Patriots-Bucs: Doug Martin Appears; the Tampa Pass Rush Disappears

Point Blank Thumbnail Tuesday

David Malinsky

Thursday, October 5, 2017 2:24 PM GMT

Thursday, Oct. 5, 2017 2:24 PM GMT

The return of Doug Martin, the TB Pass Rush disappears, and why you shouldn't put too much weight on third-down defense. ... It truly is a mess at Ole Miss, and may get worse.

Point Blank – October 5, 2017

Thursday is going to be a hell of a lot of fun not only for the fan of sport, but the investor, with major talking points across today’s board. You can refer back to the Wednesday edition for a take on Chris Sale, and how that was part of a Houston Astros ticket for Game #1 vs. Boston this afternoon, an investment that was out in front of a market surge that will lead to prospects of re-positioning a bit before first pitch.

For now the focus here turns towards the NFL, which has become the habit on Thursdays, once again bringing us a game in which some matchup components provide prime handicapping discussion.

 

Item: It isn’t just the New England defense that has struggled
Sub-Item: Here’s why you don’t get too excited about third-down defense

I don’t need to write all that much more about the Patriot defensive issues, that having been covered at length here in each of the last two Tuesday editions. They are going to have their hands full in terms of making corrections given the talent Tampa Bay has in the skill positions, which includes the return of Doug Martin, something I will get to in a moment. But the Pats will not be sending the only defense out there tonight that has struggled.

Opposing quarterbacks have dropped back to pass 129 times against the Bucs. On only one of those plays did a sack occur, and only twice was there an interception. The Net Yards Per Attempt (NYA), which factors sacks, rates this defense #29. That is bad. When two of the three QBs you have faced were Mike Glennon and Case Keenum, it goes to being worse than bad. On Sunday, Eli Manning did not have a sack or an interception on 49 pass plays. On his other 125 dropbacks this season there have been eight sacks and four interceptions.

Injuries have been a factor. They were without top cover CB Brent Grimes against Keenum and the Vikings and it mattered. Make sure you contract the Viking offensive production in that game vs. the production against the Lions the following week. LB Kwon Alexander has missed the last two games and will be out tonight, while fellow starting LB Lavonte David missed on Sunday and also won’t play vs. the Patriots. Safety Keith Tandy is out, and while T.J. Ward had had limited practice time this week it is no assured that he will go, with the question remaining of just how well he knows Mike Smith’s schemes anyway at this stage.

This does not explain the inability of the DL to disrupt the pockets of opposing passers, which is the major concern. Tonight it is a huge one, because if you cannot move Tom Brady from his preferred spot, and you have rookies starting in key places (Kendell Beckwith at MLB and Justin Evans at safety), it is a recipe for problems.

For a longer-term perspective we can also go to an Exhibit A of football handicapping: Third-Down Defense isn’t what you want it to be, in terms of being a predictive statistic. Part of what made the Tampa Bay defense look better than it really was in 2016 was the ability of the Bucs to get off the field, #1 in the NFL in allowing only 34.4 percent third-down conversions. But football history has shown us that there is a lot of randomness involved in that statistic, and while it is early, the current TB defense may become a showcase on that front.

Let’s look at the leaders in third-down defense over the past five seasons, and the carry-over to the ensuing campaign:

Season/Team             Follow-up
2012 Denver 31.3      38.4 (#16)
2013 Detroit 30.3       37.6 (#11)
2014 Buffalo 33.2       40.5 (#23)
2015 Houston 28.9       36.6 (#8)
2016 Tampa Bay 34.4  50.5 (#32)

Yes, the Bucs have been balancing out that good showing in 2016 by going from first to last. That may not get any better in this matchup, but they can counter by scoring themselves, of course, with an added bonus this evening. …

 

Item: The return of Doug Martin is not just about physical skills

The best that can be said about the Tampa Bay RBs without Martin is to call them pedestrian. There just isn’t a full-time guy there, and also no one to be trusted in short yardage situations, which is a big part of why the offense has had more FG attempts than TDs so far.

Martin makes his return tonight, and while it is intriguing from the standpoint of both a physical talent upgrade (Martin has been a Pro Bowler), and also the freshness he brings, which is even more pronounced on a Thursday night, when running RBs often have heavy legs, the reading between the lines this week brought some added takes on his impact.

