Don’t Sleep on the Cowboys Defense
NFL Week 11 –
Game of the Week: Dallas Cowboys at Kansas City Chiefs, Sunday, 4:25 p.m.
While our attention was focused elsewhere, the Cowboys defense climbed to fourth in the NFL in DVOA.
The Cowboys rank first in stopping No. 1 receivers, which is the inevitable result of Trevon Diggs intercepting almost one pass per week. They also rank first at stopping short passes. Interceptions are also a big part of that: Diggs has six interceptions, the Cowboys a total of nine, on passes of 15 air yards or less (per Sports Info Solutions). But the Cowboys also allow a 69.5% completion rate on such passes, the fourth-lowest rate in the NFL, so they aren’t just sitting back and waiting for turnovers to happen.
The Cowboys defense also ranks first in the NFL on third/fourth-and-medium, but just 21st in third/fourth-and-long situations. That creates some interesting matchup situations against the Chiefs, who rank a surprising 30th in third/fourth-and-long situations but second in third/fourth-and-medium situations. Close your eyes and you can picture Patrick Mahomes hitting Travis Kelce over the middle or Tyreek Hill on a shallow drag so he can turn upfield for a first down on third-and-5, but you can also picture Mahomes scrambling and attempting a million-yard touchdown pass on third-and-12. Conversely, you can picture Diggs lurking to jump a short third-and-medium route but the Cowboys coverage breaking down if their pass rush doesn’t get home on third-and-long.
However they do it, the Cowboys defense must force Mahomes to make the mistakes he was making a month ago, the ones he still looked willing to make for much of Sunday night. For what it’s worth, Cowboys defenders have dropped just three interceptions this season (per SIS), but that’s more likely to be randomization than a skill, just as a few random caroms contributed to the Chiefs’ high early-season turnover rate.
We should probably talk about the over-under, which was floating up at 56.5 late in the week. Chiefs games are 6-7 at clearing overs of 55-plus points in the regular season and playoffs during the Patrick Mahomes era. Cowboys games have failed to go over a 55-point number in two tries this year: Week 2 against the Chargers and last week against the Falcons. So while this looks like an epic shootout on paper, the Cowboys defense is much better than advertised, and Walkthrough is waiting and seeing before declaring Mission Accomplished on the Chiefs’ offense rebound.
Walkthrough grabbed the Cowboys +2.5 and the Under at a delicious +265 as our Twelve Trillion Star Lock of the Week. FO+ and EdjSports like the Cowboys, too, if not the parlay. What are you waiting for? BECOME ONE WITH US. Cowboys 31, Chiefs 23.
Washington Football Team at Carolina Panthers, Sunday, 1 p.m.
Ron Rivera versus Cam Newton: finally, the grudge match we’ve been waiting for.
There’s no grudge. They worked together for nearly a decade, enjoyed considerable success, and parted on by-all-accounts amiable terms with each other when their organization chose to move on from each of them.
Will Rivera get revenge on the quarterback who held his Panthers teams back for so many years?
WTF are you talking about?
Will Newton prove Rivera wrong for ever doubting him?
When did that even happen?
Will Rivera regret not bringing Cam to Washington to be his quarterback?
Newton hasn’t even started a game yet. He was a goal-line gadget specialist last week. He was unspectacular with the Patriots last season. His injury history remains troubling. He hasn’t had a strong season as a pure passer since (if we are being charitable) 2018. It’s unlikely that he would have had a significant impact on Washington’s fortunes. It remains unlikely that he will have a significant impact on the Panthers’ fortunes.
How long before Newton’s fedora and cravat become a distraction?
Oh, OK, you are just free-associating in search of Cam Newton engagement in an otherwise uninteresting game between teams which probably aren’t going anywhere.
Look, it’s great to see Cam back; getting cut by the Patriots at the end of camp tasted a little too much like Purina Troll Chow. Maybe a heavy dose of the WildCam package keeps the Panthers in the mix to be one of the yucky NFC wild-card teams. The Panthers should be able to move the ball this week against a Washington defense that will be without Chase Young and Montez Sweat. But we can’t shake the feeling that the Newton comeback story will be short lived.
