Broncos and Bengals in trouble; Dolphins’ big rise: Warren Sharp’s NFL notes

By Warren Sharp
FOX Sports NFL Writer

Andy Reid and the Chiefs rarely fail to capitalize on extra rest.

Since 2019, the Chiefs are 9-1 straight up, 6-4 against the spread and 7-3 to the under in regular-season games with extra rest. Including the playoffs, the Chiefs are 13-2 SU, 9-6 ATS and 10-5 to the under.  No team has a better straight-up record. Only 3 teams have gone under their totals at a higher rate. Naturally, this offense tends to look fantastic. 

But only two teams have allowed fewer points than the Chiefs defense in these games. 

After starting the season off against two dynamic quarterbacks in Justin Herbert and Kyler Murray, and holding them to 24 and 21 points, respectively, the Chiefs now take on Matt Ryan and the Colts in Week 3.

This will be a huge step down in class for the Chiefs defense. 

The Colts’ offense faced off with the Texans‘ and Jaguars’ defenses, both of which rank bottom-10 in pressure rate on the season. Meanwhile, the Chiefs are getting pressure on 39% of opponent dropbacks, which ranks fifth most in the NFL. And they have the most total pressures in the NFL through the first two weeks of the season.

So here are the Colts, winless through two weeks and 6.5-point home underdogs to the Chiefs.

The Colts were projected favorites to win the AFC South before the season, but I warned about this schedule over the summer. Things may get worse in Indianapolis before they get better.

What is Nathaniel Hackett doing in Denver?

Russell Wilson’s Denver Broncos are scoring touchdowns at a lower rate (10.5%) than Geno Smith’s Seattle Seahawks (11.8%).

Let that sink in.

Denver’s had five drives that made it to goal-to-go. They scored zero touchdowns.

How bad is that?

They are the only team in the NFL since at least 2000 to have at least five drives make it to goal-to-go and score zero TDs on those drives (2000 is as far as TruMedia’s drive data goes).

Hackett’s play-calling near the end zone is terrible. But it’s not much better elsewhere. 

Despite playing the Texans and Seahawks, two teams expected to contend for the first pick in the 2023 NFL draft, Denver ranks 10th worst in the percentage of early downs that result in a first down.

Their most egregious issues relate to situational football.  Those problems cost them a win in Week 1 and led Hackett to punt the ball late in the third quarter vs the Texans trailing 9-6 instead of taking the lead or at least tying the game.

Tua takes a huge step forward in QB-friendly offense

I was big on Tua Tagovailoa entering this season.

In fact, it’s not hyperbole to say I was probably his loudest media supporter.

And there were a number of reasons why, as I detailed here:

We’re two weeks into the season. Where do the Dolphins rank in the metrics that I thought would improve?

Let’s start with what pass-catchers are doing with the ball in their hands. In 2021, Tua’s receivers averaged 4.3 yards after catch/reception, which ranked 31st in the NFL. 

On early downs in the first three quarters, this offense averaged 4.5 YAC/reception, which also ranked 31st.

In 2022, the Dolphins rank second in YAC at 8.0.

They shifted from second-fewest yards after catch to second-most. 

That’s a huge function of this offense.  It’s on Tua to make the reads and deliver the ball where it’s supposed to go.  But this offense has helped set him up for success rather than failure.

Another area the team struggled with was receiver separation. In 2021, Tua led the NFL in tight-window throws. 19.3% of his passes were thrown into tight windows, per NextGenStats.

That was the most in the NFL.

In 2022, Tua ranks fifth-lowest in the NFL, with just 8.4% of his passes being thrown into tight windows. Tua still has to find the open man and make the right read. But the offense is getting him players who are more open to throw the ball to.

What have open receivers and more YAC done for this Dolphins passing attack?

It’s incredibly early in the season, but thus far, both factors have been huge reasons why we’ve seen Tua deliver these improvements on early downs:

2021: Ranked 32nd in yards per attempt, 23rd in success rate, 16th in expected points added/attempt

2022: Ranked fourth in YPA, eighth in success rate, 12th in EPA/att

2021: Ranked 41st (of 42) in percentage of completions that gain 10+ yards, 22nd in percentage of completions that gain first downs

2022: Ranked fifth in percentage of completions that gain 10+ yards, seventh in percentage of completions that gain first downs

Even crazier is this early-down stat: In 2021, Tua averaged 6.1 air yards per attempt and his passes gained 6.5 YPA on average (32nd). In 2022, Tua is averaging 6.7 air yards per attempt, but his passes are gaining 8.9 YPA on average (fourth).

These numbers came against the Patriots and the Ravens, expected to be two of the NFL’s better defensive units.

The Bengals need a counter-adjustment

On early-down passes in the first three quarters, the Bengals passing attack is averaging just 4.9 air yards, 30th in the NFL. Last year, that number was an aboveaverage 7.3 air yards, which ranked 11th.

Teams are sitting more in Cover-2, getting pressure and forcing Joe Burrow to get the ball out short under duress.

Look at the adjustments teams have made:

2021 Steelers: 13% usage of Cover-2

Week 1 Steelers: 30.9% usage of Cover-2 vs the Bengals (second-highest of any team in week 1)

Week 1 Cowboys: 9.7% usage of Cover-2

Week 2 Cowboys: 37.3% usage of Cover-2 vs the Bengals (highest of any team in week 2)

The Bengals still don’t know how to solve it.

They spent all offseason discussing that they anticipated seeing more Cover-2, yet built no protection to deal with it when they saw it.

Related: Geoff Schwartz says Bengals’ struggles start with protecting Joe Burrow

Ravens should lighten the box

Baltimore ranks first in expected points added per dropback on early downs at +0.80. The NFL average is +0.03. The second-ranked team averages +0.43.

Essentially, Lamar Jackson’s dropbacks are as far above the No. 2 team as that team is above the NFL average. That’s absurd.

But the Ravens cannot run the ball. They rank 30th in EPA/rush at -0.29 on early downs. Ravens running backs are averaging -0.26 EPA/att on early downs, which ranks 30th. 

These runs are gaining just 2.7 yards per carry, which ranks 31st. 

A big part of the reason for this is the Ravens’ lack of investment in WRs.

While that seems like a strange suggestion, look at the data:

Only 7% of Ravens’ early-down RB runs have come with three or more wide receivers on the field. That is the lowest rate in the NFL.  The average is 50%.

Hence, 93% of their runs have come with fewer than three WRs on the field, the most in the NFL. And defenses have chosen to stack the box in these situations on a 1-to-1 basis:

Among the Ravens’ early-down running back runs, 93% have come against seven-plus-man boxes, the second-highest rate in the NFL.

The Ravens are getting minimal support from their line on these runs, allowing just 0.52 yards before contact per rush, which ranks 28th.

If the Ravens want to improve their running backs’ efficiency and provide support for Lamar Jackson’s passing attempts, they must do a better job of lightening the box via pre-snap personnel or alignment. 

Until then, even when JK Dobbins returns, the likelihood he’s going to produce outstanding numbers when he is contacted half a yard beyond the line of scrimmage, on average, is low. 

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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