1. For years—three, to be exact—they said not to believe in Josh Allen any more than you believe in sasquatches or leprechauns or clown ponies. But sometimes you just have to have a little faith. Or, in the case of my daughter’s third birthday party, a lot of non-toxic face paint, a farm that plays it fast and loose for the right price and a willingness to absorb a fair amount of ire from the PETA folks.
Two games into 2020, Josh Allen is absolutely torching opposing defenses. There are three reasons behind it:
a) Better downfield receivers: Stefon Diggs, who tracks the ball downfield better than any receiver in the NFL, was supposed to help Allen refine his downfield accuracy, much in the way Cole Beasley’s ability to separate and provide a clear target helped Allen improve his short- and intermediate-level accuracy last season. Allen has targeted Diggs six times beyond 15 yards this season and is 6-for-6 for 153 yards on those throws. He is 12-for-14 for 344 yards 15+ air yard throws to all receivers (with two other inaccurate throws erased by penalties). Over the last two seasons, he completed those throws at a 31.9% clip.
b) Better downfield opportunities: This is more anecdotal, but it seems offensive coordinator Brian Daboll is creating more “downfield” opportunities at the deep-intermediate level rather than over the top of the defense. Allen seems to be throwing more Over routes and deep crossers rather than “drop it in the bucket” throws that have to be placed over a defender and which are difficult for anyone not named Russell W. (In Allen’s case, he seems to have trouble calibrating the moving bodies on those throws and also has a tendency to fire lasers instead of rainbows.) While they haven’t all been beautiful throws, Allen flashes better touch on the crossing concepts—I charted him at 7-for-7 for 156 yards on crossers at 15+ air yards through two games. And part of the reason those opportunities will continue to be there is because safeties have to play with so much depth against Allen, and linebackers are often getting sucked up by play-action (more on that in a second) or devoting a spy because of Allen’s running ability. There are wide-open spaces at the deep-intermediate levels.
c) Aggressive early-down play-calling: Right now, the Bills are the fifth-most pass-heavy offense on first downs—that number normally gets dragged down when you’re often protecting a lead (the rest of the top six in that category are all 0-2 teams). Allen is 8-for-9 for 228 yards throwing downfield on first down, including 6-for-7 for 160 on first-down play-action.
d) Crummy competition: The Jets are bad, specifically at football. The Dolphins are pretty crummy too and lost their top cornerback, Byron Jones, mid-game last week.
When the Bills host the Rams on Sunday, Allen will be tested by a Brandon Staley defense that uses disguised coverages frequently and effectively, making things obnoxiously blurry for opposing quarterbacks. And even if the Rams’ pass rush is just Aaron Donald and a bunch of warm bodies, Donald alone will provide more heat on Allen than the QB saw over Weeks 1 and 2. Plus, Jalen Ramsey will likely shadowing Allen’s favorite receiver, Diggs.
If Allen crashes back to earth this week, that’s alright. It’s going to happen some week. He’s always going to be a streaky passer. He’s going to overshoot an open receiver once or twice a week—you’ll notice this year, and next year, and every year until the end of time, he’ll never grade well with game-charters. Precision accuracy will never be his thing, and he’ll likely keep losing boneheaded fumbles here and there. That’s the price of doing business with a talent like Allen, as opposed to going with a quarterback who’s going to take care of the ball but frequently pass up open deep-intermediate throws to instead scramble out of bounds for five yards.
Ultimately it’s the possibilities that his skillset presents that will fuel Allen’s success, the fact that defenses have to defend the Bills in a way that creates opportunities—especially, as we’ve seen through two weeks, at the deep-intermediate level—combined with his ability to create out of structure when play designs don’t work. If you’re the Bills, you stay aggressive on early downs and throughout the game, and you hope he goes on his hot streaks at the right time.
1b. Rams-Bills is a fascinating contrast of styles, with both offenses thriving right now. While the Bills are doing it with the big play, for the Rams it’s all about sustained offense and what they do on football’s most important down: first down.
