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By the Numbers

NFL Wild Card Mismatch Manifesto

by Ian Hartitz
Updated On: January 3, 2020, 8:57 pm ET

The NFL is a matchup-driven league. Offensive coordinators are always looking to scheme their playmakers into one-on-one situations against a defender, while defensive coordinators will attempt to do anything in their power to upset the timing and rhythm of the opposing QB.

Despite the obvious impact that defenses have on opposing offenses, fantasy players and fans alike are often left with one-way metrics to describe offenses and defenses that they are then forced to compare against each other in an attempt to identify mismatches.

The goal here is to provide easy-to-decipher charts and notes to define each week’s key matchups and advantages on both sides of the ball in:

  • Explosive Plays
  • Pace
  • Pressure
  • Trench Battles
  • Passing Game
  • Red Zone Efficiency

The following charts display matchup-specific information meant to highlight the largest mismatches in these ever-important facets of football to ultimately gain actionable betting and fantasy takeaways. And, of course, to have fun.

Note: This data is based on what has happened in Weeks 1-17.

Explosive Plays

Big plays make the football world go round. Matchups between explosive offenses and leaky defenses are exactly what we’re looking for when compiling game stacks in DFS, or when betting an over. We can calculate this with help from NFL.com’s team-based statistics. All individual deep ball rates and targets, as well as explosive rush data, is courtesy of Pro Football Focus.

  • Explosive Pass Rate: The sum of an offense’s rate of 20-plus yard completions per pass attempt and the opposing defense’s rate of 20-plus yard completions allowed per pass attempt. A higher percentage is better for offenses (green is good, red is bad).
  • Explosive Run Rate: The sum of an offense’s rate of 20-plus yard gains per rush attempt and the opposing defense’s rate of 20-plus yard runs allowed per rush attempt. A higher percentage is better for offenses (green is good, red is bad).
WC Explosive

