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Part I of our catch radius season finale spotlights the NFC kings of double coverage (Calvin Johnson), the sideline (Jordy Nelson), the drag route (DeSean Jackson) and the red zone (Dez Bryant).

25 Oct 2005

Any Given Sunday: Raiders over Bills

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 – two courtesy of Eagles transplant Derrick Burgess – 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.

Posted by: Ned Macey on 25 Oct 2005

21 comments, Last at 27 Oct 2005, 4:44am by lafacdio

Comments

1
by Sean (not verified) :: Tue, 10/25/2005 - 2:30pm

Nice article, as usual. I had the game blacked out, but I was curious to see how the Oakland defense was able to nullify McGahee. I've been expecting Buffalo's defense to round into shape, but apparently the massive hole in the middle left by Pat Williams and Takeo Spikes is going to be permanent damage and not something that the coaching staff can correct.

2
by pawnking (not verified) :: Tue, 10/25/2005 - 2:36pm

Interesting and informative, as always, pinpointing the underlying causes of wins and losses in the NFL.

3
by Michael David Smith :: Tue, 10/25/2005 - 2:39pm

I was very surprised that the Bills went for it on fourth-and-goal from the 1-yard line and didn't give it to McGahee. That's just not the time to give the ball to a fullback who hardly ever carries (and, obviously, doesn't have a lead blocker in front of him). Not that that one play made the difference, but it did really make me question the play calling in Buffalo.

4
by Pat (not verified) :: Tue, 10/25/2005 - 2:41pm

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.

I think this is a great example of why examining matchups isn't as easy as people think it is. You see Buffalo has a great pass defense, terrible run defense, and you think Oakland, great passing, but awful running, is going to struggle. Except they don't, because even an awful running game can run against Buffalo, and shoring up that awful running game weakens their pass defense, which opens up.

5
by Jerry P. (not verified) :: Tue, 10/25/2005 - 3:27pm

Good write-up but no way this belongs as an "Any Given Sunday" game. I disagree with Pat and think that looking at the DVOA (which I did, and the game played out pretty much like DOVA said it would) it was obvious Oakland had the advantages. Also, Oakland was 15th in rushing offense and only 5% below average, that isn't awful, that's average. But your point stands that an average rush attack can dominate the Buffalo defense.

The only major advantage in DVOA terms the Bills had was special teams and pass defense. Throw in the "use your own noodle instead of just DVOA" factor and you see that Oakland was the only pass offense in the top half of the league the Bills have faced and only the second in the top-20. Of course the Bills pass defense wasn't going to play up to their rating.

MDS is right, Buffalo play-calling in power situations is horrible. Probably why the BIlls were/are 22nd in power situations. Going for it was the right idea in my opinion since the Raiders were nearly as bad in preventing conversions in power situations. The actual play-call itself was just bad.

6
by Kuato (not verified) :: Tue, 10/25/2005 - 3:54pm

I always thought Mularky was too cute with his play calling sometimes, even when he was in Pitt. I'm all for changing it up sometimes, but often the obvious play call is the the obvious play call because it has the best chance for success. No need to get cute in that situation unless you have some reason to believe they have you beat right at the point of attack. Peace

PS - I too liked the old preview format much better.

7
by KL (not verified) :: Tue, 10/25/2005 - 5:11pm

No need to get cute in that situation unless you have some reason to believe they have you beat right at the point of attack
Which is probably why they tried to get cute. It's one of those calls that looks great if it works and looks awful if it doesn't.

8
by Jerry P. (not verified) :: Tue, 10/25/2005 - 5:22pm

"Which is probably why they tried to get cute. It’s one of those calls that looks great if it works and looks awful if it doesn’t."

This is one of those chicken and the egg deals. Did they get cute because they've had below average success in power situations or are they below average in power situations because they've been 'getting cute'?

It's one of those things we won't really know unless we reviewed the plays called for every power situation but anecdotally, I'd say the Bills problem is they get cute too often and the runs fail. There was a previous game where some of the FO staff noted that on goal line runs McGahee was running slow developing runs to the outside instead of just pounding it up the middle. At least with Mularkey the Bills have progressed to actually running the ball on short distances.

9
by el carg (not verified) :: Tue, 10/25/2005 - 5:50pm

As much as I want the Raiders to play like that every week, they are the Raiders -- a team that kills it's drives with a lack of discipline and a lack of heart. People are dying to trade with me to get Jordan, but I can't afford to get rid of him -- other backs are Jamal (2.9) Lewis, Fast Parker, DFoster and CuMar's backup.
This article though does make me think higher of Gabriel. Right now he sits with Wayne, Kevin Curtis, and Keenan McCardell playing. I also have Derick Mason.

10
by Rob (not verified) :: Tue, 10/25/2005 - 6:17pm

I could be wrong, but it seems that Buffalo has consistently had strange (i.e. crappy) short-yardage playcalling ever since Williams/Gilbride/Donahoe were brought in. I don't remember so much of that from the Wade Phillips "era" (not that he didn't make a certain particularly poor personnel move). Is my memory selective there, or does Donahoe just really like gimmicky coaches?

11
by admin :: Tue, 10/25/2005 - 7:01pm

Good write-up but no way this belongs as an "Any Given Sunday" game.

The other possibility was Steelers over Bengals, but that's the subject of this week's Every Play Counts.

12
by Jerry P. (not verified) :: Tue, 10/25/2005 - 7:26pm

Yeah Aaron I figured it was a bad week for this type of article. I know you want it to be a weekly thing but maybe it just isn't. Of course, my nomination would have been the Titans/Cardinals game.

Think about it. If we polled 50 people on this site about the outcomes of Bills/Raiders, Steelers/Bengals, and Titans/Cards where do you think the biggest split would have been? I am guessing Cards/Titans with plenty of "Cards will find a way to lose despite being favored at home" comments. Bills/Raiders should have been predicted as a Raiders win.

