Happy football Friday everyone.
As we enter Week 2 of the 2023 season, there is no shortage of drama. The three favorites in the AFC, the Chiefs, Bengals, and the Bills, all sit at 0-1 after losses in Week 1. The Cowboys and 49ers won in blowout fashion, taking some shine away from the Philadelphia Eagles, who outlasted the Minnesota Vikings 34-28 as 6.5-point favorites Thursday to go to 2-0. The Jets were dealt a devastating loss in the form of an Achilles injury to Aaron Rodgers but went on to show why the move made sense by shutting down the high-powered Buffalo offense, forcing four Josh Allen turnovers in a 22-16 overtime win.
Using the data from the new and improved SumerSports.com, we will go over some of the thoughts and predictions I had a week ago, along with providing some for this coming week.
Week 2’s slate includes some consequential situations, with home teams in Cincinnati, Tennessee, Buffalo, Houston, Arizona, Denver, New England, Carolina, and Pittsburgh all hoping to avoid the 0-2 hole that so often buries teams. The defending champion Chiefs go to Jacksonville in a rematch of last year’s divisional round game where Patrick Mahomes suffered a high ankle sprain, while Detroit is a favorite to avenge a loss to the Seattle Seahawks that ultimately kept them out of the playoffs in 2022.
Let’s dig in.
Review of Eagles 34, Vikings 28
The Eagles and Vikings squared off in a Thursday night affair between two teams that won 13 or more games in 2022. Both teams struggled out of the gate offensively, with the first touchdown coming from Minnesota’s T.J. Hockenson with 10:39 remaining in the first half. The Eagles answered with a Jalen Hurts touchdown with 2:44 left in the half but were in danger of surrendering the lead when Vikings star wide receiver Justin Jefferson took a long pass by Kirk Cousins inside of the five-yard line, only to fumble it out of the end zone for a touchback. The Eagles answered with a 61-yard field goal by Jake Elliott to take a six-point lead into the second half, which would eventually become the final margin of victory.
In the second half, the Vikings’ fourth turnover, their seventh in two weeks, paved the way for a 20-point lead for the Eagles that was too hard to overcome. Kirk Cousins turned 44 attempts into 364 yards and four touchdowns behind an offensive line that was missing its starting left tackle and center. De’Andre Swift’s career-high 175 yards on the ground in the place of the injured Kenneth Gainwell – most of it before contact – kept the Vikings on the sideline enough to preserve a lead in the second half.
For the second-straight week Eagles quarterback and 2022 MVP runner up, Jalen Hurts, struggled, generating -0.05 EPA per pass play, while throwing an interception. He averaged a paltry -0.22 EPA on eight carries as well, looking a bit sluggish for the second straight week. While their situation isn’t as dire as the defending NFC North champion Vikings, whose playoff odds dipped below 20% after Thursday’s loss, there is plenty of room for improvement for the defending NFC champion’s most valuable player.
A Trend I’m Monitoring
Last week I talked about the new kickoff rule, and while some teams continued to return kicks (and in the case of the New Orleans Saints, fumble them), teams did adjust to the rule, as the NFL’s Director of Data and Analytics Michael Lopez tweeted out:
21% of NFL kickoffs were returned thru W1 (MNF pending)
If that holds, would be lowest rate in our play-level data (2001), and likely lowest in league history
Low return rate driven by more deep kickoffs, as 84% of kicks reached end zone (77% last year)
— Michael Lopez (@StatsbyLopez) September 11, 2023
It’s probably -EV to return almost any kick at this point, but here’s to progress.
What I’m monitoring this week is the continued decline of the deep pass. Brooke Pryor of ESPN wrote a piece this week detailing this trend. Per Pryor, the 3,416 pass attempts traveling 15 or more air yards in 2022 was the fewest since 2006. The two-high looks that teams used to befuddle Patrick Mahomes for a stretch in 2021, where he led the Chiefs to an average of just 19.7 points per game from Week 7 to Week 13, are now spammed across the league. While Mahomes and Andy Reid were able to overcome this trend and average 32 points per game from Week 14 on in 2021 (including playoffs) and 29.2 points per game in 2022 en route to a Super Bowl, the rest of the league has largely struggled.
