DVOA Matchup: Divisional Playoff Edition
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If the Divisional round of the 2008 playoffs has a familiar feeling, it's because the four games feature teams that faced each other in the regular season. The Ravens and Titans fought it out in Week 5, with Tennessee coming up on top, 13-10. The Cardinals lost a close one in Week 8 to the Panthers, 27-23, behind Jake Delhomme's two touchdown passes to Steve Smith after Arizona had a 17-3 third-quarter lead. The Eagles and Giants, NFC East Rivals from way back, split their series this year, with the road team winning each game. And when the Chargers lost the only 11-10 game in NFL history to the Steelers on November 16, it put San Diego at 4-6, and in a place where few expected them to be in the final eight.
But here they are, and here we are, waiting for the next elimination round. Let's take a look at one key matchup from each game with the use of Football Outsiders' proprietary statistics. If you have any questions about our numbers, check out this page, or feel free to e-mail me here.
Saturday, January 10
Baltimore Ravens at Tennessee Titans
Matchup: Baltimore's Front Seven vs. Tennessee's Running Game
There are two things you never, never want to do when facing the Ravens' defense: First, do NOT throw a lob anywhere near Ed Reed. Baltimore's uber-safety will intercept the water balloon and probably take it back to the house. Reed has created 11 turnovers - 10 interceptions and a forced fumble - since Week 12 and including the playoff win. Miami quarterback Chad Pennington, as efficient a quarterback as there has been in the NFL this season, learned that in the Dolphins' 27-9 Wild Card loss. Pennington had thrown seven interceptions in 476 attempts in the regular season. Against Baltimore last weekend, he threw up four picks in 38 attempts (two to Reed, including a touchdown). Pennington was marginally successful against Baltimore in Week 5, but the Ravens brought a different level of pressure and shut the Dolphins' diverse running game down.
And that's what you REALLY don't want to do against the Ravens: run up the middle. Don't bother. Baltimore's defense ranked first in Adjusted Line Yards in the Mid/Guard area, and also ranked first in yards per carry allowed around right and left guard, according to official NFL play-by-play. The Ravens are as creative with their lines as any team in the NFL, and they have the personnel to get away with trickeration. They will see your receiver stack with an overload blitz, they will send massive nose tackle Haloti Ngata up and down the defensive line or have him drop back in a zone blitz, and they will blitz the underrated safety Jim Leonhard with great effectiveness. The key word here is "blitz". Like the Steelers, the NFL's other dominant 3-4 defense this year, the Ravens bring it from many different angles.
The Titans counter with an outstanding offensive line, led by center Kevin Mawae. The 15-year veteran may still be the best in the game, but Tennessee coach Jeff Fisher recently said that Mawae is day-to-day with a leg injury. Backup Leroy Harris would be a step down against this dominant defense, but expect Mawae to play if he is at all able. The Titans' rushing attack is led by rookie Chris Johnson, he of the 4.24 Combine speed and 1,228 rushing yards. The Titans' run game is reflective of Johnson's abilities - best in the open field. Tennessee ranked 17th overall in offensive Adjusted Line Yards, 26th in Power Success (success on short runs with first-down or touchdown yardage at stake), and 22nd worst in Stuffed Rank (runs that produce below-average, zero- or negative gains). However, they're sixth in 10+ Yards ranking, which tabulates the productivity a team puts up when a back is ten or more yards past the line of scrimmage. The Ravens rank 18th in defensive 10+ Yards, so if Johnson and LenDale White can get past that dominant front seven, there are gains to be had.
Arizona Cardinals at Carolina Panthers
Matchup: Arizona's Receivers vs. Carolina's Secondary
DYAR, or Defense-adjusted Yards Above Replacement, is Football Outsiders' statistic that gives the value of performance, adjusted for defenses faced, against the league average. Basically, it's a league average baseline against which to measure the best, worst, and all in-between on a cumulative basis. DVOA, or Defense-adjusted Value Over Average, is the same stat which measures value per play. 79 different receivers were targeted by their quarterbacks at least 50 times in the 2008 season, and of those 79, the Arizona Cardinals have three receivers in the DYAR top 12. Larry Fitzgerald (third in DVOA, seventh in DVOA); Anquan Boldin (eighth in DYAR, 15th in DVOA); and second-year man Steve Breaston (12th in DYAR, 13th in DVOA) have all been among the most productive and efficient receivers in the NFL. Each man finished with over 1,000 receiving yards in 2008, and only Breaston scored fewer than 10 touchdowns.