Haters are LOSING THEIR MINDS over Cam Newton’s return. Click here to find out what they are saying.
Eh, whatever pays the bills. Panthers 22, Washington 20.
Indianapolis Colts at Buffalo Bills, Sunday, 1 p.m.
Some Colts notes:
- The Colts offense ranks second in second-level yards and first in open field yards. Jonathan Taylor leads the NFL with nine 20-plus-yard runs.
- The Colts defense ranks last in the NFL in hurry percentage and 28th in pressure percentage, per Pro Football Reference. Their front four stops the run well but doesn’t apply that much pressure.
- Carson Wentz leads the NFL with 223 yards on pass interference penalties. Jalen Hurts is in second place, 99 yards behind him.
- Wentz completed a left-handed pass in Week 10 against the Jaguars (for 2 yards on third-and-3) and attempted a dangerous underhanded lob under pressure. There were some other yolo balls, but the Jaguars defense could not capitalize on his nontraditional decision making.
- Colts fans booed their team after Wentz threw a screen pass to Zach Pascal for a loss of 3 on third-and-10 while nursing a three-point fourth quarter lead. The Colts are lucky Wentz didn’t have a Philly flashback and curl into the fetal position right then and there.
Oops, “Some Colts Notes” morphed into the “Carson Wentz Victimization Index” so gradually we didn’t notice! That’ll happen.
The Colts have all the makings of a schedule-assisted fluke, buoyed by Taylor and their offensive line. They’re about to face the best overall defense in the NFL by a wide margin, a team that applies pressure on a league-high 30.6% of pass plays and allows just 3.8 yards per rush.
Quarterback props weren’t posted yet when Walkthrough went to editing. But we’re estimating a -1200 moneyline that #BillsMafia will be smashing furniture even harder for Josh Allen as MVP after this one, while the over-under on Wentz bloopers is set at 2.5. Bills 27, Colts 16.
Cincinnati Bengals at Las Vegas Raiders, Sunday, 4:05 p.m.
We all know the Raiders are due for one of their annual downward spirals, for reasons both obvious and mysterious. But can they do anything to stop it? Here are a few suggestions:
- Fix First Quarters: The Raiders have been outscored 56-25 in first quarters this season. They rank 30th in first-quarter offensive DVOA and 24th on defense. The Bengals actually rank 31st in first-quarter offensive DVOA (though fourth on defense), so the Raiders have a chance to make life easier for themselves this week by not falling behind.
- Get Jonathan Abram Some Help: The Chiefs picked on Abram regularly in Week 10. In general, “attack the big-hitting box safety” has been one of the tactical themes of this NFL season. The Raiders, who rank 30th against short passes, must make sure Abram doesn’t get matched up against one of the Bengals’ Big Three receivers in the slot very often. Of course, the Raiders are thin across their secondary, so “help” may be hard to come by. They need a plan on pass defense besides “hope Maxx Crosby gets home,” for both this week and beyond.
- Find a Running Game: The Raiders rank 27th in rushing DVOA and just lost fullback Alec Ingold, who diversified their offense in a 15-snap role. The Raiders aren’t strong enough in any other area to be getting so little from Josh Jacobs and Kenyon Drake, and we saw what Derek Carr can turn into on Sunday night when his offense falls too far out of balance.
The FO+ picks see this game, which is virtually a wild-card knockout round, as nearly a dead heat. Walkthrough sees the Bengals coming off the bye and the Raiders reeling from a dozen blows from all directions. That’s why we’re leaning toward the Bengals. If the Raiders do win, however, we predict that A) it will be because Crosby has a Defensive Player of the Week-level performance and B) it still won’t be enough to stop their downward spiral. Bengals 27, Raiders 20.
Arizona Cardinals at Seattle Seahawks, Sunday, 4:25 p.m.
How this game will go (Kyler Murray edition):
- Seahawks three-and-out which lasts three heartbeats of a hummingbird.
- Murray celebrates his return with a quick touchdown to Zach Ertz.
- Short run by Alex Collins. False start on second-and-9. Short completion to Gerald Everett. Incomplete rocket launch to DK Metcalf. Punt. Seriously. This is what the Seahawks offense has been reduced to.
