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By Warren Sharp
FOX Sports NFL Writer
This season, I’m thankful for the opportunity to share weekly content with you right here at FOX Sports.
I’ll share weekly recaps of what went right and wrong for teams, coaches and individual players. And I’ll share game previews, blending mismatches, edges, expectations and predictions. Yes, some of it will be very nerdy and data-intensive, but I’ll always back up and give you a straightforward takeaway.
Hopefully, you’ll read a recap and say, “I noticed that, but I didn’t realize it was THAT bad!” My goal is for you to read a preview, watch the game unfold, and say, “Hey, that’s what Warren said might happen!”
Trying to forecast games means one thing: We are in the business of predicting the future, and that’s never easy. But my goal is to provide insights you didn’t know before reading.
With that said, let’s dive into my favorite edges for Week 1 of the season, with odds courtesy of FOX Bet.
Green Bay Packers @ Minnesota Vikings (4:25 p.m. ET Sunday, FOX)
Green Bay Packers
We know the Packers have been the NFC North’s top cheese for years, as they have won the division four out of the last six seasons, including the last three.
But did you know that since 2017, the Vikings have a winning record against the Packers?
That’s right, Minnesota is 5-4-1 (56%) since 2017 vs. Green Bay.
And the Vikings are 4-2 straight up (SU) and against the spread (ATS) when facing the Packers in Minnesota since 2016.
In the only game against the Packers last season in which Kirk Cousins played, the Vikings won a thriller, 34-31. The Minnesota quarterback was highly efficient, averaging +0.60 EPA/att and 9.7 YPA with 50% success.
In fact, over the past two years, there is no defense which Cousins has been more efficient against than the Packers. In three starts, Cousins has posted:
+0.49 EPA/att, 57% success and 10.3 YPA. He’s completed 73% of his passes (54-for-74), with a whopping 52% of his completions gaining 10-plus yards.
That production came from offenses designed by Gary Kubiak and Klint Kubiak. Now, he’s in an offense designed by Kevin O’Connell, the former offensive coordinator of the Super Bowl champion Los Angeles Rams. It’s a more modern offense that will pass the ball frequently. While it will be difficult to see more success than Cousins enjoyed against the Packers over the past two seasons, they should be more prepared to handle Green Bay’s defensive improvements.
I’m also eager to see how this new offense, which is likely to utilize substantially higher rates of 11 personnel (one running back, one tight end), will perform on the ground.
Minnesota used 11 personnel on 74.8% of its snaps in the preseason after a 42.1% rate in 2021.
Out of 11 personnel last year, Dalvin Cook ranked No. 1 in EPA/rush, and in his career, he ranks fourth in EPA/rush and seventh in YPC (5.4).
What is fascinating with this matchup is last year’s Packers’ run defense was one of the worst in the NFL. And while the Pack have made efforts to improve, they were especially bad against 11 personnel. Green Bay allowed 5.1 YPC and +0.02 EPA/rush to runs from 11 personnel. And the Packers allowed a massive 2.4 yards before contact to runs from 11 personnel. That ranked dead last in the NFL.
Last season, of 35 running back rushes against the Packers, the Vikings used 11 personnel on just 37%. If this rate increases closer to 75%, the Vikings’ run game may find even more success.
On the other side of the ball, Aaron Rodgers has been outstanding the past two years against Mike Zimmer’s defense, throwing 13 touchdowns and no interceptions in those games.
But this will be Rodgers’ first season without Davante Adams. Adams torched Zimmer’s defense for years, and his 79% catch rate against the Vikings is his highest against any team he’s played more than twice over the past three years. Adams had eight touchdowns against Zimmer’s defense over his previous four games. In all other games, Adams had 23 touchdowns in 29 games. Minnesota doesn’t need to worry about Adams in 2022 as he’s no longer in Green Bay.
