Week 2 NFL preview
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Pittsburgh Steelers at Tennessee Titans
One thing to watch for in this game - with backup quarterback Dennis Dixon as the starter in place of the suspended Ben Roethlisberger, the Steelers defense may have an advantage in dealing with the Titans' option attack run by quarterback Vince Young and running back Chris Johnson. While the Titans present a difficult choice when both players are on the run, Dixon is that same type of option quarterback. So, in practice, the Steelers' starting defense can more easily disseminate the type of Titans offense that took the Raiders apart last Sunday. And when the Titans go three-wide, don't necessarily expect a pass play -- Johnson averaged 8.6 yards per carry out of those formations. The Steelers allowed 5.5 rushing yards per attempt out of three-wide sets, which ties for fifth-worst in the NFL. That's a rare Pittsburgh defensive vulnerability the Titans can exploit.
Miami Dolphins at Minnesota Vikings
The Dolphins' primary vulnerability in 2009 was their tendency to give up the big play. Miami tied with the Detroit Lions for the NFL lead in pass plays of 40 yards or more allowed, and finished third-worst in the league with 57 pass plays of 20 or more yards allowed. Brett Favre wasn't at his most efficient in the 2010 season opener, but he did average third in the league in average offensive pass length (10.37) behind only Tampa Bay's Josh Freeman and Baltimore's Joe Flacco. The difference for Favre against the Saints in Week 1 was the yards per completion -- there, he ranked 13th at 7.13 (tied with Donovan McNabb). In 2009, the Dolphins ranked 24th in Defensive DVOA against tight ends, which could be another issue for them -- with receiver Sidney Rice out of the picture, tight end Visanthe Shiancoe could be Favre's primary target through at least the first half of the season.
Arizona Cardinals at Atlanta Falcons
Last season, the Cardinals were perhaps the league's best run-stopping unit, frequently ranking first or near first in Defensive Adjusted Line Yards. That fell off at the end of the season as injuries took their toll, but the Cardinals' hybrid fronts are very effective in stuffing the run. However, no team was more inclined to give up open field yards (Yardage gained by running backs at least 10 yards past the line of scrimmage, divided by total running back carries). Last season, the Falcons ranked 10th in Offensive Adjusted Line Yards and open field yards, which indicates that if Michael Turner and Jerious Norwood can get to the second level, Arizona will have trouble dealing with them.
Baltimore Ravens at Cincinnati Bengals
These strong AFC North contenders each have aerial attacks that can blaze downfield, but don't be surprised if you see a lot of power running in this game. Last season, the Ravens led the league in plays with six blockers at the line (285 with a receiver, tight end, or sixth lineman), and the Bengals ranked fifth with 270. Leon Hall and Johnathan Joseph, the Bengals' excellent cornerbacks, would be wise to play deep. Last week against the New York Jets, Ravens quarterback Joe Flacco tied with Eli Manning of the New York Giants for the highest average air yards (passing yardage without yards after the catch) at 9.2 yards per completion. Cincinnati's Carson Palmer, who used to be more of a gunslinger, averaged just 6.62 air yards per completion.
Kansas City Chiefs at Cleveland Browns
Neither of these teams have offenses or defenses to write home about just yet, but expect some great stuff out of the return game. In 2009, the Browns ranked first overall in Special Teams DVOA and really stood out in kick return value, where Josh Cribbs confounded every set of gunners arrayed against him. In their 2010 season-opening upset over the San Diego Chargers, Kansas City gained just 62 yards passing, 135 yards rushing ... and 219 yards on punt and kick returns.
Chicago Bears at Dallas Cowboys
The Bears may have a terrible offensive line and no consistent deep receivers to speak of, but they were yards-after-catch mavens against the Lions in Week 1 -- primarily because of running back Matt Forte. Forte was targeted seven times, and caught all seven passes thrown to him. Of course, that's easy when the average pass thrown to you goes just 4.4 yards in the air; Forte did most of the work and led the league in Week 1 with an average of 17.43 YAC per pass. Dallas ranked 24th in Defensive Passing DVOA against running backs, and as much as Chicago offensive coordinator Mike Marts preaches the deep ball, he has to be smart enough to know which way the wind blows.
Philadelphia Eagles at Detroit Lions
Michael Vick will get the start for the Eagles in this game, and his 103 rushing yards against the Packers last Sunday proved that Vick still has the jets. But one thing he may want to avoid is running to his left. The Lions didn't impress in many statistical categories in 2009, but they led the league in average rushing yards allowed around left end with just 1.59 yards per carry. That was before Detroit added end Kyle Vanden Bosch and tackle Ndamukong Suh, so Vick should watch where he's going out there.
