NFL Thanksgiving Preview: A Feast of Games
With all the talk this season about boring primetime games, we are treated to three big games on Thanksgiving, all of which have huge implications for each team's playoff hopes.
In the early game, two division leaders tied for the NFC North lead square off in the Minnesota Vikings and Detroit Lions. In the early afternoon game, featuring arguably the strongest division in the NFL, the 9-1 Dallas Cowboys, currently perched atop our power rankings, square off against the 6-3-1 Washington Redskins in a huge NFC East showdown. Last but not least, the Pittsburgh Steelers face off against the Indianapolis Colts in the nightcap with both teams needing a win to bolster their playoff odds.
So what will these three contests have in store for us?
Vikings at Lions
On paper, using our nERD rankings, this would appear to be a pretty large mismatch between the Vikings (5th) and the Lions (24th). But both teams sit at 6-4 and desperately want to take the last of two meetings this season, with the Lions already claiming a road 22-16 win over the Vikings in Week 9.
For the Vikings, they'll lean heavily on a pass offense led by Sam Bradford, who ranks 13th among the 35 quarterbacks with 100 or more drop backs in Passing Net Expected Points (NEP) per drop back (0.17). Bradford will go up against the league's worst pass defense, per our metrics.
Bradford's main passing target will likely be Stefon Diggs, who checks in 14th among the 33 wide receivers with 70 targets or more in Reception NEP per target (0.73) as long as Diggs can suit up. Diggs checks in around the same rate in terms of Reception Success Rate -- the percentage of receptions resulting in positive NEP -- at 86.6%, good for 16th among the same group of wideouts.
If Diggs can't go, Bradford will need to lean on emerging wide receiver Adam Thielen, who's becoming a larger part of the Minnesota offense in recent weeks. While Thielen only has 50 targets this season, Thielen's 0.95 Reception NEP per target of 0.95 ranks 2nd among pass catchers with 50 targets or more.
The pass game is important for the Vikings as the rushing attack is brutal due in large part to a struggling offensive line. Among running backs with 75 rushes or more, Matt Asiata (-0.13) and Jerick McKinnon (-0.19) rank 34th and 36th, respectively, out of 37 rushers in Rushing NEP per play. That's not good. Asiata is better as a pass catcher, checking in at 12th in Reception NEP per target (0.39).
For the Lions, Matthew Stafford leads a pass-happy offense that ranks 7th in the league in pass to run ratio (1.7 passes per rush). Stafford's Passing NEP per drop back of 0.23 ranks 7th among signal callers with at least 100 drop backs. Stafford's main target early this year was Marvin Jones, who ranks 9th in Reception NEP per target (0.86). Over the last few weeks, however, Jones' production has fizzled.
#Lions WR Marvin Jones has cleared 40 yards once over his last 6 games and has been out-targeted by Anquan Boldin over the past 3 weeks.
— Evan Silva (@evansilva) November 21, 2016
Riddick, meanwhile, has been a pretty productive back this season. He ranks 17th in Rushing NEP per play, right around the league average (-0.002). Riddick is a very effective pass catcher, too, and checks in 12th in Reception NEP per target (0.40).
Perhaps the one separator between these two pass happy offenses lies in Adjusted Sack Rate -- per Pro Football Outsiders, the Vikings possess one of the league's elite pass rushes, ranking 9th best, while the Lions slide all the way back to 16th. If the Vikings can get to the quarterback, it may go a long way in determining the outcome between these divisional leaders.
Redskins at Cowboys
This is the day's mashed potatoes and gravy, green bean casserole and pumpkin cheesecake all rolled into one dish.
Per our rankings, two top-10 teams will take the field in the Dallas Cowboys (1st) and Washington Redskins (8th). And, boy, this should be a fun one to watch as it's two of the league's best offenses taking center stage.
For the Redskins, Kirk Cousins has been fantastic all season, but he has been white-hot as of late.
Kirk Cousins has racked up 75.67 Passing Net Expected Points the past four games, per @numberFire's metrics. Had 40.13 the first six games.
— Jim Sannes (@JimSannes) November 21, 2016
For the year, Cousins ranks 4th in the league in Passing NEP per drop back (0.30) and 3rd in Passing Success Rate (56.5%). While many think Jordan Reed is Cousins' key target, among tight ends with 40 targets or more, Reed checks in near the middle of the pack, ranking 11th in Reception NEP per target (0.65). The biggest piece to the puzzle has been Pierre Garcon, who ranks 11th in Reception NEP per target (0.74). And in terms of Reception Success Rate, Garcon becomes elite -- his mark of 93.8% ranks 6th among wide receivers.