Minnesota’s defense may benefit from playing a Green Bay offense that is trying to fill that void. On Monday, Matt LaFleur was noncommittal on Allen Lazard’s status for the game, which is worth noting considering Lazard missed several practices last week for “undisclosed reasons.” The wide out missed practice on Wednesday as well. While Lazard and Rodgers have a ton of chemistry from prior seasons, it is concerning that the de facto No. 1 WR for the Packers hasn’t been practicing the week leading into Week 1, and his status is still TBD.
The Lazard injury would leave Sammy Watkins and Randall Cobb as the team’s primary starters. It’s been years since Watkins has been a reliable NFL target, and Cobb’s best days are behind him. The Packers hope to get some explosion from rookie Romeo Doubs. And at tight end, we know that Robert Tonyan has been a very productive threat for Rodgers in the past, but he just came off the physically unable to perform (PUP) list on Aug. 14 and is recovering from an ACL injury. He may not be at 100% in this matchup.
Lastly, we have the home-field advantage factor.
In 2020, there were no crowds and no home-field advantage, and particularly as the betting market was slow to adjust, the Vikings fared poorly ATS at home.
In 2021, the Vikings played more road games than home games.
But in 2022, the Vikings will play more home games than road games and benefit from their crowd. Ignoring the crowd-less 2020 season, the Vikings are 36-18-4 (67%) ATS at home since 2014, the best record in the NFL.
For these reasons, the Vikings make a good teaser leg candidate, moving the +1.5 point spread by 6 points and sending it just north of 7 to +7.5.
Baltimore Ravens @ New York Jets (1 p.m. ET Sunday, CBS)
New York Jets
The emergence of Ravens rookie tight end Isaiah Likely this preseason was extremely fun. He was a fourth-round pick out of Coastal Carolina this offseason and popped in games captained by Tyler Huntley as Lamar Jackson did not play this preseason.
He caught all 12 targets thrown his way in the two games he played, averaging 12.0 YPC and delivering +0.96 EPA per target while hauling in one touchdown.
For most fans around the league thinking about the Ravens in 2022, however, Likely is an afterthought. At least the Ravens have a decent backup for Mark Andrews, they might think.
And yes, based on how the Ravens used their tight ends the past two seasons, I can see why fans might think along these lines.
Let’s examine the usage rate of 2+ TE sets for the Ravens the past two seasons (on early downs in quarters 1-3):
2021: 22.5% (25th most)
2020: 25.3% (17th most)
But guess what? This usage wasn’t by design, but because they didn’t have a capable enough tight end.
Let’s back up.
In 2019, Jackson set records. Jackson won the MVP unanimously, threw a career-high 36 TDs in 15 games, completed a career-high 66% of passes and posted an insane 9.0% touchdown rate.
And in 2019, the Ravens used 2+ TE sets at the third-highest rate of any team. They used 2+ TEs at a 54.2% rate on early downs in quarters 1-3.
That’s over 50% of offensive snaps.
And check out Jackson’s splits on these early downs in quarters 1-3:
0-1 TE: +0.20 EPA/att, 49% success, 7.6 YPA, 115 dropbacks
2+ TEs: +0.41 EPA/att, 57% success, 8.9 YPA, 143 dropbacks
He was solid with only 1 TE. He was spectacular with 2+ TEs.
But the Ravens lost TE Hayden Hurst in free agency before the 2020 season, and they didn’t replace him. They counted on TE Nick Boyle to play even more, but Boyle wasn’t the receiving threat that Hurst was. Then Boyle went down with an injury and was lost midway through the season. In 2021, the Ravens traded for TE Josh Oliver, but he disappointed and barely played. And then Boyle went down again with an injury and was lost for the vast majority of the season.
This explains why the Ravens dropped from a 54% usage rate of 2+ TE sets in 2019 to just 23% and 25% over the next two years.
And even when the Ravens had 2+ TEs on the field, they were terrible because the TEs beyond Andrews were not capable receiving threats.
Compare Jackson’s efficiency on passes with multiple TEs on the field to what he did in 2019:
2019 2+ TEs: +0.41 EPA/att, 57% success, 8.9 YPA, 143 dropbacks
2020-21 2+ TEs: -0.03 EPA/att, 45% success, 6.8 YPA, 118 dropbacks over two years
Per the evidence, this was a monumental drop in efficiency, even in rare situations when the Ravens often had two tight ends on the field.
