sara.ziegler (Sara Ziegler, sports editor): Week 6 is in the books save for two games to be played today: the regularly scheduled Monday Night Football matchup between the Dallas Cowboys and Arizona Cardinals AND the rescheduled game featuring the Buffalo Bills and Kansas City Chiefs. Fun fact: After tonight, Kansas City will have played six games this season, and only two of those will have been on Sundays.
The Chiefs and Bills face big tests in their matchup, as other top-tier teams did this weekend — with varying outcomes. The Pittsburgh Steelers and Tennessee Titans stayed undefeated, though they took very different routes to get there, while the previously unbeaten Green Bay Packers were trounced by the Tampa Bay Buccaneers. Let’s start with the Packers: How surprised were you by that loss?
neil (Neil Paine, senior sportswriter): If this is the Bucs’ defense, Tom Brady will feel at home compared with his late-era Pats teams. They DOMINATED defensively.
Salfino: Rodgers was thoroughly abused. And it was shocking to me after watching the Bucs’ game last week, against Chicago, that the Packers couldn’t lay a glove on Tom Brady. Maybe the Bears’ pass rush is that good.
joshua.hermsmeyer: It was Rodgers’s third game this season with an off-target throw percentage of 16 percent or more, so perhaps those throws were bound to catch up to him.
sara.ziegler: Rodgers also seemed to be suffering from not having a good No. 2 option to throw to.
neil: They had been making due without Davante Adams, though — then he comes back and Rodgers struggles badly.
Salfino: I figured those struggles in prior weeks were due to the absence of Adams. But maybe he’s just feasted against bad defenses mostly.
sara.ziegler: They’re clearly missing Allen Lazard. (My Iowa State reference for the week, guys.)
neil: Gotta sneak that in somehow.
Salfino: Sara, what’s the break-even point on soybeans?
sara.ziegler: LOLOL — if I didn’t know that before last week, I sure do now.
neil: I do think we have to acknowledge that the Bucs’ D might also be good. It didn’t look amazing against the Chargers or Bears, but otherwise it has had some pretty impressive games — none better than this one.
sara.ziegler: And Brady played well! Nice to see the Tom-to-Gronk connection restored.
neil: Gronk got his jersey filthy and everything.
Salfino: Rob Gronkowski’s play was more shocking to me than the Packers’ performance. I thought he was basically an in-line blocker now. He sort of looked like the Gronk of old.
And Ronald Jones gives Brady a running threat, which I think he needs now. Jones seems explosive. He looks like a second-round pick suddenly.
neil: Ronald won the Jones-vs.-Jones RB matchup decisively Sunday.
sara.ziegler: We haven’t talked about the Steelers much this year — I had been a little suspect of their opposition up to this week. But they beat a Browns team that was itself coming off a good win. What do you guys make of the Steelers so far this year?
neil: They seem like you might have expected the best-case scenario to be going into the season: still a great defense, and a much-improved passing game with Big Ben back.
Salfino: I think that the Steelers are generating enough points to mask the obvious fact that Ben Roethlisberger is no longer the same QB. This is not remotely an explosive passing offense, despite a lot of wide receiver talent.
neil: I’m not sure it needs to be, though. He just needed to be better than Mason Rudolph and Duck Dodgers (or whatever his name was) for them to improve a lot.
Salfino: Sure, the passing game is much improved from last year, though it’s much worse than it was in 2018.
joshua.hermsmeyer: Part of the lack of explosion comes from Ben’s inability — or lack of desire — to run play-action. The Steelers are once again last in the league in the best play type in football.
neil: Why do you think that is, Josh? Just that it clashes with his QB style?
joshua.hermsmeyer: Some have speculated that he doesn’t like to turn his back to the defense. And honestly, I can’t really blame a QB for that. But play-action is a lot to give up.
Salfino: Maybe this is meaningful regarding play-action? (Note that this is old data.)
