What Did We Learn About The Contenders In The NFL’s Week 13?

sara.ziegler (Sara Ziegler, sports editor): Week 13 had a little bit of everything: matchups between division leaders, out-of-nowhere upsets and yet another Chargers heartbreaker. A kicker caught a touchdown … thrown by a punter! What more could we ask for?

Let’s start with the biggest surprise of the week for me: Philadelphia, which could have jumped back into a tie for the NFC East lead with a win, marched down to Miami and gave up 37 points to Ryan Fitzpatrick and Co.

joshua.hermsmeyer (Josh Hermsmeyer, NFL analyst): Philly was befuddled by the muddle huddle.

Salfino (Michael Salfino, FiveThirtyEight contributor): I always kick myself when I assume a team has completely transformed a unit in-season. I did buy the narrative that the Eagles had improved their pass defense immeasurably relative to their early-season woes. But this team was always weakest in the defensive backfield, so even getting guys back did not fix the problem, obviously, as Fitzpatrick — who has now played the Eagles seven times with seven different teams — just tore them apart.

gfoster (Geoff Foster, FiveThirtyEight contributor): Some smart NFL people predicted the Eagles to win the NFC this year based on the talent on their roster, which is one of the most expensive in the league. I think earlier this season it was easy to write off these losses because of their injuries at receiver and all over their defense. But now, is it time to admit that this team is just not that good?

joshua.hermsmeyer: I’m not sure what to make of the Eagles from top to bottom this season. They just gave a five-year, $21.8 million contract to Jake Elliott at the most replaceable position in football outside running back.

sara.ziegler: Sure, you laugh at a huge kicker contract, until you’re the Cowboys holding kicker tryouts on a December Sunday…

gfoster: Look at what Fitzpatrick did to this defense:

Salfino: They seemed to have the depth to be fortified against typical in-season problems. But I think we found out that even the starters were not that good. And nothing has really held up through in-season attrition. Even their coaching has not responded. Can you imagine being beaten by gadget plays now three straight games? It’s just embarrassing.

sara.ziegler: Fitzpatrick isn’t that bad! He’s almost league average in our QB ratings.

That makes what Miami is doing this year all the more confusing.

gfoster: This is the closing argument in the case that NFL tanking doesn’t exist. If the Dolphins really wanted Joe Burrow or Chase Young or whomever in the draft, they would simply play Josh Rosen at quarterback. But with Fitzmagic in there, they are going to get games like this from him, and they will win more.

joshua.hermsmeyer: I still contend that tanking did exist … but maybe the spotlight on their supposed tanking caused them to stop.

I think the pressure got to them!

sara.ziegler: There’s also the argument that Miami is just bad at tanking.

Salfino: It’s like “The Producers.” If you’re trying to be terrible, it’s actually not that easy.

sara.ziegler: Hahaha

gfoster: To clarify: I think you can tank in the NFL. But you can only do it by purposefully playing a lesser QB. Like, say, Ryan Finley over Andy Dalton.

Salfino: But what’s the carrot for tanking? It’s one starter out of 22, and we don’t even know if that guy ever is really the best player.

If it’s just about compiling draft capital, then it’s more binary — be bad, it doesn’t matter if you’re the worst or not.

joshua.hermsmeyer: So the Bengals have a one-game lead on the New York Giants for the first overall pick. You have to think Cincinnati takes Burrow if they lose out. But an interesting question is: If the Giants get the first overall, do they take Burrow or trade down?

Salfino: Geoff, they’re just trying to make us feel better about the Jets….

sara.ziegler: There’s no way to feel better about the Jets today.

gfoster: I think they would try to trade down, and if that didn’t work, then they would just take Chase Young at No. 1 and not feel too bad about it.

Salfino: I will eat 1,000 bugs if the Giants draft Burrow. Plus, Burrow is old for a prospect. I have low confidence with all QB prospects translating as expected but even lower with older prospects. Burrow should be dominating just based on his age.

joshua.hermsmeyer: I think it would be pretty funny if Giants GM Dave Gettleman didn’t trade back and take the profits, just to be stubborn.

Salfino: I would just take Young, period. No matter what team I was.

Will Burrow get more draft capital in return than Young? I’m uncertain about that. And there are going to be a lot of veteran QBs on the market that teams think they can rehab. It will be like musical chairs.

gfoster: Burrow can join a long line of LSU QBs to dominate the NFL, names like … JaMarcus Russell, Matt Flynn, Zach Mettenberger.

sara.ziegler: Hey, Flynn was a dominant backup.

Salfino: You can never take away Flynn’s six-TD game. He monetized that sucker.

gfoster: Here’s the thing about the Bengals win: It wasn’t that big of an upset. They were only 2.5-point dogs. No team in the NFL is that bad. Also, the Jets are deeply weird. I follow this team closely, and I still don’t understand them.

sara.ziegler: Please, yes, the “this loss was fine” take.

Salfino: Ha ha ha

joshua.hermsmeyer: Apparently, according to the Elias Sports Bureau, the Jets are the first team to lose to teams that were 0-7 or worse coming into a game. That’s a weird way to say you gave the Dolphins and Bengals their first wins, but there we are.

Salfino: The Jets did not have a red zone snap against one of the worst defenses in the NFL. Not a snap!

I’m not sure the Jets could beat the 1976 Buccaneers right now.

gfoster: The second I heard Dalton was starting, I knew the Jets had no chance. I knew he was going to come back motivated and looking to polish a resume. Also, he passed Ken Anderson for most TD passes in Cincy history. Which is funny, because does that mean that the Bengals were going to sit to him the rest of the year when he was one shy of that record?

Salfino: Benching Dalton was all an elaborate scheme to preserve the memory of Ken Anderson.

gfoster: Dalton is going to be really solid on the 2020 Bears.

sara.ziegler: OMG

joshua.hermsmeyer: Geoff has seen the future, and it’s bleak.

sara.ziegler: That’s the future I want.

