January 27, 2021

Keys to Success in the Divisional Round

Keys to Success in the Divisional Round

The Wildcard Round was a good kind of exhausting. Both early games were close and entertaining while the night games were wild enough to keep us awake through the four quarters. But now we get to focus on this weekend. The Divisional Round is here. We only have four games, but the teams have their own nuances that will keep the conversations going all the way up until kickoff. With a short slate, I walked through a key to success for each team plus reviewed some of the injury news coming out of Wednesday.

Keys to Success

Los Angeles Rams at Green Bay Packers

Los Angeles needs to be more efficient on offense. They scored 30 or more points just four times during the regular season despite being Top 12 in both neutral pace of play and plays per game. However, their opportunities to score have been limited. The Rams averaged just 33.7 yards per drive over their last four games (19th in the league). They’ve generated points on 15 of their last 41 drives with one drive ending with a missed field goal. Green Bay will need to figure out how to beat the Rams’ defense, but Goff and the offense need to do their part and keep Rodgers off the field.

For the Packers, the offense has to adjust to Los Angeles’ elite coverage. Their secondary is first in EPA per Dropback allowed (-0.15) and it was on full display against the Seahawks during the Wildcard Round. There’s already speculation that Jalen Ramsey may follow Davante Adams so the attention turns to the ancillary receivers. Adams racked up 50 targets over their last five games to close out the regular season. The sum of targets for the remaining receivers (Valdes-Scantling, Lazard, St. Brown, Austin, and Taylor) is 43. Robert Tonyan and Aaron Jones (both at a 12.4% target share) are expected to be involved, but Rodgers will need to find success with Adams’ supporting cast in order to advance past Saturday.

Baltimore Ravens at Buffalo Bills

Baltimore needs more from their passing game to win against Buffalo. But, I’m not advocating for deep shots to Marquise Brown. They just need to continue to extend drives. The Ravens were able to hold on to the ball for over 33 minutes against the Titans last weekend. Their 43 total rushing attempts combined with 38.1 yards per drive put the onus on Ryan Tannehill to respond. However, both the interception in the first quarter and the punt in the third quarter resulted in points for Tennessee. Buffalo is fourth in yards per drive and 11th in neutral pace. Baltimore’s best chance is to limit Josh Allen’s time on the field and force him into a situation where he can make a turnover-worthy mistake.

Zack Moss’ injury should mean only one thing: throw out the running game. All of it. Baltimore’s secondary should be tested early and often. Even Ryan Tannehill, with a hobbled A.J. Brown and missing Corey Davis for the conclusion of the game, managed 0.08 EPA per Play and +5.6% CPOE against the Ravens. The deep shots were there (50.0% completion rate on throws of 15 air yards or more) with multiple underneath crossing routes fit for players like Cole Beasley and John Brown. Josh Allen entered the playoffs fifth in EPA per Play on early downs and shot right to the top of the ranks in the first round of the playoffs. It’s clearly their strength and this weekend is a perfect time to lean into it.

Cleveland Browns at Kansas City Chiefs

Cleveland shouldn’t let the Chiefs dictate their game plan. The Chiefs are going to score. They’re probably going to score a lot. But the Browns’ rushing attack has been a critical component to their overall success. Cleveland was fifth in EPA per Dropback (0.3) to close out the regular season, but Nick Chubb and Kareem Hunt have also played a part in that success. The duo was 12th in EPA per Rush from Week 13 to Week 17 and Nick Chubb was 17th in broken tackle rate. Kansas City typically forces opposing offenses to pass but are in the Bottom 12 in Rushing EPA Allowed. We want to see Mayfield continue his aggression, but maintain the balance that brought them this far.

Patrick Mahomes and his passing attack are essentially unmatched. With not one but two All-Pro options, there’s not much more we can ask of this offense. But the lack of running back usage in the passing game has been striking. The return of Clyde Edwards-Helaire may change things, but no running back has a catchable deep target. Edwards-Helaire had just five intermediate targets during the regular season. Andy Reid may have saved his best plays for the playoffs, but they’ll need to add new elements to their offense to remain the league champs in 2020.

