After firmly owning the Bears last Sunday, the Green Bay Packers head back home to host the Washington Football Team (pick a new name already). After a playoff berth last year and subsequent upgrade at quarterback, WFT looked poised to be playoff contenders again, but what is going on in the Beltway?
According to DraftKings sportsbook, the Packers are -9.5 favorites over WTF.
A Lesson in Defensive Variance
Being good at defense is hard. Being good at defense for an extended period of time is damn near impossible. After posting the third-best defensive DVOA and ranking third in EPA-allowed-per-play last season, Washington’s defense is not enjoying such defensive performances this year. Their defense ranks an abysmal 29th in DVOA and an even worse 30th in EPA-allowed-per-play. What happened here?
First and foremost, defense is just inherently more volatile than offense year over year. A major contributor to that is how reliant defensive performances are on who you play. This year, Washington has faced a bang-average schedule of offenses, per DVOA. Last year, they faced the fourth-easiest schedule in the league, largely due to how abysmal the NFC East was.
No such luck will be found for them this weekend either as they face a Packers offense that, despite relatively low point totals, has been a machine on offense for weeks now. The Packers offense has risen all the way to fifth in DVOA after its abysmal week one performance. Since week two they rank third in EPA-per-play and second in EPA-per-dropback. This is an elite offense once again, even if it is currently functioning without many key pieces.
If Washington hopes to slow down Green Bay, it will have to be with their front, which features multiple first round picks. Chase Young is seen as the superstar of this group and for good reason. Young ranks tenth in the league in pressures and is eighth among EDGE defenders in run stop win rate. Young’s counterpart, Montez Sweat, boasts a solid seventeen pressures himself, while both tackles, Jonathan Allen and Da’Ron Payne, rank in the top three among defensive tackles in pressures. This is a unit that can get after the quarterback. With such a strong front, it should come as no surprise that Washington is solid against the run, but their pass defense has been a major issue for them when they’re not getting home. So long as the offensive line can hold up their end of the bargain (or if the Packers successfully utilize chips from tight ends), I’d expect the Packers offense to continue rolling right on through.
The Best Laid Plans...
Ryan Fitzpatrick in Washington was supposed to be fun, and then Ryan Fitzpatrick sustained a significant injury. Nearly all of Washington’s offensive weapons are injured right now. Star receiver Terry McLaurin missed practice Wednesday due to a hamstring, Antonio Gibson is trying to play through a fractured shin, and Curtis Samuel is questionable with a groin injury. Considering how banged up the Packers defense’ is at this point, it could be two sets of backups with starters sprinkled in on Sunday.
While Taylor Heinicke is a nice backup quarterback to have, he’s still just that: a backup quarterback. Heinicke ranks eighteenth in EPA-per-dropback, which is actually pretty solid for a backup! But still, it’s below-average. One thing to note about Heinicke is that he will hold onto the ball as he has the sixth longest time-to-throw in the league.
Despite the skill positions being a mess of injuries and underperformance for Washington, their offensive line has been a major bright spot. They rank third in pass block win rate and first in run block win rate. Considering how beat up they are at the skill positions, I would expect Washington to try and grind this game to a halt with long drives and heavy run usage. On a lengthy Wednesday injury report, there was also guard Brandon Scherff, so that will be worth watching as Kenny Clark has made life miserable on offensive lines all season.
If Washington can’t pound the rock and shorten the game, maybe getting a turnover or two, it’s going to real tough sledding for them in this game. The Packers have a massive talent advantage at the skill spots and, despite injuries, have largely handled good pass rushes quite well. Neither San Francisco nor Chicago were able to derail the Packers offense despite strong front units. If that trend holds for another week, Green Bay could see a double-digit victory if they actually play fast enough to get one.