Salfino: Dalton is one of those vets that teams are going to turn to this offseason: Dalton, Derek Carr, Marcus Mariota, Jameis Winston … (Though maybe he stays now?)

sara.ziegler: It’s always so weird when the up-and-comers become the has-beens.

gfoster: Ryan Tannehill is NOT making Mariota look good in Tennessee.

joshua.hermsmeyer: Winston’s highs are too high to let him go, I think.

Salfino: But Winston is what he is now though. That’s never going to be good enough. He’s not going to stop throwing picks and getting sacked.

joshua.hermsmeyer: But if all you do is try and avoid interceptions, you end up being discount Aaron Rodgers, post 2015.

Salfino: I agree that there’s an ideal INT rate, and it ain’t 0 percent. But Winston makes too many mistakes, period.

joshua.hermsmeyer: What happened to loving the gunslinger, Salfino?

Salfino: No gunslinging on first downs and in the red zone.

sara.ziegler: Words to live by.

joshua.hermsmeyer: This disrespect of the Joe Namath archetype is why the Jets lost, tbh.

Salfino: Namath’s INT rate in his AFL heyday was below average for his time, BTW.

Back to Tannehill: He’s been sacked 24 times in 200 pass plays, which is ABSURDLY bad. He is proof again that sacks are mostly a QB stat. Put him anywhere, and he’ll be dumped at a double-digit rate. Jameis has this flaw of holding the ball too long, too.

gfoster: Tannehill is leading the league in yards per attempt. And Derrick Henry is now Jim Brown, apparently.

What is happening?

sara.ziegler: The Titans have won their last three games and now have a very real chance to make the playoffs — up to 42 percent in our model.

joshua.hermsmeyer: Between Tannehill and Lamar Jackson, I think the league is figuring out the secret to success at QB is to play your WR there. (Tannehill was a WR in college, and some scouts thought Lamar would only be successful in the NFL as a WR.)

sara.ziegler: 🤣

Speaking of Lamar … the Baltimore-San Francisco game was wildly entertaining. These two teams are just really fun to watch right now.

joshua.hermsmeyer: It helps when you have way more offensive plays to watch because neither team is punting.

Salfino: Both teams were just running the ball up and down the field. It’s so weird that this is where we are with the two best teams in football now.

gfoster: There were only seven drives in the second half of that game. And they resulted in two field goals, two punts, two turnovers on downs and a fumble.

joshua.hermsmeyer: Killjoy

sara.ziegler: That game-ending drive by the Ravens was a thing of beauty, though. Six minutes and 30 seconds to win the game on a field goal? Love it.

gfoster: It feels like the Ravens’ break-in-case-of-emergency plan is to just give designed runs to Lamar. AKA, play like the 2018 Ravens.

Also, Josh, kicker may be the most replaceable position in the NFL. But Baltimore having Justin Tucker in the playoffs is a clear edge.

joshua.hermsmeyer: Bill Belichick said he’s the best to ever do it. So I won’t argue it.

Salfino: Oh, man. You just knew Tucker was making that, even in those conditions. That dude is just unreal.

Geoff, didn’t you lose a playoff game in fantasy when Tucker kicked 137 field goals? 🙂

gfoster: I may have.

Salfino: It was one of those 99 percent win probability losses.

sara.ziegler: I’ll take Tucker at the end of an important game … but maybe not in a press conference.

joshua.hermsmeyer: **leaves chat**

Salfino: Kickers can’t be the cool kids. They’re the rock critics of football.

sara.ziegler: LOL

The other great matchup of the weekend that I wanted to talk about was the Patriots-Texans game on Sunday Night Football.

Salfino: Tom Brady RIP.

sara.ziegler: I live for the “Tom Brady is done” takes.

Salfino: Brady is someone who occasionally evokes Tom Brady now. But Belichick has let him down with his supporting cast of receivers. How big a bust must N’Keal Harry be if he can’t even get on the field ahead of this motley crew?

Does this change our opinion on the Texans? It’s weird that no one seems to have done so, with what — on paper — is a signature win for them.

sara.ziegler: The Texans are hard for me to figure out. They were so thoroughly dismantled by the Ravens that I have a hard time understanding where they fit in the echelon of good-but-not-great teams.

gfoster: This news for the Texans is huge, if it’s true:

sara.ziegler: Whoa, hadn’t seen that about J.J. Watt.

Salfino: Deshaun Watson had a great game. If he plays within structure like that and sprinkles in the occasional Watson things, they can overcome Bill O’Brien’s coaching. I think. At least until they play the Ravens.

gfoster: The funniest thing about the NFL is how scared everyone is to write the “Patriots Are Done” stories. We have all experienced this too many times.

joshua.hermsmeyer: I’ve seen a take floating around that it was Gronk’s greatness that was keeping Brady afloat all these years, and perhaps there’s something to it.

Salfino: Well, Rob Gronkowski and Josh Gordon were intermediate/deep receivers, and now that guy for the Patriots is ?????

The Patriots can win still like the 2015 Broncos did with the Ghost of Peyton Manning.

sara.ziegler: The Patriots can still win like the 2003 Patriots did!

Salfino: 🙂

gfoster: I think the lack of weapons on the outside is real. The running game is also way, way worse this year. Brady’s whole game is about being in sync with his receivers and having them be in the right spot at the right time, and you can tell that they are not in sync at the moment. But give Josh McDaniels and them a bye in the playoffs to work on some stuff, and no one will be surprised to see them fix these problems.

sara.ziegler: Brady screaming at his receivers on the sidelines doesn’t fix everything?

joshua.hermsmeyer: It’s a toxic relationship right now.

Salfino: But I think it’s more than “outside,” though maybe that’s a proxy of having no one who can remotely stretch the field. Gronk stretched it from the slot in the seam. But yes, they are woefully deficient at a position that should not be hard to fill.