    • This week's playoff offenses have the following league-wide ranks in explosive pass play rate: Titans (No. 2), Vikings (No. 6), Bills (No. 11), Seahawks (No. 12), Patriots (No. 13), Saints (No. 16), Texans (No. 17) and Eagles (No. 23).
    • This week's playoff defenses have the following league-wide ranks in explosive pass play rate allowed: Bills (No. 1), Patriots (No. 5), Vikings (No. 6), Eagles (No. 10), Saints (No. 14), Seahawks (No. 17), Titans (No. 18) and Texans (No. 22).
    • Ryan Tannehill deserves plenty of credit for the offense's ridiculous big-play ability in the passing game. He's routinely managed to hit the team's field-stretching WRs downfield with b-e-a-utiful strikes from both inside and outside the pocket. Tannehill has averaged a robust 14.7 yards per attempt on passes thrown 20-plus yards downfield this season, gaining 544 yards and tossing three touchdowns with zero interceptions on 37-such attempts.
    • Of course, TanneThrill's primary play-maker deserves plenty of credit as well. Only three players have averaged at least three yards after the catch above expectation since 2016 (Next-Gen Stats): 2018 D.J. Moore (+3.2), 2018 George Kittle (+3.4) ... and 2019 A.J. Brown (+4.9).
    • Still, moving the ball through the air against the Patriots is easier said than done. Each of Stephon Gilmore (No. 5), Jason McCourty (No. 21), Jonathan Jones (No. 22) and J.C. Jackson (No. 49) rank among PFF's top-50 CBs among 134 qualified players.
    • Only nine teams had at least four CBs graded outside of PFF's top-50 corners this season. The Texans (5), Eagles (5) and Vikings (4) are the only playoff teams to appear on that list.
    • The Texans certainly have a beatable secondary. Still, Josh Allen's rocket launcher for an arm hasn't been quite as great when throwing downfield as some might think. Only Dwayne Haskins (7.2 YPA on deep passes), Kyle Allen (7.8) and Mason Rudolph (8.4) averaged fewer yards per attempt on throws downfield than Allen (8.7) this season.
    • Deshaun Watson is always a threat to extend the play and make something out of nothing. With that said, he'd certainly benefit from getting ace field-stretching WR Will Fuller (groin) back in the lineup. Overall, Watson has averaged 8.69 YPA and a 7.1% TD rate in 22 games with Fuller compared to 6.99 YPA and a 3.9% TD rate in 17 games without.
    • Teddy Bridgewater got plenty of grief for consistently checking the ball down during his time under center, but this has actually been a defining part of the Saints' passing game for awhile. Drew Brees has ranked No. 35, No. 33 and No. 26 over the past three seasons in deep-ball rate among qualified QBs.
    • The Patriots and Eagles haven't been terrible at creating big plays this season, although they've been unorthodox at doing so. The Patriots (15) join the Eagles (11), Raiders (11) and Chargers (11) as the league's only offenses with double-digit completions of at least 20 yards to their RBs. The Ravens and Eagles are the only offenses with fewer than 20 completions of at least 20 yards to their WRs. They're also the only offenses with more than 20 completions of at least 20 yards to their TEs.
    • Tom Brady will have to be careful about testing this Titans' secondary deep. S Kevin Byard has 17 interceptions since entering the league in 2017. Nobody else has more than 13 during that span.
    • If Kirk Cousins does manage to connect on some deep balls, they'll probably be caught be Stefon Diggs. Nobody has more receiving yards (635) or touchdowns on deep passes (6) than Diggs this season.
    • Only Matthew Stafford (19.6%) threw a higher percentage of his targets at least 20 yards downfield than Russell Wilson (16.5%) this season (PFF). Wilson's 119.2 QB rating on these throws ranks No. 4 among 36 qualified signal callers. Naturally, the Seahawks ran the ball more than anyone other than the Ravens and 49ers in Weeks 1-17.
    • The Seahawks don't have a single glaring weakness in their pass defense, but they also shouldn't be confused as a lock-down unit against any single position. Still, their DVOA rank against WR1s (No. 12), WR2s (No. 9), Other WR (No. 10), TEs (No. 17) and RBs (No. 12) indicates that the Eagles' two-TE heavy attack should be capable of causing problems in this matchup (Football Outsiders).
    • The Bills, Texans, Vikings and Seahawks appear primed to rip off some big gains on the ground compared to the Patriots, Titans, Saints and Eagles.
    • Nick Chubb (20), Derrick Henry (18), Josh Jacobs (16), Raheem Mostert (14), Devin Singletary (14), Joe Mixon (14) and Chris Carson (14) led the league in rushes of at least 15 yards this season.
    • Sony Michel and Rex Burkhead are the only RBs left in the playoffs that have fewer than 20% of their rushing yardage from explosive plays. The Patriots have simply struggled to consistently make big plays on the ground all season.


    Pace

    Fast-paced games lead to more plays, which lead to more points. Every week usually consists of at least a few games that could resemble a track meet based on their combined situation-neutral pace (Football Outsiders).

    • Combined Situation-Neutral Pace: Represents the combined situation-neutral pace between each matchup’s two offenses. A lower number indicates fewer average seconds per play (green = fast-paced game), while a higher number indicates more average seconds per play (red = slow-paced game).
    WC Pace

    • The week's fastest-paced matchup features the Titans (No. 19 in situation neutral pace) at the Patriots (No. 1).
    • Bills (No. 11) at the Texans (No. 14) also figures to move at a fairly quick speed regardless of who has the ball.
    • The week's slowest-paced matchup features the Seahawks (No. 24) at the Eagles (No. 17).
    • The Vikings (No. 10) typically move at a decent pace, but they might not get to run as many plays as usual if the Saints (No. 23) have their way.

    Pressure

    An overmatched offensive line can result in poor fantasy days for all skill-position players involved. Meanwhile, QBs with all day to throw can help generate points in bunches. We can determine which offensive lines might be especially better (or worse) this week with help from Pro Football Focus’ offensive and defensive pressure statistics.

