This week, the struggling Eagles (who are the only 5-6 team in the NFC still in the playoff hunt, as the Cowboys cannot figure out how to turn their talent into wins) will have an opportunity to visit the “usually elixir” Miami Dolphins — with this team allowing the third most yards per game and the most points per game in the league. Miami ranks 32nd in DVOA on defense and has allowed a list of notable stat lines this year that is almost too long to fit on this page. Before we dive in, however, one quick thing to note:
A couple times this year, the Dolphins defense has played well above their talent level — thriving off discipline and attention to detail. And while there is more that went into each of those spots than simply this, it is interesting to note that the Dolphins have had their biggest struggles against aggressive offenses with explosive elements (since the bye, they’ve given up 31 to Buffalo, 37 to Buffalo, and 41 to Cleveland), while they have played well this year against more precision-oriented approaches — with the Redskins scoring 17, the Steelers scoring 27, the Jets scoring 18, and the Colts scoring 12. For whatever it’s worth, then, the Eagles (who have topped 260 passing yards only once since losing DeSean Jackson in Week 1, and have thrown for three touchdowns only once since then as well) are a very precision-oriented approach right now, and they are very low on aggressiveness/explosiveness. The likeliest scenario in this spot has this team finishing right around their Vegas-implied total (with this squad likelier to land below than above if we played out this slate a hundred times), while games in which the Eagles soar past their Vegas-implied mark of 27.5 would likely prove to be outliers.
Injuries are once again the story for the Eagles, as Alshon Jeffery and Nelson Agholor returned to practice on Wednesday and are fully expected to play this week, but Jordan Howard has still not been cleared for contact from his shoulder issue, and Zach Ertz missed practice with a hamstring issue. If Ertz misses, Dallas Goedert would ascend to “focal point” status, and while he would become one of the more popular plays on the slate, there would be a strong case for simply taking the talented, affordable player at the weak position and gaining differentiation elsewhere. Since the Eagles have said that Ertz played through this same hamstring issue last week, however, we will go ahead and approach this writeup assuming he plays.
A report came out on Wednesday that the Eagles plan to get J.J. Arcega-Whiteside involved this week — though this report hardly makes sense after JJAW took a back seat to Greg Ward last week with both Alshon and Agholor out. JJAW flashed in preseason and seems likely to be on the field in three-wide sets (and potentially even two-wide sets — with Agholor relegated to slot duties and leaving the field when Ertz and Goedert are on the field together), but he’ll remain a speculative option as a player with iffy volume. Agholor also joins the “speculative only” category, as he has failed to top even 42 yards in games in which Alshon has played this season. For all intents and purposes, this passing attack should be expected to be “running backs, tight ends, and Alshon,” with all other pieces simply hoping to guess right on a broken play or a touchdown.
Although the Dolphins are facing the second lowest pass play rate in the league (and as a result rank middle of the pack in catches allowed to tight ends and top 10 in fewest catches allowed to wide receivers), they have allowed a stunning 11 players (in 11 games) to go for 80+ yards and a touchdown — with the full list below:
Alshon — as has been well documented — has never quite shown the connection with Wentz that he showed with Foles, and in his last 16 games with the Eagles’ franchise quarterback he has topped 82 yards only once, while finishing with 50 or fewer yards 10 times. Alshon does have eight touchdown receptions from Wentz in this stretch, and he has recent target counts of 9 // 8 // 12 // 5 // 6 // 8 — making him a “bet on role and matchup, fade connection” play in this spot. The matchup is, of course, as good as it gets, so there should be no reason for concern if the work is there and these two are able to connect for one of their (rare) higher-end games.
Part of the reason Alshon and Wentz have never quite gotten going is Wentz’ love affair with Ertz, who has 11+ targets in three consecutive games after hitting double digits only once in his first eight games on the year. Coming off last year, the Eagles felt that Wentz had focused too heavily on Ertz (double digit looks in nine of 16 games), and they tried to build their offense in a different direction this time around — though it’s fair to expect Ertz’ higher usage to continue most weeks moving forward, as the Eagles have their backs against the wall and need to stick with whatever works best. If Ertz returns to full practice later this week (or if reports emerge that he’ll be 100% this weekend), the only thing likely to keep him from a strong game in this spot is lower usage in a blowout. If Ertz fails to practice this week (or only practices in a limited fashion) and is active on Sunday, of course, he’ll be a risk/reward option at the higher ends of the tight end price range.