As to Sara’s point, a QB has to be loved or feared, and Brady has always been way more feared than loved. So it’s in character for him. It’s worked.

gfoster: I think that actually COULD help things, Sara. You are telling me Jakobi Meyers and Harry aren’t spending more time in the film room this week to avoid another Brady scolding on national TV? Everyone in that organization seems to buy in to the system or get discarded.

sara.ziegler: Fair — I felt bad for those guys, and they weren’t even on the screen!

Salfino: The Patriots for sure know that QBs are not really part of the team, they are above the team. Brady is just a coach proxy on the field. Probably ahead of most of the coaches, too.

sara.ziegler: I will believe the Patriots are out of it when both Belichick and Brady are sitting on a beach somewhere while NFL games are being played, and not a moment before.

Salfino: There’s a report that the Patriots players are lobbying to bring Antonio Brown back.

But then Brown seemed to destroy the possibility.

gfoster: “Patriots players are lobbying to bring Antonio Brown” — according to reports from Antonio Brown.

Salfino: Brown is a 7-Eleven PR nightmare. Open all night.

gfoster: There’s only one person who can save the Patriots offense now:

joshua.hermsmeyer: 👏

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Happy Week 9 To The Ravens, The Chargers … And Maybe The Dolphins?

sara.ziegler (Sara Ziegler, sports editor): It was another wild week in the NFL. The nearly completed Week 9 saw a win for the Dolphins, a loss for the Patriots and FOUR losses for the NFC North.

Let’s dive right in: Anyone surprised that Baltimore took down New England?

neil (Neil Paine, senior sportswriter): A little bit. There was a stat floating around that Bill Belichick had won 21 straight games against QBs in their rookie or second NFL seasons.

And yet, Lamar Jackson had the best game of the week according to our QB Elo! His development this season continues to be incredible.

Salfino (Michael Salfino, FiveThirtyEight contributor): I was not surprised. The Ravens are a unicorn team that’s tough to prepare for and impossible to tailor a roster to stop. Most teams can’t replicate the Chargers’ plan during the playoffs last year, borne out of injury desperation, to play seven defensive backs on base downs. Plus you have a very vanilla Patriots offense in terms of skill talent with a QB who is playing well for a 42 year old, but, let’s be real, is having quantifiably his worst season since at least 2006 (in terms of QBR).

joshua.hermsmeyer (Josh Hermsmeyer, NFL analyst): I don’t think the Ravens feared the Patriots offense, and as Mike said, they have a scheme and roster that can give a defense fits — even a defense as outrageously good as New England’s has been. They also executed their plan perfectly. One play sticks out to me: the Marquise “Hollywood” Brown jet motion pitch play:

It had all the components of the offensive strategy: Make New England account for Lamar, use misdirection and really lean on some great blocking

Salfino: Lamar — with two rushing TDs and 61 yards rushing on Sunday — continues after Week 1 to score more fantasy points with his legs than with his arm, which is extremely unusual. He did it last year, too. Only Bobby Douglass of the Bears (1972, 1973) has repeated this feat since the AFL-NFL merger was completed in 1970, according to Pro-Football-Reference.com.

I do think that it’s a bad break for the Ravens that they had to face the Patriots in the regular season. You wanted this to be the playoff game.

sara.ziegler: The Ravens got off to such a strong start that it seemed to shell-shock the Pats a little. I was still surprised New England didn’t make it all the way back.

neil: Especially once the Ravens gifted the Pats the ball on that muffed punt — that felt like a here we go moment, where the Pats would start their climb back. And NE got within 4 points, but the Ravens kept answering in the second half.

joshua.hermsmeyer: Fumble luck regression really helped.

Salfino: That kind of stuff never happens to New England. The Patriots have committed only 13 turnovers that resulted in the opposing defense returning the ball for a TD since 2010.

sara.ziegler: It was also interesting to me that Belichick was faced with a fourth down on the opponent’s side of the field and chose to punt, and he had a fourth-and-goal from the one and kicked a field goal.

The Ravens went for it on fourth down in the fourth quarter, got the first down and then a touchdown on that drive, and that put it away.

Salfino: Well, Belichick doesn’t believe in analytics, Sara.

sara.ziegler: LOL

joshua.hermsmeyer: Less than zero

sara.ziegler: Just more evidence we can add to the pile!

Salfino: Belichick uses Bret Easton Ellis’s analytics. Or Elvis Costello’s, if you prefer.

neil: And his aim is usually so true!

sara.ziegler: 🤣🤣🤣

Salfino: Awesome, Neil.

sara.ziegler: From one analytics move to another, what did you all think about the Chargers **taking points off the board** against the Packers?? Green Bay stopped Los Angeles on the 2-yard line but jumped offsides on the field goal attempt, giving the Chargers another fourth down. L.A. coach Anthony Lynn pulled the field goal unit off the field, sent his offense back out and Melvin Gordon ran it in for a TD.

Salfino: The game was over, so I like the macho move to make a point.

Lynn can build a whole narrative around that now, and it was not going to cost him anything. So, worth it.

sara.ziegler: But … giving Aaron Rodgers an opening?!?!?!?

Salfino: Rodgers was hopeless before the “home crowd” in Los Angeles.

joshua.hermsmeyer: It’s not always “correct” to be aggressive, but you’ll be right far more often than wrong if it’s your default mentality. For that reason alone, I liked the call.

Salfino: But wasn’t that free money, Josh?

joshua.hermsmeyer: I haven’t looked it up, but my intuition is yes, it was a no-brainer.

sara.ziegler: I liked the call too, though up just two touchdowns with 10 minutes to go against Rodgers doesn’t seem like a situation where the game is put away.

neil: Maybe given the Chargers’ difficulty actually closing out opponents, though, you’d think they’d be skittish about giving somebody like Rodgers a potential opening.

Salfino: Yes, but Neil, you are forgetting the Chargers rules. They shock us by falling out of the playoff race and then shock us again by charging back into it (almost). This is part two of their annual metamorphosis. I refuse to be played again.

joshua.hermsmeyer: I am fairly sure based on discussions with analytics people around the league that the Chargers are not a team that has a chart and uses it. So I think the touchdown call was all gut, and on those terms I agree with it.

