Matchup notes for Week 1 of the NFL season

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Every week, when Touchdown Wire’s Doug Farrar and Mark Schofield prepare to do their matchup podcast, they’re taking notes for the show rundown based on tape observations and advanced metrics from Sports Info Solutions, Pro Football Focus, and Football Outsiders. We thought it would be interesting and enlightening for our readers to check out the notes, which have special value if you listen to or watch the podcast at the same time!

Cowboys at Buccaneers

Historically, Dan Quinn likes to run single-high stuff. Tom Brady against single-high coverage in 2020: 199 of 324 for 2,496 yards, 1,346 air yards, 28 touchdowns, seven interceptions, and a passer rating of 110.4. Now, the Cowboys were actually pretty decent when they played dime in 2020 -- they allowed 42 completions in 73 attempts for 453 yards, two touchdowns, and two interceptions. Against dime coverage in 2020, Brady threw seven touchdown passes and had six interceptions. Quinn should be dialing up as much dime as possible -- forget about the run. The Bucs aren’t out of the woods against Dallas’ receivers as long as Dak is in there. In Weeks 1-5 last season, the Cowboys ranked first in 11 personnel, and first in Positive Play Rate with 11 personnel. That’s in part because Mike McCarthy doesn’t know how to call anything else, but it’s also because when you have CeeDee Lamb, Amari Cooper, and Michael Gallup, you want them out there as much as possible. The Bucs have Carlton Davis, Sean Murphy-Bunting, Jamel Dean, Ross Cockrell, Dee Delaney… decent cornerbacks, but nothing particularly special. They need that front to succeed, which will likely happen with Zack Martin out, but this bears watching through the season. That said, the Bucs led the league in interceptions against 11 personnel, with 17. Cowboys gave up 20 touchdowns and had one interception against play-action passes last year. Against pre-snap motion, 15 touchdowns and five interceptions. Soooo… yeah.

Eagles at Falcons

Welcome to the Arthur Smith offense. Heavy 12 personnel, two and three tight ends, a lot of moving parts. Play-action and motion. This is the most Shanahan-like offense Matt Ryan has had since his offensive coordinator was Kyle Shanahan in 2016, and he was the NFL MVP. I’m just as interested in what this defense will look like with Dean Pees in charge. He blitzed a ton in the preseason. Dean does not care. A lot of late movement. When you’re a quarterback facing a Dean Pees defense, you will rarely know what the coverage is pre-snap, and once the ball is snapped, you’re going to get a lot of pressure and less time than you would like to figure it out. How does Jalen Hurts deal with this?

Steelers at Bills

I am worried about regression from the Steelers’ defense, and it has nothing to do with the T.J. Watt contract situation. They figured that out because they had to. It’s the secondary. They lost Mike HIlton, a top-five slot defender, to the Bengals in free agency. They cut Steven Nelson, who played more snaps outside for them last year than anybody else, in a salary cap move, and now, Nelson plays for the Eagles. They just traded for Ahkello Witherspoon, who was benched often in San Francisco for performance issues, and he was sliding down Seattle’s non-existent cornerback depth chart this preseason. Joe Haden isn’t what he used to be. All of a sudden, this secondary that was a strength is a problem, and here come the Bills with their empty packages, Josh Allen having taken the Leap, and a Buffalo defense quite capable of stopping Pittsburgh's quick game.

Vikings at Bengals

Ja'Marr Chase's comments about why an NFL football is harder to catch than a college football (it has to do with the white stripes, and we're not talking Seven Nation Army here) have to be worrisome, because Chase showed a lot of rust this preseason. Perhaps Chase's only saving grace in the opener is that he's going up against a Vikings receiver group with not a lot going on at cornerback. As for the Bengals' defense, they've lost William Jackson III and Carl Lawson, and the receiver duo of Justin Jefferson and Adam Thielen could be nightmare fuel for a Lou Anarumo-coached unit that has struggled with spacing and assignments over the last couple of seasons.

49ers at Lions

Last season, and we can throw this out to a point, the Lions ranked second in frequency of MOFC coverage. They ranked 31st in Positive Play Rate allowed because they were the Lions, but given Jimmy Garoppolo’s issues with this in the past, this bears watching. Aaron Glenn, who was the Saints’ secondary coach for the last five seasons, is coming from a defense that played MOFC just 44% of the time, which ranked 30th in the league. Jared Goff -- a massive regression with the Rams in all the things that were supposed to make him great. Play-action, motion, heavy personnel… all the staples of the McVay offense. If you’re regressing under McVay, I mean, no offense to Anthony Lynn, but...

