Welcome to the Week 2 edition of Snaps & Pace, where we examine trends in play volume and game pace. It is meant to be a 30,000-foot view of upcoming contests, with the goal of identifying which matchups will – and which will not – be played on fertile fantasy soil. For a primer on why this is important, click here.
We expected offenses to be ahead of defenses after a disjointed training camp and nonexistent preseason. While scoring was down slightly, with 756 points versus 776 a year ago, teams operated at a quicker pace. Week 1 produced nearly 100 more plays than last season (2096 versus 1999) and offenses went to the no huddle at a noticeably higher clip (12.8% versus 9.4%).
Whether that continues is hard to say. At first glance Week 2 projects to offer elevated play volume in many games, so let’s get to it.
UP IN PACE
Washington Football Team at Arizona Cardinals
As widely predicted, Washington’s plodding pace was left in the same dumpster as their ridiculous nickname. The Football Team cranked out 70 Week 1 snaps after averaging a historically-low 55.3 last year. Their situation-neutral snap pace ranked fourth quickest on the week, and Washington’s matchup with the Eagles produced 137 combined snaps (fourth most). Their games averaged the fourth-fewest plays in 2019 (122.8).
Washington didn’t exactly chuck it around the yard, as they only had a 52% pass rate while the game was within one score – which it was for most of the first quarter and second half. The Football Team also gave the majority of their handoffs to 26-year-old pack mule Peyton Barber instead of thoroughbred rookie Antonio Gibson. There remain improvements to be made, but at least this offense is no longer grinding the clock to dust and murdering play volume.
The Cardinals brought back the nuclear pace of last September and it was most glorious. Their 41% no-huddle rate matched exactly the 41% they blazed through four weeks in 2019. Arizona had an even faster seconds-per-snap rate (24.2 versus 24.9) and their matchup in San Francisco totaled a meaty 139 combined plays. The Cardinals averaged 134.5 in their first four games last year (3rd most) and 128.5 after that (12th). We knew they’d play fast, but it was exciting to see them at their fastest.
What did not change for the Cardinals was their elevated run rate. They ran 48% of the time during neutral situations, which tops their post-September 44% mark from last year (14th highest). While we’d rather see them pass more often, and this week’s matchup suggests they might, Arizona’s run rate won’t appreciably mute the number of total snaps in their games. It’s worrisome for ancillary pass catchers if DeAndre Hopkins continues seeing 10-plus more targets than anyone else, but at least play volume is on their side.
Atlanta Falcons at Dallas Cowboys
The Falcons’ season opener had a familiar script, aside from the fact that the Seahawks finally #LetRussCook. Atlanta produced a good amount of points, a great amount of plays, a truckload of yards, and a loss. The Falcons also passed at a 71% clip while the game was within one score (second highest of Week 1), a year after ranking third in the same metric.
More of the same from the Falcons is not good news for Dan Quinn, but that’s not our problem (yet). As long as Quinn is employed and Dirk Koetter is offensive coordinator, Atlanta is fertile fantasy ground. The Falcons ranked top 10 in situation-neutral pace the last two seasons and in Week 1 were ripping a play off every 23 seconds (fourth quickest). We aren’t getting 77 snaps from them every week, but with a relatively narrow touch distribution, we don’t have to.
Atlanta might come close to matching their opening game play volume, as the Cowboys gave up 72 snaps on Sunday night. They also ran 69 of their own, which made that contest the most voluminous of Week 1. No one set a faster situation-neutral pace than Dallas, despite a significant early-game play volume deficit. Coaches often slow down and run more when their defense is tired. The Cowboys’ 63% situation-neutral pass rate was 10th highest on the week and markedly higher than last year’s 58% mark.
One worry is the Dallas defense looks tissue soft against the run and they lost stud linebacker Leighton Vander Esch for two months with a broken collarbone. Had they not been playing the Rams, who kept the pace up despite dominating time of possession (35:38), the Cowboys would have been lucky to even get their four first-half drives. The Dallas coaches’ clear commitment to tempo, as well as the Falcons’ profile, makes this less of a Week 2 issue, but it’s worth keeping an eye on.
New York Giants at Chicago Bears
This week’s beautifully ugly matchup features a pair of train-wreck quarterbacks we can’t take our eyes off of. The Giants also showed a new wrinkle on Monday while under siege from the Steelers’ ferocious front. New York deployed a Week-1-high 57.8% no-huddle rate, a year after going to the hurry-up on only 9.5% of plays. While they weren’t snapping the ball exceedingly fast, New York’s situation-neutral pace still ranked top-12 on the week.
The Bears defense is no pushover, but it isn’t at Pittsburgh’s level. When they face a Chicago defense grading far better by PFF against the run (5th) than in coverage (18th) and pass rush (17th), the Giants’ path of least resistance will be through the air. Daniel Jones is still getting turned over more often than a porn star, but by trying to get him a better look at the defense while a coach is in his ear, they’ll also inject their games with extra play volume.
