The 2023 football season chugs along and the Autumnal Equinox (i.e. fall) begins early Saturday (ET). The weather is getting crisp. The fantasy football teams start to feel crispy. And the NFL season starts to kind of, sort of take shape if you squint and turn your head sideways.
Thank you for joining me for Week 3 of The Overhang where I will continue the bit of highlighting a player, a play, a plan, a prospect and a prop.
(All data via TruMedia unless otherwise noted.)
The Player: Lamar Jackson
Lamar Jackson and the Baltimore Ravens' passing game hasn't been perfect over two weeks under new offensive coordinator Todd Monken. But Jackson and the Ravens' entire operation have looked cleaner and frankly better in comparison to previous coordinator Greg Roman.
The passing concepts have been modernized and Jackson is choosing to deal his damage from the pocket more frequently than ever in his career. It's an area Jackson has shown more flashes in his game — even going back to his days in Bobby Petrino's offense at Louisville — than he has ever been given credit for.
Of course, the usual small sample size caveats apply. But through two weeks, Jackson has achieved his lowest rate of throws coming from outside the pocket (10.9% compared to his career average of 17.9%), shaved off nearly a half-second on his average time to throw and is currently on pace to set career marks in metrics like success rate that speak to his efficiency and sustainability.
Passing concepts from Monken that are more suited for the current year and an influx of pass-catchers like rookie Zay Flowers and free-agent signing Odell Beckham Jr. have added firepower and eased some load off of Jackson. Even when he isn’t targeting his new weapons or a main holdover like Mark Andrews, Jackson is showing off calmness with his eyes and footwork that are highlighting his ability as a processor.
Here is an example against the Cincinnati Bengals in Week 2, where Jackson is almost zen-like in progressing to Nelson Agholor, who is his third read on this cross-field progression play. Make sure to check out the end zone view to see how Jackson coolly works his way from the high-low boundary combination to Agholor on a seam route, all while delivering the throw on time and to the ideal target area for the route:
And it’s not as though Jackson isn’t scrambling as he has in the past. He will still use his legs as a potent weapon, and he's still as effective as ever. (In fact, his current pace of six scrambles a game would nearly double his career rate, so look for that to even come down some.) Jackson's ability to add polish and nuance — or at least being asked to more frequently use what he has — while also having the ability to push the ball wherever he wants is an incredibly scary thing for defenses to reckon with this season.
The Play: Atlanta Falcons' counterpunches
It’s going to be really hard for me to not highlight a Falcons run play in this section of The Overhang every week.
Seriously, what head coach Arthur Smith and offensive line coach Dwayne Ledford have cooked up every single week over the past couple of seasons have been an absolute treat. Their run concepts are classics with a creative twist. Like that New Americana restaurant down the street with a new take on the peanut butter and jelly sandwich.
This counter concept is an example. Counter is a run play that uses two pullers working to the side away from the tight end. The most common variety will use a backside offensive guard and off-ball tight end. This Falcons version uses the fullback and weaponizes the athleticism of center Drew Dalman. Plus it has a generous heaping of pre-snap shifting going on.
These designs aren’t pretentious, either. They are counterpunches to the main jab that the Falcons use, which is their zone running scheme (since the beginning of the 2022 season, the Falcons rank first in the NFL in the amount of zone run concepts they have used). The counter run concept is exactly what it says on the tin.
But just as defenses get used to the tendency breaker, Smith will then use a tendency breaker (or two) off of that tendency breaker. Here are the Falcons using a play-action pass off of another counter run (this time with a frontside offensive guard and fullback):
The Falcons' offense uses a smörgåsbord of personnel groupings. Versatile players are agnostic in alignment and assignment, and it’s going to be fun to watch morph throughout this season as they start establishing tropes to subvert.
I have their game against the Detroit Lions in Week 3 circled. There could be fireworks on the ground and through the air between these two offenses, with the Lions' defense being especially vulnerable in their base 4-3 defense that they use to match heavier personnel groupings that offenses trot out. Their 31st-ranked defensive success rate with four defensive backs on the field isn’t ideal going against a Falcons attack that uses heavy (personnel groupings featuring one or zero wide receivers) and pro (personnel using only two wide receivers) at a higher rate than any other team in the NFL.
And they also have this guy named Bijan:
The Plan: The Cowboys' defensive evolution
There was optimism that Dallas' defense would be among the NFL’s best in 2023. The Cowboys ranked at or near the top of the league over the past two seasons under defensive coordinator Dan Quinn, but this year’s unit has evolved into the Charizard version of itself.
In Dallas' first two games, the Cowboys' defense throttled the Giants in Week 1 and overwhelmed a Jets team still reeling from the loss of Aaron Rodgers in Week 2. The Cowboys' speed along the defensive front and backend pummeled those offenses.
The Cowboys have been consistent in their personnel and play-calling ever since Quinn arrived. Personnel-wise, they exclusively used nickel (five defensive backs) and dime (six defensive backs) personnel groupings, no matter what the offensive look was. In the 2023 season, the Cowboys have used nickel personnel on over 90% of their first- and second-down snaps.
Even when offenses attempt to throw bigger bodies at the problem to try and bully their way forward against the Cowboys' lighter defenders (like the Jets early in Week 2), running backs are swamped by the turbo-charged defenders:
Continued improved play from emerging star Osa Odighizuwa and adding reinforcements like defensive tackle Johnathan Hankins and first-round draft selection Mazi Smith has added more firepower to a defense that was already brimming with it. The Hankins addition midway through the 2022 season sparked another step forward for this defense, providing size to eat blocks and allowing other defenders to play freely.
