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We Don’t Want To Blame San Francisco’s Defensive And Tampa Bay’s Offensive Problems On Injuries

​​​​maya (Maya Sweedler, editor): Week 7 of the NFL season is almost done and dusted, and after some thrilling early weeks, it feels like the league has somewhat settled. Through Sunday, only half the league’s divisions include a five- or six-win team. Of those four divisions, just two include multiple such teams. (Are they the divisions we expected? No, but we’re very happy for the AFC East and NFC East.)

And as often becomes the case, this season has already turned into a battle of attrition for some squads. Teams like the San Francisco 49ers, Los Angeles Chargers, Denver Broncos and New Orleans Saints are struggling to get their starters on the field, and it’s taking a toll.

Let’s start with the most snake-bitten team. The Niners’ fearsome defense was defanged pretty early this season, and after a 44-23 drubbing at the hands of the Kansas City Chiefs, they’re starting to look like a pretty different team than the one that came out in Week 1. (Of course, the late-week pickup of running back Christian McCaffrey didn’t hurt.) Can these Niners get back on track with existing personnel?

joshua.hermsmeyer (Josh Hermsmeyer, NFL analyst): San Francisco is a curious case. Coming into the game, the defense was widely thought to be the strength of the team, and they added CMC to shore up the offense. But it was their defense that let them down. San Francisco expected a full game from Nick Bosa, and got it. He played 40 snaps (and graded out pretty well by Pro Football Focus, for what it’s worth). They also got safety Jimmie Ward back, but neither addition seemed to help much. Given that, I’m not sure their issues on the defensive side are injury related.

dre.waters (Andres Waters, FiveThirtyEight contributor): I think they have a chance to get back on track — it’s hard to say definitively that they will or won’t. But after that loss yesterday, they actually got a good break with the schedule because they have the L.A. Rams next, and if they win that game, they’ll still be in second in the division.

maya: Do BOTH JuJu Smith-Schuster and Marquez Valdes-Scantling get over 100 yards receiving if Emmanuel Moseley is playing, though?

Ty Schalter (Ty Schalter, FiveThirtyEight contributor): It’s tempting to throw this result out, because not only is Pat Mahomes Pat Mahomes, Kansas City head coach Andy Reid and offensive coordinator Eric Bieniemy called a fantastic game. But for a team that has been — and is still supposed to be — a title contender on the strength of its defense, the Niners looked nowhere close to being able to slow down one of several strong AFC contenders. According to NFL Next Gen stats, linebacker Samson Ebukam was the only 49ers defender who got more than one QB pressure on Mahomes.

joshua.hermsmeyer: To Ty’s point, I think any cornerback in the league is going to get carved up by Mahomes if the rush doesn’t get there. The 49ers had hoped Bosa would be a solution there, but even after their early interception of Mahomes and being spotted a 10-point lead, they just weren’t up to the task. 

maya: Yeah, Mahomes looked dominant every time he went downfield. He was 7-for-7 on passes of at least 15 air yards.

I also think we need to allow for the possibility that we are (gasp) underrating Kansas City.

dre.waters: It’s hard to say they’re being underrated. I’d say it was more a matter of trying to see how they adjust to the blockbuster move of trading away wide receiver Tyreek Hill.

The thing that’s stood to me is how they’ve been so successful spreading the ball out and pushing it down the field to unexpected receivers.

So far this season, all five WRs who have recorded a reception this season have at least one catch of 30 or more yards. Through all 17 games last season, only four WRs had a reception of 30 or more yards.

joshua.hermsmeyer: Mahomes looked otherworldly, maybe for the first time this year. I think he’s gone full John Wick. As for the Niners, they built their early-season reputation on defense off of a couple good games against solid teams like the Rams and the Seattle Seahawks, but they played the Chicago Bears, Carolina Panthers and Broncos as well. I am skeptical the defense is what they will need to hang their hat on for success the rest of the way. Like the rest of the league, they are slowly regressing back to the mean. 

Ty Schalter: It’s not just that the Chiefs threw it around the 49ers’ rush, though — the rush just wasn’t winning. Ebukam had the team’s best pass rush win rate on the day, per ESPN’s Stats & Information group, at 14.3 percent. That’s barely above league average for the week (14.0 percent). Bosa and Charles Omenihu tied at 11.8 percent, and Drake Jackson’s was just 8.3 percent.

maya: It goes beyond keeping Mahomes clean, though. One of my big questions coming into the year for Kansas City was whether they could solve their offensive line woes (which, to be fair, were in no small part due to injury in recent years). Right now, the offensive line is a solid unit, with the league’s best run-block win rate after this week. 

Ty Schalter: Exactly where I was going, Maya. Their pass-rush win rate is 10th best, as well.

maya: It’s an impressive turnaround. Let’s move to another impressive turnaround (though perhaps not one headed in the right direction). The Tampa Bay Buccaneers put up 3 points against the Carolina Panthers, who fired their head coach two weeks ago and have been gleefully selling their offense for parts ever since. What did y’all make of that 18-point loss?

