Week 1 NFL Preview
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Football is definitely back in the air -- after another preseason and possibly in the face of labor strife in 2011, it's time to get some real contests in and rediscover the greatness of the game. In anticipating the first week's matchups, this preview uses scouting reports, traditional statistics, and a few metrics from Football Outsiders to bring a different perspective to the usual matchup column. Of the metrics, there are two you'll see most often, and here are their quick descriptions.
DVOA (Defense-adjusted Value Over Average) -- DVOA is a method of evaluating teams, units, or players. It takes every single play during the NFL season and compares each one to a league-average baseline based on situation. DVOA measures not just yardage, but yardage towards a first down: five yards on third-and-4 are worth more than five yards on first-and-10 and much more than five yards on third-and-12. Red zone plays are worth more than other plays. Performance is also adjusted for the quality of the opponent. DVOA is a percentage, so a team with a DVOA of 10.0% is 10 percent better than the average team, and a quarterback with a DVOA of -20.0% is 20 percent worse than the average quarterback. Because DVOA measures scoring, defenses are better when they are negative.
DYAR (Defense-adjusted Yards Above Replacement) - the same basic concept as DVOA in that it's measured in down and distance situations and adjusted for opponent, but DYAR is a cumulative stat based on success points. An easy way to think about it is that DVOA is the per-play metric, and DYAR measures the results of all the plays a player puts together. We'll use other advanced stats through the season, and I'll explain them as we go along. If you have any questions, you can always e-mail me at doug-at-footballoutsiders.com.
Now, on to the first week's games...
The Main Event
Thursday, September 9
One of the more undersold aspects of the Saints' 31-28 overtime win over the Vikings in the NFC Championship game was the team's ability to run effectively when needed. New Orleans' running game was underrated all season, lost as it was behind the atomic excellence of Drew Brees and Gregg Williams' blitz-happy defense. But running back Pierre Thomas finished first overall in Football Outsiders' DVOA (Defense-adjusted Value Over Average) metric, which determines per-play effectiveness adjusted for situation and opponent. Thomas has been one of the league's better unheralded players for a while now, but people started understanding his contribution to the team on a national level when his nine-yard touchdown run put the Saints up, 21-14, easily in the second half. The Vikings have had one of the league's best run defenses for several years now, but the Saints were able to solve it in limited doses, and it's a good indicator of what Minnesota might see in the rematch.
Sunday, September 12
Cincinnati Bengals at New England Patriots
In 2009, the Bengals went from a pass-heavy team to a run-first power organization with great success. They ranked fifth in the NFL in six-man front plays with 270, and fifth in Offensive DVOA (28.1%) when they did so. New England's in-transition defense didn't fare that well against power sets; in 2009, they ranked 14th overall in Defensive DVOA (2.1%) when facing six or more blockers and 19th (13.5%) in the red zone, which is where the highest percentage of overload blocks will be seen against any team. The Bengals would be wise to throw to their running backs and first-round tight end Jermaine Gresham; New England is weaker against inline receivers looking to make tracks downfield.
Indianapolis Colts at Houston Texans
In 2009, the Texans lost two agonizingly close games to the Colts that were more about the team's red zone performance than anything else. Houston scored one touchdown on nine red zone plays in the 20-17 loss in Week 9, and three touchdowns on 16 red zone plays in the Week 12 35-27 follow-up. If you're trading touchdowns for field goals against the Colts, you're going to lose, no matter who you are. The Colts do not practice formation diversity on offense - they run more three-wide single back sets than any other team every year, and it isn't even close. That's a problem for the Texans, who had the fifth-worst Defensive DVOA in 2009 against 3/1 offenses (18.0%). No defense allowed more yards per play against such formations than Houston's 6.1.
Green Bay Packers at Philadelphia Eagles
If you want to know what makes Green Bay's Aaron Rodgers a great quarterback, you can start with how he does under pressure. Only Jay Cutler and Jason Campbell were hurried by pass rushers more often than Rodgers in 2009, and he put up the best DVOA under pressure (61.8% and 9.6 passing yards per play on 131 hurries) by far. Under defensive coordinator Sean McDermott, who subscribes to the pressure philosophies of the late-great Jim Johnson, the Eagles finished second in the league in percentage of defensive snaps resulting in quarterback pressure - 141 hurries on 647 passes and scrambles led to a 21.7% hurry rate, and only the Minnesota Vikings (23.8%) were better.
Dallas Cowboys at Washington Redskins
New Redskins quarterback Donovan McNabb was the NFL's second-best quarterback under pressure in 2009, posting a 41.0% DVOA and 9.1 yards per pass play on 86 hurries. That's good news for Redskins fans, because the odds of McNabb seeing even more pressure are pretty high. In 2009, Washington's line allowed the highest hurry rate in the NFL - 140 hurries on 610 passes/scrambles for a hurry rate of 22.9 percent. With two new, albeit more talented, tackles in Trent Williams and Jammal Brown, McNabb could be under siege for a while.
Monday, September 13
Baltimore Ravens at New York Jets
The difference between the two defenses that have most recently been designed by Rex Ryan is that the Jets have an elite secondary, and the Ravens really don't. The Jets finished first in Defensive DVOA last year based to a large degree on a defensive backfield that had more going for it than just Darelle Revis. While Revis did have a season for the ages, Jim Leonhard finished first in Success Rate (key yardage allowed in specific down-and-distance situations) among all safeties, and cornerback Lito Sheppard excelled as well. Now, to what degree these numbers were a result of Ryan's pressure concepts and Revis' dominance allowing other Jets to cover shorter areas is another matter. That's why Revis just got that upgraded contract; his excellence makes those around him better..
