POSTED AT 6:21 AM ET, 02/ 4/2011
Super Bowl preview
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While the Super Bowl officiating crew is comprised of an "all-star" team of refs, Walt Anderson will be the head official. During the 2010 season, Anderson called a total of 200 penalties (including declined and offsetting) for a total of 1,346 yards. That was about league average last season; Tony Corrente led the league with 261 calls, and Pete Morelli threw the fewest flags with 176. Anderson was the head official in the Week 6 game featuring the Pittsburgh Steelers and Cleveland Browns, a game in which Pittsburgh linebacker James Harrison was fined $75,000 for a hit on Browns receiver Mohamed Massaquoi but was not flagged in the game.
The only penalty having to do with Harrison's allegedly egregious contact was on Browns center Alex Mack, for kicking the football in frustration over the lack of penalties. Mack got himself a delay of game call for that one. Anderson called seven unnecessary roughness penalties during the season, which was pretty far down the line. Corrente led the league with 22, while Alberto Riveron and John Parry tied for the fewest with four. Something tells me that the league will have a little talk with Anderson about calling those hits a little bit closer.
Anderson also called one game in which the Green Bay Packers played; their Week 16 contest against the New York Giants. In that game, the Pack saw just three flags - one on special teams, and two defensive flags. One of those was against cornerback Charles Woodson for illegal contact, and another against cornerback Tramon Williams for defensive pass interference. In previous years, the Packers' secondary was known for drawing penalties because of the man coverage and physical nature of the back four, but they managed to clean things up in 2010 - just seven pass interference calls and five illegal contact penalties.
The Steelers' depleted offensive line led the league in holding penalties with 35, while Green Bay's line had just 14 holds. The Packers were more prone to false starts with 21, while the Steelers had just 14. Anderson called the third-lowest number of holds with 31, and the third-highest number of false starts (42, tied with Scott Green).
These are two of the most evenly-matched teams you'll see in a Super Bowl. According to Football Outsiders' efficiency metrics, the Steelers ranked second overall, while the Packers ranked third. Pittsburgh ranked fifth in total offense (third in passing and 14th in rushing), while Green Bay ranked seventh (sixth in passing and 11th in rushing). On defense, these are the gold standard 3-4 squads - Pittsburgh ranked first (second against the pass, first against the run) and Green Bay ranked second (first against the pass, 16th against the run). Both defenses are top five in overall efficiency when covering No. 1 and No. 2 receivers; Pittsburgh's only real weakness in coverage is against third receivers and running backs, and Green Bay's Achilles' heel is against tight ends (they rank 22nd).
Neither team is specifically effective when running the ball; this could very well be a re-run of Super Bowl XLIII, when the Steelers and Cardinals were beating each other's brains in with quick-strike passing attacks late in the game. Down the stretch, that passing game could be a huge factor from an efficiency perspective -- no quarterbacks had higher completion percentages in the fourth quarter of games than Roethlisberger (66.3) and Rodgers (66.0) in the regular season.
Down and Distance
If there's one place in which the Steelers have a huge advantage, it's on third-and-short; Green Bay ranks 24th in efficiency on offense, and the Steelers' defense ranks sixth in these situations. The Packers' defense ranks 11th in third-and-short, but Pittsburgh ranks second in those defensive situations. Third-and-long is a different story; both offenses and defenses are top-10. But again, the Steelers have an advantage, because their quarterback is a freak in these tougher situations. Roethlisberger led the league in converting situations of third-and-8 or longer (23 of 51 possible conversions) through the air, while Rodgers converted just 14 of 49 situations.
Both defenses love to rush the passer, and both quarterbacks have no problem being as efficient - or MORE efficient - when they're pressured. Of all NFL quarterbacks, Rodgers has had the highest Football Outsiders efficiency rating over the last two years when pressured, and Roethlisberger is right up there with him. And when faced with five rushers? Each quarterback averaged 8.2 yards per play, according FO's game charting. Rodgers was even more effective when facing six rushers (8.6 yards per play, while Roethlisberger dropped to 6.1). These are two guys you blitz at your own peril.
But those quarterbacks will be tested with three of the league's greatest pass rushers. Two of those pass rushers reside on the outside of the Steelers' front seven - Harrison and LaMarr Woodley combined for 49 pass pressures, which led the league among duos. Clay Matthews had 17 pressures on his own, which is especially impressive as he doesn't have a bookend as Harrison and Woodley both do.
Green Bay definitely has the edge in the secondary (Troy Polamalu very much excepted), which is generally where those picking the Packers to win point when they talk about the biggest game advantage. Green Bay cornerback Charles Woodson matches Polamalu for every-down, every-scheme intensity and value; like Polamalu, he will do everything from blitz at the line to cover deep quarters. Woodson's greatest improvement in 2010 was as a pass-rusher; he amassed eight passes pressured to Polamalu's six.
The shutdown corner on the Packer's side is Tramon Williams, and his skill set is the one thing the Steelers can't really match. While the Packers have Woodson and Wililams, the Steelers have William Gay (who was beaten for three touchdowns against the Patriots in the regular season by rookie tight end Rob Gronkowski).
Don't be fooled by the fact that the Packers come into this game as the second sixth-seed ever to make a Super Bowl; since James Starks got the team's rushing attack on pace just enough for Rodgers to run play action, the Packers' offense has been fairly amazing, and their defense is complex and volatile enough to give Rodgers a relative sense of comfort when he hits the field at Cowboys stadium. Both defenses run similar schemes -- create confusion up front, disguise coverages, and blitz from everywhere. Both offenses lead with the pass, though the Packers believe more in the yards-after-catch philosophy and the Steelers love to go deep.
The Packers would be best advised to go after the ball in Roethlisberger's hand as opposed to the quarterback himself and hope that the Big Ben who gave up 10 fumbles in 2008 could make a return to form. For the Steelers to win, taking full advantage of the biggest mismatch in their favor (Woodley against rookie right tackle Bryan Bulaga) is crucial.
Add me to the list of folks who believe that Green Bay's secondary will be the deciding factor (Woodson will get an MVP award to seal his Hall of Fame credentials), but this game really could go either way. All the numbers point to a real thriller.
POSTED AT 8:36 AM ET, 01/21/2011
Conference Championships preview
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Green Bay Packers at Chicago Bears
When these two teams last met on January 2 in the regular-season finale for both , Packers quarterback Aaron Rodgers led the team in rushing with 21 yards in a 10-3 Green Bay win. Unbelievably, Rodgers led his team in rushing three times in the last six regular-season games - from that perspective, it's a wonder his team made the playoffs at all. But when James Starks came out of nowhere to put up 123 rushing yards against the Philadelphia Eagles and 66 yards against the Atlanta Falcons in the two playoff games they've won, the Packers became a different team. Adding the threat of play action to Rodgers' own mobility turned Green Bay's passing offense into what you saw against the Atlanta Falcons, when Rodgers completed six different passes of 20 yards or more. To put that into perspective, he hit just 54 all of the regular season.
Beyond his 31 sacks in the regular season, Rodgers was also his 28 times, but he's been the NFL's best quarterback under pressure, based on Football Outsiders' efficiency metrics, over the last two seasons. It's difficult to know how to defend him at this point, but the Bears do have one advantage against Green Bay's multi-dimensional receiver corps - they rank highly in pass defense efficiency when facing just about every type of receiver, including running backs and tight ends. The only exception is against No. 2 receivers, but there's a pretty steep dropoff from Green Bay's Greg Jennings (who ranks third in the NFL in receiver efficiency) and Jordy Nelson (who ranks 49th).
Chicago's Jay Cutler, on the other hand, has never been great under pressure, and he'll face an extreme challenge. Only the Pittsburgh Steelers had more sacks than the Packers, and their multiple fronts have confused Cutler in the past. When facing Green twice already this season, Cutler completed 37 passes in 66 attempts (a 56.0 percent completion percentage) for 389 yards, one touchdown, and three interceptions.
New York Jets at Pittsburgh Steelers
One of the things that makes defending Ben Roethlisberger so difficult is that when you have the Steelers in third-and-long situations, Big Ben knows how to convert. He had the league's best conversion percentage on pass plays that came on third-and-8 or longer (23 of 51 possible plays), and the league's best on third downs overall (54 of 107). And in a general sense, the Steelers of today are transitioning between passing offense and pass defense - they tied with the Denver Broncos for the second-most passing plays of 20 yards or more (62, behind only the San Diego Chargers' 66), and they allowed the fewest (35).
Quite often with defensive players, their value becomes more evident when they're off the field than when they're on. This may be the case more with Steelers safety Troy Polamalu than any other defensive player in the game right now. Over the last two seasons, the Steelers are 15-4 when Polamalu plays, and 6-7 when he does not. It's a team game, and putting too much on an individual can be oversold, but Polamalu is clearly the exception. Polamalu was hurt and out when the Jets beat the Steelers, 22-17, in Week 15. Jets quarterback Mark Sanchez had thrown at least one interception in each of his eight games before that game, but he went pick-free with Polamalu out of the picture. In that same game, Roethlisberger completed just 23 of his 44 passes, which is a very important number for the Jets - their defense allowed the lowest regular-season completion percentage (50.7), and they'll have to keep that up.