- Murray lunges for an apparent first down on a scramble. Pete Carroll reaches for his challenge flag and drops his keys, wallet, cellphone, cellphone charger, a pack of Sen-Sen, his garage-door opener, brass knuckles, a CVS receipt long enough to mummify Poona Ford, and a lighter from a dispensary called “Marshawn’s Munchies.”
- After a second Cardinals touchdown, Carlos Dunlap gets frustrated and throws a shoe. Oddly enough, it’s a loafer.
- With the Cardinals leading 14-0 at half, all the talk is about Murray’s return and Russell Wilson’s slump. Markus Golden storms the broadcast booth. “Hey, the Cardinals defense is second in the NFL in DVOA. How about a little love?” FOX obliges with a six-minute feature about J.J. Watt.
- Metcalf ejected for trying to eat Budda Baker.
- With the Seahawks trailing 20-3 in the fourth quarter, insiders report that while Wilson isn’t demanding a trade, he’s amenable to being dealt to a team with lots of cap space, warm weather, and coaching stability. He has narrowed his short list to Denver, Chicago, New York, and the Ottawa Redblacks.
- Wilson throws a late touchdown pass to mustachioed newcomer KD Flactem, but it is not enough to win the game or clear the over. Cardinals 26, Seahawks 10.
How this game will go (without Kyler Murray):
- Tune in.
- Realize that a banged-up Colt McCoy will be platooning with Chris Streveler against a 3-6 opponent that calls plays out of a hat.
- Watch Cowboys-Chiefs instead. Seahawks 22, Cardinals 16.
Pittsburgh Steelers at Los Angeles Chargers, Sunday, 8:20 p.m.
Some folks hate ties. Walkthrough loves ’em. We love how all of Twitter feels the need to post their “here’s how to eliminate ties” musings, all the while oblivious to the fact that the NFL doesn’t want to lose late-afternoon Game of the Week viewers because Mason Rudolph and Jared Goff are locked in a two-point conversion duel in the rain.
Best of all, we love how ties stick out like sore thumbs on a playoff contender’s record. It’s hard to keep track of which four teams the Chargers have lost to this season and the circumstances of those losses. It will get even harder to keep track of each team’s past performances in a few weeks. But no one will be able to forget that the Steelers tied the Lions. It’s a big, silly reminder of how bad the Steelers can be on their worst day.
Ben Roethlisberger might be back this week after winning the Congressional Medal of Honor for admitting he was symptomatic with a dangerous contagion. (Hero!) If not, Mason Rudolph impersonated Big Ben like a good little understudy against the Lions by underthrowing nearly every one of his passes and scrambling like an old prospector running away from a collapsing mine, so the Steelers offense won’t change much. Their defense, on the other hand, could sting from T.J. Watt’s potential absence. The Steelers defense was vulnerable to runs between the tackles for weeks before the Lions forced that tie by doing the only thing they are actually good at.
This game should have been scheduled alongside Chiefs-Raiders and Browns-Patriots in Week 10. Those matchups provided clarity: the Chiefs are more-or-less back, the Patriots Way is still a thing, the Browns and Raiders aren’t yet ready for the big time. We’re likely to learn on Sunday that, despite some recent ups and downs, the Chargers remain a team on the rise and the Steelers a team in decline. That’s not a certainty, especially since the Chargers have some COVID concerns of their own, but it sure feels like that tie was trying to tell us something. Chargers 24, Steelers 20.
Detroit Lions at Cleveland Browns, Sunday, 1 p.m.
The Lions and Browns rank 25th and 26th in the NFL in passing yards per game at 211.2 and 209.7, respectively. I found their rankings surprisingly high, as neither team executes much more than swing passes and tight end screens in the passing game. Yet the following teams rank below them in passing yards per game:
|Team||Yards Per Game|
|New Orleans Saints||202.1|
The Eagles change offensive philosophies the way Cam Newton changes ascots. The Texans don’t really have an offense, nor do the Saints anymore. The Seahawks rank 10th in passing DVOA because they figured out that our stats cannot penalize them if they never even have the ball. The Panthers are run by a lyceum of offensive geniuses, so who are we to question their methods? And the Bears, oh lord the Bears, are the inevitable result of never questioning the methods of a lyceum of purported offensive geniuses.
