3 Week 8 Storylines to Watch: The Showdown of the Undefeated in Denver
After a few weeks of less than scintillating drama across the NFL, it feels good to know that we're nearing that point of the NFL season where games promise to become more interesting as divisional rival games become more frequent, and games that promise to deliver high-flying action tend to become more frequent as well.
It's part of the genius of the NFL product to strategically schedule games that are likely to be more important closer to the halfway point of the season and beyond. So I get it. While I'm all about sitting down and watching the Tampa Bay Buccaneers take on the Washington Redskins on a Sunday afternoon, it makes sense to backload some of the more important games to add to the level of intrigue that the league brings to the table. And it's about to get interesting, folks.
As such, Week 8 promises to bring lots of intriguing storylines to the table. Chief among these storylines is the defensive versus offensive struggle that we are sure to see in Denver this weekend, as the Green Bay Packers prepare to take on the Broncos. The Broncos have become a shell of their former shelves this season yet still remain a perfect 6-0. Why? Because the team’s immense defensive talent has basically bailed out their woefully ineffective offense out in most of their games this season.
In fact, the Broncos' Week 7 bye couldn't have come at a better time for their team, having spent Week 6 barely escaping by, according to our power rankings, the 25th-ranked team in the league in the Cleveland Browns in overtime. Will Peyton Manning and the Broncos have any answers for the sixth-ranked Green Bay Packers in Week 8?
Ahead we'll take a look at the Packers versus Broncos tilt and other important storylines shaping the NFL landscape in Week 8.
Can the Broncos Defense Stop the Packers Offense?
Toward the end of last season there were legitimate questions surrounding Peyton Manning's ability to continue his career in the NFL. The eye test supported the idea that his arm strength had waned to the point of ineffectiveness. The Broncos, after a very strong start to the season in 2014, limped into the playoffs and got straight shellacked against his old squad in the Indianapolis Colts. However, it was later revealed that he had a quad injury that negatively affected his ability to plant his foot and deliver strikes.
Unfortunately for those of us who grew up watching The Sheriff in all of his majesty, it really does seem like Father Time has caught up with him for good. The numbers bear this out too. Through six games, the Broncos are literally the worst-ranked offense in the NFL per our metrics. The worst. That a Peyton Manning-led team has the worst offense in the league is unfathomable for many, but the truth is, he's a huge part of that ineffectiveness.
Here at numberFire, we use our Net Expected Points (NEP) metric to determine a player’s on-field effectiveness. Each NFL play carries with it a certain performance expectation based on down-and-distance data, field positioning, and other football variables. If a player exceeds expectation for a particular play, say, by converting a pass for 7 yards on a 3rd-and-5, they get positive NEP value for exceeding expectation. Conversely, if they were to complete a pass for 2 yards on a 3rd-and-5, they'd accrue negative NEP value for failing to meet that play's expectation-level.
So how is Manning performing in comparison to his peers? Abysmally. Manning currently ranks 29th out of the 31 signal callers with at least 150 passes on the season and ranks in the same place among those quarterbacks in efficiency with a woeful -0.04 Passing NEP per drop back. That means Manning has lost his team more points than he's gained them through his performance on the field this season. That's just nuts.
His quarterback compatriot, Aaron Rodgers is, predictably having another fine season, ranking fourth out of the same 31 quarterbacks with an impressive 0.27 Passing NEP per pass play. But the Broncos remain undefeated because as bad as their offense has been, their defense has been great, ranking as the best defense in the league by a country mile, sporting the 11th-best rushing defense and by far the best Passing defense in the league. So even with a quarterback as gifted as Rodgers at the helm, Green Bay won't find it easy to come into Denver and wreck shop.
Either way, one of these teams will wake up Monday morning no longer undefeated. The question is whether the Broncos defense is good enough to continue bailing out Peyton Manning against an offense as talented as the Green Bay Packers. We'll find out on Sunday night.
Big Ben's Return
The Pittsburgh Steelers and their fans suffered what could have been compared to apoplectic shock when their franchise quarterback Ben Roethlisberger went down with a knee injury in Week 3. Many thought that, based on looking at the tape, that it was a season-ending injury, and that the team would have to ride Michael Vick to a sure-to-be-no-better-than 5-11 record.
But after it was revealed that Roethlisberger's injury was an MCL sprain and a bone bruise with a four-to-six week timeline for return, some hope was restored. Through Week 7, the Steelers remain the ninth-ranked ream per our power rankings and maintain a 56.6% chance at making the playoffs. But this week they get a tough challenge against their divisional rivals in the Cincinnati Bengals.
The Bengals, currently undefeated at 6-0, rank 3rd in our power rankings, largely on the back of their electrifying 3rd-ranked offense and improved 12th-ranked defense. If I'd told you that Andy Dalton would be among the hottest fantasy commodities at the quarterback position after seven weeks of the season, you'd have probably punched me in the face for trying to sell you snake oil. But it's true! Dalton's been on fire, registering as the most efficient quarterback this season with over 100 pass attempts with an extremely impressive 0.43 Passing NEP per pass. The breakout season of Tyler Eifert, the return of a healthy A.J. Green, and the shiftiness of pass-catching running back extraordinaire Giovani Bernard have only helped his cause.
The only caveat to Dalton's impressive numbers? Roethlisberger, before he went down, was actually registering an outrageously impressive 0.56 Passing NEP per pass. In fact, even after missing four straight games, Big Ben is tied for sixth among quarterbacks in total Passing NEP, having delivered 52.46 points above expectation in the three games he played in. If Dalton's work this season has been impressive, Roethlisberger's pace was otherworldly. If he can come back playing at the kind of pace he was on before getting injured, the Bengals will more than likely be flying home to Cincinnati with their heads hanging low.
Can Dez Bryant's Return Improve the Cowboys Fortunes (Or at Least Provide Hope)?
After a six-week stretch in which there was about as much clarity as a mud puddle coming out of the Cowboys organization, it finally seems as if Dez Bryant is poised to make his return from the broken right foot he suffered in Week 1. Too bad for Bryant, and the team really, his first test in action will come against the vaunted Seahawks' secondary, who, while comparatively having a down year, still rank eighth against the pass per our numbers.
What's also unfortunate for Bryant is the absence of Tony Romo as his signal caller. The Cowboys have lost every game this season since he went down, and currently sport a 2-4 record that is looking like a hole becoming harder and harder to dig out of unless they can bide time until Romo's Week 11 return. The Brandon Weeden experiment went predictably bad, as he compiled a fairly abysmal 0.01 Passing NEP per pass, basically doing nothing to improve his team's performance on the field, necessitating a switch to Matt Cassel at the position in Week 6.
So how did Cassel do when he got the keys to the job? Way worse, actually, posting a god awful -0.25 Passing NEP per pass. Among quarterbacks with at least 25 passing attempts this season, only Jimmy Clausen and Michael Vick have been worse on a per-pass basis. Let that sink in.
A talent as good as Bryant should help whoever is steering the ship in Week 8. Bryant was the most efficient high-volume receiver on a per-target basis in 2014, registering a very impressive 0.94 Reception NEP per target. He also reeled in 16 touchdown passes, so it's important not to downplay the impact he can have on the game. But whether it'll be Weeden or Cassel holding the keys to the offense in Week 8, the main concern for the Cowboys should probably be to get Dez going so that he's ready to contribute for a stretch run, assuming their NFC East rivals continue struggling the next couple of weeks. Either way, it'll be nice to have one of the premiere talents at the wide receiver position back on the field in Week 8.