Neither of these defenses allows much on the ground - the Steelers ranked first in the league in Defensive Adjusted Line Yards (a Football Outsiders metric which assigns responsibility for rushing plays based on the length of the play) with 3.47 Line Yards per play, and the Jets ranked fifth with 3.61. Pittsburgh caused fewer negative plays (20 percent to New York's 21 percent), and the Jets lagged a bit behind Pittsburgh in short yardage conversions allowed, but it's hard to put the proverbial thin piece of paper between these two defenses. This could turn the AFC Championship game into a passing contest, which gives the Steelers a decided advantage.
POSTED AT 8:27 AM ET, 01/14/2011
Divisional round preview
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Baltimore Ravens at Pittsburgh Steelers
These teams last met in Week 13, and the Steelers' 13-10 win was decided by Ben Roethlisberger, who led a game-winning drive despite a very broken nose. Big Ben showed that he's the real center of the team's deep offense; his two longest passes on the day went to backups Emmanuel Sanders and David Johnson.
Now, about this whole "Joe Flacco has four road playoff wins" thing you keep hearing - we really need to start reining this in, America. In his first "playoff win" against the Miami Dolphins in 2008, Flacco went 9-of-23 for 135 yards and no touchdowns. In his second "playoff win" against the Tennessee Titans the following week, he went 11-of-22 for 161 yards and a touchdown. In his third "playoff win" against the New England Patriots in 2009, he went 4-of-10 for 34 yards - in the entire game, mind you - and another pick. It was only in last week's wild-card win against the Kansas City Chiefs that you could really say Flacco had a direct positive effect on his team's ability to win. He went 25-of-34 for 265 yards, two touchdowns, and no picks. That, friends, is a winning quarterback performance. The other ones? Not so much.
Overall, these two teams are incredibly well matched, which reflects in the close games they generally play. The Steelers are second in the league in overall DVOA and second in Weighted DVOA, which puts more stock in recent performance. The Ravens are fourth overall and third in Weighted DVOA. You have to look a while to find statistical inequities, but they do show up. Baltimore puts up the 12th-ranked offense against Pittsburgh's No. 1 defense, but Pittsburgh's special teams are just league-average, and Baltimore's ranks fourth. Baltimore is 23rd in offensive red zone DVOA, and the Steelers are first overall in red zone defense. It's always difficult to put a thin piece of paper between these two teams, and that should be the case again when they face off at Heinz Field.
Green Bay Packers at Atlanta Falcons
The Falcons beat the Pack, 20-17, in a Week 12 game at the Georgia Dome. In that game, Atlanta quarterback Matt Ryan had a stretch of 18 straight completed passes, but those passes went for just 132 yards and seven first downs. Atlanta will need to open things up against a Packers team that has finally found its running game.
And let's talk about that running game - rookie James Starks put up 123 rushing yards on 23 carries (more than he had in his entire regular season) against the Philadelphia Eagles in the wild-card game. It' a bad time for Atlanta to be facing a team with a better-than-solid run game. In the first half of the regular season (weeks 1-9), they ranked third in run defense DVOA. In weeks 10-17, they were 31st, and only the Chiefs were worse. That dip in rushing efficiency transfers to the offensive side of the ball for the Falcons - they were 12th in offensive rushing DVOA in weeks 1-9, and dead last in the second half of the season. As much as the Falcons set everything up around their run game, this could be a big problem.
The Packers rank third in defensive DVOA against No. 1 receivers, which is another issue for the Falcons, given how much they like to target Roddy White. However, they're 23rd against tight ends, and in the regular-season matchup, Atlanta got some traction in the red zone by moving Tony Gonzalez around pre-snap, forcing Green Bay's nickel defenders to adjust in short spaces.
Seattle Seahawks at Chicago Bears
Seahawks coach Pete Carroll has said that his plan is to kick to return dynamo Devin Hester, but that's not as crazy as it sounds. Seattle has among the most efficient return coverage units in the league, and when these teams played in Week 6, the Bears were held to their own 18-yard line as an average starting point - though Hester did get off an 89-yard punt return touchdown. Seattle punter Jon Ryan put the Bears inside their own 10-yard line on five different occasions.
Perhaps the two oddest stats from that first game were two zeroes - the Bears failed to convert a single third down in 12 tries, and they never sacked Matt Hasselbeck once. The Bears rank 30th in third-down DVOA overall, but they've had fewer problems converting as their offense has become more streamlined and efficient.
The Seahawks, meanwhile, are 28th in third-down defensive DVOA. The Bears also have 23 of their 34 sacks in the last nine games. Seattle rookie left tackle Russell Okung had the game of his life against the Bears in the previous game, negating the pass pressure of Julius Peppers and placing key blocks on each of Seattle's two rushing touchdowns. Okung, who allowed four sacks in 10 regular-season games, may be the key to an upset.
New York Jets at New England Patriots
The Jets had best watch out when their offense takes the field for their third game against the Pats this season, especially quarterback Mark Sanchez. New England had just 36 sacks in 2010, but 23 of them came in their final eight games, tying them with three other teams (Chicago, Green Bay, Oakland) for fourth-highest in the NFL.
New England's new multi-dimensional passing attack does not augur well for the Jets' secondary - they rank 10th in DVOA against No. 1 receivers, but 24th against No. 2 guys (not a ringing endorsement for Antonio Cromartie) and 11th against ancillary receivers. They're ninth against tight ends, which is good news, but this Patriots offense is all about spreading defenses out, and that's why they've been as efficient as the 2007 fun-and-gun version of the New England offense. This could be worst for the Jets in the red zone, where the Tom Brady-led passing game ranks second in red zone DVOA, and the Jets' defense ranks 25th in red zone pass defense DVOA.
The matchups are pretty even on each side of the ball in a general sense; the Jets' defense ranked sixth in total DVOA, and fifth in weighted; the Pats were first on offense in both categories. The Jets have a far more average offense (16th in total DVOA and 20th in weighted), but the New England defense hasn't been much to write home about (19th in total, 11th in weighted). But as that weighted total would lead you to believe, New England's defense is trending up in a major way - 27th in total defensive DVOA in weeks 1-9, and sixth ever since. The Jets have been on more of an even keel, 13th to 18th from the season's first half to second.
POSTED AT 1:45 AM ET, 01/ 7/2011
Wild Card week preview
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New Orleans Saints at Seattle Seahawks
When the Seahawks traveled to the Big Easy in Week 11 and lost, 34-19, it wasn't that they couldn't move the ball - Seattle had five different drives that went to at least the New Orleans 25-yard line. But on those drives, the Seahawks managed just one touchdown and four field goals, The Saints turned their first four drives inside the Seattle 25 into touchdowns, then came up with a missed field goal and two interceptions on the final three.
In addition, according to FO's game charting, Seahawks quarterback Matt Hasselbeck is one of the best quarterbacks in the NFL against the "big blitz" (six or more pass rushers), and the Saints send six or more on blitzes more than any defense in the league.
Having Pierre Thomas and Chris Ivory out of the picture (both backs went on IR recently) sets things up quite nicely for the Seahawks. Ivory finished the season ranked ninth among qualifying running backs in Football Outsiders' cumulative efficiency metrics, and sixth in play-by-play production.
New York Jets at Indianapolis Colts
No team has set up in more three-wide, single-back looks over the last decade than the Colts, but Peyton Manning hasn't been as efficient in the formation as in previous years. He finished the 2010 season seventh in passer rating with three receivers (94.3), just behind brother Eli. Indy's opponents were quite a bit more successful through the air - the Colts have the league's highest completion percentage against (67.4).
The Colts rank sixth in DVOA (team efficiency) on offense, and the Jets rank sixth on defense. But the vulnerabilities for New York come in the red zone, where Indy is second in total Offense DVOA, and the best passing team in the league. The Jets counter with a fundamental difference between Peyton Manning and Mark Sanchez; they rank 28th in red zone passing DVOA, but second on the ground. Many things have changed about the Jets' personnel this season, but their excellent power zone run game is still brutally effective.
Baltimore Colts at Kansas City Chiefs
If you get the Baltimore Ravens in a hole on third down, don't expect quarterback Joe Flacco to lay down - Flacco has the third-best conversion rate on third-and-8 or more. On 70 attempts, he's converted 27 passes into first downs, and that 38.6 conversion rate is bettered by only Ben Roethlisberger and Michael Vick.
But the real spotlight on this game has to be trained on the Kansas City rushing attack -- specifically, the zone stretch play that they run with halfback Jamaal Charles. Because of this play's effectiveness, the Chiefs rank second in Adjusted Line Yards around right edge (5.47 per carry), and they run the ball around that edge 13 percent of the time, which also ranks near the highest in the NFL.
Conversely, the Ravens' run defense is not what it used to be - they give up the second-most Adjusted Line Yards to that same edge (4.98 ALY per carry). They also give up 4.76 ALY per carry to the right tackle (29th in the league), and the Chiefs are going to beat them to death with outside zone until the Ravens make them stop.
Green Bay Packers at Philadelphia Eagles
The Packers rank 11th in Football Outsiders' rushing offense efficiency metrics, but the production is a bit of a mirage. The team hasn't had a 100-yard rusher in a game since Brandon Jackson in Week 5 against the Redskins, and quarterback Aaron Rodgers has led the team in rushing yards in three of the last six games. Only Michael Vick ranks higher in rushing efficiency among quarterbacks.
