What a 'Bettor Better Know': Takeaways from NFL Week 4

Point Blank Thumbnail Tuesday

David Malinsky

Tuesday, October 3, 2017 2:53 PM GMT

Tuesday, Oct. 3, 2017 2:53 PM GMT

What a 'Bettor Better Know' from NFL Week 4 as the new paradigms of 2017 unfold: Patriots Defense = Bad; Rams Offense = Good...A proper Banh Mi is a good thing, and indeed can be elevated to great...

Point Blank – October 3, 2017

Sorting through this week’s NFL outcomes was a process done through an entirely different filter, with so many other items and responsibilities on the plate, but the first lesson in any crisis management situation is to establish a focus and to keep moving, avoiding the paralysis that can set in.

Part of the processes of moving forward is to be aware of the existence of silver linings amidst the darkest of clouds, and that was there from the Las Vegas community on Monday. The plan to give blood after the morning PB was posted quickly changed, the waiting lines having already grown to 4-5 hours by that time, the quick reactions from folks across the valley something positive to take away. Now the focus shifts to the long process of addressing spiritual/psychological needs, which will take me away from this desk on occasion, but while I am sitting here the target remains the same.

There is a lot to process from this past set of NFL results, and this time it calls for the jukebox to be plugged in on Tuesday as well. There is no need to set this one up with an introduction...

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Item: Patriots are +5 in turnovers and +93 in penalty yards through 3 home games
Sub-Item: Patriots were outscored by 15 points in those games

I hope you aren’t getting tired of the New England defense being a feature topic, but there may not be a bigger story around the NFL right now. Want a unique test of your NFL processing models? Suppose you are given the first four numbers, and are asked to fill in #5:

NE Home Games:         3
NE Favored By:        -30.5
Turnover Differential: +5
Penalty Differential:   +83

Point Differential:       ???

The likely guess would be the Patriots winning by about 50-55 points, given what the turnover differential would mean if the spread was in the right place. What was the actual point count? Bill Belichick and his team are -15, or more than nine full touchdowns behind where most models would put things. Which means that the spreads were wrong.

How does that happen when the offense scores 93 points in those games, including clutch drives for TDs led by Tom Brady against decent Houston and Carolina defenses when they absolutely had to happen? It happens because the defense has been terrible.

The Patriots are allowing 7.2 yards per play. That is a full yard worse than any other team, a gap we rarely see this deep into a season. And it is an equal opportunity defense in terms of being awful, #32 in Passer Rating allowed and #31 in Yards Per Rush allowed.

How did it go wrong so fast? The changes haven’t been major, but they also haven’t worked. Would they like to still have Jamie Collins out there instead of Kyle Van Noy? Most likely. But the guy struggling the most was someone whom they were expecting the biggest things from, cornerback Stephon Gilmore having been signed to a five-year, $65 million free-agent contract on the first day of free agency.

Gilmore has struggled badly this season, to the point of being benched at halftime on Sunday, only to be forced back on the field full-time when Eric Rowe suffered a groin injury on the first play of the second half. Gilmore had another bad game, including a pair of third-down penalties that extended Carolina drives. The physical tools are there, but what about him picking up the Belichick/Patricia system? His take: "I have to get better on communication. ... It'll take time.”

Belichick was succinct, per usual: “Collectively, coaching and playing, we just have to work harder to get things right. That’s everybody. There’s no magic wand here.”

Might there be a common denominator in play? Those three home games were all against teams with mobile QBs (Alex Smith/Deshaun Watson/Cam Newton). In the road win at New Orleans the defense wasn’t very good vs. Drew Brees, either, but didn’t have to be because the offense built such a big early lead. But might there be something in the scheme that has a flaw? Consider the only Patriots home loss in 2016, when Russell Wilson’s mobility helped the Seattle offense to roll up 31 points and 420 yards.

I will revisit this as part of breaking down NE/TB in the Thursday edition because there are also come concerns about the Buccaneers defense, which sports the NFL’s worst pass rush to date and allowed Eli Manning to throw 49 passes on Sunday without coming up with a sack or an interception. Ouch.

