Kirk Cousins steps up; Bills’ defensive issues: Sharp Edges
Against the Bears in Week 18, a game the Vikings ultimately did not need to win but played to win in case a higher seed faltered, Kirk Cousins was tremendous.
He posted season highs in expected points added per attempt (+0.76), success rate (70%), YPA (11.3) and completion rate (85%). He completed 17-of-20 passes for 225 yards while absorbing zero sacks and zero QB hits.
And while this seems like it would bode extremely well entering the playoffs, I have my concerns.
Beyond the simple fact the Bears were tanking and playing for the No. 1 overall pick in the NFL draft, which they somehow succeeded in stealing from the Texans, there were two clear issues with the Bears that raise alarms.
This year, the Bears played a below-average rate of man coverage. They also blitzed at the sixth-lowest rate (17%) and recorded the NFL’s lowest pressure rate (22%).
That’s absolutely not what Kirk Cousins will face this week when he plays the Giants.
New York has the NFL’s 1 highest blitz rate (45%) and ranks No. 10 in pressure rate (34%).
And from Week 10-17 (ignoring their meaningless Week 18 game) the Giants ranked No. 1 in blitz rate and No. 4 in pressure rate.
Last week, in his 20 attempts against the Bears, Cousins faced man coverage just twice. He went 1-of-2 for 0 yards, a -0.92 EPA/att and 0% success.
Cousins has massive splits against man coverage when he’s blitzed as opposed to when he’s not blitzed.
When blitzed: -0.07 EPA/att, 29% success, 4.8 YPA, 14-of-32 (44% comp)
Not blitzed: +0.22 EPA/att, 45% success, 7.6 YPA, 30-of-48 (63% comp)
Kirk Cousins and the Vikings offense dominate the Bears in Week 18
Kirk Cousins was able to rack up over 220 yards as the Vikings blew out the Bears in their regular-season finale.
The positive angle is that the Vikings will play at home in a dome, rather than outdoors on the road.
In his game against the Giants in Week 16, which was the last time he played at home, Cousins averaged his third-lowest YPA in home games (6.2, only outdone by games vs the Cowboys and Jets) and took four sacks while absorbing 11 QB hits, second-most on the season.
Kirk Cousins will absolutely need to hope he can carry over some of the positives from his performance against the Bears to close the season, but it’s very likely to be much tougher sledding against the very different defense of the Giants.
Mac Jones nearly spoiled the Bills’ season finale
Buffalo was a magical place on Sunday afternoon. It began before the opening kickoff with the celebration of Damar Hamlin’s recovery. But it showed up in an unbelievable way on that opening kickoff as the Bills sprang quickly to a 7-0 lead.
But while the Bills enjoyed a nice 35-23 win, evoking emotions from players to fans to a captivated nationwide audience, the final score likely could have been very different.
If you take away the two massive kick-return TDs, the interception Mac Jones threw at the Bills’ 2-yard line and the pick Jones threw into the end zone, you get a potential 28-point swing.
In addition to those huge plays, let’s look at exactly what Mac Jones did in this game:
He posted a 56% success rate, which ranked No. 4 among all QBs this week. While his 21-of-31 showing for 5.6 yards per attempt certainly wasn’t anything to feel good about, one of the worst offenses in the NFL punted just four times on 12 drives against the Bills and trailed by just five points with 10-minutes to go in the fourth quarter.
If Jones throws only one interception instead of two, or the Bills return only one TD instead of two, the Patriots very well might win the game and be in the playoffs themselves.
While Buffalo recorded the win and locked up the AFC’s second seed, the concern relates to their playoff run. While technically the Bills defense has played a top-10 schedule of offenses, over the second half of the season, the schedule has been full of have or have-not offenses:
- No. 26 Patriots twice
- No. 25 Jets twice
- No. 27 Bears
- No. 20 Vikings
- No. 8 Browns
- No. 7 Dolphins
- No. 6 Lions
In two of those games against above-average offenses, the Bills were in trouble late and were fortunate to close out the game victoriously. Examine the similarities:
The Dolphins led 29-21 with 10 minutes remaining in the fourth quarter, and the score was tied before the Bills kicked a game-winning field goal as time expired in the game to win by three points.
The Lions led 22-19 with 10 minutes to go in the fourth quarter, and the score was tied before the Bills kicked a game-winning field goal with two seconds to go in the game to win by three points.
The fact the Bills have played only three above-average offenses since Week 8 and barely won two of those games doesn’t evoke much confidence in their defense.
The quarterbacks the Bills have faced this season?
Yes, they saw few decent quarterbacks earlier in the year. But not many since.
Bills pull a magical win vs. Patriots, but pass defense is a concern in playoffs
Despite potentially a lighter matchup (if Tua Tagovailoa is out), Nick Wright is still concerned about Buffalo’s pass defense. Watch as Nick breaks down the Bills’ issues heading into the postseason.
Buffalo is now going to face an injury-limited Dolphins squad as 10.5-point favorites on Sunday. They should win that game.
But immediately thereafter, this defense will likely face Joe Burrow and eventually, Patrick Mahomes.
Buffalo’s offense will likely need to carry the defense because I don’t trust this unit against the elite groups they will likely face.
Why early-down efficiency is so vital in modern football
Fourteen teams qualify for the playoffs. On early downs this year, the 14 playoff qualifiers all ranked inside the top 17 in EPA/play.
Only three teams ranked in the top 17 of EPA/play on early downs offensively but did not make the playoffs. And of the three teams that didn’t qualify but ranked in the top 17, two were the two teams who were last out in the NFC, the Packers and Lions.
In addition to total early-down efficiency, bypassing third downs by converting first downs on early downs is also a massive indicator of efficiency.
And 11 of the 13 best teams in first-down conversion rate on early downs are playoff teams. The only teams ranking outside the top 13 in first-down conversion rate on early downs were the Cowboys, Buccaneers and Chargers.
The coaching carousel is already spinning. In the coming days, more coaches will be fired and other coaches will be hired to replace them. Ownership should be focusing on hiring candidates who understand how to win in the modern era. And inevitably, the two biggest drivers to winning games are early-down efficiency and explosiveness. Finding the best way to marry those two offensive concepts correlates to wins more than any other metrics other than turnovers.
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Warren Sharp is an NFL analyst for FOX Sports. He is the founder of Sharp Football Analysis and has worked as a consultant for league franchises while also previously contributing to ESPN and The Ringer, among other outlets. He studied engineering before using his statistical acumen to create predictive football models. You can follow Warren on Twitter at @SharpFootball.
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