By Warren Sharp
FOX Sports NFL Writer
This week’s NFL slate features big-time matchups with great quarterbacks in primetime games. What more could we ask for?
I ran my models to give you my favorite betting edges, insights and predictions for Week 4 of the season. My goal for this weekly column is always to provide tidbits you didn’t know before reading.
So, let’s dive into my favorite edges for this week’s card, with odds courtesy of FOX Bet.
The Tampa Bay Buccaneers’ defense ranks No. 1 vs. the pass and No.2 overall. But this has come against the No. 1 easiest schedule of passing offenses and No. 2 easiest overall schedule.
The Cowboys were without receiving threats when Tampa Bay drew them in Week 1 (as they are still today).
We know the Bucs have a strong run defense. They did last year and still do this year, ranking No. 10 in success rate allowed (33%) and No. 8 in YPC allowed (3.8).
Last week the Bucs really limited the Packers strong run game, holding them to just 3.0 YPC and a paltry 22% success rate on early-down runs.
Unlike the Packers, the Chiefs don’t care to run the ball nearly as much. Green Bay was the fourth most run-heavy team on early downs in the first three quarters. Running into the teeth of the Bucs defensive strength. But the Chiefs pass the ball at the second-highest rate in the NFL on early downs.
And they just tangled with the Colts run defense last week, a run defense that ranks even better than the Bucs.
The Bucs have done well against the pass so far this year, recording the No. 3 lowest success rate allowed to opposing early down passing attacks (35%). But that’s come against weaker passing attacks, as both Dallas and the Saints rank bottom-10 in early down offensive passing success.
The Chiefs passing attack ranks second in early down passing success and third in early down EPA/pass attempt.
And while this may be surprising, and it was to me as well, on early downs in the first three quarters (where the Chiefs are the No. 2 highest pass-rate team in the NFL), the Bucs have the NFL’s No. 7 highest blitz rate but are getting pressure on all dropbacks at the No. 31 rate in the NFL (16%).
We saw this against Aaron Rodgers last week. Rodgers connected on 15-of-17 early down passes in the first three quarters vs. this TB defense, recording 1 TD, 0 INTs, 8.4 YPA, +0.28 EPA/att and a 53% success rate.
But the Packers offense didn’t have more success because they called run plays on 51% of early downs in the first three quarters.
And these runs generated just 3.1 YPC, -0.27 EPA/att and a 22% success rate.
Why the Packers didn’t lean more into their strong pass game once they saw the run game was ineffective was puzzling from an in-game play calling perspective, but with a solid lead, my belief is they were trying to shorten the game and keep Tom Brady on the sideline.
Third downs were not nearly as successful for Rodgers, and the offense would have fared better if they passed at a higher rate on early downs. But I expect this Chiefs offense to do just that on Sunday night.
“I really don’t think it’s too much of a difference,” said Barrett. “I think we have a lot of favorable matchups. I think we really have an opportunity to really dominate the game… I just think, yeah, we’ve got an opportunity to really impose our will as pass-rushers, edge rushers in this game. We can really have like a coming-out party. I know we had six sacks the other game, but we can really have a coming-out party as edge defenders in the position group for this game.”
One thing is for sure, the matchup between the Chiefs offensive line and Bucs defensive line will be must-see TV on Sunday night.
On the other side of the ball, the Chiefs, who long struggled to stop the run, currently are nearly identical to the Bucs defending early down RB-runs: No. 8 in YPC allowed (3.9) and No. 17 in success rate allowed (37%).
Last week the Chiefs had to tangle with Jonathan Taylor and held the Colts RBs to just 3.8 YPC and a 30% success rate on early-down runs.
This Bucs offense is massively struggling, and they’ll obviously hope to find more success with the return of depth at receiver, but just last week, they played the NFL’s worst RB-run defense on early downs, the Packers, and the results were very subpar:
-0.22 EPA/att, 2.9 YPC and 50% success on all 12 RB-runs totaling only 35 yards.
Tamp Bay either needs more efficiency out of its ground game against a more stout run defense of the Chiefs, or they’ll need to return to the passing attack, which didn’t work out too well last week.
Both of these defenses rank top-5 in percentage of opponent’s pass attempts gain 10+ yards, so they limit chunk gains through the air as well as any defenses in the NFL, thanks, in large part, to the fact that both play 2-high safeties at very high rates.
