This column previews five Week 3 matchups: the Philadelphia Eagles at the Dallas Cowboys, the Los Angeles Chargers at the Kansas City Chiefs, the Baltimore Ravens at the Detroit Lions, the Atlanta Falcons at the New York Giants, and the Tampa Bay Buccaneers at the Los Angeles Rams.
All spreads and totals are provided by DraftKings.
Philadelphia at Dallas (DAL -3.5, Total 52)
This week’s Rams-Bucs matchup deserves all the hype it’s getting, but given the potential of a long-term rivalry between quarterback Jalen Hurts and Dak Prescott, the Monday Night game between Philadelphia and Dallas should receive similar anticipation.
The box score would indicate that Hurts and the Eagles’ offense were shut down by the 49ers’ defense in Week Two, but those numbers don’t tell the full story. Philadelphia would have been up 17-0 with roughly five minutes left in the second quarter if two plays had gone slightly differently; receivers Jalen Reagor and Quez Watkins both beat 49ers’ cornerback Deommodore Lenoir on verticals up the sidelines that nearly went for touchdowns, but Reagor’s apparent touchdown was called back because he stepped out of bounds on his route, and Watkins was tackled by safety Jaquiski Tartt at the San Francisco six-yard line after a 91-yard gain from the Philadelphia three. The Eagles were subsequently stuffed at the goal line, failing on a revival of the Philly Special on their fourth-down attempt.
Instead of 17-0, the score was 3-0, and the Eagles’ defense eventually allowed the 49ers’ offense to get moving in a game Philadelphia lost 17-11. It’s a disappointing outcome, but between the explosive plays on offense and the dominance displayed by defensive tackle Javon Hargrave, there are reasons to be excited about the Eagles, though the losses of veterans Brandon Brooks (right guard) and Brandon Graham (defensive end) to injury hurts. Second-round pick Landon Dickerson was thrust into action at guard with mixed results and will look to improve against Dallas, while Graham will be replaced by committee. Philadelphia is fortunate that defensive end Josh Sweat appears to be on the verge of a breakout season; his quick pass-rush win on 49ers’ tackle Mike McGlinchey showed high-level skill even though Sweat didn’t show up in the box score.
It was clear in Week One that Dallas offensive coordinator Kellen Moore had added excellent ideas to the offense, but defensive coordinator Dan Quinn’s unit was equally impressive in Week Two. The group has talent deficiencies at cornerback that were exposed by the Bucs, as well as Chargers’ receiver Mike Williams in his matchup with Anthony Brown, but unlike last year’s Dallas defense, this unit flys to the ball. More importantly, Quinn has deviated from his Seattle roots by mixing in significantly more man looks, in many cases behind blitzes, than one would typically expect from a Seattle-style group. Top corner Trevon Diggs followed the top receiver for the second consecutive week and picked up another interception undercutting a route to receiver Keenan Allen. Diggs appears poised to lead the secondary, while rookie Micah Parsons moved from linebacker to defensive end and promptly wore out Chargers tackle Storm Norton with his quickness to the inside. The position move was out of necessity, but Parsons is likely to stay at end when Demarcus Lawrence returns given his performance.
The offensive scheme also continued to impress as Kellen Moore emphasized two-back looks, getting running backs Ezekiel Elliott and Tony Pollard touches in a variety of ways. Dallas threw some new looks at the Chargers, with a displaced offensive line formation standing out. In this formation, shown in the below image, offensive tackles Tyron Smith and Terrence Steele line up at the bottom of the screen with tight end Dalton Schultz, leaving only three linemen in front of quarterback Dak Prescott and Elliott.
As you can see in the following image, the initial play out of this formation set Pollard up with a clear running lane off a screen, and he took advantage for a thirteen-yard gain. The Cowboys did run another play from this formation two snaps later that was a bust and resulted in a TFL on a checkdown pass, but not every play is going to work and the result should not take away from the thinking behind the sequence, which gives defenses around the league one more wrinkle to prepare for moving forward.
Jalen Hurts has given Philadelphia fans reasons to believe they have their long-term quarterback through two weeks, but the NFC East may have the most contentious rivalries in the NFL and Hurts won’t be seen as the long-term guy until he’s winning against the Cowboys. Dallas should have a slight edge at home, but anticipate a tight contest.
Model Projection: Dallas 27.69 – Philadelphia 24.62
Los Angeles Chargers at Kansas City (KC -6.5, Total 54.5)
There were more frustrating moments than positive plays on offense for the Chargers in Week Two, but one highlight was receiver Mike Williams eluding corner Anthony Brown to get a touchdown on a “Now” route that quarterback Justin Herbert threw to him immediately after the snap. The play brought back memories of a game in Williams’ sophomore season when he scored on a 19-yard touchdown run in a late-season game in Kansas City that the Chargers won 29-28. It was incredible to watch such a long-limbed player run with so much shake and the moment seemed to portend great things for Williams in the future.
