March 1, 2021

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Walkthrough: Fraud Detection | Football Outsiders

16 min read
Walkthrough: Fraud Detection | Football Outsiders

Bears at Titans, Sunday, 1 p.m.

(At a socially distanced cubicle in Walkthrough headquarters…)

HELP DESK: Good morning, you have reached the Fraud Detection Hotline!

CHICAGO BEARS: Hello, we wish to report the Tennessee Titans as frauds.

HELP DESK: I’m sorry, but “fraud” is a very strong word to use on a football team that’s 5-2.

BEARS: Oh yeah? Well, what do you call a team that’s coming off two straight losses, including an ugly upset, and whose early-season wins include close calls against filter-feeders such as the Jaguars, Titans, and Vikings?

HELP DESK: I would call that your typical AFC South champion.


Let me put you on hold for a moment.

[Switches Lines]

Good morning, you have reached the Fraud Detection Hotline!

TENNESSEE TITANS: Hello, we wish to report the Chicago Bears as frauds.

HELP DESK: Sigh. Listen, this is not an AM sportstalk station. It’s not our policy to declare football teams to be “frauds.”

TITANS: They’ve lost two straight games, they’re 1-3 against opponents with winning records, and watching their offense is like watching ice cubes melt.

HELP DESK: Let me patch you through to one of our other customers.

[Switches lines]

Tians and Bears, you are now on a conference fall.

BEARS: You’re the fraud!

TITANS: No, you’re the fraud. You have no quarterback!

BEARS: You have no pass rush!

TITANS: You’re aiming for this whole Monsters-of-the-Midway win-with-defense vibe. Well, 17 sacks and nine takeaways through eight games ain’t gonna cut it.

BEARS: “Derp derp derp, look at us, we’re the Titans. We think we’re an old-fashioned slobberknocker football team, except that we allow 4.7 yards per rush and haven’t sacked a quarterback in two weeks.”

TITANS: Enjoying your fumble luck much? Six fumbles, none of them lost. That’s sure to keep up with Strip-Sack Foles in the pocket.

BEARS: Oh hey, it’s time for the Titans’ 85-year-old ex-Patriots kicker to nail a chip shot after one of their all-handoff drives stall. It’s a shame Grampa Gostkowski is 5-of-12 inside 50 yards.

TITANS: Oh, the Bears want to talk about field goals? Cody Parkey is calling on Line Doink and Line Double-Doink.

BEARS: You should know. He kicked for you last year.

TITANS: You mean the year we came within a Patrick Mahomes comeback of reaching the Super Bowl while you were trying to convince yourselves that Mitch Trubisky would someday stop bouncing 10-yard passes?

HELP DESK: I’ve heard enough! It’s the determination of the Fraud Detection Department that the Titans are a typically flawed AFC playoff also-ran that was overrated early in the season due to an easy schedule and the peculiarities of 2020. We also determined that the Bears are once again a fringe NFC playoff team with a manageable future schedule (17th, per DVOA) that could easily land them around 10-6, especially if they win on Sunday.

BEARS: Fine. We’ll settle it on the field. But can we move the game to Wednesday morning or something? We’re dealing with a teensy-weensy outbreak.

TITANS: Gosh, we have more in common than either of us could ever imagine.

Prediction: Titans 24, Bears 20

Ravens at Colts, Sunday, 1 p.m.

Two metrics stick out as I try to determine whether the Colts are serious contenders or just typical AFC playoff fodder:

First, the Colts have the third-best net line of scrimmage differential in the NFL: their average drive starts on the 31.12-yard line, while opponents start on the 23.24-yard line. That good field position comes from a variety of sources, including +5 net takeaways and excellent kick return and coverage units. The Colts scored their first touchdown last week after winning a back-and-forth punt battle (they worked their way to the Lions’ 39-yard line essentially by trading punts); their third touchdown when a special teams penalty gave them the ball near midfield; and their fourth on a drive that started on their own 40-yard line after a fumble. Field position advantages really helped a game in which they were outplayed early tilt in their favor.

Second, The Colts have faced the easiest past schedule so far. They face the 11th-toughest remaining schedule, including a slate that starts with this game, followed by a home-and-home with the Titans with a visit from the Packers sandwiched in between. So there’s good reason to reserve judgment on the Colts for a few more weeks.