With a true receiving threat in Likely available this season, I think this is a big deal for the Ravens in 2022.
Far more significant than anyone else is discussing.
Andrews said he believes Likely will “shock the world” and complimented the rookie’s ability to win one-on-ones and find zones, thanks to his feel for the game.
Thanks to Likely’s talent, Baltimore not only might double the rate of 2+ TE sets from the past two years, but the efficiency from these sets also has the potential to skyrocket.
It would be difficult for Jackson to reproduce his insane results from the 2019 season, but there is no doubt a spike in efficiency from having another TE on the field coupled with more snaps from 2+ TE sets could do wonders for the Ravens’ passing attack in 2022.
Want to look more short term?
In Week 1, the Ravens take on the Jets. Last year, no defense allowed more yards against 2+ TE sets than the Jets. They allowed the most YPA (9.2) and ranked 29th in success rate allowed and 26th in EPA/att allowed on the 121 dropbacks they defended vs. 2+ TE sets.
While not your standard advantage teaser, which passes through both the 3 and 7, teasing the Ravens down from -7 to -1 is an appealing option given the history of John Harbaugh in Week 1 games.
His Ravens are 10-4 SU and ATS in Week 1 since he became coach in 2008. And no team has covered more games in Week 1 since 2008 than his Ravens. They are 5-1 SU and ATS since 2016, with the lone loss coming in overtime last year against the Raiders. A game in which the Ravens never trailed at any point in regulation and led after the first quarter, second quarter and third quarter, but lost 33-27 in overtime.
Warren’s 6-point Teaser at FOX Bet:
Philadelphia Eagles @ Detroit Lions (1 p.m. ET Sunday, FOX)
Last season the Eagles played the Lions. The total sat at 48 points for almost the entire week, attracted minimal sharp action, and closed at 48 points.
Heading into the game, Philly pivoted massively to the run. Against the Raiders the prior week (Week 7), the Eagles ran the ball on 59% of their early-down plays in the first half. A 17-7 halftime deficit forced the Eagles to pass more in the second half, but it was clear this team was looking to run early and often, a considerable change in approach from the first six games of the season. Despite being a pass-first team, the Eagles had been a big under team, going under the total in four of their first seven games.
The Lions were struggling headed into the game. They were 0-7 and had not even hit 20 points in their previous six games, recording point totals of 11, 14, 17, 17, 17 and 19 points. As a result, the Lions were a massive under team as well. They went under the total in five straight games heading into their game with the Eagles.
So, the Week 8 matchup featured a winless team that couldn’t score 20 points to save their life and off of six straight unders, against a team who just embraced the running game and who likewise went under at a solid rate entering the game.
And the total was 48 points. And guess what? The game went over.
These teams are very different from that Week 8 meeting last year.
Late in the 2021 season, the Lions changed play callers and became more aggressive offensively. And they actually went over the total in four of their final six games, scoring 29 or more points in four of those contests.
The Eagles embraced the run — against very bad opponents — and had a ton of success scoring points. They went over the total in eight of their final 11 games of the year. But do we really think the 2022 Eagles will pick up where they left off with one of the highest run rates in the NFL?
Their quarterback was playing his first season as a starter in the NFL in a brand-new offense. The 2021 Eagles’ No. 1 WR was a rookie in DeVonta Smith, their No. 2 in receptions was TE Dallas Goedert. It made sense to run more due to the light boxes they were facing, thanks to the extremely high pass rate they started the season with.
But this offseason, the Eagles made the aggressive move to trade for of the NFL’s best WRs in A.J. Brown. They also added WR Zach Pascal.
QB Jalen Hurts is now in his second year as a starter. More importantly, Hurts is in the same offense with the same play caller in consecutive seasons for the first time since high school.
And this team has one of the best offensive lines in the NFL.