If there was such a thing as momentum in football (there isn’t), Mitchell Trubisky seems like he’d believe in it. Coming off of a fourth quarter in which he went 8-of-10 for 80 yards and three touchdown passes, Matt Nagy likely wants to keep the ball rolling. Facing a Giants defense that grades sixth in run stopping and 25th in coverage seems like a good spot to test that theory. Assuming Allen Robinson is still in Chicago, of course.
The Bears operated at a middling pace in 2019, but they quickened as the season went along and their games increased in volume. Last week their situation-neutral pace was seventh fastest, and the beautifully ugly game with Detroit produced the fourth-most combined snaps of Week 1. While the matchup with the Giants has similar play-volume upside, the downside is not for the faint of heart. After all, this is Jones versus Trubisky – but at least the DFS ownership should be as low as their floors.
SLOW PACED SLOGS
San Francisco 49ers at New York Jets
The 49ers took part in one of the more voluminous games of Week 1, although they didn’t bring much of the tempo to the party. Their situation-neutral pace ranked ninth slowest, and the Cardinals dictated the matchup’s speed. San Francisco passed on 59% of plays while the game was within one score (15th), which it was for all but three minutes. Last year, the 49ers passed only 54% of the time (fifth lowest).
With all of that passing and a mere 20 points to show for it, on top of injuries to several of their best pass catchers and Jimmy Garoppolo looking downright ugly for perhaps the first time in his life, it should surprise no one if Kyle Shanahan dials up a ground-based game plan in New York. It would not be the first time he took the ball out of Garoppolo’s hands when San Francisco didn’t need to throw to win.
The Jets showed how they’re approaching tough defenses and, at least for now, it is not with an effective form of Adam Gase’s annually assured tempo. Unlike late last year, when the Jets came out in the hurry-up for several surprisingly crisp series of scripted plays, New York didn’t run a single no-huddle play until they were down two touchdowns late in the first half. Sam Darnold was promptly picked off.
While the Jets played quickly as they tried to erase a 21-3 second-half deficit, they did not play well. Now Le’Veon Bell is injured, Frank Gore will get too many 3-yard carries in his revenge game, and Gase will just be happy he won’t face live fans in the stands as the 49ers increase the heat on his seat. It might be hard for New York to produce fewer than the measly 53 plays they had in Week 1, but they’ll give it their best shot.
Jacksonville Jaguars at Tennessee Titans
The Jaguars shocked the Colts, and everyone who chalked them up as tankers, the only way possible. They played slowly, they limited total plays, and they were efficient with their scoring chances (2-for-2 in the red zone). Gardner Minshew going 19-of-20 passing didn’t hurt either. Despite all of that, the Colts still produced 69 plays to Jacksonville’s Week-1-low 47.
We should expect the Jaguars to repeat the approach on Sunday, except for the win and probably the Minshew magic. Last season they ranked third slowest in situation-neutral pace, and in Week 1 they were second slowest. This is nothing new for Doug Marrone’s crew, and if they again hand off on half of their plays while the game is within one score, it will mute play volume – at least for them.
The Titans took the polar-opposite approach on Monday night. They played fast and went to the no-huddle often. Tennessee operated at the 10th-quickest situation-neutral pace, which was markedly faster than their 19th-place finish a season ago. The Titans went no-huddle on 28% of snaps, starting on their second drive (which ended with the first of many missed field goals) and continuing throughout the second half.
Tennessee passed on 12 no-huddle snaps and ran on 10 of them. That balance matched closely with a 58% situation-neutral pass rate, which ranked 19th for the week. Their frenetic tempo infused the Monday-night matchup with the fourth-most combined snaps of Week 1, although the Titans had the lion’s share (78 to 59). We are likely to see something similar against the Jaguars, with Tennessee dominating play volume. The question is, will the Titans repeat their ultra paced-up approach, or will a Jaguars game produce the fewest combined snaps for the second week in a row?
Minnesota Vikings at Indianapolis Colts
There aren’t many games we want to avoid this week from a play-volume angle. Especially after last week, this matchup appears not to belong in the Slogs section. The Colts allowed 27 points to the Jaguars and the Vikings might still be giving up Aaron Rodgers touchdown passes. Indianapolis had the fourth-highest situation-neutral pass rate of Week 1 and ran 69 plays. Minnesota had the week’s third-quickest seconds-per-snap rate and allowed 76 snaps.