And speaking of that rushing efficiency - one way in which the Eagles can counter Green Bay's furious pass rush and excellent coverage is to force Dom Capers' defense to watch the run. Vick has 27 runs of 10 or more yards, and halfback LeSean McCoy has 28. This is an offense that, at its best, stretches enemy defenses to the breaking point. The Packers are 20th in Adjusted Line Yards allowed, but they're pretty solid when asked to tackle in the open field. Only three teams are more efficient at stopping runs of 10 yards or more.
POSTED AT 2:22 AM ET, 12/31/2010
Week 17 NFL Preview
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Carolina Panthers at Atlanta Falcons
Carolina's offense is so bad, they'll have to score 14 points in their season finale just to reach the 200-point mark for the season. But as we've discussed before, the Panthers are developing a very solid defense. The newest standout: end Charles Johnson, who has 11.5 sacks and 26 quarterback hurries on the season. However, the Falcons will make it tough on Johnson and his cohorts to pressure Matt Ryan; they currently rank third in Offensive Adjusted Sack Rate.
Pittsburgh Steelers at Cleveland Browns
We know one thing for sure - the Steelers would far prefer that this game take place at Heinz Field. Pittsburgh ranks third in overall offensive efficiency at home, and 22nd on the road. Of course, the bad news for the Browns is that per those same efficiency metrics, no NFL defense is better on the road than Pittsburgh's.
Minnesota Vikings at Detroit Lions
The Vikings have managed to keep their run defense up, even with the star players along their front seven getting on in years - they've allowed just 3.89 running back yards per carry this year after allowing 3.86 in 2009. But their Adjusted Sack Rate total (sacks per pass attempt adjusted for down, distance, and opponent) has plummeted from 7.8 percent in 2009, to 5.0 percent - from fourth to 29th.
Oakland Raiders at Kansas City Chiefs
The Chiefs aren't just playing for playoff positioning; they're also looking at a bit of history. Jamaal Charles (6.39 yards per carry) is set to become the fifth running back in NFL annals to average over six yards per carry on 150 or more attempts. He's got a good shot at the best mark overall, beating Jim Brown's 6.4 YPC on 291 carries in 1963. Only the Jacksonville Jaguars allow more rushing yards 10 yards or more past the line of scrimmage than do the Raiders, which could play right into Charles' hands when he's blowing up the sideline on another zone slide run.
Miami Dolphins at New England Patriots
Embarrassingly enough for a team coached by an offensive line specialist and run by Bill Parcells, the Dolphins are one of two teams (the Seattle Seahawks are the other) to not have a 100-yard rusher all season through Week 16. In fact, nobody's come close - Ronnie Brown had the highest single-game total with 80 yards in Week 2 against the Minnesota Vikings.
Tampa Bay Buccaneers at New Orleans Saints
Getting Reggie Bush and Pierre Thomas back in the game, and adding Chris Ivory to the mix, has made the Saints a more dangerous rushing team - Ivory has the second-most rushing yards among rookies, Thomas is a dynamite blocker, and Bush is the ultimate zone-buster. The Saints ranked 25th in rushing efficiency in the season's first half; they rank sixth ever since. No team has allowed more running back yards per carry than Tampa Bay's 4.98, which makes their ability to take that matchup pretty questionable.
Buffalo Bills at New York Jets
Add Jets quarterback Mark Sanchez to the short list of quarterbacks who may actually prefer to get away from the comforts of home. In the New Meadowlands this year, the second-year quarterback has been sacked 20 times and has a passer rating of 70.0. Away from home, he's been sacked just seven times, has thrown three more touchdowns (10 to 7) and has a passer rating of 80.3.
Cincinnati Bengals at Baltimore Ravens
Baltimore is obviously the marquee team here, as Cincinnati's offense has disappointed all year. But don't sleep on two young Bengals defenders - tackle Geno Atkins has the most quarterback hurries of any rookie with 16, and only Detroit super-rookie Ndamukong Suh has more sacks among first-year players than Cincinnati end Carlos Dunlap, who has eight sacks on the year and seven in his last five games.
Jacksonville Jaguars at Houston Texans
Maurice Jones-Drew isn't expected to play in this game, but it shouldn't matter even if Jags starting quarterback David Garrard can't play either. Houston's pass defense (if you can call it that) is the NFL's worst in completion percentage allowed (65.5), yards per game allowed (277.1), passing first downs allowed (205) and passing touchdowns allowed (32). The Jags might be vulnerable to Houston running back Arian Foster, though - Jacksonville's run defense is the NFL's worst when it comes to allowing open field yards (rushing yardage at least 10 yards past the line of scrimmage).
New York Giants at Washington Redskins
If the Giants don't make the playoffs, they have only their turnover ratio to blame. The G-Men have blown their total of 20 forced fumbles - the highest total since the Chicago Bears matched it in 2006 - by giving up a league-leading 17. Ahmad Bradshaw (six) and Eli Manning (five) are the primary culprits. The Redskins actually have a better turnover ratio (minus-1 to the Giants' minus-6) because they've given up just nine fumbles, but six of those have come in the last four weeks.
Dallas Cowboys at Philadelphia Eagles
If you want to know how misleading sack totals (and sacks allowed totals) can be, Eagles All-Pro tackle Jason Peters is credited this year with allowing just two sacks after allowing 23.5 in the last three seasons. But Michael Vick has taken 34 sacks in just 372 passing attempts, and sacks allowed totals frequently reflect offensive linemen getting beaten inline when protecting pocket quarterbacks. That's good news for the Cowboys, who rank 12th in Adjusted Sack Rate but sacked Vick just twice in their first meeting this year. They'll face backup Kevin Kolb in the rematch, because the Eagles need to rest Vick for the playoffs.
Arizona Cardinals at San Francisco 49ers
Those arguing for the contraction of the NFC West will get little argument from those checking out Football Outsiders' efficiency metrics. The 49ers have been the most "efficient" team in the division, ranking 26th overall. The Cardinals rank 31st, with only the Carolina Panthers beneath. The St. Louis Rams and Seattle Seahawks, the two teams actually fighting for this misbegotten foursome, rank 27th and 20th, respectively.
Chicago Bears at Green Bay Packers
By reputation, you may automatically assume that Jay Cutler is the better and more efficient deep thrower among the quarterbacks in this contest, but it isn't so - on passes that travel more than 20 yards in the air this year, Cutler is 9 of 40 for 387 yards (22.5 completion percentage) for 387 yards, two touchdowns and four interceptions. Green Bay's Aaron Rodgers, on the other hand, is 19 of 55 (34.5 completion percentage) for 743 yards, seven touchdowns, and five interceptions. Both the Bears and Packers are tough for No. 1 receivers to deal with, though - Green Bay ranks fourth in DVOA against the top guys, and Chicago ranks 13th.
Tennessee Titans at Indianapolis Colts
Well, here's a shocker - and perhaps less than good news for Colts fans. You'd expect a dome team like Indy to be far better on offense at home, but it's not so this year - they rank 18th in Football Outsiders' efficiency metrics at home, and third on the road. Tennessee's defense is portable, though - sixth in DVOA at home; eighth on the road. Peyton Manning has had an amazing run in our efficiency metrics, never finishing lower than second in DYAR in any year since 2003. And even this year, with so many of his targets injured, he ranks third in cumulative efficiency.
San Diego Chargers at Denver Broncos
How bad are San Diego's special teams? Well, they've allowed the fewest total yards in the NFL (4,008), but they've given 10 more touchdowns than the second-place team in yardage allowed (the Pittsburgh Steelers). Why? Because on average, San Diego's opponents start their possessions at right about their own 33-yard line - only the Buffalo Bills' defense starts in a bigger hole, and no team has a bigger differential between their own starting line of scrimmage. The Chargers start their own average drives at their own 28 - a full five-yard difference. The Broncos aren't much better - their average drive starts at their own 27.34-yard line; their opponents at the 31.36-yard line.
St. Louis Rams at Seattle Seahawks
One hidden factor for the Rams in this winner-take-all matchup could be Rams receiver/returner Danny Amendola, who leads the NFL with 2,283 all-purpose yards, and has become perhaps the most effective third-down receiver in the game. He's averaging 10.3 yards per catch on third down, and 8.2 overall. Another is the underrated St. Louis defense; end Chris Long leads the NFL in quarterback hurries, and battery mate James Hall is the least-known player with 10.5 sacks or more this season.
POSTED AT 1:23 AM ET, 12/24/2010
Week 16 NFL preview
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Dallas Cowboys at Arizona Cardinals
How much has Arizona's weird quarterback situation affected receiver Larry Fitzgerald's 2010 performance? Consider that in 2009, 53 of the balls thrown to him for whatever reason - drops, misfires, etc. - were not caught. With two games left in the 2010 season, Fitzgerald has seen a league-leading 75 passes go awry for whatever reason. Now, here's a receiver with a legitimate complaint about his offense (though he does not voice it). Still, even Fitzgerald should be able to make tracks against a Cowboys pass defense that's allowing 256.6 passing yards per game and ranks dead last in DVOA against No. 1 receivers.