Tampa Bay Buccaneers at New Orleans Saints

Tampa needs to keep Tom Brady upright. The Buccaneers find themselves in a similar situation to where they were last week. New Orleans is eighth in pressure rate and third in adjusted sack rate. According to PFF, Brady was pressured on 32.6% of his dropbacks and wound up taking three sacks. However, Tampa Bay’s offensive line performed well enough throughout the game for Brady to finish with 10.5 Adjusted Yards per Attempt with 13 deep attempts for 229 yards and two touchdowns. The Saints have been somewhat vulnerable to multi-pronged passing attacks as evidenced by receiving lines by the Vikings and Panthers to close out the regular season. With good blocking up front, Brady can achieve similar numbers to last week.

Drew Brees could use more involvement from Deonte Harris against a strong pass rush. Tampa applied pressure on 28.8% of Taylor Heinicke’s dropbacks last week. Michael Thomas scored the touchdown, but his 17.9% target share was matched by both Deonte Harris (and Jared Cook). Harris was the only other receiver besides Thomas to earn targets at all three levels of the field. His speed was clearly an asset as 59 of his 83 yards were gained after the catch. Tampa’s secondary is already suspect after surrendering 306 yards to Heinicke the previous week. Harris only saw a 29% snap share due to his special team’s usage but that should change given his performance in the Wildcard Round.

Bounce-back Candidate for 2021

It’s never too early to start looking at 2021 player values. I’ll be one of the first people to sign up for a 2021 best-ball draft and I’m looking for bounce-back candidates that may be underpriced. While we don’t have ADP, I’ll be looking at least one possible bounce-back player for next season to monitor as mock drafts start to happen.

Clyde Edwards-Helaire, Chiefs

Edwards-Helaire’s college resume, draft capital, and landing spot fueled his first-round ADP after Damien Williams’ opt-out decision. But a RB22 finish in PPR leagues won’t cut it. I’m still intrigued as his situation will be one of the best in football.

For the third consecutive year, Kansas City finished Top 5 in offensive yards per drive and Top 6 in points per game. He also made some improvements as a runner. Edwards-Helaire started off the season with 43.7% success rate (runs with a neutral or positive impact on the Chiefs’ win percentage) over his first four games, but ended with a 49.1% success rate to end the season. However, his usage wasn’t what we expected.

Damien Williams’ absence was the key. The veteran was used as a featured piece of Kansas City’s passing attack in 2019 with 25.0% of his targets being 15 air yards or more. Williams’ average intended air yards per target were 8.0. Edwards-Helaire saw just one deep ball with 51.9% of his targets coming at or behind the LOS. Benjamin Solak noted that the LSU product would have been (and still could be) Andy Reid’s secret weapon, but his injury may force us to wait until 2021. Regardless, I’ll be looking to see where his ADP opens to start the 2021 offseason.

Divisional Round Injury Slants

John Wolford (Neck) and Cooper Kupp (knee) were both absent from practice on Wednesday. Wolford is still recovering from the stinger that resulted in a hospital visit and his status is uncertain ahead of Saturday’s game. Kupp is considered ‘day-to-day’ after he left the game late in the fourth quarter under his own power. Goff is practicing in full which takes the pressure off of Wolford’s return, but the loss of Kupp will force some adjustments within the Rams’ offensive game plan.

Sammy Watkins remains out of practice since suffering a calf injury in Week 16. Mecole Hardman and Demarcus Robinson benefit from Watkins’ absence, but Kansas City could use the depth during the playoffs. But they may get some help as Clyde Edwards-Helaire returned to practice after an awkward tackle ended his rookie season back in Week 15. Andy Reid hasn’t confirmed the rookie will be available on Sunday, but this is a positive first step.