Week 2 NFL takeaways: Defense vexes Seahawks, Chiefs

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As a football handicapper, I believe Week 2 is important. A single game is not enough for someone to come off prior beliefs entering a season. If what you believed about a team does not present itself, it does not mean you should give up entirely on that theory. But if those beliefs do not play out in some form by Week 2, it is time to reshape your views. Luckily, quite a few things happened last weekend that gave us an idea of what some teams really are.

Here are my Week 2 NFL betting takeaways.

 

Seattle’s Pass-Coverage Problems

 

Final Score: Titans 33 (+ 6.5), Seahawks 30 (OT)

 

Game goes Over the total of 54

 

Coming into the season, my research led me to believe Seattle would be a poor defensive team. In 2020, the Seahawks finished 16th in defensive DVOA and 20th against the pass. They were graded as the 17th-best team in pass coverage by PFF, and no additions of merit were made to address that problem. Seattle also did nothing to address a pass rush that depended on safety Jamal Adams. In Week 1, none of those things came to fruition in a win over Indianapolis. The Seahawks harassed Carson Wentz, pressuring him on 20 of his 44 drop-backs and holding him to a PFF passing grade of 57.1 on traditional drop-backs with no play-action. For one game, it seemed Seattle had a defense that was the antithesis of what I believed it to be. However, sure enough, everything I believed about the Seahawks’ defense proved true last weekend.

 

Tennessee torched Seattle’s pass coverage Sunday. Ryan Tannehill was masterful on the surface, completing 27 of 40 for 347 yards and 8.7 yards per attempt. But the Titans’ success through the air goes much deeper than that. When Tannehill faced no pressure, he picked apart the Seahawks’ secondary, completing 23 of 31 for 307 yards and 9.9 yards per attempt. He posted a 93.1 PFF passing grade on those drop-backs and completed three Big Time Throws (a pass with excellent ball location and timing, generally thrown further down the field and/or into a tighter window, as defined by PFF). Cornerback Tre Flowers was abysmal in coverage, allowing four receptions and 108 yards on six targets. Ugo Amadi, Quandre Diggs and Jordyn Brooks posted PFF coverage grades of 59.0 or lower as well. Seattle might have led Tennessee 24-9 at halftime, but the final box score indicates how much trouble the Seahawks had on defense. The Titans finished with 16 more first downs, 532 total yards and six red-zone possessions. It was a game the road team thoroughly dominated.

 

Now Seattle will hit the road to take on a Minnesota team coming off a brutal loss at Arizona and consecutive road games to open the season. The betting market had the Seahawks as road favorites as of Tuesday, but should this type of team be favored on the road? Seattle will continue to have problems with its secondary, and the Vikings are not devoid of talent in the passing game. Kirk Cousins obliterated Arizona’s secondary last weekend. On drop-backs in which he was kept clean, something likely to happen often against the Seahawks, Cousins went 21 of 26 for 230 yards and 8.8 yards per attempt with two touchdown passes. On play-action he was a nearly perfect 8-for-9 for 122 yards and 13.6 yards per attempt. Not much really separates these teams, and Minnesota should be favored at home. Expect this line to flip by the time we reach kickoff, and expect another poor performance from the Seahawks’ secondary.

 

Kansas City’s Achilles Heel

 

Final Score: Ravens 36 (+ 3.5), Chiefs 35

 

Game goes Over the total of 53.5

 

Despite a Super Bowl appearance in 2020, the Chiefs quietly had one of the worst run defenses in the league. In fact, by DVOA standards, they were the second-worst team against the run, and that trend seems to have continued. Through two games against quality running attacks, the Chiefs’ defensive front has been trampled for 404 yards and 6.03 yards per attempt. PFF has them graded as the worst rush defense in the league (29.5), and Football Outsiders has them last in adjusted line yards allowed per carry (5.76). The Chiefs allowed Cleveland to convert 100 percent of its power situations (percentage of runs on third or fourth down, 2 yards or less to go, that achieved a first down or touchdown, plus runs on first-and-goal or second-and-goal from the 2-yard line or closer), and Baltimore went 4-for-5 in those situations Sunday night. If their run defense was the only problem, this would barely be a topic, but that is not the case.

