Each week of the season brings with it a new set of questions. Here, we’ll attempt to lay out five of the most pressing in the NFL. The answers to those will reveal deeper truths about how the rest of the story of the 2020 season will unfold. We’ll find that these revelations will have a lasting impact on not just fantasy managers, but the league as a whole.
Can the Ravens offense finally find itself?
The Baltimore Ravens offense has quietly been one of the most disappointing units in the NFL this year. It doesn’t seem that way considering the team is 5-1 but it’s undeniably true that this historic 2019 offense is well off that standard.
Baltimore ranks a paltry 19th in Football Outsiders offensive DVOA, largely held back by their 21st ranking as a passing unit. If you drafted Lamar Jackson in fantasy football this year, you’re seething at his QB15 ranking on the season. To this point, the Ravens just haven’t come close to taking the next step as a passing unit. Jackson has passed for more than 210 yards just once, in their opener against Cleveland.
In my Wednesday column, we looked at the Chiefs as a potential team just riding by on cruise control offensively while saving their best for January. That’s part of the equation in Baltimore too, no doubt.
Let’s not forget that the Ravens were the best team in last year’s regular season and have nothing to prove at this stage of the year.
The other part at play is that teams are figuring out new ways to combat this Ravens offense after it took the league by storm last year. Lamar Jackson has been blitzed on 32 percent of dropbacks this year in an effort to keep him contained and from getting to the edge. When forced to pass in those spots, he’s been miserable with a 75.4 passer rating. The Ravens’ lack of a quick-separation slot receiver and designed outlet routes have contributed to this problem.
A tussle with Pittsburgh isn’t exactly a perfect get-right spot. The Steelers have the second-highest blitz rate (44.3 percent) in the NFL and have registered the most pressures. Sure, the Ravens could have spent their bye week adding new wrinkles and hammering out these issues but there’s just not much on paper that would indicate this matchup is where they right the ship.
You might just have to accept the Ravens for what they are in 2020 until they start to kick things into high gear — when a playoff run must begin.
How does Pittsburgh attack the Ravens defense?
As the Steelers defense is the second-most blitz-happy team in the NFL, naturally the only team they fall behind is their division-rival from Baltimore. This 2020 Ravens defense sends extra rushers on almost half (46.1 percent) of their defensive snaps.
Whereas Baltimore’s offense has seemingly yet to formulate a plan against the extra heat sent their way, Pittsburgh has maintained a clear agenda.
Ben Roethlisberger gets the ball out of his hands absurdly fast when facing the blitz. His 2.16-second time-to-throw is the fastest among starting quarterbacks by far, with Ryan Fitzpatrick coming next at 2.27 seconds. The results have been positive for this offense. Roethlisberger completes 74.1 percent of these throws with a 130.5 passer rating.
More importantly for fantasy managers, his wide receiver corps is making the most of these looks. Roethlisberger has targeted a wide receiver on 69 percent of his blitzed throws and while he averages just 6.4 air yards per completion, he’s averaging 12.7 yards per completion. This shows that his wide receivers, in particular, are getting open and winning after the catch.
The entire basis of the Steelers offense this year has been quick throws to protect their quarterback while targeting guys like Diontae Johnson or Chase Claypool who separate quickly outside and JuJu Smith-Schuster in the slot who still wins after the catch. That actually matches up quite well with what the Ravens like to do on defense.
While this is a daunting matchup on paper for the Pittsburgh offense, this particular wrinkle could be the key to getting over on the Ravens’ defense. It’s not the type of game environment that’s great for ceiling performances but a quick-passing offense could protect several of these Steelers’ floor outlooks.
How does the Dolphins offense change with Tua Tagovailoa?
The Dolphins made the decision to start rookie quarterback Tua Tagovailoa despite Ryan Fitzpatrick riding a solid streak as the starter. It’s the right move for the long-term health and viability of the Dolphins franchise but it certainly sends a ripple effect throughout the current offense.
The Ryan Fitzpatrick warhorse in fantasy football (shoutout to Rich Hribar for that one) is a real thing. The ultra-aggressive passer consistently elevates his pass-catchers’ stat lines because of his willingness to rifle the ball downfield and into contested situations. Fitzpatrick fears no coverage, especially for his outside receivers. We’ve seen guys like the Eric Decker/Brandon Marshall duo in New York, the Tampa Bay receivers, and the hulking duo of Preston Williams and DeVante Parker thrive with Fitz. Even this year, while he’s not throwing deep as often, he’s thrown 20.3 percent of his passes into tight windows (less than a yard of separation), per Next Gen Stats. That’s the fifth-highest rate among quarterbacks this season and a great fit for receivers like Parker, who led all players in tight-window targets in 2019, and Williams.
Stylistically, Tua is just a different guy.
That’s not to say that he can’t push the ball downfield or is a timid passer at all. To me, he just projects to the NFL as more of a timing-rhythm thrower in the vein of Drew Brees. In his final year at Alabama, 67 percent of Tua’s attempts checked in with fewer than 10 air yards.