Salfino: It’s good that the Chargers reject analytics, otherwise they would be mentally crushed by all the win probability they have frittered away.

sara.ziegler: If the Chargers don’t get the TD there, and the Packers answer with a touchdown, you can see things falling apart fast!

This is why these questions are interesting, right?

joshua.hermsmeyer: I’d look at it as if it had been a great punt instead and just get after Rodgers at his own 1 yard line.

neil: Maybe you can trick him into pulling a Ryan Fitzpatrick and kneeling down in his own end zone.

joshua.hermsmeyer: LOL

Salfino: Rodgers was already on the slab, IMO. Toe tag in place for Week 9. He will rise again, I guess, but the Packers are not a good team.

sara.ziegler: You know who else in the NFC North isn’t a good team?

Trick question.

NO ONE in the NFC North is a good team.

Salfino: The Vikings are good, Sara. Sorry to get your hopes up. They just ran into Matt Moore!

Seriously, the Adam Thielen injury was crippling. Without him, they are pretty easy for even the Chiefs to defend.

sara.ziegler: I’m sorry.

You can’t say “They just ran into Matt Moore” about a good team.

Them’s the rules.

neil: “They just ran into Matt Moore” 🤣

Salfino: Moore is showing that playing QB in KC is very good for your stats. Also, seriously, the Vikings lost on a fluke 91-yard TD run by a guy who usually takes 45 runs to string together 90 yards.

joshua.hermsmeyer: I mean, if the QB drives the bus in terms of what makes a good team, then Sara is right. By total QBR, the Packers are 12th and the Vikings are 14th.

sara.ziegler: (BRB, pinning “Sara is right” to this conversation.)

I always think Kirk Cousins will do something amazing at the end of a game, and he never, ever, ever does.

Salfino: I agree on Cousins at the end of games. He’s like Matt Ryan in that regard: He can be relied on to not get it done. I know Ryan has a lot of fourth-quarter comebacks, but we need the batting average, not just the hits. And it turns out he’s lost 81 games by a TD or less in the period.

neil: Sheesh, you lose ONE Super Bowl after leading 28-3 …

sara.ziegler: Hahaha

Salfino: As for the other NFC North QBRs, the Lions — and Matthew Stafford — are sixth. We won’t talk about Mitch Trubisky.

neil: Sara probably has a lot to say about ol’ Mitchie!

But can we print it?

sara.ziegler: Trubisky, ugh. Can’t believe I had to start him in my fantasy football matchup against Neil. Let this be a lesson not to let jokes interfere with good fantasy football decisions.

Salfino: Just burn money in the street if you’re starting Trubisky in fantasy, Sara.

joshua.hermsmeyer: Or Allen Robinson, it turns out.

Salfino: Well, I believe in a QB-centric WR-ranking system. (And air yards :))

joshua.hermsmeyer: My man.

neil: And I started Cousins! (Because we traded them for each other.)

He may have lost the game, but he had a pretty good fantasy performance. Which, as you know, is all that matters.

sara.ziegler: Neil

joshua.hermsmeyer: oh noes

sara.ziegler: Shut up

neil: Lol.

Salfino: Sara gets the Price Is Wrong sounder.

sara.ziegler: Hahahaha

ANYWAY

One more game we must discuss, and that’s the incredible, amazing, UNBELIEVABLE first win of the season for the Miami Dolphins.

Mike … can you speak for Jets Nation and express your feelings at this one?

joshua.hermsmeyer: Yes, please.

I have a feeling this will be a treatise

sara.ziegler: “Salfino is typing”

Salfino: The most alarming thing for the Jets right now is Sam Darnold. But this is the product of so many losing drafts. The Jets have not had a hit in the first round of the draft, never mind the other rounds, since Darrelle Revis in 2007. And we’re talking a lot of draft capital. Another top-10 overall pick has just walked out the door in Leonard Williams.

joshua.hermsmeyer: Sixth overall selection for a third- and fifth-round pick. Yikes.

Salfino: The sad thing is that was a good trade for the Jets.

I mean, the Giants were insane to offer it. Now we have the Jets vs. Giants on Sunday in East Rutherford, which should temporarily be declared a toxic dump.

neil: Is it time to wonder whether Darnold is going to be any good? He had his moments but was mostly bad as a rookie and has been much worse this year. Maybe it’s still too early, but we’re 18 starts in and only five have been above average, according to our QB Elo.

joshua.hermsmeyer: I thought the game was really really interesting. There was another pretty glaring example (or two?) of Miami perhaps attempting to tank in-game, and yet Adam Gase and the Jets foiled them at every turn. The announcers even commented on it!

Salfino: It’s reasonable to wonder if Darnold is going to be any good, for certain. But if football is environment, and I think much of it is, he’s got a lot to overcome. Plus, who knows how long mono really lasts.

sara.ziegler: It’s really too bad when you can’t do the thing you’re trying to do … especially when that thing appears to be “losing.”

joshua.hermsmeyer: So frustrating!

neil: Well, idk why Miami continues to insist on starting Fitzy. They have a tank-ready QB right there in Josh Rosen.

sara.ziegler: Really not following the Tanking Playbook.

neil: TankBook?

sara.ziegler: Haha

neil: Either way, Fitzy has turned in above-average Elo games in two of his past three starts since being reinstated as starter. Rosen never came within 150 Elo points of being average in any of his starts.

And you know that Fitzpatrick runs hot and cold — so he has upside potential that really hurts your tankability when he plays well.

sara.ziegler: Need a new QB rating that ranks them by tankability. Just as a helpful service for tanking teams.

joshua.hermsmeyer: I’d like to go on the record that having a team or two tanking each season adds a bunch of entertainment value. Situations like this with the unexpected win, the team drama — all of it is good for the game IMO.

neil: Josh coming in with the pro-tanking take!

sara.ziegler: “Tanking = Good” was not the take I was expecting today.

joshua.hermsmeyer: The haughty anti-tankers reek of the folks that offer takes about amateurism in college football.

