Happy Football Friday.
I am playing a little hurt, as I may have caught the flu from watching Kirk Cousins and company try to finish the job against Kansas City without Justin Jefferson, who unfortunately will now miss his first career games with a hamstring injury.
Week 5 had some surprises, with the 3-1 Bills losing in London to a Jaguars team that had yet to find their form this season, while the Cowboys – who went into Santa Clara as just 3.5-point underdogs – were beaten by a 49ers team that looks like the league’s best. The New York Giants and Carolina Panthers continue to struggle, while the Bears got their first win as touchdown dogs to the Washington Commanders, who have now lost three straight.
Using the data from the new and improved SumerSports.com, we will go over some of the thoughts and predictions I made a week ago and provide some for this coming week.
Week 6’s slate has some very intriguing matchups, including the Seahawks going on the road to face a Bengals team that got it right last week, albeit against the 1-4 Cardinals. San Francisco versus Cleveland will be a matchup between an unstoppable force and an immovable object, but weather and injuries to Deshaun Watson put the entertainment value of that game in question. Before the season, few expected the matchup between the Lions (4-1) and surprising Bucs (3-1) to have appeal outside of the fact that Tampa is wearing their creamsicles for the first time in a decade, while Monday Night Football pairs the Cowboys and the Chargers, which should include fireworks.
Let’s dig in.
A Review of DEN @ KC
In a game between teams that were moving in opposite directions, the 4-1 Kansas City Chiefs beat the 1-4 Denver Broncos for the 16th-straight time Thursday night by a score of 19-8. The Chiefs were not crisp offensively, scoring just one touchdown despite moving the ball to the tune of a 51 percent success rate. Patrick Mahomes generated 0.18 EPA on his dropbacks, compared to -0.37 for the Broncos’ Russell Wilson.
The Chiefs defense (which we’ll discuss below) was great again, forcing three turnovers and sacking Wilson four times. Harrison Butker kicked four field goals, including a 60 yarder to end the half.
The Chiefs head into the mini bye with the best record in the AFC, while the Broncos are likely going to be sellers at the 10/31 trade deadline.
A Trend I’m Monitoring
A couple of weeks ago I looked at the interplay between play-by-play success rates (efficiency) versus expected points added (explosiveness). TL;DR, teams were nearing efficiencies of previous, high-scoring years in terms of success rates and series success rates, but expected points added were down.
We have three more weeks of data, and some solid offensive production to boot. Looking at these numbers again, success rate is again close to last year’s numbers (43.3% when looking at run and pass plays, versus 43.9% last year), but expected points added is indeed down (although the gap has shrunk). This year, the same subset of plays has produced a -0.0274 EPA per play, down from 0.001 a year ago. Much like after two weeks, the -0.0274 number is one of the worst in recent memory – in this case the lowest since 2010.
Thus, the quip that NFL teams are getting much better at preventing the 50-yard plays than they are at preventing 5-yard plays is still holding true, even if teams like the Dolphins and Bears (i.e., anyone playing the Broncos) are having a time of it generating explosive plays of late.
Something I’m Buying
I’m buying the Chiefs defense.
Andy Reid took over for Romeo Crennel in 2013 and has proceeded to win 73% of Kansas City’s game since. Early on, even with the first pick in the 2013 draft, the opportunity to get an elite quarterback in the building did not present itself. Hence, they traded two second-round picks to the 49ers for former first-overall pick Alex Smith and had him manage games behind a good defense. Reid won almost two-thirds of the games that Smith started, and the defense was ninth in EPA allowed per play during those years.
Everything changed in 2017 when they moved up to 10 to take Patrick Mahomes. Five consecutive Championship Game appearances, three Super Bowl appearances, and two titles later, the Chiefs are a budding dynasty, despite having a defense that ranked 24th in EPA per play during that time.
The pendulum is swinging back, though, after a trade of star wide receiver Tyreek Hill netted them five draft picks, the Chiefs have quietly rebuilt their defense into a force. Going into the game last night, they ranked seventh in EPA allowed per play, and eighth in EPA per play against the pass.
Their tackling, once an Achilles’ heel, is now a strength as they’ve allowed the sixth-fewest yards after the catch in football. Their improvements have come even though their sack and interception rates are not in the top half of the league; these numbers should revert to league-wide medians or better as the season progresses.
The below screenshot of one our SumerSports.com tables was taken before Thursday Night Football.
The improvements on defense are not by accident. They’ve used almost all of their high-end draft capital on that side of the ball in recent years, acquiring linebackers Willie Gay and Nick Bolton in the second rounds of the 2020 and 2021 drafts, edge defenders George Karlaftis and Felix Anudike-Uzomah in the first rounds of the 2022 and 2023 drafts.
Chris Jones, a holdover from the John Dorsey era, remains one of the best defenders in football, while 2022 top pick Trent McDuffie and 2020 fourth-round pick L’Jarius Sneed might be a top cornerback duo in the league. That duo is supplemented by lower draft picks Joshua Williams, Jaylen Watson, and Chamarri Conner.
With their offense still sputtering some (they are merely fourth in EPA per play and not first), Kansas City’s chance of a repeat rests more on their defense than it ever has. Luckily for Kansas City, it’s as up to the task as it’s ever been.
Something I’m Selling
I’m selling the idea that Kenny Pickett has the “it” factor and that is making the Steelers win games despite his poor play.
Let’s face it, the Steelers should have never won against the Ravens.
But Kenny Pickett has that “it” factor. The bigger the situation, the better he performs. And giving up on him right now would be premature.@MarkKaboly with more: https://t.co/krg7TolNp3 pic.twitter.com/1R9s2EThjb
— The Athletic NFL (@TheAthleticNFL) October 9, 2023
Mark Kaboly of the Athletic wrote earlier this week that there are intangibles that set Pickett apart and are the reason the Pittsburgh quarterback boasts a 10-7 record as a starter. This, of course, is a slap in the face to Mike Tomlin, who has baffled coaching models by producing non-losing seasons his entire Pittsburgh tenure, despite not being particularly good at fourth-down decisions, timeouts, challenges, and the like.
It also scoffs at the randomness that is inherent in football. Mac Jones, a quarterback that is now considered one of the worst in football, won 10 of his first 17 starts. Kyle Orton, a fifth-round pick of the Bears out of Purdue in 2005, won 27 of his first 39 starts for the Bears and Broncos, before finishing his career with about a 0.500 record at 42-40.
I’ve been pretty vocal about the fact that you can judge quarterbacks, and more specifically the moves used to acquire quarterbacks, by their win-loss records, but you have to give the sample a bit to grow. Pickett, through his first 18 games, has completed just 62 percent of his passes, and under 60 percent of his passes this year, with more interceptions (13) than touchdowns (12). He’s averaging just 6.3 yards per pass attempt during his career and has generated -36.4 expected points added.
None of this is to say that Pickett can’t improve, but so far, his production is not matching the record that the Steelers have when he’s starting. Right now, they have -170 odds to miss the playoffs per FanDuel. The market doesn’t believe Pickett is a winner.