It was quite the week of action in the NFL in Week 5, but more importantly, it was the best week for bettors this season. Multiple shops reported losses on Sunday, as VSiN’s Chris Andrews told Patrick Everson, “We got clobbered.” As we wipe the tears we have shed for the operators who regularly take our money, let’s get ready for Week 6.
We take our first look at the undefeated Arizona Cardinals and their biggest weakness. We go back to the well with Kansas City, too, but from the perspective of opposing defenses and their emerging strategy for Patrick Mahomes. Finally, we get to the bottom of New England’s offensive issues and how it could turn around this week against Dallas.
ARIZONA’S SOFT DEFENSIVE FRONT
There’s no question that the last undefeated team in the NFL is a legitimate threat to win the NFC title. Arizona is a fantastic offensive team, ranking fourth in scoring (31.4), seventh in yards per play (6.3) and eighth in overall offensive grading by PFF standards (80.4). Kyler Murray has suddenly become the best deep-ball thrower in the NFL, hitting 69.6 percent of his passes 20 or more yards downfield for 22.2 yards per attempt and four touchdowns. Kliff Kingsbury has this unit peaking in his third season at the helm, but not everything is perfect for the 5-0 Cardinals. A defense that continues to show its warts threatens to derail the train, and it has come close to doing so multiple times this season.
The Cardinals have one of the worst run defenses in the NFL. By traditional metrics, they rank 31st in yards per carry allowed (5.4) and 28th in rushing yards allowed per game (139.0). PFF grades them as the second-worst run defense in the league (38.6), second only to Kansas City. On Sunday, San Francisco exploited that weakness to the tune of 152 yards on 28 carries for an average of 5.4 yards per attempt. In fact, lest you think these numbers are the result of one bad game, every opponent but one (Tennessee) has averaged at least 5.3 yards per carry against this front seven this season. Despite these poor numbers against the run, the Cardinals remain undefeated, but this is a weakness that is going to burn them this season and it almost did in Week 2 against Minnesota. The Vikings pummeled the Cardinals up front, running for 177 yards on 6.6 yards per attempt, and that rushing success led to a brilliant performance from Kirk Cousins. Cousins ripped Arizona through play-action passing, going 8-for-9 for 122 yards (13.5 YPA) and two touchdowns. Arizona escaped with a victory when Greg Joseph missed a field-goal try as time expired, but that game showed bettors how bad this defense could be. And this week the Cardinals face one of the elite running offenses in the league.
Cleveland is coming off an incredible offensive performance in Los Angeles, steamrolling the Chargers’ front-seven for 230 yards rushing on 35 carries (6.6 YPR) and 42 points. Those numbers might seem hard to replicate for a second straight week, but keep in mind Los Angeles is a team similar to Arizona. The Chargers struggle to defend the run, ranking 29th in PFF grading against the run (44.7) and 32nd in both rush yards per attempt allowed (5.6) and rush yards per game allowed (157.6). The Browns will more than likely be able to operate their offense as they see fit against the Cardinals, and this is setting to be similar to the game against Minnesota. Baker Mayfield is best when throwing off play action, and he’s completing 76.9 percent of his play-action attempts for 11.4 yards per pass. It is a matchup nightmare for the Cardinals this weekend, and bettors should expect the last undefeated team to fall on Sunday because of it.
NEW PLAN FOR DEFENDING PATRICK MAHOMES
It is becoming painfully obvious that this season’s iteration of the Kansas City Chiefs is flawed, specifically on defense. The Chiefs are at the bottom of the board in almost any defensive statistical category, ranking 32nd in PFF defensive grading (46.2), defensive DVOA (27.3 percent), scoring (32.6) and yards per play (7.1), just to name a few. These issues popped up early, as you will remember it was one of the topics in this column in Week 2, so it might come as a surprise that we’re looking at the Chiefs’ offense this week. However, the Bills used a game plan on Sunday night that the Chiefs are facing more regularly, and it might just be the way to contain this offense to some extent in the Patrick Mahomes era.
