This column previews three Week 2 matchups: the Kansas City Chiefs at the Baltimore Ravens, the Las Vegas Raiders at the Pittsburgh Steelers, and the Buffalo Bills at the Miami Dolphins.
All spreads and totals are provided by DraftKings.
Kansas City at Baltimore (KC -3.5, Total 54.5)
The injuries that have piled up in Baltimore were concerning enough, but the plan that offensive coordinator Greg Roman came out with against the Las Vegas Raiders was arguably the most compelling reason to jump ship on Baltimore’s season.
After paying lip service to the idea of implementing under-center, Shannahan-style concepts into this offense throughout the offseason, Baltimore came out and ran a scheme that was eerily similar to the one that caused this offense to struggle during the first half of 2020. This approach features quarterback Lamar Jackson as a run threat to a certain degree but doesn’t take full advantage of the distraction he can create at the mesh point, and that asks Jackson to be a dropback passer too often. Jackson does not process the field well from the pocket and severe accuracy issues tend to pop up when he is asked to sit back and work through a passing game without clearly defined options. On top of that, right tackle Alejandro Villanueva struggled badly in dropback pass protection throughout this game and he was not alone in that regard; even left tackle Ronnie Stanley didn’t play to the top of his game in his first action since last season’s season-ending ankle injury.
The concerning thing is that the score never dictated that the Ravens take this approach. When Jackson returned from his COVID absence to face the Dallas Cowboys last season, Baltimore reverted to an offense that looked far more like the 2019 unit that ran their option-based run game unapologetically. This offense doesn’t have the level of talent of last year’s group, but as they don’t appear to have installed any Shannahan concepts (the lack of practice time could have influenced this as well), their best bet is doubling down on what they do well.
This will be especially important this week because the Chiefs know what they do well and did it on Sunday against the Cleveland Browns. It was a strong start for Kansas City’s remade offensive line, with former Raven Orlando Brown holding his own at left tackle against Cleveland’s Myles Garrett in his first game with the Chiefs. As long as the line holds up, quarterback Patrick Mahomes is poised to have a big game against a secondary that struggled to contain Derek Carr and the Raiders passing attack.
Kansas City has had the edge on Baltimore over the past few years and it would be a surprise if this diminished version of the Ravens is the one to get over that obstacle.
Model Projection: Kansas City, 26.43 – 20.65
Las Vegas at Pittsburgh (PIT -6.5, Total 47)
For the first time in the Jon Gruden era, the Las Vegas defense features multiple impact players.
On MNF, the pass-rush tandem of Yannick Ngakoue and Maxx Crosby jumped off the screen. Ngakoue, a free-agent addition coming off a disappointing 2020 that saw him traded from Jacksonville to Minnesota to Baltimore, had his explosive first step back and looked more comfortable in his role in this Gus Bradley defense than he did at any point with the Vikings or Ravens. Crosby was on another level; he has always been stout against the run and a prolific pass rusher, but he may have taken the leap from above-average to superstar this offseason.
Ngakoue suffered a hamstring injury but is slated to play against a Pittsburgh offense that struggled against the Buffalo Bills. The Steelers were shut out in the first half and got their only offensive touchdown on a drive where the biggest play came on defensive pass interference on 3rd and 7 (though running back Najee Harris did follow that with an impressive 18-yard run).
That particular Harris carry aside, this offense looked an awful lot like last year’s unit. The offensive line is not very good, the run-pass ratio was 21:32 despite their largest deficit being 10 points, and when they did run the ball, they were inefficient doing it. Harris is a talented back, but he can’t do anything when he’s facing frequent backfield penetration, and quarterback Ben Roethlisberger didn’t play well enough to make the Bills defense fear Pittsburgh’s passing attack. Despite reports of excellent offseason training, Roethlisberger looked like the same player from last season, and his 18 of 32 for 188 yards stat line reflected that.
Fortunately, Pittsburgh is still outstanding on defense. Free-agent addition Melvin Ingram and second-year player Alex Highsmith did an excellent job complementing T.J. Watt on the edge, and while Bills quarterback Josh Allen did miss on some downfield shots, a secondary that featured Tre Norwood, James Pierre, and Arthur Maulet in sub-packages along the starting group of Joe Haden, Cameron Sutton, Minkah Fitzpatrick, and Terrell Edmunds held up well against a dangerous group of Bills receivers.
As good as the defense is, the Steelers can’t count on blocked punts for touchdowns every week, and the offense needs to show more for expectations to rise. The Vegas defense arguably looked better than the Pittsburgh offense in Week One, the first time I can recall saying that the Vegas defense was better than any NFL unit during Gruden’s tenure.
Model Projection: Pittsburgh 23.38 – 21.69
Buffalo at Miami (BUF -3.5 at -120, Total 47.5)
Buffalo Bills fans hoping for an MVP season from Josh Allen were disappointed on Sunday, but while the Miami defense presents a formidable challenge, there are many reasons to expect Allen and the offense to get back on track sooner than later, two of which will be highlighted here.
The first is that Allen had missed downfield opportunities, most notably on a play where receiver Emmanuel Sanders was behind the defense, that he is fully capable of hitting. Downfield accuracy can look bad in small samples, so jumping to the conclusion that Allen has regressed to his pre-2020 form based on those throws is probably an overreaction.
The second is that left tackle Dion Dawkins, who typically plays at a very high level, struggled more than usual in the opener, with several snaps against veteran edge rusher Melvin Ingram standing out. It’s likely that he will correct this moving forward, though his play will certainly bear watching early in this matchup with the Dolphins. The rest of the line will benefit from not having to face Cam Heyward and T.J. Watt; no disrespect to the Miami front, but it’s hard to find a more formidable tandem in the NFL than Heyward and Watt.
Miami may not have the same caliber of players upfront, but the corner tandem of Xavien Howard and Byron Jones appears as elite as ever, with Howard perhaps taking out his frustration at New England’s refusal to throw the ball in his direction by forcing a fumble on running back Damien Harris and recovering the ball to secure the win. The Dolphins have also shifted former Patriot cornerback Jason McCourty to play the free safety role his twin Devin occupies in the similarly-designed Patriots defense, and while the broadcast copy makes it nearly impossible to evaluate deep safety play, Jason seemed to hold up well in his new role.
These potential improvements to an already strong defense were accompanied by a massive leap forward on offense, both from quarterback Tua Tagovailoa and the offensive scheme in general. Tagovailoa looked better physically; he’ll never have the overwhelming arm strength, but he was able to push the ball downfield with timing, and also showed off improved mobility on designed runs and scrambles alike. He plays decisive football while executing the many RPOs this offense called for, and the scheme did an excellent job of using motion to set up easy completions, with a notable example on the touchdown pass to rookie Jaylen Waddle near the goal line.
Tagovailoa will never be Allen; the difference in physical tools is too vast, but Tagovailoa and the Dolphins should be competitive against Allen and the Bills. The model projects the Bills to win a tight one, but with the performances of the Dolphins and Patriots in Week One, the AFC East looks much more like a three-team race than it proved to be in 2020.
Model Projection: Buffalo 23.08, Miami 21.41
This article previewed three NFL matchups for the coming week. For more content from The Professor, including the rest of his game previews and his fantasy content, check out The Professor on BeerLife Sports!