In the years since Williams had been relegated to a role as the deep ball threat for the Chargers, but that has changed dramatically under new offensive coordinator Joe Lombardi, who is highlighting all the reasons Williams was the 7th overall pick in the 2017 draft class. Williams will feast on second corners when the number one follows fellow receiver Keenan Allen and while the Chiefs typically have their corners play sides, Williams is talented enough to win against any Kansas City corner he lines up against.
Williams’ performance will be critical, as the Chargers need to post points in this one given the presence of the 10th overall pick from the 2017 draft class (Chiefs quarterback Patrick Mahomes), who is off to another hot start. Mahomes did throw a significant interception against the Ravens on a poor decision in scramble mode, but that one play shouldn’t take away from the numerous elite throws he’s made through the early part of the season. Mahomes had the Chiefs in position to kick a game-winning field goal before Ravens edge rusher Odafe Oweh punched the ball loose from running back Clyde-Edwards Helaire, so the Chiefs should be fine despite letting the Sunday Night game slip away from them.
Rookie Chargers corner Asante Samuel Jr. may not follow receiver Tyreek Hill in the strictest sense of the word, but he will likely flip sides to play in his standard outside corner position to the side Hill lines up to. This will be an interesting matchup to watch; Samuel stood out in coverage when he challenged Cowboys receiver Amari Cooper on a 4th down stop route to get the Chargers off the field. He also showed high-level awareness when he recognized that Cowboys quarterback Dak Prescott had overthrown a deep crosser to receiver CeeDee Lamb and peeled off the post route he was covering to intercept the pass. Samuel has been impressive so far and his reps against Hill could be the first of many in this division matchup.
A critical factor for the Chargers will be whether right tackle Storm Norton can step up his game. Norton struggled against the Cowboys’ defensive end Micah Parsons on a quick inside move that Parsons used to beat him repeatedly and it will make quarterback Justin Herbert’s life far more difficult if he has to continue compensating for Norton’s mistakes that by scrambling away. Herbert is immensely talented and more than capable of making plays on the run, but it would be preferable if he could execute the offense as designed. This one could turn into a shootout; in that case, it will likely come down to whether Herbert and his offense can cut down on the penalties and turnovers and start converting their gaudy yardage totals into points.
Model Projection: Kansas City 27.82 – Los Angeles Chargers 24.64
Baltimore at Detroit (BAL -7.5, Total 50)
The Baltimore offense went back to its roots in their Sunday Night win over Kansas City, running roughshod over the Kansas City defense and creating explosive plays in the passing game against a defense that was forced to overcommit to the run. Baltimore racked up 251 rushing yards on the day, with quarterback Lamar Jackson leading the way with 107 yards on 16 carries while Ty’Son Williams, Latavius Murray, and Devonta Freeman all chipped in at running back.
The Ravens always feature Jackson in the run game to some degree, but the offense seems to be at its best when the option-run game is the primary focus of the game plan. Jackson’s presence allows Baltimore to employ creative run schemes that create opportunities for the running backs. The image below is an example of this; as the arrows indicate, the backside guard Kevin Zeitler and backside tackle Patrick Mekari are pulling around to the left side, where left tackle Alejandro Villanueva is attempting to seal the front side edge.
In most cases, a zone-read would be set up for the running back, in this case Devonta Freeman, to have the run to the front side, with Jackson threatening to the backside. On this play, they flipped that, with Jackson threatening to the frontside on what some term a “zone-read opposite”.
Jackson gave the ball to Freeman and fullback Patrick Ricard led the back out the backdoor. The defense was flowing to fit against the front side run and ended up out of position, which allowed Freeman to hit a clean lane and leave the Kansas City defenders chasing him on a 31-yard carry.
On other occasions, Jackson will occupy the traditional quarterback role, where he is as dangerous as any ball carrier in the NFL going out the backdoor. The alignment of the back signals this to some degree, but the extra formations create more uncertainty about who will end up with the ball on concepts that inherently create hesitation in the defense. In the NFL, defensive hesitation leads to explosive plays, and the combination of mental and physical uncertainty these concepts create makes them a nightmare to defend.
Baltimore is a tough out when they run this way and the Detroit Lions are not particularly well-equipped to stop them. While the Lions do have a solid defensive line, the Ravens running game attacks the linebacker level as much as the line and Detroit’s linebackers have been an issue thus far. Jamie Collins is on the trade block after a dispute regarding his role, so it will be up to Alex Anzalone and rookie Derrick Barnes to raise the standard at linebacker this week.
