Dress Rehearsal Week in the NFL and a Double Shot of Previews

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David Malinsky

Friday, August 25, 2017 2:09 PM GMT

Friday, Aug. 25, 2017 2:09 PM GMT

A double shot of NFL previews. ... Denver 2017: Has this been the best pass defense in NFL history? … Tennessee 2017: Marcus Mariota doesn’t have to be great with this supporting cast. … Hue Jackson’s QB decision in Cleveland could mean a step backward before there is progress.

Point Blank – August 25, 2017

After a couple of weeks of semi-real football across the NFL landscape, the pace and the pulse pick up this weekend – much of that league will be playing for real, and we also have our first set of NCAA games at which teams are playing for keeps. That means a lot of charting to be done, not just of the various teams and players,but of course of your own action as you track the fluctuating bankroll.

There is also the shifting of the MLB series into the weekend, including the Wild Card race in the National League beginning to get interesting, as the Rockies and Diamondbacks continue to play their way back to the field. Today’s missive will run too long to feature anything on that front, but that is what our comments section is for – go to the gray box in the upper left and you can trigger some MLB conversation.

With so much going on I will get the jukebox in play, and also double up on the NFL previews, today covering Denver and Tennessee as the team-by-team tour continues. I will be making most of the football season “Guitar Fridays” so that you can have a musical escape amidst the frenzied weekends, and this time I will bookend the week – having pressed a button for Tom Petty and Mudcrutch on Monday, let’s end it that way as well. Here is some nice guitar work from Mike Campbell on their cover of Roger McGuinn’s “Lover of the Bayou” froim las summer in Los Angeles, and yes you will hear some subtle echoes of “Gimmee Shelter” as they close it out, Campbell paying a nice tribute to Keith Richards. Petty and crew are very good at what they do, and have fun at what they do. There is an absolute connection between that, and as they wind down to what may be their last major shows (not as Mudcrutch of course, but as Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers), a trio at the Hollywood Bowl in late September, there will be plenty of moments that will make the jukebox in the future.

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Now let’s go to another group of guys who have also been doing something extremely well the past couple of seasons: that Denver pass defense.

 

Has the Denver pass defense been the NFL’s best ever the past two seasons?

As our tour of the NFL continues, the lead for the Broncos across most of the Sports Mediaverse is the QB battle between Trevor Siemian (named the starter) and Paxton Lynch, neither showing much upside to this point, and there is a continuing thought that runs through my mind -- for as mediocre as those two look in game competition, imagine how bad they must look in practice. Those sessions are up against what may well be the best pass defense in NFL history.

A prime goal here each day is to cut through the hyperbole that often comes with the territory in a 24/7 world of sports coverage, but this is one of those rarities in which perhaps a dominant group isn’t getting quite enough attention. When Aqib Talib and Chris Harris became the first pair of teammates at CB to earn first-team All Pro honors, it didn’t cause all that much of a buzz. Meanwhile, safety Darian Stewart also made his first Pro Bowl last season, where T.J. Ward had previously made three appearances and was an alternate for the game this past January. And those are just the coverage guys, with pass rusher Von Miller a perennial for postseason honors, Garrett Wolfe a Pro Bowl alternate last season, and Shane Ray showing the promise of earning such accolades in the near future.

It is one thing to be the best in the sport at what they do, but to properly understand how good this group has been is to look at the gap between them and the rest of the league. We can start with Net Yards Per Pass Attempt (NYA), which incorporates sacks into the mix (as any proper measurement of pass defense should) and show how much better the Broncos have been than the current NFL standard:

NYA           2015  2016

Denver         5.1     5.0

NFL Avg      6.4     6.4

In each of those seasons the Broncos were the only team more than a full yard better per pass than league average, and only the 2015 Carolina pass defense came within a half yard per attempt of the Denver placement.

Let’s go to an even better measure, the Football Outsiders' adjusted metrics, which not only better evaluates the play-by-play performance outcomes, but also factors the difficulty of competition into the equation:

2016 FO Pass Defense

Denver           -31.1%

Philadelphia  -11.8%

Arizona           -9.8%

NY Giants       -6.7%

Houston         -4.7%

Tampa Bay    -4.7%

2015 FO Pass Defense

Denver            -28.0%

Carolina          -18.2%

Seattle            -9.8%

Arizona           -9.4%

Kansas City    -8.8%

To help set some perspective, seven of the 2016 Bronco opponents rated in the Top 10 on the FO Passing Efficiency charts (note that I do not count Oakland in Game 16 because of Derek Carr’s injury); only three were in the Bottom 10.

In this case, the gaps between the Broncos and league average, and the Broncos and the next best team, are even more pronounced, and that is one of the prime ways of gauging the “all-time great” teams – just how much better they were than their contemporaries.

I do not expect too much to change despite Wade Phillips leaving; Joe Woods steps up to the DC role after coaching the secondary the past two seasons and knows this group more than well enough. And I do expect to find some value spots to put this cast into play – while the markets certainly know that they are good, they might not be getting the full appreciation, especially with so much attention going to that lackluster QB derby. The Broncos are going to be a “tough out” in a season that will put them in an underdog role on several occasions.