Mahomes is a brilliant quarterback in every facet of the game. Since he took over as the Chiefs’ starter, he has finished no lower than sixth among quarterbacks in PFF’s passing grades. However, Mahomes finds himself ranked 19th among passers this season by PFF standards and twice this season he has posted an individual passing grade of 62.9 or worse. Mahomes is human, and he has had plenty of those games in his career, but what sticks out is how teams have altered the way they have played him, and it begins with Buffalo. On Sunday night, the Bills never blitzed Mahomes, electing to drop everyone back into coverage and limit the Chiefs’ big-play ability. The result was Mahomes’ lowest average depth of target of the season at just 6.6 yards downfield and a 5.0 yards-per-pass-attempt mark. Throughout his career, Mahomes has dined on blitzing defenses, generating + 150.0 total EPA against it entering this season. He was the only quarterback over 100 since 2018 in that metric, according to NFL Next Gen Stats. However, defensive coordinators never rest, and this year Mahomes has seen a completely different approach.
Through five weeks Mahomes has been blitzed on just 12.6 percent of his dropbacks, by far the lowest rate of his career. It is not a coincidence that this number has dropped and so, too, has Mahomes down the quarterback leaderboard statistically. He has committed five turnover-worthy plays this season and all five have come when he was not being blitzed. Those turnovers, or turnover-worthy plays, have been part of the Chiefs’ downfall this season, as they rank 31st in turnover differential (-7) and 32nd in giveaways (11). Mahomes has committed six turnovers in his past three games, including five interceptions. He has six interceptions this season, which puts him on pace for 20. His career high is 12 in 2018. Opposing defenses will continue to drop coverage on Mahomes this season, and it is up to him and Andy Reid to figure out a solution. This week the Chiefs head to Washington to face one of the worst defenses in the league. It figures to be a get-right spot for the Chiefs, but with injuries to Tyreek Hill and Travis Kelce along with a clear game plan that has a history of success against Mahomes, it might not be the spot the market believes it to be.
PATRIOTS’ SELF-DESTRUCTIVE HABIT
There might not be a more underwhelming unit through five games than the New England Patriots’ offense. New England ranks 19th in PFF’s overall offensive grading (72.1), 26th in scoring (9.2) and 27th in yards per play (5.1). They have been held to 17 points or fewer in three games, all of them losses. The Patriots need to improve their efficiency, and those inefficiencies begin with their struggles inside the 20-yard line.
New England’s offense owns the second-worst conversion rate in the red zone this season, having converted just 37.5 percent of its chances into touchdowns. The conversion rate is a problem, but it is magnified by the fact that the Patriots are averaging just 3.0 red-zone possessions per game. Mac Jones has performed admirably in those possessions as well, completing 78.3 percent of his passes inside the 20-yard line for four touchdowns and zero interceptions. However, Jones is averaging just 3.95 yards per attempt on those throws, signifying an extremely conservative approach by him and offensive coordinator Josh McDaniels. The Patriots have been a pass-first team this season, ranking 29th in rushing play percentage (34.94percent ), but that split is much closer to 50-50 with Jones attempting 23 passes in the red zone while New England running backs have totaled 20 carries. That should not be the case. Jones has proved to be a quality passer on medium throws this season (10-19 yards downfield), completing 65.9 percent of those passes for 11.0 yards per attempt and two touchdowns. There is no question that Jones can handle a more aggressive approach when New England reaches the red zone, and the Patriots would benefit.
This weekend, New England has the benefit of facing Dallas, which ranks 20th in opponent red-zone scoring rate (66.67 percent) and red-zone possessions allowed per game (3.6). The Cowboys have been average on defense at best, ranking 14th in scoring (23.4) and 29th in yards per play allowed (6.3). They’ve allowed the second-most yards after catch per game (151.8) while ranking 28th in pressure rate (18.3 percent). Jones should be comfortable behind the line of scrimmage on Sunday, and with a more aggressive approach in the red zone, the Patriots’ offense might finally break out of its shell.