The average game in 2022 averaged a total of 44.0 points (with a market total of 44.2), down from 46.1 in 2021 and 49.5 in the pandemic year of 2020, representing the lowest mark since 2017. Week 1 of 2023 was all the way down to 41.0 points per game, which would be the lowest since 2001 (40.5 points), which was pre-expansion and pre-realignment! As the weather gets worse, and intended starting quarterbacks get injured, this might trend even lower.
While depth of target is obviously only one contributor to this trend (along with the retirement of hall of fame-caliber quarterbacks, changes in penalty frequencies, weather factors, etc.), it will be interesting to see what instruments teams use to loosen up defenses in an effort to be more explosive on more intermediate routes.
For example, the Chiefs jettisoned Tyreek Hill in favor of Marquez Valdes-Scantling and Justin Watson. While even the sum of those two players doesn’t add up to Hill, replacing a great deep threat that was forced to be more of an underneath player due to an increase in two high looks with two deep threats that don’t need underneath targets to be happy increased Kansas City’s offensive efficiency wholesale, and specifically the yards per target of players like Travis Kelce. Doing a better job of optimizing the roles of the receiving corps could go a long way for offenses.
Something I’m Buying
Last week I talked about how I was buying the Buffalo Bills, and at least initially that looked like a good bet, with the Bills carrying a double-digit second half lead against a wounded Jets team. Four turnovers by Josh Allen and some questionable two-minute strategy later, and the Bills are, for the second time in three years, 0-1 after an opening-week loss.
While eventual great teams lose Week 1 all the time (see San Francisco a year ago), there are troubling signs for Buffalo, especially their lack of punch from non-Stefon Diggs targets on offense. Sean McDermott and co. are probably too good to write off, but we also shouldn’t be too hesitant to move off them, especially with the Dolphins being able to carry over their offensive wizardry from 2022 so far.
This week, I’m buying Zay Flowers, a player that I’ve admired for some time now. Flowers, the first-round pick of the Baltimore Ravens and the third wide receiver taken in the 2023 draft, was able to turn 31 routes run into nine catches for 78 yards, 51 of them after the catch. Only four players in the league averaged more targets per route than Flowers, who has the potential to be Lamar Jackson’s first easy, quick option at wide receiver in the passing game in some time. With Jackson’s efficiency as a passer falling off in the years after his MVP campaign of 2019, this could be the efficiency bump they need to justify his contract extension this offseason.
This week, we at Sumer have Flowers projected to have 4.96 catches for 52.3 yards and 0.29 touchdowns Sunday against the Bengals in Cincinnati. With the Ravens missing several defensive backs, he might need to exceed those expectations for the Ravens to start the season 2-0 for the first time since 2020.
Something I’m Selling
I’ve been a big proponent of Brandon Staley in the past, due in large part to his in-game decision making as well as the scheme uniqueness he brought to the table during his time with the Los Angeles Rams as defensive coordinator – which included high rates of disguising coverages and leveraging the brilliance of Aaron Donald to manipulate the numbers in the defense’s favor.
— SumerSports (@SumerSports) June 23, 2023
Even in 2022, when Staley notoriously backslid on some of the fourth-down decisions, he very clearly understood the assignment in other ways, specifically timeout usage and delay of game avoidance. For example, there was the sequence below last season on Sunday Night Football last year, where he instructed Justin Herbert to take a delay of game (less than 1% win probability lost) versus taking a timeout (about 2% win probability lost). Even last week against the Dolphins, Justin Herbert slid in bounds to force Miami to take an end-of-half timeout (which still was not enough to prevent a field goal on the subsequent drive, alas).
However, as I watched the game Sunday, I couldn’t help but notice, as someone who has followed the Kansas City Chiefs closely, how frequently Tyreek Hill was singled up against Chargers players on the outside, especially relative to his last few years in KC. My fears were corroborated, as Hill indeed feasted on an especially high diet of man coverage:
Chargers were the heaviest man-coverage team (80%) in Week 1 through the late afternoon window.
49ers were the heaviest zone-coverage team (82%).
— Seth Walder (@SethWalder) September 11, 2023
Hill was the most efficient wide receiver during the first week, and the only adjustment the Chargers seemingly made was to bench 2022 free agent acquisition J.C. Jackson, rather than use more zone coverage, which has been shown to suppress the skill discrepancy between offense and defense on the outside.
Is this a one-week blip by Staley, who very clearly has a clue as a head coach and defensive play caller, or is it a sign of things to come? Week 3 might be the next biggest test for Los Angeles’ head coach, as they go to Minnesota to face Justin Jefferson off of long rest.