Inside Edge: 3 Week 1 NFL Matchups That Could Decide Games
When seeking value on betting lines and predicting fantasy football outcomes, the difference between success and failure can come down to a few key matchups that can have a large impact on the final outcome of those games.
Every game every week is decided by the combination of numerous matchups, but each week, some matchups matter more than others. The aim of this series is to identify a few key matchups every week that will likely have a large impact on the final outcome of select games.
Without further ado, here are three Week 1 matchups to look forward to.
Packers Offense vs. Bears Defense
Long-time Green Bay Packers head coach Mike McCarthy was fired late last season after the Packers lost at home to the 3-9 Arizona Cardinals. McCarthy’s out-of-date offense had expired and required quarterback Aaron Rodgers to put the team on his back in order to win any games.
Snapshot of #Packers stagnation under Mike McCarthy this year:
• Lead NFL in pass rate on first down despite Aaron Jones' 6.5 YPC on 1D
• Lead NFL in passes outside the numbers
• Lead NFL in throwaways
• 7th-lowest play action rate
• 9th-lowest pre-snap motion rate
— Graham Barfield (@GrahamBarfield) December 3, 2018
Green Bay was a top-10 scoring offense and made the playoffs in eight of Rodgers' first nine years as a starter. The past two seasons, however, the Pack finished third in the NFC North, failed to make the playoffs, and finished 21st and 15th in scoring offense. Green Bay ranked 20th and 13th in numberFire’s Adjusted Passing Net Expected Points (NEP) per play the past two seasons after ranking top-10 in seven of Rodgers' first nine years as a starter.
The Packers' offensive demise was due in part to Rodgers' health. The future Hall-of-Famer missed nine games in 2017 after fracturing his shoulder and played through an MCL sprain all of last year.
With Rodgers back to full health and new head coach Matt LaFleur on board, the Packers' offense is hoping to return to the elite tier of NFL offenses.
The feared Chicago Bears defense will line up on the other side of the ball on Thursday night.
The Bears were unequivocally the most dominant defense in the league last season. They ranked first in many defensive categories, including points allowed, takeaways, interceptions, opposing passer rating, and rushing yards allowed. Chicago ranked first in defensive efficiency according to numberFire, as well.
Unfortunately for the Bears, defensive performance is fairly unpredictable from year to year. Turnovers are neither a consistent nor a reliable stat, and top defenses very rarely repeat elite efficiency the following year.
It will be especially difficult for Chicago to repeat their success on defense in 2019 with the loss of defensive coordinator Vic Fangio, as well as starting secondary players Adrian Amos and Bryce Callahan. Fangio was named 2018’s Assistant Coach of the Year and is widely regarded as one of the smartest defensive coaches in the league by his peers.
The Bears also got fortunate last season in their scheduling. Chicago had the 2nd-easiest schedule in the league, per Sharp Football Stats, and the 12th-easiest schedule of opposing offenses. Fangio’s group dominated against quarterbacks like Nathan Peterman, Eli Manning, Nick Mullens, Sam Darnold, and Sam Bradford.
However, the defense wasn’t as impressive against better passers. Tom Brady averaged 7.9 yards per attempt with a 111 passer rating; Russell Wilson averaged 6.8 yards per attempt with a 94 rating; and Aaron Rodgers averaged 8.0 yards per attempt with a 97 rating.
This season, Sharp projects the Bears to face the fourth toughest schedule of opposing offenses. The defense’s first test will start in the first game of the year against Rodgers and the Packers.
In their two head-to-head matchups last season, the Bears were 1-1 against the Packers with an average point differential of just +4. Chicago had an average point differential of +9.4 against all other opponents. Considering that the Packers' offense is expected to improve while the Bears' defense is expected to regress, it’ll be interesting to see if Chicago’s defense will be able to perform as well as they did last season against a healthy Aaron Rodgers and company.
Cleveland's Defensive Line vs. Tennessee's Offensive Line
This may be one of the most anticipated games in the entire Week 1 slate due to the enormous amount of hype coming out of Cleveland. Expectations haven’t been this high for the Browns for as long as anyone can remember. Second-year quarterback Baker Mayfield and the rest of the star-studded offense has a lot of hype to live up to.