Detroit’s offense has had its moments; tight end T.J. Hockenson has flourished in a number one receiver role and second-year receiver Quintez Cephus has continued to build on a promising rookie season, but Baltimore’s defense has gotten reinforcements from emerging players. Rookie edge rusher Odafe Oweh was involved in multiple game-changing plays against the Chiefs, tripping up quarterback Patrick Mahomes on a pass that was intercepted by corner Tavon Young and forcing and recovering a late fumble on Clyde Edwards-Helaire with the Chiefs in field goal range as Baltimore clung to a one-point lead. Corner Anthony Averett picked up a PBU working against receiver Tyreek Hill on an out route and is playing at a solid level across from Marlon Humphrey, another reason this defense appears to be trending in the right direction. Detroit is deep in a rebuild and the Ravens should blow them out.
Model Projection: Baltimore 28.89 – Detroit 19.7
Atlanta at New York Giants (NYG -2.5, Total 47.5)
Atlanta and New York both limp into this contest at 0-2. The odds of making the playoffs after an 0-3 start are off to some degree given that the season is now seventeen games but remain very poor given that there was about a 3% chance in a sixteen-game season based on results since 1982.
Neither of these teams seems destined to make a playoff run regardless, with the Falcons appearing to be in the worse position of the two teams. Right guard Chris Lindstrom and right tackle Kaleb McGary were improved in the run game against Tampa Bay, but McGary continued to struggle in pass protection, while left guard Jalen Mayfield and center Matt Hennessy were often overwhelmed by a Buccaneers front led by nose tackle Vita Vea.
Quarterback Matt Ryan connected with his strong cast of weapons at times but struggled to maintain consistency. This is anecdotal based on observation of the first two games, but the Falcons appear to be as bad as any team in the league on third/fourth and one situations, with little ability to win on the line of scrimmage in the run game in these spots.
That’s unlikely to improve against a Giants’ defensive front featuring Leonard Williams and Dexter Lawrence. The New York front should keep the Atlanta run game in check, which will make number one corner James Bradberry’s matchup with receiver Calvin Ridley particularly important. Bradberry, who regularly follows the opponent’s top receiver, had an uncharacteristically poor performance against Washington’s Terry McLaurin last week outside of the interception he picked up at the end of the game. If he can keep Ridley in check, the rest of the defense can focus on versatile weapons Kyle Pitts and Cordarrelle Patterson, but if Ridley gets loose, the rest of the offense could follow.
Model Projection: New York Giants 22.96 – Atlanta 19.59
Tampa Bay at Los Angeles Rams (TB -1.5, Total 56.5)
The matchup between Tampa Bay and Los Angeles pits arguably the two most complete teams in the NFL against one another. Tampa Bay quarterback Tom Brady has posted a touchdown to interception ratio of nine to zero over the first two games, while his counterpart, the Rams’ Matthew Stafford, showed outstanding poise when he answered after the Colts took the lead on a touchdown off a botched punt attempt by leading the Rams on a touchdown drive to retake the lead and a final scoring drive for the game-winning field goal.
Tampa Bay did get into a shootout with Dallas in Week One, so perhaps the model’s total is low, but these are the model’s two top-rated defenses despite the output Tampa allowed in Week One. These teams feature defensive tackles Aaron Donald and Vita Vea, elite players who are the league’s best undersized and oversized defensive tackles, respectively. Donald is backed by a Jalen Ramsey-led secondary that has produced strong results so far, while Vea is surrounded by other elite players in Tampa’s dominant front.
The Bucs’ secondary played better against Atlanta’s offense than against the Cowboys, but that’s to be expected given the difference in opponents. They will face a much stiffer test against Stafford, who has capitalized on the deep shots head coach Sean McVay and the Rams’ offensive staff have schemed up through two weeks. It will be particularly interesting to see how they handle receiver Cooper Kupp, who has been Stafford’s favorite receiver through two weeks. With starting slot corner Sean Murphy-Bunting out for Tampa Bay, Kupp may do more of his work in the slot this week.
Los Angeles was particularly stout in the red zone against the Colts, making a goal-line stand against three runs and a pass from the one-yard line on one drive and intercepting Carson Wentz in the end zone on a second. That’s not sustainable, but it spoke to the tenacity of this unit, which has been difficult to move along the line due to the presence of Sebastian Joseph-Day, A’Shawn Robinson, and Greg Gaines alongside Aaron Donald. Add in the presence Leonard Floyd provides off the edge against the run and the pass and you have a fantastic matchup against a stacked Buccaneers offensive line.
It’s impossible to pinpoint a top matchup in this game because there are so many compelling storylines. The model gives the slight line to the defending champs, with the total coming in well under the total of 56.
Model Projection: Tampa Bay 24.1 – Los Angeles 23.92
This article previewed five 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 BeerLife Sports!