There are no good teams in the NFL.
OK, that’s an exaggeration. But after Week 9’s extremely underwhelming results, I can confidently say there are no great teams in the NFL. That can obviously change over the next few months—at this time last year, the Buccaneers were 6-3 and had the eighth-best point differential in the league ... then they spent the final two months of the season mowing down every team in front of them en route to a Super Bowl win.
My point is, things change quickly, and Sunday’s games were proof of that. Our perceptions of several playoff contenders shifted dramatically thanks to a handful of shocking results: The Bills, who looked like the NFL’s best team coming into the week, lost to the Jaguars, who looked like the NFL’s worst team; the Bengals got run off the field by a Browns offense that had to deal with Odell Beckham Jr. turmoil all week; the Cowboys were down by 30 at one point in their loss to the Teddy Bridgewater–led Broncos; and the Rams, who had the second-highest odds to win the Super Bowl, lost an uncompetitive game to the Derrick Henry–less Titans.
Sunday got pretty weird. But how much weight should we place on these results as we look ahead to the second half of the season? Let’s take it team by team, starting with the most surprising Week 9 loser.
It’s not often that you can say a Sean McDermott–coached team didn’t show up ready to play, but the Bills’ 9-6 loss in Jacksonville was one of those rare instances. Players on both sidelines pointed to Buffalo’s lack of energy as one of the deciding factors in the upset.
I’m at Jaguars postgame, where Shaquill Griffin told media that he looked across the field during the game to the Bills’ sideline, and said their energy was nowhere near Jaguars’. He then told teammates that meant Bills didn’t deserve to win, and Jags should show them why— katherine fitzgerald (@kfitz134) November 7, 2021
Bills quarterback Josh Allen echoed that sentiment, saying the Jaguars “wanted it more.” But he also had some harsh criticism for himself: “[I] played like shit,” he said after the game.
Allen did play like shit, and his performance was a bit more concerning than the final result. Quarterbacks, even ones as talented as Allen, have poor games every now and then. But it’s not like this stinker came out of nowhere. Buffalo has played the league’s easiest slate of defenses thus far, according to Football Outsiders, and a few blowout wins over lesser competition have covered up the fact that the fourth-year pro has regressed some this season.
Now, this isn’t a “last year was a complete fluke and Allen is actually bad” level of regression. But Allen’s efficiency numbers are down across the board this season, especially in a few key categories.
Allen was very good under pressure last season. He graded out as the league’s sixth-best quarterback on pressured dropbacks, per Pro Football Focus, and only Russell Wilson and Justin Herbert threw for more yards and touchdowns with defenders closing in. Statistical studies have shown that a quarterback’s performance under pressure is volatile year-to-year, so Allen was expected to fall back a little bit in 2021. But he was also one of the top quarterbacks in the league in a clean pocket last year—he graded out as PFF’s third-best quarterback on unpressured dropbacks—so overall, his 2020 success looked sustainable.
Welp, sometimes weird shit happens, and Allen has actually performed better under pressure this season while his clean pocket performance has nearly returned to 2019 levels:
Josh Allen in a Clean Pocket vs. Under Pressure, 2019 to 2021
|Year||Clean Grade||Pressure Grade|
|Year||Clean Grade||Pressure Grade|
On Sunday, it didn’t seem to matter whether the Bills offensive line was able to give him time. Allen made mistakes either way. Fittingly, he threw one interception from a clean pocket and one while under duress. The unpressured interception was the result of sloppy process and bad footwork that looked a lot like pre-2020 Allen:
The second pick was the result of Allen failing to account for an extra pass rusher, which left Devin Singletary wide open in the flat on third-and-12:
Buffalo’s poor offensive performance can’t be put entirely on Allen. The offensive line had a woeful outing, routinely letting unblocked blitzers attack the pocket and struggling against Jacksonville’s defensive line even when the protection call was sound. That’s hardly a surprise, given that guard Jon Feliciano—who was widely considered the centerpiece for Buffalo’s stellar pass protection down the stretch last season—was put on IR last week.