While Goedert obviously emerges as a high-end play with an Ertz absence, he remains an integral piece of this offense regardless, with five or more targets in five of his last six games. There are only three qualified pass catchers in football with a lower aDOT than Goedert, so touchdowns have been fairly necessary to float his value — giving him a moderate floor when he fails to pop in a touchdown. But it’s rare that he completely whiffs, and his four touchdowns on the season are a reminder that there is definitely price-considered upside here.
The Philly backfield has been surprisingly ineffective with Jordan Howard out, with Miles Sanders producing yardage totals of 47 and 86 in two games in the lead role (13 and 15 touches), after A) seeing 11+ touches in six of the nine games he shared with Howard, and B) topping 90 yards three times when operating as the 1B in this offense. With that said, Sanders has been locked into over 80% of the snaps the last two weeks, and his lower usage has likely been a result of this team playing from behind, against two teams that face among the six highest opponent pass play rates in the league. Miami presents a clear bounce-back spot if Howard misses, with a number 29 DVOA ranking and 4.68 yards per carry allowed to enemy backs. No team has faced more running back rush attempts than the Dolphins. Six different running backs have topped 100 yards against Miami, and four of those backs added at least one touchdown.
The Dolphins backfield, apparently, continues to belong to Kalen Ballage (and why not — with Ballage averaging 1.9 yards per carry on the year) — but against a Philly team that tilts opponents toward the air, and with the Dolphins all but abandoning the run lately (second in the league in pass play rate), the backfield is not the place to look for anything resembling bankable production.
On the other hand — with the Dolphins leaning so heavily on the pass lately — Ryan Fitzpatrick has recent pass attempt totals of 35 // 34 // 36 // 33 // 45 // 39 — and while the matchup against the Eagles is not as soft with Jalen Mills and Ronald Darby back on the field, we do still have an opportunity to target a concentrated attack with Jakeem Grant now on injured reserve and Albert Wilson looking iffy for this week. There is potential for the Dolphins to get trounced and for no one to produce as a result — but we at least know that volume will be there for the Miami passing attack.
The clearest place for this volume to concentrate is on DeVante Parker, who has recent target counts of 10 // 8 // 6 // 10 // 10 // 11. Only 55.4% of Parker’s targets this season have been converted into catches, but he has topped 50 yards in six consecutive games (and in nine of 11 on the year), and he’s the best bet for a touchdown on this offense.
Behind Parker, the Dolphins will spread the ball around to Wilson // Allen Hurns // Mike Gesicki if all three play — though if Wilson misses, Gesicki will see the underneath work while Hurns will work the intermediate and downfield areas. Philly has been really strong against tight ends this year, but Gesicki has six or more targets in four straight — and while he’s topped 51 yards only once (and 41 only twice; and 31 only three times), heavy volume at the tight end position is always worth noting.
Wilson seems likely to get back on the field after practicing in a limited fashion on Wednesday (in which case, he will resume the lowest-aDOT role in the NFL), but if he’s out, he’ll free up an average of 6.5 targets over the last two games, and Hurns will be an extremely strong bet to go for six or more targets for the third consecutive game.
JM’s Interpretation ::
With this slate less ugly than what we dealt with the last two weeks, the idea of “betting on volume on the Dolphins and knowing we’ll get some locked-in points” is less appealing than it has been, as there are a lot more potential slate-breakers available (and thus, simply targeting solid point-per-dollar scores is less likely to win you a tourney) — but Parker remains in the conversation for his role, while Hurns will be a really interesting piece to consider if Wilson fails to return.
On the Philly side: this is likeliest to be a solid game rather than a true smash for the Eagles offense, but Notable Stat Lines are far too common against the Dolphins for this offense to be overlooked, with 17 such lines emerging vs Miami in only 11 games. Given the price and uncertainty on Ertz’ health, I’ll likely move away from him myself — but he’s obviously very interesting if healthy, while Goedert and Alshon can have a solid case made for them as well. Sanders is a really strong play on paper if Howard misses again (while Howard will be an intriguing yardage-and-touchdown option if he plays), and even guys like Jay Ajayi and JJAW can be kept in mind deeper down the list as players who could conceivably take advantage of this softer matchup if the usage unexpectedly cooperates.