The five most pressing NFL questions in Week 9: This is it for the Browns — isn't it?

We’re eight weeks into the NFL season. A few plots have played out to our expectations. Far more has gone far off the chain of our projected storyboard.

Each week of the season brings with it a new set of questions. Here, we’ll attempt to lay out five of the most pressing in the NFL that week. The answers to those will reveal deeper truths about how the rest of the story of the 2019 NFL season will unfold.

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We’ll find that these revelations will have a lasting impact on not just fantasy managers, but the league as a whole.

Can teams with a light ROS schedule run hot?

Scott Pianowski talked about this when he joined me on the Yahoo Fantasy Football podcast this week; now is the time to start taking strength of schedule into account. While it can be a misleading endeavor in the summer, we have a good idea by now which defenses are most vulnerable to what type of attacks. From pickups to buy-low scenarios, the schedule should be considered in all moves from here on out.

When looking at Sharp Football Stats’ strength of schedule tool, some of the teams on the easier side of the spectrum the rest of the season bring more questions than answers. Yes, they might have a light set of opponents coming up but we can’t be all the way sure just how good some of these squads are themselves.

Chief among them is the team at No. 1, the New York Jets. Few operations have looked as pathetic as the Jets this season, especially over the last two weeks. Their schedule may be the lightest through the rest of the season but they rank dead last in offensive efficiency in Football Outsiders’ metrics. Adam Gase seems to be lightening Le’Veon Bell’s load with Sam Darnold back, even though his quarterback is struggling. Nonsensical coaching and a debilitating offensive line make this unit a tough one to buy into the ease of opposing defenses appeal.

The team New York is facing this week ranks second in ease of schedule. Jacksonville has some positive momentum and intriguing weapons who can take advantage of such a setup. Leonard Fournette has the best running back role in the game and with just one touchdown on a league-high 163 carries, looks like a screaming buy. The main question for this team is what they elect to do at quarterback. Gardner Minshew’s last outing before the bye against a fading Texans pass defense may be the deciding factor.

Other teams inside the top-seven — like the previously mentioned Eagles, the Buccaneers and Broncos — also come with massive questions when weighing how hard to chase that strength of schedule. Of course, none of these are quite the difficult egg to crack like the sixth-ranked team, who deserves its own section:

This is it for the Browns ... right?

No team has let the air out of its own balloon like the Cleveland Browns so far this season.

All the hype in the offseason, yet they’re the 30th ranked offensive team in success play rate. The hope of the franchise, Baker Mayfield, has been wildly problematic this season. Among relevant quarterbacks (100-plus passes), he ranks at the following:

  • 29th in adjusted yards per attempt

  • 32nd in completion percentage

  • 30th in touchdown rate

  • 31st in passer rating

  • 2nd in interception rate

The Browns are a miserable 2-5 under his watch this season. He’s been a problem. You can’t talk around it. That doesn’t mean he’s cooked forever but until Mayfield begins to crawl out of this slump, Cleveland needs to plan around it.

Despite all their issues, the Browns will still walk into Denver as a whopping 5.5-point favorite. The line opened up as the Broncos -3 and has shifted well over to Cleveland. With the Broncos starting an entity named Brandon Allen under center, it’s hard not to see the logic.

Nevertheless, it’s hard to bet on a team as dysfunctional as Cleveland, especially in the aerial game. The Broncos have improved as a pass defense. After a painfully slow start to the season, Denver now boasts the 11th-highest pressure rate and Chris Harris is playing lights out at cornerback. QBs have just a 69.6 passer rating when throwing into his coverage. Harris could shut down Odell Beckham, who is suffering through subpar quarterback play once again. Mayfield could be flummoxed once more, especially on the road.

It's been anything but clear skies for Baker in Cleveland this season. (Photo by: 2019 Nick Cammett/Diamond Images via Getty Images)
It's been anything but clear skies for Baker in Cleveland this season. (Photo by: 2019 Nick Cammett/Diamond Images via Getty Images)

The best chance for the Browns to win this game — much less cover the spread — is to put the offense on the back of their best player from the start: Nick Chubb. Despite some miscues last week, Chubb has been a dynamic back for the Browns all year. He’s averaging north of five yards per carry for the second-straight season and is leading the NFL with 105.4 rushing yards per game. The Broncos are just the 14th-ranked rushing defense in Football Outsiders’ DVOA, and it’s time for Chubb to take over the lead posting on this unit.

Can Lamar Jackson glide past Patriots man coverage?

The exhilarating Ravens offense draws a hefty challenge in Week 9 as they welcome New England to town. A unit that’s been one of the top-five scoring attacks all season will now go to work against one of the most suffocating stop units in the NFL.

Lamar Jackson’s breakout second season has already been the defining note in the story of the Ravens’ 2019 season. His place at the helm of the offense trickles down to everyone else on that side of the ball. It’s far from an innovative take to say he’ll be the key to Baltimore’s chances on Sunday. Dueling against Bill Belichick and the Patriots defense will be his most difficult task to date.