 

Through two weeks, the Chiefs rank 20th in pass coverage and 27th in tackling by PFF standards. It should be no surprise, given their problems against the run, to find Kansas City has greatly struggled in defending pass attempts off play-action. The Chiefs have allowed their opponents to complete 17 of 19 play-action attempts for 258 yards and 13.6 yards per attempt. Of course, once this team improves its rush defense, these numbers could even out. But this is a team that has finished 25th or lower in adjusted line yards allowed per carry every year since the 2015 season. The Chiefs’ two lead interior linemen on defense, Khalen Saunders and Tershawn Wharton, have never graded higher than 63.9 by PFF in run defense, and Chris Jones is now playing along the edge. The Chiefs seem to lack a path to improve as much as they need to.

 

In Week 3 they will face the Chargers, who have not exactly lit it up with their running game. The Chiefs can certainly put forth a better effort in defending a lesser running attack, but this problem will persist, and the market has not factored this into its power rating of Kansas City. Bettors were willing to drive that number Sunday night through -3 to a close of -4 in some shops. This week the Chiefs are laying 6.5 with a team many believe to be the second best in the division. Kansas City is 1-11-1 ATS in its last 13 games because of its status as a public favorite, but also because of a defense that struggles immensely against strong running games. Will this poor cover run continue Sunday?

 

Two Quarterbacks To Track

 

Sam Darnold and Josh Allen will always be connected as contemporaries in the 2018 draft. Both were selected in the top 10 by AFC East teams, and both were somewhat disappointing early in their careers. The Bills’ Allen seemed to silence critics with an MVP-like season in 2020, but the Jets gave up on Darnold, who has led the Carolina Panthers to a surprising 2-0 start. After two weeks, I cannot help but notice a few trends in their play that have me asking questions.

 

Darnold is arguably off to the best start of his career with a 68.5 completion percentage, an average of 8.0 yards per attempt and three touchdowns. However, much of what Darnold has done have been low-risk short throws, and sustaining that type of quarterback play is questionable. Of his 68 passes, 46 have been behind the line of scrimmage or no farther than 9 yards down field. When he attempts passes from 0 to 9 yards, his average depth of target is just 3.9 yards. Darnold does have seven attempts of 20 or more yards and three Big Time Throws on those attempts, but each came against the New York Jets. Against New Orleans he was not as effective, posting a 69.9 PFF passing grade while committing two turnover-worthy plays, one of which was intercepted. Darnold certainly looks more comfortable in this offense and has many weapons around him, but a passive offense that relies on short throws might have a shelf life in the NFL.

 

Meanwhile, Allen seems to have reverted to the player he was in his first two seasons. Through two games Allen is the 27th-best passer by PFF standards with a 59.3 passer grade, and his penchant for turnover-worthy plays is back. This season Allen has committed a turnover-worthy play on 4.0 percent of his drop-backs, right in line with his 5.1 percent and 4.3 percent marks in 2018 and ’19. Last season he was masterful when kept clean, completing 77.2 percent of his passes for 8.3 yards per attempt, a 5.6 touchdown-to-interception ratio and a 1.6 percent turnover-worthy play rate. This season he has completed just 67.9 percent of his passes when kept clean and has averaged 6.1 yards per attempt with a 3.4 percent turnover-worthy play rate. When blitzed he has been even worse, committing a turnover-worthy play on 5.0 percent of those drop-backs while averaging just 3.6 yards per attempt. Two games is a small sample size, but his two previous years of similar play are cause for concern. Is Allen just going through a slow start, or is he regressing to the player he was?

 

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