January 16, 2021

NFL Spreads Week 8: To defense or not? That is the question.

10 min read
Some teams pride themselves on their defensive prowess while others seemingly run the other direction...

Some teams pride themselves on their defensive prowess while others seemingly run the other direction when offenses attack them. This week, I will focus on two games that highlight defenses and their influence on point spreads that present possible value before making my Week 8 NFL picks. Make sure you keep up with all of the betting team’s Week 8 plays throughout the week.

Pittsburgh Steelers (+4) at Baltimore Ravens, Over/Under 46.5

Defensive showdown

This is the “Game of the Week.” Two potential Super Bowl contenders. Two top-five defenses in the league. Two hated rivals are going head-to-head in one of the toughest divisions in the entire NFL. Only one of them will come out on top.

The Pittsburgh Steelers and Baltimore Ravens always play close games, and this one should be no different. The Steelers have allowed the fewest total yards in the NFL this season, and the Ravens are right behind them with the sixth-fewest allowed. The Ravens boast the best scoring defense this year, only allowing 17.3 points per game. Of course, the Steelers are right behind them at 19.6 points per game, good for fourth-best.

These are two smash-mouth defenses that shut down the opposing run game, limit big scoring drives, and cause a league-leading number of turnovers. The Steelers are fifth in the NFL with eight interceptions while the Ravens lead the league in forced fumbles lost. They both field top-10 run defenses, with the Steelers being number one overall, allowing a meager 3.4 yards per carry. The Ravens can be run on, however, as they allow a 4.6 yard per carry average.

Everything in this Week 8 NFL game leans toward a low scoring, defensive struggle with the team winning the turnover battle and finishing their drives, coming out on top in a battle for AFC North supremacy.

Offenses sell tickets

Two top 10 quarterbacks face off on the offensive side of the field. At 38 years old, Steelers quarterback Ben Roethlisberger has been around the block and some. He has two Super Bowl championships under his belt (and has played in five AFC Championship games), has been the NFL passing yards leader twice, and has 19 game-winning drives in the fourth quarter or overtime.

As a 23-year-old quarterback for the Ravens, Lamar Jackson is still developing at the NFL level and has critical areas of his game he needs to improve on. Regarding his rushing ability, he has an explosive burst and top-end speed that is unmatched by any other quarterback in the league not named Kyler Murray. Where he excels concerning rushing, he lacks when it comes to passing. He is averaging 189 yards per game, which ranks 30th in the league, and his 63% completion percentage sits in the bottom 10 as well.

What both of these teams do exceptionally well, however, is run the ball and put points on the scoreboard. The Steelers rush for an average of 129 yards per game and score over 30 points per game (sixth-best in the league). The Ravens have the NFL’s best running attack, averaging 164 yards per game, and they put up 29.8 points per game as well.

The difference makers

There are some key factors with these two teams that could be the deciding factor for the winner. The Steelers lead the league in sacks, averaging 4.3 per game, while Jackson has been sacked a total of 15 times this year – about 2.5 times per game. These two teams rank first and second overall in blitz percentage and will continue to implement that strategy in this game. If the Ravens cannot prevent the Steel Curtain from causing havoc in their backfield, this match-up will be challenging for the Ravens to control.

Whereas the Ravens blitz just as much as the Steelers, the difference is Roethlisberger has only been sacked eight times this year, the second-fewest in the NFL this year. At this stage of his career, Roethlisberger relies on short quick throws as his primary attack, with the occasional deep throw. If he can take what the Ravens give him and rely on running back James Conner and the run game, they should neutralize the Ravens pass rush and move the ball down the field.

The Steelers still haven’t gained enough respect in Week 8 of the NFL from Vegas bookmakers even with the Ravens coming out of their bye week with apparent offensive woes. This game is an even match between two divisional rivals who will be pulling out all the stops to dominate the other en route to the AFC North division title.