Cardinals at Titans

Arizona’s passing game against Tennessee’s pass defense… ugh both ways. In 2020, Arizona ranked dead last in plays with pre-snap motion with just 317 (29% of their offensive snaps), but they ranked fifth in Sports Info Solutions’ Positive Play Rate when they did use it. 22 was the number of touchdowns the Titans allowed in man coverage (Cover-0, Cover-1, and 2-Man) in 2020, which tied them with the Lions for the league’s worst mark in that department. Except that the Lions had four interceptions in man coverage, and the Titans had just one. Tennessee’s EPA/Play allowed in man coverage was 0.19, tied with the Jaguars and Raiders for the league’s third-worst mark, and only the Browns allowed a higher Positive Play Rate (51.1%) than Tennessee’s 50.4%. The kids on Tennessee’s secondary may be alright, though. In the 2021 preseason, second-year cornerback Kristian Fulton allowed an opponent passer rating of 39.6 in man coverage, rookie Caleb Farley gave up an OPR of 58.3, and rookie Elijah Molden allowed an OPR of 77.1 in the slot. Arthur Smith to Todd Downing. We’ll see. We do know that the Titans ran against stacked boxes 43% of the time, which ranked second in the league. Titans face a ton of heavy defense, which should lead to big opportunities in the passing game against a Cardinals defense whose starting secondary looks like Budda Baker and who knows at safety, and Byron Murphy and who knows at cornerback.

Seahawks at Colts

Carson Wentz is projected to be the Week 1 starter after all the foot and COVID drams, but we have no earthly idea what he is. He was the league’s worst quarterback in the situations that are supposed to be layups — stuff designed to get quarterbacks comfortable. No quarterback last season had a worse Adjusted Net Yards per Attempt on throws of zero- to three-step drops than Wentz’s 3.6 (in comparison, Dak Prescott and Aaron Rodgers tied the league lead with 8.3 among quarterbacks with at least 100 short-drop attempts), and no quarterback had more short-drop interceptions than Wentz’s 14. Denver’s Drew Lock, now Teddy Bridgewater’s backup, finished second with 13. Tom Brady had 11, but he’s Tom Brady. Seattle’s offense -- we can expect more motion, more sweeps, more condensed formations, more heavy personnel -- this could be a watershed year for Russell Wilson with DK Metcalf, Tyler Lockett, and rookie Dee Eskridge, and that’s good, because I have no clue what this defense will look like. Perhaps they have Jamal Adams blitz less, and cover more.

Chargers at Washington

Per Sports Info Solutions, Justin Herbert led the NFL in touchdown passes on third-and-6 or more, completing 21 such passes on 46 attempts for 456 yards, 340 air yards, nine touchdowns, three interceptions, and a passer rating of 101.5. He was tremendously efficient under pressure, and against more advanced coverages -- the stuff that usually sends rookie quarterbacks back to the drawing board, he just lit it up. Asked Chris Harris this week about Brandon Staley’s defense -- he said that he and Derwin James will alternate at the STAR position based on the package. It sounds as if Staley is ready to install everything he did with the Rams. Ryan Fitzpatrick in the Scott Turner offense -- Antonio Gibson could be a top 10 back, we love Terry McLaurin, Jarret Patterson looked great this preseason, but this could be a stern test. Speaking of stern tests, this is the rematch of the Rashawn Slater-Chase Young matchup when Northwestern played Ohio State in 2019, and Slater handled Young better than any other college tackle did.

Jets at Panthers

The Sam Darnold bowl! Let’s start with Phil Snow’s defense -- he’s in Year 2 now, and last season, the Panthers led the league in 4-1-6 snaps, and ranked second in 3-2-6 snaps. They were about average in Positive Play Rate allowed in each case, which indicates that they’re still trying to match scheme to personnel, but this is a defense that Aaron Rodgers called “strange” last year. Messed up his protections. Snow is using college concepts in the NFL, and he’s throwing great quarterbacks off. Now, they played the least amount of man coverage last season of any team -- 13% -- but they had a better defensive Positive Play Rate in man than in zone, and they played the second-most zone in the league. Sam Darnold was the least efficient passer under pressure last season, and his offensive line won’t help. Zach Wilson -- I’m not quite with Tony Romo here where he’s already comparing Wilson to Patrick Mahomes and saying that he’s going to be a Top 3 quarterback, but he looked very good in the preseason, and he’s a perfect fit for the LaFleur/McVay/Shanahan offshoots. Had 20 touchdowns and no interceptions with play-action for BYU in 2020. This preseason, 15 of 20 for 191 yards, two touchdowns, and no interceptions with play-action. This is a thing.

Jaguars at Texans

Jacksonville’s offense was a bit more expansive against the Cowboys in the preseason finale, but things are still pretty limited for Trevor Lawrence, and unless Brian Schottenheimer has completely changed his spots, that’s going to be what it is. But here come the Texans, and Lovie Smith, and probably some old-school concepts, and the NFL’s worst team. So, a soft landing. During his three seasons with the Bills, Tyrod Taylor threw 13 touchdown passes and just two picks when using play-action, and in 2020, the Jaguars allowed 15 touchdowns against play-action — only the Titans and Cowboys were worse in that department. We can’t take the Texans seriously in any game at this point, but there’s one way to at least make this thing competitive.

