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Sunday's Best

Week 14 Marquee Matchups

by Warren Sharp
Updated On: December 11, 2020, 11:16 am ET

Indianapolis Colts vs Las Vegas Raiders

The Colts finally have all their receiving threats healthy and may get the return of LT Anthony Castanzo this week.  Their offensive trajectory of efficiency has been sailing since week 10, and it’s unlikely that does anything but continue against the Raiders.

Since week 7, the Raiders pass defense is allowing passes from 2 TE sets to gain 8.8 YPA, 60% success and +0.26 EPA/att.  

We know the Colts like to use multi-TE sets and should find that extremely advantageous against the Colts on Sunday.

Additionally, the Colts offensive line should have more time to throw and stay productive.  

After all, the Raiders just gave up 28 points to a winless Jets team seemingly intent on securing the #1 seed.  And that was despite the fact the Jets simply went run heavy, running on 57% of all plays including 63% of early downs, and put up 200 yards rushing on early downs alone.

The prior week, to a Falcons team that cannot run the ball to save their lives, they gave up 43 points although some of those were defensive scores or short fields.

When facing pass rushes that rank top-20 in adjusted sack rate, the Colts have struggled more than average:

10 points vs BAL
19 points vs CHI
23 points vs CLE
24 points vs HOU
34 points vs GB

That’s an average of just 22 ppg.

But when facing teams with bottom-10 pass rushes, they’ve put up points in bunches, particularly over the second half of the season:

41 points vs DET
36 points vs NYJ
34 points and 26 points vs TEN
31 points vs CIN

That’s an average of 34 ppg.

The Raiders rank #31 in adjusted sack rate, and over the second half of the season, their pressure rate on early downs is just 26%, well below average, and bottom-10 in the NFL.

It’s no shock that as the schedule has gotten easer of late, the Colts run offense has been more productive of late.  After starting off the season with 50% success on early down rushing in just 1 of 5 games and 15% explosiveness in just 1 of 5 games, the Colts have hit 50% success in 3 of their last 5 and 15% explosiveness in 3 of 5 as well.  

And the Raiders and their #30 ranked run defense is the worst the Colts will have faced all season.

When the Colts run the ball, they will find the Raiders to allow 5.2 YPC, 56% success and a +0.14 EPA/att on runs from 11 personnel.

On the other side of the ball, the Raiders own offense rebounded after a dismal performance against the Falcons to put up 31 points on the road last week.  

The Colts 6th ranked pass defense will be their toughest test of the last 5 games, but looking at the toughest pass defenses the Raiders have faced this season, the Raiders have put up:

37 vs the Broncos
34 vs the Saints
20 vs the Bucs*

*the Raiders were playing without RT Trent Brown, due to Covid, and didn’t get any practice from any other offensive linemen.  They were also down to their 3rd string RT and their starting RG was ejected in the game.

Next, look at pass defenses that rank top-15 that the Raiders have faced:

40 vs the Chiefs
37 vs the Broncos
34 vs the Saints
31 vs the Chiefs
20 vs the Bucs*

I fully expect a better performance from the Raiders in their first home game since almost beating the Chiefs in week 11.  This is the first of three straight home games for the Raiders, and it’s a must win game for them for playoff positioning.  

The Raiders finally will see the return of Trent Brown in this game, as well as the likely return of RB Josh Jacobs.

The most interesting matchup will be TE Darren Waller of the Raiders on the Colts LBs.  The Colts rank #3 in production allowed to TEs – they simply swallow TEs alive.  Waller is such a massive weapon for the Raiders, it will be interesting to see how Jon Gruden elects to align him and incorporate him into the offense.  

The Colts completely negated the Browns Austin Hooper, Titans Jonnu Smith, Ravens Mark Andrews and Lions TJ Hockenson.  The only TE with success against the Colts was the Packers Robert Tonyan, but that was a game without multiple LBs for the Colts, and they are all healthy now. 



Minnesota Vikings vs Tampa Bay Buccaneers

I’m fascinated to see what the Buccaneers will look like coming out of their bye week.  

It’s the latest bye week for any team this season, but probably the most needed for a team like the Bucs.  That’s because they had a new QB a lot of new pieces offensively.  And although this offense was top-10 entering the bye, some things were extremely off with this offense.