The Lions’ defense is likely to be highly problematic again in 2022, just like in 2021 when the Eagles put up 44 points against them. The Eagles’ offense has shown the desire to operate with tempo at times this preseason, and Detroit was the NFL’s 32nd defense on early downs last year.
The strength of the Eagles’ defense is their defensive line, which hasn’t changed. But the Lions’ offensive line is their team’s best unit, as they rank top-five in pure talent. It might not neutralize the Eagles, but it will give Jared Goff a better chance to find success.
With both of these offensive lines being among the best in the NFL, what seals the play on the over is the aggressiveness of both coaches. They will go for it on fourth down. They will rarely punt. They will onside kick early. They will never wave a white flag. Regardless of whether the Eagles are up late, the Lions will keep coming on offense and won’t stop. And finally, we also know this game is in a dome, and thus rain won’t cause problems for Goff’s hands.
This total sits at 48.5 points, and I would recommend waiting for it to drop and then grabbing a 48 later in the week and going over.
Skeptics may worry about the potential for a lot of running in this game from Philadelphia, but it would be impossible for the Eagles to be more run heavy than they were in this game last year. They ran it 46 times, passed it only 16 times and still scored 44 points. As I mentioned, I think the 2022 Eagles will be more balanced than in the last meeting.
Additionally, I would be shocked if the Lions came out and put up just six points offensively like they did last year, considering their more aggressive offensive strategy. The Eagles’ defense tends to force shorter passes underneath – they forced opposing offenses to average 6.4 air yards/att, 32nd in the NFL. But that’s exactly what this Lions passing attack led by Goff emphasizes. His target depth was 6.4 air yards/att, which was the lowest of any NFL quarterback last season. And these targets were extremely accurate as Goff averaged the eighth-best on-target rate of passes thrown within 10 yards out of 40 qualifying quarterbacks.
Thus, we’re left with a strange symbiosis that could benefit Detroit, where the Eagles’ defense wants the Lions to throw underneath and plays to take away deep passes. The Lions will gladly oblige because it’s their preferred offense, and they don’t care to throw deep often.
PICK: Eagles-Lions over 48 total points scored combined at FOX Bet
New Orleans Saints @ Atlanta Falcons (1 p.m. ET Sunday, FOX)
With Sean Payton at the helm, and questions surrounding their quarterbacks, the Saints relied on the run early and often last year against the Falcons.
On the season, the Saints had a 50% pass rate on early downs in the first three quarters of games, which ranked sixth-most run heavy.
However, against the Falcons, that plummeted to 39% pass. And both games were extremely tight in the first three quarters (one was a 27-25 loss and one was a 30-20 win).
And Alvin Kamara really enjoyed a ton of success in this matchup.
Kamara averaged 4.6 YPC (his second-best output vs. any team last year), gained +0.04 EPA/rush and saw a whopping 3.4 yards after contact per rush attempt, which was his best mark on the season.
Kamara totaled 266 yards in these two games vs. the Falcons (196 rushing, 70 receiving), or 133 combined yards per game.
I will be fascinated to see if the Saints and new play caller Pete Carmichael rely on the run just as much now that the team is being coached by the defensive-minded Dennis Allen. At times, head coaches from the defensive side of the ball lean even more into the run. And even last year, the Saints barely passed the ball vs. the Falcons.
Or, will they lower their run rate some now that the offense has Jameis Winston (he missed both games vs. the Falcons last year) and has better receiving options, including Chris Olave, Jarvis Landry and potentially Michael Thomas?
As with all new coaches, I am fascinated to see how the Saints approach their play calling, pregame strategy and in-game adjustments on the offensive side of the ball.
The play caller on the other side of the ball, Arthur Smith, had an absurd 55% run rate on first downs (fourth highest) but ranked No. 28 in yards per carry (3.7) on these runs. He was very conservative in his first year as head coach/play caller. I am interested to see if he leans more into the pass against a very good Saints run defense.
NFL analyst Warren Sharp joined FOX Sports for the 2022 NFL season. Throughout the year, he’ll recap the top games of the week and look ahead to the numbers that can give you a betting edge.
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