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. The answers to those will reveal deeper truths about how the rest of the story of the 2020 season will unfold. We’ll find that these revelations will have a lasting impact on not just fantasy managers, but the league as a whole.
1 - Can other Cardinals beyond Kyler/Hopkins build on momentum?
For weeks, we’ve been looking for the Arizona Cardinals to offer up a reason to buy into their offense beyond Kyler Murray’s admittedly special scrambling ability, or five-to-seven-yard passes on curl routes to DeAndre Hopkins.
Give them credit: The Cardinals have begun to show signs of answering that call.
The Cardinals’ rushing game was the strength of their team in 2019. They’ve finally gotten back to those heights in 2020 and now rank second in Football Outsiders rushing offense DVOA. Murray is a big part of that but evidence that the backs are starting to get there has appeared. Kenyan Drake has averaged 17.5 carries per game. The team has stuck with him through his early season struggles and were finally rewarded with a massive game against Dallas. Both Drake and Chase Edmonds average 3.3-plus yards before first contact, showing that the blocking has been strong.
The Cardinals may finally be getting a running mate going alongside Hopkins at pass catcher in Christian Kirk. The third-year receiver has run 51 routes over the last two weeks, trailing Hopkins by just five patterns. He’s clearly ahead of Larry Fitzgerald and everyone else.
Most importantly, Kirk is filling a vertical role Murray and the Cardinals desperately need. He’s averaging 14 air yards per target. Arizona seems to want to keep Hopkins in the possession receiver role to give Murray a guaranteed safe option that keeps the chains moving, so it’s crucial someone like Kirk can maintain a presence downfield.
Just giving the Seahawks something else to think about in Week 7 will be key to this offense’s success because, in reality, they just want to be able to draw attention away from the Murray-to-Hopkins connection which is set up to absolutely smash in this matchup.
No team has allowed more yards (508) to receivers lined up at left-WR this year. That’s wild, because they’ve already had their bye. Hopkins is the team’s primary left outside option, as he’s run 51 of his 56 routes from that side of the field.
So yes, the complementary players in this Cardinals offense need to continue to build on their momentum. It’s crucial they do for this offense to be a healthy unit all year long. For this week specifically, if the Cardinals are going to push to upset the Seahawks, Hopkins will need to be the hero, but he’ll need help to do so.
2 - Do the Titans have a base offense advantage?
In my advanced metrics notebook on Wednesday, I looked at some of the potential macro mismatches the Steelers’ and Titans’ offenses would face on Sunday.
On paper, it seems that the Steelers have more advantages.
But when you look at some of the offense vs. defense matchups from a micro standpoint, the Titans may have an edge not enough folks are talking about.
We know that the Titans are something of a throwback offense. But as Next Gen Stats shows us, they’re one of the teams integrating progressive concepts through old-school formations, forgoing many spread looks:
Which offenses average the most condensed formations at snap and which are most spread out?
Top 5 "Most Condensed" Offenses
➤ Rams, Raiders, 49ers, Titans, Packers
Top 5 "Widest" Offenses
➤ Dolphins, Cowboys, Giants, Eagles, Texans
The rest of the #NFL through Week 6: pic.twitter.com/FR3LsdJ97m
— Next Gen Stats (@NextGenStats) October 22, 2020
Tennessee has taken just 124 snaps all season out of 11 personnel. Only the Packers have run fewer plays from 11. About 37 percent of the Titans plays have come from 12 or 21 personnel, which feature either multiple running backs or tight ends.
The thing is, the Titans aren’t just delivering exclusively smash-mouth-football type of plays out of those alignments. Ryan Tannehill uses play action on 37.8 percent of his dropbacks, fifth-highest among starting quarterbacks. It’s the base of their pass game. They use heavy personnel on many of those passing plays.
It’s a big reason why Jonnu Smith is a top-five fantasy tight end. Those plays get him free looks over the middle and in the flats. He makes the most of those in scoring position with five touchdowns (three on pure end-zone targets) and in the open field with the sixth-most yards after the catch among tight ends (119).
Luckily for Tennessee, Smith practiced this week after missing much of their last game. His presence will be even more key if A.J. Brown (back on the injury report) is limited or out.
That could be particularly problematic for Pittsburgh considering they just put Devin Bush on IR. Bush is by far their best coverage linebacker. He leads the Steelers linebackers in pass coverage snaps (176) and quarterbacks sport a 67.2 passer rating when throwing at him. His loss will force run-stopper Vince Williams and Robert Spillane into more coverage looks. Williams gives up a 98.8 passer rating in coverage and Spillane has dropped into coverage just 23 times all season.
3 - Can the Bills offense get back on pace?
We haven’t seen the Bills in a normal non-COVID-scheduled NFL game in quite some time. Buffalo was part of introducing Tuesday Night Football to our lives and played in a 5:00 pm EST Monday night game last week.
