Cover 3: No Rodgers, Henry, but Key Matchups Remain Across Week 9
Boy, that escalated quickly.
Upon wrapping up our Cover 3 piece for Week 8, we took a little peek at the Week 9 schedule to get an idea of the potential games we’d likely be previewing.
Sweet! Aaron Rodgers and the 7-1 Green Bay Packers visiting Patrick Mahomes and the Kansas City Chiefs? Are you kidding me?!?! A matchup between two spokesmen for the same insurance company?!?
Sorry, meant to say – a matchup between the league’s reigning MVP and the 2018 MVP?!?
Well, that’s a must watch! And the Tennessee Titans visiting the Los Angeles Rams in the Sunday night showcase. An opportunity to watch Derrick Henry go up against Aaron Donald and the Rams’ D?!? Sign me up for that.
It’s a good thing we don’t look ahead to the most watchable games too far in advance.
As you know by now, Rodgers will spend this weekend in the NFL’s COVID-19 protocol instead of at Arrowhead Stadium, and Henry is sidelined indefinitely after undergoing surgery on his right foot on Tuesday.
So now what am I supposed to watch?
Well, make sure you have fresh batteries in the remote cause you might be busy flipping around. With the help of our watchability index, we’ve highlighted three games we deem the best given the matchups and importance in the standings.
They’re all early Sunday games so buckle up.
Denver Broncos at Dallas Cowboys (Sunday, 1:00 ET, FOX)
Line: Cowboys by 9.5
The Analyst’s Win Probability: Cowboys 73%
Reasons to watch: The Cowboys are in the driver’s seat in the NFC East, having won six in a row since their loss to the Tampa Bay Buccaneers in the season’s kickoff. They proved last week they can win without Dak Prescott, with Cooper Rush throwing for 325 yards and two touchdowns in his first start in Sunday night’s 20-16 road victory over the Minnesota Vikings. Prescott is expected to be back after being a late scratch last week with a strained right calf he injured on the winning TD pass in Dallas’ OT win at New England in Week 6.
Prescott’s likely return, plus a return to AT&T Stadium should spur Dallas’ offense. The Cowboys have been explosive in Arlington, racking up 121 points in their first three home games, making them one of just four teams in the last 20 seasons to put up 120 points or more in their first three home contests.
The Broncos haven’t been nearly as impressive offensively as the Cowboys – they’ve scored 54 fewer points than Dallas since Week 4 despite playing one more game – but they do find themselves with just one fewer win than the AFC West-leading Las Vegas Raiders. They won for the first time since September with last Sunday’s 17-10 victory over the Washington Football Team, ending a four-game skid. Denver’s defense recorded five sacks and forced two turnovers last week with Von Miller inactive because of an ankle injury. Now, they’ll have to go forward the rest of the season without the Super Bowl 50 MVP after sending Miller to the Rams before Monday’s trade deadline.
The Broncos insist they’re not giving up on the season, but that’s a bit of a tough sell to a fanbase after trading away the franchise’s all-time sacks leader. Getting the offense in gear would certainly help regenerate some excitement and show that the team belongs in the playoff conversation.
Key matchup: Broncos’ Offense vs. Cowboys’ Defense
Can Denver possibly keep up with Dallas? When we look at the Cowboys on offense, we see playmakers all over the field, from Prescott at QB to CeeDee Lamb and Amari Cooper on the outside and Ezekiel Elliott in the backfield. They rank second in the NFL in average yards per play at 6.52 – just a tick behind the Los Angeles Rams at 6.53 – and are third in scoring at 32.1 points per game. The Broncos’ offense isn’t nearly as intimidating, averaging more than a yard per play less than the Cowboys at 5.51 and ranking 23rd in scoring at 19.6 points per game. Despite a large disparity between the offenses, Denver’s should be better.