Washington Redskins at Jacksonville Jaguars
The Jaguars like to lead with the "ground-and-pound" style of running back Maurice Jones-Drew, but when quarterback David Garrard is allowed to open things up, Jacksonville's offense may be even more dangerous. Among qualifying quarterbacks, Garrard leads the NFL in quarterback rating (109.6) in formations with four wide receivers. But on the Jacksonville defensive side, the Redskins have set Rex Grossman up to face a weak pass defense for the second straight game. The Jags rank 30th in Pass Defense DVOA and are especially vulnerable to No. 1 and slot receivers.
Detroit Lions at Miami Dolphins
Through Week 14, the Lions lead the NFL with 122 penalties, which is one of several reasons their overall offensive and defensive performances do not show up in their won-loss record. Detroit goes into this game with a 4-10 record, but an Estimated Wins total (based on overall efficiency) of 6.3. The 8-4 Jacksonville Jaguars have the same Estimated Wins total, proving that luck visits some teams more than others. The Lions are still on pace to smash the record for shotgun sets per play with a Week 15 total of 65.4 percent. They're league average out of shotgun, and the worst offense in the NFL under center. However, Miami ranks fifth in Defenisve DVOA against the shotgun, and only two defenses allow fewer yards per play out of that formation.
San Francisco 49ers at St. Louis Rams
As the Rams try to find playoff relevance for the first time in years, quarterback Sam Bradford may have finally hit the rookie wall. The talented passer hasn't thrown a touchdown pass in his last three games, but he has thrown five interceptions - his nine fourth-quarter interceptions leads the NFL this season - and only New Orleans' Drew Brees has as many red zone picks (four). Meanwhile, the 49ers are just marking time with the switches between Alex Smith and Troy Smith at quarterback; they ranked 25th in Passing DVOA in the first half of the season, and 24th since.
Tennessee Titans at Kansas City Chiefs
Have the Chiefs been smart in limiting carries for speedster running back Jamaal Charles, and putting him in a tandem with Thomas Jones? Many smaller, faster backs do wear out over time, but that's not the case with Charles, who averages 6.0 yards per carry on his first 10 carries of a game , and a league-leading 7.5 yards per carry on carries 11-20. Last season, Titans running back Chris Johnson was one of the most dynamic backs in his first 10 game carries; but that hasn't transferred to 2010.
New York Jets at Chicago Bears
Bears quarterback Jay Cutler has been playing very well of late as he gets used to Mike Martz's offense. However, he's got a major challenge in the Jets, who have allowed a league-low 51.4 percent catch rate. The Bears have allowed a 63.2 percent catch rate (they play far more zone than the Jets do), but no team has dropped more passes against a defense than against Chicago (38 passes dropped).
New England Patriots at Buffalo Bills
Per Football Outsiders' metrics, the 2010 Patriots now have the most efficient offense of at least the last 20 years, and one reason is Tom Brady's ability to hit his receivers inside the opposing 10-yard line. Between Wes Welker, and tight ends Rob Gronkowski and Aaron Hernandez, there are 19 catches inside the 10 even before yards after catch - by far the most of any team in the league.
Baltimore Ravens at Cleveland Browns
The Ravens' defense is coming around at just the right time for a playoff push. In Weeks 1-9, they ranked 13th in defensive rushing efficiency and 13th against the pass. In Weeks 10-14, they've upped those ranks to eighth against the pass and first against the run.
Houston Texans at Denver Broncos
It's getting tougher and tougher to excuse the coaching in Houston; there's certainly enough offensive firepower on the offensive side of the ball for the Texans to threaten for a playoff run. Andre Johnson leads the league with six 100-yard games, and Arian Foster has the NFL's most yards from scrimmage with 1,895. Foster also enjoys the highest yards per carry average of any back when he's asked to carry more of the load; he averages 7.0 yards after the 21st carry of each game. Denver has allowed 4.6 yards per carry and the most rushing plays of 20+ yards (18), so Foster should have a field day against this defense.
San Diego Chargers at Cincinnati Bengals
Bengals quarterback Carson Palmer may be on the way out as a functional signal-caller, but he's not getting optimal help from his receivers. The combination of Chad Ochocinco and Terrell Owens is the NFL's only duo with 10 or more dropped passes through 14 games - Owens leads the league with 11 (tied with Reggie Wayne of the Colts), and Ochocinco has 10. San Diego's defense has been an underrated entity all season - they're third in DVOA against the pass, the best team in the league against No. 1 receivers, and they lead the league in sacks. The advanced numbers check out - the Chargers pace the NFL in Adjusted Sack Rate (sacks divided by pass attempt adjusted for down, distance, and opponent) as well.
Indianapolis Colts at Oakland Raiders
How does Peyton Manning deal with the fact that he's had a sub-par running game for most of the season? He passes on first down. In 2010, Manning is tied with Drew Brees of the Saints for second in the NFL with 141 first-down passes - only Atlanta's Matt Ryan (163) has more. Probably a good idea to hit the ground running against an Oakland defense that has caused 51 three-and-outs this year; only the Jets have more. When you give the ball to Raiders running back Michael Bush, don't expect a negative play to result. On his 130 carries this season, Bush had been stopped at or behind the line of scrimmage just four times; no back has a lower percentage. The Eagles have stuffs on a league-average 19 percent of the rushing plays against them.
New York Giants at Green Bay Packers
You can expect both Eli Manning and Aaron Rodgers to be under fire in this game; the Giants and Packers are two of the four NFL teams with at least 40 sacks and 15 interceptions. This may benefit the Packers more, since Manning the younger leads the NFL in picks (20), and more than half (11) have come on the road. When it comes to forcing fumbles, no team is better than the G-men. The team has 26 (the Bears and Saints are tied for second with 19), and any player with a unsure grip on the football had best avoid Osi Umenyiora, who leads the league with eight, Justin Tuck, who has six, and Terrell Thomas, who has four. Rodgers has fumbled just once in 2010 after coughing up the football eight times in 2009.
Seattle Seahawks at Tampa Bay Buccaneers
The Bucs selected two defensive tackles early in their 2010 draft to improve a run defense that was among the NFL's worst. But now that Brian Price and Gerald McCoy are each lost for the season with injuries, Tampa Bay is allowing 4.98 running back yards per carry (the highest total in the league) and no team gives up a higher percentage of rushing yards from five to 10 yards past the line of scrimmage. However, the Seahawks are equally ineffective on the offensive side of the ball with their rushing attack - they've put up just 3.70 Adjusted Line Yards per carry, they're getting stuffed on a league-worst 26 percent of their rushing plays, and only half of their runs on third or fourth down with two yards or less to go have resulted in a first down or touchdown.
Minnesota Vikings at Philadelphia Eagles
When looking at the greatness of Michael Vick's season, it's good to start with his passer rating in key situations. He's got a 113.8 rating in the fourth quarter (only David Garrard is better), a 109.7 rating on the road (three rating points better than Tom Brady), and 44.9 percent of his third down passes have gone for first downs. The Vikings have managed to string together a decent pass defense despite a large decline in quarterback pressure in 2010 compared to recent seasons; they're especially effective with the underneath stuff to ancillary receivers, tight ends, and running backs. Only the Steelers and Chargers have fewer pass plays allowed of 20 yards or more, though the Vikings have allowed seven plays of 40 yards or more, and that's right up Vick's alley - the Eagles have the league's most 40-plus yard plays with 14.
New Orleans Saints at Atlanta Falcons
The Falcons currently have a hold on the NFC South, but there are trends to worry about - they've gone from 13th in rushing efficiency in the first half of the season to 27th in Weeks 10-14, just as the Saints are hitting an uptick in the same category. New Orleans ranked 25th in rushing efficiency in the season's first half, and they've been sixth ever since. Even more worrisome for the Falcons is the downturn in their run defense; those efficiency numbers have plummeted from third in the season's first half, to 31st from Week 10 on.
POSTED AT 2:27 AM ET, 12/17/2010
Week 15 NFL preview
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Cleveland Browns at Cincinnati Bengals
Why can't the Bengals win a game? Start with the fact that their offense has plummeted in the season's second half; especially in the run game. In opponent-adjusted efficiency, the Bengals ranked 21st in Weeks 1 through 9, and dead last ever since. The passing game hasn't been much better - from 15th to 25th in that same time frame. The Browns are equipped to deal with a struggling offensive team; they rank 11th in defensive efficiency but 10th in weighted efficiency, which rewards teams and positional units that play better down the stretch. Neither of these teams is equipped to do anything but play spoiler at this point, and the Browns may be the only team of the two really capable of even doing that.
Washington Redskins at Dallas Cowboys
Speaking of in-season trends, it's worth looking at what the Cowboys have done on defense since Jason Garrett took over as head coach, Perhaps surprisingly given Wade Phillips' defensive acumen, the 'Boys moved up from 31st to 17th in efficiency against the pass, and 28th to 18th overall. Unfortunately for the Redskins, they're singularly ill-equipped to counter defenses of any stripe - they ranked 24th in offensive efficiency in the season's first half, and they're 24th since. A lack of fluctuation is a good thing if you've got everything working, but Washington's numbers simply prove the consistent mediocrity of the Shanahan offense.
Houston Texans at Tennessee Titans
The 2010 Texans have the ninth-worst overall defensive efficiency metrics in the history of our numbers, but most of that is on the pass defense. This season, Houston is the seventh-worst team in sacks per pass attempt, sixth-worst in interception rate, second-worst in yards per pass play allowed, and second-worst in first downs allowed per game. Back when Vince Young was Tennessee's quarterback, the Titans may have been able to take advantage. But now that they're playing out the string, it's really showing - the Titans' passing attack has dropped from eighth to 27th in overall efficiency from the season's first to second half. If there's one offense that may see Houston's secondary as a Steel Curtain, it's this one.