Let’s go to DT Gerald McCoy: "Doug is just great, man. He's always smiling. He brings joy. No controversy. He don't argue with people. He comes to work. He smiles, he laughs, tells jokes. He's competing in everything he does. Practice field, ping-pong, pool, video games. He's just Doug, man. We just love him. We missed him.”

And TE Cameron Brate:  "As a player, he's had a ton of success in the NFL, so anytime you can get a player like him back, he should help us out in the run game. It's just he always brings a lot of energy. Pretty contagious in that regard. It's awesome seeing him when I walked in this morning, especially coming into a short week. We could probably use the juice."

It all adds up to leave me with something that I can work with tonight, #304 Tampa Bay Team Total Over (8:25 Eastern), with Pinnacle offering a 23.5 at reduced vig that will set the markets where we want them. Not only do the Bucs have the physical tools to attack a struggling defense that also loses prep time by having to travel on the short week, but also the tactics – they are #1 in the league by a wide margin in First-Half Pace (23.1 SPS, no other team lower than 24.9), and on a humid evening I would expect Dirk Koetter to maintain that pacing.

By the way, the Pats are #4 in First-Half Pace, so with both offenses on the throttle the play counts could run high, perhaps enough to buy as an extra possession or two for that Bucs ticket.

Now time to get out into the Saturday NCAA market on one that shows signs of getting away. …

 

On that mess at Ole Miss

Unusual situations can make for difficult handicapping, especially at the lower end. This has been a topic of discussion already here a few times with San Jose State, the Spartans on the verge of establishing a link on the Mountain West food chain beneath anything I have previously tracked. At a slightly higher level overall, but comparable in terms of the limitations placed inside of traditional conference modeling, I believe the markets may struggle with what could happen to Mississippi the remainder of the way. That has me getting to #406 Auburn (Saturday, Noon Eastern), and while there was some company in the marketplace on Wednesday afternoon, -22 or less still fits as value.

A big issue for the Rebels was that even before the off-season roller coaster that saw Hugh Freeze depart, this year’s team was inexperienced and lacked depth. There are 11 sophomores and freshmen listed as starters this week, the kind of team that badly needs leadership from the sidelines, but that is exasperated by the departure of Freeze and the mood of the remaining coaching staff. Matt Luke knows that he is not auditioning for the full-time gig, and to a man the others know that they won’t be with the program next season.

There were warning signs regarding the physical issues of the Rebels from the get-go. In what may have looked like routine paycheck wins over South Alabama and Tennessee-Martin on the scoreboards, they were badly outrushed 389-156 on their own field, huge red flags going up. When it came time to open SEC play they were beaten every bit as bad as the 66-3 final score at Alabama, again the battle in the trenches being the biggest problem, getting outrushed 373-88.

I don’t believe that was merely a bad game, but what we may see happen to them much of the remainder of the season. Luke is already aware of the challenge: “When I watched the tape, we didn't seem sure of ourselves and weren't attacking. They have to keep their confidence. I think that's the biggest thing. We have to go back to simplify, we have to go back to work.”

DC Wesley McGriff was succinct, and perhaps a little Freudian: “We have to come up with plans and ideas ... to get the best out of these young men. Don't always put it on the kid. That's the first thing I looked at (Sunday) morning. What could you do to get more production out of the men on the roster that have a skill set?" I think we all know what that last sentence really means.

The problem is that the players don’t have to buy in. The seniors know their final season is going to be a dismal one, and the younger players know enough about what is going on in Oxford to realize that Luke, McGriff and others won’t be around for 2018. Their biggest vulnerability will come against teams that are physical in the trenches, and can line up and play smash-mouth on the ground. That is Auburn, the Tigers rolling Missouri and Mississippi State to a 100-24 tune the past two weeks, and the Tigers haven’t played their best yet.

Gus Malzahn does not have a warm and fuzzy relationship with the Auburn community right now, so he may well be of a mind-set to go margin-hunting, and a deep RB corps can mean adding points in the second half vs. a defense that may not show much will to compete once the game begins to get away.

 

And for your listening pleasure

This week’s edition of House of Yards is up, as Matt Landes and I take you to “the game inside the game” on the key NFL matchups, as well as the weekly Tommy Trojan interlude, this time bringing something actionable on Oregon State/USC. And as always closing with the Best in Bets on this board, and the Best in Beer (I’ll have those beer tasting nights coming up here in tomorrow’s edition).

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