I can't believe I have decided to write a Thursday Night Football article when I have several Calculus exams to grade by 9 AM PT but what can I say? Perhaps I am Zoomed out on this remote learning situation and need a little diversion!
All day yesterday I was thinking of how I want to play this slate. It's an intriguing one given that the Rams boast a very strong defense and the Patriots are one of the hottest teams in the league. We can go slice and dice this game in several ways that would either favor the Rams or the Patriots. For example, this is the 2nd road game in a row for New England and I gather they did not travel back to Boston this week. However, they shut out the Chargers, a very talented offensive team. The Rams defense is one of the best in the league and they face a Patriots defense that is rather predictable (the Patriots love to run the ball). However, Bill Belichick outcoached Sean McVay 2 years ago in arguably the most boring Super Bowl in recent memory.
What I really want to focus on is the type of defense each team plays and the offensive formations. That type of analysis helped us make money for the main slate last Sunday and we almost hit the cash line for the single game slates on Sunday night and Tuesday night. I will reference Sports Info Solutions again and also use a new site I have not featured in my articles: Sharp Football Stats (see link below).
New England tends to play a split between man and zone coverage while the Rams are a very heavy zone coverage defense. On offense, the Rams offense runs your typical 1-1 personnel grouping (1 RB, 1 TE, and 3 WRs) while the Patriots are a bit more fluid between the 1-1 and 2-1 (2 RBs, 1 TE, and 2 WRs) groupings. See the data below.
The last point is an important one to consider. Even though the Rams are tied for first in a very competitive NFC West division and currently hold the tiebreaker over Seattle, they are not perfect. Let's examine what happens when they lose. Interestingly the 49ers have had their number in 2019 and 2020 going 4-0 against them. After all, these are the last 2 NFC champions so that is a matchup worthy of exploration. Of course the 49ers last year played great football while the Rams were in a Super Bowl hangover. But how do you explain the two losses this year? The 49ers have been decimated by injury and the Rams are poised to make another run at the Super Bowl? Look at the above data again. The 49ers run the 2-1 personnel 33% of the time. Who else runs it more? That is right, the Patriots!
So what? Did we find a smoking gun? Let's dig deeper. If you focus on just Week 6 and 12 when the 49ers played the Rams, they ran the 2-1 formation 33% of the time on 1st and 2nd downs and ran two other formations (1-2 and 2-2) a combined 31%. That means the typical 1-1 formation was ran just 37% on 1st and 2nd downs. On 3rd down, however, the 49ers ran the 1-1 formation 92% of the time. While the 49ers did not have an eye popping 3rd down conversion rate in those two games, they controlled the clock for 37 minutes and 55 seconds in the first game and 34 minutes and 3 seconds in the second game. That is time of possession (TOP) percentage of 59.97%. For this entire season, the Rams have had a TOP percentage of 53.35% which ranks 4th in the NFL. Sometimes the best defense against a talented offense is to hog the clock and that is what the 49ers did. Rams QB Jared Goff rarely got into any kind of rhythm in those two games. His combined completion percentage was 55.07%. In his other 10 games, his completion percentage is 70.87% which would rank as 2nd best.
What the Patriots did so well against the Chargers was control the clock for 33 minutes and 41 seconds and make Chargers QB Justin Herbert truly look like a rookie with a completion percentage of 49.1% (26 out of 53). He also threw 2 interceptions and was sacked 3 times. His QB rating was 43.7, easily his worst game as a pro. Like the 49ers, the Patriots ran the 2-1 formation often on 1st and 2nd downs (56% of the time) and on 3rd down went with the 1-1 formation 82% of the time. I suspect the Patriots will do something similar, especially with having two healthy workhorse backs in Damien Harris and Sony Michel. In fact, Harris leads all NFL RBs with rushing yards in the 2-1 formation and does it quite well (see data below).
Another metric that is good to consider is expected points gained or lost in this formation. When it comes to rushing, 3 Patriots players rank in the top 5 (see table below).
While I don't think it's wise to roster both Harris and Michel, I think we should roster one of them with Newton. If you can't tell already, I am expecting a Patriots upset in Hollywood tonight and Cam Newton will be my Captain on DraftKings (DK) and MVP on FanDuel (FD). Placing a QB in that spot is very common but it's contrarian to put a road QB who happens to be an underdog by nearly a TD. Newton also has a decent correlation with Harris (see data below from ASA; link included).
If Newton is my Captain/MVP, then I should include a pass catcher. This is tricky since Newton hasn't been on the Patriots for very long and his receiving core has been in constant flux this season. This is where I will lean on Sports Info Solutions again. Against zone coverage, the receiver who seems to the most reliable for the Patriots is N'Keal Harry with a 92.6 receiver rating (see table below). He also has a high correlation with Newton and Harry is a big body who played well at ASU the last few years.
I would also consider Jakobi Myers. He leads the way with air yards for the Patriots at 43.67% share since Week 8 and target share of 32.83% during that same time frame. Harry is super cheap on DK and affordable on FD so we can build a nice contrarian stack with Newton, Harris, Harry, and Myers with of course Newton as Captain/MVP. Who do we grab on the other side? Not Robert Woods, that's for sure. He struggles in man coverage and most likely Stephon Gilmore will be on him. Gilmore is the reigning defensive player of the year, a 3 time Pro Bowler, and 2 time All Pro player. You will be throwing money in the garbage if you play Woods. Cooper Kupp is decent but the best Rams player against man coverage is Tyler Higbee (see data below).
Essentially I am going heavy with the underdog Patriots (probably 2-4 on DK and 1-4 on FD) and will be fading Robert Woods given his poor performance against man coverage. I will still roster Jared Goff since QBs typically score more points than all other positions.I am expecting a score similar to the 49ers - Rams games this season with the Patriots completing a successful road trip in LALA land. Here are my sample lineups for both DK and FD. Good luck tonight!