In part because they have trailed for only a little less than 10 minutes on the season so far, the Rams have the most run-heavy offense in the NFL through two games (56.8% run percentage). Their 2020 offense has been defined by that run game and a passing game heavy on play-action and misdirection, with an emphasis on attacking horizontally and getting yards after the catch (they also lead the NFL with a 7.9 YAC average).
It all works because they’ve been successful on first downs. The Rams have been sustaining long drives because they’ve faced the most palatable second downs in football so far—6.29 yards is their average second-down distance (no team has been sub-7 in that stat over a full season since the 2005 Colts). When you’re staying ahead of the sticks, every offensive option stays on the table. That means the defense needs to respect the run threat on play-action (while “establishing the run” doesn’t factor into play-action effectiveness, down-and-distance does since no one’s getting sucked up on third-and-8 … except for maybe the Jets) and jet motion (Rams receivers had six rushing attempts in Philly last week). And Sean McVay’s offense is as good as any in football when it comes to making all their plays look the same. That’s how a team that doesn’t stretch the field vertically puts constant stress on a defense.
If that first-down success continues, the Rams will be in business. If it doesn’t, they’ll be in trouble. L.A. has converted third-and-6-or-less at a 77.3% rate through two games, third-best in the NFL. They’re 1-for-13 (7.7%) on third-and-7+, second-worst in the NFL. Those third-and-long struggles will be exacerbated against the Bills: Goff has always had issues against Cover-4 looks, and no one plays quarters coverage better than Sean McDermott’s group.
1c. If you were wondering, the Bucs are 0-for-18 on third-and-7+ this year. I think we can all agree that fact should be at the forefront of any discussion regarding Tom Brady’s legacy. What a loser.
1d. By the way, the Bills actually lead the league in yards per play on first down (7.53) because so many of their big plays have come on first down, but they’re facing an average of 8.06 yards per second down—23rd best in the NFL—because their offense has been so all-or-nothing. But Buffalo is also leading the league on third-and-long conversions, going 8-for-13 (61.5%) on third-and-7+. They’re like the bizarro Rams. Neat, right? RIGHT?! Well, I thought it was.
1e. Occasionally, this column includes anecdotes about my personal life that are a mixture of things that actually happened, things that are loosely based on something that actually happened, or full-on fabrications—not unlike my LinkedIn page. But to be clear, regarding this week’s opening paragraph: I have not, in actuality, ever face-painted a baby horse or baby horses. It’s a bad idea for a number of reasons and neither you nor I should ever do so, even at the request of an adorable loved one.
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2a. Monday night marks Round 3 of Mahomes vs. Lamar, with Mahomes taking the first two rounds if you go by things like final score.
Frankly, Jackson didn’t play well in either of the matchups with the Chiefs, at least not relative to his usual level of performance. Both times, he didn’t do enough with his arm—in the 2018 matchup it was defense and a big special teams play that kept the Ravens in it, and in last year’s meeting the Chiefs held a two-possession lead for most of the second half, leading to a lot of empty calorie numbers for the Ravens offense.
There are still some lingering questions about the Ravens’ offensive line; they looked better in Houston than they did in the opener against Cleveland, but there’s little to like about rookie Tyre Phillips replacing future-Hall-of-Famer-who-was-still-playing-at-Hall-of-Fame-level Marshal Yanda at right guard.
However, the difference this time could be Jackson himself, and the fact that he continues to improve at an exponential rate as a passer. His presence in the pocket and touch as a passer continue to be outstanding. While he’s taken few cracks at the kind of outside-the-numbers throws that he struggled with last year, he’s playing with a wider base in the pocket that should provide better velocity on those throws. (It might ultimately come down to better understanding the timing of those throws as he attempts more of them.) The Ravens, of course, will continue to feature him in the run game because he’s special with the ball in his hands and it would be foolish not to. However, if you were to travel the infinite timelines of the multiverse until you find the reality where everything is exactly the same as it is here except Lamar Jackson is currently dealing with a sprained MCL, I think the Ravens still have a functional offense, and possibly a very good one.