Anyway, the Browns and Lions will slam into each other in an exciting game of Smash the Caveman with the Club. The Browns will prevail, though the Lions will enjoy it more. Browns 23, Lions 14.
Baltimore Ravens at Chicago Bears, Sunday, 1 p.m.
The Dolphins may have found Lamar Jackson’s kryptonite last Thursday night: seven or eight defenders crowding the line of scrimmage, the rest about 10 yards deep, some blitzing, some dropping, lots of confusion for Jackson and the Ravens offensive line at the snap.
There are lots of ways to beat such crowd-the-line defensive tactics. Slants and quick digs work, and they would have worked against the Dolphins if Ravens receivers didn’t keep dropping and fumbling them. Delays and draws can allow the offensive line to dictate once defenders start backpedaling from the line to their assignments. The Dolphins game plan was excellent for flummoxing an opponent coming off a tough game in a short week, but the Ravens should have no trouble coming up with a counterattack.
And hey, at least we’re not doing the dumb “just play two high safeties on every snap and NERF all Hall of Fame quarterbacks” thing again.
As mentioned a moment ago, the Bears are averaging 144.1 passing yards per game. If they keep things up, they will record the lowest passing yards per game since the 2011 Jaguars. That team averaged 136.2 passing yards per game with rookie Blaine Gabbert throwing to Mercedes Lewis, Maurice Jones-Drew, and one of the receivers named Mike Thomas who isn’t sitting back and watching as the Saints fall apart this year. (Or maybe he is. We aren’t the bosses of everyone named Mike Thomas in the world).
Jack Del Rio got fired after 11 games that season. Dare to dream, Bears fans. Dare to dream. Ravens 26, Bears 13.
Green Bay Packers at Minnesota Vikings, Sunday, 1 p.m.
The Vikings committed 10 penalties for 118 yards in their Week 10 victory over the Chargers. Veteran Vikings anthropologists know that 118 penalty yards should have resulted in a loss: no team responds to first-and-20 with an inside zone, boot pass, and a 6-yard completion underneath on third-and-14 quite like they do. But Kirk Cousins threw a 21-yard pass on second-and-20 to Justin Jefferson to set up a touchdown before halftime, and the Vikings later pulled themselves out of second-and-17 and third-and 20 situations while running out the clock in the fourth quarter.
The thought of the Vikings learning how to manage first-and-20 situations has thrown off Walkthrough’s equilibrium. The thought of them learning to avoid most first-and-20 situations altogether could leave us spiraling out of control. If the Vikings aren’t committing holding penalties and then flailing like a crab before it gets thrown into a stewpot, what does reality even mean anymore?
The Packers and Vikings split their series last season, with the Packers cruising in the season opener but the Vikings rushing for 173 yards in a 26-22 November upset. The Packers defense is better this year, and they likely got the offensive listlessness out of their systems last week. On the other hand, if we can assume last week’s situation-management competence was a blip, the Vikings never change. And we don’t want to live in a world where they do. Packers 26, Vikings 24.
San Francisco 49ers at Jacksonville Jaguars, Sunday, 1 p.m.
With five carries for 36 yards and one touchdown out of the backfield on Monday night, Deebo Samuel may have completed his final evolution from slot/gadget weapon to “positionless offensive focal point,” a role henceforth known as the Deebo here at Walkthrough.
Since the days of Antwaan Randle El, Walkthrough has dreamed of the time when coaches would rip the labels off their all-purpose in-space playmakers, expand their roles, and unleash their full potential to do more than run screens and end-arounds. With Cordarrelle Patterson experiencing success in Atlanta, the Deebo role may soon catch on around the NFL. In a few years, we’ll be talking about offenses taking the field with 014 personnel: zero running backs, one tight end, four Deebos scattered all over the turf.