Jacksonville Jaguars at Indianapolis Colts
Sack totals are often misrepresentations of actual line performance - there are times when a quarterback will force a line to protect too long, and other times when a signal-caller will help his line with precise reads and a quick release. No surprise that Peyton Manning is one of the latter players. Despite a patchwork like, the Colts rank first in Football Outsiders' Adjusted Sack Rate metric. But the Jags have had a longtime problem with quarterback pressure that they're starting to turn around; they're 16th in Adjusted Sack rate this season, up from 31st in 2009.
Kansas City Chiefs at St. Louis Rams
Rookie quarterback Sam Bradford is showing a lot early on, but offensive coordinator Pet Shurmur doesn't seem convinced at times. Though he has an accurate deep arm, Bradford's Rams are averaging just 5.7 yards per pass play, third-worst in the league, and only Dallas' Jon Kitna has a lower average pass length per completion than Bradford's 4.78. The Chiefs have allowed just 6.35 yards per pass play this season, and cornerback Brandon Flowers has been the primary reason all season - he leads the team's cornerbacks in Stop Rate, which measures the percentages of drive-extending plays prevented.
Buffalo Bills at Miami Dolphins
We've talked before about how underrated Buffalo defensive tackle Kyle Williams is, and it's time to start putting safety Donte Whitner in that underrated category as well - or at the very least, overworked Among all safeties, nobody has more plays in their general area than Whitner's 120 - Houston's Bernard Pollard is the only other safety with more than 100 Plays. Miami's Yeremiah Bell and Chris Clemons also rank highly in plays among safeties and have done so for some tine.
Detroit Lions at Tampa Bay Buccaneers
The Bucs were certainly hoping that this game would provide argument fodder for which early-drafted defensive tackle would be the NFL's best - Detroit's Ndamukong Suh, or Tampa Bay's Gerald McCoy. With McCoy now out for the season with an injury, it's safe to say that Suh took it going away - few defensive tackles of any status have his combination of pass pressure and sheer strength, while McCoy struggled to hold the point at times. In 54 total Plays, Suh has 15 Pass Defeats and nine Run Defeats (specific drive prevention indicators), and an overall Stop Rate of 85 percent. McCoy put up four Pass Defeats and six Run Defeats in 31 plays, with three sacks to Suh's eight. McCoy may be a great player in time, but there's no question who's had the biggest impact in season one.
Arizona Cardinals at Carolina Panthers
One thing you can be sure of - if you miss this particular contest (as must of America surely will), you won't deny yourself any passing highlights. The Panthers have the NFL's worst yards-per-pass average (4.81), and the Cards come in second at 5.26.
New Orleans Saints at Baltimore Ravens
It isn't as if Saints receiver Marques Colston should be under the radar - he's done enough in his short career to merit more face time - but it seems as if it's tough to get people to notice him. Drew Brees has no such issues; Colston is the ninth-most targeted receiver in the league, and with a Catch Rate of 66 percent, he's also one of the most efficient.
Philadelphia Eagles at New York Giants
How dynamic is Philly's offense? Among the count for receiver "air yards" (yards from the quarterback's hand to the receiver's hand, with no yards after catch), no team has two more dangerous aerial receiving threats than DeSean Jackson and Jeremy Maclin. Jackson ranks third in the league with 15.5 air yards per completion, while Maclin ranks 14th with 10.6. Only the Pittsburgh Steelers have two such receivers as consistent downfield burners.
Atlanta Falcons at Seattle Seahawks
No team has a bigger swing between its liabilities and its vulnerabilities than the Seahawks. Per Football Outsiders' efficiency metrics, they rank 29th in offense, 29th in defense and first in special teams. From that perspective, return specialist Leon Washington may be the team's most valuable player.
New York Jets at Pittsburgh Steelers
And since we broke down the "air yards" exploits of Philly's receiver duo above, it's time to give Mike Wallace and Hines Ward of the Steelers their due. Wallace ranks fourth in the league with 15.4 air yards per completion, and Hines Ward (surprisingly enough) averages 10.4, which is also in the top 20.
Denver Broncos at Oakland Raiders
Slowly but surely, the Raiders have been putting together a defensive front seven worth talking about (make a point to watch rookie tackle Lamarr Houston). Oakland currently ranks 10th in Defensive Adjusted Line yards, and no team has a better Defensive Adjusted Sack Rate.
Green Bay Packers at New England Patriots
There are so many aspects to a 2010 New England offense that is among the most productive in NFL history, but perhaps the most overlooked is the team's offensive line. The Pats rank second in Football outsiders' Adjusted Line Yards metric, and are allowing just 14 percent negative plays in all their rushing attempts (third-best in the NFL).
Chicago Bears at Minnesota Vikings
No matter where this game is played, Minnesota's offense is going to have trouble doing anything, and that would be true if Brett Favre were still healthy. The Vikings currently rank 27th in run offensive efficiency metrics, and the only time the Bears loosen up against the run is on third down when they go to more passing fronts. Between Patrick Ramsey and Joe Webb at quarterback, there aren't many options for the Vikings.
POSTED AT 11:57 AM ET, 12/ 9/2010
Week 14 NFL preview
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Cleveland Browns at Buffalo Bills
On offense, these two teams are about as evenly matched as two teams could be - 311.8 to 305.4 yards per game in Buffalo's favor, 111.4 to 107.9 rushing yards per game with the Browns in the lead, tied in first downs per game with 17.3 and 20.3 points per game for the Bills to 19.1 on Cleveland's side. On defense, the Browns have a few advantages - they're allowing 51.8 fewer rushing yards per game (119.1 to 170.9), they have a much higher interception rate (4.37 percent to 2.19 percent), and red zone conversion percentage allowed (62.50 to 48.48). Add in the fact that the Bills allow 27.8 points per game to Cleveland's 19.9, and it's easy to see where the Bills need to focus their efforts in the offseason.
Cincinnati Bengals at Pittsburgh Steelers
Why have the Bengals lost nine straight games? A host of reasons, but we can start with the fact that few teams put themselves in bigger holes early in drives, or need more production on first down. Cincinnati ranks 11th in overall offensive efficiency on first down, but the offense drops to league average on second-and short/middle distance, and 30th in second-and-long situations. That plays into their below-average third-down efficiency, and explains why they're in the bottom third in third-down conversions. However, no team has converted more fourth-down attempts than the Bengals - their 85% rate (11 of 13) leads the league.
Green Bay Packers at Detroit Lions
The percentage of shotgun formations has tripled in the NFL over the last decade, with more and more teams going away from the under center look on at least half of their offensive plays. But the 2010 Lions have taken that to an entirely new level; they're going shotgun on an amazing 67.3 percent of their offensive plays, and they're wise to do so. They have the NFL's second-worst DVOA in non-shotgun sets, and they're averaging just 3.6 yards per non-shotgun play, which is the lowest in the league. When their quarterbacks back away, the DVOA shoots up to 19th, and the yards per play to 5.7. Of course, when you're facing a good defense, some things don't matter - the Packers rank fifth in Defensive DVOA both against shotgun and non-shotgun offensive plays.
New York Giants at Minnesota Vikings
The Vikings scored 31 points in the first half against the Bills last week, which is more than they've scored in any other game all season, with Tarvaris Jackson at quarterback after Brett Favre was taken from the game with an early injury. And no, there were no defensive or special teams scores; two passing touchdowns, two rushing touchdowns and a field goal lends legitimacy to Jackson's performance, though he's probably not the team's long-term answer at the position. Of course, the Vikings will cater to Favre if he's healthy - after all, there's a consecutive games started stark to consider! Two numbers the Vikings and interim head coach Leslie Frazier will not want to consider: Favre's league-leading 5.1% interception rate (18 in 351 attempts), and the Giants' No. 1 ranking in Pass Defense DVOA.
Tampa Bay Buccaneers at Washington Redskins
The Redskins' conversion to a 3-4 defense this season has been an absolute failure, and the responsibly for that lies everywhere (it's not just Albert Haynesworth). They're getting beaten deep with alarming regularity (41 plays of 20 yards or more in 449 attempts against), allowing 4.99 running back yards per carry, stuffing opposing running plays just 17 percent of the time (ranking 24th in the NFL), and allowing more second-level and open-field yards than just about any team in the NFL. They also rank 30th in Football Outsiders' Adjusted Sack Rate metric, which counts sacks per pass attempt adjusted for down, distance, and opponent.
Atlanta Falcons at Carolina Panthers
Few teams can brag of a better balance, or more overall efficiency, than the Falcons right now - that's why they're 10-2, probably the best team in the NFC, and most likely the NFL's second-best team behind the New England Patriots. They've converted an amazing 48 percent of their third downs, and the primary reason for that is that Roddy White is the NFL's best third-down receiver. On that down, quarterback Matt Ryan has found White 27 times for 420 yards and three touchdowns. The 1-11 Panthers struggle with a lot of things (mostly on offense), but they are 16th in third-down Defensive DVOA against the pass. If the Falcons unleash Michael Turner on the Panthers in those situations, they'll probably have more success - Carolina ranks 27th in third-down DVOA against the run.