Weird scheduling wasn’t the only theme of those two games. The Bills offense playing below the expectations set by a dominant Weeks 1-4 was a constant.
After clearing 30 points in three of their first games, the Bills posted 16 against Tennessee and 17 vs. Kansas City. We know Buffalo’s defense isn’t the same unit from the previous Sean McDermott years so what they do against the pitiful Jets in Week 7 doesn’t matter. This is an offense-first team, and that’s the unit that needs to come in and smoke the Jets.
On the season, Josh Allen ranks eighth in the NFL in on-target throw rate (minimum 50 dropbacks) at 78.7 percent. Overall, his accuracy has been much improved, but we’ve seen Allen slip back into some bad habits the last two weeks, however. He ranked 25th among passers with a 63 percent on-target rate in Weeks 6 to 7.
You’d have to be completely obtuse to say the Bills’ last two losses are all on Allen but he certainly needs to play better. A date with the Jets and their truly hideous -110 point differential is just the cure.
Zone coverage has been a foil for Allen over the last two weeks and while the Jets aren’t a man-heavy defense, it didn’t stop him from dropping heaters on them in Week 1. It would be upsetting if Allen, Stefon Diggs, and the rest don’t get rolling here.
4 - Will Washington FT be next to roll over Dallas?
Stop me if you’ve heard this one before: The Cowboys are coming off an embarrassing defensive outing.
In another sequel, the Cowboys have just allowed an offense (the Cardinals) to enjoy their best outing of the season after multiple weeks of slower games.
Here in Week 7, we’ll see if the Washington Football Team can enjoy their best offensive game of 2020 against this ultra leaky Cowboys defense — just like the Giants, Cardinals, and others did before them.
Washington ranks 30th in Football Outsiders offensive DVOA. They rank dead last as a passing unit and 21st as a rushing outfit.
This is the movable offense against the stoppable force.
To this point, Kyle Allen has been about what you’d expect in his stint as Washington’s starter. He’s been accurate with a 74.5 on-target percentage. However, he’s stuck to the short game with just 5.4 air yards per pass attempt. There have also been his patented costly sacks and fumbles. Again, just like we’d expect.
That said, Allen’s short-game accuracy might be enough to set his primary playmakers up for success against this shipwrecked stop unit.
Terry McLaurin holds a 26 percent share of the team targets while his quarterbacks have played tag team at the starting spot. Not only does he rank 11th among wide receivers in air yards, but he also trails only DeAndre Hopkins with 277 yards after the catch. McLaurin can do it all and create on his own. As long as Allen throws to him as much as he has to this point, McLaurin can smash this matchup.
Allen can also set up the running backs for success. Yes, running backs plural, as J.D. McKissic will remain a factor alongside exciting rookie Antonio Gibson. McKissic is running 20.8 routes per game, almost double the amount of Gibson. They’re near equals in terms of yards per game (24.7 to 24.5). Gibson has been the far better runner, bested only by Mike Davis in terms of broken tackle rate among backs with 10-plus carries. Each of these backs will be tempting fantasy flexes.
After these guys and perhaps tight end Logan Thomas, you can’t count on much. Nevertheless, the matchup is so good you can expect Washington’s few front-line players to produce against Dallas.
5 - Are the Raiders able to withstand the Buccaneers’ defense?
The above question would apply to this matchup even if the entire starting Raiders offensive line wasn’t currently on the COVID-19 list. If any — or god forbid all of these guys — are forced to miss Sunday’s rescheduled game, it will become even more paramount.
The last time we saw Derek Carr and the Raiders offense, he was discovering a new identity. Carr was uncorking vertical shots against the Chiefs, especially when targeting his lightning-fast rookie, Henry Ruggs. You’d like to think that this version of the Raiders can unlock a whole new level for their offense. A deep element integrated into Las Vegas’ offense via Ruggs’ emergence would only open things up for stars Darren Waller and Josh Jacobs.
Trying to run that success back against the Buccaneers’ ferocious defense will be frighteningly difficult.
For my money, the Tampa Bay Buccaneers have the best defense in the league, and one of the few stop units remaining that’s truly an advantage.
The Bucs rank first in Football Outsiders’ pass-defense DVOA. That’s the result of a unit operating in beautiful cohesion. It starts up front with a ferocious rush unit backed up by the extra heat Todd Bowles bakes into his play-calling. The Bucs rank third in blitz rate (41.4 percent), fourth in pressure rate (28.3 percent), and fourth in quarterback hits (46). That’s harmony.
Devin White and Lavonte David lead what’s probably the most underrated linebacker corps in the league. Not only are they great coverage players, but they also fly to the ball. Tampa Bay has only missed 29 tackles on the year. Given the great play of the front seven, the secondary can play fast and loose with their coverage. It’s a big factor in why the Bucs young secondary sports the sixth-best interception rate on the year.
If the Raiders have to enter this game with a compromised offensive line, they’ll be facing a mountainous uphill battle. We should be prepared for slower outings from all their players.