Week 8 NFL preview
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Washington Redskins at Detroit Lions
The Redskins' bread and butter in the run game is around left end; Washington runs that way on 26 percent of its carries, and no other NFL team comes close to that number. Conversely, offenses go around left end against Detroit's front four just eight percent of the time. There may be better gains for the Redskins up the middle than there has been to date -- they currently rank last in Offensive Adjusted Line Yards up the middle (2.99 ALY against a league average of 4.00) and the Lions are allowing 4.81 adjusted yards up the middle, 29th in the NFL. Teams facing the Lions have figured this out, as well -- 47 percent of all runs against Detroit take place in the mid-guard area.
Jacksonville Jaguars at Dallas Cowboys
Tony Romo replacement Jon Kitna couldn't ask for an easier landing as he prepares for his first NFL start since November 5, 2008. Jacksonville's pass defense ranks 31st in Football Outsiders' DVOA metrics, and only the Arizona Cardinals have given up more yards per game against No. 1 receivers. Unlike some defenses that are merely mediocre, the terrible Jags defense also ranks 25th in DVOA against No. 2 receivers, and 28th against third-, fourth-, and fifth receivers. On the other hand, one of the reasons that Dallas stands at 1-6 is that their own pass defense is nothing to write home about -- the 'Boys rank 27th against No. 1 receivers, 27th against No. 2 receivers, and 24th against all other pass-catchers who aren't running backs and tight ends. Jacksonville's quarterback du jour should avoid throwing to Maurice Jones-Drew, though -- no defense is more efficient defending passes to running backs than Dallas'. One more reason for the confusion over Dallas' pass-heavy game plans: Marion Barber leads the NFL in conversions on third-and-1; he's 8-for-8.
Miami Dolphins at Cincinnati Bengals
Miami's bizarre home-away splits -- they're 3-0 on the road and 0-3 at home -- are not always reflected in their advanced metrics. The Dolphins are actually ranked higher in Offensive DVOA at home (11th to 19th). The real difference is on defense; they've got the third-best defense on the road (only Pittsburgh and Baltimore are better), and 25th at home. Cincinnati's DVOA reflects far more home cooking in one direction, but it's similarly skewed overall. The Bengals rank fourth in Defensive DVOA at home, and 28th on the road. Their problem is likely to be on the other side of the ball; the Bengals rank 30th at home on offense, which puts them in the crosshairs of that great Miami road defense.
Buffalo Bills at Kansas City Chiefs
Buffalo's offense isn't completely horrible; certainly better than you'd expect from an 0-6 team. The Bills rank in the top 10 in the league in rushing yards per play (4.58), and their third down and red zone efficiency numbers could be a lot worse. And with quarterback Ryan Fitzpatrick at the helm, there has been some semblance of a deep passing game. Fitzpatrick ranks fourth in average pass length -- only Vince Young, Aaron Rodgers, and Derek Anderson gain more yards per pass than his 9.73. Lee Evans, one of the best deep receivers in the game when he has a quarterback who can actually throw the ball downfield, will benefit most of all. However, Evans and Fitzpatrick may have to wait for another day to celebrate their new partnership. The Chiefs, led by shutdown cornerback Brandon Flowers, are allowing just 51.9 yards per game to No. 1 receivers.
Carolina Panthers at St. Louis Rams
The Panthers are no great shakes on offense -- no team is less efficient on that side of the ball -- but Carolina's defense is among the best in the NFL. Only the New York Jets are better at stopping passes and runs on second down, only the Colts are better at stopping No. 1 receivers (no team is better at stopping No. 2 receivers), no team has allowed a lower quarterback rating than Carolina's 65.7, and only the Tampa Bay Buccaneers have a higher interceptions per pass percentage (5.24%). That despite a very low Adjusted Sack Rate of 4.7%, ranking 27th in the NFL.
Denver Broncos "at" San Francisco 49ers
The 49ers team that lines up against the Broncos at London's Wembley Stadium will look very different that the one which put up a very disappointing 1-6 record on this continent. At least that's the hope for Mike Singletary and his coaching staff. With quarterback Alex Smith injured, the team will bypass second-string quarterback David Carr and start Troy Smith, whose prior NFL experience was as an option quarterback in Baltimore. The 49ers are far better in the shotgun formation, and that should continue with Smith, who is more comfortable in shotgun. But the matchup opportunity in this game is for the 49ers to pit running back Frank Gore, who leads the NFL in yards from scrimmage with 914, against a Denver defense that is allowing 4.58 Adjusted Line Yards and 4.84 running back yards per carry.
Green Bay Packers at New York Jets
The Jets are known for bringing the heat to enemy quarterbacks, and that should continue in this game. Green Bay's offensive line ranks 21st in Adjusted Sack Rate, a fact that will not go unnoticed by Rex Ryan. However, don't expect the Packers to exploit a similar weakness on New York's offensive line -- the Jets have allowed a league-best 12 quarterback hits (to the surprise of nobody, the Chicago Bears have allowed the league's most with 53). In fact, the Jets may be the best NFL team on both lines -- no team ranks higher in Adjusted Line Yards, no line has allowed fewer plays in which a ballcarrier is tackled at or behind the line of scrimmage, they've allowed just nine sacks. On the other side of the ball, Ryan's team has allowed the second-fewest Defensive Adjusted Line Yards (only the Steelers are better) per carry, and opposing rushing attacks have severe trouble getting things going downfield.
