Lessons learned from NFL Week 4

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We are about one-fourth of the way into the NFL season, and if we have learned anything, it is that we know nothing. Three of the four undefeated teams went down last weekend, losing by an average of 12.6 points. The NFC favorites heading into the weekend, the Los Angeles Rams, were smoked quicker than a joint at a Grateful Dead concert by the Arizona Cardinals.

 

Perception is not reality, so it is important for handicappers to do more work than surface-level analysis of the results. This week we analyze the Buffalo Bills’ hot start, the underrated strength of the Cleveland Browns and the nightmare unfolding in South Beach for the Miami Dolphins.

 

Bills Still Have Much To Prove

 

The betting market seems to have bought into the Buffalo Bills. After a 40-0 demolition of the Houston Texans last weekend, the line for their Sunday night meeting with the Kansas City Chiefs easily moved through the key number of -3 and currently sits at -2.5 at most shops. On the surface it is easy to understand the infatuation with Buffalo. The Bills have won and covered three straight, have outscored their opponents by 97 points and have averaged 39.3 points per game. On the other side we have a Chiefs team that just covered its first game of the season and its second in 15 tries while saddled with one of the worst defenses in the league. These are facts, but another fact is that the Bills have faced absolutely no team of merit and Sunday’s game will be a massive litmus test for a team padding its resume against some of the league’s worst teams.

 

The Bills are the highest-graded defense by PFF standards (82.8) and second in defensive DVOA, according to Football Outsiders (-31.1 percent). This unit has pitched two shutouts and allowed just four offensive touchdowns while allowing the fewest yards per play (4.0). However, look at the level of offense it has faced. By DVOA standards, the best offense the Bills have faced is Washington, which ranks 20th (-4.3 percent). Pittsburgh, Houston and Miami rank 26th or lower in yards per play, and none is higher than 24th in PFF’s overall offensive grading. This unit is third in defensive average depth of target allowed (6.1) and air yards allowed (312), but Jacoby Brissett is the best quarterback Buffalo has faced from a PFF passing-grade standpoint. And not only does he rank 21st, but he also came in for an injured Tua Tagovailoa. Ben Roethlisberger, Taylor Heinicke and Davis Mills come in 28th or lower in that category. We have seen time and again that a defense is only as good as the offenses it faces, and this is a great example. 

 

Then there is Buffalo’s offense. Despite the strong start to the season, the Bills have been average on offense, ranking 16th in offensive DVOA (-0.1 percent) and 21st in PFF grading (69.7). Their offensive line has quietly been one of the worst in the NFL, ranking 30th in pass-blocking grade (44.8). On 87 true pass sets, they have allowed Josh Allen to be pressured 50.6 percent of the time. To be fair, three teams their offensive line has faced rank 14th or better in pressure rate, but Kansas City comes into this week sixth in pressure rate (29.0 percent) and seventh in blitz rate (30.3 percent). To make matters worse, Allen has been poor against the blitz, completing just 53.1 percent of his passes for 7.7 yards per attempt, a PFF passing grade of 58.9 while committing two turnover-worthy plays. This game will be a test for Allen, and enough evidence exists to make the case the market is being somewhat overzealous in pushing this line through a field goal with ease.

 

Cleveland’s Underrated Dominance

 

If you were to take a straw poll on which team had the least impressive victory Sunday, I’m almost certain the Cleveland Browns would win. In their 14-7 victory over Minnesota, they managed just 14 points, six of which came on field goals, and averaged just 4.4 yards per play. Baker Mayfield put together one of the worst performances of the week, posting a 47.5 PFF passing grade by completing just 45.5 percent for 4.7 yards per attempt. Of all the teams with one or no losses, Cleveland seems to be the most fragile. But a deeper look at what this team has done indicates the Browns have been dominating the opposition.