Oakland Raiders at Jacksonville Jaguars
Here's a quick quarterback comparison: Quarterback 1 is averaging 8.9 yards per pass, 6.5 per completion, has an interception rate of 3.4%, and gets 5.95 yards after catch per play from his receivers. Quarterback 2 is also averaging 8.9 yards per pass, 5.9 per completion, 6.79 yards after catch, and a 2.9% interception rate. Quarterback 1 is Donovan McNabb. Quarterback 2 is Jason Campbell. Whoops! In the long term, you have to wonder if Campbell can't be a viable option for the Raiders. He's trying to prove that to his new team, while David Garrard is trying to get Jaguars fans to believe in him once again. This season, he's got a higher cumulative efficiency metric than either McNabb or Campbell, and that might be enough for a division title with Maurice Jones-Drew behind him.
Seattle Seahawks at San Francisco 49ers
No team has given up more receptions of 20 yards or more than the Seahawks, but they have little to worry about in the person of San Francisco's Alex Smith, who will return to his starting spot this week. Among qualifying starters, only Carolina's Jimmy Clausen has fewer plays of 20 yards or more than Smith, who has managed just 16 on 242 attempts. The 49ers are also trying to fill a major hole in their offense with the loss of running back Frank Gore for the season to a hip injury. Gore accounted for 1,305 yards from scrimmage this season, seventh-highest in the league, and he's currently the team's leading receiver with 46 catches.
St. Louis Rams at New Orleans Saints
You'd expect that as their offense coalesces and Reggie Bush gets healthy, the Saints would start to get their game back on track. The numbers back it up - from Weeks 1-9, New Orleans ranked 12th in Offensive DVOA, and they've raised that to second overall in Weeks 10-13. But the Rams and rookie quarterback Sam Bradford have seen a similar uptick down the stretch - up to 19th in DVOA after Week 9 after finishing 28th in the first half of the season. You can put a lot of that behind Bradford - while the Rams' rushing attack has been static from an efficiency perspective, Bradford has raised his DVOA from 27th to 19th.
Miami Dolphins at New York Jets
So, we know that Roddy White is the NFL's best third-down receiver. Three guesses for the name of the AFC's most prolific at that position... Give up? Try Davone Bess of the Miami Dolphins, a third-year undrafted free agent. Bess has caught 26 third-down passes for 282 yards and two touchdowns, and he has 35 first downs overall. That shouldn't be a surprise - last season, he was responsible for 48 first downs on 76 catches. And as good as the Jets' defense has been, they're 29th in DVOA against third- and fourth-down passes.
Denver Broncos at Arizona Cardinals
Pittsburgh's Mike Wallace may be the NFL's fastest full-time receiver, but nobody's put more air underneath a football on a play-by-play basis than Denver's Brandon Lloyd. Among receivers targeted at least 40 times this season, Lloyd leads the league with 16.3 Air Yards (yards between the moment the ball leaves the quarterback's hand and the moment the receiver catches it, with no yards after catch) per reception. Pretty good, considering he's been targeted 119 times, but he could be a little more efficient - Lloyd's catching just half of the balls thrown to him. Still, he ranks first overall in Football Outsiders' cumulative efficiency metrics, and he's a major reason that Denver offense has been so surprisingly good. These numbers will come as no solace to the Cardinals, who rank 29th in DVOA against No. 1 receivers.
Kansas City Chiefs at San Diego Chargers
If the Chiefs win the AFC West, is it time to give running back Jamaal Charles some love in the MVP voting? Probably not, since he's part of a running back platoon and Kansas City's passing attack has really risen up lately. But it's certainly past time to recognize Charles as one of the NFL's best backs - he ranks second in the NFL behind Houston's Arian Foster in yards from scrimmage with 1,516, and he is the league's most efficient running back on a per-play basis. The Chiefs have worked Charles into their outside zone blocking to perfection, and it's really paying off.
New England Patriots at Chicago Bears
It may surprise you to know that the 2010 Patriots, with their two-tight end sets, multiple rushing options, and comparative lack of deep threats, are on pace to exceed the efficiency metrics of the most explosive offense of all time ... the 2007 Patriots. Those '07 Pats wound up with the highest Offensive DVOA in the history of Football Outsiders' metrics, but they also fell to earth in the season's last few games - they had a 51.5 percent DVOA in their first eight games, and a 36.8 percent DVOA in the last eight games, for a total Offensive DVOA of 45.2 percent. This season, the Pats started off at 32.7 percent in the first eight games, and they're rocking a ridiculous 79.1 percent Offensive DVOA since. That's what happens when you beat the Jets, 45-3.
Philadelphia Eagles at Dallas Cowboys
It's all well and good that the Cowboys are 3-1 in the Jason Garrett Era, but lets hold off on the 2011 Super Bowl predictions. Of the three teams they've beaten since Garrett took over (the Giants, Lions, and Colts), only the G-Men aren't either in total freefall or trying to find their way. Dallas has improved from 22nd to 10th in Passing DVOA in the season's second half (an interesting endorsement of the Jon Kitna Era as well), but the Rushing DVOA has actually fallen a bit. In the short term, things could get ugly for Dallas' secondary - they rank dead last in DVOA against No. 1 receivers, and 28th against No. 2 guys. Guys, meet DeSean Jackson and Jeremy Maclin. Yikes.
Baltimore Ravens at Houston Texans
And speaking of historic DVOA, there is the historically bad Defensive DVOA of the Houston Texans. At this point, the Texans have the fourth-worst Defensive DVOA ever after 13 games, behind the 0-16 Detroit Lions of 2008 and two different St. Louis Rams teams from the last decade. Their final four opponents currently rank 12th (Baltimore), 23rd (Tennessee), 10th (Denver), and 15th (Jacksonville) in Offensive DVOA. Hardly a Murderers' Row, but most any team would find this defense to be an easy mark. The Ravens could see Houston's secondary as a particularly appealing vacation spot after last Sunday's heartbreaking loss to the Steelers - Baltimore ranks eighth in Passing DVOA and Anquan Boldin should light up that defensive backfield.
POSTED AT 2:46 AM ET, 12/ 3/2010
Week 13 NFL Preview
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New Orleans Saints at Cincinnati Bengals
The Saints have managed to keep their passing efficiency together through the last two months, despite the absence of Reggie Bush (his one carry for one yard and one catch for 12 yards against the Cowboys on Thanksgiving probably didn't matter too much). New Orleans finished 13th in Passing DVOA (26.6%) from Weeks 1-9 and 14th (33.6%) in Weeks 10-12. The problem was in the running game early on - the Saints ranked 26th (-11.0%) in Rushing DVOA in the season's first half, and fifth (23.5%) over the last three games. The Bengals' pass defense has been similarly consistent to the Saints passing offense (11th and 12th in DVOA over those same splits), but their run defense hasn't improved at all - 26th in Weeks 1-9, and 25th in Weeks 10-12. Bush and Chris Ivory are the ones to watch here.
Chicago Bears at Detroit Lions
Upset alert? The Bears have the league's worst Offensive DVOA (minus-33.4%) on the road. Jay Cutler averages 8.37 yards per attempt at home, and 6.98 on the road, though his sack totals (23.0 in 197 sacks at home; 14 in 95 attempts away from Soldier Field) are worse at home. The Lions' defense actually has a slightly better road defense (21st in Defensive DVOA at home; 17th away), but a sack total with a little more home cooking (15 to 13). Cutler has experienced a backslide in protection over the last month as well - from one, to two, to three, to four sacks in the last four games. Not a good time for the Bears' porous line to meet up with Lions super-tackle Ndamukong Suh.
San Francisco 49ers at Green Bay Packers
Green Bay Packers quarterback Aaron Rodgers is generally one of the league's best quarterbacks under pressure - in 2009, he led the league in Passing DVOA when hurried - but in defensive end Manny Lawson, Rodgers might have a problem. Among defenders with at least five quarterback hits this season, only Baltimore's Terrell Suggs has caused a larger negative pass yards per play than Lawson. On Lawson's six hits, enemy quarterbacks have averaged minus-1.0 yards per pass. Overall, the 49ers have 35 quarterback hits this year (tied for seventh in the NFL), and they've allowed 3.3 passing yards per play on those. Rodgers has been hit 24 times this season, and his 5.7 yards per pass when hit is one of the NFL's best totals among starting quarterbacks.
Jacksonville Jaguars at Tennessee Titans
The 6-5 Jaguars are slowly moving from "lucky" to "good", but they'll have to improve their pass defense (30th in DVOA) before they can be considered among the league's elite. One key to that improvement would be facing Tennessee rookie quarterback Rusty Smith, who started last week against the Texans and made the Houston league-worst pass defense look positively shutdown. However, indications point to veteran Kerry Collins starting this game, and Collins completed 10 of 16 passes for 110 yards and a touchdown against the Jags in a 30-3 Week 6 win. Both teams have great special teams in common - the Jags are one of the league's best kick coverage teams and rookie Mike Mariani has put Tennessee near the top of the NFL on kick returns.