And Tom Brady ranks No. 2 worst in the NFL in EPA/att on short passes (<15 yards). And when he throws less than 15 yards vs. 2-high defenses (KC runs it at the fourth-highest rate), Brady ranks No. 31 in both EPA/att (-0.30) and success rate (33%).
There is value going under 45.
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Unders are still hitting at a very consistent rate this year, one of the highest rates in recent history.
But I do not believe there is anything to the “primetime Unders” concept that has emerged this season. There always has been a slight edge to betting Unders in primetime, but it’s gone underdiscussed for years.
From 2015-2021, primetime games went under at a 53.8% clip, whereas Sunday daytime games went under at a 50.8% clip.
The average total for Sunday daytime games was set at 45.7 points, whereas primetime games were set at 46.6 points.
Naturally, oddsmakers take in more public money on more heavily bet standalone games, which obviously tilts far toward the Over. This helps to elevate totals in primetime games. And betting Unders in primetime games has historically been more profitable than betting Overs.
However, when the difference is just three percentage points (53.8% vs. 50.8%), or the win rate is just 53.8% (profitable but viewed by the average bettor as close to flipping coins), the public isn’t going to notice or comment on it. But when 70% of primetime games are going under (seven of 10 this season), it becomes a larger talking point.
Remember, if you truly have no opinion on a primetime total or see no value in it, you shouldn’t be betting it.
But if you were to bet a primetime total for no reason other than action, you would have more success betting the Under than the Over. And that’s been true for years, not something that has evolved just in 2022.
That said, given that I use a computer model as the foundation for betting NFL totals, I never have to worry about betting on a game I see no value on. And I have no fear in betting a primetime game Over or Under the total, as it all depends on where my model finds value. The model considers the line set and, thus, accounts for a slightly inflated total. But if my number still has enough value, I’ll bet it religiously, Over or Under, primetime or daytime, as it has proven to be more accurate on totals than linesmakers.
When the 49ers meet the Rams, it will be a battle for first place in the NFC West, much like the battle for first place in the NFC Conference in last year’s playoffs.
These divisional foes have consistently battled to close, one-score games, which almost always have been 49ers wins and go under the total.
Since 2019, they’ve met seven times. The 49ers are 6-1 SU, ATS, and the Under is 5-2.
The simple fact is Kyle Shanahan’s offensive stylings work exceptionally well against the Rams defense.
San Francisco will need a huge effort out of their defense to limit the Rams offense because 49ers OT Trent Williams isn’t healthy, and that will likely be a problem against this Rams pass rush.
And I am concerned about whether the Rams offense will do enough here when they have the ball. After putting up just 10 points on the Bills defense in Week 1, the Rams have played two bottom-5 defenses in the Falcons and Cardinals.
Now they must face the 49ers defense, which limited Matthew Stafford to 6.9 YPA and a 5:4 TD:INT ratio in three games in 2021. Stafford took nine sacks and was hit 22 times on 129 dropbacks.
From a game average perspective last year:
Stafford vs. the 49ers:
42% success, 6.9 YPA, 11% sack/INT rate, 7% sack rate, 30% pressure rate
Stafford vs. anyone else:
50% success, 8.1 YPA, 6% sack/INT rate, 4% sack rate, 26% pressure rate
While this is a big step up in competition for Stafford compared to the two prior defenses he faced, it’s a big step up in competition for the 49ers, who have had the great fortune of playing the Bears, Seahawks and Broncos offenses.
That’s the fourth easiest schedule of opposing offenses so far this season.
We always say you can’t control who you play, but if you’re going to be playing a bad offense, you had better dominate. And that’s what this 49ers defense has done to start the season.
The 49ers are getting pressure at the No. 3 highest rate despite blitzing at a below-average rate.
San Francisco’s pass defense ranks No. 1 in success rate allowed on early downs and their run defense ranks No. 5 in success rate allowed on early downs.
As previously mentioned, the 49ers will be without LT Trent Williams, and while they did see the return of George Kittle last week, he wasn’t a difference maker through the air. And I wonder in this matchup if he isn’t used more as a blocker to help keep Jimmy G upright while Garoppolo targets Deebo Samuel and Brandon Aiyuk.
On the positive side for the 49ers offensive line, the Rams are getting pressure at the seventh lowest rate despite blitzing at the No. 8 highest rate.
