Three weeks of NFL action is in the books and now is when bettors start to really learn about the teams on the field. Three weeks is sufficient time to start solidifying opinions on what teams are, as strengths and weaknesses tend to stick around for the long haul. Having said that, some teams can be a product of their schedule. Let’s take a look at two undefeated teams and the legitimacy of their start, and what ails the Super Bowl champions.
CAROLINA’S TIME IS COMING
The Panthers have been one of the more pleasant surprises of the season. The investment of draft capital in their defense has produced a unit that ranks among the league’s best, and the trade for Sam Darnold to pair with offensive coordinator Joe Brady has worked wonders. However, their schedule has been less than challenging with wins over the Jets and Texans, who were without Tyrod Taylor, and a Saints team that was dealing with multiple injured starters. As a result, the Panthers are 3-0 SU and ATS with all three games going under the total, but there are signs pointing to Carolina’s first slip-up coming soon.
The Panthers’ offensive line was expected to be a weakness, and that has come to fruition. According to PFF, Carolina has the fourth-lowest pass-blocking grade in the NFL. The blemishes showed up in a massive way on Thursday night against Houston when Darnold was pressured 18 times on 40 pass-blocking snaps. In 20 snaps on true pass sets, the starting offensive line allowed 14 pressures and four of the five starters posted a PFF pass-blocking grade of 49 or lower. For the season, this offensive line has allowed Darnold to be pressured on a ridiculous 46.5 percent of his true pass sets, a figure that is in no way sustainable. Brady has done a masterful job with the play calling to negate this weakness by having Darnold throw a total of 67 passes either behind the line of scrimmage or no more than 9 yards downfield, but the loss of Christian McCaffery changes things. If that leads to deeper dropbacks and throws deeper downfield, Darnold could see a dramatic regression in his play.
On the other end, questions remain as to how dominant this defense truly is. The highest-graded offense by PFF standards that the Panthers have faced is New Orleans, which is ranked 21st. Houston and New York come in at 28th and 31st, respectively. The three quarterbacks they have faced, Zach Wilson, Jameis Winston and Davis Mills, rank no higher than 34th in PFF passing grade. They have faced only below-average offenses so far, but that changes this week against Dallas. Through three weeks the Cowboys own the highest grade for overall offense by PFF (84.8). Dallas’ offensive line has been solid at almost every position. Tyron Smith, Zack Martin and Connor Williams have allowed just four total pressures and Dak Prescott has been getting rid of the ball in less than 2.5 seconds on average. The Cowboys are -5 at home this week against the Panthers, but I would expect the market to show support for the underdog here. It will be the biggest test for Carolina by far, and it would not surprise me to see them fail.
QUESTIONS ABOUT RAIDERS START WITH D
For the first time since 2002, the Raiders are 3-0 to start the season, and they are the first team in NFL history to do so against three teams that won 10 or more games the previous season. Unlike Carolina, it appears Las Vegas does not have to answer questions about its opponents. However, those were records from last season. The teams Las Vegas has faced so far are different than the versions that played in 2020, so we do have some questions about the Raiders’ undefeated start. Because while the offense seems like it could be one of the better ones in the league, the defense’s reputation has been built on shaky ground through three games.
First, let’s evaluate the offenses of the Las Vegas’ opponents. Two of the Raiders’ first three opponents, Miami and Pittsburgh, rank 27th and 30th in overall offensive grades by PFF standards. The Steelers average just 4.9 yards per play and the Dolphins have the second-lowest rate in that category at 4.0 yards per play. They both rank below 28th in points per game as well. Las Vegas has taken advantage of those opponents, and head into Week 4 with the second-highest graded defense by PFF and the ninth-lowest rate of yards per play allowed (5.3). The evaluation that the Raiders are a product of the offenses they has have faced is buoyed by their performance against the best offense they have faced this season — Baltimore. The Ravens averaged 6.1 yards per play and 5.6 yards per attempt on the ground in that Monday night loss in Las Vegas but were held back by turnovers and poor offensive line play, another factor in the Raiders’ surprisingly dominant start. Las Vegas has had the benefit of facing the 27th- and 32nd-ranked pass-blocking offensive lines (Baltimore, Miami), which explains why it leads the league in pass-rushing grade (87.2) and ranks fourth in total pressures. The Raiders deserve credit for taking advantage of poor offenses, that itself is a sign of improvement, but there is no question these results are a product of the competition they have faced.
Having said that, I believe this offense is going to be great all season. Derek Carr, who has long been undervalued as one of the better quarterbacks in the NFL, is having a phenomenal season. Carr leads the league in passing (1,203 yards), is the second-highest-graded passer by PFF (86.4) and he has the highest grade on throws of 20 or more yards downfield (96.2) while leading the league in Big Time Throws (10) on those attempts. Each of the last two seasons the Raiders have finished inside the top 10 of offensive efficiency, and there is no reason to believe that is not the case again this season. The offensive line has some problems, and the run-blocking has been subpar because of those issues, but with Carr playing at the level he is, this offense will likely maintain its spot as one of the best in the league. Will the Raiders win the AFC West? That is unlikely, but is this team a playoff contender? Absolutely.
TAMPA BAY’S SECONDARY EXPOSED
The Buccaneers’ short-handed secondary suffered another blow over the weekend when Jamel Dean left the loss to the Rams with a knee injury. His status for this weekend is unknown, but this secondary was already missing Sean Murphy-Bunting, and Carlton Davis has been dealing with a rib injury for weeks now. The injuries and poor play have led the front office to reportedly entertain free-agent cornerback Richard Sherman in a meeting this week. Sherman was a massive role player for San Francisco’s Super Bowl team in 2019, but he showed his age in five games for the 49ers last season, posting career lows in both coverage and tackling grades, according to PFF. He would add a body to a position of need, but would he really improve a secondary that ranks 13th in coverage and has the ninth-most missed tackles (21)?
The Rams really exposed Tampa Bay’s issues in the secondary on Sunday, decimating the Bucs with a quick passing attack that saw Matthew Stafford go 14-for-17 for 132 yards and 7.8 yards per attempt on throws zero to 9 yards downfield. DeSean Jackson took the top off the secondary multiple times, and as a result Stafford completed 3 of 5 attempts 20 or more yards downfield for 117 yards, one touchdown and a Big Time Throw rate of 16.7 percent. It has not just been Stafford either. The Cowboys’ Dak Prescott posted an 80.3 passing grade on throws 0 to 9 yards downfield against Tampa Bay in Week 1, going 26 of 32 for 202 yards and one touchdown. He had five Big Time Throws on 16 attempts 10 or more yards downfield and averaged 9.7 yards per attempt on medium attempts. The Falcons’ Matt Ryan had his best performance of the season against this secondary for three quarters, and completed each of his medium throws for a PFF passing grade of 92.4 in Week 2.
Health is obviously a massive factor here for the Buccaneers, but that does not look like it is improving any time soon. So how do we attack this from a betting perspective? One way is betting against them when they face formidable opponents. The market was slightly overzealous, making the Buccaneers a road favorite against the Rams, and that showed in the result. However, those games are few and far between, so what about totals? All three Tampa Bay games have gone over the total by an average 10.5 points per game. That is due to an elite offense and a defense that has struggled to cover. Oddsmakers put up a 55.5 for the meeting with Los Angeles and bettors are seeing a 49.5 for this week in Foxborough despite New England’s offensive struggles. The adjustment might be baked in already, but do not be shocked to see this team hit a majority of Overs as injury issues in the secondary persist.