Browns at Chiefs

The Chiefs are going to look very different this season. A lot more gap with that new offensive line, explosive plays off that -- I think you could see more Lincoln Riley stuff. Get the defense ready for power, and kill them with everything from mesh to all-go. Moreover, the defense could be really good. Charles Goldman from Chiefs Wire had a great piece on five plays the Chiefs should run in 2021. Browns are the third-youngest team in the league. Scary stuff. But they might look young, even with a redefined secondary, against an offense that seems to have more tools than ever to displace coverage.

Dolphins at Patriots

This is where it gets interesting for Mac Jones. The Dolphins love to being zero blitz looks and back into pressure, they love to make you think they’re playing back, and then, they’ll blitz… they are very multiple. Mac Jones hasn’t ever seen defenses like this. Not to this degree. I’d expect a lot of first read opens, heavy RPO game, and he may not push the ball down the field a lot at all. This could be a Rhamondre Stevenson game?

Packers at Saints

Aaron Rodgers against single-high coverage in 2020 -- 205 of 299 for 2,496 yards, 1,346 air yards, 29 touchdowns, two interceptions. Aaron Rodgers against two-high coverage in 2020 -- 121 of 188 for 1,734 yards, 1,045 air yards, nine touchdowns, four interceptions. Davante Adams -- 15 touchdowns against single-high, two touchdowns against two-high. Last season, the Saints ranked third in frequency of two-high coverage (56%), and they ranked fifth in Positive Play Rate allowed out of it. Fascinating matchup there. Packers led the NFL in dime last season under Mike Pettine. We don’t yet know how Joe Barry will run that defense, but against dime in 2019, Jameis threw six touchdowns and seven picks. Only Baker Mayfield and Philip Rivers had more interceptions against dime (eight) that season.

Broncos at Giants

Jason Garrett had better shove himself into 2021 from a schematic perspective if he wants Daniel Jones to have any shot against this defense. Last season, Jones completed 20 of 43 passes of 20 or more air yards for six touchdowns, no interceptions, and a passer rating of 132.5, which was the highest among any quarterback taking at least 20% of his teams’ snaps. But those 43 deep attempts tied him for 21st in the league with Gardner Minshew and Jared Goff. Here’s the thing — Jones was below-average in efficiency on every other distance. He threw no touchdowns and four interceptions on passes of 10-19 air yards, five touchdowns and six interceptions on passes of 0-9 air yards, and on passes behind the line of scrimmage, no touchdowns and no picks. Only the Cardinals used motion less often than the Giants, and while Jones wasn’t great with it (one touchdown, two interceptions), perhaps integrating motion concepts with a deep passing game would be nice.

Bears at Rams

The more you look at the Bears, the more you see faulty construction. They go into the 2021 season as the NFL’s oldest team, and they haven’t had a winning record since 2018. And now, here comes Andy Dalton. Sheesh. In the preseason, Justin Fields (who played behind a backup line until the preseason finale against the Titans) was pressured on 29 of his 62 dropbacks, completing 13 of 18 passes for 133 yards, 7.4 yards per attempt, one touchdown, no interceptions, and a passer rating of 111.6. How has Dalton fared this preseason under pressure, and with more time behind the starting front five? He’s completed three of seven passes for 21 yards, 3.0 yards per attempt, no touchdowns, no interceptions, and a passer rating of 50.3. Oh, and Dalton has taken two sacks on 23 dropbacks, compared to Fields’ three on 62 dropbacks. Here come the Rams! Also, Sean McVay finally gets to unleash his entire playbook with Matthew Stafford on the field. Nothing more I'm looking forward to seeing this season than this pairing.

Ravens at Raiders

So… last time we saw the Raiders, they were getting gashed by Kyle Shanahan’s versions of QB counter bash by way of Trey Lance. Here comes Lamar Jackson. Have fun in the ice cream factory, guys! In 13 games and 12 starts in 2020, Henry Ruggs was targeted just 15 times on passes of 20 or more air yards, catching five for 245 yards and two touchdowns. Both Nelson Agholor and Darren Waller had more deep targets than did the speedy rookie, and Gruden said in June that Ruggs’ lack of a real offseason in his rookie year, combined with COVID complications, made Ruggs more of a decoy to make things happen for the team’s other deep targets. I hypothesized earlier today that the Ravens would be just fine despite JK Dobbins' season-ending injury until Gus Edwards also suffered a season-ending injury. Yikes. Baltimore signed Le'Veon Bell to its practice squad, and he could be elevated up, but if I'm general manager Eric DeCosta, I'm calling Latavius Murray's agent and trying to get something done right now. Murray, recently cut by the Saints in a financial move, would be an outstanding fit in a run game that requires its runners to cut and move through gaps quickly and decisively. Even when Bell was at his peak, that wasn't his game.

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