Buffalo Bills at Green Bay Packers
If the Bills want to keep their Quarterback Du Jour healthy against the Packers, they'd be wise to put a little protection on the right side of their offensive line. Clay Matthews, who plays left outside linebacker or left defensive end based on the fronts Green Bay uses, put up three sacks in the season opener against Philadelphia. Last year, Buffalo ranked dead last in the league in Adjusted Sack Rate (sacks plus intentional grounding penalties per pass attempt adjusted for down, distance, and opponent), and the Bills' 2010 line allowed three sacks and eight quarterback hits against the Dolphins. Matthews is also excellent at looping inside and crashing in behind a defensive end or tackle; Buffalo's line has its work cut out.
Tampa Bay Buccaneers at Carolina Panthers
Carolina may have had serious trouble scoring in the preseason -- they scored a league-low 33 points -- but their defense sure looked stellar by traditional metrics. They led the league in total yards per game allowed (206.8) and passing yards allowed per game (114.2). But a closer look reveals why it's important to get the context behind the numbers. Because they were so often behind the 8-ball from a scoring perspective, opponents threw the ball just 101 times against that defense; by far the lowest total in the NFL. The really impressive preseason number for the Carolina defense was the 19 sacks that defense put up. Of course, the regular season has a way of delivering reality checks. Against the Giants, Carolina allowed 8.8 yards per attempt (fifth-worst in the league) and five plays of 20 yards or more.
Seattle Seahawks at Denver Broncos
Broncos head coach Josh McDaniels picked up a love of the shotgun formation and spread-style sets from his time in New England, but it may be time to ditch that stuff and go pro-style. In 2009, Denver lined up in shotgun 46.2 percent of the time, seventh-highest in the league, but actually had less success than when their quarterbacks were under center. That goes against the NFL's general trend, though things may be different if Tim Tebow takes the ball in place of Kyle Orton for specific play packages. Then again, only the Jacksonville Jaguars were less efficient against shotgun sets than the Seahawks ... so this might be the time.
St. Louis Rams at Oakland Raiders
Many good things were said about Oakland's front seven coming into this season, but that unit fell below par against the aforementioned Vince Young/Chris Johnson combo. St. Louis running back Steven Jackson is bigger and more physical than Johnson -- he's not quite as quick in short spaces. But that doesn't mean he isn't a serious threat -- in 2009, Jackson put up some of his best career numbers despite a line in serious overhaul and a passing attack that did virtually nothing to help him. With first-overall pick Sam Bradford displaying deep accuracy and keeping defenses honest, Jackson could be real trouble for the Raiders.
Houston Texans at Washington Redskins
In the Texans' opening win over the Colts, running back Arian Foster scored three rushing touchdowns and put up the second-most rushing yards (231 on 33 carries) on opening weekend in NFL history behind only O.J. Simpson's 250 in 1973. Per our numbers, it was the fourth-best day for a running back in the last 15 years (although that could change once we have enough information to apply opponent adjustments for 2010). Houston scored two red-zone touchdowns in this game, which was one more than they scored in two games against the Colts last year.
New England Patriots at New York Jets
Since 2007, the Patriots have run more shotgun sets than any other team, but they should consider other options against the Jets, who had the league's best Defensive DVOA against shotgun sets. The Jets gained just six first downs against Baltimore in Week 1 -- they gave up as many on penalties alone. The last time a Jets team ended a game with just first downs, washe 1976 season finale, and Joe Namath's last game in a Jets uniform. Namath completed four passes in 15 attempts and was intercepted four times.
Jacksonville Jaguars at San Diego Chargers
Don't expect the Chargers to blitz a lot -- in 2009, they rushed five defenders (their base front is a 5-2) 35.7 percent of the time, which was second-highest in the league. But they sent six or more defenders just 3.2 percent of the time -- no team did that less often. On offense, the Chargers are generally far more efficient in formations with three or more receivers, which reflects their transition to a pass-first team. They'd better keep passing -- no defense had a better DVOA against run plays out of 3+-receiver formations than Jacksonville in 2009.
New York Giants at Indianapolis Colts
Manning Bowl II poses a series of interesting schematic questions. Will the Colts keep their three-wide, single back sets that they run more often than any other team? In 2009, the G-Men posted the fifth-worst Defensive DVOA against such formations. Will the Giants put two backs in the backfield to take advantage of the Colts' lighter, faster defense? In 2009, Indy's defense was eighth-best in DVOA against two-back sets. The Colts allowed just 3.6 yards per carry with multi-back backfields, and 5.0 YPC against single-back sets. Operation Ahmad Bradshaw should be in full effect.
New Orleans Saints at San Francisco 49ers
Based on what we've seen from the Saints' defense, San Francisco quarterback Alex Smith could be in for an interesting evening. Few defensive coordinators are more creative and aggressive than New Orleans' Gregg Williams, who sent six or more pass rushers more than any other defensive coach in the NFL last season. Last year, Smith faced more than four pass rushers 141 times, and was slightly less efficient under those circumstances. However, he played very well against defenses with three defenders at the line in a base front, and if the Saints go with a bunch of their 3-4 or 3-3-5 sets as they did in the Super Bowl, they could be in for some trouble in play action and against the running game.
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