NFL Divisional Round Preview 2021

I post on this blog so irregularly that it’s becoming pretty ridiculous to name these articles as if they were a part of some regular series. Nonetheless, the best football weekend of the whole year is here, and it’s particularly lovely that we got to this point, all the COVID issues considered. In my mind, it was never in doubt; the quality of the product will suffer, but “The Shield” won’t be stopped. Even if the Broncos have to roll out a practice squad wide receiver at QB against the Saints, the show must go on. Kendall Hilton throwing one completion and two interceptions out of nine attempts in a 3-31 beating against the Saints—the only game with 75+ combined rushing attempts since 2017—shall remain in our memories as a staple of this year’s randomness.

This is also a perfect opportunity to smell the flowers if you will. These last few post-season games are the last ones I’m gonna chart for Armchair Analysis. As we’re in the middle of selling the product to a bigger company, this is a moment to reflect on my great years at the project and showcase what kind of data we have at hand. In 2016, I only had a football obsession, a we’ll-figure-it-out-somehow attitude, and two or three data points to chart. Over the years, obsession developed into a solid strategy, the attitude transformed into long-term planning, and another 60 or so data points were added. It’s been a hell of a ride.

Now on to the games!

LA Rams @ Green Bay Packers (-7)

It’s not particularly hard to get excited about this game. It looks rock-solid on paper. The Packers finished first in the league in points scored and total touchdowns, with the fewest turnovers. The Rams were first in fewest points, yards, or first downs allowed. Aaron Rodgers is the favorite to win the MVP award, which would be his third; Aaron Donald of Los Angeles is a strong candidate for Defensive Player of the Year, which would also be his third.

How exciting is it going to be in the real world, though? Sadly, as it often happens in post-season football, the match-up will be primarily defined by injuries. Green Bay’s former All-Pro left tackle David Bakhtiari tore his ACL in practice before Week 17 and is lost for the year, and Donald suffered a rib injury against Seattle. Donald will play on Sunday and claims he has “no pain,” but it’s hard to imagine he’ll be at his best after we’ve seen him in obvious discomfort just a week earlier.

Goff underwent surgery on the thumb of his throwing hand on December 28 and missed the playoff-clinching win over Arizona in Week 17. Last week, when backup John Wolford suffered a neck injury early against the Seahawks, Goff came off the bench and threw for 9-of-19 and 155 yards. To make matters worse, offensive linemen David Edwards and Andrew Whitworth both left the Seattle game early. Via PFF, Whitworth is ranked as #3 among pass blockers this year; his absence would hurt significantly.

That leaves Davante Adams vs. Jalen Ramsey as the main event to look for, a contest between what could be the NFL’s very best players at both wide receiver and cornerback. Adams led all players with 98.1 receiving yards per game and 18 touchdown catches. Ramsey followed the best receivers everywhere they went, and gave up only 19.3 yards per game, fewest of any corner in the league with at least 10 starts.

Usually, I don’t dwell on rushing, but it’s interesting to point out that three of the top-6 teams in rushing defense are NFC teams that play this weekend. The Rams are among the top six, making the Packers’ rushing attack vs. Rams’ rushing defense a strong-on-strong match-up that should cancel itself out. Green Bay is an excellent running team, perfectly complementing Aaron Rodgers and the passing game once the Packers get ahead and can chew some clock. They are #8 in super-stuffed rate (rushes that gain -1 or fewer yards) with 9.5% and #7 in allowing the first contact before the ball carrier crosses the line of scrimmage with 23.9%. The Packers’ run game is an almost average mix of yards before and after contact, so there’s no reason to think they shouldn’t remain as successful as they were up to this point. Their efficiency relative to the league average doesn’t drop anywhere no matter what filters we apply: running into light boxes, heavy boxes, long downs, short downs, you name it, they’ve done it. Aaron Jones and Jamaal Williams are ranked fifth and sixth, respectively, in success rate. However, Jones is considerably more efficient at making his own luck with 0.19 missed tackles per rush (#7), compared to just 0.10 (#48) of Williams.

As noted, I don’t look at the running game too closely, and it counts double for this game. The Packers should win by passing the ball to whichever side Ramsey doesn’t cover, period. The Rams are average in defending the first down pass, but they are the best in defending the first down run. It’s not very close, either: the opposing teams lost -0.19 expected points per each first-down run against the Rams; they are followed by the #2 Buccaneers with -0.16, and #3 Saints with -0.14.

In this match-up, the Rams would have a coaching advantage back in the Mike McCarthy days, but those are long gone. What’s left is a team that slowed down considerably at the tail of the year, has their premium weapon on defense and the most important player on the offense banged up, and is facing a rested opponent in hostile temperatures, if not environment. Packers 31-17.