Ty Schalter: That a team entered the week averaging 20.3 points per game and was favored by as much as 13 was one of the wildest leaps of faith by Vegas oddsmakers I’ve ever seen.

dre.waters: Just focusing on yesterday’s game, I know that the Panthers’ offense has been underwhelming through the first quarter of the season. But their defense has some real talent. They’ve been holding opposing offenses to around 20 points per game, which should be enough to keep a team in games.

joshua.hermsmeyer: Tampa Bay does not look like a playoff team at this point. Brady had the second-highest off-target throw rate in Week 7 so far. Maybe it’s easy to say that he has looked distracted this season given what he’s going through in his personal life, but a vibes-based take like that holds more water when almost a quarter of your passes are basically uncatchable. 

Ty Schalter: Yeah. Brady’s a living legend, but whatever is wrong in Tampa Bay — the change in Bruce Arians’s role, the spate of injuries to his favorite targets, a lack of bro time with still-retired-for-now Rob Gronkowski — he’s just not playing well enough to make up for it. And what might really be wrong is exactly what Josh pointed out: He’s just not throwing the ball well. On the season, Brady is 22nd (-1.3 percent) in completion rate above expected, according to NFL Next Gen Stats. 

maya: And yet the Bucs still refuse to run the ball. They ran by design on just 23 percent of plays yesterday, after entering Week 7 with the fourth-lowest designed rush percentage in the league.

joshua.hermsmeyer: Maybe Brady should yell at the coaches instead of his o-line

dre.waters: HAHAHA

Yeah, Maya, there’s really not much balance to that offense. Through seven games, they have 296 pass attempts to just 148 rush attempts.

With Brady running the offense, skewing toward the pass is to be expected, but if teams aren’t respecting the run … It’s a little difficult to get an offense going. 

joshua.hermsmeyer: The Panthers’ D is better against the run than the pass, so that may have had something to do with it. If you’re grasping for hope for Tampa Bay’s passing game, PFF has a stat called “accurate plus throws rate” — it’s a measure of balls thrown away from coverage that are on frame — and Brady is third in the league among passers with 200 or more pass attempts. The problem with the stat, from the perspective of future performance, is that it isn’t predictive. 

maya: Tampa Bay can enjoy the benefits of a weak division, but a 9-8 Bucs team in the playoffs shouldn’t scare anyone.

Ty Schalter: Would you believe the Buccaneers have the seventh-fewest points scored per drive, and rank just behind the Green Bay Packers?

dre.waters: Man, everybody’s about to restart the Brady-is-washed conversation again and that man is gonna play til he’s 65.

Ty Schalter: Brady’s still willing to go deep, unlike some of his aging contemporaries; he’s 18th in average air yards per attempt. But it’s getting Tampa Bay nowhere: He’s 31st out of 35 qualified quarterbacks in average yards per dropback on throws of at least 10 air yards.

joshua.hermsmeyer: Bottom line though, you have to score more than 3 points against the Panthers. 

maya: Well put. Let’s move to another interconference matchup. The Seattle Seahawks took control of the NFC West with a two-score win over the L.A. Chargers, who can rival the Niners in terms of impact of injuries (they lost two more players yesterday). Kenneth Walker had a massive day on the ground for Seattle. We’ve discussed Geno Smith flourishing in this offense, but what’s standing out to you guys about this Seahawks team?

joshua.hermsmeyer: The Hawks have moved into a tier with the New York Giants and the Baltimore Ravens by EPA/play, and that feels right to me. They’ve been a surprisingly solid team all year, and I wouldn’t be surprised to see their success continue. 

A scatterplot of defensive and offensive EPA per play.

Ty Schalter: I think it’s important to note Geno’s not just flourishing, he’s crushing it! He’s leading the NFL in completion rate above expected, and ranks fourth in Total QBR.

maya: I’m loving Smith’s revitalization as a precision passer — at any depth of target. He’s tied with Josh Allen for most passing touchdowns thrown 20+ yards downfield, with six!

dre.waters: Like you pointed to earlier, Maya, I think the emergence of Walker has been huge. Going back to Week 5, he’s rushed for 88 yards, 97 yards and now 168 yards. That’s the type of production an offense can lean on no matter who’s playing at QB, though Geno has been playing lights out all season as well.

Ty Schalter: Exactly, Andres — their balanced offense is finishing drives. They’re fourth in per-drive scoring rate (45.8 percent). 

joshua.hermsmeyer: I thought we might have seen the last of Sneaky Pete Carroll. But if he can make this team into a contender, he deserves to stick around the league a bit longer.

Ty Schalter: Josh, it wouldn’t be right if he didn’t get at least one or two more coordinators head-coaching jobs that they won’t be able to succeed in.

maya: If I had to vote today, Pete Carroll would be my second choice for Coach of the Year. And that’s a compliment. (There is very little Brian Daboll could do to lose my vote.)

