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Sunday's Best

Wildcard Round Marquee Matchups

by Warren Sharp
Updated On: January 9, 2021, 9:26 am ET

Indianapolis Colts at Buffalo Bills

The Colts have lead by double digits in five straight games.  

And they haven’t been made a dog of more than 3 points in any game this year, prior to this one.  Now they’re catching 6.5 to 7 points?

Yes, and on the season, every time the Colts have been made an underdog, they’ve lost.  

They lost to Browns, Steelers and Ravens, both outright and against the spread.

Let's break down some of the matchups.

The Colts Defense has struggled vs 11 personnel passes on first down but is much better defending them on second and third downs – the Bills should look to create a very pass-heavy first down attack

Looking at the Colts games since their Week 7 bye, they have allowed the following production to passes from 11 personnel by down (first 3 quarters):

First down:    70% success, 9.8 YPA, +0.43 EPA
Second down:    46% success, 6.4 YPA, -0.05 EPA
Third down:    40% success, 8.7 YPA, -0.03 EPA

This despite the fact that the Colts haven’t faced very many teams that throw from 11 personnel or have offenses schemed around it, other than the Steelers.

The NFL average is to throw 61% of early down passes from 11 personnel, and of the Colts 9 opponents over this stretch, only PIT and JAX throw at higher rates than the NFL average (with HOU being about average).

With the Bills having an offense designed to excel from 11 or 10 personnel, using this on first down to pass should provide strong results.

Additionally, the Colts have a really low first down pressure rate and a much higher second and third down pressure rate, making first down passes even more optimal – further supports passing on first downs at a higher rate than typical

Examine the Colts pressure rate by down since their bye (first 3 quarters):

First down:        24% (average = 30%)
Second down:    37% (average = 28%)
Third down:        40% (average = 39%)

The only teams with worse first down pressure rates over this time span are the Bengals, Texans, Vikings and Chargers.  But the Colts are able to generate much more pressure on 2nd and 3rd down.

While they rank 5th worst in first down pressure rate, they rank #1 best in second down pressure rate.

Although the Colts Defense vs 11 personnel passes improves on second down, they are still quite susceptible vs WR passes on second down, but are very strong vs TE and RB passes on second downs.

Looking at the Colts games since their week 7 bye, on 11 personnel second down passes (quarters 1-3):

Targeting WRs:    60% success, 8.3 YPA, +0.26 EPA
Targeting TEs:    30% success, 5.3 YPA, +0.07 EPA
Targeting RBs:    50% success, 5.0 YPA, -0.05 EPA

The Bills can still look to pass on second downs from 11 despite the Colts defensive improvements, but specifically call plays that are looking at WR options first rather than RB/TE designed plays

Examining the Colts defensive strengths, they have one of the best LB corps in the NFL.

But it’s also a LB corps which has struggled in coverage of late.

Darius Leonard’s coverage grade has been terrible from weeks 11-16.  He’s been targeted 32 times with 30 completions at a huge 9.6 YPA.  

Anthony Walker’s coverage grade has been terrible over that span and he’s been targeted on 22 passes and 18 have been completed for just over 6 YPA.

Bobby Okereke has improved in his coverage grades from earlier in the season, and he missed a few games with injury during this span, but from week 11 thru 16 he was targeted 12 times, with 8 completions for 10.1 YPA.

On the other side of the ball, much has been made of the defensive resurgence of the Buffalo Bills.

I guess so…

If you consider facing nothing but offenses that rank in the bottom half of the NFL in every single game since their week 11 bye.

The Bills strength of schedule over the course of the season is skewed by the few top-10 offenses they played earlier in the season.

Since their bye, the Bills have faced the #5 easiest schedule of opposing offenses, including the #3 easiest schedule of rushing offenses and #6 easiest schedule of passing offenses.

They’ve faced the likes of Cam Newton, Jarrett Stidham, Nick Mullens, Drew Lock, Ben Roethlisberger and rookies Tua Tagovaiola and Justin Herbert.

And despite that motley crew of passing offenses, the Bills have a 20.5% pressure rate on early down passes in the game’s first three quarters.

That’s the NFL’s #1 lowest pressure rate (average is 30.4%).

The money has come in on the Colts and the Under.  I don't have an opinion on the side, but would lean the opposite way on the total.



Tampa Bay Buccaneers at Washington Football Team

From weeks 1-14, the Bucs had a very run-heavy approach on first down in the first half.  

They ran the ball on 61% of their first downs in the first quarter (NFL average was only 55% run), even though these runs gained just 3.0 YPC, second worst in the NFL.

They ran the ball on 52% of their first downs in the first half (NFL average is only 50% run), even though these runs gained just 2.7 YPC, worst in the NFL.

But the last 3 weeks, they completely flipped the switch.

They have shifted to 67% pass on first downs in the first quarter, up from 39% pass.

These passes are averaging 8.5 YPA with a 57% success rate.  (Their runs are still terrible at a 3.1 YPC, 29% success).

