By Warren Sharp
FOX Sports NFL Writer
I’m back to share my favorite betting edges, expectations and predictions for Week 3 of the NFL season. My goal for this weekly column is to provide insights you didn’t know before reading.
With that said, let’s dive into my favorite edges for this week’s slate of games, with odds courtesy of FOX Bet.
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The Green Bay Packers have the potential to be in for a rude awakening when they face the Tampa Bay Buccaneers defense on Sunday.
Now they will go up against the No. 2 defense in the NFL in the Buccaneers, which also ranks No. 1 against the pass. But let’s dig in a little more.
There are strong reasons to believe the Packers offense is overvalued, but so is this Bucs defense.
Tampa Bay has played the second-easiest schedule of offenses thus far (No. 28 Dallas and No. 25 New Orleans) and now goes up against Green Bay.
The truth likely lies in the middle. The Bucs defense is solid but not as good as it’s looked to date, and the Packers offense is solid but not as good as it’s looked to date.
That said, it was extremely impressive to see the Packers rank No. 1 in percentage of early downs that gain a first down.
Despite not putting points on the scoreboard vs. the Vikings, the Packers offense was elite in the game at avoiding third downs. And that continued in Week 2 against the Bears.
On 34% of the Packers early-down plays, they’ve converted a first down, which is the best mark for any offense in the first two weeks of a season the last two years.
Adding context makes these numbers even more impressive, in that the Packers have a well below average pass rate on these plays. Unlike the Chiefs, for example, who pass the ball frequently, the Packers are the No. 10 most run-heavy team on these early downs.
It helps to go against two bottom-five run defenses to start the year. And it will be fascinating to see how their rushing works against a Buccaneers defense that ranks above average vs. runs.
The Bucs rank No. 9 in EPA/rush to RB-runs on early downs. But they’re now without DT Akiem Hicks, who is excellent up the middle.
On the other side of the ball, I believe Leonard Fournette might have a solid outing against the Packers run defense.
On early down RB-runs, the Packers run defense ranks:
No. 32 in EPA/att (+0.13)
No. 31 in success rate (50%)
No. 30 in yards before contact/rush (2.0)
No. 29 in YPC (6.2)
These numbers are terrible and came against the Chicago Bears and Minnesota Vikings rushing attacks. This is why I believe the Bucs can have success on the ground. But the key will be whether they have the patience to stick with the run early and often.
In prior years, I wouldn’t be so sure.
But in 2022?
I think they might.
On early downs in the first three quarters, the Bucs have a pass rate of just 49%. That ranks 27th.
In 2021, they had a 65% pass rate, which was No 2.
In 2020, when they won the Super Bowl, they had a 62% pass rate, which was No. 5.
But that was when this team had a healthy offensive line, which is anything but the case in 2022.
Nor do they have healthy wide receivers.
You might be familiar with their major injuries along the offensive line before the season. But now they’re going to be without LT substitute Josh Wells, who was filling in for LT Donovan Smith, who is also injured and at risk of missing the game. They will also be without WR1 Mike Evans and it’s TBD whether they’ll have Chris Godwin or Julio Jones.
The bottom line is Tampa Bay has been forced to run the ball more because they can’t pass protect, nor do they have strong enough receivers.
And Brady should struggle in this matchup. Without Mike Evans on the field, Brady has averaged 61.6% completions and just 6.7 YPA. And that was with guys like Rob Gronkowski, Chris Godwin and Antonio Brown.
So I would expect a ton of rushing volume for Fournette, which would be the play to attack the Packers defense where they’re most vulnerable.
But to run, you’ve got to keep the game close.
And due to a higher run rate and poor efficiency passing, the Bucs shockingly have the NFL’s lowest rate in percentage of early downs that gain first downs, at 17.9%.
As such, this is a matchup of the most efficient early down offense in the NFL vs. the worst:
No. 1 Packers – 33.6% first down rate on early downs
No. 32 Bucs – 17.9% first down rate on early downs
These two teams are much slower-paced than average and run the ball at a much higher rate than average.
