Any given Sunday is so ridiculously cliché and yet still always so appropriate. The Arizona Cardinals upset the Dallas Cowboys in a battle between meme’d coaches new and old (and with some great coaching and spicy designs from the Cardinals team). The Indianapolis Colts beat a Baltimore Ravens team that has half of its players in the infirmary. The Houston Texans beat the Jacksonville Jaguars in Jacksonville with only one of their Day 1 offensive line starters playing. (And don’t worry, Trevor Lawrence is fine. And buy as much C.J. Stroud stock as possible). Justin Herbert diced up the Minnesota Vikings in a Loser Leaves Town match, showing off his T-800 like destruction and precision.
Week 4 is in front of us at The Overhang. Let’s see what the NFL has been bringing to the table.
(All data via TruMedia unless otherwise noted.)
Player: Rashan Gary
It’s remarkable that Rashan Gary is playing a mere 10 months after an ACL injury ended his strong 2022 season. It’s also incredible the level that Gary is rushing the passer as he continues to work his way back to 100%.
Gary has played about only a quarter of the Packers’ snaps this season, with a large majority (78.6%) of those snaps being pass plays. But he is wreaking havoc on those limited snaps. Gary ranks first in pressure rate among all defenders with 40 or more pass rushing snaps and seventh in quarterback hits per pass rush snap.
His pressure rate of 29.5% is nearly three times the league average for pass rushers and is the second-best mark through the first three weeks among all NFL defenders since 2019.
Gary has had strong underlying metrics the past few seasons, and those numbers continue to remain strong in 2023, even while working back from a difficult injury. It’s not just underlying numbers, either. Gary notched a hat trick in Week 3 against the New Orleans Saints, finishing with three sacks and five overall pressures on just 20 snaps. It was a supernova performance that had Saints tackles marching backward all day (No. 52):
A healthy Rashan Gary is a star. It seems that even a near-healthy Rashan Gary is one, too.
Thursday night will feature a hoss fight between Gary and Detroit Lions star offensive tackle Penei Sewell that has the potential to earn a Dave Meltzer five-star rating. The Packers might still be easing Gary back into a full-time role, but every snap he’s on the field has the potential for fireworks (and waterworks after hearing Gary’s speech):
Play: Lead block the swing routes
Football concepts continuously mold and blend with the times. Staples get created, abandoned, rediscovered, refitted, repurposed. Play designers tweak one component that brings a new element to a play design and purpose.
One example is an offensive play that started arising in the second half of last season that was seemingly studied by a majority of other play-callers throughout the league in the spring, with teams adding their own flavors to it.
The play design creates a “four strong” concept where four pass-catchers are running routes to one side of the field — with an isolated receiver on the backside.
The four pass-catchers partly create a “triangle read” concept, with its most famous version known as “Snag” (marked in yellow). The twist on this play is that rather than being only a three-man concept on one side, which Snag is traditionally known for, this design adds another player to the mix, which floods that side of the field. And that player isn’t running a route. No, that player (marked in red) is tasked with blocking for the running back’s swing route on the play. It’s a double-whammy of adding another route to the mix, but also making one of the options be a player in space with a lead blocker out in front.
Finally, that isolated receiver (blue) gets tagged with a particular route to run on the play. Commonly a slant, hitch or go:
The San Francisco 49ers started sprinkling this concept more during last season:
49ers create a 4 strong concept.
Not only does it flood one side of the field with bodies, but rather than have Juszczyk go vertical or waste him on some other route. Look how they have him as essentially a lead blocker for CMC’s Swing route. pic.twitter.com/JzMidtsKCq
— Nate Tice (@Nate_Tice) November 23, 2022
And it was an effective play for them, while also being a (relatively) simple play for the quarterback to read. The QB essentially gets to choose: Do you like the one-on-one matchup? Yes? Fire away. No? Just move your eyes from left-to-right in a calm and orderly fashion and positive things will ensue.