On first downs in the first half, they’ve shifted to 61% pass, up from 48%.

Tampa has decided to put the ball into Tom Brady’s hands early in the games and let him get to work on the defense, and it’s been the best decision they’ve made all year.  

The question is, will it continue in the playoffs against a good pass like Washington’s, or will Byron Leftwich and Bruce Arians mistakenly believe they need to protect Brady early by using a run game?

It’s even more important to pass on first downs on account of Washington’s pressure rate.

Examine Washington’s pressure rate by down:

1st down:     25.8% (AVG = 30.6%)
2nd down:    40.8% (AVG = 28.5%)
3rd down:    45.5% (AVG = 38.0%)

Washington has a well below average pressure rate on first down passes the last month but well above average on second and third downs, making first down passes most likely to face the least pressure

In addition to more early down passing to start games, the Bucs also have increased their rate of pre-snap motion since the bye.

In the game’s first three quarters, ahead of pass plays, the Bucs used the following amounts of pre-snap motion:

Pre-bye:      41% pre-snap motion
Post-bye:    56% pre-snap motion

The NFL average was 44% pre-snap motion.  The Bucs 56% usage wouldn’t have ranked top-5 (49ers, Ravens, Chiefs, Titans and Panthers) but would have ranked #6 in the NFL.

And it’s not just using it, but using it for benefit:

Pre-bye:    53% success, 8.1 YPA, +0.20 EPA/att
Post-bye:    60% success, 10.4 YPA, +0.43 EPA/att

Washington’s defense has done an outstanding job of making halftime adjustments, but has been extremely vulnerable in the first half, specifically to explosive plays, and it will be important for the Bucs to take advantage of this early

Since week 6, Washington is allowing just 4.0 second half ppg to be scored on their defense.

It’s by far the best average in the NFL.

They’ve allowed just 44 total second half points.  The next closest defenses are not even near their performance:

44 points:      Washington
77 points:    New Orleans
84 points:    LA Rams
91 points:    Tampa Bay
98 points:    Indianapolis

Washington hasn’t allowed a team to score more than 8 points in the second half in their last 7 games, where they have pitched 3 complete shutouts and allowed two teams to score just 3 points.

Examine their rankings in overall pass / rush success as well as rankings in explosive plays, split by half:

First half early downs since week 6:

Pass success:    #18
Rush success:    #30
Explosive passing:    #9
Explosive rushing:    #17

Second half early downs since week 6:

Pass success:    #3
Rush success:    #1
Explosive passing:    #1
Explosive rushing:    #1

Because Washington makes great second half adjustments defensively, every point Tampa scores in the first half becomes that much more important, because scoring often early in the game may represent the bulk of Tampa’s point total for the entire game.

And because Washington’s second and third down pressure rate is so strong, passing on first down would really benefit Brady and the O-Line.

To me, this is the king-most element in this game.

I will also be paying close attention to how often Washington uses base (2 CBs and 2 safeties) to defend the Bucs when Tampa is in 12 personnel.

On the season, Washington Defense on first downs (first 3 quarters):

11 personnel:    95% nickel, 4% base
12 personnel:    77% base, 23% nickel

And on 2nd down, they still stay at 66% base vs 12 personnel.

The NFL average is to use base to defend first down 12 personnel 58% of the time and 49% on second down.

Washington is well above that.

The last several weeks, Washington still has defended 12 personnel on first and second down with extremely high rates of base rather than nickel.

If the Bucs see Washington in base on early downs vs 12, the Bucs should look to pass more than run.

Here are these splits on the season:

Early downs, first 3 quarters, full season, 12 personnel:

Runs vs base:    4.6 YPC, 54% success, -0.03 EPA/carry
Passes vs base:    9.6 YPA, 66% success, +0.26 EPA/att

Over the second half of the season only:

Runs vs base:    6.4 YPC, 56% success, +0.03 EPA/carry
Passes vs base:    11.4 YPA, 73% success, +0.50 EPA/att

Clearly, the optimal way to attack Washington’s high use of base vs 12 personnel is to pass the ball, and I will be interested to see if Tampa looks to audible to more passes when Washington has base on the field.

Tampa Bay absolutely must get out early in this game due to how strong Washington’s defense is in the second half.

For four straight games, Tampa Bay was held scoreless in the first quarter.

But the last two games, they scored 13 and 10 points.  And put up 34 and 23 first half points.  In 5 of their last 7 games the Bucs have scored at least 14 points in the first half, but that includes games when they ran the ball at a far too high rate.

I expect they put the ball in Brady’s hands early, after all, what else was the reason to bring him down to Tampa Bay.  

I expect adjustments to lower scoring in the second half, but think Tampa can get out to a lead if they trust Brady.  The Bucs team total over 13.5 in the first half is attractive.

Warren Sharp

Warren Sharp is a football and betting analyst for NBC Sports. As a leading voice in football analytics, Warren writes a yearly book previewing the upcoming season from all angles at his Sharp Football Analysis website. You can follow Warren Sharp on Twitter @SharpFootball.