Jessica’s Week 8 NFL Spread Pick: Steelers +4

As with almost every match-up between these two teams over the last ten years, I expect this game to be close and hard-fought. 12 out of the 20 games played between these two teams since 2010 have finished within three points of each other. You have two of the NFL’s best defenses facing off two run-happy teams that will look to establish the ground game before attempting to attack through the air. The clock will run continuously and shorten the game’s length, causing fewer scoring opportunities and another close finish. Take the points in this NFL Week 8 spread and the better overall team.

Las Vegas Raiders (+2.5) at Cleveland Browns, Over/Under 51.5

All gas, no brakes

The Las Vegas Raiders and Cleveland Browns are mirror images of each other. These two teams like to establish the run, score a lot of points, and play no pass defense. Both teams field top-10 scoring offenses and bottom-five scoring defenses.

The secondaries of both the Raiders and Browns rank in the bottom five in the league. The Browns are allowing opposing quarterbacks to throw for 288 pass yards per game with a 97.9 quarterback rating. The Raiders are not much better defending the pass as they are allowing 283 pass yards per game. Due to their porous secondaries, these teams allow the second (Raiders) and fourth-most (Browns) points per game to opposing teams.

Where these two teams do defend well against is the running game. The Browns boast a top-five run defense anchored by perennial Pro Bowler Myles Garrett. They are allowing less than 93 yards per game on the ground and 3.8 yards per carry. Although they defend the ground game well, they still have allowed nine rushing touchdowns this year, which is the sixth-most in the league.

The Raiders are not as stout against the run as the Browns, but they still field a mid-tier run defense. They are allowing 119 yards per game and have given up 12 rushing touchdowns this year, which is the most in the league. They did a phenomenal job limiting Tampa Bay Buccaneers running back Ronald Jones to 34 yards and a 2.6 yard per carry average last week, so there is a potential for improvement.

Air attack

Cleveland will have a more difficult time scoring as we advance due to the injury of wide receiver Odell Beckham Jr. Opposing defenses will now cover either wide receivers Jarvis Landry, Rashard Higgins, or tight end Austin Hooper. This trickle-down effect will force Mayfield to throw the ball into tighter coverage, which should increase his propensity to turn the ball over.

On the other hand, Las Vegas seems to be developing a more balanced attack over the last few weeks. Typically the “Waller & Jacobs Show,” the Raiders have found key playmakers besides their usual suspects. Wide receivers Henry Ruggs and Nelson Agholor each broke 100 yards, respectively, the last two weeks against the Kansas City Chiefs and Tampa Bay Buccaneers. With more weapons at his disposal, Carr should be able to capitalize on his 72% completion percentage and spread the ball around to keep the chains moving. If he can do this, the Raiders will keep this NFL Week 8 spread close.

Key factors

A critical difference between these two teams is their turnover margin. The Browns have forced the most turnovers in the league this year (14) – seven interceptions and seven forced fumbles (four of which came from Garrett). The Raiders rank dead last in turnovers with a measly three interceptions and zero forced fumbles. An optimistic viewpoint with the Raiders is the likely regression to the mean – they will cause more turnovers and most likely in rapid succession to sit in line with the average forced turnovers in the NFL per year.

Looking at Cleveland’s forecast this Sunday, the weather may also come into play in this game. The forecast currently shows a 60% chance of rain and winds averaging between 25 to 35 miles per hour. If this holds true, we could see a rainy and windy game where running the ball will be the main focus, and passing accuracy will be of the utmost requirement.

Browns quarterback Baker Mayfield is not known for his accurate passing – even after his five-touchdown game last week versus the Cincinnati Bengals. On the year, he has a 63% completion percentage and 1,392 passing yards – both good for 25th in the league. He does have 15 touchdowns this year, which ranks in the top 10, but he has thrown seven interceptions as well (third-most).

Raiders quarterback Derek Carr is quietly putting together a stellar 2020 campaign. He is currently third in the league in completion percentage at 72% and is ranked in the top 10 in nearly every passing statistical category. Carr is also extremely protective over the ball – he has only thrown two interceptions all year.

