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NFL Week 10 takeaways: Notes on the Vikings, Giants, Trevor Lawrence, and more

Justin Jefferson

Worst beat & luckiest winner

My worst beat of Sunday was a small bet on under 40 in the Cardinals/Rams matchup. It closed 38; Kyler Murray and Matthew Stafford were both inactive. Even Budda Baker was playing. But a last-minute garbage time drive with a touchdown pass by John Wolford under pressure destroyed the ticket.

The luckiest winner was Lions +3. At some point, it looked like the game got out of hand; the Bears were up 30-17. But because of a missed PAT, the pick-six by Justin Fields, and several penalty flags for Chicago, the Lions could win it 31-30 in regulation without the sweat of overtime.

Are the Vikings for real?

Sports bettors and media have tried to figure out the Minnesota Vikings for weeks. Going into Week 10, they were 7-1, but the underlying efficiency metrics didn’t speak the language of a 7-1 team. They ranked 18th in total DVOA. Kirk Cousins wasn’t playing a great season statistically, and the eye test didn’t approve their record, either. Despite having Justin Jefferson at wide receiver, their passing offense lacked vertical elements. In most games, they started fast but stalled when the script ran out, and they invited opponents back into the game. They were fortunate enough to face the Miami Dolphins without Tua Tagovailoa. They only met one good team – the Eagles – and they got embarrassed in prime time. The matchup with the 6-2 Bills, barring Josh Allen's availability, was a fascinating litmus test.

What did we learn about the Vikings in their upset at Buffalo? I’m still not sure how to frame it properly. The Bills were up 27-10 at the end of the third quarter. Kirk Cousins threw two wild interceptions early on. It looked like the same old Vikings who were not equipped to beat the elite teams. Some miraculous things aided the way the Vikings got back into the game. First of all, Dalvin Cook scored on an 81-yard touchdown run. After that, the Bills drove the ball down the field and could have sealed the game, but Josh Allen threw an interception on fourth-and-2 from the Minnesota 7-yard line. On the ensuing drive, the Vikes struck back, cutting the score to 23-27, missing the extra point. After a Bills punt, the Vikings got their game-winning drive, where Kirk Cousins connected with Justin Jefferson on a deep pass on a fourth-and-18.

Then we witnessed a sequence for the ages: Dalvin Cook dropped a touchdown, then the Vikings failed to get the ball over the goal line via a Kirk Cousins quarterback sneak. With 49 seconds to go, the Bills couldn’t kneel because they would have conceded a safety while giving the Vikings the ball back with roughly 45 seconds to go. They had to sneak the ball forward, but Josh Allen fumbled. In overtime, the Vikings intercepted a pass from Josh Allen at the goal line.

What’s the conclusion? Kirk Cousins made several key plays when he had to, and Justin Jefferson demonstrated himself as one of the best players in the game. They finally got their deep passing game going, and Minnesota’s defense got some pressures on critical downs. But it also needs to be said that the Vikings were fortunate. Cousins and Jefferson connected on several low-probability plays, like the catch of the century on fourth-and-18, where the defending cornerback tried to catch an interception instead of swatting the ball away. The Bills lost a whopping 20.8 expected points due to turnovers. Credit to the Vikings for the comeback, but no one could have argued if the Bills won by two scores.

The jury is still out on Minnesota. It’s hard to criticize them for winning football games. They are 8-1, but they are displaying the following efficiency rankings:

  • 15th in offensive EPA/play
  • 9th in offensive success rate
  • 14th in defensive EPA/play
  • 23rd in defensive success rate

The G-Men: High variance on defense

The Giants are a fascinating team as they sneakily moved up to rank ninth in EPA/play (18th in success rate) on offense, but their defense is worth discussing. They beat the Texans by eight points at home, but Giants bettors had several sweats during the fourth quarter. The Texans offense couldn’t get anything going before halftime except a field goal off a 61-yard drive. But in the second half, things changed. All of Houston’s five drives got into the red zone. The Texans were moving the ball however they wanted until the final collapse. Overall, Houston had six red zone drives in that game. Here’s where and how they ended:

  • NYG 19: Field goal
  • NYG 0: Touchdown
  • NYG 8: Fumble
  • NYG 19: Touchdown nullified because of holding; interception
  • NYG 16: Field goal
  • NYG 17: Sack, field goal

While the scoreboard hints at a dominating defensive performance, it was more a result of Houston’s ineptitude in the red zone. It was also symbolic for the Big Blue season: The Giants' defense under Wink Martindale lives off key plays on crucial downs but keeps getting run over on early downs. On a positive note, Wink knows when to dial up his blitz packages and bring the heat, which helped out the G-Men considerably this season. But some might wonder how sustainable that is going forward.

There is a massive gap between their performances on early and late downs. On late downs, the Giants’ defense ranks fifth in EPA/play (-0.229) and second in success rate (37.4%). On those downs, they allow a league-low minus-12.8% completion percentage above expectation (CPOE). On early downs, the Giants rank dead-last (yes, 32nd) in EPA/play and 23rd in success rate. How long can the Giants keep getting away with critical plays on crucial downs? Is Wink Martindale’s recipe somewhat sustainable, or has his defense been riding the wave of positive variance?

Trevor Lawrence: The legs are missing

Taysom Hill, Justin Fields, Lamar Jackson, Daniel Jones: what do these guys have in common? They are part of a beautifully constructed quarterback run game. I’m not referring to scrambling, but to designed quarterback runs. Those four guys have at least 26 designed QB runs on the season, and they form the top four among all rushers (including running backs, threshold 20 or more runs) in EPA/play on those runs. They also average at least 5.58 yards per designed run (Daniel Jones). They got perfect legs, and their offensive coordinators know how to use them.

Not so much for Trevor Lawrence. On the season, Lawrence has 21 designed runs. Among 83 rushers with at least 20 rushes, Lawrence ranks 81st in EPA/play and 83rd in yards per carry. He’s got a high success rate of 63% on those runs, but that can be explained by the situations in which Doug Pederson calls runs for him – 13 of those 21 runs came with three or fewer yards to go. They primarily use him as a runner to convert short downs and get the necessary yards. In 10 games, Trevor Lawrence has six designed runs on first down and three on second down. 

Lawrence can be a very efficient runner. In 2019 at Clemson, he had 103 runs for 563 yards and nine touchdowns. The Jaguars should figure out a way to incorporate more designed runs into their early down packages to increase their efficiency and make opposing defenses account for Lawrence as a runner.