Tennessee Titans at San Diego Chargers
The schism between raw stats and overall performance continues for the Chargers. We've discussed it before, but it bears mentioning again -- it takes a spectacular series of achievements to rank seventh in Offensive DVOA, fourth in Defensive DVOA, and still put up a record of 2-5. We already know about San Diego's historically bad special teams; the team's current -17.5% DVOA in that department is by far the worst in the history of Football Outsiders' metrics, and it seems to get worse every week. Another number of importance is San Diego's turnover differential -- only the Jacksonville Jaguars have a worse ratio (-10) than the Chargers' -7. That's bad news against a Titans team that not only has a +5 turnover advantage, but also has a secret weapon this year in return man Marc Mariani, a rookie from Montana who currently ranks 10th in the NFL in punt return average and sixth in kick return average.
Tampa Bay Buccaneers at Arizona Cardinals
How bad have things become for Arizona's passing attack in the post-Kurt Warner era? From 2009 to 2010, the Cardinals have: gone from 6.5 net yards per passing attempts to 4.2; gone from 14th in Passing DVOA to 32nd, dropped from 27 passing touchdowns to just three so far this season; and seen Larry Fitzgerald's efficiency metrics plummet from 11th in the NFL among all qualifying receivers to 78th. Rookie Max Hall should be fresh meat for a Bucs defense that ranks 10th in DVOA against the pass, and top ten against most types of receivers. Tampa Bay quarterback Josh Freeman is proving the wisdom of a better backup plan at the position; Freeman's efficiency for a second-year signal-caller is impressive. Only three quarterbacks have a lower interception percentage than his 1.5 (three picks in 199 attempts).
Minnesota Vikings at New England Patriots
Is a strong pass rush the key to a great pass defense? That's a frequently made auto-correlation, but it's not always the case. Last season, the Vikings led the league in sacks and percentage of times in which opposing quarterbacks were pressured, but they finished 22nd in Pass Defense DVOA and had the league's worst DVOA on all downs in which they hurried the quarterback. This season, only the Tampa Bay Buccaneers have fewer sacks than Minnesota's six, but the Vikings have put together their best pass defense DVOA since 2008 with the intelligent use and positioning of their linebackers in coverage. This is why they rank second in Defensive DVOA against tight ends, and third against receivers.
Seattle Seahawks at Oakland Raiders
The Raiders will have Jason Campbell at quarterback today; Campbell's approach is less risky than that of Bruce Gradkowski. Campbell's passes have traveled just 4.78 yards before successfully hitting a receiver, as opposed to Gradkowski's 7.08. However, Campbell is benefiting a bit more from yards after catch (6.56 to Gradkowski's 6.30), which may speak to a slightly different game plan when Campbell is in the game. With receiver Louis Murphy out for this game with a bruised lung, tight end Zach Miller's longstanding status as the team's best receiver, and Campbell's preference for tight ends as more than a bailout option, he may be the smarter play against a Seahawks defense that has faced 9.3 passes to tight ends each game.
Pittsburgh Steelers at New Orleans Saints
The Saints' offense may be struggling this season, but blame that on the absence of running back Reggie Bush, not on quarterback Drew Brees' supposed inefficiency. In fact, Brees is still one of the best quarterbacks in the game, and he's especially devastating in one particular situation. On third down this season, Brees has completed 46 of 72 passes for 457 yards, nine touchdowns and just two interceptions. Sadly for Brees, he won't get any breaks against the Steelers' defense, even if Bush returns from a fractured fibula that has kept him out since Week 2 -- only the Tennessee Titans have a better defensive DVOA against quarterbacks passing on third and fourth down. Like most quarterbacks, Brees will have to pick his spots against the NFL's best defense.
Houston Texans at Indianapolis Colts
Ready for an explosive offensive contest? Here's a case of two defenses hard-pressed to stop the strengths of their opponents. The Colts have Peyton Manning? Check. The Texans "counter" with a pass defense ranked 30th in Defensive DVOA. It doesn't even matter that Dallas Clark is out for the season; Houston has the NFL's worst coverage against tight ends, and the Colts will stick someone out there in the slot and flex positions. Meanwhile, the Texans have the best rushing attack in the NFL right now, and the Colts' defense is getting destroyed against the run. Indy's usual strategy -- let that run defense bleed and rely on Manning to make up the difference -- probably won't work this time. Last time these two teams faced off, it was opening week, and Arian Foster became a household name after rushing for 232 yards and three touchdowns against this very same defense. Texans quarterback Matt Schaub, no slouch himself, may want to look off to other targets in place of franchise receiver Andre Johnson; the Colts have managed to put up the best DVOA in the league against No. 1 receivers.