Monday Night Football Preview: Failure to Launch
The first three weeks of the NFL season have been brutal. We've seen big-time quarterbacks fall prey to injuries while some of the league's top receivers will miss at least the next few months. This game is no different.
Entering Monday, both the Seattle Seahawks and Detroit Lions will be without their top running backs. Both teams have questions on their offensive lines, and both are failing to meet expectations at 1-2 and 0-3. Not that Week 4 games can be big or anything.
It's pretty clear both teams desperately need this game. With a loss, the Lions would be 0-4. The Seahawks would be 1-3. No bueno. So who ends up getting the win through the injuries?
We can check this out by looking at numberFire's game profile, which is available to premium subscribers for every freaking game. Dope. It runs down projected stats and scores, looks at how this game matches up with Vegas's expectations, and shows similar games from history to help us predict what will happen Monday night.
Additionally, throughout, I'll be referencing numberFire's Net Expected Points (NEP). NEP is an efficiency stat that tracks the expected points added and subtracted throughout the course of a season. For example, if a running back runs for three yards on 3rd and 2, that will increase the expected points for the drive, and he will have a positive NEP. However, if he goes for three yards on 3rd and 7, that would lower the expected points on the drive, giving him a negative NEP despite the same yards-per-carry average. The individual NEP's are raw while the team totals are adjusted based on strength of the opponent.
Entering Monday, there are four important questions we need to answer in order to be fully primed for the game. Let's go through all four before closing things out with what the numberFire algorithms have to say.
Is Thomas Rawls a Viable Beast-Mode Fill-in?
For essentially the second straight week, the Seahawks will be without Marshawn Lynch, much to the dismay of those who love great hair and beastliness. This also means a second week of Thomas Rawls as a feature back. What can we expect from the undrafted rookie?
First, it's important to realize that Rawls is walking into an almost ideal situation. Last year, both Lynch and Russell Wilson led their respective positions in Rushing NEP. The team as a whole had the best Adjusted Rushing NEP per play at 0.18; the second best team was one-third of that at 0.06. Since 2000 -- as far back as numberFire's NEP data goes -- only one other team has had a number as impressive as that, and that was the 2011 Carolina Panthers. They're a phenomenal rushing team, and that needs to be taken into consideration with Rawls' expectations.
Thus far, Rawls has stepped in well. Through 18 carries, he has 1.83 Rushing NEP. Entering Week 4, he was ninth in Rushing NEP per play out of the 56 running backs with at least 15 carries. He was also 19th in Rushing Success Rate -- which measures the percentage of plays on which a player has a positive NEP -- meaning he hasn't just accumulated all of his NEP on one carry. It's a fairly reliable output on which the team can count. However, that's over only 18 carries. What can we expect Monday night?
Unfortunately for Rawls, his matchup in his second go-round is a wee bit tougher. He goes from facing the Chicago Bears -- who were 29th in Adjusted Defensive Rushing NEP per play through the first three weeks -- to the Lions, who were 13th. The Lions aren't quite as baller as the Seahawks, but this still isn't an easy matchup, and the projections reflect that.
Right now, they see Rawls at 11 carries for 44 yards with 0.23 touchdowns to go with 4 receptions for 25 yards. That's a far cry from the 16 carries for 104 yards he had last week. At the same time, that's still great value for those of you who decided to roll out Rawls in daily fantasy. He may not be busting out again, but you still have a case for optimism from a fake-football perspective.
What's Up with the Seahawks' Passing Game?
During the offseason, the prevailing narrative was that the acquisition of Jimmy Graham would allow the Seahawks to become a more efficient passing team. That's not to criticize those who thought that, as acquiring one of the best tight ends in the league generally means a team wants to be better through the air. The returns so far just haven't reflected that notion.
Last season, the Seahawks finished 12th in Adjusted Passing NEP per play, a highly respectable mark for a team known for its ground prowess. This year, though, they've slipped to 18th through the first three weeks. Obviously, this isn't a major dropoff, but it's certainly not the improvement some had been expecting.
Hold your horses there, Bob. It might be too soon for me to start dumping on the defending NFC champs. Their struggles may have had something to do with their opponents, as well.
In Weeks 1 and 2, the Seahawks had to go on the road to face the St. Louis Rams and the Green Bay Packers. Those two teams entered Week 3 ranked 12th and 8th respectively in Adjusted Defensive Passing NEP per play. When you add in that both contests were on the road, you can see why the team may struggle a bit.
