LA Rams (+1.5) @ Indianapolis
Power Rankings: LA Rams 19, Indy 27
Before we begin, can anybody explain to me how this spread makes any sense? The Rams are simply the better team, according to projected DVOA, PFF, ESPN's FPI, market ratings, Sumer Sports, or anyone with a brain. Sure, the Colts are at home, but that isn't nearly enough to explain the better team getting dog odds.
Keys to the game: When the Rams have the ball:
The Rams offense has kicked off the season with a surprisingly potent performance, currently ranking 9th in offensive EPA/play, despite facing a relatively difficult schedule (Seattle, San Francisco, and Cincinnati). Matt Stafford's stellar play is notable, yet the emergence of Puka Nuacua (a 5th-round rookie) and Tutu Atwell (a 2021 2nd-rounder) at receiver has been the real revelation. Both receivers are currently among the top 20 in targets, catches, yards, and PFF grade. However, their offensive line presents a vulnerability, struggling with 4 problem areas and RT Rob Havenstein. The recent loss of starting LT Alaric Jackson to a thigh injury further exacerbates this concern, with Zach Thomas stepping in. Last week against Cincinnati, they yielded 20 pressures on just 40 dropbacks. Thomas gave up 5 pressures on just 29 pass-blocking snaps, earning a hilariously low 8.6 pass blocking grade from PFF.
On the flip side, the Colts' defense has also defied expectations, impressively ranking 7th in EPA/play (oppenents: Jacksonville, Houston, and Baltimore). Anchored by a formidable defensive line, especially DeForest Buckner on the inside and Kwity Paye on the outside, the Colts boast a stout defense. Seasoned veterans Samson Ebukam and Grover Stewart, with seven years of experience each, are enjoying a career-best season. However, their secondary poses a vulnerability, lacking proven players outside of slot corner Kenny Moore. Rookie JuJu Brents, a 45th overall pick from Kansas State, showcased promise in his recent debut, allowing just 3 catches on 5 targets for 18 yards and earning an impressive 87.6 PFF grade.
For the Rams to succeed, Stafford must emphasize a quick release and exploit opportunities to find open receivers. While Kyren Williams has performed admirably at running back, he faces a challenging task due to the mismatch in the trenches.
When the Colts have the ball:
The Colts are expected to start Anthony Richardson, who missed last weeks game with a concussion. The rookie has predictably struggled as a passer, gaining just 5.9 yards per attempt to go along with a 55.3 PFF grade. Richardson is inexperienced - he only had one season as a full time starter at Florida - and the Colts have made it clear they want him to keep it safe. Richardson's average depth of target sits at 4.6 yards, lowest in the league by 1.6 yards. Adding to the challenge, the Colts' offensive line, typically a strength, will miss key figures in LT Bernhard Raimann and C Ryan Kelly, both in concussion protocol. In the receiving department, while Michael Pittman contributes consistently, there are looming questions beyond him. Alec Pierce has shown he simply doesn't belong on the field, but there is at least some hope for rookie 3rd rounder Josh Downs if HC Shane Steichen can see that he's simply better than Pierce.
On the Rams' defensive front, they boast the indomitable Aaron Donald, a linchpin and one of the premier linemen in the league. Rookies Kobie Turner (3rd round, Wake Forest) and Byron Young (3rd round, Tennessee) have showcased promise, although their raw talent requires time to fully evaluate. Consequently, it appears that the Rams heavily rely on the brilliance of Aaron Donald, with uncertainties surrounding their defensive depth outside of him. The secondary, unfortunately, stands as one of the weaker units in football, contributing to the Rams' overall defensive challenges. However, in this matchup, their deficiencies might not be as pronounced, given the circumstances surrounding the Colts' offense.