In Tennessee, there will also be a lot of attention paid to the QB spot, but it is the rest of the offense that is peaking my interest.

 

Titans 2017: They only need Marcus Mariota to be good, not great

There was some real progress to see from Mariota between his first and second seasons, naturally in the standings, where the Titans went from 3-9 in his 12 rookie starts to 8-7 in 2016, while there was also Mariota’s TD:INT ratio going from 19:10 to 26:9.

Some of that was indeed a young QB getting better, but where the intrigue comes for me regarding the Titans is how much better the offense around him is getting. It has been quite an overhaul. Just over the last two seasons, DeMarco Murray and Derrick Henry have been added at RB; Rishard Matthews, Corey Davis, Eric Decker, Taywan Taylor and Tajae Sharpe at WR (Sharpe caught 41 passes in 2016 and might not even make the cut this time); starters Jake Conklin, Ben Jones and Josh Kline in the OL; and now rookie TE Jonnu Smith brings some upside.

That will mean seven starters in the huddle supporting Mariota that he did not have in his rookie campaign, and that is on top of Pro Bowler Taylor Lewan in the trenches, who was drafted in the first round the year before Mariota came on board. It is quite a mix of various talents, in particular players brought in for their abilities to fill various roles, and it does take pressure off of Mariota to have to make plays and carry the attack.

But now there is another element being added – there will now be more on Mariota’s plate in terms of audibles, the coaches trusting his abilities more to read defenses better and get those pieces into the right places.

Let’s go to Mike Mullarkey: “I’d like to just see if we can get him maybe to help us get out of more situations that he knows are going to be bad plays based on defenses outflanking us, blitzes. We’re putting more on his plate that he can hopefully get us to the right play. Not a lot, but just enough to maybe save us a couple snaps. It’s not that much more. We spent a lot of time Mondays and Tuesdays making sure we don’t have to have a lot of calls. That’s the thing. If we’re doing our homework and we’re putting in the game plan the way our coaches have, we shouldn’t have to get out of a lot of plays.”

Where will I place much of my early-season focus? It will be on how often the Titans find themselves with easy execution plays because their O’s have exploited the opposing X’s in matchups. This is an offense that can make plays on talent, and they will, but if they also maximize tactically by creating easier opportunities, the ceiling grows significantly.

When Mariota was drafted, he was a prime talent brought in to turn around a moribund offense; the Titans finished #31 on the FO tables in 2014. Much has changed since then – this can be a good offense with average QB play; a very good offense with good QB play; and a great offense with very good QB play.

And while on the subject of teams maximizing what they have to work with, let’s go to something that made my files, and you should probably put into yours as well. …

 

A master at his craft

Bill Belichick doesn’t find his way into these pages much because in truth there isn’t all that much to detail that hasn’t been said countless times before. He is simply a master of preparation, down to levels of detail that most other coaches don’t get to, and his legacy of Wins vs. Losses and Super Bowl rings will be a fitting tribute to that.

For one of the better reads you will ever find on that front, how about this from Kevin Dillon at MassLive.com earlier in the week. Belichick was asked about several players who are borderline to make the Patriots roster, but the insight and detail that he shows with each of them is a big part of why the franchise has been so adept at making astute personnel decisions.

 

In the sights, weekend NFL …

You can’t fault Hue Jackson for deciding to go with rookie DeShone Kizer as his starter for the key dress rehearsal week of the preseason and also to indicate that unless Kizer struggles in a major way, he will also start the season opener vs. the Steelers. Jackson has likely already seen enough of Brock Osweiler to be painfully aware of his limitations, and there has been a full season with Cody Kessler already as well. If the Browns are to build, it will be on the shoulders of Kizer. But they aren’t ready yet, and Jackson is likely well aware of that. With two wins already under his belt, this is a prime setting for a coach to allow an experiment to take place, no “W” needed for team morale, and that helps to set me up with #266 Tampa Bay (7:30 Eastern on Saturday), with -3.5 more than fair value.

It is important to note that this is not Kizer stepping in with a veteran supporting cast around him to ease the transition. At the WR spots, Corey Coleman only got six starts as a rookie in 2016, and Kenny Britt is in his first year with the team. Current starting TE Randall Telfer is only in his second season, as is his backup DeValve Smith and future starter rookie David Njoku. There isn’t much chemistry at all between the pass catchers and this QB, especially because the training camp reps have been spread across so many players, and in the first two preseason games Kizer was mostly working with the reserves. This is a development setting for Jackson and little more.

I believe it will be a different approach from the Buccaneers  in their first preseason home game, Dirk Koetter not happy with the offense after a sputtering 12-8 win at Jacksonville last week. This is a hungry team that believes it can make the playoffs, and evidence of that attitude has been making the files this summer.

Let me go to a sample from Gerald McCoy, after the starting defense held Jacksonville to just one rushing yard in the first half last week. Not a big deal, right, since it is just the preseason? That isn’t what I read: "We want them to have negative-90, negative-80. We don't care. We want to keep it going. … Coach has been talking about setting your will. That's what we want to do. We set the tone. We dictate how the game goes.”

I believe there will be plenty of spark in the first game before the home fans, and the short price is not asking all that much in what may be a mismatch both in terms of talent and of scoreboard focus.

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