The Browns were able to defeat the Ravens last season in Week 4, in what was their most impressive win of the season. From there, they lost 8 of their final 12 games. But one of the reasons they found success was by using heavier personnel.
Weeks 1-3 the Browns used 11 personnel on 84% of their snaps, the second-highest rate in the NFL. Even when leading, they still used 11 personnel on 75% of their snaps, top-5 in the NFL and well above the 57% league average.
But against the Ravens, they lowered their 11 personnel usage from 84% down to 59%. And when leading, from 75% down to 46%. And they ramped up the usage of 12 personnel to 43% of snaps. It worked incredibly well and they carved up the Ravens Defense. From 12 personnel that day, the Browns gained 10.0 YPC with a 57% success rate on the ground, and through the air Baker Mayfield averaged 9.6 YPA with a 71% success rate. As noted in the NFC North preview, the Browns didn’t use enough 12 personnel the rest of the year and unraveled, but new Head coach and play caller Kevin Stefanski used the least amount of 11 personnel of anyone in the NFL last season, instead, going with his preferred heavier packages of 12 and 21 personnel.
I absolutely love all the new pieces the Browns brought in offensively for the season, but this will be a huge test in Week 1 to get everyone clicking given the offseason we saw. I have a lot of faith in them this year, and if Stefanski is able to cover the 7.5-point line in this game, he’ll be well on his way to what I think is a nice dark horse 33-1 longshot to win coach of the year.
The Ravens are a team that has come out hot under John Harbaugh, going 4-0 SU and ATS the last four years, and are 9-3 SU and ATS since 2008. They either have a great game plan and cover with ease (cover by an average of 12 ppg, despite being heavy favorites in some games) or get down early and lose outright. So if you are looking to back the Browns, I’d lay a little on the moneyline. Alternatively, if you like the Ravens, they make for a perfect 6-point teaser leg.
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The Jets are currently catching 6.5 points and one of the biggest concerns for this team in this matchup is their health, particularly at wide receiver. Adam Gase historically is a huge proponent of 11 personnel (3 WR lineups). He’s used it at above average rates at all of his stops. In Miami in 2018, the team used 11 personnel on 79% of passing snaps. Last year, in NY, the team likewise used it on 79% of passing snaps. This is a full 10% above the NFL average, and was fifth-highest in the NFL last year.
The Jets spent a second-round pick on WR Denzel Mims and expected him to start Week 1, but he appears unlikely to start due to a hamstring injury. Breshad Perriman has been dealing with a knee issue and it’s TBD if he will play, or for how long. This leaves Jamison Crowder as WR1 and beyond that, the only other rostered WRs are Braxton Berrios and Chris Hogan. If Perriman has a snap count due to his injury, or leaves early, that is an extremely terrible trio of WRs the Jets will be trotting out early and often, assuming Gase sticks with his preferred 11 personnel. And neither Crowder nor Berrios are equipped to play outside. This likely means a ton of short, slot targets to Crowder in this matchup. Great for fantasy, not great for covering the spread.
With Bills opponents punting on a NFL-high 49% of their possessions in 2019, and the Jets rarely sustaining drives into scoring position, I worry about their ability to produce enough to keep this game close, and it will fall to their defense vs Josh Allen, Brian Daboll and their newest weapon, Stefon Diggs.
A key battle in the NFC North will also go a long way to help us understand the value of home field in 2020 without fans. This line has moved since open but provides an interesting wagering opportunity. Check out Marquee Matchups for a full breakdown
Chicago Bears at Detroit Lions
After his rookie season in the NFL, Mitchell Trubisky has played three games against Matt Patricia’s Lions. The Bears are 3-0 SU and ATS in these games, and Trubisky has led his team to 34, 24 and 20 point totals. It’s the one team that Trubisky has actually seen success against.
This team lost CB1 in the offseason, Darius Slay, and we frequently looked to play games when he was absent in the past because the pass defense dropped off. The Lions currently are projected to be starting 5 new players on defense. It’s a massive overhaul, including three new starters in the secondary (out of five total secondary players). There is absolutely the chance for communication breakdowns in this game. And with starting CBs being rookie Jeff Okudah, struggling Desmond Trufant, and the highly suspect Justin Coleman in the slot, this could be the absolute best matchup for Trubisky against Patricia’s secondary since Trubisky came to town.
While I’m not a firm believer in Mitchell Trubisky as a long-term option at QB, it actually may be a benefit that his familiarity and consistency is present in this Week 1 game. Additionally, there have been very few teams that tried to hold true “QB battles” in an offseason like this one. While this led to less reps for Trubisky, which was bad, it also led to higher urgency in performance. And the spillover may be a crisper, sharper looking season debut than some other QBs around the league may deliver.
Chicago has been doing a lot of offseason experimentation with different pieces on offense, such as WRs in the backfield, etc, and the perfect time to roll those out would be in week 1. I think the Bears may be best in 12 personnel, with only WRs Allen Robinson and Anthony Miller on the field. This would give them a chance to get TE Cole Kmet on the field more often along with TE Jimmy Graham and the numerous other Bears TEs. I’m hard pressed to fade the Lions Offense this season and in particular, in this game. But if they are without Kenny Golladay, status TBD, I like this even more. It may get me over the edge to jump on the Bears in a teaser, which I think has solid value. Also, intriguing is digging into the Bears team total of 20 points, which may be a touch light.
Tampa Bay Buccaneers at New Orleans Saints
In what is sure to have the largest handle of the games prior to Sunday Night Football, we finally get to see what Tom Brady looks like in the Bucs offense. Despite the best quarterback matchup of Week 1, this total has dropped from 49.5 to 47.5, so let's dig into why that happened. Check out Marquee Matchups for a full breakdown
Arizona Cardinals at San Francisco 49ers
When these two teams met in 2019 twice, the thing that most stood out to me was Arizona’s ability to run the ball and the 49ers inability to do the same. In the first meeting, Kenyan Drake ran for 7.3 YPC, a 60% success rate and totaled 110 yards. This was Drake’s first game with the Cardinals, after he was acquired in a midseason trade. Meanwhile, the 49ers ran for just 3.3 YPC and a 32% success rate.
In the second meeting, the 49ers did not solve the run game on either side of the ball. Drake averaged 4.2 YPC with a 56% success rate while Kyler Murray gained 8.4 YPC with a 63% success rate. Meanwhile, Raheem Mostert and Tevin Coleman combined to gain just 1.8 YPC with a 21% success rate.
A large issue, if the 49ers aren’t able to run easily in 2020, is the 49ers WR health. WR Emmanuel Sanders is gone, leaving WR Deebo Samuel (foot) and WR Brandon Aiyuk (hamstring) haven’t been practicing. If they are absent or sub-100%, it leaves Dante Pettis and Kendrick Bourne as the team’s top WRs. Kyle Shanahan’s offense is one that can survive with subpar WRs, thanks to their strong run game and their personnel (TE and FB heavy play calling).
Beyond just the matchup edges working in favor of the Cardinals, I think there is some value in taking the +7 points with the underdog in this divisional matchup. In the last 10 years, divisional underdogs in Week 1 have an ATS record of 38-16-1 (70%).