The Patriots defense looks impenetrable on paper. Certainly, Belichick is gleefully anticipating all the ways he can solve the riddle that Jackson presents to opponents. However, if the Patriots roll out a similar approach to the one they’ve taken all year, Jackson could find a crack in the fortress.

Running quarterbacks have a distinct advantage over defenses that play a ton of man coverage. In man-to-man, the defense has to turn the back to the passer to run with their coverage responsibility. That leaves open lanes available for big plays when a mobile player under center decides to take off after a few beats.

Research by Scott Barrett of Pro Football Focus puts this principle into data. From the 2015 season and going into the 2018 season, “Quarterbacks average 8.76 yards per carry against man coverage, but only 6.93 yards per carry against zone coverage,” according to Barrett’s research.

The Patriots, of course, play more man coverage than any other team in the NFL. It’s worth noting that if some chucklehead who writes about football on the internet knows this, Belichick knows this. We have seen this bear out for New England before this season too. Bills quarterback Josh Allen took five carries for 26 yards and a score on them earlier this season on just 73 percent of the snaps.

Jackson is one of the most unique weapons in the NFL. He is not just an asset on the ground, he’s a threat. Taking advantage of this mismatch will be the deciding factor in how this game plays out from both a real-life and fantasy angle.

Are there new feature faces in the Eagles offense?

Few teams have been as disappointing as the Philadelphia Eagles so far this season. They’re miles away from being some kind of dumpster fire but sitting at 4-4, they’re equidistance from the NFC favorite status many had them pegged for coming into 2019.

The defense has fallen short of expectations but considering what they had to work with, the offense has been more of a letdown. A unit that has its franchise quarterback in place, is manned by a Super Bowl-winning offensive mind and littered with proven veterans would like to find itself ranked far higher than 18th in offensive DVOA. After the failure of its multi-receiver offense and a rash of injuries, Philadelphia is left searching for answers along with a shovel to dig itself out of this self-imposed hole.

Two young players who might help out in the quest are Miles Sanders and Dallas Goedert. With three touchdowns between them in the last four games, these two are already starting to heat up.

Goedert’s emergence after some early season injuries has been a welcome sight. He’s been on the field for 69 percent of the team snaps since Week 4 but he’s finally started to see his role expand in the passing game of late. The talented pass-catcher has 17 targets over his last three games.

Given the Eagles are a better team out of 12-personnel than their three-wide offense, with a 48-to-50% success rate on passing plays, it would only make sense for them to continue to move primarily toward this package, even with DeSean Jackson back in the lineup. We still need to see Goedert involved in the offense more, as his 55 routes run over the last three weeks trails his mate Zach Ertz’s 89 by too wide of a gap.

On the ground game, Miles Sanders finally looked like the explosive, possible lead back the team hoped they’d snagged in the second round this year. To be fair, he’s made big plays in the passing game all year but his 3-74-1 line on the ground (before he left early with an injury) showed off that dimension to his game. All told, he racked up 118 yards from scrimmage on just six opportunities while playing a measly 13 snaps.

Straight up, we need to see more of Sanders. It doesn’t have to come at the expense of Jordan Howard, either. He can remain a piece in the running game while Sanders can continue to work into more of a 1B role than he’s held thus far. The rookie’s receiving chops should only make that easier. The Eagles are the 10th-best rushing team this year by success rate and it’s time for that to become the focal point of the offense more to keep a pitiful defense off the field and control the pace for a quarterback under siege behind a disappointing offensive line.

Will the Seahawks set a course of attack to hit a weakness?

Seattle is as committed to their run game as ever. Sitting at a 48.3% run play percentage, they’re the fourth-most ground-based squad.

It’s worth wondering if they’ll be as committed to such an approach in Week 9, considering their opponent. No team invites the pass like Tampa Bay. The Bucs allow a league-low 3.0 yards per carry and teams have run on them just 162 times all year. Offenses have been delighted to just shred them through the air. No team blitzes more than the Bucs (147) in 2019 and that just increases the appeal of tearing their secondary apart as their worst players are often on an island.

Seattle has the horses to crush a blueprint like this. Russell Wilson is still playing at an MVP level and his two top weapons are on fire.

Tyler Lockett has caught 92% of his targets since Week 4 and despite the Seahawks’ run-heavy ways, he’s run the 13th most routes among NFL receivers this year. He could go wild as the speed slot receiver for Seattle, as the Bucs have allowed 145 yards per game to slot receivers this season, fifth-most in the NFL.

DK Metcalf has really started to blossom and finally turned his opportunity into production with a pair of touchdowns last week against the Falcons. He leads the team with 622 air yards and is the top target in scoring position. Coming into Week 8, Metcalf was top-10 in the league with 10 red-zone looks and no player has been thrown to in the end zone more than the rookie wideout. Don’t think they just get rocked in the slot, as the Buccaneers have given up 6 TDs to receivers lined up out wide as well, one of the highest totals in the league.

It’s a gorgeous setup for Wilson, Lockett and Metcalf. Of course, we must sadly ask, as we always do, if the Seahawks can get out of their own way enough to take advantage of this matchup. It would be wildly irresponsible to just slam Chris Carson into the teeth of this defense 30-plus times, but it’s always on the table with the Seahawks.

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