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Matching Up the NFL’s Past, Present and Future on Divisional Sunday

By: Ethan Fore

Though Tom Brady joked on Twitter that the matchup could be simulcast on the History Channel, there’s still plenty of damage to be done in the here and now by two ageless legends.

The ghosts of NFL past – er, present – meet on Sunday night when the Brady’s Tampa Bay Buccaneers take on Drew Brees’ New Orleans Saints. Earlier, it will be a showcase of the new era of the NFL when Baker Mayfield’s Cleveland Browns visit Patrick Mahomes’ Kansas City Chiefs.

Mayfield and Mahomes may face each other multiple times in future postseasons, and you can’t write the history of the NFL without Brady and Brees, but it might very well be the running game that flips the outcome of both games.

Here are the matchups to watch:

Saints RB Alvin Kamara vs. Buccaneers Run Defense

Saints running back Alvin Kamara (41) is one of the hardest players to tackle in the NFL. Just ask Bears cornerback Kyle Fuller (23). (AP Photo/Butch Dill)

Few are as good as Kamara is with the ball in open space.

Credit Sean Payton & Co. for brilliantly utilizing him all over the field. On a per-touch basis, Kamara ranks second in missed and broken tackles among running backs with at least 50 snaps behind Cleveland’s Nick Chubb, and avoids tackles at a rate of 25.8% (TK-AVD%).

The former Tennessee Volunteer averages 3.2 yards before contact and 3.0 yards per carry on plays with a run disruption (YPC-RD), indicating Kamara’s immense talent at creating space and getting out of trouble. His big play percentage (BP%), or the rate in which a player collects 20 yards or more per play, is a whopping 19.9%, good for sixth in the league.

Bucs defensive end Ndamukong Suh (93) leads a Tampa Bay defense that has a tall task this weekend. (AP Photo/Daniel Kucin Jr.)

Containing Kamara has been a daunting task for defenses this year, but Todd Bowles’ unit is more than formidable. In two games against Tampa Bay this season, Kamara gained just 116 total yards on 31 touches despite scoring three touchdowns. The Bucs led the league in rushing yards allowed per game by nearly 10 yards and allowed a league-low 10 rushing touchdowns.

T-YDS/ATT measures how many yards a defense allows an offensive player to gain after he is “met,” or the tackle attempt begins. The Buccaneers defense allows just 1.7 T-YDS/ATT, the sixth-best mark in the league this year. But their success rate is 78.3%, just below the average rate in the NFL in 2020.

In other words, they may not be the best tacklers, but there is always another Buccaneer around to clean up. They’re even better tacklers against the run, trailing only the Eagles in pre-yards-per-carry, where ball carriers average less than a yard before meeting a defender.

In the trenches, the Bucs are anchored by Ndamukong Suh and William Gholston, but each player has a run disruption rate that is just slightly better than average. In terms of tackling success rate, linebacker Lavonte David and edge rusher Shaquil Barrett lead the team, but it’s a group that must perform well on Sunday if Tampa Bay wants to move on.

Browns RBs vs. Chiefs Run Defense

Cleveland enters Sunday’s game against the top-seeded Kansas City Chiefs as heavy underdogs following its upset win over the Pittsburgh Steelers last weekend.

And if they want to continue their Cinderella run, the Browns will need to rely on their two dynamic running backs.

Nick Chubb (24) and Kareem Hunt (27) need to have big games if the Browns are going to compete with Patrick Mahomes and the Chiefs. (Photo by David Rosenblum/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images)

Chubb and Kareem Hunt excel at making defenders miss, ranking third and 15th respectively among all running backs in TK-AVD%. Chubb leads all NFL running backs in missed and broken tackles per touch (minimum 50 carries), ranks third in yards after contact and leads the league in YPC-RD at a staggering 4.5 mark.

Hunt serves as the receiving threat, accumulating a burn percentage (Burn%) of 64.7 – good for third among all NFL RBs – and converts big plays at a rate of 19.4%, just behind Kamara.

Kansas City’s defense is nothing to write home about, which would likely be the team’s undoing should it falter in the postseason. The Chiefs’ run defense is below-average, finishing 21st in rushing yards allowed per game during the regular season.

But after allowing an average of 128.2 rushing yards over their first 11 games, the Chiefs have given up just 108.8 over their last five.

As a team, Kansas City tackles with a success rate just below the league average, and ranks 26th in T-YDS/ATT. Even Pro Bowl defensive tackle Chris Jones has struggled with tackle success rate despite excelling at rushing the passer and disrupting the run.

The Chiefs may feel like a powerhouse, but the Browns have the edge on the ground. Is it enough to pull off another upset?

 

Data modeling provided by Greg Gifford and Kyle Cunningham-Rhoads.

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