Baltimore Ravens @ Buffalo Bills (-2.5)

This game very much comes down to Buffalo’s aerial attack and Ravens’ vicious defense. Both sides of the key match-up point that way. First, few offenses throw the ball more frequently than Buffalo does. Second, Baltimore allowed only three 100-yard rushers all season and just held All-Pro Derrick Henry to 2.2 yards per carry.

When these teams met back in 2019, Ravens took full advantage of Josh Allen’s struggles under pressure. They came early and often, blitzing Allen on every single one of his first nine dropbacks. And it worked, too. Allen didn’t complete a second pass for positive yardage until midway through the second quarter, ending the game with six sacks and a lost fumble in a 24-17 beating.

Some things haven’t changed since then, but some have. Ravens are still a bring-pressure kind of team: nobody is blitzing as often as they do, on whooping 45% of opponent’s dropbacks; and only Arizona, Houston, KC, and Seattle blitz with defensive backs more often, so we can expect Chuck Clark and DeShon Elliott to spend a significant chunk of time in the Buffalo’s backfield.

Surprisingly, the Ravens blitz doesn’t lead to better defense, as their EPA drops from -0.02 without blitz to +0.03 when bringing more pressure. What Ravens love to do more than anyone except maybe Dolphins in the first half of the season is add confusion by lining up all the possible pass-rushers on the line of scrimmage instead of lining up LBs off-ball. Sometimes there’s no trickery; sometimes, they drop the DL in the coverage and bring the linebacker into the pressure. When they line up in a more traditional formation, they like to use zone blitz – the same trick as before, only with an off-ball linebacker rushing the passer. Only Atlanta ran more zone blitzes this season.

The book on Allen is out: blitz him, put him under pressure, confuse him. It comes as no surprise that Allen is blitzed more than anyone except for Cam Newton. The problem is that the book doesn’t work anymore and should be thrown out the window. Allen got a premium weapon in the offseason in Stefon Diggs, but it doesn’t end there. He’s better in the pocket this season, way better against the blitz, #2 in the league after Pat Mahomes with 0.300 EPA per dropback, in fact. He also improved his throwing mechanics—now he’s finally able to hit those deep passes as he added accuracy to his cannon of an arm. He’s one of the very rare QBs who actually developed despite his shortcomings in the first few seasons.

I don’t think Ravens will step away from their precious blitz packages and Bills will find ways to punish that. Furthermore, even though it’s a post-season game and the emotional angle shouldn’t come in play, somehow I believe last week’s win over the Titans was Lamar Jackon’s little personal Super Bowl. Bills 21-13.

Cleveland Browns @ Kansas City Chiefs (-8)

Last week, Browns scored 28 points in the first quarter, propelling them to get a shocking victory against the Steelers, 48-37. Steelers were blitzing left and right but only put pressure on Mayfield two times on 20 blitzes, overall five times on 36 dropbacks. Now, Cleveland has to pull an even bigger upset against the reigning champions if they want to keep their Cinderella story going. The big question is whether the Chiefs can finally turn their playoff mode on full throttle. Even though they captured the #1 seed with a 14-2 record, they aren’t as convincing as they were last year, often playing as if they were bored. They won six games over the last seven weeks by a combined 26 points. It’s definitely time to loosen up.

Browns are a run-first out of heavy formations kind of team. They lead the league in the ’13’ personnel grouping usage (1 RB, 3 TEs), which they use 13.4% of the time. They’re not too far behind in ’22’ (#6 with 8.0%) and ’12’ (#8 with 26.1%) groupings, either. Their run game needs to click for them to have a chance. “Keep Mahomes out of the field” is an overused cliché used about the league-best QBs for decades, and it often doesn’t work unless the time of possession is off the charts dominant. The goal has to be something close to what the Texans did to the Chiefs in Week 6 of the 2019 season, when they won the time of possession by a ton (40 minutes to 20) and the defense has to make big stoppages on top of that.

The good news for the Browns is, they have a strong duo in the backfield. Nick Chubb is a big play waiting to happen, coming into the game with 0.31 missed tackles per rush, while the NFL average is less than half—0.15. Kareem Hunt isn’t as slick (0.17 in the same metric), but he often comes in late in the games to run out the clock, so naturally, he faces stacked boxes more often. Both could do a lot of damage, as the Chiefs have the league third-worst rushing defense with +0.11 EPA allowed per opponent’s rush, behind only Houston and Las Vegas.

Whether the Browns even get a chance to take advantage of that is the question because you’re not gonna beat Kansas City by rushing unless you can stop the aerial attack. Not an easy task: Mahomes is #3 in EPA with a clean pocket, #3 when pressured, and once again #3 when hurried. Of course, pressure is always welcomed. Mahomes’ EPA drops from 0.52 from clean pocket to -0.08 against pressure (only Justin Herbert has positive EPA when pressured) and further to -0.11 when hurried (again, only Justin Herbert has positive numbers). Browns have to find the pressure with just four pass-rushers, which is always a challenge, but it’s better than the alternative. Defensive coordinators are smart enough to refuse to blitz Mahomes, who post 0.52 EPA when blitzed compared to “only” 0.26 without blitz.