You know what other coach absolutely fascinates me? Mike Vrabel.

Since he took over in Tennessee, I feel like the Titans are quietly one of those perennial almost-contenders who can knock out or scare a higher seed in the playoffs. The Titans have won the division two years running and completed a season sweep of the Indianapolis Colts this weekend, the team right behind them in the division.

I don’t think we’ve seriously discussed this team this season. Are they tracking for another 11-6 season, bowing out in the divisional round to the eventual conference champions? Or could they put up a real fight?

Ty Schalter: I loved this video of Vrabel congratulating/consoling center Ben Jones: 

joshua.hermsmeyer: The Titans got another big game from the big dog, Derrick Henry (30 carries, 128 yards). Some are saying Henry has lost a step, but they leaned on him to beat the (admittedly bad) Colts. If he can return to previous form, I don’t see why they can’t contend again. Well actually, I can think of one reason: Ryan Tannehill, who is 25th in Total QBR on the season

dre.waters: Henry may or may not have lost a step, but he definitely didn’t lose any size. Get that man running downhill 30 times, and eventually good things should happen, lol

Ty Schalter: I almost see it the other way, Maya: They were the AFC’s No. 1 seed last year, and blew their home playoff game to the Cincinnati Bengals. Tannehill was the weak link in that contest, and he’s been his typical fine-but-uneven self again this year. With A.J. Brown and Julio Jones now elsewhere, I think most analysts perceived them as having waved the white flag on competing with the Chiefses and Billses of the AFC.

Maybe this is more about division strength, then: They’re the AFC South champs by default, and they’re going to be in the playoffs. If I were an explosive AFC offensive team, I wouldn’t relish an early game against the Titans — and I’d be scared about health and stamina for both of my lines coming out of it.

maya: But hey, if we’ve learned anything from Kansas City (and maybe Carolina?) this season, it’s that trading away your leading receivers won’t necessarily cost you.

Ty Schalter: Coughs in Green Bay Packers.

maya: Let’s end with some good injury-related news! After disturbing injuries to Tua Tagovailoa in weeks 3 and 4, the handling of which led to changes to the league’s concussion protocol, he returned to the Miami Dolphins this week to defeat the Pittsburgh Steelers. And Dak Prescott appeared in his first game since sustaining a hand injury in Week 1 to lead the Cowboys to a win over the Lions (we’ll give him partial credit for that one). Which signal-caller looked strongest in his return to action?

joshua.hermsmeyer: Tua looked so strong coming out of the gate Sunday night, but then everything just kind of stalled out. Still, I’ll give him the edge over Dak just based on the excitement of watching the Dolphins offense when it is hitting on all cylinders. 

Ty Schalter: If you just look at the final score, it seems like Dak cruises away with this one. But with four minutes left in the game, the Cowboys had only scored 10 points against the league’s worst scoring defense. If not for back-to-back Jared Goff turnovers in the closing minutes, Cowboys Twitter might be talking about Cooper Rush again this morning. 

dre.waters: Yeah, I’m with Josh. Tua looked better to me as well. He came out and led Miami to an early lead, then they just held off the Steelers. Dak, like Ty said, needed help from Goff and Detroit to get a win in a game that was closer than the final score suggests. 

maya: Tua also has the benefit of two of the speediest, strongest receivers in the league.

Ty Schalter: One of my pet theories coming out of this season so far is that QB/WR fit is the new frontier of offensive efficiency. A truly great quarterback should be able to do everything well — but getting the right receiver, one who excels at running the routes your quarterback best throws — can elevate the quarterback’s effectiveness, sometimes dramatically so. Pairing Tyreek Hill with a quarterback who has outstanding accuracy on shorter routes allows both players to shine. And having Jaylen Waddle and Mike Gesicki, two players who win a lot of one-on-one matchups, and you have a passing offense that’s extremely hard to cover for four quarters (even if Tua’s not having his best deep-ball day). 

dre.waters: Can you tell that my Baltimore Ravens, Ty???? 

joshua.hermsmeyer: Andres, just roll that up and send it by carrier pigeon right into Greg Roman’s booth!

I think Ty is on to something here, though — so long as the fit is an elite WR and a decent QB, with an emphasis on elite WR. Otherwise I think most of the standard assumptions about great QBs making the players around them better still apply.

maya: Guess it all comes down to chemistry, at the end of the day.

joshua.hermsmeyer: Both on and off the field. Just ask Tom Terrific.

Check out our latest NFL predictions.

Maya Sweedler is a senior editor at FiveThirtyEight.

Josh Hermsmeyer was a football writer and analyst.

Andres Waters is a freelance writer based in Connecticut. He is a data analyst at ESPN.

Ty Schalter is a husband, father and terrible bass player who uses words and numbers to analyze football. His work has been featured at VICE, SiriusXM and elsewhere.


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