 

Item: The Bengals OL was lousy again, but that was OK

If you only saw a scoreboard of Cincinnati 31, Cleveland 7, there might be the appearance that the Bengals had solved some of their OL issues. They haven’t. Instead, what they have done under the direction of new OC Bill Lazor is to try to take that OL out of play, getting the ball out of Andy Dalton’s hands quickly for short passes to a decent group of playmakers at RB and WR.

Here is the good news: The past two games Dalton has completed 46 of 57 passes for 498 yards and six touchdowns without an interception. But here is the bad news: In those games, Dalton was also sacked six times, and on Sunday vs. a depleted Cleveland defensive front without Myles Garrett and Jamie Collins, he was also the team’s leading rusher with 29 yards. The 26 plays on which the ball was handed to a RB there were only 57 yards, and the past two weeks Joe Mixon’s 35 carries have netted a measly 91 yards.

Those RBs have been effective as receivers out of the backfield, but note the honesty from Giovanni Bernard’s take when asked about whether the new schemes had jump-started the attack: “For sure. One, in a way it kind of eliminates the offensive line and the defensive line. It lets the receivers just kind of do what they do and get open. It worked out really well.”

Upcoming defenses now have video to prepare for those schemes, however, which means that for the Cincinnati offense to be successful that OL is going to have to block defenders. That part may not be fixable. Coming to town this week is a Buffalo defensive front that is back to playing as an elite unit now that Rex Ryan is no longer around, but while the +3 brings some attraction those concerns about the WR corps (Buffalo's were a non-factor against at Atlanta) become magnified with Jordan Matthews set to miss time, surgery having been scheduled for his thumb. It really could be Zay Jones and Andre Holmes as the starting wideouts this week, which is a tough way to win on the NFL road.

 

Item: Even without those runs from McGuire & Powell, the Jets still beat the Jaguars by almost one full yard per play

One of the prime exercises to sort through whenever there are big plays in any NFL game is to re-sort as though they went for lesser yards, or even as if they had not happened at all. The problem is that offensive success or defensive failure is not an absolute but gets measured differently based upon field position. There isn’t much difference between an 80-yard TD play or one that goes for 40, the latter being limited by the goal line.

As such, it was time on Monday to deal with those most improbable Jets TD runs vs. the Jaguars, Bilal Powell rumbling for 75 yards in the first quarter, and Elijah McGuire for 69 yards in the third. Those bursts came from a team that did not have a run of longer than 35 yards through the entire 2016 season.

Here is where it gets rather stunning and shows how utterly terrible the Jaguars were on Sunday – take those two plays out, and NYJ still won the yards-per-play count by 4.8 to 4.1. That is frightening. Hence the 6.8 to 4.1 that shows in the clean base stats is something we can allow into our consciousness.

Jacksonville can bring the excuse of not getting time off after playing in London, but since the Jaguars make that trip each season it lessens the degree to which that can be used, and if anything the dominating win over the Ravens should have been something to push them over the psychological barriers they have not been able to top in the past. But four games into the season, a talented defensive front remains inconsistent, dead last against the run.

Take away the Powell/McGuire home run plays and guess what? The Jags would still be #27 in rush yards allowed, still nearly a full half yard per attempt above league average. As for Blake Bortles and the offense, the only Jax points over the final 10 possessions were a short field goal drive after an interception. In their last three drives, with the game on the line, they managed all of 27 yards on 11 snaps.

Playing on the Steelers against the Jaguars in the Survivor Pool has been the plan for weeks, and I will get to that in the Wednesday edition, but first note that despite the dominating scoreboard against the Ravens, all is still not well for the Steeler offense.

 

Item: Le'Veon Bell ran well, but did Big Ben throw well?

The Pittsburgh offensive issues have been an early-season talking point, a group that looks so talented on paper not putting it together on the field, and while there finally was that breakthrough from LeVeon Bell, who churned out 144 rushing yards against a tough Baltimore defensive front, Ben Roethlisberger’s downfield accuracy remains an issue.

