Week 3 NFL preview
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Tennessee Titans at New York Giants
In 2009, Eli Manning was about half as effective per DVOA when rushed by five or more defenders, and his yards per play went from 7.2 to 5.7. This reflected his performance against the Colts last week -- Manning lost two fumbles, was sacked four times, hit six more times, and was hurried all through the game. The bad news for Manning is that through the first two games of the season, only the Green Bay Packers (19.23%) have a higher defensive sacks per pass attempt percentage than the Titans' 14.81 percent. The Colts, by the way, rank third at 14.63 percent, due in large part to their efforts against Mr. Manning the Younger.
Pittsburgh Steelers at Tampa Bay Buccaneers
The Steelers have the NFL's best defense by just about any statistical measure you'd care to use. They blow away every other defense in our DVOA metrics against the run, but they're no picnic against the pass, either. They're also +6 in takeaway ratio, which leads the league. The Buccaneers are +4, which is nice, but we may see a one-game end to the surprisingly solid play of second-year quarterback Josh Freeman. Freeman leads the league in average pass length at 12.17, and he's fourth in "air yards" (passing yards from quarterback to receiver without yardage after the catch), but the Steelers allow just 5.43 passing yards per play, which ranks seventh in the NFL.
Cincinnati Bengals at Carolina Panthers
How bad has the Panthers' offense been? Through two games, Carolina has amassed an Offensive Passing DVOA of -78.7%, which means that Carolina's quarterbacks and receivers have produced at an opponent-adjusted rate of almost 80 percent below league average. Before he was benched in favor of rookie Jimmy Clausen, quarterback Matt Moore had the league's worst DVOA among quarterbacks with at least 15 passing attempts through the first two games of the season. He managed two fumbles, four interceptions, and a 40.8% catch rate in 58 passes. Clausen probably won't be much better in an offense that has managed to be opponent-indifferent -- it almost doesn't matter who they're facing at this point.
Cleveland Browns at Baltimore Ravens
Speaking of bad quarterbacks, how did Joe Flacco get in here? Baltimore's alleged Next Great Hope was, by Football Outsiders' metrics, the worst quarterback in the NFL in Week 2. The four picks were bad enough, but what's more worrisome are the mechanical failures and the abysmal completion percentage. Of the passes Flacco has thrown through two games, only 48.1 percent have found the hands of his receivers in a productive fashion. At this rate, he'll have a higher catch rate to the defenses he faces. Baltimore is also one of three teams that haven't picked off an enemy pass to date, though we're assuming the Ravens have picked off an unusual percentage in practice.
Dallas Cowboys at Houston Texans
When you spend about $30 million guaranteed in the 2010 season alone on your top three wide receivers, you have an All-Pro tight end who's one of the best in the game, an you have three running backs with different and valuable talents, putting a piecemeal offensive line in front of all that flash is like putting 1,000 gold bars in your backyard, unguarded, with a handwritten sign that reads, "Fort Knox -- Do Not Steal!" But that's what the Cowboys have done. That line has managed five holding and five false start calls in just two weeks, which takes away the luster of the team's top ranking in Adjusted Sack Rate. The Texans have no such issues with their line --with new and creative ways to employ power zone blocking, they rank first in Adjusted Line Yards through two games.
San Francisco 49ers at Kansas City Chiefs
The Chiefs are decidedly average in Offensive and Defensive DVOA, but as it stands now, they have the NFL's most efficient special teams unit. They've put up this ranking by amassing a ridiculous amount of punt return value. That's what averaging 83.0 return yards per game (almost twice as much as second-place Seattle at 49.5) will do. But sample size alerts loom large early in the season -- when you take away Dexter McCluster's 94-yard touchdown against the Chargers in Week 1, Kansas City has averaged just nine yards per punt return.
Detroit Lions at Minnesota Vikings
You'd expect the Lions to start the season 0-2; Minnesota's equally winless standing through two games is a bit more of a surprise. The real shock is how Detroit has managed more efficiency than the Vikings in so many categories. The Lions rank slightly ahead in Offensive, Defensive, and Special Teams DVOA. Where the Lions' draft and free agency strategy has really paid off is on the defensive line; the team ranks in the top 10 in many of our Defensive Adjusted Line stats, and second in the league behind the Packers in Adjusted Sack Rate. The Vikings rank 20th in our pass protection metric, which could mean a very long day for Mr. Favre.