The Ravens actually rank second in the league in net line-of-scrimmage differential, so the Colts are unlikely to punt their way to any advantages. Their hope on Sunday rests with a strong run defense which might not really be all that strong (the Browns ran well on them), and with Lamar Jackson’s rediscovered penchant for throwing wobbly change-ups.

If I were betting on one of these quarterbacks to lose the game by wobbly change-ups, it would not be Lamar Jackson.

Prediction: Ravens 26, Colts 21

Panthers at Chiefs, Sunday, 1 p.m.

How this game will go:

  • 75-yard Chiefs drive ends with a Travis Kelce touchdown.
  • The Panthers celebrate Christian McCaffrey’s return with a series of off-tackle handoffs, well known to be the best way to exploit McCaffrey’s skill set. A long drive ends with a 23-yard Joey Slye field goal on fourth-and-1.
  • 75-yard Chiefs drive ends with a Tyreek Hill touchdown on a goal-line end around.
  • Mike Davis rushes five times for 47 yards and three broken tackles. A long drive ends with a 22-yard Slye field goal on fourth-and-inches. McCaffrey takes over workhorse duties for the next five drives.
  • The obligatory sloppy middle period of every Chiefs game arrives: they waste three drives on deep shots that don’t quite connect, double-screens that the defense sniffs out, and holding penalties which negate big plays. The Panthers cut the lead to 14-9.
  • The Panthers run a play where McCaffrey, Davis, and Curtis Samuel are on the field at the same time; they use backfield motion to confuse the Chiefs defense and generate a big play on a coverage mismatch. Unfortunately, the Panthers drive ends when Teddy Bridgewater is sacked out of field goal range. Your midweek Twitter timeline is full of breakdowns of this clever, innovative play design. The Panthers do not unveil it again until Week 13.
  • Halftime adjustment: Andy Reid realizes that the Panthers defense cannot tackle and downshifts to a steady diet of Clyde Edwards-Helaire and Le’Veon Bell. Throw in one Patrick Mahomes bomb and the score is soon 28-9.
  • Both teams munch clock in the fourth quarter for some reason.
  • After the game, everyone politely fails to notice how much the Panthers look like a more talented version of the Jets.

Prediction: Chiefs 31, Panthers 16.

Seahawks at Bills, Sunday, 1 p.m.

The Bills pass defense ranks 31st in the NFL in stopping passes over the middle, 27th in stopping short passes and 26th in stopping deep passes. There are many culprits, but the simple explanation boils down to “there’s little pass rush and Tre’Davious White cannot be in five places at once.”

Russell Wilson currently leads the league in completion percentage over the middle (81.7%, passes marked “left middle,” “middle” or “right middle” by Sports Info Solutions, minimum 50 attempts), ranking seventh in yards per attempt (8.6) and first in efficiency rating (127.8) with 12 touchdowns. Tyler Lockett and DK Metcalf have combined for 41 receptions on 53 targets for 539 yards and seven touchdowns while working the middle of the field defined in this way, with much of the production coming downfield.

Look for Wilson and his receivers to try to exploit linebacker Tremaine Edmunds (having a miserable year, yet often assigned tough coverage assignments) and the underacheivers among the Bills nickel defenders and safety corps with lots of crossing routes and such. Throw in the Bills’ inability to stop the run and the Seahawks should easily score 30 points. Whether that’s enough depends on whether Jamal Adams is really back (his status has been “tomorrow” for two weeks) and whether we see the early-season Bills who believed in themselves or the current team, which is so afraid to make mistakes that it makes lots of mistakes.

Prediction: Seahawks 34, Bills 27.

Packers at 49ers, Thursday, 8:20 p.m. (subject to change)

The Packers, who were gouged for 173 rushing yards by the Vikings last week and 158 rushing yards by the Saints in Week 6, have lined up with eight or more defenders in the box just 21 times, the third-lowest figure in the NFL this season, per Sports Info Solutions.