But while the Bills came into the week leading the NFL in scoring and an offense that had looked like a juggernaut for eight weeks, it became clear Sunday that a lot of that was the result of the schedule and the team’s defense gifting the offense with the best average starting field position in the league. Now, Allen’s (slight) regression and the Feliciano injury are raising some red flags for the Bills, who looked like the favorites to represent the AFC in the Super Bowl just a week ago.
If any playoff contender could afford an ugly outing in Week 9, it was the Cowboys. A lopsided 30-16 loss to Denver will hardly affect the Cowboys’ chances in the NFC East—with a 6-2 record, Dallas will head to the back nine of its schedule sporting a three-and-a-half-game lead over the second-place Eagles. So take a deep breath, Cowboys fans. Everything is going to be all right.
Everything was not all right on Sunday, however. By the time they scored two meaningless touchdowns late in the fourth quarter, the Cowboys had fallen behind Denver 30-0, getting shut out through 55 minutes of game time. When a quality team—and I’d say Dallas qualifies as such—falls behind by four scores, you can typically count on bad luck playing a major role. And that was certainly the case in this game.
The Cowboys’ first two drives ended on failed fourth-and-short attempts. They went on to fail on a fourth-and-1 again in the second half. The fourth-down issues were costly, but this game was lost on third down … on both sides of the ball. On early downs, Dallas and Denver were essentially even.
Broncos vs. Cowboys, First and Second Down Offensive Performance
|Team||EPA per Pass||Pass Success Rate||EPA per Run||Run Success Rate|
|Team||EPA per Pass||Pass Success Rate||EPA per Run||Run Success Rate|
Third down was a different story. Denver converted on 53.3 percent of its third down tries while Dallas moved the chains just 38.5 percent of the time. But some third-down wonkiness can’t fully explain a 30-point deficit. A lot more had to go wrong for a legitimate NFC contender to fall behind by such a large margin. Like, for instance, a blocked punt turning into a new set of downs for the kicking team:
Or MVP candidate Dak Prescott missing throws he normally makes:
Or missing reads he typically makes in his sleep:
Broncos playing man match and gets Dak to throw a pick. Cooper's guy passes off route to the robber and then robs the dig. Assuming Prescott did not see this exchange. pic.twitter.com/aixDsjJ9RE— Steven Ruiz (@theStevenRuiz) November 8, 2021
Prescott’s bad game—his 24.1 QBR was a season low—is easy to explain away. He looked very much like a quarterback who missed a week of practice with a right calf strain, and his misfires seemed to be contained to the right side of the field, where he completed just one pass beyond the line of scrimmage.
I’d be more worried about Prescott’s injury if he hadn’t made a number of high-level throws late in the game. Sure, a lot of those came against a Denver defense that already had the game in hand, but throwing downfield can actually be harder against softer defenses, and Dak did not seem to have a problem piercing those windows.
It’s also worth pointing out that All-Pro left tackle Tyron Smith was out with an ankle injury. His replacement, Terence Steele, allowed nine pressures, according to Pro Football Focus, and helped Broncos pass rusher Jonathon Cooper do his best Von Miller impression.
Jonathon Cooper led the Broncos defense with a career-high 5 pressures on 35 pass rushes (14.3%).— Next Gen Stats (@NextGenStats) November 7, 2021
Cooper played 93% of defensive snaps, his first game playing over 80% of snaps in his career.#DENvsDAL | #BroncosCountry
Smith should be back fairly soon. The Cowboys do not consider his injury to be long term, according to The Dallas Morning News, which is good news considering how this offense has historically performed without its star pass protector.
Prescott won’t continue to play like this. Smith will get healthy. And the Cowboys won’t be awful on third and fourth down forever. This was one of the more shocking and ugly displays we saw out of a contender on Sunday, but it is also one of the easiest to write off.
Los Angeles Rams
If you want to know why the Rams were so eager to trade for Von Miller, just watch how Jeffery Simmons dominated the Los Angeles offensive line in the Titans’ 28-16 upset on Sunday Night Football. According to Next Gen Stats, the Tennessee defensive tackle registered a ridiculous 10 pressures and finished with three sacks on the night. One of those pressures forced Matthew Stafford into an ugly second-quarter interception that tilted the game in the Titans’ favor.
