NFL Week 8 Best Bets: Back the Texans' offense to expose a Panthers defense due for extreme negative regression

2T1XPCD USA. 15th Oct, 2023. October 15, 2023: Houston Texans quarterback C.J. Stroud (7) prepares for a play during a game between the New Orleans Saints and the Houston Texans in Houston, TX. Trask Smith/CSM/Sipa USA (Credit Image: © Trask Smith/Cal Sport Media/Sipa USA) Credit: Sipa US/Alamy Live News

• Back the Houston Texans to clear their team total against the Carolina Panthers: This Panthers defense has benefited from significant overperformance on late downs, which is bound to even out going forward.

• Take the Jacksonville Jaguars as a small road favorite over the Pittsburgh Steelers: The Steelers' luck should run out against a far superior Jaguars team.

• Trust Chris Olave to produce against the Indianapolis Colts: Olave has an incredible matchup against a depleted Colts secondary that won’t be able to cover him.

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Estimated Reading Time: 6 minutes

Week 8 brings some exciting matchups as we enter the heart of the NFL season. We’ll use our late-down variance angle to identify a defense that may get exposed this week, and we'll also be fading a team whose record doesn’t accurately reflect the quality of football they’ve been playing. Let's get into it.

Houston Texans @ Carolina Panthers (+3, 43.5)

This game will be the first of, hopefully, many battles between the first two picks in the 2023 NFL Draft. Panthers quarterback Bryce Young has struggled immensely to start his career, while Texans quarterback C.J. Stroud has found a lot of success early on.

The angle here is focused on a Panthers defense that is due for serious negative regression. Carolina’s defense ranks dead last in EPA+ against on early downs but has been largely bailed out by key stops on late downs, ranking third in EPA+ against on those key third and fourth downs. As you can see below, this is the most extreme split of any defense in the league.

This drastic overperformance can be chalked up mostly to variance, as we know that late-down EPA numbers can be highly volatile and unsustainable due to their small sample size and high-leverage nature. As the season goes on and the sample size of late-down plays increases, we can confidently expect this trend to even out and for the Panthers' defense to perform like one of the worst in the league on all downs, which will result in a lot more scoring for opposing teams.

If the Panthers' defense wasn’t primed to implode already, they have been hit significantly by injuries, especially in the secondary. Top cornerback Jaycee Horn was joined on injured reserve by safety Jeremy Chinn and edge defender Yetur Gross-Matos earlier this week. Additionally, safety Vonn Bell is out this week and safety Xavier Woods and edge defender Brian Burns are questionable. This unit is unbelievably depleted and simply doesn’t have the personnel to cover this Texans offense.

Stroud has enjoyed an impressive start to his career, boasting a 73.3 PFF grade and a 7.97 quarterback EPA+. What may be even more impressive is the performance of wideouts Nico Collins and Tank Dell, who rank fifth and 23rd, respectively, in PFF grade. This passing attack has done its damage through the middle of the field and has amassed the most total EPA when throwing to that area of any team. Stroud should be able to target that sweet spot against a Carolina team that has allowed the 11th-highest EPA per pass to that area.

The Texans' passing attack should have all day to throw against a Panthers pass rush that places 23rd in pass-rush win rate and will be without at least one key edge defender. While the Texans haven’t had much success running the ball, they may be able to against a Panthers run defense that has graded out as the worst in the NFL.

Best Bet: Houston Texans Team Total OVER 23.5 (to 24 or 24.5 at plus money)

Houston's offense is in an absolute smash spot and should comfortably exceed league-average scoring against a banged-up defense that may be the worst in the league. They should have plenty of drives to do so in a game that will be played at a well-above-average pace.

Jacksonville Jaguars @ Pittsburgh Steelers (+2, 41)

If you read last week's article, you probably know what's coming here. We had Rams -3 against the Steelers, which didn’t get there after a myriad of penalties, missed kicks and a key missed call on a late fourth down. There is no better team to avenge our loss than the Jaguars.

The core of the argument against the Steelers is that all metrics point to this team being well below average. Pittsburgh ranks 22nd in NET EPA+ and 24th in NET success rate yet has a 4-2 record. Many key noisy plays have gone their way for them to win each of those four games, which is very unlikely to keep happening.

The Jaguars, one of my favorite teams all season, extremely underperformed on late downs at the start of the year, which caused them to be priced like a league-average team — which they are most definitely not. Jacksonville is a real contender in the AFC and is still not being treated as such in the market.

The on-field matchup is also ideal here for the Jaguars. Both quarterbacks' efficiency this season has largely depended on what type of coverage they face. Trevor Lawrence has the sixth-best EPA+ (of 32 qualified quarterbacks) when facing man coverage compared to the 12th-worst EPA+ against zone coverage. For the Steelers, Kenny Pickett hasn’t thrived against either coverage but has also been far better against man.

Lawrence will have the benefit of playing against his preferred coverage often on Sunday, as the Steelers play man coverage at the fourth-highest rate in the NFL. Unfortunately for Pickett, the Jaguars' defense has the exact opposite scheme and plays man coverage at the fourth-lowest rate in the league. If each quarterback continues to play to this split, the Jaguars should have a significant schematic advantage in the passing game.

Best Bet: Jacksonville Jaguars -2 (to -3)

Trevor Lawrence has been limited in practice all week and carries a questionable designation going into Sunday. However, he does seem very likely to play after looking great last Thursday night and having 10 days in between these two games. If Lawrence plays, I love the Jaguars at a field goal or better, as the Steelers' incredible luck is bound to run out in a game where they are significantly outmatched.

Player Prop Best Bet: Chris Olave OVER 60.5 Receiving Yards

Using PFF’s expected yards metric, we can identify players whose actual production doesn't match their expected production based on the usage and targets they are garnering. One of the players who has underperformed their expected stats the most so far this season is Saints wide receiver Chris Olave, who is averaging 81.8 expected receiving yards per game while producing 67 actual receiving yards per game — the sixth-most extreme underperformance among all pass catchers.

Olave has an incredible matchup against a depleted Colts secondary that will be starting Darrell Baker Jr. (29.6 coverage grade) and Jaylon Jones (59.1 coverage grade). Both have struggled immensely in coverage on the outside, which is where Olave lines up the majority of the time. PFF’s Nic Bodiford goes into greater detail on just how good this matchup is for Olave in his weekly fantasy football column here.

This game will also be played in the dome of Lucas Oil Stadium, providing optimal conditions for passing offenses to thrive. Back Olave to clear this mispriced total and sprinkle on some alternate overs at plus money, as his big-play potential is likely to be realized against a bad Colts secondary.

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