I broke the data down in various ways to account for matters like the fact that the Packers defense is often protecting a lead, but the bottom line is that defensive coordinator Mike Pettine doesn’t like to drop that extra defender into the box, even when it’s clearly necessary. In two games against the Vikings — an unapologetically run-heavy team that rarely spreads the field and was using the middle of the Packers defense like a parkway express lane on Sunday — the Packers loaded the box just 11 times. By contrast, the Seahawks loaded the box 20 times in their nip-and-tuck victory over Minnesota. Stacking the box isn’t the only way to stop the run, but it would help the Packers defense, which A) thinks “gap discipline” is something that requires a safe word and B) doesn’t really enjoy open-field tackling.

The 49ers will be starting Nick Mullens on Thursday night and won’t have George Kittle or Deebo Samuel in the lineup. The Packers should line up with eight defenders on nearly every neutral down-and-distance play. If the Packers cannot stop the 49ers depleted stable of running backs, Pettine might not be coordinating an NFL defense for a long time after Thursday night.

Prediction: Packers 28, 49ers 16

Dolphins at Cardinals, Sunday, 4:05 p.m.

Tua Tagovailoa’s mighty debut victory over the Rams last week — he did so little that at one point about an hour of real time elapsed in which he attempted two passes — sent me searching for the greatest games in the history of QB Winz. My Stathead criteria:

  • 28 or more points and a victory;
  • Less than 100 net passing yards;
  • Zero or one passing touchdowns.

There have been 80 such games since the 1978 rule changes that opened up offenses. As you might expect, they have grown less common as passing offense has increased.

The most recent QB Winz classic before Tua’s debut occurred in Week 17 last year, when the Ravens rested their starters but still beat Ducky Hodges and the Steelers 28-10. Robert Griffin threw for just 96 yards and one interception, but the Ravens rushed for 223 yards and benefitted from a defensive touchdown, a safety, and lots of Justin Tucker.

Kirk Cousins also benefited from a QB Winz classic last year, throwing for 98 yards and a touchdown in a 28-12 season-opening victory over the Atlanta Falcons. Dalvin Cook and Alexander Mattison combined for 160 yards and two touchdowns while the Falcons coughed up three turnovers and a blocked punt.

The Dolphins benefitted from a pair of QB Winz classics when Chad Henne was auditioning to be their quarterback of the future in 2009. One of them was similar to Sunday’s victory in many ways. Ted Ginn returned two kickoffs for touchdowns and Jason Taylor added a long fumble return touchdown in a 30-25 victory over the Jets in Week 8. Henne was just 12-of-21 for 112 yards, one touchdown, and five sacks for 51 yards in that game. As in Sunday’s game, the Dolphins didn’t get much help from their running game, ran a little Wildcat to no great effect, and allowed the opponent to climb back into the game somewhat.

Henne was never destined to be more than a career backup, but there is no evidence that QB Winz early in a quarterback’s career are a sign that he will turn out one way or the other. A QB Winz game often IS a sign that a team’s defense and special teams are playing well, and it could be interpreted as a sign that a rebuilding team is buying into the program. Dolphins fans should take those interpretations and run with them while reserving judgment on Tua for at least a few more weeks.

Prediction: Cardinals 23, Dolphins 17

Broncos at Falcons, Sunday, 1 p.m.

How this game will go.

  • The Broncos start with a heavy dose of Melvin Gordon. Because who wouldn’t, right? You can’t get that 4.2 yards per rush — and especially that 4.1 yards per reception — plus critical turnovers from just any running back.
  • The Falcons take a 16-0 lead on typical early-game Falcons competence. Having beaten the West Coast Falcons last week, the Broncos feel no sense of urgency.
  • A promising Broncos drive after a Justin Simmons interception stalls when Drew Lock throws a flair pass 3 yards behind Gordon on third-and-12. Brandon McManus kicks a 52-yard field goal to make the score 16-3 at halftime.
  • Philip Lindsay runs 50 yards for a touchdown on the opening drive of the third quarter to make the score 16-10. Lindsay finishes the game with two touches for 61 yards.
  • With 1:30 to play and the Broncos out of timeouts, the Falcons hand off to Todd Gurley on third down, expecting him to hit the deck so the clock will run down before a punt. Gurley sweeps to the sideline, gets confused when he sees all of his teammates gesturing at the ground, and sets the ball down on the turf for the Broncos to recover. The entire sequence is lifted and used as an adorable sight gag for Groot’s daughter in Guardians of the Galaxy III.
  • Lock leads a last-minute scoring drive which is mostly just defensive penalties.
  • Someone you never heard of catches Lock’s game-winning 1-yard touchdown pass. Let’s go with Tyrie Cleveland.

