Thursday Night Preview: Denver Broncos at Cleveland Browns

Denver Broncos at Cleveland Browns


Line: Browns -2, Total: 41


Medical Staff or Triage Department?  

Now entering Week 7 of the NFL season, every team is dealing with injury to some degree. The degree to which the Browns are dealing with injury might best be summed up by just calling the Nth degree — it’s nearly immeasurable. Starting quarterback Baker Mayfield has already been ruled out with a torn labrum in his left (non-throwing) shoulder; so are both starting running backs, Nick Chubb (calf) and Kareem Hunt (calf; placed on IR this week). That would be bad enough, but after both starting tackles, Jack Conklin and Jedrick Wills missed Sunday’s loss against the Cardinals, both are questionable to return Thursday night. Center JC Tretter has a knee issue and is questionable, as well. Odell Beckham Jr, who has been a bit disappointing this season but is still one of the Browns’ best playmakers, also carries a questionable tag after picking up a shoulder issue of his own.  If all those players miss, it would mean seven of Cleveland’s most important offense players would not be present for this contest.

To put a finer point on it, Mayfield has been responsible for all but six of Cleveland’s passing yards this season. Chubb, Hunt, Mayfield, and Beckham have been responsible for just over 96% of the Browns rushing yards and those four have also added 410 yards receiving. In fact, the Browns have gained a total of 44 yards on the year that did NOT involve any of those four players.

The injuries aren’t limited to the offense, either. Starting defensive end Jadeveon Clowney, who has three sacks, six tackles-for-loss and nine QB hits, is questionable with three separate ailments (ankle, chest, knee). He already missed Week 5’s contest because of the knee issue, returned in Week 6, but picked up the ankle and chest issues in that game. Starting DT Malik Jackson (knee) and starting LB Malcolm Smith (who missed Week 6 with an abdomen injury) are also question marks on a short week. Rookie LB Jeremiah Owusu-Koramoah, the team’s leading tackler and arguably second-most impactful defender after Myles Garrett, was placed on IR this week and is out for at least three weeks with a high-ankle sprain.

To add insult to all the injuries, the Browns have one of the latest bye weeks in the NFL, not getting their break until Week 13 (Week 14 is the final week for byes this season). They also could not have timed their Thursday night game worse, but one possible positive is that Cleveland is in the midst of a three-game homestand and will get 10 days off after the Thursday contest before welcoming rival Pittsburgh to town next Sunday.


Tough to Handicap

This is one of those games that’s hard for Vegas to come up with an accurate number because of all the injuries. When Caesars posted this line last week, they pegged the Browns as six-point favorites at home. By end of day Sunday, it was down to five, Monday morning down to 4.5, Monday evening 3.5, Tuesday afternoon Nick Chubb is ruled out and it drops to three points, Wednesday morning Baker Mayfield is ruled out and it’s all the way down to -2. Who knows what the line will be by kickoff, but keep an eye on continued movement, especially as players are deemed active or inactive. We’ve talked about the Browns injury situation, but Denver’s starting quarterback Teddy Bridgewater has been battling a foot injury and has a quadriceps issue and is listed as questionable (though he is expected to play).

We will do our duty and continue to report the numbers; as of right now, 84% of the money is on the Broncos according to the Action Network. However, take that with a grain of salt because the number doesn’t break down when those bets were placed; many people likely bet on Denver early, speculating the Browns’ injury situation might come into play. It’s also possible that this line continues to move and eventually the value shifts back to the Browns. If you’re looking to bet this game, keep an eye on the line and the money movement throughout the day and gather as much information as you can before placing your wager. Despite the injuries, the over is generating 56% of the bets and 78% of the money, implying that some professionals like the contrarian play in this one.

Finally, some recent trends: Denver has dominated Cleveland over the last 30 years, posting a 9-2-1 ATS (11-1 SU) record in this series since 1992 (5-0 SU, 4-0-1 ATS in Cleveland). Denver has rebounded well under head coach Vic Fangio with a 7-0 ATS record in contests following a loss the previous week to an AFC West opponent.