Tampa Bay was one of the most predictable teams from a play calling perspective in the first quarter.  On the season:

On first quarter first downs, they go 60% run (9th most run heavy) and gain just 2.9 YPC (3rd worst in the NFL) and 41% success.

On first quarter second downs, they flip and go 67% pass (#1 most pass heavy) and produce just 51% success and 7.7 YPA (barely above average).

This continues into the second and third quarter as well.

In quarters 1-3, the Bucs are 74% pass on second down, averaging just 49% success and 7.0 YPA.  These are both worse than the NFL average.  No other team is even above 67% pass on second down.

Look at the top 10:

74% - TB

67% - ARI
66% - PIT
66% - CAR
65% - KC
65% - SEA
65% - JAX
64% - CIN
64% - LV
63% - HOU

No one is close at all to the Bucs pass rate.

The reason the Bucs tend to be so pass heavy on these plays is because of their average yardage to go on second down.

On average, the Bucs have 8.3 yards go on second down in quarters 1-3.  That’s 2nd most in the NFL.

The reason they have such distances to go is because of their first down play calling and how inefficient their gains are.

They have a very high first down run rate with below average production.  And when they pass the ball, they throw it 9.5 yards downfield, which is the #3 highest in the NFL, behind only Denver and Jacksonville.

And since week 8, their average air yards on first down was 10.4 yards, #1 most in the NFL.

Compare that to New England with Tom Brady.  His first down air yardage was 7.3, which ranked #20 in 2019.  In 2018, it was 7.4, which ranked #14

I’ve been saying for weeks the Bucs need to clean up their play calling because they are a terribly inefficient offense on early downs.

It’s a first down run or deep shot followed by an obvious pass in second and long and the team rarely is bypassing third downs as a result.

This is the “no risk it, no biscuit” mentality of the Bruce Arians offense.  But it’s not working for Tom Brady.

In New England, the Patriots thrived on avoiding third downs by bypassing them with smart, efficient play calls on early downs.  It wasn’t about chuck, duck and hope.  It was about efficiency.

I made strong suggestions to clean up the play calling during the bye week.

So it was extremely refreshing but also surprising to hear Bruce Arians discuss efficiency coming out of the bye.  He said:

“I think the big thing is [that] third down has been a problem, so one of the ways to fix it is make first downs on first and second [down] and stay out of third down.  But when we do have manageable third downs — knock on wood, we’ve been playing pretty penalty-free — that we convert those third downs and keep the chains moving to get that rhythm. When we get in the rhythm, we’re pretty good.”

If Arians really practices what he preaches, this is a new page for the Bucs offense.  This would be a goal to avoid third downs.  This would be a focus on better efficiency, and less “no risk it, no biscuit”.

As a result, I’m optimistic about the Bucs offense even more.

Additionally, you have the matchup.

Vikings Defense has literally faced the following QBs the last few weeks:  Matthew Stafford, who was injured in-game so Chase Daniel finished, Nick Foles, Andy Dalton, Teddy Bridgewater, and Mike Glennon.

None of those QBs or passing attacks would scare you.  

Tom Brady has faced Zimmer-led defenses 5 times since 2007 and scored 30+ points in 3 of the 5 games.  

On the other side of the ball, the Vikings are one of the best offenses in the game at playing catchup late.  This Vikings team is averaging almost 10 ppg in the fourth quarter, the most points scored in the fourth quarter in the NFL.

If trailing at halftime, every single Vikings game but one has hit 51 points as they score 13 points in the fourth quarter.

If trailing after the third quarter, every single Vikings game but one has hit 53 points (in 7 total games) and the average points scored has been 58.2 points.

Minnesota will find sledding tough running the ball on the Bucs stout #1 run defense, but should find life a lot easier against the Bucs pass defense.  As a result, I expect a slightly higher pass rate from Minnesota with great upside so long as the Vikings offensive line can hold up long enough in pass protection.

The angle here I looked at was the total, betting the over when the line was sitting at 51.5.  It is now at 52.5 and while I don't see as much value in that number, it still is the only way I would look.

Warren Sharp

Warren Sharp is a football and betting analyst for NBC Sports. As a leading voice in football analytics, Warren writes a yearly book previewing the upcoming season from all angles at his Sharp Football Analysis website. You can follow Warren Sharp on Twitter @SharpFootball.