Week 12 NFL preview
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Green Bay Packers at Atlanta Falcons
Falcons quarterback Matt Ryan had best prepare for a challenge - the Packers have the NFL's best pass defense per Football Outsiders' efficiency metrics, and they're eighth versus No.1 receivers. Roddy White is tied with Cincinnati's Terrell Owens as the league's most-targeted player with 116 passes. However, the Packers are 20th in those same metrics against tight ends, and the Falcons do have some guy named Tony Gonzalez, with 71 targets of his own. The Packers have been a penalty-ridden franchise over the last few seasons, but that's changed in 2010 - just three teams have fewer flags than Green Bay's 58. The Falcons are one of them; Atlanta's 48 penalties represent the league's lowest team total.
Pittsburgh Steelers at Buffalo Bills
There are few sophomore slumps more graphic than the one that Buffalo safety Jairus Byrd is going through. Byrd had nine interceptions in his 2009 rookie campaign, and many believed the Defensive Rookie of the Year award should have been his. This season, he has no picks and just one pass defensed (11 last season). Pittsburgh receiver Mike Wallace, who leads the league with a 23.0 yards-per-reception average, is not who a safety with trouble defending deep passes wants to see. On the other side of the ball, Buffalo receiver Steve Johnson is getting his first national namechecks after his three-touchdown performance against the Bengals last Sunday, but he's been quietly productive all season, and he currently ranks fourth in DYAR among qualifying receivers. Given the relatively ineffective nature of the Buffalo passing game over the last few seasons, Johnson's performances have been especially remarkable.
Carolina Panthers at Cleveland Browns
It's official: The Panthers have created the perfect end zone repellent. Unfortunately, they're using it on themselves. Carolina ranks last in the league in offensive efficiency in the red zone (both pass and run) and in all goal-to-go situations. They've converted just 25 percent of red zone trips and 28.57 percent of goal-to-go chances, both league-worst metrics. Which is why they're only scoring 11.7 points per game. They've managed to play offense and defense at a league-average level in the same game just once - in their Week 4 16-14 tussle with the New Orleans Saints. The Browns, on the other hand, have been putting outstanding per-game Offensive DVOA totals over the last month - at least, until they hit a wall against the Jacksonville Jaguars last week.
Jacksonville Jaguars at New York Giants
The Giants rank fifth in Defensive Adjusted Line Yards, which assign responsibility for running plays based on play length, down, distance, and opponent. However, they're 21st in the league in causing negative plays, and they're facing Jacksonville's Maurice Jones-Drew, who's one of the NFL's best at pushing the pile. The Jags have just 14 percent negative rushing plays, fourth-best in the league. On defense, Jacksonville also has the only player in the NFL with a 100 percent overall Stop Rate - second-year defensive tackle Terrance Knighton. In 2010, Knighton has prevented successful pass plays on all eight of his opportunities, and on all 17 run plays as well. (Stops reflect the prevention of successful plays, which are defined as 45 percent of needed yards on first down, 60 percent of needed yards on second down, and 100 percent of needed yards on third or fourth down. "Plays" refer to tackles, passes defensed, fumbles forced, and interceptions).
Minnesota Vikings at Washington Redskins
While Brett Favre and Brad Childress have been the stars of Minnesota's soap opera this season, the Vikings formerly stellar pass rush continues to be a problem. The Vikings are picking up sacks on just 5.21 percent of all opposing pass attempts, among the league's worst totals. That's good news for a Redskins team that ranks 23rd in Adjusted Sack Rate, which represents sacks per pass attempt based on down, distance, and situation. Another issue the Vikings face these days is the penalty outputs of two players - right tackle Phil Loadholt and tight end Visanthe Shiancoe. Minnesota has 77 penalties through the first 11 weeks, which is about league-average, but Loadholt and Shiancoe account for 21 all by themselves. Only Detroit's Stephen Peterman has more penalties than Loadholt's 11, and Loadholt is tied with Peterman and Oakland's Jared Veldheer for the NFL's most false starts with six. Shiancoe has four false starts of his own, which is a fairly disconcerting total for a pass-catching tight end.