Early in 2023 season, offenses throughout the league have been sprinkling in the concept to create some easy buttons for their offense and quarterback (I especially liked the Bills’ pre-snap window dressing in the first clip):
It’s a copycat league and this concept is already starting to get Xeroxed. And like all great tropes, teams are starting to invert them. Here’s the Packers attempting to run a shot play to rookie tight end Luke Musgrave (who can absolutely fly) off the look:
The Plan: Run, Billy, run
The Buffalo Bills’ offense the past few years, first with Brian Daboll and now Ken Dorsey as play-callers, has hit some of the highest highs of any NFL attack with a Hadouken-firing Josh Allen playing quarterback:
The peaks that this offense can reach has never been a question. The Stefon Diggs and Josh Allen combination is nigh unguardable. Allen is on the podium for best quarterback playing right now who can go ballistic at any moment, a force of nature capable — or at the very least in his mind capable — of any throw or run. His chaotic nature can at times leave Bills fans and national observers bewildered at exactly what Allen saw or was trying to accomplish, like a second-grader bringing home their painting from art class.
But when he rolls the dice and hits his point … hoooo boy:
The Bills have finished the past two seasons with losses that hurt in different ways. The 2021 season ended with a defeat to the Chiefs in the divisional round after Allen went berserker and went blow-for-blow with Patrick Mahomes. A fangless loss to the Cincinnati Bengals as the 2022 Bills limped to the finish line of their season was the catalyst for this improved aspect of Buffalo’s offense.
As we saw in Week 1 against the New York Jets, Allen can be his own worst enemy. He is always in attack mode and no play is unsalvageable. That can lead to him trying to do too much and putting his team in tough situations.
The Bills have slowly been finding ways to revamp their offense to be more sustainable to Allen’s variance. They’re asking themselves how they can keep Allen from having to feel like he has to win the game on a single play, or at least keep his Professor Chaos alter ego at bay until it’s time to unleash him on defenses. (Hulk smash?)
One way to do this is to literally and figuratively take the ball out of his hands. That means a good old-fashioned, home-cooked running game. Let him take a mental and physical breather, eat some vegetables, before he goes back challenging defenses by himself.
And through three weeks, even against a couple of strong defenses in the Jets and Commanders, the initial returns have been promising!
This is the best the Bills’ run game has been, and the highest rate it’s run the ball since Allen’s first full season as a starter. And through three weeks their success rate on running back runs is nearly 12% higher (from 32.7% to 44.3%) than through the first three weeks of the 2022 season. And nearly 5% higher than their average over the 2019-2022 seasons.
Over time, that is significant. Going from a fine rushing attack excluding Allen’s legs to one that ranks third behind only the Eagles and Dolphins — the two teams that put up over 500 rushing yards combined in Week 3 — is what lifts the floor of this Buffalo offense that can be so maddening at times.
The Bills accomplished this by upgrading personnel to be more conducive to the run game. They added guard Connon McGovern in free agency and drafted O’Cyrus Torrence in the second round. They added big-body running backs like Latavius Murray and Damien Harris to complement second-year player James Cook, who is more explosive but whose smaller frame limits his touch upside.
Their run attack also added variety without being overly convoluted. They are using standard run concepts outside of just zone runs — more physical downhill plays like duo and counter — that takes advantage of the box count they are being given because of the threat of Allen’s arm. The Bills are using run plays without pass routes tagged, separating run-pass options (RPO) like church and state. And when they do decide to use RPOs, Allen is choosing to hit the “run” button more often when they are calling those plays, a small but encouraging sign of improved discipline in Allen’s play:
the Bills run game over the past couple of weeks.
a healthy helping of Duo, some Counter, some Tackle Insert, a little bit of Sprint Draw. We’re liking what we’re seeing! pic.twitter.com/9T0r61JkKC
— Nate Tice (@Nate_Tice) September 27, 2023
While first-round draft pick Dalton Kincaid (No. 86) will help the Bills’ passing game as a secondary option to Diggs, he is a receiving-first tight end who has limitations as a blocker. But the play at 54 seconds in the tweet above is a great example of how Dorsey and the Bills’ coaches are putting players like Kincaid and fellow tight end Quintin Morris (No. 85) in more advantageous situations.