Buffalo Bills at New England Patriots
After years of shotgun-inspired passing exotica, Bill Belichick went back to basics by selecting two tight ends on the 2010 draft: Aaron Hernandez and Rob Gronkowski. Or, that's what we thought. Turns out, if you put just about any player in that Tom Brady-led engine, the numbers shoot through the stratosphere as if the results were preordained. Example? Hernandez leads the league in average yards after catch with 14.71 YAC on seven catches. And only San Diego's Malcom Floyd and Denver's Brandon Lloyd average more yards per reception than Hernandez's 20.86. The next best tight end is Minnesota's Visanthe Shiancoe (16.2), 15th on the list.
Atlanta Falcons at New Orleans Saints
Does familiarity breed inefficiency? In the case of Atlanta quarterback Matt Ryan and receiver Roddy White, it may be so. White currently ranks 50th in DVOA among qualifying receivers, but he's been by far the NFL's most targeted receiver this season with 35. On the other hand, New Orleans quarterback Drew Brees has thrown at least 10 passes to three different receivers (Marques Colston - 15, Pierre Thomas - 11, Reggie Bush - 11).
Washington Redskins at St. Louis Rams
The Redskins may be the NFL's ultimate purveyor of the "bend but don't break" defensive theory. Washington has allowed an average of 26.5 first downs per game this season, which ties them with the Arizona Cardinals at the bottom of the league roll. But that same defense ranked 16th in points per drive allowed (1.61), while the Cards rank 28th (2.25). The Rams aren't the best test of that system, having put up just 1.08 points per drive.
Philadelphia Eagles at Jacksonville Jaguars
Get ready for bombs away in this game -- both quarterbacks are among the league leaders in yards per pass attempt. Philly's Michael Vick ranks ninth with 9.36, and Jacksonville's David Garrard ranks 10th with 9.23. The difference lies in the efficiency behind those yards. Vick hasn't thrown a single interception this season, and he is by far the best running quarterback in the league this year. Garrard, on the other hand, leads the league in interception percentage (9.1% of his pass attempts fell into the wrong hands).
Oakland Raiders at Arizona Cardinals
Remember the phrase, "If you ain't cheatin', you ain't tryin'"? Don't tell these two teams. Through two weeks, the Raiders and Cardinals rank first and second in total penalties (including declined and offsetting) with Oakland (26 for 167 yards) taking the lead. Arizona has amassed 24 flags for 181 yards. The Raiders lead the way in false start and defensive offside calls -- they seem a bit jumpy in the Bay Area these days. The Cards prefer offensive holding, though they're just as happy to put up a few defensive offside penalties of their own. We're not sure which crew is calling this game, but we hope it isn't the one led by Tony Corrente, who leads the league with 43 penalties in just two games. Certain members of Scott Green's crew must have hot dates after the games they call -- through the first two games, Green's gang has called just 13 penalties. That's 305 penalty yards for Corrente and 84 for Green. Still think officiating consistency isn't a big issue? How easy is it to make up for 110 yards per game?
San Diego Chargers at Seattle Seahawks
The Seahawks have one decided advantage in this game -- they currently rank third overall in Football Outsiders' special teams metrics, and they have the highest efficiency rating in punt returns. The Chargers, by those same measurements, have the NFL's worst punt coverage by a wide margin.
Indianapolis Colts at Denver Broncos
Among teams with positive passing DVOA in both shotgun and non-shotgun sets, the Colts have the NFL's biggest uptick from under center (16.8% DVOA) to shotgun (49.5%). But only the Saints, Lions, and 49ers have allowed more efficiency to shotgun quarterbacks than the Broncos so far this year. But they're one of the better defenses against "traditional" formations. Given the amount of preparation Peyton Manning goes through every week, don't be surprised if that stat is rolling around in his head, and the Colts go even more shotgun-heavy than normal.
New York Jets at Miami Dolphins
The Jets aren't just undisciplined off the field; they've been quite the penalty magnets so far this season. Cornerback Antonio Cromartie is tied with San Francisco 49ers quarterback Alex Smith with the league's most flags by one player with five. What's impressive about Cromartie is his penalty versatility too early in the season -- so far, he's already been busted for defensive holding (twice), defensive pass interference, illegal contact, and defensive offside. The Dolphins have just 10 flags all season to the Jets' 21.
Green Bay Packers at Chicago Bears
Second-year outside linebacker Clay Matthews became the first player in team history to record two straight three-sack games. An impressive feat, considering the fact that the Packers franchise has been around since 1921, and it's not out of the question for Matthews to pick up three quarterback takedowns in a third straight contest -- Chicago's offensive line has been quite the mess. One thing Chicago ought to consider is more shotgun sets; the Bears are the most efficient shotgun passing team in the NFL, but only the Dolphins go shotgun less frequently.