Denver Broncos at Kansas City Chiefs
The strength-on-weakness matchup in this game is painfully obvious. Kansas City ranks fifth in Rushing DVOA, second in Adjusted Line Yards and is among the best teams in open field yards (five yards and more beyond the line of scrimmage). Meanwhile, the Broncos rank 23rd in Run Defense DVOA, 26th in Defensive Adjusted Line Yards and struggle to create negative plays. Among the questionable moves Josh McDaniels has made, letting former defensive coordinator Mike Nolan walk out the door to Miami was one of his bigger mistakes.
Cleveland Browns at Miami Dolphins
Two McDaniels castoffs meet in this game - Browns running back Peyton Hillis was famously traded for career inactive quarterback Brady Quinn, and Nolan will set his defense on the ridiculously productive Hillis. The epicenter of the Cleveland offense, Hillis currently ranks fifth in Football Outsiders' cumulative and per-play metrics, and ranks fourth in Success rate, which reflects productive, drive-extending plays. Miami's defense is the sixth-best in creating negative rushing plays (22 percent of the runs against them gain zero or negative yards), and among the leaders in stopping running plays 10 yards and beyond the line of scrimmage.
Buffalo Bills at Minnesota Vikings
At Football Outsiders, one of our jobs is to unearth underrated players and tell you why they're special. This week, the spotlight goes in Buffalo's Kyle Williams - the fifth-year defensive tackle has put up Successes (down and distance stops) in each of the eight pass plays in his direction and 43 of the 52 run plays. Opposing backs are averaging just 1.9 yards per play against him, and only Ndamukong Suh has more sacks among linemen who play tackle most of the time than Williams' five.
Washington Redskins at New York Giants
Should the Redskins use more shotgun? It certainly seems so. Washington takes 22.78 percent of their offensive snaps away from center, but they have a plus-18.6% Offensive DVOA difference when they do so. It would be especially wise against the Giants' defense - Perry Fewell's squad ranks second in Pass Defense DVOA against quarterbacks under center, and 16th when those same quarterbacks drop back in formation. The G-Men also allow 5.7 yards per shotgun play, and just 4.4 per play under center.
Oakland Raiders at San Diego Chargers
How can the Chargers be 6-5 when they have the fourth most efficient offense and the second most efficient defense? Throughout the 2010 season, they've assembled the worst special teams metrics we've ever seen. Against a league-average baseline, San Diego is especially terrible on punt and kick coverage. Well, San Diego, meet return man Jacoby Ford of the Raiders - he has two touchdowns on his 33 kick returns, including a 101-yarder against the Dolphins last week.
Carolina Panthers at Seattle Seahawks
Not only do the Panthers have the league's worst offense, but they have a worse offense at home than on the road - an NFL-worst minus-49.9% DVOA on their home turf, and a 28th-ranked minus-22.8% DVOA away from the friendly confines. Seattle's defense hasn't inspired much fear in anyone lately, but at least they're slightly better at Qwest Field - the 25th-ranked Defensive DVOA as opposed to the 30th away from home. The main problem for Seattle's defense has been the season-ending injury to Red Bryant - the Seahawks allowed just 2.9 yards per rushing play in the first seven games of the season, when Bryant was active, Since then, they've allowed 5.0 yards per play.
Atlanta Falcons at Tampa Bay Buccaneers
Only Michael Vick, Tom Brady and Matt Cassel have a lower interception percentage than Atlanta's Matt Ryan (five picks in 405 attempts for a percentage of 1.2) who also boasts a 654 percent Catch Rate, and one of the higher average pass length per completion totals in the league. But he's facing a Buccaneers pass defense that has gone from 17th in Pass Defense DVOA in the first nine weeks of the season to eighth in the last three weeks. And against No. 1 receivers, they rank fourth in Passing DVOA. Atlanta main man Roddy White will be challenged by this defense.
St. Louis Rams at Arizona Cardinals
When they took the plunge with Derek Anderson after Kurt Warner's retirement, the Cardinals hoped that they would get the Pro-Bowl level quarterback the Cleveland Browns benefited from in 2007. What they have instead is very much what Anderson has been on all his non-outlier seasons - a decent deep passer (9.99 average pass length, third-highest behind Vince Young and Ben Roethlisberger) with very little accuracy (his 52.5 completion percentage is second-worst among qualifying quarterbacks behind Panthers rookie Jimmy Clausen). As former Cards coach Dennis Green would say, Derek Anderson is who we thought he was.
Dallas Cowboys at Indianapolis Colts
Injuries have taken their toll on the Colts of late, and it's starting to show in the numbers. From Weeks 1-9, Peyton Manning's squad had the eighth most efficient passing offense, but that's dropped to 17th from weeks 10 through 12. Even worse is the rushing situation - from eighth to 30th in the same splits. The Cowboys have improved a bit in pass defense (30th to 18th), but the run defense has been an issue all season.
Pittsburgh Steelers at Baltimore Ravens
With Steelers receiver Mike Wallace, the cliché is true: You can't stop him, you can only hope to contain him. Wallace leads the league with a yards per reception average of 22.0 yards, with 17.5 yards per catch in the air, and 4.5 after the catch. Hines ward has a similar "aerial percentage", though he's not quite as dynamic. Of his 12.75 yards per reception, 10.2 yards per catch go through the air. In this game, that 1-2 punch plays a pass defense that does its worst against No. 1 and No. 2 receivers - 12th in DVOA against the top guys, and 18th against the second bananas.
New York Jets at New England Patriots
Despite losing Randy Moss, relying on two rookie tight ends in Rob Gronkowski and Aaron Hernandez, and putting their running game in the hands of relative unknowns Danny Woodhead and BenJarvus Green-Ellis, the 2010 Patriots have the second-most efficient offense in the history of our metrics. Only the 2007 Pats, possessors of the most dynamic offense ever, have a higher Offensive DVOA through the first 12 weeks of any season. Now, it was about Week 13 that the 2007 Pats' offense started to go downhill, and that's what we'll be keeping an eye on. Maintaining this pace against the Jets' defense will be a tough one. The Jets are currently 15th against the pass and second against the run, as well as 13th in DVOA against tight ends.
POSTED AT 1:26 AM ET, 11/26/2010
Week 12 NFL preview
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Green Bay Packers at Atlanta Falcons
Falcons quarterback Matt Ryan had best prepare for a challenge - the Packers have the NFL's best pass defense per Football Outsiders' efficiency metrics, and they're eighth versus No.1 receivers. Roddy White is tied with Cincinnati's Terrell Owens as the league's most-targeted player with 116 passes. However, the Packers are 20th in those same metrics against tight ends, and the Falcons do have some guy named Tony Gonzalez, with 71 targets of his own. The Packers have been a penalty-ridden franchise over the last few seasons, but that's changed in 2010 - just three teams have fewer flags than Green Bay's 58. The Falcons are one of them; Atlanta's 48 penalties represent the league's lowest team total.
Pittsburgh Steelers at Buffalo Bills
There are few sophomore slumps more graphic than the one that Buffalo safety Jairus Byrd is going through. Byrd had nine interceptions in his 2009 rookie campaign, and many believed the Defensive Rookie of the Year award should have been his. This season, he has no picks and just one pass defensed (11 last season). Pittsburgh receiver Mike Wallace, who leads the league with a 23.0 yards-per-reception average, is not who a safety with trouble defending deep passes wants to see. On the other side of the ball, Buffalo receiver Steve Johnson is getting his first national namechecks after his three-touchdown performance against the Bengals last Sunday, but he's been quietly productive all season, and he currently ranks fourth in DYAR among qualifying receivers. Given the relatively ineffective nature of the Buffalo passing game over the last few seasons, Johnson's performances have been especially remarkable.
Carolina Panthers at Cleveland Browns
It's official: The Panthers have created the perfect end zone repellent. Unfortunately, they're using it on themselves. Carolina ranks last in the league in offensive efficiency in the red zone (both pass and run) and in all goal-to-go situations. They've converted just 25 percent of red zone trips and 28.57 percent of goal-to-go chances, both league-worst metrics. Which is why they're only scoring 11.7 points per game. They've managed to play offense and defense at a league-average level in the same game just once - in their Week 4 16-14 tussle with the New Orleans Saints. The Browns, on the other hand, have been putting outstanding per-game Offensive DVOA totals over the last month - at least, until they hit a wall against the Jacksonville Jaguars last week.
Jacksonville Jaguars at New York Giants
The Giants rank fifth in Defensive Adjusted Line Yards, which assign responsibility for running plays based on play length, down, distance, and opponent. However, they're 21st in the league in causing negative plays, and they're facing Jacksonville's Maurice Jones-Drew, who's one of the NFL's best at pushing the pile. The Jags have just 14 percent negative rushing plays, fourth-best in the league. On defense, Jacksonville also has the only player in the NFL with a 100 percent overall Stop Rate - second-year defensive tackle Terrance Knighton. In 2010, Knighton has prevented successful pass plays on all eight of his opportunities, and on all 17 run plays as well. (Stops reflect the prevention of successful plays, which are defined as 45 percent of needed yards on first down, 60 percent of needed yards on second down, and 100 percent of needed yards on third or fourth down. "Plays" refer to tackles, passes defensed, fumbles forced, and interceptions).