If the Dolphins transform into a timing offense that goes over the middle, as opposed to the way Fitz has led them this and last year, that could bring someone like Mike Gesicki (18.5 slot routes per game) back into the mix at the expense of the big outside-the-numbers receivers.
We also have to consider Tua’s mobility. That should play a big factor this coming weekend as he has to face off against Aaron Donald and the Rams. His ability to escape trouble was key in college and we have to see if any of that was compromised coming off a major injury.
If he’s a rushing threat, it could be good news for Myles Gaskin. The underrated running back quietly accounts for 24 percent of Miami’s yards from scrimmage, the seventh-highest figure for any back. He could be saddled up with plenty of touches against a Rams team that ranks 18th in rush defense DVOA and has ceded 55 targets to running backs on the year.
Can Justin Herbert keep it rolling vs. Broncos?
The Chargers rookie quarterback has been one of the most impressive players and one of the stories of the 2020 season. Justin Herbert has all the traits you look for in not just a strong starter but a star-level quarterback.
He’s been unbelievably good as a deep passer. Herbert maintains an 8:1 touchdown-to-interception ratio on throws of 20-plus yards, per Pro Football Focus. His eight scores trail only likely MVP, Russell Wilson. You want your guy to threaten every inch of the field.
Herbert has been not only comfortable under duress but proficient, accurate, and most importantly, aggressive. When he’s blitzed he maintains an 11.6 percent touchdown rate and averages 16.9 yards per completion. When under pressure, his 66.7 percent on-target throw rate is a top-six mark among starting quarterbacks and his 12.3 air yards per attempt is outranked by only Nick Foles. You want your guy to not just be cool under pressure but maintain the confidence to hit big throws.
Lastly, Herbert is capable of hitting those big plays regardless of whom he’s targeting. Seven different Chargers players have caught a touchdown this year. Four guys have two-plus and no one has more than three. You want your guy to be able to thrive no matter who is out there with him.
His last three opponents have been a mixed bag. Three weeks ago, he hit the Buccaneers for the most passing yards (369) and second-most total points (31) that they’ve allowed all year. In the two games following, he’s beaten up on a middling defense in New Orleans and a cupcake in Jacksonville. His Week 8 opponent in the division-rival Broncos is a top-10 unit in Football Outsiders’ DVOA despite dealing with some injuries.
Perhaps Herbert won’t throw for 300-plus yards or three-plus scores once again, as Denver is the third-best defense against explosive pass plays, per Sharp Football Stats. This might be the type of outing where Herbert funnels the ball to his top receiver Keenan Allen, with whom he maintains a fabulous connection. Allen is one of just two players who have a target share north of 30 percent this season.
Will the Raiders get back to their roots?
Earlier in the week, it felt like Sunday was setting up to be yet another passing field day for the Raiders. If you followed the Raiders passing game the last two years, you didn’t think we’d be writing that midway through the 2020 season.
Yet, Derek Carr said this week that throwing downfield is becoming part of who they are as an offense. The numbers back up his case. Coming into Week 8, Carr leads all starting quarterbacks with a 142.0 passer rating on throws of 20-plus yards on 19 attempts. He’s been willing to take the shots and he’s been smart about picking his moments.
The additions of Nelson Agholor (shockingly) and first-round pick Henry Ruggs have been huge for Carr’s ability to open things up. Ruggs, in particular, has changed the scope of the Raiders offense with his mere presence:
Henry Ruggs has been a true game changer for the #Raiders offense so far. Derek Carr is pushing the ball downfield more often and is way more efficient when Ruggs is on the field:
(data: @SportsInfo_SIS) pic.twitter.com/BkTH3dzQdm
— Graham Barfield (@GrahamBarfield) October 13, 2020
And yet, as the week has gone on, we’ve learned that Sunday’s game in Cleveland could feature some poor weather conditions. Heavy winds could thwart the plans to continue putting the hurt on teams downfield.
One has to wonder if, in these conditions, the Raiders try and get back to some of their roots. While they’ve found a new identity as a vertical passing game, they’re losing a bit of their old edge as a rushing team. Las Vegas still plays plenty of heavy personnel and has a feature back, but the results just aren’t as good.
Josh Jacobs accounts for just 21 percent of the team’s yards from scrimmage while averaging 3.4 yards per carry. He’s been stuffed for a run of zero or negative yardage on 13 percent of his runs. That’s not the type of “impose your will” rushing we’ve seen out of the Raiders under Jon Gruden.
The Browns defense presents an opportunity for the Raiders to choose their own adventure. They’re 24th in defensive DVOA overall but have been stung in just about every way. Cleveland has allowed the most yards to slot receivers on the year but also have been burned down the field. Combined with their issues in pass defense they’ve also allowed nine touchdowns on the ground.
The Raiders can play this just about any way they want to on Sunday. That makes Las Vegas a good offense that’s now much more difficult to prepare for. It also makes them tougher to project in fantasy.