Under-appreciated Teddy B

Let’s look at Broncos’ QB Teddy Bridgewater, the analytics darling who is generally under-appreciated by the public — and by NFL teams. Interestingly, both he and Browns’ starter Case Keenum played for the Minnesota Vikings in 2017. When starter Sam Bradford got hurt, it was Keenum who stepped up and led the team to the NFC Championship game. Bridgewater was recovering from a leg injury in 2016 that nearly cost him his leg, but he was healthy enough to play that season. The Vikings then let both players go and signed Kirk Cousins.

After spending two seasons backing up Drew Brees in New Orleans and winning all five games that he started in the future Hall of Famer’s place, Bridgewater signed a three-year deal to be the starter for the Carolina Panthers. Despite a strong statistical season, the Panthers went 5-11, traded for Sam Darnold and shipped Bridgewater to Denver. It was the second time that Darnold replaced Bridgewater; the Jets signed Bridgewater after his final season in Minnesota but traded him to the Saints before the season even started because they drafted Darnold. So, the Vikings, Jets, Saints, and Panthers all basically told us that Bridgewater wasn’t “the guy.” Truthfully, Denver did the same; after trading for him, they claimed they were still looking at QBs in this past NFL Draft and then he had to beat out Drew Lock to win the job.

OK, enough backstory on to the numbers. This season, Bridgewater is completing 70.2% of his passes, good for 6th in the NFL. His expected completion percentage, though, is 63.9%, giving him a +6.3 COMP% over xCOMP%, which is 4th in the league. The three players who are ahead of him are Kyler Murray (+8.6), Dak Prescott (+7.8) and Russell Wilson (+7.3). Just behind him, and rounding out the top 5, is Aaron Rodgers (+4.7). Pretty elite company for a guy who’s been tossed to the side by four organizations.

Of those five players, Bridgewater’s average air yards per throw (9.6) is the highest-mark. Not only that, but Bridgewater is third in the NFL in a very interesting modern metric: average air yards to the sticks (AYTS). This stat measures how far each throw that a QB makes is from the first-down marker when it gets to the receiver, whether ahead or behind. Because most defenses tend to protect the first down marker, this stat gives a little more context to the average air yards mark. For example, throwing the ball 10 yards in the air on third and 20 is more likely to have less defensive pressure than, say, a ball thrown 8 yards in the air on third and seven. Yes, one traveled farther and counts for more air yards, but the second was over a much more precious bit of ground, as far as the defense is concerned. Bridgewater’s mark of +0.7 AYTS trails only Lamar Jackson and Josh Allen (both at +0.9) and he is one of just 10 passers who have a positive number in this category. Coincidentally, the QB with the smallest AYTS number this season is the one that replaced Bridgewater in Minnesota, Kirk Cousins (-2.5). All those stats are courtesy of NFL’s Next Gen Stats.

Some of that can be explained by Denver’s receivers gaining a good bit of separation from defenders. Bridgewater’s top three targets, Noah Fant (3.8), Tim Patrick (2.8) and Courtland Sutton (2.7) all average more than 2.5 yards of separation at the time the ball arrives. That has led Bridgewater to an aggressiveness percentage of 14.6%, which is 19th among quarterbacks. That number measures the percent of a passer’s throws that are into tight coverage (less than 1 yard of separation). To be fair to Bridgewater, though, of the 10 QBs who average at least nine air yards per throw, his 14.6% is ahead of six of them.

All these numbers are a complete departure from the Bridgewater that we saw last year in Carolina. His 7.3 air yards per throw was nearly two-and-a-half yards less than this season which was 11th-fewest in the league. Last year, he had an AYTS mark of -1.7, which was the 10th lowest mark among all qualified QBs. He still had a positive COMP% over xCOMP% of 2.3 in 2020, but that’s four points lower than this season and ranked behind 12 other signal-callers.

Bridgewater is not an elite NFL quarterback, but no one expects him to be. He is a serviceable and solid veteran NFL quarterback, and he deserves a little more respect for what he’s been able to accomplish, especially since coming back from a gruesome injury that cost him an entire season and nearly his left leg. We should all be rooting for Bridgewater. Though, not in this game if you bet the Browns, we suppose.

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