Minnesota Vikings at Washington Redskins
While Brett Favre and Brad Childress have been the stars of Minnesota's soap opera this season, the Vikings formerly stellar pass rush continues to be a problem. The Vikings are picking up sacks on just 5.21 percent of all opposing pass attempts, among the league's worst totals. That's good news for a Redskins team that ranks 23rd in Adjusted Sack Rate, which represents sacks per pass attempt based on down, distance, and situation. Another issue the Vikings face these days is the penalty outputs of two players - right tackle Phil Loadholt and tight end Visanthe Shiancoe. Minnesota has 77 penalties through the first 11 weeks, which is about league-average, but Loadholt and Shiancoe account for 21 all by themselves. Only Detroit's Stephen Peterman has more penalties than Loadholt's 11, and Loadholt is tied with Peterman and Oakland's Jared Veldheer for the NFL's most false starts with six. Shiancoe has four false starts of his own, which is a fairly disconcerting total for a pass-catching tight end.
Tennessee Titans at Houston Texans
Whether it's Rusty Smith or Chris Simms, the Titans will be throwing a quarterback to the wolves this week. But fortunately for them, it's time to recognize the Texans' pass defense as one of the worst of the modern era. Houston is the only team allowing more than 300 passing yards per game this year (8.09 yards per play), and their 25 passing touchdowns allowed is five higher than the second-worst team. Houston has also allowed 13 pass plays of 40 yards or more, again a league worst. The story of Houston cornerback Glover Quin is a prime example - Quin has been in on 46 pass plays this season, and he's amassed a grand total of two Pass Defeats (plays by a defensive player that prevent the offense from gaining first down yardage on third or fourth down, stop the offense behind the line of scrimmage, or result in a turnover). First-round rookie Kareem Jackson is having an equally tough time - he's allowing 10.8 yards per pass play in the 44 pass plays he's been a part of.
Kansas City Chiefs at Seattle Seahawks
The Seahawks could be in trouble against Kansas City's league-best running game. The Chiefs aren't just able to bull it up the middle with Thomas Jones; they also have the most running plays of 10 yards or more with 45. Seattle's been susceptible against the run of late, but they have their own advantage. Quarterback Matt Hasselbeck threw for 366 yards against the Saints' top pass defense on Sunday, and the Chiefs are struggling in the secondary - after a very strong start to the season, KC now ranks 21st in defensive efficiency against the pass. Cornerback Brandon Flowers, who started the season being mentioned in the same breath as Darrelle Revis and Nnamdi Asomugha, is struggling slightly along with the rest of his defensive backfield. The one exception may be rookie free safety Eric Berry, who is receiving the praise of his own coaching staff, and the praise of Hasselbeck, who made a point to say this week that Berry really stood out in game tape.
Miami Dolphins at Oakland Raiders
No surprise that the Chicago Bears lead the league in sacks per pass attempt (12.13 percent of all Bears' attempts end in sacks), but the Raiders have the second-worst total (10.13 percent), and it's starting to affect the team. Jason Campbell was knocked out of the Steelers game on Sunday to be replaced by Bruce Gradkowski. Whoever plays for the Raiders against Miami, they'll be watching out for end Cameron Wake, who ranks second in the NFL with 9.5 quarterback takedowns. Oakland tackles Mario Henderson, Jared Veldheer, and Langston Walker have combined to allow 11 sacks in just 11 games.
St. Louis Rams at Denver Broncos
Michael Vick is getting a lot of credit for his 9.45 Yards Per Completion total and zero interceptions - great numbers when you can air it out without giving it to the other team - but Denver's Kyle Orton continues to get subpar praise for the season he's putting together. Orton's YPC of 8.9 is just below Vick's in the rankings, and his 1.5 interception percentage is the lowest among all quarterbacks who have thrown a pick with a YPC of 8.5 or more.
Philadelphia Eagles at Chicago Bears
The New York Giants may have given teams a template to stop Michael Vick last Monday night, or at least that's what we're told. The G-Men were adept at forcing Vick to his right, making him throw against his body, and he is least effective on plays going to his right (6.58 yards per attempt, 84.0 quarterback rating). However, Vick is one of the league's most effective quarterbacks when throwing to the right sideline (9.27 YPA, 127.2 quarterback rating). If you're going to fence Vick in, you'd better guard the edges.
Tampa Bay Buccaneers at Baltimore Ravens
First-round pick Gerald McCoy was catching some flak early in the season as Ndamukong Suh stood out for Detroit and McCoy was relatively invisible. But McCoy is starting to catch up; through Week 10, he has amassed six rushing Defeats (as many as Suh, and second in the league), and he's allowing just 1.2 yards per run attempt in his direction, better than Suh's 2.5. McCoy's nowhere near as dynamic on pass plays, but he's far from a bust, and he's getting better.
San Diego Chargers at Indianapolis Colts
How effective has San Diego's passing offense been? Not only are the Chargers first in the number of Big Plays (pass plays of 25 yards or more) with 36; they're also second in the league with 1,611 yards after catch - only the Detroit Lions are better in that category. The Colts are starting to slip in defensive passing efficiency, especially against No. 1 receivers - they've gone from first to 10th in the last month, and the Chargers get Vincent Jackson back this week.
San Francisco 49ers at Arizona Cardinals
ESPN certainly hoped for more than a matchup between quarterbacks Troy Smith and Derek Anderson when they got this game. After three starts for the 49ers, Smith ranks 32nd in cumulative quarterback efficiency, and Anderson ranks 38th. Amazingly, both signal-callers are doing better than the guys they replaced - San Francisco's Alex Smith ranks 34th in quarterback efficiency, and Arizona's Max Hall has the worst rating among any quarterback with at least 80 passes this season.
POSTED AT 11:32 AM ET, 11/24/2010
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New England Patriots at Detroit Lions
Lions rookie defensive tackle Ndamukong Suh presents an interesting series of challenges to enemy offenses - through the first 10 weeks of the season, he was involved in far more pass plays (16) than any other tackle. This didn't preclude him from playing the run well, though - of the 18 run plays sent in his direction, 16 were Successes, and six were Defeats. On a per-play basis, no tackle has been more effective at stopping key short-yardage conversions, disallowing above-average conversion yardage, and causing negative plays.
However, Suh's team hasn't been on the right side of the luck curve all season - despite their 2-8 record, the Lions have a minus-3 point differential. That's better than the point differential of four teams (the Miami Dolphins, Seattle Seahawks, Jacksonville Jaguars, and Washington Redskins) with records of .500 or better. Detroit's Estimated Wins total of 4.2 (Estimated Wins pits the most important efficiency factors against a league-average schedule) is higher than that of the 7-3 Chicago Bears, who currently lead Detroit's division.
If you want proof of just how much New England's offense has changed this season, consider that the Pats are running over 60 percent of their offensive snaps with two tight ends this season. That's way up from 2009, when New England had two tight ends on the field 34 percent of the time. No surprise that receiver Wes Welker leads the team in targets with 82, but rookie tight ends Aaron Hernandez and Rob Gronkowski have combined for 76, and both players rank among the top 10 in DYAR at their positions. Where New England struggles to measure up is in overall defense, and that's what makes this an interesting matchup. The Pats currently rank 26th in Defensive DVOA against the pass and the run, and 27th against No. 1 receivers. Could be a big day for Detroit's Calvin Johnson.
New Orleans Saints at Dallas Cowboys
Saints cornerback Jabari Greer has been one of the NFL's more underrated at his position, but Seattle's Matt Hasselbeck had his way with Greer last Sunday. According to Football Outsiders compadre Bill Barnwell, Hasselbeck was 11 of 15 for 194 yards to the right side of the field where Greer plays, and 21 of 29 for 172 yards everywhere else. Cowboys backup quarterback Jon Kitna has posted his highest quarterback rating (99.9) on passes to the right side, where he's 23 of 36 for 325 yards and two touchdowns. The Saints' offense is starting to get back on track even without Reggie Bush, but the passing game is still a decidedly dink-and-dunk affair - Drew Brees is tied for the second-worst Average Pass Length in the league at 6.87,
The other quarterback with a 6.87 Average Pass Length is Kitna, and the Cowboys are getting more yardage per play out of yards after catch (6.81) than "air yards" on completed passes (5.42). Miles Austin leads Dallas' receivers in YAC with 306, while running back Felix Jones ranks fifth overall with 354. The Saints are solid against No. 2 receivers and running backs, but there's no question that Dallas' offense is more effective and integrated since Jason Garrett took over for Wade Phillips. A Saints defense that suddenly looks a bit vulnerable had best beware; this is where an upset could reside.
Cincinnati Bengals at New York Jets
Buffalo Bills quarterback Ryan Fitzpatrick in the first half of last Sunday's game against the Bengals: 11 of 21 for 177 yards, a touchdown and two interceptions. Fitzpatrick in the second half: 10 of 13 for 139 yards, three touchdowns and no picks. The difference? The ankle injury suffered by Bengals cornerback Johnathan Joseph in the first half. If Joseph can't go, Mark Sanchez has a major advantage in that he'll miss one of the game's better cover corners. The Bengals are second in the league in DVOA against No. 1 receivers (only the Eagles are better), and that's on Joseph.
The Jets have won three straight games in late and close situations, and that's on Sanchez; at least it was when he made some great throws against the (admittedly horrible) Houston Texans defense. He's not a great fourth-quarter quarterback (44 of 92 for 534 yards, two touchdowns, two interceptions), but he's been pure dynamite in overtime this season - 11.27 Yards per Attempt and a 99.0 passer rating. That doesn't set up well for the Bengals, who have the third-worst defensive DVOA in late and close situations.