Denver: great team, or the greatest team? Would you be satisfied with "one of the ten greatest teams?" Plus: hard times in the NFC South, where defense goes to die.
25 Oct 2005
by Ned Macey
After Oakland's dominating 38-17 win over the Bills, the major story is how Raiders running back LaMont Jordan asked for more carries during the week. While Jordan did play well, he benefited from competing against the second worst run defense in the league. Many a back could have run over Buffalo's once-mighty defense. More crucial for the Raiders in victory was their ability to stuff Buffalo's quality rushing offense.
The Raiders have won two games this season, and they coincided with the only games Jordan ran for over 100 yards. But this is not a Philadelphia Eagles-type problem where Jordan is not getting enough carries. The problem is that he is rarely doing much with his carries in Oakland losses. Jordan has failed to average even 4.0 yards per carry in any of the four games the Raiders did not win. Only against Buffalo, 31st in rush defense DVOA (which is explained here) and Dallas (a much stronger pass defense than rush defense), has he been successful.
The real trend in Oakland's two wins is defense. They are the only two games in which the Raiders have held their opponents under 20 points. The recipe for defensive success by Oakland is stopping the run. A season ago, the Raiders ranked 27th in overall defense according to DVOA, but they actually had an above average run defense. This year, even after switching from the 3-4 back to the 4-3, they again struggle overall (24th in the league) but have a solid rush defense (14th).
Playing Buffalo, a team that is only capable of running the ball, this was a perfect imbalance. Willis McGahee had only 50 yards on 16 carries, his second lowest output of the season. Putting the Bills in obvious passing situations (with the mediocre Kelly Holcomb behind center), allowed Oakland's usually permeable pass defense to have success. With the run stuffed, the Raiders sacked Holcomb three times â€“ two courtesy of Eagles transplant Derrick Burgess â€“ and those sacks preceded three of Buffalo's four punts on the day.
Sacks don't come consistently for the Raiders, which leaves their average cornerbacks vulnerable. Burgess, however, has two sacks in each of the last three games after just one in the first three games combined. If he can continue to provide consistent pressure, the Raiders could approach a mediocre overall defense. The serious injuries suffered by starting cornerback Charles Woodson and starting safety Derrick Gibson will make the secondary even more porous, further emphasizing the need for a quality pass rush.
For the Bills, watching Jordan run rampant through the defense was a sign that this season is over. At 3-4, they sit only one-half game behind the Patriots with a game against Brady's Bunch next week to decide who will have sole possession of first place. Nonetheless, the Buffalo's plan for success, namely strong defense and efficient offense, is being completely undermined by their powerlessness in stopping the run. This offense is not capable of scoring 25-30 points a game, and the defense is nowhere near last season's standard.
What is sad for Buffalo is that as wholly average as Kelly Holcomb has been, he would be good enough if the defense were playing at last year's level. A season ago, according to DVOA Buffalo had the best defense and the best special teams in the NFL. In fact, they were the fifth best team overall despite an offense that ranked 21st in the league. The off-season decision to let Drew Bledsoe go was sound because he was incapable of providing what the Bills needed, namely a patient game manager. Clearly second year player J.P. Losman proved he was not ready. Since the switch to Holcomb, the offense has a DVOA of -3.4 percent: still below average, but better than a year ago.
But this defense is more 2004 Colts than 2004 Bills, ranking 18th overall including the aforementioned 31st against the run. While much off-season ink was spent discussing Bledsoe's defection to the Cowboys, the biggest loss for the Bills was defensive tackle Pat Williams, now with the Vikings. We have a statistic called adjusted line yards that tries to isolate the role of the offensive and defensive lines on running plays (method explained here). A year ago, the Bills ranked third overall and third on runs up the middle. With Williams gone, they rank 25th overall and 24th against runs up the middle. (Minnesota, meanwhile, has improved from last in the NFL to 19th this season against runs up the middle). Opponents have exploited this weakness by running 69 percent of their carries behind the center or guards; only Indianapolis faces runs up the middle more often. To add to their woes, Williams' replacement Ron Edwards was lost for the season after Buffalo's Week 6 game against New Orleans.