Bell just so happened to also be the leading receiver in that game, Big Ben now up to 10 straight games of fewer than 300 passing yards. This is also the first time since 2008 he opened a season with four straight games of less than 300. Let’s go to the Yards Per Pass counts to set the stage:

2015      8.4
2014      7.5
2013      6.8

The key is that it goes beyond the numbers; the Pittsburgh players have an awareness of things having changed. Just consider the context of this from Martavis Bryant, after they had just whipped Baltimore on the road by 17 points: “It's a long season. You can't get discouraged. We're still in it, and we're not even playing our best. That's the bright side. We've still got a lot of work to do. We know the way we're playing now isn't going to cut it toward the end of the year, so we have to continue to get better.”

Roethlisberger was also blunt: “We'll take a win here however we can get it. I still feel personally that I didn't make all of the plays. … I'm pretty hard on myself. I didn't make all the plays I could.”

Will they get better? That is something to track. But in this case the numbers, the eye test, and the Steelers themselves show an awareness of something that does need to be a part of our handicapping consciousness.

 

Item: Does it matter all that much who plays QB for Oakland if Amari Cooper keeps dropping the ball?

I haven’t seen a Baltimore-Oakland opener yet (updating: it looks like short chalk to the Raiders), despite the news being clear that E.J. Manuel will be at the helm of the Raider offense for a few weeks. Manuel accounted himself well at Denver and has the tools for the possibility of a career reboot, but there is a key issue at play that we rarely get to deal with, largely because in days gone by the numbers were so hard to find – does it matter who is throwing the passes if Amari Cooper keeps dropping them?

This is something that you can’t see in box scores, of course, but there are folks out there doing some good charting on these fronts, and I will bring some of that into play here, the notions of “targets” from Pro Football Reference

First note that I don’t overly like the stat, in particular the way that it is used by the broadcast media. There is the awkward aspect that when a play begins, only the offensive players know which WR is being targeted, or which DB. As the plays evolve often passes are thrown to the second or third option, which makes true intent difficult to track. This is a particular problem with DBs – plays on which there is good coverage and the QB is forced to look elsewhere simply don’t get recorded as that DB having been the target.

Having said that, there is food for thought in this case, especially because it appears to be getting into Cooper’s head. He led the NFL in drops with 18 as a rookie in 2015 (per Pro Football Focus), then seemingly made major strikes in 2016, when there were only six. But already this season that count is at seven. To set some perspective, let’s look at how inefficient the Oakland offense has been when passes were thrown to Cooper, using yards-per-target and yards-per-reception:

Season   Tar   Rec   YPT   YPR
2016   132   83     8.7   13.9
2017       23    12    4.8   9.2

The reason I bring it into play is that this can become a psychological issue, like putting yips for a golfer. Are we assuming too much? No, because it is being openly talked about, which tells us that it is a reality. First from Cooper himself: “Obviously, I like to look back on them and see how I dropped the ball and try to fix it. Most of the balls that I’ve dropped have been the result of trying to run before I catch the ball. … It can be a little frustrating, but you just have to go and fix it.”

And Jack Del Rio: “If I felt like I could talk my way through it, I’d be yapping all over the place. It’s not something I can talk my way through. He’s just going to have to make the catch, do the work. I believe in him. I believe he will.”

This of course becomes magnified because the supporting cast needs to step up for Manuel. The OL has been a disappointment, Marshawn Lynch only grinding out 3.4 yards per rush attempt (a 43-yard scamper on a reverse by Cordarrelle Patterson has more influence than it should on the team rushing stats this early in the season), and Cooper becomes even more important if Michael Crabtree is going to miss more time.

 

Item: Seeing is believing with the Rams offense (but as for the defense …)

The Pinnacle opener for Rams-Cowboys last week was Dallas -9.5 and 46. The game closed -5.5 and 50.5. Those are staggering moves in the NFL, especially that kind of money flowing against a good team. It was also a wake-up call to the folks behind the counter, which led to some fascination as they prepared to put together a challenging line for this week, when the Seahawks head to the L.A. Coliseum.