Tennessee Titans at Houston Texans
Whether it's Rusty Smith or Chris Simms, the Titans will be throwing a quarterback to the wolves this week. But fortunately for them, it's time to recognize the Texans' pass defense as one of the worst of the modern era. Houston is the only team allowing more than 300 passing yards per game this year (8.09 yards per play), and their 25 passing touchdowns allowed is five higher than the second-worst team. Houston has also allowed 13 pass plays of 40 yards or more, again a league worst. The story of Houston cornerback Glover Quin is a prime example - Quin has been in on 46 pass plays this season, and he's amassed a grand total of two Pass Defeats (plays by a defensive player that prevent the offense from gaining first down yardage on third or fourth down, stop the offense behind the line of scrimmage, or result in a turnover). First-round rookie Kareem Jackson is having an equally tough time - he's allowing 10.8 yards per pass play in the 44 pass plays he's been a part of.
Kansas City Chiefs at Seattle Seahawks
The Seahawks could be in trouble against Kansas City's league-best running game. The Chiefs aren't just able to bull it up the middle with Thomas Jones; they also have the most running plays of 10 yards or more with 45. Seattle's been susceptible against the run of late, but they have their own advantage. Quarterback Matt Hasselbeck threw for 366 yards against the Saints' top pass defense on Sunday, and the Chiefs are struggling in the secondary - after a very strong start to the season, KC now ranks 21st in defensive efficiency against the pass. Cornerback Brandon Flowers, who started the season being mentioned in the same breath as Darrelle Revis and Nnamdi Asomugha, is struggling slightly along with the rest of his defensive backfield. The one exception may be rookie free safety Eric Berry, who is receiving the praise of his own coaching staff, and the praise of Hasselbeck, who made a point to say this week that Berry really stood out in game tape.
Miami Dolphins at Oakland Raiders
No surprise that the Chicago Bears lead the league in sacks per pass attempt (12.13 percent of all Bears' attempts end in sacks), but the Raiders have the second-worst total (10.13 percent), and it's starting to affect the team. Jason Campbell was knocked out of the Steelers game on Sunday to be replaced by Bruce Gradkowski. Whoever plays for the Raiders against Miami, they'll be watching out for end Cameron Wake, who ranks second in the NFL with 9.5 quarterback takedowns. Oakland tackles Mario Henderson, Jared Veldheer, and Langston Walker have combined to allow 11 sacks in just 11 games.
St. Louis Rams at Denver Broncos
Michael Vick is getting a lot of credit for his 9.45 Yards Per Completion total and zero interceptions - great numbers when you can air it out without giving it to the other team - but Denver's Kyle Orton continues to get subpar praise for the season he's putting together. Orton's YPC of 8.9 is just below Vick's in the rankings, and his 1.5 interception percentage is the lowest among all quarterbacks who have thrown a pick with a YPC of 8.5 or more.
Philadelphia Eagles at Chicago Bears
The New York Giants may have given teams a template to stop Michael Vick last Monday night, or at least that's what we're told. The G-Men were adept at forcing Vick to his right, making him throw against his body, and he is least effective on plays going to his right (6.58 yards per attempt, 84.0 quarterback rating). However, Vick is one of the league's most effective quarterbacks when throwing to the right sideline (9.27 YPA, 127.2 quarterback rating). If you're going to fence Vick in, you'd better guard the edges.
Tampa Bay Buccaneers at Baltimore Ravens
First-round pick Gerald McCoy was catching some flak early in the season as Ndamukong Suh stood out for Detroit and McCoy was relatively invisible. But McCoy is starting to catch up; through Week 10, he has amassed six rushing Defeats (as many as Suh, and second in the league), and he's allowing just 1.2 yards per run attempt in his direction, better than Suh's 2.5. McCoy's nowhere near as dynamic on pass plays, but he's far from a bust, and he's getting better.
San Diego Chargers at Indianapolis Colts
How effective has San Diego's passing offense been? Not only are the Chargers first in the number of Big Plays (pass plays of 25 yards or more) with 36; they're also second in the league with 1,611 yards after catch - only the Detroit Lions are better in that category. The Colts are starting to slip in defensive passing efficiency, especially against No. 1 receivers - they've gone from first to 10th in the last month, and the Chargers get Vincent Jackson back this week.
San Francisco 49ers at Arizona Cardinals
ESPN certainly hoped for more than a matchup between quarterbacks Troy Smith and Derek Anderson when they got this game. After three starts for the 49ers, Smith ranks 32nd in cumulative quarterback efficiency, and Anderson ranks 38th. Amazingly, both signal-callers are doing better than the guys they replaced - San Francisco's Alex Smith ranks 34th in quarterback efficiency, and Arizona's Max Hall has the worst rating among any quarterback with at least 80 passes this season.