Notice where Kincaid and Morris are located on the play and what their assignments are (I even marked it in red for you):
It is a counter run play that features Torrence and Morris pulling. Rather than have Kincaid, generously listed at 240 pounds, block Chase Young at the point of attack, the Bills have Kincaid feign his block before moving to block the safety lined up over him. The play puts Kincaid into a more favorable matchup and also helps the pulling Torrence against a slowed-down Young.
Morris is aligned away from the point of attack, but is now the puller being asked to block an off-ball linebacker filling the gap at full speed. He accomplishes this with flying colors, and Cook adds the cherry on top by doing a great job of staying inside of Morris and quickly gets to the second level.
The Bills have had high hopes the past couple of seasons before hitting frustrating endings. And this refurbished run game will hopefully keep those nightmares at bay, with a juicy matchup against the Miami Dolphins in Week 4.
This season didn’t start heavenly against the Jets, but again, this Bills team and fan base dares to dream. Just remember: As Detective Rust Cohle said, “Like a lot of dreams, there’s a monster at the end of it.” The one in the AFC wears No. 15.
Prospect: Dallas Turner, Edge, Alabama
This year’s edge class, and defensive class as a whole, lacks some of the firepower we expect at the top of big boards. While there’s plenty of time for players to rise and plenty of quality edge prospects who are considered first-round types, such as Florida State’s Jared Verse and Ohio State’s J.T. Tuimoloau, they are more run-first defenders who might be more secondary pass rusher types.
There has been some squinting to see if any of those edge players can be that true closer pass rusher that teams strive for in the top half of the draft. The player who shuts plays down, shuts drives down, shuts games down.
One player is starting to make a case as exactly that type of fireball-chucking closer teams can point at quarterbacks and say “go.”
That player is Alabama edge prospect Dallas Turner (No. 15).
Turner has the length and athleticism that teams love from pass rushers. He is still filling out his frame, but has already been a productive college player and has 4.5 sacks to start the 2023 season. The arrow is pointing up with Turner and his name, along with other edge players like Penn State’s Chop Robinson and UCLA’s Laiatu Latu, are ones to keep an eye on as defensive players try to join the loaded offensive group atop of the draft.
Last week: 1-2 (still 5-0 on -110 wagers! Went on a heat check with the touchdown prop)
All odds via BetMGM at time of writing
Thursday night prop 1: Amon-Ra St. Brown Over 76.5 combined rushing + receiving yards (-115)
Had to parse through the props this week, with the injury list limiting options at the time of writing.
The Packers’ defense is out linebacker De’Vondre Campbell, and cornerbacks Jaire Alexander and Carrington Valentine are both questionable against the Lions. The Lions’ passing game will pick at perceived weaknesses of the defense with motions and play-actions — and if that weakness is through the central part of the defense, potentially huge explosive plays throughout the middle of the field.
Lions wide receiver Amon-Ra St. Brown also thrives working over the middle and on offensive coordinator Ben Johnson’s creative third-down designs. Look for him to get a steady diet of touches to keep the efficient Lions’ offense churning.
Thursday night prop 2: Jordan Love over 1.5 passing touchdowns (+105)
The Lions’ run defense is tough. Detroit beat up a Falcons attack that majors in the ground game, with players like defensive tackle Alim McNeill and rookie defensive back Brian Branch having breakout games to stifle the Dirty Birds.
David Bakhtiari is out along the Packers’ offensive line, and so is Elgton Jenkins. Green Bay has depth and talent in its offensive line room, but losing those types of players hurts. Aaron Jones (who is questionable) will bring an explosive element to the Packers’ run game, but this makes me think that the Packers will use their run game as a jab to set up haymakers through the air. Look for Love to try and hit some shots and head coach Matt LaFleur cooks up a designer play or two in the red zone to finish off drives.