I believe they did their homework, not just in terms of how well the Rams are playing offensively, but also the market perceptions as well. Let’s put the adjustments into perspective, games between these franchises on this field a little more than 12 months apart:

2016 Seattle  -7   38
2017 LA Rams -2   46

And the total has already been bet up to 47. You can forget those notions of “layering” that I discussed in the Friday edition because there really has been that much change, the Rams going from one of the least-talented offenses in the league just a couple of seasons ago, and in retrospect one of the worst coached as well, to a talented group that also has some outstanding designs being sent to that huddle.

Keep in mind that for as good as the offense has been, they are also a work in progress that should continue to develop, hence no notions of regression should be creeping into the handicapping mindset just yet. Part of that will come from understanding how good Todd Gurley is.

Gurley may well be the NFL’s best RB, but the lack of talent at WR and designs in the playbook limited him severely in 2016. Now that there is operating room, with some WRs added who can get the ball downfield to open up defenses, look at how quickly things has changed. Let’s look at rush yards per game and per play, and yards on pass receptions per game and per play:

Season       RPG  RPA   PPG   PPA
2016          55.3  3.2    20.5  7.6
2017          90.5  4.2    59.0  11.7

Of course, there is an ugly counter to the sunshine of the offense – the Rams just won back-to-back games in which they allowed at least 30 points and 400 yards, which is ever-so-rare in this league. Struggling vs. the Cowboys on the road is not a sin, but now go back and put those 49er numbers into the proper context, given how awful the San Francisco offense has been against everyone else, and there is an ugly portrait being painted. How about this defense having already allowed as many rushing TDs as in all of 2016? Is the 47 even high enough?

There will be more to come on the NFL front as the week unfolds, this week having had such a different flow so far, but for now the usual interlude because on this particular week a quiet moment for lunch was so badly needed …

 

Vegas: Monday with the Review-Journal NFL Box Score page

When Monday began there wasn’t a plan for the usual box score lunch session, but as noted in the lead the spirit of the community brought something heart-warming through the chaos, and the day unfolded much differently. It also brought the opportunity to celebrate some of that spirit, the wonderful diversity of our food scene a tribute to the blending of various cultures and ideas. One of my favorite blends on that front is 595 Craft and Kitchen, which had been planned for the day beforehand, and the plan stayed in place.

I am a fan of a proper Banh Mi, a Vietnamese sandwich that also owes its roots to French influence, and across the past decade in Las Vegas it has become easy to get a good one, though only good. Now I can get a great one. The folks at 595 put an emphasis on elevating the usual standard and they have done that, in particular as a way to use a higher quality of food to showcase one of the most interesting beer lists in the city (the “Craft” in their name stands for Craft Beer). They opened back in the early summer, and it is the kind of place I want my money to go to, independents putting their imagination and pride on the line.

The reason for venturing over their way on this particular Monday stemmed from a discussion that Matt Landes and I had on last week’s “House of Yards” podcast, contemplating the pairings of a “sour” or “wild ale” with food (tasting notes also in the Friday edition). That eventually turned to pairing ideas with various Asian cuisines, and it led me to considering one of the 595 Banh Mi sandwiches (they have a quartet), with a Stillwater Gose Gone Wild, which they carry on draft. It has a forgiving 4.3 ABV that is OK for a working lunch, and to play off of the word, it indeed worked (yes, I took a sip before the food came out, it was that kind of day).

The Beef Brisket Banh Mi is a prime example of what they are aiming for at 595, the brisket brined for 48 hours to both better intensify the flavor, and keep it moist. It is the concept of a banh mi taken to the highest level I have experienced, and the Stillwater was an ideal marriage, not just playing off of the spice, which can challenge many beverages, but cutting through the richness of the meat as well. The fries are hand-cut and double-fried, again an attention to detail that matters.

Those tastes provided a moment of distraction on a day that badly needed one.

If you want to know when PB is ready to go each day, as well as following along for some of the most important Sports Betting news as in unfolds, make @Vegaspointblank a part of your routine.

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