This is my fire for the week.

Salfino: I don’t think tanking can be leveraged in football because we don’t know if the QBs are going to be good or even what order to take them in.

neil: Right. First you Suck For Sam, then you just Suck Because Of Sam.

Salfino: My joke about the Jets, Sara, is the Jets lost to Glass Joe.

sara.ziegler: LOLOL

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The Dolphins Threw Eight Players Into A Blitz. Were They Trying To Lose?

On Monday night, the winless Miami Dolphins were headed toward halftime with a surprising two-touchdown lead. But for a Miami team that is widely believed to be tanking, leading the heavily favored 2-4 Pittsburgh Steelers may not have been a cause for celebration. Beating the Steelers might have boosted short-term morale among the players and coaching staff, but with the hapless Cincinnati Bengals also winless on the season, a victory could have potentially derailed the Dolphins’ plans for landing the No. 1 overall pick in next year’s draft. So with 26 seconds left before halftime, Miami general manager Chris Grier may have felt some small sense of relief after the defensive play that his head coach, Brian Flores, dialed up on third and 20 for the Steelers.

The Steelers lined up with three wide receivers and sent two out to the right side of the formation. Miami blitzed with eight pass rushers, leaving just three defenders in the secondary to cover the three receivers. With no help from a fourth defender, the defensive backs played well off the line of scrimmage to protect against deep routes. After the snap, right cornerback Xavien Howard and safety Nik Needham failed to switch responsibilities for the crossing receivers on the strong side of the formation. In the slot, JuJu Smith-Schuster ran a vertical route upfield and slightly toward the sideline, while Diontae Johnson, who was lined up further behind the line of scrimmage at flanker, ran a shallow slant toward the wide-open middle of the field. The result was an easy pitch and catch for a touchdown.

The defensive play call is uncommon enough, and the result so bad, that some commentators on Twitter immediately accused the Dolphins coaches of being complicit in the tank. After reviewing the tape, others disagreed, arguing that cover-zero blitzes — plays on which there is one coverage defender per receiver, and the rest of the defense rushes the quarterback — are poor evidence of tanking since they’re occasionally employed by successful teams. Who is right? Was sending eight rushers on third and long a viable strategy, or was it a questionable call made by a Miami team that should be under suspicion of in-game tanking?

The evidence suggests that the call was of dubious value if a team is attempting to win a football game. Rushing eight or more is actually quite rare in the NFL. Teams rushed eight players just 110 times on all downs and distances during the regular season from 2016 through Week 8 of 2019. On third-down passing plays over that same period, teams rushed eight or more just 33 times. And on third and 11 or greater — the situation most similar to the one the Dolphins faced — there have been just two plays called with eight or more pass rushers. And that’s counting the play run by Miami on Monday night.

Regardless of the call’s frequency, we can say with confidence5 that dialing up an eight-man rush on third down is the worst play that defensive coordinators can call if they want to prevent their opponent from scoring.

Third down is typically advantageous to the defense. On average, plays called with any combination of three to seven defenders rushing the passer cause the opposing offense to accrue negative expected points added.6 Only when defenses decide to rush eight and drop three into coverage does the offense regain the advantage. On those plays, the script gets flipped, and offenses net nearly a point per snap over expected.

To force short throws, drop eight — don’t rush eight

Average depth of target by opposing offenses according to number of pass rushers in all regular-season pass plays since 2016

Number of rushers air yards per pass attempt
8 or more 8.32
7 9.58
6 9.13
5 8.35
4 8.03
3 or fewer 6.56

Through Week 8 of the 2019 season.

Sources: ESPN Stats & Information Group, Nfl ngs

Some have argued that the Miami play was sound based on the theory that an all-out blitz forces the quarterback to get rid of the ball more quickly, leading to shorter passes. But that’s not what we find. It turns out that if you want to minimize an offense’s depth of target, it’s better to drop eight or more into coverage than to rush eight.

Fans and analytics-minded observers, in particular, often scream and yell for NFL teams to be more aggressive, but in this case, conservatism appears to be the better choice. Especially on a third and long like the Steelers faced against the Dolphins, who were up two scores with less than 30 seconds remaining in the half, calling a high-risk, low-reward play doesn’t make a whole lot of sense. Unless, of course, the goal wasn’t actually to win. In that case, it was the perfect call.

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A Weird NFL Weekend Leaves Us Even More Confused

gfoster: (Geoff Foster, sports editor): NFL Week 14 was very odd in many respects (and the week isn’t over) with the Raiders, Niners and Giants winning and the Rams, Texans, Steelers and Patriots all losing. It all went a long way to making the playoff picture even murkier. What was your biggest takeaway from the week?

Salfino (Michael Salfino, contributor): How much should we be worried about the Rams? Is every offense entitled to one hiccup like this, or is it part of a pattern that began with the Lions, who did not care about play-action at all and just covered the receivers. The Bears also did not bite. Does Los Angeles have a Plan B?

neil (Neil Paine, senior sports writer): It was definitely startling to see the Rams’ offense be held in check so thoroughly. Jared Goff was terrible. Todd Gurley did next to nothing. The Rams’ offensive expected points added in the game was -23.5. That was 29.6 points worse than their second-worst offensive game of the season … which was Week 13 vs. Detroit. And it was 33.8 points of EPA worse than their low before the Detroit game.

sara.ziegler (Sara Ziegler, assistant sports editor): I know people talk a lot about playing in the cold as a problem, and I usually roll my eyes. But was that a factor here?

neil: The Rams have only played four games where temp was under 50 degrees in the Sean McVay era.

Salfino: I know, that temperature stuff. I just can’t believe these guys from all different parts of the country are suddenly able to only play in warm weather. But that’s going to be the theory of the case now almost certainly.

gfoster: The Rams game at Detroit was definitely curious. They came out of the bye completely flat, Goff played poorly, and most people kinda wrote it off to rust. But now I’m starting to wonder if teams, as Mike alluded to, are starting to figure out this McVay offense.