Jessica’s Pick: Raiders +2.5

In a game that could be disrupted by inclement weather, I prefer to side with the team that protects the ball more. Both Carr and Jacobs protect the ball and have less than four combined turnovers. On the other hand, Mayfield has thrown seven interceptions on the year, including another one last week against the Bengals weak secondary. Both teams will keep the ball on the ground and limit passing through the rainy and windy conditions. Carr will use Waller, Ruggs, Agoholor, and Jacobs to keep the chains moving and win this game outright. Since this game is weather-dependent and the Raiders are away from home, take the points in this NFL Week 8 spread and secure the safer bet.

Other Week 8 NFL spreads bets from Pro Football Network betting analysts

Chris Smith’s NFL Week 8 spread best bet Patriots +4 (-115):

While generally speaking, you can throw most Patriots trends over the past two seasons out the window. However, some Josh Allen numbers against Belichick may indicate what we can expect to see in Buffalo on Sunday afternoon. Allen is 0-3 straight up and ATS against the Patriots in his career, completing only 48% of his passes and producing only three touchdowns compared to five interceptions.

New England hasn’t looked particularly good the last few weeks since Cam Newton’s Covid diagnosis, but this is a winnable game for the Patriots. They have a strong secondary with Stephon Gilmore potentially blanketing Stefon Diggs in a matchup Steven Urkel would be proud of. With extreme winds expected and a total projected in the low 40s, New England getting more than a field goal is too much value to pass on in this spot.

Chris Smith’s Other NFL Week 8 spread best bet Seattle -2.5 (-115):

Seattle looks to bounce back from their first loss last weekend in a divisional matchup against the rival 49ers. Both teams are dealing with various injuries, although I think the San Francisco injuries will prove more costly in this spot. The 49ers lost yet another RB this week when they were forced to place Jeff Wilson on IR after his three-touchdown performance against the Patriots. Next man up for Kyle Shanahan when it comes to ball carriers, but the loss of Deebo Samuel could have a much more significant impact.

While the Seahawks are dead last against the pass, the Seattle defense has at least been respectable against the run. Not having Samuel may leave Jimmy Garrapolo with too few weapons to keep up with Russell Wilson. Seattle will likely be without Chris Carson in this one, although one might argue this only forces the Seahawks to throw more, which is what they do best regardless.

San Francisco’s secondary has looked much better the past two weeks after the embarrassment against the Dolphins, but keep in mind that Russell Wilson is precisely the type of mobile quarterback that has given the 49ers fits in the past. This number is too low for me. I’ll lay the 2.5 or 3 with the Seahawks.

Drew Haynes’ Best NFL Week 8 Spread bet: Ravens -3 (-124):

Not only do I believe the Ravens to be the truly better team, but they also had a bye week to prepare for this game and are at home for this pivotal divisional matchup. The Steelers struggled to stop the Jackson attack in 2019 as the Ravens won both meetings. There’s no reason to believe that the Steelers will start controlling him now without linebacker Devin Bush, who played a pivotal role in trying to slow him down. Ravens should win handily, but buy it down to 3 at the low price just in case.

George Templeton’s Best Bet: Week 8 NFL spread underdog round-robin Miami, Pittsburgh, San Francisco | +1514 for the treble; +602, +498, +521 for the doubles

Miami is starting Tua Tagovailoa for the first time, but he’s had two weeks to prepare. The Dolphins will have some concepts put in to counter that fearsome Rams pass rush. L.A’s also had a lot of travel back and forth, and this trip east for yet another 1 p.m. start off a short week might be one trip too far.

Pittsburgh faces a massive task playing at bitter AFC North rival Baltimore who’ve had a week off. But the Steelers’ offense is on a roll, and the Ravens’ offense has struggled lately. Can the Steelers defense overcome the loss of Bush, and can they rectify their second-half struggles? This week they will.

San Francisco revived their season with two straight wins and, despite a ton of injuries, might be facing Seattle at the right time. Why? Because the Seattle defense is getting shredded weekly without Jamal Adams in the lineup. And because of that, Wilson has to be nearly perfect for the Seahawks to win, and the 49ers defense is healthy enough to cause a few mistakes that will tip the balance in their favor.

Follow Jessica @GridironAndWine and Pro Football Network @PFN365 on Twitter for all the best betting advice for the 2020 NFL season.

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