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Sunday's Best

Week 11 Marquee Matchups

by Warren Sharp
Updated On: November 20, 2020, 3:28 pm ET

Green Bay Packers at Indianapolis Colts

I understand the people who want to say the Colts Defense is elite.  They’re looking at the numbers, and it shows the Colts rank 4th best.  And I don’t doubt they are a solid defense.

But like the Patriots Defense last year, I simply don’t believe the Colts Defense is what they are cracked up to be in the rankings.

Prior to playing the Titans last week, the number of top-15 pass offenses the Colts Defense has faced was…. ZERO.

Looking back on their season, sure, they dominated the Jets and the Bears.  Literally two of the NFL’s worst offenses.

They handled the Vikings in week 2, before the Vikings realized they could start and pass the ball to Justin Jefferson.  

They gave up 336 passing yards and 3 passing TDs to Matthew Stafford and the Lions Offense, and Stafford averaged 8.0 YPA, but the Lions Offense took a while to get going.  

They had just one drive in their first 5 drives that totaled over 10 yards.  But 4 of their last 7 gained over 45 yards, and they turned it over on downs at the Colts 18 and missed a 47 yard FG, and still put up 21 points in the loss.

Other than that, here’s what they did:

Allowed 27 points in a loss to Gardner Minshew (bottom-10 pass offense)
Allowed 27 points to rookie Joe Burrow in a come from behind win (bottom-10 pass offense)
Allowed 32 points to Baker Mayfield in a loss (#17 pass offense)
Allowed 24 points to Lamar Jackson in a loss (#24 pass offense)

None of those QBs are playing anywhere close to where Aaron Rodgers is playing right now.

None of those offenses have anything close to the passing offense the Packers have.

We can discuss the Titans, but the Titans were an abomination of play calling.  I knew it would be trouble.  They intelligently passed the ball on first downs on their first drive and marched right down the field to score a TD.

Despite the strength of the Colts run defense, the Titans still ran the ball on 60% of their first downs.  These runs predictably were terrible, recording just a 44% success rate and 4.4 YPC.  Meanwhile, passes gained 58% success, but they refused to pass the ball on first downs after the first drive of the game.  Ryan Tannehill targeted AJ Brown only 4 times, and while Corey Davis destroyed the Colts secondary, the Titans Offense was far too conservative.  

That won’t be the case for the Packers Offense.  

And if the Packers Offense is slowed down, I expect them to be able to attack vertically to the right side of the field on 3rd downs.

Examine the following heat map.  The top left is where GB targets WRs on 3rd downs.  Top right is where these passes are most successful.  Look at all those targets to the right, and particularly notice the yellow stretching well down the field on the right… 20-25+ air yards.  They are very good here.  Now look at the bottom row, and focus on the bottom right graphic.  This is where the Colts allow successful passes to WRs on 3rd down.  Look at how bad they are defending the right side of the field.  And particularly, look at that red and yellow stretching past 10 air yards, up to 20-25 air yards.  The Colts are much better defending the left side of the field (zero success defined by the blank space) but much worse where the Packers are likely to throw the ball.

On the other side of the ball, I look at this Packers Defense and see a team that is completely overrated.  Mike Pettine has been a subpar DC.  The Packers Defense has allowed 28+ points to any top-10 offense it’s faced.  They’ve played two mid-tier offenses (Lions and Texans) and held both to around 20 points.

While the Colts also are in that mid-tier range, they do something that really will pay off vs the Packers, and that is to attack the Packers weakness:  defending TEs and RBs.

The Packers Defense ranks #31 vs TE passes (allowing 9.5 YPA and 56% success) and #31 vs RB passes (allowing 7.4 YPA and 60% success).

Where the Packers have been great is vs WRs.  And guess what?

Only 2 teams throw the ball less often to WRs on early downs than the Colts.  The Colts feed RB and TE targets on early downs.  It’s their wheelhouse.  

Their offense is built perfectly to take advantage of the weakness in the Packers Defense.  The Colts Offense doesn’t need to change a single thing.

They rank top-10 in efficiency targeting RBs and TEs on early downs, and they do so at the 3rd highest rate in the NFL.

And the Packers are the 2nd worst defense against such passes.



Philadelphia Eagles at Cleveland Browns

The Eagles Defense has faced the NFL’s 16th toughest schedule of run defenses and ranks #13 in efficiency and #5 in success rate allowed.

However, many of these run offenses are heavily buoyed by QB or WR rushes.  

32 early down runs against the Eagles have come from QBs.  That’s 5th most in the NFL.

Overall, they’ve faced 44 early down runs from QB and WRs, 3rd most in the NFL, and allowed 7.8 YPC and +0.18 EPA/carry

Against RB-runs, they’re allowing -0.15 EPA/att, which ranks 3rd in the NFL, behind only TB and IND.

If the Browns don’t have quite the same level of success on the ground as we might have envisioned, they will look to take to the air more.

Baker Mayfield is one of the worst quarterbacks in the NFL under pressure.  

Mayfield has passed for 10.1 yards per attempt in two games against the Bengals, who have one of the NFL’s worst pass rushes, compared to 5.9 Y/A against everyone else.

Against top-10 pass rushes, Baker has put up 6 points against the Ravens, 7 points against the Steelers, 10 points against the Texans (in the wind) and 34 points against Washington.  The Eagles Defense ranks 5th best in pressure rate and should be able to get after Mayfield.

On the other side of the ball, the Browns run defense is the 3rd worst that the Eagles have faced this season, and they didn’t lose to either of those other two teams:  they beat the Cowboys and tied the Bengals.

The Eagles have played 5 run defenses that ranked top-15, and overall have played the 5th toughest schedule of run defenses in the NFL.

Now they get to face the Browns run defense, which ranks below average despite playing the 3rd easiest schedule of run offenses.

If the Eagles are able to get more production on the ground, in part due to the return of Miles Sanders and in part due to the Browns run defense, they should be able to limit negative contributions to the game from Carson Wentz.

And they should make more trips into the red zone.  The Browns Defense is terrible inside the red zone (ranking 9th worst) and the Eagles Offense, though terrible themselves (ranking 9th worst) has played the #2 toughest schedule of red zone defenses on the season.  

The Eagles have played 7 games against top-10 red zone defenses and only two games against red zone defenses outside the top-10.  Facing the Browns should result in another +4 point edge (a would-be FG turned into a TD) which may be the difference in a game like this.

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.