A peak under the hood, however, reveals this game as a potential play-volume trap – or, at least relative to the rest of the slate. Perhaps they change their plans, but the Vikings passed on only 31% of their neutral-situation plays against Green Bay. While those accounted for just 13 total snaps, the approach makes sense. They’re not exactly flush with pass catchers, they had the ninth-lowest situation-neutral pass rate last year, and Mike Zimmer is not exactly Mike Martz.
Minnesota might have had the third-quickest seconds-per-snap rate, but when the game was close, their pace ranked third slowest. Playing an up-tempo game with just about anyone isn’t in the Vikings’ best interest, whether it takes place in their dome or in Indianapolis. Having Philip Rivers throw the second-most passes of the week isn’t something the Colts are likely to repeat either, even against Minnesota’s Swiss-cheese secondary. One season after having the third-lowest situation-neutral pass rate, Indianapolis opened up with the fourth highest.
Frank Reich said they “need to be more patient with the run game.” Despite losing Marlon Mack, we can expect that to begin on Sunday with the unleashing of Jonathan Taylor. Even with their elevated pass rate in Jacksonville, the Colts operated at a middling situation-neutral pace after finishing eighth slowest in 2019. Between more handoffs and an increase in high-percentage passes to running backs, the clock will continue draining. This appears to be a juicy matchup, but it might not have as much play-volume meat on its bones as we’d prefer.
When Bill Belichick and Josh McDaniels, who regularly tailor opponent-specific game plans, switch out their quarterback for a much different one, it shouldn’t be surprising when the entire offensive approach changes. That is exactly what happened in Cam Newton’s Patriots debut. New England passed at a 33% rate while the game was within one score (31st). Last year they ranked eighth (61%).
The Patriots operated at the slowest situation-neutral pace in Week 1. Since 2010 with Tom Brady behind center, they ranked 1st, 1st, 2nd, 6th, 2nd, 2nd, 4th, 1st, 1st, and 3rd. The Newton pace and pass rate caused their contest with the Dolphins to combine for only 116 plays. New England’s games averaged 131, 130, and 128 the last three years (3rd, 4th, 13th most). As their new quarterback ramps up, the Patriots will change tempo more often — but until further notice, this is a play volume-draining offense.
Speaking of volume-draining offenses that operated differently in Week 1, the Seahawks were barely recognizable. Seattle handed off at a 32% clip while their game with the Falcons was within one score (third lowest). Last year, that rate was 48% — second only to the road-grading Ravens. The Seahawks’ first-quarter dropback rate (79%) dwarfed last year’s league low 47%. Seattle didn’t play quickly, with a situation-neutral pace that ranked sixth slowest on the week, but opening up the offense early helped the game to produce the 13th-most combined plays (135).
Will Russell Wilson be throwing it around right after kickoff consistently, or was this a game-plan-specific approach against a high-scoring offense with a questionable defense? New England’s defense appears weaker on the ground than through the air, both from what they showed Week 1 and how their roster is constructed. If the Seahawks attack the Patriots like they did the Falcons, Russ might finally be cooking with gas.
The Bills ran a league-high 81 snaps on Sunday. They came out firing with a 50% no-huddle rate on their opening drive, a top-six snaps pace while the game was close, a bunch of four-wide-receiver sets, and a 62% situation-neutral pass rate (12th). Last year they threw at a 55% clip while games were within one score (10th lowest). It resulted in Josh Allen’s first 300-yard passing day.
It is not entirely surprising, as the Bills played faster than their reputation last year, ranking 11th in situation-neutral pace and second in no-huddle rate. They chose the path of least resistance against a Jets stout run defense and questionable coverage. Doing the same against Miami, and avoiding their tough cornerbacks while pounding a recently tenderized run-stopping unit makes sense. Whether or not they maintain this elevated pace will be worth watching.
When the Chargers and Bengals both produced above-average play totals, the assumption was Cincinnati pushed the pace. While that is true, and Joe Burrow regularly snapped it with 10-20 seconds remaining on the play clock, Los Angeles operated more quickly than in recent seasons. Tyrod Taylor didn’t have a banner day, but unlike his predecessor, he didn’t spend much time at the line of scrimmage, surveying the defense with a draining clock. The Chargers defense is formidable, but if their quickened offensive pace continues, we can have more confidence starting players in their games.
Perhaps it was the unusual offseason or the foggy face shield, but Andy Reid had his Chiefs playing it safe when the season kicked off. Kansas City operated at the eighth-slowest situation-neutral pace of Week 1, after finishing sixth fastest in 2019. They got the ball out of Patrick Mahomes’ hands quickly, registering a 2.17-second average time to throw – the fastest of his career. He also set a career mark for lowest average depth of target, with a minuscule 5.6-yard aDOT. The Chiefs’ 59% situation-neutral pass rate (17th) was well short of their league-leading mark from last year (65%). While this is all interesting, it’s also a good sign we’re only in Week 2 when the Chargers appear more aggressive than the Chiefs.