While the Cowboys are averaging 1.074 yards over expected on pass plays – the third-highest rate in the NFL – the Broncos are averaging 0.081 fewer yards than expected on pass plays – 22nd in the league. Dallas’ pass defense, however, lags behind its high-powered offense, permitting an average of 0.642 yards over expected on pass plays – eighth-highest rate in the NFL – which could open things up for Teddy Bridgewater and company. Cowboys cornerback Trevon Diggs will play after being forced out last Sunday night with an injured ankle, but if he appears at all gimpy, the Broncos may be able to take advantage. Diggs garnered all sorts of headlines by intercepting at least one pass in each of Dallas’ first six games before failing to get one last week, but his ball-hawking mentality has come at a cost, as he’s surrendered 569 burn yards – fourth most by a cornerback in the NFL.
A matchup with Courtland Sutton would seem to sway in Denver’s favor, as he’s won 39.08% of his one-on-one matchups – the league average for wide receivers is 26.30% – and he’s averaging 12.80 burn yards per target – 12th in the NFL among receivers with a minimum of 40 targets. Getting Bridgewater out of the pocket could also help spark the offense. While Bridgewater has been steady all season – his 100.6 QB rating is better than Lamar Jackson’s – he’s been lethal on the move.
Teddy Bridgewater, Passing on the Move vs. Passing while Planted – 2021
(With NFL ranks – min. 20 attempts on move/125 attempts while planted)
Category On Move On Move Rank Planted Planted Rank Completion Percentage 83.8 2nd 71.5 6th Open-Target Percentage 89.2 6th 80.3 7th Well-Thrown Percentage 91.9 2nd 76.2 21st Catchability Percentage 94.6 1st 81.9 7th Pickable Pass Percentage 0.00 T-1st 5.18 27th
Minnesota Vikings at Baltimore Ravens (Sunday, 1:00 ET, FOX)
Line: Ravens by 5.5
The Analyst Win Probability: Ravens 59%
Reasons to watch: On one side, you got a division leader coming out of its bye trying to regroup from an embarrassing loss, and on the other, you have a desperate team looking to bounce back from a flat performance against an undermanned team in its first game following its bye week.
From mid-September to mid-October, the Ravens looked like a Super Bowl front-runner, reeling off five straight wins with Lamar Jackson playing like an MVP candidate. But one week after an emphatic 28-point victory over a Los Angeles Chargers atop the AFC West, Jackson was sacked a season-high five times and Baltimore surrendered a season-high 520 yards in a 24-point loss to the Cincinnati Bengals – its most lopsided home defeat in six years. A matchup with an NFC team might be what Jackson and company need to get back in the win column. The Ravens have won 11 straight games against NFC teams with Jackson starting in all of them. He’s thrown for 1,901 yards and 17 touchdowns with a 99.5 passer rating in those games, while running for 995 yards and six scores.
The Vikings blew a golden opportunity last week coming out of their bye, losing at home to a Cowboys team playing with its backup QB to fall to 3-4 and out of the NFC’s third wild-card spot. The offense struggled mightily, especially on third downs, converting just one of 13 attempts. That’s been an ongoing issue for Minnesota, which ranks 30th in the NFL in third down percentage at 31.0% since Week 4. Over that same span, Baltimore is fourth in opponents’ third-down percentage, limiting teams to 30.6%.
Key matchup: Vikings’ pass offense vs. Ravens’ pass defense
Kirk Cousins is putting together yet another solid season, ranking fourth in completion percentage (69.0) and seventh in passer rating (103.3), among QBs with at least 200 attempts. He has been extremely accurate with his passes, with a well-thrown percentage of 82.2 (fifth best) and has the league’s lowest pickable pass percentage at 1.16. Of course, it helps to have one of the league’s top wide receiving duos.
