Arizona Cardinals at Baltimore Ravens
It's not entirely surprising that Cardinals quarterback Kevin Kolb is struggling, but the spotlight is more and more on Ravens quarterback Joe Flacco, especially after his abysmal performance against the Jacksonville Jaguars last Monday night — he completed 21 of 38 passes for 137 (!) yards — an unreal 3.61 yards per attempt average. A guy with an arm this good shouldn't be completing 52.1 percent of his passes no matter how average his receivers may be, and as it turns out, Flacco's receivers are doing more of the work than you might imagine.
Right now, Flacco ranks 10th in yards after catch per completion at 5.72, tied with Ryan Fitzpatrick of the Buffalo Bills. But while Flacco's rocking that less-than-gaudy completion percentage, Fitzpatrick's completion rate is 66.3% Bottom line: If your receivers are getting upfield that much, and you're still almost 1 of 2 when throwing, the problem is you, champ.
And if Flacco can't improve his performance against the Cardinals' defense, people should really be worried. Jacksonville's pass defense is actually very good this year (as we discussed on this week's podcast with Greg Cosell), but the Cards are particularly and specifically bad. They don't rank in the top half of the league in Football Outsiders' defensive DVOA metric against any type of receiver, and Flacco might want to get Ed Dickson and his buddies involved early and often — Arizona has the league's worst DVOA against tight ends, and their safeties have struggled in coverage all season. They're averaging 5.8 passes for 54.2 yards per game against that position.
Minnesota Vikings at Carolina Panthers
Here's a very interesting matchup between two rookie quarterbacks that we profiled yesterday (Carolina's Cam Newton here and here; Minnesota's Christian Ponder here). We need to start with Newton, because while he'll make a mistake or two, he's also tearing the league apart with his arm. Only Drew Brees has more big play passes (completions of 25 yards or more) than Newton's 19 — the rookie has more big plays than Aaron Rodgers, Tom Brady, or Matthew Stafford.
The Vikings are in a pickle in another way when facing Newton; he has been far more effective at home than on the road to date. One way the Vikings can get the advantage is to make him make mistakes early in the down; he's thrown four of his nine picks, and has been sacked three times, on first down with 10 yards to go. He's also more vulnerable on throws of 11-20 yards; one touchdown and three picks on those plays.
For Ponder, the answer to Carolina's defense is very simple: Adrian Peterson, Adrian Peterson, and more Adrian Peterson. Not only do the Panthers rank 31st in pass defense DVOA against running backs, but they're also allowing 5.12 running back yards and 4.57 line yards per carry. That's where the Vikings do have a major advantage in this game; they're allowing 3.64 RB yards and 3.47 line yards per carry, and they're stuffing opposing running backs at or behind the line 28 percent of the time.
New Orleans Saints at St. Louis Rams
Okay, raise your hand if you saw Darren Sproles as the NFL's leader in all-purpose yards (with 1,115)? Keep that hand up if you expected Sproles to be tied with the NFC lead in receptions (45) with second-year Saints tight end Jimmy Graham? And third in the NFL behind Wes Welker and Matt Forte in yards after catch with 338? Yeah, that's okay. We didn't see it coming, either. And neither did San Diego Chargers GM A.J. Smith, who let Sproles walk out the door because he didn't see the player's true value. However, the Saints offense run by Sean Payton and executed to perfection by Drew Brees is becoming like that New England offense — if you become a part of it, you're a better player instantly. And Sproles has gone from a fringe specialty back to one of the most productive players in the game today.
Speaking of yards after catch, Brees leads all quarterbacks in YAC created by his receivers with 1,229. Aaron Rodgers is second with 1,158, then Tom Brady with 1,016, then Matthew Stafford with 994, then Philip Rivers with 974. For the Rams, the timing could not be worse in facing the Brees-Sproles combo — their floundering defense ranks 27th in defensive receiving DVOA against running backs.
And speaking of DVOA … well, here's a worrisome things for Rams fans familiar with advanced stats. St. Louis doesn't have a single game this season in which they've put up positive passing DVOA. ON the other side of the ball, the Saints haven't put up a negative passing DVOA game — in fact ,they haven't even come close. The lowest DVOA the Saints have had to date was in Week 6 against the Tampa Bay Buccaneers (28.3%), when Brees threw three picks and still put up 383 yards.
Want more scary stats, Rams fans? The Saints rank third in DVOA out of the shotgun formation, averaging 8.2 yards per play. The Rams rank 31st in defensive DVOA against the shotgun, averaging 7.0 yards per play.
Miami Dolphins at New York Giants
So … how can the Dolphins beat the Giants? Well, they really can't. So, let's just take this opportunity to detail how bad the Miami passing attack really is — if they're trying to Suck for Luck, you could almost understand why. Matt Moore has created first downs on just 30.1 percent of his passes — in comparison, Tom Brady's up at 44.7 percent). He's got three big play passes; the only AFC quarterbacks with fewer are Kerry Collins and Luke McCown, and neither of those guys are playing anymore. We won't blame Moore entirely, though — only Kyle Orton has a lower yards after catch average per completion than Moore's 4.25.
Indianapolis Colts at Tennessee Titans
So, here's another offensive disaster in the Colts, but the real story is how the Titans' defense has fallen apart in the last two games. They allowed 38 and 41 points to the Steelers and Texans, respectively, after allowing an average of 14 points per game in their first four contests. We certainly don't expect Curtis Painter to exploit that as Ben Roethlisberger and Matt Schaub did, but this is a defense that has allowed over 70 percent of all passes to be completed against it the last two weeks. We're not saying, we're just saying…
Jacksonville Jaguars at Houston Texans
As we've mentioned, the Jags have a very surprising pass defense — eighth in DVOA against the pass, and sixth-best against #1 receivers. That's good news since everyone in the Houston offense is employing a "Next Man Up!" ethos with Andre Johnson out for the fourth straight week. On the other side, that Wade Phillips defense has been surprisingly weak against the run, allowing 4.66 RB yards per play and creating negative plays just 18 percent of the time. That's good news for Maurice Jones-Drew and a Jags offense that's the only one in the NFL that has run more plays on the ground (52%) than in the air.