Fitzgerald, as evidenced by his unreal catch in double coverage on a flea-flicker in Arizona's 30-24 Wild Card win over the Falcons, is the deep threat, the superstar, and quite possibly the best receiver in the game. Breaston has a nice deep inside route, and he benefits from an offense in which any third receiver is going to find either himself open pretty regularly, or fighting off nickel cornerbacks. But the real potential killer in this game, and the guy who scored two receiving touchdowns when Arizona and Carolina faced off in Week 8, is Boldin. Only Wes Welker of the Patriots, a slash-and-slant specialist, had more yards after catch than Boldin's 595 (56.4 percent of his 1,038 yards). In that 27-23 loss, Boldin caught nine passes for 63 yards, and the longest was for 11 yards.
Why is this important? Because, for all the deep threat talk you hear about the Cardinals, Arizona excels in the short passing game, and that's where they go the most. They ranked first with 211 passes to the short left area, and third with 212 passes short right. They've gained more yards per play over the deep middle than any other team, but Kurt Warner's only thrown there 21 times all season, 20th in the NFL.
Conversely, the Panthers have allowed 5.62 yards per play (11th) to the short left, 5.09 (8th), to the short right, and 10.85 yards to the deep middle (9th). They rank 8th in DVOA against #1 receivers (Fitzgerald), 18th against #2 receivers (Boldin) and 17th against all other receivers (Breaston, Jerheme Urban, et al). Boldin was targeted 14 times against the Panthers, and 12 were short left, right, or middle. He matches Carolina's strength with his own, and his current status (strained hamstring) could take away a major advantage for the Cardinals.
Sunday, January 11
Philadelphia Eagles at New York Giants
Matchup: Stewart Bradley vs. Earth, Wind, and Fire
Per DVOA, which team had the best run defense in the second half of the 2008 season? You'd be forgiven for guessing Baltimore, Pittsburgh, or Tennessee, but you'd also be wrong. The best team in defensive rushing DVOA from Week 10 through Week 17 was (drum roll...) the Philadelphia Eagles. Jim Johnson's defense is a manically fast, gap-control monster, and middle linebacker Stewart Bradley leads the way. Bradley is great at holding the point against opposing running backs, and he'll need every bit of that skill against the Giants, their three-headed rushing attack, and their outstanding run-blocking line.
After New York put up 207 rushing yards on Baltimore's outstanding defense in Week 11, linebacker Jarret Johnson had something interesting to say. "The backs have three different styles, but it's more than that because they adjust the blocking schemes for each one," Johnson mentioned after the game. "It creates pressure on the defense because each back is opportunistic but in a different way. So if you make one mistake, any of those backs can be gone."
The first back of the trio is Brandon Jacobs (Earth), the 6-4, 264-pound behemoth who currently ranks second in the NFL in DYAR among running backs. For Jacobs, the Giants' line likes to use slide protection and pulling guards to get the defense going one way while Jabobs looks for the seam or cuts back against the wave. If he gets to the second level, he's almost impossible to tackle, because he's facing linebackers and safeties.
Derrick Ward (Wind) is a quick, versatile back with good size (5-11, 228). He ranks fourth in DYAR on the ground, and he also leads the Giants in receiving DYAR among running backs. For Ward, you'll see the Giants' line pushing their guards or a center up to the second level, which does leave vulnerability against defenses like Philadelohia's.
Ahmad Bradshaw (Fire) is the quickest of the three, with a great cutback move that benefits from a hybrid blocking scheme. You'll see the Giants slide and pull to create that cutback, and the Eagles must be especially careful when the Giants use both guards to pull - it's a favorite scheme, and it's very effective, especially when their backs cut against it. The Eagles have a battle on their hands, and the Giants won't face a better run defense than this one right now.
San Diego Chargers at Pittsburgh Steelers
Snapshot: San Diego's Pass Rush vs. Pittsburgh's Offensive Line
When "endbacker" Shawne Merriman went down for the season with torn ligaments in his left knee, the Chargers' pass rush took a major hit. Merriman was perhaps the most dangerous edge rusher in the game before he got hurt, putting up 40 sacks in his first three seasons, and the Chargers dropped from 42 sacks in 2007 to 28 in 2008. However, the Steelers' offensive line is more vulnerable than most. Between weaknesses in the line and Ben Roethlisberger's tendency to hold onto the ball far beyond your average quarterback, the Steelers have been prone to sacks for quite a while. They allowed 50 Adjusted Sacks in 2008, 47 in 2007, and 49 in 2006. When these teams last played, Big Ben threw the ball 41 times, and took four sacks.
The problem for opposing defenses is that Roethlisberger is dangerous until he's all the way down and sacked, and his receivers have learned never to give up on a play until the whistle has blown.
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