 

The discussion around this dominance begins with a defense that was rebuilt in the offseason. Through four games the Browns are the second-highest-graded defense by PFF (80.4) and 10th in defensive DVOA (-7.7 percent). Previously we noted that defenses are only as good as the opposition they face, but Cleveland has faced stout competition. Kansas City is the second-highest-graded offense by PFF standards, and Minnesota ranks seventh in passing offense by PFF (83.9) and ninth in overall offensive DVOA (14.5 percent). The strength for the Browns is a defensive line that has been one of the best in the NFL. Cleveland has generated pressure on 30.1 percent of opponent drop-backs despite sending a blitz just 21.7 percent of the time. Myles Garrett and Jadeveon Clowney have combined for 46 pressures, and they rank second and sixth in individual pass-rushing grades. They thoroughly dominated Minnesota’s offensive line, pressuring Kirk Cousins on 19 of 20 true pass sets and forcing him to go 6-for-19 when under pressure for 2.4 yards per attempt. A front with Garrett and Clowney turning out to be one of the best pass-rushing units in the NFL should come as no surprise, but what if I told you that success extended to the way this team defends the run?

 

Opponents have averaged just 3.1 yards per attempt on the ground against this Cleveland front. The Browns rank third in adjusted line yards per carry allowed, eighth in percentage of opponent runs stuffed behind the line of scrimmage and first in limiting second-level yards per carry (0.14). Any way you cut it, this team has been dominant on defense. Even a secondary that was questioned due to its rebuilt nature has been strong, ranking third in PFF pass-coverage grade (73.9). Defense is only one part of the equation, but many would be surprised to learn this offense has been equally effective, leading the league in overall offensive grading by PFF (89.1) and ranking ninth in offensive DVOA (8.6 percent). The Browns bring the sixth-best run game in the NFL into Los Angeles to face the Chargers, who own one of the worst run defenses in the league. Justin Herbert also lines up behind an offensive line that ranks 27th in pass blocking. At first, the line of Cleveland -1 on the road surprised me. But looking at how good this team is on both sides of the ball, it would be no surprise to see the Browns improve to 4-1 this weekend.

 

The Dolphins’ Nosedive

 

Heading into the season, I was very low on the Miami Dolphins. I bet on them to miss the postseason, and in our NFL guide I suggested a play on the Under for their win total given the indicators of regression. Much of that has come to fruition through four games, but to an extreme I did not foresee, and there is zero indication that those issues will correct themselves.

 

Let’s start with an offense that is one of the worst in the league. Miami heads into Week 5 tied for 29th with Pittsburgh in overall offensive grade (61.1) by PFF. The Dolphins are last in yards per play (4.0), 31st in points per game (15.5) and 24th in third-down conversion rate (36.21 percent). Much of this stems from an offensive line that is one of the worst in the NFL. The Dolphins are 31st in pass-blocking grade (42.2), as this unit has allowed a pressure rate of 52.2 percent on 90 true pass sets through four games. Jacoby Brissett has faced pressure on 43.2 percent of his drop-backs, and in those situations he is averaging just 5.5 yards per attempt with five turnover-worthy plays committed. Brissett has performed admirably in the conditions presented, posting a PFF passing grade of 69.9, just 0.2 points worse than Josh Allen. However, his habit of holding on to the ball too long, represented by the 10th-highest average time to throw among quarterbacks (2.88 seconds), has also played into the issues for this offense. Unlike some poor offensive lines in the league that are missing starters, no savior is coming to save the Dolphins, and now they get to face Tampa Bay this weekend.

 

Defensively, the strengths of this team in the secondary have shone through at times. Miami is fourth in overall defensive grading (76.7) and coverage (72.9) by PFF standards, and it ranks 12th in yards after catch allowed (390). However, the Dolphins’ inability to generate a pass rush is worrisome, and it has burned the secondary many times. Despite all the strong indicators for this defensive backfield, the Dolphins have allowed the eighth-highest average depth of target by opponent (8.2) and eighth-most air yards (624). Miami has attempted to overcome the lack of a quality pass rush by blitzing on 35.9 percent of opponent drop-backs, but even that high rate has the Dolphins only 14th in pressure rate (25.6 percent) and they have generated just 7.5 sacks. It might seem surprising to see Miami as a double-digit underdog to Tampa Bay, but so many of this team’s weaknesses play into the hands of its opponent. A rough year is here for the Dolphins, and the troubling part about all this is that it could get worse before it gets better.

 

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