Justin Jefferson and Adam Thielen each have 43 receptions, with Jefferson leading the team with 563 receiving yards and three touchdowns while Thielen has 471 receiving yards and a team-high six TDs. Jefferson is a serious downfield threat, showing a proficiency at beating his man while running routes, ranking fourth in the NFL in burn percentage at 73.0 and 11th in burn yards per target at 12.8, among receivers with at least 40 targets. Thielen, meanwhile, has been extremely dependable, hauling in almost every well-thrown ball in his direction.
The Vikings should be able to take advantage of a susceptible Baltimore secondary. Cornerback Marlon Humphrey is routinely being beat for big plays, with a burn yards allowed to target rate of 13.73 – the third highest in the league among corners with at least 25 targets – while fellow corner Anthony Averett is winning just 52.99% of his 117 man-coverage matchups. The league average for cornerbacks in man matchups is 68.85%.
Cleveland Browns at Cincinnati Bengals (Sunday, 1:00, CBS)
Line: Bengals by 2.5
The Analyst Win Probability: Bengals 61%
Reasons to watch: It’s the first matchup of the season between the league’s two Ohio combatants who are each looking to bounce back from disappointing defeats as they try to jockey for position in a tight AFC North race. The Browns have had the upper-hand recently in this series, winning five of the last six meetings while averaging 30.5 points in those games after losing each of the previous seven matchups.
As for the Bengals, one week they were atop of the football world after a thorough beatdown on the road against a division leader, the next they’re losing to a team starting a backup QB. After defeating Baltimore in Week 7, Cincinnati lost to a one-win Jets teams starting Mike White at quarterback seven days later. Gross.
The Bengals’ situation is still better than what’s going on with the Browns, who arrive in Cincinnati after an eventful week. Odell Beckham Jr.’s days with Cleveland appear to be numbered after the team excused him from practice this week as ownership tries to determine his future. The drama began hours before Tuesday’s trade deadline when Beckham’s father shared a video on social media showing specific plays in which Baker Mayfield didn’t throw to his son while he was wide open. This latest distraction comes amid a time when the Browns’ offense is struggling, and the team has lost three of four to drop into last place in the AFC North.
Key matchup: Bengals’ offensive line vs. Browns’ defensive line
The Bengals boast one of the league’s most dangerous offenses, although essentially, it’s been either boom or bust. Cincinnati ranks fifth in the NFL in yards per play at 6.18 but it isn’t particularly consistent at picking up those yards, doing most of its damage on big plays. With 26 plays gaining 25 or more yards, the Bengals have one fewer than the Arizona Cardinals for the most plays of at least 25 yards, and 13 of their TDs have been on plays that started outside the red zone – four more than the next-closest team in the Cowboys. Able to strike quick, they lead the league with seven touchdowns on drives of fewer than four plays. The Joe Burrow-to-Ja’Marr Chase connection is the driving force behind this offense, as the rookie wide receiver’s 11 receptions of 25 or more yards are one fewer than Cooper Kupp’s for the most in the league. As a result of this big play offense, the Bengals are outperforming the expected.
Burrow is trying to become the first QB in Bengals history to throw three or more touchdown passes in four straight games, and he had three TD passes in each of his two games against Cleveland last season as a rookie. He was also sacked seven times in those games. The Bengals are tied with the Carolina Panthers and Chicago Bears for fourth in the NFL with 21 sacks this season, with Myles Garrett leading the NFL with 10.5. Garrett also has NFL bests of 18.5 QB knockdowns and 60 QB pressures, and has won 50.54% of his 93 one-on-one rushes while lining up on various spots on the line of scrimmage. The league average for win percentage on one-on-one matchups for edge rushers is 21.88%. The Bengals’ tackles have had some success so far this season in one-on-one matchups, with Jonah Williams winning 82.79% of his 122 plays and Riley Reiff winning 79.44% of his 107. The league average of win percentage on one-on-one matchups for tackles is 78.60%. However, the Bengals haven’t faced an edge rusher as talented as Garrett so the pressure will be on to keep Burrow upright.
Graphic design by Briggs Clinard.