If there are no short fields set up by defensive turnovers nor too many explosive plays, I expect a fairly high run rate for both offenses and time-consuming drives.
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Baker Mayfield has been blitzed on 33% of his early downs in the first three quarters, the fourth-highest blitz rate in the NFL this year.
And he receives pressure at the 10th highest rate (36%).
On early downs, when Mayfield is blitzed, he ranks No. 20 in EPA/att (-0.09).
But when he’s not blitzed, he ranks 11th in EPA/att (+0.11).
And Baker has long since had massive splits vs. pressure and without pressure. Since 2020:
Vs pressure: -0.62 EPA/att, 25% success, 5.8 YPA
No pressure: +0.27 EPA/att, 51% success, 7.6 YPA
Unlike years past, this Saints defense simply isn’t getting pressure. Nor are they blitzing.
New Orleans is blitzing on just 8% of QB drops, which ranks 30th.
And they’re getting pressure at a 9.9% rate, which ranks dead last in the NFL (avg = 30%).
Last week, the Bucs played without multiple offensive line starters and multiple starting receivers. And the Saints, playing at home, still got pressure at the lowest rate in the NFL.
If this holds and the Saints struggle to get pressure on Mayfield and blitz as infrequently as they have been, it will be a huge change for Mayfield.
In Week 1, Mayfield played his old team, the Browns.
They rank No. 6 in pressure rate this season, recording pressure on 36% of opponent dropbacks, and have a league-average blitz rate.
In Week 2, Mayfield played the Giants.
They rank No. 5 in blitz rate this season (37%) and record pressure at a 27% rate.
Mayfield has been blitzed and pressured a ton in his first two games with the Panthers.
Now, he’s playing at home against a team with the No. 32 pressure rate and the No. 30 blitz rate?
This certainly isn’t an easy defense to go up against, but there is a road to envision Mayfield can perform slightly better without pressure. And if he does not and struggles once again, the Panthers will host the No. 31 ranked Cardinals defense next week in what should be his final chance to either deliver for the Panthers or probably cost Matt Rhule his job because the next three games will include the Bucs, Rams and 49ers.
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After a road loss, the Vikings are 23-9 SU and 25-7 ATS (78%) at home since 2012.
That is, by far, the best ATS record in the NFL.
And in their last nine games, they are 7-2 to the over. Their offense has averaged over 30 ppg in these contests.
Last year alone? 3-0 SU, 3-0 ATS and 2-1 to the over, scoring 30-plus points in each game:
30-17 win over the Seahawks
36-28 win over the Steelers
31-17 win over the Bears
And when the Vikings lost on the road, and their offense didn’t look great?
A perfect 7-0 for the over in the following week dating back to 2018.
Simply put, this is the time to back Kirk Cousins and expect him to perform well.
Back at home, not playing in primetime, off an embarrassing performance, when everyone is jumping ship, against an opponent he knows well.
This series is a big over series as well, going over in three of the last four games, with the Vikings scoring 27-plus points in every one of those overs.
This year, the Detroit Lions made a huge schematic shift to play more man coverage.
In 2021, the Lions played man at a 19% rate on early downs in the first three quarters, which was 20th in the NFL.
This year, the Lions are playing man in this situation at a 37% rate, which is the No. 1 most man-heavy team in the NFL.
This bodes well for Cousins in this matchup.
Last year against the Lions, when Cousins faced zone defense, he averaged -0.02 EPA/att.
But when Detroit played man, Cousins averaged +0.57 EPA/att.
Over the last three years, Kirk Cousins has been the NFL’s No. 1 quarterback against man coverage based on EPA/att and ranks first in YPA (9.1).
On the other side of the ball, this Lions team obviously wants to run the ball.
And the Lions are now going up against the NFL’s worst run defense in the Vikings.
On early downs in the first three quarters vs. RB-runs, the Vikings run defense ranks:
No. 32 in EPA/rush (-0.16)
No. 30 in YPC (5.9)
No. 30 in yards before contact/rush (2.1)
No. 26 in success rate (47%)
The Lions have played two terrible run defenses to start the season but now get an even worse run defense in the Vikings.