Pittsburgh (-3.0) @ Houston
Power rankings: Pittsburgh 13, Houston 32
Keys to the game - when Pittsburgh has the ball:
The Steelers offense has been predictably sluggish. Behind one of the worst offensive lines in football and an unproven quarterback, they're 30th in the league in EPA/play. Kenny Pickett ranks 31st out of 34 qualifiers in PFF grades, completing 59.6% of his passes and gaining 6.6 yards per attempt. These numbers are all down from his rookie year, leaving at least some hope that he can regain form. The receiving core is similarly unproven - George Pickens, now in his 2nd year, looks like a solid contributor. Calvin Austin, also in his 2nd year, has flashed big plays, but we'll need to see more out of him before we jump to any conclusions. A past-his-prime Allen Robinson rounds things out. The good news for the Steelers is they're playing the worst team in football, per my undisputed power rankings. The lone productive player on the line has been Will Anderson Jr, the 3rd overall pick out of Alabama in this years draft. Anderson has had a fine start to his NFL career, totaling 11 pressures and a 16% pass rush win rate (PFF). Despite the promising start, it's too much to ask one player to carry the line, much less a rookie. The secondary doesn't have much either outside of Steve Nelson. If there was a time for Pickett to figure things out, it's in this matchup.
When Houston has the ball:
Rookie CJ Stroud has made an impressive entrance into the NFL, showcasing his talent by averaging 7.5 yards per attempt and completing 64.5% of his passes, resulting in a commendable PFF grade of 68.6. In the receiving department, optimism thrives with the likes of Nico Collins and Tank Dell. Collins, now in his third year out of Michigan, has been stellar, hauling in 15 receptions on 23 targets for 260 yards and a touchdown. This performance ranks him 13th among qualified receivers in PFF grades. On the other hand, Tank Dell, a rookie 3rd rounder out of Houston who is a mere 5'8 165 pounds, has displayed his agility and elusiveness, proving to be a challenging target for defensive backs despite his smaller stature.
However, the Texans' offensive line presents a significant concern as it grapples with multiple injuries, leaving four of their five projected starters unavailable. This sets the stage for a formidable mismatch against the relentless Steelers' pass rush, spearheaded by TJ Watt and Alex Highsmith. The Steelers currently rank 3rd in the NFL in pressure rate, with Watt's dominance requiring no introduction. Accompanying him is Highsmith, whose quiet ascent through the ranks has reached new heights this year, evident in his remarkable 90.4 PFF grade. This duo poses a formidable threat to a depleted offensive line.
Moreover, the Steelers boast a robust secondary, featuring a solid cornerback group comprising Patrick Peterson, rookie Joey Porter Jr, and Levi Wallace. Combined with an elite safety tandem in Minkah Fitzpatrick and Keanu Neal, the Steelers' secondary provides a strong defensive backbone. While not necessarily categorized as elite, their strength should prove more than sufficient to challenge the Texans, particularly given the Texans' offensive line struggles.
Cincinnati (-2.5) @ Tennessee
Power rankings: Cincy 12, Tennessee 28
Keys to the game, when Cincy has the ball: Joe Burrow's calf has clearly led to a lesser quarterback. Last week against a weak Rams defense, Burrow completed just 53.1% of his passes and gained 5.3 yards per attempt. Ja'Marr Chase, however, finally showed his true self, grabbing 12 balls for 141 yards. Tee Higgins lack of production remains a mystery, but we continue to preach ignoring small samples and believing in talent. For this matchup, their offensive line will be tested against a deep collection of Titans pass rushers (DT Jeffrey Simmons, DT Teair Tart, DE Denico Autry, DE Harold Landry, and DE Arden Key). The Bengals line has steadily improved over the last few years, but several players are not playing to their normal levels, mainly RT Jonah Williams and RG Alex Cappa. Williams is an interesting study since he switched from LT to RT this season, but I'm fully expecting Cappa to return to form. With Orlando Brown Jr holding things down at LT, it's a decent line, but the Titans will test them. The Bengals elite receivers need to win against the Titans young and inexperienced secondary.
When the Titans have the ball:
There isn't much to say about Tennessee's offense: they have one of the worst offensive lines in football and little weaponry outside of DeAndre Hopkins and Derrick Henry. It's of no surprise that they're currently 26th in offensive EPA/play. The Bengals defense has a solid line, led by DE Trey Hendrickson, DE Sam Hubbard, and DT/run stopping specialist DJ Reader. They should be able to consistently pressure Ryan Tannehill while leaving little room for Derrick Henry and Tyjae Spears. The secondary took a hit in the offseason when they lost both starting safeties, but corners Chidobe Awuzie and Mike Hinton should be enough considering the opposition.