Prediction: Broncos 17, Falcons 16

Giants at Washington, Sunday, 1 p.m.

A theory, based on last week’s Giants and Bengals results: teams play better during a certified gosh-golly offensive line emergency than they do when coping with their typical everyday bad offensive lines.

Both the Giants and Bengals were forced to patch together lines full of subs and rookies to replace their already-terrible offensive lines last week. The Bengals dropped 31 points on the Titans while moving the ball well all day, and the Giants offense performed surprisingly well against the Buccaneers on Monday night. There are other anecdotal examples, like the Eagles offense pulling itself together somewhat against the Steelers and Ravens defenses during the worst of their offensive line injury crisis.

A bad-but-relatively-stable offensive line can lull a coordinator such as Jason Garrett into a false sense that he can run his conventional game plan and everything will somehow work out just fine. But once three rookies make up the entire left side of the offensive line, even someone like Garrett is forced to rely extra heavily on sprint-outs, tight end-arounds, delays, draws, and other plays designed to use a defense’s own aggressiveness against itself while stressing to the quarterback all week how important it will be to get rid of the ball quickly.

Those tactics have diminishing returns, of course. Eventually, the offensive line either improves or the offense falls apart. The prediction below indicates what I think will happen in the Giants’ case.

Prediction: Washington 22, Giants 13

Raiders at Chargers, Sunday, 4:05 p.m.

The Chargers’ tendency to blow leads is very real, and it’s mostly a defensive issue. The Chargers defense ranks third in the NFL in first-quarter DVOA (-43.7%) and then falls to ninth (-7.9%), 27th (13.0%), and 29th (31.8%) in subsequent quarters. Their offense also dips from seventh (12.7%) in the first half to 15th (1.5%) in the second half.

The Chargers also have the fourth-fastest situation-neutral offensive pace in the NFL at 28.11 seconds. That swift pace may hurt them a bit: they seem to give opponents extra possessions in the second half, even when they are moving the ball well on offense, and a gassed defense is vulnerable to big plays. Slightly better clock management throughout the second half would have left the Broncos without time for their final touchdown drive in Week 8. Then again, the Chargers possessed the ball for over 35 minutes in that game, and there is only so much you can do by delaying the snap by a few seconds.

The Chargers may simply be a 2-5 tough-out of a rebuilding team that happens to line up most of its success in the first half and failure in the second. If that’s the case, at least they still have lots of success to point to.

The Raiders face the Broncos, Chiefs, Falcons, and Jets after this game. A conservative 3-2 run in this span would put them at 6-4. The road to an AFC wild-card berth is often paved with an upset over the divisional powerhouse, an out-of-conference trap upset, and some gut-it-out wins against fellow middleweights, with or without 35 mph winds.

Prediction: Raiders 26, Chargers 24.

Steelers at Cowboys, Sunday, 4:25 p.m.

The record for fewest total yards in a modern game is held by the 1979 Seahawks, who netted negative-7 yards from scrimmage in a 24-0 loss to the Los Angeles Rams. Jim Zorn went 2-of-17 passing for 25 yards but was sacked six times for 55 yards in that game. The Rams recorded 29 first downs, the Seahawks just one. The game is not remembered among history’s great all-time blowouts because the Rams took a 21-0 halftime lead and were content to run the ball 63 times for 303 yards on the afternoon.

This game could be a lot like that one.

Prediction: Steelers 31, Cowboys 6

Patriots at Jets, Monday, 8:15 p.m.

ESPN’s Rich Cimini did my work for me early in the week with this tweet:

Clausen threw a touchdown pass to Jeff King to end the Panthers’ streak in that game, a 19-12 field goal-fest Panthers victory. Skelton, who had replaced injured starter Derek Anderson two weeks earlier, would throw his first NFL touchdown pass a week later.

Clausen would be replaced by Cam Newton the following year. Anderson would become Newton’s longtime backup. Skelton, famously from Fordham University (it was a Ryan Fitzpatrick/Harvard deal), battled Kevin Kolb for the Cardinals starting job for a few seasons.

It was a moribund era for those two organizations, just as this is for these two organizations.

Prediction: Patriots 24, Jets 13

Texans at Jaguars, Sunday, 1 p.m.

