The Smarter Stats Super Bowl Preview
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For all the talking heads subscribing to the theory that the Indianapolis Colts will beat the New Orleans Saints by anywhere from a field goal to a touchdown in Super Bowl XLIV, this thing has the feel of a pick-'em from a sabermetric perspective. In Football Outsiders' DVOA metrics (explained here), these teams are about as even as it gets. The Colts ranked eighth in overall DVOA (17.1%), and the Saints were sixth (23.4%). In Weighted DVOA, which puts a greater weight on late-season performance, both teams reflected their late drop-offs, ranking 14th (9.8%) in Indy's case and 12th (13.5%) for New Orleans.
The Colts finished the 2009 regular season ranked sixth (19.6%) in Offensive DVOA, while the Saints (1.3%) ranked 14th in Defensive DVOA. Again, both teams faltered a bit down the stretch, with Indy falling to ninth in Weighted Offensive DVOA and the Saints plummeting to 23rd. Fortunately for New Orleans, their Achilles' heel on defense counters something the Colts don't do very often -- run the ball. The Saints finished the 2009 season ranked 29th in Defensive DVOA against the run, and ninth against the pass. The Colts ranked sixth in Passing DVOA and 22nd in Rushing DVOA. Where New Orleans has a slightly underrated advantage is in their secondary -- according to our numbers, cornerback Jabari Greer was the NFL's second-best cornerback in the league in 2009, just behind Darrelle Revis. And unlike the Jets' secondary, the Saints don't have one great guy and three average ones -- safety Darren Sharper has a well-developed veteran sense for the ball, and fellow cornerback Tracy Porter is a fast, if sometimes vulnerable, defender. But there's no throwing away from Greer and hoping to find a patsy on the other side.
Switching to the other side of the ball brings another surprise -- for such a pass-heavy offense, the Saints are an extremely efficient running team. Not only did New Orleans finish first overall in Rushing DVOA (17.5%), but Pierre Thomas outpaced all backs in individual DVOA as well. Thomas also ranked third in Success Rate, an FO number which represents the player's consistency, measured by successful running plays (the definition of success being different based on down and distance) divided by total running plays. The Saints' overall Offensive DVOA ranking of second in the NFL (27.6%) against Indy's 16th-ranked defensive DVOA? That's the first matchup which appears to pop off the page in one team's favor. The Colts ranked 14th ahainst the pass and 20th against the run.
In the red zone, both teams are explosive in scoring range and touch to score on defensively, though the Saints have the edge here, as well. The Colts ranked third in overall red zone offensive DVOA, but the Saints were first in red zone defense -- first against the pass, and 20th against the run. When he's facing the Saints, Peyton Manning may find it advantageous to audible out of pass calls to run plays, and never more so than when his team's on the verge of scoring.
Both teams get off to fast starts on offense -- the Saints rank first in first down DVOA, and the Colts rank seventh. The Saints are especially good running the ball on first and second down, while the Colts have a slight uptick in third down. Both teams are effective through the air on a down-to-down basis.
Both teams blitz more than they did on the past under defensive coordinators in their first years with their new teams -- the Colts barely blitzed at all until Larry Coyer came on board. They still blitz nowhere near as often as Gregg Williams does with the Saints, but the ability of linebackers Clint Session and Gary Brackett to hit the A-gaps and bring pressure could alleviate the most pressing injury issue of this game -- the possibility that elite edge rusher Dwight Freeney won't be able to play or will see only limited duty.
Peyton Manning and Drew Brees are probably the two best quarterbacks in football, and they get their work done in different ways. Though the Colts use a bit more formation diversity than they used to, they'll run three-wide, single-back more frequently than just about any other team. The Saints, on the other hand, will run any number of formations, and head coach Sean Payton is find of throwing near-endless route combinations at enemy defenses. The Saints do better against #1 receivers and tight ends, which is to their advantage -- watch out for Jabari Greer on Reggie Wayne, and the Saints' linebackers and safeties against Dallas Clark. The Colts are perhaps best at stopping screen passes, as the edge speed of their defense makes outside gains very tough to pick up. That's a problem for New Orleans, as Payton is a big believer in the screen to get Brees away from pressure.
These teams aren't as similar as some might have you believe, though their strengths and weaknesses tie up together in ways that should make for an appealing and close Super Bowl. I'll take the Saints by that same field goal most people believe the Colts will win by, but on paper, this Super Bowl is a very tight affair.
February 5, 2010; 9:20 AM ET
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