    • Combined Pressure Rate: The sum of the offensive line’s rate of pressures allowed per dropback and the opposing defense’s total pressures generated per dropback. A higher percentage (red) is better for defenses and indicates that QB could be under fire, while a lower percentage (green) indicates that matchup’s QB could face reduced pressure.
    WC Pressure

    • Kirk Cousins has ranked among the league's top-10 most-pressured QBs in each of the past two seasons. Of course, this is also simply a side effect of both Cousins' playing style as well as this scheme. Nobody averaged a longer time between getting the snap and throwing the ball than Cousins (2.83 seconds) this season (PFF).
    • Yes, this beastly Philadelphia pass rush is capable of causing plenty of problems for the Seahawks on Sunday, as was the case in Week 12 when they sacked Russell Wilson on six separate occasions. Also yes, few are more adept at dealing with multiple free rushers than the Seahawks' franchise QB.
    • Perhaps coach Mike Vrabel's generally intimidating demeanor has rubbed off on his QBs. Only Ryan Tannehill (8.6) and Marcus Mariota (8.5) have averaged over even 7.8 YPA when under pressure among 35 qualified signal callers. The entire Titans' passing game would certainly benefit if LB Jamie Collins (shoulder) as well as CBs Jonathan Jones (groin) and Jason McCourty (groin) are operating at less than 100% come Saturday.
    • Mariota was somehow actually more efficient when under pressure (8.5 YPA) than in a clean pocket (7.2) this season. This is fluky and didn't occur with anyone else, but Drew Brees (+0.18 difference) and Carson Wentz (+0.83) are the only other QBs that haven't experience a dip of at least a yard when their free space evaporates.
    • Deshaun Watson joins Wilson as signal callers that are plenty capable of dealing with scary men consistently attempting to rip their head off. Both will hold the ball too long at times and take "unnecessary" sacks, but the only real options that a signal caller has in these sort of pressure situations are: throw to a covered receiver, throw the ball away or attempt to extend the play until something better develops. Each has their own respective upsides and downsides; there isn't a perfect cookie cutter mold for what a productive NFL QB needs to consistently play like. Just appreciate the best in the world doing their thing.
    • It'd certainly behoove the Patriots to do everything in their power to keep Brady away from the Titans' pass rush. The GOAT joins Kyle Allen, Joe Flacco, Sam Darnold, Mitchell Trubisky and (if you aren't done throwing up yet) Mason Rudolph as the only other QBs averaging fewer than five yards per pressured attempt this season.
    • Brady threw the ball away a league-high 45 times (PFF). Only Julian Edelman (153), James White (95), Phillip Dorsett (54) and Mohamed Sanu (47) finished with more targets.
    • Josh Allen (5.8) is the only other Wild Card QB with a pressured YPA rate that was even under six. The good news is he's plenty capable of hurting defenses with his feet upon escaping the pressure. Only Lamar Jackson (430) has more yards on scrambles than Allen (330) this season (PFF). He flashed at times in the Bills' first two matchups with the Patriots this season and has posted 5-30-0, 5-26-1 and 7-43-1 rushing lines in three career games against the evil empire.
    • Each defense's respective rank in pressures per dropback: Saints (No. 2), Eagles (No. 4), Patriots (No. 7), Vikings (No. 17), Bills (No. 19), Texans (No. 20), Titans (No. 27) and Seahawks (No. 31).
    • Look for Vikings DE Danielle Hunter and Saints DE Cameron Jordan to wreak havoc. Only Packers DE Za'Darius Smith (93) pressured the QB more than Hunter (88) and Jordan (83). 49ers DE Nick Bosa (80), Eagles DE Brandon Graham (67) and Vikings DE Everson Griffen (66) are the next-closest playoff defenders.
    • Of course, every team is a little bit different when it comes to their method of getting pressure. Only the Ravens (54.9%) have blitzed at a more frequent rate than the Patriots (37%) among all playoff teams. The Texans (33%), Saints (33%) and Bills (31%) also make a habit of sending extra defenders at the QB, while the Titans (25%), Vikings (25%), Eagles (27%) and Seahawks (27%) have typically taken their chances without blitzing (Pro Football Reference).

    (Analysis on trench battles, passing games and red zone efficiency continues on the next page)

    Ian Hartitz

    All things NFL. Great day to be great. You can follow Ian on Twitter @Ihartitz.