Of course, Buffalo's problems are not only on the defensive line. They also lost their best defensive player, Takeo Spikes, to an injury in their third game of the season. Spikes led the NFL a season ago in a defensive stat we keep called defeats. Defeats are a measure of plays that stop an offense from gaining first down yardage on third or fourth down, stop the offense behind the line of scrimmage, or result in an interception or fumble.
Impressively, unknown linebacker Angelo Crowell has stepped in and provided nine defeats in Spikes' absence. Prorated out for the season, Crowell would not be too far off Spikes' pace from a season ago. However, four of those nine defeats are in the passing game, and Crowell is making fewer overall plays, let alone defeats, against opposing running backs. Crowell, quite simply, can be blocked, and when he gets blocked, opposing runners are bursting for big gains. Buffalo is dead last in the league in allowing runs over 10 yards, giving up 30 percent of their rushing yards more than 10 yards past the line of scrimmage. A year ago, that number was 15 percent.
To adjust for this weakness, the Bills had to move safeties closer to the line to keep the running back in place, but this move predictably opened holes in their secondary. They failed to stop intermediate gains by Jordan, but they did hold him to only two rushes over 10 yards. On one of those successful rushes, safety Lawyer Milloy missed a tackle before the 10-yard mark, and the other was a big run on third-and-14. Unfortunately for the Bills, with safeties required to be more active in rushing plays, their cornerbacks are left with little protection. Going into this game, the Bills had the second best pass defense in the NFL according to DVOA. After Kerry Collins went 19-for-27 for 261 yards and 1 touchdown, the Bills now rank seventh.
Before Sunday's loss, Buffalo had dominated all opposing pass catchers except for #2 receivers, and without safety help Nate Clements was abused by the unheralded Doug Gabriel. Gabriel is usually the third receiver, but with Randy Moss limited due to injury, and #2 receiver Jerry Porter frequently lining up in the slot in three receiver sets, Gabriel often matched up with Clements. He caught five of the seven passes intended for him for five first downs and 101 yards.
Gabriel entered the season as the fourth receiver behind Moss, Porter, and Ronald Curry. Curry's injury opened the door for Gabriel, and he has taken full advantage of his opportunity. Gabriel has been excellent all year long, posting a DVOA of 30.8 percent. On a per play basis, he has actually been more valuable than Randy Moss this year. With Jerry Porter struggling (DVOA of -13.0 percent, 56th in the league) Gabriel will be increasingly relied upon as the season progresses. A year ago, Gabriel caught only 41 percent of passes intended for him, while this year he is catching a team-high 57 percent. His emergence is somewhat surprising given his status as a fifth round pick who caught one ball his rookie season.
Both of these teams harbored playoff hopes before the season, and even at this early juncture those dreams appear likely to go unfulfilled. Each team has a fatal flaw that will prove to be its undoing in the competitive AFC. Buffalo's inability to stop the run and Oakland's failure to stop the pass are too much to overcome. Buffalo went into the season expecting to be average at best on offense, and without a counterbalancing dominant defense, they become a below average team.
For the Raiders, an already leaky secondary is now crippled by injuries. Having a strong run defense in the AFC West with Priest Holmes, Larry Johnson, LaDainian Tomlinson, Mike Anderson, and Tatum Bell is a good start. Unfortunately, Trent Green, Drew Brees, and Jake Plummer are good enough to beat a bad pass defense. The Raiders rank a respectable 15th in overall 2005 DVOA, a large improvement from 2004 when they were 26th. If Burgess remains a consistent pass rushing force, they will have that element that they lacked, but until they upgrade their secondary, they will be outscored too often and spend the playoffs at home just like their opponent last Sunday.
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.
21 comments, Last at 27 Oct 2005, 4:44am by lafacdio