Baltimore hasn’t played from behind very often in the past year, and many will point to Jackson’s failings in last year’s playoff loss to the Titans. But it wasn’t because the Ravens couldn’t move the ball (my goodness, they put up 530 yards of offense against the Titans). The issue that night seemed to be that Jackson was playing with too much urgency, unable to calibrate just how fast they had to put up points because it was such an unfamiliar situation. He forced a throw on an interception and got reckless with the ball on a strip-sack on back-to-back third-quarter drives.
On Monday, Baltimore might have to play from behind the Chiefs again. With Jackson’s continued improvement as a passer, plus the lessons learned last January, they should be much better equipped to do so.
2b. If traveling the multiverse, I, for one, am finding the timeline where everything is exactly the same except classic episodes of PBS’s Where In the World Is Carmen Sandiego? are available on one of the streaming services. Even the early episodes when Rockapella would do multiple numbers, some having nothing to do with Carmen Sandiego, locating Carmen Sandiego, or world geography in general.
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3. It’s way too early to be talking about benching Drew Brees, so let’s talk about benching Drew Brees.
The Saints’ lack of a vertical passing attack, directly tied to Brees’s lack of arm strength, has been a glaring weakness in each of their last two postseason losses, both upsets in their own building. And there’s precedent for such a move, specifically the benching of a 39-year-old Peyton Manning during his final season in 2015. Manning, of course, reclaimed the starting job in time for the postseason; his story had the happiest of all endings, culminating with a celebratory kiss of Papa John’s unnaturally moist cheek, customary for all Super Bowl-winning quarterbacks.
The Saints have better options behind Brees than Denver had in then-backup, future Texan and Dolphin, and current respected private citizen Brock Osweiler. Jameis Winston is a 26-year-old former No. 1 overall pick who is coming off a 5000-yard/30-TD season, and it’s possible his turnover issues were remedied by LASIK surgery after spending the first part of his career squinting like Costanza rather than wearing corrective lenses. And, if you have a particularly active imagination, Taysom Hill is a calendar year away from taking the league by storm as some kind of Cam Newton South.
In the meantime, this Saints offense seems likely to struggle with Michael Thomas sidelined by a high ankle sprain again this week. And they’ll probably bounce back nicely when Thomas is back in the lineup, and we’ll forget all about this silliness by December. Still, a home loss to the Packers—in front of another national audience—could cause up to a 27% increase in handwringing in New Orleans.
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4. The Lions’ media darlings-ish status this summer was due to three factors: (1) The underappreciated greatness of Matthew Stafford, (2) the anticipated crappiness of the NFC North, and (3) the fact that, in Year 3 of the Matt Patricia era, there’s no way the defense could be any worse than it was in 2019. Or so we thought.
Two games into the 2020 season, there are alarming signs that a further regression of the Lions defense could be unfolding. The pass rush remains, in the words of Clay Aiken, invisible (that’s just one word, but it’s the song title, so according to my lawyer the reference still counts). Detroit seemed to finally catch a break last week in Green Bay when the Packers lost top weapon Davante Adams to a hamstring injury. Instead, it became a showcase for the Lions’ inability to tackle, as they allowed 248 rushing yards and 8.0 per carry on 31 designed Packers runs (even if you take out Aaron Jones’s 75-yard TD run to open the second half—and that’s a heck of a thing to take out—they still allowed 5.8 per attempt). The Packers had scoring drives of 69 and 74 yards in their only two meaningful possessions after losing Adams.
The Lions might have been a rookie RB’s drop away from beating Chicago in the opener. But even if D’Andre Swift hangs onto that ball, it’s impossible to ignore the defense’s culpability in allowing three fourth-quarter touchdowns to a Mitchell Trubisky-led offense, the kind of thing that should immediately trigger a point-shaving investigation.
For Patricia and GM Bob Quinn, the past calendar year has been defined by the GM bringing in the coach’s “guys.” That’s how you end up dealing Quandre Diggs for pennies on the dollar and trading a No. 1 corner in Darius Slay for two mid-round draft picks. But instead of those guys starting to turn things around, they’re finding new ways to fail on a weekly basis.
On Sunday, the Lions travel to Arizona, site of last year’s opener, to face a Cardinals offense that is very good. But it’s also one they prepared for in the past, and one that they held in check until they let a lead slip away late in a season-opening tie.