But the solid play on offense doesn't stop with the passing game as the emergence of Rob Kelley has solidified the running attack for the Redskins. Kelley is 7th in Rushing NEP per play (0.06) and is coming off a monster Week-11 performance (24 carries for 137 rushing yards and 3 touchdowns). Over his last three games, Kelley has 67 rushes for 321 yards, and since Kelley started getting carries for the Redskins, they are 6-1-1.
If you thought that was a dynamic offense, the Cowboys may possess an even better one. Dak Prescott is off to an incredible start to his pro career and may be the Cowboys' MVP. Prescott ranks 2nd in Passing NEP per drop back (0.38) and leads the league in Passing Success Rate (56.7%). And he's a lot of it with Dez Bryant dealing with a knee injury. Dez has been great when he plays, leading receivers in Success Rate (100%).
Another huge part of the equation has been the excellent play of rookie runner Ezekiel Elliott, who has merely led the league with 222 rushing attempts on his way to the 5th best Rushing NEP per play (0.10). This balance shown by the Cowboys -- 332 drop backs and 333 rushing attempts -- is interesting to note as the Cowboys are the only team in the NFL with more rushing attempts than drop backs.
Both defenses will be severely tested on Turkey Day, and using our adjusted per-play metrics, they check in 20th (Washington) and 21st (Dallas) overall. Perhaps the only distinguishing characteristic may be Adjusted Sack Rate, where the Redskins rank 4th overall, but the 'Boys are a step back in 14th.
Steelers at Colts
Perhaps the toughest of the three matchups to get a handle on will be the nightcap, which is a key AFC battle. Per our power rankings, this game is the lowest-ranked matchup of the day -- the Steelers are ranked 23rd and the Colts are ranked 26th -- but it won't contain any shortage of offensive firepower.
Ben Roethlisberger leads a Steelers offense that's been pretty efficient on both sides of the attack. Big Ben ranks 11th among passers in Passing NEP per drop back (0.20), and his two primary targets are Antonio Brown and Le'Veon Bell. So far this season, Brown hasn't been producing to the elite level of efficiency that we are accustomed to, ranking 20th in Reception NEP per target (0.66). The volume, however, is still there, as Brown ranks 2nd in the NFL in targets with 114, which hurts his efficiency.
Bell is a large part of both the running game and the passing attack. Since his return from his three-game suspension, Bell has been an absolute monster for the Steelers on offense. Last week against the Browns, Bell racked up 30 touches by the third quarter. While it may not continue at this prolific of a pace, it's clear he's a focal point of the attack. Bell ranks 12th among running backs in Rushing NEP per play (0.02) while also ranking 8th in Reception NEP per target (0.45). Keep in mind that even with the suspension, Bell leads all NFL running backs with 53 receptions. He's a workhorse.
Report: T.Y. Hilton says #Colts have been told Andrew Luck won't play Thursday https://t.co/Ul6VDmb5Yi
— FOX Sports: NFL (@NFLonFOX) November 22, 2016
Luck, for the season, has been a below average passer, ranking 21st in Passing NEP per drop back (0.09). If he can't play, it'll be the Scott Tolzien show. If you're unfamiliar with Tolzien, here's a brief primer:
@SiriusXMFantasy @JoePisapia17 @DanStrafford Scoots has moves!!!! pic.twitter.com/Khf7sFn1M2
— Dennis Roy (@roydawg_13) November 23, 2016
Tolzien's last meaningful action was November 2013 against the Vikings, so it may be a long day for Colts fans if Luck can't suit up. Luckily, Tolzien has some pretty effective weapons at his disposal. T.Y. Hilton has been among the league's best wide receivers in 2016, rating 6th in Reception NEP per target (0.82) and 7th in Receiving Success Rate (91.2%).
In his age-33 campaign, Frank Gore has found a way to hold off Father Time, checking in at 14th in Rushing NEP per play (0.02). And Gore hasn't done this with a limited workload -- his 163 carriers are the 9th-most in the NFL this season.
These two struggling defenses will also be put to the test on Thanksgiving -- the Steelers rank 26th and the Colts rank 30th -- and neither team gets to the quarterback much. The Colts rank 22th in Adjusted Sack Rate, and the Steelers rank dead last. Obviously, Pittsburgh will be at an advantage if Luck doesn't play.
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