I compared Jake Luton to Luke Falk in my 2020 Draft Grades for my former employer, with the following scouting report:

Luton put up some impressive numbers as a fifth-year senior for the [Oregon State] Beavers: 28 touchdowns, three interceptions, a 149.8 rating. He’s tall, has a live arm, and you know a quarterback prospect is in trouble when that is how his scouting report begins. Luton has a methodical, baseball-like delivery that will lead to sacks at the NFL level, and he has a surprising number of passes batted down. He has limited mobility and wonky mechanics. Luton is the embodiment of a “looks the part” quarterback prospect. He also may be one injury or crash back to reality from being the Jaguars’ best option at quarterback.

For all of his flaws, Gardner Minshew excelled at manufacturing loopy big plays outside of structure. Replacing him with a methodical, predictable passer takes away one of the few advantages the Jaguars offense had.

Prediction: Texans 28, Jaguars 14

Lions at Vikings, Sunday, 1 p.m.

Kenny Golladay and Trey Flowers are the Lions’ best offensive and defensive players, respectively. Both are out indefinitely with injuries. And with this excuse for failure secured, so ends the competitive and quasi-interesting portion of the Detroit Lions season.

Prediction: Vikings 23, Lions 17

Saints at Buccaneers, Sunday, 8:20 p.m.

(At a diner somewhere in Sarasota, Florida…)

TOM BRADY: Hey, Drew! Great to see you again. I’m really looking forward to a rematch, especially since I was not really at my best in that season opener.

DREW BREES: Yeah, it’s great to see you, too.

BRADY: (awkward silence).

BREES: (awkward silence).

BRADY: Look, this is a business, right? We all do what we can to win games.

BREES: I didn’t say anything.

BRADY: He’s not gonna cause any headaches, either. We have a strong locker room full of leaders. What other team can say that?

BREES: Leadership. Now how come no one has thought of that before?

BRADY: And, you know, he’s not a bad dude. He’s living with me right now! This is a chance to help him get his career and his life back on track.

BREES: Mmm-hmm. It’s a ruthless business decision and also an act of humanitarianism. Got it.

BRADY: Don’t try to get high-and-mighty, Drew. You played on a team with a headhunting scandal. We all hold our noses to get the job done now and then. And you aren’t exactly Mister Popular with the social justice warrior sect yourself, so you know how judgmental people can be.

BREES: I’m not judging you at all.

BRADY: Look, the bottom line is that a team with a chance to win the Super Bowl must do everything it possibly can to get better. It’s our obligation to the fans.

BREES: Perhaps. But who are “the fans,” really? It’s easy to fill a stadium with people willing to forgive anything if it results in a few more wins. But what about the fans who stay home? What about the national fans who change the channel because they hate listening to overmatched announcers trying to compartmentalize someone’s behavior? What about people who keep getting a sour taste in their mouth from the NFL for all sorts of reasons and this is the last straw?

BRADY: We’re not opening a can of worms about fan “boycotts,” are we?

BREES: If we are, then it only illustrates my point. Everyone notices when one sort of fan stomps and screams about political activism. No one asks why so many others are quietly watching less football. The whole system is designed to gloss over anything that’s uncomfortable: scandals and controversies come and go, but there’s beer and pickup trucks to sell, airtime to fill, deadlines to meet. Eventually, everything gets downplayed so we can all focus on the field and collect our paychecks. But every year, for lots of reasons, fewer people are coming along for the ride. I just wonder if all of the glossing has become part of the reason.

BRADY: You’re all over the place. I can’t tell if you are talking about morality or television ratings.

BREES: I’m not sure, either. But welcoming him back to the NFL with a hand-wave and a shrug just feels wrong on so many levels: bad for society, for the game, possibly for your team, even for him.

BRADY: [leaning across the table] Drew, if the Saints signed him, you’d be the happiest quarterback on earth today. And you would use all that goodwill you have built up over 20 years to vouch for him and push the “rehabilitation” angle.

BREES: You’re probably right. But he’s all yours now. His presence will define everything you do for the rest of the season. So enjoy getting exactly what you wished for. In a way, I hope it works out for you. Because if it turns ugly, it’s likely to turn very, very ugly.

Prediction: Buccaneers 33, Saints 26

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