlanta in a negative third-and-goal situation from the 10-yard line. Ryan delivered an awful throw to the left flat, and the Falcons settled for a kick. After forcing an Eagles punt, the Falcons had the ball on their own 8-yard line with 3:33 left in the first half. Smith elected to run it three times before the two-minute warning and kicked it back to Philadelphia. The Eagles went on to score before the half. Decision-making like this, paired with bad offensive line play and subpar quarterback play, leads to a poor offense. This is what Atlanta is, so do not fall into the trap of thinking the Falcons could be an Over team this season. They are not, and they have not been for a while.
Patriots Are As Advertised
Final score: Dolphins 17 (+ 3.5), Patriots 16
Game stays Under total of 44
New England can take plenty of positives from its loss to the Miami Dolphins. The Patriots dominated the contest statistically, outgaining the Dolphins by 134 yards while averaging 5.6 yards per play. They converted 11 of 16 third downs (68.7%) compared with the 4 of 11 (36.4%) allowed to Miami. On a per-drive basis, the Patriots won that by averaging 49.12 yards per drive while the Dolphins had 28.77 per possession. However, such a massive edge statistically can be negated by losing two key categories: turnovers and penalties. New England consistently shot itself in the foot, putting the ball on the ground four times and losing two of those fumbles. One was tragically timed, as the Patriots were in the midst of what looked like a game-winning drive before Damien Harris coughed up the ball on the Miami 9-yard line with 3:18 left. New England was also flagged eight times for 84 yards. No question the Patriots should come away from a loss like that feeling as if they were the better team.
This is not just about box score dominance for New England, though. Sunday showed that everything we expected from the Patriots could come to fruition. Last season, this was the sixth-best run-blocking line in the league, and Sunday it posted a 73.8 grade with its running game while Harris topped 100 yards rushing. The front seven was largely improved with the additions of Matthew Judon and Kyle Van Noy, as well as the return of Dont’a Hightower. Those improvements were apparent as they pressured Tua Tagovailoa on 27.6% of his 29 drop-backs and sacked him twice. They also limited Miami to 3.2 yards per carry on the ground. The defense figured to be much improved, and everything it put on the field shows that. Now the Pats get ready to take on a New York Jets offensive line that is down its left tackle and struggled in Carolina last week. It seems that we will be able to see this front flex its muscles once more in Week 2.
The betting market has shifted quite a bit on New England for that contest, driving up the Pats to as high as -6 at the SuperBook against the Jets. This is one market adjustment off a result that I would agree with. The Patriots confirmed all our offseason assumptions. This is a quality defensive team with a good offensive line, and should Mac Jones continue to provide above-average quarterback play, the Pats will be a problem in the AFC.