However, while the Browns' offense has been receiving the majority of media attention this summer, their defense will play as crucial of a role in bringing wins to Cleveland. Head coach Freddie Kitchens said last month that the defensive line “is going to be the strength of our team.”
Former first-overall pick Myles Garrett and underrated defensive tackle Larry Ogunjobi will be joined by Sheldon Richardson and Olivier Vernon on Cleveland’s front four this season. After ranking in the bottom half of the NFL last season in sacks and pressure rate, the Browns' defensive line is expected to be among the league’s best in 2019.
Garrett and Vernon each ranked top-eight in Pro Football Focus’s pass rush grade and pass rush win rate last season. Both should benefit from playing alongside each other as neither has played alongside another pass rushing star in their respective careers thus far.
Along with Richardson and Ogunjobi, Cleveland should be able to put constant pressure on opposing quarterbacks. The Browns sacked Tampa Bay quarterback Jameis Winston five times in the first half alone in the Browns' third preseason game. While it was just preseason, it could be a foreshadow of season-long dominance by Cleveland's stacked pass rushing unit.
Cleveland’s exciting front four will be facing the Tennessee Titans on Sunday. Despite fielding what is widely considered to be one of the league’s best offensive lines, Tennessee ranked 29th in both Football Outsider’s Adjusted Sack Rate and Sharp’s pass protection efficiency last season.
The Titans will also be without star left tackle Taylor Lewan, who has been suspended by the NFL for the first four games of 2019 (banned substance). Per PFF, Lewan allowed just 20 total pressures last season, which was the sixth-fewest among full-time starting tackles.
Lewan will be replaced by veteran Dennis Kelly, who has allowed two or more pressures in every career game in which he has played at least 20 snaps at left tackle. Kelly filled in for Lewan two times last season and earned pass-blocking grades of 41.0 and 52.5.
All eyes will be on how the offense performs under first-year head coach Freddie Kitchens, but the Browns' defense -- especially their front four -- will be a huge factor for how far the team can go this season, starting Week 1 against the Titans.
Julian Edelman vs. Pittsburgh Defense
The Steelers held a 23-7 halftime lead but ended up losing 33-30. The loss was in large part due to poor coaching that allowed the Chargers' offense to mount a comeback -- specifically, a lack of proper coverage against star wide receiver Keenan Allen.
Allen racked up an absurd 19 targets against the Steelers, which he turned into 14 receptions for 148 yards and a touchdown. Allen converted 9 of the Chargers' 22 first downs.
Allen is primary a slot receiver, lining up on the inside on over half of his snaps. Rather than covering the Pro Bowl receiver with slot cornerback Mike Hilton, the Steelers instead matched him up against various linebackers. Allen had 7 receptions, 9 targets, and 70 yards when matched up against linebackers. His nine targets when a linebacker was the nearest defender were the most since Next Gen Stats began tracking the stat in 2016.
New England slot receiver Julian Edelman has also enjoyed success against Pittsburgh. In his three career starts against the Steelers, Edelman has averaged 9 receptions on 11 targets for 82 yards, garnering double-digit targets in each game.
The Sunday night showdown will come down to much more than just Edelman’s defensive matchups, but it’s symbolic as to why New England has been one of the best teams in the league the past two decades. The Steelers and Patriots are both stacked with talent, but New England is the better coached team. The Patriots are 7-3 against the Steelers since Mike Tomlin became Pittsburgh’s coach in 2007, including 5-1 in the last six matchups.
Patriots offensive coordinator Josh McDaniels’ best trait as a coach may be his ability to scheme favorable matchups against his opponents. Allen lucked into playing against linebackers in Pittsburgh as a result of bad defensive coaching. Edelman is typically able to draw favorable matchups as a result of good offensive coaching, regardless of the opponent. It’ll be fun to watch whatever McDaniels and Belichick have planned for Sunday night against the team that covered a Pro Bowl receiver with linebackers last season.
Gus Logue is not a FanDuel employee. In addition to providing DFS gameplay advice Gus Logue also participates in DFS contests on FanDuel using his personal account, username GUSL. While the strategies and player selections recommended in his articles are his/her personal views, he/she may deploy different strategies and player selections when entering contests with his/her personal account. The views expressed in his/her articles are the author's alone and do not necessarily reflect the views of FanDuel.