So doesn't that kind of make the Cards win the biggest surprise? Whoops, I didn't factor in the Cards Aren't Allowed to Get Credit Rule. (joke)

"I could be wrong, but it seems that Buffalo has consistently had strange (i.e. crappy) short-yardage playcalling ever since Williams/Gilbride/Donahoe were brought in?"

I'll repeat, at least with Mularkey the Bills have progressed to actually running the ball on short distances. Standards are low here.

13
by Pat (not verified) :: Tue, 10/25/2005 - 8:21pm

I disagree with Pat and think that looking at the DVOA (which I did, and the game played out pretty much like DOVA said it would) it was obvious Oakland had the advantages.

Well, it was obvious that Oakland had the advantage because Buffalo had no offense. But if you just look at "how is Oakland's offense going to do?" you'd say Oakland's pass offense doesn't match well with Buffalo's pass defense, so they won't pass well, but their rush offense does match up somewhat with Buffalo's awful rush defense, so they'll run well. And they did run well. But they passed much better than you'd expect.

Now, it might be that this is entirely because they've played crappy pass offenses, which is true, but it's entirely possible that if, say, Philly played Buffalo, they'd still have a great pass defense because of the complete lack of running game preventing the safeties from having to pay attention to the running at all.

I think it's because they've faced crappy offenses - but I was just trying to explain that matching DVOA based on rush/pass alone might not lead to the conclusions you think they would. :)

14
by Ralph (not verified) :: Tue, 10/25/2005 - 8:49pm

The Bills were first in their division before the loss. The Raiders were last. I think that qualifies.

15
by Jerry P. (not verified) :: Tue, 10/25/2005 - 9:52pm

"I think it’s because they’ve faced crappy offenses - but I was just trying to explain that matching DVOA based on rush/pass alone might not lead to the conclusions you think they would."

Definitely. I was thinking about what I wrote after I posted and I realized then when I was comparing the DVOA's it struck me as odd that despite having the #10 offense with the #11 pass offense the Raiders were at a 22.7% disadvantage when matched up with Buffalo's pass defense. This caused me to go back and look at the pass offenses the Bills have faced, leading me to the same statement you made above.

"The Bills were first in their division before the loss. The Raiders were last. I think that qualifies."

I didn't see it that way but that is a good way of putting. However, if Green Bay beats Detroit will that be a huge upset? I guess that's what I think of when I hear "any given Sunday" not a loss by a clearly bad team on the road against a team in a tougher division that's played one of the harder schedules in the league.

16
by Ned (not verified) :: Tue, 10/25/2005 - 11:16pm

Going into the game, Buffalo was ranked 16th in DVOA and Oakland was ranked 20th. Given that Buffalo was 5th in DVOA a year ago and 2-0 since they subbed out Losman, I think that even if you thought Oakland was going to win this game, you certainly did not expect 38-17. I think this result, if you factor in score, was pretty surprising. Maybe before this game you knew already that Buffalo's defense was nothing compared to last year, but I was shocked to see them give up 38 points.

17
by Jerry P. (not verified) :: Wed, 10/26/2005 - 12:25am

"Maybe before this game you knew already that Buffalo’s defense was nothing compared to last year, but I was shocked to see them give up 38 points.

That pretty much sums up our difference of opinion. Tampa Bay exposed the defense the second week of the season. At first I wanted to believe that it was just Cadillac Williams but the Falcons made it clear the week after.

It's only going to get worse as they face the good part of the AFC West, the Bengals, the Panthers, and of course the stage is set to be embarrassed again on Sunday night.

But maybe I'll be reading about the Bills on the other end of one of these articles next week.

18
by James, London (not verified) :: Wed, 10/26/2005 - 8:25am

Ned. Nice write-up. We got this game in the UK, and this is a pretty fair summation.

Two things I thought stood out.

1: How well the Raiders adjusted to the loss of Gibson and Woodson. When they left the game you feared for Oakland, but they coped well without them, mainly through good pressure on Holcomb.

2: How bad the Bills are at tackling. I mentioned this in the game thread, but the tackling would have embarrased a school team. Sunday was a masterclass in missed tackles and falling off the ball carrier, and the Bills were as bad against the Jets the previous week.
I'd say this is a D with bigger problems than no Spikes and Williams.

19
by Mitch (not verified) :: Wed, 10/26/2005 - 4:18pm

The Bills defense is still good enough to win with, what's most troubling is the inability to use the talents of Lee Evans. As his glowing write-up in PFP 2005 indicates, Evans outperformed Eric Moulds substantially last season, and scouting reports are similarly complimentary in terms of his speed, hands and football smarts. Holcomb seems to be, either by his own choice or the offensive coaching staff's gameplan, unwilling to lead the kind of downfield passing attack he flashed in some of his more high-scoring, high-yardage starts the past few years in Cleveland. It'll be interesting to see on Sunday night if they try to exploit the Patriots secondary over the top, or play right into the Billy Sweatshirt scheme.

20
by James (not verified) :: Wed, 10/26/2005 - 6:49pm

I also thought it was obvious that Oakland would be able to pass.

A good defense that can defend the run but has trouble with the pass stands a chance.

A defense that can't stop the run but does well against the pass is doomed.

21
by lafacdio (not verified) :: Thu, 10/27/2005 - 4:44am

The play called in goal line situation is just dumb. LBs are taught to follow the FB in goal line situation. The only result of this play could be the FB runnig into a wall. If he is power enough, he can rush through, but obviously, when you haven't carried the ball for two years, you lack power.

They just wasted an opportunity to score. (Maybe did he think he was playing Madden ?)