Sean McVay eventually adjusted in the second half, moving the pocket more often to keep Simmons away from Stafford, and it worked to a certain extent. But it was already too late. The Rams’ lack of an answer for Simmons blew up their entire game plan. Los Angeles obviously knows how disruptive having a force on the interior can be—Aaron Donald has been known to wreck a game from time to time—and now it has one on the perimeter thanks to the Miller trade.
Outside of the two costly interceptions that gifted Tennessee a 14-point cushion, Los Angeles looked like the better team. The Rams averaged more yards per play and picked up more first downs. This loss did expose some deficiencies on the interior of the Rams offensive line, but it’s nothing McVay can’t coach around.
The fact the Bengals dropped a divisional game to a fired-up Browns team is hardly a surprise. That the game was essentially decided midway through the second quarter, though, could qualify as shocking. According to ESPN’s prediction model, Cleveland’s win probability surpassed the 90 percent mark with just over seven minutes left in the first half, after Ja’Marr Chase coughed up a fumble. Things didn’t get much better from there, as the Browns cruised to a 41-16 win to drop Cincinnati to the bottom of the AFC North standings just 14 days after it had climbed to the top spot in the entire conference.
It would be a lot easier to write off the ugly loss if the Bengals weren’t also coming off a loss to a bad Jets team, but I’m going to try to do so anyway! Turnovers may have cost Cincinnati the win, but overall the offense played well—the Bengals finished the game with a higher success rate than the Browns, according to RBSDM.com, and were more efficient at getting first-down conversions.
And while the turnovers were a big problem, they felt a little flukey. We shouldn’t expect the supremely accurate Joe Burrow to continue to throw too far inside in the red zone:
Chase won’t keep fumbling like this:
And these deflected passes won’t continue to fall right into a defender’s hands:
Still, there are other reasons to be concerned about the Bengals. The team’s problems start in the trenches. Remember how much time we spent last year worrying about Burrow’s pass protection? Well, it might be worse this season. The 5-2 start has largely hidden the fact that Burrow’s sack rate has increased this season, jumping from 7.3 percent in 2020 to 8 percent in 2021.
As a result, the Bengals have had to lean on Burrow’s sharp processing in the quick passing game. According to Sports Info Solutions, Cincinnati leads the league in short dropback usage at 76 percent. So Burrow has had to get the ball out quickly, which requires some anticipation and guesswork from the quarterback. That’s a lot to put on a second-year pro who missed half of his rookie season, and unsurprisingly, Burrow’s interception rate has tripled since last year.
The defensive line has also been an issue, though you wouldn’t know it just by looking at raw sack numbers. The Bengals rank fifth in sacks and came into the week ranked eighth in sack rate. But the larger pressure numbers aren’t nearly as impressive. They rank 22nd in pressure rate, according to Sports Info Solutions, and their pass rush win rate (35 percent) is 28th, according to ESPN. Unfortunately for Cincinnati, those underlying numbers tend to be more predictive of future performance than sack totals. And even with that sack luck, the Bengals rank a mediocre 17th in pass defense DVOA. If those sacks disappear, this defense could suffer a steep decline over the second half.
Green Bay Packers
OK, so this loss wasn’t actually shocking, as Aaron Rodgers was sidelined with COVID-19 and the offense struggled under first-time starter Jordan Love. Plus, the Packers have a massive margin for error in the NFC North race, so the setback shouldn’t hurt the team too much.
But this loss should serve as an eye opener for a special teams unit that ranked 28th in DVOA before Sunday’s slapstick routine. Amari Rodgers forgot how to field a punt (the only job the 2021 third-round pick has been tasked with this season), and multiple bad snaps/holds led to two missed field goals—which is particularly concerning after Green Bay made a change at long snapper last week. Those issues could drop the Packers down to last place in DVOA, and while it’s easy to overlook special teams performance, it matters! Just ask the 2010 Chargers, who finished first in both offense and defense but missed out on the postseason due to a league-worst special teams unit. Rodgers will eventually return from his battle with COVID and the “woke mob,” and the Packers will sleepwalk into the postseason. But if the special teams don’t get better, it might be a short stint.
An earlier version of this piece misstated the location of the Cincinnati-Cleveland game.