Quinn does not have his players just line up and go (at least not all the time). He will mix the locations of his defenders — especially star Micah Parsons — in an attempt to mainline their strengths and keep offenses guessing.
For example, in the tweet below, the Cowboys swap the spots of Parsons (No. 11) and off-ball linebacker Leighton Vander Esch (No. 55), using Parsons as the tip of the spear on a twist with the other linebacker Damone Clark (No. 33) and allowing Vander Esch to use his strength (and limit any speed deficiencies) by matching him up on an offensive tackle:
It’s a simple swap of traditional alignments and assignments but it allows players to stay in advantageous situations and thus play faster as a result.
The "simple and fast" approach has applied to the Cowboys' coverages on the backend as well. But again, it's the use of personnel that continues to unlock elements.
The Cowboys primarily use man-to-man coverage with Cover 3 and Cover 2 thrown in to mix things up, with the talent and versatility of defenders allowing them to stay in fairly simple coverage structures. The basketball-like lineup of different body types in their defensive backs room provides answers to the different questions opponents present, allowing Quinn to throw length, speed and switchability in his defense like the Golden State Warriors using 6-foot-7 wings.
And, ya know, Parsons and Demarcus Lawrence (among others) rushing the passer helps out any coverage look.
It’s not just the stars who unlock this defense (although they definitely help). Players like safety Jayron Kearse are keystones to the Cowboys' scheme and success. Kearse is one of those defensive backs that Quinn uses to solve different problems. Kearse will be tasked with different assignments like he’s been given sidequests in a Rockstar game. He’s constantly used as a blitzer in that Parsons and Vander Esch example above and near the line of scrimmage. He is the Cowboys' tight end eraser when they use man coverage:
And Quinn will use Kearse’s typical alignments to disguise the change-ups, rearing back like he’s throwing his man coverage fastball:
To a Cover 2 look that reads around 72 miles per hour on the speedometer:
This version of the Cowboys' defense is like a flamethrowing pitcher who has harnessed his control. And as a result, Dallas is 2-0 with winning play on both sides of the ball. But this Charizard version of the defense, which currently ranks at or near the top of every simple box score (first in yards and points allowed) and advanced metric (first in pressure rate and combined tackles for loss and run stuff rate; second in success rate, expected points added per play), has a chance to be memorable.
The Prospect: Iowa junior defensive back Cooper DeJean
It’s hard to put a position label on DeJean. He lines up as a cornerback and as a slot defender. He has the size (6-foot-7, 207 pounds) and recognition ability to play as a safety. And his play constantly shows off his excellent athleticism along with plus coverage and blitzing ability:
And DeJean does all of that on defense while also returning punts and serving as an ace special teams gunner:
DeJean is an outstanding player who is packaged with size and explosive movement. He constantly impacts plays and alters games. And his ability to be a winning player at several spots on the field and in multiple phases of the game will make him a coveted prospect if he declares for the draft, as NFL defenses are using more players of DeJean’s size and hybrid skills.
The Hawkeyes' offense might not score a lot of points but DeJean is worth the price of admission (or one corner of your multiscreen) alone.
Every week I will give two prop wagers that I like for that week's Thursday Night game and potentially more depending on how much I look like the Doom guy getting bloodied up as the season goes along.
Last week: 2-0
Season: 4-0 (all -110 wagers)
Odds via BetMGM
Thursday night prop 1: George Kittle over 43.5 receiving yards -110
Thursday night prop 2: George Kittle anytime TD +180
The line of thinking this week is that New York Giants defensive coordinator Wink Martindale likes to run man coverage, blitz, rinse and repeat.
The San Francisco 49ers prefer to pass when they know they are facing man coverage, with the fourth-highest passing rate against Cover 1 since the start of the 2022 season.
Narrowing the focus even more to the 49ers' pass-catchers, Brock Purdy targets two options in particular when blitzed and when facing man coverage: Brandon Aiyuk and George Kittle. With Aiyuk a gametime decision (and his props off the board), that leads the attention to Kittle. All of the 49ers' pass-catchers will get focused when Purdy is blitzed, but Kittle is second in targets and receptions (Aiyuk is first) while also ranking first in receptions, receiving yards, first downs and explosive plays with three touchdowns on 12 receptions when defenses choose to heat up Purdy.
Against Cover 1, Kittle ranks first among non-Aiyuk players in targets, receptions and explosive plays.
If Aiyuk is playing, make sure to give his receiving yards and anytime touchdown prop a gander. But if he isn’t, I think it’s a Kittle night against the blitz-happy Giants defense.
Thursday night prop 3: Daniel Jones over 7.5 rushing attempts +110
If you want something on the Giants' side of things, Daniel Jones rushing yardage overs have been one of my favorite wagers over the past year. But the 49ers are one of the better defenses in defending the quarterback run game. So while I don’t think Jones will be efficient throughout the night, I do think the Giants are going to steadily use his legs to help create yards with key players Andrew Thomas and Saquon Barkley out, with Jones turning to scrambles as the 49ers' hive mind coverage takes away passing options.
Jones is a very good running quarterback. But the 49ers' defense is also very good. I’m up in the air on the yards total, but I do think there will definitely be a quantity aspect of Jones running the ball.