The Bills defense ranks No. 1 in the NFL, but look at who they’ve faced. Two teams with below-average offenses (Rams No. 20, Titans No. 29).
And importantly, neither of these offenses have multiple receiving threats like the Dolphins now have.
Kupp caught 13-of-15 targets for 128 yards and 1 TD, scorching the Bills secondary. But the Rams have no one else close to his prowess.
Their No. 2 target was a tight end (Higbee) who had caught just 5-of-11 targets. Their No. 3 target was a running back.
And their quarterback was nursing an elbow injury on his throwing arm this offseason, and his head coach decided to call an obscenely run-heavy game on first down. The runs did absolutely nothing but set up the Rams for second and third-and-long situations.
This past week, the Bills shut down the Titans, who have an even worse receiver situation than the Rams.
Their No. 1 target in the game was a rookie playing his second NFL game (Treylon Burks). The Titans lost all their receiver juice as they dumped A.J. Brown and Julio Jones. And when this team falls behind and cannot run Derrick Henry, they are doomed.
And now, the Bills are even more banged up in the secondary.
Buffalo is already without CB1 Tre’Davious White for at least the first four weeks of the season.
Starting corner Dane Jackson was strapped to a backboard on Monday night in a scary injury, carted off and taken to the hospital after lying motionless on the field. He’s been released from the hospital but sustained a brutal head/neck injury.
Starting safety Micah Hyde sustained a neck injury, stayed on the ground, was taken to the blue medical tent and then carted to the locker room. It was later revealed that Hyde, too, was sent to the hospital to have his neck injury evaluated and was later released.
To combat this Dolphins offense, the Bills may need to outscore them.
Fortunately, they’ve been just fine with doing that vs. the Dolphins.
In their last seven games against the Dolphins, the Bills have scored no less than 26 points and have averaged an insane 37 ppg.
Five of these seven games have gone over, including five-of-six when Tua wasn’t injured.
Miami is 0-7 in these games and just 2-5 ATS.
Buffalo has scored and scored at will.
And part of it is simply the defense that the Dolphins play.
Miami is, by far, the No. 1 most man-heavy team in the NFL. Plain and simple, the Fins love playing man.
Last year they were the only team to play man over 40% of snaps, and they did it at a 46% clip.
So far this year, they’re No. 3 in the NFL.
But even worse for them is how much they love to blitz.
On early downs in the first three quarters, Miami blitzes at the No. 2 highest rate of any defense.
But they get pressure at the No. 2 lowest rate of any defense.
That’s a dangerous combination and is a big reason why this defense is the No. 2 worst defense against the pass this year, and that includes a game vs. Mac Jones.
Miami has allowed a league-high 12.2 yards per completion so far this year. It’s been an abysmal pass defense. And one ill-suited to face Josh Allen.
Against the blitz this year, Josh Allen ranks:
No. 1 in sack/INT rate
No. 2 in first down rate
No. 3 in TDs thrown
No. 4 in success rate
No. 5 in YPA
No. 6 in EPA/att
Josh Allen also ranks top-10 vs. man coverage.
The bottom line is what Miami wants to do defensively simply does not work against Josh Allen.
A huge clash in styles will be seen in New England on Sunday.
When being blitzed right now, Mac Jones has very few answers, whereas Lamar Jackson has the answer key.
When blitzed so far this season, Lamar Jackson ranks:
No. 3 in EPA/att, No. 4 in success rate and No. 1 in YPA
Out of 34 quarterbacks, Mac Jones ranks No. 34 in EPA/att, No. 20 in success rate and No. 17 in YPA.
On early downs in the first three quarters, the Ravens have the ninth-highest blitz rate (30%) and get pressure at the 15th-highest rate.
This won’t make Mac Jones look good, and they would be smart to increase their blitz rate even higher.
The Patriots blitz at the fourth-lowest rate in the NFL and get pressure at a below-average rate. New England would be wise to maintain this low blitz rate.
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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