I’ve been wondering if there’s a difference in play-action under center vs. in shotgun. I can’t imagine that play-action works as well in shotgun.
neil: You’re right this season, Mike:
According to ESPN’s Stats & Information Group, the average QBR for play-action under center is 76.2; for shotgun, it’s 65.1. (With the usual caveats about sample size and selection bias, etc. etc.)
Salfino: If only I weren’t color blind:
(And the time you have to recover if you overcommit.)
Salfino: In shotgun, a defense with the run would seem to me to be in wait-and-see mode. Again, intuitively.
joshua.hermsmeyer: The Steelers would be pretty scary if they did run more play-action, so I think their division-mates are quite happy they don’t run more of it.
sara.ziegler: OK, so are you buying or selling the Steelers going forward?
Salfino: I’m buying their defense. The Steelers offense is still at least fine. To me, they’re the rich man’s Bears.
neil: Yeah. I’m selling if the question is whether they are Super Bowl favorites now. But they look solid.
joshua.hermsmeyer: Our model has them as the fourth-best team in the league, and I think that’s about right. Though I have some nagging worries about Baltimore at No. 2 if their passing offense doesn’t improve.
So the Steelers could ascend.
Salfino: I can see the Steelers either beating every team (except the Chiefs) or losing to them. To get to be a real favorite, Roethlisberger and their passing game needs to find their 2018 form.
neil: The Tennessee game on Sunday should be VERY interesting.
sara.ziegler: What a good segue, Neil.
I aim to please!
sara.ziegler: The Titans had to withstand a furious comeback from the Houston Texans to win in overtime and stay undefeated. Are the Titans actually any good?
Salfino: What do we make of the Titans’ insane red-zone efficiency? What do you do when a stat that screams regression refuses to regress?
neil: Derrick Henry probably helps with that. But traditionally, that stat does regress pretty hard to the mean.
joshua.hermsmeyer: Agreed, I wouldn’t expect it to continue. But to me the biggest crack in the Titans’ armor is their defense: They’re allowing 6.2 yards per play, 28th in the league.
Salfino: Arthur Smith has to be the hottest coordinator in the league when it comes to the coaching carousel, right?
As Josh says, their offense is carrying them.
neil: Kind of like the anti-Steelers, who are 5-0 more because of their defense.
(Although I think the Titans’ D is worse than the Steelers’ offense is middling.)
Salfino: They’re also lucky — tied for seventh in point differential.
sara.ziegler: Well, I’ll ask the same question I did with the Steelers: Are you buying or selling the Titans?
joshua.hermsmeyer: I’m buying the Titans, even if they have a system QB. Their offense does everything just right in my view.
Salfino: I always buy the good offenses, and I think the Titans — with the tandem of Henry and Ryan Tannehill — are very good on offense. But the injury to tackle Taylor Lewan is a problem. Fox’s Jay Glazer says he tore his ACL.
neil: Oooof. Yeah. And Ryan Tannehill playing well is so important to them going forward. Gotta protect him — he has the third-lowest sack rate of any QB this year.
Salfino: Tennessee’s OL is so good. They’re the new Cowboys.
And look at Tannehill’s sack rate historically. This has been transformative. Sacks are basically punts.
sara.ziegler: Gotta admit, I was not expecting you all to be so high on the Titans.
A team that almost loses to the Vikings does not seem great to me! (The Seahawks excluded.)
neil: I can no longer make excuses for the Vikings. My goodness.
sara.ziegler: My self-care in 2020 is not watching Vikings games.
sara.ziegler: Anyway, let’s talk about the one-loss teams that won this week: the Baltimore Ravens and the Chicago Bears. We expected the Ravens to be in roughly this position; we, uh, did not expect that of the Bears. What is going on in Chicago?
neil: I would love to credit Nick Foles, but it’s really just the defense. This is the same Bears Formula as ever.
Salfino: I think these teams are very similar, along with the Steelers. I don’t really believe in any of their offenses, which seems crazy given how the Ravens are scoring. It’s just that Baltimore’s passing game is practically nonexistent.
neil: I guess Foles has a positive VOMiT: Value Over Mitch Trubisky.
Salfino: That’s Undefeated in 2020 Mitch Trubisky.