If top receiver Kenny Golladay is back, Stafford no longer has to drag this offense to respectability, and this Cardinals secondary is ripe for the picking downfield. If the Lions aren’t competitive for a second straight week, and/or the defense finds new ways to embarrass itself, what’s the point in continuing to take the franchise down this path?
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5. Of all the issues facing Carson Wentz right now, I’d say throwing the ball to his teammates is the biggest problem. Unfortunately for Wentz and the Eagles, they’ll be working in two new starting guards in Week 3. Fortunately for Wentz and the Eagles, they’ll be doing so against the Bengals.
It’s difficult to pinpoint the root of Wentz’s accuracy issues—the protection was a problem in Week 1, but not really in Week 2. The receiving corps is bad, especially the downgrade from Alshon Jeffery to J.J. Arcega-Whiteside (even if Jeffery is barely mobile at this point in his career), and now rookie first-rounder Jalen Reagor is out. Not trusting your receivers is one thing, and facing that Brandon Staley Rams defense, which makes everything blurry for an opposing quarterback, can exacerbate that lack of trust. But the Eagles are using 12 personnel (one back, two tight ends, two receivers) with absurd frequency this season (74% of the time according to the Warren Sharp folks—no one else is higher than 33%), and Wentz has typically played well out of 12, and they led the league in that personnel grouping usage last year too (52%).
The Bengals are uniquely ill-equipped to deal with tight ends. If you were to grade the Bengals young linebacking corps with a comment a second-grade teacher might leave on a student’s report card, it would be “needs improvement.” Simply put: Right now they can’t cover and they can’t tackle. The Eagles can presumably lean on the run game more heavily in this one, and the Bengals don’t have natural matchup options for Zach Ertz or Dallas Goedert.
Cincinnati will provide a lot of “get right” opportunities for opposing offenses in 2020 (the Browns took advantage of one last week!). And right now, no one needs to get righter (Get more right? Get righterer? G’righter?) than Wentz and the Eagles.
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6. Except for maybe Aaron Donald, Nick Bosa was probably the most indispensable defensive player in the NFL. With no Bosa, and DeForest Buckner being dealt in the offseason, and Dee Ford battling some kind of mystery spine ailment, this 49ers defense suddenly tastes a lot like the 2018 version.
As you might remember from U.S. history class, the 2018 49ers obliterated the NFL’s record mark for fewest takeaways in a season, with seven (the previous record had been 11). To have just seven takeaways in a season is an indication that a unit didn’t catch many breaks—at some point, you’re gonna get a muffed punt, or a botched QB-center exchange, or an afternoon against Jameis Winston (they did get Winston that season, and didn’t get a takeaway in that game). But to create takeaways you need to get pressure up front, heating up a quarterback and goading him into rushed or otherwise bad decisions. The talent of Bosa—not to mention Buckner and Ford—in a new Wide-9 look up front last season allowed the pass rush to take off. According to Football Outsiders, the 2019 49ers led the NFL in DVOA when generating pressure (if you’re not familiar with DVOA, let’s do a disservice by lazily call it an overall defensive efficiency metric) and were the most improved team in that category from ’18 to ’19.
Robert Saleh does some nifty things with the back end of his defense, but it’s designed to be a Seattle-style scheme that generates pressure with a four-man rush in front of a lot of zone looks. That front four is now Arik Armstead (who blossomed last year, but how much of it was due to the talent surrounding him?), first-round pick Javon Kinlaw (who has been generally unremarkable through two games, which is fine) and a collection of rotational-caliber linemen.
On the back end, Saleh likely wanted to work in more man coverage this year, but injuries to the defensive backfield might foil those plans. (They did some more man stuff against the Jets last week, but the Jets were also running out a receiving corps made up primarily of drifters collected from the Port Authority Bus Terminal.) However, if the Niners try to make up for the depleted pass rush with more blitzing, Saleh will have to take the plunge and rely on man coverage far more. This defense entered the year as a Super Bowl-caliber group, and it’s already a shell of its former self on paper. Right now, Saleh and his staff have a problem on their hands, but problem-solving is what great coaches do.
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7. Ladies and gentlemen . . . The Flaming Lips!
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