The Jaguars have their own potential Deebo in Laviska Shenault, as well as Jamal Agnew, who has six career return touchdowns and ran 66 yards for a touchdown last week. Will they find creative ways to get Shenault and Agnew more opportunities in space, or will they waste a bunch of touches on Dan Arnold and Carlos Hyde?
That was a rhetorical question. 49ers 23, Jaguars 10.
New Orleans Saints at Philadelphia Eagles, Sunday, 1 p.m.
The Saints are running the “Term Paper Procrastination Offense” under Trevor Siemian: three quarters of goofing off and wasting time, followed by 15 minutes of manic, energetic chaos. It works just well enough to throw a late scare into opponents, and it’s all they really have: Trevor Siemian is a scout team quarterback throwing to scout team playmakers. Alvin Kamara’s possible return may help, but the Saints offense has problems that negative rushing DYAR and 38.8 receiving yards per game won’t solve.
The Eagles wore their balanced offense with their aggressive defense last week, and it was a perfect match after weeks of clashing screen-heavy-offense/no-defense-whatsoever and ball-control-offense/bend-but-don’t-break-defense combinations.
Jalen Hurts led the Eagles to victory against the Taysom Hill Experience in his very first start in 2020. Based on the way both teams have played over the last two weeks, there’s no reason to think that he can’t do something similar this week. Eagles 22, Saints 17.
Houston Texans at Tennessee Titans, Sunday, 1 p.m.
The Titans’ post-Derrick Henry plan at running back appears to be: former Texans third-round pick D’Onta Foreman is the early-game battering ram, Jeremy McNichols remains the third-down back, and Adrian Peterson comes on late in the game to munch clock. Also, the Titans pass more frequently, which is wise.
The committee approach didn’t quite work against the Saints: Foreman averaged just 2.7 yards per carry, McNichols caught one pass for 1 yard on three targets, and Peterson got stuffed for a loss of 5 after a pair of productive late-game carries, which forced the Titans to punt a few plays later. Whatever your thoughts on the value of running backs, the Titans can’t keep winning by replacing Henry with the empty space where Henry used to be.
The Titans were on bye last week. Did you notice? Titans 26, Texans 12.
Miami Dolphins at New York Jets, Sunday, 1 p.m.
The Dolphins and Jets should trade Tua Tagovailoa for Zach Wilson straight up. Brian Flores could get a fresh start with Wilson to see if his developmental regimen of low-key negging, public shaming, and dueling-banjo coordinators works better the second time around. Tua would see his backup splashed across the back pages of tabloids for two weeks and think, “eh, this is nuttin.”
Joe Flacco gets the start for the Jets, though the Dolphins might trade for him at halftime so they can spread the quarterback humiliation around a little more evenly. Don’t bet upon or watch this game unless you are a diehard fan of either team or some sort of sicko. Dolphins 19, Jets 13.
New York Giants at Tampa Bay Buccaneers, Monday, 8:15 p.m.
The Buccaneers currently have the worst penalty yardage differential in the NFL at -285 yards. They had the best regular-season penalty yardage differential in the NFL at +300 yards in 2020, and that advantage blossomed to +376 by the Super Bowl.
The Buccaneers are losing the defensive pass interference battle 217 yards to 78 after winning it a stunning 487 to 128 last year. Also of note: the Buccaneers defense has been called for neutral zone infractions or jumping offsides 11 times. Their home-road splits do not appear to be remarkable.
It’s tricky to extrapolate from penalty data. The neutral zone infractions are the residue of having an aggressive front four that tries to jump snap counts. Referees may have gotten a wee bit carried away when giving Tom Brady the benefit of the doubt on poorly thrown passes last year and have reeled things in a smidge. Buccaneers defensive backs can get a little grabby when forced to cover for more than a second or two. But overall, there’s a high likelihood that penalty “luck” is just evening out.
Whether or not it will continue to even out (we all know probability has a mind of its own) is a question for future weeks. The Giants would need about a 100-yard penalty advantage to hand the Buccaneers their third straight upset. And even if they got one, the Giants would likely squander it on 24-yard field goals or something. Buccaneers 34, Giants 22.
Walkthrough apologizes to all readers over 40 for getting this song stuck in your head with that “Sen Sen” reference.