But that has come against a very different type of quarterback.
The Rams have played Josh Allen, Marcus Mariota and Kyler Murray this season — all dual-threat QBs that are extremely mobile in the pocket. The opposite of those adjectives would describe Jimmy G., and if the Rams can collapse the pocket, they’ll disrupt this 49ers passing attack in a way they couldn’t against the highly mobile QBs they’ve faced.
They should be able to get pressure on Jimmy G and force him to dump the ball quickly or take a sack.
And the 49ers are the most sensitive to sacks of any team in the NFL.
Zero sacks on drives?
A 28% punt rate, the No. 9 lowest of any team.
But at least one sack on a drive? A 60% punt rate, the No. 5 highest of any team.
This offense is simply not built to overcome sacks.
Lastly, you have another thing going for you in this game: the ref crew. Brad Allen, the ref for this game, leads a crew that is in the lower tier calling defensive pass interference, defensive holding and has not yet called any illegal contact. But they do lead the NFL in false start penalties. And his crews are 58% to the Under, including 66% in divisional games.
There was more value on this when it was 46 or 47 points earlier this week when I bet it Under, and although I still lean to the Under, there isn’t enough value at 42 points (but if it gets to 43, look Under).
In the first three quarters of games, the Jets and Dolphins are two of the three teams to use 2-high safeties at the lowest rate in the NFL. They simply do not play these 2-high shells at all.
The Jets are about a league-average rate.
But the Bills play 2-high at the No. 2 highest rate in the NFL. Completely different than what the Ravens have faced to date.
The other thing that is similar about all the defenses the Ravens have played thus far is their blitz rate. The Ravens and Dolphins both blitzed Lamar at a well above average rate, which is really no surprise for the Dolphins in particular. And the Jets didn’t blitz as much but generated no pressure unless they did blitz. When not blitzing, they generated pressure at just a 19% rate, well below NFL average.
The Bills, on the other hand, don’t blitz at all, literally, and still rank No. 2 in pressure rate at just over 40%.
Jackson has absolutely diced defenses that blitzed him. He has the No. 1 efficiency vs. the blitz of any quarterback this year.
Jackson has faced 2-high coverage teams last year with a lot of success, but most of the top teams in the NFL, like the Chiefs, Bills, Bucs, Packers and Eagles are all using 2-high a lot more than average, so this is a great test for the Ravens passing attack and the first time this season they’ll face a defense who plays a ton of 2-high, doesn’t blitz and records a lot of pressure.
I think the Ravens could be a frisky home underdog in one of the weekend’s best games.
So far, Denver’s offense has faced the defenses of the Seahawks, Texans and 49ers. The only good defense in that bunch is the 49ers.
Let’s start with Russell Wilson vs. pressure.
He is the second most sensitive quarterback to pressure this year, behind Joe Burrow.
On early downs, look at these splits:
When not pressured:
+0.21 EPA/att (#8)
-0.66 EPA/att (#29)
The Raiders have been solid at applying pressure, unlike the Seahawks or Texans, two of Wilson’s prior three opponents.
On all downs in the first three quarters, the Raiders have gotten pressure at a 33% rate, No. 7 in the NFL. The Texans and Seahawks rank No. 20 and No. 21, respectively.
Where the Raiders pressure rate really stands out is on third down, where they’ve gotten pressure at the third highest rate.
That will be massive because this Seahawks offense has been terrible on early downs but has found a way to be outstanding on third down to stay on the field.
Early down success is predictive of future success.
Third downs are not.
And the Broncos have been the worst offense in the NFL on early downs, No. 32 in success rate. But they have the No. 11 success rate on third downs.
It’s completely unsustainable.
Denver is averaging 7.7 yards-to-go on third down.
That’s fifth worst in the NFL, barely ahead of the Chicago Bears.
This rivalry has been a low-scoring affair over the years. Nine of the last 11 games have gone under the total. And the last five games the Broncos have played on the road against the Raiders have gone under the total, with Denver failing to score more than 16 points in any game.
This is yet another game I’d look to the Under.
Warren Sharp is an NFL analyst for FOX Sports. He is the founder of Sharp Football Analysis and has worked as a consultant for league franchises while also previously contributing to ESPN and The Ringer, among other outlets. He studied engineering before using his statistical acumen to create predictive football models. You can follow Warren on Twitter at @SharpFootball.
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