The rest of the field...
Miami Dolphins at Buffalo Bills
The 'Fins will want to run as much Wildcat formation stuff against the Bills as possible - last year, Miami led the league in Wildcat plays (no surprise) with 109, and Buffalo had a very high Defensive DVOA when Miami ran those plays against them. On the other hand, don't be at all surprised if the Bills run some option stuff - with their quarterback situation and C.J. Spiller in the backfield, head coach Chan Gailey may want to display the creativity Spiller has shown throughout his career.
Detroit Lions at Chicago Bears
Last year, the Bears were the worst red zone rushing team in the NFL, and it wasn't even close. The combination of the team's atrocious offensive line and Matt Forte's inability to bull through with few gaps led to a horrid -44.9% DVOA inside the 20 (Buffalo was second-worst at -27.6%), and -52.6% in goal-to-go situations. The only saving grace here is that the Lions ranked 19th in red zone run defense and 27th in goal-to-go situations. Of course, in 2009, the Lions didn't have Ndamukong Suh at defensive tackle...
Oakland Raiders at Tennessee Titans
For all the talk in recent years about the Titans' great defense, 2009 was a major step back. Tennessee ranked 31st in passing yards allowed per game (258.7; only the Lions were worse), and 25th in Pass Defense DVOA. One matchup really looks like a problem for Tennessee - tight end Zach Miller is Oakland's best receiver, new quarterback Jason Campbell loves to throw to his tight ends, and the Titans ranked 31st in DVOA against the tight ends they faced.
Carolina Panthers at New York Giants
It used to be that both of these teams featured great defenses and power rushing attacks. Now, both front lines are in trouble and only Carolina's power game remains. In 2009, the G-Men allowed 4.2 rushing yards per carry and the Panthers allowed 4.4 - both very pedestrian numbers. With the tandem of DeAngelo Williams and Jonathan Stewart, Carolina is much better primed to take advantage. Tom Coughlin is still waiting for Brandon Jacobs' inside game to return - last season, Jacobs' per-carry average plummeted from 5.0 in 2008 to 3.7.
Atlanta Falcons at Pittsburgh Steelers
Without Ben Roethlisberger in the lineup through the first month, expect two things - for the Steelers to run more out of pass formations, and for Charlie Batch and Dennis Dixon to be much more vulnerable to defensive pressure. The Steelers ran 44 times out of trips/bunch formations in 2009, averaging 4.4 yards per carry (5.5 on bunch sets alone), and often setting up receiver Hines Ward and a tight end as blockers at or past the line. Last year, Atlanta's front seven was pretty stout at the point of attack and showed strength against running backs in the open field, so the Steelers will have to devise new attacks against defenses that are stacking the box against them.
Cleveland Browns at Tampa Bay Buccaneers
The Browns faced 212 blitzes on their pass plays, which ranked eighth-highest in the league last year, but they gained just 3.9 yards per pass play with five or more rushers coming at their quarterback, which was tied with Seattle for the NFL's worst average. The Bucs weren't much better, gaining just 5.5 yards per play when rushed by five or more defenders. The difference is in how many times each defense sent five or more - the Bucs sent five or more just 122 times (only the Panthers did so with less frequency), and the Browns did so times, which was fifth-highest in the league.
Denver Broncos at Jacksonville Jaguars
The Broncos suffered a huge drop in run defense efficiency in the second half of the 2009 season, going from second overall in Weeks 1-9 (-18.2%) to 31st in Weeks 10-17 (11.6%). That negative trend is more likely to stick with defensive coordinator Mike Nolan off to Miami and Elvis Dumervil out for the season with a torn pectoral muscle. The Jags had better test that Denver defense with the run in the red zone - last season only the 1-15 Rams had a lower Passing DVOA inside the opponents' 20-yard line. .
San Francisco 49ers at Seattle Seahawks
The best way for Alex Smith and the 49ers' offense to go after the Seahawks? Use the shotgun formation. Last season, Smith took shotgun snaps in 50 percent of his passing situations, and registered a DVOA of -5.6% there as opposed to a -20.5% DVOA under center. The Seattle defense allowed 6.8 yards per play against the shotgun, and 5.4 yards per play in more "traditional" setups.
Arizona Cardinals at St. Louis Rams
The Rams don't have any real statistical edges coming into this (or any other) game. But this is another team that should be using a lot of shotgun given the skill sets of their last two first-round draft picks. Left tackle Jason Smith learned the two-point shotgun stance consistent with most spread offenses at Baylor, and quarterback Sam Bradford took exactly one snap under center in his abbreviated 2009 season. Unfortunately, that doesn't play particularly well against Arizona's hyperactive defense, which was just a bit better against shotgun sets.
San Diego Chargers at Kansas City Chiefs
The Chiefs were another team without many stat highlights last year. But they were by far the most efficient defense in the NFL when they brought zone blitzes against their opponents. Of the 28 pass attempts against the Chiefs' zone blitzes, 11 were completed for just 97 yards and one touchdown. Of the team's 22 sacks, four (18 percent) came on a series of formations the defense ran a mere 2.7 percent of the time. Unfortunately, sending zone blitzes against San Diego quarterback Philip Rivers is an invitation to disaster. The Chargers posted the NFL's highest DVOA against zone blitzes last year - an incredible 140.0% on 39 plays. And the Chiefs must have realized that, because they didn't send one single zone blitz against San Diego in two division games. Not one.
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Posted by: friar1944 | September 12, 2010 2:26 PM
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