It’s funny how there seems to be an NFL rule that when the Bears are good, their defense has to carry them.
joshua.hermsmeyer: Even their defense hasn’t been dominant, though. They’re sixth in yards per play allowed, which is good, but it doesn’t explain that 5-1 record. They’ve just been weirdly lucky, and it’s why I think they’re the most fraudulent five-win team in the league (small group, but still).
Salfino: That’s quasi-dominant, Josh. It passes for dominant in 2020. The key for them is that they get pressure without blitzing. Their four-man rush is the best in the game. This makes playing defense much easier.
neil: The Bears and Bills stand apart among the potentially fraudulent one-loss teams, for sure.
Bears: Bad offense, good defense. Bills: Bad defense, good offense.
sara.ziegler: Interesting comparison to the Bills, Neil. I found this tweet from Aaron Schatz instructive:
neil: If the Bears and Bills merged their best parts, they might be Super Bowl favorites. If they merged their worst parts, they’d be the Jets.
Salfino: That’s an interesting tweet. At this stage of the season, I think I’d rather be predictably good than descriptively good (by wins and losses). Maybe this is nerdy.
neil: Never too nerdy!
Salfino: What do you guys think about that question? Is it better to be 5-1 on paper or in the standings now?
neil: I agree that it’s better to be good in the predictive stats now. Get me at least halfway through the season with good descriptive stats, though, and I’m in decent shape.
joshua.hermsmeyer: Aaron is right, I guess, that wins are better than losses, but I agree with Mike. I’d much rather be the team coming up than the one that knows it’s just been barely getting by and gotten all the good bounces.
That seems like a special kind of hell in the NFL.
neil: Although I will say the flip-side — 1-5 but good on paper — isn’t a nice place to be either.
Salfino: Is there a team like that?
neil: The Texans? LOL.
Salfino: The Texans are another one of the good-offense, no-defense teams. This is a 2020 trend.
joshua.hermsmeyer: Maybe the Texans are substantially better than their record, but who knows.
neil: The Patriots are probably the best sub-.500 team.
sara.ziegler: The Patriots game was the other big surprise to me this week.
neil: We’re definitely not used to seeing the Patriots lose at home to a team like Denver.
sara.ziegler: They’re under .500! 2020 is wild.
Salfino: The Patriots are not good on offense. What’s happened to them after playing Seattle in Week 2 has been shocking. Cam Newton’s throwing was ghastly. They lost without giving up a TD after being 39-0 when that happened under Bill Belichick.
neil: That is a shocking stat. (Not that they had been so good, but that they couldn’t continue it Sunday.)
joshua.hermsmeyer: I wanted them to pass more, but as I look at their numbers, their pass EPA per play for the game was -0.35 vs -0.04 per rush. They threw short and did so ineffectively, which is pretty hard to do.
Salfino: And Denver’s defense was banged up and bad. Cam was throwing the ball into the ground 5 yards in front of his receiver, 10 yards away.
joshua.hermsmeyer: Makes you wonder if he’s fully healthy.
neil: That’s what I was thinking, too. Though he wasn’t exactly the reason they won vs. Vegas earlier, either.
joshua.hermsmeyer: Cam is a special player. He can pass you into the red zone and then run the ball in all by himself from there. But when he’s off, he really looks off.
sara.ziegler: It does seem like the messy schedule of the past couple of weeks might have caught up with the Patriots.
Salfino: That’s a good point, Sara. Who knows what we make out of this season of stops and starts.
neil: If any coach would have prepared a team to deal with the COVID craziness, you’d think it would be Belichick. But this seems to be bigger than even he can manage through.
In fact, maybe the “make a new game plan for each opponent” strategy is the wrong one for 2020, given that you might not really know who the next opponent even is!
joshua.hermsmeyer: That’s a really interesting point, Neil. I think you’re right.
Salfino: Good point. Especially with a new QB. And really a new offense. They probably don’t have that requisite mastery of all their plays.
neil: Either way, Tom definitely won the breakup on Sunday.
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