Salfino: This kind of thing has happened before. The 1994 49ers team that won the Super Bowl and was electrifying on offense laid an egg against the Eagles that year, losing 40-8. They had 189 yards that game.

And on defense, the 1985 Bears famously flubbed a primetime game against the Dolphins late in the year for their only loss that season.

gfoster: That Detroit game was in a dome, Sara.

Salfino: This can’t be Cooper Kupp, can it? My theory of playing the Rams was to just ignore the running game. I figured a team that gave them fits would basically concede Gurley. What really surprised me about the Chicago performance was that Gurley didn’t even get going. They had nothing. The Bears didn’t even accept the slow death of Gurley running.

sara.ziegler: But why didn’t the Rams even try to run Gurley? Only 11 carries?

neil: Good question, Sara. They had been almost exactly balanced (49.7 percent pass/50.3 percent run) on first down, but last night they passed on 73 percent of first downs. Despite averaging 4.6 yards per carry on the first downs where they did run.

Salfino: My feeling watching the game with Gurley is that the Rams wanted to get wide open passes by faking to Gurley like they usually do, and then when that didn’t work, they were behind the down and distance and had to straight-up pass, with typically disastrous results.

neil: Right — Goff had a 23.0 passer rating on 1st down.

Salfino: What happens to a play-action offense when no one buys into the deception? When the defense just ignores it?

sara.ziegler: I guess I would argue that you should just run the ball.

Especially with a guy like Gurley.

Salfino: Exactly right. That’s when they should run. This is probably why McVay was so hard on himself in the post-game.

sara.ziegler: And for good reason! LOL

gfoster: Let’s talk about the ending of the Dolphins-Patriots game, which was probably the highlight of the year. Although, I may be partial to the Chris Carson front flip a couple weeks ago.

neil: Incredible. Just look at the diagram:

Longest game-winning scoring play in NFL history, I believe.

Salfino: Kenyan Drake made the best nonlateral decision ever on a lateral play. Or maybe the worst since anyone other than Gronk easily tackles him.

gfoster: The funniest sequence of that was when Drake was looking to lateral more and then you could see him to say to himself, “Oh wait, I can just run this in from here.”

sara.ziegler: Gronk definitely failing his defensive audition.

Salfino: Why was Gronk even on the field? It was not a Hail Mary situation 69 yards from pay dirt.

neil: Right, clearly Ryan Tannehill doesn’t have the arm for that throw in the air. He’s not Patrick Mahomes.

gfoster: Tannehill can throw 80 yards. You didn’t know that?

sara.ziegler:

Salfino: Did Drake just laugh at the idea of Gronk tackling him?

Gronk looked like I imagine Brady would trying to make that tackle. And ironically, he finally looked like Gronk on offense.

neil: And Bill Belichick left Devin McCourty off the field for that play in favor of Gronkowski. Shades of Malcolm Butler in the Super Bowl. Too cute for his own good.

gfoster:

sara.ziegler: I just need to take a second to thank Drake for giving me 12.2 fantasy points on that play.

🙌

Salfino: Fantasy scoring on that play is hilarious. It goes as a Tannehill touchdown pass. There were no screams about that because who’s playing Tannehill?

sara.ziegler: LOL, good point.

Salfino: How dumb are the Dolphins though for not getting a guy as electric as Drake the ball more on offense? But they’re 7-6. Have to be one of the worst winning teams at this juncture of the season in memory, but they do own wins against the Bears and Patriots.

gfoster: Salfino is not a Frank Gore fan.

Salfino: OMG, Frank Gore. The dude is a survivor, I’ll give him that. He’s going to end up in the Hall of Fame, too. But he’s been just a guy for so long now.

gfoster: Neil wrote about this recently. Is this Patriots team just not intimidating?

Gronk’s “defense” is getting the headlines, but he had a big game offensively Sunday. There’s no doubt the offense is world’s different when he’s healthy — and it’s hard to remember a playoffs when he was remotely healthy.

Salfino: The Patriots’ problem is that they lacked offensive upside. But then Tom Brady really looked like the Brady of old vs. Old Brady. Gronk got rolling. Gordon was hyper-efficient. The running game was trash, but that’s sort of old-school Patriots too. Even the defense struggling seemed normal. But losing that game was not normal at all. If you told me New England was going to lose, I’d figure it was their offense flagging the game.

neil: Although it’s worth noting they forced zero turnovers against a Tannehill Phins offense.

sara.ziegler: That’s sort of the beauty of those lateral plays actually working: It’s a fluke, not a systemic problem for them.

neil: But this is definitely the type of toss-up game they usually find a way to win, not lose.

sara.ziegler: For sure. Which is what made it so fun!

neil: At least for 31 fanbases searching for Patriots schadenfreude.

Salfino: I really thought one of the Patriots and Steelers would emerge in the AFC, and now maybe both of those teams are going to be playing wild-card weekend.

gfoster: There are four AFC teams at 7-6: Ravens, Colts, Dolphins, Titans. Which one of those is going to make the playoffs in your eyes? Or will it be the Browns, Neil?

neil: They’re “in the hunt”!

For the first time in approximately 30 years.

Salfino: I think the sixth team in the AFC will be the Colts. Andrew Luck is totally out of his shoulder issue and throwing the ball downfield. T.Y. Hilton has nearly 600 receiving yards in the past four games. Luck-to-Hilton is maybe the most lethal combination in football right now.

gfoster: Not Luck-to-Ebron?

neil: For what it’s worth, our model thinks the Ravens still have the best chance at 55 percent.

sara.ziegler: I like the Ravens. They were super unlucky to lose to the Chiefs.

I mean, come on.

Salfino: The Ravens did everything right on defense. Tyreek Hill takes standing eight counts with three different injuries. And you look up at the end of the game and Mahomes has nearly four bills and the Hill has 139 receiving yards. Spencer Ware looked very dangerous. How can anyone stop the Chiefs?

neil: The diagram on that one is amazing, too:

(In case you can’t tell, I am addicted to these things.)