This sentiment was backed up last week. Wilson had accumulated a grand total of -2.37 Passing NEP through the first two weeks. He rebounded with a respectable 7.58 Passing NEP in Week 3 on 34 drop backs. Considering the team's conservative approach once they claimed the lead, he could have done worse. They've got themselves another sweet matchup this week.
The Lions have actually fared worse than the Bears have this year against the pass. While Chicago is 27th in Adjusted Defensive Passing NEP per play, Detroit sits one spot below them in 28th. And it's not as if they've been facing stiff competition -- their first three opponents are 13th, 23rd, and 31st in Adjusted Passing NEP per play. This should be a good night for Russ and the gang.
At the same time, our projections are seeing a pretty pedestrian night for the home team. Wilson's projected at 235 passing yards on 34 attempts (6.91 yards per attempt) with 1.36 touchdowns and 0.78 interceptions. He's also slotted for 6 rushes for 34 yards and 0.22 touchdowns, helping up his value in the fantasy realm. This game should serve as a good test of whether or not there is reason for concern with the Seahawks' passing offense.
What Do We Make of the Lions' Backfield?
You know that cliche about how the definition of insanity is doing the same thing over and over and expecting a different result? The Lions haven't been informed that's a thing. Monday has the chance to be a gentle nudge in the right direction.
Joique Bell is out for the game, but homie done left his skills in the offseason, anyway. He has 20 carries on the year, and he has converted them into 22 yards rushing. Of those 22 yards, 18 came on one play, meaning his other 19 carries have gone for 4 yards. NOT. GREAT. BOB.
The analytics on Bell are just as bad. He has -0.32 Rushing NEP per play, ranking 55th out of 56 running backs with at least 15 carries. He needs only three carries to lose his team a point, which is truly special. Additionally, his 20 percent Success Rate is dead last. The league average for running backs is 41 percent. Yet he's still listed atop the depth chart when healthy. D'okay.
Ameer Abdullah's struggles haven't been nearly as defined as Bell's. He ranks 25th in Rushing NEP per play and 22nd in Rushing Success Rate among the same group of backs as Bell. He's not an analytics superstar, but despite running behind the same offensive line as Bell, he's at least respectable. It's just tough that his time to shine comes against a team of this Gucciness.
A year after finishing third in Adjusted Defensive Rushing NEP per play, the Seahawks -- once again -- sit right there this year. Basically, they're just crazy good, and it's best to accept that and move on. Our projections do still see Abdullah picking up 51 rushing yards and 0.17 touchdowns to go with 3 receptions for 26 yards, but I wouldn't judge him based on this performance, simply because of the matchup.
As for his backfield mate Theo Riddick, our projections see him serving a role, as well. He was targeted 10 times last week and 6 the week before that, so we know he should be involved in the passing game if the Lions fall down early. The projections have him pegged for 5 receptions for 35 yards, which really isn't too shabby in a point-per-reception league. As long as Bell is out (and possibly after, as well), Riddick should be on your radar in daily.
Can the Lions Keep Pace?
With the Seahawks favored by 9.5 points, it's fair to ask whether this game is a blowout waiting to happen. Even though the Seahawks don't have Lynch, Matthew Stafford has been plastered to the turf through the first three weeks. Can he and his playmates make this thing interesting?
Let's dip into the game's numberFire profile for a glimpse at an answer. As I mentioned, one of the features is looking at games most similar to this one to see if we can glean anything from the past.
Of the four most similar games, the underdog was able to beat the spread in three. That's not to say our algorithms project the Lions to do the same -- it's just that some similar games from history saw them as doing so.
One of those games where the underdog beat the spread as in 2009 between the Packers and the San Francisco 49ers. This is fitting seeing as that 49ers team is the most similar team to these Lions since 2000 at a 97.19 percent match. That team was able to beat the spread with a 30-24 loss in Green Bay.
That game really wasn't as close as the final score would indicate. The Packers led, 23-3, at halftime and 30-10 with just over 10 minutes left. The 49ers were able to get back within a score with 5:56 left, but the Packers were able to just juice the clock. Green Bay destroyed San Francisco in nearly every statistical category, but the 49ers were still able to beat the spread. As long as they can hold the Seahawks' offense down for the first half, you never know -- they just may end up on the right side of variance.
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