Yardbarker’s Michael Nania analyzes the biggest positional mismatches each week during the NFL season.
Baltimore Ravens secondary vs. Miami passing attack
The Dolphins are tanking. No move made this clearer than the trade of young left tackle Laremy Tunsil, whom the Dolphins traded along with receiver Kenny Stills to the Texans for two first-rounders and a second-rounder.
Miami already had questions on its offensive line. Now having traded the player who was their only stud on the unit, that group could be the worst in the NFL.
Those offensive line struggles only accentuate the many issues Miami’s passing attack will have. Ryan Fitzpatrick, who led the NFL in interception percentage last season by a wide margin (4.9 percent), will start the season under center. He beat out Josh Rosen.
Until Stills was dealt, Miami’s receiving core was considered a strength of this team. He had scored at least six touchdowns for the Dolphins in each of the past three seasons, leading them with 21 TDs over that span. Now, the starting trio at wide receiver is down to the disappointing DeVante Parker, the unproven Jakeem Grant and the injury-prone Albert Wilson. All three have unique talents, be it Parker’s size, Grant’s speed, or Wilson’s after-the-catch ability. But there are a litany of questions with them as a group.
If Dolphins fans are rooting for losses, they should be thrilled with their Week 1 opponent. Baltimore has one of the most stacked defensive backfields in the league, and it should dominate Miami’s offense.
At cornerback, the Ravens have the impressive trio of Marlon Humphrey, Jimmy Smith and Brandon Carr. At safety, they boast the outstanding duo of Tony Jefferson and former Seattle star Earl Thomas, signed in free agency. He is one of the league’s best ballhawks, as his 28 career interceptions ranks third in the league since 2010.
Thomas already has experience taking advantage of Fitzpatrick. In 2012, he made an excellent diving interception off of a careless Fitzpatrick heave, a perfect demonstration of his ability to make plays on the football. Thomas returned the pick 57 yards for his first career touchdown.
The Ravens’ combination of top-end secondary talent and elite pass-rushing production makes them a monstrous defense. Last season, Baltimore had the league’s second-lowest passer rating (80.6) and ranked sixth in quarterback hits (104).
Given the woes that Miami is set to deal with in all facets of the passing game –- up front, at quarterback, and out wide -– Baltimore’s secondary is set to make a lot of noise in Week 1.
Cleveland pass rush vs. Tennessee QB Marcus Mariota
Mariota had a disappointing 2018 season, but he especially struggled against strong pass-rushing defenses. Mariota played four games last season against teams that ranked in the top half of sack rate on defense: the Redskins (5th in sack rate), Jaguars (13th), Ravens (14th) and Bills (15th).
In those four contests, Mariota was unproductive, averaging a minuscule 114 passing yards per game and failing to register a passing or rushing touchdown. Mariota picked up only 23 passing first downs and was sacked 12 sacks, a brutal ratio of 1.9 to 1. In 2018, the league average ratio of passing first downs to sacks was about 4.9 to 1.
As a result of Mariota’s struggles, the Titans’ offense averaged only 10 points in those four games against top sack-producing defenses. Although the Browns ranked just 28th in sack rate last season, they are poised to take a major leap into the upper echelons of sack rankings.
Former No. 1 selection Myles Garrett ranked sixth in the NFL with 13.5 sacks last season, but now he has company. In the offseason, the Browns added pass-rushing beasts Olivier Vernon and Sheldon Richardson.
Over the past six seasons, Vernon has 47.5 sacks, the 19th-best total in the league over that span. While that is a solid ranking, Vernon is more impressive at generating pressure than he is at getting home for sacks. Over the same span, he ranks 10th in quarterback hits, with 121.
That’s not to say Vernon, who played for the Giants last season, can’t make plays of his own -– he has made plenty of game-changing plays in his career. On the following play, Vernon stripped the ball from Bears quarterback Chase Daniel in a brilliant display of his elite technique as a pass rusher. Vernon (right defensive end) swipes away the hands of left tackle Charles Leno, rips underneath with his inside arm, then turns the corner and punches out the football as Daniel winds up.
Richardson, who played for the Vikings last season, is a terrific run defender, but he can get some heat on quarterback too. In 2018, he ranked 14th among interior defensive linemen with 47 total pressures.
Even if neither is putting up gigantic sack numbers, the pressure created by Vernon and Richardson will open up plenty of sack opportunities for other Cleveland defenders. Garrett, Vernon and Richardson have the potential to be one of the best defensive trios in the league. In Week 1, they get a highly favorable matchup against a quarterback who has struggled mightily under pressure.
Houston WR DeAndre Hopkins vs. New Orleans secondary
Hopkins has emerged as arguably the best wide receiver in the NFL. Year after year, he has put up monster numbers regardless of who was at quarterback. But he needed a star under center to truly get him over the hump -– and now he has one in Deshaun Watson.
Last season, Hopkins ranked fifth in receiving touchdowns (15), third in receptions (115), and second in receiving yards (1,572). He did all that while posting a superb catch rate of 70.6 percent, joining Antonio Brown and Wes Welker as the only players in league history to have a season with over 1,500 receiving yards and a catch rate over 70 percent.
Hopkins’ strong hands are the reason for his dominant play — he had zero drops last season. He set a record for the most receptions in a season without a drop, according to Pro Football Focus, which has kept track of that stat since 2006.
Any team that dares to cover Hopkins with only one defender pays the price. Here, he bullies Colts reserve cornerback Chris Milton off the line, clearing himself plenty of room to easily haul in the touchdown from Watson on a goal-line fade.
New Orleans, a team with Super Bowl aspirations, may have a weak pass defense. The Saints fielded the league’s 11th-ranked defense according to Defense-adjusted Value Over Average last season, but that was on the strength of their run defense, which ranked third in DVOA. On the other side of the ball, New Orleans struggled, ranking 22nd in pass defense DVOA. (DVOA calculates a team’s success based on the down-and-distance of each play during the season, then calculates how much more or less successful each team is compared to the league average.)
Struggles at cornerback were part of the issue. In 2018, of the 80 cornerbacks to log at least 350 cover snaps, three of the players ranked in the bottom 15 of most yards allowed per cover snap were Saints: P.J. Williams (T-76 th ), Eli Apple (T-76 th ) and Marshon Lattimore (68 th).
New Orleans allowed a 100.6 passer rating last season, the sixth-worst mark in the league and the worst among playoff teams.
Iffy pass defenses were feasted upon by Hopkins last season. Each of his best three games for receiving yardage came against teams that allowed a passer rating above the league average of 92.9. In total, Hopkins averaged 125.6 yards per game in five matchups against teams that allowed an above-average passer rating; the Texans went 5-0 in those games. In his other 11 contests, Hopkins averaged 85.8 yards per game, and Houston posted a 6-5 record.
Hopkins’ touchdown production also spiked against lesser pass defenses. He recorded six touchdown receptions in five games against teams that allowed an above-average passer rating (1.2 per game), and only five touchdowns in his other 11 games (0.5 per game).
By: Michael Nania