Salfino: Only one player could make that throw, and only one receiver could race to make that catch. The probability for Mahomes-to-Hill should have been, like, 50 percent 🙂

neil: Maybe Aaron Rodgers could. But certainly only one QB on a playoff-bound team.

Salfino: Yes, maybe Rodgers.

sara.ziegler: (And he probably doesn’t have a receiver this year who could catch it.)

neil: That might not have even been Mahomes’ most jaw dropping pass of the day!

Salfino: The Ravens blitzed the hell out of Mahomes, and it really seemed to give him fits, but then again you look at the stat sheet and are like, “??????”

gfoster: I would normally say here that the Chargers could hang with the Chiefs and look like the AFC’s Super Bowl-bound team. But that was a somewhat lifeless effort by them Sunday. Against Jeff Driskel and probably the worst defense in the NFL.

sara.ziegler: I guess we’ll find that out on Thursday, when the Chiefs and Chargers play.

Salfino: I thought it was going to be typical Chargers. But maybe typical Chargers is having easily the second-best team in the conference and somehow being the fifth seed. As for the Bengals performance, it fits the “letdown game” theory between Pittsburgh and Kansas City.

gfoster: Although, it should be noted that Mike Badgley hit four of four field goals, including a 59 yarder. That actually ties the total of made Chargers field goals for the last two seasons.

sara.ziegler: LOL

Salfino: How is Hill going to play that game on Thursday? He was like Rocky on the stool at the end of that Ravens game.

The thing about the Chargers that’s weird is their pace of play. They were 29th in plays before last week and then put up another relatively low play count.

Could Mike Tomlin get fired if the Steelers miss the playoffs? Should he?

sara.ziegler: Not in light of the Le’Veon Bell mess, I’m guessing.

The Steelers’ running game was nonexistent, with no James Conner even.

Salfino: Has Bell’s absence even hurt the team? Sunday was the first game you could say they lost because of it, arguably. But the defense could not stop Derek Carr. Think about that sentence in the context of this year.

gfoster: I don’t think this Steelers team is very good. They now have the Patriots and then AT the Saints. They could easily be 7-7-1 going into final week.

sara.ziegler: I’ve been amazed all season at how high the Steelers’ Elo was. But they just kept winning — until the past three games.

neil: Looking at our Elo, though, the Steelers usually pick up steam late in seasons. They haven’t had a swoon like this since 2012.

And that year they could pin it on Charlie Batch starting some games.

Salfino: Explain to me how Roethlisberger goes 25-for-29, the Steelers defense is still near the top of the league in yards allowed per play, and they lose to the Raiders. Tomlin totally blows the end of the game by not calling a timeout, he gets his own lateral play to work, and then the kicker falls down.

sara.ziegler: Field goal kicking has been about average this year, at 84.2 percent made. But this week was a bad one for kickers, who made only 42 field goals out of 56 attempts.

Salfino: Steelers vs. Patriots is the game of the week, but not for the reasons we thought going into the season. These are two desperate teams now. The Steelers are teetering on elimination, and New England can’t win the conference without a bye, IMO.

Do you know how hard it is to pass like Roethlisberger has this year and have a top defense in yards per play and still struggle to win?

gfoster: They haven’t beaten a truly good team this season. Especially now that we can safely call the Panthers a bad team.

And the Jags.

And the Falcons.

The Steelers’ best win was arguably over the Browns!

Salfino: They really should have beaten the Chargers, though. But you’re right.

sara.ziegler: And they would have beaten Oakland, if not for their kicker falling down.

neil: … another really bad team.

Salfino: Are we worried about the Saints? They did not really bounce back at all offensively from last week’s loss to the Cowboys. You have had the feeling all year that Sean Payton was worried about the depth of his receiving corps, and they had nothing other than Michael Thomas on Sunday — and Thomas really had to grind it out. Nothing in that game against a terrible Tampa defense was easy, which is shocking.

gfoster: But on Thanksgiving, we were singing the praises of Brees’s ability to throw TD passes to four different guys who walked in off the street and put on Saints jerseys.

Salfino: I think the Saints defense is underrated now and the Saints offense is overrated.

gfoster: Where are Austin Carr, Keith Kirkwood, Tommylee Lewis and Dan Arnold?

Salfino: Arnold was inactive on Sunday. Crippling loss.

That quartet sounds like a country rock band lineup.

neil: Are we rattling off Saints WRs or members of the 1973-74 Cavaliers?

Salfino: Nice pull, Neil!

gfoster: Brees and the Saints are always bad in Tampa, it seems. Kinda like how Brady always seems to struggle in Miami. What is it about Florida?

(Brady was good Sunday, though.)

Salfino: The Saints really pulled that game out of the fire and it was huge. Could give them the No. 1 seed, and I think they really need it.

gfoster: Here’s a question: If we could switch the results of one of the narrow losses in the first eight weeks, are we talking about the Giants as a sleeper playoff team?

neil: People are talking about the Giants as a sleeper playoff team NOW.

(At least on WFAN.)

gfoster: They have two wins more impressive than Pittsburgh: at Texans, Bears.

Salfino: Eli Manning is going to resign the Giants into giving him a lifetime contract. He is sucking all hope out of their prospective QB search.

Eli is the Frank Gore of QBs.

neil: Sara and I theorized that Eli paid Kyle Lauletta to keep screwing up.

“Here’s $50, go commit a traffic violation in New Jersey.”

Salfino: Eli’s last four wins were against opposing QBs Mullen, Fitzpatrick, Daniel, Sanchez.

sara.ziegler: My favorite thing in football this season is how bad the Giants are at tanking.

Salfino: Exactly! It’s not that hard.

sara.ziegler: Remember when the Giants basically didn’t play Saquon Barkley in the second half against Philly?

And handed the Eagles that game?

Salfino: Although the Jets would have the No. 1 pick right now if Sam Darnold didn’t mess it all up by winning.

neil: Broadway Sam can’t help himself.

gfoster: A lot of teams are struggling to tank. These guys need to watch more NBA. The Niners won’t quit.

