Texans/Panthers, and Some Pre-Season QB Pointers

David Malinsky

Wednesday, August 9, 2017 2:00 PM UTC

Wednesday, Aug. 9, 2017 2:00 PM UTC

Texans/Panthers, and why running QBs matter in the Pre-Season…How much does Shanahan to Sarkisian clip the Falcons wings…Mike Leake is who he is (and that is enough for this evening)

Point Blank – August 9, 2017

I will begin today by going right to the Texans/Panthers clash, which you will be able to watch on the NFL Network, a game that brings us the opportunity to focus on a key general handicapping notion that will unfold as this one plays out.

Cam Newton will not play for Carolina, which is not a major issue because he likely only would have been on the field for a series or two anyway. The markets naturally reacted by lowing the Panthers side, and the total, although there is now plenty of Over money showing up this morning, crashing through the 37 and now settling at 38.

Where might some of that Over $ be coming from? It isn’t so much about the starting offenses, although Bill O’Brien has announced that all healthy Houston players will be out there at least for a little while, and Derek Anderson is a Carolina veteran that is no stranger to ramping it up in August. Instead there may be an edge found when the back-up QBs are in play, in particular thinking of Joe Webb and Deshaun Watson.

I like mobile back-up QBs in the pre-season, and you should also. Playing good defense requires chemistry and experience, and those are major headaches in the pre-season, when the reserves often don’t know the system well, and almost universally don’t know the other guys in the huddle.

That lack of experience is mostly a wash in terms of performance because the offenses bring the same issue. There is often an opening when a mobile QB is on the field, however, because that is one element that it is so difficult for an unsettled defense to react to. Most base defenses do not account for running QBs in the modern NFL since there are so few; it instead being a particular game plan tweak. There isn’t much game planning going on in the pre-season, which makes it even tougher for the reserves to adjust, and also one prime axiom that you should always keep in mind –

NFL QBs do not run the ball in training camp.

I could qualify that by inserting “rarely”, but it doesn’t bring the same cadence and flow.

In practice sessions QBs usually wear yellow jerseys, which means no tackling, and hence it serves no purpose for them to break the pocket and run with the ball downfield, because it doesn’t do anything to develop either the offense or the defense. It means that the defenders often have zero practice at reacting to a QB run heading into the pre-season games, and for some of the second-team or third-team defenders, they have never had to deal with that in an NFL game at all.

Enter Webb, one of the best run threats of any NFL QB, and also someone that the Panthers will specifically call run designs for – fully expect to see some read option looks tonight. A prime reason for that is his physical size being comparable to Newton’s, so that they can design some plays that may be used for Newton later, and see how they flow in the context of the offense. Webb will have the opportunity to be effective tonight, as will Watson, though I would be shocked if there were any designed runs for the latter – instead he brings the ability to break the pocket for positive yardage if a play breaks down.

I don’t see a viable option on the board to take advantage of this before kickoff after the Wednesday morning surge on the total, but since there will be some In-Running shops open there may be edges unfolding as the game progresses – the right early flow just might set up an Over ticket if the markets get swayed into the wrong direction.


How much does Shanahan to Sarkisian clip the Falcons wings…

As the 2017 NFL tour continues with a major focus on one key item for each team, the sorting of where to go with Atlanta may have been the easiest at all – the transition from Kyle Shanahan to Steve Sarkisian elevates quickly to the top of the list. An offense that put together one of the best seasons in NFL history was the catalyst in the Falcons having the Lombardi Trophy near their fingertips, but how it all came together is also a genuine story as the coaching transition takes place.

An offense cannot put up the production numbers of Atlanta’s 2016, when the Falcons averaged 3.1 points per drive, scoring on 55.4 percent of all possessions (only the 55.7 of the 2007 Patriots rates better), without having some first-rate talent. That is the case, yet when we look at the players in the huddle do they register as one of the greatest assemblages ever? No. That means time to get to work.

I thought Kyle Shanahan just had one of the best seasons of any assistant coach I have ever charted, even including losing his way in the final stages vs. the Patriots.  Week after week there were outstanding game plans in place, which led to so many big plays coming that only required clean execution by Matt Ryan and his teammates – they found ways to get receivers wide open. How open? The Falcons averaged 9.2 yards per pass, a full yard more than any other team in the league, and two yards more than the NFL average. That is remarkable.

This was not a “system” team, which relied on a particular way to attack each Sunday, but rather one that had the flexibility across the offensive roster to attack so many different ways (something that division rival Carolina lacked, which was a big part of yesterday’s take on the Panthers), and had a coaching staff that kept finding cracks in the opponent’s armor.