I believe Chiefs will pick up the slack if we can’t even use the word “slack” and “#1 seed” in the same sentence. Even though they’ve beaten several contenders this year, it definitely feels like they didn’t show us their truly serious 100% performance yet. Now it’s time to dig in the reserves and unleash hell. The rush-attack game script will be tossed out the window very soon for the Browns, and Mayfield will be forced to come back by passing without play-action; not a recipe for victory. Chiefs 30-14.

Tampa Bay Buccaneers @ New Orleans Saints (-2.5)

The first year under Bruce Arians proved to be a challenging task for multiple QBs. Carson Palmer came to Arizona to play under Arians in 2013 and threw for a career-worst 22 INTs. Just two seasons later, a 35 years old Palmer had a career year, throwing for 35 TDs, and 8.7 YPPA. The aggressive “no risk it, no biscuit” approach is certainly fun to look at, and it generates plenty of yardage, proven by Jameis Winston’s 5.109 passing yards last season. It also creates many opportunities for the opposing secondary to catch interceptions, demonstrated by that same Winston throwing 30 picks last season, making the 5.000+ yard stat largely irrelevant. Winston was gone after the season, now serving as a backup in New Orleans. The growing pains that go with the system can’t be ignored. As such, this was potentially a disastrous landing spot for a ball-controlling QB like Tom Brady. At 42 years old, he doesn’t have time to go through a mistake-filled year-1 hoping to bounce back a year or two later, and, oh yeah, there was a global pandemic going on, making this year’s offseason even more challenging for this kind of transition.

Only Brady once again showed he’s a different breed, and he finally had some franchise pampering him a little bit. The team was already stacked with prime weapons on offense; nonetheless, the management signed retired Rob Gronkowski in the offseason and took a gamble on Antonio Brown mid-season. The chemistry eventually developed, and the Bucs were a top-3 team on offense in the second half of the year. Somehow, Brady and Arians were able to merge their methods: Brady still throws quickly, but now also targets deep parts of the field. Too deep sometimes. Being divisional rivals, these two teams met twice, and Saints swept the Bucs, winning 34-23 at home in Week 1 and destroying them 38-3 in Tampa in a Week 9 game. That trout was a product of poor strategy as much as poor execution. Tom Brady took shots thrown 40, 34, and 13 yards downfield on third or fourth downs with just 3, 6, and 7 yards to gain and failed to complete them. He threw three more incomplete passes on the Saints’ 1-yard line when runs were likely the higher-percentage plays. Bruce Arians strives for aggressive play calling, but there is a line between aggressive and impatient. Week 9 was also Antonio Brown’s first with the team, and his inexperience with Brady caused the ugliest of the quarterback’s three interceptions when he cut off a route just as Brady released a deep attempt aimed where he expected Brown to be.

The Saints could finish their perfect sweep if they’re once again able to bring pressure to Brady. The Bucs owe much of their recent offensive success to opponents such as the Lions and Falcons in the bottom half of the league in defensive pressure rate. The Saints were first in defensive pressure rate, and they authored Brady’s two most pressured games this season.

In his last All-Pro season in 2017, Brady had the second-smallest differential between his passing efficiency with and without pressure. Efficiency under pressure and in “clutch moment” is important, but also unsustainable and partially random: the only QB with positive EPA under pressure this year was rookie sensation Justin Herbert, and this year #2 with the smallest dropoff is Nick Foles, largely because he was the worst from clean pocket. Brady followed his 2017 campaign by finishing as eighth-biggest in 2018, 12th-biggest in 2019, and 14th-biggest in 2020 in the same metric. And things could get even worse if the Saints bring extra pressure. For the second straight year, Brady struggled significantly with the blitz, recording -0.12 EPA less when blitzed with only Cam Newton, Daniel Jones, Drew Lock, and Matthew Stafford doing worse.

Drew Brees does not stretch a defense vertically the way Tom Brady does, but Brees puts pressure on defenses with his ability to read the entire field and distribute the ball quickly to his many playmakers. In their first meeting this season, Brees targeted 12 different receivers, and he likes to go through his progressions: he’s targeting just 46% of his first reads, ranking him in bottom-5 in this metric. But is that good? Brees’ efficiency drops significantly when he’s forced to go through his progressions, dropping his EPA from 0.31 per first-read pass to just 0.06 per other passes, and he also had a significant rib(s) injury this season, and he has been less than flawless since his return.

This is a fascinating game that will show whether the Bucs’ improvement late in the season was for real. Considering his age and Saints’ cap situation, this could very well be Brees’ last hurrah, and it sucks he’s not even close to his 100%. This game will go down to how the Saints front-7 can produce in terms of pressuring Brady. Saints 23-21.

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