Salfino: What about Josh Allen’s insane running. This is not a sustainable QB model, or am I wrong?

neil: Did I read that Allen broke a Mike Vick rushing record Sunday?

😳

Salfino: No QB ever had two consecutive games of 99+ yards rushing (in the modern era anyway), and now he has three.

neil:

gfoster: He seems like he’s looking to run. You watch a QB like Watson, Rodgers, Mahomes — they are so reluctant to do it. Always have eyes down the field until they physically cross the line of scrimmage.

Salfino: My theory with Allen is that his running is so effective and reliable that it’s hurting his development as a passer.

gfoster: He also has the worst supporting cast of possibly any QB ever.

Salfino: Darnold escapes to throw and not run, too. Especially on his touchdown pass Sunday, which was an incredible play.

sara.ziegler: Allen is like Bizarro Mahomes.

Salfino: Sara mentioned the Eagles. Is their window closing? They’re going to have to rebuild their defense, which is bereft of impact players. Their skill players are mediocre. Alshon Jeffery is not a No. 1 receiver, remotely. Suddenly their team-building seems suspect.

sara.ziegler: They had seemed to be playing better since that walloping by the Saints. But maybe not so much.

neil: Will we look back at 2017 as a weird, one-off year in general?

Eagles take advantage of a strange hiccup in the general arc of the game?

Salfino: Especially winning with Foles.

gfoster: One more NFC East thought: The Amari Cooper trade was probably the most derided front office move of the year. I myself openly laughed at it. Now…

sara.ziegler:

Salfino: The Cooper trade is going to go down in history as the best in-season deal. He was the missing piece. Everyone else is now in the role that they are suited to be in. Dak Prescott was explosive Sunday. I can’t believe I’m saying it.

The bug for the Cowboys was supposed to be their decision-making by Jerry Jones and his family, and that’s turned out to be their strength. Seriously, name the team that’s drafted better recently than the Cowboys. Now add Cooper to this. God, I hate myself for saying this.

gfoster: The issue with that trade was more relative to the wide receiver market. Golden Tate, Josh Gordon and Demaryius Thomas were all traded for a far smaller return. The difference is that prior to the deal, I would have lumped Cooper in with that tier of receiver, but it’s possible that his problem was even more Derek Carr than I thought.

Salfino: My view is that Cooper is an explosive player who can take the top off the defense. Those other guys, including Gordon now, cannot.

gfoster: OK, before we go, I want to get in one college football question off the big news of the weekend: Did Heisman voters get this one right?

Salfino: Oklahoma somehow pulled a Favre to Rodgers in college football.

sara.ziegler: I’m still kinda shocked that Kyler Murray won.

It really came down to performances in the conference championships.

neil: It’s funny because the Tua-is-unstoppable narrative had been in place for like two months (or more). Yet the signs were there that Kyler was a legitimate threat to him. He had a better NCAA passing efficiency, better QBR. Betting odds even favored Kyler on Saturday AM.

Salfino: My take is that Alabama would be great/No. 1 in the country with pretty much a typical college QB, but Oklahoma absolutely must have Murray to rank where they are. So Murray is the MVP of college football for sure.

gfoster: Here’s the flip side of that: Tagovailoa barely played in the fourth quarter most of the season, while Murray was needing to score 40 to 50 points every week to beat any team.

Salfino: I’ve heard the draft people concede the Murray would be a first-round pick. Now the question I guess is how high? There are no rules anymore after Baker.

sara.ziegler: Unless he’s an Oakland A by that point…

gfoster: And, likewise, Mahomes coming out of the same Big 12 nonsense football that looks like two 11-year-olds playing Madden.

Salfino: If Murray is a top-five pick, the financial calculus changes dramatically. He may never get another MLB contract. Look at ninth-overall picks in history, for example.

neil: Yes it does change the formula we looked at here.

gfoster: All right, last question:

Quickly give me the Week 14 Super Bowl prediction and No. 1 overall pick prediction, since we have a legitimate race this year.

neil: I guess I shouldn’t stick with my October pick of the Vikings…

sara.ziegler: LOL

They’re not out of it…

neil: Although who knows! We’ll see tonight.

sara.ziegler: I still think it will be the Chiefs out of the AFC, but who knows from the NFC.

Even after last night, I just can’t get behind the Bears.

gfoster: Sara, just pick the Vikings, it’s fine. We will forget about it.

sara.ziegler: I can’t. The moment I do, it’s over for them.

Salfino: I think the Raiders are the favorite for the No. 1 pick because San Francisco is going to face backups against the Rams in Week 17. I picked Saints-Steelers in the preseason. I will stick with the Saints — figuring that Payton figures it out. AFC has to be the Chiefs now. They do have a pass rush. They absolutely cannot lose Hill or Kelce though. (And obviously Mahomes.)

Betting on Andy Reid in January though and the Chiefs in January at home, yikes.

sara.ziegler: I’ll take a long shot for the No. 1 pick with the Jaguars. That’s a team that looks like it does not care.

neil: I will speak for the model and pick the Saints coming out of the NFC. We have them at 26 percent to win it all. AFC favorite is Chiefs, though I share Mike’s concerns there, despite my crush on Mahomes.

And I’ll go with the Cardinals at No. 1, our model’s pick for the worst record.

Forecasting the race to the bottom

Fewest projected 2018 wins according to FiveThirtyEight’s NFL Elo model

Wins
Team Current Projected remaining Total
32 Cardinals 3 0.6 3.6
31 49ers 3 0.7 3.7
30 Raiders 3 0.8 3.8
29 Jets 4 0.9 4.9
28 Bills 4 1.2 5.2

Simulated ties included as half-wins.

gfoster: I’m saying Saints over Chargers. Cardinals with the first pick (they have at Seattle and Rams still).

And if the Chargers get drilled by the Chiefs on Thursday, I will sneak into WordPress and delete all of this.

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