Yes, Julio Jones is as good as any WR in the sport when healthy, but there were 13 different Falcons that caught at least one TD pass. RBs Devonta Freeman and Tevin Coleman combined for 85 receptions (despite Coleman missing three games), and four different TEs combined for 56 catches. That of course begs the rather obvious question – how much of this was the talent and balance, and how much Shanahan’s ability to tweak the game plan each week?

Which takes us to the prime 2017 question – how ready is Steve Sarkisian to step into this role?

Sarkisian’s entire NFL experience was as the QB coach of the Oakland Raiders in 2004, Kerry Collins starting most of the way while generating an uninspiring 74.8 passer rating, and the team going 5-11. The current league is a different one since that era, which makes the hiring a most unusual one – while Sarkisian may indeed have a good mind for football offense, to get this level of job bereft of NFL experience is almost unheard of.

There will not be much tinkering with the base packages, since a savvy football mind would not dare after seeing the 2016 Falcons production. Let’s go to Sarkisian’s own words – I think the most challenging thing for me is to be true to who we are to this offense. We are going to be in more I-formation sets than maybe other teams in the league. We are going to be under center more than teams in the league. The challenge is there is not a lot of evidence of that on film when we are game planning for our opponents because a majority of what they see are the shotgun and spread formations.

“We have to make sure that we are really digging for the information that we need so that we are calling the right plays to be successful and true to our system. That’s probably one of the biggest challenges that I’m facing right now and we’re all facing as a staff, make sure we are getting enough information to put our stamp on ‘this is a good play.”

Yet there will be some tweaks. From Matt Ryan - “We’ve gotten a better feel for how he calls plays when we get into our team periods and we’re moving the ball, just playing football,” Ryan said. “I’ve got a better feel for his demeanor, how things come to him. So I’ve been very vocal about the things that I like. I think we’re further along than we were in the spring. But then again, with the games coming up, we still have a long way to go.”

Ryan should help ease the transition, and the skill players bring a unique balance to the table. But from the opening snap of the season there will be a major eye test involving the Falcons – just how much of that success last season was based on Shanahan’s ability to dissect opposing defenses? There just isn’t any realistic way for Sarkisian to come close to that in his first ever go-round as an OC in this league. In particular I will be focusing on the Atlanta division games – after being exploited by Shanahan and that offense in 2016 (5-1 SU and 4-2 ATS, averaging 38.5 ppg), might those defenses have had enough exposure to that playbook to tighten matters at least a bit? And if so, can Sarkisian figure out a way?


Mike Leake is who he is, and so is Trevor Cahill

While so much of what we do each day to find edges calls for deep searches into performance patterns to best time the roller coaster rides of sport, sometimes there is a consistency that can be trusted, and there may not be a better example than Mike Leake. Leake is who he is, a guy with excellent control that gets a lot of ground balls, which brings little sex appeal. That makes him an under-rated item overall, and in particular, because his 16-22 personal W/L line over the past two seasons does not reflect how well he has performed.

Want to see what consistency looks like? Let’s go to xFIP, since Leake became a full-time starter in 2011 –

Leake xFIP

2011  3.68

2012  3.82

2013  3.91

2014  3.49

2015  3.93

2016  3.76

2017  3.96

Not much variance there, and there isn’t likely to be. This is who he is. But who he is will be enough tonight to have me in play on #980 St. Louis (8:15 Eastern) at -130 or less, which has been available in the morning markets.

At issue here is something that was written about in this spot a couple of weeks ago, a detailed look at how what looked like a strong run by the Royals needed a deeper dive. Yes, they played some good baseball to get into contention, but so much of that was also a weak schedule draw through the cycle. Now they have had to step back up a bit, and it has been a 2-7 slide across their last nine games, five of those losses by three runs or more, including a pair of blowouts by a combined 21-6 at home vs. the Cardinals the last two nights.

There is also the matter of Cahill, who brought some trade interest after getting off to a 4-3/3.69 with the Padres through 11 starts. Was it a career rebirth of a journeyman? Likely not. Cahill has not had a decision in his first two KC starts, the Royals splitting those games, but he has shown precious little, not finishing the fifth inning either time. Note that it was not a case of a guy throwing good pitches but getting bad outcomes – FIP brought back individual game scores of 10.14 and 8.71.

Cahill’s form is at issue tonight because if he can’t churn some innings there are some flags for the Royals bullpen – Brandon Mauer threw 30 pitches last night, and Mike Minor and Neftali Feliz 29 each, which means fatigue ratings for each of them. That opens the door for some value to the Cardinals, as we count on Leake to again simply be who he is.



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