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27 Dec 2005
by Ned Macey
If defense wins championships, the Cincinnati Bengals can stop planning for a trip to the Super Bowl. Of course, only 23 of the 37 points scored by Buffalo were actually scored by the offense, but the defense's poor showing is still reason for concern. When the Bengals host their first playoff game in over a decade, they will feature an offense that is among the league's best. Their defense will only contribute as much as their ball-hawking abilities allow.
It might surprise some that in Football Outsiders' DVOA rankings (explained fully here), Cincinnati has the 13th best defense in the league. The official NFL rankings have the Bengals 22nd in yards allowed and 19th in scoring defense. DVOA ranks them higher primarily because of their ability to force turnovers, particularly interceptions. Those interceptions not only prevent points scored and yards gained but set up the offense with short fields, a contribution not measured in the traditional stats.
For most of the season, Cincinnati has struggled against the run: the Bengals rank fourth against the pass but 26th against the run. This has changed over the past four weeks as the Bengals have aggressively stopped the run but fallen victim to big pass plays.
The emphasis on stopping the run started, perhaps not coincidentally, before their division-deciding game against Pittsburgh. Since that time, they have been above average against the run in every game according to DVOA. Before the Steelers game, they had been above average only twice all season and zero times between Week 4 and Week 12.
Their new commitment to stopping the run has taken a toll on the Bengals pass defense, which has been below average three of the last four weeks. Their ability to get interceptions allowed them to escape with a win over Pittsburgh despite 386 yards from Ben Roethlisberger. On Saturday, the Bengals managed only one interception.
Without interceptions, the Bengals defense is severely flawed. They rank in the bottom ten in the league in yards allowed, completion percentage, and sacks. Giving up more big plays in order to make interceptions is a strategy that has paid off for most of the season but backfired on Saturday.
If we remove interceptions from the equation for all teams, the Cincinnati defense's DVOA drops from 13th to 30th. No other team is even close to being as reliant on interceptions; the second largest drop-off is only seven spots.
Football Outsiders has written extensively about the flukiness of fumble recoveries, but we have never asserted that causing fumbles or interceptions is not a skill. Over the course of a season, Cincinnati's aggressive defense has picked off a league-high 31 passes. But when the interceptions do not come, the Bengals let players like Kelly Holcomb suddenly look like they belong in the Pro Bowl.
On Saturday, Holcomb completed 24 of 31 passes for 308 yards. He went often to Eric Moulds, who hauled in 10 receptions. For the first time this season, Holcomb effectively used deep threat Lee Evans, who had 107 yards receiving including a 65-yard catch and a touchdown. The Bills are now 3-3 in games where Holcomb throws at least 10 passes and 2-6 in all other games.
That sounds like a problem with an easy answer: make Kelly Holcomb the starter. But in Buffalo, with former first-round pick J.P. Losman competing with Holcomb, a switch is more difficult. It is a little premature to give up on such a major investment after a handful of starts. Holcomb has limited upside, and the Bills have to decide whether to try and win now with him next season or rebuild the aging defense and allow Losman time to grow.
The problem with keeping Holcomb is that, despite the win on Saturday, this defense has collapsed. Their run defense is 29th in the league according to DVOA, a fact well illustrated on Saturday when Rudi Johnson ground out 88 yards on only 18 carries. The return of Takeo Spikes next season will help, but by itself it won't reverse the defense's fortunes.
One place where Buffalo is not lacking is in its kick return game. Terrence McGee scored his first touchdown, marking his eighth return of at least 40 yards. He is averaging over 30 yards a return.
At Football Outsiders, we calculate the number of points above average that special teams units contribute. The Buffalo kick return team has contributed an impressive 27 points worth of field position. Only Houston -- which with Pro Bowl rookie Jerome Mathis has contributed 27.4 -- has a more effective kick return unit. After those two, the next highest unit adds only 7.2 points. In front of McGee, the Bills feature the best special teams in football for the second consecutive year.
The Bills' season of disappointment leaves the team facing as many questions this off-season as anyone in football. A win this week over a bad New York Jets team would allow them to finish at 6-10, hardly the record a team with playoff aspirations was hoping to achieve. Questions abound about management, coaching, and players. Whether the same group or a new one comes in, the decision about next year's quarterback is a difficult one.
Even if management decides to start from scratch, Losman is as likely to be Joey Harrington as Steve McNair. For a team that has not made the playoffs this century, the prospect of rebuilding with an uncertain quarterback situation is very troubling. If Losman fails to develop over the next two seasons, fans will not only remember fondly the disappointing Drew Bledsoe years, they may start calling for a return of Rob Johnson. If Buffalo can develop an above-average defense and maintain its dominant special teams, going with Kelly Holcomb allows them a chance to be competitive, and when Losman proves himself in practice, they can make the transition to the younger player.
The Bengals hope to explain this game away as a game they controlled but lost on two exceptional plays by McGee, the kick return and a game-clinching interception returned for a touchdown. They did gain more total yards than Buffalo and got more first downs. Still, they were far from dominant, staying in the game thanks to surprisingly stout red zone defense. Three times they held Buffalo to a field goal inside the 10-yard line despite being among the worst red zone defenses in the league.
The Bengals finish the season with a very difficult game at Kansas City. With a playoff berth already secured, they will likely rest some regulars and fall to the Chiefs. A loss coupled with a win by New England over Miami would put the Bengals into the fourth seed hosting Jacksonville in the first round of the playoffs. Such a match-up is problematic for the Bengals because Byron Leftwich throws very few interceptions, only five in over 300 attempts this season.
If Leftwich is fully healthy, Jacksonville poses a serious threat to the Bengals. They would be best served by returning to their early-season strategy, stopping the pass and allowing Fred Taylor to get his yards. This defense is still a work in progress and is only strong enough to limit one aspect of an opponent's attack. Between stopping the run and stopping the pass, they are better off stopping the pass to prevent yardage from coming in chunks. Pressuring the box and allowing Leftwich to make plays down the field will lead to a quick exit for the Bengals in their long-awaited return to the playoffs.
Each Tuesday in Any Given Sunday, Ned Macey looks at the biggest upset of the previous weekend. The NFL sells itself on the idea that any team can win any given game, but we use these upsets as a tool to explore what trends and subtle aspects of each team are revealed in a single game.
26 comments, Last at 31 Dec 2005, 8:24pm by Ryan Mc